• Published 25th Jun 2012
  • 4,305 Views, 436 Comments

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.

  • ...
26
 436
 4,305

PreviousChapters Next
Chapter 9: In a Cold Sleep

I wasn’t asleep. I knew this for a fact because, for as long as I could remember, I didn’t dream. At least never dreams I could remember, let alone experience actively as if I was there. I recalled falling unconscious in a faint manner, but the thought, along with all the worry and twisting anxiety I was feeling over the welling being of Arcaidia and B.B was being shuffled aside by the confusing things I was seeing and hearing.

I couldn’t feel my body, and I didn’t have any control over what I was seeing, didn’t even feel like I had eyes to move. I just had to accept the barrage of images and sounds that passed over me like a runoff current from my village’s river when it occasionally flooded.

I saw an orb of brilliant blue, whites, and greens hanging in inky blackness, joined by a smaller orb of silver brightness. I could barley comprehend what I was looking at, but I had an instinctive notion that I was looking at…the world. Just before the image shifted I noticed, with an odd sense of disquiet, that hanging behind the silver orb that must have been the ‘Moon’ tribal legends spoke of, the one that was now hidden by the cloud covered sky, was another orb…a smaller moon, only a fraction of the size of its silver cousin, and colored a dark, ugly iron shade.

The scene shifted, this time on the precipice of a rocky plateau. Before me was a massive ocean of thick tree canopy, an ocean that stretched as far as my eyes could see until the carpet of green touched the feet of a mist shrouded mountain range. It was beautiful, if not for two things marring the scene. The red sky above, dominated by a sphere of indescribable proportions, dark blue and glowing with baleful green lights, and the sight of the battle taking place in the expansive jungle before me. I couldn’t see the combatants clearly, but fires burned through the trees, causing waves of black smoke, and in the light of those fires I could see writhing masses of…things, non-pony things, swarming among pockets of strange creatures clad in silver armor. Blasts of light and fire criss-crossed the field of battle, followed by detonations. Above my head strange machines of crescent silver designs or dark organic monstrosities wheeled and spun in dances of destruction, spewing lances of light and streams of exploding projectiles at one another.

Before I could do more than feel overwhelmed by what I was seeing the images burned away from my vision, replaced by a barren field that for a second I thought was the Wasteland…

…but it couldn’t be, because the sky was still visible, a crystal clear blue so sharp and intense it would’ve put me in tears to see it had I eyes to cry. But the landscape itself was a blasted red waste, a desert of craters, with smashed pockmarked mountains in the distance. I realized this was the same place I’d seen that had been a vast green jungle, now reduced to this. That’s when I heard words, a voice that reverberated through my mind, my very soul.

“Not…yet. Not ready…to…see…truth. Go…back. You’ll see…in…time…little pony.”




----------




I awoke with freezing sweat plastering my mane to my face. I could barely blink my eyes before I had to put my hooves to my flattened ears as gunfire, loud and harsh, filled my head.

“Not to alarm anypony, but we’re running sort of low on ammo,” said a male voice that it took me a second to realize was Iron Wrought.

“Then grab up a’ bloody lead pipe an’ git ready fer a close in brawl!” shouted back the familiar voice of B.B, “We’re not givin’ up!”

“Estu dol volti vi rivialli, Longwalk!?”

I felt hooves on the sides of my head, turning me to look up into Arcaidia’s worry filled silver eyes. She was gently turning my head and I felt a hard, dirty mattress underneath me. I noticed the stained ceiling above us, the cracked walls around us, smeared with old blood in vaguely pornographic graffiti. Were we still in the school?

Coolness washed over my body, pushing back a wave of pain I’d barely started to notice, as Arcaidia’s horn lit up and the familiar crest of symbols appeared around it, bathing me in her pale blue glow. She looked drained, dark circles under her eyes, and I reached up to put a hoof on her horn, shaking my head.

“I…I’m okay. Don’t use up your magic, Arcaidia.”

She frowned at me as I shoved my hooves beneath me and struggled up to all four legs, panting slightly as I did so. Everything ached, and my right side felt like it’d been slid over concrete for several miles, and my chest still dully throbbed from when I’d been shot…but overall I thought I was alright. More gunshots made me look up. The room we were in wasn’t all that large, but it looked like somepony’s living space. The mattress I was on wasn’t the only one, with several more lining the wall I’d been laying against, each one covered in brown or black stains I didn’t want to guess the origin of…especially considering the chains nailed into the wall above each mattress. Opposite the mattresses was a much more neatly kept bed, next to which was an old, dusty desk with what I now recognized as a terminal on it. Along the wall to my left there were a number of old rusted lockers that didn’t look like they’d been there as part of the original room’s décor but had been moved there from somewhere else. These lockers were open, with a small pile of guns littering the ground before them.

Next to the lockers was a large metal trunk, and my spear, Gramzanber, laying on top of it.

The other wall was where the door into the room was at, and on either side of this door, which was now shredded by bullet holes, were two ponies; B.B and Iron Wrought.

B.B wasn’t using her revolvers anymore, instead having a different ivory handled revolver in her mouth that had a scope on it. Whenever she ducked her head around the side of the door to let off a shot down the hallway beyond the scoped revolver barked with a heavier blast than her foreleg revolvers, which I could only assume she wasn’t using because she was out of ammo.

Iron Wrought was using a small semi-automatic pistol, the same one I’d seen him with when we’d first met. He looked…well…rather worse for wear. Cut marks lined his legs that were too small and too deliberately placed to be from an actual fight, and his back and hindquarters were a mass of lined red welts the like of which I’d never seen caused by any weapon I knew of. His own short black mane was sweat soaked and his blue eyes were harsh if fear filled. I noted that he was wearing a single musty gray saddlebag that was filled with something bulky. The research data?

My standing up hadn’t been noticed yet by either B.B or Iron Wrought immediately, but when a stream of rapid blasts from what sounded to my ears to be a number of shotguns and rifles they both turned to see me on my hooves.

“Longwalk! Princess’ blessin’ I’m glad yer awake,” B.B said, then winced as a chunk of wall by her head got blown out and she ducked down, “Ya had me scarred stiff there when ya’ll collapsed like a’ sack o’ hammers.”

“Sorry,” I said, going to quickly retrieve Gramzamber, “I don’t know why I passed out like that. Gramzanber did…something…to me.”

“Yeah I saw that. Was like ya turned inta some blue ghost an’ zipped around, blew up that rocket in mid-air. Ain’t never seen nopony move that fast! Gave us ‘nough time ta drag ya back here ta this room,” she jerked her head in a gesture at Iron Wrought, “Found this bugger chained ta the wall there. Let ‘im loose if only so he could help us keep them Raiders at bay.”

I glanced at Iron Wrought and his eyes met mine. I saw a mix of fear, challenge, and a hint of shame in those eyes. He looked away from me without saying anything, reloading his weapon and swearing sharply under his breath when he slipped in the last clip he seemed to have on hoof.

“I wasn’t out long,” I said, mostly to myself, as I tried to make any kind of sense out of what I’d seen while unconscious. It was just…too weird, to random, and felt far larger than me. I shoved the memory aside. No time to worry about whacky dreams when you’ve got a desperate life or death situation on your hooves!

Arcaidia was standing next to me with that same concern etched on her features, and it made me feel more than little guilty for making her worry. I much preferred seeing her when she was smiling and energetically curious, rather than this. I forced a reassuring smile onto my face as I nodded to her, “Thanks for looking after me. Now that we’ve found the pony we’re looking for its time to get out of here.”

I went over and picked up Gramzanber in my teeth. The spear felt…just a little different. Lighter in my mouth, with a faint heat to the metal. Holding it not didn’t just feel comforting or familiar. Now, now it made me feel stronger. Once again I felt the sensation of here being somepony next to me, putting a comforting hoof on my back, and I turned instinctively to glance at Arcaidia, but she was still watching me. What was with these weird phantom sensations? Did I have a ghost stalker? I laughed the notion off, and was a little shocked I was even capable of laughing in this situation. I was either getting used to having my life and the lives of my friends be in mortal danger, or I was becoming a tad unhinged. Either prospect was equally unsettling.

I approached the door, though not directly, keeping to the right where B.B was and the minimal protection of the wall. Arcaidia trotted up behind me. We were both keeping huddled low, to minimize the chances bullets would zip into us.

“Right, now that I’m back among the gloriously conscious, and possibly useful, do we have a plan?” I asked B.B. The pegasus mare gave me an incredulous look, then shook her head with a helpless smile. Glad to see my friends could keep their spirits up too.

“Plan? Plan an’ us don’t seem ta go together all that well, Long. Still gotta whole bunch o’ Raiders down this here hallway, though luckily ‘nough the approach ain’t got a lot of cover fer ‘em to move in on us. Thing is, all they gotta do is wait out our ammo, then they’ll rush us.”

Something about that statement bothered me and it took me a second to realize what. Cocking my head slightly, ducking as a bullet whizzed through the drywall over my head, I asked “What about their ammo? How can they keep up this rate of fire?”

That made B.B blink, “Don’t know. Buggers must ‘ave some kinda supply elsewhere in the school.”

“Must be one impressive supply,” I muttered as the hail of gunfire continued. My brow creased in thought as I looked at the pile of weapons by the lockers, “Any of those have ammo?”

“Nah, most of ‘em were empty, an’ we’re using the ones that weren’t. Was a’ little ammo in that there desk, but we’ve just about run through that too,” said B.B, sending another heavy blast from her new revolver down the hallway, yipping as a bullet grazed her muzzle for her efforts, “Agh! Dangnabbit, we need a way outta here!”

I looked at the gradually increasing number of holes in the walls around the door that my friends…well, two friends, one I-don’t-know, were using as cover. The walls weren’t that strong, especially after two hundred years or more of gradual decay. I remembered the way Gramzanber had so neatly cut through that rebar club a Raider had tried to use to make turn my skull into a drum. Shouldn’t the spear be equally effective at making another ‘door’?

“I think I can cut us a way out through the wall,” I said, pointing with Gramzanber at the back wall, “If you can buy me a few minutes.”

“Ya serious? That’d take more than a’ few minutes Long!” B.B shouted.

“No, I got it, Gramzamber’s…sharp,” I didn’t know how else to explain it and we really didn’t have time, “Just trust me.”

I looked to Arcaidia as I crawled, head low, towards the back wall, “Arcaidia, how much juice do you have left?” I pointed at her horn and gave her what I hoped was a concerned and questioning look. I didn’t want to push her, but every minute we could get would be helpful, and I had an idea of something she could do.

Arcaidia seemed to easily understand my question, and she put on a brave face, a determined smile on her tired features as she nodded her head with an energy that couldn’t help but make me smile and hurt a little inside at the same time. She was ready and willing to do whatever needed doing, no matter the strain on her. I couldn’t stop some guilt at that, but I had to trust that she wouldn’t push herself into unconsciousness again.

I gestured at the doorway and pointed my forehead at it and made an ‘fffssshcrisssh’ sound that I figured sounded pretty much like it sounded when she created an ice wall. Arcaidia looked at me, then at the door, and then her smile turned wry as she nodded.

“B.B, Iron Wrought, back up from the door,” I said, and the two complied, though Iron Wrought was hesitant, still giving me a wary look, his tail flicking nervously. I noticed when he moved it was with a pronounced limb, favoring his left hind leg. I hadn’t noticed before but his flank on that side had a strip of flesh torn off, right where his cutie mark would have been. I felt a seething feeling roil inside me. More Raider torture? I just didn’t comprehend what was wrong with those ponies.

Arcaidia went right to work the moment B.B and Iron Wrought were clear, her horn glowing with first one layer of frosty blue magic, then a second layer, the circular crest forming around her horn flaring with many intricate symbols. A stream of blue and white frost shot out of her horn, starting at the base of the door, forming a wall of ice. Inside of a minute Arcaidia worked her way up the door until it was entirely encased a barrier of ice a foot thick. It clinked and pinged as bullets struck it and I found myself faintly wondering if it was normal for ice to be such an effective shield against firearms, or if there was something special in Arcaidia’s magic that was making her ice stronger. Either way we had our barrier, now we just needed another door.

“Hey Long, if ya think yer spear’s that sharp, try openin’ this up first,” said B.B, pointing with the barrel of her revolver at the big metal chest by the lockers. It had a thick padlock on it.

“Do we have time for this?” asked Iron Wrought, his voice sounding strained, exhausted. He was looking nervously at the ice wall.

I shrugged. Not like it’d take me more than a second anyway, and the chest might have something useful in it. You didn’t lock something if you didn’t put something in there that was worth protecting, right? I went up and aimed a quick slash at the lock. There was a little resistance but the sharp serrated edge of Gramzanber went through the lock like a good bone knife slices roasted gecko meat. Dang, I was hungry. Especially for meat. I was starting to wonder if I’d ever get a chance to sink my teeth into a nice juiced piece of gecko ever again. Oh well, lock off, let’s see what our prize was!

B.B was the one who flipped the chest open, and me and her peeked inside while Arcaidia remained by her ice barrier. Iron Wrought had lain down, breathing heavily; apparently taken any second he could to rest. I raised an eyebrow at the jumble of leather and metal I saw inside, not sure what it was at first. B.B, however, was quick to remove some of it.

“Bardin’,” she said, “Leather armored bardin’, several suits, an’ it looks like they gotta metal one in here too.”

She frowned, “What’re they doin’ with good armor all locked up in here? That don’t make a lick o’ sense fer Raiders to not use good stuff like this, asssumin’ they looted it from some poor ponies. It’s all in’ good shape too, ain’t been modified wit any o’ that Raider spikes an’ bones garbage.”

I followed her logic. It did seem strange all of this perfectly good armor would be locked up in this chest, rather than being used by the Raiders. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to puzzle it out. By now the Raiders had clearly figured out we weren’t shooting back anymore and on the other side of Arcaidia’s ice barrier I could see shapes moving, cautiously approaching. Might take them a little while to either smash their way through.

