• 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 18: The End of the Beginning (Part 2 of 2)

We didn’t remain in the cracked, shattered street where the escape pod landed us for very long. Those first few minutes after we landed were confused ones as my tribesmates scrambled to unhook themselves from the seats that had likely saved their lives in the rough landing. Few ponies even realized that Snowdrift was dead until after we were all out, catching our breath, and it became obvious that Snowdrift wasn’t standing up on her own.

I don’t remember much of what immediately happened after that. I recall there was shouting, arguing, blame being tossed around. Trailblaze took it all and with tired, but steady tones told everypony to get ready to move, because we couldn’t stay near the escape pod. It was too likely that Odessa would come after us, and they would likely be able to track the escape pod’s landing spot. No matter how angry everypony was at the loss of one of our own nopony could argue that moving was a good idea.

Before that, however, Whetstone had pulled me into the pod, away from everypony.

“Hey, Long?” she said, tapping me on the head, “Longwalk?”

“Uh... yeah...?” I replied, still dazed, brain a locked up mess. I was still seeing Snowdrift in my head, pulling me into the escape pod at that last moment when the Odessa soldier fired on us. Was there anything I could have done differently? A question to drive anypony crazy if they ask it enough times. It was a question I found myself asking more and more lately.

“Trail wants us to get going, but I figure there might be stuff in here we’ll need, but I don’t know what stuff is good and what isn’t,” said Whetstone, looking at me with a steady gaze as if she was trying to emphasize with just her expression that I needed to get it together, “You know this kind of gear better than the rest of us. What do we take?”

Gear? I looked around the interior of the escape pod. On the walls above the seats there were hatches, like horizontal lockers. Most of them were already open, filled with either dark gray saddlebags or simple plastic crates. I shook myself, trying to shove away thoughts of Snowdrift and just focus on what was being asked of me.

“I... give me a minute, I’ll take a look,” I told Whetstone, and with leaden hooves went about the work of checking the contents of the lockers. My body ached all over from the wounds taken during our escape, and blood still matted my mane, sticking it to my face in dirty strands. Hopefully there was some healing potions in here somewhere.

The insides of the plastic crates were filled with what I guessed was basic survival gear for any crew that would theoretically use the pod for its intended purpose of abandoning the airship in an emergency. Doubtful anypony in Odessa imagined a bunch of escaped tribal ponies would be using this stuff instead. Yay us.

The saddlebags each carried an empty canteen along with a package of small tablets labeled ‘water purifiers’, a half dozen packs of what looked to be preserved foodstuffs, a simple knife, rolls of paper the use of which I wasn’t sure of, and a small energy pistol of the red beam variety. The plastic crates were varied; some with additional food and water tablets, others thankfully carrying medical supplies like bandages, antiseptic fluid, and healing potions, and another crate held a strange box shaped device with all sorts of buttons on it and a screen, like a miniature terminal. Other crates held more mundane gear, tents, sleeping bags, something I suspected was some kind of portable stove, and a number of other items I had a hard time guessing the function of.

I told Whetstone to help me take the saddlebags and the crates of food and medical supplies. I decided to leave the device behind, having no idea what it might be and not wanting to risk fiddling around with some Odessa equipment I couldn’t identify. I didn’t bother with the tents, but the sleeping bags I figured would be useful. I wanted us to stay in natural cover, using the Wasteland’s usual collection of rubble and burned out buildings to say out of sight of any Odessa patrols. The shiny white tents would stick out in this landscape.

“Longwalk,” Whetstone got my attention as we were finishing gathering all the supplies up at the escape pod’s hatch, “You holding up alright? Things got pretty intense back there.”

I looked at her and saw nothing in Whetstone’s eyes other than honest concern. It blunted the edge of irrational anger I felt at her question. Alright? Of course I wasn’t alright. But Whetstone’s concern reminded me that I wasn’t doing this alone, and I was far from the only one hurting. Beneath her own concern I saw the pain she was feeling. That all of us were feeling. I knew now just what Trailblaze and the others had gone through when our home had been attacked and they’d seen fellow tribe members killed by Odessa soldiers.

“I’m managing,” I told her, “Alright is a long distance off, but I’m managing.”

Whetstone nodded, looking away, “Good. That’s good. Uh, what about physically? You look one harsh breeze away from keeling over dead.”

“Believe it or not I’ve been worse,” I told her as I rooted out a healing potion from one of the boxes of medical supplies, gulping it down and taking a few seconds to let the brew do its work; a cool wash of relief flowing over me. Looking at Whetstone I saw her staring off, her own eyes having a rattled, haunted look to them.

“Hey,” I said, putting a hoof on her leg, “We both can manage. The others are hopeless without us, right?”

“Heh...” she laughed, wiping at her face, keeping away tears I knew she didn’t want anypony seeing, “Yeah, Trail needs us to keep her from going gray from stress. I know Snow wouldn’t want to watch us fall apart right now, not after escaping those...bastards.”

There was a lot of venom in that last word. Could I blame her? No, not really. Not if I was being honest with myself. Much as I kept wishing that there was some way to reconcile with Odessa it was hard not to feel a violent anger growing inside me. It would be much easier to just start hating them, and unleash all of the anger due to Snowdrift and my other tribesmate’s deaths on the next group of Odessa’s soldiers I ran into. How satisfying might it feel to just... cut loose, and cut those pegasi and griffins down with Gramzanber, before they had a chance to hurt any more of my tribe or my friends?

I shook my head, banishing the thoughts I didn’t want taking deeper root in my mind. Better to focus now on survival and getting my tribesmates that were still alive to safety. I could help the living. The only thing I could do for the dead was keep going, and not forget them. Well... that, and always strive to prevent more deaths. Then again, hadn’t I intended to do that when Shale died? I wondered if, no matter what I did, there would inevitably be instances like what had just happened with Snowdrift. Moments where either my strength or resolve to protect others just wouldn’t be enough, regardless of what choices I made.

No. I couldn’t let myself sink into thinking like that. I had to believe my choices still made a difference, even if I wasn’t able to always ensure I’d be able to make the right ones. Snowdrift saved my life, the same way Shale had. I’d be insulting both ponies if I started to lose myself to depression. Granted, even thinking that didn’t do much at that moment to banish the weighty gloom over me. You don’t get over something like that quickly, even under the best of circumstances. Whetstone’s concern helped, though, and the knowledge I wasn’t alone in this.

Outside the escape pod I saw Trailblaze talking with the rest of the surviving tribe (I hated having to think of them as the ‘rest of the survivors’). Nopony looked particularly happy. The reason was obvious. Snowdrift wasn’t covered by anything, but somepony had thankfully closed her eyes, so she just looked like she was sleeping. As Whetstone and I finished getting the supplies out of the escape pod I heard what the discussion was about.

“We’re not doing it here,” Trailblaze was saying, “That’s my final word on it.”

“She has to be sent to the Ancestor Spirits properly, Trailblaze!” said Rock Roller, a strained crack in his voice as he glanced towards Snowdrift’s body, “We can’t leave her spirit to rot in there.”

“And we won’t,” said Trailblaze, ragged frustration giving her tone a rough edge, “But we don’t have time to perform the rights or form a pyre here. Our enemies are probably already tracking us. We need to move, soon, and we’ll be taking her with us.”

“How long then?” asked another, Stone Carver, the big mare’s usually stoic eyes shimmering with barely contained tears, a sight that didn’t seem to suit the otherwise tough pony, “How long until we give her a proper farewell, instead of dragging her through this cursed land?”

Trailblaze sighed heavily, “I don’t know. A day or two? Long enough for us to put some distance between us and here. Listen, I feel the same way you do. I can’t stand the idea of leaving Snow’s spirit tied to her body any longer than we have to, but we can’t perform funeral rites until... until I know the rest of us are safe and we won’t lose anypony else.”

“We shouldn't have lost anypony at all,” said Rock Roller, voice thick with bitterness.

“What do you want Trail to say?” Whetstone spoke up, “We all knew how dangerous the mess we were in was. All of us know its a Ancestors granted miracle any of us got out. Are you blaming Trail for Snow not making it?”

Rock Roller’s eyes flashed with anger, “No! I... I’m not blaming her. I blame the monsters that did this! Those winged demons have to pay for this. They...”

He clenched his eyes shut and I saw fresh tears on Rock Roller’s face as he lowered his head, shaking it back and forth as if in denial, “She never hurt anypony in her life.”

Suddenly he was glaring at me, his voice acid laced, “What were you doing!? If you hadn’t gone and run out in the open like that she wouldn’t have had to die saving your stupid flank!”

I took a step back from the vitriol in those words, looking away, “I wasn’t trying to get anypony hurt. I was giving everypony a chance to get away.”

“Fat lot of good that did for Snowdrift! We could’ve killed those bastards, then gotten away! Instead you go charging off, forcing Trailblaze and Snow to go back after you, and-”

“Enough Rock!” snapped Trailblaze, and Rock Roller turned his glare towards her.

“Of course you’d defend him! You two have been friends forever.”

“That’s got nothing to do with it,” growled Trailblaze, stepping towards Rock Roller, looking every inch her mother’s daughter with the stone hard glare she met the stallion’s own gaze with, “Listen to me Rock. If we’d stayed and fought even more of us might have died. Even with the power of fire I have now I wasn’t hitting those fliers. They were just too fast. Even if I could hit one or two, and Longwalk and the rest of you killed the others, don’t t you think we would’ve lost ponies as well? Longwalk did what he thought was right, and you know what? It worked. It brought us the window we needed to escape. Snowdrift... she died saving him, yes, but there was nothing he, or any of us could’ve done to stop that. It was just bad fortune. That’s it.”

Her eyes softened and she raised a hoof, putting it on Rock Roller’s shoulder, “We’ll make them pay one day for those they’ve taken from us, I promise you that, but right now we can’t fall apart blaming each other. We need to survive, so we can take revenge, and save those of our tribe still held captive.”

As much as I appreciated her words, in that they were a balm on my own sense of guilt in Snowdrift’s death, I was worried about her focus on getting back at Odessa. She even put ‘revenge’ ahead of rescuing the rest of our tribe. Maybe she was just trying to appease Rock Roller, but the worry in my heart remained. Trailblaze was still the mare I’d always known, and cared for more than I’d had the courage to admit to her yet. Her being angry wasn’t new or anything. But the anger had an edge to it that felt different, and concerning.

Moa Gault... a part of me wanted to blame the Guardian, but a more rational part of me said that Trailblaze’s actions didn’t need some fire spirit to explain. Revenge, anger, these were feelings ponies didn’t need outside influences to feel. They happened pretty naturally on their own. If anything I was the odd one for not really blaming or hating Odessa as a whole for the death they’d caused so far.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I was angry too. If someone had put that Odessa soldier who’d shot Snowdrift in front of me right then and there... I can’t honestly say one way or another what I might have done. But the difference was that, as much as the immediate anger was there, it didn’t translate into a long term desire to start murdering any member of Odessa I’d happen to meet in order to ‘avenge’ Snowdrift’s death. The sad truth was that there was a strong chance that stallion hadn’t wanted to fire on us any more than we had wanted to fight him. It’d just been the tragedy of circumstance that led us to that point.

I was willing to be that, in a different world, a different time and place, if Snowdrift, me, and that nameless soldier had simply met on the street and struck up a conversation that violence would’ve never come into the equation. Bad fortune and circumstance leads to a lot of folk who’d otherwise get along just fine into butchering each other.

Musing too much on that kind of thing was pointless though. What had happened, happened. Snowdrift was dead, my fellow tribesmates, including my best friend, were more than a tad pissed at Odessa, and at one point or another more death was going to result from all of this. And it didn’t seem like there was a single damned thing I could do about it.

All in all, another craptastic day in the Wasteland.

----------

The escape pod had landed in an area thinly occupied by sparse suburban ruins of the kind that seemed to perpetually blanket the land. The houses that were still intact enough to have walls looked to be of a quaint, single story variety, and anything larger than a small hill was few and far in between.

My tribesmates and I had been moving for the better part of the day, heading in a south and westerly direction. Our route was dictated mostly by my own limited experience and intuition when dealing with the Wasteland environment, and the mysterious mapping abilities of my Pip-Buck. I’d checked the device not long after we’d loaded up and distributed the supplies from the escape pod amongst us and the question of “Where to now?” cropped up. My Pip-Buck’s map screen only showed the area we were immediately in, plus the locations I’d already crossed over in my previous travels, but by fiddling around with it and discovering the zoom in/out feature I was able to get an overall picture of our location. We were east of Skull City, a fair distance north of where Saddlespring used to be, and on the edge of the suburban area that surrounded Skull City like a forest.

Knowing that, we essentially had two choices.

The first choice was to try and go to Skull City itself. Assuming nothing delayed us I estimated it’d only be a day, or a day and half at most to reach the actual inhabited parts of the city. The other choice was to go to Stable 104, the place where my friends were. I knew they were there because my Pip-Buck still had Arcaidia’s own Pip-Buck tag tracked, and that confirmed she was at Stable 104. I couldn’t imagine B.B leaving Arcadia there alone, and it stood to reason that at least Binge would probably be hanging out with them. I supposed Iron Wrought might have continued on to Skull City, and LIL-E could have gone anywhere pursuing her own agenda. However I remembered the vision I’d seen while fighting Moa Gault, and suspected my friends were all still together.

After talking it out amongst my tribesmates it was decided to take the longer trip to Stable 104. There, at least, I knew was a place of relative safety, and I really wanted to reunite with Arcaidia and the others. Tailblaze agreed with me, through she along with the others of my tribe seemed unnerved when I told them of the nature of Stable 104’s residents.

“Spiders...” Trailblaze muttered as she trotted next to me, giving me a sidelong, grumbling stink-eye as I grinned at her, “I did not think anything that creepy could exist! But no, of course you spend a few days out in this desert-”

“Wasteland.”

“Whatever! Wasteland, then. You spend a few days out here and you’re finding things like eight-legged, eight-eyed, fanged, sticky web shooting ponies, and oh, you make friends with them! What is wrong with you!?”

“Hey, they’re a nice enough bunch, when they’re not trying to eat you,” I said with a disarming smile that did nothing to lessen the way Trailblaze was shooting spears at me with her eyes. She huffed, still mumbling under her breath.

“This is why we worked so hard to stay in that valley. Mother knew the rest of the world was insane. What else is out here that I’m going to need to worry about?”

“Well,” I said, thinking the question over seriously, “There’s the Balloons. Those are mutant monsters that are like floating balls of melted together pony faces. Then there’s the radscorpions. Those are giant insect things with huge claws and poison stingers. There are Raiders... basically crazy, murderous ponies that also happen to be cannibals most the time. There’s something called ‘ghouls’ I’ve heard about, but haven’t seen yet, but I hear they’re pretty nasty. Think ‘walking corpse’ and you got the idea. Oh, and let’s not forget about the normal ponies who would be happy to capture you and sell you into slavery. Around these parts they’re under an organization called the Labor Guild. I’m pretty sure there’s plenty of other things, but that’s just what I’ve come across so far.”

Trailblaze snorted, “Is that all? Any other cheerful news to give me? Is there anything out here that isn’t going to be a threat to our lives and sanity?”

“Sure,” I said, “There are ponies out here that are decent enough. There was a whole town of them...”

As I got quiet Trailblaze’s expression turned more concerned than anything else, “Longwalk? What is it?”

“Sorry, bad memories,” I took a deep breath, steadying myself, “Saddlespring was the first town I arrived at. It was a good place. Was. I’d rather not talk about it, but I have to believe there are other towns like it out here where ponies work together to try and make lives for themselves. Stable 104 can be that way, even if the ponies living there are a little different than others. I think it’ll be a safe place for you and the others.”

Tailblaze didn’t immediately reply, and I looked her way to see that she was looking towards the horizon, far off in the direction we were walking. I slowed, squinting my eyes to see if she’d spotted something, but she kept on trotting and didn’t seem concerned about anything, so I shrugged and kept pace. Apparently she was just thinking about something.

I was still getting used to the E.F.S provided by my Pip-Buck, getting a feel for what might be a threat and what wasn’t. Red dots did appear on my field of vision, though distance was impossible to tell. Nine times out of ten the red dots just stayed red dots, whatever caused them never appearing from the ruins around us. A couple of times, though, some small Wasteland critter would rear its head, or even madly charge us. They were nothing big, one time a couple of mole-like beasts half the size of a gecko, another time a few small skittering bugs about the size of a hoof. Each time the critters were dispatched easily enough, through my tribesmates certainly found the creatures startling, and fascinating.

