• 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 20: Determination

After we finished eating, my companions and I settled down to rest before it became fully dark. What little washed out light there was from beyond the gray cloud cover was rapidly fading. The prospect of a night drive across a battlefield wasn’t exactly lending towards an easy mood to grab a power nap, but I knew I had to get what rest I could for whatever might happen.

“I’ll take care of watch duty while the rest of you rest up,” LIL-E volunteered, the eyebot not even waiting for a response before she hovered away with soft chugging whirrs from the levitation engines that kept her aloft.

“Are ya sure LIL?” asked B.B, stretching her wings, “I’m feelin’ pretty chipper, an’ can take a’ watch iffin’ ya wanna put that bot down an’ grab some sleep yerself. Yer a pony like us, after all, an’ figure ya at least need a break at some point, right?”

LIL-E halted in the air, not turning around, and staying silent for a few long seconds before responding with, “I’m fine. Thanks for the worry, but I usually don’t sleep much these days anyway.”

B.B shrugged her wings, “Suit yerself, but I ain’t feelin’ tired, so think I’ll tag wit ya. Don’t mind, do ya?”

“No, do what you want,” LIL-E said and resumed floating away, now with B.B following her.

I thought the exchange between the two was a tad... off, but didn’t pay it much mind as I nestled up against the side of one of the Ursa’s wheels, setting Gramzanber aside leaning against the steel hull of the huge ATW. Binge had ceased savaging the poor dummy she’d constructed and was now seemingly making adjustments to her bizarre weapon, changing the positions of the knives along the length of wire. She’d sustained several nasty cuts from her practice, but the mare just didn’t seem to care about the wounds. It worried me, how little Binge seemed to care about her own safety.

Iron Wrought sat by the small fire we’d built, his eyes staring into the flames. In the ghostly, flickering light of the fire, with his slumped posture and the way his black mane seemed to droop the stallion looked suddenly so much older and more tired than he’d looked when I’d first met him that first day after leaving Shady Stream. Out of all the companions I’d found out in the Wasteland I realized Iron Wrought had the least amount of reason to care about Arcaidia and my journey, and he had the most to lose; a wife and children whose lives were at risk every hour he was away from Skull City.

“Still worry muchly, ren solva?” Arcaidia asked me as she sat down next to me, her silver mane spilling out across the ground around her. It seemed to have gotten longer since the start of our journey. Its pure platinum splendour was reflecting the firelight, making her mane seem almost like it was made from fire itself. Her thin blue dress also flickered with its strange hexagonal patterns in the light, reminding me of her otherworldly origins.

“I... yeah,” I said, smiling sheepishly, “I want to make sure nothing goes wrong, but if I’ve learned anything so far it’s that something is always going to go wrong. Guess I just have to learn to deal with it. Iron Wrought especially... I just don’t want us to get him home to find out we were too late.”

“It be fine,” the filly assured me, nodding her head confidently, “I know seems bad, Iron Wrought’s... place thing? Saturation? Mmm... situation! Yes! That! Seem bad, but I know betters. Family of Iron Wroughts be lever. Lever used to make good use of him. Uh... bad ponies not get rid of useful lever? Know what I say, ren solva?”

I spent a minute piecing together Arcaidia’s meaning from her still limited use of the Equestrian language, but I more or less got it. The Skull Guild wasn’t likely to harm Iron Wrought’s family as long as they could still be used as leverage against him, to keep him as a double agent against the Labor Guild. It was a cold kind of logic, but it made sense, though I wondered just how Arcaidia came to that conclusion. Was she used to this kind of thing?

It made me think again about how little I knew of Arcaidia’s background.

“I hope you’re right, for his sake,” I said, then glanced sidelong at her. Would it be pushing too hard to ask about the Ark of Destiny, the ship that the voice inside Gramzanber had told me to find? I knew Arcaidia didn’t want to talk about the details of how she’d come to be here or why he was on this world, but maybe if she knew just how much my life depended on it she’d change her mind?

Perhaps now, while everypony else was distracted, would be a good time to ask, so that this could be kept just between me and Arcaidia. I didn’t want the others to know about the three month expiration date my life had just been stamped with, and I figured Arcaidia might be more willing to talk if it was just between us.

“Anyway, Arcaidia, I got something to need to talk to you about,” I began, carefully picking my words.

She gave me a strange look, but with an open and warm smile, “Off course. Speak all mind thoughts.”

I held back a laugh, feeling more at ease with this course of action upon seeing that smile. I lowered my voice so that only Arcaidia could hear me, leaning in a little closer as we spoke. I quickly explained my experiences in hearing Gramzanber in my dreams, along with another voice. Arcaidia seemed surprised at this but she listened intently, with her silver eyes becoming much more intense as I described my last talk with the voice inside Gramzanber and what I’d been told, both about my limited life span and the fact that this Ark of Destiny might have information that could save me from an early demise.

When I finished speaking Arcaidia remained silent, with a thoughtful, pensive crease to her feminine features. She flicked a glance at the others in the camp. Iron Wrought was still spacing out, and Binge was... curling up with the dismembered dummy as if it were a pillow. Neither was paying us any attention.

When Arcaidia spoke it was with a hard, metallic intensity that was at odds with her warmth from moments ago, “Ren solva, listen greatly. What I tell you could make big troubles for me. But... you... you close friend. Will risk big trouble with home for your life to be safe.”

She lifted her hoof that had her Pip-Buck on it and her horn glowed as her magic twisted knobs and pushed buttons on the device. I saw the screen shift to the map. There I saw the same marker I’d seen all those days ago in Shady Stream that showed the tag where Persephone was supposedly located, far to the south in NCR territory. Then there was suddenly another tag, very close to that location, perhaps a few miles west of Persephone’s location.

“I find signal at same time find sister’s signal. Ark of Destiny distress beacon. Encoded. No pony ever find, all... scrambled noise. Only Veruni tech decode signal. Ark crash... close to sister. Sister might not have gotten to escape pod. Might have fallen with part of ship”

Arcaidia gulped and I could see her trying to push down her emotions, and I reached out to her, putting a hoof on her withers.

“If she’s alive, we’ll find her,” I told Arcaidia, meeting her eyes with my own.

She nodded, “I know. Sister tough, not die easy... but long time since ship crash. I in stasis pod for big number of years. Don’t know what we find when we go there. Ship might be in pieces, but signal come from bridge. Go to bridge, find ARM data for you.”

Arcaidia paused again, took a deep breath, and looked at me with a crestfallen wideness to her features, “Very sorry I am, ren solva. ARM, Gramzanber, given to me to protect me. But I not able to download data to make work with pony before ship crash. Didn’t... too scared to activate ARM myself... gave to you. Selfish of me. Gave to you thinking better...”

She shook her head, “Thought better to test ARM on pony I not know rather than risk self. Didn’t know what happen after. When you make Gramzanber and not die, I thought you lucky. Maybe ponies can use ARM, I thought. Then learned later that ARM kill ponies, but for some reason not you. Now... now your life still in danger, because I too scared to use ARM myself.”

To be honest I didn’t know immediately how to respond to this. Arcaidia’s voice carried a heavy note of guilt and I could see in the swimming wetness in her eyes that she’d been thinking about this a lot. This must have been weighing on her for awhile now, probably ever since she learned that ARMs have killed ponies in the past. So... how did I feel about it? A part of me had a small flicker of something that wasn’t quite anger or disappointment, more like just simple surprise. Thinking back to that first meeting, however, that feeling didn’t last long.

I just smiled at her, remembering the far more important facts of my first meeting with Arcaidia.

“It’s okay,” I told her, “Maybe you gave me Gramzanber not knowing if it’d kill me or not, but the simple fact is that if you hadn’t given me the ARM then I couldn’t have saved Trailblaze, and you healed her afterward. You didn’t have time to explain to me the risks, and you’d already tried your best to stop the geckos with your magic. Arcaidia, I can never thank you enough for what you did for me. Without Gramzanber I’d be dead ten times over already. So don’t worry.”

Arcaidia stared at me for a moment before blinking away her unshed tears and she seemed to let an entire ocean of tension drain out of her as she laid her head down over her crossed forehooves, sighing deeply.

“You ought be more madder, ren solva. I... very happy heart to meet friend like you. Will fix you, promise now. Find ship and fix you. Then sister. She can yell all she want.”

“Well, she can yell at both of us,” I said, also laying down and propping my chin on my forehooves, “Just tell her it was all my fault and I made you break the rules. That’s usually what I did when me and Trailblaze got in trouble.”

Arcaidia giggled lightly and the sound made me grin, pushing away the lingering fear of my shortened lifespan and the worries about how things would go once we got to Skull City. We both settled down to get some rest, and as we did Arcaidia began to softly hum a tune. I remembered it as the same tune I’d heard from her Pip-Buck when she’d discovered her sister’s signal. Even without words there was something quieting and peaceful in the simple hummed notes that helped me drift off to sleep with gentle ease.

----------

You all know what time it is? Longwalk’s Random Dream Time!

What? It might as well be given an official name, given how often it happened to me. At least now I had an idea of why it was happening. Still wished I had some kind of control over it, though.

I didn’t know whose dream I was walking in on at first. I knew it had to be one of my friends because if this were my own dream then I was dreaming of a place I’d never been before, and the detail in the place was too real for it to be just something my mind had conjured on its own.

I was standing in what looked to be a Wasteland settlement, much smaller and more ramshackle than Saddlespring. It consisted of little more than a patchwork barricade surrounding the shop fronts of what looked to be maybe a dozen stores along a strip of run down urban buildings. The shops looked like they’d been converted into homes, with maybe twenty various smaller tents or shacks lined up along the outside or situated among the open spaces of the parking lot that seemed to make up the settlement's courtyard.

Ponies were about, perhaps a few dozen, all wearing the normal Wasteland fare of faded, dirty barding, or just the general dust and grime of the world. Still, there was a feeling of energy and good cheer here that felt... homey. The ponies here sat in large, huddled groups, chatting amiably and eating what looked to be grilled meat. The smell made my mouth water. I missed the gecko meat from home so much, and I felt a surge of homesickness at the sight of this simple little community surviving in the Wasteland.

The ponies were mostly armed, with a few keeping watch on the walls, probably for dangerous animals or Raiders. The only thing I noted that seemed off was that, off in one corner of the settlement, there were a few ponies who didn’t look local. They were a unicorn mare and pegasus stallion who looked normal enough; both sporting the dirt and dust of the road, but clearly from out of town by the way they sort of kept to themselves. The pegasus reminded me of Glint and Sunset, having a similar colored coat and mane, through his was a much more bright and solid orange. The one who stood out most in that group was the huge, steel stallion, his whole body from tail to muzzle covered in thick armor that looked much bulkier than the Odessa power armor I’d seen.

I glanced around a bit, wondering just why I was here and who’s dream this was.

“Hehehe! Hiya mister, wanna play?”

I wheeled around, staring at a little filly who was suddenly behind me. Her green coat and darker green mane, poofy and wild, was immediately familiar.

“Binge?” I asked.

Binge, filly Binge, giggled loudly and bouncing on her hooves, “Mama wants me to go to bed but I’m going to stay up and play! Will you play with me, big brother pony?”

I was suddenly very wary, not sure what to expect out of one of Binge’s dreams, but she seemed to not recognize who I was, or at least she was doing a wonderful job of pretending. I decided there couldn’t really be any harm in just playing along, for now.

“Sure,” I said with a smile, “What do you want to play?”

“Binge!” called a voice from the wall, a young stallion, also green, but with a blue mane that looked, surprisingly, a lot like my own, “Don’t bother the out of towner, now! You need to be getting to bed, before mom finds out!”

Little Binge pouted, shaking her tail, “Nuhuh! I’m not tired! Isn’t that right Mr. Happy?”

Suddenly filly Binge had a dirty sock on her right hoof which she raised up. It was the same sock she had in the real world, only its face was made from smeared dirt in this dream, not blood.

“Yuppers! Binge isn’t tired at all so she’s going to play all night! It’s okay because I say so.”

The stallion from the wall groaned and hopped down. I saw he was of a similar age to me, wearing a simple leather set of barding and carrying a plain bolt action rifle. He gave me an apologetic grin as he came up to us, “Sorry stranger. My little sis can be a bit rambunctious when she gets excited over something. We don’t get visitors here in Arbu too often. Its a bit of an event.”

“Heh, well, wasn’t expecting to drop in,” I said, rubbing the back of my head, not sure what else to say. Why was Binge having a dream about her foalhood? I had to assume that’s what this was, a moment from Binge’s past. It didn’t make much sense otherwise. It was interesting to see she was a pretty normal filly, once, though I could still easily see the tad oddness that kept with her through the years. To think she had that sock this whole time.

“Binge, Mug!” called a mare from across the way. She was as green as her daughter, though her mane was a lot straighter. The mare trotted up, giving her two children a stern look.

“Young filly, this is no hour to be awake bothering your brother and one of our guests,” Binge’s mother said. She gave me a kind smile and a nod, “I hope you’re finding your stay in our little slice of quiet pleasant? Have you eaten yet?”

“Mom, you don’t have to pester the poor guy,” said Binge’s brother, Mug, “I’m sure he ate earlier.”

“Mama! Mama!” Binge was hopping about, “Can I please stay up a bit longer? I want to play guard with big brother!”

“Nope, not hearing it. You’re far too young to be on the wall, and it’s late enough as it is. You’re going straight to bed. You can play with your brother in the morning,” Binge’s mother said, reaching down to gather the little squirming filly up.

Just then, however, there was a shrieking, raw bellow of rage from somewhere near the far end of the settlement, a voice filled with such unmitigated fury it sent a frozen claw into the pit of my stomach.

They ate them! Go and look! The monsters ate them!

That scorching, rage dripping voice was punctuated by gunfire and screams. I barely caught sight of the muzzle flashes and the angry, orange tracers. I didn’t even get a clear look at who fired before I felt something warm splatter across my side. Binge’s mother shuddered and fell, her body catching fire and her skull blasted open by gunfire, the mare’s blue eyes wide and open with shock as her mouth dropped her daughter.

Binge hit the ground with her mother’s blood coating her face, the little filly’s eyes turning to glass pools as she stared at her mother’s body laying before her.

Mug reacted instantly, grabbing Binge and pulling her back, shouting “Get down!”

I stood transfixed, trying to see where the gunfire was coming from. The residents of Arbu were taken totally off guard by the sudden, vicious attack from within. I saw over a dozen ponies fall to incredibly accurate gunfire before the first of them began to draw their own weapons to shoot back. Whenever a pony fell, they fell screaming, fire blazing across their bodies as if the bullets of their assailant were made to burn its victims alive.

Mug had pulled his shocked sister behind a table he overturned just in time to avoid a burst of gunfire, and I finally caught sight of the pony wreaking this havoc.

It was a small unicorn mare. So small she barely was visible as she dove behind cover herself to avoid some return fire from some of Arbu’s ponies. Unremarkable, gray, a flicker of a brown mane. Oddly familiar, as if I’d seen her before. Then she ducked around her cover and I saw her face clearly.