“Well, whatever the case, I got to get through the wall here,” I said as I cracked my neck, rearing up and ready to start digging away with Gramzanber. For some odd reason I felt almost a pang of indignation, as if the spear felt oddly offended I was about to use it on drywall.

“We should put on the barding while we have the time,” said Iron Wrought as I slammed Gramzamber into the wall, its long blade sliding easily through the plaster and wood, and started sawing downward. Serrated edges, they’re good for more than just looking cool!

“Yer right, gonna need every bit o’ advantage we can git,” said B.B as she tossed one of the leather barding sets to Iron Wrought and started pulling one on herself. She kicked another set of leather towards Arcaidia but the azure unicorn filly turned her nose up at the rough brown leather and ran a hoof over her dark blue dress.

“Esru vi golval, ren bruhir,” she said in a firm, slightly haughty tone. Then she winced when there was a huge slam on the ice barrier.

I didn’t turn to see what was happening, too wrapped up in my work on making us a new door, but from the slams the Raiders were taking turns bucking the ice or going at it with clubs. I could hear the slight tingling of ice cracking and Arcaidia cursing under her breath, the distinctive ringing chime of her horns magic filling the air. I chanced a glance to see she was working to repair the cracks as they appeared in the ice barrier, sweat dripping off her chin, her breathing heavy.

“Arcaidia,” I said as I finished the first sawed line through the wall, pulling out Gramzamber and shoving it back into the wall to start the other half, “Don’t push it. This’ll only take another minute!”

She huffed, blowing away stray strands of her silver mane and kept at her work. I frowned, hoping she’d pull back before having another burnout, and kept sawing. Almost…there!

By now B.B and Iron Wrought had finished putting on their respective leather bardings. The armor was made of a dark brown leather, from what kind of creature I couldn’t tell, but it was well fitted, with pads protecting the chest, shoulders, back, and flanks, lined with pockets and pouches for spare items and ammo…if we’d had any to put in them. I had to admit, while I’d liked B.B’s purple dress she’d worn during her Might and Mysterious Mirage show, she didn’t look half bad in leather. She’d had to remove a few pads to make space for her white wings to stretch through, and as she stretched them she flicked some of her brown and pink streaked mane away from her face and looked at me looking at her.

“What?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I said, and finished cutting the top line through the wall that would complete the makeshift ‘door’. As I did so I turned and gave the wall a stiff buck, and with a cloud of dust filling the room the section of wall broke away and fell forward. Through coughing sputtering I grinned, “Mares, gentlestallions, and Iron Wrought, I present to you our way out!”

Iron Wrought snorted, giving me a rolling eyed look that almost made me forget I’d come here initially to capture him for stabbing Dr. Lemon Slice. If we survived this me and him were going to have a very interesting conversation I imagined. No, when we survived, not if. Had to force myself to think positive-

-A brilliant white beam of light cut right through the ice barrier like it wasn’t even there and sizzled past my head, and I could feel parts of my mane tingle and burn off. Arcaidia’s starblaster. I could hear Bloodtrail’s voice on the other side of the barrier, his tone chiding.

“Really now, my little ponies, holing up in my room like a bunch of common thieves. Are you trying to steal my new toy and the valuable treasure he brought to me? For shame. My friends, what is the punishment for thieves among our happy family?”

The Raiders voices called back a series of highly unpleasant and in many cases downright anatomically impossible sounding things they intended to do to me and my friends when they caught us. The best of those scenarios involved us being dead before the rape, roasting, and subsequent consumption by the apparently very hungry Raiders. One voice in particular rang out louder than the others, and I recognized Binge’s high voice.

“Can I has the pretty blue mane pony for myself boss! I wanna hug him, and cut him, and bleed him, and have him at my tea party, and call him ‘Mr. Snuggle Bloods’ which I can carve into his face so he never forgets who he is!”

“Calm yourself Binge, we’ll divvy up time with our new meat once they’re ours. Now the, about this pesky ice…”

Another beam cut through the ice and Arcaidia had to duck away to keep from getting blasted. However our egress was clear, and with no wasted time the four of us crawled out the hole I’d made in the wall, staying low to try to avoid Bloodtrail’s enthusiastic use of Arcaidia’s Starblaster. At this point I was wondering if that thing ever ran out of energy.

Once through the hole I was hit with a cold wind and fresh air, my eyes adjusted to the sudden gloom of the outside. The hole had opened up right out the back of the school and led to what appeared to me to be some kind of field. It was a wide, brown, almost featureless flat field. Key term being ‘almost’. The field was strew with wreaths of wire, seemingly at random, wire that seemed to be covered with small razors and barbs. At other spots there were rusted spikes of metal jutting from the ground like deadly bushes, and other places were makeshift barriers and fences of twisted metal and random debris. It was like somepony had gone out of their way to turn an otherwise plain and empty space into a deadly little obstacle course.

“The buck is alla’ this?” B.B asked, flying a little off the ground. I noticed her injuries seemed less severe than what I’d seen when I’d passed out, and I figured Arcaidia must have hit her with a dose of healing magic as well.

“It’s a hoofball field,” said Iron Wrought, then added sourly, “Only from all the razorwire and spikes I’m guessing the Raiders don’t use it for hoofball. Or maybe they do.”

I was about to ask what hoofball was, but the sound of smashing ice behind us forestalled that, “Whatever it is its blocking our way out.”

That much was true, the way to the left or right was blocked by piles of rubble from the ruined sections of the school. The only remotely clear way away from the building and into the concrete jungle of the blasted suburbs beyond was the field ahead of us with its array of dangerous obstacles. It was either this way, or back the way we came, and back that way was a bunch of ponies who wanted to use our hides as blankets, and that was the most mild of the possibilities.

I could feel the hesitance and fear among my companions, feelings I shared. There was no time for either though, so with a deep breath I narrowed my eyes and grit my teeth, taking one step, then another forward. Before long I’d broken out into as fast a trot I could manage without risking getting tangled up in the razor wire. I slashed with Gramzamber, trying to clear a path through the obstacles that my friends could follow. I heard the behind me, and B.B caught up the fastest, being the group’s flyer.

She pulled up next to me, looking over her shoulder nervously, “We’re gonna be easy targets out in the open like this, Long.”

“I know, I know, just keep moving,” I said, grunting in pain as a misstep had some barbed wire cutting up part of my left foreleg, but I kept going, “If we can just get through this we can lose them in all those buildings.”

“Still the…positive type…I see,” said Iron Wrought between labored breaths somewhere behind me. Why was he breathing so hard? Then again, I’d only seen the surface wounds from the Raider’s treatment of him. It occurred to me there could be internal injuries.

We were only about a third of the way across the field when I heard the shuffling hoofbeats and shouts of the Raiders. They’d broken through the ice barrier and were now pouring out of the hole in the back of the school. In the dark I couldn’t quite count exactly how many there were left but at a quick glance over my shoulder I’d have guessed at least a dozen. Guess between my blowing up that rocket and the gunfight in the hallway we’d cut their numbers down somewhat.

It was small consolation considering the amount of gunfire that started filling the air, angry yellow tracers snapping around us with harsh buzzing snaps. We had the night time gloom to our advantage, granting us some small cover, but B.B was right, there wasn’t a lot of cover out here. It wouldn’t take the Raider’s long to correct their aim, either. I clenched my teeth around Gramzamber.

…If I could only use that power again. The words that had flashed through my mind, I’d understood little of it, but I think it’d referred to the power as…’Accelerator’? How could I use it again?

*beep*

Huh?

*beep* *beep*

I glanced around, trying to figure out what was causing the strange, rapid beeping noise. I caught a glimpse of a faint orange light in the dark before I felt somepony striking me, bowling me over and we went tumbling, barbed and razor wire scratching at us as we did so. For a second I was panicked that a Raider had rushed me, but the following small explosion nearby ceased that train of thought, followed by the pony on top of me hauling me to my hooves roughly. It was Iron Wrought. He had blood trickling down his face from a cut on his forehead but the green earth pony didn’t seem to notice as he glared at me.

“A minefield, you led us into a bloody minefield.”

I didn’t know what he was talking about by B.B, flying nearby, shouted, “Guys! No stoppin’, shift yer arses! Pardon my Prench!”

Neither I nor Iron Wrought needed to be told twice and be began to beat hooves again. As much trouble as me and Iron Wrought seemed to be having with the strewn wire, I noticed Arcaidia was lightly stepping over and around the barbed and razor wire with an almost ghostly grace. As tired as she was she still seemed to have a spur of energy in her that was honestly encouraging. Not to mention the Raider’s aim didn’t seem to be improving, even as they chased us into the deadly field of wire, spikes, and…mines, was it? Dumb name for something that explodes. Wouldn’t ‘landbomb’ make more-

-A bullet struck my right flank, causing me to yelp and start to fall, a string a razor wire right in front of me.

“Whoa nelly!” B.B grabbed my mane with her teeth, saving me from a nasty fall, but just as I righted myself, hobbling on my remaining good legs, another bullet caught her left wing and she dropped, forcing me to hop over a step and catch her on my back.

She growled, both in anger and in pain, and shook her hoof at the Raiders, “Dang-nab-IT! Mah wings! Why always mah buckin’ wings!?”

Up ahead was a pile of twisted metal wreckage formed into a rough barricade of spikes and barbed wire, one of the only things out here that could serve as any kind of cover. I was straining under the pain in my flank, and grunted past clenched teeth as B.B slid off me, getting shakily to her hooves.

“Everypony, behind this!” I called out.

Amid the storm of bullets coming our way me and my friends managed to get behind the barricade, though it was so thin and had plenty of gaps in it that we all had to hunker down to avoid the bullets that would skip through it. I had my face practically pressed into the grimy dirt, trying to ignore the ripping pain in my flank, and the feeling of hot blood soaking my leg. Part of me was wondering if I was ever going to be able to go a full day again without getting injured. The other part of me was answering ‘Not a chance buck-o, this is the Wasteland’.

Glancing to my left I saw Arcaidia looking at me, or rather, looking at Gramzamber. The unicorn’s expression was pensive. Next to me B.B was drawing her revolver and checking the chamber, the pegasus’ face sweating proverbial bullets.

“Two shots, “she sighed, “I got two shots left.”

“Five on mine, I think,” said Iron Wrought, also drawing his small semi-auto and holding it gingerly in his mouth as he kept his head low, one hoof over it as if that’d provide protection.

I gulped. The barricade we were behind was almost dead center in the middle of the field of deadly traps. If we abandoned it the Raiders were probably close enough now that they’d have an easy time gunning us down. Fear was clenching my guts, making my heart hammer. We were running out of options. In fact, it seemed like we had next to none. I wracked my mind for some way out of this, some way I could get everypony here out of this alive, and I was coming up blank. Unless I could activate that power again, activate Accelerator. Maybe then I could provide enough of a distraction, keep the Raiders busy long enough, for the others to escape.

Yes, my only plan hinged on utilizing a power I had no idea how to activate again, and judging from the way it’d affected me last time, could potentially kill me. Bask in awe of my tactical brilliance!

“Everypony,” I said, “Get ready to make another break for it, when I give the signal.”

“Longwalk, what are ya plannin’?” asked B.B, sounding nervous.

I just smiled at her helplessly, “Something dumb.”

B.B met my eyes, narrowed her own, and poked me in the chest with her hoof, “Nope, had enough of ya doin’ things that’re gonna git ya killed.”

“What else do you suggest?” I asked, wincing as a bullet grazed my cheek. The gunfire was dropping off a bit, but I could hear the Raider’s picking their way through the field towards us, their delirious, mad, and malicious laughter and taunts filling the air.

B.B gave me a hard look, her violet eyes filled with a fire I’d never seen before as she said, “We fight together, an’ we win together.”

With that she gripped her revolver in her mouth and tensed herself, ready to spring and attack. I starred at her, amazed at her steadfastness. Whereas I’d been getting more and more desperate, and I imagined it was showing on my face, B.B was projecting a burning determination to survive. I felt that feeling seep into me, and I felt like I could think a little clearer, ignore my own pain a little more.

“You’re all crazy,” said Iron Wrought, “Seriously. At least if we make a break for it one of us might make it…”

“Esru dol verna rir vi corvari, sholvar. Run…fine…go,” Arcaidia said, waving a hoof at Iron Wrought dismissively as she squared her own shoulders and wreathed her horn in icy blue light.

Iron Wrought looked between all of us, looked behind him at the remaining half of the field of deadly spikes, wire, and mines he’d need to cross, and made a frustrated growl, “I just want my family to be safe again…” he muttered, then took up his pistol in his mouth, nodding to me.

Well, looked like we were all going to be doing something dumb. I found myself okay with that. Despite the odds, I felt encouraged. Because I had ponies by my side, friends, I realized, that I could trust to not abandon me any more than I would abandon them. Even Iron Wrought had to be feeling it, this odd sense of unity even in desperate straits.

And if I could still figure out how to activate Accelerator again, it’d up the chances we’d all make it through this. Assuming it didn’t end up killing me.

“Right then, on three…” I said, “One…two…three!”

I don’t think the Raiders had been expecting the attack. They’d advanced on our position in a disorganized cluster, half of them with melee weapons up front, the rest with guns hanging in back. I could see Bloodtrail in his worn and torn black suit at the very back of the cluster, the midnight blue unicorn looking quite pleased with himself and still floating Arcaidia’s starblaster in an aura of green magic. That pleased look faltered as he saw us charge around our barricade so suddenly, and vanished entirely when B.B’s first shot rang out in the night and took out a Raider mare next to him, splattering his suit with blood.

Iron Wrought let out his own quick double-tap, one of the bullets tearing into the throat of another Raider. Both him and B.B were focusing on the Raider’s with guns, and I approved as that left me and Arcaidia to deal with the melee fighters.

Arcaidia lowered her head and pointed her horn, a flash of blue accompanying her cone of icy shards that pelted into the lead melee Raiders, freezing one knife wielding stallion on the spot and spearing another mare with a shard through the chest, causing her to drop the hammer she’d been carrying and to fall over, shrieking loudly.

