• 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 4: Something in the Woods

Hours passed as we trotted down the cracked highway, a forest of black, dead trees surrounding us. Now and then, we would pass an eroded billboard saying ‘Let the rich smell of pine and oak wash away the stress of wartime Equestria!’, or ‘Explore nature! Support local stores! Experience the simpler ways of ponykind! Experience Pinewood Valley!’

While I had daydreams of living in a Pinewood that was just as those adverts said, I think I had always known that it would never be more than fantasy, even as a foal.

Despite my stomach still churning and my head still reeling from my Stampede-fueled rampage, I tried my best to stay alert. Timberwolves were known to inhabit the Pinewoods’ decayed forest. Even if they didn’t attack often, it would be naive for me to let my—no, for us to let our guards down.

Minty in the meantime had been swaying cheerily left and right as she trotted beside me. Her armor clanked with each step, setting an off-kilter beat to the soft hum that escaped her lips. Despite her mane hanging over her brow, I could tell that her eyes were neither alert, afraid, or mournful. Even after everything that happened in Riverside, she was still in a jolly mood, or, as she would say, “in mint condition.”

Her mood wasn’t exactly infectious, and my mind cycled through a blurry list of things to worry about. My sawed-off shotgun was in serious need of repair. While a half-working shotgun and my bare hooves had served me decently so far, it wouldn’t last me forever in the Wasteland, and it wasn’t an arsenal suited for going against a giant gang like the Gravestones. For now, I’d need to keep an eye on my weapon’s rusting innards and I’d need to make every shell count.

Deep into our march, I started to notice Minty’s occasional backward glances, her eyes landing just north of my tail. Each time I noticed, I would grit my teeth and think about the exact words I’d say the next time I felt her eyes on me. Usually I snapped at that kind of attention immediately. Ponies didn’t want a zebra in their house, but lots wanted one in their bed. It made me vaguely sick in a quiet, grating way. But Minty was something different. Maybe not innocent, but hard for me to really blame.

Then I felt her eyes on my flank again, and the words came out after a sharp sigh.

“You still want to screw me, don’t you?”

Minty stopped humming and turned her head slowly, as if waking from a daze. “Well…” Her face tensed, eyes darting as she attempted to come up with an answer. “I mean—tch, yeah! Who wouldn’t? I left home to meet new ponies—you know, new mares—and you’re about as new as anypony!” She blinked. “Er, anyone! Including zebras! In fact, there was this one issue of Playcolt I read back at my tribe that was all about zebras,” she said, as if she expected me to be impressed. “And there were pages with zebras dancing around a fire doing some kind of crazy ritual, bending all over the place, staring at the camera like the next ingredient they needed was me…” She trailed off, staring just above me and off into the distance.

I snorted, my skin already starting to crawl. “Well, guess what? I’m not some kind of… fetishy… shaman zebra for you to drool over, so I seriously hope that’s not the only reason you’re still following me.” I narrowed my eyes. “Cause if it is, then I don’t care how hard you can hit things with that hammer, I’m not putting up with another second of your bullshit.”

Minty blinked through her mane and shook her head. “Oh no no no! I mean, you made it preeeetty clear that you’re not interested, so… you know, ‘no means no’. But I’m super new to this whole ‘roaming the Wasteland’ business, and you seem to know what you’re doing, and you’re kind of my only friend out here, and you’re super se—, um, easy on the eyes? Yeah.” She stood uncertainly, wincing slightly as she waited for my reaction.

I sighed again, then turned back to the road. We had slowed down while talking, and now I forced us to pick up the pace. “Good,” I said. We trotted in silence for a minute or so before I added, “It wouldn’t matter either way. I’m straight.”

Minty’s stride broke, and she had to canter a few steps to catch up. “Awwwww, for real? I thought you swung both ways.”

“What have I ever said or done to give you that idea?”

“I’unno,” she said, then sighed. “Oh well. Changing the subject, can I tell you a story about my brother?”

I realized that I was trotting forward while looking over my shoulder at Minty and quickly snapped my attention back to our surroundings. We couldn’t afford to be caught off-guard. “Stop talking and stay sharp. We’re not on a wilderness walk. Distracted ponies die out here.”

Minty whinnied in displeasure. “B-but we’ve been talking for like…”—she looked around, wide-eyed—”minutes. A bunch of minutes. And we were talking and nothing bad happened at all! Come on, it’s a really good story, I promise.”

We’d intentionally taken a longer, safer route out of Riverside, veering toward the south where both bandits and predators tended to be weaker and less numerous. The trees on either side of the road were sparse; it would be easy to tail us from afar, but hard to surprise us, even if we happened to be looking in the wrong direction. Even the few roaming packs of timberwolves out here weren’t likely to attack ponies, not at the height of summer when there was plenty of easier game.

“Phishy? Equestrian Wasteland to Phishy,” Minty chimed at me.

I ignored her. She’d have to give up eventually.

