• 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 5: Feeling the Bonds

Consciousness returned to me with the sensation of something cold being jabbed into my mouth and a syrupy liquid pouring into my throat.

Given the last thing I remembered was being dragged away by some unseen force in the middle of a deadly battle my reaction of immediately kicking my legs out and scrambling away while simultaneously spitting out whatever was in my mouth could not have been seen as entirely inappropriate. There was a feminine squeak of surprise and pain as my leg hit something soft. As I accidentally inhaled some of the liquid in my mouth and went about the process of coughing and hacking on the floor my eyes fluttered open and I saw where I was.

The only light source was the lamp that could only assume had been on my saddlebags, but had been removed and set in the middle of the spacious square shaped room. Shale was sitting a few paces away from me, rubbing her snout and looking at me with a mixture of relief and ruefulness. Lying on the ground at her hooves was a small vial, a few drops of purple liquid spattered on the ground from its open top.

“S-sorry,” she said, “I didn’t know what else I should do and you were bleeding so much…” she crinkled her snout as if testing to see if it were broken.

I blinked, still trying to clear my lungs of that liquid, and slowly rolled to my hooves. My whole body ached. Lancing pain from dozens of cuts on my flank and back made every movement burn. As I took stock of the room we were in I noticed that one of the metal doors had a small trail of blood leading from it to the spot I’d been laying in a moment ago.

Looking to Shale I hung my head a bit, “You okay? I didn’t mean to hit you, just kind of freaked out there.”

Shale nodded, her soft voice barely above a whisper, though the quiet confines of the room made it sound much louder, “Yes. I’ve taken far worse hits from displeased masters.”

Wow, cheery thought. I licked my lips, trying to get rid of the aftertaste of whatever that liquid was, a faint sour and fruity taste.

“What the hay were you feeding me anyway?”

“A healing potion,” Shale pointed a hoof over towards the far wall, “I found a couple in that medical kit.”

Medical kit? I looked and finally was able to take in several odd features about this room, the most prominent of which were the five pony skeletons scattered about. Each skeleton looked pretty old, though I wasn’t an expert so by my standards any skeleton would look old. They wore different tattered, decaying clothes, and looking at the details I could tell two had the skeletal remains of wings and one had a horn. So, two pegasi, one unicorn, two earth ponies. There wasn’t just their skeletons here either I saw pieces of old gear lying around as well including weapons, rotted saddlebags, a strange box shaped device with a screen on it that reminded me of a larger bulkier looking Pip-Buck, and of course the medical kit Shale was pointing out, a small yellow metal box with three faded pink…winged insect things.

“Well that’s convenient,” I said, wondering what a healing potion was exactly but hey, it wasn’t exactly a complicated concept to wrap my head around. Potion, that heals. Healing potion. Guess that fight had messed me up more than-…The fight!?

“Shale! What happened!? Where are Arcaidia and B.B!?”

The slave mare shrunk away from my sudden intensity as I had rounded on her and practically shouted in her face. I immediately backed off, shaking my head, “Sorry. Just…uh…what happened?”

It took her a second to respond as she looked at me with wide-eyed apprehension.

“Those things attacked us and I threw myself in a corner to hide. B.B was flying all over the place, shooting and shooting. Arcaidia managed to freeze one of them I think, but there was so much happening at once and I was mostly looking at you. You…you got really hurt fighting one, and then when you stabbed it the thing just…exploded with orange light. You got thrown across the room and didn’t get back up! You’re body was…kinda smoking a bit. B.B got the door open while she had to reload and shouted at me to get you so…so I did. I ran over and grabbed you by the tail and dragged you to the door. Then she just told me to run, to take you and run. I did and I heard her shooting, I thought she and Arcaidia were following us but I didn’t look back. I followed the hallway but there were suddenly a bunch of turns and split off so I just picked a direction and kept running while dragging you. Once I found this room I shut the door and waited. Then I noticed how much you were bleeding! I was scared you’d die if I didn’t do something and luckily there were those dead ponies and one had a med-kit so I started feeding you healing potions. Then you woke up and punched me in the face and…yeah, here we are.”

I stared at her for a moment, then immediately turned towards the door, “We have go find them.”

I got about two steps before Shale gripped my tail with her teeth and halted me. For such a seemingly thin mare she was shockingly strong.

“You can’t go! Those things will kill us!”

“But B.B and Arcaidia are both still out there!”

Shale let go of my tail just long enough to fix me with a desperate stare, “You’re still hurt. Healing potions only do so much and besides, you don’t have your weapon!”

I blinked. And looked around. She was right, Gramzanber was nowhere to be seen.

Well…shit.

That tore it, next chance I got I was getting some kind of tether for that spear and tying it to me so I didn’t keep losing it! It was probably back in the room where we’d fought those…I was getting tired of thinking of them as ‘those things’ so decided to name them Tunnelers. Seemed to fit given the bastards had come right out of the rubble like that.

Minus Granzamber my combat effectiveness had just dropped considerably, though I still had my hooves to work with, though given my current condition getting hoof-to-claw with more Tunnelers was not a tempting prospect, and I’d be next to useless if we ran into more turrets. I knew I still had a couple of healing powders from my tribe in my saddlebags, but the powder would only work to heal my wounds if I also had time to rest, so right now they’d do little good. Also still needed a weapon.

My eyes glanced over at the few guns scattered next to the skeletal ponies. None of them looked like they were in remarkable condition and from what little Iron Wrought had told me about firearms the condition of them mattered a lot when it came to performance. I knew next to nothing about how to actually fire a gun, but if they were the only weapons available I was willing to give them a shot (no, the pun was not intended. Yes, I know it was bad regardless).

“Shale,” I began, adopting as calm a tone as I could manage while feeling anything but, “We can’t wait here. I don’t know how long I was out but you’re on a time limit so there’s no point staying here. We need to go find Arcaidia and B.B.”

As I spoke I trotted (well, moved at a pace that was faster than walking but slower than what I would prefer if I weren’t still covered in injuries) over to the largest of the guns I saw and began to dust it off. The weapon was some sort of rifle with a clip and a harness that was mostly decayed to nothing. It was attached to a metal rod that looked like it ended with a bit designed to be bitten down on. Weird.

Shale watched me and I heard her heave out a sigh, “You’re wasting your time. That assault rifle’s battle saddle is wreaked and it isn’t designed to be used with a normal mouth grip.”

She went to a different gun and kicked it over to me, the small matte black pistol skidding along the ground. I noticed she was limping, favoring one of her back legs.

“Use that. It’s a 10mm. It’ll probably break after a few shots though. None of these guns are in good shape.”

I looked at her, head tilting to one side, “How do you know so much about guns?”

“I don’t,” she said, a little too quickly and I saw her nervously scrap the ground with one hoof, “This is common knowledge. Things everypony who lives long enough in the Wasteland knows, even if they’ve spent most of those lives being slaves. Why do you know so little? I figured you were from a tribe, but even most tribes I hear about know what guns are and how to use them.”

“My tribe just didn’t use any of this technology stuff,” I said with a shrug, then immediately regretted the motion as pain shot through me. I really needed to learn how to not let monstrous things with giant claws and fangs play hugs with me.

“Can’t imagine how you all survived for so long,” she said as she rubbed one of her back legs her expression drawn up in pain as she sat down.

I found myself ignoring the gun and instead going over to her.

“Did you get hurt in the fight?”

“No, this is from getting shot before,” she said, flexing her back left leg gingerly, “Didn’t heal right and its hurt since. Wasn’t too bad though until I had to drag you here.”

Suddenly my desire to go charging out to go track down Arcaidia and B.B seemed a lot less heroic and a lot more idiotically short sighted. Neither of us were anywhere near one hundred percent condition right now and as far as I could tell Shale wasn’t any kind of fighter, knowledgeable as she was, and the only weapons available were borderline falling apart and weren’t even of a type I had any skill in using. If I did run out there it was very likely both of us would die the second we encountered anything tougher than a flea. It didn’t help that I was also thinking that the only reason her leg was so bad right now was because she had to carry my heavy flank to save it.

I sat next to her, and was a little surprised when she leaned against me.

“We can rest for a little while then, until your leg is feeling better and we’ve come up with a plan. Sorry I was trying to rush ahead like that. I’m just worried about my friends.”

“Friends…” Shale seemed to be testing the word, like she didn’t quite know if she liked the sound of it or not, “Is that what they are to you? One of them said herself she just met you today, and the other it doesn’t look you can understand a thing she says or even know anything about her except her name. What makes you three friends, exactly?”

Well that was an odd question to suddenly bring up. Her dark brown eyes were giving me a very serious look however and it was clear she wasn’t asking this out of idle boredom. How could I answer it though? I never really bothered to think about things like that. To me somepony was my friend if they were willing to spend more than five minutes talking to me and didn’t try to kill me on sight. Not exactly heavy criteria I know but I was figuring that from what I’d seen of the Wasteland so far if I didn’t have such light prerequisites for friendship then I was going to be pretty damned friendless before long.

“I don’t know. I just see them that way. Guess I’m not a hard pony to befriend. Does it seem weird that I’d be willing to call either of them friends even though I haven’t known them long?”

“…Yes. Yes it does. What’s weirder is that they seem to act like they see you as a friend too. B.B…she didn’t even hesitate to tell me to run off with you while she stayed behind with Arcaidia. Seriously, what kind of pony puts their life at risk like that for a pony she just met?”

A good one? Really what did Shale expect me to say here? I couldn’t speak for B.B but I knew that if our positions had been reversed and it had been her injured and unconscious I also wouldn’t have hesitated to tell Shale to take B.B to safety while I stayed behind to fight. It was just common sense to do that for your comrades…right?

“I doubt I can answer you in any way that’ll make sense Shale. I might not know B.B well at all, and Arcaidia is a complete mystery to me, but they’re both putting their lives on the line alongside me. That’s enough for me to see them as friends and risk all I’ve got to help them. It’s really as simple as that.”

“Then what about me?” she asked quietly, “Why help me? I never risked my life for you. I never did a thing to warrant you trying to save me.”

“Well, first off, you did risk your life when you dragged me away from the fight and then poured magic heal-y stuff down my throat. Second off, I was planning to rescue all of the slaves, you included.”

“But that’s not normal! Normal, sane ponies don’t try to help entire groups of slaves they don’t know. Maybe if you had a family member or a close friend captured and put into bondage I’d get it, but you don’t know any of us. You don’t know me. How do you even know I’m a pony worth saving?”

“That’s ridiculous. How could you not be worth saving?” I asked, getting more uncomfortable with this conversation the longer it went on. Really, why was she so hung up on this?

“I…I just don’t get you,” she said and laid down, head turned away from me.

After it was clear she wasn’t going to say anything more I took a moment to compose myself and said, “Well, in any case you rest, I’m going to see what else is in this room that we can use.”

She barley murmured an accent to that as I got up and began walking around the room. I figured between the time we’d taken to get to the ambush by the Tunnelers plus the ten or so minutes I’d probably been unconscious and the equal amount of time me and Shale had just spent talking we’d been in the Ruin about an hour. Which left three to ‘clear out’ the place and give Crossfire the call over the radio she’d given me and get Shale’s collar deactivated. I’d be nice if we could find some way to get it off or deactivate it early. I hated the thought of that time limit ticking away the remaining seconds of her life. I couldn’t think of anything though. Maybe B.B would have some ideas. She seemed pretty smart. She was certainly worldlier than me and had more experience with dealing with this kind of thing. I didn’t have the slightest clue how these collars were even supposed to explode, or how the detonators worked. Technology was just weird like that; all complicated and such.

Speaking of technology…that big boxy Pip-Buck wannabe was set up next to another similar but much larger looking device that was taking up much of the wall opposite the door we’d entered. There was another door on the left side of the room, larger than the one we came in from by a sizeable margin. The big device on the wall looked like some kind of big black window with a wide console beneath it covered in etched geometric patterns. It was clear this thing was part of the Ruin itself while the over sized Pip-Buck thing was a piece of more ‘modern’ technology that had been set up here, probably by the skeleton ponies.

It suddenly struck me as noteworthy and very odd that there were pony skeletons in this Ruin. Hadn’t this place been recently discovered? I faintly recalled it being mentioned this place had only been uncovered about a year ago. So…what were the bodies of ponies from clearly a much longer time ago doing in here? Now that my mind was focused on this my awareness of certain details in the room expanded and sharpened. Looking around I noticed shell casings from the guns littering the floor, and in some points on the metal wall were graze marks and dents from what were probably bullets. There had clearly been a fire-fight in here. Was it against the Tunnelers? No Tunneler bodies to be seen, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything, as the critters might drag off their dead.

As I examined one of the skeletons, a pegasus body slumped up against the wall by the big Pip-Buck looking device I realized with a bit of shock that there was a hole right between its eyes. This pegasus had been shot, not clawed or bitten. Another odd thing, the pegasus was wearing a device on its head, a black metal headband of some sort that had in its center a circular port that contained a small onyx black orb. What was that supposed to be, a weird fashion statement? I removed the headband, finding it cold to the touch and with a shrug slipped it into my saddlebags. Hey, never know, might be worth something. The dead certainly wouldn’t need it.

