“Well, you’re a glutton for punishment,” a ragged dark-blue thestral mare spoke to herself, looking into the joint sprain of an alley that the luckless day lead her into.
The mare winced at the glowy, bluish light of the smokestick. Not very legal to smoke that, no - but then, primeland Equestria barely allowed much more than bubble and squiggle extractors, nothing like the real thing. The real thing killed you bit by bit and occasionally gave you happytimes. Too bad it lit you up like a wisp in the swamp. Not even a very attractive wisp. Old lash across the snout, unkempt light grey mane cut too short at the back and grown too long in the front. Bloodshot dark yellow nightkin eyes. One ear a lighter, paler blue than the rest after being dunked in a rainbow container during a Cloudsdale job. She mainly consoled herself with how her partner looked even worse. He had a moustache.
The thought about that ugly, barely two-eyed asshole made her peek into the blackness again and sigh.
"Nick... Nick, Nick, Nick. Piece of shit."
The city got dark at that time of day. Normally, the sick, pneumonic light from the outside would clog up all the way sometime round the hour - vent maintenance was one half of it, pretense of living in any sort of city you would want to live in the other. Would be pretty normal for the hollow rock they resided in if it was just concrete-thick darkness and choleric lamps stamped rarer and rarer the deeper the roads went. It was worse, though. Something felt even darker, even more monotonously depressing than living in a literal hollow rock way off to the Frozen North.
Not that it said much. Some would argue, but to the currently officially unemployed mostly vagrant thestrals Nyxius and Penumbra, Equestria as a whole had a disgusting track record of actually being as safe as it looked.
Cloudsdale was all cerulean and leaked rainbows from every orifice like a particularly happy hemorrhager, but the reality was significantly less rainbow and more pegasi thugs up on every corner. Manehattan looked like an errant shimmer of reason, but was all too happy to chew you up and spit you out when you had no more yellow, twinkling lifeblood to give up. Ponyville looked like something from a postcard, suspiciously so, but went to high hell very fast when… she returned, so they, both nightkins, had to skip town. Canterlot was the Equestrian crown jewel, but when it turned out that a couple thousand changelings bashing their way through a lousy barrier was enough to have it virtually destroyed, that ended up being a fashion statement and little else. The fact that that was also when they both got discharged from the Guard - again - also soured the changling-invasion-surviving experience.
So, in a way, it was kind of nice of Pierce Heaven to at least look like a shitty place for shitty folks with shitty lighting and guards armed with stuff that would - and did - get them jailed anywhere else. The infinitely wailing wind and the amputating cold outside also helped. Penny was pretty deep into the structure, and she still could hear the wind and feel the chill.
Granted, looking at what the alleyway promised her, the chill could have been her body rightfully wussing out, and the wind could have just been cries of the damned.
“Okay, tell me I went to the wrong part of town…” the mare said to herself, pulling out the worn-down notebook that got her to put her flank to the proverbial fire.
It bore their names on the cover, edged into the stubborn cover with their own fangs. Less for the effect, and more because nothing else would pierce the stupid thing, and they were both too drunk at the time of acquiring to think about writing. Nick and Penny.
She turned the pages, their life story quickly passing before her eyes in the form of spastic, rarely grammar- or syntax-respecting messages. They had kept it ever since… Well, long enough for her to have forgotten. Definitely before they both swore to quit drinking. With the schedule they kept on their odd jobs, it was often their primary means of communication. One was often out when the other was home, and stuff needed to be talked about - pushing blame, juggling menials, asking for meds, and, pretty rarely, vital diamonds in the pile of odd crap they rummaged through each day.
“NICK, 12 BARGAIN AT 7TH PASS. BRING BACK MSN PACKAGE. BUY MILK - 01/13 5AM
PENNY, 5-12 NO GO. AFTER YOU FIX TABLE. D.I.Y. - 01/13 1PM
NICK, WRITE DOWN TIME OR YOU EAT SHIT FOR DINNER. 7TH PASS WORKED OUT. NEUMOND TMR 11 PM - 01/13 12 AM
PENNY, I AM STANDING RIGHT NEXT TO YOU STOP SHOWING OFF - 01/13 12AM”
She sighed, looking at the notes from last week. They were free to shag and brag around back then. Nothing much was off. Sure, they got fired by the commish, their rent was overdue, their food supply was mostly salt and meds, and they were stuck in the shittiest town they have been to by far, but that was mostly normal by their standards. They at least had jobs - unless the authorities asked - and they had one another.
“NICK, COUCH BROKE. YOUR TURN TO FIX SHIT. BE OUT FOR A DAY - 01/18 4AM
PENNY, DEAL AT THREE BURNOUT. W/E - 01/18 12PM
ADD: GOT NEW DEAL, QUART 14 - 01/18 5PM
ADD: OUT WHEN YOU BACK. DAY MAX - 01/18 1AM
ADD: 455847 BCKL - 01/18 3AM
NICK, COUCH STILL BROKE. WHEN YOU BACK, SHIT FOR DINNER. OUT SUCCESS, NEUMOND TMR 11 P. - 01/19 3AM
ADD: 455847? BETTER BE GOOD - 01/19 3AM
NICK, NO SHOW NO COME. NEUMOND PSTP TILL YOU BACK. IF BACK WHEN I SLEEP, LEAVE NOTE. DON’T WAKE - 01/20 6AM
NICK, OBSING PACKS AT 17-9. IF BACK PLEASE LEAVE NOTE - 01/21 8PM
NICK, DEAL SNAFU. NEED SHOVEL AT 7 TMR OR SO. PICKINGS OURS -01/22 3AM
NICK, AT 133 TODAY, SHOVEL, COME IFP - 01/22 5PM
NICK, IF NO BACK IN 1 DAY, LOSING SHIT - 01/23 1AM.
NICK, STARTING TO LOSE SHIT - 01/23 12PM
NICK, WENT LOOKING. IF YOU BACK AND READ THIS, 1 - F.U., 2 - AT 455847. BRING BODYBAG I GUESS - 01/23 7PM”
No, this was definitely the quarter they had marked with 455847. Or, Nick did. It was his idea to make things cryptic without turning it into some sort of smart-ass code all over. Sure, if someone with half a brain got a hold of their book, they would have some sort of idea what they were doing, but it would take contextual knowledge of at least some of the crap they got up to in order to really get their jobs and such.
