• 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 Sixteen: Still in the Dark

Chapter Sixteen: Still in the Dark


“Rig,” I spoke up.

“Yeah?” she spoke back.

“There's an alicorn here.”

“Yeah.”

“Why is there an alicorn here?” I deadpanned.

“Good morning to you too,” Rig huffed, rolling a can of- surprise, surprise- yams to me. Miranda wasn't going to let me forget anytime soon, particularly since I was starving and very thirsty. The alicorn regarded me in silence, her snout turned up as if in noble derision. Azrael maintained her level, unreadable expression. I sighed out- cool mist with it, thankfully- and rolled into a sitting position. I felt something cold brush against my foreleg and winced, the memory of the bodies still fresh in my mind. It was only my helm. I grumbled to myself and slipped it over my head, working the clasps.

“Why is the alicorn here?” I asked, taking a moment to slice off the lid, wolf down the yams, and condense moisture around my muzzle to drink, horn flaring up with an icy-blue glow.

“We would prefer if you addressed us directly, Frostbane Hokkaido Windchill,” the pony in question scoffed in a regal, haughty tone.

“I don't care as long as I get an answer,” I growled.

“Wait, you two know each other?” Rig blinked.

“Not particularly,” I answered.

“She was wandering in the area before I tried to delve into your memories,” Azrael finally spoke. “She happened to wander into my telepathic radius and tried to contact me. I know not how, but it resulted in some sort of negative feedback loop. My telepathy has been... muddled ever since, and you were put into a coma for three days.”

“Three days?” I parroted incredulously. “Does that mean-”

“-Tenpony Tower has been restocked?” the griffin finished. “It appears so. And yes, it also means you didn't have anything to eat or drink for three days.”

“Explains a bit,” I murmured as Rig telekinetically flung another can of yams at me. I caught it with an ice arm and ate hungrily. “Except why the alicorn's here and still here.”

“We would prefer if-” she started.

“If you're so intent on being addressed, then why don't you go ahead explain yourself?” I scowled.

The alicorn snorted, turning her snout up a bit higher, “We detected another telepath as we wandered, searching for those able to join the Unity. We were merely curious- particularly since that telepath suddenly withdrew communications- and made haste for her, in this case your companion Azrael Razorwing. We remained because we were curious as to how a griffin- even a griffin-unicorn hybrid- can use such telepathy. In addition, we are interested in taking up your companion Rig into the Unity and are still quite interested in you, particularly after finding you still alive and ageless and especially after taking a peek at that nightmare of yours.”

I deadpanned at the green-coated alicorn. “You... what?!”

“We were- and are- highly interested as to how you survived naturally for so many years. It is thus again that we extend our invitation for you- and your companion Rig- to join the Unity.”

I turned back to Rig and Azrael, the sensation of something curling around my mind working through my brain. “And that's why I kept the mental shield up all this time- these Goddessdamned alicorns.”

She had the gall to scoff, “The Goddess would not and does not damn her Children!”

“Well your Goddess- isn't.”

The alicorn visibly tensed before closing her eyes and letting out a soft, sharp exhale of breath. “We shall not argue over these semantics. However, our offer still stands to the both of you.”

“My answer is the same as eighty years ago- I refuse,” I spoke firmly.

“And you?” The alicorn turned to Rig.

She took more than a second to respond. She actually took more than a second! “So... you invite only unicorns to turn them into... alicorns, right? Is there a catch?”

“Rig!” I gaped.

“Only that you serve the Goddess and spread her teachings and invitation,” the tall, 'regal' pony continued without missing a beat. “In return, you shall become an alicorn, a creature perfectly adapted to the dangers of our new world. Healed by radiation, impervious to Taint, and possessing the strength, endurance, agility, grace-”

“-humbleness,” I added snidely.

“-and repertoire of spells necessary to survive in the new world.”

“And it'll work, even for me?” Rig queried.

“Yes, even having lost the majority of your body,” the alicorn replied with a nod.

“Rig, you honestly can't be considering this...” I balked. She didn't answer me. That wasn't a good sign. “Rig!”

“Rig...?” Azrael ventured quietly, quietly even for her.

“How does this transformation happen?” Rig inquired.

“The methods and means of joining the Unity are not to be discussed with outsiders,” the alicorn answered.

Rig tapped her chin. “Why not?”

“It is a matter of faith. One must believe in the ascension- a leap of faith, is it were. But is the alternative any better? Would you prefer remaining as you are, without a heartbeat, without breath, even without your own voice?”

“Without individuality?” I asked, pointing at the alicorn's flank.

It was indeed bare- there was no cutie-mark bestowed upon it.

“That notion is preposterous.” The alicorn waved it off with but a shake of her head. “Even if the notion held any truth, it is insignificant as opposed to what you have to gain.”

“So how does the transformation happen?” Rig asked. “Is it any worse than death?”

“Neigh, it is a rebirth,” the alicorn answered, her tone slightly raised. I noticed it shuddered at the end.

“How successful is this transformation?” Rig questioned.

“We assure you that it is most successful, as you can plainly see!” She spread her wings wide. It was not regal, was not elegant- it was menacing.

“Sure, but I meant how often it's successful,” the earth-coated mare clarified.

“We-” The alicorn faltered.

Rig waited patiently, teleporting out a cigarette and lighting the tip with her soldering spell before popping it into her mouth. I smiled, just a little. She wasn't being curious. She was testing the alicorn. “We...?”

“We assure you it has an acceptable degree of success.”

“Which would be...?”

“Acceptable.”

The cloud-maned unicorn took a moment to levitate her cigarette aside and let out a smoky breath. “I'm a bit of a number-cruncher. I'd like some numbers to crunch.”

“We do not keep records of our success rate,” the alicorn declared.

“Which implies there's a failure rate,” Rig countered.

The alicorn remained silent.

I caught a ghost of a smile on Azrael's beak. “Socrates would be proud.”

Rig leaned back. “Tell you what- I've got obligations. I've got promises to fulfill. Come back to me when I've got nothing to live for. Then we'll talk.”

“We...” The alicorn paused. “We believe that is acceptable.”

“Alrighty, then. So, now that that's settled, can you please... you know, give us some private time? We're on a schedule.”

“Of course.” The alicorn finally rose, looking down upon Rig. “We thank you for your consideration. As for you,” She turned to me, “we hope you find your way and reconsider. After all, you served a Goddess before, if we are not mistaken.” I only leered at her. She shook her head. “And so we bid all of you farewell. We hope to meet again soon.” With that, she turned tail and took off, bound south. The guardponies along Tenpony's courtyard wall ducked and took aim as she passed, relaxing as she continued past, disappearing out of sight.

“The Wasteland has waaaay too many dicks,” Rig huffed with a smile, shaking her head and sticking the cigarette back between her lips.

“Agreed,” I sighed. She looked at me with a half-lidded expression. “I'm one of them, aren't I?” She continued to stare. “That answers that.”

She let out a smoky sigh and levitated several cans over to me, to which I took and devoured. “You're gonna try to make up for it, right?”

I paused and responded, “I plan and wish to.”

“Then I'll work with you- for now,” the young mare said. “We already talked about all this. It's over. We've got a whole lot more shit on our plates now. Let's handle that first. Azrael, you still blind?”

“Yes...” the hybrid griffin answered tentatively.

“Can you use your telepathy at all?” I inquired.

“It hurts if I try. A lot. Very much so.”

“That's not good,” I murmured.

“That doesn't even begin to describe it.” Azrael scowled. “It's... unnerving. I... I don't think I can fly like this if we need to go anywhere.”

“Ohhhh, that's so not good,” I said. That was going to be very inconvenient. “Has this ever happened before?”

“No, this is the first time ever in my life,” she exhaled, “and believe me- I'll be frank here- it fucking sucks.”

“Well, if it just hurts using telepathy, that means you still have it, right?” Rig asked. “Then this should just be temporary, right?”

“I hope,” Azrael snorted. “Otherwise it'll be a much greater hindrance.”

I took a moment to polish off another can before asking, “And this just popped up when the alicorn entered your radius?”

“Yes,” the shadowy giant affirmed.

“Well, crap,” I grunted. “There's a ton of alicorns in the downtown area of the Manehattan ruins and in the Far North. Which means you won't be able to accompany us there, seeing as you can't fly.”

“Ugh, this week is sucking so badly right now,” Rig groaned, pressing her hooves against her face. “Well, I can't imagine it getting any worse.”

I stiffened as I heard footsteps behind me, glancing back to find one of the Tenpony guardponies trotting toward us. He cleared his throat and spoke, “Hello, Sentinel. DJ-PoN3 wanted me to pass the message to you that none of the traders that stopped by the Tower had any RadAway. When asked, the traders said that griffins bought it all off of them. The DJ sends his apologies and suggests you look elsewhere, wishing you luck.”

I gave Rig a half-lidded stare.

“You shitting me?” She deadpanned at the guardpony.

“Rig... just...” I sighed. “You never, ever say things like that! Ever!”

“Ever?” Rig grumbled.

“Ever,” Azrael murmured.

“Well,” the guardpony coughed politely, “there's some good news and-”

“Bad news first,” we interrupted in unison.

Laugh it up, you big, empty bastard. I hope you die running out of breath.

* * *

By now, you should be recognizing a pattern. The good news coincided with the bad news. The good news was that there was a nearby hospital in the area- possibly with stores of RadAway. It was, after all, where scavengers got their steady supply of medical supplies for Tenpony.

The bad news? No guarantee it wouldn't be bereft of RadAway already. We'd have to try it out and hope for the best. Hope? Something that the big, empty bastard devours all too readily, all too easily.

“I suppose there's a bright side to this, somewhat,” Azrael piped up as we made our way to street level. That was rather uncommon of her- an optimistic thought, and being the first to open conversation with such a remark.

“And that would be?” Rig huffed. She was sticking close to the giant, who was resting a claw on her as she guided the avian-leonine-equine along.

“Seeing as I'll be all but dead weight, you won't have got get any RadAway for me once you decide to make the journey to the Far North,” Azrael replied. “I'll probably stay behind in Stalliongrad or something. Maybe you can find a 'sky taxi service' or something.”

I recalled how I met Silas and Rig. “Very funny, Azrael,” I nickered.

“I do my best.”

“Alright, let's hold up for a second and plan our moves.”

“Okay.” Rig nodded. “Last step, Azrael.”

“Thank you,” the giant spoke as she eased off.

“So, any idea where the hospital are?” I asked the cyber.

Her PipBuck thrummed and chirped softly as she fiddled with it. “It's about... three cubes from here, to the northeast.”

I ran through that last sentence for a moment. “Blocks?” I suggested.