Stone Carver decided to take one of the mole beasts to try and add some meat to our diet, as it didn’t take us long to realize the Odessa rations consisted primarily of dry, flat squares that were crunchy and crumbly, and very salty, but not all that appetizing. The packaging called them ‘crackers’. At least there was also some dry fruit in the rations, which my tribesmates weren’t used to, but after some assurance from me that the fruit was perfectly fine they found it was tasty stuff.

For water we’d explored a few of the more intact buildings. Finding a working faucet took time, and the water that came out did not look at all drinkable, but I decided to test out the ‘water purifiers’ in our supplies. The instructions said one tablet would create both a magical and chemical reaction that would remove most impurities in contaminated water and make it safe to drink. Nopony was eager to volunteer to be the first to test the water, so I grit my teeth and gave it a shot after dropping a tablet into a canteen of dirty faucet water.

The water was warm but didn’t have the horrible taste I’d been expecting, and I didn’t get sick afterwards. The purifiers tested and proven, we filled our canteens and moved on.

So far there had been nothing to indicate that Odessa was tracking us. I heard no sound of Vertibird engines, and my scans of the sky revealed no sign of squadrons of patrolling fliers. That, oddly, didn’t put me at ease, and in fact just made me more nervous. A part me was actually worried about the fate of the Varukisas and its crew. They had managed to fight off that attack, hadn’t they? I hoped Glint and Sunset were alright.

Speaking of sunsets, it was starting to get dark by the time my tribesmates and I came across an interesting sight. The only other buildings we’d seen aside from the remnants of houses was the rare tiny establishment that, when I glanced in them turned out to be stores with practically nothing left inside them. What we came across now was a building unlike anything I’d seen so far in the Wasteland.

It stood atop a low, but wide, flat hill. It was huge compared to the few intact homes I’d seen, easily four or five stories tall. Unlike the houses that seemed to have been made mostly of wood, this building was made almost entirely of stone. It had tall, dark gray walls, with a steepled roof of dark tiles. There were two spires sprouting from the building, one in front, the other in back. The front spire was thinner, ending in a long, spear-like point, from which rose an iron rod shaped like a circle with wave-like protrusions wreathing it, and a crescent shape in the center. The back spire had an open area at its top that held a huge metal object the purpose of which I wasn’t sure of, but it reminded me of kind of a big metal hat with a rope hanging out of it.

Windows could be seen all over the building, tall vertical windows lining the sides and front. These windows, half of them were burned, or melted, or otherwise blasted out, but a few were miraculously intact, having survived the Great Fires from so long ago. I couldn’t make out details from such a distance, but the windows were colored, and seemed to form pictures.

A gate of spear-like iron joined a half broken down fence that surrounded the building, and I saw a large set of stone steps leading to a broken pair of thick wooden double doors that led inside. The entire building had a... solemn air about it. I felt a strange sense of comfort, though, looking at it. As if this place was meant to be some kind of sanctuary, and even the war, and all the horrors of the Wasteland, hadn’t stopped it from serving that purpose.

“Well, that’s looking like a spot to hole up for the night if I ever saw one, “ said Whetstone as she caught up to me and Trailblaze, the rest of our tribesmates right behind her as we lined up at the base of the hill leading up to the building, “Kind of weird looking. Wonder what it was built for?”

“Don’t know,” I said, stepping forward, but holding out a hoof as the others made to follow me, “You guys should wait out here. Let me take a look, just to make sure its safe.”

Stone Carver made a small grunting sound, “I don’t remember you being the stealthiest hunter in the tribe. Why not let another of us scout-”

“No!” I said, faster and sharper than I intended, which earned a flat look from Stone Carver, and I felt a spike of embarrassment as I tried to meet her look, “What I mean is, I have the most experience here with the dangers out here. I have an idea of what to look for that any of you could miss.”

“It’s fine,” said Trailblaze, “Let him look. But, Longwalk, don’t take any chances.”

“What, me take chances?” I said, but the joke clearly fell flat with Trailblaze as she narrowed her eyes at me, and I sighed, “Sorry.”

“Just be careful,” she said.

Since there were portions of the fence that were knocked down I simply went through one of those holes rather than bother with the rusted gate. The hill was barren, with patches of faded, dry yellow grass that crunched under my hooves as I walked by. I followed the trail up the hill and soon found myself at the stone steps leading up into the building. A few dark, dead trees dotted the flat top of the hill, and I wondered what this place must have looked like before the Great Fires. I tried to picture it in my mind, but my mind’s eye almost instantly showed me Snowdrift and I shook my head. Taking a steadying breath and climbed the stairs, trying to step lightly to keep my hooves from making too much noise but... well... you try keeping your hooves quiet on concrete. It didn’t help that everything was eerily silent, with no wind this day to provide even a little background noise.

Much as I had a sense of comfort from seeing the building from a distance, it was imposing up close, towering over me as I got to the top of the stairs and approached the doors. Or rather the open hole where the doors had been before they’d fallen off. Rotted, most splintered and charred husks of wood was all that was left of the doors.

The inside was almost entirely one single space, a vast room with a high vaulted ceiling. There were two long rows of stone benches, now many overgrown with moss and mould. There was a wide aisle between the rows, a ragged, barely intact blue and white carpet rolled out down the aisle leading to the far end of the room. I walked in, slowly, keeping low. I was watching my E.F.S carefully, not seeing any red dots, but not entirely trusting that. I kept scanning for any sign of creature habitation, or that the place might be getting used by Raiders. But I saw neither tracks, spores, or the normal gore graffiti Raiders tended to splatter around their dwellings. I also saw no bodies that could possibly be ghouls. In fact aside from the clear disuse, the interior of the building was remarkably free of debris.

Now that I was inside I could see the windows in more detail, making out the pictures formed from the multi-colored glass. Some were only partially intact, but others were full. Many of them showed green fields, or idyllic looking, simple villages of small thatch roofed buildings. Some showed rivers, others forests, but whatever the scenes were there were always ponies there. Ponies of all colors, sizes, and tribes, shown playing with each other, running, dancing, or just lounging around enjoying the scenery. And always above the ponies was a stylized sun or moon, upon which stood one of two ponies. These ponies were unlike the others, larger, with both wings and horn. One was pure white, the other a dark midnight blue. They were always shown protectively watching over the ponies playing beneath them.

It didn’t take a great mental leap for me guess that these two were the Princesses that B.B had told me about way back in Saddlespring.

Two Princesses, watching over their little ponies.

I wish they’d done a better job of it.

No, that wasn’t really being fair. I didn’t know them. For all I knew those two sisters did everything they could to prevent the coming of the Great Fires. Maybe they couldn’t stop it. The war, the balefire, none of it. It’d be easy to blame them, to throw all the responsibility for the state of the world at their hooves. With Snowdrift’s death fresh in my mind and all the rest of the suffering I’d encountered since leaving (and losing) my home, there was a temptation to just... vent. To let it all out at these convenient scapegoats, these two immaculate goddesses who were once protectors of my race, and were now... what? Missing? Dead? What would be the point of blaming them, even if it was justified? Which it wasn’t. I couldn’t blame it all on those two alicorns.

Us ponies, we’d had over two centuries to get our shit together after the world ended. Can’t really blame any but ourselves for the way things still were. At least there were those out there that were trying. The NCR, settlements like Saddlespring, my own tribe, Misty Glasses and the spider ponies of Stale 104, even Skull City... there were plenty of us trying to make lives for ourselves. The fact that there were also horrible ponies out there, like the Raiders, or the Labor Guild, didn’t change what the rest of us were trying to do.

And would do. Whatever else happened, between me and Arcaidia, or with Odessa, or anything else, I intended to make at least some small part of the world better before I left it.

“Assuming I live long enough...” I muttered.

“Not with how easy you are to sneak up on,” said a voice behind me, which caused me to jump, and wheel about.

Trailblaze bobbed me on the head, looking at my stunned visage with a sardonic, weary smile. After I managed to collect my breath, and my heart which I’m fairly certain had leaped out and skittered away to hide in a corner, I glared at my friend.

“Don’t do that!”

She shrugged, “Don’t space out. If you go scouting someplace, Long, I’d prefer if you wait until you’ve cleared the area to start daydreaming.”

I frowned, ears flattening as I looked away, mollified, “I, uh, just started thinking about things. Nothing on the E.F.S, though. This building looks clear so far.”

Trailblaze cocked her head, blue eyes flicking left and right, “Not a lot here, I’ll agree, but let’s not get cocky. E.F.S... I remember that’s something Arcaidia had on her little hoof device too. Spots threats or something?”

“Basically,” I replied, turning and resuming my slow trot down the middle of the aisle, Trailblaze by my side, “Red dots pop up in my vision showing things that want to get frisky with our internal organs. Green dots are nice, or at least indifferent, things that won’t immediate want us dead.”

“How does a hunk of metal do any of that?” Trailblaze asked, pausing to examine a small metal plate laying upturned between the stone benches, a small pile of tarnished coins littering the floor.

“I haven’t a clue, but I like it,” I said as I reached the end of the aisle. This end of the building had a podium of sorts, stone like the rest of the interior. A raised portion along the back wall held a tall sculpture of entwined metal, silver and gold. It reminded me of a tree, with branches of gently curving metal spreading from a central trunk. To the left and right the branches formed shapes from their entwining, the sun and moon motif again. There were empty notches along the sculpture, none larger than my eye. On closer inspection I saw a single small, green gemstone on the ground that looked about the right size, though there were dozens of notches on the sculpture, all empty. Had somepony stolen the gems? Why? What good would the gems do? They must have been valuable to somepony.

On the stone podium there was the remains of what had once been a book, but the pages were dust, now, and even the thick binding was worn, leaving only the metal image of the two alicorn sisters upon it.

“So,” I asked Trailblaze, “Did you come after me simply because you sensed I was being introspective, or was there another reason?”

Trailblaze trotted towards a doorway along the left side of the far wall once she seemed satisfied there was no danger here in the main room, “Whetstone said I ought to double check on you. She noticed you were, to use her words ‘in a funk’, and likely to get distracted.”

I sighed. So Whetstone was still worried about me? Well, she clearly had good reason. All it’d taken was a few colorful windows to make me forget I’d come in here to check the building for danger, “I”ll have to thank her later.”

I joined Trailblaze by the back door, a mostly intact, thick iron bound affair with a metal loop for opening. I glanced at Trailblaze and she readied herself, giving me a nod. I took a deep breath and gripped the iron loop with my hoof and pulled. The door screeched open, making us both wince. Fortunately no monsters, crazy ponies, or traps assaulted us. Beyond was just a hallway, stretching to the right towards a simple stone flight of stairs. There was another door across from us, but the door wasn’t that important, given the wall itself was crumbled, leaving a huge hole from which daylight poured in.

“Guess we found the back entrance,” I said, and Trailblaze rolled her eyes, holding up a hoof to her lips and making a soft ‘shh’ noise. I returned the eye roll. As if we hadn’t just been talking two minutes ago! Still I did as instructed and kept quiet as Trailblaze snuck forward, hunkered down. Seeing her brown coated form crouched low as she snuck towards the hole in the wall I felt somewhat vindicated. Take that Crossfire! Crouching down is a perfectly acceptable form of stealth!

I joined Trailblaze in crouching down and sneaking forward. One by one we poked our heads around the edge of the hole, peering past fallen blocks of stone. The hole led to the backyard of the building, which was nearly twice the size of the front. The iron fence wrapped all the way around the building back here, with an equal number of missing section. What caught my eye was the extensive series of stone slabs and small stone sculptures, sometimes capped with moons, others suns, even a rare cross. The markers were all in fairly neat, ordered rows, evenly spaced, and I could make out writing on most of them. Towards the back there were a pair of stone buildings, much smaller than the one we were inside. They had a similar look to them, however.

Trailblaze gave me a puzzled look, and I returned it, shrugging. We both walked out cautiously. My E.F.S was still clear, but Trailblaze had reminded me that the device wasn’t perfect. After all, she was supposed to show up on it as a green dot, and now that I was paying attention to her she did, but before that I hadn’t noticed her. However E.F.S worked, it clearly somehow keyed into my own alertness and if I wasn’t paying attention it wouldn’t do me any good.

Walking among the stone markers I could make out what the wording was, though a lot of it was faded. Names, or what I assumed were names, and numbers. Either these markers had pony’s names on them and important dates, or somepony really wanted to remember that there was a ‘Windy Breeze’ from ‘779-796’. More realistically I had already guessed what I was looking at.

After all, I’d seen Shale’s grave, so why wouldn’t I recognize others?

“Longwalk, what are these? You know, don’t you?” Trailblaze’s solemn tone was only matched by her face. She might have suspected what this place was already.

“These are where the ponies of the old world buried their dead,” I said.

Trailblaze’s eyes looked over the markers, easily several hundred spread across the wide yard, and furrowed her brow in a deep frown, “How do their spirits find peace if they’re stuck in the ground like this? How do they find their Ancestors?”

“They don’t...” I hesitated, realizing that I wasn’t honestly sure what ponies believed in these days or why burial was their method of saying goodbye to the dead. I’m sure there were reasons. I decided I should ask B.B about it sometime. “I don’t know. They don’t believe the same things we do. But this is how they do it.”

Trailblaze shuddered, “Long, promise me something.”

“What?”

“If I die, don’t let anypony put me in the ground. Make sure you burn me, so I can get to our Ancestors.”

I stared at her. Suddenly a chill wind swept across the graveyard and I shivered alongside Trailblaze. I moved closer to her, leaning against her slightly. She looked at me, and I saw how hard she was trying to keep it together, keep herself together, after all that had happened. The last thing I wanted to contemplate, or even acknowledge, was how vulnerable, how... not immortal we both were. A few weeks ago we were just two young ponies with no worries beyond the next hunt or set of chores we’d need to do. Death was the last thing on our minds. No longer, those days. They were gone, and my best friend was scared of dying and being buried in the cold ground.

“Hey,” I said, leaning in a bit more, my shoulder touching hers, “If it happens, I’ll take care of it myself. Just don’t make me have to, Trail. Let’s not make either of us go through that. Not anytime soon, anyway.”

She looked away, beautiful blue eyes staring out across a dead, gray Wasteland that didn’t deserve to have eyes like that behold it. I could see the anxiety, the stress, the fears, all of it being shoved back deep into those eyes as she pulled herself up. Strength and fire were back on those eyes, and she smiled at me, pushing me away with a playful shove.

“Alright, alright, I’ll stop being morose. No dying for either of us. Not until we’re old, withered ponies with bad knees and worse teeth.”

“Speak for yourself,” I said, “I plan to age gracefully and retain all of my teeth in the process.”

“Not the way you fight.”

“Pfft, bet I could take you, now that I’m a hardened, veteran of the Wasteland!”

“Oh? Sounds let a challenge to me,” she said, turning to face me, a coy eyebrow raised.

I held up my hooves in surrender, “Whoa, whoa, didn’t say I wanted to throw down right now! We’re on recon, remember? Scouting dangerous areas, so our tribe has a safe place to sleep for the night.”

She flicked her tail, laughing under her breath, “Guess I’ll spare you for now, since you’re being all responsible.”

Like that the dour mood was gone and we were back to a semblance of normalcy; perhaps the most valuable thing of all in the Wasteland. Talk of death was forgotten and for even just a few precious minutes we were just two friends shooting the breeze, almost like how we were when out hunting.

----------

The rest of the building and its surrounding area proved to be miraculously danger free. I felt like the Wasteland was trying to fake me out, and kept expecting horrible monsters to spring from the ground or a band of Raiders to come howling from the surrounding ruins at any minute while the rest of my tribemates made themselves at home inside the building.

Trailblaze and my exploration of the building earlier had revealed a upper floor with plenty of rooms that had probably once been sleeping quarters for whoever had lived here. Old mouldy bedding and broken down furniture was plentiful. There was also a room I imagined was some kind of meeting room or study for somepony, with its larger desk, and bookshelves. There wasn’t much to scourge, despite my thorough searching. Some stray bottle caps, ever prevalent in the Wasteland, and a lot of random knick knacks, the only bit of which seemed useful was this gray roll of sticky stuff I thought might come in handy later and added to my saddlebags.

There were more stairs leading up into the back tower, through these stairs were wooden, and looked ready to collapse. I saw the rope dangling from that metal hat thing fell all the way down to the bottom of the tower. I resisted the urge to pull it. Knowing my luck I’d just end up crushing myself, rather than learn the purpose of the metal hat.

Another, shorter staircase on the second floor, just above the front doors, led to a roof access. Despite the steepled nature of the roof the very tip of the steeple was actually flat, forming a walkway wide enough for one or two ponies to trot across. The roof offered a rather nice view of the surrounding area in all its barren, dirty Wasteland glory.

