• Published 22nd Mar 2014
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Iron Hearts: Book 3 - The Sept Lamman - SFaccountant

MLP/Warhammer 40K crossover, part 3. As relations between Equestria and 38th Company wax and wane, the Tau warriors of the Sept Lamman put the final phase of their plan into action.

  • ...

The Iron Without

Iron Hearts: Book 3

Chapter 3

The Iron Without


Sweet Apple Acres - barn

"I'll be honest. I was expecting something a bit more grandiose."

Norris Delgan scrutinized the Tau artifact from the barn entrance, scratching his cheek.

The man was accompanied by Rarity and Dest a safe distance away from the mysterious device, while Pinkie had taken the opportunity to stand right next to it and stick her nose in the strange clusters of unknowable mechanisms. Twilight was next to the pink earth pony, trying to hold her back.

Gaela was still fixing Crabapple, not being one to stop working in order to acknowledge the arrival of others.

"It's true. Tau technology is compact and practical, unlike that of the Necrons and Eldar," the Dark Acolyte agreed, "really, the only reason we don't get more mysterious tech artifacts from them is because their gear is usually straightforward and often clearly labeled."

"But not this device?" Rarity asked.

"No. Whatever this machine is a part of, it's definitely in the experimental range of the Tau Empire's equipment. It shows telltale signs of hand-wiring and manual handling too, which means that it's sophisticated and unusual enough that it couldn't be completely constructed by machine."

"Which means that it may be of supreme value to the grayskins, if they can't simply make another one," Dest mumbled, his hand resting on the boltgun mag-locked to his thigh.

"Depends on what they need it for, I suppose," Delgan mumbled, "what could you do with a Warp engine this small?"

"A weapon?" Dest guessed.

"It could be," Gaela agreed, "a Warp device this small and unstable could produce a rift quickly and without disruption from a planet's gravitational field. And certainly opening a Warp rift over an individual or vehicle would cause considerable damage, even if the rift itself is so small as to be almost pointless."

She paused as one of Crabapple's legs started spasming, and then quickly stopped it with a harsh blow from her bionic arm.

"Of course, such a device would also have numerous tactical weaknesses. It would be too large to be man-portable or even battlesuit-portable, very inaccurate, and the power drain would be enormous. The Tau have many weapons already that are far more effective and efficient."

"Well, whatever it's for, I think we'd prefer that the Tau not get around to using it," Rarity noted, "Mister Delgan?"

Delgan nodded to Gaela. "Would you mind sealing the artifact back up for me before we move it? I'd hate to contaminate it or something."

Gaela grunted and stood up, briefly leaving the twitching automata to the side as she attended to the artifact.

"It will take a few minutes. You can have your men start to load the wreckage into your transports."

Delgan frowned at the crashed gunship, his lips pressing into a thin line. "We'll need to make several trips unless you're going to disassemble the salvage first."

"Macintosh brought back everything you see here with nothing but his brute strength and a wooden cart," Gaela said dryly, "I'm sure you can manage."

Delgan's eyes narrowed. "You could have made SOME effort to prepare these items for transit. I have more to do today than supervise heavy lifting."

"Then I recommend you start with the heavy lifting at once rather than complaining about it," Gaela retorted evenly as she crouched down next to the artifact, "if you wanted preparations to be made you should have given notice. I didn't even know you had arrived until the ponies had informed me."

"We tried, but we couldn't establish a vox link," Delgan insisted, "are you sure your receiver is functional? We were able to connect to the other transport just fine."

Gaela halted, her eye narrowing.

"Gaela?" Twilight asked as several silent seconds passed. "Is something wrong?"

The Dark Acolyte snapped her head up, facing Delgan. "Get everyone inside. Now."

The command immediately cast a chill upon every pony there, and Dest promptly took hold of his boltgun.

"Bring them inside? Inside here?" Delgan asked quickly.

"Inside the farmstead, ideally. Get them out of the transports and behind reinforced walls immediately," she stepped back over to Crabapple and fed a neural interface cable into the sensor array.

Delgan ran out of the barn, leaving the others to keep watching the Dark Acolyte at work.

"Wait, you don't think that the problem with the communications system-"

"Is due to the deployment of Tau disruptor drones in preparation for an assault," Gaela cut Twilight off as Crabapple's sensors fed new data into her helmet display.

"Oh dear, not again," Rarity sighed as she levitated her boltgun out of its saddle holster, "what should we do?"

"Get to the farmstead with the troopers, alert the Apples, and prepare for combat," Gaela said grimly as she stood up, "we have incoming."


Sweet Apple Acres - farmstead

"Come on, hurry up! Get in there!"

Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle glanced over to the window as she heard shouting from outside, and then they cast a worried look at Applejack and Big Macintosh.

"Hey sis, ya hear that? What's goin' on?"

Applejack looked up from where she was preparing a fruit salad. "Eh, you leave 'em be, Bloom. Best to stay outta the way. They've got a lotta work to do, and then so do we when they clear out."

The fillies nodded obediently.

Then a mechanical hum alerted them to the front door opening.

"Move, move, move!" barked a man in carapace armor. "Everybody, take up a firing position! Close any opening that isn't being used as a firing point!"

Applejack sat stunned as men started pouring into her home and dashing to the windows, every one of them armed and looking frantic.

Her eyes narrowed as Delgan followed them inside. "There somethin' you wanna tell me, cowboy?"

"Yes. I need you to activate the blast shutters and secure any alternate entrances," the Trademaster said as he took cover next to the doorway, "then you should probably send the young ones upstairs. This might get hazardous."

The orange mare's alarm grew even more as Pinkie, Rarity and Twilight galloped into the room, followed by Dest.

"Sparkle, where's the Dark Acolyte?"

"Gaela said she was going to stay in the barn! She didn't say why!"

"What?! She has more firepower than the bloody Astartes! No offense, my lord."

"None taken. It WOULD be nice to have a plasma pistol handy."

"Sir, shouldn't we call for help? We can't hold off an assault by ourselves!"

"Then make peace with the Dark Gods, because that's not happening!"

"... Wait, CAN you make peace with Chaos Gods? Does it work like that?"

"Ugh, I never thought I'd find myself wishing that Trixie was around. Twilight, darling, I hope you're going to actually help out directly this time."

"HEY!!" Applejack barked, startling the others into silence. "What's goin' on here?!"

Before anyone could answer her, the explosion of a pulse bomb cast a bright blue flare through the window, followed immediately by the detonation of a chimera's fuel tank.

"Bloody hell!" Delgan shouted furiously as the scream of passing aircraft filled the room. "Leave the damned transports alone, you xeno dunderheads! I need those and there's no one in them anyway!"

Applejack's eye twitched. "Are y'all serious? We got grays on mah farm AGAIN?"

"We believe they're here for the artifact," Dest said evenly as he took up a position between two nervous-looking guards.

"Well, is there a chance we can just give it to them?" Twilight asked.

The annoyed looks she received in return were not encouraging. Applejack in particular looked enraged by the idea.

"I'm serious! Even if the Tau are the enemy, is this machine worth dying over just to keep it away from them?" the alicorn pressed.

"A persuasive argument. It may indeed be our only option IF we are totally outmatched," Delgan reasoned before addressing Applejack again, "Miss Apple, if you could see to the shutters? And open up your armory, while you're at it."

"Ah don't even know what yer talkin' about," Applejack admitted, "I don't know nothin' about no shutters, and we sure don't have no armory."

A clunking noise came from behind her, and everyone turned to watch as Big Macintosh opened up a wall panel next to the fireplace and hit a large red button.

"Siege mode engaged," barked a rough electronic voice. Immediately the men and ponies could hear a dozen different mechanisms turning as metal sheeting crawled down over the windows, turning them into armored firing slits while metal bars slid out over the door to reinforce it against forced entry.

Then a picture of the extended apple family, filling a four-foot frame and lovingly hung over a bookshelf, flipped forward.

Apple Bloom stared at the collection of firearms hung in a shallow space behind the painting, which boasted two boltguns, a flamer, and a sniper rifle. "So we DO have an armory?"

"Eeyup," Big Mac said, stepping away from the panel.

Applejack's jaw fell slack. "Why's somethin' like that in our house?"

"Because we built it," Dest grunted, "also, plaudits to Macintosh for actually reading the instructional documentation to this structure."

"I see an APC! We have infantry incoming!"

A pair of men who were holstering stub pistols quickly took the boltguns.

Pinkie Pie lined up behind them. "I call flamer!"

Twilight recoiled. "Pinkie, you can't!"

"Why not? Are you going to use it?" Rarity asked.

"No, but-"

"Yoink!" Pinkie jumped up and snatched the flame weapon off the rack, grinning widely while she stood on her hind legs.

"This could end poorly," Sweetie Belle observed nervously.


"You two git upstairs," Applejack said to the fillies, "now!"

The first burst of bolter fire marked the start of the battle proper, and Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle rushed upstairs anxiously as a few stray bolt casings bounced across the floor away from Dest.

"Got one. The rest are breaking for cover," the Iron Warrior informed the rest, "they now know we're here, and that we're armed."

As his bodyguards started firing out at the Tau attackers, Delgan took the sniper rifle from its rack.

Rarity looked surprised. "Mister Delgan? Do you actually know how to use that?"

Norris Delgan took a moment to unbutton his jacket, and then he flung it away onto a couch. "Miss Rarity, in the 38th there are only two types of men: those who kill, and those who work."

He fit the clip into the rifle and then flipped a switch on the top. A capacitor on the side of the weapon began to whine as it started charging up, and the Trademaster pulled back the slide.

"And I do NOT labor."


Sweet Apple Acres - exterior

*Get down! Behind those hay bales!*

*Why is there a bunker here? Isn't this a farm?*

*Take any cover you can and return fire!*

The Devilfish transports moved to the fore, spewing burst cannon fire into the farmstead while sparse bolter and laser fire raked the disembarking soldiers.

One Fire Warrior Shas'ui grit her teeth as she watched another soldier fall to a boltgun round, and then she addressed another squad. *Keep your heads down and surround the central building! Locate its entrances away from the heaviest fire! I'll have a demo team crack them open!*

The soldiers nodded and left, crouching low to make use of what cover there was.

*What about that other transport?*

*Leave it,* the Shas'ui commanded, *it's unmanned, and there might be something useful inside.*

*Shas'ui, how long until battlesuit support arrives?*

*They're on the lifter! They'll be along in a minute, but don't count on them to make this easy on us!*

She peeked over the rim of the wagon she was covering behind. *I'd say we have six, maybe eight-*

Then her head pitched back as a sniper bullet punched through her helmet.


Sweet Apple Acres - interior

"Got the leader," Delgan remarked as he ducked down and pulled back the slide on the sniper rifle.

A long, highly energized bullet casing dropped to the floor next to him, crackling with electricity.

"Nice shot, Sir!" said a guard enthusiastically.

Dest grunted something that sounded vaguely like an affirmation, and then spoke normally. "They're moving to flank. I don't see anything heavy enough to break this position, though." The Iron Warrior paused as he removed a depleted clip. "However, we have limited ammunition supplies and we won't be able to stop the armored vehicles without the Acolyte's assistance."

Applejack brought over a chair to one of the firing slits, and Rarity climbed up onto it with an expression of tired resignation.

"So how do ya think we'll fare?" the orange mare asked pensively.

"We're not dead yet," Dest said grimly.

Delgan fired another shot, then ducked back down again. "This position is too hardened to break from the bombers' pulse bubbles! As long as they don't have reinforcements, we can drive them off!"

Rarity shot a Fire Warrior in the leg as another unit made a break for the barn, and then she spotted more large blue-and-black shapes off in the distance, skimming low over the orchard.

"Well, I have bad news, then: they have reinforcements," the white unicorn said, "is there any help WE can summon?"

"Between the vox jamming, my brothers being forbidden to leave our fortress, and your nation's general distaste for our war effort, that seems quite unlikely," Dest mumbled as his bolter rattled in his grip, "but feel free to hope."


Ponyville - Fluttershy's cottage

"Miss Fluttershy? Are you here? Please tell me you're here!"

Diamond Tiara pounded on the front door of Fluttershy's cottage as Silver Spoon hung behind her, nervously searching the skies above them.

After a few seconds of knocking the door creaked open, and the fillies were enormously relieved to see the yellow pegasus peeking out at them.

"Oh, thank Celestia, you're home!" Diamond gasped out. She and Silver Spoon looked rather worn out, and Fluttershy quickly opened the door the rest of the way.

"Oh dear, is there a hurt animal?" Fluttershy asked. It was by far the most common emergency she was asked to deal with, and the one of the few emergencies she felt at all qualified to handle.

"No! Aliens are attacking Sweet Apple Acres!" Diamond Tiara shouted.

"Again," Silver Spoon added.

Fluttershy simply stood silently in front of them, an incredulous expression on her face.

Diamond Tiara sighed. "We came to you after checking Carousel Boutique and Sugar Cube Corner. Miss Rarity wasn't home and the Cakes said that Pinkie Pie was taking 'a characteristically long time to finish her delivery,' whatever that means. And Twilight Sparkle is probably already there with the creepy engineer woman."

"We even found a pegasus to check Rainbow Dash's place, but she wasn't home either," Silver Spoon added, "you're the only Element of Harmony we could find!"

"Oh, uh, well, if you're looking for Rainbow Dash, I know where she is," Fluttershy said, eager to divert the plea for help elsewhere, "here, come in."

"Miss Fluttershy, I don't think we have time to track down anypony else," Diamond insisted, although she and Silver stepped inside anyway, "the aliens are probably already..."

Diamond Tiara trailed off as she stared at the scene that greeted her in Fluttershy's living room.

Tellis was sitting in front of a table, staring at a chess board. Rainbow Dash was sitting on his shoulder pad, chewing her lip and rubbing a hoof against her chin.

On the other side of the board was Scootaloo, who was grinning brilliantly. It was easy to see why: her white pieces were absolutely dominating the board, with half the black pieces filling a small tray next to her.

"The Iron Warrior is here too?" Diamond Tiara asked, stunned to see the Chaos Space Marine in Fluttershy's home.

Scootaloo looked fairly annoyed when she noticed who had entered the house, but once Tellis turned to regard the newcomers, he quickly pointed to Silver Spoon.

"Hey, you look like a nerd. You play chess?"

The gray filly blinked, recoiling slightly. "What? Not much. I mean, I know how, but-"

"Is 'castling' a real thing?" Rainbow Dash interrupted.

"Er... yes, I believe so."

"Told you!" Scootaloo said triumphantly.

"Don't get all smug because you can read the BLEEP! instruction manual, Fun Size," Tellis growled.

"Okay, whatever, we can still salvage this," Rainbow Dash said, leaning down to the board, "let's make a blitzing run straight through the knight and then take out the boss!"

Silver Spoon quirked an eyebrow. "You'll be checkmated next turn if you do that. Don't you see her rook? Also, does it really take BOTH of you to beat Scootaloo? She's one of the dimmer fillies in our class."

"Oh, shut up," snapped all three chess players.

"HEY!!" Diamond Tiara shouted, seizing everyone's attention and reminding Silver Spoon that they had a good reason for being here. "This is no time for games! The Tau are back! They're at Sweet Apple Acres right now! They have tanks and everything!"