The earth pony mare tilted her head at me with a frown. “Come on. Can’t you just have a friendly chat for more than a few minutes? We’re traveling together so—”

With the sound of grinding teeth in my ears, I decided to switch tack. Minty seemed like the kind of pony who would happily hold up both sides of a conversation if she was convinced her audience was listening. “Fine. Tell me the story. Just try to keep your voice down.”

Minty made a sound between a gasp and a squeak. “Yay! Okay, okay… Give me a second. I need to tell it right.”

I rolled my neck and settled into the rhythm. Ten steps, scan the trees around us, ten steps, glance behind. Nod at Minty, smile if she said something that was meant to be funny. Ten more steps.

“It all started when some outsider made fun of my brother for not being able to shoot a gun…”


Over the next half-hour or so, I learned that while Minty wasn’t a good liar, she was an excellent storyteller. Maybe too excellent for our own good, but I was too interested to shut her up now.

“So he wanted to show off that he could shoot?” I asked as I glanced past her into the trees. She’d remained behind me at first, talking to my back. It wasn’t until I started to respond, ask questions, that she drew up next to me. Probably for the best. I had caught myself walking backward once, completely engrossed in her tale, and completely unaware of even the road ahead of us. “What happened?”

Minty giggled. “It was just me and his friends watching. The rest of the tribe ignored him!”

I blinked. “Ignored him? They didn’t do anything?”

Minty gave a hum. “He’s an idiot, and he always tried hard to impress Papa. He only ends up looking like an idiot.” She frowned. “I wish they’d tried to stop him.”

“You’re not saying that he accidently killed himself?”

Minty’s eyes widened. “What? Oh no no, he’s alive. Just, he ended up having to get stitches on his cheeks. And lost some teeth.”

I shook my head and chuckled. “And that’s how he got his cutie mark,” I guessed. Pony stories were usually about cutie marks, and with a name like Jawbreaker—

“Nope. Dentistry.” Once she noticed my stare, she added, “He got pretty good at pulling his own teeth after the accident, so he started doing it for other ponies too.”

My pace slowed as I processed that. A doctor named Malpractice and a dentist named Jawbreaker. I was starting to notice a disturbing theme in the medical professionals of the Wasteland.

While I reflected on her story, Minty had pulled ahead. It baffled me that she was able to march for so long in her thick, plated armor, although from behind I could tell that at least the leg pieces were lighter and more flexible, the metal giving way to tough leather around the joints.

And then, while staring at Minty’s hind legs, I noticed something. A sliver of metal, about an inch wide, poking out just above the back of one knee, the leather stained dark around it. Every few steps, a drop of red trickled out from around the shard, further staining the garment.

What the fuck?

“Minty,” I said, more confused than anything else. “Is your leg all right?”

Minty tilted her head in confusion. “What do you mean?” She dropped her head to peer down at her fore legs. “Am I walking funny or something?”

I was stunned. Was the mare on drugs or something? She was walking too steadily for the limb to have been fake. Maybe the wound had hit a nerve or something. I wasn’t a doctor, but that sounded possible. And she’d been walking on it for hours now? I closed the distance and grabbed her leg for a better look.

“He-hey! I thought you said you weren’t interested,” Minty said, hopping on three legs and kicking back against me with her injured limb. “You’re giving me mixed signals here.”

“Shut up and stop wriggling. You’re bleeding on me.”

She stopped moving and stared back at me with a frown. “Oh. It’s not that bad, is it?”

“Bad?” A muscle in the back of my head tightened, and I searched her face. She looked completely at ease. “You seriously can’t feel it?”

“Um, look, it’s kind of a thing—”

I pressed a hoof against the side of the shrapnel, bringing forth another spurt of blood. “And that? Nothing?”

She pulled forward, her leg slipping from my grasp, and turned around. “I wasn’t going to say anything in case it seemed like bragging, but everypony in my tribe is way tougher than normal. Nothing’s really hurt me since I was a foal.” She shrugged. “Don’t feel bad. It’s gotta be a tribal thing.”

I looked at her in slight disbelief. “You don’t feel pain?”

She shook her head. “Nope. None of us. Um, except for Sweet Tart, but she’s weird in lots of ways.” She shrugged again, then turned back around and started off down the road.

“Seriously? Minty!” I shouted, jogging forward and leaning into her, herding her toward the side of the road. “Even if it doesn’t hurt, you can’t just leave a piece of metal in your leg like that. It’ll get infected or worse.”

She looked at me dubiously, but then relented, moving against a tree and extending her injured leg. “So… are just gonna use your hooves or something?” she asked.

Good question. I removed my saddlebags and quickly searched through them. Of all the things to leave behind at Mal’s house, a pair of forceps was the last item I’d expected to need later. I wouldn’t even try to use my hooves, but if Minty couldn’t feel pain at all...“How about my teeth?”

She nodded, then her brow furrowed and she frowned. “Be careful not to cut your tongue!”

