Fallout Equestria: Dead End

by TheWanderingZebra

First published

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

Equestria's a big place. Big enough for history to forget about the little wars that raged across every mile of the wasteland. Wedged between New Appleloosa and Fillydelphia, Pinewood Valley is always drenched in bandit blood as gangs vie for territory, wealth, and power.

One bandit, a zebra named Phisa, has just been betrayed for the last time. She was close to the top, only for everything to come crashing down in a heartbeat. On the run and out for revenge, she must assemble her own rag-tag group of outcasts to fight back against her old allies and claim her place as the toughest, most feared bandit in the Pinewood.

Cover art done by the fantastic icekatze!

Chapter 1: Lowlife

View Online

The afternoon sun beat down on me, the dirt road warm under my hooves. The black stripes on my coat were like hot coals against the skin underneath, and the occasional breeze rolling through the trees around us didn't help much.

I shifted my shoulders in a futile attempt to get some fresh air between me and my barding. Leather armour turned disgusting in the heat. But I had a job to do, and four gun-toting idiots to manage while I did it.

"Need a break," a young earth pony behind me said, his voice slightly hoarse. "They dun need to shoot us if we already dying when we get there."

Rave, second-in-command of the mission and all-around griffon bitch, spun around to glare at him. "The fuck do you think this is? A fuckin' picnic?"

I took in the dry grass around us. The gently swaying trees above. If the wasteland had a single picnic destination left, it was probably here in Pinewood Valley.

Then I frowned, taking another look up. The sun was right overhead, and we were still on the road. If we wanted to be back in our beds tonight, we'd have to keep up the pace.

"Rave's right," I said, hating how the words felt in my mouth. "You can rest when we get to Horseshoe."

As scenic as the Pinewood looked, it was just as rotten as the rest of Equestria. Where it lacked desolate, burned out landscapes, nightmarish monsters, and wars between feuding factions, it made up for in business. Business ranging from farmers to chem dealers, doctors to mercenaries, and merchants to bandits. They all had something to give and something to take, and no one took more than the gangs. No one took more than the Gravestones.

We knew where we could push, where we could pull. We knew how many caps, guns, bullets, or scraps of food we could squeeze out of a town before they fought back, and how to put them back in their place when they did.

And one settlement, Horseshoe, was late for their third payment in a row.

As Horseshoe’s squat, slumped, and damaged buildings came into sight over the horizon, I stopped and turned, bringing the group to a halt. Three ponies and a griffon, armed to the teeth and dressed in the best armor a bandit's salary could afford.

"I'm going in first, alone," I said.

Only one member protested. Who it was didn’t surprise me much. “This is bullshit, Phisa. Let’s just go in guns blazing and end it,” said Rave.

“Our job is to make sure Horseshoe is still under our control, not slaughter aimlessly,” I retorted.

She crossed her arms against herself and huffed. “Really? Cause I’m pretty sure ‘slaughter aimlessly’ is my entire job description.”

I narrowed my eyes at her. “We’re professionals. If Horseshoe thinks they can live without us, we’ll make them pay. Until then, you are to stay here.” I turned to a unicorn mare. “Sparkplug, you’re in charge while I’m out.”

She gave a nod.

“My name’s not Sparkplug,” Rave said, stepping in close and jamming a talon against my chest. “And I’m in charge while you’re gone, Miss Enforcer.” She spat the last two words.

“I don’t trust your trigger-talon, and Sparkplug knows the area. She’s in charge. End of discussion,” I said. Rave wasn’t happy, but at least she shut up.

The town wasn't walled. I entered from the east, under the town's shadow. The first thing I noticed was silence. Even little towns like this had some life, but all I could hear was the wind whistling between houses, swaying open doors, and windows on their hinges. The dirt on the road was uneven where numerous hoofsteps had tossed it aside, and some dust still clouded the air.

I passed by dark buildings, their walls and doors and windows intact, all empty. A quick search through one told me that it hadn't been abandoned for long. With every second of silence, I grew tenser. Something was wrong, and until I knew what it was, that something was dangerous.