“Don’t just stand there you morons! Kill them!” I heard Bloodtrail roar, his cultured and cordially mocking tone from before now gone under a mad rage that revealed he was, in the end, no different than any other Raider despite how he dressed himself. A blinding beam of white split the night as he fired the starblaster, but the aim was off, and I could see the reason why as a blue aura began to intermingle with his green.

Arcaidia was focused on him now, working to wrest control of her starblaster away from the Raider leader, though this was taking all of her concentration. She’d be vulnerable if any Raiders attacked her now. Not wanting to give any of them a chance I dove into the midst of the remaining four melee fighters, charging in first at a tall, pink mare who outsized me by a good margin. I suddenly recognized her vermillion mohawk mane. It was Friendly Fire, the rocket wielding nut job. Only now she was carrying a big blade in her mouth that looked like somepony had decided to carve something vaguely sword shaped out of a wagon bumper. She apparently recognized me too, as she grinned crazily and snarled at me.

She smashed downward with the bumper sword and I flung my own head up, angling Gramzamber to block. Silver spear met rusty blade in a shower of sparks and though my legs burned fiercely from pain and my flank was writing in agony I held my ground and stood up to the blow. This seemed to surprise, even unbalance the bigger mare as she backed up a step from the clash.

I took advantage of her lack of balance and moved in slashing out with Gramzamber’s blade at her chest. Some back part of my brain was wondering if this would be the moment I ended up taking a life, if I really could do this. That part was drowned out by the heat and pain of the moment and the absolute knowledge I now had that if I didn’t fight with everything I had, my friends would not just die, but die in whatever horrible number of ways these Raiders could dream up. I wasn’t striking with intent to kill, but I wasn’t holding back either.

Friendly Fire saw my slash and backpedaled from it, taking a shallow slice on her chest, but avoiding a critical wound. However as she backed up a now unpleasantly familiar beeping filled the air. Both me and her looked down to see the blinking orange light underneath her hoof.

It was strange, because she looked at me with an odd expression and shrugged as she said, “Fuckin’ figur-“

I threw myself away from the explosion, feeling dirt, metal bits, and warm wet meaty bits plaster me. When I raised my head to look I had to suppress an urge to wretch. I’d seen worse by this point, but I wasn’t all that pleased to see what was left of Friendly Fire. And I didn’t even have time to consider if that counted as my first kill or not because the fight was far from done.

While Arcaidia was magically struggling with Bloodtrail, the starblaster flying and flipping about through the air between them, the weapon sent white beams of light slashing across the field. One such beam hit and vaporized a Raider who’d been coming up on Iron Wrought’s left while the green earth pony fired his last shots into a Raider who’d been charging him with a metal spike fashioned into a makeshift spear. But then his weapon ran dry and I cried out as I watched another Raider with a shotgun blast Iron Wrought in the side and the earth pony dropped like a sack. I couldn’t tell if he was dead or not.

I heard the heavy roar of B.B’s new revolver, her last shot too, which took out the Raider that’d shot Iron Wrought. The pegasus spat out the empty revolver and bent down to scoop up a small rifle in her mouth from the first pony she’d shot, but a Raider with an sub-machine gun sent a spray of bullets her way that not only knocked the rifle out of her teeth, but pelted her shoulder and caused her to cry out and fall to the ground.

I grit my teeth. NO! We were so close! We couldn’t lose here! If only I could use Accelerator again. For the first time since I’d taken up the spear I tried to…focus on it. To respond to that familiar pressure in my head that was always there, just at the edge of my perceptions. For just a second I felt a shift in my mind, a slight increase in the pressure. I felt a mix of feelings all at once that I wasn’t at all sure were mine. One was readiness, a sort of eagerness, as if Gramzanber had been waiting for me to finally acknowledge it as something more than a weapon in my mouth. The other feeling was odd, both scared and relieved, and it felt like it was trying to warn me about something.

I didn’t have time to sort it out, I just needed the power. I’d deal with the consequences later.

“Ooooh you look so cute with that serious face! But you need to smile, smile, smile more!”

Pain ripped into my leg, and I felt a pony’s head suddenly bend under my stomach and with a single heave send me flying up and onto the ground. Great, just when I was getting good at keeping on my hooves in a fight somepony had to cripple my other good back leg. I was seriously starting to think the Wasteland as a whole was paying special attention to me. Or maybe this was just a normal day in the life? From my experiences so far I was leaning towards the latter option being the more likely possibility.

I blinked to clear my dizzy vision and saw a knife in my back left leg, and in seconds a familiar light green mare was on top of me, puling another knife from a bandolier across her chest as she stared down at me with a widely smiling face.

At this close distance I couldn’t help but notice that Binge had freckles, little dark spots covering her cheeks. A smelt sour sweat and a muskier, thicker scent as she bent over me, knife in her teeth, and somehow speaking perfectly clear around it. The spiked wrappings around her hooves bit into my chest, but she seemed more interested in using her knife on me, one of many I noticed from a bandolier of the jagged things she’d apparently gotten between now and our last scuffle.

“You make Friendly Fire go boom! That was pretty cool! See, I told you you just had to let go! It’s easy, easy, easy!”

She pressed the knife down towards my throat, but I still had Gramzanber stuck in my teeth and I raised my own chin, putting the serrated edge of the blade against her throat at the same moment her knife touched mine. We sat there a moment, her straddling me, me on my back with blood pouring from my wounds, coating my face, and staring into her eyes.

“Ooo, you gonna do it?” she asked, wiggling on top of me, “I think Friendly Fire was an accident, but you gonna do it to me nice and dirty like, up close and personal so you can taste the blood? Hehehehehe, do it, do it, you’ll feel so much better afterward, I promise.”

“What’s wrong with you?” I didn’t have time for this, I didn’t have time to deal with this crazy mare, but I couldn’t help it, she was nuts in a way that seemed different even for a Raider, “Do you want to die?”

“No, no, no, you silly goose. I don’t want to die because I’m already dead. Everypony in the Wasteland is dead. Dead, gone, buried, souls gone to sleep, hush now, quiet now. You’re still alive though and that’s a bad thing, because that means you’ll be hurt. So I want you to die, so you don’t have to hurt. Then you can be like me, and we can hang out, and have tea, and play games…forever!”

She began to press down with her knife; I felt the tip pricking into my hide. At the same time the much sharper edge of Gramzanber was cutting into her throat, but she didn’t seem to care, just giggling as the blade began to cut a line of red on her green coat.

“Stop it!” I said and in desperation shoved my forelegs underneath her and pushed up with all the strength I could muster. She gave a little squeal as she was flung off and I felt her knife drag a little on my throat before it left. It didn’t penetrate, but I could feel the hot trickle of blood on my neck now as I hobbled to my hooves, barely able to stand with my shot right flank and stabbed left hind leg.

Binge was getting up too, giggling, with a small seep of blood staining her own neck as she looked at me, “Big Sis Binge keeps trying to help you, little silly filly-” hey, I was a buck dang it!...wait, not important right now “-, but you just keep trying so hard not to learn. This calls for drastic measures!”

For once I was agreeing with her, the situation called for drastic steps. From what I could see including Binge and Bloodtrail there were six Raiders left. The other four were either trying to take cover from the lightshow of deadly beams firing from the starblaster Arcaidia and Bloodtrail were magically wrestling with, or were angling to get in on the fight between me and Binge. Which meant I had to end this now.

Both me and Binge enacted our ‘desperate measures’ at the same time. She reached into her mane and pulled out, of all things, an apple grenade! I delved into my mind and pushed at the pressure I felt there, focusing all of my mind on Gramzanber and thinking one solid thought; Accelerator!

Binge pulled the stem and tossed the grenade between us, so close that it’d kill us both when it blew. At the same instant I felt Gramzanber respond, flooding my body with that same wash of warmth and strength that blocked pain and tinged the world in cobalt blue, wreathing the blade of the spear itself with a hue of fire like azure light.

Everything slowed, just as before.

I didn’t know how long I should let this last, but I knew what I needed to do. I was going to end this fight now. I surged forward, feeling light on my hooves, like an expertly tossed spear sailing towards its target. I intercepted the now slow sailing grenade and battled it aside, sending it flying slowly towards Bloodtrail. Then, pumping even more speed into my legs even in this enhanced state, I all but flew towards the remaining four Raiders, a cobalt bolt of living lightning. When I reached the first Raider there was a moment, just a moment, to decide what path I was going to take. Again that voice from somewhere inside me spoke with cold practicality.

If you can’t kill now, when will you ever? Now, when everything is at stake? What will it take, Longwalk, for the Wasteland to finally get through to you? Who are you to deny its truths? Do you even know?

Ultimately, I didn’t. I didn’t know who I was to deny everything the Wasteland stood for or told me was correct, and had existed in this state of simple practical brutality for two hundred years.

But I knew what I wasn’t.

I wasn’t a killer. I was still a pony who couldn’t take the life of another, not now. So I cut tendons in legs, sliced weapons in half, destroying them, I smacked the back of heads with the shaft of my spear. I did everything I could to cripple my enemies while they were busy slowly reacting in a state of time and perception far reduced from what I was experiencing. One of them even managed to spray a shower of bullets from a sub machine gun, but sidestepping the now visible pullets trailing through the air was almost simple.

I was almost back to Binge when I realized I’ been using Accelerator longer than my first run, and a stab of worry as to how bad it’d affect me I thought hard at Gramzanber, hoping it’d get the message and shut the power down. To my surprise the thought was enough and the blue washed away from my vision, and the world returned to normal speed. I saw Raiders fall to the ground screaming from the wounds I’d inflicted, and Bloodtrail yelp at the sudden grenade landing next to him. The suit wearing Raider dove away and rolled from the explosion, saving himself from a messy death, but in doing so losing his concentration on holding onto the starblaster.

“HA! Ti golval solaria! Vi Vira!” Arcaidia was ecstatic, to say the least. She practically bounced around in a little hopping dance as she floated her starblaster back to her side, wreathed in her frosty glow of magic. She even rubbed the weapon against her cheek affectionately. Then she looked at the Raiders with a frozen smile and the dreaded ‘kitten drowning’ look returning to her features in full force.

“Arcaidia…um…take it easy,” I said, then felt my body seize up, all the pain returning to me tenfold and my muscles going in spasms from the backlash of using Accelerator. I fell over like a logged tree.

“Damn it all,” I heard Bloodtrail say and through hazy vision saw him start to scamper back towards the school, “The time for a tactical withdrawal seems to have arrived.”

“I’d say the time for that was a long ways back,” said a mechanical voice, “Before I showed up.”

There was a loud, echoing gunshot, and I saw Bloodtrail pitch over with the back of his head blowing out in a spray of red chunks. Floating over his body, flying out from the hole I’d made in the back of the school, was a sight that would’ve made me laugh in pure joy and relief if I wasn’t so busy being paralyzed in pain and puking up blood.

The big barrel of the turret slung under her mechanical frame still smoking, LIL-E floated up to the scene and seemed to hover there a second, observing all of us cut, shot, beaten, and barely alive.

“So,” asked the robot in her mechanical monotone, “What’d I miss?”



----------



I coughed and sputtered a bit but otherwise greedily drank down the healing potion, trying and failing to suppress my groan of pleasure and relief as it shoved life giving magic back into my system. This was the third potion I’d drunk and while it was far from being enough to deal with the total amount of injury my body had sustained, it was doing wonders nonetheless. I could actually move my hindlegs without causing shooting pain up and down my haunches could breathe without it burning my chest.

LIL-E had brought us the healing potions, stored in a side compartment on her metal hide. The robot had distributed them as soon as she was sure there was no further danger from the Raiders.

Of the four that had been left when I’d used Accelerator there were three still alive, one of them having had to be shot by LIL-E when he’d still tried to raise a gun at her. The others had surrendered without any further resistance. One of those survivors was Binge, who kept looking at me with a creepy, unblinking stare as I’d rested and drunk my healing potions.

B.B and Iron Wrought were nearby, nursing their own potions. Iron Wrought’s side was torn up badly from the shotgun blast, and even with the healing potion I could see that the earth pony was breathing in a labored fashion…but I was glad he was alive. All the questions I had for him aside I’d seen more than enough death, and wasn’t holding onto any more illusions I was going to be able to avoid seeing more of it in the coming days, weeks, months…who knew how long before all this was over.

B.B seemed to be doing much better, experimentally flexing her wings. She saw me looking and gave me a wan smile, “Should just git the dang things cybered up, way they keep getting’ shot at.”

I smiled, shaking my head, “I think they’re fine as is. They look…good.”

I had to admit I liked the way pegasi wings looked. So thin and elegant, graceful even. I admired their strength, the way they could hold their charges aloft with such ease despite their fragile appearance. A pegasus, with wings flared out, had a almost noble, mythical look to them. I found myself wondering what the wings felt like. I knew a little of what it was like to have them, from Airheart’s memory orb, but I was more curious what it would feel like to touch them with my own hoof, or be caressed by one in return…

…I looked away from B.B, hoping my face wasn’t showing the heat I felt on my cheeks. Not the time to be thinking like that. Besides, I still hadn’t sorted how I felt about Trailblaze. Until I got home to her again and was able to really determine if I just thought of her as a friend I shouldn’t be looking at other mares.

Speaking of other mares, Arcaidia was still cooing a little over her freshly returned starblaster, having drunk down her own healing potions while carefully examining her weapon. I’d watched with a sort of entranced fascination as she’d held the starblaster in her magic and had with great meticulous detail taken the weapon apart piece by piece, looked over every part while making small cooing or clucking noises, and had used her magic to clean off parts of it while slowly reassembling the entire affair back into proper shape.

“Is everypony feeling better?” called LIL-E from her hovering position near the Raiders, “Seeping wounds not seeping, cracked bones less cracked, and nopony immediately in danger of falling unconscious?”

The last bit I felt may have been directed at me, given right after she’d arrived and killed Bloodtrail, I’d collapsed again. I’d managed to remain conscious long enough for LIL-E to distribute the healing potions from her side compartment, getting B.B and Iron Wrought on their hooves so they could force feed me a healing potion as well…but I’d nearly passed out again. Whatever benefits Accelerator had in terms of letting me fight, it had a nasty side affect when I ended it. I’d have to be more careful in the future, make it a point of carrying some healing potions myself.