Rage. Green eyes sparkling emerald with pure righteous fury and hate.

Wherever that mare looked, ponies died. The mare worked a rifle and a revolver in her magic with the smooth precision of a death dealer of the highest order. I’d never seen anything like it short of Crossfire’s skill, and even then I wasn’t at all certain if I stacked Crossfire against this mare that the Drifter mercenary would stand for long. It seemed like nopony could stand before this mare for long. Arbu ponies fought, and died, as if their guns were shooting blanks and this mare’s bullets magically found their targets every time.

Her friends joined in soon enough. The steel pony seemed to sprout weapons from the side of his armor that blasted unmitigated death amid the Arbu ponies. Missiles and grenades tore the residents to pieces. The pegasus, though he seemed reluctant, fired away with battle saddle mounted rifles, picking off targets with impressive sniping. The black unicorn stayed away from the fighting, merely forming a shield of magic around her allies.

All through this I tried to move, but it felt as if my body was rooted in place. I had no weapons, but my instincts were shouting at me to intervene, to stop this bloodbath and slaughter. But I was trapped as an observer, and the world seemed to shift for me, pulling me back behind the cover Mug had pulled Binge, as if I was a puppet being forced to watch.

“Binge, Binge listen to me, I need you to listen,” Mug said, coughing. The bullets that I thought he’d avoided by going behind the wooden table had actually gone clean through the table, and through him as well. The incendiary nature of the bullets had been spent on the table, which was on fire, but from the ragged open bullets holes in his chest and the blood pouring from his mouth, I could tell Mug’s wounds were fatal.

“Nononono!” Binge was saying, hooves on her brother, trying fruitlessly to pull him towards the wall, “You gotta come too! You gotta run with Binge, big brother! Mr. Happy will make you better, please! Run away with Binge!”

Mug shook his head, his teeth gritting as he tried to push himself to his hooves, but failed as he slumped to the ground, eyes losing focus.

“Binge... our secret... secret way out... go.”

He raised a hoof, giving her one, weak push, then went still. Binge’s little filly hooves held her dead brother for a few seconds, then an explosion, probably from that steel pony, landed nearby and Binge, with a terrified squeak, turned and ran for the wall. She slipped through a wood panel that I could tell had a few nails removed to allow a small pony to fit through, and she was gone.

And I was pulled along with her. My vision blurred as I watched filly Binge scamper on her tiny hooves into the Wasteland night, away from the fire and death of Arbu. I was pulled along with her, as if I were a ghost pulled by an invisible set of strings. The wall was no impediment, I simply ended up flowing right through it as I was pulled after the fleeing filly. The landscape became an indistinct wash of shadows and gray, a landscape of dead ruins filled with the shifting spectres of the dead. I could almost see horrible shapes amid the blackness, reaching for Binge, who was the only seeming point of light as she ran and ran, her sobs punctuated by the growingly distant gunfire behind us.

Eventually were we alone, Binge’s filly form collapsing in a breathless little heap, huddled against the shattered wall of what might have once been a home.

Instinctively I moved to her, reaching out to her with a hoof. The second I touched her she cried out and nearly scrambled up the wall in fright, but when she saw me her tear streaked eyes focused, and gained a familiar mad gleam. The tiny filly suddenly rushed forward and hugged my leg.

“Everypony is gone,” she said in a voice that sounded like both the voice of a filly and that of Binge’s adult self, intertwined, “Burned away and gone. I’m alone. I was alone. I ran, ran, ran, just like big brother told me to. I was a good filly, right? Running is what I was told to do, and Binge is a good filly.”

Not knowing what else to do I just put my hooves around the shaking filly Binge and held her in a tight hug, “You did the only thing you could, Binge.”

I wished I knew just what it was I’d just seen. Was this really Binge’s memories? Was that town, Arbu, once her home? If this was a real memory, then what had actually happened? Why had that mare done what she’d done? Had she been a Raider in disguise? Infiltrate the town and destroy it from the inside? Had she been a mercenary, hired to wipe the place out? Neither explanation made much sense to me. The mare was too skilled and well armed to be a common Raider, and she’d been so filled with fury that it didn’t seem likely she’d been a hired gun simply doing a job.

No, I had the feeling there was a lot more to this than what I could see, but in the end, I suppose it didn’t matter. Whatever the reasons, it’d cost Binge her home and her family, and while I hugged her I realized the reasons for the death of Arbu didn’t matter. Not to this little filly, who’d lost everything in the span of a few minutes of violence. All I could do was hold her.

“It’s okay mister,” Binge said, her filly voice still distorted by her adult voice, “You don’t have to stay with little Binge. She’s very sad, and lonely, and wanders around for a long time...”

The filly backed away from me, and looked at me with eyes that gradually gained the mad sheen I was so used to seeing in Binge’s adult self. She held up the same dirty sock she’d been playing with, Mr. Happy.

“You see, she’s not alone,” Binge took a hoof and wiped some of the blood from her face, her mother’s blood, and used it to repaint the smiley face on the sock, and when she spoke next it was with the high pitched pretend voice of her sock puppet, “Mr. Happy’s here to look after Binge and keep her company, and tell her stories, just like momma and big brother used to! So don’t worry, Longwalk. Binge will hurt for a long time, but she’d figure out how to put her soul to sleep so it doesn’t hurt anymore. She’ll find new friends to play with!”

From the shadows around us I saw ponies emerge. Twisted expressions, yellowed eyes, horrible, spiked clothing, and leering grins. Raiders. The Raiders closed in around us, appearing from the shadows of the Wasteland like wraiths, their cackling laughter chilling the air. Binge, little Binge, was smiling so widely it seemed unnatural, her mad eyes still crying.

“It’ll all be alright bucky! The pain goes away eventually, and little Binge grows up big and strong and never forgets to laugh, laugh, laugh...”

And then it was Binge, grown up and as I knew her in the real world, standing in front of me, her crazed grin and eyes boring into me as she giggled the same blood soaked giggle of the Raiders around her. Transfixed by the sight I didn’t move as she came up to me and pulled me close in a similar hug to the one I’d just given her filly form, only this hug was a lot less comforting and a lot more like she was imprisoning me as she leered at me.

“And I’ll teach you to laugh too, bucky!”

Before I could react her lips locked on mine, and I felt her teeth bite into my lip sharply enough to draw blood. The violent kiss shocked me, through in hindsight I should have expected something like this. When Binge broke off the kiss I suddenly felt icy cold, and I noticed that we were suddenly standing at the precipice of a cliff, one that was crumbling beneath our hooves while Binge tittered insanely.

----------

Startled awake, sitting straight up with a cool trickle of sweat on my brow. Slowly I looked over and I saw that while Arcaidia was snoozing on my left where she’d been before, I had company on my right. Binge was also asleep, curled up with her tail happily wagging sporadically as she chewed on my tail. Her knife, whip... thing, was wrapped up next to her, and I could see the freshly scabbed over wounds she’d given herself trying to practice with it.

My heart was still racing a bit from the last part of the dream, but I gradually calmed as I watched her chew on my tail in her sleep. I doubted I could ever really be at ease around her, but I found her general... creepiness to be a little less random, now that I had an idea of just what she’d been through. Assuming what I’d seen had any truth to it. The whole thing seemed too vivid to be made up.

I thought it was a tad strange I hadn’t ended up in any of my other companions’ dreams, but then again I’d only been napping and it’d only been probably for a couple of hours. Besides it was probably for the best. I didn’t have any right to be peeping on something so private, and I doubt any of them would appreciate knowing I was doing it, intentionally or not. That did make me wonder if LIL-E knew, since she’d been the only one to seem to realize what was happening when I’d gone through my friend's dreams the first time. I decided I’d ask her if she remembered me appearing in her dream at all, but I’d hold off until we were at least in Skull City.

It was fully night, now, the only light coming from the carefully stoked campfire. Iron Wrought was nowhere to be seen, but B.B was by the fire, staring into it. I would’ve said she was ruining her night sight by doing that, but then again she had a nose that put all of ours to shame and could probably smell trouble coming well before it could be seen. That and presumably LIL-E was still floating around somewhere using her impressive sensory device to scan for hostiles.

Stretching, and carefully removing my tail from Binge’s chewing grasp, I stood and trotted to the fire.

B.B looked over at me, glanced at my tail freshly covered in Binge slobber, and the pegasus grinned, “Enjoyin’ sleepin’ ‘tween a pair o’ mares? Ya sure do move on quick.”

I blinked at her, taken aback for a second, before I realized her tone was friendly and joking, at which point I just coughed politely, “Yeah, well, I can’t help my incredible masculine charisma. Some stallions are just born blessed, I suppose.”

“Oh, yeah, so filled with coltish charm ya look right fine in a dress an’ wit yer mane done up in pigtails,” B.B said, winking at me.

I hung my head, “I’m starting to think I’d rather just face that entire Raider army than end up having to play dress up just to walk down the streets of Skull City. Why’d the Labor Guild have to go and put a bounty on my head anyway?”

“Been thinkin’ on that,” said B.B, “Figure it could be they want that there spear o’ yers.”

“Gramzanber? I... guess that’s possible.”

“Well think on it, Long. Labor Guild was after anything valuable in Saddlespring’s Ruin, an’ then that big Golem thing just walks off after burnin’ the town to the ground. So the Labor Guild’s gonna want to recoup their losses from that, right? They hear, probably from that radroach in the pipes Crossfire, that not only are ya responsible for their operation in Saddlesrping goin’ sour, but that ya got yerself that spear. Bet they’re thinkin’ if they get their hooves on it it’ll be worth enough to make up fer losing out on any profits from Saddlespring.”

“That... makes entirely too much sense,” I said, shaking my head, “Guess I’ll just have to deal with that if and when it comes up. I got too much on my hooves right now anyway to be worrying about the Labor Guild. Huh... you said I move on quick? Are you talking about...?”

B.B’s violet eyes softened, and she gave me a comforting, small smile, “Trailblaze. Yeah. Had a bit o’ a chat wit her ‘fore we parted ways. Didn’t reveal nothin’ ‘bout how you feel, Long, but I figure out from the talk that she’s wit that Whetstone mare. Thought back to the way ya were actin’ the other night wit Binge an’ put two an’ two together myself.”

She left it at that, looking at me with a mix of expectation and trepidation. Probably looking to see how I’d respond and if I’d even want to pursue this line of conversation. I was grateful to be given an out, as I really didn’t want to talk about the situation with Trailblaze. Mainly because there wasn’t one, and couldn’t be one, and we had far bigger problems on our hooves to deal with.

“Well, I’m over it,” I said, not entirely believing it myself, “Trail’s exactly what she’s always been; a friend. Can’t really get bent out of shape over something that hadn’t even begun in the first place. Besides, got a whole Raider horde to sneak by tonight. Rather focus my attention on that.”

“‘Suppose yer right, we gotta concentrate on survivin’,” B.B said as she stood up, stretching her wings, but her eyes didn’t leave me, “Ya good to go iffin’ we git jumped by Raiders on our way across?”

The subject change was both welcome and unpleasant, because it brought to the forefront of my mind the very real possibility that we’d get ambushed by Raiders while attempting this night crossing of the battlelines. While I had little doubt of my companions abilities in a fight, and was even confident of my own, it wasn’t whether we could win a fight against Raiders that had me worried. It was whether or not I’d have to kill anypony. I’d had a long talk with LIL-E about this after what’d happened in Stable 104. I’d resolved to do whatever I could to avoid having to take a life, but I’d also come to understand I was capable of it if I found myself backed into a corner, with no other options.

“I’m not sure ‘good’ would be the right way to put it,” I told her simply, with a helpless shrug and half smile I didn’t feel, “Don’t think I’ll ever be good with it. No lie, B.B, I don’t think I can kill unless it’s the heat of moment and my instincts are telling me I’m out of alternatives. I can’t plan for it. I can’t go into a fight intending to kill.”

B.B’s eyes lost focus for a moment, as if she were looking past me, but only for a moment before they looked right into me, “I git what yer goin’ through better n’ ya might imagine. I just came at the whole killin’ issue from the other end o’ the tunnel.”

I didn’t understand what she was talking about and the confusion must have been pretty plain on my face from the way she half heartedly rolled her eyes at me, “Gonna hafta’ be a’ story fer ‘nother day, ‘cause I’d prefer to just take this unhappy stroll down memory lane only once, so I’ll tell it when everypony’s together an’ we got the time. I’ll just say fer now, Long, that I know it’s hard. I know takin’ a life ain’t ever gonna feel right to ya. But sometimes ya got ta act against yer own feelin’s, ‘cause the consequences are worse if you don’t. Just remember what’d it’d do to us, to Arcaidia especially, iffin ya died on us.”

I looked back at Arcaidia, who was still curled up napping, her long silvery mane and tail almost acting like blankets, covering her small frame so that only her blue face was visible beneath the coiled waves of silver strands. It was oddly adorable.

“I’ll try not to,” I said, “Like I said, it comes down to not having any options... well, I’ve done it once. I can probably do it again. I’m going to hate every second of it, though.”

“Ya wouldn’t be the dope I’m happy ta call friend iffin ya didn’t, Long,” B.B said and gave me a solid hoofbump, “Now let’s git ‘em up an’ git movin’, we’re burnin’ moonlight.”

“Moonlight?” I asked as I tilted my head upwards at the cloud covered sky. B.B laughed and flicked my face with one of her wings.

“Ya know what I mean!”

Iron Wrought, it turns out, had taken to snoozing in the driver’s seat of the Ursa, his hind legs propped up on the dashboard as he reclined in the chairs, whose back had been lowered so it was like a miniature bed. He snorted awake as I shook his shoulder, blinking at me and then rising in his seat with a grim sigh.

“Time to go,” he said, not making it a question as he cracked his neck and started the Ursa’s engine.

“Yeah,” I said, giving him a worried look, “We’ll be there soon.”

He didn’t respond, eyes intensely focused on the dashboard as he flicked a few switches that I noticed switched several of the dashboard screens to what looked like some kind of radar and exterior camera views that were brightly tinted with green in a manner that made it seem almost as bright as day outside despite the deep dark of the night. I left him to it, heading into the passenger compartment just as everypony else was getting in. I noticed Arcaidia had grabbed Gramzanber for me with her magic and set the spear down next to one of the equipment lockers. I gave her a grateful nod and she smiled at me. LIL-E floated in last, the robot’s small manipulator arm extending and hitting the button to close up the Ursa’s back hatch.

“Mmm,” Binge stretched out on one of the bunks and gave me a wink, “Sleep well, bucky?”

“Uh, yeah, I guess,” I said, starting to slip into one of the booths at the dining table.

“I did too,” she said with a crooked smile, “I had a very happy dream, and the best part was you were in it!”

I gulped as I sat, laughing nervously, “Really?”

What about anything I’d seen in that dream could be described as ‘happy’? I didn’t think Binge was being serious, just her normal... eccentric self. I tried to keep my response as noncommittal as possible, not wanting to encourage her, but I probably should have known Binge didn’t need much encouragement.