“Right… great… cause I’m always right…” the mare spoke out, taking a few sheepish steps into the decayed, absent maw of the angular alleyway. About three in, she spat out, and backpedaled, pulling a pack out of the bag on her side, and throwing together another smoke. Neither of them ever managed to quit all of the bad stuff, just some of it.
She never got why he decided to call it 455847. When she asked, he explained something about some stuff he had seen on one day after they were done celebrating another job paid well, and at around the part where the entire street he was at lit up with fuzzy pictures of some dude’s eyes and teeth, and he almost got pulled into the wall, Penny realized that neither of them really did manage to quit all the bad stuff at all. The guy threw up shortly afterwards and she had to carry him to bed herself... and the next day it turned out that their landlord went missing... So in deciding whether to be happy or to worry, she backed that question quite a ways down the priority list. Then again, with how nice of a place Equestria boiled up to be, who knew?
Whatever the numbers Nick gave it meant, it was not a place Penny preferred to visit… ever. It took her time to recognize the features, and that, in itself, was a good thing. Getting acquainted to something like that was not something she wished to have happen to her. Pierce Heaven was, all in all, a pretty crappy hole to be stuck in. Violent, unpredictable, cold, dark, damp, and that was the top of the comfort list.
They got used to it, like they did every other place willing to house them, but sometimes… sometimes, it sent milipedes crawling down your spine. Crawling fast, because you were in their way of escape from whatever the hell lurked in the dark. The long, downward-spiraling streets only made it feel more and more as if the mountain drilled straight into Tartarus. Or worse. Tartarus would at least have kept it warm…
455847 was once a pretty normal quarter. Part of the slums, so never really too pleasant, but that stain on its reputation notwithstanding, it was just a block or two of shady buildings. Or, that was what they were told - evidently, about three months back, something changed. They were still part of the Royal Guard back then, so they sat their flanks off in the capital city and tasted the fruits of their efforts, so they had no way to know for sure… but if that was anywhere near normal, something bad happened.
Penny peeked around the corner and into the blinding darkness. There was reason to worry for the darkness alone. She was a thestral, for crying out loud - her hearing might have been better than her sight, but even that was definitely above average in dark vision. If it was dark for her, it was a minotaur’s bunghole for a daywalker. And even though her hearing did take a large hit after they once decided that it was a great idea to lug raw crystal in carriage carts, she could still hear passably well. It was nothing at all and something rotten, both at the same time - the wind slash cries of the damned aside. The one thing that place lacked was an unwitting precursor’s skeleton laid dramatically at the front, and even then, it might as well been round the corner.
“Just had to get fired from the force, cause finding your own gear for suicide freaking missions is always so much fun,” she complained to herself, painfully stung by how neither of them had thought to maybe borrow a piece of equipment or two when the local comissioner booted them for incompetence. Penny would have argued that it was less incompetence and more plain old corruption and/or treason, but whatever it was, they got caught slipping patrol schedules and forging orders to a few good-paying folks. That, or the commish never found out about that and just wanted them out after they started working for the City Enforcer more and more. Their own fault in the end - shady deals are always in mean fields.
A loud screech and a chittering cough-alike bled their way out the alley, causing the mare to almost choke on her own smoke. She spat and swore under her breath, her ears having pressed hard against her head. Rubbing one leg with another, Penny considered the options.
“So… go into the hole to Nightmare Candyland, or hook up some gear and then go into the hole to Nightmare Candyland. Great freaking life choices I’ve made to get here.”
Her snout broke into a sour frown as she kept in mind who she was going in for. For a few seconds, her eyes darted from the notebook clutched between her chest and leg, and the asthmatic light back in the distance where she came from.
“Well, guess I’ll go get ready to haunt this piece of crap. And you, you’d better give me the area lowdown when I’m there, cause when I’m a damned lost soul, I don’t want to fumble around like an amateur, you got that?” Penny said croakedly and only somewhat more loudly than usual into the crack of dark.
The mare sighed, and, in her last attempt to pull a semblance of a smile on her rapidly paling face, pulled the notebook back out, and pressed it against the wall, grabbing a marker as well.
“NICK, IF GHOST, STILL HAVE TO FIX COUCH, OR I HAUNT YOUR GRANDMOTHER - 01/23 10PM
ADD: IF I GO GHOST TOO, GIVE CLASSES.”
With that done, she breathed deep, ran back to the light at the end of the alley, and screamed out in the girliest voice she could muster after all the stuff she smoked and drank:
“GET OFFA ME, YOU FUCKIN’ BEAKSHIT, OR I’MMA CALL THE COPS!”
Still coughing after having done that to her vocal chords, she ascended rapidly on top of the building nearby and hoped to all high hells that that trick still worked. She knew it did back from when her and Nick were doing the rounds.
Street crime prevention was one thing. When stuff got political and griffons got involved, it was another. And as far as she knew, there normally was a patrol around that part nearby… so, as long as they did not actually have all the latest tech the comissioner bragged about, they would mainly just hear a whiny, echoey cry.
Penny pulled out a sharpened piece of silver from her bag and fastened it to her right foreleg with familiar motions. Fast hoofsteps around three quarters of a mile away. Good thing she was only doing it to get into something worse than a fight with someone from the North Patrol, otherwise she would probably have felt bad about it.
At least she was definitely not making the mistake of trying to sneak into an outpost again.
“Great, freaking figures…” she muttered to herself, twirling the dormant smokestick with her teeth. Grinning with displeasure, the mare closed her eyes and counted to five as loud steps and garbled voices sounded from right below.
Uniquely, there were good news. She did get the attention of a patrol. At the rate things normally went, it was more likely that whatever had manifested in quarter 455847 would have awoken instead, and globbed up her puny mortal soul like any self-respecting eldritch abomination would. That failed to happen - at least for the time being.