I just stared at her for a moment, and briefly looked around to make sure we weren’t being watched. “Then let's get this over with.”

She nodded, and I crouched down, neck craned.

I wiped the excess blood off on the sleeve of my jacket so I could get a better look at the wound. Up close, there were several smaller holes in the leather, but whatever had caused them either hadn’t broken the skin or had been insignificant enough for a healing potion to repair. I could only think of the grenade we’d dodged just before descending into Riverside’s sewers.

I carefully bit down on the shard. Less than an inch of it protruded out from Minty’s leg, and when I gave it an experimental tug, I could tell it was buried deep. The mare herself didn’t react at all. I jerked backward as quickly and cleanly as I could.

“Done?” Minty asked, craning her neck around.

I spat the metal shard into the bushes. “Done. Let me wrap that up.”

As I tied the bandage into place, Minty commented, “That wasn’t so bad. I dunno why you were so upset.”

I secured the latch on my saddlebags and stood up. “It would’ve gotten worse. I’m surprised you can still move your leg properly. If we’d left it too long, you might have lost it entirely.”

Another shrug. “Hasn’t happened so far, and I’ve been injured loads of times!”

I gave her an exasperated look as we returned to the road and resumed our trot. “Next time we’re in a fight, I’m giving you a full once-over afterward.” Minty waggled her eyebrows, and I groaned. “Or I guess we can just amputate. Up to you.”


The sun was low in the sky and the air beginning to cool when the road we were following, which had been mostly flat for hours, started to turn hilly and the trees on either side thickened. In the dirt beside the road, I could make out the remnants of a railroad track. We were getting closer.

I was pointing the tracks out to Minty, explaining their significance, when dozens of loud cracks filled the air. Gunfire, straight ahead. If not for the road’s rolling hills, we’d be easily within eyesight and probably within bullet range.

“Are those guns?” Minty asked, her voice breathy like a whisper but somehow still way too loud. She moved forward, picking up speed. “Come on, let’s go h—”

My neck tensed up as I turned to her. “It is. A big fight. Lots of guns, from the sound of it. And it’s a fight that doesn’t involve us.” I stepped forward. “And we’re keeping it that way.”

“Well,” Minty shifted nervously, “What if somepony needs help?”

I glanced back at her with a tired expression. “We’re already on the run from the largest gang around. Do you really want to piss someone else off as well? Besides, anyone picking a fight in the Valley deserves whatever they get.”

“But what if they’re just passing through and don’t know better?” Minty protested. “If I wasn’t with you, I wouldn’t know better.”

My ears perked up as more gunfire sounded off in the distance, making me nervous. “Minty,” I said softly, “We’re not heroes. If we went down and helped, they might all die anyway, or we might die and the aggressors get away. How would we even know who to help? It sounds like both sides have guns.”

I turned to look at her. Blinked, then looked back up the hill where a green tail flicked out of side over the crest. How the hell did I not hear her armor clanking?

I darted after her, catching up halfway down the next hill. “Minty!” I hissed. “You can’t just dive in and start swinging your hammer around! You’ll get shot to pieces in seconds.” Now that we were on the other side of the crest, we could see the bright muzzle flashes below.

A group of ponies were crouched behind a something large and wooden—some kind of cart or wagon—and were firing blindly around the corners and over the top. They were partially hidden behind their cover, but there seemed to be only two or three shooters with them.

Across the road, flashes lit up the foliage as the other group closed in, slipping through bushes and hiding behind trees. Again it was hard to determine exactly how many they were, but from the number of gunshots from their side, they were either much more numerous or had much heavier firepower.

The air above the cracked pavement between them was filled with metal and smoke. Whether we interfered or not, we were not walking through there alive.

I crept up beside Minty and leaned into her shoulder, veering us off the road. “Come on, move! I don’t want them to see us. If I decide to get involved in this, it’ll be on my terms.” Once there were a few lines of trees between us and the road, we started moving toward the fight. I winced at the muffled jingle Minty made with each step. At least the mare seemed to know how to walk through foliage.

The sound of gunfire didn’t cease, only growing louder the closer we got. Both sides must have been firing blindly, or the shoot-out would have been over already. Part of me had hoped that one side would have won by the time we drew even with the wagon, but of course that would have been too easy.

From behind a thick stump, its side wet with moss and mold, I got a proper look at the combatants.

The wagon was a caravan, and the ponies huddled behind it were caravaners. That didn’t surprise me. What surprised me was that of the eight or so caravaners, only two of them were shooting back—the rest content to sit back and put their lives in the hooves of others—and those two were only armed with rusted, duct-taped, low-caliber machine guns. Even the greenest merchant knew to gear up before wandering Pinewood Valley, or, if they couldn’t afford proper protection, they knew not to put up a fight when confronted by bandits. These ponies weren’t from around here.

Across the road, I caught glimpses of the attackers as they ducked out of cover to fire or slipped into new positions. I saw hide jackets, hastily fitted metal over chests and barrels, and low-quality weapons no better than the caravan guards’.

