• 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 Three: The Long Walk

Chapter Three: The Long Walk

Well... good to see you've all come back, especially you fellas who skipped out last time. I hope the others have been filling you in on what's happened since.


And I hope you're aware, I'm not pulling any punches. You'll get every nitty-gritty-shitty detail from me. All the violence. All the profanity. All the blasphemy.

Wha...? You weren't gone because of that?

Oh, heh, DJ PoN3 was on? Should've known...

A light, husky chuckle.

Well, I'll have to plan for that next time. Can't keep you all from missing out on the exploits of Stable Dweller and Security now can I? I'd say that the heroes of the present are a damn sight more important than the tale of some old fart.

Somepony in the audience commented on how he didn't look all that old at all.

I'm flattered, sir. But anyways, I hope you can all sit a for a spell now.

Because this is where things get interesting, for our young unicorn mare at least. Possibly for me, too.

Now. Melt away.

* * *

She finished reading around... eleven, I'd say. Barely stayed awake all the while, kept nodding off. Fell asleep soon after closing the cover. Poor girl.

She still wasn't used to Wasteland earth, I noted as she kept trying to shift into a more comfortable position in her sleep. She'd have to. Eventually. Thankfully, it wasn't a long way from where we were to Stalliongrad. It'd help a little. But it was a good ways to Manehattan from there...

I kept watch. Honestly, ponies only need three hours of sleep per day on average. Once, I was alerted by some vibration along a tendril, but I think it was just a curious radscorpion or something. It didn't get any closer and soon left the vicinity.

Rig slept deeper than I would've liked, but with what she'd gone through, it would've been wrong to complain. After that burnout, though... I needed my three hours. Kept my tendrils active as I lowered myself to the ground, closed my eyes.

The Wasteland took me up into its womb of blood and darkness.

~ ~ ~

The storyteller's voice was still intact, unchanged. But there was a darker underscore to it, whispering every single word with him. Unrelenting cold seized everything and everypony.

We were killing them. All of them.

Open the door!” I heard, muffled on the other side but rising over the din of the banging. “Pleeaaaaase! There are families out here! Familieeees!”

But the gear-shaped Stable door stayed shut, never budging. Made to withstand a balefire bomb detonation just outside.

We've got to let them in!” I exclaimed, eyes wide, panting harshly as I fought for the controls, two security stallions holding me back, my over-exhausted body screaming in protest. “Luna damn your souls, let them in!”

Frost Windchill,” the Overmare, a pretty little thing spoke. Calm. Level. Collected. Each word crisp and clear. “You're mind isn't right. We all know the trauma you just went through. You aren't thinking straight. We must preserve the integrity of Stable Seventy-Two. We cannot compromise the safety of the many for the safety of the few.”

I was no longer fighting. I was standing attention. Nopony held me back now. I felt calm. Level. Collected.

And so, so empty inside...

Yes, ma'am,” I said mechanically, gears spinning in my head. “Of course, ma'am.”

Now resume your post,” the Nightmare, a foul little devil spoke. Dark. Acidic. Sinister. Each word raspy and piercing. “We cannot let any of them enter with surface radiation levels of that magnitude.”

Yes, ma'am,” I said mechanically, her voice reciprocated through me. “Of course, ma'am.”

The Stable door was transparent now. The writhing, rising mass of desperately-banging bodies piled up, eyes wide with fear. Stallions. Mares. Colts. Fillies. Foals. Buffalo. Griffins. Dragons. Zebrassssssss...





The whole world banging at our door. They were all going to die out there.
I wanted to cry out. Wanted to stop the insanity. Wanted to just fall to my knees, plug my ears, try to drown out all those screams, those horrible, horrible screams. I wanted to do something, anything.

But I did nothing. The gears kept clinking in my head.

They all rammed their hooves against the door. All those millions, piling up. The whole world.

But the gear-shaped door stayed shut, never budging.

The safety of the many for the safety of the few. I turned my back to them.

Cold logic.

~ ~ ~

The storyteller's voice was back to normal now. The cold was gone as quickly as it had come.

I ground my eyes open. The nightmares wouldn't leave me. Why would they? Why should they?

I spotted Rig already up, heating a can of yams over the fire, her soft, gray aura surrounding her horn and the food. Shit, how long was I out?

“Rest well?” I asked, rising to my hooves, startling her. She only jumped, though. Her magic didn't implode or anything. Focus. Good sign.

“Yeah...” she groaned, voice sleep-roughened but forcing a smile, scratching her cloud-colored mane. “You?”

I somehow knew she would ask that question, and I dreaded it.

“Well enough,” I answered her. I hoped my voice was even enough to keep from betraying my lie. It was partly true, at least. “What time is it?”

She checked her PipBuck and replied, “Six-eleven. Bright and early.” Bright and early for her, perhaps. But I'd gone and overslept for at least another hour than I wanted.

“Dammit...” I murmured. “Well, at least nothing got us during the ni...”

I paused. The familiar weight of Luna's Judgment was missing from its proper place in the quick-draw pocket of my saddlebags. It was propped up against the wall behind Rig. I felt for the tendrils. All of them were tripped.

And then I saw it. The curled-up corpse of a radscorpion, a big, nasty thing the size of a pony. Mutated to impossible proportions when balefire rolled across the land. A cap-sized hole was in its carapace, its body laid off to the side of the entrance.

I looked back at Rig. She smirked.

“You learn fast,” I remarked, forming an ice arm and snatching a can of yams from the wagon. “And Luna Almighty, when did that happen?”

“About an hour ago,” the mare responded. “And boy does your gun kick like a mule! Almost damn near smacked me back in the head! The hay do you fire that thing so easily?”

An hour ago, and I didn't even notice it in my sleep. How on Equestria did I manage to sleep through an unsuppressed shot from Luna's Judgment, and from a slug no less? I had to get my head in the game. No more of these costly mistakes.

“You get used to it,” I answered, walking around the fire to pick my weapon up with an extended ice arm, stowing it away. “That drum's full of two-kilogram slugs. You have any idea how much powder's behind each of those shells?”

“I can guess!” Rig chuckled, noting what I did. “Why're you walking over here for?”

“I only have so much a range with my ice arms,” I said, seating down near her, though farther from the fire. “Another downside.”

“Yeesh, and I thought that you were some kind of bulletproof demon or something.” She grinned and ate while heating another can the way I showed her. Me? I just ate straight out of one, nice and cold. It's all pre-cooked anyways.

