• Published 25th Jun 2012
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Fallout Equestria x Wild Arms: Trigger to Tomorrow - thatguyvex



A young tribal pony tries to keep his moral center and ensure the survival of his friends while facing the many dangers of the Detrot Wasteland and beyond.

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Chapter 15: Shrine of Flames

There’s nothing like getting your flank handed to you by a nine foot tall monstrosity with claws bigger than most ponies’ forelegs to make you consider mortality. That, or all the massive aches and pains coursing through my body now that the adrenaline of our side-trip into Silver Mare Studios had worn off was making me wish I was dead in a ditch somewhere. The spinal bruise was particularly pleasant, let me tell you. All things considered, though, I’d been shot, stabbed, beaten, poisoned, and generally put through the Wasteland’s meat grinder a fair bit already, and yet I was still somehow among the breathing. A worrying back portion of my mind was telling me I was pushing my luck too much. I couldn’t always rely on healing potions and spells to get me back on my hooves. If I died out here, how long would it be before my mother or Trailblaze even learned of it? Would Trail wait forever for me to come back, always wondering what became of that idiot buck she once called a friend? Not my most cheerful thoughts, but it really was dawning on me just how many times I’d come close to joining the Ancestor spirits this past week. Spirits, had it only been a week since Arcaidia and I left Shady Stream? Well, closer to ten days now, if you counted how long I was out recovering from being shot by Fine Eye. At this point I’d spent almost as much time this journey unconscious, healing from wounds, than I did awake. That was probably a sign I needed to seriously reevaluate my normal tactics.

Arcaidia had tapped me with a little healing spell goodness, though just enough to take the edge off the pain. She seemed a little drained herself, and wasn’t as eager to suck down her blue potions of magic juice as she’d been at the start of all this. I think she realized we might not be getting more for quite some time and that conservation was the new name of the game. I certainly didn’t disagree with her. The more she kept those magic restoring potions on hoof, the better off we’d be in an emergency when we’d really need Arcaidia at her peak. I couldn’t count the times since I met Arcaidia that I ended up owing my continued breathing privileges to her. Of course other ponies in the group were catching up with Arcaidia on that count; B.B being a close runner up.

B.B, despite having healed some of her wounds from her blood drinking, had barely moved since we boarded the Ursa. I didn’t know if she was fully recovered from that wound to her stomach, though I figured if it was bad, she would’ve said something. She was our medical expert, after all, despite Arcaidia’s access to healing magic. Arcaidia had spoken softly and briefly with B.B as we’d pulled away from Silver Mare Studios, the words too quiet for me to hear them, and Arcaidia had given a worried and confused look at B.B when she just waved the unicorn off. Arcaidia had then looked at me questioningly, but I had nothing I could really say to her and just shook my head. I couldn’t just blab about B.B’s secret, and I was almost certain that was what was bothering my winged friend. I’d just have to wait for a moment we were alone to see if I could talk to her about it. I was more than a little worried myself.

Iron Wrought was mostly quiet as he drove, grumbling every now and again and giving his “co-pilot” dirty looks when Binge would play with the buttons on the dashboard.

“Will you stop that!? You’re liable to break something!”

“Oh come on, Ursy is built like a rock, made out of smaller, tougher rocks. Just finding out what all the bells and whistles do. Hmm, bells and whistles. What a weird saying. Never seen anything that even had bells and whistles. Except that one rusty bell from the school Meat Pounder tried shoving down this one caravaner’s throat. Wow, I didn’t think a pony’s jaw could unhinge that wide-”

“Just. Shut. UP!”

“Pfft, you’re no fun. Always so grumpy. You need to enjoy being alive, my grouchy friend. Never know when the ride’s gonna come to a sudden, messy end, with spikes, chains, and hooks in funny places.”

I could practically hear the gravely sound of Iron Wrought’s teeth grinding as he growled and focused on driving, not responding to the Raider mare’s sing-song tone. Binge seemed to exercise a modicrum of self-control and stopped screwing with the dashboard, instead going over to one of the side-windows and gazing out while tapping out a random rhythm with one of her hooves and humming to herself.

The Odessa squad remained close together at the bunk beds where Nosedive was laid up, Suture constantly checking their squadmate’s condition. They whispered quietly amongst themselves, often giving either B.B or Arcaidia wary looks. Especially Arcaidia. The unicorn filly noticed the attention and looked back at the Odessa pegasi with open amusement and curiosity. She clearly didn’t consider the Odessa soldiers much of a threat and happily bounced around the kitchenette, ignoring their glares with a glibness that bordered on arrogance, even singing a small tune to herself as she warmed up some of last night’s soup.

Overall it made for a very awkward ride so far; us and the Odessa troops sharing close quarters, but without the threat of imminent, mutual evisceration to make us forget we were enemies.

It wasn’t long before I saw Glint rise from where he’d been laying by the back of the passenger compartment and approached where I had laid down on the floor by the door leading between the two parts of the Ursa. I raised my head, giving him a questioning look. He was wearing his Odessa power armor, but the insectoid helmet was off, and I notice out of the corner of my eye that Spring Breeze was fiddling with it back next to the bunks, using a series of small tools I assumed were designed to repair sensitive equipment. I was amazed at how dexterous peasi wings were, especially in fine manipulation of objects. Spring Breeze’s wings worked the small tools with practiced ease.

“Longwalk,” Glint said, “Before we get too far, we should talk about what comes next.”

I looked at him with a level stare, trying to muster some good cheer, “Alright, I’m ears. What’s next?”

Glint let out a sigh, giving me a rueful look, “You’re not much on the planning aspect of things, are you? I mean, you don’t intend to just truck me and my squad all over the Wasteland, right? So maybe we ought to figure out where you plan to drop us off.”

Oh, right. I suppose it would be weird to just have a squad of enemy soldiers hanging out with us. Ought to figure out what to do about that, without endangering myself and my friends, but still ensuring Glint and his squad would be alright. Or as close to alright as was possible, considering one of them was still at death’s door, and the rest were wounded to one degree or another. I frowned, brow furrowing, blowing a few stray locks of blue mane out of my eyes as I thought about the problem. One could probably see steam rising from my ears and hear the creaking of gears.

“How far are you from any other members of your tribe?” I asked, thinking perhaps we could drop them off halfway without it being too risky.

“There’s a basecamp set up at a... site,” Glint said, with some hesitance, “about twelve miles west of here. I can’t recommend you trying to drop us off there, though. There’s no way Captain Francheska would allow you to escape. Maybe if you took us to within about four or five miles, we might make it the rest of the way on hoof-”

“Glint, no!” said Spring suddenly, dropping her tools and standing up, “There’s no way Nosedive will live through a trek like that! Suture, tell him!”

The yellow medic gulped, glancing between the injured, unconscious Nosedive and Glint, “She’s right, sir. Nosedive’s condition is too fragile. He won’t survive much longer, even if we keep him resting like this. Any kind of overland travel, even a few miles, will kill him that much faster. He needs the medical facilities on board the Varukisas, and as soon as possible. We need an extraction by air.”

Glint hung his head, shaking it, soft waves of his orange and yellow tinted mane framing his grim features, “With my helmet’s radio down we can’t call for evac. Suture, are you sure there’s nothing you can do to prep Nosedive to be moved?”

“I’m sorry sir, but no, I’ve done all I can to keep him comfortable and stable, but he needs more than bandages and healing potions,” the medic replied morosely, looking away, voice cracking a little, “He needs more than I can do.”

“Glint, there is a way,” Spring Breeze said, giving him a pleading look as she stood and took a few steps closer, wings flaring, “Remember that radio tower we spotted while inbound to the mission site?”

Glint cocked his head, “Yes, we didn’t scout it though.”

“Its not far from here, only a couple miles. We could be there in minutes. If any of the gear in the shed by the tower is intact, I might be able to repair it,” said Spring Breeze, “Then we could call the Varukisas directly.”

“That could work, if the shed has what we need, and if it isn’t all scrap,” said Glint, tapping his chin, feature’s tightening around his red eyes as he thought it over. I knew what he was going through. Its never easy, weighting options when the choice could lead to a friend’s death. My mind went back to Saddlespring, and to Shale. For me, getting caught up in situations where I had to make tough choices that could cost lives wasn’t ever my intention, but the result of me throwing myself into circumstances a smarter pony would walk away from. For Glint, it was his life’s role in his tribe. I might not have understood that much about Odessa, but Glint was like a hunt leader in my own tribe. The lives of his hunters, his squad, were always in his hooves. It was staggering to think how much the deaths that had already happened among the team he was responsible for were weighing on him... and now he had to make yet another decision that could either save, or doom, another pony whose life was in his hooves.

No, I didn’t envy Glint’s position at all.

“Glint, it’s his only chance,” said Spring Breeze, a note of desperation creeping into her high pitched voice.

At last, Glint nodded, then looked at me, “Will you take us there? I know you’ve done more than we had any right to expect already, but-”

I held up a hoof, cutting him off, “No need to convince me. Time’s of the essence, right? So let’s do this.”

I turned my head towards Iron Wrought, who didn’t look back, but tensed, aware I was looking his way. The green stallion’s shoulders were rigid as he spoke, “No fur off my flank what you decide to do with those ponies. Just plug in the coordinates into the Ursa’s nav-com.”

Binge bounced excitedly in the seat next to him, grinning over at us, “Taking the birdies to roost? That means we’re going to camp out too? I didn’t bring s’more-stuff but,” she licked her lips, and suddenly a knife was in her hoof, tracing along her neck, “I can find alternative cooking materials.”

“Binge, remember those rule things we talked about?” I said, trying to sound authoritative and suspecting I needed to work on it, “Let’s cut down on the creepiness, okay? I need you to behave.”

She stuck her tongue out at me and blew, but she put away the knife, leaving a small cut on her neck that trickled blood. She didn’t seem to mind. I turned to see Glint and Spring staring at me. I coughed, rubbing the back of my head with a hoof, “She’s really not that bad.”

“Uh-huh,” said Glint as he went up beside Iron Wrought and looked over the dashboard. After a minute he seemed to figure out the interface of the miniature terminal built and tapped out a few commands, “This should take us close enough to get a visual on the tower. Please hurry, and thanks.”

“Don’t thank me,” said Iron Wrought, “It’s the crazy buck over there who wanted to help you. If it’d been up to me I’d have left you feathery flank to die.”

A shadow of a frown passed over Glint’s face, but he kept his peace and trotted back to join Spring Breeze in the passenger compartment. The Ursa shuddered a bit as Iron Wrought adjusted course, taking us deeper into the thick suburban ruins. Hills started to become more frequent, dipping up and down, and looking the windows I could see the terrain was like that for leagues to the north and west. We were passing a patchwork of what had once been houses with interspersed stores and restaurants, though only a few were anywhere near what could be described as intact. Most were just stained or burned walls and piles of masonry, or charred metal frameworks that weren’t recognizable as anything that ponies would have once inhabited.

“Ain’t much ta look at, is it?” said a familiarly accented voice next to me in a quiet tone.

I looked over, surprised that B.B had left her seat at the dining table and had come up to share the window with me in the driver’s compartment. She was looking out at the passing landscape, a look on her face that I just couldn’t read. Introspective? Wistful? Withdrawn? I just couldn’t tell for sure. Her eyes were back to full violet, no longer carrying any trace of the crimson that had been there when she’d gone berserk. Not knowing what to say, I fumbled about for a moment, focusing my attention out the window as well.

“It could be worse. I mean, sure, its bleak, decayed, mostly in bland colors of brown or gray... but at least none of its on fire.”

I blinked as I realized what I just said, to a pony whose hometown had been burned to the ground recently. I immediately put a hoof to my face, feeling like I ought to be cramming it down my throat, “S-sorry, I wasn’t thinking.”

“Relax, Long,” B.B said, taking in and letting out a deep breath, “Don’t git me wrong, I’m still mournin’. Lot a’ good folk gone, an’ a home I ain’t gettin’ back.”

Her eyes took on a strange light as they stared out the window, her voice barely audible now, and I wasn’t even sure she was really talking to me anymore, “But it ain’t the first home I’ve lost.”

I wanted to ask her about it. Part of it was, I admit, just plain, simple curiosity. The same curiosity that burned in me my whole life, driving me to explore where I shouldn’t, and question where I ought to leave well enough alone. The rest was honest concern for this mare who’d gone so far out of her way to help me, and hadn’t asked a single thing from me in return so far. It was pretty clear what’d happened in Silver Mare Studios was bothering her, and by the Ancestors I wanted there to be something I could do to help. The most I could offer was a willing ear to listen, if she wanted to talk about it.

A single glance to the side showed me Binge, peeking over the top of her seat and watching me and B.B with her glittering blue eyes, licking her lips like she was watching a particularly tasty pot of stew cooking in the pot.

So, long story short; I wimped out and couldn’t bring myself to question B.B with Binge there watching us. Close quarters with the whole party around probably wasn’t the best spot for a heart-to-heart talk anyway, especially about things B.B wanted kept secret. So I kept quiet and B.B and I watched the Wasteland roll by together.

----------

The radio tower stood like a lonely metal sentinel, watching over the sad, run down collection of hollow, burned out apartment buildings that occupied the area around the steep hill the tower was set upon. Next to the rusted red chain link fence surrounding the tower was a solitary metal shed. A jagged hole was blown in the shed’s side, from what I had no idea. A chilly wind rolled over us as Glint and his squad unloaded from the Ursa and onto the hilltop. I joined them, with Arcaidia also hopping out the door alongside Binge. Arcaidia trotted around to survey the surrounding landscape and fiddle with her Pip-Buck. I found myself wondering what she was doing, but was distracted by Binge scampering towards the fence surrounding the tower. The fence had a wreath of barbed wire on top of it, and Binge, to my confusion, climbed up the fence and used her Cosmic Knife to cut the barbed wire down and started collecting it.

I shook my head at the Raider’s action, not wanting to know what she intended to do with the stuff, and turned my attention to Glint and his team. Suture had carefully brought Nosedive’s unconscious form, bundled up in thick blankets from the Ursa’s storage lockers, into the shed. Glint and Spring Breeze stood side by side, Glint’s damaged helmet tucked under Spring’s wing.

“Well, I guess this is it,” said Glint, looking as awkward as I felt. The Odessa pegasus cast a wary look towards Arcaidia, who was still focused on whatever she was doing with her Pip-Buck, and then back at me, “Sure there’s no way I can convince you she’s a deadly alien, bent on world domination?”

Arcaidia sneezed, a small, lady-like sneeze, looking around as if afraid she’d just committed some kind of sin, and then went back to poking at her Pip-Buck. I gave Glint a deadpan look. He frowned, saying, “She’s still dangerous.”

“Nopony knows that better than I do,” I said, remembering how easily Arcaidia could switch between cheerfulness to cold hearted violence, “But you’re never going to convince me to turn on her. As long as Odessa is trying to harm her, you guys are going to have to go through me to do it.”

Glint’s ears drooped, but that was the only sign of his feelings as he nodded, “Don’t take this the wrong way then, Longwalk, but I hope we never meet again. You’re a decent pony; I’d hate to kill you.”

I found myself smiling, laughing, even if just a little bit, “You’re a decent pony too, Glint; I’d hate to see you try.”

As we turned to go our separate ways I heard Spring Breeze say, “Hold on a sec.”

Both Glint and I turned to look at her. The mare was looking distinctly nervous, looking between us, and I could see her bite her lip before she said, “There’s... well, there’s a lot of, um, dangerous stuff out here, you know. Glint and I are low on ammo, and, and, uh, maybe you lot should stick around until I know I can get Glint’s helmet working, or fix up a radio or something. Just in case.”

I cocked my head to the side, curious, “I guess we could, but we haven’t seen anything for miles,” I looked back towards the Ursa where LIL-E had remained on her perch atop the roof of the vehicle, “Hey! LIL-E! You detect anything out there?”

The robot didn’t respond and I scratched my head, wondering. Was she asleep? I suppose the pony on the other end could have shut the robot down to get some shut eye, or might be busy doing something. I had no way of knowing, one way or another. B.B had heard me yell and poked her own head out of the top of the Ursa’s roof hatch.

“Somethin’ up, Long?”

“Was asking LIL-E what her robot eyes could see, but I guess she’s napping. Spring here wanted us to stick around a bit and stand guard, in case any Wasteland critters or Raiders showed up.”

B.B’s eyes narrowed as she cast a searching look Spring Breeze’s way, “Did she now?”

Spring stood up straighter, chin up, “I’m just taking a precaution to make sure my squad will be alright! I doesn’t mean I like you murdering landbound any better! But... uh, yeah, could be Raiders around, or something.”

