Fallout Equestria: Dead End

by TheWanderingZebra

Chapter 12: Burning Down the House

A barbed fence had been erected by the Gravestones around the settlement of Buckborn. Without Merry, we would’ve had to take riskier options if not for the tunnel she and some of her friends had made for their inevitable departure, positioned just at the blind spot of the town’s snipers.

Minty’s armor was a complication. It was too bulky to fit through the tunnel, and she was hesitant to remove it. Vandal wasn’t excited at the thought of her removing it either, both out of fear of being caught and knowing he’d be the one who’d have to carry the ridiculously heavy suit. After some persuasion Minty complied, to Vandal’s chagrin.

“Fucking hell,” Vandal hissed and grunted as he flew down beside us, dropping Minty’s armor on the ground, then turned to Minty. “Couldn’t you wear normal armor?”

Minty grinned as she put on her armor. “And lose my sexy outfit? I think not!” 

“Yeah, ‘outfit’…” Vandal huffed.

I gave Merry a stern look. “You’re sure we can trust your friend?”

That ‘friend’ was Tunnel Snake, Merry Go’s friend who worked in Buckborn’s factory. She had spent the last three hours getting in contact with him, and came back to us claiming that Tunnel would be waiting at the factory.

I was skeptical. For all I knew Merry could be lying to us again, and had made some deal with the Gravestones to pardon her in exchange for my life. Of course, knowing the Gravestones, Merry asking for their forgiveness was stupid. Inexperienced as she was, Merry was smart enough not to take that risk.

Besides, with Savage Strike currently buried, and Merry and her friend’s guidance, we could sneak in, steal as many weapons as we could carry, and while we were at it, why not sabotage the factory so the Gravestones couldn’t use it anymore?

That would humiliate the Gravestones, and no doubt would word spread far enough for those Rockfalls to hear. I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.

“Of course he’ll be there. And if you’re worried he’d get caught by the Gravestones, relax. He has some really neat magic that would keep him out of sight.” Merry said.

“Huh, neat magic? And that’d be?” Vandal asked.

“Eh… He’s pretty shy about it.” Merry replied.

“That’s enough chit chat,” I said, then turned to Minty. “And can you hurry up? We don’t have all day.”

“Just one more,” Minty said as she placed the final piece of armor back onto her. “Done!”

I sighed in relief, then told Merry to lead the way.

Buckborn wasn’t very active this early in the morning. We spotted a few Gravestone guards as we snuck behind houses and buildings, tired yet attentive. Their numbers increased as we made it through town.

It was interesting, the Gravestones normally didn’t occupy a client settlement this hard. Under me and Tomb, we didn’t dedicate so many of our bandits to guard our clients, mainly to prevent ourselves stretching thin and because the more Gravestones present daily, the more likely the town could rebel against us and cause us to lose a valuable asset.

It was why we often only left a single ‘Ambassador’ and a few of their subordinates to monitor the settlement.

But I could see an exception being made for an asset like Buckborn. A working postwar weapons factory would not only be an almost irresistible target for rivals, but what if the Buckborn residents decided they could defend themselves with their own product? The Gravestones couldn’t take that risk. Especially not after Horseshoe wounded Tomb’s pride.

We were just close to the factory, but stopped upon finding two guards standing around, smoking and chatting.

Merry nervously gritted her teeth. “Oh crap, they’re not supposed to patrol here.”

“Has your secret entrance been found?” I asked Merry.

Vandal took a look at the guards and said. “Looks like they’re just relaxing.”

Even if they weren’t doing guard duty, crossing over now would expose us. I turned to Merry and said, “Do you know another route?”

Merry bit her lip. “Yeah… but it’s all around the other side of town. And we don’t have enough time.”

“What if we go tell them they’re guarding the wrong secret entrance? That this is ours, and they should go guard something else?” Minty said as her brow furrowed in concentration.

None of us replied to her suggestion.

Vandal raised his talon, “Permission to try something?”

I raised an eyebrow at him, “Depends.”

He grinned, “What if there’s a suspiciously heavy gust of wind for them to check on… waaaay over there.” he said, gesturing his wings and at a garbage can from a boarded up convenience store. I contemplated the potential risk of exposing us with his plan and tried thinking of alternatives as I scanned around. Vandal seemed to catch my hesitation as he frowned.

“Uh,” Merry interrupted. “The secret entrance can only be reached here. Otherwise, there’s the front door…”

A deep breath later, I said, “If you get caught out, we won’t be able to back you up. Are you sure about this?” 

“Wouldn’t open my beak about it if I wasn’t,” Vandal said with a cocky smirk.

He flew towards the other end of the house we were behind. With a mighty flap of his wings, he created a gust strong enough to cause the trash can to fall down with a loud clang.

That caught the Gravestones attention exactly where we wanted. By the time they’d run out of view looking for the source of the noise, Vandal rejoined the rest of us as we quickly made way to the factory.

“Way to go Vandy!” Minty chimed, giving the catbird a pat on the back once we hustled behind Merry's lead, and immediately gave Vandal an apology after realizing she had put more force into the pat than she intended.

“Come on, it’s over there!” Merry said excitedly.

I almost caught myself cursing in frustration as the filly rushed over to our destination recklessly, but stopped myself, fearing that it’d blow our cover. We promptly followed her, eventually finding her at our destination; a hole with a short chute leading to a conveyor belt inside.

“Used to be a package drop for parts back then. But nopony has used the mailroom after the bombs, so it’s mostly forgotten,” Merry explained as she looked into the chute.

