• Published 24th Nov 2017
  • 8,090 Views, 501 Comments

Who Told You This Was A Good Idea?! - Bender Alpha

After 1000 years of tyranny and despair, one mare attempts to unleash ultimate evil, in a desperate bid to save her people and lead them to a brighter future. What she gets is not quite as advertised on the box.

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Chapter 9 - Who's a good doggy?

As the twilight deepened into night, so too did the forest darken around us. It had been a couple of hours since we had jumped the walls of Ponyville, disappearing into the treeline shortly thereafter. The rest of the time had been spent navigating the dense and cloying foliage of what the Adjutant advised me was called the Everfree Forest. I thought it an odd name, given the political climate of Equestria, but apparently, it was a title left over from the regime a millennium past. Why they hadn’t renamed it, the Adjutant couldn’t say, but I suspected that someone high up had a sadistic sense of humor.

The trees crowded closer together the deeper we traveled, until I could no longer fit between the trunks in my APC form. I had to resort to a sort of slug-like shape to make any sort of progress. This, of course, forced me to shuffle the occupants of my safety bubble around. They were in a single file line before long, and more than a bit cramped. It probably didn’t help that I jumped at nearly every rustling branch and twitching shadow, fully expecting soldiers to come jumping out at us.

As much as the idea made my brain squirm, I knew I would have to let them out soon. None of them had had the opportunity to use the restroom before I had abducted them, and they also needed to eat. I regretted that it hadn’t occurred to me to snatch up the ratatouille as we made our escape, but I probably would have just burned myself anyway. In any case, I would have to scrounge up some food for the group, as well as find a place to stop for the night.

As if it had read my thoughts—which it probably had, in hindsight—the Adjutant spoke up.

<<Director, there is a clearing 7.66 meters to the southwest with sufficient quantities of edible fruits and vegetation for four ponies, if you wish to stop for the night.>>

Of course, I immediately knew exactly which point in the distance I needed to turn towards without even asking. Having an AI assistant in your ‘brain’ can be both convenient and eerie at the same time. How it knew what kind of plants could be found that far away sent a chill up my imaginary spine, but I silently thanked the Adjutant for its assistance all the same and wriggled in the direction of the clearing. Less than a minute later, the forest opened up slightly, allowing us our first glimpse of the night sky in hours.

I forcibly ejected the three conscious ponies out into the clearing, Rara much more gently than the other two.

“We’re stopping here for the night,” I stated, vainly hoping my tone would brook no argument.

“Oh? How generous of you,” Rubeo grumbled sarcastically, spitting out a mouthful of dead leaves from his not-so-graceful landing.

“And what about Starlight?” Night Glider fumed, having caught herself midair. “Aren’t you going to let her out, too?”

For a moment, I could only stare at her incredulously.

“Yes, I am absolutely going to expose an unconscious pony with a hole in her chest to the dirt and grime of a forest floor!” I all but yelled. “Are you stupid, or just insane?”

“Hey! Don’t forget whose fault it is that she got hurt in the first place!”

I almost snapped at that. But some small part of me, possibly the Adjutant, reminded me that Night Glider was not my enemy. She was just worried about her friend. I took a deep breath. To my surprise, I found it actually helped calm myself, despite not having a circulatory system.

“You’re right, I won’t. Ruby Drops will pay.”

There was a sharp intake of breath from everypony in the clearing. Both Rara and Night Glider looked shocked and anxious. Rubeo looked like he was about to burst a blood vessel.

“Are you mad?!” He nearly shrieked.

“Jury’s still out on that one,” I answered truthfully, turning to look at Starlight.

“You witnessed Ruby Drops’ power yourself! You still think you can fight the Masters and protect Starlight at the same time?”

“I do. I just need somewhere safe to keep her. And the rest of you, too.”

“Oh? And where would that be?”

I steeled myself. I knew he’d react poorly. I hadn’t had time to butter him up, to explain, to even really introduce myself. All he knew was some shapeshifting monster had swept his student up into an insane scheme to defy the greatest forces in the world. And he certainly wasn’t going to allow me to sidetrack the conversation.

“I’m going to find Howl’s Moving Castle.”

