• 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 Eight: Where the Heart is

Chapter Eight: Where the Heart is


Listen, folks. Being a “hero”... it's not what it's all cracked up to be. You folks might've already guessed. The Wasteland doesn't like heroes. It throws every Goddessdamn dirty trick it can to derail them off the path of morality. Gratitude is a commodity in the Wasteland, a commodity far too scarce. More often than not, it's a two-headed, two-faced, two-way, fickle, backstabbing mirage. You help someone out, and for all your trouble you get held at gunpoint by the very person you worked so hard to aid, get stripped of all your belongings, and then get sent on your way. I've seen it happen all too often. And then the heroes just get sick and tired of it and just stop. They just hit a brick wall and don’t know where to go from there. Death, suicide maybe. Or worse, becoming what they once fought to destroy.

After all, when you take, and you take, and you take... it isn't long before somebody feels somebody's been taking too much.

Heroes die hard in the Wasteland. Decent equines come by the dozen. Good equines are one in a million, and back then was no different.

There are exceptions of course. Rig. Azrael. The good people of Stalliongrad. Even the Razorwings if you want to go that far.

But, again, being a “hero” isn't what it's all cracked up to be. The Wasteland makes damn sure of that. Nobody's perfect. Neither are heroes.

I ask you folks now- am I perfect?

More importantly, am I a hero?

* * *

A moment of rest, a break to eat lunch. Few things exhilarate and scare me at the same time like flying does, especially flying so low to the ground. Again, I'm no natural flier. I've no natural wings. I can't really feel them, and so I can't feel get an exact idea of how far they are from other objects. If I have to bank hard, I have to be damn sure I don't clip myself on something solid. I also have to be careful not to subconsciously sublimate or coalesce additional ice. The wrong amount at the wrong time...

I'm kinda beating around the bush now, aren't I? Fact is, I'm no natural flier, especially so low to the ground. I was glad we touched down for lunch. Not too much to speak of about the surroundings. More dirt. More dust. Some lightly rolling hills- that was a nice change of pace.

Oh, and this was Rig's reaction to flying.

“That was so awesome!” the young mare shouted, her indigo eyes sparkling with glee. “I mean sure, those first few minutes were terrifying, but how fast we were able to cover ground, the air against my face-”

Azrael paused from tearing through her helping of radigator meat to correct her. “The wind.” She then murmured, “Stable ponies.” That made me crack a thin smile.

“The wind against my face,” Rig continued, not missing a beat, too occupied to mind the carnivore beside her, “the ground zipping by, the... um... wind against my face-”

“Your descriptions still need work,” I chuckled, popping open a can of the fluffy, butter joy (biscuits!) and tearing in.

Okay, perhaps not too fluffy. More like solid and partially frozen. Fine by me. They were biscuits and they were still good. Being crunchy was a bit of a somewhat pleasant surprise.

“I don't care, it was still so awesome!” The unicorn squealed with glee. Note to self: when she liked something, she got very, very passionate about it.

“I must admit,” Azrael spoke,” this was not the reaction I was expecting.”

“Azrael, I've known- gah, no!” I cried out suddenly as I stupidly talked with my mouthful of biscuits, causing crumbs to tumble from down to the Wasteland soil. I frantically scooped them up and carefully gobbled up every morsel.

The two of them promptly stared at me as I did so. Note to self: I was being a big, fat hypocrite.

I cleared my throat. “As I was... saying... I've known the gal for three days now, Azrael. I've had a lot of those moments.” I shuddered at the thought of the M12 flamethrower.

“You say that as if it's a bad thing.” Rig huffed, tucking away her empty can to sell later. Good girl.

“You take the good with the bad.” I shrugged, looking down. One biscuit left. I was shifting my gaze from one to the other. “Uh... either of you want one?”

“Nope.” The young mare shook her head quickly.

“Pass,” Azrael said simply, tearing another piece of radigator meat off with her beak.

Last one in the can, and so I enjoyed it nice and slowly. Crunchy, buttery goodness, I tell you.

“Okay, ready to go when you two are,” I grunted, getting up and sprouting my wings out again as I cracked my neck.

“Wait.” Azrael spoke, causing both of us to glance at her. “New contacts just entered my radius.”

“Uh, 'contacts'?” the young mare asked, confused.

“Spotted or otherwise detected individuals,” I told her before turning back to Azrael. “Dead Boys?” glanced skywards. Only the clouds greeted me, the soft glow indicating it was still morning.

“No, but more of them are entering,” she replied, getting up now with the soil crunching under her weight. “Four ponies being chased down by raiders. I'm counting seven. They're east-southeast of our current position and cutting westward across the edge of my radius.”

“A shame,” I spoke simply, closing my eyes. “Well, are you two ready to go yet?”

“I'm ready,” the griffin answered calmly.

“Hell yeah I am!” Rig grinned, Luna's Fortitude materializing beside her in a gray aura as she flipped down her welding helmet. “Time to go save us some ponies!”

“That's not what I meant.”

The cloud-maned unicorn popped up her helmet. “Come again?”

Azrael likewise eyed me. It was somewhat unsettling due to her blind, lifeless eyes.

“We maintain our heading,” I replied, clarifying. “We're continuing toward Hoofstead.”

“What?” Rig stared. “What? What... what?! You're kidding, right?”

“Time is of the essence for these slaves,” I said, turning to the southwest in preparation for takeoff. “Unfortunate as it is, we can't stop for such a matter, especially a matter that is practically out of our way. By the time we get there, the situation will likely have been resolved in any case.” I turned to face the girl. “We maintain our heading.”

She gawked at me as if I'd slapped her in the face.

“As you wish,” Azrael spoke.

“What?!” Rig wheeled to her now. “You're with him too?!”

“My family had to act similarly when fleeing from the Dead Boys,” the griffin replied. “It is, as Frost said, unfortunate. However, it is necessary when time is critical.” She glanced at me for a moment and I nodded lightly in thanks.

Rig looked from me to her and back. “You two... seriously? After all you've done? Unbelievable!”

“Come, Rig, let's go.” Azrael reached a claw out for the young mare.

She gazed up at the griffin for a few seconds before sighing in resignation, stowing Luna’s Fortitude away. “Fine.” She walked closer so that Azrael could pick her-

-and then she broke off fast, sprinting to the southeast.

“Rig!” the griffin shouted in surprise, slowly trying to catch up with her.

It bothered me that I anticipated something like that. It still does.

Rig only made it only a few meters before jarring to a halt as a spear embedded itself in the ground in front of her. Formed of ice.

My five remaining wings had thinned to thin, sharpened javelins, the arms connecting them to my back primed and ready to throw.

Rig was so astonished that she didn't even resist as Azrael picked her up in one claw and slowly strode back to me with her in tow. “Frost...?” she whispered out, eyes open wide.

“I'm sorry, Rig,” I spoke softly, wings reforming now. “But it's for your own good, too. We cannot get sidetracked and put all of us, namely you, at greater risk. Rule number one. You made that promise.” I turned away, facing southwest once more. “When you're ready, Azrael.”

“I'm ready,” the griffin responded.

We took off accordingly, Azrael at my side with Rig clutched under her as we coasted low over the Wasteland. The young mare just hung there limply, still shocked.

“If it's of any remote comfort,” the ebony telepath spoke, “and I know it probably won't be, they're already dead. We wouldn't have made it there in time to stop them.”

Rig lowered her head and let out a sigh almost lost to the wind as it rushed by us and closed her eyes.

I could almost hear the big, empty bastard laughing.

* * *

Three days passed with no hostile contact. Rig wasn't up for conversation after the incident. I couldn't blame her, but I couldn't feel sorry for her at the same time. She'd have to learn. Meanwhile, Azrael was obedient and silent, speaking only when spoken to, only growing more talkative when we settled down for the night. I couldn't help but shrug the feeling she was judging me though. But whatever the case was, we flew, we ate, we did our business as need be, and we slept.

I had nightmares of course. It never failed. The nightmares wouldn't leave me. Why would they? Why should they?

In the interest of time since dinner's getting near and so is my watch, I'm going to leave those out. I hope you're happy, folks, because this is still gonna be a long one.

We were nearing the Great Mid-Equestrian Divide, the hilly terrain quickly growing more and more mountainous. We decided to stick to the lowlands, partly for stealth and mostly for Rig. It was growing a little warmer now, but it was still well within my comfort zone. I couldn't help but still feel tense, however. I knew that as the mountains rose around us, we'd pass by a place important not just to me but to all of us.

I breathed out a shuddering sigh as we swept around the base. It was a long mountain chain, but it was also a narrow one. We would be passing through very quickly.

Azrael noticed. “Something the matter?”

I hadn't expected for anyone to question into the matter nor, in such a case, for that “anyone” to be Azrael. But, I told her, “We're getting close.”

“To Manehattan?”

“No.” I flattened my lips as we burst into a low valley. “To Canterlot.”

High above us built on a cliffside of the tallest mount in the Divide was a magnificent, magical city. From where we were, we couldn't distinguish much of it, but a castle with all of its battlements and spires rose skyward, looming over the rest of the city. Great multitudes of water cascaded down into the valley below.

But it wasn't magnificent, wasn't magical. No more. The structures were cracked, crumbled, and raw from age. The trickling flow of the waterfalls were rushing torrents of muddled water.

And a ghastly, swirling miasma of horrifying pink hung in the air around the city.

The storyteller shuddered.

And then somepony raised a hand.

What is it?

The mare asked what the deal was with Canterlot.

The storyteller glared at her for a few seconds, but his expression grew soft and somber. He closed his eyes as cold breath seethed from his mouth.

Canterlot is... was the capital of Equestria. It was known for many things. The high majority of upper-class citizens, mostly unicorns, that dwelt in the city- and practically all snobs, phonies, and hypocrites. Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns, the best unicorn magic academy in all the land. The shopping, the plays and shows... and Canterlot Castle. That was the place where the Grand Galloping Gala, the “biggest” party of the year, took place. It was a very prestigious event.

And it was also where Princess Luna and Princess Celestia, along with their Royal Guards and attendants, lived.

Another shaky breath rasped out of the storyteller's mouth as he opened his eyes.

The zebras knew they were slowly losing the Great War. It came to a point where most of their army was mechanized. They simply couldn't continue to fight abroad while the Zebrica Wilds continued to lay siege to them. And so, during the last day of the Great War, the zebras launched an all-out attack on Canterlot. Princess Celestia and Princess Luna cast a spellshield over the entire city to defend it from the hail of zebra missiles. But even before all of this, the zebras had already infiltrated the city. With them, they brought a megaspell that produced a horrible biochemical weapon.

They knew it as the Littlehorn agent.

We know it as the Pink Cloud.

The Pink Cloud destroys living things on the subatomic level, causing normal ponies to just break apart and meld with whatever objects they were currently in contact with. The effects were... were truly horrifying beyond all words.

The storyteller shifted, eyes glazing over, no longer looking at the audience or anyone. He gulped hard.

Ponies slowly melted into the concrete pavement. Into walls. Into the very autowagons they were driving. Into the buildings, into benches. And, as some of them tried to cling onto their loved ones, into each other...

He was panting now, nervous twitches rocking his frame.

The princesses were forced to keep the shield up. The Pink Cloud megaspell was the ultimate doomsday device, able to spread the gas over all of Equestria. The princesses knew this and contained the Pink Cloud using the very shield they cast to save the city.

He locked eyes with the audience now, voice cracked.

You can't begin to comprehend, to fathom just how powerful, just how deadly the Pink Cloud was. It didn't even matter if you held your breath or were even in a hazard suit. It'd kill you, it would break you down all the same. It had to be so powerful, it had to be so deadly.

Because ultimately, the zebras wanted Princess Luna and Princess Celestia to die.

He was deadly quiet now. Every word boomed with the weight of all his years.

And it worked. The zebras killed them.

The Goddesses sacrificed Themselves to save all of Equestria. They kept that shield up to save everypony and everyone. The Pink Cloud never spread from Canterlot.

His lips drew back in a snarl, voice seething with rage.

But stupid, stupid fuckheads we were, we went and threw it all away! We fucking destroyed our world for what they did to save it! Damn it! Damn us all!

The storyteller suddenly began storming out of the building, seething bitterly.

I'm sorry. I need some air, give me time, just give me some, some time...

The unicorn shoved the door open, tearing it off of his hinges. He growled in his misdirected emotion and slipped away, leaving behind a confused audience. Whispers spread throughout the crowd as the minutes ticked by.

