• 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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Once & Future Past


‘And do I dream again? For now I find, phantoms in every shadow, behind every corner, blind.’ -

Ponies and all other races sorrow and regret unbound spill unabated over these wasted lands. Bloodshed long held forth only continues to sharpen the wicked blades and machinations of those hidden in pall from prying eyes. The pain of the living ever deepening the divide between further. Can anything at all halt the slide of those tormented souls still wandering this, the blistered remains of the past? Few remain who would claim to be fast friends, or willing to gamble it all on another. Who and what is worth your own life in exchange?

The merest semblance of such niceties clings to existence. Should they stand in fear and fall? Should they run, perhaps only to be swept down the unknown river of strife and cackling madness laid out before them? Where be they, heroes? Does any such thing exist? They usually just die. The split of quiet decades undecided as the cards fall down. None would dare guess what lay ahead, that would be daring to invite the pain of hope. No hope shall be granted here. Hope invites pain and misery here, they always accompany one another.

No cruelty too small, no amount of suffering too deep to descend towards are the only prizes apparent. This wellspring of insidious torture silently echoes throughout the world, given only to whispering lies into any willing ears. Unheard such echoes are powerless. One must wonder, who would listen? Is there some grand architect behind it all, ensuring they reach those who would dare listen? An all but unnoticed coldness of the soul pervades the living. A creeping, quiet chill to darken and twist the minds of unwitting hosts. It hurts. It hurts badly.

Is it mere imagination, that something so ill exists to flit and flitter just at the edges of sight and intuition? Such things cannot be. They must not. Is it the day this flimsy house of cards comes crashing down to grant a swift and final end? That day is surely not far off. Those still prone to seeking fortune find it ever more difficult to proceed with that vague reason for existence alone. It is not they have any true goal, just a reason, any reason to cling to. Selflessness in the now generally means death, or worse. Pain, is all. Everything. All roads hurt.

A curving twisted path may be straight as any other in such a state the world finds itself left in. Did ponies grand plans ever truly exist? Some do not even imagine it was ever so. It is little more than folly and fodder for scathing words and punishment to even suggest such heights possible. The poisonous sting of hope is thwarted at every turn, something to be stamped out by hoof, claw, and by bullet. Such anger directed at all that may bring hope makes it very silent indeed. A world becoming ever more quiet would disturb those of grand old times.

This same quiet reflected across the vast dead void of a country daring to linger in the face of finality, it’s own death throes fall just short of complete. It is just a dream to think of green spaces. An errand only of the utterly deluded to even try. Yet, some still cling to hope. Hope this can be made right. Hope that light may still shine once more. How dare they rekindle the dying light of hope? Again those dark and envious eyes shrouded, they glare in hatred. Whispered threats and entreats to give up are still not enough to dissuade such stout souls from hope.

Something more is needed. Dark and terrible as it must be, they must suffer for such stiff refusal. Or perhaps nothing is there. Nothing more than a passing feeling like a cold breath taken. What was that shuddery feeling that swooped past just now? Merely the air, surely? Some just keep walking. With no other choices offered and no particular path given, on they trot and tread heavily on what lay in the wake of their passing. Many fall. A few somehow do not. What shallow sliver remains to drive them forward? This river of pain is unending.

What could there possibly be to gain by inflicting even more on themselves? A rare one or two don’t even flinch in the face of such uncompelling odds. On it has went since those bright times unremembered, but how bright was it ever really? Those dwelling in the wastes do not know what lay above, nor below their very hooves. Always out of sight and mind, yet the fires of hope flare up once more. How dare hope rise yet again? They thought war was something mastered, they were wrong in thinking so. You cannot harness chaos for very long.

Should ponies of the long dead past have voices to speak, it would only be to chide themselves strongly. A well-deserved scolding they never received, and then it was much too late. This game plays out but one way. This was at best an imaginary mastery. Finding war only to be a thing experienced, thinking to put themselves above it all was found in the end to be a grand heresy committed against their own being. Realization. What pain given in futile gesture. Whole countries started to tear themselves apart long before ruination rained from above.

These empty days all that remains to be seen of then are the tarnished shreds of powerful war machines left shattered amongst fields of corpses slowly crumbling away, strewn about as if crumpled toys. Fodder for some overindulgent toddler of gargantuan stature. No titan of ancient stories did this. Ponies own machinations lead to this end. Where once the grand works created from the combined skills of diverse races now stand only desiccation to see. The glittering gleaming spark of olden days is thoroughly crushed beneath it all, adding to the pain.

Impossibly tall thin towers once amongst the greatest accomplishments of all their knowledge stand far, few, and slowly crumbling along with the whole of things. Where are those gleaming sparks now? It only takes one. A single tiny spark, just that. One and one alone to ignite that roaring fire to build the hope long extinguished from ponies hearts and minds. Dreaming of such lofty things here is a pain which cuts all too deep. Who would even try? Who could even make the attempt? Why risk that kind of suffering?

Who would throw themselves against every ill the entire world now has to offer, knowing all the while, they can only die? Insanity takes many forms, some are indistinguishable from reason. How far can one really push before the whole weight of the world comes crashing down atop? Does anypony know the answer to this question? The answer may be far more miserable still. It has been said holding onto hatred is like drinking poison and waiting for someone else to die. How many still walk this dying land, inebriated from the sip and sup of hatreds fount?

Intoxicated on the feelings of power it conveys, but it as many things is naught but a passing lie to quell hope yet further into realms of futility. The deadly games of the past sometimes still play out on this tattered board, unimagined by the very players standing upon it. These unwitting actors goals unknown and many purposes hidden, they can but jump the hurdles set in front of them, all the while forever missing the whole of things. This mosaic of pain should be clear for all to see. It is not so. Their eyes seeing, yet blind to the whole of it.

Eyes, hearts and minds clouded by misery and some deep-seated feeling not quite understood rising from within, it is not difficult to miss the truly obvious. Are these dead moments sounding the final knell before all crumbles at last to dust, gone from all memory? Each and every action perhaps a step closer to that waiting oblivion just out of sight. Why would anything push towards such an end? It may yet be just a simple error of thought or judgment. Standing still is oft not an option in these miserable moments given out freely to any and all.

It ends the same way. Few if any could or would envision anything more than this slow descent into emptiness. It is just a small wound in a long string of many to realize how dire things are truly becoming. The shortest, thinnest, thread now bearing the most weight as some unseen sword waits to drop from on high at the most inopportune moment. Under such grave weight it must certainly snap in short order. What gives rise to this agonizing misery? Concepts of fate and destiny lay in as many tatters as the rest.

Did anyone ever really think they were directed by such lofty things? What manner of travesty may lay ahead in these diminishing moments is only futile conjecture. The whole of things still hidden in the mists of doubt and the leftover fog of war and wayward souls doubts. We are waiting here, now. At last, Traveler and her small band of companions were approaching the location her now somewhat damaged armor suit was directing them towards. Both her and Tanner did not know this large griffon and the two ponies accompanying him overly well yet.

The slight misadventure where they met stood out in her mind in every small detail. The fight with her parents murderer was a complete surprise that left her shaken, miserable, sick feeling. It played out over and over again in her head. He was right there in front of her, that horrible pony that could not be. He seemed just short of invulnerable. Only the merest lucky strike proved the difference. She’d almost died yet again. This was far too much for her. Tanner was very attentive to her suffering since that moment of horror and terror unexpected.

Their new allies were also a comfort, hard won. She’d earned their respect instantly upon their rescue from that seemingly unassailable foe. Who was he? What was he? Every moment since then seemed to drag jaggedly into the next as they walked. Considering her every move over and over in this endless succession was taxing and draining. The ridiculously strong pony very nearly ended her life with a single blow. That was disconcerting in itself, the relative ease with which he’d almost dispatched her from amongst the living.

Against him, the armored suit seemed almost as much protection as a sheet of translucent paper. Without it she would of stood no chance whatsoever. None could have withstood a truly direct blow of such terrible force. Traveler’s own strength, as much as it was from long toil, did not even approach comparison. He was nothing at all like the first time they met, some ghastly horror instead. No simple murderer could he be, even given the terrors loose in the wastes. Something else entirely. Just recalling his voice sent tremors throughout her.

What manner of ill did he truly represent? That encounter hurt very badly, in many ways. Why did he kill her parents for some nonsensical reason? Was there a reason? They owned nearly nothing of real value. Certainly nothing worth killing over. At least, she did not think so. Barely having learned to operate the armor suit affectionately dubbed Moonlight, and then they were gone. Thrown out into a world she scarcely knew and precious little time to prepare. Her survival thus far was a series of nothing more than fortunate accidents, and she knew it now.

It was not her skill, strength, or anything of her own that decided finding herself here. Only luck and fortune, not things to be trusted solely. It hurt deeply to know, she was not capable. There was no time to learn to handle herself, no time to realize her own strengths or shortcomings. She was simply here, and in some ways still felt entirely alone. The sting of closely losing her first real battle and her life over again struck at her confidence, and decisions made thus far. Why was Down Range gone? He should be right here, right now.

She insisted to herself he was alive somewhere out there, there was no proof of his death, but he was not here and no sign of him. Was there anything she could have done differently and better? Anything at all? Just short two months passed since then. They were definitely getting closer to where a library once stood in times of old. Traveler tried to be upbeat in speaking to the others during that time, they were in no way at fault. If anything, it was she who failed to do better. There must have been something, didn’t there? Just one thing?

Was it possible? Could she have done more? What was abundantly clear, far stranger things were going on than first suspected. Was there more to her parents deaths? Some now seemingly otherworldly pony struck them down for no apparent reason. Half a year now. Was it really so long since being torn from..home? Home. Some feeling she did not really understand was also underlying it all. An ill feeling in the stomach that just would not relent. Could it be an illness? That would not be good, especially now, so far from basically anywhere.

Essentially from what little information given, they were basically precisely in between anything else that may once have been of note. Tanner suggested the group stop here for the night. It was relatively unexposed, and as always in the wastes, utterly dead in appearance. She sighed and agreed. How long could life drag itself out like this? She wondered in silence. Once more setting the suits defense systems to guard in the direction most likely to offer an avenue of attack towards them, they settled in and built a small fire using the surrounding materials.

The griffon showed off how to light the fire using only a hard stick and various other pieces of this and that. It was difficult to actually make work this way, but much to her surprise and negativity it finally took. Wood and other burnable things were not particularly difficult to obtain. It was a nice gesture of the old griffon to show how her it was done. He offered up other ways of achieving the same results. Traveler found herself feeling unsure of why he was even bothering to do so. The days and nights since the fight had been altogether uneventful.

That they went uninterrupted for so long almost felt like a trap the world itself was laying for her. Something ready to spring shut atop at the most unaware moment. That could not really be true. Just something silly conjured up by a concerned imagination. It must be. She was very grateful for the company. Depending on what lay ahead, however, they might be parting ways all too soon. This also concerned her deeply, it almost seemed a terrible thought to just let them go off on to whatever their ultimate destination was by themselves. It was so very far away.

They were almost certainly going to die, or even worse at the hooves of that maniacal monster if they’d not intervened. Yet, it was that very intervention that robbed of her friend. Did he still live? This thought always returned. Where was he? Not a single indicator was given since then by her suit, asides her companions. It felt like she was responsible for them. Was it her responsibility to keep them safe since she freed them? How did this sort of thing work? Though these thoughts filtered through everything, it felt better not to ask silly questions.

The group with them were clearly capable of taking care of themselves, would it be wrong to assume she held more responsibility? Prisoners though they’d been, it was a situation caused by something so unusual it might have been impossible to avoid no matter what. Traveler gazed into the fire, flames dully reflected off Moonlight’s exterior. It’s odd visage a strange comfort to her. It always felt..friendly. Traveler shook her head. That could not be possible, could it? There was something else buried in that feeling of friendliness, darkly.

The feeling of some familial benevolence always seemed to stir in close proximity to it. Maybe she simply latched onto it as something always familiar in an always unfamiliar world. Regardless of why or how, the feeling remained. She sighed deeply, staring into the flames for a long while as the others sat around chatting and cooking a small meal, spreading some of the water bottles around. It was all kind of tuned out. Her father stepped towards her. She jolted and let out a loud yelp. Everyone was looking at her quizzically. Tanner was in front of her.

“Whoa there, it’s just me.” He looked concerned. She smiled at him.

“I uh, guess I was just lost in thought.” The whole group kind of chuckled. That was a good sound, one that was truly appreciated.

“No kidding, Traveler. Eat something, alright? I think you’ve been skimping a little too much, you don’t look so good.” Tanner insisted. The food was never that great, but was anything in the wastes?

She did occasionally eat something other than the terrifically awful cereal she’d been given. It was practically a treat to do so. The one thing they were not short on was water. Found amongst the wreckage of the battle with that awful pony were many oddly new looking water bottles. The suit systems indicated it was okay. The water even seemed to taste a slight bit better than any they’d ever tasted before. It would only be guessing how either of these things were possible. There were no clues at all as to how or why among what little there was to find.

Nothing that would really explain much of anything. Everything else appeared perfectly ordinary. Even the chains the tremendously strong pony was using to haul the odd line of crates behind himself proved to be nothing special. Just old rusted metal, barely usable even for that. These questions were puzzles in themselves. He simply made no sense. Something Down Range told her a while before came to mind whenever she thought about it though. When pressed about the old world he’d said that sometimes things appeared to make no sense only because they lacked context. An unusual word.

Naturally she’d asked what context was. Traveler realized over their time together she truly was very naive, but few knew much about the past. It was not her parents fault. They only wanted to protect her, keep her safe from the horrors that life now seemed to toss carelessly upon the path taken as if to test the utmost limits of endurance. Her father did teach plenty of things in the time they’d spent preparing. Many things she never knew of at all before then. It was a lot to take in. Being surrounded by friendly faces definitely helped now.

This was certainly more like what was long ago envisioned when imagining adventure. Unfortunately, the sadder truth was realized in kind. Imagining it, was nothing like the real thing. It was not excitement, it was not fun or heroic. Being hurt was painful. Even that horrible pony whose image refused to leave the mind felt pain when hit hard enough. It was not a desire to inflict real or imagined harm upon any that drove, she was merely looking for a book. That fantastical idea given over by her father, one that he still held even in dying. It meant a lot.

How far could she go was a thought which weighed heavily. Many things seemed to have much more weight than previously imagined. Looking off towards her suit reflecting the little fire, that odd feeling of care remained. It could not possibly really care about her or those around her, could it? It was just a machine after all. A well crafted glimpse into the past when ponies were still capable, powerful, wise..or were they? Whatever it was to bring them toppling down, lay the whole of the world low along with them.

It felt very dark and lonely when the rest of the group finally went to sleep. For a long while she lay there wondering why it felt even more lonely than before she ever had any friends. Were they friends? Her intervention may have saved their lives, but this somehow felt off as a reason. They would be grateful for that if anyone else did it. The hefty griffon did appear to be truly friendly, to a point she almost felt somehow uncomfortable with his actions but he was just being nice, right? He’d done nothing wrong or anything strange beyond that. Just being grateful.

“Oh, what is my problem? Relax. He is just a really nice guy. Dad trusted these griffons. I need to calm down. This is close to what I always wanted, right?” Traveler thought to herself and panted a little bit. It wasn’t quite right. Her father was supposed to be here as well. The thought of the timing of it all crossed her mind as a sad realization dawned.

“What if we left before that happened and they showed up later? He would still be with me..but mom would be dead and we wouldn't even know it happened yet.” A few tears welled.

Perhaps it was better they died together? She figured her father would never have forgiven himself for not being there. Traveler decided this was the case, it was it a little easier to bear that way. He did his best right to the end of his very life. At last sleep claimed her. Being surrounded by trusted allies like this was a comfort like her family had been. It let sleep come much easier. A deep and dreamless sleep was quite welcome. The dull morning came as it always did while they packed up what little there was to bother with and headed on once more.

They’d been keeping to a soft pace since the battle. She felt it prudent, and their new companions were not in any particular hurry to reach their destination anyway. It was somewhere far away, distant and unknowable. They were definitely quirky, some of their banter back and forth was a little confusing, or perhaps it was still just unfamiliarity with how things worked between others. Traveler did not tell them too much of herself, and since that crying outburst in front of them all she’d been hesitant to expose herself in that way further.

The creaking cart was being pulled along by Tanner this time. It was nice to switch between the group occasionally. The sound of it rolling along was a bit of a comfort in a way, something else to hang onto as familiar. It was also worrying. At some point it would need either repaired or replaced entirely. If it gave out now there would be a serious problem carrying all of their supplies, mostly water. Water proved to be surprisingly heavy. Whilst weight was not in itself a problem, the bulk of it all simply would be too much for them to bring along.

The thought of ditching such hard won prizes was something she did not like contemplating, but it might come to that. She considered perhaps with the suits power even without wheels it could just be dragged along behind but that would be awkward at the very least and perhaps not last that long. It would have to be dealt with if it came to that. She asked the group what they thought should be done about it most likely when, not if it happened. They thought up several ideas between them but none sounded like it would entirely work out well.

Not even Tanner, hauling along that almost ridiculously large travel sack of his would be able to bring along all of the water bottles and canteens even if he ditched all the odd stuff he was carrying with him. He held onto many oddities she felt were most likely worthless or useless or both, but he insisted they were not. She did trust he was correct. After all, what did she know? Only one half a year and almost died three times already. It was a pathetic feeling that ate away at the confidence she’d only started to build up before those moments.

What was really going to happen? Could this book even really be found? What if there were no intact copies left anywhere in the entire country? Were there other countries it might be found in? Crossing the entire world to find it was never something really considered before. What if it came to that? Could she go? Would she? Finding the book did mean a great deal to her father, but would even he have gone that far? His vision at the core was very simple, find the book or the missing information it once contained and make their farm truly work.

A simple but grand vision of bringing life back to the world in some way. She truly did want to fulfill this wish of his. At least she’d stopped muttering stuff to herself. Having others around certainly eased that sort of thing. Was there really anything to complain about? They were going to help search when they finally got there and that’s all that actually mattered. It really felt good having them around. Recalling the horrible endless trudging all alone through the empty wastes still brought on a bit of a shudder. Never again, whatever it took to not be alone.

Traveler actually found herself smiling as she looked around at them walking beside her. This surprised herself to take note of. The occasional squeak from the damaged leg joint was much worse than before after taking that tremendous hit. At least it still worked surprisingly well. The surface of the leg where their respective kicks met quite literally caused cracking across the entire surface of the metal up to the hind knee joint. Without the armor such a blow would have at the very least shattered her leg if not outright killed on impact. He was so deadly.

How was that pony so ridiculously strong? Her father never mentioned anypony having such strength before. Did the crazy pony always possess that much power? No, he was vastly and utterly different than he was mere months ago. What could possibly have happened in that short span of time to cause such a huge change? He was deadly and cruel before, but this was something far outside of normal. The rest of the group could not explain anything about it either. Only that it was definitely different than anything they’d ever seen or heard of.

He was definitely just a pony at the time, was he something else now? How could that be? The horrible eyeless sockets on his face were intimidating in themselves. He’d said Boss did it to him, but why? There was really nothing to go on. Thinking about it was probably pointless, but his very existence was absolutely puzzling. What of this pony called Boss anyway? Was that even his real name? That was easy enough to guess at, Boss was not a name but a title. This did not help much or at all. How strong was he in comparison?

At least this gave one small clue, he was likely even more powerful. Thinking about this made a chill run down along her spine. How could anypony be that strong, let alone stronger? Something very strange was happening with them. If she was very lucky they would never encounter him or his associates ever again. All those empty days wandering, wanting only to have her parents back. Even as they’d fought, it closed in that harming or even killing him would not get rid of that gaping aching feeling of losing her parents, deep in her heart and mind.

A hole where hope and happiness should be was only being held at bay with newfound companions. Perhaps if not truly friends it was ever so nice to be able to call those around her that at the very least. The sheer wrongness of the rest simply would not go away, but they were there. Time to move ahead. It felt good to be surrounded so. No aspect of this journey thus far was without some fault and flaw that seemed aimed directly at her being harmed in some manner or flatly destroyed. There were still so very many miles to go.

Between her and only one of a possible slew of destinations she may need to travel towards were a vast gulf of miles waiting to be trod, if there were any real hope of finding a full copy or even scattered portions of this book it might require scouring the land far and wide. It could take months more. Maybe years. The thought of walking here and there for literal years on end was not an appealing idea in any way whatsoever. This was not like in her beloved storybook. Wandering a vibrant world filled with wonderful things was what she saw in there.

Mysterious temples, lost civilizations and exotic locales were supposed to be fun and interesting things to go seeking. In comparison to her beloved book, this was no minor adventure and nothing to be desired. For weeks and then months on end she’d felt tormented with a few bright spots to give light along the way. This was not fun. All it gave was pain and the emptiness of loss inside which she could not actually shake no matter how hard she focused. It was always there inside, and always would be. He told her only that it would ease with time.

Death already came near to taking her, was she strong enough? Perhaps coming even this far was already enough? There would be no shame in tucking her tail between her legs and running for home now, having already made it farther than ever imagined on her own. No! Traveler looked ahead at the bleak landscape. Doing whatever possible to make this world even a little better was something that must be done. If not by her, then by somepony else. Maybe she could make just that much happen, or help another. She looked to Tanner off to her side.

This was breaking the rules Down Range once suggested and could very possibly be a bad idea much of the time. He was of course correct, the world as it was now is unaccommodating, inhospitable. Unfriendly and extremely dangerous in all respects. She simply needed to be close to others right now. So far everything was absolutely normal. Perhaps too much normal, but was anything really? Some strange apprehension filled the air around them as they journeyed onward. None of them really knew what lay ahead on this journey.

Even the griffon who was widely traveled never wandered to these parts before. There was no call for it. All of them could feel this and made note of it as days passed. What was this odd oppressive feeling surrounding them? This felt wrong. Nearly feeling wrong as that awful pony did. Was this dangerous somehow? That terrible squeal from the leg joint yet again caught her attention. The inherent cloaking abilities of the suit were already compromised by it before, in its current state even thinking of using that awesome ability would be pointless and useless.

Severely limited as it was, she absolutely needed to find somepony who could perform repairs. Was there anypony left that really knew how? Such an ability could be very helpful. The apprehensive feeling was not letting up at all. This was not natural. It just wasn’t. It made every moment a dreadful ordeal. All they could do was try to keep others spirits up. Traveler felt comforted by the armor suit surrounding her. Without it she felt moving forward would be something she could not manage to do. Barely, she always felt skittish now, entrapped.

“Oh this awful pressure around us. Tanner, you don’t suppose this is something like before?” She asked of him. They’d both relayed the previous experience of unusual fear that happened a while back with unseen creatures.

“This does not really feel the same. I can still think straight. In some ways this feels worse, but there is nothing out there. I feel like something is just waiting to jump at us. Should we really keep going ahead into this?” It was a legitimate and loaded question.

Should they really continue to venture ahead when things felt this way? This was the direction the suit marker pointed in. Far ahead lay the location of an old world library where the book would be, hopefully. If it was not, heading into the vast unknown was daunting.

“I must continue. I have to. It is that way, somewhere. I cannot ask any of you to keep walking into this with me. This is definitely wrong. I know it is not really anything to do with you so if any or all of you want to turn away, I understand.” Traveler looked around to the group.

Each looked to the other. Tasket started laughing wildly, taking them all by surprise.

“We have to go that way, it is the straightest and shortest path for us too.” She halted. The sound of laughter did seem to help dispel the oppressive atmosphere just a little. Still, this was not right in any way and hard to take. At least they were together. Facing this alone may have made her turn back or try to go around instead of through. Maybe there was no way around whatever this was. This heavy feeling hanging over them couldn’t be at all normal.

What was with this? The days and nights dragged on and on as they trudged through the gloom. Things appeared even more dull than usual if that was possible. A hazy misty light fog suffused the area. It did not really obscure anything but lent itself to more apprehension. A creepy shivery feeling which would not go away for the slightest instant. Still no sign of Down Range either. Would they ever see him again? She felt certain he was alive, but what if they never saw each other again? He is alive, he is. He has to be. She thought this endlessly.

Also certain, it would feel better if he was here. What really happened to him? He should have caught up with them by now. They were moving at a steady pace, but he would be much faster simply by virtue of being by himself. She still only referred to him as Down Range in front of the others. Only her and Tanner thus far knew he was really an ancient general of the equestrian army. What that well and truly meant she’d never quite got to find out and would press him to explain much more if she saw him again, but it was a very big deal.

Each step ahead was an effort now, only supporting and encouraging each other was allowing any forward movement. How long was this going to last?

“I don’t like it. We've been walking through this fog for a week now. Fog goes away, but this isn’t clearing at all. I would say I feel like we’re being watched, but we’re not. If something wanted to attack us it could easily have done so by now.” Gunnar spoke gruffly as was his way. The fact even he was disturbed by the strange feelings of foreboding hung terribly.

He was far more experienced than any of them. This could be leading to serious trouble.

“Well, we are still alive. That crazy monster pony did almost kill us back there, I am quite sure. That we survived to come this far is some luck. Not sure if it is the good kind. Before you two pipe up, I know it wasn’t your fault. No one I ever knew before would have stood a chance of stopping him. If this great fighter here hadn’t shown up I know in my heart we would all be dead already.” Gunnar was speaking about her. Inside her armor Traveler blushed softly. No one ever spoke about her that way before. Great fighter? Could it be true? No way.

In reality she’d almost been killed along with them. She needed to say something. It kind of hurt to do so, but it was necessary.

“The truth is..I almost got you all killed, and myself. There is something very horribly wrong about him. The first time I saw him he was nothing like that at all, and I was so frightened of him even then. I ran away. I’m just a cowardly filly that ran away from a hideous monster.” She said this all demurely and rather sadly. It felt so bad to say it, but it must be true.

“NONSENSE!” Gunnar belted out. What? They all looked to him. She was taken aback.

“You sure have a weird sense of what is cowardly. Tanner has told me all about your walk through the trackless wastes alone, why, and after that what else happened. You do that, then go off wandering to some old city just to look for a book where you almost die again. You next ran into some kinda monsters that very likely almost killed you again. Then you head this way only to run smack into that guy for a second time and what do you do? Take him on headlong.” Gunnar sure could talk at length. Did he take a single breath during all that?

“Then, after having already been beaten down you come straight at him again. By my count that’s six times you’ve almost died, but here you are. Tell me again how you are so cowardly?” His eyes were so piercing. All this never really occurred to her or was thought. That was actually quite confidence boosting to hear. It also felt like she’d been slapped in the face.

“I..didn’t really think about it like that.” If Traveler’s voice trembled slightly, they didn’t notice. Those were highly encouraging words, especially coming from him.

They couldn’t see it, but she was practically crying tears of joy at having heard such a thing said about herself. It meant a great deal that this griffon and those she met might actually think so highly of her. What should she say to that? All she could do was thank them.

