• 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 3: Scenery Called 'Everyday'

It was late morning by the time I felt comfortable enough to let myself and Arcaidia rest for a bit. We’d covered quite a distance in the hours we’d been running, though granted ‘running’ was a loose term more synonymous to ‘haggard trotting’ in my case. I really needed to work on my endurance. We’d followed the rough course of the stream for a time, until I realized that the stream had become little more than a muddy trail through the bleak desert. At that point I just picked a direction vaguely leading towards the west.

I didn’t have an immediate destination in mind. I knew Arcaidia’s Pip-Buck marker was quite a distance to the south west, but for now I just wanted to put distance between us and the village. I wasn’t entirely convinced my mother and Trailblaze would be able to keep Hard Tact from sending hunters after us.

We sat for a moment on the baked rocky ground, catching our breath. Arcaidia had removed one of the silver metal flasks from her saddlebags and was drinking from it, though the liquid didn’t look like water from what I could see, but rather was some kind of tinged blue substance. I shook my head, not feeling like questioning this filly’s odd habits when it came to food and drink. I did follow her example though and sat down Gramzanber long enough to pull out one of the water skins from my own saddlebags and upended some of the life-giving water into my parched throat.

Knowing I’d need to ration the precious substance out here in the wastes I didn’t drink too much and put the waterskin away. I looked east towards the valley where my village resided, the valley little more than a faint outline in the distance, looking small next to the rise of mountains further east and a little to the north. To the west was little more than a long flat plain of barren dirt dotted with small outcroppings of rock and yellow bristly bushes…but I could tell the land slopped a little to the west and that there was a rise of hills to the north west. There was also a faint glimmer of something just a little south of those hills. I couldn’t make it out at this distance, but it seemed as good a location to aim for as any for now.

My mother had told me that, back when she and Hawker had traveled away from the village with my father, that there had been a settlement out in these parts. Saddlespring. Maybe if I got on top of those hills to the west I’d get a good enough view to spot it?

It was hard to keep thoughts of my mother and Trailblaze from filling my mind as I grabbed up Gramzanber again and with a look to Arcaidia canted my head towards the distant hills. As we got going again, this time at an easier pace, I kept my eyes focused on the hills and tried not to think. That didn’t last long. I kept worrying about what might have happened. I didn’t think the Chieftain would go so far as to hurt my mother or Trailblaze, but then I hadn’t thought she’d go so far as to try and kill Arcaidia. Why had Hard Tack decided to go so far? Had she be intending to do it from the start and had just lied to my face when she’d said Arcaidia could go? Or had something happened that day that had changed her mind? Chances were I wouldn’t ever find out. Assuming I managed to get back to the village some day and was welcome back I somehow doubted I’d get any answers if I asked the Chieftain.

Other thoughts also bounced around in my mind like hyperactive geckos. I was still trying to come to grips with all I’d heard about my father and wondering about all the missing parts of the story my mother hadn’t had time to tell me. Was he even still alive? My mother hadn’t seemed to know. Why had his people, this Odessa, been so interested in our valley anyway? Did I have to worry about my father’s tribe coming after Arcaidia? Hawker had at least sounded like he’d considered Odessa a serious threat, even though I’d never even heard of them until yesterday. I occasionally glanced up at the brooding cloud covered sky as if expecting to see a bunch of pegasi suddenly wheeling down upon us, but the sky remained empty.

Without the adrenaline of our flight from the village coursing through me I was left now with a growing dull exhaustion filling my limbs. Yet despite that and the heavy thoughts I was having I couldn’t deny that my steps were light and I was feeling a growing energy in me the further me and Arcaidia walked.

Whatever the circumstances of it all, I was now out in the world, free to explore to my heart’s content. Well, not entirely, I had to get Arcaidia to where she was going. But I was sure she wouldn’t mind me taking a few detours here and there if we found something interesting to check out. Probably. Maybe if I asked nicely…?

Admittedly it just felt good, having all this open space stretching out around me. Tired as I was the sight was uplifting, if you could get over the overall emptiness of it all. I hadn’t seen any sign of another living creature and it wasn’t hard to imagine that me and Arcaidia were the only two ponies for miles.

Arcaidia for her part wasn’t being all that chatty. In fact she still had a determined and serious look on her young features, every now and then looking behind us and checking her Pip-Buck’s screen. I wondered if she was using that Eyes Forward Something to watch for danger. How did that even work anyway? My mother had seemed to think it gave Arcaidia some kind of sixth sense. How did a piece of metal around your leg do that?

After maybe little over an hour of walking I heard something. The hills had loomed closer ahead and I could now tell that glimmer I saw was light bouncing off some kind of metallic object standing over what appeared to be an oddly flat bridge looking structure that spanned between two of the lower hills. The sound I heard was a weird popping noise, mixed with sharper echoing cracks that reminded me of the few times I’d heard thunder. What was making them? There were a lot of the softer popping sounds and they were getting louder the closer me and Arcaidia got to the hills.

“Hmph,” Arcaidia blew out a huff of air as her ears twitched and put a hoof out to halt me, “Esru vi elrei ren tevian.”

I stopped as she raised her Pip-Buck in front of her as she used her horn’s magic to levitate out an object from her saddlebags; the small, thin rectangular object. I watched with interest as she floated the small rectangle to her Pip-Buck and inserted it into the device via a tiny slot beneath the screen. Then her horn began to glow with a brighter shade of blue and her eyes narrowed with concentration.

I wanted to ask what she was doing but 1) She wouldn’t understand, 2) Even if she did I couldn’t understand her answer, and 3) I was guessing interrupting a unicorn while she’s trying to cast her crazy horn-magic would be hazardous to my health.

I watched as Arcaidia’s horn grew an overlay of additional blue glow and then in the air around the tip of the horn a circle of light began to form. Within that circle dozens upon dozens of intricate symbols took shape, crossing over and through one another until there was an entire circle shaped crest woven with a dense pattern of symbols around her horn. Then in an instant the crest collapsed into the horn and there was a brief flash of light and I felt a pressure on me and a ringing in my ears. I saw a faint distortion, barely visible, blast out from around Arcaidia and into the air.

Arcaidia cracked the tension from her neck and smiled in satisfaction as she looked at her Pip-Buck, then showed it to me.

She’d toggled to the map and I noticed that where before there had been nothing but black around us save for the path we’d taken from the village there was now a wide circle of space around our location that was now filled in. Filled in with detail. I could even make out the hills less than half a mile east of us now, and the strange snake-like winding line that crossed through them. The line had a marking on it ‘Highway 89’. The filled in map area also had another marking another few miles to the south and east, right on that line, marked ‘Saddlespring’.

I grinned. I was starting to like magic. As unnerving as it was the way it just seemed to be able to treat the rules of reality as mild suggestions magic certainly was convenient to have. Never mind how her Pip-Buck seemed to know how to properly label things; this was going to make exploring way easier. Still, that didn’t really help explain what all that popping and cracking noise was all about.

Arcaidia appeared to have more of a clue than I however as I watched her look off towards the sounds with a scrutinizing gaze. She apparently didn’t like whatever she was seeing because I saw her float out that tube looking device she had sheathed on her foreleg. I could only guess it was some kind of weapon from the way she’d shoved it in my face last night when I’d startled her awake, though I couldn’t see how. It wasn’t heavy looking enough to make a good bludgeon and honestly looked so fragile that it’d break after one or two good swings. The way she floated it next to her head with the longer tube end pointing out and the curving end the other way reminded me of the way I might point a spear if I could use wacky horn magic to float one. She was clearly pointing it…though what it could possibly do just by being pointed at somepony completely eluded me.

With a grim and determined look Arcaidia began trotting at a brisk pace towards the popping noises and with Gramzanber clenched tightly in my teeth, I followed.

In less than ten minutes we’d gotten close enough to the hills to see clearly what we were dealing with.

It baffled me as much as it frightened me.

A long stretch of smooth stone, cracked and fractured with weather and time, snaked along and between the hills, littered amongst it the rusted red ruins of what I could only guess were some form of ancient conveyance of various sizes. At one point this wide stone path, larger than any game trail I’d ever come across, made its way up one hill and across the span to the next formed a bridge, complete with old rusted metal railings. Over the mid-point of this bridge was a set of metal scaffolds that were holding up large rectangular plates, faded green and stained brown and red with rust, but even as faded as they were I could make out faint white lettering. Sings of an old world highway. This had to be part of the Highway 89 Arcaidia’s map revealing spell had shown!

What was the source of my confusion and fear was the battle taking place on this bridge.

Though me and Arcaidia were approaching from the east end of the bridge we could still get a pretty clear view of things. A half dozen armed and armored ponies were using the old rusted out wreckage of old world wagons as makeshift barricades, protectively surrounding a dozen more unarmed ponies all huddled together tightly in a mass. The armed ponies were wielding various metal tubes, some mounted in wood, others just completely metal…and apparently it was these strange weapons that were making all the noise. Small ones would make loud popping noises rapidly and I could see small metal casings of something flying out of slides in the metal as they fired. The larger weapons with their metal tubes mounted in wood stocks made much larger cracking sounds that echoed across the hills. The six ponies firing mostly just gripped their weapons in their mouths but I saw one weapon that was floating in mid-air amid a blood red glow.

