• Published 25th Jun 2012
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Fallout Equestria x Wild Arms: Trigger to Tomorrow - thatguyvex



A young tribal pony tries to keep his moral center and ensure the survival of his friends while facing the many dangers of the Detrot Wasteland and beyond.

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Chapter 29: The Calm During the Storm

“What do you mean she stayed behind?” Whiteheart’s voice was sharp as a razor, perhaps the most emotion I’d seen in the Guidmaster since I’d met him. Granted that had only been yesterday, but for that whole time he’d mostly been calm minded, seemingly unflappable. Hearing that Star Soul had teleported us back to the Sweet Candy while remaining upon the airship of the Black Swan pirates was making him look pretty damned flapped from what I was seeing. Not that I blamed him. I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the alicorn’s choice either, as self sacrificing it had been.

Crossfire, having moved forward to take the brunt of delivering the news, repeating what she’d just said, “Star Soul stayed on the pirate’s ship, Whiteheart. She said she only had enough magic to get four of us back, and while each of us damned well volunteered to do it, she popped us over here without hearing any of it!”

Whiteheart’s jaw trembled and his eyes looked like burning pools of rippling water. I could see him working to get his temper under control, like trying to cool heated metal, and he let out a light hiss. “I see. Yes. She’d do something so monumentally stupid wouldn’t she? Always looking to make up for past sins in the least efficient means possible.” He turned a curt glance towards Bartholomew, “We must turn back for her.”

The ghoulish griffin just looked at Whiteheart askance, chewing on his pipe, “You’re joking, right? The entire point of them going over there in the first place was to give us a chance to get away. I understand that alicorn is an important member of the delegation, but if we turn around to try to rescue her we’ll just end up being prisoners ourselves. The Sweet Candy ain’t able to fight the Black Swans’ ship claw-to-claw!”

I cleared my throat, stepping forward, “Star Soul did say she’d try to escape on her own, but there were a lot of those pirates about to swarm her. I’m all for doing something to try and help her, if we really do want to try and make a go at that ship. I’ll be the first one jumping over, if that’s the case. But she did say she’d try to escape on her own...”

Whiteheart looked at me, and it was like he’d finally gotten his calm mask placed back on his face as he smoothed over his mane and said, “Indeed, but I doubt she could affect her own escape. Star Soul has often overestimated her abilities. I should not have allowed her to go but... I saw no other solution to our dilemma but to let her try her heroic attempt at sabotage.”

Guilt rose in me like a acidic gas and I found myself bowing my head, “I’m sorry we lost her like that. Crossfire’s right, we all tried to volunteer ourselves. I would have stayed behind, it's just she didn’t give us a chance.”

“Teleported us out while ren solva was still speaking,” Arcaidia added, her face placid and controlled as still ice, although I knew her well enough to tell the slight flick in her tail showed how agitated she was. “Brave, but too fast headed thinking for good plan. Should have let me and Longwalk stay and make pirates have bad day.”

While I appreciated her support, I wasn’t certain that Star Soul hadn’t simply recognized there was little chance any other pony who stayed behind wouldn’t have been quickly killed. She’d probably saved all our lives. It left me confused on how to feel. I didn’t know anything about Star Soul other than she was Knobs’ boss, head of the Skull Guild, and apparently just as willing to put herself in harm's way as I tended to be in order to save pony’s lives. I seethed at thinking what the pirates might be doing to her and prayed she’d managed to get out alright.

Whiteheart looked like he was chewing on something made out of pure bile, but he had a grim, accepting look as he slowly nodded, “I am loathe to even consider leaving her behind, but she wouldn’t want more lives being wasted trying to rescue her, either.”

“Sir,” called one of the ponies on Bartholomew’s crew, “The Raptor, it's changing course!”

“What bearing?” Bartholomew asked, flying back up to the aftcastle.

“North by northeast, sir,” said the crewpony, standing aside as Bartholomew scanned the sky with that brass tube of his. The griffin heaved out a sigh.

“Damn, you’re right. There she goes. I guess Georgia figures the Guildmistress of the Skull Guild is as valuable a prize as a Protectorate Princess. On the bright side, that probably means Star Soul is alive. If she’d been killed the Black Swans would’ve kept on us to get somepony else to ransom.”

Whitemane’s lips pressed thinly together and he said in a frosty voice, “Where do the Black Swans usually dock for repairs?”

“New Griffinstone, usually. Across the narrow edge of the eastern sea. We’re not chasing after them if that’s where they’re heading,” said Bartholomew, shaking his head and tucking away his brass tube through his belt, “Bottom line is that she’s lost, for now. You’ll probably have to pay out the ass to get her back in a few weeks, if Georgia is just after ransom. That, or she’s got a buyer out east. Either way, our best course is to continue on to the NCR. If your treaty with them goes through at least you might count on the help of some NCR Rangers to mount a rescue on some other day... but for today, they outfoxed us.”

It left a bitter taste in all of our mouths, if I was gauging everypony’s mood. There really wasn’t anything we could do. Even if the Sweet Candy could catch up to the pirates, they had the firepower to blast us out of the sky before we could board them. Even if Crossfire teleported another team on board, the Sweet Candy would still be destroyed before we could finish rescuing Star Soul, because the ship would have to get close for Crossfire to pull off a teleport like Star Soul had. Apparently alicorns had magical specialties based on color, I was told, and purples were uniquely gifted in teleportation. It’d been the only reason Star Soul could pull off a teleport at that range and accuracy from one moving airship to another.

In short, all we could do was carry on. The fact left me in a bit of a funk, but I had plenty of other things to occupy my attention; like B.B.

LIL-E had come to retrieve me and Arcaidia, having little to say about what had happened with Star Soul other than “Celestia crap on my chest.” which for LIL-E was fairly restrained. She then told us that B.B was locked up in our cabin and wasn’t letting anypony in. Or at least not her or Binge. In fact when Binge had tried to pick the lock on the door there’d apparently been something akin to a death threat issued. Arcaidia and I exchanged worried glances and followed the eyebot to the cabin, where Binge was waiting with impatient, twitchy pacing.

“Sweet, you’re back!” Binge said, happily hopping over, “Where’s my souvenir?”

I slapped my forehead, “Sorry, forgot,” then pulled my hoof away, which was a bit sticky from bits of blood from the pony whose head Crossfire had blown off in front of me.

Binge just tittered, touching my bloodied hoof, “That’s okay, I’ll figure out a way for you to pay me back later.” She licked her lips, and then flicked her tail at the cabin door, “The birdie is being cranky. Almost bit off poor Binge’s nose when she tried to peek inside. She should know that if she wanted to get all scratchy and bitey then all she needs to do is ask.”

She licked some of the blood that she’d gotten on her hoof from me, and then tilted her head towards the door to the cabin, “If we all go in at once we can pounce on her and tie her to the bed. For safety reasons.”

I gave Binge a level look, then turned to LIL-E, “You know B.B’s father pretty well, did he ever tell you anything about her and what to do if she get’s... uh... ‘bitey’?”

“Doc Sunday never did say much about B.B, even where he adopted her from,” said the eyebot, her chassis floating around so it was positioned between me and Binge, “Maybe you’d like to bring us all up to date on what’s going on with her? This isn’t the first time she’s acted weird.”

“It’s...” I hesitated. B.B probably would have prefered to talk about her condition herself, not have me blabbing about it. Fortunately I suspected LIL-E would more than understand, given her own secret. “It’s complicated.”

“Right,” said LIL-E, “So what do you plan to do?”

“Just find out if she’s okay,” I said, turning back to face the door, “I’m worried about her wound more than I am if she’s, uh, feeling a bit peckish.”

Arcaidia took a step towards the door, shouldering past me, “Then allow myself to do talk to ren bruhir. I good talk to her and see she in good way. If need healing, I use magic. If she is very bitey, I also use magic. Magic solve many problems.”

A mental image flashed through my mind of B.B as she’d been beneath Silver Mare Studios, growling and out of control, fangs flashing at my face before I’d managed to tackle her down and feed her a bit of blood to calm her down. I didn’t know if B.B was that bad again, and I didn’t like the idea of sending Arcaidia in their alone. She must have read my thoughts because she reached out a hoof to pat my shoulder and said, “Trust, ren solva. I do this because B.B good friend and I want help her. If she... out of normal mind state then more ponies just make her more trouble. Just me, calming. Understand?”

I sort of did. Too many ponies crowding her might just make B.B worse. Better just one pony check on her, and Arcaidia was well equipped to defend herself, perhaps the best out of all of us. I still didn’t like it, but I wasn’t going to argue Arcaidia’s sound logic. I gave her a nod, “Alright, just shout if you need help.”

“I be fine,” she said, and my eye wandered to her prosthetic metal peg leg, feeling my throat tighten. Yes, she’d be okay. Until something went wrong again. Would it be another leg? An eye? What would she lose next?

Her life?

I shook off the thoughts, pushing away the dour mood like trying to beat back a flow of tar in my head. I knew we were always going to be in danger, at least for the immediate future. I couldn’t guarantee anything, not my safety, not hers, or any of my friends. Letting those fears bubble up in me was pointless, yet not necessarily something I could entirely prevent. I just had to trust Arcaidia and B.B in this instance. B.B didn’t want to hurt anypony. She was just... an unusual circumstance. A pony whose body was a bit different due to some mutation of the blood. It didn’t make her any less a pony, or our friend, which was why we were all worried about her.

Really, between all of us, she was probably among the most stable and level headed. As long as she wasn’t badly injured, leading to a hunger for blood.

I watched as Arcaidia knocked on the cabin door. At first there was no answer, but when Arcaidia’s dainty blue hoof knocked again I heard a muffled voice say, “Go away.” It didn’t sound like she was using her accent, which was a pretty solid red flag as to how bad off she was.

Arcaidia sighed, speaking up, “B.B, it is I! You have much painful injury, yes? Let me use spell to fix wound.”

B.B’s voice got louder, and it sounded hoarse, “Won’t matter, I’ll still feel it. It’s gotten bad. I don’t know why, but I just need to be alone!”

A stubborn look came over Arcaidia’s face, “Alone help how? If you hurt, I make hurt go away. If you hunger, I make that go away too!”

“You don’t know what you’re saying,” said B.B, her voice wavering through the door, “If I lose control, I could really hurt you.”

“You no hurt me, B.B,” Arcaidia said, with surprisingly strong conviction and tenderness, “You one of best friends I make on this world, and I trust you muchly, ren bruhir. So much nice begging of please with bowed head I ask you let me in.” Arcaidia actually did bow her head then, even if B.B couldn’t see it.

There was a long, pregnant pause before there was a clicking noise from the door. It opened only a crack, enough for B.B’s tired, frustrated, but relenting voice say, “If you come in, it’s better that it's all of you. So if I lose it, you guys can jump me. I’m... I’m tired of hiding it all anyway.”

She left the door open, and after quickly exchanged looks where Arcaidia and I were nervous, Binge seemingly excited, and LIL-E as unreadable as a robot tends to be, we all shuffled inside. I closed the door quickly behind us, making sure the hallway was clear. The moment I turned around the smell of blood hit me like a thick, coppery curtain. There were three blood packs emptied, two crumpled, the third literally torn to shreds. I think only about a third of that pack’s blood ended up in B.B, the rest was painted across the floor, bed, and walls.

B.B herself sat on the edge of the bed, fore legs hugging herself, her wings bent tightly around her, even the injured one. I could still see the bullet hole, torn and ragged in that wing, though it was partially scabbed over. B.B’s violet dress and white fur were stained down the front with the deep red of the blood she’d been feeding on, her face and lips a crimson stained mess. Her eyes were so dilated that they were like twin black pools rimmed with blood, and fangs were pronounced and clear in her mouth.

“Okay, so, what in Celestia’s white hot solar farts is this?” asked LIL-E bluntly. Arcaidia gave the eyebot a cold glance, then turned to B.B and approached with slow, easy steps.

“May I look at wing?” she asked gently. B.B’s eyes twitched, but she nodded and slowly extended the wounded wing, lips curling in pain.

“Blood should’ve healed it, but... but it's not fresh enough,” she said, all hint of her accent gone, her voice pain filled, and not just from the obvious physical source if the desperation in her tone was any indication, “Thought maybe blood packs would be enough. Worked at Silver Mare Studios, when I got that bit of spar in the gut. Hunger’s gotten stronger since then. Not as easy to satisfy.”

“What is she talking about? What happened at Silver Mare?” asked LIL-E, turning towards me. I sighed, flicking my tail, not thrilled to have to recount those events.

“When B.B and I fell from the collapsed floor she took a wound to her stomach. A bad one. When she woke up...” I hesitated, looking to B.B. She just nodded for me to continue. “She was feral. Tried to attack me. I had to keep her pinned until I figured out she was after blood. Managed to feed her some from a blood pack and that calmed her down. Brought her back to normal.”

I frowned, “Why isn’t that working now?” I asked, gesturing at the blood packs.

B.B grit her teeth, closing her eyes, “Like I said, the hunger is getting worse. My body isn’t being satisfied by old blood preserved by magic in a plastic bag. I... Goddesses help me, I forgot how much it hurts, when the craving comes.”

By now Arcaidia was working her healing magic upon the wing, flesh slowly smoothing over, but Arcaidia’s face remained frowning. “Bad wound. Many tendons damaged. Best not to use wing for some time even with magic. I sorry I no make repairs better.”

The pegasus shook her head and let out a helpless laugh, “Its fine, Arc. It feels better already. I just... I need to focus. Remember what Doc Sunday taught me to keep the hunger in check.”

