• Published 9th Feb 2017
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Fallout Equestria: Dead End - TheWanderingZebra



A wanted zebra fights for survival and revenge in the wasteland of the Pinewood Valley.

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Chapter 2: Cry For Help

After eight years of bandit life, I should have been used to waking up in unfortunate situations. Gagged, bound, and falling was a new combination.

My head and spine cracked against the ground, and my legs jerked against solid rope binding. I heard rushing water somewhere behind me, and when I opened my eyes all I could see was black sky, stars, and a hideously familiar griffon. I growled through the filthy strip of fabric tied between my teeth.

Kidnapped, bound, and gagged in the middle of the night. Woken above a river. The Trial of the Rapids. What the fuck was Tomb thinking?

Over the roar of the rapids, I heard her laugh.

Rave towered over me, her beak twisted into a sneer. “Heh, it's cute seeing you squirm like that,” she said, circling me. “Can't believe Tomb chose a mare like you to replace Lead.” She snorted and reached down, grasping my throat between her talons and squeezed.

I stopped moving. Stopped breathing.

"Glad your striped ass proved him wrong. You didn't deserve to sit next to him, you bitch!”

I gasped as her grip on my throat vanished, and I sucked in as much air as I could. Rave was a sadistic bitch. It would be awhile before she was done with me.

A fist slammed into my gut, driving the newly acquired air from my lungs. A shrill tone rang in my ears, and I struggled to take another breath before her next strike.

“Are ya happy?” she screamed, “You were at the top. The boss' favourite, everyone was fucking terrified of you! And what'd ya do? You went and lied to Tomb.” She leaned down close, her beak next to my ear. “Betrayed him. What did ya think was gonna happen after that stunt of yours?”

She stepped back, wound up, and kicked me in the ribs. My ears were still ringing, so I couldn't tell if any of them snapped.

I curled in on myself and caught a glimpse of Rave rummaging through a bag next to her on the ground. After a moment she yanked out a pathetic little sawed-off shotgun. It seemed to be covered in a several layers of gunk. The wooden stock was rough and cracked. It creaked and groaned with every movement.

Rave stalked back toward me, shotgun in hand. She lifted her other hand to reveal a single shotgun shell. She rolled it between her talons, cracked the gun’s barrel open and popped the shell inside, then snapped it closed. She leveled it at my head.

“Not so cocky now, are ya? Still think you can break me in half?” She tightened her grip, the trigger squeaking. “Tomb might be the boss, but this here? This is my show, and I can do whatever I want to you right now,” she gloated, squinting an eye closed and looking down the length of the barrel. As if she even needed to aim at that range.

I narrowed my eyes and glared back. Maybe I'd get lucky and the damn thing wouldn't even fire.

She grinned and lowered the gun. “I'm not shootin' ya. Nah… that'd be too easy.” She flipped the gun over in the air and caught it by the barrel. “As much as I want to stick ya to a table and fetch my knives, I don’t have all night..” She stepped forward and slid the shotgun between my bound forelegs. “But orders are orders.” She winked. “Don't drop it. And if ya do make it out alive, be sure not to miss. I hear rad poisonin's a shitty way out.”

She straightened and chuckled. “See ya, Phish!” Sharp talons slid under my back and shoved me over.

My stomach dropped again, and it fell a lot further this time. I landed with a splash.

The cold hit me like a bolt of frigid electricity. A heartbeat later, the riverbed hit me like concrete. Sparks danced across my vision as the everything else blurred and faded. My lungs burned, but some small part of me was still conscious enough to keep my mouth closed.

It could have been seconds or minutes later when the silence was broken by a splash and the river's roar. I jerked back to life, gasping in a breath before my head fell back beneath the waves. If I wanted to survive the swim, I didn't have long to act.

I twisted my tail out of reflex, and hope surged in my chest when I felt the familiar length of my switchblade. Ponies never anticipated what anyone with a tail could hide.

I twisted and squirmed, fighting the river's grip. With a quick snap and flex of my tail, the switchblade shot open and came to rest against the rope around my legs. As the pins and needles of oxygen deprivation started to prick across my body, I threw everything I had into sawing at my bindings.

Putrid river water started leaking into my mouth and nose, and it stood out against all of my other injuries by how quickly it made me gag.

I felt a jerk against the knife, and suddenly the rope slackened. I kicked my legs furiously, but something tangled between them. I broke the surface again and gasped another breath. I could see the shore. I could make it.

Whatever was tangling my legs refused to budge, so I resorted to flailing my way towards land. The disgusting water stung my eyes and throat, and with every second my gasps became shallower, my strokes weaker. Maybe my injuries were taking their toll, but I had a feeling it was the radiation setting in. I didn't have long.

With one last determined shove, my body broke the surface and my hooves sank into wet dirt. I had made it to shore.

I took a single step and collapsed. I wheezed in shaky breaths, my muzzle inches from the mud. Splotches of brown and grey faded to black before my eyes.


I jerked awake, a sudden panic filling my chest. I rolled over, the sloshing of mud and the sound of rushing water filling my ears. I stumbled to my feet and blinked wildly, a horrible throbbing rising up behind my eyes.

The river. The rope. The beating.

Rave.

"You went and lied to Tomb. Betrayed him."

The griffon bitch must have followed me into Horseshoe. She told Tomb.

Tomb.

He would pay for this. And so would anypony who got in my way.

I turned in a slow circle, my eyes gradually focusing further and further away. I was nowhere near Brandson. Nothing was familiar. If I'd been carried far enough downriver that I didn't recognize my surroundings, I had to be…

Something touched my ankle, and I shot up out of the mud and into the shallows of the river, my heart racing. I choked as something tried to come up my windpipe. I hoped it was just my lunch, but after taking a dip in this water…

I wobbled, then set myself and peered into the muck.

Some kind of stick was unceremoniously stuck in the grimy rope that still tangled my hind legs… a rolling pin? I gave it a careful prod with one hoof, then grimaced.

Right. The shotgun.

I reached down, untangling the rope, and swept the gun out of its filthy binds. The gun had been so disgusting before that the river gunk hadn't really made it any worse. Small victories.

I leaned down and—reluctantly—grasped the gun between my teeth. My tongue was already coated in vile river water, so the taste didn't do me any harm. I turned and with long, careful strides, I made my way up the riverbank and toward dry, solid ground. It wasn't easy.

I made it halfway up when I started to slide. I spread all four of my legs, desperate for a foothold. It was like trying to swim against a river current, but uphill. I scrabbled, jumped, and even tried to crawl. The mud overtook me in seconds.

The landing hurt in more ways than one. The water and silt cushioned me a little, but the rising panic that I might die there started to set in. Slow death by drowning would never have been my first choice; even slower death by radiation sickness wasn't on the list either. Now I faced the sad reality that I might not succumb to the pounding rapids or the insidious invasion of centuries-old magic, but instead be beaten by a ten-meter-tall hill.

My head pounded. My ears rang. Spots filled my vision. I'd never faced serious radiation before, but this felt bad. I needed to scale that hill.