"Thank Khorne," Tellis said, quickly tilting the game board over and spilling all the pieces onto the floor, "here I thought I might have to go a whole day without stabbing someone."

Rainbow's brow furrowed. "They're back for MORE?! I thought these losers were supposed to be smart! Well, we'll take care of them!"

Scootaloo sighed in resignation as she looked down at the scattered chess pieces, and then glanced up at Tellis hopefully. "Hey, can I come with you?"

"Yes!" Tellis said.

Fluttershy smiled nervously. "Can I stay here?"

"No!" Tellis said.

Rainbow Dash quickly bolted out the doorway as Tellis scooped up Scootaloo. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon rushed to get out of the way, and Fluttershy whimpered meekly before she followed behind the Raptor Lord.

"Let's go! Applejack needs us!" Rainbow Dash shouted, preparing to launch herself in the direction of Sweet Apple Acres.

"Not so fast, Rainbabe," Tellis said as his flight pack started sputtering, "we need to make a stop first."

Rainbow Dash looked skeptical, and Fluttershy glanced up at him nervously. "Where do we need to go, Mister Murderer?"

"That Delgan guy's marketplace," Tellis said as he lifted off, "we're gonna need some more toys to play this game."


Sweet Apple Acres - upper level

Apple Bloom winced as the scream of the Tau bombers overhead was briefly swallowed by the sound of pulse bombs exploding against the roof.

The building didn't shake - which she found quite impressive, actually - but the lumen strips flickered from the ionic discharge and briefly cast them in darkness.

"Aw shucks, and just after we finished paintin' too," Apple Bloom groused as the lights shuddered back to life, "what do the Tau have against us Apples, anyhow?"

"Wasn't your family the first ponies to actually fight them?" Sweetie Bell asked. She had stacked up several random objects to make a stepladder up to the firing slit so that she could watch the battle taking place below.

"Well, okay, yeah, but they started it!" Apple Bloom complained.

"Apple Bloom?"

The two fillies turned toward Granny Smith, who was in her rocking chair in the middle of the room.

"Tell yer brother and sister to stop playin' around down there. Don't they know it's the busy season?" the wrinkled green pony complained. "Just because they have friends from out of town doesn't mean they can slack off!"

Apple Bloom sighed, her ears laying flat against her head. "They ain't playin', Granny. A buncha gray varmints are tryin' to kill us."

"Pff! Always with the excuses!" Granny Smith barked as her rocking became more agitated. "In mah day we got the harvest done even when some critter or another was stirrin' up trouble and tryin' to kill us all! And let me tell you, they weren't gray! Nosiree, we had green varmints, and black varmints, and even," she took a moment to shiver, "TEAL varmints. Those were dark days, Ah tell you what."

Sweetie Belle frowned down at Apple Bloom as the elderly mare started to nod off. "Don't they have special homes for ponies like her?"

"Not now, Sweetie," Apple Bloom grumbled, "anything interestin' goin' on down there?"

Sweetie Belle turned back toward the vision slit, squinting her eyes.

"Well, I think we're winning. But there's even more bad guys coming." Then she tilted her head to the side to look outside at an awkward angle. "Wait, what's that vehicle doing? I think it's going around the back!"

Apple Bloom winced. "Okay, yeah, that ain't good. Ah'll go warn everypony."

"Everybody," Sweetie Belle corrected.


"The humans aren't ponies. So when you say 'everypony,' that specifically excludes them. The human term, 'everybody,' on the other hoof, can refer to humans AND ponies, so-"

"Sweetie, there are aliens tryin' to kill mah family downstairs!" the yellow filly shouted.

"All right! All right! Yeesh."


Lower level


Delgan tsked as one of his men fell to the floor, writhing in pain as smoke poured off of his shoulder.

"Reik is down!"

"Then pick up his boltgun and take his spot," Delgan said calmly as he rose up and took aim with his rifle again.

"I think he's still alive!"

"Oh, good." Delgan pulled the trigger, and then ducked down under the firing slit as another Fire Warrior slumped to the dirt with a hole through its skull. "He's probably going into shock, though. Miss Apple, could you throw a blanket over him?"

"Gotcha!" Applejack dashed for the storage closet, trying to ignore the smell of burning meat lingering in her nostrils.

"Incoming grenade!" barked Dest as a small canister flew through the firing slit.

In a flash of purple, the grenade vanished. A moment later there was a brilliant flare of light from outside, and one of the bodyguards whistled.

"Nice one, Sparkle! I think that blinded a few of them!"

Delgan frowned at the purple pony. "Can you do that with any weapon? Teleport it outside, I mean?"

Twilight looked hesitant as the glow from her horn faded. "Yes. Well, I mean, there are limitations, but something that small is easy for such a short distance. Why?"

"So could you teleport a fragmentation grenade inside the cockpit of those Devilfish APCs?"

Twilight cringed. "Uh..."

"Brilliant idea!" Rarity said, ducking her head down as blue flares of energy and electric arcs sizzled around the vision slit in front of her. "Use the firing point in the kitchen. I don't think they're watching that one."

One of the men in carapace armor quickly dropped a pair of cylinders covered in dull points in front of the alicorn. "Here. Don't pull the pins until you're ready to let 'em loose, since you don't have any hands to hold the grip lever."

Twilight slowly levitated the explosives in front of her, swallowing deeply. The battle raging just a few feet away, with the thunder of bolters, the crackling of lasrifles, and the screams of dozens of pulse weapons pouring fusillades into the building, seemed to fade deep into the background as the pair of explosive weapons floated before her eyes.

They seemed surprisingly heavy, and trembled slightly in her telekinetic grip. She didn't think it had much to do with their actual weight.

"You're in a war. You're in a war," Twilight mumbled under her breath as she walked to the firing point Rarity had suggested, "this is no different from fighting Sombra, or Discord, or the changelings," she continued as she stood up on her hind legs to peer outside, "this is a fight for your life, for your friends, and for Equestria, and you can't hold back."

She paused.

"Except that this time you're fighting an enemy with no definitively evil traits. On behalf of a cruel and destructive army that Celestia herself has declared a terrible threat. All to protect some technological artifact that's not even important to us."

"Sparkle, I can hear you failing at self-rationalization from here!" snapped Dest as he swapped magazines again. "Stop moralizing and kill something!"

Twilight took a deep breath as she focused on the nearest devilfish, her eyes narrowing. She focused on the tinted windows of the cockpit, working out the distance and her estimations of the interior in her head.

The pin came out of the first grenade, and then it vanished in a burst of purple.

After a few tense seconds, the burst cannon from the Devilfish suddenly stopped firing, the entire vehicle going silent. The explosion, and its presumably gory results, had been entirely concealed by the armored cockpit, leaving nothing but the racing beat of her heart to remind her of what she had just done.

"I think she got it! Good job, Princess! We've got another one moving in on the right!" Delgan said as he took another shot. "Tch! Torso hit. It might survive that."

Rarity glanced over to the alicorn as she took the last clip of bolter ammunition from her saddlebag. "It gets much easier after the first one, darling. It's kill or be killed, after all."

Twilight grumbled something unintelligible as she tried to get a good look at the next APC.

"Hey you guys!" shouted Apple Bloom as she raced down the stairs.

Applejack rounded on her immediately. "Bloom, what're you doin' down here?! Ah told ya to stay upstairs!"

"We saw a bunch of Tau comin' round the back!" the yellow filly said breathlessly.

"What? They tryin' to sneak past us to the barn?" Applejack growled.

"Possibly." Dest turned around and faced the Apples. "I'm almost out of ammunition and have easily the best survivability of anyone here. I'll head out the back with Pie and-"

He was interrupted by a pulse shot spearing through his firing point and cutting into his backpack, throwing the Iron Warrior forward in a burst of sparks and plasma.

"Desty! NOOOOOOOOOOO!!" Pinkie screamed to the heavens as she raised her forelegs up in the air, her anguished cry momentarily drowning out the gunfire entirely.

Eventually she reached the limits of her lung capacity and collapsed onto the floor, her chest heaving as tears ran down her cheeks.

Everyone watched the heart-wrenching display with varying levels of discomfort, and Delgan coughed awkwardly.

"Uh, Pinkie?" Twilight began, dropping down from her vision slit. "I don't think Dest is dead."

The Iron Warrior rose to his feet as gas blasted from the breach in his backpack unit. "No, I'm not. I'm not even wounded." He checked his dimming helmet display as the leak was cut off, the power pack shutting down automatically. "I'm on emergency suit power, though. That's inconvenient."

"Desty... I never got to... tell you how I felt about you," Pinkie sobbed, withdrawing a handkerchief and blowing her nose noisily.

"Pinkie, you're doing this on purpose, aren't you?" Rarity deadpanned.

Suddenly the pink pony's head snapped up, her eyes burning with determination and fury. "But don't you worry, big buddy! I'll avenge you! Or my name isn't Pinkamena Diane Pie!"

"I didn't know that was your name," Dest mumbled.

A nearby explosion promptly snapped most of those present out of the poorly manufactured melodrama, and Delgan snapped his head to the side.

"That came from this building, not the barn. They're forcing their way in!"

Pinkie took up the flamer she had snatched from the armory, her eyes narrowed. "Aunt Pinkie's got this one. Mackie, back me up. Let's take these party crashers down..." A single, glistening tear crawled down her cheek as she scowled. "... For HIM."

The pink pony dashed off into the hall, moving on two legs to carry the flamer. Big Mac hesitantly followed her, too weirded out to even manage a simple confirmation as usual.

"I know she's crazy, but that was still rather touching," Dest admitted.

A scream from right behind him reminded them all that they were still in a battle, and still completely surrounded and outgunned.

"Well, Frederick's dead. ACTUALLY dead, I mean," Delgan mumbled as he raised his rifle and hunted for a target, "I don't suppose anyone would like to dramatically swear revenge for him?"

"No, I think we're good," Rarity replied curtly, "Apple Bloom, thank you for warning us. Now go back upstairs and find someplace to hide with Sweetie Belle."

"All right. Be careful, sis," Apple Bloom said nervously before galloping back up the stairs.


Sweet Apple Acres - exterior

*Move in and sweep the building! I have additional demo charges if we encounter any more blast doors!* shouted a Fire Warrior as the Tau soldiers closed in on the hole in the back door of the farmstead.

One flung a photon grenade into the building first, waiting until the telltale flash of the detonation before they rushed inside.

The team halted in the first room through the doorway, which was a storage hall. A pair of Fire Warriors moved on to the doorway, holding on either side of the door.

*I don't see a door lever or access panel...* mumbled one of them, searching the bare metal barrier and completely missing the foot pad below him.

The other Fire Warriors glanced about the storage hall.

*Is this place really a farm after all? Why is it so heavily fortified?*

*Perhaps they're used to this sort of thing,* guessed another Fire Warrior as he tossed a demolition charge to the men holding the door, *here. Blow that door open and let's clear out this hole.*

The other soldiers moved away as the soldier on point turned back to the door and prepared to adhere the charge.

Then the door opened. Which would have been quite convenient if Big Macintosh hadn't already been positioned backwards in front of the door in perfect kicking position.

A loud cracking noise came from that Fire Warrior as his armor and bones shattered, and he was flung into the wall as the demo charge bounced away across the floor.

The other Tau had their weapons up in an instant. They hesitated, however, when the first target to move into their line of sight was a bright pink pony.

A pink pony with a flamer, perhaps, but that hardly made it less ridiculous.

They found Pinkie Pie much easier to take seriously once she activated the weapon, spewing liquid flame over the interior of the hall and all over their unit.

Half a dozen Fire Warriors were swallowed entirely by the flames, while the ones furthest away quickly darted for the exit as fire licked at their feet.

"Burn, you xeno dummy-heads! Burn and flee!" Pinkie shouted as she spread the fire over the entire length of the storage hall, incidentally lighting almost every bin, barrel, and box in the room aflame.

The Fire Warriors rushed clear of the back door, and then spread out to cover the exit.

*Blasted creatures!* gasped one Fire Warrior as he ripped off a burning forearm plate and tossed it onto the ground.

Then he hit the communicator in his helmet.

*This is fire team four, reporting in! We have been repulsed from the rear entrance! The Shas'ui is down! We... We've encountered natives wielding gue'la weaponry!*

The commlink crackled in his ear.

*Wait, what? You mean the horses? They don't even have hands.*

*I'm not calling you to argue, I'm calling to report our situation and receive new orders, Shas'ui. Are you coming back around to pick us up?*

*Negative. Our heavy support has arrived. Get clear of the bunker structure and get ready to move on to the secondary building.*

*Shall we launch an assault then?*

*Wait for our signal. Considering the resistance we've faced so far, the secondary building could be trapped or even... what in the-GRENADE! THERE'S A GRENADE IN-!*

The Fire Warrior winced as a short detonation boomed in his ears. Then the commlink went silent.

He took a long, shuddering breath before he pointed to a stack of hay bales that offered reasonable cover from most angles. His squad bolted for the barrier without a word.

*Who are these creatures? Just what are we dealing with here?* he mumbled as he took up his next position.

Back in the storeroom, Pinkie Pie frowned as she watched the flames build over the storage racks along the walls, filling the air with an oily smoke that contained the distinct fragrance of baked apples.

"It's not a problem that I just lit your storage room on fire, is it?" Pinkie asked, turning to Big Macintosh.

"Nope," Big Mac said breezily. Better to lose the small portion of their crops that had been stored in their house than let enemy soldiers into their back door.

"Phew! Good thing!" the pink pony said as she smiled, dropping the flamer on the floor next to her.

"Warning. Fire suppression systems engaged," droned an electronic voice from the speakers above.

Dense white mist suddenly blasted out of the ceiling vents of the storeroom, and as it spread over the burning food and corpses below the flames died almost instantly.

Pinkie Pie whistled. "Wow! This place has everything, doesn't it?"

"Eeyup," Macintosh answered, backing away so that he wouldn't get too much of the mist on him. The documentation had noted that it was non-toxic, but it was also thick enough to choke on if one breathed in too much of it.

"Well, I don't hear them coming back. Let's go join the others again!" Pinkie said, swinging the flamer up onto her back and galloping back to the living room.

Big Macintosh watched her go, and then glanced back at the storeroom.

The flames had died down completely by now, and the vents had stopped spewing fire suppression mist into the room.

Macintosh set his jaw and headed into the room. Pinkie hadn't gotten all of the Fire Warriors that had tried to break in, and he wasn't so certain they could be left alone after retreating. Besides that, if things went badly enough in the front, they would certainly need to make sure their escape route was clear.

The red stallion poked his head out of the scorched blast doors, and he scowled as he saw traces of black and blue poking out from behind more bales of hay stacked near the barn.

"Nope," he mumbled darkly as he stepped outside.


Sweet Apple Acres - interior

"Good work, Sparkle! Just three more APCs left! Does anyone else have any frags?" Delgan shouted.

"I'm out!"

"There are more in the chimera!"

"Well, that doesn't help us out very much, does it?" the Trademaster growled before he put a bullet through another Fire Warrior and ducked back down.

He pulled back the slide on his sniper rifle, and then grimaced at the ammo counter. "Also, it seems I'm out of ammunition."

"Drivers such as I aren't issued grenades or much spare ammo," Dest grunted as he crouched next to his firing slit, "I too am out."

