• 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 22: From Dusk 'til Dawn

The air had become stuffy and awkwardly tense inside Knobs’ little home on the hill. Crossfire was leaning back with her hind legs propped up on the table, crossed, and her forelegs bending behind her head in a pose of relaxed disinterest that I suspected was faked, because the sable coated mare’s golden eyes never left me. Her expression was impossible to read. Knobs had politely retreated from the living room, citing a need to check up on Blasting Cap. That left me and my friends to gather around each other uncomfortably and try and parse out just what this latest development meant.

B.B’s face was still, almost too still, as she said, “My Pa wouldn’t let nothin’ happen ta them folks from Saddlespring. Ain’t no way no how.”

LIL-E’s mechanical voice’s monotone somehow seemed more strained, though perhaps that was just my own emotions bleeding in, coloring the otherwise bland machine tone, “Right now all we know is that neither he nor the refugees arrived in Skull City. Or if they did, they somehow managed it without being seen by anypony. However, if that’d been the case, I still believe Doc Sunday would have left some kind of message for us at the inn we were supposed to meet him at.”

“More to the point, what can we do about this?” I asked, keeping my voice to a nice, neutral calm I didn’t at all feel, “What are our options?”

“I tell ya what our options are,” said B.B, wings spreading, eyes glancing towards the door, “We got git lookin’ fer ‘em!”

LIL-E floated around and down to the pegasus mare’s eye level, the eyebot’s cold black carapace facing B.B firmly, “I’m all for looking, but I should be the one to go, and just me.”

B.B visibly bristled at that, raising her head in challenge, “An’ just how do ya figure that? It’s my Pa that’s up an’ vanished! Could be...” her eyes flicked away, voice lowering to a whisper, “Could be my other family issues caught up with him.”

Arcaidia, who’d taken up residence on the couch with her long silvery tail wrapped around her comfortably, pipped in, “Even if ren bruhir’s other weird family make problems, still make more sense to recon one robot than whole big group. Send tiny machine, and if big trouble, we go quick to help, but have other things of much importance to do here, yes?”

B.B’s head snapped around to look to Arcaidia, at first with a fierce gaze, but one that quickly softened at the sight of the sympathy and concern on the unicorn’s face. B.B hung her head, blowing out a sigh, “I ain’t likin’ this one dang bit. I can’t figure nothin’ that’d slow up my Pa other than a straight up brawl wit some o’ my other family.”

“That’s kind of an exaggeration, B.B,” said LIL-E, “I’ve known Doc a long time, and while I know he’s a damned good fighter, there’s no such thing as being invincible. Not in the Wasteland. Anypony can be taken down by a streak of bad luck, and there are a lot of dangers between here and Saddlespring.”

“Maybe,” I said, “But he wasn’t alone. Those Saddlespring ponies were armed, too, and there were plenty of survivors in that group. They wouldn’t go down easily.”

“No,” said LIL-E, her buzzing voice dropping an octave, “But that still doesn’t mean an ambush by a big enough pack of critters, or a run in with a decent sized group of Raiders, couldn’t wipe them out, or at least scatter them bad enough there’d be no easy way to regroup. We can’t discount any possibility.”

She was right, and it got me thinking. Barring the misfortune of encountering a large pack of radscorpions, or Hellhounds, or Balloons, or anything else of that nature, and also barring the very real possibility that they ran afoul of Raiders... what else might Doc Sunday and the Saddlespring refugees run into that’d stop them from reaching Skull City.

I could think of two groups that might be responsible, neither one a delightful prospect.

“What if either Odessa or the Labor Guild found them?” I put forth, my tail flicking with my pent anxiety, “Either one might have gone after those refugees. There were freed slaves among them, and Crossfire, you said the Labor Guild wouldn’t leave them alone.”

The mare gave a small, sharp nod, eyes unblinking as they gazed at me like twin gun barrels, “That I did. Labor Guild isn’t in the habit of letting its property go, which those ponies still are. Only took a couple of days for me, Shard, and Brickhouse to get back to the city and report in after everything went to shit in Saddlespring, so by then the Labor Guild could have sent out a team to hunt those slaves down.”

B.B’s eyes narrowed to a razor gleam, “It’d take more than a’ bunch o’ Labor Guild lackeys to git the better o’ my Pa.”

Crossfire shrugged, not a hint of concern on her face, “If you say so. Anypony can get outnumbered, no matter how good they are. Also, just tossing this out there, the Labor Guild might have hired another Drifter team to go after them. Not me and my crew, because Brickhouse is still down and out recovering from injuries, but there are a lot of guns for hire in the Drifter’s Guild that wouldn’t think twice about a contract to go recover lost slaves for the Labor Guild.”

“That possibility aside,” said LIL-E, “Longwalk, what makes you think Odessa would go after them?”

It was my turn to shrug, “It's a long shot, but it just occured to me that since Odessa is after Arcaidia, they might also go for anypony who might’ve had contact with her. Its not as if Odessa has needed a lot of motivation to strike anypony we’ve been around, and they might’ve thought to use the refugees as hostages against us or something. But... I guess it’d be pretty unlikely. If Odessa had grabbed Doc and the refugees they would’ve used them against us already.”

“No use talk of things we can’t know,” said Arcaidia with a toss of her mane, “Just make our heads hurt with worries. Let LIL-E robot go search. Find evidence. Know more then.”

“She’s right. Speculating won’t get us anywhere. Longwalk, I can fly to where we last saw Doc Sunday. Won’t take me more than a day, if I just make a beeline straight for it,” said LIL-E, floating over towards me, “My... this eyebot has a long enough com range I can get in touch if I find anything.”

I noticed she avoided directly mentioning Stable 104 or the spider ponies, who she’d likely have an easier time reaching than my Pip-Buck. On top of that Misty Glasses could arrange a portal to open between us and LIL-E’s position, in case of an emergency. I assumed LIL-E didn’t say any of that because of Crossfire listening in. The Drifter’s loyalty was still pretty clearly just to herself and her own ends, through perhaps I conceded she seemed to have a genuine fondness for Knobs, but there was still no reason to trust her with details about the Stable or its capacity to create portals my friends and I could use to get around faster. So I just nodded to LIL-E, “That sounds like the best option we’ve got. Just be careful out there.”

“How ya gonna look fer ‘em?” asked B.B, not in a challenging tone, but just strained with worry for her father and fellow townspoines, “It's a big area fer just one robot ta be searchin’...”

“Like I said, I know your father well,” replied LIL-E, “We worked together a lot when he was a Drifter. Because of that I know some of his prefered shortcuts for getting around the Skull City Wasteland. I’m not going to search randomly. There’s one route between Saddlespring and Skull City that I suspect he might have taken, one that goes... well, it goes through a Ruin.”

“What!?” B.B exclaimed.

“We’d cleared it years ago. It should’ve been safe, but, well if something did happen it probably happened at the Ruin,” said LIL-E, “I’ll know for sure when I get there.”

B.B blew out a heavy sigh, “Wish I was goin’ wit ya.”

“I’ll move faster by myself,” said LIL-E, turning to face me with her dark, grilled faceplate looking particularly solem. That or my own perceptions were going too far to color expression onto a robot, “And if time happens to be of the essence I better get my sleek metal ass moving, shouldn’t I?”

I quirked an eyebrow, “Sleek?”

“Oh shut up, I’m- I mean this robot- is a fine example of high quality engineering! The best tech the NCR put together over the past decade.”

“I thought you said a friend made the robot for you?” I asked.

“Uh... yes, a friend in the NCR. Anyway, I’m off! If things turn out horrible, which by Celestia’s own plush plot hole I hope not but I know our luck, I’ll shout and holler for help in my most damsel-in-distress voice.”

I chuckled, gesturing at my current attire with a hoof, “I’m more dressed for that role, but I’ll do my best to come running to the rescue after hiking up my skirt.”

----------

After the kind of excitement, mortal terror, and pain that’d been accompanying my typical days for the past couple of weeks it was almost surreal to have a day where there wasn’t anything to do. LIL-E’s departure had been hours ago and it’d be at least a day before we’d hear anything from her. Crossfire had also left after going back to have a brief conversation with Knobs I hadn’t been privy to. The Drifter had trotted off, her massive rifle slung across her back, with a saunter in her step and a promise she’d be back tomorrow morning to collect me for introduction to the Drifter’s Guild. Knobs in the meantime had made sure to feed our little Raider captive.

Blasting Cap seemed only marginally less aggressive and murderous, and I think most of that had to do with the small filly being even more exhausted than I was. Her glare of pure death towards me had been underscored by dark circles under her eyes and clear tear streaks. My friends and I had vacated the house, to give Knobs and the filly some space. I was worried a bit about Knobs’ safety, but the ghoul had assured me she had things well in hoof. I had little choice but to trust her on that count.

Since B.B and Arcaidia had run afoul of local gangers during their shopping trip it was decided we wouldn’t wander too far from Knobs’ home for the time being. Arcaidia retired to the Ursa, fiddling with her Pip-Buck as she lay on one of the bunks. B.B went to perch on the roof, and I heard the occasional thump from up there as she shuffled around. I didn’t know if she was guarding, napping, or what, so I went to take a peek through the top hatch of the Ursa. I saw B.B standing stock still, eyes calmly closed in concentration. A deck of those strange cards I’d seen her use in her magic performance back in Saddlespring were balanced on the tip of one of her wings. As I watched she began to deftly use her wings to shuffle the cards, flipping them between each wing in sweeping, fan-like motions.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Just a’ little exercise o’ my wing dexterity,” she said, flipping the cards in one long flapping line from one wing to a hoof, then fast and smooth used another hoof to sweep the deck in an even spread onto the Ursa’s roof so that they were face up, “Care ta’ pick a’ card, Long?”

I chuckled, clambering onto the roof and trotted over, looking the cards over, “Guess you gotta practice a lot to learn to do these tricks.”

“Ain’t about ta let myself git rusty, that’s fer sure,” said B.B with a small smile, one that seemed a bit strained as she said, “Pa taught me ta practice twice a’ day, way back when. Ain’t been too good ‘bout keepin’ up wit that, what with all the trouble we’ve rustled up fer ourselves.”

I chewed my lower lip, slowly picking up a card that showed six red diamonds, “So, your father... he’s not the same father you had when you were living in the Enclave, was he? He’s a unicorn.”

B.B swept up her cards and held the deck out to me. I took the hint and slipped my card back into the deck. She gave me a wink as she began to rapidly shuffle the deck around again, flipping the cards between her wings with growing speed.

“Ya caught on ta that, huh? Yeah, Doc Sunday ain’t my biological father. I call ‘im Pa ‘cause he raised me the... third time around.”

“Third time?”

“Long story, Long. One I’ve been meanin’ ta tell ya’ll ‘bout, since you an’ the others have earned the right ta hear it all. Just haven’t found the right moment, ya know? So, is this yer card?”

She flourished the deck and whipped out a card, holding it between the feathers of one wing. It was a card with the letter A and a black spade like shape on it. I blinked, cocking an eyebrow.

“Uh... no. Is this the trick?” I asked, confused.

B.B grinned, “Whoopsie. How about now?” she flicked the card with the A and black space with her other wing, and in a flash it seemed to change before my eyes, switching to the card with the six red diamonds. I gave a sharp whistle of appreciation and stomped my hoof in short applause as B.B took a bow.

“Okay, that’s a cool skill,” I said, and glanced around thoughtfully at the sight of the city around us, “Were you thinking of doing a show or something?”

B.B’s eyes were also thoughtful, through also carried some reservation, “Be nice ta’ put some smiles on a crowd. Lot o’ these ponies look like they could use it. Land’s sakes, I could use it!”

She heaved out a sigh, shaking her head and letting the cards fall to the roof in a small splatter of flipping numbers and shapes, “I shoulda made LIL-E take me wit her. Gunna drive me ta’ distraction wonderin’ what coulda’ happened ta my Pa and the other folk from home.”

“She’ll find them,” I said, as firm and reassuring as I could, “LIL-E knows what she’s doing.”

B.B gave a shallow nod, “Yeah, yeah, yer right. Anywhose, Long, what’re ya plannin’ ta do wit the rest o’ the day?”

An excellent question, that. I made a vague gesture with one hoof, “Not really sure. Half tempted to just pass out on one of the bunks. Last night... sucked.”

“Ya’ need ta git anythin’ more off yer chest?” she offered, voice inviting, not judging.

It took me several long seconds to manage a tiny shake of my head, forcing my ears to stay nice and contently perked up instead of flopping to the side of my head, “No. No, I’m good. Thanks, though. I appreciate that you’re still willing to listen, even if you know it’ll just be me venting.”

“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with ventin’ what ya got inside. Most ponies, most sane ponies, don’t find it easy bein’ square with takin’ a life, in self defense or not. Just don’t try ta act like a tough buck, ya hear? Or I’ll smack ya good right upside yer fool head.”

“Fair enough,” I said, and gave her a quick hug, squeezing my hooves around her withers. She returned the hug, and we broke apart. Glancing around, I realized something. We were down one member of the group besides LIL-E.

“By the way, have you seen Binge? Just realized I haven’t seen her in a bit, like she just up and vanished.”

“Hmm? Oh, she’s around,” said B.B, sniffing the air with her nose wiggling, her face screwing up in a faint look of disgust, “Yup, no mistakin’ that mare’s particular odor. She’s ‘bout due fer another bath, I’m thinkin’. Ain’t sure ‘xactly where she’s at, but I’m smellin’ her close by.”

Without any warning, and rather violating my sense of personal space and physics at the same time, Binge literally appeared from behind me, hopping onto my back like she was a tiny filly as she placed her hooves on my head.

“I’m right here! Were you cute little beauties looking for Aunty Binge?”

B.B blinked a few times, violet eyes faintly bewildered before they quickly switched to exasperated acceptance as she waved a wing, “Yeah, in fact I was, ya right daft mare. Somepony’s due fer a cleanin’.”

Binge was off my back as fast as if I’d been lit on fire, bouncing back towards the edge of the Ursa’s roof while looking for all the world like a bristling cat, “Oh nonono, no bath time for this filly! You wanna get sudsy with Lonkykins I’ll go grab the rope, but there will be NO soap in my future! You subjected me to your hygienic tyranny once already! Not happening again, birdy!”

“Nopony’s going to force bathe you, Binge,” I said, giving B.B a sidelong look. The pegasus’ return look told me she was in no way in agreement with my statement but that she was going to let me handle the touchy ex-Raider for now. I turned to Binge with my most diplomatic smile, “But we are in a place that doesn’t like, uh... Raiders. The less you can look like one the better, right?”

Binge got a stubborn look on her face, tail twitching, “Everypony’s dirty around here. Inside and out. I blend in better than you do, bucky.

I paused, then nodded, “Point taken. Still, you’ll have to clean up eventually. Doesn’t have to be now, but one point or another. I won’t let B.B or Arcaidia force you through it. Instead, as a favor to me, could you do it yourself sometime soon?”