“Yup, I got to show you my old hometown and let you meet the whole family on a very special night where little Binge started to grow up into big Binge! It was a lot of fun! I can’t wait to show you what happened next!”

Arcaidia slid into the booth across from me and gave Binge a faintly annoyed look, “I sure ren solva look forward to hearing crazy talk. Wasn’t school place home and... estu dol shirval mas, bad ponies of much wrongness, they family yes?”

Binge giggled, one hoof playing with a knife idly that seemed to just appear there, “Oh, they were my, hmm... fourteenth family? I’ve had a lot of families since my first one went to sleepy time forever. They were special. That’s where momma and big brother lived. No pappa, though. He died when I was a teensy tiny very little pony.”

B.B, who’d remained standing on the other side of the compartment as the Ursa got moving, using her wings to keep herself steady as the vehicle rolled along the rough Wasteland terrain, looked at Binge thoughtfully.

“Ya bounced ‘tween a bunch o’ Raider groups, then, iffin’ I’m hearin’ this right?”

Binge nodded multiple times rapidly, her smile wide, “Uh-huh! I had lots of fun with one family, but then they’d die, or try to play in a way I didn’t like, so I had to make them go to sleep, or they didn’t like my jokes and stories and that’d make me sad so I’d leave. Sometimes they’d die playing with other Raidery types, or they’d get blown up by the metal ponies with the big party toys, or just other ponies that just don’t like playing very much. Sourpusses.”

“But yer first home, the one wit yer ma an’ brother,” B.B said, “What happened there?”

I almost wanted to stop B.B from asking, but I stopped myself. If Binge was going to talk about this it wasn’t my place to stop her, and it wasn’t as if I had a lot of reason to, besides my own worry about how Arbu connected to LIL-E. I found myself watching the robot as Binge replied, watching for a reaction from the eyebot’s metal chassi.

“Fire,” Binge said, her eyes wide and her smile faltering just enough that some of the old, foal-like horror I recalled from her filly self’s face crept over her features, “Fire came and made all of Binge’s friends and family go to sleep forever. We ate, you see. We ate, and that made us bad, so we got punished by the Goddess. The Goddess sent her Angel of Fire to punish Arbu and little Binge had to run away because big brother told her to. I was a good little filly and did what I was told, and ran, ran, ran...”

She laughed then, a high pitched cackle that went on for almost half a minute as we all stared at her. I still had one eye on LIL-E. The eyebot had reacted when the name ‘Arbu’ came up. LIL-E hadn’t even been facing Binge’s way before that, but now the eyebot had turned fully towards Binge. That didn’t confirm anything, but it lent credence to my theory that the mare I’d seen in LIL-E’s dream really was the same one that’d been in Arbu.

Binge’s laughter finally died down, and the Raider mare had a drained look in her eyes, despite the fact that she was still smiling, albeit with a hollow shade to the expression, “I ran, and found a new family, and that was how I learned to play and laugh without being awake. To sleep without sleeping forever.”

Suddenly she snapped her head up with clop of her hooves together, “Okay! Somepony else’s turn! Story time is no fun if I’m the only one sharing!”

Arcaidia made a warding gesture with her forehooves, “I bound by rules to speak no stories that compromise mission! Look at somepony other than me.”

LIL-E slowly turned away from Binge, “I don’t think I have any stories I can tell that’d be suitable either. I’ve spent most my time sending this robot around the Wasteland to help ponies I find with whatever problems I can while digging up information on the Ruins found in this region. Nothing exciting, and I don’t want to talk about anything I did before I took control of this eyebot.”

I shrugged my shoulders, “You guys all know where I’m from by now and unless you want to hear about the numerous times I drove Trailblaze to go exploring with me outside my village I’m afraid I don’t have any exciting stories. Before this whole mess my most impressive story was when we found a rock shaped like a...”

I trailed off as I realized my current audience was entirely female and that they might not want to hear about that. I abruptly closed my mouth and glanced at B.B, “So, uh, B.B, any cool stories?”

“Oh no, I said I weren’t talkin’ ‘bout my past ‘till we git to Skull City an’ I meant it,” said B.B, through she had a light tone about it, and she had a thoughtful look on her face, “Though I figure I can tell ya how I got my cutie mark.”

I found myself leaning forward about, genuinely interested. Arcaidia and even Binge both seemed equally focused on B.B now, Binge wagging her tail and smiling with anticipation. I admit I’d been curious about B.B’s cutie mark since I’d first seen it. The red rose rising from a pool of blood was very distinctive, and I couldn’t imagine what it meant.

B.B saw our looks and her expression turned solemn as she sigh, “Just try ta understand this ain’t exactly a happy tale, an’ it’ll probably be leavin’ ya with more question. I just ask ya hold off on ‘em ‘till we’re safe in Skull City, ‘kay?”

Arcaidia nodded, “Understood, bruhir. I want to hear of cutie mark, and will not speak questions.”

I nodded my agreement, and so B.B sat down on her haunches and went into her story.

“I was a bit o’ a youngin’, seven, maybe eight. Ain’t a lot o’ pegasi git born below the clouds, so shouldn’t be a surprise I weren’t born on the surface, but up top in the Enclave. Don’t remember much o’ me own ma an’ pa, just that we lived on a cloud farm up north.”

“Cloud farm?” I asked, and at her look I blushed and raised a placating hoof, “Sorry, sorry, no questions.”

B.B nodded and continued, “Anywhose, I was just startin’ ta learn how to use my wings ta fly proper, an’ my pa was givin’ me a hoof wit it. My old pa, not Doc Sunday. He came later. So one day I was learnin’ ta fly wit my pa, an’ a storm kicks up something fierce right outta nowhere. Pa an’ me were pretty far from the homestead at the time, so we had ta go below the clouds ta escape the storm.”

Her eyes shimmered with a sad mirth as she laughed, “First time seein’ the world below was a bit o’ a shocker ya can believe. Pa an’ me didn’t land. Pa didn’t want us gettin’ ‘infected’ or nothing’ wit the Wasteland’s disease or whatever propaganda the Enclave was shovin’ down our throats then. We eventually got back home, just in time ta meet up wit a Enclave patrol that was comin’ through to check in’ on the farms. When they found out we was below cloud cover them soldiers wanted ta take my pa an’ me in fer questioning. Guess they wanted ta make sure we didn’t actually git any Wasteland on us, heh. Well... my ma’s, she was a right prickly sort an’ didn’t take kindly to them soldiers wantin’ ta take away her husband and foal. Was a bit o’ a scuffle an one of them soldiers gave my ma a good smack fer her trouble. Nothin’ serious, nothin’ as bad as, say, tryin’ ta shoot ‘er, but it... it set me off. Seein’ my ma’s bleedin’ lip, and the way them soldiers laughed, it set me off right good.”

B.B smacked her hooves together for emphasis as she said, “Next I know I’m tearin’ right inta that soldier. ‘Course she was wearin’ power armor, so ain’t much a little filly’s gonna do, but still took both her buddies ta get me offa her, and I got beat down pretty bad. My pa an’ me were takin’ in and it was a right nasty couple o’ days as I was beaten, interrogated, an’ beaten again at the nearest Enclave base. Eventually got let go ‘cause I weren’t carryin’ any disease an’ I was just a little foal... but the whole time I just growled at them soldiers an’ gave them no end o’ trouble. By the end o’ it when I was back home I found I had this here mark on my flank. The rose an’ blood. Didn’t know what it meant at the time, but I learned latter its meanin’. I... I bloom when in pain. Adversity, bad things happenin’ ta me, they make me stronger. The worse the situation, the better I perform. It’s kind o’ like how some folks do well under pressure? Same idea. There’s... a bit more to it than that, but I ain’t gettin’ inta that part o’ things until later, so you folks’ll have to be satisfied with that part o’ the story for now.”

After a moment’s silence Arcaidia said, “I like your cutie mark, it good sign of strong mare. Important to learn to grow better from pain.”

B.B had a sad, knowing looking on her face, but she still smiled, “Thanks fer sayin’ so, Arc. Ain’t always been my favorite thing ta think ‘bout, ‘cause ta make the most o’ what I’m good at it means somethin’ bads gotta be happen’.”

“I thought your rosey mark meant you were a gardener who uses dead bodies to grow pretty flowers,” said Binge, “I’ve seen lots of cutie marks that are literal like that. Slit Throat had a bloody knife for a cutie mark and she was pretty much just good at the one thing. Same with Painchain and his cutie mark of a bloody chain. Huh, come to think of it most of my old buddies had bloody weapons for cutie marks and very limited skill sets. No wonder nopony could ever find alternative forms of employment.”

“Yeah, fancy that,” said B.B with a sigh, “So what’s with your cutie mark?”

Binge perked up, patting her flank, which I tried not to stare at as she did so, “What, this? Hehehehe! I earned it even younger than you birdie! I found out real young I could indulge in all sorts of fun stuff for as long as I want and never get tired! Food, drink, play, everypony has only so much of they can stomach of it, but not me! I can go forever and ever drinking, eating, having the messy fun sexy times, and just keep going some more.”

Her eyes gained an odd, bloodshot look to them, “I never get tired of it, no matter how badly my body wants to stop.”

“Okay,” I said abruptly, “Enough about cutie marks. Arcaidia and I don’t even have them, anyway.”

Arcaidia pouted slightly, crossing her forelegs across her chest, “I don’t understand these pictures on flanks. My... estu dol viria es mis ti formaive... we no have marks.”

Looking at her I could see she was nervously shifting in her seat, apparently second guessing bringing this up, but now that she had I was curious, “So does that mean you can’t have a cutie mark?”

Arcaidia pursed her lips, looking away, “I do not know certain. Persephone tell me I not have mark because... because I not grow up here. But now that I here, might gain mark. Magic. Special magic of Equestria. Can’t talk more. Say too much sooner than should.”

B.B waved a wing at her, “It's alright hun, no biggie. Yer not obligated ta tell us nothin’ more, an’ it’s kinda nice ta know ya ain’t just a late bloomer like our Longwalk here.”

“Hey, I’m not a late bloomer,” I said defensively, “Plenty of colts my age didn’t get their cutie marks yet! It’s only been sixteen summers for me. Besides, its probably for the best I don’t earn one while I’m out here. Might turn out to be something weird like a bloody spear.”

“That'd be neat,” said Binge, “A nice, big, blood covered spear for bucky! With the special talent of stabbing things! You do that a lot already, so it’s make sense.”

“Binge, not helping,” said B.B.

“What about you LIL-E?” I asked, deciding to get the topic off of what my own cutie mark might turn out to be, “You have a cutie mark story?”

The eyebot swiveled to face me, her mechanical voice holding a faint hint of surprise, “Me?”

I nodded, “Well, yeah. We can’t see your real body, so we don’t even know what your cutie mark is. I’m kind of curious about it, at least.”

LIL-E was silent for a few seconds before she said, “It’s nothing special. Just a Pip-Buck. I got it when I found a foal who’d gotten lost. It just means I’m good at finding things. That’s it.”

She spoke oddly fast and haltingly, and I couldn’t tell if it was because of the eyebot’s manner of producing a distorted voice or if the mare controlling the robot really was just talking strangely. Either way she paused another second or two and then hastily added, “Sorry. I had a pretty boring life. Until I left my Stable, anyway. Then things got... complicated.”

“What was your Stable like?” I asked, trying not to sound too eager. I was very curious about the mare behind the machine, especially after what I’d seen in Binge’s dream of her past. I didn’t have any proof that the gray mare who’d destroyed Binge’s hometown was the same one in control of LIL-E, but I found myself wanting to know.

“It was just another Stable,” LIL-E said, “Not every Stable was a secret research facility or crazy social experiment. A number were just homes for ponies to survive the world getting cluster fucked by the megaspells. My Stable was a pretty quiet, unremarkable place to grow up. Which really was something I should’ve appreciated more. When I left it I discovered just how valuable a boring, uneventful life can be.”

“Can’t really disagree with you on that count,” I said, turning my gaze towards one of the thin windows on the side of the hull, little more than dark shadows shown beyond the thick reinforced ballistic glass. I could barely make out the shapes of the passing ruins and small hills. And the flash of explosions.

Wait. Explosions? I leaned forward, narrowing my eyes. I knew the battle lines of the fighting we’d seen during the day were to the northwest. If my Pip-Buck’s map and the compass on my E.F.S were accurate then northwest was on the right side of the Ursa, and I was seeing the flashes of explosions and now also the tracers of gunfire on our left side, to the south.

“What is eye viewing?” asked Arcaidia, but she must have noticed it at that very moment because she also looked out the window, her expression hardening, “Ponies battle nearby?”

“Might be some Raiders runnin’ inta some Skull City troops,” B.B suggested.

LIL-E was quick to chime in, “Whatever it is, its just hitting the edge of my own scanners. I’m guessing three or four dozen hostiles, plus near a hundred non-hostiles.”

“If there’s a hundred good guys out there then they ought to be able to deal with the Raiders, right?” I asked, but I was already feeling uneasy with the situation. I felt almost a pull towards the south, a instinct to take a closer look.

“Two ta one odds,” said B.B, but she was frowning as she said it, “But that’s making assuemin’ all them non-hostiles out there are fightin’ types. What if it’s a caravan o’ merchants?”

“Not a lot of caravans that size,” said LIL-E, “But I’m willing to bet that’s not a company of Detrot troops out there. I’m just not getting a read any enough return fire for that to be the case. Something’s wrong. Those ponies out there aren’t fighting back hard enough to push those Raiders off them... and I’m detecting losses among the non-hostiles mounting faster than among the Raiders.”

Whatever was happening it was outside the range of my own E.F.S, so I couldn't get much of a picture of what was happening. Right now the battle was just a series of distant flashes in the darkness. I felt an acidic twist inside me as I realized that, so far, we’d been pretty lucky not to get attacked as we made our way past the battle lines to the north, and if we just kept going there was a good chance we’d get all the way through without any trouble, if the Raiders in the area were otherwise engaged.

But that would mean leaving behind ponies who needed help.

In the end it wasn’t really much of a contest, but I still had a heavy heart as I slid out of the boot and went into the driver’s compartment. Behind me I could hear B.B already strapping on her revolver braces and the sound of Arcaidia also shuffling out of the booth.

“Ren solva make good on name, at least,” I heard her say.

“Ya mean that ‘renwhatsit’ thing ya keep callin’ him?” B.B replied, “What’s that mean anyway?”

“Hard to say in Equestrian words. Warrior of hot blood, but toaster head. Kind of means brave, kind of means dumb, kind of means good heart. All same meaning, ren solva.”

“Sounds about right,” B.B said.

“I can hear you guys,” I said as I opened the door to the driver's compartment.

I didn’t even get a chance to open my mouth before Iron Wrought turned towards me, nearly slamming the Ursa into a stop. His look made his eyes seem like blue spear tips stabbing into me, his tone rough.

“Hold on, hold on, let me see if I can guess this one. We’re on our way to our destination, but you’ve seen something like a pony in trouble, a mysterious signal, or something shiny on the side of the road, and you want to stop to check it out so we can get delayed again for the next five hours. How close am I?”