“Whatever.” I rolled my eyes. Stable pony. “Look, I got something to add. Hear me out for a second? It looks like we're in a residential area or something. Lots of these buildings look like homes and businesses. I figure they'd have medical boxes of their own. Why don't we check the intact ones out, too? I figure that if anything, they'll at least yield some stuff we can used for trading away if not RadAway. How many do you figure we need anyway?”

“Well, since we're traveling by foot, we're going to need substantially more RadAway,” I responded. “We'll be on the snow itself, meaning you'll be soaking up more radiation, Rig. Even for just you, we'll need the same twenty overall. That's a conservative estimate, even if I can move the ice around us. Thirty would be better, but it'll be a miracle if we manage to get that much. Two from... Miranda's store plus seven from Cutthroat, we have nine. We'll need at least eleven more. Unless you let me go by myself-” Both of them promptly glared at me (Well, Azrael tried to. She ended up glaring in my general direction). “I get it, you two, I get it. You don't trust me entirely. I know. Speaking of trust... how far did you manage to glean from me, Azrael?”

“Your capture in Stalliongrad,” she answered. “The first week. I still wish to withhold judgment until I finish, but...”

I rolled my hoof toward her. I then realized the futility of the motion. “Go on.” I encouraged.

“I'm starting to see why you don't want to go back.”

I sighed out a cool mist. “Yeah, well, that's just the tip of the iceberg.” I paused. “That pun was so not intended.”

“You were captured during the Great War?” Rig asked.

“Later, Rig. Let's deal with that later. Please. You don't step on landmines, real or psychological ones.”

She regarded me for a bit before relenting. “Alright. Alright. So, let's get going?”

In moon's shadow,” I muttered, pressing my hoof to the eye-like gem on my breastplate. I felt invigorated- stronger, faster, more sensitive. “Yeah. Let's.”

* * *

We were off the beaten trail now. No longer were we soaring above the Wasteland dust- we were right in the heart of it. As we wandered past the first row of crumbled buildings, there was a profound change in the overall atmosphere. The world grew darker, the scant light that filtered through the omnipresent cloud cover choked further by the husks of skyscrapers. Through this, the Wasteland strangled the precious little life left in the world- color. Everything was desaturated to shades of gray- factory gray, blank gray, pale gray, ash gray, deathly gray. The constant shouting and clatter of gunfire coupled with the stench of decay only served to reinforce the big, empty bastard's message- death was always breathing down your shoulder. All it took was a misstep, an ill-timed turn of the head, a lapse of vigilance, a slight onset of ignorance, of sloth, of distraction. We were all just one death away.

We moved slowly, cautiously- if not for the sake of Azrael, then for the sake of the omnipresent danger around us. We stuck to the sidewalks as close to the destroyed houses as possible, trying to keep out of the open streets. I kept the IF-55 Spikeshot at chest level, the barrel tilted slightly downward. I was ready to snap it up and bring the scope to my eye at a moment's notice. Azrael was right behind me, keeping a heavy hand on my back as I acted as her guide, whispering caution of obstacles in our path. Rig took up the rear and occasionally checked our six. Our movement was slowed significantly by the giant's blindness- something that irked her greatly. Her beak was drawn tauter than usual- just barely, but I was able to notice.

It was only after the first block that we came across a few relatively intact apartment houses. They used to be petite, dainty buildings- stacked-shutter-style wooden walls; neat, slanted roofs; four windows- two for each story- in the front with quartered panes, an unnecessary but aesthetically-pleasing pair of steps up to an elevated front door, a front lawn split by a smooth, paved walkway; a neat picket fence with a mailbox. Small, sterile, simplistic, sunny- the ideal home, supposedly. Now the majority of them were reduced to rubble, collapsed, crumbled. The few remaining were charred by spellfire, window panes blown out. The grass lawns were scorched a grisly black, walkways cracked, pickets scattered.

I took a precautionary sniff and glanced about us. The stench of decay was all around, but the very specific smell of raiders that could only be described as... dirty... was nowhere in our vicinity. No other equine scents. I nickered to catch Rig's attention then nodded at the first of such intact apartment houses. “First stop,” I whispered. “Let's go. Rig, take care of Azrael for a second.”

As Rig fell in beside the griffin, I crept ahead and peered through one of the shattered windows, the IF-55 following my gaze as I swept the barrel across the portion of the living room I could see. The wallpaper was torn, mottled; a grisly-black chandelier hung on the ceiling. There was a tattered sofa with an age-worn coffee table in front. A broken television set sat atop a buckled stand beside a low bookshelf. All the books were scorched beyond legibility. Eighty years ago, my heart would have ached for those books and all those powerful words lost forever. I would have wondered who lived here, what they did, and if they made it to the Stables in time, hoping that they did.

Now? I tapped the barrel of the IF-55 against the blown-out pane, making just enough noise to rustle any would-be raiders or slavers out of view. Hearing nothing, I turned back. “Anything on E.F.S., Rig?”

“Nothing,” the cloud-maned mare replied. “It's clear.”

I nodded and pushed the door open. I noted that it swung open only on its lower hinge with a worrying squeak. There was a snap of wood, and I rushed forward to catch the door before it fell. Not quite fast enough- it clattered to the floor with a cringe-inducing, dust-scattering clunk. Rig raised an eyebrow at me.

“... I'm really out of practice, okay?” I grimaced as I pushed past the doorway and into the home.

“Hey, I didn't say anything,” Rig huffed as she passed through. There was another cringe-inducing clunk, and we both turned around to find Azrael rubbing her forehead and backing away from the low (relatively speaking) doorway. “Oh! Sorry!”

“Is it bad that I've only met one alicorn so far and I already hate them?” the griffin hybrid grumbled with a scowl.

“They all share the same attitude, so I can't blame you,” I huffed.

“The attitude is... tolerable.” She clarified as she ducked down to enter. “The telepathy is... not.” Now her shoulders prevented her from entering. “... I'm going to have to stay outside for these situations, aren't I?”

“Pretty much.” Rig smiled apologetically. “Will you be okay while we scavenge?”

“I know you're close... I'll be fine.”

“You're sure?” I arced an eyebrow.

“I'll be fine,” she repeated firmly.

Rig and I shared a look. “I'll take upstairs?” I suggested. The earth-coated unicorn gave me that look again. “Come on, we're in the same house. I'm not going off on my own. Can you at least trust me with that?”

“Fine,” she sighed, shaking her head as she headed for the kitchen. I was only heading for the stairs when she let out a soft shriek. It was followed by a wet crunch and splatter.

“Rig!” I called out, IF-55 brought to bear.

“I'm okay, I'm okay!” she panted, backing out into view with a green-stained pickaxe floating beside her. “Jeez... think The Guide calls those radroaches? Fuck, the bears are bigger, the bugs are bigger- is every animal bigger?”

“Let's just say we're fortunate to be able to fly between Stalliongrad and here,” I told her, trotting back up the steps to the second floor. “Lots of dangerous- and yes, bigger- creatures there. We were able to bypass them, thankfully.”

“And now?” Azrael inquired from outside.

“... let's... just hope that your telepathy comes back by then so you can fly,” I answered as I headed into the bathroom. Inside was only a black-stained tub with a shattered toilet sitting beside it, both full of putrid water. I only sighed and checked the medical box hanging on the wall just beyond the doorway. The pristine nature of the pink box with its yellow cross and butterfly designs spoke volumes about the power of the protective wards cast on it as I opened it up.

Mint-als. A colorful, art deco-styled tin of Mint-al cognitive and memory aid tablets. I didn't even bother taking it; I scowled and shut the box up.

I met the cracked mirror above the sink instead. I looked at my reflection for a while. Long, ash-gray coat with those fur-tufted ears. Eyes slanted like a zebra's, slitted, gleaming a brilliant amber. A rough five-o'clock shadow.

I also wasn't alone in the reflection.

“You know even if we whisper, they'll probably hear us, love,” I spoke quietly.

“Or maybe just you, talking to yourself,” She whispered with a ghost of a smile on her lips.

I reciprocated that smile, if only for a moment as I headed for the bedroom. “Do you remember the... nightmare?”

“I shared it with you, yes.” She nodded, looking about the room with a somber expression.

I nodded slowly, moving on to the master bedroom. “Does it sadden you? What I've become?”

“It does,” She answered. “And that I'm the reason for it.”

I stopped in the hallway and turned around. “No, love, don't think like that.”

She looked at me with those wholesome eyes, eyes so sad. “Well it's true, isn't it?”

“What?” I stared at Her. “What kind of a question is that?”

She stared right back. “A simple one. I'm the reason behind all that you've done, all that you've become. Right?”

My mouth went dry as I tried to respond, words caught in my throat. “N-...”

“Say it, love,” She whispered. “It won't hurt me.”

I bit my lip and closed my eyes, ears tucked back.

“Say it. Please.”

I shuddered, gritting my teeth.

“Say it.”

“No!” I barked, eyes snapped open, ears upright. “The blame is mine and mine alone!”

She still looked at me, looked so, so sad. It took a while for Her to say anything, but Her words carried a great weight. “You're wrong.” She strode past me and out of sight. I already knew She was gone.

I sighed sharply, steam jetting from my nostrils rather than mist as I strode into the bedroom. The time-eaten mattress of the bed surprisingly intact. The sheets, blankets, and pillow were dusty, but it was otherwise in relatively good condition. Seemed to be the case for every bed out there, funnily enough. But I paid it no attention, didn't let the mind wander. Checked the dressers. Checked the drawers. Checked behind them and under the bed. All I got in turn were three caps. I shook my head and started back to the stairs.

Rig was there, eying me with a worried expression. “You okay, Frost?”

“I'm fine,” I lied blatantly, moving around her. “Let's keep moving. We're still racing the clock.” I felt her hoof rest on my shoulder and I turned to meet those bright, indigo eyes.

“Frost,” she said plainly, worriedly.

“I'm fine,” I asserted. “Let's go.”

“If you want us to trust you, you gotta stop lying to us first,” the cloud-maned mare spoke.

I looked away and sighed out a chilly mist. Our days were just full of sighs now. “I'm as fine as I can be, alright? As far as the operational definition of 'fine' goes in the Wasteland, that describes me adequately. Just... don't worry about me.”

“Hard not to worry when I'm looking at a two-hundred-year-old unicorn batpony-”

“Dracopony,” I corrected.

“-dracopony with denial issues who just talked to a hallucination and just says that he's 'fine.'”

“And this is coming from a unicorn cyberpony, also with denial issues?” In spite of myself, I felt my muzzle curve up in the ghost of a smile.

“Not to mention the blind, telepathic griffin-unicorn hybrid with a history of atrocity!” Azrael added from downstairs.

“Pfft...” Rig shook her head with a soft chuckle, “we are such a dysfunctional group.”

“Not that dysfunctional. We're still breathing aren't we? Now, next house.”