After rooting around the other skeletons I found little that seemed of value beyond some ammo for the guns, most of which I’d piled into my saddlebags, leaving the 10mm pistol near the top so I could get to it quickly if I needed to. Too bad none of these ponies had any kind of melee weapon. Within the pockets of one of the bulky earth pony skeleton’s rotted jacket I found a few odd objects; four round metal things that had tiny stems poking up from their tops. Two were a faded dull green and another two were steel gray with white bands around them. I shrugged and added the weird objects to my growing collection of junk in my saddlebags.

Inside the medical kit I found a few interesting looking things. Shale had obviously already used the healing potions on me, but I found a pair of syringes of something labeled Med-X, whatever that was supposed to be, and an even more mysterious bottle of small tablets labeled Buck. I’d ask Shale what those were when I woke her later, I supposed. The rest of the kit contained various bits of what I could only assume were medical equipment; tweezers, bandages, a small bottle labeled as anti-septic alcohol, and some rubber tubing. I took the whole kit and placed it in my saddlebags, figuring it’d be useful even if I knew next to nothing about medicine.

Finally I took a closer look at the device that reminded me of a Pip-Buck. Granted it only reminded me of a Pip-Buck in the sense that it had a screen and buttons on it. Hey, give me a break, it’d be awhile before I learned proper terms for things here in the Wasteland, so a normal everyday terminal to you was a oversized Pip-Buck knock off to me. Either way I comprehended that the screen was meant to display stuff and the buttons were what made it do that, so I began to, in my ignorant tribal fashion, hit random buttons with my hooves in hopes of getting a response.

Nothing happened for a second, and then the screen went to what appeared to be an already prepped page of words that I could only surmise had been what was up on the screen before it shut off however many decades, or even centuries ago.

//////Command Prompt=TRANS.EXE//////

>Files Decryption Process=Complete

>Transmitter Status=Operational

>Transmission Destination Status=

Canterlot/invalid, no signal
Ponyville/invalid, no signal
Appleoosa/invalid, no signal
Manehattan/valid, signal strength 36%
Trottingham/invalid, no signal
Stalliongrad/invalid, no signal
New Saddle/invalid, no signal
Neigh Orleans/invalid, no signal
Hoofington/invalid, no signal
Detrot/valid, signal strength 81%
Flankorage/valid, signal strength 13%
Fillydelphia/invalid, no signal
Marelin/invalid, no signal
Paradise/invalid, no signal
Tramplevania/invalid, no signal
Gryphus/valid, signal strength 20%

>Execute Transmission? Y/N

Well okay then, that made a whole lot of not sense. I briefly considered waking Shale to ask her if she had any idea what all this was about but I didn’t want to interrupt what little rest she could get her hooves on. I’d just have to figure this out myself. Or not. Really I could just walk away from this thing and pretend I hadn’t seen it. That would probably have been the smart thing to do. Do you recall when I mentioned not being the brightest colt in my tribe? You’ll probably get very tired of me brining that up but unfortunately it remains applicable for some time to come.

So rather than turn the device off and go do something more constructive getting a little rest myself I decided to see what would happen if I pressed the corresponding ‘Y’ on the keyboard that matched what I saw on the screen. The screen didn’t do anything for a second, just remained the same, before abruptly going black then springing into a stream of incomprehensible symbols and letters that scrolled by far too fast to me to make heads or tails of it. There was a sparking sound from some of the cables connecting the device to the larger console of the Ruin. Then the device’s screen exploded. In my face.

I was lucky none of the glass got in my eyes and that the worst of it was just a few minor cuts and a nasty burn on my muzzle as I flopped back on my back from both the shock and force of the exploding monitor. Shale jumped to her feet at the sound, looking around wildly while seemingly trying to run in every direction at once and only succeeding at having a spastic fit where she stood, turning every which way before finally settling her eyes on me and the exploded terminal which now smelt of smoke and burned electronics.

“Uh…sorry?” I said with a sheepish look, “I don’t think me and technology mix well.”

She took a few slow, deep breaths, either to calm her fear or possibly a desire to hit me, I couldn’t quite tell which from her expression, and sat back down.

“I’d ask if you found anything on that terminal before you somehow made it blow up by proximity, but I probably don’t want to know. Nothing good is usually on those things. Lots of depressing letters from two hundred years ago, or cryptic messages no longer relevant to anypony.”

“So I take it exploding isn’t what they normally do?”

“No, no its not. Must be a talent you have.”

“I hope not. I don’t want an exploding, what, terminal you called it, for a cutie mark.”

“Beats having rocks as one,” she said, looking back at her own flank.

I hesitated a moment before asking, “Do you mind if I ask how you got your cutie mark?”

“It’s fine, it’s just not a very interesting story,” Shale paused, looking away, though not in any apparent discomfort, she just seemed to be collecting her thoughts.

“I was, I don’t know, nine, maybe ten years old? I’d been a slave for a few years then, working a quarry in the west mountains for some mining group that hired out Labor Guild slaves to help meet their quotas. I was still too young to do a lot of heavy work, but I could break up the smaller, useless rocks and carry them out of the way of the bigger ponies so they could get at the good ore. We worked in teams, chain-gangs, all shackled together.”

I restrained myself from commenting, though a part of me wanted to growl out something less than flattering about the Labor Guild. The more I learned about this organization and its practices the less I understood why ponies allowed it to keep existing. I kept my thoughts to myself though and let Shale continue her story.

“There was a really tiny unicorn pony…Goddess I don’t even remember if it was a colt or a filly, but I remember the name was Cue Tip. Anyway, Cue Tip got sick, a hacking cough pretty common to mining slaves. We all knew it was only a matter of time before Cue Tip died. You get the Cough it’s pretty much done for you. But even so I was tired of watching ponies die, so I worked extra hard to take Cue Tip’s share of the rock breaking, let him, or her, rest while I did double the work load. I did that for days, trying, hoping, that Cue Tip would get better. He, yeah I think he was a colt, didn’t. He died. But it was weird; I remember when they came to carry off his body the little guy was smiling, all peaceful looking. I like to think he wasn’t in too much pain. Anyway, the next day I was filled with a lot of…bad feelings, and I went at my rock breaking like I never had before. By the end of it some other slave had to point out the new busted up rocks on my flank. Heh, a pretty useless cutie mark, but it fits, I’m a pretty useless mare.”

“The hay you are,” I said, staring at her like I was seeing her for the first time, “You put yourself at risk to help a pony that needed you. There’s nothing useless about that.”

“It doesn’t matter, don’t you get it? Cue Tip died anyway, and it didn’t matter how angry I got, I was still a slave and he was still dead! I could break every rock in this damned world and it wouldn’t change a thing. I couldn’t change a thing.

The bitterness in her voice was painful to hear, made worse by the fact that I really had nothing I could say to refute what she was saying. This mare had gone through far worse than I had in my life; a life I was starting to comprehend was a lot more sheltered than I had thought. I still couldn’t stand seeing the way her shoulders slumped as if under a heavy weight, eyes downcast. I found myself going right up in front of her and pressing my face close to hers, forcing some eye contact.

“You did what was right. I don’t know what else you, or anypony, could have done.”

She laughed but it was a desiccated, humorless sound, “Look, I get what you’re trying to do, and its…sweet, but you don’t have to bother. I accepted a long time ago that this world pretty much sucks and nopony is going to make a difference in it. I just want to live in as much a non-sucking manner as I can for as long as possible. Which, given our current situation, probably isn’t going to be very long.”

I hesitated briefly before putting a hoof on her shoulder, “We’ll make it out of here. We just have to find Arcaidia and B.B, figure out how to take care of all the monsters and traps down here, and then get Crossfire to shut off your collar before the next three hours are up.”

“Gee, that’s all?”

“…Okay so it sounded easier in my head before I actually said it out loud. Still, not dead yet, so we got something going our way.”

I backed up a few steps and tried to strike what I hoped was a confident and heroic-ish pose, flexing one of my forelegs.

“Don’t worry, I’ll figure out a foal-proof plan of action, don’t you worry my little pony!”

Shale snorted, “Little? You’re probably younger than I am.”

“Oh yeah? Let’s find out. Sixteen years. You?”

“Ha, I’m a year older than you.”

“What!? But, you’re…you’re so tiny compared to me!”

“Which has to do with what exactly?”

“Well it’s just all the mares in my tribe are pretty tall, most of them are taller than me…and you’re so short…so I kinda assumed you were younger…wow, I just shoved my hoof down my throat didn’t I?”

“Just a tad,” she said with a small smile.

There was a brief moment there where we both were able to forget how dangerous our circumstances were, where neither of us were trapped in a deadly underground Ruin, one of us with a bomb collar stuck around her neck with the timer ticking down, and instead were just a pair of ponies shooting the breeze like it was a normal day. It felt good. Too bad the moment passed the second we both heard the gunshots.

The sounds were dulled by the door but they were unmistakable, and coming from the direction of the big doors on the side of the room to the left of the one we’d entered from. From the small double *pap-pap* of the shots I realized it was likely B.B and her dual pistols. Me and Shale exchanged looks. I could see the fear in her eyes and honestly I was just as scared. I was scared that either of us would die down here. I was scared that B.B was right now fighting for her life and could die before we could get there to help her. If I let myself think about it all that fear would’ve paralyzed me. Good thing I suck at thinking. Action time now!

I quickly snatched up the lamp and secured it to my saddlebags. That done I reached into the saddlebags and pulled out the 10mm pistol, awkwardly gripping it in my mouth and trying to figure out where the trigger was with my tongue. The whole thing felt just weird. Far too light, not the same comfortingly heavy weight and heft of Gramzanber. The pistol had weird sights too, or maybe that was just because I wasn’t used to them, but I swear I couldn’t figure how anypony aimed these things. As I got the pistol out Shale had come over to my other saddlebag and gotten one of the old rusted guns out herself, a short double barreled thing that I recalled Iron Wrought explaining was a ‘shotgun’. She loaded it as we went to the door we heard the shooting coming from and with some effort forced the metal thing to slide open.

Beyond was a spiraling hallway that curved downward at a fairly sharp angle. As me and Shale did our best to run as fast as our wounds would allow I started to get a little dizzy from the constant turn of the hallway. B.B’s gunshots were getting louder though, if a bit more sporadic.

“Hang on B.B, we’re coming!” I found myself shouting, hoping the pegasus mare might be able to hear us over the distance and the sound of gunfire. I wanted her to know help was on the way.

Within a minute the spiraling hallway ended in a opening that led out onto what seemed to be a ledge that extended along the walls of a large chamber to the left and right. To either side of the spot me and Shale entered from there were metal ramps that led down to the main floor. Everything was dark save for the pool of light cast by my lamp and another similar light I saw bobbing about in the darkness across the room, where there were also flashes from B.B’s guns as they fired.

“B.B! Over here!” I shouted, heading for one of the ramps, but paused as Shale bumped me with her flank . The white mare pointed with a hoof into the dark of the chamber and I squinted to see what she was trying to point out.

Down there, barely visible through glow cast by B.B’s lamp, I saw at least a dozen shapes moving. Even with the poor lighting I could still make out the spindly and scuttling forms of Tunneler’s, their clawed limbs making grating clacking sounds as they scurried about the room. The ceiling was high enough that B.B didn’t seem to be in immediate danger, but I could tell the Tunneler’s were going for the walls and a series of what appeared to be pillars situated in the center of the main chamber. With their claws the things were easily clambering up the pillars and walls, obviously trying to get closer to the pegasus gun-mare as she darted about. For B.B’s part I couldn’t tell if her shots were doing much damage but they seemed to hit with enough impact that if she hit a limb a Tunneler would fall. So far she was keeping them at bay but it wouldn’t be long before a few got onto the ceiling and could drop on her and there was no telling how much ammo she had left.

Still, Shale’s warning was clear; we’d be dead ourselves if we just rushed down there with our meager weapons.

“We need to distract them, give B.B a chance to get clear,” I said, figuring if nothing else once B.B got to us we could retreat back to the room with all the skeletons.

Shale nodded her accent, not bothering to try to talk like I did around the grip of her shotgun. I aimed as best I could into the moving shadows below and tightened my tongue around the trigger at the same time Shale opened fire. The 10mm pistol kicked in my mouth and I was shocked at how much force the tiny weapon produced, rattling my teeth and almost causing me to drop the gun.

How did anypony ever get used to firing these things!? Disoriented I shook my head and tried to aim again, tightening my teeth around the grip and tonguing the trigger once more. Properly braced the pistol’s recoil wasn’t quite as bad but I was pretty sure I still hadn’t hit a thing and was only succeeding in making my mouth sore. Luckily the plan didn’t call for accuracy or dealing any damage to the Tunnelers, we just needed to get their attention enough that B.B could find a window to fly over to us. Shale’s shotgun blasts were much louder than the 10mm’s small pops, and the mare had to reload after only two shots, but she seemed far more comfortable with her weapon than I was with mine. Even at the distance we were shooting at I noticed one of her blasts managed to knock a Tunneler from one of the pillars.

Slowly the small horde of creatures faltered in their attempts to climb up at the pegasus and regrouped as they realized something else was in the chamber now, shooting at them. Distantly I heard B.B shout something at us but I couldn’t make it out over the ringing in my ears from the gunshots. She wasn’t flying towards us though. She was waving her arms at us, gesturing wildly behind her. What was she trying to say?