“Thank you very much. I did not see things like that.” Was all she could come up with. Was that enough to respond to something like that? Really having no idea what might be expected and how to act in any given situation was something she still fretted over a whole lot.

If it was not enough they did not appear to notice. It felt really good that others felt she was so brave. Was it really true though? It was hard to believe, considering how horrified she’d truly felt each time something went badly. This somewhat lightened the mood a little, but the heavy feelings of dread and apprehension were not letting up in any sense. Each day and night felt like a terrible crawl forward against jittery nerves. Something was out there. This feeling did not lessen in the slightest, and only felt heavier as time passed. Something dreadful awaited.

When were they going to get out of this dead place? There was more to the feeling. This place was dead. Empty. Nothing lived and nothing grew here. Nothing. A week gone by and still they were encircled by heavy fog. Soon, there must be an end to this soon. A couple of flickering friendly markers showed on her floating display. Something about that was off. They never flickered before, only showing red for hostile or solid blue for friendlies. This was something unexpected, the feeling was weird in a singularly odd way. Was this good or bad?

“Why is it so quiet all the time? I feel like my hooves aren’t making enough sound. This is bad. It is. I can feel it.” Tanner was struggling the most with this pervasive tight closeness of their surrounding. The fog blanket was so thick without her suit indicators they would be hopelessly lost by now.

“We are together, and we are strong that way. If we keep moving fast as we can we will get through this.” Traveler felt she must say something to keep his spirits up.

Many times they were forced to walk around or climb directly over whatever lay in their path and heave the supplies and cart over. This was annoying them all, but she would not part with it. Finding long ways around such obstacles would take longer still. It was taking everything they had to continue this trek into always surrounding feelings of darkness and dread. As if in answer to some unspoken prayer the fog became less heavy in a wide area. It did not at all disperse around the edges of this heavenly feeling clearing. At least they could see now.

“Aho there wanderers! Thank goodness. Might you kindly help an old stallion in distress?” Called out a somewhat weak sounding voice ahead. Aho? A sheer red-coated pony with a whitish mane and tail stood beside a very battered looking robot of some model the armor suit was not managing to identify. Odd. It seemed to be halfway up a far incline and unmoving as all of of it’s legs were nearly destroyed from clearly heavy combat. It was in terribly rough shape overall. Her companions immediately detached the cart before moving towards them.

Presented was a pitiful sight of an old pony trying to help push the thing uphill. The robot itself was some odd mottled gray and white which may once have been paint, or perhaps it always looked that way. There was no telling. The group slowed and approached cautiously.

“Pony strength level insufficient.” It stated coolly, coldly. So very mechanical. Far more so than Moonlight, Traveler noted. This all looked and felt odd in some undefinable way. Something was building inside, telling her to run away. Run away? She pushed ahead anyway.

“Are you insulting me, you colloidious clump of clambering junk?” The rather old looking pony retorted. What did he just say? Did it even understand such language? What little Traveler knew of robots was generally they did not speak much and simply obeyed specific orders and ponies, usually from the military of the distant past. How did this stallion have control of it?

“Warning Warning. Ponies incapable of necessary sustained forward momentum. Self-harm imminent. Retreat. Flee. Escape.” What was it saying or talking about? Escape?

Something about all of this did not strike as being right or normal in any way whatsoever.

“How dare you? You're lower than a snake's belly in a wagon wheels rut, you riotous collection of bumbling bolts and cogwheels.” The strange red pony said to the odd machine. What? Its profile looked fairly equine, but the head was more like some odd clear thick bubble filled with blinking lights surrounded by twirling and clattering objects she did not know the nature of. This was not something Down Range ever mentioned in any way when explaining.

It did not match any of the robots he described to her. It was only upon approaching they could see this ponies cutie mark was an oddly nebulous black blotch, like something that was spilled. What an unusual marking that was. The possible meaning behind it escaped Traveler at the moment. Now that she thought about it, Traveler realized she hadn’t asked about her new companions marks either. Was it normal to ask about them? The feeling she should run away bubbled up again in her mind. Run away. Why was this feeling getting worse and worse?

Traveler went to step up the incline towards the pony on the gentle hillside and found she could not lift her legs to go forward, any of them. What? A blue colored flicker crossed her floating gauges. What was happening? Moonlight warbled out something in that hefty deep mechanical tone it held. A statement she’d never heard from it before right as the friendly markers slightly blurred red for an instant and back to normal. Huh? Was her armor damaged or broken worse than she thought? That would be immeasurably bad at this moment.

Looking straight at the odd pony he almost seemed slightly blurry? This had a weird feeling to it she could not place. Her vision fizzed. What the?

“Extreme danger. Condition: Blue.” It made an odd clicking sound as it spoke. What was Moonlight talking about? Her vision snapped and blurred for a second more. What was happening? Try as she might the armor would not move any closer towards the pony. It was then she realized it would only move backwards away from him. What was going on?

Already on edge and implicitly trusting this marvelous armor, Traveler yelped out a command to the others. Something was not right about this pony.

“Everyone retreat. Run!” Hoping this was not a stupid decision, for a second Traveler was concerned they would not listen to such an order coming from her without any kind of warning. Thankfully, without even an instant of hesitation they all scattered as she slowly started backing away. Not daring to turn her back and take eyes off this potential enemy.

Moonlight was insisting some kind of danger lay ahead and she believed it. The expression the red stallion maintained to this point was neutral. Now, he turned his head toward her, very obviously angered. What now? His eyes glinted in some truly weird way. What?

“I don’t know how you saw through it, but it seems my covers been blown. Here I was going to make this easy on you all. Now, I am going to have to torment you. I am very sorry about this.” His voice was much different now, gravelly and deep. Not weak at all. Huh?

Before her eyes his coat color changed to some off-white, wearing a long ragged heavy black cloak she did not see before. What? Where did that come from? The cloaks edges were some dull rusty red color. That was actually a border and not dried blood, was it? She continued to back away, not daring to take her eyes off him for even an instant. Oddly, the ancient unmoving robots friendly marker remained. What did that mean? Was it actually trying to warn them off earlier but did not have the means to do so? Did this otherworldly appearing stallion really have nothing to do with it, trying to use it as a lure with which to draw them in?

It worked, this was dumb of her. A mistake. The cloak tied around his neck almost floated along, trailing over his haunches as if some unfelt wind blew the material around. Tisket and Tasket would doubtless take up a position to try and make use of their sniper rifle if necessary. Tasket much preferred a very nasty looking shotgun she carried which for some reason was named Pepper. Traveler did not know what Tanner and the griffon might do, but at least they were all out of harms way for now. At least, she hoped they were safe enough.

“It would have been painless. You would have died oblivious and instantly, but no. You ponies, always so stubborn. Now that you have broken it I have no choice.” He was stepping down the incline towards her with heavy solid steps. Broken it? He looked strong, even felt powerful somehow. Hopefully nowhere near so much as the horrible pony from before. Turning his head to grasp and bite down on the handle of some wicked looking double-bladed thing in a sheath she did not see before either, it pulled free as he continued to stride forward.

It was terribly odd looking in shape and weight, a mouthpiece to hold was in the center and two fairly short semi-circular blades protruded from them. Some sort of oddly menacing purple smoke wreathed the dark shimmering blades. They must be magical, no mistaking that. What kind of power did they possess? This did not look good. He was very clearly confident she could not stop him from killing them, but why did he want to? Could this pony just be insane? That was too easy to think, and not a good thing to conclude so rapidly, she felt.

Recalling the advice her father gave about combat situations, Traveler would not simply assume. He appeared to simply be an earth pony wielding magical blades which should not be too difficult to deal with, but something was definitely wrong here and with him. His approach and demeanor conveyed he did not expect to have any trouble dispatching them at all. She’d been backing away this whole time. Always talk first if possible. If for nothing more than to try and glean information. An edge, the slightest advantage, anything to assist.

Her father gave very sound instruction and advice what felt so very long ago already. She missed her parents so terribly much. Wishing her dad was here wouldn’t help.

“What do you want? We do not want to fight or hurt you, I promise.” Traveler said cautiously, not wanting to provoke this stranger further in any way. It didn’t work.

“Fight..me?” He said, somewhat muffled as he spoke around the handle of that terrible looking weapon. A cackling laugh sounded from him as his head bobbed weirdly. What?

That could not be good. If he would not talk or indicate, the best and only thing she could hope to do right now was keep an appropriate distance between them. She’d found in previous encounters that her armor suit provided very little in the way of firepower except at very close range and only as a last resort. It was not truly meant for fighting. Its role was stealth and surveillance, two things it was nearly useless at in its current condition. The suit did pack a tremendous amount of punching and kicking power, but were those any good against this guy?

It was always better not having to find out. Whatever he was planning on doing was not obvious. Friendly markers told her everyone else stopped moving now, likely having taken up what they felt were strategic positions on this mildly hilly terrain. She’d kept track, Gunner was still with Tanner off somewhere directly behind. They’d managed to keep her directly in line with themselves, it was a good idea. It would make it that much harder for an enemy to have shot at them or something, or see exactly where they went with her directly in their field of vision.

Something clanged off the shoulder of her armor, sending sparks and smoke flying. Nothing was felt. Not so much as a shudder. Not a thing. Not the slightest tremor.

“What was that just now? I see damage to my armor, but nothing is shown as wrong. I am still moving fine. I didn’t feel anything and he didn’t move or do anything.” She thought. Seriously alarmed, Traveler almost went to run for it out of fear of the unknown, but caught herself. Running might not be a real option here. This pony was doing something, but what?

She kept her eyes on him the entire time. He did not move a muscle when that happened. Everything was still just fine with the suit. He raised his head to chuck the bladed thing straight at her with incredible speed. What!? Too much force. She stepped to the side just barely in time as it went twirling past, scraping along the left side of the suit and cutting a fairly deep jagged groove only to go spinning by and sailing by up past her flank only to whirl around back to his muzzle with which he caught the truly awful feeling weapon effortlessly.

“He’s fast!” She exclaimed to herself, immediately realizing a truly direct hit by that thing would have caused instant and serious damage. He wielded a unique weapon of terrible power, that much was now obvious. So much as denting the armor was difficult, and she now faced somepony capable of easily punching through it for the second time. Moonlight could not get a real gauge on this opponent. Much as before, nothing was noted as special about him. That could not be correct. Why did she have to keep running into this kind of thing?

Something smashed into the right foreleg of the armor with tremendous force, showering more sparks and she went to fall over. No, there was nothing once more. At the same instant that bladed thing was thrown hurtling towards her again, already feeling off balance by the situation she caused the suit to fall off to the right and slam heavily into the ground. The wildly twisting blades missed by mere inches to return again. That terribly deadly weapon only missed because she fell by mistake. This was really really bad. What was going on here?

Heavier armor would likely have been too slow to dodge that, but would stand much more of a chance. If only she had more powerful distance weaponry than the 9mm defense gun. Down Range would have easily been able to dispatch this guy, or would he?

“This is not good. My armor is only barely faster than him and something weird is going on. Also, did I hear that strange weapon..screaming as it flew past?” Traveler thought as she quickly got up. How could a weapon be screaming? That didn’t make any sense at all.

Something was very incorrect about everything going on here. This was not a pony, she could almost sense it. Absolutely nothing about him looked right, faceless beneath that cloak and even though she was nowhere near him he felt somehow wrong as well. Shooting him was not an option, she decided. Something just seemed to tell her it would be useless. There was only one thing to do, and trust her rather new companions would be able to assist if needed. They would help, right? She needed to trust them, as they were trusting her right now.

“I don’t want to do this, but I must take him on up close. Sooner or later that thing is going to slice me into pieces if I stay far away from him.” Traveler gulped as she said this to herself. Once again something crashed into the armor from an angle that made no sense and a huge gash opened up along the back, sending smoke flying off and sending her staggering. No, that was not real. Most of this wasn’t real, or at least she hoped. Yes, there. It was not true. These were some kind of somewhat real feeling illusions, right? It was only a guess.

More rapidly realizing she did not really get hit by anything at all, this time she reacted by running straight at him while that wicked spinning blade flew past, just missing. Because of her sudden move forward he was thrown a little off guard and target. The wailing screaming sound coming from that screeching spinning thing of death was terrifying, she could not pay attention to that. It sounded like a hopeless wail the likes of which unimagined. Must not take a real hit from that at any cost. The wailing chorus as that blade flung past was extremely disturbing.

Since her armor was not hindered as it was during the last fight, this time she could utilize much more speed. Traveler positioned herself as best she could while running headlong at this threat to avoid the return of the blades. Each time he threw it towards her was too close, he was just too quick, his movements rigid but rapid and disconcerting. Dodging was not something she could keep up for very long like this. It whipped by again. Another shot or two and she would be destroyed. This thing was death made incarnate. Distance closed slowly.

Right as it returned to his muzzle he managed to catch it and go to sweep it downwards right at her head on approach but was a mere millisecond too slow as her armored forehoof straight-on connected what amounted to an uppercut with his unseen face and jaw, sending him tumbling backwards end over end in what would have been an otherwise amazing set of multiple backflips to land in a heap. Wait. Something about this contact was wrong as well. Terribly wrong. Terrifying. He was far too light to the touch. That feeling made no sense.

“Why did he go flipping like that? He’s..lighter than he should be! What?” Traveler had little time to think this over as he slowly in some sick shaking motion rose to his hooves once more. A blow like that from her suit at high speed should have staggered and broken bones at the very least, if not outright killed anyone on contact. How was he getting up again so rapidly? He should have been floored at a bare minimum. How could he be standing? Everything about all this was bad and incorrect. Fortunately, a little obvious damage was done despite this.

“Who are you? What are you? I know you’re not just a pony. I just know.” She could not help but ask. Would he even bother to answer? Surprisingly, he did just that as he dusted off his cloak. Lifting his right foreleg, he pointed straight at her. During the tumble those horrible blades landed on the ground beside him which he glanced down at. His voice was so gravelly and dark.

“I haven’t taken a hit like that in many years… How wonderful! However, your being able to gauge me in any way is a surprise. I cannot let that stand.” Uh-oh. That didn’t sound good.

He appeared to lean down and retrieve his weapon but held short and took a step back as a shot rang out. It was fired from Tisket’s sniper rifle at a downward slope from somewhere. Good, they were helping. Trying to prevent him picking it up. He and his sister must have found a good position to engage from. It was an otherwise good shot. If this stranger did not step back at that instant he would have been sliced right through by the powerful round. This actually made Traveler feel even more wary about the situation. How did he know when to move?

There was no way he could see any of the others from this distance. It was impossible. There was a strange sizzling sound popping off somewhere far behind, but she could not dare to look away. More was wrong here. It was in this moment she realized the ancient decrepit robot on the hill was stammering out something the entire time. Still? The same sentence as before while it clattered as the dim internal lights sputtered off and on in strange sequences within the strange machines head. Why was it repeating that so much? Many times over.

Over and over about forward momentum. How odd. There was once again little time to consider, he was already on the move again. That trembling terrifying voice combined with the shrieking wail emanating from his weapon. The resulting combination was disquieting on some level unfathomable. Tasket’s shotgun was being fired in rapid succession as well somewhere. What was happening now? Were there more enemies? She could not turn to help them. Looking away now would immediately result in death, Traveler was certain of this fact.

“Few survive but a single throw from my chakram. To have done so three times speaks to me of power you should not possess. This raises so many questions! No matter. It is time you depart for the great rainbow bridge. Die now.” The what what? Whatever was he talking about now? He said this so calmly, like nothing happening here even mattered to him in any way whatsoever. Suddenly his hoof stamped on the chakram, skillfully sending it spinning up to catch once more. So quick. How did he do that without cutting himself to ribbons?

Tasket should have taken another shot by now. Why wasn’t he firing? Wait, he was firing, mixed in with the shotgun blasts between elsewhere. That indicated more trouble over there.

“Who are you? Why are you doing this? We did nothing to you!” Traveler desperately intoned. This pony was a creature of devastating power and destructive force all by himself. If there were more like him around it would be completely impossible to win this battle. A fight she didn’t even want. He began this for no reason that was apparent and would not say why.

He was also volunteering nothing and saying very little otherwise. Being attacked like this with almost no warning already threw her off, but something beyond all this was happening here. It could be felt all around. Something stirred and slipped by unseen. What was she thinking? Her enemy right now was right there in front. Looking away meant only doom. It was just him, wasn’t it? He was taking up some odd looking stance. Was he going to try throwing that thing again? It was ridiculously powerful. A deadly force by itself that weapon.

A bolt of some kind slammed into the right side of her armor from nowhere once again and she staggered sideways, but it flickered once again as another shot rang out from the sniper rifle which he deftly avoided by only slightly moving again. How did he keep doing that? Could he..see the future? That was impossible. So Tisket was still trying to assist despite whatever was happening over where he was positioned. If not fired at that precise moment that terrible blade would have come hurtling through the air once more and cut her down already.

It would carve straight through her armor and be over. This whole thing was feeling worse and worse. The terrible visions of herself being chopped down by that thing seemed to be layering themselves onto each other. She could see the faltering images that were not real on her armor in multiple places, but that one groove. It was real. That truly did cause actual damage. It told just how powerful a thing it truly was. A straight on hit from it would cut her right in half with no resistance at all. Why wouldn’t he stop? This was pure madness. It must be?

The unmoving robot still warbled garbled statements weakly and incessantly about forward momentum. She must make a choice on what to do immediately. If the old machine was really trying to warn them then what it was saying must contain some clue to this utterly chaotic scene. It was an assumption. It may mean nothing. It might even be part of this elaborate trap they’d all so stupidly blundered into. It was a mistake she recognized quickly now. Why didn’t she approach a stranger alone, especially here and feeling like this? A mistake again.

“It was so dumb of us to head straight for this guy asking for help, why didn’t I think more first? Alright, I’ll beat myself up later for it.” Traveler admonished herself, trying to think of what this all meant and come up with something to do very quickly, strategy, anything.

“Oh dad, what have I done? I’ve let us walk straight into an obvious trap with me. I knew better how to do things. I have completely ignored good advice from both you and Magnificent just because I felt bad. If I get out of this I will not let it happen again. I promise.” She muttered under her breath to herself while facing this deathly threat.

This pony was deadly and about to take her apart a piece at a time. Her displays now identified the strange weapon as ‘Empowered Chakram. Zebra Craftwork - Unknown.’ Empowered? What did all that mean? Zebra? She only knew what little was passed on to her about them. Was this a zebra? No, he looked like a pony. Could that be a deception itself? It didn’t matter. It was time to take a calculated risk. A gamble the likes of which Traveler never thought to ever make before. A gambit on her own life, and all the others quite likely.

“Moonlight, here we go again. If there is any truth to what that rickety robot is going on about..I think I have one option.” There she went, talking to her armor like it was a pony or something. Maybe she should stop doing that? No. This suit saved her life repeatedly thus far, and felt to be nearly living to her in whatever manner that was possible. Was it somehow? Lowering her head and aiming the magic apparatus she could never use much straight at him, she braced herself, preparing to do something unthinkable and probably reckless.

Traveler set the travel options tag, set for maximum speed and aimed herself straight towards this assailant, engaging that system. This was probably going to hurt very badly.

“Praying or something? How appropriate, silly pony.” He said, aggravatingly. Praying? What did he mean by that? He absolutely was not simply an insane wastelander. There was vast raw power behind whatever he did and that meant skills with long practice behind them. Time to pony up once more. There was absolutely no will to harm this guy despite the situation.

“Why are you doing this? Please, we don’t want to fight with you!” Traveler tried one final time to implore this stranger to cease his assault. Would he consider anything she said? Her heart was not in trying to kill another. After so much time seething in anger before, it was still not instilled in her to desire violence. It struck that she was a simple farmer. It came to mind that was all she aimed towards returning to being. Would that be satisfying after all of this? Could that life even be returned to? This was all so exciting, yet frightening and dangerous.

“I am telling the truth, we are only passing and have no reason to fight you.” Were her efforts to stop this going to be in vain? All her life she imagined adventures as fun and exciting jaunts into the unknown. Nothing like this. It was going to get her killed either through her own fault or somepony else who made the decision to end her life. Was that happening right here, right now? Was this pony wielding a ridiculously powerful weapon going to be her immediate end? Things about him just felt wrong. An air of indifference to everything almost hung in the air.

How could she feel that? This faceless pony she was about to hurtle herself towards yet again was powerful, dangerous, but was he evil? What? What was she thinking? Evil? She knew the word, but not what it truly meant. Her father once explained the concept of good and evil as he knew it. It did not amount to much. There was a huge gray area where some would think another evil and the very same would think themself in the right. Where did this one stand within that concept? That strange flicker in the surroundings was beginning to rise once again.

If he was truly evil was it within her right to kill him? She did not know. There was no time left. An action must be taken already or she really would be finished very shortly by this guy. He was going to attack again, every time he did so some weird thing happened and stuff that was not actually occurring would flicker through her vision. No. Never assume. Her knowledge of battle tactics was sound. Doing the same thing more than a single time could be a feint or misdirection of some sort. He’d already done whatever this was multiple times.

Performing it again might allow a weakness within to be found. Overwhelm your opponents before they do it to you was also something her father taught. Give no more time and act already. Do it now. She could practically hear him telling her to get on with it. Engaging the travel tag caused her to rear on her hind legs and then burst forward, running at a tremendous speed spurred on by urgency. 65 miles per hour was the suits upper limit and shook wildly being set to this maximum. This particular system was surely never intended for direct combat usage.

Ramming somepony like this was not something she even remotely desired to do, especially with the suit damaged this much already. That squeal from the joint sounded worse than ever as she stampeded straight at the monster ahead. That is all he was right now, a monster to stop. The only thought, she must try to protect her companions. The ones who only a few seconds ago attempted to aid and could be dead or dying at this very moment. The terrible pony, if that was at all what he could be described as in truth, did not anticipate this action.

He was quick and powerful, but surely even he would be no match for a pony sized chunk of steel hurtling towards him at this kind of movement rate? He made some kind of hissing surprised noise and did not have the time to react as he was slammed into by the horn-like magic apparatus followed by the rest of the suit. It was a strange sensation slamming into him. His cloak fluttered upwards and his hooves left the ground once more. The contact was terrible and horrifying and felt wrong like everything else about him. Here comes the pain.

Traveler headbutted him with such tremendous force behind it at this speed that he went bouncing off the ground through the air several times while wheezing in some odd way until his back smashed into the robot, his spine and multiple other bones clearly snapping with horrific crunching noises. Blood splattered from his muzzle upon the tremendous impact. As he was wrapped backwards around it, he then fell to faceplant directly into the ground. He lay there twitching disturbingly. That had to kill him. It had to. Nothing could survive that, surely.

He must die now. He must. She could only hope and tried to move.

“Ohh, my head. Nn. Did..did we...get him, Moonlight?” She was dizzy from that impact and the rush and pangs of muscles pushed too hard much too fast towards their extremes. Everything ached. The strain was too much. Not nearly so much as the first time accidentally using this system, but it was still terrifically taxing on the body. It was not something to use lightly, especially not like this. It left her ears ringing and heart pounding so hard it hurt.

Gasping for breath, she walked extremely cautiously towards this fallen enemy. It must have killed him? If that was not enough, what else could possibly stop him? The chakram was flung very far away when they met. Good. The screeching chakram sounded different, the shrieking wails almost sounded..relieved? There was something akin to purple mist shearing off the top and rising into the sky like a thick stream of smoke as if from some great uncontrollable blazing fire within. It was quickly becoming a heavy massive column of glittering purple clouds.

Traveler closed the distance to him, intending to stomp and crush his skull if he so much as rose an inch. It proved not to be necessary. Somehow though, he was still wheezing and twitching. How could he be alive after all of that? His face was visible now. His eyes were an off-putting clouded gray color like billowing smoke themselves. They did not move to track her. Was he, blind? How could any of this be? Blood trailed from his nostrils and mouth, though he was not yet dead it would not be too long. He was bleeding out. That was clear enough now.

All other firing and sounds stopped right when he dropped as well. Finally, the battle was over. She almost died again. Six times. Six times she’d nearly died in as many months.

“I didn’t want to kill you, I swear I didn’t. You gave me no choice!” Traveler told him solemnly. There was a deep hole right aside his heart where she’d pierced him deeply, just missing. He laughed raggedly, spitting up more blood in an increasing stream. How could he be laughing at this? The wheezing sound was rough and horrible to hear in its own way.

She’d actually killed somepony this time. Winning this fight did not feel good in any way. It was not a relief to see him lying there, dying. He tried to do the same to her, but..why did it feel so awful to see him like this? She could not feel happy about killing somepony, even if he tried to do the same. She could not. This was not fair. It was not right. Why did she have to do this? She never really wanted to kill anypony! Why..why…No.

“I didn’t want to! I’m sorry..” She felt pathetic saying this. Why did she feel sorry?

“Im....Im..possible...they said I was..unbeatable..save me..isn’t that what you promised me!? You promised to save me! That I would never..have to feel...Then why am I in so much pain!? CURSE YOU!” He gurgled and spat, his head lolled to the side. He was dead. What in the world was all that? Traveler stared at him in dumbfounded awe and amazement. She could not understand all this. What was he rambling about? As he died, the strange purple screaming mist almost sounded like joyous raucous laughter compared to before. Now what?

The smoke from the chakram dissipated and all the horrendous cacophony of wailing coming from it ceased. The weapon lay there glistening, it actually now looked absolutely shiny. It no longer inspired any feelings of fear or danger. This was too much. Traveler just sat in stunned silence for a few moments, unable to bring herself to move, staring at this crazed pony. He never spoke his name, what he wanted, or why he was trying to kill her or those following. Nothing at all really. This was so beyond any expectations it was difficult to even think.

His face was crisscrossed with slices and scars like he’d seen a thousand more such battles as this. What was worse, those sightless eyes were filled with tears. Tears exactly like all that she shed before. That hurt the most, Traveler knew that look. She’d seen it before on her father’s face when he died, but this time it was not punctuated with hope. Nothing. Nothing except an empty sadness was etched upon this powerful ponies face. What happened to him? Why did he do these horrible things? It might never be known now. He was dead.

Perhaps in shock, Traveler could not even bring herself to lift a hoof and check. They could all have been killed for all she knew, but that look on this fellow ponies face. It was the exact opposite of how her father looked. It was an expression that knew only pain and sorrow. For whatever reason he did this, what situation or dire circumstance eventually brought him to be this way, she could only feel pity towards the expression beneath those haunted dead eyes. Did it even matter what brought him to this? He was crying, and now among the dead.

Never having actually killed somepony before made it doubly rough. Her father did warn about the experience and said he could not prepare her for it if it ever happened. He was right. This was going to hurt for a long time. His eyes remained open, she reached in to gently close them. Friendly markers showed the others were running over. Thank Goodness. They all looked battered and frazzled, watching as she shut those strange eyes. What happened to each of them? She wanted to ask if they were all okay, but could not say anything just yet.