* * *

“Alright...” I murmured to himself as I leaked ice into the floor safe's keyhole and cycled the lock. I swung the door open to find another Colt M11901 pistol along with two magazines of .45 ACP and a few pre-war bits. Occasionally, even the big, empty bastard grants small favors to the luckless. After sprouting ice arms to snatch up the ammunition and money, I began to field strip both Night Fang and her sister, swapping out worn parts for newer ones.

“Hey Frost, did you know this part of Manehattan?” Rig asked from downstairs. I could hear her rummaging through the cupboards.

“Not too well,” I answered back, swapping the hammers. “Just because I grew up here doesn't mean I knew every inch of the city. It's a massive one, after all.”

“Well what parts of the city did you know?” she queried.

“The northern quarter and downtown, mainly,” I responded, unscrewing and replacing the grips.

“What was Manehattan like?” Rig inquired.

I paused in my comparison of the barrels, staring off into space as her question triggered years upon years of memories long lost to the sands of time- good memories, bad memories, memories of power, memories of bitterness. My gaze cast downward, my mind wandering back to the bathroom I used for storage back in Stalliongrad...

“Frost?” the young mare called out. I could hear her uneven footsteps “Are you alright up there?”

I snapped out of my trance and tossed aside the useless remains of the M11901. Slipping Night Fang away, I replied, “Yeah, I'm alright.” I checked myself. “Just... just remembering. It's... I'm...”

I looked up as she limped into the doorway of the bedroom and she looked back at me. “You want to wait until later?”

I nodded glumly. “Later. I can tell you a little, though.” I stood up, and we were back to searching the different floors. “The cities of Equestria each had their own unique traits, their own flair.” I paused, snatching a few caps lying at the bottom of a dresser. Who just puts all this loot in random containers and just leaves them there anyway? “Manehattan was known as the City of Lights and Legends. The city had a very prolific nightlife. It was once said that Manehattan never sleeps, and having spent my childhood here, it's a matter of fact. Lights were strung up all across the city and would turn on right after sundown. It's like the day never ended, and the party only begun.”

“And the 'Legends' part?” Rig asked.

“Heh... Manehattan was the birthplace of scores of legendary figures,” I huffed. “Musicians- Chimney Hendrucks, DJ Champony, The Foo Fliers, The Rolling Scones, Ray Marbles, Sapphire Shores, The Whoof. Athletes- Babe Truth, Tiger Woods, Cherry Polevault, Cold “Beef” Tyrant-”

“Say what?”

“Don't... ask about the name,” I chuckled, checking the closet for anything of use. “You just don't ask about his name. Either of them. There's also Malt Disneigh, Tie Pennington, Mill Gates, Hoard Hues- too many to name. And those are just ponies. Scores of famous people were born in Manehattan. On any given day, you could just as easily bump into a movie star or a jazz musician or an inventor or a philequinepist.”

“What made you leave?” Rig inquired.

“Girl, aren't you a barrel of questions today?” I grinned, even as I found nothing worthwhile. “I left because... I finally learned how to perform magic. My magic.”

“Cryomancy?”

“Barrel of questions indeed. Yes, cryomancy. After becoming more and more adept with the art, I was offered a scholarship to attend Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns in...” My grin faded, “... Canterlot.”

Rig didn't make any comment. I couldn't even hear her moving downstairs.

“Well, that killed the mood rather quickly,” Azrael remarked. I only offered a grunt as I vaulted over the side of the stairwell, landing in a soft crouch.

“Anything useful?” Rig asked, poking out of the downstairs bathroom.

“Another Colt forty-five to repair Night Fang and some ammunition,” I answered. “Otherwise, only a few pre-war bits. You?”

“Got some magical bandages, my PipBuck calls 'em.” She shrugged. “Better than nothing. Didn't really expect to find anything we needed in these houses anyways, but it was worth a shot.”

Soon after, we moved on the next house, the last intact building before the hospital. Same architecture, same state of disrepair, same scavenging plan.

There were plenty of radroaches though.

Rig slammed her pickaxe into one of the ones crawling around the living room with a wet crunch. “So gross...”

On the other hoof, I formed ice arms with muscle tendrils attached, squishing them. “I have to agree. There's just something about these mutated bugs that just... makes me want to avoid getting any bit of them on my weapons.”

“I'm just glad I don't get to feel them die,” Azrael huffed from the doorway, not reacting to the resounding crunches in the least.

“Something weird about this, though,” Rig spoke up, spiking through another one of the pests. “How come there aren't any- ew!” She jumped as the headless radroach continued to skitter about aimlessly. Another slam from her pickaxe stilled the overgrown insect. “That is... so disturbing!”

“Yeah, they live without their heads.” I grimaced, proceeding to smash more of them. “Probably should've mentioned that.”

“How come The Guide didn't say anything about that?” the cloud-maned mare asked.

“Mm. I admit it's probably outdated and definitely nowhere near all-inclusive.” Smash, smash. “Okay, taking upstairs as usual.” I trotted up the steps, but a worrying groan caused surge of adrenaline to rush to my head. The stairs were giving away. Without firm ground to push off of, I lifted my right legs and kicked off of the wall, rolling sideways in the air and landing in a crouch as the stairway crumbled down in a small plume of dust as time cranked back up to speed. And wouldn't you know it? More radroaches crawled out from the cloud.

“Oh for the love of-” Rig started, bringing out her throwing shovel beside her pickaxe and hacking away. “Frost, you weren't kidding when you said the Wasteland hates you.”

“Has every right to,” I grunted as I resumed smashing. “On the upside, at least you're getting some practice with your melee weapons.”

“Hardly,” Rig scoffed.

“And you're both talking to one another in a civil manner,” Azrael commented. “I consider that a plus.”

“Very true.” I nodded in agreement. I smashed a radroach just as she went for it, embedding her pickaxe into the ice. We slowly looked up at one another. “That reminds me. We've got to start learning how to fight together.”

“We've been doing good so far, especially back at Vealville,” Rig noted.

“We weren't working together directly in that fight,” the griffin hybrid reminded her.

“Right... well, any ideas?”

“Call out targets, call out reloads, stagger fire to prevent reloading at the same time, and most importantly, do not wander into someone else's line of fire,” I answered. “We're very lucky that hasn't happened yet, but you have hit pretty close to us with explosive ordnance before, Rig. Namely me.”

“Sounds easy enough,” Rig said with a shrug, taking a moment to smash a twitching radroach.

“Heh, if it was easy, you wouldn't have needed a whole regimen at boot camp for it,” I huffed, jutting an ice platform off from the wall above the destroyed stairwell and using it as a stepping stone to get upstairs. “We'll work on it as we go, starting today.” As I dipped into the bedrooms, I asked, “So Rig, you were saying something before the headless radroach incident?”

“Oh, right. How come there aren't any skeletons or anything here? Haven't seen one since, well, for a long time.”

“Cloudsdale was the first city hit by a balefire bomb, and it was completely eradicated by the blast,” I answered. “The other cities had ample time to sound the alarms and evacuate the chosen population into the Stables. You'll only see skeletons in the suburbs, usually.”

“Chosen population?” Rig inquired further. “You mean not everyone got into the Stables?”

“No, it was a lottery,” I said, shaking my head despite no one being around to see it. “Not enough Stables were built by the time the contingency of a spellfire apocalypse was realized.” I took a moment to check behind the dresser. Bingo, safe. I placed my hoof against the lock and seeped ice into the keyhole. “Hmph, more like an auction bid for the aristocrats...” It was already unlocked, and I swung it open. Bingo, empty safe. Of course, right?

“Jeez, I thought there would've been enough for everyone...” Rig sighed audibly as I moved back to the washroom. “Hey, Frost?”

“Yeah?”

“Why do you do all this stuff? You were a bounty hunter before I came along.”

I sighed out a chilly mist as I checked the medical box, “I-” A healing potion and a vial of Med-X. I scowled and threw the Med-X down with enough force to break the syringe and stowed the potion bottle. “Sorry about that. I do what I do for... redemption.”

“No, I meant before, uh, Miranda and Wendy,” Rig spoke up.

“Same answer,” I said as I headed back and vaulted back downstairs. “Redemption.” Rig eyed me, poking out of the restroom levitating a pack of RadAway. Wait, how...? She's luckier than you, Frost. Just accept it. “Rig, you didn't think they were the only innocents I've killed, did you?”

Rig looked at me for a while. “Are you sorry about them?”

“More than you can imagine,” I replied, eyes hard. “And I know I'll probably never be able to pay for what I've done.”

“So why do you try?” the young unicorn mare asked.

“Because I hope that one day I'll be able to. I've lived for two-hundred-seventeen years,” I told her. “I'll probably be able to push some more decades out of that; see what I can do then.” I inhaled and straightened up. “But I think you've been asking enough questions. Time for me to ask the same of you. Why do you still want to help your Stable after they ostracized you, Rig? Even your parents cast you out. So why?”

The earth-coated mare slipped the RadAway into her saddlebags and answered, “Because it's the right thing to do. I'm not going to let hundreds of people die of thirst just because of my own reasons, uh... oh, I'm so bad at this...”

“No, no, go on.” I encouraged her.

“Well...” Rig sighed, sitting down, “I can't just let them die for revenge or whatever. That'd be, you know, selfish of me, doing that. Sure, we're not on good terms or whatever, but... they're still my family and former friends. I can't just do that to them, since they're depending on me. Hell, I think they might actually be worried. Maybe more for the fact that no one's come back yet, but maybe worried about how I'm doing, too. Crap, that sucked, didn't it?”

“You did well enough,” Azrael spoke up.

“Sure, sure, now how about you?” The young mare pointed at her. “Ha, no fun now that the spotlight's on you, is it?”

The avian-leonine... equine (okay, I'm going to just drop doing that) shrugged and merely said, “Same as Frost.”

Rig deadpanned at her. “What?! No fair! You can't do that!”

Azrael smiled- just barely- and backed out of the way for us. “I just did.”

I couldn't help but let out a husky chuckle of myself. “Alright, onto the hos-” I paused, hearing something tinny in the air over the distant gunfire and shouting. Something... lively in the land of death.

-shaaaaaare, you gotta caaaaaare!
It's the right thing to do!
You gotta shaaaaaare, you gotta caaaaaare!
And there'll always be away throuuuuuugh!”

“... hang on a second.”

* * *

“It's been a while, Watcher,” I spoke, alone and in the streets as Rig and Azrael watched from afar.

Hovering in the air before me was a spherical drone of sorts. It had numerous antenna-like extensions jutting diagonally upward and downward from the rear of the machine along with a grill-like speaker for a “face.” Two pairs of insect-like wings buzzed away to keep the machine afloat. It was a Sprite-bot, playing a cheery tune from its speakers. The tune muted abruptly, the automaton suddenly very quiet except from a barely audible drone of its wings.