This was disappointing. I’d thought the Gravestones would be smart enough to have found this and done something about it. I’d have ordered the Gravestones of Buckborn to do, had I still been an enforcer.

Oh well. This will at least make them regret losing me even more.

My leg muscles tensed up upon realizing that Tunnel Snake was nowhere to be seen. “Where’s your friend?” I asked, hoping Vandal’s concern won’t come true.

Merry, her face betraying no worry, simply smiled and said, “Oh he’s coming, we just have to wait-”

A flash came from the chute, revealing the head of a red unicorn buck. Judging from him being slightly older than Merry, and the fact that her smile didn’t falter, this had to be Tunnel Snake.

Merry gave a toothy grin. “You’re here! Awesome, now we can start-”

“Beat it,” Tunnel said with eyes focused on me, causing Merry’s enthusiasm to crumble. 

“Pardon?” I asked, furrowing my brow at him.

He crawled out of the chute, giving me a better look at him. His mane was slicked back, and with the greaser jacket with a snake stitched onto the right sleeve, he came off as a colt who was making a conscious effort to look intimidating. I could appreciate his sense of fashion, if only he wasn’t staring daggers at me and my friends.

“Yous heard me!” He jabbed a forehoof at my chest. “Fucking beat it!”

“You said he’d be helping us,” I said to Merry with a growl.

Merry was flabbergasted for a moment before looking at Tunnel and muttered, “Yeah, you said that you’d be on board.”

“I’s didn’t agree to jack shit!” He hissed at Merry, making her flinch. “Yous came back to us this morning after we was all worried for ya. Before I’s could ask what happened you blabbered on about some chumps wanting to help us steal guns, and left ‘fore I’s could say no!”

Merry bit her lip. “Okay… I was in a rush, but still, these guys could-”

“Merry,” I interrupted. “Let me handle this.”

Merry looked like she was biting back the impulse to say more, but upon seeing both Minty and Vandal giving her a reassuring expression she held out and simply nodded.

“I apologize for this, but I have a proposition that both of us can benefit from.” I said.

Tunnel Snake snorted. “Oh yeah? And yous think busting into the factory is gonna be easy peasy? Forget it, yous all’re gonna fail and drag me, Merry, and rest’ve us down with you!

“Besides,” He sneered at me. “I know who you are. Yous actually expect me to trust a ‘Stone like you?”

Merry’s eyes widened. “What?!”

I shouldn’t really be that surprised. Since I was the number two Gravestone that confronted clients for not paying up, of course someone like Tunnel would hear about a zebra working for his oppressors. Knowing that there must be some bounty placed on me, most ponies had to have known I was no longer with the Gravestones. 

Though maybe he did know, and didn’t care.

There was no turning back. I kept myself composed as I said, “You’re sadly outdated, kid. The Gravestones and I didn’t part on good terms.”

“Yeah!” Minty interjected. “They tossed her in a river!”

I narrowed my eyes at Minty, causing her to make a small “eep” and shrink back in embarrassment.

That didn’t seem to remove the daggers in Tunnel’s eyes, however. So I shrugged and said, “Look, if it’s too hard to believe I’m doing this out of the goodness of my heart, you’d best believe it’ll damage the Gravestones, and let me tell you… It’s my vested interest to hurt them.”

Tunnel began to look uneasy, but wasn’t shaken yet. “I already know that. But a bandit’s still a bandit. Yous could double cross us.”

Merry puffed her cheeks. “Come on Tunnel. If Phisa were the same sort of bandits as those Gravestones, I wouldn’t be here. I’m alive because of them!”

“Well ya’s? They might’ve kept you alive since you’re from here!”

She raised her hooves in the air. “They caught me stealing their guns, and they were willing to let me go! All this before they learned I was from Buckborn!”

Tunnel winced a bit. “Okay, yeah, but she coulda saved yous cause-”

“Tunnel, there’s easier traps to be set on us!”

Tunnel appeared to struggle coming up with a response to that.

Vandal cleared his throat before interjecting. “Look, we're already out here, and Phish is the kind of bandit to keep her word. So why hesitate, especially if those guns help you and your friends leave this dump?”

Tunnel rubbed his temple and grumbled. “Alright, alright already! Yous had me at hurting the ‘Stones. But even still, what makes you chumps think that yous could actually raid this place? Savage will be back anytime today so-”

“Oh, you mean the loud pony in that really fancy armor?” Minty began asking. “He’s buried.”

Tunnel blinked. “Um… what?”

Minty grinned. “Yup! Buried under a mountain of rocks! By me!”

“She means it too,” Vandel said, a look of mild horror creeping unto his face, “an entire goddess damned mountain…”

Tunnel shook his head. “No… That’s bullshit, all of it. The mountain of rocks part, and the taking down Savage part. All of it!”

“I mean sure we did,” Vandal said before bringing up his battle rifle. “How else would we have gotten some loot from the caravan he was supposed to guard?”

Finding I could use this to my advantage, I took out my SMG and said, “Really, you didn’t think we’d come to do this raid without getting rid of Savage first?”

Merry’s eyes widened, and she muttered, “So they did come from here…”

Tunnel paused for a moment. “So wait a sec… You three lured Savage out jus’ so yous could get this raid done?”

“Well-” Minty began, as if to begin correcting his assumption, but Vandal reached out his talon and muffled anything else she was about to say.

I said, “Yes.”

Tunnel bit his lip. “There ain’t no way we can do’s this without a fight. But if yous could handle Savage…” 

He shook his head, turned to me and said, “Nothings gonna change between us, but for Merry and the other’s sake, as well as giving those Gravestones a good kick in the nuts, I’m game. But yous better not be thinking of backstabbing us.”

