• 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 6: Black Soul


It had been over a decade since the last time I’d seen her. And we didn’t exactly part on good terms. Or rather, the whole Crossbone gang didn’t part on good terms.

Across the building, I could see the aftermath of the fight. Sundance huddled in one corner, cradling her injured leg. Her opponent, the clear winner, postured and celebrated in the center of the cage. The air was filled with both cheers and boos. Two ponies hurried into the ring and clustered around Sundance. With their help, she soon got to her hooves and limped off the stage.

The bookie had told me she had been on a losing streak… Sundance had always been stubborn, but if every fight was like this, I couldn’t imagine her signing up for it over and over again. She hated losing. If winning wasn’t an option, wasn’t not playing better than constant beatings? Sundance had been tough, and she’d been arrogant, but she’d never been stupid.

That lead to the obvious question: was she behind the match fixing I’d been sent to stop? It seemed way too obvious, and way too convenient. Here was a pony I hated, a reminder of times I usually did my best not to think about, and I was effectively being paid to fuck her up. But… so far she was the most likely culprit. She was the name on everyone’s lips, somehow both the underdog and the dark horse.

As I stood there, the expression frozen on my face, I started to put it together. The crowd’s excitement as she withstood blow after blow, their cheers as she got back to her hooves. The sizable package a pony passed her as she slipped behind the bleachers and out of sight. More caps than I had to my name, most likely.

The bookie next to me sighed. “Already over, huh? It always goes downhill quick for that filly, but damn if she doesn’t put on a good show.” She shook her head. “Well, the next matches will be coming up, so if you’re still wanting to bet…”

“Have any of your other regulars had losing streaks like this?” I asked.

She tilted her head and narrowed her eyes. “Now why’d you be asking a thing like that?”

I put on a smirk. “Because I was thinking of entering. If there are people I can beat without trying, I’d like to know ahead of time.”

The mare pursed her lips—hiding a smile—and looked down at something out of my sight. “Well, nopony loses like Sundance, but based on reputation alone I’d say you’re above the nobodies.” She inspected me for a moment. “Now, Sundance is scheduled for another round in two days, same time. She’s going up against one of the other house favorites, but…” A slow grin spread across her face. “Yeah, there’s something there, all right.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Something there?” I echoed.

“This isn’t my job for nothing. I can tell when two ponies have a history.” Her smile widened. “Try to hide it all you like, but there was fire in your eyes and death on your face when you looked at her. Crowds eat that stuff up.”

I said nothing; my frown spoke for itself.

She shrugged. “I’ll take that as a yes.” She slapped a paper onto her desk. “So tell you what? I’ve heard some chatter ‘bout infighting between some high ranking Gravestones. Ponies are real curious about you.” She lifted her head up. “Sundance is squared up against another challenger in two days, some wannabe from down the board. Almost nopony will notice if I just—” she slashed her pen across her desk, then scribbled something down—”swap some names around.” She levitated the paper up onto the kiosk. The pen floated above it, wrapped in a warm orange glow. “If you can be ready by that time, then it’s all yours. A jump start on your Cage career, plus a good stack of caps for an easy bout.”

I glanced down on the paper; a hastily written, and surprisingly simple, terms of agreement.

“Spare ponies on the DNK (Do Not Kill) list, and act according to role (defined by The Company’s representative). The Company (The Cage (LLC)) is released from all liability in cases of injury or death.”

“Let me think about it.” I slid the paper back to her. “I'll stop by later.”

She nodded. “All right, take yer time. I’ll keep this here contract on hoof until we close tonight.”

A thought struck me, and my muzzle wrinkled. “One last question. What happens if I kill her?”

The booth mare laughed. “Well…” She glanced at the rest of the crowd. “We don’t really have to do anything. The audience’ll decide what you deserve.”

I winced, imagining the stampede and subsequent lynching. I nodded. “All right, two days, I’ll be back soon.”

I turned away and faced the crowd. The rest of the building vanished behind moving bodies, multi-colored pelts darting left and right. I stepped forward and plunged into the fray. Minty couldn’t be too far away.

I found her in the mare’s bathroom, which was disturbingly crowded.

She pranced up to me, thankfully still fully armored. “Phishy! I thought you left already!”

“I wouldn’t just leave you.” I glanced side to side. “Learn anything?”

Minty looked to the ceiling and hummed. “Well, I did hear something about a ‘Sundance’.”

“That she’s on a losing streak?”

“Yeah! And she’s really cute.”

I winced and soldiered on. “Nothing else?”

She let out a long and exaggerated hum. “Not really. Just a lot of ponies talking about her. They seemed really disappointed.”

Okay, no. Sundance was definitely up to something. She was the thing everypony was talking about, despite her apparently unprecedented losing streak.

Still… it was awfully convenient.

I took a deep breath, then said, “This place is too… insular. We need more. Let’s split up and ask around town.”

Minty nodded.

We pushed through the crowd and trotted out of the Cage, heading in opposite directions. Even Minty couldn’t screw up something as simple as this.

Twenty minutes and few streets later, I was reminded that gathering information wasn’t easy in a town full of criminals. The few people who I managed to drag into a conversation seemed more interested in talking about the Gravestones than the Cage. A few mentioned Sundance, and I caught the names of a few other regulars. Apparently the title didn’t carry as much prestige as the Cage bookie had suggested, based on the tone in which everyone talked about them. Most were older fighters, experienced but starting to slow down—retired bandits in search of a slightly safer profession.

None seemed noteworthy, and none were mentioned nearly as often as Sundance. Despite her massive losing streak, she seemed just as popular on the streets of Pona Rosa as she was with the crowds in the Cage.

It was pathetic really, for everyone involved. Them, for buying into whatever game she was playing. Sundance, for subjecting herself to beating after beating in exchange for a few caps and some prestige. And me, for having to get involved in the first place. A blind foal could have sniffed out Sundance’s scheme.

Before long, a sneer crept onto my muzzle, and it grew with each passing minute. Eventually I couldn’t stand to talk to another pony. I stopped at the first public washrooms I passed and ducked inside.

There weren’t any doors on the stalls, so I knew immediately that I was alone. I rested my hooves on the edge of the sink and stared at my reflection in the cracked mirror. The scowl was still there, but behind it I could see exhaustion around my eyes and brow. I’d been awake for nearly a full day, and for most of that time we were cantering on our hooves. Sleep would be very welcome, but even as I fantasized about slipping away to a secluded hotel for a few hours, I knew I wouldn’t be able to relax. The price on my head was too high, and there were too many people around eager to cash in on it.

The less time we spent in Pona Rosa, the better.

I tried to focus, to think of where to head next. I glared at myself and dared a solid thought to form.

The sound of hooves on tile echoed in from the bathroom’s entrance. I raised my eyes from the exhausted zebra in the mirror to the approaching shape just over her shoulder.

“Phisa… right?” Older and with a slight tinge of a fancy Tenpony accent, I still recognized her voice. A kind of middle-of-nowhere drawl that stuck out like a broken leg here in the Valley.

Sundance trotted up behind me, thankfully stopping at a impersonal distance. We met eyes in the mirror.

She nodded to herself. “Yeah, I was pretty sure, but then I haven’t seen you in, phew, eight years? Ten? Don’t remember your hair being so black. You dye it now or something?”

The muscles in my legs coiled tight, and I turned to look at her directly. For a pony who’d just been beaten into a puddle of blood and pain an hour ago, she looked nearly untouched, save a spattering of bruises along one side. She must have chugged a healing potion or two.