“It's been a while, Sentinel,” the machine spoke back in a nonfluctuating, robotic tone. “I almost didn't recognize you until I remembered you're...”

“The last surviving dracopony and Lunar Guard, yes.” I finished for... him, I assumed. “The armor probably helped.”

“Yes. The last sentinel. It's been... twenty years since we last spoke, if memory serves.”

“Twenty years.” I nodded in affirmation. “Back when I started bounty hunting and headed up north.”

The Sprite-bot remained silent, and for a moment I thought he might have gone away again. Then: “You've changed.”

“Started to,” I corrected. “How are you doing, Watcher?”

“Well enough, I suppose,” he responded. “Are those friends of yours over there behind you?”

“... friends, yes,” I answered with a nod.

“Hm... yes, you've changed,” Watcher remarked. “For the better, I think. Now, did you come to me just to say hello and ask how I am after all these years? Or was there something else?”

I sighed a cool mist, “Am I that transparent?”

“You're the one with the ice. You tell me.” His chuckle came out... rather disturbing from the unwavering tone.

“Heh, well, let's cut to the chase. Have you heard about The Dead Boys?”

“I have,” Watcher stated simply.

“Do you know anything about what they're doing here when they're supposed to be based in the Westerns? Even if they are after the griffin behind me?”

“... should I even ask about that?”

“It's a simpler answer than you think,” I told him. “Her family ran with The Dead Boys until their morals finally took hold of them. They tried to sneak away three months ago but were discovered. Her mother and one of the leaders of The Dead Boys were killed in the struggle. They've been hunted ever since.”

“Simple answer,” Watcher huffed. “Now isn't that a nice change of pace. If only other answers could be so simple... but I digress. The Dead Boys have a new contractor apparently, and this new contractor wants them to gather... something or some things from the bomb craters in various locations around Equestria. As for the relocation, this new contractor found... something for them. Or possibly someone.”

“What do you mean?” I inquired.

“They said they found Niiviin.”

“Oh great. That makes seven more of these so-called 'gods' we have to kill.”

“There's a cruel irony to that,” Watcher commented.

“Don't remind me,” I snorted. “Anything else?”

“Not much. They destroy Sprite-bots on sight, so I can't effectively monitor them. What I do know is that the Dead Boys here now are better-equipped than before. You'll want to take engagements with them seriously.”

“Better-equipped how?” I inquired.

“Imaging and weapons systems along with a whole slew of other technology I couldn't even recognize. Be careful, Frost. That sort of technology is unheard of in the Wasteland.”

I nodded once and started back. “Take care of yourself, Watcher.”

“Wait,” he spoke up. “One last thing.” I turned to face him. “Remember what I told you before, Frost. Find your virtue. And don't let go.”

I regarded the Sprite-bot for a few seconds before nodding stoutly. There was a pop, and the drone went bobbing along with its cheery tune.

“Friend of yours?” Rig asked as I regrouped with her and Azrael.

“Something like that.”

* * *

The hospital, a wide, square-shaped construct of cracked concrete and broken windows, loomed before us as we scouted it out from the ruins of an apartment building. I tried to picture how it looked before the bombs fell. I couldn't- it was now a partially-crumbled morgue in an appropriately deathly shade of gray. The three-story building also took up the majority of a city block; I could see now just how scavengers kept finding medical supplies in it even after one-hundred-sixty years.

There was just one unforeseen problem.

“Raiders own the place,” Rig grumbled as she lowered the ice lenses I coalesced for her. There were indeed a slew of them just loitering around the outside, gathered around trash fires. “Great. You know, I really thought that guard would've mentioned something that important.”

“You really should start expecting things like this given our luck, Rig,” I huffed. “It's never that easy for us. Azrael, you still blind?”

“Still blind.” She scowled. “There are just too many alicorns in the area.”

“Can't you just avoid reading them?” I asked, facing her.

“I haven't been reading anything for the past three days,” the ebony giant replied curtly. “If it would've made a difference, I wouldn't be completely blind right now.”

“That's going to complicate things, isn't it?” Rig sighed.

“I'll just shoot in the general direction of incoming gunfire.” Azrael shrugged. “That's how I handle machines.”

“That's a pretty shitty plan,” the young mare murmured.

“The Kord 6P50 isn't exactly a weapon of precision in any case. If you have any better ideas, then by all means say so.”

“Well, we still need to clear a way in,” I spoke. “Rig, you get to have some explosive fun. I want you to fire a grenade at the raiders hanging down that way, further down the side of the building.” I pointed to indicate where I wanted her to aim. “Should distract them and pull some away from the entrance.”

“And if it doesn't?” she asked.

I formed a pair of ice arms and checked the load on my IF-55. I swapped to 7.62 SR rounds, forming a frozen suppressor over the barrel. “Then I get to see if I'm still as good a marksman with this and clear out the entrance for us.” I peered through the scope, leveling the crosshairs on a seated raider's head. “Tell me when you're ready.”

She teleported Luna's Fortitude out and tilted the barrel up. “Ready.”

“Weapons free,” I ordered.

“Uh, what?” She looked at me with a puzzled expression.

“Oh just fire already...”

Rig fired the 40-millimeter grenade with a softened crack followed shortly by a much louder crack as the grenade impacted squarely in a group of raiders, sending up a plume of dust and severed limbs as the those who survived the blast let out distant cries of pain. We watched as a good number of the raiders rushed over there to see what was the problem, drawing weapons. Unfortunately, the ones at the entrance were far enough that they paid no attention to it- or didn't want to.

“Well, your go, I guess,” Rig said as shouts and curses rose in the distance.

“My go,” I complied, zeroing in on the smoking, dirty mare and pulling the trigger. There was a muffled click, but oddly enough, I didn't feel the solid kick of the IF-55. The raider didn't also get a hole in her head. I pulled the trigger twice more with similar results then pulled back, tilting the DMR sideways and working at the mag release plate. It caught. “Unbelievable.”

“What?” Rig glanced at me. “What's wrong?”

“Unbelievable!” I repeated, sliding the plate out of the way and slapping the mag well. “We just got more ammo for this and it jams!” I pushed the plate back into position and slapped the covered mag well again. I tapped the forward assist, took aim, and pulled the trigger. Another click. “Dammit!” Flipped on the safety, tapped the forward assist, flipped off the safety, aimed, pulled the trigger. Click. “Come on!” This called for more... forceful procedures. I slid the release plate forward all the way and removed the magazine before closing it up and hitting the butt of the rifle against the ground several times. I replaced the mag, slapped the plate, took aim, and pulled the trigger. Click. “Fucking come on!”

“Frost?” Rig called to me.

“What?” I growled, trying to work the receiver as best I could to pry the chambered round out. I felt something poking at my leg and looked down to see a 7.62 SR round floating in her gray levitation aura. I looked back up at the smirking mare. “When did you get that out?”

“Just now,” she answered.

I shook my head and took aim once more, taking a moment to cycle the plate to chamber the next round before taking aim at the oblivious mare. “Alright... come on...”

The raider's head snapped back with a barely audible pop, a fresh hole between her eyes. But I didn't pull the trigger.

“Heh, nice shot.” Rig pat me on the shoulder.

I lowered the IF-55. “That wasn't me.”

“Say what?”

“That wasn't me,” I repeated. The raiders at the entrance were taken down in quick succession with more tinny pops. Movement from a distant set of houses caught my eye and I pulled up the IF-55, peering through the scope.

What I saw was a griffin wearing a strange helmet that completely encompassed his head, even with a larger forward area jutting out to accommodate for the movement of the lower jaw when talking. The right eye bore an extension resembling a monocular with three blue-lit lenses arranged in a triangular fashion. The left eye bore a shorter eyepiece with a similar blue glow. Said griffin was holding what looked like an AL-F2 sniper rifle fitted with a suppressor. I couldn't make any sense of this one from this equipment alone.

But I recognized the skeletal armor with its shades of death and decay.

The griffin's head turned directly toward me. I fired my IF-55 with a useless click and ducked as his suppressed shot whizzed through the air my head had been moments before.

“Shit, stay low!” I hissed quietly, Rig and Azrael dropping into cover as another .308 Wynnchester round whizzed by. “Dead Boys.”

“What?” Azrael shot back in a low tone. “Here?”

“Hard to miss the armor,” I answered back, keeping low.

“Did you get him?” Rig asked.

“He shot back twice,” I growled. “Of course I didn't get him. I think the firing assembly's turned to shit.”

“Well what the hell are we supposed to do then?” Rig growled back. “Play sitting ducks until they hit us?”

“Hold on, hold on,” I told her, raising an ice arm and reshaping the hand into a reflective square. I tilted it around to scout out the situation. I saw the Dead Boys sniper and four others moving low and fast across the street to the hospital entrance. One was armed with a bullpup assault rifle of some sort, the second with a light machine gun, the third with a Saiga shotgun (I wanted that!), and the fourth... the fourth had a weapon I couldn't even identify. Instead of a barrel, it had three long, parallel spires jutting from the body in a tight fashion like a miniature railgun. The five griffins were moving across the street so that they weren't bunched up close together, and they were aiming their weapons to cover lines of sight that the others did not as they headed for the hospital. The last one, the griffin armed with the AL-F2 sniper rifle, spotted my reflector and took another quick pair of shots, the second of which tore clean through the ice. More suppressed shots came much more rapidly, pinning us down. The volume of fire caused Rig to wince and flip her welding helmet down.

“Five of them,” I reported, slipping the useless IF-55 away and bringing out Night Fang. “We're dealing with a squad, and they're decked out.”

“Why can't things ever be easy for us?” Rig growled. “Well, any ideas?”

“Just one,” I answered back, ice crinkling over my form. “Stay low! Open fire on my mark!”

My vision was slightly blurred from the thickness of my ice armor as I stood back up fully, taking aim at the squad as they stacked up against the entrance. The assault rifle griffin and the sniper both took shots at me as soon as I left cover. I headed away from Rig and Azrael, a frozen suppressor forming over Night Fang as I fired right back, taking slow, deliberate shots as best I could. Pistol ironsights are generally ill-suited to combat at this range, and I probably only chipped at their body armor at best. Still, I diverted their fire away from Rig and Azrael.

“Open up, open up!” I shouted, my voice muffled from the armor as I kept up the fire.

Rig popped out of cover first and fired a grenade at them. The hastily-fired shot landed just past them and caused them to duck away from the blast. By this time, one of the Dead Boys griffins tossed a grenade through the doorway. I spotted a quick flash of light and could hear a dull bang as it went off and the squad quickly breached. Rig and Azrael both opened fire at the pinned squad, but the griffin was firing at where the young mare's grenade went off, only serving to generate an obscene level of noise. One squadmate returned to clasp both of the griffins firing at us on the back and they quickly retreated. The sniper staggered a bit as Rig managed to clip his hindleg with Luna's Fortitude, a second hail of shots felling him as the other gunner slipped inside.

