• 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 33: Only Because It's Important Does it Easily Break

Our return to the hotel felt numbly surreal to me. After what we’d just gone through my mind barely registered the walk back, although part of that had to do with the way Binge would keep giving my neck and ears little affectionate nips with her teeth. Highly distracting, let me tell you. I had no idea how she had any energy left after what had happened back in Arbu. I felt dead on my hooves. Yet for all the pain she’d endured, Binge walked with a lighter step than I’d ever seen. Her countenance had changed, as if a gray cloud had been peeled away and left her standing in a brighter light.

Putting her family to rest had restored something in the mare that had long been missing, and all I could think was that I sincerely hoped the change lasted. I liked seeing her this way. No, I loved seeing her this way, and if I could find a way to make it happen I’d keep her this happy for as long as I breathed.

I chanced to meet eyes with Arcaidia, who was walking a bit behind us, and she flashed me a knowing, small smile, winking at me. My face heated up and I focused my gaze forward once again. The sun was below the horizon now, with not much more than dusklight painting the sky darker shades of blue and purple by the time we reached the front of the hotel. There, seemingly waiting for us, were Crossfire and Knobs. I halted, blinking at the pair with surprise written all over my face, unsure of which mare I was shocked more to see. Not because they were there, but because what they were wearing.

Knobs’ craggy, leather-like features were now enhanced by a striking dress of emerald color, with wide, leafy pleats down the skirt. Lacy white embroidery formed spiral patterns along the edges of the dress, like waves of air, giving the dress a light and breezy look. She wore lighter green slippers on her front hooves, and I noticed that the dress had a higher skirt train than normal to allow the wheels of her prosthetic back legs to roll around freely. Her stringy, faded red mane was brushed up in a surprisingly stylish manner across the left side of her brow, held together by a simple but elegant white mane clip shaped like a flower.

“Wow, looking good Knobs.” I said, then glanced at Crossfire, “And you-”

“Not. A. Word.” Crossfire hissed, her dark furred face burning red as she bared her teeth in a grimace, looking away. “I look bloody ridiculous.”

Her dress hugged her undercarriage with a smokey gray silk fabric that went up to her chest but left her neck and withers bare. The main part of the dress covering her back and rump was an even darker black than her coat, hugging her body snugly, and both it and the front piece were enhanced with stylized waves painted in icy blue and white colors that popped off the material vividly. Crossfire still wore a dark leather holster over her shoulder for a slim automatic pistol, but her rifle was nowhere in sight. Her own mane was no longer in its practical ponytail, but instead was left loose and fell down her neck in a watery wave, well combed and bearing similar mane clip to Knobs’, only black instead of white.

I kept my mouth shut tight, as it seemed wise not to heckle an armed mare. However my friends were under no such pretense. Binge gave them both a wide yellow smile, bouncing up to them. “You two are looking all kinds of lickable, like a pair of shiny fresh lollipops!”

Crossfire’s obvious embarrassment was only eclipsed by her exceedingly sharp eyed glance at all of us, lingering on me like a targeting laser. “And you all look like warmed over shit kicked down a mine shaft. What the hell happened? Its like somepony took a hatchet to your face, Mr. Hero. Don’t even try to tell me you got that taking your little blue icemaker to see a fucking orphanage.”

Arcaidia stared at Crossfire with a deadpan stare. “They were very aggressive orphans.”

I gulped, one hoof self consciously running over the fresh scar running across my face, which I knew even with healing magic being applied to it still looked like a ragged crevasse of torn flesh. It still ached dully. “I, uh, tripped.”

“Tripped?” Crossfire repeated with flat disbelief, looking at me like I was an idiot.

“Yup, tripped. Onto something...” I glanced to my left, where Arcadia made an awkward chopping motion with her prosthetic leg. “Something sharp like an axe? Yes, an axe! Somepony left an axe just out in the open where anypony clumsy, like me, could just go and trip right onto it. Really horrible luck. I’m seriously traumatized by the whole thing.”

“Do you really expect me to believe that massive pile of horseshit?” Crossfire asked, but Arcaidia stepped towards her with a steady and arresting look.

“You prove otherwise, smart pony?” Arcaidia asked, pointing a hoof, “Longwalk hurt himself in accident. That is all you need know. Problem?”

“Yes there’s a problem.” Crossfire said in a seething growl, “We’re in the middle of a sensitive ass job and you lot are going off doing your own shit that’s getting your faces hacked in half, which in my book counts as dangerous for the success of my work. Which means jeopardizing me, the job, and my caps. So how about you all cut the bull and tell me what happened?”

“We can’t.” I said simply. “Crossfire you’re just going to have to trust us.”

“Well, I don’t.” Crossfire said heatedly, but Knobs put a hoof on her withers, causing her to look over at the ghoulish mare.

Knobs cleared her throat, pensively glancing between us and Crossfire as she said, “We don’t need to fight about this do we? I mean, it's a beautiful evening, we’ve all got a party to go to while all nice and dressed up for the occasion. Tonight’s a night we can all relax for a change and cut loose a bit, right? Crossfire, whatever they were up to today if it's that bad I’m sure Longwalk would’ve asked for our help, uh, right?”

It was hard having to meet Knobs’ eyes, as they had this way of doing up in a heartbeat. It wasn’t like I wanted to keep the truth from them, but Scythe’s blood curse on B.B meant I couldn’t involve anypony else in this situation. “Believe me, Knobs, if I could tell you and Crossfire what was going on, I would. There’s a good reason we can’t, and I’m asking you to trust that.”

“I do.” Knobs said with a smile, and then turned her puppish stare upon Crossfire, who blanched at the stare’s powerful impact.

Crossfire’s tail curled up in irritation as she glanced away and muttered, “I don’t, but since I’m apparently not getting any answers short of beating them out of ponies, and we do have a stupid party to get to I’ll drop it for now.” She glared at me with flashing golden eyes, jabbing a hoof into my chest. “Just get your ass dressed and don’t be late to the party. Drifter’s Guild needs to put in a good appearance for our NCR hosts, got it? At least comb your damn mane!”

“Right. We’ll be there.” I said, and Knobs and Crossfire headed on past us, Knobs giving us a parting wave and smile before she wrapped a hoof around one of Crossfire’s, trotting alongside the simmering mare as they headed towards the Capitol Building.

“Heheh, they’re an adorable pair.” grinned Binge, her tail lashing around behind her.

LIL-E floated around in front of us, her internal mechanisms making soft whirring noises. “I’ll go on ahead too. Not like I have anything to get dressed into, and I could use some fresh air.”

“Uh, LIL-E, you don’t breathe.” I pointed out.

The robot just bobbed up and down, facing me with her blank faceplate. “Figurative fresh air, Longwalk. Got some things to process. Meet you guys at the party.”

As she floated away I felt Binge press up against my side, brushing her mane up against my neck. “I kinda want to just skip their party and have a party of our own, all nice, gooey, and personal like.”

Arcaidia eyed Binge with an eye rolling gaze and peeled Binge off me with her magic, “Learn control of urges, Binge. Not save you just to paw ren solva all day. Work before play. And no pushiness unless Longwalk is okay with it.” She shot me a questioning look. “Is Longwalk okay?”

“I’m fine Arcaidia.” I said with a gleaming crimson face, coughing awkwardly as I rubbed the back of my head. “You don’t need to worry about me and Binge. We, umm, won’t be doing anything we both don’t consent to.”

Arcaidia accepted that with a trusting nod, although she still gave Binge what looked to me like a warning glare. It reminded me of Trailblaze. Arcaidia was worried about me and looking to protect me. It spoke volumes she wasn’t doing more than give a warning look, however, showing far more trust in Binge than she ever had before. I think Arcaidia understood the ex-Raider now just as well as I did, after literally crawling through some of Binge’s most intense personal issues. I think Arcaidia also understood that in a way both me and Binge needed each other, and had gotten close in a way that was new, exciting, and kind of dangerous. I think the warning was as much for me as it was for Binge, for both of us to be careful.

Despite looking younger, Arcaidia really was the most mature pony in the group most the time. I gave her a grateful smile and affirming, reassuring nod as we headed into Tenpony Tower to let B.B know we were okay and that for the moment Scythe was dealt with.

----------

With soft, nervous twitches B.B’s wings flapped behind her as she hovered back and forth in our hotel room. She’d been ecstatically overjoyed to see us return, while also being incredibly fidgety over our injuries. She’d nearly burst into tears seeing my face, hugging me fiercely when I told her it wasn’t that bad and that supposedly if scars made a stallion more handsome then it was a net gain for me.

B.B had then become very silent and intense as we relayed the tale of our encounter with Scythe in Arbu. We left nothing out, although I’d hesitated a few of the more personal aspects concerning Binge’s past, but Binge herself had only given me an encouraging nudge in those moments. Even as I saw flashes of pain in her eyes, remembering what had happened to her and her family, and the terrible life she’d lived since then, I could see that she wasn’t hiding or running from it anymore either. Deep as the wounds were, healing had begun inside her, starting with the moment we’d laid her family’s remains to rest.

By the end of the story B.B was looking more than a little stunned, and it took a few minutes before she worked up enough frame of mind to speak. When she did it was without her usual affected accent, but her much clearer, soft chiming voice.

“I don’t know what I can possibly say to all of you. I... I’m sorry. Scythe is my mistake, my responsibility, and everything he’s done is my fault.”

Arcaidia gave a swift shake of her head, going over to B.B with a gentle nuzzle. “Stop blaming self. Not healthy.”

A wane smile passed B.B’s face, but she leaned away from Arcaidia slightly, which only made the other mare flinch. “I know you mean it, Arcaidia, but the blame belongs with me.” She hovered over towards the window, looking out of it towards the pink streaked evening horizon. “I made him. I murdered his family, forced him into mine, taught him every cruel trick he knows, and didn’t do a thing about him or the Family after I broke away from it. I was... I’ve been a damned idiot for thinking I could just keep running from this.”

Her voice grew exceedingly quiet, barely even a whisper. “Blood Bloom never went away, and calling myself ‘B.B’ all this time was a mistake. I thought if I just lived a decent life like Doc Sunday taught me that... that it’d balance things out somehow. That every horrible thing I did would fade away eventually. But it hasn’t, and it won’t until I do what I should have done from the start.”

She took in a deep breath, as if trying to draw in all of her strength for what came next as she turned back to us, looking at us with equal levels of warmth and sadness. “I have to face them. I have to go end it with the Family. Which means I need to leave the group.”

I felt my mouth drop open, but I wasn’t immediately able to say anything. Fortunately I didn’t have to, because Arcaidia was vocal enough for the both of us as she staggered forward and all but shouted, “No you don’t! Leave!? That is beyond toaster head talk! It’s super toaster head! Where will you go!?”

B.B’s features curdled in a pained pinch, but her voice was steady, insistent. “The Family’s citadel. Once I finish things with Scythe here in the NCR, I’ll go face them, and the Mistress. Arcaidia, it’s the only way. Even if I beat Scythe, which right now is a rather large ‘if’, the Mistress will just send more like him. Look, its okay Arc. I’m not suicidal. I’m not going there to die. But I have to end this myself, and I don’t want to involve any of you in it. You’ve done enough for me already, and if any of you died because of my past fuck ups, I’d hate myself more than I already do.”

It was my turn to find my voice as I cleared it and managed to bite out, “I don’t get this, B.B. You’ve stuck with us through a lot of crazy shit, and just because Scythe took a swipe at us you think it's a good idea to fly off on your own? Why would we even let you do that!? If you go anywhere, you know we’re following right after you!”

She gave me a pained look, but one that was also hardened. “Long, you don’t have time to follow me. Remember you’re on a time limit to get to your father’s lab up north and make good on rescuing your tribe. You can’t afford any detours after we’re done here in the NCR.”

“Then wait until after we save my tribemates from Odessa!” I shouted, “Once that’s done we’ll all go confront your Family together! You don’t have to do this by yourself.”

Her brown and pink streaked mane fell around her face as she shook her head, “Yes, I do. I didn’t just come to this as a snap decision, Longwalk. I’ve been thinking about this since we ran into Black Petal. It’s inevitable that the Family will keep coming after me, and you can’t afford somepony like Scythe to show up in the middle of trying to infiltrate Odessa to rescue your tribe. Long, can you even imagine having to take on both the Family and Odessa at the same time? At least if I go by myself the Mistress won’t even think twice about the rest of you and it’ll be one enemy you won’t have to worry about while taking on Odessa.”

Arcaidia stomped a hoof, “No, we only have friend to worry about instead! Much better, I see how not stupid plan is now.” Her silver eyes flared with fresh hurt and anger. “That being sarcasm in case I not speak Equestrian clear enough.”

“The birdie wants to flap away, but is she really dumb enough to think in her pretty predatory brainbox that she’s chained herself too tightly to all of us to just fly off into the big, empty sky?” Binge said, smirking and flanking B.B on side opposite Arcaidia. “I thought you were the smart one in the party, but wow, this is setting us a new low bar for dumb.”

B.B’s voice slipped back into her accent as she folded her wings close to her side, wincing slightly as the still injured one twitched. “Look fellas I don’t need ya’ll ta start gangin’ up on me. Ain’t fair. I just wanna do what’s right fer you n’ me both. All o’ this is ‘cause o’ my own sins, so it’s gotta be me that faces up ta the music. What’re ya gonna do iffin’ more like Scythe show up?”

“Same thing we’ve done with Scythe, take them on and take them down.” I said fimly, patting Gramzanber, “What else?”

B.B rubbed at her face with a hoof, looking at all of us as exasperation dawned across her features. “It ain’t that simple, fellas! I’m tellin’ ya’ll I got ta go to the citadel on my own. I ain’t... I ain’t gonna git myself killed. Least I ain’t intendn’ that. I ain’t no martyr. The Mistress wants me livin’ and breathin’, wants be back in th’ fold.”

“You’re not planning to... join back up, are you?” I asked, and she gave me a pointed look which made me immediately wave a hoof, “Right, stupid question, sorry I asked.”

“Look, ‘course I ain’t plannin’ ta join the Family again. I’m goin’ there ta end this! Ta end...” she choked up for a second, looking at the floor as she stood there. Arcaidia moved closer to her, one frosty blue hoof pulling B.B into a warm embrace, nuzzling the pegasus’ mane.
“I just gotta do this.” B.B whispered, “I need ta face what I was an’ what I’ve done, an’ the only way I can reckon ta do that is ta go back ta where it started an’ make it damn clear ta the Mistress that I ain’t ever gonna be her... her killin’ hound again.”

“She probably won’t just take that as an answer.” I pointed out.

“I know that. Thinkin’ I can git her ta face me one on one, without the whole Family jumpin’ me. Like ya saw with Scythe, we got a lot o’ laws an’ traditions, which I can use ta trap the Mistress inta a’ duel. She wants me back bad ‘nough to bite, if I dangle the bait just right.”

“I still don’t see why we can’t come with you.” I said insistently, sitting down and lowering my head to look into her eyes. “If anything went wrong we’d be there to do something about it. You can’t trust this Mistress of yours would play fair, no matter what rules your tribe has.”

“Yer right ‘bout that much. The Mistress is a’ deceitful bitch, ta be sure, but I still think I can take her.” She slowly returned Arcaidia’s hug, but then pushed the filly back and managed to compose herself by wiping away a few tears from her face with her uninjured wing. “If ya’ll want, I’ll agree ta... think ‘bout this some more. I’ll hold off on decidin’ fer sure ‘till after our business is done here. Can ya’ll live with that?”

I glanced between Arcaidia and Binge. Arcaidia looked like she was ready to pounce B.B and hoofcuff the pegasus to her, so much worry dancing in her eyes that I thought my unicorn friend would explode. Binge seemed less concerned and more just heavily bemused by the situation, looking at B.B like one might look at a particularly stubborn foal.

“I got so many fun and squishy thoughts bouncing around my brain for tonight that I don’t mind if B.B needs to rattle her own skull awhile to decide what she wants to do.” Binge said, her hoof lightly caressing mine. “So I say we all rattle and roll tonight and think dour thoughts another day.”

Arcaidia gave a small nod, “Shivol bir speaks sense, in her weird way.” She turned her eyes to B.B, meeting the pegasus’ uneasy gaze. “You not do anything crazy without much thought and talking to friends first, yes? Promise to me?”

“I... promise. ‘Kay, ya’ll can stop starrin’ at me now.”

It took a moment, but the tension slowly drained out of us, leaving me feeling tired to the bone. “Alright, alright, so aside from dealing with an insane, necromancy wielding unicorn, facing Binge’s mindscape, and this emotionally jarring conversation we B.B... we still have one great challenge we must face tonight; social activity. There’s apparently a party we all still need to go to.”

B.B blanched, her face sporting a distinctive grimace. “Ah, ya’ll sure I can’t just go face the Mistress right now instead?”

Arcaidia gave her a light and playful swat on the head. “No, if we all wear pretty dresses and dance, you must too.”

Binge grinned and bounced on her hooves, “Maybe we can get bucky to wear his pretty dress too!”

I shot her a look, shaking my head, “Nooooo way, I’m done with dresses Binge. Besides I think I’m supposed to wear a tux or whatever its called.”

“That still might be worth seein’.” B.B said with a heavy sigh, “Right then, welp, if we’re doin’ this we’re doin’ this. After a’ day like this, maybe a’ party won’t be so bad.”

----------

I tugged at the collar of my tux, wincing. “My neck itches.”

There were few times in my life I’d felt as awkward and out of place as I did right then. Granted the bone deep weariness from all that had happened that day was dragging on me, but my uncomfortableness had mostly to do with how... how utterly clean and fancy everything was around me and my friends. The room was unbelievably spacious, with a shining and polished tile floor in the center surrounded by finely carpeted areas where white clothed tables were set up with trays of fresh cooked food. Ponies of all types and griffins mingled among the tables, or danced on the floor in a buzzing mix of good cheer and polite courtesy. The Skull City dignitaries were spaced out in groups, usually sticking to the members of their fellow Guilds, while chatting with members of the NCR’s government or important members of the citizenry invited to the party. On one side of the room a space was cleared where a full band was set up, playing a slow and smooth set of music the likes of which I’d never heard before but instantly started to get stuck in my head. Jazz, I heard one of the NCR ponies calling it. The band had a stallion as the lead singer, his voice carrying over the din of the party easily and clearly.