I struggled to keep my jaw unclenched and my face neutral. I don’t think I quite succeeded.

Sundance glanced past me, to the mirror, and then her eyes flitted up toward the ceiling. Her front right hoof made a faint tapping sound as she shifted back and forth. Her muzzle scrunched. “You know it isn’t easy tracking somepony down in Pona Rosa. Took a lot of asking around and a few favors I didn’t want to call in, so it would be polite to at least give me a yes or no.”

My heartrate spiked and blood rushed behind my ears, but starting a brawl in a neutral zone like this was almost guaranteed to go badly. I inhaled deeply through my nose and raised my shoulders a bit. “Yes,” I said gruffly. “What do you want, Sundance?”

She blinked and eyed me over again. “Grew up, huh? That’s a pleasant surprise.” She chuckled, but it sounded forced. “I knew you were a big scary gang enforcer and all that now, but I couldn’t really picture you as a grown mare, not even when I saw your face on all those wanted posters.”

“It’s been eleven years.” I’d forgotten just how much I hated sharing the same air as her. The Cage bookie’s offer was seeming more and more appealing. “What do you want? If it’s a fight then I have good news for you.”

Sun’s eyes widened and she inched back toward the exit. “Woah, easy there, killer. I’m here for the opposite reason, kinda. See, I know I was kinda awful to you back in the day, and I was hoping to make amends, maybe—”

“Amends for nearly roasting me alive?” I closed the distance between us, and I was pleased to realize I could finally glare down at her. “What could you possibly have that I want? And vice versa? There’s no Crossbone gang to rejoin, if that’s what you’re after.”

“So they’re really gone?” she said quietly.

I sniffed. She didn’t deserve to know even that much about them. The room was plunged into silence.

Sundance cleared her throat and tried on a confident smile, like an eager merchant with a mark in sight. She extended a hoof. “Look, I was awful back then. I know that now. I’ve spent more than a few nights thinking back and wondering what hurt you the most. The insults, the shoves… or that one time when I really lost control.” She probably saw my expression harden and quickly moved on. “Anyway, I just want you to know that I regret it. A lot. I never really considered your feelings—anypony’s feelings—back then, and… I’m sorry.”

She was apologizing? I used to fantasize about Sundance breaking down and apologizing, in between my fantasies of bashing her face in and making her apologize. A younger Phisa would have probably taken Sundance at her word and agreed to move on. But that Phisa died with the Crossbones.

Sundance was apologizing for tormenting me as a foal, as if I gave a shit about her one way or another. Her words on the other hoof, those thoughtless insults and the casual way she kicked my legs out when nopony else was looking? They were important. And every year since the gang was slaughtered, I internalized those lessons a bit deeper.

I had been weak, dependent, and slow. With Sundance's voice in the back of my head, I grew out of it.

And now she wanted to take it all back. That was the real insult.

My stomp echoed throughout the restroom. “If that’s all you’ve got to say, then I think we’re done here.”

She bit her lip. “Ah, no, that wasn’t all. I saw you in the crowd earlier, at the Cage.” She looked me up and down again. “How do you feel about a mutually beneficial deal?”

Business, then. I could do business. “Go on.”

“Well, my partner and I have been making decent caps on my losses. We’re planning on me having just two more matches here before leaving, but now I’ve got to thinking… why not leave with a bang?”

So that was one suspicion confirmed: Sundance was behind the match fixing, not that there was ever much doubt. Now she wanted to involve me in it. Strictly speaking, I was well within my rights to kill Sundance then and there. It would only take a shotgun shell and a quick visit to Roulette to tell her that the bathroom needed cleaning.

However… I had promised Minty that I’d look for a non-lethal solution. Not to mention a turn in the ring with Sundance would be the perfect opportunity to give her a black eye or two.

“What kind of bang?”

“The stakes against me have gone up so far that the caps have nearly dried out. Losing isn’t the money-maker it used to be. So… what if I won? We’d take the house!” She beamed, nearly bouncing on her hooves.

I narrowed my eyes. “You want me to throw the match? For you?”

“We’ll split the winnings, of course. Seventy-thirty.” She held out a hoof, as if expecting a bump.

“Less than a third?” I asked. “I would be doing most of the work. Fifty-fifty or nothing.”

She retracted her hoof, hesitated for a moment, then shrugged. “You know what? We don’t need to agree to anything solid right now. You’ve only met half the team, after all. How about lunch tomorrow? I’ll introduce you to Dove Trick, my partner in crime.”

“A literal partner in your literal crime, I assume?”

She waggled a hoof. “We’re partners in most things nowadays. But yes, she’s the other half of the scheme. Well, other third, now. You’ll see.” She saw the doubt on my face and added, “Look, if all else fails, it’s a free lunch. We’ll even cover your drink tab.”

“... I don’t drink.”

Sun chuckled. “Still? That’s fine—we’ll just eat. And it’s still on us. Seriously, running a gambling racket for over a month is a good way to pad your pockets, so we’ve got caps to spare for the three of-”

“Four,” I blurted. Trying to talk business with Minty at my side would be difficult enough, but doing so while at a table with two other young mares would probably be a new level of annoying. However, the alternative—cutting her loose in Pona Rosa—was even more stomach churning.

Sundance bit her lip. “Well… we only have enough for three of us.”

I was starting to get sick of talking to Sundance, sick of standing in a public washroom, and overall sick of being in Pona Rosa. “Then I’ll buy my own damn food,” I snapped. “What time are we meeting tomorrow?”

Sundance pursed her lips and backed up a step. “I… I really am sorry for when we were kids. I didn’t—”

“I don’t give a shit, Sundance. I don’t care that you called me names a decade ago, I don’t care that you feel bad about it, and I barely care that you want something from me now.” I stepped closer. “What. Time?”

“Wha—but…” Her lips flapped for a few seconds. “Okay then. All business. Got it.” She glanced at the ground and muttered, “Sun ‘Professionalism’ Dance, that’s me.” She looked back up. “Noon.”

“We’ll be there.” I stepped past her and into the restroom doorway.

Sundance sighed. “Sure. Call it a double date.”

I glared back at her, and she looked away.

“That’s what I thought.”

I found Minty on a street corner. Naturally, she was chatting with a pair of attractive mares, both of whom were grinning from ear to ear. I had a feeling they weren’t talking about match fixing. Not that it mattered at this point. The investigation, if you could call it that, was over.

Minty noticed my approached and her face fell a little. She glanced between me and her newfound friends. “Sorry, um, I think I’ve got to go now.”

One of them took a step closer and touched a hoof to Minty’s ankle. “You’ll come visit, won’t you?” she said, more a suggestion than a question.

“Minty! Let’s go,” I said once I was within earshot. I gave Minty a gentle shove. “We need to find a hotel.”

“Oh! Happy Ending and Cat Call work at a hotel! We should totally go there.” She looked back toward the mares with a hopeful smile on her face.

They were already backing away, and when I looked toward them they turned and cantered down the street and into the closest alley.

I rolled my eyes. Ponies. “We need to report back to Roulette first anyway, and she can probably get us a free room somewhere in the casino.” I glanced in the direction the two mares had fled. “Besides, you probably wouldn’t have gotten much sleep at their place.”

Minty folded her ears and mumbled, “... Say that like it’s a bad thing...”

I rolled my eyes. “Maybe another time.”

We hurried through the streets, where the crowds were finally starting to thin out. I knew that they wouldn’t stay that way for long. Pona Rosa was even brighter at night than during the day.