Shale bumped me again as she finished reloading and with one hoof pointed my head from where it had been looking down into the mass of Tunnelers who were now making their way towards us and pointed it towards the far wall where B.B was. It was then I noticed a familiar blue glow emanating from inside what looked like an open passageway into a room that was on the second floor of the chamber. That was Arcaidia’s magic, but I couldn’t see the unicorn herself. She must be doing something in that room. Now seeing B.B hovering by that passageway I realized the pegasus must have been defending it, not keeping the Tunneler’s away from her, but keeping them from the passageway and Arcaidia, and from the way the pegasus was pointing at us and then at the passage it was pretty clear she wanted us to come to her. But how? The only way across that I saw was to go down the ramps and into the cluster of Tunnelers, which was a bad idea on every conceivable level.

Shale was once again the more perceptive pony than I as she darted off to the right, firing off her shotgun into the grouping Tunneler’s below who were scampering towards the ramp up to our ledge. I followed her without any hesitation, figuring she must see something in the flickering gloom that I didn’t. We hobble-ran along the ledge, which seemed to extend all the way to the wall to the right, and I pulled the trigger on the 10mm over and over again, gradually getting used to the kick of the gun. I think I may have even hit one of the Tunneler’s though it was hard to tell in the crap lighting. Before long there was only a dull click from the 10mm as it ran out of ammo. As I fumbled over trying to remember how Iron Wrought had gone about reloading his gun and trying to duplicate the procedure with one of the only 10mm sized ‘clips’ I’d scavenged from the skeletons I bumped into Shale.

She’d stopped at the wall where I saw there were large grooves that were cut into the metal that ran the length of the room. Wedged into these grooves was a square platform large enough to fit about four ponies. Situated in the middle of the platform was a small pedestal with a large green gem embedded in it, carved with geometric symbols identical to the many we’d seen running all over the walls and floor in this Ruin.

“What is this?” I asked , then swore as I dropped the clip I was trying to slip into my gun. Really, how was it these things became the most common weapon of use in the modern age!? They were impossible to work with! All these little switches, slides, and triggers, with only tiny little sights you could barely see to aim something that kicked you square in the jaw and deafened you every time you fired it!? Any pony who relied upon guns was officially insane in my book; which at this moment seemed to comprise 99% of the world’s population but dammnit I was going to stick to good old fashioned pointy sticks and blunt force trauma! At least I didn’t suck at those.

“Gus git un!” Shale mouthed unintelligibly around her own firearm as she got on the platform and blasted the lead Tunneler that had gotten up on the ledge with us. I did as she said as I scooped up the clip I’d dropped and managed to slam the thing into the 10mm. I wasn’t sure what the plan was but we were about to have half a dozen of these things swarming us if we didn’t move soon, and it looked like we’d just perched ourselves on a dead end.

However Shale’s gambit was clear as soon as I began firing to slow down the Tunnelers and she flung herself to the pedestal in the middle of the platform and began banging on it with her hooves. I was confused as to what she was trying to do but any questions were forestalled by the fact that the large green crystal lit up like a torch upon Shale’s contact with it and with hum that filled the air with a soft vibration the platform began to rapidly move along the grooves in the wall! The platform was carrying us across the chamber, moving seemingly on its own! I almost let out a whoop of joy, but was interrupted by something slamming into my back, knocking me off my hooves and causing my 10mm to slip from my mouth. I heard it go over the edge and clatter to the chamber below, but that was the least of my problems as Tunneler claws began to do what Tunneler’s seemed to do best and that was treat me like a cat treats a scratching post.

But I had learned a bit from my last encounter with these things and was familiar with how they moved and with the fact that despite their ridiculous strength they were lightweight. I immediately rolled even as the claws cut new furrows in my already wounded hide and coiled my hind legs against the Tunneler’s belly.

“Get. Off. Me!” I shouted as I bucked for all I was worth. The Tunneler let out a high pitched whine as it was sent sailing into the black to plummet to the chamber floor a good ten meters down.

The platform was halfway across the chamber now, too far for any of the other Tunnelers to make the jump their comrade had just moments before. I watched as they began scuttling along the wall though, making quick progress to catch up. Shale was suddenly at my side, looking at me with concern as I got to my hooves. I gave her a nod to indicate I was okay, despite the three new long lines of bleeding red along my hindquarters. She returned the nod and concentrated then on the Tunnelers on the wall coming after us, firing off one, two shotguns blasts and going to reload…only to groan in frustration as she found she had no more shells left. She kept the shotgun in her mouth though, apparently determined to use the thing as a bludgeon if she had to. She’d certainly gotten a lot more stout in a short span of time; I wondered if our talk had anything to do with why.

“We should be okay,” I said, watching the Tunnelers, “They’re not moving quick enough to catch up with us.”

Immediately upon completing my sentence there was a grinding sound and the entire platform shook and I was almost sent sprawling, only barely managing to remain standing as the platform ground to a halt. I looked over the side to see that the metal grooves we’d been moving along had been damaged by a part of the wall that had collapsed, leaving an entire mound of dirt and rock blocking our path. I wanted to scream in frustration but before I could B.B was suddenly there, hovering beside the platform with her wings beating so fast and furious it was creating a slight buzzing sound. As she punched out with her hooves, her dual pistols firing off shots at the advancing Tunnelers, I heard her shout to me.

“Git yer flank movin’ down the debris pile, now! Arcaidia’s down the passage tryin’ ta git a’ door open. Ah’ll hold these buggers off!”

Part of me wanted to argue with her, to tell her she’d better be right behind us, but Shale was already leaping onto the debris pile and making her way haphazardly down to the chamber below, and the Tunnelers would be on us in seconds. B.B could fly, so I guess she had the advantage here and there was no time to argue. I jumped after Shale, my wounds burning in protest from the awkward and fast climb down the piles of rock and dirt to the metal floor. I tripped a little at the bottom as loose rocks fell out from under my legs, sending me sprawling and my saddlebags fell off, scattering the stuff I’d gathered from the skeleton room.

As I shakily got back up I found Shale staring at the pile of stuff I gathered, eyes wide in shock. She spat out her shotgun, which clattered to the floor, and she looked at me with disbelief.

“You have grenades!? Why the hell haven’t you used them yet!?”

Gre-wha? Apparently my blank expression told her clearly I had no idea what a ‘grenade’ was and she made a sound of pure aggravation as she went over and snatched up one of the weird round objects with the stems I’d found. She pulled the stem out with her teeth and then yelled out to B.B.

“Frag out! Back away!”

Frag…what? What the hay kind of phrase was that? And why did B.B only take a brief look down at us before gasping and flying away at full speed? And why did Shale just lob the metal thing at the Tunneler’s gathering on the platform and scampering down the wall at us? It was just a tiny metal…thing, what was it going to-

BOOM!

A concussive explosion of noise caused me to stagger and blinked at the charred smoking section of wall where the platform was now broken away from the wall and crashed to the ground amid a hail of Tunneler parts that both bled strange brackish white blood and sparked with orange arcs of light. At least three of the things had been blown to bits by the blast and the others had immediately shrieked and backed away from the blast zone. I stared, dumbfounded. I was suddenly very glad I’d decided not to fiddle around with these ‘grenades’ when I’d found them and just put them in my saddlebags…though the knowledge that I’d just been carrying around something that dangerous gave my spine a cold tingly feeling.

There was no time for contemplation however as Shale snatched up another grenade and tossed it to me, which I managed to catch in my mouth with some trepidation, but had gathered that as long as the stem was still in there they wouldn’t explode.

“Pull the stem, toss, and boom,” she said, explaining what I’d more or less figured out by now, but hey, good to have confirmation. The mare then grabbed my saddlebags and scooped in as much of my stuff as she could as we began hobbling towards the ramps at the far end of the chamber that would lead us up to the room where Arcaidia was supposedly trying to unlock a door. As we ran I kept whipping my head about, trying to look at all the of the room at once. The Tunnelers were regrouping fast and B.B was flying above us, sending shots at them to try and take out a few while they were still disoriented.

Now I could get a much better look at this main chamber and noticed several things about it all at once. First, the pillars. There were four of them all arranged in a square formation, all about equal distance apart. Along their sides were the same kind of metal grooves the platform had been moving along, only much larger and vertical. In the very center of the floor was what appeared to be a slight dip in the floor, the middle of which was split by a small barely noticeable line. It was a square dip that each pillar stood at the corner off…and realizing that it made it clearer that this was some kind of door in the ground. What could it possibly be for?

No time to think about it. Shale and I reached the ramp and ran right up to the ledge that led to the passage where I could still see Arcaidia’s soft blue glow emanating from. As we got to the ledge I heard B.B shouting behind me.

“Longwalk, ya got ‘nother frag? If ya do ye might wanna use it!”

Her warning was just in time. The Tunnelers had gotten their wits about them pretty quick and were surging after us. They apparently had learned from the previous grenade and weren’t bunched together either, but were coming at us in singles and pairs from the wall, the ground, and the ceiling all at once. I tried to pick a spot that was between two of the largest groups coming at us and like I’d seen Shale I held the grenade in my hoof and pulled the stem with my teeth, waiting a second to judge my throw. Guns I was absolutely hopeless with, but when it came to throwing something and making sure it was on target I was much more in my element. I threw the grenade at just what I predicted to me the right moment to catch two clumps of the bastards, not noticing that the grenade I threw wasn’t the same faded green that Shale had used but instead was one of the gray ones with the white strip.

The grenade exploded much the same way as its cousin did, only this bang was twice as loud and was accompanied by a white flash of light so bright I felt like one of my ancestor spirits had decided to pull down the sun and stick it in my eye.

I heard B.B curse in a very un-ladylike manner and Shale go, “Oops. Didn’t know that was a flash-bang.”

Something ran into me and I almost instinctively began to buck until I noticed what had run into me was warm, feathery, and pony-shaped. I helped B.B up as I also got back to my hooves and shook my head, trying to clear the ringing in my ears. My eyesight gradually returned and I blinked away spots, letting my eyes readjust to the gloom. I heard distant shrieks and peered into the black and to my surprise saw that they were scattered about the far end of the chamber, as far away from us as possible, and apparently going nuts. Some were scraping wildly at the walls as if trying to burrow through the metal, while others just flung themselves about at random, even going so far as to attack each other. Had just the one ‘flash-bang’ grenade done this? I couldn’t fathom how, but at that moment I could live with the mystery.

I looked at Shale, who appeared just as confused as I was. B.B next to me was breathing heavily and now that I was close to her and there was no immediate danger I was able to get a good look at her.

She was better off than me, but still I saw numerous small cuts and scrapes on her white hide and the wing that had been shot by one of the turrets earlier was drooping down lower than the other and twitching. I felt a stab of guilt at her state. I had to make sure we all got out of this mess so I could properly make it up to them for getting them all involved in the first place. B.B must’ve caught my look because she rolled her eyes at me and gave me a playful shove with her hoof.

“Don’t ya be givin’ me them guilty eyes now! Me an’ Arcaidia are right as rain, an’ I might add seem to have done a fine sight better than the two of ya. Now how ‘bout givin’ over ‘nother of them flash-bangers an’ I’ll scatter them critters again when they get their act together. That way you two can go see if Arcaidia’s got that there door open.”

Shale was the one who tossed over the last flash bang grenade, though I fished out the remaining regular one and gave B.B a hard nod, “Just glad you’re safe.”

“Safe’s when we’re all outta here. But, yeah, I’m glad you two are alright. Was kinda getting’ worried when we lost track o’ ya back there.”

There was a brief moment where the blue glow of magic from inside the passageway behind us intensified and I heard Arcaidia saying something in her language that sounded curt and less than happy. I trotted down the passage, Shale next to me. It wasn’t a long passage, barley a dozen paces, and it opened up to a small circular room that seemed to only serve as a entry chamber for the large metal door Arcaidia was at. The little blue unicorn filly was only bearing minor injuries from what I could tell, her blue and silver dress torn in places and a little red staining it from small cuts here and there. Otherwise she mostly appeared fatigued, her shoulders set in a slump and her coat slick with sweat.

The door she was in front of appeared heftier, thicker somehow, than others I’d seen, and was laced with glowing geometric patterns of green and orange light that became more dense and complex the closer they got to a central circular point in the middle of the door. This point actually glowed a fierce bright blue, the same color as Arcaidia’s horn. As I watched that blue glow as seeming to spread to the other patterns on the door, the geometric patterns bleeding to blue and shifting in shape…but at the same time the green and orange patterns would seem to try and push back and reclaim parts that had already turned blue. Arcaidia’s horn pulsed with a intense field of blue light as her silver eyes bored into the door with the utmost concentration.

“Estu shival vici! Vici di survir! Survir!...Grrrr! Shival Elw, esru di burmor dol venti mesri!”

Most of that was said in a tone I imagined boarded on acidic. She didn’t even notice me and Shale enter the room behind her and Shale gave me a questioning look. I leaned over and whispered, “We’d better not distract her.”

My sentence was punctuated by the flash of light and loud cacophony of B.B setting off the second and final flash-bang grenade. The Tunnelers must have gotten frisky again. Arcaidia’s aura of magic seemed to flicker for an instant and start to fade and the unicorn grunted in plain strain to keep her magic up. I watched as one of those small vials of glowing blue liquid she used to replace her magic floated out of her saddlebags and the filly chugged it like a champion, practically inhaling the liquid. As that vial clattered to the floor I noted there was another empty one down there already. How many had she used so far? Actually, more important, how many did she have left? I have some faint memory of her putting a bunch in her saddlebags but I couldn’t remember how many. Her aura became intense once more, flashing even brighter ice blue than it had when I’d first seen her use the strange potion; which made sense as then she’d only sipped it, this time she’d downed the whole thing.