I trotted behind dead motorwagons as I looked at the empty streets. None of the traders stalls contained any signs of life. Not even any gardens to at least grow food. Was there even anything worth taking from Horseshoe?

The silence didn’t last long. As I neared the far side of the town, I heard voices in the distance. I slowed down and crept toward them, glancing around the edge of a building to see a group of ponies gathered around some brahmin. To my shock, they had alicorns helping the settlers load the wagons with supplies.

We had heard rumours that a group called the Followers of the Apocalypse offering charity here in the valley, but I hadn’t expected some of them to be alicorns. Tomb hadn’t considered them a threat; aiding our settlements meant aiding us in the end, and they showed no interest in plotting against us. But if they were helping Horseshoe now, Tomb wasn’t going to be pleased.

Though none of them seemed to be armed, messing with alicorns seemed like a fast track to whatever afterlife I was headed for. Once I registered that there were quite a few foals scurrying beneath them, I realized this wasn’t worth it. Again I wondered if there was anything valuable left to take here. Other than lives?

I leaned a few millimeters further out.

A gunshot rang out. A bullet ricocheted off my cover, inches from my muzzle.

I rolled to the side before more bullets sprayed toward me, one glancing off my armor, right against my neck. My assailant yelled, “Gravestone! Run!”

Shouts filled the air. I brought a hoof up to my neck, felt the dent in my armor. I saw the earth pony a few feet away from me taking cover behind a different motorwagon. I gritted my teeth and ripped my pistol from its sheath.

He was going to regret this.

From the glance I got at the rifle on his battle-saddle, I could tell I that I wasn’t dealing with a poorly repaired hunk of iron. As far as I could tell, it was pre-war and well maintained. More than capable of turning my striped hide into swiss cheese.

He bit down, sending another spray of lead towards me.

I dove back down behind the motorwagon. I felt each bullet slam into the metal, sending vibrations through it and down my spine.

I couldn’t afford to be reckless. I hadn’t been that close to dying in months. If he’d had anything other than a battle-saddle, I could have waited him out. As it was, he wasn’t likely to run dry any time soon.

Lucky for me, even battle-saddles took a few seconds to reload, giving me a valuable opportunity to slip out of cover and close in. I fired off a few shots mid-sprint to keep him busy while I slid into cover behind a crumbling wall.

Wait for him to reload, jump out, run forward.

I made it about halfway there before he got wise to my game and stopped shooting. I took a few seconds to catch my breath and steady my grip on the pistol. How was he going to play this?

I didn’t have to wait long. I heard hoofsteps approaching on my left, alongside the familiar clunking of a battle-saddle swaying across a pony’s back.

I heard a click.

I jumped, my hind legs barely clearing the rubble between us. I lashed out in mid-air. My hoof caught him right in the nose.

My hoof stung. Hitting an earth pony was like hitting the ground itself.

His face must have stung more. His skull bounced off a nearby wall, and he crashed to the ground.

I hit the ground running and was at his side again before the stars left his eyes. He started to get up. He reached for his weapon’s mouthpiece.

I spun and flicked my tail. Ponies used to tease me for practicing tail tricks. They wouldn’t have laughed at the knife that flew free from within the coils of dock and tail-hairs and embedded itself deep in the earth pony’s right thigh.

He writhed, roared, clutched at his wound, then reached again for the trigger.

I flinched, and a shot rang out. My shot, straight into his shoulder.

He spasmed, then slumped back down. He jerked his chin toward the trigger, and I nearly shot him again, but then he gasped and fell back. His face was drawn in pain.

I kept the pistol steady, leveled at his head.

“You … you won’t,” he said. His voice was hoarse and breathless. He winced with every heave of his chest. I frowned at him, all my aggression draining away until all I was left with was a vague sense of disgust. I looked around the place, saw it was just me and him. Then I looked back to him, his lips trying to form words. Still trying to curse at me.