We entered the casino and I headed straight for the second floor offices. No one tried to stop us until we stood right outside Roulette’s office. There were muffled voices on the other side of the door. One tense and bitter, the other calm and placating.

I pointed Minty toward a chair on the far side of the hallway, then crept up to the door. Naturally, as soon as I pressed my ear to the wood, the voices broke off and hoofsteps headed my way. Or rather, pawsteps. I scrambled backward in time for the door to burst open, revealing a pissed-off griffon.

The griffon froze in the doorway and stared at the two of us. His eyes slid across our weapons, and he started to open his beak. Then he took another glance into the room behind him, scoffed, and stepped around me. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t,” he muttered as he passed.

Minty and I both watched him storm down the stairs toward the casino, his tail flicking viciously.

I started to ask, “Was that the same griffon who—”

“Yup!” Minty chirped. “Think he was mad about something?”

A voice behind us said, “Some griffons don’t seem to understand how contracts work.”

I turned and was face to face with Roulette. She stared past me with a disdainful smirk on her face.

“What was that about?” I asked.

“Tsk. Don’t worry yourself about that one. Just a mercenary malcontent whose job security is much weaker than he seems to think.” She grinned widely. “Now, I assume you’ve got nothing but good news?”

“I don’t have a name yet, but I’m close.” Until Sundance explained her offer, I wanted to keep my options open. “I’m thinking of entering the Cage myself. If anyone knows who’s behind the match fixing, it’s the fighters themselves.”

Roulette cocked an eyebrow. “Smart. Since you’re here, I guess there’s a ‘but’ coming up. What do you need?”

I raised an eyebrow in return. “A place to stay would be welcome. And some caps to prepare for the fight.” I stared her down even harder. “Unless you’re suggesting something… else.”

Roulette let out an airy laugh. “Oh, no no no hon. We don’t need any more funny business around that establishment. I’m happy to provide a room for you and your friend, and I’m sure I can find some caps to spare. Problem-solvers like you always charge for expenses, don’tcha?”

I nodded. Honestly I had never actually done freelance work like this, but gangs always supplied basic weapons and ammunition and a place to crash, so it seemed right for Roulette to do the same.

“Then it’s settled!” she said with a clap of her hooves. "I have a room reserved for guests here in the casino, which you’re of course welcome to. When you need caps, see the cashier downstairs. Just say you have the VIP package.” She stepped closer and slipped a leg around my neck. With her face inches from mine, she whispered, “And I’ll slip word to the major vendors in town that you’re a good friend of mine. You’ll get their very best prices.”

“Thanks.” I nodded again and shifted my shoulders, trying to edge away from her. “Then I’ll go sign up before the Cage closes.”

I turned around and blinked. Minty was nowhere to be seen.

“Bye for now dear!” Roulette called. The door behind me clicked shut.

I rolled my eyes and started toward the stairs. The tables, maybe? Minty hadn’t mentioned an interest in gambling before, but I wouldn’t put it past her. Maybe I should just head to the highest concentration of mares I could find.

To my surprise, I found her just at the base of the stairs, at the nearest bar. The griffon from earlier sat on the stool next to her. He glanced up as I approached. He saluted Minty and hurried off toward the exit.

I stood on the bottom step and watched him leave. My nose wrinkled. That catbird kept cropping up and then disappearing right when I wanted to talk to him. It was starting to get on my nerves.

I stalked up to the bar and waved the bartender away. “What were you two talking about?” I asked Minty.

“Oh! Vandy seemed to be annoyed that Roulette isn’t telling him something. I just told him that it’d be alright, like before!”


She giggled. “Vandal.”

I shook my head. “And you said ‘like before’? Before what?”

“At the Cage. Don’tcha remember? He was outside. We were talking while you were inside.” She looked down suddenly, avoiding my gaze. “I mean… uh… I was looking for clues and stuff. He seemed to know… you know…”

I ignored her. I started toward the casino exit. “Come on. We need to get back to the Cage.”

“Phisa of the Gravestone gang…”

“Just Phisa,” I corrected.

“Oh, sorry. Ahem. Phisa…” The bookie looked up from her contract. “Just Phisa? No gang? No nickname?”

I shrugged.

“Tell ya what, I’ll come up with one for you. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.” The old mare scribbled a few notes down on a separate sheet of paper. “All right, sign here.”

I did my best to make the word ‘Phisa’ look like a fancy signature. It turned into an illegible mess of scribbles, but the bookie seemed satisfied.

“Two days at dusk, then.”

We bumped hooves and I trotted away. One more chore over with; one less obstacle between me and sleep.

For once, Minty was where I’d left her. She leaned against the Cage’s walls, staring into the distance. Of course, there were plenty of streetwalkers about. Sooner or later I’d need to find her a lay, if only to take her mind off her crotch.

“Come on,” I said as I passed, gesturing toward the casino. I could just about feel each passing minute. Another minute I wasn’t asleep. Fuck, how long had it been? Thirty hours? Just short?

“So you actually know this Sundance?” Minty asked with all the cheer of someone who’d recently slept. How the fuck was she still so cheery?

“I did. We didn’t exactly part on good terms.”

“Did you guys have a big fight or something?”

I rolled my eyes when I was sure Minty couldn’t see. “That’s one way to put it.”

“She doesn’t sound very nice.” Minty stopped in her tracks. “But I guess you’re not very nice either.”

I felt a headache gathering behind my eyes. “Uh huh. Nobody’s nice. Get used to it.”

Minty’s hoofsteps resumed, slow and ponderous.

“Look, it’s personal, okay? She’s no worse than your average bandit, but she pisses me off. Nothing more to it.”

Minty giggled. Fuck did I hate that giggle. “You’ll tell me everything someday.”

The casino loomed over us, and I hurried toward the entrance. Only the saddest and drunkest patrons were still inside. With some short directions from the door pony, I found my way to Roulette’s guest room. It was unlocked, the bed made, the pillows fluffed. It creeped the shit out of me.

Minty dove into bed with a pillow hugged against her chest.

I dragged the couch in front of the door, then stacked every loose object in the room on top.

With luck, that would be enough.

I woke before dawn and dragged Minty out of bed. I did my best to ignore her drowsy murmurs. They would either annoy me or arouse me, it wasn’t a good time for either. By the time we shuffled outside, she was mostly awake.

The restaurant turned out to be one of the classiest places in Pona Rosa, which, in fairness, wasn’t much of a competition. Minty’s armor drew so much attention that the door attendant didn’t question the saddlebag on my back. When I mentioned Sundance’s name, we were directed toward a private booth near the bar. We settled next to each other and stared at the empty seats across from us.

Minty’s front hooves tapped a slow beat against the edge of the table. “Soooo…”

“We’ll wait for twenty minutes,” I said, glancing at the tables around us. “Stay alert. This could be a trap.”

She cocked her head. “Uh, yeah? You said that she’s not a nice pony and you two don’t get along. I’m all for making new friends and stuff, but isn’t this a really bad idea?”

I rolled my shoulders and glared away an approaching waiter. “Worst case, we need to kill Sundance.” I paused, thinking. “Best case, we get some caps, some connections, and some prestige, and then we kill Sundance. Basically a win-win for us.”

“You said we wouldn’t kill her,” Minty said, loud and clear. She met my eyes with a seriousness I hadn’t seen from her before.

Shit. I was hoping she’d forgotten about that.

“There’s plenty of things between best and worst.”

