• 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 8: When the Heart Ignites

“I need a Pip-Buck?”

“Alright, perhaps ‘need’ is a strong way of putting it, but trust me, it’d be useful to have one. We’re talking inventory control, objective management, auto-mapping, threat detection, targeting assistance, data storage, and even a built in radio receiver. A lot of features that’d make journeying in the Wasteland a few shades easier,” LIL-E’s machine monotone still managed to convey the enthusiasm the little flying robot seemed to have for the subject.

I didn’t really need convincing; after all I’d seen Arcaidia put her own Pip-Buck to some good use so far. The idea of having one wasn’t something I was opposed to…but…

“Okay, you got me interested, but where would I get one? You don’t have one on you, do you?”

Honestly I didn’t know what to expect. LIL-E was my first flying talking robot. I was still trying to grasp how she just…floated there like that. I was assuming magic. Because magic was a good blanket assumption for any weird stuff I’d run into out here I figured. For all I knew she could just shoot a magical beam to make a Pip-Buck appear out of thin air…

“What? No I don’t have one. Why would I randomly keep a Pip-Buck on me?”

So no magic Pip-Buck beam. Damn.

“ No I was just thinking that since after my business with Doc Sunday is sorted I was going to check out one of the Stable’s in this region it’d be an opportunity to get you one. It’s a fair bet there’d be a Pip-Buck there…” she trailed off for a second before adding, “…though that’s assuming a lot of things. Like the Stable not being one of the ones that are closed off, or not being a complete death-trap if it is open…”

Stable? I’d heard that term used at least once before, and after briefly picking at my memory my brain pony managed to flash me a quick cue-card reminding me my mother had mentioned something about going with my father and Hawker to explore something called a Stable.

“Don’t know if it’s become obvious yet LIL-E but I’m not the most informed pony in the Wasteland. What’s a Stable?”

“Heh, usually its Stable ponies that are the uniformed ones. Almost nice to be on the other side of the fence for once. Right then, short version; Stables are large underground dwellings that were built so ponies could survive even after the balefire bombs destroyed and poisoned the surface. They were built by a company called Stable-Tech, and while a portion of them were just meant to be places for ponies to live…well, there were a lot that were given unusual design features. Basically Stable-Tech used a number of Stables as a testing ground for various social experiments, while others were just flat out altered in some fashion to serve a purpose beyond simply being habitations. You with me so far Longwalk?”

“Think so…” I said, absorbing what LIL-E was saying. So if the ponies from back then were so aware of the real possibility that the Great Fires were coming, these ‘balefire bomb’ things, that they actually went out of their way to construct giant vault-like holes in the ground to live in…why didn’t they put all that same amount of effort to preventing their destruction in the first place? I was still dead tired and admittedly my mind was not up to snuff to thinking to hard about anything, let alone comprehending the how’s and why’s behind the war that ruined the world. I could’ve probably bugged LIL-E for hours with questions about things, but honestly I just wanted to get moving so I could see Arcaidia and B.B again.

“Right, so there are literally dozens and dozens of Stables, scattered all over Equestria. I’ve even found evidence to suggest there were Stables built outside Equestria, possibly even in zebra lands…though Celestia light my clit ablaze and Luna douse it in liquid mercury if I can grasp how that would happen. Anyway a lot of Stables over the past two hundred years have opened up, either by the residents, or by…outside forces. Even those that haven’t opened up it’s a fifty-fifty chance if anypony’s still alive in them. Stable-Tech’s experiments had this bad tendency to go wrong and get ponies killed. So any Stable you encounter in the Wasteland could be an abandoned death trap, or just be sealed off. Still, there can be a lot of worthwhile salvage in them, and records of events from two hundred years ago…that’s why I’m going to this particular Stable; Stable 104. I know there were three Stables built for the Detrot region, and I don’t know where the other two are. I’m hoping I might find clues to the locations of the other two by searching 104, not to mention dig up anything that could help answer other questions I’ve got…”

“Makes sense. If…if Arcaidia is alright with it then I wouldn’t mind accompanying you to check out this Stable. She’s got the largest say in this given it’s her family I’m trying to help her find. Not that I don’t appreciate the offer of a Pip-Buck, but if Arcaidia wants to get moving down to NCR that’ll be my decision as well.

“I can respect that. I’m going to 104 anyway, and if it turns out your not coming I’ll still see about salvaging a Pip-Buck for you. Think of it as payment for diving into that memory orb for me. Well then, let’s get back to the camp.”

With that we resumed our night enshrouded trek, complete with me discovering new and exciting ways to bang my limbs on every protruding piece of Wasteland ruble between us and our destination. I was getting good at ignoring the minor (and some not-so-minor) pains my body was using to remind me of my still vastly injured state, so despite my night blind clumsiness we made pretty good time. It was only about an hour before LIL-E paused in front of me and I heard the rustling of movement ahead of us from the skeletal shadows of a burned out building.

“Relax, it’s just me,” said LIL-E “I brought the stallion Doc Sunday was looking after.”

There was a brief silence before a mare’s voice said, “Come on through.”

Upon approaching the building I saw three ponies I could only assume were Saddlespring survivors, all of them armed with small arms. They all were dirty and haggard looking, looking at me and LIL-E enter the building with hollow stares. Tension bled off of them as they resumed their positions keeping watch. Now on the inside I could see this building was actually just one of several broken remains of houses that had apparently collapsed towards each other during the destruction of the Great Fires, creating a blasted and makeshift shelter that looked like it was barely standing. But then it’s probably been looking that way for two centuries so what did I know?

There were ponies clustered under cement overhangs and huddled against the few intact walls, many of them quiet, a few whispering amongst themselves in comforting tones. I heard a few soft sobs and couldn’t tell if they were coming from the few foals I saw or the adults holding them. As LIL-E and me arrived we got a few looks, some eyes briefly filling with hope before slowly dying back down to resigned pain. I didn’t understand at first until I realized most of these ponies had probably lost friends and family in Saddlesprings and any new pony walking into the camp might have been viewed as a possible survivor. While I was a survivor, I wasn’t a Saddlespring pony, just another wanderer who drifted in.

Near the back of this small camp was a section of ruined building that had a rusted old pair of metal doors mounted into a cement block in the ground. These were opened and had a ramp leading down into the ground. LIL-E must have noticed my curious look because she briefly said, “Sewer access. Most everypony is still down there. Just because Odessa isn’t doing visible flybys it still feels safer for most to stay underground until it’s time to move.”

“Move? Move where?” I asked, suddenly coming to the unpleasant understanding that with their home destroyed most of these ponies probably didn’t have anywhere to go.

“That’s up to them,” LIL-E said, a small wispy buzz coming from her speakers that I thought might have been a sigh, “There are a few settlements along the roadways to the north before you get to Detrot proper; though none of those settlements are as big as Saddlespring was and probably wouldn’t be able or willing to take in refugees, what with the scarcity of resources. Some might try heading for Port Needle, but that’s a long, rough trek. Rougher still, but also a choice, would be to head for the Protectorate, and before you ask, I’m not the one to ask about what the Protectorate is. Doc Sunday would know far better. Then there’s a few that’ll probably try their luck with getting to Detrot.”

I slowly absorbed that as we went into the sewer access, the wide steps leading down into a poorly lit concrete tunnel barely large enough for my height and giving me a faint sense of unease. I don’t think I’m claustrophobic but then again most my time spend underground had been in places with decent head space. This sewer didn’t have that…actually now that I was thinking about it-

“LIL-E, what’s a sewe-gah! That smell! What’s that smell?”

“Heh, the sewer. Did you tribe have any space ponies did their…er…y’know, ‘business’?”

“You mean like the market Saddlespring had? No, we only had Hawker, who occasionally bartered items from his tent.”

“No, I mean, um…you know I’m gonna simplify this. Sewers are big tunnels underneath cities that were used to dispose of the waste thousands and thousands of ponies living in the same area tend to make. Get it?”

I did. I wasn’t the brightest of ponies, and arguably I was minus a considerable amount of common sense, but even I could take the nature of the smells that were assaulting my nostrils and combine that with what LIL-E was saying to conclude what we were walking into. I was only somewhat grateful that two centuries of disuse had left these sewers more dry and dusty than freshly unpleasant. Still not a good thought to realize the layer of soft cracking mud-like ground I was walking over probably wasn’t actually made of mud. It was a testament to the damage done by Odessa that ponies would consider hiding down here to reduce the chance of discovery by the organization of heavily armed pegasi and their disturbing flying machines.

It still hadn’t quite sunk into me that I’d actually be on one of those things while it was in flight. A little too much emotional shock from all that had happened I suppose; but now that I was thinking about it…it was both exhilarating and utterly terrifying to think I’d been flying in the sky. And then falling. Actually the falling part was pretty much just terrifying. Note to self; hug B.B a lot when you see her.

LIL-E floated ahead to a T-section in the sewer, and I saw a few soft glows of light that I soon realized were coming from lamps somepony had strung up along the ceiling. This pale white light illuminated the several dozen ponies who were camped out along the walls of the sewer, most of them in the same state of the ponies I’d seen up above. Heads turned to regards us, most of the stares coming my way vacant and exhausted. I wondered if I looked the same way?

“Back sooner than I expected,” said a deep male voice to my right and I turned to see a pony walking towards us from down the tunnel.

He was a dusky blue stallion with a rich chocolate brown mane that was mostly tucked into a wide brimmed leather hat save for a few long strands that hung in front of sharp gray eyes. He also wore a cape of tanned leather that matched his hat and I saw that, slung under the cape, was a holster containing a sizable wood handled revolver.

“Longwalk woke up pretty quick. He’s a pretty durable buck,” LIL-E commented, floating lower beside me and bumping into my side, which caused me to wince and grunt in pain, to which LIL-E buzzed, “Sort of.”

The stallion’s expression was hard to read, mostly unmoving and stoic, save for a phantom quirk of his lips that might have been a smile. He trotted up to me and gave me an appraising, clinical look.

“How are you feeling?” he asked me, and I felt a little uncomfortable from the way he looked at me, like he was placing me on a giant scale and weighting me against something I couldn’t fathom.

“I’m…uh…”I was about to say ‘okay’ but something in this stallion’s gaze made me feel like being more truthful “…honestly, about to collapse. Tired, hungry, still hurting but mostly numb by this point. Also emotionally drained by…everything. Really though, all that aside, I’m still walking and talking, so that’s something, right?”

“Impressive, given the amount of trauma and strain you’ve put your body through, my young friend. I’d recommend taking a week off your hooves to recover, but circumstances are not likely to permit that,” the stallion said with a soft sigh, and I found myself suddenly wondering at his breed.

His hat hid the part of his head where a horn would be, and his cape hid if he had wings, and his build wasn’t clearly thick enough for an earth pony but not thin enough to exclude the possibility. Actually, overall, he had an oddly bland appearance that would make him blend into a crowd with little trouble. Shaking off the thought I asked, “So, who are you?”

The stallion chuckled, “My name around these parts is Doc Sunday, though honestly you could just drop the ‘doc’ part. Not a trained physician, just a pony whose got a fair good idea of how to put another pony back together. Guess my daughter never told you much about me?”

“She didn’t,” I admitted, looking at this stallion in a new light now that I knew who he was. I remembered B.B mentioning she was adopted, so I suppose that explained why there wasn’t much resemblance between the two. I also remembered her mentioning he was a unicorn, so that answered that question. This was also the pony that had apparently been a top ranked Drifter in his day, either on par with or maybe better than Crossfire. I felt myself feeling a little…uncomfortable. This pony was both a noteworthy warrior and apparently also a healer, and had raised one of the companions I’d taken into danger. Oh, and I was heavily responsibly for the destruction of his home. It left me with a cold, roiling feeling in my stomach.

Doc Sunday seemed to pick up on my discomfort and shook his head, one of the ears he had flopped under his hat flicking, “Relax son, why don’t you follow me? My daughter’s been worried about you and you’re interesting unicorn friend has been practically chewing through the walls in anxiousness. I think seeing you will do them both good, and quite frankly I got some things I need to talk to all of you about.”

“Figured,” chimed the robot as we began to follow Doc Sunday down the tunnel.

Passing by some of the resting refugees I noticed a lot of them had those slave collars around their necks! Oh thanks the ancestor spirits, I’d been worried. I knew LIL-E had told me a lot of the slaves had made it out, but seeing them alive, breathing, if not in perfect shape, did me a lot of good. If only Shale had…no…don’t think about it.

Down the tunnel things opened up into a larger chamber that looked like some kind of by-way for the various other sewer tunnels that I could imagine stretching for miles around. It gave me pause, a certain sense of amazement creeping over me that had been slowly boiling for the past day or so but hadn’t had time to really assert itself. Civilization…the Equestria of old…it was so massive! So advanced! My life amongst my tribe just hadn’t prepared me for seeing the extent of what the old world had had to offer. Here I was standing in a complex maze of tunnels that must have taken years to plan, construct, and required constant maintenance by countless ponies…and it was all built for the sole purpose of waste disposal! Mind equaled blown. It also left me with a growing sense of…not loss, exactly, but just a hollow realization that despite all its clear power and prosperity that the Equestria of old had still burned in the Great Fire. Those ponies, despite all their technology and vast resources had still somehow come to the point of self destruction.

…It made me wonder again as to whether or not my tribe’s policy of isolation was valid or not.

Doc Sunday led us to a rusted metal door that ground loudly on its hinges as he pulled it open with what I could only assume was his magic, a bright orange aura that enshrouded the door as it swung wide. Inside was a room filled mostly with pipes and a small metal desk, a filing cabinet knocked over next to it. The air in here was just as dry as everything else in the sewer. As we entered I saw a white pony with her pinked streaked brown mane whip around and the moment she laid eyes on me B.B was in my face, barely before I’d managed a step into the room.

“Bloody moon an’ stars ya crazy, dumb buck, what n’ utter tarnation were ya doin’ fallin’ outta that Vertibuck!? Whatdaya think’d happen if I hadn’t been in time ta catch ya!?”

I shrank back from her hard words, “S-sorry! I didn’t fall out on purpose! I got caught in Crossfire’s shot and-“

“She’s the one that done shot ya!? Blast it I shouldn’ve let that dang rattlesnake convince me ta leave ya like that!” B.B raved, taking in sharp breaths as she looked me over, then added after a calming moment, “I…just glad ta see yer still standin’ Long.”

“Should be me thanking you, for catching me,” I said, not quite able to meet her eyes, “But yeah, don’t be too angry at Crossfire. She…might’ve nearly killed me, but there weren’t a lot of options. That Odessa officer, Shattered Sky, had us in a tight spot.”

“Hope ya killed the bastard,” B.B growled, tail flicking.

“Honestly I don’t think we did. He’s a slippery sort,” I said, my look slowly moving towards the blue unicorn in the corner of the room who hadn’t moved nor spoken since we all entered. I’d been carrying Gramzanber in my mouth up until now, and I took a second to set it aside, leaning the large silver spear against the wall next to the door before I turned to face Arcaidia, and smiled.

“Arcaidia…” my voice was soft and filled with relief seeing her up and awake, and otherwise unharmed. Hearing that she was alright from LIL-E was one thing, but actually being able to see her in the flesh, alive and well, was altogether different, “How are you?”

The unicorn filly smiled at me, a small one, but it lit up her eyes, “Esru vi goval. Esru mana ren vuville…” she paused, and then said, very slowly, enunciating each word, “I am good.”

I blinked, and then grinned, my ears perking up happily, “Glad to hear it. Picking up some of the lingo too!”

“Been tryin’ to teach ‘er a few words since we ain’t had much else ta do,” said B.B, flexing her wings idly as she gave Arcaidia a sidelong look, “She’s an awful quick learner, seems like.”

“My head is toaster!” Arcaidia proclaimed brightly.

“Quick-ish,” B.B deadpanned.

“It’s still impressive progress for half a day of study,” commented Doc Sunday as he went to lean up against the room’s desk and floated off his hat, dusting it off on his cape, “Your young friend is certainly something else, Longwalk.”