This was pathetic. Business was business, but what was the point of butchering an entire town of broken ponies? To prove a point?

Besides, I had better things to do than chase them across the valley.

I let out a frustrated sigh and trotted over to him. I detached the assault rifle from his battle saddle off, put it in my bag, and then retrieved a single healing potion, which I dropped on the ground between us.

He blinked at me in confusion.

I sneered. “Don’t get the wrong idea. Another time and place, and you’d be dead. I’m letting you live to give Horseshoe a warning. Any of you come back on Pinewood turf without enough caps to buy Tomb’s forgiveness, the best you’ll get is a quick death.”

After that I turned away, and looked for Slick Trick, the town's resident Gravestone ‘ambassador’. Assuming the ponies of Horseshoe hadn’t butchered him days ago.

By the time I made my way out of the abandoned town, the sun had already started its descent. My short search had led me to the barely recognizable corpse of Slick Trick, dumped in an alley and hastily covered with straw and assorted garbage. That was probably for the best. Dead ponies told no tales.

With my business in Horseshoe concluded, I began trotting back up to the hill where I’d left my backup. Rave was pacing, shooting glares in my direction and flexing her talons. The other three sat around, sipping from waterskins and resting their hooves, too hot, tired, and bored to pay much attention to Rave’s antics.

"Town’s deserted. Pack up, we're heading back to Brandson," I ordered.

One of my backup spoke out. "What about Slick Trick? Is he-"

"Dead," I finished for him.

Before Sparkplug could say something Rave spoke out first. "Tst. Of course they fucking left. Must’a had plenty of time to run while you were sneaking around."

I narrowed my eyes at the griffon. "They’ve been gone for hours. My sneaking around saved all of you the trot into town."

Rave spat on the ground and turned away. "Fine, fine, whatever. But you're gonna have ta tell the boss the bad news." She started back down the road, and the other three followed her without even a glance my way.

I looked toward Horseshoe. They’d be back eventually, and I’d collect on my investment. Not charity, not mercy. Just sound economic investment, like Tomb always said. I turned and started after Rave and the others, squinting against the dust their hooves kicked into the air. Tomb would understand.

Tomb was going to be pissed.

And being the leader of the strongest gang in Pinewood Valley, he was the last stallion to piss off.

We had made it back to Brandson just as night fell. The others were paid and sent off, and were probably either asleep or drinking now. But I led the mission, so I had to debrief. I wasn’t really looking forward to it.

My hooves tapped nervously against the elevator floor. I bit my lip, and contemplated on just how my meeting would be ending.

The music playing in the elevator didn’t help to calm my nerves, its soft, orchestral notes building up to a storm.


The elevator door slid open.

I approached Tomb's office and grimaced.

Sure, giving him bad news wouldn’t normally make him too mad … but he wouldn’t like what came next. Sparing Horseshoe was in the gang’s best interest, I was sure.

Still, I was going to get yelled at. No avoiding that.

My steps echoed throughout the hallway. There wasn’t anypony on this floor but Tomb. He liked his space.

As I walked closer, I heard a faint voice coming from Tomb’s office. Not talking, but singing. Tomb had his music playing. I arrived at his office door, took a few short breaths, and knocked.

“Come in,” said a gravelly voice. I entered.

Tomb was different from most bandits. For one, he was a clean freak, his office washed and polished to the point that it contrasted with the aged surroundings in the rest of the hotel. His room was pretty bare: a desk, a few shelves, a fan, and a phonograph that was playing opera.

A female singing voice filled the air. I could tell she was speaking Equestrian, but I couldn’t make out the words of the lament against the instruments. Fitting in my circumstance.

In front of me sat the boss himself. He didn’t look at me when I came in, his attention focused on the cards spread out on the desk before him. He lifted one in his magic, regarded it for a moment, then flicked it back down.

He stared at the cards for a few seconds. Neither of us moved. Then he leaned back and raised his eyes to mine, his neck-tie glowing in his magic as he tightened it. If not for the flesh rotting off his face, he’d fit right in at Tenpony Tower.

