• 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 7: Through the Fire and the Flames...

Problems were starting to really pile up on my shoulders.

Roulette’s job had proven far more complicated than I had expected, and with Minty now a willing hostage, I had no choice but to work with Sundance.

Of course, according to Vandal, Roulette’s own bodyguard, everything about the job was fishy, and I might be on the receiving end of yet another betrayal.

Roulette had been my best chance at getting a leg up on Tomb and the Gravestones, but now it sounded like she could be unhelpful at best, or possibly another enemy at worst.

Even my original purpose here—recruiting a few new guns—seemed pretty hopeless. The Gravestones’ monopoly on banditry held strong, and the few rogues that were willing to antagonize them had apparently been swept up by some other group.

I was lying on my bed, sorting through the myriad failures and disappointments of the day, when someone knocked on the door of my room. I slipped to my hooves, checked to make sure my knife was still on me, and quickly disassembled the blockade of furniture I’d arranged. I opened the door. It was Dove Trick, Sundance’s marefriend.

“Hi,” she said with a gentle smile. “Mind if I come in?”

Just my luck. I groaned and with narrowed eyes said, “What? Here to gloat?” Her gentle look however didn’t dissipate, and after an awkward pause I softened my expression. “How’s Minty?”

Dove just seemed to giggle. “Oh, she’s fine. Quite a good sense of humor she has. Sundance wouldn’t admit it, but she’s become fond of her. She’s even less of a hostage than you imagine.” She looked around the room, and at the pile of toppled furniture next to the door. She blinked. “Oh my, Minty was not exaggerating. You are neurotic.”

My eyes rolled. “Just being careful. This is Pona Rosa after all.”

She hummed. “Still a tad over the top if you ask me.” She trotted over to a couch and settled down. “Anyway, it came to my attention that we never really did go over just how you’ll lose to Sundance. As much as I love her,” she rolled her eyes, “she forgets that it’s the small details that make or break a performance.”

So she just wanted to make sure I would keep my end of the bargain. I was tempted to roll back onto the bed and tell her to fuck off, but willing hostage or not, I couldn’t put Minty at risk like that. “Alright, but try anything and you’ll regret it.”

She didn’t flinch at all. Either I was getting soft, or she was used to being threatened. Dove Trick smiled. “There’s no need to be tense.” She gestured to the bed across from her, and I hesitantly walked over and crouched on the edge. I kept my hooves under me, in case I needed to spring.

“So?” I asked.

“Right,” Dove said, shifting. She took her time settling into her seat. “Well, word is already spreading that you and Sunny have a personal history together, so of course you can’t just throw the match quick and easy. That’d be anti-climatic.”

“Tsk,” I shook my head. “So we’re going to play up our history for the crowd?”

Dove smirked. “You’re refreshingly quick on the uptake. Yes, the story will go that you have a long-held grudge with Sunny, but she wants to make amends. She’ll be on the defensive at first, but then just when you’re about to go for the final blow,” she waved both her forehooves in a wide arc. “Presto! Sunny gains the grit to make a comeback. Throw in a few quick emotional confessions, and she spares you. Happy ending!”

I barked out a short laugh and brought a hoof to my forehead. “So that's what it is to both of you?” I glared daggers at her. “A joke.”

Dove nearly fell off her seat. “What? Dear Celestia, no! That was not what I meant to imply.”

“Then why am I the unreasonable bitch, while Sundance is the fucking Princess of Forgiveness?” I got up from my couch. “I have every reason not to forgive—” I froze, every limb tense. I looked away from Dove. “So that’s the real reason you’re here, huh? You’re fishing for my side of the story?”

After a moment or two of stunned silence, Dove Trick slowly nodded. “Yes, actually. That was one of the reasons I came here… Not just for Sunny, but because of your friend as well.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, you seem very selfless.”

Dove pouted and stomped. “I’m quite serious. Minty is worried sick about how you behaved during our meeting.” She relaxed her posture. “Look… Sunny told me what she did to you. The name calling, the tripping, the-”

“The time she nearly burned me alive?”

She paused for a brief moment. “Yes… That one is usually top of the list.”

I snorted. Of course we had ended up talking about this. “How about we get back to our plans; something that actually matters.”

“The things that happened between you two are important. They are to Sundance”—Dove narrowed her eyes at me—“and I know it’s important to you, despite what you keep telling me, because for a bandit obsessed with being professional, you certainly did not show that in our meeting!”

