• 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 Four: Rodina-mat'

Chapter Four: Rodina-mat'



Folks, it's starting to get late into the night. I personally have no problem with going on, but I know some of you have obligations come morning. So, I ask now- do any of you wish to split? I'm fine with stopping for tonight.

The storyteller glanced about the audience. A few out of the small crowd did the same, looking to see who would leave. Nopony got up and left.

A regular bunch of night-owls, aren't we? Heh...alright. I'll go a bit further tonight.

This is for you, folks. Let's get right back into it.

~ ~ ~

The cold, the all-consuming cold, the dark, sinister echoes. They were back.

To sleep- perchance to dream.

But what dreams may come?

No dreams. Only nightmares.

There were families out there, Frost.” She looked so, so sad. So, so far away. “Families.”

What could I have done?” I was so, so tired. So, so empty. “It was the Overmare's orders, wasn't it?”

Now, now,” Silas grinned, “I'm the one asking the questions here. Alright? I'm!”

Stab. He punched the blade into Her hide. He knew it wouldn't hit a vital organ. He knew his anatomy.

No!” I cried out, racing for Her.

The one!” Sewn Britches growled.

Thunder. The sound of thunder rolled between the walls once more. The two-kilogram slug blew Her right foreleg off, sending Her crashing to the ground.

No!” I cried out, voice cracking as I burst into tears. “No, no, no, no, no!”

Asking!” the unicorn raider hissed.

Stab. Upward just inward of Her left foreleg. The blade easily punched through Her hide and into Her lung. She sliced down into Her guts, the hellhound blade easily shearing through hide, bone and muscle alike.

Stop it!” I wailed, almost there as She struggled onto Her knees, one leg short and hacking blood. “Please!”

The questions!” Rig seethed.

Bark. Her coat offered no protection as the big, fat .45 Automatic Colt Pistol rounds bit into Her, spraying all over the place and pockmarking Her (and the ground around Her) easily until Her leg bones snapped under the sheer volume of fire laid down.

Night Fang had a mean bite.

I'll do anything!” I screamed desperately, voice hoarse as I collapsed against Her cold, limp form. “Just stop it!”

Anything?” Silas, Sewn Britches, the raider, Rig whispered darkly.

Anything!” I sobbed, trying to feel for a pulse, breath, brain activity, anything as I reached into my saddlebags for all the healing potions I could muster.

What I got were gears.

Her limp form stirred, Her face warping with disgusting, wet, fleshy sounds. Into that pretty little evil thing.

Surrender,” the Nightmare rasped, pierced.

The Wasteland greeted me with open arms.

~ ~ ~

The cold. The echoes. They were gone again. For now.

My eyelids cranked open. The nightmares wouldn't leave me. Why would they? Why should they?

First order of business- the tendrils. I felt for them. None of them had tripped while I was out. That was a good sign at least.

Second order of business- Rig. She was still sleeping, though she didn't appear to be troubled. The cloud-maned mare had a peaceful expression and her eyes fluttered under their lids. She was dreaming good dreams, I hoped.

“See, Frost?” She smiled as She lied down beside me, eyes soft. “You did not fail.”

I inhaled, closed my eyes and exhaled a cool mist as I smiled in turn. “Thank you.”

“You are welcome, but I only did what was right.” She leaned against me, nuzzling my cheek lightly.

I was taken completely by surprise by this, mouth ajar. “I... I can still feel you?”

“But of course,” She chuckled softly. “Why so astonished?”

“You've... never had direct contact with me before...” I tilted my head slightly to stare at her.

“Hm...” She pondered, tucking Her head under my neck, “you are right. Wow... all this time, and I never bothered to so much as touch you.”

“I... thought you were... I thought you were a ghost or something...” I still stared.

“And now?” She asked as I slowly reached a hoof up to stroke Her mane. Even though I couldn't feel it because of my armored hooves, I still met resistance. She was... real. Solid. Corporeal.

“Something more,” I whispered. “But how? You're... supposed to be...” She waited politely as that lump was cleared from my throat, “... dead...”

“You tell me,” She chuckled softly.

“... I...” I paused in thought. “I got nothing. You?”

“Something more.” Her tail shifted to meet mine. It was... cool, comfortably cool. And soft.

Just like I remembered.

I glanced at Rig as she stirred lightly. For a moment, I feared what would happen if she woke up and saw us together like this. But, she just shifted onto her side and went on sleeping. I exhaled a breath I didn't even realize I was holding.

“... what do you think of her?” She asked me.

“In what respect?” I looked back at Her.

“Do you have any feelings for her?”

“No,” I told Her. And it was true. “She was meant to stay in a Stable that was never meant to be opened ever again.”

“But do you not think that fate destined for you two to come together for a reason?” She tilted her head up to look at me.

“Perhaps,” I said, meeting those dazzling, soulful eyes. “But even so, I have no feelings for her.”

“Why?”

I stared deep into those lovely eyes. “Because I still have you.”

She smiled gently as I did the same. Our lips met for a few precious seconds. It was not overly passionate but soft and tender as a kiss between lovers should be.

We pulled away and She leaned against me once more, giggling (Oh, such a wonderful giggle...), “The facial hair is new...”

Long minutes passed. She finally sighed. “But I am dead, Frost. We both know that.”

“That changes nothing about my feelings about her,” I spoke honest words.

For a moment, I thought She was going to ask if I was sure. She did not. She knew me better than that.

“What, then, do you think of her?” She asked.

“She's a quick learner for sure,” I responded. “She killed a radscorpion while I overslept and she knows the reasoning behind at least part of what I do.”

“... but?” She sensed.

“But, she panicked and froze up back there.” I sighed. “We can't let that happen again. A moment's hesitation is enough for a situation to go from bad to worse. It's why I hope my... accomplices in Stalliongrad can help her overcome that. Knowledge is power, and it will lend her strength.”

“Why not call them friends?” She asked me.

“... I don't want to get too close to anypony, anyone.” I bit my lip. “Not when the Wasteland has a habit of taking away those close to you.”

“I suppose I should be grateful I am the exception?” She smiled lightly.

“I suppose so.” I grinned, a touch of sadness to it.

“Just call them friends, Frost.” She nudged my chin. “It will do you good.”