Night was approaching fast, and my tribesmates and I enjoyed a simple meal. Stone Carver wanted to cook the mole beast she’d caught, but I advised against fire. At night, light would give away our position. For the same reason we agreed to wait until morning to burn Snowdrift. Rock Roller had insisted on carrying her body that day, and he kept a protective watch over her, rarely straying far from where he’d set her down near the podium in the main chamber. I’d wanted us to use the second floor to rest, but it seemed my tribesmates were more comfortable in the main room. Which was well enough. We’d used the last of the daylight to barricade both entrances with the broken furniture from the second floor and a few of the stone benches. Us earth ponies can move a lot of stuff in a short span of time when we want to.

While everypony slowly got tired and started to drop off for sleep I headed upstairs. I’d agreed to take first watch of the night and would wake up Whetstone in about three or four hours so she’d take second watch. I made my way to the roof, what seemed to be the best spot to maintain my vigil. Up there I could see all around the building for quite a distance, and hopefully my E.F.S would make up the difference of crappy night vision.

The problem with being on watch duty comes from having to be alert for long periods of nothing happening. The mind rebels against that kind of thing, wanting ways to distract itself from boredom, even though doing that is exactly the kind of thing that makes you drop your guard. For the first half hour time crawled by at a snail’s pace. The cloud cover above had thinned out in a few places, letting slivers of pale moonlight to break through, but all this did was illuminate tiny fragments of the Wasteland, and didn’t provide anywhere near enough light for me to see much of anything clearly. For the most part the world was a shadowy ocean of irregularly shifting blackness. My hearing felt sharper, my attention focusing on the sounds around me and less on sight.

So I heard the pony coming up the stairs well before Whetstone showed up. I knew it was her, despite the lack of light. There was enough that making out her gray coat and braided mane wasn’t too hard once she got close.

“What’s up, Whet?” I asked as she came up, plopping down next to me.

“Meh, can’t sleep, figured I’d just keep you company until you felt like turning in for the night,” she said.

“You going to be good for your watch?”

“Oh, yeah, I’m good. Like I said, sleep’s kinda elusive right now. Mind won’t shut up,” she said, yawning, as if to prove her body was plenty tired at least. I gave her a look for a few seconds longer, then shrugged it off and resumed my watch.

Whetstone and I shared a long silence, stretching past my first hour of watch. Then, rather abruptly, Whetstone spoke up.

“Longwalk, can I ask you a serious question?”

“Go for it.”

It was hard to make out the details on Whetstone’s face in the dark, but I could sense the tension in her body, a sudden stiffness in her posture, and the sharp intake of breath she took before speaking, “Do you have a thing for Trail?”

I blinked. On my list of possible questions that was, perhaps, the least likely one I’d thought she’d ask. My surprised silence seemed to answer for her because she let out a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a sigh, “Yeah, figured. You had that look.”

“What look?” I asked, and even I realized how defensive my tone was and balked.

“You look at her differently now. I noticed it back in the cave, when those pegasi first brought you and her in. The way you look at her isn’t the same as it was back in the village. There’s... how to put it? Before, you just looked like normal, happy, goofy Longwalk when around Trail. Now, it’s still that, but there’s something more. A want. A need. You want her. I can see it.”

“I...” my voice trailed off as I tried to order my thoughts. Could I actually deny what Whetstone was saying? I already knew I had feelings for Trailblaze that were budding into something well beyond friendship. “I think I do.”

There was a heavy sigh from Whetstone at that. I looked at her, peering through the dark, and saw she had a sad, worried frown on her face that didn’t fit Whetstone’s generally upbeat attitude. Why did she look that way, and why did she care if I liked Trailblaze or not? Turns out the answer was much simpler than I could have imagined.

“I figured as much. Trail doesn’t know. I don’t think she’s noticed it the way I have, but you and her have been close for so long I guess she’s got of a bit of a blind spot where you’re concerned. Longwalk... I really, really don’t like having to say what I got to say next, because I like you. You’re a good friend to Trail, and I see you as a good friend to me. Makes this hard, but Trail doesn’t know how you feel, and if you straight up told her it’d probably be even harder hearing this from her...”

She took a deep breath, as if she were psyching herself up, and I just stared at her, wondering what this was all about.

“Trail and me are together,” she said.

I tilted my head slightly, “Together?”

“Together.”

“As in... together together?”

“Yes, together together.”

My brain did a few little acrobatic flips of mental processing, trying to suss out the meaning of these words. All sorts of mental images rapidly flashed by, along with a small tidal wave of complicated emotions I’m not sure I could explain in words had I years and thousands of pages to do it with.

“So Trail... likes mares...?”

“Yes.”

“And you also like mares?”

“Well, I like stallions too. I’m kind of willing to be on either end of the spear, as it were.”

Mental image not needed, thank you Whetstone. In the rather maelstrom-like deluge of half completed thoughts and confused emotions swirling around inside me I asked the next most logical question, “How long?”

“About a year. We, uh, well, I asked her first, while we were out hunting one day, just us two, you know? She wasn’t sure how she felt about being with another mare, and it was a little weird for us both at first, but after a few weeks-”

I interrupted her, holding up a hoof, “That’s alright Whet, I, um, don’t think I need the day to day details.”

Awkward silence came back with a vengeance. I sat there, not knowing what to think or feel. The warm, happy feeling I got when I thought of Trailblaze was still there, but now it had company in the form of a large helping heap of guilt, disappointment, fear, anger, foolishness, and shame. It was a nice, volatile cocktail of emotion simmering at a low boil and I didn’t know what to do with it.

“Long, look,” Whetstone said, her tone mimicking the emotional swirl I was feeling. Clearly she wasn’t any happier with this than I was, “I’m sorry I had to tell you this, but I felt it was better this way than you coming onto Trail and her having to be the one to tell you. We’re in dangerous territory and I didn’t want this coming up at a more critical moment.”

“Yeah, because I’d totally confess to Trail the fact I love her in the middle of a battle,” I said, unable to keep a little sarcasm out of my voice.

“That’s not what I mean, Long. I mean if you dropped that on Trail, like, tomorrow or the next day, during our trek to your friend’s place, and then we came under attack, do you really want Trail distracted by worrying about you then? Because you know she would.”

I couldn’t argue her logic. She was right. Trailblaze would worry about me after having to reject me like that. It’d be the kind of thing that’d stick in her mind and distract her, even when she couldn’t afford to be distracted. Whetstone was right to spot my feelings and head this issue off before it came to that. I ought to be grateful. Didn’t change I felt like a pony that’d just gotten bucked in the gut.

“I understand,” I said at length, “Thanks, Whet, for telling me.”

I perked up, forcing a bit of false cheer into my stance and tone, “And its good you two are together. There needs to be some happiness to be had out here, and if two of my friends are making each other happy, then what else can I do except also be happy for them?”

I must have been a terrible liar, because Whetstone’s face, while she smiled, was still drawn in a sad cast. She reached out with a hoof, touching my withers, “Longwalk, thank you. Seriously, for everything. You’ve always been there for Trail, and I couldn't ask for a better pony to be watching her back. I love her, and there’s nopony I’d trust more to watch out for her than you. You understand?”

I did. Of course I did. After all if our positions were reversed I’d feel the same way towards Whetstone, happy to know there was a pony I could count on watching out for Trailblaze. As a friend. Friend... well, I’d been Trailblaze’s friend all my life. Why should I feel bad about staying her friend for the rest of our lives? A friend, and nothing more. I pushed the thought aside. What right did I have to get moopy over this anyway!? Snowdrift died yesterday! How could I sit here pining over my feelings for Trailblaze when we hadn’t even properly mourned our dead yet!?

Not to mention we were still in danger, and would be as long as we were traveling the Wasteland.

“I understand,” I told Whetstone, “And I’m going to watch both of your backs. You’re my friend too, Whet, and doubly so now that I know just how close you and Trail are. Just call me Mr. Bodyguard, now.”

Whetstone chuckled, patting my shoulder, “Don’t get too vigilant. Me and Trail will need some alone time every now and then, you know.”

Okay, that brought up mental images I didn’t need floating around in my head! I felt the heat on my face and didn’t need Whetstone’s soft giggle to confirm that I was lit up like a torch. Was probably telegraphing our position to everything within miles. I managed to give Whetstone a bit of a glare.

“I’ll endeavor to retrain myself from standing watch while you two do... whatever mares do with each other...” I paused, honestly thinking about it for a second, and blurted out without thinking, “How does that even work?”

Whetstone’s grin was from ear to ear, and dripping with coy suggestion, “Well, Long, let me put it like this. I can touch tip of my snout with my tongue.”

She demonstrated, extending her tongue an impressive distance to curl around her nose. She then very slowly drew her tongue back into her mouth, waving it back and forth all the way. My eyes followed the movements, wide like saucers, and those aforementioned mental images back tenfold. Whetstone gave a little bow.

“Well… uh...” I said, “I guess that would work.”

“Wonders,” Whetstone confirmed.

“I think I need to get back to paying attention to the big, dark, scary Wasteland filled with things that can kill us in horrible ways.”

“Right, right, good point!” Whetstone said, suddenly looking embarrassed, “Sorry Long, didn’t know when I’d get another chance to talk to you about this where we’d be, you know, alone without anypony overhearing the personal stuff.”

“That’s fine, I get it,” on impulse I gave her a quick hug, which seemed to surprise her as she gave a tiny, quiet yelp as I did so, “You go get some sleep. You got second watch, remember?”

“Meh, me and sleep haven’t gotten along well lately anyway,” said Whetstone, returning the hug, “But I’ll try to.”

“And that means no sexy tongue time with Trail tonight,” I said, adopting a faux admonishing tone, trying to emulate my mother’s no nonsense voice as I waggled a hoof at her, “She needs sleep too!”

“Oh dear Ancestors you’re going to be like one of those overprotective brother-types aren’t you?” Whetstone said, and I grinned at her, for the moment my mood brightened a little.

“Relentlessly.”

Whetstone laughed, and we broke the hug, “G’night Long.”

“Good night Whet, see you in a few hours.”

After she was gone I settled back down and resumed my watch over the vast blackness of the nighttime Wasteland. My thoughts were still muddled, my emotions confused as ever. That warmth I felt for Trailblaze, the warmth that had been growing bit by bit ever since I left her behind in Shady Stream... well it was still there. That feeling was strong as ever, actually, and with it was confusion and pain over knowing that Trail and I were never going to be anything more than just good, close friends.

I laughed at myself, shaking my head. The world wasn’t going to cut me any slack because I was confused over finding out my best friend, who I also just recently realized I was in love with, was actually into mares and already involved with another pony.

With no small amount of effort I cleared my head, if not my heart, and kept up my vigil well past the point where I was supposed to go wake up Whetstone for her watch.

---------

By the time morning came around I hadn’t gotten that much sleep. I had eventually gone to let Whetstone take over my watch, but even then, despite being dead tired, I had trouble letting sleep take me. Fortunately when I did drop off into slumberland it was, for once, a blissfully dream free one. Well... not entirely. I didn’t dream, per se, but I had the strangest sensation of somepony watching me, even in my sleep, and when I awoke it was with a start, my head looking about as if I expected to see somepony standing over me.

“You okay Long?” asked Trailblaze, who wasn’t far off. I’d slept down in the main floor with everypony else, and I noticed that I was apparently that last one to awake, as the rest of my tribesmates were either not in the room, or standing with Trailblaze.

“Uh, yeah,” I said, yawning and standing up, rubbing a hoof over my face.

“You sure?” she asked, coming over, “You could sleep a bit longer if you want. Stone Carver just started breakfast. Won’t be ready for at least half an hour.”

I shook my head, then glanced around sharply, “She’s cooking that mole beast from yesterday?”

Trailblaze must have noticed something in my voice, “Don’t worry, she’s keeping an eye out, and we dug a fire pit with an air tunnel to keep the smoke down.”

I breathed easier. I should’ve thought of it myself yesterday, but had completely spaced out on the technique. My tribe liked its isolation, but our hunters had sometimes traveled in areas where ponies from the Wasteland might wander, either to hunt or be scouts against possible trouble. For that kind of situation there was a type of pit you could dig that kept smoke from fire down, and hid the light from the fire. These pits were usually about a hooflength deep, and you also dug a small side tunnel upwind of the main pit, which provides airflow to the fire in the pit, and keeps the smoke dispersed.

Unfortunately we couldn’t do the same for a funeral pyre. I figured we’d just have to take the risk, but if we timed it so we were ready to leave immediately after saying our farewells to Snowdrift we could be away before any dangerous sorts like Raiders spotted the smoke from the pyre.

I stretched and after answering the call of nature on the opposite side of the hill I took the half hour before breakfast to walk the perimeter of the hill, staying low to keep my profile from being easily spotted, and just kept watch on the Wasteland. For all the danger I knew existed in it, the dead, broken expanse seemed so empty and quiet it was all too easy to forget how easily ponies died out here. Though, honestly, if the sky was clear, and one did a little cleanup, it might not look so bad. I could see civilization rebuilding itself. All the base materials were still out there. You just had to get rid of all the things that wanted to eat you, and get crazy ponies like Raiders to… stop being Raiders. Probably through violence. Much as I hated to admit it I never really expected to run into another strange case like Binge.

Thinking of Binge made me think of my other friends, and how they were doing. I looked at my Pip-Buck, switching the screen to the map. Arcaidia’s Pip-Buck tag was still at Stable 104. I wondered what they were doing there? Were they waiting for me? Could they track me by my Pip-Buck the same way I tracked Arcaidia? They might know, then, that I was on my way back. At least they’d know where I was, more or less.

“Food’s up!”

“GAH!”

I jumped, turning about to see Trailblaze grinning at me. I let out a heavy breath.

“Didn’t we have this conversation already!? Do you just get twisted pleasure from making my heart skip a beat?”

Wow, that could be misinterpreted. Luckily Trailblaze waved it off, “We did. I thought you said you’d stop daydreaming, but I keep catching you doing it. Come on, let’s go eat.”

I grumbled wordlessly under my breath as I followed her, mostly because I didn’t have a comeback for her. As usual, Trailblaze had my number.

Everypony gathered around the small pit where Stone Carver had just finished cooking the mole beast over a spit made from one of the branches of the blackened trees in the area. The big mare was cutting off hunks of the freshly cooked meat with one of the survival knives gained from the escape pod’s supplies. My tribesmates had armed themselves with those knives, but I saw a few had gotten creative, pulling out spikes of iron from the rusted fence line and tied the knives to the ends using strips of cloth taken from the ruined furniture in the huge building to create makeshift spears. Only I and Whetstone were armed differently, I with Gramzanber, Whetstone with the energy pistol she’d taken from the Odessa mare back on the Varukisas. Rock Roller had apparently abandoned the pistol he’d taken in favor of a makeshift spear, and I couldn’t blame him, I couldn’t hit anything with those things either.

Conversation was light as we ate. Nopony was up for the usual joking and chat that commonly came with the tribe sharing a meal. Probably didn’t help that there were only eight of us left out of a tribe of over a hundred. Really put a damper on the communal spirit. I had to believe the rest of the tribe would survive long enough for me to figure out some way to rescue them. I tried not to think about what might be happening to them, my mother included.

Trailblaze, sitting next to me as we munched roasted (and tasty!) mole beast nudged me with her shoulder, giving me a small, calming smile. I returned it. She must have seen my worried face. I returned the shoulder bump as well, silently nodding to her in thanks. Whatever happened next, I knew I wouldn’t be facing it alone.

Whetstone, sitting on Trailblaze’s other side, smiled as well and leaned against the other mare. Trailblaze leaned back, eyes closing in contentment, or at least a decent facsimile of it given the circumstances. Looking at the pair, their tails wagging happily as they leaned on each other, I wondered how I didn’t notice earlier how close they were. Whetstone had been Trailblaze’s friend for as long as I had been. How had I missed the signs?

Easy. I hadn’t been looking for them.

Suppressing a sigh I went back to my mole beast, trying to forget the distinct possibility that I was probably ingesting some trace amounts of magical radiation with my meal.

Once everypony had finished eating we put out the fire, cleaned up, and then it was on to the grim duty of Snowdrift. Building the pyre was physically easy, but emotionally taxing. The dead trees offered plenty of wood for the task, but every movement was weighed down by the knowledge of what we were doing and why. In short order, however, we had our pyre, built in front of the massive stone building in front of the steps leading to its main doors. We were all lined up in front of the pyre while Rock Roller, who insisted upon taking on the duty, gently and reverently carried Snowdrift to the stacked pile of wood.