“Uh… pretty close. Gunfire. Explosions. Ponies in trouble. Probably won’t take five hours.”

“Oh, sure, the fight won’t, but I know your pattern now, Longwalk. You’ll finish the fight, but then find a mysterious Ruin to explore, or the ponies we save will happen to need escort to a town in the opposite direction we want to go, or you’ll get attacked by your Pegasi-Griffin Assholes Anonymous Fanclub and get captured. Again. I will eat my hat if this doesn’t end with you getting us mired in some shit that’ll delay us for another day.”

“... You don’t wear a hat,” I pointed out.

“I will buy a hat exclusively for the purpose of eating it if I turn out to be wrong about this and it won’t turn into a colossal time sink when we could just do what normal, sane ponies do and ignore the obvious danger to just mosey on our merry bucking way!”

I just met his gaze, despite really wanting to look away from the accusation in them. I felt guilty enough as it was about this already, but there just wasn’t any way I was ignoring the situation to the south.

“I was actually thinking that you could drop me and a couple of the others off, and you can keep going to Skull City. We’ll catch up after we’re done here.”

He let out a growling sigh, “Yeah, because I want to keep going in the middle of the night through Raider infested territory by myself! Shit, it’s tempting, even with the added danger of having nopony to shoot back if I get ambushed. This damn thing is tough as a tank and once I leave your asses behind I could probably sell it in Skull City and be set up for life.”

He had a point. I was being incredibly trusting even offering to let him take the Ursa onward while me and the others stayed behind to fight, but before I could say anything he resumed glaring at me, “And I’m not going to do that! Want to know why? Because as much as it pisses me off, I’m not such a dick as to screw over a pony who’s saved my flank and done far more than any sane pony would to help me, when he barely even knows me.”

“I... know you pretty well by now, Iron,” I said, “I mean, sure, I haven’t known you long, but that’s true of everypony here. I want you to get home, and honestly I wouldn’t even care if you decided to sell off the Ursa after ditching us. I can’t afford to split hairs or screw around, is all. I need to go help those ponies, and get you home. I’ll do both, even if that ends up with me getting screwed over. Make sense?”

“No, it doesn’t, but you never make sense, since the first damned day I met you. So let’s just get this done. One more fight before I can say farewell to the lot of you and get on with my life!”

I gave him a nod of thanks but he didn’t see it as Iron Wrought immediately threw the Ursa into sharp reverse to point us southward, then kicked the A.T.W into a straight run southward. I could only trust in his driving skills and the sensory gear on the Ursa would keep us from crashing at this speed in the murky blackness. At least he had the flashes of gunfire to pinpoint where we needed to go. I left the door to the driver’s compartment open as I went back to join my friends in getting ready.

I strapped Gramzanber into its sheath on my left side, and made sure I had a few choice flash-bang, smoke, and gas grenades at the top of my saddlebags. Arcaidia had her starblaster out, and I saw her standing by the back hatch with her eyes closed, whispering something under her breath.

“What’re you doing?” I asked.

Her eyes snapped open and she gave me a thin smile, “Workout brain exercise for magic.”

She tapped her horn with a hoof, “Unicorn magic hard to throw at same clock as Crest Sorcery. Train self to keep unicorn magic... estu... ti vir solon est jir. Magic from horn get in way when use Crest spell. Very hard. Take long days to learn good ways for unicorn magic to go to make Crest spells work.”

I realized she must have been talking about what I’d seen in her dream a few days ago, when she’d been young and training with her sister to use the Veruni’s Crest Sorcery. I remembered she was having trouble because her horn was somehow interfering with her spells. Which reminded me that she’d gotten her hooves on a few of those small, rectangular pieces of metal that apparently contained more spells for her Crest Sorcery from the labs at Stable 104.

“Any new spells besides that shielding one?” I asked.

She frowned slightly, “Still study Crest Graphs. I have talent for esru dol muse; water ley magic. Muse mix best with geo; earth ley magic. Most Crest spells mix ley magic of different kind. Only master muse so far. Ice, healing, easy spells. Working on geo so can make new spells with earth. Shield spell made of geo magic. Takes much time to learn more spells.”

She gave me a wry smile, “Not much time for study since meet you, ren solva.”

Binge suddenly popped up next to her, her odd knife whip now wrapped up in her tail like it was a wreath. How she balanced it there without cutting her tail off I had no idea.

“Sounds like the ice filly needs to learn more unicorn mojo! The space magic sounds hard and time consuming. Unicorn magic is so much faster!”

Arcaidia sniffed, holding her nose high, “Veruni Crest Sorcery high art of magic! Unicorn magic good, I learn how to float things! Is useful. What else is there?”

It suddenly occurred to me that Arcaidia might not have really known that much unicorn magic. Thinking back I was pretty sure I’d only seen her levitate things, or create light from her horn. Pretty basic spells from what little I understood of the subject. All of her healing and ice magic stemmed from the Crest Sorcery. I wondered if we could find her a teacher?

“Hey, Arcaidia, would you want to learn more unicorn magic?” I asked.

She looked at me with a slight tilt of her head and one of her ears twitching, “May be good. Where I find teacher?”

B.B had the answer to that one, “Skull City’s full o’ Guild’s, hun. One o’ ‘em is the Magic Guild.”

I laughed, “Of course they’d have a Magic Guild. They have a Guild for everything.”

Arcaidia looked thoughtful for a moment before smiling brightly and giving a firm nod, “Learn magic of unicorns sounds fun. I find this Magic Guild when we get to city.”

“Cut the chat short, folks,” called Iron Wrought, “We’re almost on top of this fight. A plan might be a good thing to have soon.”

LIL-E floated over to the driver’s compartment, and I joined her. I could make out little through the front windscreen, other than it looked like the Raiders had occupied a pair of partially intact buildings and were firing from all floors, top to bottom, on ponies who were stuck taking cover behind what looked like wagons in the middle of a battered street.

“They haven’t seen us,” said LIL-E, “I say we hit both buildings at once. B.B and I can take the one on the left, fly to the roof and just shoot our way down. The rest of you take the one on the right?”

I nodded, “No argument from me. I’m not a plan making pony.”

“I can ram this puppy right through the back,” said Iron Wrought, a grim smile on his face that said he liked the idea, “I can pulp some of those fuckers on the bottom floor.”

His words were a keen slap to remind me that this wasn’t going to be pretty. I had to brace myself for what was about to happen, and clenched my teeth tightly. Ponies were going to die, one way or another. I had to be ready for it. We were less than a hundred paces away now, the two Raider infested buildings rapidly approaching.

“Get us in there,” I told Iron Wrought, then looked to LIL-E, “Meet you somewhere in the middle?”

The eyebot bobbed in her version of a nod, “Don’t get dead.”

We rushed back into the passenger compartment. Arcaidia and Binge were both holding onto fixed parts of the compartment to brace themselves for the impact, and I joined them by grabbing the dining table. LIL-E joined B.B by the top hatch and for a second I almost laughed at the odd thought that the two members of my groups whose names were those funny acronyms that seemed so popular among the ‘civilized’ ponies of the Wasteland were basically teamed up now.

“After you,” LIL-E said, and B.B gave a mock bow and flourish with her wings before opening the top hatch and zipping upward. LIL-E floated up after her.

I heard the distinct cracks of gunfire from both of them just seconds before Iron Wrought shouted, “Hold on to your flanks!”

The Ursa hit the wall of the back of the building on the right with the force of a five ton boulder. The concrete, decayed and soft from the passage of centuries, all but disintegrated under the impact, and the Ursa skidded into the middle of the bottom floor. I heard a few cut off screams and the faint bumps as the vehicle fulfilled Iron Wrought’s grisly promise of grinding a few Raiders underneath its wheels. I tried to shut out the sounds and focus as the back hatch opened with a bump from Arcaidia’s hoof.

The interior lights of the Ursa created a pool of faded white light spilling from the back hatch, and exterior lights flared to life, illuminated the bottom floor of the building. I switched on my Pip-Buck light as well, knowing I might need the extra illumination in the darkness, even at the risk of marking my position.

As I piled out with her at my side and Binge behind us I saw Arcaidia’s horn light up with a burst of crest symbols, her shielding spell snapping over her own body. She then quickly turned her horn to me to cast the same spell on me, but she was interrupted by the impact of bullets as shots from the dusty darkness behind her erupted with muzzle flashes; a Raider wielding a small, semi-automatic pistol pulling the trigger with rapid glee.

The light rounds were mostly absorbed by Arcaidia’s spell, but she staggered under the impact anyway, losing concentration on her the second spell she’d intended to cast to give me a shield. I moved quickly, charging forward while the Raider was busy fumbling to reload. She was a dusty brown mare with a sickly yellow mane, swept back in a blood stained mohawk. I barely took note of the surroundings, some kind of store with bare, empty shelves long since scavenged clean. The Raider had been behind a counter, and as I tore Gramzanber free of its sheath I leapt the counter and tackled the Raider.

She screamed some obscenity at me that I didn’t pay any attention to as I slapped her across the face with the flat of the spear, knocking rotted teeth loose. That didn’t put her down, as she savagely shoved her hooves into my chest and launched me off her. I hit the floor, nearly getting the air knocked out of me.

I rolled to my hooves, ducking behind another counter as the Raider aimed her gun and fired off a series of shots that tore apart wood chunks and old tiling around me.

I heard Arcaidia’s magic surging with its crackling energy, and the tell-tale sound of icicle shards shattering, along with a scream, but it was coming from the other side of the room so I suspected she’d spotted another target for her spell. I heard the Raider mare with the pistol galloping my way, however, and I stuck the shaft of Gramzanber out just in time to trip her up as she charged around the corner of the counter I’d been using for cover.

The Raider went sprawling to the ground and I rushed her while she was still kissing floor. Killing her would have been a simple matter. Easy as slicing an apple. I could smell the fetid stench coming off her, with the copper of blood mixing with numerous other foul odors. I could see her leather armor wasn’t gecko hide at all, but something smoother. Possibly made from other ponies. Even if I doubted that, the relatively fresh, bloody skull mounted on her left shoulder was indication enough of what kind of pony I was dealing with.

Director Twinkle had taught me that I was capable of ending a life. But there was a difference between knowing I could do something when out of options, and choosing to do it when I still had options available. There was a lot less hesitance in me as I struck, whacking the mare atop the head with the flat of Gramzanber, causing her eyes to roll up into her skull as she slumped to the floor.

I’d kill when I had to. I might have to mere seconds from now. I let myself accept that unpleasant fact and turned to survey the room.

There was a smeared, dark stain of red on the floor for several paces behind the Ursa, which still had dust settling around it. I saw a pair of mangled, pulped bodies that were probably the vehicle’s victims. Arcaidia was using the front part of the Ursa, crest symbols forming around her horn at a fast pace. Frost rimmed the floor in front of her as an icy blast of sub-zero air rushed out, flash freezing a set of shelves into crystalline white... and the poor pair of Raiders behind it. I heard one stallion manage to let out a piercing scream before the ice reached his throat.

My companions, of course, didn’t share my sentiments on taking life. Arcaidia especially turned into another pony practically, when it came to a fight. Pure, cold focus radiated from her as she strode forward, keeping to cover. I went to join her, hearing the shouts of ponies coming down a set of stairs on the far right corner of the room.

However another Raider, who’d been hiding behind a counter with an open, cobweb covered cash register popped up and aimed a rifle at my head. I ducked down instinctively, putting Gramzanber’s wide blade in the way like a shield. The ARM did well with deflecting magical energy weaponry, but part of that was because magic beams didn’t have much impact.

A rifle round slammed into the spear rattling my teeth so hard I feared losing one, and it still staggered me into the side of the Ursa’s hull. A part of me wanted to immediately use Accelerator, but I restrained myself, remembering the dire warning I’d received. Every time I used the ARMs power would shorten my remaining days. I had to hold off and only use the spear’s abilities when I had to.

I really had gotten used to having that power on hoof to grant me an edge. Fighting without relying on it wasn’t going to be easy, which I found out as I threw myself forward and to the left, another rifle round grazing me as I took cover against a knocked over shelf that was halfway leaning against a counter. I popped around the corner, head low as I made my way closer to where the Raider was, keeping the counter between me and him.

I didn’t want to use any of my grenades when Arcaidia was still nearby, and presumably Binge as well. Where was that mare at, anyway?

“Get your scrawny ass out here, meat, so I can-URK!”

The Raider’s voice cut off with a wet gurgle, and I chanced a peek over the counter just in time to get a face full of spraying blood from the Raider’s slashed neck. Binge had appeared behind him like a silent wraith, having opened the stallion’s throat with one of her remaining knives she hadn’t attached to that whip of hers. She smiled sweetly at me.

“Hurry bucky or there won’t be any left for you!”

“This isn’t a contest!” I shot back, then my eyes widened as I saw a quartet of Raiders rush down the stairs, guns already blazing before they were even fully out the door, “Binge, duck!”

Binge did not duck, instead flicking her tail with a mad tittering laugh. The knife whip extended from her tail and I realized the insane mare had tied the end of it to the tip of her tail. The knife whip lashed out with no precision, no pattern, just a wild, flicking mass of barbed wire covered with Cosmic Knives. It didn’t really need to be accurate to hit in such close quarters. The lead Raider got a face full of the whips flailing mass, which sliced deeply into flesh and bone. The Raider mare’s shriek was unearthly as she dropped with chunks of her flesh torn clean from her. The other Raiders didn’t even pause to help their fallen comrade, however, as they fired on Binge. I saw Binge take a shot to the shoulder as she skipped behind cover, consequently the same counter I was using.

“I like this toy but it's kind of ornery,” she said, wincing at her tail. and rubbing her shoulder. She was wearing her oddly modified security armor, the one that mounted knives like they were spikes, and it seemed the kevlar had kept the bullet from penetrating, but I imagined the impact had been nasty. Binge’s knife whip was still extended and left hanging around the corner, and without pausing Binge reached over with the knife she’d used to slit the earlier Raider’s throat and cut a few strains from the tip of her tail, freeing the whip.

“Think I need to try making a better handle,” she said, her eyes gleaming “Ooo, if I find a nice, tough femur that’ll be the perfect length!”

Femur? As in, the bone? I just blinked at her, “Binge, can you stop being creepy? We’re in the middle of a fight.”

She stuck her tongue out at me, “I got two. Your turn Longykins! Just think of the big bad spider and do the same thing, you’ll be fine.”

“Not that simple,” I told her but didn’t have time for further debate as something small and metal dropped behind the counter between me and Binge.

Grenade! No fair! Raiders aren’t allowed to use grenades!

Much as I hated to, I had to use Accelerator. I only kept it active for a few seconds, the cobalt blue energy wreathing my vision as I scooped up the grenade and threw it out the nearest broken window. I cut Accelerator off as soon as I made the toss and hoped for the best. The backlash was minor due to the short amount of time I used it, but I had no idea how much time a short burst like that shaved off my thirty day soon-to-be-dead limit. The grenade exploded, the noise and shockwave still battering me despite the cover from the shrapnel.

