• 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 Seventeen: The Face of Death

Chapter Seventeen: The Face of Death


Darkness. I was surrounded in darkness, absolute darkness. It was hot and stuffy, but I could feel roughened, worn wood all around me in this cramped space and drying wetness under my eyes. My tinny, fragile, uneven breath was barely audible over the commotion coming from... somewhere else. I could hear flames crackling and raiders cackling. Yes, definitely raiders. I knew them all too well. I swallowed hard and pushed out with my thin, tiny forehoof. I met resistance no more than a few centimeters in front of my face- a door. I cracked it open to take in my surroundings.

The world was bright, unnaturally bright for the Wasteland. The small room before me was bathed in shades of red, yellow, and orange- especially orange- and it was in disarray. Worn books and toys were scattered haphazardly across the floor, and on the mattress...

Oh no.

No, no, no.

On the mattress was a donkey jenny- bruised, bloody, beaten. Gray fur, auburn mane streaked with lines of aged gray. One of her legs was bent the wrong way. Her eyes were closed, but the barrel of her chest rose and fell with light, uneven breath.

No. No, please. I don't want to see this. I don't want to hear this.

A quick string of quieted cracks filtered from downstairs, followed by the thuds of bodies against the floorboards.

No. Please no! I'm sorry! I said I was sorry! I'm really, truly sorry! Don't let me see this, don't let me hear this, don't let me see this, don't let me-

There he was. There he was. His features were obscured by the thick ice armor encasing his body. The colors beneath were all warped by the bending of the light. I couldn't see his face. I couldn't see his eyes.

I stifled my breath, shaking all over, eyes wide with fear- because I recognized one thing. It was the IF-42 in his scraggly, icy hands.

Miranda?” he whispered.

Her limp form twitched and she cracked open her brown, bloodshot eyes one after the other. “Frost...? Oh thank Goddesses, it's you...”

The frozen figure nodded slowly, silently. My body relaxed, breath slowed.

Don't relax! Don't rest! Close the door and stay hidden! Stay quiet! Don't let him see you! Don't let him hear you!

It's been ages...” the middle-age donkey went on. “You look... just the same...” She shook her head. “What am I saying? Frost, you have to go make sure Wendy's alright! She's... Frost?”

My eyes widened and my breath cut out again. He pointed the gun at her, an icy suppressor formed over the barrel.

Frost...? Wh-What...?”

Don't watch! Close the door! Don't watch!

I'm sorry, Miranda,” he whispered, his voice as grim and dry as the flames creeping closer and closer. “I have a telepath with me. I hope you understand.”

Wait...” Her eyes widened. She rose up, a hoof held up protectively, pleadingly. “Wait!”

The gun sputtered once, and the bullet tore through her leg and into her head. I felt myself jump and let out a stifled gasp as she fell limp to the mattress. And then he pulled the trigger twice more in extended bursts, riddling her with more bloody holes. The way the ice warped his features, I could almost swear he was smiling.

No! I wasn't! I wasn't! I really wasn't!

I made no noise, made no movement. I just watched in horror and shock, tears welling in my eyes.

Shhhhh, shhhh... don't cry out, don't cry out, shhhhhhhhh, shhhhhhhhh...

I opened my mouth to speak out something, anything. But I leaned too far and the door creaked open.

He turned around almost immediately, the gun pointed at me now.

No!

Wendy?” he asked grimly, drily. He advanced toward me, blocking me off. I was trapped. There was no escape.

Run! Run! Do something! Get out of there!

I only choked up and shivered, watching with wide, tear-brimmed eyes as he lifted the rifle and pulled the trigger.

Darkness. I was surrounded in darkness, absolute darkness.

~ ~ ~

I ground my eyes open. The nightmares wouldn't leave me. Why would they? Why should they? I closed my eyes and exhaled softly. I could see her daughter's hopeless, helpless expression against the blackness.

“Frost?” Rig whispered. “You awake?”

Eyes open again. Early morning. We were in a burnt-out home in the southern suburbs of Manehattan after spending the day trying to make our way out of the city and avoiding alicorns. So far, we haven't had any luck- not surprising given our track record. Little more than a collapsed wooden frame and blackened carpet, the building still had a pair of mattresses lying around thankfully. Strange... you can somehow always find beds and mattresses in surprisingly good condition throughout the Wasteland...

“Yeah,” I whispered back, rising from my resting place quietly so as not to disturb the sleeping griffin hybrid beside me.

Rig was sitting on a mound of rubble in the middle of the house where the roof collapsed, her lips sealed around... a screwdriver. Okay. I settled down beside her, and she quietly asked, “Nightmare again?”

“The usual, yeah,” I sighed mistily.

“What was it this time?”

It took a while for me to reply, unsure how she would take it. But... I shouldn't ever have to lie to her again. No. Not again. “I was... Wendy.”

Rig eyed me for a moment before nodding slowly.

“So what's with the screwdriver?” I finally asked.

“Out of cigarettes,” she huffed with a ghost of a grin. I eyed her warily. “Oh don't look at me like that. I'm not addicted.”

“You're the one sucking on a screwdriver.” I pointed out with a raised eyebrow.

“No really, I can't get addicted to anything,” Rig said. “I'm eighty, eighty-five percent artificial. That includes my liver and a portion of my brain. Guess that's one bonus of this.”

“That and being eighty, eighty-five percent impervious to arcsurge plasma.” I added with a small smile.

“Don't remind me.” The cloud-maned mare shuddered. “So creepy.”

I kept up my smile for a moment longer before dropping it. “Go ahead and get some sleep. I'll take over from here until dawn. And please try to lay off the cigarettes. Your body might not crave them, but your mind will.”

Rig nodded and headed over to the empty mattress. I watched her go and settle down, spitting the screwdriver back into her bags. We looked at one another for a good few seconds past that.

“Rig,” I whispered, “you don't even feel anything from smoking cigarettes, do you?”

The earth-coated unicorn sighed softly, “No.”

We feel silent after that. My expression fell impassive, but I couldn't help but feel my heart aching for that young mare.

Rig rolled over and turned away from me, falling asleep.

And I slipped off the rubble pile silently, heading outside and parting a walkway past my ice tendrils. After I made it a couple houses away, I settled down and waited.

“You know,” She spoke, seated beside me, “a year ago you would have shut me out. I'm... glad that you seek these conversations now.”

I only nodded, not turning to face Her. I pulled out my new Saiga shotgun and looked it over instead. Hm. It was a Saiga 12S, a twelve-gauge shotgun in a similar construction to the venerable AK series of assault rifles. The eight-shell magazines were a bit of a letdown as was the very standard barrel. It wouldn't be handling any of my magically-enhanced two-kilogram slugs. On the flip side, it was lighter than Luna's Judgment, had a tactical folding stock, was built for a griffin (meaning I would have an easier time using it), and it had a shark brake fitted over the muzzle. The last seemed to be an afterthought, however. It wouldn't do much as a good against an armored target. And as far as I knew, all Dead Boys were armored targets.

“Why did you start?” She asked.

I paused in my inspection and looked at Her. “Because that night after I blew up at Rig was when I learned just how much I hurt you. You made me realize how much damage I caused by shunning you for all those years.”

“But you still had your doubts even after that,” She said. “And we both know I'm dead.”

“We've been over this before, love.” I gave her a gentle smile as I stowed the Saiga and brought Her close. My enhanced touch was a blessing at that moment. She was just as soft and delicate as I remembered, but I could feel that repressed, hidden strength as She embraced me in turn. Her warmth was comforting without being too overbearing for me, and she smelled... fresh, crisp, clean. “I don't care if all this is my own insanity.” I looked up into those eyes, those eyes full of everything. “You're right here, right now- and you're alive to me.” I tilted up and kissed Her softly, eyes closed to savor it- sweet, light, tender, respectful.

She pulled away with a tinny smile. “Shouldn't you be keeping watch?”

“We've done this how many times and just now you bring it up?” I let out a quieted, husky chuckle. I straightened out, keeping close to Her. My smile was gone now. “Love... about earlier today. Really, don't blame yourself for what happened during the War. It wasn't your fault. You were forced into it.”

“And yet you can assume the blame in my stead?” She sighed.

“Love, I had so many- so many chances to end it. But I didn't. And in doing so, I failed both of my oaths as a Lunar Guard.”

“And I didn't fail mine?” She turned to me.

My turn to sigh now. “But love...”

“What is it?” Her eyes met mine.

“I... I can't let you blame yourself. Not after what you've been through. Not after what happened and how it all ended.”

She was quiet for a long time. If it weren't for the softness of Her slight form against mine and Her pure scent, I would have thought She was gone. Then: “Love?”

“Yes?” I whispered.

“Can we just... agree to disagree?”

My muzzle tugged up a little in nostalgic smile. “Or disagree to agree?”

Hers did too. “You can't help but remember can't you?”

“I guess it's hard to kill memories when you remember everything.”

“Then may we talk of something else?” She inquired.

I nodded. “We're alone aren't we?”

She leaned against me, and I rest my head against the crook of Her neck, drawn there almost magnetically. “Are you worried about Stalliongrad?”

