• 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 16: The Power That Supports the World

For a moment my senses were dominated by the overwhelming, searing heat that surrounded me, drowning out my hearing with the primal, volcanic roar of flames. Wiping away my sight was an all consuming red light, destroying my sense of where I was. All I could do was cover my head and pray I’d survive, because there certainly wasn’t much of anything else I could do.

When the flames abated finally I was shocked to find myself not only alive, but completely unharmed. More surprising than that, however, was that I was no longer inside the underground cavern Odessa had brought Trailblaze and myself to. Instead I stood with a bewildered look plastered on my face, ears perking up as I looked around in confusion at my new surroundings.

I was back in the valley of Shady Stream, my home village. The familiar cliff to my left protectively stood over the gecko hide tents of my tribe, its shade cooling me as I stood within it. Immediately I knew something was wrong here, despite the comforting burst of satisfied homesickness that washed through me upon seeing my home.

First off, the village was neither destroyed, nor my tribe missing, as one would expect from what Odessa had supposedly done here. I saw numerous earth ponies of my tribe going about the village, some working on curing gecko skins, others cleaning up after a morning meal, and even a party of hunters trotting off towards to the hunting grounds, spears in mouth.

The second thing I noticed was that everything had a faint, washed out look to it, as if the second my eyes didn’t focus on a pony or an object it started to lose its distinct form. Curious, I broke into a fast trot, wanting to get a closer look. As I got within easy shouting distance I yelled out, “Hey! Hey everypony!”

Nopony even glanced my way, all of my tribe continuing their chores or other business as if they hadn’t heard me. I slowed, reaching the edge of the village, a few hunters trotting by me, chatting amiably amongst themselves, and not even giving me a single look.

“The buck...?” I furrowed my brow, but before I could stew in my confusion for too long I heard a familiar voice.

“Longwalk, where do you think you’re going!?”

I wheeled around at the sound of Trailblaze’s voice, though it’d sounded oddly high pitched, and I saw why almost immediately.

Trailblaze was pumping her legs in a tiny gallop, her small filly legs catching up to the other young pony she was chasing. It’d been some time since I’d seen Trailblaze so young, without her cutie mark, but she still had that same stern-eyed, exasperated look that I’d grown in time to cherish. Right now she fixated that look not on me, but on, well, a younger version of me that was currently only partially pausing in his gallop to slow down enough to turn his head and give Trailblaze a wide, happy grin, half of his face obscured by a fall of wild blue mane.

“Heya Trail! I heard the hunters talking about seeing a huge bird flying around the clifftop yesterday! I’m gonna go check it out!”

The younger me tried to resume his gallop, but was halted by Trailblaze snatching his tail in her teeth and yanking him to a stop. My younger self yelped, fell flat on his face, and while rubbing his head turned over to look at Traiblaze with a pout.

“What gives!? Don’t just pull on my tail like that!”

Trailblaze, who came up and put a hoof on my younger self’s chest, looked down with a roll of her eyes, “Well if you’d just stop running around and give me a chance to talk to you I wouldn’t have to do that, you dummy!”

“I’m not a dummy, dummy!” my younger self retorted with a confident smile that said he thought it was the most witty comeback imaginable. I found myself facehoofing. Was I really like that back then? Ah, who am I kidding? I’m still like that.

Trailblaze huffed, taking her hoof off of my younger self’s chest and helping him back to his hooves, “Whatever. I’m just going to pretend you said ‘sorry Trailblaze, I’ll stop and listen to you next time’. Anyway, you can’t go up to the cliff.”

“Uh... why not?” my colt-sized self asked, genuinely confused if the way he tilted his head almost entirely sideways was any indication.

“Because we’re not allowed up there!” Trailblaze said with a tiny stamp of her filly hooves, “Don’t you ever listen to anything my mom or the shaman says!? We’re too little to go up the cliff! It’s too dangerous!”

My young self just laughed, “It’s only dangerous if we fall off, Trail.”

“We? When did I say I was going with you? I’m here to stop you.”

With a pleading, puppy-dog look my younger self slid up to Trailblaze, “Awww, but Trail, don’t you want to see the big bird? What’s it called? An eagle? They’re, like, never, ever seen around here! It’d be so absolutely amazing to see one! Wouldn't it?”

Trailblaze frowned, her lips pursed together in thought. I could see her young filly mind being swept up by equal desire to see something neat; a simple kind of drive that any young pony could be vulnerable too, no matter how much they wanted to obey the rules. My devious younger self knew how to push Trail’s buttons as he smiled with confidence at her hesitance and kept talking.

“We won’t get caught or anything. All the adults are too busy to notice us gone, and we’re not supposed to help the shaman with tonight’s feast until the sky starts to darken. So nopony’s going to be looking for us for hours! It’ll only take an hour, at most, to get to the top of the cliff, then we can spend an hour looking around. We don’t see anything, we’ll come right back. See? Easy.”

“Its never easy...” said a voice, and it was Trailblaze’s, but not her young, filly self, but her adult voice, “With you, Longwalk, it’s never as easy as you think.”

I jumped, looking around, but I didn’t see Trailblaze anywhere. I stared about in confusion, “Trail?”

But nopony answered. Had I imagined her voice? Shaking my head, I looked back at the village in time to see my young colt self and Trailblaze’s filly self wandering off towards the side of the cliff, where a narrow, dangerously unstable looking path lead towards the top of the cliff.

I remembered that day, now. It’d been one of the few days in my younger life where I’d gotten in real, serious trouble. Trailblaze and I hadn’t found an eagle to see up on that cliff, but we had found a weakened portion of the clifftop that’d come apart as we’d trotted past it. I’d nearly fallen to my death that day, and would have, if Trail hadn’t caught me. But everypony in the village sure heard me screaming, and by the time Trail pulled me up, and we found our way back down, half the village was waiting for us. Chief Hard Tack had been furious, and my mother had practically tanned my backside off.

One would think I’d have learned my lesson from that, but no, that was just one in a long string of times I went wandering off, dragging Trailblaze with me. Whenever I was in trouble, whenever I got in over my head, it was always Trail who saved me. I never noticed it back then, how much I depended on her.

“And now I’ve gotten her into trouble again,” I found myself saying, and the second I spoke aloud another voice answered me.

“Correct, young pony, but as before, her strength may save you both.”

The voice was loud, deep, clearly male, and had a resonate snap to it that wasn’t at all natural. I looked behind me to the source of the voice, but only saw a wavering in the air, a shimmer not unlike heat rising from the rocks on a very hot day. I tensed, turning from the illusion of my village and stared into that wavering shimmer.

“Where is Trailblaze?” I asked, heat in my voice. I was scared, both of these strange circumstances, and of the fact I didn’t really know what was happening to my friend. Anger was a good blanket to cover up fear.

If the being remotely cared about my anger it certainly didn’t show it in its condescending and dismissive tone, “She faces her own trial. Do not fear for her, she will not come to harm. Unlike you, her spirit is strong.”

“What’s that supposed to mean!? What trial? Who are you!?” I shouted, stamping my hooves, lowering my head as if I was about to charge. Which I wasn’t, because I didn’t have anything to charge at, except a vague wave of air. I took a few deep breaths, working to calm myself and gather my wits. Meanwhile the being laughed.

“Well, perhaps you, too, have some fire in you. But not nearly enough to be worthy of serving as my Medium. That is the purpose of my trial for your friend, young one. She has the potential, but I must test her to see if she truly has the spirit needed to be the Medium of Moa Gault, Guardian of Fire.”

Upon those words the shimmer in the air sparked with a singular, intense point of crimson flame, that suddenly grew rapidly in size, expanding and flaring like a bubbling geyser until, standing before me, was a humungous bird. Its entire form was seemingly made from solid flames, yellow and orange at the edges of its massive wings and the tip of its sharp avian beak, and more intensely red towards the core of its body, and its two ruby red eyes. Its chest and head were clad in dark steel armor, rigid plates etched with swirls that mimicked the flames which they encased.The bird outsized me easily, even taller than the Hellhound I’d faced at Silver Mare Studios, and exuded far more power and menace than even that creature had.

I gulped, understandably, and backed up a step. A wave of superstitious fear welled up in me. I’d always been fairly dismissive of many of my tribe’s notions concerning spirits, only really starting to find a need to pray to my Ancestor spirits when the Wasteland started seriously challenging my sense of moral solidarity in the world. However I still hadn’t put much credence towards other beliefs of my tribe, like the notion of elemental spirits dwelling inside everything. Especially our fear of the great Fire Spirits that scorched the world. I’d learned by now that it was the megaspells, not some vengeful spirits of fire, that’d destroyed the Old World, but now, seeing this huge bird of fire, well... one could perhaps understand my sudden dry mouth and somewhat shaky knees.

“Guardian of Fire...?” I shook my head, trying to think, which was hard to do when you’re being stared down by a giant flaming bird, “Never heard of you.”

“Mmm, of course you have not,” said the bird in its voice of resonating, crackling flames, a voice that pounded at my mind, “Few ponies in this age have even an inclining of the existence of myself or my kin. Our time long since passed from this world, before even the time ponies became ‘civilized’ and stopped living in caves and using pointy sticks to fight.” The bird glanced at the sight of my village and I could almost see its beak twist in a small smirk, “My how the circle of time comes around, does it not?”

Feeling like I ought to be insulted by that smirk I huffed out an irritated breath and sat back on my haunches, looking up at this fiery bird, Moa Gault. My fear was gradually being beaten back by both irritation at this spirit’s cryptic and condescending attitude, and the fact that it still hadn’t really told me what was happening.

“So you’re, what, exactly? Some kind of fire spirit?”

“That is one way of looking at it,” the bird replied haughtily, rising up and puffing out his chest, “I and my brethren were born in the dawn of this world, from the elemental streams of magic that infuse it; what some in this age call ‘Ley Lines’. We named ourselves the Guardians, for we saw it as our purpose to protect and guide this world we were born from.”

I spoke before I thought, giving Moa Gault a deadpan look, “From what I’ve seen of the world’s condition, you haven’t been doing a very good job.”

My entire body felt a blazing heat as fire erupted around me, though it faded before I could feel more than a momentary pain. Moa Gault, his eyes now spearing me with undisguised fury, spoke in a clipped, angry voice like a simmering volcano.

“We are not at fault for this world’s state! We sacrificed almost all of our power to protect it eons before you ponies... you... animals, tore it apart. We trusted your kind to keep this world’s balance, until we could recover from the war that sundered our strength, but your kind failed, and has brought this world to the brink of ruin! You and the zebras, who tainted my pure fires!”

“Come again?” I asked, cocking my head.

The bird scowled, “Balefire... tch, that the zebras would so corrupt the beauty of fire with such filthy necrotic energy is an insult I have yet to forgive, not that you ponies were any better. Some of your so-called ‘megaspells’ were even more twisted than the necrotic arts of the zebras. You have no idea, young pony, how much I howled in rage the day that your kind scorched this world with those nauseating flames. Had I the power, I would cleanse this world of that corruption! Unfortunately, like all my fellow Guardians, my power is... limited these days.”

Despite myself I found that I was getting curious, “Because of another war, from way back when? Was it against creatures from a different world?”

Moa Gualt looked down at me, his head only giving the barest of nods, his tone grave, “You know that much, then, already. Yes. Ages before ponykind raised their tiny heads towards the sky, we Guardians flourished in a world of primal energy and life. Our first children, the Elw, were creating wondrous things under our guidance. It was an age of glory and peace. Then terror descended from the heavens, invaders and despoilers! They called themselves the Veruni, and in their silver ships they brought war upon Filgaia!”

“Filgaia?”

“The name we gave the world, long forgotten by you ponies.”

I’d heard the name used before, by the ghostly image of that strange almost-pony creature I’d seen in the Ruin beneath Saddlespring. Things were starting to gradually come together in my mind; the Ruins, the weapons, my visions of battle I’d seen in my dreams. There were still a lot of missing pieces, but by now I gathered that our world had been subjected to a devastating war long before the Great Fire where Equestria and the zebras burned their nations with balefire bombs. Now, just as we were struggling to recover from the destruction rained down by the balefire, the ghosts of an even more ancient war were rising to threaten us again.

“So, you won that war, but lost all your power doing so?” I asked.

“No,” Moa Gault said simply, “We defeated the Veruni. However, we were complacent in our victory. We did not realize that defeating them once would not be enough, or that the Veruni themselves had enemies who would wish to use Filgaia for their own ends. After we fought off the Veruni’s first attack we had a few centuries of peace, but then they returned, in greater numbers, and following in their wake was yet another enemy. The Hyadeans. Twisted, monstrous things, that had long ago abandoned their natural forms in favor of turning themselves into supposedly ‘better’ beings through bio-techonology most foul and unnatural. It was this second war that nearly destroyed us. It was only because the Veruni and Hayadeans fought each other as much as us that we had any chance of surviving the onslaught. Our Elw children were forced to use the technology of our enemies to gain advantage, and time and again we became more like our foes in our desperation to win.”

This was starting to sound eerily similar to the war between ponies and zebra. I had a sinking feeling it had the same ending, too. I waited patiently, and Moa Gault continued.

“The war raged on for decades. The details are without importance. All that matters is that, in the end, we Guardians made a final sacrifice to put an end to it. We damaged our own Ley Lines, exhausted our power, and used ourselves up to push back the Veruni and Hyadean menace, shatter their fleets, destroy their leadership, and... the final measure... we hid the world.”