“Very well, my love.” I smiled at her.

A light groan from Rig wiped my smile clean as I glanced at her, heart beating in a frenzy as she rose to a sitting position, yawning and rubbing her eyes. I looked back down at Her, but She was already gone. The disappearance of Her comforting touch left me feeling suddenly alone once more, but at least it meant Rig wouldn't see something so... strange of me.

The earth-coated young mare turned her muzzle up in a smirk as she chuckled, voice sleep-roughened once more, “Glad I don't have to shoot something this early in the morning this time.”

“Good morning to you too.” I huffed, smiling lightly.

* * *

A little more history. Before the megaspells fell and long before the Great War, Stalliongrad was a proud, bustling center of industry. The equines and businesses lining the streets were so diverse, you could almost consider Stalliongrad a city-state all to its own if it weren't for the fact it was a part of Equestria under the North-Equestrian Treaty Organization, NETO. During the war, all this heavy industry that once produced powered wagons (autowagons, if you prefer), sky wagons, kitchen appliances and other commodities was rapidly converted to a factory city that built all sorts of war machines.

Armor, firearms, ammunition, spark batteries, machinery components, pins, medals- Stalliongrad made it all. Infamous death machines were born in the cold heat of the Stalliongrad forge- the Avtomat Kalashneighkova series of assault rifles, the T-series of main-battle tanks, the L-200 RAS Manticore assault bike. They even collaborated with Cloudsdale and Hoofington to produce the Vertibuck VTOL transport. That's Vertical Take-Off and Landing for you folks unfamiliar with the term. The factories cranked out all of this day and night thanks to the hard work of the mares and stallions working the factory floors. Mighty impressive, if you ask me.

Wanna know something more impressive?

They often did it under enemy fire.

Zebras knew just how important Stalliongrad was, and as a result, it was always under some form of bombardment. Factory crews often wore full-body ballistic armor as they worked with shatterproof glass and blast shields installed on the roofs.

Wanna know something even more impressive?

They once did it while under enemy control.

Stalliongrad was once occupied by zebra forces for five months, and during those five months, they kept what factories they had left running and sabotaged the ones captured by the zebras. For instance, the Red October tractor factory, refitted to manufacture the infamous T-34/90, was under constant attack by zebra forces just outside for seven days, peppering the building with machine gun fire and mortar strikes. But they never broke past the defenses, and the workers repaired eleven tanks that were immediately deployed to push the enemy attackers back.

The war was brutal for Stalliongrad. Before the zebras occupied the city, they committed numerous allied dragons to bombing runs on the city. The initial strikes devastated the city and its inhabitants, and the invasion all the more so. Thousands were slaughtered in the first days of the occupation.

But because of their massive aerial bombardment, the zebras dug their own graves.

You see, folks, when a bomb detonates, it produces an explosion and a concussive shockwave. If it explodes inside a relatively intact building, those shockwaves are going to bounce around off the walls, ceilings and other surfaces, which often results in massive damage. However, if it explodes in a partially destroyed structure, all those shockwaves are likely just going to rebound straight out, causing minimal damage. A single missing wall can mean the difference between a collapsed factory and a serviceable one. In the end, this is what saved Stalliongrad.

Because those ponies, griffins, and buffalo wanted their city back. They knew their city, and they could use the vertical nature of the ruined skyscrapers for sniper nests and recon positions, the sprawling maze in the sewers for secret transport, and so much more to their advantage.

Ever witness house-to-house, building-to-building urban warfare? Let me tell you- it's brutal, and it's bloody. With most of their factories self-sabotaged, ammunition and weaponry were in short supply. Soldiers often went into battle in pairs. One equine- assault rifle and ammunition. The second- just ammunition. If the first one fell, the second took the rifle and kept shooting. Often, they didn't even have enough of those to go around. Clubs, bricks, rebar, kitchen knives- if it could kill the zebras, they would use it.

And so in a war of attrition that wore down the zebras who were severely unprepared for the harsh northern winter, the equines of Stalliongrad won their city back. So many thousands of Stalliongrad citizens lost their lives, but they never completely lost their city.

Stalliongrad never fully recovered from the zebra occupation. Ruins lingered and many were forced to live in the factories in which they continued to work since so many homes were destroyed. The factories were their lifeblood, and so long as Stalliongrad never lost them, so long as the hammer struck and the sparks flew, they would live on.

At least until the day a pair of balefire bombs landed just outside the city.

Luna only knows how they both managed to miss a direct hit. The radiation killed everyone, but the severe destruction wreaked previously once again saved the city from complete annihilation. The city was repopulated slowly, first by a good-sized band of ghouls looking for a place to stay, then by the inhabitants of the nearby Stable, number Forty-Seven. A large band of raiders once took the city, but you know how that went.

Stalliongrad's a good place, one of the few havens in this Goddess-forsaken Wasteland for anypony hardy and resourceful enough to withstand the dangers of the northerly roads leading to it. As much as a ruined, rubble-strewn place it is now, Stalliongrad never truly died.

Because the factories, the lifeblood of all the equines who called and continue to call Stalliongrad home, still live on even today.

And they certainly lived forty years ago when Rig and I approached the city outskirts just before noon.

“Wow...” Rig widened her eyes in awe of the urban sprawl that laid before us. Beyond the defensive walls we neared, cracked roads and the gutted husks of so many towering office buildings and crumbled homes lined the horizon, stretching as far as they eye could see. “This place is massive!”

“Quite the sight, isn't it?” I sighed with a smile. “Trust me, though, it's not the city but the people that make me proud to call this place home.”

“Home?” The young mare turned to me. “You live here?”

“At times, yes.” I nodded. “I know a lot of good people here, Rig. And you'll get to know them too. They're a nice, friendly bunch once they realize you're no raider or anything.”

“Halt!” a male, magically-amplified voice called from seemingly nowhere. “Identify yourselves and state your business or we will shoot!”

“And cue that,” I smiled, stopping and holding a frozen hand in front of Rig. She was scanning the walls, trying to find out where the voice came from. I already knew we were being targeted by at least six of the best snipers I've ever known and at least one mortar crew. “I'll handle this, alright?”

“Well... okay...” She eyed me.