“Not bulletproof either.” I sighed in content as the cold slush eased my still-scratchy throat.

“Seemed damn bulletproof to me.” Rig shrugged, telekinetically lifting up another can. “Up for another?”

“Sure, thank you,” I said, and she tossed it over. I caught it with an ice arm and took a moment to wolf it down. Quick and clean. “As I was saying, I'm not bulletproof. Bullet-resistant seems more appropriate. That was twenty-two rimfire yesterday. One of the tiniest bullets ever mass-produced, used for small-game back in the pre-war era. My ice armor just offers protection from blunt trauma out to intermediate cartridges.”

“Like the five-five-six NETO round?” Rig asked.

“No need to show off that you read The Guide, young mare.” I raised an eyebrow, though I smirked a little to show her I wasn't being too serious. “Nopony's going to praise you for it. Yes, like the five-five-six. Anything like a full-sized rifle cartridge, and I'm just praying for a deflection or I'll have to increase the width of my armor.”

“And why don't you do that, then?”

“Girl, aren't you a barrel of questions today!” I chuckled. “Because when it comes to ice armor, it's a matter of mobility, versatility, and visibility versus protection and durability. I can make my ice armor thick enough to withstand a fifty-caliber Bronco Machine Gun barrage, but I'll be sluggish in every possible manner, I won't be able to use ice arms to hold my weapons, and all that ice will warp light and I won't be able to see. Short of the situation in which there actually is somepony using fifty-BMG, it's usually not worth it.”

“But you could technically become a living shield,” Rig mused.

“Yes.” I nodded. “Where are you going with this?”

“Just something to keep in mind for the future,” she answered. “So you said your thickest ice armor prevented you from making arms. That mean you can only control so much ice?”

“Well...” I paused for a second. This was getting a bit too deep for me. “More like using ice arms becomes infeasible once I'm a giant hunk of ice. I can't see what I'm hitting too well, so I can't hope to hit anything in any case. But anyways, let's talk about today's plan. We're going to head southwest to Stalliongrad. It'll be our checkpoint on the way to Manehattan.”

“Alright.” Rig nodded. “So, we're walking then?”

“We, we certainly won't be taking this wagon,” I told her, motioning to it. “One, because I find it a little cruel to have you travel with this thing again after what you've been through. Two, because-”

“-it makes you stand out like a sore hoof in the middle of the Wasteland.” Rig finished. “Raiders and slavers will take shots at you faster than you can say 'dinner is served'.”

“You learn fast,” I repeated with a smile and a nod. “Even though it's straight from The Guide. Yeah, the only advantage it offers is increased carrying capacity, something slavers need, of course...” I looked at her expression and quickly sputtered out, “Uh... sorry. Now, we'll have to salvage what we can from this. Your barding and saddlebags were confiscated and sold away I assume?”

The young mare nodded, grumbling, “And all my tools...”

“We'll trade for what we can in Stalliongrad, get replacements if possible,” I spoke. “For now, I can carry what we need. I'm used to packing heavy.” I patted my high-capacity saddlebags. “Just make sure everything's organized in there while I start cleaning up.”

A light chime came from her PipBuck and we both glanced at the screen. It read, “New objective- Resupply at Stalliongrad”.

“Is it... normally supposed to do that?” she asked.

“I guess.” I shrugged. “I've seen those things do some pretty neat stuff before. Which reminds me... right, let's see if I remember how to do this.” I fought to dig up a memory buried deep. “Ehhh... alrighty. Deputize. Confirmation, Frost Windchill.”

Rig looked down at her PipBuck as an angry beep sounded off, the screen reading, “Command Failed. Error Code: 313. Superior Is Not Registered With Stable 3.”

“Override,” I spoke. “Confirmation...” I paused, thinking for a bit, “Whisky-Fife-Whiskey-Fife-Lima-Niner-One.”

A light chime sounded, the screen now reading, “Override accepted. Deputized.”

“Whoa...” Rig widened her eyes as the PipBuck's spell matrix kicked in and created a holographic display over her eyes, which resembled a curved grid of sorts from my end. From her end, though, she'd have access to some pretty hefty gadgetry.

“This'll help you out with situational awareness,” I told her. “That's called an Eyes-Forward Sparkle, or E.F.S. You've got a limited radar that will keep track of friendlies and hostiles in the area.” Seeing her open her mouth, I cut her off. “Don't ask me how it tells the difference, because I have absolutely no idea. Hopefully, you should be seeing me as a blue marker or something to show I'm a friendly. Am I right?” Rig nodded. “See? I'm not some 'bulletproof demon' out to kill ya! Moving on, you also have a monitor that'll track your current bodily condition. Namely, this is to show where you've been hit and whatnot in addition to how injured you are when you get hurt.”

“Don't you... mean 'if'?” she asked.

I just stared blankly at her. “Did you forget where you are, Rig?”

“Right, continue.”

“Well, other than more advanced inventory management and an alert system, that's all I know about it for now.” I put a hoof to my chin. “I know it has other hoofy-doofy things, but I think you can figure them out on your own. Now, I'll start getting this place cleaned up. Just try to make some sense of order out of the stuff in the wagon and I'll handle the rest.”

What I didn't tell her was that her deputized PipBuck had a lovely little thing called S.A.T.S. But since she didn't have proper weapons of her own yet (Again, never carry just one!), I decided to hold off on that. Remember, I did say “for now”.

Put the fire out (from a safe distance), picked up our cans, the fire cover, and the enchanted logs. Started looting the barding that remained of the late Mister Britches. Not much on him. He kept most of his things in the wagon. Just a few extra magazines for his carbine (now trashed) and fifty caps. And a packet of cigarettes. All these I kept, though the magazines and cigarettes were just for trading material.

Rig did her job nicely. Everything was neatly piled so I could take what we needed- all the food and medical supplies took first priority. Then came the survival gear. Last came the mildly irradiated water. Then I began to tear down the wagon for its metal.

“Really?” she stared. “You're already packing plenty, Frost.”

“You've seen my weapons,” I told her. “You never know when the scrap metal you save might be useful. Besides, you can always trade for a handful of caps. Every bit counts. Don't expect me to load up on everything forever, though. Once we get you some proper gear, I expect you to do some lifting yourself. Got it?”

She did have a lovely smirk.