“Fuck!” Rig growled as the giant kept firing. “Azrael, ease up, ease up! They're gone!”

The griffin hybrid ceased fire and asked, “Did we get them?”

“Reloading, only one,” I answered, topping off Night Fang. I had to get a better gun for distance work. “Come on, we're going after the-” I was cut off as a new volley of fire scattered around us. Both Rig and Azrael were hit and ducked down beneath cover as I stood firm and looked at the source.

I really, really, really should have told Azrael to hold her fire, because Harbinger's enormous report drew the raiders' attention back to us. I fired a few shots in their direction to gain their attention and soak up the incoming fire. Shots pinged and rolled right off of my armor as I advanced toward them, trying to get closer as I fired in quick bursts. The raiders still thankfully had that aversion to heavier armor, and Night Fang easily brought them down. I spotted a unicorn raider pop out from a window, on the second floor of the hospital, levitating a-

Fwoomp-whoosh!

“Shit!” I cursed, leaping sideways. Thankfully, the bitch had tried going for a direct hit, something you never do against a soft target. The missile struck far enough behind me so that I was spared the brunt of the damage. But there was a hard crunch followed by a blooping sound and then my hearing went out into a dull ring; I was knocked off of my feet and sent rolling along the cracked asphalt from the blast. Ignoring the drone in my ears, I scrambled to my feet and ran lopsidedly back into cover with Rig and Azrael.

“-fuck was that?” the unicorn mare shrieked as my hearing warped back. “Was that a missile launcher?!”

“Missile launcher.” I nodded weakly, panting hard as I collapsed next to them. Azrael was bleeding, clacking her beak repeatedly in irritation. Rig had several holes in her but mostly in the places where she had cybernetics. Her left foreleg was bleeding, though.

The cloud-maned mare popped out to fire once again. “Where the fuck does a raider get a missile launcher?!”

“The Wasteland Hates Us Store!” I shot back, creeping up with her and laying down fire with Night Fang at the street-level raiders. “I don't know, just take it out! Azrael- you, me, covering fire!”

“Got it!” the giant complied, standing up and opening up with Harbinger. The force of the weapon firing alone kicked up the dust around us. Even if we were both spraying wildly, they stood no chance against fat .45 ACP and electrified 12.7 NSVT.

“Rig, you get her yet?!” I shouted over the gunfire.

“I'm trying, I'm trying!” Rig exclaimed, Luna's Fortitude clicking dry. “Reloading! Oh... shit!”

I snapped up as another missile arced for us, my heart seizing and my eyes widening as we ducked down. Rig let out a shriek and her horn flared up brighter as... the missile teleported away.

“The fu- aah!” Rig cut off mid-curse as the missile teleported back at the window... and streaked straight for us again! She let out another gray flash, the missile reappearing further down the street, continuing along its course and exploding harmlessly away from us. “That's it! I've had it!” The earth-coated mare popped out as the missile launching raider dropped another load into the tube, teleporting the weapon away... into her own telekinetic aura. “Sit on my horn and spin, bitch!” She promptly sent the missile straight back at the gawking raider, standing there wide-eyed like a deer caught in the headlights. The explosion scattered body parts, concrete, metal, and dust from the building as a section of the floor collapsed from the force of the detonation.

I think Azrael somehow even managed to join me in staring at Rig as she stood there, dropping the spent missile launcher and slowly turning toward us.

“It feels fucking good to vent!” she panted.

* * *

“Okay, now I feel fucking terrible,” Rig groaned, plucking out pieces of the hollow-point bullet that struck her right foreleg.

“Seconded,” Azrael piped in after slugging down a healing potion. “Really, I wouldn't mind a smaller telepathic radius right about now if it meant I didn't have to worry about the Goddessdamned alicorns leaving me blind like this!” We both stared at her as she bristled and gritted her teeth. “... sorry. That was uncharacteristic of me.”

“Can't blame you,” I sighed out a cool mist, checking over myself for any gunshot wounds or burns.

“You know it's pretty funny,” Rig huffed. “Normally I'm the one who gets through these firefights unscathed.”

“I guess even the unlucky get lucky sometimes,” I nickered. “But that back there? I don't think encountering a high-tech Dead Boys squad and then getting shot up by the raiders we were trying to get past in the first place can be called 'lucky'.”

“Okay, is that all?” the young mare looked over her leg. “Is that all?” She waved it around. “Ow... yeah, that should be all.” She poured half of a healing potion into the wound and swallowed the other half. She looked back up at me. “Learned it from you.”

I grinned at her. “You learn fast, kid.”

“And on that note, what happened back there with the missile?” Azrael asked. “It never hit us.”

“Well, I teleported it back in the window, but it still kept flying straight at us,” Rig replied. “Then I teleported it away further and it... continued...” She widened her eyes, “on its way into the other end of the street... wow.” She put a hoof to her chin. “So the velocity of an object in motion is conserved during teleportation...” She grinned, levitating a fresh magazine and tossing it away. She teleported it back to her other side. She caught it as it zipped into her hoof, and she promptly reloaded Luna's Fortitude. The young mare was beaming. “I'm brilliant!”

I smiled right back at her, but the flicker of a memory erased it quickly.

“... you okay, Frost?” she asked, tilting her head.

I looked back at her. “Just... you reminded me of someone, that's all.”

“You know, you still owe her a mind-reading session once we're done with this,” Rig said, cocking her head at Azrael. “When we're done with this and she can do it again, that is.”

“Yeah, I know.” I nodded. “Now, everyone all patched up and ready to go? We still need RadAway, and we still need to find out what those Dead Boys are up to.”

“Ready,” Rig answered. She did have a lovely smirk.

“Ready,” Azrael likewise answered, thudding to her feet. “Though, if you don't mind, don't be afraid to point me in the direction of the enemy.” She sighed, “This is becoming a real hindrance.”

“Well we don't intend on leaving you behind by yourself for someone to kill you,” I huffed, starting off and forming ice armor. “Now let's go. I want to check out that body.”

We moved quickly as possible across to the hospital entrance, although perhaps not as quietly as possible. We stopped by the entrance, taking a moment to loot the bodies of the raiders for a few caps. Lucky Rig- one of them was using an AKM and as such had 7.62 SR for Luna's Fortitude. Now for the more interesting matter.

The body of the Dead Boys griffin.

We dug into the saddlebags first. He was well-equipped. I thought as much. He had plenty of .308 Wynnchester rounds in a variety of flavors- straight up full metal jacket, armor-piercing, hollow point, even jacketed soft point. There was also three days' worth of army-grade MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat (Alternatively, Meals Ready to Expel. You can probably guess what they taste like.), and plenty of water. He even had six healing potions and two super restoration potions. There was even a shaped breaching charge on him. And his AL-F2 sniper rifle? It was worn to be sure, but it was in surprisingly good condition. This wasn't just well-equipped for the wasteland- this was well-equipped for the Aldornan Land Army even.

And on the body were at least thirty packs of RadAway and ten bottles of Rad-X in a compartment all to itself.

“Holy shit...” Rig remarked.

“I think we just found our ticket to the Far North,” I muttered, divvying the loot up between the three of us.

“So what's the plan now?” the earth-coated mare inquired. “That's more than enough to last me through the journey.”

“Well.” I looked up, back at the entrance of the hospital. “I still want to find out what these guys are doing here.” And with that, I rolled the body over and took a closer look at the helmet, trying to work it off. A gray flash of light later and it was hovering right beside me. I raised an eyebrow at the girl.

“What?” she snickered. “Theatrics do make things more fun, you know.”

I smirked right back at her and took the helmet in my ice arms, using a reflective square to see how the eyepieces worked. I frowned quickly. “Can't tell what's going on with these helmets,” I sighed. “Azrael, do you know anything about the technologies The Dead Boys employed back in the Westerns?”

“I might if you could give me a description,” the hybrid replied hopefully.

“Large anterior, large enough to accommodate for a moving lower jaw when talking,” I told her. “There's a telescopic eyepiece on the right side with three lenses, all blue-”

“You can stop now,” she said. “I know it. It's an enhanced-reality combat helmet, a project that never came to fruition before the apocalypse. I never had the opportunity to use one myself, of course. All I know is that it has built-in E.F.S., some sort of biological scanner, and multiple imaging systems.”

“Well fuck,” I said outright. “That's gonna make things a little... interesting. Still, we should try to get a live one. So, without further ado...” I slid to the warped sliding doors and peered inside in the opening the griffins made.

The bodies of six raiders littered the floor of the lobby. The place was trashed and already filled with the hallmarks of raider territory marking, ranging from obscene, violent graffiti to even more obscene, more violent bodies flayed and strung up with chains. It was an affront to the numerous Ministry of Peace posters lining the room. If anyone, the somber, pleading gaze of Ministry Mare Fluttershy (War? Fear? Death? We must do better!) didn't deserve this kind of... insult.

There was also a landmine lying just beyond the doorway.

“Rig?” I called.

There was a gray flash and a quick chirp. She had already disarmed it and was tucking it into her saddlebags. “Mine,” she said, giggling at her own pun.

I snorted and slipped inside first, Night Fang drawn. “Keep me posted if you pick up anything on E.F.S. And keep an eye out for more traps.”

Azrael coughed politely.

“Figuratively speaking of course,” I added.

“Well, I'll try...” Rig murmured as we pushed onward, levitating Luna's Fortitude beside herself.

“Try?” I arced an eyebrow back at her.

“It's kinda dark past the windows, Frost?”

Oh. I hadn't even noticed because of my eyes. I gave her a nod and we pushed forth carefully. “With me, Azrael.”

I felt the giant's hand on my back as we advanced cautiously. “As you wish.”

The hallways were just as messy as the lobby, filled with bodies both mutilated and fresh. Azrael's size and weight made every thudding footfall echo through the halls. Occasionally, a weakened tile would shatter under her feet with a wince-inducing crack. We definitely wouldn't be sneaking up on the Dead Boys squad. That much was certain.

The raiders in the hospital didn't stand a chance against them. The only blood splatters I saw were around their corpses; as far as I was concerned, none of the griffins had even been touched. The smell of the freshly-spilled blood made my nostrils flare and my eye slits narrow. I felt energized- stronger and faster even in my dracopony form. I kept alert, glancing across the hallways and into the medical suites.

“You wanted skeletons, Rig,” I whispered. “Here you go.”