Bolstered thusly Arcaidia’s struggle with the door took on a rapid shift as more and more of the geometric lines faded from orange or green to the unicorn’s intense blue.

“Longwalk, grenade if ya please!” B.B called and I turned to go running back to the big chamber in time to see the Tunneler’s had been sent into a confused frenzy by the flash-bang like before, though this time I also noted that they’d managed to clump together pretty tightly in an attempt to scramble away.

B.B grinned at me as she dropped into her smooth Mirage accent, “Mayhaps my lovely assistant would like to deposit an explosive payload amid our distracted audience so they might disappear with nary a trace?”

“My pleasure, Mighty and Mysterious Mirage,” I grinned back as I took a moment to judge the distance and timing. I wasn’t at all familiar with these grenades yet, and the lighting was still piss poor dark, but I think I had a grasp on the basics. With more confidence than I had the first time I tossed one I pulled the stem and reared up on my hind legs, pulling my right forearm back. Wait a second…now! I swung and sent the small metal orb flying into the black right towards the clump of shifting shadows that was the Tunnelers. Moments later there was a satisfying explosion and smaller flash of light as the fragmentation grenade went off. The shrieks that followed indicated we hadn’t gotten all of the Tunnelers but there were clearly fewer moving shadows than there had been before. Just not nearly enough for my liking. And now we were out of grenades.

Still, I was almost starting to feel like things were going our way.

Which is probably why it was then that the turrets decided to drop down from the ceiling at either corner of the large chamber and began to fire lances of orange energy at us, one passing so close to the front of my muzzle that I felt nose hairs burning off.

B.B flew into the passageway in an awkwardly dipping dive, her injured wing apparently losing a lot of its strength in the last few minutes of fighting, and I was right behind her with a leaping dive of my own. I was a little late though as one of the orange beams of light burned a hole clean through my right hind leg. I’d gotten partially in cover but ended up sprawled on the ground, as trying to get up only resulted in monstrous pain to shoot through my leg. Before I knew it both B.B and Shale were there, dragging me further into the passageway and away from the scything beams of orange light. One of those beams clipped Shale on the shoulder, burning a deep red furrow of burned flesh there and she screamed past teeth that were clenched around my mane as she dragged me despite the wound.

Once Shale, B.B, and myself were in the circular room with Arcaidia we were effectively out of the turret’s line of fire. I just hoped no more would spontaneously decided to pop up in here. This room was so small with no cover we’d be dead in seconds if there were. Upon completion of that thought, however, I looked up at the ceiling and almost freaked out upon seeing the two turrets up there…then sighted in relief as I saw they were already frozen solid in ice. Arcaidia must have cleared the room when she and B.B first got here.

“Hey Longwalk can ya stand?” B.B asked as she stood over me, peering down at my wounded leg with her plain worry etched on her features. I grit my teeth and managed to get up, if only because I didn’t even try to put any weight on my burned through limb.

“For the moment,” I said while mustering as much of a confident smile as I could. She didn’t quite look like she believed me but nodded her head.

“Right , guess ya’ll be wantin’ this then,” she said as she went over to the wall by the door and tossed something my way with a flick of her leg.

I caught the object almost by rote reflex, and was instantly filled with a feeling of rightness at the feel of the familiar metal haft.

“Gramzanber! Yes, I shall never lose you again!” bets are open on how long that promise would actually last. Like I said, tether, as soon as I could. I tried to contain my enthusiasm though as my current state didn’t lend well to leaping for joy.

“Figured ya’d be wantin’ that back,” B.B said as she went over to the opening towards the big chamber, slowly reloading her revolvers, “An’ since I’m runnin’ low on bullets we might be relyin’ more on yer pig-sticker ‘fore long.”

“Well, might have more bullets for you,” I said as I gestured at Shale, who still had my saddlebags, “Picked up a bunch from some skeletons a floor up. Feel free to take a look.”

“Skeletons? Like…pony skeletons,” B.B asked with an incredulous frown, “That don’t figure none. Nopony’s been in here ‘cept us and the Labor Guild.”

I shrugged, “Don’t ask me, I don’t know. They were in a room on the top floor, and had a bunch of old guns and bullets, and those grenade things…oh, and some medical stuff. What’s Buck and Med-X anyway?”

B.B’s eyes went a little wide, “Were there any healing potions?”

“There were,” Shale said before I could answer, “But I needed to use them to keep Longwalk alive,” her eyes shifted to me, “He didn’t say he found Buck and Med-X though.”

“What? I don’t even know what those are, I just found them. Are they useful?”

“In small doses,” B.B said, “Hate to suggest it but ya might wanna hold onta the Buck at least, an’ take the Med-X right now. Med-X dulls pain. The Buck’s a’ steroid, an’ a’ real powerful one ta’ boot. We get swamped by them critters yer might wanna take ‘em. Make ya hit like a’ huge-enourmous-snarlin’-all-grown-up-dragon! Fer a’ few minutes. Then the rush wears off an’ ye get as weak as a newborn bouncing baby bunny. Addictive though, so take it only as a last resort. Med-X is addictive too, but not as bad as Buck.”

I took that information in thoughtfully. Sounded a lot like the various powders my tribe made out of the few plants that grew around our valley, the healing powder being the most common. If taken too often it was hard to resist the urge to partake regularly, especially the healing powder itself which had certain properties beyond its medical application. If you smoked the fumes of the burned powder one could see all manner of visions and it was said to open the mind to the song of the ancestor spirits. I hadn’t tried it myself but I knew a lot of the elder ponies in the tribe indulged, some claiming the smoke helped with the aches and pain of old age. Didn’t sound like these drugs were really that much different. I briefly considered trying to apply some of the healing powder doses I had, but we weren’t anywhere near a spot we could rest for awhile so the powder could take full effect, what with the Tunnelers still remaining out there and possibly even now getting ready to come after us again.

“So, uh, how do I take this Mex-X stuff?” I asked.

Shale reached into my saddlebags and pulled out the small syringe and came up to me, removing a cap that revealed a tiny needle. I shrunk away and the slave mare gave me a raised eyebrow.

“Really? You’ve been clawed to near death by horrible monsters and keep going, but hesitate at the sight of a little needle?”

“Yeah, well, it’s not that little of a needle,” I said lamely and hung my head, “Just do it quick, please?”

“I’ll be gentle,” she said with a wink and as I asked she was quick about finding a spot on one of my forelegs to insert the needle. The moment the syringe was emptied into me I felt a wave of incredible cool relief flood me, like cold water slipping between my muscles and bones. It was like a hoof simply waved over my body and snatched away the piled upon pain that had been wracking my wounded body. I felt like I could start capering about in a dance that very moment.

“Wow…that stuff is…wow…” yes, I was quite the wordsmith.

“Don’t git too fond a’ it,” warned B.B, giving me a serious look, “Remember what I said ‘bout it bein’ addictive. Use it only when ya gotta.”

“Mmhmm,” I replied vaguely while flexing my wounded leg, testing to see if I could put some weight on it. While I still felt a faint sensation of pain there, which probably spoke volumes of how bad the leg was, I found I could reliably put weight on it again. Fantastic, now I might actually be useful in a fight! Well, less useless anyway. Maybe if I took that Buck stuff…?

My train of thought was interrupted by a flash of blue and a cry of both elation and exhaustion from Arcaidia. The door had turned completely blue now, its various sigils and geometric patterns glowing with the unicorn’s frosty hue. With a grating sound unlike any of the other doors we’d opened so far in the Ruin this one slowly slide itself open by breaking into half a dozen parts that pulled into different parts of the wall. Arcaidia looked back at us with a tired by happy grin, which I readily returned.

“Ta-da,” she said and I blinked, wondering if that was her language or if she was imitating something she’d heard from another pony. Either way it made me chuckle, despite the still very dangerous circumstances we were in.

“Alright ladies, I’ll go in first. If you hear me scream, close the door,” I said, half jokingly, and trotted through the opened way and into the room behind. Despite my bravado I was tense in every muscle, ready to dive right back out the first sign of danger.

As it happened this room, while larger than the one we just came from, was a fraction of the size of the big chamber with the door in the bottom. This room was different, however, in that it had a very high ceiling, one that might lead all the way back up to the surface if I was guessing right. There was also a large circle in the center of the room that was filled with the most densely compact series of symbols and geometric patterns’ yet, though they were all dark, not at all glowing. To the left of the room a rectangular alcove contained what looked like a similar platform to the one me and Shale had used in the previous chamber. On the opposite side from that was another of those big boxy devices like the one the exploded terminal had been hooked up to. Only this device was easily twice the size, and had attached to it a raised disc of bronze metal that was either a platform to stand on, or maybe a shelf to put something on, I couldn’t figure what.

The others shuffled in behind me when it became apparent nothing was trying to kill me. As they entered though the shrieks of the Tunneler’s could be heard behind us, rapidly getting closer. Guess they’d gotten over the damage we’d done with the grenades and were now eager to resume the busy business of murdering us.

“Dang nabbit,” B.B said as she winced, hovering erratically into the air so she could aim both her guns, “We can’t take ‘nother scrap with them buggers!”

“And these guns are next to useless,” said Shale as she ruffled through my saddlebags and pulled out another of the guns we’d salvaged, a pistol that was even smaller than the 10mm I’d been using and looked to be in even worse condition.

“Matta matta, estu volshae mas. Esru vi reviri dol sartriv,” said Arcaidia as she approached the entryway we’d come through, brushing past both pegasus and earth pony mares.

She floated out another of those vials of blue magic restoring liquid and eyed it wistfully. She looked back at me with a sad smile and shook the vial.

“Ti dol,” she said and flipped open her own saddlebag, showing that there weren’t any more of those vials inside.

“That’s your last one…” I realized aloud, and found myself wondering if she entirely relied on those vials of liquid to sustain her magic or if it would restore itself naturally if she had time to rest. She looked so…haggard, with her eyes now sunken, her silver hair disheveled, and I could now see how her whole body slumped just a little as if having trouble keeping itself upright. I imagined she must have been casting nearly non-stop since we’d gotten separated, her magic her only weapon at the moment. Yet she was still going, still pushing herself, much as any of us…maybe more.

With a lady-like flip of her mane Arcaidia concentrated on the open door and her horn glowed blue. The door closed much the same as it had opened. Arcaidia wasn’t taking chances, though, and all of us watched as the unicorn filly shot out a stream of ice that she aimed around the edges of the doors, creating a seal of ice around the frame. When she was done she took a small sip of from the vial and tucked what was left back into her saddlebags. Before long we heard loud scraping sounds from the other side of the door, but thankfully this whole room was intact, with no parts having collapsed to let the bare earth inside. These things wouldn’t be digging their way in too soon.

“Well, now that we’ve trapped ourselves in here what happens now?” asked Shale as she sat back on her haunches, taking in deep breaths.

“We keep going,” I said, “Has to be a way to move forward somewhere in here. Maybe we can find more weapons like those grenades in other rooms?”

“Still can’t believe ya found those,” said B.B as she landed and slowly walked over to Shale, “Mind if I take a peek through them bags, see what else ya’ll found?”

Shale shrugged off my saddlebags without a word and made a gesture for B.B to help herself. As the pegaus began rooting about in my bags I turned my head to watch as Arcaidia slowly paced around the room, her silver eyes keenly taking in the surroundings. She carefully avoided the large circle of symbols in the center of the room and paid only a cursory glance at the platform in the alcove. She reserved most of her attention for the device built into the far wall and it was that she approached.

“Hmm, aha!” B.B said triumphantly, pulling out a box of ammunition, “Somepony liked their .357 bullets ta come in armor piercing flavor!”

“Armor piercing?” I asked.

“Yup. Pierces armor.”

“Right, dumb question.”

“Nah, yer still learnin’, better to ask questions…hey…what are you doin’ wit a’ Recollector?”

B.B pulled out the weird black headband thing with the black orb in it and I gave her a flat expression, “I have no idea what a Recollector is, if that is one. One of the skeletons had that on its head. Do you know what it’s for?”

“I do,” the pegaus mare said while holding the headband as if it was a gift she wasn’t sure she wanted to receive, “They’re magical doohickeys that let non-unicorn ponies peek inta’ Memory Orbs. An’ ‘fore ya ask, a’ Memory Orbs a’ magical whatsit that stores memories a’ ponies. Recollector can also record yer memory as yer wearin’ it. Bet that pony ya lifted this from was recordin’ their trip down here…”

She considered the item, then tucked it back into my saddlebags, “Best ta’ leave it fer now. I’m mighty curious, mind, why or how anypony was even down here…but Memory Orbs take as long ta view ‘em as took ta’ make ‘em, so there’d be no tellin’ how long anypony who put that thing on would be in la-la land.”

“La-la land? What, you saying if I put that on I’d…dream the ponies memories?”

“Sorta. It’s like ye’d be that pony, only along fer the ride though, only seein’ the memory, not affectin’ it.”

I shook my head in wonderment, “That’s just…weird. Who would of thought of making something like that?”