Everypony was well dressed, well groomed, and hadn’t spent an evening running for their lives from wraiths. Even with a quick shower and the best efforts of my friends all pitching in I still felt like a dirty and disheveled mess compared to most in the room. The tuxedo I wore consisted of a vest and waistcoat that just barely covered my flanks, with a tight collar and ridiculous bow tie that I couldn’t fathom the purpose of other than to make me look like an idiot, but since plenty of other stallions were wearing the same get-up I at least figured I couldn’t look like the only fool in the room. I felt a bit vulnerable without my armor, or with Gramzanber strapped to my side. The ARM was nearby, in a secure room where any large weapons were stored. Drifters and other quasi-security personnel were allowed small weapons, but since I didn’t have any I was unarmed except for my Pip-Buck and the Grapple attached to it. Of course I knew I could summon Gramzanber to my hoof with a thought, but I still wasn’t all that used to not having him on me.

The mares hadn’t shown up yet, sending me along so they could finish getting ready, so I was stuck here by myself aside from LIL-E, who hovered next to me with a fresh coat of polish on her black carapace. How she’d polished herself she wouldn’t tell me, but I suspected it involved a mirror and a lot of trial and error with one of her mechanical arms.

“Just stop tugging at it.” LIL-E said, “You’ll give yourself a rash.”

“What are we even supposed to do here?” I asked, looking around the party with wide, uneasy eyes. “Are we supposed to just, like... talk with ponies or what?”

“You could always retreat to the food tables and start stuffing yourself with appetizers.” LIL-E suggested, “Me, I’m just going to float by the door and hope everypony assumes I’m just here for security.”

The smell of food was alluring, but I was hesitant to just park my butt by the snacks and be anti-social for the entire evening. It wasn’t as if I disliked talking to ponies, and it might be fun to chat with some of the NCR folk I hadn’t had a chance to get to know. I was mostly just being exceedingly self-conscious and feeling drained, but those weren’t excuses to be a poor guest. This whole party was to welcome all of us who’d come so far from Skull City, and I was a member of the Drifter’s Guild now. I ought to try putting my best hoof forward, no matter how tired and dingy it was.

“Nah,” I said, drawing myself up with a bracing breath, “If we’re here to mingle, I’d best get to mingling. What’s the worst that can-”

“Longwalk for the love of the Goddesses do not finish that sentence.” LIL-E warned me, and I gave her a sheepish grin.

“Right, I ought to know better, shouldn’t I? Okay, I’m going in, wish me luck.”

“You’ll need it.” LIL-E said, a chuckling pop of static in her otherwise mechanical monotone as she floated towards the main doors to hover off to the side, leaving me to trot forth into the crowd.

Having no real idea what I was doing, but determined to put on my most friendly face, I managed what I hoped was a natural smile and a few casual waves as I passed several groups chatting amiably. I froze slightly as I noticed the Labor Guild leader, Begonia, speaking in smooth confident tones with several NCR ponies who were listening to the mare with rapt, if wary attention. Iron Wrought was with her, and he gave me a surprised, then cautious look as I trotted by.

“Ah, you there boy. You’re Longwalk, aren’t you? Whiteheart’s latest... acquisition.”

Begonia’s voice had a honeyed, smooth quality to it, although I could see in her eyes as she locked them on me that there was an acidic, scalding temperament beneath that friendly voice. I felt my hide crawl slightly as I paused and turned to look at Begonia, affecting as polite an expression as I could without actually smiling. Kind of hard to smile at the mare who was in charge of the organization that enslaved thousands of ponies, including Shale. In some ways I could easily blame Begonia for Shale’s death, and the thought stuck in my throat like a barb while I managed to say, “I’m Longwalk, yes. I don’t know if I’d call myself an acquisition. Whiteheart offered me a spot in his Guild, and I accepted. Far as I know if I don’t like the arrangement I can walk away any time I wish. The same can’t be said of every member of your Guild, can it?”

Begonia’s smile didn’t falter but her eyes grew ever sharper. “While it is true that many of the Labor Guild’s workers are under bonded contracts of service that they cannot legally ignore, they are compensated for their hard work with safe accommodations, adequate nourishment, and the opportunity to acquire work skills they can use elsewhere once they’ve fulfilled the terms of their contracts. Quite frankly given how... tenuous and unpredictable life can be for many folk stuck living in the Outskirts or the Wasteland beyond, serving as a bonded worker of the Labor Guild offers a certain appealing alternative. Safety, structure, a sense of community, and the knowledge one’s service is supporting the growth of civilized order rather than contributing to the ongoing barbarity that still infects our world, despite the best efforts of the fine folk of the New Canterlot Republic and our own Guilds. Barbarism that you were apart of until recently, no?”

Spirits above, what a piece of work this mare was! If I hadn’t seen the horrors of the Labor Guild’s slavery first hoof I might have bought into her lines myself. She didn’t just say it with a straight face, she said it with the honest fervor of somepony who honestly believed what she was saying. I think that, from Begonia’s point of view, the Labor Guild’s slavery was more benign than it actually was. That she was offering ponies a better deal working themselves to death in her Guild rather than taking their chances in the Wasteland. It was crazy, obviously, but it only made me more wary of her.

“I don’t know what you mean.” I said, shifting on my hooves. “I haven’t been a part of any ‘barbarism’.”

“Rather curious myself what you’re driving at, Miss Begonia.” said one of the NCR ponies, a middle aged, brown unicorn stallion with a droopy caterpillar moustache and faded yellow eyes. He glanced at me, nodding, “Sorry to interrupt son. Wagontrain, head of the NCR Railway Department.”

At my blank look he let out a rough laugh, “Not familiar with trains? Not a surprise, most ponies even here aren’t too familiar with them. NCR only has three working engines now, and we’re still rebuilding the old tracks. Still, the hope is one day to connect all of Equestria by railway again, and that’s what I’m in charge of. Now, back to my question...”

Begonia’s smile only deepened like a carving knife, “Well you see, Longwalk here hails from one of the more primitive tribes that still eek out an existence in the mountains east of Skull City. From what I’ve heard the poor colt wandered into the Wasteland and very quickly learned its violent ways. It's not his fault of course, the Wasteland is such an unforgiving and inhospitable environment, despite how hard the Guilds have worked to tame it around our city. So I can’t blame Longwalk too much for his... crimes.”

“Crimes?” Wagontrain asked with a raised eyebrow, and I shot Begonia a hard look.

“If you’re talking about what happened in Saddlesprings me and my friends were trying to save lives.”

“I don’t doubt that may have been your intent, but yet you still interfered with a delicate operation my Labor Guild was engaged in within a very sensitive Ruin, and as a result did the town itself not become a charred husk? A prosperous town of several hundred ponies, now gone, and only a mere day or so after your arrival there?” Begonia shook her head, “Again I don’t blame you. Youth like yours tends to lead to ill considered, rash action. And from what I understand you’ve been busy since then fighting Raiders and gangers, monsters and bounty hunters. Its that barbaris I refer to, that you’ve seen with your own eyes how dangerous and uncontrolled the Wasteland remains, even as it recedes from areas like the NCR. Surely you can then attest that the Labor Guild is a acceptable, if easily misunderstood, alternative to living with such dangerous uncertainty?”

I sure as hell couldn’t, and wouldn’t, atest to anything of the sort. However I could only say so much without causing a scene. Already more than a few eyes from other nearby chatting groups were looking our way with curious eyes. Openly denouncing Begonia here would have repercussions beyond just this conversation, but I couldn’t just let her twist things to suit her needs either. I owed it to Shale to not just let this mare say what she pleased. But I had to choose my words carefully, despite wanting nothing more than to tear into Begonia.

“I’ll tell you this much, regardless of whatever you believe, the ‘barbarism’ you keep talking about isn’t always as starkly black and white as you think. Sometimes it likes to dress up and pretend it's ‘civilized’, when really it kills ponies just as dead as a Raider’s gun. Ponies have died while wearing your Labor Guild’s collars around their necks. If you want my honest advice, Guildmistress Begonia, it’d benefit your Guild to take those collars off your ‘bonded workers’, before somepony gets it in their head that your civilization could use a bit more barbarism.”

Her smile turned as frosty as any of Arcaidia’s spells, her eyes like pointed daggers. “I’ll keep your advice in mind. Please, give my regards to Whiteheart. Now, gentleponies, if you’ll excuse me I think I could use some refreshment.”

She trotted away with a self confident air. Iron Wrought looked at me apologetically, shrugging his shoulders. He looked as if he was about to say something, but Begonia called for him and he winced, giving me one last look before quickly trotting after her. Wagontrain rubbed his moustache with a hoof, eyes curious as he looked me over.

“Well son, I think you might have ticked the lady off.”

I sighed with a helpless smile. “I can live with that.”

“I take it you’re not fond of her Guild’s practices?”

“I’ve had some... personal experiences that soured my view.” I said, shaking my head. “Look, I understand how important this treaty is, and I’m not trying to cause trouble between the NCR and Labor Guild. I have my issues with them and their practices, but the bottom line is they’re a part of Skull City. Much as I wish they weren’t, not everypony in the Guild is all that bad.”

Wagontrain raised a hoof, “No need to explain to me, son. I didn’t survive to my ripe old forties by being a woolbrained idiot who can’t see when situations are complicated.” He leaned towards me, his voice dropping to a low whisper. “Fact is, back in the day, I was a slaver in old Red Eye’s little empire. Did it back then because it was the work I was born to, and I’m grateful every day I survived the mess that went down back when Fillydelphia fell. I’ve been trying to make good on rebuilding something useful to the NCR to make up for all I did back then.”

“That’s... pretty noble of you.” I said, but he shook his head, grimacing.

“Ain’t my point. My point is I can tell this Labor Guild is just slavery with a shinier coat of paint. Hell, half of that mare’s lines could’ve been lifted off of old Red Eye’s speeches. The spiel is about the same. And most of the brass running the show, especially the President, can see it just as clearly as I can. They ain’t going to let the Labor Guild run free, even after we sign the treaty.”

“You are going to go for the treaty then?” I asked, surprised.

“Been listening to the others talking and aside from a few holdouts, I’m thinking it’s a near done deal. Fact is we need it.” His face darkened, his voice dropping to a grave octave. “Things may look pretty on the surface, but the NCR has its own problems. Nopony wants to talk about it, but we’re running out of certain supplies we need to keep building up our infrastructure. We’ve got the food for now, but to build more farms, and more importantly the trains and wagons we need to move supplies, we need iron. And we don’t got the mines for it. Skull City does. Trade is about our only option to get what we need, so even though we’ll have folk bitching and moaning about aligning ourselves with ‘slavers’, the bottom line is its either sign this treaty, or let our budding nation fall apart over the next decade or so.”

I absorbed that for a silent moment, then said, “I’m not much on politics, but that sounds about right. Skull City needs the NCR too. A lot. Food, water, medicine, its all scarce there still. At least for those stuck outside the walls living in that giant shantytown. I’d love to see it get better over there, and maybe if it does Begonia’s Labor Guild won’t have the leverage to entice ponies into letting themselves get turned into slaves just on the promise of safety and full bellies.”

“That’s what I’m hoping too. Either way, son, it was a pleasure meeting you. I hear Drifters are kind of an elite bunch of mercenaries from your neck of the woods. You look pretty young for that kind of work, though. Is what Begonia said true? That you’ve gone up against Raiders, monsters, and the like?”

I shivered briefly as my mind flashed through memories of what now felt like a near endless list of battles and bloodshed I’d endured in the time since leaving my tribe. “I’ve been in a few fights, yeah.”

He nodded, “Good. Might just be my old nerves, but I’ve been getting a bad feeling lately. Just this nagging thought that we’re not far off from something big. Last time I felt this way Fillydelphia went up in flames. Somehow the air just... feels charged the same way, like there’s a hammer waiting to drop.” The stallion shrugged, chuckling under his breath, “Well don’t let me depress you, son. Go on and find a mare to dance with or something.”

Speaking of the mares, I wondered how much longer they’d take to get here. I excused myself politely from Wagontrain and trotted further around the party, making a point to stay as far from Begonia as I could. I saw other Guild leaders mingling in the crowd, such as the slate gray unicorn mare with the razor straight blonde mane who ran Skull City’s Enforcer Guild, and the dusty male griffin in the leather poncho who was in charge of the Security Guild. I had no idea what their names even were, but I noticed the pair were rarely far apart from each other, and even now stood side by side while talking with President Grimfeather’s herself. From the sour cast to the President’s face she wasn’t thrilled with whatever she was hearing. Curious, I slipped closer to eavesdrop, snatching a cup of some fruity drink of a server’s tray to hide what I was doing.

“There shouldn’t be that many Raider’s left out there after we cleaned the last of the bastards out of the northern passes a few years back.” Grimfeathers was saying, her voice thick with irritation. “How did several thousand of those sick fucks manage to gather up near your city?”

“As I’ve tried telling other members of your government,” said the blonde, slate gray mare, her blue eyes sharply narrowed, “‘Raiders’ is a terribly inaccurate and borderline useless term. These ponies are violent tribes of numerous, long running traditions of mutual violence and xenophobia. They’re not the common psycho bandits you used to deal with fifteen years ago. They’re organized and been building their numbers generationally. Hell in fifteen years those whores have been able to raise a whole new crop of bastards who’ve grown up hating Skull City. The war we’re stuck with is because nobody listened to me when I told them we needed to cull those tribes when they were still small.”

She gave the griffin a hard look, and he just raised his talons defensively, but also with a bored look. “Don’t look at me, Steel. I was on your side in that argument, but the other Guild leaders voted against it.”

“Sure you were, Rupert. You just happened to also get countless lucrative protection contracts for your Security Guild over the years protecting our farms from those Raider tribes, but also showed your ‘support’ for my extermination initiative by... what, abstaining from the vote?”

“It wouldn’t have mattered, girl. You were way outvoted. Mine wouldn’t have made a difference.”

Steel snorted, “And now we have thousands of insane, well armed, well lead murders all but knocking on Skull City’s front door.”

President Grimfeathers stuffy interjected then, “If the NCR signs the treaty with Skull City, I don’t have an issue with lending air support to dealing with those Raiders. I hate the idea there’s so many still fucking out there beyond our borders. Pretty sure some Raptors plus a couple battalions of Rangers can help keep them off your city. It's just not going to be easy convincing m people here that it's necessary. Even though it is. Fuck, more Raiders. I thought I’d heard the last of this kind of crap...”

“Enjoying listening in?” asked a voice next to my ear.

“Not really, but it's kind of interest-wha!” I jumped as I turned to see a mare standing behind me, smiling at me with a wry look. I recognized her charcoal coat and white mane streaked with yellow and orange immediately. Quickly composing myself I gulped and said, “Uh, Chairpony Remedy. Uh, nice to see you?”

She let out a musically light laugh, “Relax, I’m not going to bite. Just curious to speak with you and couldn’t help teasing a bit. Is eavesdropping a common Drifter practice?”

“N-no, I was just curious...” I said, glancing back towards the President and the two Guild leaders. They were still absorbed in their conversation and hadn’t noticed me and Velvet Remedy, so I breathed a sigh of relief. “I guess curiosity is a bad habit of mine.”

The NCR Chairpony of Diplomatic Affairs nodded sagely, “It can be, but other times curiosity can be a virtue. It all depends on how it is used.” Her eyes turned solemnly serious. “Is it as bad in Skull City as I have heard? The Raiders truly still pose a threat to so many innocent lives there?”

I hung my head, nodding grimly, my mind flashing back to all my previous fights with Raiders, especially Redwire. “They are. My friends and I only skimmed the edges of that fight, but there really are thousands of them and they were pressing in on Skull City pretty hard last I saw. Even fought a few that’d snuck in below the city itself. They’re...” I paused, hesitant, thinking of Raiders like Binge herself, or even Baindead and Blasting Cap. Yet they were the rare exceptions. Redwire had taught me the rule. “They need to be stopped.”

“You’ll find no argument from me on that point.” Velvet Remedy said, but her voice carried a sad, distant tone. “Yet we are only just starting to let the memories of our own bloody past in this land fade into memory. Joining a new war won’t be easy for many to accept, even if much as I hate to say it we may have to do so. Allowing Skull City to fall would just encourage those Raiders to turn their attention south towards us anyway.”

“Yeah...” I said sullenly, “Be nice if there was a diplomatic solution, but talking to Raiders can be... problematic.”

Velvet Remedy hid her mouth with hoof as she let out a dry laugh. “An understatement if ever there was one. Now, I’m not certain we were ever formally introduced, so I apologize for my familiarity. President Grimfeathers spoke of you and your friend’s to me, and the fact that you’ve offered to help deal with the machine that destroyed our fort. I wanted to thank you for that. It's a brave thing to do. More than that, I heard from your Guildmaster that you were the last one to be with Guildmistress Star Soul before she was lost to the pirates that attacked your airship.”

Surprised, I blinked at her. “Y-yeah, I was right there when she teleported us off the pirate airship, but had to stay behind herself. She... really saved us there. I hope she’s still alive. Whiteheart talked about a rescue attempt at some point, but I have no idea when or how he plans to do that.”

Velvet Remedy dipped her head in a weighty nod. “We’ve already offered some of our Rangers to help recover Star Soul, if possible. We still have to locate the pirate ship and where it went. However I just...” she paused, looking wistful, “I just wanted to ask you what you thought of Star Soul? I haven’t seen her in years.”

“You knew her?”

“Yes, she was a Follower of the Apocalypse. Are you familiar with the organization?”

I shook a hoof, “Vaguely? I only know they originate here in the NCR, and, well, that’s about it.”