Now carrying an extra fifty pounds or so on my back, I gave the brahmin a bit of food before setting her free. She didn't move at all, actually. But she would get hungry sooner or later and go find something to eat on her own.

“Remember the four rules I set down for us,” I spoke as I sublimated the ice tendrils I laid in the ground last night (Pfft... whatever good they did me that night). “The last thing your Stable needs is for you to die too. It's my responsibility to keep you alive, so the easier you make my job, the better.”

“Got it.” Rig nodded.

“Then we're off,” I said as we started out the crevice and worked our way southwest. “With you and this weight, I can't travel like I normally can. Just match my pace, and don't be afraid to tell me if you need a break.”

“Break?” She smirked. “Are you taking me for a softie?”

“I can tell you're still not used to Wasteland soil, Rig. Until you are, we're not taking any chances. The last thing we need is a sore hoof or a cramped muscle slowing you down when a raider party bears down on us.”

“Right...” She sighed.

“You learn fast, Rig.” I tried to encourage her. “Something tells me you adapt fast, too. You'll get used to it in time. You'll have to.”

She nodded, smiling a bit. Then, as if running back through my previous statement, she asked, “'When' a raider party bears down on us?”

“It's the Wasteland, Rig.”

The earth-colored mare chuckled a little as we walked. As we did, I formed an ice arm, flicked out my blade and began twirling and rolling it between my fingers. It was still a little dark outside, but the soft glow from the clouds meant that morning was just around the corner. Believe me when I say that it's one of the few things in this Goddess-forsaken place that has at least some semblance of beauty.

Because otherwise the Wasteland greeted us both with its same dreary atmosphere, its same dreary landscape, and its same dreary desolation. I really hate the Wasteland.

“So... what's that?” she asked me, indicating my blade. “I mean, I know it's a knife, but...”

“It's not in The Guide, I know,” I said as I played with the weapon. “It's called a balisong, also known as a butterfly knife by folks who don't know otherwise. It's the griffin equivalent to our switchblades. It... just requires a bit more finesse, a bit more... refinement than those cheap little knick-knacks. Rather difficult to use with hooves, but that's what hands are for. Or magic.” I whipped up the blade, rolling it around my frozen thumb to close it. “Or both. Now, some might say that balisongs in general are just 'flashy'.”

I closed the safety latch and placed the blade back into its pouch on my left forehoof. I then whipped it out, squeezed the handles to pop the spring latch, and flicked the lower handle up while making a sweeping motion with my hand, moving my thumb out of the way as it swung around and came back down to connect with the other handle, blade now exposed. All in about a half-second.

“Ain't just for show either.” I smirked. “I'd like to see anypony call a balisong 'fancy, not fast'. Made this beauty myself.” I began to play with it again. “Happened to snag a hellhound claw and wore it down until it formed a blade.”

“Jeez, don't those things cut through damn near everything?” She stared.

“Damn. Near. Everything.” I nodded, flicking in the wrong way and causing the blade to slice through my fingers. I reformed them and caught the balisong before it clattered to the ground. “Even had to use a bit of the leftover claw to line the handles so it won't just slice through.”

“And how exactly is it you don't cut yourself like that constantly?” the earth-coated mare asked, noting how I used the blade itself to manipulate the weapon half of the time.

“You see,” I held the balisong open for now, “there's a dull edge of the blade.” I tapped the top-facing edge with a finger, nothing happening. “There's also a sharp edge.” I repeated with the bottom-facing edge, the finger slicing neatly off. “See the handle? The safety latch is on the handle that is on the same side as the sharp edge when it's open.” I tapped at the peg sticking out of the lower handle. “We call this handle the 'bite' handle because it's the handle the sharp edge closes into. The other handle is thus the 'safe' handle. The rest is just hand-eye coordination and muscle memory. Or, uh, magic memory.”

“Huh... got a name for it?” Rig inquired, impressed. “I only ask because of your shotgun.”

“I do, as a matter of fact.” I grinned as I rolled the blade shut then twirled her into a reverse grip. “Midnight Talon. She's certainly earned the title.”

“Sounds like a fitting name,” she remarked. “Anything else you have up your sleeves?”

“One more weapon, yes.” I nodded, taking it out while Midnight Talon continued to go clickety-clack in my other hand.

The storyteller removed yet another weapon from his side with an icy hand. This time, it was a pistol, again colored black with stylistic carvings. Nothing about it seemed out of the ordinary outside of a slightly extended barrel, a sharpened flat-head screwdriver welded under the barrel as an improvised bayonet, and a magazine longer than the weapon itself.

“Semi-automatic double-action pistol,” I told her. “With a few modifications. I call her Night Fang.”

“No patterns?” Rig noted. Back then, there were none on it.

“I don't plan on keeping her for long,” I told her, not knowing that I eventually would. “She just serves the weapon role for the moment I can't effectively handle with only Midnight Talon and Luna's Judgment.”

“What moment is that?”

“The 'oh-shit' moment.” I smiled, eliciting a chuckle for her. “When I need to get out a wall of bullets or spray an area down, this is what I use to do it. Forty-five ACP is cheap and common enough for it.”

“Spraying with a semi-automatic pistol?” The earth-coated unicorn blinked in confusion. “Doesn't that just spit out a bullet for each pull of the trigger?”

“Heh... you'll see what I mean if the chance arises.” I smiled knowingly, stowing Night Fang away.

“By the way, what's your cutie mark?” Rig inquired.“Never got a chance to ask and your armor covers it.”


Dammit, dammit, dammit.

“Nothing important.” I dismissed her. “I'll tell you later.”

“Is it really that bad?” She canted her head.

“It's... something don't wish to talk about.” I sighed. “I pray you respect that.”

“Okay, okay.” Rig looked away into the distance.

We walked in silence broken only by the clikety-clack of Midnight Tallon.

Silence was something I had gotten used to since the... incident. Sometimes I'd spent weeks without contact from anypony. But, now that there was someone I was on at least good terms with... silence seemed so foreign to me. Somehow, I'd become a freakin' chatterbox.

“You know... I hope you're looking around every so often.” I cautioned her after about twenty minutes of just walking in silence.

“Oh, right!” Rig shot her head up and began checking around us in regular intervals from then on. “Sorry 'bout that.”