A contemplative spark entered her eyes, “Favor for a favor. When I get all wet and clean... you clean up with me.”

A distinct feeling of uncomfortable warmth seeped through me and I coughed, “A-at the same time? Uh, as in, bathing together?”

“Yuuuuup.” That smile of hers managed to be both childishly innocent and sinfully suggestive at the same time. I gulped, glanced back at B.B. Rather unhelpfully she gave me a snickering look that seemed to say ‘you got yourself in this one, you can get yourself out’. Thanks B.B. Thanks. Well, Binge had backed off when I asked to her before, and it wasn’t like we didn’t walk around naked all the time anyway, so how much worse could it be to bathe at the same time? Hm, when would we be able to clean up again anyway? Next time we stopped back at Stable 104, I supposed.

Taking a deep breath I gave Binge a firm nod, “It’s a deal then. From now on, we clean up together. In exchange you don’t make a fuss over it.”

I held out a hoof, and Binge, giggling, took it with a firm shake. I shivered a bit when her hoof lingered a bit longer and caressed me just slightly before withdrawing.

“Looking forward to it, Longy. It’ll be fun. Heheheh.”

Dear Ancestors, what did I just agree to? I wondered bleakly, but put the thought aside. No point worrying about it until it happened, which might not be for awhile anyway. Still, couldn’t entirely shake the sensation I’d regret this later.

----------

Most of the rest of the day passed with a shocking lack of incident. I didn’t get as much sleep as I’d hoped to. I fell in and out of short naps, my dreams thankfully brief and indistinct, for once. Images of the fight with the Raiders mixed with previous battles. I saw Blasting Cap’s mother, Gramzanber transfixed like a silver branch sprouting from her flesh. Blood ran like rain, and the image melted, Gramzanber remaining, yet the image of the pony dissolving into another. Glint? If it was the armor of Odessa hid the truth of it, but the image was washed away by the black currents of fitful sleep and I remembered nothing else.

Hunger drove me to food as the day was turning dark with the onset of evening. Curious, I decided to try out some of the carrots and apples we’d packed from Stable 104. They were packed away in small, plastic sealed containers made from a soft, light material that B.B explained to me was called ‘styrofoam’. The packaging kept the fruits and vegetables fresh, not just from the hermetic sealing, but from light magic enchantments that slowed decomposition. It certainly explained why the apples and carrots tasted so crisp. I felt revitalized, despite my lack of solid sleep.

We hadn’t heard from LIL-E yet, but I didn’t think there’d be much reason to worry unless another day went by without word. By now the eyebot would probably just be reaching the area around Saddlespring.

I sent a silent prayer to the Ancestor Spirits to aid her in finding our missing refugees.

Stretching, rising from the bunk I’d been napping on, I headed for the back hatch out of the Ursa.

“Where ya goin’, Long?” asked B.B, who was sitting across from Arcaidia at the dining table. A bunch of her cards were stretched out on the table, and both mares seemed to be holding a set of the cards, B.B expertly in her hooves and Arcaidia in the soft, frosty glow of her magic. Where they playing some sort of game?

“Just out for a walk. Can’t seem to get to sleep for long, so might as well go burn off some of this energy.”

“It’s gonna be dark soon,” B.B warned, “Don’t wander far, ‘kay?”

Arcaidia gave a firm nod at that, eyeing me with her fierce silver eyes, “Stay close to base. Not want to search all trouble city for you, ren solva.”

I raised my Pip-Buck clad hoof, “Anything happens I’ll call for help. I got your frequency, Arcaidia. Wasn’t planning to wander too far.”

Mostly true. Well, sort of mostly true. Neither of these mares were as familiar with me as Trailblaze was, otherwise they might have noticed the way my tail bounced a bit in anticipation. I’d been far too tired earlier in the day, and too busy just getting us settled, to consider doing any exploring. Now that things were quiet, with no immediate issues requiring my attention, my wanderlust and need to poke my nose into places was rising. I truly didn’t intend to wander far, but this was my first real city and I wasn’t going to waste a chance to look around now that I didn’t feel like ten different shades of death.

Trotting out into the chilling dusk air I found that Skull City wasn’t certainly going to sleep. The city around me was springing to life with hundreds of flickering flames from torches and sparking electrical lights. Windows from every street cast a sickly yellow and orange shade over everything, making the world look hazy even before one counting in the wisps of smoke from the street torches.

Knobs’ home was similarly lit, and on impulse I trotted towards it, thinking I’d ask Knobs about if there was any interesting sights in the area, and if there was anything I needed to avoid. When I got up to the door I could hear voices speaking inside, and though the door muffled them somewhat I could tell one was high and shrill and likely belonged to Blasting Cap. Curiosity pushed my ear to the door, rather than go in and interrupt the conversation. With my ear pressed firmly to the wood the indistinct voices gained enough definition to make out the words.

“-on’t care! I’m not stayin’ with you or anypony!”

This high pitched declaration was responded to with an even, calm voice. I didn’t even have to see Knobs to know the ghoulish mare was likely smiling in an understanding manner. It just filled her voice.

“If you’re set on leaving I won’t be able to stop you, Blasting Cap. But this city isn’t a kind place to anypony who’s by themselves.”

“So what!? I’m strong! I’m tough! Tougher than any stupid city bitch! I’ll just kill anypony who tries to hurt me and take what I want!”

“Well, you could try that. But even if you are stronger and tougher, there’s a lot of ponies out there, and they’re all smart enough to have friends. Gangs. Guilds. Communities. We may fight each other a lot here in Skull City, but we never fight alone. Even the foal gangs won’t go easy on you if you mess with one of their own.”

Blasting Cap’s voice lost a lot of its immediate, shouting momentum, her muffled voice abruptly sounding much less sure of herself.

“I... I can take ‘em. I’ll make it without your stupid help! And then I’ll kill that dick that took...took away mama.”

The following silence was only broken up by a few sobs, like quite, distant gunshots. Guilt landed on my shoulders like a gristly old cloak, and I did my best to weather it, accept it, and not hide away from the feeling. I knew that killing Blasting Cap’s mother had been my only real option, but I didn’t want to fool myself into believing I didn’t bear the responsibility for the consequences of that choice. Guilt was a good reminder. A reminder to do better, or at least never forget to try. I owed the filly on the other side of the door that much. Well, that, and the chance to become better herself, if she could get past her upbringing. I wished I had a better notion of how to help her do that other than leave her in Knobs’ care.

The silence was cracked by Blasting Cap’s voice shouting, “Don’t touch me!”

“I’m sorry, couldn’t help it. I hate seeing foals cry.” Knobs said, voice both kind and embarrassed at the same time.

“I wasn’t crying! Badass Raiders don’t cry!”

“Of course. My mistake. Still, between running away into the city to starve, or staying here with me, doesn’t the latter seem like the better choice? You won’t have to stay forever, and you’ll be warm, and fed. If you’re so set on revenge doesn’t it make more sense to stay alive as long as you can, first?”

“I don’t need anypony’s help,” Blasting Cap’s voice had lost more of its strength and conviction.

“No, I don’t imagine you do. Don’t think of it as help,” said Knobs, tone filled with understanding, “Think of it as... Oh! You’re taking advantage of me. Think of it like that. Taking advantage of the ‘stupid city mare’. I mean, if I’m going to give you free food and water, why not take it? Your revenge isn’t going anywhere, and you can grow up bigger and stronger if you let some kind, gullible sort like me take care of you for awhile, right?”

“You... you are really stupid, and gullible,” Blasting Cap’s voice was filled with that uneasy waver of a pony letting themselves be convinced that something was their idea, “Yeah, I can take whatever I want from you! I’m a smart filly, mama always said so. That’s why she kept me alive instead of tossing me away. That dumb, asshole buck is... kind of big right now, but I’ll get bigger than him! Then I can kill him.”

Knobs cleared her throat, perhaps to hide a laugh, “Yes, well, if that’s what you want, I guess I have no choice but to look after you for awhile then. So, you hungry?”

“... No.”

This was followed by a loud gurgling sound. I heard Blasting Cap make a small, irritated whine.

“... Yes.”

“Well,” said Knobs, “Then let’s heat up some soup. Be a good filly and come help in the kitchen. Oh, don’t make that face, you’ll still have to work for your meals, Blasting Cap. It’ll help you grow bigger and stronger. That’s what you want, right? For revenge?”

“Y-yeah! Revenge!”

I heard the filly’s tiny hooves scampering across the floorboards, following Knobs into the kitchen, presumably. I leaned back from the door, deciding I’d not cause a fuss by going in to talk to Knobs. It seemed like she was handling the Raider filly well enough. I wasn’t sure how thrilled I was about the way Knobs was using Blasting Cap’s desire for revenge on me as a motivation to keep her under control, but I supposed it was better than letting the filly get riled up to the point of running away into the city. Besides, it’d be a long, long time before she grew up enough to come after me. A lot could happen in those years, both good and bad.

I might be dead in three months, for example.

Turning away from Knobs’ house I came face to face with Binge’s grinning visage, her blue eyes like twin, glowing blue needles in the dusk gloom.

“Aaah! Binge, stop doing that.” I took a few seconds to get my breathing under control while Binge’s smile glittered like a yellow dagger. Blowing irritably at a stray strand of mane I said, “How do you do that anyway?”

“I don’t let myself get seen or heard, silly filly. Duh.” Binge said with a happy chirp, “What’cha doing dropping eaves all over the nice dead mare’s front door, hmmmmm?”

“Dropping what? Nevermind,” I shook my head, trying not to let myself get too flabbergasted by Binge’s... Bingeness. I trotted around her, letting my wanderlust pick a direction for me, heading for one of the many streets leading to what I was pretty sure was the east, along the same path that’d follow the massive wall to the Inner City. I heard hoof steps behind me and sighed, glancing over my shoulder, “What are you doing, Binge?”

“Following you, of course, of course. You look like you’re planning to do fun, secret thingies and can’t let you do do that without a chaperone. No that wouldn’t do at all,” she mimed having her throat choked with her hooves, “If I let you wander away and you got your pretty head hurt then birdie or the icy one will kill ol’ Binge dead.”

I didn’t think for an instant that fear or B.B or Arcaidia was her motivation for wanting to come with me on my little exploratory trot. Binge had just thoroughly demonstrated her proficiency with stealth and if she wanted to she could easily make herself swiftly impossible to find or track, especially in a city this large and labyrinthine. Even if something did happen to me while I wandered it wasn’t as if Binge couldn’t just deny having ever seen me leave. She was safe. No, I was pretty sure she had some other reason for wanting to tag along. The question was if it was something harmless, like alleviating boredom, or something that would make my night more interesting than I’d generally prefer. I didn’t think anymore than she wanted to hurt me... mostly. No, I was worried her interests were a little too much of the opposite.

I’d left Gramzanber in the Ursa, so the only defenses I had at hoof were the various non-lethal grenades in my saddlebags. That, and my own four hooves. I suppose it’d be enough, if something did end up going wrong. In an extreme situation I could toss a smoke or stun grenade and make a run for it. If that “extreme situation” happened to end up being Binge, well, I’d cross the canyon if and when it came up.

“You want to come, then fine, I’m not going to stop you,” I said, managing a small smile, “I don’t mind the company, and wasn’t planning to go far. Just enough to satisfy my need to aimlessly explore. You’ll probably be bored to tears.”

Binge gave one of her bursting titters, eyes glinting, “Oh, with you, bucky, I don’t think I can ever be bored.”

“I’m sure I’ll manage it eventually,” I said with a half hearted chuckle, taking a second to note Binge’s general lack of garments, not unusual in and of itself, but... “Sure you don’t want to go grab your armor, just in case? I’m stuck with this damn dress, but you could suit up, on the off chance we get shot at.”

“Nah, the spiky armor is super nice for times I know I’m going to be playing inside somepony’s intestines, but for strolling in the moonlight with my favorite puppy I think it’s a bit much. Besides, if we get shot at, you make a great meatshield, bucky.”

It was probably a sad state of affairs that I couldn’t even fault her logic on that last point. I didn’t say that, however, and instead just shook my head as I turned and started off at a brisk canter. My exhaustion from earlier had been beaten back by the combined forces of partial sleep and surprisingly tasty food for something that wasn’t meat, so my legs were bouncy with energy as Binge and I started wandering through the winding streets of Skull City.

Near as I could tell there wasn’t a lot of order or reason to the way the streets and buildings were set up. I’d seen plenty of the chaos during the trek with Knobs, but then we’d only been moving in one direction, following a fairly straightforward path of streets the Knobs had seemed to know so well she probably could have driven her wagon through them in her sleep. Now I was wandering around as my legs would take me, though always keeping that massive, intimidating dark wall as a easy to use landmark to my progress and general position.

In less than ten minutes I was utterly turned around. I had a sense of where Knobs’ house was, but it hadn’t taken long to get to a point where her hill was nowhere in sight. The night was beating with life, the torchlights and irregular electrical lights leaving murky shadows in every alley we passed by. I began to notice that, despite the seeming chaos, there was an underlying pattern forming to the buildings around me. The metal shacks were often built upon with second, third, and even fourth ‘floors’ consisting of even more shacks, with randomly assorted roof space. Yet these taller buildings often formed the center of any given cluster of streets, with smaller homes built radiating outward from the larger building in the middle. That building, I noticed as I passed my third such of its type, was almost always some kind of tavern or market on its bottom floor, like a little community center.

The moment I realized that, finding my way became so much easier. I quickly came to understand I could mark my path through the city not by the streets, but by the position of those taller, center buildings. Wracking my memory, I recalled Knobs’ house was at an equal point between three such community centers, and I’d passed four so far in my exploring.

“You’re smiling,” Binge said, trotting up next to me, “See something good?”

“No. Well, yes,” I quickly explained what I’d noticed. Binge looked about at the city around her, her eyes seeming to withdraw slightly. Did she look suddenly less energetic? Her poofy mane a tad more droopy, like a sagging waterskin?

“Yup, I see it too, bucky. Ponies like to make homes, don’t they? Gotta herd. Circle the wagons. Make a home. Even if we bloody it up and then tear the throats out of anypony who isn’t a part of the home we make.”

“Binge?”

“Oh! What’s that!?” Binge, ignoring my concerned query, instantly perked up and bounced off towards a clearing made by a small section of three adjoining streets. In the middle of it somepony had set up what looked to be a big tent stretched across a huge beam of metal that might have at one time been part of some large building but now served as the centerpiece of what appeared to be an outdoor restaurant and market stall. I saw that, up the center metal beam, a rough metal ramp wrapped along it, leading to a few platform shacks built above the huge, open tent. At ground level the metal beam was encircled by a square of counters made from welded salvaged metal, and dozens of tables and chairs, barely any two alike in shape or construction. Hanging above the establishment was a flickering pink neon sign showing the figure of a equine figure, though I didn’t think it was a pony; the face was too long and the ears too large and floppy. The figure had little popping bubbles above it as the lights flickered showing it drinking from a mug. There was a name painted in red on a wooden sign underneath the depiction, sporting some of the bone motifs of Skull City. The name made me quirk an eyebrow.

