Chapter Eleven: The Secrets That You Keep
So. Awake now? Heh... thought you'd all be after a big action segment like that. It's getting late, though, folks. There's no denying that. Good thing this next part's a little less intense. Otherwise...
The storyteller chuckled huskily.
… well, you'd be sleeping like I do. And let me tell you, the first time pulling a three-hour is not fun.
But let's get straight to it, shall we?
* * *
Those Goddess-awful gears. Rig... was full of them, wasn't she (I hoped Rig was still a “she”)? The memory of the nightmares came surging back in a torrent, joining the swirling vortex of mingling emotions I felt within that hour alone.
I only just noticed the young mare was trying to talk to me when she tapped my leg again. “Frost... are you okay?” She was sitting up now, an empty healing potion bottle slipping back into her saddlebags and the light gashes on her right leg and face from the explosion sealing up.
And then a flashback to Rig's first encounter with raiders opened another tributary to those roaring waters in my mind.
I hated reversals.
I nodded weakly. It was all I could muster as she wrapped her separated leg in her gray aura and brought it to her... her stump. She carefully micromanaged the wires and rods, her horn flaring slightly brighter as she used her soldering spell to reconnect the limb.
I finally found the words. They came out rough and raw. “Rig. What. Are. You?”
She paused in her work, looking up with a sad glaze over her gaze. “I'm still a pony, aren't I?”
I hated reversals.
“Forgive me for interrupting during an unpleasant time,” Azrael spoke softly, “but I suggest we leave town. Now. We can discuss things later.”
I turned to her, my mind reeling mind slowly pulling back into calm, cool focus. Slowly. “But... but what about...?” I slowly turned my head toward Beat Blaze. The blood flowing from his eye was black as ichor in the dust-choked light. Rig was standing over him and- “No!” I snarled at her, my rage surging back. She was starting to look up at me as I ran up to her and shoved her aside roughly. She skid a good several meters or so before colliding with what was left of the back wall.
“Frost!” she yelped. “What the hay?!”
“You will not loot his body!” I roared at her.
Azrael merely kept her unsettling gaze upon me while Rig slowly turned away and slumped a little, nodding. She shakily got to her feet and only looked back at me for a moment before averting her gaze, grunting in pain.
It was then that I realized I still had my ice muscles on. I hadn't bothered to sublimate them as I...
My rage evaporated in an instant. “Oh dear Goddess... Rig...” I quickly reduced all my ice to mist.
And then pain. So much agonizing pain. Pain like-
No! Don't go back there! The pain. It staggered me, made me wince. It was everywhere, focused on my legs and belly. Raw, burning pain.
But it was nothing, nothing compared to before, before...
Stop. Thinking about that. You've had worse, Frost. Deal with it. There are more pressing matters.
“Rig,” I sputtered, biting back the searing heat, the only kind I could manage, “I-I'm...”
“Frost, we've been there before,” she sighed, limping even more so than usual toward Azrael. “I get it. I'm okay, mostly just metal stuff there anyways...” My terrible feeling only worsened as I looked at her. Though her leg was reconnected, it was far from working condition and was locked in place. The armor of her reinforced engineering suit was still sheared off, and her skin and coat, or... whatever it was that looked like her skin and coat... hadn't healed. The wires, pistons, and... gears... were left exposed around where it connected to her shoulder.
Azrael regained our attention, repeating, “We can discuss things later. We need to leave immediately.”
Rig slowly nodded to her.
I sighed, “Just let me...” I paused, closing my eyes. “Just let me at least deal with his body. Please.”
Azrael shifted slightly. “Of course.” Those words came out jaded, yet I detected a hint of understanding behind her tone. “Do it fast. The Dead Boys are likely to have been alerted to our presence in the area and we must vacate it. That, and the townspeople-”
The three of us shifted to see a large group of ponies and a few griffins. They glowered at us, and the sepia tone of the dust only made them look eerily featureless, like emissaries of the big, empty bastard himself. It unsettled me greatly.
“Get the fuck out of town,” the one closest to us growled. “Now.”
“Just... just let me...” I moved toward Beat Blaze, moved weakly.
“We'll handle it,” another featureless pony hissed. “Get. Out.”
I opened my mouth to protest. I knew I could find the right words, the right way. A large, heavy hand on my shoulder silenced me before I even began. I looked up to Azrael, looking down at me with those nearly empty eyes.
I found myself powerless and the words ceased to flow.
I turned back to the masses and nodded, relenting.
* * *
It was agonizing, but I dealt with it. The pain. The pain was agonizing, the pain I dealt with. That's what I meant. Minimize it, focus on the center. Compartmentalize the feeling, let it throb into dullness. Tuck it away.
We fled Vealville, heading north, north. Yes, north. We were taking shelter in a cave- empty this time, empty this time. Nothing to fight. Just a cave. Smooth rock. No, no, cracked rock. Uneven rock.
I just, I just felt drained. No music. No dazzling lights. No adrenaline. I was crashing. My body, my mind just seemed to sag, threatening to tug me down to sleep.
Rig's voice. Was Rig a she or an it? Just a pony she said... right? She, then?
Louder this time.
My eyes. Open wide, eyes. Focus.
We fled north from Vealville and took shelter in a cave. The stone was uneven, unfriendly. Spires of rock jutted from the mouth of the cave as if they were the teeth of some giant beast waiting to swallow us up. It was still dark outside- probably only the first few hours of the new day. One of them had started a fire, probably Rig. I was seated further away from it. My gaze traveled to meet theirs. Rig was still working at her leg. It was moving now, but it moved in erratic jerks that were such a far cry from the natural fluidity of a normal limb.
And so my gaze met hers. She flinched and looked away.
“When were you planning to tell us?” I asked. My voice was flat, hard, without feeling, without warmth. I hadn't the energy to change it. “Were you even planning to tell us at all?”
“No,” Rig sighed, closing her eyes. “I wasn't. But the moment Azrael started talking about how the only things she couldn't read were machines and ghouls, I just thought one thought and...” She sighed again, dropping the aura surrounding her horn and letting her head fall into her good hoof, rubbing eyelids.
I turned to the griffin. “So you knew all this time,” I said, not asked.
She made no comment.
“Were you even planning to tell me either?” I asked, not said. Tired. Sagging.
“No,” Azrael answered, her voice even, calm, soft, collected, hateful. “Given how she mentally pleaded me not to inform anyone else after I discovered it, I decided to keep my beak closed on the matter. Her reasons are valid. I didn't see it as necessary for you to know it in any case. From your reaction, I was clearly mistaken.”
Back to Rig. “Why?”
She looked back up at me for a second before resuming work on her leg. She pumped her hoof back and forth, and it moved smoothly this time. She slammed it down on the earth with a grunt, sending out a crack as the stone crunched slightly. The young mare flexed her leg experimentally and turned back to me.
“It's complicated.” The alibi never to be used. It never worked.
“Oh?” I huffed.
“Look, it's a long story, okay?” Rig sighed, rubbing her eyelids once more. Yet another alibi that never worked.
“Are you tired?” I asked. My voice made for a very, very rude, challenging tone. That worked at least.
“No.” She pulled her leg away and looked out toward the mouth of the cave.
“Well, I'm tired as hell,” I spoke plainly, “but I'm perfectly capable of staying up right now. I'm all for long stories. Bring it on.”
Rig sighed yet again in a what was going to be a night of sighs. “I'll have to start with Stable Three.”
When she didn't continue, I cocked an eyebrow for a moment. “And?”
