• Published 17th Nov 2011
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Fallout: Equestria- The Last Sentinel - Adder1



It's hard to kill memories when you remember everything.

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Chapter Nine: Faith and Forte

Chapter Nine: Faith and Forte


Getting late again, folks. What's it gonna be? Stay up for more or get some shut-eye?

Don't tell me you're all gonna become three-hour sleepers like me.

The storyteller chuckled lightly.

Fine, fine. We'll go on, but don't say I didn't warn you all.

Now then, I'm sure all you ponies and griffins have heard of a special somepony, and I'm even surer you follow said somepony's broadcasts. DJ PoN3. Am I right? Of course I'm right, it's way, way too obvious.

Riddle me this- how old does the fellow sound?

He paused, glancing about the room as some ventured a guess.

Heh, well, guess what? You're all right. And you're all wrong.

Folks, the story I'm telling you is from forty years ago. And- believe me, I'm telling the truth here- there was a DJ PoN3 back then too.

Hold your horses, folks, hold your horses. I know what you're thinking. Bullshit, right? Well, the DJ back then wasn't the same as the DJ now. I don't personally know the current one or the last one, but I can say that I've come to know quite a few of them. When one gets too old or just disappears, another one takes the helm. I know a lot of ghouls, folks. DJ PoN3's been around a long, long time.

So why am I telling you this now?

Heh, well, this is a story I'm telling, right?

* * *

The clouds were glowing a subtle orange as sundown neared. Rig and Azrael had followed along while I continued to sing to myself. We were clear of the Manehattan ruins by now, the crumbling buildings and twisted streets left behind us, traded for the lightly hilly, dusty, dreary domain of the big, empty bastard once more. I wanted to finish this one before we took off once again.

... they ain't gonna catch you when you fall.
You'll be pleading while you're bleeding

Gods ain't gonna help you, son,
you'll be sorry for what you've done.
Them gods gonna hurt you, son,
you'll be sorry for what you done.
You'll be sorry for...what... you... done...”

I looked back and stopped, still mirroring my play with Midnight Talon and Silver Skean. Both Rig and Azrael were eying me, drawing to a halt with me. They glanced at one another for a moment.

I bowed, closing both balisongs and stowing them away. “Thank you.”

“That was... kinda...” Rig tried to find the right word.

“Morbid?” Azrael suggested.

“Yeah, morbid.” The young mare nodded, sitting down and crossing her forelegs. A few seconds passed before she looked at the griffin with a puzzled expression. “What does 'morbid' mean?”

“Of an unhealthy interest with disturbing and unpleasant subjects,” the giant replied without missing a beat.

“Well, that seems to fit the bill, yeah.”

I huffed. It at least took their minds off of what I just did. “Well, not all songs can be as soothing as 'Hush Now, Quiet Now.'”

“So where to now?” Rig asked. “We're going to try to get that water talisman now, right?”

“Yes, that's right.” I nodded. “For that, we're going to be heading to Vealville. It's a about a day's flight east from here.”

“Can't say I've heard of the place,” Azrael remarked. “Are you sure there will be a water talisman there?”

“Probably not,” I responded, “but I have a good informant there. If there's a water talisman to be found, he'll know where it is. We have about a hundred days remaining. We should be fine.”

“Sounds good enough to me!” Rig smirked that lovely smirk of hers.

“Well,” I paused to crack my neck and sprout my ice wings, “ready to take off when you are. Just follow my lead.”

Azrael swept her cloak up with her massive wings snapping open, pulling Rig close and nodding to me. “Ready.”

A few seconds later and airborne once more, I raised my voice a little to ask, “So Rig, how's your magic?”

The earth-coated mare's horn glowed a light gray and her helmet flipped down and then up again. “Working!”

I nodded. “Good.”

“By the way, Frost,” the cloud-maned mare tilted her head a little, “I've never heard of those gods you mentioned in the song. Xicis, Horvahd, Alda... who are they?”

“They're not our gods, no.” I smiled. “They're the griffins'.”

“Huh?” She blinked.

“Indeed they are,” Azrael spoke up. “Where did you learn such a song? It's not one I'm familiar with.”

“It's an old one, and I learned from a griffin just as old,” I answered. “Truth be told, griffin culture is nearly dead. Ever since the war ended, every griffin left on Equestrian or Zebrican territory just started losing touch. Aldornan's practically a dead language.”

“Um, hello?” Rig waved her foreleg to catch my attention. “Huh?”

“Oh, the griffin gods,” I chuckled at the young mare. “Azrael, do you know them?”

“I do,” the cloaked griffin replied.

“Would you please explain for Rig? I think you're better qualified than I am.”

“One moment.” Azrael's expression was something I couldn't quite read. “The clouds. They're darkening far ahead.”

I was so focused on looking for threats and minding the terrain that I'd hardly noticed them. I didn't usually worry too much about the rainfall. Never had a problem with it. With Azrael, now I noticed the ominous clouds ahead. “Mm. I see them. Time to find shelter then.”

“Yeah... the Guide said that it doesn't rain often but it rains hard in the Wasteland,” Rig said as she looked out in wonder at the dark mass far ahead.

“An understatement if anything,” Azrael spoke. “I can't tell if it's coming towards or away from us, though.”

“Hey Rig, check under the 'Data' section of your PipBuck,” I told her. “Should be a 'Radio' setting there.”

“Mm-hm, mm-hm, I know, I know.” The young mare nodded as she fiddled with the device. “Alrighty, I've got one station. Um, Equestria News Radio? There's actually a radio station that's running out here?”

“Surprising, I know. Well don't just look at me! Go ahead, crank up the volume and tune in!”

Rig did so, and we were greeted with a deep, charismatic voice. Not gravely, mind you, but smooth and sure.

“-all you in the Capital Wasteland! This is DJ PoN3!” An energetic neigh sounded off over the speakers. “It's time for the quill feather... no? Then here's the weather...”

The storyteller paused, smiling.

What do you think, folks? Sound authentic enough?

Well anyways, upon hearing that, Rig merely raised her eyebrow and glanced at me.

“The DJ's an eccentric one.” I smiled, speaking quickly before he started up again. “Good fellow, though.”

To all my people out there in the Manehattan area, buckle down, sit tight, and hoooold onto your radio sets, 'cause we've got an important weather announcement. Wuzzat? Something other than cloudy with a chance of dismemberment? Yeah, that's right, we've got a storm coming in! Doesn't look like one that'll last more than a day or so, but according to a buck in Alhambronco, it's rainin' cats, dogs, and hellhounds! It's bearing straight for the Manehattan area, so patch up your roofs and get undercover if you're in the area, because it's gonna be a flood!

And now for the news...” DJ PoN3 went on as we all exchanged looks. We'd need to find some form of overhead cover for sure. “You know folks, I really hate how slowly we get news from outside of inner Equestria. Because it was just today that I learned that Stalliongrad was attacked over a week-and-a-half ago. Yeah, that bastion of hope in the north? Attacked! Now, I only have one source so far so I can't completely confirm this, but it looks like some griffin mercs called 'The Dead Boys' were behind the attack. Been hearing stories from the Westerns about these fellows, all unconfirmed...” some grumbling was audible, “but they're not griffins you want to be involved with. They're the bad kind of mercs, to lay it simple. So what they hay is a Westerns-based merc company doing all the way near the Far North? Details are sketchy, but I'm told they were after a group of griffins that left their flock. You know what? More power to those deserters! Good on them if they left! In any case, heavy casualties were sustained in Stalliongrad, but they routed the Dead Boys. Nice job out there, citizens of Stalliongrad! But honestly, seems like these Dead Boys are expanding. Keep your eyes peeled and your guns handy, folks.

In other news, hah-haaa, oh boy this is good, folks! No doubt some of you folks've been listenin' in on ENR for years now. Well here's a shout-out to you now, because we've got a blast from the past pummeling the present! I'm talking about the Sentinel, folks, and boy does he know how to make an entrance... twice!”

I paused in my searching. Um... what now?