This weapon was massive, easily twice the size of the other ‘longarms’ as I was mentally labeling them. More distinctive than that, this one had a huge blade attached to its firing end. The pony wielding this weapon was obviously a unicorn, her black horn surrounded by a red luminescence identical to the one around her weapon. Her black coat was partially covered by a crimson leather jacket and I saw her mane was a startling bright and icy shade of blue, much lighter than my own, tied back in a tail. This unicorn was in the center of things, bellowing orders to the other fighting ponies in a harsh and uncompromising tone between deafening shots fired from her weapon.

“Get your ass to the west side Gutter! Tint, back him up, now! Don’t let none of these freaks through to harm the merchandise!”

The ‘freaks’ in question were creatures unlike any I’d have conjured up in my most unpleasant nightmares, even worse than the things I’d seen the one time I’d fallen for one of my tribemate’s pranks and eaten some Dreamcap mushrooms.

They looked like floating crimson and orange balls of flesh, shaped like a mass if undulating pony faces. The faces contracted and expanded as they screamed shrilly with mouths filled with over sized teeth. The screams issuing from their many mouths pierced right into me with a feeling of utter wrongness. These floating nightmares were fundamentally wrong on every natural level that I understood things. For a moment I was too stunned, just standing there with my spear loosely hanging in my jaw to think, to actually notice just how many of the things there were.

There had to be somewhere near two dozen boxing in the ponies on the bridge, floating in and biting at the defenders. I watched as one bright green earth pony stallion fired three or four shots into one of the floating horrors, causing it to shudder and erratically squirm in the air as brackish orange blood spurted out of it in streams and the creature deflated into a little more than a wet flap of dead skin, only for another two of the monsters to float in and begin tearing into the earth pony’s hide with their many mouths. Now shrill pony cries joined the unearthly shrieks of the monsters.

Arcaidia was the one who snapped me out of my fear induced stupor by flicking my face with her tail and giving me a hard look before she pointed her tube looking weapon, which I now noticed bore a faint resemblance to the weapons the ponies on the bridge were using, and fired.

A brilliant silver streak of light flew from the tip of her weapon like a bolt of lightning and struck one of the monsters. It shuddered and didn’t even have time to shriek before it’s from turned black and in seconds evaporated into charred ash.

Arcaidia didn’t stop there, immediately firing upon another creature while advancing at a gallop, her horn already forming a magical crest around it that flashed into a cone shaped burst of ice that caught two more of the floating monstrosities in its area, causing them to shrivel and shatter into gory chunks.

Galvanized by her actions I managed to shove down the fear that had taken hold of my mind and focused. It didn’t matter what these things were, they were dangerous and hurting ponies! Don’t let their completely crime-against-nature existence stop you from doing your part Longwalk, get in there! Teeth clenched I charged in, heart hammering in my chest like it was trying to escape my rib cage.

I aimed for the fallen green earth pony stallion, who was still kicking and thrashing as the two monsters gnawed on him, one on his hind legs, another on his back. I wove through the rusted wreaks of wagons and vaulted over some kind of small metal mesh cart and with a thrust of my head aimed Gramzanber at the monster on the stallion’s back. The weapon was still cool to the touch in my mouth and despite my frayed nerves there was still that calming feel of rightness to the weapon’s grip.

I didn’t strike solid in the center mass like I’d aimed for but did manage to spear a gash across the monster’s side, slicing open one of its many faces in a burst of orange blood. Oh dear sweet ancestors the smell! How could anything smell so wrong!? It was a sour and tangy odor mixed in with a hard sulfuric scent that burned both eyes and nose just to be this close to it. The monster screamed and this close the sound shook my eardrums and vibrated in my bones. Suddenly it was off the stallion and on me, its many faces spinning around and taking turns biting at me as I scrambled back away from it.

Planting my back hooves firmly I reared up and thrust Gramzanber down at the thing as it floated right at my face. The broad silver spear punctured the thing clean through this time and I found myself getting sprayed by the nasty smelling orange blood. Even as the thing deflated and became little more than a thin strip of face shaped flesh I was retching onto the street adding my own sour smelling bile to the blood covering the ground and myself.

I loud cracking popping sound and I looked up to see the green earth pony had managed to get his own weapon around and plugged the monster that had been chewing on his leg. He got unsteadily to his feet, his own blood pouring from the thick bite marks on his leg and back, but he gave me an appreciative nod as he turned to begin firing on the other creatures.

Arcaidia had waded into the middle of the fray, no fear on her face but rather that frozen stone cold ‘kitten drowning’ look, eyes like glass as she turned her weapon this way and that, sending silver lines of death into the mass of monsters. She supplemented this with occasional blasts of ice every time a few of the beasts tried to converge on her with screaming faces and snapping teeth. I felt amazement and not a little nervousness seeing her stride into these things like a veteran hunter killing baby geckos.

Perhaps Hard Tack’s fear of Arcaidia hadn’t been all that crazy? If she suspected this was what Arcaidia could do it was little wonder the Chieftain had wanted to ambush her in the night rather than face her in an open fight during the day. The whole tribe might have been wiped out if Arcaidia had been made an enemy. It didn’t’ justify Hard Tack’s actions but I was starting to understand it.

Snapping myself out of the musing I rushed to join her. Just by herself she’d made quite the dent in the force of monsters attacking from the bridge’s east side, but I could still hear the sounds of the pony weapon’s firing on the other side of the bridge, alongside the very loud thunderous boom of the large weapon the black unicorn mare in charge was using.

So intent was I on getting to Arcaidia’s side that I didn’t even see one of the monsters lurking beneath the lip of a broken hole in part of the bridge. It floated up with frightening speed and I turned to see twisted pony faces with their screeching mouths open wide to rip into my flesh. I didn’t have enough time to turn to bring Gramzanber’s over sized blade to bear to protect myself.

The thing’s teeth, blunt as they were, were still agonizing as they tore into my shoulder. The thing’s many faces snapped and wailed as they gnawed on me, my gecko hide barding only offering minimal protection from the surprising strength in their jaws. I managed to keep on my feet and tried to buck the thing off but it was latched on firmly and I screamed as I felt those sawing blunt teeth dig into my skin.

There was burst of orange blood right in my face as multiple holes appeared in the creature. It shuddered and with a wheezing sound it deflated, letting go of my and floating about randomly before slapping wetly to the ground.

“Dun wush un,” the green stallion said as he hobbled up next to me, his weapon’s barrel still smoking. I wasn’t sure why he had such trouble speaking clearly around the weapon he had in his mouth. Did he not know the right way to sound out words while his mouth was full? It was a basic skill all the hunters in my tribe learned early on; we needed to if we wanted to talk to each other on long hunts.

I watched curiously as he used his tongue to push something on the weapon and a metal slab fell out of one end of it, leaving a hole in the weapon. He then pulled a similar looking metal slab from a pocket on his leather barding and slapped it into the spot the other had been. I took note of the small rounded metal bits that seemed to be tucked into the slab, which I realized was hollow. Was that what the weapon was firing? What a weird weapon…though seeing the results I couldn’t deny the effectiveness.

Not sure what the stallion had said to me due to his mangled words I just shrugged and said with perfectly clarity around Gramzanber’s haft in my teeth, “Thanks for the save.”

I took brief stock of myself. The monster’s teeth had left bleeding red marks through my barding but thankfully the wounds weren’t deep. Hurt like hell but otherwise I think the golden geckos had done a worse number on me.

The stallion gave me an odd look as I turned to start running back into the fight. Arcaidia had leapt up upon one of the rusted hulks of wagon and was sending a concentrated blast of ice from her horn at a trio of the monsters that were rushing past another pony, a gray earth pony mare who was firing off loud blasts from a two-barreled weapon much larger than the one the green stallion had been using. The monsters looked like they were making for the cluster of terrified ponies the armed ponies were trying to protect.

I rushed towards Arcaidia, hoping to catch up to the monsters in time if Arcaidia’s spell failed to stop them. Her ice shards speared into the things and two of them popped in frozen chunks. The third which had been at the edge of Arcaidia’s spell made a sharp turn and floated up into the air, coming right at Arcaidia with a shrill chorus of screams issuing from its many mouths. I saw Arcaidia turn to face it with her horn flaring once more to cast a spell…but the glow of her horn suddenly fizzled and faded away. I once again saw the look of surprise on Arcaidia’s face as her magic failed her and saw the wobble of her legs as the strain of her failed casting caused her to stumble. The glow even faded from around her weapon, the device clattering to the ground.