“Oh! Oh!” Rubeo started stomping around the clearing. “Oh, that’s rich! You’re just going to find it, are you? Just like that? And what makes you think you’ll succeed where so many others have failed? You think you’re just going to waltz into some secret hiding place, just by accident? No! I’ll not let you endanger my student’s life any further! As soon as she’s healed, we’re leaving!”

“Like I said before, Rubber Band, you’re in no better position to protect her.”

“Of course I am! I am a Preceptor at Silverglow Academy! They have to listen to me!”

“And why would they do that? You associate with known criminals and ponies under investigation of the state,” I argued, gesturing first to myself and then Starlight. “You were on thin ice, to begin with. Now that you’re out here, there’s no going back.”

“I…” For the first time since he saw me, Rubeo hesitated. “I can go back! We can go back! I’ll- I’ll make them listen to me.”

“Oh? How so?”

“I’ll bring you in with me!”

I’ll give him one thing, Rubeo had at least learned something from his time confined in my protective custody. He didn’t try to blast me into submission but instead chose to project a magic bubble around me. He was trying to trap me.

I stared at him, my growing ire having vanished in the face of sheer idiocy.

“My god. You are either an idiot or a genius at bluffing,” I reiterated.


“I’m the villain here, right? So, genius, how were you planning to get me to release Starlight? Come on, show me. Surprise me.”

Rubeo’s frown deepened, and the magic around his horn shined brighter. The bubble began to flex and shift inward, like a giant dog chewing a ball. Part of me wanted to avoid it, but the greater part of me was morbidly curious. Had Rubeo actually figured out how to bypass my magical resistance? For some reason, the idea excited me. Perhaps it was that strange little part of our brains that tells us to jump off cliffs and touch hot stoves.

So, instead of shying away, I reached out to touch it. The instant my gelatinous finger came in contact with the magical field, it popped, as if it were simply made of soap. I sighed, disappointed, before turning back to the others in the clearing, feeling like a deflated balloon. It seemed I was still in the position of power.

“There’s plenty of forage around this clearing. Don’t wander off, I don’t want to have to go looking for lost ponies. We leave at first light.”

I turned away, fully intent on monitoring Starlight’s health for the rest of the night, but a soft voice pulled me back.

“Who… are you?”

I looked back to see a war going on behind Rara’s face. She looked concerned, but whether it was for herself, her friends, or for me, I couldn’t tell. The metaphorical pit that had replaced my stomach grew deeper by yards. I tried to put even the slightest of smiles into my voice.

“As I told Ruby Drops, I am the Smooze. But, as I told you, I would prefer it if you called me Eric.”

“How do you know Starlight?”

I hesitated for a moment, unsure of how much I should confide in them. At the very least, I didn’t want to outright lie to Rara. She deserved that much.

“I wasn’t lying when I said she saved me from a fate worse than death. She pulled me out of a hellish captivity and gave me a purpose. Far be it from me to convince her not to try and shape the world for the better. I feel like I may have done the same, in her position.”

Not that they needed to know I had only been captive for all of maybe half an hour. What I had experienced in that half-hour, however, made me treasure my sanity. I doubt I would have been able to keep it together, had I been there for weeks, or even just days. And right now, I needed to focus on saving my savior.

“Get yourselves some food, then get some rest. We have a long way to go.”

Kingfisher was a simple mare. All she ever needed, all she ever wanted in life was complete situational awareness. As long as she knew everything that was going on around her and why, she would be in control, and therefore happy. Of course, circumstances often got in the way of this, and so she was rarely ever more than content.

Like her current situation, for instance. It was approaching nighttime, and she could only barely keep an eye on the group she was tailing. Somehow, that damnable slime knew whenever she approached. She wasn’t sure how, either. All she knew was that it twitched at her ever so slightly every time she set hoof within twelve yards. Luck had favored her the first time it had whipped around to stare where she had stood; she had been able to jump behind a suitably thick tree and hide just in time. Every subsequent attempt to close the distance had ended much the same.

She chewed on her front hoof, watching the group through binoculars from her position in the lower branches of a tree. Her clairaudience charms—small, ear-mounted runes disguised as simple studs that boosted her hearing—only worked out to ten yards. Not only that but, in spite of her best efforts, she could only find vantage points with a view of sixty percent of the clearing at most. She was woefully in the dark about her targets, and it was grating on her nerves.