Rig huffed and pulled her lips up into a light smirk.
It wasn't lovely.
“I was just trying to see if you were hungry,” she spoke.
Oh wow, that. Azrael raised a near-invisible eyebrow for a moment before the other raised as well. She was regarding me now.
“Appears not,” I said simply.
“Are you going to judge me again for my storytelling ability?” Rig smirked wider.
And there was that lovely smirk, at least a semblance of it.
And now that smirk was gone as she began, “The first thing you have to know about Stable Three and the first thing that they- by they, I mean every one in the Stable-” I noted her word choice there but let her continue, “drilled into your head the moment you could read was that it was a Stable of equality. What I mean is that Stable Three wasn't just for ponies.
“It was for zebras too.
“Stable Three is, after all, the Zebratown Stable. And since the moment you were born, you were taught that we were all equals, at least, uh, except the Overseers.”
Overseers. I raised my eyebrows at that.
She caught that. “I'm getting to it, I'm getting to it. Like I said, equality. That's what Stable Three is founded on. They don't just spout it out, they mean it. All public utilities and events are shared alike between ponies and zebras and stallions and mares. Sports, competitions, public areas, workspaces, the public restrooms even. That brings me to the Overseers. There's two Overmares and two Overstallions- pony stallion, pony mare, zebra stallion, zebra mare. For the sake of breaking stalemates on agreements, there's also a fifth Overseer, this one a zony. The gender didn't matter, but it has to be a zony. And yeah, that does mean that Stable Three encourages pony-zebra couples.
“At Stable Three, ponies, zebras, and zonies did everything together. We ate together, played together, learned together- oh, learning Equestrian and Zebrikaans are both taught, by the way. I knew what you were saying to Xamuros because of that. Oh, uh, right. Back to... yeah. We also especially worked together. Because of the diversity of the Stable occupants, Stable-Tec thought that we should have a work setting just as diverse. That came in the form of R-n'-D, research and development. The science teams did some pretty wacko things in the research labs. I don't know all of the details, but hey, I saw some pretty wacko stuff. Ponies and zebras trying to combine their technologies, for instance. There were even teams trying to find a way to negate the effects of the Pink Cloud. A lot of hassle whenever we needed to help them get samples...”
“Wait, what?” I stared at her. “Samples?”
“Yeah... about that,” Rig sighed again. “Remember when I told you Stable Three was meant to stay closed indefinitely? It was... something that I was told to lie about if anyone asked about our Stable. See... even though the security team and me were the first to set foot outside, Stable Three never remained closed for long. Zebra engineers and scientists collaborated with ponies to create robots fitted with instruments to take samples and readings and whatnot. They even did experiments. Like with trying to see if they could nullify the Pink Cloud for instance. Oh, we had a really diverse robotics department in the Stable by the way. Really, really diverse.”
“Did the science teams ever develop this nullifying agent?” I asked.
“Well... yeah, but from what I heard, it only delayed the effects,” she answered. “You could maybe hop in with the null pulse shield for maaaaaaybe three seconds without anything happening. After that, you'd start melting. Real slowly, yeah, but you'd melt.”
“I see. Forgive me, but how did you manage to get all the materials for all of this research and development? And were there any other notable projects?”
“Zebra-pony arcanotech.” She smiled. “Zebras first because they contributed the most. Creation tech. It's a special thing the science teams invented and perfected. The way it works is... ohhh, it's probably too complicated for you to understand...”
“It is,” Azrael spoke at last. “Just think about it Rig, I'll try to explain it as best I can.” A pause. “Alright, creation technology works through a wearable device called a creation gauntlet. It's formed of a miniature spark reactor and an arcanotech manifold. Through an interface similar to that of a PipBuck, one can reconstitute atmospheric molecules into different ones and piece them together. Quite simply, you could create objects literally from thin air.”
I started feeling less tired all of a sudden. That was impressive.
“Yeah, that's a really dumbed down version of it, but that's how we fixed the materials problem,” Rig said, nodding. “Of course, thin air is a luxury in a sealed environment. We had to redesign the outlying portions of the Stable with air intakes in order to make sure we had enough. Every so often, we'd need to take in air and purify it, and it was a potentially dangerous process because of the danger of Pink Cloud getting into the system. Every one was instructed to seal themselves in secure areas during these events. They generally happened around... once a month, I guess.
“Now, other projects? Well, I've heard bits and pieces. Mainly it was dealing with the Pink Cloud and the radiation we detected in the dying world around us. Sorry, but that wasn't my department. But that was Stable Three for you, and honestly it sounds nothing like what you described for your Stable, Frost.”
“No,” I spoke, agreeing, “it's not. Now how does this tie in with you and your unwillingness to talk about your... yourself? And for that matter, are you...?”
“A pony?” Rig sighed again. “Yeah... I'm a pony. A cyber, but a pony.
“Now, uh... about my life in Stable Three. I was one of the more popular kids in my class. I was the first to get my mark, and I was smart yet sociable. Well... if I do say so myself.” She chuckled a little. “I went to all the parties, trotted around in my little clique, played with all the cool kids in the atrium... you know, foal stuff. I really miss those days...”
“But eventually, I had to grow up and take up a trade. My trade turned out to be tinkering with things.” She glanced at the open toolbox that adorned her flank, smiling now. “No wonder I became an engineer and repairpony, and I loved it. Karia was an awesome mentor, and a zebra one too. She was a bit spaced-out at times, but she was fun to be around. I learned a lot from her. I had to learn work-related magic from this cranky stallion that just had a pissy attitude all the time, though. I guess it was his name, Crankshaft, or something like that which made him mad all the time. The guy was real, real tough on me. Hated learning from him, but I saw the results. I could lift heavier objects with my telekinesis- often multiple objects simultaneously. And teleportation was actually pretty fun to learn too. Crankshaft was pretty pissy at me for not being able to teleport myself or even any living thing, but since I learned how to teleport multiple objects real quick one after the other, that sure shut him up. At least until he taught me the soldering spell. Ugh, that was tough...
“Me and Karia worked in maintenance mostly, other times doing on-call stuff like accidental lockouts and whatnot. Hmph, and believe me, you get some pretty weird calls in a Stable as diverse as Stable Three. Okay, some random pony locking him or herself out of his or her apartment wasn't too bad, but having to learn to hack a terminal because some science guy forgot his password? I tried to tell the science guy to call a technician or something, but they were the technicians. I mean, what the hay! That... was how I learned my way around computers, though. But yeah, just a few other odd jobs here: plasma sludge clogging a ventilation shaft, using an arc welder to provide energy for a chemical reaction, and- get this- PipHat. Um... yeah. I don't get it either. Point is- never a boring week. The work was hard, but the hours were good. I still partied with my the cool kids, now cool adults. I still hung out with my cliques, the good stuff.
“So... how did all this happen?” Rig gestured at herself, mainly at her mechanical leg, with a sigh. “Well... we had a reactor problem. You'd think that with all the research labs running around the clock there'd be a huge toll on our spark reactors, and you'd be right. Me and Karia were just supposed to work with another team to see what was the matter with that reactor. We were running the diagnostics, trying to find the problem, troubleshooting, and doing all the other usual stuff. When we finally got to work, well...”
The earth-coated unicorn sighed throwing her forelegs up helplessly, weakly, “I... I don't know what happened. Karia said she was having some trouble on her end and said she could fix it. She said she was sure. Then... it just exploded.” She shook her head. “The reactor just exploded. Thank the Goddess for the fail-safes that dulled it down, but it still wiped out the research lab directly above us and Karia and the other engineering team. I didn't even know there was an explosion. Everything just went black all of a sudden.”
