• 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 23: Complication

We weren’t alone entering the front doors of the Skull Guild’s massive tower of flat gray concrete and steel. Ponies were bustling in and out even at this time of night, as if all the Inner City pulsed with the same sleepless heartbeat as the Outskirts. Much like at the fence line encircling the parking lot there were armed guards at the doors, a wide set of glass entryways where no less than six ponies in gray body armor and bearing battle saddles sporting rifles and machine guns watched us warily.

Knobs didn’t break stride, and neither did we. Binge was being carefully floated along by Arcaidia in a gentle cradle of levitating magic. B.B flew alongside the unconscious mare’s body, keeping a constant vigil upon her, and it left me feeling a shade less tense to know our group’s medic wasn’t slacking. Between us all there was the tiny form of Blasting Cap, the filly’s eyes shifting about constantly and her face sporting a perpetual scowl that deepened into a hate filled snarl whenever my eyes met hers. At least she wasn’t biting my ear or trying to scratch my face off. I would’ve thanked the Ancestor Spirits for that, but I knew that I actually had Knobs to thank for the filly not running off or trying to kill me currently.

“What’s this Knobs?” asked one of the guards, a burly stallion with a coat just a shade of gray darker than his armor.

“Emergency situation, Checkpoint. Don’t have time for playing twenty questions, sorry to say, but the short of it is that these are friends of mine and one of them has an extra hole in her that’s not supposed to be there. Need to borrow one of our docs up top.”

Checkpoint ran a hard stink eye over us, voice grumbling, “They can’t come into the tower armed or without being cleared by a head wrangler from internal affairs.”

“I know that, which is why they’ll disarm,” Knobs gave us all pointed looks as she said that, “And I’ll get it cleared with Skinner. But this mare needs help now. I promise you I’ll get all my paperwork stuff in order while she’s getting treated, and you can collect their weapons as we walk, but there isn’t time for having a long chat about this. C’mon Checkpoint, you know I wouldn’t bring anypony in here who was dangerous to the guild.”

I’d left Gramzanber in the Ursa, so it wasn’t as if I had much in the way of weapons to be disarmed of. Checkpoint looked like he was swallowing something sour but he huffed out a sigh and with a few sharply barked orders had some guards comb over us and start collecting our weapons. B.B gave up her pistols without any fuss, but Arcaidia pierced the guard that took her starblaster with her silver eyes glittering like poised spears.

“My blaster best be kept well and returned nicely otherwise I not a happy pony,” Arcaidia said pointedly.

The guard looked at her dully, “Noted.”

“We’ll get our stuff back, don’t worry Arcaidia,” I said, though immediately afterward I leaned over and whispered to Knobs, “We are getting our stuff back, right?”

Knobs flashed a nervous smile at me, “Probably. I mean, most likely. Er... fifty, fifty?”

“My confidence is not being boosted,” I commented dryly.

“Look at it this way, would you rather wait out here in the cold for a doctor to magically fall from the sky complete with surgery equipment?”

“... Point taken.”

My few remaining grenades were taken, and they even checked Binge’s floating body. Not much to my surprise they didn’t find any of the many knives I knew the mare had hidden in her mane and tail. More to my surprise when they searched Blasting Cap they took off a sharp kitchen knife that the filly had secreted away in her own tail (was this just a trick all Raider’s learned or something?). Blasting Cap hissed at the guards as they took it and Knobs looked at the filly with an embarrassed smile, scratching the back of her head.

“Note to self, keep a closer eye on my kitchenware from now on.”

Blasting Cap made a pffft noise and rolled her eyes, “I still got knives in places these wusses are too scardey to check on a filly.”

One of the guards blinked down at her, “We’re standing right here.”

Blasting Cap glared and lifted her tail, “Go ahead, check away.”

“Eeeehhh... go on in. I’m pretty sure you couldn’t hide anything in there that’d be dangerous with a bony, small ass like that anyway.”

I just blinked at the filly, “Are all Raider foals as mentally screwy as you?”

“I don’t know, are all dickless Wastelanders mother murdering fucktards like you?”

I decided further conversation with Blasting Cap was not a productive pursuit and clamped my mouth shut.

We were led inside under escort from two of Checkpoint’s guards. I gazed around with anxious eyes, my look flickering constantly towards Binge’s floating form, looking for the telltale sight of her expanding sides to let me know she was still breathing. I feared seeing her still permanently at every passing second.

The entry room of the tower would have seemed grander were we not in such a rush. I saw a high ceiling bearing hanging braziers of metal and bone, the fires within bathing the area in shifting orange light. A pair of strange stairways flanked a large front desk of black metal. On the wall above this desk was a sight that almost stopped me in my tracks; a skull tacked to the wall unlike any I had seen before. Whatever kind of creature this skull belonged to must have been colossal, as the skull covered most the wall, with a sharp, angled form containing a maw of dozens of fangs as long as spearheads. Two oval eyes sockets stared blankly from a bleached head that bore twin curved horns that were longer than three ponies standing end to end. Strange, etherally flickering blue torches burned from within the eye sockets, making the skull appear like an animated monstrosity.

“Okay, Knobs, who decided to mount pure nightmare fuel on your lobby wall?” I found myself asking.

“What, him? That’s just The Duke. Totally crazy long story behind him going waaaaay back to Skull City’s founding. You wanna hear all about it I’ll give you the tour when your friend isn’t bleeding on the carpet,” replied Knobs with a grin.

“Binge ain’t doin’ any bleedin’,” said B.B, “Least not fer the moment. Kinda all internal blood loss at the moment.”

I blinked, “Isn’t blood supposed to be on the inside anyway? How do you lose blood on the inside?”

“Long, do the world a’ favor an’ never git inta the medical profession.”

There was a earth pony mare sitting behind the desk, her necrotic flesh ragged save for a few neon purple patches of fur. Her thin blonde mane hung in loose clumps around her emaciated face, and yet her gaunt features she flashed a smile as white as pearl as we approached, blue eyes sparkling.

“Knobs, don’t see you coming into headquarters often! Oh my, what’s all this!?”

“No time for explaining, but yeah, good to see you Sheeny. Do me a solid and get Skinner to meet us at the eighteenth floor, will ya? I got to get this poor mare to Harshcare’s clinic, like, twenty minutes ago!”

Sheeny cast a wavering look towards Binge’s blood smeared body, biting her lower lip, but she nodded to Knobs. “‘Kay, I’ll give Skinner a buzz. Hashcare too, just so they’re prepped for you. Hope you know what you’re doing.”

“Much as I ever do!” Knobs said as she hastily trotted for the stairs, waving us along. The guards stayed on us, eyes unfriendly and watching our every move.

The next floor gave me the impression of a gutted belly, as if the Skull Guild had hollowed out the interior of this tower, ripping out its old world glit and finery, and replaced it with their own flame lit world. The ceiling had been torn out here, and countless walls knocked out, save for certain walls that I imagined were left solely for the purpose of keeping the rest of the place held up. The hole in the ceiling was easily fifty paces across and as we approached it I could see the hole actually formed a shaft that ran upward for dozens of floors, perhaps even to the top of the tower itself. At each concentric point along the circumference of the shaft there was an open lift consisting of a single wide platform surrounded by metal bars. The lifts were attached to a pulley system of cables stretching upwards into the shifting shadows of the shaft. Most of the area was lit by more of those ghostly blue torches. It gave everything this ethereal glow that left my spine shivering.

The area was hardly deserted, as ponies and griffins, both alive and ghouled, shuffled about either clearly on errands or merely hanging out in small clusters to chat. I noted a few ponies in black coats identical to the one Knobs wore directing a team of what I could only imagine were feral ghouls, or rather “tamed” ghouls, in pulling several big crates up from what appeared to be a ramp carved into the floor on the north end of the building.

“Curious?” Knobs asked, catching my look as she led us towards the nearest lift. “Most of our storage and ghoul training facilities are underneath the tower. That’s the main ramp we built to go to the sub-levels. All the stuff up top that these lifts go to are our living quarters, administration, and of course Guild services like the medical clinic.”

“Why the whole do-it-yerself elevators?” asked B.B as we shuffled onto the wide platform of expertly welded metal and pipes, “Ain’t this tower got elevators from ‘fore the megaspells?”

“Yup, sure did. Problem is all the nifty gizmos and widgets that made this tower sparkle back in the day went dark when the main computer that ran it all was fried by one of the megaspells that blew up over the city. So no elevators, instant coffee, or automatic toilets. Real shame. We’ve rebuilt as needed. This shaft doesn’t just make a nice spot for the lifts, it helps our winged friends get up and down easy whether they be pegasus or griffin. Anyway, I think it was some kind of big, super duper spark-pulse that did the damage way back when. Wasn’t able to shut down the shield that was protecting the city, but it zapped pretty much anything that was above a certain height, and wouldn’t you know it, OCP kept is main computer in the top floor of this tower. Funny, that.”

“What’s OCP?” I asked, glancing around uncomfortably as the lift began to rise after Knobs rang a bell dangling from a pole in the lift’s center, “I saw those letters on the entrance to this place.”

“Just some bigwig company from the pre-Wasteland times,” said Knobs as we continued to ascend the gloomily lit shaft. I could see that each floor had portions that were exposed to the shaft corresponding to each spot an elevator could rise to, while the walls were mostly intact for the rest of the floors, preventing me from seeing just what was on them. Knobs had said the tower was mostly living quarters, so I imagined most of the space we were passing was taken up by various personal rooms for the different members of the Skull Guild. Made me wonder why Knobs chose to live in the Outskirts at that house, if the guild provided a place to stay. She must have had her reasons. I looked at her as the ghoul mare animatedly walked around the edge of the lift, smiling as she answered my question.

“OCP stood for Orange Customer Products. They, like, practically ran the city of Detrot. Sponsored a lot of the businesses that moved into the area when the old war got so hot. I think most of the manufacturing stuff you saw the Mechanics Guild using was built by OCP. In fact I think pretty much everything around here was built by them or built by ponies sponsored by them. Heard they were ran by a family that was kinda sorta related to one of the Ministry Mares that were in charge of Equestria. Can’t remember which one. Maybe the pink one with the creepy smile? You seen any posters with her around? No? The reason for that is they were so creepy there was a city wide poster hunt to find and burn all of them out of Skull City. So, you know, you’re welcome.”

I blinked at her a few times, “Creepy smile posters?”

“Oh, wander long enough away from Detrot and you’ll see ‘em. Pinkie Pie seemed like a nice mare to me, but dang if she didn’t have a smile that could unsettle the bowels of the most hardened Wasteland badflank.”

The lift continued to rise on squeaking wires, and swayed slightly in the air as it did so. Arcaidia gave the entire thing a wary look, shuffling uneasily on her hooves. “This up going thing safe? It not look safe.”

“It’s mostly safe,” Knobs replied, flashing a confident smile. There was a jerking halt to the lift as something above in its pulley system shifted, causing all of the ponies aboard to grab at the hoof rails. I found myself looking down towards the ground floor, which was now a good fifty or so paces down, now. I gulped. Chances were a fall from this height would be unpleasantly fatal.

Knobs let out a small giggle as she let go of the rail herself, dusting herself off, “LIke I said, mostly safe. We only have an accident once every other month. Huh, now that I think about it, last one was a month ago? Two months? Are we about due?”

“Suddenly feelin’ real happy ‘bout being o’ the winged persuasion,” said B.B.

“Yeah, rather wishing my dad’s blood had given me a pair myself,” I said, wincing slightly as the lift resumed taking us upwards.

Looking up, peering into the gloom, I could finally see the top of the shaft. A series of scaffolds were built across the top floor, housing the series of pulleys and gears driven by small machines that were being watched by a small hoofful of ponies. There were still a number of floors between us and the top and the lift itself stopped well before we got there. The edge of the lift settled against a lip of floor that protruded out like a bridge from an open pair of double doors. Beyond those was some kind of well lit lobby area, complete with gray carpeting.

“Okay ponies, right this way!” Knobs said, “Eighteenth floor, stallion’s wear, shoes, and medical facilities galore.”

We all disembarked, trotting quickly into the lobby. Inside there were several ponies, one of which was a bleary eyed ghouled stallion whose wiry form turned to stare hard at Knobs as we entered.

“For fucks sake Knobs, what are you playing at here?” barked the stallion, trotting to meet us, a wrinkled scowl on his features. “Who are all these damn ponies you’re dragging in here? You know they can’t be in here without permission, and last time I checked that’s kind of my job, not yours!”

Knobs was smiling widely, though her face had a twitching undercurrent of strain to it that was also evident in her voice as she said, “Hello Skinner, good to see you. Yeah, uh, look, these ponies here really need our help. I know medical supplies cost a bunch, but I have more than enough Gella stacked up with the guild to pay off any-”

“Let me stop you right there Knobs,” said Skinner without losing the scowl from his face, not even looking at the rest of us but keeping his glare squarely fixated on Knobs, “It ain’t about money, it’s about procedure and security! What if these were saboteurs!? Or assassins!? Do you know we’ve got very important guests from the Protectorate here in the tower right now as we’re speaking? And you just let in a bunch of ponies who look like they’ve been dragged through the ass end of the Wasteland’s worst gutters?”

Knobs looked taken aback slightly, but she recovered fast, “They were checked and disarmed by the guards at the door. They’ve got me to vouch for them and to cover their medical costs. By the book that covers everything the guild cares about Skinner, save that I brought them here first before you could clear them, and we’re taking care of that right now, aren’t we?”

“No, because I’m not clearing these Wasteland scrubs for being in our headquarters. They’re turning right the fuck around right fucking now and leaving out the same doors they came in.”

I stepped forward at that, “Not meaning to step on tails here, but no, no we're not leaving. Not without my friend getting treatment.”

Skinner turned a hard look towards me, “I don’t know who or what you are, some crossdress freak that Knobs picked up off the street no doubt, but you aren’t staying-”

“Skinner we don’t have time for this!” Knobs suddenly snapped, getting close and putting her face barely an inch from Skinner’s, who tried to back up a step but Knobs simply followed him. “I’m not arguing with you further. You want to report me, go ahead, but you know it won’t hold up when they figure out I’ve got the Gella to cover this and that these ponies aren’t a threat.”

Skinner was silent for a moment, eyes narrowing to slits. With a whip like flick of his sparse tail he brushed past us, “You’re just as naive as you’ve always been, damn idiot girl. What’s this bit of altruism gonna cost you? Last time it was your hind legs. Sooner or later, it might be your head.”

He gave a pointed nod towards the wheeled artificial limbs attached to what was left of Knobs’ hindquarters before snorting and leaving, heading out through a side door that I could see lead to a concrete stairwell. He slammed the door behind him.

“Charming guy,” I said, then shook my head, looking at Binge with concern. Her body was looking more wane and pale, streaked with sweat that somehow made her sickly thin frame appear more fragile. Her breathing was shallow, erratic to my eyes. “Where’s the doctor?”

“Right here,” said a stallion who’d been watching the proceedings from the frame of a door directly across from the doors leading to the lift. He was a unicorn, sporting a golden brown coat and a short, neatly cut mane of black and purple streaks. He was wearing a gray leather vest lined with pockets, from which he pulled a cigarette and stuck it in his mouth. His horn glowed a faint green matching his eyes as he summoned a flicker of flames to light the cigarette as he trotted towards us. He gave Binge a single quick glance, then turned back to us.

“I’m Harshcare. Closest thing to a doctor you’re likely to find in this tower of half dead ponies. Take your friend back through those doors. My assistants will get her situated. If she ain’t already dead I’ll see about maybe making her less likely to be dead before the night’s done. Knobs, best get your tail to my office so we can clear payments, otherwise the boss lady will have both our genitals mounted on her wall come morning. Fuck, girl, you think you can go a week without pulling these stunts?”

