• Published 25th Jun 2012
  • 4,305 Views, 436 Comments

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 26: The Shining Spear Pierces the Darkness

The writhing flames still burning across the bed of the old military autowagon lent a hellish backlight of deep orange and shifting shadow, coating Redwire like a cloak and leaving only her glittering green eyes to stab at me with baleful hatred as red magical aura poured from her broken horn like spurting blood. Tendril after razor covered tendril sprouted from the depths of her robes like the awakening of a nest of snakes, the tentacles of alien bio metal convulsing and swaying around Redwire’s body, for a moment almost making her look like some devilish marionette.

I stood before her naked, body already covered in so many wounds I imagined I’d be catching up to Binge’s level of scarring if I managed to survive this. My only weapon was the knife I’d just used to end Braindead’s life, and his pain. The thought of what I’d had to do tore at me, but I shoved the feeling down, knowing I’d need all of my concentration to deal with the mare in front of me. Horn damaged or not she was still the most dangerous thing down here and none of us, myself, the escaped prisoners now desperately fighting for their lives against the army of Gobs, nor my fast approaching friends who no doubt caught in battles of their own against Redwire’s bio monsters, had any chance of surviving the day while Redwire remained standing.

My mouth tightened around the hilt of the knife, every muscle tensing like a bending tree branch.

One of Redwire’s tentacles shot out, but it wasn’t aimed at me, but Braindead’s body. It stabbed the corpse and pulled it back to her, holding it up like a puppet that she shook at me while grinning in a wide, macabre smile, like a twisted crescent moon.

“Wasn’t very ‘heroic’ of you, killing poor Braindead here. I thought you were all about mercy?”

“You killed him,” I told her simply, not in the mood for her word games as I sprang into a charge, closing the distance between us rapidly, “All I did was end his pain.”

She flung the body at me, Braindead’s corpse flailing through the air like a ragdoll. I side stepped, avoiding the body by inches while not slowing down. Redwire’s laughter pealed out like insane thunder as she lashed out with her tendrils, “He was a dead pony long before he met either of us. We’re all born corpses, Longwalk! Just takes different amounts of time for that bit of truth to catch up to us.”

As I closed in on her Redwire’s tendrils flew into a frenzy, whipping about like a barbed barrier. I noticed her control of the alien appendages didn’t seem nearly as precise as before, and I wondered if her damaged horn was causing her so much pain she couldn’t concentrate. I wasn’t a unicorn so I had no idea just how much agony a damaged horn could cause, but I wasn’t about to second guess some good fortune coming my way. Fast as they were, the attacks of the tendrils was uncoordinated, their metallic lengths jerking about randomly even as Redwire snarled in frustration as she tried to make them converge on me. I side stepped one flashing tentacle and ducked another, pressing inward to thrust my knife at her chest, a potentially lethal blow that I knew I could follow through with now, because I just couldn’t see any other way to end this other than to put Redwire down the same way my tribe’s hunters might put down a rabid gecko.

Even with all she’d done I still didn’t like the idea of having to kill her, but my choices were few and my determination to see this madness ended was only growing. Unfortunately Redwire wasn’t going to cooperate, and injured or not wasn’t without insane determination of her own. Despite the lack of precise control she flailed her tendrils in a thick storm of slashing barbs, cutting at my face and one strike managed to hit the blade of the knife hard enough to knock it from my mouth and send it spinning away before I managed to drive it home. I had to leap back to avoid even more tendrils that tried to wrap around my barrel, just barely avoiding being caught as I backpedaled.

It seemed as long as I kept my distance and dodged to the side at the last second I could keep the sharp barbs from lashing me, but I couldn’t get close to her either. There were too many tendrils and if I got too close even their random flailing would catch me. I saw Redwire’s eyes light up as she realized this and growled in low satisfaction, “What’s wrong, don’t want to get any closer? How about I come to you then?”

Redwire practically pranced towards me, skipping along with a merry mad giggle, tentacles forming a writhing storm of barbed death in front of her. I had to back up, stepping rapidly backwards as she advanced. I glanced around for the knife but I hadn’t seen where it’d landed. Dammit! If only I had Gramzanber with me I could have ended this fight in an instant! I’d even settle for trying my luck with a gun, no matter how bad a shot I was.

Desperate, I looked around quickly while still backing away from Redwire. Behind her was the military auto wagon. Its cabin was still intact, and the fire from the Gobs’ flaming bottles was slowly dying out, leaving the back bed almost clear. The machine gun Whisperwood had been on was still intact, if a little blackened from the flames. Did it still work? If it did, it’d probably make short work of Redwire, assuming I could aim it straight. Not seeing many other options I broke into a gallop, making a wide circle around Redwire.

“Where do you think you’re going!? Didn’t your mother ever teach you it's rude to leave a mare alone on the dance floor!?” Redwire said derisively as she gave chase, lashing out with a trio of tendrils as I tried to run past her. I ducked one, then barely dove over the other two, feeling some of the barbs from one of the tentacles gash my leg as I passed over it. I went into a roll and came up galloping, heading straight for the auto wagon, Redwire in hot pursuit.

A voice in the back of my mind was still chiding me, still questioning if I really had it in me to kill Redwire, but I kept shaking the distracting thought off as best I could. Still, I felt this strange pressure inside myself. Not like the pressure in my head that was my connection to Gramzanber. No, this was different. Deeper. This felt like a pressure at the core of myself, like two colliding storm fronts. It felt like something had to snap, and it was going to happen soon, but I couldn’t let this distract me. Right now distraction meant death, so I just let my vision tunnel until I only saw the auto wagon in front of me and only felt the burning pain in my legs as I pushed my wounded body to gallop even faster.

Before I reached the auto wagon, however, I was nearly blinded by a flash of light as the headlamps on the wagon flared to life. I stumbled to the side, and I heard Redwire let out a harsh “Fuck!” as no doubt the sudden light nearly blinded her too, and then I heard the roar of the auto wagon’s engine. I then heard the wavering voice of Whisperwood shouting, “Hurry! Get on!”

I barely had time to blink away the spots from my eyes and let out a short yelp as the auto wagon, the back of it still on fire, suddenly leaped forward with a screech of tires. I saw a terrified, wide eyed Whisperwood, her face bearing a few singe marks, sitting behind the auto wagon’s wheel and seeming to desperately keep the vehicle under control as it rolled towards me and Redwire. I had only seconds to roll to the side of the several tons of metal barreling at me, reaching out and snagging the passenger side door just in time to avoid being ran over.

“Are you insane!?” I shouted, barely holding onto the outside of the auto wagon, then decided to add, “Glad you’re alive!”

“So am I!” gulped Whisperwood, and I could see the flames that had hit the auto wagon had not left her unscathed, some of her hide sporting painful looking blisters. “Sorry for almost hitting you but I didn’t know what else to do! W-where’d she go!?”

Good question. I didn’t see the auto wagon hit Redwire, and looking behind me I didn’t see the madmare anywhere, not until I heard a metallic *thunk* and saw several of her tendrils rise above the back of the wagon, quickly followed by the mare herself as Redwire hauled herself onto the back of the moving vehicle. I swore under my breath and said to Whisperwood, “We’ve got an unwelcome passenger! Try to keep this thing steady while I go inform her that we’re not giving free rides!”

“No promises!” Whisperwood shouted back, wrestling with the wheel as the auto wagon swerved hard to the left and started plowing through the ranks of Gobs that, up until that point, had been paying sole attention to the gunfight with the other escaped prisoners. I heard shrill cries of pain and fear as Gobs started to get sent flying by the renegade auto wagon rolling through them like an avalanche smashing through brush.

Swallowing back bile and trying to ignore the sound of crunching bones and flesh as the auto wagon bounced, I strained to pull myself along the side of the auto wagon and scramble into the back bed. Flames still licked at the wooden side frames, but it was safe enough to to stand there without burning myself. Across from me stood Redwire, breathing hard, eyes blazing hatred and murder at me like twin pools of glowing malice. It suddenly occurred to me that fighting her in close quarters on an unstable, swerving vehicle was probably not my brightest choice, but I was committed and there wasn’t any turning back.

“Pfft, what are you going to do, huh? Slap me to death with your bare hooves?” Redwire chided in a mocking snarl, tendrils menacingly snaking forward.

I cast a quick glance around the back of the auto wagon. It had several small metal cases in it that might have once been neatly stacked along the sides but were now jumbled about the floor at random. I didn’t have time to read the faded white print on the top of the cases, but they were made of metal. The machine gun behind me was unfortunately useless right now because its mount clearly didn’t swivel all the way around. Before Redwire’s tendrils could cross the distance between us I turned around and kicked out with a hind leg, sending one of the metal cases sailing at Redwire.

She batted it aside with derisive snort, her tendril strike breaking it open. Out from the lid scattered dozens of small, silvery rectangular packages with the black letters MRE printed on them. I kicked another case and Redwire similarly swatted the thing side, spilling more of the strange aluminum squares all over the auto wagon’s bed.

They made rather hefty thunking sounds when they hit the floor, which gave me an idea as I grabbed one in my mouth. I didn’t know what an MRE was, but it was hard as a rock and felt fairly aerodynamic to my sensibilities. Redwire raised an eyebrow at me.

“The fuck you going to do with that, feed to me? Just lay down and let me gut you alre-OW!”

I’d thrown the MRE package straight at her face. The much smaller object was clearly much harder for her to deflect as her tendrils snapped through thin air, missing the stone-like little silver square as it smacked into the side of her head. She growled, purple mane bristling like a living thing as she charged forward, “Your balls are mine!”

Again with the balls? Was I doomed to constantly fight mares that wanted to destroy my most sensitive parts? I hadn’t even used them for anything yet!

In response to an angry, insane Raider with razor tentacles coming for my dangly bits I started snatching up every MRE I could see and started fast balling them at her as quick as I could. Redwire’s tendrils flailed in front of her, appearing like nothing more than a spastic blur of motion that did manage to deflect a few of my impromptu projectiles. Other MREs struck home, smacking her in the chest, face, and legs, causing her murderous charge to turn more into a awkward stumble that still managed to prove dangerous as a pair of her tentacles shot forward like miniature spears.

I threw myself to the side, nearly crashing through the burnt wooden railing, but just barely managed to catch myself before tumbling off the auto wagon. I could see it had swerved and curved in a circling zig-zag pattern under Whisperwood’s direction, nearly making a full circle of the battlefield. Gobs had scattered away from the center of the chamber and instead were clustering along the walls, taking whatever cover they could while either firing at the ponies who were still holding their positions at the cave mouth up the wall, or now firing at the auto wagon that was running dozens of them down.

I didn’t have long to absorb that sight as Redwire had recovered her balance and slashed out with more tendrils, forcing me to roll aside. One barbed appendage nearly cut clean through the wood railing I’d just occupied, and I felt splinters pepper my face as I scrambled to get to the other side of the auto wagon bed, blindly throwing MREs as I went. I really needed a decent weapon.

Redwire let out a sound that wasn’t so much a growl as it was a raw noise of pure rage and bloodlust as she turned around and stalked towards me, her tendrils slashing at the floor and railing around her as if showing me what she intended to do with me. A little blood seeped from a cut on her brow where one of the MREs had hit, joining the blood that had trickled down from her damaged horn.

Gulping, I backed up until my hooves nearly tripped over the back end of the auto wagon. On instinct alone I reached out with a hoof to grab the wooden railing next to me and yanked as hard as I could. The wood was ancient, barely intact and only just so due to the fairly sterile conditions down in this mine cavern. The wood board tore free of its metal and nailed down housing and before I knew it I was reared up, standing unsteadily on two hind hooves as I held the wood board between my fore hooves like a makeshift club.

Redwire chortled and rushed forward. I thought I saw a flash of surprise on her face as I rushed to meet her rather than cringe or try backing away. Her tendrils swept forward, metallic barbs glinting. My mind flashed to a memory of Glint fighting the Hellhound in Silver Mare Studios, the way the Odessa pegasus had rushed and slid beneath the monster’s claws and between its legs, weapons blasting away. I didn’t pull the exact same maneuver, but I did keep rushing forward in my awkward two legged gait, then suddenly bent my upper body backwards as I slid to my knees. The move saw Redwire’s tendrils flash over my bent back body, barely grazing my belly and chest. Redwire was still moving forward, her momentum too much for her to stop or try to dodge when I snapped my upper body straight again, swinging away with the wooden board with an overhead strike.

The wooden board snapped into wooden shards over her head and she stumbled into me, her body weight carrying her into me in a crash of tangled limbs and flailing tendrils. For a moment I could feel her body beneath the white robes, feel the strange bumps and ropy protrusions that didn’t feel like they belonged on any equine body, then I felt pain as tendrils flailed at me, cutting flesh as Redwire let out a vicious hiss and battered me with her limbs, biting with her teeth, leaving me feeling like I was wrestling with a hundred pound gecko.

Wait... hundred pounds? Wow, Redwire actually was kind of light, I realized. Grinding my jaw and ignoring the pain I grabbed Redwire around the waist with my fore hooves and lifted her up, causing her to yelp.

“The fuck!?” she cried out as I hurled her to the side as hard as I could.

She crashed through the already weakened wooden railing and went flying off the side of the auto wagon. However my sense of triumph was very short lived as I saw three or four tendrils snap into place along the side of the vehicle and then Redwire, dragged along the side, quickly start to reel herself back up. I gasped for breath and shouted, “Whisperwood! Go right! Scrape her off the side!”

It wasn’t exactly playing fair, but we were well past the point of fair play.

Whisperwood heard me and I saw her turn the wheel, maneuvering the auto wagon towards the right wall, where the chapel was. If Whisperwood could aim it right she could knock Redwire straight into the chapel wall without crashing the auto wagon. I doubted it’d kill Redwire, but it might put her out of the fight. Bullets whizzed by me like pissed off little flies and I ducked down, heading for Redwire’s tendrils, intend on knocking her back off if she tried to get back on before we reached the chapel.

Redwire had a different plan in mind, I found out, when I looked over the side of the railing and saw her grinning at me with a mad, dangerous light in her eyes. She waved one of her tendrils in the air above her head, pointed it at one of the front wheels of the auto wagon, and I found my eyes going wide.