A muscle ticked in my jaw. No matter how much I despise hearing it, she was right. I did lose my cool back there. And here was Dove, trying to make me lose it again.

But now it wasn’t just my pride on the line. They had Minty.

“Nothing about this is professional. Sundance is doing everything she can to ruin her own reputation: humiliating herself on stage, scamming ponies in someone else’s turf, running to her marefriend for help. There’s not a gang in the Valley who’d work with her now.”

Dove blinked and furrowed her brows. “What are you—”

“Sundance always wanted to be seen as a serious bandit, not just another wasteland orphan. She was more professional at age eleven than she is now.” I began to circle Dove.

“Yes, but what does-”

“As much as I hated her… she was right in the end. I was a sheltered, annoying brat who brought only burden to the bandits who raised me,” I said coldly as I lurched off the bed and onto my hooves, my teeth grinding.

Still, Dove Trick didn’t flinch.

“I never helped out in the field, never held a gun, never cared about learning to survive on my own, but I begged and whined about seeing the world.” My stomach heaved a little. Self-loathing tasted sour. “At first I had my age and race as an excuse… but once Sundance joined, barely a year older than me… she taught me that I was wrong.”

Dove bit her lip, her face softening. “I know. When I first met her, Sunny was obsessed with being strong, independent. Proving herself. But she—"

“She’s not the same anymore.” I frowned as well, my muscles relaxing. “My family died, and I did nothing to stop it. And I spent the next decade making myself a bandit they could be proud of. A bandit that I knew Sundance would respect…” I spat at the ground. “And now she’s changed,” I sneered. “The first thing she said to me in years was an apology. An apology for the only thing I ever respected about her. She might as well have spit in the face of everything I’ve worked toward for years.”

“...” Dove looked away, a forehoof crossing over to her chest. “And that’s why you still hate Sun?"

I took a breath and forced the old emotions back. Sundance wasn’t worth all of this.

“I do, but I’m getting tired of her. I just want this to be over and focus on getting back at Tomb.”

The room got pretty quiet thent. Dove’s face was tight but fiercely neutral, still digesting my words. I’d thrown her, as I’d hoped, but I also felt… not better, but maybe lighter.

I hadn’t said that many honest words in a row for a long time.

I sat back on the bed, my rear legs dangling over the side. I kicked my hooves a few times. What the fuck was I doing? I nearly slipped onto the floor in my haste to move into a more dignified position.

Dove didn’t seem to notice. “I… I think I understand.” Dove sighed and rubbed her foreleg with the opposite hoof. “I guess there’s nothing I can really say.”

“No excuses for your lover?”

Dove bit her lip. “I’m not blind to her faults, Phisa. When I met her, she was just… lost. She’s gotten better these past few years. She’s grown a lot. We’re going to settle down at Tenpony Tower once we’ve saved up enough."

“Tenpony?” I almost scoffed. “Is that why you’re running this whole scheme?”

She nodded. “For the most part. We also need to repay someone in Leathersworth. That poor stallion got his establishment thoroughly wrecked, simply because he was sheltering us. But then, yes, Tenpony.”

Sundance… retiring from banditry. I definitely hadn’t seen that coming.

“Anyway,” Dove said, rising from her seat and heading for the door. “Again, at the start of the fight, you’re going to give Sundance a hard time. Just make sure to soften your blows, and aim your shots at the floor next to her. Once she starts talking to you, start losing.” She smirked. “And trust me, I’ll make sure you look burned, but you won’t actually get hurt.” She was about to head out of my room before sighing and turning back. “She wouldn’t want me to say this, but you should know that Sundance used to be terribly jealous of you.”

I blinked. “What?”

Dove looked away. “You had a foalhood she never got, and she had to prove to herself that it wasn’t worth wanting. By being better than you. That was what she was apologizing for.”

She left the room and closed the door.

The weight of exhaustion fell onto me again. No time to dissect that bombshell.

I moved my makeshift blockade back in front of the door, stripped off my jacket, slid under the covers, and fell asleep.

I had to admit, Dove’s meeting had eased me to some degree. While I wasn’t stupid enough to discount them as a threat, I at least felt better about leaving Minty in their custody.

I left my room early, long before the casino’s busy hours. After grabbing whatever mysterious combination of meat and cheese constituted breakfast here, I headed to the streets.

