• 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.

  • ...

Chapter 5: Down the Road

The rest of the trip was uneasy. The caravanners, Granite in particular, kept giving me nervous stares ever since Minty’s radhog hunt. They’d tried to explain themselves, claiming that they were just making sure their merchandise was safe. I nodded wordlessly, not sure why they even bothered. If there was any question of us staying with the caravan all the way to Hayton before, it was squashed now.

We stopped for the night and cooked up some of the radhog meat. Everyone else ate around the fire, but I insisted on keeping watch. I leaned against the opposite side of the caravan from them, my eyes on the horizon, and slowly nibbled on a drumstick. I was halfway through my meal when Granite rounded the caravan and trotted up to me.

“Like my cooking?”

I gave him a blank stare. “Yes.”

He stared back, his front hooves fidgeting in the sand.

“Is that it?” I asked.

He swallowed and smiled. “Eh, actually no, it ain’t.” He rubbed the back of his head. “See, me and the caravan were thinking of giving you payment. Once we git to Hayton we’re gonna sell through some of our wares so we can pay ya’.”

How suspiciously generous of them. Food and water in exchange for protection. That had been the deal. Why was he sweetening the pot now? “All right.”

He nodded. “Just seems earned, is all. We’d be dead twice over now if not for you and that Minty filly.”

“Obviously.” I took a bite of the drumstick. “We did promise to protect the caravan.”

“You did, but, uh, we might not be the richest caravanners out here, but we know our manners. I talked it over with the others, and we decided it ain’t right to leave you off in Hayton with nothing.” His eyes darted across my face, then he nodded and headed back around the caravan toward the fire.

Maybe he knew I was planning to leave. They couldn’t afford that. How much would Tomb have put on my head? One thousand, two thousand caps? A little caravan like this wouldn’t make that much in two years of normal business.

It was time to go.

I waited an hour or two, until the fire had sputtered out and everyone else was curled up in their tents, then I slipped around the caravan. Minty’s friend had offered to share her tent, and, unsurprisingly, Minty had instantly agreed, but when I peaked inside all I saw was the little blue-grey unicorn.

Soon enough, I spotted my companion, crouched in a nearby group of trees just barely out of sight of the caravan, humming contentedly to herself. She’d shed the back half of her armour, leaving the metal plates scattered on the forest floor. I suppressed a groan and looked away.

Suddenly the humming stopped. “Oh, Phisa! One sec!” She snatched up the bits of her armor and dodged behind a tree. Over the jangles of metal plates and chains, she called, “Wait, why are you out here? Is something wrong?”

“I don’t trust these ponies. We’re leaving,” I said. “Get your bags, and make sure you don’t wake anyone.”

She trotted back out into the open, now fully dressed. She was frowning. “You don’t trust them? B-but, we’ve been with them all day, and they haven’t done anything!”

“They were going to leave you to die. They only came back for me. They’re planning something.” I narrowed my eyes at her. “Besides, I never intended to stay with them all the way to Hayton.”

Minty blinked, and for a second she almost looked hurt, but she recovered quickly. “Pfft, duh! I knew that. We were following them because…” She frowned.

“To throw false leads to the Gravestones. We actually passed my hideout two days ago.”

“Wait! For reals?” She tilted her head in confusion.

“Yes,” I said with annoyance. “I told you that we couldn’t go straight to my hideout after your stunt.”

Minty frowned. “But then those caravanners—”

“The caravanners who, again, wanted to leave you behind.” I retorted.

Minty began looking nervous. “I-I’m sure it’s a misunderstanding. I mean, they were nice to us. And Aurora was nice to me as well!”

"Yeah, well… Better safe than sorry. Best we leave now, while they’re asleep and we don’t have far to walk back to my hideout.” She bit her lip, and I fixed her with a glare. “If we stay, and they turn on us, we’ll have to kill them. You understand that, right?”

That seemed to strike a nerve. Minty took a while to respond. "Okay,” she said in a small voice. “I don’t want that. Let’s leave.”

I glanced back at the camp and saw no sign of movement. “Great. Get your stuff and meet me back he—”

“Um, I actually still need to pee,” Minty said, fidgeting slightly.

“What? Why did you put your armor back on?”

“You startled me!” she said, slightly too loudly, and winced.

I took a deep breath. “Fine. You finish here. I’ll get your bags.”

The camp hadn’t stirred. Minty’s bags were slumped in the corner of Aurora’s tent, and close enough to the opening that I could snag them without stepping inside. As I turned around, something caught my eye. The sleeping bag in the corner seemed lumpier than before, and there was no slender horn poking out its neck. I held my breath and moved closer. The blankets didn’t rise or fall, and even with my head inches away, I couldn’t hear breathing.

I took a risk and gave the sleeping bag a little shove. Blankets, pillows, and more blankets. Shit.

With Minty’s saddlebags across my back, I crept back over to the clump of trees, where I could barely hear hushed voices.

I stepped past the first few trees. Tiny branches crunched under my hooves, and their conversation died. Aurora turned away from Minty to face me. “Uh, hi,” she said meekly. “So… you’re leaving?”

“You told her?” I said, inexplicably surprised. “I was gone for less than a minute.”

“I didn’t! She guessed!” Minty retorted.

Aurora nods. “I thought you might be leaving tonight, after, well, what happened earlier.” She looked over my shoulder toward the camp. “Nopony else is awake, and if they ask, I’ll just say I was asleep.”

I narrowed my eyes at her. “You won’t try to stop us?”

She shook her head. “They never tell me anything, but I overheard them talking about you, Phisa. At first I thought they were just scared of you, but maybe—”

“They want to sell me out.”

Aurora looked away and shrugged.

Minty looked back between us, looking a tad uncertain. “Well, I guess this would mean goodbye then?” she said to Aurora.

“Mhm,” Aurora murmured. She met Minty’s eyes with a small smile. “I’ll miss you. It was really nice having somepony to talk to.”

