• Published 30th Oct 2019
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Fallout Equestria ABC: Dangers of the Wasteland - Doomande



Surviving in the Wasteland is as easy as ABC... or is it?

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F is for the fear of Darkness that we feel

“Listen up, you lickspittle idiots!” The Paladin was in a real huff today, wasn’t he?

“We lost contact with a squad at 2100 hours, this is no longer a training exercise. Do I make myself clear?” Jeez, you’d think we were in a warzone. Let's face it, this is probably just some squires trying to skip out on training. Wouldn’t be the first time some punks thought they could hide out and pretend they got lost. Still, I had a job to do so might as well. Hell of a retirement plan from the front lines, you spend your best years fighting the scum of the waste, then they stick you to babysitting squires till you can’t even work your power armor anymore. Elder Sharp Sides had a sense of humor, whatever, better go knock those punks heads together.

“Paladin, get these kids back to camp I’ll find the straggler,” I grunted and trotted over to my armor.

“Sorry, orders from above, this needs to serve as experience in search and rescue operations. Take the trainees Blackbox.” Great, babysitting kids while looking for other kids. I should have taken a bullet fighting Red Eye’s assholes. “Understood, come on, you punks! Saddle up, standard gear lets find these lost souls!”

I bucked my armor’s belly, and it reared up backplates opening for me. As the plates closed around me, I activated my radio to get more details. “Lighthouse, you get roped into this too?”

“Hah, yeah designation Gamma 01, I'm taking the brats up to a hill. Were to establish overwatch for a third squad if they don’t show up soon.” Of course, Elder Sharp Sides was taking this way too seriously.

“Just another day at Everfree Forest.” Lighthouse chuckled and cut the transmission.

“Damn straight,” I muttered, I trotted ahead of the squires assigned to me. We set up camp some sixty meters from the forest. Our campsite was placed overhead on a hill, as a standard procedure, we started bringing squires here for training. Everfree was practically alive, a pulsing beast in its own right, spewing out the worst the wasteland had to offer. The hellhounds relocating nearby only made The Order and me all the tenser. Still, a perfect place for survival training and a hell of a lot of untapped resources for the brave and stupid enough. Unlucky for me, Applejack’s Rangers counted among the brave and stupid kind.

“Crusader Blackbox, we’re ready, sir!” I turned to the brats under my command. Bartz, Nikola, and Thyme, nice enough kids when it comes down to it.

“Alright come on, stay together, standard patrol formation, you see something you call it out.” I started down the path into the valley below. “Oh, almost forgot we’re designated Gamma 02, switch your short burst to frequency 12.34.” I sighed and led us through the ravine. “Stay sharp, what weapons did you choose?”

“Huh?”

“Weapons soldier, keep up!”

“Oh, right.” Nikola stammered, “a-as squad leader I assigned us energy weapons to minimize the chance of jamming in a moist environment.”

“Not bad, now just make sure you don’t turn one of your comrades to dust. Remember, any incident for friendly fire could be costly.” Always the same shit, kids eager to shoot lasers at everything. Well, it doesn’t matter, the wildlife tended to leave you alone if you went in groups.

We entered into Everfree, the canopy of trees instantly blocked out the light of the moon shining above us. I turned my headlamp on; the squires followed suit, turning their helmet lights on. In a moment's notice, the world had changed. I felt like we had stepped out of Equestria into a strange alien world. Beams of light filtered through the trees, casting the forest in ominous shadows. Our own lights banished the darkness, revealing more of the hostile planet. Critters, small and some the size of your hoof, scampered from the light. Offending eyes stared at us from the shadows, always just shy of our headlamps. I could hear the kids quicken their pace behind me, I couldn’t blame them, being alone here was enough to drive a stallion to drink.

As we delved deeper into the forest, the footing became tricky. Gnarled roots and holes dug by Celestia knows what forced us to slow down. Despite my years of experience screaming at me otherwise, I was forced to keep my head low to illuminate the path. I wasn’t at war, I really didn’t need to worry about some slaver nut splattering my guts with an anti-machine rifle. But it was hard you know, you spend your whole life from one fight to another, and if ponies ain’t trying to kill you, suddenly it feels weird.

“Omega 01 to 02, how copy?” My radio crackled to life.

“Hard copy 01, what's up?” I pushed through some low hanging branches snapping them.

“I found a trail, hooves all over the place, looks like our missing ponies went through here.” I heard Lighthouse’s kids say something I couldn’t make out. “Yeah, it looks like the kids were in a hurry.”

Hm, did they try to run and hide? That’s a long way to go just to avoid further work. “Hey, Lighthouse, what Crusader was in charge of that team?”

“I’m not sure-bzzt- Ga-bzzt- huh-bzzt- C-bzzt- in.” The transmission died after some interference. That shouldn’t have happened, we're in pretty close range.

“Lighthouse respond, Lighthouse, do you copy?” I stopped, and Nikola bumped into my flanks.

“Sir?” he rubbed his nose with a questioning glance.

“H.Q, please respond, this is Gamma 02 reporting in.” I gritted my teeth. This wasn’t right, not one bit. I should have felt it sooner, squires slacking off was one thing, but I should have paid closer attention to our surroundings. The world had gone quiet, worst it seemed as if the air itself has gone still. The peering eyes of the wildlife had disappeared, we were no longer of interest or worry to them. Something else drove them away from the area, I suppose it had to be a predator. I really have lost my edge working daycare for these kids.

“This is H.Q; send your traffic.”

“I lost contact with 01, I’m encountering interference, can you hail them from your end?” I powered up my weapons, feeling a weird tingly feeling in the back of my neck. I shifted my head slightly, Bartz bringing up the rear was just spacing out, looking at everything but focusing on nothing. Nikola was muttering something to himself, his eyes on the ground. Thyme, the smarter of the three, which wasn’t by a sizeable margin mind you, was looking around nervously. These dolts would have been shot dead by Red Eye’s slavers.