Rig just shook her head again. “When I came to, I was scared shitless, waking up to see an operating lamp shining down on me with zebras and ponies in scrubs looming over me. Then I realized something was wrong. I just felt... off. I couldn't feel much from most of my body and my eyes didn't feel right. And then I looked.”
The young mare bit her lip, closing her eyes, lids and lips trembling. “Fuck, j-just... just fuck, dammit! Do you know how much is actually left of me?” She traced around her forehead along with her horn. Her hoof went down the left side of her muzzle, down to her neck, down to her left foreleg. “That's it.” Her eyes flashed open, burning with rage. “That's it! That and my fucking spine! When they asked if I wanted to see the picture of before, hell no I didn't want to see the picture! I didn't want to see what I looked like, just parts and piece of a head, a leg, and a backbone! Do you know what I looked like after the operation?”
Rig fiddled with her PipBuck until it showed a picture file of...
Oh dear Goddess....
It was a picture of her face. The skullcap region along with her horn was folded inward neatly were it joined with a smooth, metal... face. Her eyes were just lenses that more resembled the apertures of a camera rather actual ones. The right side of her face a bit past the eyes was tucked in under the metal just like her forehead, going down to her neck and further to her right foreleg. Everything else was just metal. I shuddered, the image conjuring a deep-seated fear within me.
Rig threw up her forelegs helplessly again, letting them fall limply back down. “That's what I am underneath all this fake stuff! I have no fucking pulse, Frost! I don't have to breathe, I don't have to blink, I don't even have to piss or take a fucking dump! Just eat, they said! The replacement digestive tract was perfectly efficient for all food, they said! I've just been pretending to do so all this time with you, Frost! Just... I don't even have my mare parts anymore! I don't even have my cutie-mark!”
I swallowed hard. Cutie-marks speak volumes of who we are as ponies. They were representations of our life's calling. To have it taken away...
“I was off for a month for therapy, and all the while they said all that crap about everything going back to normal,” Rig just laughed heartlessly. “Normal? Normal?! Did that look normal to you, Frost? Normal to be walking around a Stable? I looked more like a fucking monster from a sci-fi movie than a pony! How do you think my friends took me, huh? Do you think I could hang out with the cool stallions and mares? Parties? Hang out with my cliques? No, hell no! Nopony, nobody took my side! Everyone just, just backed away and just stared! I hated that! They'd try to look away, but then they'd just stare! Because I was that fucking monster from a sci-fi movie, because I was a freak of nature, n-not even nature!”
That young mare, the poor young mare slumped down, rage ebbing away. “My therapists and counselors tried to help. What could they do? I was the first cyber ever in our Stable and even though the science teams created this synthetic skin and hair, somehow made it able to grow back if torn, people still stared.” She sniffed, or rather just inhaled sharper than usual. “I tried to act normal, but everyone still knew. Even if they tried to warm up to me, nothing was the same. Everything didn't just go back to normal. Not even my parents treated me the same way. I was so alone...”
Rig was quiet for a while, sighing softly. “The reactor explosion turned out to have more implications to it than first thought. A portion of the reactor punched straight into life support and cracked the water talisman. Now, the backups were used already for research experiments, and as luck would have it, the lab above the reactor when it exploded had our only two talisman experts in it. We were fucked, and we finally needed to set foot out of the Stable to get a new one after we pushed it to create as much water as possible before it fragmented. The Overseers called for a security and engineering team to exit the Stable in search for a replacement, more if possible. We've been keeping tabs on the world outside. We knew the hell it's become, we knew the dangers, or at least we thought we knew. But you can bet that I was the first one to volunteer for the team. I was the only one to volunteer for the team. What did I have to lose? Really?”
Rig looked up to me with those indigo eyes, lovely yet hollow. “So we set out in search for the nearest Stable with orders not to give away the location to our own, not to say that it regularly opens. You know the rest. Sewn Britches tricked us, yadda, yadda, yadda.” She sighed yet again. “Frost... I'm not sure you realize this, but-
“Three raiders approaching the mouth of the cave,” Azrael interrupted.
“Oh, for fuck's sake!”
The cyber teleported out her Spetsnaz shovel and threw it out at the entrance while simultaneously winking out her KP-22 machine pistol. I snapped my head towards the cave entrance just in time to see a raider catch the thrown weapon in the face, the spade splitting her head open. I rose, sprouting an ice arm to whip out Night Fang while Azrael crunched to her feet.
Rig yelled, “I want my emotional moment, and, by golly, I'm gonna have one, dammit!”
If anything, throwing shovels to the head from ten meters away tend to either amaze or scare the crap out of anyone watching. Between Rig's KP-22 and my lightning-fast trigger finger, the raider behind her was torn up and the third one wisely fled.
“Finally get to use this thing...” Rig murmured, changing mags and stowing her weapon away as I did the same. We all settled back down to our original positions. “Look, Frost... coming out here to the Wastes made me realize that because of this... fake stuff... I can be normal again, or at least be normal enough to be recognizable. Outside of the mare I was chained with while I was with Sewn Britches, you two are the first good people I've met since the accident. You don't associate yourselves with the 'cool' crowd or have your own cliques. You're not empty and hollow like those pricks back home in Stable Three. You're genuine.” Oh. Well that stung. “You're... you're real, and you've both been amazingly nice to me. I mean, I was taught that the world outside was full of hate and misunderstanding, yet no more than a few days since we met, I came to meet a zebra that could've just been another person at home in Stable Three for crying out loud! Frost... you, Azrael, Thunderhooves, Xamuros, and Sly are the first friends I've made since I lost my original body. And, really, you're the first true friends I've ever made, maybe aside from Karia. I just hope what I am doesn't change how you view me, because I can't go back. I... I just can't go back to Stable Three. I just can't. I'll get them their water talisman to finish the job but... what is there for me when that's done? Safety, maybe? I'd rather be out here, where at least there's a chance for people to give a damn about who I am rather than what I am.
“There.” She looked up at me. “That's why. Satisfied?”
I answered by standing up and walking closer to the fire, ice crinkling over me as I sat down beside her. “More than. It makes sense now. Your unsteady limp because of your last remaining leg, your mean right uppercut...” I was happy to see that got a light smile from her, “and how you answered me after I nearly got my hindlegs blown off. And your response to Azrael when she came up to my place.” I laid a hoof on her shoulder. “Rig. You're still a pony. You're not a monster, not just on what you are alone. Real monsters are the ones that come from within, not from without.”
She looked at me, her PipBuck still displaying the image of what laid beneath the earthy coat. “Do you really mean that?”
“I do.” I nodded.
“And you already know my stance on it,” Azrael finally spoke up.
Rig looked between the both of us and shuddered. “Aw, dammit, you two! I'm so happy I could just cry!” She sighed, starting to tilt to the side. “Boohoo... yeah, none of that happening. No tear ducts and all that load of crap. Goddess, I'm so tired right now... but really... thanks.”
“Well... it's been a long day and night,” I said, pulling my hoof away from her. “Get some rest, both of you. I'll take first watch. I need to spread out ice tendrils anyway.”
“But I...” she paused to yawn, starting to slump a little more, “didn't even get a critique...”
“You don't need one,” I whispered as she drifted off. “You don't need one.”
* * *
I was dead tired. I wanted to rest, but I couldn't. I couldn't let myself. Not yet. There was one matter still left to deal with. Once Azrael was asleep, I slipped outside once more and took to the roof of the cave.
