Chapter 4: Oorah Devil Dog

"In the beginning we were three tribes, but none could survive in isolation, so we were afraid.

From fear grew distrust, and when famine struck distrust became resentment and anger. Pony fought pony with hoof and magic and steel, we fought until our land was barren; our families starved while we spilt blood on the snow of eternal winter. Only once we found the will to unite under one banner, to put aside our differences and work together for the good of all ponies did the famine finally break. It was not the blade that saved us, it was friendship.

When the Alicorns appeared and took command of day and night we lost a piece of our control, and we were afraid. Unicorns became loyalists and separatists; and magic once again became a tool of violence.

It was not spells that saved us, it was friendship.

When the nights grew dark we did not look up at the heavens in wonder, instead we stared desperately into the shadows surrounding us. Darkness hid the unknown, so we were afraid.

When the nightmare came upon us it was not the might of the Celestial guard that saved us, it was friendship.

We have come so far, my little ponies, from tilling the barren fields of our beginnings. The weather now bends to our every whim; the sun and moon themselves live among us; industry, ingenuity and magic have put us more in control of our destiny as a species than at any other time in our history. We have medicine to cure the sick, agriculture to feed the hungry, shelter for the weary and education for seekers of knowledge. The megaspell, our greatest achievement in magic since unicorns first banded together to raise the sun, has the potential to end all injury and disease. My little ponies, we have bested death itself and yet we are still held back by fear. Fear of those who are different, fear of the unknown. Through fear we have perverted what could be our greatest triumph into a tool of unimaginable hate and destruction, a looming spectre that could end our species with the touch of a single hoof.

Now we hunger for more than food and we are terrified it will come to an end. The Zebras have something we need, we can no longer exist in isolation and we are afraid. We are lied to by wartime propaganda and believe with all our hearts and minds that we fight for freedom and self-preservation. We celebrate dying for Equestria as the greatest achievement our young ponies, our sons, our daughters, can strive for. Our greatest creations of magic, ingenuity and industry are used to spill the blood of people who are just as scared, just as lied to and just as capable of friendship as we are. We have sacrificed our privacy and freedom of speech to Morale and Image for the sake of safety and security, yet we live with the constant fear of total annihilation and we threaten the same to prevent it. We are so afraid, so blinded by eyes taken for eyes that we have forgotten our beginnings. We have forgotten what made this nation strong.

This nation was not forged by the steel of blades, nor conjured by great magics, it was not bound by will of a single pony, nor even the pursuit of a single goal, this nation was born in the bonds of friendship; and it is through friendship that we will prevail!

The path to friendship will not be easy. We must forgive the unforgivable, forgo vengeance for our fathers and sons; mothers and daughters lost to this great war. We must never again surrender to the tempting embrace of fear, to don the armor of hate and brandish the sword of nationalism.

My little ponies, we can do better. We must do better. We will do better. Let not the fire of our hatred sweep through our lands; allow the warmth of friendship back into your hearts and we shall follow the only path that leads to true victory, for you see my little ponies; friendship. Friendship, never changes."

Excerpt from a speech by Weathered Scroll, Historian and Pony Peace Advocate; Speech delivered shortly before his assassination by a lone, crazed gunpony.

I awoke to find myself on a wooden floor, sighing as I realised that I had once again woken up with no idea where I was. I patted my chest where my rifle should have been and my breath caught in panic as I realised it wasn't there. Fear gripped my guts, my body tensing like a coiled spring.

"Fuck!" I exclaimed as I tore my eyes open, sitting upright. I went for my knife, my hand closing on air. It was missing too. I bared my teeth almost instinctively as I prepared to fight hand to hand with whatever had disarmed me, hands forming into knives of bone and flesh. I stood up to my full height, eyes searching for an escape route from... Twilight's library?

I finally took in my surroundings. There could be no doubt of where I was, but it looked wrong. It was... perfect. No damage at all. It could have been a set from the show. Crisp sunlight, unfiltered by clouds, streamed in through the windows, landing on clean, brightly colored surfaces that were at odds with my recent experience of filth and violence. Only then did I notice the two mares in front of me, a lavender unicorn and a butter yellow pegasus. The unicorn was projecting a shield that they were both sitting behind.

I eyed the pair warily. "What's going on? Who are you and how did I get here? Where is the colt I was with?" My eyes shifted between the pair as I talked, occasionally darting around looking for an exit or potential improvised weapons. My brain felt sluggish as my training fought to keep me focused. Something about this whole situation seemed off.