“So this is what the Doc meant when he told me you came from unusual circumstances, just like me...” said LIL-E, bobbing slowly up and down, her monotone voice gaining a contemplative note, “He never told me much about you, B.B. Now I’m seeing why. Don’t take this the wrong way, but what are you?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” said Binge, “The sparrow is actually an eagle who can snack on littler birds. A predator instead of prey.”

B.B laughed, but it was a dry, humorless sound, “Can’t really gainsay you, Binge, much as I want to. You got it worse from me than anypony else.” She licked her lips, looking at Binge with those dark, red rimmed eyes, and the expression made my blood curdle. “You tasted so good, back at the church.”

Binge didn’t flinch from the look, but I saw her stance subtly change, knees slightly bent, ready to move. “I didn’t mind you taking a sip. Helped you boot the blackbird out of our way.”

“Yeah, Black Petal could never take me after I’d fed...” B.B said, looking away from Binge, seemingly through force of will. She then turned her gaze to LIL-E, “You asked what I was? Well, I’ve already told Longwalk. I’ll bring the rest of you up to speed. It’s long past due, especially if I’m losing my self control.”

She kept it brief and covered the same points she’d covered with me back in the Skull Guild tower. Her mutation, the Family, the fact that she’d broken from the one she called the Mistress after meeting Doc Sunday. She kept from going into much detail. Like before I got the sense that she was terribly ashamed of most of the things she’d done while part of the Family. Her ears were drooped along with her wing, like a wilted flower. Somehow even her rose and blood cutie mark seemed to shrink in upon itself.

“I was the Mistress’ enforcer for a long time. Doc Sunday, my pa, he... he took so much time and effort to pull me out of where I was to give me a chance at a different life. Now I’m failing him. I’m slipping right back to where I was.”

“Like hells you are,” I said, feeling heat rise in my voice, “The mere fact that you’re so torn up over this is proof enough you’re not going back to however you were back then.”

“You don’t even really know what I was like back then,” B.B said, eyes downcast, “You think Redwire was a bad pony? She would’ve fit right in with the Family, and I would’ve probably found her methods... quaint and inelegant. I liked hurting ponies, back then, Longwalk. I didn’t just go for the kill, or the blood. I went for the pain. It wasn’t enough just to kill those the Mistress told me to. I took great, personal pride in destroying anypony she pointed me towards. A heartless, vicious weapon-”

Arcaidia growled, “Stop it.”

B.B blinked at her, “Huh?”

“I say stop talking of dumb past things that don’t matter,” said Arcaidia, her silver eyes frosty as she fixed B.B with a bewitching stare, “I not care what you do before, just what you do now. You bad pony now, want to hurt and kill for no good reason? No, you’re not. You brave, smart, funny pony who help me learn to talk my own race’s speech and save many lives alongside us as comrade. That the only B.B I know. So you hunger. So you have mutation that make blood food for you. So what? Ren solva eat meat, and I find that sick, but I not judge him. What so different if it blood instead of meat? You want blood, you need blood? I have plenty for you.”

She stood with her head held high, and even bent her neck a little towards B.B for emphasis. B.B just stared at Arcaid’as bared, azure neck, and I saw her gulp, lips trembling, “You don’t know what you're saying, Arc. I don’t know how well I can control myself if I feed on fresh blood. It’s been so long. It's a miracle Binge survived it when we fought Black Petal.”

“But you did control yourself, right? I mean, Binge would be dead if you hadn’t...” I trailed off, feeling a bit of a shudder run through me thinking that B.B had taken such a risk, even in the heat of a battle. Still, Binge was alive, so it was obvious B.B had some control over her hunger.

“It ain’t that simple, Long,” B.B said, a trace of her accent returning as she seemed to be slowly calming herself, “What went down wit Binge was a’ calculated risk, but feedin’ on fresh blood, while it’ll ease the hunger for awhile, also makes it harder ta suppress down the road. I start feedin’ on any o’ ya’ll an’ I’ll need ta keep doin’ it. Nah, Arc, I ain’t takin’ yer blood. I... I just gotta push it back. Git the hunger whipped proper, like I had it ‘fore things went south at Silvermare. That’s what started it. Just one slip an’ the hunger came crawlin’ right back ta sit on my shoulder like o’ whisperin’ demon.”

LIL-E floated around to B.B’s other side, lowering to eye level with the pegasus, “Are you sure you can get it under control again? Just how did Doc Sunday teach you to control it before.”

“Its a’ meditation kind o’ thing. I gotta git my mind clear an’ face some inner soul stuff,” B.B said with a wry smile, almost looking like her old self, even with her eyes still doing its rather unsettling black and red display, “Gotta do it every night, I’m thinkin’, from now on. An’ avoid gettin’ hurt like wit my wing today. Wounds make the hunger flare up somethin’ fierce. Its my body’s way o’ tryin’ ta heal itself by forcin’ me ta feed and git patched up.”

“Are you going to be okay then?” I asked, voice a bit unsteady. It’d been a rough day so far, and I was starting to feel the drain of it, that kind of weary bone ache that comes from a lot of stress and not enough food or sleep to really compensate. In the span of a few hours I’d gone from almost killing a pony who was trying to teach me, being in a deadly battle where I did end up killing somepony by no intention of my own, to teleporting into another battle where some of the blood of that fight still spattered my face, to having to comforting one of my close friends who was having a nervous breakdown due to a growing bloodlust she wasn't certain she could control.

And I hadn’t even eaten breakfast yet.

B.B’s eyes locked on mine, and I saw them slowly, bit by crawling bit, return to almost normal. They weren’t dilated to dinner plates anymore, at least, but the iris’ remained a vibrant crimson. “Fer now. Hunger’s still burnin’ in me somethin’ fierce, but I... thanks ya’ll. I thought bein’ alone would be best, but I’m thinkin’ havin’ the reminder that I got folk who’re lookin’ out fer me is helpin’ keep my head focused more n’ sitting here in the dark. So, thanks, I mean it.”

Binge giggled, bouncing over and somehow managing to rope me and Arcaidia into a hug that had us nearly bowling into B.B. Her poofy tail also wrapped around LIL-E and managed to drag the eyebot in too as the former Raider glomped us all together, and gave B.B a playful bite on the ear.

“We’re all in the mess, birdie. All bitable, and bloodsoaked together. No need to smell the stink if we’re all filthy in one big happy pile, right?”

B.B had an exceedingly flat look as she drawled, “Feelin’ better already, Binge. Can ya stop nibblin’ the ear now, for I fergit I’m supposed ta be exercisin’ self control?”

Arcaidia separated us with magic, a bit more forcefully than was probably needed, yet for all of her glaring at Binge I saw a ghost of a smile on her face. “You want I stay with you, B.B?”

“I’m... yeah, I think the company will help. Maybe I can show ya the meditatin’ technique my pa taught me.”

That made me think of something, “Hey, did you see him at the Drifter’s Guild before we left? He was supposed to be there, right? Things moved along so fast I didn’t even think about it.”

B.B gave the barest of nods, scooting back on her haunches so she was sitting towards the back of the bed. She looked around the bed, and all the blood, “I need ta clean all this up,” she muttered, then looked back at me, “I saw my pa, yeah. Ya remember me an’ Binge hit up the bar wit Shard while you talked shop wit that Whiteheart fella? My pa was there at the bar, an’ we did some catch up.”

“Sorry I missed it,” I said wholeheartedly. I really did want to get to know B.B’s adoptive father sometime.

B.B seemed to read what I was thinking, “Ye’ll git a chance ta say hi ta him sooner n’ ya think. After tellin’ him what went down below Skull City he’s right convinced somepony is tryin’ ta make a play ta spark war ‘tween the city an’ the Protectorate again. He left the same time we did, heain’ west ta the Protectorate. He’s gonna snoop ‘round those parts and meet up wit us when we go that way after these negotiations.”

That was good news. We’d need all the help we could get to make the trip through that country smooth as possible. I wasn’t sure what, if anything, might be standing between us and the Ruin we needed to get to that contained the Elw teleportation device my father had told me about. Doc Sunday’s help would probably be invaluable. “I’m just glad you got a chance to talk with him,” I said.

“Same here,” she said, and then hopped off the bed, “Alright, I gotta git this mess cleaned up an’ then focus on meditatin’. I’m pretty sure Arc’ll be okay. I ain’t... ain’t as twitchy as I was a bit ago. Thinkin’ her healin’ helped out there. Ya’ll best git back ta doin’ whatever needs doin’ round the ship.”

She still looked tense, having that stiffness to her wings as they were folded close to her side, but she seemed leagues better than she had a few minutes ago. I turned to leave with Binge and LIL-E, only pausing long enough to give B.B one last hug and a meaningful look to Arcaidia that more or less said, ‘be careful’, before heading back out into the hallway. I halted out there, finding Hawkeye out there, watching our door.

The white and brown splotched stallion was looking at our cabin door with an intense gaze that he quickly hid with a arrogant, nonchalant tilt of his chin, quickly turning to walk away, but I caught up to him.

“Hey, wait!”

He barely paused, only casting half a look back towards me, “What?”

“Why were you watching our door?” I asked, as Binge and LIL-E came up to flank me, Binge kicking our door shut with her hind hoof first.

Hawkeye just shrugged at me, something in his tone sounding cold and unsettling, “I smelled blood. Saw the pegasus in your crew took a hit in the fight. Was just wondering if she was alright.”

“She is,” I said, not sure what else to say. Something about Hawkeye’s posture was triggering a warning signal in me, but I couldn't place my hoof on what. His cold, flat look didn’t give much away other than he hadn’t been watching out of pure concern.

“Good,” was all he said, then trotted away.

LIL-E hovered there for a moment, then said, “I don’t know if you were watching your E.F.S, Longwalk, but that stallion went hostile for a few seconds there.”

“Mmm, he looked ready for murder,” said Binge, licking her lips, “I could smell the violence coming off him.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, “Why would he be so hostile towards us?”

“Not us, Longwalk, B.B,” said LIL-E, “At least that’s what I’m guessing. He was asking about her, after all.”

I took a deep breath, letting it out in one, long, frustrated sigh. “Great. LIL-E, do you mind keeping an eye on him until we get to the NCR? If he does anything strange or makes a move towards B.B, I want us to be a step ahead of the shitstorm, for once.”

LIL-E bobbed, “Consider it done. I’ve already marked his signature in my own E.F.S. He won’t get anywhere close to B.B without me being there too.”

As we headed back towards the hatch leading to the top deck I couldn’t help but muttered, “I wonder what else is going to go wrong today?”

It actually felt entirely justified when Binge proceeded to smack me upside the head.

----------

Shockingly, despite my blasphemous jinx, the rest of the day surprisingly went by without incident. Well, no life threatening incidents. I had to duck some more questioning form Wellspring. Not that I didn’t want to keep telling my life story, but I tried as politely as I could to convince the eager journalist that I didn’t really want to answer too many more questions. She was incredibly persistent, never quite crossing the line of rudeness, always pleasant and not in a disingenuous way. Lucky me, Crossfire came to my rescue and got Wellspring to stop pestering me for any more juicy stories. Mostly by hauling Wellspring bodily back below deck, much to the report mare’s consternation. I got the impression the pair had gone through this routine before, given that Wellspring didn’t seem particularly angry at being colthandled and just gave Crossfire a rueful smile before calling it quits for the day.

“If you let her she’ll mine your entire life story like a Labor Guild slave desperate to make quota,” said Crossfire, “Do yourself a favor and learn how to ignore her.”

“I think she means well,” I said, feeling oddly like I ought to defend Wellspring.

“Oh, she does, but that won’t stop her from walking all over you if you let her.”

Applegate showed up for another training session, and understandably I wasn’t eager. I still didn’t know what had caused the strange memories taking over my actions when I used Gramzanber, and didn’t want to risk hurting her again. Applegate simply agreed that instead she could teach me some hoof-to-hoof techniques. I didn’t have any reason to say no to that one, and so we spent an hour sparring. Or more accurately I spent an hour getting my butt tossed around like a punching bag while occasionally learning something new about how to use my hooves to make other ponies have a bad day. She fought on her hind legs once more, and asked that I try doing the same, to help get me used to the style of movement. She claimed that over time I’d build muscles to help me move better while using just my hind legs, but for now it just ached.

In the middle of that sparring session Applegate asked me about Gramzanber.

“It is an ARM, yes? Fully functional?” her hoof hooked under my overextended leg and flipped me head over tail to the deck with a cracking thud. As I rolled to my hooves I said, “Yeah. I’ve always kind of wondered how rare those are around here.”

“Rare. Weapons like your spear can be found in Ruins all over the region, but few are willing to use them due to the deadly side effects,” Applegate said, “The Protectorate has one, the sword Iskender Bey, used only by the royal family or the Captain of the Royal Knights.”

“Why?” I asked, “I mean, if an ARM will kill a pony who uses it for too long, why would the Protectorate let anypony use one, let alone ponies that important?” I tried to catch her with a jabbing feint, but she read the move and intercepted my real attack, a quick side-buck, and I found my hind leg caught on her hoof and she swept my other legs out from under me. As I picked myself up again she circled me.

“Noblesse oblige; the noble obligation. The noble families of the Protectorate exist to protect the people; that’s what it means to be a Protectorate. Iskender Bey was discovered in the Ruin beneath Neighlisius and was used by the first Princess to defeat the Raider hordes that sought to destroy her people in the first days of the nation’s founding. Though it cost her her life, the sword, and the duty to use it where it ever needed to protect the people, was passed down to her daughter. Later, the duty was extended to the Royal Knights, in order to better preserve the royal bloodline in case there was no Princess with an heir to take her place, should Iskender Bey be needed.”

“Yikes. So part of being a Princess in that country means you might have to sacrifice yourself to save the nation if anything big and bad enough came along to require that ARM?” I asked, feeling a shiver down my spine. I thought of Purity, with her kind eyes and soft, helping nature, and couldn’t imagine her in such a position.