“Noooope!” sung Binge as she bounced back towards the Ursa, coils of barbed wire somehow balanced on her back without hurting her... no, wait, I could see a few small trickles of blood from where the stuff cut and jabbed at her hide, but Binge didn’t seem to notice; or perhaps she did and didn’t care. The Raider went by Spring Breeze and showed the Odessa mare a open mouthed grin of yellow teeth that Spring recoiled from with a look of disgust.

“No Raiders this far west! No sireeeee! This here, this here is Balloon country! Watch out for any dark, warm places in the ground!”

Balloons? I shuddered at the memory. I’d only encountered the monsters that one time outside Saddlespring, but once had been more than enough for me. The memory of the smell alone made me want to gag. I hoped Binge was joking, or just trying to scare the Odessa soldiers, because while I had every confidence we could handle a bunch of Balloons, it would be a messy, extremely unpleasant affair. If Binge was right, though, I wasn’t sure how well Glint’s wounded squad could deal with a pack of those freakish creatures showing up.

“Binge, will the Balloons be a problem for Glint’s squad up here?” I asked, to which the mare turned her grin towards me.

“Oh, maybe, maybe not, or maybe lots. Balloons don’t hunt like animals with meaty parts that want to eat. They hunt like a bunch of wild dogs injected with Stampede! Might be you’ll see one, and that’s that. Or you’ll blink and a hundred will be screaming down at you, wanting a kiss. Fun times, fun times. But bad eating. Poor Splinter Hoof learned that the hard way. Screamed for days and days she did, puking out every little bit of her insides. Don’t eat the Balloons. Nope, not unless you like your insides on your outsides. Now, me and Mr. Happy are off to work on our super-secret project!”

Away Binge went, skipping merrily like a little filly back into the Ursa with her mound of barbed wire. I didn’t dare inquire as to what her ‘super-secret project’ could be, even with my natural curiosity. I turned back to Glint and Spring Breeze and shrugged, “If you’re asking, I don’t mind staying a little longer to keep watch while you get your radio situation sorted. I’m not in a rush-”

“Wait, Long,” said B.B as she flew down from the roof of the Ursa next to me, tucking her wings in under her dress as she landed. She fixed Spring Breeze with a hard look, “Why ya suddenly so keen ta be keepin’ us ‘round?”

Spring Breeze sneered, looking away, “I don’t, but I can’t let personal feelings get in the way of keeping my squad safe. I owe it... I owe it to my sister to protect Glint and the others,” her voice gained a hint of guilt, “No matter what.”

I’d been, up until that point, mostly ignoring the E.F.S of my Pip-Buck when it came to Glint and his squad. I understood that when the markers in my vision flicked from green to red, it meant hostility, but ever since I met them Glint and his squadmates had alternated between green and red with a fair bit of regularity. I just operated under the notion that all that meant was that they honestly couldn’t see me and my friends as true allies. With Arcaidia around it wasn’t surprising that they’d flick red occasionally. So when Spring Breeze’s dot on my E.F.S went red I just didn’t think anything of it. Not until I heard something. It was distant, still, but it was distinct. A sort of rhythmic thrumming of air, getting louder. I recognized the sound. The sound of a Vertibuck.

Realization dawned on me the same moment as Glint, whose eyes went wide as he whirled on Spring Breeze, his voice sharp.

“Spring, what did you do!?”

Spring Breeze had tensed her stance, watching me and B.B as she stepped back, her energy weapon aimed towards B.B, “What I had to, Glint! You were going to let them get away! Summer’s killers!”

Arcaidia had heard our yelling and had started to come over while B.B went to draw the .44 revolver holstered across her chest, but Spring fired a warning bolt of green plasma past B.B’s ear. B.B halted, mouth still near her weapon, her violet eyes glaring dangerously.

“Don’t even think about it, bitch!” Spring snarled, “I’d slag you myself if you so much as move another inch towards that gun, but I want to see what they do to you in interrogation. Glint told me it was you that killed Summer. You won’t get away with it, none of you will!”

Glint still looked stupefied, “How? You couldn’t have called the Varukisas. You haven’t even touched the equipment in the shed, and my helmet-”

“You’re helmet isn’t broken anymore, Glint. I fixed it, before I made the suggestion of coming here to this tower. I made the call while you and Suture were fussing over Nosedive. I told the Varukisas we’d be here, with Target 02. I knew you’d just let them go. I couldn’t let it happen! I won’t let it happen! Summer will be avenged, and these bastards won’t kill any more of us!”

A shot rang out, loud and harsh, and Spring Breeze jerked like a kicked doll, hitting the ground hard. Her combat armor had a hole punched in it, already leaking blood, her green eyes wide with shock. From the roof of the Ursa, LIL-E, floating now in the air with her turret still smoking, said with her monotone mechanical voice, “And I won’t let us be caught without a fight.”

“Spring!” Glint rushed to her side as I stood there in shock. Glint bent down over his squadmate and friend, close enough that when she tried to take in a breath and choked out blood, a fair bit of it hit his own face. He didn’t seem to notice the blood as he screamed, “Suture! Spring’s down! She’s hit!”

He then glared at us and I saw the anger flashing in those red eyes of his. I felt like I’d been punched in the gut myself, but the sound of the Vertibuck had become louder, and now I heard multiple sets of engines indicating we had more than one incoming. We had to run, now... but I was watching Spring Breeze bleed out and drown in her own blood, and an image of Saddlespring flashed back to me, seeing Summer’s lifeless body interposed over Spring’s.

Not again...

I turned to Arcaidia, who had taken on her cold look, but I met her silver eyes and said, “Arcaidia, please, heal her.”

She looked at me solidly, and said in a completely frosty tone, “No.”

I blinked, “What?”

“No,” she repeated, as Suture ran out of the shack, rushing over to Glint and Spring’s side. I heard Suture asking about what was happening and Glint telling him to just try and save Spring, while she made a horrible, sputtering cough as more of her blood soaked into the merciless gray Wasteland dirt.

"Arcaidia, she's-" I began, but she cut me off harshly.

“An enemy,” the young blue unicorn said, “Enemy that betray us even when we help. So no help now. She can die with dumb mistake. We go now, ren solva.”

I was at a complete loss. I opened my mouth to argue, even though I didn’t actually have anything resembling an argument, but Arcaidia suddenly wrapped a hoof around my neck and pulled me close, her silver eyes boring into mine with intensity.

“No talk, ren solva! No question! You run now, feel bad later! Cry if have to, but now, run, before enemy catches us!”

“She’s right Long, we gotta go!” said B.B, who’d taken to the air and strapped on her foreleg revolvers, “I can see them birds comin’ our way! They’re gonna be on us in minutes!”

LIL-E called out right on B.B’s words, “ I estimate we got two minutes, forty seconds, before company arrives, and I’m spotting three of the Goddess-damned things! I suggest getting aboard now, ponies!”

B.B swooped over to the Ursa to join LIL-E on the roof, and Arcaidia had released me and stood back, levitating her starblaster to cover Glint as she backed towards the Ursa’s open back hatch. I stood, motionless for a second, looking back as Suture, eyes brimming with tears, worked furiously with what little medical supplies he had to try and stem the flow of blood from Spring, whose breathing was becoming more ragged by the second. Glint was looking at me with his face and frame trembling with unreleased emotions. I looked at him, no words I could say. Instead I just solemnly reached into my saddlebags and pulled out one of my remaining healing potions, and tossed it to him. He caught it, eyes not softening, but he nodded at me silently. We both knew the potion would just delay the inevitable... but with Odessa’s medical technology, and Vertibuck’s minutes away, maybe a delay would be enough. Either way, there was no more I could do, except maybe pray to the Ancestor spirits.

Giving the Odessa pegasi one last, regretful look, I turned and galloped for the Ursa. Arcaidia waited until I was aboard before backing up the hatch herself, her starblaster never twitching from pointing at the Odessa squad until the metal door slid up all the way and hissed closed. Even then she didn’t holster the weapon, keeping it levitating at her side.

Inside I saw Binge had piled her barbed wire in a corner next to the storage locker and was now hopped up on the dining table, hooves planted on the wall as she peeked out a small window slit, her tail wagging about excitedly, “Heheheh, we’re gonna have a chase scene! I hope there’ll be a bridge for us to drive off! Or maybe a cliff!”

I ignored her and trotted to the driver’s compartment, Arcaidia right behind me. Iron Wrought looked back at me, already hitting the pedal and directing the Ursa down the hill, causing me to stumble a bit as the whole vehicle dipped, but I kept on my hooves as I went for where I’d left Gramzanber laying on the floor behind the passenger seats.

“So, I take it things went to shit out there, and that’s why we’re suddenly needing to run?” asked Iron Wrought as I grabbed my spear and secured it in its sheath on the left side of my armor. I glanced at Iron Wrought, then at Arcaidia, who had that icy look on her face still.

“Yeah, that’s one way of putting it,” I said, trying to keep my tone calm, “We’ve got Odessa Vertibucks coming at us. Can we outrun them?”

Iron Wrought snorted, “How in flaming Tartarus am I supposed to know!? My hoof’s going to be pushing this pedal past the damned floor, but I wouldn’t bet on us being able to go faster than them flying. This, this is why we should’ve left those bucking pegasi to rot! Hope you’re bucking happy with yourself.”

I bit back a sharp retort, my nerves frayed, my anger rising. I instead put a hoof on his shoulder, “Just drive, and try to keep us steady. LIL-E and B.B are up top, and I’m joining them.”

“Why? The buck you going to do? Wave that shiny spear at them?”

I shrugged, already turning back to head for the roof hatch, “I was thinking I’d see just how far I can throw a grenade.”

Arcaidia was at my side as we reached the ladder to the roof, the Ursa rocking and bouncing as it accelerated under Iron Wrought’s direction. I felt a hoof touch my leg, and glanced over at Arcaidia. Her cool expression softened slightly as her silver eyes met mine.

“Stay inside Ursa, ren solva. You not good mind now for fighting. Confused, angry.”

I paused, my hoof on the first rung of the ladder, feeling her own hoof on my leg, warm, comforting. I saw the worry there in her face. For some reason that only made my anger flare more. I didn’t even know if I was angry at her for not healing Spring Breeze, or at myself for... for trusting that I could help my enemy without it biting me in the flank. I didn’t blame Glint, but Iron Wrought had been right. This was my fault. If any of my friends died, or got captured by Odessa, it’d all be on me, and despite that a part of me still felt like helping Glint’s squad had been the right thing to do. Angry and confused was a good summary of my mental state, and Arcaidia had me pegged in that regard.

“I’ll be fine,” I said, tail twitching, “We’ll talk about this later, after we’re all safe. Seriously, Arcaidia, I can’t just sit here while the rest of you fight. You should know me better than to expect me to stay in here.”

She slowly took her hoof off my leg, eyeing me critically, “Yes, I know you. That why I worry. Not stop you, but no toaster head moves, ren solva. I watch you close. Freeze small bits if do dumb thing.”

“Fair enough,” I said, getting halfway up the ladder before I realized what she said and glared down at her, half jokingly, “What do you mean ‘small bits’!? I’ll have you know my bits are at least of appropriate and perhaps even above average size for my age!”

Arcaidia rolled her eyes and poked me in the flank with her starblaster, “Not look that closely, ren solva. Joking. Learn to take joke.”

“I’ve seen them,” cooed Binge, “I’d say they’re, mmm, bite sized.”

Well, there was my face turning into a bright red beacon. I didn’t know if the sudden levity conversing about my ‘bits’ helped or hindered my current mental state. At least it was distracting. Reaching the hatch I looked at Binge, “Can we call pretend we never had this conversation, please? Anyway, you staying in here Binge?”

“Like to play with the whirly birds, but knives don’t do much to metal that’s thick, tough, long, hard, sturdy, robust, rigid, wide-”

“Binge!”

“Whaaaaat?”

I huffed, feeling the heat on my face like somepony had lit a campfire on my head, “Just buckle up and keep your head down. Imagine this ride is going to get extremely interesting, extremely fast.”

With that I opened up the top hatch with a push of my hoof and clambered up onto the roof of the Ursa, Arcaidia following right behind me. The metallic form of LIL-E greeted us, her form bobbing right along with the Ursa as it roared down the cracked, mostly absent streets of the suburban ruins. I wasn’t sure how the robot was maintaining her place without being left behind, but I assumed it had something to do with the magic device that let her hover around. B.B was flying beside us, keeping pace with the Ursa with fast flaps of her wings.

“Longwalk, sorry I had to do that, but I couldn’t be sure she wasn’t going to shoot you or B.B,” said LIL-E, and I held up a hoof.

“Forget it. We’ll talk afterward. Where’re the Vertibucks?” I asked. I could hear them, a beat of rushing air and thumbing engines that was louder than the throaty growl of the Ursa. However I couldn’t see them. I looked around, watching the tall, shattered walls of buildings and homes pass by, a crumbling highway to our left rolling over the suburbs, but I didn’t see any of the sleek flying machines.

That was, until one came screaming over the top of a blasted out two story apartment building and slid in right behind us. Air blasted at us from the wash of its turbines, blowing my mane into my face and forcing me to look away. The Vertibuck’s nose was mounted with what looked to be a pair of gun barrels, and this was confirmed as a sharp whine filled the air and the road around us began to explode in concrete showers, sparks dancing along the roof. I instinctively dropped down, covering my head.

When the gunfire ceased for a second I looked up to see the Vertibuck pulling back and away slightly, streams of silver bolts chasing it as Arcaidia opened fire with her starblaster. B.B crossed over the roof, twisting in the air, and fired with her revolvers, and I could see sparks bounce off the cockpit window of the Vertibuck. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised the cockpit was reinforced. B.B cursed and flapped harder, pulling ahead of the Ursa and angling down to grip the front of it on the passenger side. I think she was using the Ursa for cover.

As I fumbled into my saddlebags for a flash bang grenade LIL-E floated by me to the back of the roof, her side hatch opening and extending its rifle barrel.

“Let’s see how they like spark rounds,” the robot said and let out a quick succession of shots at the Vertibuck, which had climbed higher. I finally spotted the other two, further back and flying over the top of the highway. Why weren’t they attacking? Were they just being overconfident that one would get the job done? Or, perhaps they were actually being cautious? Also, seeing the other two made me feel a stab of regret, realizing that none of the Vertibucks had gone to pick up Glint’s team. I sincerely hoped there had been another Vertibuck that I didn’t see that was retrieving Glint and his fellows, getting them to medical aid. Even if she’d betrayed us, the thought of Spring Breeze dying choking on her own blood was not one I relished.

LIL-E’s spark rounds hit the Vertibuck that was on us, sending coursing streams of electrical discharge over the vehicle's surface, but it didn’t seem to slow the machine down any. I heard LIL-E sigh; a strange sound coming from a mechanized voice.

“Should have figured the thing was shielded. Times like this I wish I’d been equipped with a rocket attachment,” said LIL-E, floating down as the Vertibuck cut loose with another burst of fire from its nose guns. The Ursa turned sharply, drifting down a sharp curve in the road, shuddering as it smashed partially through an old fountain.

“Times like this I wish I had a rocket attachment!” I said, finally getting a grip on a flash bang grenade, the little apple shaped device balanced on my hoof as I eyed the Vertibuck to judge the throw without getting my head shot off by the storm of heavy caliber rounds raining down around me.

Deciding that trying to judge a grenade trajectory on a moving vehicle against another flying moving vehicle was an exercise in madness I shrugged, pulled the stem on the grenade, and hurled it after a second or two of letting it cook. I undershot it by a fair margin, the grenade sailing underneath the Vertibuck before it went off in a flash of light and accompanying bang of noise. I grunted in frustration, but grit my teeth and pulled out another grenade.

Another sharp turn caught me off guard, making me side along the roof until I hit the safety railing. Thank the Ancestors somepony was smart and put that railing on this roof! I lost the grenade though, seeing it roll off the roof. LIL-E was firing again, a few small explosions ripping along the side of the Vertibuck. However the high explosive rounds seemed to only be leaving small blast marks on the machine’s armor.

As for the Vertibuck itself, I saw portions on either side of it slide aside like tiny arms, and on small racks I saw boxes lined with small holes. I had all of a second to wonder what those where before the missiles started firing.

“Ohcrapohcrapohcrap!” I scrambled towards the front of the Ursa’s roof, banging on it, “Iron Wrought! Left! Left!”