“I'm just trying to help you survive in general.” I sighed. “You can't even trust your E.F.S. to catch everything for you, what with its limited range. Though honestly,” I tapped my chin with another ice arm, “not too many ponies come up to the Far North. From here to the Stalliongrad area, you'll hardly find anypony, not even raiders. Though, of course, that's the reason why slavers use this place so often. Raiders often target them too, so up here they're practically free-roaming.” I looked at her and faceicepalmed. “Sorry, that was downright insensitive.”

“Oh, no worries.” Rig smiled. “That's all steam through the pipes now.”

I had to roll through that phrase a few times to get it.

“Isn't the saying 'water under the bridge'?” I blinked. Then I remembered- Stable pony. Of course.

“Where'd you hear that?” she asked.

“Never mind, never mind.” I shook my head.

More silence. Whenever Rig wasn't looking around us, she was a bit shifty-eyed. Finally, she asked, “Can we... take a break?”

“Sure thing,” I answered, seating myself and scanning the flat horizon. Nothing about the scenery changed. Cracked, dry land. Bleached skeleton here, boulder there. Enough continuity to make a less-experienced traveler to wonder if he'd been walking around in circles.

“I can't imagine how ponies manage to survive out here.” The unicorn beside me sighed, sitting down too. “It's all so... dreary.”

“It's not easy,” I said to her. “And it's certainly not easy to survive the right way, without devolving into a raider or slaver or some other criminal scum. The Wasteland...” I let out a deep exhale, expelling a cool mist. “The Wasteland has a way of turning you into something else. The Wasteland corrupts everything.”

Rig looked at me, asking, “Did it corrupt you?”

I sighed lightly, closing my eyes. “Yes.”

“... do you want to talk ab-

“No.” I exhaled coolly, mist seeping from my mouth. I opened my eyes again. “I don't have to. You've already seen it.”

Rig swallowed hard.

“Rig...” I sighed again, “I'm not going to hurt you the moment you say something the wrong way. I'm no monster to good ponies like you.” I grinned. “I'm just a monster to ponies who aren't.”

“Clearly,” she chuckled dryly. “So, what was your Stable like?”

“Well, that's a question I can answer for you.” I relaxed a little, happy for some conversation without that tension. “The one thing that made Stable Seventy-Two special for me was...” A glint of light caught my eye in the distance. “... fuck.”

I felt the familiar crack of a high-caliber round striking the ground past me and I crumpled to the ground in a heap, Midnight Talon clattering to the Wasteland floor as my ice arm shattered. Rig ducked and cried out, eyes full of panic as the distant crack of the weapon caught up a second later. I knew she was looking at the “wound” as ice crinkled over my forehead.

I couldn't get up and tell her it was okay, that I was completely unharmed, that I was feigning death. I wanted to, but I couldn't. I didn't know how far away our attackers were. I couldn't risk losing the element of surprise against an enemy with that kind of firepower.

I was relying on her for this one. I prayed she wouldn't get herself hurt as she finally seemed to remember what I told her about cover.

Unfortunately, the Wasteland seemed to hate my guts and there was no cover to be found nearby, save for a boulder roughly fifty meters away. She made a mad dash for it, but dust kicked up as another heavy-caliber round struck nearby. She just froze in panic, like a deer caught in a bright light. And then she just fell to the ground and covered her head as hoofsteps neared.

Something prodded me in a place I did not want to be prodded. And then hit me there.

Yep. I knew I was going to kill them before I even knew who they were.

“Yep, he's dead alright,” a cracked, female voice sounded as a hoof stepped over me. “Funny... woulda sworn I missed.” Scrappy, black-colored armor falling apart in different places. That was a raider alright. It would explain the missed shots. As we all know, raiders are known for a lot of things. Accuracy isn't one of them.

I had a good look at the poor excuse for a sniper. The unicorn mare was wearing a torn barding with scraps of metal for armor. A massive scoped anti-materiel rifle, looking worse for wear, was slung on her back. Aaaaand she had a pony ear necklace, of course she had a pony ear necklace. Rig's first encounter with raiders and the bitch had to be wearing that type of stuff.

The other two were earth pony bucks. One had a beat-up assault rifle of some sort. The other, a combat shotgun. Aaaaaand both were wearing bardings made of pony hides. Oh, thank you so much, Wasteland. You have to just go and do that to Rig, don't you, you bastard? She was looking damn queasy right about now, and only four words were said, dammit...

“I call first dibs.” Shotgun pony sneered down at her.

Rig had just recently read The Equestrian Wasteland Survival Guide. Because of that, she knew what raiders did to mares and fillies. Her eyes went wide and her mouth closed up tight.

Did I mention I really hated the Wasteland?

Right about now, I wanted to get up and kill these bastards, but scoped rifle unicorn kept her eye on me.

“Hold up, hold up...” She raised an eyebrow. “Didn't we see this guy somewhere?”

And now the others' eyes were on me. Just my luck.

“Bounty board, uh... seven-hundred-something alive and two-hundred caps dead, I think?” Assault rifle pony scratched his head, voice ragged. “Not worth hauling his dead ass around.”

Hooray for me.

“Well, lookie here!” Shotgun pony was tugging at Rig now, holding her by her forehoof as she tried to squirm away, grinning and bringing her close to his face. “She's from a Stable! Come on, sweetie, where you-”

Thank Luna for the magic words, “from a Stable”. It took all eyes off of me and onto Rig.

Also, thank Luna that Rig decided at that moment to act and threw a mean uppercut with her right hoof that caught shotgun pony in the jaw. I knew I heard something crack as I spurred into action.

The unicorn went down first as I formed ice armor around me, an arm sprouting from my shoulders, snatching up Midnight Talon and flicking it open in an instant. Springing to my hooves before the bitch knew what was going on, I stabbed upward just inward of her left foreleg. The blade easily punched through her light armor and into her lung. I sliced down into her guts, the hellhound blade easily shearing through barding, bone and muscle alike. The remaining raiders' attention shifted from Rig to me as the bitch crumpled toward me, hacking blood. I stood firm, snagging her with my hooves and holding her in front of me as she went into shock. The other two finally brought up their weapons and opened fire.

Right into My Little Meatshield.

Buckshot and bullet tore into the crippled mare, the shots that punched through her pinging against my ice armor. I smiled inwardly as the bitch's eyes widened in surprise, lifeblood spattering against me. Thank Luna that assault rifle wasn't-

Nope, I thought as something punched through and sank into neck. That was a full-sized rifle cartridge in that AR, dammit. Only four seconds had passed, and my meatshield was getting chewed up with each passing millisecond thanks to the combined automatic fire of the combat shotgun and the assault rifle. I needed a quick-draw weapon, stat.