B.B tapped a hoof to her chin, “Don’t quite recall readin’ who all was responsible-like fer makin’ the things in any of mah pa’s books. Figure I had ta be one o’ the Ministries though, probably the Ministry o’ Arcane Science if I was ta stab a’ guess.”

“Dare I even ask what these Ministries are? I remember Crossfire mentioning them before,” I said, recalling the Drifter mare’s words, having thought that Arcaidia’s starblaster was a Ministry creation.

B.B chuckled, “Only if ya wanna’ long history lesson. Not like they matter at all today; the Ministries died wit Equestria, ‘long wit most o’ the ponies what died when the bombs fell. Ya run inta their gear or leftovers of their facilities a lot in the Wasteland, but that’s all yer ever like ta see of the Ministries anymore. But short version o’ what they where’s goes like this; them Ministries were set up by Princess Luna ta ‘elp her run the country durin’ the war, each one in charge a’ somethin’ different, like tech development or keepin’ the country’s moral high. Why don’t ya’ sit yerself down an’ let me at that med-kit. I’ll get ya’ patched while we talk.”

I sat as she bade me as the pegasus snagged the med-kit out of my saddlebags and floated over. She went to quick work, starting with the burned hole in my leg, giving it a wary eye as she got out alcohol and bandages.

“Yer a right mess. Long as the Med-X hold’s ye’ll be alright but we gotta get outta here and get this leg looked at by mah pa. He showed me the basic o’ treatin’ ills an’ scratches, but this’ll take a more practiced hoof ta’ make right as rain.”

As she worked on me B.B finished giving me the rundown on the Ministries, though honestly it probably would’ve taken half the time if I hadn’t had to keep asking questions to fill out the massive gaps in my knowledge about this war she mentioned. As I knew it according to my tribe’s legends the Great Fire rained down upon the world as a result of a horrible war that drove all of ponykind to the brink of madness and extinction, but the legends were quite vague on who the war was against and exactly what the fighting was all about; mentioning only striped demons of unrivaled evil from a far away land as the culprits of the war. B.B filled me in on more than just the Ministries that this Princess Luna character created, but on the general gist of the war itself. The ‘stripped demons’ in question were a race of creatures called zebras, similar in shape to ponies but vastly different in culture. The reasons for the war B.B said had something to do with a resource crisis in the country of Equestria that prompted strained relations with the zebras, who apparently had this ‘coal’ in great abundance that Equestria needed. Once fighting between the two races broke out things just got more and more intense and out of hoof until, eventually, both sides ended up unleashing powerful magic; megaspells of balefire that wiped out entire cities and huge swaths of countryside all over the world…turning it into the Wasteland of today.

I didn’t get a lot of what B.B was talking about, most of it going over my head. I’d never even heard of Equestria, apparently the largest and most influential country of ponykind in the world during that time, or it’s Princess. Or Princesses’ as it were. B.B did mention the name of Celestia, Luna’s elder sister. She didn’t mention exactly why Luna ended up in charge of the country during the war, though I wasn’t sure if that was because she didn’t know or if she just decided to skip that detail. She also had this weird habit of interchanging the term Goddess with Princess, often referring to Luna as either or. I didn’t question that either. My tribe’s beliefs revolved around the notion that upon death our souls joined with their ancestors in the everafter and that those spirits where what looked over those who still dwelled in the living world, safeguarding us from harm. I’d never heard the term Goddess before, and even my relatively slow mind found that odd. After all it was pretty clear my tribe was descended from survivors of this war B.B was talking about, so it would stand to reason that if there was some kind of living pair of Goddess/Princess sisters that we would have carried the tale of them and the worship of them with us. But nope, not a single tribal legend so much as breathed a hint of any such ponies…which you’d think they’d stand out a lot of a tribe’s mythology given according to B.B they were gigantic hyper-magical unicorn/pegasus ponies. Alicorns, the term was, it seemed.

By the time B.B was done with treating me my leg was covered in a dense wrap of bandage gauze and most of the deeper lacerations from the Tunneler’s claws had been cleaned and bandaged as well. The Med-X dose was still going strong but B.B told me it’d run its course in less than an hour, which meant we’d need to get going again soon. While she’d been working me and we’d been talking Shale had found a corner of the room to rest in and get off her own bad leg while Arcaidia had kept fiddling with that big device.

“Hey Shale,” I called, “Do you want the other Med-X dose for your leg? I mean, it’s still hurting, right?”

“Its fine,” she said, only barely glancing our way without even raising her head from where it’d been resting on her crossed forelegs, “It’s not that bad right now and we might need that dose later.”

“Alright…” I said, not really liking that she was just enduring the pain on her own but I wasn’t about to force her to take the drug. I looked over at B.B and the pegasus didn’t even have to ask, she just nodded and floated over towards the slave mare, med-kit tucked under one hoof, to see what she could do.

Meanwhile I trotted over to see what had been occupying Arcaidia’s attention. The unicorn filly was so intent on the device before her she barely noticed my approach and started a little when I tapped her on the shoulder. She gave me a small grin though, her silver eyes twinkling as she gestured at the device.

“Estu ren di vira sila val, ren solva. Esru dol Elw vi racim vecinni qui volishar.”

As she spoke she touched several points on the device’s console, causing blue energy to flow between geometric points and patterns along the bronze metal surface. Whatever she did it looked like she was reenacting her control of the door, though with markedly less strain than she had on the door itself. The device hummed with a faint noise of energy and I stared with blank fascination as the large black glassy surface I thought might have been a window of some sort lit up just like the screen of the terminal had, only much larger. On the screen I saw beautifully intricate and curved text I couldn’t begin to read flow across the screen. Arcaidia puffed up her chest proudly, though I couldn’t be sure exactly what she was doing to the device except make it work, which I supposed was impressive enough given this was supposed to be an ancient and unexplored Ruin nopony had been in…well, except the dead ponies those skeleton’s had belonged to.

“Siv, dol,” Arcaidia pointed one hoof while her horn glowed with a blue magic aura, causing a circular point on the console to brighten up and extend a misty light to the pedestal that had been hanging above the console. On that pedestal abruptly appeared a shape that made me jump back at its rapid ghostly appearance. The shape was a series of lines and blocks, all surrounding a large central…pillar? No, column…wait a sec…

“It’s a map,” I said, realizing that what I was seeing was indeed a three dimensional ghostly image of what had to be the very Ruin we were in. I recognized the details of the large chamber we’d fought the Tunnelers in, with its four pillars, and the spiral walkway me and Shale had used to come down to it, and the room we were in now…which now that I looked at it the map had four bright white dots blinking inside it. Talk about useful! With this we might actually find a way out of here! Looking the map over I realized that the entire Ruin actually didn’t consist of all that many rooms. Indeed the structure of the Ruin was actually quite simple. The top floor was the most complex, at least in that it had the most rooms consisting of about a dozen square rooms all arranged in two triangular shaped patterns that branched from the main entrance chamber, all connected by four way corridors. Of those rooms four had spiraling walkways that went down to this next level we were on, which mostly consisted of long hallways surrounding that four pillared chamber, occasionally dotted by small side rooms like the one we were now in. That big room with the four pillars was a central point to a huge column-like room that continued both up and down from that main room, which what looked to be a much larger chamber at the bottom of the shaft. The lift in our room actually led right down to a circular room that looked to be an entrance chamber to that massive central chamber.

“Ha, if we just take the lift down we’d just be one room away from the bottom of this place and finding whatever it is the Labor Guild wants found down here. We could be done with this place within the hour!”

My exuberance brought the attention of B.B and Shale, who both walked over to see what I was talking about. Shale had a strange splint on her leg now, made from the broken off stock of the trashed assault rifle with the battle saddle that couldn’t be used. I gave B.B a thankful smile, which the pegasus returned, though her eyes were mostly fixated on the map.

“Well ain’t that just a’ sight an’ a’ half. How’d yer unicorn pal pull off getting’ that thing ta work?”

I shrugged, “I dunno, same way she got the door to open I figure.”

B.B cast a sideways glance at Arcaidia, who was looking at all of us expectantly, like a teacher waiting for her students to grasp the day’s lesson.

“She sure got a’ way with Ruins don’t she?” the pegasus mare said with a quizzical raise of her eyebrow, “Guess it don’t matter none, long as she’s makin’ it work fer us.”

“*ahem* Esru dim alai, ren bruhir?” Arcaidia said with what looked like a challenging look at B.B, to which the pegasus just waved a hoof.

“Oh don’t get yer tail ina twist, I wasn’t ‘cussin’ ya o’ nothin’. Carry on.”

Seemingly understanding that the matter was dropped Arcaidia turned her gaze to the map and manipulated some of the symbols on the console, causing the map to change color before our eyes. From frosty blue the rooms suddenly became bright green…well, most of them. Two rooms were instead a harsh haze of orange, the same color of the beams the turrets had fired at us. I frowned, looking between the map and Arcaidia. Arcaidia for her part waved her hoof through the rooms on the map that were green.

“Vira.”

She then waved her hoof through the two orange rooms. They were the circular antechamber where the lift would take us, and the room beyond, the central chamber to which this whole facility seemed to be built around and our final destination.

“Mas.”

I scratched my head with one hoof, not sure what she was trying to get at, but Shale piped in quickly.

“I can’t be sure, but if this terminal is anything like the terminals we ponies use normally then they can be used to access systems attached to whatever facility they’re in. If you’re in a old run down Robronco or Stable Tech building one of the easiest ways to get past the security robots or turrets is to find a terminal that shuts them down…I…I think that’s what your friend just did.”

“Huh?” I said. B.B though was nodding her head as if she understood perfectly.

“Ah’ see! No matter how alien the Ruin, it’s still a’ facility like any other. Ya hack the terminal, yer in the clear. Arcaidia probably just saved our flanks the trouble o’ dealin’ with any more turrets. Might be them critters won’t be a problem either!”

“How? What? Somepony explain to the dumb tribal, please?” I asked, still not getting what they were talking about.

“Longwalk, hun, them critters were cybernetic.”

Blank stare from me. B.B sighed and rubbed a hoof to her forehead.

“They weren’t all flesh n’ blood, they had mechanical bits in ‘em! Remember when ya stabbed the one an’ got fried? Ya must’ve hit somethin’ electrical in there. They’re part robot. Which means they’re probably not critters that wandered in here, but were part of the Ruin’s security system. Which Arcaidia, if we’re guessin’ right here, just shut down.”

“Except for those two rooms,” Shale said quietly, nodding at the two orange rooms.

Okay, now my brain pony was finally getting up to speed, and glad for it because if what my companions were saying was true this job had just become a lot easier on us. Well, barring whatever was waiting for us in the final two rooms. I took a deep breath, calming my buzzing nerves. We were so close; we’d just need to take these last rooms carefully and with any luck I could be calling Crossfire down here soon and getting Shale’s collar turned off. Assuming the Drifter would keep to her end of the bargain. I wasn’t sure she would. She didn’t exactly exude ‘trustworthy’ as a trait. Right now I didn’t see many other options. It wasn’t as if we could just take Shale’s collar off on our own. I imagined the thing was rigged to blow if you just tried to unhook it or cut it off. I’d guessed by now that the blocky part on the collar was the part that went boom, and I noticed there were little wires there connecting that part to the collar itself. Maybe a pony who knew about explosives would know a way to disarm the thing, but far as I knew none of my companions were experts. B.B at least would have said something if she was. Arcaidia might have skills like that though…why hadn’t I tried asking her already? I suppose the thought hadn’t even struck me until that moment.

“Um, right then before we go charging off down into whatever’s waiting for us down there I want us to do two things,” I said to everypony. My companions looked at me, B.B expectantly, Shale little nervously, and Arcaidia with attentiveness (which I found odd given she didn’t know a thing I’d be saying).

“First, we need to confirm the security is off. I’ll just poke my head out into the chamber we came from and see if-“

“No need fer that,” B.B said while pointing one wing tip at the door, “Ya notice anythin’ odd? Them critters aren’t poundin’ on the door no more. I noticed that just a little while ago an’ was wonderin’ why, but now we know. I’m bettin’ them things are either dropped or just wanderin’ around all peaceful like now.”

“Alright. I’d still rather confirm that, but I’ll take that as a safe sign at least,” I said, “Then, two, I want to see if we can get Shale’s bomb collar off now.”

“What?” the white earth pony mare said with a small gulp, “But these collars can’t come off unless the detonator they’re keyed to signals the deactivation. Anything else will make them explode!”

“There has to be a way to shut it off without the detonator, otherwise what does the Labor Guild do when they lose a detonator or it breaks? Those collars have to come off sometime, right? Even if for no other reason than to use on a new slave after the current one dies from overwork,” I had a distasteful feeling in my gut from my own cold reasoning but it made sense. There logically had to be a way to get a collar off without the detonator triggering a deactivation signal otherwise the Labor Guild would lose collars every time a detonator malfunctioned or went missing. Even if you could key in a new detonator like how doctor Lemon Slice did there would never be a guarantee you’d have a spare detonator on hoof to do that with.

“He’s right,” said B.B “I figure there is a’ way, but we don’t got a way to pull it off. I don’t know much ‘bout explosive’s, but I know the bomb’s got a trigger that the detonator activates. I’m bettin’ a Labor Guild Overseer would know a’ way to turn that trigger off so even if ya take the collar off by hoof it won’t blow. We don’t got the same know-how, but we do got a way to maybe shut the trigger down ‘fore it can cause the bomb to go off.”

