• 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 6: Odessa

Death.

I’d understood it as a concept. I’d even seen it before. Ponies had died in my tribe either from old age or the rare accident, or even a slip up during a hunt. However in my sixteen years I’d never had much direct connection to those deaths. Of course my tribe was small enough that when anypony died you knew about it. You knew there was a pony who was there yesterday and now wasn’t. I’d been to every funeral pyre of those who had died during my young life, always feeling the air of depression and mourning that surrounded my fellow tribesmates and even feeling it somewhat myself…but the feeling was always muted to a degree by a sense of separation. I simply hadn’t really known the ponies who had died and hence, while knowing it was sad, and even feeling a little sad they were gone, their deaths never fully hit me like they probably should have.

I hadn’t had many friends beyond Trailblaze and her own friend Whetstone. I hadn’t had family besides my mother. I don’t even remember when my grandparents died, though I knew both had passed when I was quite young. So while I had understood what death was the full impact of what it meant didn’t sink into me until I’d been faced with Shale’s cold, unmoving body.

She wasn’t coming back. There was no fixing this. Anything she might have done with her life or may have become was simply gone.

And that hurt. A lot.

That might not have made sense. I’d known her such a short period of time. Less than a day, really, if you were only counting the time spent down her in the Ruin, before which she was just a nameless slave mare who’d I’d intended to save with all the rest. One would think that a hoof-full of hours wasn’t enough time to develop a bond strong enough to care about another pony’s death; but it had. It had been more than enough. It had certainly been enough that she’d been willing to put her life at risk to make sure the rest of us didn’t die. That risk had cost her everything.

So maybe it was understandable that I was in a catatonic state for a time, or maybe it wasn’t. I don’t know who judges whether or not a pony has a right or not to check-out for a little while when put through the emotional wringer. All I know is that for some time I wasn’t measuring I didn’t even really notice what was happening around me, I just lay there next to Shale, not willing to move. After all I had promised her I’d stay next to her until the end. I suppose some messed up part of my mind thought that if I did move that’d be admitting it was, in fact, over, and that if I just stayed next to her long enough, somehow, someway, she might stir back to life, taking in that sudden breath I was desperate desiring she would take.

So I’m not sure how much time had gone by before I noticed that B.B and Arcaidia weren’t there. I blinked like a pony waking from a dream, eyes bleary from tears, and my head still fuzzy from a black mire of useless thoughts concerning the countless different ways I could have theoretically prevented Shale’s death. I didn’t take me long to spot Arcaidia, her horn’s glow unmistakable in the darkness. She was over at the top of the raised stairs that led to the orange glowing field of force that had blocked our way out of the room after that ghostly spotted horse had appeared. I couldn’t tell what she was doing over there but I could surmise she was probably trying to recreate her feat with opening the door above.

B.B I didn’t spot until she literally flew down in front of me. The pegasus mare still looked pretty banged up and burned from her own close brush with death after that monster had unleashed that damned energy attack. Her own white coat was scorched in many patches that even Arcaidia’s healing magic hadn’t been able to fully renew. I didn’t notice, however, that her wings looked to be in better condition, the earlier wound from the turrets seemingly having been healed over by Arcaidia’s spell. B.B looked at me with clear trepidation and for a second it looked like she tried to muster a reassuring smile, but the expression died before it could even partially form.

“Ya good ta stand?” she asked cautiously “Was worried ye’d be out fer good. Yer are here, right? Some ponies…I’d seen some ponies that just kinda fade out when…well when dealin’ with this kind a’ thing.”

My beleaguered but gradually more alert brain pony smacked me with the notion that B.B was quite worried about me, and if I was any kind of stallion at all I’d at least try to reassure her instead of letting her stand there hanging. My mouth felt like I’d swallowed a bagful of Wasteland sand but I managed to croak out, “I’m still here. Not sure about the standing part, but I’m here.”

I’ll admit I felt a pang of shame at the way I could see relief flooding her at my words. She must have been really worried that I’d gone totally comatose and wouldn’t be coming back. I should have tried to pull myself together instead of letting my friend worry like this, even if she was justified in her worry. I wasn’t at all sure just how ‘there’ I really was. There was an empty weight in my chest ringed with pain every time I even let myself be partially aware of the body next to me, of the feeling of blood that caked my coat from the dried pool of blood I’d been laying in this whole time. It was only with extreme effort that I managed to give B.B a nod.

“How long?” I asked.

“Ain’t too sure, ‘bout two hours maybe? Arcaidia’s been busy. Took the lift back up top fer some reason not long after...y’know.”

“You let her go back up there by herself?” I asked and B.B gave a small shrug.

“It was that or leave ya here by yourself, an’ ya weren’t in no condition ta be protectin’ yerself. So, yeah, I stayed her ta keep an eye on ya while Arcaidia went off to do…whatever it is she did up there. Don’t rightly know but when she got back she weren’t lookin’ near as tired as she did when she left an’ she’s been workin’ at that barrier since. Anyway I’d been chekin’ ‘round here to see if there was anythin’ useful but ain’t nothin’ ‘round here save a big open alcove where I figure that critter must’ve crawled outta.”

“I see,” I said, trying experimentally to rise, despite a part of me that madly screamed in my brain not to, to just stay next to Shale. But I didn’t have the luxury of letting myself sit in self-pity or denial here. B.B and Arcaidia were still alive. I had to focus on that and the knowledge that, however little I could contribute, they’d need my help to finish what we’d started down here. Besides, I had to finish this, because if I didn’t then who would give Shale a proper funeral? I didn’t know what the norm was for the Wasteland when it came to such things, but I didn’t imagine anypony would object to a pyre. It was what my tribe did and whatever religious beliefs Shale might have held I hoped her soul wouldn’t object to the notion.

Even if I was able to get my spirit willing to move my body was certainly being the neighsayer. Every single muscle ached and burned with pains both dull and sharp, intense and fleeting. My stomach lurched and I felt my gorge rise. B.B must’ve seen the look because she deftly side stepped me as I bent over and dry heaved for a few minutes on the cold metal ground.

“Yeah, shoulda warned ya the backlash o’ drugs leavin’ the system ain’t good, ‘specailly on a first timer,” B.B said as my stomach tried to see how effectively it would twist itself up and out of my throat.

By the time I was done with that lovely bit of bodily reaction I was able to move right along to a splitting headache and shivers, presumably from a combination of dehydration, exhaustion, and blood loss. The gash on my chest was nasty and would have been the worst wound on me if the burned hole in my back leg wasn’t already preventing me from putting any weight on it. B.B looked at it with no small amount of concern burning in her eyes.

“We’re all gonna need mah pa ta look at us when this is done,” she said.

“Healing powder, in my bags,” I managed to say, “No good for big wounds, but smear it on your burns, or on flesh wounds and it should help.”

I’d wished that healing powder was more akin to the healing potions Shale had used on me. If we’d just had one or two of those maybe Shale would…no, no stop thinking about that. You can’t change what happened. Wishing about what you didn’t have is going to put you right back to being a useless lump. Focus on the living for now. Mourn the dead after you’ve made sure no more ponies are going to join them. Ancestors above it was simple enough to think that, but to feel it, and do it; completely different matter. I kept seeing those moments in my mind’s eye, Shale taking the bomb collar, her incredible charge at the monster, and finally that horrible moment in time where a single rake of a claw thrashing in death had savaged the mare who’d just saved our lives. Damnnit Longwalk stop thinking about it!

B.B had gone over to where my saddlebags had still been laying by the collapse of rocks and brought them over to me.

“Don’t know what’s what in there. Ya know what yer tribe’s healin’ whatsit looks like and how to use it.”

“Right, this’ll just take a moment,” I said as I got into the saddlebags and got out the two small pouches in question. Inside was a fine ground powder of a gray-ish color tinged with bits of green. The powder was made from a combination of a particular flower that grew in rare patches around my tribe’s valley combined with an ingredient only the tribe’s shaman knew about. Whatever that other part was, when mixed together with the flower and harvested into a powder the result was something that when spread upon wounds would rapidly accelerate the rate at which that wound would naturally heal, not to mention sooth much of the surface pain. One night of sleep with healing powder applied was like weeks of normal recovery. I wouldn’t put us back in top fighting shape, but if we took time to rest the powder would certainly get us back to normal quicker than anything else we had available.

B.B was patient and quiet as I used the powder from one bag to cover most of her burns and scrapes, the mare not shying away even though I knew my unskilled ability to apply the powder must’ve caused some discomfort on some of those burns. When I was done she switched over, and having apparently watched my own method was able to repeat the process on me, using a lot of the powder form the second bag just to get the gash on my chest properly covered. We’d managed to save about half a bag for Arcaidia’s injuries, which I’d estimated ought to be enough.

Speaking of the unicorn in question both me and B.B looked her way when the orange glow from the field of energy abruptly went out and Arcaidia gave out a small cry of victory. Again, despite what must have been being at near exhaustion of her magical supply, that little filly managed to surprise me with her tenacious ability to keep going. Of course she had had some time to rest and may have found some way to replenish herself when she’d ventured back up into the Ruin’s while I’d been catatonic, but I was still worried about her.

With a deep breath I braced myself to try standing again. The healing powder had very minor pain relieving properties, so many of my wounds hurt just a fraction less as I tried to get myself vertical, but my leg was still next to useless and I had to have B.B help balance me for a second as I basically had to use just three legs to get up. Once standing I could more or less hobble like I had before, but I wasn’t going to be doing any galloping any time soon.

I slowly bent to retrieve Gramzanber from where it lay at the foot of Shale’s body, trying my hardest not to look at the mare’s form. I wouldn’t shy away when it came time to take her from this place and see to sending her off properly, but for now I just needed to get myself mentally separated from thoughts of her.

Which wasn’t made simple by the fact that as soon as I picked up Gramzanber I got the abrupt sense, like a gut instinct, that the mare in question was beside me. The feeling was difficult to describe as anything more than just a faint sense, not unlike the pressure I at times felt in my head when near the spear, of Shale’s presence, like she was standing right next to me. The feeling faded almost in the same moment it hit, but it was so real that for that moment I almost called out her name. But the feeling was gone before it even fully registered to me and for all I knew just a fragment of my pained mind trying to cope with events. I shook the feeling off and with some grunting effort from the pain of twisting my neck so I strapped Gramzanber in its proper place. My barding was all but shredded to uselessness, but by some trick of chance the spear’s custom sheath was still intact. Getting my saddlebags strapped back on I nodded to B.B and we both turned to head for the stairs.

As me and B.B were trotting up to meet Arcaidia, who was slowly descending to stairs to meet us half way, when that damned ghost appeared again. It looked much as before, a translucent orange image of a bizarre pony with a white spotted hide, black whip-like tail, and tufts of fur on its hooves and ears. It didn’t seem to look at us so much as through us as it spoke.

”The final seal has been breached and our sentinels are fallen or under your sway. All this child of Ordoryuk can do is give one final warning to those who intrude upon this sacred tomb. Leave the Roaring Metal to its slumber. It is naught but the flame of destruction, meant only to cleanse and sweep away all in its path in crimson fire. The Elw have left it to sleep, as we ourselves sleep. Should you not be of the cold, iron hearted Veruni, or the dark corrupting Hyadean, then please, turn back. If you are Veruni or Hyadean, our hated foes…then I shall only say this; may your unending greed and lust for violence finally consume you, as it almost consumed Filgaia.