By now Arcaidia had engaged the new Raiders and I heard her starblaster firing with its distinctive zapping sound. The noise of a familiar 10mm submachine gun told me that Iron Wrought had also entered the fray. Time to stop hiding and get back into it. I nodded to Binge.

“Rush them,” I said and went charging around the counter.

There were even more Raiders now, apparently another two or three coming down the stairs so that half a dozen of the smelly bastards were using the last few shelves near the back wall as a barricade to exchange shots with Iron Wrought and Arcaidia, who were using the Ursa for their own cover. My eyes were left with brilliant lines of white across my vision for each searing beam from the starblaster, which treated the Raider’s cover as little more than paper, and I saw a stallion wreathed in white and blue energy before his charred ashes dusted the floor. Iron Wrought’s sub-machine gun was keeping the Raider’s pinned, but he wasn’t sticking his head out too much, letting the Raider’s waste their return fire on the Ursa’s sturdy hull. The sharp twangs of ricochets filled the air as I rushed forward.

I had a straight shot at the Raiders’ flank, and they’d been distracted enough by Arcaidia and Iron Wrought that they weren’t looking our way as Binge and I charged in.

Getting a little creative I slid Gramzanber’s blade underneath the barrel of a black coated, green manned Raider stallion who had a long empty eye socket. I used the flat of the blade like a giant paddle, straining with all my leg muscles to bodily lift the stallion on the flat of the spear and slam him into the wall like I was shoveling dirt. I then used the remaining momentum I had to plant my forehooves on the floor and turn my whole body, bucking with my hind legs to smash into the jaw of the next Raider in line.

That was as far as I was able to get, however, before another Raider, a smaller mare with a grimy pink coat and shaved head, save for a single black stripe, jumped on me with what looked like a butchers cleaver floating in a sickly green aura. Unicorn. I hadn’t time to notice species, but the blaze of green on the mare’s horn was clear as the cleaver went for my throat.

I raised a hoof to block the cleaver, the blade biting into my armor and causing a burst of sharp pain that had me crying out.

“Scream, bitch, scream!” the mare cried out, straddling my back and punching the back of my head with her hooves as she kept trying to get her cleaver to slash my face. I kept my arm in the way of the cleaver, but her blows to the back of my head left me dazed. For a tiny mare she packed a wallop. Instinctively I turned over, rolling the mare under my back. I briefly caught sight of Binge stabbing the Raider I’d slammed into the wall, her knife plunging in and out of his chest in a bloody fountain of gore a she cackled merrily.

After my roll I lashed backwards with an elbow, catching the mare in the side of the head and knocking her off me. Her meat cleaver also clattered to the floor.

I turned fast, intending to smack the mare across the face with the flat of Gramzanber, but as I did so I saw a stray round from Iron Wrought catch her in the back of the head, blasting out the front of her face and adding a coat of red to my face. I spat out the mare’s blood as her body switched spastically and fell to the ground.

“Ren solva, move!” I heard Arcaidia shout, and I dove aside as a barrage of icicle shards flew by me and battered a Raider who’d been aiming a disturbingly large shotgun my way. The gun’s deafening blast mixed with the Raider’s roar as the ice shards ripped into him. I felt the painful, tearing impact of the heavy shotgun slug slamming into my side. Gold gecko scales and ballistic mesh kept the slug from penetrating but the hit still knocked the breath out of me and a hot, searing pain took root in my side, probably from torn muscle.

The Raider had fared worse, with a series of small spears of ice impaling him from the chest up to his neck. As he dropped I saw another Raider behind him turning her guns towards me, another unicorn levitating a pair of small revolvers. Did all Raiders have the same manner of insane grin on their faces? Did they take classes to learn this stuff? I had the sudden vision of a school, with the classrooms filled with little Raider foals taking lessons from Binge on how to smile like maniacs, the importance of adding spikes to everything, the art of gore-porn graffiti and its use in home decoration, and how to generally act like psychotic madponies.

The thought passed through my head in less than a second, and I was already moving by the time the Raider mare opened fire, bullets tearing above my head as I ducked down. I shoved Gramzanber’s tip into the ground, setting it like a shield in front of me. I counted the shots. Six, seven, eight. One bullet still hit my front right leg, causing sharp pain as the round’s impact nearly knocked the leg out from under me. But then I counted the twelfth shot and then there were just dry clicks as the revolvers’ hammers hit empty chambers.

I surged forward, grabbing Gramzanber as I went. I saw the Raider mare drop her revolvers, instead using her magic to grab, and lift, an entire shelf and fling it at me. I twisted my head in a timed slice that cut the shelf in half as I kept charging. The mare swore as I shoulder slammed her, knocking the relatively light unicorn to the ground. I raised Gramzanber, intending to aim a blow to knock the mare out, except there was a flash of metal and suddenly one of Binge’s knives was buried in the Raider’s neck. The mare’s eyes went wide and stared at me with sudden fear as her lifeblood poured out of the wound in her neck, then she went still.

The last remaining Raider on this floor I noticed had been finished off by Iron Wrought, the Raider’s body slumped against the bottom of the stairs with half a dozen bullet holes torn through her body and blood spreading across the floor. At least for the immediate moment we were in the clear. Binge skipped past me, whistling to herself as she retrieved her knife from the dead Raider.

“Up to four,” she said in a sing-song tone, “You’re really falling behind, bucky. I know you know how to kill things. I saw it, and it was beautiful! Did you forget? Here, let me show you. It’s easy.”

“That’s okay Binge you don’t-” I began, but she ignored me and proceeded to use her freshly retrieved knife to stab the Raider’s dead body again, then again, then again. I gulped, trying to keep the bile from rising in my throat. I was getting disturbingly used to dead bodies but that didn’t mean I liked seeing one getting mutilated any further. Binge was smiling at me brightly, blood coating her face and knife.

“See? Easy! Pointy bit goes into fleshy bits! If you feel like a more slicey-dicey type then you can use the edge to cut. I recommend the throat for best results!”

“Binge, stop,” I said, going over to her and gently pushing her away from the body.

She gave me a hurt, almost filly-like look, “Trying to help you, bucky.”

“Not the kind of help I want,” I said as Arcaidia and Iron Wrought joined me and Binge near the foot of the stairs the Raiders had piled down earlier. I could still hear gunfire up there, presumably from the Raiders still firing on the caravan or whatever it was they were shooting at out there.

More distant I could hear the gunfire from the other building, and couldn’t pick out if any of those shots were coming from LIL-E and B.B. I just had to assume they were holding their own. It did occur to me I could use my Pip-Buck to call LIL-E and see how they were doing, but I didn’t want to distract them in the middle of a fight. However, I did notice an odd sound amid the gunfire over there. A series of wailings and hissing cries that certainly didn’t sound like they came from a pony.

“What is that?” I asked, distracted by the noise.

Iron Wrought had a sour look on his face. Well, more so than usual.

“Ghouls. Feral ghouls. That’s either very good, or very bad,” he said.

Considering that ghouls had been described to me as ravenous walking cadavers I wasn’t seeing the ‘very good’ part of that equation. At my look Iron Wrought rolled his eyes, “If its a wild pack then we might have to deal with them, but they’re just as likely to go for the Raiders. Either way, not our immediate problem. We still got this building to deal with.”

He was right, but that didn’t stop me from worrying about LIL-E and B.B. Dealing with Raiders was bad enough without throwing in cannibalistic corpses to the mix. Unfortunately my E.F.S wasn’t much help in determining how things were going over in the other building. There were too many red dots erratically moving about for me to make heads or tails of it. It was even hard to tell which dots were inside this building rather than the one next to us.

“Let’s make this quick, then,” I said, and peeked up the stairs. I didn’t see anypony up the flight, but it switched back at least once, meaning I wouldn’t be able to see the top until I went further up. Turning back to the others I said, “I’ll go first. Arcaidia, you got enough juice for a shield spell?”

She gave me a confident smile that said that, yes, of course she had magic to spare, and within seconds I was cloaked in a form fitting magic barrier. I wasn’t too badly injured so far, but the impacts from the shots I’d taken so far still hurt fiercely and reminded me I couldn’t afford to get cocky. I may have taken on tougher opponents than Raiders by now, but that didn’t mean they weren’t a threat to take seriously.

I felt a sense of urgency that made me want to rush the next floor but I forced myself to move with some stealth, creeping up the stairs. Arcaidia was right behind me, with Binge next to her, and Iron Wrought bringing up the rear. Coming around the switch in the stairs I saw it was partially collapsed, with a hoof wide hole in the steps. It was easily enough walked over, and beyond it I saw the next floor was actually mostly open to the air, with half the wall fallen away and exposing this second story to the outside. The gunfire was intense up there and I heard Raider’s voices.

“Get ‘im, get ‘im!”

“Hahaha! Lookit that one, he’s still twitching! Shoot him more!”

“That wagon’s got little ‘uns in it, so don’t blow it up you idiots! We want the foals alive!”

Foals? There were foals in that group getting attacked!? Well, there went my desire to take this slow and stealthy. I rushed up the last of the stairs, reaching with a hoof to bounce out a flash-bang grenade. With Gramzanber in my mouth I couldn’t pull the pin immediately, and while I consciously thought to just set the spear aside for a second, I found myself instinctively putting my back to the stairwell’s wall and grabbing the spear in the crook of my left foreleg. It balanced there in an oddly familiar and comfortable way as I pulled the grenade’s pin with my mouth. I only took a quick glance before throwing the grenade and grabbing Gramzanber back in my mouth again, not questioning the way I’d held it in my leg.

This second floor was actually mostly filled with collapsed debris from the third floor, a series of fallen concrete slabs making an awkward ramp to the third floor in the middle of the room. Torn down walls showed me this was probably once a dwelling for whoever had owned the store below, as I saw the metal springs of a long rotted bed in one room and the rusted away bits of a kitchen in another. What I really had eyes for, through, were eight or nine Raiders lining one wall, aiming weapons out the windows to fire down on the street below.

My grenade landed just behind the Raiders, and I ducked back down the stairs, grabbing up Gramzanber just as the flash-bang went off. My friends needed no explanation or urging, and they were right behind me as we surged up the stairs to catch the Raiders on the second floor completely off guard, dazed and disoriented from my grenade.

Arcaidia’s starblaster and Iron Wrought’s submachine gun fired, bullets and beam flying by me to drop two or three Raiders before they had time to react. I reached the first Raider in line just as he was turning a duct taped assault rifle towards me. One slice of Gramzanber cut the rifle in half, its barrel and front stock clattering to the floor. Another slice cut a gouge out of the Raider’s front leg that left him screaming on the floor. I didn’t think the wound was fatal, but I’d be shocked if the stallion remained a threat for long.

At that point the other Raiders had gotten their act together enough to start shooting back and I had to duck into another room, a bathroom by the look of the old toilet and tub. Plaster and concrete chips sprayed over me as the half blind Raiders fired randomly, bullets tearing through the walls with ease. I heard Iron Wrought grunt in pain but didn’t see if he’d gotten hit bad or not, and Arcaidia was swearing up a storm in her own language as I heard her magic buzz through the air, ice shards flying by my line of sight to be accompanied by the screams of Raiders.

Binge suddenly popped up from inside the tub. How had she gotten in there!? She just smiled at me and hopped out, tail wagging.

“This way, Longy!” she said as she rushed out of the room through a door opposite of the Raiders. I hesitated a second before following. A part of me wanted to just use Accelerator, rush the remaining Raiders, and end this. Having to ration the power was problematic. Still, I trusted Arcaidia to hold her own along with Iron Wrought while Binge and I got around to hit the Raider’s from the other side. At least I assumed that was what Binge was planning.

I scrambled after the bouncing form of Binge as we dodged between already half destroyed rooms with massive holes in the walls and floor, making scrambling through them like trying to navigate an obstacle course. It didn’t help that the Raiders weren’t bothering with details like aim, or being able to see where we were, to need to shoot. Their bullets were tearing through the weak walls and zipping by the open holes, leaving me with the feeling of dodging through a hornet’s nest. The cuts on my leg from the Raider who’d gone at me with a butcher’s cleaver hurt the worst as dust and dirt started to work their way into the cuts. I just isolated the pain as best I could, parking it in the back of my mind.

Binge and I came out into a small hall on the opposite side of the building, not far from the stretch of wall where the Raiders were still shooting wildly. A quick peek around the corner showed me that Arcaidia had erected an ice wall to use as cover as she traded shots with the Raiders. Iron Wrought was still using the stairwell for cover, using short, well aimed bursts to keep the Raiders off balance. The Raiders themselves had scrambled to use the various side rooms for cover, or in one or two cases the bodies of their already dead.

Then I saw one Raider mare, a huge, bulky butter yellow mare with a short, raggedly cut red mane who had a missile launcher mounted on her side. My eyes were wide, looking at that heavy weapon as the mare aimed it down the corridor at Arcaidia’s ice wall. I almost didn’t see that there was another pony riding on the back of this hulking mare, and my heart fell down to the pit of my stomach.

A foal. A little filly who couldn't have been into double digits yet in years was riding on the big Raider mare’s back, and there was no doubting the filly was a Raider herself. She had the same butter yellow coat as her obvious mother, with her own mousy brown mane done up in spikes.

“Boom mamma! Blow ‘em up! Blow up ‘em up! Yay!” the little filly cavorted about holding onto the big Raider’s neck.

“Ah shut it and hold on tight Blasting Cap!” the mare grunted and fired a missile off with a streak of smoke.

Arcaidia saw the missile coming and I saw my friend’s silver eyes narrow as her horn glowed fiercely, crests snapping into existence around her horn faster than the eye could follow. Ice extended from the wall like a rapidly growing fist, curving to fill the space between Arcaidia and the incoming missile, which impacted with the extending wall to explode in an echoing impact that shattered both ice and floor alike.

As if the explosion was a slap to my face I snapped out of my momentary stupor and got acting. Before I could really think about it I was charging towards the big mare with the filly, Blasting Cap. The filly was actually reaching into a sack on her mother’s other side to retrieve a fresh missile to load. I barely noticed the other Raiders shooting, some of them turning their guns towards me. The filly was just getting the missile loading into the launcher and the big mare was just barely turning her head to notice me before I barreled straight into them.

Huge or not the Raider mare was still knocked backwards into one of the partially destroyed rooms, slamming into an old, already mostly broken wardrobe. Blasting Cap yelped, falling off her mother’s back, and landing with a squeaking ‘oof!’ on the floor. My shoulder was numb from ramming into the big Raider, but I didn’t slow down as I aimed a slash of Gramzanber at the missile launcher, hoping to disable the dangerous weapon.

For her size the mare was quick on her hooves, however, and rolled aside of my slice, Gramzanber cutting a clean gouge in the floor. Gray eyes glared with rage at me as the mare reared up to her full height, which had about a full head over me.

“You wanna rumble little pissant!? Blasting Cap, get out of the way, I’m turning this fucker into paste!”

“Kill ‘im mamma!” Blasting Cap cried as the filly scrambled out the doorway with little legs moving in a blur.