A long moment passed while the group stood in silence around her, sensing they should not interrupt for the time being. Finally, she stood and looked down at his cloaked figure.

“Rest, nameless one. I don’t know who you were or what drove you, but anyone could see you knew pain. Whatever caused so unbearably much of it to you, I am so very sorry you were brought to this end.” Was all she could manage and turned to find the group staring at her quietly. All looked exhausted and a sporting several minor injuries.

They were each a bit battered with some minor cuts and scrapes, but nothing that looked particularly serious. Gunnar appeared to have taken the brunt of it with a new gash across his chest to add to his already impressive look of being battle-worn.

“Sorry, everyone. I could not find a way to stop him any faster. I hope you’re alright.” She said, looking to each in turn. They were all alive and well. More than that could not be asked for. Gunnar grinned at her devilishly. He burst out laughing heartily, swishing his tail. Huh?

“Traveler, what is your deal? You are either completely out of your mind or a supreme strategist and tactician. Maybe all three. I can’t place which it is. Either way, I am thoroughly impressed once again.” He stretched those oddly hanging wings of his and looked towards the body. Traveler blushed a bit at that. She asked what happened to them. While not really thinking about it during the fight, she’d kept track of how many shots were fired. At least one full set from the shotgun and perhaps as many or more from the sniper rifle. What were they shooting?

Knowing they were still firing meant death hadn’t taken them. Gunnar may have been firing his strange pistols and Tanner his as well, but she did not hear either if they did. Perhaps the angle made it difficult to hear over the rest. She was rather occupied. Whatever happened was intense and damaging to all of them in some degree or other. Tasket looked to have taken the least damage. That unusual shotgun of hers must be rather good for keeping enemies at bay. Traveler thought she might inquire more about it later. Why did it have a name?

“Let’s talk about that later, we should bury him. Before you ask, it is a sign of respect towards an adversary to properly lay them to rest. It is also practical anyway. We should make camp soon and a dead body is not a pleasant thing to remain near for very long. I know.” It was clear he would insist on doing so as they set about picking a spot to bury the body. Some kind of satisfying form of exhaustion set in, but there was still this to be done. That was a weird way to feel right now. The oppressive surroundings felt exorcised of mounting pressure.

Gunnar was a strange one, but she really knew even less of griffons or their ways than ponies. It did seem like the right thing to do, at least with this one. If only she knew why it felt that way. Moonlight was now damaged further, not good. Without it she would have been dead six times over by now. Was this just meant to be her life going forward? Constantly on the edge of catastrophe? She hoped this would be, if not the last one, then one of very few more such encounters. Tasket always carried a very small shovel along, it would have to be sufficient.

Tasket took off her unusual looking armor which also appeared to have some new scratches and dents. Traveler was slowly becoming more curious what happened while she was squaring off with such an opponent. Each did take hits from something, but wasn’t he the only one? It was a somber affair. Hard work to dig a deep hole and inter the body. It was no easy effort after going through so much. Picking a spot off to the side at the bottom of the incline felt fitting. The unusual robot stood watch above on the hillside silently. What was that thing?

“Traveler, you are absolutely insane!.. I like that in a battle companion.” Gunnar must be kidding as he said that. He was kidding, right? She hoped so. He did seem to like her. Maybe it was his way of trying to lighten the solemn mood a little bit. This all felt terribly sad. As odd and terrifying as this all had been, the tears that were in his eyes when he died showed he really was just like them. The grave sat covered with a small bit of log and carved upon it only ‘Nameless One. May you find peace now.’ Collectively it was all any of them could think of.

It was appropriate. They knew of no real name and little else to tell. It didn’t matter. He was beaten and would trouble no one any further. This pony was strong in so many ways. Frighteningly so. Adding more strangeness to it all, his body seemed to be the expected weight. Not at all what it felt like during the intense fight. It was so incorrect. Bad and horrible and terrifying. Even now, buried deep below, this one just felt wrong. Entirely alien and improper somehow. It was as if the bounds of reality as she knew it were somehow shaky, undefined.

Permeable in some fashion far from being understood. What could possibly be happening around them? Was reality itself an enemy now as well? Was that possible?

“All of you..this..this is wrong. Everything about this is wrong. Everything. Every single thing. I know you are feeling the same thing. Feel the air around us like it was being invaded by some kind of sickness. Whatever happened here, whoever he was..I feel..just bad. Something about him makes me sad and awful and I just..” She slowed for a moment.

“This hurts so much. Who was he? What is going wrong here? I…” Traveler trailed off. They were all clearly a bit unnerved by everything involved in this fracas. It went down so fast. Interminable minutes in combat were in truth very short indeed. No more than seven whole minutes passed during their desperate bid to avoid dying so horribly at this seemingly impossible ponies will. Was he really some kind of monster? He looked like a pony, so scared and sad as he lay there dying, but why? Things felt better now, but they also felt worse.

“Anyway..what happened to you all? I heard shooting and popping or sizzling?” Traveler finally got to ask. Gunnar spoke first. For once even he looked terribly off guard.

“Both of my pistols are energy weapons that use magipack clips. I used up a hefty stack of ammo for all the good it did. Good thing I pack lots, but finding more could be a real problem. Not many left. We were attacked by something like a..copy of this pony. We don’t know. Tanner did pretty well. You both continue to surprise me.” He took a small drink from a bottle.

“Our shots either missed or he dodged, passed right through, or something. He..it, whatever he is or was, kept hitting us somehow. They were light, nearly insubstantial hoof contacts but as you can see they were far from having no force behind them. Over and over we saw things that didn’t happen as well. It was hard to deal with. I imagine something similar went on with those two.” Gunnar looked to Tisket who nodded somewhat forlornly and in grim countenance. He looked wiped as the rest of them. It was such a harsh thing.

What they all just went through was physically and mentally draining. All felt shaken and unnerved further by the events of the day. It was starting that slow drop into darkness that night brought, but the intangible confined feeling was gone along with the dead pony. What did he want and why did he do it? None could figure on a reason that made any real sense. He was not after their supplies or he could have easily taken off with them at any time during the fight. The nameless pony was no simple lunatic wanderer. Tisket continued the story.

“He was on us just as suddenly. Our shots never connected, like he knew where to move and when before we fired. No idea. He was just there. Tasket almost hit me when she shot at him. The pellets bounced off or twisted their path or something. She even battered him with Pepper there to try and keep him away. That really slowed him down for some reason. I don’t know why that worked. I was trying to switch between helping both of you. We needed to keep moving. I’ve never seen anything like it. Was he really in three places at once? Is that something magic can actually do?” He was distraught and quite obviously disturbed by the encounter.

They all were. Traveler decided they best rest before considering next moves. Retrieving their packs and the cart to circle up once more, Traveler turned her attention to the ancient immobile robot. It looked terribly damaged, old. Worn far beyond its lifetime. It clattered away. Moonlight still indicated friendly where it stood, motionless the entire time. Good.

“Uh, hello?” Traveler was still very cautious. She approached it alone as the others looked on from a distance. They were not getting too close without her okay.

The friendly marker remained, but she knew robots to be very dangerous. Having seen just how much power and huge threat they could represent left little room for doubt that this thing could still be serious trouble if it chose so. It reacted by speaking in a depthy mechanical tone that still felt like it held strength despite the outward appearance of absolute dysfunction. The whirling devices inside what served as what she guessed to be the machines head were very odd and the low continual clattering sounds were disconcerting. Scary. Dangerous.

It was definitely hit by bullets across the dome at some point in the past, causing scratching but no real damage there. The old robot must have been standing there a quarter way up this particular hilly incline for ages. The dome slowly rotated to what she gathered to be directly facing. It did not have eyes or what looked like them to speak of. A small circular ring around what would be the neck area slightly lit up each time it said anything.

“Allied pony forces experimental armor detected. State rank.” What? The endless low clunking and clicking was so unusual. That voice alone in some way demanded respect. Rank?

“Oh, it must mean like how Magnificent was a general in the army, I think. What should I say?” Traveler considered to herself. The group was not within earshot right now. She and Tanner decided to keep his secret for now. It was harmless anyway, wasn’t it?

“I..was with General Magnificent, but he is missing after a terrible fight with a very large battle robot called Pommel Horse.” At these words the dome spun slightly in a jerking motion which almost made her jump. She really was extremely jittery after all this.

“Rank established. Aide de camp. Commander, equestrian theatre of operations.” It stated coldly. Aid of what? What did all that mean? What happened to strand this impressive machine here? It also seemed like a sad thing. A relic of a grand past left to fade away slowly.

“What are you? Do you have a name?” Traveler asked. Could it answer questions like this? Only some of them could as far as she understood. It clacked internally.

“I am a model E-4 Radiological Operations Biochemical Observational Truncator. Designation: Robot.” It was a what now? That was a muzzleful and a bit weird sounding.

They named it Robot? Was that supposed to be a joke or something? Strange seeming. Was everything of the old world just weird and highly threatening?

“Were you helping this pony who attacked us?” It clicked and clattered some more as she questioned. From the start her markers showed friendly for both until later.

“Negative. Enemy combatant engaged in predatory practices.” Predatory? What kind of word was that? It was difficult to follow the language being used and a bit unclear.

It was somehow off compared to regular equestrian tongue but only ever so slightly, only just enough to make it hard to follow. Was this normal for these things? Why so strange?

“What are you doing out here then?” Traveler was relieved to hear this odd machine never had any intention of fighting even though it probably could not anyway in such a state.

“Unit attached to Delta Horse specops. Mission: Scout area. Provide safe troop path. None found. Mission: failed.” It’s dome turned slightly. Little of that made much sense to her.

If it were possible this ancient relic standing here almost sounded depressive. Impressively the area surrounding this thing looked even more dead than usual, quite a feat.

“How long have you been stuck like this?” She was genuinely curious and felt bad for it. Everypony with it must have died as they tried to escape or find safety back then.

“Internal workings became non-operational 187 years 6 months 14 days ago.” It clacked loudly as it finished speaking. What did whirling stuff in there do? So odd.

This wondrously miraculous thing crafted in times past stood here ever since? It was such a long time. Was it all alone for most of that? Stranded here with nothing to do and no one? This felt much like before at the grove. Only far worse. After much clicking and clacking the twitching dome on the robot slowly rotated to what Traveler judged to be looking directly at her, if that were possible. It was creepy. This machine certainly looked dangerous and impressive. Most of all dulled as it was, a deadly look graced this robot.

“Is it safe around here now?” She didn’t want whatever else might be present to kill them. This might be useful if it understood what she was asking.

“Sensory inputs detect no other allied pony forces. Indications: no enemy presence. Corridor contamination levels now minimal within span 13 miles wide by 24 miles forward from this location. Do not approach outer limits. Extreme magical output emanation southeast of current position deadly to all lifeforms. Input degradation reducing detection range. Local magical radiation index at safe levels. Toxin levels below safety thresholds.” It sounded good.

“I will call the others over, but do not speak about Magnificent. Only one of them knows who he is and I swore to keep it secret, alright?” Would it be able to understand all of what she said? It appeared to have at least some basic knowledge of the language as wonky as it was in speaking it. Did they speak something a bit different way back then or something?

“General engaged in covert action, directive accepted, commander.” That voice was so hefty, yet weak sounding in an unknown way. Commander? What did it mean by that? Strange.

She waved a hoof for the others to come over. The dome jerkily rotated towards each in turn. Each was a bit alarmed by this thing straight out of the old times.

“No further orders received. Robot engaged in mission failure analysis for one million five hundred twenty five thousand two hundred eighty four hours and counting.” It stated. This sounded horrifying to her. It was forced to stand here considering what went wrong for a million hours? That was just ludicrously rough. Surely even a machine did not deserve this?

So far so good. Now it was known a wide path forward for good distance and for certain was clear, and perhaps even further. It continued droning on in that lifeless voice.

“Unit disabled. Damage irreparable. Unit unable to engage self-termination module. Destroy unit.” The mechanical tone almost felt emotional. Was that possible? So many ifs.

“You..want us to destroy you? But why?” Traveler felt her heart sink and even worse upon hearing this. It was entirely unexpected as the rest. Why does it all hurt so much?

“Robot attempted self-destruct sequence seventy-five million times plus. Robot unable to prevent further civilian casualties. Enemy pony used construct as bait. Internal logic conclusion: Robot requests final termination.” It finished. This felt horribly sad somehow. This poor thing though just a machine intended to save others lives, could not ever do so even a single time? How horrible. This was not the type of situation Traveler ever imagined or thought to consider at length before. Her father never mentioned such a possibility either. Such hard choices always.

That was forgivable as it was likely not something he ever chanced to happen upon either. Some kind of intangible sadness settled over the group as they thought about what to do. Traveler made the decision with some tears in her eyes. The others looked on, clearly a little shaken as well by the idea of what this thing went through after being told everything.

“What must I do to terminate you?” Traveler asked. It was a confident choice. There was likely no way to fix this thing in such terrible condition anyway. So much pain.

“Access panel opening.” It was such a coldly mechanical voice but even that somehow sounded tinged with some untouchable sadness, if that were even possible. A clang from the side of it’s metal body was heard as a square sliding door popped open abruptly, revealing masses of wires, circuit boards and whatever else was hidden within the housing. They were colored and numbered with tags, likely protected from dirt and grime from being inside the housing. Traveler really didn’t want to do this, but it felt like the right thing and was asked for.

“Caution: spark battery core exposed. Destroy cabling in the following order. Red One, Green Four, Blue Five. Spark battery removal procedure, push down then pull enclosing bracket upwards.” It clicked and whirred, awaiting the approaching end of its existence. Some tinge of sadness and sorrow invaded her heart as she went to reach in and pull the wires out. There was just one other thing to say first. It must be said. Did these machines and things built back then ever get any consideration for what might happen to them eventually?

“I don’t know how much of what we say you truly understand or anything at all, but I have to say this before I destroy you. I do not know if things like you have a soul, I don’t even know if we do really. No one has ever told me. I feel and choose to believe you and I both have such a thing, and I’m ever so sorry you had to go through all of this. I cannot imagine what it was like for you, standing here all that time unable to act or do anything and being used to cause harm.” She took a deep breath as this old broken wreck clacked away.

“Most of all, I am so very sorry it took anypony so long to stop him and reach you. I don’t think you were abandoned. I wasn’t around way back then so I know nothing about what happened in the end, but I feel in my heart you are just too amazing to have been forgotten. For all of them, I apologize. Are you ready?” Traveler quivered after her little speech. This whole situation felt hurtful and she really meant all of it. Robot’s dome slowly turned all the way around before settling in what she imagined must be considered forward.

The rest of the group looked a little taken aback by her words, but definitely shared the sentiment. It was a consideration which weighed so much. Why did it all hurt like this?

“Unit..accepts. Standing ready.” Was there a pause in those cold mechanical words? It almost seemed like there was. It might have just been a little hitch from age or damage. Was it capable of truly understanding her words? This might have been simple imagination and hope. Traveler set about ripping off the wires in the order given. All the lights faded out to a dull sound.

A low kind of electrical groan was emitted as the final wire was torn out. Traveler sighed and gave out a little sort of sobbing whimper. That was pathetic, but she didn’t care right now.

“Why does everything about this hurt so much!? Grr.” She gave what really was a silly little growl and looked to her companions. Though still barely known to her, it felt like they’d been around forever. Yet, they would part somewhere ahead. That thought did not feel good.

“We should just rest now, Traveler. We can think about it later.” The big griffon was right.

They really needed a rest after that nonsensical battle. Who was this nameless apparition of a pony that nearly killed them all and so easily? He was ridiculously powerful. Did he have something to do with the endless fog they’d been marching through for weeks? It was already slowly dissipating. Was that just a coincidence? Did they just happen to be walking out of it when they ran into this apparent insanity? Most importantly, why did it feel all wrong even now? He was dead by her own hooves. He was trying to kill her, why did it have to hurt like this?

She kept to herself that night. It was difficult to sleep with all that churning in mind. Too much wrong. The very feeling of it all was somehow off. Even the fact she killed somepony did not feel correct here for some reason. There was really no choice, right? He was going to do the same thing to all of them and not even say why. Was it by choice? Could he have been acting under some other ponies control? That did not fit either. The feeling of it all being wrong would not fade. Finally, sleep took her. So peaceful. So grand to sleep. An escape from pain.

As usual Moonlight was left on guard. There was definitely nothing behind them of any consequence for many miles, at least nothing encountered. So tired she fell quickly into a sleep far deeper than known for a long time. A tormented and tortured slumber with empty shadows entreating her to come forward, flicking around just out of sight. Leading her to some distant land made of shadows itself. An arrayed host of sickness flooding over the whole of it. A welling up sense of disgust and repulsion growing rapidly inside as she approached. Illness.

Her father stood there in a bright meadow. Wait, what? Where was this?

“D..daddy?” His head lurched upwards in a horrible fashion as she screamed.

“Aaah!” She popped awake. It was what would be called dawn. Tanner and the others were cooking some kind of semblance of a breakfast out of whatever. They all looked over curiously at her suddenly jumping up yelping. What in the world kind of dream was that?

“Uh, nothing. Just a bad dream I guess.” She said. Why such a weird dream? Hmm.

“We did have a rather bad time yesterday. We should all just take it easy and slow today.” The old griffon was very pragmatic and wise to her. A couple prizes were won out of this. A working spark battery from within the robot which was possibly very valuable in multiple ways, and the strange weapon the pony wielded. It felt safe enough now. Traveler carefully packed it away in the cart. She’d never expected to wind up with such a thing. It was strange indeed. A thought came to mind after she ate and hop-stepped up in her suit.

“Hey uh, I was just wondering how you all feel about something. We have wound up with a couple things right here that might be worth a lot so.. how do you want to deal with that? Do you want to like try selling them to somepony and split what we get or what is your opinion on this?” She really did not have any idea how this kind of thing worked in any way. Her father may have understood more, but he’d been given no chance to let her see how these kinds of things were actually dealt with. Gunnar spoke up. He always came up with something to say.

“I don’t know how these two feel about it, but to me you beat him so it’s yours to do with what you will.” That sounded quite reasonable to her. Traveler looked to the brother and sister who both shrugged like they really didn’t care about it at all. Was that normal?

“What do you think, Tanner?” She queried. He looked down for a moment.

“I am with you to whatever end. Do what you want with the stuff.” Was all he said about it. That was very nice of them all. They could easily have wanted more out of the deal.

The large griffon looked at Moonlight. Even within the suit Traveler almost felt like he was looking beyond her somehow. That was both assuring and intimidating.

“Thanks for asking. I’ve known some that wouldn’t hesitate to just do whatever they felt like without any thought at all to those who helped them.” They all settled into a gentle walk. For at least the next six miles everything should be clear and safe according to the robot. She looked back where it now stood silently before moving on. Did she do something good here?

It was so hard to know sometimes. Feeling like horrible things were neverending did not help. This whole affair was miserable and disheartening. There was another side to this however. She felt more than ever that her desire to make at least something better in the world was not just a passing feeling she jumped to only because there was nothing else. This was far removed from thoughts of adventure or excitement. It was a true goal she aimed for. A fairly lofty one. All for her father's dying wish. There was no harm in trying to reach it, right?

It was a quiet but almost happy feeling moving forward now. The strange oppressive air dispelled. Was that pony behind it or was this all just imagination? Whatever strange things were going on were far beyond their understanding or ability to gauge and reconcile with reality. At least it was alright for now. It felt so good not to be pressed in upon from all sides by whatever oddity of atmosphere or will that hindered their journey for so long. Where would they end up? Would they all live through whatever was ahead? Traveler was lost in these thoughts.

As they walked, it occurred to her to ask a different question.

“Hey everyone, that fight hurt so much it got me thinking. I have told you what I’m after, but do you all understand why I am after it? Really understand? It might mean terrible risks to ever find it.” Traveler did not want her new companions hurt. Even seeing them injured a little bit felt like it hurt her as well. Was this what it felt like having others to care for? It felt good, but it also concerned her deeply about feeling this way.

She wanted no harm to come to any of them.

“Well, Traveler..” Gunnar went to say but she stopped him.

“Wait, before you answer. I will do whatever it takes. I want every one of you to know just how much this means to me. My father begged me to find and try to use the information in that book to start making the world a better place, so I will go after it with all I have. None of you have to help me if it means you die or get hurt, I don’t want that.” She let him continue.

For once the hefty griffon looked a little lost for words, just for a moment.

“Traveler, you have set yourself what might be a very hard to reach goal. Maybe harder than my own, so I understand. Now listen, we chose to tag along. If we fall because of that it is because of our own decision, not yours. Often things go wrong and there is nothing you can do about it, I’ve been there too many times to count. You just deal with it and move on. So, we will stick with you at least past your first stop as agreed, alright?” He sounded happy enough.

“No matter what? I don’t want to get any of you hurt worse, or killed.” Traveler was a bit disconcerted by the battle. They all could have died right there. Tisket interjected.

“Ah hay, I’m not afraid of dying at all, and what you say you’re trying to do sounds worthwhile! Something like..well..I’m all for it.” He kind of trailed off there for some reason. Traveler thought that was a little strange, but Tasket broke her thoughts. She appeared to be thinking deeply about this too.

“It sounds good to me as well. Just one thing. We must get the big guy here to his destination alive. No offense, Gunnar, or anything against your skills, but we have to protect you ahead of anyone else including ourselves or the captain would never forgive us. We will try our best to assist her but that has to be how it is.” She was blunt about it, but at least there was no doubt where they all stood. That sounded alright. It was her goal after all, not theirs. A very solid goal now. The griffon didn’t respond to that for whatever reason.

“I understand. I don’t expect you to get hurt for me, and just the few fights I’ve been through out here already have shown me how dangerous and deadly things can be. If you feel at any point going forward you must leave me to be safe, then I want you to go. Okay? I want you to promise me you will.” Traveler knew this could put her in a very bad situation at some point, but better her than them. She wanted to make the world better, not worse for others. They didn't have anything to do with this really. They looked back and forth to each other.

“If that is really how you want it, I promise. You don’t need to worry about us.” The griffon said. The siblings agreed. Good. There were still a great many miles ahead to wander through. Mostly blasted and dead lands with nary a soul to be found. Rarely, there would likely be something or somepony. Usually destitute or wandering as most others. A dangerous beast or creatures of some sort. At least, there should be. This land just seemed deader than the rest. Back to walking, and more walking. The long lulls in action almost felt barren in themselves.

Twenty-three miles later they finally halted for yet another night of camping in the wastes. Every half mile or so the damaged leg joint would give out a terrible squeal. There was for now utterly nothing any of them could do about it. In this condition the suits two minute stealth mode would be completely useless in any practical way except perhaps for an ambush. Not something she ever thought to do before. So far she’d been the one running into unwanted fights. All of this for a book? Traveler wondered if it was worthwhile, father certainly thought so.

Tanner took the first watch this night. Insofar as night was much different than daytime really. With the skies forever closed shut by whatever means the pegasi employed, it certainly left the whole world drab and dim even at the best of times. As the others drifted off to an easier sleep than usual, Traveler found herself reflecting on all that happened in the brief months since she found herself running from home. A home she felt some deep-seated longing for despite what happened there. In passing by, Tanner took note of her grim expression.

“Hey, are you really alright? I know things have been very bad..” He stepped up close and looked down on her, showing real concern. She tried to smile back up halfheartedly. He’d been with her for some time now, it was so nice that he actually cared.

“I feel..odd in my stomach thinking about where I came from..home..kind of..sick almost.” She found herself saying. It was a thick, poor and ill feeling welling up from deep inside when thinking about home and desiring to go back there.

“Oh I know what that is, they call it feeling homesick.” Tanner explained. Homesick? How did that work? Seeing the quizzical look on her face he continued.

“For a long time when I was a colt my parents did have a place we called home. It wasn’t anything special or nothing. Just a place where we did okay for a while. When given no choice but to leave, the further away we got the worse I felt. They told me that’s what this feeling is..” He trailed off. That sounded very sad. This also explained how she felt, but why did she feel so?

“I don’t even know if I want to go back there. It’s so confusing to feel like this. I just..my parents died there right in front of me and yet I..think I would like to return when everything is settled. If..when we find the book, what will you do? I don’t think you’ve said anything about that.” She was very curious to know what Tanner may have in mind past the fact of actually obtaining the book she was after. Did he have any further plans beyond that either? She never thought to ask him before. She’d tried to ask Magnificent once but he never really answered.

“I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it much. The rest of this might sound a bit bad. I came chasing after you because of him, you know. I do not want this to hurt you, but I would not have come looking for you in the first place. Besides that, I don’t think me being here matters at all. I haven’t made any difference.” Did he really just say that about himself? It was absolutely incorrect. There was no way, he was definitely useful. If not for him she would very likely have died when Down Range disappeared. What was he thinking? That was silly.

“Hey, that’s wrong. Why are you thinking like this? You already saved my life once. When you stopped me from making a huge mistake. I would have got myself hurt or wound up dead for sure if you hadn’t stopped me!” It was true. If he was not there she would've gone rushing straight into battle without thinking and likely been taken out right there. That she lived was solely due to him getting her moving away from the fight at the time. It seemed to click in his eyes. The dawning realization he truly was useful looked like it struck kind of hard.

“I know I kind of pushed myself between you two at first. I needed to do so, I just needed it, and I’ve really wanted to help since you told me what you’re actually trying to do. I never thought of doing anything besides surviving before and I think it feels good to try. I’m glad I can actually do something useful.” Oddly, he actually looked a bit sullen after telling her this.

“It’s alright, I’m glad we met you. I really didn’t know anyone else very well except mom and dad before. We lived so far away from anypony else.” She hesitated a little.

“I understand why we did now, but it was so lonely for me. I’m happy you joined us, thank you.” She managed a smile up at him as he nodded and walked on to continue his watch. It was very nice to have others she felt could be trusted looking out for her. Tanner sounded like he’d needed to be told he was useful. He really was. In the last fight he’d really shown he could hold his own if necessary as well. Now their little group was making some real headway towards her goal, hopefully. It would still be quite a bit of luck to happen to find the book on try one.

If not, then what? The griffons gave her at least six potential locations, one of which was so far away west on the rather incorrect map that she dare not consider having to go that distance until all other possibilities were exhausted. It would become more dangerous the further she must go to get it. This night was thankfully wholly dreamless and restful. She slowly awoke being gently prodded awake by Gunnar for her watch. It was so much easier to spread out watch times amongst them all, and not quite so boring. None left their weapons unattended.

Being ready to fight at a moments notice was definitely the thing to do. With their guns so close to hoof and talon one need only be awake enough to shoot without hitting the wrong target. This particular thing already happened to them once, but she’d still enough time to get into Moonlight. That might not go again in such a lucky way. Having figured out how to use the powerful armors defense tag did let her feel more at ease while sleeping. It was truly an amazing piece of machinery, perhaps something more. Always caution was advised.