“Hid the world?” Okay, that confused me. How does one hide a world?

“A subspace fold in the fabric of relativistic space time...” Moa Gault began to explain, but upon seeing the utterly blank look on my face the Guardian of Fire sighed, “Like a teleport spell. We moved Filgaia to another point in space, one inside the void between stars. Normally that would doom the world to death with no sun, but we used our final strength to create a newer, smaller sun to warm the world, and counterbalance the gravitational pull of the moon. Regulating these two celestial bodies would fall to our Elw children... though I do not know how, or why, that power transferred from the Elw to you ponies.”

“You’re talking about the Goddesses, Luna, and Celestia,” I surmised, remembering B.B’s tale of the two Alicorn sisters.

“Yes. We Guardians have slept for a long time, trying to recover our power, and while we’ve been able to watch, much remained hidden from our view. I have no idea where the Elw went, or why ponies suddenly gained the power the Elw possessed to regulate the sun and moon. I believe the Elw may have created a means for the world, and the new races in it, to protect themselves and maintain the world, before they vanished.”

“Why would these Elw vanish anyway? Aren’t they kind of like your successors or something?”

I’d never seen a giant flaming bird shrug before. It was weird.

“I can only guess at what drove them into hiding. Perhaps it was shame at being unable to win the war without the sacrifice the Guardians made of our power. Or perhaps they just felt that, in this new age, it was the younger races such as ponies, griffins, and zebra that deserved a chance to flourish. Regardless, they vanished, and so the world was left to you and your kind. From there the rest, as they say, is history.”

I absorbed that, my mind feeling a little bloated and fatigued from trying to take in all of what the Guardian had told me. Ultimately I could barely absorb any of it and just shook my head, forcing myself to focus on the more immediate issue before me.

“Okay, neat story, but I doubt that’s why I’m in this weird memory world or why you're screwing with my friend. So what am I doing here? This place isn’t real, obviously, so where are we?”

Moa Gualt gave me a frowning, displeased look, as if he was somehow insulted I didn’t seem more awed by his story, “It is not ‘real’, no. Our minds are linked, though I will not be able to maintain this link for much longer. I was examining your memories, and this imagery is partially built from those memories, though I can manipulate it at will if I so choose. Your body is unconscious, where you last left it, as is that of your friend. She cannot awaken until she passes my tests. As for you, I intend to keep you like this until I’m satisfied that you are not only a worthy companion for my Medium, but not a threat to the Guardians or this world we still try to protect, despite our weakened state.”

I rose back to all four hooves, glowering up at the bird, “Well get on with it then! I’ll do whatever it takes to help Trailblaze and the rest of my tribe, and I can’t do that while you're picking through my brain! So what’s this going to take?”

Moa Gault fixed his glowing, solid eyes upon me and I felt, for an instant, like a blazing hot metal spear had gone through my chest. The feeling passed just as fast as the bird gestured with a wing at my village, “Do you not love your home?”

“Huh?” I asked, confused, turning, “Of course I do, why wouldn’t...”

My words died in my throat as I turned and saw my village once more. Gone was the small, peaceful little community with ponies going about their daily lives. The tents were wiped away, mostly turned to burned sash, or toppled over and broken. Smoke still trailed up in small black wisps from piles of ash that, in my heart, I knew were the remains of hunters who had died defending their home... my home. I shuddered, seeing the place I grown up, the home I and Trailblaze shared, turned into a dead, blackened corpse.

“That home is no more,” said Moa Gault with iron in his voice, “Destroyed by the ponies you continue to try and show compassion to, and seek to reconcile with.”

“Odessa... “ I hadn’t, up until that point, really absorbed the fact my village was gone, and that Odessa was responsible for it. Seeing the charred remains of my home brought the reality of it straight to the surface, but even as my emotions began to boil I still had to wonder what the Guardian was getting at.

“Why show me this?” I asked, teeth grinding, ears flattened, “I know Odessa did this. What does that have to do with anything!?”

“Do you forgive them, young one? Seeing this, would you still seek to hold back in your fight against them?”

My chest tightened, the words causing a riot of thoughts. I was angry at Odessa, of course. How could I not be? This was the place I lived and grown up, where I’d gone exploring with Trailblaze, and been taught to hunt by my mother. This was home, even if I hadn’t been the most popular pony there, even if I’d been treated poorly by my tribesmates at times... it was still home. And Odessa took it, along with the lives of many, and the freedom of the rest. So, could I forgive them? When I had to fight the ponies and griffins of Odessa again, could I do so without hating them for the destruction of Shady Stream? Would I hold back, try not to kill, as I have in the past?

“... I’ll fight Odessa,” I said in a quiet, steady voice, “I have to, if I’m going to save my tribe, and protect Arcaidia,” I noticed Moa Gault flinch at the mention of Arcaidia’s name, and I turned to face him fully, meeting his eyes with an even stare.

“But if you’re trying to provoke me into wanting to kill them out of vengeance then you clearly don’t know a damned thing about me.”

Moa Gault instantly burst into flames so intensely hot I had to take a step or two back to keep my fur from smouldering. The bird’s entire form seemed to nearly double in size as a pillar of fire rose around him and he loomed over me like the thunderhead of a storm.

“I will not abide weakness, little pony! Not in my Medium, not in her companions, and not in any whom my brethren would see fight beside us to defend this world. You show mercy to those who do not deserve it. You lack the will to take life, even when it is necessary. You cannot fight with such a weak, unwilling spirit. The enemy will use you for their own ends, and your weakness will in turn doom this world.”

Even under the extreme heat that rolled off of Moa Gault in waves I forced myself to stand firm and look up into the Guardian’s eyes, even as bits of my mane and tail started to smoke from the intensity of the fires making up Moa Gault’s body. I set my jaw, swallowing no small amount of fear that bubbled up inside me at facing this being. If Moa Gault’s story was true, then these Guardians were primal, powerful spirits. It probably wasn’t the smartest move, to try defying one. So clearly that’s what I was going to do.

“I don’t care if its weakness or strength. I don’t fight to take lives or for some half-baked justice or revenge! I fight to protect lives. That’s it.”

“To protect, one must also destroy,” said Moa Gault harshly, “That is the truth, the core truth of fire. Fire gives life, and warmth, and protection, but not without consuming, not without destroying. Deny this truth, and you will only find pain and sadness, young pony.”

“Guess I’ll just have to find my own truth then,” I said with the same kind of confident smile I’d always given Trailblaze when I was doing something I knew I shouldn’t, “Because honestly, yours sucks.”

“It remains truth, regardless,” Moa Gault said evenly, lowering his head and turning it to one side so that one of his ruby red eyes, the size of a dinner plate, was level with me, “You are naive. I do not believe you are strong enough to be... no, you do not yet deserve to even know that much. Others among my kind may think you're worth observing, but all I see inside you is cowardice; a child afraid to accept the world as it is and grow up. You are unworthy of walking beside my Medium.”

“Funny thing,” I said, eyes squinting and watering at the radiant heat washing over my face from the Guardian’s proximity, “I find myself not caring what you think. You got no right to decide what Trailblaze and me do, especially walking beside each other!”

“You do not understand, little pony,” said Moa Gualt, raising his head back up, and letting his whole body flare up brighter, “I said I was going to test you with my flames. I believe you weak, unworthy! Now, you must prove me wrong. With force.”

I blinked, noticing that the ground, illusion of my mind or not, was smoking from Moa Gualt’s flames, and that everything around me had turned a hazy, flaming red. Even the ruins of my home village was now gone, obscured by a wall of flickering, crawling fire that encircled me and the giant Guardian of Fire.

“What? You mean fight? But this is just us inside a weird mind... place... thing. None of this is real, so how are we supposed to fight?”

Moa Gualt’s laugh was like the snapping of a thousand burning campfires, “This is not a battle of flesh, pony, but one of wills. We can hurt each other here, I assure you. If you fail, here, then your body will be no more than a mindless husk. Fear not, I shall... hold back just enough to make this sporting.”

“You already seem to have made you mind up about me, so why bother holding back? Why not just crush me, if you have that kind of power?” I asked, gulping, and trying to gauge how I’d even try fighting something like Moa Gault. He was made of fire, for Ancestors’ sake! It wasn’t like kicking him would do much other than turn me into a crispy critter. Or would it? He said this was a battle of wills, not bodies. Everything here was basically symbolic, wasn’t it? Even my own body?

“Because we Guardians are not perfect,” Moa Gualt said simply, for a second his avian features turning grim, even... sad? “We have made mistakes. I do not believe you worthy but if I am mistaken, I will only accept you as my Medium’s companion if you show me your strength. You claim to want to find a truth of your own, little one? Then prove to me you are strong enough to do that!”

With that the bird launched himself into the air, flames dripping off of his body like droplets of water. I immediately gave him a flat, frustrated look. For someone who seemed to want to give me a fair chance in fighting him, he sure was going about it backwards by taking the air. Moa Gualt rose a few dozen feet into the air, then with a screech that reminded me of twisting metal he dove at me.

Not having much choice I broke into a side gallop, darting away from the Guardian’s flaming path. I felt a pressure wave flow over my back, heat curling painfully across my withers as I rushed away from the trail of flames Moa Gault left in his wake. For a bird his size he was quite maneuverable, easily banking around in a sharp, hairpin turn that brought him on a course to chase me. The wall of flames loomed ahead of me and I turned quickly, running along its length as Moa Gault turned to follow me. His speed easily overcame my gallop, and I rolled desperately as he passed over me.

Fire crawled over my body, searing me with pain I had never before known. The flames hit me with more than just physical force. I felt the burn down to my core, as if they were scorching at both my mind and soul. I felt Moa Gault’s fire pressing down on my very being, trying to crush me under the pain of burning flesh. I howled in both pain and defiance, rolling and forcing my hooves underneath me. Horrible burns covered my legs, neck, and back as I stood, making every twinge of skin a agonizing feeling as I patted myself out and tried to spot Moa Gault. For a fight that was supposed to be of wills and not flesh, this both felt all too real, and not very much like a fight. This was more like an execution.

What do I do!? What can I do? I don’t have any weapons, and he’s flying around so even if I did have something to hit him with, I couldn’t do it without getting burned. Have to do something, though, other than just run.

Moa Gault turned sharply around and came back at me for another pass, his wings dripping fire like a rain storm. Pushing past the pain wracking my body I decided to try something crazy. Yeah, real shocker, I know. But I was basing my actions on logic this time; sort of. Moa Gault had said this place was made partially from my memories. He also said this was a battle of wills. So it stood to reason that if I thought hard enough and focused...

Suddenly the world shifted and I was standing on top of my village’s cliff! With Moa Gault at eye-level with me instead of above. Even the Guardian of Fire seemed surprised as he abruptly found himself flying directly at me instead of over me, and wasn’t able to completely stop in time as I turned on my hooves and unleashed a full on buck straight to his beak.

The impact of my hooves was immediately like trying to buck a boulder, and both searing heat and crushing will like a searing hot blade, shot through me from Moa Gault. While the Guardian’s willpower made me want to howl in agony as it burned through every inch of my body, I also felt my own focused will send a jolt into Moa Gault, not unlike a concentrated spear stabbing into the core of the Guardian. Moa Gault screeched in irritation as our clash sent me sprawling, but also sent him flapping backwards.

Painfully I got to my hooves, feeling drained and weak. It was as if I was a bucket that had its side burst open and all the water let out, then replaced with sand. I felt heavy, and I stumbled around to see Moa Gault circling above, eyeing me in anger. I think I might have hurt him a bit, but I was far worse off for our clash. I could barely keep on my hooves, and my vision was swimming. My hind legs were a charred mess, and the pain in them was rooted down to my bones.

I wasn’t going to last through another exchange like that. However much ‘willpower’ I had, it just wasn’t an even match for an eons old fire spirit with a serious chip on his shoulder. What was worse, I got the feeling he wasn’t trying very hard. I’d gotten one surprise hit in, but I doubted he’d get caught off guard twice, and his next pass would easily finish me off.

What now, Longwalk? I asked myself, You talked a good talk, but right now you’re looking kind of beat to crap, and are about to get your soul crispified by the same kind of fire spirit you used to laugh at the idea of... heh... Trailblaze would definitely be saying something like ‘I told you so’ right about now... Trail...

I wanted to see her again. I was just starting to understand how much she meant to me, dammit! She and my tribe were still in danger, still prisoners of Odessa. Even if I couldn’t win this fight, I had to survive it. One last strike, if I could get through one more strike, maybe that’d be enough. He had said he’d wanted to see my strength. I had no intention of giving him anything less.

Squaring my hooves and taking a deep breath, I pushed past the pain and exhaustion I was feeling, realizing none of it was physically real. I just had to focus. This was a matter of will, so if I just pushed myself, I ought to be able to still move. My body obeyed, though I could feel a strain inside me that I’d never felt before; like my heart was being stretched out more than it should with each beat.

Moa Gault had flown directly above me, and was looking down at me with the air of absolute assurance and superiority.

“There is no shame in surrender, little pony,” he said, voice an inferno in my ears, “It is not a crime to admit one’s weakness. Would you persist in your delusion of strength at the cost of your life?”

Sweat trickling down my face, I looked up at him and growled, “I never claimed I wasn’t weak. Doesn’t matter. I don’t care if I’m weak, or strong, or any of that crap! I’m going to keep going until I can’t go anymore, and if that means dying somewhere along the line, or even right here... I won’t quit. I won’t take a single step back from the path I’ve chosen! Now come at me!”