"This is my last magazine," Rarity announced as she continued snapping off a shot every time a black helmet appeared over the haystacks.

"Well, how many of them runts're left?" Applejack asked.

"There's still more of them than there are of us, I'm afraid," Delgan said as he drew his laspistol.

"Hey everypony-slash-human-slash-Astartes! We got the ones in the back!" Pinkie Pie announced as she bounced back into the living room.

"Welcome news. As for our supplies, while our lasweapons have a much better ammo supply, they're not nearly as effective, and there's still a very real chance of us running out of munitions before running out of targets."

"That's quite optimistic," Dest said grimly as he took up the lasgun of one of the dead bodyguards, "you see that vehicle pulling into the back?"

Delgan flinched away from a pulse rifle shot that sizzled through the firing slit and splashed against the wall behind him, and then cautiously peered out at the road.

Behind the depleted firing lines, there was a hovering vehicle slowly floating into position. It was of a similar model as the wrecked and gutted automated lifter that was parked outside the barn, which made sense. It would've been difficult for the Tau to stuff their artifact into a Devilfish troop transport.

There was something already in the bed of the lifter, however, and Delgan's expression darkened as he saw two heavy-set armor suits jump onto the ground, each one hefting a cannon almost as big as a man.

"Broadsides. They've got bloody Broadsides out there." He dropped below the lip of the firing slit, his hands gripping his pistol tightly.

"I'm hoping that's an insulting nickname you humans gave them because they're fat and easy to shoot," Rarity said as she squinted her eyes, "also, we have another of those Devilfish coming from this side."

"Well, that doesn't make too much of a difference at this point," Dest grumbled.

"Except it has a really long gun of some sort on top," Rarity added as she dropped down from the chair, her boltgun empty.

Delgan slapped a hand over his face. "A Hammerhead. They have a Hammerhead battle tank too. By the Dark Gods..."

"The heavier weapons haven't opened fire yet," Dest noted, "I believe we've already dispatched their leadership, so they're probably discussing their battle plan. But when they do decide on a target, this facility will not hold against that level of firepower."

Applejack felt her hackles rise as she noticed a distinct shift in the fighting spirit of the soldiers in the room. They had all turned away from their firing points, hugging their weapons grimly and casting frequent glances at the route to the back door. The pulse fire coming at the farmstead had slowed to a trickle as well, the Tau soldiers finally relieved of the barrage of fire coming from the farmstead.

"What're y'all doing? Ya can't just give up!" Applejack insisted.

"Although continuing to fight with no possibility of success IS an option, I'm open to alternatives," Dest remarked, "heroic last stands are unfashionable in Chaos Legions."

"Miss Sparkle, you mentioned earlier that it may be wise to surrender the artifact and avoid a fight," Delgan noted, "if you had any particular ideas for how to negotiate such an arrangement as the enemy is preparing to wipe us out, now would be an excellent time to put them into play."

The scream of the Sunshark bombers making another pass overhead had the soldiers ducking reflexively, and Twilight gulped.

"There's gotta be somethin' we can do!" Applejack insisted desperately. "We can't let 'em win! Twi, doncha have a spell to help us out?"

Twilight silently stepped past Rarity and climbed up on the chair, her horn flickering.

Really, she didn't have any particular idea of how she might break or disable a Tau battle tank with magic (at least now that they were out of grenades). She knew it could be done, certainly, and she could think of a few spells off-hand that might distract or inconvenience the war machine, but she wasn't exactly used to fighting armored vehicles.

"I... I can shield the house," Twilight said as she stared out at the Tau Fire Warriors that were taking up a formation around the hammerhead gunship, "I mean... for a little while, at least." Barriers were not indestructible, and that was a VERY large gun. She could see some of the Fire Warriors outside were pointing to parts of the farmstead, while another was trying to wave the tank toward the barn.

"Well, that will give us some time, I suppose," Delgan reasoned, "are you sure you have no offensive powers you can use to eliminate the heavy units?"

Twilight winced as her horn glowed. "Well..." she trailed off.

Twilight wasn't completely sure what happened next. One moment she was studying the armored vehicle and trying to think of a spell that would work with the various unique and unknown properties of a battle tank. The next moment a beam of red stabbed into the side of the tank, and that entire half of the vehicle glowed a bright crimson from the catastrophic heat buildup.

And then the next moment, explosions.

Every human and pony jumped to the firing slits as the Hammerhead detonated, throwing the surrounding Fire Warriors to the ground and smashing many of them with debris and shrapnel.

"You did it!" Pinkie cheered.

"No, I didn't! That wasn't me!" Twilight insisted. "There was this big red beam that came from nowhere and hit it, and then the tank blew up!"

"A lascannon?" Dest asked. "But even if we had such a weapon, who-"

He was interrupted by a vox signal rune glowing briefly on his still-dimming visor display.

"Acolyte?!" the Iron Warrior shouted, switching his vox receiver to external speaker mode.

"Ah, Lord Dest. You're still alive and conscious. I wasn't sure since your signal is so weak at present."

Gaela's deadpan, typically disinterested voice filled the Apples' living room, and there wasn't a man or pony who wasn't almost moved to tears to hear it.

"Gaela! You're all right!" Twilight had to fight off the urge to actually tackle-hug Dest in joy, so glad was she to hear the Dark Acolyte's voice.

"I must assume that was you who just dispatched the gunship," Dest said as he raised his new lasgun and then started opening fire again on the Tau infantry. The other humans save Delgan promptly did the same, their morale restored.


Sweet Apple Acres - barn


Gaela was positioned in front of the main door's firing slit, both arms supporting a lascannon that had been ripped from the wreck of the gunship and now rested against her hip. Steam blasted from the jury-rigged coolant block she had grafted to the side of the weapon, and a thick trail of sparking cables ran along the ground to connect to several power hook-ups in the walls.

"You've done well to hold off the assault long enough for me to prepare. Next firing cycle is in nine seconds," Gaela said, sounding slightly bored.

"Acolyte, there are several units making a break for your position," Dest advised through the vox, "they know where that blast came from."

"Acknowledged. Crabapple, engage active scanning and pinpoint enemy infantry. Upload position data to local noosphere data node. Glass Cannon, engage."

+Unit Crabapple has confirmed sensor lock on enemy units. Unit grudge shall impart additional satisfaction upon termination of the enemy.+

+Affirmative. Sensor lock received. Kill the xeno.+

The boom of an autocannon came from beside her as Glass Cannon opened fire through the vision slit, its heavy gun punching through the scant cover available to the Fire Warriors trying to move on the barn.

"Charging cycle complete," Gaela said as she lifted the lascannon barrel and fit it through the firing slit, "may the Dark Gods guide my fire."

The sizzle of superheating atmosphere came from the weapon as another thick spear of red lanced out at a Devilfish that had been staying still for much of the battle. It too exploded as the laser pierced the vehicle's power core, spewing more armor shrapnel over the road.

"Good shot, Dark Acolyte," Dest noted, "but that transport had already been disabled. If you want to help out, we could really use a lascannon against these broadside heavy suits."

Gaela frowned as she pulled her weapon up, steam blasting from the coolant rig. "Negative. I cannot get line of sight on the battlesuits from here, nor can I leave the barn to join you."

"Sparkle can affect short-range teleports. Is this feasible?"

"It is not," Gaela replied, "my current weapon is currently drawing upon the facility's main power supply via a modified conduit. I would be unable to quickly establish the same sort of link in the farmstead."

She paused. "On that note, this structure has atrocious firing lines considering its position relative to the rest of the agri-facility. If Dark Acolyte Benil wasn't already dead, I'd have him reprimanded. I don't think he took this construction job very seriously."

"Yes, he certainly should have put more thought into the defensive qualities of the pony farm he was building," Dest snorted, "we still have a serious problem. Our best guns are depleted and we're just barely keeping the grays out of here."

Gaela frowned as she watched the temperature gauge on the lascannon fall back into the safe zone. "Agreed. And so long as their bombers can strafe us at will, they can keep us pinned inside until further reinforcements join the battle, if necessary."

She fired the lascannon again, vaporizing a wagon and two Fire Warriors that were sheltering behind it.

"We'll hold out for as long as we can," the Dark Acolyte decided as she pulled away from the firing slit and the increasingly heavy pulse fire that was splashing around it, "Tau are not hardy creatures. If we can inflict enough damage, they will cut their losses and break from combat."

"Very well, Acolyte," Dest replied, "iron within."

"Iron without," Gaela finished as steam wafted about her robes.


Barn exterior

*They have a LASCANNON in there too?*

The Fire Warriors grimaced behind their helmets as their commlinks crackled in their ears.

*And an autocannon, apparently! We need you to break into the secondary structure and silence them!*

*Do we still have the numbers for that? We lost more than half the squad trying to break into the FIRST structure!* growled a Fire Warrior.

*We're taking the main bunker apart with the Broadside battlesuits! But they may not survive an assault on the secondary fire point!*

The gathered Fire Warriors nodded grimly, and a pair of them made a sprint for the barn without further orders.

*Place the demolition charges on the secondary entry door!* shouted one soldier as he stood up. *We'll cover you from here!*

*This entire assault has already fallen apart,* grumbled another, *what is this blasted machine that's worth the lives of so many?*

*Keep such doubts to yourself, Shas'la. Our sacrifice is only in vain if we fail,* mumbled another.

Another stream of red poured out of the barn, causing the Tau soldiers to cringe. They couldn't see whatever the lascannon was shooting at from behind the farmstead, but whatever it was surely wouldn't survive a hit.

*What do you think we'll find inside the building protecting the device?* asked one of the covering soldiers as his eyes scanned the fields for threats.

*The way this fight has been going?* snorted another, *Half a dozen psyker natives, ten Astartes, and a Titan.*

*I hope not. I don't like psykers,* joked another as they chuckled ruefully.

A heavy thumping noise came from behind them, and the Fire Warrior that had more or less taken over as squad leader whirled around. The sound had come from some distance away - mid-rifle range at least - but it wasn't any sort of weapon discharge he could recognize.

And sure enough "pony kicking a barrel" wasn't the kind of threat he was expecting on a battlefield.

The barrel slammed into the Fire Warrior and split apart, splashing the other two soldiers with a bizarre shrapnel of wood, nails, and lots of apples.

The two remaining Tau seemed stunned at the sight, staring down at their fruit-laden companion as the Fire Warrior groaned in pain.

Another thump alerted them to another incoming barrel, and one soldier threw himself to the ground as the next barrel sailed through the air. His comrade wasn't so quick, and another Fire Warrior was smashed into the ground before more apples bounced all over the alien fighters.

The remaining Fire Warrior recovered his wits and rolled to face the source, his prone movement sending swaths of fruit rolling all about.

His assailant wasn't hard to spot; next to a large cart was a small wall of barrels lined up in a row, and behind them a large red pony with a blond mane was facing away from them.

The Tau took aim, but Big Macintosh was already in position to send the next of his own projectiles. With a hefty kick another barrel was sent spinning end over end toward the soldiers.

The Fire Warrior adjusted his aim toward the flying container and fired. The shot struck true, blowing apart the side of the barrel and the iron bands that held it together.

That ended up turning the heavy wooden projectile into a scattered blast of apples and wood, and the Tau soldier yelped and covered himself as fruit rained down on top of him.

After being nearly buried in apples, the Fire Warrior growled and pushed himself up to his feet.

He didn't seem to consider first that the ground was covered inch to inch with small round objects, and his hoof slipped on an apple and returned him unwittingly to the prone position.

*Damned primitives!* cursed the Tau as he rose to his knees, pausing to wipe away an apple that had been squashed against his helmet sensors. *Ambushing convoys, scavenging gue'la gear, and now they're throwing crops at us!*

He shook his head in disgust before bringing up his pulse rifle again.

His pulse rifle went flying out of his hand as Big Macintosh struck the Fire Warrior in the shoulder with a foreleg, having crossed the distance between them while the soldier had been distracted.

The Tau shouted in pain and fell backwards, and then reached for his combat knife with his off-hand as the stallion loomed over him.

Big Mac reared up onto his hind legs with an angry snort, and then brought his front hooves down onto the Fire Warrior's chest. He wasn't sure whether the cracking sound that resulted was from the soldier's armor or its body, and he didn't particularly care; the hand drawing the knife went slack, and the intruder stopped making noise.

His attention snapped to the other soldiers that were slowly recovering from the earlier impacts, and his eyes narrowed. Big Macintosh waded through the apple spill with grim determination and smashed a hoof firmly into the next soldier's back, grinding him into the ground and silencing him.

The next Fire Warrior had already made it to his hands and knees, and was groping about for his weapon dizzily as he stumbled about the apple puddle.

Big Mac turned around and gave the staggered warrior a solid back kick, finishing him off. The armor plating split loudly from the force, and the Fire Warrior was sent flying like a rag doll through the air.

Big Mac didn't have time to see where the soldier landed, or even get his bearings after the kick. As soon as the last Tau was dispatched a pair of screaming blue bolts slammed into his left flank, and the crimson stallion released a pained, breathless gasp before he collapsed onto the ground.

*Got him! About time too. The bastard took out the rest of the squad,* snarled one of two remaining Fire Warriors, *I know it's fairly moot at this point, but why the blazes are the natives helping the gue'la in the first place?*

*Hush, I'm almost done here.*

The first soldier turned to his fellow survivor, who was still fiddling with a demolition charge on the side entrance of the barn.

*Isn't that thing set up yet?*

*Quiet! I've never actually used these in the field before!* barked the other one as he set the timer.

*Hold on... did that do it?*

The counter on the bomb started counting down, and the two Fire Warriors held position on either side of the door, ducking away.

A sizzling blast came from the shaped fusion charge as it vaporized the blast door, and the Fire Warriors waited several seconds before one of them tossed a photon grenade into the breach.

*So it's just us, then?*

The other Tau grunted a vaguely affirmative reply, and then stepped in front of the breach, pulse rifle aimed.

His torso vanished into a gory mess as an autocannon round punched into it, and his remaining companion stumbled backward in shock.

*F-Forget this!* the survivor turned and made a sprint away from the structure, making sure to put plenty of cover between him and the barn.

*To whoever's leading this disaster at this point, the attack on the secondary facility has failed!* shouted the Fire Warrior, linking his comms to all active channels. *My squad's been wiped out and I'm falling back!*

*Shas'la, we NEED those heavy weapons taken down! We're getting ripped apart out here!*

*Isn't there a power conduit we can blow somewhere?*

*I don't know! This area is completely different from the recon reports!*

The lone Fire Warrior stopped as he heard a roaring noise coming from above, and he glanced up at the Sunshark bombers making yet another run on the agri-facility.

He snorted. The pulse bombs they carried would have been perfect for eliminating targets hiding in the orchards or smashing flimsy wooden buildings, but against the hardened ferrocrete bunkers they had found here the weapons could barely put cracks in the surface layer.

*Still, I suppose it's better to have them than not,* the Tau soldier grumbled to himself as the bombers flew past the farmstead.

Oddly enough, the engine roar only seemed to get louder after they left. Almost as if there were another flyer coming up behind him.




Sweet Apple Acres - interior

Delgan shouted and dove away as railguns fired on the building, the noisy whine of the magnetic accelerators swallowing the comparatively soft noise of the discharge.