“Oh shi-”

Redwire’s tendril darted forward, spearing the tire and nearly tearing it off the auto wagon entirely. I had a brief moment of pained realization of how bad this was about to hurt before Whisperwood lost control of the auto wagon entirely and the vehicle turned harshly to the left. It kept going forward, however, skidding with a screech of metal on stone as the whole thing tipped over and began to roll. I was thrown forward like a yelling pony projectile and sailed straight through one of the chapel windows. Glass shattered, cutting at my hide, and I felt the world spin for a second before hard floorboards greeted me harshly.

I rolled, hit the inner chapel walls, and lay there for a second, upside down and bleeding, eyes spinning in my head.

I heard the auto wagon outside a second before it hit the chapel doors and broke through in a twisting wreak, sending stone dust scattering everywhere like one of my smoke grenades.

My right foreleg was all but screaming in pain at me, and was hanging rather uselessly. I let out a sharp hiss as I tried moving it, only to find I could barely put any weight at all on it without raw agony tearing its way through the whole limb like a red hot spike. I didn't know if the leg was broken or not. The bone might have just been fractured. Regardless, I wasn’t going to be able to use the leg for much anytime soon. Despite the pain I managed to half hobble, half drag myself towards the auto wagon wreck, calling desperately, “Whisperwood? Whisperwood!? Are you okay!?”

I heard a pained moan in response, followed by a series of coughs. I managed to get through the dust to the driver’s cabin, which was on its side, and saw Whisperwood dangling loosely in the seat. She’d at least been smart enough to put on the seat belt before she’d started driving the thing, but her face was covered in blood from a gash across her forehead and the frail looking mare had a dazed look on her face as she blinked at me.

“I… I’m never doing that again… seriously,” she said, coughing, “Why did I think this was a… ugh... a good idea?”

“C’mon!” I said, wincing past horrific shooting pain in my leg as I reached up with my one good foreleg to undo her restraints, “We can’t stay put. Crazy mare still trying to kill us!”

Whisperwood let out another pained moan, but didn’t argue with me as I hauled her out of the auto wagon and we both stumbled, barely standing, into the chapel’s main chamber. I blinked, taking stock of our surroundings. Given the flagrantly sickening manner in which Redwire had decorated the cave and outside of the chapel in gore I had thought the inside would be even worse, but that wasn’t the case.

Immaculately clean, like the white robes Redwire wore, the chapel’s interior was bare of clutter save that which had just been created by the auto wagon crash. Neatly ordered pin boards lined two of the walls, the corner where they met playing host to a sizable metal desk, on which sat a large terminal. Crates and boxes were neatly stacked along another wall, some open to reveal orderly stacked firearms and ammo boxes, enough to equip a small army. An operating table took up part of the center of the chapel, a bleak metal affair with a medical tray next to it with a number of tools. There were no bodies, and while there was no blood, the overly polished nature of the table suggested it’d been cleaned thoroughly several times.

There was a neatly made bed placed in one corner, with another table set up at the foot of the bed where half a dozen monitors were hooked up. My eye was drawn to movement on those monitors and I gasped when I realized what was being displayed.

“W-what is it?” asked Whisperwood.

“My friends!” I said, hobbling towards the monitors with Whisperwood leaning against me. Getting a better look I could tell the monitors must have been hooked up to a number of different cameras that had been set up in the sewer system. Each screen showed four different views, and while most of them were blank of any action, I could see one of them showed a scene of a wide, curved sewer tunnel leading to the entrance of a mine shaft. Here I could see the gray image of my friends fighting their way through a small horde of Hyadean bio monsters. Arcaidia was leading the charge, throwing skeletal creatures aside with blasts of ice. Binge and B.B flanked either side of her, Binge’s tail twirling about to strike at monsters with her ridiculous knife whip. I could see her laughing maniacally and could hear it clear in my head despite the mute monitor. B.B kept to the air, darting aside from beams of black magic from the skeletons while returning withering fire with her revolvers. Behind the trio I could see Crossfire and Shard, the Drifters working in tandem to dispatch any of the bio monsters that managed to get around the flanks of Arcaidia’s charge.

“Your friends are kinda badass,” said Whisperwood, through her voice was a bit weak and her eyes still dazed.

“Only wish they were here now,” I said, but felt a spark of hope rose in me, “But it looks like they’re getting close. We just gotta hold out a little longer.”

I briefly wondered why Redwire hadn’t set up any cameras inside the mine itself. If she had she would’ve spotted my escape attempt before it got anywhere. Maybe she only had so many cameras and had wanted to spy on the sewers around the mine more than worry about what was going on inside her lair? Whatever the reason I was glad for it, but the thought also made me realize it was probably a matter of seconds before Redwire came barging into the chapel, so I turned my attention to the rest of the room.

Upon the boards were pinned papers of various sizes, bearing maps of detailed city streets and twisting alleys, and with a shock I realized I was looking at fairly complete pictures of various parts of Skull City, both the Outskirts and the Inner City. Other papers held figures and names, lists of goods or services... certain ones underlined in red marker. Pins of various colors were stuck amid the map, each seemingly at important facilities. I recognized the Skull Guild’s headquarters tower as one of the buildings with a pin in it, and guess many of the others might be headquarters for the other guilds of the city.

I was looking at detailed plans for how Redwire intended to attack the city, including all the key locations she planned to strike with the Gobs and Hyadean bio monsters she was creating from the captured refugees. She had information on how many guards various locations had, lists of response times for fire brigades and local security... far too much information to have been gathered by herself in the time she would have had down here.

Someone or something had provided her with this information. Her Hyadean master, Alhazad? Not having time to think about it I instead made my way for the crates of weapons, while letting Whisperwood lean against the bed. Checking the crates I ran into a problem very quickly. None of the guns were loaded, and all of the ammo boxes had the bullets separated from any easy to load clips. I’d have to hoof load rounds one at a time, and I was hardly familiar enough with guns to even quickly guess which bullets went with which gun.

Before I could even pick one gun up to try fumbling with loading it there was a harsh crack of wood that snapped my attention to the right, where the chapel’s main doors were suddenly bashed inward, heavy wood splintering into fragments. In the threshold stood Redwire, bleeding and battered from the crash she had caused, but seeming all the more animated for the lustful hate and killing intent pouring from her.

“It's not polite to enter somepony’s home without permission.”

I looked at her and, despite every nerve in my body being alight with pain, turned to face her and deadpanned, “You’re the one who crashed the auto wagon into this damn place, so I’m counting that as an invitation. You mind if I rifle through your stuff when this is all over?”

One of these days I ought to learn not to crack wise at ponies that want to kill me, especially when I’m unarmed and horribly wounded.

Redwire roared and went into a headlong gallop at me, a thorny, bleeding dervish of death. I pushed Whisperwood towards the desk, panting, “Hide over there, and wait for an opening to get away!”

As she stumbled that way with a nod Rewdire snarled, “There is no getting away!”

One of her tendrils flashed out like a whip, aimed straight for Whisperwood. Clenching my teeth and shouting through the piercing pain in my leg I forced myself into a rapid hybrid between a trot and a leap that put me between the bladed tentacle and the defenseless mare. With a flash of inspiration and recalling just how light Redwire really was, I reached out with my one good foreleg and snatched the tendril in mid-air. Its thorn-like blades tore at my hide, but a little more pain was just a drop in the bucket at this point as I gripped the tendril tightly and then yanked it as hard as I could towards myself. I felt a bit of resistance, then heard Redwire shout indignantly as I pulled her off balance and had her face plant on the floor.

Not wanting to give her a chance to recover I hobbled towards her, raising a hoof to strike, but she was far faster than I gave her credit for. She rolled to her hooves, a storm of tendrils flailing around her, aimed in my general direction. I jumped to the left, evading a few tendrils, but feeling the harsh bite of others all over my body as I hit the floor rolling and stumbled into the wall. I was getting dizzy, my vision going dark around the edges as exhaustion and blood loss started to catch up with me. I knew I couldn’t keep this up for much longer, yet I pushed down the cold grasping coils of fear and despair welling up in me and focused on the hard reality that if I slowed down, if I stopped, if I died, then it wouldn’t just be me that paid that price.

Redwire was just a small piece of a much larger darkness that was going to eat everything I loved alive and shit it out as rot and bones if I let myself die here.

So no matter how much Redwire hurt me, no matter how much blood she ripped from my ragged, torn body, I was not dropping before she did!

Taking a deep breath and roaring past the pain I hauled myself off the wall and, head down like a battering ram, charged Redwire. My broken leg was pure agony, useless to support any weight. So I let my strange instincts kick in again, knowing that while equines were never meant for two legged movement, I had something buried in my mind that made the motions feel natural. So it was on my two hind legs I rushed Redwire, much to her confused look.

Her tendrils cracked at me, metal whips of sharpened pain, but for all their ability to flay flesh they were still affected by Redwire’s damaged horn, clearly difficult for her to control with precision, especially the more she tried to employ. They cut at me, but couldn’t stop my two hundred pounds of barreling Earth Pony muscle, fueled by desperation and adrenaline.

I rammed her head on, pushing her light body right off the ground with my momentum, and carrying her forward into the opposite chapel wall.

We hit the wall hard, sending cracks splintering up and down the old brick like spiderweb. The impact left me staggering backwards, tripping onto my back. The fall sent a jolting pain flashing through my broken leg and I barely held back a scream. Sputtering, the entire world spinning in my head, I blinked past dizzy spots and managed to flop onto my stomach. My heartbeat felt weak as a thread and even getting one leg underneath me was a monumental challenge. While I struggled to stand I saw Redwire in a similar state, groaning and slowly rising to her hooves, shaking dust off herself. Unfortunately, despite taking my battering charge head on and taking the brunt of our trip into the wall, she still looked far less injured than I was. In fact she looked vigorous, as if every wound I managed to inflict on her was only adding to her energy and madness.

“Now you owe me for damages. Were this the distant past, I’d sue you, but since this is the Wasteland and I’m a cockmothering Raider I’ll just take my dues from your screaming flesh, okay? Okay!”

She came at me with a storm of tendrils slashing dangerously. I barely had the energy to move, making a dodging limp that was as much me falling over as it was an actual evasive maneuver. Tentacles cracked the floor next to my head as I rolled away, then I let out a half choked yell of pain as another tendril lashed my shoulder before I could get out of the way. Redwire was relentless, eyes wild and gleaming with joyous bloodlust as I kept scrambling away from her, leaving a trail of blood in my wake.

“Yes, keep running, bitch! I want to run you into the damn ground until you’ve got nothing left! This is what it feels like to be helpless. This is why you never play fucking games with the Wasteland. It ends like this every single time. You can’t change that!”

She was stalking towards me, body seeming to write with her tendrils, eyes a pair of burning pools filled with the very spirits of hatred and rage. I regained my hooves, reaching the chapel’s destroyed front doors, and turned to face her again. I couldn’t run without Whisperwood, who I could see hiding behind the desk at the back of the room. Redwire was now between me and her. I think Redwire realized this as well because her face gained a nasty smile and her eyes narrowed in sadistic pleasure as she cocked her head to glance back at Whisperwood, ears flattening against her skull.

“Oh, I haven’t forgotten about you. What do you think? If I pull some organs out of your screaming belly will that maybe get the point across to our moronic wannabe savior over here?”

A growl tore itself from my throat, “Don’t even try it! Whisperwood! Run!”

Whisperwood made a wide eyed face at me that seemed to convey the message ‘Yeah, no shit!’ as Redwire turned on her and charged across the chapel, tendrils flailing at the desk Whisperwood was using for cover. The metal desk bent and buckled under the assault, but Whisperwood to her credit wasn’t just cowering. She dove from behind the desk, flinging something at Redwire, a bottle of booze I noticed as it arced through the air to smash against Redwire’s shoulder in a shower of glass shards and cheap whiskey.

“Fuck! Gah, that was my last bottle I had down here you cock gargling twat! That earns you an extra missing organ! Liver or kidney, which do you want me to feed you?”

“Eat your own damn organs you freak!” shouted Whisperwood, ducking and diving as tentacles whipped at her darting body, cutting swaths of masonry from the wall behind her. Whisperwood let out a pained yelp as one tendril hit her hind leg and wrapped around it, tripping her to the floor before it lifted her off the ground painfully. I saw blood trailing down Whisperwood’s leg and flank as the tendril dug in and held her upside down.

Luckily I’d had time to cross the distance between myself and Redwire, despite my lame leg, and tackled her from behind. I felt her unnaturally misshapen body beneath her robes as I tried to get my hooves around her neck from behind, but she began to twist and buck, forcing me to do everything I could just to hang on.

“Did I say you could mount me asshole!? Get your dead ass off of me! Graaaah!”

Temporarily forgetting her hold on Whisperwood, Redwire writhed her tendrils around to lash at me. I’d been kind of hoping she’d try that. I immediately slipped off her, letting go and letting myself fall to the side just as the tentacles slashed at where’d I’d been. Because she was still lacking precise control of the alien appendages I was briefly satisfied to see her strike herself, cutting her white robes in the process. The pain startled her and I saw her drop Whisperwood. At the same moment I bucked out with my hind legs, hitting Redwire squarely in the side and propelling her into a few weapon crates in a crash of metal.

Whisperwood, limping, but still managing a full gallop, went up to me and helped me to my hooves. We didn’t need to exchange words to know that running was our only option and we both began a fast, wounded hobble towards the door.

“I didn’t say either of you could leave, did I!?”

Tendrils shot at us from behind. On instinct I pushed Whisperwood ahead of me, turning just in time to have multiple of the cold, clammy bio-metallic tentacles wrap around me. One constricted my barrel, while another wrapped my one good foreleg. I was lifted into the air and was forced to look down at Redwire, who stood now in the center of the chapel.

Her robes were gone, now just torn white shreds on the floor. Her body underneath barely looked equine. It had four legs, certainly, and a body roughly shaped like a pony’s was supposed to be, but that was where the similarities ended. Her flesh was bulbous, covered in pulsing, fleshy nodules like metal roots growing out of pitted, gunmetal gray flesh. Tendrils, dozens of them, writhed and slithered around her like slugs, impossible to tell where one ended and another began. Several dark purple veins, like glowing blood vessels, traces along her ruined flesh, seeming to glow brighter in time with some inner heartbeat.

“What the... what happened to you?” I breathed, a little too dumbstruck for a second to do much else.