A pair of dots appeared on my E.F.S., and I turned to see Sundance approaching, alongside a pale blue unicorn. They walked in lock-step, their tails brushing with every movement. So they were a couple. Figures.

Instinctively, I reached for my saddlebag and patted it with a hindleg, feeling the comforting bulk of my shotgun inside. The bag was unbuckled, just in case. Sundance could be planning just about anything, and this would be a very stupid way to die.

I almost wanted her to try something, just so I could show her how little she mattered to me.

The two mares settled in across from us. They somehow sat right next to each other, so close that their sides were touching, yet still seemed to occupy the entire booth.

“Thought you were bringing your own food,” Sundance commented with a glance at the empty table.

Without breaking eye contact, I reached down and retrieved two small, wrapped bundles from my saddlebag. I slid one in front of Minty and set the other in front of myself. “Bighorn steak,” I said. “Three bits apiece from the street cart down the block.”

“Practical,” the blue unicorn said with a sniff. She waved a hoof, and a waiter appeared beside us like magic. “Ready to order, Sunny dear?” she asked Sundance.

Sundance flinched ever so slight, then addressed the waiter. “Yes, I’ll have the… uh... con-fritt pork.”

“Confit,” her companion corrected, with impeccable pronunciation.

Sundance nodded.

“I’ll have the herb gnocchi. Undressed, with a small bowl of olive oil on the side. Oh, and do make sure the lettice is washed properly.”

The waiter bowed. “Of course, madames.” He looked at Minty and I, then glared at the street food before us. He rolled his eyes and trotted off.

“You must be Phisa,” said the blue unicorn. She extended a hoof across the table, carefully avoiding our food. “Sundance has spoken of you. Rather highly, in fact. Were I a lesser mare, I might take that as a threat.”

I extended a hoof in kind and completed the bump. “Nice to meet you, ah…?”

“Dove Trick, of course.” I saw her tail hairs flick against Sundance’s back. “I was under the impression that my dear partner outlined our situation yesterday.”

“She mentioned you, and the scheme you’re running together,” I said.

Minty leaned across the table. “Phishy didn’t say you were both such beautiful fillies though.”

Sundance and I both winced and did our best to ignore her. Dove Trick smiled wickedly and leaned forward, closing the distance between her and the earth pony. “In her defense, Sundance is a very modest mare. She was probably embarrassed to bring it up.”

Minty practically sizzled with excitement. “And Phishy’s a prude,” she offered.

“Is that so? Then perhaps we’ll never know which one left out such a crucial detail.” She shot a smoldering glance between Minty and I. “Although I must say, you two are a pretty pair yourselves.”

Sundance sat ramrod straight in her seat and glared sidelong at both Dove Trick and Minty. “We’re here to talk business,” she said.

“Agreed,” I said, barely believing it. I looked to Sundance and saw a disturbingly sympathetic expression, one I’d probably worn quite a bit over the last few days. “So… the Cage. Talk.”

With one final glare at her marefriend, Sundance placed her front hooves on the table and spoke up. “The gist of it is that ponies like an underdog, and they like a pony who doesn’t give up. I’ve been both of those things for a while, and it’s paid pretty well. But they’re started to get tired of the same old schtick.”

“Indeed,” said Dove. “There are only so many ways I can visibly maim and deform you.” Her horn fizzled with energy, and suddenly the squares of meat in front of Minty and I were transformed into fancy dishes of salad, fruit, small chunks of fish and mushrooms. I couldn’t even imagine how it would taste. Probably like pure caps.

I brushed a hoof across the salad and came away covered in crude juice and sauce.

“My talent,” Dove said. Her horn dimmed, and the gourmet meal melted back into a slab of marinated flesh.

I looked between Sundance and Dove Trick, my mind racing. “That’s how you’ve kept it up so long. You’re never actually hurt.”

“Not usually. Sometimes they get in a lucky shot or two.” Sundance gestured to the bruises along her side. “But yeah, most of the time I stay back and Dove paints me black and blue from the stands. That’s the grift.”

“You picked a good time to cash out,” I said. I glanced sideways at Minty and wished there were some way I could silently signal her. I slowly slid my chair back in case I had to jump to my hooves. “‘Cause Roulette’s on to you, and she’s paying someone to take you out.”

Sundance’s jaw tensed. “Took her long enough. Nopony in town ever seemed to care that we were scamming them.” Then her eyes narrowed and her horn sparked to life. “How do you know about Roulette’s plans?”

“How do you think?”

Beside us, Dove Trick and Minty glanced from face to face, but neither moved to raise a weapon or cast a spell, or even to stand up.

“Are you really surprised?” I said in a measured tone. I felt the comforting weight of my shotgun resting against my leg. “I came to Pona Rosa to find allies, and a favor from Roulette is better than a dozen trained mercs.”

Sundance’s horn glowed and she leaned forward. Dove Trick swept a leg out in across her marefriend’s torso and pressed her back against the seat. “Don’t,” she said. “If they really are working for Roulette, you know who the rest of Pona Rosa will side with. We wouldn’t even make it to main street.”

Sundance let her spell die. She slumped against her chair, but her eyes still burned. “Fine. So why are you telling us? Why not just kill us?”

“Well there’s no need to give her ideas,” Dove whispered.

“I thought about it,” I said. “And trust me, I’m still tempted. But Roulette never said to kill you, exactly. She just wants you gone. And since you’re planning to leave anyway… maybe I can double-dip.”

Sundance snorted. “Go on.”

“It’s simple, really. I throw the match, we split the money, and then I’ll run you out of town and win Roulette over.” It did sound simple, but the tension in my shoulders reminded me exactly what my fallback plan was. “Everyone wins.”

Sundance’s muzzle scrunched. “Why should we split the money with you if Roulette’s paying you anyway? It sounds like you come out on top, above everypony else.”

My jaw clenched so tight that I could have chipped a tooth. “I get a cut of your payout in exchange for not killing you here and now.” Which would honestly be easier for everyone. Especially me.

Dove Trick shifted back in her seat, and Sundance’s horn glowed again.

“Go ahead, try it,” Sundance hissed across the table. “See how far you get.”

With a single hindleg, I flipped open the saddlebags on the ground beneath me and kicked my shotgun into my lap. I stroked its pockmarked barrel with one forehoof while the other braced against the underside of the table. I could flip it in a heartbeat.

Minty’s hoof landed overtop of mine, keeping the shotgun beneath the table. I strained, but fuck she was strong.

I was a second from slipping beneath the table and tackling Sundance with my bare hooves when Dove spoke up. “Easy there, Foxtrot,” she said to Sundance. The air shimmered magically between us. “That is not how mannered ponies behave.”

Minty moved closer and whispered in my ear, “They’re just scared.”

I flexed my trapped foreleg again to no avail. “Serves them right,” I said, but already the tension at the table was draining.

Across from us, Dove and Sundance seemed to be sharing a similar moment. Sundance glared across at us, horn still glowing, while Dove spoke soothingly in her ear. Sundance’s glare was starting to waver, but her magic didn’t falter in the slightest.

“I don’t know what happened between you two exactly,” Minty whispered, “But you both seem way too angry about this. And I… I’m scared this will be like Riverside again.”

That hit home, and touched a much newer, rawer wound than anything Sundance had left on me. I schooled my expression back into a hardened, neutral mask. “Look, you’ve got three options. One, you cooperate and we all get paid. Two, I run you out of town tonight, clean and easy. Three,”—I patted the gun in my lap—”you make things difficult.” I shot Minty a sarcastic glance. “Reasonable, wouldn’t you say?”