“Hey!” I stamped my hoof on the ground.

“Ah!” A beam of angry red light hit me square in the chest, leaving a bright red spot on my armor. I froze in place for a moment.

“I’m so sorry!” Nikola put his front hooves together, pleading, “please don’t report me!”

Sigh.

“Enough, you’re lucky I’m in here, or you’d be scooping me up into your saddlebags. Now pay attention, you’re looking for your comrades in a hostile environment.” I threw an accusing hoof at Nikola, “quit looking at your hooves and take stock of the situation, surroundings, your squads formation, think!”

“Bartz, by Celestia's flanks, you look like you’re in Luna’s moon, a Manticore could have you halfway down its gullet, and you’d still be a mile away!”

“Thyme!”

“Sir!” She straightened.

“You clench your ass any tighter, and I could squeeze diamonds out of it, being alert is one thing, twitching at every time the wind rustles the leaves is another. Take a deep breath, calm down, and focus your mind.” I sighed, shaking my head, “are we clear?”

“Yes sir!” they retorted in unison and spread out to cover all sides.

“Outstanding!” I turned back around, scanning the forest for life. The stillness was all that greeted me, and it made my skin crawl.

“This is H.Q; come in Gamma 02.”

“This is 02, send your traffic H.Q.” I narrowed my eyes in anticipation.

“Gamma 01 is not responding, Squire’s distress pulsers are not responding either. Were prepping a full armored squad, in the meantime, we need your squad to investigate 01’s last known position, how copy?”

What?

“H.Q, my trainees are not prepared for a live search and rescue operation. I advise they retreat while I proceed on my own.” I gritted my teeth, H.Q had to be sniffing glue or something. Two trainee squads are missing, and they want me to take these kids with me?

“Negative 02, we don’t have the pony-power to spare, the armored squad is coming from the second outpost at Apple Acres. Use caution and fallback if you encounter trouble, how copy?”

Son of a- “Hard copy H.Q, proceeding to 01’s last known location, 02 out.” I heaved a sighed and looked to my disappointed squad. Frankly, I didn’t care if they were disappointed, better they live to try again than die in this godforsaken forest. “Don’t look so surprised, were in the middle of a forest teeming with Celestia-knows-what, and you couldn’t even properly cover your asses while I talked to H.Q? You want to prove me wrong, shape up, and do not let your guard down for a second, is that clear?” I opened my helmet, letting them stare into my cobalt eyes.

“Yes, sir!” They straightened, a fire immediately started burning in their eyes. Now those were the eyes of soldiers!

I took charge, and we started hiking north of our current position. With the thick foliage, I could only curse as we ran into a hidden ravine. I jumped down, my metal hooves splashing into muddy water. The trainees slowly climbed down one by one, before we climbed up the other end. It took us a good hour to traverse to Lighthouse’s last known position.

The sight was not promising, we passed through the brush into a worn path from hooves beating down the ground. The trail led further into the forest, the trees canopy drowned out Luna’s light here the thickest. I could not make out a sliver of natural light as the path was engulfed in utter darkness. I trailed my headlamp over the beaten way to find a disorganized mess of hooves. None looked older than today, worst some looked fresh, and the deeper prints made by Lighthouse’s armor were everywhere.

“Sir, look,” Thyme’s light illuminated the foliage.

“Scorch marks,” true enough sections of leaves and tree bark had been burned through. A clean-cut of a magical laser bolt, the tree trunks were burned clean through leaving perfectly round holes, and the ground itself had marked as if somepony fired on the ground. I trotted up to light the way through the path. Several hoof prints led into the unknown, though my light did little in banishing the oppressive dark.

Click click click…

“Hm? Did you hear that?” Bartz said behind me, I strained my ears, and the sound detectors in the armor amplified to adjust.

Click click click…

What is that, sounds like someponie's chattering teeth. “Circle up, watch all sides, I need to contact H.Q.” I turned my radio on.

A loud ear-splitting screech shattered the quiet of the forest. My radio instantly turned to static. My armor’s HUD flickered but persisted, and the light of our lamps flickered for a second. Everypony tried covering their ears, but the sound seemed to pass right through us to rattled our bones. “What the hell!” Nikola took off his helmet, sitting on his haunches.

Bzzzzzzztttt

Nothing, just static, that…screech or whatever the hell that was, was interfering with our radios. “Okay, now I know why we couldn’t reach 01.” I glanced back to make sure everypony was alright. “Status?”

“All good,” Bartz threw up a hoof.

“I’m fine, Sir.” Thyme nodded.

“Fine, but what do we do, Sir?” Nikola donned his helmet and tapped it for good measure.

“Well, we march out of here.” Everyponie’s heads snapped up to look at me, “or we look for our comrades.” I opened my helmet to look at them all in the eye once again. “Don’t answer before knowing what you’re getting into, this was a deliberate move. Something or someone knocked down our calms, they knew what we were using them for. There’s no shame in a tactical retreat to wait for reinforcements.”

Everypony shared a look, and damn it if I wasn’t kind of proud of them at the moment. “We don’t leave Ranger’s behind, Sir.” Nikola shook his head and puffed up his chest. “We look for our comrades.”

“Alright, stick together and watch your flanks, I don’t want anything sneaking up-on-us. That clear?”

“Yes, Sir!” The kids smirked at one another and got into formation.

“Alright, let’s take the road well-traveled then.” I chuckled, trying to make light of the situation, for their sakes, and a bit for mine as well.