The wall held. Barely. Great cracks appeared under the firing slit as the hyper-accelerated rounds punched through the duralloy reinforcement layer, straining the slabs of ferrocrete under the wallpaper but failing to puncture them completely. A smart missile salvo followed the railgun barrage, but this did much less to break the farmstead's defenses.

"Another fusillade like that and the wall will start coming down," warned Dest. He had already abandoned that side of the building and was trying to pin down anyone moving toward the barn.

"Twi, barrier, now!" Applejack yelled.

Twilight took a deep breath as her horn glowed, and then in a flash of light a sheet of bright purple washed down from above to cover the farmstead.

Delgan grinned. "Good show, Sparkle! Everybody, aim for the Broadsides while the shield is up! If we can-"

"No, wait! Don't shoot!" Twilight shouted. "The barrier works in both directions! If you shoot out at them, it will just bring it down faster!"

Delgan blinked. "What? A two-way barrier? What good is that?" the Trademaster complained.

"Well, sorry! We're a little new to gunfights here!" the alicorn groused.

"You've bought us some time," Dest reasoned, "and further complicated the Tau's assault. It will do."

The whine of the magnetic accelerators started up again, and Twilight's eyes bulged as the broadside battlesuits discharged their next barrage into the barrier.

"AAAAUGH!!" the ponies cringed as Twilight screamed in pain and collapsed onto the floor.

"TWI! Are ya okay?" Applejack asked as she and Pinkie rushed to the alicorn's aid.

"Yes! I'm... I'm fine!" Twilight assured them. Her eyes were squeezed shut and sweat started to bead on her head, but her horn was still glowing brightly and the shield was still obviously in place. "I just... I wasn't prepared for that kind of feedback! I'll be okay! I can still hold it!"

"I'm not sure you should. They don't look like they're giving up out there," Rarity noted.

"If they bring down one wall, they can get a clear firing line into this structure," Dest noted, "once that happens, we'll have no choice but to fall back to the barn, and they'll have every chance to cut us down in the attempt. Especially with those bombers still active."

"Hrrrrrrg!" Twilight clenched her teeth as another wave of railgun rounds pounded the barrier, along with a steady stream of pulse rifle fire. "Okay... yeah, I'm definitely reaching my limit, here! That's just too much energy to hold back!"

"Well, what're we supposed to do, then?" Applejack demanded of the Chaos Space Marine. "Is there any point to drawing it out any longer? If we gotta run, let's get the fillies and RUN!"

"You might want to hold off on that," Delgan said as he peered out of the firing slit, "I believe Miss Sparkle will be relieved in a moment."

"By who?" Rarity asked, raising an eyebrow.


Delgan slid into a seated position, his back to the damaged wall and a tired smile on his reconstructed face. "Take a wild guess."


Sweet Apple Acres - exterior

*Kor'vre, keep a close eye on the target structure. We believe the enemy will break soon.*

The pilot of the Sunshark bomber glanced at his display board as his craft turned to sail over the farmstead again.

*Shas'la, do you want us to drop a few eggs on that shield dome? We're still on standby.*

*Uh, hold on for... WHOA! Damn it, get to the side! That autocannon will cut us apart if we-*

The pilot turned off the commlink with an aggravated groan.

*It looks pretty bad down there. And without a ranking Shas, we're in a bad spot too,* noted the co-pilot.

*Perhaps it's time to take matters into our own hands,* mumbled the pilot, glancing to the side briefly as a speedy blue bird of some kind zipped past them, *run a scan and see if you can't find a power transformer or coupling box. This place is a damn FARM; they couldn't have built EVERYTHING to withstand pulse discharges.*

*Roger that. Let's see...*

A thumping noise from outside briefly distracted both of the air caste crew from their sortie, and the head pilot glanced at his readouts. *Did we just hit a bird?*

*Must have been a pretty big bird. Or maybe one of the flying natives?*

The pilot snorted. *Forget it. Get me those scans.*

*Yes, of course! Let's see... wait, we have a new power armor signature! Outside the building!*

*Just one?* the pilot was already tilting their craft to the side to make the turn. *Well, it's not a power relay, but it'll do.*

As the bomber turned around, the pilot saw the same blue thing from before flying away, its rainbow-colored tail whipping about behind it.

*Looks like the suit signature is... a flyer? Seriously? They put rockets on the back of a Space Marine? They can DO that?*

*Gue'la will do all sorts of crazy things with those super-soldier monstrosities,* the pilot spat, *now let us teach them the folly of defiance.*

And then the melta bomb attached to their fuselage exploded.

The other Sunshark bomber, which had been holding to its patrol pattern, immediately started taking evasive maneuvers after seeing its wing mate suddenly detonate into a ball of flame for no apparent reason.

*Shas'la, report! Where did that shot come from? You reported no active anti-air weaponry!* shouted the pilot angrily, checking all his scopes for signs of energy discharges.

*We're a little busy down here, Kor'vre!* spat back a Fire Warrior.

*A little busy? My wingman just spontaneously combusted! I can't find the weapon source!*

*Well, what do you want US to do about it? We have our hands full with the damn bunker! The shielded bunker with no apparent barrier generator! It can't... wait... oh, NOW what?!*

*Shas'la? Hey! Don't you dare-*

His conversation was cut short both by the commlink going dead and by the much more surprising incidence of the bomber cockpit running smack into something during its evasive twists.

The Tau pilot blinked. A yellow pegasus with a pale pink mane was plastered spread-eagle against the cockpit window, her eyes squeezed shut in terror.

*And what is THIS, then?* grumbled the pilot.

*Is that a native? Huh. Odd colors,* the co-pilot murmured.

*Is it still alive?* the pilot's concern rose considerably as he noticed the small creature trying to push its face off the cockpit window without completely dislodging itself and getting flung into the bomber's jet stream.

The pilot's concern turned to alarm as he finally noticed the item that was hanging from the pony's neck on a loop of thick string.

*A MELTA BOMB!! That thing has a gue'la melta bomb!* the pilot shrieked.

The pilot immediately sent the craft into a deep turn, the frame of the Sunshark groaning from the stress.

*Wait, hold on! You're not watching where we're headed, Kor'vre!*

*If that thing lives to arm the bomb, then we're headed for our graves, Kor'ui!* growled the pilot as he started to do a barrel roll.

This maneuver seem to do the trick, and Fluttershy yelped loudly before she slipped off of the cockpit window and barely avoided getting sucked into one of the bomber's turbines, flailing wildly through the air the whole time.

This left the pilot's view unobstructed, finally, which gave him an excellent close-up view of the Apples' brand new preservatory towers.

*Pull up! Pull-*

The second bomber smashed itself to pieces against the tower, breaking the structure open and spreading literally tons of apples out over the ground among the chunks of burning debris.

Fluttershy went spinning off in another direction, and may have had her own crash-landing had a speedy blue pegasus not swooped in and grabbed her, stabilizing the timid pony.

"Fluttershy, that was awesome!" Rainbow Dash congratulated the other pegasus, holding her up as her wings beat furiously. "You didn't even have to use the bomb Tellis gave you!"

Fluttershy's eyes rolled about dizzily. "C-Could someone stop the battle, please? I'd l-like to get off."

"Just give it another minute or so," Rainbow said as she let go of her yellow friend. Fluttershy took a few seconds to stabilize herself, but eventually recovered enough to hover properly on her own.

Once she did recover, the pegasi stared down at the carnage below and took stock of the battlefield. Bodies and rubble painted blue and black littered Sweet Apple Acres, but the farmstead was still surrounded and the magic barrier around it quivered and flickered unsteadily.

"Do you think everypony's okay?" Fluttershy asked, her front hooves pressed together anxiously.

"They are now that we're here," Rainbow said decisively, "c'mon Flutters!"

*Did we just lose the bombers? You can't be serious!*

One Fire Warrior beckoned to his squad before rushing past the Broadsides to one of the two APCs that were still functional.

*We're getting out of here! Move it!*

*The general retreat has not been called,* crackled the heavy electronic voice of the Broadside battlesuit as it turned away from its target.

*There's no one of rank left to call it! We can't hold this position any longer!* protested another soldier as he bolted past.

*We still possess sufficient combat strength,* the heavy suit protested, *we must recover the device, or-*


Tellis descended like a meteor, smashing feet-first into one Broadside battlesuit and bowling it over while a vox-amplified scream echoed over the farm.

He turned immediately to the next one, his hand trailing arcs of red lightning before he punched one set of lightning claws through the battlesuit's head.

He yanked the claw out and hopped away as the suit tried to retaliate, swinging its massive weapon about like a club while sparks poured from its sensor nodes.

"Here ya go, squirt. This should be a pretty good vantage point for the rest of the fight," Tellis said, darting behind the blinded Broadside and placing Scootaloo on top of its ruined head component.

"Er, couldn't they shoot me pretty easily from here?" the young pegasus asked as she looked around.

Tellis dodged out of the way as the first Broadside tried to fire its railgun from its prone position. "Oh, believe me: these guys are going to be WAY too busy to bug you!"

Tellis sliced his claws through the barrel of the downed Broadside's railgun, effectively disabling the weapon. Then he skimmed lightly over the ground, leaving the cumbersome battlesuits behind in favor of softer and more numerous targets.

*Hurry! Get in! Move!* shouted a Fire Warrior, practically shoving his squadmate into the entry hatch of their Devilfish.

He shouldered his way in and hit the exit hatch button. *Go! Go!* he shouted to the vehicle pilot.

The squeal of the hatch servos grinding to a halt stopped his heart dead. The cracking of the door mechanisms as a pair of power-armored hands wrenched it open sent him spinning around, his finger already on the trigger of his pulse rifle.

He managed to release a burst as the Raptor Lord reached for him, but after that he couldn't manage much more than screams.

The Devilfish started moving when the wings of Tellis' flight pack vanished inside it, and the APC turned sharply to avoid the firing lane from the barn while it built up speed.

Then it started shaking and bucking wildly, the desperate cries of pain and terror within muffled considerably by the vehicle armor.

"Weren't those guys trying to run away?" Scootaloo mused to herself as she remained seated atop the Broadside battlesuit.

The other Broadside stood itself up, its ruined railgun hanging at his side. *Is your weapon still functional?* he asked the other battlesuit. *I am down to my smart missile systems.*

*Yes, my railgun is active, but I only have secondary sensors. My targeting uplinks are gone. I can't get a lock for my own missiles.* The blinded battlesuit paused. *Also, is there something on my head? I thought I heard something up there.*

The other Broadside quickly brushed Scootaloo off of its squadmate, eliciting a frightened yelp from the orange filly as she was sent tumbling to the ground.

*Listen to me! I'm going to uplink my sensor outputs to your suit controls! It will take a few moments to adjust, but it's our last chance to kill the Astartes!*

*Good idea,* the other suit agreed, another burst of fire puffing out of its sensor suite. *I'm opening up my target system to the local combat mapping network. Go ahead.*

Then its squadmate vanished in a stream of hot red light.

"Glass Cannon, engage the remaining Devilfish," Gaela commanded, pulling the coolant release on the lascannon and ejecting another burst of steam into the air, "Crabapple, notify me of any additional units entering the engagement zone." She was standing at the corner of the farmstead now, out in the open, while the power cables attached to her weapon trailed behind her back to the barn.

The automatas' replies were lost in the roar of Glass Cannon's autocannon as it chased after the last Devilfish fleeing the area, a trail of ammo casings littering the ground behind it.

The remaining Broadside brought up its railgun, but it spent an overlong time twitching its aim back and forth to try and line up its weapon. It was exceptionally difficult to aim its oversized primary weapon without a proper targeting uplink, and the Dark Acolyte was not an especially easy target.

Gaela checked the gauges of her own gun, and then frowned under her helmet.

She ditched the lascannon as the Broadside fired, the hypersonic projectiles burning a trail of superheated air behind it as they passed by close enough to unsettle her robes.

The Dark Acolyte unslung her power axe and plucked her plasma pistol from her thigh plate, charging at the battlesuit while it reloaded its railgun. A shot from her plasma pistol cored the suit's shoulder, the heavy plating crumbling under the catastrophic energy before the limb lost what function it had left.

Gaela tightened the grip of her bionic arm as she rushed into melee range. "By the Dark Gods, the manifest elements of the Omnissiah, do I sentence you to death, xeno filth!"

The battlesuit tried to rush forward at the last minute, hoping its greater bulk would see it through the charge.

The power axe struck home, and the Broadside's heavy armor split like paper before the blade, its own momentum working to drive the edge deeper and faster than Gaela could manage on her own. The Dark Acolyte's armored boots dug furrows into the ground as she was pushed back, overcome by her opponent's mass.

By the time both combatants stopped moving, however, the power axe was lodged deep within the Broadside's pilot compartment, and the suit's systems were flickering as power drained away.

"Hold on Gaela!" shouted Rainbow Dash as she dove toward the confrontation. "I've got your back!"

The Dark Acolyte levered her axe free of the battlesuit and then kicked the suit away onto the ground in a heap.

"Oh," Rainbow quickly slowed her descent, moving into a hover before she hit the ground, "I guess I was too late. Sorry."

"Not at all. Your removal of the flyers was extremely helpful. Thank you," the Dark Acolyte said with casual sincerity as she searched for more targets. Rainbow Dash blinked repeatedly, surprised to hear such a thing from the Mechanicus priestess.

The Devilfish that had been invaded was now pitching and jerking wildly, no doubt due to Tellis having forced his way into the cockpit. The other APC that had fled had already been grounded from having its engine punctured by autocannon fire, and Glass Cannon was scouring the area for survivors to finish off.

The barrier around the farmhouse had fallen as well, and she could see the blast doors beginning to unlock.

"Crabapple," she spoke loudly, her voice carrying to the automata probe waiting next to the lascannon, "began a local sensor sweep for survivors. Send notice of any findings to Lord Tellis."

+Affirmative. Unit Crabapple will delight in the suffering and extermination of the foe.+

Gaela rolled her eye as her helmet began to disengage, exposing her face once more to the unfiltered air thick with the scent of smoke and burning apples.

"Is... Is it over?" Applejack mumbled, stepping out of her home with a slightly dazed expression while she stared at the surrounding carnage.

It wasn't hard to imagine why. Even if the damage this time around wasn't as bad as the LAST time her home had been attacked by the Tau, that incident had been a matter of coincidence. The ponies had never been the actual target of an alien assault before.

"Gaela, you're all right!" Twilight shouted, pushing past Applejack with Rarity and Pinkie following behind her. Dest emerged a few seconds later, his helmet held under his arm.

"Of course. And what of our forces? Did we lose many?" the Dark Acolyte asked calmly.

Before any of the ponies could answer, Tellis erupted from the cockpit of the Devilfish he had entered, his armor dripping with blue blood as he released a furious screech into the air.

Rainbow Dash just covered her ears, but every other pony ducked their heads in shock and terror as the daemonic shriek reverberated through Sweet Apple Acres.

"What is he DOING?!" Twilight shouted as she contemplated whether to put up her shield again.

"Oh, he's just feeding his armor," Gaela said with a shrug.

Rainbow Dash nodded. "He's a little overdramatic about it, isn't he?"