“Phisa. Did you remind Horseshoe why they pay us?” he said in a businesslike manner, tapping his forehooves together.

I closed my eyes, taking a deep breath before speaking. Before lying. “The settlement of Horseshoe was found deserted, and our ambassador dead.”

Tomb’s expression was neutral, but that wasn’t going to last. My hooves tapped at the floor. The music’s heavenly melody began to turn somber. Tomb glared. “What else?”

“Nothing else,” I replied automatically.

“Are you telling me that Horseshoe was found abandoned? That there wasn’t a single pony left?” With every word his voice grew louder and his face became colder.

I shook my head. “No.”

The room fell silent save for the opera playing from the phonograph. Tomb pressed his forehooves hard against his desk and stared at me for a long moment.

He brought a hoof to his temple. “That’s ... troublesome. Gather some ponies, ten or so, and hunt them—”

“If I could interrupt, sir?”

He gave an annoyed growl. “Yes? What is it?”

I coughed before responding. “I don’t think Horseshoe is- ”

His eyes narrowed. He set both his forehooves on the desk and let his shoulders fall. I expected him to continue where I cut him off. The singer warbled on beside us, the music falling into a soft bridge. My heart sped up, and after a few seconds I could feel it in my throat.


“You’re treading dangerous ground, Phisa.” He didn’t break eye contact for a second, like he was searching for something. “Continue.”

I coughed and licked my lips. I had almost forgotten my lines. “I was saying, sir, that I don’t think they’re worth pursuing.”

Here it comes.

I braced myself as he finally lost it, gritting his teeth hard and slammed his hooves, cards flying off his desk. The music skipped a few times. “Not worth it!? They have humiliated us! The Gravestones reputation will be damaged. Your reputation will be damaged! We’ll all look like fools if they aren’t dealt with!”

My leg muscles tensed. “They ran because they’re afraid of us, and they’ll keep running. And anypony who asks them why will hear how they would rather leave their homes behind than talk back to us. Ponies who’ve never even heard of us will fear us.”

Tomb gritted his teeth and glared daggers at me. “Are you telling me how to lead the gang, Phisa?”

I blinked. “No, sir. Just my advice as Enforcer.”

Tomb was silent, but the cold rage on his face could tell me how frustrated he was. He wrapped a heavy globe from his desk in his levitation, clearly contemplating on the best place to toss it. But he gave a deep sigh, and dropped it back harmlessly.

There was a brief silence in the room before he addressed me, a chill creeping in his tone. “As much as I despise admitting it, you are correct. They’re ever so slightly more valuable alive than dead.”

I simply nodded. Anything I said at this point would just rekindle his anger.

Tomb snorted, and turned away from me. “Our other clients should be taught not to follow Horseshoe’s example however. The Gravestones pride themselves in being professional after all. But for now, you’re dismissed.”

“Thank you, sir. If you need me, I’ll be retreating to my room,” I said before trotting out of the room.

Once out in the hallway, I took a deep, shaky breath. I could never tell with Tomb. Some days he was like a friend, some days like a slave master. Luckily today he seemed more like the former. After a quick glance back at Tomb’s office, I headed down the hall.

I didn’t notice Rave leaning against the wall next to the elevators until I was almost inside. She stood up and stepped in my way at the last second.

Great, just what I needed.

“So, told the boss all about your fuckup?” she snarled.

I’d dealt with too much shit today to put up with even more from Rave. Sure, every word out of her mouth was basically shit already, but this was something special. She was begging for a fight. I gave her no response, instead shouldering past her into the elevator and kicking the button with a hind leg. Rave tsked behind me. “Starting to wonder if Tomb thinks you’re up to the task anymore.”

I paused, and looked back at her with annoyance. “If you want something other than my hoof in your beak, spill it now.”