“The Drunken Ass?”

“Looks like fun. Let’s get some drinks!” said Binge, practically dragging me along towards the establishment, one of her legs bent around mine, leading us into a three legged hobble. I only half heartedly resisted. I was pretty thirsty. Some water would be perfect. The noise of the crowd of ponies, griffins, and ghouls gathered around the place enveloped me along with a tantalizing aroma that hooked my nose and drew me in faster than Binge could pull me. Meat. Roasting meat. The smell shot memories of home through me like an armor piercing bullet and I let my mouth salivate unashamedly. Fruits and vegetables were fine and all, but meat, meat was where my stomach’s true loyalties were.

The sharper scent of alcohol filled the air along with smoke, as it seemed practically half the seated patrons were sucking on strange little paper sticks. The smoke from them smelled terrible and caused me to cough, but I ignored it for the most part. The smell of meat had awakened my hunger and put me on a mission. My brain didn’t even think to send an inquiry as to where these ponies might have gotten their hooves on meat, or that there certainly weren’t any geckos to be seen anywhere near Skull City.

The place didn’t have any real entrance per se, since all of its sides were open to the street save for a number of metal poles holding up the perimeter of the tent tarps. Each pole also sported a lamp, often capped with the skull of some Wasteland critter. Strings of smaller electric lights cast the interior under the tent in sharp light, its patrons fully illuminated. Them, and the massive creature standing just at the threshold that arrested my attention very quickly as I took in the sight of it. The thing stood on two cloven hooves, balancing a thick, broad shouldered body that sported a pair of arms that were longer than my whole body, ending in wide, meaty hands. Its chest was covered in a thick set of metal welded armor, including a rounded helmet sitting atop its head. The face of the creature reminded me of the brahmin ghouls that’d pulled Knobs’ wagon, bovine with a wide snout and beady yellow eyes. A pair of huge curved horns swept back from its head. In its fists the creature clutched a gun that looked like it’d been pulled together with random scrap and duct tape, its stock like a spiked club complete with little nails jutting from the bottom. Judging from the two wide barrels it might’ve been a shotgun, but the makeshift nature of it made it hard to tell just what I was looking at, not unlike the beast holding the weapon.

“Heheh, close your jaw, Longy, or you’ll make him feel bad,” said Binge.

I clamped my open jaw shut, self-consciously scratching my head. I barely remembered to keep my voice pitched like a mare’s, “S-sorry, I just... uh...”

The beast, glancing at me, cracked a smile that might’ve either been friendly and forgiving, or simply terrifying. It wasn’t at all clear. It’s, his, voice was a banging baritone.

“Not a problem little lady. Don’t let yourself get all intimidated by your first minotaur. I’m actually a lot friendlier than I look. Unless you mess with the bar. Then I’ll snap your neck like a dry twig.”

That smile didn’t falter for a second, and I decided; terrifying, definitely terrifying. I gulped, managing to say past dry lips, “Uh, yeah, cool. So, we’re just here for food and drink?”

I phrased it as a question, just to be... you know... polite. It struck me as important to be polite to the minotaur. Especially for the sake of the continued privilege of having an intact neck bone.

The minotaur laughed, “Course you are. That’s what we’re here for. Go on in. Enjoy yourselves. Just don’t start nothing. Or, you know, neck snapping.”

I gave a nod and numbly trotted into the covered area, Binge following at my side with a happy bounce in her step.

Binge and I managed to find a clear enough space at the bar to sit side by side, and before long a bright eyed young griffin female came bouncing around after deftly sliding some drinks to the patrons next to us. She was golden furred beneath a worn blue apron with ruffles, and her dusky gray feathers were tinged with purple near the tips, a purple that matched her eyes perfectly. The griffin gave me and Binge a welcoming smile, her voice perky and filled with gusto.

“Evenin’ folks! Welcome to the Drunken Ass. Must be new ‘cause otherwise I’d know your faces, but pleasure’s all mine to have you here. Names Waunita, what can I get you fine looking lovebirds?”

I tried to turn my sputter into a simple cough, and I doubted I sounded convincing. “Lovebirds? We’re not, uh, yeah this is just my-” what was the story we were working under? “-sister! Yes, sister. Binge. And I’m Blueberry. That food smells fantastic. How much for a bite?”

Waunita’s beak turned up in a smirk as she looked between Binge and I, turning her head to give us an intrigued look with one of her dark purple eyes. “Well, foods scarcer and scarcer these days but the Drunken Ass is well stocked, so our prices are fair, far as it goes. Slice of meat is twenty caps, but we can do smaller slices for half that. Water will run you fifteen for a cup or filling up a bottle or canteen. Booze is cheaper, five for a shot of the hard stuff or seven for a bottle of beer. You looking for anything green, that’ll run you higher, starting at thirty and going up, but you won’t find a lot of places that even got veggies on the menu, so take it or leave it. Got an assortment of old world foodstuffs too, which is the cheapest we got, if you don’t mind sucking down some rads along with it. So, what’ll be folks?”

Binge was wagging her tail, licking her lips, with just a bit of drool leaking down her chin as she looked at me with eager eyes, “Can we eat some meat o’ holder of the leash and caps? I’ve been a good enough pony to earn a tasty treat, right? Oooh, it smells so goooood, I want that meat inside me right now!”

“I really wish you could choose a different way to phrase that,” I said with a sigh, “But I’m pretty hungry, and meat sounds really good right now. Waunita, we’ll take a slice apiece, and some water-”

“Booze for me!” said Binge, pulling out a small bag from her mane that jingled as she plopped it on the bar counter, “And I’ll pay, so Berrykins can’t complain I’m wasting our caps.”

I blinked at the bag, “Where’d you get those?”

Binge giggled, plopping an elbow on the counter as she began counting out caps, “Don’t be so surprised! Your Big Sis Binge does lots of scavenging when you and the others aren’t looking.”

Waunita took the payment while whistling a satisfied tune, and went trotting (do griffin’s trot?) to go get our food and drinks. I leaned back on my bar stool, taking a deep breath, almost choking a bit on some of the smoke. Watching the crowd fired up the curiosity centers of my brain, there were just so many different people gathered under this one tented establishment. There were ponies in metal and leather scavenged armor playing cards, the saddlebags at their table flush with what looked like salvaged equipment from the Wasteland. I saw a pair of ghouled unicorn ponies bearing more weapons between them than I’d seen on an entire Raider party, one ghoul even having half her face replaced with a set of rusty metal plates bolted into her flesh. There was a dapper looking griffin in a dusty suit and oddly tall pipe-shaped black hat who was running some kind of game involving dice and cups, a slick smile on his beak the entire time. So many strange ponies and other creatures, I had to wonder what their stories were.

My eye was suddenly drawn to a flash of yellow on black, and I blinked in faint bewilderment at the sight of a pony stallion wearing a stained white apron. He awkwardly balanced trays of drinks and food on his back, scuttling around between the tables. His coat was black like tar and his mane was a stringy, dark yellow. He moved skittishly, as if every loud noise set him on edge.

I had the strangest feeling I’d seen him before. I picked at my brain, trying to recall where I’d seen this stallion, but my little brain pony just shrugged at me blankly.

With a tiny frown I shook my head and turned back to the bar as Waunita returned with Binge and my food. Binge pulled back her lips in a yellow grin, more at the bottle of beer Waunita brought than at the food, and she cracked it open with and took a hearty swig. The brown liquid within seemed to vanish down her gullet at the speed of light and when she slammed the bottle down she wiped her lips and let out a moan that made my face heat up.

“Aaaah, that’s the stuff! That’s Bingey’s taste of paradise! Barkeep, another!”

“Shouldn’t you, uh, pace yourself a bit?” I asked, sniffing at the odd smell of the beer, “What is that stuff, exactly?”

Binge stared at me, one of the few times I could ever recall seeing genuine shock in her crystal blue eyes, “What is it? Bucky, I mean Sissy, have you never drank before?”

“Of course I have,” I said, tilting my head, “I drink water all the time.”

Binge smacked her face with a hoof. Waunita, glancing between us with a wry gleam in her eyes, said, “Lived the sheltered life, have we? Most ponies know what beer is. You’re telling me you’ve never smelled alcohol before?”

I twitched my nose, smelling the scent coming off the beer again, my eyebrow cocking up in thought, “It... kind of smells like the flame water Hawker used to make, actually. Not nearly as strong smelling, though. Never was allowed to touch the stuff.”

“So how’s your sis so comfortable with it? She a lot older than you?”

I coughed, looking away, “Sis and I, um... lived apart for awhile. She went out into the Wasteland, got very wordly, while I stayed home for awhile and lived... a quieter life.”

“What brought you out, if you don’t mind my asking?” Waunita said as she swiftly retrieved another beer for Binge, who with another eager groan went to work downing it. The smell of the stuff made my nose twitch, but Binge seemed to be enjoying it.

“Long story,” I said, pausing, mostly to think up a convincing enough lie, “Short version is home got boring, and Binge made Wasteland traveling sound... not boring. So I packed up and decided to join her in the scavenging business. That was weeks ago and I’m still sort of learning the ropes. Lot of things out here that we didn’t have back home.”

“Where was home?” asked the griffiness, leaning towards me, giving me another one of those odd griffin one-eyed stares. Did they do that because they saw better with one eye or something?

I gulped, wondering how much truth to mix in with lie. Chances were this griffin was just asking out of curiosity, but... well I was raised to be at least a tad xenophobic and my tribe had worked hard to keep the valley we lived in mostly secret. Even if the village was gone now, I still intended to see it resettled someday.

“A ways off,” I said, voice level, “up in the mountains to east.”

“You folk are tribals?”

“Is that bad?” I asked frankly.

Waunita waved a talon, “Nah, nah, just curious. We rarely get tribals down this far west. Also, neither of you got the markings. You Pale Hoof tribe? Can’t be from the Dead Water tribe, on account of them folk being, well, two steps from Raiders. Or... or are you from Baskar?”

My blank stare must have said a lot because Waunita frowned, “Must be from further north or south, then, if you don’t know any of those names.”

“Sorry, I don’t. Uh, how do you know so much about them?”

Waunita smiled and lifted one of her wings, showing me a odd spiral tattoo of white lines that swirled along the leonine half of her flank, “Skypainter tribe. Left home a few years back to see the world, and ended up here. I know most the tribes in the east mountains, enough to know there were a few smaller tribes that never talked much with outsiders. If you two are from one of them, then don’t mind my badgering. Just been awhile since I met any fellow tribal folk and it’s nice to reminisce. I sometimes miss the mountains.”

I felt a rising sympathy and understanding. I missed the clear winds and soft shade of the cliffs from my tribe’s valley. I didn’t regret leaving, and my interest in exploring the wider world was certainly growing, but home wasn’t something so easily forgotten. I smiled at Waunita after taking a moment to take a large bite of the meat on my plate. Any trepidation I might have been feeling about what the meat might’ve been flew away on wings of flavor as I chewed the juicy morsel.

“Mmmph,” I nearly imitated Binge’s noises at her beer as I savored the food, which had been cooked to tender perfection. Between bites I said, “So how did you end up here, Waunita? If you left your tribe to travel, seems odd you’d stop and take a job around here.”

Waunita’s smile gained a twinge of strain to it. “Like you I didn’t know much coming out here my first few weeks. Got in over my head fast. Raiders. Damned self-styled Beast Lords, same bastards that are out there fighting to the east as we speak. Was rescued from the worst of it by them V.E.C boys and gals, but... well, being pulled out by the Labor Guild pretty much landed my tailfeathers in a work collar. Indentured. Two years paying off the ‘debt’ the Labor Guild figured I owed it. By the time I was done, had no caps, or a scrap of clothing to my name. Took up a job here to start building up a little nest egg to get myself going again, but it’ll probably be another year at the rate I’m going before I can fly free of this city. So, my abridged life story worth a question of my own for you?”

I glanced at Binge, who was into her fourth bottle of beer by now and showing no signs of slowing or stopping as long as Waunita had bottles to dish out, and I shrugged. “Shoot.”

“Why were you staring at Braindead earlier?”

“Who?” I asked, and the griffiness pointed over at the black stallion with the yellow mane who’d been making my memory feel ticklish. I furrowed my brow. He really did look familiar.

“Oh, uh, well... can’t rightly say. He just looked familiar. Wait, did you say his name was Braindead?”

Waunita tapped a talon on the bar counter, giving me a strange, straight faced look, “That I did. You know him?”

“I don’t think so-” I began to say, but Binge, finishing a long pull on her beer, slammed the bottle down and wiped her chin, grinning at me.

“Loooongy, you oughta remember everypony who was there for your very first bloody fun time with me and my old family. I noticed ol’ BD in no time, but he looks so busy pretending to be normal I didn’t want to say nothing. HIIIII, BD! HEY! IT’S BINGE! HIIIIII!”

Binge’s shouting certainly drew a few stares from among the crowd, one of them from the black stallion in question. Braindead looked at us, his eyes blinking several times as he stared at Binge. Then his eyes slide slowly towards me, and I saw them go wide as saucers. Braindead started to back up, as if he was scared of me. I just looked on in bewildered confusion. What was going on? Binge knew this stallion? Was I supposed to know him?

“Wha...?” Braindead looked at Binge, then at me, then back at Binge, ears flattening as his eyes widened, “What are you here for?”

Binge tittered loudly, “Drinking! C’mon, join us BD! It’ll be like old times, just with less blood and guts and more booze and cooked meat. Well, I guess we cooked the meat back then, too, but this meat doesn't scream.”

Little bits of memory started to spark off in my head, like tiny fireflies dancing along in a line. I remembered the rotted out ruins of a school outside Saddlespring, and the psychotic, vicious Raiders that’d made their home there. My mind filled my nose with the recalled scent of charred bones and fresh blood.

I’d met Binge in that place. I’d spared her life that night, but hers hadn’t been the only one.

There’d been two other Raiders that I’d allowed to walk to freedom, unable to bring myself to take their lives, and now I remembered; Braindead was one of them.

I snapped out of my recollection with a start, shaking my head as if trying to clear out sand from my ears. Behind the bar counter Waunita was looking between Binge and Braindead with eyes lidded with concern. “Brain, what’s this all about?”

Braindead stammered. He was visibly shaking, staring at Binge, then at me, his jaw trembling as he started to babble out, “No. No you can’t be here. You’ll ruin everything! I’m trying so hard to... to... no.”

“What the hell is this?” asked one of the patrons, the mare slowly unslinging a firing bit for a battle saddle wrapped around her torso bearing a rusted rifle that still looked quite deadly. “Your server buck is freaking the fuck out.”

More than a few other patrons murmured unpleasantly, many of them eying either Braindead or Binge and myself with unfriendly gazes. Noticing the commotion the minotaur standing guard outside the tent turned his considerable bulk around, bending down to poke his head in, “There a problem in here?”

