• 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 4: Facing the Ancient Ruins

I walked slowly towards the entrance to “Frisky’s Stop n’ Drop Saloon”, my mind a mire of tangling thoughts. The inside of the saloon wasn’t too crowded, a few tables taken up by locals eating or playing some sort of game involving those cards I’d seen Mirage use in her show. The place was built inside one of the blasted stone pre-war buildings but a fair bit of cleaning up had been done to make the interior look pleasant if not new, with various bits and pieces of pre-war decor covering the worst cracks in the walls. A bright yellow earth pony mare with her black hair tied up in a bun was playing that same cheery music I’d heard when I’d passed by the saloon earlier, the instrument she sat before looking like a large bulky wood cabinet with a set of white and black keys arranged on a lip before it. I’d never seen a piano before and couldn’t imagine how the thing was producing those beautiful and bouncy notes. If I’d been in a better mood the music would be entrancing. However at that moment my head was too muddled for me to do more than give the instrument and its player a brief glance before I headed for what I figured was the main counter.

Arcaidia strolled in right behind me, her silver eyes curiously taking in the room. We were getting some stares back from the local ponies, most of their looks guarded at best, a few that looked like they might have been at Mirage’s show openly looking sour at our arrival. A few disgruntled locals I could live with though, leaving town without trying to do something for those slaves wasn’t.

Me and Arcaidia had essentially what we’d come to town for; supplies. Well, supplies and information, but we were here at the saloon to take care of that second bit. I didn’t know what a ‘saloon’ was specifically but it was clearly a gathering place for this tribe, er, town…community? Was that the right term? Semantics aside I figured if I wanted to get an idea of how me and Arcaidia could most easily make our way south to the NCR this was as good a spot as any to ask.

Once that was taken care of we technically didn’t have any reason to stay.

Save for the fact that I rather desperately wanted to find some way to rescue the slaves from bondage.

Some ponies might have questioned my motivations for this. It’s not like I knew any of the slaves personally. I didn’t owe them any debts. There wasn’t any profit or material gain involved in the prospect of rescuing them. In fact it entailed a ridiculous amount of risk both to myself and Arcaidia, the mare to whom I actually did owe a debt I was trying to repay. Why put that at risk for complete strangers who, as terrible as their circumstances seemed, didn’t have anything to do with me?
Simple; because it felt right.

Not exactly a complicated or well thought out reason, but I didn’t have anything else motivating me beyond a simple instinctual belief that trying to free those slaves was the right thing to do. I might have been easier to just forget about them and walk away from here with Arcaidia and proceed on our journey, staying focused on the goal of getting her to her destination and finding Persephone. But if I did that I think I’d also be walking away from some essential part of myself, a spark that made me, well, me.

So while it was stupid of me, and probably suicidal, I was resolved to do it.

I still needed a plan though. A good one. One that involved well thought out and detailed sets of actions with carefully thought through contingencies to guarantee a high degree of success…

…Crap I was so doomed.

Thing was, I knew next to nothing about what I was dealing with, so any plans basically involved such a high number of unknowns that it was likely to fall apart like a poorly staked tent under a mildly stiff breeze. I didn’t know how many guards there would be at the Ruins in addition to Crossfire and her team. I had no clue where the slaves were specifically being kept and how I could get them out of their shackles or their collars…and hadn’t Crossfire said something about exploding heads before? I was sure she had. Great, now I had to figure out what that was all about otherwise rescuing the slaves might not even matter due to premature head explosions!

Argh, why did this have to be so complicated!?

“Well don’t ya just look like ya swallowed a’ sour grape? What’s troublin’ ya, hun?”

I jumped slightly. Apparently the rest of the world fell away when my brain got into a wrestling match with itself and my body goes on autopilot. I hadn’t even noticed that I’d been standing at the long wood counter that ran across one end of the saloon for several minutes. Arcaidia had wandered off to harass the piano player, poking her nose around the instrument and excitedly asking the yellow mare rapid fire questions that the piano player could only look completely baffled at.

As for me, I was staring at the mare who spoke. She was standing on the other end of the counter, her forelegs propped up on it while she rested her chin between her hooves. It took me a second to recognize the mane of light brown streaked with pink, the white coat, and violet eyes. Not to mention the wings.

“Y-you’re her! The Mighty and Mysterious Mirage!”

The pegasus mare smiled and shook her head, “No need fer callin’ me that here. That’s just mah stage name. Call me B.B, if ya please Mr…?”

“Oh, um, Longwalk,” I said while wondering what ‘B.B’ could possibly refer to. Then I realized she’d asked me a question and I found myself looking away from her searching violet eyes, “Anyway its nothing. Just, um, got a lot on my mind.”

“Must be, to space ya out like that. No worries I won’t be pryin’ if ya don’t wanna talk about it. So what’s yer pleasure, hun? Drink, food, or a spot to rest?”

I considered briefly before replying, “All of the above, plus some information, if you’re willing to answer a few questions.”

Mirage, er, B.B nodded slowly and flapped her wings so she was floating high enough in the air to easily reach a set of clean-ish cups sitting atop a shelf and brought it down, “It’s 4 caps fer a’ full meal, and ‘nother 10 fer a room, though if yer sharin’ with the filly we got a bigger ‘commadation fer 15. Questions are free, hun, long as I like the questions an’ ya don’t get pushy if I don’t wanna answer.”

“Fair enough,” I said as I got into my meager supply of remaining caps and counted out enough for a meal for me and Arcaidia and one of the basic rooms. I figure we could manage with limited space and since I wasn’t actually planning on staying the whole night (suicidal slave rescue attempts were on the itinerary after all) I saw no reason to pay out any more caps than I had to. Food and rest were going to be a necessity though. I was only now starting to pay attention to just how hungry and exhausted my body was. I hadn’t slept since leaving my village, and had only sparingly paused for food during the walk to Saddlespring after the fight on the bridge.

B.B scooped up my caps and gave me an appraising look, “Not much fer barterin’ are ya? Most folks woulda at least tried to argue down the cost of the room.”

I cocked my head, “Well, I…uh, the price is the price, right? How am I supposed to argue about it?”

“Ya don’t got trade where yer from? Nothin’ merchant folk love more than arguing about price. Well prices here are fair enough to start, but I could tell just lookin’ at ya that yer a bit of a greenhorn, no offence meant. I mean, how much did ya pay fer somepony to slap radscorpion plates on yer barding?”

“…Fifty caps?”

B.B sighed, shaking her head, “See, that’s what I mean. Ya got swindled there. Radscorp’s got hard bodies, sure, but ain’t nopony like to use ‘em fer armor. Know why?”

I shook my head. Quite obviously I did not know why.

“Hardened leather’s tougher n’ easier to get ahold of, also more flexible like and easier to repair. Ya coulda bought a good set o’ leather fer half what ya got charged fer them radscorp plates.”

I felt my head sulk down as I said, “Oh.”

B.B smiled as she went over to a keg under one of the counters and poured a foamy brown liquid from a nozzle on the keg’s side into the cup she’d grabbed earlier. She slid the cup to me and I looked at it, wondering what it was made out of. The cup was white, like bone, but felt smooth to the touch. Weird.

“Don’t be frettin’ Longwalk,” B.B said as I tried taking a sip of the liquid, which was shockingly sweet and carried with it a flavorful aftertaste I couldn’t begin to place but made my tongue do little leaps of joy “Ye just got ta learn not to take things at face value is all when yer buyin’ or sellin’.”

“Does that logic apply to ponies as well?” I found myself asking before my brain pony could kick me upside the head and stop me.

B.B was staring at me and I could tell the mood in the room had just gotten about 20% frostier.

Even Arcaidia noticed the sudden shift in atmosphere as many of the saloon’s patrons fixed iron hard gazes on me and the room went unpleasantly silent. Arcaidia quickly trotted over to me, her own face going from questioning to pre-‘kitten drowning’ in a few seconds as she stood beside me.

“Now what would ya be askin’ somethin’ like that?” B.B said softly.

I realized I needed to clear this up very, very quickly, otherwise I might not even get a chance at rescuing the slaves.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean it to come out that way. I’ve…had to adjust to a few things I’m not used to seeing. Ponies as…as property is one of those things. I don’t know what to make of that. Sorry if I offended you.”

B.B blinked, and then the tension seemed to melt away from her, “Oh so that’s what it is. Thought ye were askin’ if we sold ponies here in Saddlespring, on account of them damned Labor Guild ponies.”

As she spoke the other patrons seemed to relax a bit as well, most of them going back to their card games. It was almost as if they’d been waiting to hear if B.B was going to give the word to have me and Arcaidia thrown out or not, and now that she was giving the ‘all clear’ they just pretended like nothing happened.

“No, I’m about as far from interested in buying other ponies as is conceivably possible, and probably then some. But if Saddlespring doesn’t like slavery then why is the Labor Guild even here?”

B.B looked away, her ears flattening and her tail swishing in agitation, “It’s not like we want them snakes in our town. It’s complicated like. Short version is this; Prospector’s Guild found that Ruin in our town, and we sold the rights to salvage it to ‘em. Then they turn around and sold them rights to the Labor Guild. Next thing we know we got Labor Guild goons in our town tellin’ us to stay outta their way while they move in bushels of slaves to excavate the Ruin, an’ we got no say in stoppin’ them cause they own the rights to the Ruin. We try to push ‘em out they can get the other Guilds to cut trade with us. Saddlespring could live fer awhile on its own, but without the Water Guild brinin’ in fresh water or the Mechanics Guild comin’ in to fix our generators when they break down, Saddlesrping get’s ta hurtin’ fast, you see?”