The creature dove in at her and I galloped to intercept it, though it was clear I wouldn’t get close enough in time. So with little other choice and hoping the unbalanced looking spear would fly as true as it had the first time I’d used it I dug my hooves into the ground and used the momentum of my run to help my head fling Gramzanber with far more force than if I’d tried this standing still. To my surprise the over sized spear not only left my mouth with a light ease I felt in my mind a sense of acknowledgement; as if the spear sensed what I wanted and was practically leaping from me to strike at my target.

I saw the silver spear soar through the air and its serrated blade impaled the beast that had been less than a hoof length from burying its teeth into Arcaidia. The thing burst like an overfilled waterskin and washed a rain of orange foul smelling blood over the ground, and unfortunately, Arcaidia. I winced, hoping she wouldn’t mind the unpleasant shower. I mean, saving her ought to balance out that, right? From the way she snapped out of her fatigue and grimaced at the horrible smelling blood coating her, shaking her mane to try and get some of it off, and then glared at me, I think she considered the cost of helping her a little too high.

“Sorry,” I said with a grin I hopped was apologetic looking instead of amused.

As I went to retrieve Gramzanber from the corpse of the monster I noticed the sound of the fighting had died down quite a bit. There didn’t seem to be any monsters left on this side of the bridge and as I took up Gramzanber once more, after making sure to find a part of the half to grip that didn’t have any of the monster’s blood on it. I jumped up onto the top of the wreckage Arcaidia was on and we both looked over to the west side of the bridge.

When me and Arcaidia had arrived on the scene we’d taken enough pressure off the east end that the pony guards had rallied around their black unicorn mare leader and they had worked to devastating effect on the monsters pushing in from the west end of the bridge. The fight was all but wrapped up as me and Arcaidia watched, my unicorn companion chugging one of her potions of blue magic restoring liquid.

While the black unicorn mare was impressive, wielding her bladed longarm with equal lethality at range or close quarters, her allies weren’t without skill.

She wasn’t the only unicorn, for one, a beige unicorn stallion with a sharp blonde mane and a scar over his left eye was levitating numerous small pointed throwing knives around his body as he bobbed and wove through the monsters. The knives flew about in a dizzying pattern, doing little damage as individual attacks, but cutting so many dozens of wounds in the monsters that they quickly deflated in seeping piles under the unicorn’s assault.

Another pony, a massive brown earth pony stallion with a ragged black mane and beard who was wearing a dark leather wide brimmed hat moved among the monsters like a hulk, usually not even trying to dodge the things that tried to gnaw on him. With slow but heavy bucks this stallion would send one monster flying with a wet smack into some jagged wreckage while taking aim with a truly gigantic mouth held weapon with what looked like a revolving cylinder to store its ammo instead of the clips I’d seen earlier. With each massive boom of this weapon a monster popped.

If those two and their leader alone wouldn’t have been enough the other ponies, while less impressive and distinctive than them, were more than holding their own. Within another minute the last monster fell in a spray of orange blood as the black unicorn mare speared it with her weapon’s mounted blade and she then kicked the body off the bridge with a forehoof and spat after it.

“And good damned riddance! Goddess buck my butt with the sun and moon both I hate Balloons! Shard I thought you said this road was supposed to be clear!”

The blonde unicorn, whose knives were floating back into numerous sheathes across his simple white cloth barding, looked abashed.

“I’m sorry boss, the reports said it was when I last checked ‘em. Guess these Balloons nested here in the last week or so. Ain’t uncommon.”

“Tch! I know that, still a damned pain in the ass! Brickhouse, keep watch for any more coming while I check on the merchandise.”

“Sure thing boss!” the giant brown earth pony stallion said and cracked his neck, ignoring the various bite wounds all over his massive form as he took up a watchful position on top of the largest of the rusted out wagons.

As the black unicorn mare trotted over to the center of the bridge where the mass of frightened ponies she and her companions had been guarding she finally took note of me and Arcaidia standing on top of one of the wreaked wagons and gave us an appraising look.

“So you two are the ones that took the heat off our tails? I’ll give you a proper thank you in a sec, but business first.”

With that she turned to the group of ponies her companions had been protecting and in a harsh tone filled with authority barked out, “Alright stop cowering and line up! Now!”

As the ponies began to slowly obey and formed up into a line I blinked. I hadn’t really looked at them until now and was seeing details I’d simply missed during the fight. There were about two dozen ponies altogether, mares and stallions both, and were of various ages with the youngest being a little younger than me and Arcaidia while the oldest looked to be in their late forties. No elderly and none very young. None wore barding, but to a pony each one had a leather collar around their neck with a strange block shaped device attached to it…and around their hind hooves were metal shackles.

“What is this?” I asked with heavy apprehension.

“This must be your first encounter with slavers,” came a voice next to me and I turned to see the green earth pony stallion I’d saved and who had saved me standing nearby, looking at me sadly, “Take my advice buck, just go with the flow on this and don’t question it or Crossfire won’t hesitate to add you to the stock. I wouldn’t want to see that happen to you after you helped me out.”

Slavers? I didn’t quite understand the term and my brain tried to process the concept while seeing all of these ponies in collars and shackles being examined by the black unicorn mare like she was looking over a piece of meat she was about to cook. These ponies were being looked upon as property; being held captive against their will.

“Are they prisoners?”

“Pretty much,” the green stallion replied, frowning at me, “You’ve never even seen a slave before?”

“Never even heard the term until now. Did they do something wrong? This is…punishment?”

The green earth pony’s frown went from bafflement at me to, of all things, pity. He laughed, not a small amount of bitterness in his voice, “For some of them. For others they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Doesn’t matter now. Now, they’re property of the Skull City Labor Guild, to be sold to anypony with the caps for them.”

As his words and their meaning sunk in my mother’s words echoed in my mind.

‘Starvation and monsters will be the least of the dangers you’d face. At least those threats are obvious and have simple solutions. Worse than those are the ponies you’ll meet out there…’

“Is this, um, common?” I asked the green stallion, staring as the shackled ponies, the slaves, trying to keep my voice calm. I was feeling anything but calm. I must not have been doing a very good job at keeping my anger out of my tone because the green stallion lowered his own voice and fixed me with a nervous look.

“Common enough that you don’t want to do anything stupid, buck. You wouldn’t be the first to take issue with the slave trade in these parts. It ain’t going anywhere just because you disapprove.”

“But how does this even…why would anypony even think about doing this to other ponies?”

The green stallion merely shook his head and I noticed out of the corner of my eye that his cutie mark was a pair of manacles. There were ponies out here whose talent involved capturing and selling ponies!? How does one even discover that as their special talent when their young?

“Look, let’s start over for a moment,” the green stallion said, “My name’s Iron Wrought, you?”

“Um, Longwalk,” I was trying to reconcile this stallion’s apparently friendly demeanor with his profession and it wasn’t working.

“Alright, Longwalk, here’s the deal,” Iron Wrought said as the black unicorn mare finished checking the slaves, apparently satisfied that none of them were injured in the fight, and began trotting over to us, “You need to keep a lid on it for now. You don’t got much choice here, alright? Last thing you want to do is make an enemy of Crossfire or the Skull City Labor Guild.”

“Well ain’t you folks all chatty?” said the unicorn mare, Crossfire I was guessing, as she came up to us, her weapon still casually floating in its blood red glow by her side. She looked me over and I returned the favor.

Up close she was athletic and carried herself with a smooth grace that contrasted sharply with her rugged appearance. Her red leather jacket was faded and her black coat was dusty, but this just added to her presence of well traveled competence rather than made her look simply worn. Her mane was surprisingly well kept, though the light blue strands were unruly towards the ends of the tail she had it tied back in. This close I saw her eyes were a golden yellow in color. With all the subtlety I could muster, which probably wasn’t much, I glanced at her flank and noted her cutie mark. Was that a…vegetable of some kind? I didn’t recognize what it was but it was beige, round-ish, with a twisty bit on top, and looked layered. The cutie mark didn’t seem to fit her at all but who was I to question with my blank flank?

Our sizing up of each other lasted only a few moments before she cast a quick glance at Arcaidia, who’d been busy cleaning the monster gunk off of her with her horn’s telekinetic magic.

“So what’s a blank flanked tribal buck and a filly who looks like she belongs in some high class dinner party doing at the edge of civilized territory, jumping into a fight between hard working honest slavers and a nest of Balloons?”

I frowned. Those things were called Balloons? What kind of ridiculous name was that? Setting that aside the first part of what she had said bothered me.

“How do you know I’m from a tribe?”

The mare chuckled, “Buck you couldn’t be looking more tribal if you tied feathers into your mane and put on warpaint.”

I got the impression I ought to feel insulted by that but didn’t say anything as she looked over Gramzanber, eyeing it appreciatively.

“Nice spear you got there, don’t look like tribal make to me. What Ruin did you lift that from?”

“It was a gift from a friend,” I said simply, jumping down from the top of the wreckage I’d been standing on and setting Gramzanber against the rusted heap, wanting to talk to this mare without having to sound out my words around the haft. I really did need to work out some kind of harness to carry the awkwardly sized weapon in so I didn’t have to hold in my mouth all the time, “But to your question, we were just passing by and saw ponies in trouble. Helping was just the right thing to do.”

