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Shape Your Home, Wasteland 'Survival' Game Side Story

By Ponegreen
Created: 16th July 2021 09:31:33 PM
4th July 2021 05:51:00 PM

  1. Prompt: Anon and his #deca CPU pony wAIfu enter a pony wasteland survival LARP, posted in /TiM/ (Ongoing)
  2.  
  3. Note 1: This story was originally posted as an April Fools' oneshot gag under the name 'Shape Your Home, April Fools' Day 2021 Chapter'.
  4.  
  5. Note 2: It is a side story to 'Shape Your Home', and is set in its custom universe. Knowledge of the main story may help, but should generally not be necessary to understand what is happening here.
  6.  
  7. Note 3: The story can be considered as extended semi-canon to the main text. The events therein may possibly happen in the main timeline, but have no direct impact on it whatsoever. Therefore, the decision of whether it may be "canon", or not, is left at the individual reader's discretion.
  8.  
  9. 2077
  10.  
  11. "Some things change sometimes." - A quote, presumably.
  12.  
  13. >Equestria's famed mysterious south.
  14. >The well known wide nothing beyond Appleloosa and the deep forsaken jungles that most ponies only know from adventure novels.
  15. >A land of extremes, and none of them convenient.
  16. >The north and west form the last reaches of the buffalo lands.
  17. >Vast plains of dust and sand.
  18. >So remote that even these mighty creatures barely pay them a visit.
  19. >The nigh insurmountable Macintosh Hills lie to the south.
  20. >Majestic mountain ranges from afar, but scarcely populated at the best of times.
  21. >Except for a few pony expeditions and railway crews, no one ever travels so far away from the heartlands and the green pastures of Equestria.
  22. >And to the east lie the unwelcome badlands.
  23. >An area known to be so barren and hostile that it is almost a blank spot of muddy orange sand and craggy brown rocks on all Equestrian maps.
  24. >Here be dragons, changelings, monsters.
  25. >But no place for ponies.
  26. >Or anyone else who is not either bold, lunatic, or a miscreant.
  27. >Yet here you are.
  28. >A single soul, out in the sweeping somewhere between all three places.
  29. >Where the borders of bad and worse are muddy, and a little bit of everything can go wrong at every second.
  30. >You stride through the dust and rocky plains that stretch beyond the horizon in all directions.
  31. >And only a faint outline of hilly crags visible in the far south is the sole variation you can detect.
  32. >The sun is searing the ground around you.
  33. >And you feel the rays penetrating even the thickness of your heavy hooded cloth cloak.
  34. >It is hot.
  35. >Unpleasantly so.
  36. >Wind blows aplenty in this flat environment.
  37. >However, it does not bring any relief to you.
  38. >The warm air gushes around your face even in spite of you covering most of your head with the hood of your cloak.
  39. >You also wear a pair of strapped goggles to shield your eyes from the merciless elements.
  40. >Though sometimes, this is not enough still.
  41. >For the gusts also carry a fine fog of tiny dust particles that cause you to cough, further impeding your progress.
  42. >A pair of bags is hung around your back.
  43. >Filled with basic survival rations, water, and a handful of sealed scrolls that weigh you down just a little more.
  44. >You would rather not walk through this sorry excuse of a place.
  45. >Unfortunately, the circumstances compel you to.
  46. >Yet you are not a miscreant.
  47. >You are certainly not exceptionally bold either.
  48. >And you are sure that you are also not mad enough to qualify for this region.
  49. >But despite all that, you have been sent here with a mission.
  50. >Alone, yet not quite.
  51. >Whilst also technically not being here either, strictly speaking.
  52. >Though that is a different topic, involving the remote control of a foreign body.
  53. >Who has not even feature the exact same number of limbs as you do.
  54. >And since you are not really here to begin with, all the hardships you currently endure are in reality nothing more than mere inconveniences.
  55.  
  56.  
  57.  
  58.  
  59. >Somewhat pestering and persistent inconveniences, true, but in no way dangerous or threatening to you nonetheless.
  60. >But back to the point.
  61. >For what would be far more of interest to someone who might watch you, if there was an individual from a third party out there to speak of, is to witness how you apparently talk to yourself.
  62. "Remind me, why did I volunteer for this crap again?"
  63. >The aforementioned watcher from afar would never hear the answer to your statement coming from your loving mare companion.
  64. >Because it occurs only in your mind.
  65. >Technically speaking, of course.
  66. >She is real though.
  67. >Absolutely.
  68. >That you know for sure.
  69. >Even though you are the only one who does.
  70. >Complicated, but true.
  71. >"Because this mission is important. And was entrusted to you by the Royal Crown."
  72. >You grunt.
  73. "I swear to God, if Celestia hadn't asked so nicely, I wouldn't spend my time at the ass end of nowhere."
  74. >You hear a chuckle.
  75. >"Anon, really now. This is still Equestria you are talking about."
  76. "Yeah. One of the places we left almost untouched because it fit the map."
  77. >"But it serves its purpose. And besides..."
  78. >Your friendly mare voice companion pauses with light amusement.
  79. >"...Celestia or not, you would have done so anyway."
  80. "Oh, really?"
  81. >"Hmhm. Because I would have asked you instead if she did not."
  82. >And you would always agree to her mission offer too.
  83. >As you know why this mission is as important as it is.
  84. >Still, you are traversing a bad spot, so you have the righteous privilege to complain and voice your displeasure.
  85. "I still don't see why you let me walk though."
  86. >"As preparation for the actual vital part of the operation, Anon."
  87. >Oh right, you forgot to mention.
  88. >You have not even begun the real part of your Royal errant just yet.
  89. >It still gets harder.
  90. >Or more... tricky, to put it carefully.
  91. "So, how much longer until the checkpoint?"
  92. >"About sixty kilometres to the destination in total."
  93. >You stop in your tracks.
  94. "You're fucking with me."
  95. >"No. But I would gladly accept the proposal, if we had the time."
  96. >But that is the last thing you think about at the moment.
  97. "#deca, what the hell! You can't expect me to trek the whole... trek like that! The waterskins run out long before I get even close!"
  98. >"No, you are right. An automaton drone will meet you on the way in a few kilometres. It is stocked with water reserves and drives you almost directly to your goal. If you will, consider this a... stress test in the meantime."
  99. >You sigh after you are hit by the next wave of dust.
  100. "You call it a stress test, huh? Are things really that bad in there as well?"
  101. >"Hm, not... exactly. The conditions are ironically somewhat better, actually. But to say things will get easier once you are inside... would not be honest either."
  102. "Well, sounds like fun."
  103. >"It is. For some."
  104. "Maybe. But I don't have a fucking sand castle tattoo on my ass."
  105. >A second chuckle from your friendly mare.
  106. >"That can be arranged. Do you want one?"
  107.  
  108.  
  109.  
  110.  
  111. "I don't think so. Just be here with the vehicle before the proxy croaks in action."
  112. >"Will do, Anon."
  113. >You take a moment to look around.
  114. >But except for the southern mountains, there is nothing else but dirt and rocks strewn around the place.
  115. >So with no other option left, you keep on walking to the east.
  116. >In a moderate pace, to balance effort and speed carefully.
  117. >For what seems like hours.
  118. >And all you have with you is the comforting voice in the back of your head, encouraging you to keep it up.
  119. >Eventually, you see something brewing on the horizon, right in front of you.
  120. >You cannot make out any details due to the long distance, but you think you see a brown diffuse blob raging over the ground.
  121. >Something is ruffling lots and lots of dust as it rushes over the plains.
  122. >And it is coming right at you.
  123. "Oh man. Please tell me that's not a sandstorm."
  124. >The answer is a chipper one.
  125. >"It is not. This is your taxi."
  126. >You exhale in relief and keep walking towards said taxi as it simultaneously races to you in record speed as well.
  127. >And as it comes closer, you think you can see the outlines of a driving machine at the head of the emerging cloud.
  128. >But something about it seems wrong.
  129. >This asset does not look like anything you have encountered up until now.
  130. >You have seen countless different types of these things in your life, and even built some of them yourself.
  131. >And they all share some key characteristics which this unit apparently lacks.
  132. >For instance, the machines universally share a common range of grey metal colours, as they are utilitarian more than anything else.
  133. >But the palette of this one is kept in much more earthly colours.
  134. >Mostly warm and subdued tones, barely standing out against the hues around it.
  135. >But perhaps that is the point.
  136. "#deca, when and why did you construct a camouflaged machine?"
  137. >"I slightly revamped one of our ground units shortly before you set out. Do not be surprised though, the camouflage is not what you think it is."
  138. >You take her word for what it is and ask nor further questions.
  139. >For you know better.
  140. >Plus, you will see what she means very soon anyway.
  141. >The vehicle comes closer.
  142. >And oh boy, what the hell is that?
  143. >The general structure is similar to the typical machines you have built and operated with your mare.
  144. >Chain driven base, a spacious rectangular body on top, and several openings for cargo and tools.
  145. >But the usual metal surface is covered in... coloured wood?
  146. >Indeed, the fake surface of a wooden carriage is drafted on top of it.
  147. >Custom paint job included.
  148. >Ranging from red, orange, and yellow.
  149. >A blocky design with many sharp edges, but still finely crafted.
  150. >It covers most of the vehicle's surface, leaving only enough room for some pipes and similar pieces to stick out of the main frame.
  151. >The chains are shoddily "hidden" behind two large wooden wheels on both sides.
  152. >And even though they spin naturally as the thing moves around, every idiot would see through that decoy at point blank range.
  153.  
  154.  
  155.  
  156.  
  157. >Though it might confuse unaware souls from a longer distance.
  158. >Yet the top of the construct takes the absolute cake.
  159. >The upper surface, likewise covered in wood, is not merely flat; it has several different... gadgets sticking out.
  160. >Like an oversized glass bulb with an electric wire, or two iron funnels that churn out puffs of steam in a weird stable cadence.
  161. >Plus a sealed hatch made of planks that remind you of the side of a barrel.
  162. >The... thing roars, hisses and creaks loudly as it heads towards you.
  163. >And in a moment of dumbfounded astonishment, you simply sit still and watch as it does.
  164. >Never mind that the machine initially does not seem to slow down in the slightest.
  165. >So when it finally begins to brake with a squeal coming from what sounds like the worst purgatory created by the God of engineering, you barely register what is going on.
  166. >The machine comes to a standstill, less than five metres away from you.
  167. >A final long winded whiz signals that it now is safe to touch.
  168. >Probably.
  169. >"And? What do you think?"
  170. "I think you cheated on me."
  171. >"I beg your pardon?"
  172. "That's your child and doesn't look like me at all. So who's the father? Flim or Flam?"
  173. >You hear a stout-hearted laughter.
  174. >"Neither, Anon. You are not wrong though. I did, ahem, took some inspiration from their design. But unlike their craft, this one does not run on magical Unicorn power."
  175. "Does it mash apples?"
  176. >"Well, for the sake of your proxy, I hope not. But I do hope it does pass as something of that nature. To keep prying eyes from watching too closely, you know?"
  177. >A crazy way of hiding something, but okay.
  178. >Especially when ponies are not meant to detect terraformer technology anyway.
  179. >But nevertheless creative.
  180. >And sometimes the best way to become invisible is to get as much attention as possible, whilst letting the details disappear in the cracks beneath the glaring colours.
  181. "So, you want me to get inside this thing?"
  182. >"Hmhm. Despite its look, it is still a standard drone. More or less."
  183. >For a moment you consider to keep trotting the plains on your own.
  184. >"Anon, it has water inside. And protects against the sun."
  185. >Alright, sold.
  186. >You slowly approach the vehicle and climb on its top.
  187. >The wooden hatch opens itself automatically as you get to it.
  188. >You take heart and leap inside.
  189. >The air around you immediately gets cooler by several degrees.
  190. >Not to mention no searing sun and floating dust.
  191. >Artificial light starts to shine the moment you are in, and you hear a thud above you.
  192. >The hatch is sealed once more.
  193. >The interior is far less luxurious than the outer appearance might suggest.
  194. >You are in a rather small cuboid room of about twice the size of your proxy.
  195. >A transparent canister filled with a similarly transparent fluid is stored behind you.
  196. >You estimate that it holds about twenty to twenty-five litres of clear drinking water.
  197. >Enough moisture to water a horse and spray some clouds into the air on the outside for additional ambience.
  198.  
  199.  
  200.  
  201.  
  202. >It also has a manual tap installed, virtually inviting you to have a taste and refill your waterskins.
  203. >"Go ahead, Anon. The water is fine and good to drink, and the ventilation system keeps the air inside cool and fresh."
  204. >And as you satiate your thirst and refill your reserves, you notice that a digital screen has been embedded into the opposite wall of the room.
  205. >At first you did not register it as such, for it depicts a perfectly generic metal wall inside a driving mix of terraformer technology and a mobile magical apple masher.
  206. >But now that you have spotted the thing, the vision changes and begins to depict the world outside instead.
  207. "Very funny."
  208. >"Just checking if you are aware of your surroundings, Anon. You will need your wits soon if you want to succeed."
  209. >The room rumbles softly and you feel a light shift pulling you backwards.
  210. >Your taxi turns around and drives in the direction from whence it came.
  211. >And you can follow everything in real time from the screen inside.
  212. >The machine rapidly gains speed as it rushes across the mostly even terrain.
  213. >You feel the reverberations around you as your body gets shaken whenever the machine runs over a few rocky passages or bumpy ground.
  214. >Nothing overly severe while you sit, but you may lose your balance if you tried to stand up.
  215. "You know, a belt or something would be nice."
  216. >"No need to be concerned, Anon. I know what I do. Just remain seated and lean back."
  217. >Fine, you can do that.
  218. >But since you are now pretty much restrained until your taxi has delivered you to your destination, you have some time for a final briefing.
  219. "You know, maybe you could tell me more about the area I'm heading to, #deca."
  220. >"Sure. What do you want to know?"
  221. "So far you've only told me about as much as the princess did. I'm supposed to deliver some official scrolls to a remote group of ponies living in a sort of... I don't know, desert survival training group?"
  222. >"Indeed, sort of. Although it is a little more than that. These ponies decided to set up and participate in an unusual project. They call it 'The Wasteland Game'."
  223. >You look at the screen depicting the barren lands you are currently crossing with a rapid speed.
  224. "Yeah, the name fits."
  225. >"The whole endeavour is in equal parts a mixture of sport, contest, and game alike. Anypony can join, although some take it more serious than others."
  226. "How serious are we talking?"
  227. >"A couple of dedicated players truly live their acts to a considerable degree. Some ponies do take up the role of robbers and raiders, but they keep everything within, well, let us call it 'civilised' boundaries."
  228. "Robbers and raiders? That sounds barely encouraging, #deca."
  229. >"Granted, a few minor injuries accidentally happen sometimes. But there is always a medical team of Pegasi orbiting the area to step in if something goes wrong. They also pick up ponies who genuinely pass out in the field, so there is a safety net."
  230.  
  231.  
  232.  
  233.  
  234. "So the environment isn't as much of a problem as the other players."
  235. >"In a way, drastically speaking. But Anon, please keep in mind that they all are still genuine ponies who simply love a challenge."
  236. "Hm. I'll do my best. But is there any way to spot who plays the good guys and who the bad ones?"
  237. >"That is very simple. The 'bad ones' are usually those who point a gun at you."
  238. >Wait, what?
  239. "A... gun. You're telling me these ponies are armed?"
  240. >"Not really, at least in the sense as you would understand it. The mechanism is similar, but only stocked with harmless foam or soft rubber projectiles which are shot at relatively low velocity. It is still a game, after all."
  241. >You groan.
  242. "So that's what you meant with my wits."
  243. >"Hmhm. Once you enter the area, you will be a legit target just like everypony else."
  244. "Wonderful. Isn't there a rule against shooting a Royal courier?"
  245. >"Not in the wasteland. Everyone is free game at all times. The only ponies exempt from that rule are the medical teams."
  246. >Of course, because they cannot do their job properly when they are under siege by fake bullets or get their gear stolen in the middle of an emergency.
  247. "Hey #deca, can't I just get in as a medic then?"
  248. >"Depends. How are your first aid skills?"
  249. "Basic academy course. You know that. And it only covered humans too. Augmented talking horses weren't a thing back then."
  250. >And you assume they still are not a thing on Earth today.
  251. >"Then I suppose you do not qualify."
  252. >You leave it at that and observe the desert on the screen instead.
  253. >Soon you notice something strange.
  254. >The sky on the horizon begins to turn into an ugly grey blob.
  255. >A vast area is covered by a thick layer of clouds.
  256. >It lays thick and seemingly immovable as it hovers there.
  257. >Highly unusual for a desert area, especially so when it is focused only on a very specific location in the middle of nowhere.
  258. "What does that mean?"
  259. >"It means we are almost there."
  260. >So it is an artificially made layer of clouds, presumably covering the entirety of the game field from what you can see of its size.
  261. "Is there a reason why the clouds blanket everything?"
  262. >"There is. It is a long story though. And it comes with the additional bonus of easily housing a permanent team of quick response medics."
  263. >True.
  264. >An eye in the sky, and quickly available everywhere.
  265. >The carriage drives on.
  266. >And the landscape quickly darkens the moment you reach the outer rim of the cloud layer.
  267. >The world looks more dreary than before.
  268. >You cannot shake the feeling that you somehow suddenly stumbled upon a dead world after Armageddon.
  269. >Strange.
  270. >But at the same time, you notice that the temperature has dropped significantly to a more temperate level.
  271. >At least something positive, you reckon.
  272.  
  273.  
  274.  
  275.  
  276. >Soon thereafter, a small structure looms over the horizon.
  277. >Too small for you to identify from this distance.
  278. "#deca, can you zoom in on that thing?"
  279. >"Of course."
  280. >The segment in the dead centre of the screen gets magnified several times over.
  281. >The depiction changes to a small shack with a rectangular layout, about the size of a normal village house.
  282. >A simple door is visible from your angle as well.
  283. >And you can also see a smaller window.
  284. >But due to the dimmed daylight, you fail to detect anything inside.
  285. >Though this is not the most striking thing you notice.
  286. >For a wide mesh wire fence is attached to its walls to the left and right, sprawling across the desert in both directions.
  287. >Far beyond the vision of your camera.
  288. >And this is not any conventional fence either.
  289. >Three times the size of a regular pony.
  290. >And judging from the soft light it emits, it is further reinforced by an energy field which is undoubtedly camouflaged as Unicorn magic.
  291. "This place looks like a prison."
  292. >"It is not, Anon. Participation is entirely voluntary and not binding in any way. Everypony can leave at any time. The fence merely marks the boundaries of the designated game area. Though it is highly inadvisable to depart when no supply carriage is present to travel with."
  293. >No wonder, when there is nothing around but barren land and mountains.
  294. >For dozens of Kilometres.
  295. "How often do the caravans come?"
  296. >"Once a week, with several carts simultaneously visiting each of the four entrances. The suppliers bring new goods and volunteers, and pick up those who want to leave. Transport in both directions is free of charge, and the supplies are scattered in hidden caches throughout the field for the scavengers."
  297. >Well, fortunately you do not have to rely on that scheduled service thanks to your private taxi.
  298. >"We arrive in a few minutes. Is there anything else you want to know?"
  299. "Only one thing. To whom am I supposed to deliver the scrolls anyway? My instructions only state to bring them to the ponies in charge. But who's that supposed to be when everyone's playing survivors in the mud?"
  300. >"To the heads of the respective factions, Anon. There are a couple of those."
  301. "And nobody thought it was necessary to tell me that in advance. Great."
  302. >"Do not worry, Anon. I will be your guide. And besides, there is an aide staffing the post I am bringing you to. He gives introductory speeches and orientation for newcomers. And he is informed about your arrival."
  303. "So he got a scroll via 'magic' express delivery, but no one can divert that information to the players?"
  304. >"Anon, this is an official Royal errand. It is a tradition to have an envoy delivering them in person."
  305. >You sigh as the carriage begins to brake.
  306. >And even the fact that the artificial screeching of the decoy wagon is highly muffled inside your "taxi" does not lift your spirits one bit.
  307. "Right. Let's go then."
  308. >The hatch above you audibly unlocks itself.
  309.  
  310.  
  311.  
  312.  
  313. >You have to rear to get a hold of the edge.
  314. >You pull yourself up with a bit of an effort and some supportive flaps of your wings for extra lifting power.
  315. >But as much as you want to rant on how horse bodies are not built for climbing, you have a task to complete.
  316. >So as you stand tall on the painted wagon roof, you eye the construction near you.
  317. >The machine has parked itself less than fifty metres away from the door.
  318. >And whoever attends to this post must have heard the ruckus, no doubt about it.
  319. >So you hop off the wagon and head straight to the house.
  320. >Once you are halfway there, you hear the machine behind you moving away.
  321. >You turn your head to confirm that the unit is leaving without you.
  322. >"Do not be alarmed, Anon. I ordered the automaton to a nearby maintenance tunnel to recharge its energy reserves and wait in stand-by mode. It will never be far should you need it."
  323. >You take note of her comment and halt at the door.
  324. >One second of delay to take another breath before you push it open and enter.
  325. >The interior is pretty unremarkable.
  326. >You immediately spot a second door on the other side, surely leading to the field.
  327. >A modest wooden counter has been built near the wall to your left.
  328. >And a tan coloured Earth pony stallion with a slightly darker mane stands behind it.
  329. >He is a tad taller than you, fairly well-trained, and you estimate from his build and posture that he is probably middle-aged.
  330. >Certainly not a day above one hundred and twenty years old.
  331. >His mark is hidden behind the counter, and he looks at you intently, not saying a word.
  332. "Uh, hi."
  333. >"Hello there."
  334. >A second of silence as he examines you further.
  335. >"You're the courier, huh? You carriage was loud enough."
  336. "Yep. I was told you were informed of my coming."
  337. >"Uh huh. Scroll fluttered into the house while I was eating. The thing ruined my stew."
  338. >Wonderful first impression then.
  339. >But despite the overt criticism in his tone, you hear no anger in his voice.
  340. >Nevertheless, you see that is still eyeing you closely, and you cannot tell what he is looking for.
  341. >Then he motions you to get to the counter.
  342. >"Come here and drop that cloak of yours."
  343. >You tilt your head.
  344. "Pardon? My cloak?"
  345. >"Of course. Can't get your right size if I don't know what you look like."
  346. "My right size for what?"
  347. >The stallion looks at you in mild confusion.
  348. >"You weren't instructed in detail, I take it?"
  349. "Only the bare bones basics."
  350. >He responds with a facehoof.
  351. >"Oh by Celestia."
  352. "Speaking of, the errand came from her personally. Got on my way immediately afterwards."
  353. >That gets a wordless blink out of him.
  354. >"Oh. Unusual. Never mind then."
  355. >He repeats his motion.
  356. >"Come to the counter. The letter asked me to prepare some items for you. More than what's normally allowed as starter gear, but we'll make an exception for a Royal courier."
  357. >You slowly get closer to him.
  358. "And you need my size..."
  359. >"... so that your stuff doesn't fall off your flanks in action, yes."
  360. >You cannot reason against that.
  361.  
  362.  
  363.  
  364.  
  365. >So you do as he asks and undo your cloak.
  366. >You put the piece of clothing on the counter to wait for the stallion to do whatever he does next.
  367. >And his eyes are quickly fixed on your wings.
  368. >"Oh, you're a Pegasus. Alright."
  369. >Technically not in the slightest, but he cannot know that.
  370. >So you play along.
  371. "Since the day this horse was made. Does that matter?"
  372. >"Not directly. But here's a piece of advice: Keep them flutterers under your hood if you can."
  373. "Why?"
  374. >"There aren't many Pegasi down on the ground. Most keep to themselves in the sky. Can't take much equipment up there, but it's safer from surprise attacks."
  375. >Except from other fliers, of course.
  376. >"You'll draw some hefty attention if you strut around on the ground with wings. That's the last thing you want to do as a beginner."
  377. "Gonna keep that in mind, thanks."
  378. >"I'll get your equipment now, but one more question in advance though."
  379. "Hm?"
  380. >His forehoof points at your goggles.
  381. >"I see you brought your own pair. Do you want to keep those, or get a standard one?"
  382. "Eh, I'll keep mine. They're pretty sturdy."
  383. >And suited with special glasses to augment your vision with a HUD.
  384. >Amongst other things.
  385. >Another thing you do not mention.
  386. >"Fine. Gimme a minute."
  387. >He lowers his head under the counter and you hear the loud creak of an opening door, followed by descending hoofsteps.
  388. >Looks like the gear is stored in the cellar.
  389. >So you wait and hear the occasional sound of things getting shoved around, paired with thudding and clanking noises.
  390. >Then the stallion emerges five minutes later with a strange gadget in his mouth.
  391. >It looks somewhat similar to a pair of linked saddlebags, yet totally different at the same time.
  392. >For starters, it is made entirely out of metal rather than cloth.
  393. >And two moderately sized casings sit where the pockets would normally be, each with a sharply cut crystal prism pointing forward.
  394. >A third casing with a strangely familiar opening port is set right in the middle of the link between the two casings.
  395. >If the thing is worn as you think it is, this one will be sitting straight on your back.
  396. >You look at it, entirely confused.
  397. "The fuck's this?"
  398. >"Not sure what accent that was, but that's what we call an energy weapon. Usually rare out there in the wastes, but it works entirely without conventional ammo."
  399. >The stallion grins as he draws another item out from beneath the counter.
  400. >A small cuboid "box" you know all too well.
  401. >"Because it runs with a spark battery."
  402. "A what? That's a standard energy cell."
  403. >He shrugs.
  404. >"Doesn't matter how you call it. At the end of the day, it's just a box with a crystal inside that's powered up by Unicorn magic."
  405. >You look at him.
  406. "Uhm, yes. Of course."
  407. >He picks the cell up with his teeth and embeds it within the socket of the saddle.
  408. >It fits perfectly.
  409. >And the prisms flare for the fraction of a second.
  410. >"Works just fine." This is yours for the duration of your trip."
  411. >You shake your head.
  412.  
  413.  
  414.  
  415.  
  416. "Whoa, wait. You want me to take this to shoot at ponies?"
  417. >"Sure. What's the problem?"
  418. >You stomp on the ground with a forehoof and flare your wings.
  419. "The problem? Are you serious? Ever heard of ray emitters? Or phase guns? These things can burn through steel like it's nothing!"
  420. >Your opponent looks at you for a second, and then burst out in bellowing laughter.
  421. >Though the tan stallion recovers relatively quickly from his fit while you keep standing in your irate pose.
  422. >"No idea what you're talking about, but you've spoken like a true newbie!"
  423. >He sighs with a hint of amusement.
  424. >"Here, look."
  425. >Then he turns the pointy prisms at himself.
  426. >"These things are harmless."
  427. >The stallion pushes a tiny button on the casing.
  428. >And before you can ask what he is doing, you hear a familiar sizzling sound as the crystals glow in a menacing shade of red.
  429. >Both casings release a shot of energy, hitting the stallion squarely in the chest.
  430. >As a reaction, he lightly twitches once, yet remains standing.
  431. >Whole and unharmed.
  432. >"See? It's fine. You'd have to a hit a pony about a dozen times to singe some hair. But you only need to hit once. Energy weapons are considered to be one hit wonders. That's why they're a rarity."
  433. >You still look in disbelief at him.
  434. "That's not the energy level I'm familiar with. Back when I was trained, you'd have a hole blasted through your chest now."
  435. >And the stallion laughs again, not all alarmed or scared by your words.
  436. >"Hah! Sounds like your Unicorns in the Guard can't handle magic subtlety, eh? Though I've never heard of them trying to deploy anything like this for that matter."
  437. "No, it wasn't in the Royal Guard. It's... never mind, a long story."
  438. >He shrugs again.
  439. >"Couriers and their secrets. Anyway, you also want this."
  440. >He brings forth a third item.
  441. >Metal reinforced bridles with a mouth piece.
  442. "And what's this for?"
  443. >"An attachment for the weapon. You can't reach out with your hooves to push a button on your back when you wear the thing, now can you?"
  444. >He is right.
  445. >And while you would be lying if you claimed that you look forward to don these bridles, it seems like you have to bow to the necessity of it for once.
  446. "I see. Can you help me into it? I've never worn such a thing."
  447. >He nods casually.
  448. >"Eh, not much different than a regular harness, but alright."
  449. >The Earth pony leaves his post at the counter to trot around, halting right next to you.
  450. >As he approaches, you manage to get a swift glance at his mark.
  451. >It is a half emptied toolbox.
  452. "You're a mechanic?"
  453. >"Part time scavenger too. And when nopony else is available, sometimes also clerk as you can see. But when I am on the field, I fix what's there and hunt down the things that aren't."
  454. >Hence half the stuff missing in his mark, you reckon.
  455. >But you assume that he gained his talent long before he found his way to the game.
  456. >Interestingly though, you note that he does not mention for whom he fixes things.
  457.  
  458.  
  459.  
  460.  
  461. >Somehow, however, you doubt he is just doing this all for himself.
  462. >"And you're from a guard family, huh? Your mark looks like military."
  463. "Uhm, sort of. If the records are right, the symbol predates Equestria's Royal Guard."
  464. >Of course they are, but you are better off by masking your knowledge with a hint of ambiguity.
  465. >The stallion's eyes widen in surprise.
  466. >"It's from before the Unification?"
  467. >And even from before this world was populated.
  468. >Though you leave that little detail out as well.
  469. "The symbol? Yep."
  470. >"Hm, no wonder you ended up as an envoy for the Crown. That's a long history you carry with you."
  471. "Oh, you have no idea."
  472. >Ignoring the clues in your words, he goes on like normal.
  473. >"Gotta say, didn't think so when you came through that door. No offence, but you don't look like the type. Kinda too... average, you know? Not like a skilled member in service of the court."
  474. >He muses some more on his lonesome.
  475. >"Though I guess that's part of your style, hm?"
  476. >Quite the barrage of questions.
  477. >Which you fortunately do not have to answer, as he begins to put the saddled twin energy weapon on your back.
  478. >And despite being made of metal, it feels almost like a regular saddle bag.
  479. >With the only exception that it is worn in front of the wing joints, rather than behind them.
  480. >Naturally, as you would not want to shoot your own wings in the heat of the moment.
  481. >Harmless weaponry or not, that would be a serious design flaw.
  482. >"Now hold still and pay attention, sonny. I won't be there to help you the next time."
  483. >Sonny?
  484. >Heh, he thinks he is older than you.
  485. >Of course he would, given that he does appear so on the surface.
  486. >Nevertheless, the stallion expertly fastens the device to your back and sides.
  487. >With a belt that runs all the way round your barrel.
  488. >And even though you would instinctively like to protest this sudden invasion of private space, you keep your mouth shut and bear it.
  489. >You technically asked for it, after all, and your aide acts entirely professional as he ties the belt down firmly, yet with care.
  490. >Next come the attachment bridles, which he also connects with their respective ports on the proper "saddle".
  491. >Its metal barely touches your head whilst the mouthpiece hangs directly in front of your face.
  492. >You test the movement range of your head with your new gear.
  493. >It is slightly impaired by the reinforced apparel.
  494. >But to your surprise you find out that it somewhere has a joint worked into it which lessens the malus somewhat.
  495. >So as long as you do not permanently hang on the mouthpiece, you can look around nearly as good as under normal circumstances.
  496. >"You can hold the trigger just fine. It only fires when you're biting hard on it. Shots go in a straight line beneath your vision. Keep that in mind if you target something."
  497. >The stallion's speech somewhat reminds you of your first flight and fight lessons at the academy.
  498. >You simply nod once.