Moa Gault glared down at me, looking every inch like an imperious spirit of judgment, looking down upon the mortal beneath it with scornful wrath.

“So be it.”

With that, he dove, an unrelenting comet of fire that tore through the mental mindscape with such force that it blurred the air around his wings. In response I imagined the cliff I was on rising to meet him, pouring my own will into the desire to rise, to strike. In response the cliff shuddered and rose, speeding me towards a clash with Moa Gault. I tensed my right hoof, readying, planting my other hooves on the rocky surface of the cliff. Inside myself I tried to feel out my will, my desire to stay beside Trailblaze and my friends. My need to pay my debt to Arcaidia, and protect her in a world she was only starting to understand. My desire to deepen my bond with B.B and show her the kind of trust she’d already invested in me. My hope to somehow, someday pull away the layers of madness and violence inside Binge, and show even a Raider that it was never too late to find another path. Even my anger, at wanting to prove Iron Wrought’s constant cynicism, or Crossfire’s pragmatic, cap-driven lifestyle wrong.

I took all of it and imagined it pouring into my right hoof.

When the Guardian and I met, Moa Gault extended a talon, a blazing spear aimed for my heart. I yelled a defiant cry, rearing up and smashing my right hoof straight into that descending talon.

The impact destroyed my senses and completely washed everything out with monstrous, charring pain. The Guardian’s will burned through my own the way a flame heats up a piece of metal to the melting point. In this mental landscape a blast of flame exploded atop the rising cliff, which shattered apart as the Guardian drove through the stone, all the way down to the ground in a massive impact that sent a shockwave of fire flowing all around.

A few seconds went by, Moa Gault rising from the ground. Beneath his talon I was held, pressed into the dirt. My coat was blackened, red, fleshy burns marking more than half of me from the tip of my muzzle down to my flanks. I twitched, trying to raise my head, but could barely move as Moa Gault towered over me, his flaming talon still burning my hide as he pressed down on me.

“And so we see what your limit is, small one,” the Guardian of Fire said, taking his talon off of me as he stepped back, “Do you still think yourself strong enough to deny the truths of this world and find your own?”

I couldn’t really respond. It was taking all of my concentration not to pass out. Wait, wasn’t I already technically unconscious? What happens to you if you pass out while passed out? Well, if I still had enough presence of mind to ask myself a silly question like that, I couldn’t be that bad off. I tried moving a hoof and wrenching, torturous agony shot through me. Okay, maybe I was that bad off.

“Its over, then,” Moa Gault noted, and turned away from me, tucking his wings to his sides and slowly walking away, though it seemed more a symbolic gesture than a practical thing to do, given he had nowhere to go in this empty mental landscape.

I kept trying to move, despite the pain, and the fact that my body seemed to refuse to respond to me. This wasn’t a physical world, but it certainly felt real. This was all I had, then? It was over? Even with so many reasons to prove this arrogant spirit wrong, I just couldn’t overcome his will by myself...

… by... myself?

Wait.

“Wait!” I shouted, smashing a hoof to the ground, forcing my head to slowly raise. I felt it. It’d been there the whole time, I felt like an complete idiot for not noticing it sooner.

I was so used to that feeling of pressure in the back of my mind, it’d become natural. But now that I was paying attention to it, the feeling spiked so high it was like somepony was pushing a warm, soft hoof down on the back of my skull. As I saw Moa Gault pause to turn his flaming head to regard me quizzically, the pressure only increased further. I knew exactly what it was.

Gramzanber. I could feel my ARM clearly as if I was holding it. Its warm presence spread through me from the base of my skull, down my spine, and into every extremity of my body. It was a warmth not at all like the hard, consuming heat of the Guardian’s flames. This was a soothing warmth, one that both calmed my racing heart and filled me with confidence. Before I knew what was happening I found myself standing, the burns across my body melting away, replaced with unmarred flesh. I felt as if somepony was propping me up, helping me move. My shredded feeling of willpower felt like a uplifting breeze was embracing it, replenishing what had been battered and burned to the near breaking point.

Moa Gualt seemed to know something was changing, as his body flashed brighter, his red flames turning nearly white, and he turned face me again, spreading his wings in a flare like the corona of a star.

“What is this? The Veruni’s weapon? A waste of time. Those things only provide a physical focus for your soul’s energy. They do not make your will inherently stronger. You still stand alone, little pony!”

Like a flaming sword, trailing white fire, Moa Gault came at me again, and I knew he planned to finish it with this blow, here and now. Despite all my brave words earlier I couldn’t help but feel a deep, primal fear, seeing that massive bird of flames diving towards me. His wings looking like an expanding firestorm, his eyes gleaming like two pits of lava, and his screech vibrating through me, it was hard not to see the Guardian as any other than a god of flames, descending to smite a foalish mortal who’d dared to stand once more to challenge him.

In that moment, I felt a hoof on my shoulder, and a kind, mare’s voice speak.

”He’s wrong, Longwalk. You’re not alone. You’ll never be alone. You understand that now, don’t you? I’m here for you, and so is everypony else!”

Was that...?

I snapped my head over, but saw nopony around me. The feeling of the hoof was gone, like that of a fleeting ghost’s. I couldn’t believe I’d heard what I’d heard, but my fear was replaced with calm, and with no time to think about it, I reached out with a hoof, guided by both instinct and what I understood now was my inherent connection to the weapon that had been defining me, bit by bit, in this journey.

I wasn’t even surprised as my hoof touched familiar metal, and in a shimmer, the silver form of Gramzanber appeared before me, its shaft resting against my hoof.

“I know,” I told the spear, or perhaps the spirit that I was starting to believe was inside it, “Sorry I was ignoring you. I’m kind of dumb, so just give my flank a swift kick if I start acting like I’m fighting alone again.”

I thought I might have heard a feminine laugh, one that seemed a little exasperated, but perhaps it was just my imagination. But with Gramzanber in my hoof I could face Moa Gault’s descending form with confidence welling up in me. Strangely, instead of grasping it in my mouth, I was letting a different set of instincts take over and before I knew what I was doing I had reared up on my hind legs, Gramzanber gripped in my right fetlock in a manner I didn’t even think ponies could do.

Moa Gault was nearly upon me, his entire body blocking out my sight of anything else as his talons reached out for me once more, the heat of his flames making my fur smoke and my blood seem to boil. Then Gramzanber pulsed with a silver and blue fire of its own. That fire washed across my body, and as I drew my hoof back I felt strands of warmth course through me from the spear, and with that feeling, I saw flashes of images.

I saw my friends. Arcaidia and B.B were inside a laboratory, speaking with Misty Glasses, and looking at a platform containing a circular arch at the apex of which was a solid green orb. Binge was bouncing around the Stable’s corridors, apparently playing a game of hide and seek with some of the spider pony foals. Iron Wrought was inside a vast room where the Ursa sat on a raised apparatus, he and several spider ponies worked on fixing the armor plating on the huge vehicle. LIL-E was outside Stable 104, at the entrance to the canyon, watching the distant form of Odessa’s airship rising towards the cloud covered sky.

I saw all of these images simultaneously, and at the same time each of my friends paused, either looking around, or at each other, as if they’d been able to sense me for just a second.

Then the images were gone, and I felt a clear, crystalline moment of certainty that Gramzanber was ready to be unleashed. With all the force I could muster I threw the spear.

Gramzanber flew true and it and the Guardian of Fire met, there was a raw burst of light and heat that blinded me completely. When my vision cleared I was standing in a black void. Disoriented, I stumbled about for a second, trying to discern up from down, and not just flail around. There was solid... something beneath my hooves. Not ground, because I couldn’t see anything other than myself, but when I thought to stand, I found I could.

“Did I just win? Or is this me being dead?” I asked myself, poking at my own body.

“You are not dead, young one,” said Moa Gault’s voice, and in a moment the fiery bird burst into existence before me, preening at one of his wings, “And yes, I suppose if one was to twist my wing and force me to admit it, I shall concede your victory. Don’t tell the other Guardians. I’ll be hearing nothing but ribbing about this for decades to come.”

“Really?” I blurted.

“Hmph, do not sound impressed with yourself. You had help from others, but since I never said you could not have help, I won’t count it against you.”

He sounded rather miffed, and raised one wing to idly preen it, “Now, as I tested you, your companion has finished her own trials. She is worthy. She shall be my Medium. That means... many things. Things, I think, I’ll leave her to explain to you, should she so chose. That is part of her responsibility now, as a Medium. She shall have to decide how to pursue her quest, and who shall help her in it. Perhaps that shall involve you, perhaps not. Regardless, I am done with you, little pony. I’ll concede that you... may be strong enough to find your own truth in this world. If you can endure the pain of that search, and are not broken by the costs you’ll no doubt incur in the process.”

“Wait a dang second!” I said, confused, “What do you mean ‘her quest’!? What are you trying to make Trailblaze do!?”

“Ask her, when you awake. It is up to her to decide what to trust you with knowing,” the Guardian said as his form started to fade, and I felt a strange pull on myself, like slowly falling.

“Hold on,” I shouted, “We’re still prisoners of Odessa! Any clues on how we can escape? I mean, its not like Trailblaze can do any quests or whatnot from you if she’s stuck as a prisoner.”

“I have every confidence in the resourcefulness of the pony I have chosen as my Medium. And you, I suppose,” Moa Gault said, stretching a wing and preening it, “Mostly my Medium. A way to escape your foes will be found. They are not nearly as clever as they believe they are, and some among them have reason to help you.”

That was the last Moa Gualt told me before his voice and form faded completely and my own consciousness awoke back into the waking world.

----------

I woke up to the unusual sensation of feeling physically fine, but internally drained. I stretched my limbs, feeling satisfying pops all over, and the comforting sensation of full, undamaged hide. The horrible burns from my strange dream battle with the Guardian were just a memory now. However inside I felt completely tired out, though strangely... satisfied.

Less satisfying was the cold metal floor beneath me, and the now all too familiar feeling of the Odessa energy manacles on my legs, and the collar around my neck. Blinking my eyes, I looked up at bright, pure white lighting from a few crystalline panels mounting in a solid metal ceiling. I was in a small room, perhaps no more than ten paces wide, with plain metal walls on three sides, and a strange glowing screen of green energy in place of the fourth wall.

Cylinder-like devices built into the corners of the wall to either side of the green energy wall seemed to be the source of the barrier, and it looked similar to the energy shield I’d seen in Stable 104. Beyond that field I could see a larger room, its walls lined with more... cells, like mine. In the middle of the room was a smooth, metal desk with a white terminal on it, and at the desk a pegasus stallion in a white Odessa uniform was monitoring several other screens that popped up on either side of the terminal like thin pieces of glass.

On either side of the desk other Odessa pegasi in standard combat armor and helmets stood, straight necked and alert, with magical energy rifles of the tube-covered variety slung across their chests. I felt a faint vibration in the floor and heard a distant, ever present hum in the air.

“W-where...” I coughed, licking my lips. My throat and mouth were completely dry, “Where am I?”

I unsteadily got to my hooves and approached the energy field, hesitant to touch it, but wanting to get a better look at what was outside my cell. The pegasi didn’t answer me, though the nearest guard mare gave me a frowning look and turned to the stallion at the desk. I saw her mouth move, but didn’t hear any words. Was the energy barrier blocking sound somehow? The stallion at the desk glanced at the guard mare who’d spoken and then at me, making a motion like he’d just laughed as he smirked. I saw him reach over to a device that looked to me like a small, metal tentacle with a fuzzy ball on the end of it, and he spoke into it. He then said something to the mare and he laughed, or at least I’m assuming that’s what the opening of his mouth and the shaking of his shoulders meant. The guard mare for her part just rolled her eyes, as if she didn’t really think anything was funny, and resumed standing alert, giving me a narrow eyed look that seemed to say; don’t try anything, punk.

Examining myself, it didn’t take me long to notice, rather dishearteningly, that my Pip-Buck along with my Grapple had been removed. I was now naked as the day I was foaled, save for the manacles and collar. Damn.

However, I closed my eyes and focused for a second, and felt the pressure I wanted to feel. Gramzanber was here, and close. I looked to my right. My spear wasn’t far, probably just a few rooms down. That was good. Now all I had to do was punch my way through a magical energy barrier, take three guards in hoof-to-hoof combat, then break down whatever locked doors were between me and Gramzanber, find Trailblaze and the rest of my tribe, then figure out where I was, and escape without anypony dying!

Easy.

Only not.

Closer to impossible, really.

“I am officially declaring this my worst day ever,” I muttered, bringing my head closer to the magical barrier, trying to get a good angle to look at the other cells.

I felt an instant wave of joy upon seeing a black tail on a brown, mareishly slim flank with a familiar blue-eye cutie mark pacing in one of the cells. An instant later the pony turned around and paced the other way, confirming it was Trailblaze. I blinked, however, upon seeing her. She looked the same, her features a mask of barely contained fury... but the shimmering heat waves around her was new, as was the strange mark upon her chest, right over her heart.

It looked very much like a stylized, flaming talon, black as if somepony had tattooed it into her flesh.

She caught sight of me, and instantly stopped pacing, her face turning shocked, then grateful as she let out a huge sigh of relief and went to the magical barrier blocking her own cell and put a hoof on it. The field glowed a little brighter, but didn’t hurt her, and Trailblaze’s mouth moved, saying words I couldn’t hear, but could well imagine. ‘Are you okay?’