“I’m alive,” I said.

“Kickin’ and flappin’,” said B.B with a wiggle of her wings.

“Meh,” said Iron Wrought with a bleary look in his eyes.

“Esru golval!” chirped Arcaidia happily.’

“Good,” said LIL-E, “Now then, anypony got a particularly compelling reason why I shouldn’t execute these Raiders?”

I found myself blinking as I stammered, “W-what?”

B.B was frowning thoughtfully next to me, neither enthused nor looking like she was in any rush to object. Iron Wrought just spat and said, “Knock yourself out.”

“Wait,” I said, getting to my hooves and trotting over to LIL-E, “Why kill them?”

The dark colored eyebot hovered a little towards me, though her turret never ceased pointing at the Raiders, one of which was cowering, another of which was glaring at us. Binge was still looking at me with that inscrutable gaze but I saw her mouth quirking in a little smile. I noticed out of the corner of my eye her cutie mark, which I hadn’t had time to really spot during our fight. A tankard with the bottom cut out, a coppery colored liquid flowing out of it.

“Longwalk, they’re Raiders,” LIL-E might have lacked inflection with her mechanical tone, but she still managed to make it sound like she was talking with a foal, “Their list of life skills involve; killing, raping, cannibalism, and torture. You saw for yourself this…this ‘school’. You saw the bones, the bodies. So my question for you is; why not kill them?”

I found myself looking at the Raiders, feeling the same boiling sense of disgust and anger I’d felt when I’d seen the fire pits and bones, the horrible entrance to the school with its rotting dead pony décor. The cowering Raider was a black earth pony with a messy piss yellow mane and a cutie mark of a skull being bashed in with a crowbar. The Raider that was glaring at us was a burly unicorn mare with a cracked horn, red coat, and purple mane done up in braids with pieces of barbed wire mixed in. Her cutie mark being a blood covered garrote of the same barbed wire in her hair. Then there was Binge, staring at me, smiling ever so slightly in that crazed manner of hers.

These were not good ponies. They were the kind of ponies my mother’s warning had been about, perhaps more so than the likes of the Labor Guild and Crossfire. Ponies who were the living embodiment of the Wasteland’s pain, madness, and sickness. It would be easy to think of them as nothing more than something to be expunged. And perhaps that was the right way to think. It was certainly the smart way to think.

Remember folks, not the brightest colt in my tribe.

“Killing them won’t change anything they’ve done.”

“If we let them go, they’ll just hurt other ponies, eventually,” said LIL-E.

“I…I know. But I…” I struggled to find the words to properly get across what was going through my mind, to sort out the confusion, “If we kill them, they can’t…ever change.”

“They won’t change anyway.”

“I can!” said the cowering Raider, “I totally can. Just…just don’t kill me! I don’t wanna die! I’m sorry about all the things I did-“

“Oh shut the fuck up Braindead,” said the red Raider mare with a look of disgust on her face, “Everypony can hear how much of a lie that shit is. Just yesterday you were itching to get a turn with the green buck-toy over there,” she jutted her chin at Iron Wrought, who bristled and cringed away from the look, “You’re as fucked as the rest of us. Don’t pretend otherwise.”

Binge started breaking out into giggles and the red mare glared at her, “And you! The fuck’s up with you!? You had this asshole-” she now fixed her glare on me, and I met the stare despite feeling like she was peeling my skin off with her eyes, “-by his little scrotum, all ready for the kill, and what do you do? You fucking talk at him, straddling him like you’re wet for a ride?”

“Hehehehe, oh Redwire, you mad? I was having fun! The nice bucky-whucky is so cute and naïve I just wanted to help him. Show him how to play dead like the rest of us. Hehehe!”

“Fucking whack-job,” Redwire muttered, then fixed her fiery gaze on LIL-E “Whatever. Death is what happens to everypony in the Wasteland eventually. So knock yourself out robot. Splatter me. It’ll spare me having to listen to this sanctimonious shit’s idealistic prattle.”

The last was directed at me, in case you were wondering. I wasn’t entirely sure her assessment of me wasn’t wrong. Just about everything I’d seen in this world, this wide Wasteland my tribe had hidden away from, said that to be anything other than a willing killer was to open yourself up to death and the deaths of those who counted on you. I’d told Doc Sunday I could protect Arcaidia, protect his daughter, and now more than ever I was starting to realize just how heavy the burden of keeping that promise was going to be.

I looked at Redwire, meeting her challenging look. LIL-E remained silent. Maybe whoever was on the other end of that floating little deadly eyebot was curious to see what choice I would make, was willing to let me be the one to make the choice. I always regretted never telling her how much I appreciated her giving me that choice.

“Redwire, if you leave here alive, what will you do?” I asked.

The Raider threw her head back and laughed at me, “I’ll go find another gang to hang out with and get right back to killing and fucking as I please, duh! Might even come looking for you with a bigger, better gun, take your friends out around you, so you can watch them bleed out, then take my sweet, sweet time showing you what a dumbass you are.”

I nodded, slowly, feeling a strange calm, coldness in me and then looked at Braindead, “How about you? What will you do, if you live through this day?”

The thin black pony looked up at me, his body trembling, a far cry from the snarling Raiders I’d seen trying to kill me and my friends just an hour ago, “I-I…I’ll uh…not do what she said…I’ll, um, do the other thing? Be a…good pony?”

There was no confidence in his voice, just fear. I nodded again, and then looked at Binge. She didn’t even wait for me to ask and smiled at me, giggling.

“Oh silly nilly, it doesn’t matter what I do. I’m already dead. All of us are. You don’t have to worry about little old Binge.”

There was almost a full minute of silence. Iron Wrought was shaking, though I couldn’t tell if it was from building anger as he stared daggers at the Raiders, or if it was from simple exhaustion. B.B was giving me a thoughtful look, violet eyes unreadable. Arcaidia looked…bored by the proceedings, though the idly way she kept pointing her starblaster towards the Raiders suggested she was in LIL-E’s camp on this one, but she seemed just as happy letting me decide this one.

At length I looked at the Raiders, and then nodded my head across the field, out towards the ruins of civilization and the blasted Wasteland.

“Go. All of you.”

Redwire blinked, then shook her head and scoffed, muttering again “Dumbass.”

LIL-E made an odd sound that might have been a mechanical sigh.

Iron Wrought all but growled at me, “Are you out of your little pony mind!?”

He bent his head down to retrieve one of the gun’s from a fallen Raider, but B.B put a hoof on his shoulder, giving him a firm look as she said, “Leave it be.”

“You agree with him!? Its Goddesses damned stupid! You don’t. Let. Raiders. Live!”

Something strange passed through B.B’s eyes, a sort of hurt that flashed through her violet orbs but was gone the moment it appeared, “Not disagreein’ with ya. Fer most, killin’s the only way ta make sure they don’t hurt nopny else…”

“Then let’s shoot them now and be done with it! What’s it matter what Longwalk decides? Nopony put him in charge!”

True enough, there’d been no real decision as to who was leading here. I’d made the choice because, for whatever reason, LIL-E seemed to want me to be the one to make it. So I had. Now I needed to stick by the choice. I looked at Iron Wrought, putting myself between him and the Raiders.

“Are you going to shoot me, too, then?”

Iron Wrought narrowed his eyes at me, “I should. Save the rest of the Wasteland from your idealistic foal’s dreams. You should go back to your tribe, buck; because now more than ever it’s pretty damned clear you don’t belong out here.”

“Maybe not, but I am here, and I’m not going back home until I finished what I started with Arcaidia. Now are you going to try to shoot me and these ponies, or are you done blustering?”

A slow tense moment passed as Iron Wrought and me locked gazes. Gramzanber was lying near where I’d been resting, but even without it I was willing to charge Iron Wrought and try to take him down if he made a move for that gun. Eventually he blew out an irritated sigh and walked away from us, saying “When you are all done being idiots I’ll be inside.”

B.B gave me a brief look before flying after him, I imagined keeping an eye on him and making sure he didn’t run off.

Redwire gave the scene one last contemptuous look before she began to trot away. Braindead practically looked like he was going to collapsed from relief and scrambled away even faster than Redwire was trotting. The two Raiders seemed intimately familiar with their field of traps and got across easily enough…but I noted it was just the two leaving. Binge was still sitting there smiling.

“Um,” I said nervously, pointing my hoof across the field, “I said you could go.”

“I know,” she said, “So that means I can go wherever I want, yes?”

“I…guess…?” I suddenly had a bad feeling about this.

“Yay!” Binge said, hopping on her hooves, “Then I’m going to go with you my silly little pony! We’re gonna have fun, and I can show you how to have a proper tea party, and we’ll play charades, oh have you ever played charades with a dead body? It’s really cool, I’ll show you. We have plenty of bodies to choose from and…why are you all looking at little old me like that?”



----------



We were still recovering from the fight. And recovering from Binge. She never seemed to stop talking. We’d decided to rest a bit inside the living space we’d been barricaded in earlier, the room where Iron Wrought had been found, along with the weapons and armor. Not to mention the terminal.

B.B was checking out the terminal in question. Iron Wrought was tucked in the corner, taking the time to use some relatively clean scraps of the blanket from the bed to further bandage the cuts on his legs and lashes on his flanks. Arcaidia was poking her nose around the lockers and was generally pacing, occasionally casting irritated glances at Binge. Me, LIL-E, and Binge were sitting (well, the ponies sat, the eyebot hovered) in a circle and talking.

“Binge, if you come with me I need to lay down some rules,” I was explaining, in what I was hoping was a stern tone. I didn’t really know how to do this but I was adopting what I hoped was something similar to the way my mother spoke and held herself when scolding me.

“Rules, rules, rules, like tiny barbed chains in the hide. You want to play dirty with me all you have to do is ask. I don’t mind wearing a leash, just don’t choke me. And you have to wear the leathers then. Oooh, and what’s our safe word gonna be?”

“I…huh? Look, all I’m saying is that if you’re going to travel with us, there are some basic rules. Rule one; no killing. Uh, not unless it’s a monster attacking us, or something like that, or we’re all in serious danger. Rule two; no weird Raider stuff. I’m serious, try to act…normal. Er, normal-ish. Oh, and rule three; help out. Me and Arcaidia got a long journey ahead of us, so if you’re coming along, help. Sound fair?”

“Fair as a meat hook!”

“…I’ll take that as an agreement,” I said, shaking my head.

“Still think you’re crazy Longwalk,” said LIL-E, “Think your friends are crazier for letting you agree to this.”

“I don’t really mind,” said B.B from the terminal, not looking up from it, “I’ve heard o’ crazier shenanigans than a’ Raider pony turnin’ ‘round a new leaf. Ain’t common, but…y’know, I’ve heard o’ it happenin’. ‘Sides if she try’s somethin’ funny Longwalk knows I’ll do what I gotta.”

I did at that. B.B could be pretty easy going, but when it came to life or death situations she lacked any of the hesitance and doubts I harbored. B.B could and will kill Binge the second the Raider mare did anything out of line. Binge didn’t seem to notice the implied threat, or care about it if she had noticed.

Arcaidia looked at Binge and merely sniffed, turning her head up, “Longwalk di frivol dol armrival. Longwalk…nice…pony. Too…nice.”

I sighed, hanging my head, “Don’t know how else to be.”

“Gonna hafta figure you a way ta git ‘round that issue, sooner ‘er later,” said B.B, “Otherwise yer, and hence our, luck’ll run out.”

I didn’t bring up Friend Fire as a point here. That had been, honestly, more of an accident than anything. If she hadn’t stepped on that mine then chances were I’d have just tried to disable her like I had the other Raiders I’d fought. Didn’t mean I wasn’t responsible for it, and I hadn’t figured out just how I felt about that. It was the same way I was responsible for Saddlespring, deaths I didn’t mean to be a part of causing, but had to accept that I did. Raider or not, good pony or not, I was starting to realize I just had an issue with death. Most ponies did, of course, it was only natural, but I noticed most Wasteland ponies just learned to accept it as a necessary part of survival.

I wasn’t there yet. Wasn’t sure I ever wanted to be…and was less sure I’d continue to be allowed the luxury of the choice. With an icy feeling in my stomach I was certain that B.B was right. Sooner, rather than later, I’d have to decide whether or not I could kill.

So, time to distract myself from that morose line of thinking!

“Iron Wrought,” I said, looking over at the green earth pony, “Now that we’re all out of immediate danger of death and bloody dismemberment, care to explain to us why you stabbed the doctor and stole her research stuff?”

“Oh, good, was wondering if you were going to get to that or I’d be stuck reminding you,” said LIL-E, “Doc Sunday’s got Lemon Slice patched up and sent me to make sure you three were alright. Rather curious myself as to what this is all about.”

“So its interrogation time then?” asked Iron Wrought, meeting my eyes, “If I don’t tell you, what will you do? Torture me for the answers?”

“No. I’m just asking your reasons. I’m taking the research back to the doctor, one way or another, answers or no answers. I just don’t get it. Why do it?”

Iron Wrought drew in a slow, deep breath, then let it out just as slowly, ears flattening to the back of his head, “Because I was ‘hired’ to, and because while I might have had a choice, it was a choice between doing the job, or letting my family die. Not really much of a choice.”

“Let me guess, one of the Guild’s back-stabbin’ double-dealin’ affairs, right?” asked B.B with a sour look, though I couldn’t tell if it was from the line of discussion or her efforts with the terminal. I didn’t know what she was doing with it. She kept clacking her hooves and wingtips on the keys, frowning as she paused, clacking again, then she’d wait a few seconds and start the process over again. Did look rather aneurism inducing, whatever she was doing.

“More or less,” said Iron Wrought, voice heavy, “Before I even left on the run to Saddlespring I’d been approached by a representative of a certain Guild. They knew about the Labor Guild discovering something important in Saddlespring, though they didn’t have a clue what. They did know though that Dr. Lemon Slice was there. She’s sort of the Labor Guild’s little golden mare for developing drugs for their slaves. My instructions were to find out what she was researching, steal the research, and kill her in the process. My ‘employers’ didn’t want her working for the Labor Guild anymore.”