There were enough caps left over from the pouch Roulette had given me to do some shopping. I stocked up on shotgun shells—lethal and non-lethal, because you never know—and, despite Dove Trick’s assurances that none of Sundance’s magic would hurt me, I looked into making myself a bit less flammable. Pona Rosa was teeming with gunsmiths and armorers, and an hour and a hundred caps later, my leather jacket was reinforced with a layer of fire-resistant fabric over the most important areas.

With that taken care of and hours still before my match, I decided to scout out the Cage itself. The place was packed when I arrived. The guards at the door didn’t let me in until they realized I was a competitor. The stands were overflowing, and people scrambled in every direction, rushing to find seats.

I was ten steps inside the building when static burst from the speakers, then a deep, rumbling stallion’s voice filled the air.

“Fillies and gentlecolts! In our first corner we have the always dazzling Dazzle. She’s a cyclone of hot plasma one second and a gust of wind the next, and she’s on her way to the top! One more kill will qualify this fighter for the regulars circuit! Her opponent had better watch out!”

I could just barely see the ring from my position by the door. A mare trotted into the Cage. She didn’t look like much, especially for a pony named Dazzle. She was a mass of brown and grey, her dull coat and dull mane and dull leather armor blurring together until I could barely make out her silhouette despite the intense illumination.

I glanced around, looking for an empty seat. I had hours to kill before my match, and I was already in the door, so why not stay and spectate?

Someone whistled sharply to my left, and I turned to see a pegasus stallion, grinning and waving from a nearby bench. He patted the seat next to him. “Hey there, cutie,” he drawled. “You’re lookin’ a tad lonely. Care for a touch of company?”

He had a light blue coat and a short yellow mane. I just barely saw the edge of his cutie mark, or… no, not a cutie mark. A scar. He was a Dashite. This wasn’t a newcomer to the wasteland. If he had that brand, he’d been on the surface since before the Enclave fell apart.

Still, he got on my nerves. I glared back and was about to walk away when I recalled what Dead Ringer had told me.

“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.”

I hadn’t been able to find any potential recruits because a pegasus and a griffon had beaten me to the punch, according to Ringer. What were the odds...

So I decided to ignore his flirtations. With as neutral a face as I could manage, I asked, “You’re the pegasus searching for bandits to fight the Gravestones, aren’t you?”

He grinned and hummed. “Well now, you hear ‘pegasus’ and assume the first winged pony ya find is—”

“Yes or no?”

His smile fell a little, and he muttered, “Damn town used ‘ta be fun.” He snorted. “Ya found the right turkey. If you’re looking for work, I got bad news. We’re outta this dump soon as Vena finishes her match.” He looked away and muttered to himself. “Least I hope we’re leaving.”

“Vena?” I raised an eyebrow.

He simply pointed at the cage.

“And in this corner, we have a beast of a challenger. She’s broken the record for fastest kills, and now is about to face Dazzle, with one condition! She can’t touch Dazzle for ninety seconds! She’s dangerous. She’s thirsty! She is... VENA!”

Walking into the cage, I saw a disturbingly familiar sight: the same hooded griffon who had stalked me and Vandal the night before. Vandal said she was banned from the Cage, and yet here she was. Maybe that was why she had such a severe restriction now.

“But, our Dazzle here is packing a surprise.”

Dazzle’s horn glowed, and the guns on her back glowed as well. Four magic energy rifles spun up into the air, their barrels levelled on Vena. They glowed with a menacing red light. Those weren’t paint guns. If Dazzle got a clean shot with one of her guns, Vena was finished.

I turned back to the pegasus. “Who exactly are you two?” If they’d been active in the area back when I was working for the Gravestones, I would have heard of them.

The pegasus groaned. “Could ya save it ‘till the match is over?”

I looked back to the arena. In one deft motion, Vena reached up and pulled a metal baseball bat from a sling on her back. She swung it casually. Light glinted off the long, wicked-looking bolts that stuck out from its business end at all angles.

“With a weapon like that?” I commented. “This match won’t last long. And with a ninety second handicap? What kind of idiot agrees to a match like this?”

“Management here don’t like Vena. She always wins.” He chuckled. “Well, always kills, too. This was the only way she could get more matches.” He wagged a forehoof in the air. “She’s insane and dangerous. Ain’t much more to know about her.”