I nodded to her, smiling my own relief at seeing her and gave myself a hearty pat on the chest to show I was fine. Traiblaze sighed again, then glared at the Odessa guards. She looked at me and made motions with her head to the left and right, indicating I should look at the other cells. Doing so I could now clearly see most of my tribesmates that had been down in the Ruin were now occupying the cells of this prison. I could see Whetstone curled up in her own cells, her mouth opening and closing in wide, no doubt horribly loud snores as she snoozed away. That mare, to think she could sleep at a time like this. But then she probably had the right idea. Not much we could do in circumstances like this.

I looked back at Trailblaze and pointed a hoof at her. At her confused look I pointed at my chest, right at the place that mark was on Trailblaze’s own chest, then pointed back at her. Getting what I meant she looked down at herself, and when her eyes met mine again they were... guarded. She just shook her head at me, a hard look on her face that reminded me way too much of her mother. I just nodded back, and with a shrug at her I began to walk around the perimeter of my cell.

I didn’t expect to find anything I could use to escape, but I didn’t have a lot of other things to do at the moment. I couldn’t move quickly, due to the energy manacles and their pain and nausea inducing qualities, but even at the steady walk they allowed it wasn’t as if it took long to examine my confines. It was a plain cell, with only a single, hoof sized vent in one corner of the ceiling to let warm air in. A pair of buttons on the back wall produces a sink and toilet respectively, unfolding from the wall, but it took only a minute of checking to find out there was nothing in the cubby holes those unfolded from.

Despite needing to go, honestly, I was not doing that while those pegasi guards were watching, so I turned my attention to the cylindrical devices producing the magical barrier. I was just starting to consider what might happen if I tried bucking the cylinders as hard as I could when I noticed the pegasus at the desk turn his head at something and rise from his seat, standing at attention. The other guards followed suit, all of them saluting with their wings at somepony I couldn’t see.

Then she came into view, marching by the desk, saluting the guards there, but with a hoof instead of a wing. She didn’t have wings that could salute.

She was still a pegasus, however. At least I thought she might be. She didn’t have the small, almost dainty wings of other pegasi. Instead triangular, thin slabs of metal were mounted on her back, built into an apparatus that connected to a pair of turbine engines like miniaturized versions of the ones seen on a Vertibuck. Her metal ‘wings’ were folded up, forming a steeple above her back, but I could see the grooves in her sides that would allow the wings to fold down for use. Her body was practically all metal. Her legs, front and back, were steel gray, with small, smooth joints barely showing the wires beneath the metallic carapace. Her sides and chest, from the base of her neck nearly to the edge of her flank was little more than a series of armored plates, segmented so that they rolled almost as naturally as flesh with her movements, but still clearly nothing more than a shell that made it impossible to tell how much beneath them was actual flesh and blood pony. Above the base of her neck, however, she was still ‘normal’, more or less. She had a copper red coat and a short, messy mane of orange with yellow highlights. Her eyes were a pair of crimson pools, set in a face that might have one time been pretty, but was now marred by a series of jagged, massive scars that turned her features into valleys of old, torn flesh.

The very first thing I thought upon seeing those ragged claw marks was that this mare had been on the losing side of a hoof fight with a Hellhound or three. Given the fact that it seemed most of her body had been replaced with mechanical implants I could imagine her face had been the least damaged part of her from whatever had happened to her.

Her flanks and tail were still intact, though, and I noted her cutie mark; a orange sun seemingly setting behind a field of purple and red clouds.

The metal mare made a gesture, speaking to the stallion at the desk, and he immediately touched a few buttons on his terminal. A small hole, no bigger than a bottle cap, opened in my cell’s energy barrier, letting sound in. The mare fixed me with a steady look and approached the barrier, and on impulse I also approached it, meeting her look.

“Prisoner 1138,” she said in a light, faintly scratchy voice, “You are to accompany me. Any resistance will be met with immediate and overwhelming force. Do we understand each other?”

My immediate instinct was to quip, but I’d already thrown up once from the nauseating power of the manacles, and wasn’t interested in dry heaving right now. I nodded, silently. The mare seemed to find that acceptable and glanced back at the desk guard.

“Open it.”

A few more keystrokes and my cell’s barrier flowed away like vapor. I blinked curiously at my now open cell, and carefully stepped out. The two guards on either side of the desk moved as if to flank me, by the metal mare raised a hoof to stop them.

“No need. I’ll be escorting the prisoner myself.”

The guards exchanged looks and the female of the pair looked at the metal mare worriedly, “But, Lieutenant Sunset, he’s-”

The mare, Sunset, cut off the guard with a sharp, clipped tone, “I am well aware of what he is. Even if he were to try something, there’s nowhere for him to go, even if he did somehow escape me while wearing suppression manacles and an explosive collar. I think I can take care of walking him to the bridge.”

The guard mare straightened, looking as if she’d been slapped, “O-of course ma’am!”

Nodding in satisfaction Sunset turned her red eyes towards me and said, “Follow me.” She turned, metal hooves clanking upon the floor heavily as she walked, apparently completely confident that I would follow. Which I did, but not without first taking a look around to take in the details of this prison. Escape for the moment might seem impossible, but every small advantage I could gather might count.

The prison was a long rectangular room, about sixty paces long. That gave room for six cells on either side, all of the ones across from mine occupied by members of my tribe. Aside from the one guard desk, there was a raised platform at the far end of the room to my left where an area closed off by metal barricades held a gun emplacement with what looked like a gatling version of the red energy beams guns of common Odessa troopers. Another pair of guards occupied that gun emplacement, and above them, in either corner of the room, hung small gun turrets with camera lenses blinking with green lights. There were no obvious panels or locks on the outside of the cells, so I could only surmise that the terminal on the desk was the sole means of opening or closing the cells. From her cell Trailblaze gave me a worried look, and I tried to give her a reassuring nod. I saw her taking a deep breath and return the look, lips moving in words simple enough that I could read them, ‘Be safe’.

I nodded to her, mouthing the words ‘You too’, then trotted along quickly so I wasn’t too obvious about my looking over the room. Following Sunset towards the right I saw there was a heavy metal set of sliding doors opened up to let us out into a wide, angular corridor of metal. The corridor was lighted with more bright ceiling lights built seamlessly into the metal panel, and aside from occasional vents or small access shafts, the corridor was bare, utilitarian. The same hum I’d felt in my cell was also prevalent here, and in fact was slightly louder.

“Where is this?” I asked as Sunset led me to the left. She didn’t respond, instead raising a hoof in salute to another pair of guards who were standing outside a small metal door set at a t-junction where several other Odessa pegasi and griffins were passing by, these ones not in armor but instead in simpler, white and gray cloth uniforms. These pegasi and griffins also paused to salute Sunset, and I noticed some of them had what looked like grease stains on their clothes, and the faint smell of oil. It reminded me of the machine shop in Stable 104.

Was I in another Stable, maybe?

We turned to the right, but as we did I almost stopped, feeling Gramzanber’s presence, now closer and more defined, practically a second heartbeat. It was behind that guarded door, I was sure of it! Even as we trotted by I got the notion in my head to see if I could summon the ARM, the same way I had in the mental battle against Moa Gault. I put my hoof out and focused, trying to concentrate on the feel of the spear in my grasp.

I supposed I shouldn’t have been too disappointed when the ARM didn’t appear in my hoof. It wasn’t as if I had a plan for escape yet, after all.

“What are you doing?” Sunset asked me, looking over her shoulder at me with a slightly tilted head as I still stood there, hoof out, apparently aimed at nothing.

“Uhhhhh... hoofbump?” I suggested on the fly with what I hoped was a disarming smile.

She clearly didn’t grasp my sense of humor, her scared features turning into a small, bemused look of irritation she snorted and said, “Follow. No more screwing around.”

I made a quick face at her, sticking my tongue out as I followed glumly. We were now in a longer corridor that gently curved to the right. Along the left of the wall there were metal grates, or perhaps shutters, the purpose of which I didn’t know. I wished I could get this mare to talk, but she had completely ignored my initial question. Despite myself I was intrigued by her metallic form. Her limbs made small, barely perceptible whirring noises as she walked, though they moved with fluid motions, not unlike real limbs. Seeing her from behind I could tell that, along her back, were metal nodes of some sort, which connected to the circular disc at the base of her back where most pegasi’s wings were connected. Here, though, it was where that metal pair of wings and tiny engines connected. I wondered if she really could fly with those?

I also could tell from this angle that her backside was flesh, rather than metal, her hind legs the only things back here that were machine. Not that I was looking that closely, mind, but it wasn’t as if I had a lot else to look at in these bland corridors... Stop judging me!

Frustrated, I decided to try and get something more out of her, “Hey, would it hurt to answer just one question? Where is this? C’mon, you just said I couldn’t get away, so what’s the harm in answering one little question?”

I saw an annoyed bristling run up and down Sunset’s mane as she paused just long enough to reach over to one of the metal shutters and slide it open. Bright light poured in, illuminating a square shaped patch of space on the opposite wall. The Odessa mare just pointed a hoof and said, “Take a look, if it’ll satisfy you.”

I did so, trotting over and glancing through the opening. A thick glass window was behind the metal shutter, and beyond it I saw something I didn’t immediately comprehend. A seemingly endless, stretching expanse of white, rolling substance extended as far as my eyes could see around and below us. Above it was a field of stark, blindingly pure blue that I’d only ever seen in my dreams, or perhaps on a pony. I didn’t understand what I was seeing until, in the distance to the left, I saw the faint rows of gray and white capped rock that looked like... mountains?

That’s when it hit me. I was looking at the sky. The honest, to goodness, uncovered sky from above the blanket of clouds! I just stared at it all for a few moments, enraptured by the open beauty before me. I felt an illogical urge to want to jump out there, spread wings I didn’t have, and just soar through that expanse for as far as I could.

“Ahem, are you done gawking?”

I blinked, shook my head, and with some effort tore my gaze away from the window and what it showed, “I... yeah, just... its, wow, you know?”

Articulate I am not, sometimes. Most of the time.

Sunset gave me a measuring look, the irritation slowly draining from her eyes, replaced by an expression of shared understanding as she nodded once, a trace of a smile on her lips, “I guess it is, if you’re not used to it. That answer you question?”

“Mostly. How are we up this high?” I began to ask, but my mind snapped back into action and provided the answer and my eyes widened, “We’re on the airship!”

“The Varukisias,” Sunset confirmed, a hint of pride creeping into her voice, “We’ve pulled above the cloud cover for communication purposes. Still have things to load on board from the site below, but they’re not ready down there yet for us to finish. In the meantime someone wants to talk with you.”

“Who?” I asked. Sunset motioned for me to follow her and we resumed our walk down the long corridor, which now that I knew where we were I could imagine was following along the contour of the ship’s left hull. She didn’t answer me immediately, staying quiet as she led me to a sharper curve in the corridor, passing a number of hatches along the right side, and a few more Odessa ponies, including even a unicorn. At the end of the corridor it opened into a room shaped like a slice of a circle, where three elevator doors were lined up along the wall.

Sunset went for the one on the left, and once we were inside and the doors closed I saw a change come over her. Her tense, rigid posture relaxed, and her ever present frowning look softened, and when she looked at me it was with far more curiosity than animosity. It was like looking at a different mare, a mask removed.

“You really do look like your father,” she said, shaking her head, “Its uncanny.”

Her words made me blink in puzzlement, at seeing it she seemed to realize I had no idea what she was talking about, quirking her lips and nickering lightly, “Right, you don’t know. Sand Storm probably hasn’t told you anything.”

“My mother!?” I burst out, turning towards Sunset swiftly, too swiftly, as the manacles activated at the fast movement and forced me to double over in pain and nausea. I barely kept from dry heaving as Sunset sighed.

“Take it easy. Those manacles aren’t there for show,” she said, a bit of her sternness and annoyance returning as she frowned at me.

“I… ugh... can feel that,” I said, raising my head slightly, “H-how do you know my mother’s name?”

Sunset’s eyes, her entire face, pitted though it was with those deep grooved scars, went through a complex dance of emotions. Tightening with anxiety, softening with understanding, eyes flicking with worry, finally settling on calm, steady control, “She’s an old friend. I met her the same time she met your father. We were part of the same team; fought together and... let’s just say I owe her my life more than once. She’s still one of the only landbound I’ve ever come to respect, and without her I doubt I’d have come to support your father’s ideals.”

I remembered my mother’s story about my father, how she and Hawker had traveled with my father on some expedition to find a Stable. She’d never mentioned having made other friends among Odessa, but then, I suppose that was the kind of detail that she hadn’t had time to tell me. It made sense, though. Through Glint I’d discovered that not all Odessa ponies were unwilling to be friendly towards us ‘landbound’. It wasn’t that surprising my mother might have forged a few bonds with others in Odessa besides my father while she’d been working with him. Though I was brimming with an entire barrage of questions for Sunet about my parents and what happened in the past, a certain matter of the present soured my mood a little.

“That’s cool and all,” I said, suddenly remembering my circumstances, “But it seems an odd way to repay my mother’s friendship, by letting her village be destroyed.”

Maybe that wasn’t the best thing to say. Sunset’s eyes flashed angrily and she put her face right up in front of mine, one metal hoof pressing hard against my chest.