Dinner came and went, and the members of the audience went and came with it. It wasn't until an hour after that the armored, green-coated unicorn stood in the doorway once more.

I... apologize, folks. It's a... touchy subject for me.

The storyteller tapped his old armor.

It's... a family thing, I guess. Right?

Roanoke, the griffin by the jukebox, went to speak with him, but the storyteller cut him off with the wave of his hoof.

No. I'm going to tell it. They came for a story, and I'll be damned if I don't deliver.

Without waiting for an answer, the storyteller brushed him aside and took his place once more before the audience, his words once more flowing out like liquid honey.

Where was I...? Oh... right...

We were just passing around the mount, laying our eyes on that forsaken place. It still gives me the chills even now, just thinking about it. And when they're my chills, you know we're talking big ones.

We passed by in silence. I couldn't tear my eyes off of that tainted city. I know I should have been scanning around for threats, but... I just couldn't.

Canterlot...

The City of Hopes and Dreams...

“There,” Rig finally spoke, my ears twitching to her words. I looked back to see her pointing down at the ruins of Zebratown, near the base of the largest waterfall flowing down from Canterlot. The Pink Cloud hung there too, if not as densely. Before the Great War, it was once a settlement made up almost completely of zebras that were refugees from the war that cast them from their home. Too hated and mistrusted by ponykind, they left other cities to create one all to their own. It didn't stop ponies from keeping watch on them, though.

Getting off topic. I digress...

“There,” Rig finally spoke, my ears twitching to her words. I looked back to see her pointing down at the Zebratown ruins. “That's where Stable Three is.”

“In Zebratown?” I asked, unable to contain my horror and surprise. “In the Cloud?”

“No no, don’t worry, it’s safe,” she said. “They were able to hermetically seal off the forward area of the Stable to prevent the Pink Cloud from leaking in. We had a back route in the base of the mountain nearby, more around the side. That’s how the security team and me were able to get out.”

“Oh...” That made much more sense, and that meant it would be safe from the Pink Cloud. That over with, we fell into a terse silence once more.

“We can talk, you know.” Rig broke it once again. “I think I'm pretty much over it now.”

Her tone suggested otherwise.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“I know better now,” the earth-coated mare spoke. “We wouldn't have made it in time anyways.”

I turned back to look at her as we glided past the rest of the Divide. “You didn't answer the question.”

Rig sighed and looked away. I glanced at Azrael. Her expression was hard and unreadable.

The young mare looked back up at me and said, “No.”

At least she was truthful. I spoke as gently as I could over the wind as we soared on. “Listen. All this takes getting used to. And you do get used to it. The Wasteland is cold and unforgiving. Try as we might to win some, inevitably we lose some. Remember, Rig, the Wasteland will never win as long as it doesn't claim you, through death or otherwise.”

She nodded plaintively, but her eyes weren't as dull anymore. She learned fast, that girl. I hoped she would eventually get over it.

* * *

Manehattan, the City of Legends and Lights. It lived up to that title, or at least it used to. The balefire bomb turned the downtown area- once the heart of the city- into nothing more than a giant crater still crackling with radiation. Everything else was crumbled, scorched, and husked. The Manehattan ruins were and still are rife with danger. Raider nests just keep popping up, slaver holes keep getting dug in, and yet ponies still try to stake out their life in the massive urban sprawl of the city that dwarfed even Stalliongrad.

Forty years ago, the place was about the same as today. Different faces and different places but the same situation. Raiders. Slavers. Normal folk. All of them were trying to eke out their lives in what remained of the City of Legends and Lights.

The only difference was that there were a whole lot more raiders and slavers, and gunfire echoed constantly.

It had been about a week of near non-stop flying and zero contact. We were gradually getting back to our usual level of talkativeness at least. As we neared the northern outskirts of the city, we touched down and scouted out the fringes of the city, made much easier due to Azrael.

In a manner of speaking, “easier,” I think, doesn't quite say much.

“Raiders,” the griffin reported. “They're everywhere.”

“Of course they're everywhere.” I huffed. “This is Manehattan. Could you be a little more specific?”

The three of us had touched down and trotted closer to the city, now taking position behind a low hill that shielded us from view. Rig had limped the whole way. Still not used to Wasteland earth, that gal. She was staying quiet, letting the more experienced Wastelanders do the planning.

“Not by much,” Azrael replied, seemingly unfazed by my curtness. “The northern outskirts are crowded out. Little else to say.”

“Any route we can take for a bypass?” I asked. Personally, I'd love nothing more than to rip apart the lot of them, and I was sure Rig could easily hold her own given she survived against a well-equipped mercenary company a week ago. But we were on a schedule, and the clock was ticking. And our objective was so tantalizingly close...

“No, not unless you wish to waste more time trying to find a section of the city perimeter that's less infested.”

“Not even a chance for a bypass?” I asked, my muzzle tugging into a frown.

“Not even a chance,” Azrael spoke. “There is, however, one remotely easier way to get in.”

I sighed, “Something tells me I'm not going to like this, but what is it?”

“The path of least resistance,” she answered.

“What kind of resistance are we talking?” I inquired.

“A good dozen raiders. So far. That might change as we get closer and I can glean more in my radius, but that's the best I've got. We can try to sneak our way in, but sooner or later one of them will catch us.”

“Well, we certainly can't fly in there.” I scowled. “Entering will be easy, but once we touch down, all eyes will be on us. Path of least resistance it is. That means, however, that we'll need stealth.” I glanced at the two of them. “Can either of you do stealth?”

Rig nodded. “Sure, I think I can do that. I have Luna's Fortitude after all.”

“Not that kind of stealth. I'm talking the kind where you're trying to get through without firing a single shot.”

“... oh.” The unicorn mare blinked. “Well... I can try.”

Azrael merely stared blankly at me. “Do I occur to you as the epitome of stealth?” She took one, heavy, crunching step toward me for emphasis. “Stealth and I aren't fond friends.”

“You said you could glean the senses off of anyone in your radius, right?” I turned to her. “Then that's how you'll be keeping out of sight, out of scent, out of hearing, and out of mind.”

“As you wish,” Azrael said simply. She seemed very skeptical about that.

“And Rig, we'll need to be a stealthy as possible, so keep magic to a minimum,” I said to the earth-coated mare. “Magical auras tend to catch attention. Also, you should have some sort of objective marker on your E.F.S. and under the 'Data' tab on your PipBuck. I don't know for sure, but I think it should show up on your radar, too. Keep us heading in the right direction, okay?”

“You got it!” She did have a... okay, it wasn't quite as surely or lovely as before, but it was a smirk nonetheless.

“Play our cards right, and we won't even have to fire a single shot.” I glanced over the two of them. Azrael looked doubtful. “We'll do what we can. Watch where you step, and keep noise to a minimum. Time's a-wasting. Let's get going. Azrael, lead the way. I'll take the rear. Rig, stay between us.”

“Understood,” the giant acknowledged and began heading off, cloak sweeping behind her as she made a break for the city. Rig knocked down her welder's helmet and started off behind her as I followed up behind. Ice crinkled over me as I cloaked myself once more, keeping my eyes, ears, and nose open. Rig glanced back questioningly, but I whispered, “Don't worry, I'm here. Just keep going.”

“Your creativity with ice continues to impress me,” Azrael spoke.

My lips curved into a small, unseen smile. “Well, I've had a long time to come up with these ideas.”

Azrael led us behind a charred trailer, and we stacked up behind her. It was our last piece of visual cover, now that the first ruined houses were a stone's-throw away. We were very close. The stench of decay would have been overbearing to my sensitive nose if it weren't for my acclimation to such a thing. Rig was stirring uncomfortably, likely from that foul odor. The ebony griffin turned back to us and held up three claws before motioning toward the city, and quickly too. She then curled her claw into a fist. The message was clear.

One claw.

Two claws.

Three claws.

We took off, Azrael's footsteps sounding loudly as we all made a break for it. Rig was running a tad lopsidedly but easily kept pace with the griffin as I took up the rear. Only then did I realize just how close we were going to cut it. From within the gutted, skeletal remains of a pair of two-story houses was a raider nest right in front of us. Wood planks spanned between the two of them, and a pair of earth pony raiders wearing barding that looked nothing more than a mishmash of spikes, leather, and tire treads were loafing about above, just now looking away. I also saw where Azrael was taking us. There was a trench dug under the foundation of one of the homes- a trench that would take us out of sight, but we needed to move fast.

Rig stumbled, whimpering, gaze turned upwards. At first, I thought it was from either the sight of the raiders so damn close to us or having to run so quickly over the harsh terrain, but then I saw them.

The bodies.

Ever seen a raider nest, folks? If you haven't already seen one as you get close, you'll have smelled it. Hanging off massive hooks, dangling off of rusted chains were bodies. Pony bodies. All of them were mutilated with sadistic glee, rent apart in a sick sort of artistic manner. Heads were split open, their insides exposed. Ribcages were pried apart, guts hooked up and splayed. Limbs were missing, eyes were gouged, intestines were trailing. And that's not mentioning the other obscene ways they were mounted. Couples locked in sick, lewd positions; innards and limbs torn off, put where they don't belong... the sickest kind of art.

Rig couldn't take her eyes off of the mutilated corpses, and she downright pulled to a stop. I cursed under my breath and snatched her up in the hook of my foreleg, hefting her up and pulling her along as I galloped as fast as I could on three legs, joining Azrael in the trench.

The young mare only just began to let out a light cry as I formed an ice hand and tucked it under her helmet, over her mouth, stifling her. She was shuddering, whimpering. I could see her eyes wide and shifting behind that dark lens.

“Shhhh...” I hushed her. “Shhhh...”

“Hey, you hear something?” one of the raiders above us chattered in a smug, snide tone.

“What, you mean somepony's sneakin' around here?” the other replied, rougher, more menacing. “Come out and play, you lil' fuckers...”

Azrael was waving urgently with her claw, lumbering into an alcove nearby. Still hushing Rig, I pulled her along, my back to the wall as we slipped out of sight. Rig was panting frantically into my palm as the sound of four hooves landing on the earth sounded off. They were coming, and if we were discovered already... we could have dozens of raiders bearing down on us at once.

“Show yourself, motherfucker!” one of them bellowed.

“Come out! You scared, bitch?”

Raiders. Seems like they just can't resist cursing in every other if not just plain every sentence.

The hoofsteps were getting louder as I sprouted another ice arm and whipped out Midnight Talon, popping the safety and latch dropping her open in preparation. The hoofsteps didn't stop getting louder, and Rig was panicking. I was pulling my palm harder over her to quiet her. Dammit, he was going to check the alcove! Think fast, Frost, think fast!

My mind raced for a way out as I realized the space we were in was just narrow enough to allow Azrael to slip in. An idea hatched, and I placed a hoof against the corner where the alcove began, ice spreading out to form a wall from one end to the other. I hastily changed the thickness to bend light, hoping I had enough time as the raider rounded the corner.

Rig fell dead quiet, eyes wide, not daring to breathe as the dirty, blood-spattered earth pony rounded the corner looked straight at us, his visage a little blurry from the ice in front of us but no less imposing. If he could still see us, our cover was blown.

“Huh?” The raider turned back outside and growled. “What the fuck, Chives! There ain't nopony here! And who the hell filled up the ditch?”

Oh thank goodness...

“What?” the other shouted from above. “You shittin' me?”

“Place is empty, shit-for-brains! Next time you say you hear something, you better fuckin' mean it!” He started out now, leaving us behind. He grumbled, murmuring, “By Celestia's cunt, what a dumbf-”

And suddenly he was dead. The top half of his head was lopped off, brain sliced clean, eyeballs dangling free. He stumbled and twitched unsteadily before slumping against the wall. It happened so fast, I didn't even realize that I sublimated the ice screen and brought Midnight Talon across his head. Nor did I realize that I brought Rig with me.

Ohhhhh damn, I thought as I heard more hoofsteps above. I really shouldn't have done that.

“Move!” I whispered to them, releasing Rig. “Go, now!”

Azrael lumbered away while Rig followed, shocked but steady, at least for now. I tailed them, backpedaling for a bit to see if the other raider would follow.

“Jigsaw, you stayin' down there or somethin'?” he shouted down. “Well fiiiine by me! Lazy bastard...”

Raiders. They were known for a lot of things, but accuracy wasn't one of them. Neither was common sense. Nor just plain sense for that matter.

Pausing to wipe my blade on the corpse and stow her away, I turned tail now. I followed along until we reached the end of the trench, a good twenty meters away with another small alcove that we ducked into.