This earned a loud bark of a laugh from the mare, “Well ain’t you just the heroic type? Almost sad to see that ponies like you are still around. Don’t worry I’m sure the Wasteland will cure you of that heroic streak right quick; either by you getting smarter or getting deader. Never mind about the spear I suppose, I’m more surprised to see your friend their carrying a starblaster. Ain’t seen one of those in years.”

My eyes flicked over to Arcaidia’s weapon which she hadn’t put away. She was looking at the slaves I noticed, though her expression was hard to read. I couldn’t tell if she was angry about it like I was or…something else.

“Starblaster?” I asked, returning my attention to the black unicorn, “What is that?”

“Never you mind that. Just some weapon some ponyfolk think is from up there,” she pointed a hoof up at the sky, “Load of Brahmin shit if you ask me. Probably just some advanced magic energy gun the folks from the old Ministries cooked up towards the end of the war. Things sure do kill efficiently. Your friend’s lucky to have one. Now then, let’s get some intros in, so we can get back to business.”

She puffed out her chest a bit and pointed to herself, practically striking a pose that made me raise an eyebrow.

“Crossfire is the name. Number one gun of the Skull City Drifters Guild.”

“Okay…I’m Longwalk. My friend here is Arcaidia.”

“Arcadia Del Chevail Del Luminariaso Dol Graza Venti Veruni Halastra Mi Surta,” Arcaidia declared proudly when she realized I was introducing her.

Crossfire looked at her, then at me, then back to her, “So Arcaidia it is then.”

Arcaidia deflated dejectedly and kicked a piece of scrap metal off the wreaked wagon with a snort.

“So what were those things?” I asked, gesturing at one of the flap of skins that had once been one of the monsters.

“What these? Just Balloons,” Crossfire said with a disgusted look on her face, “Almost as bad a pest as raiders. Nopony knows what they really are, but most figure they’re some kind of mutated leftover from one of the old labs that got blasted when the balefire bombs hit. Me, I think they’re more likely something that got let loose from one of the Ruins. You only get the damned things in this area and you only get Ruins in this area too, so makes sense to me.”

“Ruins?”

“Look I don’t really feel like twenty questions. When we get to Saddlespring feel free to bug the locals with all the questions you want, but I got cargo to move, otherwise I don’t get paid. And I hate not getting paid. Thanks for the assist in any case. Now then…”

She turned her attention to Iron Wrought, her eyes gazing at his wounds.

“Look kind of shredded there Iron. Can you keep up?” there was a hard and cold quality to her voice that suddenly set my mane standing on end as she slowly and subtlety moved the barrel of her weapon towards the green stallion.

Iron Wrought swallowed loudly and said quickly, “Yes. I’ll keep up. No slowing you down Crossfire, you have my word.”

The coldness abruptly left Crossfire’s voice as she smiled and said cheerfully, “Excellent! Get going and scout the road ahead then. Not much further to Saddlespring but I don’t want any more nasty surprises between here and there, understand?”

“Yes ma’am,” Iron Wrought said and gave me one last look before he quickly hobbled away across the bridge going west, forcing himself to move quickly despite the clear pain he was in.

“We’ll go with him,” I said as I moved quickly to follow the green stallion, grabbing up Gramzanber in my teeth and gesturing for Arcaidia to follow. She did so after taking a moment to sheath her ‘starblaster’ in its fore leg holster.

“Suit yourself,” Crossfire said over her shoulder as she trotted back towards her slaves and gathered slaver ponies, “Alright bucks and fillies, we’re moving out. Tint, Shard, you got rear guard. Gutter you get on the left of the cargo, Brickhouse you got the right. Let’s get them moving, there’s caps to be made!”

I didn’t like this. Just being chatty at all with the slaver boss was making me feel not just uncomfortable but…wrong. I caught a look at one of the slave ponies over my shoulder as I looked back. She was an earth pony mare with a white coat that was stained brown with grim, a ragged black mane covering one of her brown eyes. Her other eye caught my look and saw the plea there; the moment of desperation as the young mare probably not much older than me seemed to be calling out for help, hoping that since I wasn’t one of her captors I might do something.

I also saw the resigned and pained loss of hope on her face as she looked down and started moving with the other slaves under the direction of her captors when it was clear I wasn’t about to come to the rescue.

Shame and confusion warred inside me as I trotted as fast as I could without breaking into an outright gallop after Iron Wrought, Arcaidia keeping pace at my side.

I wanted to help those slaves; I couldn’t deny that. I didn’t want to just leave them in the capture of these ponies who were going to sell them like pieces of meat to be used for who knew what kind of labor.

I also knew that if me and Arcaidia tried to take on these salvers there was a good chance either of us or both might get killed. Arcaidia was powerful enough that she could probably get half of them before being taken down…and me, I was only just starting to learn how to handle myself in a real fight. Against those strange weapons most these slavers used I’d probably get dropped pretty quick.

…which meant if I did want to free the slaves I’d need a plan; one that didn’t involve just trying to take on the whole slaver crew at once.

To figure that out I needed time to think.

At least for now Crossfire didn’t seem to see me and Arcaidia as much of a threat and was grateful enough for our help that she didn’t mind us tagging along to this Saddlespring place. Maybe by the time we got there I’d have figured something out. It also would give me time to talk more with Iron Wrought. He seemed like the friendliest of the bunch, though that might just have to do with the fact that I’d saved his flank in the fight. Whatever the reason I could probably get more information out of him than I could any of the others.

It was painfully clear my ignorance of this wasteland was something I needed to rectify, fast.

----------

Saddlespring was an impressive settlement, though honestly I wasn’t sure what I’d been expecting exactly given that my only frame of reference was Shady Stream.

The town consisted of nearly a score of sturdy looking buildings made from looked like a combination of worked stone and salvaged metal scraps from old world structures and vehicles. Surrounding the town was a wall forged from welded debris and piles of stone situated around the partially intact walls of what was probably once larger buildings from before the Great Fire that scorched most of them to the ground. I could see a sizable gate forged of rusted metal and bracketed by tall towers from where pony’s armed with more of those long barreled weapons that I now knew to be called ‘guns’ stood watch.

Iron Wrought had been proven to be an incredibly useful source of information for the hours we’d trekked ahead of the slaver caravan. Well, he had after I’d gotten Arcaidia to use some of her nifty telekinetic magic to clean off the Balloon gunk that had covered me and made me smell less than stellar. He’d seemed anxious about answering too many questions at first but after I’d convinced Arcaidia via the power of pantomime to heal the green stallion’s injuries he’d opened upon considerably and for the duration of the journey to Saddlespring had been bringing me up to speed on all manner of Wasteland lore.

Yes, apparently it was Wasteland with a capitol W now.

Specifically this region was part of the Skull City Wastes, a territory comprising of the city formerly known as Detrot and the surrounding settlements, apparently a couple hundred square miles of happily irradiated Wasteland chalk full of suburban ruins, blasted desert, and monster infested hills. When I asked why it was called Skull City now instead of Detrot Iron Wrought just told me I’d understand if I ever went there.

Skull City itself was somewhere north of here, amid the shattered remains of countless suburbs and outlying farming communities that had once dotted the countryside. The Guilds of the city controlled, or at least had some stake in, most of the small settlements that had managed to stay alive in the area and there were few ponies that didn’t pay some manner of tribute to one of the Guilds if they weren’t full on affiliated members. When I tried to press on just how many Guilds there were Iron Wrought just said, “A lot” and left it at that.

He hadn’t said much about the rest of the world, but gave me a general idea that things were essentially like this almost everywhere; dark, ruined, and filled with things that would be glad to eat me or wear my skull as a hat, probably both. Almost everywhere. He spoke with a great deal of bitterness about the “NCR pooftas” to the southwest who had the “easy life’.

Apparently some time ago, Iron Wrought wasn’t specific as to just how long, there was a region around the Equestrian heartland that had been made more livable. Iron Wrought was vague on the details, but I got the gist of it; there was a war between a slaver empire, a whole mess of pegasi called the Enclave, and a band of freedom fighters headed up by some legendary mare most people knew as the Lightbringer. War ended with the slaver empire shattered, the Enclave decimated, and a lot of the Wasteland between the cities of Manehattan and Canterlot free to develop into country claiming to be the New Canterlot Republic. Apparently it helped that through methods still not known to those outside the NCR the land itself had been cleansed of something called ‘radiation’ and made fertile for growing crops, on top of this Lightbringer character ending up with some kind of direct control over the land’s weather patterns.

Basically it’d made the NCR the most livable and prosperous land in the known world for the past decade or so.
Only problem was that while the heartland of Equestria was fixed a lot of the rest of the world was still a screwed up Wasteland and the NRC wasn’t keen on letting the multitudes still living outside their boarders into the country. Apparently they weren’t that prosperous and were having issues with keeping their own population fed, even with the land being fertile again.