The unicorn answered first, turning to reveal Twilight's cutie mark on her flank "I-I'm Twilight Sparkle, personal student of Princess Celest-"

"Bullshit." I interjected, "Twilight has been dead for two hundred years. Try again, but how about the truth this time?" The imposter Twilight broke composure slightly at my accusation and the momentary widening of her eyes let me know I was right. If only my head would stop buzzing, I was sure I could figure out what this charade was about.

The unicorn quickly changed her expression to one of mild indignation and annoyance. The yellow pegasus seemed to be trying to hide her face behind her pink mane. There was no mistaking who they appeared to be.

"I'm not dead!" The unicorn exclaimed, "Why would you... how do you even know who I am?"

"How would I not know you? Well, the pony you are posing as, anyway. Actually, you probably wouldn't believe me if I could find the words to explain myself." Something about all of this was otherworldly, like I wasn't quite connected to what was going on. It made thinking straight rather difficult. "Wait, forget all that. Where is the injured colt I was with? What have you done with him?"

"There was nopony with you when we foun-" she began. I quickly stood up and covered the distance separating us. For some reason, this little act of theirs was really starting to piss me off. It may have just been the fuzziness in my head, but I was done with small talk. I brought my knife hand down on the pink energy shield, sending a ripple of force across its surface, collapsing it almost instantly. The unicorn gasped, falling to the floor and clutching her horn in pain.

The yellow mare finally emerged from behind her mane, eyes suddenly wide. My body seized up, our eyes locked. Slowly, I sank to my knees, unable to resist the influence of 'the stare', not that I wanted to anymore. I knew it was really her now, but I had no way to signal my surrender. I felt the unyielding force eating away at my mind. Flashes of white disrupted my vision, I could smell burning... hair and flesh. The flashes became explosions, buildings on fire, my hearing receded to a constant whine. The library spun and I found myself looking at the ceiling, but I didn't remember falling. Pain exploded through the back of my skull, my mouth opening in a silent cry, lungs refusing to put forward sound to match.

"F-fluttershy, p-plea-" I managed to mutter, just before another wave of pain struck. My body spasmed and the back of my head collided with the floor.

My head pounded, my ears rang, and my face was painfully numb from sleeping with a rock for a pillow. I groaned as I shifted position, my body making its aches and pains known to me. Normally I was a light sleeper, but that morning left me wondering what hard-ass motherfucker I outdrank last night to wind up passed out in a cave.

"W-what are you?" asked a little voice, breaking through the ringing in my ears.

The sound of a child's voice was an instant indicator that something was very, very wrong. I winced as I drew breath. Definitely some broken ribs. Nice. Grabbing ahold of my rifle, I sat up, immediately feeling light headed and nauseous. Gritting my teeth, I suppressed those feelings as much as I could and surveyed my surroundings. I saw the colt and almost did a double take as my memory finally kicked in. I was still in the wasteland.

The colt was levitating the raider pistol, pointing it straight at me. For fuck's sake, can anything in this world not point a gun at me? I patted one of my pouches and relaxed slightly. I was really hoping I wouldn't end up regretting helping this kid. I wasn't feeling up to fighting a wounded child, even if they were of a different species. I was fairly sure I could make the shot if I needed to, but I wasn't about to risk it if I could talk my way out. Hey, all I had to do was explain to a child why I had to kill all of his friends and family. How hard could it be? I looked into his bizarrely huge eyes and saw my grimy visage reflected in the glistening orbs that somehow managed to convey at once both innocence and righteous fury.

"I-I," I began, stopping mid-sentence once I realised that I had nothing to finish it with. My body was awake, if battered; I was ready to operate my rifle, follow shouted orders, run to the aid of my comrades, but forming a coherent sentence seemed to be beyond my current capabilities. Mentally drained, I fell back on the universally applicable word utilised by all Marines when they need to fill a sentence gap.

"Fuck." I concluded.

The colt looked confused, but still angry, cocking its head to one side.

"What's a 'fuck'?" It asked hesitantly. If I could have facepalmed without releasing my grip on my rifle, I may have broken my nose right then and there. As it was, I just started laughing, and once I started, I just couldn't stop. What the fuck was I doing here? I asked that question enough back in Afghanistan, but here? In a world of fucking magical talking ponies? Looking after a kid? I must be crazy.

The colt's expression had returned to outright fury, "Hey!" he yelled, "It's not funny!" He let out a scream of frustration and I heard a click as the colt pulled the trigger on an empty chamber.