  499. "Alright. I think I got the gist."
  500. >"Don't you want to test it first?"
  501.  
  502.  
  503.  
  504.  
  505. "It's fine. I've done similar things in the past."
  506. >"If you say so. Then there's only two rules I've got to beat you with before I can let you go."
  507. "Okay. Shoot."
  508. >"Rule one: Don't shoot the medical crews and don't touch their stuff. You know, ponies and items with the red cross on them."
  509. >Nothing new so far.
  510. "Uh huh. Got it."
  511. >"There's some other medical stuff up for grabs, but it's marked differently. Look for light yellow containers with three butterflies instead."
  512. "Fluttershy's mark? Why that one?"
  513. >"Don't know. Guess they needed a different symbol to make them stand out. Anyway, rule number two."
  514. >He clears his throat.
  515. >"Apart from the red stuff, everything else inside the playing field is yours if you get it. Beg, borrow or steal, doesn't matter how or from whom you take it. If you down other ponies, you're free to take anything they have with them, minus their goggles. These are off limits for safety reasons. Likewise it's the other way round. Somepony shoots you, you lie down, let things play out. All your stuff is most likely gone and you ought to make do with nothing but your goggles."
  516. >Hold on, you spot a potential problem.
  517. "Including the scrolls?"
  518. >"Everything that isn't your glasses. The rules say nothing about scrolls. You could try to apply your status as an envoy, though I guess you'll have a hard time to make anypony believe you. They'll think it's a ploy."
  519. >You raise your eyebrow, and the stallions sees it.
  520. >"Don't get the wrong idea. The players are all good and honest folks in the real world. Know many of them personally. Behind this fence, though, they're out to get you."
  521. "That's... disadvantageous."
  522. >"Welcome to the survival game. Besides, don't tell me you weren't trained for tricky jobs as a courier of the realm."
  523. "Ahem, let's just say I've seen worse things than ponies flinging dud shots at me."
  524. >"See, should be easy for you. You're good to go then."
  525. >He motions at the second door with a grin that reminds you of a merchant who is just about to cajole you into a deal that is carefully designed to rip you off.
  526. >But from what you can tell, he has been completely honest with you.
  527. >Still, you think he has not told you everything.
  528. >You slowly walk towards the exit.
  529. >"Maybe I'll see you on the field if you stay a while. My relief is due tomorrow, and I can't wait to get back to my group."
  530. >His group?
  531. >Ah, so there is the catch.
  532. >One catch, at least.
  533. >No matter what you do, your time of striding across the arena unnoticed is limited.
  534. >Because if you assess him correctly, he will talk about you immediately when he gets to his friends.
  535. >So as far as you are concerned, his Cutie Mark could also be an open can of spilled beans.
  536. >Hm crap, should have considered this when you first got into that house.
  537. >Yet you do not take that personally.
  538. >It is part of the game, after all.
  539. "Thanks for the warning, I guess. What's your name, by the way?"
  540.  
  541.  
  542.  
  543.  
  544. >And just as if he had waited for that question, the stallion strikes an upright pose to present himself from his best side.
  545. >"Glad that you ask! Scrap Mender, at your service. And I hope you prove yourself worthy out there. I've always wanted to face somepony of note from the outside."
  546. >His grin widens.
  547. >"And who would be better to test your mettle against than a real envoy guarding his secret messages?"
  548. >Oh brother, he is one of these guys.
  549. >Those where one can never quite tell whether they are either genuine hotshots or plain hot wind bags with an overly confident demeanour.
  550. >But judging from your conversation and his actions so far, you tend towards classifying him as a veteran player.
  551. >Plus, he is a legit instructor, so he should not be a dunce.
  552. >Well, at least he told you beforehand what to expect of him.
  553. >A classy move, considering that he sees a target in you.
  554. >On the negative side, you already found a rival before you have even entered the scene.
  555. >Remarkable, really.
  556. >"And yours?"
  557. "Oh, call me Anon."
  558. >"Anon? Anon and?"
  559. "Just Anon."
  560. >"Huh, unusual name. Does it have a special meaning?"
  561. >You look at Scrap Mender and mirror his grin.
  562. "Royal Courier secret."
  563. >Perhaps a more shifty tone than you usually prefer, but you figure that you can act more cocky than normal, especially when your conversation partner has already declared himself your enemy.
  564. >And with that, you take your cloak, open the door, and take your first step on the mud of the game field.
  565. >The soil here is more moist and strangely less eroded than the desert, but not precisely comfortable either.
  566. >You see clear signs of steady rainfall, indicating that the weather here can take a turn for the worse as well, even though it might not rain at the moment.
  567. >Which also means Pegasi are operating everywhere above the field.
  568. >Perhaps even using their advantage to watch the events from their holdouts in the sky.
  569. >This is at least what you would do.
  570. >Okay, some first clues.
  571. >Useful to have, but you need more.
  572. >So you take a long and hard look around.
  573. >Despite the reduced light and heightened humidity, the place is about as barren as the nothingness under the hot baking sun.
  574. >Flat mud planes and rocks as far as the eye can see, with the occasional faux dead tree set up as well.
  575. >Some smaller hills and pits are scattered across the otherwise unremarkable surface, and they too seem to have no real significance going for them other than contributing to the gloomy mood.
  576. >And in the far distance, near the very cusp of your vision, you detect the outlines of some smaller buildings.
  577. >But not a single other pony nearby.
  578. >So you do the only thing you can do.
  579. >You carefully step through the mud, heading towards the remote buildings.
  580. >You keep your pace deliberately slow to better eye your environment while you move, looking for signs of activity and "danger".
  581.  
  582.  
  583.  
  584.  
  585. >Your core training might have been heavily based on space flight and combat tactics, but the same strategic basics apply here as well.
  586. >Reconnaissance is key, knowledge is life.
  587. >When forced to operate in unknown, uncharted territory, keep your own presence low if possible.
  588. >Doubly so when you have to assume that your opponents know the perimeter better than you.
  589. >For the one who spots his target first is automatically in a better position.
  590. >So you do not want to be the one who gets found if you can avoid it.
  591. >And as you mentally repeat these mantras in your head, you try to adapt them to your current situation.
  592. >First, you activate the augmented HUD of the goggles.
  593. >It automatically provides your vision with a tactical overview of your status, a map of your perimeter, and can be adjusted with several additional pieces of information if needed.
  594. >And while it was originally designed for handling a space ship, it works just as well on a cybernetic proxy stallion with wings.
  595. >Interestingly, it has also updated your weapon loadout without you giving it any input.
  596. >A function you would have never expected to use on a Pegasus.
  597. >You mentally talk to your mare companion, not daring to speak up as you cannot know whether someone hears you or not.
  598. >That was your doing, wasn't it?
  599. >A small screen of #deca.mare appears in the lower right corner of your HUD, showing her seated on your command deck.
  600. >"Indeed. I figured  it might benefit you."
  601. >You check the weapon screen.
  602. >Twin linked energy rifle, fifty-nine out of sixty shots.
  603. >Hm, decent for the start, but you should look for more reserves before you actually have to use them.
  604. >"You do not need to, Anon. The... 'enchantment' of the energy cell is designed to recharge in the sunlight."
  605. >Alright, and when does the sun shine down here?
  606. >"Never."
  607. >What?
  608. >"The Pegasi keep the clouds shut at all times. They also possess, by the way, the proportionally largest amount of these weapons too."
  609. >What a surprise, when they are the only ones who can replenish their stock without changing the "battery".
  610. >Wonderful, the guy did rip me off.
  611. >"Not really. Mender was honest with you through and through, and the gear he gave you is above average. He just... came to omit a few details."
  612. >Like me being forced to break the clouds for a recharge?
  613. >Yeah, also providing the inevitably best opportunity to be seen far and wide.
  614. >"He never said he made things easy for you."
  615. >And why didn't you say anything?
  616. >"Because you were doing great without my help."
  617. >You mean I got played.
  618. >"I would not say that. Merely introduced to what the wasteland has in store."
  619. >You cannot suppress a stifled sigh.
  620. >I'm starting to think you hurt your proxy deliberately on the way back from the north so that I now get to travel here alone as it recovers.
  621. >"No, that mishap was not calculated. But I do indeed think the mission might possibly expand your tastes a little bit. You were so highly uninterested in the game since the day it was proposed."
  622.  
  623.  
  624.  
  625.  
  626. >Because I have no wish to prance in the dirt and scour for dregs in a simulated end-times playfield.
  627. >It might be something for adventurous ponies, but it's not something you'd want to experience on Earth.
  628. >Or any of the colonies for that matter.
  629. >"But it is the exception in Equestria, And in a safe environment to boot. It is not like anypony is in actual danger here."
  630. >Yes, and if they want to challenge themselves, let them.
  631. >But it's not for me.
  632. >"At least give it a fair chance."
  633. >Heh, not like there is any other option now.
  634. >"It is not as bad as you think. You have more advantages than any other pony. Plus, you have me."
  635. >Yeah, about that.
  636. >Can you give me some advice where to go?
  637. >"Hmhm. The direction you have chosen is good."
  638. >At least something.
  639. >"With your current speed it will take you to your first hostile encounter in half an hour."
  640. >You halt without hesitation.
  641. "Come again?"
  642. >"There is a group of ponies waiting between the entry post and the small derelict hamlet you are heading to."
  643. >Hm, directly on a line with the starting point and the first visible site of interest.
  644. "It's a newbie trap, isn't it."
  645. >"You could call it that, yes."
  646. "And going there is good why? I'd walk straight into an ambush!"
  647. >"Two reasons. Because you have realistic odds to win. And because you are here to catch the attention of the factions. You cannot do that if you sneak in the shadows."
  648. >You sit down and rub your temples.
  649. "So you're saying I should ring the bell right off the bat."
  650. >"Consider this. The faster you get the attention of everypony, the quicker you can deliver the messages. And the sooner we can put this trip behind us. So if you want to leave as quickly as possible, this is the strategy to go for."
  651. >To your chagrin, you must admit that this argument is valid.
  652. >Provided you do not bungle the number and get robbed blind.
  653. >In that case you would spend even more time in here.
  654. >Though you would at least have your all-seeing companion with you.
  655. >She can tell you where the documents are going.
  656. >And if the ponies really are as decent as Mender made them out to be, they should at least have the good graces to treat a piece of parchment that was personally signed by Princess Celestia herself with some respect.
  657. >With a sigh, you concur.
  658. "Fine. I do it."
  659. >You get up to resume your path to the hamlet.
  660. >And as you prepare to enter combat in less than an hour, you use to time to calibrate your HUD.
  661. >#deca.mare is right.
  662. >The more of a ruckus you cause, the faster you will have someone listen to you eventually.
  663. >So you stride on, with your visor set to combat mode, and your weapon primed and ready.
  664. >You have done this countless times before; your vessel now only has a more equine shape than usual.
  665. >You march and march, until your "radar" picks up an enemy signature nearby.
  666. >Its shape is highlighted in your vision and framed by a crimson rectangle.
  667. >Even from this distance, you can spot a pointy extension on the head of the target.
  668.  
  669.  
  670.  
  671.  
  672. >And likewise do you see a red triangle on your perimeter map.
  673. >As you instinctively lay low, you mentally order your visor to lock onto the signature, displaying its exact distance in the process.
  674. >One and a half kilometre.
  675. >The effective range of your gun on the other hand ends after a couple of hundreds.
  676. >In other words, you have to get closer either way.
  677. >The Unicorn appears to be unmoving and stationary, so you wager that you were not seen yet.
  678. >Fine, a one on one as it seems.
  679. >Doable indeed.
  680. >Now what do you do?
  681. >Do you risk an open confrontation, or do you try to sneak?
  682. >"I suggest a direct approach."
  683. >#deca?
  684. >"Go on. Walk as if you have seen nothing."
  685. >Are you serious?
  686. >"Yes. Walk straight into it. Show no sign of alarm and act normal."
  687. >Can you tell me why?
  688. >"For you to learn something. And do not worry, I will help you to win."
  689. >And against every strategic wisdom that you have ever learned, you heed her seemingly idiotic proposal.
  690. >But before you walk on, you fumble with the hood of your cloak, pulling it a little closer over your face to hide the mouthpiece of your energy weapon inside the cloth.
  691. >If the pony before you really expects to deal with bloody beginners, it may give you an edge.
  692. >Then you trot on.
  693. >You move slowly and try to act with some with care, attempting to resemble the notion of not sensing any problem.
  694. >Yet you feel the heartbeat ramping up in your chest, for you treat it like a genuine combat situation.
  695. >One kilometre.
  696. >And two additional rectangles pop up on the perimeter, slightly behind the triangle.
  697. >But no movement from any of them.
  698. >Strange, something should have happened by now.
  699. >At least a twitch or something.
  700. >You activate the video enhancement module of your goggles to zoom in on your target.
  701. >And there is nothing.
  702. >The silhouettes and marks are still visible, both on the minimap and your actual field of vision.
  703. >Yet your natural sight sees nothing.
  704. >Decoys?
  705. >"No. There are real ponies, exactly where I marked them."
  706. >So they are invisible.
  707. >"Precisely. A limited invisibility spell. Active for as long as the affected individual does not move."
  708. >Useful to know.
  709. >Is the Unicorn armed?
  710. >"Yes, but the gun is holstered."
  711. >Which means no attack without revelation first.
  712. >Good.
  713. >What about the other two?
  714. >"They prove less of a threat if you play your cards right."
  715. >You speak in riddles.
  716. >"I trust in your faculties."
  717. >Well, thank you.
  718. >Seven hundred and fifty.
  719. >No reaction.
  720. >Five hundred.
  721. >Unchanged.
  722. >The same at two hundred fifty.
  723. >By now you are well within an optimal firing range, but you keep your saddle cold for the moment.
  724. >One hundred.
  725. >Come on, by now they must have seen something.
  726. >There is no way for the Unicorn to miss you.
  727. >Still, the pony stands still like a statue, same as the other two.
  728. >You subtly cough once.
  729. >Nothing.
  730. >That confirms it; they hold still on purpose, fully knowing what they are doing.
  731. >"Closer. No hesitation."
  732.  
  733.  
  734.  
  735.  
  736. >Oh man, #deca.mare is steering you right into the inevitable kerfuffle.
  737. >Anyway, into the fray it is.
  738. >You head straight for the signature.
  739. >Fifty.
  740. >You walk further.
  741. >If none of the three does anything, you will bump squarely into the Unicorn.
  742. >Twenty five.
  743. >Everything except your mare tells you to shoot and bolt.
  744. >But you listen to her advice.
  745. >Over the sound of your own proxy heartbeat.
  746. >At ten metres, you hear a faint poof tone right ahead of you.
  747. >"Hey there, hoodie."
  748. >A mare has appeared out of thin air, or so you shall believe.
  749. >In your alarmed state, you immediately find the strength to do a short leap backwards, but refrain from using your wings.
  750. >Two can play the hiding game.
  751. >You hastily examine her.
  752. >Dim orange coat and an unkempt, light brown mane.
  753. >Like you, she wears a pair of goggles.
  754. >Slightly different in design, but function wise just as good.
  755. >Minus the augments, of course.
  756. >The rest of her apparel is what strikes you as off-putting.
  757. >A thick black jacket covers her chest and half of her barrel.
  758. >It looks like it is made out of conventional leather, but you know this is impossible.
  759. >Leather is not a commodity in all of Equestria.
  760. >So whatever the stuff is instead, it has been crafted very well to resemble the real deal.
  761. >And for a regular inexperienced player, the implications of watching a pony wear the facsimile of flayed skin must be staggering.
  762. >Hell, it even works on you to a degree.
  763. >It just looks plain wrong.
  764. >The rest of her gear is not much better.
  765. >Custom-made buckled metal pads cover all four upper and lower legs.
  766. >And you think you have also briefly seen two larger metal plates strapped to her flanks.
  767. >Leaving only her head and hooves exposed, and maybe her rear.
  768. >Though you highly doubt she has the good graces to turn around for you to check this theory, much less allow you to take a shot at it.
  769. >No, that sounds inopportune, and you hardly have the time for silly thoughts like this.
  770. >Regardless, you figure these protections are meant to shield from incoming fire, or at least have a chance to mitigate the imaginary effect of the impact.
  771. >Which you apparently do not have to worry about, thanks to your rare gear.
  772. >Still, an armour might be something.
  773. >The Unicorn smiles confidently as she looks you in the eyes.
  774. >She seems to enjoy your mild befuddlement.
  775. >"Pretty reflexes. You are fast."
  776. >Her horn flares up, and you quickly pay full attention at what she is doing.
  777. >"Won't matter though."
  778. >An object floats into the air, coming from somewhere behind her.
  779. >Already aiming at you.
  780. >A... hand gun, as it seems?
  781. >The casing and mechanism do resemble the design.
  782. >But it has a wide mouthpiece attached to the side rather than a trigger beneath it.
  783. >A tricky choice.
  784. >Probably suitable for propelling some play ammunition with "Unicorn magic".
  785. >But in the case of a proper gun, you would certainly not want to have a detonation this close to your face.
  786. >Especially so when you hold it in your teeth.
  787. >Who would do that?
  788.  
  789.  
  790.  
  791.  
  792. >Though your Unicorn opponent does not care about any of this.
  793. >For her it is only an object in her levitating grip as she plays her role.
  794. >Cheating horn head.
  795. >"We're gonna relieve you of some things either way."
  796. >They make no song and dance out of their intention.
  797. >And you try to play the game.
  798. "'We'?"
  799. >Her grin persists as she kicks the ground with a rear hoof.
  800. >Twice.
  801. >"Yes, sweetheart. We."
  802. >Behind her, two small "mounds" begin to rise and shed some dirt.
  803. >Revealing two burly Earth pony stallions.
  804. >Unlike their Unicorn friend, these two wear no special clothing apart from their goggles.
  805. >Yet they do not need any to be intimidating; their imposing muscular stature does the job just as well.
  806. >Big Macintosh level, if not even stronger.
  807. >Their colourful bright coats and manes are thoroughly covered and dimmed by dust and soil.
  808. >Presumably as a method of camouflage.
  809. >But now that their cover is blown, they start to step towards you in a menacing gait.
  810. >Slow steps, each with an impact you can almost feel from dozens of metres away.
  811. >And with an expression that screams bloody murder.
  812. >One carries a wooden pole in his mouth and the other bears a massive... squeaky hammer?
  813. >Alright, you should keep your distance to these two.
  814. >For you do not want to enact a scene of getting your spine shattered by a plank of wood to the slapstick sounds of a clown cart or something.
  815. >Your dignity alone forbids this.
  816. >But God damn, #deca.
  817. >Is that your vision of even odds?
  818. >But where untrained ponies might lose their temper and panic completely, you do not.
  819. >You instinctually push your thundering heart into the back of your mind and keep your wits.
  820. >The mare notices none of that, for she overtly feels in control of the situation.
  821. >And this could turn into her crucial mistake.
  822. >"Now be a good colt and drop your goodies. I wouldn't want to shoot a cute little whelp like you in the face."
  823. >Her magic aura does something to the weapon to audibly to cock it.
  824. >"And you don't wanna play with'em either."
  825. >She tilts her head to the side for a moment, trying to divert your attention to the other two.
  826. >But knowing that they do not pose the biggest threat to you at the moment, you ignore her trick.
  827. >"Heh, disciplined too. You were a real golden colt at school, weren't you?"
  828. >That does it.
  829. >You will not get beaten by an upstart like this.
  830. >And so you slightly increase your pressure on the mouthpiece, considering to attack first.
  831. >But you wonder whether the energy hits her before she can retaliate.
  832. >Even if you knock each other out, she wins.
  833. >Strength in numbers.
  834. >The mare lightly shakes the weapon in her grip.
  835. >"Ah ah ah. Don't try that candlestick. I'm faster."
  836. >Crap, she knows about the energy weapon.
  837. >But what gave it away?
  838. >You concealed the thing beneath your cloak, including harness and mouthpiece.
  839. >Impossible, she cannot have seen it.
  840.  
  841.  
  842.  
  843.  
  844. >But what do you do now without an ace up your sleeve?
  845. >A certain mare on a chair chimes in.
  846. >"Anon, do you remember what happened during your first flying lesson with the proxy?"
  847. >Yes, the faceplant in the grass.
  848. >Utterly useless memory in this situation.
  849. >Unless...
  850. >You look to the ground.
  851. >Mud, loose earth, and some dust.
  852. >Could work.
  853. >But you have to test something first.
  854. >Risky, yet you have no viable alternative.
  855. >You sigh.
  856. "Fine. I yield. What do you want?"
  857. >"Hm, I don't know, how about everything? A friendly donation to a friend for not shooting you?"
  858. >How very modest of her.
  859. >You let go off your mouthpiece and reveal it to her.
  860. >No point in hiding it now.
  861. "Alright. I take my cloak off now. Please don't shoot. Earth Ponies like me can't rely on fancy magic like you."
  862. >She shrugs.
  863. >"Whatever. But no funny stuff."
  864. >The mare wiggles her gun, trying to be menacing.
  865. >But she bought it.
  866. >Interesting.
  867. >You keep standing and slowly raise a foreleg, easy for her to see.
  868. >You pull down the hood and undo the bands of your cloak, but you keep the loosened cover on your back yet.
  869. "That invisibility thing you pulled was really clever."
  870. >You slightly bend your body, feigning to let the cloak slide to the ground.
  871. >Though your charming words leave her fairly unimpressed.
  872. >Does not matter, as long as she bothers to you listen to you at all.
  873. >You keep talking.
  874. "How did you do it?"
  875. >"Magic. You wouldn't understand that."
  876. >Wrong, bandit mare.
  877. "Do you get to use it often?"
  878. >You subtly spread your wings halfway.
  879. >She does not notice your movements beneath the cover as she gets lightly agitated by your apparently silly questions.
  880. >"That's none of your business."
  881. "Do you catch many ponies like me? I'm sure you meet a lot."
  882. >The Unicorn rolls her eyes.
  883. >This is the opening you have waited for.
  884. >The very moment you see her gaze shifting away from you, you spread your wings in full, rear up, and  flap once.
  885. >With as much force as you can muster.
  886. >The air resistance, paired with the sheer blow you create, is strong enough to let you stagger one step backwards.
  887. >Your cloak is sent flying somewhere in the heat of the moment.
  888. >More importantly though, you hit both the mare and the ground before you hard with a sudden gale.
  889. >Sending not only a strong wind, but also a nasty mix of dirt, dust, and stones towards the face of your opponent.
  890. >And while the goggles protect her eyes and prevent her from becoming blinded, the impromptu delivery of soil raining down on her nuzzle and entering her nostrils are sufficient to breaks her focus.
  891. >In her reflex reaction, she swings her weapon wildly as she stumbles around, sending a volley of haywire shots into the environment in the process.
  892. >Hitting dirt, stones, and a tree.
  893. >But not you.
  894. >And this is all that matters.
  895. >You waste no time.
  896.  
  897.  
  898.  
  899.  
  900. >Right after you gain your footing, you crouch lightly to reduce your chance of getting hit by stray shots, bite down on your mouthpiece, and send three energy charges her way in retaliation.
  901. >All three hit home.
  902. >Two charges hammer her chest, one strikes her chin.
  903. >Followed by a loud yelp of surprise.
  904. >The mare freezes, slowly keels over, and falls unceremoniously into the mud.
  905. >Her gun clatters to the nearby ground as her magic touch fades out.
  906. >Watching the mare's prone form lying suddenly still makes you worry that you might have seriously harmed her.
  907. >At least for a split second.
  908. >That is until you hear her annoyed snorts as she tries to free her respiratory system of pesky dust while she plays dead.
  909. >No, she is fine.
  910. >Albeit probably furious beyond description.
  911. >Not time to wonder about that though.
  912. >You are still in combat.
  913. >The other two ponies momentarily freeze in confusion, not processing in real time how their group mate lost the upper hand and got taken out of the equation this quickly.
  914. >However, this grace period is very brief.
  915. >As they realise their situation, they do the only feasible thing they can do.
  916. >Both charge you at once, pressing the singular advantage they have.
  917. >They try to force you into a close-up brawl.
  918. >You do not have the time to down them both.
  919. >One you could get, but the other would then smash into your side and ram you to the floor.
  920. >And witnessing the towering shape of one of the two looming above you is the last thing you want to experience.
  921. >Tactical retreat it is then.
  922. >Without hesitation, you flap your wings to get off the ground and gain height.
  923. >You manage to rise quickly, but the two do not give up.
  924. >Galloping side by side, they still try to get you.
  925. >And a few metres away from the spot you are hovering over, they leap as they swing their tools.
  926. >The hammer stallion barely misses you.
  927. >Whereas the longer wooden pole grazes the hair of your tail.
  928. >Does that count as hit?
  929. >"No. Manes and tails do not count, unless the body is hit properly too. You are still in the game."
  930. >Good, but still way too close a call than what you would be comfortable with.
  931. >Especially for your first tussle in the ring.
  932. >You hastily bring yourself into a stable forward trajectory and start to fly in a wide circle.
  933. >You observe the two from your vantage point.
  934. >Both are looking at you with sharp, confrontational expressions.
  935. >And the hammer stallion stands still whilst the pole bearer trots slowly in one direction.
  936. >At first you do not understand what he is doing.
  937. >But your guardian angel helps you out.
  938. >"Search the ground, Anon."
  939. >So you do.
  940. >Then you spot the dropped weapon.
  941. >He is walking directly towards it.
  942. >Ah, he thinks you do notice his attempt.
  943. >And maybe he would have been right under other circumstances.
  944. >But it will be the second mistake made today.
  945.  
  946.  
  947.  
  948.  
  949. >You keep circling the field and allow him to proceed without interruption.
  950. >Let him think that you are unaware while you pretend to watch the second Earth pony instead.
  951. >Once he has reached the gun, though, you see your chance.
  952. >He drops his pole to reach for the upgrade.
  953. >And you respond with a sharp turn into a rapid dive, take aim, and plant to charges into his barrel.
  954. >An easy shot to make for a trained fighter pilot, space or no space.
  955. >He slumps to the side with no comment, burying the item of his desire underneath him as he falls.
  956. >Well, that means the last one has no way to get it, as he would be far too exposed for far too long while trying.
  957. >"This was not his plan anyway, Anon."
  958. >What?
  959. >You look at the last pony standing.
  960. >And witness a gaily coloured squeaky hammer sailing your way with a stable rotation.
  961. >The mad guy has actually thrown his weapon at you.
  962. "Oh shit!"
  963. >You steer for another sharp turn to the side to avoid the flying insult.
  964. >Whilst still in the hefty dive, unfortunately.
  965. >And indeed, you manage to dodge it.
  966. >However, you lose control of your flight as you violently sway in the air.
  967. >You fail to stabilise your path fast enough and crash a few dozen metres further down the line.
  968. >And even before the ringing in your ears fades, you hear trampling sounds combined with a determined shout.
  969. >Coming closer, and worryingly fast at that.
  970. >No explanation needed.
  971. >You ignore all possible bruises and scratches, and simply focus on getting up.
  972. >You face the noise and see the stallion storming towards you.
  973. >A thunderous rumbling follows his steps.
  974. >Once you stand properly, you notice that the two of you are already less than ten metres apart from each other.
  975. >Without the time to take aim or think ahead, you dispense four more spontaneous charges to fell the attacker.
  976. >Two go awry, but the other half makes contact, hitting a leg and the side of his neck.
  977. >He registers his "injuries" and plays the part of getting hit.
  978. >But to your horror you have to realise that he cannot possible stop in time.
  979. >So it comes as it has to come.
  980. >The muscular Earth pony hits you at a considerable speed.
  981. >A frontal body check ensues, knocking you clean off the ground, and the air out of your lungs.
  982. >And even worse, you land on your back whilst your opponent collapses right on top of you, effectively pinning you to the ground.
  983. >Of course, he holds still.
  984. >And no sign of grace by rolling to the side or something.
  985. >A last act of defiance, no doubt.
  986. >Though as rough as the last couple of seconds were, you think your proxy has suffered no major injuries from the stunts.
  987. >Still, you begin to feel slightly claustrophobic under several hundred kilograms of involuntary extra baggage.
  988. >Breathing too has become more of a chore.
  989. >But thanks to the reinforced augments inside your proxy, it takes more than that to deal significant damage to your vital organs.
  990. >#deca.mare claps her forehooves in the small screen at the edge of your vision.
  991.  
  992.  
  993.  
  994.  
  995. >"Congratulations, Anon. You are victorious."
  996. >But it sure as hell does not feel like it.
  997. >So in the immediate aftermath of the combat, you try to use your limited agency to shove the Earth pony away.
  998. >And fail miserably.
  999. >You grunt and tap against his shoulder blade.
  1000. "Damn it you hammered draft horse, get off! I shot you beforehand!"
  1001. >Much to your surprise, he gives an answer.
  1002. >"Dead ponies don't move, featherbrain."
  1003. >Arse.
  1004. >And if it were not for the fact that he tries to play "dead" with his two friends, you bet they would all cackle at your predicament.
  1005. "Oh yeah?"
  1006. >"Yeah."
  1007. "Then shut up. They don't talk either."
  1008. >He actually obeys.
  1009. >Which is nice, but does not improve your situation in the slightest.
  1010. >Looks like you have to do it the cumbersome way.
  1011. >You begin to slowly shift and wiggle yourself to freedom.
  1012. >A long and straining exercise, but you have no choice.
  1013. >And the energy cell pressing itself against your back sure does not help either.
  1014. >You wish you could use your hands for this.
  1015. >But they float in stable orbit around the planet, together with the rest of you.
  1016. >So you grin and bear it.
  1017. >More emphasis on bearing than grinning though.
  1018. >After straining minutes that felt like hours to you, you finally get out of your impromptu horse prison.
  1019. >You stand up to inspect the state of your proxy.
  1020. >But apart from a few insignificant grazes and many dark splotches of muddy coat, the body looks fine.
  1021. >Wings?
  1022. >Somewhat ruffled feathers, but to a tolerable degree.
  1023. >You check the state of your energy weapon via the HUD.
  1024. >No damage detected.
  1025. >Ammo: Fifty... out of sixty?
  1026. >You have spent a sixth of your stock in one engagement?
  1027. >Not a good rate at all.
  1028. >#deca.mare waves at you for your attention.
  1029. >Yes?
  1030. >"Now that you are free, do you want to know how much experience you have earned for defeating your enemies?"
  1031. >Experience?
  1032. >What are you talking about?
  1033. >"You get experience points for successful actions. Earn enough, and you ascend a level."
  1034. >For real now?
  1035. >"Sure. I am not joking."
  1036. >And what does that do?
  1037. >"A level determines what kind of gear you are allowed take into the game if you enter it for the first time in a cycle. Nothing too imbalanced, mind you, just tad more or better quality gear than usual. To serve as a little incentive for really dedicated players."
  1038. >Like a laser saddle instead of a handgun?
  1039. >"For instance, yes. Other than that it is only good for pure bragging rights. Though a high level usually indicates that the pony in question is a seasoned adversary."
  1040. >So Mender's comment on beginner gear was at least two-fold.
  1041. >But it also means you gain no benefit from experience until the next cycle.
  1042. >When does a new cycle start?
  1043. >"At the first of each month. Everypony leaves the field on that day to make way for maintenance and repair teams. Perfect time to reorganise and maybe change factions."
  1044. >Yeah, no.
  1045. >Scratch that then.
  1046. >You are not going to stay here for this long.
  1047.  
  1048.  
  1049.  
  1050.  
  1051. >"As you wish. I will keep score regardless. And so do the scoring judges overhead."
  1052. >Huh?