Weapons powered, lights searching, we followed 01’s hoof-steps further and further into Everfree. The wind started to pick up again, rustling the tree leaves, making the swishing sound feel more terrifying than it was. The lack of noise from the local wildlife was disconcerting, hell it was downright frightening. The things that live in Everfree hardly ever hid from us out of fear. Yet now they were gone as if they were never there in the first place. The windblown trees were the only companions willing to hiss at us, and whenever the wind died, that sound came again.

Click click click…

The damn sound had the squires jumping at every shadow, their lights would swing violently one way, then track the bush lines slowly back. The noise followed us, and it was always at the same distance, it never got louder, and it never grew quieter. Each time it came, my ears twitched, and I wanted nothing more than to start firing into the tree-line, to shut up whatever was following us. The wind blew particularly loud, the trees hissing grew into a roar, and I heard hurried footsteps track across our left, the clicking followed, this time louder and much closer…much too close.

Click click click…

“Did you hear that?” The squires circled up, lights searching I snapped to the left my guns following my line of sight. I glanced at my E.F.S to see the directional compass free of lines, save for my squad.

“Sir”

“Quiet Thyme,” I snapped lightly at her, I strained my ears but only the trees steadily growing quieter came through the sound-pick-up. When the air died down, none of us dared to move, I could hear my heart thump rhythmically against my chest. The seconds ticked away, and my own breathing became audible to me. I swallowed a lump in my throat and slowly stared down the path again. “Lets’ go; don’t let your guard down.”

“Roger,” Nikola was the only one with the nerves to answer steadily, everypony else just nodded, but the trembling in their frames was evident to me.

I learned early on; the quiet is a soldier's nightmare. The silence eats away at you, it robs of you of your sense and denies you sleep or even the clearing of your mind. Time becomes an insufferable crawl, seconds seem to tick away minutes apart, and noise, of any kind, sound a thousand times louder, and a million times more threatening.

Click click click…

“Shit!” Nikola hissed, he tried but failed to hide the curse under his breath. My armor picked up the sound clear as day. I swallowed again and looked down to find the end of the hoof-steps. But, just at the end of the hoof-steps laid a discarded magical energy rifle.

“Sir?” Nikola stepped up beside me. He focused on the discarded weapon, the barrel smoked a sign of repeated fire. He scrunched up his nose and stepped up to examine it closer, there was….something covering the rifle. I blenched almost throwing up in my mouth, I have seen things in war that will never let me sleep peacefully so long as I live. But this, this wasn’t pony-made this goopy slime was thick and white-ish in color. It was stuck right in the middle of the rifle side, splattered against it, like it had been hurled at it. There was a stringy bit off goop trailing into the dirty ground, and on closer inspection, it was scorched at the end, cut off by a laser bolt.

I stepped away and looked up to the surrounding area, the hoof-steps formed into a semi-circle, three ponies, two sets left of me, and one set of deeply imprinted hooves to the right. Lighthouse stood there, I looked to the brush line to see it scarred by heavy machinegun fire. Exploded bark from 5mm bullet fire, and a path plowed through by something substantial.

There’s no way Lighthouse abandoned his kids.

“Sir, I found more hoof-steps.” Nikola made me snap my head in his direction. Sure enough, more prints picked up about ten feet from where we were. I nodded, glanced more at the forced clearing, and trotted up to Nikola. Two sets of hoofprints, well to be precise two sets of hoofprints and half of another. I stepped back and put my hoof out to keep everypony else from stepping into the fresh tracks. I squinted my eyes, lowering my head closer to the ground. The two sets of hoof-steps were facing outwards. The Half-steps looked to be facing back where we came from. I tilted my head and stuck my hoof against the ground to feel it soft and muddy. There wasn’t a drop of water around us, and the soil around the area was dry. I stood up to my full length and brought up my soiled hoof up to my face. The mud, it was colored black and…red?

“Ah!” Thyme screeched and turned her lighting the path. “Something touched my back!” Everypony snapped into a combat stance and circled up. I whipped around with Thyme just behind me. I looked at her back to see a wet spot on her barding’s back. Another drop landed on her I put up my hoof to keep her from turning and knocking into me. “What is that?” She moved, albeit with frenzied caution to stand beside the drop. The ground beneath her had a small spot darkened by the dripping mystery liquid. I looked up, my headlamp traveling up to the canopy of leaves. Just above us, covered in the mystery goop, was a helmet. The front top was smashed open, two holes broke right through the hardened material, destroying the headlamp. The mystery liquid dripped, and I caught it on my armored hoof, it left a bright red spot that shined against our light.

“Blood”

“S-Sir?” Thyme’s breathing became shallow, I looked at her to see her staring upwards; her eyes wild with fear. Everypony else was looking up, Nikola’s lower lip was trembling, and Bartz flopped down on his haunches his jaw hanging open. I took a deep breath, my heart started to thump against my ears, despite my armors climate control environment; I felt a drop of cold sweat slither its way down the back of my neck. I clenched my mouth with my nostrils flaring against the mic inside my helmet. My ragged breathing mixed with my increasingly faster heartbeat, and I gathered the courage to look up.

The treetops were gnarled with strings of the mystery goop. The thick slimy lines of goop attached treetrunk-to-treetrunk, branch-to-branch, creating a network across the treetops. Tangled, or more like stuck against the goop, were a handful of ponies. I didn’t bother to look at my E.F.S; they were already gone. I dared not focus on the damage done to their bodies. I don’t think my stomach could take it.

“B-Brussle’s squad,” Nikola broke the horrified silence, the words sent a shudder down my spine I worked hard to suppress. Celestia above, they were just kids! I dared look at the face of one of the dead, their glassy stare fixed in sheer terror.

“There’s nothing we can do here, form up and let’s go.” I was surprised my voice didn’t shake because seeing those kids cut me deep. Flashes of slavers using slaves as cannon fodder flashed across my mind.