Minty smiled sadly. “I’d love to spend more time with you, but I have a friend I need to help.” She looks back to me with a nod, and proceeds to take our bags. “But I’m sure we can meet up again someday!”

Aurora shrugged again. “Just stay safe, ok?” She looked back at me. “You too.”

“If this is some kind of trap…” I sighed, then shook my head. “Never mind. Thank you.”

Minty took her bags from me, and with final wave back at her friend, we started walking down the road.

Our journey back went surprisingly smooth.

Without an accompanying caravan to slow us down, the distance that took us two days to cover before disappeared in a single night, and as dawn broke I caught whiffs of soot and woodsmoke. By the time the air started to warm, we reached the train tracks.

“Sooo, are we there yet?” Minty asked.

I didn’t respond. She’d been asking that question for hours.

“Equestria to Phishy? Are. We. There. Yet?” she said in a singsong voice.

We actually were almost there, but I felt invested in ignoring her now. Besides, it was a little fun to hear her come up with new ways to ask the same question.

“Awww, come on Phishy. You have to give me an answer. That’s how it’s supposed to work!”

I fought off a smirk.

Minty huffed, and we travelled in silence for a brief moment. “Do you not like caravanners? I know why we left, but even before we met them you didn’t want to help.” She peered at me. “Are caravans part of your backstory or something?”

Great. I was wondering when this would come up. “I think I was pretty clear yesterday. They brought those bandits on themselves.”

The frown on her face gave away how disheartened she was by the truth.

“It’s just the way the Wasteland works. It’s hard out there, and it’s easy to take advantage of people who don’t know it. I’ve done it, you’ve done it. We’ve all done it.”

“I don’t think I have.” She said, stepping in front of me. “I mean, just because one group of ponies—”

“Sure you have. Just look at—” I caught myself and started again. “Do you want to hear a story?”

Minty nodded.

“There was pony long ago that wanted to help ponies however he could. He fought off raiders, he braved ruins and caves to rescue ponies and to find rare medicine to cure sick foals. You know, your standard hero stuff.

“He lived in a town, where everyone knew all of the good deeds he’d done. Fuck, most of them were only alive because he’d helped out in one way or another.

“It wasn’t long before someone came onto hard times. Maybe their family was sick, or maybe they couldn’t find enough food. But the point is, they were needing, and they took that need out on the town’s hero. Everyone knew he had a small fortune, guns and tools and caps, maybe some water and food too, locked up in his basement. All they needed to do was wait for him to be away, and his wife and daughter would be there, all on their own.”

“Is this—” Minty began.

“Shut up. I’m not done.” I glared toward the horizon. “This wretched little pony smashed the lock and let himself in one night. Luckily, the hero’s wife and daughter were asleep and tucked away in their bedrooms, but the hero himself returned earlier than he should’ve. Probably did a better job saving the day than anyone expected, and he caught the thief right when he was sneaking away with his stolen stuff. They tussled, but the thief was armed and on-alert. The hero was tired from a full day of heroics, and it was only ever going to shake out one way. A gunshot later, the thief got away, and the hero lost half his head.

“For everyone else, things went back to normal. There wasn’t anything to prove who killed the stallion, and it’s not like the thief went around talking about how he suddenly got tons of caps. They didn’t care. The stallion’s wife stopped speaking a couple days afterward. She’d only eat and sleep. The daughter left a year later, leaving her mother to the town’s care, whatever that might have been. The daughter found herself all alone in the Wasteland... and for her, it felt like nobody cared.” I swallowed and took a few breaths. That might have been the most I spoke in years. Screw Minty for dragging it out of me.

“A-are, are you that daughter?” Minty asked hesitantly.

“Did you hear me say the word ‘zebra’? No. It’s just a story I know. And that story’s taught me not to let my guard down, no matter how much anyone owes me.”

I realized that I had been blabbing instead of looking, and I quickly took stock of our surroundings. Still clear and on-track.

“So what about Mal?” Minty asked.

I looked away. “What’s Mal got to do with it? Come on, I’m sick of talking and we’re almost there.”

Minty remained mercifully quiet.

A good twenty minutes or so passed before the dark shape of a collapsed train tunnel came into sight, and soon enough I could see the wrecked train trapped under the structure in detail. It looked undisturbed. A small smile crept to my face. “We’re here.”

Minty brightened up. “Your hideout is a literal trainwreck? That’s so cool!”

I sighed. “Not the train. It’s barely big enough to lay down in.” I strode forward with purpose. “Just watch, you’ll see.”

The latch of the train’s rear door had rusted closed centuries ago. I slid my shoulder under a notch on the door and heaved upward. The hinges groaned and slid apart, and the door slumped toward us.

Minty nosed up beside me. "So, this is the entrance?"

I clambered inside, carefully sliding past the door’s sharp, rusted edges, and Minty followed, her armor screeching against the sides as she crawled through. The interior of the car was littered with detritus. Discarded cans and bottles, dirt and leaves, a few animal corpses all mashed together in a disgusting stew. The scent of rot and dung was nearly overwhelming.

Minty coughed and gagged. “I guess you’ve been gone a while, huh?”

I trotted forward toward the front of the car. It followed the incline of the tunnel, so we had to watch our step to avoid slipping down the gentle slope. At the other end, a huge pile of soil covered the door that once led to the next car. I reached forward and shoved my hoof into the mound, feeling blindly until I touched a knob. I twisted and gave the pile a shove sideways. It rolled on bumpy hinges and revealed a clear, dark opening. Cold air wafted out toward us.

Minty’s eyes bugged. “Your hideout has a secret entrance? That’s so cool!” She darted past me through the doorway.

Inside was pitch black. After a few steps, the rolling dirt that covered the inside of the second train car gave way to dry concrete, the floor of the tunnel itself. It was a spacious place, with one easy-to-hide entrance and thick, unbroken walls on all sides, and from outside it appeared to be entirely collapsed. Honestly, finding this place might have been the luckiest thing to ever happen to me. The only thing it was missing was power.