“It is a burden to rule, not a privilege. A sacred duty to the land and the people that cannot be forsaken,” said Applegate, “Princess Purity knows this. Fortunately for her, without a sister to share her burden, it would fall to the Captain of her Royal Knights to take up the sword, if she allowed it. As Princess she has the right to choose who would wield Iskender Bey, were it ever needed.”

She sent a snap kick at me, spinning, using her tail to obscure the blow of her hind hoof. I managed to move quick enough to get a hoof up to block, but the blow still rattled me down to my bones. I countered with a quick uppercut, but she smoothly danced away from me, “What if there’s more than one of the royal family? Could a brother, sister, or parent do it?”

“Yes, and it's not uncommon for the position of Captain of the Royal Knights to actually be held by such a member of the royal bloodline,” Applegate said as she began to press me with a rapid series of hoof strikes, I practiced pivoting, awkwardly avoiding her blows which seemed meant to force me to move more than to really hit, but I couldn’t get my balance enough to counter attack.

“So what does Iskender Bey do exactly? Gramzanber’s powers have developed along with me, but if this sword has been used by different ponies over time, I don’t see how it could build up the bond I got with Gram,” I said, ending the sentence with a swift curse as I mistimed a pivot and took Applegate’s left hoof to the chest, making me stumble and fall to my back. She stood over me, but slowly backed off to give me space to stand back up.

“The sword’s power has always been unwieldy. Besides the first time it was only used in four other instances over the course of the Protectorate’s history. Each time was to stop a major threat, like a rampaging dragon, or an army of killer robots.”

“Killer robots?” I asked, gulping.

“It happens,” Applegate said with a shrug, as if murderous robot armies were just... sort of a thing. Like bad weather. “Each time Iskender Bey was used, it drained the life from its user to create unbelievable unleashing of destructive force. For the span of a day its wielder could become death incarnate, though the price, as you can imagine, was the life of the wilder.”

I thought about that for a moment, then said in a quiet tone, “Is that why you’re asking about Gramzanber? The fact that I’m using an ARM, but haven’t paid for it with my life, yet?”

“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t incredibly curious as to how you’ve achieved that feat, yes,” said Applegate, “The burden of Iskender Bey is one of the largest weights upon the Protectorate’s royal families. It would be a unimaginable boon if a way could be found to wield the sword without the certainty of death to the wielder. There’d be few things that could threaten the nation or its people, then.”

What could I tell her? That the only reason Gramzanber’s bond hadn’t killed me was because I had alien nanomachines fused into my blood, and that even then I only had couple more months to live if I didn’t get some calibration data from a crashed starship? Not exactly the solution I imagined she’d be hoping for. Assuming she believed me.

“I can’t really tell you anything useful,” I said, not exactly being untruthful, “Far as I know, me and Gram are kind of a unique circumstance, one I don’t really understand fully yet.”

“I see...” there was a shade of sadness in Applegate’s eyes before she resumed a more calm and relaxed stance, “No matter, let us continue.”

Luckily nothing went wrong with freaky memories of an alien warlord popping into my head and I ended my training session with Applegate sweat soaked and aching, but feeling like I might’ve learned something. Besides a little Protectorate history.

“Hey, I, uh, I don’t want to sound like I’m prying, but you’re a Protectorate knight, right?” I asked, and Applegate gave me a wary look, but didn’t discourage me, instead just nodding. I took that as a good sign and went on, “So how did you end up in Skull City working as a Drifter? I mean, there was that war with the Protectorate years back, right? Weren’t you, you know, having a conflict of loyalties there?”

The air was even more chill than normal due to the sweat, and I shivered a bit, waiting for her to answer. I could see the wheels turning in her head, She took out a small cloth from one of the pockets of her coat and wiped her face off, then tossed it to me so I could do the same. As I did so she said, “I never truly left. Not in heart. I am still a knight of the Protectorate. I’ve merely been on a long assignment, given to me by one I respected more than anypony else. I can’t tell you more than that, Longwalk. My task required I travel to Skull City and that I make myself indispensable to one of its Guilds. The Drifter’s Guild was the one where I could raise in the ranks the fastest, with my skills. I fought in the war, yes, but I refused any mission I deemed too likely to result in high casualties. I instead took jobs where I felt I could best minimize losses on both sides. Even so, it was not easy to raise my blade against my own countryponies, but the task I was given supersedes every personal misgiving I have had over the years.”

She looked at me and something in her eyes made me feel like I was being measured. “I will tell you now that I think there is danger in this diplomatic mission beyond the obvious. I think you can possibly be trusted, but I can’t risk telling you more. Just take heed, Longwalk, and be watchful.”

“Of what?” I asked.

“Everypony,” she told me bluntly, “Watch everypony, even the ones you think you know. There are those on this ship who are not what they seem.”

With that she trotted away, leaving me to my own thoughts, which were more than a little confused. Ponies not being what they seem? What could she possibly mean by that? I tried to not let it weight down to hard on my mind while keeping the cryptic warning in mind. It wasn’t as if I wasn’t trying to be watchful for danger anyway.

The rest of the day went by quietly enough. I got lunch and checking in on Arcaidia and B.B, who were in the middle of some kind of strange meditative ritual when I poked my head in the door. B.B was sitting across from Arcaidia, both of them in exceedingly awkward looking positions with their hind legs crossed beneath them and their fore legs held overlapped in front of them. The blood from earlier was mopped up, but there was still a faint scent of it in the air. I didn’t want to disturb them so after B.B let me know she was feeling better I just left them to it. It might’ve been my imagination but Arcaidia’s face had seemed oddly red. Hopefully she wasn’t coming down with something.

By the time our guard shift came around again B.B seemed as if she was in better spirits. She wasn’t exactly as talkative or outgoing as I was used to, but she showed up, having cleaned the blood from herself and kept her wounded wing bandaged and carefully close to her side. More telling, her eyes were back to their normal violet color rather than crimson. It looked like, for the moment at least, she had things under control. I just hoped it would stay that way.

As the afternoon turned to evening I got to discover that sunsets were as heartening and beautiful as sunrises. No wonder ponies used them as names. Next time I saw Sunset I might tell her she was named after something pretty awesome. I’d never seen so many shades of red, orange, and purple flowing into one another, like the whole sky was bleeding.

...Okay, I need to change my lifestyle at some point, because blood was becoming entirely too much of a fixation in my mind these days.

With night falling and our guard shift done, I met up with everyone on the deck to discuss plans. “I’m thinking we all hit the galley at once for dinner and turn in early.” I said, Binge, B.B, Arcaidia and LIL-E gathered around me, “We’ll be reaching the NCR tomorrow morning and I figure we all need to be rested and at our best. B.B, how are you feeling?”

“A little less like wantn’ ta tear sompony’s throat out, but truth be told it ain’t more n’ matter o’ time fer I’ll need ta git a fix o’ blood,” she said, hanging her head a bit, “Sorry Long, I ain’t gonna go all fangs on ya unless I git hurt again, but even so, this’ll git worse ‘fore it gits better.”

“I keep saying I willing to let you take what need from me,” said Arcaidia, but B.B equaled her stubborn stare with one of her own.

“An’ I keep tellin’ ya I ain’t riskin’ yer life on it, Arc. Was bad ‘nough I did it ta Binge once already...”

Binge just shrugged, “You could take a bit out of ol’ Binge anyday birdie. Buuuut if you’ve gotten all softy in the heart over this, well, just wait until we get into another bit of fun with some playful ponies with guns and sharp things. Eat one of them.”

B.B shuddered, “Binge, if I do it in the heat o’ battle then there really won’t be no stoppin’. Was a miracle I didn’t tear yer own neck n’ half, last time. Nah, if I feed, I gotta do it calm n’ controlled, an’ wit somepony who I can stand takin’ the risk wit.”

“Then I’m the perfect choice, aren’t I?” said Binge with a smirk, raising a hoof with her bloody sock puppet suddenly there in all its crusty, creepy glory. “Mr. Happy agrees too, don’t ‘cha? ‘Oh yes, Binge’s blood is super tasty and she’ll even find it kinky. Last time gave her such warm fuzzies and fun dreams.’ See? How can you say no to Mr. Happy?”

“I think the NCR does have a mental health institution, if you want to commit her while we’re there,” said LIL-E, “Just saying.”

I rubbed my forehead, staving off a headache, “B.B, if push came to shove, could you feed on Binge? I’d offer myself, but with the nanomachines in me I have no idea what that’d do to you.”

“Doesn’t Binge have them too?” asked LIL-E, “Isn’t the risk the same, either way?”

Binge and I exchanged looks and we both shrugged at LIL-E in response. B.B just shook her head, her uninjured wing twitching out slightly, “I appreciate all the offerin’, but I gotta put my hoof down an’ say no. I’ll... figure somethin’ else out. Just need some time, is all.”

That seemed to be that, as B.B made it clear she wasn’t going to hear any more argument on the matter. We all went to the galley to get dinner, and Ancestor spirits be praised I was able to get another bowl of meat stew. I didn’t care what kind of meat it was, it was salty and juicy and that was all my taste buds cared about. Iron Wrought was there, and we invited him over to our table. He joined us, looking a bit reluctant, but he relaxed soon enough after spending a few minutes chowing down beside us.

“Is family well Iron Wrought?” asked Arcaidia, “No harm done to them by Skull Guild?”

Right, I’d almost forgotten the details of that. It was strange. Star Soul had seemed like a courageous and kind sort, having risked, and ultimately sacrificed, to save us from the pirates. Yet she was the leader of the Skull Guild, which had taken Iron Wrought’s family hostage to force him to be a double agent against his own Labor Guild. We’d managed to get the research data from Dr. Lemon Slice’s work at the Saddlespring Ruin, so Iron Wrought could deliver it to the Skull Guild and get his family returned. It was hard to reconcile the image of Star Soul’s willingness to stay behind and be captured by pirates to save us, and the notion that she’d authorize a plan to manipulate another pony in such a fashion.

Applegate’s words came back to me, about ponies not being what they seemed, and I shivered a bit.

“They’re good,” said Iron Wrought in his usual gruff manner, “And I plan to keep them that way. Its the only reason I’m on this job. Guildmistress Begonia has me working as a witness to detail the Raider threat facing Skull City. I’m to help convince the NCR how serious we are about an alliance.”

“Huh, Knobs has the same job for the Skull Guild,” I said, pondering, “I wonder what will happen now that Star Soul’s been abducted by pirates. Is Knobs going to have to speak for the Skull Guild?”

“Probably,” said Iron Wrought with a shrug, spooning some more stew into his mouth, speaking around the food, “You’d be best off not thinking too hard about the politics, kid. It’ll just get you in trouble.”

“Well, I can manage not thinking pretty easily,” I said jokingly, and Iron Wrought gave me a strange look, his blue eyes meeting mine with a oddly solemn and measuring look. I shifted uncomfortably under that look, “What?”

“It’s just strange,” he said, “I saw you blow a pirate out of the sky today with that freaky spear of yours, and last time I remember you killing anypony you looked depressed as hell. Now you’re eating dinner and cracking jokes.”

I froze, the mouthful of food suddenly turning to bland ashes in my mouth as I blinked at him. B.B shook her head with a heavy sight, “Iron Wrought, why’d ya need ta bring that up? Long’s got ‘nutff on his mind as is.”

“I also saw him nearly take the throat out of that other Drifter with the sword,” Iron Wrought pressed, never taking his eyes off of me, “What’s going on with you?”

“Bucky’s got ghosts in his head,” said Binge, and Arcaidia gave her a sharp look, to which Binge raised her hooves defensively, “But don’t we all?”

“Listen Iron,” I said, licking suddenly dry lips, and speaking in a quiet tone in case there was anypony trying to listen in, “I’ll level with you. I’ve been having weird... mental flashes, like bits of memory that aren’t mine. Nearly hurting Applegate... killing that pirate, both of those were because I had one of those weird flashbacks and it just made me do things without knowing it.”

Iron Wrought stared at me for a moment, then looked uneasily at Gramzanber, which was still strapped to my side. “The ARM fucking with you?”

I shook my head, “No, not Gramzanber. Something else. I... I’d rather not talk about it. I’ve just got to be careful from here on, until I figure out just what’s happening to me, and I appreciate it if you kept this between us.”

He nodded very slowly, “I see. I can do that. Still, I’d think you’d be moping about like usual, even if the kill was just an accident.”

To that I could only sigh sadly, feeling a tiredness creep over me. He was right that I wasn't in a depressed rut, which would have been normal given the way I'd acted after the few times I've had to take lives during my journey. The thing was, I still felt a sense of loss, and regret, like a cold stab in the gut. Yet since the fight with Redwire, since killing her and earning my Cuite Mark, I had... gained some perspective. I looked at Iron Wrought, meeting his eyes level. “Don’t think I don’t regret the death of that pirate, but I’ve... I’ve learned to cope, recently, when things get out of my hooves. I didn’t want to kill any of those pirates, but it happened, I can’t change it, and come the end of the day I got to keep facing forward, otherwise I won’t be in the right state of mind next time to save lives. I won't kill if I don't have to. Believe me, my mind is always on how I can get through things without it getting to that point. But I can't stop, either. Not when others are counting on me.”

Iron Wrought appeared to mull that over, looking contemplative as he took a swig of some beer, “Huh, it’s almost like you’re maturing.”

“Don’t tell anypony, otherwise my reputation as an immature blockhead will get ruined,” I said, managing a small smile.

Not long after that one of the crew approached our table, a young stallion of the earth pony variety with a deep blue coat and a frizzy purple and white streaked mane. “Excuse me, are Drifter Longwalk and his associate Arcaidia at this table?”

