• Published 2nd Aug 2014
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Iron Hearts: Book 4 - Emerald Dawn - SFaccountant



MLP/Warhammer 40K crossover, part 4. The Tau have left, but now a new threat threatens to overrun Equestria and its home planet. This time, though, hope lay with the darker powers...

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Salvation

Iron Hearts: Book 4

Chapter 2

Salvation


****


Ponyville - train station


Twilight stared anxiously at the train as it waited to be boarded, taking in the changes that had been made to the vehicle recently. They had been apparent when she had come home from Canterlot the previous day, yet somehow they seemed more pertinent now.

Battle damage still scarred the train cars, for the ponies had no idea how to repair durasteel plating, and the Dark Mechanicus that had installed it in the first place hadn't bothered. Shredded metal topped some of the cars, while the others still possessed mortars that had run dry of munitions that had yet to be replaced. Every car of the train was shielded with additional armor, much of which bore scorch marks from pulse fire or holes from Tau railguns. The train engine was still a nightmare construct of spikes and metal tubing, and its smoke stack released a thin wisp of exhaust rather than the billowing clouds of a proper steam engine.

"Well, this's it, girls," Applejack said as she adjusted her hat, "y'all ready fer this?"

The loud affirmations from Pinkie and Rainbow Dash drowned out the more measured response from Twilight and Rarity, and Fluttershy yelped and ducked her head down. Twilight noted that Fluttershy had been much more excitable than usual this morning, constantly glancing around and leaping into hiding at any sudden noises.

Must be frayed nerves. Not a huge surprise, considering what they were getting into.

Twilight quintuple-checked her saddlebags and took a deep breath before she followed her friends into the armored passenger carriage.


****


Canterlot Castle - throne room


"Hello, and thank you all for coming, once again," Celestia said as the Elements of Harmony were ushered into the room, "I know matters have been hectic of late, to say the least. I did not give you all much time to see to your own affairs."

Most of the mares greeted Princess Celestia warmly, but Twilight was distracted. The throne room was obviously still a mess; there was no longer shattered glass and piles of corpses on the floor, and the craters caused by Solon's strange cannon had been covered over with wooden boards, but every window was still shattered and heat scarring adorned many of the walls. Celestia's throne had been replaced by a layer of satin pillows, and as Twilight observed the spots where the Mark of Nurgle and Chaos had been mysteriously carved into the stone, she saw that they had indeed been spackled over as Kibitz had suggested.

Twilight wondered at the logic of having the conference in the throne room when it had barely been cleaned up yet. Was it supposed to be a reminder of their joint accomplishment? Or perhaps a reminder of the destruction that the Iron Warriors had unleashed here?

"Twily? You okay?"

The lavender alicorn snapped out of her daze at the sound of Shining Armor's voice. She hadn't even realized he was there, standing at attention in front of Celestia. No sign of Cadence, though.

"Yeah, I am. Just a little... tense," Twilight assured him with a lopsided smile. Her brother seemed quite tired, but hid it well; she supposed he had been very busy lately.

Luna was in the throne room too, seated slightly lower than Celestia on her own cushion. In contrast to the white alicorn, she seemed quietly content, and even a bit excited.

"Not long from now, the Iron Warrior leaders will arrive to speak with us," Celestia said, her tone inscrutable, "it is no small irony that the army I once feared would lay waste to Equestria may now offer our best chance of survival." She frowned delicately. "Before, when... when the Tau were here, I dismissed your opinions as irrelevant and unreliable. Although more serious consideration would likely have not changed the outcome of that meeting, I was wrong, and would like to apologize for my error."

"Aw, nothin' fer it, Princess," Applejack said breezily.

"Yeah, those water caste jerks were actually pretty slick," Rainbow Dash agreed, "hay, if we didn't already hate them just based on their species, they might have fooled us, too!"

Celestia blinked. "That's... uh... Well, in any case, we stand now on a crossroads."

"I thought we were in the throne room?" Pinkie whispered to Rarity. The unicorn sighed and ignored her.

"The Orks are a threat unlike anything Equestria has ever faced before," Celestia continued, "brutal and bloodthirsty, the Orks take to war as other species would a sport. Other aliens may show no mercy, but the Orks do not even understand it. If they are not stopped, Equestria and every other nation on this world shall be overrun, and their citizens killed or enslaved." Celestia took a moment to brace herself and take a deep breath, as if the next words were physically painful to say. "Despite my earlier orders and extensive misgivings about the 38th Company, we find ourselves... allied with the Chaos cultists. An alliance of coincidence and convenience, of course, but as I understand it, you have fought for the sake of their goals, and... some of their battles may have been to our benefit as well." Her jaw shifted briefly, as if she was trying to covertly remove an unpleasant taste from her mouth. "I am still leery of Warsmith Solon and his men, obviously, but if they offer some hope of turning away the alien horde, then it would be foolish and cowardly of me to refuse to hear them out."

Applejack and Rainbow Dash had to firmly contain sarcasm at hearing such a reluctant acceptance of the alien warriors. Certainly after the Company secured Canterlot from the Tau and then left, they thought that the Iron Warriors deserved a lot more than being heard.

Shining Armor looked up as the sound of jet engines came from outside. "Sounds like they're here. With so many of the human aircraft coming and going, we set up a temporary landing zone in the gardens. What used to be the gardens, I mean."

Celestia forced herself not to react at the reminder of the Iron Warriors' collateral damage, instead focusing entirely on the Elements of Harmony.

"Before they arrive, do you have any ideas you would like to establish beforehand, so we know what to discuss?"

Shining spoke first, clearing his throat delicately. "I... don't think it really needs to be said, but there is no chance of the Equestrian military fighting off billions of opponents," he said grimly, "even if these Orks turned out to be inept, puny weaklings, those kinds of numbers are beyond the ability of any kind of fortification or magic to contain." He paused. "Well, at least, any fortification or magic I'm aware of. The Iron Warriors might have something that can deal with an army of that scale..."

As he trailed off, Twilight sighed. "They don't. That much I've confirmed. Even if they wanted to put their all into a defense, fortify pony land, and try to break the incoming invasion, Delgan seemed certain they just don't have the numbers." Then she grimaced. "And for the record, Orks are not puny weaklings, although humans do seem to find them relatively dim."

Twilight wet her lips for a moment and was going to speak again when Rainbow Dash piped up. "Well, don't stress about it! I have a plan!"

Twilight's mouth had already been open to speak, and it stretched open further once she processed what Rainbow Dash had said.

"YOU have an idea?" Rarity asked skeptically. "I hope you don't mean that absurd plan you shared yesterday about us fighting off the slavering hordes in power armor!"

"No, no, trust me, this one's even better!" Rainbow Dash said proudly, planting her forelegs on her hips as she hovered upright in the air. "It's super clever and stuff! I spent like an hour working it out yesterday before bed! I just need to run it by the big guy!"

Twilight's eyebrow twitched. An hour? That was far less than she'd spent on her magic sanctuary plan, and that had come undone as soon as she'd spoken to someone who knew anything about Orks. Rainbow Dash didn't know anything about the aliens save their skin color. What could she have come up with?

It seemed like some of her friends were going to ask the same question when the battered front doors to the throne room opened up.

A terrified-looking pegasus guard with a dull yellow coat and a blue mane walked stiffly into the room, his legs moving with his knees locked straight.

"P-P-Princesses, pr-presenting the W-W-Warsmith S-Solon and c-c-c-company!" the guard sputtered, beads of sweat crawling down the sides of his head.

Celestia sighed, remembering that Solon tended to terrify every pony that saw him on sight. "Thank you. They may enter at once."

As the sound of metal pistons shifting came from behind, the pegasus guard yelped and leapt out of the way. He was tempted to take flight and bolt out a broken window, but with three of Equestria's Princesses present, he managed to hold onto enough professional dignity to stay in the room as the metal goliath stomped through the doors.

Warsmith Solon entered the throne room, his legs hissing and pounding noisily as they carried him along. The Chaos Lord had evidently repaired the most severe damage that he had taken in the fight with Voidsong, and Twilight noticed that pieces of his torso and chassis armor shined brighter than the rest, no doubt marking the recently patched segments.

Then she noticed who had followed the Warsmith in, and she scowled. That response was mirrored by every single Element of Harmony save Fluttershy, who merely squeaked and ducked behind Pinkie Pie.

Sliver and Serith followed behind the Mechanized Iron Warrior, both of them armed with their usual melee weapons.

"Welp, we just got off to a real bad start, didn' we?" Applejack muttered.

"Warsmith Solon! Greetings!" Luna bellowed, keeping her speech volume somewhere in that gray area between "ear-bleeding" and "much louder than necessary". "We see thou hast recovered from thy wounds!"

"Moshtly, yesh," Solon allowed as his optics took a sweep of the room, "my pride remainsh deeply shcarred, however."

"Oh, I wish I could have been there. It was surely a grand sight," Serith chuckled. His helmet was also taking in the room, looking at each crater and crack as if trying to work out their origin.

Sliver remained silent, placing his hammer upside-down onto the floor and resting his arms on the handle. The guards on that side of the room quietly took a few steps back, wrinkling their snouts at the smell.

Twilight had guessed - or perhaps hoped - that Celestia would begin with a display of humility, just as she had greeted her and the other Elements of Harmony. No such display seemed to be forthcoming, however, and the white Princess seemed to be straining to suppress an array of negative emotions as she spoke.

"I wish to begin immediately, but it seems there's one among you to whom I have not been properly introduced." Her gaze fixed on the single fish eye lens of Sliver's helmet. "I remember seeing you briefly the other day, Mister...?"

"Ah, yesh. Thish here ish Shliver, my shecond in command and premiere tactician!" Solon said, gesturing to the hulk of terminator armor quite deliberately ignoring the aggravated glares coming from the mares in the middle of the hall.

"Ah, so thou art Sliver! We hast heard of thee!" Luna said. "T'was thee who recommended that Canterlot be destroyed entirely when the Tau captured it, was thee not?"

Well, if there was any part of the mood not sour by now, that had done it in. The guards and Shining Armor were now scowling openly at the Chaos Lord as well. Only Luna herself seemed unbothered, still looking upon the Iron Warriors with a polite smile.

Sliver didn't answer at first, his helmet turning slowly to take in the throne hall.

"It wass the better sstrategy," he said finally, his crimson lens falling on Twilight and staying there.

It wasn't given as an excuse or a defense; Sliver said it as if he was stating a simple fact. A fact that apparently hadn't changed despite the success of their siege.


Princess Celestia cleared her throat.

"Yes, well. We all know why we're here, so let's not waste any more time." She finally released the grimace that she had been holding back, thinking that it might now be attributed to their circumstances rather than the Chaos Space Marines in her castle. "I will now formally convene this war council. Due to the actions of the Tau Empire, a fleet of overwhelming numbers of hostile aliens is rapidly approaching our world. What is to be done about this?"

"Well, I hardly think it should come ash a shurprishe to any of you, but my fleet ish preparing to leave the shyshtem at once," Solon said, "we should depart high orbit within fifty hoursh."

A wave of wincing expressions moved through the ponies present. There wasn't one among them who honestly expected them to want to stay, but it still stung to hear they were abandoning the planet in short order.

Twilight blinked as she thought of something. "But... fifty hours? I thought you needed weeks to get your Warp engines done."

Solon's helmet twisted over to regard the young Princess. "Ah, sho you were paying attention. Yesh, unfortunately we are departing quite early, and will have to abandon the shipsh that are shtill crippled. If we were to shtay for two weeksh, and then the daysh beyond that which would be neceshary to inshtall the new enginesh, there ish a conshiderable chance that the main Ork fleet would reach thish shyshtem by then and cut off eshcape. We'd face the rishk of loshing more shipsh than we shave."