The blunt of the more expected news was that the patrol was not a couple of two or three light scouts sent to see who was stupid enough to harass, get harassed, or even be near the ill-warded quarter. No, it seemed that in the time Nick and Penny had spent having been booted from the force, they got savvy about things. Five fully equipped fighters, all of them gleaming at the oculars of the blocky helmets, so as to at least justify her having hopped on top of a building. A large, especially clangy bulker in the lead. Crystal, that one had to be. Smelled of ozone, stomped hard with each step, and no breathers on the helmet, none Penny could see in the short peek she got. Bulge on the shoulder, probably a porta-cannon, because such was life. They have probably figured out that Penny was not what she seemed. Too bad she barely lived up to their expectations.
She was ambiguous on whether she could reliably down two. Three were about a seventy-thirty. Four would be like a one out of five, with luck. Five were her calling to the stars to please fall down and explode away. That was normal patrols, not what she got.
There was no chance in all high hells and heavens that she could ever bag each of them out and have them stay knocked long enough to grap up a set. Especially if she were to try and not snuff any of them. Her best possible chance, in theory, was to pick them off one by one, but that would imply that they were anyone but the North Patrol. The Royal Guard would have gleamed agressively with their shining armor, the LP police force would have already found her on the roof and packed her into multiple bodybags, the Vanhoover militia would have been about twenty instead of five, and Ponyville would never have had quarter 455847. The North Patrol… would just back the shit off, even if scary sounds started emitting from far away, because when you have served for over a week at the Frozen North, you learn that reacting to everything unusual starts to take its toll in extremities. If something is off and you can see it - you bash it into still pulp and tear off a piece to bring to the analysts, if something is off and you can’t see it - fire profusely, and then head back to write a report and have guys even worse than you go check it out. Because chances are, there is something off there.
Being that something was infinite times above Penny’s paygrade - disregarding how she had no official one. Just a crook with a bag of shitty utilities, a sharp object on her foreleg, and her partner in deep trouble. Painful suicide to go in on them, scary suicide to go in in there. Suicide in any case.
It was in these cases that the choice for Nick and Penny was the most natural.
Pure, unadulterated bullshit.
“FUCK EVERYTHING,” she thought to herself, eyes poking out and mouth tensely open, as she dropped all four stories down on top of the crystal one.
That was really just it. Go in and let the bullshit flow. Forget thinking, forget planning, forget tactics, just do what you do best, if even that, and concentrate. There have only ever been two constants. Shit would undoubtedly get bad, constant one. They would always go through it together, if even only to get into worse shit, constant two.
And if something got in the way of either of those two constants, all Penny could do was flip out and stop all higher thought.
The huge crystallite fell on the knees when the mare’s body crashed right on top of him. The next moment, he was being bashed over and over by two forehooves gripped in a lock - could have bucked her off, could have thrown her away, could have lasted one more second to adapt to the impact, but instead, just offed the lights and went to a punchy nap. Bullshit. Crystallites were improbably hard to punch through, even more so in armor, even more so in officer helmets - but Penny turned his lights off nonetheless. He probably never had time to adapt to the impact, she would have figured if she could think.
The remaining four fizzled and gargled something through their comms, but she registered neither that, nor the success of her first strike. She was: going to die, going to get Nick out, and very regretful over the hard landing. That was all.
Before stars stopped their bouncy polka party in her head, she had pulled the closest cop in, stabbed him in the side with the sharp end of her wing to get him to kneel, and made a sharp turn back, sending him flying into a wall with a desperate buck. That got her out of the way of the hard ammo already being unloaded by the remaining ones, and managed to give the bucked cop a hard enough concussion to get him out. Bullshit.
They fizzled some more, but even if they had no outside audial encryptors, she would never have heard them. She ate up the scene in front of her with wide-open bloodshot eyes, two cops at each side and one in front of her, rolling up a shouldermount. The scene went through poorly and got stuck somewhere halfway through the throat, so she continued her rampage instead of surrenderring to an easy end. Enlightened desperation.
Somehow, mostly by themselves, her wings sent her crashing right into the cop ahead. Headfirst into the densely armored, fully trained operative she went - right at the moment he was about to fire off, in that very instant where he had to shift balance, and could not account for the impact of a rabit, underfed, petty, and, above all, desperate thestral. He got flung off his legs, the rapid fire shouldermount chugging out pieces of blocky buildings all around, one of the chunks willing to stop the trainwreck of a streetfight with its weighty argument. It flung right off the balcony of the building directly above the mare’s suicidal equipment procural operation, but one last shot fired off with a delay and ate up most of the rock. A splinter chunked off before the rock vaporized, and hit one of the two remaining cops right in the visor, sending him fizzing out through the comms. Absolute bullshit. A ninety to ten was generous for this.
And yet, Penny’s mind consisted mostly of “FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK”, so as she leaned in on top of her cop to stab at a foreleg, and hitting an armor joint out of sheer coincidence, she had no mental space to visibly recognize the amount of coincidence going on. If she would get half her head logged off, which it rightfully should have been the moment her body dropped down to the scene, even that would take a moment to recognize, brain disfigurement notwithstanding.
The cop yelled out as her shiv stabbed right through the foreleg, and then she did it again, and again, and again, evidently trying to either ensure pain shock or just having ran out of ideas, not knowing which it was herself. Whether she had just ensured at least a month of unicorn and crystal tech therapy for the guy or just gave him a bunch of scars to show off, he never got up again during the fight.
“WHAT AM I EVEN DOING HOLY SHIT”
Only one remained, and it was the moment her eyes met with the downed cop’s oculars that she saw the reflection of the last remaining one sprinting right at her. The sound came some half a second after that. Having continued the unstoppable and highly effective thought practice of “FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK”, she neglected to roll out of the way of the incoming tackle, and instead lunged right at it, shiv pointed ahead. Her and the last one of the patrol collapsed together, dunk of armor and dush of rampant thestral culminating the insane asylum symphony of the brawl. It took her a second to see anything that resembled anything - and the last cop it took two. That was enough for her to stab him in the chest multiple times, breaking off the shiv, but buying more time to act. The cop evidently braced to struggle for a choke, as he had the time to see that all the mare had right away was the shiv, so he never saw her bashing her head against his helmet coming.