“You’re sweet, Harsh, being all worried about me. Don’t worry, I mostly know what I’m doing. Besides I got Crossfire and Skinner both to frown at me disapprovingly over my altruistic streak, and you don’t want to just copycat them, do you?”

“Perish the thought. I’m my own original act,” he said, then frowned at me, rather disapprovingly, “What are you waiting for, a fucking red carpet to roll out for you?”

I hardly needed further prompting. None of us did. Well, maybe Blasting Cap, who was keeping quiet as we all quickly trotted down a side hallway being led by a pair of ponies who I assumed were Harshcare’s assistants. I couldn’t help but notice that Blasting Caps eyes were narrowly darting around and that the small yellow filly was seeming to grow tenser the deeper we got into the tower. She wasn’t the only one. Waunita and Braindead had both been keeping pretty quiet since we’d arrived at the tower, trailing behind the group. The griffin and one-time Raider were both still sporting injuries that had yet to be properly dealt with, and I could see neither one was walking without limping. Knobs had already trotted off with Harshcare, and I hoped whatever business they had to take care of wouldn’t take long.

“Hey, uh, is there anything that can be done for them?” I asked one of the assistant ponies, nodding my head back towards Waunita and Braindead.

The assistant gave them a cursory look, pursing her lips, “We can give them a look in a sec, soon as we get the unconscious one checked out.”

“She needin’ blood,” B.B said plainly, “I’ll save ya that bit o’ diagnosis. She’s got a’ bullet wound in her side, an’ I’m thinkin’ it’s lodged somewhere in her opposite ribs. Might’a grazed her stomach, but I don’t think it ruptured any organs. Somethin’ is bleedin’ in there, though. Bullet might’ve nicked an’ artery. Magic sealed up the worst o’ it but without a transfusion she’s up the creek.”

“You a medic?” asked one of the assistants as they led us into a setril room of clean, plain tiled floor, and white washed walls. A plain white bed was in the center of the room and the walls were filled with cabinets of equipment. Arcaidia was directed to lay Binge down on the bed, which the unicorn did so with careful gentleness. Blasting Cap hopped up onto a chair in one corner of the room while Waunita and Breaindead quietly shuffled to the side. I noticed Braindead kept looking between me and Waunita, lips quivering as if he wanted to say something but couldn’t bring himself to get it out. Perhaps he just knew that right now wasn’t the time.

Within minutes the assistants had Binge hooked up to several machines and some sort of bag of liquid, not unlike what I’d been hooked up to back in Stable 104 when I’d been getting healed up. I tried to feel a bit of relief, but it was hard to settle my nerves. It felt like every slow second that passed was bringing Binge closer to death. I saw one assistant pull out a small cylindrical device and press it to Binge’s foreleg. The room was filled with the sound of a unsteady electronic beeping as one machine attached to a monitor showed the thready pulse of my friend. The assistant checked the cylindrical device after it, too, let out a short beep.

“Shit, just had to be O negative, didn’t it?” the mare muttered, glancing up at the rest of us, “If we’re transfusing into this pony, we’ve got an issue.”

Arcaidia’s long silver tail flicked angrily, “Speak fast then, time not of great amount!”

“Keep your skirt on. Your friend here has a tricky blood type. Universal for donating to others, but can only take the exact same blood type herself. Means we need another O negative. Problem is we don’t exactly have a huge supply of spare blood for this kind of thing. Especially not O negative. Its valuable shit because it can be used with any other blood type.”

“What does all that mean?” I asked anxiously, “Pretend you're talking to somepony who doesn't have a clue what ‘blood type’ even means.”

“Short version; we don’t have any spare blood of the kind that’ll save your friend. We need a donor,” the mare said, brushing some black mane out of her pale blue face. She held up the cylinder she’d been using on Binge, “This nifty arcanotech device checks blood type. Any volunteers in here, I’ll check your blood. If nopony here matches up, we’ve got to search the tower for a willing donor.”

“Well what are you waiting for, let’s get checking!” I said, voice near to cracking.

At that point Harshcare and Knobs arrived in the room, and it took less than a minute to bring Harshcare up to date. The stallion sighed, rushing to get another identical cylinder from the cabinet. “We only got two of these damned things, so if we don’t luck out, this is going to take time. I can tell just by looking at this mare that that’s time she doesn’t have. Everypony who ain’t a half dead ghoul stretch your forelegs out and pray to whatever hocus pocus you believe in you got the right juice in you.”

One by one we all raised our legs, even Blasting Cap after the filly got a look from Knobs. The assistant and Harshcare went between us one at a time, using the cylindrical devices to press them to our flesh. When the cylinder pressed onto my fur I felt a cold tingle from the metal of it, and a small itching pinch like the bite of an insect.

There was another slow minute of tense silence as Harshcare looked over the results of the testing.

Then his eyes rested on me, a small smirk on his face, “Lucky buck, looks like we’ve got a winner.”

“Me?”

“Yeah, you. Only other O negative in the crowd. Pat yourself on the back later. Right now sit your ass over here and try not to squirm. Also it’s way too crowded in here, so anypony either not dying, helping, or donating blood go wait out in the hall. Hypoderm, why don’t you go look at the wounds of anyone else who needs patching. I can take care of this transfusion.”

“Yes doctor,” said the assistant mare, and in short order she led Waunita and Braindead out of the room.

B.B rested a hoof on my arm as I sat next to the bed. “Stay steady, Long. I reckon she’s been stubborn enough ta hold on so far, she’ll pull through.”

I gave the pegasus a thankful look, silently returning her gesture. B.B gestured a wing at Blasting Cap as she headed for the door.

“C’mon ya little monster, ain’t gonna be much o’ a show.”

Blasting Cap’s lips pulled back in an unpleasant smile, “Maybe I wanna watch her croak.”

This earned a quick whap upside the filly’s head from B.B, who now wore a glacial look and whose tone brooked absolutely no nonsense. “Out. Now. Before I put you over my knee. Ain’t got the patience Knobs seems ta got. I’ll knock ya silly, kid, ya keep up the attitude.”

Blasting Cap glared, but obeyed, following B.B out of the room. This left only myself, Harshcare, one of his assistants, and Arcaidia still in the room with Binge. Harshcare gave Arcaidia an expectant look, but instead of leaving she stayed right where she was.

Arcaidia looked at Harshcare with a solid gaze, “I stay.”

“You helping, filly?” he asked with a hard tone.

“Healing magic keep shivol bir living so far. Without magic, she died before get here. If doctor skills go wrong, magic still may save smelly one’s life. Not leave if ren solva still here.”

At her words Harshcare gave her a steady look, both searching and curious, but after a moment he nodded. “Fine, but don’t fuck around or do anything without my say so. Healing magic can only go so far, and can even cause harm if used at the wrong moment. You don’t pull any fancy arcane shit until I give the word. Understood?”

“My brain hears and standsunder,” said Arcaidia, taking a stop next to Binge at the opposite side of the bed from me. Harshcare cocked an eyebrow at her, but didn’t comment as he moved fast to start grabbing various bits of gear from the cabinets and floating them over to the bed.

“How does this transfusion thing work?” I asked, placing a hoof on Binge’s sweat soaked brow, feeling the chill clammy fur and hide with a clench of fear. Binge had alway seemed like a mare of infinite energy and vigor. I somehow figured that out of any of my companions she’d be among the last to be put in such a state. She had seemed to have a knack for avoiding harm, even in the craziest situation. Seeing her be dropped so easily left me with nauseating cold lumps in my gut.

Harshcare flicked a sharp glance my way as he floated another plastic bag like the previous one out, along with a series of syringes and tubes. “Not complicated. I hook you up to this bag and draw your blood. I hook the other tube to her. Blood goes out of you, goes into her. That goes until either she stabilizes, dies, or you reach the redline on how much blood you can give without croaking yourself. Throw in some magical healing spells to try and repair internal damage and you might have a living friend by the end of the night.”

I gulped, nodding. I kept looking at the shallow rise and fall of Binge’s chest, her ribcage visible through her thinly stretched flesh.

“Also got to get the bullet out of here. That’ll be the real bitch, if it’s wedged in there deep. Don’t fully trust your medics assessment that there isn’t damage to the stomach or any other organ. This is going to be a long, long night. Hope you’re prepared to sit there for awhile. You too, little blue.”

Arcaidia huffed out a breath and held her back straight, head high, “I last all night and more. Now do doctor work and not flap the lip movements.”

“Heh, I like her,” said Harshcare under his breath as he focused on his work. The room became painfully silent save for the constant, irregular beeping of the heart monitor.

I winced only slightly when the needle entered my arm, connecting a small clear plastic tube to the bag that Harshcare sat up on a pole above the bed. Another tube went into Binge’s leg, and in short order a steady stream of crimson blood began to flow from me and into her. While that was happening Harshcare brought out more tools and covered Binge in an aura of his gold yellow magic, eyes unblinking in concentration as he began to work on the bullet wound in her side.

Minutes passed without a word being said. Then, without warning, Binge’s body spasmed.

“The buck!?” Harshcare cursed, frowning deeply as he used his magic to hold her down. Binge twitched again, her head shaking back and forth a few times as a small moan escaped her pale lips.

I felt cold through to my core as I said, “What’s happening? Is that normal?”

“The fuck it ain’t,” Harshcare said, floating up another device, some kind of floating monitor that looked like an elongated Pip-Buck screen. The device seemed to react to his magic, flickering on and bathing Binge with a line of sharp red light that seemed to scan over her body. Binge’s spasms began to increase, reaching down to her hindlegs, which kicked about until Arcaidia stepped in with her own magic to hold them steady. Harshcare gave her a quick nod of thanks before resuming to concentrate on whatever readings were appearing on the screen of the device he was using.

“I don’t know what this is, but she’s reacting to something that’s entered her bloodstream. I can’t get a clear reading on what,” he looked at me, eyes narrowing, “Do you have any kind of diseases or conditions, buck?”

“I-I don’t know,” I stammered, “I’ve been pretty healthy. Haven’t gotten sick recently or anything.”

“Well your blood is carrying something into her body that’s causing a serious fucking reaction!” Harshcare said, growling as Binge continued to writhe and twist on the medical bed. Then suddenly she sat bolt upright with a cry of pain so sharp and piercing it hurt my ears.

“Shit!” Harshcare had to use his hooves to help push her back down as Binge started to thrash violently on the bed, “Shitfuck! We got to get you unhooked from her!”

Terrified as I was for Binge, a thought shot through me, “Wait! If you don’t have another donner how long can she last!?”

“Not long, but better than this shit! Whatever is up with your blood, it's clearly not working the way it should. She’ll die if we can’t calm her ass down!”

Arcaidia, face hard and still, like a blue mask, said “I hold her still. Keep doing work. She live if we keep going. She die if we stop.”

“How the hell do you know that!?” asked Harshcare, then paused as Arcaidia’s horn burst with intense azure light. Crest symbols formed instantly in a circle around her horn, dense and packed in geometric splendor. Binge’s spasming form suddenly went still, held firm by potent telekinetic force, while I saw a wave of healing aura pass over her. Arcaidia pointed at Binge’s face and I blinked, seeing something I couldn’t at first identify.

There were dark lines forming on Binge’s face, across the left side of her cheek. Hexagonal patterns like the lines of a honeycomb. Harshcare saw it too and blinked.

“Mind explaining what the fuck is going on with my patient!?”

Arcaidia shook her head, “I not know what do this, but I know that it too late to stop. Ren solva’s blood already in Binge. Only chance to live for her to be going until end. Work, healer pony. Work and do not stop.”

Taking strength from Arcaidia’s confidence I took a deep breath and placed a hoof on Binge’s mane, stroking it. She was not hot to the touch, but she seemed to still slightly at my tough. I looked at Harshcare, “Please, keep going.”

Harshcare only hesitated a second before he went back to work, cursing under his breath. Arcaidia kept holding Binge still with her magic and I could see the strain it put her through as she concentrated on using both her inborn unicorn magic for telekinesis while also maintaining a constant healing spell through her Crest Sorcery. I recalled the dream I’d had of her training with her sister and how unicorn magic had interfered with her Crest spells before and wondered how she’d ever resolved that. Right now her face was a mask of determined focus, and I noticed strands of blue aura streaming from her horn seemed to be flowing like tiny cobalt rivers into the circle of Crests that floated around her head.

Binge continued to let out unintelligible groans mixed with babbled words, few of them coherent. I heard her mumble for her parents, even her brother. Some of it sounded like pleading, but it just as quickly became… different.

“Please, don’t run, just wanna bite the flesh... hehehe, it hurts, so good. Can’t change the skin so easily. Hurting me. Binge isn’t good at playing pretend. Stop it.”

Suddenly her hoof shot up, wrapping around my neck, and for a second Binge’s eyes focused on mine, boring into me, “Stop being so good, bucky! It hurts to look at you. Don’t you understand!? I’m trying to save you before your kill yourself! You can’t beat it! Not... not...”

She fell back, eyes rolling up into the back of her skull until there was nothing but bloodshot whites, “Not... enough. Wrong room. Needs more chokey death gas. And Longykins is still here. Can’t save me. Don’t try, you’ll die. Hehehehe.”

“At least she has the strength to get delirious,” Harshcare said under his breath as he continued to work, his horn’s magic concentrated around the deep red bullet hole in Binge. The wound undulated slightly under the influence of his telekinetic magic, and I saw a faint glow from inside Binge, like tiny yellow streams of light. The black lines on her face were starting to recede, and I didn’t know if that was a good sign or a bad one.

Minutes dragged by, and I kept holding Binge with one hoof. I started to feel a faint dizziness as time passed, and Harshcare glanced up at me.

“You holding up?”

“Y-yeah. I’m good,” I said.

“If you feel like throwing up or passing out, well, don’t. I got a bucket in here, but that’s it.”

“If I throw up I’ll aim in the bucket’s general direction.”

I watched as time moved past with the painfully slow speed of molasses. The smell of blood was overpowering and my lightheadedness only increased as minutes became an hour. Not once did Arcaidia drop her spell, despite her own long, smooth silver mane becoming tinged with sweat and her shoulders started to sag. Yet the focused luster never left her eyes, and she never ceased to give me small smiles of encouragement whenever I looked at her. If I could have I would’ve hugged her. Instead she mirror my own gesture, holding onto one of Binge’s hooves. It occurred to me that tonight was the first time I’d even heard Arcaidia call Binge by name. All the times previous it’d been ‘shivol bir’; low caste. I wondered if this meant Arcaidia now looked at Binge as one of the party in full. I’d never been comfortable with the idea that Arcaidia saw Binge as a sort of bonded slave to me. All I could do was hope that tonight wouldn’t be the last night I heard Arcaida call Binge by name.

When the bullet finally came out of Binge it hit a steel medical tray with a sound loud enough to make me jump. Harshcare wiped sweat from his brow and said, “.308. Lucky bitch. Round like this could’ve done far more damage, way more than what I could stitch back together. Now for the hard part.”

“There’s still a hard part?” I asked faintly, blinking past the growing dizziness flowing over me. I could almost feel the room tilting. I wondered how much blood I’d given.

“Got to fix up the internal damage now that the bullet is out of the way,” Harshcare said, “Blood you’ve given so far has kept her breathing, despite whatever weird shit that was at the start. Gonna need you to keep going a bit more until I know I got any holes inside her sorted out.”