I cleared my throat, ice binding to my vocal chords to amplify my own voice as I replied, “Nee streelyai'! Eto ya, Frost Windchill! Ya myeht drook!” Don't shoot, I said. It's me, Frost Windchill. I have accomplice. My command over the language was by no means perfect, but it was serviceable at the very least.

“Frost?” The voice changed in tone, no longer challenging. I could imagine him signaling the snipers and mortar crew (crews?) to hold their fire. In a friendly tone now, the spotter yelled, “Ah! Zahodi!”

Yeah, that was an over-simplified way to say, “Come”. At least they knew who they were talking to and how relatively poor he was at Russyin. It is by no means an easy language to learn.

But it was certainly enough to cause Rig to stare at me, jaw dropped.

“What?” I chuckled. “I had language books and a lot of free time. Now come along.”

Yet another partial truth.

I lead her to the imposing outer wall, where the crude, iron gates creaked open. By now, Rig craned her neck to see the multiple machine gun and sniper nests lining the surface. We were approached by a pale, white unicorn stallion with a silvery beard and mustache, eyes dark and focused yet friendly. He was garbed in tattered winter wear, and a pilotka topped his head. A scoped bolt-action rifle was strung across his back, an iconic Mosin-Nagant 91-30. He held up a hoof in greeting, and I returned the gesture. I glanced from Rig to the stallion repeatedly. She got the message and held up her hoof in turn.

Dobró požálovat' v Stalliongrad, Frost.” He smiled, voice rough and old, and we met hooves. Welcome to Stalliongrad, Frost.

Spasiba.” I smiled. Thank you. My expression turned apologetic as I added, “Sorry, but may we drop the Russyin for Equestrian? She doesn't know the language.”

“Ah, yes, yes.” He nodded, still smiling. “Besides, your Russyin still make us think twice every time you speak.”

Dammit. “Thank you.”

“Now then, what bring you back to Stalliongrad, friend?” he asked, leading us into the city as the gates creaked shut behind us. “It been long time since you here. And who she?” He nodded towards the young mare at my side.

“We are here to resupply and meet some... friends,” I told him, remembering Her words. “And this is Rig. She is my...”

I paused, at a loss for words for a few seconds. Rig piped up and completed, “Friend.”

I smiled a little, though a hint of worry gnawed at my gut all the same.

“Just Rig?” The stallion raised an eyebrow.

“Just Rig.” She nodded.

“I am Zasili Vatsaev.” Our escort tipped his hat, revealing his bald head.

“Best sniper in all the Wasteland,” I added with a smile.

“Oh come now, do not fill your friend's head with such, ehh... flattery,” he chuckled huskily.

“Zasili, you have a repeated MOA of zero during training runs,” I chuckled myself. “Zero. If that isn't worthy of being the best sniper in all the Wasteland, I don't know what is.”

“MOA?” Rig asked.

“Minute of angle,” Zasili explained. “We use it to rate sniper rifle's accuracy. Anything greater than MOA of one no longer true sniper rifle. In our case, we also use MOA to rate snipers themselves, too.”

“And with a MOA of zero,” I added, “that pretty much means that Zasili can put repeated shots down the same bullet hole, exactly down the same bullet hole. Every. Single. Time. The only time he'll ever miss is on the warning shot.”

“Welcome back, Frost!” An earth pony mare, just old enough to use the machine gun she was stationed at, waved at me as we passed.

“Thank you, Zinovia!” I greeted in turn, waving a hoof. “It's good to be back!”

“How many ponies do you know here?” Rig asked me. “And how did she know to speak Equestrian?”

“Word travels fast in Stalliongrad,” Zasili answered. “All people should know you two are in city by now.”

“Why does everypony keep on saying 'people' instead of 'ponies'?” Rig inquired.

“Because Stalliongrad is a haven for all sorts of equines,” I answered her. “We have ponies, griffins, buffalo, a couple mules, and even a zebra.”

“A zebra?!” Rig gaped.

“One who prove loyalty to us time and time again,” Zasili quickly spoke in defense, voice stern. “He is good person, and where I might be good shot, he is quickest shot. Fine sharpshooter he is. MOA of one-point-five, so not true sniper he is. But at one-hundred-fifty meter with a scoped semi-automatic, who complain?”

“And one of my accomplices whom you'll be meeting,” I added to a still very-much-surprised Rig.

“This where I go back now, Frost and friend Rig.” Zasili stopped. “I must get back to post. Enjoy your stay here, both you. Welcome to the City of Blood and Iron, friend Rig.”

“Alright, take care of yourself, Zasili.” I nodded.

Da, and you too.” He nodded in turn, turning tail and heading back for the walls.

As Rig and I headed down the streets, we would meet the occasional passersby or a group huddled around a fire on the sidewalk. All of them would greet us as heartily as they could, though at times I had to (roughly) translate for Rig as some of them still clung to their ancestral Russyin.

“So, where are we headed?” she asked me. By now, we had gotten quite deep into the city and were meeting more friendly faces.

“To a store first.” I tapped my saddlebags with an ice arm. “It'll be where we get you a good firearms instructor, too. Now, be quiet and let me do the talking, at least in the beginning. We must be very respectful to the owner.”

Rig's expression brightened up upon hearing this, and after a few more minutes of walking (and greeting a few passing griffins, Rig staring in awe), we reached a large, partially-ruined building that was once an old warehouse. The windows were boarded up, bricks were missing in places, and the old sign had been torn down, replaced with a simple plaque that read... okay, I couldn't read it. But I'm told it translates to “Hammer and Horns”.

I knocked on the door a few times. A deep, old voice with a thick accent beckoned (in very good Equestrian I might add), “Come in, come in!”

We entered Hammer and Horns and were met with a simple, gray room with a lone counter. A single door laid behind it, another on the right side of the room. The store's owner was seated behind the counter.

Of course, Rig gawked at him. You folks would've too.

Because behind the counter was a buffalo ghoul. Large, imposing, hide burned away by balefire and flesh browned and decayed, he wore a headdress of contrastingly colorful feathers. One of his horns had broken off, but his dark eyes were still full of old fire.

Ya'at eeh, Shih-chai' Thunderhooves.” I bowed in respect. Greetings, Elder Thunderhooves (Unfortunately, the language book I used neglected to specifically cover “chief”). Rig quickly did the same after a second's recovery from shock.