“I know that she was stalking me last night.” Hearing that she was dangerous and crazy didn’t make me feel any better about that.

That got a reaction. He blinked, and tilted his head. “Huh, that’d explain some things…” He shrugged. “I couldn’t say why she was following ya, and I wouldn’t have stopped her either way.”

“She doesn’t follow your orders?” I guessed.

He shook his head. “I wish I was in charge. If that bird wants somethin’, she gets it. She suddenly wants to do more Cage fights with stupid restrictions, she gets to. You don’t say no to her, even if it meant her leaving a ton of corpses.”

“And she’s doing this… with a bat?” I reiterated. Even if she was dangerous, her choice of weapon was questionable.

He narrowed his eyes at me as the countdown began, then snorted and looked back at the cage. “Jus’ sit back and watch.”

The announcer started to count down from ten. The crowd’s roars hushed to excited murmurs. Dazzle’s guns floated slowly around her while she took deep, slow breaths. In the opposite corner, Vena tapped her bat against the ground and seemed to vibrate with barely contained energy. The tension in the room was much different from my fight yesterday. This felt dangerous.

“One!” the announcer bellowed.

Vena didn’t waste a second. She crossed the arena in a flash of gray feathers. In a heartbeat, Dazzle opened fire, but Vena was already too close. Vena danced to the side and swung her bat in a wide downward arc, catching one of Dazzle’s rifles under its weight.

The gun clattered to the floor, and Vena smashed her bat down, leaving the barrel flattened and twisted. Useless.

I blinked. Who the hell was this griffon?

Dazzle spun around in a panic and fired her remaining guns wildly, but she was always a split second behind. The pink magic glow around several of the rifles faltered and dimmed for a moment.

Vena somersaulted backward and flapped once, propelling herself upward. She reached out with one arm and clung to the ceiling of the Cage. A sickening, hyena-like laugh left her beak.

Dazzle seemed to regain some composure. She brought her rifles in closer to her body and fired carefully instead of spraying.

Vena dropped from the ceiling, flared her wings out wide, and fell into a glide around the arena, twisting and spinning to avoid the lasers. Most of Dazzle’s shots burst against the cold metal wall of the cage, but a few slipped between the bars and splashed near the audience.

“Nuh uh, Dazzle! You know what happens if you fire at the crowd!”

That made Dazzle flinch, and one of her guns drifted a few feet away from her. Vena darted in without even touching the floor and crushed it with another quick flurry of swings. She hit the ground and rolled, inches ahead of the hail of laser fire Dazzle sent after her.

Dazzle yelped, loud enough that I could hear it from the stands. She had two guns left, and there was no telling how much charge they had left. She was running out of time, and she knew it.

Everything about Vena screamed ‘insane brute,’ but this fight proved that she was more than that. She was skilled, smart, and lethal. The fastest fighter in the world couldn’t outrun a laser rifle forever, but she didn’t need forever. She just needed a few openings, and the match was hers.

Dazzle spun around, her eyes darting as she tried to follow Vena’s path. She slowly took aim, leading her target, and loosed a controlled volley of lasers. Vena veered at the last moment, avoiding death by inches. Black smoke poured off her cloak where a few shots had burned holes, and the smell of burnt hair and feathers filled the air. The crowd roared in excitement.

Vena touched down to the floor and sprinted straight at Dazzle. The unicorn fired and backpedalled, but her last two guns only produced a few shots before fizzing and growing still and dark. Out of energy.

Crack went the bat, and Dazzle was left with a single, trembling gun floating next to her. Her horn sputtered, and a magic gem levitated out of a satchel on her side. She kept walking backward, eyes wide and shoulders shaking while she struggled to jam the crystal into the gun.

Vena matched her, pace for pace. She reared up and raised her bat, as if about to strike Dazzle directly. On reflex, Dazzle ducked back and raised her last remaining rifle up to defend her face. Exactly what Vena wanted. The empty gun was knocked clean across the cage, Dazzle’s pink aura winking out immediately. The rifle clattered to the floor.

Vena let out a short bark of a laugh, then turned her back on her competitor and walked calmly to the fallen energy rifle. She crushed it under her bat with decisive swing.

“Well, it’s been one hell of a match… and it ain’t over yet! Dazzle’s got another forty seconds to regain the upper hoof.”

But it was over, really.

Dazzle backed up until her rump hit the bars, eyes wide.