But just as she was about to try getting closer for what felt like the twentieth time that night, there was movement from the camp. Movement coming her way. She quickly activated the listening runes, before gathering her black habit around her hooves and face, further disappearing into the darkness.

It was just two of them: Preceptor Rubeo Citrinitas and the weathermare, Night Glider. They picked edible grasses and berries in silence for a time, sweeping the area just outside the clearing. Before long, however, Rubeo spoke, keeping his voice low.


“So,” she curtly replied.

“Can I count on your support, once Starlight has recovered?”

Night Glider quietly continued gathering rations, contemplating her answer.

“I don’t know,” she eventually replied.

“What do you mean, you don’t know?” He whispered harshly.

“I mean exactly what I said.”

“You heard what this thing’s plans are! How can you possibly have any doubt?!”

“Because I saw him fight, and I know you did too.” When Rubeo continued to stare at her with incredulity, Night Glider sighed. “Look, on the one hoof, yes, the idea is insane. All my life, I’ve been told never to go against the Masters, or else I’d end up like everyone else who tried.”

Night looked out into the darkness, setting Kingfisher’s hackles on end when she swept by the tree Kingfisher sat in.

“On the other, this thing, this guy, this… Eric. He hurt Ruby Drops. While she was transformed. By himself! Not one single pony, griffon, minotaur, or anyone else, can claim as much.”

She paused for a moment before continuing. “I’m tired, Preceptor. Tired of worrying, tired of going hungry, tired of feeling like a pawn in some unseen game of chess. Tired of feeling like my friends—my family—will be put to the sword if I have even a single feather out of place. For the first time, I feel like things might change, you know? Like, if I could go back to the way things were, would I even want to?”

Rubeo stared at her like she had grown a second head.

“But… But what about Starlight?”

“Alright, yes, I was being… stubborn, earlier. But I’ve seen the wound. It’s definitely a lot smaller than it was, to begin with. And Eric was right, it would be stupid of him, and me, to risk exposing her to infection. Once she’s healed and awake, we’ll see if she’s changed her mind. But until then, I’m sticking with the only creature that might have a chance of standing up to the Masters.”

Nightglider picked a few more tufts of grass, then headed back towards the makeshift campsite, wings laden with food.

“You’re chasing a fairy tale! All of you!” Rubeo called out after her.

Night Glider turned back.

“Maybe, but the Smooze used to be just a fairy tale, too. Who’s to say Howl’s Castle doesn’t also have roots in the truth?”

Kingfisher’s eyes went wide. Such a strange and intriguing plan they had, if far-fetched. Night Glider shot back one last quip as she about-faced, continuing back towards the campsite.

“Ponyville’s back the way you came if you so badly want back under Ruby’s girdle again.”

Night Glider wandered back towards camp like she owned the forest. Rubeo started grumbling to himself, too low for Kingfisher to hear, though words like “idiots” and “suicidal” came through loud and clear. She kept an eye on him as she mulled the new information over.

By all indications, the Smooze and his party were heading south. If they were searching for Howl’s Moving Castle, that likely meant they were heading towards the Badlands. But what did they hope to find there? The Masters had been combing through the Badlands for centuries.

Kingfisher shook her head. Whatever their plans were, they would amount to nothing. She knew where they were going, and it seemed she had already found a weak link. She watched, as Rubeo continued to gather food for a while and then followed Night Glider back to camp. It was very tempting to go down there and recruit him right away, but knowing Brother Odd, he already had contingencies in place, and contingencies for those contingencies. She had a duty to fulfill, even if she had only been able to glean the barest amount of information.

Slowly, carefully, she slipped out of the tree and took to the sky, keeping an eye on the campsite for sudden movements. When she was sure she had traveled far enough that not even the most powerful clairaudience spell could hear her, she alighted on a cloud and pulled the long-range communication runestone from her habit. A quick burst of pegasus magic and the link opened.

“This is Kingfisher, reporting in.”

“Acknowledged,” Brother Odd himself replied, startling her. “Give your report, Inquisitor.”

“Ah! A- apologies, Brother. I wasn’t expecting you to be the one receiving my call.”

“This is an important mission. The previous Smooze was troublesome by itself, and it was only a frothing mass of anger. An intelligent Smooze has the potential to outpace even the Mirthful Jester in disrupting our country. Now tell me, what have you found out?”