“Which Guild hired you?” asked LIL-E.

In the same moment I asked, “How is your family being threatened?”

Iron Wrought gave us a sour look, “Since I’ve failed and my wife and son’s lives are forfeit, suppose I might as well tell you. It’s the Skull Guild. They can threaten anypony, anywhere in Skull City, because they all but own the city. A lowly Labor Guild pony like me, if approached by one of their agents…well I do what I’m told, because the Labor Guild might protect my family if I was higher ranking, but I’m not, so they wouldn’t, so I did what I had to do. Or tried to anyway.”

“Skull Guild…” LIL-E buzzed, “I’m afraid I’m still getting up to date on this region. Haven’t heard of them.”

“They ain’t near as widespread as the other Guilds,” said B.B, “But Iron Wrought ain’t lyin’, inside and around Skull City itself, they’re at the top o’ the pile.”

“How’s that? What do they do exactly?” I asked, frowning. The Guild’s I’d heard so far all made sense. Labor Guild deals in labor, Mechanics’ Guild dealt with machines, ect. So what could something called the Skull Guild deal in?

“They run the ghouls,” said B.B with a shrug of her wings, “Keep the feral ones from takin’ the city, an’ keep the sane ones sane.”

I gave her a blank stare. She noticed it and blinked, then chuckled, “Right, keep forgettin’ how little ya know ‘bout Wasteland stuff. Just…uh…take it from me, ghouls can be alright, but feral ones are nasty business…and Skull City is a city of ghouls. Means the Skull Guild’s got a lot of power inside the city. Not much outside it mind, but every other Guild’s gotta pay a bit o’ tribute to the to keep the ferals off their doorstep.”

“So they’re powerful, I got that much,” I said, frowning, hoof idly rubbing the flat of Gramzanber’s blade laying next to me, “So how are we going to protect Iron Wrought’s family?”

“What?” Iron Wrought asked.

“Huh?” said B.B

“Avra?” said Arcaidia.

“Muffins?” asked Binge.

“Figured,” said LIL-E.

I paused, looking around at everypony briefly before sheepishly saying, “Its just…well…I mean I get now why Iron Wrought did it. Now I’m concerned how we can keep his family safe.”

Iron Wrought stared at me a moment, before slowly shaking his head, “Crazy. Why are you such a crazy pony? I know you’re young, a tribal, and barely get the Wasteland…but just, why Longwalk? We’re not friends. You don’t owe me anything.”

“That’s debatable. I have it on good authority I’ll befriend anypony, so don’t tempt me,” I said, wagging a hoof threateningly at him, “Besides, haven’t you noticed? I’m not a smart pony. If your wife and son are in danger, I’d like to find a way to help, because it’s what I’d want anypony to be willing to do for me.”

“Dumb reasoning,” Iron Wrought said, shaking his head, “Not that I don’t appreciate it, but what can you do? I return to Skull City without the research, my family dies, then I join them. Simple as that. Unless you’re going to let me walk?”

I considered that, rubbing my chin with a hoof, “Well, I did kind of tell the doctor I’d get her research back. She sounded like she really needed it. Who knows what the Labor Guild might do to her if she doesn’t deliver those disc thingies.”

“Wait,” said LIL-E “If the research is recorded on magic-tech record discs, then I might have an idea. If Stable 104 is laid out like most Stables then there should be equipment in there I could use to make copies of the research discs. Iron Wrought, was there a time limit on this job?”

He shook his head, “They didn’t say.”

“It’s a risk then, but a possibility. Longwalk, what do you think?”

I just sat back on my haunches and raised my front hooves in front of me, “I still haven’t asked Arcaidia if she even wants to detour to Stable 104. It sounds like our best bet to try and make sure everypony can walk away alright, though. Arcaidia?”

The unicorn filly perked her head up, looking at me. I took a moment, working out how to explain this all to her. She was demonstrating a understanding of some basic Equestrian, yes, but this was going to take a bit of work to pantomime out. I went up to her and gestured at her Pip-Buck. She held it up towards me, her brow quirking in curiosity. I fumbled a little with the toggles, but managed to bring up the map, with the objectives still being shown as a dotted line and markers. I pointed at the one far to the south west, the one that marked Persephone’s location.

I then pointed at LIL-E, and pointed at the map again, where there was a marker I figured was us, based off the topography being shown. Then I turned to LIL-E, “Where’s Stable 104?”

She floated over, while Binge, giggling something under her breath, cantered over to B.B, who’d seemingly given up on the terminal.

“Let me see…” the eyebot chirped mechanically as it looked at the Pip-Buck’s map. Slowly she swiveled around, and a side hatch opened up, from which a small metal grasping claw extended, poking at a pint on the map to the north west, I’d guess about ten or twenty miles from where we were, “Around here, if the information I got on it was accurate. It’s built into the side of a small canyon.”

“Thanks,” I said with a nod, noticing out of the corner of my eye Binge whispering something to B.B and the pegasus mare giving the Raider a incredulous look. I ignored them for the moment and focused on Arcaidia, “Arcaidia, do you mind if we go here?”

She looked at me, slowly tilting her head to the side, and looked at the map for a long moment with her silver eyes unblinking. After a second she pursed her lips and gave me a pat on the shoulder, “Dol esrivir?” she frowned, apparently thinking, “Big…good?”

I looked at Iron Wrought. I might not have fully understood his circumstances, or if he really had to do what he did. Strictly speaking I didn’t even have proof he was telling me the truth about his family. Call me naïve and trusting, but I wanted to believe him. If there was a way to protect him and his family while also ensuring Dr. Lemon Slice’s well being…well I’d call that ‘Big good’ in my book.

…Okay so I suppose it didn’t hurt I might get a Pip-Buck of my own out of the arrangement, but that was only 20% of my motivation, tops.

“Yes, big good,” I said.

She smiled at me then with an understanding look, “Estu di viriz dol sevarte es, Longwalk.”

I smiled back at her, but the moment was interrupted by B.B giving an exasperated shout of, “Seriously!? ‘Incorrect’? That’s the buckin’ password?”

Binge was laughing, “Bloodtrail was very bad at keeping secrets and waggled his tongue in the wrong way when doing naughty waughty things.”

“Don’t wanna know. At. All.” Said B.B while she typed at the terminal, “Now, let’s see what this ‘ere bugger had on this ‘ere machine…”

“Why are you so intent on that terminal anyway?” I asked, curious.

“This whole thing’s been buggin’ me, Long,” said B.B “How’d so many Raider’s get so close ta Saddlespring? Why not attack the town? They had plenty a’ firepower fer it. An’ this armor we lifted, why weren’t they usin’ it? Oh, by the by, might wanna look inta getting’ some of that armor on yerself. I recommend that metal suit, since ya seem ta like getting’ into the thick o’ things.”

I glanced at the metal armored barding. It consisted of several heavy plates for the shoulders and chest, then thick leather for the flanks and back, followed by more metal plating for the legs, all held together with many leather straps and buckles. It looked big, heavy, protective and…restrictive.

“Sorry B.B, but I don’t think me and that armor would work. My tribe’s hunting techniques are more about being agile on your hooves. My old hide barding was pretty suited for it.”

“Well, that bardin’ is shredden an’ gone. Gotta think ahead Long. Try it; at least, see if it’ll work fer ya. Kinda getting’ tired of seein’ you shot and blown ta pieces all the time.”

“Okay, mom,” I said with a little sarcasm and joking smile, to which she blew her tongue out at me. Thinking it was some kind of game, apparently, Binge joined in, scrunching her face up with her hooves in a weird shape as she did so.

While B.B looked at whatever was on the terminal I sorted out getting the armor on. Took a little while, but Arcaidia was kind enough to lend a hoof, or more specifically a horn, to help levitate the pieces on properly and help get all the straps tightened down. Once the outfit was on, my saddlebags adjusted over it, I wiggled about a bit, taking a few experimental paces and flexing my neck around to see what my range of movement was like. I was right that the armor was restrictive. Not as bad as I thought it would be, but I would have trouble twisting around as quickly as I’d like and dodging as fast as I was used to would be tough. On the plus side I couldn’t deny the heavy metal plating did seem pretty tough and did give me some confidence that if I did get hit, it wouldn’t hurt nearly as bad. I doubted the metal was bullet proof though. With a little extra work we were also able to fashion a simple sheath for Gramzanber, using some more stripped cloth from the bed and a few spare leather straps (I’m sure they didn’t go to anything important).

“What the…buck?” B.B was frowning at the terminal, Binge nearby, nodding her head as if in agreement.

“I know right? How does anypony get what all those silly symbols mean anyway?”

B.B gave her a look, then shook her head. Me and LIL-E came up, all of us now crowding around the terminal, except for Iron Wrought who seemed content to stay resting where he was.

“What is it?” I asked, looking at the screen. Looked like a series of notes. The black screen and sickly green text were partially obscured by all manner of dust and stains, but it was readable.


>>>Subject: Phase 3

Bloodtrail,

I trust you’ve received all of the needed materials for your infiltration. The guards are beginning to ask for additional bribes to look the other way from your activities, so time is short. In one weeks time the Labor Guild’s ponies should be arriving in force. Should provide sufficient distraction for a little ‘changing of the guard’ as it were. Bulwark will think he’s meeting mercenaries to supplement the town guard with. You must ensure your ponies behave themselves an act the part. No modifying that armor to your unique…tastes. Once you and your ponies are integrated in Saddlespring’s guard, contact me again through the usual channels and I’ll supply your instructions for Phase 4. All goes well you’ll have yourself a town, and we’ll have ourselves a profitable little partnership. Just remember what I do to ponies that fail my expectations.

Goddess preserve

-SS

B.B clicked through several more notes that looked like they were from before the one we’d just scene, but they all painted a similar picture. These Raiders had been building up in strength here at this school for at least a month or longer, preying on caravans traveling pathways to the north of here. Saddlespring’s guards had been paid off by someone, possible this ‘SS’ to look the other way that whole time…never knowing that Saddlespring itself was to be the eventual target for infiltration and take over. The armor and fresh weapons were all meant to be part of a disguise to make some of the Raider’s look like normal mercenaries.

B.B looked the screen, clicking through the same notes over and over again, her expression darkening with each moment. Eventually she just pushed herself away from the terminal and trotted away from it, a scowl on her face.

“I…I…those greedy little fucks,” she spat, not pardoning her language this time, “Them guards were takin’ bribes ta ignore Raiders practically at our doorstep!? Fer a’ whole month!? All o’ them bones we saw? All them dead ponies…they were killed ‘cause my own town was takin’ caps ta pretend they weren’t here…”

I went up to her, mind reeling a little itself. However I was in no way liking seeing B.B this worked up. The anger in her tone was boiling over into rage. I lowered my head and craned it to look up at her, “B.B, you can’t know for sure who did or didn’t take bribes. I figure most the town had no idea what was going on.”

When she fixed her eyes on me I almost recoiled. I’d never seen her pupils dilate quite like that. It left me feeling like I was facing another Raider, if only for just a second before B.B blinked, seemed to realize who she was looking at, and visibly took control of herself. She took a step back from me, wings moving in slow, tense flaps.

“Yer…ya don’t git it Long…I thought maybe Saddlespring was different. Different than anywhere else. Ponies workin’ tagether ta make a good community. A place I could be proud of livin’ in. Even losin’ it, I could deal wit that…but this, readin’ that, it’s like learnin’ my home wasn’t even my home, ya know?”

“Stuff like that’s common though,” said Iron Wrought, “Saddlespring wouldn’t be the first town, and far from the last, to cut deals with Raiders, slavers, and anything else they can to try and make their lives easier.”

“Not Saddlespring though! Not my town!” shouted B.B

“Iron Wrought, B.B, please, enough,” I said, moving over and putting myself between them before things could go any further, “There’s no point arguing this.”

Iron Wrought just shrugged his shoulders, “Wasn’t arguing, just pointing out that what’s she so upset about is a commonplace thing.”

B.B looked away, a partial scowl still on her face, “Alright Long, I’ll keep my peace fer now, but…just give me my space fer a little while, alright?”

Binge watched the peagasus mare slowly float by and the dark green earth pony had her head titled so far to one side it was all but sideways, “Everypony’s so mad all the time, it makes me feel like they’re missing out on the point,” she held up a dirty piece of cloth she’d gotten from somewhere with a rough smiley face painted in what looked like old blood on it, “What do you think Mr. Happy? Should everypony learn to smile?”

I’ll admit to being slightly concerned over my decision to let her come along.

“Annnnyway,” said LIL-E, the weird way she drew out the first word making it sound like a drunk bee, “We should pack up what we can that’s useful, then get back to the camp.”

“Agreed,” I said, looking around at my companions, Iron Wrought and B.B morose, Binge still talking to her new ‘friend’, Arcaidia starting to get that bored look, “I think I’ve had enough of this place.”



----------



I’d hoped for some downtime. Some time to rest up, just sort of absorb the past day’s events fully, pay a visit to Shale’s grave, then psyche myself up for the trek to Stable 104. Instead what I got was a standoff.

When we all arrived back at the refugee camp the night had passed and it was getting into morning, the brooding dark gray sky turning a gloomy white. Most of us walked with some weariness, except for LIL-E who I was starting to wonder what powered her or if the pony on the other end of the machine ever needed to sleep, and then Binge who seemed to be hopping along next to us with a bounce that screamed of a limitless supply of inner energy. On LIL-E’s suggestion the Raider mare had donned one of the suits of leather armor we’d found, to help her look less…Raidery. LIL-E explained it was important to not look like a blood crazed psychopath in the Wasteland, because it encouraged good ponies to shot first, shoot again, shoot five or six more times, and then well after your dead consider asking you if you were really a Raider.

Instead of the normal small number of guards and mostly empty looking burned out building I remembered from last night, what we saw instead was almost a full dozen of Saddlespring’s surviving refugees, all armed to one degree or another, with Doc Sunday at their head, facing off with three ponies. Three ponies I recognized.