I wasn’t sure I did. It sounded, like she said all ‘complicated like’. It was as if these Guilds just seemed to own and control every important commodity in the Skull City Waste, and any community that wanted to survive for long had to play by whatever rules they came up with. It gave me a sinking feeling in my gut to think about it. Taking on Crossfire and her team was terrifying enough of a prospect, but freeing those slaves, assuming I pulled it off, sounded like I’d be openly going against one of this area’s major powers.

Well look at it this way Longwalk. I thought to myself, Things can’t get much worse from here, right?

Someday down the road I’d learn never to think that. At the time I was still in my naïve stage, so cut me some slack.

“I’m sorry to have brought it up, didn’t know that’s how it was,” I said, then glanced at my drink, then at Arcaidia, who gave me a quizzical raise of her eyebrow. She been keeping quiet, letting me and B.B talk. I wondered if she was as hungry as I was.

“So, B.B, about them meals?”

“Oh, no problem hun, let me get those fixed up fer ya and yer filly-friend.”

As B.B began to fly off towards a door behind the counter that I could only assume led to some kind of cooking area I noticed Arcaidia eyeing the pegasus. The unicorn’s silver eyes went wide and she stood on her haunches, pointing a hoof.

“Estu ren bruhir!”

“You’re just now noticing who she is?” I asked, putting a hoof on Arcaidia’s shoulder “Look, can we just have a quiet meal? Please?”

I tried giving Arcaidia what I hoped was my most charming and convincing smile/dopey eyes combo. It worked on mom when I needed to convince her that I really had gotten all my chores done. Most of the time. Okay so not really, but still, it was the effort that counted!

Arcaidia gave me a sour look, but after a moment settled down and, flipping some of her long silver hair out of her face said, “Mata mata, esru vi pulvosh ren solva. Estu ren bruhir hashai.”

Before long B.B returned, bearing two small metal trays balanced easily on her two forehooves and set them before us, then went about getting a cup filled with some of that sweet tasting foamy brown liquid for Arcaidia. I blinked at the food in front of me, curious.

Green. Green and leafy. I looked at my brain pony and it shrugged at me. Great; what was I supposed to do with green food? Eat it I suppose. I was encouraged by the fact that Arcaidia, for her part, had immediately dug into the tray of green leafy stuff with apparent relish and only giving B.B a brief narrowed eyed look before nodding her head in grudging thanks.

B.B just seemed to find Arcaidia’s attitude amusing and gave me a look, noticing the way I was poking a hoof at the arrangement of green stuff as if it might attack me, “What? Ya never seen a’ proper salad before? Can’t blame ya, me an my pa’s saloon is one the only places outside a’ Skull City that affords fresh-ish greens from the Farming Guild.”

I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised there was no meat. When I’d been buying food at the market most the vendors had given me weird looks when I’d asked if they had any meat. The food provisions I’d purchased were instead lots of stuff packaged up in boxes or metal cans that the vendors had assured me that despite being ‘pre-war’ food was more than edible after two centuries. Since all the ponies around here were still alive and apparently didn’t have much else to eat I could only believe that the food was survivable if not tasty. This green stuff was new on me. A salad, huh? Well, you only live once, right?

My first nibble left me not knowing what to think. The taste was…just weird. Not as satisfying as meat’s salty goodness and it wasn’t bland like the roots the tribe had grown to go into our stews. The salad had a lot of different leafy stuff in it plus some things B.B told me were chopped onions. As I chewed it down in every larger mouthfuls I found that the taste was something I could get used to, though I thought it would be better if I could mix in some chunks of gecko meat. My stomach didn’t complain at having food in it though and before long Arcaidia and I were both finished.

“Thanks, that was pretty good actually, even if there was no meat,” I said, suppressing a burp. B.B gave me an odd look but smiled anyway and took the trays, setting them on the back counter.

“Yer welcome, I think. Now then, ya said somethin’ ‘bout havin’ questions?”

“Yeah, just a couple,” I tapped a hoof to my chin, pondering which to start with. Guess I’d get the simple one out of the way first, “Exactly where is the Ruin in town?”

The pegasus’ frowned slightly but said, “North west end a’ town, just follow the road to the right past the Sherrif’s station then hang left at the wall an’ keep goin’. Can’t miss it, Labor Guild’s got tents set up all over the building the Ruin entrance was found in.”

“Got it. Um, are there a lot of Labor Guild ponies there?”

“Now why’d ya wanna be knowin’ about that?” B.B asked.

“I...” I needed a reason that wouldn’t give away what I intended to do. Much as B.B made it clear the Labor Guild wasn’t exactly welcome in Saddlespring it was equally clear the townsfolk wouldn’t take to anypony who’d upset the status quo, given their town’s prosperity would be at risk if they were perceived to be going against the Labor Guild.

“I know a pony who works for them,” true statement, “I was just curious if I’d have a hard time finding him. I didn’t know how big their operation was here.”

“Funny, ya say ya got no love for slavery, yet ya got a pal who works for the Guild?”

“I just met him today, but he’s been one of the only ponies willing to help me get my bearings out here. With my stunning lack of knowledge I can’t afford to be picky about who I take help from.”

A soft laugh escaped from her, “Can’t argue that I reckon. Fine, ya shouldn’t have any trouble findin’ yer slaver buddy; they only got about a dozen ponies there, plus a few of them Followers of the Apocalypse folk.”

“Followers of the what now?”

“Oh, weird bunch from down south. Bringin’ medical aid and food to the needy and whatnot. Don’t know what ponyfolk like that are doin’ with the Labor Guild; don’t seem to jive with their mission statement of bringin’ relief to the downtrodden, but one of their doc’s is there at the camp. She visited my pa the other day.”

“Huh, why’s that?”

“Don’t rightly know, pa talked to her in private and didn’t tell me what it was about. Pa owns this here saloon but he’s also the local doc. Might be they were talkin’ medicine.”

While that was something I would file away in the back of my mind as ‘interesting’ it didn’t really figure into my plan. Overall the news was good though, there wouldn’t be as many ponies at the camp to contend with as I’d feared, though still more than enough to be a serious problem and to make any kind of direct approach a bad idea. If this Followers doctor really espoused to a philosophy of helping ponies in need maybe I’d have a possible ally? Doubtful, if she was already working with the Labor Guild for whatever reasons, but this would go so much smoother if I had a pony on the inside who could help me.

“Well, thanks for the info B.B, I just go one last question,” I said “What’s the best way for a pony to get to the NCR from here.”

The pegasus chortled, “NCR? That’s no small trip. There ain’t no direct route from here at least. Most travel to the south is done either ships comin’ outta Port Needle or what few caravans are nutty ‘nough to try crossin’ the Bleach.”

“…The Bleach?” I was starting to feel like my only purpose in life was to repeat what other ponies told me but in question format.I wondered if there would eventually come a day where every conversation I had didn't involve me needing to ask questions ever other sentence just to understand what was being talked about.Maybe I ought to look into reading books? I heard those are informative.

“Massive desert to the south, cuts right ‘tween the coast all the way to the mountains to the west. It’s what separates our neck of the woods from the heartland of Equestria. Used to be easier to travel, years back, but last I’d say three years or so the desert’s gotten…rough. I hear only safe way to cross is by sand steamer, an’ only one of those still workin’ is owned by the Mechanics Guild, so good luck gettin’ across that way. But even if ya did get across to the NCR border it wouldn’t do ya much good. Borders closed, has been fer awhile.”

Well, not exactly what I’d been hoping to hear but it was better to know now than if me and Arcaidia found out after getting there. I was curious about why the NCR’s border was closed down and also wanted to ask about the location of Port Needle, since that sounded like the best bet we had of getting to the NCR at all, but a sudden and epic yawn escaped me before I could get the words out and I remembered how tired I was. If I was serious about going to the Labor Guild’s camp tonight I’d need rest.

B.B was more than happy to show me and Arcaidia to our room, which was up a set of stairs on the building’s second floor. As we passed down a hallway to the room I noticed a poster on the wall, a bit more colorful and vibrant than a lot of the faded and torn posters that had been part of the main floor’s decorations. This poster depicted a blue unicorn mare, her light azure coat and silver hair immediately striking me as familiar. She wore a purple cap and odd pointy hat with a wide brim and was shown standing up on two legs on a stage; forelegs spread out around her like she was waving to a massive crowd. Bursts of colors around her, like small explosions of light, drew attention to colorful wording across the top of the poster.

‘The Greatest Magic Show in Equestria; Behold the Great and Powerful Trixie!’

“Hey B.B, what’s this? Looks familiar.”

B.B’s white face went a tad red as she grinned, stepping up to the poster, “That there’s a poster mah pa found during his Drifter days. Don’t rightly know who she was, but I always liked this poster an’ its part of what inspired mah show. Things’re pretty dreary ‘round these parts, so I like entertainin’ folks when pa doesn’t need me workin’ the saloon. Ya know, brighten up folks day with some honest entertainment. I tried findin’ out who Trixie was, but there ain’t much mention of her in any of the books my pa’s got. Not any, in fact. It’s a shame, would a’ liked to know who she was.”

I was still looking at the poster, wondering what it was about this Trixie that was bugging me as familiar. Then Arcaidia bumped me with her flank, apparently wanting to get to our room, and I looked over at her about to apologize for staring at the poster. Then it hit me.

“Hey…hey B.B, don’t you think Arcaidia kind of looks that pony in the poster?”

B.B blinked, and took a closer look at Arcaidia. The blue unicorn filly stared between us, clearly bewildered as to why we were both suddenly so interested in her, but she did seem to preen under the attention, straightening her neck and trying to stand tall and look regal.

“Ya know what, there is kinda a resemblance there. Eye color’s wrong, and the hairs longer, but I’m seein’ what ya mean. Well, guess it wouldn’t be the first time somepony looked like ‘nother. Ain’t that weird.”