I ground my teeth, the shotgun's wooden stock creaking. I crouched and eyed the bank. My streaking hoofprints were still very visible. My hind legs tensed, and I shot forward.

I made it halfway up in one jump and snarled, ready to fight the rest of my way to freedom. Instead of landing and sliding, my hooves drove down. The mud sucked at my ankles, and after a second of slipping and sliding, I caught my balance.

Growling around the sawed-off in my mouth, I ripped one leg free, threw my shoulder forward, and plunged it down again a few hoof-lengths further up. It held. I screwed up my mouth as something twisted in my stomach.

It was a slow, painful climb.

With one final lunge, I heaved myself over the crest of the river bank and rolled onto flat, dry grass. The shotgun fell from my mouth as I took deep gasps of air. I wanted to curl into a ball and wait for everything to stop hurting.

I needed chems. RadAway, healing potions…a doctor would be ideal, though I wasn’t likely to find one in the middle of the Pinewood.

I struggled to my hooves, the ground swaying beneath me. I tried to grab the sawed-off with my tail, but I couldn’t get a good grip. I was too weak. I leaned down and picked it up with my teeth.

My best bet was to find a supply cache. Bandits—myself included—left them all over the Pinewood. They usually consisted of guns, ammo, and caps, but some of us smarter bandits left medicals supplies in them as well.

I looked around. Not a single familiar feature. I shivered, picked a direction, and started walking.

After a few minutes, my legs started to shake. As I wandered deeper into the valley, and the terrain became rougher, denser, and darker, I had to slow down to a snail’s pace to avoid stumbling every few yards. My mouth was horribly dry around the shotgun’s barrel. I tried to remember the last time I had something to drink, but I could barely muster the concentration to figure out how long I’d been walking.

As the minutes started to pile up, the last dregs of my adrenaline faded, and every bruise, scratch, and mysterious ache called for my barely conscious attention. On the plus side, the trees started to thin out again, and I wandered out onto sparse hills. Unfortunately, hills meant up. My legs did not want to go up.

The one hour mark must have passed before I collapsed the first time. I shivered, tingles running through my whole body as if I’d been immersed in ice water. The sharp jabs of the dead grass against my legs hurt. They felt real. I blinked away the burning sensation behind my eyes and felt wetness on my cheek. I raised a hoof to my face, and it came away smeared red.

What a stupid way to die.

I shoved myself to my hooves, the world spinning and sloshing around me. I spat out the blood that had crept into my mouth and started forward.

There were a lot of ways to die in the wasteland. With my eyes fixed on the horizon and my legs moving, I set my teeth and counted all of the ways I hadn’t.

A lot of foals didn’t survive childbirth; mares often didn’t either, for that matter. Background radiation was a bitch, and sanitation wasn’t exactly something wastelands were famous for. But I survived.

I cleared the crest of the hill and looked around. Forest, hills, and more forest. I bit down harder on the shotgun and kept walking.

My memories of my birth parents were just flashes of black and white, warm fur, and hushed, tense voices. I barely remember the day they died, although I heard the story a few times. All the other zebras who I would have called family died along with them, but I survived.

Against the patchwork of grey and darker grey above, something moved. I blinked. My vision was spotty and blurred, but my depth perception wasn’t completely gone yet. As the world throbbed around me in time with the pounding in my skull, I focused on the patch of sky that I knew was wrong. If I were healthy, I would have set up camp and scouted the land around me until I had some idea of what I was walking into. Instead, I took a few deep gasps in an attempt to breath some feeling back into my limbs, then I started walking again, my eyes never leaving the wrongness in the sky.

The Crossbones gang was made of the toughest, most vicious bandits in the valley, but to me, they were family. They fed me, taught me, protected me. More than anyone else, I owed them my life. Down was the best mother I could have asked for. And Di—

I ground my teeth.

The Crossbones were the only good people I’d ever met. They were the only people who had ever given a damn about me. I remember how they died one by one.

But I survived.

And I needed to live for them.

I got closer, the grass beneath me getting thinner and the treeline looming. I sniffed the air, and the second the scent hit my nose, I realized what the shape in the sky was.

It was smoke, from a campfire, no doubt. My instincts hadn't led me astray.

If my head weren't throbbing so badly, I probably would have heard the crackling. I squinted through the tree line and was just barely able to see my victim's flickering fireplace. What I couldn't see was my victim. Unless they'd seen me and bolted, they had to be nearby, otherwise a campfire like that would be dead by now. I crouched, trying to minimize the rustling of the grass beneath my hooves. I struggled to focus my eyes, searching for the familiar silhouette of a pony, but my vision kept swimming away from my target.

I needed to get closer, which was fine; I only had a shotgun. Besides, my aim would be shit anyway.

A wave of chills lined up perfectly with a sharp stab in my temples. I let out a grunt that would probably have been a sob if not for the wood between my teeth. This pony had better have some RadAway, or I was going to kill them. Well, I’d probably have to kill them anyway. The sort that wandered the wasteland alone didn’t usually cower at the sight of a half-dead zebra holding a barely-intact gun.

There was a thick clump of leafless shrubs bordering the clearing that served as decent cover. I crouched, careful not to drop my weight too far down in case my knees buckled, and squinted as I finally found my target.

A single pony sat on the far side of the fire, her face turned down toward the ground. Reading something, I guessed. A green and brown tent stood next to her. I hadn't noticed it as I approached, so I suppose the camouflage worked. I watched as the pony closed her book and slipped it into something beside her. A bag? I took a few deep breaths.

Jump up, shoot her, grab the bag and run in case the pony had friends. Hunker down somewhere hidden, swallow as much RadAway as I could find. A nice, simple plan.

I stood up, the bush rustled in response, and the pony glanced over, eyes wide.

I shot forward as quickly as my burning legs and spinning vision would allow, tossing my head and spinning the shotgun in my mouth to bring the trigger against my teeth. She took a step toward me, her face torn between fear and delight. I tongued the trigger, then pulled my lips back and growled, “'Oof over all your Ra'Away an' you can leaf' with your 'ead attached.”

The mare blinked. “Oh wow! You're a zebra! I've never seen a zebra before—”

Every second I stood there was another second for her to try something. Or for one of her companions to show up. I bit down on the trigger guard. “Ra'Away! Now, or you're dead!”

She gulped and held up her hooves. “Woah, woah! Hold on! I was going to say that I don't have any Rad—”

I narrowed my eyes. No one was dumb enough to trek through the wasteland without RadAway. She was stalling. She was playing me like a fool.

I steadied my aim, let out a slow, measured breath, and pulled the trigger.

Click.

It took a moment for the lack of recoil and the intact pony in front of me to register. The damn gun hadn’t even fired! Had the river water gotten into the shell, or was Rave still fucking with me?

I dropped the useless firearm and stumbled forward.

“Did you just—”

I reeled back and slammed my hoof into her face, nearly throwing myself off balance. I winced as the impact reverberated through my leg and rattled my shoulder in its socket. It was like punching a boulder. Somehow the pounding in my skull grew even sharper.