I didn’t know if he heard me or not but the Ursa jerked to the left, jumping a small hillock to land amid the rusted ruins of an old playground as missiles started to explode around us in showers of flame and dirt. I gripped the railing with my hooves, desperately hanging on as gravity and momentum did their thing and tried to shake me off my precarious perch.

Arcaidia was doing the same thing on the opposite side, still shooting wildly with her starblaster to try to dissuade the Veritbuck from getting a clear shot at us. I saw her look my way and she actually grinned a bit at me. I was glad she was having fun. I could have stood to have a little less explosions and gunfire in my day.

“Long, we ain’t ‘xactly gonna be able to drop this thing off our tail wit normal weapons!” cried out B.B from her position of cover hanging off the nose of the Ursa.

“Yeah, I’m noticing that!” I shouted back, “Any ideas!? Because I’m kind of fresh out after I realized throwing grenades at a flying machine wasn’t my brightest plan ever!”

We’d left the playground behind and were now weaving our way through what looked to be a giant parking lot, a sizable and lengthy building off to our right with giant faded red lettering on it that said ‘Consumer Paradise’. A golden yellow mare with a poofy orange mane was depicted on the sign, smiling brightly while pushing a shopping cart laden with groceries. I somewhat resented the long dead mare for her carefree shopping trip. I’d much rather be browsing stores than having missiles explode around me, throwing ancient rusted wagons around like little pebbles kicked by an angry foal. How much ammo did that Vertibuck have anyway!?

“Well, Long,” shouted B.B, “Just thinkin’, maybe ya got a weapon that ain’t normal, that’d go right through that there reinforced cockpit!”

I frowned as I thought about what B.B was suggesting. Never mind the fact that I had sort of sworn off throwing Gramzanber until I worked out an easy retrieval system, I wasn’t keen on the suggestion to begin with. I didn’t want to kill the pilot of the Vertibuck. Maybe smack them around some for trying to blow us up, but I wanted to avoid killing unless I had no choice...

… An idea crept into my brain, and it was exactly the kind of thing that would count among Arcaidia’s probable list of ‘dumb moves’ she specifically told me not to do on threat of important Longwalk bits getting frozen off. I really didn’t want to push her to the point where I had to learn if she was being serious or not.

Speaking of Arcaidia, I saw her horn flash with crests forming in a tight circle as she sent a shower of ice shards flying up at the Vertibuck, striking along it’s left side. I think she was aiming for the engine turbines, but the pilot also seemed to realize this and jerked the Vertibuck to the side, sending it up and around so it was strafing along side us, nose angled downward, and keeping its turbines’ unprotected undersides out of sight.

As Arcaidia shouted out another curse in her language and reloaded her starblaster I looked over at B.B, who was peeking at me around the nose of the Ursa.

“B.B, I’m going to do something stupid,” I began, and she gave me a look.

“Go on.”

I held up my hoof with the Pip-Buck on it, and also the Grapple. B.B’s look turned incredulous as she tilted her head at me, one of her eyes twitching slightly.

“Seriously?”

“Seriously. You got wings. Just catch me if I fall. I cut us a way in, then we take it from the inside.”

“That’s a’ right mad plan, an’ it’s probably gonna git one or both of us killed,” B.B pointed out.

“This is different than anything else I’ve ever done, how?” I asked.

“Fair ‘nough,” the pegasus mare said with a wondering shaking of her head, “Let’s do it then.”

Arcaidia was giving me the stink-eye from her side of the roof, “What you planning, ren solva? Not liking look on your face. This be toaster head idea?”

She had to duck her head down, and I did the same, as the Vertibuck’s front guns stitched a line down the center of the roof and I felt a chip of metal slice past my cheek. I gave Arcaidia a look, “Sorry, Arcaidia, I promise I’m mostly confident this isn’t suicide! Besides, B.B’s helping. It’ll be fine. But, uh, could really use that shield spell of yours, just in case!”

Arcaidia made a noise that was halfway between a whine of frustration and anger, and a grunt of ascent as she gracefully made her way over to me. B.B crawled up to the roof and flapped over to us as well, taking cover along the railing. Arcaidia was fixing me with steely eyes, her mouth a thin line of disapproval.

“Not liking this, ren solva. You owe me much when this over. Oh, and you die, I freeze your bits. Might freeze bits anyway, doing dumb thing when told not to!”

“Okay, okay! I get it, this is stupid of me. Not even disagreeing, really, but I can’t see any other options right now! Got to get this blasted thing off us, one way or another.”

Arcaidia let out a heavy sigh, giving a short nod, then her horn was wreathed with another crown of mystical crests and both mine and B.B’s body were bathed in a protective glow of light. She was still looking at me with a glaring disapproval, and I did my best to give her a confident, reassuring smile, not unlike the ones I used to give Trailblaze.

“Don’t worry, this will work. I think. I’m fairly sure. Like, eighty percent sure,” I said, wincing as a close call with a missile sent a piece of flaming shrapnel into my shoulder. Luckily for me my armor and Arcaidia’s shield spell absorbed the blow without giving more than a bruise, but I hunkered down all the same. The Vertibuck was letting up a little, not sending streams of missiles and instead just sending one or two while still trying to get a beat on us with its guns. Iron Wrought was doing well in keeping us a hard to hit target, twisting in between piles of rubble and other obstacles, never driving in a straight line for long. It would make my plan a little harder, true, but so would us getting exploded, so I wasn’t complaining.

I found myself oddly enough hoping that Binge was alright inside. She’d piled up all that barbed wire and I had a unpleasant mental image of the stuff bouncing around the passenger compartment, Binge getting tangled up in it. I just had to trust the crazy mare had the sense to find someplace inside that was relatively safe and secure.

We rounded the north end of the giant ‘Consumer Paradise’ building, where I could see the entire north wall had collapsed, creating a large pile of fallen concrete that lead to an open honeycomb of stores and a large gap between them that looked like it went through the entire building. And the storefronts weren’t empty.

Our chase had apparently woken up a nest of Raiders. I saw over a dozen dirty ponies in standard Raider dress of cobbled together armor and spiked, sharp objects all piling around the gaping hole in the north wall, all of them armed with a surprisingly large variety of weapons.

“Buck me wit a cactus,” B.B breathed as with a series of whoops the Raiders opened fire. Machine guns, pistols, rifles, and a few grenade launchers all went off at once, targeting both us and the Vertibuck. I pulled Arcaidia down and shielded her with myself. She gave me a unladylike look, but I was the one with a shield spell on me, so I figured I was just being practical, not chauvinistic. Bullets ripped around us, a few slamming into my armor and the shield spell. Even with those, the rounds hurt, brushing my hide from raw kinetic impact alone.

Hadn’t Binge said there weren’t any Raiders out this way? I suppose I shouldn’t really be surprised the mare’s information wasn’t exactly accurate. She wasn’t the textbook definition of reliable, after all. Still, as if we needed more things shooting at us!

One either well aimed or very lucky grenade went off right under the front bumper of the Ursa, not jostling the massive All Terrain Wagon that much, but still causing us to veer slightly and demolish what had once been some kind of coffee stand. Splintered wood chips showered my hide and I nearly had my head taken off by a free flying sign of a happily grinning mare enjoying a cup of coffee. Why were all the mares in this signs always smiling like they were in the midst of euphoric joy!? Were ponies not creeped out by these things back in the day!?

While we left the giant ruined mall and its Raider occupants behind I could see the deranged ponies scrambling out of their nest. At first I wondered if they were insane enough that they thought they could chase us on hoof, but then I noticed them piling into rusted wagons in the parking lot, wagons I had assumed were broken and non-functioning. Apparently, crazy or not, Raiders had a talent for maintaining ancient vehicles. I probably should’ve realized that nopony from before the war would put large rebar spikes or mounted skulls on their wagons.

So, not only did we have a heavily armed Vertibuck still gunning for us, we now had a half dozen wagons laden down with whooping, blood crazed Raiders also chasing us.

“Finally,” said LIL-E, “Something I can shoot that isn’t immune to my bullets. You three focus on our flying friend, I’ll take care of our new tag-alongs!”

The robot wasted no time, either, immediately opening fire with both her side mounted rifles and underslung turret, peppering the lead Raider wagon with bullets. She must have hit the driver, because the snub-nosed rusted out wagon swerved sharply and implanted itself in the nearest suburban home with a graceful flip after careening over another, ruined wagon. The other Raiders didn’t even stop or slow down to check their fallen comrades, all hollering and howling like mad animals as they started firing at us from behind.

The Vertibuck had pulled ahead of us now, turning around and hovering backwards. I think they were trying to go for our driver as well. I didn’t want to give them any more time to get a solid hit in on us, so amid bullets from the Raider’s whizzing by our heads I gave B.B a look, shouting, “On three!?”

“Nah, counts are overdone I reckon. Just go fer it, I’ll follow.”

Bah, I liked the idea of counting to three. On a gecko hunt back home we always counted to three before unleashing our devastating hunting traps. Okay so maybe I was the only one among the hunters that did that, and everypony else had thought I was kind of a moron for it, but hey, I thought it was cool. Trailblaze did it with me at least. No, not like that. I mean the count to three thing.

Shaking off my inner monologue I steadied myself on the safety railing on my right and brought up my left hoof, aiming it at the Vertibuck. I faintly wondered how I must have looked to the pegasus pilot of that vehicle, just standing up and pointing a hoof at it like I was trying to make some sort of challenge. Whatever the pilot was thinking, it wasn’t friendly thoughts, because when the nose guns on the Vertibuck opened fire again the burst of rounds were mostly aimed at me. I yelped, almost losing my grip on the railing, as I felt the air getting torn up around me, only Iron Wrought’s swerving keeping the concentrated fire from ripping me to pieces. As it was I saw a rusty old blue metal mail box get ripped in half by the high powered rounds, and stitch their way through the ruins and ricocheted off another, taller blue, wooden box that was nestled between two collapsed walls of a house. Wait, bullets ricocheting off a wood blue box? That didn’t seem right. Wood didn’t deflect bullets, especially not ones that tore up concrete with ease.

We’d already driven by so fast I couldn’t get another look at what I’d seen, but my mind felt tickled. Hadn’t I seen that blue box somewhere before? I shook off the feeling and got back to aiming. Probably wasn’t important anyway.

Taking a deep breath I activated S.A.T.S, my Pip-Buck triggering the targeting spell at thought. In an instant time crawled to a stop, and I was treated to a magnificent view of how ridiculous our situation was. Arcaidia was huddled in the back corner of the roof, watching me intently, but firing her starblaster blindly backwards at the Raiders and their wagons. LIL-E was hovering beside Arcaidia, fire from muzzle flares licking the air from the barrels of her guns as she blazed away at the Raiders. I could see the flaming bullets from her rifle tracing through the air, and the uncomfortably detailed view of some of those rounds stitching up the barrel of a stark white Raider mare with a ragged brown mane, her face frozen in half war cry and half scream of pain as the bullets tore into her.

The air all around us was filled with bullets, from the small stubby rounds of the Raiders to the massive spikes of the shots from the Vertibuck’s guns. I even saw one of those rounds in mid impact with the roof of the Ursa, the sharpened tip of the bullet blunting off the thick metal armor of our ATW. Whatever one might say about those spider ponies, they certainly knew how to build a tough piece of equipment. Good thing, too, otherwise this would’ve been a very short and bloody chase.

Focusing my attention on the Vertibuck, I calmed my mind, so the Pip-Buck could more easily read my mental commands. The S.A.T.S spell read mental intent to interpret what its user wanted to target and what it wanted the user wanted to target with. In this case I focused on a mental image of my Grapple and on the distant sight of the Vertibuck’s side hatch. S.A.T.S took my mental focus, calculated the data based off who knew what kind of information, and sprung up a percentile readout of my chances for queueing up the shot.

43%

Well, kind of unnerving. Was really hoping for at least a fifty-fifty shot at this. Then again, considering the circumstances, perhaps I should be glad my chances of making this shot were that good. Nothing for it, I didn’t have any other plan, and it was pretty clear we weren’t getting away from this thing without doing something to take it out of commission. Time to do something crazy.

I confirmed the shot and let S.A.T.S do its thing. Time instantly snapped back into motion and without any mental prompt my leg twitched and the Grapple fired. The sleek wire and hook sailed through the air, and to my satisfaction managed to snag right along the hull of the Veritbuck just next to the hatch. Gulping, steeling myself, I gestured and signaled the Grapple to lighten my weight and start pulling as I galloped for the nose of the Ursa. I felt the tug and my body tingle as the device did its work, the enchantments lightening my weight as I jumped.

This is the worst idea I’ve ever had!, my brain pony screamed at me, with a rather detailed flash of what I’d look like smeared across one of the ruin walls or piles of rubble nearby. I couldn’t argue with it this time either, as I was terrified and screaming like a tiny foal as I dangled beneath the Veritbuck from my Grapple wire, wind shear ripping past me and pushing me about as the flying machine banked around to the left side of the Ursa.

I felt the Grapple pulling me up towards the hatch into the Vertibuck, but it was moving far too slowly for my liking, especially since I saw myself careening towards the blackened walls of a ruined house rather quickly. My arm was also not enjoying my choice of actions, the joint wrenching in protest. I reached up with my other hoof to try and grip the wire and relieve some of the stress, but couldn’t do much with the way I was dangling and spinning about as momentum had its way with me. Then the wall of the house had its way with me when I smashed into it.

Pain blasted through my body and my head rung like somepony had smacked it inside a giant bell. Fortunately two centuries worth of decay, plus whatever structural damage the balefire did to begin with, made the ancient wood and plaster wall fairly weak, at least against two hundred or so pounds of earth pony slamming into it. I still felt every part of me rattle like the sacred fetishes of my tribe’s shaman when he got really into a ritual dance. My already bruised and battered body wracked itself with pain, and I felt my throat let out a rather pitiful moan as I limply hung from the Grapple wire. I saw stars spinning around me as I dangled around on the wire, catching a brief glimpse of a Longwalk shaped hole through the wall that was now collapsing entirely.

It took me a few moments for my head to really clear, and for me to notice the ground was pulling away as I got higher into the air. Glancing up I saw the Vertibuck climbing, and turning as it did so, the guns on the nose swiveling around. At first I thought they were trying to get a bead on me, but then I saw the guns fire and send a line of traces through the air. Following the line of fire, I saw B.B darting through the air, her slim form banking hard to avoid the cluster of tracer rounds that were trying to catch up to her.

I was spinning around too much and too disoriented to be able to tell where the Ursa had gone, but I could still hear faint cracks of gunfire from the Raiders, and knew that the chase was still on. I felt confident the rest of my friends could take care of themselves while B.B and I dealt with the Vertibuck. Well, one of them. Truth be told I hadn’t thought ahead to what I’d do about the other two, assuming I lived long enough to deal with the one right now.

The Grapple had hoisted me up to the Vertibuck itself, and I was able to brace myself against its smooth metal surface. The hook had jammed itself solidly onto a hoof hold alongside the hatch, which was closed shut with an electronic lock I didn’t bother trying to figure out. Instead, using my hindlegs and one hoof to stabilize myself on the Vertibucks side, I reached over with my mouth and drew Gramzanber. I felt instantly better with the spear in my grip, and angled my head to point the tip at the seam of the hatch. With a twist of my neck I jabbed the spear into the hatch, the unnaturally sharp edge sliding through... well, not easily. The angle was beyond awkward and Gramzanber’s sharpness could only do so much when I had a hard time applying my full strength, but the spear did penetrate the hatch and started sawing up past the electronic lock.

Somepony inside obviously didn’t like me doing that, as I had to keep a firm grip on Gramzanber as the hatch hissed open, sliding along grooves into the hull of the Vertibuck, leaving a square hole two ponies wide into the dark interior of the craft. Unbalanced by the sudden opening of the hatch, I was an easy target for an Odessa trooper in full white power armor as she poked her front half out the hatch and aimed twin glowing green magic energy rifles at me.

Green bolts sailed past me, but almost as many struck me in the chest and shoulder. Arcaidia’s spell dissipated a lot of the energy, and my armor held up against the rest, but a burning pain seared through me regardless. I was lucky so many shots also missed, probably do to the trooper having an awkward angle to fire on me. Glaring at the trooper, I put on my best look of confidence and took on a commanding tone.

“I am commandeering this vessel! Surrender now and you shall come to no harm!”