Twilight had to keep from lighting up at hearing the Warsmith's explanation. She hadn't thought the 38th Company would have any incentive at all to stay long enough to help.

"Our preshence here ish moshtly to anshwer any queshtionsh you might have about the Orksh, and alsho to ashk what you'd like ush to do with Ferroush Dominush."

"Uh... you mean your base, right?" Shining Armor asked. "What about it?"

"It will be one of the firsht targetsh of the Orksh once they land a large enough fighting force," Solon pointed out, "so we can either trap the place to kill the lootersh, or we can leave it sho that you can ushe it in a heroic but entirely futile lasht shtand."

"Well, what if I told you that things didn't have to come to that?"

All eyes (and mechanical equivalents) fell on Rainbow Dash as the pegasus hovered above the other Elements of Harmony.

"Thiss should be good," Sliver murmured, his shoulder pads shifting.

"Oh? You have a plan?" Solon asked, tilting his helmet to one side.

"Yeah! Here's the deal," Rainbow began, pointing a hoof off to the side, "the last of the Tau are still holed up in the Badlands, right? They're guarding the dumb beacon that's causing all this!"

Then she pounded her hooves together. "I say we go in and clear them out once and for all! And THEN, you guys can nab the beacon!" She then waved one hoof toward the ceiling. "Then all you have to do is drop it off on some other planet away from here!"

Twilight stared at Rainbow Dash with wide eyes as the pegasus grinned. She was hardly the only one.

That was BRILLIANT! How had Rainbow Dash, of all ponies, come up with something like that?

After a moment of thought, however, it seemed obvious: the plan was simple, bold, and confrontational. It was precisely the sort of thing Rainbow would come up with, Twilight realized, even if it did involve many aspects of warfare and technology she was utterly clueless about.

Solon turned toward Sliver. Nopony heard anything but a quiet hum from the two Chaos Lords, and Twilight decided that they were communicating with their external vox turned off.

After a few more seconds, Solon turned back toward his hosts.

"An intriguing idea. That would indeed draw the bulk of the Ork fleet away from this shyshtem."

Shining Armor frowned. "The bulk? Not all of them?"

"I'm sure that some portion of the fleet will arrive here anyway," Serith answered, "either because they're low on supplies, sick of Warp travel, or privy to some other dim impulse of the Ork mind. You'll get a few thousand here, a million there. You know how it is." The unicorn cringed at the thought of a million enemies.

"Ha! I knew it would work!" Rainbow Dash cheered as many of the other ponies started smiling hopefully.

"It would. But we're not doing that," Solon said.

The smiles died quick, painful deaths.

"What? But why not?" Rainbow asked.

"It involvesh too great an inveshtment on our part, for one thing," Solon mumbled, "attacking the only Tau bashe actually prepared for ush would be no shmall matter. But the main problem ish that it would leave our two crippled shipsh shtuck here in the Centaur shyshtem when the Ork vanguard arrivesh, unable to flee and without the shupport of the resht of the fleet. We would almost certainly loshe them anyway. Sho we loshe everything we came for, and gain nothing."

"Oh. Well, uh... huh." Rainbow's confidence had crumbled by now, and she was rubbing at her neck with a hoof. "Well, is there any chance you could do it anyhow? For us? ... Please?"

"No," Sliver said succinctly, causing the blue pony to bristle in anger.

Solon continued before she could lash out and further deteriorate the mood. "Sho if there'sh nothing elshe, how about that fortresh?"

Twilight chewed her lip briefly. This was it, wasn't it? She didn't really have a plan even as complete as Rainbow's had been, but she had to at least bring up her idea.

"Actually, I have a question," the purple alicorn said, tilting her head up to look the Warsmith in the optics.

"Yesh? Go ahead, Princesh," Solon said patiently. It was fairly obvious that he wasn't expecting anything useful from her or any of them.

"Well, obviously I'm new to the topic of Warp travel, but I read up on it last night," she paused briefly, "it seems to be a rather... unreliable form of travel in general, but in particular, I heard that sometimes these things called 'Warp storms' occur and prevent passage into certain regions of space."

Serith silently turned his helmet to the side, as if considering something.

Solon shrugged his armored shoulders. "Thish ish true."

"Well... is there... maybe... some way to create a Warp storm deliberately around our system? To cut off all travel to it for some time?" Twilight finished, speaking harshly around the lump in her throat.

"Oh, of coursse!" Sliver suddenly said, startling the ponies with his surprisingly jovial exclamation. "We'll jusst deploy our Warp sstorm generator! It'ss sso obviouss!"

"Sweet!" Pinkie Pie grinned, bouncing up and down. "How long will that take?"

"THERE IS NO WARP STORM GENERATOR!!" Sliver roared, his bellow almost knocking the ponies over from the volume alone. The foul air blasting out of his vox grille at the same time was an added touch of unpleasantness, and some of the mares started coughing in disgust.

Celestia's frown tightened. "I see. There is no need to shout, Mister Sliver. We simply have no idea what the limits of your technology are."

Sliver snorted angrily, and Solon quickly took hold of the conversation again.

"Although it ish not unheard of for Warp shtormsh to be controlled, shuch thingsh are far beyond our power," the Warsmith explained, "it requiresh an enormoush array of pactsh, shacrificesh, and shorceriesh, not to mention expertishe in the more... eshoteric fieldsh of metaphyshicsh. In fact..."

Twilight would have found the explanation quite fascinating, but had already interpreted his answer as "no" and wasn't really listening anymore. Somehow she found her mind elsewhere, her eyes and thoughts wandering as the Chaos Lord spoke.

She wished Gaela was here. She had no idea when she'd built such a connection to the cold, corrupted cyborg, or if the bond was mutual, but she was certainly regretting the woman's absence when faced with nothing but the glowering, blood-colored visors of the Iron Warriors. She had asked these Chaos Lords for aid before, and were it not for the Dark Acolyte, Canterlot would be ashes and rubble for her efforts.

Her eyes tracked upward, glancing at the patches of wall filling that had covered up the Star of Chaos on the ceiling.

Why do humans turn to Chaos?

Twilight had never asked the question before. It hadn't occurred to her. In the absence of a human population that wasn't beholden to some kind of malevolent Warp-thing, it hadn't seemed relevant. When such humans HAD appeared, they had done so in the service of the Tau Empire, so she had found herself favoring the cultists anyway.

She hadn't asked the question. But Gaela had answered it while fighting Voidsong. With her armor broken, her arms destroyed, and facing down an enemy she couldn't possibly defeat in a face-to-face battle even at her best, Gaela had explained the brutal simplicity of their hateful cult.

Sometimes they needed help. And in desperation, they turned to the darkness, begging for power.

Wasn't that exactly what she was doing now?

"There is a way."

And sometimes... the darkness answered.


Everyone in the room whirled toward Serith, most of them looking stunned.

"What wash that?" Solon asked.

Serith looked up at him. "There is a way. I hadn't thought of it until Lady Sparkle brought it up. We can generate a controlled Warp storm to block the entry of the alien fleet using the resources and time we have available."

Solon and Sliver glanced at each other. Their helmets hid their faces completely, but there was no mistaking that they were just as surprised as every pony in the hall.

"How may we do this?" Luna asked eagerly.

"There is a certain kind of construct that can be built, a unique type of Dark Portal," Serith explained. His voice was calm and unassuming, as if the fate of a world's people weren't hanging on his words. "It is called a Nethalican. It can accomplish what we seek."

"A Nethal... what? I've never heard of ssuch a thing," Sliver growled.

"That's because its secrets are known to only one Legion: the Thousand Sons," Serith explained.

"Your former Legion," Solon mumbled.

"Indeed," Serith confirmed, although his voice came out much quieter now, as if he was struggling to get the words out, "among all the original traitor Legions, the Thousand Sons possess by far the smallest space fleet in proportion to its numbers. We... THEY cannot defend planets from orbit, so they developed other means to protect themselves from attack. Obviously, such methods rely heavily upon sorcery."

Twilight was too stunned at what she was hearing to speak, but Rainbow Dash wasn't so easy to render speechless.

"You said this Nethaliwhatsit is a 'Dark Portal'? That sounds super sketchy, dude," Rainbow said through narrowed eyes.

Serith seemed to recover his bravado, laughing at the pegasus. "Oh, it is. To create a Dark Portal is to wound the very fabric of reality, and then prop open the breach. The universe itself struggles against such a thing, and the Warp reacts little better," the Sorcerer said with a dark chuckle. Then he trailed off, his glittering visor slowly moving from pony to pony as he spoke. "It is not a simple or a safe thing. But it offers a chance. A hope, if you will." He said the word with a deliberate snort, charging it with contempt.

"Well, that's somethin'," Applejack admitted, looking to Rarity. She shrugged back.

"It DOES sound considerably more manageable than an unwinnable war," Shining Armor agreed.

"It'ss imposssible," Sliver declared, growling as he stomped closer to the Sorcerer. "I am no witch, Sserith, but I know a thing or two about Dark Portalss. It would require a hundred pssykerss and many more ssacrificess to esstablish one! The ssacrificess could perhapss be provided by the Orkss themsselvess, but we have no Ssorcererss to sspare for thiss foolishnesss!"

Serith laughed, and Twilight honestly didn't know whether she sympathized with Sliver as he shook with rage. She may have disliked both of them, but she despised Serith personally, and every time he laughed she wanted to fire a magic bolt into his face.

"My Lord Sliver," Serith said happily, spreading his free hand out toward the ponies, "did you forget where we are? We have all the psykers we could ever want."

Every horned pony in the room except Luna recoiled in surprise.

Serith noticed their reaction, and turned his helmet to regard the equines. "Make no mistake, ponies: this is your war as well, and you too will play your part. Should we construct the Nethalican, it will be a joint effort, not a gift from the 38th Company."

Twilight chewed her lip thoughtfully. That didn't seem at all unreasonable, actually, but she still had a hard time wrapping her head around the fact that SERITH was making a serious effort to save them.

"As Lord Sliver suggested, the Orks themselves will provide the blood. They have strong spirits, and the first waves should arrive in... defeatable numbers," Serith mused, "their graves will lay the foundation. And with the aid of the unicorns I will tear open the Materium and stop the Orks' approach through the Warp. With no way to translate into the system, they will pick up the next beacon the Tau have laid, or move on to other parts of the sector."

A tense silence hung over the room as the Sorcerer finished speaking.

Luna raised her head. "We approve of thy plan, Sorcerer," she said firmly, surprising many of the other ponies. Then she turned her head toward Celestia. "Sister, Sir Armor, what say thee?"

Princess Celestia cringed, but Shining Armor stood up straight.

"It is my professional opinion that we proceed, your Highness," Shining Armor said, "no matter what this Nethalican does, it can't be worse than having Equestria overrun and pillaged by space barbarians." Then he coughed. "Also, it's my personal opinion that it's better for us that we have a crucial role in this. It doesn't feel right to have the future of our world ENTIRELY in the hands of the Company, after all."

Celestia grimaced, seeming to teeter on the edge of a decision.

Twilight was already nodding her head eagerly. She hadn't held out much hope that her idea would bear fruit, but now that they had a working plan she could feel her heart swelling. Maybe it was possible, after all! The Iron Warriors and Equestria, working together to save their planet from an overwhelming alien menace!

She was about to add her own endorsement when a dark growl came from one of the Iron Warriors.

"Warssmith, you can't sserioussly be conssidering thiss!" Sliver hissed.

Solon, who had been quiet since Serith started talking, glanced over at him. Then he looked over to the Equestrians.