“Forgive me for my insubordination, but what were you thinking?” Azrael whispered angrily. “We had it.”

“It's... a bit of a pet peeve,” I admitted, still cloaked. “I don't take kindly to blasphemies against the Goddesses.”

Azrael stared long and hard at me. Again, very unsettling from a blind griffin.

“Okay, more than a pet peeve,” I furthermore admitted. “Look, I'll just warn you now. Please don't try to insult, blaspheme, or otherwise slander the Goddesses.”

“Noted,” the griffin sighed, closing her eyes and pinching her brow, clacking her beak in distaste. “But if you're the one who wants us to stay hidden as long as possible, you can't be doing that now can you?”

I merely nodded wordlessly at her.

“Wh... what was that?!” Rig yelped but yelped quietly in a tinny, squeaky voice, panting and shuddering.

“A raider nest,” I told her, “just like any other raider nest.”

“You mean they're all like that?!” she hissed, eyes wide behind that lens.

“They're all like that, and I haven't seen a single exception to date,” I answered her. “And they're going to be everywhere here.”

“Wha-bu-guh-” she blabbered. “But why do they do that?!”

“Because they can,” I replied. “You have to realize that raiders aren't sane. They lack reason and will kill anything that isn't one of them. Or, if they don't, they'll use them for their own selfish purposes. They even mutilate their own dead in the same manner; that's how far their insanity goes.”

Rig had to lift up her helmet and place a hoof against her forehead to take it all in. “And they're going to be everywhere here...”

“Everywhere,” I repeated.

“Oh Goddess,” Rig moaned, covering her face with both hooves and bending over. “I don't think I can do this...”

I sighed softly. So long ago, so very, very long ago... had I really been in her same place?

I looked at her now as she started to break down under the weight of the horror. Yes, I had really been in her same place. I uncloaked myself and laid a hoof on her back. “Rig, look at me. Look at me.”

The cloud-maned unicorn slowly did so, tearing her hooves away.

“You're going to see a lot of ugliness in the Wasteland,” I told her, voice firm. “That's just how it is. You proved that you're strong enough to journey with me as I try to help you and your Stable out. You proved that to me back in Stalliongrad. And you just bore witness to that without losing your lunch. Don't let me down now, Rig.”

The girl, not quite yet a mare, inhaled and exhaled deeply before nodding, biting her lip as the strength returned to those indigo eyes.

“Or have I been proven wrong?” I smirked, just a little, my tone a little snide. “Do we have to drop you off at Tenpony Tower and leave you with all the stuck-up aristocrats?”

She did have a lovely smirk.

“Oh hell no!” Rig exclaimed, quietly though. Her confidence was returning.

Nice job, Frost. Right words the right way.

“Then stay strong.” I smiled at her. “Remember, we'll be with you all the way.” I turned to Azrael and nodded. She nodded slowly back, though I did see a hint of something glint in those empty eyes. What was it?

Whatever it was, I had no time to think as she began lumbering heavily ahead once more, Rig flipping down her welder's helmet and staggering along. Ice crinkled over me once more as I cloaked and followed.

* * *

The next hour or so consisted of careful evasion, well-timed sprinting, and tense sneaking. Rig gradually desensitized herself to the mutilation around us as we passed around the nests, navigating down those twisted streets, alleyways and trenches. I couldn't take in the surroundings completely. I paid attention only to what was necessary, what mattered.

Raider positions. Which direction were they facing? Were they occupied doing something? Could they hear us, see us? Were they actively patrolling or merely lounging about?

Obstacles. Was there debris in our path? Was there a raider nest in our path? Was there some other form of obstruction in our path? How could we circumvent them stealthily and continue on our way? Were there traps? Landmines, tripwires, even the odd bear trap? Thankfully, none of those seemed to be around.

Visual cover. How many degrees of visual exposure did we have? Where were they in relation to our group? Were there raiders occupying those uncovered degrees of visual exposure? Was there anything to block that exposure? How long it would block that exposure? How far? Was there neutral, inaccessible territory we could move along to minimize possible degrees of visual exposure?

Auditory cover. Were there patches of relatively softer earth we could use to quiet our movement? Was Azrael making too much noise over the concrete and tarmac? Were the raiders doing something that would generate a noise that could cover our advance? Were the ambient echoes of gunshots enough to cover our advance? Were there objects lying around that could generate unwanted noise with a misplaced step?

To the last one, yes. Very much yes. For that reason and as our (my) luck would have it, we couldn't stay hidden forever.

“I told you we couldn't stay hidden forever!” Azrael hissed as she slammed into the door of the nearest house. A normal griffin would've knocked it off of its hinges. She just plain reduced it to splinters. We quickly dove inside for cover as raiders opened up all around us, rushed cries and reports ringing out to draw attention to our position.

“I know, dammit!” I growled as my ice cloak thickened into armor and I appeared before them once more, arms sprouting to whip out Luna's Judgment. “You don't need to remind me!” I checked the band around my current drum. Gray. Two-kilogram slugs. That would do for this situation, but I needed it to be a bit quieter. Ice pooled from the barrel, widening a few inches and growing longer to form a very, very large suppressor.

“Shit, just... shit!” Rig growled, ducking down as the wood around us began to splinter from the bullets raining against the facade of the scorched home we used as shelter. “I'm sorry! I didn't see the glass!”

“Sorry won't fix it!” I yelled. It was harsh, but it was true. Time slowed down as I aimed at the doorway where I saw a hoof just start to peek in. I focused, waiting for the raider mare's head to come into view. I pulled the trigger, and I could see the end of the suppressor form a minute blossom of light for a moment before that two-kilogram slug popped her head like a balloon, my shotgun's CHKFT drawn out eerily.

Time winded back up to speed as Azrael swept up her cloak to reveal Harbinger, a deafening roar sounding out as she shot upward through the ceiling. Chunks of plaster rained down as those gigantic rounds tore the place up. Seconds later, she ceased fire and reported, “Building clear!” Well, so much for using a suppressor if she was going to use that. I sublimated it appropriately.

That telepathy was going come very much in handy though.

Now that I had a moment to breathe with (semi)solid cover in between us and the raiders, my training began to come back. Priorities organized themselves.

What is the situation? We were in a- I paused to glance up the stairwell- two-story building. Medium, typical size for a Manehattan household. I didn't have the time to take in the all the details. Hard, dirty flooring. Cracked, fleur-de-lis design of wallpaper. Sparse, mostly-burnt furniture. Windows almost completely boarded up, at least on the ground floor. Kitchen through one doorway, a closet nearby, small restroom opposite me. A couple hanging bodies.

Is this cover defensible? Yes. Barely.

What is the state of the hostile force? I didn't know entirely.

Find out.

Form a plan.

Enact that plan.

“Azrael, sitrep!” I shouted, keeping my aim focused on the doorway.

“What?!” the cloaked griffin yelled back over the clamor, firing through the walls at the raiders on the other side. Yes, that was going to be very convenient, even though it was causing our own cover to fall apart. Those NSVT rounds began to put very big holes in the wall.

“Sitrep, dammit!” I yelled back.

“In plain Equestrian!” she growled. “Cut the jargon!”

Oh, right. They didn't know about that kind of stuff. Dammit.

“Situation report! How many are there, and where are they in relation to us?”

“Hold on!” She kept up the fire for a little longer, then began heading for the kitchen, barely making it through even when ducking her head due to her size. “Grenade, doorway!”

Moments later, a metal apple bounced through the door. Rig leaped away, scrambling for the nearby restroom and hitting the deck. Being in the open with the nearest piece of solid cover too far for comfort, instinct took over and I lunged for the grenade, sweeping a hoof up hard to kick it away as far as possible. No sooner did my hoof finish swinging in its arc than I dove sideways out of the line of shrapnel.

Good news, raiders never cooked their grenades. It's a fact that I've never seen disproved to this day.

Bad news, Murphy's Law of Modern Combat. Five-second fuses always burn three seconds. I kicked about two seconds after the pin was pulled.

The pop of the grenade was followed by the sharp crunch of my ice armor failing. I was still mid-dive and was sent into a slight turn by the impact against my hindlegs. Feeling nothing amiss, I took aim at the doorway, predicting that whoever threw the grenade would shortly make a rush for the entrance. I wasn't disappointed. A pair of unicorn raiders, one armed with a nailboard and the other equipped with a sub-machine gun. Luna's Judgment still in my grip, I aimed down the sight and blew apart the latter's neck, his head spinning in the air for a moment before landing on the floor with a wet squish. The former rushed at his first available target- me. My ice armor was still mostly intact, and the nailboard actually bounced back a little from the impact, the raider widening her eyes in surprise. Since she was a bit too far for me to bludgeon or stab with Luna's Judgment, I held out a hoof toward her, the moisture in the air depositing on her and slowly freezing her up. Her surprised expression was likewise frozen with her within five seconds. I scrambled to my feet.

My hindlegs didn't respond at all and I slumped back to the floor. Dammit, that wasn't good...

I turned to look and bit my lip at what I saw. Deep, red lines had sliced into my legs from the shrapnel that punched through. Some of the fragments of the grenade's casing were likely still stuck inside; I couldn't slug down a healing potion as they would be sealed up inside and cause internal damage. The very muscle tissue was torn in multiple places.

And even with all this, I barely felt a thing. To be more accurate, I didn't feel a-

No, Frost. Don't. Go. There. We needed to get out of this hellhole. My injuries could wait. If they wouldn't...

Well, then I'd force them to. Icy tendrils snaked down my hindlegs, forcing them to move in lieu of my own muscles. I got up to my feet. Shake it off and do what needs to be done.

“Status report!” I yelled, reforming the ice around my hindlegs and thickening my armor slightly in anticipation of more of such grenades. “Everyone alright?”

“Accounted for!” Azrael called out, sweeping out of the kitchen with her Kord sputtering out through the walls.

“I'm fine!” Rig shouted as she came back around, finally teleporting out Luna's Fortitude and levitating it beside her. Her eyes locked with my hindlegs “Oh, sweet Sparkle, Frost...”

“It can wait, now where's that situation report?” I shouted over the clamor, keeping my aim fixed on the doorway.

“Nearby raiders are alerted to our presence!” the griffin answered. “Th-”

“Can you tell us something we don't know?” Rig cut in. “Frost, the hell are you still standing? Your legs are all-”

“I know, now stay quiet and let her finish!” I growled.

“The raiders currently engaged with us haven't informed others yet, but the longer we prolong this, the higher the risk they will!” Azrael continued, Harbinger continuing to litter the floor with those huge, spent casings. “If we eliminate the raiders in our way, we can push through!”

“How many are out there?” I asked.

“Thirty-four and dropping slowly!” the ebony griffin replied. “I've pushed them back with my fire, we've got an opening!” Harbinger suddenly stopped roaring. “Reloading!” An orange shimmer ran across her weapon, fresh bullets winding out from the feed and back into the drum as the weapon's time-line went into rewind. “Dammit, they're pushing forward!”

Situation understood. Surrounded by hostile force.

Form a plan. Cannot stay in deathtrap unless hostile elimination is imminent. Hostile elimination is not imminent. Push through and seize position of advantage. Eliminate those who follow. Move on.

Enact that plan.

“Acknowledged!” I nodded. “Rig, with me! We're going to get the hell out of here as soon as Azrael's ready! I'm taking point! Stay a bit behind me but stay on the move! We push through no matter what!”

“Got it!” she acknowledged, her voice reverberating oddly behind her helmet.

A few more seconds ticked past, and I spent them swapping out my drum of slugs for one with a red band- my triple-aught gas-expanding buckshot. I needed something a bit more friendly for close quarters.

“Loaded, ready!” Azrael finally called out.

“Hold until my signal!” I ordered. “I'm making another opening!” And so I rushed out first, time slowing as I scanned what was before me. We were in a small city square of sorts. A ruined fountain laid-

<====ooo*w[243>erA(*OOO*,,,w112e34>>.><*ooo====>

The storyteller’s voice warped, echoing in a manner that sent chills through the audience. In several places, his voice suddenly shifted, becoming unnervingly distant and crackled, as if on low volume from a radio set.

I remember it had this fountain, this beautiful, pure, white marble fountain. Fish and dolphins branched off from the main pillar, water spouting out from their mouths into the rippling pool below. Rarely do you see any working fountains like that. The only one you can find nowadays- the only one I've found so far at least- is at Tenpenny.

<====ooo*a{g8p9qyev}ngels*OOO*m,.243!`\\,/ef4*ooo====>

Holy... what the hell was that? No time to think, just keep focus, keep time nice and slow...