It was only bullshit that got her to accidentally hit a conveniently dysfunctional pressure pad as she tried to bite at the armor, and dislodge the piece from the rest of the suit. As the fang got stuck, her next pull yanked it off the guard’s head, and she continued to hit him repeteadly with her own forehead, helmet adding in the clungs at the side, crashing into both him and her, but mostly him.
The adrenaline, leftover alcohol, and desperation combined lasted her about forty seconds in total. It was at around her seventh headbutt that her nerve endings caught up with the owner, and made her realize what had just happened. The cop under her was unconscious, a huge mass of red, stampy blood marks on his head, not all of them his. Her fang chipped by the protective helmet that was technically impossible to pull off. Four more lying behind, all incapacitated. Her head having been hit by at least two armored grunts, and six times against a heavy unicorn skull and horn.
Penny spent about three minutes laying atop of the last cop, shivering with adrenaline excess, coughing up blood and fang bits, and gasping for air after all the pressure.
“What… the fuck… did I… just do?..” she mumbled to herself, her first clear thought being that if she did not find the power shots the guards were handed for combat situations, her body would probably collapse onto itself. Her thoughts got hazy, but it was better to have hazy ones than none at all.
It happened that the guard she was on top of had these right in the foreleg pouch, and after she stabbed herself with multiple mixtures of not even she knew what, her body finally felt like it was less dead and more alive. Penny looked the useful cop over - medium build unicorn, probably going to get off with a minor concussion - and then the others. All this was to get armor and general survival equipment. The rest were either far too huge or too badly damaged for her to even use.
“Right… If I ever want to have a hole in my armor… then I’d want it to be the head, yeah,” the mare stuttered to herself, jaws still coming to their senses after the shock, “Not like I ever use it, anyway.”
She had just beaten a five-stacked North Patrol cop squad with one shouldermount, one crystallite officer, and five sets of armor that stopped manticore stings. That had to have taken at least as much patented bullshit as hitting up that bank when Discord showed up out of nowhere did. At least twice as much bullshit as getting out of Ponyville after she came back. That was all just to prep for quarter 455847.
And, to her last dying remnants of reason, the power shot meant that her body would not just give out and have about a twenty percent chance of survival till morning.
“Well, time to go to Hell,” Penny said to herself, having dressed up like the a dark grey drawing of a military kid with mental issues.
It was something to wonder about, whether she entered because chemicals and side enchantments messed with her head, or for the same reason she did all the stupidest shit - to get Nick out of trouble. That was not the first time. She had put her flank on the line before, and, to be fully honest, so did he.
Each time they were either drunk or high, and each time the aftermath was so explosive that they never had time to really think about it. This one was no exception. She walked through darkness that almost clung to the armor plates, patches squirming in the distance, and shuddering movements resonating somewhere blocks away. Nick had been gone for over two days, in this place. She woke up thirteen hours ago, had salt for breakfast, then fought a patrol on her own, and stabbed herself with a berserker needle. Not a drastic assumption to make that when it was over, it would all go with a bang once again.
That was all assuming that Penny herself would live long enough to cross the alleyway. A subject of extreme doubt.
To aid in deprvaing the world of a stupid, drugged, thuggish batpony, the helmet was broken. If it remained connected to the suit, she would have heard the comms and her own breath. Those were definitely more pleasant than the dreary silence and occasional hair-raising… breaths and shuffles.
She knew that it was best to take it slow and move at a crawl - a lot of crap could be up with the quarter to have done that to it, and it was at least two blocks of buildings. Nick could be anywhere, and his remains could be all over the place. It could be anything that happened to the place - Equestria was a pretty shitty realm, but the Frozen North absolutely topped the charts, or rather, they were never even drawn. Could be the second coming of Nightmare Moon from out of nowhere for all she knew. Could be some sludge from the outer cosmos that lived in the cold for years and slipped into town. Could be that the new equipment would make no difference. Could be anything.
Too bad that the years of being kicked around from one part of Equestria to the other, the drinks, the smokes, the uncountable hits on the head, and the power shot chemicals coursing through her veins made her trot through as if she was only mildly distressed by quarter 455847.
"Fuck it. Dead mare walking. No chance I live another half hour. Double no chance that dickwad is alive after two days in that hole. Quadra-no-fucking-chance we meet up and still move our extras. Suicide," Penny shuddered, taking two-shots at some of the words, barely talking coherently even to herself, "Thanks for pointing that out, genius, that wasn't obvious enough... dumb nightkin bitch... That's what happens every time. Nothing new here."
This time would most likely end badly, but… what point was there in going on if she was left all by herself? They were barely worth half a bit together. All by herself…
“No, screw that,” Penny mumbled to herself under the helmet, looking side to side, wary of every shadow “I am getting there… and I know I’m lying, shut up.”
The entry alley was crossed, the angle into the quarter awash in darkness. Street lights were out, of course, but the helmet still had residual night vision up in the oculars - would take a bit for it to go out, now that it no longer connected to the suit. Cold sweat covered her coat, and there was no cool wind to make it worse, not even at the hole in her helmet where the horn was supposed to go. 455847 was damp, dreary, and sickeningly warm. Like an infected leg you knew was full of maggots, but were too afraid to cut up and see.
Penny had to, though.
"Okay... I remember this thing..." she mumbled under her unsteady breath - improperly and out of order, yes, but with a few pings of her hoof on the shoulder, the crystals in the legs discharged their essence for a bit. In a few seconds, they came back, and the fading picture on the oculars lit a bit straight ahead. She moved her head left and right, and that confirmed it - there was something big enough for a rat and moving, right in the big building far down the alley. Everything else, completely empty. Only dry residuals, as if something did move long ago... but in the condition the helmet was in, it could have been acting up.
That looked like a probable destination - from what her ears could still tell her, that was also where the joyful cries of the damned from before came from. How the cops could be stationed so close and never once report that, she had no idea. At least it stayed shut, seemingly awaiting her application into the choir. Penny had kind of a shaky contralto at best, but in death, it looked probable that she would get to learn all about screaming. Wonderful thought.
“Dammit, just… do something,” she whispered, stepping carefully, yet to see an opportunity to use the loaded extractor on her shoulder and right foreleg, “I wanna see you move before you kill me, come on…”
Once normal enough houses passed her slowly and tensely. Normal for the city, to be correct. Brick, rock, and concrete were not quite so popular outside of the frozen hellhole. Sans the choking darkness and the occasional cold shuffle, it was as if it was simply a very old part of town, and nobody lived there anymore. That would have felt wrong all by itself, in a place like this, but something was wronger still.