Ya'at eeh, sih-kiss'.” He bowed in turn. Greetings, friend. We resumed our normal stance and he continued, “Do not worry, Frost. We will speak Equestrian. I know of your friend and her... inconvenient lack of language. No need for formalities.”

“Thank you.” I cowed me head in gratitude. “Rig, I introduce you to Chief Thunderhooves.” I motioned to the ghoul, who nodded lightly, trying to wear a welcoming expression. Judging by her queasiness, it didn't have the desired effect. “Chief Thunderhooves, in turn, I introduce you to Rig.” I whispered to her, “Say you're honored.”

“Huh?” She blinked. “Oh! Uh, I'm honored to meet you, Chief Thunderhooves.”

“And an honor to meet you the same, Rig,” Thunderhooves replied. “Just Rig, hm? And Frost, I said there was no need for formalities. We can all speak easy now.”

“My apologies,” I spoke quickly, patting Rig on the back to let her know it was okay to speak freely.

“Now, judging by your saddlebags, I say you come here for business, yes?” the buffalo chief asked.

“Business, yes, but not strictly business,” I answered him. “My friend is new to the Wasteland. She needs proper armor, saddlebags, and weapons. And training.”

“Mm.” He bobbed his head in acknowledgment. “Yes, I can see by her Pip-Buck.” Each syllable of that was clearly defined. “Training you say?” He looked at her.

Rig looked right back.

And then he quickly dipped under the counter and popped back out with a sawn-off, double-barreled shotgun in his mouth.

“Gah!” She jumped in surprise, flinching before backing away.

Thunderhooves spat the shotgun back behind the counter and nodded. “Yes... she will certainly need training.”

“Wha... what the hay?” Rig stared at both of us in bewilderment.

“A lot of training.” Thunderhooves rubbed his chin. “I was testing your reaction, little one. But business first, yes?”

“Yes.” I nodded, popping open my saddlebags while Rig slowly came back to my side. “And I'll be using all of this to cover the cost of training and for whatever she purchases.”

“And so it shall be done,” the old buffalo chief said, hooves back on the ground. “However, for a good friend, I will give you a high discount.”

“Oh, no no no, I cannot accept this.” I smiled lightly, holding a hoof up. “I cannot.”

“Oh, but I insist.” He pulled his cracked lips back in a smile of his own. “You are a good friend, Frost.”

“Honestly, Chief Thunderhooves, I respect your charity, but I cannot accept this gift.” I shook my head. By now, Rig was staring between the two of us.

“Frost, I sincerely implore you to accept.” He beamed.

“And I implore you to withdraw it.” I beamed back. “You have a business to run. I know your discount rates for 'good friends'. You'll ruin yourself.”

“Frost, please accept this gift of mine.” He leaned a bit closer.

I paused, then nodded. “Very well, Chief Thunderhooves. I thank you kindly. Your gratitude knows no bounds.”

“I am honored.” He bobbed his head a little in a light bow to me. “Now then, what do you have?” I began to pull out my wares for him, multiple ice arms sprouting from my shoulders as various goods spread across his counter. His eyes lit up especially at the sight of the cigarettes, and more so when I reassembled the anti-materiel rifle for him. “Where on Equestria did you find an Ironshod M-Twenty-Eight?”

“Took it from a raider, surprisingly,” I answered. “I'm guessing you can get this refurbished nicely for the boys on the walls.”

“Yes, indeed.” He nodded. “Not too long ago, we had a raider-operated LAV make a run for the city walls. They literally had to get Zasili from a third of the way on the other side to take out the driver, if I recall correctly.”

“Then hopefully it'll do them good.” I nodded, now laying out the scrap metal and empty cans for him.

“Iron,” he mused aloud, taking a piece of the late Mister Britches' wagon in his hooves. “Hm... has some bubbles in the structure... quality not too good. We can smelt it at least.”

“And that's it for this time.” I finished, relieved to feel about fifty-plus pounds lighter.

“Then let us get right to it.” Thunderhooves headed through a door in the back. “Xamuros! Xamuros, where are you?”

After the chief was gone, Rig asked, “What was that all about?”

“Oh, the discount?” I blinked at her. Right. She wouldn't have known. “Well, you see, in buffalo society, their economic policy is based off a logic of redistribution rather than a logic of continual investment like in capitalism. Buffalo give away their wealth in order to gain power and prestige in turn. In order for a chief to maintain his ascribed status, he must give away much wealth. Of course, he gets much back, often more, in the same sense that capitalist loans must be repaid as a debt aside from the fact that the buffalo have no concept of interest. And when it comes to gifts from the chief himself, the receiver must reject the gift three times before accepting it. To continue to reject after that shames the chief greatly, for it is then assumed that he has not given enough. It also means that you are challenging the chief's power and prestige. And, believe me, you don't want to do that.”

“Wow.” Rig canted her head. “And you learned all this from those books?”

“Yes.” I nodded. It was... another partial truth. “Fascinating, isn't it?”

“Well... it's ...different,” she chuckled lightly. “... what are you doing?”

At this time, my ice arms were unclasping plates of armor running along the back of my neck.

“I'm removing my helm,” I said simply, continuing to do so.

“Why?” The cloud-maned unicorn eyed me.

“It's... complicated,” I responded, lifting my helm off and running an icy hand through my slightly spiky, ebony mane. The cool air soothed it as I used an ice arm to keep my helm tucked against my side. “... what?”

“You look... nice without your helmet,” she remarked with a light smile.

“Thank you.” I nodded lightly. What else could I have said? Whatever? I looked back at the doorway as Thunderhooves and... my other friend returned. “Hallo weer, Xamuros.”

Rig turned to gape again as Xamuros strode in behind the buffalo ghoul. He was a male zebra a tad taller than I was and of similar build, dressed in light winter garb. His mane was done in a short Mohawk, and his determined eyes spoke volumes of his confidence. A glyphmark of something that vaguely looked like a scope's crosshair and more like a tribal insignia was on his flanks.

Hallo weer, Frost,” he greeted in turn, his tone that of a natural Equestrian. He noticed that I had removed my helm and smiled lightly, closing his eyes. “Didn't the Chief tell you that there was no need for formalities?”