For all you folks out of the loop, the Sentinel is the Wasteland's resident cryomancer clad in armor of the Lunar Guard,” the DJ continued, causing Rig to widen her eyes, beaming and pointing her hoof at her PipBuck with glee, mouthing giddy phrases all over me being on the radio. “Years ago, he single-hoofedly took out scores of raider tribes and bandit hunting parties in the Far North. Nopony and nobody knows just how long he's been around, but his crowning achievement? Aiding the retaking of Stalliongrad, folks. You can thank that northerly bastion's existence to him!” Okay. That was a little overblown. Way overblown. But, folks, this is DJ PoN3 we're talking. He's an eccentric fellow. “Now look, I'm not saying the stallion's some knight in shining armor, don't kid me with that, folks. I'll be the first to admit his methods are... questionable, but he gets the job done.” Alright, that was better. A little.

So why the hay am I telling this to all of you?” The radio continued to dole out verbal honey. “Because he's gone dark for a few years now, not really doing anything notable. I actually thought the fellow faded into obscurity just like all heroes eventually do, but no no no, folks! The Sentinel's back! I've got confirmations of him causing a ruckus in the Manehattan ruins, namely shuttin' down a slave-based brothel in the northwestern town of Hoofstead.” Rig stared at her radio in confusion. “Now, what he did to the owner of the establishment isn't exactly something I can talk about on the radio. Hey, hey, I know there ain't no more MoI censors or anything, but I gotta keep it friendly for the kids, am I right? If you're really inclined to see what happened, well, you can always head out to Hoofstead. It ain't pretty though, I'll tell you that. Back to the point, Sentinel freed a grand total of twenty-five slaves, and they're even decently-clothed and armed! And if that ain't enough, get this- this is also an unconfirmed report from the north, but it looks like Sentinel aided in defending Stalliongrad during the Dead Boy attack I mentioned earlier! Welcome back to the Good Fight, Sentinel! It's great to have you back! So listen, folks, you happen to see somepony in what looks like the most outlandish, nightmarish armor you've ever seen- trust me, you'll know it when you see it- do us all a favor: for the love of all that is holy, do not insult Celestia and especially Luna to his face! I mean it!” I admit, that was probably a good something to tell everyone...

Hoo, look at me dronin' on!” the DJ chuckled. “Here's some music... The Rolling Scones, a special treat for you folks to harken back to the days of the Equestrian counterculture while you're stuck in the rain. Thanks for listening, chiiiiiiildren!”

And that familiar tune dribbled on out. Ah... the way that new-wave (… back then) electric guitar came trickling in, joined by the bass and a hint of piano... just swept me away. I couldn't help but smile from the nostalgia...

Oooooh, a storm is threat'nin'
mahhhh very life today!
If Ah don't get some shelter,
ooh yeah, Ah'm gonna fade away!

Waaaaar, children-
it's just a shot away,
it's just a shot away!
Waaaaar, children-
it's just a shot away,
it's just a shot away!”

In the middle of the guitar, Rig cut the radio and I glanced at her. She stared right at me with an incredulous expression. “You're famous?”

“Apparently, kinda, sorta,” I replied, offering little more than a light shrug. I sighed a little as I continued my search for overhead cover for the storm we knew was coming. I had a particular fondness for that song. But I guess now I was gonna get chewed out.

“Why didn't you tell us?” Rig laughed.

Huh, not the reaction I was expecting. “I'm not one to revel in publicity. I might not be subtle all the time, but I'm-”

“-radio-shy,” Azrael interjected.

“-radio-shy.” I nodded.

Hang on a second.

I shot a glare at the two. Rig just burst into even more laughter and I could see the griffin curve her beak in a smile, letting out that stifled giggle of hers.

“Okay, I walked right into that one.” I rolled my eyes. “Any sight of a good cave?”

“Still looking,” Rig said, looking around as we swept low over the hills. “Gotta ask, though, how did DJ PoN3 know about what happened so quickly?”

“Can't say,” I answered. “Trade secret, I guess.”

“Well whatever it is, it works,” the earth-coated unicorn chuckled.

“Cave, two o'-clock,” Azrael reported. I scanned in that direction, catching it about fifty meters from our position.

“We'll hole up there while the storm passes by, then,” I said, starting to veer toward it, the griffin carrying Rig and banking to match my approach. “With luck, it'll be big enough and dry enough in there.”

* * *

But not empty enough.

“Why... can't... I... get... a break... today?!” I growled between each pump of Luna's Judgment.

Remember what I said about wanting whatever I shoot to die with a clean hit unless I'm using flechette shells?

Yao guai are unfortunate exceptions to this.

The storyteller frowned as several hooves and hands went up.

Yes?

One of the ponies asked what yao guai are. The rest of the hooves and hands went down.

Bears.

The pony relaxed and said that wasn't so bad.

Three meter tall, mutant bears.

That pony didn't look as relaxed anymore.

Normally, yao guai are solitary creatures. They're viciously territorial and won't hesitate killing another of their kind unless if it's mating season.

Now think hard for a second and remember that my luck is piss-poor. Now put two and two together. Guess as to what time of the year it was.

Spring, a filly said.

Damn straight.

“Oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shiiiiiit!” Rig cursed, noticing how my triple-aught gas-expanding buckshot shells were just pissing the male off and waking the female, both of whom were a good twenty meters away or so. She teleported out Luna's Fortitude and her throwing shovel, whipping it at the one I was firing at and catching it in the head, obviously thanks to S.A.T.S. The damn spade actually embedded itself in the bone and it was still getting to its feet as we both fired at it. Not even Judgment and Fortitude could bring the male down, and now the female let out a horrible bellow.

“Hold your fire, I'll handle this!” Azrael exclaimed, swooped overhead as we ceased firing. Rivaling the ursine himself in size, the gargantuan of a griffin stood her ground as the beast charged at us.

“Azrael...” I eyed her warily, still keeping my shotgun up, ratcheting out the chambered buckshot shell and swapping out for slugs.

That bear was getting closer with the female following as well, the very ground shaking with their footfalls.

“Azrael,” I repeated, glancing at her, my hands tightening around my weapon. Rig shakily lowered her helmet and contracted her magical grip on Luna's Fortitude.

The pair of yao guai reached top speed in a heartbeat, two monstrous mounds of multi-ton muscle bearing down on us at thirty miles-per-hour.

“Azrael!” I shouted, aiming down the three-pronged sight as they were within ten meters of us. Rig was starting to back away.

“Hold your ground!” the griffin ordered, Rig freezing in place. She kept facing the two beasts.

I was prepared to dodge out of the way and take Rig with me before they thundered down to a halt, practically face-to-face with Azrael. They snorted hot fog out of their nostrils, their eerily reflective eyes glimmering in the slight darkness of the cave. But they didn't attack. They didn't try to maul any of us with their claws or teeth. They just stood there, snorting. Azrael didn't take her eyes off of them for an instant. To my surprise, she placed her hand on Rig's shovel. The male actually lowered his head a little.

“Azrael?” I glanced at her, lowering my weapon.

Rig did the same, lifting a hoof to flip up her helmet. “What's going on?”

“They're just scared.” She answered, her voice soft, pleasant. “The female is with cub.” She turned to me. “I'm quite grateful that none of your shots pierced the hide, or this might be a little more difficult.” With that, she pulled the stuck shovel free, causing the yao guai to let out a pained bellow. Both Rig and I tensed, but we eased off after Azrael made no move. The giant placed a hand on his cheek, saying nothing. He gradually drew back to snorting, his left eye squinting as blood from the gash trickled down into it. The griffin drew her hand away and held it out to me. “Restoration potion.”

“What?” I stared at her. The hand widened. She turning back to face me.

Her eyes... they were soft as her voice, the light shades of gray exhibiting an emotion I read at last.

Sorrow.

“Please.” It was almost a whisper.

I stared deep into those eyes... and I nodded slowly. I slung back Luna's Judgment and handed her the bright-green bottle.

She lowered her gaze, cowing her head and taking it. “Thank you.”

Azrael lifted her head back up and turned back to the injured yao guai, who opened his mouth for her as she broke the seal and poured the contents into his mouth. The wound sealed closed in a matter of seconds, and after pulling the empty bottle away, she pat him on the head where it used to be. The two beasts withdrew back deeper into the cave.

