• Published 8th Dec 2012
  • 4,895 Views, 167 Comments

The Zone - Rostok

This is a story of what happens when inhabitants of Equestria are shown a wasteland of decay, depravity, sadness and death. A S.T.A.L.K.E.R crossover. An experienced stalker and wanderer is teleported far, far away into a land of happiness and joy.

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2: Cold Dawn

Commander Battleborn stepped out into the gentle winds blowing over the rolling hills of the terrifying place these humans called home. Every time the spell flashed before him and tugged him through whatever lay between worlds he marvelled at how a land so innocuous and often serene could be so deadly. These undulating grasslands and forests could be a lovely place to live if not for the hundred ways death could creep up on you. He'd seen and heard reports of a number of long abandoned structures, many used until recently in their derelict state, though most clearly not built with fortification in mind so perhaps it once was indeed a peaceful place.

Flashes of light and fizzing crackles accompanied more ponies stepping out of the air behind him, proud mares and stallions in matte grey steel armor loaded with heavy saddlebags of provisions. The gravity of his enquiries had produced top-notch supplies and equiptment for his party, tailored for serious action in enemy territory where the standard issue gold-barded armor and weapons designed for intimidation and to boost morale of their allies was a nuisance that stood out like a sore hoof. They drew into formation behind him, looking out over the alien land for the first time. Captain Indomitable Will, a hulking great blue earth pony was his second in command, stood to his right while Stormchaser, their only pegasus scout, stood tall and lithe to his left. Behind them was Exothaum, their battlemage unicorn, a fairly short ruddy orange stallion with a temper more fiery than his yellow hair, and Granite Core, a leviathan of a stallion who'd inherited the grey colouring, physicality and taciturn nature of his old Pie and Apple clan heritage. Bringing up the rear were the bright pink mare Twinkling Veil, their most versatile and knowledgable unicorn of upper-class breeding and the rather pathetic-looking Dirt, a brown earth stallion who'd been recruited by Celestia herself from one of the reclusive Everfree pony tribes in years gone past and an unparalleled tracker. He seemed to have no cutie mark on his flanks, though many joked that it was indistinguishable from the rest of him, and though he looked like a scrawny runt with awful grooming at all times his lanky frame belied astounding endurance.

They were among the best he could assemble, but given how he'd cherrypicked them from all over Celestia's personal elite guard they'd most likely had little to no experience working alongside each other in the field. Only Indomitable and Twinkling Veil had been chatting when he'd mustered them on the other side of the portal, with the rest standing apart aloof or lost in mental preparation. He was frankly quite surprised that none of the others had made a formal complaint about being assigned alongside Dirt, given his particularly prickly and insular nature towards anyone but the Princesses. At least they were taking the mission seriously.

Once the spluttering crackles of the portal stopped as it closed behind them, he launched into finishing his briefing. He'd given the structure of their orders and the background details of what to watch out for, but none of them had experienced this desolate and deadly alien world before. They needed to see it with their own eyes before they could really understand the magnitude of the task ahead of them.

"As you know, we're here to locate the Princess and Elements who left to study this land in greater detail, posing in disguise as natives. We haven't heard from them since, and that's why we're standing here now. As for here, these rolling hills you can see ahead of us are only region we've scouted thoroughly in previous expeditions. To our knowledge, they're not here and they probably never have been."

The grassy wasteland looked much like it had done when he'd left before, the hills dotted with concrete detrius concealing ruined wooden homes and camps of yet more collected scrap. In the distance the towers of the large settlement that had collapsed before his eyes poked above the horizon, below the rising sun. Behind them lay a long series of cliffs, skirting round the undulating terrain like a fracture had forced them up from the land.

"I want you all to be absolutely alert at all times when we're not camped together. Even when you know what to look for, these strange 'anomaly' magical features that dot the landscape can still be almost invisible. I've had the grave misfortune of having to watch one poor colt being crushed into a gory pulp before my eyes and I don't want to see what else they can do. You've all seen the briefings, but I'll be pointing out them whenever I can. Keep tightly packed when we're moving until we've had more time on the ground to stop the dangers, and no sudden moves or spells unless you think lives are in danger. Don't hesitate though if anything seems wrong, death can come in seconds. When it said this place makes the Everfree look like a walk in the palace gardens, it wasn't exaggerating. Any first questions?"

"What exactly gives these anomalies away? The report was useless and so was your description." Dirt was tactless and straight to the point, as expected.