She was waiting for me.
“I could get used to nightly talks like this.” She smiled a touch sadly.
I reciprocated Her smile and sat down beside her. “Yeah... me too...”
She was regarding me. I could feel it. “Something troubles you.”
I clicked my tongue and sighed, “It... happened again, didn't it?”
“What do you mean, love?” She asked.
“The bodies.” I bit my lip. “The... the fucking bodies...”
“I didn't take the time to think about it during the fight, but I noticed. I remember. Everything. Luna Almighty, what happened? It was... just like... just... just like back...”
She remained silent as I turned to face Her. She just looked... sad, so, so sad.
“It was exactly like before,” I breathed out, placing a hoof against my temple and drawing back over my helm. “I almost get killed, the bodies disappear, and I get better. But I'm in so much pain.” I put a hoof to my forehead and dragged it back over my helmet once more. “What did I do, Goddess, what did I do?”
She chose her words carefully. “You wouldn't believe me if I told you.”
And it worried me.
“Frost.” She laid a hoof on my shoulder. “I... know this is a bad time, but I ask that you reconsider keeping those lies up more than ever.”
I remained silent.
“Rig proved it .You can't hide secrets and lies forever. Sooner or later, you'll have to let it all out. Best sooner.”
“You know I can't do that,” I breathed out. “Rig, Rig is a different case. She only thought she was a monster. I, I am a monster.”
“Does that make me one, too?” She asked. The lack of fear behind her voice unsettled me.
“I... I can't answer that,” I sighed. Fear was all too evident behind mine.
“Even all those lives weighing down on both of us?”
“Even so. I spilled innocent blood.”
“And I didn't? If I could fess up, I would.”
I remained silent.
She leaned in close. “She already doubts you, Frost. You already slipped up, even if just a little.”
“Who?” I rose my voice. “How?”
“It should be obvious.”
I bit my lip. “Azrael. It's Azrael, isn't it?”
“Of course.” She canted Her head slightly. “You didn't think that she wouldn't glean from Beat Blaze, did you? Come now, the fact that he knew who you were- that all those ponies at the bar knew you you were- all of that was warrant enough for her to glean their memories.”
“It slipped my mind,” I sighed. I may have eidetic memory, but that doesn't mean I can recall everything on a cap. “Has she voiced this to Rig? And why hasn't she challenged me about it?”
“No, and because she's giving you the benefit of the doubt, as you do to her,” She answered. “You slipped up, Frost. But again, only just a little. She only knows about what Beat Blaze knew of you.”
“So she knows about Ditzy Doo?”
“Only what Beat Blaze knew. Again, Frost, you only slipped up just a little. She only knows just how long you've known him. And that's grounds for suspicion.”
“Forty years?” I looked at her.
“And how old did you claim to be when telling her your age?”
“Fifty... two...” My eyes widened in realization. “Oh damn.”
I sat down and brought a hoof over my forehead, dragging it back over my helm as I let out a chilling sigh. “Better sooner... right?”
She nodded. “Better sooner.”
I turned away, quiet as my tired mind tried to think of a way out of this.
Only one came to mind.
I was about to sprout an ice arm, but then I relented. No, I thought. I couldn't do that. Not to her. She was... a better person than I. I couldn't do it. Not to her.
“After we deliver the water talismans to Stable Three,” I sighed. “After. But no sooner.”
“I'm going to hold you to that,” She spoke.
“I know, love. I know.”
She drew a foreleg around me and brought me into a tender embrace. I returned it, reveling in Her soft coolness. She bent down, kissing me lightly on the cheek.
“Seems I can still feel,” I sighed. “Just not pain. Except this kind.”
“Is it... bearable?” She asked.
I chuckled. I had to. “Come now, you know nothing can compare to The Transfusion. Besides.” I looked up into Her eyes, so full of everything. “I want to feel it, just to know that I'm truly alive.”
“Love, must you endure all the pain I go through?” I asked.
She exhaled softly. “It is my own form of penance since there is no one to neither see nor hear me but you.”
“Then let me take the burden too. Please.”
She smiled lightly. “I'm glad to know you still take at least some of my words to heart.”
“How so?” I reciprocated Her smile.
“You're an omnist now. You're finding faith in Horvahd.”
“The Shackled Judge,” I huffed in good humor. “I suppose so, yes.”
She nuzzled Her nose against mine and whispered, “You should rest. It's been a taxing evening for you.”
“Alright.” I nodded. “Alright.”
“Sleep now, fresh Frost on the ground.”
I kissed Her on the brow, tenderly. “Sleep well, my little Nightingale.”
I drew away from Her, knowing that I wouldn't have an easy sleep as I slipped away back down into the cave.
Rig was waiting. “You're late.”
She had a lovely smirk. Yes, even with the cigarette in her mouth.
~ ~ ~
The familiar, horrible cold came back to seize everything.
I knew it was happening again. I was floating, floating in a sea of white that stretched in every direction around me, stretching in an endless, blank void. I was in limbo, floating, just floating.
And then they joined me- four of them, dark shapes with a vague forms of griffins. Their eyes were completely blank, white like the void around me. Black streaks marred their forms. One had an narrow, inch-long tear in its forehead. The next's head was misshapen, the sides slathered in the black ooze. The third had a gash that went round its neck, the dark ichor slithering down slowly.
The last was missing its face. A black hole, an empty void took its place.
They stood over, towered over, glowered down at me. They made no move. Their expressions did not change.
They didn't have to.
I tried to escape from them. I couldn't move, couldn't find the strength.
The eyes, those horrible, empty eyes bore down on me, through me. Their gaze ate away at me.
And then I realized they were getting closer, getting steadily closer without moving. I ordered, commanded, pleaded my body to move, scream, look away, do something as they fell inwards.
I did no such thing, and we became one.
~ ~ ~
My eyes creaked open to find it still dark. The others were already up, cooking and eating. Azrael merely glanced at me with those eyes...
I flinched. The nightmare was still fresh in my mind.
And the pain was gone.
“Hey,” Rig called out to me, levitating a (surprise, surprise) can of yams over to me. Her leg had sealed back up, though the plates of armor were still missing. “Sleep alright?”
“'Alright' is... interesting for me,” I answered, shearing the lid open and hungrily chowing down.
“Sleep enough though?”
I licked the juice from my lips and the bits from my teeth, nodding. “Enough.”
“Good, because we're going back to Vealville.”
That warranted a perk of the ears. “What for?”
“We're going to make sure Beat Blaze gets a proper sendoff. And I'm going to take a crack at that intact Hunter.”
* * *
“I hate trying to be stealthy,” Azrael said simply as we approached the outskirts of Vealville once more.
“Would you rather be by yourself while we did our thing?” Rig leered at her.
“... no,” she sighed.
“On the bright side, anyone who spots us is liable to be drunk, drugged, or both.” I cracked my neck. “Same plan as Manehattan. Azrael, take point. I'll take the rear. Rig, in between us.”
“You got it,” the young mare acknowledged, flipping down her welding helmet.
Ice slithered over my form as I cloaked myself. We made haste before the light of dawn gave away our position. The most harrowing part of the trip was sneaking past the residential tents set up around the town. Twice Rig knocked against an empty can, Turbo canister, or some other bit of trash strewn about and the three of us grew tense for a few, long seconds before realizing no one was stirring to the noise. The haze once blotting my mind had lifted in the few hours of sleep I managed to scrounge. Everything was crystal clear- watch for debris, mind the angles of exposure, and be cautious of the type of surface we traveled on.