“Wow... what happened there?” Rig asked, winking Luna's Fortitude away.

“Well,” Azrael turned around, stowing away the spent potion bottle, her eyes unreadable once more, “I'm a telepath, aren't I?” Rig opened her mouth to speak. “It was another rhetorical question.” She closed her mouth.

“So you aren't just able to glean thoughts and sensations but mentally communicate as well?” I inquired, my ice arms dissipating.

“Among other things, yes,” the ebony griffin replied. I was about to inquire further, but she spoke before I could. “The yao guai will let us remain so long as we don't threaten them. It would be preferable if we stay near the mouth of the cave.”

I got the message.

“Alright.” I nodded. “Hunker down and get comfortable. Hope that the rainwater doesn't reach us.” The others nodded and began to unpack, but I merely watched the griffin. “Azrael.” She paused, looking up at me. “You're the one with the most firepower of the three of us, the most strength. Why didn't you just kill them when you had the chance?”

“Because they were merely frightened,” she answered me, continuing to unpack. “We intruded upon their home, and the female was with cub. They were going to defend themselves. Was that not clear?”

“It's clear,” I nodded, “but they're otherwise hostile to nearly all other living things, equines included. Who isn't to say they won't kill Wastelanders after we leave them be?”

Azrael paused once more. “You know of ghouls, correct?”

“Correct.”

“And that they're doomed to degenerate into ferals and kill any living thing for food, correct?”

“Correct.”

“So why didn't you just kill Chief Thunderhooves when you had the chance?”

I was appalled at even the idea of it. I firmly replied, “Because I've known him as a dear friend for a very long time.”

“Will that keep you from killing him when the time comes?”

I checked myself. “No,” I admitted, closing my eyes. “No it won't. But I'd still feel horrible about it.”

“Why?”

I sighed out cool mist, opening my eyes halfway. “Because he didn't deserve what happened to him. He doesn't deserve to be conscripted to an inevitable fate such as that because of the Great War. He used to be a proud buffalo, and now he's trapped in an unfamiliar, hostile land in an unfamiliar, hostile body where everyone he knew has died before him. And yet he keeps on fighting to survive.”

“Are they any different?” Azrael motioned to the yao guai. They seemed intent on us, as if listening.

I had no words to reply with.

“Socrates was a wise griffin,” she spoke calmly, sighing. “They're us, Frost. They're just like us. They're just trying to survive in a mutated world in a mutated body. And sometimes I like to think they're better than us. None of these animals raid, pillage, enslave, rape, or destroy to the extent that we do. Do they have the capacity? Certainly. Do they use it? Certainly not. And just because they can't think of it. Who isn't to say they understand the theory of relativity, how to operate a spark-powered vehicle, how to derive and integrate mathematically, what have you? It's only because of the language barrier, their lack of proper appendages, and the fact that we aren't willing to speak to them.”

I looked back at the yao guai. I was wrong. They were listening.

“My deepest regret is that I am more griffin than unicorn, a carnivore,” Azrael exhaled softly. “I try to only feast off of those already dead, but at times that choice isn't always available. A cruel irony isn't it? Now, Frost, remember this- animals are just trying to survive, and they're doing it in a nobler fashion than us. Bear in mind that the reasons for which the Wasteland exists were, and are, purely equine ones. We must shoulder the burden of our forefathers and carry on, hoping that we don't snap under the strain.” She motioned again to the yao guai. “And pray... pray that they don't decide to hate us for it too.”

* * *

The rain began after nightfall. It started as a light drizzle that silently wet the Wasteland earth. In my nocturnal sight, I watched as the ground grew rich and dark once more. Then the clouds began to weep for us, their tears sounding in a chorus of pattering against the soil. Finally, they bled for us. The wicked Wasteland perverted the chorus of the clouds, turning it into a steady, droning roar. The earth was overburdened and reduced to a slimy muck. The rain was no longer purifying. It just forced everything deeper into the mud.

I hated the big, empty bastard.

Rig was fascinated by the rainfall even though she couldn't see it. She was turned away from the covered fire we started, listening on as the Wasteland deluge droned on. She was utterly enraptured by it, watching out into the void as we cooked and ate.

I hoped the big, empty bastard wasn't getting to her too.

The yao guai were drawn in by the smell of food. Azrael offered the little meat she had to them, to which they accepted without evident complaint or evident gratitude. It was a bit disturbing when the male went up and sniffed me.

“You smell like a dragon to them,” Azrael spoke, smiling. “Can't imagine why.”

“Genetics,” I answered plainly as I played with both of my blades. Silver Skean's titanium form caught the dim light in a dazzling way. “Simple as that.”

The griffin nodded lightly, her expression still unreadable. “They wish to know if they can linger around the fire. The warmth brings comfort to them.”

“Why are you asking me?” I inquired.

“You're still in charge, aren't you?”

I cracked a thin smile, turning to the beasts. “They can understand what we're saying, can't they?”

“Of course.” the griffin answered.

I regarded the two of them. Their eyes were... lovely, in a way. They were mirrored to catch the faintest light. I could see myself in them.

I nodded my head toward the fire. “Sit a spell, we don't bite. And apologies for what happened earlier.”

As the beasts set down beside Azrael, she lightly chuckled, “They forgive you for the fight. And for that remark. Just this once.”

I smiled wider. “Noted.”

“So, your second blade,” the griffin spoke up. “Where did you get it?”

“Oh, Silver Skean?” I huffed, starting to whip the blades around independently of one another. “She was my first balisong, and a well-constructed one at that. Bought it off of a griffin who didn't need it. I left her behind when I left my home, something I very much regretted doing.” I whipped Midnight Talon into a backhand aerial and Silver Skean into a normal one to close them both. “It's a... touching reunion.”

“Forgive me, but what exactly is a 'skean'?”

“A type of double-edged blade invented by the ponies of the Emerald Isles,” I answered. “Before you ask, I understand it's not an actual skean, but neither is Midnight Talon an actual talon.”

“I see.” She paused for a while. “So. Your home. Do you want to-”

“No, I don't wish to talk about it.” I cut her off. “I hope you understand.”

The giant regarded me for a few moments before nodding stoutly.

“Azrael?” Rig spoke up suddenly, causing all of us (including the yao guai), to look at her.

“Yes, Rig?” The cloaked griffin shifted a little.

“Can you tell me about your gods?” she asked, turning away from the outside and facing us. “Or, uh, about your religion in general?”

“Certainly,” Azrael answered, nodding. She turned to me. “Are you going to judge my storytelling ability?”

I shrugged with a knowing smile, stowing the sister blades away. The female yao guai let out a rumble that sounded vaguely like chuckling.

Azrael curved her beak into a grin.

As did the storyteller.

“A proper story has to start somewhere,” she began to tell her tale. “This one isn't so simple. There simply is no origin story for our world. We just simply know it to be there. Our religion, after all, is rooted not on reality nor that which lies beyond it. Our religion is to appeal to the gods, those who represent the myriad facets of equinity. Our gods are the embodiments of how we view the world. They are our code, our solace, our power.

“Alda. The Goddess of the Beginning and the End. We are all born from The Lonely Mother, and in the end we all return to her. She is the namesake of the griffin motherland, Aldorna, and the one from whom all the other gods were born from. She is forever alone yet always with us.

“Niiviin. The Icon of Reflection and Duality. We find meaning by looking into ourselves just as much as looking into others. The Formless One has no face, no being, no gender. It gave everything a dual nature, and for that, it is both loved and scorned for showing both the best and the worst in all of us.

“Javahl. The God of Vitality and Atrophy. The Callow Elder teaches that life is meaningless if we make nothing of it. We must forsake the blissful ignorance of our childhood and mature to handle the responsibilities we must one day uphold if are to avoid sharing the same fate as he.

“Zurodin. The God of Purpose and Folly. Intentions both good and bad mean nothing on their own. We can go through the motions, but the point is lost. We must back them with our hearts and minds to hope to make them reality as The Heedless Hero shows.

“Iaida. The Goddess of Bravery and Cowardice. The stories of The Null Champion shows that it is natural to fear. But in labors and dangers, in foregoing pain and pleasure we must have the fortitude, the willpower to push through.