Vena started to approach, not directly, but in a wide arc, twirling her bat in the air around her shoulders. The crowd screamed and hollered, some trying to get a countdown going, but none of them were really keeping track.

Dazzle spun around and slammed her forehooves against the bars of the Cage. She screamed something, but it was drowned out by the roar of the crowd.

“Hah, what a dumbass.” The pegasus said next to me. His face was flushed, his chest heaving, and stared at the stage with a trance-like fixation. I had a feeling he was enjoying the fight in a very different way from most of the crowd.

I swallowed and tried to hide my distaste. “Since the match might as well be over, how about you answer some of my questions?”

“Huh?” He blinked and shook himself, then sighed and tore his eyes from the arena to look at me. “Ugh, fine. I’m Thunderstruck, member of the Rockfall family.”

Rockfall family? I’ve never heard of them before, which meant they were either brand new or from outside Pinewood Valley. Based on what I’d seen of him and Vena, my caps were on the latter. “And you’re trying to build up forces against Tomb?”

He nodded. “Yep. ‘Course, we could’ve taken over this valley by ourselves, but our boss is the sort of stallion who likes to do things right. Make some new friends first, then blow shit up. Personally, I’d skip to tearing this whole shithole apart, but orders are orders.”

“The whole valley? By yourselves?” I scoffed. “Takes a special kind of idiot to make boasts like that.”

He gestured down to the Cage, where Vena was still circling her doomed prey. “You see that? She ain’t the only scary fucker we got. And we take care of our own. We’ve had the best of the best flooding in for years.”

If that was even half-true, then maybe this gang I’d never heard of before could single-hoofedly take down the Gravestones. Maybe.

In that case, if this deal with Roulette went south, I had another option to pursue. “Good sell,” I said. “Consider me interested. I’d like to meet with this boss of yours.”

Thunder blinked, then sneered. “What? You? You’re a fucking nobody.”

Was he serious? I sneered back at him. “I was Tomb’s personal hound dog for years. I know everything about him, how he operates.”

He laughed, and then frowned. “Ya don’t say? Here I was thinking you’re a washed out loser cashing in old ties that don’t mean shit anymore. Lemme ask you this: if you were so close to Tomb, and now you’re out for his head and he knows it, don’tcha think he’d change things up? Maybe take all the odds and ends you know about him into account?”

I nearly flinched. I… hadn’t thought of that. Tomb had always been a creature of habit. Someone who lived by his plans and procedures. But he wasn’t an idiot.

Thunderstruck grinned. “Tsk, thought so. Your biggest selling point is that you’re a zebra, and that doesn’t mean shit with us Rockfalls.” My eyes narrowed and my ear twitched. If we were alone, if the stakes weren’t so dire, those would have been his last words.

And he just kept smirking.

A growl escaped my lips. “You sound pretty confident in speaking for your boss. You’re sure he wouldn’t want my info? How’s it going to work out for you when it turns out that you’re wrong?

His smirk faded. “Ah, yeah, in that case it’d be a shitty day to be me.” He considered me for a long moment, up and down. “Tell ya what. Why don’t you put your money where your mouth is. Make some noise, spread some fire, cause a stir. Put the pain to the Gravestones and get them calling for your blood. Put on a good enough show, and my boss’ll come to you.”

“Fifteen seconds!”

I nodded. “Challenge accepted, then. Nothing I wasn’t planning on doing anyway.”

He clicked his tongue two times and grinned. “Well, that settles that. Can’t wait to see what shit you can dish out.”

The crowd counted down in earnest now. Dazzle sat quietly to one side of the arena, shivering. She at least had the courage to look death in the face.

Vena stopped pacing and closed the distance. She wasn’t showboating or acting up for the audience. She seemed almost meditative now.

“Three! Two! One!”

The bat slammed into Dazzle’s right cheek, cracking bone and sending rivers of blood pouring down the unicorn’s face and soaking her bandana. She sprawled back, her head jostling against the cage wall. Vena delivered two more quick blows, first to the jaw, then just below Dazzle’s horn. The dull thwacks resonated through the bars of the arena like the tolling of a bell.

Somehow, Dazzle tried to stand up. It was no wonder she’d made this far in the death pit, if even two blows like that couldn’t put her down. She raised her forelegs over her head and braced herself against the cage.

Vena swung directly for her rear legs, and Dazzle dropped with a hoarse scream.