Penny aimed her leg-mounted extractor at pulpous shadows, and the ability to blast at any of them with high caliber, even more highly illegal ammunition only soothed a small part of the worry. All things considered, the main use of the suit would be for detection and night vision, in the end. Each step she took notified her that she was getting into something far less corporeal than what the leg-spraining ammo would be able to hit. Throwing things at ghosts was never a good idea, the mare knew that much from experience.
“Come on… something…” she hastened her pace, stopping more and more rarely to look behind and aim down at shadows. In a few minutes, Penny found herself hurriedly trotting towards the big building at the end of the street, feeling more and more fuzz gather at the bottom of her throat. It felt like a good idea not to look back anymore.
Quite naturally, that was exactly what she did when she was still a ways away from her still glowing destination.
“Oh holy fuck.”
Nick always hated when he was right, because when he was right, it was always about the worst shit ever. Penny, Penny was different. She was normally right that a certain given shit was the worst ever, but normally would misjudge.
The gellatinous, tendril-swirling, writhing mass that the overly grey, overly dull, overly abandoned houses behind her had become was definitely corporeal. It clearly felt the impact of the three bullets she fired off at it, having fallen on her back and begun crawling the high hell away.
Too grey, too dull, too quiet, too abandoned. Had to have figured that it was either all a hallucination, or something got right into 455847 itself. Too bad she was born drunk and shipped with cranial trauma.
By the last stretch, as the large mass of the same substance that the abandoned quarter had begun to stir its lashes towards her, Penny had managed to get back on her fours and dash towards the building. The oculars still refused to accept the thing in front of them as anything feasible or moving, for good reason - hell if it was being moved by any force the engineers accounted for. Penny barely had a single damn to give, and rammed right through the solidly blocked door.
"This is so screwed."
When the changeling swarm ruptured into Canterlot and avoided tearing them to shreds, the two of them got out without a scratch - only to let slip their black market ops near the command after it was over. When Discord’s reign ended up helping them take a bank, the authorities just tracked them down four months later. Every time, the exit from one big problem and the imminent fall into the other was preceded by one life-saving measure: Penny quit thinking on the problem.
The simultaneous barrage of the helmet comms and the choir of the damned rising up for the occasion took care of plunging the mare’s mind into a swirl of hot, hectic insanity.
“Four… Five… Five… Eight… Four… Seven... “ the comms joined in a fuzzy distraction.
“SHUT UP!” she screamed out, collapsing into a coughing fit immediately afterwards.
Bits of puke rolled up her throat when she rolled on her back to see the black-eyed, twisted, stretched equine figure in the doorway dissipate into pitch blackness, and tears of stress joined in through the eyes when a number of shadows from the improbably present moonlight outlined shadows that made screaming a very bad idea in retrospect.
She was not alone, and shit was, as ever, fucked. Only one way to go - forward.
The thestral mare crouched and crawled carefully through the sickeningly impacted halls of what looked to have been a hospital before. The armor and helmet were both of double edges, the dysfunctional respirator asphyxiating her bit by bit and the hard material clunking every now and then. Now, though, that she had seen what was inside the one place Nick could have been in, alive or dead, the added night vision and protection were both very good ideas.
The thing in the doorway she decisively refused to ponder upon. A winning strategy.They had seen enough weird crap in Equestria to know to leave that to scholars and other authorities. It was weird, creepy, lanky, and probably magical - also, her soul did not feel like it was sucked out right there and then, and that was good. The things that cast those shadows, though… They were hard to ignore.
These things made her realize the sheer depth of shit they were in.
They had seen enough weirdness in Equestria. But of all they had seen, only she made her turn this pale and want to run away. General atrocities and monsters were alright. This… This, this explained why there was a nagging ping of something being explicitly wrong about quarter 455847 from the very start.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck... Why do I recognize this... why do I recognize this..." Penny thought to herself, fighting for control over her mind, and pushing for inaction on its part. It refused to not work. She saw it. It was her again.
The mare tried to focus on the vomit-inducing spectacle all around, or the deadly danger, but the fight was lost. Half a minute was devoted to thoughts on what she was up against.
Just to spite the tendency, she was right when she joked to herself that it could be her all over again. And as long as Penny was concerned, this was worse. Worse than bashing through a North Patrol with a shiv, worse than hollow rock city quarters coming to life and growing tentacles.
And the comms, which she blocked when they repeated themselves for the tenth time with the same recording, would indicate that Nick had the stupid luck to be in this very building, and probably alive. North Patrol would not have known what they called the quarter. Alone, in a building full of… these things. Only her and him could have this sort of luck.
She crawled, breathing heavily, through a former operation room, the hall being completely blocked by… overgrowth. Inside was a usual spectacle for the building.
"I'll never shower enough..." the mare realized, counting steps, powered up in the sneak by the berserker chems.
Five or six dessicated bodies on the floor, looking as if fruit bats switched to ponies. Sickening, fleshy tendrils connecting one pile to another, and to the toppers. Laid into piles, and on top of those piles, the toppers… things that made Penny want to keep puking, even when there was nothing left to puke. The worst part was that she could tell they were shaped to be like them. Her and Nick. Thestrals, nightkins, batponies. Each, even the most deformed ones, had forcibly stretched irises, artificially grown fangs, and membranous extensions at the sides when the original host was not a pegasus. They stood like exhibitions in a particularly sick-minded art exhibition, locked in a frame of pained convulsion. Penny could have assumed that they were dead, if not for the sounds they made.
They breathed. That was all the mare could hear, and there was no getting it out of her head. Each was as if in a high fever, struggling to breathe, sniffing, gasping, hyperventilating in voices that resonated with one another. They never stopped. If there was anything to lose, Penny would have lost her mind just listening to that, room into room, room into corpse and tentacle-filled room.
They could have been dormant, or they could have been watching her. No way to tell, not with their eyes. They stared, and never blinked, each open wide, as if seconds before death. This… looked like it was worse.
