• Published 21st Feb 2012
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Fallout Equestria: Tales of a Courier Reloaded - a friendly hobo



This is the story of Clover and his quest for revenge.

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Chapter 13: Cold Storage.

Chapter 13: Cold Storage.

"I spy a snowpony!”

The tunnel was wide and dark. I could barely see the backs of the ponies ahead of me without the aid of a flashlight. The sergeant had flicked hers on after a few steps into the tunnel, so I assumed it was okay for us to use ours. The lights cast large and spooky shadows on the cold tunnel walls, making me jump more than once.

Wide as it was, there wasn’t much room in the passages along the sides. Featherweight covered the lower middle of the tunnel, followed by Lollipop. I winced, knowing that this tunnel had to be a sewer a long time ago but then realized that the sewage would have evaporated a long time ago. Unless it had frozen, in which case Lollipop was stepping on frozen poop. Tallie must have had the same thought, as she giggled on my back.

“Alright, fillies,” Mayflowers barked from up ahead, “keep your eyes peeled and your guns ready. Our intel was only good until the opening of the tunnel. Anything past here is unknown.” Oh joy of joys.

“Affirmative,” said each member of the outfit, each scanning the walls and pathways of the tunnel.

The sewer was surprisingly clear, with very little debris. All the pipes were in perfect condition, albeit frosty, and the walls were still intact. Even the cold metal doors along the sides were untouched. It was oddly surreal, piquing my curiosity rather than reinforcing my dread. Sure, the odd shadow made me jump, but I wasn’t shaking anymore.

Making my way to the front of the group, I shone my flashlight around the tunnel, getting a better look. The middle of the tunnel was only three hooves, tops, lower than the footpaths. There wasn’t any ice, just cold grey bricks.

“Well ain’t this pleasant?” Fuse said, shining her flashlight up the sides of the tunnel. “Cold, dark, and grey.” She sighed and pointed her light back down the tunnel. “Just a few of my favourite things.”

“Really?” Tallie asked, looking over. “You like some pretty depressing stuff, y’know that?”

I rolled my eyes. I couldn't see Fuse's, but I was sure she did the same. “I was kidding, lion-girl,” she said. “Can’t wait to get out of here.” She looked back at Farsight. “Fancy some sunbathin’ when we get back?”

Farsight brought up the rear, keeping his rifle downrange, pointed toward the front of the group. “Yeah, sure. Drinks are on you though.”

“Can I get in on the action?” said the soft, friendly voice of Featherweight. “I could use some down time after this.”

“Will all of you shut up?” the sergeant said, agitation in her voice. “We’re on a mission, with civilians. Get it together.”

I sort of got the feeling that she was only putting on the bitchiness because we were there. Like she had something to prove. Maybe that the Iron Defenders weren’t ones to take things lightly? That they took their jobs seriously? Did she take it upon herself to uphold the reputation? As it was, she came across as a massive bitch.

I took the lead on our side of the tunnel without even realizing it. Ace and Farsight followed behind me and Tallie, while Fixer the radio-pony, and Mayflowers took up the other side. Lollipop and Featherweight took up the middle. The tunnel seemed to draw my curiosity even further as I continued down its dark frosted corridors.

We all fell into silence after some "encouragement" from Mayflowers. The only sounds came from our hooves and the gentle clinking of our equipment. Most of the flashlights pointed forward. Occasionally, Fuse would try to open a door, but most were frozen solid or just maintenance rooms. There was no point in trying to loot anything in them, as most of the loot was covered in a layer of ice. If only we had Zippo... wait, where was Zippo?

“Where’d Zippo go?” I asked Tallie, looking over my shoulder. I didn’t remember seeing my royal subject since we left the hotel. What a Que- King I turned out to be.

“I left him in my room,” Tallie explained. “He didn’t get a gas mask. Didn’t want him getting all poisoned and stuff from the bad air out there.”

Damn, she was clever. “Right... well, we better treat him when we go back.” I stopped and tapped my gas mask with a hoof. “What can we make ant treats out of?”

Tallie didn’t answer me. She stared at the ground in front of me, silently.

“Tallie? You okay?” I asked.

Tallie continued to stare. “Clover, look...” she pointed in front of me. A few meters ahead was a long, dark smear that lead into a door, dented and slightly ajar.

“Nopenopenope, we’re done here, no way to help The Patriarch, bye now!” I said, turning around. Ominous trails leading to dented and broken doors never ever lead to anything good at all. Ever.

“Oh no you don’t,” Ace said, shoving me in the chest. “We didn’t come this far just to give up now. I’m not freezing my horn off for nothing.”

I stumbled back a step and whimpered. Looking into her eye ports, I saw not anger, but support and encouragement. It was kind of relaxing. “I’ll take point.” She looked over at the sergeant. “We found something, Mayflowers.”

Mayflowers looked over and saw the door. “Roger that. Fixer, Featherweight, move to cover.”

“Copy,” the radio pony and Featherweight said, moving forward toward us.

“I got it,” Ace announced, brushing past us and over to the door. “Breaching!” She reared up and kicked the door in with her strong legs, then whirled and pointed her her shotgun inside. Slowly, she walked in. My curiosity got the better of me and overrode my fears, making my legs move forward without me telling them to, my SMG beside me as I peeked in.

Ace stood in the middle of the room, looking around. “Breaking down doors with the steel of my shoes,” she muttered in a sing song voice. “Ace: Door Fighter.” She chuckled and followed the bloodstains.

The room was large, like it was maintenance personnel offices or something. A few desks sat side by side with dead monitors perched on them. shelves stacked with boxes lined the sides, and a few work tables dotted the room. The blood trail led to the far end of the room and turned behind a shelf.

The big grey and light green stallions lingered at the front, digging through whatever they could open. There didn’t appear to be any imminent threats in there, at least nothing Ace couldn’t handle with her shotgun and machete.

Ace had her back to the bookshelf, getting ready to spin around. She flung herself around the corner with her shotgun raised but then lowered it. “Huh...”

I peeked around the corner and saw where the blood trail came from. A large pegasus slumped against the wall, hoof covering a wound on his chest. He wore a puffy coat with a few official-looking markings on it, but dark, cold blood obscured them. His gas mask was intact though, and so was most of his other equipment including his weird-looking pistol.

“Never seen these markings before,” Ace said, looking at a symbol on the pegasus’ shoulder. It was a simple cloud with wings, a dark purple and green rainbow stemming from wing to wing, and two leering eyes above the cloud. On his breast pocket I could see a distorted golden E surrounded by little dots. I couldn’t quite make them out through the blood and my gas mask. “Probably a merc or something.”

I took several deep breaths, staving off my urge to look away as I examined the corpse. How he died might have been vital to us making it out of there alive. Know your enemy and such. Tallie, thankfully, climbed off my back and started looking around.

It took a lot of effort with the corpse being both frozen and in rigor mortis, but Ace managed to pull the pegasus’ stiff hoof away from the injury. A hoof-sized hole punctured the pegasus' chest.

“Lollipop,” I said, trying to sound as calm as I could over the communications device. Thankfully, short range communications hadn’t been disrupted. “G-get in here please...” My voice trembled, betraying my shaken calm.

The mohawked mare trotted in, her LMG jangling and clanking on her back. She took one look at the pegasus and sighed. She shook her head and gently pushed Ace and me out of the way. Ace didn’t seem to have a problem with it, surprisingly. The lime green unicorn’s horn lit up a dull purple and a few medical tools slid out of her medical bag. “Let’s see what we have here,” she murmured.

“Too big to be standard small-arms,” Ace mused, tapping her gas-masked chin. “Not enough damage to be high caliber.”

“No bullet either,” Lollipop announced, still digging through the hole in the pegasus’ chest. “It wasn’t a bullet. There’s no exit would, it’s... it's a disembowelment. Somepony completely exenterated this poor stallion's liver." Lollipop motioned to the stallion "This was intentional, and now it looks like we know where the raiders get their food. Fucking cannibals."

“A disembowelment?” Ace asked, sounding surprised. “What did the raiders use, lances?” She ducked down beside Lollipop to take a closer look. “Wow, that’s one popped lung, alright. What’s that around it?”

Lollipop prodded what I assumed was the lung with a pair of forceps, and pulled it back out, shining her flashlight on it. There was a dark green, veined substance on the end of her instrument that pulsed slightly when she moved it.

“Oh, ick,” Ace said, stepping back. “Put it back, it’s nasty.”

“I think it’s pretty fascinating,” Lollipop said, looking it over a few times. “It looks organic, but it’s not something that should be in your lungs. Maybe this is what the air does?”

“More importantly,” I interjected, “what made that hole?”

Lollipop shrugged, peeling the disgusting substance off her instrument and putting it in a small plastic container. “No idea, but I’m keeping this sucker. Maybe Professor Spring Flowers might see some use in it.” She looked back at the hole. “Whatever it was, it was big. Too big to be a bayonet. Too wide for a pike. Could have been an accident.” She tapped the pegasus’ head. “Maybe our winged friend here flew right into some rubble and impaled himself.”

“I guess it’s a possibility,” Ace said, thinking aloud.

“Uh...” Featherweight said from behind the shelves. “Don’t think so.”

“What is it, Feather?” Ace asked, walking behind the shelves, then suddenly gasped.

My curiosity piqued once more, and I peered around the corner. Featherweight and Fixer both had their flashlights pointed to writing on the wall- not normal writing but a dark brown, distorted, hoofwritten message. One of the ones I’d only seen in horror tapes.

‘Run.

“Run?” Fixer asked, looking at Featherweight. “I guess from the raiders?”

Featherweight shook his head. “I don’t know, you’ve heard the stories, bud. Ghosts of Mustang.” He shrugged and looked around the shelves. Lollipop searched the body and stripping it of useful gear, his weapon, gas mask filters, and a few other odds and ends. I was too fixated on the writing to notice. “He was a child of the clouds, maybe he’d never heard of a raider before.”

“Never heard of a raider?” Ace asked, then snorted. “Yeah, right, and I’ve got a six-hoof cock.” I could prove that wasn’t true, hopefully.

The large grey stallion rolled his eyes. “No need to be vulgar. Pegasi live up on the clouds. They don’t often come down unless they want something. And who would?”

“True,” Lollipop said, rounding the corner. “Poor guy didn’t stand a chance. Still, he’s in a better place and all. All that’s left is his husk.” She nodded to the exit. “Now, shall we get going before Mayflow-”

“What’s the holdup, boys?” Mayflowers asked over the comms as if on cue. “We have work to do. If you’re done with the room, let’s get going. Now.”

“Aye, ma’am,” Fixer said, then looked at the group. “You heard the lady. Let’s move.”

Lollipop chuckled and trotted up beside me as the rest of the group walked out the door, Tallie in tow. “How’re the lungs?” she asked, giving me a prod in the ribs. “Still feeling okay?”

My lungs? Oh right, the infection! “Pretty good, yeah. Still finding it cool how well those meds worked.” I took a deep breath through my mask’s filters to prove it.

My medical friend rubbed her chin in thought. “I don’t know, Clover. It seems too good to be true, and in my field of work, that’s usually a bad thing.” She tapped my visor a few times and looking into my eyes. “I need you to keep taking them. Your symptoms may have subsided, but you could still have pneumonia.” Her eyes lit up a little as she smiled under her mask. “It is the wasteland after all. Shit’s fucked out here.”

“Well, uh, you’re the doc, doc...” I muttered and followed her to the door. “But, uh. It’ll have to wait.” I pointed at my mask. “Cause, y’know...”

“Yeah, obviously,” Lollipop said with a chuckle. “Just make sure you got them.” And with that, she trotted out of the room.

The meds were sitting pretty in my saddle pack, right in the back pocket just in case. I felt fine. Just a little bit of irritation here and there, but that was normal, right? I took another look at the wall the pegasus had painted on with his own blood. Monsters. Fucking raiders, murdering people for fun. They were the real monsters.

My entire body shuddered and I decided it was time to leave. Lollipop might have felt okay with being around corpses and final resting grounds, but I was a stallion with a traditional mindset. Let the dead rest easy.

“Hurry your butt up!” Ace called through the door. “We can’t wait much longer for you, buttface!”

“Coming, I’m coming,” I muttered, and left the room.

Ace was there to meet me with open forelegs. “Sorry you had to see that, buddy,” she said, hugging me. “Sucks, I know, but that’s the Wastes.”

“It’s always just the Wastes...” I sighed into Ace’s shoulder. “It’s not like this back home.”

“You’ll get home again,” she said, patting my back. “Just you watch.”

“Snipers up front!” Mayflowers’ voice barked over the comm link. “That means you, Emerald colt!”

I looked at my side and noticed my sniper rifle attached to the saddle. “Awwww damn,” I muttered. “That’s me.” I let go of her and walked back to the rest of the group. “What is it?” I asked, trying not to give any attitude whatsoever. Didn’t want Mayflowers to tear me a new one.

Mayflowers tapped her mask, indicating to be quiet, and pointed up ahead. In the shadows I could just barely make out the silhouette of Farsight.

“Get up here,” he whispered into his comm link. That spelled trouble to me, and I desperately wanted to turn tail and run. But that really wasn’t an option any more.

“But I wanna come with,” Tallie whispered to me. I shook my head. I was really starting to regret taking Tallie along with me. This was getting more and more dangerous.

Flicking the switch on my saddle, I ducked down low with my belly to the ground and made my way to Farsight sneakily as I could. “What’s the problem?” I asked, feeling my rifle push itself forward and into firing position.

Farsight pointed forward. There was a fork in the tunnel up ahead and down the right one flickered a light, a fire to be more exact. Looking down the scope of my rifle, I saw two ponies in terrible-looking armour standing around a burning barrel.

One of them wore very patchy leather armour under a long, brown coat. Tufts of white coat poked out from small tears in the fabric and from under his cobbled-together gas mask. It was amazing that the damn thing even worked anymore.

The other wore a black suit of metal armour, spikes on the shoulders and everything. The armour was filthy with dirt or maybe dried blood, it was hard to tell, and its spikes were long and sharp. The raider's mask had a large glass visor above the filter, offering better visibility. I did see something that shook me deeply though; on the raider’s belt hung three cracked and broken unicorn horns. Trophies no doubt.

“Two tangoes looking for a bullet to the brain-pan,” Farsight muttered. “I got Righty, you get Lefty-Magoo.” He aimed down the sights of his rifle and got ready to fire. “On three. You got a shot?”

I took a deep breath and aimed down my scope. This would be the first pony I’d shot with my sniper. I’d used it against the ghouls down underground in those tunnels, but never a real, living, breathing pony. “Y-Yeah,” I said, bringing the crosshair up to the raider’s face.

“Alright, one...” I shook in my boots. Killing was something I just wasn’t proud of. It was unnatural, really. It ended the world once. Were we prepared to keep killing?

“Two...” Then again, raiders were. They weren’t even killing for an objective or goal, they killed for the sake of killing. Exterminating them was the only real option. Fucking vermin, all of them.

“Three.” I pulled the trigger. The attached silencer muffled the snap of my shot. The first raider’s mask ruptured as Farsight’s bullet tore through its face, splattering blood and gore over the wall behind it, but the other one stayed standing.

I missed. I fucking missed. Only by a few centimeters, but it felt like a bloody mile. The thoughts of killing another pony with my sniper had thrown me, throwing off my aim, and the bullet sailed past the raider’s mask and into the wall behind it.

“Fuck!” I cursed, pounding the ground with my hoof. My saddle jerked as the rifle’s bolt slid back to load another shot. “Farsight!” I couldn’t get another shot off yet, not while the rounds were cycling. It only took about two seconds, but it was two seconds too long.

“Shit, hold on.” Farsight grunted as he lined up another shot, but it was too late. The raider roared over its fallen comrade and glared at us. I could see now that it was a mare in the bulky armour as she roared again and slammed her hooves against some sort of bell. The deep resounding sound reverberated through the tunnel as she picked up her rifle and aimed it at us.

She was too slow, and so was Farsight, as Tallie picked up a large rock and threw it with all her might. The rock sailed through the air and slammed into the raider’s visor, smashing it to pieces. The raider stopped and started screaming as she clawed at the mask. Blood dripped from where the glass stabbed her face. The screaming eventually subsided after several agonizing seconds as the raider fell to the floor and twitched.

“Air’s definitely toxic!” Ace announced and looked at Tallie. “Great throw!” The little griffin stared at the body for a few long seconds, silent and unmoving.

“Typical!” Mayflowers yelled and pulled her rifle to bare. She darted down the tunnel toward the fork, aiming at the raider tunnel.

“Lay off!” Ace yelled at her. “Let’s just get out of here!” She quickly made her way up to Farsight and me. Tallie snapped out of her daze and followed as fast as her little feet could take her.

“We can’t go back, they’ll be coming from all entrances!” Lollipop yelled over the two of them. “We gotta push forward!”

Tallie nodded in agreement. “Let’s do it, already!” she squeaked and climbed onto my back. “Run!”

Mayflowers growled at Ace from over her shoulder. “Next time you shout at me, I won’t be so forgiving.” She looked back down the tunnel, rifle raised.

Ace glared back. “Bite me.”

The sergeant grumbled something about kicking ass before shouting emanated from the end where we killed those raiders. “We’ll cover you stupid civilians!” Mayflowers shouted. “Go down the left tunnel, we’ll follow!”