I stopped laughing abruptly, bandaged hand shooting forward and grabbing the colt by the throat, pulling him into a chokehold before he had a chance to react. His magic cut out from the shock and the pistol dropped to the ground. I lifted him up to eye level, his legs flailing uselessly in panic. I didn't want to hurt him, just send a message, so I stopped squeezing short of completely cutting off his airway.

"Two things: first, before you use a weapon you should make sure it's loaded," I said grimly, pulling a 9mm round from a pouch on my vest, "and second, if you ever point a weapon at me again, I will kill you."

I dropped him, but as I was still sitting down there wasn't far for him to fall. He landed on his rump and scrambled to get back to his hooves. To his credit, he continued to face me down. The tough guy look he was trying to present was ruined by the very childlike way he began to cough. I almost felt bad as he rubbed his sore throat gently with a fetlock.

"Sorry kid, but if you don't listen to me, there's a good chance you will get a lot worse than that from someone nowhere near as kind-hearted as me. There are three options here," I stated, "option one, you lead the way to the nearest settlement, I make sure you get there alive and that's where we part ways."

The colt eyed me suspiciously, and really, I couldn't blame him. Would I trust him if the situation was reversed? I almost shook in disbelief at what I'd just done. I'd been choking a civilian, a child. I felt disgusted. How could I just lose control like that?

"Option two, I leave you out here in the wastes with the raiders," I continued. The colt's horn lit up and I felt my combat knife move in its sheath, I moved a hand to the knife's handle, "option three, you try to kill me again and I leave you out here in the wastes with the raiders and a bullet hole in you."

I felt the knife wrench a bit harder, still not quite breaking the buckle before a spark emanated from his horn and he winced as his magic cut out.

"Why should I trust you?" The colt accused, "You kill ponies!"

Despite the soaking it had gotten, my uniform still bore the stains of pony blood. My head still pulsed with pain, and fatigue was returning now that the rush of confrontation was over. I wanted so much just to close my eyes for a second, but I couldn't take the chance.

"Look kid, you've been dealt a shitty hand, but those are your options," I explained, "if you can think of another way..."

"Give me a gun." ordered the colt.

"No." I wasn't naive enough to not realize the orphan of the people I killed might want to do something about it.

"If you want me to trust you then give me a gun."

"I don't need you to trust me and I sure as hell don't trust you," I countered, "all you need to know is that I'm your best chance at getting out of here alive. Plus, you're a child, so that's a double no."

"It's not fair!" He screamed, stomping his little hooves "Why? Why did you shoot us? We were just traders, we never hurt anypony! And you just came and killed everypony you-"

"They shot me." I cut him off.

"So? You're wearing armor, you didn't even get hurt!"

"And how long do you think I would have stayed that way if I didn't defend myself?"

"You could have just run away!"

"What, so they could shoot me in the back?"

"They wouldn't!"

"They sure as hell tried! Do you think I like killing people? Do you think I just walk around looking for people to kill?" We were both yelling by this point. All the stress and anger just started to pour out. "They forced me to do this. All I wanted was to trade for some god damn water, but no, you xenophobic little fucks would rather kill a stranger than take a chance. I tried to leave. I tried to walk away. I tried to reason with them. I was unarmed, kneeling on the ground with my hands in the air and they shot me in the chest!"

"You're lying!" The colt yelled back, "They wouldn't!"

"They did."

"It's not true!"

I sighed, shaking my head. I felt my anger start to ebb at the childish denials. This little colt wasn't who I should be angry with. Yelling at a child wasn't going to do anything but make him upset. "Look, they were probably scared out of their minds," I reasoned, "when people are scared they do things, things they wouldn't even consider given a chance to think over their actions."

"You're the murderer here. They didn't kill anypony."

"Look, if you want an apology, I'm sorry. I wish this hadn't happened. I wish your parents were still alive, but I had no choice; it was them or me, and I'm always going to pick me."

How many people's lives was I worth anyway? A dozen? A hundred? They hadn't been enemy combatants, insurgents, they were just frightened traders.

"I'm not asking you to be my friend," I continued, "I killed your parents, I don't expect you not to hate me. You're not my prisoner, but you have become my responsibility. I will get you out of here safely, you have my word on that, as little as it may mean to you."