Shit.

“there's only four.”

“What?”

“F-four, Sir I only count four bodies, where are the rest of them.” Bartz’s voice quivered with every syllable.

Right, Brussel's squad was here, but where was Brussel, for that matter where was Lighthouse’s squad. “Form up, come on!” I growled to keep from quivering when I spoke. I trotted ahead, and everypony filed in behind me more alert than ever.

“What got them?”

“I don’t know, but it got them good, did you see-”

“Quiet, Nikola, you too, Bartz, Crusader Blackbox is concentrating!” Thyme hissed just a hoof-step behind me.

So we ventured deeper into the foreboding darkness, this whole place was blackened beneath the tree canopy. At times, a beam of light would trail above just ahead of me, probably the wisest choice any of the squires had made today. Whatever killed Brussel’s squad and probably gotten to Gamma 01, could be out there laying in ambush.

“Light!” Nikola hissed from the rear, Celseita, they jumbled up their formation. I’d scold them about consistency, but protocol on proper unit structure was the last god damn thing on my mind right now. Some twenty feet ahead, a flashlight illuminated a tree creating a fork on the road. There was something huddled against the tree, casting an ominous shadow against the tree trunk. I kept my weapons trained on the slumped figured, all light sources focused on the figure. With trepid steps, we inched closer, all of us ready to bring that thing into a whole world of hurt if it was hostile.

“…”

“It talks!” Bartz rushed up to my side.

“…”

“It’s a pony!” Thyme rushed ahead of me.

Stupid girl!

I hurried behind her and everypony followed. Against the tree laid huddled up, one of Lighthouse’s squires with blood pooled beneath him.

“Thelightsafethelightissafe,” he rocked back and forth, clutching something against his chest. I looked at the flashlight on the ground, and I grew pale, it was a… occupied helmet.

“Oh, Celestia… is he holding onto someponie’s?” Thyme could hold it no longer, she hurled her stomachs contents into a nearby bush.

I cringed and opened my helmet to let the frightened kid look at my face. With any hope, my ugly mug might bring him comfort, or get his attention. “Kid, are you okay, are you injured?”

He failed to respond, just kept rocking back and forth, muttering gibberish. “Thelightissafethelightissafe.”

“He’s in a trance,” I put my hoof on his shoulder, but he didn’t register that either. “Damn it, any ideas?” I looked at my squad. Thyme was gasping, recovering from the ordeal. Bartz could only stare at what the pony was clutching greedily in his fetlocks. Nikola stood by the occupied helmet, he lifted a hoof with what I could guess to be morbid curiosity to touch the helmet.

NO!” The pony before me screamed bolting from the tree, he dropped his price possession and dove at the helmet. Nikola jumped, skittering away from the helmet while the pony grabbed the helmet, snuffing out the light against his chest. There was a crunching sound of glass beneath a metal surface.

“No,no,no,no,no!” The pony scrambled to his haunches. He picked up the helmet, its contents falling out of it with a wet plop against the dirt. Thyme looked on, horrified her light fixated on the ground. “No, no, no, no, no!” The crazed ponies wild eyes shifted rapidly while he hugged the broken helmet against his chest.

“Calm down kid, it's alright,” I tried to put my hoof against his shoulder. Something flashed from his belt. It caught the light of Nikola’s flashlight. Metal contacted against the side of my exposed face, and I fell to my side dazed. A hoof trench knife, with a metal-studded band to sick your fetlock through. The studs doubled as a striking weapon.

“It touched me!” I could hear bells ringing in my ears, along with the frightened ponies screams, he swung wildly at the dark until everyponie’s lights concentrated to him.

“Light, the light!” He dropped the trench knife fell on his haunches. He looked ecstatic to once again be bathed in light. Though everypony looked horrified at him, his front armor was red, covering the Ranger’s logo on his chest. The sight was grizzly as his relieved face displayed a manic smile.

“Keep lights on him!” Nikola barked, but he also trained his rifle on the pony.

“The light, it can’t take me, it can’t drag me from here… Lettuce!” Everypony jumped in place. The pony scrambled around the ground, looking for something. “Lettuce!” He grabbed the treasure he had dropped. “Were safe, the light Lettuce, we’re safe!” This kid was just yelling nonsense. I closed my helmet and took a steadying breath. This kid was nuts, I need to knock him out, we can drag him back out to H.Q. Still, I had to look at the brighter side, we found a survivor and the damn clicking noise had stopped following us. I felt a shiver run down my spine. The clicking was gone, why the hell didn’t I notice it the clicking had been absent?

“Damn!” I turned my light on the bushes behind me, “form a perimeter!”

“Sir?” Nikola moved to look at me.

“Form a perimeter right now, damn it!”

Click click click

There it is, “move it!”

“No!” the crazed poney grappled with Nikola, dropping the trench knife and his “Lettuce,” or at least what was left of him.

“Damn it get off!” Nikola struggled to get the pony off him, his rifle squeezed against the crazed pony, and Nikola blocking its line of fire.

Click click click

It’s getting closer! “Nikola!” I couldn’t move, damn it if I move; that’s another gap we can get attacked through.

“Sir, I can hear something coming!” Thyme shrieked, trembling in place.

“Where is it, where the hell is it!” Bartz swept his light across the bushes opposite off me.

CLICK CLICK CLICK!

“Get the F-!” A loud wet plop cut Nikola off. He looked at me, stunned in place.

Plop.

“N-no!” the crazed pony dropped his gaze down to his chest and fumbled around his belt. He forgot he lost his knife when he grappled with Nikola.

I looked down, stringy goop was stuck against Nikola’s back-left fetlock. Another was latched against the crazed ponies' abdomen. “Sir?” Nikola’s voice sounded like a frightened little colt. I lifted a hoof, but the goop went taught.