“Esvu vi mas saevil?” Arcaidia said and her tone was that of mild indignation.

“Sorry Arcaidia, didn’t meant to stare,” I said, then nodded towards the room, “Let’s head in. Thanks again B.B for all the help.”

“Tch, ain’t done nothin’ special, just talked to ya some. It ain’t like I gave ya free room and board.”

“Believe me after the day I’ve had a friendly talk has been plenty to be thankful for.”

The room was small and sparse, with only one old mattress pushed into one corner and a broken down dresser in the other. But it was dry, mostly clean, and the mattress looked like heaven compared to the ground I was used to sleeping on, though I had every intention of letting Arcaidia use it. Once we were settled Arcaidia poked her head out the room’s one window, looking outside up at the gray overcast sky. I didn’t know what she was looking for exactly but she seemed pensive.

As I pulled out the straw mat from my saddlebags and laid it out alongside the room’s mattress Arcaidia turned to me and raised her Pip-Buck, pointing the screen in my direction. I came over and looked. It was displaying the Objective’s screen and to my surprise there were several additional items on the list:

‘Find Persephone’

‘Discover the secret of the pegasus witch’

‘Learn language of natives’

‘Protect Longwalk from himself’

I could only wonder at how these objectives were even getting added to the Pip-Buck, but Arcaidia’s serious expression forestalled my thoughts on that matter as she turned to face me.

“Longwalk, esru di vor ren vilshi goval? Mas…di mas.”

“Arcaidia I don’t know what you’re trying to say here,” I could tell she was upset about something, and that became even more clear as she poked my chest with one of her dainty hooves, then grabbed my mane with her teeth and dragged me over to the window.

“Vilshi golval, nes?” she said as she pointed. I looked out and in the direction she was pointing I saw what was probably the Ruin and the Labor Guild’s camp. Several large white rectangular tents were nestled around the base of a crumbled building, a rough fence of metal looped around the affair. I could see a few ponies by an open part in the fence, though I couldn’t make out from this distance if they were armed it stood to reason that they would be.

“That’s…Arcaidia, you know what I’m planning to do?”

Arcaidia looked at me for a long moment before nodding slowly.

“You can understand what I’m saying?”

Her lips pursed and she began to look confused, nodding again, but in the exact way she had before. Okay so she didn’t understand my words. She was just good at reading my body language then? It wasn’t like I’d been doing a good job hiding my feelings about the slaves and chances were for a perceptive and aware pony my intentions were pretty easy to see. Which wasn’t good. That meant Crossfire probably was expecting me to pull something tonight.

That didn’t change that I was going to do it. Arcaidia wasn’t going to change that either, though I had to admit she had far more pull with me than anypony else right now and if she’d really insisted upon stopping me…I’d feel real bad about doing it anyway. I was here because I owed her, but I’d already decided that walking away wasn’t an option. If she understood my language I would have tried to explain that to her, explain that I was sorry about putting ponies I didn’t even know before the obligation I had to help her on her quest, but that I needed to do this. That if I didn’t do this I think I’d be losing a part of myself I wasn’t ready to sacrifice just, even for all I owed her.

Arcaidia kept looking at me intently, maybe waiting for me to say something more, but I could only stand there and hope she could read the determination on my face. After a few moments she let out a sigh and prodded me once more with her hoof, this time in a supportive manner on the shoulder.

“Trailblaze ren vir. Esru ren ri varo. Matta,” she straightened and stuck out her hoof, mirroring the way I did it when offering a hoofshake. I smiled and wrapped my hoof around hers.

“I’m…with…you,” she said slowly and deliberately, as if picking out each word by memory. Which she was as I realized she was repeating what I’d told her back in Shady Stream when I’d decided to help her find Persephone. My smile deepened, despite a part of me suddenly being more than little nervous about our chances of pulling this off. If something went wrong and she got hurt…

“Thank you Arcaidia. Just, don’t do anything crazy to protect me from myself, alright? Now let’s get some rest, we got a long night ahead of us.”

----------

In the dark of night the Labor Guild’s camp was lit up by several bright lamps hanging periodically from the fence. I could also see that at least one of the tents was lit up from the inside, the largest of the bunch. That might be where they were keeping the slaves but some part of me doubted they’d bother keeping the slave’s tent well lit, assuming they were even in one of the tents. I hadn’t seen any of them yet.

Me and Arcaidia were both lying down amid the rubble of one of the broken down buildings along the street near the Labor Guild camp. We’d quietly snuck out of the saloon not long ago, sometime in what I guessed was the dead middle of the night. I’d only gone downstairs into the saloon’s common room once earlier when evening had first set in to look for Iron Wrought; remembering I’d said I’d meet the stallion there for a drink. He hadn’t been there. That worried me some; he hadn’t seemed like the type to say he’d be somewhere and not be, but then what did I know? I’d only met him today.

Following B.B’s directions we had swiftly trotted down the street, passing the Sheriff's office and turning left at the wall, passing by an old dry fountain and a blue box tucked into the corner of an alley. Down the street we’d seen the lights of the camp and moved off into this ruined building, climbing up broken pieces of concrete to peek out and get a look at our target.

The building the camp was built around was marginally more intact than the one we were in and I could see that the entrance was a large blasted hole in the side where a pair of lamps had been hung over. That part was oddly unguarded. Looking I also took note that while there were still two guards at the open part of the fence there didn’t seem to be any patrols and the camp was mostly quiet. That was either very encouraging…or something to be worried about.

Well, we’d need to get in there to get anything done. Looking to Arcaidia I got her attention with a tap.

“Hey, if we get to the fence do you think you could freeze it so we can break through?” I asked, pantomiming her spell with my ‘ffzzzzwhoosh’, but then clapping a hoof over my mouth and making a ‘shhh’ sound, hoping she’d get that I was curious if she could do the spell in a quiet manner.

She responded by tapping her horn to a nearby metal spar and with only a slight glow of magic and next to no sound slowly turned the spar to ice, then broke it off. I grinned. Okay, so we might have a way in, we just needed to sneak up to a side of the fence the guards couldn’t easily see. This was going to be eas-

*Ka-chink*

Oh…that was the sound of a very large gun chambering a round.

“So, enjoying the crisp night air?”

I wheeled around, teeth going for the straps securing Gramzanber to my side. Before I could even get the first strap loose though there was a loud crack and a sharp searing pain in my ear as Crossfire’s bullet tore the tip off my right ear. I felt hot blood trickle down the side of the ear as Crossfire calmly kept her smoking gun pointed square at me head.

The black unicorn mare herself was standing in the center of the ruined building, her massive bayonet rifle wrapped in the crimson glow of her magic as she regarded me and Arcaidia with a cocky grin.

“In case you’re wondering, I didn’t miss, buck. That was just a warning shot.”

Arcaidia growled and turned, her horn already glowing, but rather abruptly she paused as several small knives covered in a yellow aura appeared under her throat, having floated up there from the shadows to our left.

“Looks like you were right boss,” said Shard as he emerged from hiding, “Now I owe Brickhouse some caps.”

The pony in question poked his head out from behind a ruined wall on the opposite side of the building, “So that mean I can come out now? We done hiding?”

“Yes, Brickhouse, you can come out now,” drawled Crossfire with a roll of her eyes, “Thanks for following instructions and not jumping the gun. Wanted these two to get nice and comfy after all.”

“How did you know we were here?” I asked, trying to keep my voice calm and level, nice and confident sounding. Which I wasn’t. Damn my ear stung! Oh, and me and Arcaidia seemed fairly screwed. Crossfire and her team had us dead to rights at the moment.

“Buck, hate to break it to you, but you suck at sneaking. Spotted you coming up the road long before you heading into this building. Been keeping an eye out for you since you didn’t do much of a job hiding your bleeding heart earlier today. Figured you’d be paying us a visit tonight.”

“I thought we were being pretty stealthy. We crouched down and everything!”

“…you do know there’s more to stealth than just crouching, right?”

“Hey, it always worked on the geckos I hunted!”

Crossfire shook her head in apparent disbelief at my lack of proper stealth techniques (as if she was some kind of expert! Oh, wait she got the drop on us, so I guess she probably was) and said, “Well I ain’t no gecko. Now then, you got any particularly convincing reason I shouldn’t riddle the two of you with bullets? I’m curious to hear what you can come up with and could use a laugh.”

“…My stunning good looks?”

“You’re a six out of ten at best, buck, and that’s me being generous,” Crossfire snorted, “And even if you were a straight ten hot piece of flank you still wouldn’t rate more than a bullet to the brain for even thinking of getting between me and getting paid. This job’s being pain in my flank as is without idiots like you trying to pull some half baked slave rescue.”

“Pain in the flank? Like what, more of your ‘property’ escape?” I asked, not so much because I was curious but because I needed to keep her talking to buy myself time to think of a way out of this. I sneaked a sidelong glance at Arcaidia. Shard still had some of his knives gripped in his yellow glow of magic, their blades pressed firmly against her throat. She was giving him a concentrated dose of the ‘kitten drowning ‘ look as if she could turn him into a chunk of ice by sheer will alone. Shard for his part didn’t look all that comfortable, the unicorn stallion’s expression sullen.

Crossfire had her yellow eyes narrowed at me and I could almost see her weighting the wroth of bothering to answer my question as opposed to just pulling the trigger. At length she said, “No, after a friendly ‘chat’ with Iron Wrought I made it clear there wasn’t going to be any more slaves getting out of their shackles. Nah, my problem is that the Labor Guild’s paid me to keep those slaves alive while they excavate the Ruin, but the damned place is a deathtrap. Even me and my team can’t save those slaves from their own incompetence! Lost three just this first afternoon. That’s three hundred caps I ain’t getting paid and we haven’t even cleared the top level yet.”