Rave grinned and walked next to me, reaching across and holding the door open with one arm. “Hey, I’m just trying ‘ta be friendly with ya, Phish. This Enforcer gig’s got you stressed out all the time. So, if you feel like it’s maybe-”

I knew where this was going, and I growled at her. “Like Tomb would want to have an idiot like you in charge. He learned his lesson with Lead, and he’s not gonna make it again.”

Another “tsk” from her. “This coming from the mare who wussed out of taking care of those settlers the easy way?”

She was really trying to piss me off, but I’d gotten bored of competing against Rave years ago. I swatted her arm down, and the door started to jerk closed. They didn’t get far before she wrenched them back open with both arms, leaned in and sneered. “Hey! I ain’t done with you, Phish! You better tell me-”

Enough was enough. I pounced forward, catching her off-guard and slamming her into the wall.

“Listen close, bitchbeak!” I hissed into her ear. “You think you can just walk up casually and shit talk me like that?”

Rave tried to speak with eyes wide, trying to mutter up some half-assed excuse. I didn’t let her and slammed a hoof into the wall, inches from her skull. “I can let this slide. But if I hear another word out of your beak tonight,” I pressed my other hoof on her chest, shoving her against the wall. “I will break you in half. Capisce?”

Whatever mix of courage and stupidity Rave was running on dissipated. There was no smirk on her, no sly remark, just a weak nod.

“Good, and don’t let it come to that.” I let her go, gave her a menacing glare, and went into the elevator.

I clenched my teeth hard as the elevator began its shaky descent. I slammed a hoof against the wall next to the controls and took a breath, trying to calm down. Right now, I needed some rest from all of this.

As it turned out, I didn’t get very much.

Chapter 2: Cry For Help

View Online

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

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

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

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

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

I stopped moving. Stopped breathing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The river. The rope. The beating.


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Right. The shotgun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a slow, painful climb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a stupid way to die.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I ground my teeth.

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

But I survived.

And I needed to live for them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

I dropped the useless firearm and stumbled forward.

“Did you just—”

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

“Uh…are you alright? You look kinda—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

A giant green cloud passed in front of my face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I gave him a flat stare. “I tripped.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bandits,” I corrected automatically.

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

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

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

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

Malpractice frowned. “Miss—”

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

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

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

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

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

I stopped and turned to look at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was something I could take.

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

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

A PipBuck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

I turned and glared. "The forlorn what?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I gritted my teeth and stepped in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I snorted. “Not important.”

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

I shot her an exasperated look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another sip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?” she said, tilting her head.

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

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

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

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

That’s it.

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

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

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

“Gravestones? Who’re they?”

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re a tribal? From the Pinewood?”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No point in wasting a shell on this dumbass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who. Sent. You?” I said again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He didn’t know.

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

“I-I’m sorry! C-Cinder made me!”

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

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

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

Snake Eyes gave a scared nod.

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

He nervously shook. “Y-yes ma’am!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mistake.

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

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

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

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

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

Seriously? This was her plan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cinder flinched.

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

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

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


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

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

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

The front door was open.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Killing Cinder was pointless now. I was already exposed.

Chapter 3: Becoming the Bull

View Online

I flattened myself against the wall, gesturing with my eyes and head for Minty to do the same. I held my breath, as if it would make a difference.

Twenty yards of smooth, featureless road was all that lay between us and three armed Gravestone members. Four, counting Cinder. If a single pony turned around...

"We need to move," I hissed. "Now!"

The only thing we could do was run. We were halfway to the nearest alley when they started shouting and shooting after us.

I dove around the corner just in time to avoid another hail of bullets. My eyes darted for an escape route. This was not a shootout I wanted to be a part of.

Inches from my ear, Minty screamed, “Okay! Now I’m more confused! Why do ponies want to kill you?!”

Instead of answering, I bolted down the alley. It looked like it opened out onto the next street. Maybe… just maybe…

Gunfire peppered the walls behind me as one of the Gravestones reached the mouth of the alley.