“The Followers are dedicated to making life better for any and all in the Wasteland. Doctors, researchers, explorers, warriors, whatever the path and creed a Follower uses their skills to help others and better the world.” Velvet Remedy said, and then sighed, “Star Soul was a promising member of the group. One of the strongest of the False Goddess’ old alicorns.”

“Uhhhh?”

She laughed, “Nevermind. It’d be a rather long story. Suffice to say Star Soul was one of many alicorns who joined the Followers after the war that formed the NCR. She was a very kind, caring individual but... very focused. Too focused.” Velvet Remedy’s expression fell, “When I learned she was using captured Raiders to perform medical research we got into a rather... spirited argument. I ended up casting her from the Followers. No matter how noble her goals were, or how horrible the ponies she used for her research, that kind of experimentation on living beings was just beyond what I could accept. That was over a dozen years ago. I’d always wondered where she’d ended up. I only learned recently, just a few months before these treaty negotiations, that Star Soul was a Guild leader in Skull City. I was hoping to see her, mend fences but...”

“The pirates.” I said, sighing, understanding what Velvet Remedy was likely looking for. Meeting her gaze I said, “I can’t speak for who Star Soul was, but I know the pony I saw, however briefly, was both kind and brave. She didn’t hesitate to put her life on the line to protect others, or to save me and my friends. Take that however you will, but I think she was doing the best she could.”

“...Which is all any of us can ever do.” Velvet Remedy said, swallowing and glancing away while brushing a hoof across her eyes. “Thank you, Mister Longwalk. I’ll leave you to enjoy the rest of the party.”

I watched her go, hoping that Star Soul could eventually be rescued and that those two would get a chance to reconcile.

Suppressing an urge to sigh, I started wandering the party again. For a few minutes I didn’t recognize anypony, but then caught sight of Princess Purity surrounded by an eager gaggle of young stallions (and a few older ones) who looked like they were captivated by the young monarch. The giant, burly form of Phalanx was always nearby, looming over the group and keeping any of the more enthusiastic stallions from being too forward. Purity herself seemed flushed and slightly bemused by the attention, but I could tell she was in her element. She talked smoothly and with an easy smile, seeming to warm the room around her.

Not far away I noticed Crossfire, her eyes locked on the Princess. She stared at the younger mare with a very unusual look on her face. Pained, angry, and with a tight lipped hint of indecision. Purty caught the look and smiled, waving to Crossfire, and the other mare pointedly looked away, scowling. Purity, a hurt look briefly crossing her features, soon recovered with a smile and resumed talking with those around her.

What was that about? It was obvious there was something between Crossfire and Purity, but what was the deal? Next to Crossfire Knobs was busily filling a plate with snacks from one of the food tables, happily wheeling along on her artificial legs as she animatedly tried different foods. Before long she was shoving some of the food at Crossfire and all but forcing the mare to grumpily try them out. When Knobs spotted me, she grinned ear to ear and waved me over.

“Longwalk you gotta try this! They have some kind of melty cheese that goes on everything! Here, try it!”

Trotting over I offered the pair an awkward smile, “Hey, you two enjoy-”

“Talk later, cheese now!” Knobs said, shoving a piece of what looked like celery towards my mouth with her magic. A thick, goopy wad of melted white cheese nearly dripped from the green stalk. Knowing Knobs wouldn’t take no for an answer I munched it down with one bite, and found myself pleasantly surprised!

“Mmm, that’s good. Where did they get it?”

Crossfire gave me a look that said I didn’t want to know, but Knobs bowled right along with a shiningly enthusiastic smile. “Can you believe they’ve figured out how to milk molerats!? They can make all sorts of dairy products from the stuff! We totally got to get these NCR folk to share the technique.”

I blinked, then nodded in mute acceptance. I suppose one kind of milk was as good as another. Glancing around I asked, “Knobs, where’s Blasting Cap?”

“Sleeping. I think.” said Knobs with a bashful grin, “At least she’d better be. I promised her I’d knick her some snacks for tomorrow if she was good and actually went to bed, but wouldn’t be surprised if she was rigging mines around your hotel room. So, you know, just be careful when you head back tonight, ‘kay?”

I rubbed my forehead, “I’ll keep that in mind. Have I thanked you yet for taking that crazy filly in?”

“Probably, but I don’t mind hearing more praise.” Knobs said happily, then Crossfire cut in with a sharp look.

“I saw you chatting with Begonia.”

I shot up an eyebrow, meeting he look. “Yeah, what of it?”

“...Be careful, buck.” Crossfire said, voice hard and ornery as every but also carrying a distinct hint of actual caution. “The bounty may be off your head officially, but I know a death glare when I see one, and that bitch has a ditch with your corpse’s name on it if you’re not paying attention.”

“Crossfire, c’mon, do we got to be super serious right now?” Knobs asked, to which Crossfire returned a flat look.

“I just don’t want one of my team dead before the job’s done, no matter how idiotically the buck seems determined to get himself killed. Going off to get into mysterious fights in the middle of the day, directly confronting and antagonizing one of the strongest Guild leaders in the room, its like this moron wants to die.” Crossfire muttered, turning her glare back onto me. “And when he does finally bite off more than he can chew I don’t want him taking the rest of us down with him.”

“Can Begonia even make a move in a place like this?” I asked, gesturing around us.

“Idiot. She’s not the type to pull a gun and do the deed herself.” Crossfire growled in a quiet voice, looking around as if to see if anypony was listening in. “But I wouldn't be surprised if she finds a way to slip some poison into a meal, or arrange some kind of ‘accident’ for you before we leave the NCR.”

Knobs looked at the celery she was munching on while dipping it into a bowl of the melted cheese, and slowly set it aside and stepped away from it. “Aaaaaand there goes my appetite. Thanks Crossfire.”

Crossfire had the presence of mind to look a shade apologetic. “Just making things clear.”

“And you have.” I said, taking a deep breath and trying to relax myself, “Believe me, I’m not about to take Begonia lightly, but if she’s going to get in my face, I’m not lying down for her either. Eventually she’ll have to deal with the fact that her Guild won’t be able to operate the way it has forever. Not if an alliance forms with the NCR.”

“You think she doesn’t know that?” Crossfire shot back, “I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that pirate attack we ran into was backed by her to try and stop this treaty from going through.”

A sharp cough sounded from nearby and we all glanced over to see Applegate approaching, with Wellsrping Whistles trailing close behind. Applegate was dressed in a gray formal suit and blouse combination with long sleeves down her forelegs with white lace at the ends. The front was buttoned up with gold buttons and a bright steel pin of the Drifter’s wing emblem was pinned to the left side of the chest. She didn’t have her broad bladed sword on her, but she did wear a formal looking short sword at her side. Wellspring was sporting a slimming yellow dress that hugged her haunches tightly and matched her blonde mane quite well. The dress had a low cut v-neck, and even in a formal setting a notebook and pen dangled from a cord where she could easily grab it to write notes.

“I hope we’re not interrupting too interesting a conversation?” inquired Applegate politely, although I noticed her eyes were drawn to the fresh scar on my face with a severely raised eyebrow.

“You two did look like you were having quite the discourse over here.” said Wellspring, eyes twinkling. She was more subtle in noticing my scar, saying nothing of it.

“Actually we were just finishing our conversation.” Crossfire said with a look like cold stone filling her golden eyes. “And I think this side of the party has gotten a little crowded all of a sudden. If you’ll excuse me, I’m getting some fresh air.”

“Crossfire, what’s wrong?” Knobs asked, but Crossfire had already brushed past Applegate and Wellspring, trotting from the room via the massive main doors with her expression like a mobile stormcloud. Knobs watched her go with nothing but worry on her face. “What’s going on with her lately?”

My own eyes glanced towards Princess Purity, who while still entertaining those speaking with her had given our group a look as well. I could see the faintly pained look Purity showed as Crossfire left, and the look only seemed to deepen when she saw Applegate. It was clear the three of them knew each other, but Ancestor Spirits help me if I could figure out how. Knobs had told me Crossfire was a Neighlesius soldier before she’d become a Drifter, and I knew Applegate had once been a knight from the same land. Aside from Princess Purity being the ruler of that country, I couldn’t see what linked the three together.

Well, was there any reason not to just ask?

“So, yeah, I’m with Knobs here. What’s up with Crossfire? She really seems like she’s got some beef with both you and the Princess, Applegate.” I said.

Wellspring let out a feather light laugh, “Subtle.”

As for Applegate, she met my eyes with a frank stare of her own, her voice understanding but steel clad. “It is not for me to say, Longwalk. Crossfire and the Princess both carry a burden none other but they can truly understand. One seeks escape through her duty to her people, the other escape through distancing herself from the past.” Applegate’s eyes turned a quick look towards Knobs. “Perhaps one day they’ll both learn that even burdens that can’t be shared can still be made lighter by the company one keeps.”

She paused, suddenly looking introspective as she brushed some of her faded gray mane from her face, “Not that I’m one to talk. Maybe that’s why Crossfire won’t listen to me. It must sound hypocritical coming from a pony who also left her homeland.”

“Did you know Crossfire from back home?” asked Knobs, “I mean, she doesn’t really talk about Neighlesius much, but you talk like you knew her back then.”

“I’ve already spoken on the subject too much.” Applegate said, then Wellspring bumped her shoulder with an elbow.

“Hey, I could always take it off the record, you know. You can’t expect us to ignore such a tasty mystery when it keeps getting dangled in front of us. Just a tidbit, hmm, Applegate? Something to wet our whistles with?” Wellspring fluttered her eyes and traced her hoof across Applegate’s leg, smiling deeply. Applegate just eyed her for a second flatly, then let out a small sigh.

“All I will say is that I did not know Crossfire personally until I came to Skull City, but I...” she hesitated a second longer, then seemed to make up her mind. “I knew her father. He was the one who trained me as a knight.”

“Oh ho? Interesting.” Wellspring said, “I take it he must have been a knight too, and a high ranking one to be in charge of training other knights.”

Applegate’s face dawned with a hint of embarrassed red, “I’ve said too much. Please, let us drop the matter. Besides, I have a question of my own. Longwalk, where did that injury come from?”

Damn. Well I knew it would come up sooner rather than later, so I adopted as straight a face as I could as I said, “An accident. Arcaidia healed me up afterward, so it's not a big deal. It looks worse than it actually is.”

“What kind of accident?” Wellspring inquired politely. Applegate’s own eyes narrowed slightly.

“I’ve seen cuts like that before. It looks like it was done with a large blade.”

A scythe, to be precise, wielded by my friend and possibly soon to be lover who was possessed by the ghosts of her dead family due to the psychotic scheme of another friend’s kind of sort of insane family member who was also a necromancer. But I wasn’t about to say that out loud so I just said the first thing that flitted through my mind.

“Binge accidently cut me while we were-” C’mon brainpony, make something up! “Make..ing...out?”

Brainpony, what’s wrong with you!?

Wellspring giggled with a sound like windchimes, “Oh my, that must have been a very intense makeout session.”

Applegate’s face turned even more red. “I...see. Very well, I will not inquire further. I believe I shall check the room’s perimeter for security reasons. Excuse me.”

The flustered Applegate quickly trotted away, while Wellspring rubbed her chin and continued to giggle under her breath. Once she got herself under control she joined me and Knobs with a satisfied smirk on her face and quickly changed the subject. “So, Knobs, did Crossfire ever talk about her parents?”

Knobs had been staring at me for a moment, eyes a tad wide, but she quickly recovered her wits and shook her head. “Not a lot. I mean, she told me she was raised on a farm. I guess maybe her dad retired from knight stuff and took up onion farming?”

“Hmm, possible.” Wellsrping said, then she nudged me. “What do you think?”

“Think? I think I’m just as confused by Crossfire as I was five minutes ago.” I said with a helpless chuckle. “But what else is new? Much as we don’t get along, I kind of hope she sorts out whatever’s bothering her. Lately I’ve learned from firsthoof experience how much keeping stuff locked up in your head can mess with it.”

“Maybe I ought to go find her. Talk to her.” said Knobs, “Not prying or anything, just making sure she’s not alone.”

“That’s probably a good idea.” I said, “You’re the only pony I know who she seems genuinely comfortable with. If anypony can help her out, its you.”

“He’s right on that, Knobs. Crossfire is probably finding a quiet corner to brood in as we speak, and I don’t know anypony other than you who can get her out of a funk.” said Wellspring encouragingly.

Knobs, face growingly determined, adjusted her dress and nodded firmly. “Alright, I’m going after her! No friend of mine is going to be stuck in angst-ville alone while I’m on watch!”

“Good luck.” I sincerely offered her and Knobs winked a pale eye at me and smoothly wheeled herself off, swiftly pursuing Crossfire. As I watched her go I found myself saying, “Those two aren’t bad together.”

“You noticed that too, did you?” said Wellspring with a short smirk. “I’ve told Knobs time and again to get more aggressive, or she’ll never get through to Crossfire.”

“Well, Crossfire doesn’t make it easy.” I said, then winced, “Guess I’m not one to talk, though. I can’t claim to get how relationships work. I only just started figuring out stuff on my end, let alone have any idea how it works for other ponies.”

“In my experience its different for everypony, and what makes sense for one pony won’t make any sense at all to another.” Wellspring said with a dainty shrug, still smirking. “Oh well, we’re all a little screwed up in our own ways. I suspect it was like that even before the Megaspells hit. So, Longwalk, what did happen to your face? I somehow doubt that happened from a little intimacy with your eccentric green companion.”

I coughed, “Well, you don’t know Binge. She’s got this thing for hiding knives and razors in her mane.”

“Kinky. Still, that scar seems rather large for a accidental run in with a razor. Are you sure you can’t tell me anything? I do so love a good story and I’m smelling a doozy here, somewhere.”

Taking a deep breath I fixed her with a firm look, my voice utterly level. “Please Wellspring, drop it. If I could tell you, or Applegate, or anypony for that matter, I would. But I can’t, and for good reason. You’ll just have to trust me on that.”

She held up a placating hoof, “Okay, okay. I’ll just content myself with relentless speculation. Hmm, speaking of your various marefriends, where are they?”

Feeling my own face heat up, I muttered, “I’m only involved with one of them, and we haven’t... look its none of your business. And I figure they should be here any...” I trailed off into an awed whisper as through the open main doors to the ballroom Arcaidia, B.B, and Binge all stepped through together.

“...minute.”

Wellspring saw them enter as well, and gave me a playful nudge with an elbow as her smirk deepened to apocalyptic levels. “Well, whichever one you're involved with, I’d say you’re pretty lucky.”

I barely heard her, my eyes glued to the three trotting into the room. I learned later that the dresses my friends got were bought from a local seamstress who apparently had a cutie mark specifically for being able to make outfits almost miraculously fast, or custom refit dresses on the fly. Given that my group had a decent chunk of a disposable caps by this point the mares had been able to pay the extra for a special rush job. From what I was seeing, it was worth whatever they’d ended up paying.

B.B had forgone her usual light violet dress in favor of a dark blue number that hugged her back and barrel tightly, but left much of her chest exposed save for an elegant thread around her neck. The long train was edged with white tufts that I thought were actually clouds, or at least small strands of cloud interwoven with white lace. Her sandy brown and pink streaked mane was done in an intricate, interwoven braid that hung down the left side of her neck, swaying with her steps.

Arcaidia surprised me by switching out her normal blue dress with one of a vibrantly bright mixture of silver and white. The dress had a high neck, nearly up to her chin, and long silver slippers with ribbons laced up the white legs. Silver designs wove through the stark white fabric to form patterns like the dustings of stars across the night sky, flowing along the dresse’s moderate train that ended in a trail of clear lace. Her incredibly long mane was well groomed and shimmered down her back, but the front was now done up with a circlet braid that almost looked like a crown.

Both of them were stunning, but my eyes became truly riveted and I felt my blood rush faster as I looked at Binge. Binge, who hated bathing with a firing passion. Binge, whose usual outfit either involved spiked armor or the blood of her enemies, often both. Binge, who for much of her life had lived in the filth of the Wasteland until it had seemed to become a permanent crust upon her, body and soul.

Not so permanent anymore.

I’d never seen her dark green mane nor lighter green coat shine quite so cleanly before, and while she did nothing to hide the scars that covered her, she somehow made them look like they belonged there as accents to her looks. She was wearing red, a dress that hung low and tight across her chest while leaving her neck and back exposed as the velvety material clung across her barrel, little red laces criss-crossing her back and a similarly red collar encircling her throat, sporting several gleaming steel studs. The ends of the dress flowed over her flanks like red water, cascading down but gliding around her haunches in such a way that you could see every muscle move as she sauntered into the room. Her legs bore red leather bands, studded like the collar she wore. Her poofy mane, now quite clean and somehow managing to avoid most of its usual split ends was left to hang naturally down her back, but she’d decorated it with glittering array of small metal razors. There weren’t too many, and she’d braided them in so they didn’t sway loose but clung tight, not cutting into her. She also wore several knives openly, sheathed at her hips or chest.

Binge was still Binge, however cleaned up and beautiful. Even her tail had a small, curved knife braided into its tip almost like a stinger.

“Well, are you going to stand there gawking, or go welcome them to the party?” Wellspring asked coyly, one hoof tapping my open jaw.

I nodded dumbly and stumbled towards my friends. I was spotted quickly, Arcaidia smiling and waving, B.B glancing towards the floor with a spot of embarrassment, and Binge grinning her wide grin and trotting to meet me.

“Heya bucky! What do you think?” Binge asked, twirling in place, flicking her tail to accentuate her flanks as her dress flowed, showing all of her curves on that end. “You wanna take a bite, don’t you?”

I gulped, breathless. “You look...” Incredible? Amazing? None of that seemed enough, nor really Binge’s style. “...very biteable.”

That made her smile so much warmer and I saw her eyes glow with it. She slide up to me smoothly, nuzzling my cheek and her hot breath whispering in my ear. “Good answer. Now let’s party.”