“Yes, but I have to admit that Zebrikaans is one of the languages I'm most familiar with,” I chuckled. “And... consider this,” I tapped my helm, “a... an apology for last time. So. How have you been?”

“The usual.” He opened his eyes, waving a hoof dismissively. His eyes spoke volumes of his gratitude, however. “Running the store with the Chief, patrolling the walls, having friendly competitions with Zasili. It's the same deal with those, too. I get more shots out, but he always hits... ah, dead center. We always tie in score. Now, how have you been?”

I noted his careful avoidance of the word, “bull's-eye.”

“Almost the usual,” I answered, and we both smirked like old pals. “Bounty hunting mostly.”

“All dead?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. I didn't need to answer. “Some things just never change.” He looked at Rig. “She's new.”

“That's the 'almost' part.” I nodded.

He nodded in understanding. “Your name is Just Rig, right?”

“Mm-hm.” She nodded.

“Well, Just Rig, why do you come to me for training?”

Wait a second. I ran through what he'd just recently said. I promptly facehoofed.

“Nonono, my name is Rig.” The young mare corrected. “Just Rig, only Rig. That's it.”

“Oh.” The zebra shot a questioning glance at Thunderhooves, who shrugged lightly in apology.

“She's new to the Wasteland, and I've promised to help her and her Stable obtain a new water talisman,” I explained. “Theirs malfunctioned and fragmented about a month ago.”

“Mm, apologies,” Thunderhooves frowned. “We have yet to acquire another one.”

“Wait, you have a water talisman?” Rig popped up her forehooves onto the counter. “A working one?”

“Only one for this city, Rig,” he answered. “And I am afraid we cannot go without it. As new as you are to the Wasteland, I am sure you have experienced just what happens when there is no pure water for anyone.”

“Oh... I understand.” Rig sighed, crestfallen again as she let her hooves back down to the floor.

“Now then,” Xamuros piped up. “I'm told you wanted her to be trained, yes?” He paused. “And Frost, it's alright. You can put the helm back on.”

I smiled a little, bowing lightly before slipping the familiar helm back onto my head, ice arms clasping the plates as I corrected, “She wants it, not me.”

“A good sign.” He looked over her, as if gauging the young mare. “Determination. Tell me, Rig, why do you seek training?”

Rig leveled those lovely, indigo eyes with his, voice strong yet soft as she replied, “I want to be able to pull my own weight. I was caught twice in a situation where I was helpless, and I don't want to be in one ever again.”

Xamuros put a hoof to his chin, not taking his eyes off of her for a second.

And then he used his muzzle to whip out a sleek revolver from under his winter garb in the blink of an eye.

Rig just flinched.

“She's a fast learner,” the zebra spoke around his weapon before depositing it back in its hidden holster, looking back at me.

“You have no idea.” I grinned.

“And, I see she has a PipBuck,” he remarked. “I assume you deputized her already?”

“Yes, but I haven't told her about S.A.T.S. Yet.” I nodded.

“S.A.T.S.?” Rig canted her head to the side. “What's that?”

I glanced at Xamuros as he did the same to me. “You know more about it than I do,” he said.

“Alright.” I turned back to Rig. “S.A.T.S. stands for Stable-Tec Arcane Targeting Spell. It's a feature of a deputized PipBuck that allows you to momentarily pause time and target specific parts of any enemy. It'll then work in synchronization with your current weapon or even weapons to grant you a pretty good degree of accuracy for your shots. Mind you, disciplined and steady aim will always be more effective than S.A.T.S., which cannot guarantee greater than a ninety-five percent hit chance at best. That said, it does have its uses. Legs, torso, head, even the weapon of any adversary you fire upon can be targeted. You can even target different parts on multiple targets, provided you have enough juice in that thing. S.A.T.S. can only be used so much before it needs to recharge, however, and certain weapons drain its charge faster than others. That said, it's an impressive and extremely useful tool to have nonetheless. Xamuros can help you learn how to use it.”

“And so we'll start our training, now.” The zebra turned to her, vaulting over the counter expertly. “We'll head to the firing range in the back.”

“Won't we need weapons first?” Rig raised an eyebrow. “I mean, no offense, but this store's kinda... bare.”

“It is a rule of the Wasteland, little one,” Thunderhooves chuckled, then bucked a single hindleg against the wall behind him. It quickly rotated around on a horizontal pivot to reveal quite the impressive array of pistols, assault rifles, sniper rifles, carbines, grenade launchers (with grenades), machine guns and gem-powered weapons. And then another wall did the same. And another. “Never let anyone know what kind of heat you are packing. You never know if they might be the enemy.”

Yet again, her jaw dropped.

“And there's all this and more at the range,” Xamuros laughed. “ This might take a good long time to find out what she likes, Frost. You may as well step out for a bit, say hi to everyone. You might just run into Sly again.”

“Or, knowing him, he'll run into me.” I smiled, tapping Rig's jaw shut. “Alright, Rig, I want you to pay close attention to whatever Xamuros tells you. You never know if it will save your life, even as insignificant as it may seem. Because it certainly won't be as insignificant as it may seem. It might even sound downright stupid. But, if it's stupid, and it works...”

“... it isn't stupid.” Xamuros finished with a grin. “See you soon, Frost. Maybe we can meet at the Rusty Steed for a drink afterward.”

“Well, you know me- I've never been an alcoholic, never plan to be,” I chuckled.

“Still, it'll be nice to get together and catch up.” He shrugged. “Well, whatever you do, I'll see you later. Alright, Rig, stop staring and come with me...”

“It's been good to see you again, Chief Thunderhooves.” I tipped an invisible hat to the buffalo ghoul. “See you soon.”

“Likewise, Frost.” He nodded. “Take care of yourself.”

With that, I turned around...

...and a dark-blue blur tackled me to the floor.

“Buddy!” Sly exclaimed happily, voice gritty but happy as he hugged me tight. “How've you been? How's hunting been going?”

“Called it,” I glanced up at Xamuros, who just broke out laughing while Thunderhooves sighed and Rig just stared.

“Sly, you're crushing me again,” I grunted as he squeezed rather tight.

“Oh, shit, sorry bro!” He released me and we both got back to our hooves.