Redwire laughed, spitting out the sound as if it were acid, “I already told you. Master Alhazad enhanced me. Made me more than just a weak, helpless little pony. This is their endgame for all of us, every last pissant on this planet. We’re going to be their new army, their new glorious fucking army! They’ll take us to the stars, Longwalk, to a war beyond our imagining! It's going to epic. At least for those who survive the conversion process. The rest get to enjoy being mindless cannon fodder, but the few special ponies who are strong enough will get to become so much more. Do you get it now? This is bigger than you, and you can’t stop it.”

“Yeah, I think we heard enough,” said a familiar mechanical, monotone drone followed by a cracking gunshot.

Redwire spun around, blood blossoming from an impact hole on her chest, and I felt the tendrils around me loosen, dropping me to the floor. I grunted as I hit the ground, but scrambled away from Redwire’s tendrils, which were still flailing about, indicating she was far from dead. I got to my hooves again with a wince and looked over to see Whisperwood standing next to my savoir.

LIL-E bobbed in the air unsteadily, her round metallic form sparking from several clear gouges of damage around her battered, robotic frame. Her under-slung pistol mount was still smoking.

“You look like shit, Longwalk.” LIL-E said bluntly, “Better let me take over here.”

I coughed and stumbled towards her, “LIL-E? Where did you come from?.”

“We can play catch up later, after I’ve murdered the fuck out of this taint licking Raider. You on the other hoof need to get your battered flank out of here.”

“Ooooh?” said Redwire, rising to her hooves like some kind of grotesque alien zombie, “The flying metal ping pong ball is here to play too? And here I thought master Alhazad took you apart like the cheap knock off heroine you were built to be?”

I glanced at LIL-E, wondering just what Redwire was talking about. I hadn’t seen LIL-E since she’d vanished to go find Doc Sunday, and while I’d suspected she might have picked up his and the Saddlespring refugee's trail, perhaps even followed it to find me here in these mines, I hadn’t known for sure just what she’d been through. The damage to her chassis was clear to see, like something huge and sharp had gouged cuts through her sides, exposing circuitry within... but LIL-E was hovering solidly and looked fully functional.

She ignored Redwire’s barb and instead said to me, “There’s still ponies out there that need help Longwalk, so go help them. I’ll keep her busy.”

My eyes strayed to Redwire, who didn’t seem in a rush to attack us, instead taking up a defensive stance with her tendrils coiling around her like a protective sphere. LIL-E’s chassis kept sparking from the damage it’d sustained, I could only presume in some earlier battle while we’d been out of contact. It was clear the robot was in bad shape, even her hovering not entirely steady. I left me with a cold feeling I couldn’t fully explain.

“LIL-E, we should take her on together,” I said, “I know I’m beat to crap right now, but I’ve got to finish things with her. The only reason she’s here is because I let her go before-”

“Give it a rest,” said LIL-E, her bland machine tone filled with popping static, “I could’ve shot her ass dead back then, too, but I decided to let you make the call. This is as much my fault as yours.”

Her volume lowered, so only I could hear her, “My targeting systems are fucked right now, I’m stuck on manual control. I meant to hit her in the head just now, but only got the chest. Can’t aim worth shit. I can only keep her busy for a few minutes... enough for you to get those poor ponies tied to those posts out of here. Arcaidia and the others are close, just link up with them, then come back and finish this bitch off.”

The cold feeling in my chest only turned to deeper, blacker ice as I realized LIL-E was fully intending to fight until the eyebot was destroyed, if only to buy me and Whisperwood time to escape and rescue the ponies Redwire had tied up outside the chapel. I knew it was just an eyebot in front of me, not the real pony controlling it in danger, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling of fear I’d have if this were B.B, Binge, or Arcaidia trying to do the same thing.

The worst of it was that she wasn’t being unreasonable. I was trashed to the point I was barely conscious, and Whisperwood wasn’t much better off. We’d just be liability to LIL-E without a weapon or a lot of extra hooves to help. LIL-E knew what she was doing, and had already weighed that the worth of one robot wasn’t as much as that of ponies lives.

It seemed simple enough... yet...

The thought struck me right then that, while I knew little about radio signals and how they worked, I did understand that countless tons of rock from us being underground ought to interfere with the radio signals needed to remotely control a robot. If that was the case, then how was LIL-E...?

I understood then the cold feeling in my gut. I knew a friend’s life was in danger, that she was intending to put herself in horrific danger and likely die, just for me and a few others to get away.

“Whisperwood,” I said, startling the mare, “Go.”

“Huh?” she asked, blinking.

“Get the other prisoners out of here,” I told her, “Head for the side tunnel and try and link up with Copper Shell and the others. Just gallop and don’t look back. Can you do that?”

She gave an experimental shake of her legs, one by one, wincing in pain, but nodding, “I... I think so.”

“Longwalk, what are you doing?” asked LIL-E, “You both need to go!”

“No,” I said, then just nodded to Whisperwood, who looked confused for a second, glancing between me, LIL-E, and Redwire, but then with a gulp nodded and galloped out of the chapel. I hoped the Gobs were still too busy to take notice, but if Whisperwood had been able to sneak her way through when the place had been filled with them, then she ought to be able to sneak away while they Gobs were still distracted with all the fighting.

As for LIL-E, I turned to her, keeping one eye on Redwire who remained watching us like a hawk, but still wasn’t attacking. Was she waiting for us to make the first move? It must have been LIL-E’s guns. Redwire didn’t want to drop her guard, and wasn’t yet aware LIL-E’s targeting system was damaged. LIL-E, her voice somehow dropping a dangerous octave despite its mechanical tone, said, “What the hell Longwalk!? I told you to run!”

“I can’t,” I told her firmly, “I’m not leaving a friend behind, no matter what.”

“I’m just a robot you idiot! I’m not in any real danger! The real me. I’m a pony a thousand miles from here for Celestia’s sun bleached teats sake!”

“No, you’re not,” I said, causing the eyebot to wobble in the air as if slapped. I glanced at her, gulping, “Are you? You, that body, the memory orb I saw inside you... that’s you, isn’t it?”

She didn’t immediately respond. She just floated there, unsteadily.

“LIL-E, this is really you. The robot.”

“... How did you figure that out?”

I just gave her a helpless shrug and half smile, “Mostly just realized this far underground you couldn’t get a remote radio signal through. Really only leaves one possibility for how you’re still functioning down here.”

“Well... shit. Can you keep this a secret?”

“If we live through this? Sure. I won’t tell anypony. They might just piece it together themselves, though.”

“Yeah, well, I’ll take a chance on them not thinking about it too hard,” LIL-E replied, the static in her voice almost making it sound like her voice was wavering, “Let’s survive first, then I’ll worry about my impending identity crisis.”

‘Or,” interrupted Redwire, “You can worry about your impending impalement crisis.”

In a blinding flurry Redwire instantly switched from the defensive to the offensive, surging forward as half a dozen of her tendrils flicked through the air with the speed and intensity of a hurricane wind. LIL-E and I had to dodge in opposite directions to avoid the brunt of the tearing, murderous swarm of strikes, LIL-E opening fire without hesitation as her rifle extension popped out of her side and laid down a blazing series of shots alongside her pistol turret. She hadn’t been exaggerating about her targeting system, however, because most of her shots went wide or narrowly missed Redwire, only one or two striking the Raider’s side. The rounds impacted into the hard, tainted flesh and while the wounds bled, they didn’t seem to hit Redwire as hard as they should have and barely slowed her down.

Seeking a weapon I dashed past her, moving as fast as my three working legs could carry me as I made for the crashed auto wagon. If I could rip off more of its side boards I’d at least have something to hit her with. Redwire turned to follow me, several tendrils flying in my direction, slithering through the air like snakes. Others whipped at LIL-E, who darted left and right, bobbing about erratically as she kept pouring rounds at Redwire, trying to land a telling blow. Having to evade Redwire’s tendrils was making LIL-E’s aim even more problematic and a round actually buzzed past me, blowing out masonry from the wall above my head.

“Shitfuckcunt!” I heard LIL-E shout on high volume, speakers popping with squealing static, “Just stand still you puss stained Raider!”

“Oh, yeah, I’ll totally do that. Let me carve a bullseye onto my skull too,” chided Redwire in a sarcasm stuffed tone as she charged after me, tendrils now mere paces from catching up with my hide.

I reached the auto wagon just as Redwire’s sharp tentacles were slapping at my flanks, and I leapt for a loose looking board on the side of the flipped vehicle. I ripped the board away from its frame with my only good fore leg and spun around, smacking away the tendrils spearing towards me. I had to stand unsteadily on my hind legs, following my instincts as I balanced on them and side stepped one tendril while swinging hard as I could with the board at Redwire as she closed with me. She raised her own hoof to block my strike, taking the board nearly head on. She didn’t even so much as wince as she blocked the board and continued on into me with a headbutt to my gut that sent me flying backwards.

My whole body exploded with pain, blackening my vision for a second. I groaned and saw Redwire rearing up on her own hind legs in front of me, clearing intending to smash me with her forelegs. I’d managed to keep hold of the board, so I swung up hard and smashed it into the knee of her left leg. I don’t know if it hurt or not, but it caught her off balance and she tumbled over with a surprised shout.

LIL-E floated up quickly, firing away at Redwire’s prone form. Redwire’s tendrils flailed in the air around her, forming a shield. A few bullets were caught by the web of tendrils, while others got through and slammed Redwire’s torso and belly. Again her knotted, thick gray alien flesh absorbed the shots like some kind of spongy armor, still bleeding but just not stopping the mare like being shot ought to. Instead, seemingly strong as ever, she surged to her hooves and flung all of her tentacles at LIL-E, filling the air with razor sharp barbs that lashed at the eyebot from all directions.

LIL-E had no way to dodge, so instead she took a harsh battering that swatted her out of the air the way some ponies might swat a bug. She went bouncing away, frame letting out a shower of sparks.

“LIL-E!” I yelled, but soon saw she wasn’t down for the count yet, as she floated back up, wobbling in the air and letting out a small trail of smoke, but still functional.

“Not down yet!” she said, reorienting herself on Redwire and firing away with both gun mounts, heavy rifle deafening in the confined space of the chapel and drowning out the lighter pops of her pistol.

Laughter exploded from Redwire in response as she laced her tendrils in front of her into an even thicker shield, absorbing the rounds with seemingly little harm, “I didn’t think it’d be this good! I mean, master Alhazad told me I wouldn’t need to fear bullets anymore, but a part of me didn’t believe it. A whole life spent learning to be afraid of a gun isn’t easy to ignore, but I’m getting it now. I’m more than a pony. Ponies have to fear guns, but not me... not a Hyadean!”

Her shield of tentacles split apart in a flash and swarmed again at LIL-E, who anticipated it better this time and floated backwards rapidly, getting out of the swarms lashing range. LIL-E’s voice spat back at Redwire. “That right? When I put a shot through one of your fucking eyes we’ll see if that statement holds up!”

Fortunately for me LIL-E had managed to distract Redwire for a second, buying me precious time to slink around towards the crates of firearms. I knew the guns would be useless, unloaded as they were, but I had a thought that where there were guns, there were also usually grenades. If Redwire was stockpiling weapons it’d make sense she’d have at least one crate of those around somewhere. I was almost to the crates when Redwire cocked her head to the side, spotting me and grinning.

“Trying to sneak off? I thought you wanted to ‘finish things’ with me. Or was that just bluster?”

Several tentacles whipped across the space separating us, and I dove forward, tucking myself into a roll that jolted my broken arm with mind stabbing pain, but the move got me out of the way of the deadly lashes that would have flayed entire chunks of me away had they hit. As it was the tendrils hit a stacked group of weapon crates, busting open lids and scattering their contents across the floor. My eyes caught sight of what I’d been hoping to find, the small apple shaped metal forms of several grenades.

Scrambling like a spastic grasshopper I half hobbled, half jumped for the grenades. I scooped one up and pulled the stem from the top just as Redwire aimed more of her tendrils my way. LIL-E swooped in from the side, barrels blazing with muzzle flashes, forcing Redwire to back up and direct her tendrils to form another shield to block the hail of lead. It gave me just enough time to judge my toss.

I sent the grenade sailing towards her in a solid arc, but to my horror she wheeled around and used the shield of tendrils like a catching mitt, snatching the grenade right out of the air, spun it around, and lobbed it right back at me!

“Whoashit!” I blurted and made a break for it, ignoring the searing torment in my leg and breaking out into as fast a three-legged gallop a I could towards the door. LIL-E, seeing what had just happened, immediately turned and began rapidly hovering the same way, because the grenade had landed right among all the other grenades, not to mention several spilled boxes of ammunition.

I saw Redwire’s chortling expression slowly turn into a wide eyed mask of realization, and managed to catch that she literally was cocooning herself within a mass of her tendrils just moments before the explosion.

I was propelled out the front door of the chapel like a screaming pony shaped missile. LIL-E, smoking, followed me, a smoking gray satellite to my pony mass. I landed hard about a dozens yards from the blown out chapel, my back taking the brunt of the fall. LIL-E landed next to me, her gray chassis now charred black in several places.

“Longwalk, remind me if we get out of this that you’re no longer allowed to use grenades,” LIL-E stated as she bobbled unsteadily back into the air.

“I… ugh... think B.B would probably agree with you on that point,” I said, groaning as I stood once more, my mind recalling my first less than stellar escapade with grenades.

“She dead?” LIL-E asked, turning to face the smoking chapel, which was still mostly intact.

“Have we ever been that lucky?” I queried back, knowing better than to expect Redwire to have been done in by that explosion. For all the injuries she’d taken so far the alien modifications to her body seemed to make her beyond just ‘hard to kill’.

My suspicions were confirmed as I saw Redwire’s dark form emerge from the smoke of the chapel, her tendrils casually dusting her off as if they were her own hooves. She had a few bleeding lacerations across her sides and face, and a couple of charred bits to her, but her eyes were still filled with violent lust and energy.

“Okay, my fault that time, I’m mare enough to admit that. Shit, I’m going to need an entirely new home after this. You have any idea how hard it is to find a clean bed with all of its springs intact in the Wasteland? Do you!? Hmm, you know what, I bet your corpse will make for a halfway decent bed.”