I felt something akin to a spark going off in my head. Ideeeeeaaa! Probably not a good one, but I would take whatever my brain could throw me at this juncture. Arcaidia and my lives depending on whatever fast talk prowess I could muster. So I started talking. Fast.

“Labor Guild wants whatever’s in that Ruin, right? They got no reason to care who gets it for them, slaves, you, or let’s say, me.”

“Now hold on a second-“

Keep talking, convince her. It was hard to concentrate past the burning pain in my ear but at least it felt like the bleeding had stopped.

“Look you want caps. That’s you’re thing, right? Getting paid? You just said yourself you’re losing slaves in this Ruin, which costs you caps. If somepony else was willing to take all the risk and go into that Ruin to excavate it then that just saves you a whole lot of trouble, right?”

“…It might. What’s your game, buck? You volunteering to go into the Ruin? That won’t make them slaves any more free.”

“No, but it will keep them from being killed down there. Look I’m done lying. You’re right, my plan was to try and bust those slaves out of that camp. You caught me, sucks on my part. But if me and Arcaidia go into the Ruin and manage to clear it out of…what’s in there exactly?”

“Traps, mostly. Some kind of critters too, like to hide in the dark and drag the slaves off. That’s how we lost one.”

“Right, so we go in, clear the traps, the critters, and make sure the place is safe. In exchange you let me and Arcaidia here walk, just like you said I ought to have done in the first place. The slaves are still slaves, but they’re less dead. And you get paid.”

“Assuming you two live.”

“If we don’t, so what? You’re just back to where you started. Even if we’re killed down there we might soften things up for you some. It’s a win-win for you no matter what happens to us.”

“Unless you find something down there you could use against me, or found a passage in the Ruin that leads out of town.”

Crap, why did everypony have to be smarter than me and figure out my intentions like that? Well, I was already galloping down this hill, might as well see it through.

“What are the chances of that versus the likelihood of us dying to traps and critters you just admitted to having trouble with yourself Miss ‘number one gun of the Drifter’s Guild’?”

“I ain’t having trouble with them!” Crossfire snarled, “It’s those dumb ass slaves that are getting killed.”

“Right, but my point still stands that the chances of me and Arcaidia surviving down there and finding an escape route is way lower than the chance of us getting killed, so you don’t have much to lose by letting us try.”

There was a long pause before Crossfire barked out a harsh but amused laugh, “You, buck, are a complete idiot. But an idiot with a pair. My better judgment says I ought to just kill you before you cause me any more of a headache, but I’ll admit you got me curious to see if you can pull this off. But we’re going to do this my way, with a few stipulations for my entertainment and assurance. Move.”

She flicked her tail to indicate me and Arcaidia needed to start walking. Arcaidia gave me a questioning look and I just shook my head and motioned for her to follow me as I started walking. Crossfire and her team kept a close eye on eyes, her weapon never for a second pointed anywhere other than my skull and Shard’s knives never straying from Arcaidia’s neck as we exited the crumbled building and headed over across the street to the camp.

The Labor Guild slavers guarding the fence entrance gave our party a surprised look but Crossfire was quick to explain that we were her prisoners and that this wasn’t any of their business. The guards seemed less than pleased but were either too scared of Crossfire to question her or were simply under orders to let the Drifter do as she wanted.

We were led into the central tent, the one that was still lit up, and I blinked my eyes as they adjusted to the sudden change in lighting. Inside was…not quite what I was expecting.

A table took up most the center of the tent but the edges of it were stuffed with metal machines, many of which had screens and buttons on them. Some metal cabinet looking things with flashing lights on them were arranged in one corner of the room, and another machine was churning out graphs of paper while making strange noises. There were three ponies in the tent as we entered, two of which were at the table going over what appeared to be stacks of notes while the third was at one of the machines with the screens, poking at the buttons with soft glows of green telekinetic magic.

The unicorn at the screen raised her head as we entered. She was a bright vibrant pink mare with a short and neat cut lime green mane. She wore a clean looking white coat that covered most of her body and had a pair of thin rimed black glasses perched on her nose.

“Oh my what’s all this now?” she asked in a shocked town as Crossfire marched me and Arcaidida inside.

“Brickhouse,” Crossfire said to the massive brown stallion, “Get back outside and keep watch. Just in case this buck got any of the townsfolk on his side. I don’t want any more surprises.”

“Again I ask, what’s all this now?” the pink unicorn mare asked as she came up to us, adjusting her glasses as she peered at me and Arcaidia, “Miss Crossfire? Explain?”

Crossfire grimaced, her tone filled with annoyance, “Cool it Dr. Lemon Slice, these two ponies were about to interfere with our operation here. As you know the Labor Guild’s hired me and given me full authority as a temporary Overseer to ensure this little excavation goes smoothly. Instead of disposing of these two I thought I’d put them to work instead, going into the Ruin.”

Hey, that was my idea! My poorly thought out and possibly going to get me and Arcaidia killed idea! Honestly it wasn’t getting me any closer to rescuing the slaves, but that wasn’t the point. The plan was buying me time.

“Oh my, well that is unfortunate,” Dr. Lemon Slice said, giving me and Arcaidia a pitying look, “This Ruin has proven to be quite dangerous. If the data we were getting wasn’t so valuable I’d be questioning the cost in lives. Truly unfortunate. Hmm, so you will be sending these two into the Ruin? By themselves?”

Crossfire smiled, and it was a smile I didn’t like one tiny bit.

“Not exactly. You remember the slave that tried to escape today? The one whose leg you treated?”

“Why yes, poor thing, her bone wasn’t set properly. You really shouldn’t expose a wounded subject to healing potions without ensuring the proper precautions are taken first. Healing potions really are meant just for dealing with minor flesh wounds-“

“Yeah, yeah. Look why don’t you go fetch her from the pen. I think she’ll be joining our brave little heroes here inside the Ruin.”

“What?” the doctor and I said both at the same time. Crossfire looked at me coldly.

“I think you’ll perform better if there’s somepony down there whose life is going to depend on you. She’s also my insurance you’ll be coming back up willingly if you do happen to find another way out of there. You see those explosive collars around those slaves necks are pretty advanced pieces of tech. They can be programmed to explode under certain conditions, like distance from the detonator…or on a time limit.”

“Miss Crossfire I really must object to this-“

“Objected noted doc, and rejected. Remember you’re here as a guest of the Labor Guild after you got your sorry flank kicked out of the Followers of whateverthefuck. You have no authority here and your job is to tell us what tech is worthwhile to the Labor Guild and which isn’t.”

“Well…very well…speaking of which, young colt, that spear of yours, where did you acquire it?”

“Doc, not now. Go get the slave.”

“But that spear bears a striking resemblance to artifacts found in other Ruins. At least the metal is made from does. Surely it would be prudent for us to study it. It may help with a theory I’ve been working on.”

“I’m going to kind of need it in the Ruin,” I said, suddenly quite uncomfortable with the attention on my spear. Gramzanber had been getting more than a few odd looks while I’d been going about Saddlespring. At the market there had even been a few offers by the vendors to take it off my hooves for what had sounded like a large sum of caps to my inexperienced ears; but the spear wasn’t up for sale. Arcaidia had given it to me to save Trailblaze. I might not have at first felt a lot of attachment to it but now that I had it for awhile…I didn’t feel like parting with it.

“Hm, I suppose an examination can wait until-*gasp* Oh my, is that a starblaster you have there young lady?”

I heard Crossfire groan as she face hoofed. The doctor was now in front of Arcaidia in the blink of an eye, excitedly peering at the weapon holstered on my friend’s foreleg.

“It’s been so long since I’ve had an opportunity to see one up close! Oh you must allow me to study it!“

Crossfire trotted forward and shoved her face right up in front of the doctors, eyes boring into the pink unicorn.
“Slave. Now.”

“But a real starblaster? If it’s functional I really must examine it. Who knows when I’ll get another chance!? The technology of those weapons is ludicrously beyond Equestrian standard!”

“Ugh, fine, take the damned thing then, but you study it later. Go get the slave.”

Arcaidia snarled out the begging’s of what was probably a protest as the doctor gleefully began to float out the starblaster, but Shard pressed his knives in firmly against her neck, drawing only the smallest well of blood, and Arcaidia went silent. If looks were capable of dealing death though I think most of the room would be a glacier by this point. The doctor, near salivating, floated the starblaster to a locker and locked the weapon inside, turning around only to face Crossfire’s extremely annoyed visage.

The doctor, taking the hint, morosely left, giving my spear final longing parting look. The two other ponies at the table had been staring at us the whole time but quickly went back to their work after a harsh glare from Crossfire. The black unicorn mare was muttering to herself as she leaned up against the table, bayonet rifle still floating by my head, as she snorted out a sigh.

“Fucking scientists.”

“I take it you two don’t get along?” I ventured.

“Buck, shut up, or I’ll be rapidly reconsidering this plan of yours. I like caps, but I like not being pissed off even more.”

Right, I suppose that’s me not talking now. Really would it kill this mare to try being a little more sociable? Was being a cap grubbing mercenary that much of a satisfying lifestyle? But then she was the one with the gun and I was the prisoner about to be kicked into some ancient deathtrap Ruin, on my own suggestion no less. Who was I to question the direction her life was taking? Besides I could use the time to start thinking of yet another plan to try and turn this around.

So it was those collars that made the slave’s heads explode. And they could do it via something called a ‘detonator’. Right, so if I could get my hooves on this detonator then maybe I could turn the collars off? Seemed logical enough that Crossfire would have the detonator on her, probably tucked into that red jacket of hers. How could I get it?