"But- but," the colt's voice dropped to a whimper, "why. It's not fair I- I can't-"

He finally broke into tears. He certainly was a brave kid, threatening a dangerous unknown creature, completely alien to this world and his understanding, but he was still a child. I felt my heart crush inside my chest. His cries were all too human and they brought up memories I wanted to forget; tiny fists pounding on my armored chest, cries of abject despair along with words I could guess the meaning of. This time I couldn't walk away, there was no-one else here to fix this for me.

I wanted to tell him that everything was going to be alright. I had the almost overwhelming urge to hug the crying pony. I don't really know why, but my instincts told me that this pony had to be protected.

I didn't hug him. Close physical contact would probably just have freaked him out more. Eventually I settled on placing a hand on his shoulder. He tensed up in shock, but didn't shy away from the gesture.

My head spun dangerously as I breathed through the pain in my chest, a combination of sympathy and rib fractures. There was a gnawing feeling in my gut which I only then recognised was hunger. As soon as my hand left the colt's shoulder he turned, as if to leave, but hesitated.

"Please," I said, "stay."

"Why should I?"

I thought through the reasons again, trying to come up with something I hadn't already said. Finally, an idea came to mind.

"I'll make you breakfast?"

Breakfast was... well I would have preferred a vegetarian omelette MRE, so that pretty much tells you everything you need to know about it. The can of mystery I opened turned out to be beans. The colt informed me they were 200 years old. I would have balked at this, but hey, he was a magical talking pony so I figured I'd let this one slide. The oats were damp and possibly moldy. I would be lying, however, if I told you I didn't relish every last morsel.

I got no complaints from the colt either. He just sat there staring at me blankly. Either he was used to such fare or he was too afraid to insult my terrible cooking. I kept the empty can, figuring I could cut it into a hobo stove for next time and hopefully improve the culinary experience. As soon as the colt had decided to come with me, the Pipbuck on my arm had beeped and displayed a new marker: 'New Appleoosa'. With a compass superimposed onto my vision and a GPS clamped to my wrist, it was going to be hard to get lost.

I fiddled with the device, flipping through its menus. I found what appeared to be a health readout; the chest area was highlighted where my ribs were broken with a frowning pony face beside it. Well, no shit. I was so glad to have a machine to tell me where it hurt.

After the meal, we continued to stare at each other in silence. How am I supposed to make conversation with a child of an alien species? How's it hanging? Hey, did you catch the game last week? Who's your favorite pony? Eventually I settled on something that seemed innocuous enough.

"Cloudy today, isn't it?" I asked.

The colt just stared at me like I was an idiot. That was getting to be a theme here.

"Uh, yeah," the colt said, tilting his head, "just like every day."

"During winter, you mean?"

"No, I mean every day," the colt continued, "the pegasi closed up the sky two hundred years ago."

"You know, I never actually got your name."

"You first."

"Alright," I said as I broke camp, sparse as our belongings were, it didn't take long, "Lance Corporal John Pearson, and yours?"

"That's a silly name," the colt chided, "What's a 'pearson'?"

"It was my father's name."

"What does he do?" The colt seemed to be warming up to me, he looked to be practically bursting with childish inquisitiveness. He was leading the way down the road.

"He's a businessman."

"Uh huh, yeah," he looked up at me earnestly, "and, what's a 'john'?"

God help me, I liked it better when he was quiet.

"A john is someone wh… it doesn't mean anything." I finished quickly.

"That's dumb," the colt seemed to have forgotten himself, "what's a 'lance corporal'?"

"It's a military rank."

"What's a 'rank'?"

"It's," I began. Shit, how do I explain this? "It's a special name that tells people whether they have to listen to me or I have to listen to them."

"Wait, you're in the military," he suddenly turned around, "like, in the War? No wonder you don't know anything, you're like, a time traveler. Did you ever get to kill any Zebras?"

I sighed and looked him in the eye. Even on a different world people still asked the same damn question. The colt froze after a second, realising what he had just asked. He turned and continued walking, eyes downcast. Tears fell from his face almost silently, with only the occasional intake of breath.

I wanted to tell him that everything was going to be alright, but honestly? How was it going to be alright? My plan was hardly fair. I was just going to take the colt to a settlement and throw him upon their charity. Orphans had enough trouble at the best of times, let alone in a post-apocalyptic settlement. But what other choice did I have? I couldn't take him with me.

I sighed. Maybe he had some extended family. I hated to think how far out of my way that was going to take me, but it just didn't feel right. When I thought of him as an alien it made perfect sense to put him back with more of his kind, but now that I had talked with him it was a struggle not to think of him as a human child. I swore under my breath.

"What's your name, kid?" He looked up in surprise. "I need something to call you."