Considering I was now slightly smoking from being shot, and dangling haphazardly from the side of her Vertibuck, I shouldn’t have been surprised that the Odessa soldier’s only response was to resume shooting at me. I was prepared for the attack this time and tilted my head, using the flat of Gramzanber like a shield. Green bolts of magic energy reflected off the spearhead's silver surface, and I heard a sharp scream. Shocked, I glanced to see the Odessa soldier tumbling out of the hatch, a burn mark on her leg where one of the reflected bolts seared her limb past an unprotected joint in her armor.

The trooper’s armored wings spread and she took flight, only to instantly be dive bombed by B.B from above. B.B hit the trooper square in the back, sending the Odessa mare further tumbling towards the ground where I saw her crash into the top floor of a set of ruins, her white clad form tumbling and spinning in ways that didn’t look at all natural. I was pretty sure I saw the soldier’s helmet fly off from the impact, and by the trail of blood in the air I wasn’t entirely sure her head wasn’t still inside. I winced, shoving aside a stab of regret as I reached over to try and haul myself into the Vertibuck.

Doing so I came muzzle to muzzle with another Odessa trooper who’d apparently been waiting for me. I let go and fell back out the hatch as more bolts of green energy sizzled past me, one more bolt catching me in the barrel, slipping past Arcaidia’s weakening shield spell and searing past the lighter underbelly armor. Pain seared into me, but I grit my teeth, balancing myself on the hull outside the hatch, and waited for the trooper to come and see if I’d fallen. He did so, the stallion’s armored head peeking out, only to receive a full on smack upside the skull from the flat of Gramzanber. That dazed him, but didn’t quite drop him, so I gave the Odessa stallion another solid whack, which did the trick and he started to fall out the hatch.

“No you don’t,” I said, leaning into the hatch and catching the trooper, pushing his unconscious form back into the vessel’s interior. Hopping in I finally felt a sense of stability as I glanced around the compartment I was in. In seconds I felt a presence by my side and glanced to see B.B landing next to me, her wings folding in at her side. The interior compartment wasn’t large, just a square affair with a few seats built into the front and back that’d accommodate about seven ponies and their gear.

Well, we’d taken care of two. Where were the rest? Maybe the Vertibuck wasn’t fully loaded, and the two B.B and I had just taken down were just guards? The feeling of heat by my ear and a red energy beam flying past my head made me whip my head around, and I found my answer. The others had launched out already. The Vertibuck was now surrounded by Odessa pegasi, several of them gunning for me and B.B now standing in the open main compartment.

B.B ducked behind the edge of the interior hull, and I did the same on the opposite side.

“Long, git to the cockpit an’ force them to land this bird,” B.B said as she started to return fire at the pegasi flying around us, “I’ll keep ‘em busy here!”

“You sure? I could, uh, provide moral support while you shoot,” I said, keeping my head ducked back as green and red bolts and beams of energy flew by the open hatch, impacting along the small space that I was using as cover.

B.B shot me a look and I sighed, “Sorry, sorry, not the time for jokes. I got it. Just take it easy on them, alright? They’re just following orders.”

“Long, not the time! Or the place! They’re shootin’, I’m shootin’, everypony’s shootin’! The time for moral quandaries kinda passed us by already!”

I wanted to argue with her, but she wasn’t wrong. Right now, with ponies sending blasts of magical death flying at us, and all of our friends in equal or greater danger, how could I sit there and argue with her that she ought to take the time and risk of disabling those pegasi rather than just take them down as fast and efficiently as she could? Yet I still wanted to. After meeting Glint’ squad I was more keenly aware than ever that every one of those white armored pegasi, even if I couldn’t see their faces past that stark white armor, was still a pony.

Survival in situations like this often simply depended on disassociating yourself from the knowledge that your enemy is just like you are. You have to reduce them to a thing. An object. Enemy. Such a simple, easy to say word, that stripped another’s life of all value in relation to you, but added value to the notion of their death. You’re supposed to want your enemies dead.

I didn’t want enemies. I truly didn’t. However, what I wanted was becoming less and less consequential in comparison to what was happening around me. Even if I didn’t want enemies, other ponies were still determined to be such, and I just didn’t have the means yet to change that. All I could do was fight back, try to keep the bloodshed from reaching bucketload levels, and hope for the best.

Yeah, didn’t have a lot of high expectations for my success either.

I didn’t give B.B much of a response beside a grim nod as I waited for her to let loose a series of shots at our... enemies... which gave me an opening to dash across to the small hatch that led towards the cockpit. I operated under the assumption it was going to be locked, and so gave it the Gramzanber treatment. It took a minute of sawing, but soon enough I had that hatch open and forced my way through into a small, tight little corridor that lead to the cockpit.

The cockpit itself was a sleek, angular thing with just enough room for a pony to work his or her way around a circular space that had a complex arcano-tech harness set before the front window. Before the window was an entire array of holographic projections and a bank of consoles with all manner of buttons and knobs on it. The harness itself was occupied by a young mare in a tight fitting white suit that seemed designed to synch up with connectors from the harness. Her wings fluttered and beat, with trailing cables from small pads on the feathers. The Vertibuck moved with the way the mare’s wings did, and her front hooves worked a joystick in front of her, which I surmised might operate the weapons systems if the holo-projection showing the targeting array and a display of the Ursa on the ground with crosshairs dancing around it were any indication.

The mare herself was colored like a piece of fruit, her coat a bright shade of red and her mane a brilliant orange, tied back in a short, neatly cut tail. The second I entered the cockpit she turned her head towards me, pink colored eyes widening.

“Oh shit!” the mare exclaimed in a rough, almost coltish voice, and snapped her muzzle down to a holster on her chest, with a energy pistol dangling there. I surged forward, thrusting Gramzanber’s point right into said pistol, which sparked and sputtered as it broke.

The mare stiffened as I lifted the spear and placed it an inch or so from her neck.

“Okay,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady, “Let’s make this quick. I’m Longwalk. What’s your name?”

The mare looked at me like I was a Hellhound wearing a purple magician’s hat, dancing a jig and asking her if she’d go out with him. Or at the very least like I was a crazy pony. Was I a crazy pony? Don’t answer that.

“W-what!? Who!? What!? No! What!?”

Okay, not the best result I was hoping for, but at least she wasn’t screaming wordlessly, and more to the point, the Vertibuck had leveled out and was no longer chasing or shooting at the Ursa down below. Progress!

“Name. Yours. Just trying to get on the right hoof here, you know? This is been a real bad day, probably for both of us, and I’m just trying to make it go a little less bad. So what can I call you? Otherwise I’m just going to name you the first thing that comes to mind, which I’m horrible at. Just ask my friend Arcaidia.”

The mare just looked at me with her jaw working soundlessly, her eyebrow twitching, her head slowly cocking to one side. Might have been a bit of steam coming out of her ears too. I sighed.

“Okay, Twitch it is. So, Twitch, let’s start over. Your friends are shooting at my friends. I find this to be an unacceptable situation. My friends are probably going to kill your friends for shooting at them. I imagine you find that to be an unacceptable situation. Believe it or not, I do too. So what I propose, so all of us get to have a much better day, with fewer friends dead all around, is that you land this Vertibuck thingy, hop on out, and let me and my friends continue on our way, all nice and not shot. Sound like a plan to you?”

Her look of confusion slowly turned to one of anger, her eyes hardening and her mouth twisting up in a small snarl. Really, she was far too cute to be looking that murderous. And what did I do to deserve that look!? I was being nice, wasn’t I!? Aside from the spear I had at her throat. And breaking into her Veritbuck. Okay, so maybe her anger was a tad justified.

“Go park your ass on a stormcloud, landbound!” she spat.

I sighed. I was doing that a lot lately. It was starting to become my default means of expression. Stupid, sigh inducing Wasteland.

“If you don’t, I’m going to have to do something I really don’t want to do,” I said, warningly.

I saw fear cross her features, but resolve harden them further as she turned and focused on her piloting again, turning the Vertibuck to start chasing the Ursa once more. Her voice wasn’t as resolved as her feature’s however, shaking a little, scared, but trying not to be.

“D-do what you have to! Kill me! But I’m taking you xeno sympathizers down with me!”

This time I groaned, pulling Gramzanber away from the mare and securing it to its sheath. When she gave me a weird look I shook my head, “What? You called my bluff. I suck at this kind of thing anyway. Though, granted, I still have to do something I don’t want to do, even if that thing isn’t killing you.”

She opened her mouth, maybe to ask what that thing was, but it became apparent as I jumped on her back, wraped my hooves around her wings, and started to move them around.

“W-w-what are you doing!?” she screamed shrilly, “Get offa me! Hey! Stop that!”

The Vertibuck veered sharply in the air, rocking us from one side to the other as I struggled to control her wings, which she was obviously not cooperating with at all. In fact she started trying to bite me, whipping her head around to try and get a latch on me. What was it with mares and trying to bite me lately!? First Binge, then B.B, now this mare!

“What?” I asked, “You’re not cooperating, so this is what it comes to! Now quit squirming, I’m trying to fly this thing!”

“You’re gonna crash us you idiot!”

“Well whose fault is that?”

“YOURS!”

“Well I’m trying to direct this thing towards the ground in a nice, safe fashion,” I said as I kept pulling at her wings, working out just what movements made the Vertibuck move in which direction, but I was being spectacularly unsuccessful by the way the vehicle swiveled about and jerked through the air, lurching like a drunken pony.

“There’s nothing safe at all about this! Let go before you kill us both!” Twitch yelled, throwing her head back, trying to dislodge me, but I doggedly held on.

“And let you keep trying to blow up my friends? Sorry, Twitch, not happening. We’re landing, one way or another! I’m pretty sure I can figure this out. If I pull like this,” I pulled back on her wings, which caused her to yelp in pain, for which I felt a twinge of regret as I wasn’t really trying to hurt her, and the Vertibuck lurched downward, “This makes the ship go down. And if I push like this,” I pushed her wings down, like she was flapping them, and the Vertibuck unsteadily climbed, “We go up. See. This isn’t complicated-”

She then managed to get a foreleg around and elbowed me in the chin, which made me slip off her to the side. As I fell off her I inadvertently caught her right wing on the harness at an awkward angle and i heard a loud snapping of multiple small bones, sounding like somepony stepping on a pile of pinecones. Twitch’s ear bleeding scream filled the cockpit.

Laying dazed for a second I slide around the cockpit as the entire Vertibuck started to swerve around and tilt dangerously to the left, heading downward. It scrambled to my hooves, looking at her horrible bent right wing, and winced. I hadn’t intended to do that. Twitch was still screaming, her eyes screwed shut in pain. I saw the world swirling around outside the cockpit’s window, the ground approaching fast. Well, I did want us to land. This was going to be a harder one that I’d hoped for, though. I sent a small prayer to the Ancestor spirits that B.B had the sense to take to the air before we hit, then rushed over to Twitch. I didn’t know what else to do except hold onto her and hopefully lessen some of the impact when we-

CRUNCH!

-crashed.

----------

Sparks and bits of magical discharge illuminated the now mostly dark cockpit, a little light streaming in from somewhere that I couldn’t see. My, well, everything ached, and I was pretty sure one of my hindlegs was, if not broken, very badly twisted. I coughed, smoke burning in my lungs. With straining effort, and a small whimper of pain, I managed to get to my hooves. I activated my Pip-Buck’s light, and glanced to my left at the pilot harness.

Twitch hung limply in the harness, and fearfully I approached her and put a hoof on her chest. I breathed out sigh of relief as I felt a heartbeat. It hadn’t been my plan to actually crash the Vertibuck. I didn’t know how badly she was injured, aside from her wing still being broken. Being as careful with her as I could it took me a little time, but I managed to disconnect her from the harness and put her on my back, her limp form quite light and easy to carry. With an unsteady trot, pain lancing up and down my leg, I made my way back into the Vertibuck’s main compartment. Looking around I didn’t see B.B anywhere, which was probably a good sign, all things considered.

Unfortunately I did see the Odessa stallion I’d knocked out earlier, laying crumpled up against the back bulkhead. His head was twisted at an angle that couldn’t have been right, given the orientation of the rest of his body. My head sagging, heart feeling heavier, I turned to leave. I paused, however, and glanced back at the body. I knew I didn’t have much time, but...

I removed the dead buck’s helmet. Why? I honestly don’t know. I just wanted to see his face. Dark blue coat, sand colored mane, light brown eyes, glassy in death. I was struck by the fact that he didn’t look any older than I was. Odessa sent their ponies out to fight, even this young? Well, who was I to judge. My tribe trained its hunters young too.

“I”m sorry,” I told the body, closing his eyes, useless as the gesture was, and headed out the hatch into the open.

The Vertibuck had crashed up against the side of the remains of a tall building that might have been some kind of tower at one point. I could see a huge furrow dug in the ground for about fifty yards from another building that had its wall knocked clean over, showing the path of the Vertibuck’s crash. Looking around, I still didn’t see B.B anywhere. I also didn’t hear any gunfire, but there was still the distant sound of the other Vertibuck’s engines. I didn’t know if the lack of gunfire was a good sign or a bad one.

I sat Twitch down on the ground, giving her a light pat on the head. I pulled out a healing potion, leaving me down to two, and sat it next to her. I’d have tried to get her to drink it, but didn’t trust myself to do it right without her choking on it, and then there was her wing to consider. I doubted something as delicate as a pegasus’ wing would react well to healing potions without those broken bones being set right. I just hoped her tribe would get here soon enough to help her. But not so soon I wouldn’t be able to get away.

Speaking of healing potions, I could do with some myself. Less than two days out of Stable 104 and I was already almost out of healing potions. I. Hate. The. Wasteland. Actually, that wasn’t fair. I couldn’t really blame the Wasteland for this. This was almost entirely the fault of my tendency to think that the best plan was the one that put me in the most danger. I feared for my stallion bits when I met Arcaidia again. She was not going to be happy with me. I took a second to debate if I was injured enough to warrant using one of my last two potions; then a horrible spike of pain wracked my body and nearly made me black out. Okay, healing potions it was! Sucking one down the pain receded somewhat and my vision cleared.

That taken care of I took stock of what I needed to do. The sound of one of the Vertibucks was getting louder, and fast. Too fast.

I knew I could track Arcaidia’s Pip-Buck tag with my own, so I figured it wouldn’t be hard to find and catch up with my friends. All I had to do was get into the cover of the Wasteland ruins, then start following Arcaidia’s tag. I didn’t get more than halfway to the nearest ruin, however, when a small spherical object landed next to me in the dirt. I glanced down just in time to get hit in the face with a bright flash of light and a loud burst of sound.

“Bwah!” I fell over, already guessing that I’d just been hit with a flash-bang grenade, and tried to make myself move towards any kind of cover, but in seconds I heard the buzzing of a large number of energy weapons charging up, and felt wind sweeping over me with the accompanying sound of a Vertibuck. Apparently it’d been a lot closer than I’d thought.

By the time my eyes stopped seeing white and my ears completely cleared, I saw I was surrounded by a dozen Odessa troopers in power armor, their energy weapons trained on me. A Vertibuck was fast approaching, and in seconds was hovering no more than twenty yards away from me, and an equal distance up. Its missile pods were deployed and its nose guns were aimed squarely at me. I swallowed hard, backing up a step. They’d certainly gotten here fast. I... honestly hadn’t thought through what I’d do under these circumstances. Gramzanber hummed at my side, its energy pulsing. I could use Accelerator... but could I draw the spear fast enough to activate it without getting shot from all sides? My body was injured enough already, even if I did use Accelerator would I survive the backlash? I couldn’t just surrender though, could I? My friends... blast it I’d told Arcaidia not to worry, and here I was, neck deep in it.

“Quite the unfortunate quandary, no?” said a crisp voice dripping with satisfaction, and from the Vertibuck a dark gray stallion flew down, his white uniform flapping around his sides as he landed before me.

“You really do give quite the chase, but right now I’d suggest if you have any plans to resist, consider what might happen to your friend if you do,” said Captain Shattered Sky, adjusting his glasses with a tip of his wing as he smiled at me with cold smugness. I felt my mouth go dry, my body quivering with impotent anger as the full-of-himself Odessa officer looked at me with that look on his face of absolute control. So he’d survived our fight back in Saddlespring, and with no residual scarring to mark his coldly smiling features. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I could certainly feel a little disappointed. What? Just because I don’t like killing doesn’t mean I can’t be a tad vindictive towards somepony who’d helped turn a peaceful settlement into a series of smoking craters.

Wait, did he say ‘friend’?

My surprise must have been evident on my face, as Shattered Sky gestured with his other wing up at the Vertibuck, and I looked; fearing I’d see B.B there, captured.