“Uh…are you alright? You look kinda—”

I twisted and threw my other foreleg out. It caught her right in the cheekbone. She didn't even flinch. My other leg collapsed as I landed, and I tumbled into a pathetic heap.

“Okay, I'm going to take that as 'not all right.' You said you wanted RadAway? Well, I—”

I scrambled back, my stomach heaving. I could barely breathe. My mouth filled with bile, and I couldn't even turn my head in time to avoid my own vomit. I coughed and choked. The acidic pool beneath and around me was mostly red. Mostly blood. The ringing in my ears drowned out her voice, and the words I could distinguish weren't encouraging.

“Okay, you're really, really, really not all right. I—”

I sensed movement around me, but none of my senses were keen enough to tell what the mare was doing.

“You said RadAway? I don't…uh… Yeah, nope. None of this says RadAway.”

A giant green cloud passed in front of my face.

“Are you still awake? Or, um, alive? Both would be good, but I'll take either.”

I curled in on myself, trying to fight back the intense cold had finally made its way past my skin and flesh and into my bones. I was going to die. Not at Rave's hands, not in the river, but because of some idiotic earth pony in the middle of the Pinewood who didn't think to pack any RadAway.

“Hey, hang in there. There's a town nearby with a nice doctor pony! He'll make you not-so-sick for sure! It’s not too far away.”

I batted a hoof at her as she reached down and pulled me from the pool of bloody vomit, my vision finally fading to black.

Maybe, if I was lucky, I'd wake up again.


I bolted awake, my heart pounding and my eyes darting around the room. Pain thundered through my head, and I brought a hoof up, feeling for a bullet wound and finding only smooth coat hairs and unbroken skin. Rough fabric was tangled around my legs, something soft and lumpy underneath me. I rocked back, my head landing against cool, firm wood, and I took some deep breaths to get my heart rate back under control.

As the lingering rage and terror of my dream started to fade, I took another look around. Four walls, one desk, one bookshelf, one bed containing one very sore zebra, and most importantly, one closed door. Sunlight poured in through a window to my right and filtered through floating dust. I was in an unfamiliar bed, in an unfamiliar room, alone.

I twisted and propped myself up on my forelegs, only to feel a light tug in one of them. I shifted, and the covers fell away to reveal a plastic tube embedded just above my right forehoof. The tube led to one side of the bed where it ended in a still-dripping IV stand, so I guess I could add 'unfamiliar foreign substances in my blood' to the list. I considered tearing it out, but I was no doctor, and it looked like the tube was nestled between some important veins. As much as I hated having an unknown drug pumped into me, I hated the idea of my blood spurting across the room even more.

The muted thump of hooves hitting carpet came from outside the door. I tensed. This was a bad position for a fight. I glanced around the room, looking for a weapon, an advantage, anything. Maybe I could grab the IV stand and—

Keys jingled and scraped against the lock, and the door swung open to reveal an elderly stallion in a white coat and glasses. He peered inside, took a breath, and stepped through the doorway. He smiled, big, wide and friendly, and didn't move any further into the room, like he was trapped in a cage with a growling dog he desperately hoped wouldn’t bite.

Ponies.

I sat up, careful not to dislodge the IV needle, and sneered at him. “Where am I?”

He took a half-step back, then cleared his throat. “Don't worry, you're safe,” he said.

“I didn't ask how I am. I asked where.” It was hard to be menacing while also maneuvering around an IV drip, but based on his expression, I managed it. “Well?” I asked after a few moments of uncomfortable silence.

He flinched. “Oh, my apologies. You are in Riverside right now, in my house.”

Damn it. I'd never been to Riverside before, but I recognized the name. Gravestone’s turf, and one of our— no, their— newest acquisitions. I needed to get out of here, fast. If I could just get him to pull the IV, there's no way he'd be able to overpower me.

“Minty brought you in a couple days ago,” he continued, “you had one of the worst cases of radiation poisoning I've ever seen.”

That caught my attention. “Minty?” I asked.

“Don't remember? Green mare, a bit eccentric? She's around town somewhere if you want to thank her.” He took a few cautious steps forward and extended a hoof. “Sorry, I forgot to introduce myself. My name is Malpractice, though most ponies just call me Mal, Riverside's local doctor.”

Malpractice? A doctor named Malpractice? Maybe pulling the IV out myself wasn't such a bad idea after all.

He coughed, hoof still extended. “Don't let the name fool you; I'm as capable as any of the big-city doctors,” he said. “We'll have you back on your hooves in no time, Miss…?”

I glanced back at the IV bag. “So how much do I owe you?” Not that I would ever actually pay, but debt was a pretty good clue of how much trouble you were in.

Malpractice chuckled and waved a hoof. “No need to worry about the price. I'm doing this out of goodwill.”

Pfft. If there was goodwill left in the wasteland, it sure as hell wouldn't be wasted on me. This guy might have been a good doctor—although given his name that seemed unlikely—but he was a terrible liar.

The doctor bit his lip. I guess he expected a thank you or something. He didn’t let his smile drop for a minute. “You are very welcome miss. I take pride in the lives I’ve saved throughout my career.” He finally let his hoof drop. “Now, do you mind if I ask how you ended up in the river in the first place?”

I gave him a flat stare. “I tripped.”

He squinted at me, as if I was the dishonest one. “You tripped? Did you also tie yourself up?” He took a step forward, and I tensed. “Please, miss. Do you need help? Is somepony after you? We need to know.”

Was he testing me? If he knew that I was attacked, there was only one likely suspect: the same gang that he and all of his neighbours paid their protection money to. “Bandits,” I said finally. “Dragged me off the road, stole my stuff, and tossed me in the river.”

Malpractice sighed. “It’s sad to hear that there’s still so much cruelty around. I thought things were getting better.”

Getting better. So he was one of the Lightbringer’s fans. In that case, maybe he was exactly as naive as he seemed.

“What about the gun Minty found on you?” he asked.

Well, I had an honest answer for once. “They tied it to me. So that I could finish the job if I somehow survived the swim.”

He winced. “Right. Nasty sense of humor, raiders.”

“Bandits,” I corrected automatically.

He eyed me for a second. “Yes… bandits. My mistake.” There was silence for a moment, then he cleared his throat and gestured to the room around us. “Well, make yourself comfortable. You’ll still need a few more days of treatment before—”

“You said that Minty pony is still in town?” I interrupted. She saved me for a reason, and I needed to find out why. In a town as small as Riverside, finding her couldn’t be hard. Getting her to spill what she knew… well, at least I was a determined zebra.

“Please, slow down.” Malpractice said, a hint of frustration in his voice. “You were nearly dead of radiation poisoning a few days ago. You need to rest for at least a few days. I can find Minty and ask her to vi—”

He was starting to get on my nerves. “I’ve got things to do, doctor,” I growled. “So pull this IV out of my leg and then get out of my way.”

Malpractice frowned. “Miss—”

I narrowed my eyes. “Or do you think you can keep me here?”

He sighed and raised a hoof to his face, adjusting his glasses. “Very well. Sit down.”