I quickly learned that for Binge that meant three things; food, drink, and dancing, in excessive amounts. Very quickly worries about Begonia’s possible schemes, the fears concerning Scythe and the Family’s future threat, or that of the Golem for that matter, all sort of melted away as Binge whisked me around to in a whirlwind of activity. Arcaidia and B.B followed in our wake, and I was able to compliment them both on their own dresses in due time.

“Is not quite traditional style I used to.” said Arcaidia, eyeing a glass of wine in her magical grip, “But B.B said dress makes me look frugal.”

“Regal, hun, regal.” B.B said, gulping down some wine of her own and wincing. “Usually don’t git inta this stuff, but ain’t half bad. Ya gonna try it Arc, or stare at it all night?”

“Is bad for mind.” Arcaidia said with a tentative sniff at the alcohol, “Not ever drink it before. Veruni have other drinks for buzzing feeling, not leave giant headache in morning.”

“Pfft, boooring!” said Binge, who had already downed half a bottle on her own and was encouraging me to do the same. So far I’d avoided doing more than a glass or two, which wasn’t affecting me yet. Like Arcaidia, I kind of wanted to avoid getting impaired. Binge didn’t seem to mind either way. “It's fun to get loose, and what we all need is fun right now! C’mon Longy, let’s get swinging! That dance floor is too empty, but that’s fine, we can rip it up ourselves!”

Arcaidia took a experimental sip of her win and glanced at B.B, “Shivol bir has point. Do you want to, um, dance B.B?”

B.B’s eyes went a bit wide at the question, but she quickly recovered her wits and managed a quick smile. “I guess so. Sure, why not?”

That seemed to settle it and in mere moments I found myself being pulled onto the relatively clear area of the dance floor alongside my friends. I caught sight of LIL-E, the robot still floating near the entrance area, watching us. At my look the robot tilted in what appeared to be an approving nod. Then all I could see was Binge as the mare got in front of me, her hooves around me and mine around hers.

I had danced before, at many of my tribes own festive occasions. I wasn’t exactly graceful, but I was usually enthusiastic, even if I had rarely had anypony to dance with besides Trailblaze. I didn’t know the NCR’s customs on dancing, though. However what I’d seen had seemed pretty fast and loose. I’d heard some of the NCR locals call it ‘swing’ and since I was used to looking like a fool anyway I didn’t mind trying to mimic it.

Neither did Binge, and she was grinning into me as we started to shake and swing around the dance floor, hardly looking elegant but both of us laughing at the fun of it. It was easy to just ignore the details and let myself move to the music. The band was playing a fast paced tune that seemed tailor made for dancing and I enjoyed just moving with it, Binge’s body pressed close to me as we swung around each other, gliding back and forth wildly.

I could feel her heat, and her sweat, and every time we got close her breath touched my neck and made me shiver. Her blue eyes shone like twin pools of pure water, and for the first time I saw not madness inside them, not twisted pleasure, but simple, clean and honest happiness. I think for the first time since foalhood Binge was letting herself be happy without the barbed chains of guilt or past pains and madness pulling at her. I could only hope it lasted, that I could help her make it last.

Eventually the music slowed down to something more casual and relaxing, and the various couples dancing slowed with it, us included. I saw Arcaidia and B.B slowly swaying together to the more subdued tune, both of them blushing faintly but smiling at each other. The stray thought wandered through my mind that I wondered if they were just having fun as friends, or if there was more there? It was hard to tell, but my friends were clearly happy, and quite frankly that was all I cared about at that moment.

As we danced, I felt Binge press herself close to me, her whispering voice husky in my ear. “Longwalk, I want to go to the hotel.”

My heart did a small leap as I could only think of one reason she want to do that. Heart starting to race I whispered back. “R-right now?”

A thick, promising giggle escaped her. “Heheh, if not right now I might just throw you on the floor and do it right here. That or we keep dancing and we’ll slip.”

“Slip?” I half started to ask, but realization kicked in and my face blazed to bright hot crimson. “Oh. Right. Hotel room it is.”

With an eager grin Binge actually grabbed my collar with her teeth and started to literally haul me towards the doors out. Arcaidia and B.B saw us going, and I think Arcaidia might have been confused because I saw her whisper a question to B.B, who whispered a reply and I saw Arcaidia’s own body go beat red in an instant. B.B then just looked at me and winked. Glad to know I was likely going to get ribbed on by my friends about this for a long time to come.

LIL-E, as we passed by her, simply said, “Don’t forget to wear protection.”

Protection? From what? The razor blades? I wasn’t too worried about those. I didn’t think Binge was planning anything that extreme this early in the relationship.

I hoped.

----------

Back at our hotel room Binge barely waited for us to get the door closed and locked before whirling upon me and I found myself tasting her from a deep, frantic kiss. Her tongue pressed in, hungerily seeking mine, and I responded by holding her close to my chest, pressing the length of her against me as I found myself forced up against the wall. She raised her left hindleg and with a gasp I felt her grinding herself into me with needful motions and a deep, wanting moan starting in the back of her throat.

Pulling out of the kiss for a second to breath I managed to say, “B-Binge, slow down a sec-”

She bit my ear, stroking my chest with one hoof while her other started to rub. “No, bucky. Can’t do slow. Not now. Please. I want this. You do too... right?”

I couldn’t ignore the brief, scared hesitance in that last word, and I cupped her head in my own hooves, staring into her eyes as straight as I could. I kissed her again, lightly this time, a loving brush of my lips on hers as I said, “Yes, I want this. I won’t push you away, Binge. I just...”

I took a deep breath, trying to collect my wits. “I haven’t done this before. I want to do it right.”

She giggled again, giving me a playful whap on my head as she dug her hips forward again. I could feel her heat against my groin. There was literally nothing but a few small centimeters of fabric separating us down there. I could feel the hot wetness of her rubbing along me, and I was already practically primed to burst. Binge’s lips played over the base of my throat, then I felt her tongue lick up to my chin in a teasing dance.

“It's easy, Longy. Your body already knows what to do...” she pulled away from me, turning to display her rear to me as she smoothly walked towards the bed. Every motion of her hooves swayed her backside, and her tail lifted, throwing aside the back of her dress to show tantalizing glimpses of what lay beneath. She laid herself across the bed in a stretching, slow pose, forelegs splayed out, her rear raised just so, her tail still swaying about as she looked back at me with lidded eyes that burned bright blue with need. Her voice dripped as much as what lay between her hind legs. “...Just let nature take its course.”

I could barely hear past the thunderous pounding of blood rushing through me from my hammering heartbeat. Conscious thought was slipping away from me as I smelled Binge’s scent filling my nostrils, but I had enough frame of mind to control myself as I approached her, eyes flicking between her entrancing body and her painfully eager eyes.
“I, uh, just need to make sure... you’re not in h-heat, right?”

She laughed, licking her lips. “Would it matter if I was?”

Temporarily flabbergasted for a second I sort of stood there sputtering for a second, before Binge smiled at me reassuringly. “You’re so cute when you’re brain goes kableiwe, but that’s not the part of you I want to pop right now. Don’t worry...” her expression turned reserved for a second. “...I can’t have foals.”

I blinked at her, concern overriding hormones for a second as I went up to her, but slide up along her side, one arm going over her and pulling her close. “You can’t?”

“Nope. Done the sexy times a lot over the years.” Binge said as she turned onto her side, somehow managing to remain sultry as she ran a hoof down her body. My eyes couldn’t help but rove over her lithe form, still heated and finding nothing but more to be attracted to as I looked at this lovely mare. Her scars didn’t repulse me, they seemed to glow as marks of strength. Binge’s hoof rested near a bullet scar not far above her groin, and her voice’s husky nature grew soft.

“Think it was this one that did it. Don’t know, got a lot of holes put in me. One of them broke something inside, pretty sure. All that time, making the sexy with the willing and the not willing, but never ha a mini-me to pop out.”

I was silent for a second, and Binge’s eyes gazed at me. “Does that bother you, Longwalk?”

She rarely used my name without some kind of pet nature to it. I could tell this mattered to her. So I looked at her squarely back and stroked her mane, pulling her close. “No. Doesn’t change a thing.”

Her deceptively strong hooves sensually rubbed along my chest and turned me onto my back so I was laying on the bed with my hind legs dangling off the side, Binge rolling as well so that she was now between my legs with her upper body pressed against my chest. She looked up at me with heated eyes, nibbling my chest. I could feel her own heart beating away at a fast pace in her own chest as she slid lower.

“Good,” she said in a heavy, thirsty voice. “Because even if I can’t make tiny Binges and Longwalks, I’m going to drain you like I’m trying to repopulate the whole damn Wasteland.”

With that she left me no more time to speak. She went lower and lower on my body, trailing a line of hot kisses and tongue flicks along my belly until she reached my lowest part. Then a unimaginable heat and wetness engulfed me as pleasured shattered my senses, and I was at Binge’s mercy. But that was okay, because I trusted her completely now, and while I had no idea what I was doing, Binge was right; my body knew more of what to do than I did and soon nature took over.

It was a long time before either of us got any sleep that night.

----------

The next morning I woke up aching and sore from snout to flank, yet feeling utterly content and satisfied in a way I didn’t even know had been possible to feel.

I was wrapped up in Binge, our legs intertwined as we were curled up on the floor beside the bed. We’d fallen off during our... exertions last night, but hadn’t particularly cared and had kept going. She was pressed flush against me, fast asleep and snoring peacefully in my hooves, her warmth radiating into me, her snouth nestled into my throat as her breaths tickled me. My own face was buried in her mane, narrowly missing a few of her razor blades. My snout bumped into something else tied into her mane, not sharp but some kind of blunt object, and without really thinking about how odd that was I nudged it aside and continued to lightly slip between dozing and wakefulness. Bit by bit, minute by pleasantly slow passing minute I woke up more and more, and slowly blinked at the rest of the room. Binge’s dress was torn off and tossed across the dresser on the other side of the room. I noticed what was left of my tux was strewn in various spots, including one bit somehow getting outside the open window, dangling off the side of the hotel.

My memory flashed across the previous night in red hot beats, making my heart quicken again.

I hadn’t known. I mean, I’d guessed mating was certainly enjoyable, it wasn’t like I hadn’t... taken care of myself before. But being with Binge had been beyond what I could express with words. She’d been relentless, surely, and rough. I saw one of the bed posts bent from... from what I don’t know. We’d gotten kind of into it once I was past the initial awkardward first few times.

Yes, few times. I had just been a virgin, so I, uh, popped fairly quick. Luckily Binge expected that and had compensated with knowing exactly how to keep the heat on, so to speak. I hadn’t really counted how many times, per se, but Binge hadn’t let me rest until she was satisfied, and no matter how tired I got I refused to stop too until I knew she was satisfied too.

I think we’d ended up on the floor around round four, or maybe five? Gah, as good as it had been I hadn’t known how sore I could be down there until now! Maybe Binge had been in heat? The thought made me look at her, peacefully curled up against me, spooned into my chest with her hooves intertwined with mine. Soaked in sweat and... other fluids, her mane now disheveled as it had ever been, I felt my heart lighten and flow with a soft, golden warmth.

No bones about it, I loved this mare. Maybe it was the hormonal drunkenness of youth talking, but at that moment I knew I wanted nothing more than to wake up like this every morning for the rest of my life and hers. If we could just scrap through all this insanity that had been occurring since I found Arcaidia, if someday the journey did finally come to an end, I wanted Binge in my life until we died as wrinkled, withered old ponies.

...Maybe with some grandfoals running around?

Despite what Binge had said, a part of my mind turned. I didn’t doubt what she’d told me, that she couldn’t have foals due to the many injuries she’d taken over the years. But I had recovered from all sorts of injuries that should have killed me, partially due to incredible medical magic and science, and partly due to the alien nanomachines in my blood. Who was to say that Binge might not be able to have the damage inside her repaired? One day, when we were safe, and had a home to raise them...

I shook my head. I was thinking way too far ahead. Me and Binge were just now figuring out how we felt about each other, and I wasn’t so naive I thought one night of admittedly incredible mating somehow meant things were going to turn out all clean and perfect. Who knew what the future held for us?

Well, whatever it was, I was damned sure I was going to face it with her, no matter what. I hugged her tightly, kissing her tenderly on the forehead, and she sleepily murmured into my chest.

“Mmm...Longwalk...love you...”

Her tail twitched, and her eyes were still closed in sleep, so I thought she was dreaming. I smiled, thinking, Aww, she’s pretty adorable when asleep.

“Mmm...harder... faster...zzzZZZzz...”

I blushed furiously, body heating up like a bonfire. Adorable, but still Binge. I fondly stroked her mane, careful to avoid the sharp objects hidden within. Glancing over myself I saw no small number of rough scratch marks from Binge’s frantic hooves, and more than a few bite marks accompanied them. She might not exactly have been gentle with me, but I couldn’t find any desire to complain. I was sturdy, and the pain had been far overshadowed by the satisfaction.

Really the situation felt a bit surreal, like a part of me couldn’t actually believe this was all happening. Ponies trying to kill me, I was used to that. Having a marefriend was new territory. Was there something I was supposed to do at this point? I mean, if this had happened back in my tribe and I’d lain with one of the mare’s of the tribe, then our responsibility would be to go to her parents and Chieftain Hardtack to announce that we were a mated pair. There’d be a brief ceremony, a celebratory feast where I’d have to go hunt a gecko to be the main course of the meal. Nothing complicated, but I got the feeling none of that applied here.

Should I cook her breakfast or something? I was pretty sure there weren’t any geckos for me to go hunt around here anyway. Maybe... maybe I was overthinking this. Binge wasn’t the sort to get caught up in the details, so why should I? We were together, and that’s what mattered. I’d just go with the flow.

Looking towards the window I saw gentle sunlight pouring in and a blue sky barely streaked with cloud. What time was it? Slowly turning my hoof to look at my Pip-Buck, I saw the time was nearing nine o’clock. I wondered where the others were? I suppose they knew me and Binge would be here at the hotel, so they must have found other arrangements for the night. I felt a bit guilty about that, but I supposed there hadn’t been any avoiding it. The thought certainly made me wonder how me and Binge were going to handle our new relationship while the party was on the move. Finding privacy wouldn’t always be this easy.

With a cattish yawn Binge stretched and her eyes flickered open. Seeing me she made a deep throated purring nose and nuzzled my neck. “Wasn’t just a squishy dream then. Good. Was kinda scared it was all little brain ghosts showing me what I wanted.”

She paused a moment, looking up at me with suddenly very serious eyes. “I’m not asleep, right Longwalk? This is real? We’re both awake, right here, right now, and there’s no more whispers and shadows playing games with my head?”

I smiled down at her, pulling her tighter against me, feeling the raw ache in my body. “This better be real, otherwise I’m going to be wondering all day who put these bite marks on me.”

Her laugh tickled my chest, followed by a tantalizing brush of her teeth as she nipped at me. “Everypony who sees you is gonna know you’re mine, bucky.” She gave playful little bites down my chest, sighing softly with each one. “Mine. Mine. Mine.”

Lifting herself over me she sat on my barrel, looking down at me with a look that was abruptly unsure, her voice oddly hesitant. “It wasn’t... too weird for you? I tried so hard not to hurt you. I didn’t, did I?”

I reached up, pulling her down over me and planting a firm kiss on her lips. She was tense, but I felt that tension drain out of her as we enjoyed a long, warm kiss, at the end of which I said, “You didn’t hurt me at all. I like these aches and marks.” Hesitantly I asked, “I was... good? You enjoyed last night?”

Binge’s tongue flicked out to lick her lips as she grinned and rubbed her hoof over my chest in a slow, sensual circle that made me start to warm up inside. “What you didn’t know, bucky, you made up for with enthusiasm. I popped like a fizzy Sparkle-Cola, don’t you worry.” She looked at me curiously, her expresion fond yet wondering. “It was actually really different.”

“Different?” I asked.

A flash of regret hit her face as she glanced away. “All my other smexy times were just flesh slapping flesh. Grunting and thrusting and sometimes lots of pain and screaming too. Some of it willing. Some of it not. All of it was just blood and the flesh, though. None of it hit deeper inside me.”

Her eyes locked on mine, her voice turning thick with mixed emotions. “But last night with you felt so different. It just felt so good, but not just in my squishy flesh parts, but deeper inside. I didn’t know it could feel like that. I didn’t know I even had parts of me that could feel that way.”

I looked at her with a reassuring smile and said, “But I made you happy, right?”

She buried her face in my chest, and I thought she was laughing for a second with her small shakes, until she looked up at me with sunlight shining off the tears in her eyes as she smiled at me. “I’m so happy it hurts like crazy. More than being shot or stabbed. I don’t even know if I should feel this happy, after the life I’ve lived. Is it okay, bucky? Am I allowed to feel like this?”

I took a deep breath and stroked my hooves down the back of her head, and caressed her back. “I think so. I think as long as you live right now better than you did back then, its okay to hold onto whatever happiness you can find. I sure as hell know I’m going to hold onto you for as long as I can.”

Her eyes warmed and she melted atop me, sighing contentedly. “Not letting go of you either. I don’t know what’s coming for us, Longy. There’s still a lot of dark places in me. But I feel you in there too, now, so much brightness washing up against the rust. So, please... stay inside me forever, okay?”

“Uh, are we talking metaphorically, or...?”

She burst out into a thick pile of giggles, and her eyes grew heated as she grinned at me and I felt her rub her enticing backside against my groin. “I could go for both, if you’re up for it, bucky.”

Despite my soreness, the way she was rubbing herself against me down there was rapidly heating up my body and making it respond in all the right ways. My breathing catching in my throat, and managed to stammer, “I, uh, w-wouldn’t say no, but I don’t know that we’ve got time to...aaah... go all out like last nigh-”

Before I’d finished speaking there was a loud, banging knock on the door and I heard Crossfire’s voice from outside, muffled but still understandable.

“Hey! You in there, buck!? Open up the door.”

Startled, I poked my head up beyond the bed, and Binge rose with me, still clinging tight to my body.