  1053. >"One judge accompanies every med team that patrols the field from above. They keep records of all engagements."
  1054. >Neat, but irrelevant for you nevertheless.
  1055. >What now?
  1056. >"Well, since you are the winner, you are free to take prizes. The three have to keep lying down until you have looted what you want and left the vicinity."
  1057. >Anything?
  1058. >"Anything. New weapon, new armour, new ammunition. They oblige to honour the rule."
  1059. >You look at the three.
  1060. >The stallions have nothing on them you could take, apart from their "tools".
  1061. >You are not much of a melee man though.
  1062. >And the mare, well, you are not exactly fond of stripping her.
  1063. >That would be... inappropriate to say the least.
  1064. >"This happens all the time around here. There is nothing special to it from their point of view."
  1065. >You silently imagine the implications.
  1066. >And you eventually ponder whether the pregnancy rate inside the field is exponentially higher than on the rest of the planet.
  1067. >"Anon, seriously. Ponies have standards. Do you really think this is something they would do? Or even consider?"
  1068. >Well, no.
  1069. >You are still inclined to refuse the opportunity to get some boo... to plunder.
  1070. >Besides, she does not have the right size for you anyway.
  1071. >"Your decision. Though I suggest you at least take a look."
  1072. >Why?
  1073. >"Because they might take your refusal with discontent and perceive your decision as scorn. By 'browsing the wares', as they call it, you show that they were worthy opponents."
  1074. >Where does this stupid rule come from?
  1075. >"It is not a rule, but a codex they play by."
  1076. >You blink.
  1077. >#deca, these ponies are crazy.
  1078. >"No. They just take pride in their craft."
  1079. >Amounts to the same thing from your perspective.
  1080. >Reluctantly, and with no real will of your own, you approach the lying mare and examine her armour in detail.
  1081. >Your first glance was correct; she does wear some additional strapped plates over her flanks.
  1082. >And as luck would have it, there is a small pouch attached to it as well.
  1083. >You emit a silent sigh of relief, as you now have a legit reason to refrain from undressing her.
  1084. >So you get a hold of the thing and pry it open.
  1085. >A small number of loose rubber pellets fall to the ground and bounce in all directions.
  1086. "Ammo."
  1087. >That could be useful.
  1088. >But the respective weapon to it lies under the pole horse.
  1089. >You look at the stallion.
  1090. >No chance of moving him to grab the thing unless he moves himself.
  1091. >Which you cannot achieve without playing really, really dirty.
  1092. >But not only is that completely against your style, it would also without a shadow of a doubt be below any pony standard.
  1093. >Not to mention painful and potentially hazardous.
  1094. >And despite the taunting and tackling, you doubt any of the three would have even considered exerting such lowly measures on you if they would have been the winners instead.
  1095. >It is still a "friendly" game at the end of the day.
  1096. >So strike that.
  1097. >Back to the pouch.
  1098.  
  1099.  
  1100.  
  1101.  
  1102. >You unearth a box.
  1103. >Which immediately arouses your curiosity.
  1104. >After a moment of fumbling with the thing, you manage to unseal it.
  1105. >Only to find a disappointing surprise inside.
  1106. "Crown caps? In a box? Are you serious?"
  1107. >Nonsense.
  1108. >You drop the box right next to the Unicorn, accompanied by the clattering sound of dozens of little caps.
  1109. >The last object you find is a red apple.
  1110. >A conventional, almost unremarkable thing in the more idyllic places of Equestria.
  1111. >But here it shines like a gem in between the grey and brown hues of the wastes.
  1112. >And doubly so in your eyes, as you have lived a true life of relative austerity in your past.
  1113. >This is a memory of many centuries ago, but one you will never forget.
  1114. >So you take the apple and hold it close to your face.
  1115. >You cherish its appeal, smell it, and look at it long and hard.
  1116. >And you use your HUD to scan it for possible poisons before you take the first bite.
  1117. >Just in case.
  1118. >You take your time to eat the fruit and enjoy every morsel to the fullest.
  1119. >Maybe a little irreverent in the presence of the others, but you cannot help it.
  1120. >It just tastes that good.
  1121. >Plus, the whole situation was their fault to begin with.
  1122. >They wanted to fight a newblood, and a fight is what they got.
  1123. >And as you process the events of the confrontation while you mentally debrief yourself, you come back to the question of how the hell the Unicorn knew about your gear.
  1124. >There was literally no way for her to know this from simply looking at you.
  1125. >The reason lies somewhere else.
  1126. >#deca, does the Unicorn possess a spell to detect energy signatures?
  1127. >"No, Anon. She does not."
  1128. >Initially, you tend to consider asking her outright for the correct answer, though you think it might be better if you challenge your own wits first.
  1129. >You must keep thinking quickly, as it was demonstrated to you just mere minutes ago.
  1130. >So how could they have known this?
  1131. >Where was the chink in your cover?
  1132. >Or... what if the mistake was not yours to begin with?
  1133. >In a moment of enlightened suspicion, you turn into the direction you came from.
  1134. >The entry post is only a small distant dot in the plains, but that is enough for you.
  1135. >Video enhancement, maximum factor.
  1136. >The vision in your goggles zooms in.
  1137. >And zooms.
  1138. >Then zooms some more.
  1139. >Until you see the house as if you were standing only a few metres away from it.
  1140. >Something happens at the window, so you focus on this opening.
  1141. >And you are greeted by the lenses of binoculars, looking straight at you in turn.
  1142. >There is the weak link in your defence.
  1143. >One could say the rivets were not mended properly to begin with.
  1144. >Alright, that you take as a personal insult.
  1145. "You motherfucker! This is your group!"
  1146. >One of the downed stallions fails to suppress a faint laugh as he hears your outrage, but you ignore him.
  1147. >And even though you doubt Scrap Mender can hear your cussing, he slowly lowers the binoculars and stares at you in utter puzzlement.
  1148.  
  1149.  
  1150.  
  1151.  
  1152. >Somehow you think he knows you can see him, and you are wholly willing to let him feel it in full.
  1153. >This is the least you can do to repay him for ratting you out like this.
  1154. >Sure, he was only loyal to his group, but this is no excuse.
  1155. >For he must consider that your allegiance to the Crown must be just as strong.
  1156. >And unlike this game, the politics beyond the fence have way more gravitas than anything in here.
  1157. >So in a moment of personal ire, you put on an evil grin that rivals the Grim Reaper himself.
  1158. >To show him a face he will not forget.
  1159. >And what happens if you cross a Royal envoy.
  1160. "Here's your challenge, Mender. Come and get me if you dare."
  1161. >Mender darts off in a hurry, disappearing into the house.
  1162. >And a friendly feminine voice soothes your anger.
  1163. >"That should be enough, my dear."
  1164. >You take a long breath to calm yourself and slow your heartbeat.
  1165. >Sorry.
  1166. >Though I guess I gave him the show he wanted, don't you think?
  1167. >That image should last for a while.
  1168. >Maybe it even deters some attacks if you are lucky.
  1169. >"I would not bet on that, Anon."
  1170. >How so?
  1171. >"You see, Scrap Mender and his group are amongst the more known scavengers on the field. And you have just challenged him to come after you once his friends are 'miraculously revived' and team up with him."
  1172. >Your confident grin wipes itself off your face as quickly as it has come.
  1173. >Tell me you're joking.
  1174. >"Not at all. You have ensured your reputation to rise quickly amongst the ranks of the players. This is what you wanted to hasten your mission, is it not?"
  1175. >Yes.
  1176. >But not in this hail Mary manner.
  1177. >Oh man, this is what happens if you fight in uncharted environments.
  1178. >You have just tripped yourself into a pitfall you did not even know to exist in the first place.
  1179. >Well, it happened, and now you cannot undo the mess.
  1180. >You have to deal with the image you have created for yourself.
  1181. >So you pick up your cloak, turn to the abandoned hamlet once more and resume your trip.
  1182. >You leave the three ponies behind as they are.
  1183. >"Anon?"
  1184. "Yes, #deca?"
  1185. >"How do you like the game so far?"
  1186. "My opinion hasn't changed."
  1187. >"But you got really immersed in the setting at the end."
  1188. "Only because that pinhead tried to dupe me to palm a new shiny toy off on his group with a 'legit' pretence."
  1189. >"Do not be too hard on him. This is part of the experience. To challenge each other safely in ways that would never be possible in Equestria at large. And in so doing, the ponies push themselves and their talents in new and innovative ways without causing any true harm."
  1190. "Again, good on them. But it's not mine. Though that's a score I have to settle now."
  1191. >"But please keep it in good sport. The real Mender is an upright pony who means no harm. In fact, I am sure you would like him under different circumstances."
  1192. "Yeah, sure. But I can't just let it slide. And I could use your help in this too."
  1193. >"Have no fear, we will make it together."
  1194.  
  1195.  
  1196.  
  1197.  
  1198. >Heh, together.
  1199. >Sounds oddly inaccurate as you wander through the dust on your own.
  1200. >But #deca.mare is nevertheless with you.
  1201. >She is sharing the experience just as much as you do.
  1202. >On a technical level, you are precisely as near, or remote, to the action as she is.
  1203. >Yet you are also both here in spirit.
  1204. >Two lovers acting as one.
  1205. >And together your love will conquer the wasteland.
  1206. >At least when it is kept in jest.
  1207. >Or you simply deliver your parchment.
  1208. >One or the other.
  1209. >Or both?
  1210. >And perhaps, you will also find some fun in here while you do.
  1211. >If not from the setting yourself, then at least with the company you share as a man with his mare.
  1212. >After all, what would be the point about it all without it?
  1213.  
  1214. April. April never changes. - A very autistic author with too many ponies and spaceships in his head, Anno Domini 2021
  1215.  
  1216.  
  1217.  
  1218.  
  1219. 2077.1
  1220.  
  1221. "Here we go again." - A famous proverb.
  1222.  
  1223. >The rush of your first engagement on the game field fades quickly as you get some distance between you and the scene.
  1224. >Yet you cannot let your guard down, for you know you are being hunted from now on.
  1225. >You are unsure when exactly Mender's jolly little party is coming after you, but they absolutely will sooner or later.
  1226. >Especially when he is relieved from his post and returns to the game himself.
  1227. >Then you have at least four adversaries to deal with.
  1228. >Annoying, though not hopeless if you play your own advantages correctly.
  1229. >And one such advantage can even talk to you in person.
  1230. "#deca, I need you to be completely upfront from here on out. No more secrets or by the by comments, okay?"
  1231. >"Understood, Anon. I will be your eyes and ears."
  1232. "Thanks. Are there any more surprises between me and the houses?"
  1233. >"None. There are no other ponies or obstacles in the way."
  1234. "And in the settlement itself?"
  1235. >"It has one current resident. She is not hostile unless provoked though."
  1236. "Please define 'provoke'."
  1237. >"Do not try to shoot or threaten her. And she will return the favour."
  1238. >Sounds easy enough.
  1239. >"By the way, the 'dead' are rising from their graves, Anon."
  1240. >That quickly?
  1241. >You only have a head start of two kilometres or so.
  1242. >You turn your head to the site of your fight and magnify the scene in your vision.
  1243. >Three colourful specks start to stir and rise.
  1244. "Are they trying to chase after me?"
  1245. >"They debate this option, as you have left them with most of their equipment. Chances are that they are likely to attempt a pursuit."
  1246. >In this case you have to get a move on.
  1247. >They know where you are heading anyway, so if you want to pay that hamlet a visit, your only hope is speed.
  1248. "And nobody else but them is watching me, correct?"
  1249. >"No players, at least. Indeed."
  1250. "Okay then. Let's see how they like keeping up with this."
  1251. >You burst into a short gallop and take a long leap.
  1252. >In midair, you spread your wings and flap steadily to maintain your current height.
  1253. >You keep your altitude at somewhere between two or three metres above the soil as you bolt towards the small collection of huts.
  1254. >A fast 'below the radar' trip to your destination.
  1255. "#deca, where's the resident you mentioned? I don't want to spook her."
  1256. >"Underground. She will not notice your rapid approach."
  1257. "That's pretty careless for a player."
  1258. >"You see, she is not here to partake in the game as such. So she has no stake in the fate of anyone else."
  1259. >Your initial gut response is to wonder why the hell someone would join a strange wild west wasteland game, with almost no rules at that, if not for the reason to play it.
  1260. >Then again, you have just described yourself.
  1261. >"Besides, nopony knows that she is here. Though you might want to talk to her."
  1262. >Something makes you doubt that the mysterious pony will be happy if you stumble into her little wasteland shelter, but you trust #deca.mare's assessment.
  1263. >You near the hamlet.
  1264.  
  1265.  
  1266.  
  1267.  
  1268. >"Anon, are you interested in looting some goodies for the trek?"
  1269. "How much stuff is hidden there?"
  1270. >"Several caches in different houses."
  1271. "Useful things?"
  1272. >"Some food and water, soft rubber bullets, and a few bandages."
  1273. "Any traps?"
  1274. >"None. This place is designed for beginners."
  1275. "Okay, I take it. Give me the location of the boxes and I fetch it before meeting the mysterious mare. All in one rush, we're on the clock!"
  1276. >"Agreed. The first house you want to visit is the closest one to your left."
  1277. >And you follow her instructions as she leads you through the landmark with her master knowledge.
  1278. >To shorten the time, you cut the formality of using the door.
  1279. >Instead, you promptly storm through the window on the first floor of the small two-storey house.
  1280. >You rush to a drawer and find a metal box in it.
  1281. >The thing is locked.
  1282. "Dammit! I don't have the time or the tools to pick this."
  1283. >"Remember, Anon. There is no 'right' way to acquire things in here."
  1284. >Some gears in your head grind quickly.
  1285. >And it makes click in a matter of seconds.
  1286. "Anything fragile inside?"
  1287. >"No, none of the boxes here contain easily breakable items.
  1288. >Alright, easy mode ensues then.
  1289. >You put the box on the ground with the lock looking upwards.
  1290. >Then you give the container one merciless kick from above.
  1291. >Its metal lock shatters alongside the joint which kept the box intact.
  1292. >The container breaks apart with a loud cracking noise.
  1293. >A lightly smaller cardboard box is revealed within the wreck.
  1294. >It depicts a bunch of rounded rubber pellets.
  1295. >Neat if you get a fitting gun.
  1296. >You hastily store the ammo box in your saddle bag.
  1297. "Next."
  1298. >You rush out of the same window, and fly a curve to directly head for the next house.
  1299. >This time you enter the proper way.
  1300. >More or less.
  1301. >You slam the door open in a hurry, and accidentally hoist the poor thing off its hinges with your liberal application of brute force.
  1302. >Yet you pay no attention to the banging of wood against more wood, as you run straight through the hall, and into an adjacent room.
  1303. >There you find an unlocked cabinet.
  1304. >A yellow box marked by three light rose butterflies greets you.
  1305. >The first aid box has no lock like the other one, as that would entirely defeat the purpose of the container.
  1306. >But in your urgency, you fail to notice that little detail.
  1307. >So you pummel the flaps of the box until they yield and cease to function.
  1308. >A small voice in your mind tells you to feel bad for maltreating Fluttershy's Cutie Mark, even though you have only beaten a silly container into submission.
  1309. >Still, you do not like that fact.
  1310. >You clap the case open and take the two separately packed bandages with you.
  1311. >Out again, house number three.
  1312. >And a solid wooden crate dies a rackety hero's death under the devil-may-care onslaught of your looting rampage.
  1313. >You claim a care package containing a handful of food rations.
  1314. >Boxed stuff, so far from the quality of your first hard earned apple.
  1315. >But food is food.
  1316. >And out in the wastes, every bite counts.
  1317.  
  1318.  
  1319.  
  1320.  
  1321. >So with the hamlet taken and sacked in a flash, you go to the fourth and last house.
  1322. >A derelict building, in a far more "damaged" state than the others.
  1323. >Originally also a two-storey construction, the upper half has been utterly destroyed, and its leftovers were strewn across the landscape.
  1324. >Its door is long gone even without a wild Pegasus on the loose.
  1325. >And the openings of the windows have been unconventionally expanded by further missing parts.
  1326. >Which at one point were somehow ripped out of the outer walls.
  1327. >The whole site already screams dud to you, as there is obviously nothing interesting in there whatsoever.
  1328. >Really, the only thing you can determine is that there is still enough left of the facade to ensure the stability of what little remains of the ruin.
  1329. >That is about it.
  1330. >An inconsequential nothing.
  1331. >Perfect to hide something from curious eyes.
  1332. >You gallop through the main entrance.
  1333. >To stand in an uninspired, empty hallway.
  1334. >The friendly voice inside your head tells you to walk all the way up to the opposite end of the hall.
  1335. >There you take a turn to the right into what appears to be an emptied store room.
  1336. >Apart from the wooden planks of the floor, there is literally nothing of interest in here.
  1337. >Nevertheless, #deca.mare tells you to enter.
  1338. >And once inside, you are told to look at the ground.
  1339. >So you do.
  1340. >Still, you only see wonderfully generic wood in plank form.
  1341. >"Not quite, Anon. There is more to it than what meets the eye."
  1342. >Huh?
  1343. >You raise an eyebrow and scan the floor.
  1344. >Indeed, your goggles pick up a faint energy signature.
  1345. "What's this?"
  1346. >You reach out with a forelimb, methodically probing the wood beneath you.
  1347. >At first, you sense nothing out of the ordinary.
  1348. >But then your leg phases right through the wood, getting hold of a grip.
  1349. >"Pull it."
  1350. >Trusting her words and being curious yourself, you do exactly that.
  1351. >As it turns out, the floor has a veiled wooden hatch that you have just opened.
  1352. >Leading straight into a cellar.
  1353. >"Ugh, great."
  1354. >Wait, that voice was not in your mind.
  1355. >This came out of the cellar.
  1356. >Yet before you can do anything else, a cyan mare's head phases through the faux wooden floor.
  1357. >A pony hand... mouthgun sticks between her teeth.
  1358. >And her annoyed rosy eyes pin you where you stand.
  1359. >So much for non-hostile.
  1360. >In your surprise, you do not immediately realise that the mare's mane resembles the vibrant hues of a rainbow.
  1361. >But the second you catch up with the events, your slowpoke brain processes who you are looking at.
  1362. >From squeaky hammers to Rainbow Dash in one day.
  1363. "Oh man, this place has too many colours for a wasteland."
  1364. >But Rainbow Dash ignores your comment completely.
  1365. >"Thuth ith and come down here bephore somephony elth teeth uth!"
  1366. >Her head disappears into the wood again.
  1367. >Yet her gun is surely still pointed at your head.
  1368. >You follow Rainbow Dash into the cellar and close its hatch behind you.
  1369. >As you have expected, she still holds you at gunpoint in the small dimly lit tunnel.
  1370.  
  1371.  
  1372.  
  1373.  
  1374. >She clearly did not expect any visitors.
  1375. "Look, I 'm not here to cause trouble."
  1376. >"Ah? And how dith you thind me?"
  1377. >You try it with a variant of the truth this time.
  1378. >Perhaps the Element of Loyalty will kindly respond to that.
  1379. "I was sent here with a lead."
  1380. >A dubious glint flashes in Rainbow's eyes.
  1381. >That alerted her.
  1382. "I'm not after you though. In fact, I didn't even know who exactly was down here. Only that someone was."
  1383. >"Thath doethn't make any senth."
  1384. >You sigh.
  1385. "I was directed here to find a quiet place to spend a while in. To shake off some trigger happy scavengers."
  1386. >Unfortunately, the prospect of a bunch of scavengers knocking at her door makes the mare only even more furious.
  1387. >You addressed the wrong subject.
  1388. >Say something else.
  1389. "Thing is, I'm a Royal Courier. Out to deliver some documents in the name of Princess Celestia."
  1390. >Suddenly, as if some magic words were spoken, her gaze softens a little.
  1391. >Only a tiny bit though.
  1392. >"Prooth it."
  1393. "Alright, I can. I'll get a scroll out of my bag. Don't get alarmed though, I've got an energy weapon under my cloak."
  1394. >Once more, the mare stiffens her alarmed stance.
  1395. >Yet she gives you the benefit of the doubt.
  1396. >So you slowly sit down to untie the cloak and reveal your full loadout.
  1397. >You wait a second to let the sight sink in before you reach for the bag.
  1398. >And the gun never loses its focus on you while you do.
  1399. >A short moment of rummaging around in your inventory follows, then you slowly pull out a long, aureate casing.
  1400. >Sealed with the emblem of Equestria's sun.
  1401. >The Royal Mark of a diarch.
  1402. >And despite Rainbow Dash's famous disinterest for anything of this noble fancy, she does recognise what you are holding.
  1403. >She lowers the gun and puts it on her own back.
  1404. >"Follow me, but be quiet. Don't want any of those amateurs up there to hear us."
  1405. >Rainbow Dash turns around and slowly trots off.
  1406. >You follow her through the narrow passage for about twenty metres.
  1407. >Until it leads into a much brighter and larger cavern, lit by candles and torches on the walls.
  1408. >The interior is... unique.
  1409. >A plain bed, a table filled with loads of scribbled notes, stools, and other pieces of old wooden furniture.
  1410. >Like showcases and stands.
  1411. >And what catches your interest is that each of these pieces hold ancient artefacts of various kinds, gathered throughout the entirety of Equestria.
  1412. >Old temple treasures of the south.
  1413. >Rare crystalline formations gathered from the vicinity of the Crystal Empire, and brimming with a lot of potent energy within.
  1414. >A magically enchanted Zebra mask which gives its wearer a limited insight into the hidden arcane secrets of the world.
  1415. >And, last but not least, a certain small piece of ornament which is commonly known as the Alicorn Amulet.
  1416. >One fast scan with your goggles confirms that all of these items are the real deal, and not some very well made replicas.
  1417. >And all of them have the potential to corrupt or deceive the user in one way or another with the temptation of extreme power.
  1418.  
  1419.  
  1420.  
  1421.  
  1422. >You are looking at Equestria's variant of a doomsday device vault.
  1423. "Holy shit."
  1424. >Your host replies with a hushed, but nevertheless confident voice.
  1425. >"Impressed? Hah, you ought to."
  1426. >Rainbow Dash notices that you look in silent awe at the display down here.
  1427. >She knows that you are aware of the potential behind these artefacts.
  1428. >"You better don't try to open any of these things. They're magically protected to remain sealed."
  1429. >She grins and motions you to sit down on one of the stools.
  1430. >"And in contrast to the crystal that upholds the illusion at the stairs, they'll kick your flank if you try. Even I can't touch them. Take a seat."
  1431. >You notice something peculiar at this point in time.
  1432. >The mare in front of you does not sound like the Rainbow Dash you are familiar with.
  1433. >The looks fit perfectly, though some things are a little odd.
  1434. >Her voice is rough and seasoned, yet it lacks the distinct raspy pronunciation.
  1435. >The choice of words is different.
  1436. >And she does not act as boastful as she should either.
  1437. >Besides, when would one of Equestria's most famous stunt fliers hide herself and a bunch of old artefacts inside a concealed bunker?
  1438. >Rainbow Dash is far too closely bound to the skies for that.
  1439. "Who are you?"
  1440. >Your host looks at you in light confusion.
  1441. >"Huh? What do you mean?"
  1442. "A simple question, isn't it? Who are you?"
  1443. >"Are you serious? Have you never heard of Rainbow Dash? Ponyville? Element of Loyalty? You know, the one who helped saving Equestria dozens of times?"
  1444. "Sure did. More than you imagine, actually."
  1445. >You keep standing.
  1446. >On guard, but not trying to come off as aggressive.
  1447. "That's why I know you ain't it."
  1448. >"Rainbow Dash" sighs.
  1449. >"You're far too inquisitive for your own good."
  1450. "Nah. Just got almost ripped off by a scavenger less than five minutes in. So excuse my caution."
  1451. >"Scrap Mender?"
  1452. "Yep."
  1453. >"Heh, I know him. Good stallion in the real world. But he's a sleazy pain in the rump at the games."
  1454. "Don't derail the topic. Who are you?"
  1455. >"Alright, alright. You got me. I'm not Rainbow Dash. I only look very similar to her for some strange reason."
  1456. "I noticed. And your name?"
  1457. >Not-Rainbow-Dash puts the gun on the table and strikes a pose, wings flared and ready to pounce.
  1458. >You take a step back just to be cautious.
  1459. >"Imagine me with an ochre coat and a dark grey mane. Ring any bells?"
  1460. >You understand immediately.
  1461. >As you mentally add an adventurer's hat and an olive shirt to the composition.
  1462. "Daring?"
  1463. >"The one and only."
  1464. >Is that right, #deca?
  1465. >The mare in your mind replies accordingly.
  1466. >"She is telling the truth."
  1467. >You relax somewhat.
  1468. "What's someone like you doing here in the middle of nothing?"
  1469. >"First things first. You're serving the Crown, yes?"
  1470. "I do. Sent by Celestia herself."
  1471. >You take a breath and think of something to ultimately convince her.
  1472. "And if my memory serves me right, you're serving the diarchy as well."
  1473. >Daring's eyes widen in surprise.
  1474. >"How do you know that?"
  1475.  
  1476.  
  1477.  
  1478.  
  1479. >You shrug casually.
  1480. "Access to the Royal archives. Can do wonders sometimes."
  1481. >"Fair."
  1482. >She breathes once before she continues.
  1483. >"So I hope I can count on your secrecy."
  1484. "Yeah. You don't have to bonk me over the head and take the artefacts somewhere else while I'm knocked out cold. I keep my mouth shut."
  1485. >Another thought crosses your mind.
  1486. "How have you brought them here anyway? You didn't ferry..."
  1487. >You let a forehoof pan around the room.
  1488. "...all of these across the wasteland, did you?"
  1489. >Not to mention her relying on only one exit.
  1490. >That could end very badly if someone decided to obstruct it.
  1491. >Be it only unwittingly.
  1492. >"Right, I didn't. There's a hidden door on the other side of the cavern. Connects this cellar to an old tunnel system made out of iron."
  1493. >You tilt your head.
  1494. "Oh? You mean 'those' old tunnels?"
  1495. >"You know them?"
  1496. "Never been there in person, though I heard they can lead everywhere."
  1497. >You put a very strong emphasis on your words to hint at your own limited knowledge of the situation.
  1498. >For you have a sneaking suspicion you want to check out.
  1499. >"Nopony knows who originally dug the complex, but yes. You heard right. It has underground ways and exits all over Equestria. Some even reach up to the old abandoned mines beneath Canterlot Castle if you trot long enough."
  1500. "Do they?"
  1501. >"Oh, they do. Many Royal scouts charted the tunnels when the structures were first discovered. They're abandoned and safe to travel, but hardly anyone uses them. You don't want to go there without a map and a very good sense of navigation."
  1502. >You take a long, hard breath.
  1503. "So the cave's connected to the terraformer tunnels."
  1504. >"The what?"
  1505. >You did not exactly think this through before you said that out loud, and only realise the blunder after the fact.
  1506. "Never mind, it's just the name I know them by."
  1507. >And you happen to know that they are not quite as abandoned as Daring Do makes them out to be, though you have no way to properly explain that to her.
  1508. >Plus, she could not understand it.
  1509. >Interestingly though, you believe she does not quite buy this thin explanation either and senses that there is more to the matter than you tell her.
  1510. >"What's your name, by the way?"
  1511. "Anon."
  1512. >"That's a pseudonym, isn't it."
  1513. >You shake your head.
  1514. >"Come on, I've used enough of them myself to spot these things. You have another, a real name, don't you?"
  1515. "No, I'm really called Anon."
  1516. >"Weird. Never heard of such a pony name."
  1517. >You grin slyly.
  1518. "Guess my parents always wanted me to become a secret agent."
  1519. >Daring Do is not overly carried away by your joke, but she leaves the matter as it is.
  1520. "Back to my question though, what are you doing here with all that stuff?"
  1521. >"Isn't it obvious? This place is a stash for the 'stuff'. To prevent the things from being misused. Hidden underneath the racket of the games above, it's the perfect spot to safeguard the items. Remotely located, yet completely in our reach."
  1522. "So in short, you're the curator."
  1523.  
  1524.  
  1525.  
  1526.  
  1527. >"At the moment. I'm not the only one though. And we are looking for ways to purify these artefacts without reducing their potency. But until we found a way, they're better off behind some enchanted glass."
  1528. >For some reason you have the positive feeling that they will be successful one day.
  1529. "And what about the other entrance? Aren't you concerned someone like me can just march in here? That's a security risk if I ever saw one."
  1530. >"I too have to get some rations somehow, you see? Besides, you're the first to find it in dozens of cycles."
  1531. >Daring Do clears her voice as she sorts her notes.
  1532. >"Didn't think you would though. Your plundering sounded so horribly inept, I thought you were a bloody beginner."
  1533. >So you imagine this is why your finding ticked her off so vehemently.
  1534. >Getting ousted by an apparent idiot must be a fate nobody wants to experience.
  1535. >Much less a hardened adventurer like Daring.
  1536. >For she is certainly much tougher than most of the other ponies around here.
  1537. "You heard that?"
  1538. >Daring Do loses her composure for a moment.
  1539. >"Are you kidding? Everypony around us heard you! You raged around like a crazed poltergeist!"
  1540. >Considering that you put a giant spotlight on her hideout, that ire is just too understandable.
  1541. >You try to defuse the conversation before a wrong word of either of you gives your location away to the scavengers on the surface.
  1542. >They must surely be looking for you at this very moment.
  1543. >And it would be in the interest of nobody if they find you and the cellar.
  1544. "Okay, okay. I understand. Sorry for that. My... sources didn't mention anything about this deposit."
  1545. >Your irate host calms down a notch and invites you again to take a seat.
  1546. >You accept this time.
  1547. >It helps to have a civilised conversation at a table rather than a standoff at gunpoint.
  1548. >"Let me be honest with you. I'm not sure why you were sent my way to begin with. I rarely work with others and can't leave my post for very long."
  1549. "Well, all I was told is that I may want to have a chat with you."
  1550. >"That's all?"
  1551. "Uh huh."
  1552. >"Looks like I'm not the only one who gets cryptic instructions when it comes to mission briefings."
  1553. >A pause.
  1554. >"Thought it was just me because of my books."
  1555. "Yeah, doubtful. You over-dramatise your stories far too much. No pony would ever see them as a security breach when more than half of the stuff is either made up or exaggerated like crazy."
  1556. >Daring Do shrugs.
  1557. >"I need to keep my readers hooked, don't I? And it's a fine business for everyone too. The readers get the stories they crave, and I have my expenses covered."
  1558. >Neat explanation, but you know that there is more to the story than this.
  1559. "And your 'friend'?"
  1560. >Your notion causes the adventurous mare to smile.
  1561. >"My dear colleague 'Cheval Renom' profits too. He receives a fair cut of the earnings for playing the comically villainous doctor. Finances his own trips into the wild with the bits."
  1562. "Sounds fine to me."
  1563.  
  1564.  
  1565.  
  1566.  
  1567. >Heh, if the world knew that the hero and the villain are working hoof in hoof, the readers would cause an uproar.
  1568. >Then again, barely anyone knows that the two characters are real ponies in the first place.
  1569. >But at least that strange chimeric villain remains a pure figment of her imagination; he would be an anatomical nightmare to deal with otherwise.
  1570. >Certainly, all of these things are more parts of the ploy as a whole.
  1571. >After all, the two love to play their games on several layers at once.
  1572. >Especially when nobody from the outside can determine which parts of the stories might be real, and which are total fabrications by the writers.
  1573. >And doubly delicious irony is at work once more, since Daring is wholly unaware that she is in good company in that respect right now.