“Right, then.” I sighed with a smile. “Rig, meet Slyther Shattermaw, our local Regulator.” Looking at her blank expression, I added, “From The Guide? Vigilantes? Good people?” Upon seeing remembrance flash across her face, followed by understanding, I continued, “Sly, meet Rig.”

“Hey, nice to meet ya.” He smiled warmly. “Rig? Just Rig?” The giant of a stallion extended a hoof to her. He had a dark-blue coat covered up with a worn duster (A long time ago, I wondered how they even had his size available). His muzzle and hooves (which were partly obscured by the powerhooves he was wearing) were of a distinct red coloration, setting them apart from the rest of his body. His eyes were blue and cordial, and his mane was hidden behind a pilotka.

Did I mention he was a giant of a stallion?

“Nice to... meet you... too...” The earth-coated unicorn stared up at him as they shook hooves. “Yeah, just Rig. Uh... Frost?”

“Yeah?” I smirked.

“Honest to Goddesses, you have the strangest bunch of friends in the world.”

“Well, glad to have you join the club,” I snickered. “Anyways, Sly, I've been doing fine. Bounty hunting the 'wrong' way as usual. How about you? How have you been? How's work been going?”

“Good, and it's been a little slow, honestly.” The giant stallion shrugged. “There's the occasional thief or something, but otherwise, I just help maintain the walls nowadays. Challenging work, but it lets me use these!” With that, he lifted his forehooves and slammed his powerhooves together, generating a shockwave that made every bone in my body rattle and made Thunderhooves grumble as the weapons on the walls shuddered a little, clinking out of place.

“Yeah... that's good to... hear?” I cleared my throat while the old buffalo went to realign the jostled weaponry. “Listen, I have something to ask of you.”

“What can I do for ya, buddy?” Sly grinned.

“My friend's fresh out of the Stable and new in the Wasteland,” I explained. “I'm having Xamuros train her in firearms, but would you please kindly train her in hoof-to-hoof combat, melee, and explosives?”

“Hah, you kidding?” he laughed. “With how little work's available, I'd be happy to do that for ya!”

“Wait... Slyther...?” Thunderhooves wheeled around, eyes wide. “With explosives? In my firing range?!”

“Uh, well...” I stammered.

“Are you trying to cause a disaster, Frost?!” he exclaimed.

“... do I really want to know?” Rig glanced from one of us to the next.

“Trust me, the less you know, the better,” Xamuros patted her on the back.

“Well... I did just give you an Ironshod M-Twenty-Eight.” I shrugged at Thunderhooves.

“Yes.” He sighed, looking away. “Yes you did.” He then wheeled on Slyther, causing even the giant to lean back a little. “Now listen, you. You are not going to destroy anything that is not meant to be destroyed! If it is not in the firing range, you cannot blow it up, smash it down or otherwise! Because if you do, I will turn you into pulp on the pavement! Got it?”

“... gotcha,” he whispered.

“Good.” The imposing chief snorted, going back to realigning his wares. “Xamuros, get started on the training.”

“Yes, Chief.” The zebra nodded. “Alright, Rig, let's get right to it.”

With that, he led the young mare through the door in the side leading to the back, where the firing range was located. The young mare waved me good-bye as I did the same. Sly trotted right along after them. After a few seconds, he backtrotted back to me and smirked. “So, she your marefriend?”

“No,” I replied flatly. I was dead serious, and I hoped he saw that.

“... right then.” He trotted back. After a few seconds, he backtrotted back to me and asked, “Wanna catch up at the Rusty Steed for dinner? Drinks are on me!”

“You know I'm not an alcoholic.” I sighed. “Never will be. But I'll think on joining you. Xamuros'll be there too, after all.”

“Alrighty, sounds good.” He nodded, trotting right back along into the firing range.

It was then that Chief Thunderhooves leaned in close to me, poking my breastplate, “Only because of the Ironshod.”

“Don't worry, I'll pay right out of my pocket if anything bad happens.” I reassured him as he leaned back.

“Very well.” He snorted, crossing his hooves.

The pop of a pistol shot went off as a bullet whizzed through the door and embedded itself against Chief Thunderhooves' counter, causing both of us to blink in surprise.

“Son of a cuss, Rig!” Xamuros exclaimed from the other side of the door. “You weren't supposed to switch targets mid-S.A.T.S.! The cuss were you aiming for anyway?!”

“Omigosh, I'm so sorry!” I heard her squeak. “I didn't mean to! Oh, Goddess, I think I aimed at Chief Thunderhooves!”

“Chief! Hey, Chief! You alright?”

“I am quite alright!” the buffalo yelled back. “It only hit the counter!”

“Okay, glad to hear you're fine!” the zebra yelled, muffled talking resuming soon after. I could only imagine what he was telling Rig.

“On... second thought,” Chief Thunderhooves glanced back at me, “I am a bit more worried about the little one now.”

“Just as long as they work out the kinks with S.A.T.S., I think it'll turn out alright.” I sighed. “Just... stay behind the counter for now, alright?”

“That sounds like a plan.” He nodded, a bemused expression on his face. “Well, in any case, it sounds like they will be in there for a while. How about you go take a walk around, maybe visit your apartment? Slyther found something you might like and put it there for you.”

“Really?” I asked. I silently hoped it wouldn't involve any high-explosives.

“Yes, really. And it's apparently not high-explosive.”

“Is that so?” I rubbed my chin, turning to leave. “I'll check it out then. See you soon, Chief Thunderhooves. Take care of yourself. Oh, and have Sly send letters to client... uh... two-oh-two through two-forty-six on the bounty board that all of their bounties are dead. They can use the life-force seal spell to check if need be.”

“Will do, friend.” He nodded, taking out the Ironshod Firearms M28 and starting to pry it apart as I left. “Farewell!”

I closed the door behind me on the way out, sighing lightly to myself. I was alone again, if not for a good few hours. I headed down the streets for the heart of Stalliongrad, hollowed office buildings reaching for the skies around me. It's been so long since I've been away, but yet so little has changed...

I tried to stem away the thoughts by bringing out Midnight Tallon out to play again. Her familiar clickety-clack soothed my spirit as I continued on towards the center of the city. Twirl into reverse grip. Close with a Viper. Flick up to pinch between my thumb and index finger. Y2K Rollover. Aerial to close. Reverse Twirl into another thumb pinch. Zen Rollover. Backhand Twirl to open. Reposition and Quick Close, Quick Draw. Rotate, then Latch Drop. A little bit of fanning, Viper open, Viper closed. Now faster.