“Whoops, the Grump has come to kill all the fun.” Binge said with a pouting look and a huff, “And I wanted to show you so many more fun things today, too.”

“I’m sure we’ll have time for that later.” I said, sighing as well as I reluctantly slid out from under Binge and stood, helping her up with an offered hoof. “If we don’t find out what she wants, she’s just going to keep banging on the door.”

“Grr, why does she get to keep banging, but we have to stop?” whined Binge.

That nearly made me trip as I rummaged about for my armor, bumping into Gramzanber, who I noticed was propped up against the wall. I looked at the ARM, having utterly forgotten it was there last night. As if sensing my unasked question, I heard Gramzanber’s voice in my head.

I considered asking if you wanted to put me elsewhere before you and Binge became fully engaged in coitus, but I did not want to interrupt what appeared to be an already delicate mating process. If it makes you feel better, I tuned out most of it. However I am curious, what was the point of all that oral-

“Gram, please, don’t finish that sentence.” I moaned, fumbling around in pulling my armor on from where it had been neatly piled next to my ARM. Binge, laying out on the bed with her chin propped in her hooves, waggled her eyebrows, tail wagging.

“What’s the spear asking, bucky? I wanna know!”

“N-nothing! He’s didn’t see anything and certainly isn’t asking about anything!” I yelped, and Crossfire banged on the door again.

“I can hear you in there! Move your ass. We got a situation and Whiteheart needs all Drifters geared up and assembled now! What are you doing in there, putting on your fucking makeup!?”

With a mischievous giggle Binge rolled off the bed and trotted towards the door. “I’ll answer it.”

“Waitasec Binge-” I said, but she was swifter than my words and unlocked the door, throwing it open.

On the other side Crossfire stood, wearing her usual red jacket and with her massive rifle slung over her back. “About damned time, what the fu...”

The Drifter mare’s words trailed off as she took in the sight of Binge in front of her, sweat soaked, mane ruffled, glowing like a lightbulb. Then me, half dressed, equally ruffled, with enough scratches and bite marks to look like I’d been through a feral ghoul attack. Our clothes from the party, strewn about the room haphazardly. The unmistakable, musky smell of the room.

“Good morning!” Binge chimed happily, “We’ll be ready in a sec. Bucky is just so tired you know? He had such a busy, busy night.”

Crossfire blinked, looking at her, then at me, back to her, back to me. Her right eye twitched. Her hoof scuffed the floor, then very slowly reached up to cover her face as she shook her head. Crossfire’s voice was entirely too level as she said, “I’ll see you two downstairs. Fifteen minutes. Get your asses cleaned up, you both reek.”

With that she trotted away down the hall, and Binge turned to me with her face lit up. “Fifteen whole minutes! Do you think we could-”

“No, Binge.”

“Awww, spoilsport. I was going to show you this trick with my tail.”

I paused, thinking. “Could you show me while we shower?”

To that, Binge just grinned.

----------

I was still wringing out water from my mane and tail by the time Binge and I reached the main hall of Tenpony Tower, where I saw the other Drifter’s waiting for us alongside my friends. Crossfire and Shard were both not only fully geared up, but were sporting some new hardware I didn’t recognize. These looked somewhat like rifles, only much larger and bulkier than what I was used to seeing, with box shaped barrels with metal casings surrounding what looked like clusters of copper bunched up in tight packets and set up in twin rows down a narrow metal channel. Various little nodes sprouted from below the rifles, and they glowed with faint hints of blue magic.

Hawkeye and his Drifter team were similarly equipped, although I noted one of them, a bulky orange earth pony stallion with a close cropped mustard colored mane was carrying a straight up rocket launcher.

Compared to them my friends weren’t quite as loaded down, but I noticed B.B was carrying the black case that contained the Twin Fenrir ARM that Scythe had given her. I guess she’d decided to try using it, or at least was giving it serious thought. Arcaidia was wearing her usual dress, her starblaster holstered at her chest, but I saw her working on one of those metal objects she used to contain new spells, holding it in front of her with a wisp of her magic with a look of concentration on her face. LIL-E floated nearby, turning to see Binge and me approaching.

“Must have been some night.” the eyebot said, somehow managing to make a robotic monotone sound coy. “You’re walking a bit funny there, Longwalk.”

I immediately tried to straighten my posture and not show my soreness, although I think I ended up just walking more stiffly. Shooting LIL-E a look, face already burning, I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I feel perfectly fine and not at all sore from the waist down. Or the waist up, for that matter.”

“I don’t know about the rest of you, but I feel great!” said Binge with a happy bounce in her own steps, casting a glowing look about the gathering. “So who are we killing today?”

“Not who, what.” Arcaidia said, not looking up from her concentration upon the small, silver metal rectangle in her magic as she slowly inserted it into her Pip-Buck. I saw a brief gleam of Veruni crests on the metal card’s surface before it went inside the Pip-Buck. Once it was in, Arcaidia worked a few switches on the hoof mounted device and then turned her attention to me and Binge. Her expression was cooly professional, but her silver eyes did linger on Binge and me a bit long, and seemed momentarily worried, but she cast it aside quickly. “Crossfire say wait until Whiteheart arrive to explain, but she already tell us basics.”

“Since the Guildmaster is going to brief us anyway I didn’t want to waste time trying to explain things to the buck.” Crossfire snorted.

“Ya’ll won’t mind if we tell ‘em ourselves then, since the boss ain’t here yet.” said B.B, turning to me with a flutter of wings. “It's the Golem.”

That word alone pushed away my soreness and riveted my attention instantly. I resisted the urge to go running out the door to check that the Golem wasn’t already attacking the city. Instead I schooled my face to remain calm. “Where is it?”

“Still in the Everfree.” spoke Whiteheart’s smooth and swift tone as the stallion appeared from the direction of the elevators that led further up into Tenpony Tower. He wasn’t alone, as two mares trotted alongside him; Wellspring Whistles and... Miss Homage? What were they both doing here? Whiteman strode to the center of our three separate Drifter groups, both mares following him. He looked around at all of us, a small and grim smile on his face. “It seems sometime in the early morning the mechanical being Longwalk’s party identified as a ‘Golem’ started to burn part of the Everfree Forest, revealing its position. Although under instructions from the NCR President to remain on standby, the local dragon, Spike, flew in and has engaged the Golem. However he has been unable to defeat it, and has already suffered injury. President Grimfeathers has two Raptors on site to strike, but since the Drifter’s Guild has agreed to aid in the matter we will be moving in first to try and deal with the Golem before it becomes necessary to risk NCR lives.”

“So we’re just risking our own lives for... what, a show of good faith?” Hawkeye asked, muzzle scrunched in a frown.

“You will be receiving substantial hazard pay, of course.” Whiteheart said, “Including being able to keep your new NCR manufactured hardware. I trust you’ll find the railguns to your liking?”

“They’re not exactly standard issue, that’s for sure. Why’d the local army ponies bring these to us?” asked Shard, eyeing his own weapon curiously.

“Another favor to the NCR. The weapons have been extensively tested in all conditions save combat against hardened targets.” Explained Whiteheart. “We get extra pay for providing live fire data on the weapons’ effectiveness against the Golem.”

I coughed politely, raising my hoof, “Mind if I ask why Miss Whistles and Miss Homage are with you, sir?”

Whiteheart raised and eyebrow, opening his mouth, but a dark gray hoof forestalled him as Homage offered me a short smile. “Let me explain. Whatever is going down out there, both Wellspring and I believe there’s good reason to make sure it gets documented. Both of us are going to be flown to one of the Raptors so we can cover the truth of what happens out there. The NCR citizens both want to and deserve to know what destroyed one of our forts and took so many of our ponies lives in the process.”

“Plus I should be able to get some amazing photos.” said Wellspring, nudging a camera she now had slung across her neck. “You know, assuming the Raptor doesn’t blow up.”

Whiteheart cleared his throat, “The Raptors should remain at fair distance from the fight, so hopefully the danger will be minimal to you and Miss Homage. In any case this is an extension of our official Drifter’s contract here. The President already has a group of Veritbucks preparing to convey us to the Everfree. If anypony intends to back out, now is the time.”

Nopony so much as made a peep about backing out, but Binge did raise her hoof with an energetic wave. “Oh! Oh! Do we get toys!?”

Whiteheart blinked at her with faintly baffled eyes. “Toys?”

Binge’s head bobbed ina blurr. “Yup, all the other pretty ponies got big new shiny guns, but I’m not so interested in the bangs as I am the booms. Unless you want me fighting giant metal death machines with these-” she flipped a knife into her hoof from seemingly nowhere, “-I need some toys.”

“Ah, I see.” Whiteheart nodded, “I’m certain we can arrange a brief detour to an NCR military armory for anypony feeling under equipped to properly arm themselves, but I must insist you hurry as we must depart within the next half hour. Are there any other questions?”

“Yeah, actually.” I said, “If it turns out we need it, is there going to be any way to call for backup, or a way to pull out? Not to sound pessimistic, but I’ve seen what this thing can do. If the fight goes bad, we’ll need a way out of there.”

“The Vertibucks will maintain a holding pattern nearby, and Crossfire and Hawkeye have both been provided radios to contact them or the Raptors. You can get the frequency to use for your Pip-Buck from them.” Whiteheart said, his tone calmly serious. “However I sincerely hope this situation can be dealt with. This is a perfect opportunity to demonstrate the skills of the Drifter’s Guild.”

“Curious.” said LIL-E, “I don’t see Applegate here. Is she coming with us?”

Whiteheart didn’t miss a beat, his tone confident. “Miss Applegate will be leading the attack and is awaiting us at the Vertibucks. Now if there are no more questions, I suggest we hurry.”

Things progressed rather quickly from there. We didn’t waste any time, all of us heading out of the hotel in a rush amid no small amount of NCR civilians watching us go with uneasy curiosity. Apparently news of what was going on hadn’t fully spread yet, but the citizens could tell something was up. We took the monorail to the Capitol Building, where I could see the three, matte black forms of Vertibucks arranged on the front lawn with a collection of quickly set up military tents. A few dozen ponies in NCR military armor and uniforms were scrambling around the scene as we arrived. One pegasus stallion with a bright red coat and even brighter silver mane snapped off a salute to us as we got off the monorail and trotted up to the camp. He was wearing a large leather coat over heavier black armor plates compared to the other soldiers present, and there was a distinct red star on his armored shoulder.

“Lieutenant Wind Drill, NCR Ranger Corps.” he introduced himself, “I’m your liaison as an temporary auxiliary unit in the NCR military forces. While you’re not under my command, I’m to advise you in case you need it on any actions that might endanger-”

“Yes, yes, you’re the leash holding pony. Point me towards the crates of ka-boom!” demanded Binge. At Wind Drill’s confused look Whiteheart coughed politely.

“Some of my personnel wish to avail themselves of NCR military stock, much as you provided us with these delightful railguns already. Might the young miss be pointed towards your supply tent?”

“Oh... uh... over there.” Wind Drill pointed with a wing, still looking confused as Binge happily bounced off in that direction. I glanced at Whiteheart.

“I’ll go make sure she doesn’t try to pack up the whole tent. This shouldn’t take long.”

“You two better not get distracted in there.” said LIL-E.

“Hey, c’mon, give me some credit!” I shouted over my shoulder as I cantered after Binge, only to hear LIL-E’s mechanical chuckling chasing me. If nothing else, I appreciated her levity. I was starting to feel light in the stomach, realizing we were soon to be facing one of the most powerful and destructive forces I’d ever seen since entering the Wasteland. My mind was only now starting to scramble for ideas on just how we were supposed to beat that Golem.

Inside the supply tent Binge was already rummaging around lockers, chests, and metal shelves piled up with ammunition, weapons, armor pieces, and explosives. Three guesses as to what she was going for first. I eyed Binge carefully as I saw her start to fill up a dark green military pair of saddlebags with quite an alarming number of pear shaped grenades with white band on them marked ‘HE’. Then my worry doubled as I noticed her grabbing blocks of something labeled ‘C-4’.

“Biiinge, you’re not going to blow us all up, are you?”

“Psssh,naaaaaah.”

“Biiiiinge, that’s a lot of stuff that looks like it’ll explode really easily.”

“Relaaaaaax, Longykins. I only blow up things I want to explode. I even read some of a book once on how this stuff works!”

I rubbed a hoof over my face. “Oh, well, okay then. As long as you read some of a book I guess it’s fine. Binge! I only just started our relationship. I don’t want it ending with either of us blown to chunky bits!”

Once she had her saddlebags stuffed full of things that could not only kill us, but just about anypony else in a twenty meter radius, Binge turned me with her tail wagging about joyously behind her, face plastered with a wide smile. “Don’t worry, Longwalk, from now on I’m going to be extra careful not to trot off into the big sleep before you. That’s why I want to make sure I got something I can hurt the big robot with. My usual turkey carving methods just won’t do here.”

“Point taken.” I said, understanding that she was right, her knives weren’t exactly ideal for fighting something like the Golem. “As long as you’re careful. Keep in mind I’m going to have to get close to the thing to use Gramzanber on it, so make sure me or anypony else is out of danger before you go tossing those things.”

“Not to worry, bucky. You bite the boss’ ankles, while I’ll-” she rubbed one of the grenades lovingly, “-blow my load all over its face!”

----------

We were airborne ten minutes later. This wasn’t my first ride in a Vertibuck, and I almost felt comfortable inside the stuffy metal cabin alongside my friends. Each Drifter team occupied a different Vertibuck, and with the side doors partially open I could see the other two vehicles soaring the sky alongside us. Crossfire and Shard, along with Lieutenant Wind Drill, Applegate, and Whiteheart, occupied the middle Vertibuck in our formation. Hawkeye’s team was on the far left Vertibuck. We were crossing north over the farmlands and slowly swinging west towards the edge of the Everfree Forest. I was only just starting to see the beginnings of a thick, dark carpet of ominous trees just a couple hundred paces below us. When we’d crossed over the Everfree before while riding upon the Sweet Candy we were too high up for me to make out many details about the forest, but now that the Vertibucks were skimming fairly low I could see more clearly.

I hadn’t seen many trees in my life, unless one counted the withered, dead things that had make up the forest near my tribe’s village. I hadn’t realized trees got this large or came in this many varied shapes. The clusters of thick greenery came in all manner of shades, most of them on the darker side of eerie. It couldn’t see the forest floor through how thick the trees were in some places. I started to wonder where we’d be able to land amid all of it, but soon I felt a hoof brush my shoulder and found B.B looking at me pointedly as she gestured with a wing out the Vertibuck’s side door. Tilting out to get a look, I saw that up ahead there was a thick wall of black smoke bordered by washes of flame that filled part of the Everfree Forest. I could see several swaths of trees burned to black cinders, some as wide as an entire town. Then, briefly, I saw a massive purple and emerald form with wings diving through the smoke to rake giant claws at something obscured on the ground by the haze. Spike pulled up from his dive bomb attack just in time to avoid a blazing counter attack of flaming cannon fire that I knew came from the Golem. Even as the dragon evaded, however, I could tell Spike was in bad shape from the way his flight pattern was shaky and awkward, one of his wings showing bleeding tears through its membranes. I couldn’t be sure but it looked like at least one of his forelegs was wounded from the way it hung limply, as opposed to how the other one was poised to strike.

“We’re dropping you off at the edge of the area ahead.” said our Vertibuck’s pilot through the compartment loudspeaker, the pegasus mare doing a remarkable job of sounding calm and professional despite flying headlong into a deadly combat zone. “We touchdown in less than a minute. Get ready.”

Beside me, B.B sighed and unslung the black case containing the Twin Fenrir in it. “Guess its now r’ never.” she said as she opened it, running a hoof over the pair of cylindrical shaped ARMs within. The silver of the twin weapons gleamed invitingly, but it was impossible to forget where they’d come from. I looked at her with a steady gaze.

“You sure you can trust there isn’t a trap attached to these things?”

B.B only hesitated a few seconds before shaking her head, the wind from outside causing her mane to obscure her features. “Ain’t ‘bout trust Long. It’s ‘bout need. An’ I need these right now. My ol’ shooters ain’t gonna cut in the fights ahead. So even if Scythe put a’ trap on these things, I gotta take a’ chance on ‘em.”

As if to prevent herself from second guessing, she shoved her right hoof into the first of the Twin Fenrir, the appendage fitting into the circular opening at the back of the gun-like ARM as if it’d been made to fit her. She then did the same with the other hoof and carefully removed both weapons. The barrels were squat already, but they automatically pulled back into the housing of the ARM to allow her to stand on them like gauntlets. The thin, square shaped blades extending from the bottom ends also pulled in in rectangular folding pieces, tucking up against the back of the ARMs, presumedly to deploy when needed. I saw faint coils of blue light moving in circuit shaped patterns along the silver metal for a moment, then fade.

Looking B.B over, who was holding one of the weapons up to examine it with cautious eyes, I asked, “Well?”

An unsure cloud passed her features as she shrugged, “I ain’t sure. I don’t feel no different. Almost thought I’d feel a’ tingle or somethin’.”

Hmm, hey Gram, when I first bonded to you, I definitely felt you in my head even back then. Can you tell if this ARM is active or what? Haven’t we felt, like, a mental pressure when dealing the Odessa ARMs before?

Those artificial ARMs were Odessa’s first-generation prototypes, with poor compatibility ratings with their users and a tendency to emit unstable energy we could pick up on. These new models seem significantly more stable. I doubt B.B would feel any noticeable difference or connection to these artificial ARMs the way you and I are bonded. There is a resonance connection there, but it's different than what the two of us share. I do not think this ARM is even sentient in the same manner I am, although I do detect an intelligence, albeit likely a more basic A.I. Likely what allows it to respond to its wielder’s will by deploying or retracting the barrels and blades.

“Gram tells me you don’t have to worry about voices in your head.” I said to B.B, “You’re basically sporting an improved version of what Odessa’s already cooked up.”