“No, I'm-” I caught myself, flattening my lips. “A little. The city's been through a lot. Zebra bombardment and occupation, two indirect balefire bombs, raider occupation, and now the Dead Boys for a second time. The last attack took out almost a tenth of the population in a few short hours. They've been at it for nearly three days now, and it'll take at least a week to get there- maybe five days if we can get airborne today. And if The Dead Boys are packing this kind of weaponry...” I looked back at the Saiga, “then I'm not sure they can hold out.” I sighed coolly, “Maybe more than a little worried.”

“And you still believe we can help?” She asked.

“I can hope. Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst.” I looked up at Her. “Expect something in between. I just hope we arrive to help and not to avenge.”

She nodded lightly. “I'll be with you all the way, love.”

I smiled a little. “Even if you say that, how come you almost always only show up when I'm alone?”

She smiled in turn and nestled closer. “Because it would be rather impolite of me to let you talk to yourself with others present. That would be rather inconsiderate of me.”

“Oh, so you're the 'polite, considerate' kind of crazy,” I chuckled quietly, huskily. “Is there such a kind?”

She raised an eyebrow and gave me that sly smirk. I didn't see that expression often, but it was the one that made me fall in love with Her. “You do realize you're asking your crazy about this, yes?”

“Looks like there is one now,” I chuckled once more. “Ah... if only it could always be like this...”

An ice tendril tripped.

“Of course not, right?” I grimaced. “Hang on for a minute.”

I learned a few things that minute.

One- the Saiga 12S kicks hard. Like a proper AK-style shotgun.

Two- it is very, very tempting to pull the trigger as fast as possible due to the semi-automatic nature of the weapon. Not a good thing when coupled with the aforementioned recoil.

Three- it is very, very satisfying to pincushion would-be slavers with the shark brake.

* * *

I tapped Rig and Azrael to rouse them awake. Surprisingly, the ebony giant let out a lazy groan before getting up.

“Crack of dawn- wake-up time,” I announced, nodding to the sky above. Thin streams of sunlight filtered through the clouds to the east, bringing a glimmer of life and color to a world devoid of both. One of the few beautiful things in the Wasteland, I tell you.

“Dammit,” Azrael grumbled, scratching the back of her head and shifting her cloak back into position, “I'm getting lazy, not having to keep watch like this.”

“You?” Rig snickered. “Carrying a freaking machine gun you can't even fire on your back? Lazy?”

“And a ghostfire scythe and a set of wingblades.” The griffiness added. “And scavenged gear.”

“I rest my case,” the earth-coated unicorn nickered. “Frost, throw us some breakfast?”

I sprouted a pair of ice arms, tossing her a can and handing one to Azrael. “Need a fire?”

“Nah, cold's just fine,” she answered with a shake of her head with Azrael similarly responding. “Oh, hey! Eggplant!” She used her Spetsnaz throwing shovel to punch under the lid and pry it off.

Heh... she was a Wastelander now.

...

Mm... she was a Wastelander now...

“Frost, we okay for music?” Rig asked after polishing her food and teleporting out a can of... yams. She shrugged and worked the lid off.

I twitched my ears and sniffed experimentally, trying to pick up any raider or slaver scents. Nothing outstandingly dirty, nothing... unclean. “Go ahead.” Her PipBuck whirred and clicked as she flicked through the modules with a smile. Then I watched as she paused, her smile fading. “Rig?” I called to her, setting my can of oats aside. “What's wrong?” Azrael paused in her meal as well.

She looked back up at me. “It's my birthday.”

We were all quiet for several seconds.

“Uh, shoot.” I blinked. “It totally slipped my mind how soon that was.”

“Me too.” Rig sat back with an expression of disbelief. “Wow... it's been that long. I've been out there that long.” She shook her head rapidly. “Hey, wait, don't you have photographic memory?”

“Doesn't mean I can recall anything on a bit.” I shot back, still bewildered. “Damn, I had nothing planned for this.”

“Well,” Azrael coughed, “I anticipated this, me being telepathic. Or, at least, previously being telepathic.” The griffin hybrid fumbled around in her saddlebags and set down a Fancy Colt Snack Cake. “I know it's not the same as back in your Stable, but I hope it's at least some-”

She was cut off as Rig hugged around her foreleg. “Not like there'd be much of a celebration back there anyway. Thanks, Azrael.” The cloaked giant smiled and nodded. Meanwhile, I was thinking to myself...

“Well, I guess I'll have something later,” I said, “but for now, happy birthday, Rig.”

And then, to my surprise, she hugged me as well. I huffed and cracked a thin smile before hugging back. It was a brief one, though. “Yeesh, you're freaking cold, Frost,” she remarked as she pulled away.

“Did you expect any less from me?” I inquired, arcing an eyebrow.

“Nah, guess not,” the... mare chuckled. Can't call her a young mare anymore, I guess. “So what do you mean by later?”

“Since I'm letting Azrael glean me as soon as we're in the clear and since we're heading back to Stalliongrad,” I answered, “I think you all deserve a story- mine.”

“Really?” Rig canted her head. “That's... actually something I'd like to hear. But why later?”

“One, I'd like some time to prepare. Two, I'm hoping for a bigger audience. It's a pretty important story after all, and my friends in Stalliongrad deserve to know it- Xamuros especially. Three, I have various... memorabilia in my closet back home I'd like to use. Four, well, it'll give us all a reason to try to keep each other alive, right? Now, are you gonna eat your cake or what?”

She had a lovely smirk. “Then don't you die on me!” She teleported the snack cake straight out of its wrapper and pondered over it for a few seconds. The cloud-maned mare grinned and levitated a splinter of wood out, poking it into the cake and lighting it with her soldering spell. “There we go!”

“So.” I grinned broadly. “Azrael, I've always like the griffin birthdays over the pony ones. They don't have any special song or anything. Shall we?”

Azrael smiled to that. “Sure.”

“Griffin birthday?” Rig blinked. “What's special with those?”

“You're about to find out,” I replied. “Whenever you're ready.”

And together we sang:

Happy Birthday to you!
Happy Birthday to you!
Happy Birthday, dear Ri-ig!
Happy Birthday to you!”

It might have been short and sappy, but hell- Azrael had an amazing singing voice for such a short and sappy song.

“Now make a wish,” I said with a smile.

Rig was beaming so happily right then. She opened her mouth to blow, but then she hesitated and slanted her lips in thought. To see her put that effort into an idle hope... it struck me as childlike. To see something like that in a world of blood and dust lifted my spirits. And then she blew... and blew. And blew.

The candle remained lit. It was then that I recalled she had no lungs with which to expel breath.

Rig flattened her lips with a resigned, glum expression. My spirits, soaring high, came crashing down back down. She let out a deep, heavy, depressed, airless sigh.

The candle snuffed out, leaving a trail of wispy smoke. Rig widened her eyes, stunned.

“Frost!” she laughed, hugging me suddenly. “You didn't have to do that!”

“Do what?” Azrael inquired, oblivious.

“'Do what'?” Rig parroted. “He blew the candle out for me!”

“Actually...” I began.

“Given the situation, I suppose that is rather generous of you.” Azrael nodded. “A bit unexpected, but this is you we're talking about.”

“Actually,” I coughed, “that wasn't me. You would have noticed.” I blew out a chilly breath as an example.

Rig released me and looked back at the cake then back to me. “Wait, then...” She looked back, mystified as I was. “Take it in stride, I guess?”

Both Azrael and I nodded in reply. Heh... sometimes the Wasteland grants small favors. You take what you can get.

And so Rig took a bite out of the snack cake and tuned into Equestria News Radio.

-storm coming in on Fillydelphia from the south,” the DJ's smooth, jovial tone bled out through the speakers. “So batten down the hatches and gather 'round a fire, children. Stay warm n' dry, you hear? You already got enough to worry about with The Dead Boys and the Steel Rangers duking it out over there.

Now a survival tip from your good ol' DJ-Pon3! Be sure to pack a Geyser counter- a radiation detector in other words. Raiders? Slavers? Steel Rangers? Dead Boys? Those are the threats you can see- most of the time, anyway. Radiation? Now that's a silent killer and one you can't solve by shooting it in the head. So get a counter, keep your ears open for those clicks, and pack plenty of RadAway and Rad-X just in case. You can find radiation in places like-”

As if on cue, Rig's PipBuck clicked a few times. Swallowing the last of her snack cake, she shot. “Hey, what gives?”

“Well... remember what I said about canned foods being free of radiation as a general rule of hoof?” I smiled uneasily.

“Yeah?” What about it- ohhhh...” She looked at the wrapper at her hooves. “It's not that much, right?”

“Not at all,” Azrael said. “You know me. Meat and sweets. They tend to have trace amounts of magical radiation, yes, but it's fine so long as you take RadAway every so often.”

“Well, alrighty then..”

-And now for some music! Ahem, I know it ain't my usual flavor, but I still think it's a classic. Here's some Sweetie Bell to keep you looking forward. Dawn awaits, children. Dawn awaits.”

A smooth, soft, gentle voice drawled out over the airwaves:

I want to calm the storm, but the war is in your eyes.
How can I shield you from the horror and the lies?
When all that once held meaning is shattered, ruined, bleeding
And the whispers in the darkness tell me we won’t survive?”