“Now listen here you backwater hicks,” said Crossfire, massive bayonet rifle hovering by her side in her blood red glow of magic, not quite pointed at anypony but clearly ready for action, “I got a wounded stallion here, and I know there’s got to be at least one healing potion sitting among you all. Top that off with the fact that you’re harboring some of my goods, and we got ourselves a problem.”

Standing next to Crossfire was Shard. The beige unicorn’s short blond mane was slick with sweat and he seemed extremely jittery, alternating looks between his boss, the group of Saddlespring ponies, and then back behind him at a third pony…Brickhouse.

Brickhouse wasn’t standing and was instead laying on his side. I couldn’t even tell if he was conscious, but given the last time I’d seen him the big brown earth pony had taken a mortal shot through the top of his back…well I was just shocked to see him at all. I was rather surprised to see Crossfire too, given the last I’d seen of her had been in the back of that big Skylord Vertibuck during the fight with Shattered Sky. Brickhouse’s sides were bandaged, I saw, but the bandaging was stained red, and while I could see he was breathing, it was shallow and labored.

I didn’t even need to think this one through as I turned to Arcaidia. She met my eyes and I nodded towards Brickhouse, saying “You got it?”

She smiled softly, waving a hoof at me as if to say ‘please, of course I’ve got it’, and with a flick of her long tail went trotting over. Our approach hardly went unnoticed as a murmur went up among the Saddlespring ponies and Doc Sunday turned to look at us as we came up. I walked right between the two groups, looking first at Doc Sunday.

“Is Dr. Lemon Slice alright?” I asked.

Doc Sunday gave a curt nod, “She is. It’ll be another day before I’d let her do much walking, just to ensure her wound doesn’t reopen, but she’ll live.”

“Good,” I said, “Tell her that her research discs are in safe hooves. We just need to borrow them for a bit and can get them back to her soon.”

“Borrow them?” Doc Sunday was eying the group with me, shaded eyes lingering on Binge, “I’m noticing you have some additional company…just what happened out there?”

“I’ll explain later, first, what’s going on here?” I asked, turning my attention to Crossfire, who was giving me a rather flabbergasted look. Should I have felt slightly guilty of the fact that I liked seeing the usually unflappable Drifter looked shocked by something? Should I have felt even more guilty in feeling satisfaction that I seemed to be the source of that shock? Yes? Well…dang, I felt it anyway.

“Minor disagreement,” said Doc Sunday with a cagey little half-smile, “The young mare there seems to think we owe her something. The good ponyfolk of Saddlespring, as a whole, don’t reckon they do.”

B.B flew up, landing on the other side of her father. The two exchanged quick looks, the kind you use to confirm somepony is okay without the need for words. B.B gave the other ponies of Saddlespring a slower look, and I could see her face twitching, trying not to frown. She must have been thinking about what she’d learned concerning the Raiders and the bribes. She was keeping herself controlled, but her agitation was still readable, and I could see Doc Sunday pick up on it as he put a hoof on his adopted daughter’s shoulder comfortingly. She visibly calmed and looked away from her former fellow townsponies.

Meanwhile Arcaidia had cantered up to Brickhouse. Shard was giving her a worried look, saying “Boss? What do we do? Hey Longwalk, what’s your weird unicorn about to do?”

I looked at Shard, and said, “She’s going to look after him. She’s got healing magic.”

I trotted over. Most the Saddlespring ponies were staying silent but I heard a few mutters as to why I was helping ‘That low-down little rattlesnake’ and such. I tried to ignore it. I couldn’t say I liked Crossfire or her team. They had their own part in being responsible for a lot of the death that’d occurred in Saddlespring. However Crossfire and Brickhouse had fought next to me against Shattered Sky, even if that had just been a team up of convenience and circumstance. Shard, by B.B’s account, had carried Shale’s body away from the destroyed Saddlespring and made it possible for her to be buried. I figured helping Brickhouse survive was a simple enough way to repay the debt.

“Crossfire,” I said, nodding my head in greeting.

She’d controlled her surprise by now and was now regarding me coolly, “Must have at least one of the Princess’ looking out for you, buck. Won’t even ask how you survived that fall,” she glanced towards B.B, “Though I could take a guess. Going to take another guess and assume you’re not going to side with me here, given that bleeding heart of yours.”

“Not even sure what’s going on,” I said, miles away from any kind of mindset to deal with further complications to my day, and I was hoping I was getting that across, “Could you explain in a fast, simple fashion? No big words?”

She apparently didn’t appreciate my humor, giving a brief snort as she gestured with the point of her bayonet at the gathered ponies, “Pretty easy, buck. They have property of the Labor Guild they’re not giving up. Oh, and were holding on healing.”

I looked back at Arcaidia, who’d bent over Brickhouse to examine him and start to apply her healing spell. The big earth pony immediately started to breath a little stronger, more evenly. I turned back to Crossfire, “One problem taken care of. Now I’m the first to admit I can be slow on the uptake, but I imagine you’re talking about the former slaves.”

“Nothing ‘former’ about it. They still got the collars on, and are still property of the Labor Guild. Nothing to discuss on that front, buck.”

“Yeah yeah, B.B, where’d that detonator go anyway?” I asked the pegasus mare, who gave a small chuckle at my question.

“Gave it to my pa here,” she said, nudging Doc Sunday with a wing, winking.

Doc Sunday pulled his hat a little lower over his eyes as he said, “Simple enough tech. Labor Guild hasn’t changed its standards in decades. Disabled the trigger codes and unlocked the collars. No slaves around these parts. “

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Crossfire facehoofed, “You think the Labor Guild won’t send ponies after their property? If you’re not dealing with me you’ll end up dealing with worse, like the VEC.”

“VEC?” I asked, still not quite used to the concept of ‘acronyms’. Seemed like slippery logic to me, shortening words to letters, like if you took it to some massive extreme you’d get a whole language of short hoofed words that’d look something like; Hey LW I was TH at the BDT with your BBFFF so we could PU some GAF, you wanna CWU?...What? My brain pony thinks about these things sometimes.

“Volunteer Enforcer Corps,” Crossfire said, and I heard B.B take in a sharp breath at the mention. Oh, right, that. Shale’s last words, wanting me to know about what she’d apparently been a part of. B.B hadn’t exactly told me yet, though I hadn’t blamed her, we’d been pretty busy what with burning towns and fighting Raiders. Crossfire kept on, “They’re the Labor Guild’s slave army. Made up of their slaves who like the violence, or are desperate enough to take a shot at freedom if they serve long enough. Well armed, and since if they don’t complete their missions their collars blow, they’re damned ruthless. You think I’m bad, buck? I haven’t slaughtered whole settlements to recover runaways like the VEC has.”

My brain pony tried to wrap itself around that information, and gave up fairly quickly, apparently going to lunch to leave me to deal with this on my own. An army of volunteer slaves? What, so they fought so they could be…free? Killed ponies in the hope of one day having those collars taken off? I tried to imagine Shale doing that, a voluntary killer for the very ponies who’d enslaved her. It…kind of explained her familiarity with guns and grenades. But what had she done while she was in the Volunteer Enforcer Corps? She’d sounded so sad when she’d mentioned it, had wanted me to know about it. She must have quit it, but why? What had happened? It drove me nuts, thinking I’d probably never find out.

“Shut yer gob ya desert rat,” growled B.B as she flew up next to me and put her face in Crossfires, “He don’t need ta know ‘bout that right now.”

Crossfire shoved a hoof forcefully into B.B’s chest, causing the pegasus to stumble back. I stepped between them. A number of Saddlespring ponies aimed their guns. Doc Sunday became still as stone.

Crossfire looked at us, then huffed, “Don’t like ponies getting in my face. What’s the big deal? VEC is something you’ll run across eventually if you’re going to walk the Skull City Wasteland. You’re marefriend trying to protect you’re soft fragile heart or something?”

“No, and she’s not my marefriend, she’s my friend. One who told another friend she’d let me know about this Volunteer Enforcer Corps…” I glanced sidelong at B.B who was still glaring at Crossfire, but noticed my look and cast her look downward, “…when the time’s right. But that’s neither here nor there. Point is the slaves aren’t slaves anymore. You’re not taking them. You’re friend is being healed. Take that as a good thing, call it a day, and go back to wherever you came from.”

“Or what, Mr. Hero?” Crossfire asked, eyes narrowing.

I felt movement next to me, and with a quick look I noticed LIL-E, Binge, and Iron Wrought had joined B.B in a line behind me. Behind them the Saddlespring ponies all had their weapons trained, with only Doc Sunday remaining stock still, with no apparent weapon yet I got the distinct feeling he was the most dangerous pony of the bunch. LIL-E’s turret was aimed, Binge was playing with one of her knives like it was a ball she was bouncing between her hooves, and Iron Wrought just had a grim look on his face, mouth gripped around his pistol…which if I recalled was still empty, but hey, Crossfire didn’t know that.

The Drifter looked at all of us, as if finally noticing just how many ponies were arrayed against her. She flicked her eyes to Shard, who didn’t at all look enthused with the situation, then back at Arcaidia and Brickhouse. The azure unicorn filly had continued her healing spell on Brickhouse, but had casually drawn her starblaster and was levitating it in a slow, playful spin as she gave Crossfire a raised eyebrow.

I could almost see the calculation run through Crossfire’s mind and the Drifter shook her head, a rueful grin on her face that wasn’t at all comforting but rather promised the next time we met would be…interesting.

“Well, buck, I can see when the deck is stacked against me. Fragile thing though, relying on so many other ponies. What’ll you do, I wonder, when they aren’t there for you, and you got to stand on your lonesome? Watch your back out there buck. C’mon Shard, we’re out of here.”

“Is…Brickhouse good to walk now?” Shard asked, giving the stallion question a worried look.

“If he ain’t, feel free to carry him, otherwise he’s dead weight to us,” Crossfire said as she began to trot off, slinging her huge rifle across the back of her red leather jacket.

Arcaidia ended her spell and stepped aside as Shard came up to Brickhouse, nudging the burly brown earth pony. Brickhouse groaned, but didn’t move. Shard sighed and wrapped the earth pony up in a yellow glow of his own magic and started to gently carrying him, turning to give Arcaidia a brief nod of thanks. Which reminded me.

“Hey Shard,” I said. The beige unicorn turned his head to me.

“Thank you, about keeping Shale’s body safe.”

He looked at me a moment, before shrugging and turning to follow his boss. I watched the three go, the three Drifters gradually vanishing into the ruined suburban landscape as a dry wind blew a screen of dust and dirt across the ground. I let out a breath I’d forgotten I’d been holding. Even with all my friends next to me I’d honestly had no desire to fight Crossfire. Even if we’d won, ponies who didn’t deserve it would’ve died.

And death, I’d had my share of dealing with it. Wanted to avoid it as much as I could.

Of course the Wasteland was going to have other plans for me.



----------



I was falling. Falling through thick, red blood, unable to breath. I struggled and flailed with my hooves but there was no light to swim towards, no purchase to gain with my efforts, just a gradually faster current drawing me down.

I bumped into things in that black and red mire. The copper coated guardsmare from Saddlespring, head a burned out skull. The rotting corpse from the Raider’s den, dancing about and pulling at me with hooves of sloughing off hide. The roasted corpses of the two dead slaves in the first part of the Ruins, crawling at my hindlegs, dragging me further down. Quick Fix, starting defiantly at a rainbow colored shadow that blasted away the pony’s head in a puff of gray smoke and fire, splattering me with brain and blood. Friendly Fire, grinning wide and lipless at me, all parts and guts swirling about in a ghostly approximation of pony form, her voice burbling in my ears, “Fuckin…figures…”

I fell through the bottom of that choking mess and came out in darkness. Only rather than cloying red this was frozen black, and I couldn’t breath, and felt my body chilling to the soul. So much infinite black. Then I was pulled, like a snapping piece of twine, to a place I didn’t recognize.

Cold black and violet steel was all around me. I was in a circular, cavernous place, a room of massive proportions. The walls were featureless metal, save for a massive window before me, rimmed in glowing deep violet light. I saw no sheen of glass, rather the 'window' appeared to be little more than an opening. However there were faint traces of violet light playing across the opening, some kind of scintillating, mostly invisible barrier of energy. Through that opening I could see the expanse of a silver landscape, dotted by craters and rimmed by jagged gray mountains, stretching to a black horizon whereupon a familiar blue orb hung; the world itself.

I felt my body move on its own accord and immediately noticed it didn’t feel like my own form. Limbs I didn’t recognize as legs moved, two at a time, while other limbs with long, slender grasping things on them held something cold and metal. More than that the entire body felt stiff and wrong and clanked with a metallic chime with every movement. It was a sickening experience, disorienting beyond belief.

This…whatever I was, approached the window and gazed at the blue orb of the world, and then laughed. It was a rich, deep laugh, filled with mirth, and want, and a sort of eager anticipation.

“These are the moments I live for.”

“Truly? I thought you much preferred the more…intense moments of warfare?”

This new voice was a high pitched screech unlike anything a normal throat should make. I felt my, its, whoever’s body turned, regarding a…dear Ancestors, what was that thing? The creature I was looking at hung in the air, suspended as if by magic, a hulking non-pony shape covered in a white cloth rimmed with a dizzying pattern of reds and greens. Its…face…or whatever that was, was covered by a massive golden mask, with three triangular points forming a crest. Red eyes glowed from inside the mask, and beneath the draping cloth covering this thing’s body were the tips of huge silver claws.

“I enjoy all aspects of war, my friend,” said my…host? This wasn’t a Memory Orb, it couldn’t be. I’d fallen asleep and… “However it is these calms before the storm that most energizes me. Fills me with fire for all the other moments to come. Soon the enemy will array themselves to oppose us, and our mettle will clash in sky, in sea, and upon terra firma, and only the strongest and most worthy will emerge as victors. All for the glory of Hyades.”

The masked creature floated forward, looking outward at the blue orb of the world hanging in the blackness, “The scouts say this world is…different, than others we’ve fought the Veruni over. That there are strange energies coursing through it. That there are powers that protect it.”