Me and my friends blinked at each other, and then I turned to the crew pony, “I’m Longwalk. This is Arcaidia.” She waved, smiling curiously at the stallion.

“I was asked by the Captain to tell you that he’s invited you to share a drink with him in his cabin.”

“O...kay? Did he say why?” I asked, genuinely surprised. I’d been meaning to talk with Bartholomew about the way he kept watching Arcaidia, and now he was inviting both of us to his room? That sounded both strangely fortuitous and somewhat ominous.

The stallion shook his head, “All he told me to tell you, if you seemed hesitant, was that ‘The Guardians are always watching’. Before you ask, I have no idea what the Captain meant by that, but that’s what he told me to tell you.”

I stared at the stallion incredulously. The Guardians!? What did Captain Bartholomew know about the Guardians? As far as I knew knowledge of the Guardians was restricted to only a few groups, like my friends and I, Trailblaze, the ponies of Stable 104, and Odessa. Well, this certainly got my attention. I could hardly refuse to see Bartholomew now, and by the look on Arcaidia’s face she had no intention of saying no either.

“I guess you can take us right there,” I said, and blanched as my stomach growled in protest, “Uh, as soon as we’re done eating.”

The crewpony nodded and waited until the meal was over, which didn’t take long. After that Arcaidia and I left the group at the galley to go follow the stallion. He led us all the way to the other side of the ship, to a space at the very aft where only a single door led into a room that took up a good chunk of this portion of the deck. I didn’t know quite what to expect from this meeting, and could only guess at how or why Bartholomew knew anything about the Guardians. If I was being honest, I hadn’t thought too much about them myself, being so busy bouncing from one dangerous situation to the next. It was still hard to fully get my head wrapped around the idea of such beings existed at all, even though I’d met one face to face, had my mind nearly crushed by it, and the very same spirit was now bound to my best friend’s soul.

The crewpony knocked on the door and called out, “Captain, I’ve brought them.”

I heard Bartholomew’s voice from within, “Send them in, then watch the door.”

The door was opened for us and Arcaidia and I exchanged looks with each other before shuffling on inside, myself going first and Arcaidia following close behind. The crewpony shut the door behind us once we were through and I looked around the captain’s personal quarters with open curiosity. Bartholomew’s accommodations weren’t exactly luxurious despite the impressive size of the cabin. Crates and shelves were stacked about at random, tables of various scavenged states from old rusted metal ones to faded and stained plastic standing tables littered the cabin like mushrooms. Almost every surface was covered in maps, scrolls, old dusty books, and piles of scrawled upon notebook papers. Several larger shelves shoved up against the walls were filled with odds and ends, curios of random objects that looked like they’d been collected from a hundred different cultures and locations. A bed was set up at an awkward angle in one corner of the room, half covered by more papers and books.

Bartholomew himself was seated at a table where he was shifting some maps around, apparently looking for one in particular, and he looked up at us with an open and inviting, if somewhat embarrassed looking grin. “Find a seat if you can. I should have a chair or stool or two around here somewhere.”

I looked around at the general chaos of the room and decided such spelunking could wait, “I’m good standing.”

“As am me,” said Arcaidia, eyeing Bartholomew suspiciously, silver eyes glittering with faint mistrust, “You call us here with strange mention of something few know of.”

Bartholomew took a deep breath, eyes flickering over his maps for a moment before looking back at us. “Yes, I imagined mentioning the Guardians would get your attention. I wanted to talk to the two of you sooner than this, but it would have been suspicious to call you to my cabin on our first day out, and this morning that damn surprise attack from the Black Swans shook everything up.”

I streak of guilt flashed through me and I found myself saying, “I wish we could have done more. Are you certain Star Soul is going to be okay?”

“Certain? Not at all. However, Georgia isn’t a fool,” said Bartholomew, the feathers along the crest of his aged, necrotic head bristling, “She’ll keep Star Soul alive, if not comfortable, so she can ransom the alicorn back to Skull City. She lost a lot of those makeshift bi-planes today, so she’ll want to recoup losses and give her crew a decent payout. I wish we could’ve done more too but Georgia’s Raptor would’ve torn the Sweet Candy into burning shreds if we tried anything other than running. But talking about that isn’t why I invited you two here.”

He reached up to the breast of the buttoned up blue wool coat he wore, slowly undoing the gold buttons one by one until he could open the coat to expose his bare chest. It didn’t take me more than a moment to notice that branded onto the fur of his chest was a black marking, like a tattoo. The mark was vaguely shaped like a book with a blade piercing it, and while this was my first time seeing this particular mark, I recognized the similarity to the flaming claw mark that Trailblaze had gained when she’d become Moa Gault’s medium, and I found myself gawking at Bartholomew.

“You’re a... Guardian’s medium?”

“That’s right,” he said, patting his chest, “I’m connected to Solais Emsu, Guardian of the Sky. Have been for over two hundred years now. Being a ghoul has a few perks.”

I sat back on my haunches, blinking in a perfectly dumbfounded fashion as my brain pony did a bit of a mental cartwheel. “Wait, so Trailblaze isn’t the first pony who’s gotten this whole medium gig? That crazy fire bird dude kind of made it sound like there weren’t any others yet.”

“Communication between the Guardians has been spotty at best, Longwalk,” said Bartholomew, gesturing at his piles of maps, “They’re energy beings, spirits bound to the leylines of this world. However while those leylines are all connected like big, magical highways, the damage done over the course of the ancient war with the aliens, and the more recent war between Equestria and the zebras, has turned those highways into broken messes. Most of the Guardians can’t talk to each other, at least not clearly or reliably. Moa Gault and his brother Elemental Guardians are close enough in nature to speak to one another, but Solais governs a body of energy far enough removed that Moa Gault wouldn’t have known he’d found a medium. However your friend Trailblaze has already gotten another Guardian connected to a medium, and the leylines are starting to slowly spark back to life. Now the Guardians are starting to be able to connect to each other again. That’s how I learned about you.”

Arcaidia had a worried, sour look crossing her face like a ripple in an otherwise still pool. Her silvery tail twitched irritably. “So more Guardians waking up? That mean they getting stronger, yes?”

“Slowly, yes, but they won’t be anywhere near their true strength until all the leylines are rejuvenated with the presence of mediums...” Bartholomew paused, reaching beneath the table and pulling out an old, leather satchel that looked as if it’d been worn to a frayed mess by many decades of use, “Including the leylines of the four most potent Guardians; the Guardian Lords.”

Opening the satchel he pulled out several stone statues, perhaps about as large as a bottle of Sparkle Cola. Each one was roughly hewn, showing vague shapes, as if long spans of time had worn away the details. One looked somewhat like a humanoid being with feathery wings, while another looked more akin to a bipedal, armored beast holding a sword in front of it. The third and final statue had the appearance of something draconic, with curled wings and tail. There were only three statues, which made me raise an eyebrow. “So, uh, what are these? There’s three statues, but you said there’s four of these... what?”

“Guardian Lords, the leaders of Guardians, and yes, there are four, but I only have three idols. The fourth is... irrelevant, right now,” Bartholomew said, placing a talon the head of the draconic idol, “Look, the reason I’m showing these to you and telling you this, is because you need to understand that you and your friend Trailblaze aren’t alone in trying to revive the Guardians. I’ve been trying to accomplish that task for a long time, ever since I became Solais’ medium before the end of the war. Even in all that time I’ve only found a small number of shrines, and no one suited to be their mediums. You’ve done more in a few weeks of wandering the Wasteland than I’ve managed in two hundred years. That’s why I want to entrust these idols to you.”

“Wait wait wait, slow down,” I said, holding up a hoof, “You’re blowing through this stuff way too fast for my brain to keep up here. I’m not the brightest of ponies, so bear with me. First off, why are these idols important? What are they, exactly?”

“Think of them like keys,” Bartholomew said, “The Guardians have to work through mediums to affect change in the world, and normally just a appropriate candidate being in proximity to a shrine is enough to establish a connection. However the Guardian Lords are different. Their power is too potent and at the same time quite finicky. Not just anyone with a halfway decent soul will do. The virtue of one who would be a medium for a Guardian Lord has to be a league apart. The idols were created by the Elw to act like measuring devices for the virtues each Guardian Lord would seek in their medium.”

“Like what?” I asked, taking a closer look at the stone idols. They didn’t look particularly magical to me, but then again I supposed there wasn’t any rule that said an enchanted item had to glow, or be covered in sigils. Bartholomew leaned forward, placing a talon on each idol in turn.

“Justine, Guardian of Courage,” he said, patting the one that looked like a bipedal, armored feline beast creature bearing a sword.

“Raftina, Guardian of Love,” his talon lit upon the humanoid figure with the feathery wings springing from her back.

“And Zephyr, Guardian of Hope,” he proclaimed, touching the final idol of a draconic creature with leathery wings.

“Okay...” I said, raising an eyebrow, “So why is this fourth ‘Guardian Lord’ irrelevant? That sounds kind of dodgy to me.”

Bartholomew frowned like he tasted something foul and let out a growling breath, “I wanted to spare you this detail. It’d only make you worry about your friend Trailblaze.”

“What? Why? Is she in danger?” I suddenly found my heart beating faster with fear, wondering what kind of trouble Trailblaze might have gotten into.

“The fourth Guardian Lord is named Lucied,” Bartholomew said, “She is the Guardian of Desire, and is a traitor to the entire cause of the Guardians, for she turned her back on her brethren and joined forces with the Hyadeans during the ancient war.”

“Why would she do something like that?” I asked in confusion, “Aren’t these Guardian spirits supposed to be tied to the lifeforce of the planet or something? Wouldn’t the Hyadeans be, like, completely the opposite of what a Guardian would want to help?”

“It's not that simple,” Bartholomew said sourly, “Guardians are so intimately tied to the ideals they represent that it becomes an overriding force in their personalities. Lucied is tied to the emotion of Desire, and she found the strongest desire among the Hyadean menace, in one particular warrior whose bloodlust surpassed all others. Even his own kind feared him, calling him the Cannibal, for he would slay his own kind alongside the Veruni and Elw. He just didn’t care what he hunted, as long as it proved a worthy challenge.”

“Riiiight, so in other words, he was nuts. But what does this have to do with Trailblaze?”

“Because the Cannibal still walks this world with Lucied by his side, seeking ever worthy prey to hunt, and has targeted Trailblaze,” Bartholomew said with a grim cast to his features, “She must have told you, didn’t she?”

“Uhh, I seem to recall her mentioning something about having a tussle with Hyadean at the last Guardian shrine she found,” I said, picking my brain for the memory, “Some dude with a big metal boomerang for a weapon?”

“That’s the Cannibal. The only reason Trailblaze and her companions would have survived her first run in with him is because she managed to impress him. Made him want to follow her and continue to challenge her until she gets strong enough to prove a true challenge.”

“Whoa, how do you know so much about this guy anyway?” I asked, already regretting I couldn’t go to Trailbalze’s side right now to help her deal with this psychotic sounding Hyadean. He didn’t sound like the other two I was familiar with. Alhazad had been nothing short of a creepy scientist type that had left me with chills, but he definitely wasn’t interested in ‘worthy challenges’. And Zeikfried, from what little I knew of him from our shared memories, was that he was a boisterous warrior, but he used a spear identical to mine, not a boomerang. So this was a new player on the scene, and one who now had an unhealthy interest in hunting my best friend.

Fucking great.

“I ran into the Cannibal two hundred years prior,” Bartholomew said, “Though he had no interest in me or my friends back then. He was after the head of the Ministry of Awesome, who happened to be leading the team that recovered me and my friends after the filming disaster up north. Solias filled me in on the rest.”

“Right... well... shit, there’s nothing I can do is there?” I said, deflating, “Trailblaze is out of my reach, and has to deal with this insanity on her own, doesn’t she?”

“I’m afraid so, but she has good companions of her own, and the power of Moa Gault backing her,” said Bartholomew, “She’ll manage.”

Arcaidia was frowning deeply now, probably just as worried about Trailblaze as I was, but leave it to Arcaidia to keep her focus on the here and now. “Not to be changer of subjects, but how you get idols?”

Bartholomew gave a simple shrug, laughing under his breath as he gestured with a talon at all the maps, then at the many random artifacts lining his walls, “Two centuries of travel and hard searching, my little pony. Even if I’ve had rotten luck finding mediums, I’ve found a number of Guardian shrine locations, and tracked down the three remaining idols.”

“What happened to Lucied’s?” I asked, and Bartholomew grimaced.

“To be honest, I don’t know. Destroyed, maybe. Listen, kid, both Solais and I agree that if anyone we’ve run into recently has a better chance of finding mediums to fit the bill for the Guardian Lords, its either you, or Trailblaze. Since we can’t reach Trailblaze right now, we’re giving you the idols. If you meet with Trailblaze later and want to hoof them to her, that’s up to you. It's just that after two centuries of swinging and missing, I figure its time for someone else to come up to bat.”

I rubbed at my head, feeling the pressure mounting there as I eyed the three statues, “I don’t know. My own luck has been real hit and miss lately too. You’ve got an airship and the backup of an actual Guardian. Not sure I can do any better than you could...” I paused, my brain tickling me with a few new thoughts, “Hey, if you’re a Guardian medium that means you’ve got powers, right? Like with Trailblaze’s fire?”

“Yeah, sort of. Each Guardian’s power manifests differently, and Solais’ power comes in the flavor of control over the winds... but before you ask what I think you’re going to ask, no, I couldn’t have used Solais against the pirates today. Like I said, the Guardians aren’t anywhere near full power yet, not while the leylines still mostly lay broken. I couldn’t work up enough of a wind to do anything to a Raptor on my best day.”