All things will end in time, this coming storm won’t linger
Why should we live as if there’s nothing more?
So hold me ‘neath the thunderclouds, my heart held in your hooves,
Our love will keep the monsters from our door.”

For I know tomorrow will be a better day.
Yes, I believe tomorrow can be a better day…”

Now doesn't that bring back some memories?

Azrael rest a hand on my shoulder and shook. Hm, wait. How did- oh. Oh finally, oh yes. “I can see again,” she almost gasped.

I nodded and turned to Rig. “We're moving. Na Rodina-mat'.”

* * *

“So alicorns only suppress your telepathy as long as they're in your radius?” I inquired.

“It seems so,” Azrael replied.

We were soaring low over the Wasteland now, circling around the Manehattan ruins. We gave the place- and its alicorns- plenty of space as we flew as fast as my wings could carry. I can fly, yes, but I am far from the fastest, fanciest, or highest. It's only because of my biomagical augmentations that I can fly at all. Without help, I can't get any faster than around sixty-five kilometers-per-hour or get higher than a little under twenty meters above the ground.

“You still owe me, by the way,” Azrael spoke up.

“Hm?” I looked sideways to her.

“I never got the chance to finish gleaning from you.”

“You sure you want to try it in midair though?” I raised an eyebrow at her.

“As long as I have someone to warn me of danger or if I drift of course, I should be fine.” The griffiness assured me.

“Woo!” Rig cheered from her grasp. “I'm not useless like this!”

I kept my eyes on her. “I'm going to let you read me. Go ahead, but only if you're sure.” I unraveled the shield barring my mind, and that strange buzz worked its way in as soon as I was done. Now all I had to do was wait.

The next hour or so went by in silence outside from the few cases where Rig tapped the giant's foreleg or called out her name to correct her course. My focus was directed elsewhere- our surroundings and to the northeast. As the towering, monolithic husks of the Manehattan skyscrapers dwindled away, color started trickling back to the world. Not much- the Enclave's cloud cover still stifled the light of day. But there was a little. It was a start. It was a start.

But I was still focused on what was around us and on our goal- Stalliongrad. Zasili, Chief Thunderhooves, Xamuros, Sly- I hoped they were alright. It was the least I could do short of sending more support their way. And what non-flier could get to Stalliongrad in time? Or even offer to help? It was the public mindset in the Capital Wastes that Stalliongrad saves people, not the other way around. Not a fair way to think, but when has life ever been that way?

“I'm done,” Azrael stated at last.

“And?” I turned to her. Fire away.

“I don't agree with many of the things you did or why you did them,” she spoke, “but for the sake of you, Rig... I could sympathize with why he chose to lie and kill.” The earth-coated mare looked up at her, opening her mouth to speak. Azrael answered her automatically, “They were... sufficient reasons. Not good reasons, but they were sufficient ones. And now I understand your motivations, Frost. So... there's that.” I could tell she was holding back her say on the matter, and if she truly saw everything... then I couldn't blame her.

The unicorn cyber looked back at me. “I'm still holding you to that story, you hear?”

“I don't expect any less from you,” I huffed.

“Well, back to being useless!” Rig cheered sarcastically.

I eyed her for a moment then looked at a specific part of Azrael. “Maybe not.” The earth-coated mare looked at me in question. “Think you can set up our resident Angel of Death with a new firing bit?”

Rig facehoofed. “Ugh, how come I didn't think of that? Have tools,” She flipped her welding helmet down and teleported out her wide array of implements, “will repair!”

“Actually, it's 'will tra-'”

“Shut up, Frost,” she grumbled as she put her soldering spell to work. “I'm having a moment.”

* * *

Rig was awesome. There was no denying it. She stripped down pieces of the weapons we looted from the Dead Boys and jury-rigged (pun... okay, it was intended) an improvised firing bit for Harbinger. Azrael successfully test-fired it when we touched down to eat.

“You kept all of the weapons?” I stared at her.

Rig merely shrugged. “Why not?”

“Isn't carrying all that a little heavy?”

“Frost, I'm mostly hydraulics underneath- that includes three of my legs,” she responded, flipping up her helmet to look at me and pausing in the maintenance of her own weapons. “You and Azrael aren't the only ones who can do the heavy lifting. Hey, you think Luna's Fortitude can accept the drums from the suppressed machine gun?”

“You mean the AGK-T9?” I motioned at it. “And they're belt boxes.”

“It was a yes-or-no question, gun nut,” she chided.

“Yeah, I don't see why not,” I let out a husky chuckle. “Going to make it more back-heavy though. Jeez, Rig, I can hardly recognize my baby anymore. A suppressor, a BS-Oh-Three, a holosight, a reworked firing chamber, and now belt boxes? Sure, the AKMB was never a pretty weapon to look at, but do you even need that spike bayonet?”

She slipped it off and grimaced. “Probably not.” She then flipped her helmet back down and proceeded to sharpen her pickaxe and throwing shovel using it. That got me thinking...

“Rig, you plan on using the reflector sight from the AUG?” I nodded to the weapon.

She flipped her helmet back up and looked over at it. “No, not really.”

“Were you paying any attention to Chief Thunderhooves while he worked?”

She had a lovely smirk.

And I smirked right back.

Rig might have become my second-favorite person in the world that day.

* * *

I took first watch that evening, seated on a hilltop overlooking our camp. And I knew just who to expect. No, not Her. Don't get ahead of yourself.

“You know it should be me taking first watch,” Azrael spoke, approaching me as I was carefully etching the last set of carvings into Night Fang with sharpened, sliver-like ice fingers. I've used her more than enough now. She was a keeper. “I have my telepathy back. Go get some rest. I'll take over.”

“Then you know what I'm thinking,” I said back to her, not looking up from my work.

“That I'm here to discuss what I saw when gleaning you?” the giant griffiness huffed. “Am I really that transparent?”

“I only predicted.” Now I looked up at her, setting Night Fang aside. “I'm listening.”

Azrael inhaled and exhaled deeply. “I can neither sympathize with you nor antagonize you for what you've done. I pitied you in some instances- such as with what happened to you in Stalliongrad- and abhorred you in others- such as with what happened during your time with the Shadow Guard.” She hesitated.

“But?” I fished for the rest.

“But I thank you for allowing me to understand not only what you are but who you are,” she continued. “As I stated before, I can at least sympathize with the reasons you had for lying to others before and killing Miranda and Wendy. Perhaps the latter is a stretch, but I am not you.”

“And you are not me,” I finished.

“I do think that you should learn to let some things go, Frost,” the hybrid told me. “I agree with... your love. You shouldn't shoulder the blame nor should you hold yourself accountable for what was the mistake of millions. Even Princess Luna can't be blamed- few realize that leaders are at the mercy of their followers just as much as the other way around.”

I didn't reply to that. What could I have said?

<You don't have to say anything,> Azrael's voice echoed in my head.

I let out a chilly sigh and leaned back.

“You were worried before that no one would understand what you've gone through,” she spoke. “You don't need to anymore. I still plan to follow you once the situation with Rig's Stable is resolved.” She rest a heavy hand on my shoulder. “Remember my offer? Back when you first accepted me?”

I turned to her, eyes widening. “About the dreams?”

The gray-eyed griffin nodded in affirmation. “Go rest, Frost. I'll handle second watch.”

“... thank you, Azrael.”

“Thank me later if it works,” she huffed, closing her eyes.

I nodded stoutly before heading back down to camp. Rig was fast asleep, surrounded by bits and pieces of the Saiga 12S and the remains of Luna's Judgment. I cracked a thin smile and settled down on the cool earth away from the covered fire.

Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst, and expecting something in between, I closed my eyes.

<Sweet dreams, Frost.>

~ ~ ~

I was... myself. Green fur, duller senses, weaker, slower. Swaying, swinging to...

Oh my.

Powerful, deep, bone-shaking beats rattled at my eardrums as I danced to the tune, my legs and neck ringed with colorful, glowing bands. I was thumping alone amongst a crowd of partygoers in... in...

Oh my Goddess I knew where this was. I was at Ponyville's Blaring Beats! A glance over the swinging forelegs confirmed it- a white unicorn mare with stylish purple shades and an electric-blue mane worked the turntables expertly. Strobe lights flashed, light beams sparkled, and the synth kicked in.

Oh my Goddess yes, that music!

I felt absolutely energized by the electro, rocking it hard amongst the sea of ponies. My gaze then fell to the bar, a sleek black with a subtle backlight from below, where couples drank, chatted, and kissed with bliss... except for one. My eyes fell on...

She was a unicorn mare with a coat black as midnight and a mane and tail silvery as the stars, neatly and shortly cut in a manner I could only describe as: cute. She looked oddly alone, head nodding lightly to the beat, watching over the crowd with a tinny smile, watching with those soft, blue eyes.

Our eyes locked- only for a moment.

Those eyes, those eyes full of everything.

I don't know why I did what I did that night. But... those eyes...

Nothing else mattered- only Her. The rest of the crowd seemed to fade into a blur and the music to a dull slurry as I made my way to the bar and sat down beside Her. She finally looked at me and smiled politely.