But Penny’s body refused to aim the extractor at her neck and blast away, and her mind refused to just bomb-land into a pool of sweet, relieving insanity. It always did.
"Every time... same thing, every time... can't just go, can I? Can't just go..."
She came there for a reason, and something very persistent within her refused to ackowledge just how unbelieveably stupid it was.
"This ain't a job for me... not a place for me. This is for the North Patrol, whoever isn't fired, for monster hunter badasses, for the paranormals, for the ES/AS, for those Celestia-titfed Ponyville bigshot bitches... no, not for me, I'm a crooked thug and I want my buddy back. Not my place. Not my time. Not my fucking fight. Not a hero."
These things had the distorted eclipse right from her flank plastered all over them, as if there was not enough indication that this was far, far beyond her responsibilities.
So she crawled from one infested room into another, watching as the further she got, the bigger the piles got, and the more deformed the toppers became. Tendrils would spread entire ceilings, and she would reenact the Manehattan bank heist time and time again, stepping over them and sweating not to touch a single one. This time, in combat armor.
Her body seemed to have forgotten how to speak, or close its eyes. The helmet also gave up, and no longer even showed movement, not that Penny ever wanted to see those things highlighted.
"Okay... I remember... top floor, west side. Five floors tops here, shat through four, always can get worse. Cause fighting five soldiers with illegal obliterator weapons in melee is the highlight of my day, any day. Nothing. Now this, this is a bit of a problem. A bit. Yeah. Fuck me I'm so over my head."
The mare was crossing the stairway to the last floor when the sickening Nightmare infection had decided to remind her of another thing it could do. The foundation shook and trembled, throwing the mare off the steps and tumbling down a flight, as the wailing cry sounded out yet again. For one thing, it told her that this had to have been the center. For another, it made her want to cry and run to mommy - right into the grave, that is.
She did not mishear that when it first screamed on her entry. That was actual words. Her hearing may have been much worse than a normal thestral’s, and she herself was much worse than a normal thestral in general, but that was clearly the unbearable scream telling her to serve them.
“Fuck this shit,” Penny stuttered aloud, and quickly got up the stairway, saved from multiple sprains by the suit of armor.
The idea of getting therapy as soon as they were out of that mess propped up in her mind, shooed shortly afterwards due to how it actually had the gull to assume that they would be out of this mess.
"No, I ain't stupid. I may have several concussions, and I may have had shit fall on my head since I was six why-oh, but I'm not that stupid. This is it. End. Finish. Over with our story."
Granted, that was what she thought every time life threw her into a situation like this - like having to fight a pack of angry, underpaid diamond dogs with a purse and an umbrella - and by how she lived long enough to get into this nightmare… maybe she was stupid after all.
Not blind, though. So when she was up to the fifth floor, her eyes and jaw competed in which could go the widest, only for the contest to be obscured by the helmet.
Effectively a huge hall, many tiny housing rooms by the side, and an office at the far end of it. There were good news and bad news.
The bad news was that every single room was flooded with bodies and tentacles. Penny saw ponies of all kinds, and even griffons, as well as a few minotaurs, goats, deer, dogs, and whatever else could be unlucky enough to get to the Frozen North. There were at least fifteen of these rooms, and each was an absolute choker of corpses. A thought of how the sweet flying hell all of these could be so securely brought in without the Patrol ever hearing sound of it was quickly washed off by how the whole of 455847 came to life half an hour ago.
The good news was that there was a figure clad in armor much similar to her own, standing at the far end of the corridor, in a room that somehow had the lights on. They - both the room and the figure - were covered in sickening purple ichor, and in the back of the room Penny could see a lying figure deformed so hard that even her eyes could tell heads were never meant to be like this. But… there was only one moron stupid enough to still be alive in all that.
She breathed incoherently, her own breath lost behind the spastic chaos of gasps the infected toppers emitted. It took her a second, but before she made a step, she finally made a decision. Crouching at the forelegs and making a grin, Penny sprung out an echo signal.
In a second, it was returned, as the figure at the far end did the same motion, although it took it three tries to stop falling over.
That was enough. Penny said fuck it all in all but voice, and started towards the lit up chamber, wiping all the horrible memories of the day. He was alive. How? Why? How did she deserve that sort of luck? Why were either of them still alive?
A good enough explanation, and it made up for how the fifteen rooms full of corpses and tendrils sucking out liquids smelled like a dead gaseous drake.
Too good, in fact. She only realized the mistake when Nick hurriedly crouched again, and sent her another “!!!”. She looked around, and saw one of them right to her side.
“FUCK,” was the first thing to properly leave her mouth in a bit.
It threw her on the ground, and made it known that it had slimy, black tentacles placed right at the sides by wrapping her with them. Its maw opened, diagonally, and it sat for a second on top of the still shocked mare, dripping disgusting purple saliva on the oculars. Penny had not seen something as sickening and disgusting in years.
Sweet, unmerciful heavens, it was a kid. Barely out of teen years. Probably a filly, but with the huge gash its mouth had become, it was hard to tell. Eyes stretched out to resemble her own, and fangs matching none of each other in size. Hooves and legs decayed, covered in slicky, pudgy, dark reef matter, as if gangrenous to a fault. It breathed right at her, with the same strained gasps that all the others issued - not a note of difference in pattern, even though those were dormant and this one went active. So much more wrong with it, but Penny just blocked what she was seeing out when she looked inside the throat, and concentrated on breaking out of its choke. The simple thought that it was touching her doubly confirmed that even once in high Hell, she would take a while before she stopped showering.
Only a life of constantly getting almost killed made her snap out of the thoughts and pull the muscles by at the extractor on her foreleg, pressed at the chest of the sick thing.
The shower of inflated, feverishly purple guts covered her midsection moments after a shower of still pulsating, eaten out brain matter stained her helmet. Nick was faster, and Penny was going to be seventy percent bruises from the recoil and impact of the heavy bullets.
“You’re an insane fucking bitch, do you know that?” the near-hysterical ragged voice so familiar to her, roughed out as the disfigured corpse was pushed off Penny’s body, “I mean… I don’t… Holy shit I was so scared.”