A smile formed on my muzzle. “You have my word. Now, where do they store guns?”

“Basement floor, inside the gun safe room,” Tunnel said. “Security keep their eye on the door though. But since you jerks are good with fights, yous in luck, the guards downstairs are lax most of the time.”

Even if that was the case, it’d still be tricky. The risk of making noise was great, but if I and the others played our cards right, we could wipe out all the basement guards before they managed to alert the rest. That would require me having my gang with me…

Which is exactly why I began to worry upon noticing Minty, her armor set aside, trying to fit herself into the chute with no success.

“No good,” Minty whined as she came out. She looked back at the chute and began saying, “Maybe if I-”

“No!” I said, already guessing that I wouldn’t like what she had in store. Brief panic chilled my blood, but a quick glance at the rooftop deck made me wonder.

“How many snipers will there be if we reach the rooftop?” I asked Tunnel.

Tunnel tilted his head. “Two of em. Shifts should’ve changed by now. Why yous asking?”

Vandal’s eyes widened, already anticipating what I had in store.

I gave a firm look at the catbird. “Stay behind and watch Minty. Once the snipers are dealt with, I’ll signal for you to hoist Minty up to the rooftop.”

“And her armor again?” Vandal groaned.

“Nothing you can’t handle,” I said, honestly teasing him a bit. “Once that’s done, we’ll head to the basement, deal with security as quietly as possible, take what we can, exit through the roof, give what we owe to Merry, and blow this joint.”

“And what if our assault on the basement makes noise?” Vandal asked.

“We’ll make a stand in a gun safe.” I replied.

“Yeah, kay, tha’s enough planning!” Tunnel declared as he began to go through the chute. “My shift ain’t starting til three in the afternoon, but I ain’t got all the time in the world!”

“Hey! Don’t forget me!” Merry said as she was about to join her friend. Before I could say anything she turned to me and gestured at her laser pistol.

“Go ahead.” I said. Merry then proceed into the chute.

I gave Vandal one stern look before saying, “Make absolutely sure Minty doesn’t do anything stupid.”

“Whaaat?” Minty pfft as she waved a hoof. “You don’t have to worry about that!”

Vandal rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, I’ll keep a close eye on her.”

“Good.” I said, before crawling into the chute.

The loud whirs and buzzing of machinery helped hide our hoofsteps while traversing the first floor. We’d stick to the hallways that Tunnel assured me most Gravestones on their hours wouldn’t trot through. That didn’t stop that one bandit who had trotted down our hall to reach the bathroom.

Merry’s laser pistol made short work of them. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to seeing anypony just, wilt into ash like that… But at least there wasn’t a body left to hide. We still had to act quick before his absence was noticed.

We had one more hallway to cross before reaching the stairs that would lead us to the rooftop… but we hit a snag.

Just by the entrance to the room where workers made stocks, a gray earth pony Gravestone was dragging a yelping unicorn against the hall.

We kept ourselves hidden by crouching just on the corner between the hallways. My fetlock muscles tensed having to wait this out, though judging by how hard Tunnel was grinding his teeth and how worried Merry looked, I think they were more anxious about this than I was. I gestured at them to keep quiet.

“Saw ya slacking off!” The Gravestone yelled as he pressed the unicorn against the wall with enough pressure to cause the unicorn to breathe hard.

“I-I just woke up! Working as hard as I can!” The unicorn struggled to say.

“Well yeah? Tough shit!” The Gravestone grinned as he readied his forehoof to buck the unicorn’s face. “Maybe this will-”

“Bucket…” a voice echoed across the hall, it was shrill, sharp, and precise.

Bucket froze instantly, like a foal with his hoof caught in the ration box. My eyes followed along with his to the source of that voice.

I instantly understood why Bucket was sweating. He was being approached by a stern, lean unicorn, wearing an immaculately maintained blue blazer vest, necktie, and dull horn rimmed glasses.

“Pencil Pusher…” I hissed under my breath.

I should have known Tomb had sent someone to hold Savage Strike’s leash. Pencil was a special kind of crazy, one of those ponies who idolized prewar society, and tried to behave as if civilization was still a thing. 

I respected him for how well he kept himself organized, but his fussiness over “maintaining procedure” could get grating real quick. He didn’t look like a bandit, he didn’t act like anyone would expect of a bandit. But…

Bucket gave a nervous smile at his boss. “O-oh, boss I was only-”

Pencil’s telekinesis unholstered his revolver in the blink of an eye. Bucket had no time to react before the weapon fired!

Bucket’s cheek was grazed, the bullet leaving a smoking hole in the wall.

Yeah, cleancut on the outside… but at the end of the day Pencil was a goddess damned maniac.

“Honestly, Bucket, we went over this in orientation just yesterday. This is not how one maintains a productive work environment.” Pencil’s tone was as sharp and cool as an icicle driven into a pony’s eye socket.

Bucket was shivering. He knew as well as I did that if Pencil had meant to hit him with that shot, he’d already be dead.

“This will have to impact your quarterly performance review I’m afraid,” Pencil said, never blinking or breaking eye contact as his revolver slid smoothly back into its holster. “How precisely is our employee going to work harder if he should become physically handicaped?”

“U-uh…” Bucket stammered.

With a sharp slight nod of his head, Pencil made it clear he wished Bucket to step aside and observe. Bucket understood, and obeyed hurriedly.

Bucket slumped with relief as Pencil’s unhinged stare snapped off of him and unto the native Buckborn worker, “Your name is, Tumble? Yes?”.