When I saw who it was, though, my eyes shot wide, my heart beat faster, and my jaw touched the cold Wasteland dirt. It wasn’t B.B that was held prisoner in the Vertibuck, clear to see from the hatch with two Odessa troopers with pistols aimed at her head.

It was Trailblaze.

I froze up, all sorts of emotions pumped their way through me all at once as I looked at that familiar dark brown mare, her black mane whipping around in the backwash from the Vertibuck’s engines. Her bright blue eyes were glaring lightning bolts at her captors. Her body was battered, I could see that much, with a cracked lip and blackened eye. She held an expression of pure murder for those holding her, but wasn’t currently resisting. The bright shiny manacles around her limbs, and the collar around her neck, probably had something to do with that. The collar was like a more streamlined, shinier version of the Labor Guild’s explosive collars. The manacles were... odd. They weren’t connected by physical links. Instead the bright, thick steel bands were connected to each other by little green crystals, between which streamed bands of magical energy.

My blood roared in my ears as fear, exhilaration, anger, and warmer, softer feelings I didn’t quite grasp seized up my higher brain functions. Somepony was talking, though, and I didn’t pay it any mind until I heard the line:

“-attention to what I’m saying or I’ll have her thrown out the hatch!”

My eyes glanced down at Shattered Sky, who while still looking calm, had a faint tinge of red to his gray face as he looked at me with disdain.

“Let her go,” I told him flatly.

Shattered Sky adjusted his glasses again, his smiling thinking, “I’m afraid you seem to not quite grasp how this works, my young friend, you see-”

“Longwalk!?” Trailblaze shouted out, apparently stopping glaring at the pegasi holding her long enough to actually see what was going on down below, “Ancestors flaming’ spirits, what are you doing there!? Run! I’ll take care of these bastards!”

She tried to body slam one of the pegasi next to her, smashing one of them into the hatch door with her shoulder, but the other guard pistol whipped her. Immediately after that the manacles around her sparked with green energy, sending a wave of magic over Trailblaze’s body that caused her to cry out. She didn’t collapse, seemingly from sheer force of will as she grimaced stubbornly and kept on her hooves, but it was clear she couldn’t really do much to fight.

“Trail, stop!” I shouted, “You’re just going to hurt yourself. Besides, I can’t really run. Kind of surrounded down here!”

“What are you even doing out here!?” she shouted back, sounding equal parts happy to see me and royally pissed that I was in trouble.

“Getting... captured?” I replied sheepishly.

Oh, oh... that look. That look! That burning, hard look of disapproval mixed with endearing affection. I’d missed that look. So. Bucking. Much. If she wasn’t up in a Vertibuck and I wasn’t surrounded by soldiers that wouldn’t hesitate to shoot me I would’ve wrapped her up in the biggest, tightest hug I could muster. I was so happy to see her again that I almost forgot the implications of her presence here. If she’d been captured by Odessa... what of the rest of our tribe!? What about my mother!?

My mouth opened to ask my oldest and closest friend how she’d come to be here but a gunshot made me flinch and redirect my attention to Shattered Sky, the pony who’d fired. The bullet had snapped right by my ear, coming dangerously close to shaving off an even bigger chunk than Crossfire had shot off back in Saddlespring. Shattered Sky himself had that look of a pony who was livid and failing badly at trying to hide it. He holstered his odd, long barreled pistol, and adjusted his glasses once more with his wingtip. I was really starting to hate that gesture.

“If you two are quite done bantering, I was making the demand of you to disarm yourself of your ARM and surrender yourself to my custody. Failure to comply will result in the execution of your tribal mate.”

“She’s not my mate!”

“I’m not his mate!”

Trailblaze and I exchanged a look. She raised an eyebrow. I coughed, looking away. Shattered Sky’s eye twitched.

“Platonic friend, then, if you prefer,” he said with acid dripping in his tone, “I’ll have your ‘friend’ executed. Either way, you are to disarm, without resistance. Now.”

If it’d be somepony else... perhaps I’d have tried something. Fast talk, or make some kind of desperate attack to free Trailblaze. It wasn’t as if I didn’t have options, nor a solid past record of being just crazy enough to try them. I still had my Grapple, that might get me up to Trailblaze. I had grenades in my saddlebag, smoke, flash-bang, spark... anything might be the key to distracting the Odessa troops. Trailblaze herself certainly looked like she wanted to try and escape. I could see her body was tense, even at this distance, and she was looking at me as if she wasn’t sure if I’d make a move or not. I didn’t blame her. If I was still the same buck I’d been a ten days ago, before leaving my tribe, the buck Trailblaze knew, I’d probably be brash enough to try something.

But I knew Shattered Sky wasn’t playing games. He wasn’t that kind of pony. In fact it was a surprise he hadn’t shot me outright. That meant he needed me alive for some reason. Trailblaze must have had some value beyond being a hostage to get at me, otherwise he would’ve killed her by now as well, just because I didn’t immediately disarm as he demanded. But he still would if I stalled for much longer... and the second I tried something, Trailblaze would die.

There was also the unpleasant realization that I wasn’t at all certain I could beat Shattered Sky, even if it was just the two of us, one-on-one. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I wanted to smash his teeth in through the back of his throat. Even if I wasn’t the killing type, that didn’t mean a certain desire to beat Shattered Sky to the brink of death wasn’t present. That said, I keenly recalled that the last time I tangled with this pegasus he’d readily taken on both me, Crossfire, and Brickhouse at the same time, and would have won that fight if Crossfire hadn’t pulled a last second gambit that’d barely paid off (and sent me falling out of a Vertibuck... Ancestors, that’d been a crappy day). Granted last time we fought I didn’t have Accelerator, but I still didn’t know the extent of his own ARMs power. I could see the slight bulge underneath his right sleeve where the silver watch was; that ARM that somehow allowed him to teleport around instantly. Could Accelerator’s speed boost let me beat that power? I didn’t know... and I didn’t want to bet my best friend’s life on finding out.

The only good thing about this situation was that I was fairly certain now my other friends had managed to escape, mainly because if they hadn’t Shattered Sky would be threatening me with their deaths as well, or gloating over their capture at least. He was far too full of himself not to do that.

Shattered Sky raised one wing, and I saw the Odessa troopers next to Trailblaze aim their pistols at her once again, simply waiting for his command to fire.

“What is your answer, landbound?” Shattered Sky asked, his eager look telling me he wouldn’t necessarily mind if I resisted.

I looked at him, face a stone mask.

“Alright... you win.”

For now.

----------

I was sitting next to Trailblaze in the back of the Vertibuck as it soared through the air. I’d been divested of Gramzanber, my armor, and my saddlebags. The former two items had been tucked away in a storage compartment in the floor, but Gramzanber received special treatment. To my surprise, there’d been a unicorn on board the Vertibuck, a dour looking black stallion with a short beige mane wearing an Odessa white uniform. The unicorn had carried Gramzanber with his magic and set the ARM inside a long metal case with multiple magical glowing locks that sealed over it once the spear was secure. Shattered Sky then took the case and strapped it to his own back as if afraid it might fly away on its own, giving me a smug look of satisfaction as he went into the pilot compartment.

I’d had a collar strapped around my neck and the same manacles with the green energy crystals placed around my legs before I’d been shoved down next to Trailblaze, four Odessa troopers staying in the passenger compartment with the unicorn, keeping weapons pointed at me and my friend.

“So, you didn’t actually answer my question Longwalk,” said Trailblaze next to me in a quiet tone, but one that was heated with simmering anger, “What were you doing out here? I thought you were taking Arcaidia to look for somepony down south.”

I tried not to look too embarrassed as I smiled helplessly back at her, “Got sidetracked.”

Her eyes narrowed, and I could tell she was trying to maintain an angry look at me, but the more those blue eyes looked me over the more I saw her lose the hard edge to her anger. Very slowly her hoof raised, and I feared those energy manacles might do something, but this time they didn’t flash or send a burst of energy over her as she touched my withers.

“Ancestors... look at you. Sidetracked? You look like you’ve been through a war. What happened? I told Arcaidia to look after you, dammit!”

I blanched, suddenly realizing what I must look like to her. Healing potions only did so much for scarring, and without my armor on to conceal the worst of it, my hide probably looked like I’d tangled with a entire pack of geckos bare hooved, and lost. Bite marks from my first run-in with Balloons. The piece missing from my ear where Crossfire had shot it. Cuts and claw marks from fighting both the Tunnelers and that massive beast in the Saddlespring Ruins. The bullet wound from being shot by the Raider tribe we picked up Binge from. Numerous lacerations from the horrible fight in Stable 104, not to mention the bare scarring from Fine Eye’s double barreled shotgun. Then the more recent wounds and blood still coated me from the hectic chase that’d just ended in my capture. All in all... yeah, I imagined I looked like fifty different shades of crap.

“It’s been, uh, kind of rough, yeah,” I said, trying to give her a reassuring smile, “Don’t blame Arcaidia, though, its not her fault. Most of this is my own doing.”

Trailblaze snorted, and was back to herself, her own smile rueful and knowing, “I have no trouble believing that. I knew I should have gone with you. Still, ‘sidetracked’ doesn’t really explain much. How did you end up out in the middle of nowhere, being chased by these crazy winged ponies?”

“I’ll answer that, but first, how did you get here? What happened to the tribe?” I asked, unable to keep a fearful squeak from my voice. My feelings were not at all reassured by the sudden, grim expression that crawled over Trailblaze’s features, her entire form taking on a sad droop.

“It happened three days after you left,” she said, voice taking a distant tone of remembrance, “They came in the early morning, before dawn. These blasted flying contraptions. They carried dozens of these white-clad bastards, including the one with the strange lenses over his eyes. We hunters went to meet the intruders with my mother, demanding to know what they were doing coming to our village!”

Trailblaze paused, her breathing getting heavy as she closed her eyes, face tightening in pain.

“They demanded we surrender to them, to be taken away, the entire tribe! Of course my mother told them to leave us be, or we’d fight... then the shooting started. I don’t even know how many of us fell before my mother called for us to lay down our spears. I... I’ve never seen her like that Longwalk. She was crying. So angry, but crying. She was the first to toss her spear aside, after... after it became clear we couldn’t win.”

“Ancestors,” I breathed, fear slipping through my heart with equal measure with sympathy and anger. My home, attacked, my tribemates, taken or killed. I hated to ask, but I needed to know.

“Who... fell?”

Trailblaze shook her head, “I don’t know for sure how many. Stone Crack, Whittle Wood, Harrier, I saw them die. Whittle, one of those red beams hit her and she just... turned to dust. I know Whetstone made it though, she was in one of the lines I saw getting herded on board these flying machines. And your mother! Ancestors, I should have told you first. You’re mother is alive, and was taken along with the rest of us survivors.”

A stone clench around my heart let loose, though only just a bit. I was horrified to hear of the dead, but couldn’t deny a sense of relief that my mother was among the living, still. But the entire tribe, captured!? The reality of it hit me like a Hellhound’s claw to the chest. My mouth had turned utterly bone dry.

“Do you know where they were taken?” I asked. Trailblaze shook her head.

“Not all of them. I was taken to some... strange place. A camp of some kind, with a hole in the earth. A few others of the tribe were taken there too, including Whetstone. I was just there, actually, when that son of a mule with the glass eyes snatched me and took me aboard this flying machine in a hurry. He said he was going to use me as ‘leverage’. I didn’t know against who until I saw you.”

I grimaced, “I’m sorry, Trail. I couldn’t do anything. Not under those circumstances.”

“We’d both be dead now if you’d tried something,” she said with a small nod, but then her expression turned hard, “I’m still waiting on an answer on why you were out here! Where’s Arcaidia?”

“Its a long story, and with present company,” I tilted my head towards the Odessa pegasi, “I can’t really tell you everything. Arcaidia and I... we got mixed up in some complicated things, pretty much day one after we left. Made some enemies, and made some friends. We were trying to secure a way to travel south, past some big desert, and were going to meet some friends in a place called Skull City... but, again, got sidetracked.”

I glanced at our captors, then gave Trailblaze a look I hope she could take as meaningful. She nodded, looking unsatisfied, but understanding.

“Okay, you can give me the whole story some other time. Is Arcaidia alright at least?”

She sounded genuinely concerned, and I couldn’t help but smile. Even under the circumstances, Trialblaze still cared about the well being of friends, even ones briefly known.

“Healthy and well,” I said, “She’s actually learned to speak our language! Not, you know, perfectly, but fairly well. B.B’s been teaching her.”

“B.B?”

“One of the friends I’ve made. You’ll get to meet them. I hope. Once we figure out how to escape.”

“You do know we can hear you?” said one of the Odessa pegasi, the stallion’s voice deadpan as he looked at us, power armor helmet expressionless but his tone vaguely amused and irritated at the same time.

I shrugged, “Well, its not like its a big secret. We’re prisoners. What else do prisoners do?”

“Behave or get beaten to within an inch of their lives?” the stallion pointed out. I frowned.

“You’re not a nice pony,” I told him flatly.

“I’m not paid to be nice. I’m paid to keep smart ass prisoners in line. Now cut the chatter, or I introduce you to what the stun setting on these weapons do.”

“Those things have stun settings?” I asked, shocked.

I swore the bastard must’ve been smiling underneath his helmet as he said, “No.”

With that silence descended upon the cramped compartment, save for the steady beat of the engines and the constant whistle of wind. I wished I knew where we were being taken, but the one time I’d tried to look at my Pip-Buck had resulted in one of the guards demonstrating to me exactly how my manacles worked. Apparently the energy bands were harmless to touch, the magic inactive unless certain conditions were met. Condition one, fast movement. The moment I moved any of my hooves at a speed faster than what I’d need for a normal trot and the magic inside the manacles would activate, sending horrible pain and sickness wracking through my body. Condition two, trying to apply pressure to anything beyond a certain poundage; basically I could sit, twiddle my hooves, whatever, but the second I tried to open a door, press a button, or do anything that required applying pressure? Yup, more horrible pain and an overwhelming need to vomit. And of course, condition three; any bored Odessa trooper who felt like activating the manacles remotely with the right radio frequency from the com-system in their helmet.

So, yeah, in case you were wondering that was why there was this stain on the compartment floor in front of me.

This was why I hadn’t been able to look at my Pip-Buck’s map to see where we were, or where we were going, not to mention where Arcaidia might be. A part of me really was hoping that she was smart enough to disable whatever device in her own Pip-Buck allowed mine to track its tag, because I had a sinking feeling the moment we arrived at an Odessa base where they had to the tools to remove my Pip-Buck that would be one of the first things they’d use it for. As it stood I was still trying to figure out how I might turn still having both the Pip-Buck and my Grapple attached to me to my advantage. So far I was coming up with nothing. Worry for my friends was starting to replace any clear thoughts on escape I was having, and thoughts of my tribe overshadowing it all.

It was just starting to sink in, what Trailblaze had told me. I wondered how many of my tribe had been killed by Odessa. I might not have been close to many of them beside Trailblaze, but I known them my whole life. Stone Crack, as much as a hard flank as he was, had been the leader of the hunters for as long as I could remember, and he’d accepted me on the hunting parties even when others had not wanted me, the one with outsider blood, to come. I never spoke with Whittle Wood much, but I knew her... known her, as a mare who’d been part of Trailblaze and Whetstone’s circle of friends and had made beautiful wood carvings.

Why had Odessa attacked my tribe? What could they have wanted? Was it just to get at me and Arcaidia? But how had they even known I was from that tribe, specifically? How had Shattered Sky known about my friendship with Trailblaze? They must have learned of that by interrogating other members of the tribe. I seethed, wondering how much more my tribe had suffered already, and also if... if I was at fault for this happening.

Did my tribe suffer because I had chosen to help Arcaidia?

I felt warmth leaning against me and was broken out of my dour thoughts, looking over to see Trailblaze, leaning her shoulder against mine. Her look was concerned, somber, and a little reproachful all at once. She didn’t say anything, and didn’t have to. I leaned back, nodding my head. She was right, of course. I needed to not spiral into beating myself up over what had happened. I wasn’t certain it wasn’t my fault, at least in part, but if I thought about it too much I’d be no use to anypony.

Trailblaze and I waited quietly, taking strength from each other’s presence as the Vertibuck flew on.

----------

When we were finally shuffled out of the Vertibuck and into the cold, dry Wasteland air I quickly recognized where we were. The mountain range stretching across the west horizon combined with the sharp rusty brown and red hills were the same ones near Stable 104. The large, uneven depression along the front of a ridgeline of hills was familiar. I’d seen it from afar with LIL-E. This was where we’d seen Odessa troops arriving before we’d left Stable 104, miles north of the Stable.