“Hm, even if that is so, what concern is it of ours? It is not the worlds that we conquer that matter, but the struggle of conquering them. The eternal struggle that is the birthright of every Hyadean to pursue. Let this world have its mysteries and protectors. They matter not. As long as the Veruni try to deny this world to us, we shall wage war to claim it from them.”

"That is the natural cycle our species has followed. Do you ever tire of it? It takes me too often from my research, these continuous battles," said the gold masked being.

The figure raised the thing it’d felt it holding in it right…hoof? Claw? It pointed the object at the blue orb in space, and I felt my mind go blank as I saw what it was holding. A spear. A spear of black metal, but there was no denying its shape. It was a shape I was very familiar with as the figure laughed again, a laugh that made my heart shudder.

“Tire of it? Never! War is what our race exists for! We are but weapons, my friend, no different than this spear in my hand! Gramzanber, it hungers. Its edge aches for the flames of war as surely as the beating of my own heart! What more could there possibly be of worth, for such as us? Nothing, I say. Only war... only war.”

Just as I was feeling horribly trapped in this nightmare, trying to scrape my way out of a body that wasn’t mine, away from visions I didn’t want to see and couldn’t understand, I felt a warm presence in my mind. A familiar and comforting feeling. I could almost actually feel my hoof stretching out…

…and be grasped by another hoof. A mare’s voice spoke.

Its okay, I’m here…wake up…


----------



I woke up. I was soaked in cold sweat, my mane plastered to the front of my face. I wiped away the offending blue strands of mane and raised my head, taking stock of my surroundings. We were tucked under the cleft of a small series of rock outcroppings, providing protection from the rain, which was still coming down in a lazy drizzle beyond the cover.

It’d been two days since the Raiders. I was still having nightmares, but most of them had been like the beginning of this most recent one…nothing like the second part with the strange…whatever that was. I shuddered again, looking over at Gramzanber. The silver spear lay by my side in easy grasping distance. We’d only run into a few weird mutated little furless things on stubby legs LIL-E had identified as ‘radmoles’ that hadn’t proved very dangerous, but sleeping out in the Wasteland was a dangerous business no matter how big or well armed the party.

There were six of us. Myself, Arcaidia, B.B, LIL-E, Iron Wrought, and Binge. Doc Sunday had begun escorting the Saddlespring refugees northward towards Skull City the day after we’d returned with Iron Wrought, taking Dr. Lemon Slice with him. The doctor had been very…upset about us having to borrow her research data but once brought up to speed on Iron Wrought’s situation even she relented that making a copy of the discs was the best solution for everypony involved. Doc Sunday had left us instructions on meeting up with him and the doctor at a place called Rust ‘n Dirt Inn in the Skull City Outskirts. Arcaidia’s Pip-Buck was updated with a tag to the location. Once we were done in Stable 104 we’d go there, make sure Iron Wrought’s family was okay, and then…begin figuring out how to get to NCR.

The only final business I'd taken care of before we'd parted ways with Doc Sunday and the rest of the Saddlespring survivors had been a visit to Shale's grave. It'd been a small affair, a cross of wood from a dead blackened tree she was buried next to making the marker. I'd tried to say things to her, but I hadn't been able to get the words out. B.B and Arcaidia had joined me there, and both had stood close to me, letting me silently cry as they provided the comfort of their shared pain with me. I'd said my final farewells internally, and had, in that moment, felt oddly...calm. As if Shale herself had been there, laying a hoof on my shoulder, letting me know it was alright.

I'd been pretty quiet the rest of that day. My mind had wandered a lot during the days of the trek up until this point.

A lot of roundabout detours and side things had happened, but at least I felt like we were starting to make progress…and it was nice not be…alone? I felt a warm body next to me and looked over, nearly jumping as Binge wrapped her hooves round my right foreleg and, still apparently asleep, started nibbling on it.

“Mmmmph…needs…hot sauce…” the Raider mare murmured. Should I think of her as an ex-Raider now? I wasn’t at all sure the term could apply. She was clearly unhinged. Was she a danger? Her nibbling turned into something of a bite and I grimaced, enduring it as I tried to edge the rest of my body away from her.

“Having trouble there, loverbuck?” asked LIL-E suddenly, who hovered in the middle of the group, facing out towards the rain soaked Wasteland.

Everypony else was asleep, curled up against the relatively dry rock face, so it was just me and LIL-E for the moment. I sighed and looked at the eyebot with a helpless expression.

“I don’t know what I’m doing LIL-E,” I said, “I didn’t really know how to tell her…well…no, when she said she wanted to follow me. Am I doing the right thing here?”

“I’m not the one to ask. I’m no expert on doing the ‘right thing’. I’ll say this though; I let you make the choice with the Raider’s because it’s a choice you needed to make on your own. If I’d made it for you, you’d never learn which path you wanted to take yourself. At the risk of sounding like a preachy pony there are consequences to every choice we make Longwalk. Killing them would’ve had consequences too. This is just a consequence of not killing…you got to deal with her. Maybe it’ll turn out good, and she’ll learn a new way of life. Maybe it won’t and this’ll end up biting you square in the flank. I can’t say. You’ll just have to accept it and find out yourself.”

I nodded slowly, looking at the rest of my sleeping companions, “Never imagined when I left my tribe I’d find so many…other ponies who’d travel with me. Thought it’d be just me and Arcaidia the whole way.”

“Disappointed it’s not just you and her?”

I turned away, not at all blushing; no you’re imagining that, “No. Trust me, furthest thing from my mind. Mostly. Okay…uh…to be honest, and don’t breathe a word of this to anypony, but I kind of…”

“Yes?”

“Well I have a friend back in my tribe. My only real one. She’s always been there for me, my whole life, really. I never really paid attention to just how much I…how much I really felt, well, good when Trailblaze was around. Now that I’m out here, and she’s so far away, I find I think about her a lot. When I’m not busy thinking about how to not die, anyway. I think I might…y’know, really like her. A lot. Still sort of trying to sort out my feelings there.”

LIL-E was silent for a time, and then I heard an odd sound that I think might’ve been the robot trying to convey a sigh, “I know what it’s like to be separated from somepony that’s special to you. You never told her any of this, did you?”

“…No,” I said, hanging my head.

“Won’t lie, it’s going to be tough going then. But use those feelings. Remember how you feel and when things get bad, and I mean really bad, as in world’s crashing down around you’re flanks bad…just remember that feeling, and her. Remember she’s there, waiting for you. Use that to pull through those dark moments, when everything goes black. Of course doesn’t hurt to have friends with you too, to help you along.”

“Friends like you?” I asked, with a smile.

“Guess we are friends, aren’t we?” said LIL-E, then she hovered down a bit, closer to eye level with me, “Which reminds me, I’ve been meaning to get to training you on some basic Wasteland survival 101. Wish I had a copy of the Wasteland Survival Guide on me, but I remember most of it and can give you the juicy bits in abridged format.”

“Wasteland Survival Guide? They’ve got one of those?” I paused, head cocked, “Why don’t they have a copy of that everywhere for ponies to read?”

“Oh yeah, believe me I’d like that book to be more widespread. Written by a good friend of mine who’s got more experience with dealing with the horrors of the Wasteland than anypony I know. Now then, let’s see, where to start…?”

The rest of the night was passed with LIL-E telling me all sorts of useful little tidbits, from where to look for the best salvage for food and medicine, why scrap metal was so useful to keep around, the infinite uses of the magical item known as Wonderglue, to how to properly roast radroach meat so it wouldn’t poison you and why bloatsprites were to be avoided like the plague.

It was a lot to take in, but I absorbed the information as best I could. I was pleased to hear that geckos weren’t a species exclusive to my tribe’s land, and that they could be found almost anywhere in the Wasteland. Gave me hope of not only tasting gecko meat again, but also that in time I could get enough gecko hide together to fashion myself a new set of hide barding. The metal barding was alright, but it was starting to chaff after wearing it for two days.

The rain continued, but the sky was getting lighter, revealing the vast empty and uneven Wasteland we’d been traveling through. We’d gotten beyond the ruins of the suburbs and were now out among rocky, wind blasted emptiness, heading for a rise of hills to the north west where Stable 104’s canyon was.

“How long until we reach the Stable, do you think?” I asked LIL-E.

“Probably this evening, if we manage to keep the pace we’ve managed so…far…” LIL-E trailed off and abruptly hover back up into the air, internal mechanisms in her buzzing. She floated forward, out into the rain, and I watched her, suddenly concerned.

“What? What is it?”

She was silent a second, then said, “Start waking everypony up. Quietly.”

Easier said than done. Binge began giggling the second I started trying to nudge her awake, murmuring “No no no, you don’t run away’s from me meaty morsel when Miss Tummy still wants to eats you.”

“Ugh, Binge, stop being…you, or whatever it is you’re doing, and wake up,” I said nudging her again while trying to extricate my foreleg from her grasp. Eventually I managed to get my leg free, having had to practically life her up to do it, and she plopped back to the ground. She blinked awake lazily and yawned.

“Mmm, time for school?” she asked dreamily.

I shook my head, suppressing a groan, “Not as such. Just, uh, wake up and try to stay quiet. I think LIL-E spotted something.”

It was a lot easier to wake my other companions. For the most part. B.B and Iron Wrought were apparently light sleepers and I had no trouble poking them awake. Arcaidia though, I was a little hesitant with. I remembered when she’d shoved her starblaster in my face that night back in my tribe’s camp. So I did the most sensible thing. I found a tiny rock and, from a safe distance, hiding behind a bemused looking B.B, I tossed the rock at Arcaidia’s flank.

The unicorn snapped away, and as I’d anticipated, her starblaster was up and levitating around as her silver eyes looked for the culprit responsible for waking her. She settled her eyes on me and I gave her a sheepish wave. B.B rolled her eyes, and Arcaidia soon matched the look, getting gracefully to her hooves and levitating on her dress.

“What’s goin’ on Long?” asked B.B, frowning as Binge slinked up to us and whispered, hoof to her mouth.

“The funny metal bug is ‘seeing things’,” Binge made quote marks with her forehooves.

“This is an eyebot, and as a matter of fact I am seeing things,” said LIL-E to us, “My scanners are based heavily on Stable-Tech’s EFS arcane matrices. I’m picking up eight…nine hostile contacts, due west. Normally I wouldn’t care, if it looked like they’d just pass us by, but I’m also detecting four non-hostile contacts. I think they’re being chased by the hostiles. Can’t get an image at this range, but my audio receptors are picking up barely audible gunshots. I think somepony’s in trouble.”

I didn’t need to hear more. I went and snatched up Gramzanber, fixing the spear in its sheath at my flank. B.B, ammo freshly resupplied to her foreleg revolvers from her father, her newer heftier revolver tucked into a holster across her chest over her leather armor until she could find more ammo for it, gave me a small grin.

“So we’re runnin’ into the fray, no plan, no clue?”

“Eeyup,” I said, returning her grin. Despite everything that’d happened, I was glad to know I was still able to.

Arcaidia ran a hoof over her mane and sighed, “Esru vi dorvilar, dervir dol corvaile. We go now? Fighting?”

“Don’t suppose it’d do me any good to just stay here and wait for you crazy ponies to get back,” said Iron Wrought, “Just try to not do anything that could get one of us killed Longwalk. I’m planning on seeing my family again.”

“Happy hour is coming early today, and I’m not going to be the designated driver,” Binge chirped happily, flipping a knife up and down with one hoof. I was fairly certain I was never going to understand her.

We all got our gear together quickly, then as a group moved out into the rain shrouded morning.



----------



We galloped as a group through the rain, hooves churning up reddish brown mud as we went. LIL-E was in the lead, her scanners showing us the way to where we needed to go. A few minutes of hard running and we could hear the gunshots. A few minutes more and we crested a small rise in the land that showed us the scene.

I licked my now very dry lips. Those were…um…very large…whatever they were. LIL-E’s count had been accurate, as there were about nine massive creatures moving rapidly across the landscape on multiple dark gray chitin covered legs. Their flat armored bodies ended towards the front in two huge pincer appendages, while the bags curled up into huge tails with deadly stingers on the ends.

“Buck me, why’s it always radscorpions?” groaned Iron Wrought, “I’d have preferred Balloons.”

“Ah quit complain’, could be worse,” said B.B, then squinted her eyes at the radscorpions, as if finally noticing their rather giant size, “Though not by much I reckon. Them’s some big ‘uns.”

“Aww, they’re so cuddly!” cried Binge, “If I promise to house train it can we keep one?”

“Alright, no chatter, we gotta help those ponies,” I said, drawing Gramzanber and pointing at the target of the radscorpion’s chase.

Four ponies were moving quickly at a gallop, keeping ahead of the radscorpions, but with only a dozen yards of space. I couldn’t make out many details about then but two of then looked young, more like they were colts or fillies rather than adults. One of the bigger ponies was the one doing the shooting, occasionally poking a head around to blast with a big thumping boom I recognized by now as being from a shotgun. It seemed to always slow down the lead radscorpion with each shot, but not for long.

I’d been in enough fights by now to know charging in blindly wouldn’t serve anything save to put myself and my friends in danger. I scoured my mind as fast as I could for a halfway workable plan; a plan of the kind that involved ponies living and a lot of grotesque bugs dying.

“B.B, keep to the skies and distract the lead bugs. LIL-E, Iron Wrought, head right and try to link up with those ponies while giving the rest of us some cover fire. Arcaidia, do what you do best, and don’t be stingy with the ice. Binge…stick close to me.”

“Ooo, is this a confession? It’s not even Hearts and Hooves day! And you don’t have any candy to give me.”

“Ugh, I just mean I’m going to try and hit them from behind once their attention is focused on B.B and the others. You don’t have a gun, just those knives. Honestly I’d rather you kept out of the fight but I’m not expecting that, so just stay close, try not to get hurt, and back me up if you can.”

“Okie Dokie Lokie.”

Huh? Hadn’t I heard that somewhere else before? Whatever, time for potential violent death, yay!