“Don’t have to tell me twice!” I yelled and started toward the tunnel at full sprint, passing the raider tunnel. Ace ran right behind me with her shotgun ready, aimed at the tunnel on the right. The first raider cleared the corner with a huge hammer but Ace’s shotgun easily cut him down as she passed the tunnel entrance.

“Covering fire!” Short Fuse yelled and lobbed a grenade down the tunnel. The others had quickly caught up and took up defensive positions around the raider tunnel. They hid behind small mounds of rubble or ducked down in the lowered center of the larger tunnel. The raiders started pouring out into the tunnel, running right into an intense hail of bullets from Featherweight’s machineguns. The others started to open fire with assault and sniper rifles, cutting them down fast. Some raiders managed to get shots off, even using the fallen as cover.

Suddenly the wall at the opposite end of the raider tunnel collapsed, revealing more raiders, who ran and took cover behind the rubble. I stood at the mouth of the escape route, firing my SMG down at the psycotic scum. The adrenaline was taking over, and I loved it. Ace seemed to have the same idea as she fired her shotgun, but Tallie hid behind me. She didn’t have a gun, and I wasn’t going to give her one.

Lollipop bounded into the tunnel entrance but stopped to look over her shoulder. “They need me.” she muttered and looked at her guns. “They need the firepower.”

“We have this!” Farsight yelled, firing precise shot after shot. “Get out of here!” He cursed as a bullet barely missed his head and chipped stones out of his cover.

“Head to rally point Charlie!” Mayflowers ordered over the compact thunder of her assault rifle. “We’ll meet you there, dammit! Go!”

Ace and I looked at Lollipop, and pushed her into the tunnel. “You heard her, let’s go!” I yelled. She turned back and fired a few more shots at the raiders.

Lollipop growled and headed down the tunnel. “Fine! C’mon!” She scooped up Tallie and ran. I felt a small sense of relief to know she was out of trouble. I wasn’t, as the rattle of my SMG reminded me.

Ace fired a few more shots. A bullet pinged the wall behind her, showering her in debris, making her curse and duck down. She got up and tugged on my hood. “Let’s go, pretty-boy. I don’t want to have to clean your brains off my coat!”

They were telling me to run, but my brain wasn’t responding. The raiders were getting decimated by the soldiers and it was... oddly beautiful. It was a cleansing of sorts. I could feel my mouth cracking into a smile. The tugging on my hood brought me back to the situation at hand - that, and a stray bullet flying over my head and into the ceiling.

My senses returned and, almost pissing myself, I turned and ran down the tunnel past Ace and Lollipop. It was good timing, as a fucking rocket streaked past the soldiers and blasted the tunnel’s roof. The cement buckled and toppled, filling the tunnel entrance with debris.

“Dammit!” Fuse yelled over the comm. “We’re cut off! I can’t blow the debris under fire!”

“We gotta push forward, but the plan hasn’t changed!” Mayflowers announced. “We’re going to push our way to Charlie, over!” I heard a few more gunshots before her broadcast cut out.

“Copy that!” Lollipop said over the comm, looking at the rubble. “We’re moving, over and out.”

Ace looked down the tunnel and flicked on her flashlight, illuminating the dark and dingy passage. This tunnel was a lot smaller than the last one - only about two ponies could walk side-by-side comfortably. The air was relatively clear, but still cold as fuck.

“I don’t think I like hanging around you guys anymore,” Tallie said, climbing onto my back. “That was... scary.”

“You okay?” I asked, looking over my shoulder as Lollipop and Ace marched ahead. “That can’t have been easy.”

Tallie shook her head. “Not really, but I’ll be fine.” The little griffin looked at me with her big red eyes and I could see the fear in them. The same fear I knew was in my own. She squeezed into my large hood again for warmth with just her head and shoulders poking out. I wasn’t sure how she always managed that. Must have been her cat half taking over.

“We’ll be okay, okay?” I said, trying to reassure the little griffin. “You’re a big girl now. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

“I’m only thirteen,” Tallie replied and hid a little more in my hood. “Not really big...”

I chuckled and started walking. “Hey, when I was thirteen, I was already bucking trees and earning my place on dad’s farm.” I looked over my shoulder. “It’s not your age that matters, it's your maturity and what you do with it.”

“I guess,” she said. “Look, I’ll be okay.”

“Cool.”

“What’s the holdup?” Ace called back. She and Lollipop were already way ahead of us. “We haven’t got time for chit-chat.”

“Coming!” Tallie shouted ahead and climbed out of my hood and off my back. The little griffin scampered forward and leapt onto Lollipop’s back as Ace dropped back to join me for a bit.

Ace and I walked in silence, staring up ahead with our flashlights cutting through the darkness before us. Lollipop was ahead talking to Tallie through her large gasmask, keeping her guns pointed forward. “So,” Ace said, breaking the cold silence. “What... what happened back there, dude?”

I sighed and shook my head, looking down at the cracked concrete floor. “I don’t know.” I looked up at her visor and into those large, beautiful brown eyes. “Just the thought of sniping a living pony got to me. Sending a bullet through their head from so far away. It was surreal and I guess I panicked.” I looked down at the floor again. “I… I just can’t keep killing.”

“They were raiders, Clover,” Ace said, bumping her rump into mine. “If you hadn’t killed him, they would have killed someone else. They’re insane monsters. You know that.”

“I do,” I said, looking back up at her. “Trust me, I do. I love to see them die,” I paused for a moment, realising how creepy that sounded. “It’s just the concept of killing. I mean, everypony out there was somepony’s child once, just like I was. Flesh and bone.”

Ace sighed and shook her head at me. “You’re not going to survive with that mentality,” she said, simply. “If everyone thought that way, the world wouldn’t be like it is. But it is, so to survive it’s kill or be killed.” She looked me in the eye. “Are you gonna kill, or are you gonna be killed?”

“I don’t really have much of a choice,” I muttered.

“You do what you gotta do,” Ace said. “Now come on, let’s get this shit over with and get back to the city. I found a spa back there, and you definitely need a spa day.”

“Spa day?” I asked, raising my eyebrow. “Ace, I was a farm boy, lived off the dirt, pounded bark with my bare hooves. I don’t need a spa day.”

Ace stopped and giggled softly. “You totally want one, don’t you?”

I stopped and looked away. There was a brief silence before looked down the tunnel. The others were out of earshot, then I turned back to Ace and nodded. “Yes,” I whispered. “Please.”

Ace slapped my back with a laugh and trotted onward. “It’s a date!”

A date?

She looked back, seeing my expression of shock. “It’s a saying Clover, relax.” She turned back down the tunnel. “Or is it?” With that, she bounded forward.

Well. Hooray for me!

“Hey!” Lollipop called from up ahead. “We found a way out!” Trotting forward, I saw our exit point. A remarkably intact iron ladder led up the side of the tunnel and up to a manhole, light barely passing through small holes in the lid. “I got point.” Lollipop hooked her massive machine gun over her back, checked her barding and saddle, then climbed up. She pushed the manhole up and heaved it aside to peek out. “All clear,” she whispered down after a few seconds and dragged herself out.

Tallie was the next up the ladder, and leapt out into the open air. Ace sheathed her machete and slung her shotgun over her shoulder, then climbed up. I blushed and looked away after getting a pretty damn good view from below her. Taking a deep breath and doing a little calm-dance, I climbed up last.

I poked my head out and saw Lollipop leaning up against a wall with her machine gun pointed down a long, wide alleyway. Ace had taken up cover behind a dumpster with her shotgun, and Tallie stood nearby, huddled over and stamping her little feet. “So cooooold!” she moaned.

Ace looked over as I pulled myself out of the hall and brushed myself down. “Welcome back.” She looked over at Lollipop and nodded, coming out of cover. The mares started walking down the alleyway, looking up at the tall buildings and dilapidated walls.

I looked up into the sky above the buildings. It was a powder white with large splotches of grey and black behind a veil of swirling snow. A few tiny flakes danced through the freezing air and landed on my visor before melting into droplets of cold water. The silence around me felt so surreal against my cold surroundings. The massive structures around us were pockmarked with bullet holes and punctured with gaping holes from explosions. Rebar and rubble jutted out from the buildings and it seemed almost all the windows had been shattered. A thin layer of ice crawled down the northern side of each building.

I felt something crawl onto my back and tug on my right, intact ear. “Hey Clover,” Tallie whispered. “You okay?” Wasn’t that the question of the day. “I don’t think you should be thinkin’ so hard at the moment, what with all the fucked-up shit out here.” She lightly bopped the top of my head. “Gotta keep moving.”

“Yeah,” I replied, shaking my head to get loose of her dreaded ear-hold. “It’s just... kinda beautiful, y’know?” I looked back at her. She examined the areas around us. It wasn’t much really, just a wide alleyway. On either side of us were large buildings, and flanking our route was a long brick wall. I started walking down the alley, still looking up at the large buildings. We passed by a broken-in door in a lower building on the right, flanked by dumpsters. I looked up ahead to see Ace and Lollipop talking about directions, so I figured I had a little time.

Curiosity rising, I took a small detour and peeked into the door. Inside was a dark, black and white tile floor, stretching down a long hallway. I couldn’t see the far end of the hall, but I did see a body in familiar armour. It was a set of brown and yellow armour, blackened by old bloodstains and the elements. Remarkably though, from what I could see, the body hadn’t gone rotten at all. It had been perfectly preserved by the cold. Would Lollipop think the soldier’s body was just a husk? Even if it was perfectly preserved?

Honestly, I didn’t want to ask. Not for my sake, but for the soldier’s sake. Lollipop might think different, but I always thought disturbing the dead was just wrong, husk or no. I wouldn’t want anyone disturbing dad’s or Shamrock’s graves. I would kill anyone who tampered with them.

“Poor dude,” Tallie murmured on my back, staring at the corpse. “Probably died in the war.”

“Most likely,” I replied. “Unless he found the armour. Either way, he’s frozen stiff.” I looked up at the griffin on my back, peeking over my head. “Anything that would be salvageable is probably too frozen to grab.”

She nodded in agreement. “Maybe we could thaw him out? Think he’d be alive?”

“Nah,” I said, shaking my head. “Looks like he got shot. I hope it was quick at least.” I turned and headed out the door again. “Besides, we really don’t have time. We have to keep moving.”

I shivered when my hooves touched the snow-powdered ground. Even with my boots on it was still very cold. I took in a deep, filtered, breath and looked up and down the alley again. The way we came seemed undisturbed, and the snow slowly covered our tracks behind us. The end of the alley opened into another street, but we headed in the opposite direction. Trotting to keep warm, I joined the girls. Their whispers joined with the ghostly winds between the buildings, which broke the silence around us. We were surrounded by tall buildings, which was maybe why I couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched.

“Yeah, maybe,” Ace whispered to Lollipop as I trotted up. “It’s just he’s- Oh, Clover, hey.”

I nodded at the mare and smiled. “Hey gals. Figured out which way to go?” Tallie had curled up on my back again, staring up at the tall buildings above us. She shivered in the cold. I made a mental reminder to get her some hot cocoa as soon as we got out of Mustang.

Lollipop looked at Ace and nodded. “Yeah, it should be that way,” she pointed down the left passage. “We’re about a twenty to thirty-minute walk from the rally point, and at this rate, I reckon the Defenders will get there before us. Unless the raiders are tougher than they looked.”

“Doubt it,” Ace replied, trotting off with her shotgun at the ready Lollipop was quick to follow, her machine-gun clanking against her barding. I watched as they headed out, wondering what they’d been talking about before I got there. Sure wasn’t about directions. I looked up the walls on either side of me, and followed after them.

Old and faded posters hung along many of the walls, most distorted and unintelligible. I could make out a few, though. One had a large tank and three soldiers charging at the enemy with great muster. “Drive them back!” was written across the top. “Join the Coalition today!”

Another featured a massive griffin in armour just like Gaz’s standing heroically over a burned and tattered Zebra flag. He carried a massive, smoking machine gun, even bigger than Lollipop’s. It had a long barrel connected to a rectangle. The bullets being fed into it from a large ammo pack mounted on the griffin’s back looked way too big to be bullets. A lot bigger than my sniper ammo, that’s for damn sure. The griffin was proudly sporting the Coalition colours as the sun rose behind him. “Show them who’s boss!” read the great slogan of this poster. “Beat ‘em before Equestria even gets here!”

The silence amplified the effectiveness of the posters. They promised great victory, but there I was standing in a cold, dead city. I shivered again and ran forward to catch up with the unicorn mares.

“Damn, it’s quiet...” Ace said, looking up at the dark clouds above. “Too quiet.”

“Way to be cheesy,” Lollipop said with a snicker. “There’s nothing out this far. Nothing out here for raiders.” She looked up at the tall, empty buildings and chuckled. “Nothing here but us ponies.”

“Hey!”

“And griffins.” Lollipop winked at Tallie.

I shivered again. I couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched. My eyes scanned the smashed remains of the buildings, searching. What for, I didn’t know. Ponies? Ghosts? Anything, really. My pipbuck didn’t pick up anything other than my three comrades. No friendlies, and no enemies.

Tallie gave me a startle as she leapt off my back and jogged on the spot. “It's too cold, dammit!” she squeaked and jogged up to Ace and Lollipop. “Who’s got a blanket?”

Ace rolled her eyes and picked up the runty teen and hugged her. “No blankets, but what about an Ace heater?” she asked with a chuckle, then looked at Lollipop and I. “You two go on ahead, we’ll catch up after I warm her up.” Tallie flinched at first, then looked unsure of what to do, but finally she snuggled into Ace and purred lightly at the warmth.

“We won’t stray too far, but we don’t really have the time.” Lollipop looked back at me, jerked her head at the road ahead, and started walking. “Hurry, please.” I trotted up to her side and followed her down the alley. The buildings around us were neatly packed together, providing long alleys that seemed to go on forever. I did see streets running parallel to the alley we were heading down, but the snow was practically moving sideways down it with the strong winds. I could see why Lollipop led us down the alleys now.

“Look, Clover,” Lollipop began, her eyes fixed down the route she’d chosen. “What happened back there, with the miss and stuff. You had doubts and they got to you. I understand that, trust me, I do, I’ve seen it in so many soldiers’ eyes. Know what happens to those soldiers?” She looked at me, my eyes showing all sorts of worry. I already knew but I wish I hadn’t. “I’m shoving their intestines back into their gut and sewing them up not a half hour later.” She looked back down the alley, not even taking a moment to notice my horrified expression playing across my eyes.

“You have to distance yourself from the other pony. They’re the enemy, they’re here to kill you. One hesitation can kill you. An act of bravery can save many,” she said, walking slowly. How could she seem so calm after all she’d seen? Guts and gore, ponies my age going to war, the bloodshed of possibly hundreds... the very thought made my head spin.

“I’m not saying become a cold basket case, just don’t overthink on the battlefield. Shoot first, worry later.” She turned to me and looked me right in the eyes. “Understand? I don’t want any of you to get hurt. You’re our sniper. You’re the cover for us. You’re the one who has the control over who dies and who lives. Don’t fuck it up.” Her eyes looked cold and dark, striking a terror in my veins.

They started to ease up as she looked into my eyes, the pupils shrinking in sheer terror. “Shit,” she muttered. “Sorry, Clover. Didn’t mean to scare you.” Her voice shifted from the chilling, frostbitten tone to more of a caring, warm, gentle one. “I just I hate seeing ponies make mistakes when lives are in danger.”

I shook in my boots for several moments before finally pulling myself together. “It’s, uh... It’s okay, I guess?” I asked, looking at my sniper. “I know I fucked up at the wrong time. Won’t happen again.” What she’d said about all the lives in my hooves. Tallie, Ace, Lollipop, maybe even more when the time came. I couldn’t let them down. Their lives were the most important thing to me, more important than anyone else’s. I just had to remember that the next time I had a face in the crosshairs.

I felt my insides chill a little at the revelation, like I’d swallowed ice. It slowly melted in my stomach, which only sent more shivers all the way down my body. I coudn’t explain it, but I felt something else, something deeper. Something wasn’t right, but it felt pretty good. It felt like the sweet, sweet release of an adrenaline rush, but deep down inside. It was awesome.

The snow swirled through the high rises above us as a purring Tallie and a trotting Ace caught up with us. Thankfully, I don’t think either had a clue about what we had just discussed, though I doubted they’d mind. I’d bet they’d agree, really.

Lollipop looked at each of our little group and smiled. “Well aren’t we a bunch of happy campers. Walking through an abandoned city looking for loot and... whatever it is Clover’s after.”

“To destroy a tether that’s keeping the Patriarch in the Stable,” I said, then chuckled sheepishly. “S-Simple...”

“And to get gear for Hammer and Sickle,” Ace said. “Like Lollipop said. Loot.” She started to trot onward. “Now c’mon. Times a wastin’.” She reached a T-intersection and looked down the left, then right passage before choosing the latter.

“Ace!” Lollipop shouted and raised an eyebrow. Ace scurried out again, then down the left passage. “There we go.”

--- --- ---

The snow was starting to build up around us. My hooves were fully submerged. Oddly enough, they weren’t all that cold: the boots Hammer had given us definitely helped. Tallie wasn’t so lucky, but she had managed to fashion thick socks from old fabrics we’d found along our trek through the frozen city.