The depression was large enough that all three Vertibucks could land in it with significant room to spare, though just the one that’d been carrying myself and Trailblaze had landed. A cluster of a dozen or so stark white tents had been sat up nearby, arranged in neatly ordered rows, and Odessa ponies both in the light combat armor and the heavier power armor were standing guard both among the tents, and further on towards what I thought had to be the entrance to a Ruin. Other ponies, and a number of griffins, bustled about the tents, not in armor but clearly wearing trim white uniforms that showed their allegiance to Odessa. Three of the tents were larger than the others, arranged close together, and a metal spire with a small disc on top sprouted from the center tent.

The end of the depression that was part of the ridgeline was marked by a large stone doorway, now hanging swung open down the center. Two rows of stone pillars marched away from the open doors, and I recognized the style of unusual script on the pillars as being the same as what I saw on the Ruin underneath Saddlespring. There was a tent near this entrance, large enough that you could fit the Ursa inside it, and I heard a distant hum from that tent, and noticed there were cables running out of it and into the Ruin entrance.

The Ruin entrance itself would’ve taken most of my attention if there wasn’t something far more interesting to look at up in the sky.

There were other Vertibucks in the sky, though I wasn’t sure if the ones I saw were part of the group that’d been hunting my friends and I. As I looked one landed near where the one that’d been carrying Trailblaze and me had landed, while another one that remained airborne circled the camp once then proceeded to rise into the gray overcast sky... where a massive form was descending to meet it.

It wasn’t the same airship I’d caught a brief glimpse of at Saddlespring. No, this one was smaller, I estimated, but no less massive compared to the Vertibuck approaching it, growing into a tiny speck compared to this airship's wide frame.

The vessel was shaped like a huge, avian creature. Prongs like those making up the skeletal structure of a wing spread from either side of a smooth central body. Circular holes carved into either side of the main body crackled with magical energy, dark stormclouds forming within them and coiling outward, spreading among the metal prongs of the ships ‘wings’, forking with arcs of lightning. From the stout central body a long, elegant neck speared outward, ending in a avian, beak-like head that I imagined housed the ship’s bridge. Underneath the vessel were four, long, jutting protrusions, like the barrels of guns. In fact, I was certain they were guns, of some sort, and shuddered inwardly to think of what that battery of massive cannons might be able to do... in fact I was certain I’d already seen a preview of what they could do at Saddlespring.

“Impressed?” said a smug, smooth tone next to me, Captain Shattered Sky exiting the Vertibuck behind our guards and approaching me. He looked up at the descending airship with a content sigh.

“The Vesuvius may be Odessa’s prime warship, but I’ve always held a certain fondness for the Varukisas’s design. Utility is all well and good, but visual appeal has its uses, and the Varukisas isn’t without its functionality. It was made for the kind of fast, dirty ground operations that Odessa’s been forced to perform so often in the war we wage.”

I watched as the distant Vertibucks landed in what looked to be a bay that opened up underneath the joint of one of the airship’s wings, giving me a good idea of its scale. From wingtip to wingtip that ship was large enough to house a small town, probably carrying several hundred ponies.

And Odessa had bigger ships than this one?

I certainly knew how to pick my enemies.

Shaking my head I looked at Shattered Sky with narrowed eyes, ears flat against my head, “Does this ‘war’ justify all the ponies you’ve hurt trying to pursue it? Why have you taken my tribe!? Where have you taken-”

His hoof strike was fast, precise, and right across my jaw. I wasn’t knocked on my flank, but it rung my bell soundly and forced me to blink a few times as I cleared the proverbial stars from my vision. Shattered Sky’s smug look had been replaced with one of iron distaste.

“You are not in a position to question us. Your tribe is of use, so we’ve acquired them. Anything done in pursuit of defending the world is justified. This cannot be argued, least of all by a dirty, flightless landbound with ignorance as his only defense.”

“Try me!” growled Trailblaze, interposing herself between me and Shattered Sky, “You talk big, for ponies hiding behind armor and weapons that let you fight like cowards! You say we’re dirty, but I’m smelling quite the stink coming off of your sorry flank!”

One of the guards let out a short growl and moved to hit Trailblaze, but stopped at a gesture from Shattered Sky’s wing. Shattered Sky gave Trailblaze a wry half smile, spreading his wings out as if to emphasize what they were.

“Spoken like a true landbound savage. You make my points for me. It is the advanced technology that Odessa possesses along with our unique heritage as lords of the sky that give us the singular duty to defend ignorant dirt creatures like yourself from threats you can’t even comprehend. If we must... be somewhat rough with our charges, taking what we must from you, and pacifying those that resist our efforts, it is a small price to be paid in the pursuit of our nobler goal, because your kind simply cannot do as we do. Too aggressive, too ignorant, and without the two centuries of technological development that we possess.”

He sounded so... proud. So sure of himself. I’d heard similar talk from Glint underneath Silver Mare Studios, but the young Odessa soldier had spoken like somepony quoting from a lecture, repeating what he’d learned all his life, but didn’t necessarily hold that close to his heart. Shattered Sky on the other hoof, he spoke like a pony who believed utterly in what he was saying. There wasn’t a hint of doubt in his tone; indeed it was heated with an edge of passion. He completely believed his people were superior, and had every right to do as they pleased in their pursuit of fighting the supposed threat Arcaidia and her people represented.

That made him more dangerous than any amount of power his artificial ARM gave him, because there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do to pursue his tribe’s goals.

“Fine, whatever,” I said, speaking around Trailblaze, “You pegasi and griffins got it all worked out. What do you need me and my tribemates for, then? I might not be in a position to ask, but that doesn’t mean its not a valid question.”

Shattered Sky lowered his wings and narrowed his eyes at me, one wingtip adjusting his glasses once more until the light reflected off them, obscuring his eyes in the process.

“Perhaps you have a point, but why hear the answers from me when you will see for yourself soon enough? Come, and you’ll see exactly what certain members of Odessa think you landbound might be able to do for us.”

“You know for somepony who seems to hate us ‘landbound’ you were sure quick to offer Crossfire a deal back in Saddlespring,” I pointed out, frowning, “You even said Odessa’s worked with the Drifter’s Guild before.”

Shattered Sky’s face twisted slightly, but he quickly composed himself, “I do not hate landbound, and recognize that utilizing the skills and talents of grounded species is still a vital part of Odessa’s long term goals. The Drifter’s Guild is just one small piece of our dealings with the surface.”

He snorted, looking up at the sky, “Of course that contemptible mare spat in the face of my offer! As if she was in some position to make such a blunt refusal to my generosity! When I next meet her, I assure you, there will be no parley. Yes, she will... learn.”

I had no idea just what was up with the weird look that took over Shattered Sky’s face, a sort of self-aware grimace of disgust that didn’t seem to have any direction. His face was slightly red, and for some reason his wings were extended as he chuckled to himself, then seemed to realize what he was doing and quickly stopped, snapping his wings to his side.

I thought about pointing out that, whatever he planned to do to Crossfire, she’d probably be harder to handle than he thought. Somehow I doubted he’d respond well to the heckling, and honestly with the battering I’d taken last night with the Hellhound and today with the Vertibuck chase... I just didn’t feel up for any more hooves to the face. Honestly I was feeling dead on my hooves and was kind of glad the manacles meant we only had to move at a slow trot as we were lead past the camp.

A number of ponies and griffins, carrying stretchers and boxes marked with a strange red cross symbol I didn’t recognize the meaning of went rushing out of one of the tents and to the other Vertibuck that’d landed. I cast a quick look that way and felt a stab of both worry and relief as I recognized Glint exiting the Vertibuck, meeting the group coming to meet him as Suture also hopped out, waving and shouting. I couldn’t hear what was being said, but I saw the griffins and ponies, medical staff I assumed, unload two forms onto the stretchers while starting to administer aid. At this distance I couldn’t be sure, but I assumed Spring Breeze and Nosedive had to be alive, otherwise why bother with the medical help? I also saw another pony exit the Vertibuck, recognizing Twitch’s red coat and orange mane. She was conscious, and walking, but the medical team descended on her as well, mostly focused on her broken wing.

I couldn’t watch further, however, as the guards around us shoved me and Trailblaze further on. Passing tents I caught glimpses of Odessa soldiers out of armor, relaxing, or cleaning equipment, or talking quietly over meals of rations being eaten out of small metal tins. In one of the larger tents I saw an entire plethora of terminals and other high-tech equipment I didn’t recognize, with pegasi and griffins alike working on what looked like readouts of data. It reminded me of what I’d seen in Dr. Lemon Slice’s research tent in the Labor Guild’s camp outside the Saddlespring Ruin. Was Odessa doing the same thing here; researching this Ruin?

I imagined I’d find out soon enough, as Shattered Sky led us through the camp and towards the Ruin itself.

The entrance was flanked by a squad of guards in white power armor, their orange insect-like eyes expressionlessly watching us approach, but from their stances I noticed tension in the way their wings flexed and their scorpion tails flicked much like I imagined the ponies’ actual tails doing do. We barely got to the entrance when a roaring, angry voice called out from the camp behind us.

“Shattered Sky, you got some explaining to do, you blind sonuvadick!”

The figure that was approaching was a griffin. She was easily a head taller than Bernard had been. Her powerfully built lion’s body was covered with a sleek brown coat, while the eagle part of her was a dusty gray, a crest of feathers upon her head slicked back and tipped bright orange. Her eyes were a brown that matched her fur, and were flashing with ire. She wore no armor, but instead a tight fitting white and silver jacket with the same double lightning bolt and sword insignia that Shattered Sky wore. Most notable was that, slung over her back, was a weapon that almost made her seem small. It was a gatling gun, its many barrels running into a housing that carried two huge ammunition drums, a handle on both the top and back of the weapon clearly designed for a creature with hands... or in this case, talons. What caught my eye, however, wasn’t the size of the weapon, which this griffin carried with ease. No, it was the fact the weapon was made mostly from a bright silver material. The same way Gramzanber was, or Shattered Sky’s watch. Another artificial ARM. That meant this griffin wasn’t just an Odessa officer, but a member of that elite group Doc Sunday had mentioned; Cocytus.

Shattered Sky smiled at the female griffin as she stormed up to us, adjusting his glasses again as he saluted her with his other wing.

“Captain Francheska, just who I wished to see. I apologize for not being able to inform you of events, but I had to act quick-”

He was cut off as the griffin, Fancheska, got right in his face, one talon gripping his collar, the other pointing right on the tip of his nose.

“I don’t want to hear your bullshit excuses, Shattered! I want to know who the fuck scrambled my base’s com-lines! We were out of contact with our recon squads for twenty four fucking hours! I know you had something to do with it!”

“I haven’t a clue what you’re referring to,” said Shattered Sky, putting a hoof on Francheska’s chest and pushing her back, “I heard you were having communication troubles, but from what I understand it was a malfunction, nothing more. Besides, its afforded us the opportunity to reacquire Target 02.”

By now Francheska had given me and Trailblaze a once over, and her fierce gold eyes made me gulp slightly. Bernard hadn’t seemed all that intense, but with this griffin, I felt like I was being sized up for a roasting pit. The griffin scowled, though I don’t think it was directed at me.

“Is that why you jacked two of my Vertibucks and brought in the Varukisas? You have confirmation that Target 02 is in the area?”

Shattered Sky nodded, “She’s evaded us for now, but she and her insurgents are in the area without a doubt. The external cameras of the Vertibuck that engaged her can confirm it, as can the survivors of one of your recon squads.”

Francheska growled, “Corporal Glint’s team. I know. I just spoke with the corporal in the med-tent. His squad was trapped without aid due to our damned ‘communications malfunction’ and lost six good soldiers because of it!”

“Are... are they okay, the wounded ones in the squad?” I asked suddenly, unable to keep the concern out of my voice. Shattered Sky glared at me, but Francheska gave me a more... appraising look? Not friendly by any means, but still measuring. The griffin's eyes narrowed.

“You’re the tribal. The one aiding Target 02. Glint mentioned you,” Francheska said, tone even, “He says that without your help, none of them would have gotten out of that jam alive. For that, if nothing else, you have my thanks. I’ll give it to you straight, privates Nosedive and Spring Breeze are both in critical condition. Soon as our medics do what they can here they’ll be transferred to the Varukisas, but Nosedive is, at best, looking at partial bionic reconstruction, given his wings are, well, gone,” she shuddered, head feather’s ruffling, then continued, “Spring Breeze is going to need a new lung, assuming she survives the next twenty four hours. She’s lucky the armor piercing round went clean through and didn’t catch any other organs on the way out. Now... Shattered Sky, can I assume this is the reason you took one of my prisoners out without authorization as well as commandeered my Vertibucks?”

“Yes, Captain. Again I do apologize, but when I heard Private Spring Breeze’s transmission I didn’t think there was time to go through proper channels. I knew this tribal female had a connection to the buck, here, so I brought her along as leverage. And it worked. Target 02 escaped, yes, but with her personal warrior in our custody, along with his ARM, she’ll be that much easier to capture when we finally corner her.”

“Won’t be nearly as easy as you think,” I said, suppressing a growl, my mane’s hackles rising, “Even if you win, it’ll cost a lot of lives that don’t need to be lost! She’s not your enemy.”

“Again you speak in ignorance. Captain Francheska, I understand this is your operation, but surely you can’t object to a fellow Cocytus member being present for the continuation of the experiments?”

Francheska blew out a heavy grunt, suggesting she very much could object, in the same way one objected to a bad case of indigestion, but she waved a talon, backing up from Shattered Sky to give him space, “I am not convinced you didn’t do something to fuck with our com systems, just to try and bait Target 02. I’m having my people give that array a thorough look for signs of tampering. I get any proof you put my soldiers’ lives at risk for a shot at your own personal glory, I will have your fucking balls nailed to the Varukisas’s main guns!”

“Noted,” said Shattered Sky, “Now then, have there been any changes in the shrine?”

“Not in the last hour or two, no,” Francheska said with a huff, seeming to drop her ire at Shattered Sky as the conversation turned towards other matters, “The research team just ran through the last of the tribals we got, and I was about to get them loaded up to the Varukisas for transfer to Heimdal Gazzo. We didn’t get to this mare though, before you jacked her. And if this buck is from the same tribe, I guess he’d be a candidate as well.”

Trailblaze and I were ushered forward by Shattered Sky and the guards, and we trudged forward into the looming gateway into the Ruin. As we walked I thought over what the two Cocytus members had talked about, confused. If Francheska was angry at Shattered Sky about their communication gear being possibly sabotaged, what would’ve possesed Shattered Sky to do that? Francheska said something about baiting Arcaidia. So... what was the deal? Shattered Sky intentionally put Glint’s squad in danger, suspecting they’d send out a distress call, and that Arcaidia and me would come running?

Seemed like a large leap of logic on his part that we’d come to help a squad of enemy soldiers. He was right, true, but it was still a gamble, and why would Francheska risk her soldiers lives on such a risky gamble...

… Oooooh, she wouldn’t have. Well, that might explain why Shattered Sky would sabotage the communications gear, though it still seemed odd to me. Couldn’t he have just gone over Francheska’s head to whatever higher authority these Captains reported to in order to get his plan authorized? Unless he knew his superiors wouldn’t support his plan, and he was willing to risk reprisal to go ahead with it anyway but damaging the communication equipment. I had no idea for sure, but it was good to know that not all of Odessa’s members were working smoothly together. Might be something I could use to my advantage later.

“Longwalk,” Trailblaze leaned over, whispering to me, “Why do these ponies want Arcaidia so badly?”

“They, uh, eheh,” I began awkwardly, trying to decide how to even begin explaining this without it coming off as delusional, “They think Arcaidia’s part of some otherworldly invasion they’re sworn to prevent. I don’t get it either, but the crazy thing is, I’ve seen a few things that suggest Arcaidia actually is from some other world, and that there are other aliens, or xenos I guess, here too.”

Traiblaze’s reaction was about what I expected; her blue eyes blinking at me in disbelief. To be truthful I wasn’t sure how much I believed it either. The sheer insanity of my own words, and of the strange events of the past week and a half, were never clearer than when I saw that look in Trailblaze’s face. I mean, how does one truly react to the notion that their world isn’t the center of the universe, and that not only are there other forms of life out there in the realms beyond the sky, but that those life forms have been to your world before, and may even now be seeking to invade it? Not to mention one of these beings was a current companion and friend. I think it was all so above my intellectual capacity that I just ignored the whole thing and went with the flow. Trailblaze obviously wasn’t quite as flow-oriented as I.