Time once more became a sluglike crawl as I tried to not pass out as my body started to feel weaker and weaker and Harshcare’s magic pulsed along Binge’s body. Arcaidia started to look at me with worry as my breathing became more ragged. I licked my lips and shook my head fiercely as I felt myself swaying slightly, a fresh wave of nausea hitting me.

“Ren solva?”

“I’m okay...” I said, grunting, “Just... just tired.”

Harshcare’s face was carved into a deep frown, “Might need to unhook you. Too much blood loss is just as bad for you as it is for her.”

“Will she be okay if you do unhook me?”

“Nothing is certain, kid.”

To that I merely gave him a firm look, toking a deep breath before saying in a solid tone, “Keep me hooked to her for as long as it takes. Even if I pass out.”

He met my eyes for a moment, then gave a small nod, “Your call.”

I don’t know how much time passed, exactly, before I did pass out. I remember fading in and out several times, forcing myself back to wakefulness each instant I could feel myself nearly tipping over. My hide started to take on a ghostly, drained cast to it, the tan fur seeming incapable of hiding the paling skin underneath. I remember seeing Arcaidia look at me with suddenly wide silver eyes, and her magic switching places between myself and Binge, as if the blue aura of magic rolled like a fog over me.

I don’t think I remember hitting the floor, but I do remember, more than anything, that my hoof never let go of Binge’s, even as blackness overwhelmed me.

--------

I dreamed of dust and fire. My body didn’t feel like my own as it crawled through a charred field of ash and swirling gray dust. I realized why quickly as I felt my hand instead of a hoof grasping at the ice cold metal shaft of a spear that looked so much like Gramzanber, yet was of a darker cast of metal. Heat and pulsing energy surged through me with the intensity of an electric jolt, my body moving on its own to brace itself upwards with the shaft of the dark Gramzanber acting as a crutch.

My vision swam, but by now I understood this wasn’t ‘my’ vision, or my body. This was the same steel blue giant that I’d dreamed of once before, and witnessed in the holographic recordings of Stable 104. The specimen the ponies of the Stable had recovered, the ancient alien bipedal monster; a Hyadean. It, he, stood, pain wracking his body. I could feel the unnatural strength of his metal form, the way the thick blue plates of his armor was bonded to his thickly muscled body as if it were his skin. I could feel the damage done to it, deep gouged cuts and burned holes, all oozing a viscous red blood that was splotched with black.

As he looked around past a visored helmet I could see the ash field was covered in bodies. Hundreds of them. Possibly thousands. Many of the bodies were of twisted, horrific monsters. Creatures that had too many legs or arms, or held misshapen wings, or long scythe like claws. Other bodies were of other bipedal creatures, yet these were clad in bright silver and white armor with featureless helmets, only a small amount cracked enough for me to see pale skinned faces underneath. I recognized these as Veruni, having recalled Persephone’s appearance from Arcaidia’s dream. Finally among the bodies were beings much like ponies, quadrupedal and short, but these had long tufted ears and long thin tails. All of their bodies were broken and strewn like broken twigs in a carpet of corpses so thick my host could barely take a step without crushing a piece of a body underfoot.

He walked forward with steady steps, with a long, smooth stride despite his injuries. A harsh wind kicked up, billowing a smear like cloud of dust and ash to obscure my host’s path. He ignored it, striding ever forward, as if being driven by some intense need. It occurred to me that even his breathing was steady, despite the pain that wracked him. His gaze swept left and right across the vast field of destruction where I could only imagine a battle of mythic proportions had taken place. At times the swirling clouds of dust and ash would clear enough for me to see that the field spread for miles upon miles all around me and my host. Valleys and hills broke up the bleach, scorched landscape, pockmarked with craters and the burning remains of what must have been some kind of war vehicles, their broken metallic frames pouring oily black smoke into the air. Some of the machines looked as if they may have once flown, only to crash into the ground in long furrows of blackened earth, while others were large, solid vehicles that dwarfed even the Ursa A.T.W.

Further in the distance I caught a glimpse of mountains, and they too were marked with streaks of smoke and flame, as if the battle extended all the way to their distant peaks. The body count rose in my mind from thousands, to... a number so much higher than that my brain didn’t know the right word for it.

A sound like a dying star split the air, a screeching cry that could be felt as much as heard. My host looked up, and I felt his stern features beneath his helmet scowl at the sight of something falling from the sky. It was a large sphere, unbelievable in its massive expanse. It was falling, yet so high in the sky that it seemed to slowly crawl its way towards the northern horizon. I heard my host scoff.

“The Photosphere… heh... even it couldn’t withstand the final weapon of the Elw and Guardians. Hahaha, I wonder if the Veruni ever suspected their ‘allies’ would betray them, come the end? Not that it matters. Talking to yourself, Zeikfried? Sure sign of madness. Ah, but we’re all mad, here, aren’t we? Nothing left to do but die as a Hyadean warrior should... bah, where’s something to kill?”

As the unbelievably large sphere of metal broke apart in chunks as it sailed is firey path across the sky to the north, I saw something else. The passage of the huge spherical...ship(?) had broken up the cloud cover of smoke enough that I could get a clear view of the sky. Hanging there in the pale blue expanse was a massive object, an even larger sphere of pale white stone. Was that the moon? It had to be. It matched descriptions I’d heard of it. But what was that other moon doing there?

It was only about a fourth of the size of the pale white moon, but this second moon hung in its larger sister’s shadow. It was just as perfectly round as the moon it shared the sky with, or the broken metal ship that had fallen through the sky to the north. Its surface was a dark, deep blue that seemed to shimmer and drink in the faint sunlight. As I looked at this second moon I saw small sparks and bursts of light around it, as if from distant explosions. I heard my host muttering some more.

“I wonder if the Elw find it as ironic as I do that in their desperation to beat us they built weapons that so resembled us and our vessels? Bigger. I’ll grant them that. Still, shooting down one Photosphere won’t make a difference in the long run. We have many more. Blazer will just send another fleet, and knock that replicant toy of theirs out of the sky. Hmph, still talking to yourself Zeikfried, bad sign... you’re not far from going into hybernetic shut down.”

Up ahead something loomed, a land formation that gradually resolved through the perpetual gloom of swirling dust. I saw a canyon wall, with a vast cleft in the uneven, rocky surface. Familiar pillars of stone covered in glyphs I’d seen before lined either side of a path that led to this wide cleft. The scene somehow felt familiar yet I couldn’t put my hoof on how. I felt the ground start to shade rhythmically and my host, Zeikfried, halted before the pathway to the wide canyon.

The shakes continued, like giant footsteps... for that was exactly what they were. From the shadows of the canyon emerged a colossal form, yet another giant of metal that dwarfed my host entirely. I recognized the Golem quickly as the same damaged machine that Odessa had recovered and loaded onto their airship. It was standing, now, unscathed and intact in this dream, blocking the path between my host and the way deeper into the canyon, the scorched battlefield around them testament to the conflict that had led both to this point.

This was the same region where Stable 104 would exist, thousands of years after the time of this dream! I was seeing a fraction of the events that had put both of these relics of a war long gone in the place that ponies of modern times would recover them. If I had breath I’d have held it as the huge, stone gray Golem raised one of its mighty fists menacingly and its crystal blue eyes flashed with potent light.

Zeikfried threw back his head and laughed, “Hahah! Yes! Perfect! I could not ask for a better requiem! What do you protect, Asgard? A Guardian’s Ley Line, perhaps? It matters not, let us embrace, war brother! The Elw built you to be a weapon we Hyadeans would fear, and succeeded brilliantly! Truly I regret never be able to tell the Elw how I admired them, even as I slaughtered them by the hundreds! Look, they’ve done what the Veruni could not, even after generations of war! They have made all of Hyades, even Mother herself, taste the bitter ashes of defeat! Glorious! Let us end it as gloriously, then, Asgard! To battle!”

I felt my host’s body coil, then spring forward with incredible speed and power. The Golem, Asgard, took one mighty step forward that made the earth shake. Its fist flew forward, angled down to crush my Hyadean host’s body. With a gleeful laugh on his lips I felt Zeikfried thrust his spear forward, the dark Gramzanber seeming to drink in the floating ashes around it. When the spear and Golem fist clashed it was with a crack like thunder that jolted me to my very core, snapping me-

----------

-awake.

I jolted, my body trying to rise, but I soon fell right back down as a wave of disorientation and nausea washed through me. Thankfully I felt myself hit a soft mattress and pillow. I screwed my eyes shut tightly for a minute or two, waiting for the dizziness to pass, which thankfully it did after a time. Opening my eyes I found myself laying in a bed in a darkened room, with a single dim fluorescent light showing my surroundings. I was no longer wearing the blood stained dress I’d been in as part of my disguise, but I wasn’t too alarmed by that. My first thoughts were if Binge was okay.

I felt a moment of dread, but as I looked left and right I saw I wasn’t alone in the room. To my right Arcaidia sat curled up on a short leather couch, her small blue muzzle sticking out of the blanket of her long mane and tail. I could see part of her face, lined with worry as she slept, but I saw she had her starblaster back, holstered on her foreleg. More than that I saw the black cello case that held Gramzanber was laying carefully propped against the wall next to the couch, as if Arcaidia had brought it in with her.

A loud, grinding noise like grating steel and stone sounded to my left, the noise petering out into a high pitched little giggle as I looked over. Binge was in a bed next to mine, sleeping, her mouth opening and closing with the repeated sounds of her strange snores. Seeing her flush, colored countenance and the steady rise and fall of her chest flooded me with warmth and such fresh relief I had to choke back a sob.

She was alive, and I had to believe she’d be okay now. They wouldn’t have put her in here with me if she was still in danger, right? And those snores were loud enough to rattle door frames. There was no way she could be dying and be able to make noise like that. I was shocked I had slept through so much of it. I was surprised Arcaidia was sleeping through it. As if she could sense me looking her way I saw Arcaidia’s eyes flutter open, and she gave a tiny yawn much more dainty than Binge’s epic noises. When she saw me looking at her Arcaidia sat upright quickly and hopped off the couch, her silver mane and tail seeming to just flow out of the way of her movements like water.

“Ren solva, you awake. Feelling the good, yes?”

I ran a hoof over my face, trying to get rid of the last vestiges of nausea and tiredness, “I’m feeling less dead than I thought I was. How long have I been out?”

“Not big time. Middle morning time. Six, seven of hours you sleep. So does Binge, who makes much bigger noise than you. Hmph, no easy rest with blowhorn in room.

I let out a weak chuckle, propping myself up slightly in the bed, cracking my neck. The rapid popping of joints felt incredibly good. “Don’t be too hard on Binge. She’s earned some rest after what she went through. Uh... speaking of which, do you have any notion what happened? I mean, with what my blood did to Binge? She’s... she’s really okay, right?”

Arcaidia’s expression stiffened, turning still as she regarded me, “I not know, Longwalk. Could throw thoughts at you, but not stick. Don’t want to speak random suspicion without need. Suggest talk with spider ponies. They have equipment to check you and Binge for... things.”

That made a certain amount of sense. I gathered that Arcaidia had a theory as to what might have caused that strange reaction Binge had to my blood, but she was right, theories weren’t of much use to us and if I wanted to know more it made more sense to talk to Misty Glasses and see if Stable 104’s med lab could figure something out. Quite frankly as long as Binge was alive I didn’t much care what that had all been about. I was only worried in case it meant something bad might happen in the future. I had no way of knowing if the problem had been my own blood or something in Binge’s body.

“Good call. When we got time I’ll get ahold of Misty Glasses. Not sure when I’ll get a chance to, with everything that’s going on, guess I’ll add it to the ever growing list. I see you got your zapper back.”

Arcaidia smiled with a flash of white teeth, patting the starblaster affectionately, “Knobs good at word. Weapons returned to us. She sort out issues with guild and we guests for now. Talk of payment still in air. Knobs say she want to talk when you awake. Shall I go retrieve?”

I felt my stomach gurgle and I found myself grinning foalishly, “Actually, is there any food around here?”

“Yes yes, B.B raid guild mess hall for the foodstuffs. She and others in room few floors down, wait for word of you and Binge waking.”

I glanced over at Binge’s sleeping form, my tone turning solemn, a small smile on my lips, “Well, we’re halfway there. Figure we ought to let her rest for as long as she needs. Tough as she looks we... we nearly lost her last night, didn’t we?”

Arcaidia’s eyes also gazed at Binge, a contemplative light in their silver depths, “You care much for her, yes?”

“Huh? Well, yeah, I mean, she’s a friend, right? Of course I care about her,” I said, blinking at Arcaidia. I saw her eyebrow go up a quirk. She sat down on her haunches and stared at me, to the point where I started to squirm a bit uncomfortably.

“I not treat her much like friend,” Arcaidia said, her eyes contemplative as she looked away from me and instead gazed at our sleeping ex-Radier, “Not trust her much. Always worry she do something to hurt you, or others. Think to myself ‘I must always be ready to kill this shivol bir’.”

“Arcaidia-”

She held up a hoof, forestalling me as she returned her gaze to me. “Not saying will think that more. Not forget what Binge is, but not be blind to what she do now as part of group. Bullet in her could have been in ren solva. I maybe not ever like her, but can say now that I accept her as not bad."

I found myself drawing Arcadia into a hug, which caused her to give a short yelp of surprise, but she didn't pull away. I was reminded of just how short she was, my hug putting my head nearly atop hers. "Thank you for that, Arcaidia. I think... I think Binge has a lot of issues that she tries to work out in her own way, and what she need more than anything are ponies around her that treat her like a friend, even family. I can't ever say that it'd be the same for any pony who's fallen to being what Raiders are, but I think in Binges case maybe being reminded of what it feels like to be part of a family again can help her. Minus some, er, bumps along the way."

Arcaidia laugh had had a musical chime to it that somehow made my fatigue melt away. She shoved me away lightly, almost playfully.

“You say bumps, that Equestrian word for crazy head? I trust you not get too friendly thoughts, or more than friendly thoughts, when alone with Binge? Even if... strange and crazy friend, she still smelly.”

“Hey, I don’t plan on doing anything other than be a friend to her,” I said, perhaps a tad too defensively as I crossed my arms over my chest, “And we’re working on the whole hygiene thing. Seriously, I only found out showers existed a few weeks ago, and Binge probably hasn’t had easy access for most of her life. Cut us some slack!”

“Nope,” said Arcaidia, smiling and bobbing me on the head, “When feel better, go shower. They nearby and very nice. I use already. I go fetch Knobs pony now. I not take long.”

----------

Binge was still out like an old campfire by the time Arcaidia returned with Knobs in tow. I'd had a good twenty minutes to just lay in bed and think, most of my thoughts muddy and swirling like a slow moving stream in summer. As far as I knew I still needed to go with Crossfire to the Drifters Guild today. I was still feeling rather craptastic but figured food ought to fix that problem. Besides the visit to the Drifters Guild I had two other concerns on my mind. One was whether or not we'd heard back from LIL-E yet. The robot would have been gone nearly a full day by now, so we should have heard some word from her, if only to tell us that she hadn't found anything of Doc Sunday's and the refugees whereabouts. The second concern was getting ahold of Misty Glasses to see about returning to Stable 104 so we could figure out what had happened with my blood transfusion into Binge. Sure she seemed okay right now, but what if something was wrong with her that would crop up later? What if she somehow now shared my three month expiration date? I wasn't at all happy at the thought that we'd saved her just to condemn her to death just a few short months from now. I didn't want to take anypony with me into death if I could help it.