The city itself seemed to get odder and odder the further we walked. Some of the icicles on walls and buildings hung sideways, and the buildings showed more damage from bulletholes and explosions. The clouds above us had become dark and ominous, pockmarked with swirling spirals of snowy winds high above our heads. The only sounds I could hear were the ghostly wailing of the winds and the crunch of fresh snow under our hooves.

The quiet and cold lethality of the place made for a truly haunting experience. We were the only ones around for potentially miles, but I still felt a million eyes on us, staring, judging. There couldn’t be anyone. There couldn’t. The poisoned air and freezing climate made that impossible.

Didn’t it?

We slowly came up to a corner in the small street we’d been following and ran across something I really wished we hadn’t. There, slumped against the wall, lay the bloodied corpse of what seemed to be a scavenger.

Lollipop gently bent down and tried to move him for a better observation, but he was frozen solid. “Hmmm, Ace, help me check this guy out,” she said to my beige companion, then looked at me. “You two keep an eye out . Your EFS can probably spot anything that may or may not be coming for us.”

I gulped down hard after she said that. “C-Coming for us?” I asked, shuffling my hoof a little.

“Yes, this guy died somehow, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t from exposure.” She pointed at the large blood trails running down his coat. “Now cover us dammit, and stallion up already.”

I took a deep breath and nodded, remembering what she’d said before. I could very possibly have their lives in my hooves. I had to start paying attention and play my role. It wasn’t just me anymore.

I needed to be like Shamrock. Courageous, caring, and tenacious when it came to friends and family. The mere thought of my older brother conjured something inside me, forcing me to steel myself. I could feel his bravery seep into my veins, something like adrenaline, but much less potent.

With my newfound confidence, I looked around, keeping an eye on my EFS. There was nothing but four white blips on my radar. Tallie, Ace, Lollipop, and... wait a second. I looked around again. Yep. There was definitely an extra blip. The others seemed too preoccupied with either checking the body over or trying to keep warm to notice. Where was this mystery friendly?

I walked past the mares, finding that their blips shifted quickly as I passed them, but the other friendly stayed constant. I followed it to the end of the short road and found myself in a small courtyard between buildings.

“What’re we doin’?” Tallie asked on my back, looking around. She’d tried her best to bundle up in the tarp on my back. I think she’d finally started to get cozy. “They said watch their backs, dude.”

“I am,” I muttered, squinting. There wasn’t anyone in the courtyard, and nopony in the windows around us. I looked up and focused on the tops of the buildings. Up on top of the tallest of the buildings was a small black dot amongst the swirling snow. I flipped the scope on my sniper over my eye and peered through.

It was, yeah, it was a pony. I couldn’t make out specific features, just the gentle flutter of a long black coat and large brimmed hat. The figure watched us from on high through large bug-eyes. It definitely wore a gasmask, but I could barely make it out. It just stared at me, unmoving.

I raised a hoof to wave at the figure, but it just stood there in silence, staring. It stared for only a moment longer before darting out of view entirely.

“Who was that?” Tallie whispered, staring up as well.

“I don’t know,” I whispered back. “But I got a bad feeling about it,”

“Clover!” Ace called from back at the corpse. “Get your ass back here, colt!” I ignored her call for a few moments, trying to make sense of what I’d just seen. Maybe it was another scavenger? Maybe a reformed raider? I couldn’t pinpoint it, but something just seemed... wrong.

I shook the thoughts from my head and trotted back to Ace. There were only three blips on my radar again, and those I could attribute to my friends.

“Check this out,” Lollipop said, her authoritative military voice kicking in. “I’ve determined the cause of death.”

With great effort, she’d managed to move the body enough to uncover the stallion’s chest. I could tell straight away how he’d died. Just like the pegasus back in the sewers, this stallion had a large hole through his chest, like he’d been impaled. “Damn,” I whispered, looking away. “There are raiders this far in?” I whispered and looked at Ace. “We gotta get moving...”

“I’m not so sure,” Lollipop said, looking closely at the wound. “I’ve never seen anything this wide. Either they’re packing serious heat, or there’s somepony else out here.” She looked at all three of us in turn. “I’ve seen similar wounds before, but those were from Federation anti-machine rifles.” She looked back. “But they were a little more messy than this.” She rubbed her masked chin and hummed softly. “I hope they haven’t refined the design since I’ve been gone.”

“Great, so there’s raiders AND Feds out here now?” Ace asked, her voice coated in attitude. “Fucking great.”

“I didn’t say that,” Lollipop retorted, starting to strip the body of its useful resources. A few filters for gas masks, a torch, some matches, a few cans of food and such. The pistol the stallion had was frozen solid on the ground and offered no real use. “I just meant that I’ve seen something similar.”

“Yeah, right.” Ace grunted and started walking into the courtyard. “Let’s just keep moving.”

The medical unicorn picked up her dufflebag and looked down at the corpse. “Thanks for the stuff, friend,” she whispered, now turning to her soft medical pony voice. “We’ll make sure it doesn’t go to waste.” And with that she followed after Ace. I was the one at the rear again.

I didn’t know if I should tell the others. Was what I’d seen real, or had I just imagined it? Tallie had seen it too though, so it had to be real. “Hey girls,” I called out to them both and quickly caught up. “I think I saw somepony a minute ago.” I kept my voice down, just in case somepony other than my friends was listening. “I dunno if I’m going nuts or not, but I really think I saw something.”

“I did too,” whispered Tallie. “There was somepony all the way up there.” She pointed up at the tall building and pulled the tarp over her head so that only her eyes and beak were poking out. “Somepony creepy...”

“Were they hostile?” Ace asked, looking up. “Not that it matters. Doesn’t look like they stayed around.”

“No,” I replied. “At least, I don’t think so.”

Lollipop looked up, then back at me. “Ace is right, it doesn’t really matter anymore. It was probably just a scavenger or something.”

“Mmm,” I mumbled, somewhat agreeing. Something about it just felt off.

---

Ace looked around the courtyard. There were four streets leading out, one of which we’d just come from, and right in the middle lay a small playground. I swear I could almost hear the faint laughter of children in the whistling winds. To think that once foals of all ages used to congregate here to play, but now it was just a remnant of times lost. Foals would play here again. I wasn’t so sure that was a bad thing.

“Which way now?” Ace asked us, looking around. “We’re still on the right course, right?”

Our new quickly-becoming-leader Lollipop nodded. “Yeah, I think so. We’re supposed to take the, uh...” She pulled my hoof over and checked the maps on my duct-taped pipbuck. “North road.” She looked at me and smiled. “And which way is north, bud?”

I looked at my compass and nodded in the N direction. “That way?”

Lollipop smiled and nodded. “Very good! Now let’s head off. We should be near the main street.” She turned and slogged through the snow down the north road. Ace looked at me and waved her hoof in a circle around her ear.

I was inclined to agree with her. Lollipop was a really weird one, that was for sure. She seemed to alter readily between her battle-hardened soldier voice, to a soft medical one, then to a childish, friendly tone, but what scared me the most was a strange look she got in combat. She seemed so peaceful, but could turn into some sort of tenacious animal at the drop of the hat. I guess it suited her look, really. The swirling shavings in her mane and the black tribal-looking tattoos, matched with the large pink mohawk, added up to be a truly intimidating style.

Ace on the other hand seemed more simpler to understand. I’d seen her bitchiness, when we first met over a week or two ago. It seemed like she’d hated my guts and even tried to get me into fights for her amusement. Over time she’d softened up to me, and, well, gotten less bitchy. She was still a little cold to Lollipop and I could sense the feelings of slight distrust she had toward the former Fed, but I thought that Lollipop’s unfriendly stance on the Federation aided that relationship. Then she was friendly toward me, up until the time we’d boinked. After that she was pissed. I assumed it was her defense mechanism kicking in again, but after that, everything seemed okay. She was really really great. I felt like I’d do anything for that mare. Did she feel the same way about me? I hoped so, but I just couldn’t know.

Tallie seemed strange to me. She’d had such a horrible upbringing, from what she’d told me. Barely fed, mum was a bitch, abusive dad... the exact opposite of my own family. She was practically new to the liberty we lucky ponies had available to us. Well, almost all of us. Those of us not tormented by inner demons and bound to the cause of revenge. When the week was up and Snake Eyes had information about Double Down for me, I’d be off again to Neighgas. I’d go right at that instance, abandoning my quest to save the Patriarch, to kill that suit-wearing green murderer and his psycho bitch. They’d both know pain they’d never imagined.

But no, I couldn’t. I couldn’t abandon my friends like that. Ace had offered to help me in my journey, and I wasn’t prepared to move without her being ready. It’d be foolish of me to do something like that. Lollipop had joined us to seek a new place to settle, which quite honestly I didn’t think was going to happen. She said she’d been on the run from Feds, and I didn’t think she’d be able to settle. Then there was Tallie. We were all she had left in this world, and there was no way was I going to walk out on her.

Finally, there was the obvious. I didn’t know what Double Down was capable of, who he had working for him, and how much he would be willing to throw at me to stop me. He’d sent out an international bounty for fuck’s sake. Snake Eyes’ information would hopefully help me find a chink in his armour.

I did know one thing though. Shamrock would be avenged, no matter what.

In the meantime however, I just had to sit tight. And what better to spend my time on than helping the Ponave? That was the whole reason we’d come to Mustang in the first place: to help the Patriarch. Freeing him had the potential to bring some aspect of life back to the Ponave and change it from a barren wasteland into something greater. There was also the possibility the Patriarch would spread tyranny across the desert, but judging from how he spoke and who he once was, I doubted it.

I guess helping The Resistance those times was kind of helping the Ponave. Getting one side one step closer to control over the battle-torn region would stop the fighting sooner, right? I wasn’t one for diplomacy, but I’d never really liked the Federation, so why not help others where I could? From what Ace told me, and some subtle hints from Lollipop, helping The Resistance was the best move forward. Plus it was too late for me to go back now. If anyone back in Fed lands knew I’d helped the enemy, I’d be branded for treason and sent to goodness knows where.

“We all good back there?” Lollipop asked over her shoulder. Of course, I’d had my head in the clouds while we walked down the tight streets and alleyways. There wasn’t much that really stood out that I hadn’t seen before. Snow, cold grey brick walls, propaganda posters, the odd dumpster, nothing too unique. The clouds above us maintained their dark grey coat and continued to send snow our way. I turned my attention down from the sky to Lollipop and nodded. “Alright, good. We’re coming up on one of the main roads now, so keep your eyes open. Should be just around this corner.”

I nodded again and looked at my EFS. “Gotcha, Lollipop.” I swivelled my head around, looking in all directions. “EFS is clear right now. Just you two and Tallie.” We turned down another street and stopped.

The building at the end of the street had collapsed against the building beside it, filling the passage we were meant to go through with rubble. “Damn it,” Ace cursed, and kicked a small pile of snow. “That’s blocking our path, isn’t it?”

Lollipop nodded. “No biggie though,” she said and walked forward. She reached the rubble and looked around. “We’ll just find another way out.” The rubble covered two alleys, forward and right, which just left the left passage open. “Down this way a few blocks and it should let us out.”

Ace and I followed our intrepid leader on our small journey through the endless side passages and alleyways. “Sure is a lot of alleyways,” I muttered to Ace. “Kinda seems... excessive.”

“Eh, not really,” Ace replied. “I heard Mustang was built pretty efficiently. Long lines of buildings along larger roads with maybe two to three blocks in between for pedestrians.” She shrugged and kept walking. “Might seem excessive, but we haven't really been down that many. I’m cool with it either way.”

“If you say so,” I said and looked back at Tallie. “How’re you holding up, kiddo?”

Tallie had pulled the tarp and her coat so far around her that only her eyes were poking out. “I’m cold as fuck. What’s new?” she muttered and glanced around. “When we’re done here, I’m lighting a big bloody fire and dancing around it like a savage.”

“What a wild imagination you have,” I said, looking back down the road.

“You don’t even know the half of it, chief,” Tallie replied and looked over my head. “Aww nuts, dead end.” Indeed we had come to a dead end. There was no other passages branching off from here, but instead just a large metal door leading into some building. “Guess we gotta turn back then?”

“Not quite,” Ace said, looking over the door. She pointed at it and looked at Lollipop. “We gotta go through here, right?” Lollipop nodded and stepped back. “Fun!”

In one fluid motion, she whisked her shotgun off her back and fired two shots: one on the top right side of the door and one on the bottom left. The metal punctured and curved inward around the shots like a small explosion had rocked it. Ace slung the shotgun across her back again and gave the door a light tap. She stood for several seconds looking proud of herself before cracking open a well-chuffed eye and peering at the door. “You gotta be kidding me...” she muttered and turned around, then delivered a mighty buck. The door didn’t offer too much resistance as it flew a meter or two and fell to the ground. “And open sesame.”

“Real nice, Ace,” Lollipop muttered and walked in. “Now, if I remember those maps correctly, this should be the old cop shop.” She looked around and turned on her flashlight. On one of the walls was a large recruitment poster featuring a chiseled stallion with a large moustache looking off to the side, his Mustang Police Department badge glimmering with pride. Yup, definitely the cop shop.

“Bound to be some good loot then, huh?” Ace asked, getting out her own flashlight.

Lollipop turned around and seemed to smile under her mask. “You read my mind.” She floated up her duffle bag and trotted off. “Let’s take a look around and grab what we can, then let’s get outta here.”

We moved silently through the hallway until we reached the main lobby. It was a fairly large room with two long couches in the corner, and a small coffee table in front of them. On the other was a large metal door with a small glass window to look in, behind the main desk. There were two other wooden doors but they were closed. Lollipop made a beeline for the main desk while Ace tried to open one of the doors. Tallie crawled off my back and followed after Ace, trying to get the doors open, while I...

Well, I decided to have a sit on one of the couches. Why not? They looked comfy enough, and by golly, they were. It was like sitting on a cloud. I instantly relaxed into it and sighed in comfort, then leafed through the magazines they had available on the coffee table. Interior design... hm, pretty neat. Machines and technology... sounded interesting. A child’s comic book... looked pretty awesome. A mare showing off her marehoo- hold the phone. Yep, definitely an adult magazine. I stared for a few moments before shoving all of the magazines into my bag. Cause, y’know, science.

Of course, when I looked up after zipping up my bag I noticed Ace looming over me with a big smile on her face. “What’cha got there, Clover?” she asked in a sing-song voice.

“Nothing!” I replied, clutching my bag to my chest. “Nothingatallnopenothing.”

Ace snorted and giggled. “Whatever. Just as long as you share.” She winked, then nodded at the door. “Anyway, need your help. It’s not locked, but it’s jammed pretty bad.” She looked back at me and smiled under her mask. “Could use those farm-stallion legs of yours.”

I got up and walked over to one of the wooden doors. Tallie had planted both feet on the doors and pulled with her hands, trying hard to get it open. I didn’t think she was going to get very far. “s’cuse me,” I said and lifted her off the door. “Lemme try.”

“Ugh, fine,” Tallie said and walked over to the next door.

I looked the door over, trying to assess its weak spot, then reared up and bucked the door as hard as I could. The door gave way and fell inward, the sound of it hitting the floor resonating through the room. Ace shone her flashlight inside to discover a longish hallway with a few doors on either side. None of them were closed, but each had an ‘Authorized Access’ sign on it.

Inside the first was a series of lockers lined up against the wall. Most had been flung open and haphazardly emptied but some remained closed. Further in was a set of showers, one of which had been left on, trailing a long frozen pole where the water had frozen. I walked over to it, ignoring the lockers that Ace was trying to break into, and took a closer look.

Something about the long, oversized icicle intrigued me. I wondered about how the hell water could freeze quickly enough to make a consistent shape all the way down to the ground. I’d often thought the same thing about regular old icicles or ice formations. I stared at the ice and saw the wall behind it distort, but I could still see the details of the tiling behind it. “Neato!” I announced and touched the ice. It felt strong and smooth. It was a good thing I wore a mouth covering mask, or I’d have done something seriously stupid.

“Eh, there’s nothing in these,” Ace announced, smashing the last locker open. “Nothing but personal articles and stuff. Kinda worthless from a monetary standpoint.”

“But sentimentally, worth a fortune no doubt,” I replied, walking over.

Ace levitated out a half eaten, frozen chocolate bar. “Nope, I’m sticking with worthless.”

I rolled my eyes and looked inside. “Yeah, but what about this?” I asked, pulling out an old photo from the back of the locker. It was of two similar looking stallions, standing in front of some sort of landmark out in the Ponave. I’d say they were brothers if I were to hazard a guess. “Family photo. Probably worth a lot to whoever owned it.”

Ace sighed. “Yeah, I guess,” she mumbled and closed the locker. “Still, nothing we should take with us. Can’t really sell it.” And with that, she turned and headed for the door.

“Hey,” I called after her and caught up. “You okay?” I asked, my voice laced with a tinge of concern. She came across as kind of sad, but I hadn’t really seen her sad before.

“Yeah,” she replied. “There’s just some things that remind me about the hell we live in, y’know?” she asked and looked at the floor. “I don’t normally let it get to me, but sometimes... you know. It just does.” She looked up at me and shook her head, trying to get the thoughts out. “I normally wouldn’t be like this around anyone else, but hell, I trust you.” She did a little jog on the spot, trying to get it out of her system. “Good to let it out every now and again, right?” she said then left through the door. “Lets see what’s behind door number two.”