“What way?” I asked at the same time Shale did.

B.B pointed a hoof a Arcaidia, “Her.”

“Do I have to say ‘huh?’ again or will you explain this one to us without prompt.”

“She’s got some quick freezin’ magic in her horn that ain’t nothin’ to sneeze at,” said B.B “If ya can figure a’ way to explain it she might be able to freeze the part a’ the bomb that’s the trigger. She does it fast enough it won’t blow an’ we can get the collar off.”

I looked to Shale worriedly, “That sounds like it might work, but it’s your call Shale. What do you think?”

“I…I think it sounds crazy. I mean, Arcaidia doesn’t even speak our language. How are you going to explain to her that you want her to freeze a specific part of the collar? Even if she does, its, what, fifty-fifty at best that it’ll get the collar off instead of just causing it to explode?”

“I’m not going to force you. I just wanted to see if there was a way we could get that collar off you. I might have to consider taking on Crossfire sometime soon if she decides to turn against the deal we made and I don’t want her to keep using you as her hostage. I still mean to find a way to free you and the other slaves, this is a good first step to doing that. This is your choice though, I won’t push it if you think the risk is too much.”

Honestly I was as concerned as she was. The last thing I wanted was to risk Shale’s life any more than I already had by getting her involved in this. That collar was a threat to all of us though and getting it off of her would be like removing a sword from over our heads. Not to mention if it worked it might provide proof of a way I could use to get the collars off the other slaves too, assuming I could figure out some way to get to them after this.

Shale was quiet for a long couple of minutes and I could see clearly written on her face as she went from shaken and fearful to gradually calm and resolved.

“…alright…do it.”

We all exchanged looks and I went about trying to pantomime to Arcaidia what we wanted. The unicorn filly was once more almost freakishly adept at figuring out my gestures, and more to the point, I think she understood enough about what Shale was and what the bomb collar was that she had an easy enough time grasping what we were doing and why. I did not, however, that while she understood, she didn’t seem nearly as…invested as the rest of us. She had an aloof stance and expression as she approached Shale and bent her horn towards the bomb collar, touching the tip to the boxy device on its side.

All of us held our collective breath. Shale’s eyes closed as Arcaidia’s horn flashed blue and the room’s temperature dropped noticeably. Only in that moment did my brain pony kick me, saying that if something did go wrong and the bomb went off, Arcaidia was as likely to be injured or killed as anypony else, being that close. Too late, either way.

Seconds passed. Then a few more. One of Shale’s eyes opened. I wasn’t sure if it was me or B.B who let out a shuddering sigh.

“Did it work…?” I found myself asking.

There was a crackling sound and Arcaidia stood aside, her mouth gripping in it the bomb collar which had slid off Shale’s neck at the joint where the block of explosive and its trigger met the leather of the collar. The explosive seemed intact, but the wiring and part of the device at the base was frosted over and the strap itself had cracked apart. Arcaidia tossed the bomb collar to me with casual grace and I fumbled with catching it, giving her a glare even as I smiled at her.

“Ancestors above Arcaidia, don’t just toss these things at ponies!”

“…it’s off…” Shale murmured.

“Shit, that there was right nerve whrackin’,” B.B said, wiping her brow, then blushed, “Pardon my Prench.”

“…It’s off. I…” Shale suddenly threw herself at Arcaidia.

The unicorn filly braced as if about to receive an attack and was soon stuck with a rather bewildered look on her face as the small whit earth pony wrapped herself around Arcaidia in a tight hug, tears beading in her eyes.

“Thank you. I never thought I would…not after…I’d given up on ever getting that thing off me after what I’d done.”

“What ya done?” B.B asked, looking at Shale with curiosity. Shale was so busy apparently trying to hug Arcaidia to death that either she didn’t hear B.B or didn’t care. I wasn’t sure I much cared either, since whatever she meant it didn’t seem to matter right now. Arcaidia awkwardly returned Shale’s hug while giving me a strange look over the slave (ex-slave) mare’s shoulder, like she didn’t quite understand.

Shale let Arcaidia go rather quickly after another moment and took a few hasty steps back, shaking her head as if trying to clear out a fog as she stammered out, “S-sorry, I just, I don’t think any of you get what you just did. I…give me another minute and I’ll be good, just need to collect myself.”

“That’s fine, take a minute then. We got time now,” I said as I tucked the bomb collar into my saddlebag.

B.B floated over to me, hovering above the saddlebags and leaning her head down towards me to whisper, “Be careful wit that thing, might still be able ta blow if ya hit the detonator, or if the time limit runs out. The trigger froze, but it might melt, or might be a’ back-up trigger fer the remote detonator.”

“Hm? Oh, sure, I’ll be careful. If it can still explode, might be we can use it later then, and we still got at least two hours left on the time limit,” I said, but I tucked the bomb collar close to the top of my things in the saddlebags just in case I needed to get rid of it quickly. B.B hovered closer, her eyes shifting warily towards where Shale had gone over to one of the walls and was leaning her head against it, apparently talking to herself under her breath.

“An’ I’m wonderin’ what she meant by ‘what I done’.”

“I don’t see that it means anything. Even if it did, it’s not really our business, right? Let’s just focus on getting those last two rooms cleared and getting out of here. Crossfire’s not going to like we popped that collar off, and we’ll have to figure something out about what to do about her and the rest of the slaves.”

“Still plannin’ on rescuing them all? Fine, wasn’t figurin’ ya’d give up on on that. Don’t know what we’re gonna do though. I might be able to do fer one of her goons, and Arcaidia could maybe match the other if she ta’ top off with more o’ her juice…but that’s still leave Crossfire herself. Way I heard talk goes she’s one of the Drifter Guild’s best. An’ weren’t not ‘xactly in top shape here.”

“I’ll…think of something. Maybe something in one of those last two rooms can help us? Or maybe Arcaidia can trip the security system back on when we call Crossfire down? That’d certainly put a twist in her mane I bet.”

B.B nodded thoughtfully, “That…ain’t half bad an idea. Yer right though, we’ll figure that part out once we got the Ruin sorted out. Just…keep an’ eye on that Shale. Somethin’ is buggin’ me ‘bout her. She was all shakin’ like a leaf when we first got here, but now she’s actin’ like she’s used to this kind a’ stuff. She was a crack toss with that grenade before, an’ knows more ‘bout how ta’ fight then she’s lettin’ on.”

“If you say so. I trust her. I know she could have easily let me die back when I was wounded, but she didn’t. That’s enough for me.”

B.B gave me a look that was tinged with just a hint of sadness, “Ain’t bad ta’ trust others, just sayin’ keep an’ eye out fer trouble. Want us all to make it outta here alive.”

“So do I B.B.”

A few minutes later Shale had apparently gotten herself under control. I could understand her being emotionally out of it. We’d all been having one hell of a day, her most of all considering the recent near brush with possible exploding death and abruptly new gained freedom. We lined up in front of the lift that would lead us down to the first of the two final rooms. B.B had loaded her pistols with the new armor piercing ammo and strung up the bandoliers strapped around her barrel with the new rounds. Shale had acquired one of the remaining most functional looking guns we’d salvaged from the skeletons, a 10mm weapon that was bulkier than the pistol and she referred to as an ‘SMG’. What ammo we had for it she’d loaded into the weapon’s under slung clip and the rest had been dumped into my saddlebags. She, rather cleverly I thought, tied the smaller pistol, a 9mm, into her tail as a backup weapon for when the SMG ran out of ammo. Arcaidia took a final sip from her flask of blue liquid, which was down to half full, and that was all the prep work she apparently needed.

For my part I was feeling more aches and pains in my body as the Med-X began to wear thin in my blood, but I was otherwise as ready as I was going to get with Gramzanber clutched tightly in my teeth and my saddlebags tied firmly to my back. With one last confirming look to my companions we all nodded to each other and advanced as one onto the lift. Arcaidia’s horn glowed brightly and I still had the lamp secured to my saddlebags to provide light as Shale hit the green crystal, same as with the previous lift.

With barely a sound the platform descended quickly into the dark.


----------


The lift brought us to the bottom within minutes, the shaft disappearing above us into the ceiling of this new chamber. Despite being just a fraction of the size of the main chamber on the map this antechamber was still cavernous and wide beyond any of the other rooms we’d come across thus far. As I looked around at the wide blackness around us, our light casting barely a small island of illumination into the shadows around us I realized with some shock that the platform we were on was actually floating in mid-air, descending down on nothing. The notion of flight sent a small thrill through me at the same time it sent a feeling of intense gut twisting terror. B.B, next to me, grinned.

“Relax, ain’t no more than ‘nother ten meters or so ta’ the ground. Even if ya fell ye’d probably live with just a few broken bones.”

“Oh, swell,” I said, then blinked, “How can you tell how high we are, its pitch black in here?”

As the platform touched down on the ground B.B lifted off with her wings, staying low due to her injuries but apparently more comfortable now that she’d had time to rest off of them.

“Just a’ sense pegasi got. We can feel the sky an’ ground sorta’. Like a’, I don’t know, pegasense.”

“Pegasense?”

“Ya heard me.”

Advancing into the gloom I got a better sense of the chamber around us. It was indeed quite large, but now that I was peering into the blackness I could make out the far walls, if just barely. I knew from what I’d seen on the map that this place was like one big rectangle, with a large raised staircase going up like the steps of a pyramid on the far end, where an open entryway would lead to the final room. This big open space here was, unfortunately, the most ideal spot to lay a final trap or ambush, given the almost total lack of cover anypony entering from the lift would receive. I was tensed like a coiled gecko as we walked, or in B.B’s case flew, towards where we could barely make out the stairs.

When a sound like bubbling water filled the air I reared around at the sound, ready to charge, run, or throw myself between my companions and harm as needed against whatever monster or trap sprung itself at us…instead what I faced was a ghost.

It was a translucent orange image of a creature much like a pony in shape, with forelegs and hindquarters of an equine nature and a body and head very pony-like in form. Its hooves were marked by large tufts of fur, however, and its tail was thin and whip-like, with barely any fur to cover it. More than that its body was covered in what appeared to be…not stripes, exactly, but white spotting. Its mane was short and dark, and from the shape of its features I think it was a stallion. Its ears were even longer than a normal ponies, and also like its hooves, covered with tufts of fur. Its eyes were regarding us with cold displeasure.

Next to me Arcaidia growled, loudly.

“Elw…Shoval!”

To my surprise then the ghostly image spoke in a language I understood, Equestrian as I now knew the term was.

“No intrusion upon this sacred ground shall be tolerated; least of all by those who would invade the sanctity of Filgaia. The children of Odoryuk will resist the corrupting violations of Veruni and Hyadean alike until our dying breaths. You shall not have the Roaring Metal that sleeps within this tomb. Let our sentinel be the herald of your passing, trespassers.

…What? Did any of that make even the slightest bit of sense? Well, the threat was obvious enough, but the rest sounded more like our ghostly friend had dipped too much into the healing powder. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to question him (it?) further as the image vanished immediately after its overly dramatic speech and we all heard the grinding of metal moving from across the room opposite the stairs.

“Longwalk,” Shale said, nudging me with her muzzle and nodding her head towards the stairs, “I think we just got cut off.”

I looked to see that in the distance where the entryway into the next room would be at the top of the stairs there was a clear glowing orange field of light. The hay was that? Some kind of barrier.

“Least of our problems,” shouted B.B as she aimed her pistols downrange the opposite way, “We got somethin’ big comin’ our way!”

I heard it well before I saw it. The ground shook with every step the thing took as it emerged from the shadows and into the light cast by my lamp and Arcaidia’s horn, which now glowed brighter than I’d ever seen it as the unicorn filly’s eyes went to full bore ‘kitten drowning’ coldness. The creature was easily ten times the size and mass of a pony. A hulking turtle-like body, black and granite gray, housed four powerfully muscled limbs that ended in talons as large as my foreleg. Its head was a bestial pointed muzzle of glowing orange eyes and a maw lined with teeth that shone with an almost metallic sheen. In fact they might well have been metal. The thing’s main body was covered in a shell of hardened metallic bronze coated in spikes, four of which were massive and also glowed with orange light. Behind the thing I could see a barbed tail swishing about aggressively.

The monster lumbered towards us as if it knew we weren’t even a threat. Then it paused and sniffed the air. I felt a strange pulse of pressure in my head and Gramzanber became cold in my mouth. The monstrosity before us fixated its eyes right on me in that moment.

“Oh shit…” I breathed just as the thing let out a roar that was somehow both bellowing and shrill at the same time, and then began to charge right at me.

“Everypony get away, it’s after me!” I shouted, turning to run, with the thought that I’d try to get to the stairs. Perhaps the uneven terrain would trip the thing up if it tried to come up after me.

B.B climbed straight up and didn’t even hesitate to start opening up with a rapid barrage of shots that I could see striking the creature’s head and body with bursts of sparks. If the armor piercing rounds were doing any good it was impossible to tell as the thing barreled forward and I wasn’t exactly taking long to look over my shoulder as I galloped for the stairs. I heard the fast repeating cracks of what I could only assume was Shale opening fire with the SMG. Hopefully she’d gotten out of the beast’s path before she started shooting. I heard nothing from Arcaidia at first, which worried me, but I couldn’t take the time to slow down and look back.