A white hot line of pain lanced across one of my flanks, nearly knocking me off my hooves. I managed to keep running, teeth clenched and blood streaming down my leg.

We careened out of the alley and onto the street. “Get your gun and shoot back at them!” I barked at Minty as I leaned against the wall and reached for my own weapon.

“Gun?” she shouted back. “I don’t have one!”

“What?!” I asked in disbelief. Was Minty a mare who enjoyed getting screwed over in the Wasteland?

“Yeah! See, long story, I don’t like them, because my brother—”

“What do you have?!”

“I have a hammer!”

She had a hammer. For a gun fight.

I had found somepony more incompetent than Rave. And she was the only mare who I could turn to for assistance.

Fuck me.

Hoofsteps charged down the alley toward us. The Gravestones fired wildly into the street, creating a wall of death between Minty and I. As soon as the barrage ended I wasted no time making a mad dash out, yelling, “Come on! Just run!”

Minty responded quickly enough, even with how heavy her armor was. We’d only made it a few steps before I heard a familiar metallic clatter behind us. Grenade.

I slammed my eyes closed and dove forward. A blast of sound, heat, and metal licked at my hind legs. The ringing in my ears was so loud it nearly blinded me, but I stayed upright and moving, albeit with a bit more wobbly than before.

Minty pulled past me, her stride unbroke, and I noticed blood pouring from her ankle where a shard of shrapnel had torn straight through the bare leather. If not for the thick metal plates covering her neck and torso, she probably would have been pulverized.

Luck seemed to be back on my side as I noticed a little round plate embedded into the pavement. A ponyhole. “Come on,” I said as I rushed over to it and started tugging. “Help me pry this open and get in, now!”

Minty didn’t hesitate to act. In fact, the second she got her hooves around the cover, it sprang loose without complaint.

I stared at her as she tossed it aside with a resounding clang.

The gunfire resumed behind us, and we didn’t waste any more time before sliding down the ladder and into the foul smelling sewer. The sludge nearly came up to my thighs.

Minty plopped into the sewer waters right behind me, splashing the disgusting water up onto my back and neck. At least my jacket caught most of it.

She immediately cringed back, her nose wrinkled. “Do we really have to be down here? Everything is all icky and I don’t want to have to clean my armor.”

I glanced both ways down the tunnel before picking one and starting forward. “You can whine about that later! Right now we need to keep running!”

It didn’t take long for Minty to follow my lead.

We weren’t even running for a full minute before we both heard a shout behind and above us. I risked a look behind and saw hooves gathered around the open ponyhole. We weren’t safe yet. Not by a longshot.

Minty didn’t need to be told to increase the pace.

“So what’s our plan?” Minty shouted.

“We keep running until we lose them!”

I knew how experienced Gravestones operated. They wouldn’t shoot someone when they could wait them out instead. So long as we kept turning corners they’d eventually give up and regroup aboveground. They knew that this sewer wouldn’t lead out of Riverside, for one thing. And another? There was a clicking sound coming from my saddlebags.

The Pipbuck’s geiger counter.

I heard a giant splash behind me. Minty shrieked. I stopped in my tracks to see that a feral ghoul had risen up from the water and latched its jaw onto Minty’s leg.

“What is that and why is it biting me!?” Minty shouted, giving the ghoul a panicked kick and sending it sprawling back under the surface.

The former pony didn’t take long to rise up. Soon enough more ferals came up from the water in front of us, adding to a moaning carol.

“Okay, they look really really hungry!” Minty said as she trotted back a bit.

I snorted in frustration. Every single time… as soon as I had things under control, another ridiculous coincidence screwed them up. I ground my teeth. Not this time.

“Minty, get out your hammer. We’re going through them. And try not to kill too many. The more ghouls between us and the Gravestones, the better,” I said as I brought out my half-broken shotgun, just in case. Minty was about to say something, but I had already begun charging forward.

Ferals leapt out at us, rising up from the underwater and crawling through grates in the walls. They shrieked and snarled at us in a mad frenzy. The tunnel resounded with splashing hoofsteps.