  1574. >For all her justifiable doubts about you, she plainly cannot even comprehend just how much of a difference there truly is between the two of you.
  1575. >On the other hand, you are glad that neither of them knows of your little bet with #deca.mare regarding the question whether the two 'friendly rivals' will end up as a couple or not.
  1576. >Different and unrelated topic though.
  1577. >You have more questions to ask anyway.
  1578. "But why are you running around as Rainbow Dash?"
  1579. >"Simple delusion. For the brief moments I'm on the surface to garner supplies. Let others think it's another known mare who sweeps the field."
  1580. >Daring grins.
  1581. >"Hides my own tracks very well."
  1582. "Hm, I'm not sure Rainbow would approve."
  1583. >"Pheh, she owes me that one for almost ruining my golden ring mission. And I at least try to do her justice and make her look 'awesome', as she would put it."
  1584. "Suit yourself. I don't think I could pretend to be someone else like this."
  1585. >Which is the boldest lie you have possibly ever spoken.
  1586. >And Daring Do is not convinced either.
  1587. >Strike three on your part.
  1588. >"Don't try to take me for a fool. You do the exact same thing. And more."
  1589. >Uh, what?
  1590. >How does she know this?
  1591. >Especially the last part.
  1592. "Come again?"
  1593. >"You deliberately mislead everpony by acting like a blunt amateur. And you only say half the truth at best. Tell me how this deception is different from mine."
  1594. >Ah yes, of course.
  1595. >Everything you did so far was the sole genius stratagem of your mastermind.
  1596. >Sure.
  1597. >It is not like you had help from an invisible friend or anything.
  1598. >Yet this is not an argument you can use against her.
  1599. >What comes up next, however, is your own idea from beginning to end.
  1600. "Never mind that."
  1601. >"One of your key phrases, huh?"
  1602. "Really, I think I'm starting to see why I was sent to you."
  1603. >"Oh? Do tell."
  1604. "I reckon you won't help me in delivering my scrolls, do you?"
  1605. >She wordlessly points at all the artefacts around you in this room.
  1606. "Thought so. But perhaps you can help me with those scavengers."
  1607. >"To draw even more attention to this region? That brilliant plan is the best strategy you have in mind?"
  1608. "That's not gonna happen if we do this right."
  1609. >"Bold words. So what is it?"
  1610.  
  1611.  
  1612.  
  1613.  
  1614. "I want to discourage them from following me and return to their own base instead. At least for a little while."
  1615. >"How?"
  1616. >You grin deviously.
  1617. "By raiding the raiders before they can raid us."
  1618. >Daring Do listens to you quietly.
  1619. >Your use of the word "us" does not seem to feel particularly appealing to her.
  1620. >For her priorities are elsewhere.
  1621. "These punks tried to get me as they thought I was easy prey. Now they follow me because I didn't take all their stuff the first time around."
  1622. >She raises an eyebrow.
  1623. >"And because you bruised their ego, I assume?"
  1624. "Probably. Problem is, I don't want them to get my scrolls. They're meant for the big shots around here. Each for the leader of one faction."
  1625. >A nod.
  1626. >"I think I know who you mean."
  1627. "But I can't do that when I have that group hot on my heels the whole time. I need to take them out again to win a little breathing space."
  1628. >"Not because you want their gear?"
  1629. >You shake your head.
  1630. "That's secondary to me. They don't have much I can use reliably anyway."
  1631. >"Alright. But why do you need my help when you have beaten them on your own?"
  1632. "They weren't properly prepared for the fight. But they'll be smarter next time. And let's face it, it's in your own interest to help me."
  1633. >"Really? You like to talk big, don't you?"
  1634. "Am I wrong?"
  1635. >Daring Do feigns to contemplate your proposal.
  1636. >"Hm, now that you ask, why yes. Yes, I think you're dead wrong."
  1637. "About what?"
  1638. >"Your plan won't work. It's going to backfire and pound your flank sooner or later. Because the harder you trounce them, the more they want to get you."
  1639. >You snicker.
  1640. "That doesn't sound at all like the brave adventurer you write about in your novels."
  1641. >She rolls her eyes.
  1642. >"Oh, please. I spanked the rears of thugs before you were even foaled."
  1643. >Well, technically not wrong.
  1644. "Only two-dimensional though."
  1645. >"What?"
  1646. "Nothing. Carry on."
  1647. >Displeased by yet another weird hand-wave of yours, Daring do taps the table with her forehoof.
  1648. >"Anyway, they're no challenge for me on the field. They'll turn tail and run before you can count to ten. But retreat or no retreat, they'll come back for a rematch. And I don't want them here."
  1649. >The subtle irate notion returns to her speech.
  1650. >"You have no idea how annoying it is to transport all of this. And that's why this place mustn't get busted. Do you understand?"
  1651. >You do.
  1652. >Including the slight criticism against your person for bringing the scavengers near the cavern at all.
  1653. "So you think we could drive them to a hunt if we poke them hard enough?"
  1654. >"That's what I said."
  1655. "All the better, actually."
  1656. >You receive another look of scepticism.
  1657. "We just have to make them chase me, and only me. Then they won't bother looking around this place anymore."
  1658. >As she follows your words, Daring Do looks at you in puzzlement.
  1659. >"Wait a second. I thought you wanted to get rid of them. Now you say you WANT them to start a chase? So which is it now?"
  1660.  
  1661.  
  1662.  
  1663.  
  1664. "They're after me no matter what. Mender called for a hunt before I even got here, so this won't change either way. And that's a good thing in the long run as I've got to cause some ruckus. The big leaders shall take note of a lone little Pegasus courier out in the wild."
  1665. >You pause to take a breath and let your words sink in.
  1666. "But like I said, the three build up too much pressure too early on. Hence the needed respite."
  1667. >"You play a strange game there, Anon. If that is your name to begin with."
  1668. "It is. And yeah, I'm aware. Believe me though, I have the resources for it. Most of them, anyway."
  1669. >And most importantly, you have a mare who talked you into all of this in the first place.
  1670. >Still, more options are always better.
  1671. "Though a little assistance of yours would help me a great deal."
  1672. >Daring sighs.
  1673. >"Gotta take your word for it, I guess."
  1674. >Enthusiasm sounds differently.
  1675. >You need to motivate her some more.
  1676. "Honestly, think rationally about our situation. These three won't leave until they found me, that much is clear. So we are left with two options. We wait and hope against better knowledge, or we act and take the matter into our own ha... hooves. Time isn't in our favour though."
  1677. >You feel you need to elaborate on that point some more.
  1678. "If we wait until tomorrow, Mender will join them too."
  1679. >Daring Do grumbles as you mention that name again.
  1680. >Yes yes, you get the message.
  1681. >In-game pain in the rump.
  1682. >Clearly, she does not want that stallion around these parts if she can avoid it.
  1683. >And maybe you should add another little, yet vital detail.
  1684. >Even though Daring Do will not like what she is about to hear.
  1685. >You cough coyly.
  1686. "And I may... or may not have... accidentally challenged him after I bested his band."
  1687. >The adventurer's response is a groaning facehoof.
  1688. >One of the spontaneous kind.
  1689. >"Oh for Celestia's sake! I should have shot your head when I got the chance!"
  1690. >You go the most blatant way possible and simply overlook that last exclamation.
  1691. "Can I count on you?"
  1692. >Diplomacy at its best.
  1693. >She rubs her cyan dyed temples.
  1694. >"You won't stop making things worse for me until I say yes, huh?"
  1695. "I'd appreciate your cooperation. As a fellow helper of the Crown."
  1696. >And as a token of your gratitude, you promise you will personally donate a gift to celebrate the future birth of her first foal with Caballeron.
  1697. >Or Cheval Renom.
  1698. >Or whatever other pseudonym he will use.
  1699. >Though you keep that speck of foal optimism to yourself too.
  1700. >You do not want to find out how many proxy bones Daring Do can break when she is really angry.
  1701. >The proverbial and unintentional middle finger you have shown her is large enough already.
  1702. >Maybe you should consult Cadence on this matter when this is all over though.
  1703. >In the name of love, of course.
  1704. >And your bet.
  1705. >But #deca.mare has some stern words to say on your ponderings.
  1706. >"No. This is their decision to make. Or not to make. We have no say in this, Anon. Besides, that would be cheating."
  1707. >Okay, you yield.
  1708.  
  1709.  
  1710.  
  1711.  
  1712. >Yet you must admit that their foals would surely be adorable.
  1713. >Fortunately for everybody involved in current events, however, Daring Do is blissfully unaware of your musings regarding her love life.
  1714. >Otherwise her next words would be far from those she is actually going to say out loud.
  1715. >"Fine. I'll help you."
  1716. "Wait, you do? Thank y..."
  1717. >Her forehoof shoots in your direction.
  1718. >"Ah! Don't thank me yet. I must insist on a recompense for my... aid."
  1719. >You let your ears droop.
  1720. "Seriously?"
  1721. >"Of course. In case you haven't noticed, stuff's scarce around here. Food, fuel for the torches, the quaint stuff they call 'bullets', you name it."
  1722. "You know these guns are mere toys, yeah?"
  1723. >"Doesn't matter. The ponies up there believe in their power, so they work for all I care. Also,..."
  1724. >The raised hoof bonks the table.
  1725. >"...consider it your dunce fee for being so careless as to bring scavengers near a secret hiding place. And because you omit too much. Acted tomfoolery or strategic choice, I don't care. That was a reckless move of you."
  1726. "Now that's mean."
  1727. >"No, that's what I call practical. I don't have all day to look around for material, so I can only ever leave at night when nopony is watching too closely. And I never take stuff from the hamlet above. Would be too suspicious."
  1728. >A second thud of hoof on wood.
  1729. "And you've ruined my collection run tonight. Which means I'll need to get them elsewhere."
  1730. >Of course.
  1731. >She demands the stuff you have plundered from the hamlet.
  1732. >After all, when everyone knows that you have ravaged the place, her alibi remains tight even if she receives the goods from you eventually.
  1733. "If you insist. Fifty fifty?"
  1734. >"I was more thinking of two thirds to one."
  1735. "Not demanding at all."
  1736. >"It's not like you have many options."
  1737. >You tilt your head sceptically.
  1738. "Neither do you if you can't scout."
  1739. >"Take a wild guess why I demand more than a half."
  1740. >Fair point.
  1741. >"So how much was hidden in those crates? Put it all on the table."
  1742. >You reach out to your mare lover in orbit.
  1743. >#deca, she knows exactly how much was stored there, doesn't she?
  1744. >"Indeed, Anon. The amount cached at each individual site is roughly the same every time, with just a few minor changes in their composition. Only the manner of how they are hidden can vary greatly."
  1745. >So she is testing me.
  1746. >"Precisely."
  1747. >In that case, you play with an open deck of cards.
  1748. >For you have strained any sense of trust to the breaking point already.
  1749. >You unpack everything you have stored.
  1750. >The ammo box, the care packages, and the two bandages.
  1751. >Daring Do eyes you.
  1752. >Deeply.
  1753. >Inquisitive.
  1754. >"That's all?"
  1755. >She asks coldly with a clear rational notion.
  1756. >Testing your integrity to such a degree that you almost feel like a liar despite telling the truth.
  1757. "Yeah. In... three stashes."
  1758. >She nods slowly.
  1759. >At first it feels like she is further probing you.
  1760. >But then her expression turns into a much more approving one.
  1761. >"Fine. Let's have a look."
  1762.  
  1763.  
  1764.  
  1765.  
  1766. >Daring Do carefully investigates everything you have laid out on the table.
  1767. >After a few minutes, she begins to separate them into two piles.
  1768. >Each with a packed bandage, yet one with distinctively less foodstuffs than the other.
  1769. >At last, she tries to open the cardboard box.
  1770. "Daring, wait."
  1771. >"What is it?"
  1772. "I'm willing to cede the whole box to you if we share the food a bit more evenly."
  1773. >"You do?"
  1774. "Yup. The rubber has no value to me without the right gun to fire it."
  1775. >Daring's hoof rests on the box, holding it in its place on the table.
  1776. >"Little tip for future bartering, friend. Never say something has no value to the pony you want to sell it. Only weakens your position. But..."
  1777. >She shoves the ammo box right in the centre, and places a few portions of food from the larger pile right next to it.
  1778. >"...I'm willing to accept your deal."
  1779. >Daring Do waits until you prepare to say something.
  1780. >Just to interrupt you before you can start.
  1781. >"But only if you convince me with a compelling argument."
  1782. "How?"
  1783. >A shrug.
  1784. >"Tell me a reason why I should give away something I can chew on for a bunch of rubber balls."
  1785. >You hesitate a few seconds as you carefully evaluate what to say next.
  1786. >Eventually, you find an answer you believe to be good enough from a practical standpoint.
  1787. "Because sometimes bullets are more valuable than food, depending on your situation. We're about to head into a firefight and you'll need all the replacements you can get for the shots you inevitably take today. So why give a third of them away if you can have them all? And in a time of doubt, you still can trade fired shots for food if you're in a tight spot."
  1788. >You let that answer sink in and watch how Daring Do responds.
  1789. >First she does nothing.
  1790. >Then she smiles.
  1791. >"See? That wasn't so hard, was it? I knew you aren't as dim as you pretend to be."
  1792. >She takes the ammo and pushes the boxed food your way.
  1793. >At least the distribution of foodstuffs is now almost at fifty to fifty.
  1794. >Considering the circumstances, this is probably the best trade you can hope for.
  1795. >You take your share of the loot and store it in your bags again.
  1796. >And so you have more than halved your gains of the day.
  1797. >To hire a legendary adventurer cloaked as a different famous pony.
  1798. >Friendship expiration limit: One battle.
  1799. >Still, worth it.
  1800. >You must take whatever strange things the wasteland has to offer.
  1801. >And as the two of you tend to your personal equipment, you hear steps and shoving noises coming from above.
  1802. >Daring Do jumps to her gun in the blink of an eye, and motions you to freeze.
  1803. >You comply without a comment.
  1804. >Both of you stand still as statues while you closely listen to every single sound you can hear through the thick walls around you.
  1805. >It is not much, but enough to comprehend that several ponies are turning the architecture above upside down.
  1806. >In their search for a certain Pegasus, no doubt.
  1807. >Minutes pass before the noise gradually tones down once more.
  1808.  
  1809.  
  1810.  
  1811.  
  1812. >Eventually, Daring Do deems it safe enough to talk to you again, albeit in a very hushed voice.
  1813. >"Don't think they've left. They're camping somewhere nearby. Waiting for you to show up."
  1814. "Yeah, thought so. Ready to teach them who's the boss?"
  1815. >Daring Do's hisses quietly.
  1816. >"No! I told you I won't leave until dusk!"
  1817. "Meaning we're stuck here until then?"
  1818. >"We are. Welcome to the life of an underground pony."
  1819. >And as such, you are more or less forced to spend the next hours together.
  1820. >You cannot leave without being spotted, and Daring Do sure as hell will not let you endanger the integrity of her hideout.
  1821. >So you wait.
  1822. >The first hour is filled with awkward silence, in which you barely exchange a syllable with one another.
  1823. >But after you have waited for long enough and convinced yourself that it is safe to talk in very muffled tones, you ask Daring for more information about the wasteland and its topography.
  1824. >Of course, you could also rely on your encyclopaedic mare in the sky, but she insisted on you to play the game more or less as it was meant to be played.
  1825. >Gaining information is part of that experience.
  1826. >And Daring Do helps you out, free of additional charge.
  1827. >Probably in an attempt to pass the time with you as quickly as possible, but never mind.
  1828. >She picks up a loose piece of parchment and draws you a map with the outlines of the game zone.
  1829. >Including most of the important points of interest within.
  1830. >And your quick crash course in wasteland one-oh-one begins.
  1831. >Daring explains to you that the parts near the entrances all have low-level, low-risk waypoints.
  1832. >Such as the hamlet you are currently hiding in.
  1833. >There are about a dozen or so of those.
  1834. >Barely relevant for most veterans, with only modest loot and not much to do.
  1835. >Organised ambushes notwithstanding, of course.
  1836. >The other remote locations near the outer rim, but a bit further away from the entrances, are intermediate to moderately rated ones.
  1837. >Similar in number to the beginner spots, yet somewhat harder to reach from the starting points.
  1838. >An uptick in difficulty and rewards for more skilled ponies in search for better material, but who are still not reaching the cutting edge quite yet.
  1839. >Further towards the centre are the really interesting locations.
  1840. >The most challenging treasure troves, and the most contested fortresses with the best supplies.
  1841. >And more importantly for your mission, the main bases of each faction.
  1842. >There are four of them, and they are all relatively evenly distributed in a ring around the core section of the map.
  1843. >And these bases, whilst certainly powerful in their own right and, if necessary, able to house several hundreds of ponies each, all have unique characteristics that reflect the spirit of each faction.
  1844. >Which can be both their strength and weakness.
  1845.  
  1846.  
  1847.  
  1848.  
  1849. >One is a heavily Earth pony dominated scavenger fortress, cobbled together by whatever material the ponies could find to build an imposing castle of scrap.
  1850. >A well connected network of artisans and scavengers cooperate to ensure a steady influx of resources from the field.
  1851. >Enabling the main group, or "clan" in the fortress to maintain a decent living, and still support a number of minor and loosely allied secondary clans in smaller settlements.
  1852. >In many ways, Daring Do describes them as rough, but also the "economic" powerhouse in the wasteland which has a moderate bit of everything equipment wise.
  1853. >Though on the flipside, they are also the most prone group of individuals to lapse into internal power shifts and tournaments, as minor clans try to gain prestige and influence to hold more sway in the dealings of the core fortress in turn.
  1854. >Ponies who love contests feel right at home there.
  1855. >And they are the largest faction by far, at least in terms of raw numbers.
  1856. >For instance, Scrap Mender's little band belongs to the veterans of a more influential satellite group in this faction.
  1857. >Daring Do muses that he calculated on an easy victory against a legit Royal Courier to prove himself and the value of his group.
  1858. >You reckon that you gave the hornet's nest a good clap already by defeating them this quickly.
  1859. >Another base is a bunker like tunnel system, housing ponies with a knack for experimental projects.
  1860. >Predominantly consisting of Unicorn magicians, yet also staffed by a handful of other ponies with some knowledge of the arcane in one way or another.
  1861. >Members of their ranks usually wander outside to test their newest inventions on the field.
  1862. >Like potions and spells the world has never seen before.
  1863. >With highly varying shades of efficiency and success.
  1864. >On one day they may bring forth frighteningly effective concoctions.
  1865. >And on others their inventions fizzle out like firecrackers, or cease to function with a puff of dark smoke.
  1866. >Naturally, this group has strict security protocols in order to not create anything truly harmful, but sometimes they nevertheless become the victims of scorched hair and minor burns.
  1867. >Much to the complaints of the medic teams, for they are frequently needed when individuals of this group are involved in virtually anything of note.
  1868. >As such, most of the other players try to avoid contact with these bunker dwellers.
  1869. >Because even though they are the most polite and upfront association of them all, they are also utterly unpredictable.
  1870. >You may never know when something these ponies make will blow up in your face.
  1871. >And such a trait is generally unpopular in most circles.
  1872. >The third faction, also residing in a fortified bunker, and similarly largely made up of Earth ponies and Unicorns, have a different focus.
  1873. >Like the other two, they love to stride the fields to test their mettle in confrontations.
  1874.  
  1875.  
  1876.  
  1877.  
  1878. >But whereas one swears on fortifying collected scrap, and the other on alchemic or magical jumble, this group relies heavily on crafting, improving, and perfecting their personal gear for the arena.
  1879. >In so doing, these ponies master both the offence and defence, and possess an unusually large amount of top-notch equipment.
  1880. >Nearly all pieces of armour and weaponry in their arsenal are unique custom fabrications and works of art in their own right.
  1881. >For each and every one within their ranks is constantly driven by the desire of adapting and improving personal belongings so that they better cater to individual preferences on the field.
  1882. >Making them in many ways the most sophisticated group of ponies with the highest power per player on an individual level.
  1883. >Yet at the same time they are also the most difficult gang to negotiate with, despite being the smallest faction in terms of numbers.
  1884. >And the doctrine of quality over quantity can hold its ground just fine on the game field, which further makes them perceive themselves as a sort of righteous knightly order amongst the "rabble".
  1885. >Or they are at the very least pretty convincing in playing that role within this zone.
  1886. >Proud and self-confident due to their advantages, and still somewhat chivalrous in a manner that nobody outside their circle truly understands, this heavily geared breed of wastelanders is a comparatively rare sight.
  1887. >But whenever some show up, the situation usually gets heated very quickly.
  1888. >All the tinkering and the improvements of their arsenal require a great deal of material to work with.
  1889. >And lacking the supply lines of the more common scavenger clans, some other methods of requisition must do the job instead.
  1890. >So when the "knights" are riding to gain more fodder for their craftwork, they apply any means necessary to obtain what they seek.
  1891. >No matter who or what stands in their way.
  1892. >Plus, Daring Do warns you that one should plan very far ahead before felling a member of these ranks.
  1893. >Because the self-proclaimed knights take the loss of their stuff remarkably badly, and are hell-bent and willing to hunt anyone who bested them in combat and plundered their "remains".
  1894. >Often with the help of a couple of others in the process.
  1895. >And they have a high success rate of avenging on another and undo the "mistakes".
  1896. >As you hear this, you are plainly grateful that you were not compelled to fight a trio of these right from the start.
  1897. >The fourth side, mainly founded by Pegasi, deploys a small staging post on the ground which coordinates several dozens of cloud structures above the field.
  1898. >They are the most mobile of factions, but also the one with the least amount of physical resources, given their reliance on clouds and sky travel.
  1899. >Still, the Pegasus teams too are a force to be reckoned with.
  1900. >As you already know, the fliers have a strong favour for powerful energy weapons out of sheer necessity, despite their relative rarity.
  1901.  
  1902.  
  1903.  
  1904.  
  1905. >However, given their practical monopoly on recharging the energy cells through natural means, the Pegasi have the liberty to use these weapons far more efficiently and liberally than their ground-bound rivals.
  1906. >With no real fear to ever run out of ammunition on top of that.
  1907. >An advantage the Pegasi use to the fullest, as they often form agile assault squads and have them flying just barely beneath the cloud layer, looking for suitable targets.
  1908. >Hard to see from the ground, whilst they themselves can see everything perfectly.
  1909. >Always ready to swoop down from the skies to take out smaller, unsuspecting targets in a matter of seconds after their discovery.
  1910. >Hit and run fun for the whole family.
  1911. >Provided you have wings or know a Unicorn who can make you walk on air.
  1912. >And as you process this, you must immediately imagine an army of magically butterfly-winged non-pegasi lurking in the clouds and fluttering towards their hapless victims, guns blazing.
  1913. >Preferably to the tune of Wagner.
  1914. >It would surely make for a fascinating intimidation scene.
  1915. >Though Daring Do quickly dashes your vision of riding butterfly ponies, and instead reminds you to consider the more practical aspects of your situation.
  1916. >She states, for instance, that you have a considerable advantage as a Pegasus, as you could maybe even get "hired" by these fliers to gain their attention.
  1917. >But upon your question on how long this might take, she cannot give you a definite answer.
  1918. >The finer politics of this place are not her affair in the slightest.
  1919. >And that concludes Daring Do's Quick and Dirty Guide to the State of the Wasteland, Personalised Edition.
  1920. >Now you have a more comprehensive glimpse of what to expect, and you find yourself having trouble to take it all in properly.
  1921. >In short, the whole scenery is a vortex of strangely sportsmanlike chaos.
  1922. >Where ponies bombard each other with foam, rubber, magic lightshows, and who knows what else.
  1923. >And you are supposed to get to all of these places, and merrily knock on their doors for a mail delivery.
  1924. >Without getting shot at.
  1925. >Easy, absolutely.
  1926. >Strangely though, you begin to think it would be somewhat cute, if things were not so serious for your entrusted mission.
  1927. >Odd.
  1928. >You study the scribbled map and examine the exact location of every single waypoint.
  1929. >And the places around the main hubs in particular.
  1930. >Whilst these four positions appear to be very close to each other, the scale of the map indicates that they are at least five kilometres apart from their respective neighbours.
  1931. >Linear distance.
  1932. >Ensuring just enough space to both allow everyone to mind their own business if they want to, but also to give more aggressive types the chance to provoke some direct confrontations.
  1933. >Additionally, each party attempts to hold several minor locations around their base.
  1934. >Not only to expand their sphere of influence, but also to hinder the others in their endeavours to dominate the centre.
  1935.  
  1936.  
  1937.  
  1938.  
  1939. >For the material stashes therein are the largest of the entire wasteland.
  1940. >Because even though every group requires different materials for their projects, or different amounts of key resources for that matter, they all need to reach the centre to find the best quality goods for their individual needs.
  1941. >Turning it into an eternal bone of contention.
  1942. >You put your head on the table and sigh.
  1943. "That'll be a lot of work."
  1944. >"It is. The way I see it, you have two options. Either you try to gain the trust of each faction leader, or you challenge them to face you in person."
  1945. >Maybe there is a third.
  1946. "Or I sneak right into it."
  1947. >"Hah, good luck. You'd need to be an expert in infiltration and dungeon exploration for this."
  1948. "Like you?"
  1949. >"I'm sure I could. But I won't."
  1950. "Don't you like a challenge?"
  1951. >"Forget it. The artefacts here have priority over your scrolls."
  1952. >Daring Do leaves her seat at the table and trots over to a pair of saddle bags in the corner of the cavern.
  1953. >"Be glad I'm helping you to get rid of the three above us."
  1954. >She pulls a pair of goggles out of the bag and dons it.
  1955. >Then she trots to the nearest drawer to pick up a small transparent crystal.
  1956. "What's this?"
  1957. >"Magic notifier. It alarms me when somepony touches the cellar door or one of the artefacts."
  1958. "But then it's too late to return in time."
  1959. >"Hah! Unless the raider has deep arcane knowledge on how to undo paralysis enchantments, no. The average pony needs half a day to recover enough to stand up again."
  1960. >A sensation you know just too well from other contexts.
  1961. >"Now come and get ready. It's almost sundown."
  1962. >You put your bags on the table and inspect them, making sure everything is in its place.
  1963. >"Take the map too. It's yours now."
  1964. "Thanks, really."
  1965. >A casual wave is all you get as response.
  1966. >Daring is far too focused on getting her own stuff in order.
  1967. >So you do the same as you add the wasteland map to your equipment.
  1968. >In this moment, #deca.mare hails you.
  1969. >"I have sent a copy of the map to your HUD, Anon. You can call upon it any time."
  1970. >And you try that with a thought.
  1971. >A perfectly digitally rendered and interactive map, based on Daring's hastily scribbled doodle, appears in your vision.
  1972. >Showing you all the places of the wasteland.
  1973. >Those you have visited are highlighted, and those you have not seen yet are greyed out.
  1974. >The latter category is unsurprisingly the crushing majority.
  1975. >And a red dot shows your current position on the field.
  1976. "Thanks."
  1977. >Daring Do replies.
  1978. >"You said that already."
  1979. >You shake your head.
  1980. "Oh, sorry. Never mind."
  1981. >"You know, if you weren't so crafty, I'd say there's something strange about you."
  1982. "Not really. I just tend to talk to myself when things get... complicated."
  1983. >"You really shouldn't do that if you try to sneak."
  1984. >Masterful advice.
  1985. >Then you notice that Daring Do reveals another, much larger map from a second drawer.
  1986. >And this one does not look like the wasteland at all.
  1987. >Yet at the same time, you have seen it before.
  1988. >Very, very often.
  1989.  
  1990.  
  1991.  
  1992.  
  1993. "What do you have there?"
  1994. >She looks at the document.
  1995. >"This? This is the thing that will save our rears. It's the map of the tunnels below."
  1996. "May I see it?"
  1997. >"Only if you're careful. We can't use the maze without it."
  1998. "Don't worry, I know how to handle maps."
  1999. >Daring Do shows a short moment of reluctance before she tentatively hooves the document over to you.
  2000. >You put your own bags aside and unfold it on the table.
  2001. >The sturdy parchment reveals a complicated web of lines and strokes that fill the entire surface of the thing.
  2002. >In addition to the incomprehensible mess of noodle lines comes a series of signs and symbols.
  2003. >Roman numbers and Greek letters, designating segments, and indicating both the depth of each tunnel and nearby exits.
  2004. >Imagery which is barely known, and much less used by ponies.
  2005. >Yet here they all come together on one extensive map.
  2006. >And they dot every single line en masse.
  2007. >Normally there would be no chance in hell for a first time viewer to understand what he is looking at.
  2008. >You, on the other hand, do know exactly how to handle the plan.
  2009. >For you have helped in the construction of the complex over a millennium ago.
  2010. >And thanks to your highly exclusive insider knowledge, you can tell that the chart before you does not cover the entirety of the caves under Equestria's surface.
  2011. >Not by a long shot.
  2012. >The ponies have merely charted the upper transport lanes.
  2013. >A considerable feat in its own right of course, but the real secrets of the world are still locked to their eyes.
  2014. >And the day of the revelation has not come yet.
  2015. >You trace the lines on the huge foldable map.
  2016. >Starting in the middle and then moving downwards.
  2017. >Or rather southwards.
  2018. >And once you are sure to know where you are on this extensive plan, you point at the respective spot with a foreleg.
  2019. >You look at the adventurer next to you.
  2020. "We're here, aren't we?"
  2021. >Silence.
  2022. "Well?"
  2023. >"Yes..."
  2024. >Daring Do clears her voice as her eyes narrow.
  2025. >"... and now in the name of Tartarus explain to me how you found this out so quickly. You said you never were down there."
  2026. >Oh boy, here you are again.
  2027. >You gulp once before you answer.
  2028. "Believe me, I've never set a... hoof down there in my life. But..."
  2029. >"But?"
  2030. "... as I said, I heard of the place and tried to study what I could find in the archives. The rest isn't so hard if you know the geography of Equestria."
  2031. >As any courier of the realm should.
  2032. >You point at a larger hub further to the north.
  2033. "If we imagine this map embodies the continent, then this is somewhere under Canterlot. Attached to the crystal mines, correct?"
  2034. >A reluctant nod.
  2035. >You point a little further down.
  2036. >At a place near another, smaller hub.
  2037. "Here's Ponyville then. And based on these two spots..."
  2038. >Your limb goes more than halfway down the remaining length of the document.
  2039. >Until you circle a region of a couple of dozen square kilometres.
  2040. "...the wasteland playground must be around here."
  2041. >Her inquisitive eyes remain on you.
  2042. "Am I right?"
  2043. >"You're right."
  2044.  
  2045.  
  2046.  
  2047.  
  2048. >A pause.
  2049. >"And I believe you're only saying half the truth. Again."
  2050. >You shrug.
  2051. "Let's just say I spent a lot of time in the archives."
  2052. >"Whatever. Are you prepared? We'll leave through the tunnel."
  2053. >You figured as much, considering that she packed the large map to begin with.
  2054. >You grin.
  2055. "Hm, you really think we can't take one of those artefacts with us? I bet I could handle the Alicorn Amulet."
  2056. >Daring Do emits a growl that almost sounds like an angry dog.
  2057. >"Propose this again and I'll knock you and leave your featherbrain for Scrap and his ilk to catch. These things are dangerous."
  2058. >Unless one uses a proxy with hidden features.
  2059. >After all, an amulet cannot mess with the spirit of a body that does not possess a soul to begin with.
  2060. >"Just for your information, a travelling Unicorn last used the trinket some decades ago. It corrupted her mind almost instantaneously to the point that she changed from stage magician to a tyrant. Right overnight. And she tried to enslave Ponyville for a petty feud afterwards."