The image flickered, as if as a flame under a harsh wind, and began to repeat itself. I bared my teeth at it, anger flaring in the place in me that was still hurting, the anger a welcome balm against the pain.

“Will you shut up already!? I don’t give a damn about your ‘Roaring Metal’ or ‘Filgaia’ or whatever the hell else!”

But the ghost just kept repeating itself, not even seeming to notice us there as it flickered on and off. Then the ghost seemed to physically distort and twist, its form going even hazier as its orange form quickly turned blue, then burst in scattering static. I looked down to see Arcaidia looked up where the ghost had been with a very self-satisfied and smug smirk on her face that oddly reminded me of the Trixie poster in B.B’s saloon.

“Sirvia, ren Elw,” Arcaidia said as she spat, or more made a spitting motion with no actual spit involved, and scuffed her hoof as if pretending to remove something unpleasant from it. I think I’d gathered by this point that she didn’t like these spotted ponies, and despite my generally slow mind I’d gathered they must have been called Elw. Arcaidia looked between me and B.B and her look of distain melted away and became that of a hesitant smile.

“Estu vi goval, Longwalk?” she asked.

“Not really, but I’m standing, which is going to have to be enough for now,” I told her while forcing a smile onto my face. Arcaidia didn’t look like she completely believed me and I could hardly blame her for that but she did nod an acceptance at what I said and gestured her head towards the open archway at the top of the stairs.

“In a sec,” I told her and pulled out the remaining healing powder, “First we’re gonna see to you.”

The unicorn peered at the pouch I held and looked up at me with a dubious expression after she noticed me and B.B had our wounds covered in the stuff.

“Trust me,” I said and after a moment she gave a reluctant sigh, floating off her dress so I’d have an easier time getting at the wounds. The garment wasn’t nearly as shredded as my barding but it’d certainly taken a beating down here. Arcaidia tucked it away in her own saddlebags and gave me an expectant look. I realized I’d been hesitating now that I was getting a clearer look at her, taken a little aback. She was more wounded than I’d thought, beneath the dress; with a large part of her left side bruised to near purple.

“Damn, why didn’t you use any healing magic on yourself, if you were this bad off?” I said as I began applying the healing powder to the cuts she had. The powder wouldn’t do anything for the massive bruise. Arcaidia remained silent while I worked, B.B keeping watch just in case anything decided to come out of the open archway at the top of the stairs. It didn’t take me long and Arcaidia gave me a grateful nod as I tucked away the now empty pouch.

I cast a reluctant glance back to where Shale’s body was and I felt B.B’s hoof on my shoulder.

“We’ll be right back fer her, hun.”

“I know, I know,” I shook myself, taking a steadying breath as I faced the stairs, “Let’s get this over with. I’ll take lead, Arcaidia next, and you watch our back.”

“Can do partner,” B.B said, checking to make sure her revolvers were fully loaded.

We were all still hurting, both inside and out, but we were as ready as we were going to get to finish this baring having a month or two of rest or a giant pile of healing potions. I’d considered the possibility of taking at least another hour or two to rest, but honestly we needed way more than that for it to make any real difference in our condition. On top of that if we took too long down here then Crossfire would either assume we were dead or get suspicious we were up to something. Either way the Drifter wouldn’t stay up top forever, she’d either resume excavation efforts with the slaves or come down with her two cronies to find out what happened to us. We didn’t have to the time to rest and while Arcaidia had gotten some of her magic back the fact that she wasn’t already dishing out the healing spells suggested it hadn’t recovered that much.

The steps weren’t easy to get up, my injured leg now little more than a mass of pulsing pain, but I managed to hobble up them, my two companions behind me.

The archway at the top of the stairs was large enough that a pony three times my height could have easily gotten through it and it was wide enough that if we’d wanted all three of us could have walked in at once. The edges were carved with the same geometric patterns that seemed to be the Ruin’s norm, only a few faint etchings till glowing blue from whatever magic Arcaidia used to disable the barrier that had been there. One day I’d make it a point to ask her just why she was able to do the things she did, but right now questioning my magical unicorn ally was pretty far back on my to-do list.

The room beyond was easily the largest of any in the Ruin. If the previous room we’d fought the huge monster in had felt big, but this place was cavernous. It was also quite empty feeling. We walked out into the wide expanse with little to no guide in the dark, our hoof steps echoing around us. After a minute though something resolved in the shadows ahead, coming into clear view from the pool of light cast by Arcaidia’s horn and my lamp (miraculous how that thing had survived all of this so far).

Four pillars, much the same size as was in the room on the floor above, spaced equally apart in a square formation. They surrounded a large slightly raised platform of metal that had perched on it what appeared like a massive metal box standing on its end. The box was easily twenty meters tall, and it was clearly slit down the middle as if it was meant to open up. A single giant green gem was situated in the middle of that slit, like a lock. At the foot of this box was another of those blocky devices that was this Ruin’s apparent equivalent of a terminal. As we approached this I felt a change in the air. The air down here had held a dry cold as its norm, but close to this massive metal box I felt…heat. A palpable increase in temperature was evident, even to my senses dulled by pain and fatigue.

“Well this ain’t quite what I figured we’d be findin’,” muttered B.B as she floated up a bit to get a closer look at the box, “What do ya’ suppose this things supposed ta be? Looks like a big freight car stood on end.”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” I said, looking around suspiciously, “Either way I figured there would be…I don’t know, some kind of final trap or something here.”

“That floatin’ image said we’d pretty much gotten through all o’ his defenses. Just warned us away like a cheap horror story ghost.”

“Suppose so…” I looked at the giant metal box and felt a cold, flaring anger in me.

This is what Shale died for? Some box buried in the dirt? This is what the Labor Guild was after down here? Okay, so from what I’d heard of them talking it was likely neither Crossfire or Dr. Lemon Slice had any clue what was down in this Ruin, they just were on hire by the Labor Guild to excavate this place because apparently some ponies thought these Ruins contained valuable stuff. So far all we’d found as death. I suppose somepony might find those Tunneler’s useful, or maybe the turrets were salvageable as weapons. Dr. Lemon Slice seemed to have a thing for weird weapons anyway. But it was clear that whatever was inside this box was the grand prize. From what the ghost thing…the Elw, had said, I gathered that it was probably a weapon of some sort. I grit my teeth.

I was angry that so much had needed to be sacrificed for this thing, that I was even now playing a role in seeing that the ponies who’d so callously sacrificed lives for it would get their prize. If I had the strength I’d smash this metal box to pieces, just to deny them what they forced Shale to die for. I was as responsible for Shale’s death as anypony, though, so a fair portion of my anger was self directed. Not very constructive of me, I know, but emotions don’t work on logic. I was mad and didn’t have anything to direct that anger at other than myself, the Labor Guild, Crossfire, and this damned metal box.

“Well, we might as well see what’s inside,” I said, approaching the big terminal. Arcaidia walked beside me and her earlier energy had seemed to invert as she looked at the big metal box, her silver eyes narrowing and her entire expression becoming tense.

“Eh, yer sure that’s a good idea Longwalk?” B.B said as she floated in front of me, hovering backwards as I kept walking forward, “I mean, ya heard that image. Flames, death, cleansing…don’t ‘xactly sound like somethin’ we wanna be takin’ a closer peek at.”

I looked at her and there must have been something in my eyes because the pegasus floated up a bit, out of reach. I tried to soften my expression. She was a friend. My anger wasn’t directed at her but she didn’t know that.

“I just want to see what the Labor Guild thought was worth the lives that have been lost. I want to see if there’s some way we can find to make sure they don’t get their hooves on it. Maybe we can break whatever’s inside so it isn’t useable, or at least harder to make use of. The Labor Guild shouldn’t benefit from the deaths its caused for this place.”

“Yeah, but if we do that won’t them Drifters get mighty cross wit us?” B.B asked, then seemed to hear her own words and frowned, “Not that I care what that snake Crossfire wants, but yer deal wit her was ta’ clear the Ruin.”

“Which we’ve done. No part of our bargain guaranteed the condition of anything in the Ruin once we were done. Though I get what you mean. She’ll likely retaliate if we screw over her contract with the Labor Guild. But I’m thinking if we open the box, mess up whatever’s inside, then close it again, by the time the Labor Guild finds out we’ll be long gone. “

“An’ what ‘bout them other slaves?” B.B asked, floating back down to eye level with me when it seemed I’d calmed down a bit.

“Still working on that,” I said, furrowing my brow in thought, putting my brain pony to work as hard as I could, “We at least know Arcaidia’s ice can get those collars off. We’ll need to think of a way to keep the guards distracted long enough so she can get to them and free them, then get everypony out of that camp. If Crossfire and her team are busy down here we might have a chance at pulling that off.”

“Not sure what the chances are of us bein’ able ta’ keep her down here…” B.B said, then her eyes lit up and she pounded a hoof to the other, “Got it. When Crossfire comes down here to check up on this room we’re basically free ta’ leave, right? On our way up Arcaidia trips the security back on, like you talked ‘bout before. That’ll keep ‘em busy fer a little while, then we can hit the camp. Them Labor Guild guards ain’t near as tough as a Drifter team, I bet we can catch ‘em by surprise, then free the slaves!”

I nodded, glad to at least have something resembling a plan of action, though there was still a kink in it (probably more than one but my brain pony could only do so much) .

“There’s still the problem of the Labor Guild retaliating against Saddlespring. Didn’t you say they’d cut off trade if the townsfolk caused them problems?”

“Yeah, well, good thing it ain’t no townsfolk doin’ the meddlin’,” B.B said, forelegs cross over her chest, “Don’t know if ya figured this one out yet Longwalk, but once we’re done here I ain’t stayin’ in Saddlespring.”

I knew my eyes had gone wide and my mouth had gone a little slack but I recovered quickly enough to say, “But why? This is your home, right?”

“It is at that, but I’ve already been caught helpin’ ya out an’ Crossfire knows where I live now. One way or ‘nother it ain’t safe fer me or my pah if I stay in town after we do this. I knew this back ‘fore we came down inta this Ruin,” the pegasus mare let out a soft sigh, then immediately gave me a hard look, “That’s just the way it’s gonna be. If we got time I’ll say a proper goodbye to mah pa an’ let ‘im know who all I’m travelin’ wit. Maybe one day, when all this here simmers down, I’ll be able to come back. ‘Sides, been feelin’ an itch ta do some travelin’. Me an mah pa used to travel quite a’ bit ‘fore he put down roots in Saddlespring, I kinda miss walkin’ the open wastes…or flyin’ as the case may be.”

“I…well, I’ll be glad to have you along,” I said, honestly so. I’d come to enjoy B.B’s company and it’d certainly be good to have her skills on my side, “Just so you know though me and Arcaidia don’t have a short journey ahead of us, assuming we live through today. She’s looking for family, a pony named Persephone, whose somewhere in NCR territory.”

“I figured ya’ll be headin’ that way, given’ all them questions ya asked me back at the saloon. Sounds fine ta’ me. Don’t know how we’re getting’ inta NCR, but if we do it’d sure be somethin’ ta see. I hear they got Manehatten almost back ta bein’ like a normal city an’ it’d be nice ta see a land that ain’t covered in dirt an’ mud but got some green ta’ it.”