He hesitated. "Ink Blot."

I wanted to approach this delicately, but I couldn't think of how. "Ink Blot, do you have any family that weren't in that caravan?"

He looked at me with hate in his eyes. "Why do you care?" he retorted, "Are you planning on killing them too?"

I sighed in exasperation.

"When we get to New Appleoosa, what do you plan on doing?" I asked, "Who are you going to stay with?"

The colt froze for a second, as he came to a sudden realisation.

"I-I don't know…" he responded shakily, "I have a brother, but I don't know where he is - he left years ago to try and join a mercenary company."

I sighed. I still had nothing but the original plan.

As we walked down the road, I spotted a group of ponies up ahead. They weren't exactly subtle; six ponies wearing impractically thick suits of plate mail with full face helmets. On their backs were enormous weapons, large enough that they would typically have been mounted on vehicles. Two sported grenade machine guns reminiscent of Mk 19's, two more had twin six-barreled gatling cannons. A fifth had a long anti-material rifle. The sixth, quite bizarrely, had a five foot lance, the tip of which crackled with glowing purple energy. Probably magic.

The effect was intimidating to say the least. These were not ponies I wanted to piss off. I asked Ink Blot about them.

"Those are Steel Rangers!" He whispered urgently, "we have to hide."

"They're hostile?" I asked, crouching down and moving off the road, "What are they after?"

"Pre-war tech," he explained, "if they see us they'll shake us down to see if we have anything good… Oh fuck."

"What?" I was confused, "I thought you didn't know that word!"

"What, 'fuck'?" I nodded, "I know fuck, I just don't get how you are one."

"..." I had no words. He shook his head dismissively.

"It doesn't matter," he said urgently, pointing at my wrist, "you have a Pipbuck! They're going to kill us both and saw off your foreleg!"

We moved low, trying to keep out of sight, but there wasn't much cover to rely on. We managed to find a depression in the ground. It wasn't much, but if I lay flat I was just out of sight from the road.

I lay in the muddy ditch, feeling the steady trickle of icy water soaking into my clothes. The seconds ticked by slowly but I dared not move my arm to check how long it had been. Gradually I began to hear the hoofsteps of the approaching rangers, the clanking of heavy steel plates combined with a whirring that reminded me of hydraulics. As they got closer I noticed how heavy their hoofsteps were. The ground literally shook as they marched. Were they ponies or robots? Surely a pony would be rendered immobile under such weight.

Their hoofbeats got louder and closer until they suddenly stopped. I didn't know exactly how far away they were, but they were close. Fuck. They must have seen something. Footprints? Fuck. I gripped my rifle tightly to my chest, my heart raced, my mouth tasted of salt. Would my rifle even be effective against their armor? My 40mm grenades might do something, but they were too close, I would be in the kill radius, not to mention it would take me a little too long to load between shots.

I touched my fingers to my chest pocket, feeling the hard plastic figurine. She'd brought me luck in the past. If ever there was a time for the charm to work, now would be it. Maybe they didn't see me? No, they had to have seen me. It was too much of a coincidence for them to stop in this exact spot. I took a breath in, held it for a second, and released it slowly. My pulse was pounding in my ears. My body tensed like a spring, ready to burst forth from my hiding place and be torn to shreds in a blaze of glory, at the same time I felt just as ready to puke out my meager breakfast and die pointlessly in a pool of my own bodily fluids. Sadly, the feeling was familiar to me.

When the ranger spoke I almost didn't hear him over the insistent pounding in my ears.

"I am Star Paladin Blueberry Waffles," he spoke in a commanding tone, voice slightly distorted as if emanating from a speaker, "we know where you are, Alien. You will surrender or die. If you understand me, throw your weapons to my hooves and come out slowly."

I looked to the colt who was hiding with me. He quivered with fear and shook his head at me, mouthing the word 'no!'. I couldn't see any alternative though. I was outnumbered and outclassed in weaponry. Normally I would rather die than be taken prisoner, but I couldn't imagine little ponies torturing eachother like the Taliban did. I had much yet to learn about the wasteland in that respect. I unclipped my rifle from its harness, my shoulder feeling disconcertingly light as the familiar weight was lifted for the first time in days. It felt so wrong to give up my rifle, I'd sooner surrender my clothes and walk the wastes naked.

I tossed the rifle out towards the voice, calling out my surrender. With the sudden movement I heard a minigun barrel spin up to speed, only to slow to a stop once again.