I sat, and he carefully removed the catheter, then pulled a bottle from one of his coat pockets and dripped a couple of drops over the tiny wound, sealing it instantly. I winced at the waste of healing potion, but he simply nodded knowingly. He capped the bottle and slid it back into his pocket. “I don’t know where Minty is right now, but I’m sure somepony around town does. She’s hard to miss, especially in a little town like this one.”

I nodded and stepped past him, headed for the door.

“Wait!” he called after me. “I can’t rightly let you leave without any supplies.”

I stopped and turned to look at him.

“Riverside’s a safe town, but you can never be too careful,” he said, stepping past me and out into the hall.

I nearly blurted out exactly what I thought of the offer, but I held my tongue. The only thing dumber than giving out free supplies was refusing free supplies.

He led us halfway down the hall to a small closet and started rummaging inside. I used the opportunity to take a look around. Several doors lined the hallway on either side, and daylight spilled out from underneath a door on the far side of the house. I wondered if there were other patients in here, and whether they were receiving free treatment as well. I shook my head. I shouldn’t assume the doctor was an idiot. It was far more likely that he just acting like an idiot. For all I knew, Rave could be waiting for me the second I set hoof outside.

A white box hanging on the wall beside me caught my eye. A Ministry of Peace logo was emblazoned on its front. I glanced back at Malpractice. His head was still plunged into the supply closet, and he gave no sign of emerging. I returned my attention to the box. He was a doctor, of course he would have had medical supplies stashed around his house.

Medical supplies were valuable in the wasteland. I reached up and carefully popped the lid.

Jackpot. Dozens of healing potions and several packages of Med-X, RadSafe, and RadAway were piled inside. The contents of this box were worth hundreds, if not thousands, of caps. Sadly, with no saddlebags, I had no way to carry any of it.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Mal take another step inside the closet, still oblivious. I carefully lifted a roll of gauze and blinked. He had a full dose of Stampede buried in the back.

That was something I could take.

I took a breath, then turned and whipped my tail out, snagged the Stampede, and quietly snapped the box closed. The drug was just thin enough for me to conceal inside the coils of my tail. What did a doctor need a combat chem for anyway?

Mal stepped out of the closet a few seconds later, a saddlebag floating behind him. “Here you are, all of the basics.” He set the bag down and I peered inside. Between several cans of pre-war food, a metal canteen, a pouch full of caps, some sort of jacket, the shotgun Rave had tied to me, a holster for said shotgun, and something terrifyingly familiar at the bottom.

A PipBuck.

I shivered, memories welling up like a river over a dam, but I couldn't look away. I remembered Dice. His cold glare.

If you can’t protect those you care about, then you deserve nothing.

“Are you alright, miss?” Mal's voice was just the distraction I needed to shake myself free.

I cleared my throat. “Yes, I'm fine. I… wasn't expecting a PipBuck. They aren't exactly standard equipment.”

Malpractice scratched his beard with a hoof. “I'm surprised you even recognized it. Seems like only Stable dwellers ever use them. Do you know it works?”

I fished the jacket out of the bag and slipped it on, then shrugged the saddlebags on overtop. “Yeah, I know how it works.” I turned and headed for the door. “I'll be going now,” I said over my shoulder.

“You're welcome.” Mal said. “I know that the Pinewood—all of Equestria, really—isn't kind to zebras like yourself, but you should give Riverside a chance. And if you ever need a hoof up, you're always welcome in my home.”

I hadn't survived this long by giving anything 'chances', and lingering in Gravestone territory was a good way to get lynched. Still, if Malpractice was always this eager to give handouts, maybe I would stop by again if I had the opportunity.

I pushed the door open and stepped outside without another word.


I stepped outside and winced, bringing a hoof up to shield my eyes from the sun. In the two years since the clouds had disappeared, I still hadn't gotten used to how bright the sky was, especially in the morning.

After a few seconds of squinting and watering, my eyes started to adjust, and I got my first look at the town of Riverside. True to its name, I could hear the rush of the Pinewood River that had nearly cost me my life. Rough wooden houses stood in uneven lines down a once-paved street. As far as settlements went, it looked sturdy enough. Some of the houses stood on concrete foundations, and I even spotted a few two or three story buildings across town.

Mal had said that I'd been asleep for two days. That meant some of the Gravestones would be here tomorrow to collect their monthly protection fees. I had to be long gone by then, or I'd be recognized for sure. If the Gravestones found out that I was alive, I'd lose my one and only advantage, and I probably wouldn't last another week.

The streets were lively for such a small town. Ponies stood and chatted in little groups, played cards around tables, and wandered past the occasional merchant stall, bartering and bargaining for every last cap. I did my best to stay out of sight, although I still attracted a few sour looks and nervous gestures. I normally wouldn't care, but I needed to find Minty, and these ponies looked skittish enough to faint on the spot if I actually spoke to any of them. And ponies wondered why I ended up as a bandit.

I turned a corner and slammed straight into a mare. I stumbled back and tensed. She stumbled even further, landing on her haunches with a small yelp. Wincing, she got to her hooves and started talking without looking up. "Oh, I'm sorry about—" A choking noise escaped her throat when she finally got a look at me.

I sighed.

"U-uh… uh… you must be that z-zebra that Mal was taking care of." She had a nice, big, forced smile on her face.

Well, that worked. She wasn’t likely to run away now that she'd spoken to me. "Do you know where the mare called Minty is?"

"Oh, Minty? Yeah, she…" She took a few steps back, licked her lips, and started again. "Yeah, she's… she's…"

I took a step forward, dialing the 'menacing zebra snarl' up a notch. "Look, I'm in a bit of a hurry. Do you know where she is or not?"

"N-no, but… uh," she cringed back as if I was about to hit her. I suppose that made sense. But I had my answer, so I stepped to the side and trotted past. "Wait! I think I saw her around The Forlorn Fylgia!"

I turned and glared. "The forlorn what?"

"Riverside's bar." She pointed a hoof towards the centre of town. I followed her gesture, and I could just make out a flickering neon sign several blocks down the road. "Can I ask," the mare said slowly, "what you want from her?"

I sniffed. "No, you can't." And I started walking toward the bar.

If this Minty was working for another gang, I could probably use that to my advantage. Though Tomb had likely been trying to keep me in the dark for the last few weeks, I still knew a lot of juicy, exploitable details about the Gravestones that their competitors would want to hear.

With any luck, it'd get me back on my hooves, and strike a blow to the Gravestones at the same time.

If talking to Malpractice had reminded me of anything, it was that there were morons out there. The odds of meeting two different 'altruists' who had actually survived to foaling age in the same day were low, but there were other kinds of morons as well. And lunatics. The wasteland was a breeding ground for violent psychopaths and other sickos, and this “Minty” mare might fall into either category. Saving a sick mare and getting her medical attention, at your own expense? Classic emotional manipulation.

I stopped in front of the bar. A bright red neon sign proudly declared it “The Forlorn Fylgia”. The sign flickered off and on, making that annoying buzzing sound. Basically, it was a dive. At least the walls were brick and I couldn't see any obvious holes in the roof, so it was better than a lot of the wasteland's drinking holes.