Moonlight being so damaged was concerning. Would it make it through another battle? More? The motion of the damaged leg still felt smooth enough for now, but that squealing noise every once a while was becoming more and more worrisome. Would it hold together long enough to reach, retrieve, and return with the book? Traveler could not imagine being without her father’s precious gift now. She would have died so many times without it already. It took a beating for her on several occasions now where she simply would not have survived without it.

Her eyes opened, so it was time for her watch already? Must have dozed off gazing into the dimness of the night. It was alright, being surrounded by friendly faces made it so. How long would they be together? She wondered. Even past her objective their path would stay together for a while if what they were seeking proved to be not present or unobtainable for whatever reason. Yawning and stretching and taking a small drink before starting was the usual routine. She would eat breakfast with the others later. She’d taken to doing so for some time.

Slipping into this oddly friendly feeling armor she felt a strange shudder of familiarity. It was such a comfort to her nowadays. The armor was one of her only direct reminders of home. Why did it have to be this way? Moonlight should have stood neglected and forgotten under that old barn, not be taken into battle against unforgiving odds over and over. It wasn’t meant for any of this. Durable as it might be, this was never its intended role. The odd ways she was forced to use it twice now were far beyond anything she ever imagined before. Father should be here.

Traveler’s thoughts drifted over these things as she performed slow random wide circles around camp. Though she could simply have stood still and watched for hostile tags she recalled some things both her father and Down Range taught about tactics and fighting. Never fall into a pattern. Be unpredictable. These were quite sound advice and made a lot of sense, even more since setting out on this journey. It was actually far more dangerous roaming the wastes and wilds than was impressed upon her by both parents.

Why did it appear to be her fate to encounter the strangest ponies of all? The nameless one now buried far behind them still sent a shiver along her spine to even think about. Something more than strange was going on with that one. Only luck saved her. Did she really have so much luck? It did not at all feel so. Haunting dreams of odd apparitions and terrible things were persistent for some time now. It was nice to have a proper rest once again. The distance remaining counter was inexorably lowering as they carefully trudged forward.

72 more miles. Just that and maybe this would be almost over. Still a long way. They would find the almanac there whole and she would return to the base with Tanner, then head home. This was probably only a fantasy in her head. It being that easy was very highly unlikely. What was more plausible was that she and her newfound companions would run into something else terrible or destructive standing in their way once again. At least her watch was not as long while the others were around. That made it more bearable. It was usually so very boring.

How would she handle goodbyes? If by some miracle the book was found with ease and she went home, would she ever see any of them again? The thought of making precious friends only to leave them forever hurt a lot. Once they parted ways, Gunnar would certainly be gone permanently. She found herself really liking the old griffon. Why did he feel what he was doing to be necessary? Something about honor. How she saw it, that word seemed to have both positive and negative things associated with it. It sounded okay for the most part. She’d miss him.

“Why does everything have to hurt like this? Life doesn’t feel like it should be this way. It really is wrong feeling.” She thought to herself, meandering around camp. Everything was fine tonight for a change. No odd fog, no weird dreams or odd oppressiveness closing in on all sides. Just normal. What would be called normal anyway. In her heart she felt everything about the world was wrong. Nothing truly appeared or felt quite like it should be. Was this what came of the massive war so long ago? She could not imagine the scale even after being told about it.

Living through something is far different to imagining or explanation. She’d mostly fought one on one until now. Imagining thousands of ponies, zebra and other forces in staggered array all fighting their hardest against one another was heartrending and impossible to truly understand in scope. How did it ever come to such a thing between so many? Such a divide was difficult at best to comprehend. It was making her feel lightheaded from thinking on it so much. She understood a ridiculous amount of death happened back then. That was clear.

The why of it was something not even Down Range himself was quite able to put into words. In the end he didn’t truly know either. What kind of thing drove so many to bring such an epic catastrophe down on their own heads? Looking around sullenly out through Moonlights visor only confirmed that something tremendously horrible happened. The why and what was probably forever beyond her knowledge or likelihood to find out about. It was too huge in scope, too big to ever be fully understood. Perhaps even by the ones that caused it.

That idea was harmful in its own way. Did they know what kind of damage they were causing? She wondered. To have left it all burned and broken like this was maniacal at best. Did they let this happen, knowing full well what little they would leave behind? She hoped not. This must have been some huge mistake. It must be. Nopony could ever have truly wanted this? To leave the whole world a broken husk could not have been the idea of a sane pony, could it? No. Definitely not. It sounded like they were above it all, so why? The only question, why?

Traveler shook her head. It was pointless to make oneself sad over it now. According to Down Range the chronometer in his armor stated he’d been in stasis for 187 years. That could be wrong, he was not entirely certain. He’d said he was supposed to die back then along with everypony else is how he put it. His presence here was a mishap, a simple mistake. He’d hated living since the moment he stepped out of the pod until he met her. She’d given him an idea, a task, a reason to go on. She would not disappoint him even in his absence. Not a chance.

“He clearly loved his world and would have done anything to protect it, including giving his own life for others. I must be that certain of my own goal. I must.” Traveler thought. He was a guiding factor not just in her life, but in Tanner’s as well. Were it not for stumbling across an ancient comic his life would likely have ended before she ever met him. Already she could barely imagine this journey without him trailing behind. He was putting a lot of trust in her, something she truly wanted to live up to. It meant so much that he was still here.

Whatever else happened, Tanner was dependable. He proved that on more than one occasion. She could not really get that kind of gauge on the others yet. They knew how to fight together, that was obvious, but what did she really know about them? Far less than she knew of him and their currently missing companion. Where was he anyway? He must be alive, he must. Something inside just kept telling it was so. For now, he was gone and could not be expected to simply show up as much as she wished it so. Traveler was on her own to decide.

Within the next week or so they would be approaching the location of an old library, it might still stand. Why one would be so far off more beaten paths seemed strange even to her lacking understanding of how things were in the old days. The ponies before the war knew so very much. Down Range confirmed it through what few stories of his past she managed to prod out of him and the world back then. She wanted to know so much more. Naturally, he’d been hesitant to speak about it over guilty feelings of failing to save so many lives back then.

What lay ahead in the dark of day? She’d spent so much time in fear at night and hiding after that terrible time alone that some feeling of dread still sometimes took her when what little light of day faded to pitch. It was bad enough in the dull daytime. Something about the encroaching night gave her an odd chill now and then. Thankfully it was approaching morning once again, such as it was. With the others stirring, her eagerness to head onwards was growing once more. This was becoming exciting once again, not fearful or life-threatening.

Traveler took note that strong as she was, all her muscles felt looser and even stronger than when she first left home. It must be from all this walking. She did get breaks now and then to rest and recover, so it was just enough that their tone and strength improved greatly. She did feel less easily winded or short of stamina. The injury to her ribs and head some months ago were finally only bad memories. She’d been slowed greatly for a while after that happened. In all it just proved how vulnerable a pony really was compared to the vastness of the land.

She knew this land called Equestria was once bright and happy. That must have been an awe-inspiring sight to see. Down Range confirmed as much. Even imagining it ever being that way was beyond her, yet at some point it was. That was a very sad thing to consider. He must have hurt so much inside when he realized what happened to everypony he ever knew, and knowing he could do nothing to right it. Finding himself absolutely alone in a strange and unwelcoming place only to be set upon by monsters and terrible ponies alike. How horrible.

She left Moonlight on guard facing the most likely direction anything could possibly come from, it’s head slowly panning side to side. If she didn’t know better, it would be a terribly creepy sight. Instead she felt so very safe under its protection and watchful gaze. At first there was some fear it might fire upon her or her companions, this proved completely unfounded. Somehow, it knew. How it knew was a matter of possibly some consequence but did it mean anything anyway even if she did find out the how of it? It was on her side, that mattered most.

It was on her side, right? Traveler pushed these thoughts aside and settled down to breakfast with the others once again. As usual a fairly sparse affair. Water was a great deal more important than food. Without water even having food could mean nothing. They definitely carried plenty of that for the moment. It was a rather unusual prize to win after a terrible battle. It felt a little easier on the old cart as it was weighed down less the more they drank. It was nearly too much for the old thing as it was. That was becoming a real issue by now as well.

The rickety cart saw far better days. The left wheel was positively bowing out to the side, and one of the metal attachment points was slowly pulling its way out of the wooden portion it was anchored into. It would not last forever in this condition. If it should break right now they would be forced to ditch a great deal of their supplies. Even if they did not need it all, it could be useful to sell or trade with. To her mind, they probably required the majority of it. The siblings and their charge did have their own, but it was nice not worrying over parceling it out.

“Good morning. Hope you all slept well. I did for a change and it felt rather good.” Traveler said warmly to the group. They all agreed it was somehow easier to sleep since defeating that terrible pony. Was that just a coincidence? There was no real way to tell if he had anything to do with that. It was just good to get some real rest after feeling so hemmed in over such a long period. They felt more energetic since then. A great boost to confidence and capability as they prepared to head on for another day. Traveler felt, happy? Yes, that was it.

Out here, even after everything, with those surrounding her she felt happiness just being here. She did not always ask to share their food. There was still plenty of that terrible cereal that was supposed to taste like apples. Whatever it really was, it was very filling. Something must be kind of special about it. It ended any hunger very rapidly. Only on those days she could not stomach it and needed a break from the taste did she request others to share their foodstuffs. They didn’t really seem to notice. They did all try her cereal, once and only once.

“How do you even swallow that stuff? It makes me feel sick just thinking about that single mouthful you gave me. Bleh. What even is it anyway? It’s not like anything I ever heard of.” Tasket moaned. The rest positively giggled. It was a good time and memory to keep of the sickened expressions on each face as they tried it. Gunnar spoke up.

“No wonder the captain never offered it to anyone else. How you can down that stuff is bewildering, and I thought I was tough.” He grinned, or what passed for a grin on a griffon.

“There has to be something good about it. I started with nine boxes. I still have almost seven of them. I barely need to eat any and go like two days and a night without feeling hungry at all after.” Traveler made a point in saying so. There was a bit of wonder at that fact. How could it be? Did old world science really know so much more than any remembered?

“I once heard some old military rations were something like that. Never heard of this stuff though. Whatever it is. Thought it was just some talk about old world things.” Tisket mentioned.

None truly knew what military actually meant in truth, except that there were very dangerous places associated with them and that word. Whatever the real truth was, this stuff was excellent as a filler if nothing else. No one else wanted any of it. Traveler smirked at realizing the the griffon mercenary complimented her toughness. That was not something she ever expected to hear about herself. It was nice of him, and clearly not given lightly, not by him. It felt surprisingly good to hear. The others were speaking about their route forward from here.

Naturally, they kept to a straight line towards their destination wherever possible, occasionally interrupted by difficult terrain, hill, broken tree stands and whatever else lay toppled to land wherever it may. Debris from old dead forest or other things was often a detriment to forward movement necessitating finding ways around. Dragging the cart along contributed to this issue, but Traveler would not give it up easily. She really wanted to fix it properly. For the moment they jammed in some broken wood where the metal was detaching to hold it better.

Tasket was the one pulling along the cart today. Traveler wanted to put as little strain on the left hind joint as possible. That rare squeal was more prominent now when it happened. Not good at all. If it were to give out now would she be forced to abandon Moonlight to whatever fate? Whatever it took, that was to be avoided. If more fighting was ahead it might come down to the terrible decision to leave it behind. It was a terrible prospect thinking of leaving this amazing machine that brought her this far, and still held together despite multiple thrashings.

BANG! A terrible commotion somewhere off to their right started. It sounded something like gunfire, but not. Something about it did not ring quite right. What was that?

“What the?” Traveler and the others hit the ground just in case, leaving Tasket to unhitch herself from the cart bars and hit the dirt. Where was that coming from and what was it? A friendly tag flickered through the suit display. Huh? What was up with that? It happened before, but it was wrong. At least it appeared to be wrong. Was the suit really malfunctioning?

If it was not working correctly that could be a tremendously serious problem. How would she at all know? Traveler in truth knew little to nothing about how the armor actually worked or what everything actually was for. Even if she did, would it be possible to correct the problem? It was proving intermittent and potentially misleading or dangerous to assume it was correct all the time. So far it did not directly lead her to take a deadly action, but did that really mean anything? There was in reality no way to tell if this was a problem or not, not yet anyway.

Traveler cautiously surveyed the area. There did not look to be anything of note on the readouts or any warnings of danger. Was that gunfire or not? It was not aimed at them if it proved to be that. A radio beacon tag flicked in and out, but did not make any sound.

“Everyone, I think we are alright. That was not coming at us, but I don’t know what it is.” Traveler quickly told the others. This was rather strange. Wasn’t everything? The suit usually listed if anything of note was truly nearby. Perhaps it did not know everything after all?

“Should we go investigate?” Traveler asked of the group. Tanner did not look keen to do so, but would likely follow if she went. Tisket and Tasket did not seem to really be interested, asides from not getting shot. Unusually, Gunnar of them all stood and suggested they look. Why would he want to do that? It did not appear anything to do with them. He explained.

“Traveler.. If you really, really mean to do what you have said, then this kind of thing is what you need to head straight for.” He said quite directly. She’d noted he was like that.

Was he right? If it was her personal mission to improve the world, she should head right for danger and try to stop or fix whatever was wrong, but that could get her killed.

“I..think you are right, Gunnar. Making the world a better place must mean stopping bad things from happening. It’s just, If I die then I have also failed haven’t I?” This was conflicting for Traveler. What would he say to that? The grizzled old griffon looked to be contemplating.

“Everything is a risk, Traveler. If I were you, I’d rather fall than not try.” He said.

Those words proved somehow reassuring. An experienced fighter with an entire lifetime behind him was telling her this. It should be true. Unlike many that wandered the wastes, he’d lived a decently long time. His words must be worth something after managing such a thing? Her resolve emboldened, Traveler steadied herself to go look into whatever this loud din was.

“Okay. Let me go look. Stay here, everyone. I will back away if it is too dangerous.” She tried to sound sure and confident of herself. Was this really the right thing to do?

She stepped over the little earthen ridge while the others remained hunkered down where they stopped. Nothing was immediately visible asides more empty and vast rolling landscape in every direction. Yet again It struck just how little a pony really was against all of the world. Feeling this small was a very insecure emotion to let rise from inside.

“Steady now.” Traveler told herself. The armor was decently protective, if damaged. It would at the bare minimum let her survive most normal things thrown at it.

Too bad most things encountered to date were entirely, not, normal. Thoughts going over this meant that perhaps it could prove to be something normal for once, maybe. Her luck did not seem to precipitate running into such normality. Insane, dangerous, crazy, wrong. These were the things she fought and ran into since leaving home. Home, that place which almost was a distant memory already. How did memory of that fade so rapidly? It was still fresh in her mind, everything. Maybe it was just too much. Too much pain and too much wrong to handle.

“Why? Why is everywhere and everything like this? Mom and dad never said it was like this. They did say it was bad, but not this way, none of this is..right or normal from what they told me. I knew it was dangerous, even horrible, but not this way.” She walked towards where the noise was emanating from. Something almost sizzling and whirring in sound was coming from this direction. What could it be? The many things her father told about went careening through her mind. More robots? Another pony? Something worse? Something better? So many things.

Any of which could possibly be her end in this life. What did she believe? Previous experiences said, yes, it was okay to fail. It was possibly even okay to die. Was it really? Was there something? Nothing after that? Traveler could only believe what she felt.

“They never said anything about that, I don’t know what either of them thought about this kind of thing and I never got to ask. I was just a silly filly, I didn’t know I should ask about this stuff.” Traveler shook it from her head. Was this a time to be thinking about such things?

She was approaching the occasional sizzling popping sound. It was getting louder. It must be close. Obscured by natural debris maybe. There was a very large stand of ancient dead trees this way. They could be hiding quite a bit. Better be careful. Traveler approached the stand with great care and attention where she stepped. Trying to be quiet would be rather pointless at this time with that noise going on, it would hide most any sound she made anyway. What was this going to be? Hopefully it would not be life-threatening yet another time.

There was an odd tick-tick-ticka-tick sound on approach to whatever it was. The closer she got to the sound, the more it did sound like some type of shooting was going on. As she cleared the dead tree stand it opened out into a small unnatural looking space. There ahead were two boxlike structures swiveling left and right atop a huge concrete wall. Were they some kind of guns? She’d been told of turrets and how incredibly powerful and dangerous they were, was this some of them? The two sat atop some kind of concrete ledge overlooking a steep drop.

Curiosity almost won out over caution, but she caught herself and approached with due care. This was definitely odd, but it did not feel terrifying or horrible like many things during the last while. The two boxy things were definitely firing some type of bullet. It must be a low calibre, but it was in such ludicrously vast quantities. Where was it all coming from? Every few seconds the things would let off a large burst seemingly at random towards the distant horizon. Were they shooting at anything whatsoever? This was truly peculiar, and definitely dangerous.

At least these were not the ancient magitech cannons she knew also existed. Her marvelous armor as good it might be could not possibly withstand a direct hit from something of that magnitude. With these there was some measure of survivability should they prove dangerous towards her. Quite without warning the two structures began to turn right around in her direction, uh-oh. They trained on her location. Her only option if they began to fire would be quickly retreating back through the trees, awkward as that would be. They stopped?

An entirely mechanical voice was heard. It was extremely deep and timbred oddly.

“HALT. Identifying: Stable-Tec IFF confirmed. Access granted.” The huge square turrets turned away to continue seemingly randomly firing in the opposite direction down below. What the? Now what? Stable what now? IFF? Traveler called loudly to the others to come.

“What have we here? Are these more of those crazy old machines? Is it safe?” Tasket asked. none really knew. It appeared they were alright being close to Traveler at least.

There were long metal steps embedded into the face of the huge concrete wall leading downwards to land directly in front of a large steel door wide enough for a large group to pass through together. It was open wide and looked very rusted and damaged. Unused forever. Was this one of the old underground stables there were often rumors and talk of, but nopony ever really seemed to know about or locate? Could they really have chanced upon a potential treasure trove like that? Not entirely trusting that such luck existed, Traveler stepped inside.

Within the entryway she found there to be buzzing and ringing bells and swirling red lights. That felt like a bad sign. What could have gone on here? She looked back at her companions who were peeping in from the sides of the entrance. There didn’t seem to be anything dangerous at this moment anyway. Should they actually go in this place? It wasn’t really what they set out to do, but it was here and almost inviting them inside.

“Gunnar, should we bother going further in? We don’t have to do this.” Traveler asked.

“This is your choice. I said we would help you on your way. Just don’t get us all killed, alright?” Was he joking when he said that? It kind of sounded like it. What was up with him? She could never quite tell if he was being serious. In she went, leading ahead of the others in case of a problem. The entryway opened into some kind of machine shop. None of them quite knew what it really was, but nothing dangerous besides the external turrets were present. The stable, if this indeed was one appeared abandoned. It also proved to be immense beyond expression.

“Let me go bring the cart up top. Stay inside. I sort of think those guns only let us by because of my armor. I’ll only be a couple minutes.” Traveler hurried back outside and up to retrieve the cart. Just bringing it within range of the guns would probably be sufficient. This place was already extremely well hidden. It took a little while to weave it through all the husks of trees. Longer than expected. At least it would be quite safe. On the way she actually found another sloped path down instead of the stairs, allowing it to be brought right inside. Very good.

Their explorations began. The immediate area was buzzing with swirling lights and more buzzing. What did all that mean? It was such a large entranceway. There were several doors to the sides and forwards but otherwise did not look to be anything special. Just doors. Albeit very heavy doors made of the thickest metal she ever saw. They all hung open for some reason. That was definitely weird. One room was entirely made of what would be called reinforced glass. None of them knew what this was, only that it was crisscrossed and very thick.

That was a very strange room. How was glass actually made? None of them knew this either. Her missing companion might have been able to tell them, but she kept quiet about this idea. For the moment at least it didn’t matter much. He could not be asked when not present and she would continue to keep his secrets for now. What proved very odd about the room was a door very clearly leading in from the other side, but no controls to open it were obvious and no way they could find to reach it. There was no way around to do so. So unusual, but why?

The positioning and layout about all of this felt a whole lot of counterintuitive. That room enforced this idea further. Things just were more difficult than they should be to reach despite all the doors being wide open. Why were they all open like this anyway? That was a strange feeling. Every single door seen was open except for the unreachable one in the glass room. She thought to try breaking it down but thought better of it. What would it accomplish anyway? There was enough broken junk in the wastes already, why add to it by breaking more stuff?

“I have a strange feeling about this. The way all these doors face, and how everything is in here it almost feels to me like it was built to keep something in, not out. I don’t like it.” Could Gunnar be right about that? Was this more like some sort of prison? Something about it all was definitely out of the ordinary. Why would anything need something this vast to keep it inside? Maybe they were just misunderstanding whatever it was built for originally. There may be a clue to it inside somewhere. There may be useful weapons or materials inside as well. Maybe.

Her father once said what he was told about such places. They usually included at least some security lockers, so there was perhaps armor or who knew what else inside. Without a map or general understanding of stable construction it might be difficult or nearly impossible to navigate at first. Her armor mapping systems did a decent job of conveying a single direction, but did not appear to indicate up or down or abstract positions, instead relying on straight lines which could lead them under or above things instead of taking them to correct locations.

Was this a mistake? Going in here was quite a bit of a detour and possibly deadly. It did not feel as before. This felt more like real exploration than danger to her. It felt, more like the sort of adventure she used to feel a desire for all the time. Venturing into the unknown to find treasure or lost knowledge. The second thing she was already doing, but it felt like a duty which landed on her head and not the fun thing she used to imagine. This felt, exciting and..fun. Traveler realized this was how she felt right now about this. Perhaps it was a good thing.

“Oh this place is huge, we better be careful not to get lost in here. Let’s do this, place an obvious thing wherever we have been, pointing to the way back and exit. If this spot is any indication then this place is big, really really big.” Tisket mentioned.

“Did you just actually have a good idea, brother of mine?” Tasket joked. He looked at her with a dour expression in response. She was always saying things like that.

“Oh come on, I’m not that dumb.” Was his only response as he leaned close towards.

Traveler thought she saw something between them at that instant that gave her pause. Gunnar was inspecting a side doorway and wouldn’t have noticed what she thought was seen.

“Did, you two just kiss?” Traveler was surprised enough to ask out loud.

“What? Of course not. Don’t be silly.” Tasket said and lead her brother off to another door to carefully look around inside. What was that? Was she just imagining things? That was pretty odd. Couldn’t be. Maybe this was more taxing than she thought it would be after all.

“I hate to repeat myself, but everywhere we go I get the distinct impression this place was set up to keep something inside, not out.” Gunnar was unusually concerned about this, Traveler took that very seriously. Could this really be some kind of jail or something? There were no cages or entirely obvious reasons to think this, just a general feeling. The long halls and seemingly wrong way facing doors did give the impression someone, or some thing was being kept inside for whatever reason. Why was it this large? Could anyone need this much space?

“This place is so big. What was it all for? I’ve never heard of anything like it. I know there are old stories and all sort of nonsense said about stables, but this is ridiculous. It could take weeks just to explore all of it. Up to you, Traveler. Should we keep going? I’m not in a great hurry anyway.” Gunnar did indeed have the luxury of time. His destination likely meant his death anyway. The heavy griffon carried his energy pistols in a sling that sat tied across just in front of his hips so he could get them quickly at any time. It gave him an air of true confidence.

“If you’re alright with it, I want to explore at least for a while. I feel more excited than endangered by this. Do you feel that? The calm nothing? There is no awful or sick feeling in here. I don’t know about you, but I like that after what happened.” Traveler explained. He nodded towards her. A slight thunk-thunk-thunk sound was coming from a door ahead on the right, prompting a slow walk ahead to find out what it was. Now what? Peeking into the room there was something that looked familiar to Traveler. Spidery mechanical arms, but working.

Attached to the ceiling and sliding around on tracks and rails were multiple mechanical arms apparently digging into rock then transporting whatever they were taking out into various different barrels. Some odd machine with sparks flying out of it was making more tracks which it spit out and were then being attached to the ceiling by the arms to allow the arms to reach even further into the rock, allowing them to continue. They were making steel? No. Another bucket seemed to be having little slugs and some kind of powder filled up then dumped into a hole.

It was building bullets? What kind of place was this? Was that where the guns above were being fed so much ammunition from? Depending on how much material there was to be mined out from the ground around this place, the guns could potentially be fed forever. This was a revelation none of them expected. How much ammo was down there somewhere? Tonnes?

“This places makes me feel all shivery and weird. Knowing those things above can just keep shooting for who knows how long..how many have they killed?” Gunnar said out loud.

That was a terrible thought. Did they kill anypony? Wildlife or otherwise? Traveler felt that if she didn’t just happen to be wearing this suit they may all have been shot. Then again, they may not have come this way at all if not for her. This of course did not include the fact they would all likely be dead before now anyway if she hadn’t come along on her own quest for knowledge. The ammo being created here could be of great value, but did not fit their weapons. Very low calibre meant only the extreme volume of fire from the turrets presented any threat.

“Let’s find a quiet spot where we can rest and return to if we ever got separated or anything.” Traveler figured it would be good to have such a location, just in case. When Down Range went missing they didn’t have such a place determined so there was no clue what to do but press forward. She absolutely did not want to become separated from these new companions of hers after what happened with him. She’d missed him terribly ever since. Why was that really? In truth she’d barely got to know him either before he was gone.

It could be just that he’d practically volunteered to go with her. Tanner was another matter. He did come by his own choice and experienced some terrible moments with them as a result, but he was still here and following her. That meant a great deal. He put his life in danger remaining by her side. Traveler made sure he understood this quite bluntly before. It was a dangerous gamble they were taking going looking for a book that may not still exist in any capacity. The potential reward was incredibly huge, making it worth the effort and danger.

Some halls lead into places with obvious uses, such as a kitchen stacked high with plates and utensils. Nothing registered as dangerous. They replaced some of their own with the better looking ones hanging about on racks. Knives appeared to hang on a metal strip with nothing holding them. That was somewhat novel to all of them. Once an entirely mundane invention, it was only a heavily magnetized strip of metal to safely hold useful metal objects at the ready. To someone who’d never seen the effect before, quite something else to behold.

Awesome. There was nothing else of much use in here asides under one of the chef preparation stations an old box of that hideous sort of foodstuff rations it seemed were once in the possession of literally everyone. Why was that? Were they so scared at the time that the very thing which eventually happened, would? Could they have truly known what was coming or was it just some random occurrence? Traveler knew there was very little in the way of fresh or growing crops in the wasteland. It was her very mission to find a way of improving this.

The box still being sealed and clean in such an environment meant it would still be edible. How did they make this stuff? It tasted awful, almost as bad as her strange cereal. Almost. Something did have to be special about it as the way ponies kept living on it attested to. How much of it was made? How long could it really last? She only knew the great war ended nearly two hundred years ago. What that ending meant could not be guessed at. If a few boxes of seemingly invincible foodstuffs were all that came of it, that was terrible beyond words.