By now an aged looking blue stallion with a black mane salted with streaks of white had trotted out of the back area of the bar, his unicorn horn glowing green as he levitated a grease stained spatula about as if it were some kind of royal scepter. This stallion quickly shot a glance at Braindead, then at Waunita, “Your new recruit having an episode or some shit, Nita?”

Waunita started to move quickly, waving talong at the spatula wielding stallion while saying, “Don’t rightly know, Grill. Give me a sec!” She hopped over the bar with quite a bit of smooth agility and swiftly rushed over to Braindead, who by this point had fallen back on his haunches and looked ready to bolt, or have a mental breakdown. Possibly both.

I got off my own bar stool, quickly snatching up the meat from my plate to quickly start munching down. I had a bad feeling I needed to enjoy my food now before Binge and I would need to vacate the establishment. I was still reeling a little from remembering who Braindead was, and my curious mind starting asking all kinds of questions. How had he gotten here? Why was he here? Was that other Raider, the violent mare who’d basically sworn to kill me, around here too? What was her name… Red… Redsomething...

Waunita had approached Braindead and put a comforting talon on the shaking stallion’s shoulders. Braindead turned unblinking, bloodshot eyes towards her, flinching at the griffin’s look.

“BD, what’s got you freaked out about these ponies?” Waunita asked.

“Not freaked, not freaked,” he stammered out, and yelled at me, “See!? I doing nothing bad, so you shouldn’t be here. Go away.”

I held up a placating hoof, “Hey, we can go. I got no problem with that.”

Binge made a whining sound, tilting her fifth empty bottle as she stuck out her tongue and lapped up the last drop, “Aaaawww, I want more booze. I’m barely buzzed! I don’t know why Brainy is all in a tizzy just ‘cause we’re having a nice drink. He should come drink with us! We can talk about old times! Hey, Brainy! Remember when we were trying to kill Longwalk and his friends? That was fun.”

I swiftly gave Binge and elbow, “Blueberry, remember? I’m Blueberry right now.”

Which actually made me wonder how Braindead saw through my disguise. Then again, he’d recognize Binge, and how many tan coated, blue maned ponies could be hanging out with Binge? Waunita just looked between us with a cloudy, questioning expression. Braindead was grimacing, rubbing his hooves over his legs in rapid, compulsive movements.

“I don’t get what this is all about,” growled the stallion with the spatula, Grill, “But I don’t need disturbances in my home and business.”

I looked back at him, putting on a disarming smile, “Not looking to cause any trouble. Like I said, me and my sister can leave.”

Binge looked forlornly at the shelves of alcohol still undrank, and swiftly gobbled up her slice of meat, muttering with her mouth full, “Wush wrung? Auh wus stull thursty!”

“We can find other places to get drinks,” I said, starting trot away.

However before I got far I found my way barred by the two ghoul ponies I’d seen earlier, the walking arsenals. One was a stallion, the other a mare, both bearing similar stringy bits of black manes and tails, and patches of orange fur. Siblings? Either way the mare, patting one hoof on a snub-nosed energy pistol holstered across her shoulder, gave me a narrowed eyed smile and said, “Just hold up there a sec partner. Me and my brother couldn’t help be hear your sis there say something about this here stallion trying to put you six feet under recently. Care to elaborate on that bit of intriguing information?”

I frowned at the ghouls, suddenly feeling rather foolish indeed for wandering away from the rest of my group without Gramzanber at my side. Something in these two former ponies’ pale eyes left me feeling cold.

“What business is it of yours?” I asked.

The stallion ghoul spoke, his voice more gurgling and wet than his sister’s, probably due to the ragged hole in his throat, “Best you answer true, little lady. We’re Bounty Guild, and right now there’s a standing bounty on any Raider scalps; three hundred caps a pop! Now I ain’t an educated gentlestallion, but it sounds to my ears that this fella might have an unpleasant history of such dastardly activity. Might be you can clear that up for us, yes?”

I noticed a few other patrons were also moving hooves or mouths towards weapon holsters. The mood in the establishment had suddenly turned quite sour and an electric sense of imminent violence started to charge the air. I licked my now dry lips and met the looks of the two ghouls evenly.

“No, I don’t think I want to clear up anything. I don’t know this stallion. Now, would you please stand aside and let me and my sister pass without incident?” I said, surprised I could still keep up a mare’s voice while my own nervousness was skyrocketing.

Binge stumbled up to my side, some meat still clinging to her lips as she cast a lazy gaze about the bar. “Wow. Everypony’s suddenly looking all serious and mean faced. Why the shooty looks? Waaaaait, is this about BD and my being all Rai-”

Again I elbowed her. Harder this time. She made a slight ‘oof’ noise, then purred at me, “Oh Longy, if you wanted to have some rough fun why didn’t you just say so?”

The mare of the ghoul pair rolled her eyes, turning her head towards her brother, “Let’s just take them down, Double. We can let the Guild sort the bodies out.”

Letting out a gurgling chuckle the stallion ghoul said, “I do believe you’re right, Trouble. I do prefer confirming our target, but I think we’ve heard enough as is.”

“Now wait a sec-” I began to say but Trouble suddenly drew her energy pistol with a glow of pale yellow levitation magic and pointed the barrel at my face.

“Ah ah, don’t give Trouble any trouble and you get to keep your pretty features, missy. This won’t take but a tic.”

This said as Double was also using his magic to unsling a pair of small black sub-machine guns from holsters across his back, aiming one towards Binge and another towards Braindead, “Two dead Raiders, six hundred caps. Easy profit.”

Waunita stood up, moving in front of Braindead, a sharp look on her face, “Hold your horses! You can’t just start shooting ponies in our bar. We pay the Marshals protection and they won’t take kindly to you shooting folk up as you please!”

Double made a shrugging gesture, his sub-machine guns not wavering an inch, “The Bounty Guild has an understanding with the Marshals, as we do most gangs, that we can hunt bounties when and where we want, long as we can prove the bounty. We got plenty of witnesses here who can vouch for hearing these Raiders giving up what they are, right?”

There were a few murmurs of acknowledgment from the other patrons. Waunita glared around her, then with uncertainty glanced at Braindead, “Hey, tell them! You’re not a Raider, right? Say something!”

Braindead’s jaw worked soundlessly as he opened his mouth, then closed it, face twisting up with a series of emotions ranging from fear to shame to something bordering on the insane. I was very curious how he’d gotten here and why he’d been working as some bar server, but now was hardly the time for questions. The mood of the room was chilling quickly.

The minotaur guard was looking between the ghoul bounty hunters and Grill with a questioning grimace, one hand slowly stroking the double barreled shotgun he carried, “Should I just toss them out, boss?”

Grill eyed the ghouls, then Braindead, stroking his chin, “Waunita, girl, you bring a Raider into our bar to work?”

“No! Grill, you think I’d let a Raider in here after being a prisoner of them!? He can’t be a Raider. No Raider’s got a soft side to ‘em like Braindead here’s got!” Despite her words Waunita’s voice was sounding less convinced by the second.

“I don’t care who’s got what kind of side,” said Double, pale eyes narrowing to small white slits, “Bounty Guild will take our word over anypony’s here, and I’m not inclined to wait for permission to off a pair of Raider scum. Especially with caps on the line.”

Things began to happen very quickly, and all at once.

Double squeezed down on the triggers of his sub-machine guns. I threw myself into Binge as hard as I could as the world exploded with gunshots. Trouble’s magical pistol spat green plasma that burned its way past the back of my neck, searing flesh and causing me to scream. I heard Waunita shout something. Countless chairs scrapped dirt as ponies got up, either diving for cover, or drawing weapons to fire.

Landing on top of Binge, who was letting out a gleeful giggle, I rolled aside and kicked over a table just in time to have the rusty makeshift barricade soak rounds from the sub machine gun with a series of metallic pings. The minotaur roared and leveled his shotgun, letting out a double blast straight at Trouble. She’d seen the attack coming, however, and with a burst of energy from her horn surrounded herself with a bubble shaped green shield that took the buckshot effortlessly.

Diving behind another table, Binge hopping behind me, I was able to see that Waunita had followed my own example and had dove onto Braindead, pulling the Raider away from Double’s murderous hail of gunfire. They didn’t have much cover, however, and could only scramble away from the tearing storm of bullets. Only the fact that Double seemed to be trying to avoid the various running or diving patrons of the bar was saving Waunita and Braindead from being turned into involuntary bullet repositories.

Hastily I turned my head and dove into my saddlebags, muzzling about for the only weapons at my disposal; my grenades. Another plasma bolt flew by, melting a chunk of barstool next to my head and searing my ear with molten metal. Grunting I fished out a white rimmed, appled shaped smoke grenade and pulled the pin. At the same time Binge had sprung up from behind the cover of another table that had been turned over and flicked her hoof through her mane. From that motion a small metal shard of a knife blurred through the air at Double. The ghoul hissed as he ducked to the side, the blade slicing a rotten red line across the side of his neck; enough to bleed but not deep enough to do more than distract the bounty hunter’s aim.

“Waunita, take him and run!” I shouted as I tossed the smoke grenade.

The metal apple bounced between Double and Trouble, bursting in a field of thick gray smoke that quickly filled the bar with coughing and hacking ponies.

“Heheh, I knew we’d have a fun night, bucky!” said Binge with a laugh as I grabbed her and dragged her as fast as I could away from the bar.

“Yeah, fun, this is fun,” I said with dripping sarcasm, “I like having crazy cap grubbing bounty hunters shooting at me! I put on the damn dress to avoid this kind of thing!”

My words were punctuated by another blast of the minotaur’s shotgun, and a burst of sub-machinegun fire. Bullets tore out of the fog of smoke, zipping by our heads as Binge and I stumbled into the open night air. A lot of ponies were milling about outside the Drunken Ass, some of them patrons who were dazed by events, while others being locals drawn by the sound of gunfire and their own curiosity. Most of them had the sense to duck for cover as bullets flew out of the fog.
Hearing a sputtering cough to my side I looked and saw Waunita, dragging a scared and stunned looking Braindead, out of the field of smoke no more than a few paces away.

“Waunita, this way!” I shouted, tilting my chin down one of the side streets as I started a half trot while fishing out another grenade. The griffiness looked at me, a mixture of desperation and disbelief on her face, but she nodded and with rough talons hauled Braindead to his hooves and shoved him our way. He was clearly reluctant, but a green sphere of plasma burning its way out of the fog and nearly singeing his tail off caused the Raider to yelp and apparently decide that what was behind him was worse than what was in front of him. He began to run our way as I tossed my second smoke grenade.

In seconds a cloud of billowing gray fog covered part of the street as well, granting plenty of cover to run away with. I turned and began to haul my flank down the street, Binge skipping at my side and Waunita and Braindead following close behind.

I thought we were in the clear, just rounding the bend in the street, when two forms came rushing out of the smoke, their rotted heads swiveling this way and that.

“Sister, do you see our quarry!?” barked Double.

“There!” Trouble pointed at us, eyes flashing in anger as she began firing wildly with her magical pistol, which was now joined by a pair of other pistols, strange affairs with barrels made of glowing red coils. “You won’t get away you walking piles of caps!”

Her other pistols spat beams of orange energy at us. Her accuracy seemed hampered by floating three weapons at once, because many of the shots went wide, but one orange beam clipped close to my legs, burning a hole through my dress and singing fur off my flank. In seconds Double joined in, blazing away with his sub-machine guns.

I ducked my head low and galloped for all I was worth. If I slowed to try and toss another grenade I didn’t doubt either bounty hunter would draw a better bead on me. I glanced to see if the others were keeping pace. Binge was having no trouble keeping up with me, but Waunita was slowed by a hobbling Braindead, who I saw now had taken a stray bullet to one of his hindlegs. He let out small whimpers of pain with each bounding trot he made.

“Crapapples!” I grunted, looking around, and seeing little choice I pointed towards a nearby door to a series of multi-story metal shacks, “Inside!”

We couldn’t outrun the bounty hunters in the open streets with one of us wounded, so we’d have to slow them down another way. Waunita didn’t question me as she followed Binge and I inside the shack, bursting through the doors that fortunately hadn’t been locked or barred. Within I saw we’d entered some kind of communal living area, with old stained mattresses and patchwork pieces of furniture littered about a space filled with scared looking ponies.

I slammed the door closed behind me as Waunita and Braindead got inside, Binge already well ahead of us and bounding towards a far door. Several ponies demanded what was going on but we ignored them as we rushed past. All I said was, “Keep your heads down! Crazy ponies with guns chasing us!” and prayed they’d listen.

Rushing across the living area I tried to fish out another grenade, but ending up dropping it as bullets slammed through the door and forced me to drop to the ground. The grenade rolled away from me as I saw the door start to open, and on instinct, and a desire to buy the others time to get out the other side, I rushed the door and slammed into it full force. I smashed the door open towards the outside and I felt it impact on a body and heard a startled “Ooff” from the other side. I caught a glimpse of Double and Trouble falling over each other and the broken door, and immediately turned and ran before either one could recover enough to pick up their weapons and open fire.

I scooped up my fallen grenade along the way and pulled the pin, dropping it behind me. Ponies screamed and dove for cover, not knowing it was a smoke grenade I’d dropped, but they found out soon enough as it burst and filled the living area with its protective payload. I felt a little bad as I heard all the coughing behind me, but I knew the stuff wasn’t lethal and really, this was preferable to getting shot.

Up ahead there was a door hanging open that lead to a short hallway, then a set of stairs going up. I saw Waunita at the top of the stairs, Braindead standing nervously at her side, as she looked down the stairs towards me.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” she said as I rushed up the stairs to join her.

“Haven’t a clue!” I said, motioning her on ahead. Braindead trotted with her as I followed, but he turned his head to give me a fearful look.

“You’re not here to kill me?” he asked.

I stared at him, dumbfounded and almost forgetting to keep running as we rushed down another hallway to yet another set of stairs, or rather more like a makeshift ramp, that criss-crossed up towards what I figured was the roof. Before we got to it I heard a raspy female voice shout out, “Alright you motherbucker! You like grenades!? Then you’ll love these!”

I heard a pair of metallic tings from behind us and chanced a look. My eyes shot wide as I said a pair of little green banded apple grenades rolling down the hallway from the stairwell we’d just vacated.

“Shitrunshitrunshitrun!” I shouted, shoving Waunita and Braindead ahead of me in a scramble to get to the ramp to the roof, where I could see Binge’s tail wagging as if beckoning us onward.

There was a blast of heat behind us and a pressure wave that flattened me to the floor with a painful grunt, the air blasted out of my lungs. The flash of green and the searing heat that burned my backside told me just how close we’d come to being fried. Looking back I saw a melted hole in the floor and walls behind us, orange hot sheet metal still dripping molten metal with wisps of steam rising into the air. Plasma grenades. Crazy mare threw plasma grenades at us!