“Yagmarth. The God of Oath and Abandon. Life is rife with choices and is in and of itself a choice. 'Life takes resolve,' The Weathered Glory teaches. 'Outcome is secondary.' Our choices define who we are. We cannot walk the same path, no matter how hard it is to leave one another behind.

“Akrama. The Goddess of Verity and Deceit. The truth hurts at times, but it can also set us free. Lies share this duality. At their best, lies can offer hope, can make each day bearable enough to keep living. At their worst, they come to cut back. The Veiled Seer knows this.

“Horvahd. The God of Pride and Burden. We fly with the freedom of our good will. We bear the weight of our own guilt. Each of us is the sum of our individual virtue and vice. Like The Shackled Judge, we must choose whether we wear our badge with honor or with shame.

“Xicis. The Goddess of Piety and Anathema. Her love only hurts her all the more. Her hatred burns her all the same. The Stark Widow is an empty soul. We cannot question what we love, lest we become fraught with doubt. We cannot continue to hate what we scorn, lest we lose sight of ourselves forever. Faith and forgiveness, she teaches. Faith and forgiveness so we don't follow her into the void.

“Ezraal. The Icon of Existence. Torn asunder in its attempt to resist Niiviin, what was one god became two- Lazare and Azrael. They are forever linked yet only in a passing glance. The Angel of Life gives the soul a form. The Angel of Death takes it away. Together the two serve as vassals to Alda, creating life and bringing death so that life maybe created again.

“Our religion is simple. We appeal to the gods to whom we find need in, hoping to draw upon their strength. The lover prays to Xicis for her devotion, the liar to Akrama for her to shield secrets. The soldier vests trust in Iaida for her courage, the sinner to Horvahd for his strength. We seek them in times of need, hoping that we may attain their power and endure. But above all else, Alda takes precedence. We owe her our lives, and we must all return that debt to her. It is why we griffins value honor to the pledge above all else.

“There are certain rules, certain taboos. Once our time comes to join The Lonely Mother, we cannot resist. We must be willing to let Azrael perform her duty and take the hand of Alda, so that we may join her for a fleeting moment. We cannot give The Formless One any shape, for that destroys its significance. We cannot forbid worship, even to the condemned. After all, the gods represent the best and the worst in all of us. The lowest have just as much a right to pray as the highest.

“Our religion is nearly gone. Ever since griffinkind made contact with ponykind, our religion slowly died away. After all, it was certainly far easier to follow a religion where the Goddesses live alongside you as opposed to a religion purely of faith. But in the end, we griffins all find faith, especially in these times where the Goddesses are long dead.

“So that's that.” Azrael finished up, looking directly at me.

“That was... impressive, how you explained to her,” I spoke. “It was short and definitely simplified what with leaving the Outer Circle of gods out, but it served its purpose and had a surprising amount of depth and style to it for its length.”

“Thank you,” the griffin said simply.

“Thank you.” Rig beamed. “That was... pretty heavy stuff at times, but it was pretty interesting and, uh, informative? Really, thanks.”

“That leaves one question, though,” I said, leaning closer to her. “Why are you then named after the Angel of Death? As far as I know, it's not exactly custom for griffins- anyone really- to name their children after their deities.”

“For that, I suppose it's time for a bit more explaining.” Azrael sighed. “The answer is simple- The Dead Boys are a religious organization.”

I deadpanned at her. “Oh you've got to be kidding me. You're kidding. You're kidding, right?”

“Let me clarify.” She cleared her throat. “A religious extremist organization rife without morals. After all, the gods represent the best and the worst in all of us. So do the Dead Boys.”

“... alright, that's a little better.”

“The Dead Boys assigned their leaders the names of the gods.” Azrael sighed as my eyes widened in realization. “I'm anticipating the question. Yes, Frost, that means... I used to be one of their leaders, jointly with Lazare. My... uniqueness made me fit the role.” The griffin looked down and away. “I am... not proud of it.”

“... I see.” I said simply, quietly. There was an awkward pause. The male yao guai snorted.

Azrael blinked, tilting her head. “You aren't quite as furious as I'd imagined you both to be.”

“We've all done things in the past that we're not proud of, Azrael. Like Horvahd, we all have our burdens and shackles.” I sighed long and hard. “My opinion of you hasn't changed. You're trying to change.”

Like me.

“What Frost said.” Rig smiled. “Plus, you're trying to make up for it, right?”

Azrael nodded slowly. “Yes, I do try to atone for-”

“That was a rhetorical question.” Rig interrupted.

She did have a lovely smirk.

The ebony griffin regarded the two of us for a moment before giving a stout nod in thanks.

“That leaves some questions, though,” I spoke as Azrael went level-headed again. “I won't ask about what you did. It's...” I paused. Memories I cut away cut back. “It's your choice whether you wish to discuss or not. First, what is your real name?”

“I forsook it when I took my position,” the giant answered. “It's a badge I must wear with shame, my repentance to the real Horvahd.”

I nodded lightly, slowly. “Then will respect your wishes. Given that The Dead Boys emulate the Inner Circle of gods, would it be safe to assume there are nine leaders remaining?”

“Less than that, actually,” Azrael responded. “Though yes, when I abandoned and I killed Lazare, I killed Ezraal in that sense. Back to the point, The Dead Boys knew there were some boundaries they just couldn't push. No griffin would dare take the name of The Lonely Mother nor give form to The Formless One. Griffins would sooner kill them than join them for that extent of blasphemy.”

“Why not for the amount of blasphemy already committed?” I asked.

“... you'll know it if we chance to meet one.” she replied ominously. “I was worshiped as Azrael for the reason that I knew what death felt like. The other leaders... they're worshiped for reasons such as that. They are as close to living, breathing gods as can be offered.”

“So seven of them left, then.”

She nodded. “Yes. Javahl, Zurodin, Iaida, Yagmarth, Akrama, Horvahd, and Xicis all remain.”

“Lovely.” I sighed out cool breath. “Seven godlike leaders to kill when all this is said and done.”

“Is that what you're planning?” The griffin regarded me.

“It's what I've been planning since you've explained what The Dead Boys are and what they do,” I casually replied. “Know anything about them by any chance?”

“Little more than rumors,” Azrael answered. “I've only personally been able to glean from Lazare, and very little about the others. Since Lazare and I were so new to the organization, I suppose they wanted to keep to themselves for the time being. That said and if the circumstances allow, I would like to join you.”

I raised an eyebrow. “'Circumstances'?”

“If there's anyone who is with us at the time who I can glean. With just you, I'm completely blind.”

“Ah.” I slanted my mouth. “Right.” I suddenly began snickering to myself, gradually increasing in volume to a chuckle. Everyone stared at me, yao guai included.

“Um... what's so funny?” Rig leaned away slightly, raising an eyebrow.

“Sorry... sorry,” I sputtered, checking myself and calming down enough to respond. “Just... look at me! I'm serious, just look at me!”

A green unicorn in Lunar Guard armor. Out to kill gods.

Alright, you big, empty bastard. Sometimes, only sometimes, your humor is tolerable.

* * *

A few hours passed. I agreed to take watch for most of the night, followed by Azrael and then Rig. The kid convinced me to let her start taking watches as well. That earth-coated girl from Stable Three, not quiet a mare yet. But yet... she was growing up so fast. Something in those indigo eyes just made me relent.

The steady, mechanical drone of the rainfall went on unabated. It was broken only by the soft, snore-like growls of the yao gaui. One of them was awake at all times, I noted. Often times, it was the male. Even with Azrael around and the agreement known, being around them still made me uncomfortable, especially since I was easily within striking distance. But one of them always remained awake, and so did I. I sighed lightly before getting up and silently creeping for the outside.

Time for the talk.

Rain simply didn't bother me because I never let it reach me. My horn flared up with a subtle, ice-blue glow as I exited the cave and into the torrential downpour, the rainwater vaporizing before it even came close to touching me. Ice is just solid water, folks. Cryomancy is just a form of hydromancy. I sprouted my wings and used them to fly up to the roof of the cave, settling down there so I could both immerse myself in solitude while at the same time watching over the cave and the area around it. The rain somehow managed to make the Wasteland even drearier in addition to forcing me to rely on sight and smell since my ice tendrils were useless in the face of the steady downpour. Truly, truly such a sad world we live in if it was bleeding so many tears for us.