Traveler did know other things were created during and for the war. Terrible things. Weapons. Even her armor. What must it have been like before the horror and terror it brought? It sounded..wonderful. She’d kept her musings about it to herself. Inside her armor she felt a strange twinge in her gut thinking about it. It was not something she could quite bring herself to cry about. She only knew of it, not the true depth of what all was lost and did not experience those days. They were all but a legend now. A hopeful story that felt untrue somehow.

To no one in particular she spoke aloud as they wandered these amazing corridors.

“Ponies built all of this. How could they manage so much and just let it all become so dead and forgotten? It hurts me inside to see it this way.” She mused. Tasket laughed at that.

“Yeah, whatever. So what? We've been in a couple places sort of like this before. Nothing this big, but they all look kind of the same. Maybe they were special, maybe not but if this mess everywhere is all they could manage to leave then I’m not impressed.” She said.

“Not impressed, by all of this? Suppose you tell me how they built it all?” Gunnar chimed in and flicked his tail. Tasket was a little shy looking after that. That was a bit amusing.

“I only meant things are so dead everywhere. That is what we got left by our great ancestors? Just death and dirt? We all got ripped off don’t you think?” Tasket was clearly trying to be amicable. It was after all the siblings job to get him to his destination safely, which seemed contradictory all things considered.

“Listen, never speak too ill of the dead. They may deserve it or not. In this case we don’t know what they went through or faced. They may have been horrible but judging them when we have no idea is not right. Besides, they’re dead and we aren’t. That must mean something.” The old griffon seemed quite convinced of this. That sounded quite fair. Traveler never thought of it in that exact way before. He could be correct, they may not have the right to judge. All they knew is that horrible things happened. Nothing about the surrounding reasons why or how.

Traveler did want to say something since their missing friend actually did live through those times and could perhaps answer a little of what they were just pondering but thought better of it for now. Even he did not seem to fully grasp what all happened back then, which was its own concern. If even a mighty pony from way back then who was actually there did not know, how could they avoid something just as terrible or worse again?

“It will be getting dark outside, let’s stop here for the night.” Traveler halted and said.

It was as good a place as any to camp. They’d not run into any beds or similar thus far, they could be anywhere in this place. There must be a sleeping spot in such a large underground structure but without knowing where to go they could only stop where they were at. The somewhat pulsing flickering lights which somehow still glowed provided enough light on their own, though a bit dim. At least there were no alarms going off here. The red swirling sorts of lights were still present in places. She only knew that color meant trouble of some kind.

Whatever happened here was over many many years ago. The old halls were so sterile and empty for the most part. Many rooms did not appear to contain much of anything. Nothing of real note so far. Why so barren and empty? Did somepony else come through here before? It was improbable. The turrets would have deterred or destroyed almost anything trying to get past them. Traveler only guessed her suit was why the turrets let them in. She would have to ask the Down Range whenever they finally found him. Inside she still believed he was alive somewhere.

They settled in for the time being to partake in some water and to eat a little before resting. For safeties sake they kept a watch as usual. Just because they were surrounded by metal, rock and stone here, did not mean they were alone within. The guns may be keeping something out, but the feeling of this place actually being meant to keep things in, so pervasive. All of the doors save one were unlocked as they’d passed by which ran counter to the feeling. Did something terrible once happen here? It might be better not to find out if that was true.

The downtime without horrible incidents was nice for certain. It gave a chance to unwind and destress. Exploring this buried place was a much needed distraction. A little frightening in its own way, but not like the other horrible things were. In here at least so far none of their lives were put in any kind of danger. Whatever might be further within could prove just as dangerous or more, but this was really a welcome change of pace. Traveler did not want to waste supplies or anything, this was merely something she needed to do at this time. How time flew.

A few days passed in this stable or whatever it was. Only one or two really interesting things came to their attention besides the endlessly running manufacturing station. She understood there must be a kind of power core here somewhere. A spark reactor it was called if she was remembering right. Unusually there were no terminals of any kind in this unusual place. Prison or otherwise that was understood to be quite odd. Other than the lights and mechanical arms there was little to no other equipment at all of any sort. This struck as unusual too.

There were sinks with running water! It must be coming from somewhere. A shower room was discovered they all made use of. It seemed limitless. This bit of info could be useful at a later time if she needed to restock on the way back. Wait. Would she ever be going back that way? There might be no need. Going this way was solely to check out a single possible location of the book she was so desperately seeking. Going back to the little base may never be required. She did like the captain there. He seemed very nice despite how he looked.

Traveler did not yet encounter any of the other sorts of things she was told did exist in the world. Dragons and yaks, bison, minotaurs and all manner of other things she’d never actually seen, they might all be dead. Perhaps far more good and bad. Did any of those things still wander the world unseen? It was possible she may never encounter any, or all of them. This was solely a thing luck would play a role in either way. It might be better not to run into anything else at all. Her adventures so far were rife with real danger and awful things happening.

These were not the adventures she once longed for. Not quite. How many more times might she escape death? The end of her life could very well come tomorrow, or this evening depending on what lay ahead. She was surprisingly okay with that. Already having been fully expecting to die more than once made it easier to accept it may happen. Previous experiences said it would be alright, but was this true? It was an uncertain quantity, merely tempered by the hope and expectation there might be something more. She decided to ask about this.

Walking down another bland hallway felt like as good a time as any.

“I know I haven’t really known any of you all that long really. Long enough that I hope it’s alright to ask this, and you don’t have to answer. I just..are you alright with dying, Gunnar?” Traveler asked cautiously, not knowing what to expect of his reaction to such a question. Now that she said it it felt kind of overly personal. How would he react to being asked something so deeply a part of oneself?

“Right to the point, huh? I respect that so I will answer you truthfully. I am absolutely scared out of my head to die.” He turned to look directly at her. He was scared of it? He’d never so much as flinched before, scared of dying? How could that be? Him, scared?

“I can tell you find this surprising, and I guess I can understand why. I have been in battle so many times before. You get used to things going wrong. Even accept you can die badly. We all will die eventually. Someday. Somehow. It still scares me.” He paused a second.

“I have just lived my life mostly the way I wanted to. Sometimes that didn’t always work out, but it was mine and I actually enjoyed a lot of that. Some of the bad parts too. I think enjoying what you like is really important. What point is there in worrying about dying when it is definitely going to happen anyway? There is no way to stop that so why waste time worrying about it?” Gunnar must have thought about this a lot more than any of them were expecting. The siblings looked a bit stunned themselves at this revelation about him.

“I could never imagine a tough guy like you being scared. I don’t know what to say.” Tisket chimed in. It was quite a shock to them all really. Not at all what Traveler was imagining he might say before asking. What was she really expecting of asking this anyway?

“Thank you for telling all this. I just wanted to know if someone else got scared about it. I think I am. I think I’m okay about it but it still frightens me. Makes me feel a bit silly I guess. If it’s alright why am I scared? I don’t know.” Traveler couldn’t think of much else to say towards it.

“Well, we don’t exactly live in a safe place. All we can do is go on with our lives, right?” Tasket quietly mentioned. This question seemed to have hit her a little hard.

“Is it okay I asked you this? I didn’t want to intrude or anything.” Traveler was still so unsure about how such things were between other ponies and conducted.

“Don’t worry about it. It’s something I will be facing soon enough I suppose. So, I best not hide it from myself.” Gunnar looked deep in thought as they walked on after that.

Signs along the halls stated this was level 6. Did this place go on forever down into the ground? They could not continue to explore it for eternity. At least there was no danger of running out of water here. For some inexplicable reason on every level were sinks.

“How far do you really want to go? I am very curious about it all myself now, and it’s nice to be all cozy here. Something is just the slightest bit wrong. Everywhere we go it feels that bit more difficult to get back out of.” The heavy old griffon was right on about that oddness.

“If it starts getting dangerous or taking too long we will head back out. I kind of like it here, feels safe somehow. I know it probably isn’t. Let’s just look a bit more, alright?” Traveler found she very much wanted to know what this place really was for. There must be something. What if there was nothing? Nothing at all in a place like this? What was the chance of that? It could not be like that? The siblings did not seem to care either way so long as Gunnar agreed. He just nodded and moved ahead. This place was so dead, yet felt so lively somehow.

What was it that made such a feeling assert itself? Nowhere she’d ever been except perhaps for home quite felt this way. Not that this felt anything like home. For such a long period they’d been mired in a feeling of incorrectness surrounding them. All felt it. This was different, better. It felt, normal. It was a disconcerting feeling in itself not having ever been really felt before. They all reached the same conclusion at the same instant. Safe and normal?

“This place, what is wrong with it? It feels a little..too safe here.” Gunnar commented.

“I was just gonna say something like that.” Tasket also looked wary. If this really was some kind of prison, why was every single door left wide open? The whole concept of the layout felt intended to keep things inside and became ever more difficult to backtrack from once entered despite all doors sitting inexplicably open.

“This whole place is like..dead. Or empty. There is a whole lot of nothing in here. Look at it, it’s as if no one was ever here to begin with. There is nothing.” Tisket said to no one really.

“This is the exact opposite of before, isn’t it? You feel it, right? All of you? It feels, welcoming. Inviting us in further and further. My gut keeps trying to say this is some kind of trap, but it feels so nice here.” Gunnar clawed at one of the side walls to mark it. That remark made each of them shiver. If the big guy was getting nervous there might be something to it.

“I believe you. It’s like this place goes on forever, but there is nothing in it. Maybe we should head back up to the showers at least.” Traveler pointed back the way they’d come.

It felt defeating. Was there really nothing here? Was there ever? Some strange quirk of fate or history left this place strangely barren. He seemed to notice her slight hesitance.

“Hold up, this is a decision for you. I am not telling you we have to turn back. This is a warning. We could be heading straight into something just terrible, but I stick by what I said before about you. If there is something bad down here, then you should confront it head on.” The griffon looked off resolutely down another hall. He looked quite regal despite being grizzled.

He was right about that. It was always her choice to investigate this place, and could be backed out of at any time if she felt it the right thing to do. Being in a place where she made decisions for others as well still felt awkward for Traveler. Home was so far away now. Where she never needed to make such weighty choices until the very day of being driven away.

“We will continue. We have lots of supplies and know the way back. If we need to we can run straight for the upper levels.” Traveler made her heavy choice. It weighed so much.

The decision made, they continued their careful exploration. Nothing of any real danger ever presented itself. For the moment this decision was not proving to be a bad one, merely one which consumed time. Lots of time. Of all things they finally happened upon a room with many beds, made up and looking like they were barely used. Amazing. This was a good place to rest after a long day wandering. The ever present lighting meant they only needed to stop for rest when it was greatly required. Though it was taking a long time, it was actually very rapid really.

Level 8 was marked on the wall. Finding stairs down to another level was always novel as it meant something new, or possibly new. The layout of the floors was increasingly complex. The open doors left in this position everywhere was getting creepy. One or two would make some sense, but nearly every single door was wide open. Was there some grand rush to leave this hole in the ground? Why? There were no clues, just the occasional swirling red lights. That always gave the impression that something was amiss, somewhere, but what?

Eight stories into the ground. Did it really just continue on below forever? Finding a bunkroom at least broke up the unusual monotony of this. It really was the opposite of before. Whereas it always felt dangerous surrounded by that strange fog, this always felt much too safe. They would use the room as a fallback point. Once they knew a rooms location and marked it the time to get back to it was cut in half. Traveler thought they could probably go back to the surface relatively quickly. They’d decided to close doors they thought were pointless left open.

This way when they did return it would be very obvious where to go asides their directional marks on the walls. Each level was found to have similar features such as a single closet with a broom and mop in it. This seemed practical, almost a little silly. This place was so clean and empty otherwise. Each floor did have more of those swirling red dangerous looking lights. It was understood by Traveler those meant danger somehow. Did even her father ever have an idea what this kind of place might be for or what purpose it might serve?

“I thought of something. What if all these doors are open because everybody left at the same time? That makes some sense, right?” Traveler surmised a little. The others looks at hearing this thought were rather a bit disheartening.

“Don’t like the sound of that. If everypony ran off there must have been a really good reason, right? They knew what they were doing?” Those two looked kind of spooked now. Was what she said that scary? Tanner was quiet so much of the time it surprised to hear him speak.

“Knew what they were doing? Hahahaha. What about anything left in this world says they knew anything like that?” It was jolting to hear him say such a thing and laugh so deeply about it. Something regarding that awful thought rang of truth in some way. Traveler came up with similar thoughts before but never quite put them into words, at least none said to another. Did they really know what they were doing? If they did, why were things so bad and awful now? If they knew how to make a wondrous place like this, how could it come to be like this?

“Gee, thanks for that, Tanner. Now I feel real good.” Tasket halted, telling them to stop.

“What is it, sis?” Tisket unslung his scoped rifle and looked down the hall ahead.

“I see a big door way down at the end, and something looks different about it. It’s painted red and there is a big black X marked across it..There..there is also a pony skeleton crushed in between under the door.” He reported to them. There was a what? If ponies died here then there really likely was a good reason it was abandoned. Traveler chose to go on ahead.

The suit displays finally showed a flicker of something hostile. A dim red bar directly ahead that vanished. Something bad was in there, separated by a door. The closer she got a very distant small clattering sound could be made out, like a rapping knock was banging off the walls behind. This door was closed in such a hurry it killed somepony? Was this worth pursuing further? Should they just turn around and leave this place which now felt far more intimidating and deadly? She steeled herself and strode towards the door. She was not alone.

There were friends behind that would stand firmly with her whatever choice was made now, she believed this. Turn back? No. Upon closer inspection she could see the poor pony themself closed the door by reaching at the controls. Whoever it was had been so desperate she or he killed themself trying to lock something within. Did a deadly thing await her once again somewhere behind this door? No point putting it off. She raised her armored hoof to the control panel and hit the open button. Bedlam awaited as the large door slid into the wall.

The poor crushed pony skeleton was at last freed from beneath the door as it scuttled up against the wall. The shattered bones were disturbing. Many more awaited within.

“I’m so sorry, whoever you were.” Traveler stepped past into a static scene of destruction. Overturned desks and all manner of other debris lay about. Whatever happened here was violent and deadly in the extreme. Here and there in offices and side areas were dead ponies, and others. Even a few griffon skeletons were within. This scene was sickening.

“Easy, now.” She told herself and moved in very slowly. This was not a battle, this was some kind of slaughter right here. There was dried blood everywhere. What happened? Traveler felt herself shivering in anticipation as she walked in. The contrast to the rest of this entirely sterile place was striking and jarring in the excess of extremes. It was so clean and unused everywhere else they explored so far, to walk into this was like being hit by a wall of fear made real. Taking a deep breath she moved forward, looking around slowly. Check everywhere.

This was a scene of horror unlike anything seen to date. Streaks of old blood were scattered here and there. What were they doing in this weird room? It looked like some horrible monster was set loose upon them. There was evidence of shots having been fired laying among skeletons of various sorts. Some she could not place. Larger than ponies or griffons, some did not even look quite right to her. That in itself was odd, yet this was the feeling. Shattered glass and smashed desks lay overturned throughout the place. A total mess.

What did all of this? The room was positively shattered in every conceivable way. It even appeared the huge door was dented outwards somewhat. What could possibly have hit a door so large this hard, and from the inside? The others were moving in behind, covering to the sides. Nothing was leaping out of the shadows to attack them. Only bones. This almost felt incorrect in view of the carnage this room presented. Sometime far back in the past there was a massive battle here they did not know the nature of. This was terrifying, exciting.

Exciting? She thought to herself. Was it really? This did look absolutely awful, but she still felt alright about this on some level. Why was that? Ah, that was it. Yes, a fight took place here, but it was waged with normal weapons. Not some insane whining spinning weapon that felt like death itself took flight. Only bullets. For lack of a better way to describe it Traveler thought this felt almost normal. Some of the formerly living griffons were clearly using knives or other completely mundane weaponry before they fell. Only one thing stood out.

All the bones were stripped so clean as to be whitened. That was rather unnerving.

“Whatever happened here these guys were fighting hard. Incredibly hard, I can tell. What I can’t tell is whether it was each other or something else, or what any of those things are. Never seen any bones like those before.” Gunnar waved a talon at the larger skeletons. Some unusual features about them almost seemed to suggest having several horns or walking in a very odd manner. This whole scene was enough to make anyone feel skittish and wary.

Inching their way forward for mutual protection the distinct impression was that whatever happened here was so long ago it might not matter at all. If anything was really locked in this place it would have died long ago wouldn’t it? Each came to this thought on their own. No. Wait.

“Hold it.” Traveler motioned for them to hold their position. There was another heavy door at the other end. The flickering fritzing lights here added an element of dangerous feeling. Finally having found these things of real interest she decided to continue moving forward.

“I’m going to open the next door. Watch yourselves.” Traveler said without realizing she’d been over time taking a slightly more authoritative approach. They’d been wandering this place for long enough without finding anything remotely interesting that this was a whole new and novel experience. As before, this door looked a bit damaged but so thick it really made no difference to the integrity of the whole. She pushed a hoof at the button and it whooshed open with a heavy clunking sound. Peering into the dimly lit area revealed the same carnage.

There were many more long since dead ponies and other skeletons strewn all over. This was crazy. So many were wearing ripped and torn clothing of various types. A great deal seemed to have been wearing some kind of blue and yellow coverall. Just as many previously wore white coats. None of them knew they would be called lab coats. All carried one distinct feature. Dried blood where their clothes were shredded or torn from them. Bullet casings positively littered the floor. She stepped into the room. This was in some way more organized.

Desks were overturned as makeshift barricades facing in one general direction. Over head a turret once pointing that way as well hung uselessly off a mass of wires and cabling with huge scrapes and gouges along the casing. It was scorched and black like it was burnt from inside. Some of the skeletons still wore destroyed patched types of light armor like they were desperately kept in workable condition much too long before dying where they lay.

“Traveler..” Tasket went to say but she held up a hoof. It was obvious.

“I know.” Traveler and the others noticed at the same time. These griffons and ponies of all sorts were definitely fighting something else in here. It was not obviously whatever the large beastly looking skeletons were or something else. They were not by any means huge, just a bit larger and definitely bulkier enough to notice. The pony that closed a door on themself before was clearly trying to keep something very dangerous inside and succeeded at the cost of their own life. What danger could have been so deadly it was worth killing themself?

What was worse, this door looked closed just as purposefully. Did everyone here sacrifice themself? So far there were no real clues to this perplexing puzzle. If something was truly enough of a threat to lock themselves inside with it rather than be out they should perhaps consider leaving. Right now.

“What do you think? We've come this far but now I wonder if we should close these doors and never look back.” Traveler asked. They all looked to each other.

The old griffon coughed. Was that an attention cough or a real one?

“Right when I’m starting to have a little fun?” The rest looked at him kind of agape. Fun?

“Don’t get me wrong. I see lot of my kind died here. I’d like to find out why. They all went down fighting, and that deserves to be honored.” He said matter-of-factly. Traveler wondered if she should refuse to continue, but she was the one that brought them down here to begin with. Would they think less of her is she opted to back out now? She didn’t try to find out.

“If you say so.” She replied. The decision was done, she moved in the direction the turret once pointed. Was this the right thing to do? He wasn’t insisting, but she did not want to do anything that might make them dislike her. This hall was not much different than the other halls in this place asides from the obvious battle damage. There were scorch and bullet marks all over the place. The turret when functional must have positively scoured this area with a large spread of bullets, but why? There was nothing laying where the bullets were fired at all angles.

If something absorbed that much firepower and still broke out of here it must be terrible indeed. Some awful thing happened here. That strange sort of distant rapping sound could still just be made out, like a dull thud that shuddered at a steady slow pace. It was growing louder in the direction the turret was once firing many years ago. What were they all trying to hold back? Even the bigger skeletons did not appear to have been some unstoppable force, almost just as many of them lay dead on the flooring. How many were there? Hundreds? Thousands?

The disturbingly white bones provided little clue. They must have been picked clean by something in here. Maybe just pests that eventually starved. Traveler turned to the others.

“Alright, but if we’re really going forward I think we should close these doors. Both of them. I think it’s pretty obvious by now they were trying to keep something from leaving. Okay?” She hoped that did not sound too presumptuous or stupid to them.

“I agree. Close it.” Gunnar was strangely quick to respond.

“But wait, what if the doors won’t open again!?” Tasket shot back. He looked her right in the eyes with a steeled gazed from which she nearly recoiled, but held her ground.

“It worked once. We all know there are enough horrible things out in the wasteland already. I am curious, not stupid. I won’t add to that even if it does mean I die in here instead of where I intend. I’m sure both the living and dead would forgive me for looking into this. Leave if you want and wait above for a few days at most.” The two siblings looked rather shocked.

“Give us three days. If we don’t come back by then tell him the full story. If I die by my own decision you are released from your contract and you get full pay. Cap will understand.” He explained and offered. The looked back and forth to each other for a moment, concerned.

“We..no. We won’t back out now. What do you think we are, cowardly?” Tisket and Tasket agreed to remain and closed the doors. They noted on this side of the door writ large were the words ‘Containment lab level 3’ Whatever that meant.

The swirling red lights still lent an air that things were not right in this place. They were not entirely aware these were emergency warning lights, never having encountered them before. Asides from the preponderance of skeletons belonging to possibly more than one unidentifiable race or entirely different species, in many cases they could not even tell bones apart as they were locked in such violent mortal combat and died atop each other in droves. Some were obviously ponies who wore some kind of off-white uniform. Now all bloodstained.

Upon some even still were barely legible name tags on the front. A few more wore long since ruined light to medium armor. The weapons strewn about were just as useless, damaged beyond any possibility of repair or salvage. Whatever happened here was violent as it could get. The evidence of battle was everywhere throughout the rooms on this floor. The pony at the outer door sacrificed themself to prevent whatever was in here from escaping. It appeared to have worked. Did the rest do the same or simply get caught up in the situation?

The scale of fighting here defied understanding. Looking at it instilled little as to the real size of it all. They could not believe their eyes walking past, careful not to unnecessarily disturb the dead. There were so many. There could be thousands upon thousands of skeletons here.

“This is sickening. So many dead. I have never seen such a thing in all my days.” The old griffon was definitely upset by this. There were a great many griffons along with the rest. He said they were known for being terrific fighters. If they fell in these kinds of numbers, it was bad.

Some terrific terror stalked these halls long ago, maybe still. This was not quite the sort of exploration Traveler anticipated, but it was certainly enough to get the heart racing. Each and every little shadow felt its own potential to spring at them any moment as if biding their time for the perfect opportunity to do so. Or maybe they would find nothing more. Would that be terribly disappointing? She wondered. Would it be better to find nothing at all? After it was said and done, some things might be better off not known to any, she considered.

As they hoofed and padded along these long abandoned depths left to the dead the worry and anticipation of a fight was certainly first and foremost on their minds. A vague dread tinged with excitement in the pit of the stomach. So far they found only the silence of this enormous grave. That was a problem in itself. Occasionally they did have to move bones or entire skeletons out of the way to pass through more doors or proceed ahead. One door was of particular concern where a dreadful firefight must have taken place, possibly lasting for days.

So much spent ammunition everywhere. This was approaching the level of absurdity usually reserved for some kind of joke. Whatever this joke might be did not seem to have a punchline discernible. It was ludicrous. The amount of death and destruction here was so far beyond reason all of them came to the conclusion it was absolutely ridiculous. There must be at least hundreds amongst the dead just right here, perhaps more. As before this place was labyrinthine. The same caution as before was used in marking a return path.

Not marking a clear way back would invite disaster. How did the former occupants ever find their way around this maze of doors, corridors, and hallways? That was a good question. Whatever the answer was would not be forthcoming. The dull thud grew heavier and louder, closer sounding now. They’d been exploring nearly six whole hours today to get here. The size of this place was as ridiculous as the rest of the situation. Sound echoed a lot and went very far.

“Hold up. We cannot go any further right now, we must rest.” Traveler halted.

Going into what might turn into a fight without resting now would just be asking for more trouble. It would not be very comfortable but at least the area in this room was thankfully clear of skeletons or anything untowards looking. Both ways in could easily be watched. Only one of them would have to stay up on watch at a time thanks to this. Moonlight was set to guard the opposing doorway as Tanner took the first. Gunnar looked very agitated, almost sickly.

“Hey, I think you need to relax big guy.” Traveler said to him, worried about the look.

“Yeah..yeah..I’m alright. Really. Thanks.” He said just a little more sharply than usual and went to lay down. That was a little odd to her.

“Are you sure? You don’t look so well.” She asked, really worried about him.

“I’m fine.” He sort of snapped a bit at her and closed his eyes. Whoa. Did she do something wrong? She only wanted to help. She’d never really had anyone do that towards her before. It kind of hurt. Was he just upset? That was maybe understandable given the situation.

Relax. Breathe. Traveler told herself. He is okay. They should all be upset seeing all this really. So many that died here it was almost impossible to really take it all in. She lay down as best could be managed on a floor. Rest was needed. Father said always ensure you get enough. She fell asleep rapidly. Warm here. So warm. It is so warm and comfy. She opened her eyes to see the sickeningly decaying form of her mother about to pounce. Not again.

Traveler jolted awake for real, somehow managing not to scream. Ugh. Why?

She did sleep quite well until that moment. What was that? This place must be getting to her more than expected or figured. Was nothing ever just normal? What was normal anyway? Was there a normal? The others were sitting around talking quietly. Moonlight still panned it’s head side to side slowly as usual. It became a routine sight so quickly that she almost forgot it was not a living thing, yet that odd friendly feeling it exuded was always there. It could not be alive in some way could it? What was she thinking? That was a truly silly thing to think, right?

Tanner noticed her waking and approached. Something seemed a bit out of place.

“Everything okay?” He was genuinely interested in her well-being. That felt so nice.

“I think so. Just this place I suppose.” She got on her hooves and shook off the leftover sleepiness. They’d brought only enough food and water with them to last a few days down here without coming across other supplies so would have to press on quickly and return above. The continual light thudding noise in the direction Moonlight observed was ever-present.

“Everybody ready to head on?” They were prepared as they would ever be to confront whatever awaited ahead. The old griffon looked a little shaken still. It was not a look that sat on him well. Should she ask? Make a decision mare, she scolded herself. Do it.

“Gunnar, you don’t look well and before you say anything, I mean it. You look really sick to me.” Traveler went straight to it. He almost looked like he puffed up a bit. Sorta funny. Almost.

“Alright, alright. So I don’t quite feel at my best, I am fine.” He answered firmly.

Traveler knew it. He hadn’t looked or sounded quite right for a while now and last night proved it when he snapped. He never really did before. Why didn’t he say something sooner? Her father once mentioned a problem with exactly this kind of situation. She felt compelled to mention it. He was definitely fairly ill. That could prove a disadvantage or dangerous.