"I have conshidered it," Solon said finally, "and the anshwer ish no."

Just like that, Twilight felt as if the floor had been knocked out under her.

"Wh-What?" the purple alicorn gasped.

"No. Ash in 'no, we're not building a Nethalican'," Solon elaborated, "although I musht credit Princesh Shparkle and Sherith for their clever thinking."

"But why? Dost this strategy displease thee?" Luna asked, looking rattled. Celestia looked confused now, as if she wasn't sure whether to be relieved or as shocked as everypony else.

"It'sh better than the plan for relocating the beacon, but it'sh shtill far too much rishk for too little reward," Solon explained calmly, seemingly oblivious to the distressed expressions all around him, "beshidesh: it ish clear that thish ishn't about getting my shipsh repaired, but about shaving your world from deshtruction."

"Well, yeah," Applejack mumbled, quirking an eyebrow, "there a problem with that?"

Solon's optics whirled in their socket. "The 38th Company hash not been ashked to shave thish world. We have been ashked to leave it."

The silence that greeted his explanation spoke volumes. Twilight felt like a ball of ice had formed in her stomach. Again. It was becoming an uncomfortably familiar feeling during these kinds of encounters.

"Ohhhhhh. Riiiiiight," Pinkie mumbled after several seconds, her ears falling flat as she winced, "I kinda forgot about that."

"I've noticed," Solon quipped as his legs started winding up, "in any cashe, if you have an anshwer for my queshtion about the fortresh, feel free to shend me a letter or shomething. Good luck with your imminent annihilation."

Solon started turning his chassis around. Serith and Sliver said nothing as they likewise turned around to follow, although the latter was now holding his hammer loosely over his shoulder pad in a subtly upbeat display.

"But wait! Solon! Come on, be cool, man!" Rainbow Dash tried, grinning nervously.

"No," the Warsmith said simply as he started moving toward the door.

"Uhm, please?" Fluttershy asked timidly.

"Leaving now," Solon said without looking back.

Twilight's heart raced. They had a plan. They had the tools and the knowledge and the power to stop the Orks. The only thing they were missing was a price.

She felt stupid for being so surprised. She was the one who had first pointed out how little the Iron Warriors had to gain from helping them. She saw Solon's point clearly, and even had to agree with him; obviously, she was very invested in the survival of her world, but she couldn't think of much reason for the post-humans to care. Their damaged ships could only be worth so many lives and so much risk. But Equestria? That meant nothing to them. Why would they bother? What could Equestria offer them?

What could SHE offer them?


"WAIT!" Twilight appeared in front of the Iron Warriors in a flash of purple light. They halted, although Sliver shifted into what was obviously a combat stance, ready to force his way out if necessary.

Solon stared down at the lavender alicorn, noting how labored her breath seemed. "Yesh, Princesh? Make it quick, pleashe. I have much work ahead of me today."

Twilight took a deep breath, and then, to the other ponies' shock, she lowered her head into a bow.

"Warsmith Solon, I beg that you give your sanction and assistance to construct the Nethalican and save our planet from the invading Ork threat," Twilight said in a rush, her eyes fixed firmly on the cracked flooring, "in return, I, Princess Twilight Sparkle, shall join the 38th Company on a permanent basis, and serve the Iron Warriors however you wish."

Shining Armor's eyes bugged out. "Twily?!"

Celestia's reaction was far less restrained. "NO! Absolutely not!" the white Princess shouted. "Twilight! Stop this at once!"

Sliver snorted and stepped forward, his hand outstretched as if to swat the pony away. "I've had enough of-"

He paused as Serith raised an arm in his path.

"Let her speak, Lord," the Sorcerer said calmly, visor fixed on Twilight, "listening costs us nothing."

"No! This meeting is over!" Celestia barked, standing up.

For the first time, Twilight completely and deliberately tuned out her mentor as she powered forward with her offer. "I know that your fleet takes in mercenaries that are not necessarily aligned to Chaos, and I know that psykers are particularly valuable to you! I am one of the most powerful and studied psykers in Equestria, and I'm positive I can be of use to you, Lord!"

Solon tilted his helmet to the side, and then glanced behind him at Celestia. The taller alicorn looked stuck between fury and horror, unsure as to whether she should incapacitate Twilight on the spot or flee the room in tears.

The Warsmith looked back down at Twilight.

"You overeshtimate yourshelf, Princesh," Solon said, his optics pulsing, "one pshyker doesh not account for the fate of a world."

Twilight wilted, very nearly feeling her legs give out. Her final, desperate gambit had failed.

"Then how about two psykers?"

Princess Celestia made a strangled, sputtering noise as Rarity stepped forward, sweeping her hair to one side. "I'm not as accomplished as Twilight, but Delgan seemed more than happy at the prospect of having my help."

"I am intrigued," Serith admitted, getting a sharp glare from Sliver.

"And don't forget me!" Rainbow Dash said, floating upward and putting a hoof against her chest. "I'm no psyker or whatever, but I can handle myself in a fight! I'm in!" Then she gestured to Fluttershy. "She's in, too."

Fluttershy slapped her hoof against her face and groaned.

"Ooh! Ooh! Me! Me! I wanna join! I wanna be a space pirate! It's my second most wanted dream job after 'Candy Factory Quality Control Manager'!" Pinkie jumped up and down excitedly, grinning.

"My little ponies, please! Think about what you're doing!" Celestia said anxiously.

"Sorry, Princess," Applejack said as she tilted back her hat, "but even on our world o'harmony, ya don't get nothin' fer free. We need this Chaos thingamajigger, and it looks like we gotta pay a price." She smirked and saluted with a foreleg. "Crabapple's data fer mah house, the Tau base fer mah brother's life, and now mahself fer mah planet. Can't beat those prices. Ah'm with ya, Warsmith."

Solon turned to looked down at Serith. Serith shrugged.

"All right, that wash my fault," Solon said as he swiveled back around to face the majority of the equines trying to swear themselves to his service, "the issue ishn't the quantity, really. Even a hundred poniesh aren't worth rishking the fate of my entire fleet on a shorceroush conshtruct. I'm tempted, shomewhat, but the anshwer ish shtill no. The rishk ish shtill too great."

Luna's jaw tightened, and she glimpsed her older sister slumping in relief.

"Economy, is it?" the Night Princess mumbled, taking a deep breath. "So be it."

When Luna spoke again, it was at her usual, less subtle volume.

"The Warsmith is correct! Even a prize as valuable as the Elements of Harmony cannot account for the fate of our planet," Luna said, trotting down from the elevated section of the throne room.

Celestia's head jerked up. "Luna, what are you doing?" she asked quickly.

Luna waited until the Iron Warriors were all looking at her before she continued. "Thou owes the state of Equestria nothing. Thou owes us nothing. Within the month, thou plans to depart to distant lands, never to return. And yet we beg thee to spend the lives of thy brothers to our salvation. This is no bargain. Thou art right to refuse to save our world."

"Lunaaaaaa," Celestia said, her voice getting steadily higher, "I don't like where you're going with this."

A brief flicker of magic touched Luna's horn before her voice reached Celestia's mind.

Forgive me, Sister. They can save us. I know they can. This must be done.

Solon tilted his helmet to the side. "I'm glad you agree. I guesh. Sho what?"

"So, if thou will not save our planet, would thou save thine own?" Luna asked.

For a few seconds, silence.

"I'm not sure I follow you," Solon confessed. He was turning his chassis around again, however, and Twilight finally raised her head from the floor.

"Thou hast built a grand fortress, and a factory within it of unimagined scale. Thy military supremacy is absolute, and we talk of erecting an edifice empowered by thy black magic. Thy fleet plies the void around this planet unchallenged." The dark alicorn paused. "This world belongs to thee, Warsmith. Should thou relinquish thy intention to depart it, Equestria would stand with thee in alliance as ruler."

"Luna, no," Celestia gasped, "you can't do this!"

"Thou would keep thy fortress and factory, and save thy vessels," Luna continued, heedless of her sister, "and this planet would serve thee as thy safe haven as thy fleets roam the distant stars seeking plunder. The nation of Equestria would aid thee in any manner we can."

Solon once again glanced at his subordinates.

"This deal gets better every moment," Serith said pleasantly, "a planet, a company of psykers, a Dark Portal... shall we hold out further, Lords? We might get another Princess out of it."

"If necessary, We, Princess Luna, shall also submit to thy command," the dark blue alicorn declared firmly, "anything to secure our world's survival."

Princess Celestia couldn't even bring herself to protest anymore. Her mouth felt dry as sand.

Sliver was silent, for once, running figures and theories through his head. He didn't want to make a deal of any sort with the Equestrians, but if he was to recommend its rejection, he at least had to give an honest accounting of its possible benefits.

"A hosht planet... a permanent bashe..." Solon mused. "We hadn't conshidered that."

"The establishment of the Nethalican will do more than allow us to shroud the system from approach through the Warp," Serith pointed out, "with a Dark Portal in place, we can shape the eddies of the Empyrean coming from the system, greatly improving our travel speed. We could cross the breadth of the galaxy and enter the Eye of Terror in mere weeks, if we wished. It would be quite a boon, Warsmith. I must endorse this bargain."

Solon looked up at the head of the throne room. "I'm not sure. It doeshn't look like the shovereign ish very happy with theshe termsh."

Celestia glared at him silently, which Solon thought was quite unfair. He was evidently giving her opinion more weight than anyone else in the room.

Sister, please! There is no other way! We must save our people! Luna's voice once again crossed Celestia's thoughts, but the white alicorn remained silent.

How could she willingly hand the planet over to the forces of Chaos? How could she possibly consent to, much less aid, the construction of Dark Portals and daemonic constructs?

But that didn't mean Luna was wrong.

"It sheemsh like you have shome thingsh to dishcush," Solon said as he turned away, "ash do we. I will think over your offer, Princesh, and have an anshwer for you by nightfall."

The Warsmith started to leave again, but then paused. "You know how to contact me." With that final statement, he moved for the door again. Twilight scrambled to get out of the way, and she made sure to stare suspiciously at Serith as the chuckling Sorcerer strode past. Sliver was the last to leave, departing in surly silence before the throne room doors swung shut behind him.


A collective sigh of relief came from the guards in the throne room as the doors closed.

Then, silence.

"Well," Shining Armor said, tenderly breaking the heavy mood that had followed the Iron Warriors' departure, "I don't know about anypony else, but that went WAY better than I expected."

"RAAAAAUGH!!" Princess Celestia released an incoherent howl of fury and anguish, and then vanished in a flare of yellow light.


****


Canterlot Castle - dining hall, thirty minutes later


"Well girls, we're still starin' down a massive alien horde, our planet's been put up fer sale, we're relyin' on the biggest creep in the 38th Company to save ponykind, and we all just volunteered ourselves into slavery."

Applejack took a took a generous swig of apple cider, and then sighed in contentment as she put the depleted mug down. "Good times, mi'right?" She was smirking as she said it, and Rainbow Dash chuckled.

Twilight grimaced. "That... isn't really accurate. It's not slavery if we volunteer."

"Call it what ya like, Twi, but Ah'm right surprised to hear ya offer it. What brought that on?" Applejack started to re-fill her mug from the barrel set in the corner. "Now, as fer me, Ah owe the humans anyhow. Never figgered Ah'd be joinin' em, but there ya go."

Twilight sighed, turning her cup of water back and forth between her hooves. "I... well... panicked, I guess. But if we can really get them to agree to set up a Dark Portal, then it will be worth it."