“With all the talk about religion, I hope you're not thinking about converting.”

She was at my side once more. A casual glance to the side confirmed that. She was wearing a thin, sad smile. We were both staring ahead, avoiding eye contact.

“In the joking mood again, I see,” I cracked a thin, sad smile of my own, expanding my little rain shield for her. “Just like old times.” I sighed softly, my smile fading.

“Do you think back to those days often?” She asked softly.

“I try not to,” I answered.

I didn't need to turn my head to know She was looking at me now. “Do you, though?”

My gaze turned downward as I closed my eyes. “Yes. Especially with you around.” I sighed again. “Do you?”

“I can't help it,” She answered with a sigh to match mine. “I just can't help it. Sometimes I wonder what things would've been like if...”

“If I'd done what would have been logical?” I asked, turning to face Her, eyes open once more. “If I'd stopped you?”

“Yes...” She nodded, turning away from my gaze. “Frost, do you still blame yourself?”

“For my mistake?” I snorted. “Of course.”

She clicked her tongue and said, “Love, if anyone has to be at fault, it's me for what I did.”

“But the one who permits an atrocity has as much blood on his or her hooves as the one who commits it,” I said before I realized what left my lips.

“Well... I guess it's quite the atrocity, isn't it?” She sighed, biting Her lip. As She turned further away, I could see Her hurt expression.

“You did it because it seemed right to do so at the time.” I tried to comfort Her, getting up and walking closer. “You were expected to do it. What I've done...” I paused, stopping where I was.

<====ooo*scr(2274)eaming*OOO*s<top>topitallplease!*ooo====>

Screams. Shredding. Running. Futile. I was faster. I was stronger.

Shouts. Shots. Pain. Useless. I could withstand. I could push forth.

Shrieks. Scrambling. Away from me. Guilt. I tried to console. I tried to reason.

Snap. Silence. Hooves swinging above the doorway.

Back. Forth. Back. Forth.

<====ooo*bodiesbodiesbodies*OOO*bodiesbodiesbodies*ooo====>

Memories, memories that I tried to kill away cut at me. I hissed, letting the cold of the dreary downpour consume me. I found solace, clarity in it. I calmed myself. I killed those memories away.

She was hugging me tightly. I felt her soft coat against mine, and I fell against her, burying my muzzle against her neck. I reveled in the slight yet comforting warmth-

My eyes shot open.

“Wh-what the-” I pulled away to Her shock, Her own eyes wide. “How... how can I...?” My mind raced, digging back into my memories as I looked at my hooves...

“Frost...?” She whispered worriedly over the rainfall.

“Love,” I looked up at her, “how can I feel you? I-I m-I can barely feel anything! I-I mean, I've been shot in the neck, nearly got my hindlegs torn off, and that's just what's happened recently! But... but I can feel you perfectly! What, I mean... just... what's wrong with me?!” Ice crackled along my left hoof, forming a blade as I slashed at my right foreleg, not feeling a thing as I cut a deep gash. “I can't feel it at all! Why can't I feel?! Huh? Huh?!”

“Frost!”

I stopped, panting hard as I looked up at her. She was gritting her teeth, holding Her legs inward, breaths rasping.

Her right foreleg was torn.

“Oh...” I grew cold, so cold. “Oh dear Luna...” So, so cold... “I-I...”

Clarity. The cold brought clarity. I quickly fished out a healing potion, cracked the seal, and slugged it down as fast as I could, watching as the blood and flesh began bubbling and knitting back. I looked up, watching the same happen to Her.

“Dear Luna...” I gasped in realization. “You... you...”

“I've been taking it away from you all this time,” She panted softly, recovering. “Yes. All of it.”

“But... why?” I whispered.

She laughed. It was so familiar, yet... so ghastly, dying as She spoke, “Oh, love... you wouldn't believe me if I told you...”

“Is that going to be your alibi from now on?” I looked away. “You're... you're okay, right? Dammit, I should've asked that first... stupid, stupid me!”

“Well, dealing with pain is just mind over matter, isn't it?” She shook Her head sadly. “And I'm just all in your mind. Right?”

I was the one hugging Her tightly now. I half-expected to launch myself over the side of the cave to the slimy mud below, but I met resistance. Soft, comfortably warm resistance. Slowly, steadily, She wrapped Her hooves around me as well.

“I've thought about what you said me,” I sighed, still holding onto Her.

“About what?” She whispered.

“About whether you were a ghost or something more,” I answered. “About whether or not you were just in my mind. Whether or not it mattered.”

“... what have you thought?” She asked lightly, tentatively.

“I don't know what you are,” I answered. “I can't answer that for sure.”

“I... I see...” I felt Her slump a little.

I held Her tighter. “But I know who you are. I know what you mean to me. And I don't care what you are because of it.”

We pulled away from one another lightly, gingerly. She was smiling tenderly at me, tears trickling from Her eyes. I smiled back at Her, smiled with loss and longing. We leaned in slowly so that out foreheads met and gently brushed against one another.

“No kiss?” She asked as we looked closely into the eyes of the other. I could see everything in them... everything.

“No,” I answered back, nuzzling gently. “Not yet. Things still aren't... still aren't ironed out between us yet. Maybe another time.”

“So there's still an 'us' then?” Her smile grew.

“I'd like to think so, yes.” I nodded. I pulled away slowly. “Are you going to be okay?”

She nodded, still smiling. “Yes. I'll be just fine.”

“But will you continue to feel... all the pain I feel?” I asked, worried. I was genuinely worried.

“No, no, I won't, I won't,” She smiled encouragingly.

I just kept looking at her with that worried look.

“... yes,” She relented, sighing as her smile faded. “I'll feel almost everything.”

“'Almost'?”

“I hope it won't come to that.” She looked up at me. Her demeanor, Her eyes just made me drop the subject.

I nodded slowly. We stared out into the big, empty, dreariness before us.

“I hope that I'm doing the right thing.” I exhaled gently.

“How so?” She asked.

I slumped a little. “I save Rig, I snap at her. I kill Sewn Britches out of morality, seventy-three good people die. I try to save slaves, I almost downright fucked up.” I huffed. “So ironic. After our first firefight together, I thought that Rig and Azrael would just get in the way. It's why I tried to do it myself, so there could be no margin for error. Instead, they're the ones who end up saving my ass. I didn't save those slaves. They did.”

She was silent for a good few seconds.

“You know, Frost, it's perfectly fine to be omnist,” She finally spoke.

“What do you mean?” I turned to Her as She did the same.

She smiled. “Perhaps you can learn a thing or two from The Weathered Glory.”

I blinked a few times before smiling. I was about to respond when Her eyes widened. She placed a hoof against my lips.

She held Her other hoof against Her lips. “Shh...” She pointed down. I looked there, following Her hoof. Oh. Oh! Azrael! Her watch was going to start soon!

I looked back up as She smiled at me once more, Her hoof moving to caress my cheek. I closed my eyes and surrendered to Her touch. It left suddenly, and I opened my eyes to find Her gone once more.

I smiled lightly to myself before descending to the muddy floor as quietly as I could, slipping inside, my horn's glow extinguishing as I left the rain behind.

“I don't know what time it is,” Azrael whispered, already awake, “but I hope you aren't late. What were you doing out there?”

“I just needed time to reflect,” I answered. “I have a lot of things bottled up inside of me as you can imagine.”

She nodded. “I hope you found faith in Niiviin. Now do yourself a favor and rest well. Alright?”

I nodded back to her, settling down. I didn't need her to bring up just how taxing the day had been for me, and I didn't want to talk about any of this. At the same time, I didn't feel tired. No, not at all.

But I still drifted off nonetheless.

~ ~ ~

The all-consuming cold was back, as gripping as ever.

Hundreds of formless shapes. Hundreds of lumpen, misshapen blobs shuffling around me. Their eyes were blank but screamed with bloody murder. All of their cries, their shrieks- it was overwhelming.