The suites were filled with them. Unable to flee to shelter or forsaken by untimely illness or injury, the hospital became a tomb for hundreds. Most of them were in medical uniform or in patient gowns. It wasn't clear what killed them. Who knew? Did the blast from the bomb kill them outright, mercifully? Or did they languish before succumbing to death from illness, starvation, dehydration, or radiation? I hoped it was the first. To hold on day by day, watching as the weaker and young and older slipped away around you, knowing you could be next... knowing that death was creeping closer, inescapable, inevitable...

“Oh Goddesses...” Rig whispered, voice cracking as we passed by a suite. I stopped and took a closer look.

Inside on the bed was the skeleton of a female pegasus, illuminated dimly by the twice-filtered light streaming through the broken window. Her gown was torn. I wish it hadn't been. Because curled up in her belly region was the tiny, fragile form of another skeleton.

I hoped it was the first.

“What is it?” Azrael whispered.

“It's best if you don't know, Azrael,” I told her. I looked back at Rig, almost able to see her pained expression behind her helmet.

I looked back at the room. The soft, choked wind that blew past the ruined pane and the torn curtains sounded almost like hushed, shuddering sobs. Slathered on the wall was raider graffiti, yet not obscene, not crude. It was the words, “See what the Goddesses gave us?” An accusatory arrow pointed at the two bodies.

Unbridled anger seethed through me, and I lashed out with my hoof with a snarl. Ice crackled over the profane words and obscured them as I hissed breath through gritted teeth, heart aching.

“Frost...” Rig called softly.

“Let's move,” I murmured. “Now.” I started off wordlessly. Rig followed along after a moment's hesitation. “Anything on E.F.S.?”

“Nothing yet,” she answered. “Only us.”

I kept Night Fang out, sweeping her out wherever I looked. It was far too quiet. The Dead Boys should still be dealing with the raiders, and raiders were definitely not known for subtlety during combat. I spotted something new amidst the sea of blood and spent bullet casings, however. It looked like some sort of transparent capsule the size of a microspark cell, filled with a blackened, viscous goop I couldn't identify. I picked it up with my second ice arm and gave it a sniff. It smelled... charred, like burnt meat.

“Any idea what this is, Azrael?” I inquired, pressing it against her free hand while resting the other on my back.

The black-cloaked griffin took the capsule and rolled it around in her palm. “What does it look like?”

“It's clear and filled with some black goop of some-”

“E.F.S., E.F.S.!” Rig called out.

Adrenaline rushing to my head as the ceiling tile above her head began to glow a bright orange. With time slowed down, I shrugged and twisted to dislodge her hand and knock her off-balance. The griffin toppled over to the side as a three, cherry-sized orbs of orange energy passed through the ceiling together in a tight, triangular pattern with a warped, blasting sound. The projectiles zipped fast into the floor, leaving a glowing patch behind. If she had still been standing, it would have passed through her head.

“Frost!” Rig cried out in surprise as time wound back up to speed, jumping from the energy projectile that zipped past. “Aah! What was-”

“Run, just get up and run!” I yelled, the giant scrambling to her feet and racing after us as we broke down the hallway, another triple energy round skirting past Azrael.

“Frost, ice the ceiling, now!” the giant griffin called, cantering to throw off the gunman from above. A shot clipped her midsection, and she collapsed forward into the floor with a heavy thud and a cry of agony

My horn flared up with an icy blue glow as sheets of ice crackled over our heads. Whatever those energy projectiles were, they couldn't pass through the ice. The projectile that struck it left a worrying hiss, though...

“Azrael, you alright?” I asked as I rushed to her side and proceeded to spread the ice along the rest of the ceiling area around us.

“Nngh... I'll live,” she gasped, clutching just behind her shoulder, where the shot caught her.

“Quit saying that!” Rig yelped, teleporting a healing potion out for the griffin hybrid, which she quickly drank. “The hell was that?” I inspected the area where she was hit. The shot didn't even tear through her cloak, it seemed... or passed right through that and her armor.

“Arcsurge plasma rifle...” Azrael panted, visibly wincing and reaching out again. Rig winked out another potion bottle, and she imbibed it hastily. “Semi-auto... six shots. It fires... biomass-enhanced plasma... takes on unique properties... ignores most types of cover... most metals, only some fabrics...” She exhaled heavily, appearing to catch her breath. “These are the fully-equipped Dead Boys, alright.”

That explained the strange weapon I saw earlier.

“So wait, you're saying they've got weaponry that can ignore cover and armor?” Rig flipped up her welding helmet and balked at her.

“Most types, yes.” She nodded, rising to her feet. “It appears that organic material and water are exceptions.”

I looked up at the ice coating the ceiling. “Thank you, cryomancy...” Back at the other two. “Azrael, can you move?”

“I'm fine, Frost,” she answered. “Just don't get hit by it, and take out that gunner ASAP.”

I nodded. “Least we know one thing- they're upstairs.” I glanced down a corridor and found our way up. “Get ready and let's move. Azrael, stick with Rig this time.”

“Understood,” the hybrid complied, resting her hand on the young mare as we made for the stairwell. I made sure the ceiling above us was properly iced over all the way.

Once we reached it, I made a downward patting motion to Rig. She got the message and stayed put, flipping her welding helmet down. I holstered Night Fang and sublimated my ice arms, thinning my ice armor and cloaking. I made my way up the first flight and stopped dead in my tracks. There was another mine sitting just around the bend, hidden out of direct line of sight. I receded my cloak just a little and waved to Rig to get her attention, mouthing, “Mine.” A moment later, the explosive was gone, I was cloaked again, and I peered over the top of the last flight to scout out the situation.

Nothing. I only met an empty intersection. Raising an eyebrow, I checked to the sides. Ah, there it was. They were down the right side. Just past the second corner down, the griffin with the light machine gun was set up with the bipod deployed, lying prone on the floor. I recognized it as an AGK-T9, an Aldornan copy of the venerable AK series. Equipped with a heavier, fluted barrel to improve heat dispersion, the AGK-T9 is an assault-rifle-turned-squad-support-weapon. To top it off, the barrel had an integral suppressor and sitting under the chamber was a drum magazine. Just one suite down and opposite the machine gunner was the griffin equipped with the bullpup assault rifle, a suppressed Steighyr AUG A3 with a carbine barrel and a reflector sight. Further down and on the same side as the prone machine gunner was the big target, the Dead Boy wielding the arcsurge plasma rifle, sweeping the weapon around, looking at the floor. Last was the one armed with the Saiga at the far end of the hallway, crouched and checking around the corner to make sure they weren't getting flanked.

In short, they were dug in hard and dug in well with what they had available.

I doubted they expected me coming up cloaked, however. I crept forward, intent on taking out the arcsurge rifle Dead Boy. I had only moved about two meters closer to them when the griffin looked up right at me and called out, “Therm, fore!”

I rolled out of the way as he sent a triple blast of plasma my way, my cloak thickening back into armor as the machine gunner fiddled with his visor and opened up with a string of quieted cracks. I brought Night Fang up and sprayed wildly to cover my retreat, unable to bring the armor up fast enough as several bullets punched through. Thankfully, they only caught me in the torso, the bullets harmlessly caught on my armor beneath. I couldn't stop- had to keep going, had to get to the stairwell. The Dead Boy armed with the AUG began alternating fire with the machine gunner, making sure I was peppered at all times as I finally reached the stairs. A blast of arcsurge plasma caught me in the chest as I slipped around the corner, and I howled from the intense heat as I tumbled down the stairs with my ice armor cracking off in chunks. The world spun around me as I rolled several times and finally came to rest (hard) against the wall of the landing, Night Fang clattering beside me.

“Fuck, that hurts...” I groaned softly.

“Frost!” Rig called, and I could hear them approaching. “You okay?!”

“Wait, wait!” I cautioned them. “I'm coming back down, just... wait...” I shook it off rose to my feet, kicking Night Fang up and catching her in my jaws. I leaped the rest of the way down the staircase, landing in a crouch at the bottom, where Rig and Azrael were waiting. Thankfully the ice on the ceiling still held. We were safe- for now.

“What happened up there?” the young mare asked as we spoke in hushed tones.

I spat Night Fang out and panted, “They've got thermal imaging in their helmets. Of course they've got thermal imaging with their helmets, right?”

“Well, that explains how they were shooting at us from through the floor.” Rig grimaced. “You okay?”

“Fine... need to cool the burnout... gimme a sec,” I sputtered, closing my eyes and focused. It was far easier in this form than while under the transmorgritive spell. Just needed to focus and... there. That familiar coolness washed over from my horn through the rest of my body. “Fucking hell that arcsurge plasma's hot... alright then. We go back up there, we're fucked as is. They're dug in deep and dug in well.”

“Have they moved?” Rig inquired.

“... one second.” I crept back upstairs, forming thicker ice armor this time in preparation for the light machine gun. I peeked my head out for just a moment and quickly ducked back. A hail of hushed gunfire struck the area around the corner. I descended back to Rig and Azrael and reported, “Still same places.”

“Well, I think I can give them a little surprise, then,” the cloud-maned mare huffed. I could almost see that smirk behind her helmet as she winked out a HE grenade. “So, where are they?”

I pointed up at the ceiling. “Machine gunner, assault rifle, arcsurge rifle, shotgun. Got all that?” Thank goodness for eidetic memory...

“Got all that,” Rig parroted in reply. “Now, with that grouping, I think I can take out the first two. The last two, we'll have to duke it out. Frost, take Azrael up there. Going to try to see if I can do this. If all goes well, I'll give you the heads-up to take 'em on. Azrael, with him, go.”

The avian rest her hand on my shoulder, and I guided her up the stairs, hugging along the wall as we neared the end. “Ready, Azrael?”

“Just point me in the right direction, and don't let me get hit,” the griffiness answered. “Please. It's bad enough that I can't see what I'm shooting at.”

“Alright, anytime now, Rig...” I murmured, drawing Night Fang once more and speed-loading a fresh mag.

I heard a tinny burst of magic downstairs, repeated again much closer. “Grenaaade!” shouted one of the griffins. The HE grenade set off with a fiery roar, combined with the crunch of weakened plaster and the shatter of bubbled glass. The blast wave washed past us, and I was quite thankful my ice armor soaked up the brunt of the heat. I moved up with Azrael, laying down fire with the Colt M11901. As expected, the two griffins up front were taken out by the explosive. The second one had managed to duck back into the suite in time but was pulverized by the high-explosive blast. The remaining two griffins were ducking into cover- the arcsurge Dead Boy into his own suite and the shotgun griffin ducking around the corner he was previously guarding.

“Open up, open up!” I yelled to Azrael. She let loose with Harbinger shortly after, the hallways turning the Kord's massive report into a deafening roar. The griffin at the end of the hallway poked out but was quickly overwhelmed by the devastating if not inaccurate suppressing fire and was forced to duck back around the corner, blindly firing a pair of buckshot rounds that hardly touched us. Azrael's gunfire suddenly stopped however, and I was only left with my not-very-armor-piercing .45 ACP. “Azrael, status report!”