Iron Wrought wouldn’t give me more details when I pressed. I got the impression from the way he narrowed his eyes at me that it was a sore subject and that I shouldn’t bring it up around any of the locals in the Skull City Wastes.

I was fine with that. It was just if judging by what I’d seen on Arcaidia’s Pip-Buck this Persephone pony she was supposed to find was probably located somewhere down in NCR territory. I’d need to know about them eventually since I’d heading that way, but I let that subject drop for now.

Not like there weren’t plenty of other things I had to ask him.

He got me educated quickly on the subject of guns, since they seemed to be the ubiquitous weapon type just about anypony with half a brain used in the Wasteland. They were everywhere and they were damned good at what they did, which was put holes in things. The bigger the gun, the bigger the hole. Barrel end got pointed at thing you want hole to go into, pull trigger with your tongue if an earth pony or pegasus, with magic if a unicorn, simple as pie.

I didn’t know what pie was or how it was simple but I was taking Iron Wrought’s word at this.

After seeing them in action I gathered I wanted to avoid getting shot by one in any case. I doubted I’d be trying to use a gun any time soon. I didn’t have nifty unicorn magic to float one about and those mouth grips looked like they’d make aiming awkward.

Granted I had no room to talk about awkward weapons given my spear with the stupid-big blade, but so far it’d been doing good by me. Still, learning how to take cover was going to be going to the top of my priority list pretty soon, especially since I was still heavily contemplating how to free all those slaves. Which would make a lot of ponies angry who all had guns.

Weapon talk aside Iron Wrought had also filled me in on another thing that’d been tickling at my brain.

“What the hay is a Drifter? Crossfire called herself a member of the Drifters Guild.”

Iron Wrought sighed and I could almost hear him thinking ‘ignorant tribal’ as he explained, “They’re one of those Guilds that run Skull City. The Drifter’s Guild hire out its members for just about any task a petitioner needs done and has a way to pay for. Mercenaries basically. Just with a higher pedigree because Drifter’s got a rep for only taking the best into their Guild…”

He gave a small frown as he looked back at the slaver caravan, a hundred or so yards behind us, “Not cheap to hire them either. And Crossfire’s team is one of their top rankers. Not number one like she boasts; but still in the top tier.”

“You sound like that confuses you?” I asked, more than a little confused myself, but then this was a lot of information I was getting shoved at my brainpan all at once and I was having a hard time keeping it all straight.

“Yeah it does. It’d cost a lot of caps to hire Crossfire and her team to help guard this caravan. I just don’t know why the Labor Guild would put up that kind of money for what’s basically a pretty mild, low-danger meat run.”

“Low danger? You call getting swarmed by a bunch of freaky many-faced screaming flying monsters low-danger!?”

“Balloons weren’t supposed to be there, and weren’t last time our scouts ran a check through the route. That’s just a fluke I’m guessing. Honestly we probably would’ve made it even without you and your ice machine coming to the rescue.”

“Ice machine?”

Iron Wrought jutted a chin at Arcaidia, who was busy ignoring our conversation and looking incredible bored as she alternated between staring out across the Wasteland and watching the screen of her Pip-Buck, for what I couldn’t begin to guess.

“Anyway,” Iron Wrought went on “Balloons are nasty, but are probably one of the least threatening things you’ll run into out here. Pop like, well, Balloons, with just one good shot. A raider pack is more dangerous, especially if it’s from the Hounds or the Bursters…bastards got their hooves on some heavy ordinance, but they usually keep to their usual haunts north of Skull City. Which brings me to my point; there’s no reason to bring in a heavy hitter like Crossfire for a route like this. Don’t make any sense.”

It was well over my head too, and honestly I had no real desire to think too much on the reasons these Guilds did anything. I liked the sound of them less and less the more I heard. Still I was curious about one point.

“So Crossfire isn’t with you slavers, she’s just been hired to escort you?”

I noticed the way Iron Wrought frowned at me and I realized that the word ‘slaver’ had left my mouth with a tone that made the word sound synonymous with ‘groin parasite’.

“No, she’s not with us slavers. She makes her caps by taking on any job she wants. Like maybe murdering a family that won’t leave their home because one of the Guilds wants the building for a new shop. Far cleaner and higher paying way to make a living than slaving, right?”

“Look Iron Wrought I didn’t mean that-“

“Yes, you did. Look I get it. To a lot of ponies slavers are scum. Outside of a few circles most ponies hate us, fear us, want to kill us, or all of the above. But I’d rather be hated and feared and have the caps to feed my family than be morally clean, but watch my son starve and my wife sell her body on the street to put one measly piece of hay on the table! Besides…” he glanced at his flank, specifically at his cutie mark, “It’s what I’m good at.”

“There’s no other way you can make caps? Like, seriously nothing else?” I asked and immediately regretted it from the mix of anger and shame on the slaver’s face.

“I don’t need to be lectured by a blank flanked buck who’s so damned ignorant he didn’t even know what a gun was until I told him! If I could make enough caps by doing something else I’d be doing it! I don’t…fuck why am I even talking to you about this? No more questions.”

After that Iron Wrought clammed up and I honestly didn’t try to pry further, mired in my own thoughts. We were just coming up on the gates of Saddlespring and I still hadn’t come up with anything resembling a plan of action concerning how I was going to go about freeing the slaves beyond ‘wait until nightfall then…do something’. I’ll admit the plan needed a little refining…okay, a lot of refining. I was working on it, but every time I got to the part that actually involved freeing the captured ponies my brain got tangled in a mass of problems I had no solutions for. How was I going to keep track of where Crossfire took the ponies once I was in town? How would I sneak past whatever guards would be keeping watch over them once night fell? What if they were locked inside a building I had no way of breaking into? How was I going to get those shackles and collars off of them and for that matter what was that weird block shaped thing on the collars anyway? What would I do if I got caught? Would Arcaidia be willing to help me with this? And finally, assuming I somehow got over all the previous problems and somehow freed all the slaves…where would I take them? What would stop Crossfire and her gang from just recapturing everypony?

Yeah so…I wasn’t all that confident of my chances and was in a complete mental lock when Arcaidia nudged me with her hip and I blinked, looking about.

“Huh?”

Arcaidia jutted her chin up and I looked. We were right in front of the gates to Saddlesrping, a impressive (to me) structure consisting of what appeared to be the hulls of several large metal wagons welded together but kept on heavy wheels so they could be rolled aside to allow entry. This ‘gate’ was flanked by two tall towers of piled concrete and worked sheet metal, and ponies stood atop both towers and on top of the wagon gate itself; all heavily armed. One of them, a dark purple stallion with a short yellow mane and wielding a unpleasantly large gun with multiple barrels arranged in a circular pattern attacked to some sort of saddle on his side, was looking right at me.

“You deaf?” he called down in a gravely and displeased voice, “I asked your name and purpose for being here!”

I glanced at Iron Wrought who shrugged and said in a low voice, “I already told them I’m with the Labor Guild and that we got a caravan coming in, but since you’re not with us they want to know why you’re here.”

“You could have just told them we were with you,” I whispered back. Iron Wrought gave me a cold look.

“Thought you wouldn’t want to be lumped together with a bunch of slavers,” he said plainly.

Well…crap, he had me there. I sighed and looked up at the guard who’d addressed me and saw him tapping a hoof impatiently, that oversized gun of his (seriously, what gun needs that many barrels?) still pointed at me.

“Me and my friend here,” I pointed a hoof at Arcaidia, “are just travelers looking for a place to rest, get some supplies, and information.”

“That right? You got caps to buy any of that with? We don’t allow freeloaders or tourists into our fine town, buck, so you better prove you’re bringing in something of worth.”

I blinked, wondering what he was talking about for a second before my brain pony smacked me upside the head and waved a little billboard in front of my eyes that read ‘he’s talking about those things mom gave us you doofus!’. Oh, right, those little round metal things. Caps. I planted Gramzanber in the ground to free up my mouth and reached into my saddlebags and pulled out the small sack containing said caps and jingled it, hoping however many were in there they’d be impressive enough to the guard.

“I got caps.”

The guard peered at me, and I began to get a little nervous as the seconds dragged out. I noticed he eyed my spear suspiciously. Guess I couldn’t blame him. I was starting to realize just how out of place Gramzanber was in the Wasteland. It was oversized for a spear, made out of silver metal, and I was still stuck carrying the thing around in my mouth most the time. In a world where guns were the most common weapon (second only to harsh language) Gramzanber probably made a lot of ponies curious. Problem was I had no answers for any curious pony as I know about as much as they did; next to nothing.

But it wasn’t the spear the guard questioned, it was Arcaidia. He pointed his gun at her and asked, “What’s with her? She’s awfully quiet over there.”

On cue Arcaidia, seeing the attention of the guards on her, smiled brightly and drew herself up to her full height of almost to my shoulders and proclaimed in a loud chiming voice.

“Esru vi Arcaidia! Esru dol armatage ren vira solva!”

She gestured at me dramatically and then stood on her hind legs and waved her arms around as if to encompass the whole Wasteland around us.