Inside the second door was a much smaller common room by the looks of it. As I swept my flashlight around the room I saw a couple of sofas, a long coffee table, a small television, a few tables and chairs, a small kitchen corner, and a pony huddled in the corner. I froze and shone my light back on it, then felt dumb as I realized it was dead.

She was a mare in a set of heavy police barding, like a riot cop or something. In fact, her armour looked a little like my own, but a deeper blue and with black pads. I was no medical professional, but by her expression and the lack of blood, I came to the conclusion that she’d frozen here. All alone too, which was another strange point. If she’d frozen here, where were the rest of the frozen bodies? Maybe she was the only one left in this place at the time? Stayed back to hold down the fort? I doubted it. No pony would be that stupid.

“Bah, nothing in here of use,” Ace said, rifling through the shelves and cabinets. “Everything’s frozen or just gone. Looks like we weren’t the first ones to scav this place.”

I was focused on the body more than anything else. It was hard for me to come to terms about death, even though I’d seen so much of it. The Separatist fight back in Buckwheat was the first time I’d seen anyone shot, let alone several ponies. I’d only seen three corpses before then. Clàrsach’s, dad’s, and Shamrock’s. An accident, natural, and murder. Even though I didn’t know most of the ponies who died around me, they all shook me to the core all the same. One of the worst was that pink merc who had begged for his life. That still made me clench my eyes in regret and anger. I didn’t kill him, it was Trailblaze, but I had still enabled him. I let my guard down and he got out. Poor guy. I bet it was his first job, too.

“Hey, it was self defense,” a voice whispered in my head. Damn it. “That pony knew it was a dangerous life being a merc, and he died for it. He shouldn’t have attacked us.” True as that was, I still felt sorry for the stallion. “Fuck that guy. His group knocked Ace the fuck out too. What would’ve happened if we’d all been carried off? What would’ve happened to her? She’d probably be some stallion’s cock-sock by now, and we’d be dead.” I would never let that happen! “And it didn’t because we protected ourselves.” Was Trailblaze starting to make sense? I didn’t know what to think about it. He’d always been so... evil. Wanting to kill everyone. “That may be so, but there’ll be a time and a place for that shit, trust me. Right now, I gotta make sure you don’t get both of us killed.”

The sound of a hoof knocking on my visor brought me back from my inner discussion with the devil. Ace stood in front of me, face to face. “Yoohoo, Clovey-boy, wake up.”

I blinked a few times and frowned. “Hey, don’t tap the glass. You’ll scare the fish.”

“Huh?” Ace asked, raising an eyebrow, then knocking my visor again. “What’s a fish?”

“Ugh, nevermind,” I grumbled. “So you didn’t find anything worth taking?”

“Nah. One more door to go, though.” She skipped over to the door and leapt out. Ace always seemed to be brimming with either enthusiasm or cunning. She was nice and bubbly when she wanted to be, and a scheming minx when she wanted something. I only really saw that side early on in our endeavour when she made me fight that big fucker back in Westwood. What was his name? Wild Card, or something like that. Big fucker. I remembered kicking him in the nads. Good times.

Ace pulled on the last door, but found that the big metal hulk wouldn’t move. She tugged a few more times then grumbled. “Locked,” she muttered and pulled out her shotgun. “Which probably means there’s something good.” She aimed directly at the lock and pulled the trigger. Just like the door into the police station, the metal exploded inward and the lock was officially buggered. The door swung open without any more resistance. “Gotta love breaching shells,” the beige mare said, looking very proud of herself.

“What’s going on down there?” Lollipop asked from down the hall. “You all okay?” She started walking down the hall to investigate the shotgun blast. “You better not be wasting those shells, girl, or I will be pissed. We’ll need them later on down the line, no doubt.”

Ace ducked inside the door and squealed. “Relax, Lollipop, it was for a good reason.” I decided to take a look myself, and instantly saw what Ace meant. “I found the armoury.”

Indeed she had. There were shelves of police-issue ammo, armour, and weapons. On the closest rack sat several stacks of riot armour all frozen together. “Get whatever isn’t frozen to the shelves,” Lollipop ordered, moving over to one of the ammo shelves. “We don’t have time to chisel or thaw them out.”

I took a little look around the medium-sized room while the others shifted whatever they could into their bags. Most of what they could get was ammo, as most of the guns and armour had frozen entirely.

There was enough equipment in this armoury to suppress a decent-sized riot, for sure. The number of riot shields alone could have surrounded a small protest. It was a pity that, once again, I couldn’t find any that hadn’t been frozen to the shelf.

By the end of the loot session, the girls and I accumulated about a hundred and fifty 9mm rounds for pistols, a hundred 5.56 ammo, thirty shotgun rounds, and about fifty .308 bullets, giving me plenty for my rifle before having to use the engraved ammo.

I didn’t want to use the engraved bullets for a few reasons. Regret, Revenge, Redemption. Each word engraved on a handful of bullets each. I didn’t want to use them because someone had put effort into engraving them, and I wasn’t sure if the engravings would alter the bullet’s path or not. But I had enough bullets now that I wouldn’t need to worry about that for a long while.

We did manage to get some weapons out of it though. A few of the pistols hadn’t been fully encased in ice and could be used for parts, while one or two could still actually work. Along with the pistols, we got five police batons, and two small shotguns. Ace’s shotgun was still more impressive, but the others might fetch a decent price.

We made our way back out of the police staff areas and back into the common room. We heard several clanks, which made me jump right out of my skin. It took me a few seconds to get my wits about me before I realized I’d jumped right into Ace’s forehooves. She rolled her eyes and dropped be right onto my butt. “Ow,” I whimpered, rubbing my hindquarters.

“Get up, ya big baby,” Ace grunted, walking over me.

It seemed everypony but me stayed calm, big fuckin’ surprise, probably because they knew exactly what the sound was. Tallie, being the tenacious little scrapper she’d been making herself out to be, had managed to pry open the other door using a crowbar she’d probably found nearby. I looked around, wondering where she’d got it from, then spotted a toolbox under one of the long benches by a darkened window. It was empty, and Tallie’s toolbelt looked a little heavier, as did the duffel she’d left by the door.

Ace walked up to the door and peered inside. “Tallie?” she whispered. The room was tiny in comparison to the rest of the rooms we’d been in, probably only big enough for four ponies to stand in comfortably.

“Mmm?” Tallie mumbled while fiddling with some junk she’d found. It appeared to be a janitor’s maintenance closet. The shelves were laden with several boxes full of tools and other bits and bobs used to fix things. Tallie seemed more interested in the little doohickey she’d found. It looked like a little box with wires coursing along the edges.

“What’ve you got there, Sweetie?” Lollipop asked in her caring medical voice.

Tallie didn’t even look up. “Industrial drill motor,” she muttered, and fiddled with something inside. “Looks like it still works... Hey Ace, hand me that spark battery, would ya?” she pointed at her duffle bag outside without looking up.

Ace blinked and floated out a little purple square with two wires poking out of it, out of Tallie’s duffel and floated it over to her. “Um, are you sure? I mean, it just looks like a... doohickey.” Nailed it.

The little griffin teenager didn’t look up once again. “Well, it is,” she muttered and snatched the battery out of Ace’s dark levitation field. She clipped it onto the side of the device and plugged the wires in. “Well, here goes,” she announced and flicked the switch. Some sort of coil started spinning inside and the top started to lazily spin around. “Bwahaha!” Tallie laughed. “Success!” She looked around once more, turning the device off, and pulled out a few other odds and ends. She started to attach them to the motor in various different ways that I couldn’t even begin to describe. I had severely underestimated that griffin’s skill with mechanics, even though I’d seen her fix those AC units back in Iron City.

The end result looked a little awkward and confusing. “What is it?” I asked, peering into the room. The base of the machine now had another, larger box hooked up to it, which Tallie had made on the spot. She flicked the switch again, and the top began to spin lazily again. The small coils inside the box started to glow a dull orange.

“Fuck yeah!” Tallie exclaimed, fist pumping the air. “Heater, bitches!” She put it down and held her hands up to it, murring quietly. “Oooooooh yeah that’s good.”

Ace blinked and looked at me, then back at the contraption. “Damn, that... that’s actually really impressive.”

“Yeah it is,” Tallie said, sounding all proud and smart. “Pretty simple really.”

“How did you learn to do all that?” Lollipop chimed in, just as perplexed as Ace and I.

Tallie picked up the machine and turned it off. She walked out of the room, having collected what she wanted and put it in her duffel, and climbed up onto my back. “Books,” she said simply. “And a few holo-vids, I guess. Anything I could find in my hideout.”

Lollipop chuckled and walked back over to the main desk. “You had a hideout? When?”

Tallie placed the box on my lower back and turned it on, warming both her and the back of my neck and head. It felt amazing, to be honest. “Well, I made it to stay outta my parents’ and the guards’ way. Out of sight, out of mind, right?” she asked, warming up her hands and bundling in my tarp. “I don’t really wanna talk about it.”

“Fair enough,” the medical mare said and went around the desk. “One more area to check before we head off.” She shifted a few things on the desk and hummed. “Now, if what I heard is correct, jails have an emergency generator for things like cell doors and crucial systems, so...” she ran a hoof along the bottom of the desk and blinked. “Aha.”

She seemed to push a button on the underside of the desk and a well-frosted light above the nearby door shone red. There was a few, very quiet, distorted alarms but they died rather quickly. The door ground and whined as frozen parts started to shift. Something behind the door shattered, and the door began to move. I figured it was some sort of ice casing around a piston or something. Tallie probably knew. The door ground aside and came to a stop, falling silent.

Lollipop trotted over to the door. “I knew it. Doors like these run on a backup that lasts for a very long time if there’s barely anything running off it.” She ran a hoof over her tall pink mohawk in thought. “I wouldn’t doubt that the generator around here hasn’t had any activity in the last one-fifty to two hundred years.”

“Sounds about right,” Tallie said with a curt nod, warming up by her little heater. She even began to purr gently.

The next area contained another short hallway with a small security checkpoint. Lollipop gave it no heed as she marched right past it, through the opposite end of the checkpoint. I followed closely behind, my curiosity getting the best of me. What could be behind a security door and a checkpoint?

What a very stupid question, me. Jail cells of course. Duh. Just past the final door lay a room with six jail cells placed closely together. They were more of the old-school model of bars to make cage-like rooms for the bad guys to rot in. The whole room was painted white and hadn’t deteriorated from the years gone by.

Almost all of the cells were empty except the one in the far corner. There was a small, strange, huddled figure in the corner, the cell door left wide open. “That’s odd,” Ace remarked, walking over to the cell. “Why would someone rest in a pace like this?” I merely shrugged in response, then walked over.

The figure definitely wasn’t a pony. It had the same basic shape of a pony, but its ears were much longer and very floppy. I couldn’t see the creature’s face from its large gas mask, but I thought it was maybe a donkey, or a mule. ‘Wayward Freedom’ was stitched into an odd looking brown coat he wore, no doubt frozen to his hide.

“Look’it them ears,” I said, staring at the absurdly floppy looking earsies. Then I realized I’d just made fun of a dead person’s ears. They were already dead, so I didn’t thikn it mattered.

Ace started to fumble around the body in search of loot that we could take with us. Well, if she was comfy looting a corpse, I couldn’t do any harm by just touching it, right?

I slowly reached out and prodded one of the ears. It was stiff, but it moved slightly, and in a rather floppy fashion. I lifted it up and let it go, watching it flop down against the gas mask once more. I smiled under my helmet, even though I knew it had to be at least a little wrong.

“Clover,” Ace muttered, going through the mule’s satchel. “Stop messing around.”

“In a minute,” I said, and lifted the ear once more. Except it didn’t rise smoothly. The whole damn thing snapped off in my hoof! “Eep!” I squeaked and fumbled with the ear, not being able to catch it as it bounced between my hooves. It slipped between my hooves one last time and landed on the ground with a small thump.

“Ew!” Ace, Tallie, and I said in unison, disgusted by what I’d just done. I was always telling Lollipop to quit messing with graves, and look what I just did! I just did a massive whoopsie to a grave!

Ace narrowed her eyes at the now fresh-looking stump. “I told you to stop messing about, now look!” She levitated the ear back up and tried to stick it back on. It kept falling off, so she left it on the top of the mule’s head. “You moron,” she muttered at me as she brushed past me. “Don’t play with dead bodies, even the floppy ones.” I felt my heart sink slightly.

Why had I done that? Just... why. I knew better than to play with a corpse. I even said before that I’d kill anyone who messed with my family’s bodies. I felt so ashamed, that I wanted to sit and cry, then pray to the dead mule’s spirit for forgiveness. I wasn’t even a spiritual pony, but I still felt like I needed to do it.

Tallie patted my back lightly. “Hey, calm down, big guy. Could’ve been worse.”

“How?” I asked, looking over my shoulder. The warmth of Tallie’s portable heater tickled the front of my ears. “How could I have done something worse...?”

“Well, A, he could’ve been alive,” Tallie explained, “and B, he could’ve turned into a zombie and eaten your face off.”

Well wasn’t that a warming thought. “I guess,” I murmured and turned to follow Ace.

Ace had successfully lifted a few shotgun rounds, a book, and some canned food. The mule’s weapon had fallen apart from age and disrepair. He was dead though, Tallie was right, and just like Lollipop told me, bodies were just empty husks of what they once were. The soul had left the body. The thought helped the pain a little, but not much. I still felt extremely stupid and reckless for what I’d done. Stupid stallion! Stupid, stupid, stupid!

“I take it you got everything you could,” Lollipop asked, not mentioning anything about the body or what I’d done. Ace nodded and patted her bag. “Alright. The front door is frozen and the windows are covered in too much ice. Can’t blow through with anything in here.”

“Let’s just shotgun out,” Ace suggested, floating up her shotgun.

Lollipop shook her head. “No need, I already found a way out while you two were off in the common areas.”

She led us back to the main lobby and pointed at a set of stairs. “The main office has been blown to pieces, but so has the wall to the next building over. We’ll head over there and get out from there,” the lime-green mare explained.

Ace raised an eyebrow at the medic and started heading to the stairs. “You sure know a lot about this place,” she said, looking over her shoulder. “Y’know, the streets, the buildings...”

Lollipop pushed me forward and started walking behind me. “It’s called situational analysis and studying maps, my beige friend.” She started to follow me and Tallie up the stairs. Ace waited at the top. “Comes from being a soldier.”

Ace rolled her eyes down at us and left our line of sight. “Pfft, yeah, right,” she said from around the corner, followed by a grunt and thump.

I climbed up to the top of the stairs, peered in through a freestanding doorframe, and saw her across a narrow gap between the two buildings. The view of the street was obscured by some sort of wreckage, made of metal and rubble. I looked down at the gap and gulped.

Tallie, Lollipop and myself stood in what had been the front of an office, now obliterated by an explosion. The black, charred walls made that painfully evident. Nothing had survived the blast, not even the floor. I didn’t trust the groaning that emanated from the floorboard as I shuffled closer to the edge. I wasn’t afraid of heights, just the possibility of the floor disappearing below me.

With a deep breath, I lept off the side of the crater and sailed through the air. “Wheee!” Tallie squealed, extending her wings and pretending to fly while I flailed at the opposite side of the drop, trying my best to grab the ledge. Thankfully, I didn’t need to as I landed delicately on the opposite side. On my face.

“Ow...” I groaned and slowly got to my hooves as Tallie giggled on my back. “At least one of us enjoyed it.” I looked back at her to find her staring back at me with her big red eyes. I thought she was smiling, but it was hard to tell. Who wouldn’t smile while huddled up next to a hand-made heater?

Lollipop landed next to me just in time as the office’s floor collapsed into the cells below. “That was a close one,” she said, looking over the edge. The old, cold, burned boards shattered as they hit the floor, and so would we, if we hadn’t gotten off them so quickly. “I hate ruins...”

“Ditto,” Ace said, looking around the room. It too appeared to be an office, but much smaller and not as burned.The walls and floors were still a little charred, but the back of the room was still fairly intact. Small as it was, it still housed a little desk and a few filing cabinets.

I walked over to the desk and noticed some of the papers strewn across the top of it. ‘Happy Cabbage Groceries,’ was written in the corner of each piece. The papers themselves seemed to be just a bunch of old invoices and inventory checklists. Nothing too interesting. Whoever had owned or managed the place must not have kept personal mementos around, which was a shame, as my curiosity kept nagging me about the history of places like that.

“Stairs... stairs...” Lollipop muttered and opened a door. “Closet. Damn.” The closet she opened was bare except for a small skeletonized hoof at the very bottom. Nothing else though, just the hoof. I think the closet must have held files and folders judging by how they were flattened at the bottom of the closet.

Ace swung open another door at the opposite end of the room. “Found ‘em!” she called out and started her descent into whatever was below us. “You gotta be kidding me!” she shouted from the bottom. That didn’t sound good...

I ran down the stairs, managing not to trip and fall all the way down. My SMG was ready to fire by the time I got to the bottom and adrenaline started to seep into my system, but it was all for nothing.