"I'm not sure how much I trust Serith's magic construct to do as he's described," Rarity mumbled, "Solon certainly didn't seem thrilled by the idea, and I have much more faith in the Warsmith." She sighed. "But if our service is contingent on them staving off the Orks, then we hardly have much to lose in the bargain. I couldn't call myself a pony of any decency if I didn't do my part."

Rainbow Dash grinned and patted her chest. "The way I see it, signing up with them is the best chance I'll ever get to nab a suit of power armor. That's how Trixie got hers."

Twilight groaned, her ears dropping to the sides of her head. "Rainbow! Is that what this is about?"

"Nah, of course not!" the pegasus scoffed. "This is about giving everything we've got to save the world from certain destruction! But if I can nab some power armor along the way, then it becomes awesome rather than a total drag!"

"Ooh! Ooh! Me next!" Pinkie Pie chirped, waving her hoof in the air. "I want a dreadnought!"

"Sure, Pinkie. Good luck with that," Twilight deadpanned. Inwardly she was feeling quite relieved and hopeful, however. Considering Princess Celestia's reaction, it was quite uplifting to see her friends so cheerful about the situation.

Well, except Fluttershy. She was laying her head against the table and was murmuring to herself miserably. But four out of five was still better than she could have hoped for.


The door opened behind her, and Twilight turned around to see Luna and Shining Armor entering the room.

"How is the Princess?" Twilight asked nervously.

"Absolutely inconsolable," Luna said curtly, her expression part annoyed and part solemn.

"Princess Celestia doesn't care for the prospect of Chaos controlling the planet," Shining Armor explained, severely understating the obvious, "but nor can she bring herself to refuse the arrangement outright. It would be very hard to explain to anypony that she'd rather Equestria fall to the Orks than survive under the 38th Company."

"And yet, We art sure that is precisely how Sister feels," Luna said, grimacing.

This earned a few frowns from the Elements of Harmony.

"Okay, you know what?" Rainbow Dash said, hovering up out of her chair. "I have to say it: I respect Princess Celestia like crazy, but just WHAT is her problem?"

Twilight gave the pegasus a sharp glare. "Rainbow Dash! Princess Celestia-"

"Has been totally on these guys' case since they showed up!" Rainbow Dash interrupted. "First thing she does when she sees the humans is declare that they have to be defeated and shipped out into space! And you know what? I went along with it! I figured Celestia knows best, right? But she didn't! The whole time we were tip-hoofing around the Chaos fortress the Tau were planning to trash our whole world just to save their own lousy skins!"

Twilight winced badly. "That's... true. But Princess Celestia didn't know!"

"Didn't know that the Tau were going to get us all killed, or didn't know that the 38th Company didn't want to bother us?" Rainbow demanded.

"Neither, Ah'm pretty sure," Applejack mumbled with a raised eyebrow.

"Okay, yeah, fine. But now we all know BOTH those things, and she STILL has a problem with them!" the blue pegasus snapped. "Even with Solon! SOLON! Solon has been SUPER COOL with us!"

"We must stand in agreement with the Element of Loyalty," Luna said solemnly, "Warsmith Solon hath been most chill." That earned her a curious look from Shining Armor, but the unicorn stallion said nothing.

"Right?! First time we meet, we bust into his home ready to flatten him with the Elements of Harmony, and the dude backs off without a fight!" Rainbow Dash exclaimed, landing on the table with three legs and pointing the other at Twilight. "Next time I see him? 'Oh, hey there Mister Chaos Lord, you mind fixing up this dying stallion you've never even met?' And he did it!"

Rainbow Dash walked to the edge of the table, a leg still extended toward Twilight. The purple pony started leaning back away from it, frowning.

"And then when Canterlot was taken over! Who was it that came up with an awesome plan to capture the city when the other brainy jerks just wanted to level it? SOLON. I can't even blame him for not wanting to help us any more! Celestia still treats him like he's some kind of... some kind of... gross, giant bug, or something!"

Twilight briefly shared an awkward glance with Rarity, and then her eyes snapped back up to Rainbow Dash.

She cleared her throat delicately. "What are you getting at, Dash?" Twilight said frostily.

Rainbow opened her mouth to continue her tirade, but in a moment of uncharacteristic forethought, she hesitated. Brash and quick to judge as she often was, criticizing the sovereign ruler of Equestria, keeper of the sun, and their personal taskmistress was not something she did lightly.

"It's just..." Rainbow Dash put down her hoof, her eyes darting from side to side. "I mean... it just hasn't worked out like it usually does. Chaos bad, harmony good, right? It's not supposed to be complicated. But... I dunno... what if it IS?"

"Whoa, easy girl!" Applejack said with mock concern. "Don't wanna hurt yerself with all that there deep philosophizin'!"

As the pegasus glared at the earth pony, Rarity cleared her throat daintily. "I believe what Rainbow Dash is TRYING to express is that Princess Celestia seems far more wary of Chaos, even after they've helped us, than she is of the other aliens, even when they pose an obvious and absolute threat."

She furrowed her brow under her horn. "And I have to agree. Although the humans have given us plenty of reasons not to trust them, they've also done us some good favors, and yet Princess Celestia stands utterly unimpressed."

Shining Armor looked up at Luna. "Is there something we're not seeing here? None of us are so naive to think that Princess Celestia is worrying over nothing, but neither can we see a particular reason for this."

Luna sighed. "There is much that needs to be said, but only so much We can divulge. The knowledge is forbidden, and for good reason."

The dark alicorn paused, wetting her lips. "We can at least mention foes that thou hast faced directly. King Sombra. That showmare that possessed the Alicorn Amulet. And... ourself, as Nightmare Moon."

Twilight recoiled. "Wait, you mean when you were Nightmare Moon, you were acting as an agent of Chaos?"

Luna shook her head firmly. "Nay! We served no one, and swore no allegiance to gods of any sort!" She took another pause to figure out how best to explain this matter.

"There is... a darkness to magic," Luna finally said, glancing down at the curious equines staring at her intently, "an innate, corruptive force that lay within the arcane power that eats away at sanity and reason. We do not possess a proper name or descriptor for it."

Twilight had dozens of questions racing through her mind just with this small admission, but she restrained herself to let Luna finish.

"Ponies art protected from it," Luna informed them, although there was a hint of deep regret in her voice, "We art uncertain why this is so. But We do know that this protection can be... overcome. The darkness can be sensed, seized, shaped, and used. But the results..."

She looked down at the floor, unable to meet the eyes of the other equines. "The results speak for themselves. Mine own powers differ from that of other ponies, and as a result We art... closer to this taint than most. We made no bargain with any daemons and heard no whispers from any gods, but during our moment of weakness We reached for this power, and the madness consumed us." Luna looked up again, her expression firmer now. "We hast recovered, and art stronger now. But still the threat of our corruption remains even after our purification. That is the power that Sister fears."

"Okay," Twilight said slowly, "so this aspect of magic can corrupt ponies' minds and turn them evil without them actually swearing service to Chaos itself?" Her thoughts turned toward a certain three fillies who seemed to be in the opposite situation, having devoted themselves to the Dark Gods without becoming insane or hateful creatures.

Luna frowned again, clearly struggling with the subject. "Aye. Chaos itself is... the dark magic given will, intellect, and direction, We suppose. We understand little more than that. Equestria hath spent its long existence denying such knowledge and building a lasting peace so that few would have reason to seek out destructive magic power. It hath worked, mostly."

Then she looked away, gazing toward the wall in the direction of Ferrous Dominus. "But these humans... they took a different path. They embraced the darkness. They worshiped it, sated it, and learned from it. They heard voices in the dark and they spoke back. In this way they've managed some level of understanding and control that equines hath never achieved, but the source of their power is clearly the same malevolent rot that hath poisoned ponies' minds and turned them against Sister." She sighed deeply. "This is why Sister so ardently opposes the forces of Chaos, whatever their particular intent. This is deeply personal to Celestia. Seeing ponies close to her volunteer themselves to the Company's service must hath been especially unpleasant."

A grim silence hung over the room as Luna finished.

"Well, all right. I can get that," Rainbow Dash finally said, "but we're not looking to join up with the Chaos Church, here, and they're not asking us to. We just want the humans to build their Nethatosis thing."

"Nethalican, Rainbow Dash," Twilight corrected.

"Aye. We seek the power that Chaos offers, and hath found an acceptable price," Luna agreed readily, "but Sister feels differently. Celestia fears that if she should abet the cult upon this planet, then she merely condemns our world to a slow, twisted demise rather than the quick, brutal fate offered by the Orks."

Applejack frowned, tapping a hoof on the table thoughtfully. "What about Discord, then? She don't seem all that worried 'bout him. Even had him reformed and everythin'."

"Discord is... a strange case," Luna admitted, sitting down, "he is a creature of Chaos rather than a natural being corrupted to darkness, yet he serves no dark gods. At least, We believe that to be the case; Discord is most unhelpful when being questioned, and it is impossible to know whether he speaks in riddle or jest." She huffed irritably. "But as for why Sister is not so severe toward our ancient enemy, there art two reasons: one is familiarity. Celestia knows well Discord's goals and methods, and as such thought it possible that he could be turned away from them."

"And the second reason?" Applejack asked, cocking her head to the side.

Luna pursed her lips. "The other reason is that Discord had already been defeated before. It thus stands to reason that we could stop him again, if necessary. Sister is quite uncertain that we could overcome the Iron Warriors should the need arise."

"Ah. Yeah. That is a good point, actually," Shining Armor admitted, "but even so, I'll gladly take the questionable alliance over fighting the war by ourselves."

"Sister will come around," Luna declared confidently, "she is no fool, and sees the enormity of the threat before us." Then the dark-furred Princess smiled. "Besides, there hath been precious little evidence of any ponies being corrupted thus far for the Company's presence. It is not as if our citizens will start worshiping the Dark Gods!"

"Oh, will you LOOK at the time!" Rarity gasped suddenly, practically leaping from her chair. "I didn't expect saving the planet to take so long! We absolutely MUST get back to Ponyville right away! Especially Applejack, who is extremely busy and doesn't have any time to say anything else!"

Applejack duly kept her jaw shut as she hopped down from her chair and followed Rarity to the door, practically sprinting. The rest of her friends followed at a slightly less panicked pace, trying not to look nervous as they fled the room.

"Er... but what about-" Shining Armor started to speak, but Twilight cut him off.

"Thanks a lot Shining! Luna, Good work with the war council!" Twilight said loudly as she walked backward toward the exit, her wings spread anxiously. "Let me know when the fate of the world is decided! Gotta go!"

She bolted into the hall, her horn flaring as the door magically slammed shut behind her.


Luna quirked an eyebrow. "Most ominous."

"I'm... sure it's nothing, your Highness," Shining Armor said, not feeling half as confident as he sounded, "I trust Twilight. She's done an excellent job handling Equestria's relations with the 38th Company so far." His voice dropped considerably. "Better than we have, anyway."

Luna nodded slowly. "Very well, Sir Armor. Let us see to Sister. Until the standards of Chaos and Equestria fly side by side, our task is not yet complete!"

The unicorn stallion nodded hesitantly. "Never thought I'd hear THAT sentence..."


****


Ponyville


"That'll be six bits, please." Roseluck said, placing a flower bundle on the counter of booth.

Although she was speaking to Lyra, her eyes were fixed on the bipedal figure that was standing quietly behind Lyra with a lasrifle held loosely in one hand.

"Here you go, 'Luck!" Lyra said as she levitated the money onto the counter. Then she leaned over and took a bite out of the bouquet, smiling around the mouthful of blossoms.

Roseluck was still staring up at the human nervously, but behind her, Daisy cleared her throat. "Lyra? Anything for your... um, friend? We have some excellent morning glories in today."