My thoughts were interrupted by a commotion outside the tent. I heard a loud feminine voice shouting. Within moments the tent flap opened and the place got crowded as multiple ponies came in to join the party. First was Dr. Lemon Slice and a Labor Guild guard armed with what I understood now as a ‘shotgun’ leading the white earth pony mare slave, whose shackles had been removed I noted, her eyes downcast as she walked with a heavy limp. Behind them came Brickhouse, the large stallion carrying another pony in his mouth by her hair.

Her light brown hair streaked with pink. Her wings flapped furiously to get free of Brickhouse’s iron teeth but to no avail. She twisted aorud and struck the stallion several times in the face but he didn’t even blink at her punches.

“Dangnabbit let go a’ me ye damned big oaf!”

B.B kept wailing on the stallion but to little affect. For his part Brickhouse actually looked embarrassed as he gave Crossfire an apologetic look and said, “Found something boss.”

“I see that, “Crossfire replied dryly and came up and casually lifted her bayonet rifle so the large blade was pressed firmly up under B.B’s chin. The pegasus stiffened and ceased her struggling as her violet eyes turned to regard Crossfire.

“Calmed down now? Good,” Crossfire said with a self-satisfied smirk, “Now then my little filly, who are you and what are you doing here? And remember, lying is bad.”

B.B’s eyes flicked to me but almost as quickly went back to Crossfire as she said, “I ain’t nopony. I just work at the saloon an’ was out fer a walk is all.”

Crossfire sighed and pulled her bayonet away from B.B’s neck and took a step back, “Oh, well if that’s the case I suppose I ought to just let you go then. Simple misunderstanding, right?”

I saw the rifle wheel around the felt my teeth grind as the stock of the rifle smacked B.B across the face hard enough to split her lip. As blood dripped from her chin the pegasus’ eyes unfocused In the daze from the blow.

“Let’s try this again,” Crossfire said, this time raising her rifle to press the tip of the bayonet against B.B’s temple, “Why were you outside the camp?”

“Miss Crossfire is this necessary?” Dr. Lemon Slice said plaintively, “She’s obviously just a local. They all know that the camp is off limits. Beating the poor filly isn’t going to-“

“I don’t remember asking for your opinion doctor. Now kindly shut your trap.”

Crossfire put a bit of pressure on her weapon and the tip poked at the side of B.B’s head until a small trickle of blood welled up to mar her white coat.

“Now answer my question filly, and the truth this time.”

B.B was clearly trying hard to keep fear from showing on her face as her wide eyes looked at the weapon pressed against her head, but she took a deep breath, saying “I already told ya. My name’s B.B, I work at the saloon, I was out fer a walk. I might a’ walked a little close to the fence but I was just peekin’ at the Ruin. Then yer walkin’ tank her snatches me up and drags me in here! I ain’t done nothin’ wrong!”

Crossfire leaned in close to B.B, their eyes only inches apart.

“I got a talent for sniffing out lies, filly. You know this buck, I can see it in the way you keep flicking over little glances at him. You’re here for him I’m guessing.”

“Just let her go Crossfire,” I said, “We might have met earlier today but so what? It’s not as if she would have come out here to help me after knowing me for less than a day. She’s not even armed.”

“That true?” Crossfire asked Brickhouse as she pulled her weapon away from B.B’s head slightly “You searched her for weapons Brickhouse?”

The big stallion nodded his head, B.B bobbing up and down with the motion and Crossfire, “Eyup. She don’t have anything on her beside that fancy dress.”

Crossfire regarded B.B carefully for a second, then shook her head, “Nope, not buying it. You got the look of a troublemaker and you keep looking at Mr. Hero here like your trying not to. So fuck it, you get to go into the Ruin with them. Have fun.”

“What? No, Crossfire, she’ll get killed down there!” I shouted. I was already pissed off she was forcing the slave mare to go with me and Arcaidia, but there was no reason to send B.B down as well! Risking my own life and Arcaidia’s was bad enough, but B.B was completely uninvolved in this. There was no reason her life needed to be put in danger just because I decided to develop a hero-complex.

“Not my problem,” Crossfire retorted, “Hey, now you get a free lesson in taking jobs in the Wasteland. It’s called ‘Escort Missions Suck’. Learned it early on in my career.”

I opened my mouth to protest further but B.B cut me off.

“Its fine Longwalk,” she said, dropping all pretense of not knowing me, “I figured ya were doin’ somethin’ foalish when I spotted ya sneakin’ out of the saloon. Was gonna try an’ stop ya but, well, guess that plans down the crapper now.”

She narrowed her eyes at Crossfire, “Mah pa’s gonna wonder where I went though.”

“Oh no, the local inn keeper and bartender will come looking for his daughter? How terrifying.”

“I ought ta’ mention mah pa’s name is Doc Sunday.”

That seemed to give Crossfire pause.

“Seriously? Doc Sunday? You don’t look anything like him. What you take after your mother?”

“Adopted,” B.B replied coolly.

“Heh, not saying I buy what you’re saying but if it’s true…well good, if Doc Sunday really is your old buck and decides to come after you then that’ll be a great chance for me to boost my reputation. Isn’t everyday you get a shot at claiming you took down one of the Drifter Guild’s former legends.”

B.B groaned, “Ah crap, I forgot, pa always told me I shouldn’t go droppin’ his name ta other Drifters on account a’ his rep.”

“Right, now that that’s settled, we just got one last bit of business to take care of before I shove you lot into the Ruin. Doctor, I want you to adjust the parameters on that slave’s collar.”

The slave mare in question had been very quietly standing next to Arcaidia, who’d barely given the slave mare a glance and was still trying to apparently destroy eveypony in the room besides me with her icy glare. Shard still had Arcaidia’s neck practically covered in pointy knives and was looking more and more uncomfortable as the proceedings went on. The slave mare started a bit as she was brought up and looked about the room fearfully. Dr. Lemon Slice looked at Crossfire with plain displeasure on her face.

“If you insist it is necessary. What adjustments do you want me to make?”

“Adjust the detonator frequency to key into a different detonator than the primary and set the radius for detonation for, oh, let’s say, thirty meters instead of one hundred. Then activate the detonation timer so it will also go off after four hours. Just about the time we have until sunrise I’d say.”

As the doctor went about making the changes by apparently adjusting some knobs on the side of the collar I just blinked at Crossfire.

“What ‘s the point of all that? Why even send her down there with us!?”

“Like I said, I think you’ll perform better under pressure. More than that though it’s a guarantee that even if you find an escape route down there you’ll have a reason to come back here. In four hours that collar will go off one way or another unless I have the doctor shut off the timer. As for the detonator change, I can’t have her go into the ruins if the proximity detonator is keyed into mine. That place is bigger than a hundred meters. Rather than make her leash longer I figured I’d just give her a newer, but shorter leash that you can hold onto. Don’t get any bright ideas, you won’t be able to disable the bomb with the detonator I’m going to give you; that feature will be disabled. It’ll just mean you’ll be the center point for the thirty meter proximity. Oh, and if you feel like you could always press the red button to blow up her head, if you’re feeling tired of trying to protect her.”

“You’re…sick.”

“Sick? Buck if I were sick I’d be putting exploding collars on all of you. As it happens I’m just fond of a little insurance. Believe it or not, buck, I’m kind of hoping for you to succeed down there. It’ll save me a lot of trouble and a lot of caps. I didn’t take this job because I like working for the Labor Guild or get pleasure out of working slaves to death. I took it because they threw enough caps my way to make it worth my while. That’s another free lesson I’ll give you on the Wasteland; Caps are King. You got enough caps, you can do anything. You live through this you’d best remember that.”

I think I was scowling. I didn’t want her ‘advise’ and I sure as hell didn’t buy that she wasn’t getting some kind of messed up pleasure out of this whole situation. In fact I was pretty sure she was enjoying the idea of us dying down there immensely.

When Dr. Lemon Slice finished with the slave mare’s collar she floated over to me a small black plastic device shaped somewhat like a cylinder with a covered top-cap that she explained to me had the trigger detonator and that I ought not uncover it lest I accidentally push the button beneath. She reassured me that as long as I stayed within thirty meters (I had to get her to explain to me what a ‘meter’ was; hey my tribe didn’t use the metric system, alright?) of the collar that the mare would be just fine, and that even if she went outside thirty meters the collar wouldn’t explode immediately, that there was a ten second delay in which the collar would beep in warning before detonation.

I tucked the detonator into my saddlebags and gave the doctor a small nod of thanks. I didn’t exactly see her as blameless for any of this, after all she was willingly working with the Labor Guild and was party to what was going on here; but at least she seemed genuinely concerned for us. Brownie points there I guess. Of course it would have been nice if ‘concern’ translated to ‘help’ but once her job was done the good doctor went back to her work, standing very intentionally on the opposite side of the tent from Crossfire.

In short order myself, Arcaidia, B.B, and the as of yet unnamed slave mare were marched out of the tent and across the camp. The camp was still quiet, most of the ponies sound asleep save for the guards at the entrance, who were casting curious looks towards our procession but not saying anything. Crossfire kept her weapon pointed at me while Shard divided his knives between Arcaidia and B.B. Brickhouse took up the rear, occasionally jostling the slave mare when her steps faltered.

Before long we found ourselves being led inside the large stone building the camp had been built around. The building’s room had looked partially collapsed by on the inside I could see the bottom floor was entirely intact. The area was wide and filled with old rotted out wood crates and rusted barrels, some of which I noticed were leaking small trails of some green faintly glowing goo.

“The hay is that…?” I asked nopony in particular.

“Waste from one of the old pre-war factories,” answered Shard, somewhat to my surprise. Crossfire seemed to do most the talking for the trio, “Whatever town Saddlespring used to be before the balefire bombs fell it had a lot of warehouses to store crap byproducts the factories in the region produced before it could be dumped in the mountains. Not too dangerous unless you spend a lot of time hanging out next to it, in which case suck down a RadAway if you got one.”