I tried to not see the tears on Rock Roller’s face as he laid Snowdrift on the pyre. I had no idea just how close the two were, but only a blind moron would miss how hard this was for him. Again the events in the hangar replayed in my mind. I knew asking myself if there was anything I could have done differently was pointless, but sometimes the mind is its own worst enemy. It didn’t help that I also thought of Shale. The situations were different, but that didn’t stop the present circumstances from opening up that not-so-old wound.

While I was mired in my thoughts Trailblaze began the rites. Normally the tribe’s Chieftain and shaman would be performing these duties, but we didn’t have anypony resembling a shaman, and Trialblaze, as Hard Tact’s daughter, held the duty of standing in for the Chieftain’s role. I saw her swallow hard before speaking, her own eyes shimmering with tears she held in check. I couldn’t help but respect how steady she kept her voice.

“Ancestors, whose voice we hear on the winds, whose lives gave us life, and watch over us in this world, hear us. One comes to you now, who we call sister, friend, and family. Let the warmth of our love for her, and the guiding light of fire see her safely to your embrace. Welcome her, as you have welcomed all who have come before you, so she may watch over we who remain behind.”

There was normally more to be said by the shaman, rituals to help prepare the spirit for its journey, and beseeching prayers for the Ancestors Spirits to draw their gaze. Without the shaman to do this Trailblaze simply proceeded to the next, more intimate portion of the funeral rite. She approached the pyre, reaching out, to lay her hoof gently on Snowdrift’s face. When she spoke this time it was in a quieter voice, but since it was so silent out in the Wastleand we could still all hear her clearly.

“Fire frees the spirit. You are my friend, and I will remember the day you first taught me to whistle.”

This rite was normally done with only the members of the tribe who were closest to the deceased, but we’d all agreed that since we’d all escaped together, and that Snowdrift’s direct blood relatives were not present, that all of us needed to do this for her. In turn each of us came up to the pyre, to lay our hoof on Snowdrift’s body, and say the words, each with a memory we would carry, whatever memory was most bright in our minds of the pony we were saying goodbye to.

“Fire frees the spirit. You are my friend, and I will remember watching the stars with you.”

“Fire frees the spirit. You are my friend, and will remember when we stayed up all night to finish making our first spears together.”

“Fire frees the spirit. You are my friend, and I remember showing you how to stand up for yourself when you got teased.”

“Fire frees the spirit. You are my friend, and I won’t forget how awesome you were that one hunt, nopony thought you could make a throw that far, but you nailed that gecko before it got away.”

“Fire frees the spirit. You are you are my friend, and I will always remember the day my father got sick and you helped me watch over him.”

Finally it was my turn, and I came up. My hooves felt heavy, and I had a cold weight in my stomach as I looked at the body on the pyre. I slowly touched Snowdrift’s cold face with my hoof. I gulped, mouth dry, memory flashing to the moments in the hangar, Snowdrift dragging my wounded body to safety as magical bolts rained down around us. My mind’s eye saw that final moment when the Odessa soldier faced us in the narrow corridor in front of the escape pod entrance, and the way Snowdrift didn’t hesitate to pull me inside even as the soldier fired.

With a final, deep breath, I said the words, “Fire frees the spirit. You are my friend, and I won’t ever forget that you saved my life.”

I stood aside, joining the others as Rock Roller, the last of us to approach the pyre, raised a trembling hoof to Snowdrift’s face. His voice was little more than a whisper.

“Fire frees the spirit. You are... more than a friend. I will never forget the fact that I love you.”

Rock Roller seemed ready to collapse as he shuffled away from the pyre. Trailblaze gave him a solemn nod, and hugged him, even as Rock Roller visibly battled the need to break down crying. Once he composed himself, Rock Roller nodded to Trailblaze who then turned to face the pyre. This was normally the point the shaman would light the pyre, but Trailblaze would now take that duty.

Stepping forward, she raised a hoof, and took a deep breath. Coils of fire traced around her hoof. The others exchanged glances, some shuffling nervously. They’d seen Trailblaze use the fire in our escape, but had been so focused on the need to get away that her new abilities had really registered to them, yet. Now there were mixed looks of fear and awe on their faces, save for Whetstone who seemed calm. I wasn’t too worried. I figured they’d get used to Trail’s fire, given time, but it reminded me that I still needed to talk with her about Moa Gault and what the Guardian had done to her.

The fires gathered at the tip of her hoof, and Trailblaze released them in a gentle stream that washed over the pile of dark, dead wood. The pyre ignited easily, flames and smoke quickly billowing upwards into the sky, and engulfing the form of Snowdrift.

I watched the flames consume the body as I prayed for the spirit.

It didn’t take more than ten minutes for the fire to start to die down, ten minutes where we all stood silently watching, my tribesmates and I sharing the silence as we mourned our dead. Watching the long, black trail of smoke reach into the sky, I frowned. I didn’t like it, but I knew we couldn’t afford to stay here long, with that signal giving away our position to anypony or anything within miles.

Heart heavy, but knowing I needed to get us moving, I turned to Trailblaze, about to tell her it was time for us to go, but just as my mouth opened to speak, another voice spoke loud and clearly, filled with amusement and mock caring.

“Aww, isn’t this just such a sweet, heartwarming sight? Giving respect to the dead by burning the shit out of them. Just a suggestion for you folk, when you’re running from a group comprised mostly of people who can fly, you might not want to give away where you are with a giant smoke signal.”

All of us turned, eyes searching upwards to spot the speaker. She was standing on top of the steepled roof of the large stone building. I immediately recognized the pegasus mare from her dark red coat and silver mane of two curly pigtails. It was Black Petal, wearing a very short cut white and blue Odessa uniform, one that left her withers and upper chest bare, and only partially covered her flanks, but with long sleeves on her forelegs with wide, white cuffs. She wasn’t alone, either, next to her was Shattered Sky, wearing his more utilitarian uniform and customary glasses. He gave Black Petal a displeased look.

“Did you have to announce our presence? Taking them by surprise would have been more tactically viable.”

Black Petal giggled, making a waving gesture with her right hoof. The air seemed to ripple like water and I saw her hoof disappear as if it were entering a liquid space, and out of it she pulled the large silver key I’d seen her floating on earlier. She twirled the large object around like it was a twig, and not a metal object the same size as she was. The key had a long, straight shaft, its teeth block-like and reminding me of a hammer. The other end of it was capped by a hexagonal piece, the core of which had a blue gem set in it.

“I think the words you’re looking for there, Shattered, is ‘booooring’! I want to have fun, for once, and I’d appreciate it if you played along a little. Its more entertaining if they get the chance to struggle a little,” Black Petal said in a cooing tone, and then lifted off the roof, flying down slowly towards us.

Shattered Sky rolled his eyes, adjusting his glasses, “Do remember the goal is to recapture the escapees of value. Kill the others if you want, but leave the two valuable targets alive. I’ll call the others.”

“Nope! Don’t you dare make that call! I don’t want anypony to interfere with my fun!” Black Petal chided, flying right back up to him as if we weren’t there.

I took advantage of the distraction to edge closer to Trailblaze, who was glaring up at the two pegasi with fire in her eyes. Not literal fire in her eyes, I feel I should clarify, just the normal Traiblaze glare. Its so strange to think I need to make that distinction now. Bumping her with my shoulder I got her to look at me and I whispered, “Get the others inside. I’ll draw their attention. When I do, ru-”

I didn’t finish the sentence before Trailblaze interrupted with a firm tone, “Not happening this time Longwalk. You’re not playing decoy for us again. We fight them together.”

I stiffened, my voice becoming more desperate, “Trail, these aren’t normal Odessa soldiers! They’re both part of some special, elite unit that have weapons like my spear. I don’t even know if I can take on one of them, let alone two!”

“All the more reason for us to fight as a group,” said Whetstone, coming up beside us. The gray mare gave me a reassuring smile, then nodded to Trailblaze, “Trail is right. We run, they’ll just hunt us down like animals. If I’m going down, and not in the fun, licking way, I’m going down kicking somepony in the face.”

“Exactly,” said Stone Carver, hefting her spear in her mouth, “Not the ‘going down’ part, that was awkward and more than I wanted to know, but the fighting part. We owe these pegasi a heap of payback, and I’m tired of running!”

I could see it in the eyes of the others as well, all of them brandishing their weapons with looks of grim resolve. They weren’t going to flee this time. My heart clenched. I didn’t want them fighting here! Shattered Sky I already knew as ruthless and deadly, and I didn’t doubt Black Petal would be just as dangerous! I had no confidence I could protect any of them while trying to fight foes like this. I honestly didn’t know if I could match just one of them.

But it was clear I was about to find out, and that like it or not my tribesmates were going to be right there next to me. Rather than fear for their lives I wanted to take heart in their presence, but with Snowdrift’s body still burning behind us, it was hard not to let the fear take root. I didn’t want to have to repeat funerals for anypony else today, or anyday for that matter.

Meanwhile Shattered Sky and Black Petal had been arguing with each other as if we weren’t even there, the darker colored pegasus mare waving her forelegs around at Shattered Sky. Her silver key just floated next to her, seemingly under its own power.

“No, no, no, NO! I swear to any higher powers you want to waste time believing in if you call the others and ruin my day I will remove your rectum through your throat and bury you under this church!”

Shattered Sky seemed less than intimidated by the tirade, casually blowing a bit of his own white mane from his face and wiping a bit of Black Petal’s spittle from his face as he blinked at her, “I understand you’re just a liaison to us from your... unique family, but you still must follow Odessa protocols while you wear our uniform. Or that indecently cut version of or uniform, at any rate. I don’t doubt our ability to deal with these escapees, but why take risks when Hammerfall and Francheska are also on patrol and could be here within twenty minutes?”

“Sure, let others swoop in to claim credit,” retorted Black Petal, which caused Shattered Sky to raise an eyebrow. This seemed to encourage Black Petal to go on, “You know those two will take credit for recapturing these guys, even if its use that do most the work. You just said yourself you know we can take them, so why bother involving anyone else when you know we’ve got this? Then all the credit is ours. Or yours. I just want to have fun, so you can claim the capture as yours, I don’t really care.”

Shattered Sky pursed his lips in thought, looking at the hovering mare before him who was grinning with a wide, hungry smile, and he finally sighed, “I’m only agreeing to this in order to keep you from whining at me later. However I’m setting a strict time limit of ten minutes on this. If by some chance they’re causing us issues after ten minutes, I’m calling for reinforcements.”

“Yay!” Black Petal cried out, doing a little flip in the air, giving Shattered Sky a fast hug which he pulled away from, or at least tried to and failed, “This is going to be great. It’s been so long since I’ve gotten to eat live pony! You Odessa stiffs only feed me that pre-packaged crap! Not today! Today Black Petal dines on fresh, warm, yummy pony, and I get to play with my food first!”

Her celebration was cut somewhat short by the bolt of fire that seared by her head, causing Black Petal to make a sharp yelp, then turn to glare down at Trailblaze, “Hey, you mind!? Having a moment here!”

Down on the ground I frowned, and said, “Trail, I think you missed.”

Trailblaze grimaced, her hoof still afire, “Still figuring out how these flames work, okay? I think there was a crosswind or something!”

“Oh, sure, blame the wind for bad aim.”

“You know, you’re a lot closer than those two right now.”

“Point taken,” I said, gripping Gramzanber tightly in my jaw. Our ranged attack options were limited to Trailblaze’s fire, Whetstone’s pistol, and my spear, which I wasn’t keen on throwing unless I could guarantee a hit. Trailblaze, probably realizing the tactical situation faster than I did, made a few quick whistles and gestures. Hunting code. Everypony else in the tribe immediately spread out forming a loose circle around Trailblaze, Whetstone, and myself. It was a simple set up, using one group as bait, while the rest of the hunters in the party formed a ‘net’ around the bait group.

“Cute,” I heard Black Petal say, and she glanced at Shattered Sky, “I want the stallion first, you can play around with the sparky one in the meantime.”

I tensed, expecting to see her charge. I almost didn’t. She didn’t pull off Shattered Sky’s disappearing trick, but she crossed the distance between us so fast I was barely able to follow it. She left a pale white streak in her wake, and I never imagined that a pegasus could fly that fast. The only thing that I’d seen that matched it was Rainbow Dash when I saw her in the memory orb. Black Petal went from the top of the building (didn’t she call it a ‘church’, whatever that was?) to being right next to me in the span of a second, landing on the ground with an impact that sent up a cloud of dirt.

“Hiya,” I heard her sugary sweet voice say the moment before her hoof flicked towards my face.

I rolled, throwing myself away from the blow, but it still caught me partially across the jaw. I felt my whole head ring, and teeth rattle, at the impact as I jumped away. Black Petal didn’t even give me a split second to recover, coming in at me with a quick, powerful flap of her wings. Her teeth were wide in a mad grin, and her fangs were now clear to see. She swung her hoof and that silver key of hers swung with it, moving along with her hoof as if somehow attached to her by invisible wires. Instinctively I moved Gramzanber to parry, swinging the spear’s serrated edge to intercept the massive key.

There was a sound much like metal striking metal, but with a distorted, echoing quality to it. A small flash of unnatural silver sparks flew from where spear and key met, and my whole body shook from the force behind the blow. I found myself skidding back, hooves leaving grooves in the dirt. My head rung, but I cleared it quickly with a hard shake, just in time to parry a vicious overhead swing as Black Petal flew up, then down in a short arc, smashing the key down at me. This time I backed away, deflecting more than trying to outright block the attack. That same echoing, distorted ring of metal sounded as the two ARMs met, and silver sparks filled the air between us, but I maintained a stronger stance this time as the key got deflected into the ground.

I heard gunshots, and glanced out of the corner of my eye to see how Trailblaze was doing. Running, as it turned out. Not running away, but Trailblaze had quickly learned that when dealing with opponents armed with guns it was a good idea to keep moving. As Shattered Sky flew above her Trailblaze had dove among the grave markers, using the stone slabs and statues as cover. Now they were engaged in a firefight, literally in Trailblaze’s case. For the brief second I had to watch I saw Trailblaze dive from one grave to another, throwing a bolt of fire at Shattered Sky as she dove. In return Shattered Sky would evade the flames with deft, quick flight patterns, then shoot back with his long barreled pistol. From the frustration on his face it was clear he was annoyed by the fact he couldn’t shoot to kill on Trailblaze, but it was only a matter of time before he decided to attack one of the others of the tribe.

For their part they’d taken Trailblaze’s example and were taking cover among the grave markers, most of them waiting to line up throws with their spears. I saw Stone Carver make a very precise throw that would have caught Shattered Sky cleanly if he hadn’t done his disappearing act, instantly vanishing out of harms way only to reappear nearby in the same moment.

I could see no more of that fight, however, as Black Petal was giving me little to no breathing room. Recovering her key from the ground, pulling it free and quite intentionally spraying a big clod of dirt at my face in the process, she thrusted straight at me with the tip of the key aimed for my chest. I thrust forward to meet her, determined to regain the momentum in the fight, but something strange happened. That same water-like ripple from before appeared in the air and the key vanished, and Black Petal gracefully leapt into the air over my spear.

“Tag!” she called playfully as I was slammed in the side by her key, which appeared from that water-like ripple once again, only from a completely different angle than it had been before. My lungs had the air blasted out of them as the blow sent my flying, then rolling along the ground. I stopped short of one of the gravestones, and rolled aside as Black Petal flashed forward, smashing the gravestone apart with her key.

I made a quick backslash with Gramzanber that forced her to jump back, and she landed in a reared down stance, tail wagging in a manner that reminded me far too much of Binge.

“You having fun?” she asked, “Your blood pumping? Blood tastes better when its got fresh adrenaline in it; adds a nice little kick.”

“Oh I just love having crazy bloodsucking mares trying to beat me to death with giant keys! No I’m not having fun! Besides, aren’t you supposed to capture me alive?” I said, catching my breath, and readying myself to strike.

“Hey, doesn’t mean I can’t grab a quick nibble. Oh, but before lunch, I got an important question to ask you!” she said, just as Whetstone popped up from behind another nearby grave marker and fired off a series of fast shots with her laser pistol. Black Petal didn’t even bother dodging the red bolts. Instead that water ripple flowed through the air with a sweep of her key, and the energy bolts were absorbed into the ripple. Black Petal glanced behind her, wagging a hoof.

“Ah, ah, ah, no interrupting the adults while they’re talking!”

Suddenly the ripple appeared again, and from it the very same energy beams that Whetstone fired shot out back at her. Whetstone shouted in alarm, diving back into cover. At the same moment, charging in from the side, Rock Roller came at Black Petal with his spear lowered. Black Petal actually sighed as she twisted away from him and lashed out with a hoof, clotheslining Rock Roller and landing the stallion flat on his back, writhing.