"Good." The paladin sounded pleased with himself, "Now lie on your back, I want to see your hooves up in the air."

I could have pointed out that I did not, in fact, have any hooves, but now didn't seem to be the time to make such distinctions. I awkwardly lifted up my hands and feet into view. As I did, I saw one of the armored ponies come forward into my vision with a pair of shackles grasped in its mouth. The armor over the lower part of its face was retracted to allow it to hold the cuffs, revealing a bright yellow coat. I briefly considered stabbing it in the face. One stab under the chin, up through the soft palate into the brain.

I dismissed the notion as I remembered the firepower its friends could bring to bear. Instead I allowed myself to be shackled. Wrists and ankles were chained together in an 'H' pattern. On a quadrupedal animal they would have prevented the creature from moving at more than a shuffle. On a human, they prevented me from raising my hands above my waist, which was actually pretty effective. I tensed up my muscles as the cuffs were applied. My MOS had never rated SERE training, but I recalled a random fragment of a documentary on Houdini I had seen growing up. Wait… was that for ropes or handcuffs? Well, too late now.

One of the other ponies spotted Ink Blot crawling away. "Hey you!" said the Ranger, "Tribal, you know this alien? You're coming with us."

We trudged along the road, rangers' armor clanking, my chains clinking and the colt trotting along in relative silence, glancing around as if trying to decide whether to make a break for it. I had spent the time taking note of things like where they had stored my gear and remembering landmarks we passed. You could never have too much information in a situation like this, and being restrained gave me little to do besides gathering intel. It had been a couple hours since we started moving and the rangers hadn't said a word. I decided to try my luck.

"Where are you taking us?" I asked.

"Back to base." I waited for a few seconds before it became clear that was all he was going to volunteer.

"How did you find me?"

"Pipbuck tag." What a talkative fellow. Damn this Pipbuck. I couldn't get it off my wrist, but maybe I could at least break it. I made a mental note to try that later. If my arm hadn't been sawn off by then.

The colt trotted up next to me and looked up fearfully. I suppose he was more afraid of them than he was of me. Well, that was progress I guess.

"Uhm, I -" the rest of his sentence was lost as he descended into a mumble.

"What was that?" I asked, leaning down slightly.

"I-I have to -" He began even quieter, swallowing the end of the sentence as he looked at the ground.

"Huh?" I asked. Wait. Oh, right. Damn. I would have facepalmed if my wrists hadn't been chained to my ankles. I realised what he was trying to tell me a moment too late however.

"I said I need to pee!" He exclaimed, a little too loudly. Wow, I didn't think ponies with a black coat could blush.

One of the rangers snickered.

"You can go behind that building," said Blueberry Waffles, "Icecream, Frosting, follow him, make sure he doesn't run off."

The colt hesitated, shuffling uncomfortably. For a moment I thought he was going to protest having to be escorted but after a moment's indecision he proceeded without argument.

A couple minutes later he emerged from around the side of the building galloping for all he was worth and screaming at the top of his lungs. To my confusion he ran directly towards us.

Paladin Waffles stepped forward and flared his lance in a staggeringly unnecessary show of force. The colt slid to a halt in front of the glowing lance, trembling, pupils constricted to pinpricks.

"What do you think you're doing?" yelled the Paladin, "Where is Knight -"

"Something got them," the colt replied urgently, edging around the paladin and towards me, "it was… they came from the ground, it was so fast!"

"We're not in hellhound territory…" muttered the knight with the anti-materiel rifle. What the fuck was a Hell Hound? Heh. Well, if they were killing rangers, oorah Devil Dogs I guess.

"You two," ordered the paladin, motioning at the two with the gatling cannon and the anti-materiel rifle, "check it out, Cheesecake, you're with me. Stay in radio contact."

I had no love for the rangers, but I just couldn't let that go without comment.

"You're sending them into an ambush." I said flatly. The paladin ignored me.

The colt was hiding behind my legs now. I leaned down towards him and whispered "Alright, this idiot paladin is going to get us all killed. When I say, get ready to run." He nodded at me fearfully. I had seen where the ranger who cuffed me kept his keys. Hopefully I could snag them in the confusion, unlock my restraints, grab my gear, and get away without being killed. Fuck. Oh well, die trying I guess.

A grenade exploded behind the building, followed by the thunderous retort of a .50 caliber rifle. There was a second explosion and part of the building was blown away, followed by the sound of shrieking metal, then silence.

The Paladin stood frozen in what I assume was the shock of listening to the screams of his men as they were torn apart by whatever hid behind that building.