I had to set my concerns aside for now as I managed to provide Knobs with a welcoming smile that she returned with a happy bounce of her tail. Her prosthetic wheel legs squeaked in a pitch that matched her cheerful tone as she said, "Welcome back to the waking world, Longwalk. I'm really glad you both pulled through. I know Hashcare has a bit of a mouth on him, but he's really good at his work and cares more than he'd ever bother to say."

“I’ll thank him myself if I see him again,” I said, stretching my legs with a few faintly audible pops. Arcaidia was carrying a metal tray that had a few dry looking vegetables on it and a hunk of bread that might have actually been fresh. I was still new to the concept of both types of food, but I was more than hungry enough to eat without complaint.

Knobs pulled up around to the foot of my bed and had a anxious tick in one of her ears. “He’s too surly to show appreciation, but he’d still probably like that. Anyway I need to knock a few things out with you pretty quick here. Sorry to toss all this your way while you’re just getting up, but the sooner it’s all worked out the better. Cost-wise I’ve got most of what needed covering last night covered. Had enough guild Gella built up that both the medical costs and greasing all the little wheels that needed greasing could be done.”

“Gella? That some kind of local currency?” I asked curiously around a mouthful of on unidentified vegetable that was brown skinned and kind of mushy on the inside. Bland but filling.

“It’s what the guilds call their specific credits, yeah. Don’t know why it's called ‘Gella’. Never actually thought to question it. So, things is, while I’ve got you guys covered for last night and today, I, uh...” her voice lowered to a whisper, “I’m kinda broke now.”

My mouth had gone rather dry and I felt a bit like I’d taken a brick to the gut. Knobs had done nothing but go out of her way to help me and my friends practically from the moment I’d met her. She’d taken us into her home without us even having to ask. Then I’d promptly acted like a reckless fool which had cost her that home. Now, helping us fix even more of the fallout of that fiasco she’d spent the rest of her money?

No, no way I was letting this go without paying her back. My brain kicked into overdrive as I sat up in the bed and set aside the tray of unfinished food. “Okay, Knobs, you’ve done way more for us that I could have ever expected, so let us help you now. Just how much did all of this cost?”

“Eeehhh, if we were to put a figure on it in Wasteland caps?” Knobs glanced upwards and murmured some numbers under her breath, “Somewhere around six or seven thousand caps.”

Ouch. Yet not the highest figure I’d heard in terms of caps. In fact I was worth more in terms of my bounty. A bounty that I couldn’t keep having to deal with anyway so... could there be a way to remove the bounty and pay back Knobs at the same time?

An idea started to form in my mind. A terrible, stupid idea.

“Knobs, what if I told you I had a way to pay you back for every cap you’ve spent on us, and as an added bonus I get that bounty removed from my head?”

She looked at me with a understandably worried expression, “I’d say I could ask Harshcare about checking you for further head trauma?”

“Well, it's a fair bet head trauma is going to be involved at some point, just hopefully not for me. Oh, we’re going to need Crossfire for this.”

That caused Arcaidia to scrunch her muzzle up, “Why we need angry shooty mare for Longwalk plan? What is ren solva planning?”

I grinned at the two mares in what I hoped was a confident fashion, pouring that confidence into my voice as I declared, “Why, I’m going to let her turn me in for the bounty, of course!”

----------

A few hours later we were assembled in a meeting room Knobs had managed to get put aside for us. It was a decent sized room with a set of somewhat worn out couches arranged around a central, low table. One wall had this odd hanging thing Knobs told me was a ‘white board’. It was like a big picture frame covered in a white hard surface that apparently you could write on with colored markers. I found it fascinating, making random doodles with a black marker, then wiping them away with a hoof.

B.B stood by the door, leaning against the wall, while Arcaidia and Knobs had seats on one of the couches. Blasting Cap was sitting besides Knobs, squirming and glaring at most everypony present. Waunita and Braindead took up another couch, and awkwardness dripped from both griffin and the black coated Raider. Braindead looked almost like a caged animal, twitching randomly every few moments.

Finally Crossfire stood by the door, her eyes boring into me like a pair of golden bullets. Her tail swished behind her angrily as her tone darkly drawled, “You’re a fucking idiot. Just need to say that for the record.”

“Okay, okay, I know this was my mess I made,” I said with a diplomatic air, “That’s why I’m going to do everything I can to fix it. I just need to know that you’ll hear me out on this, first, because I don’t think this plan will work without you, Crossfire.”

“The only reason I’m standing here, instead of knocking your teeth out, is because of her,” she gestured a hoof at Knobs, “And believe me, my patience is still hanging by a thread with you, Mr. Hero. You’ve cost my best friend the house she worked years to get, and also convinced her to blow a lot of her savings just to save your Raider fucktoy when quite frankly trash like her deserves to bleed out in the street. So, yeah, better make this good, because I haven’t quite decided if I’m walking out of here with your head mounted on my bayonet.”

“Well, first off, the bounty is for me alive. Killing me is just going to cost you caps, and that’s what we need here, right? Caps? Enough to restore Knobs’ savings and get her a new place just as good if not better than the one she was at.”

“I didn’t help out for the sake of getting paid back,” Knobs began but Arcaidia interrupted her.

“If one thing ren solva understand in his toaster head, it is paying back debt. Not argue, ghoul pony. Longwalk need do this, yet as friends so do we. I claim his debt as mine too, so I help you and not hear any saying of ‘no’ to that.”

“Besides,” I said, “What I’m planning here is actually extremely simple. I’m trusting you a lot on this Crossfire, but once you hear the plan, I think you’ll understand there’s no drawback to you here. So, first things first, Waunita, Braindead, I’m sorry I dragged you two into all of this.”

The griffin started in her seat, as if surprised to be talked to. She looked uneasily towards Braindead as she said, “Weren’t your fault by my count. Wasn’t you who was a Raider in disguise.”

Braindead winced as if physically struck, his head drooping down along with his ears. His voice was a shaking croak, “I-I’m sorry. I...” he glanced between Waunita and me, finally resting on me with a look of fear. “After you lot killed off the old crew b-but let me, Binge, and Redwire go I thought about what to do. Redwire dragged me along for… for letting off steam. She wants to kill you. It was all she talked about, and I thought she’d kill me just to scratch her itch. Instead she just used me for practice. She can do shit with a knife or bit of razor wire that… fuck. When we heard about the huge ass raid on the city, and that all the Raider clans were being rounded up by some big boss for it, Redwire wanted to join. I think she figured you’d end up fighting against the raid at some point, so she’d find you on the battlefield eventually. Me… I… I decided rather than getting my balls shot off in a fight that big I’d try something new. I’d try to, I don’t know, make a clean break. Start over. Couldn’t be worse than what I’d been doing. So I snuck off from Redwire, mixed in with some of the ponies going into the city, and just tried to figure shit out. Waunita found me near starving to death in on the street and took me in... gave me a job... gave me a chance to be a pony again.”

Waunita took in a sharp breath and turned to stare at him, “I thought you were just a down on his luck ganger or some shit. If I’d known you were a Raider I’d probably have left you curled up in the gutter. For fuck’s sake BD, you could have told me!”

“I was scared,” he said miserably, “I’ve always been scared. Was easier to just fall in with the others and do what was expected of me, kill to eat, kill just to feel something... it was easier.”

“Oh, and that suddenly changed when someone managed to kill most of you fuckers back? At least most Raiders have the decency to just stay awful and get killed off. What’s with the sudden want of a heel turn?” the griffiness spat back at Braindead, who flinched away from her.

“I don’t know. I just wanted to not die! I knew I’d die if I stuck with Redwire, or went back to any other bunch of Raiders, so there just wasn’t any other option but to try and be normal, even if I knew it’d probably never work out. I still feel it, you know, the urges. I’ve been trying so hard to keep it hidden, but I lost count of how many times I wanted to kill one of the customers. I’d been having dreams about it....”

“Hey,” I said, stepping forward, “If there’s even a small part of you that’s trying to stop being what you were, then that’s all I need to hear. Here’s what I need to know, Waunita, you planning on going back to the Drunken Ass?”

“I figure I will. Grill won’t hold it against me that I ran off with BD once he hears the whole story, and it's not like I got anywhere else to go.”

“Perhaps, but you did say you were only working there so you could get up the caps to start traveling again, right?” I asked, and Waunita’s head cocked at me in that strange way griffin’s seemed to, with one eye focusing on me. I went on to say, “What if I offered both of you a new home, where you can both start up new lives? Braindead, you can figure things out there without having to worry about discovery, and Waunita, you can earn a shot at traveling the Wasteland again.”

“No offense but that kind of sounds too good to be real. Griffins got a saying; a fair breeze heralds a storm. So what’s the catch here?”

“The catch is that your new neighbors will be a tad... odd,” I said, chuckling, “That, and they’ll probably want you to do some work for them to earn your keep, but I imagine it’ll be fairer and faster than what either of you would find around the Outskirts.”

I spent the next few minutes rather rapidly trying to explain and summarize what Stable 104 was and the nature of the spider ponies who inhabited it now. I supposed I should have expected to get the strange looks I did, not just from Waunita and Braindead, but Crossfire and Blasting Cap as well.

“What kind of crazy ass drugs are you on?” asked Blasting Cap, “And is it possible to get me some of that shit?”

Knobs frowned, “Blasting Cap, no drugs at your age.”

Blasting Cap snorted, “Momma let me have drugs.”

“Yes, well, we’re going to try some restraint from now on. When you’re older you can put whatever you want in your body, but a filly your age needs nutrition, not hallucinogens.”

“Mushrooms have vitamins in them, don’t they?”

“I don’t think those are the right kind of mushrooms.”

I cleared my throat, “Anywhos, I’m not making this up. Either B.B or Arcaidia can corroborate what I’m sayin. I’m pretty sure the Stable’s residents would be willing to take you two in. They did so for some of my tribe after I rescued them from some rather... unreasonable ponies. The place is large enough to hold a population of hundreds, so they're hardly strapped for space. You’d just have to be willing to do something to help the spider ponies out in return, probably hunting, or exploring, or fixing things... I don’t know, whatever you happen to be good at.”

“Do they need anypony skinned?” asked Braindead, then blanched at the looks he was given, “It… it was a joke...”

Waunita still didn’t looked convinced, but she did tap her beak in thought, “If you’re not bullshitting us...might not be too bad. If they’re reasonable enough about compensation then I could do them some favors. I can cook, hunt, and do recon for them. Never been in a Stable before, but I’ve heard the rumors. Might not be a bad place to live, even as just a place to base myself out of for exploring. Okay, so let’s say I bite. How do you plan on getting us there?”

“That’s where this connects to my plan to help Knobs. You see, this Stable has access to a lot of advanced gadgets and doo-dads that the spider ponies built back when they were just normal ponies doing research. One of those devices can open up portals over a long distance. It, uh, heh, mostly works. They can open a portal here and you can walk right there in seconds. That’s also how I plan on escaping from my captors after Crossfire turns me in and collects the bounty.”

A pregnant silence followed for a few moments. I gazed at Crossfire, wondering what the mare might have been thinking. I had been hesitant for somepony like her to learn of Stable 104’s existence, simply because a mare so obsessed with caps as she seemed just struck me as a threat to a Stable filled with all sorts of advanced technology that could be worth a fortune to the Wasteland markets. But I had to repay my debt to Knobs, the same way I had to repay my debt to Arcaidia. I didn’t deny I had made a mistake wandering off last night with Binge. I should have realized how dangerous my situation was and stayed at the Ursa instead of goofing off. It’d nearly cost Binge her life, and it had cost Knobs her home and monetary stability. So if I had to take a few risks to fix things, I could accept that. Besides, Knobs seemed to trust Crossfire. That had to count for something. I’d only ever known Crossfire briefly as a ruthless mercenary, but even then we’d been able to work together against a common threat. I hadn’t forgotten her role in the events that had led to Shale’s death, but right here and now I needed her help. I had to be able to trust her... at least for now.

“There’s a lot of things that could go wrong with this ‘simple’ plan of yours,” Crossfire said with a cold, even tone. She strode towards me with slow, deliberate steps, never breaking eye contact with me. “For one, this hinges on these Stable friends of yours being able to form a portal at the right place and time to get you out.”

“They can track my Pip-Buck, and all it’ll take is one call to them so they know when.”

“Hmph, assuming you can make that call. What if the Labor Guild, after they got their hooves on you, take the Pip-Buck off, genius?”

“Er, well, I mean it takes special tools to remove this thing, right?” I said, scratching the back of my head. Crossfire was nearly in my face now, eyes blazing.

“Sure, assuming they don’t just cut your damned arm off! Even if they don’t, what makes you think they’ll keep you in any condition to make that call? They might dope you up, or beat you unconscious, or just tie you up so you can’t use the Pip-Buck. Seriously, you’ll be lucky if this ‘plan’ doesn’t fall apart in the first five minutes after I hoof you off to the Bounty Guild!”

“I track ren solva then, “ said Arcaidia with a firm nod, “I can do spell to mark Longwalk. If portal plan fails, we rescue him ourselves.”

B.B got off from where she’d been leaning against the wall and stood forward, “While I’m all fer chargin’ in to the rescue like good calvary, we ain’t gonna know where Long’s gonna be taken after these Labor Guild bastards git their hot little hooves on him. Might not be simple to pull him from the fire. Let’s not ferget that LIL-E ain’t called us back yet an’ we got no clue what’s goin’ on wit my pa. Rescuin’ Long will be a’ lot easier with LIL-E’s help.”

I gulped, thinking, “I admit the plan might need some refining, but we can work on the details while waiting for LIL-E to call in. Misty Glasses might not have the portal working again yet anyway, so we can probably sit on this for a day. Rest up, plan, hope LIL-E gets ahold of us.”

Knobs raised a hoof, “I second that, but my guild won’t put you guys up for another night without some kind of further payment.”

“Do you take barter?” I asked, to which Knobs laughed.

“Everypony in the Wasteland takes barter,” she said.

“Well we’ve got the Ursa still loaded up with plenty of supplies from the Stable. We can use that to buy ourselves another night here, right? I didn’t figure it’d be enough to pay back the debt we owe. Unless the Skull Guild is really into carrots and apples?”

“Weeeeellll,” Knobs said, licking her lips, “I like carrots and apples. Prices may vary among my fellow guilders. You might have plenty to barter for caps, but I don’t know just how much you’d end up getting. Still, might be safer than this whole bounty plan of yours.”

I shook my head, “Maybe, but problem is I’d still have a bounty on my head even if we did have enough to barter off the debt. I really need this dealt with otherwise its just going to get harder and harder to do anything while in this city.”

Crossfire rolled her eyes, “Did it ever occur to you that even if this plan of yours works perfectly the Labor Guild would just renew the bounty after you escape?”

“Matter of fact I did, but here’s the thing, just how much can whoever it was that put the bounty on me afford to pay for me? If he or she pays off the eight thousand caps I’m worth right now to you, then renews the bounty after I escaped, wouldn’t they go broke pretty fast themselves?”

To that the mercenary mare paused, then slowly gave a grudging nod, “You may got a point there. Even the Labor Guild isn’t made of caps, and I can’t imagine whoever wants you is going to be able to justify the cost to their superiors if catching you starts sucking too much money out of their coffers. Still a dozen different ways this plan of yours can go south, but it’s your head on the platter, so not feeling all that inclined to stop you if you’re insisting on following through with this stupidity. If you get your dumbass killed I’ll still have the caps to give to Knobs.”

“Believe it or not, Crossfire, that’s part of why I’m going with this plan,” I said, “Even if it goes wrong, Knobs gets paid back.”