Too broke to be Gravestones.

I stepped back behind the stump and leaned toward Minty. “No Gravestones. It’s just a bunch of desperate ponies trying to steal from a caravan.”

"You say that like those raiders aren’t bad guys." Minty shivered. “Don’t you think they started it?”

“They’re not raiders. They might not even belong to a real gang,” I said scornfully. "And any caravan travelling these roads should know better than to come unprepared. They’re basically asking to be attacked." Minty frowned, and I added, “That’s the way things are out here, Minty. If you leave yourself vulnerable, you’re going to get hurt. Those ponies decided that not paying for proper security was worth getting shot at. That was their call and now they’re paying for it.” Minty’s jaw tightened.

There was a lull in the shooting. I stiffened, pressing my back against the stump and holding my breath. Had they heard me talking? My voice had been raised over the constant cracks. A few seconds passed. I dared a peek around the side of the stump. The caravan ponies weren’t looking my way, and the bandits were hidden behind their trees.

Loud, jangling hoofsteps to my side. I spun, staring numbly after Minty’s trailing tail as she once again charged off without me. Two heartbeats later, the gunfire started again in a roar.

Fuck!

I rounded the corner in time to see Minty, hammer in mouth, charge across the road, bullets sparking off her armor, barely even slowing her down. From the corner of my eye I could see the caravaners shifting, probably trying to decide whether to shoot at Minty’s back.

Minty made it to the other side of the pavement and disappeared into the trees. After a second, I heard a visceral crunch and an equine scream, and more bullets clanking off metal. I imagined Minty’s legs oozing blood from dozens of bullet holes as she flounced her way through the countryside.

I slipped back behind the stump, ripped my shotgun from my saddlebags, and darted forward, through the underbrush and past the caravan. I could hear more yells, shock and pain, the groan of punctured metal.

I sprinted against the road, past busy caravaners yelling at each other, and right into the thick forest on the other side. From this angle, I could see the bandits more clearly, and the angry earth pony in the middle of them.

The bandits had quickly figured out that Minty wouldn’t go down easy, so they had scattered, spreading out behind trees, shrubs, logs, anything that would slow the charging mare down.

Minty had a hammer, and while she was strong and fast, she could still only chase one target at a time, giving the others all the time and space they needed to unload round after round into her sides and legs. I saw blood spray against bark.

She caught up to one stallion as he staggered over a cluster of roots. Down went the hammer, out came a scream. More bullets. Minty whirled, looking for her next target, squinting past her bangs and the smoke and fire that filled the air around her. Even though I was yards away, my ears panged sharply from the noise. Minty wouldn’t last long.

But they were distracted, and that was something I could exploit. I half crept, half ran from tree to tree, my eyes scanning desperately for movement. In a regular shoot-out, I’d be at a serious disadvantage with just my busted shotgun, but with the dark canopy, close trunks, and general lack of sight lines, I was perfectly equipped.

From the middle of a sparse bush, I saw a sweating unicorn mare near me, her floating rifle pointed toward the hurricane of noise Minty produced. She leaned out of cover, her rifle kicked, lighting up her face with a bright flash. By the time she stopped firing, the barrel of my gun was inches from her cheek.

Her head turned, eyes wide.

Bang!

Her face tore apart like confetti, and the rest of her body collapsed to the ground, blood and brains saturating the tree bark beside her.

Apparently even Minty wasn’t enough of a distraction to mask a nearby shotgun blast. The shooting ahead stopped, leaving only the rustling of leaves and heavy breathing, the rattle of metal and mechanical clicks.

I dove forward, my hooves sliding over the unicorn’s corpse. Thorns and branches whipped and cut at my face and flank, nearly blinding me. I set my back against a tree and huddled down.

Armor jingled, a pony screamed, “Shit!” There was a loud crack, metal on wood, and I saw the canopy sway above me. The machine gun fire resumed. Minty was still fighting.

I snapped open the sawed-off’s barrel—maybe too roughly, considering its condition—and popped in a new shell, making sure to load the barrel furthest from the triggers, the one that actually fired.

I snapped it closed and took a breath, waiting for the bandit’s gun to roar back to life. There was a muffled yell and heavy hoofsteps, the familiar jingle. I jumped up and spun, already moving forward out of my cover. I only made it a half stride before I saw a hulking red earth pony not ten yards away, the two large guns of his battle-saddle pointed right at me.

Bits of soil showered me as I peeled to the side and fetched up against another trunk. My ears rang as he blasted a full clip into the far side of the tree. I could feel the vibrations against my back and taste the wood dust in the air. I chanced a glance out at him.

"Stop hiding you fucker!" he yelled, his face twisted in rage. He spat out the trigger bit and reached for the one that operated his other gun, an indistinguishable mess of metal, plastic, duct tape and rubber, but from the eerie red glow emanating from its center, I knew exactly what it was.