Well, that settled that then. With a plan of action in place and the prospects for our future trek towards NCR looking a little brighter if not clearer we turned our attention to the immediate matter at hoof; opening up this box. Or maybe I should start thinking of it as a tomb. That’s what the Elw had called it. I looked to Arcaidia and nodded my head at the terminal. Her own expression was still nervous, even a little fearful now. She certainly bounced between moods a lot, but I think whatever was spooking her now had to do with the symbols she was seeing on the terminal because she was examining them closely now.

“Estu…mas bivai,” she said as she began to tap symbols on the terminal, her horn glowing as she did so. The symbols on this terminal I noticed were far less complex than the one we’d seen on the previous floor. I got the impression this terminal didn’t really serve many purposes beyond probably just opening this tomb. I took a deep breath as Arcaidia’s hoof tapings began to have an effect and I saw patterns of orange light play across the metal surface of the tomb.

All we had to do was smash up whatever was in there then close the tomb. Easy peasy one two threesey.

Arcaidia’s sudden gasp of fear made me look at her. She was tapping the symbols on the terminal much more rapidly now and with evident and growing panic. The orange light tracing along the tomb grew in intensity and frequency and I watched as more and more of those lights began to converge on the green crystal in the center.

“Mas! Esru vi harbol di shivol! Vi renparsa dol mana vi estriba! Maaass!”

Arcaidia slammed both her forehooves on the terminal and I could see her teeth grinding in frustration. She then promptly turned around and faced me and B.B and, with a very calm tone said one word.

“Rir.”

I didn’t know the word, but she demonstrated its meaning as she galloped past me and B.B, making a bee-line straight for the archway out of the chamber. Me and B.B didn’t immediately follow suit, which was why we were still present to see the green gem in the tomb shatter and with a hissing sound the metal tomb of Roaring Metal began to unfold, opening like an ugly blooming flower.

I hadn’t known what to expect inside it. I’d assumed something like a really big version of the turrets, or maybe a collection of starblasters, or something essentially inert and easily smashable if we’d had our time to take with doing so.

What I hadn’t expected was the massive metal giant that was revealed inside the tomb.

It was crimson red for the most part, made of a material that shone in the dusty light of my lamp with incredible luster, though much of its form was trimmed in pearly white. It was of a bizarre bipedal shape, with two massively thick legs holding up a stocky torso from which two gargantuan arms sprouted form shoulders containing huge blocky devices the purpose of which was unclear. The arms ended in meaty red metal hands and the fore arms were ringed with ridged drill-like bracers. Its head was flat, no pony muzzle to be seen, and squared. It had the vague sense of a face but mostly its eyes were what I saw, two black pits that for a moment looked dead and lifeless…until two orange fiery lights lit up in them with a sound like a reverberating gong.

Distantly me and B.B heard Arcaidia yell from the archway, “RIR!” and that snapped us out of our fugue state just as the monolithic metal thing’s head tilted down towards us and I felt a very real presence of malice as it recognized targets.

“Run!” I shouted, though it was hardly needed at this point. B.B flew down and before I even got a few steps she wrapped her hooves around my torso and with her wings beating like a furious frenzy she sped towards Arcaidia, carrying my hobbled flank. Behind us I could hear the sound of metal grinding on metal and the thunderous shake of the ground as the thing behind us took its first step and the temperature in the room suddenly began to increase by degrees.

I’m an idiot, I thought as B.B struggled to carry me, knowing that in my injured state my own legs would be slower still, I’m a complete ancestor condemned idiot!

I could have made the excuse that I couldn’t have actually known what was inside. I could have said that the desire to open the tomb and smash whatever was inside so the Labor Guild couldn’t benefit from Shale’s death was a pure and sensible intention. But fact was I’d wanted to do it out of pure anger and spite and had moronically ignored the freakin’ obvious warning of that ghostly image that opening the tomb was a bad move. That weird pony had told us to turn back, to leave this thing sleeping in its tomb, and like fools we ignored it. I even ignored Arcaidia’s obvious hesitance and had let her fiddle with the terminal anyway. As soon as I’d seen the room was clear of any further traps of monsters I should have called Crossfire on the radio and let the Drifter and her team deal with this…but no, I’d had to take things that one extra step further. I’d just had to see what was in that box to satisfy a primal need to break something because that’s what smart ponies do when they’re pissed about not being able to protect somepony, right? Yeah, I wasn’t buying into my excuses either.

At least the thing didn’t seem to be that fast, me and B.B were almost to the archway and Arcaidia was…looking behind us and wow she looked really scared I wonder-

-hey, why is it suddenly so hot? And bright?

I looked behind me and I think I might have screamed (or managed a masculine bellow? Nah) as I noticed the box boxy devices on the metal giant’s shoulders had opened up to reveal inside them extending blunt nozzles that now glowed with very intense blood red light. The giant leaned towards us and multiple streams of crimson fire poured out of the nozzles like jets of liquid. I felt the fur on my coat singeing off from the raw heat well before the flames even got remotely near us.

“Fly faster! Fly faster! Fly faster!” I shouted as my legs kicked uselessly at the ground.

The flames were nearly to us and we were just shooting through the archway. Arcaidia was already galloping down the stairs taking them three at a time. I felt the world lurch as B.B dived, givng out a guttural cry as she flapped her wings to a blurring hum. There was a burst of red and heat above us and I felt an incredible pressure wash over me for a second, then me and B.B were flying just a few feet above the floor, the stairs stretching out behind us, and Arcaidia was already halfway to the platform waiting for us.

“B.B! You okay!?” I looked up and the pegasus mare had a look of complete fear-driven concentration plastered on her face as she flapped her wings. The tip of her mane was smoking a little but we’d managed to evade the flames, if only just. I saw the archway behind us, its edges rimmed red and the metal of them running like water from the heat.

If we’d been even a second too late in getting through…

At least the giant didn’t seem to be pursuing us. As we reached the spot where the platform was and B.B set me down, the mare panting, and Arcaidia reached us, looking much the worse for wear, I noticed that while I could hear the giant’s echoing steps and feel their vibration in the very ground, they weren’t getting louder.

“What’s it doing? Why isn’t it chasing us?”

“Who…cares…?” B.B said between each rasping lungful of air, “Let it…stay…where it…is.”

It was possible the archway was too small for it to get through, right? That was probably it. Hm, what was that weird noise? Sounded like what a bunch of geckos hissing all at once would if you also gave them serious throat problems. Uh-oh, those steps weren’t going away anymore, they were getting louder, and closer, fast.

“B.B, Arcaidia, on the platform, I’ll get Shale!”

Right on the tail of my words there was a titanic crashing sound and the entire room shook as metal bent and was rent asunder and the entire archway was ripped open from the top as the red metal giant literally shoved its way through. The big drill-like bracers on its forearms were now spinning so rapidly they made a hissing noise through the air, and it seemed to give its fists horrendous strength as it ripped the wall open large enough for it to step through into the chamber with us. I didn’t let myself gape at the spectacle though and focused on the pale form laying a few meters from me.

I heard B.B and Arcaidia’s voices shouting after me as I ran to Shale. I wasn’t leaving her here. Period. I didn’t even look up at the thunderous steps of the metal giant that was bearing down on me, nor did I even let myself feel the pain coursing through my wounded form as I put Shale’s body on my back. I turned and forced my disabled leg to obey me as I half limped half galloped to my companions on the platform. The second I got to them Arcaidia activated it and the platform began to rise, far too slowly for my taste.

Looking I saw that our titanic pursuer was halfway across the chamber, its glowing orange eyes fixated on us as it took its massive, ponderous steps. I could feel this thing’s need to destroy. It was a physical aura of violence that surpassed even the very real heat it seemed to pour from its metal hide.

Ancestors above what had I set loose? What the hell was this thing!? Who would create something like this, and why?

My thoughts were drowned out by the rapid fire cracks of B.B’s revolvers as the pegasus unloaded all twelve rounds of her dual pistols into the metal behemoth as it seemed to pause slightly when the corpse of the creature we’d killed in here brushed its feet. The metal giant only glanced down briefly at the body of the monster, ignoring completely the sparking pings of B.B’s armor piercing rounds that utterly failed to live up to their purpose against whatever otherworldly material the giant was made out of.

Still, that brief and odd pause of the metal giant bought the platform the needed time to get higher than its head and by the time it resumed walking towards us we were already getting up beyond the reach of its arms. Unfortunately we were not beyond the reach of its fire’s as I saw those shoulder devices open up again to reveal the nozzles inside and the building crimson glow of flames. There was no way we’d reach the opening of the shaft in the ceiling in time!

Arcaidia, sensing the impending danger, rushed to the lip of the platform and looked down. I saw the fear etched on her face but also a steel hard resolution beneath it. A massive crest of symbols formed around her horn as she began to let loose a stream of frosty blue magic at the base of the platform, forming a growing wall of ice around us. Even as she did so I saw the aura of her magic flickering and guttering out like a small torch under a harsh breeze, sweat matting her coat and her face twisting in obvious pain as she continued to build the shield of ice around the base of the platform. The crimson giant let loose with twin streams of its harsh red fire, a tidal wave of destructive heat that roared up to consume us. The flames met with Arcaidia’s ice with a titanic hiss of steam and I watched with horror as the ice began to evaporate almost without effort. Arcaidia closed her eyes tightly in concentration and as I watched her horn sparked and sputtered with the last flickers of what little magic she’d been able to recover, all if it poured into the melting ice. With a final guttering spark her horn went dark and the unicorn collapsed in a heap. I could only throw myself on Arcaidia and hope that if her ice wasn’t enough to shield us I could at least keep her from burning with my own body.

The world around us turned red and the heat I could feel was an oppressive wave that made my skin feel like it was about to blister right off my bones. I could hear Arcaidia’s ice cracking and melting away in gouts of steam that might have been just as harmful as the flames if we hadn’t hit the shaft in just that same moment. The ice had kept the fire from rushing over the platform and incinerating us, buying that split second extra we’d needed to reach the safety of the dark shaft leading up. The heat was still palpable though as we ascended through the dark and I heard B.B breathing heavily next to me.

“Celistia’s flamin’ teats what in the bloodly bloomin’ hells was that!?”

“A mistake…” I said with quiet anger at myself, slowly getting off Arcaidia, who I could see was breathing normally but was knocked out cold by her overuse of her magic, “My mistake.”

“Whattya talkin’ ‘bout, Longwalk? We made it! Far as I’m concerned that there thing is the Labor Guild’s problem now. Just try and see that Crossfire deal wit that monster, ha! They’ll just have to seal up this Ruin again an’ leave our town fer good, knowin’ there ain’t nothin’ down here but death waitn’ fer ‘em.”

I shook my head, “No…B.B…it’s not done. That giant, it’s going to keep coming. I know it. We have to get the town evacuated before it’s too late!”

“Evacuate Saddlespring? That’s crazy talk. Them folk won’t tear up roots an’ skedaddle just ‘cause we tell ‘em too, an’ ‘sides that thing’s trapped down there. Sure it’s big an’ nasty but it ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

“The pillars, B.B, remember those four pillars down there?”

“Uh…yeah…?”