For her part Knobs looked uncomfortable, frowning slightly as she ran a hoof over her thin red mane, “I don’t care about the caps, you know. I can always make more. I wouldn’t have spent the Gella or taken the loss of the house if I wasn’t okay with working to get it all back over time.”

“I know, Knobs, but I need to do this,” I said firmly, “Both for you, and to get this bounty dealt with.”

“And for one instance of pure insanity I actually agree with Mr. Hero here,” said Crossfire, giving Knobs a smile that made me blink at her. Most the time Crossfire just tended to sport a scowl or cocky smirk. Seeing that more genuine smile of affection was sort of disturbing to see on her.

Knobs looked between us before holding up her hooves in mock surrender, “Okay, okay, I give. Just make sure you don’t get hurt out there, any of you! Caps aren’t worth lives, so... just be careful.”

“So... plan now be hurry up and wait?” asked Arcaidia.

I smiled, “Hurry up and wait.”

I just hoped LIL-E wouldn’t keep us waiting too long.

----------

I sucked at waiting. Fortunately B.B had something for me to do. We were back in the room where Binge was snoozing away. Spread out on the bed I’d formerly occupied were several sets of cloths which B.B was presenting to me with flourishing waves of her wings.

“Right, so since ya dun tore up an’ bloddied the dickins outta yer dress we’re gonna need a new disguise fer ya ‘till we kick off this plan.”

I looked at her dubiously, “Is this really necessary? I mean, by now word has to be out that I’m in the city somewhere, so won’t bounty hunters be looking for a stallion in disguise?”

“True ‘nough, but no reason ta make it easy on ‘em. If any hunters manage to figure we’re in this tower, which they may well given our Ursa kinda stands out, you ought to make it hard as ya can to be spotted. I mean, I parked the Ursa in the Skull Guild’s parkin’ garage, but it still coulda been spotted. Which means bounty hunters could be crawlin’ all over this tower!”

“I somehow doubt the Skull Guild’s security would be that lax. We got in only because we had Knobs’ help. Doubt many bounty hunters would have the same kind of advantage...” I sighed, “But if you insist, I’ll put on another costume. Thinking you just like dressing me up, though.”

B.B flashed a white grin, with just a hint of fang. She must have noticed me looking because she clamped her mouth shut fast, “Might be I git a bit o’ a kick from tossin’ outfits on ya. Put on more than a few disguise myself in my day an’ its fun ta practice. Amazing how different a pony might act when they got a mask on, ya know?”

Was she talking about me, herself, or somepony else? I put the question from my mind as I looked over the clothes she’d scrounged up. “Where’d you get all this anyway?”

“Skull Guild’s got a’ thrift market in one o’ its sub-levels. Use a bit o’ my own caps ta’ snag some outfits I thought would fit. Got ‘im pretty cheap. I ain’t no greenhorn when it comes to the art o’ the barter, ya know!”

There were three outfits lain out on the bed. One was a dark blue dress, almost as dark as my security armor. It came with a faded white hair ribbon and would probably do well to keep up the appearance of my being a mare. However Double and Trouble were on to that trick and if they told any other bounty hunters about our encounter they’d know to look for a stallion in a dress. The second outfit was rather odd, consisting of a bulky set of brown robes with a large hood and a set of cloth wrappings that apparently were meant to go around my face and head. I somehow imagined I’d look doubly conspicuous in that get-up, but I could see the advantage of robes that’d allow me to hide my armor underneath without any trouble, and B.B suggested the wrappings could be used to make me seem like a ghoul pony instead of a normal one.

The final outfit caught my eye, however. It was a long, long red coat that looked to button up the front with multiple black buttons. Its tail was so long it’d not only cover my flanks and front legs, but dragged almost to the ground around the backend. The coat had a high collar that looked like, when the coat was buttoned up fully, would wrap around and nearly cover my chin. There were several deep pockets on the coat which could hold even a bulky pistol, if I was the type to carry those kinds of weapons. The bright cherry red color was what drew my eye, along with the unusual size of the coat. It didn’t quite look like any outfit I’d seen in the Wasteland thus far.

“Kinda stands out, I know, but it’ll cover ya up enough that ponies won’t recognize ya straight off, an the coat’s loose enough that like the robes ya could fit yer armor under it,” B.B said.

I ran a hoof over the rough material of the coat, face contemplative. It wasn’t leather, but it wasn’t like normal cloth either. More like a smoother, thinner faximile of leather. “Easy enough to take off when I need to, and I’d prefer this over having to keep pretending to be a mare. Hope this didn’t cost you too much.”

“Ha, pocket change after I sweet talked the merchant,” said B.B with a wink, “So ya fancy the coat?”

I gave her a quick smile, “I think I do. Don’t know how well this will hide me, but better than walking around naked.”

I got dressed in short order. B.B had also brought my security armor and saddlebags, so I was able to strap the familiar gecko hide reinforced plates and dark blue cloth on first before slipping into the long coat. It felt heavy on me, but loose enough that I had little trouble moving. It did drag a bit in back, but I could swish my tail around easily enough. B.B helped me with the buttons. I kind of envied the unicorns with their magic, who no doubt had an easier time with clothes like this. No wonder my tribe mostly just went around naked. Finally the saddlebags and strap for Gramzanbers cello case went on my back. With a light chuckle I turned around and struck a pose for B.B.

“So, how do I look o’ makeover artist extraordinaire?”

“Hah, like a’ seasoned Wastelander, or at least somepony’s idea o’ one. The coat brings out yer eye’s color nicely.”

“Heh, never knew you were so into fashion,” I said, to which B.B stroke over and playfully smacked me upside the head with a wing.

“Just got a’ likin’ for things lookin’ pleasin’ to the eye. Ain’t like I’m plannin’ on settlin’ down fer a career in dress makin’. I’m a magician through an’ through! Speakin’ o’ which, hope LIL-E stops her disapearin’ act soon.”

I saw the slight manner in which her wings sagged and I gave her a quick, comforting nuzzle, “She’ll contact us. That robot’s better armed than most of us, and seems to know the Wasteland better than any other pony I’ve met.”

“Yeah, yer right. My pa ran about wit LIL-E since he was a young buck fill o’ spit an’ ready ta take on the Wasteland, and she pulled his keister outta plenty o’ jams in their time.”

“LIL-E has been floating around that long?” I asked, furrowing my brow, wondering. Just how long had LIL-E’s operator been stuck using a robot to explore the Wasteland? My curiosity started to jump about, considering what might have motivated a pony to send a robot like that out into the world to begin with, and why she’d use it to help ponies like B.B’s father, or myself. I’d never pressed LIL-E much about her past. Then again, I didn’t press any of my companions about their pasts.

“She sure has,” said B.B, giving a light laugh and gaining a look in her eyes of fond remembrance, “Was a good sixteen, maybe seventeen years back my pa ran into LIL-E near the border o’ the NCR. He got inta trouble wit a’ bunch o’ nasty critters called Mirelurks near the river that makes up the NRC’s northeast border. Surrounded an’ outta ammo, pa’d been near done for if LIL-E hadn’t come floating right ‘round the bend and blasted them beasties to pieces. She joined up with him on his adventures fer a good two or three years, helpin’ folk, bustin’ critters, explorin’, all that stuff. Then they separated not long after pa... found me...”

She went quiet then, drawing in a deep breath and sighing, “Still so much to tell ya, Long. I’ve owed ya some tales ‘bout me, an’ with Black Petal out there, an’ my Family loomin’ on the horizon somewhere, ya’ll deserve ta know who I was... and what I am.”

There was a weight in her voice like a large stone blocking her throat, and her deep violet eyes weren’t looking at me or anything else in the room. I could see a tension spilling from her spine all the way to the tips of her hooves and I just trotted to the front of her, making her look me in the eyes.

“You know that whatever you end up saying I’m not going to just suddenly stop being your friend, right?”

“Heh, Long, yer the kind o’ stallion that’d try ta make friends wit a rattlesnake after it bit ya in the plot. I git what yer sayin’,” she sucked in a deep breath and let it out slow, “Just ain’t had ta think ‘bout my days wit the Family fer a long time, an’ I ain’t much likin’ rememberin’ what kind o’ mare I was back then. All we were was a’ bunch o’ murderin’ bastards high on our own power. Tossin’ some horseapple philosophy of followin’ the natural order don’t make it smell no better...”

She trailed off, then shook her head with a hard snort. I could only imagine what might have been going through her head. Maybe she just needed something to help break up the snarl of those thoughts? A simple lead in?

“So, instead of telling me the gory details of just what you did or even how you became part of this Family, could you explain just what the blood drinking is all about? If you’re comfortable with that, that is. I mean, I’ve fed you blood once already and I can tell it benefits you, but you don’t seem to need it to live, either.”

The questions had the effect I’d hoped, breaking B.B out of her immediate funk and getting her to think of something a bit more clinical than her sordid past. Granted it still seemed a sour subject deeply connected to this Family of hers, but I hoped the more impersonal nature of the question would help her talk about things as a whole. After a moment of thought B.B bent a wing to point at her mouth, which she opened to display the slight fangs she had.

“What yer lookin’ at, Long, is a mutation. It ain’t common. We’re talkin’ one in a few hundred thousand, or more. The mutation is old as ponykind, an’ only barely documented fer most o’ history even back when ponies gave a lick ‘bout history books. What this mutation does is change a pony down ta thier genes so that their bodies can draw power outta blood. We’re drivin’ ta drink, an’ the blood tastes sweet as water after near dyin’ o’ thirst. Most o’ us just git a bit o’ power from the blood, healin’ simple wounds, maybe bein’ a’ bit stronger or havin’ heightened senses. A few rare ponies with this mutation, well, they’re somethin’ else. The blood they drink gives ‘em power akin ta magic. The more they drink, the more powers they git, an’ what’s more, it keeps ‘em young, lets ‘em live near forever if they ain’t straight up killed. These potent members o’ the Family are called Crimson Nobles and they... we, we run the Family as its elite caste, under the watch o’ the Mistress. She’s the oldest o’ us. The strongest. She’s...”

B.B shivered, taking in a shuddering breath, “I ain’t up ta talkin’ ‘bout her. She found me when I first got a taste o’ blood, an’ she... my parents, she...”

Her eyes went glassy, and I saw the violet of her iris begin to tinge crimson before she took a steadying breath and said, “I lost one family and was forced into another. Iffin’ we’re in a quieter spot, Long, I can tell ya more, but right now I’d rather we just git what’s on our plate cleared. I got too much junk bouncin’ around upstairs right now an’ just want ta focus on the tasks in front of us.”

“I understand. Believe me, I more than understand,” I said, “Thanks for telling me this much. You’ve listened to me any time I’ve had to get something off my chest, so you’d better believe I’m here for you too.”

B.B smiled and looked to be about to say something, but a high pitched giggle filled the room, causing us both to look over to the source. Binge was sitting up in her bed, knees pulled up to her chest and forelimbs laced under her chin as she gazed at us with wide blue eyes. Her mouth was sporting a cheek splitting grin of yellow teeth.

“Awwww, storytime is over already? It sounded like it was getting to the good, bloody bits!” Binge chirped, “I wanted to hear about all the nasty things the birdie did as a chupacabra.”

----------

“An altogether risky plan, but I can at least give you some assurance that we have the portal device fully operational now,” Misty Glasses told me later that day. Binge, while awake, was still confined to her bed by orders of Harshcare. I had only donated blood to her, but she was the one with the recently healed bullet wound, so the doctor wanted her to stay down. I gave it less than even odds that Binge would stay in bed, but I got Arcaidia to promise to keep an eye on the sporadic mare in case Binge decided to go running around.

I couldn’t blame her. I was antsy myself. But wandering around too much was a strict no-no, now. I’d learned my lesson and was keeping to the Skull Guild’s tower, and even then was being cautious about where I went. Knobs had guided me down to the sub-level parking garage where B.B had parked the Ursa and she was now sitting in the seat next to me while I talked to Misty Glasses over the radio, bringing the spider pony scientist up to date on recent events. Including my offer to Waunita and Braindead for a place to stay at the Stable.

“As for these new residents, while there is certainly room for ponies here, I would like to be able to interview both of these individuals before I allow them to take up residence, temporarily or otherwise. I must ensure the safety of my people, you understand?”

“Of course Misty,” I said, pushing back a yawn, “I doubt they’ll object to talking to you first. Now, concerning my plan, how long does it take to warm that protal up once I get work to you to activate it?”

“Not long. You’ve seen it in action once. It should only be a delay of a few minutes. You can be certain I’ll have a security team on standby to help extract you once the portal is established. I do hope you know what you’re doing.”

“You and me both,” I said with a sigh. Then with a deep breath I moved on to the next subject, “Before I let you go, Misty Glasses, I had one more thing I needed to ask you.”

“Go ahead, I’m all ears. Well, I don’t have ears so much as audio receptive canals, but yeah, shoot.”

I hesitated only a second before saying, “When I transfused my blood into Binge something strange happened. She had some kind of reaction to my blood. She went all shaky and stuff, totally freaked out. There were these weird black lines, like hexagons, that appeared on her face. They went away, and she calmed down after a few minutes, but I wanted to know if you had any idea what that might be about?”

There was a long pause on the radio before Misty Glasses voice returned with a reserved, measured pace, “I believe I may have a workable theory on that, yes. I would not wish to discuss it over the radio, on the off chance anypony out there is listening. If Ms. Binge survived her exposure to your blood, then I don’t think there will be an immediate problem. When both of you are returned to the Stable at any point in the future I can explain my theory in detail, and provide some visual aid to better help you understand. For now I will only tell you that the condition I believe you, and no perhaps she, are dealing with is not... strictly harmful. It may in fact be beneficial, and in your case is something that is not a condition so much as long standing biological state.”

“I, uh, don’t know if I quite follow you, but you’re saying neither Binge or me are going to have our heads explode in the near future and we can chill until we find time to come back to the Stable and you’ll actually explain all this in a way that makes sense?” I asked.

“Essentially. I’m sorry, Longwalk, but trying to tell you more would be easier if it was face to face. I can say with some security that you don’t have anything to worry about in the immediate sense, so this conversation can wait until you’ve dealt with matters in Skull City.”

“That may take awhile,” I warned, “Way things are shaping up we might be here for a few days at least, or more depending on how soon we hear from LIL-E and how long it takes for me to arrange transport to the NCR. Oh, and I still need to dig up information on Odessa. I’m barely able to get my head wrapped around it all, but getting my bounty cleared seems a good start.”

“And I wish you the best of luck, to you and all of your companions,” said Misty Glasses, “Speed of the Goddesses go with you, Longwalk. Stable 104, out.”

“Ancestors watch over you,” I said, then clicked off the radio. With a sigh I leaned back in my seat, rubbing my forehead.

“Ancestors watch over me, too, because I’m going to need all the help I can get.” Next to me Knobs chuckled and gave my shoulder a small hoof bump.

“You’ll have Crossfire with you, so you ought to be fine. She’s a professional.”

I couldn’t help but give her a sidelong long, “A professional pain in the flank, maybe. Did I mention the last time I worked with her she shot me out the back of a flying machine? Okay, so credit to her, she only did it to defeat a psycho military officer with time warping powers, but still. Besides, her job is just to turn me in, collect the caps, then deliver them to your hoof. Past that it’s just me waiting for a chance to call for the portal and escape scott free.”

“Who’s scott?”

“... I don’t know.”

“... Annnnyway, I think you’re not giving Crossfire enough credit. I know you two had a real rough first meeting, and maybe she did some things that weren’t exactly kind to you-” Knobs began and I felt a short flash of anger. Not so much at Knobs, but at certain unpleasant memories as I spoke in a cold undertone.