I just shrugged at the comment. Really Arcaidia was probably leagues away smarter than I was and it occurred to me that she’d been listening to everypony talk around her in Equestrian since she woke up from that weird pod thing me and Trailblaze had found her in. Wasn’t too surprising to me she’d started to pick up words. Still, something about the look Doc Sunday gave Arcaidia made me uncomfortable. In fact, despite his friendly demeanor and the fact he was B.B’s adopted father the unicorn just sort of unsettled me in general and I couldn’t put my hoof on why.

LIL-E floated around to my left, sort of hovering between everypony. Arcaidia cocked her head to the side upon seeing the robot and immediately approached it, peering intently at LIL-E and reaching out a hoof to poke at her.

“Um…hi?” said LIL-E as the unicorn filly jostled the robot with a hoof, Arcaidia’s eyes narrowing as if she wasn’t quite sure what she was looking at.

“Estu ren girviri? Dol povi ren colvari?”

“That’s LIL-E,” I said, coming up to Arcaidia and gently laying a hoof on hers and lowering it so she’d stop poking the eyebot, “She’s a friend.”

Arcaidia looked at me, then made a small ‘hmph’ sound and returned to where she’d been standing. B.B let out a small laugh, “She just likes ta stick ‘er nose inta anythin’ don’t she?”

“Yeah…anyway,” said LIL-E, “Doc, you got us all together now, so let’s hear what you have to say.”

“Pa?” B.B asked, giving her father a questioning look, “Talk ta us ‘bout what?”

My stomach chose that moment to also voice its own opinion on the matter, demanding I cease ignoring its needs like I’d been doing. Doc Sunday gave all of us a small little half smile as he levitated aside part of is cloak to reveal the saddlebags underneath. From those he gently floated out a few small cans of what I now could identify as old pre-war food, and a small metal device I hadn’t seen before but looked sort of like a little metal flower with a glass base to sit upon.

“I’ll get us something cooking while we talk,” he said and set the device down, turning a knob on the side of it. To my surprise I saw a small flame appear from the flower end of the device and as Doc Sunday floated the first can over it after using a knife to pry open part of the top I realized it was a miniature cooker. I wondered what it ran off of? I was getting to the point where my first thought didn’t turn to there being spirits driving the device, but my knowledge of arcane ‘science’ was so abysmal that I couldn’t even guess how that weird little object was producing fire.

Doc Sunday must have noticed my curious look because he chuckled warmly, “It’s a jury-rigged heater I made from a pilot-light from an old oven and a few other nick-knacks. Runs off of the same magic energy cells you can find are compatible with magic weapons.”

“Like the one’s Odessa uses…?” I asked.

“The very same,” the stallions’ expression suddenly hardened and as I saw lines appear around his eyes and the corners of his mouth I wondered just how old he really was. His mane didn’t have any white streaks in it and he didn’t carry himself with any clear aches and pains of age…but he suddenly looked so tired, so haggard and world worn, that it was hard to think of him as anything but and old, old pony, “I’m sorry for what you kids had to go through, in Saddlespring. A young buck like yourself, new to the Wasteland…I doubt anything could have prepared you to witness death on that scale. And you, B.B...forgive me for not being there.”

“Pa…no, it ain’t…” B.B lowered her head, walking up to Doc Sunday and nuzzling him, “Ain’t nothin’ I should be forgivin’ ya for. What happened ain’t none of yer doin’. Can’t ‘elp it if ya had a’ house call ta’ make.”

Doc Sunday returned the nuzzle, a wane smile on his face as he said, “I’m not sure all of Saddlespring’s survivors will agree. I was the town’s protector as much as Sherriff Bulkwark was.”

“Was…?” I asked, then almost immediately regretted doing so. B.B closed her eyes and breathed deeply, like she was trying to hold something back, and Doc Sunday just gave me a look. I flattened my ears, “…sorry, I don’t know who…you know…”

“Its fine,” Doc Sunday said, “There are many who will be missed. You didn’t have time to know many in Saddlespring, but for myself and my daughter it was our home for three years. Friends and family whom we cannot even give a burial to…”

“Actually, Longwalk here did put up a marker, and buried who we could find,” LIL-E said, getting looks of surprise from the two Saddlespring residents.

“Really?” B.B asked, “Ya did that Longwalk? When?”

“Oh…well…after I woke up, I wanted to see the town,” I explained, pushing away the threatening sadness I felt at the memory, “I felt I had to. And Shale, I wanted to see if I could find her body down there. I didn’t find her, but after LIL-E explained to me that ponies outside my tribe tend towards burial, I decided it was the right thing to do for those whose remains I was able to find.”

“You have my thanks for that,” said Doc Sunday with a nod, “But this Shale you mentioned…she wouldn’t happen to have been a white coated earth pony mare? Black mane?”

I found myself starring at the stallion, mouth hanging open a little before I managed to shake my head and collect myself, “Yes, that’s her.”

“I see. Then you should put yourself at ease on that count. One of the Drifters who was in Saddlespring, a unicorn stallion like myself, brought her body out of there and to this camp. B.B and myself saw to her burial earlier, just after night fell.”

I don’t know if I can fully emphasis appropriately the relief that flooded through me. I hadn’t realized how much thinking I’d failed to even protect her remains had been dragging me down. To hear that she’d been given a proper burial was…it might have seemed a small thing in comparison to all the other horrible things that had happened, but that small thing was more important than could be put in words.

“Thank you…” I said, not able to say anything else. I felt a hoof touch my shoulder and saw B.B looking at me with a small smile, wings fluttering slowly.

“Hey, I needed ta put ‘er to rest too. How ‘bout, once we’re rested an’ my pa’s said his peace we go say our proper goodbyes?”

I nodded, rubbing hoof across my face. I’d try to save my tears until at least I was at Shale’s grave. Arcaidia was giving us all a curious look, and I could see she was pacing about the room, apparently not comfortable staying still. She seemed a little agitated. Happy too, she kept giving me and B.B a small smile when she looked our way, but I could sense she was getting on edge. I wondered why, but I wasn’t able to think much on that as Doc Sunday started to speak.

“Now then, what I wanted to talk about is actually a number of questions I have for you, Longwalk.”

“For me? Um, okay, ask away,” I said, B.B moving away from me with a supportive nod as she went to sit against one of the walls. I was still pretty tired and feeling the aches of my injuries, though the dull note of them made it easy enough to ignore if I wanted to. Even so I took the opportunity to find a comfortable, or as comfortable as the dirty cold metal floor allowed, spot to lay down. It felt good, just laying down for a second with no immediate promise of danger or violence.

Weird how just a few days out here in the Wasteland had so quickly altered my perceptions on the benefits of something as simple as a minute to breath.

“Now, first of all, what do you know about this young filly you’re traveling with?” Doc Sunday asked, gesturing at Arcaidia. She took note of the attention and stopped her pacing, facing the unicorn stallion with a quizzical expression of her own while gesturing a hoof at herself.

“Esru…?”

I looked between the two of them and shrugged, “I don’t know that much, honestly. Me and my friend Trailblaze found her in a cave when we were out hunting. The hunt went bad, and a bunch of weird gold geckos chased us into the cave, where there was this strange object. Big, pointy on one end, like a big metal spear head. Arcaidia was inside of it. She saved us, me and Trailblaze. Because of that I owe her a debt I’m only capable of repay by helping her. She’s trying to find somepony named Persephone, or at least that’s what I think she’s trying to do. According to the map on her Pip-Buck we’re supposed to go somewhere in the NCR.”

“And that’s the extend of what you know? You don’t know where she came from originally, or where she acquired her Pip-Buck, or why she gave you that ARM?”

“Well no I…wait…wait a sec, how do you know this spear is called an ARM?” I asked, jutting my head towards where the spear was still leaning against the wall.

Doc Sunday adjusted his hat, shading his eyes a little as he looked at the spear, “I learned the term from several sources, but the most knowledgeable of them was a pony named Colonel Winter Sun, of Odessa.”

I felt my throat tighten and for a second I could only hear my own heartbeat in my ears. Very slowly I licked my lips; my mouth had gone rather dry all of a sudden, and said, “Please…explain that to me.”

Doc Sunday gave me an odd look before he continued, “Long time ago I was a different kind of pony, Longwalk, a member of the Drifter’s Guild. I am not idly bragging when I say I earned my place in their top ranks, though I carry little pride for many of my actions during that time in my life. Those who enter those top ranks are granted access to…special assignments. Some of those assignments had us working with the organization you know as Odessa.”

“Pa, this is the first I’m hearin’ o’ this,” said B.B, “Ya told me all sortsa stories ‘bout yer time as a’ Drifter, why ain’t ya ever mentioned this ‘fore now?”

“B.B, you should understand well there are some things a pony prefers to keep in their memories alone, unless they have good reason to speak of them. I have not had reason to recall my time with the pegasi and griffins of Odessa until now.”

“Griffins?” I asked, remembering the lion and eagle hybrid creature I’d seen in the Memory Orb.

“Yes, Odessa is a group that has both pegasi and griffin’s among their number. Several unicorns as well, but they are…more indentured servants that proper members,” Doc Sunday said, “In any case, I know of what ARMs are because ten years ago I took an assignment to assist Odessa in field testing the fruits of their early research on ARMs. A project Colonel Winter Sun was in charge of. All of my knowledge of them comes from that…incident.”

“What was the Drifter’s Guild doin’ workin’ with them bastards in the first place!?” B.B asked heatedly.

“The Drifter’s Guild does not care about the ethical standing of those who commission assignments from them, as long as the Guild gets its due. Odessa pays well for the occasional assistance of high ranking Drifters, and pays even more to ensure the Guild’s silence on the details of any such assignments. If I were still a member of the Guild my status would be instantly revoked and a bounty placed on my head if it was learned I was spoke of this assignment. Now, it hardly matters, and it is more important I learn what this colt knows about the weapon he’s carrying and the filly that gave it to him.”

B.B. violet eyes flicked towards Gramzanber and I couldn’t tell if she was uneasy or just trying to absorb things, “I…’spose I’m kinda curious myself.”

They were curious? I was curious! I just hadn’t had any opportunity to really ask Arcaidia any questions about herself or the spear. I mean, we didn’t speak the same language, and pantomime can only get you so far. I just hadn’t really let myself worry about it so much, because regardless of the details of who she was or what Gramzamber was it didn’t change that I was resolved to help her for what she’d done for me and Trailblaze. Even thinking about it made me wonder how Trailblaze was, what she was doing right now.

I pushed back the dark thought of what she might think of me if she learned of all I’d done this past day, the hoof I had in the burning of a settlement of ponies.

And all that aside I was trying very hard to keep my brain pony from having a heart attack over hearing about Doc Sunday’s connection to my father! Here was a pony right in front of me who knew my father, even worked with him! Did I even dare ask any questions about that? Odessa had just played a huge role in the destruction of their homes…would either Doc Sunday or B.B be forgiving towards the son of a pony who apparently held such high rank in Odessa? And…just how involved was my father with all of this? Doc Sunday was talking about ten years ago, but what if whatever Odessa was doing back then directly tied with what they were doing now, and my father had a hoof in all of it? I didn’t want to think about that. So I told my brain pony to shut up with the questions and instead focused my attention on Doc Sunday.

“I don’t know any more than what you know,” I said, “In fact it sounds like you know more than I do. A lot more. Just what are ARMs? I fought with an Odessa officer that had one, but he called his ‘artificial’ and mine ‘genuine’. What was he going on about?”

“That isn’t a simple thing to answer,” said Doc Sunday, and as he paused I got the impression he was taking his time to pick his words carefully, “The term ‘ARM’ means Astral Resonance Machine, according to Odessa and the research they’ve conducted on them. As to what that means, well, it’s complicated. You’ve already experienced one of the Ruins that exist scattered over the Skull City Wasteland. Surely you realized that Ruins are quite different from the remains of Equestria leftover from the war.”

“Well…yeah…” I said, frowning as I thought about what I’d seen in Saddlespring’s Ruin, comparing that to the ruins of the Wasteland itself that I’d seen, “The Ruins are really old, right? Like, thousands of years old.”

“Yes. Many of the Ruins in this region could be dated to roughly four thousand years ago, and some are older than that. Yet inside them is technology built using arcane science that equals or surpasses what was possessed by Equestria towards the end of the war,” Doc Sunday’s tone became grave, “And ARMs are among the most advanced of such devices found in Ruins. They are rare as well. Exceedingly so. I only know of two other genuine ARMs like yours that have been discovered.”

“There you go too, calling mine genuine. What does that mean?” I asked again.

“It simply means that your ARM is an original, created, theoretically at least, by whatever…race…originally built the Ruins. Artificial ARMs like the one used by the Odessa officer you fought are devices created by Odessa in an attempt to replicate the power of ARMs. Understand this, Longwalk, an ARM is something that reacts to your…essence, shall we say? I hesitate to use the word ‘soul’ but essentially ARMs resonate with the essence of a creature in order to generate its form and over time, create abilities from that resonance in a similar fashion a unicorn’s magic creates spells. That’s why they were dubbed Astral Resonance Machines, though the term ARM may actually refer to something else.”

“Whoa whoa whoa, are you saying Gramzanber is affecting my spirit!?” I asked, suddenly looking at the spear with an uneasy gaze. I’d noted how comfortable I tended to feel when I was carrying it, and the slight sense of loss whenever I set it aside…but I thought that was just me being a little silly and overly attached to a gift Arcaidia had given me. If it was actually touching my spirit in some way…well, what was it doing to me when it did that?

Doc Sunday didn’t seem too surprised by my outburst, “You may have reason to be wary, Longwalk. I don’t doubt that your ARM is connected to your essence now; given the form it’s taken. ARMs can take nearly any shape to suit the desires of their wielder. The fact that it took the form a spear, a weapon you’re familiar with using, is proof enough that it is resonating with you. However while two other ARMs were found, nopony has been capable of bonding with them and survive for long.”

Oh…lovely. B.B was now also looking at Gramzanber with a worried look, and LIL-E floated a little closer to Doc Sunday.

“Isn’t this Odessa group using ARMs though? Think we need some elaboration here,” the eyebot buzzed.

“That’s part of the difference between Odessa’s artificial ARMs and genuine ones. Any attempt to remain bonded to a genuine ARM inevitably led to the death of the pony who bonded to it, usually only after a few days time,” at my look of growing horror Doc Sunday was quick to go on, “however this was also usually accompanied by very clear symptoms of the pony’s body starting to reject the ARM. From what I’ve seen of you Longwalk you’re not exhibiting the same symptoms, and since you’ve had your ARM for several days now, you should be. I can only guess why, but it seems you’ve somehow succeeded in being the first true ARMs user; something Odessa has been trying to create for over a decade. Their artificial ARMs, constructed using the one genuine ARM they have as a blueprint, do not possess the same amount of power, but they are easier for a pony to bond to and survive.”

“Just how many of these artificial ARMs does Odessa have?” asked LIL-E “And how strong are they, really?”

“Not enough to be a real threat yet to the NCR, if that’s what you’re worried about,” said Doc Sunday, “It takes a great deal of effort and resources on their part to produce one. The trials I assisted in ten years ago were for their first prototype. I can’t say for sure how many they might have by now, but I wouldn’t guess more than a dozen. It took them years just to build the one prototype.”

“Was it a weird wrist thingy with a circular face and two little pointy things on it?” I asked, displaying my incredible capacity for description by adding ‘y’ to the end of words, “This…proto-whatsit?”

“Hm? Oh, the prototype. No, it was a blade. I think you just described a watch. Or a compass. Was this the ARM the Odessa officer you fought used?’

“Yeah. I don’t know what it did, exactly, but it made it seem like he could just…vanish into thin air to avoid our attacks. We had to use stuff that affected the whole area around him so he couldn’t dodge in order to even scratch him,” I said, grimacing at the memory of the fight with Shattered Sky, wishing I’d been able to do more. I wondered if Crossfire and Brickhouse had made it out of there alright…I remembered Brickhouse had taken a mortal looking wound at the time. I shook the thought away.