“Y-yes.” Tumble replied, uncomfortable under Pencil’s laser intense scrutiny.

“I can sympathize with the fact that you’ve had to come in to work while drowsy. I understand that even the best planned sleep schedule can be disrupted, but we have daily quotas to meet, Tumble…”

Pencil paused for a moment, and licked his thin lips before continuing, “Tumble, you have children in town, don’t you? A son if I’m not mistaken?”

“No! I mean! A daughter, sir. I, I have a daughter…” Tumble said, staring up at Pencil like a mouse mesmerized by the horror of a looming snake.

Pencil smiled. It was grotesque.

“You wouldn’t want anything to happen to her would you? We Gravestones are here, to protect you, and your daughter, but, we, cannot, do that, if we, cannot, meet, quota! Tumble, do you need a demonstration of the sorts of things that could happen to your daughter if we weren’t here to protect her?

“Do I have to send Bucket here over to your home, to demonstrate the sorts of things that could happen to your daughter if we had to stop protecting her?”

Tears were flowing down Tumble’s muzzle, “M-may I please return to my s-station sir… I-I’m behind on today’s quota.”

“Nothing would please me more, Tumble.” 

Once Tumble made his way toward the workroom, Pencil returned his focus to Bucket,”Do you see how basic management skills can raise worker efficiency without damaging them physically?”

“Y-yeah? I, uh, yeah I guess.” muttered Bucket, increasingly uncomfortable with Pencils unwavering glare.

“Be sure you do. If I catch you trying to damage manufacturing equipment again, I’ll reassign you to working directly under Savage Strike.”

“Yessir!” Bucket said, shivering in terror at the thought.

“Then get back on the line…”

Bucket wasted no time rushing back to the workroom. Pencil steamed for a moment, before glancing at my direction. I retreated further back against the corner, my body stiffening, hoping he hadn’t spotted me.

After a long moment of silence, I heard him trot into the distance down the hallway. I didn’t relax until I heard a door slam.

Merry and Tunnel sighed with relief. 

I gathered my composure back and said, “Let’s get moving.”

With steady hoofsteps, we managed to reach the end of the stairs to the doorway leading to the rooftop. I quietly opened the door a bit before poking my head out to examine the area.

Two snipers appeared in my sight, both sitting down in folding chairs, their rifles beside them as they glanced down at the town. To my relief, a quick glance at my EFS revealed that there weren’t anyone else on the deck besides me, my companions, and the snipers.

Good, that meant they were screwed.

I wiggled my tail to double check whether my knife was still inside it, then turned to my companions and whispered, “Which one of you has a knife?”

Tunnel grinned as a small pocket knife was levitated to his side. The incredulous look I gave him made him sneer and say, “Might be small, but I’ve poked good holes in some bastard’s neck with this once.” Merry’s brief grimace seemed to support Tunnel’s claim.

“Well then, let’s make this quick.” I then turned to Merry. “Keep an eye on the stairs for us. Don’t come out unless something goes wrong on our end.”

Merry unholstered her laser pistol and gave me a salute with one of her wings.

I briefly glared at Tunnel and told him, “Don’t fuck this up.”

“Likewise,” Tunnel replied.

With that, I slowly opened the door, allowing me and Tunnel to tiptoe out. The kid went for the sniper on the right of the roof, while I crept towards the one on the left. My target had barely been doing her job; the unicorn mare had been gorging herself on a can of beans, her rifle beside her chair.

My tail flicked as I readied the hidden blade. I was about just a few inches away when she took her eyes off her meal to look out at the town. Her body stiffened when she saw me, and she looked like she was about to jump out of her seat and shout.

A swift delivery of my knife jammed into her neck and my forehoof covering her muzzle wouldn’t let her. She convulsed, struggling to escape, but her life faded away, and soon her blip on my EFS would disappear.

As I gently placed the corpse to the ground, I glimpsed the rest of the town and noticed how quiet it was in the streets below. A little while earlier it was starting to bustle, but now it was practically deserted of civilians. I could see a hoofful of Gravestones here and there who looked about as confused as I was. 

A sharp cry turned my attention over to my right, where I saw Tunnel struggling to plunge his pocket knife that was held back by the unicorn stallion sniper’s rifle.

The muscles tensed as I dashed over to the scene, wanting to assist Tunnel. Tunnel, however, managed to slip his knife into the sniper’s neck… but not before the unicorn fired a round into the air.

Tunnel was swearing to himself as Merry came out from the door and flew over to assess the situation. “Are you alright?” The teenaged pegasus asked.

Tunnel swallowed. “Uh… Y-yeah! I’s alright just-”

“You’ve just alerted every Gravestone in the area!” I hissed. There was no time for me to chastise the kid any further and instead focused my mental energy figuring out how to work with this setback. 

No doubt Pencil would call up a number of guards upstairs to check on the snipers, meaning that a fight up here would be inevitable. There wasn’t much cover to use or much space for me to gun and run. 

I needed my gang. 

I swiftly looked down where my other companions were waiting for me… and of fucking course they weren’t there!

I was furious, but managed to reign it in. Now was a bad time to panic. Maybe something happened to them, and they had no choice but to move out.

Tunnel and Merry took notice of my excitement and saw the absence of Minty and Vandal as well. Tunnel gave me an incensed glare and almost appeared he was about to accuse me of some set up.

I didn't have the patience for that. Things had to be kept on track. “I don’t know where they went. And the rest of Buckborn looks abandoned as well. Is something going on today that I’m not aware of?”