A trio of melee raiders were rushing at me past a dying unicorn mare slumped against the fountain's edge. Her eyes were wide with shock, a 12.7 NSVT round having torn off her right foreleg. A particularly large earth pony stallion brimming with spikes was shouting orders to the raiders behind him, eyes bloodshot and lips tucked back in a snarl just to stay imposing and maintain authority over his underlings.

Time still crawling along, I glanced over the rest of the scenery. My vision blurred as my eyes and head turned faster than my brain could process the information. It was only for a moment in this drawn-out moment, and I took in the rest of the square. Raiders had taken position on the two relatively intact buildings remaining, spraying at us with assault rifles and sub-machine guns that were doing little more than pockmarking the facade of the house we sought cover in. I could actually see the projectiles moving ever so slowly as they scattered all over the place. And so, my ice arms shifting slow as molasses, I took aim at my first target, vision blurring as I snapped back toward him- the large earth pony stallion, presumably the ringleader of this group.

I still had one heavy slug in the chamber.

Luna's Judgment kicked, reporting with that eerily drawn-out, incredibly loud clap of thunder. The barrel blossomed with light and fire, heralding the huge lump of metal exiting the barrel.

Time snapped back up to speed, and the next seconds blew past. The ringleader's head exploded into an eyeball-strewn, fine, red mist. He fell in such a manner that he pinned down on his weapon's trigger, cutting down a raider spraying the house. The raiders in the distance continued to pepper the house to little effect. The three in front rushed at me in spite of the futility. I swung the hooked end of my mounted crowbar up to smash in the temple of the one closest to me. As she fell, I reared Luna's Judgment skywards, bringing the hooked end down onto the next, catching him in the cheek and battering him aside. Bringing my weapon back, I thrust forward into the last one- a unicorn- as she tried to stab her knife into my side. Her weapon snapped. The jagged end of mine shoved into her mouth. Not quite what I planned, but as soon as I felt the blade punch out through the back, I tore away, her head flopping to the ground with it.

I pumped the action. And then I tapped the eye-shaped gem on my breastplate, causing it to glow an angry blue while I let ice crinkle down my throat. I reared back my head, inhaling deeply before throwing my head forward and letting out the most horrible, most guttural, most inequine roar I could muster. The Wasteland itself seemed to roar with me as air expelled from my mouth with the force of my bellow, made overwhelmingly loud with the power of the vocal augmentation spell and my own cryomancy.

It was at this moment that I'd like to think the raiders that remained were scared shitless. A fair amount of expletives filled the air as I kept moving in the direction we were originally headed. I deactivated the gem, sublimated the ice in my throat, turned back to the house, and yelled, “Move!”

Rig was out first, glancing at the raider I downed but hadn't killed yet. She brought her right hoof down hard on his head as he tried to get up. I could hear his skull fragmenting over her hoofsteps as she caught up with me. Azrael followed up next, firing into the distant houses with Harbinger. The brighter raiders kept their heads down. The duller ones would be dearly missing those limbs and organs. It didn't matter in the end. If a barrage of NSVT could make short work of a wall of cinder-blocks, those age-worn walls wouldn't stand up any better.

We made a break down those twisted streets. I ran as fast as I could without leaving Rig or Azrael behind. Though Azrael silenced a good number of their guns and my own form of intimidation made the raiders think twice about engaging us, the ones ahead of us were starting to pepper us. Gone was all sense of stealth or subtlety, and as such, we caught the attention of raider nests in our way as we ran by. Caught out in the open, we were forced to press on, weaving behind the occasional burned-out autowagon or pile of debris as bullets whizzed past us. A lot of rounds were pinging and rolling off of my ice armor. I swapped out Luna's Judgment for Night Fang, the M11901 barking as I sprayed at the raiders before us. Between the high-capacity magazines, plentiful ammo, and lightning-fast reloads, I kept up a near-continuous spray of .45 ACP. Azrael likewise kept up the fire, Harbinger roaring and keeping the raiders pinned.

And then Rig stood still and started shooting, Luna's Fortitude clicking and hissing with single shots as a raider in a window snapped her head back, blood painting the wall behind her. Azrael nearly trampled her, barely skittering out of the way.

“Dammit, Rig, keep moving!” I yelled, only to see her line up another string of shots that sent another of those bastards sprawling back. I stopped now and barreled toward her, tugging on her shoulder. She seemed to be stuck in some sort of trance. “Rig!”

She snapped out of it and growled, “Fuck! Sorry!”

“What the hell was that all about?” I demanded, keeping up the fire and taking point as we took off again. “And don't follow me so close! I don't want a bullet pinging off my armor into either of you!”

That last bit... an ugly memory was starting to form in my head, but I quickly put it back into its place. Not now.

“I was gonna ask you!” Rig shouted, firing off more hammer-taps from the modified AKMB. “I just triggered S.A.T.S. and I stopped moving!

“Then don't trigger it again until we don't have to move!” I growled. What was it with all these issues with the PipBuck popping up at the worst times? “Azrael, do we have any unoccupied buildings we can garrison?”

“Up ahead, ruined two-story building on our right!” the griffin yelled, laying down fire ahead of us. I glanced up ahead. When she said “ruined,” she meant it. The windows were blown out, most of the rooms were crumbled down, and the roof had collapsed partially. Very little of the second story remained. It was little more than concrete and rebar.

“Are you kidding me?!” Rig exclaimed. “That's where we're gonna make our stand?!”

“It's solid concrete, and it's defensible!” I shouted back, running past the doorway and ushering the others in. “I'm not complaining! Get inside, upstairs! Seize the height advantage!” Rig darted in, scrambling up the stairs just down what was left of the hallway. Azrael tried to squeeze through the doorway but found it too low for her. She fired a pair of rounds into the obstruction overhead, blowing out enough of it so she could enter. We both watched as the chunks of concrete fell. “... still not complaining!”

Azrael gave a light cock of her head before heading up as well. I fell back toward the stairwell, taking a moment to hose down a raider that dared to follow. I iced over the stairway as I went up, forming it into a steep slide. If any of them tried to follow after us, they wouldn't be able to close in. By the time I reached the sparse second floor, Rig and Azrael were already laying down fire on the raiders below and around the area. Luna's Judgment was out once more, and my unnaturally formed arms allowed me to pump the action unnaturally fast, spitting out around three triple-aught buckshot shells per second.

I'm already anticipating the question, folks. What's the difference between my shells and normal ones? Well, standard twelve-gauge shells are usually double-aught buckshot. Mine? Triple-aught gas-expanding buckshot. Not only are my pellets bigger than normal and consequently heavier, but upon impact with a solid target, they fill up with air and burst. Often, they'll do that after penetrating flesh. Think about it. Big, fat, heavy pellets that burst after punching inside. Only downside is that there's only six pellets per shell.

Like I said, folks, unless I pretty much miss or I'm up against an incredibly resilient foe, I expect whatever I shoot at to be very, very dead. Pretty much every raider I hit was mangled to some extent.

We were a little awkward in our first firefight together to be honest. There were several times that we were caught with two or even all three of us reloading at the same time. The only things that kept raiders from getting more shots in on us were the quick reloads offered by Rig's triple magazines and my speed-loading ability. Thanks to my ability to form multiple arms, I could lock in a fresh drum in a little over two seconds. We were also firing upon the same areas, sometimes the same enemies instead of suppressing different areas. This awkwardness lent to the idea that perhaps it wasn't such a good idea to bring them all along after all...

Only a few more minutes passed before the raiders started backing off, retreating. No, not regrouping- raiders aren't smart enough for that. Between our combined if not unorganized firepower, the raiders thought it was better to live to kill, rape, and desecrate another time rather than die trying to do the same to us. Azrael eased off on Harbinger, giving our ears a rest as she reloaded one last time. I continued to cut down the raiders as they ran off, not stopping until they were out of my cone of fire or dead. They were a blight upon what was left of our Equestria. They were to be wiped out like the pests they were. Rig seemed to have the same thing in mind. Luna's Fortitude clicked and hissed until they were truly all gone or dead. I took one look down the stairwell to see an earth pony mare struggle to ascend against the icy slope. Another report from Luna's Judgment, and her head was a mushy paste.

“All clear,” I reported, pulling back the straight-pull bolt on my drums to release my spent shells, starting to load fresh ones individually through one-way ports.

“Note to self,” Rig paused to flip up her welder's helmet and spit on the corpse of a raider just below, “S.A.T.S. roots you in place while you use it. Everypony...” She took one look at Azrael. “Right, sorry. Everyone okay?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Accounted for,” Azrael stated simply, shuffling her cloak back over her Kord machine gun.

The young unicorn mare sighed, facehoofing, “Ugh, okay, lemme try that again. Anyone hurt? I know I'm okay.”

“I'll be fine,” the griffin spoke, raising a claw to pick a few bullets out from- damn, she took a lot of hits. Her cloak was torn with bullet holes, and I was fairly certain not all of them were stopped by her Dead Boys armor. Many of her feathers and bits of fur were lightly stained red.

“Here,” I said, rummaging around my high-capacity saddlebags with an ice arm, fishing out a healing potion for her, “take this.”

Azrael merely raised a near-invisible eyebrow as she continued to pick bullets out. “I would think that you would need it more than I do.”

Huh? Oh right, my hindlegs. I looked back at-at- aaaahaaaa... yeah that wasn't good. Upon the griffin bringing it up, Rig looked there as well. Her eyes went wide and her hooves flew to her mouth.

My hindlegs had been torn up. They were practically just shredded-up flesh and muscle, and there were several places where the bone was exposed. Inside my ice armor, blood had pooled up, staining the ice a murky red.

I... I barely felt a thing. Just a light... pressure.

“Oh... oh dear Goddess...” Rig whispered. I think that if it wasn't for all the mutilated bodies we passed by on the way here, she would have fared worse. Now she just looked shocked, aghast.

Azrael's expression was... a bit harder to read. “Was that from the grenade?”

“Yeah,” I nodded. “We couldn't wait to pick out the shrapnel. We had to get out of there.”

“And so you forced yourself to keep moving with your ice muscles?” She asked, her tone raised a bit. I merely nodded in reply. “You... how? You should have been crippled from the pain. You should have stayed down after that grenade went off. What did you do? Are you using combat drugs? Med-X?”

“No, nothing of the sort,” I answered. “I just don't feel it that much at all.” Goddess, it felt so horrible to say it so offhandedly...

“Hey!” Rig exclaimed, getting both our attention. “Maaaaybe we should, I don't know... fix it instead of talking about it?!”

We both looked at her for a few moments. “Right,” we said at the same time.

I sighed and handed her the healing potion, lying down and sublimating the ice around my hindlegs. I didn't do the same to the rest of my ice armor since we were still in a hostile area and we could still be attacked. I wanted to prepare for such a contingency.

I began the tedious process of pulling out the casing shards, applying pressure where necessary to stem the bleeding. Again, I barely felt a thing as I used my ice arms to carefully pull them out one-by-one. After a few minutes, I was able to pick most of them out while Rig tried to keep her focus elsewhere, obviously unnerved as I had to shift around a bit to get at all the shrapnel. Azrael maintained her empty gaze toward the wall. It was with some irritation that I realized I couldn't quite get all of the fragments out. Some of the pieces were too small for me to effectively remove. One such piece was also wedged into one of the places where my bone was exposed, sticking right out of a small crack. To think that even with my enhanced vision and all those years of cryomancy, I couldn't perform such a task of that level of precision even if I thinned my fingers to the size of pins. This was one of those times I wish I could perform more than just one kind of magic. No doubt that telekinesis would've been handy for such a situation.

Oh well. Time to improvise. I was going to have to pop a restoration potion for this anyways.

Unable to pull them out with sufficient precision, I decided to just pull off pieces of flesh, taking the microshrapnel with them. It was dirty work, and the tips of my tiny fingers were reddening. Soon, I only had the lone piece stuck in my femur. I didn't want to even think about trying to chip off bone. I racked my brain for some sort of idea, glaring at the stubborn scrap. Then it came. I pooled a thin stream of mist into the crack, ice forming around the annoying thing. Connecting my finger to the easily-accessible chunk of ice, I pulled it free.

It then occurred to me that I could have done all of that since the beginning and grumbled lightly, mentally cursing myself for my overly straightforward manner of handling the problem previously. That wasn't me, dammit. I was supposed to be more creative than that.