Looks like Rig would get that demonstration after all. She was lying on the ground behind the two, though, still dazed even after slugging that raider.

“Rig!” I yelled to get her attention. Well, at least the bullet didn't seem to hit anywhere important seeing I could still yell. “Move!”

I sprouted an ice arm and whipped Night Fang up as she finally snapped back into reality and scrambled away. No time to suppress it, I opened up on the two raiders, pulling my icy trigger finger in an uneven blur. The bark-like gunshots sometimes overlapped as I practically dumped ten-plus rounds per second into them, Night Fang's slider repeatedly slamming back under the volume of ejected casings. Their barding offered no protection as the big, fat .45 Automatic Colt Pistol rounds bit into them, spraying all over the place and pockmarking the raiders (and the ground around them) easily until their leg bones snapped under the sheer volume of fire I laid down.

Night Fang had a mean bite.

I pulled the trigger a few times too many and it fell slack, slider locked back, magazine empty. I pushed the limp unicorn mare to the ground, forming another ice arm to snag another magazine while I ejected my current one. I slammed the fresh one home before the old one hit the ground, slider moving forward and ready to fire with Midnight Talon ready to cut and plunge.

The unicorn and shotgun pony were dead. AR pony was still breathing, barely. I tilted Night Fang up. No need to use up any more ammunition than I had already wasted. I slipped her away while I stepped over the unicorn's corpse to the survivor. I lifted my hoof, ice muscles sliding over my leg, and then crushed his head underhoof. Muscle tendrils turning to mist, I wiped Midnight Talon on his fur before stowing her back in her pouch.

I gotta say, I have never felt more satisfied killing raiders.

“Hey, Rig, you alright?” I asked, my ice armor still kept up for now as I looked for her.

“Y-Yeah...” She panted, not too far away, trotting slowly closer, shaking, “I'm fine...”

“Come here, let me take a look at you.” I got closer. She didn't appear to have any injuries. She just looked shaken up. “Yeah... you're alright. How do you feel?”

She just stared at me with those big, round, indigo eyes. Right... such a stupid question...

“You... you took a bullet through the head!” she shrieked, almost bursting into tears. “I thought you were dead!”

I tried to smile a little as I told her, “No, I just made it look that way. Ice can warp light, remember? That's how I cloaked myself yesterday. Raiders are piss-poor marksponies. Shot went past me and I just faked a wound. I was never hurt, okay? I'm fine. I'm more concerned about you right now.”

“But... what about...?” She pointed at my neck.

My... neck?

Oh damn. Forgot about that.

Feeling we were out of any imminent danger, I sublimated my ice armor and formed a reflective square so I could see the wound. The bullet was embedded halfway through my neck, just barely skirting my windpipe. Then I looked a little more. Two more holes joined it, one closer to my jaw and another near the base of my neck. Blood was trickling down a little, matting my coat. Cheating death didn't concern me. I barely felt a thing. Why? I should've just fallen down during that firefight.

“I've had worse.” I sighed, thinning my frozen fingers enough to pull the bullets out and flick them away. It was a process that took a few seconds and made Rig shudder from the disgusting, wet, fleshy sounds. She couldn't tear her eyes away. I barely felt it... “Nothing a shot of healing potion won't fix.”

I pulled one out of my saddlebags, a small bottle filled with a purple fluid capped with a stopper. Yanked it off, took a swig and stopped it back up after I used up about a third of the potion. No need to waste what wasn't necessary when it came to medical supplies. I looked back in the mirror and watched as my flesh knit back together before my eyes.

Barely felt a thing...

“Frost?” Rig walked up to me, her head canted to the side, concerned. “You okay?”

A dry laugh escaped my lips, shaking my head, “Rig... you almost got raped by a pair of raiders, and you ask if I'm okay from a few bullets to the neck?”

“It's... I...” Rig stammered, a little scared again, “never... never mind...”

“Well, much appreciated, but I'm quite fine,” I tipped an imaginary hat to her with a hand and began to search shotgun pony for usable loot, still laughing quietly. Rig stood there for a few seconds before she realized what I was doing and (slowly, nervously) did the same to the unicorn mare. She tried to put some distance from the one whose head was now a permanent part of the Wasteland earth. We did this wordlessly.

We were done after a few minutes. I found twenty buckshot shells, a hoofful of caps, and three weapons to sell for a few scraps. The anti-material rifle took time to disassemble into pieces that would fit into my saddlebags, but it would fetch a good price, as would the ammunition.

“So,” I finally spoke. I barely felt a thing, what was going on? “Your first encounter with raiders. What do you think?”

“Let's just get what we need and go.” Rig sighed shakily as she went over to the unicorn mare's corpse. The armored barding began to glow a light gray as she began to undo it. Was she... taking it?

“What are you doing, Rig?” I asked her, getting up.

“I'm just getting some armor.” She dropped the magical aura with a grumble.

“Not from these ponies.” I shook my head. “You'll-”

“What is it now?” Rig looked at me, shoulders slumping. “Dammit, I'm just trying to get myself some decent armor so you don't ha-”

“This isn't about me.” I cut her off. “If we get within distance of-”

“For fuck's sake, Frost!” she exploded as her aura dropped again. “I'm just trying to get some armor so I won't be a Goddess-damned lia-”

Listen to me!” I roared, teeth bared. Rig cringed and stood still, eyes wide. “You dress in raider armor, and the snipers at Stalliongrad will blow your damn head off your shoulders! Do you know why, Rig? Huh?” My voice was growing hoarse by now. “Do you know why? It's because you'll look like of them! And the only Goddess-damned thing more accurate than incoming enemy fire is friendly fire!” I grasped the stunned unicorn with a freshly-sprouted ice arm, hissing, “And do you know what friendly fire is? Friendly fire sure as hell is! Not! Fucking! Friendly!”

I panted softly, my rage slowly draining. And then I noticed her eyes...

Many ponies in the audience had been jarred from his spell by his outburst. He sounded unlike anything they'd ever heard. The storyteller paused, eyes downcast. Paused for a long time.

… her eyes were as wide as when that raider stood over her, shaking as if she were trying to look anywhere else but at me and failed to do so. Her lips were trembling ever so lightly.