Merry blinked. “Not that I’m aware of,” She turned to Tunnel. “Was there some sort of meeting the town planned while-”

“I don’t knows!” Tunnel said, his eyes darting toward the town before quickly saying. “L-look, I messed up. I can go find your pals and get everything straight.”

Before I had the time to protest, Tunnel’s horn flashed, and he was nowhere to be seen… until finally spotting him on the ground, about the size of a mouse!

“I’ll make this quick!” A high pitched squeal came out of Tunnel. I could only stare in disbelief as the tiny Tunnel made his way to a drainage pipe, riding it down like a slide, before another flash came from below and Tunnel was normal sized. A quick wave at me and he was already out.

It was only after that I had realized I was too stupefied to point out that Merry could’ve flown down herself and looked for my gang for us, and that I needed Tunnel as a guide!

To say that I was internally screaming would be an understatement. 

We didn't bother trying to hide the snipers bodies, there was blood everywhere from where Tunnel's knife had caught an artery and sprayed the unfortunate unicorn’s last bloody fuck-you all over the place. With the gunshot somepony would be up here well before we could clean that up.

I wanted to take their guns, good long-guns are rare and worth their weight in caps, but they're also unwieldy as hell, and as I was pretty sure I was about to have to fight in the next few heartbeats I didn't want them weighing me down. I tossed them off the side instead, into the back alley. Maybe we could grab them on the way back out… assuming we lived.

I had just given Merry some advice and a spare weapon before I situated myself beside the door, ready to blow away the first unlucky bastard who came out.

Merry had flown on top of the rooftop entrance, under strict instructions to hold her fire until more than one pony came out. She would be a hidden asset in our standoff. Still, even though she understood my orders well, she couldn’t stop fidgeting, causing her wings to occasionally give away her position behind the vent she was using as cover.

I sighed. “You’re going to give yourself away.” I told Merry, trying hard to keep my tone stern enough for her to take.

“This is my fault,” Merry muttered, her fidgeting stopping.

I rolled my eyes, “You can disasterize once we get out of this alive.”

“But if I never got caught stealing, never met you, neither you, your friends, or my friends would get killed. The Gravestones will figure out real quickly I was involved and-”

I grit my teeth. “You know, if you’re that worried for your friends, why don’t you fly off and warn them to leave this dump of a settlement?”

“And abandon somepony again!?” She said, her voice wavering.

“Again?” I asked, one of my eyebrows raised.

That got Merry to go still for a second. She rubbed the back of her head. “Yeah… When the cloud cover was gone, and after learning about Friendship City and the other towns hit… My pops served, and instead of waiting to see if he was a cold blooded monster… I just ran away.”

“And you feel guilty over that?” I said.

“... Yeah. What they did was wrong… but there were some good ponies who didn’t know anything. Mom raised me with care… and I ran away from her. Don’t know how she’s doing out in the Wastes.”

A sense of deja vu struck me. I was suddenly reminded of the day when Downburst died protecting me, my grief, Dice Roll finding me, and…

“I can handle myself,” I said, my tone surprisingly gentle. “As can my gang, wherever they are.”

Merry kept breathing hard, but her voice wasn’t filled with panic when she spoke. “No, I’m staying.”

There wasn’t any more time for me to argue. My attention drifted to my EFS, and I saw a large number of blips making their way to our location.

“They’re here!” I told Merry, who wasted no time dipping her head back behind the cover, now fully hidden.

I tore my eyes away from her and steeled my nerves. The door burst open, and I didn't even get a good look at the first pony's face before my trusty sawed-off turned it into pink mist. 

Without missing a beat, I strafed in to unload the other barrel into the one behind them, before bucking the heavy roof access door closed. 

After tumbling back into cover, I double checked the EFS. The way the dots were scattering backward made me grin. They must be tumbling down the stairs. They were panicked, I was in control.

There were at least five more idiots on that staircase. That was fine, nothing I couldn’t fix.

The door was damaged with my kick, enough that there were some warped sections I could shout into. After reloading my sawed-off I yelled, “Come on up, there’s a half dozen of us up here! If you think you can take us all, bring it on! But you’re all going to end up dead on the concrete like your friends!”


Good. I must've had them sweating.

Then I saw a single blip come up the stairs, hoofsteps being heard as it came right next to the door.

My blood froze at the sound of Pencils voice, "This is a distraction. There must be a larger force converging elsewhere. You lot, search the lower floors. I'll take care of this myself…”

Half of the other blips on my EFS showed guards heading downstairs… but there were three that remained.

“Phisa, that is you, isn’t it? I must admit, this is a bold move on your part, but it does present us both with some unique opportunities. Now, if you’d be so kind as to holster your weapon, I would like to parley.”

Pencil wasn’t the type to tell overt lies, but I knew he was always fond of lies by omission. I doubted he knew I had a pipbuck now, so the three goons he kept with him could either be for an ambush, or just insurance in case I’m not willing to hear him out…

Merry had poked her head out again, and I mouthed the words ‘shoot when I say go’ to her. She nodded, and dipped back down while I holstered my sawed-off.

After hiding my pipbuck behind my jacket’s sleeve I said, “Come on out.”

The door screeched open. After a pause, Pencil Pusher came cautiously through. I trotted back from the doorframe, giving him some breathing room. It was a tough choice, my first instinct was to tackle him down and take him as a body shield against the goons inside. 

His revolver was still holstered as he surveyed the rooftop, seeing the corpses of both the snipers and the poor bastards who had died earlier. He whistled, turned his eyes on me and said, “Well… they were obviously underperforming. It’s pleasing to see that you haven’t lost your edge. Further evidence that your early dismissal was, by all accounts, a suboptimal command decision.”