Finally, Vena took aim and bashed her weapon down into already fractured face and skull. Under the weight of that bat, bone crumpled like cardboard. Blood and brains fanned out in all directions.

Even after all my years of banditry and violence, the sight of a pony’s skull caving in like that sent a chill through my veins.

Thunderstruck snickered and gave me a toothy grin. “Eeyup! She’s a bit a showoff, but damn if she isn’t efficient too.”

He got up from his seat and flexed his wings. “Welp, it was fun talking ta ya. ‘Till next time, if there is one.” He started down the bleacher’s steps.

In truth, Thunderstruck seemed like bad news in pretty much every sense, but if his boasts were accurate, this lead was way too good to pass up.

“Oh!” Thunderstruck paused and turned back to me. “You’re going up against that loser Sunny Freckle right?”

“It’s Sundance.”

He shrugged and nodded. “Shame. If it were a real fight I might stay and watch. Anyway, do yourself a favor and make it interesting, and for fuck’s sake don’t lose. That bitch gives wins away for free.”

It seemed Vandal was right; everyone knew Sundance was behind the match fixing. I grit my teeth. There was no backing out of Sundance and Dove Trick’s plan now, but I hated the thought of this cocky pegasus getting a kick out of it.

“If your boss cares about some dumb stage play, then he’s an idiot, and so are you for following him.”

Thunderstruck’s grin fell, and for the first time, he seemed serious. “Dayum, girl. You’ve got a real mean streak to ya.” His expression hardened. “But you don’t have a clue. My boss likes to keep a low profile, keep his name out’ the mouths of them radio ponies. If you knew who you just insulted, you’d off yourself before we did.”

Then he chuckled, casual again. “Ya do have a point though. I might mention you to him after all. But don’t hold your breath.” He saluted, and walked off into the crowd.

The roar of the crowd above echoed through the walls of the locker room under the arena. I kicked back on a bench, armed and armored, and tried to focus on my breathing. For some reason, knowing exactly when the fight was going to happen made the waiting so much harder.

It didn’t help that my head was swirling with questions and worries. Was Roulette planning to backstab me? Maybe Dove was right about me being neurotic, but after what Thunder said about Sundance, it seemed too convenient.

Incredibly, Sundance and Dove Trick had become the least of my concerns. They had Minty, but I started to wonder if the partners in crime could hurt her, or if they even had the will to. Still, I couldn’t go back on my word now. My reputation and pride would be tarnished, but abandoning Minty was not an option. Meager as my gang is, what sort of leader would I be to leave her behind?.

I checked my sawed-off, making sure each beanbag round was inside, and then glared at my PipBuck. This match was supposed to be a farce, but it needed to be a convincing farce. Or, at least an entertaining farce. We were scamming too many people to slack on the details.

I’d made other preparations too, like the flame retardant layer under my jacket. Neurotic? Probably, but I hadn’t survived this long by counting on other people. If Sundance loosed a real fireball my way, I’d be ready.

I heard the low rumble of the arena’s P.A. system. I took a breath and hopped off the bench. Sundance would emerge first, as the more famous fighter. I heard the deep, almost unpleasantly rough voice of the announcer as he introduced Sundance in all her disgraceful glory.

I gathered myself by the door into the arena, shotgun in mouth.

“Ladies and gentlecolts, the Striped Menace everypony is talking about. Give it up for Phisa!”

I trotted forward into the cage. The roar of the crowd doubled, tripled, as the walls between us vanished. There were cheers, not for Sundance or I as competitors, but for the fight itself. You’d think this were a real fight, from the fervor of their cries.

After a few seconds of searching, I spotted Minty and Dove Trick in the stands. They had good seats. Dove Trick probably needed that to work her magic. Neither of them looked particularly relaxed.

Across from me was Sundance. She leaned against the bars in her corner, a pair of lightly-tinted sunglasses perched on her snout. She didn’t look relaxed either.

The door to the locker room slid closed behind me, leaving us locked in together. We met eyes—as best we could with a pair of sunglasses in the way—and exchanged a long look. I kept expecting… something. A jeer, an insult. Something. But Sundance just stared back in silence.

“Word is that these two have some personal history. Will the Striped Menace get her revenge, or will our Sundance finally prove her superiority?”

I grit my teeth at that setup. Prove her superiority? Please.