“Does she ever shut up?” asked LIL-E.

“I’m going to go with ‘no’,” I huffed, taking in labored breaths as I struggled with a heady combination of blood loss and pure exhaustion. I felt as if my body was slowly turning to stone, getting heavier and sluggish. I was running purely on adrenaline and stubborn determination.

I took a quick look around. I saw Whisperwood and the other ponies that had been tied to the posts now free and making a straight gallop for the side tunnel Braindead had led me through to get to this chamber. There were still Gobs around, but most of them were at the other side of the vast stone cave, either trying to scale the scaffolds to get at Copper Shell’s group of fighting escapees, or taking cover behind piled bodies of their comrades as they exchanged fire with the ponies they’d held captive.

I could see that up inside the tunnel opening high on the wall that the pony escapees had pushed out onto the top of the scaffolds, using a few metal barrels for cover, and were splitting fire between the Gobs climbing upwards, and the ones shooting below. I couldn’t tell how many were still alive, but I only saw one or two bodies of fallen ponies either laying on the ground where they’d fallen from the tunnel, or hanging from the scaffolds. I hoped the casualties were that few, at least.

The Gobs had certainly taken the worst of it so far. Between the gunfire and Whisperwood’s driving the auto wagon through the cavern there were dozens upon dozens of dead or wounded Gobs strewn about. I felt cold at the sight, but reminded myself of just how few options there had been except to go this far to rescue the remaining prisoners.

A few of the Gobs did seem to notice me and LIL-E, but I also saw fear in their eyes as they saw Redwire, and they just looked away to focus on fighting Copper Shell’s group. Were they so scared of Redwire they wouldn't even try to interfere with her fight? Whatever the case I wasn’t going to complain. LIL-E and I were in a tough enough spot as it was just keeping Redwire busy.

It was then that I heard a familiar voice penetrating the hazy din of combat. The voice was faint, but cut sharply through the noise and immediately lifted my spirit to hear.

“Estu dol firivta mas, vi golvai! Ren solva!”

Arcaidia stood out among the escaped prisoners not only for her bright azure coat and brilliant silver mane, but the fact that her horn was already burning like a beacon with pale blue light forming a multi-layered set of circular crests. A rain of ice shards appeared in the air and fell upon the Gobs climbing up the scaffolds, spearing several and knocking off others to fall in spinning messes to the ground.

Beside Arcaidia I saw Crossfire with her distinct crimson jacket, her huge rifle instantly taking aim and filling the cavern with its hefty, echoing blast, each shot striking home upon some poor Gob down on the cavern floor.

Over the heads of those two mares B.B’s form darted out, the pegasus flying straight out over the battle and diving down low. I saw her spin and dart like a sparrow, each move punctuated by fast paced snap shots from her fore limb mounted revolvers, Gobs scattering in her wake.

I saw Binge and Shard, but not up above with the others but instead emerging from the side tunnel that Whisperwood had been heading for alongside the last of the escaped prisoners. While a small group of Gobs had been turning their guns on the fleeing group Binge and Shard both charged in, intercepting the Gobs with a wall of flying knives, some levitated by Shard’s magic, others just expertly thrown by Binge. This created just enough of an opening for Whisperwood and the other prisoners to escape down the side tunnel, while up in the higher tunnel on the wall I saw the fighting prisoners rallying behind Arcaidia and Crossfire. The arrival of my friends had put the Gobs on the defensive, their return fire flagging as some fell and others decided to flee.

Still, there were a lot of Gobs, and enough were still fighting that our friends weren’t going to reach me and LIL-E for at least a couple of minutes.

The flat look of annoyance on Redwire’s face matched her voice, “Thought they’d take longer.” Her tendrils continued to form a constantly shifting barrier of thick bio-metal between herself and LIL-E, one or two flicking out to swat at the smoking eyebot. I saw one tendril also snap towards me, forcing me to stumble aside in a haphazard dodge.

“Not a problem though,” said Redwire, placing one tendril against her lips almost like one might a hoof, and she blew out a shrew whistle that echoed through the entire cavern. She gave me and LIL-E a particularly malicious grin, and then to my surprise she turned and began to gallop away, using her tendrils to keep shielding herself from LIL-E’s gunfire as she went. I just blinked in surprise.

Was she trying to escape? But there wasn’t anything in the direction she was galloping except for the giant hole in the wall that led to nothing but empty blackness, like a giant underground chasm.

“Luna’s silver buttplugs, bitch is trying to get away!” LIL-E growled, as much as a machine voice could growl, and she began to float after Redwire, swaying unsteadily in the air as she trailed sparks.

“Wait, LIL-E, we should wait for the others!” I shouted, stumbling after her. I didn’t want Redwire to get away either, but if we could catch a break and wait for our friends, that made a thousand times more sense than chasing after Redwire while we were both barely able to put up any kind of fight.

As it turned out Redwire wasn’t running away. Quite the opposite.

She was just going to meet her backup.

I heard it as a shrill screech that was so high pitched it felt more like a scalpel across my eardrum than an actual noise. This was followed by the loud thumping swoosh of massive wings, and a shadow descended from the black hole at the far end of the cavern.

I had to assume this beast was some kind of Hyadean creation. I couldn’t imagine it was a natural being from this world, at any rate.

It didn’t have eyes in its bulbous, elongated head. Just a half dozen glowing black feelers like the ends of some rubbery onyx centipede graced its “face”. A mouth with needle thin teeth opened and emitted another piercing shriek that made me want to cover my ears as it landed on a pair of long, bent backwards legs that bore webbed talons like some enormous water fowl. The creature's neck was long and ridged, undulating with unnatural movement that seemed to go beyond mere breathing. Its thick muscled body was more like that of some deep sea manta than that of a bird’s, wide and flat, lined with strange gill slits, yet it still had two gigantic black wings sprouting from this body like the leathery appendages of a bat. A pair of tails twitched behind it like two large whips.

The beast met with Redwire and bent low, as if bowing its head like a submissive dog. Redwire just cackled and whistled at it again, vaulting onto the creature’s back at the base of its long neck, and she pointed at us with one of her own tendrils.

“Night Gaunt, KILL!

With another of its haunting, mind stabbing cries the monstrous Night Gaunt took to the air, gliding on its black wings towards a startled LIL-E and myself. Her internal mechanisms let out harsh grinding sounds and further sparks as LIL-E’s hover systems struggled to change her course away from the diving beast, her pistol mounting sputtering out a few wild shots.

One whip cord tail snapped through the air and cracked alongside LIL-E’s chassis, sending the eyebot spinning away like a smacked golf ball. I shouted for her but could do little else except throw myself painfully to the side as the other whip tail of the Night Gaunt launched itself at me, smashing the ground where I’d just stood in a shower of stone chips.

The beast landed heavily just a few paces from me, its webbed talons slicing into the ground as it turned in lumbering steps to face me while Redwire laughed atop its back.

“I love it. You feel a spark of hope with your friends showing up, and I can just take it away again. Keep crawling on the ground like that, Longwalk. That’s all ponies can do. Lose their hope, then crawl. It’s why we need the Hyadeans. They’ll lift us up from the dirt and give us something so much better than fake hope.”

“Is that what you call what’s been done to you? Being ‘lifted up’?” I asked, standing up unsteadily, “I don’t see it. I just see a pony too weak to do anything other than make everypony around her miserable, to drag everypony down to the ground with her because she’s too afraid to stand up on her own!”

My words were met by the slashing of Redwire’s tendrils and her derisive, anger laden voice. “Too afraid!? This from the blankflank colt without the balls to kill his enemies when he’s got them down and beaten already? How many ponies have I been able to kill because you were too afraid, huh!?”

I tried to dodge around the wildly swinging tentacles, but I didn’t have a lot of strength left and my stumbling evasions were barely enough to keep the slashes shallow as I backed away from Redwire and her massive new ally. The Night Gaunt stalked towards me on unnaturally rolling steps, the feelers on its face extending towards me alongside Redwire’s tendrils.

I had a half baked idea to try and lure her back towards the chapel, then perhaps find a way to collapse the damaged building on top of both Redwire and this monster she was riding, even if I got caught in the collapse as well, but I was rescued from trying that bit of craziness by the timely arrival of a beautiful swooping pegasus mare.

B.B flew by, fast as a snow flurry, all three of her revolvers going off at once in a triple blast that struck the Night Gaunt squarely on its feeler filled muzzle and caused the beast to rear back and let out a splitting, air rending cry. While Redwire struggled to bring the monster back under control B.B flipped about in the air in a swift maneuver that sent her streaking right back at us, and she swung low to snatch me up in her hooves and jet away at high speed.

For a moment I was disoriented by the sudden feeling of flight, but it ended fast as B.B banked hard and landed us both right in the middle of where Binge and Shard were finishing up the pack of Gobs they’d charged into earlier. I saw Binge mercilessly stabbing around her with a knife in her mouth and her tail flinging about her insane knife whip, blood spraying from Gobs left and right. Shard had more precise control of his own replenished supply of knives, eyes narrow slits of focus as his yellow aura of levitation magic picked off any of the bipedal creatures that Binge’s swirling dervish form missed.

At the last of that brief bloodbath, just as B.B was setting me down on my hooves, Binge twirled around and smiled broadly, face running with dripping red, and said cheerfully “Hiya bucky! Told ‘em all you’d still be kicking. Hah, and to think Miss Icy McBluedeath was sooooo worried you’d be all dead and stuff before we got to you!”

“Binge, we was all worried,” B.B said after she holstered the .44 revolver she’d been using in her mouth, instead firing off a quick shot with one of her lighter hoof revolvers at a fleeing Gob without even looking. I noticed she was breathing heavily and her eyes had already turned pure crimson, with even small hints of fangs protruding from her mouth. I could only imagine what all the thick smell of blood down here was doing to her.

“Glad you all showed up when you did, but we don’t really have time to talk,” I said, gesturing back to where Redwire had regained control of the Night Gaunt and was directing the creature to take to the air, aiming straight or us.

“So what the bloody hell is that thing supposed to be?” asked Shard, ears flattening, “Gobs I can deal with, but nopony said anything about giant manta-ray bat monsters with tentacles!”

“We’ll jabber ‘bout that after we dun well killed it,” growled B.B, her own body shaking slightly as she looked towards me, “An’ just so I know I ain’t crazy, was that LIL-E I saw down here, too?”

I nodded, eyes casting about worriedly for the eyebot, not sure where she’d landed after getting hit, “Yeah, she’s pretty badly damaged and I don’t know where she is.”

“The bot was whacked over there,” said Binge, pointing towards the vast expanse of the hole at the back of the cavern, “Not quite a hole in one, so the baddie will have to switch to a putter to finish the job. Ooooh, is that Redwire!? Heeeeey! Redwire! Over here! Remember me!? It’s Binge! We used to go to work together until my career change! Wanna go get coffee!”

Redwire’s shouted reply as the Night Gaunt began to dive bomb us was a garbled, “I am going to wear your skull as a fucking hat and use your spine as my new sex toy!”

Binge smiled, “Oh yeah, she remembers me.”

Shard’s voice was glazed with a sardonic coating, “Lady, I barely know you and I’m trying to forget you.”

“Awww, that’s so sweet! Makes me wanna not stab you in the throat multiple times. Well, maybe once.”

“Guys! Imminent danger!” I shouted, pointing at the Night Gaunt as it opened its maw. I saw a strange distortion in the air around its mouth and a sound like an loud, screeching intake of breath. I was already trying to dive aside but B.B was even faster, hauling me aside as she beat her wings. Binge and Shard also dove away as a beam of warbling force seemingly forged from pure sonic vibration sliced through the ground where we’d been. The distortion of the air was followed by a feeling on my eardrums like somepony jabbing a needle into it. I saw the stone of the cavern floor was cut clean through, all the way to the wall and then up the wall itself, leaving a thin but deep gouge.

“Thing ain’t a’ joke, that’s fer darn sure,” said B.B, red eyes looking me over, “An’ yer in a state like fresh death. Ya better beat hooves, Long, an’ let us take over ‘till Arc gits some healin’ on ya.”

It was just like LIL-E all over again. I didn’t want to leave my friends to fight while I was stuck having to run away. The only difference here was that LIL-E had already been damaged and wanted to take on Redwire alone, which could have been suicidal. B.B, Binge, and Shard were all relatively fresh by comparison. I could see they had all taken a few light wounds fighting through the Hyadean bio monsters to get here, but they all seemed a lot better off than either I or LIL-E were.

I wouldn’t leave a friend behind to fight a battle they couldn’t survive, but I wasn’t going to drag down friends who needed to fight without having to worry about me at the same time. That’d just make things more dangerous for them. B.B was right, I had to get to Arcaidia and receive some healing. She wasn’t telling me to abandon the fight, just pull back enough so I wouldn’t get in their way until I was in better shape to help.

“I’ll be fast, and then we’ll all take her down,” I said, holding a hoof out.

B.B grinned, bumping it with her own hoof, “Take yer time. Got a’ bit o’ steam I need ta blow off an’ this mare just volunteered fer the job.”

There was an intense light in her eyes, their blood red iris’ seeming to be glowing with a predatory fire that left me almost backing away on instinct. Every line of her lithe body was brimming with a tense energy and even her voice had a low, darkly intent quality to it. I gulped and gave B.B a quick nod, no more time for words as Redwire directed the Night Gaunt into a floor skimming flight that was taking her right for us.

I turned and began to gallop for the scaffolds where I could see Arcaidia and Crossfire battling their way down to the cavern floor, while B.B took flight and darted to meet Redwire’s charge.

I didn’t look behind me, even as I heard B.B’s guns roaring, only matched by the Night Gaunt’s piercing cry and Redwire’s crazed laughter.

As I ran, or more accurately swiftly hobbled on three legs, I saw the Gobs were all but scattering now. I could see that Copper Shell was leading the remaining escaped prisoners in supporting Arcaidia and Crossfire’s charge down the scaffold, their guns barking out a steady squall of fire that was forcing the Gobs to either remain pinned down or to outright seek to flee down any side tunnel they could find. The few that were shooting back were being quickly picked off by expert sniping shots from Crossfire, or barrages of ice shards from Arcaidia. I wasn’t sure how many Gobs were alive or dead, but where there’d once been a horde of a couple hundred I now saw mostly bodies, or fleeing forms. Many might have survived, as the dozens of bodies I saw couldn’t account for even half of the horde that had been down here. It seemed that once the odds of the fight ceased being heavily in their favor the majority of Gobs decided survival beat out any loyalty to Redwire. .