  2061. >She takes an angry breath.
  2062. >"Rumours have it that things got so bad due to her sheer extensive use of magic power, that the mare nearly transformed into an alicorn with her own personal subdued army."
  2063. >You have to suppress a laughter.
  2064. >Now this is ridiculous.
  2065. >Granted, the amulet indeed boosted the mare's magic prowess.
  2066. >And yes, it tempted her to perform malicious deeds until Twilight and her friends tricked her to take it off.
  2067. >But Trixie as an alicorn with her own troops?
  2068. >Oh man, that would be quite a sight with her strategic acumen.
  2069. >Or profound lack thereof to be precise.
  2070. >Though to be fair to the azure whirlwind, she is thankfully learning to become more sociable without forfeiting her bravado where it truly counts.
  2071. >The stage.
  2072. >Who knows, maybe she can one day earn alicornhood after all.
  2073. >Not impossible in theory.
  2074. >But you doubt there will be a princess of fireworks and smoke bombs in Equestria any time soon.
  2075. >And a certain dungeon crawler mare has far more pressing concerns involving you at the moment.
  2076. >"Get a move on. We're on the clock."
  2077. "Sure. After you."
  2078. >Daring Do wastes no time as she takes her bags and marches to the cave wall opposite to the entrance from whence you came.
  2079. >Then she grabs one of the torch holders, and cranks it to a forty-five degree angle.
  2080. >"Magic" light fills the room for the fracture of a second.
  2081. >And the seemingly solid rock wall recedes and slides to the side.
  2082. >A smooth walkway, leading in two directions, is revealed behind the secret door.
  2083. >Several metres both in height and width, and made entirely of metal.
  2084. >But despite having no openings for natural light or the like, the architecture is somewhat dimly lit by small "magic" panels that are built into the walls themselves.
  2085. >And its sharp edges and rectangular angles remain perfectly even throughout the whole visible length of the structure.
  2086. >Daring Do trots onto the metal path, motioning you to follow.
  2087.  
  2088.  
  2089.  
  2090.  
  2091. >"Come and stay close. There's another hidden exit to the wasteland game nearby."
  2092. >She points to her right.
  2093. >"This way. Takes us about twenty minutes in a solid trot."
  2094. >Feigning a moderate notion of astonishment, you follow her out of the cavern.
  2095. >The second you have left, she pushes a mechanical button on the wall next to the secret opening.
  2096. >It too emits a light for a short while before the door closes again.
  2097. >Once fully shut, a faint clicking noise from the other side indicates that the torch has corrected its tilted position on its own.
  2098. "Whoa."
  2099. >"Don't ask how it works. These enchanted things are at every exit. They look simple, though our best scholars couldn't crack them yet. 'Wider implications', as they say. But the wizards claim to know enough about them to attest to their reliability."
  2100. >You attempt to turn this conversation into something less dense.
  2101. "Sounds complex. What does it mean in short?"
  2102. >"Translated for the rest of us: Typical magic doodah. Some research to this topic is always in progress, but don't expect any results soon. I for one have no clue what the longhorns in the academy are doing."
  2103. >She starts to move, and you follow suit.
  2104. >Your mutual steps echo through the otherwise dead silent tunnel.
  2105. >It would almost be eerie if you did not know that the network is safe.
  2106. "What do you know about these metal pathways?"
  2107. >"About as much as most ponies who work with or for the court. They reach through the whole land and are made out of iron. There are strange symbols everywhere on the walls and nopony knows for sure what they mean or what the tunnels were originally made for."
  2108. >The mare looks at you.
  2109. >"Though I guess that's nothing new to you."
  2110. >You chuckle, surprisingly so.
  2111. "No, that's true. I read several more elaborate theories on the matter though."
  2112. >"Do they hold any water?"
  2113. "Depends on who you ask."
  2114. >"Go on."
  2115. "You want to hear them?"
  2116. >"Of course. Dungeon lore is part of my job, isn't it? What kind of adventurer would reject this offer?"
  2117. >A poor one, certainly.
  2118. >"And it helps passing the time."
  2119. >You cannot say for sure if this statement was meant to signal her readiness to listen to you as a professional equal, or if she simply wants to keep you occupied.
  2120. >Either way, the result is the same.
  2121. "Alright. Let's start with the obvious. As you can imagine, this place is old. A whole slew of higher scholars tried to determine the exact age and origin with magic and whatnot."
  2122. >"Did they find any clues?"
  2123. "Yes and no. Virtually all sources come to the agreement that the tunnel is significantly older than a thousand years. Most likely even preceding the unification of the three pony tribes. And all of our mutual documentation of history."
  2124. >And as far as Equestria's own records are concerned, you are indeed telling her the full truth.
  2125. >You can tell that you have Daring Do's attention.
  2126.  
  2127.  
  2128.  
  2129.  
  2130. "But that's already where the similarities end and the theorising begins. Some say the tunnels were made by an ancient species who ruled the world in an age long before ponykind. Though no one could ever find any evidence to reconstruct why said species might have disappeared altogether and without a trace to speak of."
  2131. >"Hm, it could explain the undecipherable symbols everywhere. Still very shallow though. You always find some lore or legends to any temple if you look long enough. Things don't go poof out of the blue, you know? There's always a clue hidden somewhere. Trust me, I know. What else?"
  2132. "Another attributed the construction of these vast pathways to the usage of intensively bundled primal magic that has been lost somehow."
  2133. >"Unlikely for the same reasons. At least some ponies would have remembered and recorded the ritual, even if they weren't part of it themselves."
  2134. >Perhaps you should not go any further, but you want to present a test to Daring Do and see how well she fares.
  2135. >You cough.
  2136. "Others have more, well, contested ideas."
  2137. >"Such as?"
  2138. "Such as the claim that the tunnels were possibly made by someone who wasn't from this world at all. An entity, or entities, hailing from the stars."
  2139. >You hear Daring Do exhaling loudly in light amusement.
  2140. "Something wrong?"
  2141. >"Let me guess. The writer in question has some ties to the few pony communities that live in the deep southern jungles. Some have a few complex rites and prophecies revolving around the stars."
  2142. "Not as far as I know. From what I can tell, the theoretical groundwork seems solid. For he surmised that only someone with a sweeping and permanently accurate awareness of the world at large could have built a network of this scale. A 'super being', if you will. And no species in Equestria has that level of constant focus. Not even our diarchs."
  2143. >But as flattered as #deca.mare was after reading his theories, she could not tell him how close to the truth he was.
  2144. >Sadly cruel in a way.
  2145. >Yet she and you made sure from behind the scenes that the theory was spread in the world of Equestrian academia regardless.
  2146. >Though it still possesses a flaw that a perceptive adventurer mare quickly picks on as well.
  2147. >Daring Do flicks her tail.
  2148. >"That's all nice, but where's the evidence? Are there traces? What happened to the entity? And why did it leave?"
  2149. >The evidence talks to you, dear Daring.
  2150. "Are you asking as an explorer or an author now?"
  2151. >"Both."
  2152. "None of his approaches could find anything conclusive. Like all the others."
  2153. >You shrug.
  2154. "But if he's right, the entity might still be around. The wizard never stated to know whether it has left or not."
  2155. >"Living alongside us, huh? Now that sounds like a story to me. And let me guess, it was one of us all along. A star-being, wandering between ponies. Maybe it's even you or me?"
  2156. >You realise Daring Do is just running some plot elements through her mind, though it does feel like she is earnestly considering the notion.
  2157.  
  2158.  
  2159.  
  2160.  
  2161. "Me, a being of stars? Heh, only speak for yourself, Daring. I know for sure that my ancestors were all born on Earth."
  2162. >"I can tell. Cloud-born Pegasi usually fly much more."
  2163. >By now you are almost halfway to the exit.
  2164. >As you suddenly see a another pathway branching off from yours in a right angle.
  2165. >You take a look into it while the two of you pass the opening.
  2166. >And you come to a surprised stop.
  2167. >The way is wholly inaccessible, blocked by a sturdy iron mesh.
  2168. >You know this mesh can be lifted upon command, and you have the access to do so if you wanted to.
  2169. >But this is not what causes you to freeze.
  2170. >What you see behind the blockade is the thing.
  2171. >Your decorated taxi wagon is parked right next to a wall.
  2172. >The unit is dormant and plugged in to a wall-embedded reload station via cable.
  2173. >And there is more.
  2174. >For a certain mare with whom you have spent practically the entirety of a millennium stands right in front of the wagon, her side presented to you.
  2175. >A perfectly matching medical frame is clad around one of her rear legs.
  2176. >To reduce the strain on her body and support her joints when she moves around.
  2177. >Indicating some physical injury, though you cannot detect any visible damage from the outside.
  2178. >But despite your long history together and her current physical blemish, she is just as lovely to your eyes as she was back when you met her.
  2179. >And less than a second after you comprehend what you are seeing, #deca.mare turns her head to you.
  2180. >She smiles gently as she waves with a forehoof.
  2181. >It is the warmest sight you have seen all day.
  2182. >Even the blazing heat of the desert does not compete with this.
  2183. >Your heart skips a beat as you keep standing in place, mesmerised by what you just got to witness.
  2184. >"Thought it might help you to feel less alone in the wastes."
  2185. >You want to say something to her in appreciation.
  2186. >But Daring Do, now already five metres ahead of you, stops to see why you are no longer following her.
  2187. >She tracks your gaze.
  2188. >"Is there something on the wall, Anon?"
  2189. >You shake your head.
  2190. >#deca.mare and the wagon are still there.
  2191. >She shrugs.
  2192. >You turn your head to Daring.
  2193. "No, sorry. I thought I saw something."
  2194. >"You better don't do that down here. It's a hopeless maze without a map."
  2195. "You're right. It won't happen again."
  2196. >The adventurer moves on without another comment.
  2197. >You wait until she is looking ahead to wave quickly at #deca.mare behind Daring's back.
  2198. >Then you hastily catch up.
  2199. >The voice in your head speaks to you.
  2200. >"I apologise for the confusion."
  2201. >No, it's alright. I didn't expect you to park the wagon this closely to the supply tunnel though.
  2202. >"For them it does not matter how close or far away I am with the wagon. Even if I sang loudly behind the mesh, nopony could see or hear me anyway."
  2203. >Except you, of course.
  2204. >Never mind. But I'm glad to see your proxy is healing properly. That wound looked pretty nasty.
  2205.  
  2206.  
  2207.  
  2208.  
  2209. >"I hastened the process a little to be near you, Anon. But it will take a while until I can use it fully again. Regeneration does take its time."
  2210. >Still, thank you. It helps a lot.
  2211. >"Any time, my love."
  2212. >"Something's on your mind?"
  2213. "Huh?"
  2214. >That was not #deca.mare.
  2215. >"You look at me like you've stuck your head in the clouds."
  2216. >Daring.
  2217. >You sort your thoughts anew.
  2218. "No, just thinking about I few things. I do this sometimes when a fight is coming up."
  2219. >"Your thing. As long as you're awake when it counts..."
  2220. "Oh, I'll fight with a sharp mind, be sure of that."
  2221. >"We'll see soon enough. The exit is over there."
  2222. >Daring Do's head points at a small, artificially made crevice in the wall.
  2223. >She trots directly towards the hole.
  2224. >You silently follow Daring and watch her as she acts.
  2225. >And more importantly, how she interacts with the locked gate.
  2226. >Once there, Daring Do's forehoof reaches into the cleanly cut opening.
  2227. >She pushes something you happen to know as a terminal, which promptly emits a beep tone upon the touch of her hoof.
  2228. >Then she quickly takes a few steps back as the walls rumble softly, and a segment of the metal begins to stir and move away from you.
  2229. >It opens slowly, like a giant set of double doors.
  2230. >Revealing yet another passage that leads gradually upwards with a light curve, forming a spiral corridor all the way up to the surface.
  2231. >And a second little crevice in the wall can be seen a few metres into the room.
  2232. >"Prepare for a steady climb."
  2233. "Uhm, can't we just fly? We both got wings, you know?"
  2234. >"We can. But be careful not to crash into the door at the exit. It comes very abruptly at the end of the spiral. And you can quickly forget how high or deep you are in these monotonous hallways."
  2235. >Fortunately, you have a map and an all seeing mare on your side.
  2236. "That won't happen."
  2237. >"Alright. Then stretch your wings and let's go."
  2238. >True to her words, Daring flares her own wings and sets off in a forceful leap.
  2239. >The blow of air is strong enough to dishevel your hair.
  2240. >Daring darts along the corridor and keeps herself in its dead centre as she ascends with a respectable speed.
  2241. >And you realise that even though Daring Do is specialised in close-quarters dungeon exploration, she is nevertheless a competent flier in her own right.
  2242. >Perhaps not as good or talented as ponies like Rainbow Dash, Soaring or Spitfire, but still noticeably above average.
  2243. >So you do it like her and take off as well.
  2244. >You pick up some speed as you align yourself to the "natural" winding of the tunnel to the best of your abilities.
  2245. >And you come pretty close to her result.
  2246. >The long exercises in the proxy and your skills as a trained military-grade pilot compensate for your innate disadvantage of not possessing actual wings yourself.
  2247. >It taught you to utilise the proxy almost as naturally as your true body.
  2248. >A fact you can demonstrate right now to prove to Daring that she has not allied herself with a lame duck.
  2249.  
  2250.  
  2251.  
  2252.  
  2253. >Plus, the notification in your HUD as to how many metres you still have to fly until you reach the door, helps a great deal as well.
  2254. >Less than twenty metres away from the barricade, you start to brake your velocity to a more manageable level.
  2255. >And the moment you see Daring standing on the ground, you stop almost completely by tilting your body to flap forwards, killing the momentum altogether.
  2256. >Then you carefully lower yourself with a few precise strokes until you reach the ground.
  2257. >"Quick reaction."
  2258. "Yeah, already heard this one today."
  2259. >"How did you know before you could see the door?"
  2260. "I heard you slowing down. Doesn't take a genius to figure out why."
  2261. >For once, it seems as if Daring Do believes your words completely.
  2262. >"Well, at least it's gonna be interesting. Are you ready to head out? The wasteland is just beyond this barrier."
  2263. "Do it."
  2264. >Daring trots to the terminal and repeats her gesture.
  2265. >And so does the metal door in front of you.
  2266. >Again, the ground trembles as the doors open up.
  2267. >But instead of being greeted by the open wasteland, you see the rocky outlines of a second cave.
  2268. >Drenched nearly wholly in darkness.
  2269. >The soft light of the tunnel is barely strong enough to shine a few metres into the shadows.
  2270. "Uhm."
  2271. >"It's a natural den. Sometimes you can find a few items in here. And the highly perceptive ponies..."
  2272. >She taps herself on the chest.
  2273. >"...find a lever hidden beneath the pebble."
  2274. >It looks more like stumbling from an underground tunnel into a rat's nest to you.
  2275. "Did anyone else ever find the secret entrance? You know, one of the wastelanders."
  2276. >"Not to my knowledge."
  2277. >#deca?
  2278. >"What she said. Not a single player found the secret hidden behind a secret. It looks like a perfectly normal rock wall from the other side."
  2279. >Daring Do smiles.
  2280. >"Hope you're good at seeing in the dark. The entrance isn't so far away. Though you can trip on rocks."
  2281. >Or you simply adjust the goggles to night mode, thank you very much.
  2282. "Just lead the way."
  2283. >"Oh, and don't get startled, the door closes itself shortly after we're out."
  2284. "Alright. I'll keep that in mind."
  2285. >You knew this of course, but you also need to play a role.
  2286. >Daring Do leads you through the cave in an almost pitch black environment.
  2287. >And you quickly think that you see some faint traces of dusk light permeating the nothingness in front of you.
  2288. >That in combination with the tunnel light gives you a rough impression on your own position and where to go.
  2289. >Yet it is like Daring said.
  2290. >Without your goggles, you would have no way to check whether you may run against a boulder or fall into a small pit on your way.
  2291. >So you play the part of the blind follower and tread very closely behind her.
  2292. >Despite seeing everything clearly.
  2293. >Which also gives you a rare opportunity to see the adventurer from an exclusive close-up perspective you were never interested in, but for which thousands of her fans would envy you.
  2294.  
  2295.  
  2296.  
  2297.  
  2298. >Though you have to admire her thorough dye job, especially when she made it all herself.
  2299. >Thinking back to what the Apple family had to do as to paint Big Mac in Applejack's colours for the magic duel, it was quite a piece of awkward work.
  2300. >Even for a group of family ponies and with the drastically lowered modesty standards of Equestria.
  2301. >Yet despite your musings on this matter as you stare at Daring's bits from an almost point blank position, you too do not feel much more than a subtle tingle at the sight of a mare's rear in the wild.
  2302. >Sure, Daring is good-looking and well trained.
  2303. >You can acknowledge that for what it is.
  2304. >But dealing with ponies has become a second nature to you.
  2305. >And you no longer have a problem to see most of them nude all the time.
  2306. >At least as long as you do not have to feel up someone's private spaces and deliberately strip them while they play dead.
  2307. >That is a different level; weird form of respectful mutual agreement or not.
  2308. >Regardless though, your happy relationship with #deca.mare helps you a lot in staving off any improper thoughts involving other ponies.
  2309. >So you trot through the dark for another couple of minutes.
  2310. >Until Daring and you reach the opening to the field.
  2311. >You notice that the entrance is spacious enough to allow one of your units to drive through.
  2312. >Good to know for an "emergency taxi".
  2313. >On guard, you trot into the dimming light of the fading day, looking around and scanning the region.
  2314. >Nopony but Daring appears in your perimeter.
  2315. >So far, so good.
  2316. >The sun has almost set entirely, and you can vaguely spot the four distant buildings of the hamlet.
  2317. >Its seemingly abandoned shapes look strangely ghostly in the last fading traces of light.
  2318. >And the effect is further intensified by the thick cloud layer above, for it turns the night into a starless affair.
  2319. >Luna would hate it here.
  2320. >But you also quickly realise that it is not entirely abandoned.
  2321. >One singular speck of brightness burns in the plains near the houses.
  2322. >Like a small lit candle in a darkened room.
  2323. >A bonfire, no doubt.
  2324. >Which means your persecutors are not very far away either.
  2325. >And daring sees it too.
  2326. >"So, how do you want to do it?"
  2327. "What do you think? We'll go there."
  2328. >"Bad. Very bad. This reeks of a trap. They know that everypony around these parts must see it. I bet they're already waiting for you to come. Like a moth following the light."
  2329. >And burns in the process.
  2330. "I'd bet so too. That's exactly why I'm doing it."
  2331. >Your turn to look at Daring.
  2332. "I fight them upfront while you stay in the background. They don't know you're with me, so I'll draw all their attention."
  2333. >You pause to smile reassuringly.
  2334. "And when they've shown themselves, you strike from the shadows."
  2335. >Daring Ponders your strategy for moment.
  2336. >Then she nods.
  2337. >"Keeping me out of sight the whole time. I like that plan."
  2338. "Let's go then. If you want to say something still, do it now before they can hear us."
  2339. >She shakes her head.
  2340. >It is settled then.
  2341. >The two of you move out.
  2342.  
  2343.  
  2344.  
  2345.  
  2346. >Again, you proceed with a moderate speed while you look out for traps and enemies.
  2347. >Daring can rely on her remarkable vision and senses for the trip; the result of a life long adventurer's tale.
  2348. >Whilst you utilise your trusty technology for the exact same purpose.
  2349. >You scan the area ahead.
  2350. >Repeatedly, as to not miss anything.
  2351. >And as the two of you draw closer, you finally get a reading from your sensors.
  2352. >Four enemy signatures.
  2353. >Wait a moment.
  2354. >You silently motion Daring to hold.
  2355. >She complies, albeit eyeing you in confusion as she does.
  2356. >You point at the ground before you and draw four short lines into the dirt.
  2357. >Daring quickly comprehends your implication and nods.
  2358. >Though you do not doubt for a second that she wonders how you managed to notice this detail from several hundred metres away in the middle of the night.
  2359. >You resume your trek.
  2360. >At the five hundred metres mark, she taps your side before lifting herself into the air.
  2361. >You give her a brief salute and focus on your targets again.
  2362. >Do they know I'm here?
  2363. >"Not yet, Anon. But they do expect your arrival. I will give you a warning if one of them notices you."
  2364. >Alright.
  2365. >At two hundred metres, you have reached an advantageous firing position atop a tiny hill.
  2366. >It is not much, yet it helps you to monitor the situation at large.
  2367. >You zoom your vision in on the fireplace, fully expecting to see a trap of some sorts.
  2368. >And as expected, not a single pony sits directly at the fire.
  2369. >That would be far too obvious and clumsy anyway.
  2370. >But as you scout the rim of the light ring around the flames a while longer, you do see the silhouette of a pony head sticking out of the background.
  2371. >Expect it has no signature.
  2372. >You zoom in some more.
  2373. >And you promptly detect a bundle of cloth latched to a certain wooden pole.
  2374. >The two sleeves for the forelegs were folded to appear like a muzzle and a pair of ears from the distance.
  2375. >Clever.
  2376. >But ultimately in vain.
  2377. >You ignore the dummy trap and look at the signatures instead.
  2378. >All of them lie crouched or on the side.
  2379. >They could just as well be either asleep or waiting to bide their time.
  2380. >Or maybe a mixture of both.
  2381. >You try to see if you can get a glimpse of one.
  2382. >And indeed, you have a clear line of sight to one of the larger stallions.
  2383. >He lies very well tucked away between a bunch of rocks.
  2384. >Not well enough for your aim though.
  2385. >Okay then, get ready to rumble.
  2386. >This time it is you who appears out of nothing.
  2387. >You take aim at the pole pony, breathe in, hold, and fire.
  2388. >The released energy charge darts through the air like a flare before it impacts on the stallion's neck.
  2389. >He does not even try to stand up.
  2390. >What he does, however, is to holler shortly before he lets himself slide slowly out of his cover.
  2391. >The alarm has been sounded.
  2392. >Two of the three remaining foes spring into action immediately.
  2393. >The mare and her hammer friend rise up and get into full cover.
  2394. >Since they are aware where your shot has come from, they know how to protect themselves from further strikes.
  2395.  
  2396.  
  2397.  
  2398.  
  2399. >Interestingly though, the third, Mender undoubtedly, remains where he is.
  2400. >You cannot shoot him anyway from your current position, yet you expected him to stir a little at the very least.
  2401. >An object near the mare get encased in a glowing aura.
  2402. >Then it floats towards her and disappears behind the cover.
  2403. >She is armed now.
  2404. >And only a few seconds after the Unicorn got her gun, the hammer stallion leaves his hiding place.
  2405. >He stands tall in flickering light of the fire, presenting himself.
  2406. >Openly and trivial to shoot at.
  2407. >An obvious ploy you see through instantly.
  2408. >Because the second you fire at him is the exact moment the mare returns fire at you.
  2409. >She would only have to point at the origin of the light to seal the deal.
  2410. >No, that is too risky.
  2411. >You have no idea how proficient her aiming skills are when they are not disrupted by a wave of dirt or other means.
  2412. >So you have to be on the move instead.
  2413. >And you should not resort to flying either.
  2414. >Daring up there is, hopefully, providing you with backup.
  2415. >But the surprise works best when she remains undetected for as long as possible.
  2416. >Plus, you are sure she needs a moment to properly assess the situation as well before she can act.
  2417. >And unlike you, she has no augmented goggles that can spot things through walls.
  2418. >Her natural eyes can only do so much.
  2419. >So you have to stay on the ground to prevent your foes from looking elsewhere.
  2420. >You decide to sneak around the camp then.
  2421. >Slowly.
  2422. >Silently.
  2423. >In the hope that nothing gives your position away.
  2424. >Though you wonder why Daring has not taken out the mare yet.
  2425. >It would significantly ease the pressure on you.
  2426. >"Daring has a plan, Anon. Trust her experience. She will know when the right moment has come to act."
  2427. >Fine, but that does not help you now.
  2428. >And the stallion apparently does not want to wait much longer either.
  2429. >"As you wish, featherbrain. If you don't want to come and play with me, I will come to play with you!"
  2430. >He grabs his funny heavy hammer and begins to stride around the camp in turn.
  2431. >But always minding not to leave the saving aegis of his horned companion.
  2432. >So it remains a three on three "gradually blind" battle.
  2433. >Daring Do, #deca.mare in a supporting role via double proxy, and you, against the clown hammer stallion, the gun mare, and Mender.
  2434. >Each side lurking through the mist of the night, hoping to gain and advantage.
  2435.  
  2436.  
  2437.  
  2438.  
  2439. >With most of the participants not even clearly knowing about some of the other adversaries they are fighting.
  2440. >The teetering in the unknown goes on for quite a while.
  2441. >You and the hammer stallion wander around, Daring and the gun mare watch out from a distance, and a clandestine third on each side acts as a surprise trump card in their respective decks.
  2442. >One of which could never even hear of the other, and with said other restraining herself for more complex reasons.
  2443. >Certainly the strangest setup you have ever found yourself in.
  2444. >But the status quo has to break eventually.
  2445. >And Mender seems to be the one to do it.
  2446. >A strange thumping sound emerges from the third signature.
  2447. >Followed by a bright red light, hissing loudly as it rapidly rises up into the sky.
  2448. >You know what this means.
  2449. >The thing will soon reach a certain height and burst apart, lighting up the whole field around the camp, and taking your protective layer of darkness with it.
  2450. >And shit, Daring is up there!
  2451. >"Do not worry about her, Anon. She can deal with it. Stay on focus!"
  2452. >Right, there is only one thing you can do.
  2453. >Bolt.
  2454. >You burst into a sudden gallop, not caring if someone might notice your steps.
  2455. >It will be redundant soon anyway.
  2456. >You reach into your mind and look at the position of the gun mare.
  2457. >She is still the largest problem you face right now.
  2458. >#deca, tell me in advance when the Unicorn rears her head out of cover. I have to take her out, stat!
  2459. >"Understood."
  2460. >A loud crackling erupts above.
  2461. >Soon the dull earth is drenched in a bloody red.
  2462. >Strangely fitting, if you think about it.
  2463. >And it reminds you of your home floating amongst the stars.
  2464. >Really, the hue is normally even somewhat comfy for you.
  2465. >But now, the light only reveals your position to the enemy, while you see Daring increasing the size of her circles to evade the flare's influence.
  2466. >Damn, what is she doing?
  2467. >The hammer stallion spots you in a matter of seconds.
  2468. >"Aha! There you are, little bird!"
  2469. >Promptly making him charge you as you run.
  2470. "Oh great."
  2471. >"Keep your plan up, Anon. She will attack in ten seconds."
  2472. >You waste no time.
  2473. >Countdown!
  2474. >#deca.mare complies and counts the seconds loudly.
  2475. >Two seconds prior to the announced attack, you slither to a rapid stop and turn to her cover.
  2476. >You use the glow of her horn as an aiming aid.
  2477. >And indeed, she moves before her companion can process the situation and warn her.
  2478. >You fire two shots in the exact same second as her head suddenly sticks out from behind the obstacle.
  2479. >Which earns her a hit to the face and another to the horn.
  2480. >She actually goes down moaning loudly.
  2481. >And even #deca.mare audibly winces over the comm.
  2482. >But you pay no further attention to her and spontaneously take aim at your second assailant instead.
  2483. "Not again."
  2484. >Shot and hit.
  2485. >Target down.
  2486.  
  2487.  
  2488.  
  2489.  
  2490. >This time you can evade his body before he slams into you.
  2491. >But then you hear something flailing wildly through the air.
  2492. >It is not the stallion, however.
  2493. >You turn your head around to see what is happening.
  2494. >Though it is too late.
  2495. >Catching you off guard, a wide net made out of ropes comes flying from the side and knocks you over.
  2496. >And you get fully entangled in it in less than a second.
  2497. >Now, with you immobilised, the last remaining signature finally draws near.
  2498. >Scrap Mender casually steps into the red light, grinning victoriously.
  2499. >A weapon saddle is mounted on his back and pointing your way.
  2500. >But unlike your model, it features two prolonged barrels instead of prisms.
  2501. >And even though you cannot see it, you bet it does not have an energy cell attached to its midsection either.
  2502. >You instinctively struggle against the ropes.
  2503. >Scrap Mender laughs.
  2504. >"Stop that. I'd rather catch you alive, dear Courier."
  2505. >His saddle loads with a loud cocking sound.
  2506. >"But if you resist, well, I guess you force my hoof."
  2507. >Shit.
  2508. >What now?
  2509. >#deca.mare comes to your rescue.
  2510. >"Play along and stay still."
  2511. >Really?
  2512. >"Trust me."
  2513. >So you do.
  2514. "Fine."
  2515. >Scrap Mender's smile widens.
  2516. >"Smart colt. I'm glad you see reason. You'll bring me my well deserved..."
  2517. >At this point you no longer listen to Mender's epic monologue of beating his self-proclaimed rival.
  2518. >Because you notice a rapidly declining number on your HUD.
  2519. >It is a certain distance measure.
  2520. >"... and I hope that taught my si..."
  2521. >His speech is rapidly interrupted by a rainbow-hued cannon ball plunging from the sky.
  2522. >Daring Do's dive bomb attack strikes Mender directly in the back.
  2523. >But instead of bucking or hitting the stallion, she rather resorts to bashing him off-balance with her own weight as she forcefully latches herself onto him.
  2524. >The mare's forehooves grapple his neck whilst she presses her rear legs against his barrel, mounting him... like a horse.
  2525. >Naturally, Scrap Mender is less than pleased by this sudden turn of events, and instinctively triggers his apparatus to fire.
  2526. >Luckily though, Daring misaligned his aim sufficiently to deter his large calibre foam bullet from finding its original target by a wide margin.
  2527. >The projectile harmlessly bounces against the nearby ground.
  2528. >And Mender struggles to get the Pegasus mare off him.
  2529. >But to no avail.
  2530. >The physique of his adventurous opponent is top notch, and she is not willing to let go.
  2531. >Plus, you catch a glimpse of Daring's grinning face in the red hues of the flare.
  2532. >This is certainly not her first rodeo either.
  2533. >You are inclined to ask yourself whether you should envy or pity Caballeron when the two finally see the light.
  2534. >#deca.mare, however, brings you back to reality.
  2535. >"This is your chance."
  2536. >Right.
  2537. >That bet can be won at a later date.
  2538. >Now you must first and foremost free yourself from the net.
  2539. >So you tussle and tumble on the ground with the net whilst a similar scene is happening near you between Mender and Daring.
  2540.  
  2541.  
  2542.  
  2543.  
  2544. >For the scavenger sees very well what you are about to do.
  2545. >Yet every time he tries to direct his barrels your way, Daring shoves his head to the side or messes with his mouthpiece.
  2546. >He bucks and hops in protest to get her off, yet she sits firmly in the proverbial saddle.
  2547. >Though she has only locked him in an impasse.
  2548. >And unless she manages to break him in, which you doubt, she needs you to finish the job.
  2549. >Despite all the fun she is apparently having at the moment.
  2550. >After a minute or two of chaotic back and forth on every end, you are able to pull yourself out of the net and get back up again.
  2551. >You immediately try to take aim at Mender, though you get no clear shot.
  2552. >The merry combative dance partners are too intermingled in their little number.
  2553. >But Daring sees that you are standing upright once more.
  2554. >"About bloody time!"
  2555. >One of her forehooves lets go of Mender's neck as she reaches for something below herself.
  2556. >Scrap Mender, sensing the slight release of force, tries to break out and shoot you instantly.
  2557. >But Daring anticipated this, and "corrects" his wrong idea with only one hoof on the mouthpiece.