We sneaked into the nightclub through one of the holes in the walls courtesy of the Dead Boys last night. The thin layer of dust and debris that settled over everything contrasted greatly with the sterilizing, overwhelming glare of the industrial lights overhead. As expected, no one had bothered to do anything with the bodies- not the griffins, not the employees, and... not Beat Blaze. I let out a soft exhale of mist that was lost in the sublimation of my cloak.
“Just... let me handle his body,” I whispered, my voice barely audible. “Do what you must.”
Rig nodded lightly, motioning to the downed Hunter near the turntables for Azrael to follow and teleporting out her tools while I walked over to the body of my dear friend.
It was then that I had no idea what to do with his body. I didn't know where he wanted to be buried. I didn't know if he wanted to be buried. I just stood over him, just settling with closing his eyes. I was just... clueless, lost even with my clear mind. I let out an exasperated sigh. What an idiot, I thought to myself. I couldn't even decide what to do for him. I had no idea how much time passed before I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder. I looked up to see Azrael looming over me. At first, I thought she was going to ask me, ask what I was trying to hide.
Instead, she whispered, “May I be of assistance?” She pointed a claw at his body.
I turned away back toward it and nodded slowly. The griffin strode over to his body and sat down before it, drawing out her ghostfire scythe and extending it. Valkyrie's flaming blade burst to life, and she looked at me one last time as if to be sure. I nodded again.
Azrael shifted his body, righting him and removing his glasses, setting them in his pocket, fumbling a little. I realized Rig was still fiddling with the Hunter and that the griffin was doing this blindly. She finished moving him. He looked... serene now. He was lying as if sleeping. It was as if any moment his chest would rise and fall and I would soon hear that light snore of his. But I knew it would never come again. Azrael lowered Valkyrie slowly, the flame barely nicking his breast and setting him alight with an eldritch, green glow. The flames consumed him quickly. No heat radiated from it as the giant shifted back to my side. She reached a hand into the top of her skeletal breastplate to remove a star-shaped pendant. It was a double star, one side a blank white, the other a glittering rainbow sheen- the first, origin; the second, destiny.
The Star of Alda, The Lonely Mother, The Goddess of the Beginning and the End.
“May he, Beat Blaze, son of Blue and Yonder Blaze, find peace as he travels through the dusklands to the everafter,” she whispered, clutching the Star tightly and sheathing her blade. “May he find deliverance from this hollow world and be welcomed into the embrace of the Goddesses. Amen.”
“Amen,” I whispered as the flames died. Left behind was a cool mound of ash black as the night sky. “Thank you, Azrael.”
“It is the least I can do,” she said simply.
“Hey, uh, I'm done here...” Rig tentatively spoke up. “We should probably get clear before sunrise. Or... whatever you call it here in the Wasteland.”
“Of course,” I said, nodding slowly. “Of course.”
* * *
“So, what did you find out?” I asked as we finally got clear of the tents.
“The Dead Boys are in possession of unbelievable technology,” Rig answered, flipping her helmet up. “I'll spare the details, but that Hunter was more technologically advanced that anything I've ever seen. There's nothing like it- not from the war, not from Stable Three. I mean, you saw how smart those things were, and you saw they had motion-sensitive stealth fields and silenced weaponry! I'm no robotics expert, but I know enough through... firsthand experience. The Hunters reek of zebra tech, but I don't see a hint of any runes. Just gem-powered spell matrices.”
“So nothing useful beyond what we already know,” I surmised.
The young mare put a hoof to her chin. “Azrael's shock rounds downright fried the electronics inside that one. If we were able to get an intact specimen- oh, wow, look at me, talking like an egghead. Er, if we were able to get an intact Hunter, I could better study it.”
“But there's the problem that they self-destruct,” Azrael spoke up.
“Speaking of which, the events of last night irk me in more ways than one,” she continued speaking. “The third Hunter broke in after us, but upon seeing Beat Blaze's maneframe, it immediately targeted it and set itself for self-destruct. It was clearly more important than killing me. After gleaning Beat Blaze, it was no surprise.” She turned to me now. I tensed, readying myself for the question. “Frost, what do you know of the S.P.P., namely of their towers?”
Oh. Not the question I was anticipating.
“Eh, what?” Rig blinked.
“Single Pegasus Project,” I explained. “Or, if you ask the pegasi, the Sustainable Pegasi Project. It's a system of weather control spires built by the Ministry of Awesome.” Rig just stared at me from that. “I think that's how the Enclave maintain the cloud cover. They're in every major location in Equestria other than Stalliongrad and outer territories.” No response. “You know, those towers?” I pointed.
Rig turned to notice the very, very obvious spire clad in white, reaching to the heavens, the top disappearing through the blanket of clouds from its place in the center of the Manehattan ruins.
“Oh wow, how did I miss that?” She facehoofed. “Wait, errr... Ministry of Awesome? What's that? And... what's with the name?”
“You know about the Ministries, don't you?” I asked. “You at least knew about the Ministry of Image.”
“Uh... basic, basic stuff...” Rig scratched the back of her head, causing her helmet to flip down. With an annoyed grunt, she flipped it back up. “Refresh my memory?”
“Do you at least know about the Elements of Harmony and their Bearers?” I inquired.
“Yeah, I know about them at least.” She nodded. “Um... there was Honesty, Kindness, Laughter, Generosity, Loyalty, and Magic, right?”
“That's correct. When Princess Celestia abdicated the throne following the massacre at Littlehorn-”
“Littlehorn?” Rig blinked.
I facehoofed. “I'm not going to get through this explanation if you're going to interrupt...”
The storyteller leered at the audience.
That means you too, folks. Hands and hooves down.
“Right, sorry.” She smiled apologetically.
“Well, Princess Luna took over the Equestrian government in Princess Celestia's stead after the abdication,” I explained. “She recruited the Bearers of the Elements as Her advisors, giving them their own governmental organizations to implement their advice. Those became the Ministries.
“Infodump time. Applejack, Bearer of the Element of Honesty, founded the Ministry of Wartime Technology. It dealt specifically with the methods and means to combat the zebra threat, though it later supplemented private businesses after Equestria's economy began to stagnate from the spending on the war.
“Fluttershy, Bearer of the Element of Kindness, founded the Ministry of Peace. Imagine it as a diverse group of medical professionals. They set up hospitals on and off the battlefield, and... well, they were actually instructed to help everyone. Not just ponies. Even zebras were taken into their care.
“Pinkie Pie, Bearer of the Element of Laughter, founded the Ministry of Morale. I know MoM meant well, what with all of its parties to keep troop and civilian morale up during the war, but it also had a darker side. It acted as a secret police that could act outside of the legal jurisdiction of the normal law enforcement. I'm not a fan of that Ministry.
“Rarity, Bearer of the Element of Generosity, founded the Ministry of Image. This one dealt with censorship and alteration of media. Also not a fan. You don't hear or see hints of MoI alone. That's because it's everywhere. All the posters, all the books, all the newspapers, all the billboards. They're all the faces of the many-faced MoI.
“Rainbow Dash, Bearer of the Element of Loyalty, founded the... Ministry of Awesome.”
Rig stared at me. “Really?”
“Rainbow Dash is Rainbow Dash,” I sighed. “Don't ask. MAw dealt with... not much. Most of it was designated with special operations, but as with all special operations, very few knew about them. They also created the S.P.P. I think that was the only notable thing they did outside of the operations.