Hi there,” I felt myself say over the music.

Hello,” She said back. Baby steps, I remembered... baby steps.

Frost Windchill,” I introduced myself, extending a hoof. I remember thinking- oh no, why did I do that? This is stupid. I'm being stupid. This whole-

She met my hoof, eyebrows raising for a moment from my cold touch. Just a moment. “Nightingale.”

Lovely name,” I remarked. I remember thinking- I'm so done for already. “You look a little lonely by yourself. Have anyone to dance?”

Mm?” She canted Her head in brief confusion. “Oh! No no no, I'm just here to enjoy the music! Yes, just the music!”

Just the music?” I eyed Her.

Well, it's... my first time here, actually...” She smiled uneasily. “You know, at a nightclub.”

Well, you can't enjoy the music without a little dancing.” The moment of truth.

She flashed me a sly smirk and raised an eyebrow. I fell head-over-shoulders over that expression. “Is that an offer?”

I bent in a theatrical bow, sweeping a hoof aside. “Only if madam wishes.”

She smiled wide. “Madam wishes.”

And I took Her hoof in mine, leading Her back to the dance floor...

~ ~ ~

I woke up, blinking rapidly. And then I realized just exactly what I dreamed of...

Tears welled up in my eyes, breath coming out in shuddering gasps as the memories came surging back. My heart both fluttered and sank. I longed for those days of goodness, yet I was bitter of what I had done since. I... later. I'll talk about it later.

For now, I turned to the watchful Angel of Death and whispered, “Thank you... thank you...”

Azrael looked down to me from the hilltop, her eyes glinting with that somber softness. She only offered a nod before turning away.

* * *

Four nights later, Rig approached me just before she headed off to bed. “You have a bit of a knack for naming your weapons,” the indigo-eyed mare said. “Have anything in mind for her?” She nodded to the shotgun on my back.

I looked over the Saiga 12S- my Saiga 12S. Bits and pieces of Luna's Judgment were fused to her. Drum mags, a heavier barrel tipped with the shark brake muzzle, a reflector sight sitting on the rail, and the surviving hooked end of the crowbar replacing the stock- all courtesy of Rig. I thought on it for a few seconds. Luna's Judgment? Again? No, not that. Hodgepodge? Uh, no. It certainly fit, but it didn't hold any meaning to me. That, and it just didn't “click.” Rebirth? Hm... close. Not quite close enough, though.

Heh... now didn't this bring back some memories?

I looked back at Rig and smiled. “I'll think on it. But for now, I think I'll call her...Mumei.”

“Mumei?”

“The Neighponese word for the unknown, the obscured, and the nameless.”

* * *

Stalliongrad. Home at last. We dropped to the Wasteland earth early and approached by foot until the gray cityscape was in our sights. The looming ruins ahead looked weary from all that they've withstood, but there was a silent strength to it all.

The first thing that hit us were the columns of smoke billowing into the clouds.

“Shit, I'm not seeing anyone on the walls,” Rig cursed, peering through the lenses I coalesced for her.

“Neither am I,” I said, grimacing. Movement caught my attention. “Wait. East side, east side.”

“I'm looking,” she complied. “Yeah, I- ooh.”

I saw him too. A griffin with a skeletal faceplate... and an Accuracy International AW Mk. IX sniper rifle.

“Down!” I ushered, dropping to the ground. Rig and Azrael followed swiftly.

“That was definitely a Dead Boys griffin,” the griffiness murmured.

“Did he see us?” Rig asked.

“Yeah, I think he saw us.” I looked through the lenses again. “Yeah, he definitely saw us. Still looking right at us.”

“Can he land a hit from here?” the cloud-maned mare asked, concerned.

“That's an Arctic Warfare sniper rifle,” I told her, sublimating the lenses. “If it were Zasili, we'd already be dead.”

“So probably?” Rig flipped her welding helmet down.

“Probably,” I responded. “You know what I'm hearing though?”

“No gunshots or explosions,” Azrael spoke. “There's no fighting going on.”

“Oh shit, that's not a good sign...” Rig said worriedly.

“Actually, I was talking about the footsteps.” I corrected, drawing Mumei.

As if on cue, a trio of mechanical Hunters materialized around us with a string of electrical thrums. We jumped to our feet and backed towards one another, weapons raised.

“A little earlier next time, Frost?” Rig shot at me.

“If they wanted us dead, we'd already be,” I retorted. “No harm to it.”

“So not the time for theatrics, Frost! So not the time!”

“Frost and friends!” came a magically-amplified shout from the walls. I knew that voice- Zasili! “Come to, uh, west-side gate! The, uh, robots will not- repeat, will not hurt you! They are escort! Please put weapons down and come! We are under, uh, ceasefire!”

“Not even going to try to kill me, huh?” Azrael muttered.

“Well, we aren't shot full of holes yet, but that's a good thing,” Rig nickered.

Indeed we weren't, and the Hunters weren't pointing their weapons at us. They hadn't this whole time. “This doesn't bode well,” I told them, “but if there's a ceasefire, I'd rather not end it just yet. We're complying.”

I stowed Mumei as Rig reluctantly winked Luna's Fortitude away. Azrael shuffled her cloak back over Harbinger obediently. The Hunters took position around us- one on either side and one at the rear- and escorted us to the besieged City of Blood and Iron.

* * *

As we reached the city walls, we took in the destruction around us. Stalliongrad's fortifications had been absolutely decimated. The sniper nests, machine gun positions, and mortar pits had been taken out with surgical precision. Neat, wide holes and craters were opened up where they used to be, the bending and warping of the metal indicative of the Ripper-class autocannons mounted on the Dead Boy Heavies. I spotted a few ponies at modified stations on the remains of the barricades, many of them wrapped in bloody, magical bandages. I saw a few of them looking toward me in apprehension. The guards never dropped watch duty. Not even under enemy occupation.

The gates ahead let out a wretched squeal as they were drawn up. A bearded, white unicorn stallion in a thick coat ducked under them in turn as soon as he could to meet me. “Frost!” Zasili shouted as he noticeably limped under the portcullises. He skidded to a halt before us, the Hunters thrumming into nothingness once more. “What happen to you?”

I sighed out a chilly mist. Well. This was going to be happening a lot today. “I'll make this quick. Let's walk and talk, walk and talk.” As we started trotting off, I explained, “Basically, I'm two-hundred-seventeen years old, I was here during the Battle for Stalliongrad during The Great War, and I'm really, really sorry for lying to you about all that.”

Zasili stared at me for several seconds as we trotted through the gateways. “Chyort... uh... okay?”

“Apology accepted, now what happened here?” I spoke quickly.

“My Equestrian not good,” Zasili spoke quickly, waving me along. “Come, to Hammer and Horns.”

“Azrael, a little help?” I asked as we broke into a gallop.

“Working on it,” the griffiness responded. “Getting a little lost in translation right now. Uh... alright. The Dead Boys approached the city in broad daylight, claiming they did not wish the city harm and only wanted to perform their operations in the two craters just outside city limits. When asked what these operations entail, The Dead Boys stated that it involved 'scavenging'.”

“Scavenging,” I looked back at her, “at balefire blast sites?”

“Am I the only one who gets the idea that's phony?” Rig asked as she sprinted lopsidedly beside us.

“Nope.”
“No.”
Njet.

“That's comforting.” The earth-coated mare grimaced. “Oh... shit.” We made it past the city gates into the city of Stalliongrad itself. The town was even more in shambles than before. New bullet holes and craters lined the streets and buildings, walls were cracked or crumbled- sometimes entirely. The people that gave us friendly greetings our last visit just looked at us with tired, worn eyes. Their coats and clothes were matted down with caked blood. Bandages were wrapped around the majority of them to varying degrees. Most of them were rushing- at times limping- toward another part of the city. The few that weren't were huddled together on the street, eyes glazed over miserably. The air reeked of fire, powder, and decay. “Jeez... this place is a mess...”

“The suspicion was also what unfortunately started this whole mess,” Azrael spoke. Many of the people we passed didn't recognize me at first, but eventually they started murmuring to one another and pointing. “Stalliongrad refused to let The Dead Boys anywhere near the city and threatened to open fire if they did not leave immediately, and The Dead Boys refused to back down. Stalliongrad's snipers opened up and the fighting went down from there. It should be noted that The Dead Boys repeatedly pushed for nonviolence, however.”

“Are you serious?” I asked her, dubious.

“I'm gleaning from other people around us. Their experiences corroborate with it.”

I looked at Zasili, who sighed, “Yes, we start fight. Casualties are still coming from, uh, how you say? Time to time? Last heard was hundred-forty-two.”

My heart sank. “A hundred-forty...” I repeated in disbelief. That was almost a quarter of the population remaining after the first attack... “Goddesses...”

“We lost a third of militia, Frost,” the stark unicorn said grimly, bitterly. His words, already strained slow as a second language, were riveted with remorse. “I am sorry, friend.”

“What about the others?” I asked. “Chief Snowbourne? Chief Thunderhooves? Sly? Xamuros?”