“Radwhat?”

“Shard, no need to explain every little thing about Wasteland basics to them,” Crossfire said sharply.

“He’s talkin’ ‘bout RadAway, nifty drug that flushes rads outta yer system,” B.B explained, though I still had no idea what they were talking about. What were 'rads' and how could they get into my 'system'? I was going to assume this was just more of that Wasteland common knowledge stuff that was going over my head. Talk about geko hunting techniques or how to read weather patterns based off the wind and I've got you covered...mostly...okay so I wasn't all that good at that stuff either, but at least I knew what it was. I still had a lot to learn about the way things were in the wider world beyond my tribe's valley.

“Hole. In. Now,” Crossfire said, facehoofing as she led us to a sizeable hole in the center of the warehouse that looked like it had collapsed in on itself. The drop was almost completely sheer but some industrious ponies had built a wood plank and metal beam cross-way that ran in a circle around the hole, leading down. Crossfire was at the top of this, gesturing with her gun.

“What are you waiting for, get on in. You’ll find the entrance to the Ruin proper down there. Me and my team will just camp out up here and wait to hear from you on this.”

She floated over to me a small boxy object with a weird rubber antenna coming out the top. I gripped the thing in my mouth and gave her a raised eyebrow.

“It’s a radio. Won’t work if you get too deep, but the doctor suspects this Ruin doesn’t go that far down. You manage to actually clear it, or find whatever’s at the bottom, then you call us on that.”

“I understand,” actually I didn’t, but I figured it had to be like Arcaidia’s Pip-Buck somehow, those transmission things mom told me about. Rather than ask any more questions I just put the ‘radio’ away in my saddlebags and started making my way past Crossfire down the walkway, giving the black unicorn one last look that I hope told her ‘this isn’t over’ before following the winding path into the dark.

----------

The four of us stood at the bottom of the walkway, a circular stone pit whose walls were smooth slate gray stone for the most part. At points though the stone seemed to have worn away to reveal bronze colored metal beneath. The bottom of the pit was lit by more of the lamps like the ones I'd seen up in the camp, and the light illuminated a big archway in the wall of the pit. Beyond that dim light though was nothing but darkness. Rubble was strewn all over the floor, apparently from the collapsed warehouse floor above.

The first thing I did once we were all safely down was turn to face the slave mare, who had stopped at the foot of the walkway, giving the dark archway a frightened look. I slowly approached her and said softly, “I’m sorry. Crossfire just put you here to get under my skin. We’ll get you out of this, just stay close to me, alright? Oh, my name’s Longwalk, what’s yours?”

“I…” the mare seemed to hesitate to take her eyes off the dark archway to look at me, “...Shale. My name is Shale.”

Shale? Like the crumbly rocks? Now that I looked I saw that her cutie mark was a pile of broken, thin rocks, of the same name. Beneath the cutie mark I also noticed a burned scar, in the shape of the letters L and G.

“Did the Labor Guild do that?”

Shale looked away, “Of course they did. They got me when I was a filly, before I got my cutie mark. Sold to them by my parents to pay for their…addictions. I’ve been a slave most my life. I’m so tired of it. I tried to end it today…”

“When you were running away? I remember. How did you get your shackles off before?”

“I…I don’t know how. We were leaving the Ruin after the day was done and Bristle got taken by those," a fearful glance at the archway “things in the Ruin. One of the slavers checked our shackles and collars before we got put in the pen but…but as we were being filed in I noticed my shackles had come loose all of a sudden so I…I ran. I knew I’d probably be killed and that even if I got away my collar would explode but I didn’t care. I’d had enough. If I died that was just as good as escaping…”

So her shackles had just…come off? After being examined? I knew Iron Wrought was the pony who was in charge of keeping the slaves shackled so logically it must have been him that loosed Shale’s. But why would he do that? If I saw him again I’d have to ask.

“Now why’d ya wanna do somethin’ crazy like goin’ an’ dyin’?” B.B said abruptly, coming up. Arcaidia in the meantime was examining the archway intently and I noticed she was looking more nervous than I was used to seeing.

Shale gave B.B a wide eyed look, “It’s not like I want to die! I just…all I have to look forward to if I live through this task is just another one, which may be even worse. I never know who is going to own me from day to day or what they’ll make me do! I’ve done this for years, just being a piece of meat to whatever pony has caps! I’d rather die on my own terms than die on those of another pony, and definitely not in there.” she pointed a hoof at the arch.

I looked back at it, curious at what could be in there despite my growing fear. I had to shove that fear down though, because I needed to reassure Shale. She’d already been in there and any information she had would help us all make it out alive. It wasn’t just my life on the line; Arcaidia, B.B, and Shale were all here because of my decisions to try to rescue the slaves. I needed to find some way for all of us to get out of this alive. I met Shale’s eyes with my own, her brown orbs wide and fearful.

“Shale, listen, I won’t let you die. And I’m not going to let you stay a slave either. I will find a way to free you and the others.”

“How…? You can’t promise that.”

“Please just trust me. I…won’t promise it’s a sure thing this will all work out, but I will promise I’ll do everything I can! I won’t abandon you.”

The earth pony mare’s head sulked and she sank to her belly, her eyes being covered by falls of her thick black hair.

“Why do you even care?”

“Do I need a reason?”

“Look hun,” said B.B, floating over Shale with quick flaps of her wings and putting her forehooves round the slave mare, “I haven’t known Longwalk more than a’ day, but I got a feelin’ he’s a decent sort. If I hadn’t thought that I wouldn’t a’ come after ‘im. I don’t think he’s lyin’ when he says he’ll do all he can fer ya. So c’mon, we ain’t got a lot of time if we’re gonna deal with this Ruin 'fore morning.”

Right, the time limit! We had less than four hours. I gave B.B a thankful smile as she got Shale to hooves.

“B.B, if you just stick close to Shale and you two stay behind us, me and Arcaidia will take the lead. Anything attacks, let us deal with it.”

“*ahem* What’re ya talkin’ about, like I’d just let the two of ya take all the risk?” B.B landed in front of me, eyeing me, “I can take care a’ mahself. My pa taught me how to twirl a six-iron after all.”

“A what? Nevermind, I’m assuming a gun of some sort. But I thought you were searched and didn’t have any weapons?”

B.B chuckled and her voice suddenly adopted her Mirage accent, “As if the Mighty and Mysterious Mirage would have her skills in prestidigitation and sleight of hoof be outdone by such a clumsy buffoon. Behold.”

She hiked up the hem of her dress and quickly flourished out a small leather bundle so quickly I wasn’t even sure where she’d pulled it from. Unpacking the bundle she revealed two leather straps just large enough to each hold one of the weapons carefully attached to them. They looked like the big revolver Brickhouse used, only much smaller, with a short stubby barrel. The weapons lacked the normal mouth grips but instead had a series of slips in the metal that secured the guns to the leather straps. I was confused about what this set up was all about until B.B wrapped the straps around her forehooves and tied them there, so that each of her hooves had one of the mounted weapons attached to it.

“Mah pa made these fer me,” B.B said, “So I could dual wield despite not bein’ a unicorn like him. I ain’t near as good as he is but I’ll hold mah own and make sure no critters get at Shale.”

“Speaking of those things, Shale, do you have any idea what we’ll be dealing with?” I asked, feeling a bit more confident now that I knew at least three of the group could fight.

Shale trembled visibly as she said, “We could barely see them when they attacked. They moved so fast, and moved on the ceiling and walls as much as the ground. And there was so much noise after that black unicorn and the other guards started shooting I just covered my head and couldn’t see much. I saw one of the things as they took Bristle, dragged her along the ceiling and into a hole. It had huge claws, and glowing white eyes. I heard Bristle scream and scream, it echoed everywhere.”

When it became clear that was all she had I surpassed a gulp and nodded my head, “Okay then, fast freaky big-clawed ceiling crawlers. Sounds…manageable.”

Wow, I was bad at sounding confident. I ought to leave the pep talks to B.B, she seemed to have a talent for it. Clearly my own cutie mark when I got it would not involve inspirational speeches. I turned to Arcaidia to see if she was still examining the archway and noticed she had this look on her face as if she was feeling sick to her stomach.

“Arcaidia, are you alright?”

The blue unicorn looked back at me and I could see her muster herself and shake off whatever was bothering her as she stood straighter and took in then let out a long breath.

“Estu mas shinral dol solva. Esru di venro ren borvar…Elw.”

Huh? Elw? That last word had sounded off. Not like the other ones she always spouted off, which involved a whole lot of v and r sounds. Elw didn’t really fit, and the hard way she said it made it sound like it was with a capitol emphasis. I walked up to her, B.B following behind in the air with quick flaps of her wings, Shale cautiously walking next to the pegasus.

“She know somethin’ we don’t?” B.B asked.

I could only shrug, “Probably a lot of things I’m guessing. I only understand a word or two of what she says. But I think she recognizes something about this Ruin.”

“Well that ain’t much good ta us if she can’t tell us ‘bout it, so we might as well get in there.”

With more than a little trepidation we all went through the archway and into the room beyond. Within was a wide circular chamber that still had lamps like the ones outside illuminating it, but not as many and flickering shadows crawled along the walls. The air felt cooler in here and also drier, and I felt my mane standing on end from a unpleasant feeling that I was being watched. I unstrapped Gramzanber from my side and let the feeling of the spear’s grip in my teeth fill me with some small comfort.

“Shale, how far did the excavation get before you ran into traps and those…things?”