“Lastly, Twilight Sparkle, Bearer of the Element of Magic, founded the Ministry of Arcane Sciences. MAS... how to put it? It dealt with research into the arcane sciences for a way to win the war. Earth pony and unicorn engineers with MAS worked with other organizations to fabricate numerous inventions and combat spells. Take your PipBuck for example.
“So that's that. The Ministries were supposed to simply act as governmental bodies all to their own, implementing what the Ministry Mares believed would be the best course of action to win the Great War.”
Rig looked around. “They fucked up didn't they?”
I exhaled light mist. “An old friend told me this one. 'The portal to hell is opened with the incantation of good intentions.' Try as we might, we don't always see the evil we do, even though our hearts are in the right place.” I sighed again
I plugged those memories bubbling up back into their places.
“So... the S.P.P. towers are weather regulators?” Rig asked.
“Yes, that's basically it.” I nodded.
Azrael canted her head. “Oh, you mean that Beat Blaze never... ah... forget it.”
I raised an eyebrow. “What is it?”
“Forget it,” Azrael repeated. “That sort of information was clearly meant to be privy to a select few. I'm not sure you were meant to be among those select few.”
“And yet you are?”
“My telepathy must make me wary of what to disclose to others, Frost,” the griffin spoke. “I'm sure you can let that rest.”
“... of course.” I nodded slowly.
“So what's the plan of action now?” Rig asked. “With Beat Blaze gone, how are we gonna track down a water talisman?”
“Mm, yes, just how will we go about doing that?” Azrael turned to me.
Well, I knew it was coming. Just my luck.
I inhaled deeply and told them.
“We're going to the Far North.”
“Could you be more specific?” asked Rig. “It's a big place, you know.”
I bit my lip, closing my eyes.
* * *
“-was the The Foo Fliers with “The Pretender,” folks. Now for the cashews... no? Then how about some news?”
We were bound northeast, flying low over the ground once more. We'd been at it for the past several hours, and it was now partway into the afternoon. The bleak dust and dirt of the Wasteland grew more mountainous as we neared the Great Mid-Equestrian Divide once more, as if the land itself was trying to reach up and tug us back to earth. Our destination was Alhambronco, a small trading town where we would restock our scant supplies.
Among other things.
“Ugh... who am I kidding, children?” DJ PoN3 sighed over the radio, causing it to hiss with static. “We've got some pretty bad news. Vealville was hit hard last night by The Dead Boys. Details are coming in slowly, but it looks like the Sentinel was involved and the local nightclub was trashed with nearly all its employees KIA as they joined up with the cryomancer to defend the place. They were all good ponies- the DJ especially. I'm hoping to have more info on the happenings soon, but let's have a tribute to the late DJ DuBB.”
My eyes widened and I motioned down to Azrael. “Whoa whoa whoa, hold up. Full blast on that thing, Rig. We're landing, getting close anyways.”
“Well... alright.” Azrael raised an eyebrow as we touched down in a few seconds. Rig was equally mystified as she cranked up the volume.
“This is for your favorite, old coot. Peace.”
And then the radio sang out with a shaky, powerful, waving, feminine voice, a thrumming bass sending shivers down my spine as we continued on our way by foot.
My Goddess, how that voice echoed and rang out. My heart pounded away again as Rig and Azrael blinked in confusion.
“O Lorn...” I sang in time with the radio, my voice matching that lovely tone in all its echoing smoothness.
“Ohhh boy, oh well I told you...
Well I told you, but I thought you'd know...”
I grinned as I leaned over Rig, a wide, toothy grin playing across my lips (but I, but I...).
“There ain't no heaven,
O Lorn, there ain't no heaven...”
I grinned at Azrael now as she regarded me in curiosity, that beat starting to trickle in (heaven...).
“There ain't no heaven
on the county rooooad.”
And then that beat, oh that lovely beat, kicked in. I found myself bobbing my head and cantering one way and the other to it. I could just tell that Rig and Azrael were glancing at each other in amusement and question.
“Don't talk about it ('bout it)...
Boooy oh boy, don't talk about it ('bout it)...
Don't talk about it!
If you do, I'll cry...(I'll cry)
Don't come around me,
O Lorn, don't come around me...
Don't come around me!
If you do, I'll die (die...die)...”
And then that beat, louder, heavier as I sang out with a light crash of cymbals.
“O Lorn! (O Lorn!) There ain't no heaven!
O Lorn! (O Lorn!) There ain't no heaven!”
Subtler now, subtler now. I turned around, trotting backwards with a swagger to my brow as I sneered at the pair.
“Down at the station... stood my dear old mother...
Oh well she keep on, keep on screamin' and a-cryiiiin'...
'O Lorn I wonderrrr... what my son has doooone... (done...done)'”
Beat's back, more intense than ever, and I suddenly found Rig joining in with the chorus.
“O Lorn! (O Lorn!) There ain't no heaven!
O Lorn! (O Lorn!) There ain't no heaven!
O Lorn! (O Lorn!)”
Subtle again, Rig about to add on the verse when I turned back around, a light skip to my step as I sang.
“Ah did you bring meee, bring me any silver... (silver, silver)
Ah did you bring meee, bring me any gold... (any gold, any gold)
Oh did you see meee, workin' down South Fillydelphia... (-delphia, -delphia)
Oh just to see meee... work on the county roooad...(roooad)”
Screaming guitar cut in. Rig looked ready to join in, and I merely waved a hoof at her with an all-knowing smirk. Wait for it, wait for it...
“(O-O-O!) O Lorn! (O Lorn!) There ain't no heaven!”
“(There ain't no heaven!)”Azrael suddenly joined in. Goddess Almighty! She had a lovely singing voice! We were all smiling brightly, bobbing our heads to the tune. We were happy. I was happy!
“O Lorn! (Oooo Lorn!) There ain't no heaven!
O Lorn! (Oooo Lorn!) There ain't no heaven! (O Lorn, o Lorn!)
O Lorn! (Oooo Lorn!) There ain't no heaven! (O Lorn! There ain't no heaven!)
Their jovial expressions wiped clean. Rig's grew shocked, Azrael's stern.
“O Lorn! (Oooo Lorn!)” I continued to sing as the music suddenly cut out and I turned around.
“There ain't no heav...en...”
Down in the valley, lying over the ridge a bit over two miles away, Alhambronco was burning.
* * *
“Raiders,” I sighed, looking through my ice lenses. The joy and power the music brought came crashing, crushing down. There were great fires burning many of the buildings, corpses both of townsponies and a few raiders bloodying the dusty streets. Judging from how the surviving raiders trotted around whooping wildly on the streets without retribution, I couldn't see how any of the townsponies could have survived.
Or, at least, without getting taken captive.
“As always,” Azrael sighed. “Well, shall we?”
“Hell yeah,” Rig grunted as she winked out Luna's Fortitude, chambering the first round of the fresh magazine with an iconic chucheck. “Now it's raider killing time!”
“Hold on,” I turned to her. Right words, right way. I assumed an authoritative tone. “I'm going in first. Alone. Now, before you object,” Right time, spoken just as she started opening her mouth, “I want to get in there first and determine if there are any survivors before we go in guns- and grenade launchers- blazing.” I only needed to eye Rig for a moment before she smiled uneasily and relented. One down. One left. “And you can't go down because the raiders will spot you long before you reach the mile radius of your telepathy. Raiders might be inaccurate and senseless, but they're neither blind nor deaf.” Finish it off. “And you know our luck, and you know your 'subtlety.'”
Azrael merely nodded in agreement. She seemed wary, however.