“Aahhh!!” Nikola got pulled off his hooves, he dug at the ground but was dragged into the bushes at an alarming speed.

The Crazed pony followed after him screaming and kicking. “The Light!”

“Open fire!” we might hit them, we might kill both, but I would not let them suffer the same fate as the rest.

The air repeatedly cracked with my heavy machinegun fire. The two Fifty caliber guns flashed in the darkness. Angry red laser beams cut through the foliage, the leaves around instantly caught fire burning!

Something, I don’t know what screeched an unholy sound so piercing I swore my ears were bleeding. “With me!” I broke into a full gallop after them, the two lines on my E.F.S rapidly grew farther away despite this.

“Help me!” Nikolas screamed, sounding farther and farther away. “Help!”

“Were losing him!” Thyme galloped ahead of me. My armor allowed me to run practically indefinitely, but its weight and size made me slower than a pony unburned by the load.

“Yell, don’t stop screaming!” I shouted with all my might, the lines were fading fast, this thing was fast, even if carrying two ponies.

“No!” Nikola screamed in immense pain, then silence. One of the lines faded from my E.F.S.

No, please, Celestia, no! I pushed my armor as fast as I could go. I broke through some thick foliage and slid to a stop. The crazed pony laid in a pool of his blood. I sat on my haunches and picked the broken pony up, his head rested against my armored fetlock. “Where did they go!”

Tears fell freely from his eyes, there was a bit of blood on the corner of his mouth. I looked down at his wounds. No, he wasn’t going to make it, but damn it, he could still help me save Nikola!

“Come on, kid, where did they go, where did that thing take my squires!” I shook him a little.

He blinked away the tears, a bloody fetlock plopped against the side of my armor sliding down. “The” he gasped, choking down a sob, “light….the light!” He gasped out before going limp in my arms.

“Sir!” Bartz burst in after me; he gasped for breath looking around frantically.

“He’s gone,” I let the kid down gently and got to my hooves.

“Wheres Thyme?”

Bartz question snapped me back to reality, I looked around, and my eyes widen. I looked at my E.F.S to see a fading line. “Heading southeast, let's go!” I went into a full gallop plowing through any obstacles in my way. The line was growing farther but not as fast as before. Good, I refuse to lose another kid, I’m going to grab her and -forgive me Nikola- get the hell out of here. I had to cut my losses I had to! Two squads lost, and one of my ponies taken. “Thyme, where are you?” I slowed down when Thyme’s marker grew close enough. Bartz followed suit, and quiet as a mouse we stalked through the jungle to find a clearing. Well, clearing in the sense that the forest hadn’t claimed the place. Then again, depending on who you asked, maybe it did. Nature, however, mutated claimed the spot. The tree canopy kept the place in utter darkness.

Slime coated the mossy ground of a massive tree with an enormous opening at its trunk. A cave entrance to the creature's lair, no doubt. The E.F.S signal was coming straight from there. Actually, quite a few E.F.S signals were coming through now. The proximity, it seems the creature's jamming ability didn’t jam signals at practically point-blank range. Shit, if they were inside, they were as good as dead. I should take Bartz and get out of here.

Damn it, I can’t, not when they’re this close and alive. “Bartz,” I hissed beneath my breath.

“Sir,” he whispered back.

“Go back, get the hell out of here and warn them to stay away from here.” Once you leave the creature’s range. I think the calms will work again.” One life, if I can save one life, my old ass can rest in peace. Well, pieces, I guess, I won’t let the bastard eat us, I’ll set my spark battery to overload and blow us all to hell. If I die, I won’t be lunch to some unholy creature of radiation.

“Sir, you can’t be serious!” Bartz stuttered, and he was shaking like a damn leaf, but the kid refused to leave.

“God damn it, this might not end pretty, and I need somepony to get out of this one alive you hear me?” I glared at Bartz and shoved him with the armors extra strength for good measure. He fell back, sprawling on the ground.

“We can’t afford to let our reinforcements come in blind. Get out, and get a transmission out to H.Q.” I glanced back at the cave entrance, besides there won't be anything left of the bastard to scrape into a test tube.

“Sir, please don’t die.” Bartz sniffled and wiped his armored foreleg over his nose.

Damn it, kid.

“Not planning to, now go.”

Bartz nodded, then tentatively trotted away into the dark forest. Alright, once more into the breach then. I swallowed a lump in my throat, and I peeked inside the cave. Slowly but surely, I trotted inside, deeper underground. The beast’s clicking began to echo off the walls, the further inside the sound started to overlap. For the first time in my thirty years as a Ranger, I noticed just how bloody loud my breathing was inside my helmet.

I stepped on something squishy, and I resisted the urge to shake inside my armor. With no small amount of strength, I managed to look down. There was some slime on the floor, and on closer inspection, there was slime all over the damn cave. “Sweet, Celestia, just what the hell is this thing.” I took another calming breath and trotted through the slime. The walls were caked with the stuff, dripping from the ceiling with long trails of slime before hitting the floor with a disgusting splat.

I gazed down at my E.F.S, the markers were close now, but I couldn’t hear or see any signs of survivors. My instincts, once raised and honed, now screamed at me to run, flee this place and never come back. Yet, the tunnels beckoned me ever onward, the thoughts of my comrades prostrate before the beast to devour smothered any thoughts of cowardice. I crouched low, powered up my weapons, and aimed my guns further into the cave. My heart pounded against my chest, waiting for the creature to rear its ugly head. In that brief moment, I realized I didn’t know what it looked like. I think that only terrified me more, My back legs started to vibrate in place in fear. My armor also informed me I just pissed myself, as sweat dripped down my face. I wasn’t much of a reader, but I vaguely recall a book saying something about the monster is scary until you shine the light on them.