“Interesting.” said Doc Sunday, tilting his head slightly in thought, “An ARM is essentially a collection of microscopic magic-tech robots that channel the energy of the one they’re bound to in order to take a specific physical form and produce affects not unlike spells. The real thing has a great deal of potential to evolve new abilities through its bond with its wielder, but artificial ARMs don’t have that capacity. Odessa instead had to design one that lacks that ability to continuously evolve, in order to ensure they could bond to their ponies without killing them over time. My assistance with Winter Sun’s project allowed them to prove the effectiveness of an artificial ARM, however, and while they lack the ability to evolve stronger abilities with their wielder their base powers can be impressive. The affect you describe isn’t outside the reach of an ARM, since they can produce abilities that mimic various forms of magic. Odessa’s interest in them is definitely their use as weapons, however. They’re a group obsessed with obtaining the technology of the Ruins and learning to reproduce it, all in the name of ‘protecting’ Equestria. You’ve already experienced what their idea of ‘protecting’ entails.”

“Sound like what would happen if somepony took the worst traits of the Steel Rangers and Enclave and mixed them into the same group.” said LIL-E “Hate to say this, but I’m kind of surprised they haven’t done something like what just happened to Saddlespring sooner.”

“It’s actually unusual for them.” Doc Sunday’s tail twitched as he regarded LIL-E “They’ve gone to great lengths in the past to avoid displaying their power like this. Something must have changed recently for them to behave this way…and I think I may have an idea of what that is.”

He looked at Arcaidia pointedly and the unicorn filly returned his gaze with one of her own. I knew she was aware we were talking about her, and I felt a little bad about having a conversation like this without her being able to join in. I hoped soon, perhaps with me helping B.B, we could teach her enough of our language and in turn perhaps learn enough of hers to properly communicate. However right now I didn’t particularly like the way Doc Sunday was looking at her. He wasn’t really hiding the suspicious narrowing of his eyes.

“This filly had a genuine ARM. She was discovered in a strange device. By the story my daughter told me she also was familiar with the technology of the Ruin you all entered. All of these things are highly unusual to say the least, and all clearly point to one conclusion; that she is directly connected to the origins of the Ruins in some way. This, in turn, would make her an obvious target for Odessa.”

“Target 02…” I said, mulling things over in my head. Doc Sunday was correct that, if you looked at all the presented evidence, it was pretty clear Arcaidia was heavily connected to the Ruins. What that connection was I wasn’t really able to guess. If the Ruins were so old it seemed pretty impossible that Arcaidia could be one of the ones responsible for creating the Ruins, or ARMs. But regardless of all that it’d become obvious who Odessa was after, “Shattered Sky, the Odessa officer I fought, kept referring to a ‘Target 02’. I think that was Arcaidia.”

“Yeah, he was makin’ it all sound real important like.” Muttered B.B, “Was willin’ ta kill so many ponies ta get at her too…”

“And if she’s Target 02, that’d mean there’s a Target 01, right?” piped in LIL-E “Somepony else they’re either searching for, or already caught?”

“Probably.” Said Doc Sunday, “In any case, Longwalk, it’s a certain thing that as long as you’re traveling with this unicorn you will be hunted by Odessa. I need to know; are you capable of taking on the responsibility of protecting her, even against such an organization?”

I didn’t even have to think about that one. It wasn’t like I didn’t already understand the difficulties involved; how powerful Odessa was and how little power I myself actually had. Up until now, if I was going to be honest with myself, Arcaidia had been protecting me far more than I had been protecting her. She was stronger than I was. Smarter than I was. Without her I’d be dead several times over by now. Even so I wanted to keep her safe on her journey. Despite how little I understood of the world yet, and how little I might be able to really contribute to her safety, I still wanted to. Because I truly did owe her. For my life and that of Trailblaze’s. For that I didn’t even need to hesitate. I didn’t need to think about her past, or who she truly was, or what connection she had to the Ruins, or why she gave me something like Gramzanber. I just needed to protect her.

“Yes,” was all I said, with as much conviction as I could muster as I met Doc Sunday’s eyes with my own determined look.

Doc Sunday closed his eyes and nodded, “Good. I can rest a little easier knowing my daughter will be traveling with a pony willing to protect his friends. That’s all I needed to know from you, Longwalk. I assume you’ll be resuming your journey as soon as you all have had enough rest?”

I glanced between B.B and Arcaidia. B.B was still showing a lot of injuries from our ordeal in the Ruin and then in Saddlespring, and I was admittedly in no better shape. Arcaidia was also still wounded, though hers were lighter. I was more worried about her magic, and how much of it she’d drained in the Ruin. She was awake now sure, and seemed energetic enough, but she’d knocked herself out completely shielding us from Roaring Metal’s flames. How good was she to travel? It was pretty clear we weren’t in any shape to go rushing off across the Wasteland. I hadn’t even had a chance to take stock of our supplies. My barding was gone, though I still had my saddlebags, tore up as they were. That meant I still had the food and water supplies I’d bought in Saddlespring, with whatever few caps I had left. I’d bought that food and water with just me and Arcaidia in mind though. Adding B.B to our travel party meant we’d need to stretch those supplies, and I had no idea when our next chance to get more would be.

My thoughts must have been pretty obvious because LIL-E was quick to say, “The ponies here were planning to bunker down for one more day before moving. Most of them are probably going to try for Skull City, and Doc Sunday’s already volunteered to escort them. That means we’re free to go to Stable 104 if you want. I can show you a lot of tricks of the trade where it comes to Wasteland survival and scavenging, which should help with your supply problem. Once we’re done at Stable 104 we can work out how to get you three to the NCR. Not going to lie, it won’t be easy, but it’s doable.”

I gulped and nodded, as the full extent of what lay ahead me started to sink in. But even with the fear of what may happen between now and fining Arcaidia’s family member, or what might happen when we did, I was encouraged. Despite everything that had happened I’d have friends next to me. I didn’t know them well yet, but I was certain I would be able to do so, given time. I’d make sure I had that time with them; that nothing would happen to B.B or Arcaidia. Whatever it took from me I wouldn’t let another friend like Shale slip away from me before I had the chance to know them.

“Alright then,” said Doc Sunday “It’s about time for us to eat.”

As he passed out cans of the now cooked food, which turned out to be something called ‘baked beans’, me, B.B, and Arcaidia all ended up sitting together against one wall of the room while Doc Sunday sat across from us. LIL-E excused herself, saying she wanted to run a quick patrol back up top in case there was any trouble, explaining with her sensors she’d be the most likely to spot danger like a raider band or Wasteland monster before it got close. As we ate my mind began to wander to numerous loose ends and questions about our current circumstances, so I spoke up, nudging B.B.

“So…I wanted to know,” I said slowly, not sure how to approach this, “Did you see a green earth pony with a short black mane among the survivors, with a pair of manacles as a cutie mark?”

“Yer Labor Guild buddy?” B.B asked, and at my nod she said, “He’s here. So’s that crazy mare from the Followers of the Apocalypse. Last I saw o’ either o’ them they were hangin’ out further down the sewer, at the next junction. Don’t know what they’re doin’ down there…”

I took that with a small smile, too glad to hear Iron Wrought and Dr. Lemon Slice were still alive to be all that concerned with what they were doing. The two ponies might be with the Labor Guild, who were not on my list of favorite groups right now, but hearing of any survivors from Saddlespring was a blessing from the ancestor spirits in my mind. I made a mental note to try and talk with them before we left for this Stable, if only to bid Iron Wrought farewell; he had given me my initial primer on the Wasteland after all.

As we got close to finishing eating, and oh how sweet these ‘beans’ tasted, even if they weren’t meat, I looked across the room at Doc Sunday. Briefly a debate raged through my mind. Should I ask? Would it seem suspicious? Maybe if I asked right I wouldn’t make it sound like anything more than idle curiosity…

“Um…so…” I began, stumbling a little over how to phrase this, “When you worked with Odessa, you were working under somepony called Winter Sun?”

Alright, managed to get it out without tripping over my words and not letting on my relation with the stallion in question. Yay me, I can be subtle!

“I was.”

…well, damn. I’d been kind of hoping he’d be more elaborate than that. Guess I had to press a little harder.

“So, what was he like?” I asked, and at the look Doc Sunday gave me, one that felt like it was peeling open my skull to interrogate my brain pony I added, “Just, y’know, he sounds like some big chief in Odessa, so it’d be useful to know about him, right? A good hunter takes the time to learn about his prey, after all.”

Doc Sunday held that look on me for a few seconds before levitating out the last of his own beats, seeming to think things over as he chewed. At length he said, “Winter Sun was very involved with his project; I don’t recall an instant that I worked with him that he wasn’t pushing some aspect of ARMs development. A very strange stallion. He always seemed to act like a buffoon, but I got the impression he was quite intelligent…dangerously so. Among Odessa officers he was certainly an odd one. However no matter how he acted it was clear he held great prestige in Odessa.”

“You’re talking about him in the past tense…” I noted.

Doc Sunday shrugged his shoulders, “This was ten years ago. I haven’t had any contact with Odessa since that assignment, so for all I know Winter Sun could be still among their number, or he might have left for some reason, or he might be dead. It probably isn’t that important to worry about now, Longwalk, you’re more likely to encounter Odessa’s rank and file soldiers and lower ranked officers than a colonel like Winter Sun. It’d be more worried about Cocytus being sent against you.”

“Cocytus…? Is that a Wasteland creature? Doesn’t sound edible.” I said, cocking my head. Really, what was it with weird named things out here in the Wasteland? First those ‘Balloons’, then ‘Radscorpions’ and now whatever a ‘Cocytus’ was? I rather preferred it when geckos were the extent of my monster encounter list.

“No, it’s not a creature. It’s the name of Odessa’s special operations unit. I had to fight one of its members as part of my assignment testing the prototype ARM. Each agent of Cocytus is supposed to be the equivalent of an entire platoon in capability, and I can attest from my experience that their skills match that estimation. The rumor at the time was that the artificial ARMs were being made for their use.”

“Wait…so if it’s these Cocytus members that use Odessa’s ARMs…that means Shattered Sky was a member?”

“It’s likely to be the case, given I doubt Odessa would waste giving one of their ARMs to any normal officer. This is why I warn you now Longwalk. If you’ve already fought a member of Cocytus and survived that means they won’t hesitate to assign other members of that unit to hunt you and Arcaidia. You’ll need to be prepared to face such as Shattered Sky again.”

“Well…I’ll just have to deal with that when it happens,” I said, having a hard time imagining an entire group of ponies with abilities on par with Shattered Sky. It was not a pleasant thought. How much stronger was I going to have to become to even have a chance of keeping Arcaidia and B.B safe? As it stood both mares had me beat in terms of fighting ability. B.B could fly and was an incredible shot with her dual pistols. Arcaidia’s magic alone put her on a level above me, and that wasn’t including that starblaster she…wait, we never got that back, did we? Last I remembered seeing it Dr. Lemon Slice had it. Note to self; ask the good doctor about Arcaidia’s starblaster. Ha, who needs a Pip-Buck when you got mental notes to keep track of all your side questing?

That aside I was pondering what Doc Sunday had said about my father. It wasn’t really much and it hardly satisfied the burning curiosity I had about the stallion. I was anxious, almost more than curious. I wanted to know, to find out beyond a shadow of doubt, just what my father’s role in Odessa was. How much of a part did he play in events like Saddlespring’s destruction? Did he raise no protest at all against such action, or was he a whole-hearted supporter of wiping out entire settlements? Even worse…was he one of the ponies helping to orchestrate it all? Was it one of his ‘projects’ that required Odessa to target Arcaidia? I needed to know damn it!

I was frustrated, even with my own thoughts on the matter. Sixteen years spent trying not to think about my father, to just let him by an anonymous shadow that had no bearing on my life…but now that I was learning things about him it was starting to nag at me, bog my thoughts down, and I hardly needed more of that after Saddlespring.

“Ya alright Long? Beans ain’t agreein’ wit ya?” asked B.B, giving me a frown of concern.

“Huh? No, they’re fine. Still could use some chopped gecko to give it that flavor of home, but I’m discovering hunger is a seasoning that makes everything taste good,” I said with a light, half-hearted chuckle.

“If ya say so,” B.B said, not looking convinced. I didn’t want to worry her. Honestly I was just as worried about her. She’d lost her home and I could only guess at how many friends. It couldn’t be easy for her. Just leaving my home had felt bad and I hadn’t even been all that well liked by my tribe. I couldn’t imagine what it’d feel like to lose one’s home completely. I was a little surprised she still seemed willing to travel with me. Had I earned that kind of loyalty from her?

I washed down the last of the beans with a swig of water from my waterskin, though Doc Sunday gave me an odd look as I did so.

“Something wrong?” I asked, confused. Doc Sunday nodded his head towards my waterskin.

“Was that water bought in Saddlespring?”

“Um, yeah, had the waterskin filled when I bought food supplies. Why?”

“Just making sure. Not sure how much or how little you know about surviving the Wasteland. Got to be careful where you get the things you eat and drink. Of course you’ll be traveling with LIL-E, so I’m sure she can fill you in on many of the basics.”

“Okay,” I said, at first not sure what he was talking about, but it hit me soon enough. My tribe’s legend about Fire Spirits infecting the land, remnants of the Great Fire that destroyed Equestria, this corresponded with the story B.B had told me about the destruction by balefire bombs, “Wait, so you’re saying there really are Fire Spirits that can burn you from the inside out!?”

B.B nearly choked on the last of her beans, trying to suppress a laugh, and Doc Sunday quirked his lips in a slight smile.

“Not exactly, but there are places and objects still saturated by magical radiation that can poison you if you are exposed to too much of it. Most natural water supplies you’ll find like ponds or rivers are heavily irradiated. Most food leftover from before the war is too. The Water Guild and Farmers’ Guild hold monopolies in the Skull City Wastes on the technology to purify food and water. Most settlements you’ll encounter get their food and water from the caravans run by those Guilds. Now I’m not saying you can’t drink or eat from sources you discover in the Wasteland…but just avoid it unless you truly are in an emergency, and try to ensure you have some RadAway on hoof in case you do. They’re easy to spot, packets of orange liquid, clearly labeled.”

“Taste wretched though,” said B.B “ Like tryin’ ta drink paint.”

Right, RadAway; good for saving your life, equally good at killing your taste buds.

With my stomach now a margin fuller than it had been a minute ago I decided it was time to go see if I could find Dr. Lemon Slice and ask after Arcaidia’s starblaster. While I was at it I was going to see what I could dig out of her concerning the Golem. She’d clearly known what it was, and had even spoken of there being more of those things. Maybe she knew about how one might be able to fight something like that; a weakness of some sort I could exploit. At the very least she might have a clue as to why it trundled off to the south.

I got up and stretched my legs, grunting at the still painful aches I was feeling, “Well, I’m off to find Lemon Slice. B.B, you said you saw her further down the main tunnel, with Iron Wrought?”

“That’s right. Hold up a’ sec an’ I’ll join ya…ugh, ain’t much fer sittin’ ‘round myself anyways,” she grunted in similar fashion to me as she stood, stretching her wings and wincing. We’d been nothing but walking piles of wounds since our first fight in the Ruins. Despite everything, and the very likely possibility I’d be having a nightmare or two, I was actually quite looking forward to getting some rest tonight. My body was clearly informing me that it had enough of my abuse. I imagined B.B felt the same way.

Seeing both of us getting up Arcaidia finished quickly with one of the weird goopy ‘snack cake’ things she liked to eat, making me wonder how many of those she had left, and trotted up between us.

“Estu dol galvai, Longwalk? Where…go?”

It was a little odd hearing her speak words I could understand, but I liked it. Her voice had an airy, chiming quality to it that I hadn’t quite noticed before when she was speaking her own language. With a smile I said, “We’re going to try and get your starblaster back.”

To emphasis my point I pointed with a hoof a made as close an approximation of the sound her weapon had made, which went something along the lines of ‘kzzzzrtvoosh!’. Arcaidia gave me a confused look for a second, but I saw the spark of understanding in her eyes and she grinned ear to ear, giving me a jostle with her hoof.