Arcaidia gave the Twin Fenrir a curious look, “Impressive Odessa ponies make fake ARMs so quickly, and even more Impressive they refine better ARMs with same fastness.”

“You sure you can use those things?” asked LIL-E, “It's usually not a good idea to take an untested weapon into a fight.”

In response B.B glanced out the Vertibuck door, leaned forward, and extended her right hoof. The Twin Fenrir’s barrel deployed and seemingly without any need for pulling an actual trigger or further gesture on her part the weapon suddenly fired. White muzzle flashes strobed the cabin as the ARM fired a rapid stream of rounds into the forest, leaving streaks of bright silver as all I could see of the projectile's path as they hammered a splintering path through the tree canopy. I didn’t know if the ARM was firing actual bullets or not, all I saw were flickers of silver, but they hit hard enough to crack through tree trunks like a hammer through plywood.

There was no smoke or other exhausted from the barrel as it retracted again and B.B gave a satisfied nod to herself before turning to LIL-E. “I’m thinkin’ I’ll be able ta handle ‘em.”

The half dozen trees that were busy falling over with severed trunks seemed to act as punctuation to her statement.

Binge let out a happy titter, “ARMs are pretty fun, aren’t they birdie! I was so disappointed I didn’t get to keep the flashy grim reaper blade your bromancer let me borrow. When you take him out, I’m calling dibs on it.”

“Bro...mancer? Ya know what, nevermind. Ya can have Scythe’s weapon when I finish dealin’ wit him. Ain’t no skin off my snout.” B.B said.

Further conversation ended as our pilot said, “Hang on folks, we’re coming in for a bumpy landing! I think we’ve been-” the Vertibuck suddenly juked harshly to the right, nearly throwing me off balancing and dumping me out of the flying vehicle at over a hundred feet in the air. I saw the angry streak of blazing crimson cannon fire pass by where we’d just been, close enough that I could feel the heat of the flame rounds the Golem’s arm mounted cannons fired.

“-spotted.” finished our pilot as she grunted and sent us into a sharp dive. I saw the other Vertibuck’s doing the same, juking through the air as they lowered themselves to nearly skim the forest canopy. All the while bolts of red cannon fire streaked the sky around us, and I didn’t doubt just one of those rounds could shred a Vertibuck to flaming pieces.

I’d felt helpless a number of times during my adventures, but for a few seconds this was the worst kind of helpless as I trusted my life and the lives of my friends to a pilot whose name I didn’t even know. I just had to pray to the Ancestor Spirits she could evade the Golem’s fire and land without crashing. All I could do was hold on to the seat and be ready to leap out when the time came.

Above the whine of the Vertibuck engines, the dull thumping of the Golem’s arm cannons, and the shriek of the wind, I heard a titanic roar of challenge followed by a crashing noise. The incoming fire slacked off and I realized Spike must have dived back in, buying us precious seconds to land and disembark from the Vertibucks.

I felt our Vertibuck dip in the air sharply, and I nearly screamed, thinking we were going to hit the trees, until a second later I realized we were beyond the intact treeline and instead in the vast burned out clearing where the Golem was and our Vertibuck was hitting the ground in a rough but stable landing.

“Move it!” our pilot shouted, “Ride’s over folks! Go kick that things ass!”

Neither my friends or I required any further urging. We piled out both sides of the Vertibuck, my hooves stomping down onto ashen ground that was still warm with residual flame heat. The air was choked with ash, and my eyes burned and watered from the sting of residual smoke. All around me was charred, blackened husks of felled trees and skeletal bushes. The wall of fire and smoke burned like a monolithic pyre about a hundred yards ahead. To my left the other two Vertibuck’s had also landed, disgorging the other Drifters. Only Whiteheart and Lieutenant Wind Drill stayed on their Vertibuck as the trio of vehicles lifted off in billows of ash and smoke.

For a second we all looked at each other, not quite seeing our target clearly, until the humongous form of Spike came sailing out of the dimness ahead. The dragon slammed back first into the ground as if he’d been thrown there, his giant body roughly tearing ruts through the field as he groaned. With heavy, earth shaking steps the Golem strode from the smoke from where it had tossed Spike.

One of the ancient race of Elw’s eight Golems, Roaring Metal, was just as I’d remembered it from Saddlespring. A forty foot tall, bipedal giant with crimson red armor covering most of its body, save for several parts that were lined with a more pearl white metallic substance. Its thick, armored head contained bright, glowing orange eyes that looked at first towards Spike, but then upwards at the fleeing Vertibucks.

“Oh shit!” I breathed, immediately drawing Gramzanber.

Behind me I heard Crossfire let out an even louder curse as she saw the Golem start to raise its bulky right arm. “Fuck! It’s going for the transports!”

Applegate, her own broad blade still strapped to her back, instantly broke into a headlong gallop towards the Golem, shouting in a commanding tone, “Open fire! Get its attention on us!”

Everypony who had a ranged weapon to use opened fire in roughly the span of the same couple of seconds. I broke into a gallop of my own, following Applegate in a charge that would take us past where Spike was slowly clambering to his clawed feet. Hawkeye and his team of five other ponies all spread out, using their NCR railguns to fire charged shots of metal shards with booming shrieks of speed while they simultaneously sought cover. Crossfire was using both a railgun and her bayonet rifle, floating both in her blood red magic as she galloped forward a few paces behind me, my eardrums rattling from the combined heavy bark of her rifle alongside the higher pitched shrieks of the railgun. Shard followed her, plugging away with his own railgun with measured shots.

Of my friends, most of them leaped into action in the same moment I had. Binge did her usual disappearing act, and I trusted her to keep out of harm’s way and find the right time to strike without endangering me or the others. LIL-E popped out her gun mounts and floated high, firing away while moving towards Spike. Arcaidia sent streaks of her starblaster’s white energy bolts towards the Golem, maintaining a more measured swift canter behind the rest of us charging forward. B.B had taken to the air, flanking LIL-E as they soared towards the Golem. The majority of the shots coming from everypony else were sparking off the Golem’s armor in a shower of glittering sparks and leaving small pockmarks on the armor’s surface, and not making it look our way.

When B.B extended both of the Twin Fenrir’s the air was split with heavy, high-pitched cracks of sound as each weapon of the paired ARM sent a flickering stream of high speed silver bolts into Roaring Metal’s right arm. B.B aimed for right where its multi-barreled rotary cannon was extending up form housing in its wrist, and I actually saw one of the barrels snap off from the barrage.

This caused the Golem to take an off balance step backwards, but its cannon still opened fire on the Vertibucks, it’s aim only slightly thrown off. I fearfully looked over my shoulder as the crimson cannon rounds stabbed the air around the Vertibucks in a wild stream. All three Vertibucks banked hard in different directions to avoid the fire. My heart clenched as I saw one of them catch a round through its center, just behind the cockpit. I was pretty sure it was the same Vertibuck that we’d been riding on. A cold gasp left me as I saw the Vertibuck spin, and split in half like a decapitated gecko, with its cockpit mounting tearing free of the main body, which blossomed with crimson flames at both ends as the Golem’s incendiary round burned it out.

The cockpit was still intact, but it spun like a top and went crashing into the forest with such speed and force that I had little hope that our pilot survived the impact. Gritting my teeth and gave a prayer to the Ancestor Spirits for the pilot’s safety and turned my attention back to my headlong charge at the Golem.

B.B’s attack had gotten its attention, and now it aimed its arms at us. Applegate and I both started to zig-zag in our charge, and behind me Crossfire’s magic swiftly switched clips out of her Sniper Shark XR, the rifle quickly firing a blinding phosphorus round at the Golem’s face. Whether that helped or not I don’t know, but when the Golem fired the storm of incendiary cannon rounds impacted between me and Applegate, blowing giant chunks of flaming debris out of the ground but narrowly missing us both. The Golem’s other cannon send a punishing barrage at Hawkeye’s team, but they weren’t incompetent warriors but experienced Drifters and had spread out enough and taken up good cover positions amid the uneven terrain. For the moment I didn’t see any of them get hit, but the battlefield was already filled with so much smoke it was hard to tell, but the railgun fire from their end didn’t slacken so I held out hope no one on our side was dead yet.

Arcaidia, closing the distance more slowly than the rest of us, let her horn fill with a bright corona of magic and massive crest symbols surrounded her in multi-layered circles. A huge barrier of ice extended out to guard Hawkeye’s team, with small openings for them to fire out from. Meanwhile Arcaidia also created a large, five meter long lance of ice and sent it hurtling towards Roaring Metal. The Golem seemed to sense the attack and raised a forearm, the gear-like drill bracer mounted there spinning up just as it had when it had smashed the doors in the Elw Ruin back in Saddlespring. Arcaidia’s ice lance was shattered on the spinning gauntlet, but this created a distraction that let Applegate and I close the distance.

“Go for the joints at its ankles!” Applegate shouted to me, and looking I saw that the area around the Golem’s foot, while heavily armored, still had one point at the angle where the crimson sheet of armor wasn’t able to cover the exposed joint within. Nodding to her I hefted Gramzanber in my mouth and pointed towards the right leg, while she nodded and angled for the left one.

I saw her switch from a four legged gallop to a bipedal stance with a shocking amount of agility, and Applegate coiled her hind legs under her before making an impressive leap that sent her sailing in a heavy downard arc right towards the left ankle joint, her sword reflecting the firelight light a shard of lava as she brought it down with the power of both forelegs.

At the same time I hurled in a headlong gallop at the other ankle joint. I was getting used to bipedal fighting, but I wasn’t good enough to pull a maneuver like Applegate was, so instead I put all of my earth pony might and speed into a charge, angling Gramzanber to tear its serrated edge along the targete joint.

Applegate and I hit at the same time. She brought her sword down in an explosion of sparks, a wave of air pressure coiling around her blade as she did so. The weapon cut a dark line through the joint, but I couldn’t tell if any significant damage was done. Mostly because I was busy rattling my own jaw as I dragged Gramzanber along the joint of the Golem’s other leg. This close I could feel the heat radiating off the Golem. It was as if Roaring Metal was one giant furnace, the very ground sizzling and steaming under its giant feet. I could feel my hide sweltering at this close proximity, but I ignored it as Gramzanber’s edge cut a sparking path over the Golem’s exposed ankle joint.

The Golem barely staggered, and what I thought might have been it taking a unbalanced step back in fact turned out to be the Golem raising its foot to stomp down towards me with punishing force. I barely got out of the way in time to avoid being reduced to grilled pony paste, the heated Golem foot smashing the ground and sizzling it like a hot grill. The impact still sent me rolling from air pressure alone, several burning bits of broken branches battering me as I rolled to my hooves.

Applegate was similarly forced to evade as the Golem raised its other foot to kick at her, smashing up an entire chunk of smouldering ash and dirt as Applegate expertly dodged aside. B.B and LIL-E both flew by the Golem’s head before it could resume trying to stomp us on the ground, both of them pouring barrages into Roaring Metal’s head. LIL-E’s side mounted rifle and turret mounted pistol both fired at the Golem’s eyes, the rounds sparking around the crystalline orbs to little effect. B.B’s ARM rounds created clear, if small, dents in the armored faceplate of the Golem, but if the ancient war machine cared about the superficial damage it certainly didn’t show it as its eyes suddenly glowed an intense and almost blindingly bright orange.

Sensing the attack, LIL-E and B.B both split up, the eyebot diving towards the ground while B.B pulled up to soar higher. Where they’d just been a thin but powerful set of twin eye beams shot out of the Golem and scorched the air. Choosing one target the Golem raised its head, looking towards B.B, and where it looked the twin orange beams firing from its eyes followed. Clearly it saw her as the the greater threat. B.B banked hard, the beams cutting so close to her I saw several of her wing feathers fly off and burn up like moths. I feared the beams would catch her, and was prepared to charge back in at the Golem, but the ground shook beneath my hooves as I heard a voice roar like an eruption.

“Don’t turn your back on me!” Spike bellowed, the dragon shaking the earth as he charged in and rammed into the Golem with the full weight of his draconic body. Even the massive metal machine was knocked back by this blow, slamming into the ground and sent skidding dozens of yards, not unlike Spike had been moment’s before.

With blood from a bleeding wound across his brow coating his face, Spike glanced at the rest of us and growled, “What you all doing here!? I got this!”

“Your government disagrees.” Applegate shouted back calmly, “They’ve contracted the Drifter’s Guild to assist in dispatching this target.”

Spike’s face glowered down at Applegate, but he snorted out flames and said, “Whatever. Just don’t blame me if I accidently squash or incinerate any of you. I ain’t holding back against this guy.”

“Has anything actually worked so far?” I asked with a loud yell, watching as the Golem started to get up. “It doesn't look too damaged to me.”

I felt a instinctive burst of fear as Spike’s massive, frowning visage turned towards me. I really didn’t want to piss the dragon off, but hey, we needed to know if Spike could even hurt this thing. With a snort Spike said, “My fire isn’t doing a damn thing to it. Claws don’t do much more, but if I can just get a damned grip on it I can carry this asshole into the sky and drop him. Terminal velocity has to do something.”

“Not the worst plan ever.” I admitted, “How about you let us get its attention, and when its busy with us, you swoop in from behind?”

“We’re out of time for plans, buck!” shouted Crossfire with a grim set to her charcoal dark features, “Here it comes!”

The Golem had regained its feet and focused its eyes upon Spike. It then proceeded to move with remarkable speed for its size and charged straight towards the dragon. Spike, with equal ferocity shining in his eyes, rushed to meet that charge. The two collided with the collosal force of a mountain crumbling. For a second the giant of metal and the titan of scales struggled with arms locked. Spike tried to get a good grip around the Golem’s arms, likely to try the very air drop he’d proposed a second ago, but Roaring Metal proved incredibly agile for a hulking, hundred ton machine. It managed to break Spike’s hold and cocked back its right arm. The gear bracer on the arm spun, the Golem’s fist becoming like a spinning drill as it hammered Spike across the face with a blow that I saw scatter a few of the dragon’s teeth.

Still the dragon refused to buckle under the blow, roaring back and raking the Golem’s face with his sword-length claws. Sparks flew as one of the Golem’s eyes cracked and went dark, but Roaring Metal responded with another punishing drill fist straight into Spike’s chest that was strong enough to lift the dragon off the ground and cause him to fall back down in a collapsed heap.

We hadn’t been idle, however, and the moment Spike was out of the line of fire Hawkeye’s team opened up again from the protection of Arcaidia’s ice wall. Railgun rounds concentrated on the Golem’s knees this time, ricocheting more often than not, but causing several sparking scratches on the weaker knee armor. Crossfire had switched out her ammo in her rifle for what I assumed were high explosive rounds, because when she fired this time the bullets exploded like grenades on the Golem’s head. She gave me a pointed look as she fired away.

“We’re not getting through that armor without something with a shit ton of punch! Can your shiny ass spear do it or not!?”

I wasn’t certain. I’d felt the armor on the ankle joint give under Gramzanber’s edge, but I didn’t know if it’d be enough on the thicker armor on the Golem’s chest or head. There had to be vital components in there that we could damage if we could just penetrate deep enough. B.B’s Twin Fenrir seemed to do some damage, and if Arcaidia could summon a large enough ice shard... and where was Binge and her explosives?

That last question was answered as something erupted underneath the Golem’s left foot, a massie explosive charge going off that made the Golem stumble as it had started to step forward. I saw Binge’s dark green form for an instant as the giggling mare vanished behind a fallen tree, making maximum use of stealth to avoid any counterattack as she faded out of view.

“I don’t know if Gramzanber can crack that armor by itself, but a combined effort might do the trick.” I told Crossfire. “We have to keep hitting the same spot until we wear the armor down.”

Crossfire’s golden eyes glittered with purpose, her rifle and railgun both rapidly reloading. “Go for the head then.”

With a swift nod I called to my friends as loud as I could, “Focus on the head! B.B, can you lift me up onto the thing’s shoulders!?”

“On it!” she called back, swooping down to me as Arcaidia galloped up alongside Shard, who was taking pot shots at the Golem with his railgun, joining his fire with that of Hawkeye’s tema.

Applegate in the meantime had heard us and gestured to me with her sword, “While you all strike at its head I’ll keep at its ankles. If we can immobilize it that will make this a lot easier.”

“Watch out ponies!” shouted LIL-E, amplifying her voice through her loudspeaker, “Incoming!”

The Golem had recovered from its stumble and now set its legs wide, arms pulled back, and the massive shoulders opened to extend a pair of nozzles each. The nozzles glowed with a deep orange fury as they pointed towards the ice wall Hawkeye’s team was behind. LIL-E’s warning had given the a few seconds to react, but no more before twin jets of flame flew forth. The heat was devastating, so hot that even as the flames roared overhead I felt my hide blistering. It was like everything was bathed in crimson light, and the jets of fire impacted with Arcaidia’s magical ice wall like a shotgun blast through paper.

I saw a few ponies, including Hawkeye, stagger out of a scalding cloud of steam as the ice evaporated. They were injured, but alive, but I only saw three of them make it out of the explosion of steam and flames. Hawkeye, shaking with pain and fury, shouted for the remains of his team to get to cover, but he started firing at the Golem once more, rushing forwards instead of back.

With no more time to plan the rest of us burst into motion. B.B grabbed me underneath the forelegs and lifted me into the air while Arcaidia started to cast another spell, this time creating a crest around her horn that contained a new set of symbols I’d never seen before. The ground shifted around Arcaidia, dirt and stone erupted upwards as she created a spinning array of pony sized boulders. Her horn surrounded with blue light as intense as a bonfire she then created a sheet of ice around each boulder, spikes forming from the ice to make each boulder into the equivalent of a giant mace. Then she launched them like cannon balls at the Golem’s face. Crossfire added her own explosive rounds and railgun fire to this barrage.

Roaring Metal tried to ward off the attack with one arm, but at least two of Arcaidia’s ice coated boulders got through and rattled the Golem’s head, aided by Crossfire’s own attacks. Meanwhile LIL-E floated towards Spike, checking to see if the dragon was unconscious or not. I heard her shouting at him, but didn't quite catch what the eyebot said. Whatever it was it caused the dragon to stir, an unbelievably loud and ominous growl emanating from the depths of his maw.