I dropped to the side and staggered toward the next closest tree as the one behind me shuddered and burst into flame, sending fiery wood chips raining across my back. More streaks of red magic followed the first, tracking me as I wove between trees and leapt over ditches and logs. My armor might soften the blow of a normal bullet or even stop a low-caliber shot entirely if I was far enough away, but it wouldn’t do shit to protect me from a magic energy weapon. The second I stopped running, I’d be toast.

I managed to get a few trees between us, enough that I could stop for a moment to catch my bearings as the forest smoldered around me. I couldn’t shoot back, not from this far away, and I couldn’t risk getting up close. My shotgun packed a decent punch, but one lucky blast from that homemade pressure cooker would cremate me instantly, and it could fire a lot more than once between reloads.

I heard a loud creak from the tree beside me and my legs jerked back into motion just in time to avoid being crushed under the toppling giant. I glanced over my shoulder at the earth pony, the barrel of his gun glowing orange and its taped-together pieces vibrating in every direction at once. I felt the heat of several close calls against my hind legs.

If Minty was somehow still alive, I was going to kill her myself for getting us into this mess.

“Stay still! Wouldn’t you rather die all at once instead of limb by limb?” he shouted, lips coming away from the trigger while he reloaded. The gun made a horrible gurgling sound as his battle-saddle crammed a fresh gem into its capacitor.

This was my chance! I spun in place, my forelegs coming off the ground entirely, then charged toward him, my gun raised and my tongue on the trigger. I stared into the red ring of his gun’s barrel, glowing brighter even as I closed the distance between us. With less than ten strides between us, I realized that I wasn’t going to win the race.

There was a flicker of movement to the side of my vision, grey steel and green mane and a hammer that crashed directly against the earth pony’s side, crushing his magic energy weapon like a plastic soda bottle.

It even erupted a bit like a soda bottle, too.

The explosion was probably red, but up close it was so bright that everything went white. I staggered back and somehow kept my legs under me. I shook my head from side to side, trying to clear my vision. It came back in patches, more in one eye than the other, but that was all I needed to limp forward and send a shell into the downed earth pony’s head.

Looking back, he was probably already dead from the explosion. Still, better safe than sorry.

The forest around us was suddenly, deafeningly silent. My own breath rattled in my chest. I looked around and spotted Minty climbing back to her hooves, the explosion having knocked her to the ground. She spun her hammer around, head on a swivel as she looked for the next hostile. Her eyes met mine, and the hammer slowly drooped in her grip until its head landed in the dirt.

I was next to her in a moment, looking her up and down for obvious wounds. Her armor was dented and textured where it wasn’t before. Lower, around her legs and belly, green coat was visible through rips and tears in the leather, several of them stained deep with blood. The mare stood strong and breathed easy.

Of course, that didn’t mean she was healthy or whole, or even that she would live through the day, but it still made me feel better about yelling at her. “Minty!” I growled. “What the fuck?”

She looked around at the smoky, ashen remains of trees, and at the messy piles beneath them that were ponies just a few minutes before. “I didn’t mean to hit them so hard.”

“Hit them? Are you serious? We’re standing in a fucking crater, Minty! This is about as discreet as firing off a flare gun every mile! There’s no way we can go straight to my hideout now, it’s too close.” I ground a hoof into the blood-soaked dirt. “You just had to rush in and get shot full of holes in the process, too.”

Minty was still staring at the dead bandits.

I gritted my teeth hard and trotted away, back out of the trees and into the open air. A few seconds later, heavy hoofsteps followed me.

Across the road, I saw two ponies peeking their heads around the corner of the caravan, eyes wide and nervous. They hadn’t even run away when Minty drew the bandits fire. They just sat there, waiting to be rescued.

A sneer crossed my face. I took a long breath and gestured down the road with my head. “Come on. We need to kill some distance before it gets dark.” And get away from those pathetic caravaners before my stomach turned.

Minty nodded mutely, almost looking back at the mess behind us before catching herself. She walked up next to me. There was blood dripping from the underside of her barrel, seeping from injuries she couldn’t feel and I couldn’t see.

Behind us, ponies began to emerge on shaking legs, murmuring to each other and inspecting the caravan for damage. I could feel several sets of eyes on us. I sighed, my breath escaping in a hiss, and turned and trotted back to them, trying to look unthreatening.

“Do you have a doctor?”


Once Minty was patched up—her injuries weren’t nearly as bad as I thought—Granite, the largest stallion in the group and apparently the unspoken leader, made his offer. Travel with them to Hayton and act as guards. They couldn’t afford to pay us, he said, but we were welcome to their food and water, and whatever shelter the caravan itself provided at night.

In other words, it was a raw deal, but after the fireworks we’d set off in the forest, we needed to lay some false leads before continuing on to my hideout, so I agreed. We set off, my teeth grinding as we walked past a collapsed train tunnel, the rubble pinning an ancient subway car in place. There it was, nearly within spitting distance, but suddenly further away than ever.