Get in, find Minty, figure out what she wants, and then… well, if that didn't pan out, I was back to square one. I would have to skip town as soon as possible. Head over to my hideout, then to Pona Rosa, a bandit “neutral” ground where I could get some supplies and maybe some allies.

There was guaranteed to be a handful of Gravestone ponies somewhere in town. That's how any gang deserving of the name kept their “clients” in line. If any of those ponies caught wind that I was alive, Tomb would hear about it in a matter of hours, and that would cost me my only advantage: surprise.

I gritted my teeth and stepped in.


The bar's interior was exactly what I'd expected. A haze of smoke filled the air, and it reeked of booze and tobacco. The lighting was dim and warm, casting long, soft shadows across the room. A radio perched behind the bar played a warbly, distorted country song. All-in-all, if you needed to quickly drown out the world, you could do a lot worse than The Forlorn Fylgia.

The bar's patrons were few and far between, literally. It was too early to be drinking, and these ponies knew it. Most were hunched over their bottles, doing their best to avoid looking at anypony else. A few of them stood and left the second I walked in. They had to trot past me to get to the door, and they didn't look happy about it.

A shout drew my attention to the bar, where the bartender and an armored green earth pony were glaring at one another above a sealed bottle of Sparkle-Cola. The mare slammed her hooves down on the counter.

“Because it's eleven! It's so close to being a nice, beautiful round number. Why not ten?”

The bartender gestured at the top of the bottle. “You see that? That's a cap. You're paying ten caps for the bottle, and you're also paying for that cap.”

“So why does beer only cost ten? It has a cap.”

The bartender brought a hoof to his temples and groaned. “Only Sparkle-Cola caps count. You can't pay with beer caps, because beer caps aren't pre-war.”

“Well, then there's clearly a problem with how the economy works out here! What about pre-war beer? Huh?” the green mare shouted back.

I trotted up and tapped the mare on the shoulder. “You're Minty?” I asked. She turned, a bright smile on her face. “I have some questions for you.”

She tilted her head, her two-tone green mane falling over her eyes. Was she sizing me up?

“Hey! Are you going to buy the soda or not?” the bartender asked. “Only paying customers can sit here, you know. I don't allow no squatters.”

“Oh, right!” Minty turned back to the bar. “This'll only take a second,” she tossed back at me.

I sighed and headed for an empty table as Minty paid for her drink. I settled down as far from the other patrons as I could, not that it mattered, really. They would stare no matter where I was. When I was younger, I would try to pick out the spiteful expressions from the curious ones, but they started to blend together as I got older. Or maybe I just got more spite and less curiosity thrown my way.

I understood their position, sort of. If not for us zebras, the war wouldn't have happened, and they'd be living in a lush valley rather than the skeletal and irradiated remains of the Pinewood’s forest. Still, the ponies set off plenty of megaspells themselves, and you don't see me glaring at them all the time.

I glanced back just in time to see the bartender all but shove the Sparkle-Cola bottle at Minty, and then storm into the back room. Minty grabbed the bottle and walked over.

“Hiho! I'm back!” Minty plopped down on across from me and set her drink down next to her. Then she reached behind her and pulled a second bottle out from… somewhere. She rolled it over and grinned, her tail swishing behind her. “I thought you'd appreciate one yourself. I mean, you've been out cold for, whew, what, like three days? You deserve some Sparkles for sure.”

I caught the bottle and set it upright. I could see the foam already rising to the top. I took a second to size her up.

She wasn't anywhere near as big as she seemed when I’d punched her two days ago. It was hard to tell while she was sitting, but she looked to be of average height for an earth pony mare. Average build as well, although that was also hard to discern beneath the armor that covered her from neck to hoof. Vicious spikes protruded from the shoulders, giving Minty a fearsome silhouette. The body was mostly leather, with large metal plates encircling her neck and covering her back and chest. The plates parted over joints and were thickest over her chest and sides.

Not many ponies could afford armor that fit so well. There weren't really any blacksmiths in the wasteland, and ponies that could cobble bits of scrap together this well were few and far between. Custom-made armor…was I dealing with a gang leader? Or some kind of Tenpony Tower reject? Who else had the caps?

I took a good look at her face. Was she just playing dumb? She noticed me looking and her face lit up. She raised an eyebrow and took a swig of her drink. Her wave-green mane fell over her face, and her eyes gleamed with a light I didn't recognize. Not drunk, not insane…something else. If she was acting, she was doing a good job.

Minty lowered the bottle and swallowed. “I guess I haven't introduced myself yet,” she said. She took a breath. “I'm Minty Fresh, still in mint condition, guaranteed!”

Or maybe she wasn't a good actor. I'd never heard a line so clearly rehearsed in my life.

“Okay, that's…great. So, Minty, let's get down to busi—”

“Wait!” she shouted, cutting me off. “You didn't tell me your name!”

I snorted. “Not important.”

“Of course it's important!” she said with a huff. She gestured at the room around us. “You knew my name before you even came in here, but I still don't know yours! That's not fair.”

I shot her an exasperated look.

She stomped a hoof on the table and leaned forward. “If you don't tell me your name then I'll…” she bit her lip, then brightened. “I'll have to come up with one for you!” She glanced at the ceiling and rubbed her chin with a hoof. “How about… Greystripe! That sounds like a zebra name, right?” She frowned. “Although I guess it kinda sounds like a stallion's name.”

“Greystripe?” I asked, bemused. I gestured at my side with a hoof. “Do you see any grey on me?”

Minty straightened to see over the table. Her grin widened. “Nope. Just white and black.” She looked up and made eye-contact. “But with a flank like that, I think you could pull it off.”

I sputtered. “Excuse me?” She'd said it so convincingly, too. How did that come from the same mare with that 'mint condition' line?

She responded with an over-the-top eyebrow waggle.

I closed my eyes and took a few breaths. I had to stay focused. I opened my eyes and glared. “Who. Are you?”

She blinked. “I'm Minty Fresh, still in mint… didn't we do this already?”

“I know your name,” I said, nearly shouting. “Who are you working for? What do you want with me?”

I froze and glanced around. The bar was almost empty now, and if anyone heard me, they didn't seem to care. I turned back to Minty.

Minty's eyes were wide and startled. “Working for? I…” She paused, then grinned again. “I'll tell you… but first, your name?”

I growled in the back of my throat. “Phisa.”

“Woah, seriously? That's so cool! Phisa, like… fishy. Could I call you Phishy as a nickname? Or maybe—”

“No. No you can't,” I said. “You know my name. Now, answers!”

She took another sip of her drink. “Oh, yeah, yeah. Sorry. I just get excited sometimes. You know, you're the first zebra I've ever met. I've always wanted to learn more about you guys, but most of the books I've found seem kinda… mean.”

Another sip.

I resisted the urge to slam my head against the table. “Who. Are. You. Working. For?”

She shrugged. “Oh, I dunno. I did some work for a mare called Cinder a couple days ago.”