“Let’s go!”

B.B was off in an instant and we all began to gallop, or in LIL-E’s case rapidly hover. B.B easily got to the radscorpion’s first, flying high in the sky so that the creature’s couldn’t touch her as she began to rain down a hail of bullets from her revolvers on the lead ones. The radscorpions didn’t stop in their chase, but certainly faltered, confused by where these new attacks. LIL-E and Iron Wrought moved fast, swinging out to the right at an arc that put them near the fleeing ponies. I didn’t hear what words were exchanged but I heard them shouting out to the group of ponies just as LIL-E opened fire with her turret. She’d explained to me that while many eyebots used energy weapons, her model was equipped with a rapid firing .357 magnum cartridge that could quickly exchange various ammo types; armor piercing, hollow point, and something called ‘spark rounds’. She also said she had other weapons, and I saw those come into play as a hatch on her side opened up and a longer barrel emerged. This barrel had a heavier cracking sound in comparison to her undeslung turret and fired bursting tracers that when they hit the lead radscorpion bathed it in flame. Incendiary rounds, she’d later tell me. Compared to LIL-E’s yield of fire Iron Wrought didn’t add much with his small semi-automatic, but he went to it with a gusto I could only imagine was born from a hardened determination to survive and see his family again.

Meanwhile me, Arcaidia, and Binge galloped to the left, swinging around the group of radscorpions, which hadn’t quite noticed us yet. Binge was giggling again, a high twitter, around one of her mouth gripped knives. I didn’t know how many of those she had, but between them and her spiked hoof wrappings I hoped she’d be able to hold her own. Given me a fight, in any case.

When we got close Arcaidia opened up with both her starblaster and her ice spell at the same time. The silver bolt sliced into one of the back radscorpions, cutting through one of its legs. The cone of icy shards smashed another two, causing them to stumble. The radscorpions began to turn to face the new threat just as me and Binge got to them.

I moved in on the two that Arcaidia had hit with her ice, shoving Gramzanber forward straight into the side of one of them. The silver spear bit in deeply through chitin and an off yellow viscous blood spewed out. It dragged the spear to the right, slicing more chitin off and pulled back. The giant radscorpion clacked and hissed, and rounded on me. Crap, the thing took a wound like that and was still kicking!? I backed away fast as it brought its pincers to bear and snapped them at me. I used Gramzanber’s edge to slice through one pincer, but the other caught my left foreleg and squeezed. The metal plating held up but the pressure only increased and I realized the thing’s tail stinger was about to strike.

I chopped hard with Gramzanber, cutting off the pincer holding my leg, and rolled to the side. The stinger shot forward faster than my eye could see, scrapping along my side. If the metal barding hadn’t been there, that stinger would’ve gone right into me. I made a mental note to thank B.B later.

The other radscorping Arcaidia had iced was coming in on me as I got to my hooves and I heard Binge laughing hysterically behind me. I chanced a glance to see her dancing and cart wheeling around the radscorpion that’d lost a leg, darting in and stabbing, darting away from its front as it kept trying to turn on her. She wasn’t really doing much damage, but she was doing well to keep out of danger.

Arcaidia’s starblaster fired again, cutting into the face of the radscorpion that’d tried to sting me and causing it to collapse in a smoking heap. One down, eight to go. I took a deep breath, facing the one bearing down on me, and charged in. It tried to sting me, and I narrowly managed to duck it. A pincer came in, battering at me. I rolled with the blow but it still clocked my head. Fortunately it didn’t manage to clamp down on me, but the glancing hit caused blood to start coating my face. I still drove in, shoving Gramzanber deep into the radscorpion’s face between its many black bead-like eyes.

The thing convulsed and thrashed, but ultimately lay still. I pulled my spear free and turned just in time to see Arcaidia flank the radscorpion Binge was distracting and fire a point-blank blast of ice shards right into the huge bug’s back end, freezing it over until it was one giant frosty blue statue.

So far so good, now if we could just-

A pincer closed over my flanks and I felt myself being hauled backwards. I yelped, turning as another radscorpion pulled me towards it. I forced my hooves to plant into the ground, throwing my strength against the huge mutated monstrosity. Its stinger tensed and I’d begun to notice the sign of a strike coming. I wheeled my head around, Gramzanber whistling as its blade cut through the air. The stinger shot forward and the spear just barely managed to intercept it, cutting the stinger and the front portion of the tail off in a neat snicker snap. This only seemed to piss the radscorpoin off more though, as it began to crush my flanks with its one pincer while bringing its other to bear.

A knife flew in and slammed into one of its eyes, causing it to shudder, and more importantly, forget me for a split second. I heard Binge yelling in a cheerful twitter, “You gotta cuddle harder my little bucky, or you’ll go join the whispers in the sky.”

Right, whispers. Fighting now. I rolled around, stabbing the pincer gripping around me. I didn’t have the right angle to just slice through it, but I could sort of start sawing awkwardly. The radscorpion hissed, a piercing sound that made my ears flatten, and gripped me harder. I was starting to feel bones bend. With a final heaving saw the lower part of the pincer went limp and I was able to hobble a quick step away, turning myself around to face the radscorpion fully. Gunshots continued to ring in my ears so I knew my companions were still fighting, but I didn’t have time to see how they were doing.

The radscorpion came in at me with its remaining good pincer and I shuffled aside as it tried to snap at me. I avoided getting caught by the points of the pincer slammed into me, causing a sharp pain in my side as I staggered back, but kept on my hooves. Armor was definitely slowing me down, but was doing a fine job of protecting my hide. My nostrils flared as I took in rapid breaths, focusing all my attention on watching for the radscorpion’s next attack. When it came I ducked under it and jumped in, taking the pincer off at the base with a hefty slice. I think quickly finished the radscorpion off with another stab into the face.

I was breathing heavy, aching under my armored barding, but was still good to go. I took the moment to see how the rest of the fight was going.

The remaining radscorpions were caught in a field of fire. LIL-E was floating around quickly, turret and side arm blazing. Iron Wrought was keeping well back, staying with the four ponies we’d come to save who’d stopped and turned to watch the fight in apparent shock that help had arrived. Above B.B continued to drop a torrent of shots. On the other end Arcaidia laid into the radscorpion’s with her starblaster and had also coated the ground for several meters before her in a sheet of ice that the radscorpions that tried to charge her had trouble crossing without skittering off balance.

Everything was looking good…which was why I immediately started to feel an itchy twitch in my tail that told me something was about to go wrong.

There are times being right isn’t a good thing. Especially in the Wasteland.

The ground beneath the radscorpions trembled. I could feel vibrations run through the dirt and rock, and into my legs. With an explosion of upturned earth something emerged from under the radscorpoins, which had already been near death from my companion’s storm of fire. A creature emerged that quickly tore into the radscorpions with a frenzy that was reminiscent of the Tunneler’s from the Saddlesrping Ruin, but it was coming from just one, hulking brute of a creature. The radscorpions were decimated in mere moments and we were left staring at something that looked as if it’d walked right out of someponie’s bad dream.

It was bipedal, sort of. It hunched on huge clawed legs, but its form suggested it could use its thick overlong forearms to move on all fours. Those forearms of dark skinned thick hide also happened to end in strange fingered hands housing long blade-like claws. A bulky muscular torso was encased in blackened metal armor that was much thicker than what I was wearing. A narrow, wedge shaped canine head looked at all of us with no concern, faint green glowing eyes solid as two emeralds barely giving us a glance before a maw of vicious fangs started tearing into one of the radscorpion corpses. I noticed the creature had a big empty sack slung across its back.

There was a brief silence as Arcaidia began to aim her starblaster at the thing, and it sniffed the air, its tapered ears flattening. B.B made an X gesture with her hooves and said, somehow trying to whisper and shout at the same time, “Do. Not. Shoot!”

Arcaidia quirked an eyebrow, but held her fire. Everypony else was holding their breath. I tried to gulp but my mouth was too dry to do so. That thing had moved so fast, and torn through those radscorpions as if they’d been made of rotted bark.

“B.B…what is this…?”

“Hellhound,” she said, eyes saucers, “Ain’t ever but seen one before. Don’t provoke it…an’…an’ maybe it’ll let us live.”

The creature, the Hellhound, ate its fill of radscorpoin, then began to stuff meaty chunks of the bugs into its pack. When the pack was near full it paused and sniffed the air again. Its baleful green eyes focused on me for a second and to my horror it slowly approached me. I heard Arcaidia issue a low growl, and nearby Binge was looking at the Hellhound while licking her lips; even her insanity seeming to be suppressed momentarily but the sheer predatory menace the Hellhound exuded.

I won’t deny that even my desire to appear like a strong and proper stallion went fleeing to a dark corner to weep and piss itself as the Hellhound’s hulking dark form loomed over me. For a moment it seemed like that horrible nightmare creature blotted out all else as it bent over me, its huge nostrils sniffing at my mane. Its solid green eyes examined me, and it even lifted a single claw to poke at my face. I was standing stock still, all too aware that my body had frozen up in pure terror.

Seconds crawled by with agonizing slowness, but eventually the Hellhound gave one final snort at me, with, of all things, a perplexed look on its strange features and turned away from me. It went and hopped down into the hole it’d made in the ground and vanished from sight.

I don’t think anypony dared move for at least a full minute after it’d left.

B.B was the first to me, landing in front of me, eyes wide.

“Ya okay Long?”

“Y-y-yeah…”I said, taking a shuddering breath, “I’m okay. I think. Maybe pissed myself, let me check. Nope. Yay.”

A few deep breaths later and I was almost not shaking. Binge was looking down the hole.

“Big nice puppy went away without playing fetch with us.”

“Good,” said Iron Wrought, “But hey, stick around, maybe it’ll come back and play fetch with you.”

“Oooh, that’d be so much fun! But I can’t leave little Longwalk by himself, not without Big Sis Binge making sure he learns the facts of life!”

Arcaidia seemed less shaken than the rest of us and just gave me a reassuring nod, which helped a lot in getting me to get my nerves under control. I gave her my own nod of thanks.

With the fight done and…that event out of the way we congregated with the four ponies we’d saved. They were a stallion and mare, husband and wife, and their two children. A salvaging family, working for the Salvage Guild, the stallion, Fine Eye explained. He was a thin, reedy orange unicorn with a straight brown mane and a cutie mark of a pair of glasses. Which was weird because he didn’t wear glasses. His wife, Sweet Pear, was a light brown earth pony mare with a yellow mane tied up in a bun, bearing the cutie mark of a trio of fruits that was apparently part of her namesake. Their children, two young colts named Fresh Pear and Crumb Trail were mirror images of their parents, Fresh Pear having his father’s coloring and Crumb Trail his mothers.

“Much obliged for the help, friends,” said Fine Eye, tipping a small billed cap he wore with a hole cut in it for his horn, “My family owes you a solid for what you’ve done.”

“Don’t mention it,” I said, “But what are you doing all the way out here?”

“Salvage Guild’s been sending teams out further and further afield, and is paying less than it used to for what we bring in,” explained Fine Eye, “Me and my own, we’ve been having trouble with getting enough to eat week to week…so I figured I’d take a chance on a rumor.”

“What kind of rumor’s that?” asked Iron Wrought, a suspicious look on his face, though I couldn’t figure why.

“We heard tell that someponies think there’s an old world Stable in this area. Those placed are dangerous, but there’s such a good chance for profitable salvage…well I figure if I luck out I can make enough caps to maybe move my family away from Skull City. Place is getting worse by the day.”

“Worse than normal?” B.B looked surprised, “Just ‘ow bad could it be gettin’?”

“There’re more and more gangs taking root in the Inner City, and the Outskirts are all but a full on warzone these days. There’s even word that the Guilds are gearing up for a brawl, what with the Skull Guild itself imposing a new tax on each territory in the city for daily protection, and cutting off half their patrols on the roads to the city. To make matters worse, Protectorate’s been seen out west here…ponies saying they’re planning some kind of attack,” Fine Eye sighed, “Just ain’t a good region to try and raise my family anymore. Wasn’t much before, but now, I’m feeling it’s time to take a chance at getting out.”

Iron Wrought’s suspicious look slowly vanished and I saw the green earth pony actually look understanding, much closer to how he’d looked when I first met him.

“You got to look after your family, I understand,” he looked at me, “Why don’t we help them out?”

“No need to ask me twice,” I said, “After all, we’re just going there to get the recordings and LIL-E’s information. Maybe Pip-Buck on the side.”

“What are you all talking about?” asked Sweet Pear.

“We know where the Stable is. We were heading there when we spotted you in danger,” explained LIL-E, “And I agree with the others, there’s no reason not to work together. We’re not going there for all that much salvaging, just some specific errands. You want to team up, then that’ll make things easier on everypony.”

“Sounds fine ta me, ‘specailly now that we know what kind o’ things are lurkin’ out here,” said B.B, “Safety in numbers an’ all that.”

“More pretty ponies to travel with! I’ll need more chairs for the tea party,” said Binge with a creepy smile, causing Sweet Pear to take a step between the light green ex(?) Raider mare and her two colts.

Fine Eye looked a tad hesitant, but finally nodded, “Agreed then. We’ll work together. It’ll be a pleasure…?”

“Longwalk,” I said, and in short order introductions were made around by everypony.

Not long after that we caught our breath, checked our wounds, Arcaidia doled out quick rounds of healing magic, and in short order we were off again. Despite the terrifying hiccup with the Hellhound I was feeling better than I had in days.

Which probably meant things were going to go horrible wrong in Stable 104, but for the moment I was allowing a little hope to seep into my heart.

Regretfully, it wasn’t to last…


----------

Footnote: Level Up!

Perk Added – Snicker’ Snack: You’re getting disturbingly good at attacking an opponent’s extremities. You do 10% more damage whenever striking a part of a foe that isn’t their center of mass.

Companion Perk Added – Set Scanners for Fun: As long as LIL-E is in your party you use her Perception in place of your own for detecting creatures in the vicinity, with a hefty bonus to range due to her awesome suite of scanning devices.

PreviousChapters Next