For once, Minty was quiet. She plodded along beside the caravan, her eyes on the road and her tail on the pavement. Something was weighing on her. I wanted to believe it was regret, that she was sorry for charging into the fight and forcing us onto this diversion. More likely, those bandits were her first real kills, and she was taking it hard.

One of the caravaners, a soft-spoken unicorn mare named Aurora, cantered beside her, filling the air with thanks and congratulations. Minty returned a word here and a nod there, a slight blush in her cheeks that at first I took for embarrassment or even shame, but as it turned rosier and the two mares drifted closer and closer together, I figured it out.

Night fell, and soon after the trees around us started to thin out. Despite their inadequate defenses, the caravaners seemed to know the area, and when we approached a gap in the trees on one side of the road, everyone turned in unison, dragging the wagon off the pavement and onto the dirt. “Resting point,” a white mare named Cottontail explained. “Good spot to hunker down for the night.”

Minty, Aurora, Cottontail, and a guard named Ketchup begun making camp while Granite sifted through their goods and assessed the damage. I alternated between peering into the surrounding trees and discreetly observing the caravaners.

“Damn,” Granite said past a burlap sack in his teeth. He shook it, tossing dark powder into the air. “Shot musta’ hit our stock of twelve gauges.” He tossed the bag onto the ground. “Nothing but powder and metal scrap now.”

I looked back into the forest to hide my smirk. I’ve learned to make the best of bad situations. We may have been forced together with a bunch of cheapskate caravaners, but that didn’t mean we’d walk away unrewarded. I could feel the weight of my new surplus of shotgun shells, and it felt good.

“I’ll sleep easier knowing we’ve got you two under our tent,” Cottontail said. While the others continued laying out tarps and locking wheels, she’d sidled up next to me. “Thanks again for saving us back there, and sorry we can’t, you know, pay you.”

I gave her a quiet grunt and a nod in response, and kept my eyes on the trees.

“You must be the professional one, huh? Minty looks tough, but she talks like an excited filly.”

So she was talking again, and apparently more than ever. I just hoped she knew which things to keep to herself. These caravaners were spineless, but they were also harmless. If they found out who I was or who was chasing me…

“Uh oh. Um, didn’t mean to offend you or anything,” Cottontail said. “I just meant that you seem a little stand-offish and I wanted to make sure we didn’t start out on the wrong hoof, you know?”

“It’s nothing personal,” I said, turning. “Safety comes first—”

“And friendship second, I hear you.”

I stared at her. “I was going to say ‘relaxation’.” The mare winced. “Safety before friendship, huh? That why you let your friends fight while you hide?”

“We—we weren’t armed! And that’s what we pay for them for! To fight while we... stay safe,” she finished lamely.

I could feel more eyes on me now. The sounds of camp-setting were gone. So, instead of pointing out that they had plenty of weapons stowed in the caravan that they could have easily retrieved during the shootout, I rolled my eyes, gestured toward Ketchup, and said, “You call that armed?” I turned to inspect him. “What’ve you got, a nine-mil machine gun? A peashooter like that couldn’t take down a radhog. I don’t understand why you came out here without any decent firepower. Don’t you know the Pinewood?”

Ketchup tightened his jaw and looked around, making brief eye contact with Granite, Cottontail, even Minty for a second.

“Not really,” Granite replied at last. “We’ve got a good map and reliable directions, but that’s all. We weren’t expecting such a beautiful place to be so violent.”

When would idiots learn that everywhere in the Wasteland was fucked? “A map? I…” I thought back. I’d seen pre-war maps of Pinewood Valley, marking the main roads, rivers, and major settlements, but those weren’t much good now. There were new roads, narrow and unpaved, the river had changed course and gotten wider, and most of the settlements weren’t even worth visiting to scavenge. “Can I see it?”

There was another long silence as everyone stared at Granite, the large stallion’s brow furrowing. His eyes bored into mine, but I refused to blink first. “Of course,” he said, his shoulders falling and his face relaxing. “Why wouldn’t we want you to see it?”

Ketchup was looking over his shoulder, as if he was inspecting the forest, but I noticed that he was turned toward the side where his gun was holstered. Cottontail couldn’t decide where to look, her eyes wandering between me, Granite, the ground, and the trees. Had she shifted closer toward the others? There was a giggle from behind the caravan, then another—Minty and Aurora cavorting out of sight.

Why wouldn’t he want me to see it? “I have no idea. It’s just a map, after all,” I said.

He nodded. “Yes, just a map. First things first, though. I think Aurora and her new friend should be just about done setting up camp, and we’ve got some fresh-ish roasts ready to cook.” He glanced at the ponies around me, and they trotted off toward the caravan. “If you’re still interested in our map after dinner, I’ll dig it out for you.” Then he turned away as well.