“Hey, you listen, and listen good, colt! I didn’t want that to happen to her home! There was nothing I could do about it! If I went against orders I’d be in the brig at best, or killed at worst. And I can’t help you if I’m dead! You got that? I’m supposed to help you, and have had to swallow a lot of unpleasant things to be in a position to do that. So don’t you judge me. Flaming skies, I owe you almost as much as your mother for being there for my Glint, but I’ll smash your face through the deck if I hear another bullshit remark like that out of you!”

I’d have been more intimidated if I hadn’t, just a short while ago, faced down a primal spirit of fire, but credit where it was due I believed she was serious. Whatever I might of thought of what happened to my tribe, there was a shimmer of very real pain in Sunset’s eyes that, despite her visage of anger, told me she regretted what had happened at Shady Stream. Besides that something else she’d said piqued my interest.

“Wait, Glint? You said ‘my Glint’?” I asked, but even as I said it I noticed the similarities. The coat and mane color, the eyes, even a bit of the attitude. Glint’s own words about sharing his mother’s colors came back to me and I found myself smiling despite myself, which seemed to unnerve Sunset a bit.

“You’re Glint’s mother!” I blurted, my mind immediately derailing and switching tracks, “Is he on board this ship? What about his squad? Last I heard they were being sent here to be healed.”

She seemed taken aback by my barrage of questions, and I saw her glance off to her left, seemingly at nothing, and her expression tense, “Yes, he’s on board, and as far as I know the survivors of his squad are still being treated in our medical bay. Look, there is a lot I need to tell you, but I don’t have time. They’re expecting us, so I have to take you to the bridge. Just look like a prisoner for now, okay? I’ll be looking for a way to get you and the others of your village out of here, but right now you have to play along.”

I nodded slowly, “I don’t think ‘looking like’ a prisoner will be hard, given circumstances. About what I asked before though, who wants to meet me?”

Sunset hit the button to send the elevator going and said, “Our leader... Odessa herself.”

----------

The bridge of the Varukisas was situated at the end of a exceedingly long and well guarded hallway. Remembering what I’d seen of the airship from the outside, recalling its avian shape, including the long slender neck that had led to a sharp, bird shaped head, I figured that’s where we’d arrived. Sunset had resumed her stiff, irritated but professional attitude the moment we’d left the elevator. I had no idea if this was just a mask she wore, or if it was just a different part of her genuine personality. I was still a little shocked that she knew both of my parents, and was apparently willing to help me, but I was glad of it. I was curious as to what she could do, though. Given the security I’d seen so far on the ship it wasn’t as if she could just open the prison cells and send us on our way. Anything she might do would certainly put her in danger. Just how far could I trust her?

Putting it out of my mind for now I looked around the bridge, not bothering to try and disguise my curiosity. The bridge was like an egg, a stretched oval tapering down to one end. At the far end a wide bank of windows wrapped around the bulkheads, showing a wide cloudscape married to a clear blue sky, as if we were sailing on a rolling white ocean. Along the walls a series of terminals were arranged, nine in total, each occupied by either a pegasus or griffin in trim, white Odessa uniforms. Each one also wore over one eye a thin, plastic eyepiece attached to a wire headband. Hooves and claws worked on keys, and glass screens in front of the operators projected various images, some of which I thought looked like parts of the Wasteland.

The center of the bridge was dominated by a raised portion, steps leading up to a platform that oversaw the rest of the bridge. A single chair up there was surrounded by enough space for others to gather, but the chair itself had a large, crescent shaped control panel in front of it and from the top edge of the panel a series of tiny, blue crystalline nodes projected holographic screens around the chair like a spiderweb.

Sitting in that chair was a stately looking pegasus mare, with a minty green coat and a neon pink mane tied in a neat bun and mostly tucked under a Odessa officer cap. The mare had a stiff posture and one of her hooves was tapping on the deck as she glared with barely hidden annoyance at the four individuals who stood around her, locked in a debate.

“We should just blanket the entire region with a bombardment until we flush them out,” said a pegasus stallion who looked like he could give Brickhouse a run for his money in the muscle department. His bronze colored coat was chiseled with muscles that looked toned to a iron hardness and he wore a modified Odessa white uniform, with an open vest that showed off his stout chest. Unlike most Odessa clothing, that usually had parts that covered the flanks, his was bare and showed a cutie mark of a boulder, split down the middle as if by great force. A wild, spiked mane of dark brown fell around his head, long sideburns tinging yellow towards the tips, and a bushy, short tail that was similarly yellow towards the tip. He had a cocksure grin and brown eyes sparkled with a youthful energy despite the fact that he looked to be in his thirties. He wore a strange bladed weapon strapped to his back, a long blade extending from a bulky box-like apparatus. The blade was rimmed with razor sharp teeth, and for all the world the weapon looked like a giant version of the ripper knife Binge used. It was also the tell-tale silver color that identified it as an artificial ARM.

“We’re not carpet bombing anything Hammerfall,” Francheska said with a gruff sigh, “For two minutes could you use your brain? We want Target 02 alive, not turned into chunky fuckin’ salsa!”

Francheska was joined by Shattered Sky, the gray pegasus adjusting his glasses with one wing while giving the griffin an amused, snark filled half smile, “Restraint is hardly one of your own qualities, dear Francheska. Much as it may seem like overkill I actually agree with Hammerfall’s suggestion. We can bring our prey out into the open easiest by burning the ground it tries to hide in.”

“Holy crap, somepony agrees with me!” Hammerfall laughed, and clapped a hoof on Shattered Sky’s shoulders, nearly flattening the smaller stallion, and earning a displeased glare from Shattered Sky as Hammerfall continued to laugh, “I got to mark this on the calendar. So c’mon Fran, its two against one now!”

Hammerfall turned his grinning visage to the last pony in the group, “How about you? What’s your vote, Black Petal?”

The pony he addressed was a young pegasus mare, who looked little older than myself. She had a coat a shade of such dark red that it was nearly black. Her mane and tail were a platinum sheen, the mane tied into two curly pigtails, and her tail a similarly curled affair. Pink, gleaming and wide eyes stared boredly at the ceiling, as the mare was laying flat on her back, hooves wrapped behind her head. She was laying on, and I had to blink once or twice before I gauged what I was looking at, what appeared to be a large floating silver key. It was about as large as the mare’s own body, and she easily lounged on it as if it were a couch. I could only assume that it, too, was one of Odessa artificial ARMs.

Which meant I was looking at all four members of Odessa’s Cocytus special forces unit gathered in one place.

“Don’t care. Do what you guys like,” Black Petal said, one hind hoof dangling over the side of her floating key/bed lazily, “Wake me up if something interesting happens...”

She trailed off as her nose twitched and I saw her take a sniff, in a manner that directly reminded me of B.B. Almost instantly Black Petal had turned over and was perched on her floating key alertly, her wings flared out and her pink eyes boring into me as a feral grin crossed her face. As she shook her flank back and forth excitedly, like a hunting hound eager to pounce, I noticed she had a cutie mark that was also reminding me of B.B; a white rose rosing from a pool of what looked like liquid fire, the flames licking the white petals black.

“I smell something good, and it looks like somepony’s brought me lunch!” Black Petal suddenly said, excitedly as she looked at me and Sunset, “Sunset, you shouldn't have! You even brought a young, strapping buck, just the kind I like!”

Black Petal smiled wide, pearl white teeth, and I felt a frozen shiver tap dance over my spine. Did... did that mare have fangs!? My mind immediately thought of B.B and wondered if there was a connection, or if this was just coincidence.

Abruptly the green mare in the command chair slammed a hoof on her console, “Enough! I’ll have proper behavior on my bridge.”

Before Black Petal or any of the other gathered Cocytus members could respond to that the green mare went on, rising from her seat and approaching the stairs down, looking over Sunset and myself. Sunset was fast to salute with one of her metal limbs, the green mare responding with a salute with a wing.

“Lieutenant Sunset reporting with prisoner 1138 as instructed Captain Straight Course!” Sunset said curtly, “He’s cooperative.”

“Thank you Lieutenant. The communication hub is ready to receive him,” said the captain, glancing around her at the Cocytus members, who had all now taken an interest in proceedings and were looking our way. Shattered Sky looked vaguely displeased for some reason, though that might just be because I was still alive, or at the very least not beaten to within an inch of my life. Francheska had a grumbling, resigned cast to her features, through that wasn’t directly at me, just at her fellow Cocytus members. Black Petal was still looking at me like I was a tasty treat, slowly licking her lips, her curly tail bouncing happily in a manner that disturbingly reminded me of Binge. I decided then and there I never wanted Binge in the same room as this mare; they’d either destroy each other, or team up. Either way it’d end poorly for me I imagined. Hammerfall, oddly, wasn’t looking at me at all, but instead was smiling at Sunset as he bounded down the stairs to her.

“Heya hunnybun~!” Hammerfall cooed, practically dancing towards Sunset, “Betcha weren’t expecting to see your one and only loving hubby-kins here! Now how about a little affectionate lovin’ for your number one stallion, just returned from the frigid north!”

What he received was a metal hoof to the snout that stopped him in his tracks, like a macabre still frame picture, as Sunset, eyebrow twitching, said, “Not. Now. Honey.”

“B-b-but,” Hammerfall continued to try talking around his... wife’s(?) hoof in his face, “I’ve been longing for your loving embrace for months! The north was cold! And boring! And filled with snow! Did I mention it was cold? I was loooonely!”

“Well you’re going to be lonely for a while longer,” growled Sunset, breathing heavily and her red eyes blazing like twin suns, “We’re on duty! Act professional, or at least try, you meathead!”

“Oh, but you like my meathead!” Hammerfall said with a lustful grin, and a completely unneeded hip thrust.

In a surreal moment the rest of the bridge crew, in its entirety, facehoofed. Even Shattered Sky. I would have too if I wasn’t wearing the manacles.

Sunset’s face was glowing with a beat red heat and her face was a picture of embarrassed rage as she looked at Captain Straight Course, “Ma’am, I respectfully request permission to wait outside until I’m needed to escort the prisoner back to the brig.”

“Granted,” said the captain in a terse tone, “And perhaps you’ll escort your special somepony to the brig as well, as he seems to need to cool off even after spending so much time stationed in the north?”

Hammerfall was quick to realize he’d probably gone too far and adopted a haphazard version of military posture, standing at attention and saying, “Won’t be necessary ma’am! I’m cooled off. Not at all thinking about sexy-times with my hot wife in the near future. Nope!”

I just couldn’t stop myself, looking over at Sunset, my voice deadpan as I said, “You married him?”

Sunset, seemingly without thinking, said, “He has his good points; including a very nice-” she bit off her comment mid sentence and glared at me, “None of your business, prisoner!”

Hammerfall had shifted his attention from Sunset to me, the burly pegasus stallion eyeing me up and down and stepping over towards me. His eyes were still carrying that jovial gleam, but a new edge had taken root in his muscles, the kind of thing I might not have noticed a few weeks ago but by now, after so many near death experiences, was recognizing as a warrior’s tension. For all his grinning and joking this stallion was ready to unleash violence at the drop of a pin.

“So this is the colt that ruffled up Shattered Sky, eh?” he said, glancing over his shoulder at the pegasus in question with a laugh, “What’s got you so worried Shattered? He’s a kid! I could bench press four of him stacked up and not break a sweat.”

Shattered Sky, who’d remained up next to the ship’s captain, smiled thinly, tilting his head just slightly downward so his glasses became twin solid gleams of light that hid his eyes, “That child ruffled nothing, and I am not worried about him. He’s a minor player, just a pawn of the Veruni, and soon to be little more than another test subject.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Hammerfall, looking back at me, “The top boss herself wants to chat him up. Curious that, if he’s just this nopony. What do you got to say for yourself colt? Way I’ve heard it you’ve put yourself up against us, helping out a xeno, and getting mixed up in our business. Think you can take us?”

I didn’t know what this stallion was getting at, and my slight sidelong glance at Sunset revealed nothing. She wasn’t even looking at me, she was looking at her husband, expression neutral. Was Hammerfall on her side, knowing about her relation with my mother and father? Was he going to help her with getting me and my tribemates free? What was I supposed to even say? Swallowing my doubts I just answered on impulse.

“If I have to,” I said, chin up.

Hammerfall laughed, giving me a hefty smack on the chest that staggered me, making me cough to get my breath back. Hammerfall’s hoof had been more solid than rock.

“Hahaha! Buck doesn’t lack for moxy! Be my pleasure to cut you down when the time comes, colt! Don’t go messing around with anypony else in Cocytus. When the horseapples hits the fan, you just find me and we’ll have ourselves a damn good fight!”

He turned and gave Sunset a wink, “Well hun, think I’ll go take a peek and see how our own buck’s doing in medical. Knowing him he’s probably beating himself black and blue over the losses in his squad. Better go set him straight.”

Hammerfall briefly looked back at Captain Straight Course, “Captain, permission to visit the medical bay?”

The captain nodded once, seemingly eager to just get on with things as she waved a hoof, “Yes, granted.”

As Hammerfall left he and Sunset shared a final look and though she still kept a straight, professional look on her face, I saw a bare twitch of a smile on her lips as she flicked her tail at his nose and whispered, “Tonight. Missed you.”

Hammerfall just grinned and left. With him gone Captain Straight Course walked down and came up to me. Up close I noticed she was taller than me by a good margin. It meant she could look down her snout at me, eyes glittering with a combination of curiosity and distaste.