I fought back the one that approached me first, weaving around and battering the next aside. I slipped around the third, danced around the forth, weaving and battering them away with my hooves.

But there were too many. They came upon me like a flood, never ending, never letting up. I was swallowed up, hooves and hands tugging at me in all directions. I roared against their cries as I tried to fight them off, thrashing wildly against the now vaguely equine shapes.

I saw Her. She was above me, reaching Her hoof down for me as I struggled against the writhing masses, all the bodies.

I reached out for Her.

But I was tugged downwards, dragged screaming as the outreached hooves and hands eclipsed Her. The blackness blocked out everything, blocked out all sound, transforming into a dark ichor that swallowed me up.

I was drowning in the abyss, struggling for breath. My lungs burned, and that burn broke me.

I kept falling, falling faster, drowning, drowning deeper...

Hello, Azrael.

I'm ready.

~ ~ ~

My eyes cracked open slowly, weakly. I found it kind of funny and kind of sad at the same time. The dreams in which I was dying were the best I've ever had anymore.

* * *

Vealville... how to describe it? Honestly, calling it a “cesspool of sin” means little in the Wasteland. I guess you could call it a “cesspool of permissible sin.” If anything, Vealville's a smaller version of New Neighgas, New Pegas, Neigh Vegas, or whatever the hell they call that place nowadays. It might only consist of a few rows of relatively undamaged houses, but I'm telling you the only relatively clean establishment in that town was the general store. And even that made most of its money from all manner of chems- Buck, Stampede, Dash, Mint-als, Fixer, what have you. The rest of Vealville? Well, there was a brothel. Granted, it didn't run off of slaves (which was one of two reasons why I didn't tear the place down), but the place had a notable reputation for having a few prostitutes “advertise” on the streets.

Strutting their stuff, people. Come on, don't give me that look.

There was also a pre-war casino. I have absolutely no idea how that place was still running, but it had slot machines, it had poker tables, it had roulette tables, and the ponies who ran the place managed to get the whole system to run off of caps. Even had a bar there. I only knew the place to be a casino. Never went to the place. I knew my luck, and I knew not to push it.

Lastly, there was the nightclub. I'll admit it, I loved that place. No, not for the bar, not for the mares (The hell do you take me for, people?), not for the crowd. The music, folks, the music! I may not look the type, but electronic music is one of my favorites. Can't help but drift to the nearest radio when DJ PoN3 puts on The Mixers. Thank the Goddesses, thank Security for finding them!

But I didn't just go to Vealville's nightclub for music. No, folks, I went there for my informant. As the day gave way to night and the glittering lights of Vealville glowed in the distance, I was wondering what Rig and Azrael would think of him when we met.

Unfortunately, we had complications.

“Hold up, drop!” Azrael suddenly called out as we neared the town.

“What?” Rig shot her a look as I angled my wings up for a decelerating descent. “What is it?”

“The Dead Boys,” she answered, dropping her as she touched down with me. “They're in town.”

“Dammit,” I sighed. “How many?”

“A small brigade, about thirty,” she said as we neared a craggy outcrop. We ducked down low as I began to scan the area, forming ice lenses before my eyes and Rig's as we laid flat on our bellies. Among the crowds of ponies in various degrees of inebriation, there were definitely several dozen griffins. They weren't armored in anything that remotely screamed “Dead Boy” however. In fact, griffins were common in Vealville.

“Yeesh... what's with all the... um, mares doing... that... stuff?” Rig asked. “Oh don't tell me there's another brothel here!”

“Yes, but it's not based off of the slave trade,” I told her.

“Huwah?” She stared at me, lifting the lenses. “Why are they doing that then?”

“Because it's easy caps,” I answered, sighing. “Everyone gets the itch sooner or later, and I can't force them to change. It wasn't illegal back when Equestria still existed, and it's certainly not illegal now. Their life. They decide how to lead it. I don't have a problem as long as it doesn't tread on others. Now, slavery? That, I've got a problem with. Now Azrael, I'm not seeing any Dead Boys. Where are they?”

“All over,” the griffin answered.

My lips tugged into a frown. “Let me guess. Plainclothes?”

Azrael nodded. “Plainclothes.”

“Plainclothes?” Rig asked.

I nodded. “Plainclothes.”

“No, I mean, what do you mean by 'plainclothes'?” the young mare asked.

Both Azrael and I looked at her in realization, blinking. “Oh.”

“It's a term used to describe militants or authority figures dressed in civilian wear, hence the term itself- plainclothes,” the griffin replied.

“Oh, well that makes sense.” Rig nodded in understanding. “So, what's the plan?”

“Unchanged save we can't bring Azrael along.” I scowled. This didn't bode well.

“There's another problem now that I'm gleaning them,” the cloaked hybrid spoke. “The Dead Boys have a Hunter unit dispatched in the area.”

“Something tells me I'm not going to like what I'm about to hear, but what's a Hunter unit?” I inquired.

“Well, you've met the Heavy,” Azrael answered. “Hunters are similarly specialized and equipped for priority elimination operations. They're equipped with power armor like the Heavies, but these appear to be a special, lighter brand with a limited stealth field generator.”

“So they can turn invisible,” I surmised, frown growing.

“They can turn invisible,” she nodded. “To a point. Movement weakens the stealth field and causes them to give off a unique silhouette unless if standing still. They're also equipped with weaponry that suits their operations. I'm guessing suppressed precision weaponry.”

“Wonderful,” I growled. “So where are they now? Rooftops?”

“Here's the problem- they're not in town,” Azrael replied. “They're around the area outside of my detection range. I'm not sure whether this is intentional or not, but to err on the side of caution, let's assume that my telepathic abilities are better known now.”

I looked out to Vealville once more. “Well, looks like we can still get to my informant without much trouble if we, namely you, lay low. Can you handle that?”

“I'm very much capable of that, yes.” The ebony avian nodded.

“Then Rig, you're with me,” I said, turning to her. “Just stay by my side and don't wander off. It's a crowded place down there and we could be easily separated.”

“You got it!” Rig flashed that lovely smirk.

“Um... actually...” Azreal started, slumping a little.

Ohhhh, this didn't bode well at all.

“What's the problem?” Rig asked.

“It's... something I'm not proud of, but...” Azrael clacked her beak, “look, Frost, can you just leave Rig here with me?”

“What's the problem?” I asked this time, voice firm.

“It's not important, just-”

“If it's causing a change of plans, then it's important,” I interrupted, voice raised now. The right words, the right way. “Now. What's the problem?”

Azrael's beak flattened and she clacked it once, voice surprisingly soft. “I...”

“Yes?”

“I'm...”

“Yeeees?”

“I'm...” She proceeded to mumble something.

“Yessssss?”

“I'm monophobic.”

“You're shitting me.” Rig stared.

“Does this look like I'm shitting you?” Azrael hissed, turning to her, pointing a finger at her face.

Rig winced. “No...”

“Actually,” I spoke, relaxing, “I don't find it all that surprising.”

“Oh?” Azrael turned to me, eyebrow raised.

“You need someone relatively close to you to see your immediate surroundings, right? Any phobia is supposed to be an irrational fear, but that seems rather rational to me. In populated areas, you can get by no problem, but out here in the wilderness, not so much. Am I right?”

Azrael flattened her beak. “Pretty much.”

“Well what happens if you're left alone?” Rig asked.

“I get panic attacks,” she turned away.

… okay, maybe not so rational.

“You're shitting me.” Rig stared. When Azrael glared at her, the young mare scooted back a little. “On second thought, maybe you're not. Sorry.”

“Again, it's something I'm not proud of,” the griffin grumbled, burying her face in the stony earth we were lying upon.

“But it's understandable,” I spoke up. “Look, I'll leave Rig with you-”

“Thank you!” Azrael shot her head up, now with a relieved expression. “... sorry.”

“I hate doing this kind of stuff,” Rig grumbled, plopping down and crossing her forelegs.