“Last, uh, three are safe,” Zasili answered. “Snowbourne is dead. Was killed by the, uh, unseeable robots in first hour of fight. The Dead Boys... they offer ceasefire every thirty minute. Was not until next day we say yes to them. We have been helping wounded and, uh, putting fires and repairing since.”

Azrael added, “The terms of the ceasefire were that neither side attack one another. Stalliongrad would not attempt to contact for outside assistance, and The Dead Boys would be allowed to perform their operations at the blast sites. In return The Dead Boys would donate medical supplies and withdraw once operations were complete.”

“That doesn't sound like The Dead Boys at all,” I muttered. “Have you been able to glean any since we got back in the area?”

“Haven't gotten close enough,” the avian replied. “And bad news- they brought one of their leaders. I don't know who, but there's one definitely here.”

“Dammit...” I growled. “Another Grimm.”

“More bad news,” Zasili spoke. “Your coming here maybe make them think we, uh... break ceasefire.”

“But they haven't shot us up yet, or anyone,” Rig brought up. “Or at least, nothing we've heard of yet. I hope they aren't just using silenced weapons...”

“Suppressed,” Azrael, Zasili, and I corrected.

“Not the time!”

The Hammer and Hooves was still standing, thank the Goddesses. But there was a gaping hole where the front wall was, and I could already see collapsed shelves inside. Chief Thunderhooves was at the counter, repairing one of many firearms stacked neatly beside him.

The buffalo ghoul, thankfully appearing unharmed aside from a hoof-sized hole in his feathery headdress, looked up at me and hoarsely, roughly shouted, “Frost? Is that you?”

Ya'at eeh, Shih-chai' Thunderhooves,” I greeted with as polite a quick bow as I could muster. “Are you-”

“Frooooooooo- wah!” A speeding, blue blur suddenly veered away from me and landed sprawled on the pavement, causing us all to turn our heads. Sly rose to his power-hooved feet, shaking his head rapidly. “Jeez! What the hell happened to you?!”

“Son of a cuss, Sly, don't just do th-” a zebra in light winter wear came out of the firing range a moment later, staring at me with wide eyes. And then Xamuros pointed and exclaimed, “I cussing knew it! You are a Lunar Guard! I cussing knew it!”

“A what now?” The giant, blue earth pony stallion gawked, bewildered. “What's a Lunar Guard?”

Chief Thunderhooves just let out a weary, old sigh.

I flattened my lips and let out a sigh just as weary, old. I quickly explained, “Long story short, I'm two-hundred-seventeen years old with no idea how I've lived this long, I knew how to help reclaim the city because I fought here during the Battle for Stalliongrad during The Great War, I'm actually a unicorn dracopony, which means I'm a Lunar Guard, and I'm really, really sorry for lying to you about it!”

We were all quiet for a long time. Awkward stares and blinking about, even from the other people nearby.

“Well, that explains a lot,” Sly stated simply.

Vy kogda-nibudʹ pochuvstvuyu griva Luna? one of the bystanders asked. I glared at him, and I would have punched him hard in the face if it weren't for the thump on the head he received from the mare next to him. Ow! Ya prosto khotel by znatʹ!” And thumped again. “Ow! Izvinite, izvinite!”

Rig looked curiously at me. “Uh, what'd he-?”

“Don't ask,” everyone promptly cut her off.

“Okay, okay!” Rig held up her forehooves defensively.

“But really?” Xamuros eyed me. “That explains a lot. Also tells what kind of a pony you are.”

“I'm really, really sorry, Xamuros,” I apologized, my rage ebbing away. “If we live through this, I'll make it up to you. You too, Sly and Zasili.”

“Well,” Chief Thunderhooves settled back down. “I didn't expect you to do this so soon.”

“You know my luck by now, chief.”

“That I do.” He nodded. “And I'm glad to have you back- same for you, Rig, and... Azrael?”

“You guess correctly,” my hybrid friend confirmed.

“Wait, you knew about this?” Sly blinked at the ghoul buffalo.

“We met once before the War.” Chief Thunderhooves nodded. “He was researching for a book of his, and he interviewed members of my chiefdom and myself. But this is a matter for a different date. Now we have the problem of the ceasefire. I don't know if The Dead Boys are planning anything now that you three are here.”

“Yeah,” Sly huffed, “I thought Azrael was hu-”

“Don't jinx it!” Xamuros pointed a threatening hoof at him. “Don't you dare jinx it!”

“Oh come on!” the giant stallion exclaimed, throwing up his forehooves. “Ugh, zebras and their superstition!”

“Hey, hey, now that was uncalled for!”

Enough!” Chief Thunderhooves roared, stamping a forehoof into the floor with enough force to send a light tremor and dislodge many of the queued weapons from the counter. He grumbled as he started putting them back in place. “Enough. We cannot bicker now. We have to plan and act. We only have two-thirds of our militia remaining, most of them wounded. The others can fight, but we'll be hard-pressed if The Dead Boys decide to attack again. Frost, you know the city better than anyone else here. Even if this causes a breakdown of the ceasefire, you're the one who can lead us to victory.”

“I know,” I sighed a chilly mist. “I know. But give me time to think. Shots haven't fired yet- that's a good sign.”

“Moreover because I don't intend to break the ceasefire.”

We all wheeled around, drawing our signature weapons- Mumei, Luna's Fortitude, Harbinger, dual M220 FLASH multi-tube rocket launchers, a DSA-58 OSW battle carbine, and a Stoeger double-barreled shotgun. The bystanders similarly drew their own weapons on Hunter unit- yeah, they definitely came in squads of three- that thrummed into appearance behind us.

“Weapons down, please, weapons down,” a calm, male voice filtered from the middle Hunter's speaker. “If shots are fired, I can't guarantee that some of my troopers will start the battle again. The same can be said of yours. Weapons... down. Please.” We all glanced at once another and slowly lowered our weapons. “Thank you. As stated, I don't intend to break the ceasefire. You didn't call for outside support- support just came on its own. You still stuck to the terms, and I try to be a griffin of my word. The ceasefire is still in effect.”

I think all of us breathed out a sigh of relief at that moment. Then I asked, “And what of Azrael?”

“I said I try to be a griffin of my word,” the response came. “I can't guarantee that my troopers won't take shots at her, but I'm not after her head.”

The griffiness and I shared a momentary, suspicious glance. “So you're the leader of The Dead Boys here. How can we trust you on that?”

“To be fair, you can't,” he answered with surprising frankness, “but I've kept my word to the people of Stalliongrad thus far and I've tried to be as fair and civil as possible. You'll have to take my word for it.”

“So who exactly are you?” I asked. “And what are you doing at the megaspell blast sites?”

The Hunter was quiet for a few seconds before broadcasting, “Do you wish to meet in person?”

I glanced at my friends, each looking as wary as I was. “There's a catch to this, isn't there?”

“The only catch is that we meet alone. Both of us. There's an established demilitarized zone spanning down the center of the city. Your friends can accompany you to this point but no further. I advise against bringing Azrael, however. You're lucky that my troopers have been obedient so far in not firing upon her yet, and I suggest not pushing that luck. We'll meet at a building in the zone of your choice. You can come armed. Because I know I'll be. Fair?”

“You have Hunters and weapons that can shoot through cover and armor.” I pointed out.

“You have cryomancy, a telepath, and snipers that can land shots in the same bullet hole.” Likewise.

Zasili only shrugged.

I maintained my gaze at the mechanical, wingless griffin. “Fair.”

“Then I'll be waiting.”

The Hunters thrummed into nothingness.

* * *

“Are you sure about this, Frost?” Rig asked.

We were overlooking this so-called “DMZ”. It was comprised of Main Street and the city square. The city hall, once a mighty iron building forged in the cold forge of Stalliongrad and molded by its own people, was now a creaky, rusty husk now that the wards protecting it from deterioration expired. Listing in the middle of the square was the once-proud “Worker's Pride,” a statue depicting an earth pony, a donkey, a mule, a griffin, a buffalo, and even a diamond dog clashing raised tools over an anvil as if to a toast. They each wore a weary yet satisfied smile as if after witnessing the fruits of a hard day's labor. I remember how the locals once told me a zebra used to be there until an overzealous mob tore it down. The hindhooves were all that remained, and the police would occasionally chase away other would-be defilers that tried to take those too. The sands of time are still wearing it down now, but cracked and battered, The Rabotnika Velikolepie continues to inspire awe and reverence- and pride in an honest day's work.

And then there was The Memorial. Built following the Battle of Stalliongrad, it commemorated the valiance, fortitude, and sacrifice of those who fought, bled, and died for the City of Blood and Iron in its darkest hour. More ponies died in that battle than in any other in the twenty years of The Great War- over 338,000, more than a third of the pony casualties in the entire conflict. The Memorial was...

...

I... later. Later. I'll talk about it later.

But today, all that's left of The Memorial is only rubble. It was destroyed when we tried to take the city back from the raiders years ago. That's a story for another time.

Because every time I look upon those ruins, two howls ring in my ears- one a powerful surge of fire and iron, the other the baleful yet melancholic cry of the Coyote.

“Frost?” Rig shook my on the shoulders. “You okay? And you sure about this?”