I was left staring up at gigantic hooves as big around as my face that were smashing down towards me as the Raider brought down her two thick forelegs. I barely threw myself aside as they hit, splintering floorboards with their impact. I wheeled around, slashing at her hindlegs. Again she moved with surprising agility for a mare her size, turning what should have been a disabling blow into a mere flesh wound as Gramzanber’s edge cut through her hide but didn’t cut deep enough to render the leg useless. If the pain affected her at all she didn’t show it as a hammerblow of a uppercut flew at me and caught me square in the chest. The blow lifted me off the floor and slammed me into, and through the weak wall and left me sprawled on my back in the hallway beyond.

“... Ow...” I said, rolled aside of the mare’s following strike as she bounded through the hole I’d made through the wall.

“Quit scurryin’ around you little shit!” the mare roared, “Going to feed your testicles to my kid just so she knows what a weak sauce bitch tastes like!”

I blinked at her, “Seriously, what is wrong with you ponies?”

“Didn’t I tell you bucky!” cried Binge as she suddenly jumped the big mare from behind, “There’s nothing wrong with us! We’re just having fun!”

“The fuck!?” the big mare cried out as Binge started stabbing with one of her knives at the back of the mare’s neck. Unlike previous Raiders, however, this mare was made of sterner stuff and she started bucking and flailing, throwing off Binge before the mare could get a fatal blow in. Binge went flying down the hallway, bouncing a few times before she landed upside down against the bottom of the ruined concrete ramp to the third floor.

“Heheh,” Binge laughed, “That was cool! Again!”

“Fuck that, both of you are paste!” the mare growled, “Blasting Cap, come to mamma!”

“I”m here mamma!” cried the filly as she scrambled into view and waved her little hooves in the air, her mother lowering a hoof to lift the filly onto her back once more. Blasting Cap immediately went to finish reloading the missile launcher, which was now aimed at both me and Binge.

“You’ll kill yourself if you fire that right now, you nutjob!” I said as I charged her, “What are you doing, bringing your foal into something like this!?”

I once again tried to slash at the missile launcher itself, hoping to destroy the weapon. The mare backed up quickly, slapping with one hoof to try to push the spear aside. I had anticipated she might do that, and quickly reversed my swing, catching the mare’s leg just above the elbow. Gramzanber’s edge treated flesh like little more than thin paper and I heard the mare grunt as blood flowed from the deep gash I’d given her leg, but at the same time I saw a narrow eyed glint appeared in her eyes as she grinned at me maliciously.

“Pulling your blows a bit ain’t ya? Ha! You don’t wanna kill me, do ya, punk? What a dickless little pipsqueak!”

“Dickless, dickless, dickless,” Blasting Cap chanted, giggling.

I shook my head, my aggravation and fear blending together into a potent emotional cocktail. I was furious with this mare for bringing her foal into a battle, and moreso letting that foal participating in the bloodshed. And really, should I have been surprised? These were Raiders, the Wasteland’s equivalent of hoof fungus. Ugly, irritating, and the harder you try to get rid of them the worse they spread.

By this point even I had to start questioning why I cared so much about sparing their lives. It wasn’t as if they were doing anything with those lives other than deliberately try to discover new ways of being depraved and psychotic.

I wasn’t there yet, however, and I wanted to take this mare down without killing her if I could manage it. She was tougher, stronger, and actually a lot more skilled than other Raiders I’d encountered, but I had the advantage of reach with Gramzanber and the fact that she wasn’t able to use her missile launcher at such close quarters.

That, and I had Binge.

Binge literally bounced back from being tossed a dozen paces down the hall earlier and leaped to my side, throwing a knife pulled from her mane that went spinning end over end. The big yellow Raider ducked aside, taking a cut along her brow, and she growled, charging us both.

I braced myself, setting Gramzanber low against her charge, aiming to pierce through her legs. If I had to I’d cut the damn limbs off! The mare surprised both myself and Binge by actually leaping over us with a powerful jump that I never would have guessed somepony that size and carrying a big weapon like a missile launcher could pull off.

Blasting Cap actually gave a little squeal of joy at the jump, like she was having, well, a blast.

At the apex of her jump the mare also kicked out with her hind legs. Binge and I were both hit, through I rolled with the kick enough that I was just staggered into the wall, rather than laid out entirely. Binge skidded a few paces, but remained conscious as her eyes swirled about dizzily.

“Hey, get back here,” Binge said as she swayed to her hooves, “I’m gonna stabbity all... uh... all five of you! Whooo, floor is spinny...”

There was a sudden blast of cold and i saw the hallway ice over behind us, followed by a few flashes of star blaster beams zipping by. Arcaidia appeared around the corner, her horn blazing a brilliant cobalt blue as she continued to conjure an ice wall that extended in front of her, deflecting the storm of return fire that was coming from the other Raider’s down the other hall.

“Ren solva, you okay?” she asked, glancing at me briefly as she snapped another shot off around her barricade of ice.

I rubbed my nose, which I realized was dripping blood from the blow I’d taken a second ago, “Fine, fine! Bit busy with this mare here-”

I glanced around, confused. Where had the yellow Raider gone!? I’d lost track of her after she jumped over us. The side hallway was now empty except for me and Binge. No, wait, there she was! She’d run up the concrete ramp of rubble to the third, mostly open and skeletal story of the building. There was barely any floor up there, entire sections of it exposed to the second floor, with only a few criss-crossing sections of ruined concrete and rebar making up that third story.

The Raider mare with her little filly was using a load bearing pillar up there as cover as she leaned out and aimed her missile launcher down the ramp.

“Crapcrapcrap!” I scrambled to grab the still dizzy and dazed Binge and haul her back towards Arcaidia, “Missile!”

Arcaidia heard my warning and didn’t hesitate to cast another spell to extend her ice wall down the hallway towards Binge and me, leaving just enough room for me to push Binge ahead of me and for me to leap forward behind her. I heard the missile fire just as Arcaidia extended the ice wall across the whole hallway. Even then the impact shattered the ice and the explosion peppered my back with shrapnel. A combination of the shield spell and my armor kept the damage to a minimum, but my back was still in sharp pain from the force of the explosion.

I coughed, trying to get to my hooves, Binge wiggling beneath me.

“Mmm, I know you’re pent up, bucky, but now’s not the time,” she cooed, and I groaned as I realized our... positioning.

Before I could say anything I yelped as Arcaidia’s soft blue glow of magic enveloped both me and Binge, forcibly pulled us apart, and floated us back into the main hallway, tossing us behind her and the rest of her ice wall. Arcaidia looked at me with a look that was one part sharp, two parts worry, and a dash of amusement.

“Not many left. Does ren solva need rest break to play with stinky mare?” she asked as she tagged a Raider that’d poked his head a little too far out of one of the rooms further down the hall, her star blaster’s silvery beam disintegrating the poor stallion before he could get out half an agonized scream. I could see she was right, there weren’t many Raider’s left here. Two or three down the hall, plus the one with the missile launcher up top. That didn’t mean we could relax, through.

I shook my head, “No, I’m good to keep going. Where’s Iron Wrought?”

I didn’t see him anywhere, but then I heard a sudden burst of sub-machine gun fire from one of the rooms deeper in the building and another Raider staggered out of cover, her body jerking and twisting as bullets tore through her purple form. Apparently Iron Wrought had snuck off to flank the Raiders while I’d been busy tangling with the missile launcher mare and Arcaidia kept the attention of the main group of enemies.

“There,” said Arcaidia unnecessarily as she smiled thinly and peeked around cover. She ducked back as a few shotguns blasts chewed chunks out of her ice, and she took a moment to reload the charge on her star blaster with smooth, efficient movements.

In the meantime I was looking towards the concrete ramp between the second and third floor. The mare with the missile launcher hadn’t come down, and for a second I thought that was just because she didn’t want to risk charging our position due to Arcaidia’s star blaster... but it also occured to me that with so much of the second floor exposed to the third floor...

“Shit, Iron Wrought,” I said as I charged out of cover and went galloping down the hall, Arcaidia calling after me. I didn’t have time to explain my fears, through. Iron Wrought’s gunfire was loud and clear to hear, and that mean the mare with the missile launcher must have also heard it, and with her position on the third floor she could possibly spot him through the exposed flooring, and he might not see her coming until it was too late.

Fear lent speed to my legs, adrenaline pumping with white hot intensity. I didn’t think about the danger to me anymore, or worry about shortening my already shortened lifespan. A friend was in danger, so I had to do it. I used Accelerator again. The world turned sapphire blue, and sound dampened to odd echos. I could see the trail of a stray bullet fired by a Raider flying by Arcaidia’s ice barricade as I dove from cover and ran down the side hallway, ducking underneath the now slowly trailing rounds.

I could feel my heart pounding in my chest, the loud thumping of the blood in my ears somehow louder now in the muted, slowed state I viewed the world. The broken ramp of fallen concrete debris was in front of me and I scrambled up it, hoping I’d be in time. The ramp led to a part of the third floor that was little more than a narrow strip of barely supported flooring, containing little more than half a broken desk and a shelf of books so old and rotted as to be hardly recognizable. The strip of floor led to a twisted half-formed bridge of metal sheets and rebar that led across a wide gap to another section of floor that ran along the north end of the building. It was on this strip of floor that the yellow Raider mare with her missile launcher was standing, her foal on her back.

I could see the Raider was aiming the missile launcher down at the second floor, where the roofless rooms down there were completely exposed to her. I could see, through a large gaping hole in one of the few walls down there that Iron Wrought was behind cover, shooting at the Raiders that were trapped in the crossfire between him and Arcaidia. His eyes were focused solely on his own targets and he hadn’t looked up to see the mare with the missile launcher aiming right at him. Even as I reached the top of the ramp and saw all this I could tell the Raider mare’s head was leaning down, mouth opening in preparation to bite down on the firing bit of her missile launcher.

Time was already slowed with Accelerator, and the adrenaline slowed things even more, but despite that I had almost no time to consider my options.

The last thing I wanted to do was kill this mare. Raider or not, her foal was right there, standing on her back. To kill a mother in front of her child... could I do it? To save a friend?

I desperately tried to think of another way, with the precious few seconds I had.

There was no way I’d be able to dash the distance across that narrow bridge of sheet metal to get to the mare and tackle her, even with Accelerator.

With the head-on angle I had on her I couldn’t target the firing bit itself. Gramzanber would go right through the mare anyway.

The missile launcher was also nearly impossible to target, as the mare’s bulk was angled just wrong so that the majority of the weapon was covered safe the very tip of the tube, which wouldn’t stop the missile from firing even if I did hit it.

Would a flash or smoke grenade work? No. Too much time to pull the pin, and the missile would fire before the grenade could go off to distract her.

I could try using my Grapple to distract her or grab a leg, tugging her off balance. But if I did that she’d still probably fire the missile, and even if I pulled her off balance, all that would do is slightly throw off the shot. If it were a gun that might have worked, but with a missile, she didn’t need to be dead on target. Even a near miss would still kill Iron Wrought.

Targeting any of her legs with Gramzanber ran into the same problem. The sudden loss of a limb would throw her off, surely, but she’d still probably fire, and the missile would still more than likely hit close enough to Iron Wrought to turn him into a red smear.

... I didn’t want to accept it. With every inch of my willpower I wanted to scream denial at the simple truth staring me in the face; if I didn’t kill this mare, she’d kill Iron Wrought.

The moment I’d dreaded had come. I was out of options.

And out of time. Her mouth was nearly on the firing bit. I had to act, or lose a friend I’d sworn to return to his family.

A numbness gripped me as I set my body in motion. My head turned, my body reared, such familiar motions that brought back the memories of hunting gecko with my tribesmates, with Trailblaze.

I prayed to the Ancestor Spirits for forgiveness as I let Gramzanber fly.

It happened faster than I thought it would with Accelerator going, and I was spared no detail of watching the silver spear sink into yellow pony flesh. My aim had been true, at least. I’d always been a good spear thrower.

I don’t think the Raider mare had time to even register pain as Gramzanber planted firmly in her chest, the unnaturally sharp edge going through ribcage and heart with the sickening ease. Blood poured, coating the spear’s silver edge.

The Raider mare stood there for a second, a faint, dumbfounded look of confusion on her face, mouth hovering over the firing bit for a second. Then she just... sort of sat down on her haunches, then her forelegs, so large and strong, slipped as well, and she fell full body to the floor. I saw her try to move her head to look back towards her filly, but in mid-motion her eyes just... went blank, and the head lolled to the floor, lifeless.

I deactivated Accelerator. I welcomed the pain of the backlash, not moving as I stared at my hoofwork.

“Mamma?”

Blasting Caps’ voice was no longer a loud, boisterous giggle, but a terrified whisper as the filly, still on her mother’s back, put her forehooves on her mother’s head and shook the dead mare. The filly’s eyes were wide pools of disbelief as I saw realization creep into them. Then the tears welled. Both mine and hers.

“No! Mamaa, no!” the little Raider filly wailed. Her cries were easy enough to hear, because the gunfire down below had ceased.

“Ren solva?” I heard Arcaidia shout from below, “All enemies down? What happening up there?”

I heard Iron Wrought’s voice next, “Shit, is that a foal I’m hearing?”

Before I could respond I felt a hoof on my shoulder, and Binge was next to me. For once the ex-Raider wasn’t smiling, but had a solemn look on her face as she looked at the crying Blasting Cap still trying to shake her dead mother awake. Binge didn’t say anything, just kept her hoof on my shoulder, firm, warm, and oddly comforting coming from a mare who spent the majority of her time creeping me out.

Arcaidia came up next, surveying the scene quickly. Her eyes had widened slightly at the sight of the dead Raider with Gramzanber still sticking out of her corpse and the wailing filly, but soon Arcaidia’s face was a cool mask of calm as she trotted up to my side opposite Binge.

“Longwalk,” she said, “Battle still going on in other building. We must move quickly.”

I blinked, barely registering what she’d said, but I found myself dumbly nodding, then looking towards Blasting Cap, “She’s...”

Arcaidia flicked her eyes towards the filly, “Will take care of. Prisoner. Like shivol bir. Decide what to do with later. Must move now.”

“The hell’s going on up there?” I heard Iron Wrought ask from down the ramp.

“I... yeah, we... we have to go help LIL-E and B.B,” I found myself saying, taking a step forward, “Let me get my... my spear.”

Arcaidia held me back with a hoof, and with her horn glowing brightly she gripped Gramzanber, the body of the dead Raider, and Blasting Cap. She pulled Gramzanber free easily as she floated filly and spear over towards us. Blasting Cap struggled in the magic, her sorrow suddenly replaced with furious rage.

“You fuckers! I”m swear I’m gonna kill you! You killed my mamma!”

Arcaidia’s eyes were hard as she used her magic to clamp the filly’s jaw shut, leaving the filly making unintelligible grunts and growls. Arcaidia turned her attention to Binge, “Shivol bir, take filly down to Ursa. Have rope, yes? Tie up prisoner. Be useful.”