“Somehow, I'm starting to feel the same way,” I sighed, brushing a bit of hair out of my eye. “Something tells me I'm going to regret this, but I'm going in solo now. I'll be back shortly. Do whatever you want, but lay low and stay out of...” I paused. “Rig, what are you doing?”

The young mare froze. She was in the middle procuring a pack of cigarettes, Minthols to be more accurate, one of them already pulled out and nearing her mouth. “Um... trying this smoking thing out? Saw ponies and griffins at Stalliongrad doing it, and seeing them do it here too got me curious.”

And now it was my turn. “You're shitting me.”

“Nope,” Rig said as she winked the pack away, popping the cigarette in her mouth and lighting it with her soldering spell before I could warn her. After a quick drag, she blinked and slowly pulled the thing out of her mouth, exhaling the toxic fumes out she did so. She made the most peculiar expression in which she squinted one eye closed while the other one went wide open. “... seriously? I don't see all the fuss about it!”

I stared at her. “Rig, were you ever taught what went into those things?”

“Well it wasn't like we had 'em in our Stable or anything,” she replied, rapidly shaking her head, her expression normalizing. “No idea.”

“Well there's tar, all sorts of toxins, carciner... carcino...” I struggled for the word. It's been a long time since I've had to use it.

“Carcinogens, pest control chemicals, ammonia, arsenic, hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, and hundreds of other potentially damaging compounds,” Azrael spoke in an even, calm tone. “And nicotine, of course. That would be the drug in it.”

“Thank you, Azrael. So honestly, it's not worth it. They'll kill you in the long run.”

“So... it'll cause cancer.” Rig blinked.

“Cancers linked to the respiratory system and mouth area, yes,” Azrael replied, nodding.

“But other than that and the toxic stuff, anything wrong with it?”

“Bad odor, bad breath.” I shrugged. “Can't think of anything else. It's the other consequences I'm worried about.”

“... anything good about smoking?” the earth-coated unicorn asked.

Azrael grumbled, “Well, the nicotine can bring a sense of euphoria and calm the nerves, but I'm not so sure that outweighs the downsides.”

Rig looked from the cigarette to us and back before popping it back in her mouth.

I facehoofed. “Unbelievable.”

“Hey- my life, I decide how to lead it,” she said.

And even with the cigarette sticking out of her mouth, she still had a lovely smirk.

“What, but, I meant...” I growled in defeat. “Azrael, don't you have any input on this? You're the one gleaning off of her!”

She shrugged. “Beggars can't be choosers. If I can sense through her, I'm not complaining.”

“I'll... just be going now...” I grumbled. “Don't do anything stupid...”

And with that, I whipped myself over the outcrop with ice muscles stretching over my legs. Landing in a crouch to dampen the ten-meter fall, I took off for Vealville in a sprint.

“Are you with me, love?” I asked after speeding along for several seconds.

“Always,” She answered. I could not see Her, but I knew She was there.

“Am I going to regret this?”

“Oh, so now I'm going to be your second opinion?”

“Well...” I stammered, “I just wanted to-”

“Relax, Frost,” She sighed. “I jest. Unfortunately, my Eighth Orb of Premonition is telling me 'most likely.' I'm getting that feeling again.”

“Wonderful,” I grumbled. I then ran through that last bit again. “... what? Really? Magic eight ball?”

“I have to cling to some things, don't I?” She chuckled.

“Well,” I huffed, thinking of Silver Skean as I drew an ice cloak over myself, “can't blame you. Alright, let's do this.”

“Yes. Let's.”

The storyteller paused as a hand shot up.

Yes?

The griffin mentioned how it's been a while since the storyteller brought up a lie.

Indeed it has.

The griffin then asked if he has, in fact, been lying.

The storyteller smiled.

I'm not holding hooves or hands anymore. You tell me.

* * *

Nightfall over Vealville couldn't really be called that, given it was one of the few places in the Wastes that actually have a power grid running. The folks discovered a derelict power station nearby and somehow got it back online, dragging lines from there to the town. I don't know how they kept it running, but I wasn't one to question it. What works, works. In either case, it wasn't doing my night vision any good as I sneaked onto the open roadway, slipped past the residential tents, and got into the heart of Vealville.

For the size of the town, it was definitely a bustling place like I said before. Ponies and griffins of all walks of life came here to drown their sorrows and indulge themselves on wild night after wild night. People staggered and stumbled drunken or drugged all over the place, loud conversation mingled with shouting and laughter, and mares in the, ah, advertising profession sauntered down the road adorned in eyeliner, makeup, and dressed in the most scandalous clothing available that only served to accentuate the feminine curve. Folks, we equines don't normally wear clothes. We do so to make an impression.

It was this specific type of impression that I averted my eyes from.

“Why cloak yourself anyways, Frost?” She asked as I checked alleyways for occupants.

“Because I don't want to risk the slight chance that one of the Dead Boys might recognize me,” I answered in a slightly raised whisper. Chem dealer in this one, no good. Ponies pressed against the- no, not this one either! This one... well, it had a sleeping hobo there. It would suffice.

“Ah, right.” She bopped herself on the head with her hoof. “Of course. Well, there are far too many prying eyes around here. I'll be going again. Stay safe, love.”

“And you too,” I said in turn. She was already gone.

I shifted my ice's thickness into something I was already very familiar with. A red-coated, white-haired unicorn with a bear trap for a cutie-mark. No need to change height or build, and I only needed to blur my vision a little for a hazel pair of eyes. That would suffice, yes. No, no wait, maybe go for a female form this time. I did not want to get harassed by prostitutes on the way.

It was then that I noticed the white-bearded, gray-coated hobo pony wasn't quite sleeping as I thought. He stared at me in bewilderment as I most likely seemingly appeared out of thin air to him.

“You didn't see anything,” I leered at him. Good, my voice seemed feminine enough.

Hobo pony seemed to get the message and shook his head quickly. I proceeded onwards as he murmured something about going crazy and heading to Iron City or something or the other for a change in scenery. I don't know, I wasn't paying too much attention to him. I was just trying to head toward the nightclub, trying to avoid contact with the ponies and griffins moving about the streets lest my icy touch give me away.

I really hate crowds, by the way. Especially when trying to sneak by unnoticed.

No, no, you folks are okay, I'm just saying in general. Sheesh, don't give me those looks!

Anyway, I was continuing toward a large building across the street on the eastern side of town, keeping my “eyes” relaxed and oblivious while my actual ones darted about, taking my surroundings in for griffins. One. Four. Nine. Nine out of thirty that I could see at most. If they were plainclothes, they were doing a great job with the part. A particular trio were seated at an outdoor table outside of the casino, laughing like old chaps as they drank away. I couldn't tell if they were the type at all.

A drunken slob of an earth pony was wandering a little too close for comfort. I slipped around and put another pony in between us, causing them to collide instead of me. Hearing rough growls behind me, I kept along my way. Unfortunately, maybe assuming a female disguise wasn't such a good idea, as I kept getting cat-calls and wolf-whistles as I kept on. Funnily enough, I aimed at making myself as unattractive as possible without drawing attention. But as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I'm guessing quite a few of the folks had beer goggles.

Drunken slob pony was persistent, too.

“Heyyy, miss,” he slurred as he neared me once more, “I ghink yer mighta drupped sum-”

I didn't give him the chance to get close to me. I glanced back and bucked out with a single leg right into his face. It was sufficient enough to knock him unconscious. There were no further calls or whistles as I approached the nightclub, the set of glass panels and doors glowing with a dazzling array of colors as muffled music droned through the walls, a pair of bouncers blocking the way. They let me in without so much as a glance, seeing as I wasn't looking too suspicious or inebriated.

The nightclub was as enormous as its exterior suggested. It was made from an old department store, the aisles and shelves still in place. That was all that remained to suggest of the building's former existence, as everything else was lost in a blast of light beams, pulsing strobe lights, and swinging chemical glowsticks. Combined with the high-quality floor-standing speakers and subwoofers, the blasting beats of music and sparkling spectrum of lights overwhelmed the senses. I had no idea how they managed to scrounge such equipment in good condition, but I honestly didn't care. The thump of the bass jarred my bones and the pace of my heart matched the beat. I felt powerful, invigorated by the music, and I shuddered as I did what I could to contain myself. Ponies and griffins alike were all over the place, shuffling and swinging to the beats on the open floor. Some crowded the bar off to the side of the building while couples were doing... whatever couples did in between the shelves.