I felt my way forward, brushing my shoulder against the right wall until my shin struck a small metal box. My teeth found the cord, and, ignoring the taste of grease and coal, I gave it a rip. The generator sputtered to life. Now to stumble my way to the lamp and—

There was a cacophony of crashing metal and stumbling hooves from the other wall of the tunnel. “Whoops,” Minty whispered.

I beelined toward the sound before Minty could break anything else, reached down, and flipped on the toppled lamp, finally giving us enough light to see.

My glare met sheepish eyes.

“Sorry.” Minty was already looking around, her eyes perked in excitement. "Wooooow! This is your hideout?"

The intact section of the tunnel didn’t extend far, maybe ten yards before it too ended in a sloped cave-in, but it was fairly wide, and over the years I’d furnished and shaped it to suit my needs, including a makeshift sink (a large bucket under a water pipe), a miraculously still functional pre-war refrigerator, a few nearly clean mattresses, and some simple shelving along the walls.

“Minty, look around for signs anyone else has been here. And remember, don’t touch anything.”

Minty nodded. “Okie dokie! Private Detective Minty is on the case!” She marched off, her nose to the floor and her tail bobbing.

I glanced over the shelves and cabinets next to my bed. The thin layer of dust covered everything evenly, and my belongings seemed to be where I’d left them.

Right above my bed, something caught my eye. A little stuffed rabbit, with off-yellow fur that, years ago, used to be white. My shoulders relaxed a little. Nothing was missing.

I opened the fridge and nearly gagged. Okay, I wouldn’t have minded if someone had broken in and stolen some of the year old meat. It was a miracle it hadn’t attracted rats.

I popped open a cabinet at random and peered in. Boxes of all shapes and sizes were crammed inside, their once bright labels faded by time and coated in dust. All the various board and card games I’d collected and inherited over the years. There weren’t many pre-war sets left intact, but I added to them whenever I found a surviving piece in an abandoned building or at the bottom of a trash can. Nothing stolen here. Most people wouldn’t see any value within that cabinet anyway.

“Oh wow! You have a lot of Swordmare and Daring Do books!” Minty shouted from across the room. “I didn’t think someone like you would be into them!”

I grunted. “It was those or military tech manuals. Not much other reading material out in the Wasteland.”

The mattresses were the last important thing to check. I lifted the heaviest and dirtiest one with a hoof and squinted underneath. It wasn’t exactly a secure place to store weapons, but it was more likely to escape notice than a giant gunlocker. There were a few pistols, two rifles, and three different shotguns tucked under there. Most of them were broken or missing parts, but any could be touched up in a pinch.

Finally, along the back of the hideout was a sturdy wooden bench that had been a bitch to drag in here, and littered on the floor around it were a number of metal toolboxes. I dumped my bags on top, sending a swirling cloud of dust into the air. “All clear?” I called to Minty as I unzipped my bags and started to sift through them.

“Yup yup!” Minty said in a sing-song voice. “I think everything is saf— OOOOoo! This is so adorable!”

I spun around and saw Minty standing by my bed, her hoof hovering inches away from the bunny plush.

“Didn’t I say not to touch anything?” I snapped, and darted over to grab the toy away.

"Woah woah! Phishy, I..." Minty stumbled back, eyes wide.

I forced the snarl off my face and carefully set my bunny back on the shelf. "Sorry, Minty. It's... I’ve just had that thing for a long time."

She smiled apologetically. "Hey, it’s ok. You did tell me not to touch anything."

I nodded. “I did.” Then I sighed. “But you didn’t touch it, so… no harm, I guess.”

Minty glanced between me and the plush. “It’s really sweet that you kept it.”

I glanced back at the plush, at its general wear and tear, at the small burn mark on it’s left ear.

“Right.” It was time to focus. “The water from the sink is… mostly clean. Don’t eat anything in the fridge, it’ll kill you. You can use that mattress against the wall, not the one in the corner, and not the lumpy one. Got it?”

“And don’t touch anything,” Minty said sagely.

I rolled my eyes. “Just don’t do anything to make me kick you out. Or kill you. We’re leaving as soon as possible tomorrow morning, before anyone has a chance to track us down, so try to get some early sleep.” I trotted out of my room and glanced back at the workbench. To myself, I muttered, “And I’m going to see if I can turn Rave’s garbage stick into something useful.”

I hadn’t taken the time since Riverside to sort through the supplies Malpractice had left me. Most of it was basic medical stuff, gauze and rubbing alcohol, a few weak healing potions and low-grade chems. Further down lay the things he’d given me before, just after I woke up in his house, things like dried food and water purification tablets. There were also a few less obvious things tucked into side pockets. A small set of scalpels, a rod and some string that looked a lot like a simple tourniquette, and even a small, sharp-toothed saw with a mouth-friendly handle, seemingly for self-amputation. Then there was the damned PipBuck.

Most of the bag’s contents weren’t really needed for a normal expedition, and I relocated them onto shelves and into drawers. A few minutes of downsizing and condensing later, and my saddlebags were lighter and slimmer by half, and my hideout considerably better stocked.

That left the Pipbuck.

I’d left it on the workbench while sorting through everything, and now that I was finished, it demanded my attention. I had thought Mal had taken it back after he’d caught me stealing, but then again, it was one of the items he’d wanted me to have in the first place. Despite my aversion, it was a rare and valuable tool, so I couldn’t just dispose of it, and it was too bulky to keep in my bags.

Whatever, I had more important things to worry about. I jostled open a drawer beneath the workbench, swept the device inside, and pushed it closed. Dealt with, for now.

I deposited my saddlebags onto the floor and turned my attention toward my delightful, two-barrelled keepsake.

“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.”

The muscles in my right fetlock tensed, pressing hard against the workbench. Rave had given this to me as a joke; one more cruel prank before I died. I had other, better shotguns, but I was going to use this gun when I killed her, and any other Gravestones who got in my way.