“Ohhhhh, fine,” Rig grumbled, sitting down and winking out another cigarette and lighting it with her soldering spell.
“Why do you insist on doing that?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Not like it's gonna kill me if I have artificial lungs. You know, I still don't get the fuss about it.”
“I don't like this, Frost,” Azrael spoke as she seated herself beside the cyber. “Things never end well whenever you go in alone.”
“And look at how well things went when we went in together on the way to Hoofstead,” I rebutted.
The griffin clacked her beak in distaste. “Point taken. So what will the signal be?”
I slung out Luna's Judgment and swapped in two-kilogram slugs. Wait, something felt off. I looked at- holy shit!
Well... at least the shotgun part of it was still intact. From the way the crowbar bent, I'd have to get a replacement for that soon, which- if the Wasteland and my luck continued to hate me- would take six months.
“The signal will be the only gunshots you'd be able to distinctly hear from two miles away,” I told her.
I could see an amused smile there on her beak. “Noted.”
“Right, then.” I began to turn away, beginning the descent down to the valley floor.
As I began to head off, I could hear Rig ask, “Hey Azrael, if griffins are half-bird-of-prey and half-lion, doesn't that make them avian-leonine instead of equine?”
“There's an answer to that,” she replied. “Magic.”
“Oh come on, really?”
“There are just some things that can't be explained, Rig. The technical issues of species is one of them. It's much easier to refer to everyone as equines. So, magic.”
I couldn't help but roll my eyes as I skid down lower, ice drawing over me in a cloak as muscle tendrils slunk down my legs, boosting my speed.
“Three... two... one...” I counted down.
“Am I really that easy to predict?” She asked, keeping pace with me in my high-speed gallop. “Please don't answer that. So what are you planning, Frost?”
“I'm going to see if there are any survivors before we start wrecking the place up. Really.”
“Then... be careful,” She whispered. “Please?”
I nodded. “I will. Don't worry about that.”
* * *
Ever wonder why you've never heard of Alhambronco? It's because it was wiped off the map by these raiders. It used to be a nice neighborhood, a pleasant trading town. The population was made up of mostly ponies, but there were a few mules around. In fact, the main attraction of the town was a statue of a mule mare in formal military attire, a saber drawn in her mouth- “La Mula.” A shame I never looked into the historical importance of it; although the fire that ravaged the town spared the monument, the plaque became melted and unreadable. And now I was there, trying to find survivors- one in particular- before it all came burning down. The general store still looked intact and was yet to be touched by the flames. That would be my first target.
As expected, there were snipers keeping a lazy post. I made a mental note of their location to free up Rig and Azrael for when they inevitably made their approach. Creeping past them was the easy part- they were all whooping and doing what raiders did in the streets. Now that I neared the burning buildings, things were going to get a lot more interesting. I produced an ice arm to pull out Night Fang, forming a makeshift suppressor of ice over the barrel.
Recall that I hate fire- heat in general really. In order to prepare for it, I was going to need a lot of ice armor to keep my cool, literally speaking. I shimmered back into being in an alleyway just out of sight, my cloak thickening into something that more resembled the Stalliongrad full-body ballistic armor suits. It was bulky, it was clumsy, and the amount of ice blurred my vision to the point that I was rather nearsighted. It had to do. I had to make do.
I also admit it also causes raiders to make the funniest expressions upon sight of me. I really should have guessed one would sneak up behind me like that. With a string of quiet clicks from Night Fang, the dirty unicorn stallion was Swiss cheese. I couldn't help but chuckle at the cruel irony that his cutie-mark was a pony plugged with bullet holes. Ohhh, if this was any indication of how fun this would be, this was going to be a great day. At least until... well alright, best not think about that just yet. I took his bolt-action carbine, the model unrecognizable from the extent of damage to the weapon. I pulled back the bolt, pressing down on the exposed bullet. Fully loaded, five rounds. That would be more than enough. It wasn't what I had in mind, but it would have to do.
Crouching and moving slowly to avoid making too much noise, I sneaked through the alleyways for the back door to the store. The path took me uncomfortably close to a burning house, mist bleeding off of my ice armor as I strained to keep it up and keep my magic alive.
I hated alleys. They've always hated me.
Surprise, surprise, another raider. Oh boy! The way she slacked her jaw upon spotting me looked just incredibly ridiculous...
… riiiiight before I blew it off with a quick burst of .45 ACP.
I love killing raiders and slavers, folks. I really do. Feral ghouls are too animal in their ways, and putting them down is always no fun given they used to be good people like you and... well, you. Animals are no fun because their reactions are too hard to gauge. Now, raiders and slavers, on the other hand... well, you can really enjoy it, or at least I can. I loved how easily they gave into pain, their expressions, their cries, their pleas. So many lovely, lovely sounds.
Sounds such as the gurgling the jaw-less mare crumpling to the ground, grasping at her bloody throat as she suffocated. The roaring blazes made her pathetic gagging and flopping inaudible to all but me as I closed the distance. Oh, those eyes, those eyes wide with fear, tears dribbling down them! So wonderful, so pitiful!
I sprouted another pair of ice arms, the hands reshaping into long, jagged claws as I loomed slowly closer so she could see her doom coming. That sputtering grew more frenzied as she tried to crawl away. A simple pounce, and I was on top of her, my claws plunging into her midsection. Wasn't it just funny how she flopped around, her head banging wildly on the Wasteland earth, tears streaking down her cheek from the knowledge that she was going to die a violent, painful death? I granted her just that, pulling my claws away in opposite directions. The cracking and snapping of her spine was music to my ears as I pried her apart, splitting her in half. Blood and viscera dirtied the burning earth, and now that there was no more fun to be had with this victim, I proceeded on my way with little more than a puff of red mist as I sublimated the bloody claw arms.
A lone unicorn stallion leaned against the back door to the two-story general store, dressed in barding stitched together from wagon parts and scrap metal. Unfortunately, I couldn't get much closer without alerting him. That was a bit of a problem. Good thing I was a clever little devil.
I formed a small ball of ice I threw it past him as I ran, stowing Night Fang away. The distraction served its purpose. He craned his head after the snowball in confusion, oblivious to my thudding footsteps. Just as he started turning back to me and crying out, I slammed a hoof into his face. A few bloody teeth fell away with him as he staggered away from the force of the blow, setting him up for a grapple from behind. A hoof over his muzzle muffled his shouts as I brandished Midnight Talon, popping her open quickly and lopping off his horn before he could bring the beaten sub-machine gun at his side to bear. As he screamed into my hoof, I looped my arm back around to punch the wicked blade into his back, through his guts, and out the other side. Then came the sputtering, the grunting, the gasping, all those lovely sounds that I reveled in. The raider stallion flailed his arms, trying and failing to dislodge me before going for the blade sticking out of his guts, trying to push it out. He sliced his own hooves off in doing so, much to my delight. His eyes were wide with shock, and bloody spittle ran down my icy hoof as his frenzied, mumbles picked up in volume. I couldn't help but smile as my arm, lodged in his midsection, sprouted out smaller extensions that fanned and swirled around. He trembled spasmodically in my grip while I scrambled up his insides. He let out a final gurgle and finally fell limp.
Ahhh... it was fun while it lasted. I retracted the extensions and pulled my bloody arm out before shoving the corpse to the side, picking out the sub-machine gun and checking the mag. Thirteen rounds. That would do nicely. I made sure there was a round in the chamber before flicking on the safety... which detached afterward, rendering the weapon useless. I tossed it away. Just my luck. So much for that. Searching the body for another weapon and finding none, I scowled and puffed the blood covering my blade to mist before pouching her away and turning my attention to the back door. I gave myself a three-down, Night Fang back out in my grip. I reloaded her in a split-second.