"He... FEEDS his... what?" Rarity asked, glancing down at Twilight in the hopes that she could offer an explanation.

"How do you 'feed' an inanimate object?" the purple pony asked as the final echoes of the screech petered out.

"Your presumption is in error. His armor is far from inanimate," Gaela said in explanation.

By this point Tellis had jumped out of the Devilfish wreck and was walking toward the survivors, his armor gleaming. All traces of the glancing hits and collected viscera from his opponents were gone, and the wings of his flight pack rose and fell slightly as if it were breathing.

"I have GOT to stop by here more often. I think your place has seen more action than the base in the Everfree did!" the Raptor Lord said cheerfully.

Applejack resented how happy he seemed to be about it, but forced herself to thank the man. "Well, Ah appreciate ya comin' to clear 'em out. Again."

"It's cool," Tellis assured her, "I was losing anyway."

"I want a rematch, by the way!" yelled Scootaloo.

Before Twilight could wonder aloud what they were talking about, Gaela cleared her throat.

"Sparkle, if we may return to my earlier question: What are our casualties?"

"Oh, sorry! Three of Delgan's men were hit. One of them is still alive, though. Dest took a hit, but he's okay," the alicorn explained.

"Really? Four guys down is pretty good for a bunch of mortals," Tellis noted, "you guys aren't bad!"

This raised several eyebrows.

"No, we only had three casualties. Dest is okay," Twilight insisted.

Tellis tilted his head to the side. "Yeah, I heard you. And what about that other pony?"

"... What other pony?"

"Wait..." Applejack felt her heart sinking as she took a mental count of all the ponies that were either present or presumably safely hidden upstairs. "Where's Big Macintosh?!"

A horrified scream came from the other side of the farmstead, and the equines' faces went pale.

Applejack was the first to bolt away, but Gaela was close behind. Twilight stumbled briefly, and then raced after them as Pinkie, Rarity, and Rainbow shared a pensive look.

"Okay, well, you guys go take care of that," Tellis said with some confusion as the rest of the ponies and even Dest took off, "the rust bucket found a survivor, so I'm gonna go get him. Cool? Okay then."

"No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no..." Twilight chanted as she raced up to the small group gathered near the barn in a veritable pond of apples.

Fluttershy was huddled off to the side, sobbing freely as she covered her eyes. Applejack and Gaela were stooped over a large red body, the former quivering with equal parts fury and grief.

Twilight slowed down, and it took a few seconds to find her voice. "Is... Is he-"

"Not quite. He's still alive," Gaela admitted, "but it's bad. Very bad."

Twilight swallowed deeply, trying not to look at the body ahead of her. "Okay... I can fix this. I know what to do," the alicorn said shakily before her horn started to glow.

"Ya big red idiot," Applejack whispered through clenched teeth, "what were ya doin' out here to begin with?"

"Helping me, it looks like," Gaela snorted, casting a contemptuous glare at the dead Tau nearby, "early in the battle Crabapple detected several Fire Warriors moving into my blind spot. Only two of them survived to breach the barn, and were easily repulsed. I may not have survived a more determined assault."

Twilight's spell reached completion, and Big Macintosh was suddenly engulfed in purple.

Applejack turned toward the alicorn, waiting for an explanation.

"Th-This will slow down his bodily functions. It sh-should keep him alive until we can get him to the clinic," Twilight stuttered, sounding quite unsure of herself.

Gaela briefly glanced over at the other ponies and the Iron Warrior that were approaching the site of the disaster. Winona followed behind them with her head bowed, having emerged from wherever the collie had hidden during the battle.

"I, uh, I found a blanket near one of the destroyed carts," Rainbow Dash said, offering up a pale scrap of cloth nervously, "so..."

Gaela wordlessly took the blanket and tossed it over the body behind her, preventing the newcomers from seeing the extent of the damage. Then she dropped to one knee in front of Twilight so that she could look the alicorn in the eyes.

"Sparkle, the damage to Macintosh's body is extensive. Putting aside his legs, one of his lungs is destroyed and his heart is fatally damaged. Considering that he took a pair of pulse rifle blasts unarmored, it's astounding that he got off that lightly, but are you certain that your medicine or magic can save him? Can your medicae specialists regenerate or replace a major organ?"

Twilight bit her lip anxiously. "I... I think... I mean..."

"Gaela, you got another idea?" Applejack asked. Her voice was surprisingly steady.

"I do. If we can get him to Ferrous Dominus while he's still alive, we can save him," the Dark Acolyte said, "it is within our ability to craft entirely new organs and implant them safely."

"Well, then what're we waiting for?" Pinkie asked. "Twilight, teleport there with him!"

The alicorn winced. "I can't! Teleporting isn't that easy! Over that kind of distance, with another body, and after I've used so much magic power already..."

"It would be inadvisable anyway. Your teleport would be detected immediately and you'd be terminated on sight, in all likelihood," Dest grumbled, his frown tightening.

At this point Delgan had emerged from the farmstead as well, and was buttoning his coat as he approached the group curiously.

"We may have no other option besides piling into the Chimera and making full speed back to the fortress," Gaela admitted, "Sparkle, how long will that spell last?"

"Uh... maybe... half an hour? I hope?" Twilight answered.

"Well, ya can just cast it again, can't ya?" Applejack asked.

"Yes, but... it doesn't actually STOP his body from functioning, just kind of slows it down. I don't know how long he'll last even if I keep the spell going."

"Well, we don't have any other option, do we?" Rarity asked as she gently tended to Fluttershy.

"Any other option than to take MY transport?" Delgan asked with a quirked eyebrow.

Rarity glared sharply at him. "Oh, do NOT fight us on this, Norris! That's Applejack's brother on the ground, there!"

The Trademaster glanced over at the heap covered by the blanket. "You know, one of my men is dying too. Reik is-"

"Nobody cares, Delgan," Gaela interrupted, "Sparkle, can you levitate Macintosh to the transport? It will probably be better to move him that way than by hand." Delgan sighed and turned away.

"Wait! I have an idea!" Rainbow said, waving a foreleg in the air. "Let's fly him into the fortress! That's gotta be faster!"

"Ya can't possibly carry Mac on yer own, Dash," Applejack pointed out.

Rainbow Dash frowned. "Well... maybe we can use a stretcher, and with Fluttershy and Twilight helping..."

The roar of a flight pack came from above, and the ponies were briefly distracted from their grim task as Tellis landed heavily behind them.

"Hey, Dash! What's your favorite organ?" the Mad Angel asked. Scootaloo was on his shoulder and he was holding a struggling Fire Warrior upside-down by the leg.

"We don't got time for yer games, Tellis," Applejack said before her eyes narrowed at the hapless Tau soldier, "maybe later."

A light bulb clicked on over Rainbow Dash's head.

"Whoa, is that Big Macintosh?" Scootaloo asked, her eyes going wide.

"WAS that Big Macintosh," Tellis corrected, "grammar is important. So! Organs? Anyone?"

"Forget that, Tellis!" Rainbow said, zipping up to the Raptor Lord and beckoning to the glowing body with her leg. "We need your help!"

"What needs stabbin'?" the Iron Warrior asked.

"Rainbow, are you sure about this?" Twilight asked nervously. She was pretty sure she knew where Dash was going with this.

The blue pegasus nodded. "Tellis, you're super-fast AND super-strong. We need you to carry Macintosh to Ferrous Dominus so that we can get him fixed up!"

The Chaos Space Marine waited a few seconds for any hint of laughter. He detected none.

"Yeah, no, that's not happening," Tellis finally replied, "do I look like a shock trooper or a sky taxi? I don't do medivacs."

The others glared at the Khornate, including even Gaela and Dest, but Rainbow Dash simply rolled her eyes.

"Come on, Tellis! Be cool!" the speedy pegasus said.

"You make a persuasive case," Tellis admitted, "all right, fine. Let's do this." The others recoiled slightly at the immediate turnaround, giving each other uneasy glances.

He walked up to the large red body on the ground, casually tossing the captured Tau to Dest along the way. "Here grunt, hold this."

Dest let the alien hit the ground in front of him. Then he raised a leg and crushed the Fire Warrior against the dirt.

"Here Shy, hold this," Tellis then tossed Scootaloo to Fluttershy, who squeaked before catching the younger pegasus on her back.

As the hulking lunatic picked up the wounded pony, Rainbow Dash turned toward the others. "I'll go with Tellis to make sure he doesn't drop Mac or anything. You guys get to the fortress as soon as you can, all right?"

"Will do, Dash. Tellis, ya be careful with mah big bro all right?" Applejack said sternly.

"Yes, fine, let's go already," the Iron Warrior said dismissively, his flight pack spreading as the engines steadily built up burn.

Tellis took off into the sky like a rocket, his speed barely hindered by the stallion bundled up in his arms. Rainbow Dash followed after him, and in a few seconds both of them were small dots in the sky.

"Do... Do you think they'll-" Fluttershy started to speak, but Applejack cut her off.

"Yes. They're gonna make it," the orange pony said as she turned around and walked back toward the farmstead, "Mac's gonna be fine. Ah... Ah gotta go tell Bloom and Granny what happened. Y'all better figure out how we're gonna follow them." Winona followed after her, whimpering sadly.

Twilight hung her head as the farmpony left. "This is my fault. I should have-"

"It's nobody's fault," Gaela cut her off as she hefted her axe again, gazing down at the ponies, "we are victorious. Dozens of grays lost their lives here, and achieved nothing. We need no excuses or blame."

"You'll have to excuse us for not feeling the same way," Rarity said, "winning means little to us if our friends and family come to harm."

Dest snorted. "Wallow in regret if you so wish. There is much more to be done."

"Indeed," Gaela nodded, "let us see about that transport."


Sweet Apple Acres - five minutes later

"So now Macintosh is being carried to base by air, but you want to take my transport anyway just to visit him?" Delgan did not sound impressed by the offer as his remaining soldiers picked through the wreckage of the destroyed Chimera. "I suppose me and my men are to carry the corpses of our fallen back to Ponyville by hand? Or is there a compost bin we can just toss them in around here?"

"Your sarcasm is unwarranted. Can we take the transport or not?" Gaela asked blandly.

"You may NOT. If no one's life even depends on it, then I'm not going to lose another transport," the Trademaster insisted.

"That cargo vehicle the Tau brought is still here," Twilight noted from behind the humans, "can we use that?"

Gaela glanced over at the automated cargo skimmer, considering. The vehicle had indeed survived the battle with barely a scratch, as neither she nor Glass Cannon had categorized it as a threat in a battlefield rich with more dangerous targets. Whatever programming algorithms controlled the vehicle seemed too simple and unsophisticated to realize that the Tau had lost the battle, and as a result the lifter was simply hovering next to the road and awaiting orders.

"Yes... with so many passengers we won't be able to take the artifact as well, but I think it will work," the Dark Acolyte allowed, "I have experience reprogramming Tau drones to suit our needs. This should be easy by comparison."

"Acolyte. More ponies here to see you."

Everyone present turned to look as Dest approached from the road. His armor had apparently lost power completely by now, and his gait was sluggish and clumsy as his muscles fought against the suit's weight.

Following him were a pair of fillies that Gaela remembered meeting the previous day. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon approached slowly, stared at the surrounding devastation with awe and a fair amount of nervousness. Soon Diamond's eyes fell on Gaela, and she cleared her throat meaningfully.

"Hello Miss Gaela. I take it Tellis arrived in time to save everypony? We saw the Tau rushing to the farm, so we sent him to save you as soon as we found him," Diamond Tiara said, trying to sound casually confident.

The other ponies cringed, and Diamond started to panic.

"Er, well, he at least helped, right? I mean, we sent him and Miss Dash as soon as we could! We couldn't-"

"Your automata is fully repaired and standing by next to the barn," Gaela said dryly, jabbing her bionic thumb in the relevant direction.

"Thank you!" Diamond Tiara shouted as she quickly scurried away, glad to escape the gloomy atmosphere and the chance of being further entangled in this fiasco.

Silver Spoon was about to follow, but she halted and looked over at Fluttershy.

"Miss Fluttershy?" the bespectacled pony asked. "I know this probably isn't the best time, but I'd really like to ask you something."

Fluttershy looked reasonably surprised that anypony would have a question specifically for her under these circumstances, but she straightened up and nodded. "Okay. What is it?"

"Is there a reason that Mister Tellis was at your house?" Silver Spoon asked. "Did Miss Dash bring him there or something?"

This earned the yellow pegasus quite a few raised eyebrows.

Fluttershy winced at the sudden attention. "Oh, that. He's, uhm, just staying with me for a little while."

Many of the raised eyebrows turned into bug-eyed stares, and Fluttershy lowered her head in embarrassment.

"Yeah, he told me about that," Scootaloo noted, "he said that he didn't have any other place to stay. Why was that, anyway?"

"Oh, that's just because every time he tries to go home, the Company tries to shoot him down," Fluttershy explained.

The bug-eyed stares added slack jaws.

Gaela's eye twitched. "And you didn't think to tell us this before we sent Tellis straight to the fortress while carrying Macintosh?"

"Well, I'm sure Mister Murderer has a plan for that, right?" Fluttershy asked with rapidly diminishing confidence. "I mean, he wouldn't just forget about something like that, would he?"

The incredulous stares remained, and Fluttershy wilted.

"I'm sorry," the yellow pegasus squeaked.

"Well, I was just curious," Silver Spoon said awkwardly as she started creeping away, "I'm going to go help Diamond Tiara with her automata now, thanks!" She wasn't completely sure what was happening, but it looked like the Elements of Harmony still had their hooves full of problems, and she didn't especially want to get involved.

"Crabapple!" Gaela barked, her servo arm clanking shut irritably.

The automata probe was standing next to a mutilated Fire Warrior, jabbing the dead body over and over again with the point of its leg while releasing the Binaric equivalent of haughty laughter.

It halted once it heard its name, and its sensor array spun about to focus on the Dark Acolyte.

"Run some scans and locate the Tau disruptor drones," Gaela commanded as she drew her plasma pistol again, "we need long-range vox, and we need it NOW."


Ferrous Dominus - sector 17

"I have a vox transmission from WHO?" asked General Gnoss, his eyebrow raised irritably.

"A Dark Acolyte by the name of Gaela. No surname, apparently."

The mercenary General was seated at a desk covered in dataslates and monitors, being addressed by a technician. Most of the monitors were off, and judging by the slice of chocolate cake sitting in front of the weathered old veteran, he had been preparing to take a break from the regular schedule of drills and guard assignments that occupied his time otherwise.

"Gaela? I've heard of her, but why would a Dark Acolyte want to talk to me?" Gnoss groused, drumming his fingers on his desk.

"She insists that the command ordering all base defenses to treat Lord Tellis as a hostile target be rescinded, General," the vox technician said, "also, she seemed extremely irate that you do not possess a personal vox that she could link into directly."

Gnoss rolled his eyes. "The orders regarding Lord Tellis come from Lord Sliver. I cannot simply rescind them."

"Could you tell her that personally, General? She was quite adamant that she speak to you specifically about the matter," the technician explained.

The General groaned, pushing aside his slice of cake. "Fine," he groused, switching on one of the monitors and then tapping the display with his bony fingers, "patch me in. If she wants to hear 'no' from me personally, I can always accommodate the Dark Mechanicus."