“Oh...” I dropped her, and she sprawled to the ground on her back, scrambling away for a few feet. “Oh, Goddesses... oh, Luna... R-Rig, I...”

I tried to get closer, but she just kicked away. One look at those trembling eyes and those trembling lips, and I knew I couldn't finish that sentence.

“Frost,” she whispered shakily, on the verge of tears. “Let's... just get away from this place... far away...”

* * *

I didn't say anything as we walked. I didn't say anything as she levitated a can of yams out of my saddlebags. I just sliced the lid off for her as she lifted it away, and she ate it cold. I didn't say anything as we set up camp, as she ate again, and as she fell asleep on the cold, Wasteland earth. She didn't either. What was there to say?

I didn't eat, didn't sleep. We were smack-dab in the middle of the Wasteland, and I didn't want a repeat of last night. I watched as Rig tossed fitfully in her sleep, eyes fluttering under her lids. She was having nightmares. I shuddered to think that I was somehow haunting her even in her dreams. I dared not join her in rest. I didn't deserve that luxury.

I just watched the darkness unfold around us. Everything was still but us and the crackling fire.

I wandered away, further into the cold. Somehow, I had the feeling that nothing would touch her while I was gone.

I walked just far enough so that our camp was but a dot in my vision. There is a certain serenity to darkness and coldness. I always found peace in them before. But not tonight. I turned my back to the camp.

The Wasteland greeted me with open arms.

“Why can't I get over it?” I asked. “Why?”

The Wasteland was silent.

“Why does it always just set me off like that? After all these years? Why?”

The Wasteland was silent.

“No... no, that's not it, and you know it.”

The Wasteland was silent.

“Stop fucking with me!” I growled “You know the answer! Don't tell me you don't know!”

The Wasteland was silent.

“Just shut up...” I sighed.

The Wasteland was silent.

“Shut... up,” I growled dangerously.

The Wasteland was silent.

“I said shut up!” I hissed.

The Wasteland was silent.

I roared out my cry to the Wasteland.

The Wasteland roared back.

I stumbled back in a start, eyes wide, panting. Did I... did I sound like that?

Nonono, that wasn't me. It was some... some radigator or something. Yes, a radigator. I didn't sound like that. I certainly didn't sound like that, only a beast, only an animal could sound like that. It was a radigator, because that certainly wasn't me.

“Radigators do not live this far north, Frost.”

“Wh... no... no, don't you come back...”

“Listen to yourself. You are in denial.”

“Goddess-damn it, you're dead!”

“Everypony knows that. Everypony but you.”

“Why don't you just leave me alone?! Why don't you leave me be?!”

“... why do you want me gone, Frost? Do you really want me gone?”


“Denial, Frost.”

“What do you want?”

“What do you want?”

“Don't turn it around on me like this... please...”

“What do you want?”

“Don't turn it into a reversal, don't turn it into a reversal!”

“What do you want?”

“Please... just... just stop.”

“What do you want?”

“Stop... please...”

“What do you want?”


“What do you want?”

“... I just... I just want to be able to save a single life... a single life that deserves to be saved. I didn't want to hurt her, and I still don't want to hurt her... but you know what? I'm already starting to corrupt her! How's that for poetry? The Wasteland corrupted me, now I corrupt her! Poetry! Sick poetry! Graaaaaaaah... I'm hurting her...”

“... did you want to hurt me?”

“No! Never in my life, no!”

“... seven times, Frost. Seven times.”

“... but...”

I faced Her.


After all these years.

I faced Her.

“Seven times, Frost,” She whispered to me, tears streaming from Her eyes. “Not six, seven.”

“... I'm so sorry... I'm so sorry...”

The Wasteland was silent.

But the Wasteland hears everything.

* * *

“Is it a curse?” I asked Her, looking skyward and seeing nothing but gray.

“Some would view it as a blessing,” She whispered.

I just laughed, a sad, dry, dead, husky, old, cold, heartless, hopeless, mirthless laugh.

“Why do you choose to live like this, Frost?” She asked with a gentleness only She could muster. “I question not why you choose to live on, but why live in this way?”

“Because nopony would understand.” I smiled, dry lips cracking.

“Frost, you are living a life of lies. What makes you better than them?”

“Who's 'them'?”

“You know who I am talking about...”

“... because I choose to fight against them,” I answered.

“And how long will it be before you become one of them?” She asked. “Did you not tell me once that you value honesty above almost all else?”

“I...” I met Her eyes. “I have my code of ethics, and I've always lived by them.”

“Always?” She looked so, so sad.

“I...” My heart seemed to skip a beat, then thundered hard in my breast.

She looked upon me so very worriedly. “Frost.”

“No... not always,” I looked away in shame.

“Do you feel regret, Frost?” Her voice was ginger. “Are you shamed?”

“Yes, yes I feel regret!” I faced Her, eyes wide. “Of course I'm shamed!

“...Frost,” She whispered. “Go back to her. You know what you have to do.”

I looked into Her eyes. “But what if I fail?”

She looked into mine. “You will not.”

I closed my eyes and breathed a shaky sigh. “But what about you?”

I opened my eyes and Rig was there, eyes glazed and dark.

“Who are you talking to, Frost?” she whispered.

I looked down at her, mouth ajar. I mustered the courage to speak and replied, “Nopony.”

I could almost hear the Wasteland's laughter.

“To yourself, then?”

A lump formed in my throat and I closed my eyes.

“Let's head back to the camp,” I whispered. “It's too cold and too dark for you out here.”

* * *

“How did you find me?” I asked her as she warmed herself by the covered fire. I was opposite her once more, further away.

“I woke up hearing screams...” Rig dared not meet my eyes. “You were gone, and I ran as fast as I could for you.”

I dared not meet her eyes either. “You knew it was dangerous. Why?”

“Because you're the only decent pony I've met in the Wasteland so far,” she answered.

I inhaled lightly. “How long were you there?”

“Long enough.”

I exhaled a cold, misty breath. “Rig...I...” I bit my lip, “I'm so, so sorry... I just... I was just trying to get through to you with what you were risking. And... then...” I looked up at her. Our eyes locked. Finish it, hers seemed to say. I shuddered and looked down. “And then... when you said it... I... just lost it. You've already been through so much in such a short time. You didn't... you didn't need me to make it any worse. I'm sorry.”

I felt a weight on my shoulder. I looked up to see her hoof there. I met her gaze.

“You meant well... right?” she asked.

I nodded lightly.