Okay, that threw me. Pencil never second guessed his superiors that openly, particularly when addressing someone he regarded as a hostile, or an outsider.

On the one hoof, giving Marry the word ‘go’ would solve a lot of problems right now, but on the other, something was going on here, and I HAD to know what.

I could always kill him after he’d spoken his piece.

“Suboptimal?” I said, almost laughing.

He smiled and clicked his tongue. “Does it really surprise you to learn your absence has been mourned? For my own part, you were always one of my favorites, even in spite of your degenerate origins.”

I should have shot him right there and then, but I clenched my teeth. I still wanted to know where this was all supposed to be going.

Pencil continued. “Punctual, goal oriented, frugal with the expenditure employee lives. All the traits of ideal command material. It was a mistake to discard you as a resource, but now that you’re here, it’s a mistake we can potentially rectify.”

I furrowed my eyebrows. “What are you suggesting?”

Of course I knew, but it was unbelievable. I needed to see if he was really willing to say it explicitly.

Pencil frowned. “While Tomb should be respected for his outstanding work founding the organization, he is proving to be an increasingly inefficient manager of ongoing operations. I want you to take his place.”

I had to blink twice before saying, “Excuse me?”

“Well, yes, it does go without saying you’ll be excused of all prior accusations of malfeasance, including these most recent incidents of destroying company property,” he said, indicating the dead bodies. 

He continued, “Tomb’s paranoid purges are inducing the very sort of disloyalty he’s constantly squandering pony-resources trying to weed out. Cinder, meanwhile, has badly mismanaged our company’s acquisition of the Hayton settlement. Not only are The Followers much stronger than prior intelligence indicated, but our resources that would otherwise be consolidated toward crushing them have been scattered, ironically, in an effort to hunt down and destroy you. Business has been… in sharp decline, since your dismissal. 

“Wait, Cinder?” I was baffled, “She’s supposed to be in Riverside. And what about Rave?”

Pencil looked like thinking about it was giving him an ulcer. “Due to Rave’s failure to destroy you, she has been on a remote assignment, effective exile, until she returns with your head.”

Rave was fucked then. I was surprised to be rather pleased about hearing this. I wasn’t going to express that here though. “And Cinder?” I asked. 

Pencil shakily adjusted his glasses. “Yes… Her reward for having informed us of your survival was promotion to enforcer… despite having also failed to have you destroyed when you were in her grasp!” 

He caught himself shouting, and after adjusting his tie continued. “I have to say I have found her command style… spectacular, in that it has transformed our organization into a spectacle. And I for one find it hard to watch.”

“What’s going on with Hayton?” I asked, the name of the town sounding familiar. Those caravaners I had traveled with for a while had said they were heading there.

Pencil grit his teeth, his eyes lost focus as he stared into the distance and said, “… Chaos!”

He remained that way for a long uncomfortable minute before composing himself.

“First, the envoy Cinder had sent to negotiate terms and agreements were scared off… By alicorns! Three to be precise who apparently came from the Followers! But nothing an organized party and thoughtful planning couldn’t exterminate… if only Cinder could coordinate our supposedly disciplined forces better than a hodge podge rabble of refugees and mongrels can apparently command themselves!” 

He grinned. “But that’s alright, this is convenient for me. Or rather, convenient for us. I’m aware you seek vengeance against your former employer, and I, and a few other fellow Gravestones, would love nothing more than to have productive leadership return. So I intend to help you.”

This was too good to be true, but I also had a hard time seeing how it could be a trap. Pencil wouldn’t bother with such a weird runaround, he was always one to go straight for the kill. 

I had wanted to get back at Tomb, and take command over whatever Gravestone I could, didn’t I?

“What about my gang? And what if I say no?” I said.

Pencil gave a puzzled look. “You can have whatever talent you’ve scouted in the meantime apply for Gravestone membership through the usual channels, of course. But… if you say NO?!”

His eyes lost focus again for a moment and he waved a forehoof in the air. He collected himself. “Very well, if you need more personal incentive, perhaps I can offer some complimentary intel. Before his termination, did Lead Rain ever tell you about his business partnership with Tomb in the early days?”

My raised eyebrow gave him the answer.

“Hmm, seems I’m the only one he told.”

“Told you what?” I spat out.

“That he discovered something about Tomb’s magic.”

My ears rose in alarm. Tomb was incredibly secretive about his magic. He kept its true nature from the entire gang, even from me.

Pencil grinned at my reaction, it was awful to see. “Why yes. Lead had told me when we were having a private lunch together. He was inebriated at the time and told me an interesting story. During a meeting between him and our employer, Tomb had begun to scold Lead for his inefficiency. Nothing unusual, but he was much more excited than usual. Tomb’s horn glowed and…”

Pencil paused, and after I awkwardly waited for him to finish, he said, “The rest I will only reveal if you accept my proposal.”

If he was bluffing only to sell me his pitch, he’d have a shotgun round in his skull. But then again, as a rule he never liked to lie, only omit. 

Pencil interrupted my thoughts. “To answer one of your earlier questions: Refusing my offer will mean, unfortunately, I’ll have to exterminate you, and bide my time until a more suitable replacement can be found.”

He gave a wide toothy grin. “But there’s really no good justification for you to say no. Not at the prospect of us reorganizing the Gravestones together: as queen and accountant!”

He was right, there was no good reason I should turn this offer down. Pencil was in charge of the guns the Gravestones had, meaning he had control over their resources. With that on my side, as well as whatever secret Tomb had that Pencil was aware of, this was a deal I couldn’t say no to.