"The most reliable thing is the sound, anything from a low bassy rumble of the gravity fluxes to the soft crackling pops of the green alien chemical ones. There's nothing really like it, and they all have their own distinct sounds. The chemical ones are obvious, bright green, but there's three really nasty types that are hard to see. The occasional lightning arcs dancing around in the air will flair up and fry you if you get too close. A strong heathaze is the only indication of different ones that will errupt into a pillar of flame, and also fry you. The gravitational flux ones are the worst, sounding like a deeper pitched wind and only visible from faint ripples in the air or odd vortexes of leaves or dirt. Those pouches of scrap metal I issued you are absolutely vital. We've heard first-hand reports of the locals using these to throw into the anomalies, making them flair up to reveal their location. They would apparently toss one far ahead, walk to it, and then toss another. Don't be stingy in using them. As I said, it will make more sense when we see one. We'll find one nearby somewhere safe so you get your bearings."

He paused for a second.

"If that's all I'll continue. As you can see, the whole place seems deserted." As if to spite him, a lone dog-like shape loped over a hill crest far in the distance. "We've watched as the human population here collapsed under the pressure from the threat of hordes of monsters that were mustering in these valleys just a couple of weeks ago beseiging them, if such a word is fitting for what looks like mostly unintelligent unspeaking beasts. Once they'd worn down and finally decimated the humans the horde seemed to disperse, heading mostly south. Our last known location of Princess Luna is far to the north, so we'll be heading that way."

"If Luna was never here, and presumably entered closer to her last known location, why didn't we venture from there?" Interjected Twinkling Veil. Astute as always, this was one of the key omissions from the briefings he'd provided them, since so much of what they knew about the alien world was under need-to-know status.

"Excellent observation. As you can see, we had somewhat reliable information about this location, and judged it a safe muster point. We got called to the location Princess Luna set out using the tracking magic crafted between the Princesses and Twilight Sparkle to find the first expedition party. When the group, lead by Princess Celestia and the rest of the Elements appeared into this world we found themselves forced to take shelter from a deadly storm, forcing us into a building filled with some of the native humans. They attacked the group in shock at seeing us arrive, and killed a number of her personal guards in a matter of seconds. Once peace had been established we learned the location we had arrived was on the outskirts of the largest abandoned settlement around, a city half-reclaimed by the surrounding woods.

After we'd returned to consider with some of the natives, who told us about the dangers of the area, we sent the next exploration party with the Princess back to the same location because of it's tactical value in reaching a safer location somewhere to the north-east to assess, and to avoid them accidentally ending up somewhere even more deadly. From what we've learned about the land most of our magical methods for getting here are incredibly risky unless we know a large safe area to aim for, it was pure luck not to get shredded on entry for the first two parties. They had a native guide who helped the previous expedition to advise us and lead them so we thought it was the best course at the time. What second-hand information we have from the humans puts this city somewhere directly north of us. From the results of our scouting and other info from the humans the only reasonable route seems to be to the east, to where the first exploration party went up north."

"A direct route is out of the question? Have we investigated it?" Stormchaser chimed in.

"We lost several scouts, both land and airbased exploring the forest nearby, and barely touched it's boundaries. It's surrounding us to the north and east as well, and extends for miles. The eastern section is a little more tame, the radiation levels aren't so high and while we've had reports of monsters, our intel from the humans said that entering it east of the huge metal towers on a hill north-east of us was tatamount to suicide from the tales they had to tell. It's very air had apparently destroyed the minds of some of their friends in front of their eyes."

Exothaum couldn't help himself chuckle at that.

"I'm deadly serious. We didn't take it seriously at first. You see that?"

He pointed a hoof at a strange metal shape lying in a bowl of hills and cliffs not far away just north of them. It was a long bulbous rounded shape with glass windows in it, all sorts of small protrusions and a huge set of metal blades in a cross attached to the top.

"We sent two ponies down to investigate it after reporting it untouched by all but a few shambling humans that looked braindead and wasting away. As they got closer, apparently a headache started to build and before they knew it both were delerious with pain. One managed to stagger back up the hill and is currently still hospitalised in Canterlot recovering mentally. We watched the other writhing around in the dirt clutching his head before he devolved into jerky spasms and died in front of our eyes in less than a minute. If you look carefully you can spot some of his scattered bones and rusted armor still there on the hillside. Using magic trying to save him sent another unicorn into hospital from the feedthrough of whatever was happening to his mind."

He turned around to start their trek along the outskirts of this dread place before heading into the forest hidden behind the rocky cliffs and none of them had the same determination and confidence in their eyes that had been there as they stepped through the portal. Exothaum and Twinkle Veil looked particularly shaken, and not even the stoic Granite could prevent himself betraying signs of fear.