“Kind? She sent an unarmed mare with a bomb collar around her neck down into a monster infested ruin with me just to motivate me not to cross her!” I closed my eyes and bit out the next words, “That mare’s name was Shale, and she died in that forsaken Ruin! I’m willing to work with Crossfire, I’m even willing to set aside the past and not look for payback for Shale... but I don’t think I’m giving Crossfire any less credit than she deserves. The only reason I made her part of the plan is because I think it’ll make the whole thing look credible to the Bounty Guild. If it's Crossfire that turns me in they won’t think my escape afterward was part of the plan. Not if mare with her reputation is the one that claims the bounty on me.”

I felt a little bad, seeing the way Knobs’ ears fell and she flinched, looking away from me. Before I could apologize, however, she said, “I know. I know Crossfire has done some pretty bad things. Not just to you, but a lot of ponies, over the years since I’ve known her. Please try to understand, everything she’s done, both the good and bad, all the work she’s put in trying to make caps... all of that is because of me.”

“You?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

Knobs patted one of her artificial wheel legs, a bitter smile on her lips, “Crossfire doesn’t think I know, but she never was good at hiding things. She’s been collecting caps all these years because she plans to buy me new legs. Fully cybernetic. The Medical Guild has access to an old OCP cybernetics facility, one they used to use for some kind of police program back in the day. The surgery is pricey. Crossfire’s been obsessed with affording it for me ever since I lost my legs. She blames herself for the whole thing. Mare doesn’t know how to let the past go, I think. I’ve tried so many times to get her to just forget about it and move on! I’m fine with these wheels. Sure I can’t dance a jig to save my life, and stairs, don’t even get me started on stairs... but I lost my legs because of my choice to help Crossfire when I first met her. My choice, and my fault. But Crossfire, she’d never hear of it. To her every problem is something she has to fix herself, no matter what she has to do, or who she ends up hurting, to do it.”

A frown passed over my face as I chewed on those words. Crossfire had never struck me as the sort to make friends in the first place, let alone one as kind hearted as Knobs had proven to be. Then again, I’d only known Crossfire a short time, and in some seriously extreme circumstances. Was it so unbelievable that I hadn’t encountered Crossfire while she’d been at her best? Did it matter, though? Whatever her reasons Crossfire was still a unscrupulous mercenary, and that was describing her generously. I didn’t disbelieve that Knobs and Crossfire shared a bond. Crossfire seemed to be willing to listen to Knobs, despite being a mare who by all other appearances only cared about herself. Could I buy that Crossfire had become the mare she was by obsessing over paying back a debt she felt she owed to who was quite possibly her only friend...?

Somehow that sounded familiar, and left me feeling uncomfortably self conscious. After all, I was on this insane journey to pay back a debt I felt I owed to Arcaidia. Even now, with this scheme to turn myself into the Bounty Guild, I was motivated by a sense of paying back a debt to Knobs.

Maybe me and Crossfire were more akin to each other than I wanted to admit. I’d only been out in the Wasteland a few weeks, and already had done things I’d never imagined myself doing; including taking the lives of others. Blasting Cap was living proof that under the right conditions I could be pushed to kill. Crossfire had been dealing with this world for many years more than me. If I too somehow lived that long out here would I become as jaded and ruthless as Crossfire was, only holding onto one friend and shred of honor to maintain any sense of virtue?

With a heavy sigh I looked at Knobs, “Okay, I’ll grant you that I don’t really know Crossfire the way you probably do. I don’t know what you and her went through in the past, or what she’s had to do over the course of her life. That doesn’t make her actions any better, mind you, or mean that I think she’s some kind of hidden paragon underneath all that grit. But... If you can believe in her, I’ll try to put a bit of trust in her too. Just don’t blame me if I keep one eye on her at the same time, just in case.”

Knobs gave me one of her gleaming, bright eyed smiles that could light up any patch of grungy Wasteland any day of the week and gave me a quick hug, “That’s all I ask. Give her a chance. She might surprise you.”

I was about to suggest we go regroup with the others and maybe grab some dinner as a group, but there was a violent quake that rocked the Ursa, throwing me out of the driver’s seat and causing me to smack my head against the dashboard. I heard an explosive crash of noise only partially muffled by the walls of the vehicle, and through the windows I could see off to the left a billowing cloud of thick gray dust filling the underground parking garage.

“W-what the...?” I blinked, rubbing my forehead as I blinked in surprise.

Knobs had kept her balance better and quickly leaned over me, sticking her head near against the window, her eyes wide. “Those sounded like explosions! Oh, no, that came from the direction of the market! Quick, we gotta to help! Ponies could be hurt out there!”

“Wait, Knobs!” I shouted, but she was quite a bit faster than I expected a mare with two missing legs. Like a swiftly thrown spear she flung open the passenger side door and hopped out, landing hard on her front legs and then wheeling off in smooth motions as her artificial back wheels caught up with her galloping front legs.

I scrambled after her, remembering just in time to snatch up the cello case with Gramzanber in it, which I’d set against the back of my seat when I’d sat down. Hoping out onto the cold concrete floor of the garage I coughed as bits of dust made their way into my lungs. I threw the cello case down and hastily flipped its laches open. At the moment I didn’t care if I was spotted, I didn’t want to take any chances if I needed Gramzanber.

The silver ARM seemed to hum as I lifted it from its case, as if it’d missed me and was purring. I tried not to be too weirded out by that as my mouth clamped around the shaft and went to catch up with Knobs. At the same time my Pip-Buck was going nuts. It’s E.F.S, something I had learned to tune out for the most part since arriving in Skull City, was now showing me a kaleidoscope of signals. A bunch of green and yellow dots were scattered and moving erratically in the direction the explosions had occurred, and now, blooming like a small wave of blood, was a solid line of red dots that were swarming.

“That’s not good. Really not good! Knobs! Slow down!”

I galloped after her, seeing the mare’s cheery red mane ahead of me through a shroud of clinging gray dust. I didn’t think I had time to slow down and use my radio to call Arcaidia for help. Knowing her she must have felt this explosion and I didn’t doubt my friends would be on their way. What had happened anyway? Was this some kind attack, or an accident, or what?

The parking garage was pretty large, with multiple wide concrete pillars that held up the ceiling. There weren’t many actual vehicles down here, at least none like the Ursa. Mostly there were simple wagons parked to either load or unload supplies. Ponies were standing around in dazed confusion, even more trained feral ghouls shuffling with nervous growls beside their masters. I’d done my best to try to ignore the sheer number of emaciated dead looking feral ghouls, as they made me nervous in a way a thinking ghoul just didn’t. I saw several ghouls and normal ponies in Skull Guild coats moving to control the ferals, casting spells or using lanterns that glowed with a strange blue fire to seemingly draw the ferals’ attention and put them in a trance-like state.

Several such Skull Guild ponies were also gathering in a group under the direction of a short yellow stallion who seemed to have taken charge. When he saw me running by he shouted for me to stop, but I only shouted back, “Sorry, can’t! Friend in danger! Go get help! You’ve got something down here that’s real unfriendly!”

My words couldn’t have proved more prophetic, for at that same instant the sound of screams could be heard from the obscured area where the explosions had occurred, the noise of dozens of ponies in panic and terror. This was followed by piercing wails and unearthly shrieks that couldn’t come from any normal throat. I redoubled my speed, rushing towards the sounds, and where I could just barely make out Knobs ahead of me.

I passed through a long, rectangular opening in the wall that led to another part of the parking garage, one that I’d only seen briefly when Knobs first took me down here. It’d been a huge underground market, where ponies both from the Skull Guild or visiting guests could browse various wares, including pens with trained feral ghouls available for purchase. Where there had once been a wide space of dozens of stalls there was now just a huge, sunken crater. It was as if the ground had sunk into a slope, dropping half the merchant stalls into a lower level, including scores of helpless ponies. As I looked I could see ponies crawling from the rubble, while many others lay broken, twisted, either dead or barely able to move as they moaned in agony.

At the very center of the sloped crater was a hole, smoking, and from that hole there were creatures pouring forth. I halted for a second, gasping as I recognized the creatures that rushed upwards into the crater and began to slaughter the ponies trapped there. Most of them were skeletal ponies, with their charred or bleached bones shot through with a veiny, purple substance. There were at least four or five of the large, metal plated monstrosities that I’d mentally termed BATs back on the Odessa airship, carrying their large halberd weapons. There were also several new monsters, strange four legged things whose limbs were little more than large, metallic spikes. They had upright bodies, also sporting a pair of spear-like arms, and small orb shaped heads that had single baleful glowing red eyes much like the BATs.

These were Hyadean shock troops, and a part of my mind wondered at what they were doing here or how they’d started this attack, but that part or my brain shut down fast as instinct took over. I saw Knobs rushing towards one of the skeletal ponies that had made the edge of the crater, raising its dark steel sword to strike at a stallion who was trying to crawl out. I rushed to help, but as it turned out it wasn’t needed.

With a wordless shout, Knobs galloped right up to the skeleton and with a smooth slide on one of her back leg wheels she lashed out with the other leg and smacked it wheel straight into the skeleton’s chest, sending it sprawling back down into the crater. “C’mon! Grab my hoof!” she said to the stallion, who looked dazed but he took her hoof and Knobs hauled him the rest of the way out of the crater.

Several of the other skeletal monstrosities took note of fresh ponies on the scene and pointed their blades in Knobs direction. I noticed the same dark concentration of inky magic I’d seen these things fire back on the Varukisas, and didn’t waste a second in charging the lip of the crater and throwing myself towards these horrid things. Unlike when I was faced with violence against my fellow ponies, here I had no sense of hesitation or doubt. These were monsters I could fight without reservations.

Gramzanber cut down, its brilliant edge cutting a clean path through the body of one of the skeletons while I landed hard on the sloping concrete rubble of the crater. I twisted so the spear’s edge knocked another skeleton’s blade off target as I also kicked out with a hind leg, cracking the leg bone of a third. My sudden assault threw the skeletons into momentary disarray, the magical beams of darkness slicing through the air harmlessly instead of burning into their intended victims. The one skeleton I’d sliced in half fell with its two parts clattering loudly to the ground, the purple ooze that animated its bones fizzing and popping like acid as it turned into vaporous smoke.

I pressed my attack, spearing one skeleton through the chest and heaving it bodily towards one of its companions, sending both tumbling down the crater’s slope like a collection of angrily tossed foal’s toys.

A hot red beam of power sliced by my face, its searing heat making my cheek hairs burn. I looked down to see one of the BATs aiming its halberd at me, its single red eye glowing brightly from the beam it had just fired. Its green armored plates clanked as its square, muscular body charged up the slope at me. I saw its eye flash again and I threw myself sideways, narrowly avoiding another of its scorching energy rays. I could see out of my peripheral vision that I was drawing attention from the new creatures as well, the strange spike-limbed ones. At least two or three were rapidly rushing my position with disturbing hopping motions, the metal spikes that made up their arms and legs seeming to effortlessly stab into stone to anchor them for each leap.

Spikers, I mentally dubbed them. Yes, I know, I’m not always a very imaginative pony. I blame the fact that I was in a life or death situation.

The BAT was closer and reached me first, its axe like blade cleaving right for my skull. I turned my body slightly, bracing with my legs as I brought Gramzanber in line to parry. Two different kinds of alien steel clashed and I was reminded of how stupidly strong these things I’d dubbed ‘Big Ass Troopers’ were. The power behind the monster’s blow knocked me to my knees and sent jolts of pain through my shaking bones. The BAT wasn’t slow, either, drawing back an armored fist and jabbing at me while I was off balance. I managed to roll with the blow, taking it on the shoulder, but the impact still hurt like a bitch and would no doubt leave quite the bruise, assuming I survived.

Shuffling my hooves I ducked to the left, underneath a follow up swing from the BAT’s large pole axe. I lashed out with Gramzanber, cutting a deep furrow in the armor plating of the creature’s midsection. Sparks and brackish violet goo spilled forth, filling the air with an acidic stench. As the BAT stumbled backwards from the hit I thought to press in and try and finish it, but I saw out of the corner of my eye the two Spikers coming my way. The beasts simultaneously leapt into the air, each easily clearing ten feet of height as they arced towards me. I thought I had until they landed to avoid any attacks, but these things caught me off guard. Each thrust one of their spiked arms forward and to my shock the metal spikes extended as if by magic, instantly spanning the gap of distance between us.

To avoid what could have easily been fatal blows I instinctively activated Accelerator. The world snapped into indigo focus just in time for me to twist one way then another to barely avoid being skewered by the spikes. I could see the spikes embed into the concrete slope and the Spikers were actually being pulled towards me rapidly, not unlike how I could use my Grapple line. Not wasting an instant of my Accelerator, I jumped forward, angling the spear upwards into a solid thrust at the chest of one of the Spiker’s as it passed overhead.

The spear bit deeply and I felt a sensation of satisfaction that seemed to stem both from myself and Gramzanber as the Spiker’s body was impaled, purple blood flowing down like a river. Yet even as I pulled my ARM free from the one Spiker’s twitching body I was caught by surprise again. The other Spiker, far faster than I would have expected anything to move while I was using Accelerator, managed to twist its body in midair, and it aimed all four of its lower spiked limbs at me. The limbs shot forward much like its arm spike had, creating a small wall of pointed death flying at me. Even with Accelerator’s speed I couldn’t move fast enough to avoid one of the spikes tearing through my new red coat and piercing the security armor underneath. Hot pain flashed through me, radiating from where the tip of the spike I’d failed to avoid had torn into my flank. To my shock the pain rapidly intensified as I felt what must’ve been barbs extending from the spike in my flesh, anchoring it to my flank as the Spiker itself landed from its leap and kicked hard with the spiked leg it’d just pierced me with.

I felt raw agony as I was thrown bodily through the air with the barbed spike attached to my flank heaving me like a tiny gecko. I experienced a moment of vertigo before I slammed hard into the concrete slope opposite where I’d just been, rattling my senses. Accelerator was still active, granting me just enough time to gather my wits before the Spiker could toss me again. Growling through my stunned state I lashed out with Gramzanber, biting down hard on the shaft to keep from screaming at the pain as I severed the Spiker’s leg from where it’d been stuck in my flank. There was still a piece of it embedded in me, blood soaking the black material of my armor, but I focused past the pain and stood.

I’d only been using Accelerator for a few moments and knew I could take it a bit further, and my charge had distracted the initial surge of Hyadean monsters that had erupted from the hole at the bottom of the crater. Now my main concern was making sure as many surviving ponies still stuck in the crater could get out alive. Looking around I spotted several ponies either crawling or hobbling for their lives, desperately trying to get out of the crater as monsters advanced on them. I still only say Knobs at the top of the crater, now having drawn out a semi-automatic pistol of a make I didn’t recognize. She held it in a field of levitation magic and was firing on the BAT I’d injured before, keeping the thing off balance for the moment. I was surprised to see her rounds actually penetrating the monster’s thick armor, and could only assume she was using some kind of armor piercing ammunition.

Of the ponies trying to escape the crater the closest to me was a mare and stallion, both hobbling as they tried to support each other despite injured limbs and the stallion having a profusely bleeding head wound. Two skeletal ponies were giving chase, quickly catching up. Without hesitation I leapt after them, gritting my teeth to ignore the pain in my flank as I hopped from one precarious part of the slope to the next. Fortunately with Accelerator active I made fast progress, getting to the skeletons well before they closed the distance to their intended victims.