“I wasn't thinking straight.” The cloud-maned unicorn sighed. This time, she was the one who couldn't meet my gaze. “I never, ever wanted to be caught in a situation like that again, alone and defenseless. I wanted that armor, even if it was from the pony that almost killed us. I was... I was frustrated, stunned, angry... just...” she growled as she lost her fight for the right word, “just everything but focused!” She panted softly, sighing, “I'm sorry, Frost...”

I didn't know what to say. I hadn't expected her to apologize to me like this, to say anything like this.

But somehow, I found the words.

“It's okay, Rig.” I took her hoof in mine. “We both had good intentions. Things just didn't turn out the way we wanted. We're both alive, and we're both safe... alright?”

Those lovely, indigo eyes met mine once more, a light sparkle to them.

“Well... you were talking about your Stable... right?” She smiled lightly.

I... smiled. Smiled easy. It was as if a great weight was lifted from my heart.

“Yeah. Yeah, I was.”

“I'm still waiting.”

I exhaled a cool sigh, mist flowing out from me as I relaxed and we pulled our hooves away and sat beside one another. “Stable Seventy-Two...” I began.

An ice tendril tripped.

The Wasteland couldn't let me have a moment, could it?

“Hold that thought,” I grumbled, whipping out Night Fang as Rig ducked. I unloaded a pair of quick three-round bursts out in the general vicinity of the vibrations. The vibrations halted and went in the opposite direction. I looked over there to be sure and didn't see anything else.

“Okay, now I know what you mean by spraying with a semi-automatic pistol.” Rig stared.

“And thankfully forty-five ACP's cheap and plentiful.” I nodded, slipping Night Fang away. “Wait... didn't I already say that? Yeah, I did.”

“By the way, where did you even get the idea for ice arms anyways?”

“If you're gonna keep on asking these questions, we'll never get to where I talk about my Stable,” I let out a light chuckle. “Got the idea from griffins. Barring magic, nopony, no equine can manipulate objects with the dexterity of a griffin. So there's that. Now, Stable Seventy-Two!” I paused to feel the tendrils for anything. “... okay, any interruptions this time?”

The Wasteland was silent.

“... good.” I turned back to her. “Now then... Stable Seventy-Two had one thing that made it special to me. We were given a very diverse library chock full of apparently as many books that Stable-Tec could get their hands on that the Ministry of Image didn't get to first.”

Before I could continue, she asked, “The Ministry of Image? As in, the war-era ministry tasked with propaganda and censorship?”

“... yes.” I nodded slowly. “That's the one. Now... where was I? Oh, yes. In spite of this, we had a very wide selection of books of all sorts, though a lot of the material was altered by the Ministry of Image. Certainly enough to keep me occupied off of my watch hours, heh. Because of all these books, we had an education similar to that of Equestria before the megaspells fell. Primary school, junior high school, high school. Then you dig into job training with continued education along the way. Took a while to get ponies ready for work, but when they were ready they sure had more work-related knowledge and just knowledge in general. Not something I expected for a Stable, where I thought it would've been geared to quickly generating as many specialized work ponies as possible.

“But, outside the library, life in Stable Seventy-Two wasn't too outstanding.” I continued with a sigh. “You woke up, washed up, ate, worked your shift, took a break to eat, worked your shift some more, ate again, had leisure time, and slept so that the cycle would begin again day after day after day. Sure, leisure time had its perks. You could socialize in the atrium or living quarters, browse the library (I did this most of the time, as you can guess), maybe use your personal terminal to view various forms of entertainment ranging from video games to recordings of old television shows. You... know what those are, right?”

“Yeah, we had those too.” She nodded.

“Right, then. Well, honestly, that's Stable Seventy-Two for you. As far as I could tell, there was nothing else to note that was particularly outstanding about activities of other ponies there. Well, aside from the Overmare's of course. Finally, done with that.” I sighed. “Well, there you go.”

“Weird...” Rig mused aloud.

“Something the matter?” I asked, prepared to reach for my weapons.

“Yeah, more about the library,” she spoke. “What kind of books did you have there, Frost?”

Oh. Nothing life-threatening. I still had the itch for weaponry, so I pulled out Midnight Talon and began playing with her again.

The storyteller paused as some foal broke in to ask why all his weapons were “female”.

It's something that grew on me as a result of researching other languages, son. Objects are often given male or female “genders”. Now... ah, yes.

“Oh, all sorts,” I replied. “A good chunk of them were educational, mind you. Wilderness survival guides, books for learning other languages, books on equinpology, history, mathematics...” I shuddered a little. “Ugh... calculus. Bad memories. But, there were also many books for leisure. Classics, oh so many classics... tragedies, comedies, religious texts, novels, novellas. Personally, my favorites were The Old Mare and the Sea by Ernest Haymingway and- don't judge me on this- The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brohooves (whatever his last name was supposed to mean).”

“... the what?” She stared.

“Oh, mind you, it was a different sort of zombie described,” I chuckled. “Not the same as feral ghouls described in The Guide. But yes, so many wonderful books. All of them made for a library about as big as the atrium, and it always had some manner of a crowd in there. Unfortunately, there were also so many wonderful and altered books.” I grumbled sarcastically, “Praise be the Ministry of Image...”

“Yeah, that's really weird.” Rig frowned. “We didn't have anything like that in Stable Three.”

“Whatever do you mean?” I inquired, a tad curious. Her Stable didn't have such a library?

“Well... things were different in our Stable.” Rig put a hoof to her chin. “Our library didn't have any of those fancy-schmancy books like yours.”

“Well, what did you have in your Stable's library then?”

“Books like Proper Stable Manners and Etiquette, Troubleshooting for Dummies, Table Manners for the Challenged, Problem Solving: How to Do it Yourself Without Calling a Repairpony and whatnot,” the adolescent filly told me. “Our library was hardly bigger than three living quarters put together, and practically nopony used it. And our education system was different too...”

I snapped Midnight Talon shut. Now she had my attention. “Would you kindly elaborate, Rig?” I asked her.

“Well, it was just like what you expected a Stable should be like.” She furrowed her eyebrows together. “Just primary education, and then we went into specialized training based on what your cutie mark was. If you didn't have one yet or one that wasn't applicable, you'd take an aptitude test of some sort and get placed into apprenticeships until you did. I mean, sure, I learned about multi-variable calculus, but my friends who did different jobs didn't.”