"I don't eat flowers," Jacob explained bluntly.

Lyra swallowed her first bite of violets, and then stuffed the rest of the flower bundle into her saddlebags. "Yeah, I get him that nutrient sludge from the Company market."

Lily made a disgusted face. "Ugh, really? I've tried that stuff! It's terrible!"

"Tell me about it," Jacob grunted.

Lyra shrugged. "Well, sometimes I'll get him apples too, but that's been harder since... you know..."

The four mares shared a pensive glance toward Sweet Apple Acres.

"Like to know what it takes to get a steak around here," the mercenary mumbled, his voice barely intelligible through his respirator mask.

Lyra patted her hoof against the human's leg sympathetically. "I'm sorry, Jakey, but you know we can't afford it! Meat is just way too hard to get in Equestria!"

Daisy raised an eyebrow.

Lily and Roseluck's reactions were less subtle.

"Humans eat MEAT?!"

"Murderer!"

"I knew he was eyeing me up! He's gonna eat us!"

"The horror! THE HORROR!!"

Daisy facehoofed as the mares next to her screamed, and then gave Lyra an apologetic shrug.

The mint-colored unicorn just rolled her eyes, ignoring the hysterical wailing as she turned around and walked away with her human.


As soon as the pair were out of earshot, Daisy turned and smacked Lily upside the head, causing her to yelp and bash her forehead into Roseluck's face.

"Would you two quit that? Have you seriously never met a meat-eater before?" Daisy snapped. "The humans aren't going to eat us! Why would they? There's plenty of dumb animals around Equestria if they want meat, and they mostly live off that nutrient goop anyway!"

The other two mares slowly massaged their new bruises as they thought this over.

"But just think about all the recent pony disappearances!" Lily exclaimed. "It's way too suspicious!"

Daisy glanced at her warily. "What pony disappearances?"

"The Elements of Harmony!" Roseluck gasped. "What happened to them?"

Daisy gave her a look. "I saw Rarity just this morning."

"Right!" Lily said, her eyes narrowing. "And we haven't seen hide nor hair of her since!"

Daisy calmly raised her foreleg again, ready to smack some more sense into her business partners.

"Okay, okay, fine! The Elements of Harmony probably aren't missing!" Lily admitted. "But what about Big Macintosh?"

Roseluck nodded rapidly. "Yeah! Nopony's seen him in days! And considering all the damage that's been done to Sweet Apple Acres, you know he should be in town buying supplies and stuff!"

Daisy groaned. "Okay, so we haven't seen Big Mac recently. But that doesn't mean he's missing, and it certainly doesn't mean he was killed and devoured by humans!"

Lily's eyes narrowed again. "I'll bet that's just what they WANT us to think!"

"Oh Celestia, give me strength," Daisy moaned, turning away from her friends and looking away toward a row of houses.

She noticed something off immediately, seeing a thin trail of smoke rising from behind the homes. There were also some heavy, unfamiliar noises coming from that direction, and she could see many ponies standing around and staring at something out of her line of sight.

Then she saw a familiar figure step into view, causing the onlookers to move away and clear a path.

"Ah-ha!" Daisy said, pointing a foreleg at the large, red figure. "There's Big Macintosh! See? He's just... fine?"

As the crimson stallion approached, Daisy had to confess that the familiar figure was not that familiar anymore.

And then came Apple Bloom riding on top of some kind of smoke-belching metal dragon thing. That was pretty new, too.


Big Macintosh did his best to ignore the stunned staring all around him as he walked through the market, his bionics whirring softly with every step.

He was immensely glad that Apple Bloom had thought to take Crabapple along with them; he didn't want ponies gawking at his augmetics and asking him about them, and as expected most of the spectators were finding it hard to concentrate on his new legs when there was a gigantic daemon engine following him. Apple Bloom had no issues with being the center of attention herself, and waved happily at the slack-jawed ponies from atop Crabapple's head.

"Ooh! Big Mac, can we git some flowers?" Apple Bloom asked, beckoning to the flower stand.

Big Mac glanced over at the flower trio, and then bobbed his head. "Eeyup."

The three mares' heads slowly tilted upward further and further as the Apple siblings approached, their eyes fixed on the maulerfiend looming high above them.

Big Mac and Crabapple stopped, and Apple Bloom waved some more.

Big Macintosh looked over the selection immediately visible, idly chewing on a stalk of wheat. "Anythin' on special?"

The mares suddenly dropped their gazes to him, clearly still stunned.

"Duh... Duh..." Daisy's jaw took a few moments to start working again. "Daffodils!" she finally managed to spit out. "Two b-b-bits for a half-d-dozen!"

"Eeyup," Big Mac agreed, raising his bionic foreleg to his chest panel.

With a heavy clanking noise, he pulled it open and then reached inside to retrieve a small bag.

He dropped two bits onto the counter, and then slipped the bag back into his chest before clicking the panel shut.

None of the three mares made any move to take the money. Or any move at all, really.

After twenty seconds or so, Big Mac silently stepped over to the bucket of daffodils and helped himself to six of them. Crabapple lowered its head toward the ground as Big Mac turned around, and Apple Bloom happily took the flowers and started munching on the blossoms.

"Thanks. G'bye," Macintosh said as he plodded down the road. Crabapple raised its head and followed, its wire-bundle tail sweeping back and forth behind it.


"...... Bye," Daisy squeaked long after he was out of earshot.

Eventually Daisy came to her senses, and she offered her business partners a wry and obviously forced chuckle.

"See that? Big Macintosh is alive and well! Or... alive, at least."

Lily nodded reluctantly. "I guess the humans only ate half of him."

"Not even. More like a third," Roseluck corrected, "very merciful of them."

"Oh, for pony's sake," Daisy groaned, letting her face fall onto the counter.


****


Ferrous Dominus - Solon's forge


Solon loomed over a slim, nude figure laid out over an iron slab, his head surrounded by hololith screens and twitching, ceiling-mounted servo arms. In his hand was an ionic diffusion core, salvaged from the fight in Canterlot Castle.

"There'sh a wonderful irony in thish arrangement," Solon said happily, lowering the core into place into a vambrace casing, "the ion blashter that felled you will now become a part of you. It'sh poetic. With each trial we shurvive, we are rebuilt, greater than before."

The form on the table said nothing as Solon worked at securing the weapon core in place with an array of humming laser welders.

"You sheem preoccupied, Mish Gaela," Solon said after a few silent seconds.

The figure on the table quickly turned her head to regard the Warsmith, although she was careful not to move any other part of her body.

"My apologies, Warsmith. I am distracted. Did you require something?" Gaela said quickly.

"What hash you sho diverted?" Solon asked, his optics focusing now on the particle dampers he was installing in the vambrace casing. "Getting new wargear ish ushually one of the few thingsh that can bring shome trace of excitement out of you."

Gaela frowned, glancing at the new bulky metal construction that now dominated her left shoulder. The pieces of her new arm were placed around the table, carefully organized in a pattern that would best aid quick assembly.

Solon was right, of course. She was in the process of having another portion of her weak, dying flesh replaced with unyielding cybernetics; cybernetics constructed by the Warsmith himself, at that. She should have been giddy enough to stop frowning, or even smirk slightly.

"It is nothing of importance, Warsmith. I beg your forgiveness for my inattention," she said rigidly.

"I didn't ashk how important it wash," the Chaos Lord pointed out. There was no heat to his response, but it seemed like he wasn't willing to let the matter go so easily.

Gaela suppressed a groan. "I... have looked into the proposition generated by the war council earlier today," she admitted reluctantly, "the alliance with Equestria and the development of a sorcerous construct to block Warp transit to this world. An analysis and commentary log has been circulating on the noosphere cache."

Solon began attaching the vambrace to the bicep plating, remaining silent as he worked.

"The consensus is clear: the Dark Mechanicus thinks that remaining on this world is an unacceptable risk," Gaela said evenly.

"You dishagree?" Solon asked.

Gaela didn't respond right away.

"... Their analysis is based exclusively upon their distrust of a solution that relies on sorcery," she said finally, "there is unanimous agreement that the proposition would be highly beneficial if this 'Nethalican' performs as Serith has promised. But exceptionally few believe there is any worthwhile chance of that."

"Chaosh shorcery ish not known for itsh reliability," Solon agreed as he worked his tools into the elbow joint that would connect the arm segments, "but again, you do not anshwer my queshtion."

Gaela scowled. She did not want to have this conversation. Not with Solon, not even with herself. But she would not lie to her Warsmith.

"I... want to see this planet spared," Gaela said grimly, as if admitting some deep, dark secret.

"There. That washn't sho hard, wash it?" Solon said with a throaty chuckle.

"It is," Gaela said honestly, "my opinion toward the proposed strategic solution is based not upon an objective analysis of costs and benefits, but subjective emotional imperatives not shared by the rest of the fleet." She scowled deeper. "It is a sign of weakness, and unbecoming of one of the Mechanicus."

"Well, yesh, that'sh true," Solon said as he finished the elbow joint, "but it'sh alsho shomewhat fitting."

Gaela raised her eyebrow.

"Part of our turn to Chaosh ish to indulge our own whimsh, not jusht perform the shame dutiesh we carried out under the Imperium for different mashtersh," the Chaos Lord noted as he moved to the augmetic hand. It was a large, unwieldy thing, with three hefty claws fixed around the particle stream accelerator. "There are thoshe who shay that Chaosh ish shimply another shet of chainsh; longer, perhapsh, but barbed, if nothing elshe. A different shlavery from Imperial shervice, but shtill a shlavery."

He started affixing the hand to the vambrace. "They're right. But it ish shtill a difference. Shervice to Chaosh ish firsht and foremosht shervice to oneshelf, and we have no ushe for the Imperial creed. You wish to conshider the intereshtsh of xenosh? Then you may. The Dark Godsh have nothing to shay on the matter."

Gaela's scowl shifted back into her usual frown. "I think I should rather retain my dignity and standing with my peers rather than be seen coddling equines."

"That too ish your choice," Solon said as he finished final assembly of the augmetic arm, "although you may find more shympathy than you'd expect."

She raised her eyebrow again.

"General Gnosh ish quite willing to throw hish shupport behind the Nethalican," Solon explained, stopping as he shifted the bionic into place, "I believe a shurprishing number of the mercenariesh agree with him."

Gaela turned her head slightly, thinking this over. "I suppose that makes some sense," she admitted, "to such men, they are ever in the care of powers beyond their comprehension, whether it be daemonic power, sorcery, or technology. They see little difference between trusting their fate to Serith's construct and entrusting the Harvest of Steel to safely carry them through the Warp." She snorted. "Not all of us can afford such comforting ignorance."

"And yet, they could be right," Solon said as he kept working at the arm, laying down circuits in preparation for the exterior plating, "there ish shometimesh a crude wishdom in men whom have no leash beshidesh their own passionsh and quesht for shurvival. They are unburdened by dogma and loyalty. They accept thingsh for what they are, rather than shome relativishtic calculation or dishtant objective."

"I much prefer your deeper and more weighty wisdom, Lord," Gaela sniffed.

"Ah, no doubt," Solon chuckled as he leaned over the Mechanicus priestess, lining up the new arm with her shoulder, "but if I knew what to do, I wouldn't be ashking anyone elshe, would I? Now be shtill. We're almosht done."


****


Harvest of Steel - high orbit over Centaur III


Sliver's armor plodded heavily upon the moist, rusted floors as he made his way through the hall that served as the Temple of Nurgle within the ship. His Rusted Brotherhood followed behind him. Or what was left of it, anyway.