I stumbled to my hooves, hauling Braindead up with me, shoving his shaking form ahead while I reached over to pull out a flash bang grenade. “Go!” I gasped, pulling the pin and throwing the grenade even as I heard pounding hooves coming up the stairs. Waunita and Braindead scrambled up the ramp and I turned to follow, just in time too. Double and Trouble came rushing up the stairs behind us, each unicorn ghoul now floating an array of weapons around them as if each bounty hunter had sprouted a flower arrangment of firearms.

Every kind of magical energy blast and gunshot deafened me as I scrambled down the narrow hallway to the metal ramp, bullets springing by my head and beams and bolts of magic burning the air around me. There’s no doubt I would have been a shredded into a significantly less handsome and alive stallion if my flash bang grenade didn’t go off at that moment. The blast of sound and light caused both ghoul bounty hunters to let out shouts and colorful curses that didn’t bear repeating here, but more importantly broke their magical concentration on their numerous guns, many of them clattering to the ground.

I didn’t waste the chance to scramble my way up the metal ramp, where Waunita, Braindead, and Binge waited for me.

“Any bright ideas of where to go from here?” asked Waunita, “Those two aren’t going to stop because of a little smoke and light!”

Braindead let out a sobbing whine, “I’m sorry Waunita, I’m sorry! I wanted to try being normal, but you’re all going to get shredded to bloody bits. I.. .I oughta go turn myself in. They might let you all go if-”

“Shut it BD!” Waunita growled, “If you really are a Raider I’d toss you to those bloodhounds! But you’re not, so just shut up.”

“But-”

“I said shut it.”

Braindead shut up, ears flattening, eyes wide at the bristling griffiness, who looked almost more ready to tear into him than the bounty hunters chasing us. I didn’t quite know what was going through Waunita’s mind, but I could tell every inch of her was tense, her feathered crest rising, and her feline hackles standing on end as her tail lashed about.

Binge licked her lips, bouncing on her hooves, “We shuffling our hooves or we dipping into the bloodbath, bucky? I can gut and cut some dead ponies that don’t know how to be dead. I’m a good teacher. Just gotta take off my leash, right?”

“Huh?” I looked at her, blinking, and noticing she was bouncing around a pair of fresh knives between her hooves. I frowned. She was asking a simple enough question; fight or flight? I hated the idea of killing, but our options were dwindling fast. The roof we were on was high enough that I figured we could make the jump to another, lower rooftop, then get back to street level. We could still lose the bounty hunters, if we moved fast enough.

Dammit all.

“If we can’t get away, consider your leash off,” I said, “But I want to avoid blood on the ground if we can. Heh, don’t want to stain my dress, right?”

It was then Waunita blinked at me, “Hold on, why do you suddenly sound like a dude?”

“I’ll lift my skirt and show you later,” I said, approaching the edge of the roof. There was about two or three paces of space between us and the next roof. I backed up a bit and with a short gallop threw myself into the air. I landed heavily on the opposite roof, bending one of the metal sheet plates that’d been welded to form it. Grunting, I got up and turned, waving for the others to follow.

Binge made the leap with a lot more grace, landing lightly and rolling to her hooves all in one motion. Waunita proceeded to cheat by using her wings to lift into the air and snatch up Braindead, floating all the way down to street level off to our left. Binge and I exchanged a look and in short order rushed to follow her. As we reached the end of this roof I heard familiar voices behind us.

“Oh you little shits ain’t getting away, no way in Tartarus!”

“If you surrender we’ll only kill the Raiders among you, and just wound the rest of you!”

The ghoul siblings had managed to get to the higher roof we’d just been on, and were drawing beats with rifles just as Binge and I were getting ready to jump back down to street level. If we could just get down, I didn’t think those two would be able to follow us fast enough to catch up. Neither I or Binge bothered to respond to the bounty hunters or wait a single moment. We both ran and made the jump off the smaller building at the same time.

I heard gunshots behind us, and the heated snap of burning air from an energy gun.

I fell the eight or so feet to the ground and landed hard, pain shooting up and down my legs. Shaking myself, I stood and turned to Binge. My breath caught in my throat. She was laying on the ground, a hole punched through her side that was leaking crimson blood into the dirt.

“Binge!”

I knelt to her, not even hesitating to upturn my saddlebag to get at a health potion. Binge was breathing shallowly, her eyes a tad dazed as they gazed up at me. She gave a tiny chuckle.

“Ooooh are we going to play doctor now? Can I be the smexy nurse?”

“Just be quiet and drink this!” I shouted, uncorking the health potion and hoofing it towards her muzzle. She grimaced as she sucked on the bottle, drinking its contents.

“Ew. Medicine is so gross. Want more booze. Can I have another beer?”

“No. No more beer unless you stay alive and drink more medicine,” I said sharply, lowering my head and using my hooves to get her body onto my back. She was ridiculously light. Was she always this... light? She felt like she barely weighed more than my armor. Less.

“Ow... so we’re gonna play horsey instead? Hmm, I wanted to ride you, Longykins, but this wasn’t what I had in mind,” she said as she wrapped her forelegs around my neck in something almost like a hug.

I let out a short laugh, despite the fear now playing twister with my insides, “If you’re still able to think about that then you can’t be that bad off. So just hang on and try not to fall off!”

I could feel her warm blood coating my back as I broke into a full gallop, rushing down the street where I could see Waunita and Braindead had landed and were also running. It was at this point I remembered that I had a Pip-Buck on and that I could probably use it to not only find the fastest route back to Knobs’ place, but also maybe call for help.

Despite the fact that it slowed me down a bit I went into an awkward three-legged run as I raised one hoof, using my nose to flip through various switches on the Pip-Buck. I went to the radio first, and screwed around with the frequencies until I got what I hoped was Arcaidia’s Pip-Buck.

“Help! Emergency! Serious shit going down! Hello!? Arcaidia! Anypony!”

In mere moments I got a reply, Arcaidia’s voice sounding like the sweet voice of a savior angel to my ears. “Ren solva? What happen? Speak quick words of status!”

Upon my back Binge stirred and let out a pain laced laugh. “We went drinkinking, and it was a lot of fun until I got shot. Now I’m bleeding all over Longykun from a hole in my stomach. Ugh, totally not the hot, wet hole to my insides I wanted to show him tonight, lemme tell you!”

I nearly choked at that, almost stumbling over my own legs in my desperate run to keep up with Waunita and Braindead as we make tracks down the crowded night streets. By the lack of gunfire following us I guessed the bounty hunters had either given up or were busy trying to rush back down that building to street level in order to chase us. Either way we had a brief reprieve and with each turn and twist in the winding streets we made I figured we had to be safer from pursuit. Not that I could relax with Binge shedding her lifeblood all over my back...

… leaving a trail of crimson droplets that the bounty hunters could-!

“There they are! Brother, this way!”

SHIT!

Gunfire erupted behind us, sparking off sheet metal shacks and blasting the ground around my hooves. I didn’t even dare look back for fear of slowing down. I heard Arcaidia’s voice still, my Pip-Buck piping out her voice loud and clear.

“Get home to safe place now! I have you tagged on screen, will meet halfway with B.B! Use map toaster head!”

Map? Right! My Pip-Buck’s map function would have scanned and logged all the terrain Binge and I had crossed to get to the Drunken Ass from Knobs’ house! Instead of running around randomly we could use the map to make a line straight for there! Not breaking stride I rapidly switched to my map. Getting a clear look wasn’t easy while running on three legs and ducking around alley corners while energy beams and bullets whizzed by with murderous vengeance, but I was able to get a look at the map.

“Waunita, left!” I shouted.

The griffin twisted to look at me with one gleaming eye, “Where are we going!?”

“A friend’s place! Safety! I got back up coming to help!”

She looked less than convinced until a fiery orb of green plasma flew past her head like a comet, upon which she suddenly looked less doubtful, “Cool! Hope they have lots of guns!”

“Sort of,” I said as we rounded a corner into a much broader street, “One of them shoots ice from her forehead!”

“Huh!?” Waunita gawked at me.

“You’ll see, just keep running!”

We got several dozen paces down this broad road, lights and curious ponies passing by us. A glance at the map told me that if we went down another four streets we could turn right and find a path that’d led almost straight to Knobs home, which my Pip-Buck had in its mysterious ways conveniently labeled for me. I could only hope Arcaidia and B.B weren’t too far off. Binge had become disturbingly quiet, though I could still feel her hooves locked tightly around me neck and feel her breathing on my withers. Those breaths were getting more labored and ragged by the second. If only I could chance stopping to feed her another health potion!

We were almost to the point where we’d need to turn right when a gunshot cracked the air like a thunderous whip, the unmistakable report of a sniper rifle. I felt the round tear past me, ripping the air with a whine that pained my ears. Waunita gave out a sharp shriek as a blossom of crimson sprouted through one of her hind legs, the bullet boring a hole straight through. The griffiness hit the ground in a hard rolling, sprawl. Braindead skittered to a panicked halt, eyes wide.

“Waunita!” he cried out in a hoarse voice like a pony whose lifeline had just been severed. I saw him staggered towards her pained form and reach to try and help her up, only for a merciless bolt of plasma to sail into his outstretched hoof and melt off a good section of flesh in a searing glob of goo, the smell of acid and roasted pony meat filling the air. Braindead howled, clutching his hoof and falling to the ground. Without thinking or hesitating I rushed over to the pair, only catching a brief glimpse down the street to see Double and Trouble having emerged from the alleyway we’d come from. Double had a long barreled, large scoped sniper rifle floating in front of his face as he knelt at the mouth of the alley, while Trouble had charged forward, her energy pistols floating in a dizzying array around her as she blazed at us.

I put one hoof underneath Waunita’s arm and hauled her towards the nearest cover while grabbing Braindead’s tail in my mouth, ignoring the sour taste of sweat, and pulled him along as well. Waunita, blasted leg or not, still scrambled to keep up, while Braindead hobbled after a moment. Energy beams and bolts of magic plasma rained down around us as I shoved my way through to the narrow alley mouth and led the others into cover behind a pile of refuse.

Waunita groaned, putting both her talons on her leg wound, while Braindead breathed heavily, shaking as he looked at the melted flesh on his foreleg.

“Th-this ain’t looking promising,” said Waunita.

Upon my back I heard Binge murmur in a weakened wisp of a voice, “Have bleedy pony won’t travel. Hehehe, Mr. Happy s-says to drop the meat and run, run, run away to the safe place.”

“Nopony is leaving anypony anywhere,” I said, momentarily surprised at how easily I figured what Binge had just suggested. “Although, I do need to set you down for a sec, Binge.”

“Oooookaaaay… I won’t crawl away anyplace, heh. No tapdancing for me. Too sleeeepy...”

“Hey! Stay awake dammit!” I nearly shouted, carefully setting Binge down next to Waunita, who was looking at me with wide eyes. Binge’s body was slick with both sweat and blood, and though her eyes were open they were hazy and flickering about as if she wasn’t entirely seeing the world around her. The wound in her stomach looked like a yawning black and crimson crater, a stark contrast to the pink scars that covered the rest of her flesh. I sent a silent prayer to the Ancestor Spirits this wound would just become one more scar for her.

The heated fusillade of energy blasts was turning parts of our thin cover to ash, and I knew we only had moments before the bounty hunters would be on us, and running was clearly no longer an option. With a quick look at Waunita I hauled off my saddlebags and flipped both sides open, nearly upending them and shoving my remaining healing potions towards the griffiness.

“Get one of these into her,” I said, nodding at the fading Binge, “Then you two down one yourselves. After that, keep your heads down. Help is coming.”

“Wait, what are you going to do?” Waunita asked, picking up one healing potion with a firm talon, popping the top and turning the small vial of healing liquid up into Binge’s mouth.

I had picked up a pair of grenades from the pile of my saddlebag’s stuff, one smoke and one flash bang, and said, “Can’t run. Can’t hide. Only choice left is attack.”

Before any further comment or protest could be made I pulled the stem on the smoke grenade and lobbed it out over the refuse pile and into the open street beyond.

“Oh for fuck’s sake!” I heard Trouble’s voice shrilly cry, “Not this shit again!”

The energy weapons fire intensified from outside the fresh screen of smoke, but was now wild and unaimed. I took a deep breath and strode into the smoke, the flashbang grenade held in the crook of one of my forelegs. I moved slowly, despite my heart pounding into my ribcage. I drew upon every memory I had of hunting geckos back home, keeping my head low as I stalked into the smoke. I couldn’t see anything, obviously, so I had to rely upon my ears. Fortunately pinpointing Trouble’s location was rather easy, given the ghoulish mare was blasting away with what sounded like no less than four different energy weapons.

No wonder this bounty hunters wanted caps so badly. At the rate they used up ammo I was shocked they’d had any caps left to go drinking at the Drunken Ass.

A hot orange beam almost burned a part of my ear off and I knew I was close to the wildly firing bounty hunter. I wasn’t sure where her brother Double was at, but one problem at a time. Barely daring to breathe for fear of revealing my position inside the smoke I prepped the flash bang grenade and gently rolled it along the ground towards Trouble’s location. I closed my eyes and plugged my ears with my hoof until I heard the flash bang go off, the proximity so close I felt the small shockwave rock my body.

Instantly following that I rocketed out of the smoke. I saw Trouble, stumbling about and shaking her head in a stunned stupor from the flash bang’s explostion, and I smashed into her with a full body tackle that sent us both crashing to the ground. She let out a growling snarl and thrashed in my grip, elbowing my face. I grunted and bore the blow and gripped her barrel tighter, and then with a wordless yell I lifted Trouble up and proceeded to let myself fall back; consequently dropping Trouble squarely on her head in a improvised suplex.

“Guugh!” the mare blurted, her array of energy guns clattering to the ground as she lost focus on her magic. I rolled away from her, bucking out with a hind leg. Even dazed, however, Trouble reacted quickly, knocking my hind leg away with one of her fore hooves, and going so far as to grab it with her other hoof and yank, pulling me off balance so I fell face first to the dirt.

“Oh, you little bitch, now you’ve really… huh?” Trouble looked at me with a cock-eyed stare. I realized that, given our respective angles, she had a rather direct view up the skirt of my dress. My face blazed, but I didn’t waste time on embarrassment as I turned over and used her distraction as a chance to buck once more, this time catching the stunned mare across the chin and sending her sprawling.

The smoke screen was clearing, but it still was some small cover, and I scrambled for it, but a gunshot rang out and a chunk of dirt exploded in front of my face. I turned to see Double rushing up to the scuffle, floating no less than four weapons himself, all of them pointed murderously at me.

Clutching her muzzle, which was dripping blood, Trouble looked at me again, her eyes both narrow in anger, but also in deep thought. “Brother, hold on a sec. Don’t waste him quite yet!”

Double paused, not taking his guns off me, nor looking away from my prone form as he said, “Just exactly why not, sister?”

I held, tense. The smoke screen was flowing away, and without it I was left stuck in the open street with no cover, no armor, no weapons, and a very slim chance of being able to do anything without being filled full of new, fatal holes. I could only hope that whatever delay I could cause was buying Arcaidia and B.B more time to get here. So I stayed still, and waited.