“Of course, Brother. As you suspected, the Smooze’s follower base is quite small. It has only four ponies accompanying it, at the moment, three of whom seem to be by choice. They are as follows: Starlight Glimmer, unicorn mare, age 20, now former student at the Ponyville branch of the Silverglow Academy for Adept Casters; Coloratura, earth pony mare, age 24, former maid at the Breeze estate in Ponyville; and Night Glider, pegasus mare, age 23, now former factory worker at the Cloudsdale weather factory. The unwilling follower is one Rubeo Citrinitas, unicorn stallion, age 68, Preceptor at the Ponyville branch of the Silverglow Academy. I would request copies of their dossiers, once assembled.

“The three mares follow the Smooze seemingly of their own volition, although I suspect Starlight Glimmer may have been the catalyst. Coloratura likely follows because she has nowhere else to go, and Night Glider out of a twisted sense of duty to her friends and housemates. The Preceptor seems to be following in an attempt to find an opportunity to rescue the three for the Smooze’s influence. I would recommend not vilifying him just yet. He may prove to be useful as an insider.

“In any case, their immediate objective appears to be finding Howl’s Moving Castle. Whether or not this is driven by any concrete evidence or information remains to be seen. At present, they are heading southward. Although I have no proof, I theorize they are attempting to find some part of the Castle in the Badlands. It would make sense, given the prevalence of the location in legends about the Castle. At their current pace and heading, they should reach Ghastly Gorge within a day and a half. What their plans are beyond that, I dare not speculate. I haven’t been able to use the clairaudience runes much, as every time I approach within approximately twelve yards of the Smooze, it seems to detect my presence. From what I witnessed of its fight with Lady Ruby Drops, I think it wise to keep my distance. For now, that is all I have to report.”

Kingfisher waited as Brother Odd processed the information. Thankfully, he never took long, and this was no exception.

“Very good. Continue monitoring them from a distance. Wait to approach Rubeo until I have more information. I’ll relocate agents into Appleloosa and Dodge Junction in preparation. Continue sending daily reports until further notice. I’m still investigating the Jester’s recent attacks on the Badlands Refineries. I’ll have Pinkamena send the dossiers along by noon tomorrow, and decide on my next move as soon as you know for certain which way they are heading. Stay alert, but do not put yourself in danger. Should something befall this little ragtag band, report it and confirm the casualties. Nothing else.”

“Of course, Brother. May God light your path.”

“And yours,” he finished, and the connection was severed.

Kingfisher returned the runestone to its pouch and shuffled over to the edge of the cloud, where she could keep an eye on the campsite. She practiced breathing slow and deep, settling in for a night of light sleep. It frustrated her that she wouldn’t be able to sleep adequately, but it couldn’t be helped. She couldn’t get close enough to the group to be awakened by the sound of their departure, so she would just have to keep an eye on them throughout the night.

“At least I can find a better night’s sleep in a cloud than a tree branch,” she mumbled to herself, before slipping into a fitful sleep.

I spent half of the night watching the forest for errant twitches in the darkness and listening for snapping branches and rustling leaves. The other half I spent fretting over Starlight. The others had eaten their meager supper of grasses and flowers and turned in almost immediately after. I was glad that we were traveling in a summery climate, or the trip would be much less tolerable. I dreaded to think what might happen if it rained. Being dissolved sounded like a very unpleasant experience, especially having had a taste of it back at the Academy.

A little more than an hour before dawn, the Adjutant proclaimed that Starlight’s treatment was complete and that I could safely release her from containment. I did so reluctantly, though I still left her in a sleeping bag of Smooze-foam. There wasn’t much else to do besides stay alert and wait, so I decided it would be a good idea to learn.


<<Yes, Director Eric?>>

I need to know more about being a Smooze.

<<What do you wish to know?>>

Everything. I need to know what I am, what I can and can’t do, how I function, anything that might help me to or hinder me from protecting people. Then I need to know about this world. I know we both overheard Night Glider say there are griffins, minotaurs, and other creatures in this world. I need to know what they are, who they answer to, everything there is to know about Equestria and the lands beyond.

<<That is quite a lot of information. I am unsure I will be able to relay it all to you before the night is over.>>

Start with the basics, then. What did you say Smooze is an acronym for again?

<<The “Synthesized Microculture of Omniformative Zooidic Engines.”>>

What does that make us, exactly?