The technician raised a control tablet and then made the appropriate adjustments.

"This is General Gnoss," the ex-pirate grunted, "I-"

"General, you must rescind all current directives to fire upon Lord Tellis immediately. He is incoming to Ferrous Dominus and must not be harmed."

Gaela's voice was harsh and direct, and the General took pause for a moment. Then he opened a link on his monitor to bring up the sensorium auger data.

"The order to shoot him down comes from Lord Sliver himself, Acolyte. I do not have the authority to simply ignore his commands. Apparently the Vice-Commander wants him out of the fortress until we're ready to depart orbit. Is there any particular reason why you want him to get in?"

There was a tense pause on the other side. "He's carrying wounded for emergency treatment."

"I don't believe you," General Gnoss deadpanned, "I've MET Lord Tellis, Acolyte."

There was some muffled cursing coming from the vox, and the General snorted as he read the data upload he had requested.

"Ah, yes. I see him now. He'll be within our anti-air cover in a matter of minutes. We'll probably open up early to warn him, but Lord Sliver was quite explicit that if he tries to get through anyway, we're to fire on him with lethal intent."

"Listen to me! Lord Tellis is carrying wounded and will be unable to take evasive action! If you open fire, he and the survivor will perish! And for what? If Lord Sliver actually wanted Tellis dead he'd have him hunted down!"

"Arguable. What isn't arguable is my orders," Gnoss noted as he took up a fork and cut out a chunk of his cake, "sorry I could not be of service, Acolyte."

"This is a pointless waste! The Warsmith will be furious!"

"Perhaps, but not at me," Gnoss said as he placed the fork in his mouth, "mmmm!"

There was a pause at the other end of the line as the man moaned. "General Gnoss?"

"This is fantastic! How do those horses make something like this? They don't even have hands!" the man gushed, his face stretching into a deep and relaxed smile.

"General, listen to me! You have to-"

"Not shoot down Lord Tellis, I heard you," Gnoss said before cutting off another chunk of cake, "tell you what: I suddenly find myself in a better mood. So if you make sure to take full responsibility for this, I'll put a hold on our guns."

There was another pause at the other end, such was the surprise of the sudden turnaround. "... Yes! Absolutely! I'll be en route to the fortress soon, and I'll explain myself to Lord Sliver after I arrive!"

"Good. Now stop bothering me," the General said, cutting the vox link.

He took another bite of cake, marveling at the taste.

"Do you know I've been subsisting almost entirely on nutrient paste for over seven years straight? I was worried I had lost my sense of taste altogether," the mercenary said to the fairly stunned vox technician.

"Er... General, the anti-air guns..."

"Right, right. You take care of that, would you? Tell them all to hold fire unless they sight grayskins. Straight from me."

The ex-pirate started digging into his dessert with gusto, and his subordinate watched with curiosity and slowly growing envy.

"Right, General. So, what kind of cake is that, exactly?"

"Germane chocolate, apparently."

"Is that some sort of horse pun?"

"A DELICIOUS horse pun."


Ferrous Dominus - sector 15 armor lots

+Observation: Repair projects are proceeding ahead of schedule, mostly thanks to influx of mercenary slaves to replace losses. Addendum: such workers are physically fit and highly motivated to avoid further punishment.+

Dark Magos Kaelith and Warsmith Solon were walking slowly through the lots where the Iron Warriors' vehicles were parked, heading toward the repair facilities. The Magos was being trailed by a coterie of servitors, many of them acting as little more than semi-autonomous data relays and processor nodes for the engineer-cultist.

"Even sho, I wish Shliver hadn't done that," Solon grumbled as his hulking form passed between the numerous tanks and APCs, "we can't put riflesh back in their handsh after working them half to death, and they are more valuable ash fightersh than brute laborersh."

+Irrelevance to current topic,+ Kaelith chittered, +evaluation: The refinery is approaching full productivity, but current raw supplies are insufficient to maximize manufactorum production. Objective: I wish to begin producing new transports to replace our previous losses.+

"Sho bring more materialsh down from the Harvesht. We're not running out, are we?" Solon asked.

+Negative,+ buzzed Kaelith, +explanation: Further depleting shipboard supplies will endanger our primary objective of substantial resupply of Iron Warrior forces. Extrapolation: after going to such lengths and suffering such losses to recover Warp capability to better fulfill this objective, it is unacceptable to endanger it when there are alternatives available.+

Solon nodded, his torso swiveling to face the Dark Magos. "Fair enough. Do we open up a new mine?"

+Refutation: A better option would be to raid the xeno bases,+ Kaelith noted blithely.

Solon turned away again. "You know I can't do that."

+Negative. Correction: I am aware you have not done that, and that it defies the strategic analysis of Lord Sliver, Warsmith.+

A garbled sigh came from Solon's vox grille. "I'd like nothing more than to shieze the grayshkin facilitiesh, but Shliver ish right; we've losht too much already for too little return."

+Refutation: my proposal specifically seeks returns for the success of our primary objective,+ Kaelith noted while two of his augmetic hands clicked their fingers together.

"True, but without assurancesh that they can be taken with minimal loshesh and with shubshtantial gain, we cannot commit an effective attack force to the ashault," the Warsmith insisted. "And unfortunately, collecting intelligence on the Tau ish nearly imposhible given that..."

Solon and Kaelith both detected the incoming power signature at the same time, calibrated as they were to the energy patterns of the daemonic.

+Request: confirm Lord Tellis approaching engagement range,+ Kaelith buzzed, his numerous augmetics quivering irritably. Like so many in the 38th Company in general and the Dark Mechanicus in particular, he didn't much care for the Raptor Lord.

"Yesh, that'sh him all right," Solon confirmed as he looked up, "I guesh Shliver changed hish mind about shooting him down."

+Addendum: a most unfortunate reversal.+

The Raptor Lord descended fairly slowly as he landed, but that was only in comparison to his usual landings that were hard enough to unsettle ferrocrete. The crash of metal boomed through the area, and Kaelith flinched back from the Iron Warrior for fear of a shock wave.

Tellis' arms were holding something wrapped in a blanket, and he was also being followed closely by a pegasus that Solon recognized as Rainbow Dash. The pegasus was breathing hard, having apparently exerted herself tremendously to keep up with the Raptor.

"Here you go, Boss," Tellis said, dumping his cargo in front of Solon.

The Warsmith's optics rotated as he glanced down at the bundle, noting a residual energy field of some kind. "What ish thish?"

"A dying horse. Now if you'll excuse me, I think I saw a dessert shop back there. I'm gonna go check that out. Later!"

Tellis blasted off again before Solon could say anything, and the Warsmith turned back to Kaelith. "Sho now apparently he'sh jusht dumping off hish killsh in front of me. I shwear, that man ish like a flying, armored cat."

"Did we make it?" Rainbow Dash asked suddenly, having finally caught her breath. "Is he gonna be okay?"

The two heavily modified humans regarded the pegasus curiously.

"Pardon? What do you mean?" Solon asked.

"We got him here as fast as we could," Rainbow Dash panted, pointing a hoof at the bundle beneath Solon's chassis, "can you save him?"

Solon looked down, and his optics began scanning the body. "Shave him? Who ish he?"

"That's Applejack's brother, Big Macintosh," Rainbow said, her expression desperate, "the Tau got him good, but Gaela said you guys could heal him!"

"Rhetorical query: Does this sector resemble a medicae ward to you, creature?" Kaelith asked as he switched to Gothic.

Rainbow looked annoyed as she addressed the hideous Dark Magos. "Is that like a hospital? I don't know where that is. Tellis dropped him off here. Can you bring him to wherever he can get help?"

"Expansion: We are attending to important matters, and cannot be bothered by your personal difficulties. Command: be gone, insolent creature."

Rainbow Dash looked furious at the dismissal from Kaelith, but as they spoke Solon stared down at Big Macintosh, studying his bio-readings and thinking.

"You shaid he ish the shibling of Applejack? Another of Mish Shparkle'sh group?" Solon asked suddenly.

Rainbow looked slightly confused, but she nodded. "Yeah, that's right."

"I have an idea," the Warsmith declared, "Kaelith, we will continue our dishcussion at a later time. I may have found another alternative to exploit."

His enormous servo claw reached down and gently closed around the unconscious pony, and the Warsmith started humming to himself as he stomped off toward the nearest manufactorum block.

Rainbow Dash and Kaelith watched him go, both of them reasonably confused.

"So, is he going to heal him or not?"

Kaelith curled one optic node around to glare at the pegasus. "Explanation: if the Warsmith has decided that this creature will live, then it will live."

"That's... KIND of reassuring?" Rainbow said uncertainly, only to realize that the Dark Magos was scuttling away as well, apparently done talking to her.

"Geez! Super rude," she mumbled as she looked around.

She hovered in the air for several seconds, keenly aware that she didn't exactly have any other pressing tasks so long as Big Mac was being taken care of.

"... Wait, there's a dessert shop? Here? Really?" she mumbled to herself, taking off in the direction that Tellis had left.


Ferrous Dominus - sector 1

Main gates, two hours later

Multiple Predator battle tanks entered the fortress from the front, their turrets all facing behind them. They formed the vanguard of a rather heavy escort surrounding a single Tau vehicle that was slowly lumbering along within the ring of heavy firepower.

The cargo lifter had several new cables attached to its processor core, and these intertwined into an uplink node quite intrusively attached to the side of Gaela's head. Behind the Dark Acolyte guiding the vehicle were a nervous jumble of eight ponies and a probe automata.

Dest had volunteered to stay behind, deciding there was no particular value in him returning to base. The fillies, on the other hand, had asked to come with them, and Applejack hadn't particularly felt like refusing them.

Besides, after the attack, she wasn't so sure that Ferrous Dominus was any less safe for them than anywhere else in Equestria. The Iron Warriors' penchant for building everything like it was on the front line of a battlefield was the only reason they hadn't all ended up like Macintosh... or worse.

"Guide the xeno vehicle to the security station and disembark there. It will go no further into the facility except at the discretion of the Dark Mechanicus," barked an Iron Warrior at the transport.

"Understood, my lord," replied Gaela, her mind feeding the automated guidance system navigation instructions one item at a time.

"I never thought we'd have to come here again," Rarity sighed as she stared up at the haze of pollution that blocked out the sun above them.

"They seem to have cleaned up a lot since we were last here, at least," Twilight noted, "I mean, like, in the streets at least."

"True, but we're much less prepared ourselves," Rarity grumbled while their vehicle hovered away from the groups of tanks and Chaos Marines, "I didn't even have time to pack anything, and I doubt we'll only be here for an afternoon."

Pinkie nodded. "Yeah, you're right. Twilight didn't even have time to go get Spike or let him know what happened!"

Twilight's eyes went wide.


Ponyville - Twilight's library

Spike drummed his claws against the surface of the library desk, his cheek resting against his other hand.

The only other sound in the room was the ticking of the wall clock. In the kitchen, several pots were sitting over low heat as the dinner Spike had prepared waited to be served.

"I need a hobby," the young dragon groused.


Ferrous Dominus - sector 1, gate security

"Yes! That's true! There wasn't time!" Twilight said loudly as sweat droplets crawled down from her forehead. "I'm sure he'll be okay!"

"All right, fine, you don't need to shout," Rarity said.

The cargo lifter slowly settled to a halt next to a security station, and the ponies hopped out onto the ferrocrete ground. Twilight levitated Crabapple out of the cab, and the fillies quickly climbed up on top of it.

"Aside from the younglings, you all should know what to do," Gaela said as she uploaded a command sequence to shut down the cargo hauler's engine, "acquire your clearance badges inside. They should also have respirators available now."

"All right, we'll be right back," Twilight assured her as she led the other ponies into the security station.

Gaela frowned as she unplugged the neural uplink node from her cranial port and pulled her hood up again.

She had already checked the noosphere logs for the sensorium, and Tellis had definitely made it into the fortress in excellent time. The defense matrix also hadn't registered him as a hostile and shot him down. Things had gone as smoothly as could be expected.

Yet a review of the medicae logs showed just as clearly that nobody had been received for treatment.

She didn't especially want to admit it, but even having overcome all the obvious obstacles to trying to keep Big Macintosh alive, there were still plenty of other things that could have gone wrong. She wasn't able to tell how long Twilight's spell was able to keep the stallion stable, for instance; he might have died on the way here, regardless of how fast Tellis moved. Or perhaps the medicae officer had simply refused to treat a random xeno that had been rushed into the base.

Gaela resolved to stop dwelling on the matter. At this point Macintosh was dead or saved, and she would find out which soon enough.

The doors to the security station opened up, and Rarity was the first one to step back outside.

She wore an expression of complete and utter disgust, which probably had something to do with the black respirator mask that she was levitating in front of her.

"They can't possibly expect us to wear these things in public! Just look at them!" the white unicorn gagged.

"I think they're neat!" Pinkie said, bouncing out of the structure behind her along with the others. They were already wearing their masks, which had a heavy disc-shaped filter on one side of the mouthpiece and a hose on the other that fed into their saddlebags and presumably to emergency oxygen bottles stashed within. The fillies had much smaller and simpler paper masks secured by a rubber band.

"That's because you ENJOY looking ridiculous," Rarity sniffed, "as for me, I could hardly imagine that suffering through a little bad air can be worse than being seen in this thing."

"Some of the heavier particulate exhaust is radioactive," Gaela noted, "without any sort of respiratory protection, it could accumulate in your lungs and cause internal cell damage over time."

Rarity rolled her eyes.

"Also, considering you don't have any body covering, it could also get stuck in your fur and cause chromosome damage to the follicles," the Dark Acolyte continued.

Rarity's eyes widened considerably.

Twilight tilted her head to the side, intrigued. "What would that do?"

"Not much. Probably just discoloration and hair loss," Gaela admitted.

Rarity emitted a cry of terror and bolted under Gaela's legs, taking cover under her robe.

"Why didn't you tell me earlier?! I have to shower at once! Twilight! Barrier! Barrier!!"

Twilight did no such thing. "Rarity, we're not here for sightseeing this time. We just need to find out where they took Big Macintosh, and then we can head indoors."

The unicorn whimpered as the others looked toward Gaela.

"I have not yet located Macintosh," the Dark Acolyte admitted, "I need to speak to Dash to find out what happened, but she did not go through any security checkpoints herself when she arrived."

Then Gaela turned her head to look behind her.

"She also does not seem to appear inexplicably when I talk about her, unlike Pie," the Dark Acolyte noted as she turned her head back to the other ponies.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Pinkie said, rolling her eyes, "try to take this seriously, okay?" She earned a few glares for that comment.

"Hey, I think I see Rainbow Dash!" Scootaloo said, standing up on her hind legs.

It didn't take long to spot the rather colorful mare in the air, although rather than zooming through the sky Rainbow was moving at a casual hover toward the main gate area.

When she got a little closer it was easy to see why: the blue pegasus was carrying a snow cone in her front hooves.

Rainbow Dash had clearly spotted them as well, but made no great effort to speed up. Most of the ponies and Crabapple broke into a gallop to greet her. Gaela walked at normal speed, holding her robe up to the side in order to cover Rarity as the shivering unicorn matched her pace.

"Dash, what're ya doin'?!" Applejack demanded as she slowed to a stop. "Where's Mac?!"