I followed, almost forgetting to question why a map, their most crucial and probably most valuable tool, needed to be dug out of anywhere. Shouldn’t it have been close at hoof always, to double check directions? I gathered around under the tarp and looked on as they started a little fire, tossed on the meat, and ponies gossiped and giggled.

I had my eye on these helpless caravaners.

Dinner was surprisingly good, juicy and filling. Apparently the caravaners preferred not to discuss business while eating, leaving an odd half-silence in the air as we tucked in. The only exception was Minty and Aurora, who seemed to have no trouble finding things to talk about and no qualms about breaking the mood.

Cottontail insisted on cleaning up, although from Granite’s pointed looks I got the impression it wasn’t all her idea. Aurora lifted a tarp and passed out bedrolls. I grabbed mine and shivered, the warmth of the blankets making me realize how cold the air had gotten. By the time I had my spot set up, far enough from the others for a hint of privacy while still close enough to share their warmth through the night, Granite was out of sight and everypony else was already bedded down. The weight of the day finally started setting in. It felt like it’d been weeks since I woke up in Malpractice’s house, and the bedroll at my hooves was looking more and more appealing.

I could ask about the map tomorrow.


Bodies started shifting soon after dawn. I jerked myself upright, blinking hard to clear my vision, and found, with some satisfaction, that I was the first awake.

The map. Before thoughts of the Gravestones, Tomb, or my hideout, I remembered their map. I had to see it. More importantly, they needed to show it to me.

Despite all that, I wasn’t in any hurry to get out of my bedroll. It was warm and soft, and five or six hours of sleep wasn’t nearly enough to make up for the toll Riverside alone had taken on me. I kept my head up, but slid the rest of my body back beneath the blankets and enjoyed not moving for a moment while I waited for the others to wake up.

Mornings were different since the cloud cover started to thin. They were still a bit chilly, even in summer, but the oppressive weight in the air was completely gone, replaced with a crisp freshness that I savoured with each breath, and the warm sunrise that shone through the trees was bright and cheery, not dark or ominous like it always was before.

Granite was awake second. He slid out of his bedding so quietly that I almost missed him. I looked around, saw that everyone else was still curled tight, and reluctantly wriggled my way to my hooves as well. Granite disappeared around the corner of the caravan, and I followed, slipping on my jacket and saddlebags as I passed. We were alone, and I was confident that no matter what Granite had in store for me, I could handle a single pony in close quarters.

“Here’s that map I mentioned,” Granite said, extending a folded sheet of cloth and leather. “Sorry, I completely forgot about it last night.”

A little taken aback, I unfolded it and saw… exactly what I’d expected. Thick black lines marked roads and rivers, shaky writing labelled major routes and settlements. To a caravan venturing into relatively unknown territory, a map like this could save both time and lives, which was exactly why they were so rare. They would have to be crafted individually, painstakingly, the materials treated properly, the finished product stored in safe conditions, all to be sold to ponies too poor to open a shop or send others on routes in their place. A business destined to fail.

I turned the map over, and again, saw exactly what I expected. Well, almost exactly. Where I expected a signature, whoever was making the maps nowadays, and the Gravestones’ mark, there was a blackened spot where the leather had been nearly burned right through. I ran the frog of my hoof over it, and yes, there it was, a tiny tombstone shape with a ‘T’ in its center.

There was a sharp intake of breath beside me. I carefully folded the map up again and passed it back to Granite. “Don’t try lying to me again. I don’t care who you got your map from or who you’re working for, so long as we’re square with one another.”

He glanced down at the map, eyes wide, looked back up and nodded. “You’re right, and I’m sorry. Lots of ponies won’t trade with you if they know you deal with bandits. Easier to lie. But I guess I should’ve known you wouldn’t fall for the usual tricks.” He went to return the map to its place, and I returned to the sleeping forms of Minty and the other caravaners.

By the time the sun rose above the treetops, everyone was awake, camp was broken, and we were back on the road.

I fell into place to one side of the caravan, just behind Granite who was pulling it. From there I could see Minty and Aurora trailing behind, their eyes turned halfway between the road ahead and each other, and the two caravan guards, Ketchup and Runny, who were up ahead, not doing their job very well. Surprise surprise, I walked in silence.

“So you’re like an apprentice?” I heard Minty ask.

“Um, I guess you could call it that. I’m the newest, but there isn’t really anything that formal. Mostly I just get all the awful jobs that the guards won’t even do,” Aurora replied. She shouted, “Isn’t that right, Runny?”

My eyes naturally drifted toward Runny’s side of the road, but I missed his response entirely. Behind him, through the trees on the roadside and up the hill beyond I saw a large shape displacing bushes and branches.

“Oh, stuff it! You’re just saying that cause last month I—”

“Shhh!” I hissed, interrupting Aurora and drawing everyone’s attention. Granite slowed, the caravan bumped into his flank. “Something’s out there.” I pointed.