Ace stood in the middle of the grocery store, tearing into a very old looking box. “There’s fuck-all in here!” she grumbled. She was right; there was nothing left on the shelves, no canned foods, no water bottles, nothing at all that we could take with us.

“Hey,” I said, walking over to her and looking into the box. Nothing. “We have enough food for this, right?” I honestly hadn’t checked exactly how much food we had, which in retrospect was really really stupid. Hey, I wasn’t really a tactician or anything like that, those things didn’t occur to me.

Ace grumbled and threw the box across the room. “Yeah, I guess. We aren’t gonna be out here long anyway, and even then, we’d need to find a place to take these damn masks off in order to eat and stuff.” She grumbled some more and started hunting around, high and low for anything we could take with us.

“Any ideas where that’d be?” I asked as Tallie crawled off my back and started searching even lower than Ace could. “Air kinda gets, y’know, everywhere.”

Ace rolled her eyes and looked at me. “Now how would I know, nimrod? Ask the super-recon-soldier-ranger-super-mare over there.” She pointed her gloved hoof at Lollipop as she got to the end of the stairs.

“What?” Lollipop asked, looking between us. “What’d I do?” Her bag looked a little heavier. “There was a safe up there, by the way. Mostly pre-war bits, but I found a gold bar. Dunno what it was doing here.”

“Yeah, yeah, good for you,” Ace muttered and looked under the main counter with Tallie.

Lollipop looked at me expectantly. “Where would we be able to take off our masks?” I repeated. I could feel a strange hostility in the air coming from Ace and I couldn’t tell why. Her bad moods seem to come on so fast it was crazy.

The medical mare ran a hoof through her mohawk and seemed to think about it for a few long moments. “I’d say either an underground bunker, or potentially the underground metro system. Depends on if the air filters down there are still working.” Seemed legit.

“And if not?” I asked, wondering if we’d ever get a chance to eat in the next few hours.

Lollipop checked her equipment and looked back at me. “Hope you had a nice breakfast, then, because it’ll be a long while before we can eat again. How long have we been out here anyways?”

I didn’t care for the answers, but the latter was indeed a good question. I lifted my foreleg and pressed a few buttons on my pipbuck. Thankfully, the little computer duct-taped to my foreleg hadn’t frozen in the cold. “Ummm,” I said as I checked the time. Wow. “About three hours. Time flies, huh?”

“Indeed it does,” Lollipop mumbled, obviously thinking about something. “Let’s just hope we can eat soon then.” She turned her attention to the scavenging duo. “Found anything?”

Ace popped her head up over the counter and levitated a box out and onto the surface. “Yep,” she said with a sense of pride. “Well, Tallie found it.” As if on cue, Tallie climbed up onto the counter and sat, looking very proud. “Twelve whole cans of corn. Better than nothing, eh?”

Lollipop nodded. “Alright, thats three each then. convenient.” She enveloped the cans in her magic and distributed each of the cans equally. She deposited them in our bags and took one last look around. “Anything left at all?” she asked.

“Nope,” Tallie replied, climbing off the counter and onto my back, then turning on her heater again. Mmmmm, the warm glow felt good on my back and neck. Lovely. “Nothin’ left. Let’s bounce!”

“Agreed,” Lollipop said, heading for the door. “Lets try get to the rendezvous point, link up with the soldiers, and get to the metro.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I replied and followed her. “Coming, Ace?” I asked, looking back at the beige mare.

She was not amused. “No. I’m going to sit here and freeze.” She trotted up beside me and gave me a rump-bump, and not a particularly nice one. “Now let’s go, C. I wanna get this mask off soon. Getting stuffy.”

Lollipop braced herself against the door and shoved it violently. She managed to break it open and a gust of cold, snowy air flowed into the room. Out into the brisk winter city we went.

--- --- ---

I was not prepared for what lay on the other side of the door .

We exited the small store and onto the main street to find a vast battleground, frozen in time. That honestly was not an over-exaggeration: I truly meant frozen in time. Coalition soldiers in their brown and yellow desert-coloured equipment and uniforms littered the street, mostly pointing their guns south.

“My goodness,” breathed Lollipop, staring at the frozen statues right outside the door. “This... I didn’t... wow...”

To the south, a little way down the road, I could see bodies littered around the ground and buildings, some still looked like they were frozen alive. Some looked like they were screaming, while others were trying to drag themselves back. There were fighting soldiers too, but most were behind cover.

Behind the fallen soldiers were the bodies of black-and-white-striped equines, wearing odd armour. Zebras, if I were to hazard a guess. The zebra soldiers occupied the street and buildings south of where we were standing. I reckoned we were standing right on the border of Coalition-controlled area.

It was like a museum, with silent statues frozen exactly where they’d stood two hundred years ago. Slowly, I stepped away from the building and walked around a few of the frozen statues that crouched behind a fallen piece of concrete. From there I could see what blocked the gap between the police station and grocery store.

A large tank had lodged itself in the side of the building, its turret pointing south. The massive hulk of machinery and arcane science sat imposingly glaring down on us small ponies. There were two ponies and a large griffin frozen while taking cover behind it. One of the soldiers had peeked around the side while the griffin and other pony busied themselves with arming a rocket launcher.

Ponies, griffins, and I think a mule occupied the wide street, using anything they could as shields and cover. One pony had even set up a light machinegun against the body of a large, heavily-armoured buffalo, felled by the zebras From what I could see, it looked like he had been hit by an anti-tank weapon, and judging from the frozen, red blood trail, he’d managed to plow forward before falling. Still, with his armour and bulky body, he made for perfect cover. I could understand why the pony had set up there.

I spotted another odd pony standing just out of cover with a grenade in their hand. They were wearing a much heavier looking armour, with heavier plating and a full helmet. The visor took up a good portion of the mask and had a skull etched into it. I think I’d seen that armour before, but I couldn’t remember wear. I think I saw it at the cake residence from way back when Chester, the crazy ghoul, locked us in the infested tunnels. Yes, definitely. The pony had several grenades and ammunition attached to a large bandolier. He never got to throw his grenade though, as he’d frozen with it still in his hoof.

I slowly walked through the frontlines, seeing exactly what was happening in Mustang’s defence two hundred years ago. Walking through a silent battleground felt extremely surreal, like I’d stepped into some sort of simulation and hit pause. Each soldier and piece of equipment was fully encased in a layer of ice.

The street was a litter of browns and yellows, with the occasional puddle of red from a fallen soldier. I witnessed two furry-looking bipedal creatures dragging an injured pony along the ground, headed for cover. The pony, a mare by the looks of it, clutched a very heavily injured foreleg and was frozen in the midst of screaming, probably for a medic.

Not too far away I could see another large bipedal creature, very muscular in build, and with horns on his head. He held a massive machine gun that I’d only seen in one of those propaganda pictures. It had a long barrel, and he held it by handles on the top. The creature had taken cover behind a low wall and looked like he was shouting orders to someone.

This part of the battleground made the old Coalition’s name more apparent. The Coalition of Ordered Species. Several species, whether they were pony, griffin, or other, coming together to create a unified nation where all were equal. Something about the collaboration of all these creatures made me feel somewhat proud.

What really surprised me was the second tank, about twenty meters behind the last one. It had fired a shell right at the moment everything froze. I could tell, because the hulking projectile was suspended in a ball of ice a few feet from tank’s barrel. Whatever it was that had frozen these soldiers... there was no way it was natural. It had to have been some sort of unicorn mumbo-jumbo.

I could hear the crunchy hoofsteps of Ace behind me. Turning, I saw her looking closely at a griffin, frozen just before he could take off.

“Holy shit,” she murmured, staring into the bird-lion’s eyes. “This... this is heavy.”

“And just adds to Mustang’s mystery,” Lollipop agreed. “I’ve never heard of thi-” She turned and looked down my way, but froze. “Holy...” she whispered, looking above me.

I traced her line of sight to the tank and blinked. It was incredible, but not that bad. I looked back, and both her and Ace were staring. Actually, it looked like they were looking even above the tank.

I peeked around the tank, then gasped and staggered back a few steps. Blocking off the entire street was the front of a massive airship. Only the front quarter, by the looks of it. The metal frame had twisted and warped where it had separated from the rest of its body, and the tarp was torn and frayed. Even with the icicles hanging from it, the massive, snarling, predatory face on the nose of it remained extremely frightening. It had two large, angry looking eyes, and a wide, demon-esque mouth. It reminded me slightly of Trailblaze’s wicked grin. Full of anger and murderous intent.

The bridge had torn off from the rest of the vessel’s hull and lodged itself between a building, the airship’s frame, and the ground. The glass had shattered all around the semicircular bridge, and the corpse of a griffin lay limp over the side. It wore a long coat and a small officer’s hat. No doubt the captain of the tremendous vessel.

“Dark Star,” Tallie whispered. “Holy shit guys, I think that’s a fucking Dark Star!” She climbed up my neck and stood with her hands on the top of my head.

“Dark Star?” Ace asked, walking up beside us. I was still in an amazed stupor. “What’s what?”

Tallie looked the ship up and down a few times. “The ship that helped win the war for the Ponave,” the little griffin replied. “Massive, strong airships, loaded with two high-caliber gatling guns, a forty-millimeter cannon, and a massive howitzer, not to mention its point-defense lasers and machine guns. Look!” She pointed right at the airship’s nose. There was a small swiveling turret, its barrels mangled and twisted, probably from the impact. The turret’s glass had shattered too, exposing the gunner inside. I couldn’t see the gunner though. “I never ever ever ever thought I’d ever see one of these!” Tallie squealed and dug her claws into my scalp. “This is so awesome! But where’s the rest of it?” she asked herself, easing up a little.

“That’s...” Lollipop muttered. “I’d heard of Dark Stars, but I never believed they could be real.” She turned and looked at the soldiers around her.

“Oh they were real,” Tallie contradicted her. “They helped The Coalition free the Ponave from the Zebra Legions only a couple of hours after the fall of Mustang. Then the world ended not long after that.” She pointed at the massive airship. “Those things tear shit up, and the victory in the Ponave proves it.”

“How do you know all of this?” I asked the little griffin, looking up at her.

Tallie popped her head down over my head, looking upside down. “One of the slaves my dad had was a ghoul from the war. He told me all about it,” she said, then sighed. “I don’t remember much though. I was just a little cub when he told me, and he went feral just a few years after. It’s sad. He was super cool.” She slid back down my neck and sat with her heater. “He might have known some of these guys,” she added, looking at all of the frozen statues around us.

Lollipop whistled in admiration. “Must’ve took something big to take down one of them then,” she said. “But we shouldn’t worry about that now. We gotta keep moving.”

“Agreed,” Ace said, looking at the area around her. “These guys are giving me the creeps.”

I found them more interesting than creepy. Ponies, Griffins, Buffalo, and I think Diamond Dogs working together for one goal seemed... I sighed. That was much more awesome than killing each other just to survive.

I looked between Ace, Lollipop, and tallie. Two magical unicorns, a winged Griffin, and me, the ground-pounding Earth Pony. Three different species, all working together. I guess not everyone these days had lost that sense of comradery.

Lollipop took a look around, then grabbed my left foreleg again. She looked over my maps and looked at the area around us. Between the frozen tanks, shell impact craters, frozen bodies, and rubble, it was hard to tell if the maps were accurate anymore. We were in a real war zone, even if it felt like a museum.

The unicorn navigator looked around once more and pointed at a small store next to the Dark Star wreckage. The store remained largely intact on the outside, surprisingly. “We can cut through there. Then it should be a fairly straightforward path. Just need to cut through one more square and maybe two more streets.” She lowered my leg and started walking over to the small building. “Then we’ll reach the rally point.”

Ace snapped a quick salute. “Aye aye, Cap’n!” she said, and skipped off after the medical unicorn.

Tallie climbed back onto my back and stared longingly at the airship. I took up the rear once more, taking one last look at the frozen soldiers before ducking into the building.

It turned out to be a very old music store. Frozen and shattered instruments littered the shelves and floor. A small scorch mark and crater marred the center of the room, probably from a grenade. The frozen corpse that had been thrown into the corner made it more evident. I saw some more blood stains, but no more bodies. I guess the medics had gotten to them in time. Or frozen.

“Ooooh, lookie’ that!” Tallie said, hopping off my back and over to a shelf. She picked up a damaged guitar and plucked one of the six strings. “Neato!”

Ace and Lollipop took the small opportunity to look around for any salvage, which I doubted there would be any of at all. The shop looked really shabby, but maybe there was a hidden safe or something. I sat down and watched Tallie pluck at a few more strings.

The guitar was easily Tallie’s size and then some, even with the wood chipped and the neck almost snapped off. Two of the six strings had snapped, and another was missing completely. I didn’t like how the guitar groaned under the slight stress that Tallie put on it, but I didn’t want to ruin her fun.

Lollipop poked her head up from behind the counter. “Nothing here. Time to move on. Where’s that back door?” she announced, getting up. Ace had already found it and kicked it down, flat on the ground. “Ah, there it is.”

“C’mon Tallie, time to get moving,” I said softly, standing up.

The little griffin looked at me and scooted back a little. “No,” she said defiantly. “I wanna play this more.”

“Tallie, come on. It's broken, anyway,” I said, trying to reason with her. “And we have to move.”

“Ugh!” Tallie groaned. “Can I at least keep it?”

I looked at the old guitar. It was at its breaking point, I could tell. “No. It’s too busted-up,” I hated to say it, but it was true. “How about when we get out of here, we’ll look for one that’s in better condition?”

“Promise?” she asked, still holding the old instrument.

I nodded in response. “Promise.”

“Well… alright…” Tallie said, glumly. She put the guitar down, and the whole collapsed in on itself, the neck finally snapping and turning to splinters. Tallie gasped and leapt off the counter and onto my back. “It's cursed!” she squeaked.

I chuckled and followed the unicorns out the back door. “The one I get you won’t be. I promise that too.” A guitar and it not being cursed aren’t going to be too hard to promise, right? We live in a wasteland, that promise was going to be fucking tough. I’m a bloody idiot.

Our little band of adventurers exited through the back door and into a small street, lined with frozen street lights. There were a few soldiers frozen in the middle of lugging a cannon down the road. I wasn’t sure what the cannon fired, but it looked like it packed one hell of a punch.

“Can we take THAT?” Tallie asked, jumping up on my head. “It looked like it probably still works too!” I doubted that, considering everything else was frozen and jammed. But it was Tallie, and she’d already proved she was an excellent mechanic.

“If you want to pull it, then go right ahead,” I said, knowing damn well none of us could pull the cannon. There were four very strong looking ponies pulling the cannon, and they were trained to do it. Our little group probably wouldn’t be able to take it far. Especially with the ice hanging from it.

Tallie jumped off my back and circled around the cannon. Soon, she came to a stop and nodded. “Yup. I’m gonna need three winches, a flatbed, and a couple-a pulleys,” she said, putting her hands on her hips. “Then it’s mine!” She pumped a fist in the air and laughed evilly.

Lollipop turned toward the little teen. “And we have none of those things.”

“Oh. Yeah,” Tallie said. “Well, that sucks. Moving on?”

“Moving on,” I confirmed, then looked at Lollipop. “How far a-”

A sudden burst of static from my ear peice cut me off. “Sshhhh-geant Mayflo-ssssssssshhhhkkkk-der fire from host-ssshhkk- repeat, unidentified host-sshhhkkk- anyone ou-ssshhhk someone, anyone, please, respo-sshhkkkkkk-.”

Lollipop’s face darted up. “Someone isolate that signal, we gotta-” she turned and looked at us.

Isolate the what-now? I must have been wearing a dumb and blank expression, because Lollipop shouted at me. “Just fucking move out!” She turned and sprinted down the street, dodging between frozen soldiers and debris scattered over the small street.

Ace and I looked at each other in confusion for a few seconds. A lightbulb lit above my head as I realized: that was a distress call! I’d never shifted so fast from realization to running as I raced after Lollipop. Tallie clung to my coat as I zoomed down the street, followed by Ace.

As we got closer, we started to hear the unique cracks of rifles in the distance, and the closer we got the louder they got. Someone was shooting the hell out of something else. I just hoped that ‘someone’ was the Delta Squad soldiers, and the ‘something else’ was the enemy.

We kept moving until we came to an intersection between two snow-caked streets. I looked down and saw some strange hoofprints, and lots of them, heading to the west. They looked like a pony’s but not quite. The soldiers did have different boots to ours, so it had to be them. Ace had the same idea as she darted off down the road, waving for us to follow.

The adrenaline pumped through my veins. Adrenaline was still my number one favourite feeling in the world. Then again, I’d never had sex (that I could remember) so maybe that was better? It gave me power and the ability to say ‘Wahoo!’ in the face of danger. It made me forget my troubles. I just wanted to keep running, keep going, and keep fighting. Sure, it scared me, but I didn’t care. It felt good.

“Sssshhkkk- -sight, fire your damn wea-skkkhhhshshkkkk -ayday, mayday, this is Sergeant May-shhhkkk -efenders Delta Squad requestin-shkkk -ediate evac, someone-sshhhk -respond!”

“This is Lollipop, we’re twenty seconds out, do you read?!” the lime green mare yelled into her mic. “Mayflowers! Talk to me!”