“Longwalk, estu vi raivia, ren solva.”

“I’ll just assume that was a comment on my amazing skills in mimicking sound. You should hear me do a gecko mating call!”

“Think we oughta’ just take yer word on that one, Longwalk,” B.B said, pausing before the left to jab a wing at Gramzanber, “You gonna leave yer weapon?”

I looked at the spear, glanced at my side which was now quite without barding or nifty custom sheath. Well, it wasn’t as if I had any problem carrying it around in my mouth before, and while my knowledge of Wasteland survival still had lots of gaps to fill one rule I was quite certain of now was; never go anywhere unarmed. I snatched it up, feeling that now familiar sense of rightness at its touch. I wondered at how normal that was. Did the Odessa ponies who used the artificial ARMs feel this sensation? Despite the feeling I was a little nervous holding the spear. After all Doc Sunday had said that other ponies who’d used a real ARM hadn’t lived long. He hadn’t really gone into details on exactly what happened to those ponies, only that I had lasted longer than any other without showing signs of it affecting me negatively…but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t happen.

I pushed the thought aside. Arcaidia wouldn’t have given it to me if she knew it would hurt me. I looked to my two companions and nodded, “Alirght, let’s go.”

“Y’know, I’d like ta learn how ya talk all clear like when holdin’ that thing in yer mouth.” B.B said as we left the room and went back out into the sewer tunnels, turning left to head further into the dark and musty depths. Arcaidia was lighting the way with her horn.

“It’s not too hard.” I said, “Its mostly just using your tongue rather than your lips to sound words, and a lot of the sound comes out of the nose…kinda makes me sound a little nasal I know, but this is how my tribe’s hunters talked while we were out on a hunt.”

B.B chuckled, “So yer tribe are all ventriloquists?”

“Ventrilwha?”

“Heh, never mind fer now, but I might be thinkin’ of a way to set up an act wit ya to add to the Mighty an’ Mysterious Mirage’s show.”



----------



It didn't take us too long to meander our way down the tunnel and reach a spot that split off in two directions, one leading to what looked like a short dead end with a small ramp leading up, looking like another surface entrance. Hm, weren’t the doctor and Iron Wrought supposed to be down here? B.B was also looking about with curiousness growing to concern. She looked at me and I shrugged. Guess we didn’t have any choice but to keep going until we found something. That or head on back. After all Dr. Lemon Slice and Iron Wrought might have rejoined the rest of the refugees-

I heard a pained cough and groan from down the short tunnel and I took another look, squinting. Arcaidia shined her light down there and I saw that what I’d thought at first was just a shadow as actually the form of a fallen pony. I recognized the pink coat and short green mane. Dr. Lemon Slice! I galloped up, my two companions right behind me.

“Dr. Lemon Slice, what happened? Are you…okay…? Oh, oh that’s not good.”

There was a small pool of red beneath the pink mare and she was lying on her side, preventing me from seeing what the wound was, but the mare’s lab coat was stained red as well. She was alive though, I could see the rise and fall of her sides, and as we came up her eyes opened and she licked her lips.

“Um…mmph, that…oh my…I…why am I…?’

“Easy there gal, don’t talk, don’t move.” B.B bent down and looked her over quickly, “Can’t see clear. Arcaidia, git yer light in here.”

Arcaidia did one better and immediately formed one of her magical crests, casting an aura of her icy blue light over Dr. Lemon Slice. I recognized her healing spell easily enough. It was good to see she was capable of still throwing spells around; I’d been worried just how much she’d drained herself in the Ruins. The result on the doctor was immediate as she shuddered and let out a sigh, her eyes gaining focus as she raised her head.

“Oh my, that does feel good. Ow! Oh, yes, not moving sounds good for the moment. My, such violence was wholly unnecessary!”

“Can you remember what happened? Where’s Iron Wrought?” I asked. Now that it seemed like she wasn’t in immediate danger of dying I wanted to know where Iron Wrought had gotten off to.

Dr. Lemon Slice’s expression scrunched up in a deep frown, “That, that….that brute! He’s stolen my research data, and that wonderful starblaster! I’d thought it strange he wanted to talk alone, but I didn’t imagine he’d go so far as to try to take my precious research! Then he goes so far as to stab me!” She shivered, “If you hadn’t found me…”

I didn’t quite believe what I’d just heard. Why would Iron Wrought do that!? They both worked for the Labor Guild, right? This didn’t make sense! I shook myself, trying to focus. This must have just happened, so Iron Wrought couldn’t have gotten too far from here. I looked to B.B.

“You think she’s going to be okay?”

“I can’t be sure. Arcaidia’s healin’ spell is mighty strong. It got me back up on my hooves after I got toasted by that big ol’ critter we fought, so should be able to deal wit a stab wound. Still, better if my pa got a look at her.”

“I…I fell alright. Please, you must get my research back. It was all on a set of record disks I kept bundled up. They contain everything I’ve learned studying the Ruin in Saddlespring; they’re irreplaceable!”

“You don’t have to ask twice,” I said, putting a hoof on her to keep her still as the doctor tried to rise, “Just stay here and let Arcaidia help you. Now did you see where he went?”

Admittedly asking wasn’t all that necessary, as even as I did I noticed the tracks through the sewer filth leading towards the ramp leading back to the surface. Even my below average tracking skills could follow hoof prints that clear. Dr. Lemon Slice confirmed my suspicions by pointing a hoof towards the ramp.

“I think I heard him run that way. Oh…oh I think I’ll take you’re advise and rest a moment…rather lightheaded now, actually.”

“Do you think you’ll be okay here while we chase him down?” I asked and the doctor examined herself, gingerly running a hoof around the area of her wound and pressing slightly.

“The cut was deep…I don’t think any organs were damaged. Your friend’s spell seems to be doing well for the worst of the trauma. I think I can get myself back to the others after resting a few minutes, and then I can scrounge some medical supplies.”

“My pa oughta have somethin’,” said B.B, eyeing the ramp, “We gotta git goin’ if we’re gonna catch that bastard.”

She had already put on the weapon straps for her pistols around her forelegs while we’d been talking and I eyed her seriously, “B.B, if we find him, let’s try to give him a chance to explain himself. I want to know why he did this.”

“Sure, fine, just don’t do nothin’ ta put yerself at risk, Long. He starts shootin’ at us, I’m shootin’ back. Simple as that.”

Arcaidia finished her spell, the crest fading away. I gave Dr. Lemon Slice one final nod, saying “Don’t push yourself, just get to B.B’s father. We’ll take care of the rest.”

The pink mare gave me a thankful smile, “Please hurry. My research, without it I don’t have anything…”

Should a part of me not been so eager to help her? Should some part of me have realized that she was, in her own way, party to the destruction of Saddlespring. After all she worked willingly for the Labor Guild to excavate Ruins, apparently for the sole purpose of digging up and researching things like Roaring Metal. I sincerely doubted the Labor Guild had any plans to help ponies with Dr. Lemon Slice’s research. Perhaps those record disks shouldn’t make it back to her.

Perhaps she shouldn’t make it back to the Labor Guild…I stopped that thought before it could go any further, disgusted with myself. What was wrong with me? I shouldn’t even be considering the implications of doing this pony any harm, let alone that it might…might…be beneficial in some way if she couldn’t keep researching dangerous things for the Labor Guild. I shoved all those thoughts way, telling my brain pony to not bring up the subject again.

Turning to give each of my companions a look to confirm they were ready I began following the trail, heading right up the ramp. There were metal doors that were already open, letting in a dry and freezing breeze of night air. Heading up I found that this sewer entrance led to the middle of a barren, cracked street in a thinner part of the ruined desert of suburban housing that had been north of Saddlespring. The cloud shrouded night made visibility wretched but Arcaidia was providing light with her horn again. I briefly considered asking her to shut down the light spell, because it made us horribly visible in this darkness, but I needed it to track…

“Hey, Longwalk,” said B.B, “Have Arcaidia tone done that there flashlight, will ya? We’re signalin’ our position ta every critter an’ possible raider fer at least a’ mile.”

“Well, yeah, but if she turns out the light, I can’t follow Iron Wrought’s tracks.”

“Don’t ya fret none ‘bout that, hun. I got it covered,” said the pegasus magician.

“Dare I ask how?” my curiosity was piqued as I peered at her through the darkness.

There was a notable pause before she answered, tone guarded, “Longwalk, if I ask ya to trust me on this, an’ not to pry, will ya?”

“Um…okay…?”

“I’m serious Long. I can explain it, but I don’t want ta answer no questions. Ya take my word on this, take what I say at face value, an’ don’t question beyond that. Alright?”

I’d heard B.B sound serious before, but never quite this stone cold tone of utter seriousness that she now had. She was staring right into me, unblinking. I even heard her breathing intensify. I gulped, ears twitching as I said, “You have my word.”

“Alright then. I can follow ‘im by smell. He’s got the doctors blood on ‘im an’ I can smell it. I can follow that ‘till we catch up, no problem.”

I was…somewhat regretful of my promise to not ask questions. Because that right there was a very good example of the kind of thing one should ask questions about. A lot of questions. I was a pony of my word though, and kept my mouth clear of any queries, instead saying “That’s…pretty awesome, actually.”

Turning my attention to Arcaidia I pointed at her horn, and said “Don’t suppose you know the word for ‘off’ by now?”

Arcaidia cocked her head at me, pointing a hoof at her own horn, “Esru dol alva shurvi?”

“Yes, light off.” I repeated.

She frowned at me, but the silvery blue light faded away, leaving us in complete darkness. Oh how I was going to enjoy trying to not smack my knees into every available piece of debris out here. I saw B.B’s shadowy form move to the front of our little group and I heard her taking in a huge breath though her nose, then she put her muzzle towards the ground and I heard a few smaller sniffs. It was kind of weird to see.

“I got ‘im. Follow me,” she said as she fluttered her wings, hovering a little off the ground as she flew forward, nose still sniffing. I followed behind her, and Arcaidia fell into step beside me as we trotted along.

I found myself falling into a familiar routine, that of being a hunter. With B.B sniffing head of us, following the trial of our quarry in her own unique way, I kept watch for danger amid the dark skeletal forest of burned out houses and wreaked, rusted wagons. Doing this again brought back fond, and at the same time painfully homesick, memories of hunting with Trailblaze. I swallowed back the feeling, forcing myself to focus. I knew Arcaidia had that useful Eyes something-something on her Pip-Buck to alert us of danger, but I didn’t know what the devices limits were. I had to admit though, I was kind of looking forward to getting my hooves on one myself. I trusted my own senses of course, and it wasn’t like I didn’t appreciate generations of honed hunting techniques…but I was developing a growing appreciation for the machines built by the ponies of the old world.

Except for guns.

Still hadn’t acquired an appreciation for those. Wasn’t intending to either. Nevermind that my melee-only tactics up until now had nearly gotten me killed…was it going on five times thus far? Let’s see…geckos…turrets in Ruins…big damned monster thingy…Golem…Shattered Sky…sky…nope I was wrong, including falling through the sky I was up to six ‘near death experiences’. This was a disturbing trend I could only attribute to the fact that the Wasteland hated me. Apparently the Wasteland hated everypony though so I suppose I shouldn’t feel too bad. Really I felt I just needed to adjust the way I went about getting into melee. Cover seemed to be the key. Tasty, life-preserving cover. If I could just learn how to expertly dash from Point A to Point B, without getting shot, gradually getting closer to my opponent, then once I got in their face I was pretty good at handling things from there. Thinking about it I recalled that ice wall Arcaidia had created in the fight with the large monster in the Ruins. While thinking back to that brought a pang of regret because it also instantly made me think of Shale, I realized that ice wall would make for good cover in a firefight.

We’d need to have a sit down and talk tactics once she got better at Equestrian.

We were keeping up a quick pace, and I must have been getting better at navigating the Wasteland at night because I only whacked my limbs on jutting pieces of metal or stumbled on rocks once every ten minutes instead of every ten seconds. Yay, improvement! I was keeping quiet because basic hunter doctrine is stay as silent as possible and if you got to communicate use hoof signals. B.B didn’t now my tribe’s signals though so I would just have to hope that if she spotted something she’d know a good way to let me know, and if I spotted something a quick tap on her shoulder would do the job as well.

So far though I wasn’t seeing anything. I hadn’t quite realized just how…empty the Wasteland was. All of these blackened hollowed out structures I was seeing had at one time been home to ponies, hundreds to thousands of them. How many had died during that war? My mind couldn’t quite get around the impossibly huge number it must have been. That got me thinking though, something odd that hadn’t occurred to me before. If so many ponies had died why hadn’t I seen any remains? Even after two hundred years there would still be some skeletons leftover, right? Not that I wanted to see something like that, mind you, but it did strike me as odd that I hadn’t seen a single skeleton laying about.

I shrugged off the question, figuring there was probably some common-sense explanation for it I just wasn’t aware of due to my general lack of Wasteland lore.

Abruptly B.B halted. I was paying attention so I halted my stride right behind her, though I made a small ‘oof’ sound as Arcaidia bumped into me.

“Sersi.” She said in a whisper, voice apologetic.

“Think he’s close,” said B.B in a quiet, barely audible tone, “Scent just got a’ whole lot sharper. Comin’ from there.”

She pointed with her muzzle at a structure up ahead that was larger than the rest of the broken houses that were on either side of the dilapidated street we were on. The structure was at the end of the road, about three stories tall I guessed, though the third floor looked to be little more than a few pieces of floor barely held up around patches of barely intact wall. There was a fairly large concrete lot in front of the building that held a half dozen shadowed forms of rusted out vehicles. As we quietly approached I saw a mostly intact sign of artfully carved stone sitting in the base of a long dried out fountain, the lettering large enough that I could make them despite the gloom. The sign read; ‘South Brooke Elementary School’.

“What is this place?” I asked.

“It’s a’…” B.B paused, tilting her head I thought, “It’s a place young ponies went ta learn stuff. Like, uh, I’m assumin’ ya learned things from yer parents, right?”

I flinched a bit at the word ‘parents’ but nodded, “My mother taught me a lot of what I know. The rest I learned from my fellow tribesmates.”

“Yeah, an’ that’s pretty common fer most ponies these days. But way back when they had these big ol’ schools ta teach ponies. Schools for young ponies to learn the basic o’ life, then specialized schools fer older ponies ta learn their trade or special studies.”

I frowned, looking at the charred corpse of a building in front of us, its windows black pits, its walls stained with shadows, soot, and dirt.

“So how young were the ponies that would of come here?”

“Elementary school? Maybe...seven to twelve? Don’t rightly know, ta be honest.”

I found myself wishing I hadn’t asked as I thought back to what must have happened her two hundred years ago. I imagined a big, colorful building in a bustling town, dozens, maybe hundreds of small foals, fillies, and colts all gathering for another day of learning. I wondered if the Great Fires, the balefire bombs, came in the morning or in the afternoon. Were the foals still inside when it happened? Would they have had time to flee the school and find their families among the now destroyed homes me and my friends had passed by?

I forced myself to stop thinking about it. I had to find Iron Wrought, find out why he hurt Dr. Lemon Slice, and hopefully get the mare’s items back along with Arcaidia’s starblaster without having to hurt him. I was very much hoping to get this done without injuring Iron Wrought. Whatever his reasons for doing this he was still a pony who’d helped me.

“So, how do we want to do this?” I asked, “If he’s in there might take awhile to search the whole place…”

“No Longwalk,” said B.B firmly.

“No what?”

“No we are not ‘splitting up to cover more ground’.”

“I wasn’t going to suggest it.” I said, and at her look I laughed nervously “Well, not now anyway. But I was also going to say that once we find him, do you mind letting me try to talk to him first? I want to try to talk him down, or at the very least figure out why he stole the research.”

“I make no promises, Long. You feel ya gotta talk, do it quick, make it good.”

“All I ask is the chance,” I said, giving B.B what I hoped was a reassuring look. That said I turned to the front doors of the school, which were hanging open as bent and rusted metal frames with shards of glass dusting the ground in front of them.