“Into the hallways beyond those openings,” she said, nodding towards the two open passages that led out of this room, one to the right, another to the left. “Inside those hallways we began to move away rubble, but when we did these turret things appeared from the ceiling. They shot beams that burned two of us before the guards destroyed them. We got a little further, to a chamber beyond the hall that had multiple doors, but then those monsters attacked.”

So they hadn’t really gotten all that far at all. It was good to know what kind of traps we’d face. Turrets that shot fire that came down from the ceiling, eh?

“B.B, keep an eye on the ceiling while we move. You see anything pop out; warn us so we can take cover.”

“Got it.”

The chamber we were in was essentially empty, but I was taking note of several unusual parts about it. One, the entire affair was made out of that bronze metal I saw through the stone outside, and now that I could see it more clearly there were strange geometric patterns of criss-crossing lines ingrained in the metal. The very center of the room had a complex circle in it that had even more complex and more distinct lines that now that I was looking at them bore a resemblance to the crests that appeared whenever Arcaidia cast a spell.

The unicorn in question had walked out to the center of the room, her eyes looking about with clear nervousness and distaste. I don’t think I’d ever seen her this agitated before. After looking between the two passages Arcaidia abruptly turned to us and pointed to the passage at the right, “Vhir val!”

She trotted over to the passage way and the rest of us followed, B.B hovering in the air and flying backwards to watch our backs while I kept eyeing any moving shadow expecting at any moment for one of them to leap at us. Arcaidia led the way into the hallway beyond the passage and I immediately noticed the downward curve of the hallway as it curved off ahead of us. It wasn’t steep, but it was clear that we were heading down as well as in a long curve.

Shale pointed out the broken and charred remains of some kind of machinery in the ceiling, the spot where the first trap had appeared. On the floor were two black and burned corpses of ponies. I swallowed. I’d never actually seen the body of a pony before. I felt my stomach roiling and I tried taking a deep breath of air to calm myself.

Mistake. The smell hit me full force and I had to drop Gramzanber to keep from hurling all over my own weapon. B.B gave me a comforting pat on the back as I lost the salad from the saloon.

“Ya alright there?”

I waved a hoof, “I…I will be…dammit why did the Labor Guild leave them here!?”

“They ain’t folk who care much fer doin’ work they don’t got to. They got slaves fer that,” B.B said, her eyes casting a sad look at the burned remains of the two slave ponies. I gathered myself and picked up Gramzanber.

Arcaidia was waiting for us, having passed by the bodies without even glancing at them. We caught up with her and continued onward, the tension in my body growing with every step. Before we could get far though I felt a strange warmth on my hoof and I looked down to see that for a second bright green light flowed along some of the geometric lines on the metal floor and spread out so fast to the walls and ceiling that it seemed to happen instantly.

“What the-?” I began but heard a soft *schnck* sound and B.B voice shouting.

“Trap, cover!”

Unfortunately there really wasn’t much cover to be had as two disc-shaped devices extended down from the ceiling and turned towards us. I threw myself between the turrets and Shale as bright orange beams lanced out of the devices. One hit my leg and burned clean through the radscorpion chitin and the gecko hide beneath and seared deep into flesh and muscle. I screamed past Gramzanber’s haft and dropped to the floor. Ancestors spirits line up and buck me with boulders did that hurt!

I rolled on the ground, trying to stay mobile as I heard the sharp snapping sound of the turrets firing again, filling the air with a tangy smell to mix with that of burned flesh. Heat seared by back from a glancing hit as my roll brought me to the wall. As I tried to get up, grinding my teeth to try and focus past the pain I heard a duo of loud gun shots that went off in a rapid staccato burst that were amplified by the confined spaces to the point that my ears began to ring.

B.B floated in the air, bobbing left and right as her forehooves pumped like she was punching the air. With each movement a complex set of cords on her bracers would flex with her movements and automatically pull the triggers on her revolvers. The pegagus’ shots were accurate, but didn’t seem to be doing much as the turrets sparked from bullets bouncing off them, but whatever kind of metal they were made from it seemed the guns weren’t strong enough to do any real damage.

It was enough though to draw their attention to B.B and the pegaus had to flit about as orange beams of fire seared their way past her.

“Shale, run!” I shouted, and the slave pony, fear drenching her eyes, nodded and while ducking her head galloped down the hallway past the turrets while they were busy firing at B.B.

Where was Arcaidia? Some ice magic would be very useful right about now! As if my thoughts were a summoning I heard the distinct sound of her icicle spell going off…but it was happening down the hallway, past the curve where I could see. She must have run into another trap up ahead! Damn! I thought Shale had said this part of the halls had already been cleared? No time to think, B.B couldn’t dodge forever.

Forcing myself to my hooves I hobbled towards the turrets. As I did so one of them turned towards me and I knew I wouldn’t have room or time to dodge so I just did what I seemed to be good at; I hurled Gramzanber. The turret fired at the same time and my chest exploded with pain as the beam burned right into me. I gasped and collapsed, trying to draw in breaths past what felt like fire in my lungs. Despite the near blinding pain I heard the sound of tearing metal and a small explosion. Gramzanber had struck the turret and cut into it, causing the thing to pop in a small ball of orange light. The spear clattered to the ground.

Meanwhile B.B, seeing me injured, dove for me, the orange beams of the other turret singing her tails as she flew. With pure momentum she reached down and grabbed me, her wings flapping so fast they were leaving after-images as she flew us both down the hall. We were almost around the curve of the hall enough to be out of range of the turret when one of the beam hit B.B in her right wing. With a cry the pegasus twirled out of the air, dropping me, and hitting the wall with a dull thud.

We were out of range of the turret, but both me and B.B were badly injured. I still was having trouble breathing and my chest felt like I’d been stabbed. Then I felt a cool feeling wash over me, like water pouring its way through my skin. I looked up to see Arcaidia looking down at me, her horn’s blue glow covering me.

Behind her there were another pair of turrets, but both were encased in ice. Beyond that I saw a metal door Shale was by, curled up in as tight a ball as the earth pony could manage. For a moment I just concentrated on breathing as Arcaidia’s healing magic did its thing. She stopped shortly, though, and turned her attention to B.B, who was lying on her back, groaning. My wounds still hurt and I was having trouble putting weight on my burned leg but I’d rather Arcaidia take care of B.B anyway.

I was about to hobble over to Shale to check on her when I remembered I’d left Gramzanber dropped in the hallway behind us with the remaining active turret. I cursed under my breath, winced at the pain the action caused, and put the spear out of my mind while I went up to Shale.

“You…okay…?” I breathed out slowly. She was shaking but nodded.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know. There shouldn’t have been more. There weren’t before.”

“Its…fine. Long as we’re…all okay…” damn maybe Arcaidia should have spent a bit more time on me, my lungs still felt like they were burning from the inside out. I chanced a look down at myself and saw a black burned hole in my barding, and charred flesh beneath that, indented inward. A similar wound was on my left leg, just below the knee. Hell, we were barely one room into this place!

“B.B? How you doing?”

“Oooow,” the pegasus groaned in reply.

After a minute or two under Arcaidia’s healing glow B.B was able to stand, though still looking dazed. She flexed her wing experimentally and grimaced in pain. The healing spell had taken care of some of the burn, but much like mine the wound was still charred. I could only imagine how sensitive a pegasus’ wings might be and how much that must be hurting for B.B. I hobbled up to her.

“Thanks for the save.”

“T’wernt nothin’. Be nice if yer unicorn friend could’a takin’ things a bit slower though. Might not have gotten’ caught with our flanks exposed.”

Arcaidia didn’t respond save to look between us and giving me a tilt of her head she said, “Dol ARM?”

Right, Gramzanber. I looked at her abashed as I pointed with my hoof back down the hall and grinned sheepishly.

“I…uh…dropped it?”

Arcaidia frowned at me and with a sigh turned and heading back down the hall, pausing at the curve and peeking her head around just briefly and snapping it back just as an orange beam lanced down past her. She gave me a look. I shrugged. What did she want me to do? Jump out and distract the thing? Another shot like before and my corpse would be joining the two poor slaves in being counted among this place’s permanent residents.

“Well dangnabit, guess we can’t just leave that shiny lookin’ poker a’ yer’s behind can we?” B.B said as she joined Arcaidia at the curve of the hallway, “Hey Arcaidia, get ready with that freezin’ number.”

I was about to ask what B.B was doing when she shucked off her violet dress.

I blinked. She was…striking. White like Shale, but something about the combination of that stark white with her bright brown mane and tail, both streaked with pink. I shook my head, then found myself drawn to the spot of red on her flank. Her cutie mark was…what was that? It was some kind of plant, but not one I’d ever seen. It had a green stem but the main part of it was a collection of petals so bright red it was like looking at a burst of fresh blood. In fact I think that was blood as the cutie mark showed a few drops of the red liquid falling off the petals to form a pool that seemed to be…nurturing the stem.

She had her dress grasped in her mouth but B.B noticed me looking at her and a pained look crossed her face as she spoke around the mouthful of dress, “Ah’ll ‘splain lutur.”

With a deep breath she turned and gave Arcaidia a look, jutting her chin towards the hall where the turret was and pointing a hoof at her dress, then at Arcaidia’s horn. The unicorn’s suspicious expression slowly turned into one of understanding as she nodded and her horn began to glow with its tell-tale frosty hue.

With that B.B tossed her dress down the hallway around the curve and there was a snapping sound as a orange beam struck the garment, causing it to go ablaze. In that same moment of distraction Arcaidia jumped around the corner and with a blue flash of one of her magical crests a blast of icicle shards flew down the hallway, soon followed by silence. No orange beams of fire came after that. With a satisfied smile Arcaidia gestured for me to go retrieve me spear.

I gratefully did so, grabbing up Gramzanber back up in my mouth. I limped back to my companions.