You've changed, the Wasteland seemed to speak to me. The old Frost is long gone. The big, empty bastard speaks at last. I ignored him. I dug into my saddlebags and pulled out one of my few super restoration potions, broke the seal and slugged it down. I watched as it worked its magic, the cracks in my bones disappearing and my flesh and muscle knitting back together. Blood bubbled back into being as arteries and veins reformed. Even my fur sprouted back up from the skin. Earth pony ingenuity folks. I slowly rose to my feet, testing my hindlegs. They held just fine.

“Alright, let's move,” I spoke at last. “Rig, we've got a heading, right?”

“Yeah, we just gotta keep heading that way,” the young mare answered, waving a hoof toward the direction we were fleeing in.

I gave a stout nod, reducing the ice coating the stairway to mist and starting down, using a hoof to kick the raider corpse at the bottom aside. “Loot only the bodies in the vicinity. I don't want to draw too much attention to us again. Once we're done, we keep moving. Let's not have another firefight.”

Scavenging was made easier by Rig's telekinesis, the earth-coated mare simply levitating the desirable goods from their torn saddlebags. Azrael simply tore off the saddlebags themselves, drawing back her cloak to- oh my. And I thought my saddlebags were big. Hers could have easily fit twice as much as I could. She practically dropped entire bags into hers.

Rig... she looked worried though. Kid kept on shooting me odd glances. I simply kept on staring at her, and eventually our gazes met. She sighed, getting the message. “You okay, Frost? I mean really?”

I offered the most reassuring smile I could. “Well I'm still in once piece aren't I?”

“Back on our way to Stalliongrad, you took three bullets to the neck and didn't even notice!” She continued to eye me with that worried expression. “Now you nearly got your hindlegs torn off, and you still didn't feel a thing! What are you, Frost?”

I eyed her back, my expression hard and smile fading. “Well I'm still a pony aren't I?”

Rig was quiet for a long time. I half expected her to respond in negative if she was going to respond at all, but she said, “Yeah. Yeah, you're right. I still can't help but find it... creepy, you know?”

I smiled lightly. That wasn't the response I was expecting... but it was the response I was hoping for.

“Trust me, Rig,” I told her, “it's creepier for me.”

* * *

As we neared Hoofstead, Azrael reported dropping raider numbers, and so we found it suitable to scavenge relatively-intact houses for loot. We skipped those that didn't fit the bill or ones that already appeared looted. For those we actually looted ourselves, we kept a strict five-minute time limit. We were on a schedule after all. Still, it felt... odd to walk through the homes of long-dead Manehattans. There was practically no trace of them. Maybe there was a skeleton or two, but the few terminals we found were destroyed or rendered inoperable due to lack of power. Books were scorched beyond legibility, and aside from telltale business wear, there was little to discern among the faceless dead I just thought about all these ponies. To really think that all of them died without leaving a surviving trace of their pasts. Who they were, what they did. Maybe it was because of my attachment to history, but I wanted to-

No. Don't think about it. Push it away. Kill the thoughts. Focus on what needed to be done. Check under the bed. Check the cabinets and dressers. Check behind the cabinets, dressers, paintings. Check the fridge. Check the bathrooms and kitchen for medical boxes. We didn't find much, even in the safes we found that I picked open. We scrounged up some caps and pre-war bits (I was glad that Rig recognized them), and maybe we'd find some healing potions or canned food to add to our dwindled supply. All the while, there was this... this nagging feeling in the back of my head, this nagging feeling that something was wrong.

And so we finally approached Hoofstead, and I realized something. I think we all did.

My thoughts?

Fuck.

Just... fuck.

Hoofstead was directly on the northwestern face of Manehattan. We could have just flown around the outskirts and bypassed that load of crap all along, and the only reasons we didn't were because of Rig's PipBuck and that the raiders didn't know about that when Azrael gleaned them! Curse my rotten luck! Curse my rotten thinking!

“I hate Mondays.” That was Rig's response to the matter as we scouted out the place from the comfort- relatively speaking- of the slanted house we took cover in. It was at the top of a small hill, so it provided a decent lookout over Hoofstead.

“It's a Monday?” Azrael raised a feathered, near-invisible eyebrow at her.

“According to my PipBuck, yeah,” the cloud-maned mare answered. She then glared at the device on her foreleg. “The same PipBuck that just showed us the most direct route to Hoofstead instead of the safest!” She growled, “Dumb 'Buck!”

“We're still here, aren't we?” Azrael spoke up. “And we're still all in one piece, aren't we?”

Rig grumbled, “Well, yeah, but-”

“Those were rhetorical questions,” the griffin sighed.

“... oh.”

“In any case,” I said as I coalesced lenses of ice in front of my eyes, altering their thickness and convexity to turn them into impromptu binoculars, “let's see what to make of this settlement...”

“Whoa.” Rig just stared. “Is there anything you can't do with ice?”

“You'd be surprised,” I told her. “You'd be surprised as much as it seems.”

“Can I have a set?” Rig asked.

“You can,” I responded, keeping them on. I merely glanced at her. She bore a slightly puzzled expression.

Azrael merely shifted her expression to a glum one. “I'm not amused.”

Rig, finally getting it, facehoofed.

I cracked a thin smile. “I have to get my humor somewhere. And it does change in taste.” She maintained that glum expression. “Look, I've been in the Wasteland for a very long time. I have to mix it up to keep things fresh sometimes. Even if it ends up in a bad sense of humor.”

“Fine, fine,” the cloud-maned mare sighed. “Now, may I have a pair?”

I nodded, coalescing mist into another pair and letting Rig levitate it in front of her eyes. She scowled. “Wow. These are weak. Can't even see anything!”

“Oh, sorry,” I apologized, adjusting the convexity further. “My eyesight is much more keen than most ponies, as you might imagine. Just say when.”

“Ummmmmm, good!” Rig stopped me. “Good.” I nodded, going back to looking over this ‘Hoofstead’.

Now I could see why there weren't many raiders nearby. A fence made up of scrap, sheet metal, wooden boards, and barbed wire formed a perimeter around the medium-sized settlement. Hoofstead itself was made up of a small collection of intact houses lined up along a long cul-de-sac. And they had guards. Well-equipped guards. I watched the northern perimeter as a covered wagon was allowed into the settlement. Creating another lens to zoom in, I noted the type of cargo.

Pony cargo.

“They appear to deal with slavers,” Azrael spoke, confirming my thoughts. “They're not slavers themselves, but they deal with them.”

“For how many institutions?” I asked. “Just the brothel we came here for? Or...?”

“Just the brothel it seems,” the giant responded. “The ponies here merely seem to turn a blind eye to it because it draws the most business to Hoofstead.”

Yes. That telepathy was coming very much in handy. Time to abuse it.

“So, where is this brothel?” I inquired. “How many slaves? How many bouncers? Goddess forbid, are there customers in there? Who runs the place?”

“Building toward the end of the cul-de-sac,” she replied. “Caved-in roof. Twenty-one slaves, plus four more incoming.” Twenty-one. The same number of foalnapping cases Sewn Britches was known for. I hope that meant that they were all just in that one place. “Eight bouncers. Nine... others in there. Run by a blue unicorn mare named...” She slumped a little.

“... what?” I fished for the rest of that.

“Snake Charmer.” Azrael promptly tucked her hood lower over her face, turning away. Why was she doing...?

Oh.

Oh.

Of course I had to think of the innuendo behind that, curse my brain. Of course we both had to think of the innuendo behind that.

Rig watched as we both acted a little squeamish. “What?”

We both took a moment to stare at her, eyebrows raised.

“What?” Rig threw her forelegs out. “I seriously don't get what the fuss is all about!”

“Of course the Stable Pony.” Azrael clacked her beak in mild irritation. “Of course.”

And so we explained.

Rig stared incredulously at the two of us, eyes wide. “What?! Who names their kid that?!” Azrael opened her beak to answer, and the young mare quickly cut in. “On second thought, please don't answer that! I really don't want to know!”

“... well then.” The griffin coughed politely. “So, do you see the building?”

I nodded, trying to take my mind off of that. “Got my eyes on it.” The house was a bit larger than the other ones. Seemed fitting enough for such a “business”. Moreover, the wagon was headed straight there.

“That... mare resides in a room on the second floor on the left wing,” Azrael added. “And be warned, all staff have detonators.”

Now for the fun part. “Any frequenters?”

“Why do you ask?” Azrael turned to me, as did Rig.

I smiled lightly. “You'll see. Now, any frequenters?”

“A few. There's one of the town guards, currently near the fence closest to us, leaning against the house right before us. There's also a-”

“Eyes on him,” I interrupted her as I looked him over. Unicorn stallion, average height and above-average musculature. Looked like a... golden yellow coat with a brown mane and tail, both a little unkempt. Brown eyes. Light duster with a Bitalian M91 Carcano bolt-action rifle slung across his back. And his cutie mark was covered by said duster. Simple enough. “Got his name and any basic personal details by any chance?”

“Yes...” Azrael eyed me warily. “His name is Gilded Glaze. Thirty-two years old. Cutie-mark is a chocolate pre-war bit with the foil peeled partway off. Smoker. Mother and father live on the fifth house, opposite side. I hope that's enough.”

“Frost,” Rig spoke up, likewise eying me warily, “where are you going with this?”

I replied with a show-don't-tell. I formed a full-body mirror away from the window so it wouldn't catch the light and give away our position, icing myself over. I began to alter the thickness and shape, warping my appearance as Rig and Azrael watched on. Slide the “head” down a bit. Shorter, shorter... too short, little taller. There. Now, let's get that golden yellow. Mmmmm... almost... there, perfect. Now the mane, now the tail, now the easy duster. Oh, let's not forget the eyes. Draconic eyes are a bit of a dead giveaway aren't they? Good thing they weren't too different in shade, because my vision was already lightly blurred. Now for the rifle, fix the duster a bit, shorten the tail...

When all was said and done, I was the spitting image of Gilded Glaze, complete with the Carcano.

“Now, I'll admit that the rifle isn't a perfect copy,” I spoke, voice unchanged for now. “but I know the general design well enough so that it'll pass outside of a close inspection.”

“WWWWWow.” Rig simply stared. “You can do that?”

“You saw me cloak, and you saw how I concealed us in that alcove,” I replied. “It works on the same principle.”

“But how did you get shorter?” Rig reached up to tap my head, still meeting resistance there. “Oh.”

“I'm still the same size as you can tell,” I told her. “I merely have ice where it needs to be to hide what should show up... and also show what should. By the way, is my 'mouth' moving as it should when I talk?”

“Indeed it is,” Azrael cocked her head lightly. “Impressive. It must have taken quite a bit of practice to be able to do that correctly.”

Oh she had no idea.

“Gotta ask- why don't you just cloak yourself period and get in there?” Rig asked. “And what's your plan, anyways?”

“Because doors opening and objects moving of their own accord might fool raiders, but they won't fool normal ponies,” I answered. “Now, I'm going to ask that you both don't follow me in for now.” Rig opened her mouth to protest, but I immediately cut her off. “Rule number one.” She closed her mouth and sighed. “I can't exactly... disguise others, at least not easily or with properly moving mouths. In the case of you, Azrael,” I turned to her, “it's a matter of not being seen. If the Dead Boys come here looking for you by chance, we don't want to give them any leads. It's best if I handle this alone.”

Azrael nodded simply. “Understood.”

“Fine.” Rig crossed her forelegs and sat back.

“As for my plan, it's honestly very simple.” I said, walking around a bit to get a feel for the ice and how I should shift accordingly to better fit my disguised stature and anatomy. “Get in, shut down the operation in as subtle manner as I can manage, free the slaves there, inquire about any transfers, and then get out and escort the slaves to the Manehattan outskirts. That part should be simple enough.”

“Really?” Rig raised an eyebrow. Imagine that, they've already started growing back! “Are you just gonna waltz out of there, slaves in tow?”

“Last I checked, most houses tend to have backyards,” I responded. “I have a hellhound blade. Making a hole isn't hard. Now, that said, I try my best to plan for contingencies. Knowing my luck, we'll probably have one. Azrael, keep posted on what the townsfolk are thinking. You'll know if something's wrong. Intervene or assist as you see fit, but try the back and please try to be quiet about it.”

“Understood,” the griffin spoke, but with a slightly lighter tone. That didn't bode well, and I wasn't disappointed. Wait for it. “Frost, may I speak freely?”

There it was.

“You don't need to ask,” I told her. “Again, I may know griffin culture but that doesn't mean I always practice it.”