Strangely, the shots got more sparse and quieter the closer we got. Lollipop picked up the pace, getting worried at the silence starting to sink in. The radio went completely dead. There was no response to Lollipop, and no more pleas for help. Just terrifying static. Sure, I didn’t like Mayflowers, but the other ponies like Fuse and Featherweight were great.

It wasn’t long - twenty seconds exactly - before we reached the square with a large, dark hotel in the middle. Rally Point Charlie. It was where we were supposed to meet the soldiers, but there wasn’t a soul to be seen.

Hoofprints coming from all different directions and scattered bullet casings of all sizes marred the snow all around. “They must’ve gone inside!” Ace shouted, getting her shotgun ready. “I’ll go first.” She looked over at Lollipop. “Or take point, or whatever you army girls say.”

Lollipop nodded, bringing her massive gun to bear. “Alright. I’ll take up the rear, stop anyone dropping in on us.” She glanced at Tallie and I. “That makes you two in the middle. Switch to SMG.”

“That’s a given,” I replied, flipping the switch on my saddle that cycled my weapons. My SMG rotated into position and adjusted itself into its firing position. I looked over at Ace and frowned. I didn’t like her being the first one into such tight confines. It only spelled danger, and I didn’t want anything to happen to her. I really really liked her. She was one of the only things keeping me sane out here. If I ever lost her, I’d damn sure lose myself. “Just be careful, okay?” I said softly.

Ace stared at me with her big brown eyes for a few seconds, before looking back at the hotel. “I’ll be fine… thanks.” She levelled her shotgun and started moving forward. I took a deep breath and followed after as Tallie hunkered down on my back. The little griffon was unarmed, but she was definitely another good set of eyes. Between her and my EFS, I wasn’t going to be snuck up on.

We slowly made our way up the front steps and into the dark and dingy hotel. The main lobby was colder than it was outside, and so much darker. No light came from the iced-over windows that lined the walls. We switched on our lights and swept the room, seeing the lobby’s main desk, some couches, and some distorted paintings.

“Clear,” Ace whispered and slowly moved forward and down a large, creepy hall. I shivered in my boots as I followed her. The walls were so dark and dingy, it was like I was walking through the haunted houses Shamrock used to describe in his ghost stories. The old floral wallpaper was worn and faded, and the hard wooden floors creaked under the crusty carpets.

Tallie climbed up my neck and placed one hand on my head to steady herself, and held her flashlight in the other. “This doesn’t seem clear at all,” she whispered, shining the flashlight in a wide arc. “It's all creepy ‘n’ shit.”

Something clattered slightly as my hoof hit it, making me almost jump right out of my skin. I shone my flashlight down to see a lot of bullet casings scattered up and down the hallway, but nothing else. Just ancient stains on the crunchy carpet. ‘Carpets aren’t crunchy,’ I thought to myself.

“Nothing back here so far,” Lollipop whispered up from behind me. “Clear as a fine Ponave day.” I started to miss the heat of the Ponave sun beating down on me. Sure, I liked the cold, but Mustang was ridiculous.

Ace glanced back at us and frowned. “Doesn’t anypony find this remotely weird?” she asked. Before I could respond, she continued. “There was tons of gunshots, now nothing. Complete silence.” I didn’t see what was so special about it. It’d been like that for a few minutes now. “If the soldiers won the firefight, they’d have tried to make radio contact, right?”

That was a little weird, but a likely circumstance. Dread filled my gut as I realized why they probably hadn’t made radio contact.

“I can’t hear anything else from whoever they were fighting. No cheering, no hoof-steps, nothing.” Ace turned her head and aimed down her shotgun’s sights again. “It’s just… weird. I don’t like it one bit.”

Lollipop grunted in agreement. “My thoughts exactly,” she muttered. “I’ve never seen anything like this before... I almost miss the bullets whizzing past my ears.”

I looked back and shuddered. “I can barely handle verbal threats…” I said, looking forward again. “Let alone bullets and crazy, fucked up cities that defy the laws of physic-”

I was cut off by a harrowing, shrill scream from somewhere in the building. It was slightly muffled, but I could hear it as if it was right next to me, and it shook me to my very core. The horrific shriek definitely came from somewhere above us though, and echoed through the building.

“Shit!” Ace shouted, then looked back. “Come on!” she called back and zoomed ahead, shotgun and machete ready. I sprinted after her, tongue on the trigger bit in my mask. I could feel the cold dread within my core, but thankfully adrenaline started to seep into my bloodstream, allowing me to focus on that instead. The relief of adrenaline kept me going, following Ace and keeping ahead of Lollipop.

We turned at the closest staircase and went up them three at a time. One of the stairs crumbled and collapsed under Ace, but she managed to clear it and keep going as if nothing happened. That mare was determined, no doubt about it. Her weapons bounced crazily in the air as her sprinting jostled her magic.

Tallie held on as tight as she could, poking her tiny head around the side of my own, trying to get a clear view. Thankfully, she used her flashlight to great effect, acting as a headlight for me. It was thanks to her that I dodged several torn-up floorboards and puddles of vile-looking green liquid. I didn’t have time to think about what that was. Someone needed help.

We skidded to a stop in an intersection between four hallways. “Which way?” Lollipop asked, panting. I couldn’t blame her, I’d be panting too if I had to carry as much gear as she did. Machinegun and all.

“Ssh!” Ace ordered, flailing her hoof at the medical mare. “Listen!” Her ears swiveled on her pretty head, trying to focus on something. I joined in with my own ears, trying to hear anything at all. It felt weird to swivel my ears when one of them was missing a chunk.

It took me a few seconds, but I managed to focus on a faint sound drifting from one of the halls. It sounded a little like a garbled message on a twisted tape. Ace looked to us and pointed her shotgun down the hall. She started moving toward the sound, followed by Tallie and I.

“I don’t hear anything,” Lollipop whispered up to us. “Damn Tinnitus…”

“It sounds like…” I whispered back, then listened. It was getting clearer the closer we got, and I didn’t like it one bit. It started to sound a lot like… “Somepony… crying?” I looked at Ace for confirmation. She gravely nodded, and kept going.

The crying got clearer and clearer, until I could make out some quiet mumbling and gibbering coming from a room down the hall. Light came from behind a door left askew. Ace pointed her shotgun directly at it, then stood beside it. She looked at Lollipop expectantly, who hunkered herself down, ready to fire her gun into the room at a moment’s notice. I took up position on the other side of the door.

Slowly, Ace nudged the door open with her shotgun. The door seemed stuck for a moment, but opened when she gave it a shove.

I almost fell on my arse when I realized what had held the door closed, as a body dropped down from above the door onto the wooden floor with a gruesome splat. Lollipop aimed her machinegun at it as Ace shone her flashlight over it.

The fallen soldier had a sparking radio pack that had a large hole stabbed through it and into him. Blood stained his armour a thick red around the hole and his face. A horrified, screaming expression was plastered on the soldier’s face when we flipped him over, but the worst part was the massive gash across his chest, revealing his ribs and lungs. A massive wave of nausea washed over me. I had to look away and cover Tallie’s eyes. I remembered the murdered pony only as Fixer, the Defenders’ radio pony.

“Shit,” Ace said, staring down at the pony. “Brutal.” Her ears perked once more upon hearing a new string of gibbering whimpers coming from within the room. She slowly opened the door and shone her flashlight inside.

Inside the room wasn’t much better. Blood and more of the green gooey substance, along with scraps of fabric and pony flesh covered the walls. In the center was another corpse, and tucked away in a corner sat a wide-eyed, shivering soldier, waving a gun in our direction with tears running down her face like little rivers. I recognized her armour and the assorted explosives on her bandolier. Short Fuse.

“Stay back!” She screamed at us as we peered in. “Stay back damn it! You’re not turning me into one of those things!” She waved her gun at us again, shaking violently. She didn’t recognise us at all, even though we were obviously illuminated by a discarded flashlight. “I’ll blow your brains out! Get away from me!”

“Fuse,” Ace said in a soft voice, “it's us, you remember, right?”

“Don’t come any closer!” She screamed at Ace when she tried to enter the room. “I won’t be like you, I’ll die first!” She started to scream in terror, shaking once more. Ace took one tentative step into the room, and miraculously didn’t get shot. “Leave me alone!”

Ace took another step. Fuse lifted the pistol and fired.

Thankfully, she missed Ace completely and hit the ceiling above her. “Fixer… Farsight… they killed them… they’re gone… you took them from me… you… you killed them!” she said, gibbering to herself, then screamed once more, pulling the trigger and missing again.

Ace reached out with her magic in an attempt to grab the pistol, but Fuse had a firm grip on it. She wrestled with the magic, screaming her lungs out. “Get back, get back, get back! I won’t let you get me!” she continued to scream in her psychotic state. Lollipop stared at her, then to me. I don’t think she knew what was going on at all. “Oh goddesses, I don’t want to die like them, please, no!” Fuse sobbed.

The little mare finally dropped the pistol and curled up into a little ball. “They came from nowhere… no no no… they aren’t gonna get me… no!” She sobbed, gently rocking back and forth. She’d either given up shooting us, or realized her pistol was out of ammo. “Th-Then they started to talk… oh goddesses, their voices!” Her hooves rummaged around as she rocked back and forth. “I… I d-did them a favour, h-helped them!” She finally pulled a grenade free of her bandolier, making all of us jolt forward. “M-Maybe… Maybe I n-need to help myself…”

“No!” Lollipop yelled, her magic yanking the grenade free of Fuse’s hooves before she could pull the pin. The green unicorn ran into the room and crouched down next to Fuse, who burst into tears and collapsed onto her side. She’d given up completely. Lollipop held her gently as she examined her. “This is not good...”

“You’re telling me,” Ace muttered, looking at the other corpse. She had rolled it over to see what had killed him, and found out quickly. It was Farsight, but this time he had a massive, gaping hole in his chest, just like the pegasus. Something had torn straight through bone, muscle, and organs, tearing him up inside. He too had a horrified expression on his face, his mouth hanging wide open, his mask missing. His veins were thick and bulging, but green instead of red. “This is fucked up…”

Tallie was covering her own eyes, trying not to see what we saw. I didn’t want her to see it. No child should. It was a big mistake bringing her with us, even if we’d never hear the end of it. She stayed silent on my back.

“I’m only counting three out of five,” Ace said, “No Featherweight, and no Mayflowers.” She looked over the two corpses, wincing at their strange injuries. “I don’t know who’re the lucky ones.” I gave her a quizzical look. “The dead ones, or the ones who are still out there with whoever or whatever killed ‘em.”

“One thing at a time,” Lollipop whispered, looking at Fuse. “We need this one to regain her wits.” She leaned in close and held the mare close. “Fuse, do you know who I am? Do you recognize my voice?”

The Emerald-Islander whimpered and muttered something unintelligible to our medic. She stared at the corpses on the ground, crying into her mask. The look in her eyes wasn’t a look I’d seen before. I think it was the stare of insanity. I could understand why, seeing your comrades get killed. How do you console someone who’d lost their mind? Not even Lollipop could get through to her, and she was the trained professional. I didn’t even know well enough to find a way to help. Wait, there was one thing…

I took a deep breath, really hoping my plan would work. I crept a little closer, lowering my head to Fuse’s level. I began to sing softly, hoping it’d snap her out of it. “We'll sing a song, a soldier's song,” The song we’d sang before, she told me she’d heard it in her youth. “With cheering rousing chorus / As round our blazing fires we throng / The starry heavens over us / Impatient for the coming fight / And as we wait the morning's light / Here in the silence of the night / We'll chant a soldier's song.”

Fuse fell silent as her ears slowly perked up a little. She sniffed once or twice, then looked up at me with her pretty eyes. “S-Soldiers are we / whose l-lives are p-pledged to the Emerald isles” She managed to sing back to me in a very shaky voice.

Yes! I’d broken through! Memories of my childhood had always helped me through the toughest of times, and it looked like it worked for her, too.

Fuse took in a deep breath and shuddered. “Goddesses, why…” she whispered as she closed her eyes.

“Fuse, what happened?” our medical mare asked, gently stroking her mane to comfort her. “Can you tell us?”

The mare took another deep breath and opened her eyes. “W-We got ambushed. Just after coming out of the s-sewers. We’d neutralized th-the raiders with no c-casualties. A-At first, we thought it was reinforcements, but wh-when we got a good look… goddesses, it was horrible.” Her pupils shrunk slightly as a look of fear spread across her brow. “Th-They weren’t ponies. They… I d-don’t know what they were. Those… those things swarmed all a-around us. Monsters…”

I looked at Ace with terror in my eyes. She stared back at me with disbelief, and even Tallie whimpered slightly on my back. At that moment, we all regretted coming to Mustang.

“We ran, as f-fast as we c-could, but they ch-chased us. We got split up a-after the sarge called for backup. Me, F-F-Fixer, ‘n’ Far… Farsight… w-we kept runnin’ here, only looking b-back to shoot or d-drop a ‘nade…” she winced and held her hooves over her eyes. “And n-now they’re dead! DEAD!” she wailed and started to sob again.

“What happened to them? How did you survive?” Lollipop questioned, still holding the mare.

Fuse shook her head several times. “I d-don’t know! Th-They cut th-through the others like a h-hot knife th-through butter, killing them q-quick. They b-backed me up into a c-corner, then… then they j-just left!” She stared up at Lollipop after opening her eyes. “Wh-Why did they s-spare me? D-Did… did they turn me into a f-freak like them?!” She started to panick and thrash around, but Lollipop held her still.

“You’re fine!” Lollipop said, holding her. “You’re perfectly fine. You’re alive, you’re healthy, and fine.” She gently released the mare, who’d calmed down a little. “Do you know where Featherweight and Mayflowers went?”

The smaller mare shook her head. “N-No, we couldn’t g-get our radios to work. They were out of range…” Her eyes opened wide and looked between us all. “We have to find them! We gotta get them and get outta here!”

“Agreed,” Ace replied, looking toward the door. “We can’t do anything for these two.”

Lollipop nodded and pulled Fuse off the ground. “You okay to move?”

The little Emerald mare took one look around the room and nodded. “Just… get their tags…” She sniffed then swallowed the lump in her throat. I knew what it was like to lose somepony I cared about. I’d seen my own brother get murdered in front of me. It was horrible, but with the right help, I knew she’d make it through.

Ace nodded and collected Farsight’s bloody ID tags from his gnarled wounds, then moved to Fixer. She tucked them away in her pocket and pulled her shotgun off her back. “Got everything?” she asked Fuse.

“Y-Yes,” she said, checking herself over. She swapped the magazine out of her pistol and made sure her grenades were all accounted for. “I’m… good to go-”

She stopped mid sentence and turned pale. A weird, sludgy sound filled the hall behind us, and an unearthly growling emanated from the corner of our room. We all slowly turned our heads toward the corner.

Two glowing eyes stared back at us, and a very toothy grin spread through the darkness. What came out of the dark was something from the worst nightmares anyone could ever have. It was like a griffin’s head, but instead of a body, it had an overgrown roach body. Its face was splayed open at the beak and it was filled with teeth. With a screech, it lurched toward us.

Ace aimed at the beast with her shotgun as Fuse screamed. “What the fuck?” Ace yelled as she fired at the monster. The creature exploded in midair, spraying green ichor all over the room. Three parts of it fell into a quivering pile of… thing. “What the fuck was that!” Ace yelled once more, looking between us. “Tell me you saw that?!”

“I saw it…” Lollipop whispered, shaking. She kicked part of her saddle and her machine gun slid into firing position.

Fuse quivered and held her pistol close. “They’re back… oh goddesses they’re back!” She waved her pistol around the room, getting extremely trigger itchy. “We’re gonna die! I don’t wanna die!”

“Let’s get out of here!” I yelled and made a break for the door. I leapt over Fixer’s body and swung the door open, but outside… outside was something even worse than the griffin-roach-crab-thing.

Before me stood a full-grown pony, but its skin was a sickly green and his coat was mangy and patchy. It had horrible growths throughout its body, and two long tentacles swirled out from its back. Its face was cracked and flayed, with lines of razor sharp teeth spreading from one side of its gaping maw to the other. Its cracked hooves had long claws sprouting from them. Its tongue slid out from between its teeth, and it let out a sickening screech.

“What the hell?!” Tallie yelled. “Shoot that fucker, now!”

Without thinking, I bit the trigger. My SMG ripped into the monster, tearing its mutated face to shreds.

“This is getting more fucked by the second!” Ace yelled and marched out ahead of me.

More creatures shuffled out into the open, each more gross than the other. Tentacles waved above them as they gnashed at us with their disgusting mouths. They all shared the same basic shape, but with small changes. Some would be mutilated in different ways, with gashes and tears in other places, while some wore different tattered rags. They all slowly crept toward us, drooling nauseating green incor onto the old wooden floors.

“S-Stay back!” Fuse yelled at the monsters, but they didn’t heed her warning. They continued their death march, unhindered by the firepower before them. “I said stay b-back!”

Ace lifted her shotgun and leveled it at the lead thing’s head. “They aren’t ponies any more, and whatever they are now won’t listen.” She loaded a new shell into the chamber and pumped her shotgun. “But I bet they’ll listen to The King.”

The crack of Ace’s shotgun resounded through the hallways, making me hold my ears in pain. The first monster’s head vanished into a green mist and its body slumped to the ground, tentacles writhing before falling limp. The others took one look before screaming some sort of war-cry. They quickly picked up their pace and started running at us.