As a group we moved forward, slowly and silently crossing the school’s parking lot. As we did so B.B made a few more sniffing noises and I saw her wings stiffen, her tail twitching about in sudden irritation.

“What’s wrong?”

“Shh,” she said as she sniffed again, and even in the darkness I could see her nose wrinkle and her eyes widen, “He ain’t alone. I’m gettin’ more scents here…augh…blood and bile…so much sour sweat and worse things…”

B.B shook her head and gave me a dead serious look, “Only one thing that smells this bad in all the Wasteland. Raiders.”

I might’ve argued that the Balloons I’d fought smelled pretty damn bad, but the severity of the situation stifled any comment I would’ve made like that. I’d heard the term ‘Raiders’ used before, but only in vague reference to what I gathered were bands of…not so nice ponies. I wondered just how bad they could possibly be, because B.B looked far tenser than she had a second ago. Her entire posture had stiffened and her wings were snapped down against her side.

“What can we expect…?” I asked, trying to keep my own nerves in check. I’d faced mutated monsters, the deadly traps of an ages old Ruin, survived a fight with somepony that could apparently teleport at will…I should be able to keep it together when dealing with other ponies. But what if, this time, I couldn’t avoid having to kill?

“Can’t figure it’d be a large band,” said B.B, eyeing the school and gesturing for me and Arcaidia to follow her to hide behind one of the burned out wagons in the parking log, “probably dealin’ wit a dozen, at most. Any bigger n’ that an’ Saddlespring woulda found ‘em out and sent guards ta root ‘em out. Can’t let Raiders git all close ta town like that. They usually ain’t too well armed, but can’t make any ‘ssumptions ‘bout that. Just…we go in there ya gotta be ready ta do harm, Longwalk. Ain’t no room fer anythin’ less with Raiders but kill or be killed.”

I swallowed, trying to steady my breaths. Gramzanber was a cold weight in my mouth and even the spear’s usually comforting presence wasn’t enough to banish my growing unease. Even if we hadn’t come here to chase down Iron Wrought and get answers from him it was clear having Raiders so close to the refugees from Saddlespring was dangerous. Regardless of what Iron Wrought had just done, he was still a pony who’d treated me with some regard, so he’d just been captured by the Raiders I wasn’t going to just leave him. So, one way or another, it was clear we had to go in there.

Which meant I’d probably have to take a life, maybe multiple lives.

The thought alone created a sense of disgust and panic in me that I had to shove down hard to keep from overtly showing, and even then I was pretty sure a tremble had entered my legs and my breathing was faster than it should be. B.B clearly picked up on it and frowned.

“Longwalk…we could just head back. Odds are these buggers ain’t goin’ nowhere, an’ my pa could-“

“No,” I said, taking a deep breath, “There’s no telling what they’re doing to Iron Wrought in there. If he’s alive, and there’s a chance to get him out, I want to take it.”

“He tried ta kill that doctor mare,” B.B said, “Don’t figure we owe him no rescue.”

“B.B, he’s one of the first ponies I met out here that tried to help me. He’s got…family, out there somewhere. I don’t know why he did that to Dr. Lemon Slice, but I want to find out. If Raiders are so bad, and he’s still alive, I don’t know how long he’s going to stay that way.”

I closed my eyes, forcing my breathing to steady, then opened them slowly, meeting B.B’s violet gaze.

“I can do what I have to.”

“If yer sure…” B.B bobbed her head and put a hoof on my shoulder, “Just, y’know, afterward, if ya need ta talk about it. I know where yer at right now, how it feels.”

“Comes to that, you’ll be the first pony I come to,” I said, returning her gesture and, well, not smiling because that just wasn’t possible with the situation and the way I was feeling, but appreciation in my eyes.

“Esri dol marivo, ren covrival? Esru vi vira di ravae.”

Arcaidia nudged my side with her horn and gestured at her Pip-Buck, then at her eyes, and then jutted her head towards the school building. I poked my head up a bit to see over the wagon and noticed what she was pointing at. There was movement by the front doors. It was hard to see clearly with the lack of light but I did notice a pony shape stumbling out and heading over along the wall of the building to…ah, call of nature. I exchanged looks with my friends. Arcaidia seemed eager, and quite at ease with the circumstances. A part of me wondered if she really understood why we were here, but then again Arcaidia seemed more comfortable with violence than even B.B was. Should I have been worried about that? B.B was still clearly tense but she was quite a bit calmer than I imagined I was looking at the moment.

“This is a good chance ta take one out an’ git in there,” said B.B, flexing her wings, “Follow behind me, but keep it quiet.”

“Think I can manage that,” I barely got the whole sentence bout before B.B flew up over the wagon and zipped out across the black parking lot, forcing me to move as quickly as I could to follow while staying as silent as I could manage. I’d learned from my previous attempts at stealth that one of the issues I was having was that concrete street, or parking lot in this case, was not nearly as conducive to silent moving as just plain old dirt. I had to really watch how I put weight on my hoofsteps to keep them from creating noise on the cold, cracked concrete.

Arcaidia and I crept around the side of the wagon and began to make our way to the wall of the school building, the unicorn filly making a grumpy comment under her breath I didn’t catch, not that I’d have understood it if I did. I looked around, trying to figure where B.B had gone. I thought she’d have charged right into the Raider, but I didn’t see here ahead of us.

The Raider was finishing her business, I was close enough now to make out the more feminine shape of her, and was heading back for the entrance with a slow, uneasy swagger that reminded me of how one of my tribesmates looked when having indulged in the less medical applications of healing powder. She hadn’t spotted me and Arcaidia yet, and I was making out more details. For one, B.B was almost right, the sour and sickly smell that wafted through the air to my unfortunate nostrils was near enough to top the unnaturally wrong scent of the Balloons. Near enough, but not quite. Still, this was not a healthy smelling pony.

As we got close enough to make out the details I got my first look at a real Wasteland Raider. She had a thin, patchy mane that might have been white if not for the dark stains of blood, grime, and other fluids I wasn’t going to even try to identify. Her coat wasn’t any better, possibly at one time having been light gray, but was marred by so much dirt and stained with blood that it made her look more like a rusty brown, and that was the coat I could see past the barding. The barding was as if she mare had stitched together hide from whatever Wasteland critters happened to wander by, and adorned with pieces of sharpened rebar that didn’t seem to serve a purpose beyond making the armor look as dangerous to wear as it would be to grapple with the mare. I tried to ignore the distinct possibility that one of those hide patches had a marking on it that might’ve been a cutie mark. Even Raiders couldn’t be that…horrible…right? Then I saw the Raider’s actual cutie mark, a long curved knife cutting into skin, making it look like it was cutting into her own hide.

The mare was thin as a rail, and I thought I could make out ribs, and as she walked she laughed a raspy, cackling laugh at some inner joke that turned into a hacking cough. It was a pitiful sight, one that made me want to recoil.

I didn’t get it. What could possibly lead any pony to live a life that put them in such a state?

I also didn’t have time to ponder that, because as me and Arcaidia got to within twenty feet of the mare she happened to turn her head towards us. Eyes the yellow of egg yoke looked at us, widened, and I saw a faint glow of pale yellow magic as I realized the mare was a unicorn and she was drawing a bulky looking but horribly rusted pistol from a makeshift holster on her flank. Another hacking cackle escaped her lips past rotting teeth.

“Geehee, more meat, more mea-“ the mare started to yell out but before she got far a white form dropped on her from above.

B.B landed on the mare’s back with all four hooves pushing down and I heard the snap of bone from the impact. Worried for a second B.B had just injured herself I rushed forward, but had to staggered back as a loud gunshot run through the night air and a flash blinded me, pain blazing into my side as the bullet grazed my flank.

The raider was under B.B, her back legs flopping uselessly from what I could only imagine was a broken spine, but her front half still seemed to work and the Raider mare screamed and roared as she swung her bulky pistol around in its wreath of yellow magic aura.

B.B swore under her breath and ducked down, avoiding getting her head splattered over the school building’s wall as the big pistol went off again. She pressed one of her hooves down tightly on the Raider’s neck and shoved the barrel of one of her pistols under the Raider’s struggling chin.

“Bitchbitchbitch , I’m gonna-“ the Raider’s tirade was silenced by a muffled *pop* of B.B’s pistol, taking the top of the Raider’s head off.

It all happened inside of seconds, leaving me standing there staring at my friend. B.B rolled off the dead Raider and quickly got to her hooves, giving me a sharp look.

“Don’t just stand ‘round, we gotta git inside! They’ll be comin’!”

It was true, I was already hearing the sound of voices shouting coming from inside the building. I gulped, and nodded at B.B.

The fight was on.



----------



The entrance to the school building was dark and empty when we got to it, our hooves crunching over old glass. It was, however…decorated. Blood streaked with bits of viscera made skull and bladed symbols on the walls beside the entryway, and strings of bones were left dangling to clack slightly in the night breeze; bones I couldn’t help but notice were gnawed on. As we headed inside to a large open room with several doors leading forward, left, or right, I noticed that sour Raider smell was choking in here. It clung to the air and felt like it was infecting my nose. A staircase flanked either wall as well leading to a second floor, though the stairs on the left were destroyed by a partially collapsed ceiling. This room was as bad as the entryway, with plenty of blood stained graffiti depicting images of ponies murdering each other, or violating each other, or murdering each other in violating ways covering the ceilings, floor, and walls. In one case the image wasn’t being depicted by blood, but by two old, rotted corpses that had been posed like macabre mannequins.

I’d have wondered where the Raiders could have gotten all the poor victims to create such a horrific scene had I not been thoroughly busy trying not to throw up. And failing.

“Estu…Estu…” Arcaidia’s silver eyes were wide as she took all this in, then narrowed with a cold rage flashing in them, the ‘kitten drowning’ look I’d come to associate with her being ready for violence, “Shivol! Di shivol ti zurhir!”

I didn’t need a translation to know what she was saying. The acidic tone said it all. She was not happy with these Raiders. Chances were my previous worries about seeing ponicicles were about to become justified. The thing that started to scare me was that I wasn’t sure how much I would mind the prospect, with what I was seeing in this place.

All three of us stood there a second, and Arcaidia, apparently deciding stealth was no longer a factor, lit up her horn brightly to give us a better view, bathing the scene in pale blue light. It illuminated quite clearly the four Raiders that came barreling into the room, three from the first floor doorway on the right, the last one up top on the second floor. In the span of a moment the room was filled with gunfire as B.B opened fire on the Raider above, flying towards the ceiling herself, and the Raiders started shooting with an assortment of broken down small arms.

Arcaidia darted to my right, hugging the wall as one black Raider earth pony stallion, gripping a double barreled shotgun in his mouth, blasted out large chunks of the wall beside her. Her horn was glowing frosty blue to produce light, but at the same time the crest of symbols was already snapping into place around her horn as she dove to the ground and fired out a cone of icicle shards that battered and tore into the Raider.

I was moving too. The lack of effective cover left my only viable option to close the distance with the Raiders and take them in melee as fast as possible. The remaining two Raiders consisted of a dull orange earth pony mare with a stained blue and red mane, though I wasn’t entirely sure the red was natural and just not blood. She was aiming a small rifle of some sort at me, firing as I darted in at her and her companion. The other Raider was a short, painfully thin white pegasus stallion with a tangled brown mop of a mane and with a face sporting more scars than unmarked hide. His mouth was wrapped around a large knife, and his eyes were fixed on me…or rather, on Gramzanber.

“Pretty big shiny spear this one’s got. I’m gonna enjoy shoving it through yer ass and hanging ya from my wall!”

I ignored the Raider’s taunting as I closed the distance to the pair, another bullet zipping past my ear and almost clipping it. Good thing it missed, because Crossfire had already taken a chunk of that ear off, didn’t want to lose any more of it. Trailblaze would be pissed next time I saw her and I didn’t think my jaw could handle any more of her ire.

I charged in at the orange mare with the rifle, but her pegasus companion leaped in at my left side, forcing me to turn to defend myself. For such a sickly thin looking pony he was remarkably fast and had a wiry strength to him that I felt as I deflected one of his knife thrusts, only to have to dodge back as he twisted around my guard and slashed at my legs.

The sound of stamping hooves and more shouts alerted me to the fact that we didn’t have a lot of time to deal with these four ponies, though a rapid staccato of shots from B.B’s pistols followed by a gurgling scream and a pony crashing through the second floor railing alerted me to the fact that we were down to three opponents at that moment.

The orange mare was reloading her rifle, shoving shells awkwardly with her mouth into the breech of the rifle she’d transferred to her hooves. That’d buy me a second to deal with the knife wielder. The pegasus Raider had taken to the air as I’d dodge backwards from him and now was coming at me from above, diving back and forth and slashing at my back from an angle that was hard to block with Gramzanber’s blade.

I felt a burning cut across my back and grit my teeth, focusing past the pain to notice that while the Raider pegasus was fast and agile, he was moving in a very predictable pattern. Taking a deep breath I waited until he made a pass at me, ducking down to avoid the knife, then as he dove around to come at me again I shoved the pointed back end of Gramzanber’s shaft into his path.

I might have slightly altered the course to aim for his wing instead of his body. I didn’t even know in that instant if it was conscious, random chance, or some instinct I couldn’t stop from taking control. Either way the silver spike on the back end of my spear pierced right through the pegasus’ right wing with a meaty crack and he screamed in a high pitched tone as he crashed to the ground. I pulled the spike free, turning so the spear’s actual blade was leveled at the fallen Raider’s chest. My blood was pounding in my ears, my heart hammering in my chest. The pegasus Raider’s eyes met mine and I saw the realization dawn on him that there was no way for him to evade in time, and in that I saw the fear on his scarred face, the Raider’s eyes widening in shocked horror at the thought of impending death.

Strike! Do it! He’s a monster, they all are! I mentally shouted at myself, trying to force my head forward, to shove Gramzanber into my enemy, this Raider who wouldn’t have hesitated a single second were our positions reversed, and who had likely taken part in creating the horror around me. I’d told B.B I could do this! If I didn’t I’d be endangering my friend’s lives. Something inside me, however, was resisting, something that was shouting in my mind just as loud as all the practical reasons I had to kill this pony. There was no time. I had to act, and it was as if two equal halves of me were tearing in opposite directions, one trying to pull me across a line I’d never thought I’d have to cross, the other trying to keep me from going over the edge.

I think I screamed, a primal sound of my own fear at what I was about to do as I reared up and drove Gramzanber downward. My spear didn’t strike the pegasus Raider in the chest…it instead stuck into his other wing. I didn’t have time to question myself, to berate myself, to call myself a fool for once again failing to go for the killing blow…

…mainly because I was too busy getting shot.

The orange Raider mare had finished reloading her rifle and fired. At point blank range even her bad aim was enough to catch me in the side. I felt the impact and the exposition of pain through my side as I was staggered. It wasn’t a big rifle, but a rifle was still a rifle, and even being shot by a small caliber gun wasn’t something to sniff at. It was only my recently developed familiarity with such pain that let me focus past the gunshot wound and turn around, ripping free Gramzanber from the pegasus’ wing, which caused him to scream and writhe on the ground, and charge the mare as she fired again. The bullet skipped off the broad spear blade I’d angled in front of me like a shield.

I slammed into her with all my weight. I was surprised by how light she was and she was flung back by my slam and impacted with the wall, flattening against it and sliding to the floor in a heap. As she struggled back to her hooves I stumbled towards her, not sure what I was intending to do, but certain I needed to at the very least take her out of the fight.

Before I got to her though a weight landed on my back and I felt a hoof wrap around my neck, a voice rasping in my ear with coppery rotten breath.

“Guss wut? Yur ded!” the Raider snarled around the knife in his mouth as he pressed the blade to the side of my neck.

I felt coldness sweep over us suddenly, intense and even freezing part of my hide. The Raider yelped and fell off my back. I turned to look, seeing an icicle protruding from the pegasus’ side and freezing his body over. He twitched sporadically, gasping for air past what were probably freezing and crushed lungs before he twitched one final time and lay still.

“Longwalk! Esru ren mir di mas!?”