“There are the same four pillars in the room on the floor we’re going to. I remember the map now. Those pillars are all connected top to bottom, and they keep going up. They’re like this platform. Those pillars are a lift. A big lift, for that thing to reach the surface.”

B.B blinked at me. Even in the dark I could see the spark of realization strike her as she reached the same conclusion I did. That giant metal monster was so fixated on us it wasn’t likely to just stop chasing us. It’d torn through a wall to come after us. If it had a lift that could take it to the surface there was a very real chance it’d be using it, and once it was on the surface there was nothing standing between it and Saddlespring except a handful of Labor Guild ponies who had no idea what was about to ascend from the Ruin they were excavating.

“Oh no…” B.B breathed and I matched her words with a grim nod of my own.

We’d unleashed fiery destruction, just as the image of the Elw had tried to warn us, and that fire was poised to raze Saddlespring to the ground if we didn’t find a way to stop it.


----------

Getting out of the Ruin was the easy part. Once we reached the room where Arcaidia had shown us the map we loaded the unconscious unicorn onto B.B, since I was still carrying Shale’s body. Weighed down and wounded we were hardly fast, but fear for Saddlespring and a fair bit of adrenaline were doing there part to give our hooves some speed (though ‘speed’ was a purely relative concept at this point).

The ice Arcaidia had placed up around the door out of the room before had been removed, presumably by the unicorn herself when she’d back up here after Shale’s death, so we had no trouble getting out and into the rest of the Ruin. Fear of traps of more Tunneler’s was mitigated by the knowledge that Arcaidia had theoretically disabled the former and pacified the later when she’d cracked the Ruin’s security, but me and B.B were alert just the same as we limbed at speed through the turns of the dark corridors before us. Every step was agony to my body and every second my dread for the fate of the town above worsened, making the journey back to the Ruin’s entrance a torturously slow nightmare.

I nearly shuddered with relief when we finally reached the archway that led to the large dug out hole in the ground with its scaffolding leading up to where Crossfire had said she’d be waiting for my call on the radio. As we limped up the scaffold I actually got out said radio and fumbled with the buttons, simply pressing the one that said ‘call’ an spoke into what I figured was the right spot.

“Crossfire, you there? Hello?”

Only a faint buzz of static greeted me and I wasn’t sure I was using the thing right, so I tried again, but with the same results.

“She ain’t answerin’?” B.B asked as we climbed, nearing the top of the scaffolds.

“No,” I said, and put on a final burst of speed, figuring if the radio wasn’t working it didn’t matter because we were nearly there anyway. However once we reached the top of the scaffolds and came up out into the warehouse we found it was completely empty.

Some faint light was coming in through the warehouse windows indicating the coming dawn. There was no sign of Crossfire, Shard, or Brickhouse. The warehouse was deathly quiet. I twitched my ears and tried to listen for anything out of the ordinary, knowing we were running against the clock but not wanting to rush into some kind of ambush. Crossfire might have decided to go back on her deal with me and try to kill us or capture us, after all. My ears detected a faint, odd sound. A kind of quickly repeating thumping sound that reminded me of the way B.B’s wings buzzed when flapping fast, but this wound was much lower in tone.

“C’mon, we gotta hurry,” B.B said, “If we can talk sense inta Crossfire maybe them Drifter’s can work together with the town’s milita ta stop that thing!”

“Something’s not right, she ought to be here waiting for us,” I said as we hurried as fast as we could manage to the hole in the warehouse wall that would lead into the Labor Guild camp. My instincts were telling me we should be cautious but the need for haste was a stronger motivator.

As we walked out into the Labor Guild’s camp I had only a few seconds to notice everything that was wrong. The bodies of the guards strewn about, the torn apart tents, the empty slave pen, the sound of distant gunfire mixed with that odd humming sound, all of it registered quickly, but not fast enough for me to do more than start to warn B.B before our eyes were blinded by a number of ludicrously bright flood lights that snapped on in front of us.

“Do not move or my troops will open fire upon you,” said a smooth and commanding male voice, “You are to drop your weapons immediately and surrender yourselves. Failure to do so will result in your unfortunate execution.”

I wasn’t able to see much through the light but I did manage to catch the shadow of a pony moving in front of the light while being flanked by half a dozen other ponies and I heard the tell-tale rattle of guns loading and being aimed. I flicked a glance at B.B. The pegasus mare had her teeth clenched as she glared at the ponies in front of the lights. I wasn’t even sure she could drop her weapons, as they were strapped to her hooves. As for myself I didn’t like it but I didn’t see much choice, I planted Gramzanber in the ground in front of me. I hoped I could talk to these ponies, whoever they were, and convince them of the gravity of the situation; that this town didn’t have a lot of time and whatever they were doing here we weren’t their enemies. I hoped we weren’t.

The pony in the lead took a few steps forward and I was able to make out details about him as the light silhouetted his form.

He was a pegasus with a dark gray coat not unlike an overcast sky, his mane cut short in back but left with long front hanging bangs. A pair of thin silver rimmed glasses sat perched on his muzzle and I watched as one of his wings bent around and pushed them up to rest closer to his eyes as he regarded us. He was wearing a sleek white uniform coat with some kind of rank insignia on the shoulders, two silver swords sitting side by side over a lightning bolt. The same insignia was on the cap he wore, a squat thing with a short black bill on the front, presumably to shade the eyes. I saw a shoulder holster for a long barreled pistol with a hefty clip slung under the main chamber in front of the trigger, rather than inside the mouth grip itself. The pegasus’ amber colored eyes regarded me, B.B, and our two unmoving burdens with a calculating stare.

“Good morning, my little ponies. I am Captain Shattered Sky. I presume the young pegasus mare is the town resident we were told of, while you, young stallion are the tribal? Yes, of course you are. The description we were given was quite specific. I then must presume one of the two bodies you are carrying is what we seek. I care not for the earth pony, but the unicorn is of great importance to me. If you do not resist you will not be harmed. As an officer of Odessa I provide my word on that. However any attempt to flee, fight, or prevent us from taking the unicorn into custody will result in your deaths.”

Oh ancestors above did I have several dozen questions to ask this stallion! First off I wanted to know what happened to Crossfire. Not sure why that seemed so important to me but I was actually concerned over it. I wanted to know who he was and what he and his soldiers were doing here, as my eyes had adjusted enough to the light to see that the ponies behind him were all pegasi, armed with strange boxy looking rifles or even stranger looking pistols covered in green tubes. Many of them wore body armor that covered most of their forms, all bleached white, with black helmets. The term ‘Odessa’ hadn’t escaped my attention. I remembered what my mother had told me; that was the name of my father’s tribe. Even more than wanting to ask about who they were I wanted to know why they were after Arcaidia, because it was plain that’s who they were interested in.

Instead of asking any of those questions though I instead focused on the far more immediate problem.

“Listen, I know this is going to sound a little crazy but you have to believe me,” I said, pouring every ounce of sincerity I could muster into my words, “We woke up something down in the Ruin that’s going to be on its way. Something big, and powerful, and about ten different shades of deadly. We have minutes, at best, before its here, and starts killing this town. Whatever you’re here for can wait. You have to help us get the townsfolk out-“

The pegasus had sighed during my little speech and had in a flash drawn his pistol and fired a shot that brushed my cheek, leaving a small gash of red to trickle down my coat.

“I am not in the habit of repeating myself. If your next action is not to deposit that unicorn on the ground in front of me the next round goes between your eyes,” he said with perfect clarity around the mouth handle of his weapon.

Well, this Shattered Sky was significantly less reasonable than the last pony who pointed a gun at my head had been. Crossfire was downright personable next to this pegasus! The complete lack of warmth or empathy I saw on the amber eyes sitting behind those glasses suggested he was not making a mere jest; if I didn’t immediately comply with his order I was a dead pony. However there was no way I could just give up Arcaidia to these pegasi. Never mind that I had no idea what they wanted with her, it didn’t take even my dubious intellectual abilities to conclude their intentions were far from pleasant. I could still hear the occasional pops of gunfire from further in the town and I had put together that these Odessa ponies hadn’t just attacked the Labor Guild; they were attacking the whole town.

Problem was that I didn’t have a lot of options on what to do. B.B seemed to realize it as well because she, very slowly, knelt down and let Arcaidia slide off her back. I stiffened, not angry at her, knowing she was doing the only thing we really could do at the moment, but still not liking this. Shattered Sky made a gesture and two of the white armored soldiers flew up, presumably to grab her.

I didn’t know whether I was relieved for the opportunity it presented or horrified at what it meant when the entire ground began to shake violently beneath us.

“What in Celestia’s burning heavens is that?” Shattered Sky asked harshly, not so much alarmed as seemingly just irked that something was interrupting him. Boy was he in for a surprise.

Rather than answering him I took the distraction of him and his troops, snatching Gramzanber in my teeth and yelling to B.B, “Grab her and fly!”

B.B didn’t need a second urging and immediately wrapped her hooves around Arcaidia and began flying off to the right, towards the densest pack of tents, me following close behind her as fast as I could manage. Shattered Sky was not as slow or as distracted as the ponies under his command and I heard his pistol fire and saw the round puncture through B.B’s left wing. She screamed past grit teeth but in a remarkable display of willpower kept her wounded wings flapping and before the Odessa Captain could get off another shot there was an explosive crash from the warehouse and I chanced a look over my shoulder.

The roof of the warehouse had collapsed in a rising cloud of dust as four large pillars of bronze extended up into the air, same some ones from inside the Ruin. A large vibration churned through the ground, filling the air with a deep hum of machinery that gradually grew louder. The pegasi were looking to Shatter Sky for orders but some had taken to the air while others had fallen back to what I now could see was some kind of large…metal bug-shaped thing? It was what was producing those lights from big lamps mounted on its side. I watched two of the pegasi that went to the big meal thing go inside glass pods on the front where they hooked themselves to harness inside and began to flap their wings quickly, while a third got into a big opening in the middle of the metal object and got behind what looked like a pony-sized version of the weird tube covered guns. I watched, fascinated, as this metal object began to rise into the air with the wing beats of the pegasi in the pods, getting almost higher than the warehouse by the time the crimson giant arrived.

It rose on the same platform its tomb had been on, the platform having clearly risen along the four pillars all the way to the surface. The bipedal monstrosity of red metal looked around with his blocky head and fierce bright orange eyes, surveying the town around it, then the various tiny ponies moving around on the ground.

“Sir…? Orders?” I head one of the pegasi say, and Shattered Sky had a shrewd look on his face as he adjusted his glasses again.

“Contact the Vesuvius and inform the Colonel that we have discovered a Class S Relic and Target 02. We may require immediate reinforcements and artillery support. Otherwise, all weapons free, engage at will! And get after those ponies, do not let the unicorn escape.”

Well, that was all the more reason for us to move our flanks! The air was filled with sharp cracks and hissing sounds as the pegasi began to fire at the crimson giant. The pegasi weapons let lose with long beams of red light from the boxy shaped guns and bolts of sickly green energy from the ones with the tubes. Neither red beam or green bolt seemed to do more than slightly scorch the shining red hide of the giant as it turned its attention to its attackers and raised its arms. Along the forearms behind the drill-like bracers the metal hide of the thing opened up and multi-barreled weapons rose up, much like the gun I’d seen the guard at the town gate wearing only easily three times the size. With thunderous retorts those guns began to spin and spit out a stream of rounds that burned with dark red tracers, exploding in balls of crimson fire wherever they struck. Pegasi were reduced to fine splats of red mist and massive chunks of buildings were blown apart by the storm of shots from the metal giant and the pegasi reeled under the assault.