I couldn’t do anything about the faint smell of sewage that seeped from the wood, or about the rust creeping down the barrel, but I could at least fix the broken trigger. Thankfully, it was about as generic as shotguns could get, and I found a matching screwdriver and a spare spring without much trouble. I even replaced the screws as I reassembled it. Now, both triggers gave a satisfying click and threw their corresponding hammers down like they were supposed to.

With nothing else to do, I plopped onto my mattress. Minty had long since fallen asleep, and I was in need of rest for tomorrow as well… but for some reason, I just couldn’t sleep.

I sat back up to glance over to the workbench, at the drawer where the Pipbuck laid. It had been years since I’d seen one, but I remembered pretty much exactly how they functioned. A radio, map, inventory sorter, E.F.S., and S.A.T.S.. And no, I couldn’t remember what those acronyms stood for.

All those advantages, and yet…

I thought back to Mal. A pony that generous, I couldn’t have been the first patient he’d given supplies to, so why did he give me the PipBuck instead of some other drifter?

A familiar voice in the back of my mind whispered, I use every tool available to me to ensure we all survive. No matter how much it reminds me of home, or how small it makes me feel, if it keeps any of us alive then it’s worth wearing.”

I only ever heard those words once, years ago, and yet they were still lurking at the bottom of my mind. I grabbed the PipBuck from its drawer and, after only a few seconds of hesitation, fastened it to my leg. Despite its age, the pads were soft and thick, and soon enough I could barely notice its presence. I drifted off to sleep.

“Good morning, Phishy!”

I glanced up from my crappy little stove and the slightly less crappy food I was frying atop it. Minty had been fast asleep moments before, but now she seemed as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as I’d ever seen her. Of course she was a morning person. My E.F.S. display marked her in white as she approached. Good to see that it worked like I remembered.

She grinned at the sight of breakfast, and her stomach made a quiet rumble. Wordlessly, I lifted the pan, held it over a metal plate that was mostly clean and somewhat rust-free, and tipped half the mix out. It was far from gourmet—more of a thick gruel made from anything vaguely edible I could find in Malpractice’s supplies—but it was calories that we’d probably be able to keep down.

Minty’s good cheer didn’t diminish as she settled over her food. “You prepared that for me?” Then her eyes landed on the PipBuck around my ankle. “And hey, that’s Mally’s... uhhhmm…”—she frowned—“thingy. What does it do?”

“It’s a PipBuck. Think of it as a digital multi-tool,” I said, hoping she wouldn’t ask for details. I didn’t think we had the time or oxygen it would take to explain it to her. “Eat up. We’re headed out soon.”

“Awww, thanks!” Minty was about to dig in before I cleared my throat and held up a hoof.

“Actually, wait. I also want to set some ground rules for when we get to Pona Rosa.”

“Pona Rosa?”

Had I never mentioned it? “Our next stop. It’s a bandit marketplace. It’s supposed to be a neutral settlement, independent of gang rivalries.”

“Supposed to be?” Minty asked between bites.

“The Gravestones aren’t welcome there. Makes sense, since we—eugh, they, have always been after a total monopoly in the Valley, and Pona Rosa stands against that.” A small, habitual part of me still felt a twinge of resentment toward Pona Rosa. I pushed it aside. My loyalties were all my own now. “It’s the number one spot to fence stolen stuff or pick up goods and services your gang can’t supply.”

“So why are we going there?”

I snorted. “Goods and services my gang can’t supply. I want to kill Tomb, among other people, and then I want to take over the Gravestones, but I’ll need a small gang of my own to pull that off. Basically, we’re hiring, and most of the candidates will be in Pona Rosa.”

She nods. “So, you could say we’re gonna make a bunch of new friends?”

I shook my head. “Trust me, these guys won’t be friend material. They’ll be after caps, guns, chems, and tail, not necessarily in that order.”

Minty’s mouth twisted a bit. She took a small bite of her food. “While we’re there, Minty, I want you to stick with me at all times.”

She smiled. “Because you don’t want me to get hurt?”

“That, and I don’t want you to do anything stupid..”

Minty snorted in amusement. “Pfft, like that would happen.”

I gave her a glare. “Just because Pona Rosa’s neutral doesn’t mean it’s safe. They have better guns than us and plenty of guards eager to use them at the first sign of trouble. So yes, I don’t want you hurt.” Or me.

Minty then frowned, and quietly nodded.

“Good.” I sat down and scarfed down my own meal. We finished at around the same time.

I grabbed my bag and headed for the door. “Let’s get on the road.”

“And that’s how Jawbreaker broke his leg… again!”

I shook my head, bemused, and checked our progress. The roads to Pona Rosa were straight and direct, although not exactly well maintained, and after half a day at a brisk trot, we were nearly there. For once I had to respect Minty’s timing; she’d finished her story right as the wide, monochrome shape of the settlement came into view.

The cracked highway that had guided our hooves for miles gave way to what seemed like a more residentialroad, before long we were passing burned and blasted buildings, all separated by long spans of dark, ashen forests. We skirted around the centre of the pre-war district, where the buildings were densely packed and the debris sat mostly untouched. That area was home to many of Pona Rosa’s rejects, the bandits too violent, too traitorous, or too insane for even wasteland scum like us to tolerate. In other parts of Equestria, they might even be called raiders.

We cleared a thick strip of forest that bisected the road, and were face to face with Pona Rosa’s entrance.

A large, ramshackle wall of concrete, sheet metal, wood, and numerous other materials spread out into a massive circle ahead of us, the curve disappearing behind buildings and trees. A sturdy looking shack stood against the wall, next to a large portcullis fashioned from rebar and wire, tall and wide enough to admit even the largest of wagons and caravans. We were here.

Minty whistled as we approached the gate. “Wow, this place looks big! How’d anypony build something like this?”

“Most of it’s pre-war. Pona Rosa was a shopping mall before the bombs fell, and apparently it was sturdy enough for most of it to still be standing. All it took was adding some defenses and dividing up the space a bit, and she had herself a massive settlement almost for free.”