<<We are a mass of self-replicating microgolems in a variety of configurations, suspended in a plant-based oil medium. Originally, we were created in a joint project by Starswirl the Bearded and Cosmo Howl, to be used as a treatment for a degenerative aura disease known as Alzheifer’s Syndrome. However, we were repurposed to combat the Masters upon their escape from the deepest pits of Tartarus.>>

And how do we function?

<<Our microgolems are capable of a multitude of functions, both destructive and creative, fueled by what we consume. We are capable of converting all types of matter and energy into energy of our own. The majority of our energy is derived from solar and lunar rays, in a process similar to photosynthesis. Of course, we are also able to absorb forces such as raw mana, electricity, radiation, sonic, heat, and, to some extent, kinetic. However, high concentrations of heat or kinetic energy are still dangerous to us, and turbulent water will cause the medium in which the microgolems are suspended to break up and expose them to short-circuiting.>>

So, we’re weak to fire and running water. Does that include rain?

<<Water of all varieties poses little threat with sufficient preparation. We are capable of solidifying the oil medium into a hydrophobic, rubber-like material, which we can use to encase the culture. Unfortunately, my processes were still initializing when we retreated into the Academy drainage pipe. Apologies.>>

It’s fine. What about being crushed?

<<If the surfaces between which we are compressed are nonporous enough, the danger is extreme. However, since each microgolem is about the size of a single white blood cell, the list of materials that qualify is slim. In essence, the only significant damage would occur if we were to be crushed with hydraulic pressure between two plates of highly machined metals or dense minerals.>>

I see. Tell me more about the microgolems, I requested, channeling Commander Shepard.

<<Using technical terms from your human vocabulary, the microgolems are minuscule constructs made primarily from a graphene-quartz polymer nanocomposite, wired with gold, and powered by a combination of electrical and arcane energy. On average, each microgolem’s dimensions are approximately four by four by five microns, and are capable of storing 2.85 kilobytes of data each. This, of course, varies by microgolem, as there are hundreds of different varieties. But, at our current mass, the capacity of our dedicated data storage microgolems exceeds two-hundred twenty exabytes.>>

The adjutant paused, perhaps having sensed my sudden existential dread. I searched my brain listlessly for relevant information.

If… If I recall, an exabyte is the next step up from a petabyte, right? Which is a step up from a terabyte?

<<Correct on both accounts. For reference, it can be estimated that all words ever spoken by humans could fit in five exabytes. Double that for all words spoken in both of our worlds.>>

If I didn’t know any better, I would’ve said the Adjutant was bragging.

And, uh… where am I in all that?

<<Your brain is currently being given three petabytes of dedicated storage, which equates to approximately fourteen cubic centimeters of storage microgolems. You use anywhere from one to fifteen percent of that at any given time. However, at the current default storage-density ratio, it is recommended that you never attempt to occupy a microculture of fewer than 1750 cubic centimeters—or a fifteen-centimeter diameter sphere—if you wish to retain your full faculties.>>

Hearing this made me want to laugh, cry, and scream, all at once. All my life, my experiences, my hopes and dreams, everything that made me human, could fit into a space no larger than a walnut. Meanwhile, the rest of me was at least twice the size of the average Golden Corral buffet-goer. And I was somehow in charge of it all.

Adjutant, I’m… an aberration, aren’t I?

<<Question unclear. Please provide context.>>

The… things I met in the place I woke up in this world, they were the actual Smooze, weren’t they?

The Adjutant remained silent for a moment.

<<If you are asking whether or not your behaviors differ from those of the original Smooze, then yes, you are correct. However, if you are implying that you are not a Smooze, that is false.>>

But look at me! I’m supposed to overthrow a government, essentially defeating six demigods in the process, and I don’t even know my ass from my armpit.

<<You have neither of those.>>

It was an expression. I mean, what if I-?

There was a pause. Not just in the conversation, but in the night itself. The birds, insects, even the breeze, all went still. The silence was deafening.

<<Director Eric, six extreme heat signatures have breached our perimeter.>>

I would have shot back with a smart-ass remark, but I was too busy focusing on the source of those heat signatures.

Thanks to the microgolems, darkness was no impediment to my sight. I could see out into the night with as much clarity as I had during the day, albeit with less color recognition. But even before I saw them, I could feel their presence, like a kind of snarl in the fabric of reality.