Minty looked unsure, but after a moment she nodded.

It didn’t seem to calm Sundance’s nerves much, until Dove leaned into her gently, brushing shoulders for just a moment.

“All right…” she said and sucked in a breath. “You know that word gets out about Cage matches, right? ‘Specially between regulars. Roulette will hear all of it. How’re you gonna explain losing to me and then nailing us for match fixing? More than a little suspicious.”

“She’s been pretty hooves-off so far, and left pretty much every detail up to me, including how to deal with you. I’ll just feed her a line about testing you or some shit. So long as her problem goes away, I don’t think she’ll dig too deep.”

“She trusts you that much, huh?” There was an audible catch in her voice. “Pretty impressive.” She shot to her hooves “I think I’ll go with option two. And we’ll see ourselves out, thanks.” She stepped out of the booth and started toward the street.

Dove Trick let out an exasperated sigh and shared a look with Minty and I, then followed suit. I was already raising my shotgun, prepared to sight them all the way to the gates, when Minty shouted out over the din of the restaurant, “You can have me!”

Everyone within earshot turned to look, Sundance and Dove included. Hell, even I turned to look.

“Well, ah… sorry, dear,” Dove Trick began. “You’re a lovely young mare, but I’m afraid Sundance and I are exclusive.”

Sundance figured it out before I did. “As collateral? Huh…”

“What? No,” I slapped Minty’s back with my tail. “Minty, that’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard from you, and that’s a pretty fucking high bar.”


“They’re bandits. And knowing Sundance, they might kill you just to spite me.”

“We’re still standing right here, you know,” Dove muttered. “And you’re a bandit as well.”

But Sundance’s interest seemed rekindled. “Everypony in the Valley apparently thinks you’re an ice cold bitch, Phisa, but I know you’re a wimp at heart.” She grinned at Minty, then extended a hoof. “Option one, then. Fifty-fifty. Your marefriend as collateral. It’s a deal.”

I opened my mouth, but Minty stepped in front of me and completed the hoofbump. “Sounds good to me.” She turned around and frowned. “Oh! I’m sorry, Phishy. Will you be okay without me?”

“What?” It felt like time had jumped forward around me. “Hold on, I didn’t agree to--”

“She hasn’t been alone since Riverside,” Minty offered to Dove and Sundance conspiratorially. She turned back to me and said, “I can stay with you if you’re nervous. Maybe we can give them something else instead?”

“You already bumped hooves,” said Sundance. “A deal’s a deal.”

“Shut up. You’ve got exactly as much leverage as you did a second ago. A hoofbump doesn’t change anything,” I snapped. But in my peripheral vision, I could see ponies staring and whispering. If I shot either of them here, in plain sight of guards and citizens alike, with every eye on us, Roulette wouldn’t be able to turn a blind eye without immediately tipping her hoof.

Sundance knew it too. With a smug smile and a soothing tone, she said, “Don’t worry, it’ll only be for a day or two, depending on how soon they can fit you in.”

“A day or two? I already signed up. We’re already scheduled for a match tonight.”

“Shit,” Dove said. The curse sounded bizarre in her refined voice. “That’s a problem.”


“We’ve been slowly building the stakes against Sundance,” Dove said. “But if she’s fighting a brand new face, some of the fans will swing back around. You need to prove yourself in the Cage first, build up the stakes in your favor.”

Sundance sighed. “I’ll talk to my contact at the Cage. Regulars refuse to fight newcomers all the time, especially if they’re from out of town.” She smiled. “In the meantime, maybe Dove and I can get to know… it’s Minty, right?”

Minty glanced back at me again with concern on her face. I gritted my teeth and shrugged.

She perked up and fell in beside Sundance. “Yup, Minty Fresh! Still in mint condition!”

“Mint, huh?” Sundance tapped a hoof against Minty’s armored shoulder and let out an impressed whistle. “Hmm, could use some polish, and you’ve got some dents over here, but—”

“It’s metal barding, dear,” Dove chided, “Not a pre-war curio.” She smiled at Minty. “You’ll have to excuse her. She’s found quite an interest in history.”

“That’s okay,” Minty said. “And I wasn’t talking about my armor.” She waved to me. “Bye Phishy!”

I shook my head. Somehow the conversation had spiraled completely out of my control. The three ponies started for the exit, and I called out, “Be careful!” Minty flicked her tail in acknowledgement.

As they reached the open gate that led to the street, I saw Minty wave at something out of sight. I caught a flash of brown feathers, and my frustration crystallized into a single thought.

That fucking griffon.

I grabbed my bag and shotgun and stepped toward him.

Somepony swept up beside me. “Excuse me, ma’am. Are you ready for the bill?” The waiter nodded toward the half-eaten gourmet meals on the table.

I didn’t have time for this. “Take it up with Roulette,” I growled, and charged toward the street.

He was a quick bird. The wings probably helped. By the time I reached the gilded gates of the restaurant, the sidewalk was deserted. But I’d seen him. I looked up and down the street and picked my direction.

I found him in a dead-end alley about a block away. Pure dumb luck. Even better luck: he’d picked an enclosed alley than ran underneath the second story of a building. His bird half wouldn’t do him any good here.

He was leaning against a dumpster, sipping from an unmarked brown bottle when I rounded the corner. His eyes shot open. The bottle fell to the pavement and shattered.

“Vandal, isn’t it?” I asked as I approached. “You’re following me.”

He dropped to all fours and backed up slowly. His eyes darted all around, searching for an escape route. Finally he sighed and slumped against the far wall. “Yeah. Sorry, boss’ orders.”

I raised an eyebrow. “That’s it? No excuses, no sniveling? No threats?”

“Could, but you’re not stupid, unlike most of Roulette’s entourage.”

“That’s rich. Aren’t you her personal bodyguard?”

“Maybe I’m an idiot too, then.” He looked up at the ceiling and rolled his eyes. “It’d explain this shitshow.”

I advanced another step. “If you heard us just now, you know I can’t let you leave.”

He snorted. “Roulette won’t care if you want to settle an old score, or whatever personal bullshit you’ve got going on with that Sundance mare.”

“I’m not here to settle anything. I’m investigating the Cage.”

“Call it whatever you want. I know a grudge when I see it. Gotta admit, I’m surprised you’re cooperating with her at all. I figured you’d tear her head off halfway through lunch.”

“If you’re not spying on me, then—”

“Pfft, I was absolutely spying on you.” He grinned. Well, he parted his beak and angled his jaw, so I interpreted it as a grin.

“But not for Roulette.”

He shrugged. ”I mean, I wasn’t going to tell her anything, but yeah, she wanted me to tail you.” He leaned in closer, and I tensed. He whispered, “Between you and me, I don’t think she trusts you.”

I took an involuntary step back. “That’s fine. I don’t trust her either. Or you.”

“That’s good. None of us trust any of us, then,” he said wryly. “How about the job? You’d think a bitch like Roulette would have bigger fish to fry, right?”

I frowned. “It makes sense to me. Someone’s siphoning caps out of her pockets and scamming hundreds of people out of their spending money.”

He shook his head. “She doesn’t get a cut from the Cage. And people are more likely to get ripped off at Roulette’s shitty casino than anywhere else. As far as I know, she never gave two fucks about the match-fixing until you came to town.” He reached into a pocket in his barding and withdrew a cigarette and lighter. “And everyone knows Sundance is throwing her matches. Only the idiots from out of town take bets on her.”

I glanced backward. The alley and street beyond were empty. Vandal stared at me patiently. He lit the cigarette and brought it to his beak.