“Really, can’t have any kind of conversation here, can we? Let’s move things a smidge!” Black Petal said with an annoyed snort as she kicked Rock Roller away with a single hindhoof, actually lifting him off the ground and sending him flying into a nearby gravestone, where he crumbled to the ground in a heap. I didn’t know if he was still conscious or even alive after that, but I rushed in at Black Petal, chopping down heavily with Gramzanber. I wasn’t any more keen to kill at this point, but she’d already clearly proven that I couldn’t afford to pull my swings with her either. If I saw an opening, I’d disable her, but I until then I had to fight like I intended to kill.

Black Petal swung her key around, catching Gramzanber’s edge on the long shaft of the key, right below the teeth, and she smiled at me, her wings buzzing. I felt her body straining to push me back as I in turn pushed down with all my strength, trying to force her to the ground.

“Mmmm, not bad at all,” Black Petal said appreciatively as she held firm against me, and her nose twitched, “Well muscled, but not a lot going on upstairs. Oh, and I definitely smell her on you.”

“Huh?” I cocked my head in confusion, and Black Petal took full advantage of it to headbutt me, then fly around behind me. I felt a sudden pain as she yanked my tail, and bodily lifted me off the ground! She wasn’t exactly a big mare, but she tossed me like I weighed no more than a newborn foal.

I sailed through the air and landed hard near the hole into the back of the... church? I really wondered what that word meant, but didn’t have time to consider it much as I had Black Petal flying at me, lashing out with her giant key once again. I stood my ground and caught the key on Gramzanber’s shaft, feeling the strain on my body from this mare’s unnatural strength. It didn’t help that my body was taking a beating, on top of the damage it’d sustained yesterday.

“C’mon, tell me, why is it I’m smelling my good old friend Blood Bloom all over you?” Black Petal asked in a childishly sweet voice, her nose twitching as she sniffed the air, “You and her blanket buddies? Hard to tell, you got the scent of a lot of ponies on you, but hers is just so distinct and I ain’t smelling the sexy times on you.”

“The what? Waitwhat? No. No sexy times. What is wrong with you!?” I growled, twisting around to draw her key away and to the left while bucking out with my right hindleg. I felt it connect solidly, but even though the blow pushed her away it didn’t seem to harm her much as she laughed at me.

“That’s cute, you’re face is all red. What, you never got warm and sticky with another pony before?”

“That’s every level of not your business,” I retorted, eyes flicking towards the sight of the rest of the fight in the graveyard.

Stone Carver had moved over to drag Rock Roller away, while Whetstone and Trailblaze were tag-teaming to keep Shattered Sky off balance, forcing him to remain on the defensive, but that couldn’t last. I saw the others of the tribe backing off, staying in cover, unable to lend any real help. It was only a matter of time before somepony else died, and I wasn’t sure what I could do to stop it.

Can’t let this drag out. C’mon Longwalk, its time to get with the planning!

Black Petal took advantage of my distraction and was in my face in an instant, slamming a hoof under my chin in an uppercut that made me see stars for a second. I slashed hard without bothering to wait for the ringing in my head to clear, and saw Black Petal flip out of the way, through a few silken strands of her tail came off from the near hit.

She landed back on the ground, flicking her tail to glance at its newly trimmed state, and turned a dagger glare on me. Her red eyes almost seemed to flash.

Or I could get punched in the face. Great plan. Keep this up and she’ll get tired. Eventually. After you’ve amazed her with your impression of an unconscious pony. Do I have to use Accelerator?

I felt from the buzz of pressure in my head that Gramzanber was good to go, having built up plenty of energy from the fight so far. I hesitated, however. I didn’t want to use Accelerator unless I truly was put up against a wall. I thought of Snowdrift, and how I might have been able to save her if I’d been able to use that power, and feared a similar situation occurring in this fight. There was no telling when I’d need that speed, so I held off, instead watching Black Petal carefully for any openings I could take advantage of.

Black Petal took a deep breath and casually spun her key around. So far I couldn’t figure out just what the artificial ARMs power was. Both the key and the mare wielding it were unpredictable. Not to mention it was troubling that she seemed to know B.B. Or Blood Bloom... that had been the name that strange pony in the dream I saw had called B.B. I hadn’t wanted to believe there was a connection between Black Petal and my friend, but it was pretty obvious by now. Maybe I could get a few answers and distract Black Petal at the same time. She didn’t seem to be taking this fight seriously, so if I played her game a little she might end up dropping her guard.

“What do you mean you smell Blood Bloom on me anyway?” I asked, keeping a wary eye on her, my stance tense and ready to move at the first hint of her attacking, “Who is that supposed to be?”

Black Petal giggled, licking her lips, “Oh, she using some half-baked alias? How adorkable of her. Bet its something stupid, like just abbreviating her name to a couple of letters. She’s a pegasus like me, but not as cute, and with a white coat and plain looking brown mane; tacky pink streaks in it. Sound familiar?”

“It might,” I said, catching it when Black Petal shifted slightly in the air, so I was ready when she charged me. As she swung out with her key, aiming for my head. I ducked under the extended, swinging key and jumped forward. I brought Gramzanber down at Black Petal’s outstretched arm, not particularly hesitant at the notion of severing it. That was mostly non-lethal, right? She clearly didn’t need to have all of her limbs.

My de-limbing strike was thwarted, however, Black Petal reacting with remarkable speed as she rolled in the air, twisting her arm away from Gramzanber so that its edge cut a line in the stone wall of the church instead of her, the sharp spear blasting through the stone in a shower of concrete dust. I didn’t let up, following Black Petals’ movements as she spun around to my left, and the air rippled like water once again. Only this time Black Petal and her key both disappeared in the ripple, only to appear on my opposite side, lashing out.

I parried, moving with the momentum of Black Petals’ strike, and countered with the back spike of Gramzanber’s shaft, thrusting it at her face. I expected her to back off, but she surprised me by batting the spike away with her hoof, taking a deep cut as the tip pierced her hide, but at the same moment she caught me in the stomach with the teeth of her key. I rolled with the blow, but I was still pushed away, feeling sharp pain run through my stomach from the hard blow.

I wasn’t done, though. Having not forgotten the other weapons in my arsenal I reached into my saddlebags and pulled out a flashbang grenade, pulling the pin and throwing it in one quick and smooth motion as I bounced away from Black Petal. I quickly covered my ears and shut my eyes to protect myself just in time. I still heard the deafening bang of the grenade going off, even with my hooves plugging my ears.

I jumped to my hooves to see... nothing. I blinked, wondering where Black Petal had gone. Then I felt a weight slam into my back and I was driven into the ground, the air once more getting knocked from my lungs. I felt her body on my back, one hoof trying to get around my neck, and I elbowed back with my hoof as hard as I could. I caught Black Petal on the face, but the blow barely slowed her down as she got her hooves beneath my neck and started to choke.

Feeling my windpipe getting clenched I rose to my hooves and, glancing at the church wall, I rammed my elbow back again and again. She growled ferally and the pressure on my neck only increased. Desperately I twisted myself around and flung my body backwards against the wall. Slamming her body into the wall once, then twice, I felt her grip loosen. After a third, hefty back slam, I felt her slide off me as I stumbled away, gasping for breath.

Glancing behind me I saw Black Petal standing up by the wall and stretching, like some feline creature. There was a slight series of cracks in the wall where I’d slammed her.

“Mmm, that felt good,” she said cheerfully, looking at me with eyes that had started to glow with a red that was familiar. The same as B.B’s had after she’d fed on blood, “Warm ups done now? We can fight for real?”

I blinked at her. I was breathing hard, pain causing my legs to shake slightly. I then growled, nickering loudly as I stamped my hoof as if I could force away the fatigue and pain. It helped a little, but I knew that if this kept up as a battle of attrition Black Petal was likely to come out on top. She seemed to read my thoughts and she made a clucking noise with her touch.

“Tch, you can’t tell me you’re winded already? Come ooooon! I need a stallion with way more stamina than that! I haven’t even shown you my neat eye trick yet!”

Yeah, well, I haven’t shown you my move faster than bullets trick yet, I thought grimly. I hadn’t wanted to use Accelerator, but it didn’t seem like I had any other options, now. The ability was potent, but not suited for a protracted fight, and there was still Shattered Sky to deal with.

Speaking of which, a scream of pain from behind me drew my attention, and I ground my teeth in frustration as I saw Stone Carver fall over, a hole blasted in her shoulder from Shattered Sky’s gun. The only thing that kept him from finishing her off was an impressively wide and fan-like blast of fire from Trailblaze, who’d stood up on her hind legs and outstretched both hooves to send the extensive sheet of flames into the air. To my surprise Shattered Sky, despite using the vanishing power of his watch shaped ARM, actually came away from the huge sheet of flame slightly signed. He actually had to pat out his uniform, though he didn’t seem too injured and narrowed his eyes at Trailblaze, who looked more than a little winded from her attack.

This looked bad. I was barely holding against Black Petal, and Shattered Sky was forcing Trail to tire herself out far too fast. Trailblaze hadn’t apparently learned to pace herself with her power. I grit my teeth, trying desperately to think of something. I felt a gust of wind, and felt my blood chill as I realized I really shouldn’t have looked away from Black Petal. I turned to see she was right in my face, our snouts nearly touching. I tried to pull away, but rather suddenly I found I couldn’t move. I felt her hoof touch the bottom of my chin to tilt my face to look directly into her eyes, which glowed red like jewels, pulling me inside.

“Now that’s a nice, calm, pliant little pony,” she said in a voice that suddenly sounded like something wet and smooth sliding against my ears. My heart was hammering in my chest, yet my entire body was draining of tension, despite the fact that my limbs were suddenly stiff as boards. Black Petal smiled, but I barely saw it, my eyes unable to look away from hers, as if some invisible force was drawing me straight into those twin red pools.

I felt her hoof stroke my cheek, “I wanted to have more fun with you, but I guess if this is all the exercise I get for today I can’t complain, you’re still more fun than most the worthless ponies I get to feed on. Now, stay still, this won’t hurt... a lot.”

She licked her lips and opened her mouth wide, two long fangs seeming to extend even longer from her teeth as she leaned towards my exposed neck. I tried desperately to move, to kick, to shake my head, but it felt like spikes had driven themselves into my head, forcing my eyes to stay riveted to hers.

A spike of pressure from Gramzanber hit my head like a tiny hammer and I felt the hold of her eyes on me slacken, if only for a moment. I didn’t hesitate and immediately slammed my forehead into Black Petal’s snout with all the willpower and force I could muster. She yipped in pain and reared away from me, shaking her head and holding her now bleeding nose.

“You dick!” she snarled.

Free from the control of her eyes I aimed my Grapple at her, mentally activating S.A.T.S. In the timeless calm of the targeting spell I took a few deep breaths, calming myself and my racing heart. She’d nearly had me. What was that anyway!? I didn’t think it had anything to do with her key shaped ARM. Then how had her eyes paralyzed me like that? I gulped, knowing I couldn’t afford to get caught by Black Petal’s eyes again.

I fired the Grapple and the steel hook and line flew out the second S.A.T.S released and time resumed. The line wrapped around Black Petal’s hindlegs while she was still distracted by her injured nose and she blinked at the steel cable now tangling her. She glared at me, and I looked away from her eyes, which caused her to grin in a distinctly murdery manner.

“You bloody my pretty nose and you think it’s a good idea to tie yourself to me!? Buck, I’m going to bite off your-”

I decided I really didn’t want to know what she was going to bite off and instead stood on my hind legs, took hold of the Grapple line between my forehooves, and proceeded to start spinning. With Black Petal coming along for the ride. I think she might’ve shouted something unflattering about the stature of certain anatomical parts of me that will go unnamed as I spun her around like a bolas and proceeded to slam her into a tall, cross shaped grave marker.

Black Petal was not as daunted by this as I had hoped she’d be.

She howled in wordless anger and proceeded to smash the grave marker to pieces with her key and snarled at me with eyes that seemed to glow with raw animal malice. Hackles raised on her neck and I swear her fangs grew. Then she reached down and bit the Grapple line in half. The steel Grapple line.

I’m not certain whether or not I pissed myself in that moment but it wouldn’t have surprised me.

“You-” she said in a voice that was suddenly deeper and more bestial, “-are food.”

She spread her wings and reared down to charge me, but then there was a sudden, crackling sound in the air, like a current of electricity. A glow of green light filled the air and bathed me and Black Petal. She paused, blinking at a green dot of light that had appeared in the air next to us. Suddenly that green dot expanded quickly, filling out into a wide, flat circle of swirling green energy with arcs of power flowing off the edges like a current of lightning.

“The flying buck?” Black Petal asked in confusion. Her animal anger from a moment ago seemed to recede as she looked at the strange sight of the glowing circle. A second later green circle of light burst open like a shattering window. Revealed now was an open portal, a literal hole in the air. Within that portal I could see a darkly lit room, huge and faintly familiar. It looked like the interior of Stable 104! But more important than that, was the vehicle sitting in front of the portal, its loud engine roaring like the vengeful cry of some ancient beast.

“That,” I said, with an honest smile on my lips, “Would be my friends.”

I dove away as the Ursa, tires screaming as it peeled out, drove straight through the portal. It nearly smashed into Black Petal, but her reflexes were quick and she flew above the charging All Terrain Wagon as it landed on the scene, driving a dozen meters forward before turning around in a sharp skid and stopping.

The portal was still open for a few seconds and I saw beyond it spider ponies, Misty Glasses among them, peering through. Misty Glasses was at the controls of some sort of device, and I could see it was hooked up to an array of large coils that looked to be generating a lot of green arcs of energy. The spider pony scientist waved at me once with one of her many legs, cracking a smile, before giving me a helpless shrug as the portal closed. I heard her shout, “Sorry, portal only lasts a minute or two, we’ll make it better soon! Be carefu-”

Then the portal was closed, but it’d served its purpose in delivering my friends to the battlefield. Even as the portal snapped shut the hatches on the Ursa flung open.

B.B shot out first, straight from the Ursa’s top hatch, a brilliant white bolt of speed that flew high above the graveyard. Her wings spread wide B.B took in the sights around her, taking one brief look between me and Black Petal. I saw her violet eyes widen at seeing Black Petal.

“Longwalk, ya alright?” she asked, not taking her eyes off Black Petal. B.B’s voice was strained, and I could see her practically vibrating with tension.

“Never better,” I said, stumbling a bit as I reached the Ursa, grinning and wagging my tail happily. Arcaidia leapt out of a side hatch in the driver’s compartment of the Ursa, while LIL-E and Binge rushed out of the back hatch of the A.T.W.

Arcaidia reached me first, her silver eyes both glaring and welcoming at the same time as she rushed up to me and swatted me upside the head the very same instant she threw her hooves around me in a tight hug. I winced as my wounded body took the hug, but I laughed, despite the dangerous situation, and returned the hug.

“Happy muchly to see you, ren solva! Lecture you huge after battle over. Now, point towards enemies so icy vengeance can be mine!”

I made a vague, pointing gesture towards Black Petal, who preened herself a dozen or so meters away, and just seemed to be noticing B.B’s presence with a friendly smile that was far too wide. Arcaidia snorted as she looked at the dark red pegasus mare and snorted, letting go of me and getting into a battle stance, drawing her starblaster and wreathing her horn in frosty blue light as her tail flicked eagerly behind her.

“Hiya bucky, you look nice and blood covered, as usual,” chirped Binge in a breathily cheerful voice, energetically bouncing up next to us with LIL-E floating by her side. The robot had its side mounted rifle deployed, and her turret was spinning back and forth as she hovered backwards, paying attention more to the fight between Shattered Sky and my tribesmates behind us.

“Longwalk,” the robot said, “How many hostiles, and who are the friendlies?”

Right down to business, with LIL-E. Not that I was complaining. It was a comfort to have LIL-E there, reminding me to focus on the issues at hoof.

“Two,” I replied quickly, “Both elite Odessa officers. The others are from my tribe. Fill you in later. Iron Wrought here?”

“Driving,” came the reply, the green earth pony stallion waving from the Ursa’s driver’s seat window, looking less than enthusiastic about the circumstances, “I see you’re still making a lifestyle out of getting in over your head.”

I gave him a helpless shrug, then nodded towards my tribesmates, “We’ve got wounded. LIL-E, can you give my tribe cover while Iron Wrought gets them loaded onto the Ursa?”

“On it,” she said and immediately flew off towards where Shattered Sky wheeled through the air, trying to get shots on Trailblaze. LIL-E’s sudden arrival and additional firepower, a fusillade of shots from both rifle and turret, certainly gave Shattered Sky something else to worry about.