“That’s insane,” she said, shaking her head, “All of these ponies are insane if they believe that! And... and they killed our tribesmates, and took the rest of us captive, because of these mad beliefs!?”

“Not as mad as you think,” said Shattered Sky, glaring at us sidelong, one of his wings gesturing at our new surroundings as we passed the threshold of the Ruins, “Tell me, who, or what, do you think built this structure?”

Trailblaze and I both took in the area we’d entered, our eyes sweeping over a neatly carved passageway large enough that a giant could step through this hall without worrying about headroom. The stone walls were perhaps once the natural confines of a cave, but had clearly been expertly hewn into smooth, straight walls, and a narrow wedged ceiling from which hung numerous pillars. The pillars were circular, and carved with the familiar geometric patterns I’d seen in the Ruin beneath Saddlespring. The floor beneath our hooves was the same, smoothly worked stone carved with dense clusters of geometric shapes that pulled at the eyes. The passage stretched ahead, lit by glowing crystal lamps set up on tripods, clearly set up by Odessa as the clean metal didn’t match the dust covered architecture around us. Up ahead I could see the hallway ended in a wall, with small, pony sized passages open on either side of a raised stone platform upon which was a massive bowl shaped object made out of a bronze metal. Upon the wall behind the bowl the stone was carved with intricate detail, depicting a creature emerging from a ocean of flames. The creature was a bird, its wings flickering like the flames it rose from, its long elegant neck ending in a regal, sharp avian head. Its beak was open, and the carving breathed with such life like detail I thought for certain I could hear the bird’s defiant shriek. More than the birds fiery appearance, I found it odd that upon its body it seemed to be wearing armor. It’s eyes glittered, and I realized some kind of red jewels were set in there.

Shattered Sky was still looking at Trailblaze, expecting an answer. Francheska was ignoring us, leading on towards the wall.

“I don’t know who built this place,” admitted Traiblaze, meeting Shattered Sky’s eyes glare for glare, lips curled back in a snarl, “And I don’t care! Ancient ponies, I guess, what does it matter!?”

It was Captain Francheska that chimed in next, drawing an irritated look from Shattered Sky.

“Shattered Sky, stop screwing around with them,” the griffin said, her lion’s tail flicking about as she cast her piercing orange gaze our way, “Look, you ponies don’t need to believe in what we do. Fact is, you’re our prisoners, so your opinions aren’t worth much. Just cooperate, and everything will go smoother for all of us.”

“What are you even researching here?” I asked, frowning, getting an uneasy feeling the closer we got to that wall with the carving, “What do you need us for?”

Francheska merely gave me a small shrug of her shoulders, gesturing with a talon towards the passage on the left side of the wall, “We’re checking to see if any of you tribals got the right ‘stuff’ we’re looking for to react to the special energies inside this place. I dont’ get all the egghead parts of it, but relax, long as you play it cool and don’t give us any trouble, you won’t be harmed. Immediately.”

“What’s that supposed to mean!?” growled Traiblaze.

“It means that your coltfriend there is directly implicated in the deaths of a lot of our soldiers,” said Francheska with a grim tone, “His aiding one of our squads will be taken into account, but he’s still going to be tried and judged for his role in the deaths he’s helped cause. Hate to say it, but much as I’m grateful for him helping out one of my teams, his chances of escaping a firing squad are slim.”

I wasn’t too surprised to hear that, though it left me with a cold, icy feeling in my gut, regardless. However, that feeling ended up doubling as Shattered Sky laughed in a light, friendly manner that was innately not-at-all friendly.

“Actually its far more likely this tribal will be sent to Research and Development for... thorough experimentation. Remember, he’s the only pony in our records that’s used a Veruni ARM for more than a few days without suffering fatal side effects,” the gray pegasus said, “They’ll likely take him apart piece by piece to find out how he accomplishes that feat.”

Traiblaze roared, spinning around and raising a hoof to strike. Shattered Sky paused, but didn’t move out of the way. He didn’t have to. The energy bands along the manacles on Trailblaze’s legs flared and she cried out, staggering from a virulent combination of pain and nausea. Yet even so, she didn’t fall down, and fixed Shattered Sky with burning eyes. He grinned at her.

“What? Did I say something to make you angry?” he asked with a look of enjoyment on his features.

“Fuck... you...” Traiblaze breathed.

Francheska was looking on with a hard look of annoyance, “Shattered, I told you to stop fucking with the... prisoners?”

The griffin had trailed off and was looking to her side in confusion. I followed her gaze, which landed on the bronze bowl. Where it had just seconds ago been cold and empty, now there were flickering red and orange flames within. I felt warmth bathing the area from those flames, and more than that, I felt a strange... I don’t know how to explain it properly; it was like that fire wasn’t just warming my hide, but something inside me, something deep at the center of me. It made me feel lighter. The pain of the days injuries faded, still there, but just... not important. Even the growing sea of worries, fears, and doubts churning in me was stilled, if only a little, but this warmth.

Trailblaze was staring into the fire with her mouth slightly open, her blue eyes wide and reflecting the flickering red embers. Even her tail, which had been swishing about in her anger at Shattered Sky, was now completely still. Her ears were perked a little forward, and I could see her leaning slightly towards the fire.

Captain Francheska was first to react, raising a talon and speaking into a device on her wrist that looked like a smaller, more compact Pip-Buck, “Doctor Headway, this is Captain Francheska; if your research team’s plots aren’t on your instruments then get them there now! We’re getting a reaction in the first floor!”

A scratchy female voice shakily replied, “Y-yes ma’am! We’ve got it on our monitors. We’re reading a clear eighteen percent increase in magic resonance from the ley line, and its still going up... now it’s over twenty percent! What’s going on ma’am? We don’t have any of the subjects in the harmonic chamber.”

Shattered Sky was giving us a measuring look while also eyeing the fire with a suspicious gaze, when he soon turned towards us, “Captain Francheska, I suggest getting additional guards in here.”

Francheska glanced at the two guards that had already been following us, her beak twisting in a smirk, “Don’t get your wings twisted, Shattered. The shrine’s ley line is reacting to something, but there’s no sign its dangerous. Besides, if it is, having more guards in here won’t help more than having two of Cocytus present. The two of us can handle any trouble. Chill. Now, you two, let’s get downstairs.”

Shattered Sky still had a sour cast to his features, his wings extended, but kept low as he glowered at the fire, taking the lead ahead of Francheska into the left passage. The two regular guards ushered Trailblaze and I along, though Trailblaze needed more than a few prods to get her moving. Francheska took up the rear as we entered the passageway, which turned out to be a wide, circular stone staircase leading down. As we walked I leaned my head low and close to Trailblaze, nuzzling her lightly.

“Trail? You okay?”

She blinked, shaking her head, “I’m... yeah, yeah, I’m good. Longwalk, did you... well, did you hear anything back there just now?”

I looked at her, searching her features. Her eyes were wide, not quite scared, but confused, and her lips were drawn in a tight, small frown. I knew her well enough to understand she was anxious. I felt a clenching inside me and wanted nothing more than to pull her into a hug; not that the manacles would allow that, even if there weren’t guards moving us forward. Much as I wanted to say something comforting I had to shake my head.

“No, I didn’t hear anything,” I hesitated a second before asking, “Did you?”

I watched Trailblaze take hold of herself, forcing her anxiousness away with a slow, heavy breath, and closing her eyes in concentration, “I don’t know. I thought I heard a voice. From the fire.”

“If that’s the case you might just be what we’ve been looking for,” spoke up Francheska, her predatory eyes now fixed on Trailblaze, “We’ll find out soon.”

I glared back at the griffin. I was getting tired of how cryptic Odessa could be. What could they possibly be trying to accomplish here that would justify killing and abduction!? And what was happening to Trailblaze!? She was supposed to be safe! They all where. My home, my family, wasn’t supposed to be mixed up in this insanity! I didn’t realize just how much of a pillar of strength that thought had been for me; the notion my home was safe and that I could go back there, once this crazy adventure was over. Now, home was gone, my tribe in danger, and my closest friend trapped right in the center of it with me.

Stay calm, I told myself with a deep breath, Frantic thinking is what gets you into trouble. Just... focus. Right now all you can do is observe, learn what you can about Odessa’s plans, and look for an opportunity.

The stairs led to a new hallway, though it was a short one that soon opened up into a wider square chamber. Inside were a number of Odessa ponies, about half a dozen bored looking guards, and an equal number of excited looking pones wearing tight fitting uniforms. In the center of the room was a stone tablet, upon its surface a dense cluster of symbols I couldn’t begin to guess the meaning of. Along the far wall was an archway that I could tell was once closed with thick metal doors, but those doors were now hanging open, the center of them containing a green crystal that looked... vaguely familiar. It took me a moment to remember that the crystal was a lot like the ones that had sealed the tomb of the Golem at the bottom of the Saddlespring Ruins.

“Dear Ancestors, you crazy ponies are trying to get everypony on the surface killed?” I blurted out, “There are things in these Ruins you don’t want coming out to say hi!”

A sharp pain on the back of my skull caused me to stumble, and the guard behind me grunted, “Shut it, dirt pony.”

“That’s enough of that,” said Francheska, putting a talon on the shoulder of the pony that’d struck me, to which he straightened up and saluted with a wing, taking a step back. She nodded at him, then turned to look at me, “As for you, we’re well aware of the dangers that exist inside ‘Ruins’, as you call them. This place has no active defense systems that we’ve detected, and if anything does happen to pop up that our ground forces can’t take care of, we have the Varukisas on standby to deal with it.”

“You’ll have to forgive his excitable nature, the poor ignorant colt,” said Shattered Sky, though his smug tone was lessened by his still uneasy stance, “His last foray into a place like this led to the incident with the S-class Relic. He probably thinks there’s another one down here.”

I turned a look towards him, “What makes you think there isn’t?”

Trailblaze was looking at us with confusion, not following what we were talking about, but keeping her peace. Francheska blew out a sound that was more growl than sigh.

“This place got excavated by Stable ponies well before we showed up here to claim it,” she said, “We’re just pursuing lines of research we couldn’t back then because we didn’t have the right... resources to do so. Now that we’ve got you and your tribe, its made this site valuable again.”

Waiting patiently for the conversation to die down a griffin in a white uniform that I noticed had a single lightning bolt and an hourglass instead of a sword approached, saluting Francheska quickly with one wing while holding up a portable terminal with a talon.

“Captain, we’ve warmed up the harmonics chamber in the main cavern. The tribals in there are getting restless. Should I get them moved up top for transfer to the Varukisas?”

“If they all tested negative, yeah, go ahead and get ready to transfer them,” said Francheska, then jabbed a thumb at me and Trailblaze, “We’ll be testing these two next. Start with the mare, she’s already exhibiting signs of a connection that are congruent with the data from the Baskar Tribe candidate.”

The other griffin got an excited, happy grin on his face as he looked at Trailblaze, but his eyes were filled with a sort of eagerness that reminded me more of the way Raider’s looked at potential victims than anything else. It made my hide crawl and I found myself moving next to Trailblaze, touching her hoof with mine. She returned the gesture while glaring fire at our captors. I wanted to shout my lungs out at these pegasi and griffins! I wanted answers, but any time I asked a question about what this was all about all I got were deflections and cryptic responses.

I think Trailblaze understood asking further questions was pointless as well, because we both were silent as we were marched past this room and beyond the archway. Beyond it we found ourselves following another hallway, one that had several adjoining hallways that we passed without stopping. Soon the end of the hallway opened up upon a large open cliff edge in a truly massive cavern. Pillars thicker than a Vertibuck ran from top to bottom of a hundred foot high ceiling. The curved walls were carved with dozens upon dozens of frescos that contained smaller versions of the raised bowls from upstairs, half of them already lit with flickering red fire. Down below us I saw the cliff went down about forty feet or so. At the bottom I saw a carved out opening in the cliff face from which a set of metal rails led to a simple platform that looked too old to be Odessa’s construction. I realized quickly that this was the end of one of Stable 104’s train lines. This was where they excavated to, all those years ago, and acquired all those artifacts they’d been studying in the Stable!

That also meant this had to have been where they found what they’d ended up calling the ‘Specimen’, that strange bipedal armored creature that carried a spear just like Gramzanber.

I felt a nagging sense of trepidation in me, looking over this cavern. I noticed Shattered Sky flick his tail, as if he was nervous as well, as he took wing and flew down the cliff, while Francheska and our escort of guards led us to a lift built into the side of the cliff that started to slowly lower us down into the basin of the cavern. I shifted on my hooves on the cramped, cold metal of the lift. The lower we went the more I got an uneasy feeling, and I wasn’t sure why. Glancing at Trailblaze, wondering if she was feeling the same, I noticed she was standing taller. She was no less tense, but there was a new energy to her, as if she felt bolstered by being in this place.

“Feeling twitchy?” Francheska suddenly asked me and I nearly jumped, grimacing as the griffin stared at me with unblinking orange eyes.

“N-no,” I said, not very convincingly. Francheksa grunted, patting the gatling gun on her back.

“It’s these,” she said, “ARMs. Inside a shrine like this anyone bound to an ARM starts to get to feeling like someone’s watching. Which isn’t inaccurate, I guess. The entities this shrine is built to venerate had no reason to love the ones who built ARMs, the Veruni. If you’re bound to the real deal, and not the half-powered replicas we’ve managed to create, I bet the effect is even worse, whether you got your ARM or not.”

As she spoke I paid closer attention to the feeling of nervousness in me, and noticed that it felt... connected, to the part of my mind where I felt the pressure that was Gramzanber’s presence. Even without the spear in my possession I still felt it, above us and somewhere behind, probably still in the Vertibuck we’d landed in, or maybe it’d been moved into the Odessa camp. Now that I was paying attention to it, I noticed my unease really did seem to be stemming from the pocket of mental pressure that represented Gramzanber. It was like the spear was trying to warn me.

“I... think you're right,” I said, shaking my head, “I feel like Gramzanber is telling me to be careful.”

Francheska laughed as the lift reached the ground of the cavern basin and we started walking towards the area’s center, “Gramzanber? What’s that name supposed to mean?”

“I don’t know. It’s just what the spear named itself,” I said.

Francheska blinked, “It named itself? That’s... okay, whatever, I’ll let the eggheads figure that one out.”

Her tone kind of made me want to ask her just what Odessa named it’s ARMs, but I was distracted by the sight of a number of new details about this cavern I hadn’t noticed until we were down in the center of it. First of all, the cavern floor was marked by dozens of craters and blast marks, some of them burned black, others as if the stone itself had melted away. There were similarly melted lines in the stone, or cut out gouges, some of which were larger than a pony’s body. Finally noticing a few bars of light sifting in through the dust strewn air I noticed that several sections of the ceiling and wall across the cavern were punctured by holes, one of the pillars even broken in half and collapsed. I was reminded of the pod we’d found Arcaidia in, but I didn’t see any such pods around, just holes in the cavern as if something had punched into this place long ago.

A battle was fought here, I thought, somehow knowing instinctively it was true. This was the site of a desperate fight, and... it all seemed familiar. I suddenly felt as if I’d been here before. I could almost hear it in my ear; the sound of gunfire and clashing blades, shouts and screams. I shook my head to clear it as we caught up with Shattered Sky at the center of the cavern.

Here there was a site where research equipment and terminals set up around a rise in the cavern, like a miniature hill. Atop this hill was a statue. Around twenty feet tall, this statue was, inch by inch, a perfect representation of the firey bird we’d seen in the mural on the top floor. Its massive wings spread, dripping flames, its head rising to the ceiling with its beak open in silent, defiant screech, the bird of fire was carved with every facet of its form given detail so fine I felt like the statue was breathing as I looked at it. The bird’s long tail swept behind it, also covered in stone carved to depict flames. Much like the wall carving we’d seen before, this bird was wearing armor, plates covering its chest, neck, and a curved angular helmet. Just looking at it sent a chill into my heart.

Next to the research area with its terminals and arrays of strange equipment, I noticed a single, sizeable device surrounded by ponies and a few griffins. The device was like a small, metal house, shaped like a disc, with thick windows making up half of its walled surface, the rest being reinforced metal. A single hydraulic door led into the device, which was currently empty, and a lot of the strange equipment being monitored by the Odessa ponies was linked to this device.

Just off to the side, under guard, was a group of ponies that weren’t Odessa, and from them came a shout.

“Trailblaze!”

A gray earth pony mare, with a black braided mane, waved at us from the grouping of ponies, though one of the Odessa guards was quick to move in and give her a smack with a hoof.