If Roulette already knew, why hadn’t she told me? Was the whole thing some kind of test? Or was this the test? It seemed insane, but it made about as much sense as her strung-out griffon bodyguard conspiring against his boss for seemingly no reason. My urge to just shoot him and be done with it was growing.

“What’s your angle, then?” I asked. “Why are you telling me all of this?”

“Wouldja believe that she’s kind of a shitty boss? I want out of this hellhole, but she’s still got my contract.”

“So? It doesn’t seem like you care about tradition,” I said and gestured to the scratched-out ensignia on his barding.

He growled. “I don’t, but other griffs sure fucking do, and Roulette is one of the only people around who might be able to contact them. If she shows a proper Talon that scrap of paper, they’ll hunt me down for free. Suckers.” Smoke billowed out the sides of his beak in long, thin upward trails.

The cigarette fumes tickled my nose. Compared to the overall stink of Pona Rosa, it wasn’t unwelcome. “Then why work for her? Hell, why come to Pinewood Valley at all?”

His upper and lower beak ground together. He sighed and said, “This is the farthest you can get from the New Canterlot Republic and the Talons before you hit the desert. I also figured that this place was enough of a dump that nobody around would know what a Talon even is. I thought I’d hit gold when Roulette hired me on.” He snorted. “I gave some of the smaller settlements a shot, but this is the only place worth living. Well, it was.” Vandal shook his head. “But you don’t care about all that. The point is, if Roulette’s jerking you around, it’s for a reason. And probably not in your best interests.”

“And you’re sharing all this out of the goodness of your heart, right?”

He chuckled. “Not exactly. I think we can help each other. I’ve got access to Roulette’s office and computer terminal. I can find out what she actually wants from you.”

“And in exchange?”

He rolled the cigarette in his beak. “I need that contract. Either in my hand or destroyed. Or some guarantee that Roulette won’t send for a Talon.”

“You mean kill her.”

“Obviously.” He cleared his throat and flicked the dying cigarette into the gutter. “She’s done fuckloads to deserve it, if your conscience is bothering you. Half of the workers in this town are basically slaves. Most of the prostitutes started before they got their cutie marks.”

My muzzle wrinkled. Not exactly uncommon crimes in the wasteland. “Sounds like a lot of risk on my part with a pretty dubious payout from yours.”

He shrugged. “Tell you what: I’ll start digging anyway. Who the fuck knows, maybe I’ll luck into the contract on my own. And if I find something that might get your engine purring, I’ll track you down.” He offered his hand. “Whatcha say??”

This was starting to sound a bit too good to be true, and I reminded myself that all I really knew about this griffon was that he worked for Roulette. It could be a test. But if Roulette was really playing me….

“Do whatever you want,” I said at last. “But if word of this gets back to Roulette, I’ll kill you, even if it’s the last thing I ever do.”

“Well if that isn’t the most cordial threat I’ve ever gotten, I don’t know what is.” He stepped around me, and I let him go. He curled his talons into a fist and tapped my forehoof as he passed. “Nice to finally talk to you, Phisa.”

My walk back to the casino left me on edge. The swell of bodies on all sides, the wordless roar of the street, and the feeling of solitude in the crowd had my mind racing, my hooves itching, and my heart pounding. It was a relief when I finally locked the door of my room and silence fell.

I sat down on the edge of the bed. There were chairs, but the bed looked more comfortable.

Alone, huh? It had only been a few days. Of course, Minty’s presence wasn’t a big deal, but being completely alone…

I fell backward onto the bed and stretched out. My spine popped and twisted, and my legs kicked involuntarily. A pleased whimper escaped my muzzle. Fuck it was good to be alone. I brushed back and forth against the linens. They were softer than anything the Gravestones had been able to supply. I could understand why Vandal had come to work here, despite the risk.

There was a knock at the door. I glanced over to my shotgun resting beside the bed, but otherwise ignored it. I heard paper slide against wood.

After what felt like five minutes but turned out to be over an hour, I slid back onto my hooves. The room was just as nice as the sheets. Roulette must have given me one of the high-tier suites. I almost felt bad for Minty. From what I knew of Pona Rosa, the three of them were probably squatting in an abandoned gas station or something. Mayba a low-rent whorehouse if they were lucky.

I winced. With Minty in mind, maybe a whorehouse wouldn’t be lucky at all.

A note was stuck halfway through the door crack. Presumably that was the knock from earlier. I flipped it open.

8pm at the Cage. You’re fighting Stonewall.

  • S&DT

P.S. Minty says hi, and some other stuff that neither of us care about.

Stonewall. Well, if Sundance thought I could take them, they wouldn’t pose a threat. I dropped the note on top of a nearby dressing table and flopped back onto the bed. I had three hours to kill.

I stretched out and let out another whimper. Damn, I wasn’t moving an inch for three hours, was I?

Two hours and fifty minutes later, I was pacing an empty locker room at the Cage. The crowd outside was impressive. The stands weren’t quite packed, but nearly every seat was filled and the ambient noise was audible even from outside the building. Most of them had come expecting a Sundance match, and were told at the door that they should expect something much different. According to the bookie I’d spoken with yesterday, a good number of them stayed because of me: the rogue Gravestone enforcer, the striped menace of Pinewood Valley.

Not exactly the attention I wanted.

Between entering the Cage and being shunted down into the locker room, I’d gathered a few things about my opponent. Stonewall, a gray earth pony stallion. He was just one victory shy of a spot on the regulars list, and apparently popular opinion had us at equal odds. I had my doubts about that.

If everyone up there was expecting an even match, they were in for a surprise. That could work to my advantage. I need to impress them. Maybe I could even scare a little respect into Sundance.

I ensured my shotgun with the beanbag rounds I’d been provided—not for anyone’s safety, of course, but audiences wanted their bloodsports to last more than eight seconds—and familiarized myself with the Cage ring and facilities. Then, with the last few minutes before my match, my thoughts turned back to my conversation with Vandal. How far did Roulette’s plan extend? By cooperating with Sundance, was I still playing into her hooves? Was I just doomed to be betrayed by everyone I tried to work with? First Tomb, and now... I shook my head as if it would magically clear itself.

I needed to get out of this fucking town.

A low buzzer went off, jerking me to attention. A couple seconds later, I made out an amplified voice through the walls of the locker room. “Phisa? Come on into the Cage! The crowd is waitin’ for ya!”

I grabbed my shotgun and a small bag of beanbag shells, and I started for the exit.

True to its name, the arena was surrounded by a massive square cage, leaving plenty of room for matches of all kinds. Bright lights seared the corners of my eyes, and the roar of the crowd was almost drowned out by distorted music that blared from speakers in the ceiling. Beyond the cage, the world was nothing but equine bodies, rising in tiers until they reached the ceiling. I felt hundreds—no, thousands—of eyes on me, examining and judging me, and I struggled to keep my stance neutral.

I was ready for the fight. Violence was nothing new. I'd survived worse than this a dozen times in the last month.

Stage fright, though… I hadn't counted on that. The urge to turn tail and scurry back into the locker room was intense and sudden.

“Ladies and gentlecolts, outlaws and brigands! Presenting the infamous Phisa in flesh! The Striped Menace!”

That was the nickname the bookie kept calling me. I didn’t realize at the time that it was going to be my stage name, but now, hearing it over loudspeakers, it seemed right: the perfect amount of description, mystery, and vaguely racist fear mongering.