“Under normal circumstances a prisoner like you, let alone a landbound, would not be allowed on my bridge,” she said in a matter-of-fact manner, “But circumstances in this case are far from normal. Now, if you’ll proceed to the door over here and go inside, you’ll be given the rare honor of speaking with our leader. She wishes to speak with you alone, but do not even think of attempting anything to escape. I personally give you my word that any shenanigans from you on my bridge will earn you a personal flight lesson from me.”

“Flight lesson?” I asked, glancing at my wingless back, “But I can’t fly.”

The captain’s hard expression of warning didn’t change, “Exactly.”

That said, she turned away from me and returned to her chair on the raised platform. The remaining Cocytus members returned with her, Francheska immediately getting back into it with Shattered Sky about how to best flush out my friends from hiding. I doubted any of them suspected my friends weren’t actually out in the Wasteland at the moment. Granted, I wasn’t sure myself that they were in Stable 104, but I remembered my vision of them during my dreamscape fight with Moa Gault. They’d certainly looked like they’d gone back to Stable 104, if for no other reason than to repair the Ursa, and I was glad of it. As long as they were there my friends were safe. It was a comforting thought. Even if the worst happened to me, my friends would survive.

Black Petal kept looking at me with those unnerving eyes of hers as I trotted towards the door that’d been indicated to me, a pair of sliding metal doors that hissed open the moment I got close to them.

Inside I found an odd room. It was circular and completely bare, lit from above by a solid sheet of white plastic, while the floor was a smooth black material that wasn’t metal. It clinked oddly on my hooves as I walked over it, meandering towards the center of the room. Was the floor made of glass? Or some kind of crystal? The curved walls were metal at least, but I noticed diamond shaped blue crystals mounted in the wall at regular intervals around the entire room.

When the door closed behind me the lighting from above dimmed, the blue gems began a faint, steady hum, and were wreathed with smokey blue magical energy. The room was lined in a soft blue light, and then, in the center of the room, a figure appeared from thin air.

She was a female griffin, with bright yellow eyes and a golden coat, her feathers pure white, and her stance stately and proud. She wore a white uniform over her shoulders and chest that had prominent gold tassels hanging from the arms. The sword emblem of Odessa was large on her breast and crossed by four lightning bolts, all of them gold, where the blade remained silver. She was armed with only a blade, a broad sword with a ornate X shaped crossguard mounted with a single green gem. The hilt itself was a silver sheen of an artificial ARM, and I assumed the blade would be the same color, though it was currently hidden by a blue scabbard tooled with gold.

While this griffin’s appearance was striking, and carried with it an aura of authority and strength, what struck me about her was that I quickly recognized the similarity between her and another griffin I’d seen. She looked like a dead ringer for the Odessa I’d seen in Airheart’s memory orb, the one who’d been part of Rainbow Dash’s Shadowbolts. There were small differences, however. A slightly smaller beak, a few headfeathers placed differently. Just enough that it was a resemblance rather than looking exactly like Odessa.

The griffin looked at me with calculation, and smiled in a way that left me feeling off balance. It was an inviting smile, like she was going to trust me with secrets only I could be trusted with, and given responsibilities only I could handle. It was the smile of a leader confiding in a subordinate that they knew would fight to the death for them. At the same time it was a cold, terrifying smile. The smile of someone who knew others would die for her, and was perfectly okay with that.

“So I finally get a look at you,” she said in a voice that was shockingly young, and bursting with a note of optimism that, despite that disturbing smile, made me want to trust her, “I am Colonel Odessa of, ha, Odessa. Yes, feel free to take a moment to find that redundant!”

Her smile warmed and she chuckled, shaking her head, “Really, some of our traditions confound even me. But great, great, great, great grandmother wanted the name to live on, so not only was the group renamed, but each first daughter takes on the mantle as well. I’ll be stuck naming my own daughter the same, when I finally get around to having one.”

At my utterly blank stare Odessa cocked an eyebrow up and her smile turned amused, if a tad confounded, “Tell me you’re not a silent protagonist.”

“Huh?” I asked, confused, and finally getting my wits about me.

“Nevermind; question answered,” she said dismissively, “While I’d love nothing more than to have a lengthy, revealing conversation with you, Longwalk, I actually don’t have a huge amount of time, so I hope you’ll understand if I keep this brief. If you have questions, rest assured I’ll answer them all if you give me a positive answer to what I’m about to ask.”

“And if I don’t give a positive answer?” I asked, already feeling on the defensive despite this griffin’s casual manner. I didn’t bother wondering how she knew my name. By now, after several encounters with the organization of Odessa, I wasn’t going to be surprised about anything they knew about me.

Odessa’s eyes became harder than steel and her voice thin and sharp as a shard of glass, “Then I’ll have far fewer answers for you, I’m afraid.”

“Fair enough,” I replied, trying not to gulp, feeling my mane wilt slightly under that look.

It was gone in an instant, through, replaced by that confident, warm gleam as she nodded, “Then we understand each other. Right then, to the point; Longwalk, I want you to take a place with us in Odessa.”

I blinked. Then I blinked again. I don’t know why I was surprised. Glint had borderline tried to recruit me. Odessa was, for all their blatant disrespect for wingless races, still a group focused solely on fighting the ‘xeno’ threat, represented by Arcaidia, those strange Hyadean creatures, and who knew what else. I had access to a weapon they wanted, and having seen unicorns among Odessa’s number plus what I’d heard about my father it was clear Odessa could bend it’s anti-landbound sentiments. So why wouldn’t their leader make an offer like this? She had nothing to lose if I said no, and a capable ally to gain if I said yes, all for the small price of taking two minutes to ask.

“Look,” I said, trying to order my thoughts, not at all certain that if I said no I wouldn’t be summarily executed, “I’ve been over this already with others, uh, ma’am.”

“Just call me Odessa,” she said with an off-clawed gesture.

“That’ll get confusing, given this whole army is called Odessa,” I said and she groaned in understanding exasperation...

“I know, right? Can’t imagine what great great great great grandma was thinking! It is what it is, though. My close friends used to call me ‘Dess, but that doesn’t exactly fly since I took command. Look just roll with it, okay? I can suss out what you mean by context, so just use ‘Odessa’.”

“Alright, alright,” I said, taking a deep breath, getting my mind back on track to the matter at hoof, “Like I was saying, I’ve been over this before. One of your soldiers talked about me joining Odessa, and I’ll tell you what I told him. No. Not happening. Even if you weren’t coming after Arcaidia do you honestly think I’d want to join you after what you did to my tribe? Or Saddlespring?”

Odessa looked at me with that calculating expression again for some lengthy moments that left me feeling a nervous, watery disquiet in my gut. I could have lied, eagerly accepted her proposal to try and get myself and my tribesmates free, but I didn’t think she’d buy it. Those eyes had this clear quality to them that said she’d cut through any lies I’d conjure. On top of that there was an earnestness to her that encouraged a honest streak in me, as if this griffin was not only lacking a dishonest bone in her body, but brought that out in whoever was around her. I just... wanted to tell her the truth.

“What happened to your tribe, and that Wasteland settlement, was unfortunate,” Odessa said, sounding so sincere, even matching it with a dour look coming over her youthful features, “Unfortunate, but unavoidable. We needed your tribe to discover potential Mediums, and your chieftain refused any kind of parlay with us. The intent was not to bring harm, but neither could we afford to back down. We cannot compromise the safety of the world because the stubbornness of a few who are unwilling to work with us, so force became necessary.”

“You killed them,” I said flately, teeth grinding, “You killed my tribesmates and imprisoned the rest! For what? To screw around with tests on us, to see if you could get one of us to react with a Guardian? That’s the only reason you murdered ponies who didn’t do anything to you!?”

My anger didn’t seem to bother her, instead she raised a curious glance at me and leaned forward, interested, “So you know what the Guardians are? Did the Guardian in that sites’ Ley Line speak to you? But it was your female companion that bears the mark of a Medium now, not you.”

Her sudden intensity deflected a bit of my anger, if only because it put me off guard, “Well, uh, yeah, Trail apparently impressed him or something. He just yelled at me. Then tried to kill me. Then apparently decided I was alright.” I paused, “It’s been a weird day.”

Then I remembered I was angry, “Anyway don’t change the subject. My tribe aside how many other settlements has Odessa destroyed? How many ponies have you killed for not cooperating with you?”

Her eyes narrowed, and she took in and let out a slow breath, “Less than you’d think. Odessa has been operating since before the creation of the Wasteland. Situations like the capture of your tribe or the destruction of Saddlespring are... rare. Thankfully rare. But over two hundred years its been inevitable we’ve had to get a little blood on ourselves. Believe me, compared to the horrors visited upon the Wasteland by the likes of Raiders, slavers, organizations like the Steel Rangers, and even so-called ‘heroes’ that try to protect it, Odessa is an army of saints.”

I hated to admit it but she did have a small point. I’d seen Raiders and had only sampled some of madness and suffering those ponies brought to the world, and hoped never to be at the mercy of their kind. I’d also seen the wretched way the Labor Guild treated its slaves, striping ponies like Shale of freedom since foalhood. As far as I could see Odessa was nowhere near as bad. But that didn’t change that what they’d done was still wrong, and that their single-minded willingness to commit atrocity and then justify it under a blanket of rhetoric was not acceptable.

“That may be so,” I told the griffin simply, “That doesn’t justify what you did in Saddlespring or what you’ve done to my tribe. You should have just left my tribe alone. They were harming nopony. What’s so important about finding more Mediums that makes it worth what you’ve done?”

“Mediums are just another potential war asset,” Odessa said bluntly, “That’s what we do. We collect war assets, then we expend them. The Guardians once beat back the xenos entirely. Gaining their power would be a remarkable war asset.”

“How do you even know about them?” I asked, “The one I talked to said nearly nopony alive today knew about their existence.”

Odessa shrugged her wings, “Ancient history, dating back to our Ministry of Awesome days. Not important to you. Just know we’ve been after the Guardians and their power for a long time, and its up there among our highest priorities.”

I just shook my head, laughing helplessly, “High priority or not you went about it in the worst way possible. Trailblaze wouldn’t willingly help you any more than I would! Not after seeing you kill our tribesmates and keeping the rest of us prisoner!”

“Perhaps, perhaps not,” Odessa replied with confidence firm in her voice, “But I will seek to convince her, regardless. First with words. If my words cannot reach her, well... Odessa does have other means to coerce cooperation.”

The way she said that made my mane bristle, “And all this to fight an enemy that isn’t even actively invading yet?”

“Yet?” Odessa laughed, putting a claw to her face, “Skies be good, do you think we’d go through all this trouble if we weren’t already neck deep in it, Longwalk?”

“Uh... maybe?”

“Odessa has been actively fighting xenos since the time of the Ministries and the war against the zebra. You think we built all we have, the weapons, the vehicles, the armor, all without having fired a single shot at our enemies?” the young griffiness shook her head in plain wonderment that I could see etched in her gold eyes, “I suppose my mother died fighting something imaginary?”

“Your mother?” I saw a small crease of pain wash over her features as she nodded at me.

“I’m barely into my sixteenth year,” she said, “Normally it would’ve been decades before I took over leadership from my mother. But she died last year, leading an operation in the Frozen North, in what was once known as the Crystal Empire. Odessa lost over a hundred soldiers that day...”

“What were you doing there? What was the fight about?” my curiosity got me asking before I could stop myself from insensitively pressing for more information.

Odessa’s gloom quickly faded and she was back to being in control as she said, “Doesn’t matter. Classified information. My point is; we know what we fight for, and that our enemies are very real, and very dangerous. There’s no doubt that any advantage we can gain, any edge we can acquire, is worth the questionable moral decisions that need to be made to do so.”

I didn’t have an immediate counter for that, nor was I up for further argument, “Sorry about bringing up any bad memories, if I did.”

“I have shed my tears over it,” Odessa said with a sigh, “I know I’m doing her proud. Anyway, I’m out of time. I want an answer. Will you join Odessa? Or will you continue to serve the machinations of the xeno you traveled beside, this Arcaidia you’re so dedicated to?”

“She’s not even a real alien!” I said firmly.

“Xeno,” Odessa corrected.

“Whatever,” I said, tail twitching, “My point is that she’s a pony! A normal... okay, not normal, but a harmless... okay not harmless either but she is a pony and she doesn’t deserve to be targeted like this!”

“I can see she truly has gotten her claws dug deep into you. I understand,” Odessa said with a smile still on her beak, through her eyes held a dangerous edge to them still, “She looks like a pony, sounds like a pony,” Odessa winked, “Perhaps she even feels like a pony.”

Did... did she just insinuate that I... that Arcaidia and me...? Odessa continued on, either not noticing or not carrying about the outrage that was now naked on my face.

“That is all a facade. Her species have ways to create false bodies they can inhabit when they wish to infiltrate a world they’ve targeted for conquest,” she said in the tone of a teacher lecturing a student, “The ‘pony’ you know, and are so dedicated to protecting, is just a xenomorphic extraterrestrial wearing that body like a camouflage suit.“

“So what?” I said, heat in my voice as I took a step towards her, even though she was just a projection and the threat was non-existent. I was tired of running in circles with Odessa, both the organization and its leader, over Arcaidia, “Let’s say I believe you, and Arcaidia is what you say she is. That changes nothing. It doesn’t change that I owe her, and even if I didn’t, she’s my friend. Until she proves otherwise by her own actions, I’m going to stay by her side.”

Odessa’s eyes maintained that unblinking edge to them as her smile slowly faded, and I watched the young griffiness’ stance change from the open casualness of moments ago to a hard figure of absolute authority.