This was... an oddity. For sure. “Tell me- how was Stable Three life for you?”

She thought for a moment, then began. “Well, I guess I should start with-”

My stomach growled. I frowned, and she paused.

“... uh... we'll go with-”

It growled. Again. I shot an angry look down at it as if it had betrayed me.

“... the-”

Another growl, particularly loud this time. I gave her an apologetic look.

“... if 'f' of 'x' is continuous on closed interval a-to-b, differentiable on open interval a-to-b, and 'f' of 'a' is equal to 'f' of 'b' where 'a' is not equal to 'b', then there exists a 'c' in open interval a-to-b such that 'f-prime' of 'c' is zero!” she blurted out.

This time, we both looked down at my gut. No noise this time.

Rig eyed there for a moment longer before continuing. “Okay, so I'll start-”

And then came an even louder rumble. Both of us promptly facehooved.

“... you know what, how about we just talk about it another time?” Rig just shook her head with a light chuckle. “I can already just tell where this is going...”

I could almost hear the Wasteland laughing.

Yeah, laugh it up, you big, empty bastard.

I pulled out (surprise, surprise) three cans of yams. I was starting to wonder if that was all the late Mister Britches was packing by now as I wolfed them down.

“... Stable Three-” Rig began

An ice tendril tripped.

I whipped out Luna's Judgment, Rig covered her ears, and I sent a two-kilogram slug out in the general direction. I was answered with a wet, fleshy splatter. By now, I was looking where the tendril tripped to find a single surviving raider galloping away. Her buddy? His chest cavity was reduced to a bloody pulp that was scattered out behind him for a good few meters.

Rig slowly uncovered her ears, raised an eyebrow, and exclaimed, “I thought you said raiders don't normally go this far north!”

“They don't.” I snorted, pumping out the spent shell back into the drum and stowing her away. “I'm as damn surprised as you are. But then again, I only said they hardly came up north.”

“... um...” She looked around as I resumed eating, “Stable Three-”

“-Later.” I cut her off. I glanced around. Thankfully, nothing popped out or anything.

“Right,” she chuckled lightly.

I continued eating in silence.

And then she asked the big question.

“Frost,” Rig spoke, and I paused in my eating, eying her, “why are you so... touchy about the Goddesses?”

I took a moment to finish up my current can and answered, “Because we all owe it to them for saving all of Equestria. Well... before they died for their sacrifice and we blew ourselves up anyways.” Before she could say anything, I added, “But that's not the complete reason for my outburst earlier.”

“Then... what was?” the earth-coated mare inquired.

“Because I once killed a good friend,” I said simply. Yet with so much depth... “Looked like the enemy.”

Rig's eyes widened in realization. All she could muster was, “Oh...”

“Friendly fire happens more often than anypony would like to admit.” I sighed coolly. “Snipers at Stalliongrad will shoot anything that looks hostile. Dress like a raider, you'll be shot like a raider. And I've never seen the snipers of Stalliongrad miss yet.”

She gulped.

“Rig, answer me this.” I looked at her. “Do you still trust me?”

She hesitated, if only for a moment. “Yes,” she said.

“Rig.” I sighed lightly. “The truth. Please.”

Deep inside, I was kicking myself for being such a Luna-damned hypocrite.

“I... I don't know.” She sighed in turn, looking away.

I set aside my meal and asked, “What can I do for you?”

“I... I know there are things you don't want to talk about, and I respect that.” Rig leveled her gaze at me, expression serious. “But I at least want to know who you were talking to back there, and I want to fight alongside you. I don't want to be defenseless, and I don't want to let you pull all the weight.”

I looked into those eyes for a while, even as I finished off my last can. She maintained her demeanor.

“... somepony long gone,” I answered her, placing the picked-clean cans back into my saddlebags for scrap. “Somepony dear to me I swore to protect. Somepony... somepony I failed to protect.”

“Who?” Rig pressed.

“Who... who She was is... not important,” I answered. I could feel something break a little inside of me. “But anyways... I did say I was going to get you proper armor, saddlebags, and weapons, yes?” I smiled lightly, if a bit forced.

“Well, you've picked out another shotgun, an assault rifle, and a sniper rifle from those raiders.” She pointed out.

“Well, I don't think you'd want to use raider weapons, especially ones as beat up as these.” I nodded back into my saddlebags. “Also, that wasn't a sniper rifle.”

“It's big, it's loud, it fires one bullet at a time, it's got a scope.” She shrugged.

I chuckled, “It's an anti-materiel SASR, or Special Application Scoped Rifle. Sniper rifles have to have a certain degree of accuracy to hold that title. High-caliber weapons like these don't have that degree of accuracy. As such, they're called SASRs.”

“You seem to know your way around weaponry.” She raised an eyebrow.

“It was a hobby I picked up long ago.” I grinned. “Besides, you need to know your weapons out here if you want to survive. Perhaps not down to the point where you can count how many shots the other guy has left in the mag, but a good knowledge is almost mandatory nonetheless. Now, again, we can't have you using raider weaponry. Not because of principle, no. You take what you can get. Neigh, it's because of practice. And, aside from almost giving yourself a concussion with Luna's Judgment, you've got squat. Plus, raiders seldom have good weaponry. I've seen them catch fire at times, and I won't have you shooting with something that could burst into flames from the bullets' propellant. Furthermore, and I'm sorry to say this, but you can't just let panic seize you in the midst of danger. You can't freeze up like that.”

Rig grumbled, looking away.

“But don't worry.” I reassured her. “I still have some old accomplices. You'll be learning from the best I know.”

“Well, that's all fine and dandy, but I want to help now.” She sighed.

Ni butiya takim ni neterpelivyĭ.” I grinned wide, and she just stared at me in confusion. “Don't be so impatient. They're closer than you think.”

“Where?” Rig seized me by the shoulders.

I gently pushed her away with a chuckle. “Stalliongrad, of course.”

* * *

Footnote: Maximum Level
Bonus feature added!

Frost's S.P.E.C.I.A.L.

Strength: 6
Perception: 10
Endurance: 7
Charisma: 7
Intelligence: 6
Agility: 9
Luck: 1

Author's Note:

My thanks go out to KKat, author of Fallout: Equestria, and Somber, author of Fallout: Equestria: Project Horizons. I must also send my gratitude to ErrantIndy for looking this over before I posted it. Thank you for reading, and remember that critique and feedback of any sort is highly appreciated.

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