I threw some more techniques into the mix, greeting passersby as I went along. But a familiar sight made me tear my focus away from Midnight Talon.

Silas.

He was in an alleyway, and as I passed by, time seemed to slow to a standstill. Midnight Talon was still slowly pivoting around a finger. He glanced at me in the same moment I did the same to him out of the corner of my draconic eye. Next to him in the alley was a large figure, hidden by a flowing black cloak, a cowl covering his (her?) face. This... person was clearly equine from the way the cowl formed from the cloak, a good-sized hump on his (her?) back. The only feature I could discern of this equine were the-

Eyes.

Those eyes caught my attention the most for that split-second glance. White. Without irises, pupils. Just white, featureless. Empty. Unblinking.

And yet I could feel them piercing straight into my soul. It was an unsettling thought.

I did not like that.

Not.

One.

Bit.

I forced that feeling out as time resumed a normal pace and I continued along, Midnight Talon clacking and staying open for a second as I used its faint reflection to glance back. The cloaked, hooded equine canted his (her?) head to the side, Silas snapping his talons to get his (her?) attention again. He was whispering something. I perked my ears up to listen.

“-was him,” I could hear Silas say. “That's the bastard........ hey, what's eatin' you? Speak up!”

“Silas.” A sharp whisper, not enough to distinguish the gender of this cloaked equine.

“What?” the griffin angrily whispered back.

“He's eavesdropping.”

Fuck.

I wheeled around, time slowing once more. Another ice arm formed on my shoulders, tugging out Luna's Judgment by the hooked end of the crowbar stock, using my momentum to twirl it out. As it reached the height of its second spin, I released the crowbar and let the trigger guard slide into my palm as I brought the weapon to bear, a third arm sprouting to attach to the pump. Time wound back up to speed as I was now turned around, Luna's Judgment at the ready on one side and Midnight Talon gleaming darkly on the other.

No more than a house's length away from me were both of them. Silas had his twin .357 Magnum revolvers drawn, both trained on me. The other one... whoever this equine was, simply strode out from the alley to his side. Every footstep resulted in solid crunch underneath, cloak and cowl concealing form and function.

Those empty eyes stared into me once more. That piercing feeling rose in the back of my head.

I forced that feeling out.

The cloaked figure reared his (her?) head back a bit, as if in mild surprise.

“Well?” I glared at them, a fourth arm bringing Night Fang out into play. “Do you plan to capitalize on this?”

“Oh, fuck you!” Silas growled, snapping his revolvers up, ready to fire.

I was going to open up with Night Fang. Even if I let him live before, he wasn't going to return the favor. I almost pulled the trigger back when the cloaked figure trained his (her?) gaze on the griffin. His hands twitched, and his expression flashed from one of rage to one of surprise. He met that blank gaze, and then looked back at his hands. Gradually, slowly, he lowered the revolvers, eyes closing and rage melting.

I glanced from the obscured equine to Silas and stowed my weapons away as well, slipping Midnight Talon into her pouch on my left foreleg.

It was then that I noticed just how many others were around us, weapons all drawn toward the pair.

“You will not fire upon Frost Windchill.” A tan earth pony stallion leveled his twin DP-28 machine guns toward the pair from the apartment building window above us, mounted onto him via a battle saddle, a contraption controlled by bits, levers, and kick-sensitive regions that allowed non-magical operation of heavy weaponry. Earth pony ingenuity, folks. Apparently, the others- earth ponies, unicorns, even another griffin- had the same thing in mind, their weapons still kept trained on them.

For once, my luck turned out good for me. It seemed the citizens of Stalliongrad remember every debt.

Silas grumbled lightly as his revolvers slid back into their holsters.

“Forgive him,” the cloaked figure spoke, holding out a clawed hand, skin formed of scaly rings. So this one was a female and another griffin, her voice soft, calm, collected. Each word flowed, oozing to the next like vocal honey.

I hated that kind of voice.

“He is... very brash.” She continued. “Very... hot-headed. We mean no harm. Just stow your weapons and be on your way. We will cause no further disruption.”

The hell was she thinking? It wasn't as if they would all be dissuaded by so much as a-

Luna strike me down now if I wasn't seeing things right. Were they actually listening to her?

Oh dear Goddesses, they were listening to her. Already they had holstered their weapons or folded up their battle saddles, moving along their separate ways.

The tall, female griffin looked back at Silas and nodded back toward the alleyway. He scowled, muttering a string of curses and blasphemies under his breath. If it weren't for the other one, I would have already been at his throat. Again.

I felt her empty gaze upon me once more and I battered the anticipated penetrating feeling away again. It was... just so unsettling.

She tilted her head to the side. “How quaint...” she whispered.

“Who are you?” I asked, voice firm and expression stern. “State your business with me.”

“You may call me... Azrael,” she answered in that hateful voice. “And at the moment, I have no business with you.” She held out her hand once more. “Apologies.”

And with that, this Azrael griffin turned away and followed after Silas, ground crunching beneath her with each step.

No, my luck didn't spare me after all.

A griffin who had a bone to pick with me talking to another griffin was a bad sign. It seemed the Wasteland just decided to send me a big, cloaked female griffin. With a silver tongue. And that voice.

Named after the Angel of fuckin' Death.

Laugh it up, you big, empty bastard.

* * *

It was good to be back in my old apartment on the seventh floor again. It was wide, spacious. Glassless windows offered a view of the northern part of the city, light streaming in unfiltered. The simplest commodities filled the room. A work bench for my weapons along with various maintenance tools. A small twin-sized mattress with a lone, yellowed pillow on it. The bathroom was there, shower, toilet, sink and everything, but since the plumbing didn't work in any of these homes, I had turned it into an impromptu closet. Anything I wanted to keep but didn't want weighing me down was in there. Books, weapon parts, memorabilia, relics of the past and other things you folks wouldn't care for.

An envelope was stuck in the bathroom doorway signed “From Chief Thunderhooves” in neat, blocky letters. Huh. He said that Sly left something for me, but he didn't mention anything from himself... I formed a pair of ice arms, removing the pinned envelope and removing its contents.