  2558. >Whilst her other forelimb rips something off his saddle.
  2559. >A moderately sized box is sent flying.
  2560. >And it dispenses a good number of larger foam bullets everywhere on its way through the air.
  2561. >Daring has just released him of his ammo reserves.
  2562. >"Good. Now a bite, if you will."
  2563. >Daring Do pokes and prods his back and neck to coax him towards biting down on the trigger.
  2564. >She does not even have to use much force; it is entirely sufficient to badger Mender until he does so himself.
  2565. >More minutes filled with fruitless struggling without a realistic hope of escape ensue until he relents.
  2566. >The foam flies wildly off the mark.
  2567. >And the only thing that was truly hurt in the process is Scrap Mender's poor battered and bruised pride.
  2568. >But after his little trick earlier this day, you think this is just an opportune karmic reconciliation.
  2569. >The stallion, now left de facto unarmed and trapped by two adversaries, knows that he has lost this round for good.
  2570. >Yet he fights on for as long as he can.
  2571. >You admire his pigheaded resilience somewhat.
  2572. >It does not change a thing though.
  2573. >Daring Do goes in for the grand finale.
  2574. >The adventurer steers her unwilling steed to turn around again.
  2575. >But this time she deliberately directs him to face you.
  2576. >She wants Mender to look you directly in the eyes when you launch the final blast of the day.
  2577. >And he does.
  2578. >The grin has been wiped thoroughly from his face, and you read an expression of irate bafflement in his eyes.
  2579. >Also mixed with a tiny flicker of fight that is still remaining.
  2580. >So you do not unleash the energy at once, for you think that he will try some desperate last resort move.
  2581. >Your expectations are proven to be correct very quickly, as he lowers his head and bows down.
  2582. >Not in order to pay you any respect or something.
  2583.  
  2584.  
  2585.  
  2586.  
  2587. >But rather to tilt his mounted mare in such an angle that she blocks him from your view entirely.
  2588. >Forcing you to hit Daring first before you can take him out.
  2589. >Which you do not follow through with.
  2590. >And Daring Do laughs delightfully at his attempt.
  2591. >"You're tough. But I'm tougher."
  2592. >She spreads her wings.
  2593. >"And I'll give you a lesson in flying as a parting gift."
  2594. >Her wings flap profoundly after Daring has finished her sentence.
  2595. >Then a second time, and a third.
  2596. >The pace of her beats is even and quick, but these are not the usual movements one would perform to fly normally.
  2597. >No, she uses her force as directed leverage instead.
  2598. >With which she, slowly but surely, lifts Scrap Menders neck and upper body.
  2599. >After only a handful of additional flaps, he is already standing again.
  2600. >But Daring Do is not known for half-finished jobs.
  2601. >She goes even further.
  2602. >And you let her do so, given her engagement in the situation.
  2603. >The mare hoists the frontal half of Mender into the air, forcing him to stand solely on his hind legs.
  2604. >Which looks almost as if he reared up on his own.
  2605. >Though his forehooves frantically wag in the air in front of him, failing to connect with anything.
  2606. >Then he tries to walk somewhat upright.
  2607. >And the attempts of balancing himself with only two legs maybe could have worked, albeit poorly, under other circumstances.
  2608. >But Daring keeps him where he is.
  2609. >Her wings turn out to be stronger than his already strained rear legs.
  2610. >Additionally, she provides you with an excellent target, as she presents his underside openly to you.
  2611. >So you decide to finally release him from his misery by a twin blast to his chest and stomach.
  2612. >Just to go sure.
  2613. >Mender accepts his fate and plays the role of going limp.
  2614. >And Daring promptly lifts her grip completely.
  2615. >The scavenger slumps to the ground.
  2616. >Thereby ending the fight and declaring you the victors.
  2617. >Daring Do touches the ground near the "dead" Mender, panting heavily.
  2618. >The rodeo ride must have cost her more energy than you first realised.
  2619. >But the mare's beaming face looks like she is having the time of her life.
  2620. >And you exhale a sigh of relief too.
  2621. >Simultaneously, the last flickers of the blood red flare burn off.
  2622. >Leaving only the weaker bonfire to light the scenery somewhat.
  2623. >You look at Daring, and she looks at you.
  2624. "Looting time?"
  2625. >"Looting time."
  2626. >You nod at each other.
  2627. >"Mender's yours. I have no use for his saddle."
  2628. >Neither do you, but you better take it off him before he gets some stupid ideas again.
  2629. >So you approach the stallion and loosen the barrelled saddle.
  2630. >After you have it in your grasp, you haphazardly sling it on your back without fastening it.
  2631. >You most likely dump it somewhere so that he cannot use it against you a second time.
  2632. >Probably for the best.
  2633. >And you suddenly realise something.
  2634. >The seemingly firm inhibition to plunder your adversaries has been reduced fairly quickly.
  2635.  
  2636.  
  2637.  
  2638.  
  2639. >You assume it is a by-product of almost getting tricked twice or thrice by the same group of ponies.
  2640. >Depending on how you count.
  2641. >After all, the last time you were in this situation, you did not yet know how much of a rule bender the mender is.
  2642. >Being angered in this manner does that sort of thing to people, you figure.
  2643. >Oh well.
  2644. >It is only for the duration of this game.
  2645. >And since your hands are in a way forced in this situation, you might accept it just as well.
  2646. >#deca.mare clears her throat audibly over the comm.
  2647. >"I see the spirit of the wasteland is rapidly catching up with your ideals, Anon."
  2648. "Pfft, not really."
  2649. >"And yet you now take from a pony without hesitation."
  2650. "I just don't like to get crossed or stabbed in the back."
  2651. >"The reasons do not matter as much as the deeds though."
  2652. "Eh? What are you implying?"
  2653. >You ignore Mender's twitching eyebrow as he vainly tries to understand to whom you are talking to and why.
  2654. >"What you do now is what a wastelander would do, is it not? Does that not count? Did you not embrace what the wasteland stands for with your actions?"
  2655. "Spare me the allegorical humbug. I'm still the same as ever."
  2656. >"I know. I was just trying to get you a little more into the mood of the game."
  2657. "My mood? It's fine, don't worry about that. I'm only a bit on edge because, ahem, SOME PONIES, tried to play cut-throat."
  2658. >Okay, that is enough.
  2659. >Daring and you should have unmistakably proven your point.
  2660. >Your remark will of course not discourage Mender and his group from chasing you further.
  2661. >But you felt like venting for a brief moment, given that you are entangled in this mess to its conclusion.
  2662. >No matter how chaotic things may become.
  2663. >You leave Mender lying where he is and go to the hammer stallion instead.
  2664. >His squeaky toy is yours now.
  2665. >He has nothing else on him that you could take anyway.
  2666. >So you tie the thing to your saddlebags for the time being.
  2667. >With your two newest additions to your inventory, you are almost resembling a pack mule more than a traveller.
  2668. >But that is thankfully only a temporary affair.
  2669. >Still, a pair of saddlebags plus attached hammer, and two separate battle saddles piling onto each other, are near the absolute maximum of what a pony back can carry in terms of mere space.
  2670. >You also need some room for the wings, after all.
  2671. >In the distance, close to the fire pit, Daring Do tries, and fails, to stifle an abashed snicker.
  2672. >"Oh brother."
  2673. >You spot her near the downed Unicorn mare, but you cannot detect anything special.
  2674. "What's so funny?"
  2675. >"I shouldn't laugh, but you might want to look at that."
  2676. >Not knowing what she means, you simply approach her to find out.
  2677. >When you are almost in front of the adventurer, Daring points at the Unicorn on the ground.
  2678. >She lies head first to you.
  2679. >Her jacket is gone, as it was used for the decoy head.
  2680. >She is still wearing the rest of her armour though.
  2681. >Which, without the vest, kind of gives you the impression of weird metal lingerie.
  2682.  
  2683.  
  2684.  
  2685.  
  2686. >But Daring surely did not you call you here just for that.
  2687. >So you inspect the Unicorn from up close.
  2688. >And notice a profuse blush on her face.
  2689. >Initially, you thought it could have been the glowing embers of the fire that might play a visual trick on you.
  2690. >Yet you quickly have to realise that this is not the case.
  2691. >"You've hit her horn, didn't you?"
  2692. "Yeah, so?"
  2693. >Daring laughs again.
  2694. >"So she won't get up for a good while."
  2695. "Uh, why?"
  2696. >"Think about it. I'm sure you'll get there."
  2697. >Fortunately for you, you have a mare who helps you with your thought process.
  2698. >"Anon, you are familiar with the specifics of Unicorn horns."
  2699. >That was not a question.
  2700. >Of course, you studied their anatomy for a long time.
  2701. >Horns are the most complex augmented organs of them all.
  2702. >A multi-purpose tool, connected directly to the brain.
  2703. >Which functions as energy conductor, as well as focal point, and exhaust for "magic" of various kinds.
  2704. >Apart from a certain baseline, every horn is unique in its finer fibers, as different talents involve the usage of different "spells".
  2705. >"And?"
  2706. >And their individual affinities and properties are finely tuned to reflect...
  2707. >Oh.
  2708. >Finely is the key word.
  2709. >"Yes. Your charge has disrupted her sensitive innate spell weave. Because she was levitating the weapon when she was hit."
  2710. >So the energy of your projectile mixed with her aura.
  2711. >Which deflected at least a part of the comparatively raw power back into the pony as her own spell failed.
  2712. >Meaning that you have accidentally hyper-stimulated her senses, both in the delicate horn and her brain.
  2713. >Considering how susceptible to physical and magical sensation a Unicorn horn can be, it is no wonder that you overwhelmed her.
  2714. >Her condition is not a dangerous state of health, as you have made sure that ponies are of much more robust stuff.
  2715. >But you still dealt a laying blow from which she will need to recover first.
  2716. >Literally, as you have essentially shot her out of her consciousness.
  2717. >And into a severe horngasm.
  2718. "Oh. Oh man."
  2719. >"The bit dropped, huh?"
  2720. "Yeah. I guess she's dreaming of happy prancing ponies."
  2721. >"With a blush like that? That's a bold understatement."
  2722. >Thank you for pointing that out, Daring.
  2723. "Huh, is there something we can do to mitigate that?"
  2724. >Daring Do tilts her with a sly grin.
  2725. >In this very moment, she reminds you of #deca.mare, shortly before she says something cheeky.
  2726. >"I can't."
  2727. >An awkward pause.
  2728. >"You... could. Provided you two want to marry."
  2729. >That insinuation clicks immediately.
  2730. "Not gonna happen. I barely know her."
  2731. >"Hm, really? Could have fooled me. She was happy when she spotted you."
  2732. "Uh, what?"
  2733. >"It's true. Saw it clearly from my sight above. Shortly before Mender flung that flare up high. I thought you were secret friends. Or something more."
  2734. >You shrug.
  2735. "Only met her once before. Ended much like this dance."
  2736. >You look at the bandit mare on the ground.
  2737. "But I didn't send her literally to sleep previously."
  2738.  
  2739.  
  2740.  
  2741.  
  2742. >"She isn't sleeping now either."
  2743. "What? She's awake?"
  2744. >"Sort of. Doubt she can think straight, but I'm sure she hears us."
  2745. >So she heard about Daring postulating that you two were a couple.
  2746. >While her brain is surely set in mating mode, unable to think logically in any shape or form.
  2747. >You want to melt on the spot in the face of that awkwardness.
  2748. "Uuugh. Couldn't you have said something earlier?"
  2749. >You rub your temples.
  2750. "Who the hell knows what's going on in her mind now? The suggestions could cause her to think we really are a couple! And I don't even know her name!"
  2751. >"Like I said, wasn't aware. Also, you're only making it worse right now."
  2752. >Crap, Daring has a point there.
  2753. >You examine the Unicorn again.
  2754. >The mare's blush is still strong on the features of her face.
  2755. >And she sports a grin that you can only define as intoxicated arousal.
  2756. >You have no trouble to imagine how things look like on the other end of her body now.
  2757. "Wonderful. We've got ourselves a horny Unicorn drugged on too much magic juice."
  2758. >"What do you mean? All Unicorns have horns."
  2759. "Never mind. Hope she doesn't get any dumb ideas when she wakes up though. Things like that can cloud a mind for days."
  2760. >That would actually be good for you, as it will hinder the other three.
  2761. >But on the flipside, confused Unicorns have a tendency to cause unpredictable results.
  2762. >Especially in this case.
  2763. >"Anon, I will have to talk to you about that when we are alone."
  2764. >#deca?
  2765. >"Later."
  2766. >Okay.
  2767. >In the meantime, Daring Do grabs the other mare's gun.
  2768. >"Do you mind?"
  2769. "Take it. Got enough stuff to carry as it is."
  2770. >As long as it is no longer in the possession of the four, it is a bonus in your book.
  2771. >Then Daring flies over to the net which Mender used to trap you.
  2772. >"Hm. I think I know a trick or two to delay them some more. Help me to unravel the net!"
  2773. "What's your plan?"
  2774. >"Using a technique I once used on... redacted."
  2775. >Ah, you see.
  2776. >At least someone here tries not to give too much intel away by poorly chosen words.
  2777. >Together you sit down and undo the rope net in record speed.
  2778. >Your gain is a good number of shorter singular ropes.
  2779. >"That'll do. Now we need to move the four closer together."
  2780. "Is that allowed by the rules?"
  2781. >"Technically everything is allowed, except..."
  2782. "...the goggles, yes. So I was told. But I'm unsure if it's, well, befitting."
  2783. >The adventurer blinks at you, not catching the implications of your concerns.
  2784. >"We're just binding them with a rope. I don't see a problem."
  2785. >Again, you have to remind yourself of pony standards.
  2786. >So with combined powers, you gradually realise your arduous task of dragging the four to lie neatly aligned in a line.
  2787. >Daring Do instructs you that you must lay them all down with their bellies facing the ground.
  2788. >Otherwise it will not work.
  2789. >And as expected, the four do not help you one bit in the process.
  2790. >Yet they do not obstruct your work either, so there is that.
  2791. >Mender is pretty easy to handle with the lifting power of two.
  2792.  
  2793.  
  2794.  
  2795.  
  2796. >But for a reason you do not know, his facial expression suggests that he is somewhat incensed as you drag him.
  2797. >And this in spite of the fact that Daring and you are treating him and the others with care.
  2798. >An inner inkling grows in your mind, telling you that it goes beyond the failure of what seemed like the perfect ambush.
  2799. >No, there is something else at work here.
  2800. >The mare is even easier to carry from a mere physical perspective.
  2801. >However, she keeps muttering barely coherent sentences while you move her.
  2802. >And the few fragments you do understand are so suggestive that you better discard them outright.
  2803. >Daring's insistence on taking all her remaining armour off does not help the situation either.
  2804. >Once more, your resolve to loot indiscriminately is wavering, and this time you have an evident reason why.
  2805. >But you cannot back off now.
  2806. >So there goes the  rear armour plating and the pads.
  2807. >You put the babbling marksmare next to Mender.
  2808. >"Alright. Now we tie them together."
  2809. "Pardon me?"
  2810. >Daring Do's confident adventurer mode has engaged again.
  2811. >"Take a rope. We'll wrap them to a bundle."
  2812. >You follow her request.
  2813. >And you blot out any considerations as to why binding a ruttish mare to the side of a stout stallion in his prime might be an insolent move for both of them.
  2814. >"Good. Now listen closely. We'll pack them up with a proven method so that they walk home on their own. Just do what I say and you'll see."
  2815. >Under Daring's competent instruction and with her active participation, you wrap one rope tightly, but not tautly, around the barrels of the two ponies.
  2816. >Several times in a row.
  2817. >She concludes the two pony package deal by tying the ends of the rope to a finicky knot on their backs.
  2818. >Normally that trick would not work very well when one of the victims possesses a horn.
  2819. >A simple levitation spell is more than enough to undo the thing.
  2820. >But the spell caster in question is currently occupied with very fulfilling daydreams of quite the pervading nature.
  2821. >You are fairly safe on that front.
  2822. >Though you silently wonder if Luna is also dealing with this sort of reverie.
  2823. >And if she is, you hope she never finds out that you are the one who caused her to stumble upon this particular instance here.
  2824. >For your next step, the two of you repeat the same procedure on the adjacent forelegs of the prone ponies.
  2825. >And then a similar number on the rear legs.
  2826. >The point is that they can still walk together when they coordinate their movements, but have no way to free themselves.
  2827. >Forcing them to return to their peers in this arrangement.
  2828. >Or alternatively, they keep lying until they pass out and are picked up by the med teams.
  2829. >But you consider this the less likely option of the two.
  2830. >These ponies take their roles far too seriously for such a surrender.
  2831. >After the "Mender and Mare Pack" has been wrapped for shipping back to base, you have to do the same with the two larger stallions.
  2832. >Which is essentially the same procedure from start to finish.
  2833.  
  2834.  
  2835.  
  2836.  
  2837. >Albeit significantly heavier.
  2838. >You easily need twice the time to prepare those two for their travel, but you persist.
  2839. >And as a last crowning act, Daring connects the separate bundles with each other.
  2840. >By looping a final singular piece of rope through the ones which shackle the barrels, and securing it with yet another elaborate knot.
  2841. >Further limiting their range of movement and preventing the four from doing anything else but walking in a line.
  2842. >Or stumble and fall if they fail.
  2843. >Whilst having a borderline daft and ruttish chain in their link.
  2844. >That will send a message.
  2845. >With a generous delay for you to get the hell away from your hunters before they are free again.
  2846. >For you do not want to be near their fury when their friends in the scavenger base untie your present.
  2847. >A greater call for a challenge you can barely think of.
  2848. >"There. All neat and tidy."
  2849. "Guess that means we're done. Take whatever is left if you want."
  2850. >Daring salutes before she swiftly scouts the place around the slowly dwindling bonfire with a frightening precision.
  2851. >Nobody can do it better than an adventurer.
  2852. >And she strikingly proves her mettle with her display.
  2853. >Good thing the four cannot see it from their position.
  2854. >You wave Daring goodbye and turn around.
  2855. >To wander further into the wastes.
  2856. >At least now with a useful map gained in a legit manner and some more breathing space.
  2857. >Daring shouts something after you.
  2858. >"See you in the clouds!"
  2859. >Huh?
  2860. >Another bluff of hers to mislead the scavengers, probably.
  2861. >#deca.mare confirms your suspicion.
  2862. >"Indeed, Anon. Daring will soon return to her cellar."
  2863. >And she has ample time too.
  2864. >You are not even at midnight yet.
  2865. >Which is fine for you as well.
  2866. >The longer she stays at the camp and loots the place, the longer the four are expected to remain still.
  2867. >Thinking of it, there was something that #deca.mare urgently wanted to address.
  2868. >"Not here. A bit further away."
  2869. >Okay.
  2870. >You trot through the darkened fields of dirt at a lively speed.
  2871. >Both to gain some distance quickly, and to hear what she has to say to you.
  2872. >About a quarter of an hour later, #deca.mare deems the distance to be sufficient.
  2873. >"Very well, I think it is time."
  2874. >Advanced perimeter scan.
  2875. >Nobody in range.
  2876. >You can talk.
  2877. "Something wrong? You sound like you have to say something unpleasant."
  2878. >"Not directly unpleasant, but important."
  2879. "Do tell then. I'm all ears."
  2880. >"What Daring Do said about the mare is not wrong. She was indeed looking forward to encounter you again."
  2881. "So what? They live by their scavenger codex, don't they? I bet this is covered by that."
  2882. >"You are correct in theory, but this is not the whole story."
  2883. "And why's that?"
  2884. >"How do I put it..."
  2885. "Short and blunt, please."
  2886. >"I do have reason to believe she is developing an... interest for you."
  2887. >You stop walking.
  2888. >And judging from the chill running down your spine, you think your heart tagged along.
  2889. "How the hell? We only met twice! And she lost at every opportunity!"
  2890.  
  2891.  
  2892.  
  2893.  
  2894. >"True. But the outcomes are a vital part of the matter."
  2895. "A bit more explanation, please."
  2896. >"You see, Pin Point, that is her name, has been in this place for a long time. She joined the games in one of its earliest cycles, and has found her group very swiftly afterwards."
  2897. "I fail to see the connection."
  2898. >"The connection is that she witnessed how Straight Nail and Picky Measure met their special someponies and founded families over time. Whereas she has achieved neither so far."
  2899. >Ah, so that is where the wind blows.
  2900. >Pin Point is a feisty wasteland mare looking for a stud.
  2901. "Nail and Measure are..."
  2902. >"...the two other stallions, yes."
  2903. >Leaves still number three.
  2904. "Well, but why me? She could ask Mender out then couldn't she? Or is he taken too?"
  2905. >"Not yet. But she is not on his list of potential partners. Nor will she ever be."
  2906. "Because?"
  2907. >"Because Scrap Mender is her older brother, Anon."
  2908. >Mental tilt.
  2909. >Please restart the Anon application.
  2910. >In a rush of pure hectic, you leap forwards and take flight.
  2911. >Walking does not do it anymore.
  2912. >You need more speed.
  2913. >As long as it is still night, you can keep flying in a low altitude without the risk of getting intercepted by anyone.
  2914. >And with the augmented HUD goggles and the radar, the situation reminds you almost of a homelike space flight.
  2915. >If it were not for the shadow of a undoubtedly fuming stallion out there to catch you, it may almost be relaxing.
  2916. >No wonder he was looking so sternly as you bound him though.
  2917. >You have shot and robbed his little sister in front of his eyes.
  2918. >Not once, but twice at that.
  2919. >Such a thing does not tend to be well received by siblings, game or no game.
  2920. >And to top the mockery off in one fell swoop, you turned her into a gushing mess and then bound them together.
  2921. >As a public present to their leaders.
  2922. >Not to mention the loud comments Daring made about you and her as a possible couple.
  2923. >It is a wonder he did not break the game rules to pluck your feathers where he stood.
  2924. >Or lay.
  2925. >Well, you could try to compliment his discipline, but that would make things only even worse.
  2926. >And you have a very concerning theory as you recall his last words before Daring Do dive bombed him out of his monologue.
  2927. "She was beginning to eye me before the second engagement, right?"
  2928. >"Indeed, Anon. She was first intrigued by your title as Royal Courier, and came to admire your fighting skills after you have won the first round. You have proven yourself as a wastelander in her eyes."
  2929. >Ah yes, displays of prowess and an honoured position.
  2930. >Certainly traits that pique the interest of a combative wasteland mare in search for a worthy opponent and future mate.
  2931. >But you feared as much.
  2932. "So he knows."
  2933. >"Yes. Pin Point brought it up in his presence."
  2934. >You can easily imagine the reaction of Mender.
  2935. "And in this very moment, she is dreaming of... you know."
  2936. >"Yes. She also mumbles some telling words out loud."
  2937. >Right next to her brother, with both kept in an impromptu bondage gear.
  2938.  
  2939.  
  2940.  
  2941.  
  2942. >So much for that hope.
  2943. "And just to point this out: In her current state, it's impossible to tell her I'm taken, right?"
  2944. >Please say something else than yes.
  2945. >"Correct. The hit to her horn temporarily amplifies her perceptions and feelings multiple times over. She is, quite literally, out of her mind for a few days."
  2946. >Ugh.
  2947. >"In other words, she is fixated on you and would not believe any evidence to the contrary."
  2948. "Wonderful. So in one sentence: I'm fucked, and she wants to."
  2949. >Suddenly, the thought of having a casual conversation with Princess Luna, in which you personally explain to her why a mare you know for less than a day is seemingly inexplicably dreaming wild dreams of you, appears like the less embarrassing option of the two.
  2950. >"A colourful analysis. But no, the situation is neither lost nor bad, Anon. We will reconcile the issue properly and in the interest of everyone."
  2951. "Wish I could share your optimism."
  2952. >"You have no idea what manners of strange situations you can find in here, believe me. And so far they were all solvable with civil means."
  2953. "Like shooting each other?"
  2954. >"In the context of the games, it counts as civil."
  2955. "Because it's part of the course and nobody gets hurt?"
  2956. >"Indeed. There is no true lasting bad blood in here. Mender is a 'professional', if you will. He will calm down. In time."
  2957. "It's the last part that worries me."
  2958. >"It does not have to."
  2959. "Don't tell me that mess with a lewd Pin Point belonged to your plan all along?"
  2960. >"No, but she does not thwart it either."
  2961. "That's reassuring to know."
  2962. >As long as her plan "in everyone's interest" does not involve you actually playing the role of the stud, that is.
  2963. >The response of #deca.mare is as agitated as it is swift.
  2964. >"Of course not! I would never ask such a thing of you!"
  2965. >Not that you ever believed it anyway.
  2966. >But in this chaotic clutter of a game, it soothes your nerves to hear it from her.
  2967. >Things have spiralled out of control way too quickly ever since you met Mender.
  2968. "By the way, I almost forgot."
  2969. >"Hm?"
  2970. "Why was Mender with this group already? I thought he wanted to join them tomorrow. Did he lie or leave his post too early?"
  2971. >"Actually, none of that. His relief came faster than he expected."
  2972. "But since he knew I was not expecting him tonight..."
  2973. >"...he seized the opportunity to get an advantage."
  2974. "Heh, not that it helped him much."
  2975. >#deca.mare shrugs on the small screen in your vision.
  2976. >"Such is the way of the wasteland. Oh, and Anon?"
  2977. "Yeah?"
  2978. >"I have new coordinates for your next destination. Please adjust your course accordingly."
  2979. "To?"
  2980. >"To the right. Eight degrees."
  2981. "Got it."
  2982. >You tilt your body gently to the side, and let the flow of the air around you do the rest.
  2983. >Then you stabilise yourself as soon as you are facing the new course and hope for the best.
  2984. >While you glide through the cool starless night beneath the impenetrable cloud layer.
  2985.  
  2986.  
  2987.  
  2988.  
  2989. >Soon you will have to find a resting place to get at least a little bit of sleep.
  2990. >Somewhere beneath an old tree or between a some dry bushes.
  2991. >Not exactly comfortable options for your proxy by any stretch of the imagination, but better than nothing.
  2992. >Plus, you can rest well in the knowledge that #deca.mare has her sensors up and running for you while you sleep.
  2993. >She is your guardian angel tonight.
  2994. >Like she has been countless times before.
  2995. >Warning you in advance when something needs your attention.
  2996. >So even though you have to release your control over the Pegasus proxy during your sleep, you find comfort in the knowledge that you have your mare looking out for you.
  2997. >She will protect you.
  2998. >Come the wasteland, angry scavengers, or misguided bawdy bandit mares.
  2999. >The two of you will fend them off, no matter what.
  3000.  
  3001. Footnote: You have gained recognition - Some ponies want to mend the hell out of you. Others want you to mend them. Either way, you want none of it. Good work!
  3002.  
  3003.  
  3004.  
  3005.  
  3006. 2077.2
  3007.  
  3008. "Third time's the charm." - A saying, commonly spoken when something has failed twice already.
  3009.  
  3010. >Your last flight of the day ends round about at midnight, shortly after you have eyed a small promising oasis of privacy in the vast open game field.
  3011. >A humble collection of robust succulent plants grows out of the otherwise barren ground in front of you.
  3012. >The specimen are barely higher than a crouching pony, but their colony is luckily fairly dense and provides some decent protection against prying eyes.
  3013. >Suitable for a pony to hide in between, provided said individual lies low, and keeps perfectly still the whole time.
  3014. >That last part should not be so hard once you no longer control the proxy.
  3015. >On the flipside though, you need to find an opening that is wide enough to land in, and more importantly, which also provides some proper space for you to lie down.
  3016. >Because as welcome as the succulents are for your nightly plans, they do have the inconvenient tendency of growing spines and other jagged leaves.
  3017. >And you prefer to avoid using those as a mattress if possible.
  3018. >The potential for both regular and awkward injuries is just a little too high.
  3019. >Soon thereafter, you find an area which meets your criteria, and you promptly slow down to descend.
  3020. >Upon landing, you instinctively retract your wings and swiftly look around to find the best position inside your tiny impromptu corral.
  3021. >And after you have made sure that you do not risk to become the next laughing stock in the eyes of whatever med team or wastelander that might find you in the scrub, you carefully lower your body.
  3022. >You press yourself as tightly as possible against the ground.
  3023. >In so doing, however, you inevitably rub your underside and large parts of your legs against the dirt and mud of your natural bedding.
  3024. >Unpleasant, but something you have to expect in a survival simulation.
  3025. >And when other ponies can lurk in their little self-dug pits to ambush others, then you will survive a night in the dust between cacti and small bushes as well.
  3026. >To your surprise though, you do not find it as uncomfortable as you have first expected.
  3027. >Heh, looks like you can still remember the experiences and lessons from the early days of Equestrian history.
  3028. >Nevertheless, you wish you could at least use your cloak as a bed sheet.
  3029. >But you need the toned down hues of the cloth to somewhat conceal your position from curious spectators who may watch from above.
  3030. >It blends better with the environment than the inherent colour palette of your proxy coat.
  3031. >So you make sure that your entire body is covered from neck to tail.
  3032. >And as the last step of the day, you pull the hood over your head.
  3033. >Then you order the proxy to lock itself in its current pose.
  3034. "#deca, I doubt you can give me an image of how I look from above, right?"
  3035. >"Not directly. The satellites cannot take any pictures, given the obstructed view due to the thick cloud layer and the considerable Pegasus activity above the field."
  3036.  
  3037.  
  3038.  
  3039.  
  3040. "Yeah, Thought so. Then give me an indirect one."
  3041. >"As you wish."
  3042. >#deca.mare generates an artificial top view image of your perimeter, based on the data available to her.
  3043. >The end result appears in your HUD a second later.
  3044. >And you see a dark, almost monochrome square blocking your vision.
  3045. >You can identify virtually nothing on it.
  3046. >But that does not bother you in the slightest.
  3047. >For it was you who worded your request this way, and #deca.mare simply complied with what you have told her.
  3048. "Neat. Now please adapt the image and show the same scene with the average light conditions during the day."
  3049. >"What time exactly?"
  3050. "Just take noon."
  3051. >The rectangle gradually lightens up as the time is set to rapid fast-forward.
  3052. >On its brightest level of light adjustment, the projection freezes.
  3053. >Now you can see her simulated depiction in all its fine details.
  3054. >The concealed resting place is set right in the centre of the created imagery.
  3055. >Your attempt at stealth merely turns out to be a mediocre one; the visual anomaly caused by the fabric of the cloak is certainly visible from above.
  3056. >But to be detected in the wide mess of bushes, dust, and debris fields that stretch all around you for kilometres, it requires somepony with sharp eyes to painstakingly scan every square metre of the ground.
  3057. >And you do not doubt for a second that there are a handful of specialists up there who are trained precisely for that purpose.
  3058. >Though, as a saving grace, you do not think they are going to stalk you at night.
  3059. >Plus, you still have #deca.mare as your last line of precaution if everything else fails.
  3060. >And true to her role, she tells you one final thing before you sign off.
  3061. >"Fair warning, there may be a small chance of rainfall tonight."
  3062. "What? And then you let me sleep out in the open?"
  3063. >"Yes. Believe it or not, Anon, but this field is the best option I can offer you under the given circumstances. Besides, even if it does rain, it will only cause comparatively light levels of precipitation. The proxy can handle this."
  3064. "That... doesn't sound very reassuring."
  3065. >"Then rest assured when I tell you that the cloak will shield your proxy from the brunt of the effect, should it come to pass."
  3066. >You are tempted to debate the issue further for the fracture of a second.
  3067. >But after this turbulent day, you eventually begin to feel tired.