I kept the pace on and my legs burned, the wounded one beginning to scream in raw pain at me as the Med-X finally began to burn away from my system. I was almost to the stairs but I heard the monsters thunderous steps right on my flank. A flare of molten pain in my wounded leg caused a spasm through my whole hindquarters that sent my sprawling to the floor, tumbling end over end. I managed to keep Gramzanber clenched tight in my mouth though and though I knew the monster was going to be on me in seconds I still tried to bring the spear up to brace it; hoping if nothing else to get in one solid lancing strike on it before it annihilated me.

I saw it was indeed bounding in on me with massive strides. Yet there was also a chill in the air and I saw the faint flickers of frost drift through the light of the lamp. I heard a crackling sound along the ground and glanced down to see the metal floor icing over before me.

“Longwalk, colval!” Arcaidia’s voice shouted somewhere to my right.

I don’t think I even thought about it before throwing myself to the side as the creature landed on the ice patch and promptly tripped, its massive form doing an almost exact parody of my own tumbling fall just moments earlier. I skidded just barely out of the way of its body as it barreled past me. Grunting past the horrible pain in my leg I got up looked to where Arcaidia’s voice had come from. The unicorn had circled around towards the wall, and now she advanced on the fallen beast, her horn an azure beacon in the dark.

“It’s getting’ back up! Hit it hard,” B.B shouted from above, the pegasus having flown in a high arc. Shale appeared out of the gloom soon after, SMG already aiming for the monster as it tried to right itself.

As my two gun armed companions opened up on the beast’s exposed underbelly and Arcaidia sent a cone of icicle shards towards its head I was left to try to get at it past its flailing limbs. The monster roared as it began to get back to its right side up but it wasn’t moving too quick about it. I charged in despite the pain in my legs. As I got in close I saw that B.B’s shots were at least getting through the thing’s metallic hide, leaving small holes that oozed brackish white blood. Shale’s 10mm rounds weren’t seeming to do much more than scratch it though.

In close I decided to try for doing some damaging to one of those nasty talon tipped arms. The creature wasn’t looking right at me this time so its flailing was wild, but I could feel the raw power in the swipes as I ducked one and felt the whoosh of air tug at my mane. I stabbed up and in with Gramzanber and felt the spear’s blade bite into hard flesh. The shock went through my whole body from the momentum of the blow but I was glad to see I left a deep gash in the thing’s leg as I pulled back.

The creature finally got all four of its limbs under it and bellowed once more and at this close range the sound nearly deafened me. I don’t think we’d actually manage do a lot of harm to it with our attacks so far but at least Arcaidia had showed me how we might be able to win.

“Arcaidia!” I called and when the unicorn looked me way I pointed with my spear at the ice she’d created on the floor, “Again!”

She nodded and I turned to run and get some distance from the creature as I called to B.B and Shale, “You two, scatter and wait until Arcaidia and I trip it up, then hit it again with all you’ve got! I think we can wear it d-“

I wasn’t able to finish my sentence as the creature took one look at me running away and Arcaidia skulking off to the side, her horn glowing, and instead of coming after me it rounded on her and charged the unicorn. Shit! Why did this thing have to be smart!?

Arcaidia’s eyes went wide but she reacted fast, her horn flashing as a crest of symbols encircled it then imploded in as her spell took effect. Instead of a cone of icicles this time a wall of ice formed up from the ground in front of her, easily several hooflengths thick and twice as tall as she was. The creature didn’t stop though and rammed its head clean through the wall and into Arcaidia. The wall had seemed to slow it just enough that she didn’t go flying far, and didn’t rag-doll all over the chamber’s floor. She even rather fast for the hit she just took staggered to her feet, though I could see from the look on her face she was in a state of shock.

Had she even gotten injured by anything serious up to this pint, beyond a few scratches? The unicorn filly, though, despite her small size, seemed like she hadn’t broken anything from the blow.

The monster though was more than willing to take advantage of her stunned state and raised a huge clawed hand to swipe at her. Only B.B’s timely dive, revolvers blazing so fast it sounded almost like all of her shots were made as one, distracted the beast from landing the blow and instead swipe at the pegasus mare. B.B swerved in the air, avoiding the blow, but her injured wing twitched and I heard her yell in pain as she plummeted from the air and skidded along the ground. I shouted her name as I ran forward.

The beast was bearing down on her, its maw opening, but it snapped its head up at me as I shouted a tribal warcry, thrusting Gramzanber right at its snout. The thing caught my spear right in its teeth and for a second I could almost imagine a satisfied and smug look in its eyes as it shook its head about fiercely, shaking me with it. I kept my teeth firmly around Gramzanber’s haft though, despite the thing’s wild shaking, and finally it let go of Gramzanber and sent me flying.

This is gonna hurt, I thought as I watched the metal floor rush up to meet me. I lost the air in my lungs but not my spear as I hit with a hefty smack. My head felt like it was stuffed with cotton that was on fire and I saw white spots in my vision. I barely could feel the even ground beneath me as my mind swam and I staggered to my hooves. I heard more of B.B’s revolver’s shooting though, so she had to be okay, and the snapping bursting sound of Arcaidia’s magic going off. They must have been distracting to monster to keep it from finishing me off.

As I stumbled up I felt something warm next to me rummage into my saddlebags. My vision cleared and I saw Shale there, her SMG on the ground as she used her mouth to get out a syringe of Med-X, which she didn’t even slow a beat to jab into me and inject the cool pain relieving drug into my system. She then went right back into the saddlebags and got out the bottle of pills labeled Buck and opened the top, dumping a pill into my hoof.

“Take it, now,” she said, with a lot more command than I’d heard her since I’d met her…what, less than a day ago? I was too dazed from my injuries and light headed from the Med-X to really question her and honestly from what I’d been told, right now, the Buck would help. I popped the pill and took up Gramzanber again.

“You ought to stay back if you’re out of ammo,” I told her as I felt a fire spread through my body that started with my belly and reached my limbs in seconds. Suddenly between the Med-X and Buck I didn’t even feel a twinge of pain, only an echoing hammering sound in my ears that I think was my heartbeat. I fixated my eyes on the monster, which was alternating between trying to lash out at the shakily flying B.B and the constantly galloping Arcaidia as both mares circled it, keeping it off balance.

And keeping it from noticing me charging up on it like a deranged madpony hoped up on adrenaline and drugs.

Wait, that wasn’t really an analogy was it?

I didn’t even try to slow down from a full gallop as I reached the monster’s side and drove Gramzanber straight into one of its hind legs after ducking under its swishing tail. The creature’s roar turned high pitched as white blood blossomed from the deep wound I’d struck it and it kicked out with the leg I’d stabbed. I think it managed to graze me as I side-stepped, but right now I could barely feel anything beyond the fire in my veins. As it rounded to face me the monster roared right in my face and while I’d like to call it bravery, it was really just the drugs that had me roaring back as I reared up and whipped my head to slash at the thing’s face. Gramzanber tore a furrow in its hardened skin and in return it snapped its jaws at me. I’d figured out though that the wide blade of my spear made for a decent shield as well and actually managed to get the broad side of Gramzanber between me and the monster’s mouth, the teeth scraping along the spear’s blade. Though I’d avoided the teeth the raw kinetic force behind the bite still sent me staggering back.

A claw came at my head and I ducked it, only to have another one coming at me at an even lower angle. The thing was focusing all of its attention on me now. I slashed with Gramzanber to meet the lower blow and the blade bit into the thing’s clawed paw, but even so the strength of the thing crashed into me all the same and I went skidding on my back across the floor, a fresh flow of blood pouring from a gash across my chest. I didn’t feel the pain though and it was a surreal moment, seeing the open flesh on me, the blood pouring out, but not feeling anything beyond the pounding of my own heart and a fiery need to just keep stabbing and slashing this thing.

I got up to resume my attack despite my wounds but then B.B was landing in front of me, her injured wing folding up against her side and her face a mask of pain and concentration.

“Don’t get yerself killed yet ya daft buck,” the pegasus yelled at me as she extended her hoofs and fired into the monster’s face, which caused it to shake his head in disorientation. More icicle shards came in from the darkness and slammed into the thing’s head, causing it to roar, this time in clear pain. I couldn’t see Arcaidia clearly but the glow of her horn was there, flickering in the far end of the room. She seemed more than happy to keep some distance between herself and the monster as long as there was something else to keep its attention. Smart pony.

As muddled by exhaustion and drugs as my mind was I grasped that B.B didn’t want me charging straight in again and getting torn up, so instead I nodded to her and said in ragged gasps, “We circle it. Can’t turn fast. Keep it off balance.”

The pegasus mare nodded and we split up, her going right, me going left. The monster snarled at us as we moved to start circling it and to my surprise it suddenly pulled its head and arms inside the turtle-like shell that composed its main body. Me and B.B stopped, giving each other questioning looks. The beast was just sitting there, its limbs and head tucked into those dark holes in its body. Experimentally I tried charging it and stabbing at the shell itself. While Gramzanber had been able to wound the more fleshy bits on its head and legs it could barely scratch this shell.

“The hell’s it doin’?” I heard B.B ask as she floated around it, taking a few pot shots herself before using the moment to reload.

I didn’t know, and didn’t care. I began to slash at its shell furiously, hoping to get in a lucky hit.

“B.B! Longwalk! Get away from it!”

That was Shale, she was standing near where the lift was, having taken out the 9mm pistol from her tail but not bothering to shoot. She was just pointing up at the top of its shell. I looked up and I think B.B must’ve seen it too because I heard her curse, then pardon herself for cursing. The thing’s spines, the four main ones on its back, they were starting to pulse with an ever brighter orange light.

I heard the sound of hoofbeats and saw Arcaidia was also trying to get more distance from the creature, running to catch up to where the rest of us were at. I was suddenly struck with the feeling we really oughtn’t clump together though.

“Scatter,” I shouted out hoarsely. Just as we all began to do so the spines on the monster’s shell crackled and I saw arcs of orange energy leap between the spines, forming a circle between them. Then from that circle a storm of bolts like lances of lightning struck out all over the room, randomly tearing about the air and filling it with the smell of sharp ozone.

I dove for the ground, and as I did so I heard the distinct groan of metal bending and shredding above our heads and the scream of a mare. I looked towards the sound and felt the fire of the Buck begin to die as I saw B.B tumbling out of the air from where she’d tried to spring away from the group, her form smoking.

No.

I didn’t know if she was dead or alive but she didn’t move when she hit the ground. I tried to get up and start moving towards where she’d fallen a few dozen paces from me but the Buck had run its course and abruptly the fiery strength in my limbs had turn to cold pudding, leaving weakness in its wake. I could barely stand, let alone walk. Then I heard that horrible grinding metal sound again and turned me gaze towards the ceiling.

The monster’s energy attack had ripped large rents in the roof of the chamber and I recalled that in several spots of the Ruin the metal walls had given way to the rock and dirt beyond. As the whole room shook I realized part of the ceiling, specifically the part I was under, was about to collapse. I tried to run but my legs weren’t obeying me much anymore. The Med-X was still going strong, I still barely noticed any pain, but I was now weak as a newborn foal and my attempts at walking had turned into more of a crawl. There was a wrenching groan followed by a snap so loud it vibrated in my bones, then I heard more than saw the rocks and dirt tumbling from the ceiling down towards me. I shoved with all my little remaining strength to try and get away but only got a pace or two for my efforts.

Then Shale was there, teeth around my mane, dragging me with strength born from a lifetime of hard labor and rock breaking. There was a crash and I abruptly stopped, the sound of falling debris loud enough to drown out all other sound for a few seconds. I felt dirt caking my body but I was uncrushed and unburied. I looked around to see that Shale had just barley managed to drag me clear of the collapse. We were right next to B.B now, the pegasus’ body charred but I saw she was breathing, if only in shallow gasps, and her eyes were closed.

I tried to stand but found I could barely get my hindquarters under me and looked back. My tail had been trapped under one of the larger rocks that had fallen down from the ceiling. Next to me Shale was breathing hard and looking out towards the center of the chamber. The collapse hadn’t touched the monster, which was now exposing its head and legs once more, uncurling and standing back up with almost casual slowness. I felt like I could almost read its posture; it was certain it had won, that we were broken and all it had to do now was finish us off.

I turned my head, looking for Arcaidia. I saw the unicorn nearby, guzzling down the last of her magic restoring juice as she strode out to face the monster alone from the other side of the collapse.

“Arcaidia! Wait!” I shouted, and she only briefly turned her head to look at me, and shook her head. She knew B.B was down, I was all but spent, and Shale didn’t have any weapons to hurt it with. So she was going to go try and face the thing alone. I couldn’t allow that.

Gramzanber was at my hooves but even as I moved to pick it up with my teeth Shale moved the spear way with her own hoof and then kicked it even further back. I stared up at her, eyes wide.

“Shale, what are you-“

“If you try to fight anymore you’ll die,” Shale said bluntly, her eyes boring into mine, “I’m not going to let you do that.”

She looked at B.B’s fallen form, then to where Arcaidia was even now sending a blast of ice shards into the monster as it almost in boredom backhanded the unicorn and knocked her out of the way as it advanced towards where we were.

“I won’t let you or anypony else die for me,” she said as she ripped my saddlebags off and quickly got into them, pulling out two objects. The bomb collar and its detonator.