I heaved a sigh and straightened up, freezing up here would spell death for us all. I trudge forward, albeit at a slower, more methodical pace. Maybe five minutes or ten had passed, I honestly lost count, time having long been put in the back burner. I arrived at the entrance of a chamber. About a meter from the entrance laid a body, or the remains of one. I shone my light on it, to see skeletal remains covered in that slime. The clothes on the body brought old memories to the surface. Red Eye’s slavers, I remember when they were trying to burn away Everfree. This poor bastard was probably picked off from the rest. I stepped closer, and a hoof-full of critters fleed from the holes where they were hidden. They scattered from the light, and I couldn’t get a good look at them. But, their flight brought my attention to something. A satchel wet from the slime nestled beneath the skeletal hoof of the slaver. I also noticed something dry and red on the wall. I followed the bloodstain up to see a poorly scribbled message.

The Light.

I scrunched my nose and looked back to the corpse, just like the kid. Mutterings about the light, a puzzle I had yet solve, and that clearly involved the monster that killed him and my comrades. The satchel then, I carefully opened it, lest one of the little critters in there gave me a heart attack. Inside were red sticks with tops.

Flares.

I looked towards the opening and narrowed my eyes. Celestia, I hope you’re really watching out for us, and this isn’t some bullshit from the nutjob priests of the waste. I slung the satchel over my neck, careful to keep it away from my gun barrel. I trotted into the cave’s chamber, and I almost wet myself again.

I could barely contain the fear-induced whimper that lodged in my throat. I had to swallow it down to keep from falling onto the ground out of sheer terror. I felt as if I had been swallowed into the belly of a monster. I tried to shine my light on the ghastly sights covering the wall. The slime was everywhere I couldn’t even see the cave walls anymore. The disgusting goop clung to the wall like a film layer that dripped onto the ground. Straight above my head was a hole, it was six meters in diameter, and it was so pitch black my light could not banish away the blackness.

I had to close my eyes and force myself to look down, lest I freeze in place, staring into the abyss. Though, the rest of the cave didn’t fare better. White, pulsating sacks laid clumped together just straight ahead of me. The sacks even lined the walls of another tunnel ahead of me. I dared not think what lied beyond it, hell I didn’t plan on going further either. I looked around, my comrades had to be here. I did my best to ignore the pulsating sacks that covered most of the walls around me.

I noticed some balls of thick goop, on the wall to my far left, I trotted towards it, squinting at them. It took me a moment, but I realized it was the missing ponies I was looking for. The goop had them plastered against the wall in some kind of cacoon. If I were a betting pony, the cacoons were probably for later consumption. Just next to my comrades, another cluster of white sacks pulsed erratically. Not one to allow me to get killed by whatever the hell they were. I trained my guns on it and flashed my light against them.

My jaw plunked against my armor. The light illuminated the inside of the sack, hell, it wasn’t just a sack. The damn things were eggs, and I was surrounded by hundreds of them. Probably, thousands more were beyond the second tunnel. The creature inside, wiggling impatiently, was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I have lived many years in this blasted shithole we call Equestria, but I have never seen anything like this… thing. It frankly looked like it didn’t even belong in this world. The creature had a long scorpion-like tail with three sharp prongs curling into each other, like a claw from those old claw machine games littering abandoned outlet malls. At the end of the tail, I couldn’t get a good look at it, but I’m pretty sure there was an opening. The carapace along the spine for I couldn’t describe it as anything else were several plates of chitin that seem to rattle. Curled up were four sharp-looking legs with strange webbing between them. Its eyes, for it, had four divided between its maw were beady and yellow. While its mouth had four sharp mandibles that looked like it stabbed and fed its prey into its mouth.

With some effort, I tore my gaze from the monstrosity and swept my light across the sacks. The critters were of several sizes, but they all looked similar. The only difference seemed the stage of life cycle meant some were without tails yet. I shifted my gaze up to see more sacks above my comrades. I didn’t have enough bullets, and honestly, firing my guns would just attract the other ones.

Oh hell.

The realization was like a bucket of water dumped on me. There had to be hundreds of the bastards, and they were bound to come back any second. With that, bowel loosening thought, I set to free my comrades so we can get the hell out of here. I brought up my right hoof and flicked my wrist. A foot of sharpened steel slid out where my forearm armor met my hoof armor. Carefully I dug into the goop cutting away at it. I honestly couldn’t tell who I was freeing. But, not even halfway down the goop gave way, and I caught the pony inside. Clad in power armor, Lighthouse hung lifelessly against me. I frowned. I laid him down against the ground and opened his helmet, hitting the emergency switch hidden behind the ear. The helmet cracked, and he looked no worse for wear.

“Wake up soldier, come on!” I hissed gently, smacking the side of his cheek. His mouth trembled before opening.

“AAHHHH!!!” I scrambled back, as dozens of critters crawled out of his mouth. I scrambled to my hooves. A challenge with all the slime. I trained my guns on my friend. The bio-signs the E.F.S read. It was fooled by those little bastards, eating Lighthouse from the inside out! I roared and squeezed the littler bastards under my hooves. They squealed and screeched like unholy beasts that they were. The rest scattered, and I panted, looking at my hooves caked in viscera and blood. I looked over Lighthouse’s body to see puncture wounds about half a foot in diameter across his back. Damn it, these things were able to puncture through my armor, I really had to get the hell out of here.

Though my hopes were no longer high, I set to work on the last two. Thyme and Nikola, both showed life signs, but I gave Lighthouse one last look, before turning back to the task at hoof. I got the sack about halfway open revealing Thyme. I rather unceremoniously poked at her mouth with my blade. I opened her mouth and thanked Celestia when no bugs crawled out. I finished the job and plopped her down against Lighthouse’s body. I didn’t like having to use him as a prop-up pillow, but better that than the slimy ground. I worked on the final pod, peeling away at the goop around Nikola’s muzzle. When I got most of it out, he came too. His unfocused eyes blinked at me before they focused on me.