“This ain’t no mare we’re dealing with,” Trouble said, rubbing her chin, “This here’s a stallion. Well, more a colt, with that size.”


“Hey!” I said, “I know you’re trying to kill me and my friends but, seriously, that’s a low blow!”

Double frowned deeply, eyebrows drawn together in one crinkly expression that caused his decayed flesh to ooze slightly, “So he’s a freak that likes to dress up like a mare. What does this have to do with not blasting his ugly face off, exactly?”

Trouble sighed, “Brother, must I always remember the posted bounties? There’s been a price on the head of a young buck for the past week; tan coat, blue mane, green eyes. No cutie mark. Hey, buck, lift that skirt. Let’s get a look at that flank.”

I set my face to stone, slowly standing. Double’s guns all swiveled so that I was suddenly covered by floating firearms from all sides.

“No funny moves. Do what my sister bids. Now.”

Taking a deep breath to steady myself I hiked up my skirt and turned my flank towards them, “Enjoy the view.”

Both bounty hunters looked at me, then at each other.

“Blank flank,” said Trouble with a grin, “Can’t be no doubt. This is the dumbass the Labor Guild’ willing to pay a small fortune for! Hah! Brother, we’ve just struck the jackpot!”

“They want him alive, don’t they?” asked Double, sounding rather disappointed at the prospect.

“Oh, alive sure, but the bounty post said nothing about intact,” said Trouble as she trotted up to me and proceeded to smash me across the jaw with a hoof. It didn’t knock me off my legs, but it certainly stung and left my head dizzy. A part of me wanted nothing more than to return Trouble the same treatment she was giving me, but not only was her brother keeping me covered from multiple angles with his floating arsenal, I knew that every second these two were keeping their attention plastered on me was a second that they weren’t trying to kill my friends. Well, friend. Waunita and Braindead were basically strangers, but it wasn’t as if that mattered much to me. I prefered most folk around me not have bullet holes in them.

Damned if the world didn’t severely disagree with me on that point.

When I didn’t drop from her first punch, Trouble’s pale eye twitched like a undulating eggshell and she let out a spittle filled snarl. More hooves smashed into me, the ghoulish mare delivering heavy blows to my face and ribs. One of the few things keeping me on my hooves under the rain of punches was the growing feeling of pressure in my mind. That lovely, familiar pressure that I knew to be Gramzanber. If the ARM was getting closer, that meant Arcaidia and B.B were getting closer.

After what might have been a dozen solid hits I was sore, having trouble breathing, and bleeding from my nose and a split lip, but I was still standing, staring at the two bounty hunters before me. “Y...you know, if you care so much about caps, I don’t see how beating me senseless after you’ve caught me is getting you any more.”

“Oh shut it! Double, keep this waste of spit covered while I go finish off the rest of them.”

Fear shot through me and, guns surrounding me or not I was about to try tackling Trouble again in the hope that Double wouldn’t shoot if I was too tangled up with his sister, but right then an entire herd of ponies rapidly galloped onto the scene. There were easily twenty or more of them, all clad in leather armor and bearing the star badges of the Marshals gang. In seconds myself and the two bounty hunters were encased in a circle of angry looking armed gang ponies, many of them sporting revolvers or lever action rifles.

“Freeze!”

“Put your weapons down, now, or be filled full of holes!”

“Get on the ground, shitheads!”

“Hooves up, you get only one warning!”

A few of the gang ponies exchanged annoyed looks with each other.

“Hey, I thought we were doing ‘on the ground’ this time?”

“No, idiot, it’s ‘hooves up’! You got farts between your ears or what?”

“Uh, we still want them to drop their weapons, right?”

Before more arguing could occur one of the Marshals raised her voice and barked harshly, “Pipe down you meatheads!” I recognized both the red coat, short green mane, and leather hat of Pistolwhip quickly enough. The mare looked with slitted eyes towards me and the two bounty hunters, who’d both frozen in place at the arrival of the Marshals.

“Okay, any weapons go nice and gently on the ground. No twitchy moves. There’s gonna be some questions getting asked, but I don’t have the smallest qualm with dropping your corpses in the dirt you're standing on, so don’t give me the reason.”

I tentatively put on a smile, then immediately regretted it as pain shot all over my face, turning my expression into more of a grimace. “Hey, uh, Pistolwhip. Fancy meeting you again so soon.”

“Yeah, fancy that,” she deadpanned, giving me a flat, unfriendly look, “By the way, miss Blueberry, you’re sounding kinda different than I remember from this morning.”

I blinked. I had just forgotten to disguise my voice, hadn’t I? Well, multiple hoof strikes to the face will do bad things to your concentration. I offered her a small, sheepish shrug. “Would you believe it, or even care, if I tried to explain that the only reason I dressed up like a mare is because of an seriously unfair and unjust bounty that I don’t deserve to have on me?”

“Oh, I’d believe you. The caring part... that’s still up in the air, buck.” Pistolwhip said, turning her eyes to the two bounty hunter ghouls. “So, that’s what all this shooting was about? Chasing bounties?”

Double cleared his throat and said in a calm tone, “Yes, Marshal. My sister and I are sanctioned members of the Bounty Guild. You can check our papers to confirm this if you wish. We have full jurisdiction to pursue targets in any circumstance, so sorry if we didn’t immediately go to one of your gang when the shooting started.”

“You mean when you started shooting!” I said.

Pistolwhip didn’t look amused, though it was hard to tell who she was more pissed at, me or the bounty hunters. She licked her lips, then spat, ears flattening, “I don’t much give a single hard shit about Guild jurisdictions. Everypony on Marshals turf is under Marshals protection, until we decide they’re not.”

“That include Raiders?” asked Trouble with a sneer.

Pistolwhip’s eyebrow shot up. I tensed. The feeling of Gramzanber was getting close enough I was surprised I didn’t see either a blue unicorn or white pegasus tearing around the nearest street corner. Then again, with so many more armed ponies here, it occurred to me the sudden arrival of my other friends could cause trouble. I cleared my throat loudly, causing Pistolwhip to glare at me.

“What’s this about Raidres, buck?”

“Um, okay so first things first, just as a heads up, I called for help on my Pip-Buck when these bozos started chasing me, another friend of mine, and two people who were working at this place called the Drunken Ass-”

“Waitwhat!? These rothides shot up the Drunken Ass!?” cried one of the Marshals, “They’d better not have hit Grill! Fuckers the best damned cook in the entire Outskirts!”

“I think he’s fine,” I said, coughing, “Anyway, my point is I have friends who are coming, so please don’t shoot them?”

My timing couldn’t have been better, because at that point I heard the unmistakable deep growl of the Ursa’s engines echoing from down the road. Many ponies who had ducked into the various ramshackle buildings when the chase had torn through this street now poked curious eyes from window slits or tilted up sheet metal coverings to take a gander at the large, six-wheeled vehicle as it rolled towards the gathering of gang ponies, two bounty hunters, and my battered form.

The second the Ursa’s wheels grinded to a halt the driver’s side door flipped open and Arcaidia jumped out, tucking and rolling only to pop to her hooves with her horn pointed and her starblaster floating by her side, ready and aimed.

“Piss between leg spaces all toaster headed ponies who stand in path of mighty Arcaidia! Ren solva, speak words now so I may know your place and rescue you from badness!”

“Wait, Arcaidia!” I waved a hoof frantically, “Hold up, don’t shoot! Most of these ponies are... uh, kind of good? I think? I don’t really know, but no shooting! Binge is hurt bad in the alley over there, as are another pony and a female griffin. You’ve got to get to them and help them. Binge most of all! I don’t know how bad off she is.”

Arcaidia nodded firmly and began to trot towards the alleyway. B.B flew out of the Ursa’s top hatch, landing on the nose of the A.T.W. and taking in the scene. From the passenger side door I was surprised to see Knobs also exiting the vehicle. Her partially decomposed teal coat was covered once more by her dark Skull Guild cloak.

“Hold your sweetmeats there, filly!” said Pistolwhip with a snap in her voice, glaring at Arcaidia, “Don’t you go moving anywhere.”

Arcaidia paused, silver eyes narrowing like a pair of dagger edges. I could practically hear the kittens drowning. I might have sworn the ambient temperature had dropped. The Marshals, for a second, seemed like they weren’t sure who needed more guns covering them; the bounty hunter's, me, or Arcaidia.

“Please,” I said earnestly, “One of my friends was shot. She’s in a bad way and needs medical attention. Arcaidia has healing magic. She won’t try anything, but please, just let her look after my friend.”

“Pistolwhip, you got twenty ponies with you. These folk are no threat, you have my word on that,” said Knobs, stepping forward.

“Speaking honest truth Knobs, I ain’t exactly inclined to give anypony here the benefit of the doubt,” Pistolwhip said with a flat, impatient look, “I’m hearing claims of there being Raiders among this crew, and that more than anything has put my nipples in a right fine twist! We can let a lot of shit slide if we’ve got a mind for it, but the Marshals do one thing and one thing only with Raiders. So, buck, answer my question and I might let the little filly there work her mojo. Who here is a Raider? If I even catch half a whiff of a lie from you, I’ll be ordering my boys to start pulling triggers here and now.”

I felt sweat trickling down my face alongside the blood from my leaking nose. I didn’t know just how good Pistolwhip was at detecting falsehoods, but I wasn’t about to risk it. Any lie I’d manage to come up with would likely fall apart under any serious examination. I just had to make the truth work in my favor. I had to do it fast, otherwise Bine wouldn’t last long enough for any of this to matter.

“I have one companion who was once a Raider,” I said, hastily continuing when I saw Pistoldwhip scowl, “She joined my group after my friends and I wiped out most of the band she’d been with. She’d traveled with us since then and has done nothing since joining us to harm anypony that wasn’t also trying to hurt us. As far as I’m concerned, weird as she is, she’s one of my friends and is not a Raider anymore.”

“Well, besides that being a massive load of ghoulshit-”

“Hey!” said Trouble.

“-I can at least respect you didn’t try lying to me,” said Pistolwhip, then growled as she said, “But that doesn’t matter. Raider, ex-Raider, we don’t split hairs in the Marshals. If your friend is a Raider, she can bleed out. Or better yet, maybe we can get her neck in a noose before she kicks the bucket.”

“There’s another Raider,” put in Double, “The black coated fellow with the piss mane.”

“Two nooses then,” said Pistolwhip.

“I no like stupid shivol bir much at all,” said Arcaidia in an arctic tone, “She smell bad as... as... estu vi girange es mersir valkav. She smell bad as worst bad smelling thing. But she belong to ren solva. His thick skull bone take liking to smelly mare. Makes her our smelly mare. You have many guns, but not enough to stop many dead before killing us.”

“She’s got the right o’ it,” said B.B, “Ya might manage ta kill us, but not ‘fore losin’ a lot o’ yer boys there. Best ya just let us take care o’ our own and let us go our way, ‘cause ya don’t want no part o’ the trouble we can give ya iffin’ you want to turn this into a’ shootout.”

Knobs cleared her throat loudly, “Um, as a general point, I’d very much like us not to do any shooting, okay? Let’s just keep nice, calm heads here. Pistolwhip, could you maybe just let them go? They haven’t actually done anything to wrong your gang.”

“Knobs, you done right by us for all the years you lived here, but you’re asking me to go to my boss and tell her I let two Raiders out of our turf without being made into corpses. That’s every manner of wrong. Why do you even care about these ponies?”

Knobs just raised her eyebrow and stared at Pistolwhip. “Didn’t know I needed a reason. Did I need a reason to go help those poor ponies trying to get away from the fighting out there? Did I need a reason to help you out two years ago in the Coyote’s turf?”

Pistolwhip immediately froze, eyes flickering wide. Rather quickly the gang mare let out a strangled sigh and hung her head, “For fuck’s sake Knobs, I thought you’d forgotten.”

“I forget a lot of things, but not when ponies owe me. Guess its a habit I picked up from Crossfire. Consider the favor you owe me officially called in.”

“For a bunch of strangers you just met?”

Knobs simply nodded at that, and Pistolwhip heaved out a strangled sigh and said, “Even if I let them go here you understand I’m still stuck reporting this to the High Marshal? She sure as fuck doesn’t owe you any favors, Knobs, and as soon as she finds out you harbored Raiders you’ll be on the Marshals short list for a noose. You’d have to get your flank off our turf, and sure as shit not come back. You willing to lose your home for these ponies?”

“Knobs...” I said, gulping, “Maybe we can figure out another way out of-”

She raised her hoof, cutting me off by saying, “Longwalk, if Binge is dying over there we don’t have time to screw around with this. Its just a house. I can get another. Lives aren’t so easy to replace.”

I couldn’t argue with that, and wasn’t too inclined to when I heard Waunita shout from the alley, “If you guys are gonna do something, do it now, because I think she just passed out from blood loss!”

Double clearly didn’t like the turn of the conversation, because he tensed and growled, “You can’t just let these bounties off the hook! The buck alone is worth thousands of caps! You going to let that walk just because of some favor? My sister and I could split the bounty with you Marshals and still come out a few thousand caps richer, the price the Labor Guild’s offering for this dumbass.”

Pistolwhip turned a hard look towards him, “Caps don’t pay for my rep. A pony ain’t worth shit if they go back on a debt, and stupid as the reason she’s blowing it, I owe Knobs a favor for pulling my flank out of the Coyote's turf. So shut your stinkhole, Guilder. Only reason you’ll get to walk from this is I don’t want more bounty hunters crawling over our turf for any half-assed revenge. You want to blast Raiders or haul the transvestite to the Labor Guild, knock yourself out, just do it somewhere that ain’t Marshal turf! Now all you all get the hell out of here before I change my mind!”

“Arcaidia,” I said, nodding to the alley, and we both quickly galloped to it. I noticed Double’s magic flare for a second, his weapons twitching, but one look at the Marshals who all pointed their weapons his way caused the bounty hunter to grimace and start strapping his guns back to his decayed frame. Trouble looked almost like a confused hound, the mare’s stringy tail flicking about as she looked between her brother and me. She even let out a small whine, but Double just shook his head and Trouble snarled, heated eyes staring daggers at me.

Inside the alley Braindead and Waunita were still huddled behind the refuse pile where I’d left them. Binge was lying on the ground like a pale, blood soaked doll. My jaw clenched and cold pain clenched my chest, my legs feeling numb as Arcaidia and I rushed to Binge’s side. Waunita looked at me questioningly, while Briandead was huddle next to her, shivering and looking near catatonic.

“I, I fed her a healing potion, but I don’t know if it did any good,” Waunita told me, voice apologetic.

“Thank you. You did what you could. Arcaidia’s got it from here,” I said, my voice not nearly as sure as I wished it could be as I glanced at the filly in question, “You... do have this, right?”

“Quiet ren solva. I work hard to keep stinky shivol bir still among breathing ponies. Need mind focus time now, so no questions.”