“This ought to still be able to go off if the detonator own trigger is tripped,” she said as she nudged the detonator to me, “Just get the timing right. We’ll only have the one chance.”

Her plan dawned on me and I stared at her, “No. Shale, no, let me do it! I’ll do it, please!”

“No time, it’s coming,” she said as the monster, seeming to perceive a threat, growled deeply and began to ready itself to charge. She looked at me, her fear clear in her swimming brown eyes, but at the same moment, she smiled in what I could only describe as…contentment, “Wish me luck.”

With that she reared up and broke out into a full gallop straight for the monster.

The creature seemed to pause then, as if surprised that this small, insignificant looking little pony was daring to charge straight at it, with no apparent weapon, and no obvious hope of victory. It began to meet Shale’s charge with an almost contemptuous snort.

I watched in wide eyed horror, detonator at my hooves, as Shale and the beast got closer and closer, the bomb collar dangling from Shale’s teeth as she ran. The two met, the monster’s mouth opening wide to try and swallow the mare whole. With agility I never would have imagined the slave mare rolled, tossing the bomb collar with incredible precision. The bomb collar went right into the gullet of the beast as its jaws snapped shut on empty air. Shale, beneath the thing, rolled to her feet and ran out from between its hind legs while shouting at the top of her lungs, “NOW!”

I broke from my shock just long enough to stab my hoof down on the detonator trigger.

Despite the fact that the trigger in the collar itself had been frozen, allowing the collar to come free, B.B had been right, there had been a back up trigger for the remote detonator to still work. There was a dull thump sound and the creature’s eyes bugged out. Then those eyes popped like small bugs and the top portion of its head erupted in a gout of white blood and crackling orange energy.

I almost cheered.

Then I saw its whole body spasm wildly in its death throes. I saw one of its hind legs as it kicked out randomly. I saw Shale get caught by the raking kick, her white form tumbling through the air from the brutal blow that sent an arc of crimson soaring from her into the blackness. I saw her land in a heap, red coating her and bits that weren’t blood trailing from her middle.

Silence reigned in the chamber. Then it was broken.

“Shale!”

A tugged and tore like mad at my tail, trying to free it from the rock. B.B, Arcaidia, Shale, all of them were down, all of them were dying. I needed to be free. Like a flash of light the thought of the gecko claw knife my mother had given my struck through my mind and I dove into my saddlebags, tearing out the knife in question and scattering most the rest. I turned about and cut viciously into the hairs of my tail. In seconds I’d cut myself free. I staggered to my hooves and dropped the knife, going for the mid-kit. With that clasped firmly in my mouth I was struck with who to run to first. B.B was at my feet, unconscious, burned. I couldn’t see Arcaidia, wherever the monster’s back swing had sent her. Shale was so far away I couldn’t even tell how bad it was, though I knew it was…bad.

With a torn look at B.B and tears streaming down my face I ran past the pegasus, past the corpse of the monster, and staggered up to the fallen earth pony mare.


I stared. She’d been opened up right in the middle of her barrel, a long, deep trio of slices from the monster’s claws. Blood had already formed a pool around her and I saw the entrails that were snaking out of the wounds. I would have thought her dead if not for the small rise and fall of her chest.

My heart was beating a thousand paces a minute in me, my mind a mess of panic and fear. I dropped the med-kit and desperately began to pull out the contents. Damn it all B.B was the one with medical knowledge! I should have tried to wake her up first! Wait, that might have made it worse…think Longwalk, think! You have to save them. These mares, they’ve all been injured because of you. Because you were weak and couldn’t think of a good plan, and had to go off trying to act like you were a hero in the first place!

“Uggghn…esru dir virul….”

I looked up as Arcaidia walked out of the shadows, shaking her head and wiping some blood off her chin. The unicorn took one look at me, then down at Shale, and I saw a cold resignation in her eyes.

“Shivol.”

“Arcaidia, please tell me you have enough magic left to perform your healing spell,” I said as I tried to get Shale’s guts back into her body and staunch the flow of blood with a roll of bandages, but they just became dark crimson as fast as I could put them to the wounds. I needed a way to close them! To stop all this blood!

Arcaidia frowned, her head turning towards where B.B was still unconscious by the collapsed piles of rock. She then examined Shale, her eyes softening as they looked up to me finally. The blue unicorn let out a small sigh and shook her head, holing up one hoof, and pointing at B.B, then at Shale, and then looked at me expectantly.

“What…? What does that mean!?”

Arcaidia hung her head and pointed to where she’d dropped the now empty vial of liquid that had held her magic restoring potion. She then repeated the raising of one hoof, then gesturing at B.B, then at Shale.

Realization crept up on me and I felt my mouth go dry, “You can only heal one of them. You only have enough magic left for one.”

There was a slow nod from Arcaidia as she looked at me with a sympathetic, subdued look. She wanted me to choose, and the urgency in her eyes told me I didn’t have a lot of time to decide. How the hell was I supposed to make a choice like that!? Neither one of them deserved to die down here in this hole! Either one had saved my life more than once, and both were only down here because of my stupid decision! I could have just walked away from all this. Slept through the night at my inn room and left Saddelspring with Arcaidia and continued our journey without trying to rescue any slaves. Shale would still be a slave but at least she’d be alive, and B.B would still be tending the bar for her father and doing magic shows on the side, neither the worse off for having never met the likes of me. Now both were dying in a dark forsaken hole in the ground and…and…I had to choose which one of them got to live.

It wasn’t a choice. Either way, somepony who didn’t deserve it died. That didn’t work for me. There had to be a way. You’re not the brightest colt in your tribe Longwalk, but you’re not a complete idiot all the time. Think of something! What do you need to keep these two mares alive? Medical knowledge and medical equipment. You have medical equipment, limited as it is. You don’t have medical knowledge…but B.B does! B.B knows medicine. Have Arcaidia heal her, then she can fix Shale!

“B.B!” I said and pointed and Arcaidia didn’t waste a second, galloping over to the pegasus and enshrouding her in a blanket of intense blue light as her horn formed a large crest of symbols around it.

Meanwhile I looked back the medical kit, pulling out more bandages. Even if they soaked through I could still keep pressure on Shale’s wounds and keep her innards where they belonged. I worked quickly, wrapping up her torso with every bandage I could pull out, which wasn’t much, honestly. I had to still wrap one hoof around her barrel just to keep pressure on and one of the smaller cuts covered up. Her body felt so cold, and her heartbeat was so weak and irregular, I kept willing Arcaidia to work faster, to get B.B on her hooves.

As I knelt next to Shale, pressing my body up against her wounds to keep pressure on it I felt her stir and saw her eyes flutter open, and focus on me.

“Longwalk…oh good…you made it. Thought that thing hadn’t died.”

“It did. You got it. You were incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it,” I told her and tried to put on my most reassuring smile.

She smiled, then coughed, wincing, and glanced down at her body.

“Oh. That’s…not good. All of that blood…all of that blood’s mine then?”

“It’ll be alright,” I said, putting a hoof around her and holding her tight, “In just a bit Arcaidia will have B.B up, and she’ll be able to help. She knows medicine after all.”

I didn’t like the way she looked at me with such resignation. It looked far too much like giving up.

“You’re still trying…to save me? It’s fine Longwalk. I don’t want to die but…this is about what I deserve, after everything I’ve done.”

I felt something in me snap and I held her even tighter, bringing my face close to hers as I looked straight into her eyes.

“Listen. I don’t care about whatever it is you’ve done or think you deserve! Right now that doesn’t matter! Right now you’re my friend and I intend for you to stay that way for a long time. You hear me? You can tell me all about whatever past you have or not, or just keep it all to yourself for as long as you know me, but you have to live dammnit!”

“I’ll…try…” she said so quietly I could barely make it out, her eyes seeming to have trouble focusing on me. I could hear her breathing getting shallower and her body getting colder despite me being right there pressed up against her. I turned my head towards Arcaidia.

“Arcaidia, how’s B.B? We’re running out of time!”

The unicorn didn’t answer me but I could see her look back at me with obvious strain and I felt a stab of guilt at pushing her like this. She was doing all she could, I had to understand that. It wasn’t as if she could make her magic heal any faster. Besides that might put B.B in danger too. She was just as bad off as Shale and it wasn’t as if Arcaidia’s magic could wash away any wound instantly, it clearly took more time the worse the wounds trying to be healed were. Even so I saw Arcaidia’s horn get wrapped with an additional over-layer of brightly glowing blue aura, then a third as small beams of light and sparking blue moats flowed from the horn. The crest around it grew as well, gaining another woven layer of symbols.

Then with a sound like breaking glass the crest evaporated and Arcaidia’s horn stopped glowing, the unicorn falling to her haunches with an explosive sigh. Her head hung as she took in gasping breaths. She’d just tapped herself out. I stared at where B.B was still laying, wanting to go over there to see how the pegasus was, if Arcaidia’s spell had healed her enough, but I didn’t dare leave Shale’s side.

I let out a breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding when I saw B.B’s form stir, her wings flapping once, then twice as the pegasus mare let out a low moan and raised her head. I saw the dazed confusion in her eyes even at this distance as she looked at the plainly exhausted Arcaidia, then over to where I was with Shale. I imagined the blood covering both of us was the reason B.B’s eyes went wide like saucers.

To the pegasus’ credit she got to her hooves with remarkable speed given she still looked like partially fried chicken. I saw Arcaidia tiredly followed after the pegasus as B.B flew over to us, landing and looking over me and Shale with still wide eyes.

“Please, do something for her,” I begged B.B, pulling myself away just enough to let B.B see the wounds on Shale’s barrel. I moved around to Shale’s other side, not wanting to break contact with her.

B.B looked hesitant, her eyes having a wild, fearful look about them as she looked at all the blood. I saw her visibly take control of herself and breath in deeply through her mouth. She very pointedly avoided breathing through her nose as she examined the wounds more closely. I felt my heart sink as I saw the darkening of B.B’s expression and the sad shake of her head.

“I…Longwalk there’s ain’t nothin’ I can do fer this! I’d need…I need a full medical suite, and she’d need a real doctor. I know a bit a’ first-aid, that’s it. Maybe my pa coulda done somethin’, but he ain’t here.”

A real doctor, and a full set of medical gear; those were what we needed. Neither were things we had or could logically get our hooves on within the next few minutes, which as I felt Shale’s body begin to shudder I suspected minutes was all she had left. I didn’t want to accept it. There wasn’t any way I could. There also wasn’t anything I could do about it. Shale was dying and I was powerless to help her beyond holding her as tightly as I could until the end…

“Hey…B.B…” Shale said, her eyes briefly regaining their focus, “Could you do me…a favor?”

“What, hun?” B.B asked softly as she leaned down, her earlier mistrust of the earth pony mare well forgotten, “What do ya need?”

“Could you…after…explain…the Volunteer Enforcer Corps…to Longwalk? I…want him to know…what kind of pony…I was. Don’t have time to…do it myself…”

I saw the brief shock and then understanding in B.B’s features as she nodded, “So that’s what it was. No wonder. I’ll tell ‘im, don’t you fret none, but he ain’t the kind a’ pony to care ‘bout that kind of thing, hun.”

“I know…he’s…dumb like that. Makes friends with…anypony.”

“Shale-“ I began but she cut me off with a look, one of surprising strength given her near death state.

“No, Longwalk. I…thank you…for caring enough to try. Nopony ever…did. Just…please just stay with me until it’s…over? I don’t want to be alone.”

I nodded and wrapped my hooves around her, saying “Not just me. We’re all here.”

B.B laid down on Shale’s other side and put a hoof around her as well, the pegasus giving me a tear brimmed look as she said to Shale, “Damned straight we’re all here, hun. Ya just relax now an’ rest.”

Arcaidia surprised me as she walked away from us and I almost called out after her but I saw she was grabbing Gramzanber. She trotted back, moving in front of Shale only after laying the spear before us and giving me an odd look before laying down herself in front of the earth pony mare. I hadn’t noticed it before but there was that same comforting feeling of when I held the spear, only now I felt it just from the spear being nearby. There was also a familiar pressure in my head, but I didn’t notice it much as Arcaidia opened her mouth and…began to sing.

It was the same tune she’d been humming when I’d awoken in the cave with her and Trailblaze, what felt like half a lifetime ago now. It had no words to it, more the formless sound of what I imagined many a mother hummed to their child to help them drift off to sleep. Comfort, warmth, and kindness were what these soft sung notes meant, and we all felt them move through us as the mare nestled between us began to breath slower and slower…

…until she stopped breathing.

There is much I’ll remember from that day. Arcaidia as she continued to sing, even after Shale was gone. B.B, trying to hide her crying behind falls of her brown and pink streaked hair. My own tears as they nearly blinded me.

Most of all though I’ll always remember the smile on Shale’s face. Peaceful, and without any regret in it.

----------

Footnote:
Level up!
Perk Added – Ferocious Loyalty: Something about you inspires your companions to incredible feats of loyalty when you find yourself in dire straits. When your health drops below 50% all your companions gain plus 50% damage resistance.

Companion Perk Added – Soothing Song: As long as Arcaidia is in your party all gain the ‘Well-Rested’ condition even if you have not been able to sleep in a bed you own.

Skill Note: Melee has reached 50.

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