Binge, her earlier solemness now gone as she gave a small smile, said “Okie doki loki! I’ll keep the little one tied up nice and tight so she doesn’t escape, spend the next ten to fifteen years in rigours training, and comes back to take bloody revenge on our Longy in an epic showdown.”

Arcaidia rolled her eyes at the other mare’s choice of words, but floated the filly over to Binge, who quickly put Blasting Cap in a rather complicated looking headlock and promptly dragged the filly away, trotting past a confused looking Iron Wrought as he joined us. He looked at the body of the dead Raider mare, and I watched him glance from the body, down to the spot where he’d been shooting it out with the other Raiders. I saw the comprehension in his eyes as he looked at me with a surprised look.

“Longwalk, did you...?”

“Yes,” I said, tone quiet.

Iron Wrought looked at a loss for words, but Arcaidia’s strong, musical voice cut through the silence, “Know feelings bad now, but work still to do. Longwalk, good to follow?”

I nodded and Arcaidia, bless her, didn’t question further. She trusted me at my word, and more to the point, was able to keep me focused on what still needed to be done. She would be the pillar I’d need until I could afford to break down somewhere. For now followed the blue filly from the stars who, at this moment, I felt was the strongest of all of us.

----------

Iron Wrought returned to the Ursa alongside Binge. I couldn’t quite read his body language but I could tell something had changed in him from the second he’d seen that I’d killed the Raider who’d been so close to killing him. He gave me an unblinking look as Binge dragged Blasting Cap into the back of the Ursa, pulling some rope from one of the supply crates we’d gotten from Stable 104 to start tying the filly up.

“I’ll bring the Ursa around to the front,” he told me, “Be careful not to get shot by those we’re trying to save. They might mistake you for Raiders in the dark.”

He had a point. The night gave little light to work with. So far Arcaidia’s magic and my Pip-Buck had kept things illuminated enough to fight in, but now that we were about to leave the confines of the building and move out into the open it was more than possible that the ponies we’d come to save might shoot first before asking who or what was producing the light in the dark.

I tried my best to ignore the growls and half unintelligible curses that spewed from Blasting Cap as Binge tied the filly up and then gagged her. The smooth speed at which Binge worked suggested to me the mare had done this kind of thing before. Often.

I felt a hoof tap me and turned to see Arcaidia giving me a solid, supportive stare that still held an edge of hardness to it, “Come, ren solva. Still battle to fight.”

She was right, gunfire could still be heard from the neighboring building where LIL-E and B.B had gone. It was shorter, more sporadic than before, and now joined with unearthly moans and cries, some of which sparked a chill in me as I heard them. Some of those shrieking cries weren’t made by pony throats, and I didn’t think they were being made by ghouls either.

As much as my heart was unsettled, and as much as I just wanted to sit down somewhere and... deal with what I’d just done minutes ago, Arcaidia was right. There were still things I needed to do before I could let myself rest. I looked at Gramzanber’s silver edge, now coated red with blood. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and then opened them with a refreshed determination as I nodded at Arcaidia.

“Let’s go.”

Arcaidia and I left out the rather sizeable hole in the back of the building that the Ursa had made when bursting through. My Pip-Buck and Arcaidia’s horn created little fields of light around us, letting us make our way out into the open night. I saw flashes from muzzle fire in the building across the way, heard a scream that had to be a pony dying, and clenched my jaw tightly. Arcaidia let me take the lead as I surged forward.

The space between the two buildings provided some view of the area the Raider’s had been targeting, though I couldn’t make up much in the gloom. I saw what I thought were wagons, lining a wide boulevard between these building and a number of others across the street. I saw movement, and heard shouts and cries, not of pain, but of disorientation and attempts at organization. Whoever was in charge over there was taking advantage of the fact that they weren’t being shot at any longer.

However that did mean that whoever was over there that still had guns were now organized enough to shoot at anything that looked like a threat, like a pair of lights crossing between the two buildings that were supposedly still full or Raiders. Gunshots rang out and I felt a bullet or two zip by me.

“We’re not Raiders! We’re on your side!” I shouted, through my shouts were only greeted with more gunfire. Thankfully it wasn’t far between the two buildings and Arcaidia and I made it to the side of the building we were heading for quickly. There were no doors, but there was enough damage to the wall from time alone that we found a hole big enough to climb through.

Once we were inside the noise of the unnatural moans and screams were amplified, but was also joined by a smell. A smell I instantly recognized and felt a wash of disgust pass through me. That acidic, sour odor could only come from one thing.

“Balloons,” I said, and Arcaidia’s face screwed up in the same disgust I felt.

The moment I said it my word was confirmed by the sight of one of the horrific creatures floating around a corner of what looked like the bottom floor of an apartment or hotel of some kind. The melded together, distorted pony faces, with lifeless, milk white eyes, and the sickly orange and red tinted rubbery skin, all shaped into a faint floating ball, it was just as I remembered from my last encounter with these things, all the way back to my first meeting with Crossfire and the Labor Guild outside Saddlespring.

The Balloon had a pony in one of its many jaws, a Raider by the look of it, and the Balloon chewed on the flesh of the dead pony slowly as if it were savoring the blood that dripped from the corpse. One of its many faces spotted me and Arcaidia and it let out a piercing shriek. Arcaidia’s starblaster fired, the thin beam of silver light piercing the Balloon an instant later and charring the wretched thing into a black, lifeless mass.

I checked my E.F.S, seeing a mass of red dots. Where were my friends? It was hard to tell, but I thought I saw a glimpse of green somewhere amid the red, and the gunfire I heard was coming from a higher floor.

Wordlessly we moved forward. Neither Arcaidia or I needed to exchange words at this point. Left to ourselves we seemed to understand, now, how to fight together. From the struggles in Saddlespring, to the delve into Stable 104, to now, we’d gotten to know each other’s skills enough that when we fought, there was little need for hesitance or checking each other’s movements.

I went around the corner and Arcaidia was right there, just one step behind me to give me room to work. I took my anger, my disappointment in myself, the pain of what I’d done, and I channeled it into my movements. The next room was a reception area, little more than a place with broken down front doors, a few crumbled chairs, and a desk with a terminal on it tucked against one wall between two different sets of stairs.

Balloons, half a dozen of them, were here, chewing on bodies both Raiders and a number of dead ponies whose thin, emaciated corpses looked long dead and rotted, but were still twitching. I saw several of these corpse-like ponies still standing, hissing and moaning as they tried to reciprocate the Balloons’ attention by pawing and chewing on them. It was a sickening sight, moving corpses and deformed monsters, all ripping into each other over the still bleeding corpses of Raiders.

I felt my gorge rising at the sight and my nostrils burned with the combined smell of rot and wrongness, but I charged in regardless. Gramzanber bi-sected the first Balloon before it could react, the creatures foul smelling orange blood spraying across the floor. Arcaidia’s starblaster sent lances of light into one of the moving corpses, ghouls I realized, and the hissing creature turned to ash.

I was breathing hard, not so much tired as just letting my emotions out as I growled around Gramzanber’s shaft, rushing forward as a Balloon saw me, screamed in otherworldly hunger, and floated right at me. I sunk Gramzanber into the beast, even as its deformed faces snapped and bit at me, blunt, oversized teeth gnawing at my armor. I twisted the spear and sent the Balloon flying off the tip to slam into a wall with a wet, disgusting smack.

I heard a guttural hiss beside me and saw one of the ghouls charging my way, a stallion who was still wearing the tattered remains of some ancient uniform of blue, with a miraculously still intact patch that read ‘Detrot Police Department’. I turned to face the charging ghoul, but a gunshot sounded clearly in the small room and the ghoul tumbled to the ground with a neat bullet hole in his forehead.

I turned towards the sound of the gunshot to see B.B, a little bloody from a cut on her scalp, flying down one of the sets of stairs, one of her foreleg revolvers smoking. LIL-E was right behind the pegasus. Soon both pegasus and robot were blazing away into the limited space, and with Arcaidia still working her starblaster with cold, brutal efficiency I barely had time to ram Gramzanber into one more Balloon before the floor was clear of enemies.

I stood there amid the bodies, breathing hard, shaking, and wishing, against my own better judgment, that I still had... something to strike at. Some horrible monster I could attack without guilt. Any mindless creature that I didn’t have to feel any remorse or pain in removing from this world.

“Long? Ya alright there?” B.B asked me, wiping some blood from her face as Arcaidia trotted up to cast a healing spell on her.

I gulped, taking a deeper breath to try and steady myself, blinking several times as I stared at her, “Y...yeah... I’m... I’m fine. Are there more? Raiders.”

“No more hostiles above,” said LIL-E, “But my scanners are picking up more incoming that are probably more Balloons. Plenty of ghouls out there too. I think a ghoul wrangler called them in. But these were the last in the building. Everything I’m detecting is outside. I think we’re clear to get to the refugees outside.”

“Refugees?” Arcaidia asked as the light of her healing magic bathed B.B, who gave the unicorn a grateful nod.

“Yup, me an’ LIL-E got a’ good peek at ‘em. Whole bunch o’ ponies lookin’ ta me like refugees from local settlments. Not a lot o’ guards, but caught sight a’ one mare wearin’ a Skull Guild coat. Gotta be a ghoul wrangler, guessin’ by her lantern.”

I wasn’t quite clear on what she was talking about, but I supposed it didn’t matter until we got out there to talk with those ponies. Getting my breathing under control I wiped some of the blood off of Gramzanber and said, “They were shooting at us, but once we get the Ursa out there I think we can convince them we're not Raiders.”

“Yes, that’s not a vehicle Raiders would normally get their hooves on,” said LIL-E.

Leaving the building through the front doors of the reception room I could hear the wails of Balloons and moans of ghouls nearby, somewhere in the ruins to the south. It sounded like a full scale fight was taking place between dozens of the creatures. I’d burned through my anger to a degree, but a part of me still wished for something to hit. I shoved the feelings down for now. It left me shaking, still, but I felt in control again as we exited the building.

The Ursa was rolling out through the hole in the back of the other building and its lights and throaty engine growl were comforting as it pulled around and occupied the gap between the two buildings. Iron Wrought has his driver’s window rolled down slightly as he said, “Everypony still alive?”

“Alive, an’ kickin’ wit all o’ our limbs,” said B.B as she hovered to the top of the Ursa.

“Great,” he said, then he looked towards me, “Now what?”

I paused, not really used to Iron Wrought looking to me for the next move. I glanced down towards the street with the wagons, seeing movement in the shadows, but seeing no sign of further gunfire coming our way despite the obvious size and location of the Ursa. Perhaps they finally got that perhaps there was a new group in play, here? At the very least they had to notice there were no more Raiders shooting at them from the buildings.

“Let’s move forward slowly and introduce ourselves,” I said, my voice sounding tired, even to my own ears.

The Ursa rolled along on its six massive wheels, and I walked along next to it beside Arcaidia. B.B stood on the top of it, tense and waiting. Thankfully no more gunshots came our way, and before long the exterior lights of the Ursa were illuminating a depressing sight.

A caravan of about ten wagons was strung along the cracked remnants of an ancient street. Three of them were either blown on their sides, or blown apart and still burning, with blasted bodies littered around them. More bodies could be seen around the other wagons, some of them ponies with leather or metallic armor, clearly guards based off the fact that they were armed and facing the buildings the Raiders had been in when they’d died. Other bodies were of simple ponies, either clothless or in very plain garments that had clearly been fleeing the wagons when they’d been gunned down. My heart clenched when I saw a foal or two among the dead.

Still, for all that there were a couple of dozen dead ponies, there were many dozens more that were alive. Hard eyed guards were watching us warily as we approached, weapons aimed steadily at us. There were still at least twenty or so guards still standing, and as I watched I saw scores more ponies steadily and cautiously making their way back to the wagons from where they appeared to have taken cover behind a small ditch and railing beyond the wagons. There were still by my count around a hundred or so refugees, all of them dirty and scared looking as they emerged into the light cast by the Ursa.

I heard whispered talk, and the sound of crying and wailing as certain ponies found friends or family among the dead. I stood in front of the Ursa beside Arcaidia and waited. Soon enough two ponies slowly emerged from the line of guards. One was a rough looking orange earth pony stallion with a black, short mane and mustache, wearing a wide brimmed black hat and carrying a pair of rifles strapped to his sides via a battle saddle. His cutie mark was a pair of crossed rifles; not surprising. The other pony was a unicorn mare, and I blinked at her.

She was teal, at least where her hide was visible. Many patches of her body were naked of fur and was a bruised purple or sore red, as if she was half rotting. Her mane and tail were two toned red, and surprisingly vibrant despite being missing a patch here and there as well. And despite her seemingly necrotic form she wore a bright, relieved smile that complimented and lit up her bright green eyes. She wore a dark coat that covered most of her back, though not her flank, where I could note a cutie mark of a pillow. The back of the coat carried a white skull sigil. She carried in the soft green glow of her magic a metal pole, and from the curled top of it an iron lantern hung, swaying with each step she took. A strange, smokey blue light eliminated from the lantern, washing the area in a ghostly glow. Most odd of all, however, were her hind legs. Most of her flesh and blood back limbs were missing, as if they’d been torn away almost up to the haunches. Replacing those legs were brace-like affairs that housed solid metal spokes attached to wide, rubber wheels. The mare scooted along with surprising ease using her forelegs to pull herself along on her wheeled back legs.

“Alright,” said the orange stallion in a hard voice, “Who are you folks and what are you doing here?”

The teal mare laughed and slapped him on the shoulder, “Vigil, relax! They’re obviously decent ponies! What, you think the Raiders just got bored shooting, then decided to send out their cleanest members with a giant, cool autowagon to chat with us?”

The stallion, Vigil, groused, “Don’t mean we shouldn’t be careful, Knobs.”

The mare laughed again, looking at us with a smile still on her face that just seemed to be oddly infectious. I somehow felt... better, just looking at that smile.

“Don’t mind him,” she said, “He’s paid to be paranoid. Look, I’m Knobbly Knees, just Knobs to friends. I’m real grateful you folk showed up, assuming it was you who just made those Raiders reconsider their decision to blow us all to bits?”

I glanced at Arcaidia, who just gave me a small shrug and a smile, and I said, “That was us. We dealt with the Raiders as fast as we could.”

I looked again at the number of dead among the refugees and guards, “Wish we’d been faster.”

Knobs’ smile faltered for a second, but only in that it became somehow properly somber and respectful while still convey a wealth of gratitude, “Hey, help is help, no matter when it arrives. Without you guys showing up when you did we’d have lost even more ponies before this was over. I called in some ghouls, but I guess they got held up somehow.”

“Balloons,” B.B said, alighting from the top of the Ursa and landing beside the rest of us, “Ya got a bunch o’ them out there, tanglin’ wit yer ghouls. Don’t know how long that’ll last, so we might wanna git movin’ and swap stories once we’re safer down the road.”

Knobs’ eyes widened for a brief second before her smile set into a more concerned look, “Balloons? Not my favorite thing in the Skull City Wastes to deal with. Yup, moving sounds good. Vigil, I’ll clear the path ahead, you can get everypony ready to split in a few minutes?”