I took another breath and reminded myself of the plan. Take the upper hoof, press the advantage to get the crowd riled up, then let Sundance have her miraculous victory. My jaw remained clenched tight. From up in the stands, I probably looked like a pissed off zebra, eager for revenge. It wasn’t far from the truth.

I leveled my shotgun. Sundance, unarmed and undaunted, didn’t react. Some things about her hadn’t changed, like her disdain for weapons. Magic was all she needed, according to her. My sneer deepened. She wasn’t even relying on her own magic anymore, just Dove’s.

I looked back up at the stands, searching for Minty and Dove again. The crowd had thickened, and I couldn’t find their seats. A flash a black feathers crossed an aisle, accompanied by a red blip on my E.F.S. It was a griffin…


What the fuck was Rave doing here?! She was a Gravestone! No way she could have slipped past the guards.

I took a breath.

If any Gravestone was here, it was with Roulette’s blessing. Vandal was right. I’d been played. At this point I was barely even surprised. But since it was Rave herself, I needed to get the fuck away, fast.

“Rock and roll bandits! Fight!”

I was so focused on Rave’s dark figure in the audience that I nearly missed Sundance’s opening shot. Not that it would have hit me anyway.

She gestured sharply with her horn, and a line of brilliant flames lit the air. For a moment they hung, suspended, then lanced toward me in a streaking wave. I dropped to the ground out of reflex, and the fire shot overtop of my head. I didn’t feel any heat. Just an illusion.

I stood and stepped forward. My mouth opened, and I started to shout out to Sundance, to warn her. To put an end to this charade before one or both of us was riddled with sniper rounds. But then I glanced around at the crowd. The writhing, snorting masses, at the guards who were supposedly working for the Cage, not Roulette, and then back at Sundance. Would anyone here care if I was shot in the head from the stands?

My glance into the crowd told me that Rave had moved again, and I didn’t have time to figure out where. Sundance’s horn was already glowing again.

This match was going to happen, but hopefully I could make it happen fast.

A series of fiery waves of magic surged toward me, small and quick. I danced backward, zigzagging and ducking as they crashed against the bars and floor around me. I rolled and came up with my shotgun aimed. I unloaded a round just a few feet to Sundance’s left. A split second later, a dark bruise sprouted on her foreleg, and she reeled back in fake pain and surprise.

I glanced back to the stands. Rave was nowhere to be seen, but the red dot on my PipBuck’s radar still wavered back and forth across my peripheral vision.

I darted toward Sun, hoping to close in and gain the upper hoof, putting an end to the first phase of our plan.

A ring of fire swirled around her, tall and bright and burning. I shied back at its heat. Real fire. Fuck! What was she doing?

I took a step back and surveyed the arena. Sundance was blocking off nearly half of it with her fire. In fact, the outer edge of the fire licked at the bars behind her. There we go.

I reared up and fired a beanbag toward her, just above her head, and high enough to clear her fiery defenses. She flinched back. I quickly reloaded and fired again, advancing all the while.

In seconds, Sundance ran out of room. She bumped up against the bars of the Cage and yelped. I heard it over the crackle of the fire and the shouts of the audience, so I probably wasn’t the only one to hear it. The metal had been bathing in the heat of her magic for long enough to glow red. It must have stung, even through her armor.

Her ring of fire thinned and flickered, and without pausing to think I leapt through one of the gaps. My jacket’s fireproofing must have worked, because I didn’t feel even a lick of pain.

I closed the remaining distance and dropped to my back. I slid up to her and kicked out three of her legs in one motion, dropping her to the floor.

I let my momentum carry me back to my hooves. I pressed down on her with one leg, my shotgun aimed at her face.

“That’s it?” I spat. “After all these years of gloating and posturing, and you give up just like that?” I glared, trying to convey just how badly we were fucked with my eyes. “Get up!”

Come on, take the cue and end this!

Sundance struggled to her hooves, panting, her eyes half lidded. She fixed me with a tired gaze and frowned. “I know.”

Fuck me to Tartarus, were we really going to do this now?

I reared back again and socked her across the muzzle with a forehoof, then followed through, hip checking her back against the bars. I aimed and fired another beanbag aimed inches from her face. Come on, bitch, do something!

I glanced up from Sundance’s face to the stands. Rave stood alone in the top row. She had a large rifle in her talons, a suppressor decorating its tip.

I was staring straight into its barrel.