Four Terminators, reduced to two. Each of the survivors carried a helmet belonging to a Rusted Brother that had fallen, the artifacts carefully scavenged from the armor hulks that had eventually failed them. The armor would be repaired, refurbished, and eventually granted to new initiates. The helmets, however, Sliver had a different use for.

At the end of the hall, past a pair of festering shrines, was a wall covered in shelves. Upon the shelves laid dozens of Terminator helmets, each one bearing the distinctively rusted, scrap-like appearance of the Rusted Brotherhood's armor.

"Two more Brotherss losst, given over to Nurgle'ss final embrace," Sliver hissed, halting before the wall and kneeling respectfully.

"Gehran," murmured the Terminator to his left, stepping forward with ceremonial stiffness and placing the helmet upon the wall.

"Telethiel," said the one on Sliver's right, doing the same thing with the second memento.

Sliver waited until his soldiers had finished and backed away from the wall.

"Another two livess I could not ssalvage. Another two failuress to add to the lisst of indignitiess ssuffered by the 38th," growled the Chaos Lord.

The other Terminators remained silent. They disagreed, but Sliver already knew that.

Sliver looked over the wall, his optic lens glimmering in the dim lumens. There weren't all that many helmets, honestly, the total numbering a mere twenty-three. But that spoke as much of how few of his circle there were as it did their strength.

"Two more livess losst on that damnable planet!" Sliver snapped, his voice rising. "I never should have allowed it! We should be away from here already! Away from the Tau, away from the Orkss, away from..."

Sliver trailed off, letting his anger cool. He honestly couldn't bring himself to start railing against ponies while standing before the gazes of his fallen brothers. It was just too undignified. Such creatures were supposed to be beneath his notice. Beneath even his contempt.

"And now there iss talk of sstaying," Sliver hissed, his breath wheezing from behind the helmet filters, "of shrouding thiss ssysstem in the tidess of the Warp and making a permanent basse. Why would the Warssmith even conssider it?"

The Rusted Brothers behind him shared a glance.

"To hand the fate of the 38th Company to Sserith, of all people, sso that we may RETURN to thiss worthlesss globe? What iss the point?" Sliver asked, as if expecting an answer from the empty visors in front of him.

"We would have a home again."

Sliver slowly turned to his right as he stood up, and the lens of his helmet pulsed a bright red. "What?"

The Iron Warrior shifted his massively armored shoulders uncomfortably. "I approve of it. The Nethalican. Taking this world. It... appeals."

Sliver turned the rest of the way around, not quite sure what to say.

"We'd have a home, Lord Sliver. A planet of our own. We'd no longer have to rely on berth from whatever fortress world calls upon us to claim our resources. We would have a land to return to. A land to defend."

"Defend from a xeno onsslaught that iss already in transsit to this ssysstem!" Sliver raged.

"Let them come," the Terminator said defiantly, "to do battle with the xeno from behind our own walls, defending our own fortress, for our own gain... it would be a pleasure. One that has been too long denied us!"

"If you want a home ssysstem, there are hundredss that AREN'T lying in the path of an Ork WAAUGH!" the Chaos Lord growled.

"Serith's Nethalican makes this place feasible," the other Terminator noted, breaking his silent contemplation, "without it, it will not be possible to travel quickly enough through the Warp to perform our duties or protect the system from retribution." He paused. "And without the xeno psykers, the Nethalican cannot be built. And of course there's the crippled ships to consider."

"To Hell with them! The xenoss and the Ssorcerer!" Sliver spat. "You LIKE that planet?! You think a world like that iss worth protecting?!"

"Then let's MAKE it a world worth protecting. Rebuild it to our liking," the first Terminator said, clenching his upraised power fist in the air between them, "we may never get this chance again." Then he pointed the clawed fingers of his weapon at the wall of helmets. "And at least this way, Gehran and Telethiel will have fallen for a reason."

Sliver fell silent for some time after that.

"Leave me," the Chaos Lord eventually said, turning back toward the memorial, "ssubmit your opinionss on the matter to the Warssmith if you sso wish. I came here to grieve."

The Rusted Brothers nodded cautiously, stepping away from their commander.

Before long the sound of their heavy footprints receded, leaving Sliver alone to face the ghosts of his brothers.


****


Canterlot Statue Gardens


Princess Celestia spared a glance toward the sky for the rising moon as she walked through the gauntlet of soldiers that had cut off access to the gardens. Night had fallen, and as far as she knew Equestria's immediate future was already being hashed out in the world of dreams.

She indulged in a rush of indignation for a moment; the fact that she was not able to be present to hear the decision of the Iron Warriors was no small slight against her. But even she could reason that things would conclude more smoothly if she wasn't sitting nearby grinding her teeth about it.

She was getting increasingly suspicious about Luna's relationship with Warsmith Solon - which was clearly more familiar than her sister had admitted to - but this too she dismissed for the sake of her mood.

There was no point in moping about the agreement that would save her nation from its most immediate doom, so she was on her way to do the next best thing.

She was going to have a long, angry chat with the person responsible for all this.


Shas'o Voidsong stood at the rear of the garden in a temporary holding yard, cordoned off by a length of red cord. Ultimately the garden planner wanted to place the alien High Commander between a bronze replica of a Tau battlesuit and another of an Iron Warrior, probably in the empty space left by a vehicle crash that had demolished the Royal Guard diorama. But approval for such a project would unfortunately have to wait until she was sure there would be a future generation of Equestrians alive to enjoy it; there were far too many pressing projects requiring attention and resources now. In the meantime, the cord barrier hadn't done an exceptional job of protecting the statue. It was covered with mocking graffiti, including a host of colorful slogans: from the juvenile "Chaos rules, Greater Good drools!" to the cryptic "Bring back Squats!"

Halting briefly to check that her guards were holding position at the garden perimeter and out of earshot, her horn started to glow brightly.

Then, with a pulsing ray of yellow light, the statue was consumed by magic.


The effect was immediate, and cracks appeared all over the statue before the stone surface started to crumble and disintegrate.

The figure beneath the petrified prison didn't move immediately, despite having muscle control restored almost instantly. When she did budge, her movements were slow and ponderous.

Voidsong lowered her head slightly from her pose staring up into the sky, and then her eyes tracked back and forth, taking in her immediate surroundings. She noticed Princess Celestia immediately, of course, but her eyes barely lingered on the alicorn before scanning the rest of the area and assembling the immediate details in her head.

It was night time. She was un-petrified, standing in an unfamiliar place, and wearing her pilot suit. One of the Princesses - the big, naive one, specifically - was facing her, horn aglow, and the only other life forms she could make out were a few pegasus guards hovering quite some distance away.

Shas'o Voidsong couldn't make any sense of the scene right away, so she decided to throw caution to the wind.

"You know, when I was told you were going to petrify me, I thought it would last a fairly long time. Did I get time off for good behavior? How do you even measure that from a statue?"

Celestia said nothing, her eyes locked with the Tau officer in a glare full of accusation and slow-burning fury.

"You look more upset now than when I took over your capital and prompted a full-scale invasion of it," Voidsong deadpanned, "I wonder why that is."

"You..." Celestia had to take several calming breaths at seeing Voidsong's reaction. She had predicted fury or smug pride, had been prepared for fear, and was hoping for regret. But this... the alien warrior seemed glibly resigned. Indifferent. Clearly aware of what she had done but without any particular feelings about it.

"We know what you've done," Celestia said darkly, "we know the Orks are coming."

"Well, congratulations. I'd offer you a cookie for being so clever, but I'm pretty sure the humans told you that before they bolted." Voidsong calmly let herself down into a seated position on the podium she had been positioned on. "So. I'm genuinely surprised to be let out. What's the occasion? Guilt trip? Begging for assistance? Want me to suffer the same fate as the rest of your world? Did you want to double my sentence?"

"Voidsong," the alicorn growled through clenched teeth.

"No, no, hear me out. You turn me into a statue, and then you put that statue inside a BIGGER statue. That'll show me."

The Tau's vision was suddenly obscured by yellow, and she couldn't restrain a grunt as she was pulled from her seat and hurled onto the ground at Celestia's hooves.

"Do you understand what you've done?" The Princess hissed, glaring down at the alien and resisting the urge to throttle her on the spot. "You condemned our entire world to destruction, and when confronted you sit there making jokes?!"

The Shas'o looked up at the Princess, her expression as bland as ever. "It's a defensive reaction. I'm used to being the most powerful person in the room, and having that dynamic reversed is proving awkward." She sat up calmly, and then beckoned to the pony. "Anyway, it sounded like you were going for 'guilt trip'. Go ahead. I'm listening."

Princess Celestia's mind whirled, quickly organizing and discarding topics and rants that she had planned on the way here.

"Why our world?" she asked first. "What particular quality of this system, this planet, makes this sacrifice necessary?"

Voidsong held up a hand, and then extended one finger. "It was in the right place," she extended another finger, "it was not a planet we'd colonized or yet surveyed for colonization," a third finger came up, "it has a rich biosphere."

Celestia furrowed her brow. "Why would you WANT to use planets with life? Why not use uninhabited, barren worlds to guide the savages?"

"Orks get bored easily," Voidsong sighed, "if they arrive at the beacon and find nothing, they're as likely to wander off than trust that the next one will lead to a battle." She grimaced. "Our original plan had us keeping the fleet in-system so that the vanguard forces could make contact with an enemy, and then evacuate our ground forces just before the bulk of the Orks arrived. That way they would keep scenting conflict ahead, while still having plenty to do on the planet to keep them distracted and... entertained." She grunted. "Obviously the Iron Warriors scuttled that plan, at least for this system. Hopefully with all the wreckage and the gutted fortress left behind for looting, the damn savages will conclude there's a good fight happening at the next beacon."

"You'll have to forgive me for not particularly caring for the success of your plan," the white alicorn said tightly.

"Of course you don't; why should the destruction of an entire civilization of unpleasant creatures you've only just met bother you?" the Tau officer agreed. "Now you know how I feel."

Celestia's eye narrowed to slits. "Don't you dare, alien," she snapped, "we have done nothing to your people, and yet you come to our planet, claim it in the name of your empire, and then use it as bait! Don't compare us to you!"

Voidsong paused for several seconds, and her cool demeanor cracked slightly.

"I hardly think it needs to be said, and it definitely doesn't change anything, but I'm sorry things worked out this way," Voidsong finally admitted, looking up at the Princess, "if we'd had more time, perhaps we could have worked out another solution... found a suitable world without any intelligent life, at least, or evacuated your population to become part of the Tau hegemony."

Celestia snorted angrily. "And you think we'd allow that? After you sacrifice our world, you think we'd become another set of pawns for your empire?"

"Yes," Voidsong said simply, "it's a far better fate than the one facing you now. But unfortunately for all of us, you don't get any choices. And for that, at least, I am sorry."

Celestia was silent for a long moment before she spoke again. "They gave us a choice." Her voice was cool as ice.

Voidsong looked up. "Hm? Who?"

"The humans. The Iron Warriors..." her face twisted into a grimace, "Chaos."

Disbelief was written plain across the alien's face, so Celestia continued. "They've offered us a way to cut off the Orks from getting into our system. I'm not sure how it is supposed to work, exactly. Something called a 'Warp storm'..." she trailed off as her forehead furrowed. "But if it fails, then the 38th Company may well perish alongside us. We have a chance now. A hope."

Voidsong silently stood up, her mind racing as she backed up and once again sat on the stone podium.

A smirk slowly crossed her face.

"You filthy hypocrite," she said finally, chuckling ruefully.

Celestia recoiled, and then stepped forward angrily. "Hypocrite?!"

Voidsong's smirk turned into a more neutral expression. "How many died during the siege?"