Yeah, “cesspool of permissible sin” seems to be a fitting moniker.

I was focused on but one equine, one pony in all of this, though- the DJ manning a set of turntables that boxed him in. He was an older-looking unicorn with a friendly blue coat and and a fiery orange mane with black streaks that seemed to spike up on its own accord. A snazzy pair of blood-red polarized sunglasses sheathed his eyes, and he wore a classy leather jacket. His cutie-mark? A vaguely heart-shaped musical record set aflame. Even though his muzzle was beginning to white with age and streaks of gray settled in with the black of his mane, he was pumped, folks! He was bobbing his head to the tune, and a smirk adorned his muzzle as if saying, “Yeah, I'm old as hell and still doing this kind of stuff. You jelly?”

… don't ask, folks. Just don't ask.

I shimmied past the crowds, making my way for the turntables and the old coot. “Hello there, DJ DuBB,” I spoke over the music in my disguised voice.

“Wehehell, hello dere, young miss,” he greeted me, his hoarseness unable to mask his jovial, smooth tone that had a hint of an Espinian accent to it. “What can I do for ya? Request? Tips? Oder business?”

I grinned, my vision sharpening for a moment, letting my draconic eyes shine through the ice before I masked them once more. “Otra negocios.”

The blue-coated stallion lifted a hoof to lower his glasses, revealing a pair of sharp, fiery eyes as his smirk grew wider. “Heheheh, entiendote, entiendote.” Knocking his glasses back into place, he nodded to the side in the direction of the bar, making a whirling motion with his hoof. He swung himself over the bar as another stallion did the same, taking his place. He paused to clap hooves together in the exchange before nodding toward the back. “El lugar regular, ¿sabes? Sabes.”

I followed him to the storeroom in the back as he waved a dismissive hoof at another guard, who stood aside to let us in. The “storeroom” was the DJ's makeshift living quarters. It had a mattress off to the side, a refrigerator, a dresser... and one hell of a terminal attached to a maneframe. The room was appropriately soundproofed, the music reduced to a dull thump. No more overwhelming music. No more crazy lights. I could relax now, breathing out a sigh of relief.

“Y Centinela volve,” he laughed, grinning wide as he turned around, a black aura surrounding his glasses lifted up. “So, ya find Sewn Britches?”

I nodded, sublimating my disguise, speaking easy once more. “Yes, in the same general area you said he'd be, Beat Blaze.”

“Was dere ever any doubt?” He flashed his classic, smug smirk.

“Never.” I found myself smirking back. Goddessdamn it, why were smirks so infectious? “Still have to wonder how you and PoN3 get all that information.”

“Heheheh, ya know de answer to dat already, amigo,” Beat Blaze laughed heartily. “Trade secret, both for me and for her.”

“Oh, so the newest one's female now.”

“Yeah, but she's been damn stubborn trying tuh find a new helper.” He shook his head. “We PoN3s stick together until de end, boy, and I keep tellin' her 'Find a 'ssistant, girl! Ya gonna get too old like me or get shot up sooner or later!' But nah, she just keeps mindin' her own business. Gotta say, not bad choice in music, dough. She's been pumpin' lotsa wartime tunes through de air.” His smile faded, expression turning more serious. “So! Enough 'bout dat, how 'bout what's been goin' on with ya, huh? De hell's up with dese Dead Boys comin' round and rufflin' up Stalliongrad, eh?”

“Don't know where DJ PoN3 got her source, but it was spot-on,” I answered. “They're well-trained and well-equipped, and they've got enough tech to make the Steel Rangers look like caveponies. Seems like we've got some here too.”

“Eh, here?” The fire-maned stallion just stared. “Ya mean in Vealville? Mierda, ya jokin'!”

“Plainclothes,” I sighed, expelling cool mist. “At least thirty here. They're damn convincing too. I couldn't pick them out.”

“Diosas mios, not even ya? Dayum, makes me wonder why de hell dey're spreadin' here from the Westerns, den!”

“That's one of the two things I wanted to ask you.”

“¿Y primero?” Beat Blaze raised an eyebrow.

“I'm currently helping an engineer track down a water talisman for her Stable,” I answered. “I was hoping you'd know where I could find one, maybe two.”

“Water talisman, eh?” He went to his terminal, keys blackening as he typed away and sifted through information. He made it clear previously that I wasn't going to sneak peeks over his shoulder, as a magical filter of some sort distorted the screen if viewed from the incorrect angle or distance. “Ey, how come ya don't just check out ya own Stable? Setenta y dos, aight?”

“No,” I answered firmly. “I am not going back there if I don't have to.”

“Eh?” Beat Blaze turned around with a questioning expression. “Why dat?”

“I don't want to talk about it.”

“Well, aight den, but dat don't make ya job any easier dis way.” He shook his head, going back to the terminal screen. “Mmmmm... Eh, amigo, I got some good news and some bad news.”

“Alright, let's hear the bad news first,” I sighed.

“De bad news is dat dere ain't any sign of a water talisman dat's just lyin' unclaimed in de Capital Wastes,” Beat Blaze spoke, turning to me. “De good news is dat's only 'cuz of our range, and by 'our' I mean mine and PoN3's. And with dat comes more good news and bad news.”

“Bad news first.”

“Ay, man, can't ya be a little optimistic for Sparkle-sake?” He shook his head. “Whateveh, de bad news is dat de reason behind our range loss is 'cuz some puta severed our connection with our source. Good news is dat we've been workin' at it and tanks to some good peeps, we're gonna get full broadcast range up soon.”

“How soon?” I asked.

“Tonight if we lucky, tomorrow if not,” Beat Blaze replied. “Until den, I got nothin' outside your Stable. Now, with de Dead boys, same mierda. We've got jack dirt on dem until our connection's back up.”

“Is there anything you can tell me about them at the moment at least?”

“Well, lessee here...” He went back to the terminal console, typing away again. Oh how useful telekinesis is... “Hot damn, PoN3's hunch was right. Dey are expandin'!”

“What's the situation?” I inquired.

“We've got Dead Boys spotted all over de Capital Wastes,” the fire-maned stallion responded. “Manehattan, Pareese, Burrlin, and Fillydelphia, especially Fillydelphia. Seems de only place dey ain't touchin' is Hoofington, but who de hell goes dere? I've only got a hunch, but it seems dey're relocatin' here from de Westerns.”

I frowned. “That doesn't bode well. What kind of numbers are we talking?”

“Hundreds, boy!” Beat Blaze exclaimed, turning away from the terminal and leaning against the keyboard just the right way to shut it off. “Maybe over a thousand!”

Yeah, if possibly over a thousand Dead Boys came over for just revenge, something didn't add up. The Dead Boys were here for something. Something to add to the list for sure.

“So I guess this is it until you get the connection back up?” I sighed.

“Yeah, dat's pretty much all I got for ya.” He stiffened a little, his right ear perking up. “Ey, Frost, Sentinel, boy.”

“Yes?” I raised an eyebrow. “What is it?”

“Uhhhh, I might just be goin' loco here, but some voice inside my head callin' itself Azrael's sayin' we've been compromised or somethin', whoever 'we' is. Also somethin' about a Hunter Unit inbound. Ya know anythin' 'bout dat?”

I deadpanned at him.

“Fuck.”

* * *

Footnote: Frost- Maximum Level

Rig- Level 5

Azrael- Maximum Level
Companion perk added: Inequine Empathy- As long as Azrael remains in your party, you will not be attacked by any type of animal. They might even be inclined to fight at your side if your party falls under attack! This perk takes the place of the Animal Friend perk.

Unlockables added: Soundtrack- Gimme Shelter by The Rolling Scones
Soundtrack- Theme of the Specter, Her
Soundtrack- Theme of the Spiniard, Beat Blaze

Author's Note:

My thanks to Kkat, Somber, Mimezinga, and all the ponies of the Sidestory Compilation Document group. Thank you for reading, and feedback is always appreciated.

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