“In the trees?” Minty asked, wandering away from her fillyfriend and peering. “Is it—”

I bolted over to her and snagged her tail in my teeth. “Not another step,” I growled, jerking her back toward the others. “If you get shot up again, you’re pulling the bullets out yourself.” Either her armor was absurdly heavy or she was absurdly strong, because it felt like I was tugging on a rock.

The sound of wheels turning resumed. I let Minty go and turned to see the rear of the caravan as Granite pulled it in the direction we’d come from. “Back up, everypony!” he called. “We’re in radhog territory! Guns out, but nopony shoot unless it charges. So long as we keep our distance, we should be fine.”

I didn’t need to look to know that Minty was already gone. Partly because she moved with the subtlety of refrigerator rolling down a hill and made more noise than the entire caravan, but also because I was, unfortunately, getting used to her.

“Don’t worry Phishy!” she shouted over her shoulder as she disappeared into the forest. “We’re eating bacon tonight! Rad bacon!”

I stared at the shuddering foliage she left behind, the sounds of snapping wood and clattering armor drawing further away. My insides lurched and I felt the familiar rush of blood behind my eyes. I set my teeth and loped forward, seething, “Worthless tribal piece of—”

From far up the road, Granite shouted, “Don’t be stupid! We don’t even know how many there are! She’s not worth anywhere near…” His voice was drowned out as I broke through the tree line, then, “Damnit! Fuck! Come back here…”

I saw shaking branches up ahead alongside the signature sounds of Minty Fresh, right where I’d pointed out the radhog. Moving with a bit more grace than the armored mare, I closed the distance in seconds, slipping around trees and through bushes. I had no trouble keeping track of Minty, but where was the hog? There was too much noise, too much movement. It could’ve been right next to me and I wouldn’t have had a clue.

“What are you thinking?” I shouted to Minty when there were finally no more trees between us. “Are you trying to get gored in the face?”

She stopped moving and turned around as if we had all the time in the world. “Sheesh, Phishy, it’s just a big, angry pig. We hunt them all the time and—” A blur of discolored flesh slammed into her, crashing and squealing against her metal plates and driving them both out of sight.

I blinked. Was that it then? No more Minty? After a stunned second, I turned my head, expecting to see a decapitated friend and a victorious radhog.

“Woah! You’re feisty!” Minty said, her voice slightly strained.

First, I saw the pig. It was large, a bit taller than a pony and nearly twice as broad, its thick hide warped and twisted with scars. It screamed, legs kicking up hooffuls of twigs and soil into my face, as it struggled against the second thing I saw. Minty, hind legs planted firmly, forelegs braced against the radhog’s shoulders, locking it into a bizarre wrestling match that so far, somehow, she seemed to be winning.

“Wha—Huh?” I took a tentative step forward, leaning away from the hog’s furiously scrambling hooves. “Minty?” I had to shout over the animal’s shrieks of rage and indignation.

The radhog tossed its head, trying to catch Minty with its tusks. She casually dodged, then wrinkled her nose. “Ew, gross. Pig breath.” She looked over, her face occasionally tensing as the radhog tried to slip away. “Anyway, like I was saying, we hunted these guys a lot. Every Sweetmeat learns how as soon as they’re big enough.”

The radhog stopped trying to charge. It dropped low and squirmed from side to side and even tried to back away, but every time Minty adjusted, somehow kept enough leverage with just her hooves to keep in place.

“Do you want any help?” I asked, although I wasn’t even sure what I would do. I had a shotgun, which would definitely get the job done, but I’d be just as likely to kill Minty as the hog. I could… kick it? Would that do anything?

Minty shook her head. “No, I think it’s almost worn out. This one’s pretty tough though. My legs are probably getting tired.”

“Probably?”

“I dunno. After I run for a long time, or push something really heavy, my legs don’t work as well for a while. Doesn’t that happen to everypony?”

I scowled. “You mean your muscles don’t get sore either?” This probably wasn’t the greatest time to ask, but it wasn’t like the situation could get any more surreal.

“Not really?” She said it like a question. “Okay, I think it’s giving up. You might want to stand back in case it’s faking.” With a sudden heave and a twist of her hips, she swept the animal off its hooves and flipped it around onto its back. There was the sound of vertebrae cracking, a feeble squeal, and then sudden and deafening silence.

With a satisfied sigh, Minty stepped back and glanced around. “Where’s everypony else?”

The radhog’s head was twisted at a disturbing angle; its jaws hung open and its disgusting tongue lolled out and sagged into the dirt. I didn’t take my eyes from it as I said, “They ran. They wanted to leave you to die.”

She snorted. “Pfft, die? Cause of a wild pig?”

My eyes narrowed. I looked up from the animal corpse to Minty, then behind, through the trees to where shades of faded asphalt were visible. I saw faces peering back.

Minty raised a curious eyebrow.

I sighed. “Grab your rad bacon and let’s get going.” With a deep sense of unease, I started trotting back toward the caravan. “I guess they decided they need us.”

Or did they just need me?