Celestia was more than a little confused by the change of topic, but saw no reason to keep the information a secret. "We were quite lucky. No ponies were-"

"Not ponies," the Tau snapped, "humans, Princess. How many humans and post-humans fell defending YOUR capital from us?"

The alicorn blinked, and then searched her memory. "I'm not sure-"

"How many lives did the Iron Warriors spend to YOUR benefit? How many tears did you shed, Princess, for every hominid soldier whose future vanished in a flash of pulse fire or ion bursts?"

Celestia's eyes narrowed again into a glare. "They died for their own goals, not for us."

"Ah, of course. And because it only worked to your advantage incidentally, their sacrifice doesn't COUNT, is that it?" Voidsong mused. "It doesn't matter if the humans die fighting your enemies. Why should you care, as long as your people are safe? Again, you might note the similarity to my own situation."

"Don't you talk down to me, alien," Celestia snapped, her horn flaring yellow as she glared down at the Tau officer, "the forces of Chaos are twisted, hateful creatures who would destroy ALL if given the chance!"

"Yes, sure, I know," Voidsong mumbled, utterly indifferent to the threatening energy in the air, "I'm well aware of the pictures that we draw in order to ease the burden of erasing a life. They're are all monsters. They hate us for no good reason. They're evil, and want to destroy everything." She chuckled. "Though we typically reserve such labels for our enemies, not our allies."

"It is because of YOU that we must take our enemies as allies!" the alicorn countered.

"Two distant races, polar opposites of each other, driven together to save a world from destruction," Voidsong said, staring up at the sky melodramatically as she spoke, "you should write a play about this. This is good stuff." As her gaze fell back to the bemused pony, her tone darkened. "But seriously, I can't believe you. The Iron Warriors hand you salvation on a dish and all you can do is moan about it."

"You don't know what they asked for in return," Celestia grumbled, her horn going dim once more, "in saving my ponies from the coming annihilation, I may end up condemning them to corruption and misery instead."

"Chaos..." Voidsong mumbled to herself, looking up at the stars thoughtfully. "It's a strange thing, isn't it? To think that there really is some greater power, some ancient will, underpinning the natural universe?" She chuckled humorlessly. "The Tau have no religions. We think of such things as silly superstitions and encourage our auxiliary species to cast them away. I'd never heard of Chaos until I saw the otherworldly monsters roaming the bridge of one of my ships. It's really quite interesting, from an objective point of view."

"There's nothing interesting about it," Celestia countered, her feathers ruffling, "the force that lay behind Chaos turns decent equines into madmares and can twist even the Astartes into... well, you saw. ONLY the threat of complete and certain annihilation by a third party could bring me to submit myself to them."

"But those are the cards we've been dealt. And so here we are," Voidsong said with a smirk, "you, forced to negotiate with monsters to save your people, and me, facing a sentence as a bird roost for saving mine. These are the prices we have to pay." She stood up on the pedestal, and then twisted into her earlier pose. "I know better than to ask you to forgive the Tau, Princess, but at least you should find it in your gushing, naive heart to forgive the army offering you safe haven."

"I hardly think a world hosting a Chaos army could be considered a 'safe haven'," Celestia pointed out darkly, "you aliens bring destruction and warfare with you like a disease. What kind of future am I to offer my ponies if our very survival is to depend upon the good graces of Chaos?"

"A future they may yet live to face," Voidsong snorted. "It's a rough galaxy, pony. Get used to it. Now make with the stoning. I'm finding petrification more enjoyable than chatting with you."

There was silence around the gardens as Voidsong waited, and then, finally, Celestia's horn began to glow.

A thin beam shot out of the alicorn's horn and struck the Tau officer's arm, singing it badly. Voidsong yelped in pain before doubling over, sputtering a profanity in her native language as she clutched her arm.

A second later she was about to move back into her pose in an act of grim defiance, but to her shock she wasn't able to budge. In the brief moment it took for the pain in her arm to recede, Voidsong's lower torso had already turned to stone, and the effect was rapidly moving up her body.

"Oh, you snarky bit-" her tongue froze in her mouth as her head finished petrifying. The Tau High Commander was now hunched over and staggered, her face trapped in an angry sneer.

"... Yes. I think I like this pose better," Celestia said to herself as she turned around.


****


???


Luna coalesced into being, her body wrapping itself together from strings of shadow that emerged from nowhere.

The Princess of the Night looked around eagerly as she finished materializing, observing her new surroundings with a gleam in her eye.

She found herself in a grand hall within some kind of bastion, that much she could tell. The walls and ceilings were reinforced metal, with chains hanging from above and holding braziers.

The floor, however, was cut from stone and then polished to a shine, and Luna could see the Legion's Iron Skull grinning at her from the cold rock beneath her hooves.

She very much wanted to go sightseeing, but this time she was here on formal business. Luna calmly let her presence flow through the phantasms that surrounded her, and detected the mind that was holding it all together. Then she headed toward its central nexus at a graceful trot.

The sudden blare of alarm klaxons caused her to leap into the air in surprise, and Luna started twisting her head around to figure out what was going on.

Defensive turrets started dropping open from the ceilings and walls, aiming multi lasers and heavy bolters all around the room as the alarm blared. One by one the mechanical sentinels turned and locked onto the alicorn as the only living thing in the room, although none of them fired.

Luna swallowed nervously, feeling her heart start to race. It wasn't as if the guns could actually hurt her; this was only a dream, after all. But if she were to look for subtle hints as to the Warsmith's current mood...

Well, this probably didn't count, but only because it wasn't very subtle.

Luna walked up to the doorway, noting that it didn't open for her. Yet she could feel that Solon was on the other side. She suddenly felt rather overwhelmed.

Shouldn't she have a speech prepared? Some kind of lavish appeal to the Iron Warrior or formalized acceptance ceremony? Or at least the trappings of one? Walking in and cheerfully informing the man that Equestria was on board with the Nethalican suddenly seemed entirely inadequate, now.

Luna puffed up her cheeks in irritation. She had always spoken to Solon before as an equal (on the occasions that she wasn't threatening him, at least). She realized only now that offering herself to his service made her a subordinate, and the implications were quite unpleasant.

"Oh, to hay with it," the Lunar Princess mumbled, her horn flaring with power. She knew court protocol, she knew Solon, and she knew what was at stake. That would have to be enough.

With a bright blue flash, Luna teleported to the other side of the door.


Solon stood in the next alcove, his back to the door. He was wearing Techmarine power armor for the first time that Luna could recall in a dream, and was staring out of a high wall of shielded armorglass.

Luna's hoofsteps seemed to echo in her ears as she walked forward slowly, trying to decide on the right blend of regal confidence and servile humility.

"GREETINGS, WARSMITH!! HOW FARES THEE?!?!" Luna boomed, nervously slipping into the Canterlot Voice by accident. The armorglass wall shook from the volume, and several screens on a nearby cogitator bank shattered. The dark blue pony winced immediately, deciding to dial down the regal confidence a bit more.

Solon, for his part, didn't flinch at the sound.

"I fare well enough, thank you," the Iron Warrior replied, still facing away from the Princess toward the glass. Then he spread his arms toward it, gesturing to the scene outside the glass. "How do you like it?"

Luna's attention had been entirely focused on the Warsmith up until then, and she finally looked at what lay outside the window.

Great edifices of metal loomed over the viewing glass, all of it built into mountains of icy brown rock. There were massive towers and dozens of large transport tubes, and no small number of heavy weapons turrets built atop reinforced buildings. What was strange about it, however, was that there was nothing around the buildings but hard void; the stars glimmered down on the gunmetal structures without any of the refraction or dilution caused by atmosphere.

"We art in space?" Luna asked, keeping her voice down this time. "Yet, not on a ship?"

"An asteroid base, actually," Solon said, his helmet turning to watch as the turrets tracked something out of their line of sight and then opened fire, "Ferrous Nocturne, my first and only attempt at a permanent base for my fleet. A refueling and repair station cut into a great asteroid in a system far away in the Segmentum Solar."

Luna walked up to the armorglass, taking in the details of the nearby complexes while her eyes kept darting up to the blanket of stars. Most ponies probably would have found the complex cold and stifling, or at best just another example of impressive human technology. To Luna, however, the prospect of a city permanently wrapped in the deepest night was a thing of absolute beauty. "'Tis a marvel," she said breathlessly.

"Yes," Solon mumbled, "yes, it was."

Luna recoiled as a series of light flares came from the transport tubes of one building. The tubes noiselessly came apart before her eyes, spilling debris and power-armored bodies into the vacuum.

She then remembered the alarm klaxons, having previously pushed the noise into the back of her mind. She had thought that the alert had been some sort of passive-aggressive reproach to her, but it seemed that it was merely part of the dream. She felt some of her nervousness ebb away.

Luna glanced up as a gunship passed by the window, her eyes narrowing at its black and white color scheme.

"Black Templars," Solon said as way of explanation, "the Segmentum Solar is a big place. But not big enough to evade retribution forever. Ferrous Nocturne operated for a mere decade before our foes tracked us down and ripped it asunder." He snorted. "I'm not completely sure how they found us, but I'd wager the Eldar had something to do with it. The loyalist fools are as much their tools as the Imperium's."

"The scoundrels!" Luna groused as she watched explosions rip through a mooring bay.

"Yes, well, I can't say I didn't earn their ire," Solon said with a careless shrug, "after this encounter I constructed the Harvest of Steel, and it's served in lieu of a base ever since."

He turned around, focusing the optics of his helmet on Luna. "And now I look to Centaur III and imagine its future. What should I see?"

"Thy forces and ours, standing rank by rank to repel the enemy," Luna said immediately, "the dark standard of Chaos flying aside Equestria's sacred crest! The lands littered with flame and the ruined bodies of the foe!"

Solon had to pause after that. "That was pretty good. Did you have that prepared?"

"Nay! We art the Seer of Dreams!" Luna announced cheerfully. "Such imagery comes to us with great frequency!"

"Yes, well, I was thinking more in terms of after the immediate crisis," Solon mused, "what lay in store for your planet? Will the oceans be boiled away? The mantle ripped open for minerals? Will Chaos temples rise within your cities and daemons roam the forests?"

Luna frowned, thinking over the imagery. "We art hoping not," she admitted with a shrug, "but what of it? Is that the fate that is to compare unfavorably to extermination? If humans hath found their way under such conditions, art We to quail before thy future?"

Another flash of light came from outside, and Luna briefly tilted her head to the side as a structure started venting atmosphere from a gaping hole in the wall.

"We realize that thou hast chosen this place deliberately, Warsmith, but is this an ideal setting to formalize our alliance?" the blue alicorn asked.

"Ah. Yes. 'Alliance'," Solon murmured, turning away from Luna again, "it didn't escape my notice that you used that term to describe our arrangement. As if our forces were equals in any way."

Luna hesitated for a moment. "We care not which of us is the better of the other," she sniffed, "pony and sapien shalt do battle against the Ork side by side, for the common defense of our planet. We shalt fight together, suffer together, survive together, and prosper together."

Solon had to hold back a chuckle. "Do you really think it will happen like that?"

"Aye," Luna said with a sharp nod, "We shalt MAKE it happen like that. No other outcome is acceptable."

Then she continued, beckoning to the Iron Warrior with a wing. "We know thy forces are touched by darkness. We know the threat thy men pose, the corruption that thou brings. But We have no fear of thee."

"Perhaps you should," Solon countered, "I am not fond of your sister, Princess, but I can hardly fault her judgment. She sees me for what I am, and acts accordingly."

To his surprise, the alicorn in front of him started laughing, for some reason. Really, this meeting wasn't going anything like he had expected.