Arcaidia walked up to me, her silver eyes flashing fiercely at me. The black stallion she’d been fighting was now a frozen statue, and hovering next to Arcaidia in a field of her blue magic was the double barreled shotgun. She gave me stern look, but sharply glanced at the orange Raider mare who was still dazed from me slamming her into the wall. Arcaidia snorted and turned the shotgun on her. Before I could speak a single blast rendered the Raider mare a non-issue. While I gaped at her Arcaidia casually reloaded the shotgun while sweeping past me towards one of the doors leading further into the school, where I could hear the sounds of more Raider’s approaching.

Up above B.B had landed on the second floor, yelling “We got more comin’ this way! You all alright down there!?”

“We’re…we’re fine,” I said, grimacing at the pain still digging into my side from where I’d been shot, “Nothing that’ll put me down yet, anyway.”

I looked at where Arcaidia was taking up a defensive position by the doorway were we heard Raiders approaching fast from, then glanced up at B.B on the top floor. We really didn’t want to keep fighting here. I voiced that notion.

“I’m agreein’ wit ya there Long,” said B.B as she flew down to me, “Let’s relocate this. C’mon Arcaidia, we’re movin’!”

The unicorn gave us a look, frowning, but followed as me and B.B heading for the door on our right where the initial three Raiders had come from. If there had been any more down that way they’d probably would’ve shown up by now, so it was safe bet we were going to a clear spot.

“We find a place that’s got some cover, set up an ambush,” I said, “Sound good?”

“Works fer me!” said B.B.

“Vira! Good,” Arcaidia consented still looking at me with anger in her eyes.

The doorway we ran through led to a long hallway with numerous doors on the left side. Most had either rotted away doors hanging half open or just didn’t have any doors at all. The walls were lined with tall, thin metal containers, a lot of which were closed, a few left open. I wasn’t sure what they were for but I could imagine they were some kind of containers students used? No time to think about it, I could hear the Raiders closing in behind us, a series of threats and profanity that intensified suddenly, probably because they found the bodies of their dead comrades in the entry room.

Which meant we didn’t have a lot of time to choose a spot to make a stand. We’d reached the end of the hallway, which sharply turned to our left. Here the ceiling has also partially collapsed, blocking any further progress, but creating a makeshift ramp upwards.

“Up we go?” I asked.

“Higher ground equals good,” replied B.B.

That settled up we went, B.B flying up first to make sure the area was clear before me and Arcaidia began our climb. The rubble was strewn with a broken desk and bookshelf, requiring a bit of a leap to get from one spot to the next in order to reach the most level part of the ramp. Making that leap after Arcaidia I landed and stumbled, gritting my teeth as my pain shot through my insides. Maybe that bullet wound was worse than I thought?

I managed to climb up to the second floor, Arcaidia pulling me with some of her levitation magic and setting me next to her. The unicorn filly was eyeing me with her silver eyes unblinking. She looked at my side, with the clear bullet hole, and I heard her let out a sigh. She conked me on the head lightly with her hoof.

“Matta, estu vi muras, ren solva.”

“What’ wrong? Longwalk, ya okay?” B.B asked in concern.

“Yeah, yeah,” I began to say, then caught the unamused look from Arcaidia and amended, “Just a little shot, is all.”

“Little shot!? Ain’t no such thing. Arcaidia, whacha’ waitin’ for, heal him up!”

Arcaidia nodded to B.B, and abruptly I felt myself being lifted off the ground, held in a field of telekinesis. The unicorn summoned up a crest of symbols once more and I felt soothing, cool magic sweep through my side, pushing back the digging pain in my side. While Arcaidia cast her healing spell B.B quickly began pulling overturned desks towards the top of the rubble ramp, forming a barricade. While I floated there I was able to take stock of the room we were in.

It was sizeable. Not quite as large as the entryway but big enough that a few dozen ponies could fit in here with room to spare. The hole was in the near middle of the floor, about ten feet wide. The desks B.B was using to form a barricade were small affairs, with chairs attached to them that made moving them awkward for the pegasus mare, but she was moving with speed born of knowing we had less than a minute, tops, before the Raiders would be on us. A big black board of some kind covered one wall across from where we’d entered up the ramp. To our right a series of windows, most of them broken, looked out onto the Wasteland night. Opposite that was a wall where old broken down shelving contained burned books and assorted other items, most of which I didn’t recognize the purpose of. There were doors on either end of this wall, looking like they led out into another hallway.

Assuming no Raiders came through those doors and they were all going to pile up the ramp we at least had a good spot to ambush them from. The ramp didn’t leave any cover for trying to get up it, and if it turned out there were too many we could use the doors as an escape route. Between B.B’s pistols and Arcaidia’s magic we’d have the Raiders covered, and if any broke through to get into melee…

…I’d, what? Lose my nerve again? Politely ask the Raiders to surrender? Risk my life and the lives of my friends by fighting to wound, not kill, a trait our opponents clearly didn’t share?

Shame and doubt filled me as I was set down by Arcaidia, her healing spell done with. The wound was still present but the pain was mostly gone and I was breathing much easier. Arcaidia was still looking at me with those silver eyes of her twin pools of light in the gloom. Her voice was hard, when it spoke.

“Longwalk…” she sounded the words slowly, “Must…strong…now…”

The whooping and hollering of the Raiders was loud now, almost upon us. B.B huddled behind the barricade she made while shouting, “Chatin’ time over! Fightin’ time now!”

Arcaidia didn’t break the gaze she held on me, one hoof reaching up and touching on my chest, right over my heart.

“Hurts…” she said, “…hurts more…if…gone,” she shook her head “Gaa! Estu dol suvinlir di surtra. Esru dol ARM vi dipal, ren solva.”

That said she went to the barricade and poked her head around it. I saw her horn flashing blue as I huddled behind the stacked desks. They didn’t make an entirely solid barrier and I could peek through some of the cracks to see that Arcaidia was using her horn to freeze over the top part of the rubble ramp. She was breathing heavily and winced as she pulled her head back behind the barricade. I was reminded she hadn’t had a lot of time to rest since the Ruins; her magic was probably far from fully recovered.

If I fight to kill, take my share of the enemies, the burden lessens on her, and on B.B, I thought. I’d told Doc Sunday I’d protect them. Was that just bluster on my part? Was I just saying those words, not grasping that to achieve that I’d have to abandon any notion that we could survive out here without killing? The sound of hooves hitting rubble right head of us told me I didn’t have any more time to debate the issue.

“Gut ‘im then make ‘em eat their guts!”

“Gonna skin ya, then plough ya, then grill ya!”

“Pretty ponies, tasty ponies, pretty ponies, tasty ponies!”

“Don’t kill them right away, let’s take our time with these ones.”

“Oh, gee, thanks fer the suggestion, Fine Dining, like we hadn’t thoughta that!”

“Well, we did go through the last one’s rather quickly, and you killed too many from the get go, the remaining ones didn’t last long.”

“I got that new one though, didn’t I! An’ you just tucked ‘im away in yer room for your own fun!”

“Of course, to the strongest go the spoils.”

“Uh, guys, something’s wrong with the…the…walkway thingie.”

“You mean, ‘ramp’, Low Brow.”

“Yeah, it’s all slippery an’ stuff!”

“Were all them desks there before?”

That was about as far as the conversation amongst the Raider’s got when B.B and Arcaidia reared up over the barricade, the pegasus mare pumping her forelegs rapidly to fire a barrage with her pistols while the unicorn let out a blast of concentrated icicles. I reared up as well, just in case one of the Raiders had gotten close enough to strike at. As it happens they had only gotten halfway up the rubble when the lead pony had spotted the ice Arcaidia had frosted over the ramp with.

The first thing I noticed was that there were a lot more Raiders clustered down there than I thought there would be. B.B had said there’d be maybe a dozen Raiders in total, and we’d already gotten five thus far. However on the ramp alone there were about eight Raiders, plus probably close to a dozen gathered at the bottom. They were a mass of ponies of all colors, but all equally stained red and brown by the filth of their existence and the horrid spiked metal and hide mish-mash armor they wore. Many bore vicious rusted melee weapons from rebar spikes to nail embedded clubs to one bearing a blade that looked like it was fashioned from the metal of a burned street wagon. Others carried an assortment of old blood stained pistols, rifles, and in one case a sub-machine gun. One pony of note stood at the very back of the group, a unicorn. He was midnight blue in coat color, with a light blond mane. He stood out because, unlike the rest of the raiders, he wasn’t wearing piecemeal armor, but instead wore clothes of a kind I’d never seen before. It was some kind of neatly cut suit, black, with a blue tie that almost blended in with his coat. It was dirty and torn, but remarkably in better condition than what his compatriots wore. Floating in a green aura that matched his eyes was a weapon that I instantly recognized.

Arcaidia’s starblaster.

The initial volley of B.B’s pistols and Arcaidia’s ice spell had a devastating effect on the first group of Raider’s on the ramp. Shards of ice speared through one Raider, a beige earth pony mare who tumbled over backwards and tripped up the Raider behind her, while another Raider had half of his face frozen solid. This stallion hollered in pain and blindly fired the pistol in his mouth as he fell, hitting his allies. Two other Raiders were simply dropped by the punishing shots from B.B, who the second she was empty ducked back behind the barricade to start reloading. Arcaidia similarly ducked back and I found myself starring at half a dozen downed Raiders, with their comrades starring up at me and my spear. Guns raised at me.

“Eeh…heheh,” I chuckled nervously, and then ducked back behind the barricade of desks as a storm of bullets tore through the air above my head.

As it turns out school desks make for poor bullet stoppers. Granted they were doing the job of deflecting most of the small arms fire, but wood chips were blowing all over us and I could see holes opening up all through our makeshift barricade as the Raiders poured a continuous stream of fire up at us.

“Longwalk!” B.B shouted over the cacophony of gunshots, “Git inta yer saddlebags!”

“Whaaaat?” I shouted back, not able to catch what she’d said.

Hugging the ground B.B crawled up to me and nuzzled her nose into my saddlebags, rummaging around inside. I cocked my head in curiosity, then ducked it as a bullet grazed my cheek. Arcaidia huffed in annoyance as she kept her forehooves crossed over her head, apparently quite irritated the Raiders appeared to have so many bullets.

B.B’s head kept moving about in my saddleback until she made a satisfied ‘Ah-ha!’ sound and pulled back, something in her mouth. I blinked, wondering where the spherical object with the green band around it had come from. Then I remembered; it was the grenade she’d acquired off the Odessa solider she’d killed and looted back in Saddlespring. I knew how to recognize the normal grenades and the flash bang ones, but the green band was a mystery to me.

“This’ll clear a’ room,” B.B said and waggled her eyebrows at me. She pulled the stem from the top of the apple shaped weapon and then lobbed it over the top of the barricade as the green band started to flash with an inner emerald light.

“Aaaaah, Shit!”

“The fuck they get that from!?”

The Raiders apparently knew what it was and were less than happy with it. Which was probably good for us. Then a bored voice said, “Calm down. Seriously, I have to do everything myself around here?”

The grenade B.B just tossed suddenly appeared back over the top of the barricade, wreathed in a green aura of magic. That unicorn in the suit! Me, B.B, and Arcaidia exchanged glances as the green aura around the active grenade faded away and the active weapon dropped towards us. We scrambled away from the barricade then dove as one.

The blast that came was brilliant flash of green light that filled the room with a scorching heat that reminded me of Roaring Metal’s flames. I’d leaped far enough to hit the wall beneath the black board, only slightly burned. Shaking my head and looking up I saw Arcaidia was next to me. She had formed a small wall of ice to defend us, the ice melting away to green goo and the unicorn filly breathing rapidly from her magical exertions. B.B had dove and flown up, the tip of her right wing smoking slightly but otherwise she seemed unharmed as she hovered in the upper right corner of the room.

“Bloody bleedin’ moon-damned unicorns!” B.B swore, then looked abashed, “Pardon mah Prench.”

Arcaidia brushed off her dress and huffed. Then she looked at the ramp and I saw her eyes widen. I looked as well. Oh.

The barricade was a blasted apart hoof full of green gooey fragments. A lot of Raiders were looking up the ramp at us. The unicorn in the suit at the back of the pack smiled up at us.

“Well hello there my little ponies, a pleasure to get a look at you all finally, my name is Bloodtrail. Myself and my lovely little gang here will be your murdering, raping Raiders for this evening’s festivities. Pleasure to make your acquaintances. Now, I advise you please relax and place your heads between your tails and kiss your candy flanks good bye.”

I raised a hoof, “Can I just say one thing?”

Bloodtrail smiled cordially, “I suppose so. No reason to be uncivilized with my soon to be plaything/dinner.”

“Run!”

I shoved Arcaidia towards the door and the unicorn filly didn’t waste a second to bolt ahead of me to shove it open. B.B, quick on the uptake, was right above us as we barreled out of the room. The Raiders were only taken aback by our sudden retreat for a couple of seconds before they opened fire and began charging after us. Drywall blasted part around our heads as we clambered into the hallway and started galloping. From the sound of several Raiders swearing profusely and the clatter of guns they were being slowed a bit by Arcaidia’s ice on the ramp, buying us precious additional time to widen our lead.

“So, yeah, that’s a lot of Raiders,” I said between breaths as we ran, “I thought you said there were supposed to be, like, a dozen?”

“Don’t figure none!” huffed out B.B, “How’d so many git all situated this close ta Saddlespring!? We gotta git outta here an’ warn my pa! Them refugees git movin’ then they’ll be ripe pickin’s fer this lot!”

“Maybe there’s another way out up ahead?” I speculated hopefully.

“Dol corval rir, vi irivil ren covir!” shouted Arcaidia, who slowed down a little and cast a look backwards as we turned into a new hallway. We weren’t bothering with any of the doors to either side of us, mainly because just a glance through the usually broken down or rotted away doors revealed more class rooms like the one we were in, minus any convenient hole in the ground for us to escape through. The last thing we needed was to trap ourselves somewhere.

The hallway we were now heading down didn’t last long though, ending abruptly in a ripped open chasm, as if an entire section of the school had been torn down by some huge concussive force that cut a swath through its center. The gap in the building was easily twenty feet across and I could see clearly the first floor below us, leading to a pile of twisted rubble and a empty concrete pit that looked like it was there by design, with some kind of board on one end arching out over the pit. Above us was the skeletal third floor, little more than a series of pillars connecting chunks of floor with bridges between them made of doors or sheet metal. To our left the gap opened out into a courtyard, a black pool of night that even Arcaidia’s light couldn’t illuminate much of…but there were other lights in the courtyard, lights that illuminated something that made my stomach twist and my heart go numb.

So far my sense of right and wrong had been taken quite the beating since I’d joined Arcaidia on this journey into the Wasteland. I’d been told by several ponies now that I was either too soft, or too innocent, or just too naïve to be traveling it. Up until now I’d seen some bad things. Ponies in chains, their lives bought to be used at the whims of whatever master paid the Labor Guild enough caps. I’d seen a mercenary mare who, despite whatever code she lived by, didn’t see any problem working any job if the pay was right, even if it meant killing. I’d seen mutated monstrosities that didn’t even belong in any natural world, mindlessly ready to tear apart any pony unfortunate enough to come across them. I’d seen an entire organization of callous ponies who with military might beyond my imagining participated in the destruction of an entire settlement…

…But to one degree or another those were things I could somehow accept without losing my own sense of right and wrong; without questioning that, fundamentally, we were all still ponies.

Looking into that courtyard I began to feel that sense of right and wrong slipping away, because ponies just couldn’t do things like this. Not and still remain ponies.