“Very well.” She nodded, continuing in that softer tone. “You understand that these ponies most likely rely on slavery to keep thriving, right? I'm not saying that I endorse the practice, but it means that they won't take kindly to having their livelihood run out the back door. Furthermore, what's stopping them from continuing to import slaves even after we're finished here? Are you quite sure you can accomplish such?”

“Sure enough,” I answered. “I have a certain way with words, as you know.” Azrael cocked her head before nodding lightly in agreement. “And, if that doesn't work, there are other methods of coercion.”

“You're not going to torture them into doing it, are you?” Rig asked, leery-eyed.

“I don't plan to,” I smiled, “but that doesn't mean it's not out of question nor that I'm above doing it.” Both of them eyed me now. “Again, I'd like to be a bit more subtle about it here. I don't plan on doing it. But time is of the essence right now.” I pointed a disguised hoof at a house not too far from where we were. “That's our rally point after all this is said and done. It's almost practically behind the brothel and outside of Hoofstead's perimeter. It'll also be close enough for you to do what you have to do if apples hit the racquet. I'm going now. Keep each other safe. See you soon.”

We nodded at each other, and Rig flipped her helmet back down as we parted ways. I dropped from the window, landing in a crouch on the street below and silently sprinting toward the fence.

* * *

I was alone once more. Again, I'd somehow become a freaking chatterbox after meeting Rig, but now... alone. It felt so strangely familiar, so strangely right.

Gilded Glaze was right where he was earlier as I cleared the fence easily with the help of my ice muscles, landing in a crouch to dampen the noise. He didn't move one bit at all, though I could better see him now. I could certainly see what Azrael meant by him being a smoker. Several spent butts littered the ground around him. Noting that, I formed one in between my “lips”, even lightly sublimating the tip to give it the appearance of smoke.

Now there was just one thing missing.

I sneaked up on the golden stallion from behind and tapped him on the back.

“Ugh, seriously?” he grumbled in a rough, scratchy voice. For some reason, I expected for him to sound like that. “I'm on my break. Go bother someone else, would ya?” Wow. Dense. I tapped him again. “Alright, what the hay do you-” With that, he turned around and promptly did a double-take as he looked into what was essentially himself. I took a moment to savor the look on his face. Perhaps a moment too long. “What the fu-” BAM! My hoof silenced him with a strike to the throat, striking him with the flat bottom rather than the edge for a non-lethal take-down, his cigarette flying from his mouth to the ground. Before he could even cling to his throat for breath, I slammed my other hoof into his forehead. The impact jostled his brain around enough to knock him unconscious. I promptly began to drag him out of the way, depositing him in a conveniently located dumpster. For good measure, I slid a small spike of ice into the base of his neck to make sure he didn't come to sooner than expected. I knew my anatomy.

“Gilded?” A mare called out. “Gilded, was that you?”

Yeah, I definitely took a moment too long savoring that expression. I quickly took the stallion's place at against the wall, an idea hatching in my mind as ice crinkled down my throat and I began to hop up and down, clutching at my right forehoof, hissing in pain.

A blue-furred earth pony mare wearing a similar duster and a helmet rounded the corner, goggles and an assault rifle dangling around her neck. She regarded me with a puzzled expression and asked, “The hell was that crap?”

“Fuckin'-” I stammered, my voice mimicking the stallion's... not quite perfectly, but close enough. I would get that down as soon I stopped hopping, caressing my hoof. “Fuckin' hell!” Don't fill her in instantly, let her draw in the blanks on her own if she can...

“What, did you really step on one of those?” she asked, facehoofing. “For fuck's sake, watch where you throw your smokes!”

“Well soooooorry for steppin' on one by accident!” I grumbled, tenderly setting my “injured” hoof down, wincing. I had the feeling that Gilded Glaze would be the sarcastic type. “Sheesh, get no sympathy...”

“Still not getting any sympathy from me,” the mare huffed. “Look, you're halfway through your break. You wanna fuck a girl, get to the whorehouse already.” She turned tail and started leaving. “What an idiot...”

As she headed away, I smiled inwardly at myself. Oh, yes, I was a clever little devil. Taking a moment to adjust the ice in my gullet, I started off...

And then I saw Her. Her! Here of all places! She was waving me over with a hurried hoof into the alleyway I hid Gilded. Breaking away for a moment, I ducked in with Her.

“What is it?” I asked, voice still masked. “And how did you recognize me?”

“It wasn't hard,” She sighed. “ Listen Frost, before you go out there... please be careful.”

“Is there something I should be aware of?” I questioned.

“You mean...” She paused, looking away. She thinned her lips, exhaling softly. “Frost, you're going to see things that will be... unsettling to you. I can feel it. I know it.”

“How so?”

“You mean you don’t recognize...?” She started to ask, Her gaze meeting mine once more. Those eyes... those eyes in which I could see everything... were focused on me once more. “Keep yourself steady. You trained for far more than this. Don't prove me otherwise. Don't prove them otherwise.” She pointed in the direction where Rig and Azrael were holed up. The words hit home a bit, and I winced. “Don't let it get to you,” She whispered. “Good luck. Now go.”

“Thank you,” I whispered back, parting with her. As I neared the streets, I glanced back. She was already gone.

And yet I heard Her sorrowfully whisper, “I just hope you realize you cannot hold onto the lies...”

I was starting to doubt my sanity a little after that. Voice plus no source equals you're probably crazy. But the piano... and I could feel her...

No, still probably just crazy. That was it, yes. Crazy. After all, the Wasteland already corrupted me, right? Just... a tactile hallucination? Was that even possible? Given that this was the Wasteland and its corruption, it wasn't out of the question...

The storyteller sighed softly, closing his eyes.

Forgive me, love... I didn't listen. I would hold onto the lies a little longer...

Those amber eyes flashed open once more, and his enchanting voice dripped out once more.

I rounded the corner, puffing from my “cigarette” and heading toward the brothel. Hoofstead seemed remarkably clean. The ponies who lived here certainly cleaned up the streets very well. Some of the houses had been converted to businesses, touting names such as “The Brass Lamppost,” “Mort's,” and “Northside Supply”. Those who I passed by on the long street to the brothel didn't pay me more than a passing glance. If I hadn't known this was a town running off of the slave trade, I could have found it a nice place. Too bad that it did run off of slave trade. Hm, those businesses looked good enough to sustain themselves, which could work to my advantage. The brothel was probably just the attention-getter.

Something caught my eye. It was a Prench-style lamppost in front of the restaurant bearing its name, its original black paint torn away and the brass surface underneath was spotted and tarnished. I only paid it a passing glance, nothing mo-

<====ooo*li<failure>fe*OOO*de<!>ath[)333335*ooo===>

Children playing around the lamppost. Laughter, oh that innocent, sweet laughter, and that layer of fresh, powdery snow so thin yet so magnificent. A couple of them were engaged in a snowball fight, pelting each other with gleeful giggles. One of the colts, a unicorn, was snowboarding right on by. Jarring to a halt from the thin snow, he tried to keep going, surrounding his board in a magical aura. It slipped from under him, causing him to land flat on his back. The laughter, that sweet laughter intensified. After a moment of eyeball-swirling dizziness, he smiled and joined in.

<====ooo*f{p..3}all*OOO*5g3dme?..28*ooo====>

What was that? I looked over the lamppost as I walked by. Nothing seemed off about it, and there were several more lining the streets in more extensive states of disrepair. I shrugged the feeling off. I had a job to do.

I looked to the opposite side of the street now. I passed by the northern checkpoint of the town, which consisted of little more than a few guards and an opening in the fence. It was a wide road that cut through the neighborhood, leading deeper into the city-

<====ooo*290f2@3jvJ^&#$JN2o4f*OOO*gu<iamg[pmivef]uilty>ard3>*ooo====>

Covered wagons. Miles upon miles of covered wagons crawled along the road, stretching as far to the northeast as the eye could see. Those who pulled the wagons looked tired and weary, oh so tired and weary as they slogged through the packed snow that went past their knees, trying to move through the tracks of those ahead of them. Ponies of all ages filled the wagons, huddled together. All of them were dressed for a heavy winter. They looked just as tired, just as weary. Snow continued to drift down, the howling winds buffeting them all. Those covers didn't offer the slightest protection from the chill.

But all of those ponies who had traveled so far and lost so much each had one thing in common. A spark of hope glinted in those strange eyes, slanted like the zebras. For as they headed on deeper into the City of Lights and Legends, they knew they survived the Great Exodus. After centuries of isolation in the Far North, they journeyed south. They saw the land before them and it was good.

<====ooo*34<?>>>qfg824*OOO*what'sleft[undone]*ooo====>

Dear Lorn, what was that? Memories come unbidden... memories of the past. These were the things that She warned me about, I thought. Or, er, that my brain was trying to warn me about. But why here? Why Hoofstead? My normally picture-perfect memory was wrought with holes.

This did not bode well.

I reached the brothel. It was a big house indeed, just short of a mansion by Manehattan standards. The tall, strong columns that withstood the Great War still held up the archway in front of the main doors. The building must have suffused with the power and prestige of the former occupants. But now it was just another relic of the past. It was falling apart, the paint scorched off with portions of the house itself blackened by the balefire that rolled across the city. The front yard was now nothing but hard, rough dirt. The driveway, once formed of neatly-set stone tiles, was cracked raw. I felt a sense of nostalgia, a sense of longing for the past as I headed for the up the walkway for the door.

I almost anticipated it. Almost.

<====ooo*<WHY?>*OOO*vf[f]allen20*ooo====>

Do you see this, Frostbane? This is going to be our new home.”

I looked to the speaker whose words had a distinctly foreign tone. He was an earth pony stallion, his fur a distinguished white. His mane and tail, both a wholesome blue and speckled with gray, were neatly trimmed. He was limping a bit as we walked to the entrance. He wore a simple, blue coat over himself, and he smiled proudly at the {decrepit old house}. Barely exposed on his flank was his cutie-mark, a chunk of coal cracked open to reveal a glittering diamond underneath.

<It's not much,>” he spoke, “(but) I'm sure you'll love it here. [We went through many things in the Stable.] I think we deserve it.”

Are you sure, Father?” I asked him. My voice... it was so much softer, so much younger. “I'm sorry, I think it's nice, but... I feel a little bad about the others. Why don't they get to live in big houses like us?”

We worked hard to get here,” Father answered, turning to me, those strong, brown eyes fixed on me. “We earned this place. Don't you forget it. And one day, it will be yours.” He nodded behind him. “Just like this.”

I looked back at the cart he was pulling along. Among many things in it, one thing stood out to me.

A set of ancient armor.

Now go help your mother,” he told me. “I don't want to spend more than a day to get everything inside.”

<===ooo*@43(lies).9-+*OOO*23,,,`~9f2apfh*ooo===>

My house. Now I knew why it seemed so sorrowfully nostalgic, why I was having all these memories bubble to the surface. I can't believe I didn't realize it sooner.

This was my house.

And it was now a brothel.

Somepony. Somepony was going to pay.

I didn't bother knocking. I just barged in and took in the surroundings.

<===ooo*589sl[sl]eep6969*OOO*nowi<k!l>nthefire*ooo====>

I arrived in a small, bright foyer, my hooves clacking on the glossy, dimly reflective marble flooring. Doors leading to the rest of the first floor were in front and to the side of me. A pair of curved staircases led to the second floor. Before me, between the staircases and illuminated by a sparkling chandelier above was a tiled design consisting of a white-coated, pink-haired alicorn and another with dark-blue fur and a mane of a lighter shade. They chased the tail of the other in a circle, a sun and moon circling around in between them.

<===ooo*,,...,....~1`*OOO*@Ag324$)*ooo====>

The lighting was working, somehow, but it was alluringly, suggestively, lewdly dimmed down low. It was disgusting to me, disgusting as the sounds that filtered through the halls. The tiled design was hidden under a moth-eaten, dirty rug. The chandelier was nowhere to be found. I didn't know what drove me crazier, the lighting or such that a beautiful image was hidden. Then again, the chandelier likely must have fallen down on it... and the place was turned into a slave brothel. I'd rather not have even the ruined image show in such a defiled place.

It was then that I noticed the bouncer.

“Ah Sparkle, why desn't anypony eveh knock?” the earth pony stallion grumbled at me. He was surprisingly well-dressed, wearing a dress shirt and a leather jacket over it. His cutie-mark was a pair of brass hooves. “Eh? Glaze?”

“Yeah, yeah, shut your whiny trap,” I spat at him. I found it easy to get into character with my rising fury. “You know what I'm here for.”