Cinder. My blood ran cold, and I shot wild glances around the room. Empty, except for the bartender and a stallion sitting in the opposite corner.

I recognized the name. Cinder was Riverside's resident Gravestone ambassador. She answered directly to m— to Tomb's enforcer. Could be Rave now, but it was more likely Tomb himself. If Cinder was in town, then she knew. She knew that I survived the river, and soon the entire gang would as well.

Minty kept going, her muzzle scrunched in thought. “Oh! And I helped Doctor Mal out a bit right after I brought you in. Does that count?”

I tried to calm myself down. If Cinder knew, then either she'd already sent word to Brandson and Rave was on her way, or she'd kept it to herself for some reason. The later wasn't very likely.

I fixed my eyes on Minty. She was still talking, but the words didn't interest me. What did she want? She knew Cinder. She had to have something to do with the Gravestones. And that was definitely bad news.

The more I thought about, the more sure I was that Minty was even worse than I'd feared. Not just an idiot. Not just working for the Gravestones. She was an idiot and working for the Gravestones. Risks and liabilities stacked one on top of the other. I kicked my hoof against the saddlebags slumped next to my chair and heard the sound of metal rattling against metal. If worse came to worst, I had a few shotgun shells to spare.

Minty was still talking. “… so I figured that I could spare a few minutes to run across town. I mean, look at this place! Isn’t it neat? And she even paid me for it!”

I gritted my teeth. I’d wasted enough time. “Why did you save me?”

“Huh?” she said, tilting her head.

“I tried to mug you. I tried to murder you! And you gave me medicine and brought me to a doctor!” I leaned across the table, glaring right in her eyes. “Why? What’s your angle?” I glanced left and right, then dropped my voice to a whisper. “What does Cinder want with me?”

Minty frowned. “Cinder? What’s Cinder got to do with anything?”

“Mercenaries don’t just save dying mares out in the wasteland,” I snarled. “The most mercy I expected was a bullet between the eyes. Better way out than radiation sickness.”

“So…” Minty squinted at me. “You… didn’t want me to save you? Is this a zebra thing? Because then I’m totally on board.” She leaned back, looking upwards in contemplation. “Mal did mention something about ropes…”

That’s it.

I stood up sharply, sending my chair skittering backwards. I scooped up my bags and turned to the door.

“Wait!” I heard a second chair topple over, and then Minty was standing next to me. “What’s wrong? Is it something I said?”

I whirled on her. “If you’re working for the Gravestones then get it over with!” I shifted my weight into my hind legs in case she actually did attack. “Stop wasting my damn time!”

“Gravestones? Who’re they?”

My jaw fell open. “What do you mean, ‘who are they’?”

Minty nodded. “The Gravestones. I haven’t heard of them. Are they like a tribe?”

“A tribe?” I asked, incredulous. “Are you serious?”

“I mean, I am from a tribe, if that’s what you’re asking. We’re not called the Gravestones, though. Dunno where you got that from,” Minty said.

Oh. Everything clicked into place like a conflagration of stupidity. She was a tribal. Of course she seemed like an idiot.

“You’re a tribal? From the Pinewood?”

She nodded, smiling. “Yup. The Sweetmeat. We got here a little while ago.”

I raised a hoof and massaged my forehead. “So you have nothing to do with the Gravestones.”

“Nope.”

“And you saved me because…” I peered at her. She shifted awkwardly. “Because you want to sleep with me.”

“That’s not why I saved you!” She raised one eyebrow. “Although…”

I squeezed my eyes shut and ground my teeth. Okay, deep breaths. Maybe I could still use this.

“Your tribe,” I said. “Do you think they’d be interested in… expanding their territory?”

Minty’s eyes darted around. “Uh, no,” she said. “They… we don’t… like, um…” I could see panic in her eyes, “territory.”

“You don’t like territory,” I repeated in monotone.

She forced out a chuckle. “Heh, yeah. Hate it. We’ve got too much, really.”

That was one mystery solved. She was definitely not a good actor.

I squinted at her. “Then what are you doing in Riverside?” I asked. “Where’s the rest of your tribe?”

She bit her lip. “They’re… around. Somewhere.”

“You struck out on your own?” I guessed. A lot of former tribals ended up as bandits. “This is the first time you’ve been away from your family for longer than a day or two, right?”

“Maybe…” she said. “There isn’t any bad blood between us or anything. I just… I dunno. I wanted to see more of the wasteland. Maybe meet some interesting mares along the way, if you know what I mean.” She reached out and punched me lightly in the shoulder. “You know?”

“I know exactly what you mean, and no, I’m not interested.”

And with that, I knew everything I needed. She was useless, and I was wasting more time with every second that I stood there. I turned and started for the door. I heard a single, metal hoofstep behind me. “Wait, where are you going?”

“I got what I came for. Good luck out there.” I growled without turning around. “Don’t follow me. You’ll only get yourself killed.”

“W-Well, you look pretty lonely, so maybe I could—”

I interrupted. “I told you, I’m not interested. Don’t make me repeat myself.”

“Okay… It was nice meeting you.” She said, her cheery tone deflated now.

As I neared the door I caught movement from corner of my eye. Not Minty. The stallion who had been sitting in the corner. The only other patron who hadn’t left minutes ago. I turned my head just enough to see what he was doing.

He was a unicorn, but he was sitting right next to one of the wall lights, so I couldn’t tell if he was using his magic. He squirmed, and I noticed a slight bulge beneath his armour’s sleeve. It could have been… a bunch of things, really. But I hadn’t survived this long by assuming that suspicious ponies were unarmed.

I stepped out of the bar and headed down the street. I had only taken a few steps when I heard the door open again behind me. I didn’t need to look back. Minty’s armour made too much noise. The bartender wouldn’t have used the public exit. It must have been the stallion. I remembered what he looked like. His faded leather armor blended with his tanned coat, and his vibrant purple mane stood out starkly against the dull colors. His mane hung down over one eye, completing the street-thug look. If he only knew who I was, he’d think twice about…

Then again, in light of recent events, maybe he knew exactly who I was.

I plodded slowly down the street, passing a few blocks. He trailed after me, always a few hundred yards behind. Amateur.

I turned down an alley, far from passing eyes. It ended at a solid wall, two-stories high. I slung my saddlebags onto the ground and made a show of rifling through them. I didn’t have to wait long.

A shadow fell over me, and dark blue light flashed in the corner of my eye. A series of sharp hoofsteps came from the mouth of the alley. I took one final look into my bags. The shotgun was there, loaded and ready to kill. I turned my head and locked eyes with the purple-maned stallion, then zipped the bag closed.

No point in wasting a shell on this dumbass.

He charged, horn sparking with blue light, a short knife flying through the air next to him. He grinned, displaying a full set of yellowing teeth.

Unicorns with knives were feared by other ponies. Their reach, their speed, and their accuracy made for terrifying opponents, but worst of all was that it was nearly impossible to disarm them. Pegasus wings were too slow, and no sensible Earth pony would try to grab a moving blade with their teeth.

A zebra like me on the otherhoof, I’ve learned that we’re quite flexible.