"Thou claims Sister knows thee better than We?" Luna asked, still chuckling. "How many worlds and craft hath Sister explored, crewed by thy Chaos Space Marines? How many inventions of thine has Sister puzzled over? Both of us watched thee fall before the alien wench, but which of us hast tasted thy power once before? We hast seen thy home world of Olympus and watched its purging; Sister knows nothing of thee save an unpleasant association with insects."

Luna was feeling much more confident now, and she approached the Iron Warrior completely at ease even as the building trembled and the bulkheads around them groaned. It seemed silly now for her to have worried over conduct and propriety; Solon was not the sort to put much stock in ceremony. He barely seemed to put stock in his own chain of command. "Moreover, We truly wished thee to stay, Warsmith. For our nation's protection, in part, but We enjoy being with thee."

"You mean you enjoy playing in my simulated memories," Solon corrected, though he couldn't manage to put any annoyance or bitterness into it.

"But of course!" Luna grinned. "We hast not had such fun in living memory! But besides this, thou art our friend, and We wish for thee to be treated well here!"

Solon fell into silence after hearing that, his gaze turning back to the armorglass window. A lance strike punched through a major gun tower just outside, and the entire structure turned to flame and molten slag in an eerie silence right in front of him.

"Your world will likely share the same fate," Solon noted, gesturing to the crumbling void fortress, "your planet is no longer hidden from the premiere powers of the galaxy. Yesterday it was the Tau, tomorrow it will be Orks, but in time you may well have the Imperium, or some Eldar filth marching on Equestrian soil... if it is not undone by the very portal that is supposed to save it."

"Then so be it," Luna said simply, spreading her wings upward, "whether it be thine enemies or our own, or even the machinations of thy dark power, we will stand against the threat!"

This time the explosions were heard rather than seen, and Luna's head twisted toward the door as she heard the defense turrets discharging.

"It seems thy dreams seek to intrude upon our council," Luna said with a smirk as her horn glowed, "shalt we save the fine details of the negotiations for after these 'Black Templars' art laid to waste?"

A pair of power swords appeared in front of Luna, and the alicorn Princess grinned as more small explosions came from the next room.

Solon was about to simply pause the simulation so that they could finish speaking, but he hesitated at seeing the unabashed excitement and anticipation on Luna's face.

"Oh, fine. Why not?" he mumbled, walking over to the wall where a power axe and bolter hung from large metal hooks. "It's been a while since I've done combat on two legs..."

The door was blasted open by a melta charge just as he took up his weapons, and Luna blew away the fog of vaporized metals with a puff of magic.

A giant in black armor, lined in white, and wearing a tabard shouldered through the breach, his chainsword roaring.

"Cleanse! Purge! KILL!!"

"HAVE AT THEE, KNAVE!!!"


****


Ponyville - Twilight's library, the following morning


Applejack slurped down a cup of coffee, offering a contented sigh as she relaxed on a chair in the library's main room.

"So, how'd the family take the news?" Rainbow Dash asked, sitting across from the farmpony. Rarity was resting behind her, looking over the top of a dataslate at the other mares.

"Reactions were... mixed," Applejack grumbled as she set her mug down, "Mac was mad. Real mad."

The other two ponies raised eyebrows, having a difficult time imagining the placid red stallion infuriated.

"He thinks it should be him goin' instead," Applejack sighed, knitting her eyebrows, "got real vocal about it, too, tryin' to talk down to me and whatnot."

"When he starts speaking in full sentences, then you KNOW he's upset," Rainbow whispered to Rarity, who tittered behind a hoof.

Applejack chose to ignore the comment. "Apple Bloom is excited as all get-out to hear that her big sis is 'goin' ta space', but then she still don't really understand the kinda state we're in with the fields demolished. Daniels seemed a little worried, but he knows Ah can take care o'business. And, uh... Granny says Ah'd better come back to visit fer the holidays. Didn't really know what to say to that."

"Well, look at it this way: things will have to turn out very well before you really have to worry about losing the farm, much less worry about attending special occasions regularly," Rarity reasoned.

The sound of books dropping onto a desk nearby halted their conversation, and the three mares looked over to Twilight. The alicorn was already pulling the top-most title from the stack of tomes she had gathered from the shelves, and had a determined expression on her face.

Rainbow Dash read the title Twilight had levitated up. It read "Beginner's Guide to Battlefield Tactics". Reading the titles of the other books, the pegasus quickly noticed a theme. They included "Combat Telekinesis and You", "How to Summon Friends and Incinerate People", "Evocation: For Dummies", and "The Anarchist's Cookbook: Pyromancer's Edition".

"Niiiiice," Rainbow said with a smirk.

"Twilight, darling, have you heard anything back from the palace yet?" Rarity asked, "I thought everything would have been decided by now."

Twilight paused as she cracked open the first book. "Yes. Well... kind of."

"I got a message real early this morning," Spike informed the ponies as he walked into the room carrying a box, "it was from Luna."

Rainbow Dash gaped at Spike, and then she snapped her head around to Twilight again. "WELL?! Are we golden or not?"

Twilight furrowed her brow as she levitated a scroll out of the drawer. "Take a look and see for yourself."

Rarity quickly seized up the paper with her magic and unrolled it.

"Dear Princess Twilight Sparkle," Rainbow Dash read aloud, "Nailed it. Sincerely, Princess Luna."

The mares frowned at the missive.

"It's a little light on details," Spike said dryly as he started unpacking the box.

"Well, Ah'm gonna take that fer a good sign," Applejack said, leaning back with her coffee, "which means Ah gotta worry about how to cover the cost of half a harvest."

"And then, when you get that out of the way, you'll finally have time to worry about having sworn service to a band of Chaos space pirates," Rarity said before sipping her tea.

As the mares snickered, Spike finished his immediate task and looked upstairs. "Hey, Twilight? Is Fluttershy coming down?"

"Fluttershy's here? Already?" Rainbow Dash asked, looking puzzled.

"She stayed the night here, actually," Twilight mumbled, frowning as she looked up from her book, "I think it had something to do with Tellis."

"Tellis? What makes you say that?" Rainbow asked.

"Because every time somepony knocks on the door, she dives under the bed while saying 'Is it Tellis? It's not Tellis, is it? I'm not here!' Did those two have a fight?"

She got quite a few incredulous stares in return.

"I know it's a little silly, but I'm pretty sure she wasn't QUITE this terrified of him before," Twilight grunted, "and whatever happened, she won't tell me about it."

"Well, let me have a shot," Rainbow said as she bounced to her hooves, "I'm sure it's nothing. Her and Tellis get along just fine!"

"Yes. Like a wyvern and a field mouse," Rarity deadpanned as the pegasus trotted up the stairs.

After a brief silence, Rarity finished her tea and then set the cup aside. "Applejack, darling, since you've already decided to join the Company like the rest of us, have you considered taking up an actual contract? There's no particular reason why you shouldn't get paid if you're working for them."

Applejack frowned. "Huh. That's a fair point, Rares, although Daniels says they don't make much fer what they do."

"It will actually look better once it's converted to bits. Credits are overvalued at the current exchange rate," Twilight noted absently.

"That's... uh... sure," Applejack mumbled uncertainly, "do ya think we'll have to leave Equestria eventually? Ah mean, if we've really signed up to this... we gonna go to other planets and rob 'em?"

Twilight and Rarity shared a glance.

"Well, if the 38th Company is keeping a permanent presence here, then there should be work to do on the planet for anypony who wants it," Twilight said thoughtfully, "and most of the work off-planet would be combat drops and such. So we probably could-"

The front door suddenly opened, and everypony in the room turned sharply to see who had arrived.

"Sparkle," came a crackling, static-laced voice as an unfamiliar, heavily armored Dark Techpriest walked through the door carrying a power axe and a dataslate.

"That's me," Twilight said, promptly marking her place in the book and rushing over to the cyborg, "can I help you?" Spike, who had left the room to refill Rarity's tea, came back from the kitchen and raised an eyebrow at the new guest.

The Dark Techpriest offered Twilight the dataslate. "Congratulations on your acceptance into the ranks, Twilight Sparkle. From this point forward, you serve the 38th Company and its Iron Warriors. These are your orders."

Twilight froze in place. "Wait... that would imply-"

"That we will begin constructing the Nethalican with all haste," the armored figure finished, "there is much to do if we are to ensure the safety of Ferrous Dominus and its host planet."

Twilight's mouth hung open as she levitated the dataslate toward her, unsure of what to say. The news brought a potent mix of emotions to the fore, to be sure: relief, obviously, but there was plenty of room for anxious trepidation as well.

Spike, in the mean time, walked up to the Dark Techpriest, who promptly handed over the power axe to him.

"Hey, nice to see you again, Gaela," Spike said as he carefully placed the weapon in its usual place, "I heard what happened to your arm! That must have sucked!"

The mares in the room blinked, glanced up at the tech cultist, and then shared an amused look.

"Spike, that's not Gaela," Twilight said with a snicker.

Really, she had no idea how Spike had made the mistake. The figure in front of them looking nothing like her. It was much bulkier with bulbous, rounded plating over its armor, and a long, curtain-like robe that concealed the head and torso much better than Gaela's had. There were also four servo limbs on its back, two of them splayed out to the side. Completely different from Gaela's equipment.

Which is why she was so startled when the Techpriest's helmet cracked open and revealed a familiar face.

"Hello, Sparkle," Gaela said in her usual dull monotone before looking over to the young dragon, "and you too, Spike. As for the arm, it won't be missed." She raised her left augmetic and clasped the tri-claws together. "From the forge of the Warsmith himself. The loss of a single arm was a petty price for such a gift."

"I... how did... but she..." Twilight looked from Gaela to Spike, her eyebrow twitching. Rarity and Applejack looked equally stunned.

Spike smirked as he pointed to Gaela power axe. "That's Gaela's axe. It has a bunch of custom script on the haft. Besides, there's no way a Dark Mechie would just hand over their weapon to a complete stranger." He looked up at the armored woman. "That's a new suit, right? Pretty cool!"

Gaela nodded mildly. "A heavy combat model, since my old armor and servo rig was extensively damaged in battle. Given to me by Magos Kaelith to congratulate me on my promotion."

"Promotion?" Applejack asked, leaning forward.

"Affirmative," Gaela paused to look around the room cautiously, "I have been granted the title of Dark Techpriest. Please refrain from telling Pie, or else I'm sure she'll-"

Gaela was interrupted by a desk drawer banging open, and a spray of confetti blasted from the drawer interior before a dreaded pink figure burst out from within the impossibly small space.

"CONGRATULATION ON YOUR PROMOTION AND THANKS FOR SAVING OUR PLANET PARTY IS GO!! GUESTS ARRIVE IN TWO MINUTES, EVERYPONY!!"

"... Damn it."

Author's Note:

Before anyone asks (or rather, despite the people who may ask anyway, because not everyone reads author notes), the Nethalican is something I made up myself because I wanted a unique name for my MacGuffin building rather than having them build a "Black Nexus" or "Warp Temple" or something. And then the entire time I was writing the rest of the chapter, I was constantly looking back to try to remember how the damn thing was spelled, while simultaneously worrying about whether it sounds dumb.
I know that most Dark Portals in Warhammer 40K games are an instantaneous gateway into the Eye of Terror or the Warp, but their function has always been pretty obscure (and convenient). It makes sense to me that the Legion unrivaled in Sorcery and Warp lore would have purpose-built portals that can work spells big enough to turn away space fleets.
Oh, and lots more dialogue for the slurring Iron Warriors I hate writing dialogue for!

This just about fills the Plot quota. Next chapter it's back to comedy, violence, and violent comedy, I promise.