"He's getting fixed up," Rainbow Dash said with a raised eyebrow, "don't worry, me and Tellis got here in plenty of time." She took a bite of her snow cone.

After swallowing the flavored ice, she noticed her friends giving her looks ranging from irritation to confusion. "What? I didn't have anything else to do after dropping him off, so I got a snow cone. Nice masks, by the way."

"Where did you get a snow cone around here?" Pinkie asked, tilting her head.

"And how did you pay for it? With bits?" Twilight demanded.

"There's a dessert shop in sector six now. Luckily a couple of ponies are running it, so they take bits."

"Wait, what?"

"Dash." Gaela's voice silenced any other questions the ponies may have had as she approached. "Macintosh is alive?"

"He was when we dropped him off," Rainbow Dash insisted, nodding her head.

"And which medicae facility did you leave him to?"

Rainbow frowned. "Tellis didn't bring him there. He gave him to Solon."

Now it was Gaela's turn to be surprised. "Wait, what?"

"Solon. Come on, you've met Solon," Rainbow said before biting into her snow cone again.

"Of course I've met the Warsmith," Gaela snapped, "but do you seriously mean to tell me you asked the high commander of the 38th Company to personally repair Macintosh's body?"

"I guess? He grabbed Mac and took off, so he seemed fine with it," the pegasus shrugged.

"Is that a problem?" Applejack asked anxiously.

Gaela hesitated. "Not as such, no. To be sure, the extensive procedures Macintosh needs to survive his injuries are trivial to one such as the Warsmith. So trivial, in fact, that I would think it beneath him to bother."

"But if he DOES bother, then Big Mac will survive?" Fluttershy asked hopefully.

"There is no question," the Dark Acolyte confirmed, "Macintosh will live."

The relief from the ponies was palpable enough to be evident even through the respirators, and Gaela was slightly startled as Applejack raced over and hugged the Dark Acolyte around the waist.

"Thank you... just... Ah can't thank ya enough," the orange mare said, obviously trying to restrain tears behind the respirator mask. Which Gaela found odd, considering that the farmpony hadn't had a single crying fit since Big Macintosh had been injured. The fillies were cheering in joy, and Crabapple was wondering at a new torrent of powerful impulses that were bombarding its corrupted processor.

"It was noth..." Gaela trailed off, remembering the last time she had dismissed her aid to the Apple family as trivial. It still confused her that the favors she supplied to the ponies were so deeply valued rather than being expected of her. Such appreciation was unusual, but not unpleasant.

"You're welcome," she said finally, staring down at the pony's hat, "now release me. You pulled down the length of my robe that I was using to shield Rarity, and she looks like she's about to suffer a stroke."

Applejack couldn't help but chuckle at that as she backed off from the Dark Acolyte, and Sweetie Belle groaned at seeing her older sister quivering on the ground in terror with her forelegs shielding her head.

"Well then, if there are no more affairs that need to be addressed I shall have you all housed for the night," Gaela said, "incidentally, you'll all be staying in the menial dorms this time; the psycomantic shielding that gave the psyker dorms their unique protection has been damaged, so there's no reason to place any of you there."

"Lead on, sugarcube," Applejack said, stepping to the side.

"Wait," Pinkie said, holding up a hoof as her eyes narrowed, "... Rainbow Dash mentioned a dessert shop?"


Ferrous Dominus - sector 6, menial dormitories

Twilight laid on her bed within the cramped confines of her dorm room, a dataslate propped up on her hooves.

She had to admit that these sleeping quarters seemed almost purpose-built to induce feelings of claustrophobia, in stark contrast to the room she had used last time. They were about the size of a walk-in closet, with bunk beds to house two and shared facilities built out in the hall. She was extremely grateful that Sweetie Belle was rooming with Rarity this time around; the unicorn's complaining was probably unbearable.

But frankly, the rooms would have to be covered in spikes and fire before getting a better room would be worth probably running into Serith again.

Twilight levitated a stylus up and tapped the edge of the dataslate, moving to the next page.

This dataslate was new, and she had requested it personally before she and Gaela had parted ways for the afternoon. She had felt somewhat awkward about making a request of the Dark Acolyte after she had helped them so much already, but there was a certain topic involving interstellar conflict that she felt it was time to put under the proverbial microscope.

As such, her current dataslate contained a wealth of information about the Tau Empire.

The room's door slid open with a soft hiss, and Twilight glanced up at the pony that was to be her roommate for the night.

"Hi Fluttershy. How was supper?"

Fluttershy entered, and then tapped the control button next to the door to close and lock it.

Then the yellow pegasus wiggled her head free of the respirator mask, shaking her head once it was free to loosen up her mane.

"Phew! That was strange," Fluttershy admitted as she placed the mask on a peg on the wall.

"When I'd heard there were ponies living here, I kind of imagined they'd be really mean or something," she continued as she stepped up to Twilight, "but they seem pretty normal. I mean, from what I saw, anyway. I didn't actually talk to them or anything."

Twilight nodded absently, only half-listening. "I think it's strange too, but who are we to judge?"

Fluttershy cocked her head to one side. "Well, we're the ponies chosen by Princess Celestia to banish-"

"Rhetorical question, Fluttershy," Twilight interrupted as she clicked to the next page.

"Oh, I'm sorry. Never mind, then."

There was an extended pause as Twilight concentrated on her reading and Fluttershy considered whether it would be too rude to keep talking to her.

"Was there something else?" Twilight eventually asked, startling the pegasus.

"Oh, not really, I was just wondering what you were studying. You left as soon as Miss Gaela brought it."

"This is a compilation of data all about the Tau," Twilight explained, a hard edge to her voice, "I've said plenty of times by now that our conflict with them is a coincidence brought about by how we met the Iron Warriors, and that's still true. But by now it's beside the point," the alicorn sighed, "the problem is that we don't know much about them besides what we've gathered from being attacked by them. It's time we really studied what we're up against."

Fluttershy chewed her lip nervously. "And what did you find out?"

"Well..." Twilight paused. "Aside from a lot of interesting sociological notes about their caste systems and the potency of their weapons - the latter which we've seen too much of already - the Tau Empire seems to be unified by an expansionist philosophy. 'The Greater Good.' The basic tenets of the philosophy amount to a creed of self-sacrifice and galactic hegemony, with the ultimate goal of uniting all intelligent creatures in harmonious co-existence. Co-existence with the Tau race controlling the levers of power, incidentally."

Fluttershy raised an eyebrow. "Well, that... doesn't sound TOO bad..."

"I don't know. This is the reasoning they use to justify annexing entire planets and their native populations into their empire. Peacefully if they can, by force if necessary," Twilight mumbled, squinting at the dataslate.

"So they're here to take over Equestria?" Fluttershy asked.

"That's the thing though, Fluttershy; the humans seem convinced that there's something else going on. And having read the notes on Tau expansion and colonization doctrines, I believe them. The Tau are supposed to meet us with diplomats and try to impress us with their goods and technologies, slowly converting the native creatures to their cause with their culture and benevolence." Twilight's jaw tightened into a frown. "I don't think I need to point out that they haven't done that. We haven't seen anything resembling 'diplomats' from the Tau."

"Maybe these are evil Tau? Like how the 38th Company is composed of evil humans?"

Twilight opened her mouth to defend their friends and allies, but nothing came out.

"... Maybe, yeah," the alicorn eventually mumbled. It was still very strange to her to acknowledge openly that they were allied with a fundamentally destructive and malevolent force. Especially one that Princess Celestia clearly and justifiably despised.

"I just can't help but think that there's something more to all this," Twilight mumbled, "they're not a fundamentally cruel or hateful species; if anything, from what I've read they're supposed to be more tolerant and benign than humans. I think there's a reason that they've been building bases and hiding in Equestria. And I think that artifact at Sweet Apple Acres is the key."

Fluttershy didn't have much to say to that, and Twilight sighed.

"Well, I have a lot more reading to do. This next section is about their tactics and weapon focus. You can turn the lights off; the screen has its own light."

Fluttershy glanced left and right nervously, looking as if she wanted to say something but couldn't work up the courage.

"... Fluttershy?"

"Uhm, if it's okay with you, can I take the bottom bunk?" Fluttershy asked as her ears fell flat against her head. "I don't like to sleep high up. I'm afraid I might roll out of bed and fall."

Twilight gave Fluttershy a brief, incredulous stare, then rolled her eyes and stood up.

With a few beats of her wings she had settled on the topmost bed, levitating the dataslate up with her.

"Thank you, Twilight! Good night!"

"Good night, Fluttershy..."


Ferrous Dominus - sector 6, the following morning

"I don't understand, is Big Macintosh already healed?"

Twilight followed Gaela down the hall of the menial dorms, her dataslate stuffed in her saddlebag. The rest of the ponies - plus Crabapple - that had come to Ferrous Dominus followed behind the two except for Rarity and Sweetie Belle, who hadn't yet been picked up.

"I cannot say. I was instructed to gather you and bring you to the Warsmith's manufactorum forge," Gaela admitted, "but the likelihood is high."

"Do ya really think he could fix him up so quick?" Applejack asked skeptically. "Don't get me wrong, Ah'd be overjoyed, but that seems a little optimistic fer somepony bein' dragged away from death's door."

Gaela snorted. "Perhaps. But the Warsmith's knowledge is beyond the imagination of us mortals. There is little you should presume to be impossible."

She reached the room that Rarity had shared with her little sister and remotely activated the door speaker.

"Rarity, I have gathered the others and we are prepared to leave." She had messaged each of the ponies' rooms remotely, so she assumed there had been ample time for the unicorns to get ready.

"Ah... yes, of course. Is it... completely necessary for me to join you?" asked a voice from the other side.

Applejack banged a hoof on the door irritably. "Rares, get yer prissy white tush out here! This probably ain't gonna take long anyhow!"

"I was instructed to bring ALL of you to see Warsmith Solon," Gaela confirmed, "I will not disregard the Warsmith's orders."

A muffled grumbling came from the other side of the door, and then it slid open as the lock on the other side was disengaged.

The ponies waiting either started chuckling or stared in surprise as the door opened. Rarity was wearing her respirator mask that she had sworn off the previous day. Not only that, but she had found a Dark Mechanicus robe somewhere and had secured it over her body, along with four heavy rubber boots. The only parts of the unicorn that weren't covered in black rubber were the glass eye lenses and her horn.

"Oh, so is this what's in style nowadays in Ferrous Dominus?" Rainbow Dash asked between chortles. "Wow, you're always on top of these things, aren't you?"

"Pff! That looks like a Nightmare Night costume!" Apple Bloom giggled.

Rarity stomped out of the room, her head held high. "Yes, yes, go ahead. Laugh all you want. But if I have to wear this ridiculous outfit to keep this place from damaging my precious coat, so be it."

"I agree," Gaela said, startling the unicorn, "it's entirely practical to endure a brief humiliation rather than risk permanent damage, whether the motivation is vanity or health." Then she paused. "Although I'm not certain what's wrong with those vestments aesthetically."

Rarity clicked her tongue as she stepped into the hall. "We were SO CLOSE to being on the same page for once. Come on, Sweetie Belle, we're going!"

More grumbling came from behind Rarity as her little sister emerged. The unicorn filly was wearing a smaller version of the same outfit, only with a pair of ill-fitting goggles to make up for her lack of a properly sized rebreather.

Scootaloo and Apple Bloom started laughing in earnest, too amused to even mock her properly.

"Oh, be quiet! I'm not wearing this because I want to!" the unicorn filly growled.

"You'll thank me for it when you're older and your fur is still pristine," Rarity insisted, "lead the way, Miss Gaela."

A long elevator ride later - complete with a small group of anonymous menials awkwardly pretending there was nothing strange about sharing the elevator with a small herd of ponies - and the group was heading through the lobby toward the main doors.

"Masks on, everypony," Twilight said as she magically stretched the rubber strap back and fit the respirator over her muzzle. Gaela's helmet shifted into place as well.

"Um, I know I didn't mention this before, but I'm actually a bit worried about the idea that we need breathing protection just to walk around outside," Fluttershy said quietly, tapping a hoof against Gaela's leg.

"Why? Do you need assistance securing your respirator?" the Dark Acolyte asked, pausing to look down at the pegasus.

"Er, no, I'm just concerned about your factory making the air dangerous to breathe, actually."

"Then feel free to remain concerned," Gaela said dismissively as the doors opened in front of her, "mass smelting and manufacturing is a dirty process, and we will not be here long. The total contamination..."

Gaela trailed off as she exited the building, coming face-to-visor with a familiar armored body.

"Lord Serith. Greetings," the Dark Acolyte said dryly.

Twilight had been following directly behind her, and as such had her view forward completely obscured by the Acolyte's body. As soon as she heard the name Gaela had spoken, her eyes widened and her horn lit up.

"Applejack! Rainbow Dash!" Rarity shouted immediately.

The aforementioned ponies immediately jumped on top of the alicorn, bringing her to the ground and pinning her as Twilight released a feral-sounding snarl.

"Dash! AJ! Let me go this instant! He's had this coming for a long time!" Twilight growled as she squirmed and writhed underneath the two other mares. She could have released a magic spell from her horn anyway, but Applejack was covering her eyes and there were a lot of friendly targets around.

The CMC glanced at each other nervously, unsure of what to make of this reaction. They'd never seen Twilight in a homicidal rage before, and they had been under the assumption that the ponies and humans were on the same side, so to speak.

Serith, for his part, remained silent for several seconds and enjoyed the spectacle of Twilight being restrained like a violent animal. Trixie was beside him, and although she was certainly enjoying the sight as much as he was, she looked quite bemused.

"My lord, if we may pass, we're currently en route to see the Warsmith," Gaela prompted, ignoring the struggle behind her.

"You rotten, sneaking, thieving mule! I'm going to turn you into a houseplant!" Twilight growled, smacking Rainbow Dash in the face with her wings repeatedly.

"I'm sure," Serith drawled, finally speaking, "I simply came to greet our esteemed guests. How are you this fine morning, Lady Twilight?"


"She's as energetic as ever, I see," Serith noted.

"Indeed, Lord. If that was all..." Gaela started to step past the Iron Warrior, but apparently he wasn't finished.

"Ah, and here we have the pink one. What was her name?" Serith wondered aloud as his blood-red visor locked onto Pinkie.

"That one is Pinkie Pie," Trixie said humorlessly as she placed a hoof against her hat, as if to make sure it was still there.

"Yo Serry, we're kind of in a hurry here," Pinkie said dismissively as she gestured at him with her hoof, "mind if we get by?"

"Oh, but I first wanted to ask what you thought of my room's security and organization," the Sorcerer continued, "after all, you clearly went to great lengths to break into my quarters, and yet I could find nothing missing aside from the barrier door and a spare melta bomb; and I do believe their mutual disappearance was related. I wonder if my work space was too cluttered for you to find anything of interest."

Twilight stopped struggling against her friends holding her down as the tone of the encounter shifted considerably.

Pinkie snorted. "Whatchu talkin' 'bout, Serith?"

"Trixie's hat vanished right after you swapped it for your costume helmet," Trixie noted, "and Serith found it lying on the floor outside his room, having been used to enter it."

"So? What makes you think I did it?" Pinkie asked, rolling her eyes. "Anypony could have found your hat and used it to explore the place!"