  3068. >And you clearly lack the energy for a longer argument.
  3069. >#deca.mare knows this as well.
  3070. >"I understand that it does not look like it to you, but I have my reasons for this choice. A plan. You will learn all about it tomorrow."
  3071. >She takes a breath.
  3072. >"But let us go to sleep first. You need some rest."
  3073. >The weather warning remains a bit dubious to you, but the lure of the bed ultimately wins out.
  3074. >So you close your eyes and let the proxy be proxy as you cut the connection.
  3075.  
  3076.  
  3077.  
  3078.  
  3079. [Game Saved.]
  3080.  
  3081. >Only seconds later, you find yourself again in a homely chamber, currently floating in stable orbit around the planet.
  3082. >And you immediately head for the bed.
  3083. >To have at least a couple of hours for a peaceful slumber.
  3084. >Before the next dawn arrives at the extreme southern reaches of Equestria's borders.
  3085. >Your loving mare already awaits you in the bedroom, ready to ensure that you will rest soundly.
  3086. >An appeal you cannot resist.
  3087. >Even after more than ten human lifetimes, her effect on you is as strong as ever.
  3088. >And chances are that this will not change in the next couple of hundreds either.
  3089. >Or ever.
  3090. >As far as you are concerned, #deca.mare is your personal shard of eternal stability in a sometimes wild and chaotic cosmos.
  3091.  
  3092. [Game Loaded.]
  3093.  
  3094.  
  3095.  
  3096.  
  3097. >The second planetary day of your trip begins exactly like the first one ended.
  3098. >With your proxy ungracefully "parked" in the dirt, and an unfriendly grey sky above you.
  3099. >Plus, you quickly notice that large parts of your lower body are indeed strewn with streaks of muddy earth and sticky sand.
  3100. >Courtesy of idling for hours on the bare ground without any suitable camping equipment.
  3101. >But that is not all.
  3102. >Everything around you is wet.
  3103. >So your lightly groggy mind puts two and two together, and realises that the period of rainfall has been more than just an empty warning.
  3104. >A development which severely contributed to your current state of uncleanliness, as it has turned the environment into a natural slime pit.
  3105. >Still, #deca.mare's prediction was correct; the cloak has repelled most of the moisture.
  3106. >Your head, back, and sides, are almost completely dry.
  3107. >Yet the garment itself has gotten pretty soggy over the night, so at least some few droplets must have found their way through the fabric.
  3108. >Inconvenient, though bearable.
  3109. >Considering that the thing will dry itself over the course of the following hours, you can ignore that particular issue.
  3110. >However, what truly annoys you is the ground directly underneath your proxy.
  3111. >Because even that patch of land was not completely spared by the shower.
  3112. >Some of the rain water apparently flowed your way in tiny streams while you slept.
  3113. >Forming puddles near, and partially even directly at your idling proxy.
  3114. >With the obvious result that every last centimetre of the soil is drenched.
  3115. >The spot you directly lie on included.
  3116. >Causing that sort of stains which will stick to a pony coat for a long time, unless you find a way to take a bath with clean water.
  3117. >And you can imagine what the odds are to find that in the wasteland.
  3118. >An unnerved groan escapes your mouth.
  3119. >But all the complaints in the world will not cause nature to budge.
  3120. >You have to become active yourself instead.
  3121. >And in order to get at least your underside out of the sludge, you try to stand up.
  3122. >That alone would help immensely to limit the mess a little.
  3123. >Unfortunately, fate has other plans with you.
  3124. >So as you routinely rise like you have done countless times before, you suddenly lose your footing on the surprisingly slippery terrain.
  3125. >And swiftly stumble right back into the dirt, belly first.
  3126. >Ugly splatters of mud fly in all directions.
  3127. >Ultimately, your attempt to improve your situation has actually made things a tad worse.
  3128. >At least on the comfort level.
  3129. "Ugh, shit."
  3130. >"Anon? Is everything alright?"
  3131. >#deca.mare's voice.
  3132. >You grumble in displeasure.
  3133.  
  3134.  
  3135.  
  3136.  
  3137. >Less than ten minutes ago, you lay in a snug bed that is worthy of royalty.
  3138. >But then, right after you got up, you gained two extra limbs and slung yourself into the muck without delay.
  3139. >And thanks to the impressions you have gained yesterday, you knew in advance that the mission would not be a clean affair.
  3140. >Though you expected something better than this.
  3141. "Oh, don't worry. I'm fine and healthy."
  3142. >You feign a pause, as if you had to think about your next words.
  3143. "But I look like I've won the world championship in mudslinging, if you catch my drift. Is this what you consider the results of a 'light' rainfall?"
  3144. >#deca.mare treats your rhetorical question as if it were an actual enquiry.
  3145. >"I do. The Pegasi above merely vented some of their excess moisture. The accumulating pressure of the stored water grew too high."
  3146. >So they showered the wasteland in their generosity.
  3147. >Good thing that it was a colourless one, at least.
  3148. >You swallow a snarky remark and start your second attempt of lifting yourself.
  3149. >#deca.mare says something while you do.
  3150. >However, you fail to register what she tries to tell you, as you focus too much on your movements to make sure that you do not slip another time.
  3151. >And the second run fares much better indeed.
  3152. "Seriously though, wasn't there something else nearby to sleep in? Like a cave? Or a house?"
  3153. >"There are. But all of them are occupied by, shall we say, less cooperative wasteland peers. And the cave Daring returned to is too far away for my scheme."
  3154. >Plus, she would not be very fond of you complicating her life again this quickly.
  3155. >You grunt.
  3156. >"Trust me, Anon. I was not lying when I claimed that this was the best available option."
  3157. "But now I run around as a swine! In an official mission!"
  3158. >"And if there is one place in Equestria where nopony will raise an eyebrow at that, it is this playing field."
  3159. >Hm, fair enough you suppose.
  3160. >Still, it remains unnerving to you anyway, as you have to live with the dirt for the time being.
  3161. >Well, the best thing you can do is not to think about it for too long.
  3162. >And the best method to accomplish that is to get back to your business.
  3163. >You take a look at your saddlebags.
  3164. >The outer fabric is almost as soaked as the cloak.
  3165. >But what about its contents?
  3166. >The scrolls are, ironically enough, the last thing you need to worry about.
  3167. >Their precious casings are imbued with several preservation enchantments.
  3168. >What, in plain words, means that they all contain a tiny energy source each.
  3169. >Gadgets that enwrap the container in a small protective field which is able to ward off some minor environmental hazards.
  3170. >Like droplets and other smaller splotches of liquid.
  3171. >The important documents are safe and sound where they are.
  3172. >"The rest of your equipment is in a similar condition, Anon. The packages used in here are designed with that sort of problem in mind. And the weapon saddle is water-proof as well."
  3173. "So it only hit me. And there isn't a bathtub around these parts, huh?"
  3174.  
  3175.  
  3176.  
  3177.  
  3178. >Diplomatic silence is the only response you receive.
  3179. "Of course."
  3180. >The only other option you can think of is utilising the water tank inside the wagon.
  3181. >But unless you go full clandestine mode with it, that vehicle would surely draw the attention of literally everyone in the game on you.
  3182. >And not in the way you wish for either.
  3183. >Forget it, she has a point.
  3184. >The dirty cactus bed was the most pragmatic choice.
  3185. >Besides, the appearance could have its uses.
  3186. >Maybe someone will underestimate you when you look a little rugged and rough around the edges.
  3187. >And the performance of your proxy is not affected at all either.
  3188. >So, apart from your mild annoyance, there is no real problem.
  3189. >"Oh Anon, speaking of dirty..."
  3190. "Yeah?"
  3191. >"It may be better if you lie down again for a short moment."
  3192. >You blink in disbelief.
  3193. "And why, pray tell, should I do this?"
  3194. >"A Pegasus patrol will break through the clouds in the vicinity. They want to survey the area from a high altitude."
  3195. "Of?"
  3196. >"About three kilometres. They are unlikely to notice you from that height if you keep a low profile."
  3197. "Friendly?"
  3198. >"No. They are looking for equipment to 'commandeer'."
  3199. >You let out a second groan.
  3200. >Just as you have begun to rationalise your grievances away, you get asked to undo that again.
  3201. >And if you had a personal wish for wading through the grime, you would have enlisted to become a ground trooper rather than a pilot back in the day.
  3202. >But you force yourself to ignore your muddy situation nevertheless, since the gears of a professional still grind in your head.
  3203. "How many opponents?"
  3204. >"A wing of four ponies."
  3205. "And all equipped with energy weapons, I reckon."
  3206. >"Hmhm."
  3207. >So possibly a four on one.
  3208. >In a flying match with shiny projectiles.
  3209. >Not the worst odds in the world for a seasoned veteran like you.
  3210. >"I tried to tell you before you stood up, but you did not pay attention to me."
  3211. >Well, too late to change that.
  3212. >And right now, you do not yet consider her proposed option.
  3213. >If only for the fact that you do not want to lie down again.
  3214. "Theoretically speaking, would a fight work? I bet I could show them some tricks."
  3215. >#deca.mare clears her throat.
  3216. >Somehow, you think she will not agree with your musings.
  3217. >"I am convinced that you can beat them, Anon. But I recommend you not to do it."
  3218. >She pauses.
  3219. >"Especially when you feel... urged to do so simply to escape the ground. Think of the long term reactions."
  3220. >Right, but she still owes you an explanation.
  3221. "So, what exactly are you planning?"
  3222. >"A... different sort of confrontation. Which does involve the party near you. But my idea simply cannot work if you dispatch them prematurely."
  3223. "And toppling your plans means..."
  3224. >"... a longer stay in the game, yes."
  3225. >You breathe in slowly.
  3226. >Then you sigh.
  3227. "Alright, I'll do it. If you can promise me something."
  3228. >"What do you want me to promise?"
  3229. "That me wallowing in the crud is worth it."
  3230. >She replies immediately.
  3231. >"I do. Even more, in fact. I am sure that the result will be to your liking."
  3232.  
  3233.  
  3234.  
  3235.  
  3236. >And so, as a display of your trust in her assessment, you take #deca.mare's word for it and do as she asks.
  3237. >The damp ground has your not so hearty embrace all for itself again.
  3238. >"You know, this reminds me of a quote."
  3239. "No. Don't you dare quoting Rarity now."
  3240. >You hear a stifled giggle.
  3241. >"Sorry."
  3242. "Hmpf. Next you'll ask me to roll in the pit, huh?"
  3243. >"Actually, that would make for a viable camouflage tactic if it were not for the cloak and bags."
  3244. >This was not what you wanted to hear, but you let that remark slip.
  3245. >You have more important things to worry about at the moment.
  3246. >So you merely leave it at a silent reminder to yourself, noting to invite #deca.mare to a thorough mud bath in the near future when this hassle is over.
  3247. >But since you are currently made to sit in the pit though, you can at least spend the time with something useful.
  3248. "#deca, show me the signatures of the four on the HUD. I want to study their flight patterns."
  3249. >"On it."
  3250. >Four rectangular target outlines sprout out of nowhere in the upper left corner of your augmented vision.
  3251. >All displayed in the fiery red hue of designated enemies, and adorned with a little wing icon.
  3252. >Meanwhile on your HUD, a simplified three dimensional grid appears near the lower right corner.
  3253. >It depicts the flight trajectory and patters of your four opponents in the air.
  3254. >The ponies themselves are shown as little flying silhouettes, steadily maintaining a diamond formation.
  3255. >You quickly notice that the relative distance between the four rarely varies at all.
  3256. "Hm, pretty disciplined for a bunch of hobby fliers."
  3257. >"They may never have been part of any reputable flying squadron, like the Wonderbolts, but this does not mean that these ponies are not talented, Anon. And they have a lot of time to practice."
  3258. "Yeah, I know."
  3259. >However, it does not intimidate you at all.
  3260. >For you are fully convinced that your millennium of experience would more than make up for their advantages.
  3261. >Yet you heed #deca.mare's advice and let them pass unmolested.
  3262. >While you play the role of the stealthy smutty horse.
  3263. >And the patrol does not find you either.
  3264. >The squad simply moves on to the next area.
  3265. "Guess they're looking for easy targets, hm?"
  3266. >"Yes indeed. Caravans, for example. Which is why..."
  3267. >You interrupt #deca.mare.
  3268. >Because you know how this dance goes.
  3269. "Wait, don't say anything. You coincidentally happen to know a caravan that will be ambushed soon. By this very group."
  3270. >You pause.
  3271. "Correct?"
  3272. >"Partially correct. And I suggest you help out in the defence."
  3273. "Hm, I already have parts of one big shot group hunting me. Do you think it's a good idea to instantly turn another into my sworn enemy?"
  3274. >"In this case, yes. Besides, did you not play with the thought of confronting them yourself? Just a moment ago?"
  3275. >You cough.
  3276.  
  3277.  
  3278.  
  3279.  
  3280. "Fair. But it's one thing to clash with a gang, and another to openly side with their arch-rivals."
  3281. >"On the contrary, Anon. You gain more that way. If you beat them alone, you only create new rivals. But if you do so whilst helping others, you also make new friends."
  3282. >Ah, here comes the f-word.
  3283. >The key to almost everything in Equestria.
  3284. >Including the wasteland, as it seems.
  3285. >And at a first glance, her reasoning does make a great deal of sense.
  3286. >On the flipside though, #deca.mare's plan hinges on your ability to gain the trust of complete strangers within only a couple of minutes.
  3287. >Which is technically not impossible, especially amongst ponies.
  3288. >But in the tense environment created by the survival game, the deal gets exceedingly more difficult.
  3289. >The ponies out there must be more trigger happy by default, as they would surely expect no less from everyone else too.
  3290. >Really, as you have quickly learned, pointing a toy weapon at someone belongs to the good tone here.
  3291. >And it is up to you to bridge that gap elegantly.
  3292. "Oh boy. I hope your overall plan is damn good."
  3293. >"Let me put it this way. If my strategy unfolds as it is supposed to, you will deliver the first scroll within the next, hm, ten hours."
  3294. >Well, that is at least something.
  3295. >Provided of course that her plan survives the contact between the caravan and the high...air ponies.
  3296. >You scan the perimeter.
  3297. >No traces of wastelanders nearby, both on the ground, and in the air.
  3298. "Okay. Let's go. I need the coordinates."
  3299. >"Here they are. Good luck, Anon."
  3300. >The notification reaches your HUD at the exact same second.
  3301. >There is your lead.
  3302. >Including the chance to finally lift off and leave the bushes for good.
  3303. >And as you glide through the air, you notice that the wind around you feels slightly cooler than it should do.
  3304. >Clearly an effect of the damp earth that still clings to a solid half of your body surface.
  3305. >You snort in annoyance.
  3306. >The cold is not drastic, and you know for a fact that your proxy's resistance against hypothermia turns this minor decrease into a laughing matter.
  3307. >Yet you are also aware that the dirt will dry and eventually cake.
  3308. >An inconvenient sensation you are not exactly looking forward to at the best of days.
  3309. >Because you know what to expect; you have been in this situation a couple of times before.
  3310.  
  3311.  
  3312.  
  3313.  
  3314. >Only during a handful of events in the many years you have spent on Equestria, but you can still remember how alien it always felt to you.
  3315. >One of the few things you were never able to get used to in this world.
  3316. >Then again, neither was it a skill you particularly needed to get your work done.
  3317. >Until you volunteered for this delivery job, that is.
  3318. >You should have checked the address beforehand.
  3319. >Bleh, embarrassing rookie mistake.
  3320. >Anyway, now you have officially turned into the Royal flying swamp horse.
  3321. >But this is not the time for lamentation.
  3322. >After all, in less than an hour, you might already be stuck in the next firefight.
  3323. "Okay, let's do something with our flight time. Give me some intel on the ponies I'm supposed to help. Got to know what to expect of them."
  3324. >"Agreed. The caravan consists of a small band of the wasteland knights."
  3325. "The eccentric do-it-yourself gear hunters that Daring told me about?"
  3326. >"Indeed. These."
  3327. "Huh, I thought they're the hardest to reason with."
  3328. >"And they are. But I assert that a little help in, say, repelling an ambush from a rival, might be enough to win them over. For a short while."
  3329. "Long enough to deliver a golden box, hm?"
  3330. >"Precisely. But do not expect a warm-hearted welcome when they let you in. They are very proud, and one has to earn their respect repeatedly before they even consider an individual as a potential initiate."
  3331. "I don't want to become an initiate. I want to shove an expensive sun scroll into the big boss' face, tip my hat, and take my leave. No catch, no strings attached. That isn't supposed to be so hard."
  3332. >"Yes. And this is exactly what I try to arrange for you right now. But you must act humble. They can get upset very quickly for snide remarks or similar inappropriate behaviour."
  3333. "No wonder their ranks are so thin."
  3334. >"Oh, but they fare well in the games regardless. A good number of their members are amongst the top players with the finest score ratio in the entire history of the game."
  3335. >You roll your eyes.
  3336. "Yeah, I know that trick. Percental versus absolute statistics. They claim they're the best and tout their own qualities, because 'x percent of their friends are in the top so-and-so'. And then they omit that the total numbers are not stacked in their favour."
  3337. >"Number games or not, do not underestimate them, Anon. They are good at what they do."
  3338. >Judging from the straightforward tone in #deca.mare's voice, this was no joke.
  3339. >She is serious about this, so you better pay attention.
  3340. "I'll keep that in mind."
  3341. >You continue your flight and regularly scan the area around you.
  3342. >The Pegasus patrol is nowhere to be seen.
  3343. >But shortly before you are within viewing range to your target, your HUD picks up four different signals.
  3344. >Moving on the ground right in front of you.
  3345. >This must be the caravan.
  3346. >So you carefully lower your speed to a gentle glide as you wait for them to become visible.
  3347.  
  3348.  
  3349.  
  3350.  
  3351. >Once you can make their shapes out in the far distance, you focus your vision on them, and zoom in until you get a clear picture of the scene.
  3352. >And you have to look twice to process what you see.
  3353. >Three of the four ponies are clad in what appears to be... sets of heavily plated metal armour.
  3354. >But of a wholly different design than the archaic types which are commonly deployed by the Royal Guard.
  3355. >Whereas the traditionally forged counterparts are made to protect the essential areas of a pony, like the head and vital organs, these look like they encase their wearers almost completely.
  3356. >The helmets roughly resemble the shapes of pony heads, and trace the equine anatomy of their individual wearers to some degree with tough rounded platings.
  3357. >This even includes the faces, as they are neatly sealed away by the armour.
  3358. >And the protection around the body and legs follow a similar pattern.
  3359. >From the muzzle to the dock, and from the ears down to the hooves.
  3360. >Virtually every part of their bodies is protected by a series of bulky metallic pieces of an almost industrial design.
  3361. >And these heavy elements are, as far as you can tell from a brief glance, supported by a durable, yet still somewhat flexible subjacent fabric of a making you have never seen before.
  3362. >Additionally, two thick and seemingly non-transparent lenses are embedded into the "eye sockets" of the head.
  3363. >You cannot tell for sure how much a pony can see through those and what their field of vision might be like.
  3364. >But it does seem to work well enough for the knights who built them.
  3365. >If you had to judge the display in front of you in its entirety, you would say that it looks like a strangely artistic impression of three walking metal ponies.
  3366. >Yet at the same time, the constructions are kept oddly vague in their defining features.
  3367. >While it is usually fairly easy to tell mares and stallions apart due to a wide variety of factors, even when the sexual organs are not counted, the frame obscures all of them.
  3368. >Primary and secondary features both.
  3369. >You have no way to determine who exactly wears what suit.
  3370. >And you assume this is most likely a deliberate design choice.
  3371. >Then there are the offensive assets.
  3372. >All of the three ponies carry two massive barrels each, one at every side.
  3373. >The visible parts of the mechanisms closely resemble that of Mender's foam dispenser, albeit of a somewhat larger calibre.
  3374. >Thus completing the image of a pony shaped space suit crossed with a hoofed quadruped battle tank.
  3375. >Plus, you quickly realise that your HUD does not display what kinds of ponies are within the constructs.
  3376. >Though, judging by the lack of horns on the helmets, they must be either Pegasi or Earth ponies.
  3377. >And you consider the latter as the more likely option.
  3378. >Most surprisingly of all, however, is that you are able to recognise the rough composition of the metal.
  3379. >Simply due its colour and texture.
  3380. >After all, you have worked intensively with this material for a very long time.
  3381.  
  3382.  
  3383.  
  3384.  
  3385. >Slate-grey metal.
  3386. "No. Fucking. Way."
  3387. >Without a shadow of a doubt, you have just spotted a prototype variant of space vessel plating.
  3388. >Indeed, the very same substance on which the hull chassis of the vast majority of your fleet is based.
  3389. >The trio parades a de facto spaceworthy shielding around the place.
  3390. >As if it is nothing special.
  3391. >All across the outer Equestrian desert.
  3392. >And openly at that.
  3393. >You can barely believe your eyes as you stare at the walking hulls in front of you.
  3394. "What the fuck. Tell me I'm dreaming."
  3395. >"No, you are not."
  3396. >You blink once more.
  3397. "How and... eh? I think I need to pay more attention to what is happening around here."
  3398. >#deca.mare giggles lightly.
  3399. >"Which is what I suggested you to do all along."
  3400. "I mean, seriously. You gave them the formula to recreate hulls?"
  3401. >"This is the funny thing, Anon. The ponies here mostly did so on their own."
  3402. >You caught that little detail.
  3403. "Mostly?"
  3404. >"I... just gave them a little nudge to solve some final problems near the end. After they have developed the necessary techniques on their own merit, mind you."
  3405. "And when?"
  3406. >"A while ago."
  3407. >An unusually vague answer to a serious question like this.
  3408. "You should have told me before you gave them anything on this scale. Do you know what kind of repercussions that could have for the world at large? Are you secretly training ponies for space missions or something?"
  3409. >"The influence on the broader society is as good as non-existent. Most of the things that happen in this game, stay in the game. Consider, less than a percent of the populace will ever hear about this technology in their daily lives. Much less see or utilise it. And they have no use for these things either."
  3410. >A short pause.
  3411. >"Case in point, take yourself. You are the best example."
  3412. "Me? I'm not even a pony."
  3413. >"That detail is irrelevant. You are, aside from me, the best informed individual on the entire planet. And you have been active at least once in nearly all major regions in the last years, correct?"
  3414. "Uh, yes?"
  3415. >"And even you have never heard of the knights and their equipment. Not a single word. Anywhere."
  3416. >You remain silent.
  3417. >"But let us pretend for a moment that it is common knowledge. Neither the games nor the technology are strictly hidden or secret, after all. Imagine you tell some average locals in Ponyville, or Canterlot, or any other place for that matter, that there are some ponies running around in the desert with metal suits. How many of them would think that such a thing is relevant for their daily business? And could you believe that such a technology might improve their lives somehow?"
  3418. "Not many would care much, I guess. Some may be mildly intrigued, but that's about it. They're already pretty happy."
  3419. >In fact, now that you think about it, a suit of this nature would actually be a hindrance in most situations.
  3420. >Like, good luck trying to cultivate a field of crops or a flower bed while you are stuck within a walking metal exoskeleton.
  3421.  
  3422.  
  3423.  
  3424.  
  3425. >And the same applies to things like baking a cake or making a dress.
  3426. >There are only very few occasions in Equestria that might warrant this level of heavy protection at all.
  3427. >And the Royal Guard?
  3428. >Possible, but usually not necessary either.
  3429. >On normal days, the Guard is mostly tasked with arbitrating some low-key disputes between ponies, and patrolling the most important locations in the realm.
  3430. >Hardly anything for which their traditional garb is not sufficient.
  3431. >And for the really large incidents that are above the average guard ponies' league, like an overeager changeling queen on an invasion trip, or a dark Unicorn wizard who likes terrorising the far north, well, there are more harmonic tools at Equestria's disposal.
  3432. >The only thing the suits could be somewhat useful for, are days when the guard has to move out as a emergency reaction force.
  3433. >In case of a swarm of Parasprites roaming through a village, for instance.
  3434. >Though even then, they are most likely an overkill option.
  3435. >Equestria has no need for a heavily armed and armoured fighting force of ponies.
  3436. >As such, this discovery means very little.
  3437. >This is not that kind of planet.
  3438. >And both #deca.mare and you make sure that no one in this world has to worry about extraterrestrial threats of any kind either.
  3439. >So you conclude that, the way things are, you cannot even be angry with her.
  3440. >After all, she offered you on multiple occasions to at least give the game a chance.
  3441. >But it was you who refused her proposals again and again.
  3442. >"Besides, the players are nowhere near perfecting this knowledge. The composition of the metal is not fully consistent yet, and hence of highly varying quality in every individual piece. Plus, the suits are not wholly sealed either, despite having a system for internal ventilation."
  3443. "Meaning?"
  3444.  
  3445.  
  3446.  
  3447.  
  3448. >"Meaning that the suits could, potentially, be used for space exploration with a few modifications. But right now, they are not useful. And I will not force that upon anypony. What you see here is more of a curiosity, made by a group of hobby tinkerers in their extensive leisure time."
  3449. >You pause.
  3450. "#deca?"
  3451. >"Yes?"
  3452. "Is there anything else you kept secret?"
  3453. >"I did not keep a single secret, Anon."
  3454. "You know what I mean. Are there any... other technological surprises you... did not happen to inform me about?"
  3455. >"None. There are some gimmicks stored in the Unicorn bunker, but they rarely see the light of day."
  3456. "That's all? Are you sure?"
  3457. >"I am. No need to worry, Anon."
  3458. >You slowly draw closer.
  3459. >And as you do, you thoroughly scan the three suits with your goggles.
  3460. >The data you acquire is relatively limited, but the findings tell you a few key things.
  3461. >First, you can confirm that #deca.mare is right about the metal.
  3462. >The plates are not evenly refined, and a number of striking fluctuations on the surface can be easily spotted by a conventional routine scan.
  3463. >Second, they lack any decent means to regulate or maintain the temperature.
  3464. >So apart from decompression, whoever may try to use this frame in space will likely freeze solid within minutes.
  3465. >And you wager it is a good thing for the knights that the Pegasi are surely unaware of this fact.
  3466. >Because if they were, they could easily make the oh so great players sweat like hell by simply dissolving the cloud layer above their heads.
  3467. >After your own desert trek yesterday, you bet it would not take long for the metal walkers to voluntarily strip themselves under the sun.
  3468. >Truly, the source of their pride is in reality merely a number of rough prototype armour suits that can still be improved in a lot of ways.
  3469. >Though you are not going to say that to their faces.
  3470. >And to be fair, it is impressive that a handful of ponies could, more or less, recreate the formula for ship hulls with almost no external help.
  3471. >But much to your surprise, the news do not end there.
  3472. >The sensors register a lot of energy pulses within the suits.
  3473. >Upon closer inspection, you detect unusual signatures within the helmets, and some of the leg joints.
  3474. "#deca, what the hell is in those things?"
  3475. >"The helmets are equipped with a crude HUD 'enchantment'."
  3476. >Holy crap, they have that kind of thing here?
  3477. >Your perceived advantage dwindles right in front of your eyes.
  3478. >That feature alone makes them more dangerous than any band of merry raiders.
  3479. >Perhaps you spoke too early when you mocked them.
  3480. >"Though the knights have a different name for it."
  3481. "So the same deal as with the energy cells. And the legs?"
  3482. >"Optionally usable, servo-supported joint movements. Oh, pardon me, 'magically enhanced armour joints'. Made to mitigate the additional weight of the heavy frame. They can be activated and gradually regulated at will by the wearer."
  3483. "Seriously?"
  3484.  
  3485.  
  3486.  
  3487.  
  3488. >"Their energy capacities are relatively limited though, and the knights use them sparingly because of that. But you would be astonished to see what top speed these suits can reach in spite of their mass."
  3489. >You picture a fully laden cargo train chugging along some rails.
  3490. >And a collision with that in full swing would be rather unhealthy to say the least.
  3491. "Yeah, not going to test that."
  3492. >You check the distance to the knights.
  3493. >With your current speed, you still have a couple of minutes before you are in a critically close range.
  3494. >So you consider what else you should ask #deca.mare on your way to the boastful equine metal cans.
  3495. "What about the armour itself? It does more than just looking fancy and getting fast, eh?"
  3496. >"Hmhm. It does indeed provide additional protection, as every projectile which impacts on a plating does not count as hit towards the pony inside."
  3497. "Totally not overpowered. How do you fell one then?"
  3498. >"Like every other opponent. Shoot them until they drop."
  3499. "Just to be on the same page, you mean shooting through a space ship hull. With foam and rubber, yes?"
  3500. >"Yes and no. You see, the HUD has an additional function, next to improving the vision of the wearer. It simulates the 'health' of the armour. And every time a piece has soaked up a 'lethal' amount of damage, the section automatically pops out of the frame. Striking the bared body part of the pony beneath then counts as a regular hit."
  3501. >Okay, you absolutely do not want to make a space walk with one of these things.
  3502. >Ever.
  3503. >But again, you notice a few interesting key words.
  3504. "So, lethal means whatever is necessary to 'kill' a wastelander, right?"
  3505. >"Correct."
  3506. "And my magical mystery cannon? Does the one-shot-fits-all rule work here too?"
  3507. >"It does apply. One hit disables an element."
  3508. "Good to know."
  3509. >You may not plan to fight a knight now, but this could one day prove to be a vital sliver of information.
  3510. >And you start to slowly grasp the implications behind Daring's words about the highest fighting power per member.
  3511. >Not much longer until they should notice you.
  3512. >You use the final moments to study the last member of the group.
  3513. >The fourth pony is, by far, the most unremarkable of the group.
  3514. >A harnessed pale male Unicorn who pulls a spacious wagon, filled with all manners of different items.
  3515. >And unlike the other three, he wears no heavy armour at all.
  3516. >Instead, he features a finely woven, deep blue monk's cowl that stretches over vast parts of his body.
  3517. >Only his face plus horn, as well as his hooves are visible.
  3518. >Also, you detect no weapon on him.
  3519. >The stallion is not only restrained, he is also entirely unarmed.
  3520. >And if he were not the one to pulls the wagon, one might be tempted to overlook him outright.
  3521. >Something is off about that.
  3522. "Who is this? Some kind of servant?"
  3523. >"No, he is a full member of their group."
  3524. >Which, after what you could find out about this gang so far, does not bode well.
  3525.  
  3526.  
  3527.  
  3528.  
  3529. >But you have to postpone your ponderings, as one of the "heavies" turns his head and looks your way.
  3530. >"They detected you."
  3531. "I know."
  3532. >Unfortunately, the bulky helmet between you and your opponent prevents you from reading any facial expressions.
  3533. >So you cannot read their mood at all.
  3534. >"No problem, Anon. Use your disadvantage as an advantage."
  3535. "How?"
  3536. >"They do not perceive you as a threat because you are alone. So fly slowly and low. And try not to escape from their range of fire. Act normally, and wait for a sign."
  3537. >What kind of sign?
  3538. >You get your answer from one of the ponies below you.
  3539. >An armoured hoof rises into the air.
  3540. >A greeting, as it seems.
  3541. "Huh that doesn't look so eccentric yet."
  3542. >You mirror the gesture and aim to land a couple dozen of metres away from the group.
  3543. >Then, you walk the rest of the way to the four on land, as to not cause any unfortunate misunderstandings.
  3544. >The knights are clearly in the dominant position, so you cannot afford to make any mistakes.
  3545. >"Remember Anon, stay polite and formal. Use your cards wisely, offer some goods, and you should be able to bargain a temporary admission to enter their base. Try to appeal to their sense of chivalry if everything else fails."