“Damn, okay, fair enough,” I said, still eyeing the three idols warily. I really didn’t know if I was up to adding more to my plate of already full responsibilities. The simple truth was that even if I did agree to carry these things around it wouldn’t change anything about what I planned to do. I had to get Arcaidia to wherever her sister’s signal was coming from in the NCR, then after that travel to the Frozen North to my father’s lab so I could enact a potentially suicidal rescue attempt of my tribe from the clutches of Odessa’s headquarters. After that... maybe then I could go hunting for ponies with potential to be Guardian mediums, as I could see how the Guardians would be a big help in dealing with any trouble the Hyadeans were trying to cause. However that was a future that felt far off and hard to contemplate when I had the more immediate issues of my current job as a Drifter, and B.B’s growing problems with her bloodlust. Oh, and my impending demise via my alien space spear if I didn’t manage to get some data downloaded from a crashed starship.

My head hurt just trying to think it all over and I think Bartholomew saw the distress on my face because he smiled sadly and said, “I understand this is a lot to have dumped on you on top of everything else, kid. How about this, you just focus on what you got to deal with in the NCR, and when all's said and done, you can tell me if you’re up to taking these idols with you. I wanted to talk to you because I thought you deserved to know you and your friend Trailblaze weren’t alone in this fight. I’m on your side.”

“I appreciate that,” I said.

“So you say much to ren solva, all is good, but why I here?” asked Arcaidia, looking at Bartholomew square in the eyes, “Not think I not notice you watching me since I come onto ship.”

A good point, and one I felt a bit stupid for not thinking of sooner. I’d been meaning to ask Bartholomew why he’d been observing Arcaidia pretty much from the first second we’d boarded the Sweet Candy. So far all he’d told us here had been relevant only to me, and even then only because Trailblaze was my friend and I was by extension something of an ally to the Guardians. Arcaidia wasn’t really connected to any of this save for the fact that she was traveling with me.

Bartholomew’s expression became very difficult to read. His eyes narrowed a bit, but not with any hard edge to them, but rather softened and became filled with a long aged melancholy. He turned and went over to a shelf by his bead, hauling out a thick but small wood and iron banded chest. He set it on the table in front of us and pulled out a brass key, unlocking the chest and opening it silently. He turned the chest towards us to show us the contents. Inside I saw three memory orbs, covered in dust.

“I want you to have these,” he said plainly.

Arcaidia just rose a silver eyebrow at him, “Why?”

“Look just... just take them, okay? Watch them or don’t. I’m not even sure if you’re really who I think you are, and if you are, I...don’t know if I should even try explaining things to you. Just understand that I know why you’re here and who you’re looking for, Miss Arcaidia, and I hope you find her. I can’t do much to help, and these memory orbs might not answer many of your questions, but I’ve held onto them for a long time and if anypony deserves to have them, it's you.”

Arcaidia’s expression remained heavy with suspicion, but she slowly took the chest, sliding it over to her, and plucked out the memory orbs one by one with her hoof, careful not to touch them with her magic. She placed them in her dark blue saddlebag and turned hard silver eyes to Bartholomew, “I may watch them, or not, but stop staring at me all the same. It very creepy.”

“Yes, well, sorry about that. You just look a lot like a pony I knew, who had a daughter she never got to meet, or even remember...” Bartholomew shook his head, “I’ll leave you be, Miss Arcaidia, and if you do watch those orbs and have questions, I’ll be willing to try and answer what I can.”

He turned to me, “As for you, I’ll hold onto the idols until you feel comfortable taking them. Consider it carefully. No matter how things turn out with negotiations with the NCR, or how your own personal quests pan out, the fact remains that the whole world faces a serious danger in the shape of the Hyadeans. Sooner or later that danger is going to escalate to a full blown war, and when that happens we’re going to need the Guardians to stand a chance. All of them.”

“I... I’ll keep that in mind,” I said, feeling suddenly very, very tired. “Let me clear up my to-do list a bit, then I’ll think about doing something about this world spanning Guardian scavenger hunt, okay?”

Bartholomew let out a humorless laugh, “Fair enough. I suppose I did throw this at you out of nowhere, but I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think you were suited to the task. I may have only met you ponies the other day, but I’ve heard enough about your previous exploits and seen how you handled yourselves today to convince me you're worth trusting on this.”

He sounded sincere, and it wasn’t as if he’d given me any reason not to trust him. But this was less about trust and more that I wasn’t at all sure I could handle the extra responsibility of finding individuals to be mediums for the Guardians yet. I wanted to help, of course. Trailblaze was already roped into this gig and doing all I could do to help meant making her burden easier, but I just had too much on my plate right now. The idols were better off with Bartholomew, who not only had been doing this searching for a lot longer than I had, but had a snazzy airship to do it with. Still, he seemed so intent on this that I didn’t want to flat out tell him no right here and now. I could afford to wait until the trip to the NCR was over before giving my answer, though I didn’t think it’d change. But who knew, a lot could happen between now and then.

Arcaidia and I left his cabin shortly thereafter, after bidding good night to the Captain. Arcaidia stood hesitant in the hallway after we’d gone a few paces out of anypony’s earshot. The deck corridor was quiet and I didn’t see anypony about, and Arcaidia was looking at her saddlebag with a pensive cast to her features. She had to be wondering what was on those memory orbs and why Bartholomew was so intent on her having them.

“Are you going to watch them tonight?” I asked, and she turned a guarded set of silver eye smy way.

“No,” she said, “Not tonight. When things settled in NCR, I take a look then, maybe. I not know. This very strange. He said he knew why I here, but he couldn’t know that unless...” she trailed off, her face scrunching up in thought. I let her complete whatever mental gymnastics she was doing, and eventually she said, “Sister Persephone tell me little about her time on this world, but she did mention having... friends, here, that she made long ago. I am daughter of one of those friends, that she took off world as a favor to friend. I never ask why, or how.”

She glanced back down the corridor towards Bartholomew’s cabin, “Maybe he one of those friend my sister make in the past? Maybe he knows my blood parents?” She cast a worried look back at her saddlebag, “Maybe memory orbs even have my parents in them?”

“If that’s the case, perhaps you ought to give them a look. I mean, it can’t hurt, right?” I said, trying to give her a confident, encouraging smile. She returned my smile with a smaller one of her own, letting out a calming breath as she shook her head.

“It too distracting, ren solva. I must keep mind focused like butter knife on mission. No allow for second thoughts.” She held up her head and seemed to become her normal, confident self once more, having apparently banished her worries to a back corner of her mind, “Come, we go back to quarters, see if B.B still okay.”

I nodded, “Alright then, I guess I’m still pretty worried about her, too. How’d that meditation session go?”

For some reason Arcaidia turned her face away from me, hiding it behind long falls of her silver mane, her voice sounding oddly quiet and squeaking for a moment, “Went very well! Yes, B.B able to control self, if she just stop being stubborn and let me, er, us help her.”

I tilted my head at her, “You won’t hear any argument from me. I wish I knew how to help. She’s kept this blood drinking thing under wraps for so long, and she wouldn’t have lost that control if she hadn’t come with us. I can’t figure all this constant fighting, exposing her to a whole lot of blood being spilled, is helping her keep this hunger under control.”

Arcaidia pursed her lips , frowning, ‘I know not, ren solva. I will help her. She done much for me, and I can’t leave her to face pains alone.”

I put a hoof on her shoulder with a comforting pat, “We’ll just need to be there for her, whatever else ends up going down. Today it was pirates, tomorrow, we could be facing anything Arcaidia. Literally anything.”

----------

“Why is it raining...?” I miserably muttered to myself as I sniffed, letting out a light sneeze as I stood watch on the bow of the Sweet Candy during the tail end of my morning watch shift. The previous clear blue skies of yesterday had been replaced by a overcast bank of clouds that was now steadily pouring out a heavy, wet and cold drizzle that seemed to cut right through my armor barding and fur and leech the warmth from my hide.

Beside me LIL-E chuckled, a rapid mechanical buzzing noise, and said, “The NCR might control its weather, but that doesn’t mean they can afford not to have rain. That farmland isn’t going to survive without water. The cycle of nature must go on.”

I sneezed again, “Could it have gone on some other day? Like, when I’m safely indoors and dry?”

“Oh suck it up, cupcake, are you a tough, badass Drifter, or a little wimpy noodly colt?”

‘I have [i[literally fought giant mutant spiders and alien monsters, I don’t need to prove my masculinity to falling water!” I said, shivering, “Though I will admit that dress you guys had me wearing was really comfortable and kind of cozy warm, you know? Ugh, why have I not invested in a cloak or something? Or at least a hat!”

“Because you’d look silly in a hat, Longwalk,” said LIL-E, “I’ve only known one stallion that could rock a hat and make it look good, and no offense, you don’t quite have his style. Huh, have the same messy, long mane though. You should think about getting it cut.”

“What!? No way! I like my long, flowing mane,” I said, running a hoof through it, and wincing as I got it tangled in some of the more snarled up bits. “Although I’ll admit maybe a trim wouldn’t hurt.”

We enjoyed some companionable silence for a minute before my curiosity got me asking, “So who’s this stallion you know with the epic mane and hat rocking skills?”

LIL-E didn’t respond, and I turned to see the eyebot just floating there, staring at the gray horizon for all I knew. I leaned closer to her, “LIL-E?”

“Sorry, just realizing I don’t actually know the stallion in question. I just... remember him.”

Awkward seconds ticked by like very heavy grains of uncomfortable sand, and eventually I said, “Do you want to talk about it?”

“I should, but I won’t,” LIL-E said, managing to make her machine monotone somehow sound hard, “I never wanted anypony to know I was a robot to begin with. I’m not sure I’m up to talking about memories that aren’t even mine.”

“Hey, you and me have that in common. I got stuff rattling up in my brainpan that doesn’t belong to me either,” I said with an encouraging smile, tapping the side of my head.

A mechanical laugh, like a burst of static, came from LIL-E, “I suppose that’s true, but I’ve never really been good at the whole heart to heart thing.”

“I don’t know, you did just fine when you tried to help me work through my issues after the fight with Midnight Twinkle,” I said, sighing at the memory, “I was pretty messed up afterward, but you talked me through it all, and I really appreciate the fact, LIL-E. Maybe now I can return the favor?”

“Thanks but... I’m sorry Longwalk, but I’m not sure I’m up for it. It's hard for me to even think about, and it’ll be rough enough returning home after so long and being reminded of all the things I am,” LIL-E said, and after a moment somberly added, “And everything I’m not. I was built in the NCR, Longwalk. My creators might still be looking for me. If that happens, I don’t know what will come next. They might try to take me back.”

“What will you do if that happens?”

“... I don’t know. I’m hoping it won’t come up.”

We relapsed into silence once more, a bit more sullen than before, but I shuffled more closely to LIL-E and put a comforting hoof on her cold metal chassis. Even if she couldn't feel it, per se, I wanted to show my support, one way or another. She didn’t move away from me, so I suppose she didn’t mind. I didn't really understand what it was like to be a robot, or really what that even meant, but it was clear LIL-E was in distress, and I didn’t like it when my friends were down in the dumps.

Which seemed to be the case with all of my friends lately. B.B had her blood hunger to deal with. Binge had been acting odd lately too. Arcaidia had those memory orbs to chew over, and now LIL-E was facing her own issues with returning to the land of her... birth? Construction? Was it one and the same thing with robots?

I spent quite some time just sitting there next to LIL-E in the misty rain, watching the last of the Bleach fade out beneath us as the landscape began to change. White sand dunes gave way to rocky bluffs and rolling hills, and slowly, bit by bit, my eyes picked up on something strange. Colors I’d not seen as part of the natural landscape in all my lifetime. Below us the desert had bled away into hills capped with washes of... green. Grass, tall and unchecked, grew in fields between and on the hills. Then there were sparse groupings of tall, green puffs of trees, actual trees, not the dry gray and dead kind I was familiar with, but ones whose branches burst with green. It kept spreading out ahead of us, miles and miles of hills and fields, so much of it carpeted with verdant color that It made my eyes hurt.

“Well, Longwalk,” said LIL-E, “The plantsplosion we’re looking at confirms we’ve crossed officially into the territory of the New Canterlot Republic. Welcome to the NCR.”

It was hard to tear my eyes away from the swaths of verdant color painted the world below me, but I felt I had to, because I wanted to share this with the rest of my friends. I quickly scampered over to the edge of the forecastle, and waved down to the others. Arcaidia had been covering the port side of the deck, and B.B was watching the starboard, while Binge patrolled around by the aft, but I got all of their attention with a quick shout and soon they all trotted over.

“Sorry,” I said sheepishly, “Just thought I’d be cool to watch the trees go by together for a sec. I don’t know if any of us have seen the living variety before.”

Arcaidia gave me a short, chiming laugh, “I see many trees on distant worlds, but this first time seeing green trees of this one.”

“Gotta admit I ain’t been down this way since the NCR got its land purified o’ radiation an’ started growing greenery again,” said B.B, peeking over the bow, “Kind o’ like lookin’ at a bar table somepony’s vomited green all over.”

Binge giggled, but I noticed it was more subdued the normal as she looked at the passing landscape, “Life is trying to grow back through all the death, but I wonder if you can still smell all the blood down there? After so long it had to seep into the soil. Maybe that’s why the plants grew back so fast, fertilized by all the corpses?”

LIL-E groaned, “For Celestia’s fucking sake do you have to get morbid on everything that’s remotely not related to sex or death?”

I expected Binge to either giggle again or throw some nonsensical quip LIL-E’s way, but instead the earth pony’s poofy mane seemed to droop a bit, her ears giving a weak set of flicks as she whispered, “I don’t know. It hurts more than I thought it would.”

“Binge?” I looked at her with concern, “Is everything... okay?”