Iron Wrought threw the Ursa into reverse and pulled it around, backing up towards the firefight, and I had to trust my tribesmates would know a safe haven when they saw one.

“Sooo,” called Black Petal, idly spinning her key shaped ARM around, “Does that mean the rest of you are gonna gang up on poor little helpless me? Four on one? So unfair.”

“Since when ‘ave ya ever given’ a care ‘bout ‘fair’ Petal?” asked B.B, voice as strained as I’ve ever heard it, even counting the time after she’d had her little bloodlust episode. I couldn’t help but notice the bristling in her mane and raised hackles; not at all dissimilar to the way Black Petal had looked a short while ago.

Black Petal laughed musically, with a hefty note of manic in it as well.

“That’s funny, coming from you, Bloom. What’s with the old orchard folk accent?”

“Ain’t none a’ yer business. Just ‘ow I prefer ta talk nowadays.”

“You sound like an idiot. Whatever. So, any of your new buddies-for-life know about you? The real you? The one that made the Family so proud as our best and brightest killer?” Black Petal asked with a sweet, innocent tone that was so sarcastic it hurt my ears.

B.B’s ears flattened against her head and she aimed her revolvers at Black Petal, her voice suddenly losing its accent and turning to something closer to her Mirage persona’s voice, “They know the me that matters. The one raised by Doc Sunday.”

“Yes!” said Arcaidia, “We know B.B as good ally friend pony. Stupid other pegasus can shut up now!”

Arcaidia made her desire for the conversation to end pretty clear by the magical crests that instantly formed around her horn, then fired out a massive cone of freezing air and white ice that turned the ground into solid sheets of frost as it billowed towards Black Petal. The dark red pegasus nimbly flew aside of the deadly torrent of cold, laughing all the way.

“Oh, but there’s so much to tell! My good friend Blood Bloom was a real artist back in the day! You should’ve seen her,” Black Petal landed on top of a grave marker, coiled like a cat, her curled tail swishing in merriment, “The things she did to the Family’s enemies, mmmm, the memories alone make me shudder in all the right ways. She was an inspiration to us all. The Mistress’ strong right hoof, her merciless, perfect little enforcer. Perhaps the only pony besides the Mistress herself we were all afraid of.”

“You should still be afraid,” B.B’s growl was low and primal as she flew at the other pegasus. Her pistols barked in a fast, melded staccato. Black Petal danced away as the rounds tore up the grave marker she’d been standing on. B.B didn’t let up, reloading her pistols faster than I’d ever seen her manage, and chased Black Petal with her pistols outstretched, pouring more fire at the diving and turning form of the other mare. These rounds tore clean through grave markers and I realized B.B had loaded armor piercing rounds.

Black Petal’s cooing voice answered the gunfire, “Afraid of you, Bloom? Now? Hah! That’s a laugh. You’ve fallen so hard I’m shocked you can still stand! How long have you been denying yourself a proper meal? I can smell you Bloom! You don’t got any bloodscent on you. No power. Nothing. You’re practically one of them now. As weak as any of the other morsels crawling on the ground.”

Arcaidia, Binge, and I all started to gallop forward to chase after Black Petal, but B.B flew down in front of us, holding out a hoof.

“You guys stay outta of this.”

I paused, and exchanged looks with Arcaidia and Binge. Binge, tail wagging, made a whining noise. The green former-ish Raider had her shiny Cosmic Knife in her mouth and her ripper blade swishing about in her tail, and she looked at me oddly pleadingly.

“Auwh dun whunna wushun! Cwuuutin twum ush nuwwo!”

“Huh?” I asked and Binge spat the Cosmic Knife into her hoof and said, in a clearer voice.

“I don’t wanna listen! Cutting time is now! I’ve been a good girl for days! Its time for me to get a treat and I want to wear a pair of wings! And the dark one’s wings are so nice. I can have them, right?”

I blinked at her, then glanced towards B.B, “Uh, B.B, I was kind of thinking we’d fight her all together. She’s pretty tough, and I’m scared of what will happen if I don’t let Binge fight something. She might, I don’t know, explode.”

Binge nodded her head vigorously, “Explosions will happen if Binge doesn’t get her happy staby time! Want to cut off talky birdies wings and wear them like a princess!”

B.B gave Binge a strange look as she reloaded her revolvers. Black Petal was just watching as if she had all the time in the world. She smiled over at us, stretching her wings out and winking at Binge.

“You like my wings? You want them? If you’re mare enough I might even let you touch them before I drain you of your last, little, diseased drop of blood. Come on, what are you waiting for?”

Binge’s eyes did a rather disturbing shrinking of the pupils and I saw the Raider mare lick her lips and start breathing erratically, “Oh, Binge has found a screamer. Binge can tell these things. This one is a screamer for sure. Can’t take it. Wanna stab!”

Binge didn’t wait for further prodding and charged forward, or rather more like skipped happily. I groaned and moved to follow, but B.B shouted, “Long, let me take o’ her! Iffin’ Binge wants ta fight, ain’t no stoppin’ her, but you an’ Arc should go deal wit the other one!”

“B.B, you’re going to need us!” I shouted back, worriedly watching Binge close with Black Petal, who was just waiting for Binge to get to her with a relaxed smile on her face.

Arcaidia was gritting her teeth, looking at B.B with no small amount of concern, “Ren solva have good head right now! We must fight as unit!”

B.B shook her head, “Please, ya two, don’t be arguin’. I can fight her better wit fewer friends I gotta worry ‘bout her hurtin’.”

“Yeah ‘Long’,” cooed Black Petal, “Let her fight me alone. It’ll give us a chance to catch up on old times and- hold on a sec.”

Those last words were said as Binge reached her and pounced, both head and tail whipping about to slash with their respective knives. Black Petal blocked with her key and retaliated with a wickedly fast counter stroke. Binge, surprising me, bounced away from the strike and leapt right back in, bending and twisting her body in strange, spastic ways that looked as confusing as they were uncomfortable. I could see from the sudden look of brief shock in Black Petal’s face that she hadn’t expected the Raider to move that quickly and was as confused by the erratic movements of Binge as I was. Black Petal rolled away from Binge’s flashing knives, but came out of the roll with a slight cut on her foreleg and with a newfound respect in her eyes.

“Well somepony knows her way around a knife fight. I might get you stuffed and mounted after killing you. Assuming theres enough of you left to stuff.”

“Lussh tulk murr gummi thu wungs!” Binged mumbled around her knife hilt, her eyes in full dilation and a little foam forming around her madly grinning lips.

B.B gave me and Arcaidia one last pleading look and with a heavy sigh I nodded to her. I took some heart in her grateful smile as she flew off once more, backing up Binge in her assault on Black Petal. I hoped the two of them could handle it. Black Petal was physically stronger than her small frame would imply, and her ARM was doubly dangerous, mostly because I wasn’t certain how it worked yet.

“Watch out for that key!” I shouted as I turned back towards the fight with Shattered Sky, “Its got freaky wibbly-wobbly air powers!”

“Thanks for the heads up!” B.B shouted back as she unleashed another barrage of shots at Black Petal, twisting about in the air so that her shots came in at Black Petal in a series of odd angles. Black Petal spun with quick, fluid movements, either avoiding the bullets or deftly deflecting them with her key.

Arcaidia hesitated a moment longer than I did, but with a final, worried look towards B.B, she turned to follow me. We both rushed towards the other side of the graveyard to the sound of B.B’s revolvers firing behind us and Black Petal’s mocking laughter filling the air.

I had to physically resist the urge to turn around and go back, but I wanted to trust B.B. Besides, it was looking like LIL-E and my tribesmates were in need of help. I saw Whetstone and Slate standing at the back of the Ursa. Whetstone was rummaging around in her saddlebags while Slate helped a badly wounded Stone Carver into the A.T.W. Whetstone looked up as Arcaidia and I rushed up, and she had an exasperated look on her face that lightened somewhat upon seeing Arcaidia.

“Hey, I remember you!” Whetstone said, giving Arcaidia a pat on the shoulder, “Glad to see you’re still kicking it with Long. Hey Long, don’t suppose you got any of those gem thingies that make with the zap-zap? I’m all out.”

It took me a second to figure out what she was talking about; ammo for her energy pistol. I gave a quick shake of my head, “Sorry, don’t carry any.”

“Sucks,” she sighed, tossing the now useless pistol into her backs and drawing a knife instead, “Guess it’s back to basics. Got to say Long, you make real frustrating enemies. This guy keeps dodging. Like, everything.”

“I know,” I said, glancing to where LIL-E, flying after Shattered Sky, blasted away with her turret. The pair zipped about, both blurs in the air, and for every shot LIL-E sent towards the Odessa officer he returned with dangerously accurate shots of his own. Where he could seemingly vanish out of harms way at will, LIL-E was stuck taking hits, bullets sparking over her dark robotic carapace. I wasn’t certain how long she could take the beating, but LIL-E was staying doggedly on Shattered Sky’s tail. A good thing, as it was clear Trailblaze needed the breather. She was nearby, huddled by a gravestone with multiple gunshots blown out of it, catching her breath as she watched LIL-E and Shattered Sky fight.

“Its that thing on his wrist,” I explained to Whetstone and Arcaidia, “Its like my spear, sort of. It gives him that power to vanish somehow. I don’t know how it works, but maybe if we can get it off him...”

Whetstone nodded, “He won’t be able to go ‘poof’ and we can lay the proper smack down on his feathery flank. Great. So how do we get the shiny off his leg?”

“Haven’t a clue,” I said, glancing inside the Ursa. I saw Slate set Stone Carver down next to Rock Roller, and the beige stallion glance back towards us.

“Stay in there,” I told him, and glanced at Whetstone, “Whet, you-”

“Ain’t happening, so don’t bother,” Whetstone replied firmly, then looked towards Arcaidia, “Right Frosty?”

Arcaidia nodded with a determined flick of her tail, “Yes! Get around and overcook opponent with better counts!”

At Whetstone and my confused looks Arcaidia frowned like a child who’d just gotten a question wrong on a quiz and made a small grumbling noise as she rubbed her chin, “Words not right, uh... get all around, surround! Surround and attack muchly with bigger numbers!”

Now that made a lot more sense. I watched the spiraling, speedy dogfight between LIL-E and Shattered Sky and found one large problem with Arcaidia’s tactic, “He’s up there and we’re down here. We don’t have a lot to hit him with unless we can get him on the ground.”

“Have you considered the possibility of us just, you know, running for it?” asked Iron Wrought, cautiously poking his head out the Ursa’s back hatch, his eyes narrowing as he looked at the battle, “Pile everypony on the Ursa and we might be able to just outrun the crazies trying to kill us.”

I shook my head, “Love nothing more than to get everypony somewhere that wasn’t here, but if we run that’ll give them time to call for help, which involves a giant, heavily armed airship. We got to beat them here, and fast.”

I thought frantically, trying to force my brain to formulate anything resembling a plan. Not for the first time I found myself really wishing that pegasi blood in me had popped out some wings for me. The earth pony resilience was doing well for me, but Ancestors above would a lot of problems be easier with the ability to fly. But since I wasn’t spontaneous getting a pair of flappers any time soon it was back to thinking of a more mundane way to solve our tactical issue. Glancing around my eyes settled on the church itself. It was roomy inside, the ceiling pretty high. Even if we got Shattered Sky to follow inside he’d still have the advantage...

… but what about the roof? It’d just be a single shot, and the timing would have to be pretty damn near perfect, but it might just work. LIL-E had a direct line to my Pip-Buck, so I could coordinate it with her, but I’d need Arcaidia, Trailblaze, Iron Wrought, and Whetstone all together to make it work.

“Right, I got a plan,” I said, eliciting various looks from my immediate companions. Iron Wrought had a quirked eyebrow as if he was expecting to hear a particularly funny joke, which given my track record with plans I couldn’t blame him much for that. Whetstone at least had the decency to give me a humoring smile. Arcaidia, though, just looked eager.

“No time to explain it, but everypony head into the church. Get to the roof, but stay hidden. I”ll bring Trail and join you guys up there in a sec.”

“What are we going to do on the roof that’ll do any good?” asked Iron Wrought.

“Remember the ‘no time to explain’ part?” I asked with a frustrated grunt as I started to gallop for where Trailblaze was, “Just go! Trust me, I’m mostly sure this will probably work!”

“And my confidence levels just keep on rising,” Iron Wrought said, no small amount of sarcasm in his tone, but he did hop out of the back of the Ursa, hitting a switch to close up the hatch, and in short order he, Whetstone, and Arcaidia were making a break for the hole in the church’s wall. Arcaidia gave me one last look of encouragement over her shoulder and I nodded to her in return before galloping for Trailblaze.

As I ran I caught a glimpse of Binge sailing through the air. It took me a second to realize it was because the green Raider had taken a rather heavy hit from Black Petal, as the dark red pegasus was chasing after Binge’s flying form even as Binge hit the ground hard and rolled a few dozen meters. Worry stabbed through me, but I saw Binge shuffle to her hooves, laughing despite blood coating her face from a cut scalp.

I saw Binge charge to meet Black Petal, and B.B dive down from above, the three mares all about to collide, but I couldn’t see any more as I felt a sudden, painful force jerk my front left leg out from under me and I face planted in the dirt.

The sharp pain in my leg was familiar. It was kind of depressing to realize I’d gotten shot enough times to know what it felt like without having to think about it. I’d also gotten good at assessing damage to myself without really needing to look, not that I didn’t look anyway. My armor had soaked the worst of it, but there was definitely some bruised and torn muscle just from the raw impact. Made me hold the leg up a bit as I hobbled over to where Trailblaze was hunched behind a larger gravestone.

She looked at me, frustrated eyes turning to concern as she looked at me, “Long, you’re shot.”

“It happens,” I replied, peeking over the gravestone, only to have to duck back as another shot from Shattered Sky blew a chunk of stone away next to my face, “Yup, I’d say he doesn’t like us much. Jerk has real deep ammo pockets, doesn’t he?”

Trail growled, “I can’t hit him! This is ridiculous. What’s the point of having this fire in me if I can’t hit anything with it!?”

“In my expert opinion the problem is that he’s moving.”

“Longwalk, I’d like to remind you that I can now light your flank on fire by gesturing in your general direction.”

I chuckled, though it was a weak one, and punctuated by altogether too much gunfire for me to really get much humor in it, “Preferably we want a different pony on fire right now. Sent my friends up to the roof where we’re going to arrange a surprise for Mr. I Dodge Everything. Want to join in?”

Trailblaze’s smile was positively fiendish, “Love to.”

“Fantastic,” I said, lifting my Pip-Buck, fiddling with the dials until I turned on the radio’s broadcasting feature, switching to the frequency LIL-E had us use in Stable 104, “LIL-E, you okay up there?”

The robot’s monotone voice had a buzz to it that sounded almost like worry, “The only reason I haven’t dropped from the sky is this unit’s got reinforced armor and a spare power supply. He keeps teleporting and I can’t get a clean shot.”

“We’re fixing that problem. Can you lead him to the roof? Get him to fly over it, in, say, sixty seconds or so?”

“I think I can manage that.”

“Good, see you there.”

With that Trailblaze and I started to make a break for the church. I was somewhat less than the spirit of swiftness with one leg still hurting like it was on fire, but I managed to keep up with Trail as we dashed for the hole in the back of the church. A bullet snapped by my head so close I felt my mane billow from its passage. I didn’t glance back, but I heard LIL-E’s weapons firing twice as fast as the robot tried to give me and Trailblaze some covering fire.

I spared a quick look left and right, trying to see where B.B and Binge had gone, but worryingly I didn’t see them near the graveyard anymore, nor did I spot Black Petal. Their fight must have migrated elsewhere, but they couldn’t have gone far, I still heard the popping sounds of B.B’s revolvers echoing through the air.

Once inside the church we hit the stairs and got to the second floor in mere seconds. From there we thundered down the hallway, soon reaching the smaller staircase leading up to the small door to the roof. By that door Whetstone, Iron Wrought, and Arcaidia waited, all turning to look as Trailblaze and I arrived.

Arcaidia bounced down the stairs and threw hooves around Trailblaze, who blinked in surprise, but smiled as she returned the hug.

“Very glad I am to see you alive!” Arcaidia said, then backed off slightly, a brief look of shame coming over her young features as she nodded towards me, “Greatly sorry I not keep word. Did not know how hard to keep Longwalk from harm would be. Ren solva fight like blood not belong in his body!”

Trailblaze shook her head, holding up a hoof, “I know, Arcaidia. I don’t blame you for Longwalk getting injured all the time. Pretty sure most of that is his fault and I’ve got you to thank for him being still alive. I’m just sorry he put you through so much trouble.”