“Open fire!” Lollipop roared and clamped down on her trigger piece. Her massive gun sprang to life and unloaded righteous fury on the demons that swelled toward us. Monster after monster, they fell to Lollipop’s chainsaw of a gun, buying me time to regain my wits.

‘Holy shit!’ I thought, climbing out of shock. ‘Monsters! Real fucking monsters!’ “Then don’t just stand there, fuck-wit!” the black stallion inside me whispered in response. “Shoot! Or do I have to take over?

I bit down on my trigger again and my SMG started unloading hot lead down the hall. They just kept coming. “We gotta move!” Tallie yelled and pointed down the adjacent hall. “That way!” She dug her hind claws into my flank and growled. “Now, dumbass, now!”

Without further hesitation, and under the cover of Lollipop’s gore-generator, I ran down the hall as fast as I could. Adrenaline started to pump through me, Ace was hot on my heels, machete and shotgun ready, while Fuse followed, then finally Lollipop.

I galloped as fast as my hooves could take me as the medical mare and Fuse fired back toward our pursuers. We had to get down the stairs and out the front door, then we’d be home free to book it outta there. No sweat, easy peasy.

I spun around the corner, heading to the stairs, but screeched to a halt. A massive hulking monstrosity blocked our passage. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought it was once of canine descent, maybe one of those Diamond Dogs. Its massive jaw was crammed with teeth, and its rock-hard forearms wore what looked more like hard scales than fur. A large hump on its back forced it to slouch over, a hump made of rock but with two long tentacles hanging out of it.

The terrifying monster shuffled toward us, growling. It got to the top of the stairs and let out a heart-stopping roar, flinging its arms to the sides and showing its true size. The brute was more than twice as large as I’d thought. Its skin was flayed but hardened heavily, its eyes glowed a brilliant green, and its tentacles writhed and lashed.

“Other way!” Tallie screamed and kicked me again. “We can’t go this way!”

We all turned and sprinted away from the brute. No way we’d be able to get past it in time; it looked like it weighed about a ton and could knock anypony’s head off with a flick of its massive stony fingers. I doubted our bullets could get through its skin, and we were too close to use explosives.

We darted across halls, and found ourselves chased again by the screaming horde of mutants. I felt tears of sheer terror welling up in my eyes as we ran, and I prayed to whoever looked down on us that we’d make it out. If not all of us, then at least Tallie. She was so young, she had to make it. Luna, Celestia, hell, even Discord, please let us live!

Ahead of us, just before a frozen-over window, more beasts started to turn the corner, along with several of the roach-things. They didn’t all have griffin heads though, some had pony heads, or dog heads. They all grinned and screeched at us, flailing their insectoid legs. We were trapped.

“Hold the line!” Lollipop yelled as Fuse started to lose it again. “Just need a little more time to break through!”

“No way!” Tallie yelled at her, then yanked a grenade free of Fuse’s bandolier. “Hold on to your helmets! Fire in the hole!” She pulled the pin and lobbed the explosive down the hallway toward the roaches and their escorts, instead of at the horde following us. She plugged her fingers in her avian ears just before the grenade went off.

I thought she was just trying to clear the way forward, but I was thankfully mistaken. She wasn’t planning to kill them, but as the dust quickly settled and my ears stopped ringing, I could see that her explosive had detonated on a key part of the building’s support structure, and a whole section of the floor gave way just before us, opening up into the main lobby.

“Go, dammit!” the genius griffin yelled at the others. “Don’t make that nade ‘splode for no reason! Now!” She dug her claws once again into my butt and held on tight. “Jump! Jump for your life!”

She didn’t have to tell me twice. The adrenaline and claws in my flanks overrode any objection I had to jumping down a fair distance. I leapt down and crashed to the floor of the cold lobby below. As I recovered, I looked behind me to see the beautiful beige unicorn land gracefully behind me, the bawling demo-mare land on her hooves, before stumbling a little, then Lollipop, who landed, pivoted, and fired into the wooden floor above. The creatures stared down at us for a few moments, before disappearing over the edge.

“Why aren’t they following…?” Lollipop asked herself with a grunt, keeping her red-hot, smoking gun leveled at the ceiling. “They could have made that jump. What’s stopping them?”

“Why are we waiting to find out?” Fuse yelled, grabbing the lime green mare by her old medical barding’s collar. “I wanna go home! Now! Please!”

Lollipop pushed her back and stared her in the eyes. “I’m only going to say this once, soldier,” she said, going into tough soldier mode. “Get your shit together, and pull your hoof out of whatever orifice you stuffed it in. You’ve been trained for this shit. You’re part of the best of the best. You survived when your comrades failed, now make them proud, for fuck’s sake! Make me proud! Make fucking Iron City proud!” The mare towered over Fuse. “We’re going to pull through this as a unit and live in honour of the fallen. Do I make myself clear?”

Fuse stood in stunned silence for a few seconds before feebly nodding. “Y-Yes… Y-Yes ma’am…”

“I can’t fucking hear you, soldier,” Lollipop growled and leaned in close. “Do I make myself clear!” she screamed. I’m pretty sure if she wasn’t wearing a gas-mask, she’d have spat all over the little mare.

“Ma’am, yes ma’am!” Fuse replied, snapping a salute.

Lollipop started trotting over to the main doors, weapon ready. “Good. You can mourn when we’re done. Now let’s get out of this damn place before they realize their stupidity and follow us.”

Fuse stood up straight, pistol ready. “Yes ma’am,” she said in an oddly calm manner. I managed to bring her back from insanity, but by the goddesses above, could Lollipop motivate! Even I felt boosted by her little speech. Short Fuse looked at her pistol, reloading perfectly. “I miss my rifle…”

“What’d you do with it?” Tallie asked on my back, still shaking. Damn I admired her endurance. I’d have gone completely insane if I was her age in here. I probably would have died at the very sight of one of them.

“Lost it when we got separated,” Fuse replied, following Lollipop. She stood beside the door, pistol ready. “But I still got this and my explosives. I’m good to go.”

Ace approached the door, waving her machete above her head. “Well, it's been fun girls, but I really think we should blow this popsicle stand and ride off into the sunset. What do you say?”

Lollipop nodded and lifted up her front hooves just in front of the door. “Agreed. Breaching!” She kicked forward and slammed the doors open, her machine gun pointing through the door, ready for whatever lay on the other side.

I gasped when I looked outside.

Twenty more of the creatures stood in a circle around one much bigger one. It seemed to be another variant of the monsters. It was a lot skinnier, and the sight of its face made me shake violently. It was missing bits of flesh, and parts of its skull were visible. Its larger grin held an even more unpleasant number of teeth than the others, and its hoof-claws seemed longer. Most noticeable however was that it had five tentacles on its back, rather than two. Four of them seemed more dexterous than the others, while the last one, placed directly in the middle of its back, had a long sharp bone on the end like a bladed scorpion’s sting.

The tentacles thrashed as the armoured pony they were holding thrashed and wrestled with them, yelling all sorts of profanities and curses down at the deformed monster. I would have recognized that pony anywhere from her authoritarian voice and crude remarks about the monster’s mother. Sergeant Mayflowers was suspended above the beast, her hooves wrapped in tentacles. She fought against them, trying to break free. The monster laughed psychotically as its last, bladed tentacle slowly drifted into place under the sergeant, ready to impale her.

There was no time to think. No time to analyze. There was a pony about to be impaled on a monster’s spike. I flicked a switch on my saddle, my reactions running on pure adrenaline, and my sniper rifle quickly snapped forward. I glanced down the scope for an instant and quickly fired off one shot. I only had one chance to hit the bastard.

The bullet sailed through the air, but my reflexes got the better of me. I watched as the bullet narrowly missed one of the crowding monsters and sliced through the monster’s bladed tentacle, ripping through the muscles and sending it flying. The monster howled in agony as sickly green incor squirted from the severed limb, the other tentacles unravelling and dropping Mayflowers.

The beast howled once more, staring at us through slitted eyes, then bounded away, through the monsters crowded around it. It dove into an open window on the far side of the square and disappeared, leaving its peons clueless about what to do next.

The monster’s tentacle wriggled and flailed on the ground, before eventually falling limp. Mayflowers quickly recovered herself after hitting the ground and got to her hooves, then sprinted over to my stunned comrades and I.

“Don’t just fucking stand there!” she ordered, turning around and taking out her pistol. She too had lost her shotgun and assault rifle. “Shoot, for fuck’s sake, you stupid civilian bastards!”

Not so much as a thank you for saving her life. Then again, what had I been expecting?

My comrades swiftly got hold of themselves and opened fire again, blasting the monsters away. Most of the monsters stood staring at the ruined building, waiting, while the others realized what had happened and started charging. They may have been scary savage beasts, but they were definitely dumb as bricks.

They were fast, too, as they darted from side to side, making it harder to aim at them. Lollipop was definitely the most effective in taking them down, as her larger magazines allowed for sustained fire for much longer than mine did. Between us, a storm of lead cut the monsters to ribbons.

One got lucky. It looked like it was once a unicorn, judging by the broken stump of a horn on its forehead. It wore the shattered remains of a helmet on its head, and old yellow and brown rags. It darted between two other monsters, using them as cover, and leapt at me, ready to sinks its teeth and claws into me.

“No!” I screamed, unable to bring my SMG to bear quick enough. I stumbled back in a vain attempt to escape the deadly pounce.

Ace’s blade appeared out of nowhere and slammed directly into the monster’s face, spraying me with blood. She threw the creature aside and onto the floor where it writhed and wailed in agony. She placed a hoof on its chest, shoved her shotgun into its mouth, and pulled the trigger.

“Don’t you dare touch him, you mangy freaks!” she shouted at the monster. “Fucker!”

She quickly ran over to me and helped Tallie and I up. Thankfully, Tallie was unharmed, but she was curled up in a tight ball, holding her head.

“There’s too many of them!” Mayflowers yelled, pulling off expert shots with her pistol and cycling mags like a professional. More and more monsters started slithering out of dilapidated buildings, and another of those brutish scaly-rock-dog monsters lumbered out of an alley on the other side of the square. “Retreat! Head to the next objective, there should be cover!”

She waved her hoof at a road leading away from the square and sprinting toward it. We nodded and darted off after her. I could hear Tallie whimpering on my back and holding on to my hood for dear life. I had to get her out of here. Screw helping The Patriarch; Tallie was my primary concern.

Ace’s blasted any monsters that felt ballsy enough to come close enough to us, while Lollipop kept churning out the blanket of bullets. Fuse kept right behind Mayflowers, her eyes showing barely-controlled, but still controlled, terror.

“Where’s Featherweight?” Fuse yelled as Mayflowers lead us, shooting any monster that came near her. We were hot on her heels as she guided us through the snow-covered square toward a side street. She apparently knew what she was doing, so I followed without question, still reeling from my close-up brush with the monster.

“I don’t know!” the sergeant called back, shooting a monster right between the eyes. She was one hell of a warrior. She’d come mere millimeters from death and it hadn’t even fazed her. She managed to keep situational awareness at all times, even better than Lollipop did. “We got split up! I told him to get to the objective if that happened!”

“Please be alive!” Fuse wailed as she picked up speed. I also hoped Featherweight was alive. Not only because he was one of us, or that he was a genuinely nice pony, but because he was the one with the most firepower. Definitely enough to destroy these beasts without much effort.. But alone, with no support...

We hightailed it out of the square, leaving gore and pools of monster ichor in our wake. The monsters still chased us, relentless in their pursuit, grinning and howling like animals.

The six of us dashed around corners and walls, trying our damndest to shake our pursuers. We weaved under arches, and around the frozen bodies of soldiers from long ago. The monsters kept up, following us wherever we went.

“I got an idea!” Tallie yelled and pointed ahead. A large archway made of wood and stone straddled the street. Tallie yanked another grenade from Fuse’s bandolier. The poor mare was so panicked that she didn’t even notice. “Keep going!”

As we ran, I heard Tallie pull the pin. I seriously hoped she knew what she was doing, or we’d all be fucked. The arch was right over us as Tallie threw the grenade straight up, then huddled down on my back. The detonation destroyed the aged wooden supports. We barely cleared it as the whole thing tumbled behind us, blocking off the patch.

“Score two for the teen genius!” Tallie cheered, looking back. “That should hold those things off for a while!” She actually laughed as she lifted her middle talon at the wreckage. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but I didn’t really want to ask.

“Nice one!” Ace cheered, slowing down a little and panting. “Damn fine work!”

“We’re not done yet!” Mayflowers reminded us. “You can pat yourselves on the back when we’re home free! We’re almost there. Now follow me or I’m leaving you here!”

Way to kill the mood, asshole. She galloped off ahead of us, a little slower than before on account to us being safe for now. We didn’t waste a single moment as we followed after her, everyone panting from exhaustion. I thought only Lollipop and I were still in running form. It must’ve been because Lollipop was a veteran, and I had strong legs. Sometimes being a farm-colt paid off!

We all slowed down to a trot as we moved between streets, following the bitch of a sergeant. She seemed to know exactly where to go, like she’d studied the map intently. Actually, that was probably true. She was a special operations soldier after all.

The city stood in silence once again, and my EFS was clear of all hostiles. Somehow, the quiet was even scarier than being chased relentlessly by monsters. They could come pouncing out of nowhere and dice us up like a blender, and we’d barely have time to scream. My ears swiveled nervously, trying to pick up anything out of the ordinary. All I heard was the ragged breathing through my friends’ masks, the crunch of snow underhoof, and the whistling wind in the buildings above us.

“Almost there,” Lollipop said after grabbing my hoof from under me to see the map. I would have faceplanted immediately if she hadn’t been holding my hoof out. According to the map, the next objective was indeed nearby, just around the corner in fact. It said so with a giant white arrow. The only way it could have been more obvious, is if it had a massive “OBJECTIVE IS HERE, DUMMY!” written next to it.

We turned the icy corner and into a smaller square, and stopped short. The square was flanked by dead trees and smaller buildings, with a tunnel entrance in between them. Several wooden benches lay scattered around the square, and a climbing frame in the middle of the square. The whole place was littered with monster bodies of all shapes and sizes. There was even one of the huge stoney bastards nearby, its rocky limbs chipped away to nubs. I spotted a large form buried under a few more bodies, but I couldn’t tell what was the ‘normal’ monsters, and what was the newer one.

Sitting in the middle of it all, on an old sandbag wall, was the massive tank of a stallion Featherweight, holding a small frozen dandelion in his hoof. Miraculously, he seemed completely unharmed, though his guns’ barrels were stained black and his ammo reserves looked a hell of a lot lighter than before. He snapped his head to us, ready to jump into combat stance, but quickly relaxed.

The stallion waved at us, “Hey guys!” He called over and stood up. “Fancy meeting you here!” He seemed so nonchalant about it, even when he placed his hoof on a dead monster’s head and laughed, striking a heroic pose against the backdrop of triumphant horde massacre.

“Featherweight!” Fuse squealed and sprinted away from the group, leaping up at him and latching on in a big hug. “I’m so glad you’re alive!” Her voice cracked adorably, but I could tell she was crying tears of sheer joy. I felt pretty damn good that the big guy was still alive.

“It's good to see you alive, Corporal,” Mayflowers said, not a shred of a emotion in her voice, as she carefully navigated the gore-splattered snow. “The Sisters above know we need your firepower.” She gave him a light tap on the shoulder, then saluted. “Welcome back to the team.”

“Good to have at least some of us back together,” the stallion said, pulling both his sergeant and Fuse into a big hug. “I take it Farsight and Fixer didn’t make it?” he asked in a more somber tone, looking between them both.

“Affirmative,” Mayflowers said. “KIA.”

Featherweight let out a small sigh and shrugged. “Well… such is life. I only hope it was painless.”

“It was… instant,” Fuse mumbled, still hugging the overgrown stallion. “I just w-wish we could’ve saved them.”

Featherweight squeezed Fuse hard enough that she emitted a muffled ‘oof,’ then he let go. “There is no room in life for regret. They’re at peace now, Fuse,” he said, nuzzling her. “We shouldn’t think of them as dead, just in a better place”

He turned his attention to us as we slowly made our way over to the soldiers. I had a tough time avoiding the monster corpses, and almost fell face-first onto one of their disgusting bellies, but managed to stay on my hooves. Tallie looked down at my hooves and clenched her sharp little talons deeper into my barding when we almost fell.

“Good to see you’re still alive too, brother,” Featherweight said and slapped me heartily on the shoulder. “I hoped I’d see you four again. It’s our mission to protect you after all.”

“At least we’re not alone, right?” I said, nervously smiling up at the goliath of a stallion. “Now, where are we going?”

Mayflowers walked past Feather and toward the tunnel. “The Mustang Metro system. Hopefully, it should let us through the city a lot faster than the streets. Hopefully it's safer too.”

The tunnel entrance was a massive semi-dome that spanned over several meters. The opening however was sealed by a massive blast door. There weren’t any latches or handles that would allow us access into the tunnels, only a heavy damaged terminal interface.

The surrounding area was entrenched and heavily reinforced. Sandbag walls ringed the tunnel, with metal welded onto the fronts of them. The remains of several tarps and tents fluttered in the wind, or sat on top of crates, abandoned by the soldiers who’d fought here.