I smiled, feeling relief. I could take these two out of this nightmare. “Mmm!” Nikola’s eyes widened like dinner plates, he struggled violently against his constraints. The goop still around his muzzle didn’t allow him to speak. The message was, however, clear. I turned around on a dime with weapons trained and ready. The creature, or maybe it was a different one in its full horror, stood against me. Or it should have in my mind.

The moment my light touched it, it shrieked like bloody murder! The creature, a sickly pale yellow writhed in pain as its carapace hissed and boiled in the light. Every message soon became apparent. Even the dark canopy of the deepest part of the forest made sense now. The light hurt it, and it hurt bad. Tendrils of acrid smoke emanated from its tortured body, the bubbling boils burst into a bloody mess. The chitin plates on its back vibrated, making that clicking noise from before. Like a rad-roach when the light was turned on, it scurried away, trying to avoid the deadly fire from my headlamp. I smirked, a wave of courage swelling inside me. I turned back to Nikola to get the hell out of here!

Shit!

I stared straight into the beady eyes of one of the creatures barely a few inches from my face. The light on my headlamp forced a blood curling screech from it, and it dove against me. Its weight and my surprise sent us both tumbling into the ground. I put my hoof between its mouth and as it tried to clamp down on it. Hundreds of tiny fangs broke themselves against my armored forearm, and the four mandibles unable to gather enough torque desperately tried to puncture through my forearm. All the while, it screeched violently as it burned against my flashlight. Its two front legs stabbed wildly, barely missing me.

“Get the hell off me!” I yelled and brought up my free foreleg. I flicked my wrist and drove the full foot of steel into its soft underbelly. The creature screeched and stabbed once more, driving its pointed limb into my shoulder.

“AAAHH!!” With every bit of strength I had, I drove the blade deeper before pulling down, and I felt a mess of the creature’s insides spill on me. It wriggled once more before flopping down on top of me. I pushed the thing off, and pain shot down my shoulder. I rolled over it; the sharp limb still stuck inside me. I placed my hoof against it and pushed.

Mother fu-god damn it!

The limb swiftly went out, bloodied a good six inches. My medical injector got to work with a potion, slowly repairing the damage. I gulped down air, taking a moment's rest; I know damn well I can’t afford it, but still. I slowed my breathing down as best as I could just have to grab Nikola and get out of here. I moved to free Nikola to find him dead. I shut my eyes forcefully, cursing everything to hell and back. But there was no time I needed to leave. I grabbed Thyme and tossed her over my back, if I let the armor do all the work, we could be out of here in no time.

CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK

Damn it all to hell, some cosmic entity really just want us dead! The clicking was overwhelming thousands of them, overlapping over one another. Then the yell from before, only magnified by a thousand voices! My armor systems glitched up, my light flickered, and I flopped on my haunches, desperately covering my ears. Gods, Celestia, Luna, whoever the fuck was listening make it stop! In a desperate attempt, I turned off the outside sound receivers, and the screech fell to manageable levels. Still, my armor was sluggish, the glitches from the high-frequency screams were frying my systems. So I did the one thing I knew how to do. I dropped Thyme and started firing, I fired into the abyss. The screeching changed tune from unbearable to painful in mere seconds. The high caliber rounds broke the monsters apart as they fell from the hole raining down like a plague. Then they came from the tunnel. We were going to die down here, so I went with my last resort. I deactivated the armors safety features and set the spark battery to overload. I ejected from my armor, and it violently tossed me against the disgusting ground. I scrambled to the armor and grabbed the satchel, I prayed for the first time in my life, as I wrapped my fetlock around one of the sticks and snapped the top off with my other hoof.

Yes!

The cave was flooded by a red phosphorus light, I tossed the flare on Lighthouse’s remains, and I grabbed Thyme. I threw her on my back and galloped out as fast as my legs would carry me. My heart was pounding painfully against my chest, while every nerve in my body was alive with adrenaline. They gave chase almost right away, and Celestia above, I hope most of the bastards stay behind to die!

Of course, my luck didn’t hold up, I could hear them nipping at my hooves. Without the power of my armor, I wasn’t nearly as fast as I hope I would be. I grabbed another flare, struck it against the cave wall, and flooded the cave with red lighting. I grasped the flare in my mouth and poured on whatever energy I could muster into galloping. With ragged breaths, I burst out from the cave. The flare holding out of a few more minutes started to fizzle. The monsters at my hooves screeched, and maybe being hunted was driving me crazy, but I swear I could hear the glee in their disgusting yell. I looked back, and I dropped the flare in my mouth. I moved to the aside, then started to zig-zag. Goop strings flew past me, shot out of their arching tails.

I struck another flare against a tree, shadows danced above me, and the ground gave beneath me. I didn’t get the chance to yell. Thyme and I both rolled down into a ravine before landing painfully on the rocky bottom. I rolled to my back, noting once more the lack of light. God damn tree cover went on forever! These bastards could hunt here with impunity. I rolled on to my stomach, and pain shot up my right foreleg.

“Grrr!” I gritted my teeth and sat up on my haunches, the flare in my mouth landed a few feet away. I tried to stand until a tremor rocked the ground. The leaves shook violently as if crying in fear when the ground erupted just east of us, cracks snaked across the floor, and eventually, the earth caved in creating several dips. I fell on my hurt leg, but the smirk on my muzzle made the pain bearable.

That’s right, eat shit and die assholes!

CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK

Fuck, that’s right; we weren’t alone; I scooted against the ground standing wasn’t an option, my back legs were killing me. I gritted my teeth, sliding towards the satchel. I grabbed a flare and popped one tossing it next to the one already lit. That should keep the buggers at bay. “Thyme!” I groaned, scrunching my nose, and Celestia above the pain on my foreleg was like having nails hammered into my hoove. I managed to scoot myself over to her fallen form. I sat on my haunches and propped her up against my chest.

She’s small and weighs like a feather, hardly a soldier’s physique.

I cracked a wry grin, an odd thing to focus on right now. But I think I knew this was how it was going to end. Something inside me either gave up or realized I walked into my death when I went into that hive. Still, I’m going to draw out my shitty fate, and Thymes as long as possible. I reached into the satchel and cracked open the last few flares. I tossed them around us, and I held Thyme close to my chest. It wasn’t much, but I’m going to use everything I have left to protect her. Even if she followed me into death right after. I at least hoped they just killed us, not drag us back to some other dark pit.

The first of the flares flickered, dimming the red hue around us. Maybe sensing our impending demise, Thyme moaned pityingly in my arms, she subconsciously pressed herself against the warmth of my chest. Well, perhaps she won’t feel any pain, and she’ll die unconscious. I glared at the shadows just outside the reach of the flares. The creature's yellow eyes glared at us; they seem to shine with a predatory gleam. I think I might have pissed myself again, but with the end in sight, I don’t think I felt the fear I once felt. Acceptance came with its own brand of bravery and a numbing of the senses.

Click click click click click

Another light source flickered, dimming our safe heaven. Why they didn’t shoot the goop at us and attacked us was beyond me. Maybe the things were sentient enough to enjoy the wait, hoping to watch us squirm. Then again, instincts, probably told them if they shot the goop at me I’d shove one of these flares in their mouths. They knew I was cornered, and once my last defense was down, they were going to move in for the kill.

Another flare flickered out, dimming our heaven and the screeched eagerly. A few stepped into the light only to hiss back in pain. I shuddered and gently rubbed circles Thyme’s forehoof, Celestia this wasn’t how I wanted to die. Shit, I didn’t want to die period. Damn it all, my breath started to come out in short and shallow gasps. Just brave the light and make it quick already, you whoresons. Let me and Thyme die quickly; if there is any mercy left in this damn world, let it be quick. Two more flares went out, the last one looked to be dying as well. A small light encroached by shadows most foul, shit, maybe I should have been a poet instead of a soldier. Might have been killed in a less shit way. Or not killed at all, but beggars can’t be choosers.

CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK

Their disgusting grunts and screeches were now so damn close. In the paleness of the fading red light, I could catch their carapace clinking together. Their tails arched ready for a strike, or a shot of that damn goop. I closed my eyes and held Thyme tighter, I didn’t have the balls to stare the bastards in the face when the time came.

The screeches became terrible out of nowhere. Shrill and painful, and as I squeezed my eyes shut, I couldn’t help but feel the pressure of light against them. The sting was very familiar, a pain from spending so much time in the shadows. My chest was filled altogether with a light, almost pleasant feeling. Hope, it was something I only ever felt when rising out of the bloodiest battles and the direst of situations. But there was no way, this feeling had to be a trick. But, against the dread, against fear and resignation, I cracked my eyes open. The light was so bright and phosphorous I put my good hoof up to my face to look at the source. A flare, but this wasn’t survival flares; these were used back in the war in the thick jungles of the Zebra Empire. They'd be shot into the air, and they’d burst like a brilliant sun.

For the monsters, it might as well be the sun in all its mighty glory. The rotten bastards convulsed and climbed over each other in the vain attempt to escape the sundering light. But it was useless, their carapace boiled, giving off an acrid smoke, others combusted before writhing and curling in on themselves. The furthest of the creatures started to scurry back into the forest. Leaving smoking trails in their wake. Their retreat was promptly cut off by explosive fireballs blasting them apart and cooking the rest. I knew those explosions, they were Equestrian HEAT incendiary burst grenades. Deadly weapons used for the heavy jungle warfare on the Imperial front.

My neck almost snapped when I whipped so fast to the opposite side of the ridge. Eight majestic figures, with their dark armor making them pop in the mesmerizing light. They lowered their stances, and reality came rushing back to me.

Oh shit!

I ducked and put myself atop Thyme just as the gunfire started. Heavy machinegun fire and grenade explosions drowned out the screams of the dying monsters. Wet chunks of bug meat splattered against my back, along with the dust of stone being cracked and rendered to dust from explosions and armor-piercing bullets. I flattened my ears against my skull in a vain attempt to avoid tinnitus.

Then like a storm cloud coming and going, it stopped. The explosions, the heaving of the ground, and the screeches. An eery quiet settled for a few dragging seconds. I almost thought I went deaf until the moaning sounds of the bugs started. The sky flare died out, and beams of light filled the darkness. The eight mighty armors of war slid down into our ravine, now a graveyard for the blasted monsters. They scanned the area, shooting anything that still dared to live after their impressive display of firepower.

“H.Q, this is Ripley, I got two survivors. Moving to secure them for extraction.” A metallic female voice barked in front of me. I stared up at the Ranger, squinting through her bright headlamp.

“Understood H.Q, have a medical team on standby, they look wounded.” The headlamp went off, and the helmet opened. Curly hair burst from the helm with dark brown eyes staring down at me.”Don’t worry, Crusader, we're taking you home.”

I smiled, it was one of those smiles that cracked your face and hurt. A booming laugh tore itself from my belly, and I hugged Thyme to me with my good Fetlock. She moaned something incoherent, and her eyes fluttered open. Her pupils struggled to focus before she fell unconscious again in my arms.

Rest up kid, let's get you home.

Author's Note:

By ValiantKnight