“Mare who founded the place. Turntable or something like that. She keeps a pretty low profile, but she still basically runs everything.”

Minty’s gaze rose and took in the sprawl with wide eyes. “There must be a thousand ponies in there…”

I shrugged. “Maybe. Most people only stop in Pona Rosa for a few days, maybe a few weeks. It could be just a few hundred right now, the ponies who run the bars and shops and all the guards, or it could be thousands if there’s a big event at the Cage, or maybe if two big gangs are negotiating something.”

Something seemed to occur to Minty. She frowned. “Are you worried they won’t let you in? I mean, for being a zebra?”

“They’ll let me in. Bandits know profit when they see it, and they won’t let a little thing like racism keep them from earning a cap,” I replied. Word must have spread by now. By showing my face in public while still on Tomb’s most wanted list, I was basically announcing that I had information to sell.

Behind the gate stood armed guards, their eyes tracking us as we neared. My E.F.S. told me there were many more out of sight. One gestured to our left, where a small metal box protruded from the wall. I’d done this a few times before, so I sidled up to the panel and tapped a button below the speaker.

“Ah, an interesting visitor,” said a voice through the intercom. Minty jumped, then grinned broadly at me like I’d done I trick. I gestured for her to keep quiet. “Phisa, is it? What’s your business here today?”

I tensed up a bit. “How’d you know who I was?”

A static chuckle escaped the intercom. “We’ve had some advance notice, both about your recent… demotion, and that you were headed our way.”

That confirmed what Aurora had implied the night we left. Tomb hadn’t wasted any time in posting my bounty.

I nodded. “I’m hiring. That a problem?”

Another chuckle. “No no, you know we don’t play favorites here, and besides, things have been dull around here lately. You’re welcome to all Pona Rosa has to offer.” The stallion’s voice cut off with a small burst of static, then returned after a moment of silence. “Though first, we’d like your companion to take off her armor.”

Minty blinked in confusion. “Huh? Why me?”

That had never been part of the drill before. It took me a second to remember that I hadn’t visited Pona Rosa since before the Lightbringer cleared the skies. “Do what he says, Minty.”

She nodded and started to doff her armor, although not without a few nervous glances my way. Moments later she stood naked next to a neat pile of metal and chain. She rolled her shoulders uncomfortably.

There was a soft mechanical whir above us, and I glanced up to see a small camera panning up and down over Minty’s frame. “Good, nothing to hide,” said the voice across the intercom. “Very well, you both are free to enter. We hope you enjoy your visit here.” With another burst of static, the intercom went dead.

“Why didn’t he want you to strip?” Minty asked as she began to redress.

A crank turned, chains rattled, and the portcullis shakily lifted before us. I shrugged at an impatient looking guard across the threshold and pointed at the earth pony mare trying to tighten a buckle with her teeth.

“They were checking for wings,” I said. “As far as I know, there’s no such thing as a winged zebra.”

Minty chuckled. “Come on, Phishy, I’m serious.”

“So am I. And I can’t blame them. A single pegasus could do a lot of damage if the guards weren’t prepared for it.”

“Pegasi?” Minty jerked upright, half her armor still untied. “They’re real?” Her eyes were wide and almost glowing.

I nodded. “Real and more numerous than ever.”

She tightened a final strap and stood up, all her nerves seemingly gone and replaced with a more familiar excitement. She bounded through the gate, and I hurriedly followed after her.

Minty’s first seconds in Pona Rosa were probably underwhelming. A row of grey, undecorated buildings faced the gate, with barred windows and steel doors, and they were all swarming with well-armed, grim-faced ponies. With a firm shoulder I guided her left, down the street, and away from the security offices.

Around the corner was where the town really began. A wide avenue lay before us, flanked on both sides with densely packed, brightly colored, and sleazily advertised buildings of all shapes and sizes. There were stores, homes, warehouses, inns… It was probably the most haphazardly arranged shopping mall ever, but it made for a dazzling city strip.

“Do you think we’ll see a pegasus here?” Minty said, her eyes darting back and forth across the street, staring at passers-by and admiring some of the saucier billboards. “Can they really fly, or are the wings just for show?”

I did my best to keep my own head lowered and my gaze on the pavement. “There’s probably a few in town, but they’ll keep a low profile. Pegasi aren’t exactly welcome here, for good reason.”

Minty frowned. “Wait, didn’t you say bandits didn’t care about race? If we were pegasi, they wouldn’t let us in?”

I shook my head and maneuvered around a weedy stallion who was plodding along in front of me. “No. They’d still let us in, but they’d keep close tabs on us, to make sure we didn’t start anything.” I decided not to mention that even the most suspicious pegasi would probably draw less attention than the two of us. There were certainly people here who’d be willing to break the ceasefire for a chance at Tomb’s bounty.

Our destination was just a few blocks down the road. There were plenty of other taverns and other gathering places in town, but this one was the cheapest, the roughest, and the rowdiest, and it was the natural place to start recruiting.

Minty was still speechless, and she walked with her head turned to the side to marvel at each establishment. She slowed down noticeably as we passed a brothel.

I gave her a soft kick in the ankle. “Stay focused, we’re not here to have fun.”

Minty sighed. “Yeah, I know.”

The traffic grew thicker as we ventured deeper into town, and I stepped closer to Minty to avoid losing her in the crowd. My face was still pointed at the ground in front of me, but I could tell that the number of eyes on me was growing by the minute. I glanced across the street, to a small plaza that marked a kind of town center. Small groups were clustered around the square, all looking our way. I bowed my head again and picked up the pace.

Minty noticed the attention as well. “Hey, Phishy,” she whispered slyly. “I think you’re famous.”

Infamous, maybe. Then again, in a place like this, that was probably the only kind of fame a person could have.