She looked at me, and for a few seconds our eyes met and in those blue orbs of hers I saw a reflection of devastation, like she was in an incredible amount of raw pain and was desperate for some kind of release. The look vanished in the span of those few seconds and her eyes gained an almost glassy luster to them, her smile suddenly looking uncomfortably forced, “No worries bucky. I’m here. The ghosts are whispering, getting louder, but I’m super good at whistling myself to sleep.”

She turned to look over the railing again, whistling a merry sounding tune to herself, but to my ears there was a painful note to the whistles, and I felt a sudden powerful desire to just go over there and hug her tightly. Unfortunately before I took more than a step I head LIL-E say, “Huh, I’m picking up something coming our way on my scanners.”

Distracted, I turned to her, frowning, “What is it? More pirates?”

The eyebot bobbed about for a few seconds, a strange series of humms and beeps coming from inside her chassis. “I don’t think so. I’m picking up too much heat, and the motion is all wrong for a ship, though the size is about right.”

“B.B, go alert the Captain,” I said, “Let him know we might have incoming.”

“No might ‘bout it, Long,” B.B said, pointing up at the cloudcover above us, rain pelting her face that she ignored, “Look!”

I craned my neck to look up, and gulped as I saw the clouds roil and shift as an immense object dropped down from the ceiling of white and started to descend towards the Sweet Candy. I saw great, purple wings with thin leathery membranes spread out wide as our own airship, attached to a thickly muscled body of light purple scales. Four powerful limbs, each tipped with deadly looking claws long as a pony extended from the body like tree trunks, and a long sinuous tail flowed out behind the creature, straight and lightly waving in the wind. Green spikes ridged the creature’s back, tail, and long serpentine neck all the way to a tapered face with a maw large enough to bite a Vertibuck out of the air and the fangs to do the job proper.

I had only heard about dragons in tribal legend, with the roughest of descriptions in the tales told around the campfires at night of giant lizard-like monsters that breathed fire and craved gems and flesh alike. My foalhood dreams and nightmares born of those tales didn’t come close to the living, breathing reality I was seeing flying out of the clouds and descending to level out beside the Sweet Candy. As the dragon came to fly next to the ship it turned its head towards us, and I noticed that while it had one large green eye, its other eye was covered by a huge black eyepatch that only partially covered a ragged scar over one side of its face.

“So, uh, does anybody know how if dragons can be reasoned with? Or are we just boned?” I asked, voice just barely above a squeak.

“Actually,” said LIL-E, “I think we’re okay. This dragon isn’t a threat, at least as long as we’re polite and don’t do anything stupid to piss him off.”

I glanced at her with a question on my lips, but I then heard Captain Bartholomew as he came up the stairs to join us on the forecastel, “Ah! Our escort showed up earlier than I thought. Stand down, Drifters, this fellow is with the NCR.”

“He is?” I asked, blinking in surprise, and feeling rather quickly relieved that I wasn’t going to have to find out if dragons actually breathed fire like in the tales.

“Indeed,” Bartholomew said, then came up to the railing and raised a talon to cup his beak as he shotued, “Ahoy Spike! Long time no see! You having fun giving my passengers a scare!?”

I heard a rumble like thunder and it took me a few seconds to realize it was the dragon’s laughter. The dragon’s maw pulled back to reveal dozens of large fangs, a smile that didn’t do much for my nerves. When the dragon spoke his voice boomed out clearly, easy to hear even over the wind of the airship’s movement.

“If I really wanted to give them a scare, you’d know it, Bart. Now I can’t help but notice your ship looks a bit shot up. What happened?”

“Pirates! The damned Black Swans!”

“Shit, for real? I thought those buzzards operated further east? Everyone okay over there?” the dragon rumbled back, his one good eye narrowing slightly.

Bartholomew took off his captain’s hat, holding it to his breast, “Sadly lost two of my own crew, and one of our passengers was captured. All told it could’ve been a lot worse, but a sad state of affairs nonetheless.”

The dragon spat out something in a language I didn’t understand but sounded like a sincere and nasty curse, “Knew I should’ve gone out earlier to meet you guys halfway! If I’d been there those pirates would be enjoying new careers as fresh piles of ash. Look, I’m coming aboard, you can fill me in on the details.”

Wait, coming aboard? Coming aboard!? This dragon was damned near as big as the ship! How in the name of the Ancestor Spirts’ blazing balls was he planning on coming aboard!? Even as I was thinking this I saw the dragon reach with his left foreclaw over to his right, and touch something he was wearing on one of his talons. The dragon’s entire vast body was then encased in a bright green glow, and then he began to rapidly shrink. Before the change was complete he banked his wings and flew right for the ship. I took an involuntary step back, as did most of my companions, save for LIL-E.

Rather than smash into the Sweet Candy, Spike the dragon finished transmuting his form from a gigantic, fierce, fire breathing, eat a pony in one bite dragon, into a cute, two foot tall, somewhat chubby baby dragon that landed lightly on the deck, brushing himself off with one claw while twirling an amulet in his other. The amulet was made of a gold disc set with a bright green gem, held together by a chain of thick gold links, and the amulet finished glowing with magic just as the dragon did. When he spoke now his voice was higher, more childish, but still distinctly male.

“‘Sup dudes?” he said, looking at us as if nothing at all in the world was out of the ordinary about at giant dragon suddenly transforming into a baby one.

“I... uh... bwhuh?” I said in my usual eloquent manner.

Spike just chuckled and rolled his eyes at me, “What, never seen a dragon as manly as me before?”

I just blinked, my brain still made of sludge. Confused sludge. “Never seen a dragon before.”

Arcaidia, unlike myself, was less flabbergasted and more fascinated, suddenly approaching Spike like a magnet and peering at him up close, her silver eyes sparkling. “Are you real giant lizard or hologram? Wait, was tiny lizard riding on big lizard and you keep big lizard in gem? Can I see gem?”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa! Back up lady! Personal bubble,” Spike said, backing up a few steps from Arcaidia’s eager, curious face, “The amulet’s just a magic trinket a pal found for me that lets me reverse my age when I want to. Makes going to meetings a lot easier since I can actually fit in buildings this way.”

“Huh, that’s extremely convenient, do you got a lot of magic trinkets like that?” I asked, unable to stop my own curiosity, to which Spike gave me a level look, somehow making his small dragon voice carry about as much force and menace as I imagined he could pull as a hundred foot long killing machine.

“Lots. A whole hoard. Don’t even dream of touching it or you’ll get real personal with your inner barbecue, you feel me?”

I managed to nod, smiling nervously, “Was just curious.”

Spike eyed me for a moment, then shrugged with a small laugh, “S’cool.” He puffed up a bit, grinning, “I guess I can’t blame you if I’m your first dragon. I know I cut a pretty majestic figure. Who wouldn’t be curious about me?”

Bartholomew put a talon to his beak with a polite cough, “Spike, perhaps we should head back to the wheelhouse? You know, bring you up to speed on what happened on our way over here?”

“Yeah, to business I guess. I also got to radio ahead to the border guard and let them know I’ve made contact with you guys,” Spike said and turned to walk off with Bartholomew, waving a claw behind him, “Nice meeting you guys, guess we’ll do proper intros later.”

I watched them go, and after a second shook my head, “Well, that happened.”

Arcaidia still looked rather energetic and happy, eyes shining with bubbly light, “I knew sister tell me stories of dragons on this world but never quite believe them. So amazing to see real one, yes ren solva? I want to see him breath the fires!”

“I, uh... would be just as well not seeing that,” I said, but it was hard to not get a little infected with Arcaidia’s enthusiasm. If one could get around the intimidating aspects of his massive claws, fangs, and capacity for roasting somepony alive, I supposed the dragon was a pretty awe inspiring sight. He still made me a bit nervous, however. Even in his small, baby form there’d been an air of ready violence about Spike that set me on edge.

“Neat trick with that amulet,” said LIL-E, “I didn’t know he had anything like that.”

B.B glanced at the eyebot, “Ya know ‘im?”

“Not really,” LIL-E swiftly replied, “Its more like I know him by stories and reputation. Hero of the war against Redeye’s slaver empire and the Enclave, way back when.”

“He smelled like brimstone and burnt flesh,” said Binge, licking her lips and wagging her tail, “He’s killed a lot of ponies.”

“Aaaand on that fun note, I’m going back to sightseeing,” I said with a sigh, “And keeping watch for danger, I suppose. If we’re already into the NCR, I wonder if we’re still needed for that?”

“Best not ta’ tempt fate, eh Long?” said B.B, “We can’t drop our guard until we’re landed, an’ probably not after that either.”

It was a sobering thought, but I knew B.B was very likely correct. Even if we we were now in friendly territory, it was just inviting trouble to relax now. The delegation had already suffered one attack, and there was nothing that said it couldn’t suffer another at any time, even once we were in the heart of the NCR. I took up my position back at the bow of the Sweet Candy and took a deep, steadying breath, and resumed my watch. My friends returned to their own posts, Arcaidia chatting excitedly with B.B about the dragon, while Binge bounced along behind them. LIL-E stayed at the bow with me, hovering silently.

“So...uh... about Spike,” I said, “That one of those memory things you don’t want to talk about?”

“And a half,” she replied, “Longwalk, why are you so adamant about asking about these memories of mine anyway?”

“I’m just worried about you. We’re heading back into the land you were... born in? Built in? I don’t know if this is hard on you or not, but I can’t imagine its easy either, and there’s some risk involved, right? Like, whoever built you might want to take you back, right?”

“A bridge I’ll burn when I come to it. I’ll admit I never planned to go back to the NCR,” LIL-E said, hovering a little lower so she was more at eye level with me, “I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I’d planned to ditch you guys once we got to Skull City and go my own way, but I guess... things just kept happening that made me think you still needed my help. Of course it was easy to justify because helping out Doc Sunday was involved, and I owe him.”

“Heh, seems he does that for a lot of people,” I said, ‘You, B.B, the folk of Saddlespring. Wish I had a chance to get to know the stallion at some point.”

“You’ll find life pulls us all in different directions and there isn’t always the convenient time to really know the folk whose paths we cross,” LIL-E said, her mechanical voice managing to take on a faint solemn note, “Try to treasure the time you’ve got with the ponies, the people, in your life Longwalk. You never know when they won’t be there anymore.”

We fell into a simple, comfortable silence after that. I wasn’t going to push her to talk about the memories inside her. I figured they had to be tied to the memory orb I’d seen fused into her circuitry when I’d seen her repairing herself back at Stable 104, and I thought I’d seen fragments of them in her dreams as well, but it was clear LIL-E wasn’t ready to open up about it all yet. I hoped there wouldn’t be any trouble involved with her returning to the NCR. I supposed she wouldn’t have been willing to come along if she felt there’d be too much danger. I just had to trust her, the same way I trusted all of my friends with their own issues.

I mean, logically I had reasons to be worried about all of them. Arcaidia still essentially served an alien empire that may well be more interested in conquering our world than helping it. B.B could at any time lose control of her hunger and start tearing throats out with her teeth. Binge was... Binge, and from day one of meeting her had been an unhinged, potential danger.

Yet I trusted all of them. So I’d trust LIL-E too.

I mean, they trusted me, right? Despite the fact that I was always getting them into dangerous situations. Not to mention I now had unstable memories in my head that were making me stab and blow things up I wasn’t intending to. If they could keep following me, despite that, then I owed the same support and trust they were giving me.

And who knew, perhaps the pirates had been the worst of the danger we’d face on this trip and it would be all smooth sailing from here?

----------

“LIL-E, I’ve never been to the NCR, but is any part of it normally supposed to be on fire?”

My question was prompted by the sight of several plumes of black, oily smoke that curled up into the horizon, reminding me like blood spilling upwards. LIL-E’s reply was terse and filled with a rough tension. “No, it’s not. That’s the border fort, Lightbridge. It's the only safe crossing over the north Canterlot River. Something’s happened.”

“Keep an eye on it, I’ll go report to Bartholomew,” I said, feeling a tightening in my gut as my tension rose. I had no idea what to expect, but clearly something had gone wrong. The landscape had remained largely the same, with small rolling hills, mostly covered in short grass and the occasional copse of trees. But further to the south, where the smoke was, I could see the wide bending, blue band of a river flowing from northwest to southeast. There was a huge carpet of something thick and green further south and a bit west of the smoke plumes, an actual honest to spirits forest, and beyond that, like a small dark shadow, was the very distant shape of a lone mountain rising from a large chain of foothills.

As I made my way swiftly across the deck I noticed that there were a number of ponies who’d come up either to watch our approach to the NCR or just get some fresh air. One of them was the large, imperious looking mare Begonia, guildmistress of the Labor Guild, with Iron Wrought looking sullen at her side. She turned to me as I trotted across the deck hurriedly and said, “You there, colt, tell me what is going on this instant! Why is there smoke on the horizon?”

“Don’t know, going to tell the Captain right now,” I said in hasty reply.

“Not good enough. Surely you saw something?” the tall, broad mare said, all but getting in my way. I had to dance around her, and did my best to keep my irritation out of my voice.

“Look, er, ma’am, I don’t know what’s happened. All I see is smoke, same as you.”

Begonia snorted, “Then go along, report to the good Captain then. I’ll find somepony who actually knows something of value. Iron Wrought, to the bow!”

Iron Wrought grimaced, but hid the expression quickly behind a mask of simple obedience as he nodded and joined her in going to the bow of the ship. I continued on towards the aftcastle, but caught looks from Arcaidia and B.B as they filed in behind me, and we found Binge waiting for us at the top of the stairs to the aftcastle.

“Smelled the smoke,” said Binge, and Arcaidia glanced at the distant trails of black on the horizon.