I reached the first skeleton just as it was raising its black metal sword, magical crests forming in a circle around it in preparation to cast its spell of melding dark energy. Gramzanber smashed right through the skeleton’s skull, and I moved past it without thinking, turning so that the back end of Gramzanber’s shaft hit the second skeleton cleanly in the chest, smashing through ribs and spine.

For a second I felt elated, but that feeling turned to dust inside me as I turned to see that while I’d been taking out the skeletons the two ponies I’d been trying to help had been taken by surprise from a Spiker that had somehow crawled its way up onto the ceiling. The beast’s red eye had flashed as it lashed out with a spike arm, extending it unnaturally to spear through the helpless mare’s torso as if she were a piece of meat being picked up by a fork. With Accelerator’s slow motion I got the distinct horror of seeing her face twist in pain and her eyes widen in desperate fear as the Spiker lifted her bodily off the ground, pulling its arm back as easily as it had extended it. Her companion fell to the slope without her support, looking on in shock as the mare’s impaled body was dragged upwards.

Anger boiled inside me. I knew it was too late to save the mare, but raised my left hoof, aiming my Grapple. I knew I was risking using Accelerator too long, yet at that moment I didn’t care. I took careful aim and the hooked grappling hook shoot out, flying up and wrapping around the torso of the Spiker clutched to the ceiling. With a gesture I used the Grapple’s magic to lessen the Spiker’s weight and with a savage yank I pulled it from the ceiling. My satisfaction was dulled, seeing the Spiker hit the ground headfirst, its neck bending awkwardly in the process. I saw the mare’s lifeless body flop to the ground beside the Spiker, removing any sense of accomplishment. Pushing my feelings down I rushed the Spiker’s body, spearing it just to ensure it was good and dead. I spared a final, saddened look at the dead mare, whose eyes were still open lifelessly with the her final expression of fear, and I pushed down my own emotions. I didn’t have time.

Not wasting a second further I went to the fallen stallion, who barely seemed to register what had happened. I saw his fear as I grabbed him and began to haul him to the crater lip. With Accelerator on I imagined I looked little more like a blue blur to the stallion’s eyes, everything happened too fast for him to know what was happening. Still I brought him to the crater lip and sat him there, not pausing in turning around to look for more ponies to try and help.

Longwalk… too much... I heard that warning, feminine voice in my head, the one I knew was somehow attached to Gramzanber..

I know, I thought back, just a moment longer.

I saw three more ponies a few dozen paces away, two who were dragging an unconscious third away from the slow advance of a BAT. I aimed my Grapple and fired it the same moment I deactivated Accelerator. The world returned back to its normal color and speed as my Grapple line attached to the BAT. Instead of lowering its weight, I lowered my own. I felt myself lighten as the Grapple line pulled on me, drawing me across the space like a feather being yanked in the wind. The BAT, sensing something incoming, turned just in time to get a face full of Gramzanber.

My body impacted with the BAT’s bulky body just as I shoved Gramzanber into the joint between the monster’s squared head and the rest of its body. Pain, both from the impact and the backlash of Accelerator wracked my body as violet blood spurted in a small fountain from where Gramzanber’s silver edge bit deeply into the BAT’s neck. The broad, squat beast of green armored plates shuddered and stumbled backwards, hitting the slope hard and sliding downward in a shower of dust and loose concrete, with me still atop its body. I rolled off of it just as the monster fell back through the hole. I heard its body crash down to the bottom, perhaps ten feet down to whatever lower level was down there.

Coughing dust from my lungs I rolled to my hooves, dizzy with pain, but unwilling to consider so much as slowing down. Not while I still had any chance at all to save lives!

A shadow loomed in my blurred vision and I looked up to see another BAT had somehow managed to get right on top of me while I’d been getting to my hooves. Its massive pole axe was poised to smashed right down onto me. Desperately I rolled. I felt the axe blade impact right where I’d been a split second ago and concrete shards pelted me from the near miss. Even so I couldn’t get my hooves under me in time to avoid the BAT’s follow up blow, a heavy and merciless kick that caught me in the head and nearly sent me back flipping head over flank.

I heard nothing but a ringing in my ears and felt little more than nauseous spinning in my head. The taste of blood filled my mouth from a split lip. I could tell I’d lost my grip on Gramzanber, the spear having been knocked from my mouth by the vicious kick to the face I’d just taken.

I rose on unsteady hooves, looking up to see the BAT looking right at me with its single eye like a pool of blood as it glowed, preparing to fire an energy beam straight at me. Gramzanber lay just a few paces away, but it may as well been miles for all the chance I had of getting to it in time. With no other choice, and certainly having no intention of giving up, I threw myself bodily at the BAT, hoping to tackling it off balance and that against all odds its aim would be off.

It’s aim was off, but not because of my last ditch tackle. No, I saw a flash of green energy bolts fly from the dark hole in the bottom of the crater. I caught just a flash of a metallic body and an instant of orange mane in the shadows illuminated by the green bolts. The plasma slammed into the BAT’s head, knocking its aim off balance so the heated red beam slashed over me as I hit its left knee joint with the entire weight of my body. Despite its weight I was able to knock the leg out from under the BAT, causing it to stumble down for an instant.

I was confused about who had just fired on it, though the orange mane had looked familiar for an instant, but I had no time to think on it. Instead I made a leap for Gramzanber, clamping my mouth around it. I spun around, the world tilting just a bit as dizziness from my injuries tried to overwhelm me. The BAT was regaining its balance, turning its head towards me, red eye sparking with energy. I charged, turning Gramzanber’s broad blade so it shielded me from the BATs oncoming beam, which deflected off the silver spear into the ceiling to leave a hot trail of half melted stone.

Reaching the BAT I twisted myself to slash in a heavy crossdown path that cut deeply through the BAT’s chest piece. Sparks and blood flew and the BAT made a sound that was somewhere between a mechanical whine and an unearthly gurgle as it fell back, its red eye going dim. For a moment I glanced back at the hole where my savior had fired from, but it was black and shadowy now, showing nothing. Who had fired? Wait, could it have been...?

A scream from my left turned my head, and I saw that another Spiker had landed at the lip of the crater, blocking the path of the three ponies I’d rescued earlier. The Spiker poised to attack, but before it could its head exploded in a shower of metal bits and purple gore from a deafening gunshot.

“For the records, Knobs, I’m charging the Skull Guild a nominal fee for this!” Crossfire shouted as she kicked the Spiker’s twitching body aside and stood at the lip of the crater. Her massive rifle floated easily in her red magic aura beside her and the experienced Drifter’s eyes narrowed as she took in the scene, and without so much as batting an eyelash began to fire down at the remaining Hyadean monsters.

She wasn’t alone, easily ten or so Skull Guild ponies, more than half of them non-feral ghouls, all wearing the black coats of the guild arrived. They carried various weapons, but more than the added volume of gunfire the Skull Guild ponies brought those strange lanterns with the blue flames. I saw the horns of the unicorns in the group casting spells while the non unicorns brought out strange talismans that glowed with similar blue light ot the lanterns. The entire chamber was suddenly filled with a haunting, wordless singing, like the wails of long departed souls.

In seconds at least thirty or so feral ghouls, or rather trained ghouls, rushed the lip of the crater, following some unseen commands that I could only fathom were being conducted through that magical, ethereal song. The ferals poured down the crater without hesitation or care for danger. Red and dark beams flew up from the remaining Hyadean creatures, killing half a dozen ghouls in seconds, yet the ferals just growled and gnashed their teeth as they rushed into the onslaught. They ignored the living ponies still in the crater, how I have no idea, but they zeroed in on the monsters. I watched in fascination as five or six ghouls leapt upon a BAT, the same one I’d injured at the start of the fight, and with ripping hooves and teeth bore the armored beast to the ground.

A Spiker moved quickly, lashing out with spiked arms and legs, killing three ghouls in seconds, but it too was overwhelmed and covered by tearing ghouls that ripped at the monster with unrestrained ferocity. The remaining skeletons fared even worse, torn apart even as they slashed with their swords.

It was over faster than I would have imagined, my own tired, wounded body keeping me rooted where I was as I watched the combined fire from the Skull Guild ponies and the savagery of their trained ghouls finishing off the last of the Hyadean monsters within a mere minute. Knobs actually got the last kill, her pistol blasting the skull off the final skeleton with a well aimed shot.

In moments the tone of the magical singing changed and blue balls of fire, like small bugs, flitted about the crater. The floating flames hovered around the heads of the remaining feral ghouls and their snarling and growling gradually ceased until each ghoul’s milky eyes were staring off at the flames in a daze. One by one the ferals left the crater and the Skull Guild ponies started to head down to gather the wounded survivors.

Crossfire went down as well, alongside Knobs. Crossfire was focused on the bodies of the Hyadean monsters, and any that had an intact head she put a bullet in without hesitation. I couldn’t blame her, I wouldn’t want to risk one of these things getting back up either.

“Ren solva? Longwalk!?” I heard a cry from above and looked up to see Arcaidia there at the lip of the crater now, with B.B flying overhead. The pegasus mare pointed me out and Arcaidia waved and began to hop down towards me.

I just remained where I was, calling out, “I’m okay… ugh… mostly.”

“You’re a dumbass,” Crossfire stated bluntly as she reached me, Knbs trotting gingerly next to her. “Both of you.”

“Hey now, we were just the closest ponies Crossfire, no need to get hostile,” said Knobs.

Crossfire grunted, giving Knobs a look of mixed ire and concern, “How many times have I told you not to rush into shit like this? If the idiot meatshield wasn’t also here to soak up all the attention how long would you have lasted trying to fight these Ruin monsters off?”

Ruin monsters? Was that what Crossfire thought these were? I supposed it made sense. I’d run into weird monsters in Ruins already, and the Hyadean shock troops looked similar in a lot of ways. I didn’t bother to correct her as I took a step forward, “She just did what made sense at the time, Crossfire.”

The black mare snapped her head back at me with a sharp glare, “Run headlong into danger?”

“Try to help ponies.”

Crossfire snorted, then took in a deep breath and let it out as she looked towards the hole at the bottom of the crater, “Where’d these things come from? Any ideas, Mr. Hero?”

By now Arcaidia and B.B had caught up. I saw Arcaidia was looking at the remains of the Hyadean monsters with cold eyes, though I also saw a tightness around them that suggested at just how tense seeing the bodies was making her. She gave me a softer look as she saw my injuries. Without a word she began to tend to my wounds, using magic to heal the surface injuries.

“I don’t know, I-arrrgh!” I bit back a louder scream as Arcaidia removed the Spiker’s barb from my flank, then I continued on, “I guess they must have come up from some lower level. Knobs, what’s below here?”

“Just storage, on this end. There’s training facilities one level down, but that’s on the east wing. Below the market there’s just a level of storage rooms, then you hit the maintenance tunnels that lead to the sewer system and old metro tunnels,” Knobs said, and she cast a look at Crossfire that seemed to contain some meaning, “There’s a lot of unexplored territory down in the sewer levels and below. Not often ponies go down there. But there are monsters...”

Crossfire for a second looked... distant and thoughtful, “There are. Gobs and worse things. Nothing like these critters, but buck me if I haven’t seen worse down there. I’m more wondering why they came up and how they blasted a damned hole this size into the bottom of the Skull Guild.”

“Knobs!” called a Skull Guild pony from above, a ghoul unicorn stallion with a faded purple mane, “We need some help up here keeping the ferals calm. Too much blood in the air.”

“Coming!” said Knobs, and glanced at Crossfire. She suddenly gave the Drifter a quick hug, “Sorry, I know you hate it when I put myself in harms way.”

Crossfire looked stiff as a board but I almost saw a hint of a smile twitch on her lips, “Yeah, yeah I do hate it. Dumb mare. Let the trained professionals get their fool asses killed. Heroes are a cap a dozen. Can’t replace you.”

“Oh hush and stop being such a downer nag,” Knobs said with a final squeeze before she went to awkwardly trot and wheel her way back up the crater.

I turned to Arcaidia and B.B, mostly so I wouldn’t be tempted to stare in curious thought at Crossfire’s embarrassed shuffling. “Where are Binge and the others?”

“Binge is bein’ sat on by one o’ Harshcare’s nurses,” said B.B with a chuckle, “Can’t figure which one ta feel sorry for, there. That griffin lady an’ that skittish stallion took Blasting Cap to the mess hall fer lunch. We were all there when we felt the blast hit. Me an’ Arcaidia figured there was a’ good chance that whatever had happened you’d be rushin’ right inta the center o’ it so we started makin’ our way down. Had to argue with some guards that we were just wantin’ ta help. By the time we convinced them ta let us come down wit ‘em the fight was already done. Sorry ‘bout that.”

I shook my head, “It's fine. Things happened fast. Whew… thanks Arcaidia. Feel almost back in one piece again.”

Arcaidia lifted her head with pride as her magic faded from my body. I still ached, and had likely just gained a fresh new set of scars, but I wasn’t nauseous or dizzy anymore and could move my legs without my flank being pierced by pure agony.

“Ren solva getting easier to put back in one piece. Much familiar am now with body and where things go.”

I blinked at her, and she returned the blink. She coughed, face turning a faint tinge of rose, “What I mean is I know much of Veruni bodies, so magic good for heal them. Took time to get used to heal pony bodies, but much more with head experience now. Most due to constant healing of ren solva.”

“I get it. Thanks, as always I owe you,” I said before turning my attention to the hole. My mind went back to the mysterious shooter that had saved my life. I now had a suspicion about who it was, as I only knew one pony with an orange mane who used energy weapons like that... but what was Sunset doing down there, assuming it was the Odessa officer?

“What’s on yer mind, Long?” asked B.B

“He’s probably planning to do the idiotic thing, which would be jumping down that hole to see if there are more Ruin monsters down there,” said Crossfire with a roll of her eyes.

“Actually...” I said with a small smile, “Guilty as charged.”

Crossfire heaved out a disgusted sigh, “Yeah, figured as much. You have fun with that. I’ll stay here and listen for your death screams.”

“That’s fine,” I said, giving her a nod, “This isn’t something you’re being paid for, after all. Besides, pretty sure if there were more monsters coming they’d have already rushed out of the hole by now.”

“Then what’s the point of wasting time going down there?” shot back Crossfire.

“Call it... confirming a suspicion,” I said cryptically, and admittedly I kind of enjoyed Crossfire’s look of annoyance as she flicked her tail.

“Whatever. Just don’t get your foalish self killed. I still need you to turn in to the Bounty Guild and they want you alive... unfortunately.”

“You know, Crossfire, somepony seems to think you’re not so bad. Haven’t seen the proof of it yet, but I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt.”

She gave me a strange look for a moment before scoffing, shaking her head, blue ponytail swaying as she muttered, “Idiot,” and with a flash of her horn teleported in a pop of red light back to the top of the crater.

Arcaidia watched her go with a deep frown, “I not like her.”

B.B shrugged, “She’s got a stick bigger n’ her rifle stuck up her plot, but fer now she’s kinda sorta helpin’ us, so guess I can ignore her bad attitude. Be happy ta kick her flank somethin’ fierce in any other circumstance.”

“We may have to at some point,” I said, turning towards the hole before us, “But for now I’m just as glad to not have to. We’ve got enough enemies and problems as it is.”

The hole was not all that large compared to the crater it was in. Perhaps two or three paces across it’d been just large enough for the broad shoulders of the BATs to crawl through. The edges of the hole looked torn and partially scorched, as if melted through with extreme heat. I had to wonder just how the Hyadean monsters had accomplished the blast that’d created it, but I knew so little of these alien menaces that I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had devices not unlike the explosives ponies had invented. The nagging question of why they’d attacked the Skull Guild like this bouncing around in my mind like a hyperactive little gecko. Could it have just been some kind of coincidence? Or had they been here for something specific? The monsters had attacked the Odessa airship Varukisas very deliberately, and Sunset had theorized at the time that it’d been to recover the remains of the Golem Odessa had discovered.