“Dammit, Fixer, why’d you have to go and get yourself killed?” Mayflowers cursed to herself, looking over the interface. “Fuse, get over here. You’re the next best computer-wiz, right?”

“Aye ma’am,” the Emerald mare confirmed, moving up and looking the panel over. “Ooooh goodness. This’ll take some time,” she said and looked through her packs. She pulled out a few tools and started to tinker.

We sat on the walls, keeping watch over the area while Fuse worked. There were three ways into the square, and a few alleyways branching off, but all appeared just to be dead-ends from where I was sitting. Tallie sat on my shoulders, shivering slightly, but watching vigilantly.

“Remind me to retire from adventuring after this,” she muttered down at me, spinning her head around. “This will give me nightmares for at least three eternities.”

“You think that’s bad,” I said, looking up. “I’ll have them for three-and-a-half eternities.”

“We’ll be nightmare buddies then,” Tallie said in an oddly cheerful tone, looking down. “We’ll kick ass in dreamland and stuff.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I said, raising a hoof and having her shake it. I chuckled and looked at the streets again, sighing. “Listen, Tallie… I really really regret bringing you here. I’m so sorry for everything.”

“Don’t sweat it, dude.” She gave me a little thumbs-up from above. “I’m alive, and still sane. Well, as sane as I was before anyway. Just get me that cocoa and let me light a bonfire when we get back to the Ponave, and we’ll be even.”

“Thanks, Tallie,” I said, smiling up at her. “It makes me feel much better knowing you’re alright.” She gave me a wink and went back to swivelling her head around.

Minutes passed. I could only hear the murmuring of nervous ponies as we waited for Fuse to finish her work. I let out a long and deep yawn, stretching out to the fullest. The day we’d had was enough to knock out a rhino, that was for sure.

My yawn was interrupted by a black object slowly falling down in front of me. It landed with a tiny splat just meters from my hooves. It looked like someone had stuck feathers into a wad of meat and left it in a swamp for about a year. Where could it have come from?

I looked up and strained my eyes to see the tops of the buildings through the snow. I could barely make out silhouettes on the buildings, but I wasn’t sure if it was just rubble or not. “Guys…?” I said in a trembling voice. “Do you guys see anything?” I asked, then flipped the sniper scope over my eyes.

Just as I peeked through, I saw something start to move in the snowy mist. It was very large, and had two bat-like wings. It leaped off the building and started getting bigger. “Guys!” I yelled, staring up at it as it started to dive toward us.

I fired a shot from my rifle, but the thing was faster. It banked and folded its wings, dropping on me in a dive-bomb. The bullet whizzed past it, barely missing, and by the time a new round had cycled into the chamber, it was too late.

The beast slammed into me, knocking me back off the wall and onto the ground, Tallie tumbled from my back and into a snowbank. It pinned me under its strong hands, its claws mere inches from my face. I looked up at its face and instantly regretted it. Whatever it was, it had once been a griffin. But the end of its beak had cracked off, leaving a jagged crown which it screamed in my face with. Its wings were covered in rotten-looking flesh and clumps of feathers, and green growths covered its body.

It lifted one of its massive hands and swiped at me with its vicious claws. But like a guardian angel, Ace’s machete appeared from nowhere and took its hand clean off! The monster wailed like a banshee and flailed its stump around, spraying the area around us with its green blood. The tentacles between its wings lashed out around it as it panicked and sought the nearest target.

Ace slammed the butt of her shotgun into the beast’s cranium, with a sharp crack as wooden stock met skull. The monster rolled off me in agony and swiped at Ace with its claws, just barely missing her. Her shotgun blast didn’t. She blew the monster’s head apart like a rotten melon.

“What was that thing?” I screamed, scrambling to my hooves.

Ace growled and looked straight up. “I don’t know, but here come more of them!” she yelled and pointed her shotgun up.

Featherweight pulled a lever on his saddle and laughed. “Flak rounds in. Shoot ‘em down!” He opened fire with his dual machine gun rig. The bullet streaked upward and exploded into flashes of orange light and puffs of black smoke.

More of the creatures leapt screeching off the building at us, only to get blown to bits by Featherweight’s guns. Some managed to dodge just enough to get by, but Lollipop and Ace shot them to pieces, working together to destroy the airborne invaders.

Mayflowers was concentrated on the roads leading into the square. My heart sank as I saw mutated horrors start shuffling through the streets toward us. They were moving in from each road, about ten per road. Each group followed a leader, another different kind of monster.

The leaders were about two heads taller than the average pony, and a lot more disgusting than the others. Their twisted and elongated heads bobbed on long, stretched necks. Four thick, teeth-laden mandibles clicked and squeaked where their jaws would be. Their hides were matted and mangy, missing in some places. The freakiest parts though were the forehooves, which had been stripped of skin and muscle, and the bones sharpened into two long spikes. The things stopped and stared at us.

The anti-aircraft group stopped firing, and the bits of monster ceased falling from the sky as we all stared at the ground targets. I could hear Featherweight’s saddle click and whir as he swapped ammo again.

More beasts landed beside the new, bigger monsters, instead of coming straight for us in an attack like their predecessors’ failures. They growled and hissed at us, but held back.

“What’re they waiting for?” Fuse asked in a shaky voice, hoof deep inside the panel’s electronics. “W-Why aren’t they attacking?”

“I don’t know,” Ace whispered, watching them with her shotgun leveled. We stood in silence, waiting for something to happen. They just stood there on the other side of the square, watching.

Was it the bodies around us that were throwing them off? Was it the guns? Was it the fact one of us just massacred what looked like a small army all by himself? I honestly couldn’t tell. I would have already booked it out of there at the very sight of this mess, but I didn’t exactly hunger for the living flesh of ponies like they did.

One of the smaller beasts roared and started skulking toward us, but get instantly impaled by one of the leading monsters, the ones with the spiked hoof.

The monsters stared and waited for half of forever. Then one of the the leading mutants lifted one of his spikes, pointing it at us, and letting out a shrill battle-cry. The horde went nuts, screaming and howling to the moon, then charged us. I clamped down on my SMG’s trigger-bit and opened fire.

Our cooperative storm of bullets cut the monsters down as quickly as they came. They were absolutely relentless; the horde moved as one to destroy us. Where were they all coming from? They seemed utterly without number, and unfortunately, our ammo wasn’t. I had gone through three magazines, still they came. I only had five magazines of ammo left in my packs!

The bigger, spiked monsters stayed where they were, watching from afar, their mandibles twisting into demented smiles. They were the leaders of this charge, the orchestrators, the commanders of the army of the demented. If we killed them, maybe they would retreat!

“Cover me!” I yelled and flicked the switch for my sniper rifle. The scope swung over my eye and I lined up a shot on the beast’s head.

But I Tallie beat me to it. Just before I could pull the trigger, something landed on the monster’s head. Something something small, brown, and feathered, wielding a hammer. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Tallie had managed to fly over to the thing, and started to brain the beast with her hammer, beating on its cranium and trying to break its skull open. She clung to the monster, bludgeoning it as it swayed and roared, trying to shake her loose. She broke the skin and cracked its thick skull, but it managed to fling her off. Tallie struggled to regain control, flapping her wings, but the beast was quicker, and swatted her out of the air, onto the ground.

The little griffin screamed and rolled to her feet. She barely dodged the beast’s next attack as it punctured the pavement where she’d lain just a moment ago. Tallie panicked and ran, but not back to us. She screamed and sprinted, ducking and weaving through the monsters as they charged at us. She made a beeline for one of the alleyways in an attempt to flee.

The beast wasn’t far behind her, lumbering after her. It showed no regard for its underlings, as anything beneath its spiked hooves got stabbed, right through the back. It stabbed at least three monsters in its pursuit, carving its way to Tallie.

“Tallie!” I screamed, seeing her sprint into the alley. “Tallie, this way!” But it was too late. The monster had blocked off the exit, and only we could save her. There were too many enemies still pushing through the square. We were running out of time and bullets. Nobody could save her.

Nobody but me. I felt my body freeze on the inside as I felt a new presence in my bones. They started to move on their own, the adrenaline taking over.The adrenaline pumping through my veins forced me over the sandbag wall and toward the alley way.

The area around me slowed down as I sprinted through the square. I could see every drop of blood that exploded out of each monster’s wounds, every bullet sailing through the air. I swerved and unloaded bullets into a monster that had broken off to attack me. The bullets carved a neat dotted line from its shoulder through to the top of its head.

I dispatched two more monsters before my SMG clicked empty. In one smooth motion, I pulled my knife from its shoulder sheath with the tips of my hoof, and threw it. It sailed through the air and embedded itself in the head of one of the monsters in mid-jump. It crashed to the ground, slick tongue hanging out of its disgusting maw. I ran toward it and yanked the blade out with my hoof and sheathed it as I kept running.

I reached the alleyway entrance before I’d even realized what I had just done. I didn’t have time to think about it because the monster was dead ahead, standing over Tallie. They were at the very end of the alley. Tallie lay on her back, staring up at the beast, but didn’t seem hurt. I had to make sure she stayed that way.

I sprinted at the monster, yelling at the top of my lungs. My whole body shuddered as I threw my entire weight against the monster’s side, tackling it to the ground.

“Run!” I screamed at Tallie. “Just bloody run!” I tried to hold the monster down so she could escape, but as soon as she rolled onto her feet and ran, the monster regained control. It thrashed around me and threw me against a wall. It swiped at me and caught my SMG before I could fire a shot, tearing it from my saddle. I tried to switch to my rifle, but it had damaged my saddle’s mechanisms. I was defenseless.

The slammed its spiked forelimb down, but I ducked and kicked it in the face. That just made it angrier. It coughed a wet and sticky cough, and grabbed me under the forelegs.

I tried to wriggle free, but it tightened its grip around my waist, then threw me to the ground. I heard cracks in my back and ribs. Pain crackled up my spine. I writhed in agony, my mind getting fuzzy and my vision blurry. The monster had me just where he wanted me. It stood over me, its massive spikes ready to turn me into a kebab.

It lowered its head and roared in my face, mandibles spread apart and eyes glowing brilliant green. Its dark green blood seeped from its new head wound and dripped onto my visor. It lifted its head again and slammed its blunt knee against the visor, pushing my head into the snow.

I couldn’t tell if I had screamed or not, as my ears started to ring. I tried to move, but it swung its massive spike down, puncturing my coat and pinning me to the floor. I started to fumble with my zipper, trying to pull the coat off and run, but it was no use. Every time I got my wits about me, another blow struck my visor, cracking it.

My vision started to blur from the impacts, and I tasted blood on my upper lip. The cracks started to fan out like an elaborate spider web and I found it harder to breathe, like the air had gotten more dense. The last blow shattered part of my visor, letting the tainted air in.

The monster poked its spike into the new hole, just millimeters away from my cheek, and found purchase on the inside. It put its other spike across my neck and pulled on the other, tearing my mask off my face.

I felt a cold rush blast into my face as the mask tore away from my head, and I quickly found it harder to breathe. I blinked several times as the beast thrashed with its spike, dislodging the mask. Remembering my knife, I grabbed it with my hoof, ready to plunge it into the beast’s flesh. I struggled with the knife. My limbs were getting shaky and my muscles weak, but I got it out of the sheath.

I looked at the blade as I yanked it free. ‘Silent Reaper’ was etched into the blade, as well as a crescent moon. It was strangely clean, considering not a minute beforehand I’d lodged it a monster’s skull. Pinching the handle with my hoof, I held it out, ready to strike when the beast came for another swing.

I was too late. While I’d drawn the knife, the beast prepared of its next strike. It brought the spike down like a guillotine, piercing straight through my shoulder and pinning my left foreleg, the one with the knife. I screamed in agony as it moved its spike around, tearing tendons and muscle. It leaned in close and let out a demented hiss as its mandibles twisted into a smile.

The shoulder wound started to feel extremely cold, the pain dissipating. My whole side started going numb and I could feel the cold working its way through my body, crawling through my chest.

I beat the side of the monster’s head with my free hoof, groaning and coughing, wheezing to get a long breath. The air was so dense, and my lungs felt like they were filling with water. My head pounded from the blows and my forehead stung. The monster seemed unfazed by my strikes, and barely flinched as my hoof slammed against its head.

My farm-colt strength failed. Just what the monster seemed to be longing for. To watch the life drain from its hapless prey. My hoof felt like it was full of cement as it fell to the side and the blood around my shoulder wound had frozen around the spike.

That was it. End of the line for poor little Clover. Suffocating from poisonous gas, blood freezing in his veins, and his lungs filling with ice cold death.

My eyes felt heavier as tears froze on my cheeks. I didn’t want my final thoughts to be of death. I had always wanted to be at peace in death, to be happy with a life of no regrets.

I started to think of home, of Dad’s bedtime stories, of the warm hugs I got from Shamrock when I was feeling sad, the three of us sitting around the fireplace on Hearth’s Warming Eve, opening presents and laughing. My mind drifted over the good times I’d had with my family, the times we’d shared pure happiness. I was the last one left, the very last of my family tree.

But I wasn’t alone. I had some great friends back home, and made a few new ones on my journey. Snake Eyes the strange ghoul, who’d saved my life time and time again. Lollipop, who had proven to be a caring mare and tenacious when she or her friends were in trouble. Tallie, oh Tallie, the little griffin who I’d only just met, but who’d meant a lot to me. That little girl was so resourceful, it’d be one of the waste’s biggest shames to lose her.

4The folks in the towns I’d visited, and even the local wildlife had their gems in the mud. Just look at Zippo, the ant who thought I was his queen. I was gonna miss that bug.

Finally, Ace. The mare who’d at first been a total bitch to me. I’d managed to crack through her hard surface, to see the caring, gooey center inside. I’d always hoped we’d be more than just friends, and that I’d someday be able to remember the night we’d shared. All the hoping in the world wouldn’t make it happen though. The only way I was getting out of this city was in a body bag.

I was going to miss all my friends. All the people I’d met. All the things I’d seen. But I was looking forward to one thing. I’d get to see Dad and Shamrock real soon.

I looked up at the monster through half-closed eyes with a weak smile on my face. I managed to find peace in death, and it was a matter of seconds before I’d fully realize it. The monster lifted its spiked limb above my head with a demented smile.

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, a pistol with an attachment on its barrel appeared and shoved itself against the side of the monster’s head. Before the creature could react, brains exploded out the other side of its skull.

The beast toppled lifeless beside me. The spike embedded in my shoulder tore at my flesh as it sat at an awkward angle. I think it was on the verge of pulling my leg clean off, but it was so numb that I didn’t feel it.

A new face swam into my vision, hidden behind a strange gasmask linked to a small hose. The figure wore a hat and a long jacket, and waved a hoof over my face. It rummaged in a small pack on its side, and pulled out a new gas-mask with two filters on either side.

“This isn’t the end, Clover,” the pony said, fitting the new mask over my face. “In fact, I think this is just the beginning.”

The pony turned their attention to the alley’s entrance, and walked out of my field of vision. I took in a big long breath of pure, filtered air, letting my lungs fill with life. My hearing began to distort, but I thought I could hear voices.

Seconds later, in a flurry of white snow, two faces came into view, both hidden behind masks. I recognised them by their manes which flowed around them. The pink mohawk of Lollipop, and the long, messy, beautiful mane of Ace. Both shouted something at me, but I could barely make it out.

Lollipop looked at Ace and shouted something which I couldn’t make out. I felt a slight sting as she yanked the spike from my shoulder, and my whole body protested as they started to shift me, dragging me through the snow. I stared at my hind hooves as they dragged along behind me, past the corpse, past the dumpsters, and past the alley’s entrance.

I could hear the dull thumps of guns in the back of my head, but nothing much else. Two beasts fell at my hind hooves, one missing half of its head, and the other its chest. Garbled shouts and muffled guns roared around me.

I managed to find the strength to tilt my head back and look up. Ace had her shotgun still firmly in her magic as she dragged one side of me with her hooves. Lollipop was on the other side, firing on her weapon and not letting up.

They pulled me back past the sand-bags. Tallie stared at me as I was dragged past her, and seemed to gasp behind her mask. Thank the goddesses she was okay. I didn’t care if I died, as long as I knew I’d saved someone important.

Mayflowers yelled something to the others as they pulled me past her. They started to follow me, walking backwards and firing. Featherweight was standing firm, machine guns firing hot lead at an alarming rate, slowly walking backwards. Fuse had joined the fight as well, as she threw a grenade and dove past me.

The sides of my vision turned black and closed in on me. Featherweight kept following me, then stepped into the darkness, leaving me with a view of the monsters quickly approaching.

A massive, heavy door swung closed in front of me, and closed with a massive clang that even I could hear. Utter darkness swallowed the world around me.

I could hear voices, and suddenly a faint light appeared above me. It sounded like someone was yelling my name, over and over, along with some other words I couldn’t make out. The yelling faded, quieter and quieter.

Then ceased entirely.



Footnote: Level up!

New Perk!

Mysterious Mare-Do-Well

Do you have a guardian angel? Because that was damn lucky...


Special thanks to Adder, Matt, Kel, and Dimestream for editing and art. (Art done by Matt!)

Special thanks to my editors and my fans who have waited too damn long for this chapter, and to Kkat for creating FoE.