“At least twenty miles distant. Take us an hour at least to get there. Too late to do much helping, except clean up mess,” she said, her face taking on a hard, steeling look to it.

By the time I got to the door of the wheelhouse it was already being thrown open by Spike, who all but bowled past us as he rushed out, eyes blazing with rage.

“Out of the damned way! BFD comin’ through!”

He nearly knocked me over, shocking strong for such a little guy, and ran right for the edge of the deck. I barely had time to blink at him before he threw on his magical amulet and jumped off the deck of the Sweet Candy like some kind of purple cannonball. There was a billowing swirl of green smoke and in seconds the tiny dragon became a full on adult again and with an air splitting roar spread his wings and banked hard to the south, swiftly pulling ahead of the Sweet Candy as he made a straight course for the pillars of smoke. He’d get there before we did, but probably not much before. As I watched the dragon go, I felt a distinct twinge of apprehension.

Turning to go into the wheelhouse I found Bartholomew standing at one of the side tables on a radio while directing one of his crew who was at the wheel, “Keep her steady on our current heading but bring us up to full speed. If there’s trouble I want us to be able to get past it, fast.”

“Aye aye, Captain,” said the crewpony, holding the wheel with one hoof while the unicorn used some magic to operate a lever next to the wheel, pushing it forward, and I felt the Sweet Candy gradually pull forward faster.

At my entry alongside my friends Bartholomew looked to us and said, “Already spotted the smoke. We got radio contact with Lightbridge just minutes ago.”

“Any idea what’s going on?” I asked tentatively, jerking my head in a pointed gesture behind me, “I just saw the dragon take off like he was ready to murder somepony.”

“More like some[i[thing,” Bartholomew said, holding up a talon to point at the radio, “I just got off the horn with the fort’s surviving commanding officer. Seems like just a couple of hours ago they were attacked by something the survivors described as a ‘giant, red metal monster that shoots fucking fire’, to use the exact wording.”

I felt my breath quicken and my heart skip a beat, all in cold fear as my brain instantly put pieces together and came up with a highly unpleasant picture. I felt Arcaidia put a hoof on my shoulder and heard her whisper, “The Golem.”

“Yeah, sounds like it,” I said, trying to order my thoughts as I spoke up to Bartholomew, “Is the, uh, monster still there? Is the fort still being attacked?”

“No,” Bartholomew said and I felt a small easing of the fear that had risen in me, but not by much as the Captain went on, “It smashed through the fort, but far as the soldiers there could tell it wasn’t even interested in them and once it got through the defenses it just kept marching on, straight into the Everfree Forest.”

I exchanged looks with my friends. Both Binge and B.B looked as if they recognized the name, but Arcaidia just gave me a shrug. “What’s the Everfree Forest and why would it be going there?”

Bartholomew gave me a searching look, then a voice, fuzzy with popping static, spoke over the radio, “Captain Bartholomew, I just finished speaking with the commander of the Patriot and they’ll be en route within the hour to render assistance to us, and Spike the Dragon just landed outside. I think we’ll be okay here, so while we all appreciate the offer of you and your crew lending us some help, there isn’t anything you can do here. That thing has done its damage and moved on. Best you continue to Autumn Memorial Airfield and get that delegation to Manehattan. Goddesses watch over you.”

“You too, Major Tripwire,” Bartholomew replied and then set the radio speaker down and ran a talon over his crest feathers, “Bloody hells, this is a mess.”

Applegate suddenly appeared at the door, striding in quickly and with an air of quiet, calm command, “I just heard of the smoke spotted ahead. What’s the situation?”

She was looking both at me and Bartholomew, and the griffin gave a gesture at me to go ahead. “Uh, well, the NCR fort ahead of us got attacked by monster.” I hesitated a second, then decided not to bother hiding anything, “I have reason to think it's the same one that destroyed Saddlespring several weeks ago. A Golem.”

Applegate raised an eyebrow at me, “Golem?”

I waved a hoof haphazardly, “It's a name I heard. The thing is huge, made of metal, and is basically an ancient robotic killing machine. Bad news all around.”

“Okay, but what makes you think this Golem is the one responsible for this attack?”

“Well, the description fits, and the last anypony saw of that thing it was marching south into the desert, the very same one we just crossed. Stands to reason it might’ve kept on marching until it reached the NCR border.”

“That was weeks ago. Why would it not have reached the NCR border earlier than today?” Applegate asked.

“Don’t see that it much matters,” said B.B, frowning deeply with her wings flapping with agitated energy, “Maybe it just took its time strolin’ along, or coulda been some desert critters in the Bleach slowed it down? Who cares? It burned a fort an’ is now lose runnin’ around in the NCR! We gotta stop it!”

“According to the base commander it went into the Everfree Forest,” said Bartholomew with a heavy shrug, “That forest is denser than my third wife’s stew. If your Golem went in there, it won’t be easy to find it. Besides, that’s not our job. Let the NCR military and Spike deal with it. We’re heading onward to Manehattan.”

Applegate sighed, “Very well, still I need to report to Whiteheart. Perhaps the Drifter’s Guild can offer our help dealing with this Golem if the NCR makes the request. Longwalk, resume you and your team’s guard positions, just in case anything else happens.”

“Wait,” I said, stepping forward, “Look, I’ve seen what this Golem can do up close and way too personal. It survived a direct bombardment by some pretty heavy ordinance from an Odessa airship, and just walked off after torching an entire town of innocent ponies. It’s way more dangerous than pretty much anything else I’ve run into. Maybe if you just dropped me and my friends off here we could go help deal with-”

Applegate cut me off sharply, “Longwalk, remember your duty. You are a Drifter, and on contract to guard this delegation. If Whiteheart negotiates and agrees to us going to aid the NCR military in dealing with this threat, we shall do so without hesitation, but until then our task is to continue acting as guards for the guests of the NCR and watch over the talks. Understood?”

“I... But... yes, I understand,” I said, hanging my head.

“Good, then resume your posts.”

As my friends and I walked out of the wheelhouse to return to our guard positions I felt Arcaidia nudge me, her eyes soft with understanding, though her tone was reserved, “She right for more reasons than duty, ren solva. We not help much against Golem. It made to fight armies. We not an army. If it goes into forest, it must be have reason. Leave be trouble we don’t need.”

“She’s got a’ point, Long,” said B.B, grimacing, “I’d like ta scrap that monster somethin’ fierce, git some payback fer Saddlespring, but I also remember that last time all we could do was make a’ run fer it. Ain’t sure we got the firepower ta take it on.”

“I know,” I said, taking a deep breath, “Still, we let that thing out... so...”

My voice trailed off as we marched along the side of the deck and I saw that we were rapidly approaching the remains of fort Lightbridge. I halted, looking at the devastation, and feeling my heart clench. There were murmurs now, as more and more ponies came up on deck to see what was happening, and it seemed word traveled from some of the crewponies because in short order I heard whispers about a ‘monster attack’ and a ‘Golem’.

I saw Crossfire and Shard coming to take a look as well, and I exchanged a meaningful look with Crossfire, who I didn’t doubt would’ve recognized the description of the Golem and realized the same as I did that this was the same monstrosity that we unleashed in Saddlespring. That was what made looking at the destruction passing below the Sweet Candy hit harder and more painfully than it normally would have. I knew that the Golem was walking the surface of the world because my friends and I had let it out.

Lightbridge had been an impressive fort. It clearly got its name from a wide metal bridge that had probably once been part of a pre-war highway across the shining expanse of the Canterlot River. The bridge had gone through seemingly many repairs over the years, and the NCR probably went well out of its way to maintain the wide highway with multiple cement pillars holding it up over the flowing river waters. The river itself was larger than any I’d ever imagined seeing, and had I not had the ocean in recent memory to compare it to it would’ve been the most water I ever could have grasped seeing at one time. I estimated it had to at least be five hundred paces across, but honestly that was just a spitball guess on my part.

Beyond the bridge the fort consisted of a thick wall of concrete and metal bracing surrounding a compound of nearly a dozen metal warehouses and shacks, with a single tall tower in the center from which several communication dishes speared upwards. The wall was smashed down, however, on the south side, and I could see that more than half of the buildings inside had been either crushed or burned into smoking piles of char, the source of the pillars of smoke. I could see ponies trotting around down there, but not nearly as many as there should have been in a fort that size, and the blackened husks littering the ground amid swaths of burned and blackened ground told me all I needed to know.

Roaring Metal, aka Diablo, one of the eight Golems forged by the Elw in ancient times, had smashed right through Lightbridge, torched or stomped anything that got in its way, and moved right on through the rest of the fort as if it’d been made out of sand. Aside from burned bodies I also saw several burning husks from what looked like vehicles, small autowagons that might’ve mounted weapons, and even what looked like a crashed Vertibuck. There were several craters in a haphazard pattern around the edge of the river and the fifty or so paces to the fort walls, where I could also see the steady tracks of what had to have been the Golem’s path. The soldiers at the fort had put up a fight, but I wasn’t seeing any evidence they’d even damaged the Golem, let alone slowed it down.

How many had died down there, I wondered?

“It's awful,” said a voice from nearby, and I saw Princess Purity had come up on deck and was looking at the damaged fort, eyes seeming to reflect the smoke with a downcast light. “Shouldn’t we go and help them?”

Beside her was the armor-clad Phalanx, who said, “There is little we could do to help, your Highness. Our place is elsewhere. Come, you do not need to look upon this.”

“Yes, I do,” Purity said with a hint of fierce conviction entering her otherwise soft tone, “I will not look away from suffering merely because it doesn’t affect my own people.”

“That isn’t what he said,” growled Crossfire suddenly, “He’s just trying to keep you from muddling your head with too much of this shit when you need it clear for negotiating an alliance for the Protectorate. As a damned princess you ought to know that it takes more than sympathy to make a difference.”

Purity looked at Crossfire with surprised eyes, and suddenly looked off balance. Phalanx turned to Crossfire and said with rough, sharp words, “I don’t recall asking your opinion, outsider, and I’ll not have you speak to her Highness in such a disrespectful manner!”

“No, Phalanx, it’s alright,” said Purity, holding up a hoof, and giving the devastated fort passing below us one last, sad look, “I shall follow your advice and return below, since it seems there is nothing we can do here. I merely... wish there was another option.”

After I got back to my guard post, with B.B, Binge, and Arcaidia splitting up to head back to their own positions, I caught LIL-E up on what we’d learned. By now I’d finally spotted Spike, who apparently after making sure there was nothing more to be done for the fort had flown on towards the distant forest, which I learned was what everyone was calling the Everfree Forest.

“Bartholomew doesn’t seem to think they’ll have an easy time finding the Golem in there,” I said as I watched the far off form of Spike circling over the edge of the forest, apparently searching for wherever the Golem had entered from.

“He’s right,” LIL-E said, “Everfree is massive, with trees tall enough to hide a dragon. You could fit a city in there and leave nopony the wiser for it. So if the Golem went inside, you’d probably never spot it from the air. You’d need to go in and track it on foot.”

“Will the NCR do that?”

“They just had one of their main border forts trashed like it’d gone through a hurricane from Tartarus. Yeah, they’ll send some serious firepower after it. Not sure if it’ll make a difference, but I can’t see the NCR, least of all President Grimfeathers, taking an incident like this laying down,” said LIL-E.

I sighed, “I wish we’d been able to stop that thing back in Saddlespring.”

“From what I saw of what was left of Saddlespring you’re lucky you got through that situation alive.”

“Still, if it's out there, wandering around in the NCR, it's only a matter of time before it causes more death,” I said, glancing at Gramzanber strapped to my side, “I can’t just ignore that.”

LIL-E was silent for a second, before saying, “Neither can I. Of course we are somewhat stuck doing what your new boss says, aren’t we? I bet you didn’t quite think ahead to that when you signed on with the Drifter’s Guild; that you’d have to follow orders.”

I hunched my shoulders, somehow wincing and smiling at the same time, “Granted I hadn’t really thought about it too hard. At the time I just figured we needed a way here to the NCR and that it could be helpful to have the resources of a Guild at our disposal. I mean, sure I figured we might need to do some jobs for them, but Crossfire sort of made it look like she picked her own jobs and did things her way. Guess I didn’t count on my first job being a big joint operation with somepony in charge over me...” I glanced back towards the wheelhouse where I could see Applegate conferring with Bartholomew, “Not that I mind Applegate being in charge, but, yeah, it kind of sucks suddenly not being able to do my own thing.”

“Otherwise you’d already be going after that Golem, wouldn't you?”

I looked inside myself, at my own fear, and felt that beyond that cold, sweaty feeling there was a stronger burning core that said I’d do everything I could to stop that thing from taking more lives. It was my responsibility, and more than that, it was right. I nodded solemnly, “Damn straight I would be. I understand why Arcaidia and B.B are hesitant. Shit, they were right there with me the last time, and we couldn’t even scratch that Golem. Running was all we could do. But we’re... we’re stronger now, I think. I’ve got a better understanding of my bond with Gramzanber, and I’m pretty sure Arcaidia’s magic has gotten better since then. We might be able to take it down.”

“And you feel like you owe it to all the ponies dead because of that thing, because you let it out in the first place.”

“Well... yeah, that too.”

“Longwalk, whatever ends up going down, keep it in perspective,” LIL-E said, “Stopping that Golem would be a good thing, but only if you’re doing it to save the people it might still hurt, not because you’re trying to make up for past fuck ups.”

A part of me, the better part I wanted to believe, knew she was right. Defending others should be my only motivation for throwing myself into the breach. It was impossible to deny there was still guilt lingering in me concerning the destruction of Saddlespring, so bluntly mirrored in the similar ruin I’d seen visited upon fort Lightbridge. But LIL-E knew what she was talking about. If I got too wrapped up in taking down that Golem out of a gnawing sense of guilt, then I’d likely end up making even more mistakes that’d get good folk killed. I couldn’t afford that kind of immature thinking. I had to swallow my guilt, keep focused on the good I could do when the opportunity arose, and do what needed doing because it’d save lives, not cleanse me of past mistakes.