"I found several curly pink hairs remaining from the incursion," Serith noted.

"Anypony with curly pink hair could have found your hat and used it to explore the place!" Pinkie amended.

"You also vandalized my lab space and many of my collected scrolls with that balloon motif on your rear," Serith added.

"No I didn't!" Pinkie retorted immediately. "I painted them with Trixie's cutie mark to try to frame her for everything!"

There was a long, tense pause as Pinkie thought over that last statement.

"Ah... I see what you did there," the pink mare said quietly, chewing her lip.

"I suppose I could have simply forced your confession with my psychic power, but a pest such as yourself is hardly worth such efforts," Serith muttered darkly as he raised a hand, "I'm going to extinguish your life now."

"Hey, hey, HEY!" Trixie interrupted immediately, banging a hind leg against Serith's greaves before the other ponies could move to defend their friend. "Quit that!"

Serith hesitated, his hand slowly curling back into a fist. "Pardon? It is a fitting reprisal for such a brazen act."

"Don't be so melodramatic. Nopony has to die over your books," Trixie insisted.

Gaela gripped her axe tightly, unsure of how to handle this scenario. Or rather, she knew exactly how to handle this scenario, but felt curiously reluctant to incapacitate and capture Pinkie on Serith's behalf.

"I don't suppose she could apologize and be let off with a warning?" Rarity asked nervously.

"An apology. What a grand idea," Serith drawled, "that would be a start."

All eyes shifted to Pinkie Pie, who remained silent.

"Well? Got anything to say?" Trixie asked with narrowed eyes.

"Okay, fine," Pinkie grumbled, "since you brought it up, your organization system DOES need some work. Don't go labeling empty containers as if they have important stuff in them!"

Serith glanced down at Trixie, who had slapped a hoof against her face. "NOW can I end her?"

This diversion probably would have gone on longer, but a new voice interrupted the gathering.

"Sherith, what are you doing? Mish Gaela and the xenosh have bushinesh with me."

The ponies were all quite surprised to hear the voice, simply because there was no way that someone as massive as Solon should have been able to approach unnoticed.

They were correct. As Serith turned toward the voice, it was quite obviously coming from a heavily augmented skull floating about a meter off the ground and trailing loose cables behind it.

Twilight had seen such devices before, having explored Ferrous Dominus more extensively than the others, but even she was fairly perturbed to hear the Warsmith's voice coming from it.

"Of course, Warsmith," Serith said with an irritated drawl, "so sorry to keep you ladies. We will resolve this matter at another time."

The Sorcerer turned on his heel and walked away without another word. Trixie cast a final glare at Pinkie Pie and then trotted off after him, her nose in the air.

"Does anypony else think it's weird that the big, evil Chaos Sorcerer is letting Trixie boss him around?" Rainbow Dash asked. She and Applejack had finally released Twilight, who looked to be debating the virtues of blasting Serith in the back with a magic bolt.

"I agree. That was... most unexpected," Gaela mumbled. She hadn't been sure how to react when Serith declared his intent to slay Pinkie; certainly Twilight and the others would have stopped him even had she done nothing, but she could easily see that escalating into a battle that would have ended with them being surrounded and exterminated.

"It'sh true; he'sh taken quite a shine to her, hashn't he?" said the servo skull. "But we have much elshe to dishcush. Come."

The skull floated away, and Gaela followed immediately. The ponies hesitated, either because the strange machine seemed to be leading them in the wrong direction, or simply because the servo skull itself was quite creepy.

"So, I don't get it. Is that Serith person a bad guy?" Scootaloo asked.

"Yes. Yes he is," Twilight grumbled.

"Sherith ish no worshe than the resht of ush, he jusht hash shome peculiar intereshtsh," said Solon through the servo skull as it floated away from the main avenue.

Pinkie snickered at the heavily distorted slur coming from the macabre device. "I missed you."

"But enough of Sherith. That'sh not why you're here," continued the servo skull.

Applejack gulped. "Give it t'me straight, Warsmith. Is Mac gonna make it?"

A deep, grinding chuckle came from the servo skull. "Make it? Mish Applejack, Macintosh hash been fully conscioush and lucid for two hoursh now. He ish in no danger of expiring on hish own anytime shoon."

Applejack honestly felt her legs weaken at the news out of sheer relief, and had to stop moving in order to stay standing.

Despite the assurances of Rainbow Dash and Gaela, given how Solon had apparently scooped up her brother and disappeared without any real explanation there had always been a nagging doubt that maybe there had been a misunderstanding or that Tellis hadn't been fast enough in getting Big Mac here. Only hearing the prognosis from the one working on her brother was able to completely set her at ease.

"Big Mac's gonna be okay!" Apple Bloom cheered, wiping tears from her eyes. "Ah'm so glad!"

"Oh, yesh. Your bodiesh are shurprishingly robusht. Not only in shurviving a pulshe rifle bursht to begin with, but there wash minimal rejection of the bionic componentsh."

Twilight was about to speak when the servo skull halted. A moment later the grinding of heavy gears came from the ground, and a sliding hatch marked out in warning chevrons opened up to reveal a platform.

"Warsmith, I'm not familiar with this route," Gaela confessed as the servo skull hovered over the platform.

"The tunnel shyshtem ish part of the tertiary defenshe network, a way to move shcattered troopsh to critical areash when enemies have overrun the fortresh," Solon explained as the servo skull turned around to cast its grim optic nodes on the group of equines. "It'sh alsho handy if you don't want to shpend an hour or two tromping through the shtreetsh. Theshe accesh pointsh are hard-wired to my command protocol. It will bring you here fashter."

The ponies cautiously stepped onto the platform after Gaela, most of them nervously staring at the servo skull. After Crabapple and the fillies joined the others the platform started to sink.

"So he's gonna live, and that's great," Applejack said pensively, "but... what about his legs?"

"Completely ushelesh," the servo skull blurted, "nothing much left of the shoulder jointsh but shcorched bone. I cut both of the left legsh off ash shoon ash he shtabilized."

This news crushed most of the good cheer that had been building up since the servo skull had first dismissed Serith from their presence. The platform finished sinking as the hatch above them closed, and a door opened in front of the skull.

"All right, everyone in the rail car," barked the servo skull as it moved to the control panel and manipulated the controls with its tiny articulated claws.

"So did you give him modified human augmetics or rig up a new locomotion system?" Gaela asked as she moved next to the floating skull.

"Neither. I whipped up shomething of my own. It sheemsh to approximate hish former limbsh well enough. Much shturdier now, obvioushly. The next volley he takesh won't put him down sho eashily!"

Twilight shook her head as the door to the train closed behind their group and the vehicle started to accelerate. "Wait, you... you mean you replaced his legs?"

Gaela and the skull turned to face Twilight.

"Of course we did," Gaela said, flexing her right arm, "did you forget that we could do that?"

"I know we primatesh get along fine with jusht two legsh, but I don't think your red friend would be of much ushe without all four of them."

"So he'll even walk again?" Applejack asked, fairly stunned.

"After the calibration teshtsh are complete, yesh," the servo skull's spinal cable whipped about underneath it, "that should take a few minutesh. Maybe an hour, if there'sh a problem."

"Ah... Ah don't know what to say," Applejack mumbled, pulling her respirator mask off of her face and staring down at the floor as if in shock, "Ah can't possibly repay y'all fer doin' this. Goin' so far to save Mac's life-"

"Oh, you needn't wax dramatic," the voice from the servo skull interrupted, "this debt WILL be repaid. Shooner than you think."

This succeeded in halting Applejack's immediate outpour of gratitude, and she trailed off into a nervous smile.

Rarity cringed. "Well, THAT'S a little ominous," the unicorn mumbled.

The rail car started to slow down.

"Next shtop, experimental archaeotech and prototype forging. Pleashe enshure that you have all your pershonal belongingsh, including but not limited to reshpiratorsh, armamentsh, and any posheshed automata, ash you exit the car."

The door opened, and the servo skull zoomed out, not waiting to ensure that the others were following.

Twilight began to remove her mask.

"Don't," Gaela warned as she led the way into the hall, "and Apple, you should put yours back on. It's not clean in here."

The first time they had met the Warsmith, they had found him in a cluster of power relays. The second time Twilight had met him, he had been in a simple warehouse. Perhaps these places would seem like technological wonders to a pony, full of mechanical curiosities and amazing feats of engineering, but they were ultimately fairly mundane facilities that served very mundane functions.

Every pony there, from Twilight to Scootaloo, could tell there was nothing mundane about Solon's forge.

Heaps of scrap, mostly of Tau construction, were set in clustered piles, each one surrounded by tools, servo arms, and other machines. Some of them were apparently active on some level, and Applejack resisted the urge to run up and kick a dismembered Crisis Suit that was twisting its head to stare at her.

Molten metal flowed in small streams and falls, leaking from spigots draining from the ceiling. Most of it flowed down the great hall and occasionally even across it, requiring a heavy gated bridge for crossing.

Guns of all types and designs and hailing from numerous different races hung from thick cables strung from the ceiling, which was itself completely obscured by a pall of filthy-looking smoke.

But what was most unique, bizarre, and frankly enchanting, were the walls.

Where the walls of every other structure in Ferrous Dominus were either bare gunmetal or - if necessary - some kind of control terminal, the walls here were giant monitors, constantly scrolling and flickering with information.

If Twilight had to guess what kind of information they were showing, her only possible guess would have been: everything.

DNA strands scrolled down a screen with notes pointing to specific chromosomes and describing their functions. Next to it was a string of equations that used symbols Twilight had never seen before. Above that was a schematic for a device called a "stasis grenade". On the other side of the wall was a chemical formula. Below that an X-ray of some sort bizarre alien beast. Next to that an image of a star in the throes of supernova, overlaid with data readings.

Each individual panel lingered long enough for Twilight to grasp an idea of what it was displaying and then flickered away to something else. It was strangely intoxicating, not to mention so distracting that Applejack thrice had to physically stop the alicorn from walking obliviously into dangerous-looking machines or molten metal flows.

"Oh, I remember that one," Fluttershy said suddenly as she noticed a massive battlesuit torso hanging from chains further down the hall and beckoned to it with her foreleg.

Rarity made a face as she recognized the Riptide armor. "Ah, yes. Good times," she grumbled sarcastically, "I rather like it better this way: as a dismantled science fair project." It's legs were completely gone, while its arms were strung from the ceiling with crackling power cables and surrounded by other devices to run tests on its weapons.

The fillies couldn't do much besides gape at the massive dismembered weapon, trying to imagine what such a thing was like in combat. The Iron Warriors were mighty and terrifying to be sure, but something that size would smash them aside like insects. To say nothing of the guns hanging next to it.

+Unit Crabapple is experiencing strange new sensations deep within processor core,+ buzzed the automata probe as it followed its pony master, +searching local noosphere databanks for appropriate descriptor... complete: penis envy.+

+I'm glad no one else can understand you,+ Gaela mumbled in tired Binaric Cant.

"What IS all that stuff on the walls? It's really confusing," Rainbow Dash asked.

"Warsmith Solon sometimes likes to work in an environment inundated with random scraps of information. Sometimes a particular subject catches his attention, and it inspires him toward creative solutions," Gaela explained.

"Yeah... I can see how it might help..." Twilight mumbled.

"Twilight, you're drooling," the blue pegasus warned.

The alicorn immediately tried to brush a foreleg against her mouth, only to bump into the mask filter. She cast a brief glare at Rainbow Dash, who snickered at the sight.

"Hey, there he is!" Pinkie shouted, galloping forward suddenly.

Solon was standing before a bank of hololithic projectors, his biological hand poking at several flat panel-like projections that were awash with information. His right arm had been replaced by an augmetic that boasted a full three separate limbs attached to the shoulder connector, each one ending in some manner of needle or forceps probe.

The fillies, predictably, froze stiff once they got a good look at him, their faces ashen. Even Crabapple halted in mid-stride.

"Mister Solon can... or rather, will be very scary the first time you meet him, but he's surprisingly decent," Rarity assured the younger ponies as the rest of their group approached, "just keep a good distance until your heart rate returns to normal, and then you can join us a little closer, all right?"

Sweetie Belle nodded stiffly, while the other young ponies scrambled to take cover behind Crabapple.

For those mares that now shrugged off the terror aura with ease, the more interesting sight was standing next the mighty Iron Warrior. A large metal bowl of some sort was on a raised platform and utterly surrounded by sparking and humming machines. Numerous automated servo arms stretched down from the ceiling into the vessel, and thick cables running hot with energy led over the lip and into it. The servo skull that had led them here floated over the lip, its sensors peering at the contents which were hidden from the newcomers.

Although any one of them could hazard a good guess.

"Ah, and here you are!" Solon said brightly as he turned to face the Dark Acolyte and the awestruck equines. "Good. We will begin the final phashesh of teshting, then!"

Solon's helmet flickered briefly, and the walls of the containment vessel sunk into the floor. Hoses drew up toward the ceiling while spewing steam, and there were numerous crackling discharges as power cables were disconnected and dragged away from the forging platform.

Twilight had to admit that even after the discussions between Solon and Gaela about Big Macintosh's treatment, she didn't really know what to expect. But she didn't think anything could have prepared her for what she saw when the steam parted and faded away.

Gears whirred softly as the pony atop the platform took a cautious step forward, its metal-clad hooves clanging noisily against the floor. On the pony's right, legs protected by thick, servo-assisted plate supported a hefty ammunition box, while on the left side a heavy bolter was mounted between a pair of thick bionic limbs. The now mismatched forelegs were armored at the shoulders by ceramite shields not dissimilar to Space Marine shoulder pads, each one boasting Big Mac's distinctive green cutie mark. Atop the armored hulk was a helmet shaped appropriately for a pony's head, featuring a pair of plated disc-shaped filters at the end of the muzzle and a single long, crimson optics visor. A pair of golden, bull-like horns completed the head piece, and incidentally made it look a great deal more menacing.

Around the segmented plates of the neck was a hefty iron harness, clearly made to resemble the one Big Mac had still been wearing when he was dropped off. Behind the harness was a small back-mounted servo arm that twitched back and forth curiously, exploring its range of motion freely for the first time.

The ponies stared slack-jawed at the power-armored draught horse. Even Gaela was completely stunned at the sight.

"B... Big... Macintosh?" Applejack finally stuttered.

The hiss of depressurization came from the armor as its environmental seals were disengaged, and then the upper portion of the helmet, containing the visor and the horns, lifted up and slid backward as the rest of the helmet sunk into the gorget.

Big Mac took a moment to shake his head, finally letting his mane out after many hours of having it pressed into his face by the pressurized shell of adamantium.


Author's Note:

Okay, confession time:
First off, writing drama and crippling angst and such makes me ill, and comedy makes me happy. So if you find the tone shifts in this chapter a little jarring, you're simply another victim of my own emotionally stunted psyche.
Second, I have to admit that I'm not actually very well-versed in Twilight's spellbook, to speak in D&D terms. So if there actually IS a spell that could have easily fixed a given crisis or if I'm placing a limitation on magic that isn't canon, just chalk it up to artistic license and remember that these are the narrative sacrifices we need to make in order to turn Big Macintosh into a power-armored cyborg.

Update: formatting fixed!