“Quiet, prisoner!”

The mare, who I recognized now as Whetstone, took the hit with a small grunt, and cracked a wry, sharp half-smile at the guard, “Ease off Mr. Overcompensation, I’m just greeting my friend.”

The guard Whetstone had just insulted face glowed red, lips twisting down in an enraged frown. He looked like he was about to draw his energy pistol before Francheska called out, “Its fine. Let the prisoners play catch-up for a sec while I go make sure the harmonics chamber is ready. Use force only if they get rowdy, corporal.”

That said she flew off and started to speak with a number of ponies near the large disc-shaped device, which by now I was assuming was this harmonics chamber they kept mentioning. Shattered Sky stood off to the side, looking on quietly, for which I was grateful. I was tired of listening to him by now. Our guards led us to the group of other guarded ponies; all members of my tribe, about eight in total. Looking among their number I saw plenty of faces I recognized, primarily Whetstone, but I didn’t see the face I was really looking for.

Wherever my mother was, she wasn’t here.

Trailblaze trotted up to Whetstone and they exchanged a quick embrace, the gray mare with a relieved smile on her face.

“Had me worried, the way they snatched you out of here without any explanation,” said Whetstone.

Trailblaze returned the smile, a hoof still on Whetstone’s withers, “The bastard over there,” she nodded at Shattered Sky, “He used me to get at Longwalk.”

Whetstone’s eyes turned towards me, her blinking in surprise.

“Longwalk! Holy spirits, it is you!” she said, still smiling, if the expression faded somewhat, “So these nutty pegasi got you too? Don’t see that cheerful little ball of blue energy here. Is she...?”

Whetstone left the question hanging in the air, her ears drooping a little at the implication of what she was asking. I quickly answered, “She’s okay, last I saw her. Um, how about you Whetstone? And everypony?”

I directed the question at the group in general, feeling... utterly out of place and suddenly very ashamed. My tribesmates were mostly silent, all looking at me with a mixture of expressions ranging from dumbfounded at my being there, to mistrustful and scornful. The only ones showing any happiness to see me were Trailblaze and Whetstone. The others, well I was still the colt with outsider blood. I wondered if any of them blamed me for what happened. Wouldn’t be an illogical leap to make. Odessa attacked only days after I fled with Arcaidia, from Hard Tack and some of the hunters trying to chase us down. Anypony might decide the two events were linked. Whetstone, in a move I’d always be grateful for, suddenly laughed and pulled me into a quick hug.

“Ancestors teats, you look like you’ve been chewed on by geckos and left for dead and you’re asking us if we’re okay? Longwalk, you dumb lug, c’mere!”

She playfully ruffled my mane with a hoof, hugging me tight to the point where I ended up groaning in pain as my accumulated injuries decided to inform me of how much they didn’t appreciate having pressure put on them. Fortunately for me Whetstone stopped with the hug almost as fast as it started when her manacles activated, causing her to yelp and double over.

“Whetstone!” Trailblaze was next to her friend as quickly as she could manage, “Curse it, don’t do that to yourself!”

On the ground, one hind leg twitching a little, Whetstone raised a hoof and said in a completely serious tone, “Worth it.”

I went over to help Trailblaze in getting Whetstone back to her hooves, shaking my head as I let out a short laugh, “Didn’t think you liked me enough to take physical pain just to give me a hug. You’re not a closet masochist are you?”

“Nah, I just wanted to see the look on their faces when I did that,” said Whetstone cheekily, nodding her head at the Odessa guards around us. Most of them were giving us either strange looks like they weren’t certain if they needed to subdue a bunch of madponies, or distasteful looks the way one might give to a bunch of foals one found playing in the mud. Despite what Whetstone said, I think I knew the real reason she gave me that friendly hug. Looking at the other members of my tribe I saw their own tension and mistrustful looks towards me softening. Whetstone broke that ice, accepting me, making it easier for the rest to do the same.

“Well, whatever your reasons, thanks,” I told her, “It’s... it’s good to be with you all again. Even under circumstances like this.”

Whetstone nickered, flicking one of her ears, “Not exactly the homecoming me and Trailblaze wanted to give you, yeah. We don’t even know where they took most of us. Trailblaze’s mother, yours, and my father, all of the older or really young members of the tribe aren’t here.”

Looking at the other of my tribe here I realized she was right; these were all younger ponies, either at the cusp of adulthood like myself and Trailblaze, or just a few years into their adult years. None of them were particularly old, nor were any of them truly colts or fillies. Whetstone’s father was actually Hawker, my mother’s friend who’d traveled with her alongside my father, and I wondered if maybe there was some connection there that’d explain why neither of them were here. Maybe my father, knowing them, intervened after Odessa took my tribe and had them sent somewhere safe? Well, it was a small thing to hope for, and right now had no way of finding out for sure.

“So,” Trailblaze said in a quieter voice, “Any idea how we might escape?”

Whetstone glanced around, lips pulling back in a contemplative twist, “Won’t be able to even think of getting away long as we have this magical doo-dads on our legs. We need these off, otherwise any escape will just turn into a very short, kinda sad attempt at walking fast.”

“There’s also, you know, all the guards,” mentioned one of the other tribe ponies, a stallion with a dusky black coat and brown mane; I recalled his name was Sure Throw.

The guards in question were giving us narrowed eyed looks, clearly not liking us whispering amongst ourselves, and I interjected quickly.

“We can’t do anything right now, but all of us should keep our eyes and ears keen. Listen and watch to everything our captors say and do. Somewhere, somehow, we’ll hear, or see something we can use to help us get away. Until then, we shouldn’t try any hasty moves... what?”

I asked the last bit as Whetstone and Trailblaze, in fact everypony among my tribe stared at me. I nervously shifted around, coughing, “What?” I repeated.

“Are you sure this is Longwalk?” asked Whetstone of Trailblaze, “He’s... making sense, and acting cautious.”

“I’m surprised myself,” said Trailblaze.

I chuckled, though it was a sighing chuckle, “Don’t get too used to it, I’m sure I’ll get a crazy idea in my head soon enough on how to escape and then it’ll be right back to me getting horrible injured and need you to bail me out of trouble. Still, I’d like to think I’ve learned a little about the value of caution.”

I was only half joking. I wanted desperately to find a way to get my friends and tribemates away from here. The only thing that seemed like a possibility at the moment was if we had a distraction, and a way to get these manacles off, we might be able to make a break for the train tunnel that’d lead back towards Stable 104. I wouldn’t lead my tribe all the way back there, to keep Stable 104 and Misty Glasses people safe from Odessa, but I could lead them to any of the side exits like the one we’d taken with the Ursa yesterday. From there we could disappear into the Wasteland and then try and find Arcaidia and my other friends while avoiding Odessa.

Only I couldn’t think of any way to get our manacles off and provide a large enough distraction that we could reach that tunnel without getting swarmed by the guards and the two Cocytus members in the room. I didn’t even know how the manacles worked, or if there was a way to remove them without an Odessa soldier's help. If I had Gramzanber maybe I could use its sharpness to cut the manacles off without triggering them, but then there was also the collars to consider. The collars were more than likely explosive, and there was no way to get those off without some kind of device, or having Arcaidia on hoof for some pin-point freezing.

“Alright, its time!” barked Captain Francheska, breaking me out of my thoughts as the tall griffin approached, looking at Trailblaze and I, “You two follow me. The rest of you, you’re going to follow these fine soldiers back to the surface, and cooperate with their instructions.”

“Where are you taking us?” asked Whetstone.

“Up,” said Francheska with a point of her talon upwards, “Try not to fall out of the Vertibuck, and enjoy the show. Not a lot of landbound get to check out one of our ships from the inside.”

There were grumbles and protests from among my tribesmates, but Trailblaze was fast to speak, addressing all of them in a loud, commanding tone that I recognized as being very similar to her mother’s, “LIsten up everypony, just go along with it for now! Our task now is to stay alive, whatever it takes, so don’t do anything foalish! Longwalk and I will see you all again, I promise you. Keep your heads high and remember we’re still a tribe, no matter what happens!”

Voices of protest soon became nods of acceptance as the others of my tribe listened, and took Trailblaze’s words to heart. I don’t know if it was because their circumstances shook them up bad enough they wanted any kind of leadership they could find, or if Trailblaze really was just that good (I certainly thought so), but either way one by one the ponies of my tribe let the Odessa guards lead them away. I hoped they’d also remember what I said about escape, and they’d keep their eyes and ears peeled for any tidbit of information that might aid us in escaping later.

“Heh, not bad talk for a landbound. If that motion for landbound auxiliary units ever passes might be you’d make a halfway decent officer,” said Francheksa, who gave Trailblaze an appraising gaze before motioning her towards the harmonics chamber, where the Odessa research team were buzzing about excitedly.

“As if I’d ever work for you monsters,” said Trailblaze, eyes flashing defiantly, “Let’s get this over with.”

Francheska shrugged, as if Trailblaze’s heated words meant nothing to her. I imagined they didn’t. I followed along quietly, casting a briefly look Shatterd Sky’s way as we walked. He was with the researchers, giving the statue of the giant bird a stony look behind glasses that were obscuring his eyes. He still seemed tense. Probably from that same feeling I was getting. However different our ARMs were, they both weren’t reacting well to whatever presence or energy was in this shrine.

Gramzanber was humming in my head now, and I could almost hear that familiar mare’s voice. What was she saying? I strained to hear, but just couldn’t quite make out the words, and the voice faded in and out anyway, making it hard to know if it was really hearing it at all.

At the harmonics chamber the researchers fitted Trailblaze with a series of little plastic nodes and tabs, along with a circlet affixed with a series of gems of various colors. As she was led to the huge hydraulic doors into the chamber I was led to the side where I could see and hear what was happening, but was kept out of the way.

“Test subject #22: Earth pony female, approximate age eighteen,” read off one of the Odessa pegasi, “Acquired from tribal group in southeast quadrant of Surface Sector 115, Settlement 198. Harmonics resonance chamber experiment beginning at 0948. Ley line status; energy reactions at 35%, highest recorded reaction since Baskar Experiment. Doctor Lieutenant Headway presiding.”

Next to the pegasus was a unicorn, one I didn’t recognize, but was wearing an Odessa uniform. She was somewhat short and thin, mousey brown coat supporting a neon pink mane, cut short and neat. Equally pink eyes regarded Trailblaze with enthusiastic energy. I noticed the unicorn mare’s cutie mark was a machine spouting sheafs of paper with numbers on it.

“Okay folks, this may well be it! No mistakes now, I want every shred of data we can get off of this. Miss, if you would, please start up the steps there.”

Trailblaze gave Doctor Headway a brief glare before holding her head up and marching up the metal steps. As she did so the hydraulic doors opened up with a smooth sound of oiled metal against metal and releasing air. Trailblaze went inside the chamber, the doors closing behind her.

“Now,” said Doctor Headway, reminding me creepily of Lemon Slice with the way she practically skipped over to a monitoring station of her own and speaking into a microphone, “Just stand in the center of the chamber and... relax. Really, all you have to do is stand there while we activate the chamber and get our data. Shouldn’t even feel a thing. None of your fellow tribe had any reaction.”

Even though Headway had just said my other tribesmates hadn’t been harmed in any way, I felt jittery as I watched Trailblaze stand in the center of the chamber, and the entire disc shaped device began to hum.

“What’s it doing?” I found myself asking.

It was Doctor Headway herself that energetically answered me, not even looking up from her monitor, “The harmonics resonance chamber is designed to bombard the subject inside with magical particles that probe them at a metaphysical level, then take samples of their own natural bio-arcane matrix and introduce it in a controlled manner to a specific metaphysical array the chamber is built near. In this case we’re seeing if your friend’s bio-arcane matrix creates a reaction with the ley line that exists inside this site. And before you ask, a ley line is a naturally occurring stream of energy that is attuned in various different ways to match with elemental or spiritual properties found in the planet and in living beings. Most ley lines are either very weak, or all but dead, but several, specifically in this region, seem to be stronger than others Odessa has located. We’ve learned that certain ponies, of particular bloodlines, seem to have a connection to these ley lines; hence today's experiment! Hopefully we’ll get a reaction from your friend and obtain a new Medi-”

“That’s enough Lieutenant,” said Francheska sternly, “Keep your focus on your instruments.”

“Oh! Sorry Captain, of course!” the unicorn mare said, shoving her nose back towards her monitor.

I could only continue watching, the entirety of Headway’s “explanation” going not just over my head, but soaring over it like a majestic, yet highly confusing, eagle. It mostly translated in my head to; We’re doing a magic thing, with this magic thing, to learn stuff about another magic thing. Unicorns. Bah.

As seconds crawled by the harmonics chamber’s buzz intensified, and I saw that inside it the air was being filled with pulsing waves of white and blue light. I gulped, fearing for Trailblaze’s safety, but she didn’t seem to be getting harmed by the energy around her and flowing over her. My friend was starting to lose some of her confidence and composure though, visibly trying to stay still despite her ears flattening against her head and her eyes looking about nervously.

“Bio-arcane matrix acquired from subject,” said one of the researchers, “Confirming gene to meta-gene patterns. Confirmed match with projected data. Beginning resonance sequence.”

“Good, good, good!” said Headway, bouncing on her hooves, “How’s the ley line?”

“Still holdong at 35%... wait, wait! We’re getting a spike in energy readings... It’s doubled to 70%!”

“What!? That fast!? But it can’t-”

Suddenly the cavern shook. Not violently, but enough to rattle a few electronics and make a few ponies shift on their hooves. The air abruptly felt warmer as all of the braziers set up in the frescos in the cavern walls burst into crimson and orange fire. Captain Francheska frowned, and flew over to Headway, while Shattered Sky backed away from the harmonics chamber, where the energy inside was turning from white to a distinct flaming red.

“Lieutenant, what’s happening?” asked Francheska.

“I-I-I don’t know! The last time we acquired a Medium the readings never went above 50%, but that was just one time! Its the only data we have on this kind of event! The Guardian is reacting! Its just much stronger than the last record we have!”

“Doctor,” said one of the researchers, “The energy has spiked again; it’s at 120%!”

“Skies above, we should consider evacuating the area,” breathed Headway, backing away with her eyes wide, and jaw hanging open as the statue of the giant bird literally exploded into bright orange and red flames.

"Trailblaze!” I screamed, seeing my friend inside the chamber as the fiery energy inside started to flow into her. She shuddered, but otherwise didn’t move, and as the energy entered her body, it became wreathed in fire so bright I was having a hard time making out anything more than her outline. I screamed her name again, running for the door, forgetting the manacles too late as pain and nausea wracked through me, dropping me to the ground.

“Trail....” I tried to pull myself to my hooves, but felt heat and an unrivaled force press upon my mind. Then a voice tore through me, loud, deep, and roaring like a firestorm.

She is not yours, warrior of the enemy. She is mine. If she passes her test. Fear not, however, for you too shall be tested by my flames.

I looked up, and saw the harmonics chamber explode outward in fire, the raging red flames washing over me in a blast of all consuming heat and light.

----------

Footnote: Level Up!

Perk Added: Force Adept (Rank 1) - You’re experience with your ARM has made you better at retaining Force energy in your body. You now keep a percentile amount of your Force Gauge equal to twice your character level, even when not in combat. Nifty!

Bonus Ex-File: B.B’s S.P.E.C.I.A.L Stats

STR = 5
PER = 7
END = 4
CHA = 6
INT = 6
AGI = 7
LUK = 5

Author's Note:

Longwalk just can't catch a break, can he? If he's not getting shafted by ponies he's trying to help, his tribe is getting kidnapped. This keeps snowballing at this rate and he's going to need a industrial sized plow just to get out his front door. I digress though, this was a fun chapter to write, if only because I like chase scenes, and I think I might've given Longwalk that grapple device just to have a reason to dangle him from a Vertibuck. For an earth pony Longwalk seems to have a thing for heights; must be his pegasi heritage messing with his good earth pony sense. Anywho's, once more I need to thank our usual suspects; KKat for being the one that inspired so many of us to tap into our own creativity, and doomande for taking the time to pre-read for my too-long chapters, and all of you fine folk who keep reading along! As always, feel free to comment, question, critique, and just say hi. 'Till next time folks... Oh, wait, almost forgot!

Check it out!

A particularly cool fellow over on DeviantArt did this for me as part of a commission deal he had going involving copious amounts of Mountain Dew. Considering I drink the stuff like water, I totally found it an equitable exchange. Good to see the entire team together like that. So 'till next time folks... Oh, wait, almost forgot!

Happy Holidays everyone!

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