This meant I met with no opposition as I made my way to the scaffolds at the cave’s other far wall and tunnel entrance. I was even able to find a weapon among the fallen Gobs, a makeshift spear that was formed from a mop handle and a duct taped pair of kitchen knives. Hardly a replacement for Gramzanber, but it’d do to finish things with Redwire. I could still feel my ARM’s presence in my mind, the spear having been silently encouraging me the entire fight. Maybe it wasn’t just adrenaline keeping me going, but the continued aid of my partner, even at such a distance.

Don’t worry Gramzanber. I don’t intend to leave you behind like that again, but just feeling your thoughts is helping. I’ll put an end to this nightmare and then, together, we’re going to go even further.

I knew this wasn’t going to be over after Redwire. Far from it. The Hyadeans were acting through her, but now more than ever I knew they were out there and a threat that had to be dealt with. However things went in the NCR, or in rescuing my tribe from Odessa, beyond all that this alien menace had to be confronted and stopped, otherwise Redwire and this little den of darkness beneath Skull City was just a preview of what was going to come.

When Arcaidia saw me coming she called out to Crossfire and pointed down towards me. The Drifter mare gave a quick nod and jumped across and down a scaffold to land next to Arcaidia. The next thing I knew I saw a flash of bright light followed by a loud popping noise and both mares appeared in front of me, forcing me to skid to a painful halt.

“Longwalk! Estu ti shora vi malleti vas!”

My forward skid was immediately halted by a telekinetic aura that lifted me up as Arcaidia galloped up to me and began turning me around, examining me with wide, silver eyes. Crossfire, her face a pressed scrunch of anger as she spun her rifle around, firing at a few Gobs that had tried to shift their attention to us, just growled, “A lovely damn mess you landed us all in, colt. You mind explaining how you got your ass captured in the first place!?”

Arcaidia waved a hoof back at Crossfire as if to shush her, “Silence mad one, I need fix Longwalk, then we kill everything down here not us, then make shout noises at him, yes?”

Crossfire shrugged, working the bolt action on her rifle and firing off another shot, “You’re entirely too easy on him. Probably why he let his guard down in the first place. Hey, Mr. Hero, you still awake?”

“Mostly. Glad to see both of you,” I said, letting out a relieved groan as Arcaidia washed my body in healing magic, although that soon turned into a short yelp of pain as she used her telekinesis to set my busted leg. “Arg! Oh, oh that smarts.”

“Hmph,” Arcaidia gave a toss of her head, silver mane twirling, “Lucky ren solva not worse off. I see what you fight. Hyadean make pony like them. Stronger than normal pony. Big monster also Hyadean creation. Killing not be easy.”

“I know,” I said, sucking in a deep breath as I let Arcaidia do her work, the healing energy slowly knitting wounds back together, but only so much, so fast. “Just do enough so I can move. We need to help the others as fast as we can.”

“Even healing Crest can do so much.” Arcaidia’s tail swirled around as her face creased with concern, “Maybe sit out this one, ren solva? We can finish instead.”

“Your blue weird talking lady friend has a point,” Crossfire said, reloading her rifle, “Even with healing you don’t look like you’re in much shape for continuing the fight. Especially not against that.”

She pointed and I tilted my head to look behind me. B.B, Shard, and Binge were holding their own, but only just barely. Redwire was flinging her tentacles about haphazardly around the Night Gaunt to try to keep them at a distance while the monster itself hopped around with hefty flaps of its wings, slashing out with talons or making fast bites with its toothy maw. Its tails whipped around, a meaty crack following each strike. Shard was mostly on the defensive, running more than fighting, slashing his daggers at the Night Gaunt but unable to pierce its hide. Binge dodged in and out like a spider striking from its hidden hole, but while she scored a few light cuts, it didn’t seem like she was doing more than making the Night Gaunt more angry.

B.B was focused on Redwire, clearly trying to knock the Raider off with a well placed shot, but Redwire was keeping the pegasus’ aim off with the flailing storm of tendrils that kept forcing B.B to duck and dive aside.

I took a deep breath and looked back at Crossfire and Arcaidia, “I have to finish things with her, okay? This is my responsibility, and I won’t run from it. So please, Arcaidia, finish healing me, then let’s go put an end to this.”

Our eyes met for a moment, and Arcaidia’s magic pulsed over me, a final cold wash of healing, and then she set me down. I still felt utterly drained of energy, and my wounds still ached, but the worst of the wounds were closed and my leg could support my weight once again. I gave the filly in front of me a swift hug, to which she just gave me a small, playful shove and nodded her head at the fight, brandishing her starblaster.

“Come, ren solva. We finish together.”

Crossfire chortled suddenly, for some reason, causing me and Arcaidia to look at her, but she just waved her hoof, saying, “Nevermind. Knobs will get a kick out of that one later. Let’s go kill a bitch.”

All three of us galloped together, Arcaidia on my left, and Crossfire on my right. Behind us Copper Shell, Soft Heart, and the remaining prisoners secured the area, forcing the last of the Gobs into fleeing down side tunnels. Now it was just me, my friends, and Redwire left. Well, that and her terrifying alien monster pet.

Really could use you here, Gramzanber, I thought as we closed the distance where the Night Gaunt had landed and was spinning around, lashing out with its tails, catching Binge with one of them and knocking her backwards. Binge bounced back to her hooves quickly, teetering for a moment before shaking herself and jumping right back into the fight.

As we arrived, Crossfire dug her hooves to stop sharply as she took aim with her rifle, its bayonet glinting as she fired. The round struck the Night Gaunt’s left wing joint, snapping the limb back and sending a purple spurt of blood into the air. Arcaidia opened fire with her starblaster, the bright streaks of light stitching a path over the monster’s hide, the small smoking holes seeming to both hurt and enrage it.

I rushed in to join Binge, the mare panting in a grinning manner, tongue hanging out the side of her mouth as she gripped one of her countless knives and charged one of the Night Gaunt’s knees. I drove in right beside her, both of us shoving our respective weapons at the creature’s black, rubbery flesh. My makeshift spear hit home hard, sank into the unnaturally tough hide with a small spurt of viscous purple blood, then the shaft almost immediately snapped under the weight of my momentum.

“Sunuvabitch!” I spat as I let go of the weapon and ducked away as the Night Gaunt raked at us with its webbed talon.

“Not a good time to not have your shiny stab-stab, eh bucky?” Binge said breathlessly as she wove around the Night Gaunt’s sword like claws, her puffy green tail twirling as she used her knife whip to cut the creature’s leg again.

“Well, seemed smart at the time to leave Gramzamber behind,” I said, running around to try and get behind the Night Gaunt. Maybe if I could climb up its back I could get at Redwire and knock her off her mount?

“Ain’t time fer worryin’ ‘bout hindsight!” shouted B.B, twirling by as she pumped a staccato of lead from above, raining it at Redwire and the Night Gaunt both. Redwire’s tendrils slithered upwards, interlacing to meld into a barrier against the attack, but I saw a few rounds pass through and impact on the Night Gaunt, and one round blast a bit of twisted alien flesh from Redwire’s shoulder.

“So all of you are just feeling confident enough to be chatty, eh?” said Redwire, reaching out with a hoof and pointing it at B.B as she flew by, “Already took down the bot, how long before I get another?”

Her tentacles snapped outwards, stabbing like daggers at B.B’s darting body. B.B twisted, bobbed, and rolled away from the attacks, but one tendril caught her tail, wrapping around the brown and pink streaked appendage in an instant. B.B let out a hard curse as the tendril spun her around and launched her to the ground, B.B bouncing and rolling along the hard stone with a hard smack.

She stirred to her hooves, but was clearly dazed. Redwire patted the Night Gaunt’s head and it began to charge another of its sonic beams, aiming its murderous mouth at the fallen pegasus, but its head was knocked off course by a combined attack of Crossfire’s quickly firing rifle and Arcaidia throwing a cone of icicles into the creature’s side. The sonic beam still discharged with an ear grating scream, but the line of deadly vibrations flew up into the ceiling instead of B.B, giving her enough time to take to the air again.

By now I’d gotten behind the Night Gaunt and with careful timing I jumped upon the back of one of its twitching tails. It's skin felt cold, oily, and unusually hard and unyielding. I could feel a pulse under its skin that might have been a heartbeat, but it was utterly irregular and strange as I tried climbing up the tail towards the creature’s back. It wasn’t taking my presence on it lightly either as the monster began to thrash its tails around, forcing me to clamp my legs to keep from getting shaken off like so much dandruff.

“You just have to do things the hard way, don’t you?” I heard Crossfire say as she rounded behind the Night Gaunt, her horn flashing as she teleported straight onto the creature’s back. Redwire whipped a tendril at her but Crossfire kept her balance and batted the attack aside with her bayonet.

“For fucks sake will one of you just die already!?” yelled Redwire, sending more tendrils at Crossfire, “You’re not even one of his friends so why risk your neck for him?”

“Risk?” Crossfire snorted as she worked her rifle like it was a spear, spinning it and knocking aside tendrils with either the bayonet blade or butt of the rifle with furious speed. “I have a stomach for risk, and this has nothing to do with friendship. This buck is worth a lot of caps and can’t having that payday dying until I collect.”

I felt Crossfire’s telekinesis wrap around me and haul me up alongside her, the Night Gaunt’s back barely broad enough for the two of us. Redwire was just a few paces away at the base of the creature’s neck, dividing her attention between sending her tentacles at Crossfire, and others slashing down at Shard, Binge, and Arcaidia who had gathered at the front of the Night Gaunt, even as it bit at them with quick, fierce teeth. It nearly snatched up Arcaidia, who barely protected herself with a small wall of ice that the Night Gaunt still shattered with its bite, forcing her to back away. Shard appeared next to her, just as the Night Gaunt’s face feelers reached out towards them, and he slashed with a flurry of daggers while Arcaidia cast another Crest spell that coated the daggers in sheaths of sharp ice.

Several feelers were cut away by the blow as the ice broke upon impact and scattered about like grenade fragments, but other feelers got through and lashed at the pair. I wasn’t sure what the feelers did but it was clear just a touch caused horrible pain, as both Shard and Arcaidia let out pained screams, not falling but clutching at the red welts where the feelers had lashed them. The feelers snaked in again, and Shard shoved Arcaidia back, but at the last second Binge came in, spinning like a top as she flicked her tail, knife whip slicing again and again at the feelers and leaving several as ruined stumps.

The Night Gaunt screamed, rearing back, forcing both Crossfire and I to do everything we could just to keep our perches on its back. It spread its vast wings, even with the wound its right wing had taken, and took to the air. I almost rolled off its side but Crossfire dug her rifle’s bayonet into the creature’s back and grabbed me with her free hoof, hauling me back.

“I’ll distract her, you rush her. Try not to screw it up,” she said, yellow eyes locked onto Redwire like a targeting laser. I felt a distinct sense of deja vu, remembering the first time I fought alongside Crossfire it was also while on something that was flying, with a not dissimilar plan.

“Going to shoot me this time?” I asked.

“Hey, that was mostly an accident, and don’t tempt me,” Crossfire said, switching out her current clip with a clip of red marked special rounds, her flechettes. “On three.”

She aimed at Redwire, who had been directing the Night Gaunt around to try and strafe my friends still stuck below, but looked back in time to notice what Crossfire was doing and sneered as she began to wrap her razor tentacles around herself protectively. Crossfire finished loading, chambered a round, and said, “Three!”

She fired, the round bursting into a cloud of cutting shards that pelted Redwire’s shield, which subsequently kept her view blocked from me rushing across the Night Gaunt’s back. Crossfire was right beside me, and we both hit Redwire’s tendril shield at the same time, me with a hoof strike and Crossfire with her thrusting bayonet. Redwire’s lightweight nature worked against her here, as our combined strike, while not actually getting past the tendrils to damage her, did serve to thrust her right off the back of the Night Gaunt.

“Oh for fucks sake!” Redwire grunted as she fell, and what satisfaction I might’ve felt was rather rapidly scrubbed out by the manner in which her tendrils reached out and wrapped around me and Crossfire, razor barbs digging into both our hides as we were hauled off the Night Gaunt as well. I tumbled in pained freefall for a second, but I had just enough time to see Crossfire reached a hoof towards me and to grab for her. The moment our hooves touched she managed another teleport that turned my eyesight into bright crimson light followed by pure vertigo before I felt us hit the ground, a lot lighter than we would have otherwise.

Rising dizzily beside Crossfire we looked to see she’d teleported us back among the rest of our comrades, just in time for an enraged Night Count to finish turning in the air and aiming its open mouth our way, a beam of sonic vibrations rocketing down towards us. My heart thundered in my chest and I felt like was swimming through cold syrup as I saw Arcaidia throw herself between the Night Gaunt and the rest of us. Things happened too fast for me to react.

Arcaidia didn’t flinch from sight of the the Night Gaunt’s beam of unrelenting sonic force cut towards her. Face woven into a expression of concentration as still as freshly fallen snow Arcaidia began to cast her spell. Her horn became a cerulean beacon surrounded by swirling Crests circles, their geometric patterns thickly weaving around her. At her hooves the stone cracked from the frost that cut through it and with a sound like a small avalanche a wall of ice easily three paces thick sprang upwards in front of Arcaidia. The thick blue frost valiantly held against the sonic beam for all of two second before the ice shattered like a point blank mine exploding, sending shards of ice flinging everywhere, one cutting across my cheek as I stared, dumbfounded.

The sonic beam had been mostly diffused by the ice barrier, yet not without going through, at least in part. Arcaidia was still standing, but there was something wrong by the way she was blinking in mild shock, the frozen mask of her face paling as she cast silver eyes downward at her right fore leg. Or rather where her right fore leg should have been. The rest of her body had escaped harm remarkably well for deflecting the beam and being at the center of her exploding ice barrier, but whether it was a thick ice shard that was responsible or the remnant of the beam itself, Arcaidia’s leg had been severed just below the knee, leaving a red ragged stump that was pumping blood onto the stone floor.

The severed limb lay like a blue log a few paces away.