I blinked rapidly, the old world gone in an instant. I was back to here and now. “Just... reminiscing.” I looked down at her. She was on my left with Xamuros. To my right were Zasili and Sly. “And no, I'm not sure about this.”

“Then why go along with this?” Sly asked.

“Because it's our best shot in learning more about The Dead Boys and what they're doing here without interrupting the ceasefire,” I answered. “Don't stand out in the open, now.” I sprouted a pair of ice arms and opened up my saddlebags. “Rig, would you please take the RadAway and put it all somewhere safe? If a battle breaks out, I don't want to lose it all.” Rig started teleporting and levitating the packets out of our saddlebags while Zasili, Sly, and Xamuros stared.

Sly whistled and plainly remarked, “That's a lot of RadAway.”

“You can have the extras once we're done with what we need to do,” I told him. “Call it a 'thank you' for the biscuits.”

“Well... we'll be waiting,” Xamuros said, nodding to Zasili. “Patrulya Alʹyansa. Poĭdem.”

Da,” the bearded unicorn stallion complied with a nod, levitating his Mosin-Nagant out and making way for a listing skyscraper. The zebra looked at me and gave a stout nod before heading off with him. Sly tailed right after, giving me a pumped hoof for good luck which I returned.

I gave one last look at my friends before starting off into the DMZ.

“Hey, Frost!” I turned to face Rig. Those indigo eyes were shining bright. “Watch yourself, you hear?”

I regarded her for a few seconds before nodding and starting off.

And so I walked, eyes glancing about for any sign of that leader. My ears flicked this way and that, straining to pick up from the silence. And so I walked, walked down an avenue of memories. It was the fourth time I set foot on this hallowed ground. The first was with the empowering, smog-spewing roar of the Manticore assault bike. The second was with the fanfare of brass and woodwind. The third was with the rapid clatter of friends old and new alike. The fourth...

The fourth... clinking. Metal upon metal. I tuned my ears left and right like a pair of radar dishes. The clinking was punctuated with heavy footsteps, not quite as thundering as Azrael's. I saw him shortly after, a figure in the distance. The griffin was wearing a cloak of grim gray, the fabric sheared into tatters at the ends. The sleeves were short-cut yet were wide enough so that they dragged along the ground as we approached one another. And then I could see what was making all that eerie clinking- chains. Chains wrapped round and around his form, constricting the otherwise flowing raiment to his body. Chains wrapped around his forelegs, forelegs seemingly made up of these clinking chains. And they were. As we neared, I saw that his chain-forelegs relaxed before he stepped forward, showing gaps between the numerous links. There was no flesh, no bone, no muscle- only chains ending in disk-shaped palms with dagger-like digits. That appeared to be the only artificial part of him. Once we were within a house's length from one another, I saw a normal griffin face behind the cowl. He was perhaps a little past thirty years of age. We stood little more than five paces from one another, locking eyes. His lacked the sharpness I knew in griffins, worn and distant. But he was still the enemy.

Here goes. Right words, right way. I kept my tone civil and level and greeted, “My name is Frostbane Hokkaido Windchill, but I wish to be called Frost. I hail from the Far North. I take the role of vigilante.”

The griffin momentarily widened his eyes before likewise speaking in a calm, weighted tone, “My name is Malcom Ironclaw. I hail from Avalon of Aldorna. I... take the role of Horvahd, The Shackled Judge, God of Pride and Burden, and a leader of The Dead Boys.” Yep. All too easy to tell with how he looked. He lifted up a chain-foreleg and swept it aside. “Your choice of building.” I glanced to the side and nodded to a partially collapsed building, starting off. He followed along, walking at my side. We were silent the whole way.

Turns out, the collapsed building was all that remained of The Roost, a small coffee shop just off of the city square. It used to be a mellow, dainty little establishment. It was almost completely destroyed in the first wave of attacks on Stalliongrad during The Great War. The centuries since haven't been kind to the place. The oak sign had all but rotted away, and the top of the doorway had fallen inward to reveal the dusty, musty interior. There were just a few tables and stilted chairs about, most of them knocked over or broken. The counter had a panoramic shelf that once displayed fresh pastries and delectable foods, now an altar to bits of shattered glass.

I nodded to one of the more or less intact tables and picked the fallen chair up, holding off on using my ice arms for it. Don't show him what you're capable of just yet.

The leg snapped off in my hoof. “... is sitting on the ground acceptable?”

“It is,” Horvahd answered, and we sat across from one another with a table conveniently broken so that it was our level. “So tell me- how did you know the griffin formal greeting? Azrael?”

“No, not quite,” I answered. “I was actually in Aldorna for equinpological research.” He arced a feathered eyebrow. “Before The Great War.” Both eyebrows now.

“You don't look like a ghoul.” The chained griffin pointed out.

“That's because I'm not a ghoul,” I answered.

“That makes you easily over one-hundred-sixty years old.” He pointed a dagger-like claw at me. “Is it because of your... unique attributes?”

Well, at least he didn't try to be insulting of my appearance. “No.”

Horvahd regarded me for a few seconds. “Do you ever find yourself questioning how you've been able to live this long?”

“Yes,” I replied. “More often now.”

He nodded stoutly, keeping his head level. “Tell me- why did you agree to meet me in person like this?”

“Because I wanted to know who was running the show, so to speak,” I responded. “That, and I want to know what The Dead Boys are doing here and in the Capital Wastes.”

“But why in person?” he repeated. “That's what I'm asking.”

I chanced a thin smile. “Because it's the griffin way.” He mirrored my smile with his own. That's right. Keep civil for now. “Now what about you, Horvahd?”

“Malcom,” he corrected. “Just... call me Malcom. And truthfully, it's because I'd rather talk alone if you wanted to know more about The Dead Boys, and- I admit- I wanted to meet the Sentinel in person. Yes, we do keep track of the airwaves.”

“Then call me Frost,” I told him. He nodded. Now to add just a bit of edge. Imply irritation. “Now, I came here for answers, but you've been asking a lot of the questions right now.”

The smile disappeared. “Of course. Ask what you must.”

Now ease off. Don't press. Keep calm. “What are The Dead Boys doing in the craters outside Stalliongrad?”

He answered, “Scavenging.” Just a hint of hesitation.

“Scavenging,” I parroted. Keep level, keep level. “In a highly radioactive megaspell blast site.”

“It's the truth,” Malcom said firmly. “We're scavenging.”

“For what, then?” I inquired, words coming out slower, stronger.

The chained avian-leonine leaned back a little before asking, “Are you sure you wish to know? You won't sleep any easier at night.”

I gave him a look. “Try me.”

Malcom inhaled deeply. “The Dead Boys are scavenging for trace materials and alchemical reagents left behind from the balefire bombs that struck outside the city over a century-and-a-half ago. Darksteel, valestone, draconium, fyrite- anything and everything. That's what they're doing here.”

I deadpanned at him for a good few seconds. “You're trying to obtain megaspell capability.”

“It seems so.” He nodded as if it was another sad fact of the world.

“To what end?” I couldn't help but let my tone slip, let it rise.

“I don't know, not for certain.” He answered with the shake of his head. I just glared at him as if I could bore holes into his head with my gaze alone. Malcom let out a sigh. “I think The Dead Boys want to make sure that nothing else ever threatens the griffin people as with what happened during The Great War and The Resource War. By any means necessary. I think they want to wipe out the Enclave.”

“And so you're going to send up balefire bombs into the sky? Do you have any idea what that will do? One, just one ICBM bound for Stalliongrad that probably could have wiped it out diverted off course and detonated midair over the Far North, and now it's a death zone because of all the radiation! It's less snowing and more dumping pure magical fallout on you!”

“By any means necessary, Frost,” Malcom repeated almost sadly, eyes downcast. “By any means necessary. And that's just what they'll do, I feel.”

As much as I wanted to kill him right now, my rage ebbed away suddenly in light of an observation I almost completely missed. “You're using 'they' instead of 'we'.”

“I am.” He nodded.

“Why?”

The chained griffin sighed, “Just because I'm a leader of The Dead Boys doesn't mean I agree with their views. I chose to speak to you alone because I don't want any of them to hear this. It's why I've been so forthcoming, if you haven't noticed. It's why I've done nothing to bring you harm.” He leaned forward against the broken table, his elbows propped against it with his hands clasped together. He tapped the tips of his dagger-like claws together.

I eyed those chains for a while. “You're the one who wiped out Vealville.”

“I am.” He nodded, a hint of remorse to his voice.

“So how can you say you don't agree with The Dead Boys if you continue to enact their will?” I challenged- civilly, calmly mind you.

“Because they fired upon us first just like with Stalliongrad.” He glared back at me, pulling his chain-forelegs back down. “Even if I don't agree with them, they are my people- and I will not stand idle and watch. I acted in self-defense.”

“Don't you think the same could have been said of Vealville?”