I dropped to the floor—hard—and rolled. There was a large crack of air and a small explosion of dust and debris where I’d been standing as the bullet smashed into the concrete floor.

Sundance blinked. She looked between me and the pockmark in the floor. “Phisa? What the f—”

Another bullet slammed into the ground, this one closer to Sundance. She flinched to the side, nearly overbalancing in surprise.

The crowd’s fervor had hushed into confused murmurs. The announcer said, “Uh, we seem to be experiencing some… ballistic difficulties at the moment. Everyone please stay in your seats and remain calm.”

I sprinted over to Sundance and crouched by the Cage bars. They weren’t worth much as cover, but they were better than nothing. “We need to get out of here now!” I shouted. “Gravestones!” She seemed to get the idea.

We both started toward the nearest locker room door.

“Not ah ah!” said the announcer. “Nobody leaves until we have a winner!”

Crack! Crack!

Bullets rained down at a steady pace. Rave’s patience had apparently run out, and now she was firing as fast as she could manage. Some were caught by the wide bars of the cage. Others slammed into the floor. So far none had found purchase in either of our bodies. So far.

Was this Roulette’s plan all along? To get me in the arena, trap me in a literal cage, and let the Gravestone’s new enforcer gun me down?

I didn’t have much time to speculate: Rave was already lining up her next shot.

Then, in a flash of grey fabric and feathers, something flew overtop of the Cage and dive-bombed the stands. Rave’s shot went wide.

The figure touched down, cloak billowing, and from beneath its folds withdrew a glinting metal bat.


Her bat slashed through the air, and Rave narrowly ducked its deadly arc. Rave jumped into the air, and Vena followed after her, spinning and cackling as she flew.

Apparently that was all it took the break the crowd’s focus. The stands erupted into chaos as ponies ran for the exits, for the arena, for the box office, and even at each other to start miniature brawls.

The announcer spoke, but he was completely drowned out by the surrounding clamour. It was all-out anarchy.

Sundance jabbed me with a hoof. “Phisa, what’s going on?”

I took a few short breaths. “My old gang. They have a sniper in the stands to take me out.”

“Gravestones, yeah, I heard you, but they aren’t allowed—”

“I know! But obviously they’re here, so all that matters now is that we get out of here!” I stomped a hoof. “Can you give me some cover with your magic? I’ll see if I can get the door open.”

“Who put you in charge?”

I glared deeply at her.

“... Fine.” Her horn glowed, and a wall of flame burst to life in a wide fan around us. I rushed away from the vicious heat and over to one of the cage doors, slipping a screwdriver and bobby pin from a coat pocket.

As I approached the bars of the door, a shadow detached from the wall beyond and stepped toward me.

“How many fucking surprise griffins are there in this dump?” I growled.

Vandal raised an eyebrow and, with a flick of his wrist, unlocked the door and let it swing open.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said.

“Why are you here?”

“We’ve got a deal, remember? My info seems kinda pointless now”—he gestured into the chaos in the stands—”but I can still help you get outta here, in exchange for my contract.” He shrugged. “And well… I’m starting to think Pona Rosa ain’t the safest place to be. Now might be my last chance to jump ship, and I wanna do it with my contract safely shredded at the bottom of a lake.”

I grit my teeth. “Fine. Let’s discuss the details once we’re somewhere—” A bullet ricocheted near the cage. Vandal and I swore in unison. “Somewhere safe!” I turned to Sundance. “Come on! I need you to lead me to Minty!”

Sundance turned away from her fire wall to face me. She nodded, sweat pouring down her face. She sprinted up to meet us, and we rushed through the locker room and out the Cage’s back door.

Three griffons, and only one of them trying to kill me. How about that? I couldn’t wait to find out how much it sucked to owe a griffon a favour.

Author's Note:

Phew! Sorry about this late author's note.

Have to admit I was nervous about this chapter. This chapter was originally meant to wrap up the Pona Rosa arc, but because the very last scene needed an intense overhaul (and because I hadn't updated in a long time), I decided to split the chapter in half. So if you're wondering why the chapter feels too short, that's honestly why :/.

Either way, should give special thanks to the nice folks who pre-read this chapter; NyxOs, GODOG, Raven, Nethlarion, and Phi.

In the meantime, I'll be hard at work on the next chapter (and probably make some progress on the chapter after that one as well). Thank you for reading!