“Me too,” she stated plainly, gulping, and realizing that the only reason her psycheout was so delayed was all the chemicals. Nick, on the other side, had probably run out of them after having been holed up in there for two days. Maybe there was a reason why she tried to stick to him so much.
“Get in here,” he told her nervously, and started to try to pull at her leg, but fell over from the strain. Penny got up by herself and stepped over her partner, then pulling him into the messed up room.
“Aren’t we getting out?” she asked, despite having just obeyed his order.
“No, we’re getting killed,” he answered with a sandpaper voice - he had defiinitely had nothing to drink or eat for a while, “You gotta have all of them rushing after you. Fuck me, you didn’t even kill any of them, you were clean before I shot that weasel off you...”
“I… kind of stealthed my way through it. Last I checked, they were all, ehhh… rooted.”
“Seriously.” Nick stared at her with drilling eyes, Penny could tell even behind his helmet. Also dislodged, and with a dent on the head. No hole in the middle, though, and two wing slots at the sides, so the lucky asshole was either given a smuggled fit, or did the same thing she did, but with more luck.
“Well, yeah, so what? I’m a fucking thief, I’ll have you know,” Penny answered with her voice creaking worse than a half-hinged door, looking paranoically to see if there were, in fact, others rushing after her. It was clear, nothing but corpses, infection, black overgrowth, and the stench of the century. Having clarified the lack of any direct threat, and accepted that the respirator was only preventing her from breathing in the full aroma, she took her helmet off, expectedly coughing the moment the first full breath was made. Nick was there to punch her in the chest, though.
“You do know that these things set off if you even step at one of those wringgly slimes? Cause, just to fill you in, that’s how the fuckheads I was dealing with got hacked. How the fuck did you ev— Nevermind, same bullshit as ever,” he sighed, falling weakly against the side of the wall, all covered in the purple ichor from the body they both preferred to ignore. Just from his voice, it was clear that he was weak - his movements told a whole other story. Slow, staggering. He tried to take his helmet off, but kept missing the huge grey box on top of his head, so Penny had to stand up and help him with it. If he had actually spent all that time wearing that thing…
“There you go, and please don’t make me think, okay?” she slurred and stuttered, dropping next to him by the wall after the helmet was done. For a long, long, long time they stared at each other. Penny had blood soaking her whole head, bleeding from the nose just as well, one of her fangs was very visibly chipped, her body was primarily made of bruises, and her eyes told a story of far more chemicals keeping her up than she wanted to think. Nick barely kept his mouth from gaping up, his ridiculous guardsman moustache was soaked in sweat and ichor, the old burn on the cheek got reopened, and his already messy mane was an utter horror with the purple, inky liquid messed into it. Overintensified eyes stared into nearly closed bloodshot ones with a leucoma in one of them.
“We shouldn’t make out,” he said plainly, “It’s dirty in here.”
“I don’t think I care,” she answered just as plainly, and grabbed him in for a gut-squeezing hug, while their mouths made professional (or at the very least decent) kissers howl at the moon and jump off cliffs. It went on for a while, in part because one was too tired to feel the taste of the other, and the other was too hyped to feel the taste of the one. Not even his terrible moustache stopped her from eating his face, and it was its ability to do just that which annoyed her the most about it.
“Hmffm…” Nick tried to speak up, but the turn of events had rendered both of their tongues a little busy.
It took the two more time than was healthy to stop, as Penny saw that Nick was really not feeling good enough to continue.
“How do we always… I… Doesn’t matter, done is done,” he slumped down the wall and sighed.
“Wanna tell me how your ass is alive?” Penny asked casually, letting him rest his head on her ichor-stained shoulder.
“Well, when the houses started screaming at us, I knocked one of the guards out, stripped him, then shot my way through the thugs and holed up in the only place that wasn’t growing tentacles,” Nick stopped to cough, and Penny realized that she should probably have checked if her suit pouch had water or food - she did that as he continued, “Then, when I got inside, that shit caught up, and I ran as far as I could. A corpse in every room. Some assholes I knew. Came to my senses in here, and woke up next to this beauty contest throwout,” he pointed at the body that made their previous endeavor all the more awkward, as Penny had found that there was water, but no food, all eaten, “Then it tried to suck face with me, but I had shots left, so there it went. It lived, actually. Had to bash it with the vent thing-a-ling,” the stallion pointed to the metal bar frame lodged halfway into the disformed body’s head, and had a water flask stuffed in his mouth.
He was done distressingly fast for a flask this full, and coughed profusely. Penny tried not to think about how Nick mentioned “a corpse in every room” while she, having come two days later, saw at least five in each.
“Then, well… Sat here for fuck knows how long, the oculars never worked, like, at all. No food or water in the suit, so don’t ask me how I’m alive. My favorite part is the screams, cause they come out of this thing, even though it’s dead. Fun times, you know,” he nodded at the dead body. It did look a bit unusual - at least none of the others had tentacles in place of jaws, and their heads were not quite so elongated. It dried up hard over time, but it was still possible to tell that the rest of the physique was almost acceptably normal. Almost.
“It’s been two days, just so you know,” Penny clarified the time and pulled him in for another hug, this time stuffing his dirty, sweaty snout under her chin, and brushing his terrible mane with her armor-clad and all-sorts-of-shit-stained hoof, “I accidentally killed a guy I was going to escort, had to bury him all by myself, then waited for you for twelve hours, you never showed up, so I decided to pick a fight with a patrol to get a suit, capped them all by myself, and sneaked to your rescue like a master fucking thief.”
“How many times did you cry for Princess?” Nick stabbed at Penny’s religious beliefs very insensitively, so she banged him with her chin.
“How many times did you miss your shots?” she answered, stabbing at Nick’s dysfunctional left eye.
“How do you think I’m alive?”
“No details, please,” Penny leaned her head back against the wall and spent some time staring at the corpse, slowly contemplating what they both had been through, and realizing how much of a bitch getting out would be.
“I’m about to pass out, you know. So if you’re reasonable and came here so we can die like we should, I invite you to group suicide. Been waiting,” Nick said the reasonable thing, having had a lot of time to realize just how bad this one got.
“Nah, we’re getting out,” Penny answered the stupidest thing imaginable in that situation.