I clamped my mouth shut, watching as Arcaidia’s horn flared to life with her luminous magic. Waunita gave the unicorn a curious look as magic crests flowed into a circle around Arcaidia’s horn and Binge was bathed in an azure aura. Binge’s unconscious form twitched, one of her hind legs flicking about as she let out an indistinct murmur. I tried to take that as an encouraging sign.

While Arcaidia was doing that I turned to Waunita and Braindead, “Time to go. Can you two walk?”

Waunita laughed dryly, “Even if I can’t, my wings work just fine. As long as assholes aren’t shooting at me, I can move, and carry Braindead if need be.”

“I...” Braindead’s voice came out as a choked whisper, and I didn’t know what to make of the stallion’s sweat soaked state. I mean, I knew fear was expected given the circumstances of just a few minutes ago, but he looked ready to have a complete breakdown. “I can walk.”

I took him at his word and offered my foreleg to Waunita to help her up. She grunted in pain, the wound in her leg still oozing a trail of blood. She took to the air with a few heavy wing flaps and I led her and Braindead out of the alley and into the street. The Marshals had split into two groups, one still covering the two bounty hunters while the other kept close watch on my companions. Pistolwhip looked at me with hard, particularly flinty eyes.

“Had a feeling you were trouble the moment I clapped eyes on you. Don’t know what your business is in Skull City, and don’t much care long as you don’t do it on Marshal turf... but piece of advice, don’t get mixed up with Raiders. Ain’t no such thing as an ex-Raider.”

“Strange, she hasn’t tried to kill me since she joined us. Can’t say the same for a lot of other ponies that weren’t Raiders,” I said simply and went to help Waunita and Braindead into the back of the Ursa. B.B flew over to me, landing and tucking her wings to her sides. Her eyes cast a concerned look over the blood covering my back.

“It’s not mine,” I said, voice hollow.

B.B’s nose twitched, “I know. I can smell it's hers. Why’d ya wander off like that wit her?”

“I was just...” I sighed, “I just wanted to explore a bit. I had no idea this would happen. What else can I say?”

B.B held up a hoof, “Weren’t makin’ an accusation, was just wonderin’. When ya said ya were goin’ fer a walk, guess I shoulda figured it weren’t gonna just be ‘round the block. Arcaidia’s doin’ her thing. Soon as she’s done I can git a look at Binge and figure how bad the damage is.”

Arcaidia might have had the powerful healing magic, but B.B was the one with actual medical skills. I gave her a grateful nod and glanced over as Knobs trotted up to us. Behind her I saw Arcaidia walking slowly, floating Binge’s still form in an aura of blue magic. I sucked in a breath until I saw that Binge’s chest was still moving with shallow rises and falls.

“Ren solva,” Arcaidia was looking straight faced but her posture was stiff, “Do much I can with spell, but shivol bir lose much blood. More than Crest Sorcery can make fixed.”

At my expression she hastily added, “She not expire yet. Much time to fix, yes? B.B, how best fix smelly one with this planet’s medicine?”

“Lemme give her a look, but let’s get her set down gentle like on one o’ the bunks,” B.B said as we all trotted into the Ursa. I noticed that the situation had drawn quite a crowd by now and I felt better once we got the doors closed. I stood there, watching nervously as B.B knelt next to Binge, pulling out a small yellow tinted medical kit with the faintly familiar pattern of three pink butterflies on it.

“Longwalk, why don’t you drive us back to Knobs place?” suggested B.B as she began to work.

“I, uh, okay...” I said, quickly trotted towards the front of the Ursa. Arcaidia stayed behind, her horn still glowing, maintaining a continuous aura of healing upon Binge. It reminded me of the first day I’d met her, waking up to find her doing the same with Trailblaze. A warm feeling managed to melt away some of the frosty grip that’d been scraping my gut. Binge would be fine. With B.B and Arcaidia both there, she... she had to be fine.

Knobs followed me into the Ursa’s driver’s compartment, settling into the front passenger seat next to me as I hopped into the driver’s seat.

“I’m sorry, Longwalk,” she said, brushing some red mane from her face, “I should have asked you to stick close to my home until I had a chance to better familiarize you with the dangers of this city. I should have gone with you as a guide.”

“This isn’t your fault,” I told her firmly as I worked out the startup sequence for the Ursa’s engines. I’d seen Iron Wrought do this plenty of times, but still had to fumble a bit to get the feel for the big A.T.W’s controls. Outside I could see the Marshals gradually dispersing, getting curious Outskirts ponies to go about their business or to go back into their homes. I saw Double and Trouble trotting away, the sister of the sibling pair turning only once to shoot a death glare at us. I had a feeling I hadn’t seen the last of those two.

“If anything,” I continued, “I should be apologizing to you. The Marshals are basically kicking you off their turf, aren’t they? For helping us?”

Knobs gave me a comforting, light punch on the shoulder. “Don’t you dare beat yourself up over this. My choice to help out the ponies I want, how I want. Besides, I can probably get my house back down the road, as long as I pay off the High Marshal with a tasty enough bribe. She’s got a weakness for Wild Pegasus whisky. I scrounge up a bottle or two and she’ll be cool. Probably.”

I finally got the Ursa moving, after only nearly crunching through the back of somepony’s shack house once or twice. Grimacing as a few ponies scrambled to get out of the way of my haphazard driving, I said, “You seem to know a lot about a lot of ponies.”

Knobs laughed, “I get around. Er, not like that, mind you, but I try to do ponies good turns where I can. Tends to rack up plenty of brownie points I can spend down the road, like I just did with Pistolwhip.”

“Well, you’re certainly earning points with me,” I said, chancing a glance her way to give her a thankful look, “Seriously Knobs, I owe you big time for diffusing that mess back there. If there’s anything I can do to repay you, just name it.”

“Heh, concentrate on getting us to my place without running anypony over and I’ll call us even.”

“I’ll, um, try my best.”

----------

I’m pleased to say I only came close to unintentionally committing vehicular ponyslaughter three or so times on our way back to Knobs’ house, and only crunched through a fence once. I was pretty proud of myself, for having no experience with driving the Ursa. I certainly missed Iron Wrought, though. He had really had a knack for steering this thing.

“Might take me a bit to get my stuff sorted,” said Knobs, hopping out the passenger side door, “I don’t own too much and can get packed in, I don’t know, twenty minutes? Also got to get Blasting Cap ready to go. She’ll probably spit and bite about it, but hey, nopony said raising foals was easy. Especially vengeful, half-crazy Raider foals.”

“Would she still even be here?” I asked, “And not, uh, run off on her own while you were gone?”

“Nah. She’s trying to act tough but,” Knobs face fell a bit, her voice quieting, “She’s hurt bad on the inside, and honestly I don’t think she wants to be alone. That and she hates you. Er, sorry, but what I mean is, she’ll stick with me as long as she thinks it’ll help her get at you eventually.”

I nodded sadly, ears drooping, “As long as ‘eventually’ doesn’t happen for a good long while then I can live with that. Do you know where we’re going after this?”

“Only choice is to the Inner City,” Knobs said, “I have just enough pull in my Guild to get us accommodations, and your friend a spot of medical aid. Speaking of brownie points, this’ll probably use up most of what I’ve got in the Skull Guild. We’re not, uh, normally the type of group that takes in outsiders. But long as I explain things to Skinner, he won’t give us any trouble.”

“Skinner?” I asked, eyebrow raising.

Knobs got a strange look on her face, distant, “My... old mentor. He’s now assigned to the Skull Guild’s internal affairs branch. He’s the one who’ll need to approve any expenditure of Guild resources, or letting folk such as yourself past our front doors. But don’t worry! I can deal with him.”

A thought struck me, sending my brain pony for a loop, “You know we might have another option. I know some, er, ponies who also have good medical facilities, and they have plenty of free space. You need a place to stay, and we need to get Binge healing, so I could ask them to help.”

Knobs smiled knowingly, “You’re talking about your spider pony buddies from the Stable, aren’t you?”

“Yup. We could use their portal system to go to Stable 104. Binge gets help, you get a decent place to stay.”

“It’d be good for Binge if you got her there, but I can’t afford to leave Skull City. I do still have a job to do here,” Knobs said, “You could always meet up with me at the Skull Guild later. I can arrange you access to the Inner City. You still got a date with Crossfire tomorrow, after all.”

I stuck out my tongue to make an ‘ick’ face, “Can you not use the word ‘date’ and Crossfire in the same sentence? Makes me feel chilly all over.”

“Fair enough,” said Knobs, finally turning to head to her house. However she did pause to glance back at me with a wink, “Besides, Crossfire is all mine.”

She left me and my bewildered expression and trotted off to her house, her chuckle filling the night air.

----------

“What do you mean you can’t?” I tried to keep the higher note of desperation out of my tone.

Misty Glasses scratchy cybernetic voice spoke over the Ursa’s communications unit, “I do apologize, but when Trailblaze and the rest of the Stable 106 expedition returned the portal device, for lack of a better term, ‘overheated’. They’re fine, but the device is temporarily inoperable until we can affect repairs. That will take a day or two. Keep in mind this is a hastily built prototype, Longwalk. Such instability is not unexpected.”

“I... I can accept that, sure, but the timing couldn’t be worse,” I said, “Binge could really use your medlab, right now.”

“I am truly sorry, but until we get the portal fixed, you’ll be on your own.” I heard Misty Glasses sigh, a sound like hissing static, “On a more positive note your Trailblaze has certainly done more than I had envisioned. Her work at Stable 106 was exemplary and she’s responsible for saving the lives of almost every mare, stallion, and foal who was trapped in there.”

“What exactly happened?” I asked, unable to help myself.

“She would likely tell you the tale far more completely than I can. The short version of events is that Stable 106 was under the control of an unstable medical A.I based upon the personality of Ministry Mare Fluttershy. This A.I had trapped the populace of Stable 106 inside some manner of VR simulation, apparently as part of some kind of attempt to recreate a perfect simulation of Equestria before the war. Trailblaze and the rest of the expedition were accosted by the Stable’s complement of security robots, but they fought through such ambushes until they reached the VR simulation room. According to the report my people filed Trailblaze herself entered the VR simulation to confront the A.I, and of all outcomes, convinced the A.I to relinquish control of the facility.”

I blinked, trying to absorb all of that, “How did this, er...”

“A.I. Artificial Intelligence. A computer mock up of an actual personality and mindset to a series of pre-programmed commands.”

“Right, computer brain thingy. How did it get control of the Stable?”

“When Odessa raided 106, the same way they did here at 104, they did a poor job of following any safety protocols when they sought to rip out any useful research data they wanted. They did minimal harm to the Stable residents, thankfully, but their brazen methods, especially with handling data extraction from 106’s computer core, disable the safety locks on the A.I. You see the A.I was already unstable, and had been kept under lockdown by the researchers in 106. They were looking for ways to adjust the A.I to a more stable state, however Odessa’s actions freed it... and well, things went downhill from there.”

“I see,” I said, even though I didn’t entirely. “How did Trail talk it down?”

“I’m not sure ‘talked down’ would be quite the right term. I think she managed to intimidate the A.I into compliance after threatening to destroy the VR simulation by having her... unique spiritual passenger use its independent mana supply to fry the entire Stable’s computer system.”

“That sounds a lot more like Trail,” I said with a small laugh. “So everypony is alright?”

“Quite. Well, a few injuries among the entire expedition to be sure, but no fatalities. Trailblaze is as upset by the portal being out of order as anypony. She’s eager to get back out there and proceed to this supposed Guardian Shrine somewhere in the mountains.”

“Tell her I wish her luck,” I said, sighing, “If we can’t use your medlab, I’ll need to get Binge to this Skull Guild as fast as I can. Keep us posted if anything more happens on your end.”

“Of course. Speed of the Goddesses go with you. Stable 104, out.”

When the com unit went silent I leaned back in the driver’s seat, glancing back and forth out the windows into the night. The Outskirts glowed with enough erratic lights that it seemed the world outside was a series of black teeth backlit by a hellishly orange glow. It left me with the impression of being stuck in the jaws of a beast. Perhaps that was just my most recent experience with the city coloring my view. Not even here two days and already one of my friends had been shot.

I heard quiet hoof steps behind me and turned my head to see B.B standing in the doorway to the driver’s compartment. Her expression was... not encouraging.

“How is she?” I ventured to ask.

“Still breathin’. Mare’s got a will ta live I ain’t often seen.”

“So why are you looking like you’ve got bad news?” I asked, voice tight.

“Thing is, she lost a’ lot o’ blood ‘fore me an’ Arcaidia got to her. Binge is hangin’ in there somethin’ fierce, but unless we can git her some blood, she won’t last. Don’t know how long. The night, maybe a bit longer.”

“But Arcaidia’s healing spell-” I began, but B.B shook her head.

“Can’t make blood from nothin’, Long. Her magic repairs a lot o’ damage, can seal up all kind o’ wounds, but it don’t conjure fresh blood fer the body to keep pumpin’. Binge’s life is stretched to a’ thread, an’ that thread’ll snap without a’ blood transfusion.”

I opened my mouth, then swallowed what I was about to say, which would’ve been some ill chosen words of denial. Instead I forced myself to take a slow breath, and said, “What do you need?”

“Someplace that’s got the equipment ta do a blood transfer. That, and a pony wit the right kind o’ blood. Not all ponies got the exact same type, an’ while the medkit from the Stable’s got a’ scanner fer me to figure out if somepony’s got the right blood or not, I’ll need more gear to set up the transfer.”

I didn’t entirely get what she meant by ponies having different kinds of blood. Wasn’t it all red? But I wasn’t about to question the medical expert in the group. “Knobs is packing her stuff right now. We’ll be heading for her Skull Guild. She’s told me she can get us in and hopefully use a medical facility there.”

“What about the Stable?”

I shook my head, “The portal thingy broke when Trailblaze and Whetstone returned. The spider ponies won’t be able to fix it for a day.”

“Shit...” B.B said, then cast a look out the window towards Knobs house, “We’d better get Knobs packed up fast, then, because every minute counts at this point.”

She got no argument from me. Waunita and Braindead were left waiting inside the Ursa. B.B had helped patch their wounds as best she could once she’d done all she could to keep Binge comfortable. Arcaidia remained by Binge’s side, maintaining her healing spell, which was helping keep Binge stable and buy us time. B.B and I went into Knobs house, where the ghoul was hastily tossing stuff into various duffle and saddle bags. Blasting Cap was, to my surprise, helping the mare. The foal cast me a withering look of pure venom when I entered the house, but when Knobs asked her to help load up food and water from kitchen into a black duffle bag Blasting Cap went to it with fervor, pointedly ignoring me.

Between the four of us we had most of Knobs’ stuff, minus the furniture, packed and loaded onto the Ursa. When I told her about the situation with Binge and the inability to reach the Stable, Knobs gave me a solid, bolstering look.

“Let’s not waste anymore time then and get your pal the help she needs.”

With that I plopped myself back into the Ursa’s driver’s seat and got us under way. I may have started driving faster than would have been strictly safe. Fortunately the Ursa had some pretty damn bright headlights that gave ponies plenty of time to see us coming and get out of the way. Knobs stayed up front with me to provide directions, and the occasional yelp or shout of warning to keep me from running anypony over. A few more fences of bone or skull capped streets signs might’ve met untimely ends, however, at the hooves of my aggressive driving.