“Esri dol galvai fernus ren tuvai ventili! Mas, di tuvai ventili!”

Going back down to all fours Arcaidia then grinned happily up at the guards as if her words just explained everything they needed to know. Which for all I knew they did. Did I mention I really needed to find some way to learn this filly’s lingo or teach her mine?

The guard looked at her, then looked at me, then back her, then back to me.

“The fuck?” he asked.

“Indeed,” I said.

“She from Prance or something?”

I doubted the guard noticed my confusion, “Maybe? I don’t know. She’s just…not from around here. Look I don’t know what she’s saying most the time but she’s harmless and she’s with me.”

Most of that statement was true. Arcaidia was harmless in as much that she didn’t seem to murder things at random and was very friendly to ponies that I’d seen. But I didn’t want to think about what might happen if we had to fight a bunch of ponies. I’d already seen what Arcaidia could do to geckos and freaky Wasteland monsters. The thought of ponicicles turned my stomach. I wasn’t at all sure Arcaidia would hold back or even hesitate if we had to fight other ponies. She was…unpredictable like that.

The guard with the too-many-freakin’-barrels gun finally let out a sigh and said, “Fine you can enter. Welcome to Saddlespring. Talk to Copper Shell on the other side of the gate if you need directions anywhere. Just one rule; don’t cause trouble. Enjoy your stay.”

As the massive wagon gates began to slowly roll aside I turned to Iron Wrought, who was looking back the way we’d come. In the distance I could just make out the collection of shapes on the road that would be the slaver caravan.

“Look, um,” I stumbled over the words, “Thanks for talking to me and answering my stupid questions earlier. I…I’m sorry about what I said. I can’t get my head around what you have to do for a living, but I get that you think you got to do it. So, um…take care of yourself.”

Iron Wrought glowered at me for a moment before turning his eyes away from me and said, apparently with some effort “You seem like a good pony, Longwalk. That’ll get you killed out here. Take this advice; find a way into the NCR if you can. Only place in the bucking world where ponies like you can have a life.”

“Sounded to me like you didn’t care for the NCR,” I said.

“I don’t. Hate them. They have everything other ponies in the Wasteland don’t and still have the gall to claim that they’re ‘saving Equestria’ or some load of shit like that. Where was their beloved ‘Lightbringer’ when my father was butchered by a Drifter because he wouldn’t give up his business, and my mother sold to the Labor Guild to pay off his debts? Where was their famous ‘Applejacks Rangers’ when my trade caravan was hit by raiders and I lost my friends, my trade, and only survived because I hid under my best friend’s corpse? Down south, keeping them and theirs safe, that’s where. Now I make a living trading ponies because it’s the only way I’ll ever get enough caps to pay my own damned debts and keep my family safe, because I can’t rely on any other pony to do it but me.”

He shook his head, making a small bitter sound that might have been a laugh, or maybe a sob, I couldn’t tell which, “I’m waiting here until the caravan gets here. You might as well go in and do whatever you need to do. I’ll be at the tavern tonight getting hammered into a drunken comma, if you feel like joining me. Might as well, since I doubt I’ll be seeing you again after this and much as you piss me off you’re still better company than the ponies I work for.”

I could only nod slowly, still absorbing his words, “Sure. I’ll see you then.”

Never mind that tonight I was actually very likely going to be trying to free his livelihood from bondage and possibly getting myself killed in the process, but no need to tell him that, right? Was it wrong that I was actually considering the drawbacks of freeing the slaves? Shouldn’t something like that be a no-brainer in the right/wrong department? Free innocent ponies from bondage = good. But now I had this irritating feeling that if I went through with this I’d end up harming this pony I kind of liked and who had gone out of his way to educate my ignorant flank. What if Iron Wrought was the one who caught me trying the free the slaves? Could I hurt him, or even kill him, if I had to? That was not one of the questions I ever thought of having to ask myself when I decided to help Arcaidia on her quest.

As I left Iron Wrought at the gates and alongside Arcaidia trotted on into the settlement of Saddlespring I was left with the uncomfortable certainty that I was going to need to come up with an answer to those questions before nightfall.

----------

Copper Shell had been a shockingly friendly and helpful earth pony mare with a rust colored coat, a matching mane, and a map for a cutie mark. She’d gladly informed me of where I could purchase supplies and get a room for the night for me and my marefriend. I tried to correct her on the ‘marefriend’ bit but the guard had just snickered and winked at me as me and Arcaidia went on our way.

I wasn’t completely prepared for Saddlespring and if I could have seen myself probably would have rolled my eyes at how much I was gawking. But hey, tribal buck less than a day into the Wasteland, I hadn’t really seen an actual town before and on the inside Saddlespring was a busy and noisy place. Dozens of ponies were moving about the town. I was shocked at how many unicorns there were and even more so at the handful of flying ponies with wings I saw darting about the streets. Actual peagsi! I had to resist the urge to stare in open fascination at them. Spending so long around just earth ponies was making it hard not to. They were just so…agile, and elegant, flitting about on those delicate feathered wings. The unicorns were impressive too and it seemed everywhere I looked a unicorn was casually using their magic to float objects around for any casual reason; like that mare in the window stringing up laundry between two buildings.

We passed by a particularly loud building with a sign outside of it that said “Frisky’s Stop n’ Drop Saloon” and I paused to listen to the sound of music coming from inside. It was perky and fast paced, coming from an instrument that to my shock sounded a lot like the one that had been picked up by Arcaidia’s Pip-Buck from Persephone’s signal. Only where Persephone’s tune had been slow and sorrowful this was…cheerful, made me want to literally shake a leg. I thought about going in but I’d be coming here later anyway to meet up with Iron Wrought and needed to get to buying some supplies first.

Copper Shell had said the town had a market on the south west end that would have everything I needed.

The town was bisected by the main road leading in from the gate but the road split into a T-section at the foot of a large concrete building with a partially collapsed roof that had been rebuilt into a small watch tower. The building had a surly looking pair of guards standing outside its doors and the sign above read “Saddlespring Sherriff’s Station”. I didn’t know what a ‘Sherriff’ was but judging from the guards it had to be some kind of authority figure.

I could see to my left down the T-section that there was a wide open space alongside the town’s wall where a dozen or so tent stalls were set up and the place was crowded with ponies examining items on display in the stalls and talking with the ponies inside the tents. Marketplace? Marketplace.

I got about halfway to the tents, shopping list already forming up in my mind, when I realized Arcaidia suddenly wasn’t following me. I turned my head about trying to spot the little blue unicorn. It was harder than I would’ve thought, mostly because I was so used to seeing just brown or black ponies from my tribe, I wasn’t used to looking through crowds of ponies who had far brighter and wider spectrum of coats. There were a number of blue ponies about…but none with the long silver mane of my companion.

Where had she gotten off to?

“Arcaidia?” I called out, getting a few glances from the ponies around me, but no response.

Then I spotted her. She was trotting up to a gathering crowd of ponies who were clustered near the entrance to the market. Before the crowd a wooden stage was set up with a colorful banner spanning between two poles sporting words that while I recognized as Equestrian were written in such a weird flowing script I couldn’t begin to read them. As I cantered up to catch up with Arcaidia I heard a voice from the stage and looked up.

“Come one, come all, bucks, fillies, foals of all ages, to the wondrous and most dazzling display of magic in the Skull City Wastes, all performed by the one and only Mighty and Mysterious Mirage!”

The pony on stage was a mare whose coat was so white it was almost blinding, with a curly mane that sported bright streaks of soft pink through its otherwise light brown coloring. She was wearing a dark purple dress with white lace that matched the color of her eyes, and covered her from neck to flank save for slits along the back that let her wings out. A pegasus? And she was planning on doing magic?

The peagsus mare wasn’t flying but lightly stepped about the stage in flourishing movements as she addressed her crowd from one end to the other with her voice somehow managing to sound soft even as it carried loud enough to be heard over the buzz of the nearby market.

“Now then for my first feat of improbably magical illusion behold this can!”

She held up a simple rusted and bent tin can, “Observe that the inside is quite empty and it is indeed an intact can, much as any you might find off the street. Now then, if somepony from the crowd would be so kind as to lend the Mighty and Mysterious Mirage a single bottle cap! Rest assured it shall be returned, and perhaps then some!”

It didn’t take long for one of the ponies in the crowd to toss up a bottle cap, which Mirage caught in her teeth deftly, then stood on her hind legs and tossed the cap into the air and caught it with ease on the tip of her hoof, balancing the cap on its end.

“Behold my little ponies as I the Mighty and Mysterious Mirage break the laws of physics and economics to turn one cap,” she tossed the cap into the air, and with speed and agility I found myself boggling at also tossed the can into the air so that the cap *plinked* into the can in mid-air, which she then shot up into the air herself to catch, “Into many!”

Landing back on the stage with the can caught between her fore hooves Mirage shook the can, and while at first there was just the sound of one cap bouncing about within I soon perked my ears up as I heard the sound of more. In seconds Mirage upended the can and at least ten caps spilled out into her waiting hoof.