“My firing bit's gone!” she exclaimed. “Lucky shot tore off the firing bit!”

“What?” I shot back quietly, speed-loading a fresh mag to keep them pinned. “Can't you just use the temporal spell matrix to fix it?”

“The battle saddle isn't a part of Harbinger itself!” Azrael yelled back. “I can't fire her!”

“Well thanks for shouting it to the enemy!” I growled as the arcsurge rifle Dead Boy threw a canister into the hallway. “Shit!” I squinted my eyes tight and thickened the ice around my ears on instinct. The flashbang grenade still sent my hearing into a dull ring and caused Azrael to shudder, and my sensitive eyes were still blurred after reopening them. I kept up the fire with Night Fang to suppress them, but eventually they wised up to the notion that I couldn't punch through armor. The shotgun griffin edged out and opened up on us while the arcsurge rifle griffin did the same... shooting through his own cover! I stamped down on the floor and shot up an ice wall to protect us. Some of the shotgun blasts punched holes in the ice before I had a chance to thicken it, and I think I swore as I felt Azrael's weight shift off of me and felt the ground shake. Sound came back as a roaring wave as I watched Azrael lie sprawled on her side, blood flowing freely from where the buckshot tore into her neck and a patch of her breastplate glowing a hot orange. She was lying there, twitching.

No!” I roared, dropping Night Fang and fishing out a... I didn't have any super restorations with me. I only had regular healing potions. “Fuck!” I cracked the seal and propped up her head to allow her to drink as I heard uneven footsteps scamper up the stairs.

“Frost!” Rig cried, flipping up her welding helmet. “Shit... what happened?!”

“Restoration potions, now!” I bellowed as Azrael continued to bleed out. The ice wall continued to let out hisses and cracks as they continued to fire away at it.

“I... I...” She teleported out all of her healing supplies. “I think we used our last one when... when...”

“When what?!” I yelled at her, growling as Azrael sputtered out some of the precious liquid of the second potion bottle I poured for her.

“When I nearly beat you to death...”

My heart wrenched a little at her pained expression and stood there panting for a couple of seconds before turning back to the downed griffin giant.

“B-B-Buh...” she stammered, coughing.

“Don't talk, just drink!” I held another potion, preparing to crack the seal when her large, heavy hand grasped mine. “Do you have the two restoration potions in your bags?”

“B-Bandages... on my neck, stop bleeding...” Azrael whispered. “Then super potions. From Dead Boy. In my bags.”

“Magical bandages...” I murmured, then turned to Rig. “Magical bandages!”

The earth-coated unicorn winked the roll out, and I pushed back the griffiness' hood to wrap the bandages around her neck. The red was already starting to blot through, but it was rapidly slowing as I fished through her saddlebags for those restoration potions. Goddessdamn, she could carry a lot of weight! It took precious seconds to find the two bottles before I cracked the seals and poured both for her. Azrael groaned and panted heavily as the potions did their work, and soon, she gradually got up to her feet.

“Alright... that's one disaster averted,” the griffin hybrid said weakly as we both sighed in relief.

Wouldn't have done that if we stopped to notice the Dead Boys had stopped firing. We all ducked back as a door-sized hole blew out from the ice and another flashbang bounced in, I squinted my eyes tight as the world fell away into a dull ring and a blur of colors. Strangely, as I started shaking away the disorientation and tried to find Night Fang, I noticed that no shots were hitting us. Once my vision warped back to normal, I saw that Rig was firing out of the hole at the two griffins behind using Luna's Fortitude and effectively keeping them from breaching in on us.

“-close it up close it up close it up close it up close it up close it up!” Rig yelled repeatedly before I drew the ice wall shut. “Phew...” She turned to me. “For once, I'm glad my eyes and ears aren't normal ones.”

“That's... creepy, but that came in handy, yeah,” I muttered. “Everyone okay?”

“Add flashbangs to the growing list of things I hate,” Azrael groaned. “I'll live.”

“That's your response to everything!” Rig grumbled. “Realoding. And fuck, I'm running low on ammo for once! And I took a bunch of ammo for Luna's Fortitude back at Stalliongrad!”

I checked my own loadout after retrieving Night Fang from the floor. “Four mags. Not looking good.”

“Azrael?” Rig turned up to her.

The hybrid simply pointed at her firing bit. There simply wasn't one anymore. It was at that moment that a triplet shot of arcsurge plasma tore past her face, just past the edge of the ice wall. They were moving around.

“Okay, you know what?” Rig grumbled, flipping down her welding helmet. “I'm getting real fucking tired of this.” To my surprise she teleported Harbinger off of Azrael's battle saddle, levitating it beside her. Even the griffin was wide-eyed. “Lower the ice.”

“Are you sure that's a-” I started.

“Please just lower the bucking ice...”

I looked at Azrael in askance and quickly realized she couldn't see me in any shape or form. I hoped I wasn't going to regret this as I reloaded Night Fang, holstered her, and brought out Midnight Talon in a Snap Open. “On three.” She nodded. “One, two, three!” The ice wall dropped to chest height to still provide cover for us. Only the shotgun Dead Boy was at the end of the corridor, poking around the corner to watch us. He let out a muffled curse at the sight of the free-floating Kord and ducked back as Rig fired wildly at the fleeing griffin, blowing out chunks of plaster and rebar.

“Hey Dead Boy bastards!” Rig yelled, her shout oddly reverberating behind her helmet. “I'm here to kick ass and smoke cigs! And...” She teleported out an empty pack, “I'm all out of cigs!” She nodded at us to follow as she vaulted over the ice wall and arcsurge plasma continued to streak past us. I tapped Azrael to serve as her guide and we tagged along, keeping our heads down as fire continued to fly past. “Oh, you like that, huh? Shooting through fucking walls and fucking ceilings? How about now?!” She fired in the direction the shots had come from, tearing great holes in the walls. “Huh?! You like that?!”

A streak of orange plasma zipped through the wall... and through her head.

Rig!” I cried, heart seizing.

The unicorn mare wavered for a second, then raised her helmet and felt at her face. She looked at me, looking completely unharmed. “So... fucking... creepy!” the cyber shook herself, flipping the helmet back down and resuming blowing holes in walls. “But hah! How's that feel, me being... eight...five-ish immune to your stuff, huh?!”

“And I thought your personality was tough to pin down...” Azrael murmured softly over the roar of Harbinger.

“That's... comforting?” Really, how do you reply to that?

Harbinger clicked dry, and Rig ratcheted back the charging handle to let the orange-glowing weapon rewind to pristine condition. As if on cue, the Dead Boy with the shotgun rushed around the corner, weapon raised. I let the adrenaline rush to my head to slow down the clock. I slipped Midnight Talon's safety latch across, adjusted my grip, pulled back, and threw forward, following through. Time whipped up to speed, and the black, wicked blade sliced through his neck and bounced off the wall behind him. The griffin slumped to the ground, nearly decapitated as blood bubbled out onto the floor.

Rig looked back at me. “Uh... nice throw.” She started forward again.

“Hold up, let's not get too carried away, shall we?” I nickered, catching up with her and watching as Harbinger clicked full. “Alright, Azrael, stick with Rig. I want that last one alive. I want to know why they're here.”

“Understood,” the behemoth complied, shifting over to the young mare, who looked at me for a few seconds before nodding.

“Let's see if I've still got it...” I murmured, pouching Midnight Talon. The last Dead Boy wasn't shooting. My mind was working, thinking of the possibilities. Perhaps it was he didn't want to give his position away. In that case...

I created openings in my ice armor over my nostrils and sniffed the air. It smelled faintly of... ozone. Only high-end magical energy weapons emitted that scent, I remembered. I sniffed deeper...

I had his scent trail.

I rounded out my ice armor and snaked ice muscle tendrils down my legs as I raced off, looking for overall protection rather than deflection. I raced further down the hallway, the scent growing slightly stronger, stronger, stronger, stronger, weaker- turn down this corridor. Stronger, stronger...

There was that last griffin, ducked in a medical suite. Not far at all. No fun. I dropped low in anticipation- instinct is to shoot on sight. I wasn't disappointed. The Dead Boy fired a triple blast of arcsurge plasma where my torso used to be. Now low to the ground, I pounced at him with a roar (Theatrics can't hurt, can they?), propelled faster and harder from my muscle tendrils. I slammed hard into him, knocking him onto a back as he let out a muffled shout. I slammed my hooves down on his right foreleg, the clang of metal obscuring the crunch of bone as I did the same for the other. Muffled cries of agony sounded from his helmet as I seeped ice around my hooves to grab him. I hefted him up and threw him against the opposite wall, forming ice shackles around his wings, all four legs, his neck, and his tail.

Hm. Now wasn't this familiar?

I trotted up to him, reaching a pair of ice arms up to yank off his helmet and cast it aside. It was an older male griffin alright, heavily scarred on the left side of his face. I arced an eyebrow for a moment, then called to the side. “Rig! Azrael! Got him!”

“Yeah, yeah, we heard, we heard,” Rig grumbled, limping around the corner with Azrael in tow.

“I'd really like my gun back...” Azrael muttered.

“Sure, sure, here you go. Dunno what good it'll do for you...” The cloud-maned mare pushed Harbinger against the ebony giant, who took it wordlessly and started mounting it on her saddle.

I turned back to the griffin, sublimating my armor and muscle tendrils. For a guy with two broken arms and locked against a wall, he was surprisingly taciturn. I gave him a friendly smile as I spoke in a jovial tone, “Hello there. My name is Frost Windchill. Pleased to meet you.”

The griffin remained silent and continued to glare at me.

“I'm trying to be civil here, you know,” I told him, maintaining my demeanor and tone. “I'd really... really like to remain civil right now.” I raised both my eyebrows and tilted my head down just a tad for a slightly pleading expression.

He spat in my face.

Not changing my expression in the least, I let out a soft, misty sigh and turned to Rig and Azrael. “You mind leaving us alone for a bit?”

“Wha...?” The young mare flipped up her welding helmet. “... oh. Oh! Shoot. Um, sure.” She turned around and guided Azrael away.

“Don't be too messy,” the cloaked giant huffed. I swore she said it almost jokingly.

Now alone, I turned back to the Dead Boys griffin before me, straightening my face again. I spoke, lowering my tone a little, adding a little fluctuation for good measure, “So. What am I going to do... with... you?”

No response. Only that silent glare.

“Really, what am I going to do with you?” I asked him, throwing out my forehooves. “You're not even addressing me. I don't even have a name to work off of. What am I going to call you? Can't I get a little-” I produced an ice arm and whipped out Midnight Talon in a Helix technique (Goddess, I loved that move...), “-heart-to-heart with you?” I punctuated that statement by tapping his breast with the blade, letting him watch the edge effortlessly slice through the armor. But I didn't hurt him yet, oh no. Not yet. I was only doing it, well....