A shriveled husk grabbed at me from around a corner, its splintered and cracked hooves catching and tearing at my barding. The ghoul’s flesh was black and slimy, rotten and fetid. By the squat, crooked stump jutting from its forehead, it must have been a unicorn pony once.

One broad swing of my shotgun, a jab with the butt, followed up with a swift kick, and the creature fell back, tripping and clawing at its own legs, sputtering and choking on sewer water.

Feral ghouls were the stuff of nightmares, but they were clumsy at the best of times. In knee-deep sludge, they could barely stand.

Something I could exploit.

I weaved to my left past the next ghoul tumbling towards me. A swift hind leg kick to its chest discouraged it from pursuing me further.

The next one had the guts to leap towards me. I ducked past it, hearing a loud splash behind me.

Minty’s shouts were beside me. Contrasted to my nimble methods of evasion, Minty just charged right through the ferals like bowling pins. Whatever ghoul she couldn’t push aside she shoved away with her sledgehammer.

I would chastise her for not following my orders exactly, but my mouth and lungs were occupied. That, and at the time, I was really happy to be on the right side of her hammer.

Gunshots could be heard from behind us, and most of the ghouls beside and behind us turned. Stray bullets clipped the walls, sent water spurting into the air. A couple even ripped into the first line of zombies.

The herd charged, their other prey forgotten.

We stood there for a moment, looking back at the disappearing horde. Equine screams echoed against the stone walls. More gunshots rang out.

Minty gave me an exhausted smile as we both continued running. “We did it! Whew we- Wait, I got bitten! Doesn’t that mean—”

I groaned. “You’re fine! Just keep running for now. We need to get some distance between us and them.”

As we continued down the tunnel, rounding corners and crisscrossing other passages, the distant commotion faded until I could barely hear it over our own splashes.

That should have bought us some time.

After minutes of convincing Minty that she wouldn’t turn into a brain eating zombie and that a healing potion would suffice, we were both trotting through the sewer tunnel looking for another ladder up to the streets.

I kept us going at a fast pace, paying close attention to the rapid clicks from my saddlebags.. There weren’t as many rads here as there were by the ghouls, but after surviving the river, I really didn’t want to repeat the experience.

“Sooooo,” Minty finally said, breaking the long silence. “Do you wanna fill me in on what’s going on? I’d super appreciate it!”

I considered her for a moment. I was still pissed that she’d let Cinder escape, but the more rational part of my brain reminded me that the Gravestones would have shown up at Mal’s house anyway. In the end, killing Cinder wouldn’t have made a difference. And as she’d just proven, Minty was an effective wrecking ball. In the absence of real backup, she was better than nothing.

Better to put it all out in the open than wait for Minty to piece it together herself.

“I used to work with them.” I snorted. “Their second in command, actually. Long story short, my boss stabbed me in the back and had me tossed in the river. Now the gang’s out in force to finish the job.”

“Huh,” She replied. “So, that makes you a bandit?”

I turned around and glared at her. “Is that going to be a problem?”

Minty shook her head. “Nope! Why would it be?”

I craned my neck to peer at her. “You do know what bandits do, don’t you?”

She nodded. “Yeah, they steal stuff, make loud boasts, and then limp home covered in their own blood.”

That was oddly specific, but it gave me a hunch. “You’re talking about your family?” It would explain why her armor appeared built to intimidate.

“Uh huh!” She smiled. “They don’t really trust outsiders, so we normally go out and steal food or water or toilet paper from them.”

I would've questioned why a bunch of tribals would need toilet paper of all things, but I had better things to focus on.

“So does that mean I’m stuck with you?”

“Well,” Minty frowned. “I don’t really have anywhere else to go.”

“Fine. You can come with me for now, on the condition that you do exactly what I tell you to. The second I decide you’re more trouble than you’re worth, I’m done with you.” I stared into her eyes. As guileless as she seemed, I knew better than to trust her completely. “Don’t try to betray me. I’ll see it coming.”