My eyes looked up at the vent Merry was hiding at. I could see her poking her head out, her ears lowered, eyes questioning.

“You know,” I began saying. “You really do know how to make a good sales pitch. I like that… Too bad you made the mistake of calling the mare you’re interested in a degenerate. Rather unprofessional of you.”

Pencil’s face went cold and blank.

“Kill her!” he shouted.

“Go!” I shouted.

Pencil, as always, was faster on the draw, but recoiled and retreated to cover before he could blow my brains out, as the magical shimmer of Merry’s laser cut the air in front of him. .

Meanwhile, when the door flew open, I had my SATS up just in time to blow the head of one of the guards rushing in. I tumbled into cover before the remaining two could lay into me with their weapons.

“Execute the zebra. I’ll clip the juvenile!” Pencil shouted as he began to aim his revolver into the sky. Pencil was extremely frugal with everything, including his bullets. If he couldn’t kill at close range with a single suprise quickdraw, he’d take his time aiming.

Merry was a moving target, which gave her a little more time than most, but when Pencil was ready to fire, he was going to hit. I had to do something, and do it fast. 

He had to be taken care of, but both guards that now faced me, one large earth pony mare with a fire axe gripped in her mouth, and a unicorn mare with a shotgun levitated to her side were in my way.

The earth pony guard charged at me, her axe swinging towards my face. I sidestepped in time to the guard’s left, and unleashed a shotgun shell at her left shoulder. The guard flinched, but didn’t go down before swinging her axe again. The axe smashed against my sawed-off, knocking it out from my mouth and causing it to tumble down the building.

I growled, and seeing the unicorn taking aim at me, I quickly slid behind the still wincing earth pony, kicking her forward right in front of the unicorn’s line of fire.

The earth pony’s side was blasted into bloody chunks, leaving the unicorn distraught long enough for me to take out my SMG, kicking on SATS, and fill her with enough holes to keep her down.

A shot rang from Pencil’s revolver. My heart raced upon seeing Merry drop onto the rooftop, blood pooling beneath her as she struggled to get up.

Before I even got the chance to shoot, Pencil had his revolver aimed at Merry. He snarled. “I am very disappointed in you, Phisa. Despite wanting revenge, you choose to turn into a weak, sentimental nobody. No doubt the consequence of surrounding yourself with pests. Why lower yourself to such a standard!? You could’ve been a perfect CEO for the greatest center of power since-”

He never finished that sentence. A bullet struck Pencil’s head from above. After a long second, his glasses slid off his face, cracking into the pool of blood and brains at his hooves. His body collapsed soon after.

I looked above and sighed with relief. Vandal was the one to have landed the shot with his battle rifle. 

I was interrupted when looking back at Merry. Looked like he caught her in the wing, most of her injuries looked like a result of her crash landing, but nothing that couldn’t be healed with treatment. I rushed over, taking out bandages from my bag, my breathing being more rapid than I thought it should.

“Are you alright?” I said.

“Y-yeah, I’ll be fine.” Merry forced a grin.

“Shit, glad I made it in time,” I heard Vandal say as he flew down over to my side.

“Where were you, and where’s Minty?” I asked.

“Uh,” Vandal said nervously. In his pause, I took notice of my EFS, and counted the new blips behind me.

Dozens of blips, some red, but more white. More and more white blips flooded the mini-map.

Down below I could hear shouting and gunfire fill the air.

“So… I think Minty might have a talent for public speaking…” Vandal said, smiling sheepishly.

Minty had been filling me in on what had happened during her disappearance.

As she was waiting for me, she got bored, wandered over to talk to somepony, then to somepony else, and again… 

Before long she’d wandered away from the waiting area, and refused to listen to Vandel’s protests otherwise. She was just so offended by everypony’s living conditions in their own town. 

One thing led to another, she started shouting in the middle of the town square, about me, mostly, and how The Crossbones were here, and how they didn’t have to stand for this kind of treatment by the Gravestones anymore.

Seems the ponies of Buckborn assumed from the way Minty talked about us that I’d brought an entire liberating army with me, and that was all the motivation they needed to go berserk on their oppressors. Within minutes their mayor had been tied up to a lamp post, the factory was being stripped bare by the settlers, and most of the Gravestones had either surrendered, fled, or got killed in the process.

Apparently converging riots and disconnected groups who were hoarding weapons for this sort of thing all mistook each other for my invading army coming to support them.

Needless to say, once the townsponies figured out they only had themselves to blame for driving the Gravestones out of here, they had no intention of staying in Buckborn for too much longer. Not with the inevitable retaliation of a larger Gravestone force as waiting for them on the horizon.

Everypony was still thankful enough to give some of what the factory had to offer (despite the suspicious glares they gave me, and frustration that I hadn’t really brought an entire army with me): A variety of different shotgun and SMG ammo, a silencer for my SMG , the two sniper rifles I had tossed into the back alley of the factory, and some various other assorted goodies. Most importantly, Merry and her friends were now armed to make a safe travel.

The best part, this whole incident is definitely going to give me enough of a PR boost to satisfy those Rockfalls.

Minty had continued talking to me about the speech she gave to Buckborn after I had been checked up by Buckborn’s doctor. We were making our way toward the Timberwolf, where Vandal had extended a ‘bench’ out from the Timberwolf to inspect my sawed-off.

We had fortunately found it, but it had been damaged to the point that I couldn’t wield it. Vandal seemed to have picked up my surprising distress, and offered to fix it up with some parts we got from the factory’s shotguns.