”Arcaidia!” The scream tore itself out of my throat as the slow feeling of being stuck in mud left my limbs and I seemed to scramble in fast forward to her side just as she began to teeter. I caught her, setting her down gently. I heard Redwire howling with laughter in the background of the terrified buzz in my head.

“Oh that’s beautiful. That’s one down. How about we shoot for two?”

Redwire’s tendrils arced up into the air and then shot towards me and Arcaidia, but a rapid series of gunshots blasted away several, forcing Redwire to pull them back as B.B flew by, unloading with her revolvers and forcing Redwire back on the defensive.

“B.B!” I shouted, “Arcaidia’s hurt!”

“I’m seein’ that! Just stop the blood for a sec an’ I’ll be right there!” she shouted back, reloading her weapons almost faster than I could see and firing away more at Redwire, trying to force the crazed, mutated Raider back. For the moment, at least, I had time to see to Arcaidia, whose blood was already soaking both of us.

Hooves shaking I put a hoof to the stump, trying to stem the flow of my friend’s life seeping out onto the cold floor. I knew I needed something to tie off the limb to act as a tourniquet but I had nothing that’d work for the purpose. I was dimly aware that Crossfire was shooting at the Night Gaunt, emptying the rest of her flechette clip to keep the monster haphazardly flying, unable to launch another beam while under the punishing fire. Then I saw Shard, who was looking around with tense confusion as he couldn’t quite decide what to do, attack the Night Gaunt, go after Redwire, or head over my way. I made the choice for him by looking his way and calling out for him, mostly because I realized the bandanna he wore around his face was perfect for use as a tourniquet. To his credit Shard was at my side opposite Arcaidia in an instant, ripping off his face bandanna without me even having to ask.

“We need to move her out of here,” he said as he used his magic to tightly tie the bandanna above the wound, pulling it tight. I could see the blood flow slowing considerably, if not entirely stopping, and I swallowed acid bile back down my throat as my stomach clenched in fear.

“Longwalk,” Arcaidia said in a strangely bewildered voice, “I think I have missing leg.”

“It’s okay. You’re gonna be okay,” I said, just as B.B landed, the pegasus’ stance wary and shaking with raised hackles and crimson eyes blazing. Her revolver’s barrels were smoking, and I looked up to see Redwire was advancing on us, a hungry look of bloodlust glowing in her eyes.

“B.B?” I asked, and the pegasus gave me an apologetic shrug, her red eyes narrowing.

“Outta ammo, Long,” she said as way of explanation for why she wasn’t shooting anymore, “Been burnin’ through rounds like a’ darn Dash addict all day. It’s down ta hoofticuffs fer me.”

Redwire stood off at about twenty paces, eyeing me and Arcaidia with a satisfied, smug look twisting her already crazed features.

“It hurts, doesn’t it? More than anything I can do to your body, this is what hurts most. Watching ponies you care about suffer.”

I felt like my veins were pulsing out of my skin and my blood roaring in my ears was making it hard to think straight as I shot a glare at Redwire that only made her smile deepen. “Ready to kill me yet? Or are you still going to pretend being kind and merciful has any fucking use in this world?”

“It has a use,” I said, voice strangely still as I felt my pounding blood meld with the pounding pressure I was now feeling from distant Gramzanber. I held Arcaidia tightly, but I felt her put a hoof on my leg and I looked down to her. She was sweating, bits of silver mane plastered to her face, but she just smiled at me and held up her bloodied stump.

“Ren solva... do you feel your ARM?”

The pressure of Gramzanber intensified in my head, a beating drum that mingled with my heartbeat, and I nodded. Arcaidia, despite her life blood still seeping out of her, lit her horn up and aimed it at her wound. Her healing spell lit her whole body up in a soft blue aura, and while the wound didn’t even come close to closing, the bleeding slowed to nothing more than a small seeping trickle, and Arcaidia’s body went from a clammy cold to almost warm. She looked at me, held me with her eyes, and despite her injury I could feel her pouring her courage and confidence into me.

“Then go kick dumb talking pony’s butt and not worry about me. I not fall because one leg gone. Not when battle still need be won.”

Redwire’s laugh echoed across the cavern, “By the Goddesses I hate your guys’ optimism so much that I almost admire it. You just keep picking yourselves up. It's pointless. Even if you kill me, it’s pointless. This same shit will just happen again, in another time, another place. How long before it eats you? How long before instead of a leg, it's her fucking head? One bullet is all it will take, some random battle in the future. That’s the Wasteland. Why can’t you just fucking accept that!? With the Hyadeans in charge at least that might change!”

“I’ll be right back, Arcaidia, just rest easy,” I said as I sat Arcaidia down gently. B.B took over looking after Arcaidia for me while I strode towards Redwire.

Crossfire was behind us a few dozen yards, Shard having galloped back to her to help with keeping the Night Gaunt at bay. I saw out of the corner of my eye that Binge had snuck off to climb on top of one of the many metal posts dotting the cavern, many still bearing the bodies of Redwire’s victims. Binge waited until the Night Gaunt flew by before flinging herself upwards and hooked one of the creature’s leg’s with her tail whip, giggling insanely as she was lifted off the ground, but her own weight acted as a means for her knife whip to start sawing at the leg it had wrapped around.

The Night Gaunt screamed as the rubbery flesh of its leg was deeply cut into by Binge’s whip of blades. Vicious purple blood spurted to the ground like rain and the monster began to spin out of control as it went mad from the pain. Meanwhile I took a step towards Redwire, feeling Gramzanber’s energy coursing through me, its distant pressure getting so strong that it felt like my skull might split apart. I looked straight at her, Redwire seemingly unconcerned with my approach. If anything she stood patiently, waiting for me to come to her, her body now having sprouted dozens of tentacles that waved in the air with their bladed points all aimed straight for me. I ignored them as I spoke in a low, clear tone that didn’t match the inferno beating through my veins.

“It doesn’t matter how many times the Wasteland knocks us down.”

Arcaidia, even with her missing limb only just frozen by her own horn, still found the strength to aim her horn towards the ground and cast a blaze of blue light into the floor. From the stone ground a large spike of frost erupted upwards, directly underneath where the Night Gaunt was falling. The spike of ice punctured through the monster’s side, the pointed pike of magically hardened ice erupting from the side of the beast’s chest in a fountain of violet gore. The creature was still alive, and thrashed around, whipping at Crossfire and Shard with its tail as they advanced on it. The two Drifter’s jumped apart at the same time, avoiding the whipping tails, and retaliating with fierce blasts from rifle and slashes from levitated daggers.

Binge hopped onto the creature’s stomach, lightly bouncing from hoof to hoof as she stabbed down again and again, even as the Night Gaunt screamed and fired a sonic beam at her that forced her to pirouette away, losing a few tail hairs but otherwise escaping unharmed.

As the Night Gaunt screamed again, making my ears feel as if they were bleeding, I took another step towards Redwire.

“It's not the Wasteland that’s the problem. Its us. We’re the ones who can either choose to endure the suffering and be better for it, or succumb to the suffering, and become monsters.”

Redwire rolled her eyes at me, starting to take steps to match mine as we moved towards one another, a sense of purpose in both our strides. I think we both knew that this fight was going to end in the next few seconds, yet from the way her eyes met mine I think the real battle was not the exchange of blows, even the final deathblow to come, but the words we had for each other, we two ponies who had made very different choices in life.

“That’s horseshit, especially coming from a colt barely old enough to know what his dick is for! Nopony can ‘endure’ what this world does to them, not forever! It’s better to absorb it. Become it. That’s survival. But you know what, I’m part of something even better and bigger now. This whole world can change, and those who can survive it can finally leave this festering fuckhole behind!”

As one her tendrils moved, a flurry of piercing metal fangs that converged on my position in a move clearly meant to skewer me from all sides. In response to this I did the only thing I could. I charged directly at her, a full blown gallop that took me into the heart of the storm. Several tentacles had their razor tips aimed for my chest, and from my gallop I launched into a leaping arc, the tendrils slashing fresh wounds on my barrel and legs but not managing to puncture my chest. I landed on those same tendrils, stomping down on them hard, ignoring the sharp thorns, feeling the alien cartilage crack under the weight of my hooves. I jumped again, this time to the side, immediately springing forward after landing, closing on Redwire.

She snarled, spinning to face me, tendrils lashing like claws. I ducked, brow taking a nasty cut that filled my vision with hot blood, but I blinked through it and came in hard at Redwire, letting my instincts combine with the pulsing thunder of Gramzanber’s presence in my mind, louder and louder as if I could almost reach out and touch the ARM. Instead I got on my hind legs in a rising uppercut that rocked Redwire back on her hooves as the blow checked her chin.

“That’s just running away Redwire!” I shouted, not letting up, not giving her space as I stepped in and punched hard with my left hoof, then followed it up with a swift fright, both shots scoring glancing blows as Redwire flung tendrils to defend herself, balling them up as if they were her own extra hooves.

“The fuck it is! You’re the one who runs, you fucking coward! You ran away from the responsibility you had to kill me when you had the chance! All you do is run from the fact that there is no point being a good pony in this miserable shitstain of a world! Anything you gain can just get taken like its nothing!”

Her tendrils drew in around her front, forming a thick mass that then shoot out at me like a thick tree trunk of spinning death. I sidestepped, my shoulder catching the edge and losing a chunk of fur and flesh. Then Redwire swept the huge tangled limb of tendrils at me like a great scythe, forcing me to leap again to get over it without being swept under and ground to bloody chunks. Now on her opposite side I rushed in and delivered a headbutt straight to her ribs, feeling her thick alien flesh recoil under the blow as her light body was sent skidding. She growled viciously, like a cornered animal.

“Yes, anything can be taken from you, at any time,” I said, heart pounding heated blood through me, even as it made my wounds bleed more profusely, the numbing cold only barely held back by the rising tide of anger and epiphany within, “The world’s unfair. That’s why it’s our job to make it better, even if we risk losing what we care about along the way! Saving lives is what matters to me. It's who I am. And I’ve been terrified of taking lives because of it. With you, now, I finally get it. I’ll never stop trying to save lives, as many as I can.”

I felt a strange sense of certainty and understanding overcome me, and didn’t notice it at the time but there was a faint white glow that suffused me, if only for a moment, “If that means, on rare occasion, I’m left with no other option than to take a life, I can accept and learn to live with that weight.

Redwire spat, laughing darkly, “Then what makes you different than any other hypocritical asshole that tries to ‘save the Wasteland’ by murdering anypony in it that happens to be against them? Because killing me is the only way this ends for you, if I don’t kill you first.”

I nodded to her solemnly, “I know. And no words from me will ever get across to you how much I wish that wasn’t the case. Even the hypocrisy is something I’ll have to learn to live with, because I’ll still be trying to spare lives from here on out, even long after I’ve buried you.”

A shark like grin spread over Redwire’s face, eyes flashing with eager light, “You can only bury me after you win, buck, so how about we both give our mouths a rest and finish this!”

I nodded, a deep rooted sigh escaping me. Even with my new sense of certainty it didn’t mean I liked what was about to happen. First of all I could still lose, though I somehow knew that even if I fell my friends would finish the job in my stead. But second, and more importantly, I felt it, him, I suppose. Gramzanber. The pressure was so intense in my brain that I was shocked my head hadn’t split open like a ripe melon.

How long have you been this close? I asked, even in the few seconds as Redwire tensed to charge at me.

Not long, was the strangely resonant and masculine voice of my ARM, its words more natural and less robotic than I remembered, The link between us has been strengthening since the beginning, but there are limits to the parameters I have been able to set, master. Even now our synchronization, the bond between your soul and mine, is strained and still causing potentially fatal damage to your body if we cannot gain the calibration data on your species soon. But for now our bond is strong enough that I can dematerialize into my base components and follow our link to your location. Do you require your ARM, master?

Redwire let out a shrieking battlecry that outdid anything the Night Gaunt had uttered, and rushed me, a whirling tornado of slicing tentacles. I gulped, but held firm, resolute.

Now would be a fanbuckingtastic time to demateralwhatever to me! And none of this ‘master’ crap. We’re partners.

Very well, partner.

My heartbeat synced up with the pulse of Gramzanber in my head, and it felt like there was a doorway opening up within my chest, a channel into my very spirit. I reared up on my hind legs, instinctively holding out my hoof, eyes closed in concentration as Redwire closed the last few bounding steps between us.

It was like a hot flash of lightning through my body, though visually all that happened was that a spectral, silver mist seemed to materialize into the air in front of my hoof, like small glittering metal particles of sand. Then in a flash the particles swirled together and coalesced into the firm, very real shape of my ARM. Gramzanber’s broad blade was pointed downward, its shaft resting against my hoof. The moment that metal touched my limb I felt my connection to Gramzanber solidify, like being immersed in scalding water that rather than burned me, filled me with focus.

The look of surprise on Redwire’s face was complete, though her charge didn’t halt, and her mass of tendrils were inches from skewering me. In that single instant of time I had I thought just one word to Gramzanber.

Accelerator

The cavern crystallized into a cobalt blue world. Redwire, less than a pace from me, was now slow as if she was swimming through ice water, her tendrils surrounding me. I bent and twisted through their mass, so thick that even with my speed it was impossible to get past all of them without some of their sharp edges cutting across my hide.

Gramzanber’s hefty weight in my hooves felt different. Heavier, despite having no trouble moving the great spear around. I sliced in several curving arcs, sweeping away tendrils in neat, severing cuts that sent them flying away like decapitated serpents. More erupted from her body, slow yet driving towards me from all angles. Even with my increased speed I had to take a few steps back, not questioning how my two hooves held the spear’s shaft and kept turning it this way and that, my hind hooves spinning my body around as I made several more wide cutting slices that deflected or cut through Redwire’s tendrils. I could see literal sparks flying from where the bio-metal of the tendrils’ razors cut along Gramzanber’s edge, like tiny glittering snowflakes.

Redwire pressed forward, her whole body wiggling as the changed alien flesh produced more and more tendrils. By volume alone could she keep pace with my speed, dozens upon dozens of the misshapen appendages slicing at me as I cut around my body in a furious storm. A few got through, grazing me, my slowed vision and senses drawing out the agony of each cut, yet I could see the strain was worse on Redwire. Her body seemed unable to keep up with how many tentacles she was trying to produce. She got thinner and more gaunt with each passing second as more tendrils lay behind our rampaging path like discarded hoses. Yet she pressed me relentlessly, even with the speed of Accelerator on my side, even with Gramzanber’s unnaturally sharp edge allowing me to cut down her tendrils almost as fast as she produced them.