“I know you know better than this. You should have told us. We could be facing who knows what in here and you not being at full strength could be a problem.” Traveler said sternly.

To her and the others surprise that actually elicited a hearty laugh out of the old fellow. Huh? He took stock of them all gazing at him in wonderment and explained himself.

“For someone so young you sound just like the captain. I like that. Yes, I admit it. This was quite stupid of me. I apologize, and I mean it. I was just so eager to find out. I will inform you of anything going forward from now on. All of you.” That was almost shockingly easy to get out of him. It almost felt too easy really, but he sounded sincere. Why wouldn’t he be?

“O..okay. I didn’t mean that to sound like an accusation if it did. I only want us all to be in good shape if we need to fight.” Traveler only intended to find out if he wasn’t feeling too well. That was quite a bit more than she was after. He lifted a talon and pointed at her in an apparently conciliatory manner and chuckled quietly. He really was an odd one, to her at least. Each readied their weapons as she slipped back into her stealth suit. It was so familiar by now. Familiar to the point of nearly feeling like it was closing in too tightly. Wait, what?

What was she thinking? Too tight? This thing practically felt built for her. That was a very strange thought. Where did it even come from? There was absolutely nothing wrong being in this suit so why did she have to remind herself it was comfortable? The unusual sensation passed over such a random thought. They began searching for the source of the thudding sound. It proved elusive for a while. It definitely emanated from somewhere in this direction. Rows of equipment none could guess the function of were all over the place, mostly destroyed.

Battle must have engulfed everywhere on this level. What were they fighting?

“Guys, I just realized something I really do not like.” Tasket spoke quietly as they shuffled through the myriad doors in this labyrinth of a place.

“That I’m actually super handsome?” Tisket made a snrking sound. Tasket sighed.

“Did any of you notice that the big skeletons in that first room were fighting with everypony else, but the ones on this side of the big door weren't?” Tasket sounded grave.

“What do you mean?” Gunnar was quick to ask.

“Whatever they were, on this side of the door they were all facing the same direction as the ponies and griffons like they were fighting together. That doesn’t make any sense if they were all trying to kill each other does it?” The group stopped and looked at her.

“What?” She kind of shrugged at them.

“Why did you have to realize this now? Great. Sounds worse.” Tanner interjected.

“This is more and more weird the more we see. I can’t get a read on things. There aren’t any hostile marks now, but I’m not even certain my armor is really working properly either.” That was an admission Traveler was a little reluctant to make before, but since the griffon was being so forthcoming she figured it would be wise to do the same.

“What? And you brought us all down here?” Tanner verbally jabbed. That hurt.

“It’s not..not working, it just isn’t tell me anything useful.” She replied.

“Oh. Don’t go scaring me like that. What I mean is..uh, gee that thudding noise is annoying.” What was he about to say? That really was getting annoying now. It was also very close. She waved them all forward to follow into the next room where they came upon something most distressing. A circulating fan above was swinging something about on a line caught within. The bloodied corpse of a griffon tangled in the line with a heavy metal object wrapped about the poor things legs which continually smacked a wall hard each time around.

Gunnar let out a sound Traveler could only describe to herself as a shrill cooing squeak of surprise and disgust. He managed to look even more ill than before.

“Get him down from there!” Gunnar motioned to her. Traveler reached up with both forelegs and caught the object mid-spin which yanked her forward into the other wall with a clank but did succeed in pulling the body free to land on the floor. Ugh. Sickening.

“This is no skeleton. He’s been dead a long time, but not that long.” Tasket observed.

“We might not be the only living things here after all. Take a better look at him. He has caps that fell out of his barding, what’s left of it. He is definitely from the wastes like us, but how did he get down here?” Tisket gathered up the caps he saw scatter when the body fell.

“He must be from another mercenary talon. Most likely a scavenging party on contract, they would never risk pushing into a place like this. Not without support and a huge bonus waiting anyway.” A troubled expression on Gunnar portrayed this was a big issue.

“Well that does bring up another question. No way he could have got past those turrets is there? We saw no other signs of life on our way down. I could be wrong, but there might be another way into this place.” Traveler only guessed. The poor griffon at last lay still now. How did he get tangled in something like that? It may have been done to him on purpose. That would lend itself to someone or something else being down here.

“He’s still been dead for a long time, I wonder what happened?” Tanner mentioned.

Looking about the room nothing else garnered any attention . The metal object and heavy cable line were nothing special. It was only a heavy metal cube. If it ever served any actual purpose there was no remaining clue what that might have been, if anything.

“Gunnar, I’m sorry to say this but we need to leave this room now. I can hardly breathe in here.” Tasket was right. A dead body was rather unpleasant to begin with and this room was filled with the stench of death. The general scent throughout the base was unpleasant enough.

“One more thing.. His barding has been chewed on..see it?” They all sort of gasped to realize Gunnar was correct about this. What looked like bite marks were all over it.

“Are you saying something is here that can bite right through armor like nothing!?” It was Tisket’s turn to sound unnerved by this place. The heavy griffon just nodded and walked forward out into the next hallway and turned to look back, quite a sad expression crossed him.

“I suggest we keep moving. There is nothing we can do for him.” He beckoned.

“Don’t you want to bury him too or something?” Tasket questioned this.

“I don’t know him, what he did, whether he was honorable or a great fighter or anything else. Besides, this is one huge grave already. We can’t possibly drag him all the way out of here now can we?” He was correct. No means was brought of conveying a body that would not be completely unpleasant.

“There is also the more pressing matter of what might be in here.” He walked on.

The group followed a bit sullenly behind him after that. Traveler was truly starting to have terrible misgivings about this course of action. Worse and worse.

“Gunnar, listen. I know you want to find out what happened here and don’t want to hear this, but we should turn tail and leave. Right now. This is us looking for a fight we don’t need to have and there’s more than enough of those. We should go and bury this whole place immediately.” As she said this he shook his head and looked at her directly.

“We cannot do that.” What did he mean by that? She felt a little confused. Guessing she was about to ask he explained. He really looked poorly now. Was he really alright?

“You said it yourself, there has to be another way into this place. If you’re serious about burying all of this then we need to find out where that is. We will never find it from outside. We almost passed right by that huge entrance and would never have known if not for the guns.” Traveler felt a bit dumb hearing this. Of course he was right. She did say it herself.

If she could have put her hoof to her face at that moment she would have. If there was another way in, it was also a way out. A way out for whatever it might be that did this.

“If we can, we need to find and destroy whatever caused all of this. If it is still here it must be stopped now. Something causing this amount of death cannot be allowed outside. We need to be sure. There are horrors out there bad enough already. We must..must.. stop it.” Gunnar took a deep breath and suddenly stumbled several steps into a wall quite hard.

“Gunnar!” Tasket reached him first and held him up gently.

“What..It feels like you’re on fire! You are burning up. You old bird, you’re in much worse shape than you said.” She admonished him. He wheezed and coughed heavily as he stepped sideways to lean and gasping more and more as his eyes fluttered.

“N..no. Something..wrong with me.” He was sounding awful and looked off-balance quite rapidly. He slowly slid himself down against the wall to the floor.

“Too..quick. Nobody gets sick this fast except from..rad exposure...or..poison.” He managed to gasp out. His breathing was labored and harsh sounding. The suit did not indicate anything wrong here in either of those ways. This was much too rapid.

“You can let go of me, I’m okay.” The wheezing griffon sat leaning against the hallway wall. His eyes were watering very badly.

“Hate to break it to you, but you are most certainly not okay!” Tisket insisted he relax.

A hostile mark flickered through the display once more only to vanish again.

“What’s wrong with him? He’s looking worse and worse.” Tanner could see everyone was getting scared. Keep them calm. Never panic. That’s what he said to do.

“We are not alone here. I saw something hostile just for an instant. We should get him out of here. We need to get moving. Now.” Traveler got the others to drape him over her armor against his protestations to carry him. It didn’t matter as he was falling unconscious.

“You are..one heavy griffon.” Tasket grunted as they heaved him atop.

“Back the way we came, quietly as we can. Tanner, watch our tails.” The siblings walked alongside keeping him balanced atop her suit while Tanner kept an eye out behind. The hostile mark flickered past again, directly back the way they’d been heading. Traveler found herself wondering why only Gunnar was sick as a disturbing thought struck her. Could it be because he was a griffon and they weren't? This could have terrible implications if that somehow proved true. Was something in this place that only made griffons sick? Something more was wrong.

“This isn’t right. This is the wrong way. We've already walked through here.” This looked like the same area they just left only moments ago.

“That’s impossible. We only marked one way, remember?” Tasket pointed at the marks they’d scratched on doors and walls.

“No no no no…” Tisket was repeating.

“What, what is it?” Tanner looked around to spot it.

“This IS the same hall, how did we get back here again?” Traveler was beginning to feel truly unnerved. They were so careful to mark the path back, what was this?

“Guys..look.” Tanner pointed a hoof along the wall at what appeared to be identical marks to what they’d been using. Lots and lots of them. What? How?

“That can’t be. We only made one set of marks.” This was disturbing and puzzling.

“Let’s not panic. My suit still shows the right way out.” She assured them.

What she did not tell was that it could only ever point one way and not give a real sense of their surroundings. That was something they would now have to contend with themselves. Telling herself she was becoming too reliant on this suit felt pretty bad, but was that really such a bad thing? She told herself it was just what was necessary right now, but somehow that did not feel quite right. The others looked a little less concerned at least, she must do her best to keep their confidence up for the moment. Panic was never good to allow upon oneself.

“Okay, we just made a wrong turn somehow is all. No big deal. Just back the way we came and I will keep my eyes glued on the direction this time.” They began this curious retreading of their previous path over again only to find something more problematic. The hostile red marker was now in front of them again. Whatever it was moved around fast.

“Eyes open, enemy near again somewhere.” She did not want to be shot at or engaged while carrying the extremely sick griffon. He would make a very easy target atop her as it was.

Something about the hostile marker was wrong. It was shown as an unusual streak of a long solid line while something snaked past at the distant end of the corridor they were now walking along. Not good. What did that mean? Serious trouble was descending upon them.

“I saw something go by. It was right up there. It was..big. Really really big.” Tisket was looking through his scope, but whatever it might be was already out of sight. Was something that huge and smart enough to mess with their marked path back really down here?

Gunnar sort of cough-chirped weirdly and heavily, but was still unconscious. Was that some kind of reflex? In any other circumstance it might have sounded cute. Now something like that could attract unwanted attention. This was not an anticipated situation at all.

“Turn back. Turn back, we can’t go that way. Whatever it is stopped over there.” Being able to tell the things relative position was a little helpful, but it was now barring their way back. Was this planned or just random? No way to tell right now. What could it be?

It was not moving as they retreated back the way they’d come again. Now back in the hall where they stopped for the third time. The hostile marker remained there.

“I don’t think we have a choice. We have to go further inside.” Traveler said quietly.

“What!?” They all shushed Tanner as he exclaimed a little too loudly.

“We do not have the firepower for...for whatever that thing is. We just don’t. I don’t know if anypony does.” Traveler was now feeling terribly responsible over coming in here.

She felt this her fault for not insisting on leaving originally. Against her own better judgment she’d deferred to the griffon and his wants, now they might very well all die here. Alone in this forgotten place full of nothing but death. No. Stop thinking that way. She gave herself a scolding once more internally. Already lived through very bad things, get going already.

“We move on. It is behind us and not going anywhere. If there is another way out somewhere, we must find it quickly.” They all followed, trying to keep quiet as was possible.

After what felt to be interminable hours wandering these lonely halls with only the echoes of fallen as their surroundings, it was nice to find a spot that did not seem as damaged. It was not bereft of the dead. Still no way out was located and they needed to stop. There was no choice. Whatever caused such grand scale of madness to engulf the whole of this lost citadel of old ponies might and knowledge felt so unknowable as to have been alien even to those mighty heralds of old days gone by so long ago. Gunnar was still out cold. Very bad.

“Gunnar, please wake up old guy. Please..we need you.” Tasket was lightly shaking him trying to rouse but he was simply not coming out of it. She shook her head lightly. It was no use. She poured some water from one of the bottles on a cloth piece and draped it over his head softly. He was still so hot to the touch. Almost painfully so. That was not right in any way.

“He is so hot. I hope he’s not like..dying.” Tasket was extremely worried over him. None of them said that so far but were thinking it for certain. They were all worn feeling by now.

“What if there is no other way out and we are just hopelessly lost in this place?” Tisket said fairly quiet and strained sounding. The stress was getting to everyone.

“We aren’t lost. We will find it. I just know it.” Traveler said. She’d left Moonlight on guard facing the direction they’d come from. These rooms were different in some slight but noticeable ways. They were more orderly in appearance, there was even a working terminal in the corner which proved of no real use. It only sat there displaying ‘Disconnected’. What did that mean?

They each tried pressing buttons on the thing but it resulted only in clicking and a light humming sound in response. It looked interesting, but yielded no information of any help. Traveler knew a terminal could prove useful, or even dangerous depending on the circumstances. She’d been told about some of them a lifetime ago. Did it really feel so long already? It did. She sat reflecting on their predicament. Was anyone really at fault here? She’d come into this place out of curiosity, and the others followed. They did not have to accompany.

Would it have been better to have ignored this ancient place ponies and others once roamed? What even was this place in truth? Magnificent might know, but he’d definitely never mentioned this one in particular. Finding herself wishing he was here more than ever. Her father was there saying sweetheart this won’t do. Stop moping and pull yourself together. We need your help. Huh? Snapping awake to realize she’d dozed off for some time while staring at the wall she stretched and looked around. Tasket was the one on watch right at this moment.

That dream again, kind of, but not like the last couple times. He looked as he ever did in that imposing cloak forever hiding his wings. It was such a shame he barely ever got to use them. On the ground it was generally not wise to reveal oneself as a pegasus in this world. Her thoughts drifted over many such things until falling to sleep proper. The rest was much needed. When they got up again she would still have to carry the griffon. That could become a problem.

It was best the others not waste their strength lugging him along. It was no real strain on the suit. It could handle much more than this, but did put more weight on the backend of the thing. That leg joint was so much worse than when she started out months before. Did even her father ever imagine she would be delving into a place like this? He’d some notion of looking for the book but felt it could be done with far less risk than this entailed. No, he would not have come down here, she concluded. This might have been a huge mistake.

What was that enormous thing they barely avoided earlier? Running into something so large was just not anything that could be planned for. Did it mess with their path markings or was somebody else here as well? This felt dreadful and dangerous now. Anything that big could destroy her suit easily. Was the old griffon dying? She didn’t know much about illness. Getting sick was very often fatal in the wastes. That much was understood. The weak fell quickly. Carrying him around probably wasn’t good either, but there was no choice.

“This all looks a lot different. Maybe we’re making some headway. Everything here looks..brighter? Shinier anyway.” They were moving once more, approaching an unusual raised platform in a wide open room with terminals absolutely lining the walls and strange vats of unusual looking liquids on the walls, almost all of them were shattered. This looked interesting for a change. Most of the terminals were locked or dead. Some were displaying what were merely arcane symbols that could not be understood. One thing truly stood out.

A unicorn skeleton lay aside one of the terminals with ancient dried blood spattered all down the side of it. This terminal proved to be unlocked and readable. Only one thing was offered to select on the screen reading ‘Science lead, containment lab final report’. Laying the still huffing griffon aside, Traveler with some trepidation pressed the button whereupon a terrifying portrayal of events here scrolled up. Some information about genetics and other things none of them understood were being shown, an audio log began playing:

[I pray none ever find this log. If somepony has, forgive me. For my own gratification I set events in motion that were ill-considered. I have let my rivalry with Dr. I doom us all. He became so condescending towards me, he and everypony else were always questioning my intelligence. It was insufferable and infuriating. I was only seeking to make our descendants stronger. They did not understand, and I did not make us stronger. Instead in my own insanity I became so enraged as to set my experiments loose upon everybody. It was a grave error.

The destruction I wrought in those few moments falls too heavily on my heart. The implants let me order my creations to help fight against him..it. There are over ten thousand residents here, and we are all dead. What I did not anticipate was my most ardent rival doing the same as I. He went so much further. The griffons were hardest hit. What has he done to them and himself? He is something else now. An unstoppable monster that I helped create. Those still of sound mind are together now. It cannot fit in the emergency elevator behind me.

Now it searches for a way out. We put to a vote and the vast majority have proven more brave than I ever imagined. Any that would escape already have, if there is even anything left above us. We have managed to secure the containment doors against him but are almost spent defending it. The creature he has become still possesses some level of intellect and understanding. It cannot be reasoned with. The hunger is too great. I knew he was becoming truly mad, but what he has unleashed goes far beyond anything I ever attempted.

Somepony amongst the scientific staff was quick and clever enough to initiate containment protocol, rendering lab badges useless on this side of the door. At least now he cannot open any doors freely either. What did I do? I have killed us all for my own edification. I never thought he would do something like this. I highly regret that I never told him how I always envied his intelligence and felt dwarfed in his presence. Only his own worsening attitude prevented him being stationed above me in this very lab. Too late.

I acted too late. The security detail has fought with everything they have. Because of what happened initially they were heavily skeptical of fighting alongside my creations. There is no time to mature them further. Their minds changed quickly when they saw it. Even my experiments stand little chance. All of the griffons here are falling sick, worsening our chances of survival. Before he was transmogrified into something so grotesque somehow he pumped an infectious agent into the air circulating systems which has proven impossible to scrub.

It only appears to affect griffons in this way. I have hurriedly created a temporary defense. It is not a cure, for the ones that are dying right now there is nothing to be done. I could not synthesize enough of the counteractive agent for so many. The choice was made to give it only to the still healthy soldiers. Everyone understood the necessity of this. Even so, they have all fallen protecting this laboratory in some vain hope that I might find a way to stop him. The shooting is slowing outside. We have been fighting for years. I didn’t count. So many dead.

I was pretty clever about it, one need only ingest the contents soon enough to offer protection, for a time. Sadly there is only one phial of the counteragent remaining in the locker to my left, but it does not matter. There is no one left to administer it to. It is irrelevant, my own end draws near. If you are hearing my voice now, I got only what I deserved. Hello, doctor..I know you are there in the shadows you have become so adept at hiding in. Get on with it, my friend.] A skittering eerie heavy sound approached in the recording which cut off with a click. Friend?

“Well that was disturbing. Can we please find a way out of here now?” Tanner almost made Traveler jump when he said it. Need to calm down after hearing that horror story.

“Uh, wait what did he say, something for griffons to drink in a locker..uh, there.” She saw it. Over on the far left was a closed glass door and shelf with a phial filled with a blue looking liquid. It would almost look pretty in a less dangerous situation. Fortunately it was not locked. Tasket went about pouring the contents down the fading griffons throat. Maybe it would help.

“I hope we didn’t just kill him..he didn’t even wake up.” Tasket said grimly. Couldn’t worry about that right now. Gunnar looked truly terrible, but still breathing. Maybe they found this stuff in time. They could only wait for time to pass in regards to him. Getting out of here was now more important than ever. The story told about the former pony wandering these long lost halls scared them all on some deep-seated level. What really happened to this Doctor I? What a strange name that was. An elevator was indeed just ahead. Only one problem.

The damage done in this room was very random. At some point the elevator controls were dented inwards heavily. Could they still be worked? If fortune smiled on them it would simply come down and free them from this maze of terror. Was this how that other griffon got in here originally? That did not really make sense either. Not with the controls smashed as they were. Not something to dwell on at this moment. Traveler played at the controls gently. They lit up but did nothing. Not good. Not good at all. The need to leave was overwhelming.

“Tasket, do you think you could very very lightly get that button crushed in there back out? I don’t want to break this further but it can’t be pushed stuck in there like that.” She asked if Tasket might levitate it out of there. That could be tricky without breaking it fully.

“I..don’t know. I don’t have very fine control over something like that. Not my usual thing. I can try.” Traveler nodded. Any chance to get out of this endless dead place must be taken now. They all looked on, worried as her horn lit up, face contorted in concentration.

A strained creaking sound added a further worry as she tried to manipulate the panel just to gently slip forward without damaging it more. With a sort of light ping sound it crunched and came free just enough. Whew. Would it work now? Only one way to find out. Tasket softly hoofed the up arrow button and with tremendous relief a whirring sound was heard distantly. No, Wait. this is no good. No. Too loud. It was making much too much noise.

“Oh, that thing might hear this noise. Bad bad bad..hurry up.” Tisket said.

The elevator approaching from above was terrifically loud. The age of the unseen machinery driving it and decade after decade of disuse made it a surprise to be in working condition in any way. This tenuous connection to the world above might be their only means of escape now. The huge creature still living here must be what stripped all the bones completely clean, Traveler realized just now. The ten thousand dead must have provided it more than enough meals to survive all this time. It must have picked almost every last one clean by now.

“The thing we saw must be what became of this doctor. It must have gone after what was left of the griffon we found. It probably won’t be occupied too long. Come on, come on..” Traveler said as the entire group stood waiting. Finally the doors ground open a little too loudly. They shoved Gunnar inside, piling in. The controls in here looked dirty and tremendously old but in far better shape. Tanner hit the button, nothing happened. He pushed the button again and once more. The doors were not closing. Was this old thing too damaged to make one final trip?

“Oh please, don’t stop working. Just go up one last time..please?” Speaking to machines again. Traveler mashed the button several more times when much to their great relief the doors slid closed just as some huge barely seen monstrosity darted into the lab, crashing into the just closed doors denting them inwards making everyone press into the back of the elevator car.

“Was it, talking? I thought I heard it say something.” Tisket sounded horrified.

“Who cares!? All that matters is we’re going up.” Tanner responded.

“That was way too close. I’m so sorry I lead you guys in there. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Traveler sounded rather dejected as the elevator rose. It was grinding badly.

“Whoa whoa. We chose to follow. Don’t worry about it. Besides, it doesn’t get much more exciting than that. Without dying anyway. That was fun!” Tasket sounded oddly enthused about the whole thing? She called that fun? Traveler was somewhat taken aback at their attitude about it. She found that exciting? This was more than a little confusing feeling to her. How strange.

“I wonder where this comes out. It’s taking an awfully long time.” Tanner was right about that, but they were quite a long way underground. Sighing in relief they waited on reaching the surface. Traveler thought she might need to ask about their definition of fun later on.

“I’ve never been in one of these before. Does this feel kind of sickening to you too?” Traveler asked. They all nodded. None of them were ever in a working elevator previously. At last the rattle of the machinery began slowing. They must be nearing the top. Hopefully.

The ancient elevator limped and stuttered upwards to a concerning shuddering stop when the doors at last heaved themselves open, sending sparks off the tracks they slid on. They found themselves in the first floor room where the spidery mechanical arms were still going about doing whatever they did. This elevator was was obscured from view.

“We need to get him out of this place, something in the air is what’s making him sick.” Traveler got them moving quickly. Gunnar needed to be outside away from this place.

After moving far out of the turrets range and back towards the previous path they’d been following, Traveler went back to retrieve her cart. It was still just inside. It felt a bit fearful to walk back into that place, but the thing was safely confined far below where it would likely soon starve to death. Something about that felt terrible. It was a pony, once. Did he at one time have other friends, family? Did he really do something like that to himself? What could possibly have made anyone that miserable they would rather turn themself into some kind of monster?

Unusually she noticed the tertiary tag showing in her display. What was this? A sort of light glow highlighted a panel to the left of the huge doors which she pulled open to reveal something marked in her vision as ‘Array Component’. How’d she miss that earlier? Oh well.

“Ooh. I remember now, this was on the board. I forgot about it. Better take it along, just in case.” At least there was one good thing to come out of this misadventure. Nearly nothing else was gained during this, save for misery and a few caps. So little did not make up for it.

“Everything about everything hurts. Why does everything hurt so much and feel so miserable? This can’t be right.” She bemoaned the situation while going back up the path. It felt so wrong. Two former friends somehow wound up becoming so angry with one another they set off a ludicrous battle that killed so many? How could just two cause so much pain to everyone else around them? It hurt her head to think about. The ponies of the old world knew incredibly much, but maybe they weren't so wise after all. What would Down Range say about this?

Even if unintentional, it was terrible what they did. Thousands upon thousands died for no good reason in that lost place. Now it was known for certain there was only one real entrance. After pulling the cart back, she made up her mind about what to do. The heavily muscled griffon was looking a little better, but still unconscious. Best just let him rest for the moment. That sounded so much better, less ragged.

“It must die down there. I hate to do this, but I’m going to bury it all.” She said tersely.

“Wait wait. It is imprisoned anyway, right? What about the water this place can provide? Fresh water isn’t exactly easy to come by at times.” Tasket pointed out.

“She makes a valid point you know.” Tanner took her side for a change.

“It’s too much of a risk, and just look what happened to him.” Pointing at the griffon drove her side of the matter home. He was looking better and better. The stuff must have worked. Why did things from back then last so long anyway? Each shook their heads. She was right.

“I don’t know how this works, or if griffons could ever safely go in there. It’s not worth it.” Traveler made up her mind this must be done.

“How do you plan on doing that? We don’t have an explosive that large.” Tisket pointed out their few grenades weren't enough. That would have been a problem at one time.

“But we do. Tanner, you still have it.” She said as the siblings looked quizzically.

“Oh, right.” He rummaged around in that ever-present carry sack of his.

How did he ever find anything in there? Tanner pulled out the sound agitation grenade she’d given him a long while ago. It was a positively wicked looking device.

“What in the world is that thing? It looks kind of like a grenade.” Tisket asked about it just as the large griffon gasped deeply and opened his eyes, making them all jolt.

“Sheesh, Gunnar! Thanks for the heart attack.” Tanner gave the grenade over to her. It was a bit larger than a normal sort.

“Ouch. Why does my back hurt so much? What happened? We’re outside? What is this awful taste?” He groaned and spit but was looking much stronger already as well. Whew.

“Take it easy and slow. It’s a long story, we can talk about it later, but first I have to use this.” She said as his eyes widened just a touch at seeing the unusual looking grenade. He got up and stretched then leaned in close.

“Well that looks interesting, what have you got there?” He was definitely better.

“A sound agitation grenade. Stay right here to be safe. All of you.” Traveler ordered. She went and carefully decided on a spot to maximize the special grenades effect, thinking about where precisely it might send as much tumbling down as possible. Looking about she came to the conclusion sending the face of the huge wall down on top of itself and the door would probably be the best course of action. Never having used this type of weapon the task was approached with due caution. She readied herself to set it off.

Gingerly placing it atop the drop above the doors and between the strangely endlessly firing turrets. They must have been shooting randomly that way for a very long time, but why? The powerful guns may still not have been enough to stop that monster anyway. This felt terrible, but must be done. Tugging the pin out her display showed 5 seconds before it went off. She turned and ran back to her companions. A few seconds later the strangest sound was heard followed by millions of tonnes debris hurtling down, the large turrets along with it all.