“Hey!” I said, “I didn’t do anything to make Arcaidia’s life hard on purpose!”

Both Trailblaze and Arcaidia looked at me, like a firestorm and an icy avalanche both aimed straight at me, and I cringed back a step or two, “Just saying, you two don’t gotta act like I’m the only one who acts reckless around here.”

Iron Wrought gave me an incredulous look, “There’s a difference between reckless, and whatever it is you do, buck. I don’t think they’ve invented a word to describe it. Maybe ‘suicidal’, but then you’re still alive, against any form of logic I know of. I’d say the two mares got plenty of reason to be mad at you. I know if I did half the shit you try, my wife would break my legs off so I could never leave the house again.”

“Thirty seconds,” said LIL-E through my PIp-Buck, “He’s hot on my tail. You all better be ready!”

I snapped my head towards the door lead to the roof, tensing, as did my companions. I heard the click as Iron Wrought turned the safety off his sub-machine gun, and the gentle buzz of magic as Arcaidia’s horn glowed a cold blue. Whetstone barred her knife, her only available weapon, and said, “So you got us here, Long, what are we doing?”

I grinned, gripping Gramzanber tight in my mouth, “Oh, a complex, multi-layered strategy of pure brilliance. We’re gonna hit him really hard a lot of times!”

Blank stares, all around. I couldn't help but laugh. There wasn’t time to explain the details, and my companions couldn’t understand because none of them had seen Shattered Sky fight before now. Simple fact was, as long as he had space to move, and could see it coming, Shattered Sky could evade just about any attack. I saw that thoroughly back during Crossfire and my fight against him back in Saddlespring. Crossfire was a better warrior than any of us and even she hadn’t been able to land a blow under normal conditions against the power of Shattered Sky’s ARM. The only way Crossfire had been able to end the fight was to hit Shattered Sky with an attack that left no room to dodge. On top of that, I knew that Shattered Sky had to be aware of an attack in order to avoid it, because I remembered clearly being able to tackle him at the start of our fight in Saddlespring. He hadn’t expected, or seen, my lunge, and hence couldn’t avoid it when I tackled him.

What it came down to, then, was that we had to overwhelm him with an ambush that not only took him completely off guard, but also threw so much at him at once that we didn’t leave him anywhere to dodge.

“LIL-E is going to fly by in seconds,” I said, “With Shattered Sky right behind her. When he does, attack him with everything you’ve got. Trail, Arcaidia, use fire and ice, the widest spread you can manage. Iron Wrought, empty your clip at him at the same time. Whetstone, stick close to me, and follow my lead. If he dodges the magic and bullets I’m going to try and catch him as he comes out of the evasion and I’ll need you to back me up. Got it?”

All of them nodded as one, their eyes fixed on me with varying degrees of resolve. For a second I felt overwhelmed by the fact that they were all trusting me, and my plan, with their lives. I returned their nods, promising to myself that however this went, I’d do everything I could to bring them all out of this alive. There was a comforting pressure from Gramzanber, as if the spear was also pitching in its confidence, telling me not to worry.

“Almost there,” LIL-E said, her voice scratchy and filled with static, “Get ready. We’re passing by in five... four...”

Despite the static her countdown was still clear for us to hear and I tensed, reaching over and clicking open the door with a hoof. I slowed my breathing, steadying myself as LIL-E’s robotic voice counted down the last numbers.

“... two... one!”

I flung the door open and we rushed out onto the roof. I saw LIL-E, her round metal form sporting a number of sparking bullet holes, and she was trailing oily black smoke. She flew straight across the roof, zipping by us, and behind her was Shattered Sky, swooping along in pursuit.

And he didn’t see me and the others bursting onto the roof until he was already right in front of us.

Arcaidia and Trailblaze both reared up, Arcaidia’s horn glowing with fierce blue symbols as she formed her spell, and Trailblaze’s right hoof ignited in boiling orange flame. Both unleashed their power at the same instant. A wide conical blast of freezing air and shredding spikes of ice combined with a wave of searing fire, like two halves of conjoining worlds. The line between the two powers clashed with steam that was no less dangerous, like a jet of scalding mist. This blinding magical assault washed over the roof and Shattered Sky, tearing apart roof tile as it went, blasting into the tower on the opposite side.

Iron Wrought was then there between Arcaidia and Trailblaze, and let loose a fully automatic stream of bullets into the flame, ice, and steam, running his clip dry. At the same moment LIL-E reversed her course, the eyebot halting and spinning about in the air, and despite the terrible damage covering her chassis she unleashed her own weapons into the conflagration. Rifle and turret blazed away, stitching a wide, random pattern of lead into the cloud of steam leftover from the combined magical attack.

Meanwhile Whetstone and I had rushed along the slanted roof to the left. It wasn’t easy keeping our balance on the sloped tiles, but both of us were experienced hunters who knew how to keep our hooves under us. I kept my eyes on the cloud of mist, sharply looking out for any sign of Shattered Sky.

When I saw the mist move I immediately shifted my run, galloping up towards the dispersing cloud, Whetstone right behind me. Shattered Sky appeared just outside the cloud, appearing in mid-air from having used his watch-shaped ARM. There were frozen feathers on his wing, and singed bits on his hide, indicating he hadn’t been able to completely avoid the assault we’d brought to bear on him. He wasn’t looking my way when Whetstone and I reached him, both of us slashing from opposite sides. I was aiming for one of his wings, knowing if I could clip one of them then the fight would shift dramatically in our favor. I think Whetstone probably had the more sensible plan by going for his throat.

At the last second his eyes shifted to me, narrowed, and he vanished.

Oh no you don’t! Accelerator!

The world snapped in cobalt blue focus and I looked around for him, and spotted the bastard appeared right behind Whetstone, the barrel of his gun aimed at the back of her head while she was still recovering from her missed swing. With the speed born of Accelerator I shoved her out of the way before she could even blink in surprise and surged forward, chopping with Gramzanber. Shattered Sky’s gun fired, the bullet deflecting off of my spear’s edge. I reversed the swing, once more aiming for one of his wings. I saw Shattered Sky’s eyes widen, and just as Gramzanber started to tear into the soft feathers of his wing he vanished. But this time I felt Gramzanber inside my head, its pressure reacting to the power of Shattered Sky’s own ARM. I could feel it, his ARM, as if it were a separate pressure than Gramzanber.

Which meant I could feel it when Shattered Sky appeared behind me. I ducked, not needing to look. I felt the bullets fly by my head before I saw them, their slow motion trails passing through where my skull had been just a moment earlier. I turned to see him, his face a mask of concentration behind his glasses before he vanished once more.

This time he didn’t appear behind me, but instead appeared right in front of me, close enough that I couldn’t get Gramzanber in line to block or counter as he shoved his gun under my chin. Only the raw speed of Accelerator allowed me to pull myself aside in time to keep my brains from getting splattered, and even then I felt the bullet tear a painful graze across my cheek and rip off a part of my ear.

I spun around and kicked out, a little shocked and immensely pleased to feel my hoof clip Shattered Sky’s side before he managed to vanish once more. So he could be hit. I saw him appeared in the air above the roof, still aiming at me, but even with Accelerator making the actions of my companions seem slow, the ice shards that flew in at him from one side and the wide sheet of flame spreading into the air on his other side still moved with surprising speed to clash upon the Cocytus officer.

Trailblaze and Arcaidia had spread out to flank either end of the roof, and had waited until Shattered Sky had become focused on me to unleash another attack. Shattered Sky dodged straight down, appeared on the roof with a look of consternation on his face. Bullets traced in from Iron Wrought and LIL-E, neither letting up or giving Shattered Sky a moment to catch his breath. Shattered Sky twisted in the air, evading the storm of bullets, but in doing so taking his eyes off of me.

I kept Accelerator going, rushing at his back. His wings were up, and I hoped to get both of them with a fast horizontal slice as I leapt at him. He ducked the swing, but I spread my hooves, and despite the danger of getting shot by my own companions, I slammed into Shattered Sky. Once again it seemed the speed of Accelerator was just enough to catch him before he could use his ARM to evade. I had expected him to still vanish when I grappled with him, but surprisingly once I got my hooves on him, he didn’t vanish, and we both hit the roof with a heavy smack.

Followed by a crack, as the weakened roof gave out underneath us.

There was a very confusing and painful moment of freefall amid shards of broken wood and stone as I scrambled with keep hold of a pegasus who really didn’t want to be kept hold of. He rammed a hoof into my chest, smacked me upside the head with an elbow, and buffeted me with his wings before we hit the floor of the second story hallway. That nearly knocked me senseless, but I stubbornly kept a grip around Shattered Sky’s barrel as that floor gave out and we crashed through it into the main chamber of the church amid a shower of dust and debris.

In free fall once more I felt Shattered Sky wriggled in my grip like a greased up gecko. He planted his hindlegs on my stomach and kicked off me. Without looking I slashed out wildly with Gramzanber. I felt the spear connect with something but couldn’t see what amid the confusion of the fall, and I hit the stone floor of the church a second later. I think I may have blacked out for a moment because when I opened my eyes again Accelerator had stopped, returning the world to its normal color tones and speed, and I felt like I’d not only fallen through the roof of a building but like somepony had given all my internal organs electrical shocks.

I was laying in the middle of the church aisles, groaning as I pulled myself to shaky hooves, the entire world seeming to swim. I had to choke back bile, and felt more than a little woozy. Gramzanber lay at my hooves, and I noticed the blood splattering its edge.

Looking up I saw Shattered Sky not far off, also shakily getting up on his hooves. And minus one wing. Where his right wing had been was now a smooth, bloody stump. I saw the appendage off to the side, twisted and laying across a stone bench. Feathers fall around us like small gray motes of snow.

Shattered Sky’s face was twisted in pain, but also in pure rage as he looked disbelievingly at his severed wing, then at me.

“You...wretch! What have you done!?” he roared, one part of his glasses splintered, blood coating his face, his usual composure utterly shattered.

I slowly retrieved Gramzanber. I was out of quips. They didn’t really seem appropriate here, anyway. Tired, I started to walked towards him. His entire form bristled and he glanced around for his gun. I did too, spotting it laying between us, closer to him than to me. I paused as he looked at me, a second of tension springing between us. I shook my head. My memory went back to Stable 104, in the dark, when Midnight Twinkle had Arcaidia at her mercy.

“You can walk away from this,” I said, “Leave. My friends and I won’t stop you.”

He smiled at me, a thin, humorless one.

“You don’t understand anything, landbound. We don’t get to walk away, because there’s nowhere to walk away too. For us, for Odessa, its win, or die. Because if we lose, the world loses with us. Get that through your thick, moronic skull. We’re the only ones who can protect the world. Not the NCR and their glorified weathermare of a Lightbringer! Not the pathetic, scattered remnants of the Enclave or Steel Rangers! Not that cesspool of gangs and Guilds in Skull City! Certainly not an idiot tribal and his little band of misbegotten Wasteland trash!”

His whole body tensed, and I tensed as well. Shattered Sky, regaining his composure in that moment, used his one remaining wing to adjust his glasses on his nose.

“Odessa will win. No matter how many of us die, we will win.”

“And that justifies everything wrong you do in the meantime?” I asked.

“Of course it does.”

There were no more words as he sprang forward, the pressure I felt from Gramzanber warning me about his ARM activating a second before he vanished. Wounded as I was there was no way I was going to beat him to his gun, so instead I stayed where I was and kept watch for when he’d reappear. He did so, scooping up his gun and aiming at me in the same motion. I threw myself to the side, diving between stone benches as he opened fire. Stone chips flew as rounds punched through the stone, raining down around me as I scrambled towards the far wall.

Reaching the end of the bench I grit my teeth at the pain flowing through my body as I shoved the heavy stone bench over, giving me more cover to work with. Shattered Sky appeared in front of me, Gramzanber’s warning providing just the instant I needed to slash out at where he appeared. He had to jump back, no longer able to fly, and he fired as he jumped. I tried to get Gramzanber in line to block but was too slow, the bullets slamming into my shoulder and chest.

The golden gecko scales on the chest of my armor helped absorb that bullet, but the shoulder one tore past the armor and ripped into my flesh, causing me to stagger. Grinding my teeth to ignore the pain I rushed him, thrusting my spear. He laughed and vanished, appearing on the opposite side of the church.

“I wonder how much of that ARM’s power you really can use,” he said chiddingly, “You seemed to be able to keep up with my Chronos’ time compression power when you entered that ghostly blue state, but it doesn’t look like you can do that too often. It’d be better if Odessa had that ARM of yours. We could probably learn how to use its full power, instead of it being wasted on you.”

Time compression? Was that what he was doing when he vanished like that? The concept flew right over my head. I wheeled about, running along the wall as he fired, bullets blasting out bits of wall as I galloped in a hobbling gait, diving at the last moment behind the last bench along the aisle before the raised platform where the podium and the golden tree-like sculpture was.

Grunting in pain I reached into my saddlebags and rooted about for another grenade, this time pulling out one of the gray striped ones that indicated a tear gas grenade. As I did so I heard a barrage of gunfire above me and glanced up to see Iron Wrought was poking his head over the lip of the hole Shattered Sky and I had made in the roof, and was firing down.

He had to duck back at Shattered Sky’s return fire, but that bought me the seconds I needed to pull the stem of the tear gas grenade and lob it over the bench towards the Odessa officer. I heard him curse as the grenade popped with a loud hissing sound. I rushed out as one side of the church was engulfed in a smoky yellow gas that even at a distance I could smell, a horrible acrid stink that made my eyes water despite being well outside the cloud.

My body felt like it was near to breaking, but I knew my chances to end this were dwindling, and I needed this to be over now.

As if in response to that thought the pressure of Gramzanber intensified and it felt almost like a hoof reaching out to me in my mind. While instances of this in the past had confused me, this time I didn’t hesitate. I reached out as well, trying to mentally touch that spot in my mind that connected me to my ARM. The second I did I felt warmth spread through me, and a voice, now remarkably familiar.

Good, good, keep it up Longwalk! This is the way to do it! Don’t fight it, just relax and let Gram do his thing!

Astral Resonance Link operating at synch rate of 57%. Force Adaption now possible at Level 2 Release. Wielder Longwalk will please identify objectives for Force Release?

He needs you to focus Longwalk! What do you need him to do? Focus on it and he can adapt to do it! Now! Before that jerk recovers!

Shattered Sky had appeared outside the tear gas cloud, coughing and hacking as he stumbled away from the gas and into the center aisles of the church. His ‘time compression’ clearly hadn’t worked well against something like the gas grenade that covered a wide area. Just like Crossfire’s shrapnel round, or Arcaidia and Trailblaze’s ice and fire combo.

I focused my mind and for the first time felt like I was honestly speaking to Gramzanber, sending my thoughts to the spear as if it were a partner, not just a weapon.

I need an attack that hits a big area! So he can’t dodge it!

The response was near instantaneous.

Understood. Protocols established, Astral Pattern locking...

Warm heat seared through me, but unlike the last time this happened, when I had acquired Accelerator, I could see what was happening inside Gramzanber itself. It could see the spear, not as a solid, single object, but as a vast collection of trillions of small cell-like machines, all united in function and purpose. The machines were united by a single overriding spirit, a power source of magic that took part of its fuel, part of its very existence, from my own spirit. I could see the lines and currents of my spirit flowing into the spear and vice versa, like Gramzanber was a tree and its roots were wrapped into my soul. I saw those roots realign, the microscopic machines forming the shape of a spear shifting to allow new lines of power to be drawn from me, to resonate inside the spear, and to start taking a new shape.

And as it did that I could also sense something else. I saw something else. A different spirit, separate from myself or Gramzanber. I didn’t know what it was, but I was certain the other voice was coming from that separate spirit, which seemed tethered to Gramzanber.

Then my senses were overloaded with heat, blocking out anything except my focus on Shattered Sky, who seemed to have recovered enough to see that something was happening with me.

Gramzanbers voice rang out one more time in my head.

Force Release Active; Level 2; Code Name: Impulse.

I found myself standing in front of the sculpture of the tree with its sun and moon motif, and though I wasn’t sure how it’d happened I was standing on my hind legs, Gramzanber’s shaft wrapped around my fetlock, much like it had in my fight with Moa Gault. The stance should have been unnatural for a pony, but for some reason it felt incredibly familiar, as if I’d done this hundreds of times before.

My body felt like it was being drained of strength, yet instead of feeling weak, I felt that strength flowing into Gramzanber, which began to pulse with blue fire in time with my own heartbeat. Shattered Sky was aiming at me, mouth tightening around the trigger of his gun, and in the same instant he fired I hefted Gramzanber and with all the force I could muster hurled it at him. I didn’t have time to hesitate, or wonder if he’d survive whatever was about to happen. Or if I would.