The ground in front of us began to bulge as if something were tunneling towards us. I couldn't run with the chains on, so I crouched down to at least minimise the target I presented.

"Hellhounds! They're in the ground -" he screamed, "fire, FIRE!"

The last knight spun up her Gatling guns and and unleashed twin torrents of lead into the ground around us. The guns' created an impenetrable sheet of noise for those of us without the benefit of sealed helmets. The one time I actually need earplugs, I dropped them back in Afghanistan, fan-fucking-tastic. Then there were two bulges, then three, then five.

The knight tried in vain to keep them back, turning in place. How long had she been firing for? A minute? Two? How much ammo could she possibly have in that armor? The barrels were starting to glow red, clearly they weren't designed with this level of continuous fire in mind. *cli-cli-clic-clic* the left gun ran dry, slowing to a stop, smoking. The right followed soon after. Spent brass was piled ankle deep around the mare for several feet in every direction. Where the fuck did that much brass come from? It seemed to defy physics.

"Die you sons of bitches!" she yelled in rage, her amplified voice somehow piercing the deafening ringing in my ears. The flanks of her armor popped open to reveal four rockets. Just as one of the creatures burst from the ground it caught a rocket to the chest and exploded into meaty chunks. I felt the shockwave from the explosion thump into my chest, knocking the breath out of me.

"DANGER CLOSE YOU FUCKWIT!" I yelled at the top of my lungs… I couldn't hear myself. Oh god, my ears were so fucked. Ink Blot had curled up next to me, forehooves over his ears, trying desperately to block out the sound as chunks of flaming hellhound rained down all around us. The smell of burnt fur was nauseating.

"RUN KID!" the colt didn't respond, remaining in his fetal position. I kicked him, "GET UP! MOVE!"

The colt got to his hooves and broke into a shambling run. The blast wave must have really rung his bell. The knight readied another rocket but it went wild when a clawed paw grabbed her rear left hoof. The knight screamed in frustration, attempting to stomp the paw with her metal clad hooves. I watched on in shock as the claw cut right through her armor, taking the hoof with it. She stood defiant on three hooves as what I assume was a hellhound emerged behind her, grabbed her armor encased tail and attempted to pull her into a deadly embrace. The hellhound stood eight feet tall with the build of a canine terminator, the claws of Wolverine extending each finger, and the face of a Diamond Dog that lived too close to Chernobyl.

"EAT SHIT AND DIE MOTHERFU-" the two of them were consumed in an explosion as she detonated her remaining rockets in their tubes.

I was knocked face down to the ground as something slammed into my chest. The world spun sickeningly as I struggled not to fall off the face of the planet. Warm fluid leaked from my ears, my vision swam and my forehead felt like it was going to implode into my skull at any moment. There was dirt in my mouth and I struggled to breathe. When I managed to turn my head sideways it felt like a major achievement. I hacked and coughed soundlessly, sucking air as hard and fast as I could but I just couldn't get enough.

I could see the paladin backing away from a number of hellhounds, his lance sliced into neat cylindrical pieces. He held up his hooves in surrender before his head was separated from his body.

I hadn't realised that I closed my eyes, but when I reopened them the dogs were closer, surrounding me. I tried to get to my hands and knees, but with my wrists chained, I couldn't get my hands to shoulder height. Instead I rolled on my side and tried to get to my knees. The effort nearly caused me to black out; I just couldn't get enough air. I was coughing up mucus-filled blood but I couldn't wipe it from my face. The lack of balance was debilitating, I struggled to remain upright and felt like I was going to puke, but if I did that I was surely going to choke on it. I just couldn't stop gasping. One of the dogs jammed a bottle in my mouth, pouring something into it. I struggled like a drowning man, thrashing with new-found strength. The cuffs tore the skin on my wrists as I pulled with all my adrenaline fueled might.

With a sickening pop my left hand came free and I tried to knock the bottle away. At the same time blackness ate at my vision. My blows became weaker and weaker, until suddenly I gasped, inhaling the fluid and passing into unconsciousness.

I lay on my bunk, trying to take a nap. Sleeping was easily the third best way to alleviate boredom, right after blowing shit up and jacking it. I swear to fucking Christ, if I had to listen to Jackson's much-improved story about how he and a friend got drunk and accidentally robbed a 7-11 with his dog Pongo again, I was going to apply for a section eight for mental anguish. If anyone pointed out plot holes he just laughed and came up with an even more embellished version next time. It was sweltering hot inside the tent and sweat beaded my arms, but outside in the sunlight the heat would be far worse.