“And on the other side of the Cage tonight, we have the always harder than bricks, Stonewall! He’s a living, breathing wrecking ball! One more win will qualify this fighter for the regulars circuit, and this time? He’s out for blood!

And there he was, stepping out into the spotlight across from me. He was only a bit taller than the average pony. Around Minty’s height, actually. But from his legs to his barrel to his neck, all I could see where muscles. Even where he was covered by armor, I could make out the subtle ripple through the boiled leather. One solid hit from him and I’d be down a few bones.

He grinned at me and mouthed something, as if there was any chance of me hearing it. I glared back. His grin widened, and he tossed his head loosely, sending his brown mohawk quivering.

He stepped further into the arena and steadily approached the center. I took that as my cue to do the same.

We stood a few yards apart, our hooves resting just outside a circle that was painted on the steel floor. Our eyes met.

“Tonight’s entertainment will begin in nine,”

I tried to stare into him. Was he in on Sundance’s scheme, or was he as much of a sucker as everyone else competing and betting against her? His lazy grin and loose posture implied total confidence, as if beating Sundance meant something. Then again, he was a stallion, and a physically imposing one at that, so maybe he was always this arrogant, no matter the occasion.“Eight!”

Something glinted on the bottoms of his hind hooves whenever he shifted. Steel shoes. Spending the last few days around Minty had underlined just how strong earth ponies could be. With that much raw strength behind them, those shoes could probably crack concrete.

“Seven! Six!”

But I knew his type. He wasn’t even looking at me anymore, and was instead gesturing to the crowd, working them up. His antics raised a few disjointed chants from the stands in reply. This match was a formality to him, a chore standing between him and the regulars list. I could take advantage of that.

“Five! Four! Three!”

He bent his limbs and pawed at the floor with a forehoof. Seriously? I peered at his face, looking for some hint of self-awareness, some indication that it was just an awful attempt at psyching me out. The fact that he’d made it so far in the Cage reinforced the idea. He wanted to put me on the defensive, keep me reacting to him rather than the other way around. My shoulders flexed, ready to whip around. I felt my shotgun quiver against my side.

So he wanted to play chicken. Fine.

I raised a foreleg and drew it across my neck. He smirked, but there were some appreciative whoops and hollers from the stands.

“Two! One! Fighters: rip and tear!” The announcer’s words were punctuated by a horn so shrill and loud that my heart skipped a beat and the word spun. That second nearly cost me the match.

Stonewall thundered toward me on a slight angle. He was trying to drive me to one side, up against the bars.

In one motion I jerked my shotgun from its holster and tucked it under one foreleg, then ducked past him. He spun around, snarling, and found himself face to face with my gun.

We were seconds into the match, and already we had completely swapped places. I kept my mouth on the trigger, knowing that no matter how perfect my shot was, it wouldn’t do much more than bruise him. Fuck, with muscles as thick and corded as his, he might not even bruise. Thankfully he was still shaking off the spine-chilling feeling of staring down a shotgun barrel, so I had a moment or two to breathe.

“Beanbags, right?” he said, finally. He stepped forward confidently, but I could see how tight his neck muscles were. He was bracing for a high-velocity hackysack to the face.

I jerked back and up, as if I’d fired, and he flinched like a kitten to a spray bottle. I closed the distance and rose up onto my hindlegs, flipped the shotgun around in my grip and cracked him under the jaw with the butt.

He staggered backward, lips flapping and face spasming. Red trickled from the corner of his muzzle. He glared at me with genuine rage in his eyes and spat out a wad of blood and what looked like a small chunk of tongue. He pawed at the floor again.

I unloaded a beanbag directly at his mouth.

He ducked it and charged. His hoofsteps sent small shockwaves through the ground.

I rolled to the side and lashed out with a hindleg. He barely shifted, but it was more of a reaction than when I’d punched Minty back in Riverside. He spun about again, snarling, and reared up, steel horseshoes flashing in the blinding stadium lights.

Instead of darting aside, I took a chance. He descended on me, intent on crushing my spine under his massive reinforced hooves. I crouched low and took aim.

My second beanbag round caught his solar plexus with a loud crack. He went limp and collapsed onto me, limbs splayed and breath wheezing.

Fuck, just his weight landing across me drove the air from my lungs and left bruises up and down my barrel. I squirmed my way free and retreated across the arena. Stonewall seemed happy on the floor for the moment. I reloaded and tried to catch my breath.

In the lull, the noise of the crowd rushed over me, louder and fiercer than before. I picked out a chant of “Finish him!”

Stonewall rose, shaking, to his hooves. “B-bitch, with your fucking beanbags…” He jerked forward, gaining speed, charging me like a bull.

On a whim, I activated my PipBuck’s targeting spell. Everything stood frozen in time for a moment. Stonewall’s limbs, head, and torso glowed a soft white light, and numbers flickered next to them. His torso was apparently crippled already. The beanbag shell must have cracked a rib or two. I selected his head and one foreleg and let the shots fly.

He yelped and stumbled to a stop a few feet from me. I easily ducked a couple wild kicks, and retaliated with a headbutt to the underside of his jaw. Teeth clacked, and his eyes rolled around in pain and rage. He reared up again, incoherent curses spilling from between his lips. When he crashed back down onto all fours, I was already behind him.

His forehead slammed into the wall of the cage, and he crumpled. Blood flowed in slow streams from his nose and mouth. Definitely a concussion or three.

I reloaded again, just to be safe, but the stallion showed no signs of movement, or even consciousness.

Again, the crowd screamed for blood. It’s what they were there for, after all.

So I stood there, buffeted by the increasingly frustrated roar from the stands, and waited. Nearly a full minute passed before the announcer spoke.

“Ladies and gentleponies, we have our winner! Stomp your hooves for Phisa, the Striped Menace!”

I took a deep breath and trotted through the opening cage door without looking back. My adrenaline was gone, and I was tired to the bone. With thoughts of decent meal and a warm hotel bed swimming in my mind, I almost forgot to pick up my reward.

Behind me, the announcer’s voice rang out, “And to all the suckers who bet on Stonewall: better luck next time!”

The Reaper’s Bounty was nearly empty. Happy hour was still a ways off, and most ponies were busy trying to scrounge up enough caps to afford their drinks for the night. Thankfully, Ringer knew when someone wanted to chat and when they wanted to be left alone.

“So, like I was saying,” the ghoul said as she slid an opened Sparkle-Cola bottle across the bar toward me, “business is gonna dry up soon here in Pona Rosa. Everypony knows the Gravestones are puttin’ the screws to us as hard as they can, and it won’t be long until caravans and the like stop coming in.” She grabbed a washcloath and began wiping the bar in wide, careless circles. “I’m thinking of moving someplace less intense, if you get what I mean.”

I gave her a simple nod. The conversation was for my benefit, sure, but we both knew that I didn’t really care. Pona Rosa was a waypoint, a landmark, not really a place worth anyone’s mind. Anyone but Roulette. My muzzle wrinkled, and not for the first time I nearly asked for a stronger drink.

Ringer sighed. “Zebra’s are a quiet bunch, huh? Or is it just you?” She tried to shoot a grin my way, but she was missing some important facial muscles, so it looked more like she was gnawing at the air. “I don’t got any other zebra clients, so I’ve gotta assume…”

“Your guess is as good as mine. I’ve never talked to another zebra.”

Ringer smirked. “You make a point. Must be real lonely to not know your own kind, even if they’re the ones who blew this land to hell.”

I raised an dubious eyebrow.