"We're not in Equestria any more fillies. It's time to start the hardest mission you'll ever face in your lives."

Hog woke the rest of the mismatched party early, as the suns rays began to creep in tiny lines through the gaps in the metal barrier closing off the front of the tunnel they were using for shelter. Strelok had let him know of his intentions to leave the rest of them. Despite the man's legendary status he couldn't say he minded too much. His leg was still injured badly, despite having some kind of artifact stashed away in his pack he kept strapped to it throughout the night. Anyone slowing them down like a cripple would be a bigger burden than any extra shooter could make up for. As they slowly came to, emerging from whatever rags and trash they could scrounge for to curl up under for the night, he heard Alex heatedly arguing with Strelok in hoarse whispers. He finished his round having to nudge Twilight to stop her falling back asleep where she lay. Damn women had kept him up half the night crying herself to sleep.

"No time to waste, Princess. We don't want to be hanging around here long enough for all the day's predators to wake up and go hunting. You know what they say, you don't have to outrun the bloodsucker, just the poor fool next to you."

That had her scrambling up scrambling up and hastily packing all her assorted possessions and trinkets to remind her of home in her backpack. He turned to leave her be, still unable to stop his eyes rolling at the obsessive care she took in ordering and doublechecking everything. As good as discipline was, too much was a chain that would eventually bind you to your death. He strolled onwards past the rusting APCs and trucks towards the small doorway in the metal sheeting blocking the tunnel entrance. Nitro and Zecora had pulled away most of the barrels barricading it and Nitro had his AK poking out, slowly sweeping back and forth as she opened the door further.

"How's it looking?"

"Clear so far, sounds quiet. Not that that's saying much since we can hardly see into the forest or further down the road from here."

"Take point in the tower with Zecora. I'll stay here and cover you. Once you're up I'll get the rest of those sorry shits ready to go."

As Nitro, then Zecora jogged quickly across the remains of the campsite they'd spent previous evening to the watchtower stairs, a nasal whiny cry pierced the cool morning silence. He stepped out as quickly as his exoskeleton would let him, swinging his rifle around left towards the forest entrance. It sounded unmistakeably like a snork, but whereever it was it hadn't rounded the opening in the forest park's ruined wall.

"Snorks in the forest, 50 meters and closing!" came Nitro's cry a second later. More than one was starting to look serious.

Hog quickly paced across towards the watchtower, slinging his rifle. There was too little ammo left to waste it spraying at fast mutants like this.

"Toss me your shotgun Zecora! The shells too!"

He just managed to catch it, Zecora's throw left a lot to be desired, and ignored the box of shells landing with a clatter a couple of meters from him. He'd barely got his hands around the grip as the first one rounded the side of the truck partially blocking the forest entrance. It made to charge forwards, but both barrels being swiftly emptied into it halted it in it's tracks, blowing bloody lumps from it's shoulders and back. In it's inhuman motions though the damn thing's head was left unscathed. As he hastily ejected the empty cartridges it dodged back into cover, prompting more inhuman wailing and snuffling. He knew he had seconds at most before another could pop out, and without hesitation turned to reach for the rest of the shells lying scattered next to the box.

As he dived forwards, bending over away from the danger to reach downwards he heard the door clang open as more shots rang out. A shriek pierced his ears a moment before he was bowled over by a snork slamming into his back before tumbling off roughly shedding blood like a fountain. It was still moving, and he threw heavy fist knocking it backwards away from him. More shots rattled above his head, both shooter and target hidden behind him as he scrambled on the floor for the shotgun shells. More inhuman screaming filled the air along with the gunshots as he got his fingers around a shell, no time to be greedy, and pushed it in the open breach. He was on the floor and vulnerable, and the snork was recovering, throwing it's emaciated gory body onto him as he pushed the breach closed. The struggle was brief, no more than two seconds, lost in the gunfire still not blowing the thing off him. With his superior size, weight and strength it didn't take long for him to find a position to jam the shotgun in it's lower chest before pulling the trigger. With a fierce blast it's torso exploded chunks of flesh and bone outwards, propelling the mangled corpse off of him.

As he recovered, pulling more shells into his left hand and turning to face the opening, two more snorks lay dead, brought low by the bursts of fire from Nitro in the tower above him and Alex leaning out the doorway. Before he could really get his bearings, another bounded round the truck, heading for him. As fast as he tried, the shells didn't go in the open breach fast enough, and it got within a couple of meters before a burst of gunfire clipped it's head slamming into a bloody slide along the floor.