Even as me and B.B ran through a torn opening in the camp fence I saw a beam of red light slice past us. One of the pegasi had taken to the air and was chasing us. I think it was only the shock of the giant’s appearance and the devastating fire it was putting out that had the pegasus shaken enough that she missed us. I didn’t see where Shattered Sky had gone off to, but the Odessa metal flying bug-thing (I really needed a better name for it) was circling the giant. From the big pony sized gun mounted in the vehicle’s side I saw the pegasus mounting the weapon brace itself before firing; letting loose a bolt of green that dwarfed the ones made by the smaller guns.

That bolt struck the giant in the side of its head and for a second it seemed to stagger, but it righted itself almost immediately and turned its attention to the flying machine. In response to this the machine quickly veered away and began to climb into the air. I managed to catch the sight of the giant’s shoulder’s opening up once again and those terrible nozzles emerging with their mouths already spewing fire but didn’t have time to see what became of the Odessa flying machine. We still had a pegasus chasing us with a freakin’ light gun!

Running alongside the street with those beams of red raining down around us I saw B.B dodge right into the open doorway of a rundown empty building without a back wall. My pegasus friend had finally lost what little strength she had left to fly and I saw B.B hit the ground, Arcaidia and her both becoming a heap on the floor. Much as I didn’t want to I had to shuck off Shale’s body so I had enough agility to turn around fast, Gramzanber at the ready. I figured the pegasus chasing us would be coming through the doorway after us. The pegaus didn’t disappoint, appearing in the doorway a moment later, weapon aimed right at me.

There was a single split instant of time where I froze up, a realization hitting me. If I didn’t kill this pegasus he or she was going to kill me. Not just me either, but B.B as well, then Arcaidia would have nopony to protect her from whatever these pegasi planned for her. I knew I had to strike, to thrust Gramzanber forward into the pony before me…

…and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t kill another pony. Monsters. Fine. Weird machine things, I’d fight them all day, when they weren’t fifty foot tall and spewing fire. But the thought of killing a pony caused a sense of pure revulsion in me so strong it simply paralyzed me on the spot.

The pegasus in the white armor obviously did not share my sentiments as she aimed her weapon at my head and I saw her mouth tightened on the trigger.

The quick succession shots from B.B’s revolvers were loud in the closed in space of the building and I saw sparks dance off the Odessa pegasus’ weapon, which she promptly dropped as it began to smoke from the holes that had been punched through it. I was shocked but didn’t waste the distraction and charged forward, twisting my head and smacking the pegasi solider over the head with the flat of Gramzanber’s blade as hard as I could. That didn’t drop her though, either due to the quality of the helmet she wore or just plain being tough she merely staggered a bit under the blow and shoved a forehoof into my chest with remarkable strength and accuracy, causing me to stager back myself. She hadn’t cracked a rib but I’d have another nasty bruise to add to my ever growing collection of injuries. The armored pegasus quickly drew from a bandolier a wicked looking combat knife and tensed to charge me.

“Please…don’t do this,” I said, backing away slightly, “I don’t want to hurt you.”

The pegasus solider snarled at me, “Then surrender.”

“We ain’t doin’ nothin’ like that,” B.B said as she slowly got her hooves under her, raising her right hoof and aiming it at the solider, who gave the revolver a hesitant look. With her own gun broken the solider suddenly looked a lot less confident but she remained where she was.

“You can’t get away. Odessa will hunt you down as long as you’re with Target 02. If you give up at least you’ll be allowed to live…I think. Can’t guarantee anything, given you’ve gotten on the Captain’s bad side.”

“Stellar offer hun, but I think we’ll pass. Now how ‘bout ya skedaddle ‘fore I perforate yer face with lead. Ya got a knife, I gotta gun. Clear to anypony how this’ll turn out.”

I looked between B.B and the other pegasus, tense and fearful. I was a little surprised at B.B. I could tell she was serious; she wouldn’t hesitate to shoot this other pony if she didn’t take the hint and leave us alone. She didn’t look happy about it though. I could see etched on her features a look of distaste. Beneath that though was unbending resolve. If she had to, she’d pull the trigger. It made me wonder if she’d had to do this before.

The Odessa pegasus clearly saw what I was seeing as well, but she didn’t back down. She snarled again.

“Orders are orders. Captain doesn’t tolerate disobedience.”

“Don’t-“ I managed to get only the one word out before the pegsus solider charged B.B.

Another shot rang out and one of the soldier’s eyes vanished in a gout of red. Green eyes, I hadn’t even noticed until now that she had very pretty green eyes. One now. Blood sprouted from the ruined hole that was her other eye and from a corresponding hole in the back of her head and the solider dropped to the ground, her remaining eye staring blankly in death. I simply stood there, starring at her for a moment. Some back part of my mind wondered what her name had been. If she had family that was going to miss her? I couldn’t tear my gaze away from that one remaining, staring green eye.

“Dagnabbit Longwalk snap outta it!” I felt a hoof slap my face and I blinked, looking at B.B, who was staring at me with hard eyes that were laced with pain from her wounds, “We gotta git movin’, find out where all the townsfolk are, an’ git the hell outta town ‘fore that monster destroys everythin’!”

“I…I…yeah…” I said in a daze, trying to ignore the sick twisting feeling in my stomach as I kept seeing the dead solider out of the corner of my eye. I was never going to get used to dead ponies. Especially ones killed in front of me by my friends. Rationally a part of me knew that B.B had only done what she had to in order to protect us. If she hadn’t we’d either be dead or captured. But another part of my mind argued that B.B could have tried to shoot the other pegasus in a leg or something, just to keep her from following us. She didn’t have to…

I shook my head. Focus Longwalk. Sort out your emotional issues once you’re all out of here. While I was getting myself together B.B had dragged the dead Odessa pegasus further into the old ruined building and taken a brief peek outside before turning and quickly rummaging through the soldier’s pockets.

“What are you doing?” I asked, feeing more nervous as I noticed outside the harsh glow of red that was covering the scenery and the loudening sounds of shots being fired by those weird energy weapons the Odessa peagsi used combined with the roar of flames and heavy repeating blasts that must’ve been the large forearm guns on that crimson giant. I could feel the ground shake still with its steps and it felt closer than before. Each second ticking by felt like a minor eternity as I wondered how many ponies were dying out there because of the monster I’d set loose.

“That there thing’s still fightin’ wit a’ growin’ flock o’ them pegasi. Got a few sec’s to git anythin’ useful offa her,” B.B replied as she fished out a smaller, blocky version of the rifle the pegasi had, plus a bunch of small cylindrical objects, some of which she slapped into a port she opened up on the side of the gun. Among the soldier’s belongings were also a single round object I recognized as a grenade, but this one had a bright green band around it, and then the real prize, a pair of healing potions.

B.B shoved most of this stuff into my saddlebags, except the healing potions, one of which she tried to give to me but I shook my head.

“Take them yourself. You’re wing, it looks pretty messed up. I’m not that bad off.”

“Don’t be tryin’ ta act like a tough buck!” B.B said, somehow sounding both pissed at me and worried for me at the same time, “I’ll be takin’ one too, but yer takin’ the other. No arguin’!”

I didn’t think I really needed it but arguing with her was going to cost us valuable time so without another word I nodded and downed the potion while she took hers. Despite my words I couldn’t deny how good the cool wash of relief felt as the potion did its magical work. While it couldn’t even begin to heal all of the injures I’d been stacking up on myself it certainly helped to dull the worst of the pain. I saw similar relief on B.B’s face as she drank hers and she experimentally flexed her wings, her face giving a grimace of pain as she did so but managed to get a little off the ground and maintain a hover.

Not wanting to tire her wings she landed once more then gave a brief look at the Odessa pegasi’s armor before a wash of heat and pressure followed by a deafening explosion nearby knocked both of us off our hooves. Dragging ourselves back up to standing we looked to see one of the Odessa flying machines had crashed in a tangled wreak of crimson flames in the street just outside our building. I felt a horrified chill down my spine as I watched a burning pegasus crawl out of one of the machine’s front pods and try to get away, only making a few steps before collapsing in a flaming heap. The reverberating quakes that indicated the giant’s steps were now getting louder and both me and B.B looked at each other.

“Time to go!”

No time to grab the armor as she’d been obviously been thinking I just helped B.B get Arcaidia onto her back and I lifted up Shale’s body onto mine and we dashed for a back door. As we ran out into the alleyway behind the building I heard gunfire above our heads and I looked up to see a whole wing of about a dozen Odessa pegasi in white armor zip by overhead, weapons blazing, presumably at the metal giant though I couldn’t see beyond the building we’d just exited.

There were a few other pegasi in the group wearing larger, bulkier armor that covered their whole bodies and with bulbous glowing eyes and flicking scorpion tails, giving them a demonic appearance despite the white sheen of the armor. These pegasi didn’t have mouth gripped weapons but instead had larger weapons mounted on their sides on what I recognized now as battle saddles. One of these pegasi had large rectangular weapons that when fired let loose a visible projectile that flew off on a trail of smoke and fire. I heard a distant impact and explosion as the wing of pegasi flew out of sight. I also heard the distant humming sound of more of those flying machines. Odessa had certainly showed up here in force and were now directing all of it at that massive metal monster…and from the sounds of things were barely even slowing it down! Still, despite the fact that they were trying to take Arcaidia and kill me and B.B I found myself wishing these Odessa pegasi luck against the crimson giant. Part of me wanted to turn around and fight the thing alongside them, but it was doubtful I’d be of any help and the safety of my friends and the townsfolk of Saddlespring was the higher priority.

Heat filled the air, blanketing and oppressive, and I could see smoke in oily pillars of black stretching up into the sky. It even filled the air around us with a dark haze and red sparks. The entire quarter of the town where the Labor Guild camp had been was now on fire, the bizarre blood red flames of the giant somehow clinging to even stone and burning at it relentlessly while it consumed whatever else that was wood or otherwise burnable.

With no time to spare the pair of us ran down the alley, winding through the debris strewn back alleys between Saddlespring’s main buildings. Before long we found ourselves behind a huge concrete structure that it took me a moment to recognize as the back of the sheriff’s building. In front of it would be the T-section street that was the center of town, and the most obvious route out of town. If we could just figure out where everypony was at then…

A loud gunshot rang out some nearby and I heard the faint shouting of a familiar voice that I could make out over the din of noise.

“You think you can just waltz in a screw over a perfectly good contract I got going!? Huh!? Do you know who you’re messing with!? I don’t think you do!”

Eyup, that was Crossfire’s voice alright. She certainly didn’t sound happy. I’d have found some satisfaction in that if the situation wasn’t so messed-up desperate. Sounded like her voice was coming from the front of the sheriff’s station. The heavy resounding cracks of Crossfire’s rifle firing were mixed in with others. Lighter popping gunshots from lighter caliber weapons were mixed in with the odd snapping and fizzing sounds of Odessa energy weapons, all of the noise concentrated on the other side of the building. I looked to B.B and the pegasus caught my look and gave me a ‘what now?’ tilt of her head.