His knife closed the distance in less than two seconds. I ducked and spun, my tail whipping out. The cold metal sent goosebumps down my spine as my tail wrapped around the handle, and I finished my spin, facing him. The knife clattered to the ground behind me. He hadn’t even reached me yet.

He sped up, hoping to ram me over. He was a bit larger than me. A fight on the ground would be to his advantage.

I dropped low to the ground and hunched my shoulders just in time to sweep him off his hooves.

His momentum carried him past me and into the wall at the alley’s end. He rebounded, then collapsed into a heap.

I got to my hooves and advanced on him. He had nowhere to run, if he was even able to stand after that crash. Blood dripped from his nose, and his jaw was crooked.

I reached down with one hoof and turned his head to look at me. It took a few seconds, but beneath the blood and unruly mane, I recognized him. He was a Gravestone. One of the lowest of the low. Snake Eyes, I think. But not like his name would matter to me.

“Who sent you?” I asked, since he sure as hell didn’t come after me on his own.

He didn’t answer, his eyes dull and unfocused. A light groan escaped his muzzle.

I reeled back and punched him across the face, producing a disgusting crack.

“Who. Sent. You?” I said again.

“Cinder,” he gasped, his voice slightly slurred. “P-please don’t kill me.”

I leaned in closer, my face inches from his. “Why?”

He whimpered, drawing his legs in closer to his body. “D-didn’t say. I didn’t ask.”

“You didn’t ask?” I reached back with a hindleg and dragged the knife toward me, then snagged it with my front left fetlock. I clutched it tightly, blade pointing down, and pressed the handle against his neck. “And why not?”

He shuddered and said, “Because I kn-knew. Cinder doesn’t l-like you. Hates you.”

I grimaced. “Oh yeah?” I jerked my hoof slightly, the blade digging into his coat. Not quite hard enough to pierce the skin beneath. Not quite. I asked, “And what about you? Do you even know who I am?”

He nodded slowly, careful not to jostle the implement against his neck. “Phisa. I d-don’t… I don’t hate you. I’m loyal to Tomb, you’ve gotta believe me!”

He didn’t know.

“You knowingly tried to assassinate the second most important person in the gang!” I roared, then lowered my voice to a whisper. “Do you know what happens to Gravestone traitors?”

“I-I’m sorry! C-Cinder made me!”

That meant there were two Gravestones who knew I was alive. Two was a manageable number, especially with one of those Gravestones at knife-point. Riverside was small and out of the way, but in a day or two, word would start to spread. My best bet was to nip things in the bud and drop back off the grid.

I met eyes with the bandit. He was young, and mostly unscarred. I wondered if he was born here in Riverside, or if it was his first post since joining the gang. I was safer with him dead, but... what a shit reason to kill someone.

Maybe I could spin this somehow, get some use out of him. I pulled back an inch or two, freeing his neck. “Well, you’re in luck. I’m feeling merciful today, but I want you to do two things for me.”

Snake Eyes gave a scared nod.

“The first thing I want you to do is to tell Cinder that you got me. I’m dead. And once you’ve convinced her? Leave the Pinewood and never come back. If I see you again, I’ll finish the job.” I flourished the knife. “Understand?”

He nervously shook. “Y-yes ma’am!”


I crouched in the bushes across the street, looking directly at the house in front of me. This would be risky.

While Snake was no longer a threat, I now had another dilemma. Cinder must have known that I was here, sent Snake and Minty to trap me somehow, and once she learned that I was 'executed', she wouldn’t hesitate to tell Tomb that I survived. She had to be taken out before that happened.

Finding her house was as simple as tailing Snake across town. He’d disappeared through the front doors nearly twenty minutes ago and hadn’t returned. I was done waiting.

The house had been repaired to be as close to looking pre-war. Picket fence with an aged white paint job, a few pieces of ceramic missing on the roof, two stories, eroded bricks, and a mat right in front of its door. It make sense for Cinder, Tomb’s ears and mouth in Riverside, to ensure her home was up to her standards.

I had my shotgun, Snake’s knife, and my bare hooves. More than enough to get the job done. If she already knew that I’d been 'executed', she’d probably shoot me on sight. Otherwise, it was safe to assume that she still thought I had some authority in the gang. Hopefully, it was the latter.

I stopped at the door. Entering would be all too easy, but Cinder had to anticipate the chance that Snake Eyes might fail in his assassination attempt. She’d be on high alert. There could be just about anything behind that door. Dozens of armed ponies, or even an improvised trap. She was a bandit, after all.

A decade alone in the Wasteland had taught me to always be on my guard. I crept around the exterior of the house, rattling windows and turning doorknobs until I finally found a less obvious point of entry. Of course, it was one of the highest windows on the first floor that was left ajar. I had to scramble up the side of the house, fighting for every inch, but I was able to hook a hoof over the window sill and slither through the narrow gap.

I tumbled inside, doing everything I could to quiet my landing. I rolled to my hooves and glanced around. Just the same as the outside, the inside was made to look pre-war. Everything from the smooth finish of the walls to the scent of the blue paint that covered them indicated just how old this house was, and how miraculous that it was still intact.

A narrow hallway of closed doors greeted me. I crept forward on cautious hooves, listening for any slight movement, paused and sniffed at the air. Smoke, and…carrots? Someone was cooking. It was as good a lead as any. I started forward again.

A door at the end of the hall stood slightly ajar, the latch resting against the frame. I put my ear to the wood, and after several seconds of silence, pushed it open. White ceramic tiles, a mirror. A bathroom. I almost closed the door and returned to the hall when I spotted the blood. There were just a few drops by the door, but the trail grew thicker toward the center of the room, leading to a small pool next to the tub. I stepped inside the room, raised my head to peer over the lip, and there was Snake Eyes.

I stepped into the hall and closed the door. Poor bastard. Maybe I should have sliced him in the alley and saved him the trouble of walking over here.

I followed my nose down half a flight of stairs and across the building. Going into the hallway, a picture on a shelf in the hallway caught my interest. After making sure there wasn’t another soul in sight, I gave the picture a look.

I recognized the ponies in the picture. The ashen gray Cinder happily nuzzling against a black, bulky earth pony that I recognized as the enforcer before me, Lead Rain.

It’d been months since I’d executed him for 'treason'. Tomb was happy to be rid of a “complacent”’ enforcer who wasted every day drinking.

Others weren’t keen to losing their drinking buddy, especially when he was replaced with an enforcer that actually kept them in line.

I wouldn’t have expected that drunk would have a lover.

With Lead’s death, Tomb made it clear that he wouldn’t tolerate any liability in his gang. I had thought that so long as I took my job seriously and put the gang first, I wouldn’t have to worry about the same happening to me. I should have realized that the only thing Tomb cared about more than his gang was his ego.

My mistake.

I continued on, stopping at a closed door and sniffing the air again. Yes, this was it. I cracked the door open and peeked my head inside.

There sat a crackling stove, a pot of soup just left there, and no sign of Cinder at all. Was she somewhere else in the house?