A flash of motion caught his eye as he started to pull himself to his feet, and instinctively he rolled away onto his back, narrowly dodging the fifth one's long leap from the truck, leaving it to collide with the floor momentarily before it rolled through the motion and carrying on past him below the tower, covered from the rest of the gunfire to turn and make it's next pass. Sitting up and snapping the shotgun shut, he aimed carefully and lined up it's head perfectly as it slowed in the turn, blowing the thing clean off with both barrels.

Adrenaline fueled his hasty scramble to his feet, now successful, and it took a moment for him to hear past the hammering in his heart to the deafening silence now reigning the morning between the river and the forest. He stood there, scanning the opening, desperately listening for more noises betraying further attacks.

Nitro's voice broke the silence.

"Looks clear now. Nothing moving out there."

Hog lowered the shotgun from his sightline, though not resting quite yet. He was inclined to agree with Nitro though. The commotion would have attracted anything else.

Alex emerged from the tunnel door, rifle at the ready, followed by Twilight and Cardan carrying both Hog's and his own rucksacks. The Major carried on past him, surveying both sides of the river, before turning back to the rest of the group.

"Let's get out of here. I'll take point and scout ahead."

Without much more fanfare, they quickly redistrubuted their belongings to each other and collected up the fallen shotgun shells before hastily moving further up the road towards a set of large rocks resting by the side of the road just before it crested a small hill. Strelok wasn't anywhere to be seen, and while the rest of the stalkers took the hint from seeing the man's crippled leg the night before, Twilight had asked briefly before being told coldly he'd no longer be travelling with them. They cowered behind it in silence, whatever cheer and camaraderie they'd woken up with gone now the sobering prospect of a sudden attack from any direction was burned fresh into their minds. Crouching there, huddled up close, they shared heavy looks as Alex continued on over the rise. He was hunched low, rifle at the ready, but no rifle or mutant barked it's response to his advance, and he quickly motioned for Hog to take his place as he hurried down out of sight.

Cresting the hill, Hog saw the main entrance to the forest down in the distance, a rusty old gate and sign broke the mottled yellow brick wall, whatever path leading to it long overgrown. A bus shelter, filled with a handful of what looked like the torn rags of long-dead bodies. The air rippled in places further along the road, where it was visible between the bushes breaking through it.

Alex stopped on the road parallel to the forest gate, kneeling in the dirt with his rifle raised to the opening. With a quick arm gesture, he waved Hog on, who carefully led the rest of the group down past him. Hog unslung his SGI550 again, taking up Alex's position, letting him retake the front. He'd never been an artifact hunter, no sense in being prideful and taking the job navigating the anomalies. Even so, he couldn't stop his heartate slowly building as he knelt there, staring out into the softly whispering red boughs of the forest, straining his ears for anything beyond the footsteps and chink of bolts hitting the tarmac.

It felt like an age before Cardan tapped him on the shoulder, signalling him to take the rear as they followed the trail of bolts zigzagging along the road into the distance, where Alex stood peering round the shell of a bus veiled in morning mist.

On a dodgy leg, the featureless long tunnel felt unending to Strelok as he limped gamely onwards. His AK was raised at the ready, but nothing moved in the dark ahead of him but the shudder of his headlamp. He'd been stewing in his thoughts the night before, contemplating his return to the power plant, but now he felt strange actually setting off alone again, into the jaws of death. He was calm, in a sense, though if anything more empty. The memories of walking through the shadow of that colossal concrete structure were coming back more to him now he was now left truly alone again. As he zoned in and out of focus, staring at that bobbing lamplight, he couldn't help himself. Every now and again, he swore he could hear it, again, the promise of the monolith, barely more than the faintest gravelly, low whisper;

Come to me.

More of his unending syncopated steps, echoing unchallenged through the darkness, as the meagre lamplight bobbed up and down,

Your path is ending.

As the minutes faded into each other more and more, and fragments of those brutal facias looming above him and the Monolithian forces doing battle came and went,

Come to me.

When it was done, and he stood there when silence reigned once more over the forecourt to the power plant, he looked out over the horizon towards the circling ravens and highrise towers of Pripyat poking above the trees, on the one view in the Zone who's skyline was not dominated by that imposing grey block and tower which now stood directly behind him, with the entrance to the Sarcophagus, at last,

Only one will-

Suddenly the tunnel came to an end, a ladder breaking the monotony. The surface, and hard reality of Pripyat beckoned.