My Goddesses, I thought to myself, mouth slightly ajar and eyes widening. Where did he find this?

The photograph was tarnished from age, colors dulled. In it were three individuals all in NETO military uniform and armor, posed together in front of a beaten Humvee. On the far left was a pegasus, his light machine gun and rocket launcher proudly displayed on his battle saddle as he hovered above the rest with a cocky smirk. Beside him was an earth pony mare with a battle saddle piled with communications equipment, her helmet modified with all sorts of gizmos. A single, odd-looking gem-powered rifle was clasped to her side, and her smile was rather... eccentric (downright creepy even). At the right was a tall unicorn stallion. Though he stood attention, bullpup-style assault rifle rifle slung across his back, he allowed-

The storyteller paused, looking quite irritated as a younger pony asked what “bullpup-style” was.

Ugh... a bullpup-style weapon features a firing assembly that is located behind the trigger. You get a distinct design where the magazine often located a good distance behind the trigger guard. This design allows for a full-size barrel in a weapon of carbine length. Now, no more interruptions. This is a very special moment for me.

So... though he stood attention, he allowed himself a sincere, modest smile. The remaining right third of the picture was missing, torn away. I knew why.

In the upper-left corner, in almost perfectly-preserved writing, fancy but conservative, were the words “The Dead Boys”. Underneath, in a scrawny scribble, “plus one girl”.

I had to lean against the wall to take it all in, the memories so long ago. A falling object, a puff of blood. A horrible, ear-piercing, electrical whine followed by an explosion. Splinters, fragments of metal.

An ornate medal, streaked with gold and violet, depictions of Celestia and Luna, necks bent to form a crest.

My breath was shaky as I slowly slid down against the wall, plates of armor scraping against it as I fell to the floor. My frozen hands were trembling, and it was only then that I noticed the smaller, complete photograph behind it.

I thought that my tears had dried up long ago. I thought I had no more tears to shed. I thought the Wasteland took them all away from me.

But as I cherished that second photograph of a time so long gone, the tears flowed freely once more. Some of them froze as they streaked down my muzzle. I shifted my hands out of the way as they plopped to the floor. I couldn't let them touch such a beautiful thing.

Because that photograph was of Her. And me. Together. Happy. Together.

I couldn't leave these here. I knew that as I stifled back the sobs, tucked back the tears. I rose to my feet and slid those photographs down my neck and behind my breastplate. Few things, even in the Wasteland, could even hope to penetrate Lunar Guard armor. They would be safe there, there with my beating heart.

“Feel your heart and it's glowing... I'm welcome home... sweet home...”

I couldn't help but let those beautiful lyrics slip out. I bit back the tears. I owed Chief Thunderhooves so, so much. I needed to see him again before I left.

I opened my eyes and started to get up to my feet.

Then I saw it. A small, low wooden bench, painted with just enough black paint to color it, the smooth grain still showing. A large, grooved dial was on its side.

In a second, I knew what Slyther Shattermaw found for me. But I had to be sure, I had to see it with my own eyes as I stepped around the corner to see what laid beyond the bench. A full-sized grand piano, sleek, black. Beautifully crafted, the top carefully propped open.

I couldn't help but let a soft gasp escape my lips as I flew to it. I rubbed my cheek against the keyboard cover. Wood. Real, honest-to-Goddess, carved wood. I had no idea how it had been preserved so well.

Or, as I suddenly realized, thinking of Xamuros, restored so well. I was going to the Rusty Steed later after all...

I couldn't bear the wait any longer. I opened the keyboard cover, propping it up and revealing the ivory and ebony keys beneath. Against the underside of the cover, in neat, golden leaf under an elaborate family seal: “Steineigh & Sons”.

I had to play it. I absolutely had to play it. I seated myself on the bench and tenderly pressed down a note, middle C.

Oh my Goddesses that clear, crisp tone. I looked upon this thing of beauty, expression endearing. I had to play a song, just one song. But... but it had been so long! What were those notes? What was that beginning chord for the left hoof? It was so simple, only two notes! Why couldn't I remember in such a time like this? Why?

I could hear the Wasteland's laughter.

“Damn you...” I whispered. “Damn you...”

“What is wrong, Frost?” I heard Her voice.

I looked up at Her. She was standing behind me, a concerned expression creasing Her brow.

“I... I can't remember the song,” I hissed at myself. “What is probably Beethoofen's most momentous creation, and I can't remember it!” I hung my head in shame. “Damn you, you big, empty bastard... I want to create again! I want to create again, but create beauty!”

“... may I sit?” She asked, voice a whisper.

I looked back at Her, eyes wide. I slowly nodded, scooting to the side so She could seat herself beside me.

“Go ahead,” She whispered, a light, encouraging smile playing across Her muzzle.

“But... I...” I stammered.

“Go ahead,” She repeated patiently, quietly.

I inhaled deeply, slowly letting the breath out as I extended my icy hands out to the wooden keys, marveling how the grain still showed through the paint. I could feel it... Luna Almighty, I could feel it... My hindhooves reached for the pedals. Her forehooves hovered over my hands, resting lightly on them.

I looked up at Her. “Together,” She whispered so quietly yet so powerfully.

“Together.” I nodded lightly, turning back to the keys.

I began to play.

And it all began to come back to me.

I began to create again, and create beauty.

Together.

With Her.

Now, folks... a song. That song. Listen closely, and listen hard. Let it stay with you as you depart for the night, depart into the Dreamlands. It's early morning. Hope you all rest well.

And don't any of you dare interrupt.

Good night, everypony. Luna bless your souls for taking the time to listen. I'll be back here later tonight.

Now... just listen...

* * *

Footnote: Maximum Level
Unlockable added: Soundtrack- Theme of the Northern Bastion, Stalliongrad

Character Voice Actor- Angelina Jolie as Azrael

Soundtrack- Sonata Quasi una Fantasia; C-Sharp Minor (also known as “Moonlight Sonata”) by Beethoofen
First Movement
Second Movement
Third Movement

Author's Note:

My thanks go out to Kkat and Somber for their awesome stories (and Mimezinga too). Thank you for reading, and as always, feedback is appreciated.

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