“You’re not currently by her side. You’re a prisoner of Odessa, and that is what you’ll remain. By refusing my offer you’re only condemning yourself. I was offering you your only chance to avoid the unpleasant fate of being given over to our Research and Development Division,” Odessa’s eyes flickered for a second with a ripple of sympathy, but it was soon buried under hardness, “To learn of what it is about you that allows you to wield an ARM without being killed by it they will spare no efforts, nor give any care for your health. It will be miraculous if you survive.”

She took a deep breath, “Knowing that, you still refuse?”

My only response was to nod once.

Odessa looked at me a moment longer, and her image of hard authority and judgement wavered for only a second before she said, “I’m... honestly sorry to hear that. I would’ve liked to have gotten to know you better. Goodbye then, Longwalk. I know you don’t agree, but what Odessa does, it does for the sake of something a lot larger than any one individual.”

With that the image of Odessa shimmered and flickered, until the griffin vanished and the lighting in the room returned to normal, leaving me alone for a second before the doors back to the bridge slid open. Waiting outside the door was Sunset, standing at attention. She relaxed slightly seeing me, through her face remained impassive as she said, “Exit the room prisoner 1138, and I’ll escort you back to your cell.”

Joining her on the bridge I resigned myself to follow her back to the brig.

----------

As Sunset led me back down the long corridor that connected the bridge of the Varukisas with its main body I felt the deck shudder slightly and a slight shift in the forces on my body. Looking at Sunset in confusion she gave me a look that said I was being dumb.

“The ship’s just lowering back below the cloud cover,” she said, “Don’t have your air legs under you yet? Spend enough time up here you get a feel for the way the ship moves. If you could fly, you’d also have a more innate sense of movement and where the ground is in relation to you.”

“Pegasense,” I said, and Sunset blinked at me. At her look I shrugged, “Just something a pegasus friend of mine mentioned.”

“Not the term I’ve known,” Sunset said, “Back in the Enclave it was called ‘intuitive spacial awareness’ and Odessa uses the same term. Every race with natural flying ability has it.”

“So you were in the Enclave?” I asked in a prompting manner. I already knew this because Glint had mentioned it, but I honestly just wanted to get a better feel for Sunset, maybe lead the conversation around to my mother and father. Sunset wasn’t going to be cooperative, however.

“No more questions,” she said irritably, “Remember you’re a prisoner. Keep quiet.”

I didn’t know if it was the fact I was asking questions in general or the specific question I asked, but I think I’d struck some kind of nerve. Sunset clammed up, her ears dropped down and her expression flat as she escorted me to the elevator that’d lead down into the hangar. We’d crossed the hangar on our way up to the bridge, and I was just as impressed the second time through.

There were apparently two hangars on the airship, and this was the port side one. The elevator doors opened and as Sunset led me out into the hangar I couldn’t stop myself from gaping at the sights around me. There was more marvelous machinery here than I’d ever seen so far, and unlike the often broken down and rusty examples of technology that was the Wasteland’s norm, this hangar was vibrant with sleek, shining tech.

The hangar was shaped like half an egg, with one wall curved, with four different, wide open doors to the outside. The opposite wall was lined with stacked racks, two high and six across, that held Veritbucks in robotic scaffolding. Robot arms could swing down and around to grasp a Vertibuck and lift it from its scaffold to either a launch ramp in front of any of the doors, or to a trio of maintenance and repair bays housed in the back section of the hangar. At the moment I got the treat of watching one of the Vertibucks being repaired in one of those bays, like a lowered pit surrounded by an array of robot arms, making it look like some mechanical tentacle monster that was ravaging the Vertibuck in its grasp... and that just gave me a real unpleasant mental image. I stared in fascination, regardless of weird mental analogies. I had to admit I just loved watching the machinery at work, the dance of wires, sparks, combined with the smell of faint ozone and oil. I noticed the scrunched in nose of this Vertibuck and realized this was the one that I had crashed.

“You guys really don’t let anything go,” I mused aloud.

Seeing what I was looking at Sunset made a small whinnie of agreement, “Of course. We can’t leave things like that laying around for Wasteland scavengers to find. Odessa repairs anything it can, and destroys what it can’t, so others can’t use our technology.”

Made sense. Walking by the repair bays, passing teams of pegasi in engineering overalls with pockets bursting with tools as they swarmed over other Vertibucks, I noticed a gaggle of them gathering near the two furthers bay doors. Was gaggle the right word, when talking about pegasi? Should it be flock? Flock of pegasi? I liked gaggle better.

Yellow lights started to flash on the section of bulkhead between the two bay doors, and fascinated, I watched as that section began to fold up and outward. The result was that two smaller bay doors had suddenly become one large bay door, and from outside I could hear the soft *whumpwhump* sounds of Vertibuck engines. I paused, and Sunset didn’t stop me, as I stood there and watched as a pair of Vertibuck’s rose in front of the large open bay.

Suspended between the Vertibuck’s by dozens of steel cables was an object. Battered, its ancient and cracked surface was a dark grayish brown, yet some parts were lined with marble white. Its form was bipedal, with two long bulky arms swinging from a stout torso; through one of the arms was missing up to its elbow. The bottom of the object was a single massive armored skirt, with just a hint of thick booted feet poking out. Its head was like a rounded helmet, with two long, curved horns sweeping up from either end of the head. Two blue jewels for eyes were dead, dark, and lifeless set deep in the armored face of the Golem, and I felt rooted in place as I watched it being deposited on the hangar floor by the Vertibucks, which then landed on either side of it as the pegasi and a few griffin techs began to swarm it.

A Golem. Odessa had a Golem.

“Where...?” I couldn’t really finish the question, too busy staring.

“The Ruin below,” Sunset said simply, “You only saw the shrine chamber, but there were other areas. One of them had this S-class Relic in it.”

Seeing huge gouged scars in the Golems armor, the cracks along its surface, and its missing arm, I realized this Golem was in much poorer condition than the one found beneath Saddlespring. It looked like it’d been put through a serious battle. Still, didn’t these pegasi understand the danger of this thing?

“After what happened in Saddlespring you guys think its smart to put one of these things on board one of your airships?” I asked, incredulous.

Sunset shrugged, “Its inactive. We can’t pass up a shot at learning how weapons like that one are made. If Odessa could reproduce them, it’d be another solid addition to our arsenal.”

I wasn’t nearly as confident as she was, and gave the Golem an apprehensive look, feeling my tail flick behind me nervously, “If you say so.”

We just reached the elevator that’d take us back to the corridor that’d lead towards the brig when another shudder ran through the ship. I assumed it was just another shift in the way the ship was moving, and kept trotting, but stopped when I noticed Sunset had now stopped and was looking around with worry. I saw a number of other Odessa ponies and griffins giving each other strange looks.

“Um, is something w-” I began, but then the ship rocked, the deck shaking beneath my hooves and nearly throwing me off them, and a rapid, repeating blare of an alarm sounded throughout the hangar. The alarm was followed by a female voice over an internal com system speaking in a tone of professional calm hiding a tremor of fear.

“General quarters, all crew, general quarters,” another shudder through the ship and I saw a ceiling lights flicker on and off, “This is not a drill, repeat, this is not a drill. General quarters-”

The voice went on, but Sunset came up to me before I could question anything and grabbed me around the neck with one metal hoof while giving me a piercing look, “No questions! We get to the brig, now!”

She shoved me towards the elevator with shocking strength, and as she did so I saw a compartment built into her upper right shoulder open and a small, smooth energy pistol extend out. She snatched it up with her mouth and followed me to the elevator doors. I saw technician ponies wither quickly securing and packing away tools or gathering weapons from racks that had emerged from hidden cubby’s in the walls. All of the bay doors, including the enlarged one, were now closing rapidly and I saw shimmering fields of force appear along them, emitted by crystals built along the door rims.

As we entered the elevator and the doors closed I caught sight of something strange; weird wavers in the air at several points around the hangar. I couldn’t tell what they were before the doors closed, however, and Sunset hit the button to take us down.

“What’s going on?” I asked again, tension brimming inside me. I was unarmed and wearing manacles that restricted my movement. Not really a comforting position to be in during an emergency.

Sunset got that look on her face I’d seen before as if she wasn’t looking at me or listening to me, but her eyes quickly refocused as she said, “The ship’s under attack. Security channel is buzzing with alerts. Something hit us from outside, but the shields held. Reports are coming in...” another pause, her eyes unfocused, her ears then twitched and her face twisted into a snarl, terrifying with her scars, “Borders. Something’s fucking boarding us!”

The elevator came to a stop and the doors opened as I asked, “Something? What somethin-”

A hiss and the whoosh of sharp metal flying through the air was my only warning to dodge, and I threw myself to the side. The manacles didn’t like that at all, and I got to feel the delightful sensation of extreme pain combined with nausea as I saw what had attacked me.

It took me a second to understand I was looking at a pony’s skeleton. A pony’s skeleton that was moving around, carrying a sword in its boney muzzle. The sword didn’t seem to be made from a normal metal, but some dark grayish matter that pulsed with violet veins, as if it were alive. Similar veins crossed the pony’s skeletal body, and I could see that while there was no real flesh or organs in these bones, there was more of that purplish matter between the bone joins, like glue keeping the skeleton together.

The sword the skeleton had slashed at me ended up embedded in the metal floor of the elevator, a testament to how sharp the weapon was, and the skeleton yanked the blade out, taking a step back. While I writhed on the floor from the pain of the manacles, Sunset, surged forward. Her energy pistol let loose a quick double-tap of green magic bolts that seared the skeleton’s chest and face, blasting off part of it. Still it moved, and tried to take Sunset’s head off with a sideways swipe. She ducked the blow and came up with an uppercut, her metal hoof catching the skeleton squarely underneath its chin.

The blow took the skeleton’s head clean off and the body shuddered before it collapsed, the purple material between its bones seeming to disintegrate and turn into vapor, leaving behind just a pile of bones. The sword itself appeared to shrivel like a dying plant and cracks appeared all over its surface before it, too, turned to vapor.

“Move your flank!” Sunset yelled, and I staggered to my hooves, still feeling woozy from the manacles.

I heard the sounds of more distant gunfire from magical energy weapons and ponies shouting as I exited the elevator. Sunset waited for me, but one look at me and I could see what she was thinking. The situation suddenly called for speed, and with my manacles on, I was not a pony of speed. She gave me a meaningful look as she came up and reached into another hidden compartment in her other shoulder, withdrawing a small device using mechanical fingers that extended from her hoof.

“If I use this to take those off understand that if you run, or try anything, I’ll have to subdue you,” she told me flately, speaking perfectly fine despite the gun in her mouth.

“I understand,” I said, still looking at the fallen skeleton, “What is that thing?”

She frowned as she pressed the button on the device, and the manacles clicked and fell off my hooves, “Hyadean shock troop. They use the bodies of the dead as hosts. The sword is the real entity, kind of a parasite that grows into a body to control it. Don’t know how they got on board. They’re not strong, but who knows how many there are? Come on, stay behind me and keep your head down.”

I just sort of had to take her words in stride, since she clearly wasn’t going to take the time to elaborate or let me ask any questions; not that I could blame her for that. I heard the sounds of fighting, along with the screams of hurt and dying ponies. If it was my tribe, I wouldn’t want to spend time answering questions either, I’d want to get into the fight to protect my comrades.

We rushed down the curving corridor that’d lead us back towards the brig, and in moments we ran into more skeletons. There were four of them, standing by a flickering waver in the air like a heatwave, and even as Sunset and I approached I saw another pony skeleton step from that waver as if walking through a doorway in the air. They were portals?

The skeletons were aiming the dark swords in their mouths down the corridor, some towards Sunset and I, others further down where I could barely make out a few Odessa soldiers taking cover behind steel barricades that looked like they’d extended from the wall. I didn’t know what the skeletons were doing until I saw the tips of the swords they pointed glow with a series of crests I immediately recognized. They were using Crest Sorcery, just like Arcaidia!

“Shit!” I heard Sunset say as she suddenly grabbed me and pulled me against the wall, her hoof reaching out and hitting a button on a wall panel. Just as the skeleton’s swords fired bolts of darkness a metal barricade just like the one’s I seen ahead shot out of the wall, giving Sunset and me cover. The bolts of inky black hit the wall with a hiss like acid, and I saw some of the metal corrode. I gulped, suddenly very glad Odessa was such a thorough organization when it came to setting up internal defenses. The barricade was chest high and Sunset and I had both ducked down to avoid another barrage of bolts. An energy turret opened in the ceiling and laid down a stream of red bolts back at the skeletons, but it was hit by return fire inside a second and black bolts smashed into the turret, melting it on the spot.

Sunset cursed again, peeking around the side of the barricade and firing off a shot. I stayed hunkered down, and experimentally reached my hoof out. I could feel Gramzanber clearly, its presence nearby behind those doors I’d passed earlier.

“Come on...” I said, “Magical spear summoning powers, go!”

“Stop playing around!” Sunset snapped at me, firing again and ducking back as black bolts of magic shot past her, and giving me a smack upside my head.

“Hey,” I said, “Can’t blame a buck for trying!”

If I couldn’t get Gramzanber, then that left me with my own four hooves to work with. Not exactly my first choice, but I didn’t want to just sit here while Trailblaze and my other tribesmates might be in danger. For all I knew more of these skeleton troops had appeared in the brig.