Yet every time I tried to slow down by taking my hoof off the pedal I saw a mental image of Binge’s pale body, not breathing, and my hoof just pressed down all the harder.

----------

The Inner City flashed by as a series of briefly viewed images amid an increasingly worried haze. The massive wall had been nothing more than a solid, rusted shadow in my mind, an obstacle between me and getting Binge help. Every second we spent waiting outside the gigantic metal gates of fused together pre-war billboards and slabs of sheet metal had been agonizing. Knobs had talked to the heavily armed and armored guards standing outside the gate. I caught glimpses of ponies in thick armor of matte black plates and thick gray long coats. Machine guns and rifles aimed down from slits in the wall or from sandbag barricades along the wall’s base.

In minutes, too many minutes, Knobs was able to convince the guards we weren’t smugglers, assassins, vagrants, or any other brand of ‘undesirables’ and a smaller sub-section of the gate was opened up to allow us entry. There was a small tunnel, more a half-pipe of heavily guarded entryway, and another checkpoint to pass on the other side of the wall, but after that we were in the Inner City.

I saw shadowed sights of shockingly clean streets and buildings three to four stories tall of fine brick or metal. Not a single hint of rust, or blackened char to be seen. The streets were lit by tall metal poles with magical glow gems providing pools of pale light. There were ponies out, walking upon well maintained sidewalks, moving in and out of storefronts and taverns. It wasn’t much different than the Outskirts, save for how much cleaner everything appeared, and the general lack of gunfire. Then again, I saw armed guards in their gray long coats keeping the streets patrolled in pairs. That probably had something to do with it. The road I was driving along was mostly clear, but to my surprise I saw that the Ursa wasn’t the only vehicle using these concrete pathways. Most were wagons or small carts, being pulled by either more of those odd two headed bovine creatures, or even more to my shock, the emaciated, decayed bodies of ghouls. These ghouls looked little like Knobs or the bounty hunters. These poor ponies had milky eyes, devoid of any semblance of personality or intellect.

At a questioning look from me Knobs blinked and said, “Something wrong?”

“Is this... normal?” I asked, nodding my head out the window as we passed a big metal shod autowagon converted to a cargo cart, being hauled by a quartet of dull eyed ghouls as a bulky mare directed them with sharp commands from the head of the cart.

“Huh? Oh, yeah! Skull Guild trains up plenty of feral ghouls for simple tasks. Not every feral is trainable, of course, but enough are that the Guild doesn’t really run out of supply for the demand.”

“Are they dangerous?”

“After the training, not so much. Usually. As long as the pony who buys them follows the instructions for properly controlling the trained ghouls there’s little chance for relapse into a feral state...” Knobs trailed off, chewing her lip pensively, “Guess it’s not the thing I’m most proud of, where my Guild is concerned.”

I frowned out the window, watching the cart and the ghouls hitched to it turned off down another street. Aside from such wagons there were also the rare functioning autowagon, though not one of these contraptions was anywhere near the size of the Ursa nor in the same good condition. Most looked cobbled together, fused through patchworks of metal and gears as they puttered down the streets.

“Turn right here, head up this street. There’ll be a hill, go up it, then turn left at the next intersection,” Knobs told me, “That’ll take us past the Mechanics Guild district, then straight to the front parking lot of the Skull Guild’s tower.”

I nodded silently, my concentration on driving. I somehow doubted the guards would appreciate me running over any fences here. It took no shortage of willpower to slow down enough to keep from running all over the road as I directed the Ursa as Knobs bade.

“We almost there?” asked B.B, coming into the driver’s compartment in a flutter of feathers.

“Just about,” said Knobs, “Assuming Longwalk doesn’t drive us into a street post.”

I grumbled something ungentlstallionish under my breath, then, louder, “Iron Wrought made this look way easier than it is.”

“Yer bein’ a bit heavy hoofed wit the wheel. Ya can git a better response if ya don’t yank it so hard.”

“That’s what she said?” Knobs put out there.

B.B groaned, then turned her attention out the front windows, “Been a’ long while since I seen these streets.”

Knobs cast a curious glance at the pegasus, “You’ve been to the Inner City before?”

B.B’s eyes narrowed slightly, not at Knobs, but at the city passing by outside the window. “Once.”

She didn’t elaborate further, and Knobs politely didn’t pursue further questioning. We drove on in silence. I followed Knobs’ directions to the best of my ability, managing not to get turned around. On our right I saw the city open up into a series of long warehouses and short, squat buildings from which sprouted pipe stacks akin to the bones of a rib-cage. Inside these buildings or in open yards between them I saw the sparks and dancing flickers of light from ponies using torches to assemble or work on various machines or parts of machines, like scurrying ants over a dead body. The air outside was faintly hazy with smoke, and it seemed to me that a perpetual fog hung over the area.

“Mechanics Guild is working some serious overtime,” Knobs murmured, “Them and the Smiths Guild.”

“Because o’ all the Raiders tryin’ to bust their way inta the Outskirts?” asked B.B.

“What else?” replied the ghoul, “They’re probably blowing through ammo like nopony’s business out there, plus all the materials they need to build fortifications. The foundries will be working non-stop to keep the ponies fighting out there supplied.”

I chewed my lip, curiosity overriding my silent concentration, “What chance to the Raiders have of actually getting into the city?”

“Practically none,” said Knobs, who then frowned, “Which really makes this attack all the more stupid and pointless. No matter that somepony’s managed to get so many Raiders banded together, it just won’t be enough for them to crack open Skull City. Only reason I can think they’re doing this is because... I don’t know, Raider hormones? Haven’t had enough violence so they need to get a orgy bloodbath in once or twice a decade?”

B.B suddenly looked thoughtful, rubbing her chin, “Hey Longwalk, ya remember what we found after takin’ out Binge’s Raider pack?”

I furrowed my brow, thinking, “Kinda sorta? You’re talking about that letter on the terminal right? Didn’t it say something about somepony backing those Raiders in trying to infiltrate Saddlespring?”

“Yeah, just thinkin’... I don’t rightly know, yet. But just feels off that this big Raider attack would hit Skull City ‘round the same time somepony was lookin’ ta help out Raiders knock over one o’ the larger settlements outside the city.”

“What, like some kind of conspiracy?” asked Knobs, tail wagging, “Oooh, I like mysteries. Do you have any other clues?”

B.B looked at me and I shrugged, to which she said to Knobs, “‘Fraid not, hun. Somepony gave a bunch o’ Raiders outside Saddlespring gear to dress up like guards, wit the plan o’ sneakin’ in and Raidin’ the town from the inside. Got half a’ thought it might be somehow tied to this big army o’ Raiders attakin’ Skull City now, but damned iffin’ I can figure how.”

“Who’d benefit from Raiders going nuts all over the place?” I asked, “I mean, besides Raiders?”

“Plenty of folk,” said Knobs, pursing her lips in consideration, “The Protectorate would benefit by having Skull City distracted, allowing them to start up the war again with less risk. A lot of the Guilds actually benefit because of the caps involved in selling weapons and ammo to supply the fight. Then there’s the Labor Guild. They immediately offered up their Volunteer Enforcer Corps to fight off the Raiders, which is good for their reputation. Then there’s any number of gangs in the Outskirts that could hope the fight with the Raiders would weaken rivals so they could grab more turf after the Raiders are sent packing. So... yeah, plenty of candidates if you’re looking for folk who stand to benefit from all this.”

“Well... I guess it doesn’t matter,” I said, “Right now all that matters is taking care of Binge. Past that we got a whole mountain of problems to deal with that have nothing to do with those Raiders. B.B’s father and those refugees are still missing and we haven’t heard back from LIL-E. My tribe is still in the clutches of Odessa. And I still need a way south to the NCR for the sake of Arcaidia and her search for her sister. So... yeah, can’t really afford to aid Raider War Conspiracy to my list of secondary objectives.”

“Longwalk...” B.B looked at me with growing concern.

I grit my teeth, eyes on the road. We were leaving the smoke and welding sparks of the Mechanik’s Guild district behind us.

“If there was something we could do, I’d be all for it. I just want us focused, for once. If we stumble across some way to stop the Raiders, or answer just who’s behind them, then great, but I don’t think we can afford to go looking. Not while we got other things on our plate. We don’t even know what LIL-E will find about your father. We might need to go rescue him, right?”

“Course we do. Just worried ‘bout ya, is all. Yer kinda lookin’ haggard.”

I found myself gripping the steering wheel tightly and consciously forced myself to relax that grip, taking in a deep breath, “Binge didn’t have to follow me. Not when we first picked her up, or... or anywhere she’s decided to follow me around. If she dies, whose fault is that?”

“I’d reckon the sunuvabitch that shot her,” deadpanned B.B.

“I second that,” said Knobs, “Let’s not play the blame game with too many players. Nopony’s at fault for any of this except those that started pulling triggers.”

I paused, not entirely sure how easily I could toss blame off myself if Binge didn’t make it. Maybe blaming myself felt easier than trying to assign it anywhere else, because punishing myself was easy. I pushed those thoughts back to a tight, constricted part of my mind, and concentrated on the road.

It was only a few more minutes before we arrived at our destination.

The Skull Guild’s headquarters consisted of three towers, ancient pre-war skyscrapers that belittled all other remaining buildings in the center of what had once been downtown Detrot. They were arranged in a short triangle, two shorter towers in front and flanking a center, taller tower. Even the shorter pair soared upwards higher than any constructed edifice I’d laid eyes on, high enough to make guessing just how tall a dizzying prospect to my beleaguered mind. Much like many of the other buildings of the Inner City these towers were well kept, nearly pristine, with shining glass exteriors of segmented windows running up their massive vertical lengths. Dozens upon dozens of lights burned within, magical or otherwise, indicating these towers weren’t empty ruins, but were blazing with active occupancy.

The only part of the towers that existed as bare reminders of the world we lived in were the tops. Each tower’s top most floors were scorched to ash blackness, bare metal frames grasping towards the sky like emaciated claws. The largest, center tower’s darkened peak drew the eye with a series of fierce glowing fires, a collection of flickering bonfires that formed the pattern of a grinning skull.

“Somepony trying to make a statement?” I asked as we approached a huge, flat concrete plane before the towers. The parking lot was filled with dozens of carts arranged in neat lines, and I saw a fence of barbed wire and sandbags surrounding it with the road leading to a gate guarded by more of those ponies in gray long coats. Much like at the gate to get into the Inner City we were stopped and questioned, but Knobs’ presence cleared things through rather quickly. Most the guards seemed to know her well, one of them even wanting to stop and chat for a sec, but Knobs made it clear we had an injured pony in need of medical aid and we were soon waved through.

“Go ahead and park over by the doors. We can move this thing later,” said Knobs, already hobbling out of her seat and balancing on her back wheel-legs and moving with practiced dexterity into the back of the Ursa.

The front area of the parking lot led to a wide stone walkway flanked by dry fountains, leading to a rectangular two story building that ran into the base of all three towers, almost like a pedestal holding the towers up. I saw a huge concrete overhang before a long set of glass doors leading into the building, and in large chrome letters above this overhang was what I could only assume was another one of those acronyms ponies seemed to like so much.

OCP?

I didn’t question it, instead following Knobs and B.B into the back of the Ursa. Waunita gave me a worried, questioning look, and Braindead, sitting next to her, uncomfortably shifted as the dark coated Raider fidgeted with his hooves. His eyes darted about and it was hard to tell just what he was afraid of.

Arcaidia turned her silver eyes towards me, their shimmering stillness reflecting a still calm that I could now tell was Arcaidia’s way of dealing with unpleasant situations. She could force herself into a cold, inner stillness, and that now radiated off her like a chill air.

“She in poor status,” said Arcaidia, nodding at Binge, “Can move her, but better be to place of healing goodness, otherwise...”

“I know. Thank you for keeping her going so far. Just a bit longer,” I said, turning a glance towards Knobs, “Right?”

Knobs huffed a deep breath and said, “Follow me and we’ll find out.”

With that we opened up the back of the Ursa and as one gaggle of wounded, haggard ponies, plus one griffin and one unconscious ex-Raider, we shuffled out into the cold night and made our way towards the looming dark towers... which to my weary eyes and morbid mood suddenly looked all too much like gigantic tombstones.

----------

Footnote: Level Up!

Perk Added: Tag! (Unarmed) - Your Wasteland experiences have expanded your skillset, allowing you to pick another Tag skill and add +15 points to it! You’ve punched and bucked (not like that, but hopefully later in the future) enough ponies to have nearly gotten as good with your bare hooves as you are with a certain alien space spear.

Skill Notes:
Melee: 75
Unarmed: 50

Bonus Ex-File: "Boss Rush Stats! - Captain Shattered Sky”

Location: Ruined Church
Level: 20
HP: 500
DT: 13 (Oddessa Officer’s Armor)
Perception: 9
Attack Skill: 90
Colt OA11 “Meriam” Officer Sidearm: Damage - 40, Ammo - 11, Crit - x1.4
Special Ability “Artifical ARM ‘System Chronos’”: All attacks directed at Shattered Sky automatically fail unless an area of effect attack is used or no less than three different attacks target him simultaneously, in which case he must pass a Perception check to successfully avoid taking damage. System Chronos is an Odessa Artificial ARM in the shape of a silver watch. Its power is to “compress” time so that only Shattered Sky can move while the rest of the world slows to almost a complete stop.
EXP: 600
Loot: None
Weakness: Area of effect attacks.

Author's Note:

Fun fact, I used Google Earth to get a good look around downtown Detroit to help me get a feel for how both the Inner City and Outskirts of Skull City are set up. The towers of the Skull Guild are based off of the real life buildings of the GM headquarters. In reality there are five towers, but I decided to go with three for simplicity. The rest of the city more or less mirrors its real life counterpart, except the river is positioned a bit differently.

In other news, I'd like to thank my two pre-readers, doomande and referee for the work they've put in to help me keep this story as smooth and error free as we can. Also of course thanks goes to KKat for creating this world to begin with.

I'm also starting something new in these notes; giving shout outs to the other FoE sidefics that I've read that have helped inspire my own writing. This chapter's shout out goes to The Last Sentinel, by Adder1. This is a heck of a tale with a protagonist whose got more layers than ogres or onions and has some fabulous world building in it. A lot of my desire to make Skull City seem as lifelike as I can manage is because of the thorough work Adder puts into his own world building. So go check out his story if you haven't already (though fair warning, his main character is pretty hardcore, so if your the sort who's not into torture or extreme moral ambiguity you might want to brace yourself).

And a final, final note: My pal doomande is looking for folk who have a interest in getting their RP on. Check out this forum here if you got the time and are in the mood to do some MLP/FoE related RPing.

Thanks all for reading, and as always leave any and all comments, critiques, and thoughts in the comments. 'Till next time.

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