No, something was off. Cinder must considered the possibility that I’d be coming for her. Maybe even laid a—

I looked down at the insultingly obvious tripwire pulled taught inches from my front hooves.

On the ceiling rested a barbed net, presumably intended for me.

Seriously? This was her plan?

I holstered my shotgun as my tail took out Snake’s knife, placed it in my fetlock, and went to work with disabling the tripwire.

It was when I cut the tripwire that the noxious smell of smoke grew stronger. I left myself vulnerable when I gave out a cough, not noticing somepony come behind me, pushing me into the direction where the net was falling.

On instinct, I kicked against the floor to the other end of the kitchen, narrowly avoiding the barbed net from catching me. I heard a bang as I left the ground, and a sharp pain pierced my rear left leg. I hissed out a curse.

Just as I unholstered my sawed-off, Cinder appeared from the growing smoke at the kitchen entrance, levitating the barbed net to the side and trotting inside, a pistol leveled at me. “Aha! You are still alive. I knew that worthless colt was lying.” She shot me with a razor-sharp grin. “Cute that you let him go. Very you. I hope you understand that I couldn’t take the same risk. You’re a very important zebra, and Snake has such a big mouth.””

I growled at Cinder and narrowed my eyes. “So why did you send him?” My blood was boiling from both the wound and the circumstances that led to it.

She gave a playful shrug. “Oh, I was going to use him as bait to lure you in here. We’re both alone in here. Tomb wouldn’t know if you died inside my house.” She then frowned and gave a cold glare. “Now, why don’t you stop playing the victim. You backstabbed your way up the ranks, and I’m going to watch you fall right back down to the bottom.”

I grit my teeth. “Is that what this is about? Lead Rain was dead the minute he crossed Tomb. If not me, someone else would have finished him off.”

“Shut up!” Cinder shouted. “I don’t buy that bullshit! That he betrayed the gang! I knew Lead. He would never backstab Tomb! Must be real nice having fooled everyone!”

“You’re cornering yourself! Tomb would notice if he didn’t see me return alive!” I growled.

She gave a haughty laugh. “Oh. I’ll lay low for a while, stay out of trouble. Eventually he’ll forget about you, and so will everyone else.”

The air between the barrels of our guns was tense. Sure, it was a pistol against my shotgun, but Cinder had smoke magic at her disposal, and said smoke was growing heavier in the kitchen. I needed an opportunity.

Just as I was looking around for any advantage to exploit, I heard a door open. “Hello? Am I interrupting something important?” called a voice from the front entrance. Minty Fresh.

Shit! Minty was working with Cinder all along! She set me up and I fell for it. Had almost drowning turned me into a gullible idiot? At least, that was my first thought.

But to my surprise, Cinder’s eyes widened. “Minty! What are you doing here?” she yelled, her confidence evaporating.

“Umm… You asked me to?” She glanced aside, then nodded. “Yeah, you said you had another job for me. Should I—” She blinked, finally taking a proper look around. “Uh, should I come back later?”

“Minty!” Cinder interrupted her with a shout. “Hold this stripe down for me, now!”

“Huh?” Minty said in a bewildered tone. “Wait just a—”

“Get out of here, now!” I growled to Minty.

“Why? What’s going on, Phishy? Why is Cinder asking me to—”

“What are you doing? Pin this bitch, now!” Cinder yelled at Minty.

I yelled at her as well. “Just get out of here! This is none of your business!”

Minty’s frown deepened, and frustration dripped in her voice. “I’m serious, what’s going on here?”

Cinder barked. “This bitch is trying to kill me! Stop standing there and do something, you shit!”

“Only because she sent some idiot out to kill me,” I said, “Just get out of here, you’re getting in my way!”

It was Minty’s turn to retort back, specifically at me. “Why? Does this have to do with the ponies that tossed you into that river? Why aren’t you telling me about what happened!? Does it have to do with that gang you don’t like?”

“Wait,” Cinder said, shock on her face. “Tossed into the river...” A sinister smile spread across her face. “Trial of the Rapids. You’re not part of the gang anymore, are you?”

If I had the time and shells to spare, I would have shot Minty then and there.

Minty’s frown deepened. “Phishy, what’s going on?”

Dealing with Minty would have to wait. I narrowed my eyes at Cinder’s smug expression and pulled the trigger.

Click.

Cinder flinched.

We stared blankly at each other for a second or two. Then Cinder’s horn glowed and the room filled with smoke. I felt a gust of wind and heard hoofsteps rush past me and out the door.

This shitty gun was going to get me killed one day, I just knew it. I’d try the other barrel next time. They couldn’t both be broken.

I shoved past the dazed Minty, aimed my shotgun into the smoke-filled hallway, growled a curse, and pulled the other trigger.

Bang!

I heard the thud of pellets hitting wood, but no meaty flesh sounds. Damn. At least this thing could shoot.

“H- cough Hey! What’s going on Phishy?” Minty shouted.

I rushed into the hallway to escape the smoke, every step sending a spike of pain up my spine and a trickle of blood down my injured leg. I looked around for any sign of Cinder.

The front door was open.

I charged into the street and saw Cinder’s striped tail whip around a corner.

I couldn’t exactly run and reload at the same time, so I quickly slung the stick into its holster and sprinted after her. This was Cinder’s town; if I lost sight of her, I probably wouldn’t be able to find her again.

Metal rattled as Minty started after me. She yelled something, but the race was on and the sound of my hoofsteps and the wind drowned her out.

I rounded the corner and stepped into another cloud of smoke. I ran through it blindly; if I didn’t catch up to her before the adrenaline started to wear off, the hole in my leg would start slowing me down, assuming that I didn’t pass out from blood loss first.

The alley stopped at a sturdy wooden fence, where it turned and lead onto a side street. Cinder wasn’t an acrobatic pony. I turned, skidded onto the road, and froze.

I was across the street from Malpractice’s house. His door was wide open, and a cluster of ponies stood around it. I picked out Mal’s white lab coat and Cinder’s muted colours among them. They were talking, their attention focused on Cinder.

I took a step forward and squinted at the other ponies’ cutie marks. A spyglass and a high-caliber bullet. A knife and a length of corded rope. A bloody, disembodied eye.

Bandits.

Gravestones.

I watched as Cinder whirled on Mal and gestured wildly. He shrugged and nodded. It wasn’t hard to guess what they were saying.

Killing Cinder was pointless now. I was already exposed.

Author's Note:

Woo! First chapter is finally done! I never thought it'd ever get published, but here it is. I still have a lot of more work to do before I can consider this story a success, but I thank everyone who gave the time to read this, as well as thank Phoenix Dragon, Tankenstein_PhD, Goldenwing, Stupidhand14, Gamma Deekay, and KylerAdams for pre-reading, and MUCH thanks for Typoglyphic for being my editor.

If you have any feedback you'd like to give, you can post them in the comments (or PM me it if you'd prefer).

Edit: Like I said in my blog post, this chapter was original my first chapter, but now it's chapter 2. There's more polish here, mostly to keep it consistent with my new starting chapter. I do hope you still enjoy this even with this restructuring. Zeeba out!