It was just a question of which one of us would give out first. If I ended Accelerator, I wouldn’t survive the torrent of attacks Redwire was barraging me with right now. If she failed to keep up the tempo of lashing tentacles, I’d just need one single opening to end her in turn. Neither one of us could afford to back down from the fight, or the beliefs that brought us to it in the first place.

To her, I had to be destroyed to validate what she felt was a hopeless world worth hating, along with everypony in it.

For me, I had to end her as the only path left to protect the lives of every single pony who was trying to escape this hellhole.

Those equally potent beliefs fueled the storm of strikes between us, wickedly sharp tendrils clashing dozens of times in the span of a mortal eyeblink with Gramzanber’s flashing edge.

My world collapsed into a space no more than a hoof length around me, tendril blades enveloping me from all sides in a seemingly eternal dance of my own constantly slashing spear. I saw droplets of my own blood floating in slow motion through the air as more and more painful lacerations reached past my guard and savaged my hide. Redwire’s snarling visage glowed blue in my vision, her body dripping now with small rivers of its own blood, running from growing wounds as her body sacrificed more of its own mass to create more tendrils. Her little remaining pony hide and fur seemed to melt away to expose raw muscle beneath as more flesh turned into yet more slashing, thorn covered tentacles.

Then it happened. Through the seemingly endless waves of frantically striking tendrils I saw a clear path, a single moment where there was an opening between myself and Redwire.

I slashed hard at that point, hooves wrapping around the shaft of Gramzanber and raising the spear high to bring it down more like an axe than a spear, cutting away half a dozen tendrils in the process. The blade cut along Redwire’s chest, but she had pulled back at the last second, pulling her tendrils back with her, but I pressed the advantage, not letting up. I adjusted my grip on Gramzanber, planting my hind hooves in a wide stance, feeling for a strange instant as if my body was not my own, but rather something altogether taller and more bipedal.

With a final shout I burst forward, thrusting Gramzanber forward with all my might.

Redwire formed a shield in front of her, tendrils snapping together in a thick concave mass.

Gramzanber pierced the shield, slicing through it, and impacted squarely with Redwire’s chest. I pressed forward, hard, shoving the entire blade through the tendrils, and further through Redwire, until the silver, shining tip burst forth from her back at a upward angle, temporarily lifting her off the ground.

Unless she was even less of a pony than I thought she was, it was a fatal blow.

I deactivated Accelerator, the world of color and sound rushing back to me like a tidal wave. Exhaustion and wracking pain cut through me as the backlash hit in full, dropping me to my knees, and causing Redwire to also slip to the ground like a limp doll.

There were a few seconds of silence. I duly realized that the Night Gaunt was dead and unmoving, the creature’s head having a fresh hole through it, courtesy likely of Crossfire’s rifle as I saw the mare prodding the dead thing with the bayonet of her weapon, likely to confirm the kill.

With a cool wash of relief I realized we’d won, and my friends were safe... if not all entirely intact.

“Heh… heh...”

I turned at Redwire’s choking, bloodstained laugh. She wasn’t moving, her body shuddering as the mass of tentacles she’d created began to wither and turn to dust like rapidly decaying plants. Yet she still chuckled, looking at me with eyes that were suddenly older and more tired than they’d seemed before.

“Look at… your flank..”

Too tired to do much else I glanced down at my flank as she bade. She was dying, after all, I could humor her. What I saw made my blink several times in mute surprise.

Upon my flanks were now a clear image. A tribal spear, pointed upward. On either side of the spear’s shaft, as if sprouting from the wood itself, were a pair of wings. The left wing was pure white like unblemished clouds. The other was black as soot. Both wings were upward turned, their tips even with the tip of the spear they flanked, almost as if to form a specific pattern.

A cutie mark. My cutie mark.

Even if the image’s symbolism was a little obtuse to me, I knew what it meant, because I’d just felt it moments earlier when I’d resolved to finish Redwire. My talent was saving lives. Even in the instances where that meant taking them. I may have killed before, but it wasn’t until now that I’d accepted that doing so might, in rare cases, be the right choice.

Redwire’s voice was fainter now, barely a whisper, one that none of my friends could hear as they trotted towards us.

“Congratulations on earning your cutie mark, asshole... and every time you see it, you can remember... me.”

A laugh transmuted into a coughing gout of blood, joining the spreading pool around the gaping wound through her body. Any normal pony would have died by now, and while I could tell Redwire wasn’t much longer for this world, it seemed like she was madly determined to cling to a few more seconds. I kept a keen eye on her, both feeling it my duty to watch her last moments, and also because I wasn’t foolish enough to fully believe she couldn’t be dangerous, even with the last few heartbeats of her life ticking away.

Seeing my stare, she rolled her eyes, sassy even to the last. “Flattered you still think I’m... I’m worth being cautious around. Fuck, lucky bastard... without that spear I’d have had you.”

I shrugged at this, “Probably. My plan was to just keep punching you until either I broke or you did. Gramzanber just cut that short.” I looked at her, no sense of satisfaction inside me. I didn’t regret the choice I’d made, only the chain of events that had led to me having to make it. Even now, after all was done, I couldn’t hate this pony. No more than I could hate a rabid gecko that needed to be put down to protect the safety of my tribe. If only...

“I said I’d bury you,” I said, not unkindly, “I can do that much for you. Do you have a preference as to where?”

“Nah... fuck it. Leave me in this hole. Some lucky scavenger gets a treat.” Redwire laughed weakly, as if at some private joke.

I shook my head. A difficult mare to the end. “Treating the bodies well has always been a thing with me. I could bury you at one of those old churches that’re scattered around?”

No,” Redwire said vehemently, another spurt of blood coating the ground, “No church. No Goddess… never believed in them.”

Her breathing slowed, and a final, rattling laugh escaped her lips like a prisoner feeling itself unsteadily from bloody chains, “If they do exist... I wouldn’t get to see them anyway. Too bad... wanted to tell them to their faces how much I hate... them for-”

I didn’t get to hear what Redwire hated Equestria’s old Goddesses for. The mare went still, and didn’t say anything more.

It was a few moments before I heard hooves approaching next to me, and I glanced over to see Crossfire with a stern but satisfied look on her face. “Didn’t think you’d do it, for a minute there. Jobs done, Mr. Hero.”

“Yeah,” I said, taking a few deep, shivering breaths, “Jobs done.”

I looked up suddenly, my brain sluggishly catching up with other concerns now that I wasn’t locked in a death struggle. “Arcaidia!?”

I saw her, on her three remaining hooves, being partially carried along by B.B. as the pair approached us. Off to the side Binge hopped along as well, smiling cheerily. Then again she was covered in blood and surrounded by visceral carnage, I supposed this all counted as a pleasant afternoon for her. Shard hung back, still eyeing the corpse of the Night Gaunt as if he expected the creature to rise up and attack again at any second. I could hardly fault him for his caution.

Even further back I saw Copper Shell and Softheart, along with Whisperwood and the twenty or so surviving escaped prisoners all congregating. I imagined that once the sound of battle had quieted that Whisperwood had led her own small group back. The slight mare saw me looking over their way and gave the barest of smiles and a wave, looking as if she was about ready to collapse. I knew exactly how she felt. I noticed Softheart was embracing the mare that Redwire had forced me to fight, Vanilla Shot. Had she been the wife that Softheart had spoken of earlier? I felt a small burst of warmth, glad to see something good come out of all this. Of course she still technically had one of those monstrous Hyadean seeds stuck in her, but with Redwire gone the immediate danger seemed over. Still I made a mental note to talk with the pair about going to Stable 104, as I didn’t doubt Misty Glasses would want to see if it was possible to remove the seed, and probably examine it for... science or something.

Some of of the former prisoners were covering tunnel exits Gobs had fled down, prepared for the possibility of the Gobs returning for another round. The rest just looked tired and shell shocked, sitting on haunches or laying down, more than a few crying either silently or loudly as personal preference dictated. I knew more than few had lost friends and family down here. Bodies were strewn around the area, and with the focus on the battle gone the horrific smell of the cavern was overpowering.

Still, my attention was rooted on Arcaidia, the unicorn’s pale face reminding me of a overcast sky more than her proper vibrant azure color. Her eyes were strongly alight, however, silver beacons that gave me hope as she looked at me, smiling.

“I’m here, ren solva. Also, my leg,” she levitated a block of ice that had her severed limb encased in it. At my shocked look she licked her lips gingerly, flinching while still maintaining her smile, “Not sure if leg be reattached easy, but maybe keep for... B.B, word?”

“Sentimental value, hun?” suggested B.B.

“Mmm, yes, sentimental value. Ha, not look so good as mantel piece. Maybe just get rid of, get shiny fake limb. Need time to think,” Arcaidia said, looking more tired than I felt despite the front she was putting up. I just wanted to go over and hug her. I managed to stand, at least, if unsteadily, while taking up Gramzanber in my mouth. It’d felt strange to have held it in my forehooves like I had just a minute ago. I had been so caught up in the fight I had hardly been thinking about it. Now that I was I had no idea why I fought like that, instead of my more usual mouth held style.

I put the thought aside for later examination, heading over to join my friends, while Crossfire lingered a few steps behind me.

“Woohoo!” cheered Binge, grinning at me, “Bucky is still rocking a pulse! Hm, and Redwire ain’t. Sweet. How many that put you up to now? Three? Still waaaaay behind the rest of us. Oh well, work in progress. So, she got any nice loot on her?”

“Binge, leave it be,” said B.B, breathing heavily. Her eyes were practically glowing red, and I saw she kept pointedly avoiding looking towards any open wounds. Instead she focused on me, eyes soft. “Glad ya came out of it alive, Long. Real glad.”

“Me too,” I said, my eyes flicking to Binge briefly, “Loot, if any survived the explosion, would be in the chapel. Why don’t you go get a head start on that while the rest of us catch our breath, since you're so energetic?”

“Heehee! Can do, buckaroo. If I find anything juicy I’ll only keep some of it for myself without telling any of you,” Binge said, giving a quick mock salute before bounding off towards the church. She called over her shoulder merrily, “Nice spear! It looks just like your old one!”

I facehoofed. I heard Gramzanber’s voice in my head.

She is an extremely odd member of your species. I cannot tell if she is lacking in intellect or is simply skilled at acting as if she is.

I’ve been trying to figure that one out since the first day I met her. At this point I’m willing to just let Binge be Binge and not worry about it anymore.

Will that logic apply the next time she attempts to mate with you?

Whoawhoawhoa! Who said anything about that!? And what does a alien space spear know about mating anyway!?

A spear’s purpose is to penetrate. I cannot imagine the mating process is much different from battle, in that regard.

We are so not having this conversation right now. Or ever.

“Huh, she’s got a’ point,” said B.B, a goddess of mercy interrupting that bit of awkwardness with my ARM, “How’d ya git yer hooves back on yer ARM?”

Arcaidia, face pale but voice managing some strength to it, answered before I could say anything, “Not unusual, just sign that Longwalk bond with ARM now strong. Many Veruni who use ARM can do same.”

I would have done so significantly sooner, but was unable to do so until your own synchronization energy reached a sufficient peak to allow me to transport myself to your location. In the future the act will come easier and require less energy, but for the immediate timeframe I recommend not relying upon it and keeping me close to you at all times, said Gramanber apologetically.

Right, I’ll keep that in mind. Believe me, I wouldn’t have left you behind if I had any notion something like this was going to happen. We were supposed to be turning me in for a bounty so I could get rid of the dang thing, then make a quick escape. Being captured, dragged into a mine for a torture session, then battling a mutated crazy pony was not part of the plan.

I have noted that this is not uncommon with your plans, Longwalk.

Did... did you just sass me?

I do not know what that word means.

I grunted, wincing. “Gramzanber and me are pretty much joined at the flank anyway, so hopefully I won’t need to rely on the teleport trick too often. That aside, Arcaidia...” I looked her over, eyes lingering on her wound. She closed her eyes, shaking her head for a moment before opening them and putting on a strong face.

“Bleeding has stopped, ren solva. Hurts lots, but I not crying. What is one leg when much more still need doing?”

A shudder ran through me, and I felt the sting in my eyes of hot tears pushing against my tightly closed eyelids. With the battle over and my own bone dry exhaustion overwhelming me I could feel my own emotional control slipping, and the realization of what Arcaidia had just lost was hitting my brain like a brick upside the head.

“Arcaidia, we’ll get you to the Stable. I’m sure they can... figure something out.”

“Time for that soon, but must get out of dank, dumb hole in ground first,” said Arcaidia, eyes glaring around her as if she could blame the entire mine itself on the present situation, “Getting much tired of being underground.”

For a second her expression of forced toughness wavered and she said, “Be nice to be on ship again, with stars all around...”

“Right,” said B.B, “Well guess we oughta git everypony organized an’ figure a’ way back topside. Can ya walk, Long, or do ya need a minute ta git yer legs under ya?”

I held up a hoof, “I’ll live, but LIL-E took a hit earlier. We need to find her.”

“I take it this is the robot you’re talking about?” asked Crossfire, who had trotted off as I’d talked with my friends and now returned with LIL-E’s still form floating in her magical aura. LIL-E looked completely inert and I swallowed dry fear. I didn’t know anything about robot repairs, but I had to believe that the techs at Stable 104 could fix the damage and get LIL-E functioning again.

“Yikes, she’s lookin’ pretty beat,” said B.B, “Hope she ain’t freakin’ out too much. Must be real worryin’ ta be sittin’ wherever she’s at, with her bot down, an’ not knowin’ if the fight’s won or not.”

Right... nopony else knew yet that LIL-E wasn’t a pony controlling a robot remotely, but was the robot herself. I had promised not to let that secret out, so I just clenched my teeth and said, “We’ll get her fixed as soon as we can. Crossfire, do you mind carrying her for us?”

Crossfire shrugged, “I’m tempted to charge you for it, but I’ll let it slide this time.”