Did that meant here was some piece of technology from that ancient war between Hyadean and Veruni that the monsters had come to recover?

It couldn’t have been Gramzanber. If they wanted the ARM they could have attacked any number of times before now, assuming they even had a way to track the ARM. No, I suspected there was another reason. Perhaps there was somepony down there who might have answers, if my rescuer was who I thought she was.

“What do ya think yer gonna find down in that hole?” asked B.B.

“Not sure. Maybe nothing. Or maybe some answers,” I said as I turned on my Pip-Buck’s light and shined its green illumination down into the dark. My E.F.S wasn’t showing any activity other than the numerous green dots of the ponies of the Skull Guild... but then I caught, just for a second, a lone green dot somewhere off ahead of me. The E.F.S couldn’t tell depth or height, but I imagined the dot was down in the level below the hole, somewhere.

“B.B, give me and Arcaidia a lift?” I asked.

----------

In moments all three of us were at the bottom of the hole, which was illuminated between my Pip-Buck and a light spell summoned by Arcaidia’s horn. We were in a concrete corridor wide enough to fit an autowagon, with the way behind us blocked by the collapse above us. The only way was forward, which we began to slowly and cautiously canter down, only our lights and shadows accompanying our hoofsteps.

Much as Knobs had told us we soon found metal doors lining either side of the corridor that were locked, and labeled things such as ‘materials storage’. Around thirty paces down the corridor turned a hard right, went on just a bit further until it reached a doorway that was ripped clean from the wall. The door itself was laying on the ground, practically bent in half from a huge gouge in its center. I assumed that was the work of one of the BATs.

The green dot on my E.F.S seemed closer now, perhaps in the very next room, so I held up a hoof to stop B.B and Arcaidia. I didn’t want them to shoot first. “Didn’t want to say anything in earshot of Crossfire, but I think the Odessa mare who helped me out back on their airship might be down here,” I whispered, “So just hold off on attacking unless there’s some kind of clear danger.”

B.B licked her lips, “What makes ya think anypony’s down here?”

“Because somepony shot one of those monsters when it nearly had me, and I thought I saw what might’ve been a pony. Rest is just kind of a hunch.”

With a twitch of her ears Arcaidia lowered her starblaster, “We still walk in group togetherness, yes?”

“Yup, just wanted to make sure there’d be no premature frying of potential allies. Let’s go in. I got a green dot on E.F.S. You got it too, Arcaidia?”

She nodded, brow creasing slightly, “I see dot. Very close.”

The room beyond the doorway was a fairly large storage room that had entire piles of crates stacked in neat rows on either side of the room, leaving one wide channel through the center to a door on the opposite wall. Some things in the room were covered in faded blue tarps, but otherwise there was nothing of note in here, and even the visible crates weren’t labeled in any manner I understood; just random serial numbers or short hoof markings that probably made sense to whoever made them but not to me. I could tell the door on the other side of the room had suffered a similar fate to the one we’d just walked through, indicating the Hyadean creatures had come through here as well.

I trotted a third of the way into the room, Arcaidia and B.B following on either side of me and slightly behind. I looked around, peering into the darkened corners of the room, and raised my voice slightly, “Sunset? You down here?”

There was silence for a second, then a familiar, slightly scratchy female voice said, “Glad to see you’re still breathing.”

The Odessa mare seemed to melt out of the shadows between crates, her form shimmered into view as if stepping from the surface of a pool, yet that pool was simply the thin air. I saw faint electric ripples across the metal plates of her cybernetic body and assumed that whatever she was using it was some kind of archanotech. Camoflauge? Sunset looked much as I’d last seen her, albeit conscious. Her cybernetic limbs barely gave of a hum or whine of machinery as she walked out to meet us, her orange and yellow toned mane bouncing as she glanced left and right, red eyes narrowing.

“You alone?” she asked.

I gave a quick nod, “Aside from my friends here, we should be. If anypony comes down here my or Arcadia’s Pip-Bucks out to pick it up.”

She gave the barest of nods, “Good, good. It’s risky for me to be here and I can’t let my presence this high up be known if I can help it.”

Her eyes shifted from me to my companions, resting only briefly on B.B before locking onto Arcaidia. The unicorn filly stared back without reserve and with a hint of open defiance, as if she were daring Sunset to try anything. The Odessa mare just stared a moment longer before letting out a breath she’d apparently been holding.

“So you’re what all the fuss is about? You look like a normal pony to me.”

“I be pony. Normal is relatives.”

“That’s relative, hun,” corrected B.B.

“Normal is relative,” said Arcaidia without missing a beat. Then with a certain heat in her tone, “You of shir esru vir masale dol eraim... those who hunt me? Odessa?”

“I am,” Sunset confirmed, and the metal wedges that were steepled over her back twitched, not unlike I’d occasionally seen B.B’s flesh and blood wings twitch, “For now you don’t need to worry about that. I’m not here because of you. I’m just curious. Official reports are that you're a Veruni infiltrator wearing a faux pony body. I have my doubts, but would rather hear it from the horse’s mouth. Just what are you?”

“She doesn’t have to answer anything, Sunset,” I began, but Arcaidia took a solid step forward, chest puffed out.

“I pony. Want know more?” Arcaidia smiled, thinly, “Classified.”

Sunset huffed out a short chuckle, “Right, like I haven’t heard that one before. Whatever, like I said, just curious. Catching you isn’t why I’m here, I’m here to tell Longwalk a few things and to give him something.”

“Why are you even down here?” I asked, “How are you down here? How did you even find me?”

“Geez, one question at a time,” Sunset said, as a twinge of annoyance crossed her face, through it was soon replaced with a more grave look, “After your escape the Varukisas managed to fend off the Hyadean attack on it, but suffered damage to its engines. It had to set down north of this city, hiding itself in the ruins of an old stadium. While it’s being repaired a lot of its crew, including part of the security detail, has been reassigned to temporarily assist the...” she hesitated a moment before continue, “Assist the underground base we have beneath Skull City.”

B.B looked taken aback, “You crazy assholes have a base down here!?”

Sunset shot her a glare, “Yes, we ‘crazy assholes’ do. Have for about ten years.”

“What’s the purpose of this base?” I asked.

She gave me a deadpan look, “Classifed.” At my expression she shrugged, “Look, Longwalk, I may be trying to help you out of friendship to your parents, but I’m still part of Odessa. I don’t want to compromise them any more than I have to while helping you. You don’t need to know why we have a base down here, or even where it is. But that is why I’m down here. I’m aiding the bases security forces in dealing with Hyadean incursions. They’ve been sending patrols of those bio-soldiers down here for the past few days. We’re not sure what they’re up to, maybe looking for our base, or perhaps something else. Either way we’ve had a few fights down in the sewers in order to keep the things away from our operations. That’s my current excuse to my superiors for being around this area. I’m on recon, following where the Hyadeans go in hopes of figuring out what they’re up to underneath Skull City. As it happens that coincided with my secondary goal of locating you.”

Sunset lifted one of her metal arms, and a panel on it slide aside, displaying a small screen not unlike what was on the face of my Pip-Buck. Showing it to me I saw that on her screen was a detailed map of the area we were in, countless corridors and tunnels marked in stark green contrast. Dots indicating all four of us were in the clearly marked storage room we stood in, only my dot was... blinking? As I looked at Sunset curiously she took on an apologetic expression.

“When you were captured I bugged your Pip-Buck with a tracking transmitter. It’s encoded to send out a signal only I know how to detect and decrypt. Anypony else stumbles onto the signal it’ll just look like scrambled gunk. Figured I’d need a way to keep track of you, since as it stands I’m the only link you have into Odessa that’s remotely friendly. I knew you’d probably end up in Skull City at some point, so while I’ve been doing recon down here I’ve been keeping a close eye on your signal. When it turned out the Hyadeans I was following ended up getting close to your position, I stuck close to them. Watched them plant some kind of charge on the corridor ahead and blow it out. The rest I’m sure you can figure out.”

“You just watched them buggers blow up a’ market! Dozens of ponies just died back there!” shouted B.B. Sunset turned a hard look towards her.

“I had no way of knowing what was above the point the Hyadeans were setting those charges. Hell, didn’t even know for sure they were charges until the little gooey balls exploded. Besides, I’m one mare, and there were a lot of Hyadean bio-troops in that group. What was I going to do? Attacking would’ve been suicide.”

B.B looked angry for a second longer, but she blew out a hard sigh, “‘Suppose yer right. Ya helped Long, here, too, right?”

“Was about all I could do,” said Sunset with a frown, “Couldn’t afford to expose myself, but couldn’t let Sand Storms colt die, either. Took the shot and hoped he’d spot me and come down to investigate.”

“Well, I did, so what was it you wanted to tell me, and give me?” I asked, trying not to look at my Pip-Buck. I wasn’t angry or anything that she’d bugged it, but it still worried me. If Sunset was ever discovered to be sympathetic towards me would her own comrades interrogate and torture her? Not only did the thought not sit well with me there was the more practical worry that if Odessa found out about the tracking device they’d have a way to find me quickly and easily. Not a good day for anypony involved, then.

“Yes. First things’ first, we know where your mother and the rest of your tribe is,” she said, and I nearly jumped on her, my hooves on her shoulders as I looked her in the face.

“Where!?”

“Hey!” she gave me a quick shove with her metal hoof and I was keenly reminded she was a cyborg, and quite a bit stronger than me as I was pushed back and nearly fell on my haunches. Sunset, grimacing, said, “Sorry, just, uh, don’t really react well to ponies suddenly in my face. As I was saying, we know where they are. Your father, he’s using all his connections in the command structure to get information. He learned that your tribe, including Sand Storm, were taken to Heimdal Gazzo. That’s our primary headquarters.”

“Heimdal Gazzo… where is that?” I asked. Had I heard that name mentioned before?

“Its mobile,” said Sunset, expression stone serious, “A flying, mobile fortress. Built on the remain of the first experimental sky mine created by the Grand Pegasus Enclave. Odessa stole it from the Enclave when the organization broke from the Enclave to go independent. Along with airship prototypes like the Varukisas and the Vesuvius. Right now Heimdal Gazzo is floating about eight thousand feet high, two miles off the southeast coast of the Great Sea. Getting there to affect any kind of rescue won’t be anything resembling simple.”

“I don’t care, I have to try!” I said, feeling faint with heated excitement. Finally I had an idea of where my tribe was! In some impossibly flying fortress, the center of power for a powerful organization of ponies and griffins who’d been trying to kill me and Arcaidia, but hey, at least I knew where they were now. “Um, how do you get to this fortress?”

“Without wings or an airship, you don’t,” said Sunset, but the mare cracked a small smile, “Lucky you, you have allies in, heh, high places.”

She paused, looking at us. She flexed her metal wings for a second as if to emphasis.

“That was dumb joke,” Arcaidia deadpanned.

Sunset sighed, “Whatever, humor isn’t my forte. Point is, Longwalk, your father is working on a plan. Knowing him it’ll probably be complicated and quite possibly insane, but it’ll probably be your best shot.”

“My father...” I said, looking at the ground, trying to imagine him. I was coming up blank. I was glad he was out there, helping, but I had a hard time getting my mind wrapped around the idea as well. I thrust aside the confusing thoughts, “Um, do you know why my mother and tribesmates were taken to this headquarters of yours?”

Sunset’s eyes were suddenly filled with a reserved fear that left me feeling cold. Her voice was solemn and quiet, “I hate saying this, but the only reasons landbound ponies get taken to Heimdal Gazzo is either to be held for extensive interrogations, or to be used as experimental fodder in the Red Sector.”

“Red Sector?”

“Classified research and development. Your father used to work that department until his opponents on the Council of Colonels were able to shuffle him off to the northern research facilities. Right now it's Captain Borealis who’s running the research in Red Sector...” Sunset trailed off for a second, her eyes meeting mine, “Captain Borealis is Shattered Sky’s mother.”

My memory briefly flashed back to three (or was it four) days ago to the fight at the church. I recalled Shattered Sky’s final moments, as he’d goaded Trailblaze into finishing him off. I remembered the blistering heat and watching the gray pegasus soldier be consumed by a massive flame shaped like a bird, one that had been conjured by my best friend in a moment of rage...

Now my mother and fellow tribesmates were trapped in a research facility being run by that stallion’s own mother?

“Shit...” I breathed.

Arcaidia gave me a worried, sidelong look, before turning a glare at Sunset, “What this mean? What be done in this Sector of Red?”

Sunset shifted on her metallic hooves uncomfortably, “I don’t know for certain. Only ponies with specialized clearance can get inside, and all Red Sector files are classified even to officers. Only Colonels on the Council or members of Cocytus could gain access.”

“Isn’t your husband a member of Cocytus?” I asked, “He could get in, right?”

Sunset blanched, “Right, Hammerfall could. But Cocytus can only access Red Sector when it’s part of one of their assignments. Right now he and the remaining two Cocytus members have been assigned to tracking you down. You killing Shattered Sky has lit a fire underneath the Council and they’ve made Target 02’s apprehension and your elimination as her protector a top priority. That’s the other thing I needed to tell you, to be very careful in how you move around the city. From what I’ve heard from Hammerfall they suspect you’re in the city. Lucky you Odessa doesn’t want to destroy this population center... yet. The city is large enough that they can’t find you through just aerial survey, but it’s only a matter of time before they figure out where you’re at. So try to lay low. Hammerfall is on your father’s side, but my husband has a... er... weird way of doing things. If you end up having to fight him, he won’t hold back, and he’s Cocytus’ strongest member.”

“Uh, thanks for the warning,” I said, perhaps a bit sullenly. It was good news to know where my tribe was and that there was a plan in the works to rescue them, but the rest was pretty dire. Sunset didn’t know what kind of experiments went on in Red Sector but my own imagination could easily run wild if I let it. I felt sick with fear, imagining what might be happening to my mother at this very moment. “Just how long do you think my tribe has to live, stuck in this Red Sector?”

“There’s no way to know for certain, but chances are we have some time on our side. What little I know of Borealis suggests she’s a slow, methodical type. Also, even in Red Sector certain protocols have to be followed. Your father knows more than I do, and his best estimate is that we have a few weeks before any of your tribe are going to be in real danger. Still, he’s trying to get something together as fast as he can… which brings me to the last thing...”

She reached up to her shoulder and tapped something, letting a panel on her medal hide slide open. A pair of robotic pincers extended from the tips of her hoof and picked up an object from the open slot and she held it out to me.

“I saw in your gear back on the Varukisas that you have a Recollector, so this should work for you just fine.”

In her grasp was a black, pearl shaped Memory Orb. I stared at it in wonderment as Sunset said, “It's a message from your father.”

----------

Footnote: 50% to next level!

Author's Note:

I have been informed that the end of this chapter requires a "Dun dun dun!", and so I bow to the knowledge of my prereader. As always I want to thank my prereaders for helping keep this chapters error free as possible. Doomande and refferee, you guys are much appreciated.

Now, continuing my new tradition of tossing reccomendations out there for other awesome FoE sidefics I'm going to spotlight Ouroboros. The story focuses on survivors of an auquatic Stable, and has a good balance of action and humor. There's also some intelligent engineering talk that adds an element of realism to a story of post apocalyptic ponies. Check it out.

As always feel free to leave any comments, criticism, or questions you want. I welcome them all. Thanks again for reading folks.

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