For... you know.

Emphasis.

And this time, I got a few words from him. His voice was a little shaky, given his arms were broken, but it was surprisingly steady and gritty. “I've been with The Dead Boys for the three years it's been around, and I've lived long enough in the Wasteland to know the difference between the people who do this because they're crazy and the freaks like you that do it because they enjoy it.” I nodded my head a little to his words as he spoke, tilting my head down to look at him from the top of my vision. The effect was, I hope, looking a little more the part of this 'freak'. “And the name is Kaden.”

“See?” I grinned, tilting my head up and grinning toothily. “That wasn't so hard, was it?” I started to pace from side to side, dancing my black blade around my fingers. “So, now that we know names, we can play some games. I'm going to ask questions,” I paused, tapping the flat side of the blade on his beak, “and you're going to answer them.”

Silent and glaring again.

“Alright, glad you decided to take part.” I grinned at him again. “I'm going to ask you nicely the first time. If I get an answer I don't like, then you get answer... you won't like.” I pulled Midnight Talon into a Half Twirl to get her into a backhand grip.

For... you know.

Emphasis.

“That includes no answer,” I told him. “Now. First question. What was your squad doing here?”

No response.

“Ooh... I told you, that includes no answer.” I frowned, eyes downcast for a moment before glancing up at him. It's all in the theatrics. “Let's switch gears. Do you know where you feel the most pain? Hm?”

No response. But I saw him clench his beak in anticipation.

“Right here,” I whispered before warping the ice shackle around his neck to force him to look at his hand. I violently plunged the blade into one of his talons, tearing it out along the length of the finger. He let out a roar of pain, and I yanked out the blade to let him watch his nearly bisected digit hang limply, blood dribbling out onto the floor. “Quite unsurprisingly, the part where you feel the most pain is the part of you that does the most feeling on a daily basis.”

Heh... I knew my anatomy.

The griffin trembled in pain and clenched his beak tighter. I watched as a spasm occasionally seize him and lapped at the safe edge of Midnight Talon. Ahhh... it might have been for theatrics, but the taste of that blood invigorated me.

“Can you feel your heart racing?” I whispered, leaning in closer to him. “Me too. You've got to calm down a little. Loosen up. You might just die of blood loss, you know, might just... die of excitement.” I rubbed the flat edge of my balisong against the next talon and reshaped the neck shackle to force him to look right at me. “Now what was your squad doing here?”

“The hell should I tell you?” Kaden scathed through gritted teeth. “You're gonna kill me anyway.” He promptly yelled in my face as my blade bit into his next finger. I twisted it around, boring a hole into it rather than cutting through. Ohhhhh, thoooooose screaaaaaams...

“I get that question sometimes,” I told him in a low tone. “And you know what? I might just tell you why. What was your squad doing here?”

“I don't need to answer the question,” he hissed, “or any of yours. You saw the bodies. You already know.”

My mind sifted through what I knew of the first Dead Boy we killed today. “RadAway and Rad-X.”

Kaden glared at me in silence, beak trembling from pain.

“Were you here to retrieve those items?” I asked.

He spat. “What difference does it make?”

“Well, you want to know about what I'm doing,” I answered, “and I want to know what you're doing.” I raised both eyebrows and tilted my head down for that pleading look again. “Well, I guess it's confession time for me too.” I shrugged, tilting my head up, gazing down at him through the lower end of my vision. “Do you know who I am? Hm?” I patted him on the cheek a few times. “Do you? I'm an ex-Lunar Guard. I was a personal bodyguard of Princess Luna. And I was also one of her personal stewards. We did as she directed, and interrogation of prisoners was one of them when not even the Ministry of Morale could do it properly. Memory extraction is... a sketchy process after all.” I grinned at him, tilting him head to the side. “But no, I didn't learn how to torture from the Lunar Guard. No. If we needed information, we didn't have to resort to exploiting prisoners through pain or humiliation or demoralization or deprivation. No.” I inhaled and grinned wide. “We never did that. You see, with interrogations...” I leveled out my head, “what we want is in here.” I tapped my forehead. “Torture gets it through here.” I motioned to the rest of my body. “It might work for the weak-minded or the simpleton, but you're not weak-minded or a simpleton are you? Neither were the prisoners we were meant to deal with. You don't bring in a Lunar Guard for that kind of lowly thing. You get what you want here,” I tapped my forehead again, “through here.” I tapped again. “I might be over two-hundred years old, but you can bet that I remember how to do it.”

“Bullshit.” He sprayed into my face again. “All of it.”

“You don't believe me?” I pouted. “I'm serious. Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a knife in my eye.”

“Bull. Shit.”

“Oh, well,” I sighed, “it was worth a shot.” I formed another ice arm, widened the hand, and squeezed around his cheeks. “Okay. Fine. You're right. It's bullshit. Fake. All of it. I can't get anything from you, so you're worthless to me. Now look at me.” He was struggling, turning his eyes away. “Look at me. Come on. Look at me.” I flashed the blade across his vision, catching his attention. He fell for it, and we locked gazes. I pulled back my eyelids and stared right into his shrunken pupils. “Relax. Pain is only but a state of mind. Relaaaaaax...” He was still twitching, still spasmodic. “Relaaaax. Think of your happiest moment. Get lost in it.” I let the ice creep around his forelegs and hands. “Hold onto it. Let it whisk you away.” Midnight Talon danced up, primed to strike, just within his field of vision. “Because it'll be the last thing you get to hold onto before you die.”

Then I saw it. The resigned relaxation of his eyes, the stilled body movement. He was only shaking just so slightly now. I eased the shakes and let him fall forward to me as I tilted back, making sure he could only see my eyes and the slowly disappearing blade.

And then I pressed a hoof to his forehead and pushed his head back. “Now sleep-p-p.” He hung limply now, mouth agape. No more shaking. His eyes were closed, breath even. He was in a trance. Just took a bit of theatrics and deception. All too easy. “I'm going to tap my hooves. And when I do, you're going to wake up and answer my questions.” I sat back and tapped my armored horseshoes together. They let out a tinny, otherworldly ring. Kaden's eyes flashed open, glazed over, hard, unblinking.

“Would you kindly tell why was your squad here?” I asked calmly, clearly, outright. No more theatrics.

“To secure any available RadAway and Rad-X in the area,” he replied in a flat, tired, deadbeat tone.

“Would you kindly tell what they were for?”

“To allow operations in balefire bomb impact craters to continue without casualties from radiation sickness.”

“Would you kindly elaborate on these operations?” I questioned.

“The details of impact crater operations are privy only to squads performing such operations.”

“Would you kindly tell why these operations are taking place, the ultimate purpose?”

“Details were never shared to my squad.”

Hm. Too much to hope for I guess. Still... “Would you kindly tell where these operations are taking place?”

The robotic reply: “Whitetail Woods, Burrlin, Pareese, and Fillydelphia. Future operations are planned at...”

My heart seized for a moment. Then it pumped faster. “Would you kindly repeat your last?”

“Whitetail Woods, Burrlin, Pareese, and Fillydelphia. Future operations are planned at...”

And he told me again.

My eyes narrowed, but I maintained my tone. “Would you kindly tell when those future operations are to take place?”

“Zero hour was approximately two days ago.”

I drew my lips into a soundless snarl, poising to strike. No. No. No. Not yet. Not yet. Not yet. I breathed out a sigh and closed my eyes. I relaxed the ice arm and spoke, “I'm going to tap my hooves. And when I do, you will return to normal.” Then came that ethereal ring once more.

Kaden shuddered, slumping down and groaning in agony once more. His eyes lost that glaze. “The...The fuck?”

I grasped his cheeks with a widened hand and we locked gazes. “So. What was that about zero hour for the takeover operation two days ago?”

His eyes widened. “Y-Y-You...”

“Me.” No more acting. I was seething with rage now. “Yeah. You still don't believe me? I made you sing like the bird you are. You see? I don't need to resort to this-” I plunged Midnight Talon into the palm of his good hand and jerked it around as he shouted and yelled and roared and hissed, “-to make anyone talk.”

“So why torture?” Kaden scathed, clenching his beak tightly.

“I don't need to answer the question.” I pursed my lips and shook my head tinnily, mockingly. And then I grinned. “You already know. You said it yourself right? The difference between people who do this because they're crazy and the freaks like me that do it because they enjoy it?” I flashed a wide smile, displaying my sharp, pointy teeth. My voice darkened as I whispered horribly, “Cross my heart...” I drew Midnight Talon twice diagonally across his breast, raking through his armor in with a harsh screech and squeal that almost drowned out his screams, “and hope to die! Stick a knife...” I raised her up and watched him slowly look at the wicked balisong. “Well. You already know.” The blade came down.

Ohhhhh the screams...

Ohhhhh the writhing...

Ohhhhh the red, so much red...

The fun went on even after I let him drop to the floor and run, chasing after him with his eye held in between my reddened, icy fingers.

For... you know.

Emphasis.

* * *

“Alda above us, Frost, I told not to be too messy,” Azrael said simply as I returned.

“Stow it,” I told her, slinging my new Saiga 12S over my shoulder. “Loot what you can from the Dead Boys, and make it fast. After, we're leaving.”

“What?” Rig stared at me. “Where?”

“Stalliongrad.”

* * *

Footnote: Frost- Maximum Level
Quest perk added: It's All Coming Back... (Level One)- Your training under the Lunar Guard is slowly coming back to you. Your Strength, Endurance, and Agility are raised by +1 and Perception is overcharged to 11 while in dracopony form. Note: S.P.E.C.I.A.L. buffs and debuffs caused by cyromancy spells still stack with this perk.

Rig- Level Up! Level 11 Reached
Companion perk added: Outreach Program- While Rig is in the party, her prowess with telekinesis and teleportation enables long-ranged pickpocketing, disarmament of explosives, and manipulation of non-living objects, including slow-moving or thrown explosives. This can be done through one surface (such as a wall) as long as Rig knows the location of the desired object's location and trajectory upon teleportation and telekinesis.

Azrael- Maximum Level
Azrael's Extrasensory and Inequine Empathy perks are suppressed!

Unlockables added: Soundtrack- One Death Away
Soundtrack- Dead Boy Elites

Author's Note:

Thank you to Kkat, Somber, Mimezinga- hell, everyone in the FoE community for making it the awesome sub(sub)culture it is. Special thanks go to Broadestpeak, Razorwing Greybeak, Dust Nox and doomande for helping me out with editing. Best of wishes to QuackmanBrony. Hope everything turns out alright for you. Lastly, thanks for reading. Comments please? <=3

Also, check out the Ask Frost Windchill tumblr!

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