“How,” Nick replied with barely even a question.
“Somehow, like always,” Penny shrugged, causing her man to flinch, as she hit him on the nose in so doing.
“Okay, good plan,” Nick nodded, as much as he could, being stuck under her chin and stuffed into her warm neck, “Might as well take a nap then. I haven’t slept in two days.”
“Don’t wanna tell, it’s stupid as shit.”
“I was waiting for you.”
The mare had no strength to hold it in, and let out a few hoarse guffaws and cackles. In so doing, she almost choked her partner, but the adrenaline outflow rendered her weak enough to be unable to laugh for too long.
“Oh, we’re so fucked,” she said after a breather, “I’m running on power chems. If I go to sleep, you’ll be Shining fucking Armor if compared to me, and you’re half dead.”
“Three quarters dead. And hey, you came. I guess you heard my transmission, I got a helmet with a custom SOS function. Tech to the max,” he tried to point a hoof to his helmet, but it barely wanted to move.
“So we’re going to Hell then?”
“Well, you are, I’m not in a crazy-ass Princess Luna cult so I’m just being shipped to Tartarus.”
“Oh, what, you want to keep ribbing my vibe even in death? Fuck you, Penumbra.”
“Eat shit, Nyxius.”
It was moments like these that she realized that it was worth it to have ran away with that bastard those long fifteen years ago. Granted, it was worth it solely for how she would have been jailed for at least five to eight if not for that, but still. And it made her feel… relieved, to know that if they were to die - which they probably were - they would at least do so how they were meant to. Together.
If only they had more time to spend with each other instead of working days and nights separately, only the stupid notebook there to help. Granted again, though, they would probably grow sick of each other soon.
That gave her an idea, though.
“Okay, I know what to do,” Penny said, patting Nick on the back, and pushing him off to grab her flank pouch.
“If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, no. I’m dirty, you’re on chems, and there’s a dead mutated body in here, I mean come on, we’ve done it in shit places, but this is a fucked up cherry to top the pie.”
“No, I’m not thinking that, you’re gross” she stared at him, ruffling through the pouch in search of the notebook, “I know what to do bef—”
Sweet nocturnal heavens, the cop’s pouch she put her notebook into. She never thought to check all of it, too hyped from the shot.
It had explosives and more shots.
“Oh, so we’re getting out through some shit?”
“Yes we are, Nick,” she nodded with a neurotic, yet genuine grin, “Yes we are.”
Three plasters of crystal powder demolition packs, two berserker power shots, a pen, and their notebook were all thrown on the floor.
“Are you shitting me.”
“Yes, I am” the mare nodded, feeling drowsier by the second, “You go to sleep, I guard you for… four hours, then we both take a shot and blow our way out of here. I’m a genius, I know,” she took credit for the coincidental turn of events.
"The dark stuff outside?"
"Nick, we've been through a carnivoreel's asshole, literally, I am pretty sure we'll cross that bridge when we get to it."
Nick was too tired to even show excitement. He shrugged and said, “Okay.”
“Just write down the plan, I’ve got so much illegal chems in my system that I could go cuckoo. If I do, pull me out anyway,” Penny motioned at Nick absently, feeling drowsy, licking at her blood-and-ichor-stained lips without call for it.
“You write it, I’m dead,” he replied, rubbing his similarly dirty face with a hoof.
“Hey, screw you, I came to your rescure, we’re six to six on that counter now. Write that shit.”
“I shot the fucker off you.”
“I was going to, anyway. And you almost took my head off.”
“Okay, fine, whatever, I don’t have it in me to argue with you,” Nick waved at her, and pulled the notebook and pen closer. He took a while to flip to the right page, and it was clear that choosing him for the job was a terrible idea, as he could barely blink coherently, but Penny trusted her ability to take his scribbles apart.
He shoved the book her way, and rolled on his side. Immediately, he was motionless.
Before contemplating skipping her duty and catching winks herself in a nest of Nightmare horrors, the mare went to check what her partner had managed to write down. Her eyebrows jerked up as she saw one word overcross the entirety of the page, and tidbits of others be splattered all over nearby.
“enforcer 2802 enforcer 2802 enforcer 2802 enforcer 2802 enforcer 2802 enforcer 2802 enforcer 2802 enforcer”
In attempting to ask Nick what that was supposed to mean, she looked at him with his back turned to her.
“What the…” she choked out, her vision blurring up rapidly as she looked at Nick. Confusion regined in her mind.
The dying light in their room had begun to flicker, the ichor on the walls had begun to pulsate, and the dead body with the vent bars stuck in its head rose up.
Penny’s jaw had begun to drop, but then she realized what was going on. The ichor on the walls pulsating, the tendrils dropping from above, her life partner with dark, reefy matter covering the back of his head that she touched with the armored hoof, which had now had the same matter melt through the armor and slip into her body.
Just another stupid, fucked up nightmare. Penny never pretended that she was good enough for her Princess to keep watch of her. Only fair that she got nightmares in place of proper sleep. The only true problem in all that was how she had left Nick unguarded, but then… could as well be positive for a moment, and assume that after they had managed to both survive, it would be anticlimactic to get sliced up in their sleep. And then, maybe, after they had both gone through actual therapy instead of cheap drinks to cover up for it, maybe they would make amends. One day, she knew, she would at make some sort of amends for her way of things. And maybe the Princess would look at her wayward children once again.
One day. Soon.
She knew where to go after they broke out of the nest.
FROM CITY ENFORCER OF PIERCE HEAVEN to COMISSIONER HOOVER
Pierce Heaven officially on lockdown, quarantine. Quarter lockdown full, exceptions in attached list. Full purgation allowed. Threat level violet. Riot force to be on standby on 28/02, keep incoming visit undisclosed. All casualties/coversions to be marked as missing.
Regular North Patrol troops to avoid quarantined quarters. Permission to enter null. In case of containment protocol failure, initiate full area lockdown. Deny threat level information to civilian population, execute pacification, non-violent means endorsed.
Information on nature of disturbance to be sent directly to office. Disclosure levels to be determined on 28/02. In case of control insufficience, North Patrol/PHPD command to be overridden.
ADD: Will require records of recent PHPD firings.
- A. Lux.