“Keep our heads down, sneak up, take a peek and see what we can see?” I suggested.

B.B nodded and we both began to creep up one side of the sheriff’s building, keeping close to the wall. When we reached the edge of the alley that would lead out onto the main street I poked my head around the corner just enough to get a glimpse of what was happening. I felt B.B right next to me, leaning up to peek her own head right above mine.

The T-section of street in front of the sheriff’s station was the scene of an intense fire fight. Odessa peagsi were either taking cover amid the balconies and rooftops of the buildings leading down the main street or were zipping and soaring about in the air as they send red beams of light or green searing bolts of energy flying down into the front of the sheriff’s building. From the windows on both the bottom and top floors of the sheriff’s building gunshots answered the Odessa pegasi’s assault, though not nearly in the same volume. Pure guesswork on my part but I figured there couldn’t be more than four or five ponies in there shooting back at what looked to be around ten peagsi.

Even as I thought that I saw a red lance of energy from one of the pegasi’s rifles scythe into a window and heard a high scream from a pony inside.

This was quickly answered by Crossfire’s snarled, “Stop killing my caps you rank bastards!”

I saw the bladed bayonet and massive barrel of Crossfire’s rifle stick out of one of the windows and fire. One of the pegasi in the air who’d just banked around for another shot jerked in the air as a gout of blood erupted from its back and it tumbled out of the sky to crash into the side of B.B’s saloon.

Aside from the fight I’d managed to get a better look down the main street towards the gate I’d entered town from. Down that way I saw what looked to be a huge gathering of ponies, surrounded by a number of white clad Odessa pegasi. It couldn’t be all of the townsfolk but it looked like a large chunk of the town’s population had been rounded up and gathered near the entrance of town, but I couldn’t make out details from this angle or distance. It was good that the townsfolk were all in one place, sort of. It meant that if we could somehow deal with the Odessa pegasi it’d be that much easier to evacuate everypony. On the downside if that giant metal monster got this far all it would take is one good blast from its flame weapons to kill a lot of ponies who didn’t deserve it.

A plan quickly took form in my head in the haphazard ‘no time to really refine it’ way plans tended to with me. Step one; help Crossfire and Co. deal with the immediate pegasi threat here at the sheriff’s station. Step two; convince Crossfire not to shoot me and that it was in her best interest to help me rescue Saddlespring’s townsfolk. Step three; rescue townsfolk and get them as far away from here possible with as few deaths as possible because death sucks and I’d had enough of it for one day/lifetime/epoch. Step four; collapse in an exhausted heap and alternate between sleeping and crying for the next week. Step five;…profit?

“B.B, we’re gonna make a run for the sheriff station. Just keep your head down and run and we can probably make it without getting shot. In fact I bet we can tap the top off of one of those metal dumpster things in the alley to use as a crude shield.”

“…Or we could git in through the back door.”

“…Or we could do that.”

I was very glad I had B.B here. She was a smart pony. Everypony was a smart pony. Except me. Wait, if the sheriff’s station had a back door why weren’t the Odessa pegasi using it?

Even as I thought that I saw a trio of pegasi peel off from the squad firing into the front of the sheriff station and fly in a high arc that would take them over the top of the building and into the back alley behind it. Apparently they’d just thought of the idea as well. I grit my teeth around Gramzanber’s haft, realizing that if we wanted in that way we’d need to fight those three, but chances were it’d be a safer bet than trying to get into the front without being shot to pieces. That meant that, like it or not, I’d have to probably use lethal force. I knew I’d need to eventually anyway but…the thought was still causing a sense of nausea to rise up in me. Somehow I knew if I tried to stab one of the Odessa pegasi with lethal intent my body would probably just freeze up. I wasn’t up to this yet. I also didn’t have time to mentally debate this with myself. I settled for the notion that I could still bludgeon a pony in unconsciousness if I had to.

B.B, also seeing the three pegasi going for the back, frowned and looked at Arcaidia on her back and Shale’s body on mine, “This ain’t gonna be easy Longwalk. Ya can’t hold nothin’ back, ya know that right?”

Damn it all why were my companions so good at figuring out what I was thinking? I lowered my head, eyes closed as I said softly, “I know, I know. I…I can’t kill a pony B.B. I just can’t. I’ll fight, but this spear isn’t for taking the lives of ponies.”

There was more sympathy in her violet eyes than I was expecting, given her hard tone, “I don’t like it either. But if it comes down ta it, between yer life an’ theirs…Longwalk, protect yourself. Ya gotta live through this ta make her life mean somethin’.

Shale. I knew she was talking about Shale. And she was right. If I died here then what was the point of Shale giving up her own life for ours? Trailblaze’s words also came back to me, my promise to her that I wouldn’t die out here in the Wasteland. I hadn’t really understood just what I might have to sacrifice to keep that promise though. Now that I was starting to get an inclining of what survival out here was going to entail, I wasn’t sure how ready I was to pony-up and do it.

“I’ll try,” was all I could give B.B before we saw the three pegasi fly over the top of the sheriff’s station and we both knew we’d need to move fast if we were going to catch up to them.

She simply gave me one final hard look, as if trying to force me with her eyes to understand I needed to do more than just ‘try’, then turned and headed back along the side of the building. I followed close behind, the nervous feeling of nausea in me building with every step. At the back alleyway we both peeked around the corner to see the three Odessa pegasi had landed at a few short concrete steps leading up to a single door to the back of the building. One was aiming one of those green tube covered pistols at the doorknob and blasted it, the metal of the knob melting away in a run of green goo.

“I’ll git them two wit the rifles if ya can take the one wit the pistol,” whispered B.B and I nodded.

There was no count to three or anything, B.B just flew up and hovered around the corner towards a dumpster alongside the fence forming the other side of the alley as she fired her revolvers, striking the closest Odessa pegasi and causing him to jerk about and stumble the ground, though clearly more in shock from the attack rather than the wounds. I rounded the bend and charged forward as best I could, not having to hobble as bad due to the benefits of the healing potion, but still not nearly at my fastest.

The Odessa pegasi were trained soldiers and reacted fast to our ambush and with discipline. One used her forehooves to drag back her wounded comrade towards another dumpster for cover while firing red spears of light from her rifle at B.B, who just barely managed to get behind her own dumpster to protect herself. The pegasi with the pistol began to fly straight up and took aim at me, a green bolt of energy sizzling by my head as I ran to get close enough to strike before he got too high.

The pegasi pulling her teammate to cover tried to switch her attention to me as I got closer but B.B forced her to take cover with a few will timed shots. As I reached my target I used the few concrete steps leading up to the door to get a little extra height and letting the haft of Gramzanber extend a little forward in my mouth I thrust up at the pegasi who had flown up. He’d underestimated my spear’s reach apparently and was just close enough to hit. The spear still felt light and comfortable in my grip and I was so used to it by now that aiming felt more instinctive now than conscious thought.

Gramzanber’s blade bit into the pegasi’s left fore limb and the sharp silver spear seemed to have little trouble gouging into the white combat armor of the Odessa pegasus. He screamed in pain and blood flowed freely from the wound as I twisted my head and forcibly dragged the pegasus down to the ground, slamming him into the dirt. I imagined the combination of my spear twisting in his leg and having his head forcibly introduced to the ground from a ten foot height was far from pleasant. I just hoped I didn’t break his neck or anything. He just sort of lay there on the ground as I pulled my spear free.

Then I felt a blazing pain in my side and a force slam me back against the wall of the sheriff station, Shale’s body sliding off my back at the hard motion. Oh, right, there were two others besides this one. While the pegasi who’d dragged her comrade behind a dumpster was busy trading fire with B.B the wounded comrade in question had regained his senses and had aimed his rifle at me, sending a heated bolt of red energy into my side.

Strange thing was that this beam, while it hurt a lot, didn’t feel half as strong as the orange beams the turrets in the Ruin’s had fired. Compared to those things this little red beam was more like a bug bite…albeit a still very painful and potentially lethal bug bite. I turned my attention to those two and the pegasus who shot me narrowed his eyes and raised his rifle to fire again.

On impulse I turned my head and tilted the angle of Gramzanber’s blade, turning it so the broadside was between me and the pegasus. Shockingly enough the red beam hit the spear and reflected off it at a wide angle, veering off into the sky. I blinked in surprise. I hadn’t thought that would work, I’d just sort of blocked on instinct. Apparently it caught the pegasus off guard too because his eyes boggled and his mouth was gaping. Then his comrade, poking her head over the top of her dumpster to get a shot off, instead took three rounds to her face from B.B’s revolvers and her head became something indescribable as a having even been part of a pony.

I retched. Ancestors help me I was never going to get used to seeing ponies die like that. Unfortunately my weak stomach left me vulnerable and the last remaining conscious Odessa pegasus, still covered from B.B by the dumpster, and reasonably pissed that one of his comrades was dead, screamed an incoherent obscenity at me and raised his rifle to finish me off.

Then the back door of the sheriff station burst open and a half dozen small knives wreathed in a golden glow flew out and embedded themselves into the Odessa pegasi at various vital points between the neck joins of the armor and throat. He gurgled and collapsed in a gout of blood and I barely kept myself from dry heaving some more before I looked up to see the pony standing in the doorway.

Shard was giving me a surprised look, the blond unicorn’s horn still glowing as he removed his knives from the pegasus’ body and floated a few more from their sheaths as he looked between me and B.B.

“You? You’re all still alive? Boss was sure you’d all kicked it down in the Ruin. Hell, guess I’m glad you saved us the trouble of guarding the back door. You coming in or what? I need to blockade this door before more of them show up.”

“We’re coming in, just hold on a sec,” I said around gasps for air as I heaved Shale’s body onto my back, B.B coming around the dumpster to approach us.

Shard backed up into the sheriff station and without a second to waste me and B.B followed. Once inside the unicorn closed the door and shoved a bookcase in front of it, followed by a desk, a filing cabinet, and an old stained mattress. The inside of the sheriff station was cleaner and neater than most the ruined looking building’s in Saddlesrping but the back room we were in seemed more like a half forgotten storeroom, with dust covering numerous crates stacked about.

“This way,” Shard said once he seemed sure he’d thrown everything worth throwing in front of the back door, “Boss is up front, playing shooting gallery with the white chickens…” he trailed off as he saw Shale’s body on my back. The unicorn’s scarred face frowned but he didn’t say anything. Probably for the best. I wasn’t in the mood for comments about Shale right now, or ever.

As we passed into the next room I saw we’d entered a detention area, a hallway lined with cells that had several doors leading to other parts of the station, one of which was open and showed stairs. There were ponies here, several dozen, huddling among the open cells or just milling in the hallway, most looking dazed or scared. At least half of them had exploding collars on. The slaves! I remembered the pens I’d seen back at the Labor Camp were empty. I’d been worried the Odessa pegasi had dragged them off somewhere, which would’ve made their collars explode, given they were still tied to Crossfire’s proximity detonator.

The rest of the ponies here looked like townsfolk, and they gave us bleary, almost empty looks as we walked by. I heard a foal crying somewhere in the crowd and felt both fear, shame, and intense worry stab through me. These ponies, their lives were in danger now because of me. That red metal giant was going to burn this whole place down before long and even if they all got out alive and safe their homes would still be gone.