“Gonna take a while,” Vandal huffed. “Might be better to fix her up after we arrive at Leathersworth.”

Right, Leathersworth. I had almost forgotten about that.

“You’re right, we’ve been delaying our visit there for too long,” I said.

Minty beamed up. “Yay! Can’t wait to see Sunny and Dovy about how much fun we all had!”

“Hey!” Merry shouted from behind us, waving. Tunnel was behind her as she flew toward us, albeit weakly. Bandages and a healing potion had helped Merry out, but she certainly wasn’t in the best condition to fly for too long.

“Hey Merry!” Minty said with a bright smile, then turned to Tunnel. “And hey Tunny!”

“It’s Tunnel Snake!” Tunnel protested, his chest raising high as he came to greet us. “Just thought I’d thank yous for helping us all out.”

“Yeah!” Merry said as she rushed over in front of me. “You were a badass back there against Pencil!”

A frown formed on my face. Pencil had said that he had vital information about Tomb’s magic, but I never did get the chance to get him to spill it out before Vandal had killed him. Though, in all fairness, I don’t think Pencil would’ve been willing to disclose it, especially if it meant screwing me over for not joining him.

“Shouldn’t you be gathering your friends and head out?” I asked Merry.

“Well,” Tunnel answered first. “We would be heading out over to Hayton, but Merry-”

“Hayton?” I interrupted, an eyebrow raising. “They’ve been giving the Gravestones trouble, haven’t they?”

“Yeah!” Merry said, grinning. “But I thought really hard on this-”

“Yous thought it for a few seconds!” Tunnel interjected.

Merry rolled her eyes. “I thought about it, and I want to join you guys!”

Vandal and I blinked as Minty excitedly jumped. “Ooooo, can we have her tag along Phishy? Really really please?” Minty asked.

“And endanger a kid?” Vandal scoffed.

“I’m no kid!” Merry protested.

“Under eighteen is what I consider a kid,” Vandal replied.

The two went back and forth for awhile as I began to recall something I once overheard Down say to Sundance years ago.

“Stop worrying squirt, Phish will be a kickass bandit someday! But she’s gonna need more time to get used to it compared to you.”

Vandal was right, I didn’t want to endanger Merry. No matter how more experienced she was at her age than me, Merry was too rough. But on the other… It didn’t feel right to dismiss her. If I were to be honest, I sorta wanted to help her adjust better to Wasteland life.

Plus… I’d be killing two birds with one stone.

“I have a job for you.” I told Merry, causing everyone to stop speaking. “I want you, Tunnel, and the rest of your friends to head to Hayton. They want the Gravestones gone, and so do I. Stay there and send a message that I’m interested in offering them a deal. As a Crossbone.”

“Hey, I didn’t agree to join your stupid gang!” Tunnel protested.

Merry gave a salute and grinned. “You can count on me!”

“Awwww,” Minty whined. “I was hoping to play games with her.”

Vandal smiled and whispered to me. “Guess that’s our next destination?”

“After seeing Sundance in Leathersworth,” I whispered back.

“A name?” I asked Vandal as I sat at the table behind the driver’s room.

“Yeah, lotta ponies and griffs like me name their guns from where I’m from. Mostly to make them feel more special,” Vandal replied while driving. “Besides, you said it yourself that bitch Rave gave you that gun as a joke, so why not add more irony by naming it?”

Minty was busy bobbing her head to the music of Velvet Remedy filled the RV as I conversed with Vandal. I bit my lip. “I don’t know, that sounds rather tacky.”

“Hey, it wouldn’t be tacky if it wasn’t a trend.” Vandal smirked.

“I’ll think about it,” I said.

“If you also want, I could engrave that name-” Vandal never finished his sentence. He immediately hit the brake, causing me and Minty to nearly lose our balance. 

“What’s wrong?” I shouted at Vandal.

“Uh… So there’s a pony on the road.” He said.

I groaned. “A dead pony?”


“The Timberwolf has a horn. Use it to make him realize he’s in our way.”

“Yeah that’s the thing; he's staring right at us as if he’s daring me to run him over.”

“What makes you think-”

“HA! KNEW YOU COWARDS WOULD CHICKEN OUT!” A loud and obnoxious voice came from outside.

Minty’s face paled. “Oh no.”

I gave a quizzed look at Minty. “What’s wrong?”

Minty gave a nervous smile. “Uhhh, I need to use the restroom really badly. Could you take care of whoever’s outside, peacefully, please?”

I never got the chance to say anything before Minty went into the restroom.

“Minty,” I grumbled to myself, then turned to Vandal. “He’s not getting out of our way, is he?”

“Nope,” Vandal said.

I sighed. “I’ll take care of it.”

I stepped out of the Timberwith with my SMG still in my holster. There I saw a large earth pony stallion with a white coat, and a mane that was a palette of blue, red, orange, green, and yellow.

There were a few other ponies beside him that weren’t on the road, all of whom were howlering with excitement (besides one wearing goggles on her forehead and a pained expression on her face). Trotting closer, my eyes widened at their armor.

It was exactly like Minty’s.

“THAT LOSER WASN’T LYING. A ZEBRA DOES LIVE IN THAT MACHINE!” The large earth pony in the road shouted with a shit eating grin.

I forced a cough before replying to them. “Excuse me, who are you, and what do you want?”

The large earth pony, who, now that I could see him closer, stood out more for his armor being a stripped down version of Minty’s, pounded his chest and yelled. “I’M JAWBREAKER. AND YOU’RE GOING TO LIFT MINTY’S CURSE!”