“Cover me,” I told Sunset, to which she gave me a surprised look as I ducked around the barricade, head down, and charged at the skeletons. I heard Sunset shout something, but soon enough green energy bolts flew over my head and into the lead skeleton, blasting it apart even as it sent a dark blast of magic from the tip of its sword. Another skeleton was emerging from the wavering portal as I got to it, and I planted my forehooves, turning around and bucking out into the skeleton’s chest. It slashed at me with its sword, cutting my flank even as it hit it and sent it back into the portal at an odd angle. There was a screeching pop of sound and the pony skeleton’s body distorted in mid-air, then seemed to get sucked into a pin-prick point before the waver vanished entirely.

Huh. So you could close the portals by sending something back through them? Good to know. There were still three skeletons in the corridor with me, two of them busy engaged with the Odessa soldiers. The other skeleton’s attention was on me, and it was already mid-swing with its sword as I’d bucked its companion back through the portal. I saw the blade coming out of the corner of my eye and pulled my head back, getting cut along the cheek instead of losing half my face. The skeleton, ludicrously fast for something without any muscles, followed up its attack with a straight thrust at my chest. I backpedaled, throwing up a foreleg to protect myself. Pain exploded in me as the blade cut a bloody line across my hide, but I’d managed to keep the thrust from my chest. My back hit the wall and I dropped down, narrowly avoiding getting my throat torn by a viscous backswing. Sparks flew above my head as the skeleton’s sword cut through the metal bulkhead. Cursed things were nearly a sharp as Gramzanber!

Seeing the skeletal pony slightly off balance from its swing I surged forward, ramming my head into the skeleton’s ribcage as hard as I could. I lifted the thing off the ground as I charged forward, and slammed its back into the opposite bulkhead. I heard the snap of bone and the skeleton fell to the ground in two halves. For a second I thought I had won, but the moment I turned my head I heard a hissing chatter and saw the top half of the skeleton crawling towards me, trying to swipe again with its sword.

I jumped back, and then Sunset was there, rushing up and smashing down with one of her cybernetic hooves, crushing the skeleton’s skull completely. I gave her a nod of thanks and turned to see that the other two skeletons had been dealt with by the squad of Odessa soldiers in the corridor. There were a few of them down, with melted holes in their armor, or in one case with half her face grotesquely melted away, presumably by the bolts of dark magic. I swallowed rising bile, and glanced at Sunset as she trotted forward to the Odessa troops who were catching their breath, tending wounds, reloading weapons, or just looking solemnly at their fallen.

I thought back to how I questioned Odessa herself if her organization was even really fighting an alien threat and suddenly felt quite foalish.

“Report,” Sunset said to the soldiers, “What’s the situation?”

One of the soldiers, a yellow mare with a brown mane, saluted, “Lieutenant, we’re holding this deck from three separate points of attack, one of which you just helped us deal with. They don’t seem to be trying too hard here though, I think this is just a distraction.”

Sunset nodded, “Com chatter indicates the heaviest attack is back in the hangar. Probably after the Relic we just loaded on board. Once your squad is ready, go to the port hangar and help repel these boarders. I’ll join you as soon as I make sure the prisoner is secure back in the brig.”

“Ma’am!” the soldiers saluted, and despite what Sunset said all of them, wounded included, got to their hooves and began a fast trot back towards the elevators. Most of them gave me suspicious, unfriendly looks as they went by. When they were out of sight Sunset came up to me.

“Come on, we need to hurry,” she said.

Remembering the portal as we started moving again I said, “Shouldn’t you tell somepony those portals can be closed if you shove something back through them?”

“We’ve had bases and operations attacked by these Hyadean portals before and know that weakness,” she said, “Normally don’t have ponies close enough to take advantage of it, but rest assured we have other means to shut portals down. This attack won’t last long, if all they’re sending are these shock troops. Just surprised they’re trying. They’d need to have known our ship’s exact position, and had a good reason to come after us. I’m betting they just don’t want us taking that Relic you were worried about. Be curious to know how they knew we were taking it today.”

“You think somepony is spying for them?” I wondered aloud.

Sunset scowled, “If somepony is, they will sorely regret the choice when they’re found out.”

We continued down the corridor, passing the room where I sensed Gramzanber was. Looking at the door, which was now unguarded, I halted. Sunset gave me a hard look and whispered to me, “If you want your stuff, just wait.”

She had a serious look in her eyes that told me not to press the issue, so I just nodded and followed her. In a minute we were back at the hatch to the brig. Inside the same guards from before gave us worried looks, their weapons out and aimed. They relaxed only slightly upon seeing Sunset, the stallion at the terminal even smiling as he rendered a salute.

“Good to see you made it ma’am,” he said, pausing as he looked at me minus my manacles, “Ma’am?”

Sunset strode over to him, returning his salute, “I had to remove the prisoner’s manacles so he could keep up with me during the fighting. He still has his explosive collar on.”

The stallion nodded, “Understood. Um, ma’am, how bad is it? We’re just following standing orders to maintain guard of the prisoners.”

“This deck is secure, for now,” Sunset said, “The ship itself has only taken minor damage.”

I’d been feeling more of the shudders I’d felt before running through the ship, including the kind that I could now recognize as indicating the ship was moving. Alongside the skeletal warriors that boarded the ship I wondered if something had attacked from outside as well?

One of the guards had opened up my cell and Sunset motioned for me to enter. As I did so I caught sight of Trailblaze and my other tribesmates. Whetstone was awake and standing at the force field of her own cell, poking at it over and over again. Trailblaze looked at me, relief on her face, but also worry as the ship shook again. I could see my friend’s tension, the way she shifted on her hooves as if ready to buck something. I just gave her as reassuring a smile as I could manage as my own cells energy field shut.

Cut off from hearing what was being said I just saw Sunset talking more with the guards. They all looked nervous, which made sense given their ship was under attack. What I didn’t understand was why the guards suddenly stiffened, readying their weapons and quickly filed out of the room, except for Sunset, who remained behind. Sunset casually went up to the terminal after the guards had left and hit a few keys on it.

Sunset remained at the terminal, occasionally glancing back towards the hatch, a perpetual frown now on her features. I knew that only a few minutes were passing, but it felt like the slow crawl of hours, and I jumped every time the ship went through another shudder. I didn’t have to actually wait all that long, however, before the lights in the brig flickered then shut off, followed by the energy barriers on our cells.

“Hey! We’re free!” I heard one of my tribe call out.

“The Ancestors are looking out for us! Let’s get out of here!”

“Longwalk, the guard! Get her!” that was Trailblaze.

I quickly charged out of my cell, but only to stand protectively next to Sunset as I said, “Wait, wait, she’s on our side!”

The lighting had flickered back on by now and I saw my tribesmates gather around me, many of them glaring at Sunset, ready to pounce. Whetstone was standing next to Trailblaze, who in turn was casting a stern glance between me and Sunset. I felt a strange heat coming off of Trailblaze, and her blue eyes bored into mine as she spoke.

“What do you mean she’s on our side? She’s one of them!”

“Its complicated,” I said, “Look, just trust me, she knows my parents, both of them! She wants to help us... uh... right?” I glanced at Sunset for confirmation. She rolled her red eyes like we were all idiots.

“Sand Storm always told me her tribe were alarmists,” she sighed and locked eyes with Trailblaze, “I could have just left you all in your cells, but the colt is correct, I owe his mother and I am loyal to his father. I’d like to explain more, but we don’t have time. The guards got called to reinforce the fighting in the higher levels. This is the best chance you’ll have to escape, while most of security is tied up. I shut down the surveillance in this room with a little hacking program. Ought to make it just look like a short circuit to anypony monitoring the ship systems. I can’t help you escape personally, not without being seen. Instead I need one of you to knock me out.”

Whetstone raised a hoof, “I totally volunteer for that.”

Sunset shrugged, “Just make it look good. Longwalk, that room we passed, it has all of your gear in it, I have a keycard that can open it.” She showed me a compartment built into her leg and gave me a serious look.

“Just take it off me once I’m knocked out. Break the leg open to make it look like it was damaged in a fight. You’ll also need to shut down the collars on your necks using the terminal here. It’s already logged on with one of the guard’s passwords. Once you do that you can get off the ship using escape pods in one of the hangars. Go for the starboard hangar. All the fighting is taking place in the port hangar, so security ought to be thin towards starboard.”

At my blank look she said, “Right. Starboard means right! Just go the opposite way we used to get to the hangar you saw. The lifts should still be working.”

I nodded, putting a hoof on her shoulder. The metal plating covering her form was surprisingly warm, and I felt a buzzing hum beneath it of the machinery and circuitry underneath. I wondered how much of her underneath the metal surface was still flesh and blood pony. Enough to have Glint, I supposed, so she couldn't be too much machine under there.

“Thank you for the help Sunset. When I find my mother again, I’ll tell her you paid back your debt.”

She laughed, “I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you where she is. If I find out, I’ll try to find a way to contact you. Just don’t die in the meantime.”

“You too. Oh, and tell Glint that despite what he said when we last met, I’d like to see him again sometime.”

Sunset gave me a weird look, then shook her head, “Get going. Try not to kill anypony on the way out. I like most the ponies on this ship.”

With that I moved up next to Trailblaze, who gave me a small nuzzle. Her hide was warmer to the touch than I remembered it. She gave Sunset a wary look, a conflicted crease to her brow, as if she was arguing with herself. Knowing what I knew now about Moa Gault and the fact that Trailblaze was now somehow tied to the fire spirit, I could imagine she might not be so much arguing with herself but arguing with the aggressive Guardian inside her.

“I don’t know that I should trust you, but for now, I’ll trust Longwalk,” Trailblaze said, glancing at Whestone, “Whet, knock her out.”

Whetstone smiled wide and practically skipped over to Sunset, rubbing her hooves together, “I always wanted to try knocking a pony out with one hit! Nopony back home ever gave me an excuse. Alright, let’s wind up...”

Whetstone pulled her hoof back, put it up against Sunset’s face like she was phantom aiming, pulled it back, aimed again, until Sunset just huffed, “Do it already!”

Before Sunset finished the sentence Whetstone’s hoof smashed into her face, knocking Sunset to the ground, and not unconscious at all by the way Sunset glared up at the gray earth pony mare. Whetstone shook her hoof, “Owowowow! What are you made out of, lady!? Stone?”

“My skull is normal, you just didn’t hit hard enough,” Sunset grunted as she got back to her hooves, “Now stop playing around and try agai-”

She went silent as Trailblaze hit her solidly on the back of the head with the gatling energy weapon she’d ripped off its tripod, swinging it like a club. The weapon broke apart, and Sunset hit the ground like a rock. I looked at Trailblaze, who was still holding the smoking remains of the energy weapon, and she shrugged.

“What? She wanted it to look real.”

I sighed, checking to make sure Sunset was still breathing. She was, and I just hoped the head trauma wasn’t too bad. She wasn’t bleeding or anything, which was a plus. Trailblaze put a comforting hoof on my withers as I rose and she looked at our gathered tribemates, most of them scarred and nervously looking around at this unfamiliar environment. Except Whestone, who looked oddly chipper and was smiling at me and Traiblaze.

“Well, chief, are we getting out of here?” Whestone asked.

Trailbalze blanched, “You shouldn't call me chief, Whet. Not until we know for sure if my mother is alive or dead.”

Whetstone bobbed her head, braided black maine bobbing with her, “I know, I know, but for now you’re our chief, Trail. We’ll follow your lead.”

Trailblaze didn’t look all that happy about what she was hearing but I saw her take hold of herself and give us all a confident nod, “Right. Everypony, follow me, protect yourselves and your tribesmates, let nopony fall behind, and let’s get out of this cursed place!”

All of my gathered tribe, myself included, smiled, despite our fears. Trailblaze’s confidence became theirs and I saw a willingness on each of their faces to follow her word, wherever she might lead. I was smiling because I was proud to see my friend filling in for the role of chief, knowing it couldn’t be easy for her, but finding I trusted her in the role completely; in a way I’d never felt towards her mother. Part of the warmth in my chest, I realized, stemmed not from friendship, but the budding of something deeper, that feeling I had yet to tell Trailblaze of.

Not yet. Not now. Not until we were all safe.

After snatching up the keycard from Sunset’s leg, breaking the panel over it to make it look as if it’d been torn off in a scuffle, I used the terminal to turn off the bomb collars. My tribemates all let out sighs knowing at least one threat to their lives was dealt with. Then, with Trailblaze leading the way, we fled the brig, and our escape began.

----------

Footenote: 50% to next level!

Companion Perk Added - A Mare Worth Fighting For: As long as Trailblaze is in your party whenever an attack would drop you to zero hit points there is a 25% chance that your desire to stay by her side will push you onward and allow you to shrug off the attack entirely.

Author's Note:

So, Guardians, that's a thing now. Believe or not one of my first ideas for the opening of Trigger to Tomorrow involved Longwalk and Trailblaze discovering Moa Gault's shrine near their village and the Guardian tasking them with finding the other shrines, and that being what led them out into the Wasteland. But then I was stumped on how to bring Arcaidia into the story, so I reworked it, figuring I'd just bring the Guardians in later. They're an interesting bunch, and a staple of the Wild Arms series. As always my sincerest thanks goes to KKat for creating FoE, and to Doomande, who remains watchful for those ever-present errors I always seem to miss and providing suggestions here and there on improving wonky sentences. And of course a big thanks to everyone who continues to read and comment; I can't ever get across how awesome it is that folk give my little tale here any attention. Until next time, take it easy folks.

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