“Thank’s, LIL-E. You’re right. I’ll keep my head on straight, and if the Golem shows up and we’ve got a chance to deal with it, we’ll do it, and for the right reasons.”

“Fucking skippy,” she said, “I’ll be right there beside you to kick that thing’s ugly ass, then.”

I gave her a thankful smile and offered up a hoof to bump, which seemed to confound the eyebot for a second until she recalled she did have a manipulator arm, which she extended to complete the bump. It helped lift my mood considerably. I still felt no shortage of regret that one of my earliest mistakes had shown up here and now and had caused pain and death. I knew also I wouldn’t let that regret chain me to obsession.

For now I had a mission to complete as a Drifter, and the NCR still awaited. I put thoughts of the Golem from my mind and looked ahead, letting the smoking remains of fort Lightbridge fall behind us. The wind picked up, managing to blow away the scent of smoke. I saw the distant form of Spike finish circling the edge of the Everfree and return, the huge dragon taking up an escort position a few hundred meters off the starboard side of the ship. The dragon’s form looked stiff with anger and tension and I could well imagine his frustration at not being able to find the Golem to vent his fury upon.

As we continued south I saw two shapes in the air fast coming in from the southwest, not coming at us, but instead angling towards Lightbridge. Soon they resolved into the shapes of airships, and I recognized the same general design of the Black Swan’s pirate vessel, but these Raptors were different. Instead of having cobbled together dirigible balloons holding them aloft these ships had boiling storm clouds flanking either side of their sleek, black hulls. Lightning forked and danced inside the clouds, and I could only guess at what kind of magical power was at work keeping the ships skybound and sailing. They moved rapidly past us, and as they went I saw a sigil painted, large upon their bows. It looked like an intertwined image of the sun and moon, twin half circles brought together by a blazing sword of golden light, all painted upon a square field of deep blue.

The flag of the NCR, no doubt. I liked it. Looking upon the image somehow filled me with an odd sense of hope and optimism. I silently wished the crews on those ships good luck in aiding their brethren at the fort, and their likely oncoming hunt for the Golem. I whispered a prayer to the Ancestor Spirits to watch over them in that task, and that wisdom would prevail in short order and the NCR would ask the Drifter’s Guild to help in that endeavor. Until then, my duty was elsewhere. Duty... strange, I’d never seriously considered the word and its meaning before. Responsibility and obligation to something beyond my own immediate impulses and desires. I could see how it could be a hard thing to follow, especially when the thing you owed duty to did not necessarily represent all of your own beliefs or wants.

I wondered if Glint or Sunset, or anypony or griffin in Odessa felt at odds with their duty. Clearly it must have been hard to help me at times, to bend duty to do what they felt was right. Harder still for common soldiers in Odessa to go against orders when they might have had no reason at all to think their superiors were in the wrong. It was hard enough to point my blade at Odessa troops, without also gaining a better understanding of the difficulties of those bound by duty. Still, a worry for another day. There was a lot between me and my future rescue attempt of my tribe. No reason to burden myself with worries of the future when I had enough staring me in the face. Still, I found myself hoping they were well, the ponies I knew in Odessa, just as much as I hoped my family and tribe were well. If only there was some way to get through to Odessa that we were on the same side, come the end. That we both wanted to protect this world from the alien threat.

My thoughts wandered, but only until something new drew my attention. The Sweet Candy had skirted around the eastern edge of the vast Everfree Forest, and I finally saw to the east that the ocean had rolled in, forming a wide, curving bay. In the land between the forest and that distant bay I saw something I hadn’t imagined; farms. At least, I had to assume that’s what the ordered, square fields were. The fields seemed to consist largely of some kind of tall, waving golden grass, that rolled like waves of water under the warm winds. Occasionally there were other fields, some with small greenish sprouts, others more like orchards of small trees bearing glittering red fruit. Spaced about among the fields were small clusters of buildings, new looking buildings, made from actual painted wood instead of cobbled together bits of the old world. As the Sweet Candy passed overhead I could see its shadow running along the fields, and that there were ponies down in those fields, working the land. Many of them looked up at our passage, and to my surprise many waved happily. Even with the drizzly, wet weather the sight lifted my mood.

“Spirits,” I breathed, “Its like they’re not afraid of anything.”

“There hasn’t been any serious danger in the NCR’s land for well over a decade,” said LIL-E, “There are some young ponies down there who have grown up never once knowing the sound of gunfire or the fear of prowling Wasteland creatures. This is what peace looks like, Longwalk.”

It was incredible, heartwarming, and nothing short of amazing... yet it left a question burning in my mind. “Why isn’t the area around Skull City like this? What makes the NCR so different? How did this peace come about here, but not anywhere else?”

“That is a long story. Short version is that this was a Wasteland like any other part of the world, until a lot of folk bled to make it otherwise. Some will say there was one hero who did most of it, but the truth is that she was just a... spark. A catalyst. Without a lot of others doing their part, that one spark wouldn’t have gotten far. There’s also the fact that someponies long ago built something that could use our world’s greatest magical artifacts to cleanse the land. Without that the NCR would still be barren Wasteland, but now things can grow, and because of something else built long ago the weather is under control and can be used to aid in keeping the land healthy. Still, it took... a lot of bloodshed to get things this way. And it isn’t enough to really share with the rest of the world.”

“Why not?” I asked, starring at the fields, “There looks like there’s so much food down there.”

“And its enough to feed the NCR’s current population, and not much more,” LIL-E replied, “That border fort we just saw wasn’t there for no reason, Longwalk. The NCR closed down its border a ways back to stop the flow of folk moving in from places like Skull City. There’s just not enough food to cover so many extra bodies. Lightbridge has seen its own share of bloodshed just because there were ponies desperate enough to try to break through the border...”

“Shit,” I said, shaking my head, “I remember B.B telling me about that. The Red River incident, I think she called it.”

“Not a proud day for anypony,” LIL-E said, “It was never clear who fired first, the refugees trying to get in, or the border guards trying to do their job as best they could. Either way, once the first bullet was fired, shit snowballed quick. Lot of people who didn’t have to die, did. Remember that and be careful. Things are peaceful here, but the people of the NCR are still jumpy about outsiders, and you can get killed by a bullet in peaceful territory just as easily as out in the Wasteland.”

It was a good thing to remember and I gave her a grim nod as the ship continued southward, then began to gently curve into a southwestern course; the same direction the two NCR Raptors had come from. By now the mountain I’d seen before had gotten closer, and much larger. It seemed to spear upwards into the sky like a lonesome sentinel, its peak vanishing into the rain laden clouds. There were a few smaller peaks amid the hills around it, but largely the lone mountain stood apart, like a cloud wreathed sword of stone. I squinted in curiosity as I noticed that on the southern slope of the mountain there was an odd formation, like a large pile of broken stone, only some of the stones were colorful; swaths of purple and gold, some of it shaped into what might have been spires.

“What is that?” I asked, and LIL-E took several long seconds to answer.

“What’s left of Canterlot, the former capital of Equestria. It wasn’t exactly a hospitable place, being covered in a deadly necromantic cloud of magic, but now its rubble because the Enclave blew it to pieces in the opening moves of their attempt to ‘pacify’ the Wasteland.”

“Enclave, right, the military pegasi and basically the big cousins to Odessa.”

“Sort of. Your Odessa is a lot smaller, but I’d say a bit more versatile than the Enclave military. Those Raptors we saw are re-purposed Enclave ships. Most the pegasi are equal citizens of the NCR, but even after eighteen years there’s some prejudice against them for keeping the sky covered for two centuries.”

The Sweet Candy moved past the Everfree Forest, and I spotted a number of what looked to be small settlements scattered around a wide expanse of relatively flat land, with actual roads winding between them. I could see the small moving forms of actual wagons on the roads. Then as I looked east towards the bay, I saw something that looked almost depressingly familiar amid the relatively new scenery of the NCR.

Old ruins. The Sweet Candy was turning towards them, and as we closed I saw these ruins were very much like those surrounding Skull City. The remains of ancient buildings, largely empty and reduced to rubble, stretching for miles. Yet despite the surface similarity to the miles of ruins outside Skull City I began to note a distinct air of difference as the Sweet Candy drew closer. In the Skull City Wasteland it was almost as if those living there had embraced the deadly nature of their surroundings. The ruins there had been prowled by feral ghouls, lined by bones, even to the point where those living there had used the skulls of the dead as decoration.

Here, in these ruins, I saw rubble neatly cleared away, clear streets, and even among the burned out old buildings there were small gardens and planted trees, where ponies had clearly sought to cultivate new life from the remains of the old world. Amid the miles of the remains of vast suburbs there were pockets of settlement where ponies had set up tents, rebuilt walls and roofs, and formed into clear communities that worked together to support building something out of the materials they had at hoof. It gave the ruins a sense of life and regrowth. There were only a few places around the edges of the ruins, especially on the northern end, that looked untouched by rebuilding efforts, and even there those regions of the old city looked more still and quiet than carrying the hint of menace the ruins back around Skull City did.

And this was just the periphery ruins. As the Sweet Candy reached the edge of this vast city remains I saw that the ruins ran all the way up to the bay where a bridge led to a wide, long island where the real city had been. Like Skull City there were large towers and skyscrapers here, many of them torn or shattered about halfway up, but it was also clear the rebuilding efforts had been redoubled in this area and on both ends of the bridge, and inside the island itself, buildings had been built back up and streets cleaned of rubble. I could see ponies in the streets, and others flying between buildings, and the center of the city seemed to pulse with activity. This was the beating heart of the NCR, vibrant and alive, with the shining flag of the NCR fluttering from the roofs of many of the recently rebuilt structures.

“Manehattan,” LIL-E said, a hint of wistfulness in her otherwise mechanical monotone, “It's been a long time since I last saw it. They’ve repaired a lot more of it since I was here.”

‘Its beautiful,” I said, smiling.

“I don’t know if I’d go that far. Still a lot of broken, charred city out there.”

“That’s not what I meant,” I said, gesturing a hoof at the ruined suburbs leading up to the main city, “Look. There’s no wall. No gang ridden slum. Everypony down there is pulling their weight together. Its... I don’t know what else to call it but beautiful.”

“You’re kind of a sap, but I can’t say you’re wrong,” said LIL-E.

The Sweet Candy changed course once more, following the western edge of Manehattan’s suburbs, until we reached an area that consisted of many long strips of concrete next to what looked to be a huge wishbone shaped building that looked like it had undergone recent reconstruction. A tall concrete tower rose from the building, and I saw a few flashes of light, like some kind of signal, coming from the tower. Along the edges of the main building I saw a vast camp of tents and a few sheet metal shacks, with numerous ponies trotting around a number of parked vehicles I quickly recognized as Vertibucks, along with a number of smaller wagons that at first I thought were the normal land bound type until I saw a few pegasi hook up to leads on the front of one and take off with it.

Then there was the trio of parked Raptors sitting along one of the vast concrete strips, and I realized what I was looking at was an airfield.

My pulse increased with a sense of excitement as the Sweet Candy pulled around the airfield’s control tower and flew lower, making a final, slow circling pass before slowly lowering towards the landing strip closest to the main building. Crewponies scrambled around the deck and began to toss off landing lines to be tied down by waiting airfield crew that had come out to meet us. LIL-E and I joined the rest of our friends on the main deck, and Arcaidia rushed up to me, a bright, excited smile on her face and her eyes glittering at me.

“We made it, ren solva. We’re here!”

Yes, despite everything that had happened, all the detours and obstacles, we’d made it. I pulled Arcaidia into a tight hug, which she returned twofold, and I found myself laughing, for the simple happiness of seeing Arcaidia smiling. It felt good to finally made at least partial good on the debt I owed her and to get her such a long step closer to finding her sister. I had no idea what kind of challenges were about to await us here in the NCR. Political intrigue abounded. There was a homicidal flame Golem lurking, no doubt to cause all manner of mayhem. And there was the looming threat of the Hyadean aliens, plotting who knew what dangers? Not to mention the lingering threat of Odessa, who I had every reason to think was still hunting for us.

But we were here, in the NCR at last. Could you blame me for wanting to, just for a moment, feel like things were going our way?

...Yeah, I suppose it was a forlorn hope, but I had no idea what was coming.

None of us did.

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Footnote: Level up!

Perk Added - Bipedal Battler: You’ve trained yourself to fight while standing on your hind legs, using your forelimbs to wield melee weapons. While this reduces your movement speed by 20% it increases your chance to evade attacks by the same amount, while also allowing you greater strength in dealing blows, granting a temporary +5 to melee damage while using this stance. Also you look weird. Ponies weren’t anatomically designed for this. What are you going to want next, hands?

Author's Note:

And here we are in the NCR at last. Hard to believe its been so long since the story started, and I'd had the arrival here as a major story goal from nearly the beginning. Of course its not going to be a relaxing trip for our protagonists, as all sorts of trouble is waiting in the wings for them, but that's what makes it a story, right? As you might have noticed, the cameos also begin here. Kind of part and parcel with the characters being in the NCR now, we'll see some familiar faces from the original Fallout Equestria cropping up. Here's hoping I can do them justice.

As always my sincerest thanks to Doomande and Referee (aka the other sans) for helping out with pre-reading. And thanks to everyone who continues to read along as I write this foray into the world KKat created. I appreciate the time you guys take to check out this silly words I type. As usual I welcome any and all comments, questions, or critiques you folks might have for me. 'Till next time.

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