The crowd cheered and stomped their hooves in applause and I found myself joining them. That was pretty cool and I honestly had no idea how she did it. Mirage was grinning from ear to ear as she dipped her head in a bow, floating over to the pony that lent her the cap and depositing all of them to the surprised audience member.

“A small token of the Mighty and Mysterious Mirage’s appreciation for helping her, o’ lovely assistant! Now, for Mirage’s next trick of incredible mind defying enchantment she will require a volunteer from the crowd to join her upon the stage!”

Hooves went up into the air and I found mine was one of them. I couldn’t help myself, I was caught up in the mood and was eager to just see more of the show, my shopping trip forgotten. I did notice Arcaidia nearby was watching the pegasus on stage with open curiosity, her head cocked slightly. Then with no warning she simply pushed right to the front of the crowd, earning a series of irritated looks from the ponies she pushed past, and jumped right up onto the stage next to Mirage amid gasps from the crowd.

“What the-?” Mirage’s eyes went wide as Arcaidia walked right up to her and began looking over the pegasus with plain disregard for personal space. To Mirage’s credit she recovered her composure quickly and seeing the shifting mood of the crowd to this display quickly adapted for the sake of the show.

“Well it seems the Mighty and Mysterious Mirage has her volunteer! Quite the inquisitive filly isn’t she folks? Well then miss, shall…we…what are you doing?”

“Arcaidia what are you doing?” I found myself saying as I watched the unicorn wave a hoof over Mirage’s head, Arcaidia’s face drawn up in a puzzled frown.

Mirage blinked, then smiled and laughed as she took a step back from Arcaidia and said, “Ah, you wonder if I might not be a unicorn cloaked in illusion, my lovely assistant? Seeking a horn that is hidden by invisibility spells perhaps? As you just felt though, Mirage is no unicorn! Her illusions are truly the stuff of mystery for she is but a humble pegasus, blessed with mighty wings, but no horn for the casting of spells. But the show must go on and it is time for the Mighty and Mysterious Mirage to begin her next trick! Now, lovely assistant, behold these cards!”

From within a fold of her dress Mirage removed a pack of small rectangular paper objects and she fanned them out before the crowd. I was impressed and fascinated by the dexterous way the pegasus was able to balance the cards on her two fore hooves as she hovered a little off the ground with graceful flaps of her wings. My brain couldn’t fathom how she was keeping aloft with them or how she was managing such easy control of so many tiny objects with her hooves.

“As you can all see it is a normal deck of playing cards, all numbers, suits, and faces, including the two jokers!”

I had no idea what she was talking about but I could tell the small rectangular cards had all sorts of numbers and symbols on them. Mirage, after ensuring the crowd had gotten a good look at the deck, turned to Arcaidia and displayed the fanned out deck of cards to the blue unicorn.

“Now then, Mirage would like you to pick a card from the pile.”

Arcaidia looked at the cards in front of her and arched an eyebrow at the pegasus.

“Qui? Estu dol bal?”

Mirage coughed and I could feel tension in the crowd, a few murmurs of disapproval rising up from the gathered ponies who were getting impatient.

“A card, my lovely young assistant. Pick any card at all,” Mirage pushed the cards a bit closer to Arcaidia and put on a wide, perhaps a little too wide, a smile.

Arcaidia still looked skeptical but apparently grasped the situation and with a suspicious look at the pegasus (still looking at her forehead for a horn that wasn’t there it seemed) leaned down and took a card in her mouth, removing it.

“Excellent! Now, show the crowd the card you have chosen but do not show the Mighty and Mysterious Mirage!”

As Mirage looked away, covering her eyes with one arm dramatically Arcaidia just stood there dumbly for a second then glanced at the crowd, who were all staring at her expectantly. I don’t think Arcaidia actually had any clue what was going on, but turning to the crowd everypony could see the card she’d chosen. I didn’t quite get what these ‘cards’ were supposed to be for but I could tell the one Arcaidia had in her mouth had the number six on it and a red shaped heart pattern at each corner of the card.

Mirage, still looking away, held out the pile of cards and said, “Now then, place the card back within the pile if you would.”

Arcaidia did so with only a little hesitance, her silver eyes regarding Mirage with clear dubiousness. The pegasus for her part immediately lifted into the air once the card was back in the pile and began a rapid and dizzying shuffling of the cards, flipping them about from one hoof to the other in such a remarkable display of hoof coordination the crowd cheered just from the physical display alone; never mind whatever magic trick Mirage was intending.

“Now then, lovely assistant and fillies and gentlecolts of the crowd! With a little Abra and a little Kadabra-“ she flipped once more in the air, the cards dancing between her hooves, “is this the card that was chosen?”

She fanned the entire deck of cards out for the whole crowd to see and there were gasps and more cheers. Arcaidia just looked confused.

The entire deck of cards was sixes and hearts. I’m not sure about anypony else in the crowd but my own little brain pony had exploded. I was sure the deck had a whole bunch of different numbers and symbols before! How had they all turned to the same card Arcaidia picked!? Mirage hadn’t even seen what card had been picked! Magic! I joined in the cheering and hoof stomping applause. I noticed amid the applause that more than a few caps were being tossed into a bucket that had been set up on the front of the stage labeled “tips”. I tossed a few myself, more than happy. I honestly hadn’t felt entertained like this in some time and it was good to forget the problems that had been weighing me down. Seemed only fair to pay a few caps for the pegasus mare’s show.

Mirage was bowing her head to the crowd, smiling brightly, the cards having been deftly tucked away back into her dress, “Now now, dear and lovely ponies, the Mighty and Mysterious Mirage has not yet begun to amaze you with feats of magic beyond imagination this day! Next I will-gah!”

Mirage yelped as Arcaidia went right behind the pegasus and lifted up the hem of the Mirage’s dress, peering within.

“Wh-what do ya think yer doin’!?” Suddenly Mirage’s voice changed to a odd drawling accent as she rounded on the unicorn filly, “That ain’t fer fillies to be stickin’ their noses inta…er…*cough* I, I mean the Mighty and Mysterious Mirage appreciates the admiration of her fans but must request her lovely assistant respect her personal space!“

Arcaidia, frowning, advanced on Mirage and the pegasus floated up into the air to avoid being accosted again. The crowd was buzzing with outrage at Arcaidia’s interruption of the show, and I no longer could bring myself to just watch. I planted Gramzanber in the ground and with more than a few quick apologies I managed to push my way through the crowd and jumped up on stage just in time to bump Arcaidia with my flank to distract her from trying to drag Mirage to the ground with her magic.

“Arcaidia stop!” I yelled, shoving my face right into hers, practically going nose-to-nose, “What’s gotten into you? Stop molesting random pegasuses…pegasen…”

“Pegasi,” Mirage said as she floated above me, warily watching Arcaidia, “Is this unicorn a friend of yours?”

Arcaidia was trying to get around me so she could get a clear line of sight on Mirage but I kept moving my head to get in her way, “Yes,” I said back to Mirage, “Really sorry for this miss Mirage, I don’t know what’s come over her. She’s usually…”usually what? More stable than this? Honestly I had no idea what Arcaidia was ‘usually’ like and since I’d met her I could only honestly describe the filly as odd. This more recent display of oddness was actually pretty par for the course as I knew it.

“…less forward than this,” I settled on, “I’ll get her out of your hair in a sec and you can get on with your show. Again I’m really sorry for this.”

“Oh no need for apologies at all good gentlecolt,” Mirage said, regaining her composure once again, “The Mighty and Mysterious Mirage often has to improvise with unusual or unruly audience members. Fear not, the show is far from ruined! Though I may have to ask that you be so kind as to escort your friend off the stage so that the show may continue?”

“On it,” I said as I locked Arcaidia with as hard a gaze as I could manage. She match me pound for pound in…gazeness? She certainly didn’t like that I was getting between her and Mirage. She waved a hoof at the still hovering pegasus.

“Estu ren borcha vi surti ren solva? Vi surti dol bruhir!”

“Arcaidia, I don’t know what you got against this fine showmare but leave it be. We’ve been distracted long enough and got shopping to do anyway.”

I jingled the bag of caps I had and nodded my head towards the market for emphasis. Arcaidia narrowed her eyes at me, and then slowly turned her gaze towards Mirage. The unicorn filly pointed a hoof at her eye, then jabbed that hoof at Mirage. Mirage just shrugged her wings with a bemused look as I led Arcaidia off the stage. A number of displeased stares and grumbles from the crowd accompanied us as I retrieved Gramzanber and with a mopey Arcaidia in tow began trotting towards the market.

Great, we were here for all of half an hour and had already managed to make a scene and earn the ire of a portion of the town.

Here was hoping our shopping in the marketplace went smoother.

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As it happens we managed to get through our shopping without offending any of the locals or getting into a fight, so things were looking up.