“So…I think those things are activated by stepping on certain spots. Maybe that’s why the slaves missed those ones last time. We need to take this slow. I don’t think we can keep this up if we got to deal with fire death thingies every hallway. B.B, how’s the wing?”

She flexed it again, wincing, “I think I can still fly, but I ain’t gonna be doin’ anything fancy, or carryin’ ‘nother pony anytime soon.”

“Good enough, I just need you to take the lead, staying in the air. Keep watch for any weird symbols on the ground.”

I didn’t like having to put her in front and I intended to be right behind her as we moved, being alert for any spots on the ground that looked off. If I could have remembered exactly where I had stepped to activate the turrets I would have gone to examine it, but after the hectic fight I had no clue where I’d been when it had started.

“Sounds like a’ plan. Damn shame my six-iron’s weren’t doin’ nothin’ to them things,” B.B said as she retrieved bullets from a small bandolier that had been slung underneath her barrel, another thing she apparently was able to keep hidden beneath her dress. She used her mouth to load the bullets into the cylinders of her revolvers after flicking them open with little twists of her wrists. I found myself looking at her cutie mark again. She saw this and sighed, closing the snapping the cylinders closed on her guns.

“If you gotta’ ask Longwalk, wait ‘till we’re outta here. It ain’t…somethin’ I talk ‘bout much anymore.”

“Huh? Oh, I, um, I wasn’t going to ask. I don’t even know what that is.”

“Not surprisen’, roses ain’t exactly common in the Wasteland.”

We got moving again, this time with B.B flying slowly ahead of us, with me following close. Shale was right behind me and after a little pantomiming and receiving a slightly miffed look from the unicorn Arcaidia took up the rear. So far the periodic lamps that the Labor Guild’s ponies had set up down here for the excavation had been providing enough light to see by, but as we came to the metal door and slide it open Shale spoke up.

“C-careful, this is the room those things attacked us in. We didn’t have time to set up any lights.”

As she spoke I saw that she was correct, the room beyond was pitch black beyond a small pool of light from the last lamp in the hallway.

“So, uh…anypony got a light?”

“Try askin’ her,” B.B said with a gesture at Arcaidia, “She’s the one with both a’ glowy horn and a’ Pip-Buck that oughta’ have a’ light on it.”

“Arcaidia?” I looked to the unicorn and tilted my head towards the dark room. She looked at the three of us as if we were particularly slow children and her horn began to emanate its blue glow. Inside of a few moments a pair of the lamps in the hallway had been removed from the hooks they’d been set up on and floated over to us, one attaching to my saddlebags and the other to Arcaidia’s. Me, B.B, and Shale all exchanged looks.

“That works too,” I said, “Thanks Arcaidia.”

“Danku,” she said, taking in a steadying breath as she gave a nervous glance at the way we’d come. I wish I knew what it was about this place that had her so on edge. I mean, besides the obvious mortal peril. Arcaidia had never shown much fear before, even waltzing into the middle of those Balloon things without any apparent hesitation. It was clear she was far more used to life threatening situations than I was. Yet this place was obviously making her uncomfortable in a way normal danger didn’t.

“Okay, in we go, slow and careful.”

B.B flew in first, though I was right on her heels. The room we entered was shaped like a triangle, with our entryway at the narrow tip and the room widening out before us. Here the ceiling of metal had caved in partially with rock and dirt from above breaking through to cover the upper left corner of the room. Alongside either wall, what wasn’t covered by fallen rock, was lined with cylindrical containers.

As we cautiously moved into the room I whispered to Shale, “Was there any kind of warning signs before these creatures attack? A sound, a smell, anything?”

The white earth pony mare’s head shook as she fearfully looked about, every step she took seeming to take more and more effort for her, “N-none. We were trying to clear the rubble, watching for any more of those turrets…then they were just there, tearing into us.”

Great. Looking about the area I saw only one more metal door, on the far wall on the right side. If there was a similar door on the left it was covered by the rocks and dirt from the collapsed portion of the ceiling. I didn’t see any way anything could get in here except for the entryway behind us. If these things did attack the slave crew and Crossfire’s team, where had they come in from?

As we reached the center of the room Arcaidia paused, and growled, her eyes suddenly focused on the left corner of the room where the rubble was thickest.

“Ya seein’ somethin’ gal?” B.B raised her gun-equipped forearms, tensing. I put myself between that far corner of the room and Shale as Arcaidia stalked to the right, her horn beginning to glow in preparation for casting.

I for a moment wondered what it was Arcaidia was seeing, as I couldn’t spot anything over there. Then I remembered! That, er, what was it called? Eyes Something Something? E.F.S! Her Pip-Buck could help her sense danger!

The second I recalled that was the second they attacked. They came right out of the rubble, as if the rocks and dirt were no more a barrier than water. The speed at which the black spindly shapes burst from the wall of debris was shocking, and there was practically no time to react before one of the dark shapes was bowling me over to the ground. Even as I felt multiple sharp dagger-like claws ripping into my flanks I heard the sharp retorts of B.B revolvers, Shale’s shriek of terror, and Arcaidia’s ice spell going off.

I rolled, trying to get my legs into position to buck this thing off me, whatever it was. I could barely see anything at the moment, and the creature was incredibly strong and agile. It twisted with me, digging its claws further into my flank past the barding like it was barely even there. Desperate I kicked out with one of my forehooves. I couldn’t get Gramzanber around for a good angle to stab, not without risking hitting myself.

My hoof contacted something cold and hard and the thing seemed stunned for a second, a second I used to my advantage to coil my back legs and buck with all my strength. I felt the thing fly off me and I righted myself just in time to see it leap to its own clawed feet as if my buck had only mildly annoyed it. In the flickering light of the lamp on my saddlebags I caught only a vague hint of a quarapedal thing, with long spindle legs ending in stupid-long claws of bronze…metal? The thing had a oversized front section, like a diamond shaped shell, with a small bulbous head with what might have been a single white eye. I couldn’t see much more than that because the thing instantly leaped up onto the ceiling and with its claws striking sparks on the metal surface skittered towards me.

I backed up, or tried to. My flanks had been so badly savaged the pain caused one of my bag legs to spasm and I fell back. The thing let go of the ceiling and came down at me and I rolled aside, angling Gramzanber to try and slash at it. With agility beyond freakish it twisted in mid-air away from the silver spear’s blade and landed on the ground beside me. I suddenly found myself having to hold the thing at bay with both my forelegs and the haft of Gramzanber as both sets of its claws raked at my face.

I couldn’t tell how the others were doing but I heard B.B swearing up a storm between bouts of gunfire and Arcaidia talking fast in her own language as the room was filled with the chill of her icicles. I didn’t hear Shale screaming anymore though, which scared me to my core. With renewed vigor born of fear for the slave mare I shoved hard with my head, forcing the thing back. As strong as it was the thing was lightweight. I’d wrestled hunters in my tribe that outweighed this thing three to one. With a thrust of my head I sent the creature skidding back.

I knew it would recover just as fast as before so I didn’t waste a second, charging forward…well, hobbling forward quickly. The thing had just gotten back to its feet when I hit it full force with Gramzanber’s tip…which then proceeded to bounce off whatever it had for a skin. In fact based off the sparks I saw I was guessing this thing was mostly made out of metal. Shit. Double shit with a side order screwed. How was I supposed to kill this thing if my spear just-, oh wait was that blood?

Okay so maybe I hadn’t skewered the monster as I’d hoped but I could see a green brackish substance oozing from a gash made in its bronze metal hide. But the wound was hardly slowing it down as it skittered to my left and lashed out at my side with one of its massive claws. I shuffled back in an ungainly fashion, its claws tearing into my barding and scoring the flesh beneath, but not near as deep if I hadn’t moved. I responded by trying to feint with Gramzanber’s tip, intending to fake a thrust I could then turn into a cutting motion when it dodged, but again my wounded leg twitched and send bolts of searing pain through me. My feint turned into a trip and I hit the ground. In the same instant I felt the thing tear at my back.

I was pretty sure that scream of pain was mine, but too much adrenaline was making me not notice a lot of details. As the thing tried to get at my soft gooey center past my barding, which wasn’t doing much to help at this point as it was borderline shredded to tatters, I forced my legs to get up under me. Now the thing was latched to my back as I stood, and with pure blind fear born adrenaline I galloped toward the wall of cylindrical containers. With a sideways leap and shoved my back, and the thing, into the wall. There was a crunch that might have been either me or the monster, no real way to be sure which, and I rolled away, my whole body a latticework of pain and bleeding.

I felt the thing stirring next to me and saw it on the ground, one of its legs bent at an awkward angle from me shoving it into the wall. Knowing that if I let it back up to have another go at me I wasn’t going to be able to take another beating like that I reared up on my hind legs, praying my wounded legs would obey me. The pain was a raw white fire in my mind, and tears streamed from my eyes from it as I brought Gramzanber down on the creature with my whole body weight behind it this time.

The spear’s tip caught the thing at the base where its small bulbous head attached to the rest of its body. Orange sparks and arcs of light danced around the thing’s body and up my spear as I hit and I felt a pressure in my chest and an incredible force hurl me away from the creature as light filled the room and a cracking sound like lightning.

I felt my body hit the ground, and for just a second everything was numb rather than just incredibly painful and my nostrils were filled with the smell of something acidic and smoky. I tried moving but it seemed my body wasn’t having any of that nonsense. Movement was for ponies who didn’t get horribly injured, apparently.

I felt something grab my tail and I didn’t even have the strength to lift my head to see who or what was dragging me into the darkness before I blacked out.

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Footnote: Level up!

Perk Added – Intense Training (Endurance): You’re recent experiences have done wonders for your stamina. Too bad you didn’t take this earlier, could’ve used the extra HP.

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