The light in the courtyard was coming from a trio of small fire pits, pits that I realized with an unpleasant twinge were much like the kind my tribe used. Over these fire pits were spits. The spits were thankfully bare of anything, but I didn’t have to see meat cooking over the fires to know what had been cooked there, once. That was because the piles of bones unceremoniously piled around the cooking pits were clear to see in the flickering firelight; pony skeletons. Not old and crumbling to dust, but relatively…fresh. Several were missing heads, which I could account for because said heads had been spitted onto rebar spikes in the dirt. Apparently for decoration. Clustered around the cooking pits were a number of makeshift tables, all built from the remains of what looked to be some kind of miniature wood fort with swings attached to its side. At the time I didn’t know what a foal’s play fort and swings were, so perhaps I should have been thankful the sight of a recess play gym being converted into cannibal Raider’s dining area was lost on me. Besides, I was still too busy mentally trying to come to grips with what I was seeing.

Arcaidia was actively growling, the unicorn’s filly’s face twisted in more rage than I’d ever seen on her youthful features, silver eyes reflecting the fire light like twin pins of orange hellfire. Her horn was wreathed in an intense white blue light, and I could swear I saw it frosting over.

She turned around, facing away from the sight down in the courtyard and looking back down the hallway where I could hear the Raider’s coming up quick. It was clear all thought of running away had now left my companion. B.B had a grave look on her face, head hanging slightly as she looked over at me.

“Sorry Longwalk, I shoulda warned ya ‘bout just how bad Raiders are. Ya see why ya shouldn’t be holdin’ back in killin’ ‘em? They ain’t ponies; they’re just...” a strange look passed over B.B’s features, pained, and briefly distant, as if she wasn’t seeing the here and now, “…monsters…”

I shook my head, trying to keep myself focused, still feeling numb inside, “We’ve got to get across this gap. Can you fly Arcaidia down?”

“She don’t look like she wants ta go nowhere,” said B.B, looking over at Arcaidia, who was practically rooted to the spot where she was, the steady glow of her horn gradually increasing in intensity as she pointed it downrange at the turn in the hallway. I imagined the first Raiders to come around that bend weren’t going to have a very good day, but even Arcaidia’s magic wouldn’t stop all of them. We couldn’t fight in this narrow hallway, with no cover from the Raider’s guns.

I tried to put some strength in my voice, “Arcaidia, we can’t fight here.”

“Shivol! Longwalk, di mas! Esru dol solva, esru ren revir ventilli vi brosvas ti shiviral, nes!?”

I couldn’t follow any of what she was saying but her tone was cold anger incarnate. She couldn’t accept what she was seeing of the sheer wrongness of the Raiders any more than I could, but unlike me, she didn’t have the hang up with killing them. I saw it in her eyes, she wanted to destroy the Raiders. To wipe them out completely like one would burn out an infection. Or in her case, freeze. I wasn’t really sure anymore I disagreed with the notion. I’d come here to find Iron Wrought, that was it, but the idea of leaving these…’ponies’ around to threaten anypony else, to keep doing what they were doing…I didn’t think I could just walk away now.

That didn’t change the fact that fighting in a narrow hallway with no cover was a bad idea. I quickly went up to Arcaidia and put myself in front of her, forcing her to meet my eyes. Even without the same language we’d managed to convey a lot to each other just through tone and look. I hoped she’d understand me here and now.

“Arcaidia, I want to stop them too! We can’t fight here, though!” I stomped the ground and shook my head forcefully, and pointed a hoof at B.B, then at the other end of the gap, “We need to find better ground.”

Arcaidia spent a second taking in a sharp breath, then looked away, huffing, “…Shiskri…”

One day I’d make it a point to learn what Arcaidia’s swearing meant. It sounded colorful.

“C’mon!” B.B called to us and me and Arcaidia joined her at the gap. The Raiders’ voices were close, seconds away probably. I looked to B.B.

“Carry Arcaidia across, I’m going to climb down on my own. We’ll meet over there,” I pointed with Gramzanber at the far end of the courtyard where a big set of double doors on the first floor were.

B.B frowned, “Alright, let’s get-“ then a bullet tore past us and we all looked back to see the Raiders had come around the corner, the first few firing with their rusted up guns in our general direction. I reflected we were pretty luck Raiders seemed to be lousy shots at long range.

B.B and Arcaidia both providing a brief reprieve of cover with gunfire and a spell, then the second that drove the Raiders back around the corner B.B grabbed Arcaidia around the unicorn’s barrel and flapped her wings rapidly. Arcaidia made a little lady-like yelp at being abruptly ponyhandled but didn’t struggle as B.B flew out across the gap and heading over the courtyard.

I wasted no time, briefly judging the jump to the nearest most even portion of rubble and leapt. The landing wasn’t all that solid as I tripped and rolled down the rough, uneven concrete, but luckily I avoided spearing myself with my own weapon or getting too tore up on any of the glass or rebar strewn over the rubble. It hurt, and I was certain I bruised myself up bad, but I scrambled to my hooves and started making my way down the rubble to the bottom of the courtyard quickly. Behind me I heard the Raiders arguing amongst themselves about which of us to start shooting at until I heard Bloodtrail’s calm tone rise above the turmoil.

“Bring down the pegasus, she’s weighted down by her lovely little cargo. The buck isn’t a threat.”

That would’ve stung my pride if I had all that much pride to begin with, and I wasn’t so fearful for the safety of my friends. Still, ‘no threat’? I was holding my own so far. Mostly. Does getting shot and not dying count as ‘holding my own’? Well, I figured that at the very least if the Raiders wanted to underestimate me I could possibly use that to my advantage.

Gunfire filled the air as I reached the bottom of the pile of rubble and jumped into the courtyard. Small tracers of light from some of the guns sparked through the air at the faint dark form of B.B and Arcaidia. Arcaidia had shut down her horn’s light, presumably to make her and B.B a harder target. They were making steady progress over the courtyard but B.B had to keep banking left and right, trying to avoid the hail of bullets that were tearing through the air at her.

So far nopony was bothering to shoot at me, but I could hear hooves clattering on cement and I glanced back to see that a number of Raiders, the ones who didn’t have guns but instead were armed with knives or clubs, were climbing down the rubble to chase me. I would’ve been worried about that but my concerns were all for my two friends currently having an uncomfortable amount of lead thrown their way.

As I dashed across the courtyard, skirting the fire pits and circling around the pools of light they cast I heard a yelp in the air and looked up in time to spot B.B’s form drop sharply, only barely righting itself and staying airborne about ten feet up. I saw Arcaidia detach from B.B and fall to the ground, rolling to her hooves and then her horn lit up. B.B’s shape got encased in Arcaidia’s ice blue aura and brought to the ground. I heard the pegasus mare yell something to the affect of “I’m fine! I’m fine! Ya can let me go now!”

They’d landed on just the other end of the weird miniature fort/dining area, which offered a little cover from all the gunfire, which my companions took immediate advantage of. It was still a stretch of a good twenty yards to the double doors I’d pointed out but I figured B.B and Arcaidia knew I was still trying to get across the courtyard so they wanted to provide me a little cover fire.

The problem was that while their position was well covered against small arms fire, it wasn’t such good cover versus starblasters. A snap of hissing air followed by a brilliant flash of silver light made me blink and falter in my gallop. I saw a beam of light pierce right through the makeshift cover my allies were using and heard B.B shout in surprise and Arcaidia let loose another vehement swear word of her own language.

I didn’t know if either of them had been hit and wasn’t given time to worry over it as my momentary falter in step had given the Raiders chasing me the opportunity to catch up. I felt a heavy form bash into me from behind, somepony lifting me bodily over their heads and flipping me. I briefly felt the world invert as I tumbled through the air and landed with a solid *thunk* on the hard earth. I kept my teeth grip on Gramzanber and, sucking in air I’d lost just a second ago, got to my hooves. One glance around me told me I was in trouble; five Raider ponies surrounded me.

One, a light purple earth pony mare with a slicked back blue mane an unpleasantly similar shade to my own, with one missing eye and wearing armor that was covered in a patchwork of bones I was pretty sure were from ponies, grinned at me with a mad light in her pink eyes. She was clutching a lead pipe in her mouth which she swung at my head as she leapt in, giggling all the while.

I ducked back, only to sense another pony coming at my back. I twisted aside as a twisted club of cement and rebar spikes smashed past me and hit the ground right where I’d been standing a second ago. This weapon was being wielded by a burly mare with an orange coat a lot like the one who’d shot me in the entryway earlier. Unlike the mare with the lead pipe this one wasn’t smiling, but instead had a face contorted with rage.

“Iffin yur duh wun dut kulld muh sus ahm gunna rup yu tuh shruds!” she mouth incomprehensibly around the weapon she held in her teeth.

She shook her head violently at me, wiping her big club back and forth in a while pattern that lacked precision but held such power behind it I didn’t even want to risk trying to block it. Instead I kept stepping back, looking for an opening to present itself. If I could get one of her legs, maybe she’d-

-The mare with the lead pipe came in on my right with a sudden burst of speed just as the orange mare swung her club. I reacted instinctively, some of my sparring with the hunters of my tribe paying off as I ducked into the swing of the mare with the lead pipe and hooked my right foreleg around hers, then rolled backward. This heaved the mare over me just in time for her body to intercept the club of the orange mare. I felt the impact still, but I was betting the Raider mare felt it way more by the sound of snapping ribs. I finished my roll, tossing aside the mare with the lead pipe, who was still breathing, but was now coughing up blood and curling up on the ground from the blow she’d received.

That still left me facing four Raiders, and while the orange mare grunted in annoyance at me and came in again with a smashing swing her three still standing comrades began to circle behind me, leaving no room to back up. Unable to dodge backwards I instead did the only thing I could do, I tried to parry. It was an awkward action, turning Gramzanber’s blade into the path of the descending rebar club, and I braced for what I imagined would be a teeth rattling impact.

Instead what happened was the rebar club was sliced neatly through its metal center by Gramzanber’s serrated edge. I blinked as the cement block of the club fell away, leaving the mare reeling with just a sliced piece of twined rebar in her mouth. I knew Gramzanber was sharp…but that sharp? I mean, I’d seen it embed into stone after I’d thrown it, but that’d seemed a special circumstance. I blinked, recovering from my surprise quickly. Faster than the orange mare did.

Even as I slashed at her legs and cut a deep gouge through both her forelegs, causing the mare to drop with a shriek, their was a voice yelling in my head. Why was I still trying to be non-lethal with these ponies!? Hadn’t I seen what they were capable of? Was I blind to their complete and utter lack of anything resembling morals or basic pony decency? Was I going to ignore the fact that they not only wanted to kill me and my friends, but fully intended to do worse to us before our inevitable deaths, then bucking eat us after we were killed…if they even chose to wait until we died.

That voice screaming in my head was telling me there was not even the slightest shred of a reason to be merciful. That indeed the mercy was…impractical. These weren’t ponies that’d tolerate weakness among their own kind. Even if we did get away, with the wounds I’d inflict on them to drop them without killing them they wouldn’t likely recover without medical care; the kind of medical care Raiders seemed wholly unprepared or interested in giving.

Stop being such a hypocrite Longwalk. Killing them is…in its own way...mercy.

I didn’t know what to do. That side of me I knew, logically speaking, was correct. I just…I needed time. Time to think, time to work out with myself how to be squared away with the notion that sometimes doing the right thing meant taking the life of another. Problem was the Raiders weren’t exactly giving me that time, the fight was here, now, and thinking wasn’t on the itinerary.

While the three still standing Raiders around me stalked in, trying to surround me, I caught a glimpse of B.B and Arcaidia’s situation.

The two mares were still using that odd mini-fort/dining area as cover, but their cover was quickly getting torn to pieces by the collective fire of the gun armed Raiders, many of whom had left the top ledge of the second floor gap and had apparently used the time to take up positions at windows all along the second floor to fire from multiple angles down at my friends. There was the occasional brilliant lance of energy from Arcaidia’s starblaster showing that Bloodtrail had also relocated to a different room on the second floor, and every shot tore a hole through the cover. It was only a matter of time before one of my friends got hit by that, and I recalled with a shudder what it had done to the Balloons Arcaidia had shot with it. I couldn’t let that happen!

It’d be easier if you went for the kill. You’ve seen what Gramzanber can do. If you just fought to kill, you’d be able to slaughter these foes. Just forget that they’re ponies. Think of them monsters. Like the Balloons, or the Tunnelers. Just things to remove from your way.

Arcaidia and B.B were putting up a fierce fight, returning fire with almost equal measure of what was being thrown at them. B.B reloaded with blinding speed, firing off barrages of shots from her twin revolvers, usually getting a scream of pain from one window or another when she did do. Arcaidia’s ice spell wasn’t as effective at long range, but that wasn’t stopping the unicorn from sending the blasts of icicles into any Raider that exposed themselves for too long. She’d also begun to form small barriers of ice around the damaged parts of the mini fort, trying to keep the cover intact for as long as possible. But I could see she was flagging, breathing heavily as she once again was forced to tax her barely recovered magic. B.B was looking haggard as well, and I thought I saw a dark splotch of red coating one of her hind legs.

You can’t save them like you are now Longwalk. To protect their lives, you’re going to have to take lives. This is not wrong. Your tribe hunted and killed to live, did it not? What makes this different? Take life, to preserve life. It is the natural way of things.

As I dodged a Raider unicorn stallion who was tried to brain me with a floating club of wood I realized that these thoughts coursing through my mind…they felt like mine, but at the same time, something didn’t feel right about them. Was I really thinking like this? The voice was mine, it felt natural, like any other train of thought…no time to think-

-Just as I dodged the unicorn stallion’s bat a light green earth pony mare with a darker green mane, grinning a mad wide smile at me, jumped at me with strange spiked wrappings covering her forehooves. I was off balance from my previous evasion to turn fast enough and she hit me with both forehooves in the side, sending me sprawling.

“Heehehehe! Ya big softy wofty, I’m going to make you my personal little buck-toy; keep you alive nice and long like the boss says!”

“Hey ya don’t get to just claim ‘im like that Binge. He’s gonna be fer alla us to ‘ave fun with!” said the third Raider, a brown pegasus mare who had one wing so bent out of shape I didn’t think she could possibly fly with it. She wielded a dainty little knife with odd dexterity with her remaining good wing.

“Shut it ya dumb cunts, we gotta finish him first, break his legs so he can’t dance around like that,” said the unicorn stallion as he watched me get to my hooves.

I glared at the three, “What is wrong with you ponies!? Why in the name of every ancestor spirit back to the beginning would anypony choose to be this way!?”

I knew I didn’t have time for idle chat but I just couldn’t keep this in any longer. I needed to hear it from the proverbial horse’s mouth. Besides if they felt chatty it might by me a second to catch my breath. The green mare, Binge, was a lot stronger than her average frame made her look.

Binge was the one who answered me, between giggles, “Nothing wrong with us! We’re just havin’ fun. That’s all ya can do out here in the Wasteland, have fun with it.”

The light in her eyes was pure, driven insanity. She believed every word she was saying. I just…didn’t understand.

“Fun? That’s crazy. You’re crazy,” I said.

“Wasteland’s crazy,” Binge said, grinning wider “We’re just along for the ride.”

Her grin turned sultry, “Ya know, if you’re a good boy an’ learn to come along for the ride, maybe the boss’ll let you join the family. Lotta ponies get into the spirit of things after a little while, if the live long enough being our toys.”

Was that how Raiders got…more Raiders? Capture ponies, torture them for awhile, treat them like playthings…and if you lived through that long enough and showed the right hints of madness you were initiated into the group? Was that how a mental sickness like this spreads? It occurred to me that had to be part of it, because I sure didn’t see any foals among these Raiders. I couldn’t imagine a foal living long in these conditions. Made sense Raiders increased their numbers then by inducting adult ponies, or at the very least older colts like me. I wondered how many of these Raiders then had been normal ponies, sometime before now? Had they been caravan guards, or traders themselves, or just poor settlers that’d gotten captured in a raid? Had they then been subjected to horrors and pains so great that the only way to live through it was to…embrace it? Make yourself a part of it?