Arcaidia had been sulky the entire time I wandered about the stalls of the open market, trying to pick out stuff I thought we’d need for the long trip south to where the marker on Arcaidia’s Pip-Buck said we needed to go. Food and water was at the top of my list but I also knew we’d need other things; blankets for keeping warm, good flint for getting cook fires going, that kind of thing. Nothing was cheap, and the caps my mother had given me were quickly getting used up. There’d been little over two hundred when I’d first counted them up and I had thought that a lot, but they weren’t lasting long. By the end of it I was down to half that amount but I’d gotten most of what I thought we’d need, and had taken care of a personal bit of business too.

“You want something rigged up to stow that spear eh?” the gray coated unicorn stallion with a scraggly white mane and a strap of leather as a cuite mark asked as he peered at Gramzanber clutched in my mouth.

“Yes,” I said, holding up the spear so the unicorn could get a better look, “I can talk easy enough while carrying it like this, but it gets painful after awhile and I need some way to carry it easier.”

The unicorn put a hoof to his chin and examined my gecko hide barding.

“Yeah I’m seein’ how that thing could be a problem to lug around in your gob all the time. Must got quite a jaw to be doin’ it like you have. Tell you what buck’o, your barding there’s a bit beat up too, so how about I give you a two-fer-one deal? Fifty caps gets you not only a new harness on your back to stow your spear but I’ll fix up and reinforce that barding with some decent radscorpion chitin?”

I had no idea what a ‘radscorpion’ was, let alone if its chitin was any good for armor, but it sounded impressive. I also was clueless if that was pricey or a bargain and Arcaidia wasn’t being any help so I found myself nodding in agreement and before long I had my barding off, giving it over to the vendor. After about twenty minutes of waiting and watching Arcaidia poke around the nearby stalls the gray unicorn stallion returned my barding to me.

The shoulder’s, chest, and forelegs had been fitted with gray shell-like bits that the unicorn informed me were cured radscorpion chitin plates; almost good as metal armor he claimed. On the left flank of the barding a series of thick leather straps were arranged that the unicorn showed me could fit around Gramzanber’s blade and then be tightened to then hold the haft in place on my side. Whenever I needed to draw the spear I’d just need to take a second to loosen the straps. It might be a little inconvenient in the middle of a fight, but the unicorn told me it wasn’t all that different from having to holster or un-holster a gun. My gun was just bigger. And didn’t fire bullets. And wasn’t a gun.

After trying the barding on and ‘holstering’ Gramzanber in its new spot on my side I tried moving about. The chitin plates didn’t feel too out of place and I felt comfortable knowing if one of those freakin’ Balloons got a hold of me again I’d have a little extra protection. Gramzanber was a little awkward holstered like it was and I’d have to keep an eye out that the haft didn’t knock anything over, but it didn’t seem any more problematic than if I was carrying one of those big ‘rifle’ firearms I’d seen or something like Crossfire’s massive weapon. It’d do, and I was happy with the purchase.

So, heavier of amenities but lighter on caps me and Arcaidia left the market place thankfully without incident and made our way back towards the center of town. We passed by Mirage’s stage on the way and I saw that the place was empty, the pegasus’ show apparently over. I made a mental note to find her again sometime before I left town, assuming I was still alive after whatever ill conceived slave rescue I was planning for that night, and apologize more properly to her about Arcaidia’s behavior. I hoped the show had gone on without a further hitch after we’d left.

Arcaidia was still being quiet and not talking to me, though I couldn’t fathom why, as we reached the T-section of Saddlespring’s main road. I was about to try breaking the ice and talking to her to get her out of her grumpy state when I heard the crack of a gunshot and a scream.

On the road down towards the end opposite the marketplace I saw a haggard looking white earth pony mare stumble and fall, blood pouring from the ruin of her left back leg. Her black mane was a mess and her eyes were filled with tears as she struggled to crawl as blood pooled from the gaping hole in her leg.

Instinctively I rushed to her, and Arcaidia was right next to me. As I knelt and rushed to pull out one of the healing powders I had in my saddlebags I noticed the mare had a collar around her neck, a collar with a familiar block shaped device on it.

This was one of the slaves! In fact it was the same one that had looked at me with such pleading eyes earlier that day on the bridge. Noticing there weren’t any shackles on her legs I wondered how she could have gotten away from her captors but questions would have to wait.

“Hold on, just stay still and I’ll-“ I began to say but the mare just sobbed.

“Too late…I couldn’t…just needed an excuse to end it…”

Before I could answer that there was a sharp appreciative whistle and the voice of a mare that I recognized as belonging to Crossfire. The black unicorn was strolling up casually as if she was out for a leisure stroll, her massive bladed rifle hanging in the air beside her in its blood red glow.

“Hooowhee, now that just wasn’t smart of you at all was it now missy? Where’d you think you could go even if you could magically outrun my bullets, eh? That collar on your neck would’ve exploded that pretty head clean off the second you got too far. Lucky you I’m being paid to keep you alive.”

“Kill me…” the mare said as she looked up at me, her eyes suddenly desperate as they had been back on the bridge, “I won’t go back. Just kill me-“

The butt of Crossfire’s rifle snaked forward and smacked the mare upside the head and she fell unconscious with her eyes rolling up. I was still holding the healing powder in my mouth, too shocked by the turn of events and from the bizarre plea the mare had given me to even think, let alone act. Crossfire came up and leaned her head down, her yellow eyes regarding me as her mouth twisted with a wry grin.

“Oh, hey it’s you. Mr. Hero. Heh, don’t think I needed any help recapturing our little runaway here, but I appreciate the effort. Oh, that stuff meant to heal her leg? Never you mind that, we ‘civilized’ folk got better methods than you tribals for taking care of hurts like this.”

As if to prove her point she floated out a vial of purple liquid and upended it down the throat of the unconscious mare. I watched in fascination as the bullet hole through her leg began to close, though hardly all the way, and I could tell the bone was getting set in an unnatural way even as it mended. Crossfire smiled thinly and made a ‘tut tut’ sound.

“That’s too bad, that leg will hurt something fierce healing up all wrong like that. Poor thing will have to spend the rest of her working life feeling that pain in her leg. Well, whatever. Brickhouse, get your flank over here and carry this piece of cargo back to the Ruins!”

From the crowd of ponies that had gathered to watch the scene the massive brown earth pony with the big leather hat came galloping up, other ponies diving to make way for his lumbering frame.

“You got it boss! Can’t figure how she got out though. Iron had them manacles checked solid!”

“Hmph, well, I’ll be having a chat with Iron Wrought about that once we’re back to the Ruins,” Crossfire said as Brickhouse lifted the white slave mare onto his back like she weighted little more than a foal, “Assuming he ain’t already drunk himself into unconsciousness.”

As she and the big stallion turned to leave I found myself dropping the healing powder I’d forgotten was still in my mouth and calling out, “Wait!”

Crossfire looked over her shoulder at me, yellow eyes somehow both amused and deadly at the same time.

“Where are you taking her?” I found myself asking, though I don’t think my brain was actually doing anything resembling thinking. I was on pure reactionary autopilot now.

“What business is it of yours Mr. Hero?” Crossfire asked jokingly, “You looking for a piece of flank you can get it easier than trying to play rescuer to a suicidal slave.”

“That’s not it. You said ‘Ruins’,” my brain apparently now decided to chip in and give me a plan, though it was a thin and vaguely formed one at best, “And you thought my spear was from one of those Ruins. I want to know what these Ruins are. Might be…profitable.”

Maybe the mercenary would buy that my interests were purely greed-based. Never mind I’d pretty much admitted to her in our last encounter to being fully willing to jump into mortal danger simply because it seemed like the right thing to do. My brain needed to give me better plans!

Crossfire snorted out a laugh that suggested she didn’t believe me, but more importantly, didn’t care.

“Ain’t a secret Saddlespring discovered it’s got a Ruin underneath it. Made the town boom like crazy this past year. Problem is buck, if you plan on exploring it, the Ruin is owned by the Labor Guild. Nothing in there you got any right to claim salvage to and it’s the Labor Guild’s ponies that get to do the excavating. You looking for places to get rich and/or dead in go looking somewhere else.”

With that the black unicorn left with her goliath of a companion, the unconscious slave mare on his back. I stared after them, and then my gaze dropped to the pool of blood that had soaked into the dirt road. That mare had seemed so desperate to either escape or die. Perhaps to her one was synonymous with the other. What could those slaves be being subjected to that would drive them to that? Why did none of the ponies around here seem to even notice or care that other ponies were being treated horribly within the confines of their own town!?

Arcaidia stood beside me, looking at me with concern, her earlier grumpiness forgotten as she poked at me neck with her muzzle.

“Estu vi goval Longwalk?”

“Yeah,” I replied, not at all knowing what she said but understanding the meaning in her concerned tone, “I’m okay. I just…”

I just had no idea what I was going to do.

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Footnote: Level up!

Perk Added – Heave Ho!: You sure got a talent for tossing! Thrown weapons gain 50% velocity and range.

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