“Jeez, yeh really want some cunt, do yeh?” he huffed. “And for yeh information, dat was complainin'. Boss's upstairs as always. And for Sparkle's sake, no lights in 'ere!”

All too easy, I thought as I flicked my “cigarette” behind me outside, making sure it cleared the bouncer's vision before I sublimated it.

I kept on my way, heading up the right stairway. The lewd noises continued to fill my ears, whimpering trickling in between them as I passed the closed doors. They grew stronger as I continued to walk down, stronger like the frenzied beating of my heart. I was going to make that bitch pay for this indignity. I passed another bouncer, leaning against the wall with an indifferent expression. Indifferent, apathetic to all the sin pooling around him. He was going to pay too. I hid my rage, continuing down-

Oh... dear... Goddess. I knew where I was headed. This was already my house, damn them! They'd better not have done it!

I turned a corner into another hallway, this one lined with windows on one side. Light filtered softly from the outside through the shutters. Light... light in such a foul, dark place.

I approached the end of the hallway, where there was a single door with a single bouncer. Scrawled above the doorway were the words “Mistress's Office”. I shut my eyes and flattened my lips.

That bitch made her office in my old room.

“Hey,” I said simply to the unicorn stallion guarding the outside. I didn't want to betray my anger. “You gonna keep me waiting?”

“Hey, Glaze,” he greeted, grinning. “Hold up, lemme let her know you're comin'.” I didn't even have to try. He just opened the doorway and slipped in.

Time wound down. I saw her past the guard’s shoulder. She was at my desk near the window past the bouncer, past the doorway. Her fur was a cerulean hue, almost hidden behind her curly, white dress. Her mane was prim and proper and a soft brown. I didn't get to see anything else, but I focused all my hatred toward her.

And then the door shut closed, allowing my rage to flare up through me.

“Frost!” came a whisper. I glanced to the side to find Her with me once more. “Calm yourself!”

“Why didn't you just tell me?” I growled lowly, whispering back. “You knew about it!”

“Would you have believed me?” She whispered, those eyes full of everything reflecting my rage, stepping around to face me directly. “You still don't even fully believe in me!”

“You could have-” I froze, words loss. I could feel Her, I could touch Her... but... no, She knew I was doubtful. She was just in my head. “You could have at least told me!”

“You wouldn't have believed it!” She whispered harshly. “Don't lie, Frost! I know when you lie!”

Of course She did.

I contorted my lips, trying to find the words, my heart thundering in my breast as my fury continued to feed me fire.

“Control yourself, Frost!” She whispered, still furious at me but pleading nonetheless. “You promised subtlety, and the rest of the town are good ponies! There's always an alternative to violence!”

“Coming from you?” I snarled softly.

She was the wordless one now. Her eyes were wide in shock, mouth agape.

“This was my home,” I told Her, straightening up. “What they've done here has disgraced not only me but my family. I know what I must do. And so do you. Why am I even explaining? You know! Because you're just me, huh? Right?”

“But... wh-”

… the door was still closed. We've been talking for more than long enough. I turned my head a little, and there was that telltale blur as my vision tried to catch up...

I cut Her off. “The door hasn't opened up yet.” I was rationalizing now. Making sense of it all. “I'm in a focused state, then. Time's merely slowed down for me, and not even 'ghost' or 'something more' can do something like this with me. I'm not even talking, are I? I can't move that fast on my own. This isn't real. You aren't real.”

Her tears were glinting from the soft light. “No, you don't-”

“I do understand.” I said, countering Her, already knowing what She was going to say. Because we both ran on the same track of thought. “Goodbye, love. Now let me handle this.”

“Frost...”

Time snapped back up to speed. She was gone. Just like I expected Her to be.

Imagine that.

The door opened again and the unicorn bouncer exited, standing aside and nodding me in. I slipped past him, taking note of his position as the door closed.

My room... my old, spacious room. The sliding doors for the walk-in closet to my left were gone, taken away. It was replaced with clothes- stupid, fancy clothes on salvaged racks that didn't even fit in. They couldn't even be called clothes, most of them were pieces of fabric that were designed to accentuate the feminine curve. My displays were gone. My photos were gone. The dresser was still there off to the side of the side of the closet, the wood crummy with age. The bed, my queen-sized bed that I remembered being so guilty to have all to myself, yes, that was still there too. The bathroom was still mostly intact, which I noted with a glance to the right. And so was my desk, sitting next to a large window. The polished oak desk was still there, but the shelves that hung above it were emptied of my collection that used to sit there. And the wall... empty.

Shake it off, shook it off. Right now I couldn't, didn't care that the mural was gone. Besides, I was more concerned with the mare sitting at the desk.

And now I could see her eyes. I was wrong about Azrael. These eyes were truly empty. Black. Vile. I couldn't fully read them. I couldn't see what was hidden behind them. The little voids seemed to swallow all up.

“Well, welcooome back, Glaze,” the bitch greeted me in a sultry tone. Forget the Overmare, the Nightmare, whatever. Forget Azrael. I hated, I despised, I abhorred that voice. “What'll it be, hon, the usual? Ruby and Raisin again?”

“No,” I spoke, letting the ice in my throat turn to mist that spewed from my mouth. I savored that look of confusion on her face. “I'll be having you.”

I sprouted an ice arm and latched onto her neck, her eyes bulging as I lifted her off the floor with ease, watching as she clutched at her neck, gasping for breath. I dropped my disguise, letting the ice slowly sublimate away. I bore my eyes into hers, those little windows into hell. I sprouted another arm, thinning my hand and extending it into a javelin.

Three.

Two.

One.

The door slammed open, the unicorn bouncer levitating a pair of brass hooves. Clever, using them like that instead of simply putting them on. He didn't even get to utter a syllable before I sent the spear through his chest, the end expanding into a circle to catch him instead of piercing all the way through. He was whipped back, pinned to the floor, his brass hooves dropping immediately as his magical field imploded. He writhed where he was stuck, grabbing at the spear and letting out a pathetic, pained, “G-Gah!”

The lewd noises, the whimpering silenced. Sweet, sweet serenity. It allowed me to hear the hoofsteps of the other bouncers over the cries of pain. I merely grinned and slammed the door closed, covering it with a layer of ice thick enough to prevent forced entry.

I heard a sharp crack and felt a dull impact against the back of my helm. It came again. Of course. I almost forgot she was a unicorn. I promptly sheathed myself in light ice armor just in case as I glared at her. She was telekinetically holding up a small revolver, shivering as she realized that she was doing absolutely nothing to me and was continuing to choke. I raised a hoof and struck her horn hard.

The aura surrounding the pistol burst, the weapon clattering to the floor as she cried out on pain. I didn't break her horn, no, but she wouldn't be using it for a while. I threw her to the floor, letting her gasp for breath.

“Do you know where you are?” I seethed, a cold, dark whisper tracing my every word. “Do you know where you tread?” I kicked her with enough force to flip her over onto her back. “You're trespassing.” I promptly shackled her in that position, allowing her to take me in. “You're trespassing in my home!”

“Who... the hell... are you?” She scowled at me.

“I am Frostbane Hokkaido Windchill of the Far North,” I said as I loomed over her. “And I'm impressed. You're not even scared of me, are you?”

She didn't answer. Of course she didn't.

“You turned my home into a brothel,” I spoke, my voice rising and falling. I was giddy, trembling in rage. I had to fight it down a little to contain it, I didn't want to just tear her apart like some animal. I wanted to make her suffer. “Do you know that? You turned my home into a brothel full of slaves. Do you know that?” She didn't answer. “Do you know that?!

“Now I do, yeah,” she answered too calmly.

She couldn't be that calm. I was... I was terrifying like this, even if theatrical. There had to be a catch.

“Are you just here for the house?” she asked. My mind was racing already, trying to think. Why was she so calm? Was she prepared? How?

“The house?” I growled. “That just came up. No, I'm here to shut down your little operation.”

The... hell? Why did I tell her that? I was supposed to be the one making her talk, not the other way around! The bitch was grinning now. I wanted to strike out, cut her up, wipe that smile off. Why wasn't I?

“This isn't the first time, you know.” Snake Charmer, that bitch, continued to grin. Hell, she even kept the same sultry tone! “This isn't the first time some Goody Little Two-Shoes tried this before. Look at yourself, all dressed up in that armor. You think you're some kind of superhero?”

She's had this before. She had a plan. I must have missed something. What did I miss? What did I miss?!

“Oh, look, now you're the one scared,” she snickered, catching the look on my face. She yelled, “You have 'em out, boys?”

“We have 'em, boss!” a muffled reply came from behind the door. That wasn't good. “You in there! Open the fuckin' door or every slave's gonna get wasted!”

Aw, hell, not this again.

“Don't keep him waiting.” Snake Charmer grinned wide, those hellholes taunting me.

“I'm countin' to five!” the bouncer shouted. “One!”

Wait, it might be a bluff. This could be nothing but a simple bluff!

“Two!”

But... I didn't know that, did I? I couldn't see what was on the other side.

“Three!”

Snake Charmer mouthed with the shout, grinning up at me.

Damn it... damn it all! Damn it that she caught me with my pants down!

“Four!”

I reluctantly sublimated the ice blocking the door. No sooner that I did, it flew open.

“Good boy,” Snake Charmer giggled.

Outside were all eight of the bouncers. The one I pinned to the floor was panting for breath, a little unsteady on his feet. An empty super restoration potion bottle was lying on the floor. All of them had pistols in their mouths or floating beside them.

And they all had detonators out.

Good Goddess... I'd forgotten about them. I'd forgotten about them. My rage ebbed away, replaced with a rush of shock.

“Let her go,” the unicorn I pinned ordered, straightening up now.

I couldn't freeze them all unnoticed, not that many. I sublimated her shackles. I watched as she rose to her feet, dusting herself off and pulling out another detonator.

“Lose the ice and get down,” Snake Charmer commanded. I looked from one of those detonators to the next. I couldn't be that fast... I wasn't that good. Even if I tried to take them down, all it took was a press of a single button...

I reduced my arms and armor to mist, lowering myself to the floor.

The bitch, that Goddessdamn bitch circled around to face me. “Get his saddlebags.”

One of the bouncers came up to me, grunting as he removed my belongings. I only had Midnight Talon left, and not even a hellhound blade could get me out of this mess.

“Twilight Sparkle- dis shit's heavy!” the stallion grunted in effort as he hefted them away, setting them aside and out of my reach.

“You know, I have to hoof it to you,” Snake Charmer sighed, “I wasn't expecting the disguise. Pretty smart. Too bad it wasn't enough. Slam Dunk, if you will.”

“Here, boss,” one of them answered her, handing her a shotgun. She took it from him, taking it in her mouth and swiveling the barrel not an inch from my eye.

So. This was how it was going to end. Because of my blind rage, stupidity, and forgetfulness.

I'm sorry, my love...

“Now let's see you survive this,” Snake Charmer muttered around the grip.

I don't know if you folks noticed, but I'm still here telling the story. That means I didn't die. Sorry to disappoint.

Because with a gray flash of light, that shotgun was gone. As were the detonators, disappearing one by one.

Rig rounded the corner as the last of the group wheeled around to find out what was happening. Her Spetsnaz shovel was out, and she swung it with expert control, batting two of them aside and delaying long enough for her to wink the remaining detonators away. A couple of the unicorns cursed and turned to fire upon both me and her, but I was already moving fast. I snatched up Snake Charmer in my hooves, sprouting an ice arm to whip out Midnight Talon. I popped her open in a flash- no style, no tricks. She was at the bitch's neck in an instant, ice armor sheathing over me.

“Drop your weapons!” I roared before they managed to fire a single shot. “Drop them!”

“No!” one of them growled as he managed to bash Rig on the horn and snatch her up, his floating pistol pressed against the back of her head while she growled in frustration from having her magic momentarily disabled. “You drop yours!”

I focused and ground time to a halt. More time for me to think.

Horseapples. The rest had their pistols trained on me. They certainly looked like they cared more for their own lives than their employer's. And even though I could survive the shots... if I tried anything, Rig wouldn't.

Hm... five of them were aimed at me, only the one holding the young mare. Azrael was nowhere to be found. This... this would be tricky. It would be very, very risky, and I didn't have the right tool for the job...

But who dares wins.

My focus strained and time snapped back, and I had to act fast.

Hammer grip. Flick latch. In place. Blade locked. Bring back. Whip forward. Follow through.

Midnight Talon flew fast through the air, the tip catching the light to produce a sweeping, spinning glint.