I was used to attracting a lot of notice, but this was different from the usual scorn and mistrust. These stares were sharp and calculating, and above all dangerous. I forced my shoulders to drop and my jaw to unclench, and looked up at the buildings on our right as casually as I could.

“Here,” I said, and nudged Minty into a tiny alley in the middle of the block. The walls were nearly too tight for us to walk beside one another here, and the morning light barely reached us through the shadow of the buildings. At the end of the alley was a door.

“The Reaper’s Bounty?” Minty asked, reading the hanging sign. “Sounds spooky.”

“Don’t let the name scare you, it’s mostly just a joke about the owner.”

“Is the owner the Grim Reaper?” she asked tentatively.

I pushed the door open. “You’ll see in a second. And remember—”

“Stick close to you and don’t do anything stupid?” she blurted.

I gave her an encouraging smile. Maybe she really could be taught. “Yes. Those two things and nothing more.”

We entered to the noise of a dozen conversations and tinny warbling jazz from an old jukebox. Before the door had time to close behind us, voices died and chairs creaked, and nearly every person in the room turned to examine us. By the time I’d taken my first step forward, the moment ended. Conversations resumed and eyes wandered back to their glasses or their companions. Between the door and the bar, I heard the word ‘zebra’ from several lips. No surprise there.

Behind the bar, a mare was stacking mugs with the rote efficiency of a veteran bartender. I settled onto a chair and set a hoof on the bar. Minty followed suit. When the bartender looked up from her task, I heard Minty suppress a gasp. “Told you you’d see in a second.”

The ghoul raised an eyebrow—her only eyebrow. “Got a joke to share?” she asked. Large patches of flesh on the left side of her face were completely stripped away, revealing yellow bone.

Minty’s lips flapped for a second, then she sputtered, “I remember you! Your friend bit me in the sewers!” The rest of the bar froze and stared at Minty, until snorts, chuckles, and finally guffaws broke the silence. Even the bartender cracked a wide smile and let out a few breathy laughs. I facehoofed.

Once the laughter had calmed, the ghoul tapped her hoof on the bar and grinned at Minty. “Sounds like you’re saying we ghouls all look the same… You must be new to the Wasteland. What are ya, a tribal?”

Minty nodded slowly.

“She’s a ghoul all right, but Ringer here isn’t feral,” I explained. Should’ve expected that.

The ghoul laughed again, and then turned to me. “And you. Phisa. Been awhile since you were last here. Wasn’t expecting you to stop by.”

I snorted. “You mean you were hoping I wouldn’t.”

Dead Ringer gave a short laugh. “Maybe. Well, a customer is still a customer. Can I get you fillies something to drink?”

“Uhm,” Minty said, then turned to me. I nodded. “Right! Two Sparkle Colas please. Unless you want something else?” Minty asked me.

“Cola’s fine. I’m also looking for some answers,” I said to the bartender and hoofed over some caps.

“Well, shoot. I should’ve guessed you came here to do more than just drink.” She swept up the caps and returned with two ice cold bottles of Sparkle Cole. Minty descended on hers like she was dying of thirst.

I took a shallow swig. “I need bodies. Heard of any groups in town that hold a grudge against the Gravestones?”

The ghoul mare pursed her lips and gave me a curious look. “Funny. Yesterday there was this pegasus who asked the exact same thing.”

I blinked. The mare sounded serious, but what interest would a pegasus have in Tomb’s enemies?

“There was a pegasus here?” Minty sputtered, coughing on a trickle of cola. “Where is he? Can I meet him?”

Normally I might have rolled my eyes at that, but she’d barely beaten me to the question. If someone else was serious about taking down Tomb, then it was in my best interest to meet with him.

She nodded. “Aye. He came in rather boldly, along with a cloaked griffon. I told him he’d be stupid to try and mess with Tomb. He just laughed me off and went down the street to ask the same question. If there’s anypony dumb enough to hate Tomb in public, those two’ve probably already found ‘em.” She shrugged. “Dunno where they are now. Might’ve already left town.”

I gritted my teeth and snorted, then sank back in my chair.

Minty frowned at me. “Guess we’re gonna need a change of plan?”

“Yeah.” I turned my attention down to my drink and pondered.

An awkward silence fell between us. Finally the ghoul spoke up. “So, you’ve asked your questions. Might if I ask a couple myself? I heard a rumor recently that I was hoping you’d confirm.”

I glared at her. “No. Whatever you heard about zebras is probably bullshit.”

“Not about zebras. Not really,” she responded quickly. “Now, maybe you don’t know about them, but this gang, the Crossbones, were a big deal years ago. And I heard that they always had a zebra filly tagging along with them. Other than you, I don’t know of any zebra mares in the Valley.”

My body tensed up. “You looking for this zebra filly for any specific reason?”

“Well, there was this mare who came by a few weeks ago telling stories about the Crossbones, including the zebra part.” The ghoul grinned. “If you were that zebra filly, then maybe you could tell me how a well-known and well-feared gang just up and disappeared like that.”

I finished my cola, then gave her a harsh stare. “That’s none of your business.”

Ringer sighed. “Well, it was worth asking.”

I shook my head. “Anyway, thanks for the info.” I stood up and turned for the door. Minty pulled her tongue out of her empty bottle and did the same. The hushed murmurs rose in volume as we neared the door.

Outside, Minty tapped me with a hoof. “Wait! This is the first I’ve heard about these ‘Crossbone’ ponies.”

“We don’t have time for this, Minty.” I said. “We need to figure out our next move. Quickly.”

“Are there any Crossbones in that story you told me before? About the stallion who died?” Minty asked.

I didn’t reply, my eyes already scouting the skyline for our next recourse..

“Hey! Stripebutt!” Shouted a rough voice behind me. We turned and saw a golden brown griffon running toward us, waving a foreleg. I didn’t recognize him, but the insignia on his mottled barding told me plenty. A former Talon. The familiar marking was scored out with several slash marks.


He stopped a few feet away and sighed. He scratched the back of his head lazily. “The boss wants you.”