“It's why I gave them the option of a ceasefire,” Malcom spoke firmly. “Do you have any idea how few people actually accept that? Thank Alda for Stalliongrad- its people did!” He sighed bitterly. “Frost, you have to believe me when I say I didn't want any of that. I didn't want to just wipe Vealville and its people off the map, and I don't want to do the same to Stalliongrad. I just wanted to confirm the destruction of the S.P.P. uplink in Vealville, and I just want to do what we must in the craters and be done with it. That's it. You don't want a fight. I don't want a fight. And damn us all, if there is a fight and we lose it, The Dead Boys are going to keep coming at Stalliongrad until it's leveled.” He rest his forelegs on the table again, lowering his gaze. It oddly looked almost as if he was praying. “I already have enough on my mind. I don't need any more deaths to add to it all. Just make it easier for all of us.”

I eyed him for a while. Don't know how long. I didn't pick up any outstanding change in tone or hesitation. What he said was sounding very, very familiar. It struck a chord with me, in a way. I dropped all sense of animosity- he wasn't my enemy- and asked, “Why, then, don't you agree with The Dead Boys?”

He snorted, “It's a long story. You didn't come here for it. You just came to find out what we're doing here.”

“Well how much longer are operations going to take?” I inquired.

“There's two craters,” Malcom mused aloud. “Many of the materials are remarkably well-preserved. Maybe it's because of the cold. Whatever the case is, we probably have another week, maybe two.”

“Then we've both got time to kill, don't we?”

He clacked his beak once. “You sure? Most people don't give a damn for history anymore.”

“Well just look at me,” I retorted calmly. “I'm not 'most people'. And I used to be a historian.”

“You?” He looked up at me. “A historian? In that armor and... whatever it is you are?”

“Well,” I huffed, “the worst monsters come from the most civilized of people.”

His eyes wavered. He was looking from one chain link to the next. “Now isn't that the truth...” He pulled his forelegs back down to the floor and leveled out his head. “You asked for it. Have you ever heard of the Aldorna-Enclave Resource War? Well, other than the brief mention I made of it earlier?”

I nodded. “I have. Nobody knows the outcome of it, though.”

“You're about to find out. I did, after all, say I was from Aldorna, didn't I? I wasn't lying.” He drew a deep breath. “I'm told that before the birth of Equestria, the pegasi were a militaristic people. Am I right?”

“All too right,” I answered.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” Malcom began. “And the Enclave are right back where they started, come full circle. Take away the Raptor-class cloudships, the tech, the weaponry, and give them some old armor and spears and you've got the pre-Equestria pegasi.” He let out a sigh. “Apparently, you can only do so much in the clouds, even with cloud seeding technology providing them just enough food. Only a few mountaintops poke out above the clouds, and they were stripped bare of all resources by the Enclave so I'm told. Now a proper militaristic state needs resources. You probably know this all too well.” And I did. “Raiding Equestria itself would put a bad taste in their mouths, and Zebrica and whatever the hell they called the changeling nation are too blasted to kingdom come. So that left Aldorna.

“I still remember how it all went down. They struck fast and hard- shock and awe. We only had maybe a rust-bucket, dustbin, refurbished machine gun on one of us at best. They poured fire on us from the sky. We couldn't do anything. They'd scouted out the entire continent for major population centers- we know this for fact. We saw the dossiers, the reports. We griffins weren't unified. We had no chain of command, no infrastructure, no sense of order or leadership. We were all easy pickings. By the end of the month, the Enclave killed almost all of those who'd resisted and fought back. Herded up the rest into concentration camps. Like cattle, now that I think about it. Like cattle.

“And you know what? They enslaved us and made us mine the resources they needed.” Malcom shook his head with a huff. “Why pay for labor when you can force us for free? Just give us enough crap to eat, enough dirty water to drink, and enough rest to keep form keeling over only just half the time, right? Children too weak? Have scientists that've needed live test subjects since the day we blew ourselves to shit? There you go! Experiment on them! Doesn't matter if they die, you have thousands more!”

Malcom let out a shaky breath as he rest his forelegs back on the table, balancing his chin against the sides of his claws. He looked back up at me and spoke with a despaired tone that still makes my heart pang to this day, “We lost so much to the Enclave. So much. My son was only three weeks old. I remember just how happy Tanya and I were to have him. We were safe and secure in Avalon. Plenty of food, plenty of water, a roof over our heads. As we were herded up behind the electric fences, they took him away from us. They didn't have any use for something that young, they said. Something. I reached out for him, crying for them not to do it. I couldn't even say 'don't kill him'. I wasn't allowing myself to think that they would. But they did. Didn't even waste ammo on him. Just used those fucked up scorpion tails on their armor and tore him to shreds. Right in front of us. They wanted us to watch.” He let out a shaky sigh and cast his gaze down. “His name was Thanatos. There's just... that's just all wrong, that. All of that. And Tanya? She died of exhaustion in the mines. It was a slow death. I watched her waste away until I could count every single one her ribs through her fur. And I watched as she grew nauseous, delirious. I watched her fall beside me, panting, motionless. She never got back up. I still can't believe that it didn't even register to me. I was too exhausted to comprehend it until later.” His eyes were back on me now- weary, distant, lost. “So believe me when I say that losing my forelegs to a little too much blasting powder was nothing compared to what we lost- each of us.

“I don't know how I was lucky enough to live. Maybe I'm just unlucky don't even realize it. Stavros was one of the griffins that avoided capture. He and the other griffins with him found a cache of war-era of weapons and supplies. Many of them were designs that never reached full-scale production before the end of The Great War. And, as you can imagine...” He gripped his fists tighter together, “cybernetics was one of them. Argus was one of the other prisoners at our camp. He and Stavros coordinated a takeover of the concentration camp. I'll be damned, it worked. They saved who they could, let us rest. Did it all just in time to save me. It was our salvation, even if for only a day before we had to flee before Enclave troops retaliated.

“There were only maybe four-hundred of us still left. Argus took it upon himself to lead us to fight back against the Enclave. But we were going against such impossible odds. Even fighting guerrilla warfare, we often lost more than the enemy. We were losing hope.”

Malcom paused for a few seconds, fingering at his chains. “Have you ever seen that look in someone, someone without a shred of hope? Ever seen that... absolute emptiness in their eyes, the way they wouldn't even blink as they just stared off into the distance? How nothing seemed to get their attention at all? How you only got a reaction out of them if you punched them, and even then they just looked at you for a few seconds before staring off again? I'm sure you've seen it. Maybe you've even felt it yourself. The lethargy, the... lack of will to do anything. Just... shrugging everyone away, just wanting to lie down and rest, maybe just let go and fall asleep forever. I'm sure you've felt it.

“We needed hope, Frost. We needed it to get us back on our feet and fight to survive. But how do you do that? You look to something or someone bigger than yourself. You look to an idea or someone or something that embodies that idea. You vest faith in them and live for them. And what greater source of hope is there than religion? I think there's a saying, probably from the War. There are no atheists in foxholes. Maybe it was easier for you ponies- you had your goddess princesses. You could physically see them, talk to them, even reach out and touch them. In the end, that's what Fara thought of. She was our priestess. She said we needed to bring our gods, our pantheon down to earth.

“Fara was the first to adopt the moniker. She became Xicis, The Stark Widow and our Goddess of Piety and Anathema. When we first saw her like that, we didn't know what to think. I think a part of me felt revolted that she would try to pose as a goddess, but then I thought- isn't that what we pray for? The power of the gods? And she fit the role so perfectly with her manner of dress and action, the way she moved. It struck a chord within our hearts seeing her in battle, unable to be touched, showing the love of a goddess to her sisters and brothers and the divine wrath against our enemies. I think she even unsettled the Enclave the first time she fought. It was so otherworldly to them, so unsettling, so mystical. We eight became them- eight because there was no suitable fit for Azrael at the time and we wouldn't dare go so far as to embody Niiviin or Alda. There was Fara, Argus, Stavros, Anaiya, Grimm, Serris, Rasha... and myself. We became the leaders of our ragtag group, ordinary people turned into paragons of the virtues embodied by our respective deity.

“We still needed a name to call ourselves, though. We needed a calling card, something for the Enclave to fear. A nameless terror can only go so far.” He motioned to me with a claw. “Assigning it a name gives it staying power and meaning.” He curled that claw into a fist. “You think of a hellhound, and you immediately think of an intelligent creature able to burrow through solid rock faster than a powered wagon can drive and with claws that can cut through even the thickest of armor. We wanted that staying power, that ability to strike fear into the hearts of the Enclave like they did to us. Argus and Grimm, now Yagmarth and Javahl, thought of it first. They both lived before and through The Great War. They knew all the factions and old names that would possibly have some level of meaning to the pegasi. They settled on The Dead Boys- yes, the ones that served to protect this very city in its darkest days.” So it wasn't a coincidence. “It was a fitting name, I think. We wanted the Enclave to fear us, and we all fear the unknown. We fear what we don't understand. And death... is the great unknown, now dealt en masse to the pegasi by the hands of otherworldly deities. It also told of who we are as an organization- troops serving under gods, ready to follow them to the death.

“We pushed the Enclave back, freeing our sisters and brothers as we went. We reunified the griffin people under a single cause- crushing the enemy that dared strike us down and seek to take everything from us. And we succeeded. It took a little over a year, but we wiped out all trace of the Enclave on Aldornan soil. I still remember the euphoria of that moment, the Enclave Raptors flying back east, limping on torn storm clouds. I remember the surge of pride as our anti-aircraft missiles shot one of them down as it tried to retreat. We watched it disintegrate in midair, watched it burn. We gave the survivors no quarter, as they'd shown none to us. We never forgot what the Enclave did to Aldorna. We didn't want them to forget either.