That thought bothered me more than the notion that they were all just born irredeemable monsters. I thought back the times I’d heard Raiders be mentioned by ponies before. They were apparently common enough that everypony in the Wasteland knew about them, knew they were to be avoided, feared, or destroyed if possible. That meant that, somewhere in the Wasteland, every single day, somepony either ended up dead at the hooves or Raiders, or ending up becoming one themselves in order to survive. Every day, more Raiders were born from the horror of the Wasteland, who would in turn twist more ponies into Raiders, the ones they didn’t end up killing. Those Raiders would then, in turn, be killed by other ponies who hadn’t quite succumbed to the Wasteland’s wrongness, but still only had violence as their sole solution to protect themselves. Yet more Raiders would always be waiting in the wings, like they just spawned from thin air. Then the killing would start all over again from square one.

How do you stop something like that? Where do you even begin to prevent a cycle that’d become an engrained part of life for over two hundred years, longer even if one counted the war that brought the world to this state in the first place?

Big questions for a little pony, and I didn’t have the faintest clue how to answer them, and with three blood crazed Raiders bearing down on me, with my friends pinned down by gunfire from dozens more, I didn’t have time to seek the answers.

Binge didn’t wait long for me to give her any kind of answer to what she’d asked and with a happy little cackle that was one part hunger, one part lust, and all parts malicious intent she charged in at me. I slash with Gramzanber, trying to clip her legs out from under her, but she was fast, jumping over my slash. Her forehooves lashed out again, this time for my face. I side stepped, feeling the air from her strike rush past me and bringing with it the sharp stink of the filth she was coated in. The unicorn stallion moved in on my ride, his faint white aura of magic swinging the smooth club of wood at my back. I wasn’t fast enough to dodge and took the shoot full on, grunting in pain as wood cracked into my solid hide and sent pain shooting through my spine. Gritting my teeth through the pain I took advantage of the unicorn’s brief surprise at the fact that I hadn’t dropped from the hit and pivoted on my forelegs, delivering a solid buck to the stallion’s chest. As the unicorn went sprawling the brown pegasus mare rushed me from the opposite side, her good wing flicking at my face with her small knife.

I ducked, but felt the blade cut my scalp and soon a veil of red was sheathing my vision from the blood trickling from the head wound. Her attack left her open, however, and I quickly spun my body, using the back end of Gramzanber’s shaft like a club of my own, giving the pegasus mare a heavy smack across the face. She staggered but didn’t drop. I couldn’t make a follow up attack because Binge was on me again, ramming me in the side with both forelegs once more. I felt sharp pain from the spikes on her hoof wrappings cutting into my hide.

The force of the blow didn’t put me on the ground but I did end up leaning on one of my forelegs, Binge looming over me.

“Just let it go,” she said with a happy, crazed smile, “It feels better if you let it go. It’s easier if you let it go.”

“Let what go?” I asked as I rolled away from a double hoofed stomp that would’ve at the very least broken a bone in me had it landed. Binge’s eyes looked at me and for just a split second the wide, insane light in them dwindled into something almost lucid.

“Yourself, silly.”

Before I could respond to that I heard a strange sound, like the hissing of a large gecko, followed by B.B shouting “Rocket!” in a fearful warning. Then there was a flash of light and a detonation next to me. I felt pressure lifting me off the ground and throwing me through the air like a rag doll, pain exploding all over my body. I landed in a heap, my ears ringing with a loud, sharp whine. For a second I just lay there on the ground, unable to think straight. My whole right side was a mass of pain, and my left felt rather numb. I tried moving a hoof, finding I could, but just trying to get up was making my whole side light up in agony.

What was that? Getting to my hooves amid my body’s rather sharp protests to me doing so I looked around. I’d been flung all the way to the side of the fire pits, having landed, to my disgust, next to one of the piles of bones. It took me a second to spot where I’d been, where a crater in the ground could be seen still smoking slightly. I saw mangled bodies over there as well and for a moment thought all three of the Raiders I’d been fighting must have been killed. Then I heard a groan next to me and glanced over.

Binge was sitting up on her haunches, rubbing her head, then she glared up at the roof of the school building, “Hey! Friendly Fire, what gives!?”

A big, broad shouldered pink mare with a vermillion mohawk of a mane laughed riotously down at us. I couldn’t see clearly in the dark but it looked like she had some big tube-like weapon strapped to her side via a harness, with a bit by her mouth that I figured must be the trigger.

“I did yell fer y’all ta move outta the way. Guess I coulda said it louder. Well Binge, I’ll say it again, move. I’m already reloaded.”

Binge looked up at Friendly Fire, looked at me, back up at Friendly Fire, back to me. She calmly got to her hooves, waved at me in a sheepish up and down ‘bye-bye’ gesture, and then proceeded to scramble away at a full gallop.

Seeing Friendly Fire aiming at me, I decided Binge, despite being an insane Raider, had a valid point; running was a good idea.

I heard the same hissing whoosh of sound behind me as I turned around and started galloping across the fire pit area, trying to reach my friends behind cover. I felt more than heard the detonation behind me and felt myself getting thrown once again by the blast. Not as far, and not as hard, given I’d gotten a bit of distance between myself and the blast zone, but I was still thrown forcefully across the ground, shrapnel slicing into me. About the only good news was that I hadn’t lost my mouth’s grip on Gramzanber through all of this, but my body by now felt like little more than a walking, bleeding wound as I struggled to my hooves.

My inner voice spoke to me again, its tone calm and practical, a stark contrast to the way my heart was beating a mile a minute with growing fear of our survival.

She’s right, you know. Twisted Raider or not, she’s right. Just let yourself go. It’s the only way you’ll be able to protect Arcaidia, B.B, and yourself. Didn’t you promise to Trailblaze you’d return to the tribe one day? Be rather hard to do that if you die here, in this place. Didn’t you also promise to yourself you wouldn’t let more ponies suffer like in Saddlespring? What do you think will happen to the survivors if these Raiders aren’t stopped? Like B.B said, the refugees will be found, then they’ll be attacked by these ‘ponies’. Even with LIL-E and Doc Sunday there, who knows how many innocent ponies will die? All because. You. Refuse. To. Fight.

But that wasn’t true! I was willing to fight! I was fighting with all I had!

No you haven’t. You’ve been playing. Playing around at fighting, like this was all some sort of game. And you know what happened as a result? Ponies died. Shale died.

No…that wasn’t…I fought as hard as I could…I…

Stop lying to yourself. You’ve been holding back. You’ve always held back. Because you’re afraid. Afraid to hurt others. Afraid of what’s inside you. A fire that’s just been waiting for the right moment to…ignite. Let go, Longwalk. Let that fire grow.

I still wasn’t sure if these thoughts were honestly mine or not, but with every word that coursed through my consciousness I felt keenly a fear in me that I hadn’t taken note of before, a fear that blanketed another emotion that was buried so deep in me I’d never noticed it until these extreme circumstances forced it to the surface.

Anger.

I was angry. Angry at so many things. I was angry I’d had to flee my tribe because of the actions of my chieftain, leaving behind my mother and best friend. I was angry I hadn’t been able to protect that best friend on my own. I was angry that ponies were being enslaved by the Labor Guild. I was enraged that ponies like Crossfire could one second be so callous as to put something as irrelevant as caps above the lives of others, yet could still somehow make an ally of herself for conveniences’ sake. I was pissed that Odessa had callously unleashed destruction on a good community of ponies who’d just been trying to survive this Wasteland.

Most of all I was angry that Shale had died and I hadn’t been able to do anything to stop it.

And I was afraid of that it would happen again with B.B or Arcaidia.

There was a pressure in my head, and a pulse of familiar cold that shot through me, flowing from Gramzanber.

That’s when I felt something…else. Not a voice in my head, mine or otherwise. It was more of a sense, an impression, but one so sharp and real that it cut through my confusion, fear, and mounting anger. It was a calming feeling, followed by the distinct sensation of a pony putting a hoof on my shoulders comfortingly. There were no words, but I could feel the intent of this impression. It was telling me to not be afraid, to trust myself. If I wanted to protect my friends, then I should trust myself to do that, and do it without being afraid of the anger inside me.

The pressure in my head increased, time slowing to a crawl as words flowed through my brain, slamming through it with a familiar sensation like what I’d felt in the cavern I’d met Aracaidia in.

ASTRAL RESONANCE LINK AT 26% SYNCH

FORCE ADAPTION CAPACITY AUTHORIZED FOR RELEASE

PREPAREING ASTRAL PATTERN RECOGNITION MORPH

ESTABLISHING DESIRED PROTOCOLS

Gramzanber requests wielder’s objective defined for Force Release; please provide.

What the-!? Why can I…? Shit! Longwalk, can you hear m-

ERRORERRORERROooorr-

\\\\\...calibrating connection…removing excess signal…/////

Goddesses damn you let me talk to h-

ERORR CORECTED RESUME PROCESS

Gramzanber repeats request for objective defined for Force Release; please provide.

Once again I was left bewildered by what I was hearing, but I remembered that the last time this happened, Gramzanber had been formed, and it had helped me save Trailblaze. If this was anything like before, then I realized I had a chance to turn things around.

All of these thoughts and mental voices had passed through me in the span of the second I’d spent getting up after the second, what had B.B called it, a ‘rocket’, had nearly hit me. I was right in front of the miniature fort Arcaidia and B.B were using for cover against the Raiders firing from the second floor windows of the school, peppering the area with a rain of gunfire. I could see B.B flying a little over the cover, firing one revolver, her other foreleg hanging limp from a gunshot, her face contorted in pain but filled with a grim determination to keep fighting back. There was also a strange light in her eyes, almost akin to the madness I’d seen in Binge, and seeing that look on B.B filled me with a keen fear. Arcaidia I noticed had come around the edge of the cover, panting heavily even as she cast another spell of frosty death towards the Raiders. She was coming towards me, and I could see she on her face that she was worried, fearful I was too hurt to get to cover on my own.

I could see on the roof the Raider, Friendly Fire, shaking with laughter as she loaded another rocket into her launcher and began to aim down at me. At all of us. The blast would catch my friends as well, I realized.

I had to stop the Raider. I had to stop all of them. The thought of killing or not killing didn’t even enter my mind; like the question was just swept away by a boiling, burning need to protect the two mares who stood fighting at my side. I didn’t know how, but knew I’d need to act fast, faster than I’d ever been, to even have a chance, and I couldn’t afford to have my wounded, battered body slow me down.

Understood. Protocols Established. Astral Pattern locked. Force Release Active, Level 1; Code Name: ACELLERATOR

Blinding heat washed through my body in an instant, wiping away pain. Everything in my vision became sharply focused and tinged blue, and suddenly I found I could see clearly, even in the dark. My heart was beating at a steady rhythm but it felt like each beat was coursing blood through my body with the force of a tidal wave. Gramzanber was a warm weight in my mouth, and I noticed the spear was smoking with a cobalt aura that was like fire.

Then I noticed everypony around me, no everything around me was moving as if through molasses. Arcaidia’s eyes were slowly widening at me, but she was barley moving. I could see each slow individual flap of B.B’s wings, and as she slowly pumped her forehoof forward I saw the mechanisms on her revolver pull the trigger and the lazy jet of flame that pushed out the lead bullet, which I could then watch trace through the air.

I could even see the individual bullets of the Raiders’ shots, moving more like tossed stones that actual bullets.

And I could see Friendly Fire’s rocket launch from her weapon and begin its slow flight through the air towards us. Slow enough that I felt like I had all the time in the world to decide what to do about it.

I moved forward, propelled by the fire coursing through my veins. My thoughts felt clear, concise. I looked over the windows on the second floor of the school and picked out that there were, in total, eighteen Raiders still fighting us. One of them was Bloodtrail, standing at a window almost directly across from where we were, and below the spot on the roof where Friendly Fire was standing. I smiled. The rocket was trailing at a downward angle, and was almost on a level with Bloodtrail’s window.

I know I said I’d never throw Gramzanber again until I got a proper tether for it, but circumstances were…unique, at that moment. I found I could move with the same speed I normally felt, despite everypony else’s slowness. I trotted quickly forward and judged the proper arc, guessing the speed of the rocket and where it would be at the right moment.

With a whip of my head Gramzanber was sent flying, sailing a true course through the air, a silver missile to counter the descending rocket.

The spear hit the rocket dead on and I saw the way the projectile exploded outward, the blossom of fire sending out a wave of force through the air alongside a rain of tiny metal shrapnel shards. The explosion sent Gramzanber spinning backwards, flipping through the air, and I ran to catch it, jumping up into the air myself and snatching the spear in my teeth and landing in time to see the results of my gambit.

The exploding rocket had been just close enough to the wall of the school that the shockwave and shrapnel caused a number of windows to shatter, a large crack to run through the already weakened ancient walls of the school, and most importantly, Bloodtrail was thrown back from the window he’d been watching the fight from. I didn’t know if he’d been injured or not, but a number of the other Raiders at the windows had needed to duck into cover from the close explosion. It’d buy me and my friends a much needed few seconds to fall back into the other half of the school.

I turned to them, running over to Arcaidia, who by now was slowly looking somewhere to the right where I’d been when I’d thrown Gramzanber. I blinked and glanced in that direction, noticing a strange blue trail that led to where I’d run, then over to where I’d jumped to catch Gramzanber. Apparently I was leaving behind that odd blue light in my wake?

I wondered how long this affect would last? Or what it even was?

As if thinking about it triggered it, the blue tint to my vision abruptly ended, the world returning to normal speed. And sound. I only realized when noise suddenly slamed back into my ears that everything had gone errily silent while I’d been…in that weird state.

Arcaidia blinked, starting as if I’d suddenly appeared next to her. Her silver eyes shone wide at me with…worry.

“What in bloody blazes?” B.B said, “What’ya just do Long?”

“Esru…dol ARM? Arvartia!? Shivol! Longwalk?”

Arcaidia sounded worried. Really worried. She came up to me and put a hoof around me, starting to drag me back behind the cover. I started to shake my head.

“I’m fine Arcaidia! We need to get to…the…school…oh…”

It was like something had opened up a plug in me and was letting all the energy remaining in my body drain out. Pain screamed back into my body three times as hard as it had been and I felt like every muscle in my body was trying to tear itself apart. I felt a coppery taste in the back of my throat and promptly threw up blood on Arcaidia’s hooves as she now had to drag my now very limp body behind cover.

“Arc…what’s…” I couldn’t even get half a sentence out. It was like my body was just…shutting down.

Even my vision was flicking in and out of blackness. I saw Arcaidia straining with her horn, her magic flickering as she formed the crest of her healing spell over me. B.B, eyes wide and fearful as she shouting something down at me, but I couldn’t hear her.

I couldn’t hear anything as blackness closed in around me, even as I struggled to speak, to reassure my friends that I was alright. I wasn’t sure I was, but I couldn’t stand the fear and worry on their faces as they looked down at me. I was afraid for them, they needed to be running, using the distraction I’d provided to get away, not…worrying about me. I tried to tell them, tried to say one of their names…not even sure which one…

…darkness as complete as the night sky above clouded over me…


----------

Footnote: Level Up!

Perk Added – Stonewall: Since you seem to have volunteered to be the Wasteland’s favorite punching bag you’ve learned to stand up to the punishment. You gain +5 DT versus unarmed and melee attacks and can no longer be knocked down in close combat. Again, would’ve been handy a little while ago, why do you keep picking these perks after the fact?

Quest Perk Added – ARM Bound Stage 2: You’re connection with your ARM has strengthened. The ARM now reduces target DT by 10, and you can access the Level 1 Force Ability.

Level 1 Force Ability Added – Accelerator: When your Force Gauge reaches 25% you can activate ‘Accelerator’ which quadruples your speed and reaction times by over clocking your biological processes. You may keep Accelerator active for as long as you like, however, for every second you keep Accelerator active you suffer 10HP damage when Accelerator is deactivated. There is no built in safeguard, so be watchful of overuse of this ability.

Explanation of Force Gauge and Force Abilities

Force Abilities will be gained as your bond with your ARM becomes stronger. Your Force Gauge increase as you take damage in combat or inflict damage, and is rated as a percentile between 0-100%. Each Force Ability requires a certain amount of the Force Gauge to be filled in order to activate, and doing so depletes the Force Gauge by the corresponding amount. The Force Gauge does not retain its amount when not in combat, and resets to 0% if you are out of combat for longer than five minutes.

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