“Yow. You had a weapon like that this entire time? Why didn’t you use it down there?” Tasket looked shocked and amazed. What a boom it made. Traveler shook her head.

“I was told never to use it inside anywhere. Something about amplification in a confined space? It could have killed us all along with it. Look what it did out here..” She finished explaining. That was a pretty good point. The billowing puffs of dust clouds drove it home.

“Oh, I see. Made a nice blast anyway.” At least there was a good reason for not using it.

“Ohh my head. Alright, now how long have I been out of it?” Gunnar spat again and asked, gingerly rubbing his head. He was beginning to get his bearings back properly.

“You were unconscious nearly two days and almost died because of an illness a doctor from the old world created.” He looked completely shocked hearing both of these things.

“Why would anyone create an illness? So vile. That is disgusting behavior.” Gunnar was quite sickened by the very idea. It was not in any way honorable to do such a thing.

He felt the same way about poison. If you were going to fight you should just fight. A cowards method was all he could feel about it. It was quite angering to the muscular griffon.

Traveler offered to let him listen to the log which her suit copied when it was played. Gunnar listened intently, looking totally nonplussed. It ended on that terrible sound.

“Well, they are all gone. Hopefully whatever is left of the doctor perishes quickly, locked down there. From that and what you’ve told me, everyone there put up a grand fight.” He said.

“A fight to the end, not a bad way to go out. It is unfortunate to have been against such a dishonorable enemy. My apologies I was knocked out of the fight.” He really didn’t need to apologize for that. It was unbecoming for a griffon to leave a fight once started.

“It is in no way your fault, there was no way to know any of that would happen.” Tisket then suggested they take a break for a while. Everyone was all for that.

“I do wonder something though. What really was that place?” Traveler pondered.

It was quite strange. The upper levels were so barren and unusually arranged. Hardly having seemed lived in at all. Why were all the doors on those levels wide open?

“It is gone, that is the only thing that matters now. Hopefully it remains buried forever.” Gunnar was particularly thirsty, but could be forgiven for drinking a lot after that. He hadn’t drank anything in almost two days due to being unconscious except a terrible tasting medicine of some sort. He’d come dangerously close to expiring. It might have been too late for it.

“Do you, feel okay now? The log said if you didn’t get that stuff soon enough you would really have died.” Tasket was rather worried about what was said.

“I think I’m okay. Actually I think I feel a bit stronger than before? A little weird. I believe I should also say I’m sorry. I was a bit harsh on you back there at the door.” That was not something any of the rest expected to hear from him. Especially Tasket.

“Don’t worry about it.” She replied. They were following him after all, wherever he went.

The group settled into a bit of an uneasy rest for a while.

“Gunnar?” Traveler approached him a few hours later looking a bit quizzical.

“I’m fine, really.” He spoke but she hadn’t said anything yet.

“It’s not that..I want to ask you something. That log made it sound like those two ponies used to be friends. I thought..friends didn’t hurt each other?” That question seemed to sting him for some reason as he looked down a moment before replying.

“I don’t know much about that kind of thing. Everyone I knew before I was left to fend for myself died, the last ones really badly. They were fearless fighters as they should have been, but they all died. I have no friends.” He didn’t? That did not sit right with her.

“I don’t mean to intrude, but what about the captain or them, aren’t you friends with someone? Anyone?” That was quite strange of him, she thought, or was it really?

“Don’t get me wrong, they have earned my respect, and you too.” He sighed a little.

“Friends I do not know, and no one has ever really known me, not really. After losing so many in battle I have never felt a need for any. No, friends or family are not for me. I don’t have to care about or provide anything for anyone but me.” Traveler was a bit dismayed hearing this. That sounded very self-centered. Not something she ever expected to hear him say.

“What about your mother, your father?” The moment it was said Traveler became worried she was pressing too hard or on a subject he might respond badly to.

“I never knew them. They died before I even saw one of them.” He didn’t look too upset about this line of questioning or anything. Was he really so much different than her? This was technically the third person she’d met who didn’t know or lost their parents. This was something else though, he never knew any at all. Maybe it made sense for him not to care about them.

“If you don’t mind me asking, who took care of you then?” Since this banter appeared friendly enough she wanted to know more, the others were talking elsewhere anyway.

“Losing someone when you have very few left already is a bad situation for anybody. The talon I was with raised me, fed me, taught me to fight. They were already dwindling in numbers before I came along. I was just added to that number, nothing more. All I’d ever known is a constant struggle to survive, all everyone knows. I can see in what you are doing a very small chance to change that for others. If you might really change the world, maybe it will spare them more of the same. I know I’m tired of it.” She sat as if spellbound by all of this.

“I was taken care of only to where I could make my own decisions. At some point I finally woke up to the fact that we weren't actually living, only dying. I tried to convince them to try something different, but living that way was all they’d ever known and then they all died. I do owe my life and having made it this far to them, so I choose to honor them, doing the one thing most of them never got to do. The only real goal we were ever given.” Traveler found all this quite sad and painful to hear in some way. He was really talking quite loosely for a change.

Maybe telling all this was some kind of relief for him. It was a lot to take in. Why was he being so open about things like this now? She’d only really known him to be stern and a bit quiet on most matters. Was he acting this way because of being out of action for a while or something else? Perhaps it didn’t matter all that much really, the path he was choosing to go down could only really result in his death wouldn’t it? The fact she was speaking to someone who was certainly heading to inevitably die was giving a feeling she couldn’t quite describe to herself.

“Thank you for speaking to me about this.” Was the only thing she could respond with.

“I don’t know if I can change the world, even with help and I have to say I do not fully understand you going so far. Things went wrong, but I do not think you owe them anything. Your talon chose to take care of you and that made them all your parents, isn’t it parents job to do that and help you on your way? Wouldn't it be a better idea to try and make the world better yourself?” Traveler felt she might be saying too much with that, but needed to do so.

He did look to be considering her words deeply and finally answered.

“I have actually been looking forward to this trip for a long time now. Ponies are not like griffons, you don’t think the same or feel the same way we do about things. Back there with the captain, things were becoming too routine for me and if I waited to go much longer I would be too old to set out or fight. I might not look it, but I am worn out and the one thing I do not want is to just die of old age. I hope you can understand that much.” It was difficult to hear from him, but now that he said it she found it somehow easier to notice how he appeared around the edges.

Was she blinded to it by the fact she’d only met griffons for the first time a mere half-year or so ago and overlooked his appearance? Only now did it become readily apparent to her he was aged. Gunnar was still fit and decently strong from long struggles, but she could see it now. The slight droop to his muscles, a slightly off muted look to his feathers and other little things that did give an impression of encroaching age. He was still imposing to her.

“You don’t look that old to me. You’re probably stronger than I am.” She meant it.

He chuckled softly. That was kind of good to hear coming from him.

“Don’t overdo it, I might get ideas. I know perfectly well you earth ponies have plenty of strength on your worst days. Thank you for that, but I made up my mind long before I left, I’m going out while I still have any strength left.” His explanation did make sense, but it still felt wrong somehow. There was nothing she could do to convince him otherwise. A pervasive feeling of sadness would not leave her about the idea. She reached out and touched his chest.

He looked at her while appearing a bit puzzled by this action.

“I never had any friends either, but everyone should have real friends. I believe this, and I will say you are one of mine. I and I’m sure others will miss you very much, for you, not for what you can do. I can tell you the captain feels the same way. I know.” Traveler felt she said all there was to say about this and walked off to get some rest. She didn’t notice the slight teary look in his eyes as she left, nor did she hear what he whispered to himself afterwards.

For some time now Traveler meant to ask about why Tasket wore such odd barding. The unusual criss-cross shaped armor was quite flexible and durable. It was well made considering much of the metal, cloth, and other things available were in poor shape to begin with and must have cost a decent amount to have constructed. Any item in good condition was a commodity of skewed value. Few were around with enough to pay for that kind of thing, or those with the skills required to create them from the remnants of better days only vaguely recalled.

“What’s the story with your armor anyway? You said you hate clothes of any kind a while back.” Traveler really wanted to know about this, it was quite odd. She thought it was at least.

“I got my leg hurt sort of badly a while before we met you. It was a little too close, and it really got to me. I think I would rather die than lose any of my limbs, I do not want to be a burden on anyone else.” That was a saddening thought in multiple ways. How many may have died just from that very sort of thing before in the extremely brutal world they lived in?

Having come close to dying so many times in such a relatively short period of time through her own actions or things merely outside of her control made this quite pointed. Everything was a risk. Dying early in what little chain of life remained could almost be taken as a given. Her much beloved old storybook left far behind as with so many memories presented a considerably brighter and hopeful world where true misery was not the norm. It was difficult to believe happiness like described in those worn pages was ever a reality. Yet, it was.

Having met a pony from that very time painted the picture much differently in her mind than a mere book could offer. Some proven definite fantasy, but some was not. The world was once hopeful, bursting with color, and most of all it was once in some ways just as grand as she imagined it to have been. This was not where she found herself. Her path thus far was littered with pain, fear, and just the slightest tinge of hope. Hope, a word she did not truly understand before being thrown into the thick of things with little preparation. Only luck saved her to date.

Something about surviving this long almost felt incorrect. Should she even be alive by now? Each step was met with a horrendous challenge which for all the effort given should have resulted in her death. This did not sit well in her thoughts. How was it she was not dead? The kind of things strewn in her path were life-destroying, but she still stood here. Something in the air felt to stir ahead. Would going after this book mean only more pain to endure? Looking around at her temporary companions hurt the heart somewhat. Would they die soon?

Each felt like they’d been near a lifetime already. A great weight with which to anchor herself to a clear goal. To achieve just that one thing would mean everything. It would not save the whole of the world, that was much too big. It might simply be a start, a beginning from which others might launch themselves towards that lofty a thing. No, she could not save the entire world with this, that was understood. What was not understood were the array of weird and nearly unidentifiable encounters with crazed caricatures of living things. It was frightening.

How many true monsters infested the land? It would be easy to give up and turn tail. Easy, safe, let somepony else worry about it and risk life and limb. It was entirely possible this journey might scar and maim for what remained of a lifetime, Tisket proved as much. She carried quite a scar where her leg was nearly lopped off. More pain and sorrow almost certainly lay in wait ahead. A sort of melancholy descended on the group the next morning, punctuating how close they’d come to death once more and little gain for it. It was a mistake.

Traveler felt she’d made a lot of those. Choosing to explore just for adventures sake was not wise. Something horrible from the old world was learned of, but did that knowledge give any real benefit? At best it gave some experience sorely needed. Did this make it any less a mistake? It could not be taken back. Over and done was the only reassurance about the whole time. Time was not even an actual concern, there was no push to go rushing straight into danger. It seemed from all of that, friendships could become terribly painful as well.

“We are getting closer. According to what little I was told there should be a huge library or what’s left of one ahead, about eighteen miles. I hope it still stands. We could be there by tonight or tomorrow morning.” Traveler said as they all picked up what few things they carried and headed on into unknown territory. The horrible feelings given by their previous encounters still remained in some evident amount, but it was only a nervousness brought on by one horrible thing after another. Maybe this time would be different and nothing terrible would happen.

Terrible things, that was the only description for much of her experience out here. Having been warned there were treacherous places and creatures in the world did little to lessen the horrors seen and witnessed on their trek. Not even Gunnar for having lived so long ever saw such terrors before. Were there worse things to come? That nearly sounded impossible, but it was now known better never to assume anything. The safest place in appearance could house horrors outside the bounds of imagining. The real depths of fear were known now.

Winning the day, getting the book and going home were thoughts best left for when it was actually won. All told it was a small goal. Grow crops, better, faster. It did look like such a small thing when condensed into a single sentence, but significance far outweighed the little time needed to explain. There was old knowledge to be had out there, somewhere, for the taking. It must be. The old world was nonchalant and wasteful of the bounties granted. This is how it appeared to this formerly unwilling adventurer. Maybe, just maybe she could make it.

Having come this far was a miracle. Traveler admitted to herself it was only this. A lifetime ago yet not so long she was just a child. A filly with dreams of grand treasures and riches waiting to be found by some daring pony willing to risk it all on a slight gamble. Never imagining she would be thrust into something far worse and much more hurtful than a little yarn. This was the harsh reality of adventure, rewards did possibly exist but they were tempered by loss and pain. Regret and sorrow. Getting this smacked into stark focus actually hurt.

At last, they were approaching the location marker her armor displayed. Just a few more miles ahead. They’d been through so much just making it this far. If things became any worse or harder ahead, would it even be possible to continue? Traveler felt it deep inside that her lucky escapes to date were just that, lucky. As she’d taken to doing previously, whenever approaching something odd they would hide the cart a fair distance off to keep both it and the contents safe from harm. Cautiously they covered their tracks, about a quarter mile before reaching the library.

“Is this really necessary? Having to backtrack to get this thing takes a while.” Tisket questioned their reasoning for doing this. Gunnar retorted immediately in defense.

“Not only would this thing get in the way in a fight, it has some rather valuable contents. This stuff belongs to them so we will do it her way.” Tisket nodded demurely in response to that.

After some while walking on the old griffon raised a claw to halt them. He looked a bit agitated. Why stop? They were nearly in sight of whatever might remain of the old library.

“Something is wrong here. Getting worse as we go. Do you feel it?” He intoned gravely and looked around. Each looked to the other and then it was noticed by all. A strange, sickly feeling of unease settled over them. What now? Not more weird and horrible things ahead? Tasket stood still in her unusual armor leg coverings. The odd criss-cross armor was highly unusual, but looked decently protective draped as it was over her back down the legs in a kind of slightly curved X pattern. She swallowed and tried to screw up some courage against this.

“We already faced death more than once. Laugh at it already, let’s get going.” She chuckled. She was correct. What were they thinking? That is where they must go.

“Alright. Eyes peeled and weapons ready. Space yourselves far apart, just in case.” Traveler mentioned. It felt a little odd to her giving orders, but this was her goal. Would the book be there in what still stood of the ancient building? It seemed like such an odd place to have put anything really. Why here? According to maps, as little use as they were, not much was around.

Perhaps a small town off to the southwest, if that even still existed in any way. It might lay entirely flattened judging by what little of towns and cities Traveler saw previously. The group strode towards the remains of what was very obviously an extremely large building. It stood surprisingly intact. Aged and worn, but still standing. From the outside some holes in the once grand roofing and walls could be seen. Nothing appeared to be moving or really unusual about it. It was both tense and exciting to finally be approaching the dilapidated place.

The odd feeling that something was wrong still overtook them all even as they resolutely approached. Staying spread out wide and using any potential cover to protect themselves on the off chance someone might be around. It was highly unlikely but this feeling would not leave. It was an imposing wreck of a place with ornate scrollwork upon all the exposed wooden surfaces. The intricate double swing doors must have been beautiful when first crafted. Wide and tall enough to let in and out at least six ponies standing abreast. This was pretty big.

Nothing seemed to be reacting to their presence so they joined back up in front of the main entrance. There were multiple other entryways smaller in stature off to the sides and elsewhere. A once functional water fountain stood before it. A grand spectacle of woven vines lay long dead atop the base. Once intended to invite visitors within and fire the imagination at the same time, it now stood as a creepy relic of past times. Two life-sized statues of ponies stood aside it, both looking out towards guests and an opposing hoof raised as if in invitation.

The feeling of creeping awfulness and dread only became worse as they closed in towards the doors. Not at all like before, maybe worse feeling still.

“I do not like this at all. You’re the one with the fancy armor, that thing tell you anything about this place?” Gunnar questioned Traveler. Oddly, it told her nothing at all. The gauges and displays were oddly silent about this location. That was very unusual. It was unusual, right?

“It tells me nothing. Nothing at all about this. That is..strange.” That was worrying.

“Huh. So helpful. Alright. Here is how it goes. You are the most protected, so you go in first. We will follow one at a time. If anything happens before we can line up inside, back out immediately. Got it?” The old griffon must know what he was doing. She trusted him implicitly.

“Here goes.” Traveler lined herself up and pushed on the doors. They didn’t move. Huh?

“Hey, Traveler? They probably open outwards.” Tisket snrked quietly. Oh. Oops. She pulled the door towards. A strangely smooth motion as it swung open. Gunnar held it there.

Slowly she stepped inside. Nothing and no one seemed to be around. No hostile tags at least. The damaged leg joint let out a terrific squeal that reverberated through the lobby.

“Oh gosh darnit.” She muttered to herself. The others cringed at the noise. It didn’t last long. Hopefully that would not bring anything down on them. Taking a deep breath she continued inside. Looking around revealed a huge entrance room with a curved desk that must have been very impressive once. It still was, but cracked and ruined. Papers lay all around.

With the doors open behind there was enough light for the others to see by and enter. Traveler moved towards the center of the room and stood before the desk. This was a library? It was huge. The condition of the papers laying all about left them basically unreadable. Hopefully if a copy of the book was here it would be in better shape. She took a long careful look around and waved the others over. Some small ensconced lights still lit up slightly somehow.

“Lights? How can that be? Anyway, it’s..much bigger than I expected.” She said.

“It looks and sounds abandoned, but be on your guard. We know that does not always mean anything.” Gunnar was holding up his energy pistols and aiming at any open entryway as they moved along. It felt even worse being inside. What was going on here? What in all the world could make it feel this way? The feeling of everything not being quite right was difficult to shrug off. Her armor was not raising any kind of alarm or indication of problems or danger. The feeling was real enough. Danger felt to be lurking in every dim corner, yet nothing so far.

“This could take a while..” Tasket said more to herself than anypony else. The floors on the main level were some kind of gritty marbled material in varying hues. There must be dozens of rooms on the first floor alone. Ponies built so many things, or maybe others built this?

“You got that right, this place is immense. I feel terrible in here and don’t want to spend a second longer than necessary. Is there some way to narrow down where to look for this book you’re after?” Tisket asked pointedly. She could only shake her head slowly.

“It doesn’t matter how we feel, we check thoroughly and see if we can’t find this book of hers however long it takes..” Gunnar motioned Tasket towards a door closest to him.

“We start there and go in a circle on this floor first. Watch out for anything that could be dangerous. In my experience places like this are never safe.” They all followed him into the first side room of many. It could take hours or days to look through the entire library. Nothing out of the ordinary. That was more concerning than the off feeling. There was always something.

It was better than winding up fighting anything. At least it appeared that way. The intensity of the feeling was highly out of the ordinary. Something about this place was off-putting in an inexpressible way. A dark and dreary time searching proved fruitless in this room and then many more. Each held little of value save for what were clearly once books for little fillies.

“Pff. The Enchanted Gazelle? Battling Birds of Singwood? Ballad of Hats? Some of these are rather silly. You ever hear any of these stories?” Tasket asked the group.

“I doubt anypony..or anyone else remembers any of these.” Traveler replied. Something else sad to think about. How many such stories or other wonders were left buried in this slowly withering and collapsing library? For now, her only objective was to find the almanac. What if it wasn’t here after all? It wasn’t time to think about that yet. The friendly tags flickered in her display showing two more. Huh? Was there someone else here after all? They were gone. What was that? Traveler decided her armor displays could not be fully trusted anymore.

“Hey guys, do you hear something? Like really quiet talking?” Tisket pointed to a vent opening in the ceiling of this room. They each moved closer to it trying to hear. There did seem to be a sound of some sort coming from it, nearly inaudible. That could be bad. Was someone else inside? The friendly markers displayed still only showed her companions. It was difficult to discern if that was even a real sound being heard through the rusted vent. Because it ran inside the ceiling it could not be followed back to the source. It might be nothing. More display flicker.

Was something really wrong with her armor systems? That would be a real problem. Again some hostile tags flicked then disappeared. This was eerily similar to what happened the last time they encountered a pony. What was going on? This combined with the endless feeling of things being amiss was frightening in a way she’d never felt before. This didn’t make sense. Did anything ever make any sense? This twisted poor feeling inside was interminable and near unbearable to the group. Even the grizzled griffon was having trouble coping under this.

“This is so weird. Maybe we should make a rapid sweep of this whole place. I know it will take a while, but I have this terrible sensation in my stomach telling me there is something terrible here that we should deal with or get away from.” Tasket was saying. This was not what they hoped to do here. Could nothing ever be easy or simple? It was probably too much to ask, Traveler thought to herself. The atmosphere here was even worse feeling than the odd oppression they spent so long walking through. Something was here.

“Alright, well..that was a couple wasted hours anyway and I feel strange too. Let’s make a quick run through this whole place and hope we really don’t find anything dangerous.” Traveler walked into the lobby with them all following. At least it was daytime and some modicum of dim light filtered in through outer windows and doors. It was now that Traveler noticed how unusually well-preserved the building was. Most she’d seen were in terrible condition or on the verge of collapse. Despite some damage, this would be very livable. Was somepony living here?

It was unlikely by virtue of being too far away from anywhere else even remotely inhabitable. It would be nearly impossible to actually reside here without large amounts of water and supplies. Where was that sound coming from? At a guess, it was somewhere on the floors above if anywhere. There was too much room to cover each other fully as they wandered through the silent halls. Traveler thought Gunnar almost looked giddy doing this.

“What’s up with you, old timer?” Tasket ribbed him and he chuckled in that soft way.

“I haven’t done anything like this in a long time. I chose to stay sidelined, but I might as well enjoy whatever I can now, yes?” His eyes glinted in the dim light. He was actually enjoying this? Perhaps being so sick before changed his opinion on some things, or warped them.

“You have an odd sense of what’s exciting. Now get down!” Tisket whispered and they all dropped to the floor as he looked through the scope of his sniper rifle. He remained very still, looking up at a balcony ringed by two sets of stairs in a very large open dark central room.

“What is it?” Traveler slipped over closer to him and looked up into the room ahead. It was very open and exposed out there. More so even than the lobby they entered through.

“I know I saw something. I know I did, but it’s gone.” He slung the gun and stood up. The rest followed suit.

“You seeing things Tiskey?” His sister joked. She was obviously worried. Trying to keep things lightened up perhaps.

“Traveler, go ahead, we will cover as best we can. If he says there was something there I believe him.” Gunnar slipped up beside the entryway and the siblings stepped up to the other side. Tisket took the forward position as his sisters shotgun would be of no use at such a distance if anything showed. Tisket glanced at those pistols and noticed an engraving.

“Your pistols have names, Gunnar?” Tisket asked, an odd time to do so. He kind of kissed the top of one. That was surprisingly silly of him, and hard to pull off with a beak.

“They sure do. This here is Broken Deal, and the fun one is Hard Bargain. Now get yer eyes forward.” He really did seem to be taking some delight in the intensity of this. How could he possibly be enjoying this? Traveler could not fully understand that and strode forth through the door into the open room. A long immaculate carpet ran up both the side stairs to the top. Off to the sides were balconies with rounded front portions and seats inside them. This must have served as some kind of performance viewing room or some similar function.

One would have a very good view from all three balconies or atop the space where the stairs ran spiraling up towards. There were several doors up there that lead to who knows where. The library was indeed vast. There was a little hole right through the roof above and some debris on the floor, but nothing was severely damaged save for an indent in the floor where heavy ceiling material landed ages ago. It looked clear so she headed for the stairs and halted. There was a door on this floor centrally between them. No. No! What was that feeling?

Multiple hostile tags appeared on the display as the door set between the stairs opened inwards, creaking terribly in a disturbing manner. At the same time one of the doors above opened as well. Stepping forth from the one directly in front of her was a terror that sent her scrambling backwards, slipping slightly on the ancient flooring. No. No. Not again.

“Boo.” To her horror out stepped her parents murderer once more. Why here? How? Some far off sound like chanting seemed to softly echo into the room. What in the world?

Above, some sinister unseen force was present. It could be felt like a splash of cold water across the muzzle to wake one from a dead sleep. In the dimness of the shadows there stood what she assumed to be a pony, barely distinguishable against the gloom. How’d he get there? She saw nothing. The eyeless pony took a step forward and Traveler went to flee.

“Do stay awhile and listen.” A creepy voice. She went to run. Her companions went to aim weapons into the room but he hit a button to his side and a glass panel slammed down.

“What the?” Gunnar was hammering on the glass and stepped aside. She could see them through it trying to break in. What was it made of? It looked like thin glass but they weren’t even scratching it. Tasket fired the shotgun at it and fell to the floor. Did the pellets bounce back and injure her? No. Her companions were now separated from her and one was injured. Traveler felt her heartbeat increasing as she spun to face this maniacal pony for the third time and much too soon. There he stood, only the gulf of this empty room between them.

“You!” She yelled, her voice booming over the suit amp throughout the room. This chamber acoustics reverberated. Instantly she’d found herself in a dire situation. That pony could tear her apart in seconds if a single mistake was made. There was one thing in her favor this time. The suit was not fettered like last time. She could move at full speed and use full force if necessary. This was still fearful, terrifying. Why was he here? Who was above? Was that chanting she could hear somewhere beyond the doors up there? No time to think about it.

“Yes, me. Time to die little filly.” Why was he like this? Every single thing he said was intended to hurt or confuse. Ignore him. The real feeling of true danger was above, but he was still standing right in front. An affront to reality right there.

“Don’t make me fight you, please just let us leave. We will go right now.” Traveler was glad he could not see her trembling within the confines of Moonlight. He would not let them go. She was certain of that, but must try. He turned to look up towards the odd obscured pony.

“Shall I kill her now, Boss?” He asked. Boss? That was Boss right up there!

“You’re Boss!?” Traveler yelped. The pony above just glowered in response to that?

“You’re an idiot, Reaver. This mewling filly is who caused you so much trouble? Maybe I should have hired her to do your job instead.” Reaver grimaced. Reaver? That was his name? He slowly turned his gaze such as it was back to her. That was horrifying in some manner.

“But, Boss..” Reaver was interrupted by Boss immediately.

“Must you be so worthless? Finish her off right now. Fail me yet again and I am done with you.” Boss voice was strong, deep and threatening in some way that sent chills throughout her. Two extra friendly markers flickered in and out of the suit display again. What was going on with that now? This would be the absolute worst possible time for the suit systems to stop working properly. Every word was making her feel more angry? That voice. Something about it engendered more and more anger. She had to calm down. Something was wrong with this.

He was surely going to attack any second, but something truly unexpected occurred.

“It appears we have more guests to entertain.” Boss stated, sounding as if bored while two ponies entered nearly at the same time from the other opposing side doors of the room. One was a blue pony with crossed lightning bolts adorning his flanks. It can’t be. Those heavy clanking steps, that glaring white armor. It is, it must be.

“Boss, I finally caught up, murderer!” The blue pony seethed. The other stood silent.

“Oh for..” Reaver stepped to the exact center of the room and stamped down hard, resultantly a flickering white barrier shot up around most of the central portion of it and blocked both stairs up. Traveler and Reaver were alone within. The pony in blazing white armor spoke.