Meanwhile B.B had flow up above the Golem’s left shoulder.

“Hope ya know what yer doin’!” she said as she dropped me onto the machine.

I felt the Golem’s heat through my hooves, and grit my teeth against the pain as I said, “Never do! Hasn’t stopped me yet! Just keep shooting this thing in the head!”

Wobbling to get my balance I left B.B to go circle around to the front of the Golem while I made my way across the shoulder towards the side of Roaring Metal’s head. Knowing time was a serious factor, and having built up plenty of energy in Gramzanber I had no reason to hold back now.

Accelerator

The pain of the Golem’s burning metal surface was no easier to bear due to the world shifting into a tint of azure blue as my reflexes and speed magnified, but it did give me time to better assess the situation. Spike was slowly starting to rise, a look of murderous rage in his eyes. Whatever LIL-E had said to him had just lit a fire under the dragon’s tail, and he looked ready to tear the Golem apart, as if he hadn’t been trying to do that already.

Crossfire was galloping across the front of the Golem’s path, using the trunk of a split in half, burned tree to leap off of and gain some extra height so she had a better shot at the Golem’s face. She kept both her rifle and her railgun almost perfectly poised around her as she fired them in successive shots, each round soaring in with masterful accuracy to impact with the Golem’s eye that Spike had already shattered.

Arcaidia was working more magic, and even at a distance I could see my friend’s body shaking and coated with sweat from the rapid effort of her spellcasting. She was using stone once more, summoning up earth and shaping it into the form of a hammer that she was then combining with her ice magic, coating the hammer with a thick spike of ice. This ability to control earth was new for her, and I could only assume it was part of the magic she’d been working on before we’d come here. Still, from the strained look on her face the combined magic of ice and earth was taking a toll on her. I could only hope it’d be worth the effort in taking this monster down.

I didn’t see Binge at first, but a strange glow of light caught my eye and I then spotted her sneaking up behind the Golem, swiftly flitting from bits of broken tree or boulders as cover. Strangely, the glow was coming from inside her mane. I didn’t know what it was, but my mind recalled earlier that morning when we’d been cuddling, and I’d felt something solid and non-sharp there. What was it, and why was it glowing now? I wasn’t sure even she knew it was there, because all of Binge’s grinning, mad eyed focus was on the block of explosives she was carrying while sneaking towards the Golem, pressing buttons on a detonator to set it to blow.

I hoped she didn’t do anything to get herself hurt.

Applegate was keeping her word by going for the Golem’s ankles again, and even in slow motion she moved swiftly and with precise steps that impressed me even more seeing them slowed down. That mare didn’t waste any motion and had a sure-hooved grace that was almost as impressive as how much strength she put behind each swing of her sword. Even with Accelerator going, she was moving so fast, her strikes so powerful and swift, that she managed to get a hit in on the Golem’s foot before I’d even taken a few steps towards its head. Then the angle I was at left her out of view, but I didn’t doubt she’d be swinging away down there while I was taking care of business up top.

Speaking of up top, B.B was still more or less at head height with me as she flew around the other side of the Golem’s head. I saw that what the Twin Fenrir were firing were essentially miniature drills. The projectiles looked like small, silver cones with spiral patterns on them that made them spin like drills before they impacted with the Golem’s armor, tearing chunks from it or impacting the armor inward before flattening out. I also noticed there were small streaks of blue energy around each drill bullet, almost imperceptible.

Also what was near imperceptible was the other bullet that flew right by B.B’s head, not managing to hit her but still close enough to tear through some of her mane. I don’t think B.B saw it, because even in slow motion I saw no reacting on her face, but I sure as hell saw it and turned my head to see where the bullet had come from.

I couldn’t be sure amid the chaos of the fight, but I thought the shot came from Hawkeye’s directions. Yet when I looked at him he seemed focused on firing on the Golem’s knee, above where Applegate was attacking the ankle. Had I just imagined the bullet? No, I was sure of what I’d seen. But had Hawkeye fired the shot intentionally, or was it just a coincidence?

I didn’t have any more time to ponder that as I reached Roaring Metal’s head and with Accelerator's full speed I proceeded to slash into the side of the Golem’s face. Rearing up to my hind legs I transferred Gramzanber to my forelegs, and swung again and again into the hard, crimson metal before me. Sparks flew in a starburst pattern, their slow motion dance of bright embers oddly serene in the relative quiet of Accelerator’s cobalt embrace. I could feel my bones rattling with each strike. Gramzanber was unnaturally sharp, but the Golem’s metal carapace was equally unnatural in its toughness. My blows were leaving shallow scores in the armor, a little deeper with each subsequent strike, but I felt like my bones would crack before I managed to penetrate that metal flesh.

Knowing I had to pace Accelerator, after the twelfth strike I ended the effect and returned to normal speed. The side of the Golem’s face plate was badly scratched up between my and B.B’s efforts, but we hadn’t broken through the armor yet.

Then Arcaidia’s hammer flew in, spinning end over end in a field of her pale blue magic. It slammed into the Golem’s face, both ice and rock shattering even as it dented Roaring Metal’s faceplate inward. The blow rocked the Golem back a step, but only a step. It recovered quickly and raised one arm to swipe at me. I had to jump off the shoulder to avoid being crushed by that grasping hand, and as I felt I raised my left leg and fired my Grapple skyward. B.B saw it, and as I’d hoped she would the pegasus snatched my Grapple line and held me aloft as I swung upward. Still close to the Golem, I timed my swing and grabbed onto its other arm. B.B let me go and I balanced there as the Golem swung that arm around and aimed it at Spike, who was charging in again.

I saw the rotary cannon on the arm rev up and fire, spitting incendiary rounds into the dragon that blew off scales. Shouting defiance, I turned and focused on Gramzanber, pouring more energy into the spear. Its silver form responded with a burst of deep blue color as I hurled Gramzanber into the rotary cannon.

Impulse!

The wash of azure energy exploded out of the spear just as it impale the cannon, exploding the exposed weapon and gouging a huge portion of the Golem’s arm’s gauntlet along with it. I felt the drain of Impulse hit me like a punch to the gut, much harder to ignore than the backlash of Accelerator. Yet despite the weakness of Impulse’s drain, I didn’t mind it one bit as I saw flame and sparks billow up from the damaged, torn portion of the arm where the rotary cannon had been.

I leaped off the Golem as Spike slammed into its chest, claws first. He went down atop of the Golem, sending a shower of dirt into the air as both hit the ground hard. I saw Applegate backflip out of harm’s way, but fear shot through me as I realized Binge had been sneaking up behind the Golem where it had fallen!

“Binge!” I shouted, heart racing as I ran for the impact site, but skidded to a halt as Binge literally popped up right in front of me.

“What!?” she shouted just as loud as I had shouted her name. “I’m right here you know!”

“Bwhuh? Oh thank the Ancestors! I thought you just got smashed...” I panted, but she just smiled.

“Only by you, bucky.” she said, winking, and tossed the block of explosives up and down in her hoof. “You wanna help me shove this deep inside one of the robot’s holes?”

“For love of stars will you stop inuendoing!?” Arcaidia shouted from nearby, panting as she cantered towards us. The heat had plastered much of her silver mane to the side of her sweat slick face, but she still managed to look poised as she shot Binge a look. “One night indulging dirty mind with ren solva and nothing but sex talk all day with you!”

“I apologize for nothing!” Binge declared smiling.

“Can it, ya’ll, we ain’t done fightin’ yet!” shouted B.B, swooping overhead and then halting into a hover as she glanced down towards us. “Long, ya need another lift?”

Looking at where Spike and the Golem were thrashing upon the ground, rolling over like a pair of giant steam rollers that ripped up huge chunks of earth in their wake, I just blinked back at B.B.

“I’m not even sure we can get close to that, but I don’t think Spike can keep this up much longer either.”

Just the one use of Impulse had left me feeling weaker, with my legs shaking slightly from the strain of the fight so far. At a glance I could see everypony else was starting to feel the fatigue of the battle catching up to them, although adrenaline was still keeping them all alert. I didn’t know how much longer we could keep this pace up, but I wasn’t anywhere near willing to give up yet. I could almost imagine the spirits of Saddlespring standing behind us, reminding me that the Golem only walked Equestria now because my friends and I let it out of its ages old tomb.

It was time to set that mistake to rights.

With a nod of resolve to myself and looked back at everypony. “We’re not done yet. As soon as there’s an opening, we dive back in and finish what we started. The armor on its head is waker now, we just need one more big push to crack through.”

“If your pegasus friend can lift me up there, I can help with that.” Applegate said, having approached us with the rest of the Drifters. Crossfire hefted her rifle, loading a fresh clip into the weapon with a metallic snap of metal.

“I can drop every round between the sunuva bitch's eyes. Shard too, maybe.”

“Maybe? Boss, try to give me a little credit. Just because I prefer knives doesn’t mean I don’t know how to use gun sights.” Shard said, using his bandana to wipe sweat from his face.

“I don’t see how it’ll help.” grunted Hawkeye as he and the remainder of his team joined us, the ground shaking from the impacts of Spike and the Golem’s continued wrestling match no more than fifty yards away. He checked the load on his railgun, spitting to the side. “We’d be doing more damage by pissing on that monster than using these!”

I paused a second, giving Hawkeye a measuring look. He wasn’t even looking at B.B right now, but I couldn’t help but remember the way I’d seen him look at her back during the flight south on the Sweet Candy. I couldn’t shake the thought that the bullet that I’d seen fly by B.B’s head had come from his vicinity. Had he really taken a potshot at her, hoping to mask it in the confusion of the battle? Damnit I didn’t have time for doubting ponies that were supposed to be on my side!

“Even if it doesn’t look like you’re doing anything, you are.” I told him, “Up close I could see you guys were at least putting some scratches on it. A little damage is better than none.”

He didn’t look anywhere near convinced, but there wasn’t any more time for talking about it as Spike let out a pained roar. We all turned to see that in their struggles Roaring Metal had managed to get on top and pin the hundred foot long dragon to the ground, holding Spike’s arms down with its own while straddling him. Spike struggled and opened his mouth, instinctively breathing a tidal wave of bright emerald fire up into the Golem’s chest and face. However the dragon’s flames didn’t so much as leave a blemish on the Golem’s gleaming red armor. However it’s own flames...

“Shit, everypony hit it now!” I shouted, breaking into a breakneck gallop as I saw Roaring Metal angle the nozzles of its shoulder mounted flamethrowers down at Spike.

Dragons were resistant to fire, right? I admit I had no idea. Dragons were beyond myths, and Spike was the only one I’d ever seen. He breathed fire, so he had to be pretty near immune to the stuff. It only made sense.

Then again, Roaring Metal was a war machine built by an unbelievable ancient race of pony precursors to fight against alien invasions. Nothing about its weaponry was normal, including the very flames it seemed to be built to use as its primary tool of destruction.

The whole lot of us were galloping across the ashen black field now, every Drifter opening fire in a charging fullisade. A veritable storm of railgun rounds, high explosive shots from Crossfire, bolts from Arcaidia’s starblaster, and streaking silver shots from B.B’s ARMs all hammered into the side of Roaring Metal, most splashing against its shoulder and the side of its head. The flamethrower nozzles in its shoulders glowed bright orange, ignoring the barrage. I saw Spike’s eyes grow wide, as if even he was suddenly unsure if his scales would hold up against these unnaturally burning flames.

I heard Arcaidia’s strained, pained cry as the glow of flames was pushed back by a wave of blue from her blazing horn. She’d rushed on her relatively tiny legs to the head of our charging group. As circular crests appeared in gleaming symbols around her horn I felt Gramzanber pulsate with resonant power, the pressure inside my head flashing in time with the light of Arcaidia’s magic.

It was just like when she’d used her healing spell to infuse Gramzanber while fighting the wraith’s of Arbu.

Not questioning it, I followed my gut and surged forward, catching up to Arcaidia. She looked back at me, and I saw an understanding grin shoot across her face as she nodded to me, shouting, “Throw!”

She then lowered her horn and with a final pulse of freezing blue light, the crests around her horn expanded into a circle of icy blue energy that caused frost to spread out in a wide circle over the charred earth around us. Following what felt like instinctive commands from inside Gramzanber I hurled the ARM through the blue field of energy, aiming for Roaring Metal’s flamethrowers.

Gramzanber was covered in a jagged sheet of deep blue ice that trailed crystals of frost in an artic blast of wind as it soared towards its target, Arcaidia’s spell rocketing the spear to higher speeds than I ever could have managed on muscle power alone.

Just as Roaring Metal fired its flames down on Spike, Gramzanber streaked past it in a glittering trail of ice. At first it looked like nothing happened, then in a blast of sub-zero power a line was cut across all four flamethrower nozzles, from which erupted a growing sheet of spiky ice that tore through the nozzles and then into the shoulder pads of the Golem. Crimson armor turned frosty white, then cracked as the sheets of ice exploded off it in a shower of glassy shards.

The Golem staggered off of Spike, and although a part of me wanted to whoop in joy at the blow we’d just dealt, it was tempered by Spike’s guttural cry of agony. Some of Roaring Metal’s flames had still managed to strike him, and while he’d rolled aside at the last second, the clinging crimson fire still covered part of his face and neck, charing his scales in a manner I doubt the dragon had ever experienced before.

A Spike rolled on the ground, clutching at his face, the Golem took several more steps back, turning its head left and right to look at its frozen over flamethrowers. It then focused its remaining eye upon us, and I could all but feel the thing locking onto me.

“I... I think we just made it mad.” I said, holding out a hoof to recall Gramzanber to me. As the ARM appeared in a flash of light back to my hoof, I heard his voice in my head.

I calculate a 98% likelihood that it has identified us as the largest threat, instead of the dragon. I suggest either immediate evasive maneuvers, or eliminating the target immediately.

Our galloping charge had faltered somewhat, as many of the Drifters had skidded to a halt to stare at me and Arcaidia. Even B.B, Binge, and LIL-E had slowed to turn shocked gazes towards us.

“The hell was that just now!?” Crossfire said with about as much self control as she could muster. “When could you pull off stunts like that?”

Arcaidia, looking about ready to collapse where she stood, wheezed out, “Recent development. No questions please.”

“Indeed, there’s no time.” Applegate said, “Can you do that again?”

Arcaidia gave me a bleary eyed look. It was clear that last combined effort had taken all she’d had left. She was already floating out a potion of magic restoring blue liquid in a weak magical grip, but I didn’t know how fast the potion would recover her energy. Meanwhile Roaring Metal was taking menacing steps towards us, and the glow in its eye was growing brighter.

“I don’t think so! Everypony move!”

My warning was hardly needed, as everypony was competent enough to see the attack coming and scatter out of the way as Roaring Metal’s remaining eye fired an intense beam of burning orange energy across the field like a giant scalpel made out of laser. I felt heat on my tail and yelped as I saw the tip of it on fire from the near miss. I grabbed my tail and quickly blew the fire out.

“Long, c’mon an’ grab on!” B.B said to me as she circled around and lowered a hoof to snatch me up. However I saw Binge nearby and instead pointed to her.

“Lift Binge instead! She’s got a bomb to plant! I’ll use my Grapple to get up!”

B.B nodded and swooped to the left, grabbing up Binge, who giggled wickedly.

“Weeeeheheheh! Fly birdie, like bloody exploding valkyries!”

“Save the exploding for the Golem, dangnabbit! If that toy of yers so much as beeps ‘fore we git there I’m droppin’ yer horny butt!”

Hawkeye and his team, along with Crossfire and Shard had all taken to falling back, using what cover they could find, while sending up a hurricane of fire into Roaring Metal’s head. As Crossfire had promised, her high explosive rounds detonated right between the Golem’s eyes, each time, every shot. It seemed to get the Golem’s attention as it turned towards the cluster of Drifters. With its flamethrowers frozen over and out of commision, one of its rotary canon’s destroyed, and its eye grown dim, I wondered if the Golem had any other weapons to throw at us besides just trying to stomp on us.

I really shouldn’t have wondered that.

From the Golem’s back an eruption of steam billowed out, and there was a loud metallic sound of clanging gears and heavy ker-thunks as something unfolded from Roaring Metal’s back. Around and to the side of the Golem came two absolutely gigantic barrels of crimson metal, with darker metal forming extending bores as each barrel settled into mounted grooves along either side of the Golem’s hips.

Aimed squarely at Crossfire and the other Drifters, these barrels started a slow build up of power, starting with a faint glow of blood red energy in the depths of the barrels, followed by a stream of what looked like motes of fiery orange light gathering from outside and into each barrel.

I gulped past a dry mouth. I had no clue what kind of attack was coming, but I felt certain that if we didn’t stop it, then Crossfire, Shard, Hawkeye and his team were all dead ponies. Possibly myself and my friends too, even if we weren’t be directly targeted. I didn’t need to exercise any genius level of deduction to realize this upcoming attack was not the kind that cared much about proximity, and was likely to vaporize anything standing roughly this side of the Everfree.

With no more seconds to spare on planning or quipping we all knew this was the moment for desperate final fight, or to scatter to the wind and hope to clear ground zero.

Take three guesses which of those we choose.

With B.B and Binge airborne and soaring straight for the forty foot tall death machine, I hauled my partially singed flanks into a panting gallop towards Roaring Metal. Applegate joined me, as did the still exhausted but doggedly determined Arcaidia. She stumbled with her prosthetic leg, which had gotten bent when she’d leaped away from that last beam attack, but Arcaidia hobbled on and dredged up whatever fumes of magic she had left into her horn.

The ground shuddered beneath the Golem’s feet, and then buckled as a fissure cracked open, courtesy of Arcaidia’s new command of the element of earth. This caused Roaring Metal to stagger to its knees. The massive energy guns on its hips were still aimed squarely at us, but its forward motion had been halted however briefly. Its face tilted down towards us, even as Crossfire, Shard, and Hawkeye’s team battered it with gunfire.