Flew fast. Flew straight. Skimmed by, barely skirting, Rig's head.

The hellhound blade cleanly punched through the pistol, tearing it into pieces before it went on and embedded itself into the far wall.

Rig twisted herself free of the unicorn's grip before the others realized what happened, mindlessly turning around and taking aim at her. But she was already safely around the corner even with her uneven sprint. A few of them, undisciplined fighters as they were, ran after her.

I heard some very heavy, very familiar thudding, followed by the guards backing up into the wall, eyes shrunk to pinpricks. I swear I saw a lump of brown drop to the floor from between the hindlegs of one of them.

“You said you were going for the subtle route, Frost,” Azrael spoke as she rounded the corner, Valkyrie casting a horrid, green glow as the ghostfire scythe burned bright. Rig came round with her, rubbing at her horn. “I don't think this was quite what I was expecting.”

* * *

The rest was simple enough. I thanked the two of them quietly, still a little in shock for so stupidly falling into such a situation. I was so disappointed in myself, but I had to get over it. We did what we needed to do... after retrieving Midnight Talon, sliding my saddlebags back on, and making damn sure I had thoroughly frozen the detonators, of course. I had Azrael look over Snake Charmer and the bouncers- because you don't want to try anything with a giant, black, cloaked griffin telepath looming over you- while I did away with the slave collars on the ponies. Rig and I took supplies and weaponry from the other parts of my home, making sure they were adequately clothed and equipped before sending them through the backyard and out through a hole in the fence. Their reactions were... mixed. Some of them thanked Rig and me gratuitously. Others merely grabbed the weapons and equipment we offered, got dressed, got armed, and left without a word. Others still snapped at me, angry for how long it took us to save them. I apologized as best I could. It was all I could do before they stamped off.

“So...” Rig spoke up as we worked, “do you want to talk about it?”

“No.” I replied flatly.

She knew better than to pursue the conversation. I wondered how much Azrael told her at the same time, however. But that could wait. Those ponies desecrated my home, but I disgraced it in my own near-failure. I... I just wanted to leave it all behind. Wipe the slate clean.

After everything was said and done, I walked back upstairs to where Azrael was still watching over the bouncers... and that bitch.

“I'm guessing the last ones who tried didn't have outside support,” I said simply to her.

She snorted in response.

“I'll be the first to admit I made mistakes.” I glanced at Azrael. She merely cocked her head for a moment. I continued. “So now it's time to set the record straight.” I tapped her on the chest, my tone darkening as I looked into those blackest of eyes. “You've seen what I can do, and I can do a whole lot more just as easily.” I leaned in close to her. “I want to make you suffer. I want you to writhe in the pain you've caused me and the families and friends of the poor mares you prostituted.”

“And we brought business to Hoofstead doing it,” Snake Charmer spat.

“And it will live without it,” I spat back. “Azrael, did she send any of the slaves she received elsewhere?”

“No,” the jet-black giant answered. “I already checked.”

I nodded lightly before turning back to the bitch. “You won't be engaging in slave business any longer.” I glanced at the bouncers. “That goes to the rest of you and the town. You will talk to the one in charge of this town and ensure that he or she agrees. If I come back and see more of the same, I won't hesitate to resort to less... subtle options. Again, I'd really like to make you suffer. But I made a promise.” I stepped back. “Get going. Rig, Azrael, I'll meet up shortly.”

Rig nodded warily, and the two headed on out. I watched as the ponies that once ran this place filed out as well, exiting shortly. The hoofsteps and footsteps eventually disappeared. I briefly considered exploring the halls of my old home, but I didn’t want to see what they did to it. I didn’t deserve to in any case.

I sighed, expelling cool mist. “You can come out now.”

“So you know how it works.”

I glanced at Her out of the corner of my eye. She was behind me, facing away. She looked so, so sad. Just like before.

“I connected the dots, put two and two together.” My tone was... empty, for lack of a better word. “Yes. I know how it works.”

She exhaled slowly. “What did you call me for? I'm not real anyways. I'm long dead and I'm all in your mind. Right?”

“To talk,” I replied. “Why do you continue to show up like this?”

She snorted, “You wouldn't believe me if I told you.”

“Let's...” I sighed. “Let's not go down that route again...”

“Well what do you want me to say?” She shrugged. “I know for a fact you won't believe me.” I didn't reply for a long time. I wanted to talk to Her, but this wasn't going like I planned. She broke the silence. “Frost, you didn't really mean those things you said to me the morning before we reached Stalliongrad, did you? Why? I helped the situation between you and Rig, even if it was merely a push in the right direction. I helped you remember your piano songs, even. We touched, we were close, we... we kissed! So why are you suddenly going back to the way things were before?”

“Well I'm the crazy one.” I smiled. “You tell me.”

That got a small huff and a thin smile from Her. Progress, in the vaguest sense. “But crazy ponies don't think they're crazy.”

“So they say.” I shrugged. “Look, I honestly don't know what to believe in now. All I know is what I know.”

She sighed lightly, “Fair enough.”

“But neither of us are feeling any better off.” I pointed out.

“Is there still an 'us'?” She tentatively turned her head to face me.

“I hope so.” I looked down and away from Her. “Even if you're just in my head, I hope so. I'm sorry, I'm just... it's been a rough day. I know that's a terrible excuse for anything, but-”

“Do you want to talk later?” She asked, hope tugging at the edges of her tone. She was looking at me now, I noted.

“Yeah,” I replied softly, my head bobbing lightly. “Yeah, that would be nice. I still have things to do. We can talk later, yeah.”

“Just keep this in mind, Frost.” Her whisper was loud against my ears, and I could feel Her just inches from me. “Am I just a ghost, a hallucination? Or am I something more? And in the end, even if you are crazy, does it matter?”

I didn't have to look to know She was gone. Her words still hung in my mind, rang in my ears. It was time to go, time to leave this all behind.

But one thing first.

I reached under the bed with an ice arm, feeling around. Flooring, more flooring... something solid. Eagerness mounting, I pulled the rotten wooden container from under my bed and lifted the lid.

Yeah... she was there after all these years, and she didn't even crumble to my touch. I clicked her open, tracing my icy fingers along her smooth, titanium handles, cleaning them a little. Even if I couldn’t feel her, the sight of her... it was comforting.

Satisfied, I stowed her back in her pouch and wrapped it around my other foreleg across from Midnight Talon and looked at the rest of the contents. I reached my hand toward them... then hesitated. I slid the wooden container back under the bed.

For some things... it was best to just let it die.

“Love, are you still there?”

“Always, Frost. Are we going to have the talk?”

“Not yet.”

“Then what?”

“I need to ask permission from you.”

“You don't need to ask.”

* * *

“They're on their way now,” Rig reported as I made my way up to the small, one-story house that was our rally point. I could see the slaves splitting off from one another as they headed off, sticking together in groups of no smaller than three but no larger than five. I nodded lightly, watching them for a few seconds before turning back to Hoofstead.

“We can't watch over them,” I said a touch sadly. It wasn't a question.

“Between a cryomancer in Lunar Guard armor, a Stable Pony, and myself,” Azrael spoke plainly, “no.”

“Goddesses be with them,” Rig whispered.

“The Goddesses won't help us, kid,” I sighed. “Not for what we did to them. We'll only be sorry for what we've done when we're pleading and bleeding.” I felt Rig elbow me lightly. I looked down.

She did have a lovely smirk. “Hey,” she huffed. “Cheer up.”

I slowly smirked back. Damn it, that lovely smirk was infectious.

“That's it, that's the spirit.” The earth-coated unicorn beamed, sighing happily. “Well, I guess that makes us even now, huh, Frost?”

“Hm?” I raised an eyebrow.

“You saved me from slavers,” Rig continued to beam, “and now I saved you from slavers.”

“You still got caught there,” I chuckled, pointing out.

“Only because of you,” she snickered, likewise pointing out. “So, even?”

I sighed, smiling. “Yeah. Even.”

“By the way,” Rig spoke up, smiling, “that was pretty damn awesome what you pulled with Midnight Talon, throwing it... sorry, her like that.”

“Oh.” I reached a hoof to scratch the back of my head. Unfortunately, I only found the plume-like fin of my helmet there. “Right. That.”

“What's up?” The young mare eyed me.

“I... actually haven't thrown a knife in years.” I smiled uneasily.

“So wait, you could have missed?!” Rig stared. “Or you could have hit me?!”

“Well it worked, didn't it?” I shrugged helplessly. That seemed to satisfy her enough. We were all quiet as we waited, and I looked over the town of Hoostead, eyes glazed.

“Frost, thank you for doing this. Really.” I looked back at her, at those bright, indigo eyes. “It means a lot to me. I hate the idea of those ponies having to go through what I did and worse.”

“Well... don't thank me yet.” I frowned. “There's still one loose end.” I looked back over the town, coalescing more lenses as I watched that blue unicorn mare saunter out of what I thought was the house of the pony in charge at Hoofstead.

So now it's time to set the record straight.”

“Azrael, is she really planning to stop dealing in slaves?” I asked, still keeping my gaze fixed on her. She was passing through the center of town. “Furthermore, is the town even planning to stop?”

“I don't think you need telepathy to know the answer,” the griffin replied. “I'm sure you already guessed.”

I sighed, expecting as much. My heart was slowly beating faster...

I kept my eyes on Snake Charmer as I asked, “Azrael, do you know why I kill most of my bounties, even the ones wanted alive?”

“Because, as I've gleaned, they're worth more to you dead,” she stated.

“But have you found out why?” I inquired.

Azrael didn't reply.

“Rig, do you recall why I killed Sewn Britches?” I asked the young mare.

“Because the ponies who set the bounty were gonna do what you did anyways without doing anything like trying to find and free the slaves he took, right?”

“Yes.” I nodded. “What else?”

“Well... uh...”

“I like to think I'm somewhat of a prominent artist of communication and interaction,” I told them. “To kill another living being, to murder another equine in cold blood namely... it is a very intimate act. Moreover, it can usually be a form of rhetoric. And what, then, is the point of rhetoric?”

I gazed hard at Snake Charmer and those bouncers. We were quite far away from one another.

I tapped her on the chest...

tapped her on the chest...

tapped her on the chest...

Neither Rig nor Azrael spoke up. How polite.

“To send a message.”

My horn glowed a light, icy blue.

I watched as Snake Charmer lurched and stumbled to the ground, faintly picking up her cries of pure agony with my sensitive hearing. She looked around frantically, panicking as her body twitched spasmodically. I formed another lens, zooming in close as I watched small bulges crawl around underneath her coat, pushing out at her dress as the ponies around her watched in confusion, not quite knowing what was going on. She really got under my skin, after all. It was only fair I did the same to her.

Blood leaked out from her mouth, dribbled from her nose and ears, oozed from around her eyes. Red stretch marks tugged at her fur.

“Frost...” Azrael whispered, tone and volume rising. “Frost, what are you doing? What are you doing to her?”

“I don't think you need telepathy to know the answer,” I replied. “I'm sure you already guessed. I suggest you stop trying to glean from the bitch. It's not going to be pretty from here.”

The griffin shuddered as she obeyed.

The ponies down there were backing away now, murmurs of intrigue turning to gasps of horror as her skin began to tear apart. From between the cracks, ice seeped slowly, pushing outwards. And then it burst out, spikes punching out from her hooves, her guts, her head. A particularly large spike out along her spine, anchoring against the cracked tarmac and hefting the body up, forelegs propped up sideways. Her intestines dangled out, her eyes little more that burst bags of jelly that hung from their sockets. And yet I kept her alive, kept her suffering for just a little longer. She stopped twitching.

I left her there, strung up like a scarecrow. Both Rig and Azrael stared at me as I started off, my horn's glow fading as I formed an arm to whip out Midnight Talon. I sprouted another arm to whip out my old friend, Silver Skean, fanning and twirling the blade in time with her sister. The two balisongs mirrored one another as I sang a light tune...

Gods ain't gonna help you, son,
you'll be sorry for what you've done.
Them gods gonna hurt you son
when you play with a loaded gun,
when you play with a loaded gun...”

Hoofstead never dealt with slavers again for the years it lasted until the raiders reclaimed the town.

* * *

Footnote: Footnote: Frost- Maximum Level

Rig- Level Up!- Level 5

Azrael- Maximum Level

Unlockable Added: Soundtrack- My House

Author's Note:

My thanks to Kkat, Somber, Mimezinga, and all the wonderful ponies of the FoE Sidestory Doc. Thank you as well for reading. Good feedback is always appreciated.

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