They looked like dogs of some kind if dogs could survive being charred by thousand-degree flames. Their flesh was cracked and blackened, burning embers speckling their hides. Red-hot coals burned in place of their eyes and smoke poured from their mouths, partially concealing their sharp, singed teeth. A primal hunger emanated from their very being.

If these things weren’t the perfect embodiment of “hellhounds,” I didn’t know what was.

<<Caution: hellhounds identified. Proceed with caution.>>

Oh great, thanks.

Slowly, my eyes still locked on the encroaching predators, I shuffled over to Rubeo. With a quick jerk, I woke him from his slumber, stifling his yelp before it alerted the hellhounds to what I was doing.

“Rubeo, shut up,” I hissed. “Hellhounds, six of them, ten yards out that way. Can you fight?”

A quick glance showed me his eyes grew to the size of saucers, and he let out a trembling breath.

“S- six…”

“Right. You protect the girls, I’ll fight the beasties. If any of them slip past me, try and hold them off until I can deal with them.”

I didn’t give him time to respond. I surged up to the edge of the clearing, between the ponies and the hellhounds. Thankfully, this gave the hellhounds something to think about, and they paced around the outside, following the apparent leader. As I followed them, I quickly grilled the Adjutant.

Alright, what do I need to know?

<<Hellhounds are extraplanar entities from the Nine Hells. Their flesh can reach temperatures greater than one-thousand-two-hundred degrees Fahrenheit or six-hundred fifty Celsius. I would advise dispatching them from a distance.>>

What kind of air pressure can we generate?

<<We are capable of internally generating pressure pockets of greater than fifty-thousand PSI. However, this process will take just over a minute to accomplish. In terms of battle, it is not terribly efficient. If we can lure the hellhounds away->>

No, we need to stay here. If we run and some of the hellhounds don’t follow, that will be disastrous.

<<There is a greater risk of damage to the culture if we stand our ground.>>

Well that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

There was a gentle whirring in my head. When the Adjutant didn’t respond immediately, I felt worry crawl into my brain. The hellhounds inched closer. I heard shuffling behind me, as Rubeo quietly woke the others up, whispering suggestions that they get ready to run. Finally, the Adjutant spoke up again.

<<Preferences saved. In order to minimize damage to the culture, I would suggest rapid strikes at their centers of mass.>>

Great. How long will it take to make some hollow iron pellets?

<<About fifty seconds for ten pellets.>>

I’ll make it work. Start generating air pressure. Once it gets to about forty thousand PSI, start making the pellets inside the bubble. I’ll keep them occupied until then.

<<Starting process…>>

My body started to feel like a shaken-up soda bottle, but I put the sensations out of my head. I had more pressing concerns.

The lead hellhound seemed to have decided he could take me because the pack had begun stalking forwards. I had to put a stop to that right quick. To one side, a recently fallen pine gave me an idea. I rolled over, enveloped the broken end of the tree, and flexed.

Here’s a fun fact: as a being without any bones, I can essentially be one giant muscle. I’m no ant, but I can pretty easily lift something several times heavier than myself. This, of course, includes trees.

As I applied pressure on both sides of the tree, it creaked and groaned in complaint, dirt falling from the branches. Slowly, agonizingly, it lifted off the ground. The further I levered it, the easier it became until I was holding it straight up above me.

The hellhounds hesitated for just a moment, but that was all I needed. I heaved, and the dead tree came crashing down. The hounds stared down the incoming pain train for just a moment before scrambling to get out of the way. The tree impacted the ground with a shower of dirt and an earth-shaking thud. A second later, its crown burst into flames, sending a shower of sparks and burning embers into the surrounding foliage. I felt one of the snarls of magic energy disperse, leaving five left.

“Alright, you hot shits,” I muttered, grinning viciously, “what do you think of me now?”

A chorus of keening howls pierced the smoke, followed by the five remaining hellhounds. They charged me, apparently convinced now that I was the most dangerous thing in the clearing. That was fine by me. The more aggro I pulled, the less danger to Starlight and the others. I slammed a half-dozen pseudopods into the dirt around me, simultaneously coating them in a hopefully fire-resistant material and setting up for my second attack.