“Our work was far from over, though. Aldorna was in ruins, and there were still unfathomable numbers of raiders, slavers, bandits, gangs, the like. There was a surge of nationalism among The Dead Boys, and we wouldn't dare take the fight to the Enclave just yet while our country was still in shambles. We restored order, yes, but this is the part that I think you've been waiting for.

“Argus... Yagmarth is undoubtedly our leader now. Say what you want, think what you want about the seven left of us all being leaders- Argus is the true leader of The Dead Boys. He saw firsthand what we accomplished, but I think he saw wrong how we accomplished it in the first place. He believed that we only banded together out of fear, not necessity.”

Malcom paused, tapping his claws together. “Fear is our basest emotion, Frost. You can argue otherwise, but you know it's true. I know it's true. Fear is what drives us- it's our motivation. We feared starving, so we ate. We feared not having anything to eat, so we learned to hunt and cultivate. We feared our own beak and claw not being enough, so we fashioned weapons and tools. We feared others using their weapons to take from us, so we banded together. We feared infighting, so we established rule of law, society, civilization. Fear is what drives us- it's our motivation. Fear is primal, inexplicable yet natural. And yet it can drive us to do seemingly unnatural things, fearing the power of gods we have no proof existed for instance. Fear has that power. And so The Dead Boys believe that by instilling fear, we can bring back society and rule of law back to the Wasteland. As such, they showed and continue to show no quarter to criminals.”

“I notice you're switching back to 'they',” I said, pointing out. “And there's a lot of hypocrisy in that logic.”

“Well soldiers are essentially legal murderers,” Malcom huffed. “The Dead Boys employ that logic when it comes to themselves. They either absorb others into their ranks, try to create a sense of militaristic law and order, or they terrorize until, and I quote, 'a good and civilized society is formed', end-quote. That's how they reunified Aldorna, and yes, I did take part in it.”

The cloaked griffin brought his arms off of the table with a string of metallic squeaks and clinks. “Each of these chains represents a life that I claimed since I started fighting back the Enclave. They were trophies to me back then. Every kill made me more powerful. But... there came to a point partway through our efforts to stamp out the raiders, slavers, and other criminals in Aldorna that it started to become too much.” He tugged idly at one of the chains circling his torso. “Pride became burden. The Wasteland has a cruel sense of humor.” I had to agree... “I can't fly like this. Haven't been able to for a long time. I miss the freedom. I miss that rush of feeling the air whip past and the ground falling away. I still have my wings, just...” His cloak shifted as two large bulges shuffled underneath. “Anyway, we decided to take the fight to the Enclave then. We knew that the S.P.P. towers had monitoring capability, and we knew the Enclave could use them. We used advance troopers to take out uplinks- couldn't take out the towers themselves- before setting sail for Equestria on the few warships still operable. Now that I look back, I guess it's kind of funny how we expected there to be a battle waiting for us the moment we landed in Seaddle. What we found was a slum where nobody knew anything about the Enclave or had so much as seen the sun behind the cloud cover. And it was a place ripe for us to establish a base of operations, and so we did just that. You can figure out the rest.

“Now back to your question. You asked why I don't share the same views as The Dead Boys. It's because I believe that you can't use fear as the means to spur people into doing what you want, at least not like this. Sure, it'll work most of the time, but it'll make you enemies, not friends. Fear has immense power, yes. It sparks wars, brings people together. But you don't know what people under its effects do, that whole notion of fight or flight. Do you know what happened to Aldorna? Sure, we reunified it, but only through killing our own until only the pure were left or the tainted joined our ranks.

“Make no mistake, Frost- most of us are veterans of the Aldorna-Enclave Resource War. We fought and bled in the name of saving our people. But things have changed. Now Yagmarth... Argus... I can't even tell who he is anymore. We're in enemy territory now.” He nodded upward through the open ceiling to the clouds above. “He feels vulnerable like this and wants to secure the power necessary to cover up any such vulnerability. And he wants to achieve that power through any means. He's reduced us to extremist terrorists that will take whatever job pays the best. And I'm sure you know what kind of job pays the best. It's not what we stood for. But some things, I guess, do change. Because we're looking for megaspell components right now.” He pinched a chain and tugged at it, letting it jingle with the others. “We don't need anymore enemies. I don't at least. I've already got enough on my mind. I don't need to add anymore to it all. But I've already said that. I'm just tired, Frost. I'm tired of killing, tired of adding links. I just want to do what's necessary and be done with it.”

The weary griffin leaned back, letting out a heavy sigh. “I can't tell you how good it feels to be able to just say all that. It feels good just letting... letting it all out.” He cracked a thin smile.

I gave him a brief nod. “Malcom, are you still adding chains?” I finally asked.

“Yes,” he answered plainly. “For every kill.”

“Why? You don't need to cause yourself anymore pain, so why?”

He huffed at that. Actually huffed. “Call it penance for taking things a step too far.” He then gave me a stern gaze. “But Frost, I'm serious when I ask that you don't start a fight here. Either Stalliongrad gets wiped out, or you win and then Yagmarth gets pissed and then comes and levels the entire city personally. I don't want any of those. So please, just make it easy for all of us.”

I didn't reply verbally. Instead, I sprouted an ice arm to my right, palm open. Malcom smiled, a twinkle to those old eyes as he mirrored the gesture. We clasped hands, though I did hear my ice cracking. Glad we were at least on... civil terms, if anything.

“Curious,” Malcom remarked, eying my arm as it sublimated.

“Now, one matter left to discuss,” I said, leaning back in my seat. “What's your contractor's stake in all of this?”

“What do you know about our contractor?” he asked back.

“Only that you have a new one. And that he found Niiviin for you.”

“Frost, please trust me on this.” He leaned closer. “That's practically much as I know of him.”

I deadpanned at him. “You're actually serious, aren't you?”

“Dead serious. Only Yagmarth knows. And when Yagmarth goes to you and tells you to search for megaspell components, you don't question him. What I do know is that he's been good for us. He's the one who gave us Hunters and arcsurge plasma weaponry. I don't know where he gets it or why he's so willing to give it to us. And it scares me sometimes.”

“Don't you consider that just a bit... off?” I questioned.

“Just take my word- you don't cross the griffin now known as the God of Oath and Abandon,” Malcom said, punctuating the end of his sentence by clacking a dagger-like claw on the tabletop. He sliced into it slightly. But I wasn't paying attention to that.

I was paying attention to the gunshots.

Gunshots that were rapidly growing in number and volume.

“Malcom...” I uttered, turning away.

“Oh Alda no...” We rose and rushed outside. Sure enough, Dead Boys griffins were flying overhead over the DMZ, bound for the other side of the city. “What the hell is going on?!” he roared. He looked back at me, eyes full of fear. He dug into his cloak and pulled out a headset, sliding it on. “Control, this is Horvahd! Sitrep!” A pause. I saw anger flash across his face, expression darkening.

“Malcom... what's going on?” I asked, voice rising.

“What?! What?! The fool! Cease all fire operations and recall all troops to our side of the city! Hail him back, then hail Stalliongrad and tell them it was a mistake!” A pause. “Don't you dare question me, soldier! Do it!”

“Malcom, the fuck is going on?!”

He turned to me, starting to head off as I tailed him. “Another leader is here and ordered the troops to open fire! Damn it! Damn it all!”

“What?! Who?!”

There was an earth-shaking impact behind us, and I wheeled around... to find a large griffin male in an Aldornan cosmonaut suit, chem injection pods fully restocked.

And a flamethrower hissing maliciously.

“Did ya miss me?” Javahl sneered behind the helmet.

I tried to react in time, tried to bring my ice armor up as I leaped away. I was fast.

Javahl was faster.

I felt my focus break as the wall of gold-orange surrounded me, the heat sapping my strength and leaving me gasping. The ice I managed to form and slowly thicken quickly fell off in great chunks as the jellied petroleum splattered over me and into my open mouth. The searing flames erupted all over and burned me inside and out. This was pain that not even She could shield me from.

...

Do you know what scares me most about fire? If you're completely swallowed up in flames, the eyes go first.

The eyes go first.

* * *

Footnote: Frost- Condition Unavailable

Rig- Condition Unavailable

Azrael- Condition Unavailable

Unlockables added: To the Death, Theme of The Dead Boys

Commission Art- Pantheon, by MisterMech

Theme of The Shackled Judge, Horvahd (special thanks to Broadestpeak)

Author's Note:

Whew, finally broke the 200,000 word barrier. About time, huh? My thanks to the FoE community, especially Kkat for creating a universe so strangely enticing and enticingly strange. My gratitude extends to Broadestpeak for editing and to you for reading. Please leave a comment- feedback makes my day. Really.

Please check out the Ask Frost Windchill tumblr as well!

Lastly, my parents are... cutting into my computer time and writing time significantly this summer. I’m sorry, but progress will be much slower due to restricted time unless things improve. Until then, I hope you bear with me. Thank you.

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