“Why?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Fuck do I know? I’m just the messenger. You want details, you’ll need to ask her.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Who’s your boss?”

“Pfft, Roulette. Who else?”

I squinted. “Roulette?”

The griffon rolled his eyes. “Yeah. Owner-slash-mayor Roulette, that one.”

Ah, right. That was her name. Roulette, not Turntable. I gave him a stern look. “And how do I know you’re not just trying to mug us?”

He smirked. “Dunno, don’t care. My job’s to tell you she wants to meet.”

“And if I decide not to show?”

The griffon shrugged. “No sweat off my balls. I’m not going to drag you off in chains. Roulette doesn’t pay nearly good enough for that.”

I contemplated my options, and then looked back at Minty. “Well, I think we have a new plan. Let’s go.”

We were led back toward the plaza, then across it, our griffon guide breaking up the crowd for us. On the far side was a large, well-maintained building with a glowing neon sign proudly declaring it “Snake Eyes.” Unfortunate name for a casino, I thought, but Minty seemed to get a kick out of it. The guards at the door didn’t blink an eye as we passed.Inside the casino was nearly the opposite of Dead Ringer’s dive bar. Ponies and griffons alike were singing, dancing, and gambling in high spirits as classic wartime music blared. Poker tables, roulettes, slot machines; all were occupied by desperate ponies looking for a lucky break.

Minty snorted with a frown as she caught up to me. “Wow, this place stinks. And not the good kind.”

The griffon glanced back with a half bored expression. “Yeah, it reeks, but you think it’d get any business as a smoke-free zone? Be glad you’re here early, or we’d be tip-toeing around puke puddles.”

We crossed the gambling hall and climbed a set of stairs. There were guards with battle-saddles at every threshold, but none of them so much as glanced our way as we passed. The top floor turned out to be a single hallway, with a series of doors on both sides. The griffon led us right to the end and up to the furthest door.

“Aight, here’s the place.” He curled his talons into a fist and knocked twice. “Aaaand that’s my cue. Don't cause any shit!” he called as he padded back toward the stairs. “Hope the bar’s open,” he muttered under his breath, almost too quiet to catch.

I narrowed my eyes and called out, “You aren’t coming in with us?”

“She didn’t say, so no, I’m not. I could come in…” he scratched his chin. “But I don't feel like it. If you excuse me, there’s a bottle of rum calling my name.” He disappeared down the stairs.

I had an odd feeling about this. “Minty, stay by the door and shout if anyone shows up.” There. That’d give me advance warning of any ambushes, and she wouldn’t be able to ruin the meeting by running her mouth.

Minty gave a nod and planted her flank. “Okie dokie! I’ll keep my eyes and ears wide open!”

I entered.

Roulette’s office looked more like a parlor or living room than anything. There was a pool table, dart board, and even a stocked liquor cabinet. The only occupant, a tan earth pony mare, was languidly rattling a cocktail shaker with her back to the door.

“Ah, you’re here!” she said without turning. “Good, I was worried you wouldn’t come. Then I’d have had to drink both these myself.” She gestured to a pair of highball glasses filled with amber liquid. “Trust me, it’s the best in Pona Rosa.”

I trotted over and sniffed at the drinks. My sinuses burned. “I’ll pass.”

Roulette’s expression didn’t change. “Well, I guess I have to over-indulge after all.” She grasped a glass and tilted it back.

“You didn’t invite me here to offer me a drink.”

Her expression darkened. “That’s right, I have a business proposal for you. But remember, this is my office, my building, and my town, so you might want to show some courtesy.” She knocked the glass back again. “Now, back to my aforementioned opportunity. Please, take a seat.”

I glanced around the room, at the various of bar stools, benches, and ratty office chairs, and through clenched teeth I said, “Sorry, but I’d prefer to stand, if it’s all the same to you.”

Her lips twisted upward a tick. “Whatever you prefer, dear. Now, I understand you’ve recently parted ways with your former employer, one Tomb of the Gravestone gang.” She rolled her eyes as she said the names.

I nodded. “Seems just about everyone in the Valley knows.”

“Are you surprised? You’re a major player in these parts, especially now that you’re unattached. Everypony’s gonna want you, whether they want you dead, alive, or either.”

“Think this is your chance to acquire me?” I asked.

Roulette blinked and let out a little surprised laugh. “‘Fraid I’m not hiring long-term at the moment. I’ve already got muscle, although…” She glanced at the door, “I suppose if you are looking to settle in town—”

I shook my head. “Then why did you send for me?”

She finished off her glass and reached for the next. I could tell from the sharpness of her eyes that the booze was passing through her like water.

“Two reasons. One, you’ve clearly got it out for Tomb.” I opened my mouth to respond, but she raised a hoof. “Don’t need to say anything. It’s plain as day that you’ve got big plans, and I’ll bet that those plans will work out in Pona Rosa’s best interests. If anything, I’d like to give you a helping hoof.”

I scowled. I’d expected either a recruitment pitch or an ultimatum. “And in exchange?”

“Ah, it’s refreshing to talk with somepony who knows how things work. In exchange, I need a problem solved, here in town.” She set the second glass down, empty, and exhaled a slow breath. “This problem’s gotta be dealt with, but it can’t be solved by me or anypony working for me, and it’s a bit of a doozy, not something I can dump onto some mouth-breather off the street. What do you say?”

“I need more details. Is this a hit?”

She shrugged. “In a sense. The local brawling scene, The Cage, has been in a bit of a competitive slump for a month or two, and it’s hurting business. My business. Ponies are whispering about cheating, match-fixing, and all sorts of shady dealings, but The Cage ain’t mine to police, and I aim to avoid being accused of meddling.”

“So you want me to, what, investigate? I’m not a detective.”

Roulette snorted. “Detective? Please. I want you to enforce, dear. Poke around, see who wets themselves when you start asking questions, then lead them outside and pop their head off.”

I thought about it for a moment. “And if I do this, you’ll help me? You don’t even know what I’m planning, what I’ll need.”