“Hey,” she said, waving her hooves. “I got no grudge if that’s what you’re thinking. War’s over.” A frown overtook her face. “‘Sides, we probably would have done the job all by ourselves sooner or later.”

I stared down at my drink. “So, someplace less intense? What does that mean? Way I hear it, Pinewood is just about the calmest place in Equestria.”

She shrugged. “I dunno. Just a stray thought.” Ringer’s remaining face muscles tightened. She looked down and scrubbed at a particularly stubborn stain on the counter. “So, you’re out for revenge. If everything goes your way and you take out Tomb, what’s next?”

I snorted. “I’ll take over. Run the Gravestones right.” I looked around the bar. “And that includes easing up on Pona Rosa. Maybe even easing up on the whole valley.”

Ringer snorted right back. “Really? Well, that’d certainly be a blessing to me. Might bring in a few more customers.” Her scowl started to ease. “Word’s already moving about your match in the Cage, you know. Seems like you made an impression.” There was a faint clicking sound from behind the bar. Some of her exposed bones clacking together. “Would have made more of an impression if you finished him.”

“Uh huh. But all I had were beanbags and my bare hooves. You ever stomped a pony to death?”

She grimaced. “Can’t say I have. But I ain’t killed many before either. Couple of raiders on the trail, one rowdy customer.”

“Well, I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s hell on your fetlock joints, and it takes forever to get the blood off the bottom of your hooves. But whatever. I’m up against Sundance next, and no one’s going to expect me to kill her.”

She laughed. “Right, Sundance. Heard she refused to fight you.” She tossed her cleaning wrap away and leaned both hooves on the counter. “She’s never won, you know? I’m not sure why you’re messing around at the Cage, but you certainly picked a good target.”

My muscles tensed. I had agreed to throw the match. For a second, the thought of losing to Sundance--not just a well known loser, but Sundance--made my stomach churn.

But they had Minty. I couldn’t back out now. If I was going to lead the Gravestones, I had to be willing to endure some shame for the good of my underlings.

Ringer glanced past me and straightened. “Ah, Vandal!” she said and stepped toward the wall of liquor bottles behind her. “Cola and rum?”

My dubious business partner strode up to the bar. He still had a lit cigarette in his beak. “Sorry, Ring. I’m here for stripebutt.” He turned to address me. “We need to talk. Privately.” I opened my mouth, and he added, “I promise this isn’t a trap.”

Well. There went my first question.

I looked to Ringer in the hopes of some kind of explanation. She shrugged. “Go on. If y’all have private business, best head outside. I hear everything that happens in this bar.”

Vandal snickered. “Thanks, Ringer. I swear it’s not about you.”

She rolled her eyes. “Pfft, think I care?”

Vandal headed for the door, and I reluctantly followed. His reassurance that this wasn’t a trap was… surprisingly convincing. Maybe because he genuinely seemed to hate his job and his boss.

We exited into the alley that hid the bar from the street, and moved even further into its secluded corners. I checked my PipBuck’s radar. We were alone.

“Nice work in the Cage,” he said. “I was there, saw the whole thing. You’re as sharp as they say.” He took a long drag and then flicked his cigarette into the gutter. “Surprised you didn’t kill him. Everyone wanted it. It’s what they were selling you as, too.” He chuckled. “The Striped Menace.”

“They’ll get over it.”

He grinned, but there was a slightly manic tint to it. “Right, once they see you lose to the circuit patsy and ruin all their bets, they’ll forgive you real quick.” His beak opened and closed, like he was pretending to bite down on something. One of his hands twitched toward one of his barding pockets. He sighed. “Never mind that. I found… well, something.”

I grimaced. “Uh huh. Impress me.”

“Going to have to disappoint. No sign yet of exactly what she’s planning for you, but there is something big coming up. She’s reserved the casino’s penthouse suite for someone. That doesn’t happen. Important people get a luxury suite at best. She’s reserved three of those, too. But there aren’t any names. Even the security team is in the dark.”.

“What does that mean?”

“Some big customers are coming to town. The biggest. Maybe NCR, maybe the Lightbringer herself. But more likely… I think she’s selling you to Tomb.”

A chill stabbed at my spine. I shrugged it off. “That seems like a stretch. Tomb would never negotiate with Pona Rosa. He wants this place wiped off the map.”

“Unless he wants you wiped off the map even more.” He finally broke and snatched a fresh cigarette from his pocket. He set it in his beak, unlit, and bit down gently. “It would explain the secrecy. After all, Pona Rosa hates the Gravestones, and vice versa. It would explain the bullshit task she dreamed up for you. If you leave town, there goes her leverage.”

He had a point. I checked my E.F.S. again. A dot blinked into sight in the direction of the road, then disappeared. Just a pedestrian passing by. My thoughts were racing.

“Maybe, but it could also just be some bureaucrat from the NCR.” I frowned. He mirrored my expression. Finally, I said, “Find something. A holotape, a signed note, anything that proves Roulette’s screwing me.” A white blip appeared in the corner of my vision, somewhere inside the building across from us. It didn’t move, and when I shifted my head, I could tell it was only a few yards away.

“Proof? Roulette does keep some kind of written agenda, but—” He noticed my gaze. “Someone listening in?”

“Yeah.” I gestured to the building. “Inside.”

Vandal smirked, then looked directly up. “Yo! Fuckface! We know you’re there. Show’s over.”

The alley was silent for a long moment. I opened my mouth to speak.

There was a quiet rustle of fabric, and someone crashed down beside us, landing hard on all fours. The figure was wrapped in a coarse grey cloak, but when they straightened, the silhouette of a griffon was unmistakable. Something on its back gleamed faintly. A steel baseball bat?

I already had my sawed-off in my mouth, and from the corner of my eye I could see a large pistol in Vandal’s talons.

The unknown griffon didn’t move.

“Who are you?” I asked around my shotgun. I looked sidelong at Vandal in the hopes that he’d have some idea.

He shrugged, just as confused as I was.

The griffon let out a dry laugh. “Didn’t mean to scare you. I wanted to… uh, heh, make sure you were all right after your match.” Her voice was scratchy and thin.

I sneered at her. “Eavesdropping on someone from the shadows is a weird way of asking how they’re doing. A smart zebra might even call it suspicious.”.

We stood in tense silence for a long moment. Then the griffon chuckled. “You’re not stupid. I like that. He’ll be glad to know you’ve gotten strong.” Her wings spread open, sending her cloak billowing. “Stay alive. He’d be upset if you died on him now.”

She jumped into the air and flapped, then tucked her limbs in tight and shot upward out of the alley. Her dark feathers and ashy cloak disappeared against the dim evening sky.

He’ll be glad? Who the fuck was “he”?

Vandal was staring, motionless, at the spot the other griffon had been standing. His wings trembled against his back.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Recognize her?”

“I… I think so.” He fumbled for a lighter and set it to his lump of a cigarette. “A few weeks ago, at the Cage. They don’t let her fight anymore. Spectators kept asking for their money back because her fights were so short.” He choked and coughed out a lungful of smoke. “If you’ve pissed her off somehow, I think our business is over, cause I’m not fucking with that.”

I shook my head, and squinted, thinking. “No, I’ve never seen her before.” I wouldn’t forget that kind of crazy.

Author's Note:

I must really apologize for having this chapter take so long to complete. Mostly because of how much I wanted to make sure it was up to standards (and laziness). Hopefully that won't happen again... inb4 it takes the same number of monthes to complete the next chapter.

Feel free to leave your critique in the comments.