If you can get them all out of here alive. You could all die here after all, shot by Odessa, or burned by that monster you set free.

Shut up brain, don’t need the running commentary. My brain pony was still shaking its head sadly at me as we left the cell area full of crying and scared ponies and entered the front lobby of the sheriff station, where we were greeted by the wall of noise that was gunfire and ponies scream and yelling.

“Got another two comin’ in from the left!”

“Need ammo here!”

“Shitshitshit, I’m shot, fucker’s shot me!”

“Calm down, focus fire on the ones with the bigger guns. Don’t let the strafing ones distract you!”

There were about ten ponies here, most of them armed, taking turns alternating between hiding behind the cover of the station walls and poking their heads and weapons out the windows to fire at the Odessa pegasi outside. In return red beams and green bolts were slamming in through the windows at regular intervals, and in some places blasting chucks out of the concrete walls and sending chunks of granite and dust flying everywhere. Most the ponies here were armed with what I recognized now as 9mm and 10mm pistols, and a hoof-full of rifles and shotguns. The only big guns in the room were Brickhouse with his massive long-barrel revolver and Crossfire and her large caliber bayonet rifle.

As we entered Shard called out, “Boss! Brought some familiar faces! You’ll never guess who!”

Crossfire didn’t look back immediately, concentrating on lining up a shot, “The hell you talking about Shard? What familiar faces, we don’t know anypony in this two bit town!”

She fired, there was a scream from outside, and Crossfire smiled in grim satisfaction, then took cover from the return fire and looked at us. Her yellow eyes met mine and I saw a strange range of emotions cross her face. Shock, then anger, then amusement followed by pure snark.

“You didn’t tell me you were friends with a bunch like Odessa, buck,” she said with equal measures of sarcasm and menace.

“Do your friends try to shoot you on sight too?” I shot back, not in the mood, for a multitude of what I hoped were obvious reasons, the most important of which was on my back. I hadn’t forgotten that Crossfire was the one who’d forced Shale to go into that Ruin with us. If she wasn’t the only possible ally I had in a desperate situation Crossfire would be among the last ponies in this world I’d want to talk to; more like buck her square in the jaw.

“More often than you’d think,” was the black unicorn mare’s cryptic reply as she reloaded her rifle with huge clearly armor piercing rounds from the pointy tips, “Glad you made it anyway. Had you pegged for dead when we lost the slave’s signal.”

She was probably talking about the bomb collar going off. The moment when Shale sacrificed her life to save ours. I kept my voice level with no small amount of effort.

“We didn’t all make it, but I can tell you the whole story later, assuming you care. Right now we got ponies to save.”

“Oh we do, do we? All I care about is getting them slaves, my caps, out of this place intact. Could give two shits about this town now. Odessa can have it.”

“What do ya know ‘bout Odessa?” asked B.B suddenly, her eyes narrowing in suspicion, “I ain’t never ‘eard of ‘em ‘til now!”

“Guess that means you don’t know everything,” replied Crossfire coldly, “Maybe if you’re ever good enough to join the Drifter’s Guild and make it to the top tier you’ll be allowed to know a few things most ponies don’t. Fact is, I know Odessa, and know that we need to punch our way out of here fast before they decide to start leveling this place. Saddlespring is good as fucked and I don’t plan on joining it.”

“Yeah, about that,” I interjected before B.B, whose face had turned beat red, could start a shouting match with the unicorn, “We probably have even less time than you think. Down in the Ruin there was this…monster. Trapped in a tomb. We…kinda sorta let it out and now its setting fire to the whole town. I figure we have five, maybe ten minutes before it gets through what Odessa is throwing at it and reaches us.”

I’d expected Crossfire to look surprised, instead she gave a soft whinny of amusement as she said, “Doc had it right then, that place was a storage facility.”

Speaking of the doctor in question I barely blinked before the pink form of Dr. Lemon Slice was right before me, eyes wide and bright behind her thin rimmed glasses as she excitedly hopped in place as she spoke in a fast breathless manner.

“Youfoundit! You found Roaring Metal!? What does it look like! Is it intact!? Wait, you said it’s burning down the town, so of course its intact! Marvelous! Not the town burning of course, that’s horrible! But an intact Golem! One of the Eight! Active! Oh I must absolutely see it! You say it’s coming this way!? Right now!?”

I looked at the pink unicorn mare with a faint sense of cold dread. They knew…the Labor Guild knew exactly what was down there. It suddenly clicked in my head why they’d hired Crossfire and her team. It wasn’t to protect the slaves at all. That was just the cover. The real reason was they wanted to make sure nopony interfered with their attempt to acquire that monster…a Golem, the doc had called it a Golem. One of eight?

“Yeah it’s comin’ this way,” said B.B sourly, “Ye wanna git a close look at it that’s yer business, but we’re gettin’ out, and gettin’ out now.”

“I…suppose I can make observations as we evacuate,” Dr. Lemon Slice said, more subdued now that she seemed to grasp that danger of the situation, she then perked up as she saw Arcaidia lying on B.B’s back and Shale on mine.

“Oh my, before we do anything though I should examine those two!”

“If you can get Arcaidia back on her hooves that’d be great, she used up a lot of her magic and fell unconscious,” I told the doctor as she went to B.B, a cold lump in my chest as I then said, “But there’s nothing you can do for Shale.”

“Why carry a body around anyway?” asked Crossfire as she floated her rifle around the corner of a window and took a pot shot at a pegasus that got too close to the station, “She’s literally dead weight now. Just drop her.”

There must have been something in my eyes that went beyond the simple flare of rage I felt as I glared at her, because I didn’t think Crossfire was intimidated by me at all, instead she looked as if she realized something in what she said that even she didn’t like and gave a small sigh.

“Never mind then. Alright Mr. Hero, you got a plan, or do you want me to come up with something to get us all out of here? You said we had, what, ten minutes?”

The increase in volume and the heftiness of the vibrations from the red giant, the Golem Roaring Metal, as it was stomping its way through the town were getting louder just as the sounds of Odessa gunfire was getting more sparse.

“More or less, probably less,” I said, glancing back at the door leading to the cells where the slaves and townsfolk were, “We don’t have time for anything complicated. We have to gather everypony up, arm whoever is willing, and charge the gates. There’s a bunch more townsfolk gathered over there with more Odessa guards. We’ll just have to bet on our charge taking them by surprise.”

“That’s it, that’s your big plan?” Shard asked, “Run for it and hope for the best?”

“Sounds fine to me,” said Brickhouse, firing off a shot out the window and taking a green bolt in return, though the massive dark brown earth pony didn’t seem to even notice the burn wound that caused.

“Anything sounds fine to you Brick,” said Shard with a roll of his eyes, “If we didn’t tell you to get into cover you’d just stand out in the open and get shot all day.”

“Don’t hurt none and I aim better when I can stand still instead of all this ducking and diving,” muttered the huge earth pony.

“Shut it bucks,” said Crossfire, “Shard, go round up the civies and slaves. Brickhouse, you and me will break through the door first. Sheriff Bulwark, you and your deputies flank the civies and cover the sides. Doc, you got that ice filly up and running yet?”

As Shard dashed back into the detention area to gather the ponies there and corral them into formation to run, explaining what they were going to be doing, Dr. Lemon Slice looked up from her work. She’d removed Arcaidia from B.B’s back and had laid her out on lobby’s front desk. The doctor’s horn was glowing a lime green color and a faint and very pin point aura of green was floating around Arcaidia’s body.

“Hm, oh yes, I’ve discovered the poor dear has over channeled rather severely. I don’t know what she was doing down in that Ruin but her horn is almost devoid of magic. Waking her would be quite…dangerous. I could inject her with some artificial adrenaline, then perhaps keep her on her hooves with some Mint-als, but I wouldn’t recommend doing so. But really that’s of minor consequence, after examining this mare’s body I’m discovering the most unusual-“

“Not now doc! Brickhouse, carry the dead weight,” said Crossfire, and Brickhouse moved to go pick up the doctor before Crossfire groaned, “I meant the blue one! The unconscious blue one!”

“…Oh, okay,” Brickhouse set down the surprised doctor and instead flipped Arcaidia onto his back.

By now the front lobby had filled with a lot of scared looking townsfolk and slaves, Shard herding them from the ear alongside…Iron Wrought? I blinked and met the green earth pony’s gaze as he looked up. Iron Wrought looked tired and wounded, dark circles beneath his eyes and his body wrapped up in medical gauze that was stained red.

“I see you’re still kicking,” Iron Wrought said as we all gathered up at the front of the sheriff station, the sheriff and his deputies laying down a blanketing barrage of cover fire out the front windows to get the Odessa pegasi to start taking cover so we’d have an opening to begin our charge for the town’s front gates.

“Yeah,” I said, wondering just what had happened to the slaver pony since we’d last seen each other, but there was no time for questions, “Somehow. Let’s see if I can keep things that way for myself and everypony else.”

“We’re about to charge through the open streets with a bunch of heavily armed pegasi coming at us from all sides and some kind of ancient Ruin monster setting everything on fire behind us. You really think many of us are getting out of this town alive?”

“I…” I looked at the form of Shale on my back. Sitting there she looked like she could be sleeping instead of dead. As much as my heart wrenched seeing her there was a faint sense of comfort and calm that spread into me as I looked at her and for a single second I thought I almost heard a voice in my head telling me to be strong, “…I don’t know, but I’m going to try and make sure as many ponies survive this as I can.”

Iron Wrought had the ghost of a grim smile on his face, “Suppose I’ll do the same. “

B.B joined us, floating in the air with obvious effort with pained flaps of her wings, revolvers at the read, “You ready Longwalk? I ain’t comfortable lettin’ that big o’ brute carry Arcaidia, so I say we stick to ‘em like Wonderglue.”

“Ready as I’m going to get, and yeah, not planning on letting that guy out of my sight. No matter what, we make sure we all get out of here.”

“Can ya do what ya might need ta, when it comes ta it?” asked the pegasus mare with an edge that caused me to want to look away, but I met her eyes and put as much conviction in my words as I could.

“If it comes to that, I’ll do what I have to.”

B.B nodded, seemingly satisfied. I didn’t let out the sigh of relief I wanted to. I felt bad, lying like that, but I didn’t want her to worry about me. I knew though that if it came down to me having to kill any of the Odessa soldiers, not matter how little sense it made, I’d probably not be able to. It was a problem that could get me killed, I grasped that much, but I didn’t know what to do about it yet. I just couldn’t get my head around having to kill.

Crossfire’s voice reached us, “Alright fillies and gentlecolts, we’re about to get this show started! Rules of the game are simple; don’t stop running, shoot anything that isn’t us, and don’t die! Ready?”

There were a few replies ranging from terrified to grimly enthusiastic, but most ponies just stayed silent. They all knew what was about to happen and just how likely death was to follow, yet desperation and simple lack of choice was steeling most of them. I saw that most of the townsfolk were huddled between the few armed ponies, himself and B.B included. There were foals huddled close to parents legs, young couples holding onto one another, and elderly with hard, sad eyes.