Three. I gripped the pistol tighter, checked the seal of the suppressor.
Two. I steadied my breath.
One. I bashed the door open, time slowing to a crawl as I took in the room around me.
I was in the storeroom, just behind the counter. A raider looting the cash register was already starting to turn around, slow as molasses. Two more were down on the floor, playing some kind of card game; they too were starting to look up. Moving sideways immediately upon entering, I fired as accurately as I could at the raiders while trying to avoid hitting brittle objects that would no doubt create a loud noise when shattered. Sadly, I couldn't enjoy taking all of them down when I was being this careful. The one seated on the floor facing me was greeted with a .45 ACP round right between the eyes while his card buddy was riddled with four of the fat rounds. I swiveled to fire down into the forelegs of the mare at the register, causing them to buckle under the volume of bullets. Losing balance, she started to fall and I rushed up to meet her as time whipped back up to speed, Night Fang’s frozen suppressor sublimating and allowing me to plunge Night Fang's screwdriver bayonet up into her jaw. I let gravity handle the rest as it punched into the brain case.
I knew my anatomy.
Withdrawing the “blade” cleanly, I surveyed the rest of the room, sweeping Night Fang wherever my eyes went. Seeing it was clear and none of the raiders outside had yet barged in, I swapped out for a fresh mag and took in the smaller details.
The room was quite simply trashed. Merchandise was strewn about the room. The shelves, once lined with cans and boxes of food that once stood attention and ready for order, were now pulled off into a mess all over the room. Four more bodies littered the floor in addition to the raiders'; in fact, the two playing cards were doing so on a “table” that consisted of a splayed torso of a pony stallion. No survivors, but not the one I was looking for in particular either. I checked the bodies for weapons. Hm, a rusted IF-42 automatic rifle... that would do much better. I checked the load of the side-mounted magazine- a full twenty rounds. Perfect. Time to check upstairs.
Hm... no wait. Wait a second. Though my entrance certainly generated a lot of noise, I still needed to be sure. I tapped an ice-laden hoof down on the floor a few times, as if knocking. Someone stirred up there- a warrant for caution, but it could be from the very one I was looking for. I moved upstairs quickly, Night Fang brought to bear.
Upstairs was a simple bedroom with two mattresses and a set of dressers. Lying down on one of them was a middle-aged donkey mare, her gray fur caked in blood. Similar spatters of red matted her auburn hair, streaked with aged gray. One of her legs was bent the wrong way, and the familiar yet horrid stench that clung to the air made it all too obvious what the raiders had been doing to her. If she was dead, then...
No, I had to be sure.
“Miranda?” I whispered.
Her limp form twitched. No, she wasn't dead. Not yet.
A bloodshot, brown eye cracked open, followed by the other. “Frost...?” she croaked weakly. The other eye followed and a hoarse sigh of relief fluttered from her lips. “Oh thank Goddesses, it's you...”
I nodded slowly, silently. Now came the moment I was dreading.
“It's been ages...” Miranda went on. “You look... just the same...” She shook her head. “What am I saying? Frost, you have to go make sure Wendy's alright! She's... Frost?”
“Can... can I just stay here for a while?” I rasped, slumping down against the wall, letting Luna's Fortitude fall. “It's been ages since I've seen another friendly face. A friendly sane face.”
“Sure, hon,” Miranda smiled at me from behind the counter. “I know this town isn't much, and it's not always welcome of outsiders.” She put a hoof to her chin. “Well... especially if they're wearing armor as outlandish as yours. But make yourself comfy. Can I get you something to eat... uh...”
“Frost,” I replied, still weary. “Call me Frost.”
“Well it sure is a fitting name.” The donkey raised an eyebrow at my ice armor, which I sublimated on that note. “Can I get you something to eat, Frost? You look like shit, no offense.”
“... do you have any biscuits by any chance?”
“Um... no, but we've got canned yams, overstocked and guaranteed delicious!” Miranda flashed an enthusiastic smile. It quickly faded. “Yeah, it's the most common crap out there, I know, I know. Who am I trying to kid around here?” She tapped her hooves together. “Sorry, but are those okay? Please? I'm seriously getting desperate here with them. Every time someone comes to trade, it's always yams out, other shit in. I've got to have at least fifty cans back there...”
“This really is a general store...” I smiled lightly, sitting down hard. “An honest-to-Goddess general store...” I laughed heartily, something I hadn't done in ages as I approached the counter. “I'll take as many as I can cram into my saddlebags.”
“Yes!” The donkey mare pumped a hoof. “YYYYes! Finally! Someone who I can sell them off to!” She blinked a few times and pulled herself back together. “I... mean someone who I can sell them off to at a discount price, seeing as how they're... in such high demand...”
The transition was quick, and I ended up buying nearly half of her yams at cap a pop.
Things fell into a stark silence shortly after. I merely stood in front of the counter, unsure what to do at such a late hour. She was probably itching to head back to bed herself, yet neither of us looked the least bit tired.
“Frost, I gotta ask,” Miranda spoke at last, shattering the silence. “How exactly is it you're wearing that fancy armor? Lunar Guard armor, right?”
I sighed. Of course someone else was going to recognize it. “It's a long story.”
She glanced up at the clock (My Goddess, there was a working clock!). Three in the morning. “I'm wide awake and I've got the time.”
I frowned. “Well... it started with my father, Diamond Dust...”
The IF-42 was back out, aimed at the prone donkey mare. An icy suppressor was formed over the barrel.
“I'm sorry, Miranda,” I whispered, my voice as grim and dry as the flames creeping closer and closer.“I have a telepath with me. I hope you understand.”
“Wait...” Her eyes widened. She rose up, a hoof held up protectively. “Wait!”
The IF-42 sputtered, punching right through her limb and into her head. Even after she fell limp, I held down the trigger for two more extended bursts, riddling her with holes. Wasted casings littered the floor. Just like a raider. I felt no joy in doing it. I felt no ease, no relief. I felt nothing. After all, you just think about what you kill, not who you kill. I was no exception.
That left one question: who was this “Wendy”?
Something creaked behind me, and I wheeled around, the clunky rifle swiveling toward the dresser.
A filly. A little filly mule was poking out from her hiding place, her eyes wide with fear and brimming with tears.
“Wendy?” I asked grimly, drily. I advanced toward her, blocking her off.
She choked up and shivered. I didn't need her to answer. I didn't expect her to. She knew what I was going to do.
The IF-42 sputtered once more. The filly dropped out of the dresser to the floor with a solid thud, her lifeblood leaking out of the great many holes in her petite form. I left no remorse. I left no regret.
Now it was time to leave no trace.
I turned to head back downstairs and finish the job. I had only just reached the first steps when something yanked me from behind, making me turn back.
She was gripping me by the shoulder, Her hoof reared back. Time slowed down and in that moment, I took it all in. Her eyes, full of everything, clouded with the brimming tears that cascaded down Her cheeks. Her quivering lips, tugged back into a pained roar.
Her hoof, reared back to strike.
The ice shielding my face crunched inward with the impact and I was sent bowling down the stairs. The world became a blur of brown and red before fading to black.
* * *
Footnote: Frost- Maximum Level
Rig- Level up! Level 7 reached!
Azrael- Maximum Level
Unlockables added: Soundtrack- Theme of the Outcast, Rig
Soundtrack- No Heaven by DJ Champony