Vigil gave a hard sigh and looked back at the destroyed wagons, ones that had more than likely been destroyed by the Raider mare who’d had the missile launcher. Some of the refugees were carefully picking through the debris, either looking for personal effects or to identify the fallen.

“I can get them going,” he said, sourly, “Give us five minutes, I’ll get them ready.”

He glanced at us, “What about the lot of you?”

“We’re heading for Skull City,” I said, putting all my sincerity into my voice, “We’ll be more than happy to help guard these ponies on the way there, assuming that’s where you’re heading?”

“We are,” said Knobs, her smiling brightening once more, “And we’ll be glad for the extra escort. If you want pull your fancy wagon up front and you can clear the way forward with me. Sound good?”

“Works for me,” I said, glancing at my companions to see if they had anything to weigh in with.

“If its all the same to you I’ll take up rear guard,” said LIL-E, “I don’t want anything sneaking up on us.”

“Good idea. Those Balloons and ghouls still fighting?” I asked.

“For now, but I think the Balloons are winning. We don’t have long,” said the robot.

“Hate to be ‘that pony’,” said Iron Wrought, looking at me with a small, worried frown, “But what are we going to do about our prisoner?”

“Prisoner?” Vigil said, eyes narrowing, “You ponies took a Raider prisoner?”

B.B gave Iron Wrought a confused look, then me, “Long?”

I breathed deeply, lowering my head, my ears falling flat as I said, “It’s hard to explain. There was a foal with the Raiders. I... her mother’s dead, and we couldn't just leave the filly there.”

Vigil growled, “Filly or not, a Raider’s a Raider. You ought to-”

“Vigil,” Knobs cut him off, her face turning stiff as her eyes bored into him, “Please don’t finish that sentence. Look, uh, Long, is it?”

“Longwalk,” I said.

“Longwalk, then. If you’re worried about having to figure out what to do with this filly, then just hold onto her for a bit. Once we’re in Skull City I might be able to help you with her. Okay?”

I looked at her, not entirely sure what to think. I knew from her strange appearance that this Knobs mare had to be a ghoul, but one who was apparently one of the kind that could control herself. She seemed friendly enough, but could I trust her to take care of a Raider filly? Or at least help me take care of one? Perhaps it was that bright, honest smile that got me trusting her, but I found that I did and I nodded.

“Alright. So, we should be going, then?”

Knobs glanced sidelong at Vigil, who met the ghoul mare’s eyes with a steady look that gradually cracked under her continued stare and he said, “Fine! Fine! If the little hellion causes any trouble she’s your damned baggage then!”

He turned with an annoyed flick of his tail and went back to his guards, getting them organized to in turn organize the refugees back into a proper marching order. Knobs turned back towards me, and said something that caught me completely off guard.

“You look horrible. Rough night, I guess. Dont’ worry, it’ll all be okay.”

With that she trotted off, or rather wheeled off, leaving me with the memory of her comforting smile as she went to her own rather large, dark wood wagon that was headed by a, of all things, a two headed equine being that was much larger and thicker than a pony. A brahmin, I would later learn, but for now I barely noticed the two headed cow because I was just struck by Knobs’ simple words.

Because for some reason, despite the way the night had gone, and the terrible thing I’d done that I had yet to fully deal with, I found I kind of believed what she said.

---------

I was understandably in need of some time to sort my thoughts. Once the caravan of refugees got moving things became drastically quiet compared to the madness of battle, and the Ursa rolled along at the head of the group alongside Knobs’ wagon. I soon learned that by ‘clearing a path’ that Knobs largely meant helping move debris that might have blocked the road.

“Shouldn’t this road already be clear?” I asked while I helped haul a collapsed street lamp off the road.

“We’re taking a route to Skull City that isn’t commonly used,” said Knobs from the seat of her wagon, her eyes keenly alert as she examined the surrounding ruins in the pre-dawn gloom, “I was hoping it might reduce the chance we’d get attacked if we weren’t using one of the main roads. Guess I was wrong.”

“Nice yer helpin’ these folks git outta the way o’ the fightin’,” said B.B, who’d been helping me with the street lamp. We tossed the old rusted pole down and returned to the head of the caravan as it got moving again, walking alongside Knobs’ wagon. Well, I walked, B.B flew.

Knobs smiled sheepishly, “Just made sense to. I was doing my normal rounds when this Raider army marched in on us, so what was I going to do? Leave hundreds of ponies to flee their settlements without lifting a hoof to help? I’m a ghoul wrangler; it’s my job to keep the roads safe! I mean, sure, normally that just applies to controlling the ferals, but I’m not going to split hairs when it comes to Raiders threatening peaceful ponies.”

I glanced at her lantern, which still held a blue glowing flame inside it, “What’s that?”

“Tool of the trade,” she said, “Helps me control the feral ghouls. Can’t tell you how; Guild secrets and all that.”

B.B floated down to me, putting a hoof to the side of her mouth conspiratorially as she whispered, “Pretty lookin’ lights an’ incense. Nothin’ too fancy.”

Knobs laughed, “Hey! Its way more complicated than that! There’s alchemy and spells and other things. But... yeah, its not that complicated. Skull Guild just likes us to make it look complicated. I’m surprised they don’t make it mandatory to do a little song and dance.”

I laughed, through it was small and only half formed. The simple conversation helped me get my jumbled thoughts in order. I couldn’t help but glance back at the Ursa that rolled along behind us. I could see Iron Wrought at the wheel, one eye on the road, the other on the dashboard, probably keeping a lookout on the radar for danger. I knew LIL-E would be keeping a similar lookout at the rear of the caravan and could contact me via my Pip-Buck in an instant if more Raiders or monsters showed up.

My mind’s eye imagined the interior of the Ursa. I’d been riding in there for a little while, mostly at Arcaidia’s insistence that I rest and let her perform a healing spell on me after B.B could check my injuries. I knew Binge was in there working on her knife whip which she recovered before we left. I could imagine the mare rearranging the knives on the length of barbed and razor wire, trying to optimize the distribution of weight, making little mutters to herself. I could also imagine Arcaidia quietly relaxing on one of the bunks, keeping watch on our prisoner.

The last I saw of the Raider filly Blasting Cap before I came out here to walk and help with clearing the road was that she’d cried herself into a fitful sleep.

“Ya look pretty gosh darn beaten’ when yer feelin’ down, Long,” said B.B, landing next to me to trot by my side, violet eyes tight with concern, “Anythin’ I can do ta help? Got two keen ears ready ta listen.”

I offered her a wan smile, trying to hold my head a little higher and perk my ears up, because I realized I’d started to walk along with my ears flat and head hung like some drained spectre. I glanced briefly towards Knobs, who seemed focused on the road, but I found I didn’t mind if she heard us. The ghoul mare had an open way about her that left me comfortable with her about, despite having just met.

“Not sure what I can say,” I told B.B, being completely truthful. I honestly had no clue how to even begin to talk about what had happened during the fight. My own heart and mind were still digesting it all. Numb and cold was a good way to put it, like there was a stone wall trying to hold back all the emotions, because if that wall cracked and everything came out I’d just turn into a bawling mess then and there. I just kept putting one hoof in front of the other because it was something to focus on.

“That’s fine. I ain’t sure what went down, but it’s plain as daylight ta me that somethin’ happened that’s eatin’ at ya. An’... well, I could smell the blood on yer spear. Then there’s that filly we got tied up. Kinda puttin’ two an’ two together.”

I was silent for a time. Not sure how long. Eventually my mouth just started working, words coming out without a lot of thought. I just spoke, without giving myself time to second guess myself or self-edit.

“It was the mother. She had a missile launcher and was going to kill Iron Wrought. I tried to think of another way. I couldn’t. Nothing looked like it would work. So I... I decided. It wasn’t like with Director Twinkle. That was instinct. This was choice. I choose to kill a filly’s mother in front of her...”

My voice turned quiet and I felt a keen sense of shame as I tried to wipe at the wetness in my eyes, “Sorry, B.B. I don’t know what to think, or say, or... anything.”

B.B didn’t respond immediately save to put a wing on my withers as she walked alongside me. Her eyes flicked ahead for a second, looking away in thought before she turned them back towards me, “Then just let it sort fer a spell, Long. Ya don’t gotta figure it all out at once. All I can tell ya right now is that ya did right by Iron Wrought an’ by these folks.”

She gestured back at the caravan and its many ponies who walked along, many of them trudging with heads determinedly pointed forward, many with foals riding on their backs while others carried sacks of belongings, perhaps all they had left in the world. I looked at them, and then back at B.B who held my gaze with hers.

“Whatever ya might be thinkin’ or feelin’ ‘bout yerself right now, ya helped them folk git outta that fight alive. Ya said this mare had a’ missile launcher? Well, lot o’ the dead out there were from that weapon. Don’t feel fer a’ moment that ya didn’t do right, back there. An’ Iron Wrought, ya couldn’t let him die.”

“You’re right. I know you are. I’m not going to break down or anything,” I paused, then gave a very self deprecating laugh, “Okay, I’ll probably break down when there’s nopony around to watch. But I won’t let this distract me from what we’re doing. There’s just a lot for me to sort out. No matter what I want to make sure that filly will be alright. Then... I don’t know.”

Thoughts of Binge and the dream I’d had that showed me her hometown and its end came to me. Binge had lost her mother in an all too similar manner to how I’d killed Blasting Cap’s mother. I made me wonder all the more why it had happened. What had sent that little gray mare on that rampage? Had it been to save lives?

Did the motivation to save lives really justify the action of taking lives? Where did the line between right and wrong exist in situations like that? Was it always just going to be a choice between one wrong thing and and even more wrong thing?

These questions felt too large for a pony like me to find an answer to, but I wanted to. I wanted to find that answer. I remembered telling Moa Gault that I wouldn’t kill for vengeance, and avoid it as much as I could, by finding a truth other than the need to kill in order to protect.

If anything today had taught me just how hard and long a road that was going to be walk.

Looking at B.B, and knowing my friends were behind me, ready to help, I at least knew I wouldn’t be walking that road by myself.

Knobs remained quiet up until now, her face drawn into a kind, soft look that was at odds with the rotted parts of her face, “If you don’t mind my butting in, I can give you my word I’ll make sure that filly is taken care of. The Skull Guild has a pretty flexible apprenticeship program.”

Looking up at her I tilted my head, “Apprenticeship?”

“Mmmhmm. She could apprentice in the Skull Guild. I know plenty of wranglers who’d be willing to take her for teaching. I’ll do it myself if nopony else will.”

“That’s generous o’ ya,” said B.B, “Just be careful. Raider filly like that is gonna be a hoof full ta keep in line.”

Knobs just smiled, “I can be patient. Besides, I like foals, and... well,” a small brief look of sadness cross her features, “Its not like I can have any of my own.”

“If yer serious, then ya got my thanks an’ respect,” said B.B, “Speakin’ from a bit o’ my own experience, be right careful wit her. Don’t let her near nothin’ close ta a weapon an’ best ta sleep wit one eye open, iffin yer set on takin’ care o’ her yerself.”

“Grew up in the Outskirts,” said Knobs with a quiet chuckle, “I’m not about to take a Raider lightly, filly or not.”

“Thank you,” I told her sincerely, “I owe you one.”

“Think nothing of it,” Knobs said, and with a small flick of her eyes towards my spear she said, “Also, just going to say before we get to the city, you might want to hide that thing.”

I blinked, then nearly slapped my forehead. I’d totally forgotten about hiding Gramzanber once we got to the city! I wondered if anypony in the caravan had remembered the bounty that was on my head. Maybe they were all too busy focusing on survival to really care?

“Thanks,” I said again, “So, uh, you heard about me?”

“Well, I listen to the radio a lot,” said Knobs, “Got a good friend in the Radio Guild. Not too many ponies focus on the bounty segments, so you’re probably good, even with a weapon as distinctive as that to mark you by. And if you’re having a personal crisis over killing a Raider, well, I can’t imagine you killed any ponies in Saddlespring, Labor Guild or otherwise, like the bounty says you did.”

B.B nodded firmly, “Long didn’t do nothin’ wrong. I’m from Saddlespring and saw the whole thing.”

“I won’t pester you for details,” said Knobs with a wink, “But if you don’t mind my asking why are you going to Skull City at all if you know about your bounty? Seems to me you’d want to get as far from the city as possible.”

“It’s... kind of a long story,” I said.

Knobs’ smile didn’t falter, “It’s hours still to the Outskirts of the city. I’m all ears.”

I exchanged a look with B.B and she gave me a shrug, indicating this was my call. I glanced back at Knobs. I figured there was no harm in giving her the abridged version of the story. I didn’t want to go into too many details, honestly, but I could cover the basics for her. I’d skim over the non-critical stuff. Not like she needed to know the name of everypony I met during my travels.

So as the dark of night started to turn into the dim gray shades of early morning I told Knobs of my travels, and in so doing found myself able to push onward past the doubts and regrets pressing against me. My troubles were still with me, and I’d be facing them alongside whatever the next day was about to bring, but at least for now I had the determination to keep walking. Determination, and the hope that by continuing to move forward I could do better tomorrow than I did today.

Sometimes that’s the best we can manage.

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Footnote: Level Up!

Perk Added: Counter Canter - There’s just something about getting shot at on a daily basis that teaches the importance of the ancient arts of duck and cover, bob and weave, and even zig and zag. As a result opponents suffer a -5% chance to hit you in combat. You also have an increased chance to not trip while dancing. You also now know how to walk like an elegant mare who uses weapons with her dress and not risk ruining it.

Author's Note:

*whew* Tough chapter, this one. Mostly in just deciding two critical parts of it 1) How to present the dream with Binge's origins, as it ties into such an important event in FoE cannon that i wanted to make sure I got the feeling of the scene done right, but from the perspective of someone who had no idea what was going on, and 2) How to go about Longwalk's situation with fighting the Raiders and how to show the desperation of his choice without either going over the top or making it not believable. Hopefully I managed that, but I guess that's up to you readers to decide.

Another delaying factor of this chapter was that I was also writing a story for the Operation Cauterize FoE Group Collab. Tart Hunt, to be specific. I'm pretty happy with that story and how it turned out, so if you're interested feel free to pop on over there and let me know what you guys think.

As always the most heartfelt thanks to KKat for the creation of this wonderful world to play around in, and to my pre-readers Doomande and refferee who both help me more than I can say in keeping the errors to a minimum.

Speaking of Doomande he has requested a note of his own be put here:

"Hey, pre-reader Doomande here. I know that Vex normally are the only one making this author note, but this time do I have a little thing to say. This chapter have been ready for over a week when this gets posted, me not pre-reading it keeping it up. Because of health matters have I not been able to pre-read the story before now, so I do hope that you all can forgive my health in coming between you and your new chapter."

This is thatguyvex again, and personally I just want to say that I think Doomande is too hard on himself, but I respect his wish to put this note here. So *hugs* don't feel bad Doomande, I've said it before, and I'll say it a hundred times more, your help is appreciated beyond what words can convey my friend. :twilightsmile:

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