“Traveler, that is an alchemical deadrune trap. So much as touch the walls and you will die instantly. Be careful.” He spoke gravely. She knew that voice. He really was alive, and found her a minute too late. That was Magnificent. His armor looked amazingly imposing when clean.

That crest on the front proved it. It was definitely what she saw blackened once before. He looked up the now blocked stairs. How could Magnificent be so calm?

“Everypony halt. Boss, I presume. Stop this or things are certainly going to get ugly, and I would much rather not scuff up my armor again.” He said this calmly and cooly. The blue pony she did not recognize was looking back and forth between them all, holding still. He’d heard that the barrier was terrifically deadly as well. His expression looked very angry, wildly.

Boss, if that really was him hidden in the dark, raised his muzzle as if to contemplate the roof. It was so difficult to make him out up there when he slowly looked down at whoever this blue pony was. His presence felt unnatural, cold somehow. Unnatural.

“I see you’ve run into one of the good doctors pets. I can smell it on you.” The blue one stood as if transfixed. Boss voice alone was so angering, it had to be some kind of trick. He ceased paying any attention to him and turned his gaze upon the blaze white armor.

At least all this halted Reaver for the moment whose attention turned away from Traveler. What should she do? This might be an opportunity to strike. No. He’d said for everyone to stop, she knew he wouldn’t have said it if there was anything she should be doing at this moment. Instead she turned to look back at the odd glass partition that slammed down. Tasket was standing up. The reflected pellets must have lost momentum and merely hurt her.

“Oh Thank goodness.” Traveler whispered to herself and quietly looked back to Reaver.

Tasket looked shaky, but was at least alive. However long that might last could be another story. Boss was in no hurry as he looked over the crest on that white armor.

“Why, that speech pattern, that armor.. I don’t need any special powers to tell. Is that you, General Magnificent?” He intoned as if amused. What? He knew his name? How? That could not possibly be. Tasket kept quiet for now, hoping Reaver might forget about her entirely. She knew that was highly unlikely, but anything in a desperate moment such as this.

Her companions behind the glass could just barely make out what was being said. Even were they to find a way into the room now, the barrier would prevent them from rendering any assistance. They were obviously trying to figure a way in, but it was fruitless. She didn’t want them to hurt themselves more in any attempt to do so. She waved back at them to stay there. Not wanting to take her attention off this most dangerous opponent for too long. She knew how very dangerous he really was from all previous encounters with him. But what to do?

Magnificent raised an armored hoof and pointed straight up at that strangely difficult to see pony.

“Two can play that game. I know who you are, Reveille. Old friend.” Friend? It almost sounded like an accusation. Who? What was he talking about? What little she could make out of Boss expression changed the second he said it. The blue pony spoke.

“Who are you, are you working with these horrible ponies!?” He was seriously upset.

“Silence, foal.” did Boss voice alone just push him back when that happened? He stood and the blue pony fell totally silent, taking a step back towards the door he entered from. That action alone felt like something huge was happening. Why did that feel important? All Boss did was stand up. He could not possibly project that kind of impression from there, could he? Reaver raptly eyed Magnificent. This made no sense to her. He could not possibly know him?

“So, you’ve figured out my secret have you? However did you manage such a feat?” Boss or whatever his name asked almost mockingly, as if it were just some joke of a nature Traveler could not understand. The question was answered without hesitation.

“I ran across a rather upset unicorn who happened to be dragging one of your voice logs around. I gave her a decent sum to part with it and came looking for you when I realized you still live. I didn’t expect to find you so soon.” Magnificent waited for a response slow in coming.

“And how is it, you, live? I should have known a pony as arrogant and self-centered as you would find a way to survive the war. Was it at others expense like usual? What allows you to stand here before me?” Boss tone was oddly calm now. What was up with this guy?

“I was going to ask you the same question. Shouldn't you be dead, Reveille?” The instant Magnificent said this Boss growled. Growling? He looked oddly torn.

“Stop calling me that.” Boss retorted. That was very strange, what did it matter?

“I am beginning to remember you, FRIEND. You haven’t the slightest idea you pompous dope. Where were you while I was imprisoned? No one came for me. They tortured me for years!” Why was Boss so agitated all of a sudden? He sneered, so hard to see in the shadows.

“I am very sorry, but you ran off into enemy territory of your own accord. I..I tried to have you found. Which is why I live, actually. There was evidence you really hammered them hard. We could not get to you.” Magnificent stammered?

“How typical. Ponies and their excuses. Are you really so dimwitted? Do you have any idea what they did to me!?” Boss was positively seething now. Magnificent looked down.

“You’re right. I don’t know. Please, tell me?” Magnificent sounded sad to Traveler as he always seemed to. Was she the only one noticing how tinged his speech really was with it?

“You want to know so badly, fine. I shall regale you with horror.” Boss sat down at the top of the stairs. Why did that single action seem powerful all by itself? It wasn’t even important.

"Hah. It is to laugh. A simple tale in truth. At some point I finally came to my senses, and wandered this scorched worthless land. Eventually I took a mate, tried to lead some kind of a life. Then we had a son. I thought I felt some joy in that. What a cruel joke. Once thinking I could continue to delude myself this way, but then I came to realize I cannot die and they most certainly could.” Boss both appeared calm and angry at once somehow. What was he saying? He cannot die? That couldn’t possibly be true, could it? This was a horrible story nonetheless.

“She forced herself to live just short a hundred wonderful years with me, my poor darling. I thought I could find a way to keep her alive as myself, I did not. Finally, she expired, leaving me here! I could spend entire lifetimes with her, but not her with me, and then she was gone! It is all part of the lie this world still purveys and I shall fix it." Boss was positively livid as he finished. Fix the world? His mood swung between completely absolute calm and outright baffling anger. Saying anything to him was dangerous. She could almost feel it all around.

Something was missing from that story. How was any of this possible? Did he also survive in a stasis pod or whatever it was called? No, that wouldn’t make sense either. Did anything ever? Reaver was still paying her no attention at all. He must not imagine she was capable of finding a way out of this barrier. He was probably correct. Traveler was having great difficulty not giving into anger with every word Boss spoke. If she did, it might prove her end in itself. Winding up fighting in a blind rage here especially would easily get her killed.

“Are you saying you’re immortal, you trying to be a god?” Magnificent was probably thinking the same thing. Something was not being said. Just what that might be was evasive.

“A god? How small-minded of you. I already am one. What I seek is so much more.” Boss response was once again calm, almost otherworldly in itself. What happened to him? When he was calm he sounded like just any other pony one might meet roaming.

“What do you really want, Boss? Why cause pain and harm?” Magnificent pushed.

“It is irrelevant. Nothing I do here has any meaning whatsoever, and neither do your actions. This abominal existence means nothing and I would end it, for I have already trod the shore eternal and found it lacking. I sought a way to die and having found no way to cross the great rainbow bridge, I shall do something far greater. Having returned from the bridge I will grant you this one mercy, a swift and painless death if you so choose.” Was Boss serious? That was hardly an appealing offer in any way she could imagine. Great rainbow bridge? Huh?

“I will even give the same to your associates there. Just say yes and be done with it.” Boss gave a slow wicked grin, made worse by the fact he was so hidden in shadow.

“I just got here so I’d rather not. Just let us all go and we will not trouble you further.” Magnificent was clearly trying to get them all out of this horrible situation they’d all suddenly found themselves in. That odd quiet murmuring chant from somewhere could still be heard. What was that? Traveler was certain it was there now. Who was doing it?

To her it sounded song-like, creepy and disturbing. As she focused on it while Boss spoke to Magnificent, she could just barely make it out:

Maishi kuinye fuma

Onil formea konu

Takahea kiuma cilt

Insi la'i fuoma

Ekayna orfee

Lunsae kanee

Iae kator

What was that? She’d never heard of anything like it. Why would anybody be singing or chanting or whatever it was? This whole time she’d been trying to think of some way to get out of this barrier. The only real possibility was straight up through the roof but that was not really an option. Flying was unfortunately beyond the capabilities of even that shiny white suit of armor Magnificent wore, she was quite certain. Any moment now she would have to fight in this space. Traveler judged there to be enough room to maneuver if she made exactly zero mistakes.

Was Magnificent just stalling? Was he up to something? Boss looked slightly amused of all things. He was still nearly impossible to see up there, the shadows keeping him hidden from view were just scattered enough to see his muzzle and expression and a vague portion of his eyes. This was frightening in the extreme. Something was so incorrect about it all.

“We were friends once. In honor of that, please don’t make us fight you, Reveille.” Magnificent was saying.

Boss growled at that name again. Why?

“Stop , stop calling me that! That worthless foal is long dead, dead! That name means nothing to me now. That pony died a very long time ago! He is dead! A dead pony worthless of memory or value.” Boss was sounding more and more vehement about that, but why? A name?

"For somepony who doesn’t care methinks the pony dost protest too much.” Magnificent responded, sounding confident of his assessment.

“I am beginning to remember why I found you so irritating, Mags old friend. You are no better than the rest. This back and forth becomes irksome. Reaver, destroy her and then all the rest including him.” He commanded. Oh no. Here he comes. Reaver turned directly to face her. Why did this have to be? She no longer even wanted to kill this pony, or thing, or whatever he might really be. She’d thought for months mostly about punishing him only to actually run up against him on more than one occasion. There was no escaping this time.

“Nowhere to run, little girl.” There he went again. Deriding and sounding insulting towards her. What did she ever do to him he didn’t deserve? He’d killed her parents and probably a lot of other ponies without the slightest shred of mercy or care.

“Reaver, even after all you have done I do not want to kill you. Stop this now and we will just leave, I promise.” Traveler was hoping against hope he would say yes. Of course, he would not.

“Spineless cowards deserve no quarter. There is no escape for you this time. Prepare for annihilation.” Reaver’s eyeless gaze was deep, empty and piercing at the same time. Traveler thought over every piece of advice she could recall and played on the slightest gamble.

“Reaver, get something straight. I’m not trapped in here with you. You are trapped in here, with me!” She postured menacingly as she could and faced him down. There was a dark laughter from above. Boss was laughing at what she said?

If there was any reading that eyeless face, she might imagine he looked surprised by her words, maybe even the merest hint at being fearful? It was highly difficult to tell. They stood a moment, staring each other down, if what he was doing could be called staring. As before, he held no weapons at all. She knew this was deceptive. He was himself a grave danger without them. She’d seen him throw a knife at her father with near-perfect accuracy. Obviously he was no stranger to using weapons. For some reason he’d since foregone using them at all.

“You are bluffing. Only an idiot would think to best me a second time. You got lucky and nothing more, little filly.” He raised a forehoof. Was that a gesture or was he getting ready to attack? Maybe she could play on his confidence in some way? He definitely thought he was going to kill her this time. That might very well be correct. If that was so then she must give it everything she had once more. The suit display as before found absolutely nothing unusual about him. That made no sense. He was definitely not ordinary. Why was it finding nothing?

The only thing it was offering was a reminder about blunt trauma weakness.

“There must be something else.” Traveler whispered to herself. The suit display did show one unusual thing. A pattern of arrows like when she found the shiny ball. Movements to follow? Was the suit suggesting a course of action? If that was truly what it meant she took it to be telling her to dance around him in a very close and dangerous pattern of three circles about the room, the last of which did not show an arrow, only an x. Did that mean she would die there?

She was tired of Reaver sounding so demeaning, and for all intents and purposes having destroyed her entire life she could only feel intense hatred for this miserable thing.

“Here I come, weakling.” Reaver coldly spoke and began trotting towards her as if without a care in the world. That was nothing more than flair. An attempt to make himself look even more terrifying as he came at her. His mane trailed and his tail was held high. A sign of confidence if she’d ever seen one. Hoping the suit was right, she got ready to move.

Following the suggested movements would be tricky to time and hard to pull off. A wrong move and he would easily skewer her even through the protective metal shell of her suit. It was not much use against him. She must time this perfectly against any move he may make, but what to do at the end? There was no way to tell how it would play out. Any second he would be right on her. Here he comes. Engaging in the hoof to hoof combat her father taught through many tough hours of training, she knocked his first punch aside and hopped past him.

Another swing and deflection as she skipped about. The suit was just agile enough to let her perform most of the moves she’d been taught. This was about engaging a stronger opponent and using their own strength against them. She didn’t have this option last time they fought. It would have been too sluggish and dangerous. Each glancing blow was hard enough to bang off her armor heavily as she moved about him. He was becoming enraged that every shot he took at her was bashed away at an angle. It was enough to prevent damage.

Him becoming more angry was in a way a good thing. Magnificent once told her a highly angered opponent is one prone to making more mistakes or taking useless risks. Traveler leaned into one of the hops enough to land on one forehoof only and spin, her hind leg clocked Reaver across the muzzle causing him to swing wide as he punched at her again. The contact definitely hurt him a little. It was the one thing that seemed to work. Direct physical hits. He bellowed in a way she did not imagine a pony able to do and kicked out at her. It just missed.

That was too close. She landed on all fours with a heavy clank. Halfway through the movements the suit indicated. As she’d hit each spot the arrow list became shorter. Boss, the blue pony and Magnificent were all watching this battle between them intently. Her friends were still stuck outside this room. Even if they were in here there would be little they could do to help. Don’t think about that right now. Follow the moves. She was focused intently on his position relative to her own. Why did the suit indicate to take these dangerous actions?

Moonlight was a bit more agile than she thought. Just slightly. It allowed for some moves she hadn’t really considered while wearing it before. Each circle came far too close to the walls of this deathly barrier. Traveler did not want to test if her armor might offer any protection against such a thing. Was it really more agile, or was she just getting better at utilizing it? No time to think about things as he came straight for her again. She was following a pattern and he had no such reservations. His intent was solely to end her life immediately.

“I do not want to give him that satisfaction. Not now. They are all counting on me not to die here.” She dove forward straight under Reaver, sweeping his legs out from under him. Only three moves left. What to DO at the end of them!? She spun to face him. He reared up and swung his forelegs down to smash at her which she dodged to the right. This positioned him extremely close to the barrier wall on the left side of the room. Was that the suits strategy? The look on his face, if he had eyes she imagined would be nothing but pure rage. Good.

Deftly she knocked aside him punching at her again and found herself with only one option. She locked her forelegs around him and his eyesockets themselves looked like they widened slightly in surprise. One move left. Only one. They were directly in front of the barrier wall with his back just up against it. He struggled in her grip, but even with his tremendous strength there was no time to get free and no leverage.

“What are you doing you foal!? You’ll kill us both!” He yelped.

“And?” Traveler could not give him any time and threw herself forward against him. They slammed into and through the horrible buzzing barrier almost in slow motion as it flickered and almost appeared to strain at contact with Reaver, it looked like its power flowed into him then burst like a million glowing yellowish bubbles only to dissipate into thin air as they crashed onto the floor together. Traveler fell off of him as he was sent slamming into the far outer wall of the room. Somehow, she was not dead. Quickly she scrambled to her hooves.

That was supposed to kill anypony instantly. What happened? The terrible thought if she was still alive, he might be as well arose. Traveler found herself standing in the opposite facing of how he landed from rolling. Almost right behind him, quickly looking back she was terrified to see he was already jerkily trying to get up again himself. Of all things most ironic she was in the perfect position to do this as he went to stand. This was incredibly ironic positioning in her mind. Now to take one more action. Just one.

“Stay down!” She yelled and bucked with all the suits strength directly into his groin with a horrible crunch again as his head was rammed right through the wall where he slumped.
He slid out of the hole made by his head in the wall and fell in a heap on the floor, twitching.

“Oh, come on!” Traveler gasped. He was groaning and muttering vilely. What the?

“What is wrong with your family!?” He moaned and rolled, rocking in pain. What?

“Stop it! Stop kicking me in the crotch you crazy …” Boss interjected from above.

“Reaver, you are a dolt. Get thee gone from my sight forever, son.” He hissed.

“Reaver is your son!? How could you do this to him!?” Traveler could not help but blurt.

“But, father..” Reaver was still rolling about in pain. She knew from previous experience that would not last too long. He’d completely healed from the same sort of injuries only a couple of months back. What would happen now? The barrier was down, but the glass door panel was still closed so only Magnificent and the unknown blue pony could assist. Maybe.

Would he assist? Who even was he? He definitely did not like Boss. Was something horrible done to him as well?

“Reaver is nothing more than a blundering disappointment of a foal whose very sight constantly reminds me of her and what I cannot have. It is lies, the entire world, all of it! Despite every gift I have given him he is worthless. No more, you miserable excuse for a pony. You have been beaten down by somepony that was already dead, and twice by this little lady here who can barely stand up to you. I have no further patience for someone so pathetic.” Boss explanation was cold and harsh for their own son.

He was the one who made him this way? Why would anypony do something like this to their own family? Why take his eyes? What else did he do to him?

“So you do have a son. I would congratulate you but it seems I am rather late to that party.” Magnificent was finally able to stride into the room proper and stood looking up at Boss atop the dim stairs. It was so nice to see him standing there. His presence alone in that blaze white armor was comforting, encouraging. The gleaming heavy armor really did suit his name.

It looked absolutely spectacular against the dull surroundings. Reaver was still groaning, laying against the wall where he fell, clutching at himself. For the moment he was harmless.

Boss started chuckling darkly. What now? This was not funny.

“What do you think is so funny about all this?” Traveler questioned, really wanting to understand why this was all happening. The pony up there, he was dangerous. It just oozed into the atmosphere around him, could be felt pressing in on all sides.

“Everything that happens here is meaningless. Absolutely devoid of any point whatsoever. I am going to change all that.” His tone was as dark as his visage, still so hidden away in the shadows up there. What did that mean?

“And how do you intend to do that? I would very much enjoy hearing an explanation.” Magnificent almost sounded angry in tone, but it was hard to tell. Much to their surprise he actually gave a real answer.

“There is nothing here for me and never will be again. There are only two options, of which I choose to alter the past.” This was said it like that was an easy feat. Simple. Change the past? That really was impossible.

Much to everyones shock, Magnificent said something extremely unexpected.

“Reveille, you IDIOT!” Reverberated through the huge room. Boss for once looked totally taken aback and stiffened.

“You dare? You dare!?” He uttered in a searing tone, practically shaking.

“Shut up and listen you moron.” Magnificent said quite emptily. For a second it looked as though Boss would leap straight down the stairs at him. Oh no. Wait. Instead, he raised a barely visible hoof and set it down again, remaining seated. He was unusually quiet compared to how he’d been acting thus far. His moods were just impossible to tell or follow as to why. This was very strange, it was almost as if he was of two minds on everything. Why was that?

“No. No. I know what you are doing. I was trained too you know. Seeking to make me act on impulse instead of logic, and here I thought you’d lost your edge. It seems time has not dimmed your wits one iota. Out with it then, what makes you so confident of my inability to perform this task?” Boss was impossible to read, his mood and actions were simply untellable.

“Simply put, Celestia told me a story. You should hear it.” Magnificent waited a moment, probably to gauge his reaction.

“Ah yes, our beloved princess, and one of our abject failures of a leader. What story of either could possibly be relevant to me?” Was almost spat. Boss just sat there as if nothing at all mattered. That sounded very laced with bitterness. What was all this?

“She tried. It cannot be done. It will never work. Go ahead, have it cast, I will even help you accomplish this if you are so intent on hurting yourself. We will be right back here in less than six months regardless.” Magnificent sounded awfully confident of this being a fact.

This story was sounding very very bad.

“What did she tell you and why? Explain. This better be good or you will learn new meaning to suffering.” Boss merely gestured and awaited more. Creepy.

“Seeing her kingdom falling apart and unable to bear it, she tried to manipulate time itself and change the past. Unfortunately, she found there is a very serious problem with this proposition.” Magnificent looked down, then back up.

“Sometime after the middle of the war, long after she left the throne, I asked for an audience since no one beside Luna laid eyes on her in months. By that time few even cared. I wanted to ask personally..why? Why were we still fighting, still dying after so long. An old and loyal solar guard who kept to his station all that time lead me to her personal study. We found her slumped across a desk, surrounded by scroll after scroll marked with the archives forbidden seal. Dark arcane secrets lay within them.” Magnificent took a deep breath before continuing.

“I asked directly if she was alright, to which she said only, no. I couldn’t stand seeing her like that. As if some horrible mirror image of herself worn to near death. I knew I needed to ask my question then or perhaps never get an answer. She bid the guard stay to hear it as well. I could not understand the purpose of this at first. What she told us right then hurt our very hearts. She’d cast spell after spell to shore up and empower an unearthed time spell. Maybe hundreds, thousands of times in a row.” His voice cracked, it could be heard even through the suit amp.

“At first, she thought it might be possible. Celestia tried to prevent the war. It worked, for a time. It broke out anyway. In less than a week it still happened. She tried again and again after being thrown back to the present. She poured more and more of her power into the effort, each time to fail. Do you see what was happening? She would change a thing, or everything, but in the end it cannot be stopped. The war was inevitable. It could never BE stopped.” Magnificent choked up. It must have been hard for him to hear or relay this information.

“That cannot be!” Boss insisted, sounding desperate for some reason.

“Don’t believe me? Go ask her yourself. Use whatever time spell, go to Canterlot. I will tell you precisely when to see her alone. Be warned, if you anger her she may not be able to kill or harm directly. However, you would face not Celestia, but the unbridled anger of the goddess of the sun. She can make you feel the full weight of it. I would not advise doing so.” Magnificent stood watching. This was so sad. After a very long silence Boss burst out laughing loudly.

It was incomprehensibly terrifying coming from him. Why was he laughing so madly like that? That laughter sounded menacing, terrible and..hopeless? He quieted as quickly.

“It seems you have saved me a great deal of wasted effort. I must thank you for that. I am given over to only one choice then. I have no alternative but to erase existence itself.” Boss exclaimed, like it was a foregone conclusion. What? Magnificent took a step back in shock.

“Please, do not trot down this darkened path further, my friend.” He sounded horrified.

“You are evil! We cannot let this stand.” He really was. Traveler was shivering in her armor suit, glad that it could not be seen as she tried to present a brave front towards this glaring threat to anything good that may be left in all the shattered world.

“Evil? I am not malicious, nor my actions. I merely am and must not be." Did Boss have no heart whatsoever? His intentions was sheer insanity. Could no argument of any sort sway him from this seeming delirium?

Reaver interjected, still moaning in pain and unable to stand. How durable was he and why? Such a tremendous beating would have killed anypony else near-instantly.

“That is not what you told me. You said we would rule the world!” Even he sounded frightened by the notion of all existence somehow just vanishing. Was it really possible?

“And you believed me. Did nothing ever sink into that thick skull of yours? I cannot believe you are my progeny, pathetic.” Why was Boss so set on these kinds of things?

Was he just out of his mind completely? This was some kind of insanity Traveler imagined could only stem from horrendous illness of the mind or spirit. He was utterly insane. What would be accomplished by destroying what little was left of the world? It was far worse than anything ever thought or brought to mind even considering all that was past.

“Join me, Mags. You may watch as all is laid waste and be the very last to disappear into the waiting abyss.” Boss was not simply insane, he was much too strong for that?

“I have already died twice, I think I will avoid that again for a good while.” Magnificent very sadly walked towards Traveler. He sounded so shaken, and very worn. She felt awful for him. This pony that was once his friend must have been so very different before.

"If what you say is true then you should want the same thing, join me. Help end it all. You will be afforded a front row seat to the end of all as existence is nullified. What say you?" Boss intonation was extremely deep, unsettling. Why did his mood keep switching so wildly?

“Thanks for the offer, but I’ve seen how those beneath you fare.” Magnificent replied.

“Please, let us help you find a way to fix whatever has happened that precludes ending everything?” Magnificent was nearly begging now. It hurt so much to hear him like that.

“You..can’t. Nothing short of erasing existence will end me, and erase it I shall! Ponies and all else already failed. It must end as was meant to be!” Did he just hesitate for the shortest instant? It was too much for the old pony. Magnificent simply stood there, indecisive.

She’d never seen him like that. The blue pony finally spoke once more.

“I don’t know what’s going on here, but I’ve heard enough to feel a rage inside the likes of which I have never known. He had my master executed! I hate to break it to you, whoever you all are, but your friend here may very well have already killed an entire city. His followers tried to kill me over and over!” He nearly hissed when he said friend. Followers? Not good. Not good at all. A whole city? Why? She could not stand any more of this. Boss must be stopped.

“Boss, enough. We will not let you do this!” Traveler already felt he was a greater threat, but until this moment there was no idea of how insurmountable he would actually prove to be. All she wanted was a book, to make things better. Instead, somehow, she was facing the end of all things. The scope of it was unbelievable. Could he even really cause such a thing?

“Ponies are so worthless. You will pay any price if you think it is free! I will fell the walls of eternity and all shall end as I assault the very heavens.” Boss was so cold. Why, just why?

“You say you’re a god, but you’re a pony too!” Traveler could feel that anger seeping in with every word he spoke. What was that? As before with the unnamed one they faced, Boss felt somehow wrong. His presence incorrect, corrupt. She could not understand the feeling.

“Childish. I am as far beyond them as they beyond you, little one. Wither afore me. I am the chosen avatar. My will is absolute, undeniable.” Boss was so condescending off and on. Why would he even want to do any of these things? Why cause so much pain and suffering?

“I shall carry forth destruction on swift wings and crumble the very foundations of this miserable existence until less than dust remains so I may vacate along with it.” Why was almost everything Boss said so horrifying and awful? What could have driven somepony who was once a friend to Magnificent of all ponies to such hideous ends?

“I know what you intend to do. I cannot allow this, Reveille.” Magnificent finally spoke again. Boss covered his face and hit the floor. Now what? He screeched.

He whined and writhed atop the steps. What is going on here? He stood once more.

“Sstop, stop calling me that! Stop! That pathetic weakling is dead! DEAD!” He spat and sputtered a moment. Suddenly, he was perfectly calm and quiet.

“Do your best to stop me, General Magnificent. As to you, Traveler, You have interfered with my plans not once, but thrice now. Congratulations, this makes you my only worthy adversary in nearly twofold centuries. Here is your..reward.” He hit a switch right behind him.

“As much as I’ve enjoyed reminiscing, enough prattling has gone on here. I hope you enjoy my little gift, Traveler.” Boss said as he backed out and the upper door he left through slammed tight. What was he talking about?

“Wait!” Magnificent and the blue pony went charging up the stairs after Boss at the same time. The chanting in the background ceased. The entire center beneath the stairs proved to be mechanical and whooshed slowly open to reveal a most horrifying sight. The most horrifying.

Traveler was left facing the most awful possible thing in all of existence. The cruelest possible of all jokes the universe could play on even the most wary. It must be.

“No. No! You didn’t! You can’t..It’s not possible…” Her blood ran cold as a shuffling shadow in the darkness let out a rasping hissy sound amounting to equestrian speech.



God or Daemon? Perhaps they amount to the same.

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