I heard a gunshot outside, an M16. Another couple shots followed. I grabbed my rifle from its position next to my bunk and threw my vest over my head, moving to the door. I was still in my underwear, but it's not like anyone gave a fuck about modesty on a FOB. As I emerged into the bright sunlight I was hit by a wave of heat. I looked up to our watch tower. The Marine on duty didn't have his rifle raised, seemingly standing idle with his back to me.

"Hey Smith," I yelled up to him, "The fuck's going on out there."

The Marine looked over his shoulder at me, a shit eating grin on his face.

"Oh, hey Horsefucker," he called back. He gave it no more emphasis than if it were my real name, which for most intents and purposes it was. "Animal Control; you'll never believe this shit, some doped up Hajis dyed this pony's hair blue! Maybe it's one of your friends!"

I rolled my eyes and turned towards the gate. The Marine snickered as I walked off, and I smiled at the obvious attempt to get under my skin. I didn't like Animal Control and I wasn't the only one. 'Animal Control' was code for 'shooting stray animals that wandered within range of the FOB'. They had to make sure it was actually stray of course; shooting farm animals would have the brass come down on you like a Hellfire on a Pakistani wedding.

A particular group of Marines had made a sport out of it. It was an open secret that Cpl. O'Malley took bets on what type of animal it would be (Dog had 5:1 odds, Donkey 1:2, cat 2:1, ect.), where it would be hit and how many shots it would take. Animal Control wasn't exactly in line with regs, but the Captain didn't seem to care, and this far out he was the highest authority on base. Rumor was he had fifty dollars on cat.

I didn't participate in Animal Control, but I still watched it. It was something to break up the monotony, even if it was a pointless and cruel way to end an animal's life. As I stepped out of the gates, I saw…

Ink Blot. With a bullet hole in his neck. Confusion staggered me sideways as the world shifted and I choked on the breath I was taking – warm, salty blood flew in globules from my mouth as my body tried violently to expel the fluid from my lungs and throat. My nose was clogged with dried blood. My rifle came up, even as I fell to a knee. My vision blurred, my ears pounded, but I could just barely make out Marines running towards me, yelling. I blacked out for a second, and I was crawling. I had to get to – someone was bleeding out and – a horrific crackling assaulted my ears, they itched on the inside, my fingers dug into the sand – I could see the young Marine's face contort in agony, I just had to – a child lay with his back to a wall, screaming, grasping at where his hand used to be. I tried to yell for a medic, but I couldn't draw a breath. The child's gaze snapped to me, a gun levitated in a blue aura, those eyes were too large, inhuman. There was a meaty thump –

My back arched in discomfort at landing on the hard surface, and I gasped desperately for a breath that just would not come. There was a tremendous weight on my chest, I couldn't get more than a shallow gasp in before it was crushed out of me. The itching in my ears stopped abruptly as a high pitched whine popped into existence and began fading.

"He is not dog," said a gruff voice, "why do we help not-dog? How we know he not pony lover?"

A yelp accompanied the sound of someone being clipped round the ears.

"He no like ponies," said a second voice, "not-dog pony prisoner. He help us kill pony, avenge packmates! You see."

I couldn't respond, I could do nothing but take fast, shallow breaths, the crushing pain seeming to grow with each inhalation. I could see nothing in the dim light. A furry ear was placed on my chest. I was too weak to even raise my arms. A clawed paw felt its way down my chest, tapping ribs. I couldn't even hiss in pain. I clenched my eyes shut in agony. I was completely unprepared when an unimaginably sharp claw sliced through my chest.

A gust of air spewed forth from the hole in my side, the crushing pressure released and I took the largest breath I'd ever taken in my life. My lungs finally inflating to their full capacity, I continued gasping air for a couple minutes until my breathing began to slow back to a normal rate. Liquid was poured over the wound and I actually felt the flesh knitting back together.

I sat up on the edge of the stone slab I'd been laid on, and my head swam dangerously for a second before I got my balance back. In the dimness I could make out the shapes of what I assumed were hellhounds. In front of them was a colt with all four legs tied together, almost invisible as his black coat blended into the darkness. I didn't know what to think, on the one hand it was better than I had expected from an obviously predatory species, but to see him tied up like that raised feelings of anger in the back of my mind. A hellhound spoke.

"This one says you kill many pony," the dog growled, "says you kill whole family, but we not trust pony. You kill pony now, prove you are not pony spy."