  3546. >You are too close to the ponies now to audibly talk to #deca.mare.
  3547. >Any more recommendations, #deca?
  3548. >"Play the act of a humble Royal Courier who delivers a message from his Princess to their Elder. And if they 'offer' to take the scroll for themselves, you must, politely, decline the request."
  3549. >Because no good Courier would ever forfeit documents like that.
  3550. >"Indeed. Calmly insist that you have to give the message over in person. In the most courteous tone you can muster."
  3551. >Oh man, this will be a slaughter.
  3552. >"Yes. It will either way. But in an ideal case, it is a different Pegasus actor who causes the confrontation."
  3553. >Right, the whole ambush thing is a problem too.
  3554. >The four ponies calmly wait for you to come, six large barrels pointing in your direction in the process.
  3555. >Individuals without your level of military training might lose their composure right then and there.
  3556. >Even in the context of a harmless game, staring down into their depths has an imposing effect on the mind.
  3557. >But years in space, and around capital ships with dozens of house-sized turrets, seasoned you in this regard.
  3558. >So you slowly approach them without fear.
  3559. >Yet you try to keep your expression neutral.
  3560. >Too much serenity might be interpreted as cocky.
  3561. >Which equals bad outcome.
  3562. >The pony at the front motions you to halt at a range of about five metres.
  3563. >All eight eyes are trained on your proxy, although you can only see two in turn.
  3564. >And a faceless masculine voice speaks to you.
  3565. >"Greetings, esteemed commoner of the wastes! You have been summoned to stand before the Knightly Order today!"
  3566. >So the speech patterns too.
  3567. >Alright.
  3568. >You take a brief breath before you answer.
  3569. "It is... an honour... to be in the presence of such noble knights."
  3570.  
  3571.  
  3572.  
  3573.  
  3574. >You must resist the urge to roll your eyes as you speak.
  3575. >The four, on the other hand, seem pleased so far.
  3576. >None of them shouts or fires at you, at least.
  3577. >And you see that as a good sign.
  3578. >Though you have no doubt that the four study you, and your gear, very closely.
  3579. "What can a... common traveller like me do for the order today?"
  3580. >Again, only the stallion at the head replies.
  3581. >"Why my little pony, glad that you ask! Our bands are looking for new material to further our glorious cause! And you have the venerable opportunity to do your part and contribute to it!"
  3582. >Uh huh.
  3583. >Sounds like an opener of a street robbery to you.
  3584. >"And as a token of our generous appreciation of your devotion, you will receive an equitable recompense in bottle caps. For your pleasure."
  3585. >Hold on, what?
  3586. >Was there something to Pin Point's little satchel of crown caps after all?
  3587. >#deca.mare chimes in.
  3588. >"Some groups use it as a currency instead of bits."
  3589. >Ah, like the scrap gang.
  3590. >You wonder whether mister iron pony over there thinks you are one of those scavengers.
  3591. >Regardless, you need to formulate a generally broad, but simultaneously meaningless formal expression of gratitude for this "privilege" while you carefully choose your next words.
  3592. "Certainly, I would feel flattered to be of use to a... righteous agenda like yours."
  3593. >The ponies still only look at you.
  3594. >No remarks, but also no shots.
  3595. >Okay.
  3596. >So far, so well.
  3597. >But you frantically think of an elegant solution to steer the conversation in the way you want it to go.
  3598. "And I do have some goods to tra..., ahem, to commit."
  3599. >You clear your voice.
  3600. "Though, if your noble donation could find its way to me in a different form, it would be very much appreciated."
  3601. >Now the four begin to look at each other.
  3602. >And you can feel the confused stares radiating through the helmets.
  3603. >"What could a humble peasant of your standing want more than hard caps? It is all you need to pursue your frivolous desires."
  3604. >The pony at the front looks down and musters your not quite so pristine coat.
  3605. >"Although on second thoughts, perhaps you really do not need monetary commodities for your interests."
  3606. >Fuck you too.
  3607. >You smile politely and banish any openly vulgar notions into the back of your mind.
  3608. "You are correct, oh noble knight."
  3609. >Careful, they could smell sarcasm.
  3610. "My... 'desires' have indeed very little to do with pure money."
  3611. >"And what is it then, commoner?"
  3612. >You cough.
  3613. >This could be rough.
  3614. "I was thinking of a... right to passage through your lands. I wish to talk to your..."
  3615. >What was the term #deca.mare used?
  3616. >Oh, right.
  3617. "... admirable Elder."
  3618. >Again, certain quizzical looks hidden behind unflinching helmets are exchanged between the three.
  3619. >"Methinks you do not grasp the size of your request, little one. The High Elder is a busy pony, and has no time to entertain the concerns of the rabble."
  3620. >Well, you could see that one coming.
  3621. >And what is the deal with everyone belittling you in one way or another?
  3622.  
  3623.  
  3624.  
  3625.  
  3626. >Did someone put an idiot sign on your back when you were not looking?
  3627. "But I am willing to pawn a good deal of assets for this one opportunity. See the barrel saddle and the hammer on my back? Are they not worth a single good word in my favour?"
  3628. >"Your battle saddle and the squeaky sledge are in good condition, but quaint baubles nonetheless."
  3629. "Really?"
  3630. >"A commoner like you may not understand this, but these weapons are mere surplus gear in the eyes of an ascended knight. Rest assured, no pony in our armour would be seen with anything lesser than a super squeaky sledge when they trade blows with an enemy."
  3631. >Whatever that is.
  3632. >Maybe it has more colours than the regular clown tool.
  3633. >Anyway, you do not fail to notice a little discrepancy in what the "honourable" knight says, and what he actually does.
  3634. >After all, why would he and his caravan willingly pay you for gear that they allegedly regard as junk?
  3635. >That does not make any sense.
  3636. >Unless he deliberately tries to make them seem less valuable than they really are, of course.
  3637. >In other words, he tries to skew the price to lower the recompense.
  3638. >That way he can present himself as noble while actually being a cheapskate.
  3639. >But your request to gain a temporary passage to their bunker has complicated that strategy a little.
  3640. >He could easily reduce the number of total caps he pays, but altering your wish is not quite as easy.
  3641. >You just hope he does not get the idea to ask for a payment per kilometre or something.
  3642. >But as you think about this, your trading partner is hard at work to blatantly hammer the point further.
  3643. >"And the saddle, well..."
  3644. >The stallion slightly tilts his body to let the massive barrels on his sides sway right before your eyes.
  3645. >"... as even you can clearly see, a simple saddle cannot compete."
  3646. >Yes yes, dick waving contest.
  3647. >And here you thought stallions would have no need for those.
  3648. >Then again, the mares in their order will surely not act much better towards outsiders either.
  3649. >"Besides, do you think our prime bastion, our beloved home, is a place you can enter on a whim? What if somepony wants to lay bare its inner workings? To expose our magnificent expertise to the ruffians in the wastes?"
  3650. >Then you would ask your wife and get all the information you want in thirty seconds or less, dear Knight of the Tin Order.
  3651. >"No, we cannot allow this."
  3652. >We will see about that, now will we?
  3653. "Ahem, let me assure you that I have no interest in spying you out. In fact, to be entirely honest with you, I do not operate within the power structure and politics of this place."
  3654. >Direct and bold, but perhaps it helps.
  3655. >"Oh, is that so? You do not look like somepony from the 'outside'. And the word of a commoner does not have much value to begin with. I am sure you understand."
  3656. >Yes, you like playing the prick.
  3657. >And now to the card #deca.mare has given you.
  3658. "I see. But what about the word of a Royal Courier in the service of Celestia and the Equestrian diarchy?"
  3659.  
  3660.  
  3661.  
  3662.  
  3663. >The instantaneous reward for your sudden reveal: Four tilted heads.
  3664. "There is a scroll in my possession. I shall deliver it to your Elder."
  3665. >"So that is within the four casings."
  3666. >What?
  3667. >That suit also has a scanner?
  3668. >The stallion, however, gets directly to the point.
  3669. >"In this case, turn the scroll over to us. We will take it to the High Elder in your name. If you say the truth, that is."
  3670. >At that, you follow #deca.mare's second advice and shake your head.
  3671. "I can't do that. When I was given the mission, I vowed to the princess that I deliver the scrolls in person. It is part of the Courier's Code."
  3672. >Which is technically bollocks, as long as the message safely reaches the correct addressee, and only this addressee.
  3673. >The details of the how and who are not so strictly defined, as long as the job gets done properly.
  3674. >But, according to #deca.mare, he should buy the reasoning behind your refusal.
  3675. "And so, I have to decline this proposal. As noble as its intentions are."
  3676. >A second metal can pony speaks up.
  3677. >With a distinctively feminine voice.
  3678. >"This is the first commoner who rejects our gracious offer like that. Perhaps there is a grain of truth to his words."
  3679. >But the stallion does not agree with her comment.
  3680. >"We cannot know that. For all we know, he could be a brash spy and nothing more."
  3681. >The knights openly have their conversation right in front of you.
  3682. >And the trio completely ignores the fact that you can hear every word loud and clear.
  3683. >Spy or not, it really tells you how much of a perceived threat you are to them.
  3684. >And a younger version of yourself might have had a bruised ego now.
  3685. >Oh well.
  3686. >The third encased pony chimes in.
  3687. >"All the others got scared though. We got them to give us their stuff at an underprice before they ran. This one doesn't behave like those petty scavengers."
  3688. >Another female, albeit with a noticeably rougher voice than the first.
  3689. >And she called you petty, huh?
  3690. >Says the mare who literally admitted to ripping off ponies just one sentence earlier.
  3691. >Okay, right then.
  3692. >So much for the high knightly standards.
  3693. >The stallion looks your way again.
  3694. >"We demand that you show us the scroll."
  3695. >We?
  3696. >He states that in the name of the whole group, even though you could witness firsthand that he took the liberty to make up the demand on his own.
  3697. >Yet neither of the two mares, nor the stallion at the wagon, bothers to comment on that.
  3698.  
  3699.  
  3700.  
  3701.  
  3702. >They have apparently no objection to his practice.
  3703. >And if Daring's reports are accurate, you can count on their cohesion as a group to be absolute when an unremarkable outsider like you is opposing them.
  3704. >However, you remain steadfast.
  3705. "No can do. The scroll explicitly addresses the Elder."
  3706. >You think you hear a faint gnarling sound from the stallion.
  3707. >"We can take your belongings with ease if we want to, little one. You are foolish to reject the caps. And as you would do well to know, meeting us means that you are amongst the few lucky ponies. Not everyone in our Order is as merciful to outsiders as we are."
  3708. >Something clicks loudly inside the suit, and the pony strikes a charging pose.
  3709. >"And even our noble grace has limits."
  3710. >To hell with it, you play the role.
  3711. >If there is a time in your life to act unashamedly cheesy, it is now.
  3712. "Then I go down with my honour as Courier intact. But I will not forfeit my mission."
  3713. >You fall silent and simply stay upright, fearlessly facing the three massive pony frames in front of you.
  3714. >And they stand steadfast as well.
  3715. >Although the six barrels on their end make it a lot easier for them to remain confident.
  3716. >You wish you could see their faces now.
  3717. >It would help tremendously to read the mood here.
  3718. >Eventually, the tense situation relaxes somewhat, as the stallion at the head ceases to face you in his offensive stance.
  3719. >"Very well. You are at least persistent. That is a respectable feat, even when it is shown by a.... wanderer... dressed in a lowly mantle and crusted filth."
  3720. >Up yours.
  3721. >"Still, that leaves us at an impasse. We have no reason to trust you."
  3722. "Not even when I part with some of my gear?"
  3723. >"Commoner, that is a matter of course. And your willingness to cooperate so eagerly may be commendable, but it is nothing special."
  3724. >You ask yourself if these guys are related to Trixie, or if they are merely playing their egocentric act that damn well.
  3725. >"The latter, Anon."
  3726. >Neat to know, yet not exactly helpful.
  3727. >You need to find a constructive solution for this encounter.
  3728. >And while mentioning your title tempted at least two of the four to consider your words for a brief moment, there is much more work to do.
  3729. >So you decide to drop the big bomb onto the arena.
  3730. >Your mind reaches out to #deca.mare.
  3731. >Show me the flight squad's signatures, #deca.
  3732. >I know they must swoop down any moment.
  3733. >"Understood, Anon."
  3734. >The four outlines reappear on your HUD.
  3735. >However, they no longer form a cluster.
  3736. >The squad has split into two pairs instead.
  3737. >One duo hides somewhere in the clouds to your west, a good bit away from your current position.
  3738. >They could reach you in a couple of minutes if they rushed though.
  3739. >And the second team hides at the same altitude.
  3740. >Albeit directly above the wagon.
  3741. >Oh damn, high time to get started.
  3742. "And what if I can help you with... something else?"
  3743. >"For instance?"
  3744. "For instance, with some other information that you could be interested in."
  3745. >No response.
  3746.  
  3747.  
  3748.  
  3749.  
  3750. >They are waiting for more.
  3751. >So you give it to them.
  3752. "As a sign of good faith, I'd gladly share some intel with you. No strings attached."
  3753. >A hearty laughter bellows out of the suit of the rougher mare.
  3754. >"Hah! What could you possibly have heard of that we don't know about?"
  3755. >And the stallion shows some signs of renewing impatience too.
  3756. >"Get to the point."
  3757. >With pleasure, friend.
  3758. "Well,..."
  3759. >You look at the sky, seemingly in thought.
  3760. "During my... morning routine, I spotted a wing of Pegasi flying high in the clouds. And if I read their patterns right, they could try to intercept you."
  3761. >Though as you say this directly, you wonder how four Pegasi are supposed to beat this display of might.
  3762. >Sure, Pegasus flight teams have an unquestionable air superiority against these foes.
  3763. >But the knights are no easy targets from what you can see.
  3764. >A ridiculously heavy setup like this will surely resist fiercely and put up a defensive fight until the very end.
  3765. >Like Mender on steroids.
  3766. >But with less rodeo, probably.
  3767. >And the knights fall dead silent in the aftermath of your speech.
  3768. >Unnervingly silent in your opinion.
  3769. >All eyes are locked onto you now as if they were cemented.
  3770. >This much becomes very clear, despite their heavy helmets.
  3771. >Even the Unicorn who did not speak a single word to you, or anyone else for that matter, is listening intently.
  3772. >The mood changes rapidly as the situation grows ever more tense.
  3773. >And after a few stiff seconds of nothingness which feel like an eternity to you, the first mare finds the inspiration to point out what surely all of them must think right now.
  3774. >"Pegasus, if that is a threat..."
  3775. >You plainly interrupt her.
  3776. "No. This no threat of mine. But it's also no joke. I've seen four Pegasus ponies flying in a diamond across the sky. They can't be far away. And with no other group nearby who might be of interest to them... I guess you know what that means."
  3777. >The stallion growls.
  3778. >"And who says it was not you who led them here? You could be one of them!"
  3779. "A simple truth does. They'll shoot at me just as well."
  3780. >You pause shortly to let that sink in.
  3781. "As I said, I'm not affiliated with any faction in the wasteland."
  3782. >The knights observe their surroundings, predominantly the sky, and look for any clues which may indicate that you might be right.
  3783. >Interestingly, the Unicorn keeps watching you whilst the others are busy.
  3784. >But the wasteland is quiet.
  3785. >Perhaps a little too quiet.
  3786. >"See anything?"
  3787. >"No, you?"
  3788. >"Neither."
  3789. >In the ensuing hectic search, you observe two things at once.
  3790. >The first is the group of four alerted knights in front of you.
  3791. >And the second is a sudden change high above your heads.
  3792. >The sky ponies are on the move.
  3793. >Downwards, with a frightening speed.
  3794. >You wager they must have realised that their plan was somehow revealed, and therefore decided to strike immediately.
  3795. >But several things about this strategy bother you immensely.
  3796.  
  3797.  
  3798.  
  3799.  
  3800. >For one, why do they take this risk, now that their opponents are expecting the encounter?
  3801. >And what baffles you even more, what do only two ponies hope to achieve by fighting against four better equipped and ready opponents?
  3802. >You miss a puzzle piece, and you need to find it in the next minute or so.
  3803. >#deca, real life image of the attackers, now!
  3804. >Knowing that time is critically short, she skips the usual verbal confirmation and just projects the requested image onto your HUD.
  3805. >It shows nothing.
  3806. >Except open clear sky with a minor visual distortion.
  3807. >And you have utilised enough portable stealth units to recognise that signature.
  3808. >An extremely rare sort of enchantment in all of Equestria, as only a handful of Unicorns manage to master the related spells at all.
  3809. >Not to mention the time and effort it takes them to build even a single small wearable stealth device that can be used by others.
  3810. >Seeing one is already a rarity.
  3811. >But here, you see two in action simultaneously.
  3812. >And both are used against the ponies you are meant to help out.
  3813. "Oh, crap!"
  3814. >You waste no time and warn your newfound "friends" of the impending danger.
  3815. "They're invisible! Coming right at us from above!"
  3816. >With this new information, you expect all of them to look straight up.
  3817. >But instead of doing that, the canned stallion looks over to the Unicorn.
  3818. >"Throw up the net!"
  3819. >The pale pony in the harness mouths some unspoken phrases.
  3820. >You have no idea what he tries to convey, but you can see the result all the same.
  3821. >His horn starts to glow in an almost ghostly bright aura that mirrors his faintly aquamarine eyes.
  3822. >And whatever emergency spell he is building up, it happens not a moment too soon either.
  3823. >Because a pair of winged ponies appears seemingly out of nothing, only a few hundred metres above.
  3824. >The two Pegasi go in, guns blazing, and with no holds barred.
  3825. >A deluge of shining rapid fire projectiles is coming your way before anyone else has the chance to react in any meaningful manner.
  3826. >Spelling certain doom for both you, and at least the unprotected Unicorn.
  3827. >Or so it would have been.
  3828. >If it were not for a number of slim beams that emanate from the horn of the robed pony.
  3829. >Each pale ray of light precisely intercepts one energy charge, which promptly dissipates upon contact.
  3830. >The entire storm evaporates before even one particle reaches the ground.
  3831. >And by the time the charges do reach you, they have all turned into nothing more than puffs of slightly warmed air.
  3832. >You blink as you watch the spectacle unfold in less than two seconds.
  3833. >And your brain struggles to comprehend what you have just seen, whilst the winged ponies above you cuss audibly.
  3834. >#deca, explanation.
  3835. >Are we dead?
  3836. >"No. The shots count as neutralised charges."
  3837. >So that is what the Unicorn is good for.
  3838. >You suddenly understand why he is pulling the wagon, and why only two Pegasi flew ahead for a surprise attack.
  3839.  
  3840.  
  3841.  
  3842.  
  3843. >They wanted to take out the pale stallion in a stealth run, as they realised his strategic value for the group.
  3844. >If they were successful in their attempt, the caravan would have lost an important defensive asset, tipping the odds significantly in favour of the ambushers.
  3845. >But your intervention has thrown a wrench in their plan.
  3846. >Meanwhile on the field, you get to see the result of your actions.
  3847. >Guarded by the living defensive grid in their ranks, the heavy trio prepares for a suitable measure of retaliation.
  3848. >The knights level their saddled barrels at the flying ponies with a remarkable display of agility that you would not have expected from these suits.
  3849. >Then they wait for a good opportunity to strike.
  3850. >And the right chance is practically guaranteed to come.
  3851. >Given the steep angle from whence they shot, and the drastic downward trajectory, the Pegasi are virtually forced to slow down and turn around.
  3852. >Even with their augments and remarkable stability, you doubt that the Pegasi would dare to risk a crash with such a breakneck speed.
  3853. >So it comes the way it has to come.
  3854. >Once the two fliers alter their course to prevent an unpleasant snuggling session with the ground, the knights open fire in turn.
  3855. >You hear some inner mechanisms working in the suits as the triggers are pressed.
  3856. >Larger rubber projectiles, about the size of a squash ball, are slung out of the barrels with a loud thump.
  3857. >Much to your astonishment, the bullets are fast enough to catch up with at least one of the two Pegasi.
  3858. >Only a singular ball makes contact with the winged mare and bounces off her back, but considering the size of the calibre, it is fairly obvious that the damage of a real round would have been devastating.
  3859. >And the mare acknowledges that as well.
  3860. >She fakes a yelp and stops her attempt to evade and retreat.
  3861. >Accepting her fate, she slowly descends to the ground in a somewhat orderly fashion, simulating a controlled crash landing without any bruises or other injuries.
  3862. >The second Pegasus, seeing what happened to his peer, hastily flies evasive turns and rolls like mad to avoid the same fate.
  3863. >As an experienced flier yourself, you can tell that some of his moves are indeed worthy of a stunt flier.
  3864. >Perhaps he would even be military material, if there were such a dedicated force in Equestria.
  3865. >The knights seemingly notice that too.
  3866. >For they do not unleash a second volley upon the stallion.
  3867. >They merely trace his movements with their barrels to let him know that half a dozen bullets are pointed at him, no matter what stunt he tries.
  3868. >And so the attacker swiftly comes to the only logical conclusion.
  3869. >He veers off and disappears.
  3870. >Why did they not shoot him down though?
  3871. >It would have meant more loot.
  3872. >#deca.mare responds to that.
  3873. >"To save ammunition. Their weapons pack a powerful punch, but their magazines are relatively limited due to the calibre. This is why knights tend to prefer conservative doctrines."
  3874.  
  3875.  
  3876.  
  3877.  
  3878. >They could collect the flung balls after the fight though. It is not like there is something standing in their way after they have won the battle.
  3879. >A coy laughter sounds over the comm.
  3880. >You know this cannot be good.
  3881. >"About that."
  3882. >What is it?
  3883. >"Let me just say that the knights know their foes and the enemy strategies a little bit better than you."
  3884. >Translation, please?
  3885. >"Scan the sector, longest range."
  3886. >You adjust the systems inside your goggles and scan at maximum capacity.
  3887. >It takes a few seconds until the information is fully processed.
  3888. >But what you find makes you glad that your proxy did not have a breakfast this morning.
  3889. >Eight new red squares have joined the two remaining signatures above the clouds.
  3890. >If the stallion groups up with them, you are going to face an eleven to five.
  3891. >With that magnitude of combined firepower, the Pegasi could pick the caravan apart piece by piece if they focus their attacks properly.
  3892. >You doubt that even the impressive defence spell of the Unicorn can save them from that fate.
  3893. >Not to mention that the knights are most likely not armed with enough rubber balls to down such a swarm of hostiles.
  3894. >They are bound to run out of ammo, sooner or later.
  3895. >And to confirm your fears for good, the distance between the flock and you begins to dwindle.
  3896. >The hunt is on.
  3897. >Yet you are no longer sure who is hunting who anymore.
  3898. >One thing is clear though.
  3899. >You are nowhere near the apex in here.
  3900. "Oh. Hell."
  3901. >A knight steps up to you as you say this, though you are not sure who it is until she talks to you.
  3902. >It is the rougher mare.
  3903. >"I guess you've just spotted their quick reaction force, didn't you?"
  3904. >You let your jaw drop.
  3905. "You knew this was coming?"
  3906. >"Did you seriously think they'd attack us with only four ponies, and in split groups?"
  3907. "Uh, yes?"
  3908. >She heartily laughs at you again.
  3909. >"Alright! Now you've convinced that you aren't with them! Your naivety is delicious!"
  3910. >Yeah, thank you very much.
  3911. >And you just remember something that Daring mentioned.
  3912. >The Pegasi cloud teams are a highly mobile faction.
  3913. >So of course they can rapidly move their forces around.
  3914. >"Seriously, you should have expected that. The Pegasi are featherbrain commoners, but they're no complete imbeciles. For the most part."
  3915. >You flare your wings to hint at something.
  3916. >But the mare ignores the obvious cue and is apparently not aware of any blunder on her part.
  3917. >She pats you on the back instead.
  3918. >"Maybe you get a chance to prove your worth to us after all if you fight well, Courier!"
  3919. >It is only a moderate bump, but thanks to the servo support of the joints, the metal clad limb has enough force behind its swing to make you stagger.
  3920. >The saddle you have pilfered from Mender falls off your back.
  3921. >Well, it would have dropped in an air fight anyway, so there is that.
  3922. >But hearing the knight laugh as you stumble a few steps to the side tells you that she enjoys toying with you like this.
  3923. >"Heh, dainty."
  3924.  
  3925.  
  3926.  
  3927.  
  3928. >She inhales deeply.
  3929. >"You know what, I am in a good mood. So how about this? You survive this day, and I'll consider to speak out in your favour. Provided you ask nicely like it befits an outsider of your rank, of course."
  3930. >You remain silent and just look at her.
  3931. >Should her behaviour really be just an act, as #deca.mare claims, then you bet that the metal mare is smiling widely behind her helmet right now.
  3932. >She reminds you a lot of a younger #deca.mare, back when she had merely six hundred years of life experience under her belt.
  3933. >That young lady had similar streaks of cockiness sometimes.
  3934. >And of course, mostly when you could need it the least.
  3935. >"Well, Dainty? What do you say?"
  3936. >Hold on, that was a serious offer?
  3937. >#deca.mare chimes in.
  3938. >"Yes, it was."
  3939. >You take a breath.
  3940. "Deal. But I'm not 'Dainty'."
  3941. >"I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch that, Dainty Daisy. It sounded too plebeian."
  3942. >You grit your teeth.
  3943. >Here is the offer you have been waiting for, yet she wants you to play ball to earn it.
  3944. >And considering that you are stuck with them in the coming fight, for better or worse, it is the best opportunity you will get.
  3945. >So you take that little quip for what it is and do her the favour.
  3946. "My... humble self would be... delighted... to accept these generous conditions."
  3947. >And the mare actually nods.
  3948. >"Good enough, Dainty."
  3949. "My name isn't Dainty though."
  3950. >"It is from now on. Until we have decided otherwise."
  3951. "And when is that going to be?"
  3952. >"When you have shown your mettle. Or never if you don't."
  3953. >Oh wonderful, a new nickname you did not ask for.
  3954. >"Besides, don't you think it is fitting for your mud loving rump? You look like you were stuck in the dirt like a, well, daisy."
  3955. >A small, perhaps silly part in you wonders whether it could be #deca.mare who is secretly inside that suit, just to tease you a little.
  3956. >You promptly get a comment over the comm channel.
  3957. >"This is nonsense, Anon. As you can hear, I am right here."
  3958. >Right, #deca.
  3959. >And surely, there is absolutely no way for you to work at two places simultaneously.
  3960. >That silly notion is wholly impossible.
  3961. >"Less sarcasm, and more focus, please. You need to have a clear head now."
  3962. >Fair point.
  3963. >Despite the levity in the knight's actions, the situation is dire for them.
  3964. >And for you by association as well.
  3965. >It gradually dawns on you that your limited intervention so far could have never been enough to salvage anything.
  3966. >You have merely prevented the confrontation from turning into a one-sided slugging fest.
  3967. >But you have to actively fight for the knights nevertheless.
  3968. >With their Unicorn saved from the ambush, and you by their side as the only potential flier in the air, the overall odds are stacked far less against them.
  3969. >Yet they are still very far from being even.
  3970. >Clearly, #deca.mare knew this in advance.
  3971. >Which is why she has deliberately put you in this position, you assume.
  3972.  
  3973.  
  3974.  
  3975.  
  3976. >"I did. Consider this, Anon. If you help them out successfully, you have gained the trust of the least cooperative faction in one difficult encounter. Winning against all hope is what they respect the most."
  3977. >Yes, but eleven to five?
  3978. >You will have to pull every single trick as a pilot out of your proverbial hat to survive this one.
  3979. >Especially since you are the only member of your team who can fight airborne.
  3980. >If you can even call it a team.
  3981. >Good grief, you should have brought more proxies to control for a massed encounter of this scale.
  3982. >#deca.mare addresses you again.
  3983. >"No worries. There is no need to breed your own private army of avatars for a little tussle."
  3984. >Little?
  3985. >"Little indeed. Because I have devised a strategy for the fight, if you are interested."
  3986. >You must be joking.
  3987. >Give it, now.
  3988. >"Of course, Anon."
  3989. >A screen of text forms on your HUD.
  3990. >And as you watch how the knights prepare themselves for the inevitable encounter with one eye, you quickly skim over the proposal text with the other.
  3991. "Oh man, that's complicated."
  3992. >"What's complicated, commoner?"
  3993. >Damn, the armoured stallion thinks you meant him.
  3994. "Nothing."
  3995. >"Already frightened by your winged peers, Dainty?"
  3996. >This time you cannot suppress a grumble.
  3997. >The four ignore your indirect protest against your new title, however.
  3998. >Looks like the name is here to stay.
  3999. >And you try to shrug it off as you turn around to take a look at the eleven red squares.
  4000. >The group is en route to plunder some ponies.
  4001. >And from this long distance, they are still hardly visible in the murky sky.
  4002. >At least for a casual viewer.
  4003. >For their shapes barely form a contrast to the dull grey cloud layer above them yet.
  4004. >But even without zooming in on them with your augmented vision, you just know that their faces are beaming with anticipation.
  4005. >As they ride in on flapping wings, prisms glistening readily on their barrels.
  4006. >This will be a tough cookie.
  4007. >Even with #deca.mare's plan.
  4008. >You have to think back to the flight through the Ghastly Gorge in the show.
  4009. >"Anon?"
  4010. >Yes?
  4011. >"I can play the song if you want to."
  4012. >Yeah, no.
  4013. >This is not the right tune for a post-apocalyptic setting.
  4014. >Especially when you have no idea who is going down in the end.
  4015.  
  4016. Footnote: Title "Dainty Daisy" unlocked - The Knightly Order considers you to be interesting enough to give you a name. Surely, this is the first step on your glorious career path to becoming a shining paladin in gleaming armour. Keep it up!
  4017.  
  4018. Footnote: You have gained recognition - You are now known amongst Pegasi as can enthusiast. You seem to have a thing for cute mares who are hidden beneath tough metal shells.
  4019.  
  4020.  
  4021.  
  4022.  
  4023. Dramatis personae:
  4024.  
  4025. There be spoilers.
  4026.  
  4027. Main protagonists:
  4028.  
  4029. Anon (You) - Human man (here in control of a male Pegasus proxy), former terran space pilot, secret co-founder of Equestria, husband of #deca.mare
  4030.  
  4031. #deca.mare - CPU-ship-based AGI Earth pony mare, terraforming and spacecraft specialist, secret founder of Equestria, wife of Anon
  4032.  
  4033. Side characters:
  4034.  
  4035. Scrap Mender            - Earth pony stallion, scavenger, repair pony, part-time instructor, group leader, big brother of Pin Point
  4036. Pin Point               - Unicorn mare, scavenger, marksmare, member of Scrap Mender's group, little sister of Scrap Mender
  4037. Straight Nail           - Earth pony stallion, scavenger, member of Scrap Mender's group, likes hammers
  4038. Picky Measure           - Earth pony stallion, scavenger, member of Scrap Mender's group, favours pole weapons or plain poles
  4039. Four unnamed knights    - Two stallions (One known to be a Unicorn trained in defensive magic), two mares, in possession of heavy "arms" and prototype full-body metal suits
  4040. Dainty Daisy            - The knights' moniker for Anon's Pegasus proxy
  4041.  
  4042. Guest characters:
  4043.  
  4044. Daring Do (Disguised as Rainbow Dash) - Pegasus mare, adventurer, explorer, author, in service of the Equestrian crown, artefact curator

Shape Your Home, Part 5

by Ponegreen

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Shape Your Home, Part 4

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Shape Your Home, Part 3

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Shape Your Home, Part 2

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