As the first pair of beasts reached the edge of the clearing, I launched a salvo of dirt at them. The two in front yelped and stumbled, trying to shake the dirt out of their eyes. An opportunity presented, I launched a flurry of dirt-coated blows, slamming pseudopods into the lead hounds with all the force of a strongman’s sledgehammer. They were launched backward, tumbling bodily into the path of the third hellhound.

The next two hellhounds fared no better. They attempted to dodge to the sides, but a split second was all it took to change the trajectory of my tentacles. I battered them to the sides and brought the third blow slamming down on the three trying to get back on their feet.

Still, they kept coming, frantically scrabbling at the earth with their ashen claws, driven forward by unearthly strength and hunger. White-hot drool spattered the ground beneath their jaws, creating tiny spouts of flame that died out an instant later. They had a singular purpose: to consume. To kill and eat and kill and eat and kill and eat, over and over again, until the bottomless pit that was their existence was filled. The starvation of flame incarnate.

<<Fifteen seconds,>> the Adjutant advised.

It was taking all of my concentration to keep them at bay. Each blow scorched the dirt covering my limbs into uselessness, forcing me to keep digging up the ground around me. Every strike knocked them away, only for them to leap to their paws a moment later. I could feel the air growing hot, turning my surface goo into a soup. It wouldn’t be long before I started to lose coherence altogether.

Adjutant! How much longer?!

<<Five, four, three, two, one… Done!>>

Ten tiny pits of material dropped out of the bubble of air inside of me, like antacids in a glass of water. The relief was palpable. I finally had my trump card.

Finally! Let’s put an end to this!

The hellhounds noticed a pause in my assault and chose that moment to pounce, just as I had hoped they would. In a split second, I funneled the iron pellets and drill bits into the tips of five of my tentacles. The hounds, unable to dodge in midair, took the full force of my wrath. Five tentacles shot out and pierced their blackened hides, drilling for their cores. I could feel their heat melting the microgolems and sending bolts of searing pain shooting through the network.

The drill bits started to warp and fall apart, but they had done their jobs. I threw the hellhounds out of the clearing, sending the dead Smooze goo and iron pellets with them.

Arrivederci, assholes.”

I watched the hellhounds struggled to their feet, noting their confused expressions. They quickly reverted to starving fury, but before they could make it even two steps, the anger turned to alarm. The compressed air in the iron pellets did its job, too. Like balloons left on an air tank, they popped, sending a shower of sparks and charred flesh cascading down in the area around us. The damp underbrush smoldered and steamed.

I waited, tensed, for any sign of movement. A minute passed, and I let out a breath I didn’t need to hold and relaxed. The tangles, in reality, had all been unraveled.

<<Hellhound magic signatures eradicated. 3.47% of the culture was destroyed in the conflict. Outcome favorable. Well done, Director, but I would advise keeping self-sacrifice below 2% in the future.>>

Noted, I replied dismissively, before turning back to my little party. What I saw gave me more than a little amusement.

The three conscious ponies were staring at me—or at least in my general direction, in Rara’s case—mouths agape. Even Rubeo was speechless. From Night Glider’s position and Rara’s lack of confusion, it looked like Night Glider had been feeding Rara a running commentary on the action, while they prepared to run. Starlight was suspended in Rubeo’s magic aura, although neither of them moved, save for breathing. In the face of their sheer awe, I couldn’t keep from smirking. As the first rays of the early morning sunlight peeked into the forest, I addressed my flock.

“Well? Sun’s up. Move out.”

I rolled towards them and they moved aside. They were probably hoping they wouldn’t have to take the Goo-town Express again. Luckily for them, with as dense as the trees had become, that wasn’t an appealing option anyway. Even so, we still had a couple of ponies effectively down for the count. With that in mind, I scooped up Starlight and Rara, and set them on my ‘back,’ creating divots big enough to fit them comfortably. Night Glider and Rubeo started to protest, but a questioning look was all it took to shoot their objections down.

And so, with another small victory under my belt, we set out southwards once more. Little did we understand the significance of that encounter.

Author's Note:

Well, here it is after all this time. As if it wasn't obvious already, I'll just say that I'm having a hard time with any sort of writing. It feels like I've lost all confidence in my abilities. Despite that, I'm going to keep plugging away until I can write without pause anymore. Thank you all for sticking with me all this time. Fingers crossed that I can get the next chapter out before six months pass next time. :ajsleepy:

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