“As fer you, Long, I’m thinkin’ ‘bout scroungin’ up a potion or two ta keep ya from keelin’ over on us,” said B.B, smiling, but the expression was more than a little strained a she looked about, eyes narrowing, “Don’t ‘suppose ya seen that turncoat ‘round here?”

It took my beleaguered, tired mind a few seconds to figure out she was talking about Braindead. I took a deep breath, feeling the weight of regret affixing itself squarely to my shoulders, but I weathered it and met B.B’s gaze steadily. I was surprised at the calm in my voice, “He’s dead.”

Arcaidia picked up on my downcast look immediately,”You finished traitor off, ren solva?”

She sounded surprised, and I clarified, “He’d been infected by these damned seed things that Redwire was using to transform ponies into monsters. There wasn’t any stopping the change, so I... I ended the pain for him.”

“Gettin’ the feelin’ there’s more to it than that, Long,” said B.B.

“Yeah, well, whatever he might’ve done to me, Braindead tried to do what was right in the end,” I said, eyes looking across the cavern to where I knew his remains still lay, “I’m going to put his body to rest, and say a few prayers to Ancestor Spirits for him.”

“You plannin’ on doin’ the same wit this one?” B.B asked, nodding towards Redwire’s corpse.

I heaved out a sigh, “She... didn’t want to be buried. Guess I can say the prayers, regardless.”

B.B's eyes turned downward for a moment, face still with what I thought might be introspection before she looked back at me with a wan smile. “I git ya, Long. You do what you feel you gotta do,” she said, then her eyes finally shifted towards my flank, and I saw those blood red orbs shoot wide. “Well will ya git a’ load o’ that! Long, ya notice yer sportin’ some fresh flank decals?”

I chuckled, which sent painful jolts all across my body and caused me to almost collapse then and there, “Heh, ow, y-yeah, I noticed. Finally got my cutie mark. Wish it hadn’t been in a place like this, but guess we can’t choose when our marks show up, eh?”

“I know that all too well,” said B.B.

Arcaidia was also looking at my cutie mark now, a strangely mixed look of pride and faint jealousy on her sweat soaked features, “Do you know what mark means?”

I nodded, “Saving lives. That’s my talent. Guess it never appeared back home because I never had any lives to save while everything was simple and peaceful. I don’t think it appeared until now because even when I was saving lives, I was holding back an important part of myself... the part that has to know when it’s needed to take lives in order to save more. At least, that’s what my best guess is. Cutie marks are weird like that.”

“We’ll hafta git together ourselves a Cutecinerea fer ya when we get back topside,” said B.B with a joking smile, and I just shook my head.

“Don’t think I’ll be up for any partying anytime soon. Kinda just want to find the nearest partially soft, flat surface and faceplant in it for a week,” I said, eyes slowly sliding towards the bloody stump of Arcaidia’s missing leg, finding myself feeling queasy at the sight. “Are you sure you’re okay, Arcaidia?”

“She’ll be fine,” said Crossfire with a hard tone, coming up behind me, “I can tell you that wasting time down here won’t be doing her any good. Missing limbs are no joke, even with healing magic, so you should look to getting her back to the Skull Guild, fast.”

I didn’t disagree with the Drifter mare on that notion in the least, so I didn’t even mind her gruff tone and just nodded, “You’re right. I’ll go grab Binge, then we can get out of here. We can always come back later for anything we missed.”

B.B and Arcaidia didn’t argue the point either, the pair slowly moving to join with the gathering of now free prisoners. As I trotted towards the chapel, I felt Crossfire put a hoof on my shoulder and turn me towards her. I was met by her starring yellow eyes, which while still hard as ever, held a small spark of... understanding?

“Once we’re back on the surface, you get her looked after,” Crossfire said with level seriousness, “After that, you and I will talk. This shit went south, but lucky you with that Raider fragged and her little operation down here busted we might be able to pull some profit out of this whole mess.”

“Profit, right,” I said, rubbing my head, “This was all about the caps.”

“Knobs still needs to be paid back,” Crossfire hissed sharply, “You’re just lucky that even with turning you in for a bounty being put on hold we might get plenty of caps out of this fresh hell you got dropped into.”

She sucked in a breath and let it out slowly, her next words coming out only with slow, biting effort, “I know it cuts deep, Mr. Hero. Believe me. Every time you see that damn stump where her leg was you’ll remember it was you that brought her down here, and the only way to even come close to making it right is going to be through earning the caps to fix it. So just focus on that for now.”

I could only stare at her for a moment, then slowly nod myself, “Right. I... let’s just get out of here.”

The chapel was in a sorry state after the explosion. The terminal was a charred wreck, and all of the neatly ordered boards with their detailed plans on them were torn ash. There was no evidence left of what Redwire’s plan was or how she intended to use her small army of Gobs and Hyadean engineered monsters to destabilize Skull City. Even so I hoped somepony on the surface among the Guilds would listen to me about what had happened down here so they could be prepared for any further dangers like this springing up.

Binge in her usual energetically bouncy fashion had plucked up as much of the intact weaponry as she could, piling the few remaining crates that weren’t too badly damaged. Among the gear that was found was, to my relief, my gecko scale security armor and saddlebags, stuffed in the bottom of one of the crates. I hastily, if painfully, donned the armor and saddlebags once more, and placed Gramzanber within its sheath straps. My saddlebags did have some remaining health potions and I choked down one, if only to help me walk faster than a slow stagger.

Crossfire checked over the weapons, cherry picking the ones that were most intact and having me and Binge consolidate it all into two of the most intact of the crates. Crossfire floated those two crates out of the chapel as we trotted out to join the others, cracking her first smile in a while.

“I can fence these off for a decent profit,” Crossfire said, almost sounding happy as her tail wagged slightly, yellow eyes glittering, “Raiders usually carry shit weapons that aren’t worth anything, but this bitch was packing some serious gear. Wish more of it had been in one piece, but fuck it, this’ll work for now.”

Binge made a small growling sound, starring a sidelong set of dagger glares at Crossfire, “You’re gonna share the goodies with us, riiiiiiight? Bucky got his clean hoofies all covered in blood for that phat loot and you won’t be stealing it Miss Grumpypants.”

“You and your little band of merry ponies will get a cut,” Crossfire said with a roll of her eyes, “After I’ve made the fence and tallied up what you owe Knobs.”

And so we gathered, us survivors, battered and weary. Bodies were gathered, carried on the backs of those still living. I carried Braindead’s myself. As one long, tired procession the freed refugees began to slow trek through the tunnels, but before I joined them I had one last bit of business to take care of. Crossfire and Shard went ahead to act as escorts for the refugees, LIL-E’s still nonfunctioning slung from one of Crossfire’s saddlebags.

B.B, Arcaidia, and Binge remained behind with me, staying a distance back while I did the last thing I felt I had to do before leaving this nightmarish place behind.

I stood over Redwire’s body, having closed her eyes. I didn’t say any words aloud, just closed my eyes, sending my thoughts to the Ancestor Spirits.

I don’t understand, said Gramzanber, Are you doing this for your slain enemy, or for yourself?

I found myself smiling in weary exhaustion, “Both. I pray so her soul doesn’t get any more lost than it already was, and I pray so I don’t... become lost myself. Its funny, I never paid the Ancestor Spirits much mind before wandering into the Wasteland with Arcaidia. Now I find myself sending them little prayers all the time. Guess I just need to believe there’s something up there that might care enough to listen.”

I still do not understand, but if it gives you peace of mind, then-...wait, Longwalk, be wary. Something is coming. I’m sensing a distortion.

“Huh?” I blinked, confused, then froze in place as I heard a voice laughing from seemingly nowhere, and yet, everywhere.

“Khhk, khhk,khhk, please don’t mind my poor taste in showing myself during such a solemn moment.”

In the air above Redwire the very fabric of space seemed to twist, like muddy water swirling down a drain. From that rippling distortion a figure emerged, levitating with a slight up and down bobbing.

The creature wasn’t anything remotely resembling a pony. A bulky, broad shouldered mass was covered by a stark white cloth that was trimmed in patterns of green and red. The creature’s indistinct bulk was given a face only by the vast golden mask on the front of the cloth that covered its body. The mask was incredibly ornate, covered in gilded patterns, with three pointed crests rising from its central portion. In the center a black slit allowed for two glowing red eyes to look at me with what I could only describe as cold amusement and intense interest. The bottom of the creature’s cloth was open and black, but from it emerged two golden pairs of claws, three fingered and tipped in blades like curved sabers. A longer appendage, like a scorpion’s tail, waved between the two claws, tipped with a large pointed blade like a spear.

When the creature spoke again its voice raked across my ears, distorted and unnatural.

“Forgive my rudeness. I had considered remaining hidden until you had left, but felt that, at this juncture, it might be more appropriate to meet face to face before you encounter any of my comrades for a less... pleasant exchange. I am Alhazad, what you would know as a Hyadean.”

“Longwalk!” I heard Arcaidia shout, alongside B.B. The pegasus looked torn, as she was still holding up the three-limbed Arcaidia, who looked like even without one of her legs she wanted to run to me. I saw raw fear on Arcaidia’s face mixed with pure anger she was directing entirely at the Hyadean, Alhazad.

Binge just looked faintly bemused, bouncing in place as if unsure if she ought to rush forward or hang back.

I gulped, looking back to the creature before me, “So you’re the one responsible for all of this?”

“That depends on what you mean by ‘all of this’, my young friend. If you’re referring to her,” he pointed with his scorpion-like tail at Redwire’s body, “Then yes, she is one of many pet projects of mine. I’d assigned her a simple task and was quite pleased when she managed to catch you. You see I’d hoped for this very event, a fight between you and her. An excellent test for her abilities. Alas, she has fallen short of my hopes, but as they say ‘back to the drawing board’.”

At those words his tail wrapped around Redwire’s body, lifting it from the ground. I stepped forward, “What do you think you’re doing!?”

“Reclaiming what belongs to me, nothing more. Her present form was not as optimized as I’d hoped, so I’ll use the data collected from your battle with her to make adjustments so the next model is a significant improvement. Do look forward to that, I’m hoping to get even more useful data out of you in the future.”

“Wait!” I drew Gramzanber, who was all but burning in my mind as I felt the ARM’s sudden and vicious bloodlust. Gramzanber recognized its Hyadean enemy, the being the Veruni had programmed the ARM to combat, and the spear was ready and eager to be used. “I can’t just let you desecrate that body however you please.”

“Oh dear, are you under the impression you can stop me? Ignorance is bliss, I suppose. I am under orders from lord Zeikfried not to unduly interfere with you, but that restriction does not apply if you recklessly attack me. You really should be satisfied with your victory over my pet and walk away while you can, my friend.”

As he spoke more distortions swirled in the air, from which emerged more than a dozen of insectoid constructs. Their bodies were made from a gray material somewhere between chitin and metal, flat and beteelish, with front pincers and buzzing translucent wings. Half of them bore large blue gems mounted on top of their bodies, while the other half bore crimson gems. The insect-like constructs flew and hovered around Alhazad in a small swarm. I pensively looked at them, still gripping Gramzanber in my mouth, unsure of myself.

“Hesitant? Good, that means your survival instincts are not entirely dead.”

“...Shit,” I swore under my breath, wanting nothing more than to attack, but seeing clearly just how insane that would be. “What do you need her body for? You’re the one that sent her down here to attack Skull City, right?”

“Fishing for information? Cheeky, but I’ll throw you a bone or two, as it won’t make any difference in the long run. Skull City is a nuisance to myself and my compatriots, if only because it is built atop of something that is very important to us. If you’re curious, take a peek in that dark hole over there and you’ll see what I speak of.”

He pointed, using Redwire’s body in a most morbid fashion to do so, at the vast open space at the back of the cavern. As if Alhazad was well aware I couldn’t see in the dark he sent one of his bug-like servitors flying in that direction, and the blue gem on its carapace glowed brightly. It revealed that within the vast darkness was a space larger than I imagined, as if the cavern merely opened up into an infinitely larger underground chamber.

Inside the chamber was a building, or rather what I could only guess was some kind of building. A tower, its walls massive and curved beyond my field of vision. I couldn’t tell how deep it went, but I could tell it went much higher than what I could see, perhaps almost to the surface itself. The walls of the tower were made from a deep violent metal, crossed with vast orange channels of sculpted metal, like blood veins.

“What is that?” I breathed.

“The Elw called it Ka Dingel. A silly name, but it more or less translates to ‘Demon Tower’. That’s what the Elw called us, the ‘Metal Demons’. Quite the theatrical race, the Elw,” Alhazad said with an amused chuckle that made me wince. “At any rate, my pet here was to have her fun with you and with the people of the city above, but her real task was to keep an eye on the tower and excavate the veins that connect it to the Ley Lines surrounding this land.”

I blinked, “And you’re telling me all this? What’s stopping me from warning people this thing is down here?”

“Khhk, to what end? The veins cannot be destroyed by any weapons ponykind possesses and the tower itself is inaccessible to your most advanced technology. You can do nothing to it, although I shall admit part of the reason I’m telling you this is that I’m curious to see you try. Unlike Zeikfried I’m quite interested in seeing if your species can accomplish more in your present state before we... alter you to something more suitable to our needs,” Alhazad said, and began to float higher into the air. Redwire’s body was pulled upwards until it disappeared under Alhazad’s cloth, and I wasn’t sure just where he put the body as I saw no change in the mass beneath the white robes.

“At any rate, that’s enough chit chat for now. I do hope the next time we meet you’ll be even stronger, because I shall have plenty of experiments to try out on you. Until then, farewell! Khhk, khhk, khhk!”

At those words and final rictus laugh the air swirled and churned once more, swallowing up the Hyadean being and his swarm of servitors, leaving me and my friends once more in the darkness.

It was several long moments before I could gather my thoughts enough to turn to my friends, blinking blearily in a state of shell shock.

“Well... that happened.”

----------

Footnote: Level Up!

Perk Gained - Cutie Marked: Blank flank no longer. Having discovered your special talent for saving lives you gain the benefit of your LUK stat being considered three points higher whenever engaged in actions that would directly lead to the preservation of other’s lives.

Quest Perd Added - ARM Bound Stage 4: Your connection to your ARM has reached a new plateau, allowing you to summon your ARM to your location at will as long as your Force Gauge is at least at 25% capacity.

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