I felt his bullet strike me in the chest, slamming me back against the golden sculpture, while Gramzanber sailed like a indigo comet at Shattered Sky. He raised his hoof, his watch ARM, Chronos, flashing blue. He vanished, but at the same instant Gramzanber exploded outward with a sphere of swirling blue energy that expanded outward in an instant, so fast it touched the ceiling and walls within a split second. Unfortunately those beautiful multi-colored windows shattered, the images of the idealized, peaceful Equestria falling apart in rainbow shards. The sphere of energy almost reached me, but pulled up short by a few paces.

It dissipated almost as fast as it had appeared, revealing Gramzanber unharmed in the center of the blast. The spear stayed in the air for a second before falling to plant itself blade first in the ground, which was now a shallow crater in the middle of the church.

Coughing, numb, and feeling like I was already dead, I slowly patted my chest. The bullet was lodged under a gecko scale, my armor once more proving itself. I was pretty sure the impact had cracked a rib, though. I found I couldn’t quite stand, instead managing to just roll over. I felt like all the strength had fled my body, my muscles replaced by particularly thin and useless twigs.

“... Blarg.” I said, indicating my opinion on the general state of my body.

My voice was answered by a similar groan from the other side of the crater, near the open entrance to the church. I blinked in surprise to see Shattered Sky laying there, his whole body battered and scorched. His glasses were missing, and even his remaining wing was missing a number of feathers. He rolled over, groaning in pain, and raised his left hoof, looking at it in disbelief. I saw that on his hoof was a blackened object, falling off in pieces. His ARM, charred black now, quite possibly overloaded by the attack I’d just thrown.

“Ludicrous,” he said, “Even an artificial ARM can’t be...destroyed.”

“I don’t know,” I said, grunting in pain, “It looks pretty damn destroyed to me. Unless its supposed to be falling apart like that.”

“Ugh, shut up you bottom feeding, mentally challenged, cave pony! Gah!” Shattered Sky cried out as he rolled over onto his stomach and I chuckled... immediately groaning as well at the pain rolling through me.

“Heh, ow, hah, ow, still... still won,” I said, slowly dragging myself forward, “Not bad for a cave pony.”

“You haven’t...guugh...won yet!” Shattered Sky retorted, also dragging himself along. He was dragging himself towards the exit to the church, and I was in hot pursuit. Or rather, slow pursuit. Neither of us could walk, and were half crawling, half dragging our wounded, nearly exhausted bodies across the cratered floor of the church.

I imagined we made for a pretty pathetic looking pair at that moment. Or a comical one, if your tastes ran towards the morbid. I didn’t think either of us has the strength to actually fight any longer. However that didn’t mean Shattered Sky wasn’t still a threat. He could still call for reinforcements. Assuming my last attack hadn’t fried any devices he had to call for help with.

I got to the other side of the crater, every pull of my exhausted hooves sending lances of agony through my wounds, the bullet in my shoulder radiating tearing pain. Shattered Sky had managed to drag himself all the way to the top of the stone steps outside the church, and to my utter shock the proud pegasus actually forced himself to stand with a scream that was equal parts pain and willpower. Much as I didn’t like him, I had to kind of respect his own ability to withstand punishment and keep going.

I heard the pounding of hooves behind me and nearly sagged into unconsciousness with relief as I heard both Arcaidia and Trailblaze call out my name at practically the same time.

“Longwalk!”

In seconds my friends were around me, Arcaidia immediately surrounding her horn with soft blue light as she cast a healing spell over me. Trailblaze stood on my other side, glaring at Shattered Sky, Iron Wrought and Whetstone both moving to either side of us.

Shattered Sky grimaced, reached towards his ear, and pulling out a small, smoking device. He snorted, tossing it aside, “Should have called in our position the second we spotted the smoke from that pyre. Idiot mare, Black Petals has cost us this whole operation!”

“Oh, don’t blame me because you couldn’t beat them!” said the mare in question as she suddenly landed next to Shattered Sky, her large silver key floating by her side in a lazy spinning pattern.

Black Petal was wounded, though nowhere near to the extent Shattered Sky was. I saw cuts that must’ve come from Binge’s knives, and a bullet wound or two that had to be B.B’s work. But Black Petal wore her wounds like they were decorations, and looked like she still had plenty of fight left in he. Which was alarming, given last I’d seen her she was locked in combat with two of my friends. If she was here...

“Where are B.B and Binge!?” I shouted, forcing myself to stand. Arcaidia’s spell was helping, but given my current state it’d take a lot more mojo to put me back into fighting form. Still, if I was going to shout dramatically at least I could stand while doing it.

Black Petal looked at me, coyly licking her lips, “No need to raise your voice, little morsel. Bloom is alive. Just had to remind her how much difference there is between a Family member who's been eating properly, and one that’s been denying herself that sweet lifeblood that makes us what we are. She and the bouncy bitch with the knives are taking naps right now. Think I’ll save the mouthy green one for a snack later, or maybe I’ll get Bloom to drain her. Shouldn’t be too hard to get Bloom back to form, if I cut the green mare’s throat and just pour the blood down Bloom’s fucking throat.”

My face paled, and I felt Arcaidia cease her healing spell. My blue unicorn friend had a look of utter frozen death in her eyes as she looked at Black Petal, her starblaster levitating next to her in an instant. She’d gone well beyond a ‘kitten drowning’ look. At this point I’d say the lake the kittens were in had just turned to a solid glacier.

“You hurt ones close to me, nothing to stop me from killing you until you die,” she said.

Black Petal deadpanned, “Filly, you need to learn to speak Equestrian without sounding like you spent time sniffing glue as a foal.”

“Just a thought,” said Shattered Sky, “Perhaps you should stop exchanging posturing quips with the enemy and call for help now!”

“Why don’t you do it?,” said Black Petal, eyeing Arcaidia.

“I cannot. My communicator has been disabled,” Shattered Sky said.

“What a shame. Guess that means I get to keep playing.”

“Against all of us?” I asked, glaring at the dark red pegasus mare.

Black Petal tapped her hoof in contemplation, “I’ll admit, five on one, not the best odds. And weak as she is Bloom and her little psycho friend did get a few hits in. Usually prefer my fights nice and firmly planted in the realm of ‘me winning’. But really, only the iceball and firebrand got any fight left in them, so maybe this is really just two on one?

“Hey, I’m not exactly a lame gecko over here!” shouted Whetstone, stamping a hoof.

Black Petal rolled her eyes, “Yeah, I’m sure you and your tiny knife are going to be the one to tip the scales. Face it, you’re not even a pawn on the board, you’re one of the packing peanuts the chess set came in.”

“Stop. Quipping!” Shattered Sky yelled, pure exasperation in his voice, “Either fight, call for help, or get me out of here!”

“Getting real tired of that lip of yours,” Black Petal said, turning red, dangerous eyes towards Shattered Sky, “Especially from a sack of blood that can barely stand, and sure can’t fly.”

Shattered Sky’s face screwed up in both rage and shame, “I will fly again! Odessas medical technology-”

“Won’t do you any good right here and now, Shattered Wing,” Black Petal said, with a cruel smile, “Can’t fight anymore. Can’t fly to get away. And I’m not carrying you anywhere. You’d just slow me down.”

“Both of you shut up!” shouted Trailblaze, stepping forward, her body shimmering with heat. She fixed a glare of burning rage upon the two Cocytus members, her voice trembling with seething ire, “Neither of you are leaving this place alive. Not after the pain you’ve caused me and mine! No more words, and no more fighting, just burn!”

She seemed to become fully engulfed in fire for a moment, red and orange flames swirling and spiralling up from her like a funnel until they took the shape, just for an instant, of the Guardian of Fire himself. The heat made my cringe, both from the physical discomfort and the painful memory of that fiery bird’s flames. The shape of Moa Gualt wasn’t quite solid, more like an apparition, formed from the fire.

I tried to reach out to Trailblaze, but the raw heat coming off her body actually burned my hoof as it neared her, “Trail! Wait! We need one of them alive! They can tell us where our tribe is being held!”

That was my logical reason, but honestly I just didn’t want to see my best friend burn anypony alive. I didn't want to see anypony get burned alive, for any reason. Most of all I was scared of the look on Trailblaze’s face, as if all the anguish of losing the tribe, of the death’s she’d seen and been unable to prevent, were pouring out of her and fueling the fire that seemed to be literally summoning Moa Gault inside the church.

I saw the tears in her eyes, boiling away into steam as she looked at me, fury and sadness equally warring on her face, “I don’t care! They deserve to burn!”

“We need what they know, Trail, please! You don’t have to do this,” I pleaded, looking around me for support. But Whetstone seemed in shocked awe at the massive flaming bird summoned by Trailblaze and wasn’t paying attention, and Arcaidia had a difficult to read look. Her silver eyes regarded Trailblaze with something between fear and calculation. Iron Wrought had simply backed away, saying nothing and looking warry.

“Trail,” I tried again, because she was, at least, hesitating, “Shattered Sky is done. He can’t run, or fight. This isn’t the way to do things.”

“He deserves it.”

“And you’re going to throw away our chance to learn where our tribe is on what? Revenge?”

“I wouldn’t talk anyway,” said Shattered Sky suddenly, a fierce look coming over his wounded features as he spread his one, blackened wing, “You waste your breath, landbound. I will not be your prisoner, your informant, or your hostage! Set lose your flames, mare, and do so knowing I still am your better. Better than any of you worthless, filthy, landbound!”

I knew he was goading her and tried to say something to counter his words, to try to calm Traiblalze down, but Shattered Sky had pushed her over the edge and it was too late.

The apparition of Moa Gault screeched like the hunting cry of a thousand hawks, and rushed forward, a surging storm of fire. I saw Black Petal fly away, leaving Shattered Sky behind. My eyes, for just a second, locked eyes with Shattered Sky as the flames descended on him. He looked satisfied, as if he’d won. Perhaps, in his eyes, he had. He knew he couldn’t escape, and would rather burn than become our prisoner and run the risk that we’d force him to talk.

And there was nothing I could do. At all.

The entire front of the church exploded in fire. Stone melted, and collapsed, and anything wood combusted instantly.

Trailblaze teetered on her hooves, sweat pouring down her neck, and she fell over, but not before I rushed over to catch her, ignoring my wounds. Arcaidia was next to us a moment later, supporting Trailblaze’s other side. Trailblaze was completely knocked out by the attack she’d summoned. Around us our friends gathered themselves, and we all looked towards the blanket of flames covering the front of the church.

Beyond that wall of fire was Black Petal, her key trailing wisps of steam, but sporting no clear injuries. She must have evaded the blast, because I couldn’t imagine many things withstanding a direct hit of that kind of fire. Of Shattered Sky’s body there was no sign, the Odessa officer consumed in the flames entirely, leaving not even ashes.

“Close,” said Black Petal, “Almost had me there, firebrand!”

As she dusted herself off she suddenly hopped back as bullets snapped by her. I blinked, seeing B.B, awake and seemingly uninjured, landing in front of Black Petal. The wall of fire would have kept me from running to her side, but Arcaidia conjured a stream of icy air that cleared a small portion of the fire. She looked at me.

“Stay with Trailblaze, ren solva,” she said and galloped out onto the church steps, standing next to B.B while Black Petal eyed the pair with clear irritation.

“Looking a lot better Bloom. How’d you recover from the ass beating I just gave you? Wait, don’t tell me, I can smell it. You fed.”

B.B grimly lowered her head, wings spreading, and I finally noticed her eyes had become blood red, her voice missing its accent as she said, “If I have, what do you think that means for you if you don’t run?”

Black Petal giggled, alighting upwards with a few quick wing flaps, “Scary. Good to see some of the old Bloom is still in there. I’ll be happy to tell the Mistress that the Family’s prodigal daughter hasn’t completely forgotten her roots. Ta-ta!”

Black Petal then reached for her key, touching it. A ripple in the air washed over both her and the key, and like somepony stepping through the sheet of a waterfall Black Petal vanished, the ripple disappearing behind her and the key. And just like that she was gone.

By now the church’s roof was getting engulfed by the flames, smoke filling the air and making us cough and sputter. I quickly, with Whetstone’s help, retrieved Gramzanber and we hauled the unconscious Trailblaze outside and down the steps of the church where we joined Arcaidia and B.B. Getting closer to her I saw the blood stain on B.B’s lips and a fear gripped me.

“B.B...” I started to ask, but she held up a hoof, shame creasing her features.

“Ain’t bad as yer thinkin’ Long,” she said, accent back, but voice shaky, and she refused to meet my eyes, or anypony’s for that matter, “She let me, an’ I didn’t take a’ lot.”

As if to confirm that statement Binge came stumbling around the corner of the burning church. She looked wobbly on her hooves, blood coating her face from a cut scalp and a dozen fresh bruises on her sacred body. There was also a clear set of puncture marks on her shoulder. She saw us and waved, looking to bounce over, but tripping and falling on her face as she did so. Still, her unkempt, puffy tail wagged weakly.

“Hi all you pretty, spinning ponies. Can I have a cookie and some orange juice please? I was a good filly and donated blood to the angel. Church’s run blood drives, but are supposed to serve snacks. Its a rule.”

B.B looked away, running a hoof through her mane, “Just took ‘nough ta heal up an’ get over here... didn’t want ta. Hated havin’ ta. Ain’t me. Not no more.”

I smiled at her, “It’s okay. We needed you.”

She still wouldn’t look at me. Her face was ghostly pale, and filled with trepidation, and her ears were drooped with shame. Needed or not, I could tell that what she’d done was weighing on her. And speaking of things weighing on ponies, I looked at Trailblaze. Laying on the hard dirt, eyes closed as she slept, I could see the pain etched onto the soft contours of her face. I sighed, looking at the burning church as its roof started to collapse inward. It would be a massive, charred gravestone for Shattered Sky, another pyre, its smoke billowing up into the air.

“We need to go,” said Iron Wrought, “Like, now. Ursa’s still parked out back, with your tribal buddies inside it.”

“Yeah...” I said, knowing my practically minded friend was right. Odessa would be coming again. It was past time to go.

We trudged our tired, battered bodies around to the back of the church, the Ursa waiting for us among the gravestones. There was little talk past that point, just enough for me to reassure my tribesmates that these ponies with me were my friends and that Trailblaze was okay, just sleeping. Introductions and decompression would have to wait. B.B said something about Misty Glasses and the spider ponies of Stable 104 being able to open another portal for us soon, using my Pip-Buck as a tracking device to pinpoint where to put the portal. Apparently that was how they got to the church in the first place. I wasn’t paying that much attention, honestly.

My eyes remained fixed on Trailblaze’s sleeping form as we drove away from the burning remains of the church.

----------

Footnote: Level Up!

Perk Added - Falling With Style: Hey, if you can’t fly like a pegasus, you might as well learn to fall like an earth pony! Your experiences with nasty tumbles have given you insight on how to make terminal falls into merely painful ones. You now take 50% less falling damage!

Quest Perk Added - ARM Bound Stage 3: Your bond with your ARM has become strong enough that you and the ARM respond to each other more like trusted partners in battle rather than like someone merely wielding a weapon, allowing you to fight with greater fluidity and heightened awareness. You gain an effective +1 to Agility and Perception as long as you wield your ARM.

Level 2 Force Ability Added - Impulse: When your Force Gauge reaches 50% you can use the special attack ‘Impulse’. This ability converts bio-energy into destructive force, concentrating it into the form of your ARM to be thrown and detonate upon impact with a target or where desired. The attack drains physical strength, however, to generate the blast. Using Impulse imposes a -3 Strength penalty. This penalty is temporary and recovers at a rate of one per hour of rest.


End of Disc 1...

...Please Insert Disc 2

Author's Note:

And here we are, a little later than I'd hoped, but here nonetheless! The end of "Disc 1" marks the official-ish milestone of the first third of the story I've got planned (though take the term 'planned' with a gain of salt, I know where the story ends, and what the basic outline of the middle is, but there's still lots of dots to connect). Hard to believe I've been working on this story for something like two years. Its incredibly pleasing and humbling to know there are those of you out there who've been sticking with me that whole time. You guys have my sincerest thanks. Thanks of course also goes to KKat for creating such an inspiring setting for the rest of us to write stories in and share with all the other FoE enthusiasts out there. And can't go without thanking Doomande for being willing to always help out with prereading. I hope all of you have enjoyed the ride so far, and of course never hesitate to leave a comment on what you think, as I'm always open to critique of any kind.

Onward to Disc 2.

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