They’re lives were relatively peaceful...until I showed up, I thought, my teeth tightening on Gramzanber as Crossfire bucked open the front door and rushed out, Brickhouse right behind her, both their guns blazing. One by one the armed deputies and Sheriff Bulwark went out next, pouring down a line of fire to keep the Odessa pegasi suppressed. The civilians came next, Dr. Lemon Slice among them, rushing out the door with their heads lowered.

Iron Wrought, B.B, and myself were the last out, following the unarmed civilians. My plan was to be the rear guard, cover everypony from any Odessa pegasi that tried to sweep up behind us as we moved.

The moment we were outside I felt the heat and saw the pillars of fire back towards where the Labor Camp used to be. Half the town was ablaze by now. The blood red flames didn’t seem to care what they touched, they consumed without discrimination and with almost eerie eagerness, as if the fire was a living monster itself crawling along every surface it touched. If we’d been even a few minutes later in getting out the sheriff station would have been consumed around us.

As it was the outside wasn’t much better as even with the combined suppressive fire from Crossfire and her team, Sheriff Bulwark and his deputies, and the few townsfolk with guns the Odessa pegasi were returning fire with deadly accuracy. Even as we ran I saw a red streak of light hit a deputy in the head, the mare’s whole body flashing red as her form disintegrated into a pile of ash that was blown away in the heated wind billowing through the street. An earth pony in front of me dropped as a green bolt struck his leg and I was about to stop to help him up when another bolt struck his chest, knocking the stallion over like a rag doll. I got all of two steps to try and help him before I saw his dead eyes and realized it was too late. I heard B.B shout over the sound of her firing revolvers for me to keep running and I did, the dead pony’s face still in my mind.

In a running gunfight like this my spear was theoretically useless I recalled how it had managed to deflect the energy weapons before. Running hard I got up to the left side of the rushing group of ponies I was supposed to protecting, where I noticed a wing of three or four pegasi were firing down into the group. As unlikely as my chances were of striking any of the beams I tried to anyway, waving Gramzanber about. The red beams were too fast, but those green bolts were slow moving, easy to see where they were heading. I managed to actually smack one away and I think I must have insulted the pegasus who shot it because suddenly she was wheeling about and coming right for me, her rifled sending bolt after emerald bolt at me.

“Crapcrapcrapcrap!” I swung my spear left and right, trying to keep the bolts off me. One managed to get through and burned a patch of my flank off, causing me to yelp. Then I realized the pegasus in question wasn’t slowing down or trying to veer away. I tried to duck down but was a fraction too slow as the pegasus plowed into my side. She was lighter than me by a good margin, even with her armor, by had more than enough momentum to knock me flat off my hooves and beat the wind right out of my lungs.

I lay stunned for a moment, and then shakily started to get up, Gramzanber still in my mouth. Looking around I saw the pegasus had knocked me onto the wooden walkway alongside one of the town’s residences, Shale's body having fallen off my back to lay against the wall of the building. The pegasus had rolled right into the open door of the home and was already back on her hooves. I blinked as I got a decent look at her. Similar facial features, a little smaller but those green eyes were near identical. She looked like the mare B.B had shot before. Not exactly the same, but the family resemblance was there.

“You’re dead,” she told me in a squeaking voice that was both cracking with equal parts anger and fear as she aimed her rifle at me.

“Wait, hold on-“ I couldn’t say much as I was busy putting Gramzanber between me and green burning death as energy bolts slammed into the spear. I quickly ducked back around the outside of the doorway, getting out of the line of fire. I could see that the group had gotten ahead of me, though they were spreading out and slowing down as pockets of ponies had to stop to take cover or return fire at the pegasi darting around them though the air. And then there was the heavy shaking steps of the Golem, getting ever louder…

The Odessa pegasus who’d tackled me came rushing around the door, eyes blazing, teeth barred around the mouth grip of her energy rifle. For a second she was completely exposed, having apparently not expected me to stop just around the corner like I had. Shoving Gramzanber through the unprotected joint where her shoulder armor met her neck would have been…easy. Easy for anypony other than me. Remembering how well that helmet had protected against bludgeoning I turned around and instead used the moment I had to buck the Odessa pegasus’ legs out from under her. She went over with a shockingly young sounding squeal.

Now that I was thinking about it she did look kind of short for a soldier. No time to think on that I jumped on her, using my superior weight to hold her down as she struggled under me. With a quick swipe I knocked her rifle out of her grip and sent it flying away, then yelled down at her as she kept struggling.

“Listen to me damn you! I don’t want to hurt you, or anypony! Just stop shooting at us! Fly away from here, you hear me! That monster is almost here and it doesn’t care who it kills! You under-“

There was a crash like thunder, so close I saw the wooden boards of the walkway jump.

“-stand…oh…buck me.”

I was looking behind us, down the street, at the freshly destroyed sheriff station. The station was a broken shell of a red inferno, its walls breaking apart and melting under a wash of red fire. Walking from the wreckage like some nightmare vision was the Golem, Roaring Metal. Its entire crimson frame was wreathed in an aura of red fire, its own flames clinging to it like a cloak. It took another step and I felt the vibration in my bones, and gulped as I saw steam bubbling up from the street where its foot landed.

There was a lull in the shooting as Odessa pegasi paused, wondering what was now the more priority target, the fleeing townsfolk of Saddlespring, or the Golem advancing down the street. Whatever I thought of Odessa, however I may have been pissed at them for killing innocent townsfolk, I had to give them credit…they knew the bigger threat when they saw it.

As one the Odessa pegasi still in the air ceased to harass the group of Saddlespring ponies trying to rush the gate and instead concentrated their fire at the Golem. Beneath me the pegasus scrambled out from under me and for a second I saw the desperate debate in her face as she looked between me and Golem. Then she took off, giving me one last venomous look before she drew a pistol from a side holster and joined her comrades in attacking the advancing Golem.

I quickly retrieved Shale's body and staggered back out onto the street, turning my back on the Golem and galloping to catch up to the crowd. I could see they’d gotten to the other mass of Saddlespring ponies that had been corralled to the gate by Odessa guards. Those Odessa pegasi hadn’t joined their compatriots though in fighting the Golem and instead had gotten fully engaged with Crossfire and the others. Even as I galloped up I saw the black unicorn spearing an Odessa pegasus with her bayonet, while Shard’s knives danced through the air cutting at another Odessa pegasus and keeping it from firing at Brickhouse, who still had Arcaidia perched on his back as he kicked out with a forehoof and smashed in a pegasi’s head helmet and all.

I caught sight of B.B and Iron Wrought standing back-to-back, Iron Wrough with his small semi-autmatic pistol, and B.B having picked up one of the Odessa energy pistols in her mouth as she awkwardly tried to fire it. As I got up to them I could see her bandolier of ammunition was empty.

“Longwalk? What’n blazes happened ta ya!? Lost sight o’ ya an’ dang near had a’ heart attack!” B.B shouted over the din of fighting and she smacked the energy pistol in her mouth with a hoof, “Don’t help none I’m outta ammo an’ gotta use this useless thing!”

“Got sideswiped,” I said, a little out of breath, and looked over my shoulder at the Golem. It was sending gouts of red fire into the air from its shoulder mounted nozzles and with each blast pegasi dropped from the sky like little motes of crimson light. I found myself wondering if one of those falling bodies was the green eyed pegasus. My heart clenched. If only I had some way to fight that thing!

“Don’t even think about it!” Iron Wrought growled as he turned to me, “You heard Crossfire. We keep running!”

Only we’d been stopped dead where we where. The entire crowd was stuck at the gate and I couldn’t see why for a second. Then a parting in the confusion and melee of ponies showed me what was blocking our way. The front gate was open, but a large vehicle, similar to the smaller flying machines I’d seen before by longer and three times the size, had been parked right in the middle of the open gate. There wasn’t even any space to squeeze around the vehicle. Its side was opened up and I saw several Odessa pegasi, including to my surprise the form of Captain Shattered Sky, standing inside and shooting any pony that got close to the vehicle.

“If we can’t get past that we’re not going anywhere,” I said while stomping my hoof. What was that Captain trying to do!? Keep us here to get fried by the Golem? Didn’t he even care his own ponies were getting slaughtered wholesale trying to stop it!?

“Well lets open up a’ way then!” said B.B as she went airborn and began to fly over the crowd, heading for the big vehicle. Cursing under my breath I began pushing my way forward, ducking energy bolts, side-stepping fallen ponies, and feeling my heart thrashing in my chest from equal parts adrenaline and fear. Roaring Metal was halfway down the street and seemed to be finally noticing the dense crowd of ponies ahead of it at the gate.

Bursting from the crowd and finding myself standing next to, of all ponies, Crossfire, I found we were both facing the open side of the big flying vehicle with Captain Shattered Sky standing in the opening, pushing up his glasses with one wing. He was flanked by two Odessa pegasi in that bulkier near demonic looking white washed armor, scorpion-like tails flickering about. The Captain looked at us coldly as B.B landed beside me.

“I’m starting to think that I have remarkable good fortune,” Shattered Sky commented, “And here I was worried I’d lost Target 02, and here you’ve brought her right to me. Along with a Class S Relic. My reputation shall soar once this operation is complete.”

“You’re reputation!?” I roared, “Ponies are dying! Who cares about your reputation!?”

“A military career is built upon reputation, but I can’t expect a dirt pony like yourself to understand. Fortunately you’re understanding isn’t necessary. In fact, nothing about any of you is necessary except Target 02.”

“Hey!” shouted Crossfire “I don’t much care about what either of you think! Get your oversized toaster out of our way otherwise I’m ending you!”

By now Brickhouse, Shard, and Iron Wrought had joined us ahead of the crowd. I could see the Golem taking its long ponderous steps down the street and it looked like there were less than twenty pegasi still flying around the thing, firing away despite the seeming futility of it. Joining them in that futility, driven by desperation, were the Saddlesrping ponies who were armed and couldn’t get up to where we were facing down Shattered Sky. They added their fire, sending a hail of bullets to uselessly ricochet of the Golem’s armor.

Even if we did immediately start fighting Shattered Sky and managed to beat him and his two guards, which I thought we might be able to pull off given we had him outnumbered six to three, there just wasn’t time. Roaring Metal was going to be on us in less than a minute.

Shattered Sky seemed to understand this but was showing remarkable calm. Either he was crazy, or knew something we didn’t. He smiled at Crossfire’s threat and raised a placating hoof.

“Please ma’am, the Skylord-class Vertibuck is hardly a toaster. It’s a valuable mobile command center for operations like this…though as I am about to demonstrate Odessa has far better things in its toy chest. Observe and witness why you should feel privileged we even bothered to come to this dust bowl of a town.”

He touched a hoof to his hear and spoke, but not to us, “Vesuvius, you have a firing solution? Good, you may fire when ready.”

Seconds went by with nothing happening except the thunderous and ever loudening steps of the Golem. It was less than fifty yards away from us when the gray cloud filled sky above was suddenly filled with massive flashes of light. There was a scream in the air like that of hundreds of angry spirits all wailing at once and I caught a faint glimmer of something raining down from the sky towards the Golem.

Then with the sound that for all I knew was the earth itself splitting open the world seemed to explode around me.

----------

Footnote:
Level Up!

Perk Added - Strong Back: You've gotten plenty of practice lately at carrying heavy loads. You gain +50 to your Carry Weight limit. You try not to think too hard about why you got all that practice...

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