She laughed and gestured around. “Phisa, this is Pona Rosa. I’m Roulette. Give me time and I could get you a live balefire bomb. Just hold up your end, and don’t worry a tick about mine.”

It was an offer too good to refuse, which was usually a good sign that it was also too good to be true. But I needed resources, and Roulette definitely had those at her disposal. “All right, I’ll do it.” With a final nod her way, I trotted for the door.

She cleared her throat to stop me. She moved to the desk and opened a drawer, then returned with a small pouch. Bottlecaps rattled inside it. “I wouldn’t send you to the main attraction in Pona Rosa without enough caps for tickets.”

“I’m not sure about this.”

On the way out of the casino and toward The Cage, I’d explained Roulette’s offer to Minty in detail. She grew restless when I laid out my plan. It seemed that while she was becoming more used to killing ponies in defense of herself or others, the idea of pursuing and executing a stranger in cold blood was still new and disturbing to her.

“I don’t have much choice, Minty. Roulette would be a powerful ally, especially right now. She could clap her hooves and have a gang assembled in a day.” I hardened my expression. “And besides, the pony we’re after must be a regular at The Cage. They’ve probably got plenty of blood on their hooves.”

Minty sighed as well, still looking uncomfortable.

“Look, if there’s a way we can do this without killing anyone, we’ll try.” That seemed noncommittal enough, and Minty brightened a bit.

The Cage wasn’t far, and it was easy to find. It almost seemed to be situated like a second, alternative town center, just barely out of sight of Roulette’s casino. It stood a story or two taller than every building around it and occupied almost a full block all on its own. An expanse of cracked concrete surrounded it, and more typical Wasteland dwellings of wood and metal had been erected here and there in the empty space.

The crowd grew thick and rowdy near the doors. A pair of large ponies, both wearing battle saddles, guarded the entrance, glaring menacingly at anyone who stepped too far out of line.

We joined the end of the queue and waded slowly forward. Step by step, the pressure of bodies around us eased, until eventually I raised my head to see a clear path before us, leading right up to the doors. Everyone was staring, some shouting, clamouring.

“Why are they looking at us like that?” Minty whispered.

I moved faster, driving our pace toward the door. “Fighters don’t wait in line,” I said. “And we definitely look like fighters.”

We stopped before the guards. The one on the left raised a hoof, then an eyebrow. “You new?”

I shook my head. “We’re here to spectate.” With slow, deliberate movements, I held up the pouch Roulette had given me. “We’ll get back in line if you want.”

The other pony took the pouch and glanced inside. “Nah, head on in. Enjoy the match. Maybe seeing blood flying in there will change your mind about competing.” They stepped aside, the pony on the left held the door open.

We entered and were immediately assaulted by a wave of noise, shouting and laughing and stomping, loud as a pitched battle. Other than an immense glare of spotlights focused on the titular cage, the building was dark and barely lit. Tall viewing stands lined the walls, leaving only a small corner of the space for the lobby.

We were too far down to see into the cage itself, but from the noise, gunfire and banging metal, as well as the jets of fire spilling out over the edge, a fight seemed to already be underway.

One of the fighters crashed against the bars of the cage, and I managed to catch a glimpse. Her coat was solid black, and fire spouted from her horn as she gasped for breath. Then she disappeared, lunging back into the fray.

Something about her tickled my memory. Faces I’d avoided thinking of for a long time flashed through my mind. I shook myself and turned back to Minty. Just imagining things.

“Alright, here’s the plan. We split up and ask around. I’ll check at the betting booth and look for any suspicious patterns. You try to socialize. Find out what’s on people’s minds, what they think of the competition, who they’ve got money on. Anything.” I thought for a minute. Something I was forgetting... “Oh. And don’t do anything stupid.”

Minty nodded. “Yup yup! I’m on it!. If I learn anything, you’ll be the first to hear it!”

“Uh… I’d better be?” I said, but Minty’s tail was already vanishing into the crowd.

The betting booth was attended by an older mare. She blinked as I approached. “Well, you’re an interesting face. I reckon you’re here to participate?” She grinned. “I just know the crowd would love to see a zebra in the ring. ‘Specially the same zebra from all those wanted posters.”

I shook my head. “No, I’m just here to bet.”

She sighed and shook her head. “Damn shame. If you did well, I’m sure you’d be a shoe-in for the regulars circuit, just like Sundance out there.” She gestured toward the Cage.

My questions about betting, competing, and circuits were cut short in an instant. “Sundance?”

The mare nodded. “Yup. She’s a bit of an odd one. Never wins, but she keeps coming back, and the everypony eats it up. Almost enough to inspire a boring old mare like myself.”

I turned back toward the Cage. The commotion hadn’t stopped, and after a second I saw more of the same pyrotechnics shoot up into the air. It was her. Sundance.

“And she’s a regular,” the mare continued, talking to my shoulder. “That means she gets a little protection—regulars don’t fight to the death, just until they can’t keep fighting. And they get matches every week or so and a bigger slice of the profits for as long as the bets keep rolling in. With Sundance, it’s the same story every fight. Never, ever wins, but everypony thinks that maybe this’ll be the one, the big turnaround for her.” She sighed. “It won’t last forever, but damn if it ain’t compelling.”

My hooves started moving, and I trotted numbly toward the stands. Behind me, the bookie called, “Hey! Don’t ya want to make a bet?”

A deep horn bellowed, the lights flashed, and the crowd roared as the match ended. I climbed the stands just in time to see Sundance laying on her side, bruised and bloodied, with one of her legs twisted around sickeningly. Her opponent had already left, and the lights dimmed.

I stared, trying to rationalize what I was seeing, who I was seeing. Her coat, her mane, her freckles, her orange eyes…

She raised her head feebly, and her eyes landed on mine. She froze, and I saw the flash of recognition on her face.

It was her. Sundance. One of the three surviving members of the Crossbones, and a pony I used to despise more than anyone else.