Roaring Metal raised its remaining rotary cannon, the barrels spinning in a thick whine and then unleashing its thunder at B.B and Binge. The pegasus pulled up and spun into a tight barrel roll, weaving between the blazing cannon shots while keeping a tight grip on the whooping Binge. My heart tried to claw out of my throat as I saw B.B pass within inches of the stream of cannon fire, then shoot straight up into a ariel flip in which she tossed Binge like a green frisbee at the Golem’s head. I heard Binge’s giggles as she spun around and caught the top of the Golem’s helmeted head and waved her block of explosive down at me and Applegate.

“Punch a hole, bucky, and we’ll end this with a bang!”

One look at Applegate and the senior Drifter nodded, both of us reaching the Golem at the same moment. Where I fired my Grapple, momentarily dipping into the halted time of my Pip-Buck’s S.A.T.S to target the Golem’s head perfectly, Applegate just pulled a mighty leap that sent her soaring up to the Golem’s lifted arm. Then while I hoisted myself skyward with my Grapple line’s powerful pull, Applegate went bipedal and set her wide, shining blade pointed forward, held in both forelegs before jumping like a launched missile straight at Roaring Metal’s face. My own ascent with my Grapple propelled me to the same spot, and both Applegate and I struck the same spot in the same instant.

The armor here, right between Roaring Metal’s flat, gem-like mechanical eyes was already battered and weakened by continuous gunfire, Arcaidia’s magic, and strikes from Spike’s claws earlier. Now Applegate’s blade and my ARM smashed into that singular point, the tips of both weapons creating a fireworks burst of sparks as they cleaved into, then through the weakened armor. Gramzanber sunk in nearly halfway down the length of its blade, and Applegate’s sword penetrated nearly as far. Then, both of us shouting in wordless fury, we twisted our blades and tore them outward, ripping the hole open further like a giant metal gash.

Binge, balanced above us on the crest of the Golem’s head, grinned down at me and Applegate and with almost casual ease leaned over and lobbed her block of explosive into the open hole, where it stuck amidst the open gears and sparking circuitry within.

“Five seconds. Better move your pretty butt, Longy!” Binge said, and hopped off the back of the Golem’s head, sliding down its back armor like it was one big playground toy.

Hearing a faint, ticking beep coming from the explosive detonator, Applegate and I shared a look, and we both didn’t hesitate to jump off and simply roll with the fall. I struck the ground with my usual sturdy if rough tuck and roll endurance, while Applegate managed a much more graceful landing. Either way we both still made swift retreat from the Golem, which was trying to aim its rotary cannon at us, but B.B shot like a pale bolt of lightning across the sky and soared into a spread winged hover a dozen meters in front of its face.

The Twin Fenrir’s spat out a hosing of silver punishment, blowing out the Golem’s remaining eye and causing its arm to flail around, completely forgetting to pulverize me and Applegate. B.B narrowly avoided the huge limb, and darted off into the sky just in time.

Binge’s explosive charge went off with a ear splitting crack of sound, a blast of air pressure knocking both me and Applegate off our hooves. Shaken but otherwise unharmed, I got up and turned to look at the results of our hoofwork.

Roaring Metal’s head was little more than a few twisted metal fragments now, with flames and smoke jetting upwards amid a storm of arcing red and orange sparks of energy. Its whole body was seizing up into a jittery stillness, and I found myself staring at the spectacle with stunned eyes. I then pumped Gramzanber into the air in a victory leap and let out a deep tribal hunting cry the likes of which I had always felt too embarrassed to do back home, even when a hunt went spectacularly. Applegate gave me a weird look, one eyebrow creeping upwards, and I just gave her a bashful smile in return.

Suddenly a green, serious visage appeared before me as Binge, with her usual stealthy grace, rose up between me and Applegate from seemingly nowhere. “What’cha smiling a her for Loooongy?”

I was abruptly aware of the way she was idly playing with a grenade between her hooves and I quickly held up my own. “N-nothing! Just really relieved we’re all okay, is all!”

Keen blue eyes searched mine intensely for a nerve wracking moment, then Binge was all bouncy smiles again. “Hah, of course you are! I mean, if you started looking at other mare’s you know I’d be very upset, so there’s no way you’d ever do that. Hehehehe!”

“Hahah...hah...” I laughed nervously along with her, while I noticed Applegate now had both eyebrows raised at us as she carefully sheathed her giant sword across her back and brushed off ash from her long duster.

“Rest assured, Miss Binge, I have no interest in such matters.” Applegate said, looking around as the rest of the survivors gathered. “Is everypony alright?”

Hawkeye, who had several scalding marks on his face from the flames and steam he and his team had been hit with before, gave us all a heavy look. “Three of us went down. Didn’t have time to check on if they were dead.” He looked towards one of the two ponies on his team still standing, a marmalade colored unicorn mare with a spikey white mane. “Patchwork, go see if anyone is still breathing and hit them up with some first aid.”

The mare gave a sour nod and galloped off, pulling what looked like a medical kit from the saddlebag strapped to her leather armor. Meanwhile Crossfire and Shard both exchanged looks, the sharp eyed mare nodding to him as she said, “Go help her.”

I glanced at Arcaidia, wondering if her healing magic could also help, “Hey Arcaidia, do you have enough magic left for healing spells?”

Still limping on her bent prosthetic leg, and covered with her fair share of soot and sweat, Arcaidia looked paler than usual and a stiff breeze from collapse, but she gave me a gleamy eyed nod of determination. “If ponies still breathe, I do what I can to keep them breathing.”

“Good, then-” I began to say, but paused as I noticed a growing noise vibrating in the air. It was like a faint rumble at first, but it started to build into a higher and higher pitched trembling whine that made my ears twitch. It was accompanied by a dull red glow that soon grew brighter and brighter until all of us and the land around us was saturerated by the coating of bloody light. The source was plain for all of us to turn our heads and see.

The Golem, defeated and headless, was unmoving... but its body was glowing with a vast build up of internal energy. The armor of its surface carapace was starting to crack, spilling out jets of crimson flame as the power inside it, whatever generator had driven the ancient war machine, started to go critical. All the blood drained from my face as I stared into that destructive light. All the power the Golem had been building to unleash its final attack, without any place to go now, was overloading and about to explode! I didn’t even want to guess at how large a blast radius it might be, but it seemed a forlorn hope to think any of us could outrun it.

Things happened in a sort of sickening slow motion. I saw B.B fly down, reaching for Arcaidia. Maybe she intended to grab the unicorn and try flying to safety. Binge, without any hesitation, actually jumped on me as if she could protect me with her own body as she rolled us both into a nearby ditch. Up close like this, her body smothering mine, I saw the glow inside her mane again, and was able to make out what it was. It was one of the statues of the Guardian Lords that Captain Bartholomew had shown me. I couldn’t tell which one, but it was interwoven into Binge’s mane like a hidden ornament.

Shard and Patchwork, having trotted at least a dozen yards towards where the rest of Hawkeye’s fallen team had been, both froze in place, but Shard’s horn lit up and encased them both in a thin magical barrier, whatever good that might do. LIL-E joined me and Binge in the ditch, deploying a small mechanical arm to anchor herself to the ground. Applegate drew her sword and planted it in the ground in front of her, as if its broad blade could be a shield.

Crossfire, eyes wide at the overloading Golem, looked as shocked and unprepared as I’d ever seen the experienced Drifter mare. That look soon turned to a moment of pure, face twisting conflict and I saw her swear under her breath as she gave us an agonized look that finally settled on me before her horn lit up and she vanished in a flashing pop of teleportation magic.

I didn’t blame her. There was nothing else she could have done.

It didn’t seem like there was anything any of us could do as the Golem’s body started to erupt into an expanding ball of deep red, consuming plasma that would annihilate us all...

Then things went dark as a shadow loomed over us, blotting out the sky.

Spike roared as he swept his arms and wings out, grabbing Shard and Patchwork and pulling them into the ditch, while doing the same with his other arm to Applegate, B.B, and Arcaidia. He then curled his body, wings and all, around us. A second later the heat hit, the ground shook like it was being upended by a giant’s fist, and I couldn’t tell the difference between the air shredding roar of the flames or Spike’s seemingly unending roar of pain.

For what felt like a heart thudding eternity, but was likely no more than a minute, I could barely breathe through the stifling heat or hear anything other than the panicked panting of my companions. All was dark around us due to Spike’s bulk hulking over us, but then light poured in again as the dragon started to movie.

His limbs shook with agony, and his own massive breaths came in labored pants, but he rose above us and took several uneven steps to the side to let us out before collapsing onto his stomach in a groaning heap.

“S-Spike!” I shouted, clambering to my hooves alongside Binge and everypony else. We all gasped in a collective silence at the sight before us.

Spike’s back was scorched raw. His scales were mostly intact but easily a third of them had burned off or curled under the unnatural blast of Roaring Metal overloading. His wings, while still there, were shredded from the explosion. The left side of his face was burned badly as well, and I think the only reason the right side had stayed intact was because he’d buried that side into the ground to protect his one good eye.

Most of us were too stunned to speak, but Applegate kept her wits about her better and quickly ran up to the fallen dragon.

“Sir Spike, can you hear me? Are you still conscious?”

A growling groan escaped Spike as he barely turned his head towards her, “I think being unconscious might be the better option. Why didn’t anyone warn me that burns hurt this friggin’ much?” He tried to rise, only for his legs to give out and for him to flop back to the ground with a earth shaking crash. “Aaggh...yeah, okay, I get it. Not moving. Don’t suppose one of you could radio for a medic? Or an army of medics? Or maybe a few Raptors to air haul a giant vat of healing potion to dump on me?”

“Well, if you can still joke then I shall take that as a good sign.” Applegate said, reaching into her duster to pull out a hoof sized radio. “I’ll call in an extraction and medical unit at once.”

I found myself sitting down on my haunches as my friends gathered around me, slowly getting my own breathing under control. I had been certain, for a moment there, that this was it. That we’d finally run out our luck and were going to die. My hooves shook with a cold, numb feeling, until I felt a pile of warmth drape around me, finding Binge hugging me tight and giving my ear a hefty nibble.

“It’s okay bucky, we made it.”

“Yeah...” I breathed, leaning into her. We'd survived. It was little hard to believe. A month ago all I, Arcaidia, and B.B had been able to do was run from the Golem when we inadvertently awakened it. Now it was a smoldering pile of burning junk, and we were still alive. Mostly thanks to Spike's quick intervention. Looking at the dragon's wounded body I wanted nothing more than to go thank him for saving our asses, but he looked half ready to pass out and not exactly up for conversation. Once the medics had time to heal him I would make a point of giving him a proper thanks for literally being a living shield for us. If I could find a point in the future to pay the favor back, I would.

B.B and Arcaidia were similarly leaning against each other the same way Binge and I were, both sweat soaked and looking utterly drained, while LIL-E hovered between us. Arcaidia had something of a wide eyed, ecstatic look on her tired face as her tail wagged behind her. “We beat one of legendary Golems of old. My brain does not fully believe it possible. Sister will not believe me when I tell her!”

As if the words reminded her of it, she looked to me and pointedly raised her Pip-Buck, showing me the screen with the map she’d had on earlier. “Longwalk, look!”

Peering at the screen I blinked as I realized that the marker for Persephone’s signal was nearly on top of where we were! It was only a short distance, maybe only a hundred yards or so, to the north! While Applegate and the other Drifter’s gathered around Spike I could hear the distant sound of Vertibuck engines grinding through the air. The smoke stirred as the two surviving Vertibucks flew overhead of us. Further beyond them, higher in the sky, I also saw the large and imposingly dark forms of two Raptors. The airships’ stormcloud engines billowed great, lighting clad masses of cloud behind them as they approached the scene.

I didn’t know if we had time to look, but for the moment no one was telling us to not look, so I gave Arcaidia a knowing smile and nodded. “Let’s go check it out.”

B.B glanced at us, “What’re we checkin’ out?” Then she saw Arcaidia’s Pip-Buck and said, “Oh! Dang, I near forgot ‘bout that!”

LIL-E swiveled around to the north, “For the record, my scanners have been picking up weird readings from that direction. There’s definitely something large and metallic over that way.”

Binge hopped to her hooves, bouncing in place, “Ooh, ooh, ooh, I got a good and rumbly feeling in my guts about this! We’re about to find something both super shiny and dangerous! Let’s go, bucky, don’t want to keep Arctic Arcy from fulfilling her questline!”

My hooves trembled a bit as I stood, the adrenaline finally leaving my body, but the feeling of weakness was replaced by a happy warmth of anticipation. We’d survived, beaten Roaring Metal, and were on the cusp of finally finding the signal that had prompted Arcaidia and my journey out into the Wasteland in the first place. Despite all that had happened, I was riding high for the moment.

As my group started trotting north, Applegate called to us.

“Where are you going?”

“Just scouting the area out!” I shouted back, “To see if we can find out why the Golem was out here!”

She accepted that with a nod and turned towards where the two Vertibucks were already making their landing. There was a flash of crimson light as Crossfire returned, popping in not far from us. She looked around at the scene, taking in the sight of Spike’s injured body, and the fact we were all alive, and she let out a sigh that was half relief, half shame, half stubborn pride as she looked to me.

“Glad you all made it.” she said, looking away as she looped her rifle across her back and trotted after us, almost as if she was ashamed to be near Spike at the moment.

“Hey, so am I.” I said.

Crossfire grunted, still not looking at anypony. However she did notice we were trotting away from the group, which I assumed was why she’d joined us in the first place but now she seemed to realize we were going further than just a quick trot.

“You all going somewhere specific?” she asked as we passed by the gargantuan smoking crater that the Golem’s destruction had left.

“Just finishing something I started a lifetime ago.” I said to her cryptically as we all continued to trot north. Arcaidia led us this time, despite her limp. She moved with energetic steps, her silver eyes shining as they fixed ahead of us, only once or twice flicking down to her Pip-Buck to confirm our course.

Only a few minutes later we found what we were looking for. We stood at the edge of a colossal ravine. The Everfree Forest was more intact here, right at the edge of the Golem’s burning line of devastation. The land dipped, almost like a cliff, into a slope a good seventy or so feet down and three times that distance wide. Trees hung over the scene from the opposite side of the ravine, and thick bushes and lichen had grown along the ravine floor. Yet glancing to my right I saw the ravine stretched for miles into the forest, almost... unnaturally long and straight, and it was easy to see why that was because of the object half buried in the ground at the other end of the ravine.

“What n’ tarnation is that?” B.B asked.

“It looks like the Golem was digging it up.” I said, pointing. “Look, you can see where it was tearing up the earth.”

“But how in Celestia’s gloriously plump plothole has this been here for so long without anypony noticing!?” LIL-E blurted.

Crossfire frowned deeply, “The forest would have covered this for centuries, and most of it looks like it was buried until that damned Golem dug it up.”

Binge just cooed as she licked her lips. “It’s so shiny! I wonder what kind of ghosts are echoing inside such a pretty coffin.”

I already knew what I was looking at, because I’d seen enough in my dreams to figure it out, but I turned to Arcaidia to confirm it.

“Arcaidia, is this...?”

She nodded slowly. Her face was still beaming with excitement, but it was tempered with a heavy cast of solemness as she gazed down upon what lay half-buried in the ravine. The oval of incandescently bright silver metal was easily five meters across, the smooth metal hardly tarnished by the dirt and overgrown vines encrusting it. Slightly humped, the bulk of the metal oval showed only a few portions of broken glass leading to a dark interior, windows long since destroyed by the crash that brought the object here. One large metal spur towards the back was broken, revealing a intestine-like interior of metal rods and twisted coils. An opposite spur on the other side was intact, showing that the broken portion was meant to attach to a pair of cylindrical engines with thick spheres of blue crystal jutting from either end. On the oval’s starboard side I could see black scorch marks and twisted metal wounds from some ancient battle, although I was sure I’d seen the event that had led to that damage in a dream. While most of the object was sealed, there was a visibly open hatch on the lower rear end of the oval that dropped down to the ground and left a clear path into the interior. If we wanted in, the doors were open it seemed.

Choking back a rise of emotion in her throat, Arcaidia said, “This is a Veruni Imperial Starship.” She closed her eyes, raising a right hoof to her chest and dipping her head down in a mournful gesture. “Esru vol dolrara sha vos straza... all rest in stars embrace. This was my ship. My sister’s ship...”

Her voice dropped to a whisper, “The Ark of Destiny.”

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Footnote: Level Up!

Perk Added - Now That's Hot: Either you're a born arsonist or you've just spent way too much time having to avoid being set on fire by natural born arsonists. Whichever the case may be you now enjoy an extra 50% resistance to all fire based damage effects and any time you are set on fire the duration is halved! Now to start that career in torch juggling you've always wanted!

Combination Art Added (Arcaidia Lvl.2) - Arctic Lancer: A powerful infusion of ice-based crest sorcery into Gramzanber turns the ARM into a harbinger of sub-zero destruction. Casting the spear generates a line of cold damage to everything in Gramzanber's path, inflicting 200% base damage, plus a chance of freezing all affected targets for a limited duration.

Author's Note:

Just in time for the end of the year I bring you another installment of Longwalk and company's adventures in the NCR. This time Longwalk faces his biggest challenge yet; surviving a night with Binge! Oh, and something to do with a Golem of utter burninating destruction, but really Binge is the bigger challenge here. And on top of all that the party has finally reached one of the very first quest objectives ever set down in the beginning; finding the source of Persephone's signal, the crashed Ark of Destiny. What awaits inside the ancient, half burred Veruni starship? Hopefully I'll be able to bring you folks the answers to that sooner rather than later.

As always thanks to everyone who continues to read this story and is patient with my snail pace of writing. I really appreciate it. And thanks to referee (aka "the other sans") and doomande for continuing to support me in keeping this train rolling along.

Hope you folks had a Merry Christmas and will have a Happy New Year.

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