She blinked, then nodded slowly.

“All right then.” I inhaled. “We need to get far away from Riverside and hunker down. Tomb won’t be able to keep this kind of heat up for long, so we’ll just wait until he starts to pull everyone back to base.”

“Sounds like an adventure! I hope you don’t have somewhere in mind,” Minty said.

I squinted at her. “I do. One of my old hideouts.” I felt a prickle roll across my skin, and I glanced back at toward the clicking Pipbuck on my side. “But before we leave, we’ll need more medical supplies.”

“You mean we’re gonna ask Mal for help?” Minty chirped.

I thought back to the scene outside. Mal nodding and chatting with the Gravestones. “No. We can’t trust him. He’ll sell us out in a second.”

“Then what are we going to do?”

“I’m going to sneak in.”

The sun was setting when Minty and I poked our heads up from a ponyhole on a quiet side street and started to creep toward Malpractice’s clinic. The streets were empty, ponies driven inside by the fading light and presumably our shootout earlier that day. The few that were still out weren’t exactly hard to sneak past. The Gravestones idling around outside were none the wiser.

Once we were out of sight behind Mal’s house, the plan was simple.

Break in through the backdoor, steal the medical supplies I had sseen earlier in the MoP box, and then leave town as fast as possible.

I was relieved when Minty had told me she had a bobby pin. Using that and a fragment of rebar I’d found in the gutter, I had no trouble picking the lock. I turned the knob, then glanced back at Minty. “Think you can sneak inside without letting the whole town know where we are?” I asked.

She took a step toward me, and the metal plates of her armor jangled like a drawer full of steel pans.

I winced. “In that case, stay here. Try not to look suspicious,” I said.

She nodded, and I opened the door and crept into the house.

The inside was silent. It was late enough for Mal to be asleep. Despite the dim light, I remembered the house’s layout well enough to make my way toward the hallway.

It didn’t take too long to find the same box I had tried to loot before. Now that I had a saddlebag, I could take as much I needed.

My hoof went to open the box, and just as I reached out to sweep the contents into my saddlebag, the lights flickered on overhead. I spun around.

"Phisa." Malpractice was staring straight at me from the end of the hall. His eyes fell on the empty medicine box, and then my saddlebags. The saddlebags he'd given me. “I suppose putting all of Riverside on Tomb's hitlist wasn't enough for you.”

I stared back, my ears pricked for movement behind me. One shout was all it would take to bring my former colleagues running. “I’m sorry. I never meant to bring the Gravestones to your door. I never meant to come to Riverside in the first place.” I took a careful step toward him, trying to appear non-threatening. “I just need these chems to survive out there.”

His face hardened, and he all but growled, “That's enough medicine to treat this entire town for a month. Even if those thugs outside don’t shoot any of us, ponies will die without those supplies.” He angled his head back, mouth opening to shout.

I swung my shotgun up to aim at his head, almost without thinking. “Ponies die every day,” I said past the mouthpiece. “Let me go, and I’ll be out of town in seconds. You’ll never have to deal with me again. Yell, and I’ll kill you.”

Mal flinched back from the weapon. His jaw quivered for a moment before he set himself. “Ponies die, but never you? Is that how it goes? How many other lives is yours worth?”

“So,”—my mouth was dry around the shotgun’s grip—“am I supposed to just roll over and die? I can’t do that. I’m sorry that it’s at Riverside’s expense.”

“Then there’s only one thing I can do.” He swallowed, inhaled and opened his mouth. His legs were locked, his throat tight. He was bracing for death.

“Wait!” I hissed.

He waited.

I lowered the shotgun--just a bit--and turned my side toward Mal. “Look, you can keep the meds. All I really need is a few packs of Radaway. Hell, take your damn Pipbuck back, too. Just let me leave.”

For a second I thought he was going to yell anyway.

Then he gasped in relief, his shoulders slumping. “Thank you,” he said. “Healing potions can’t fix a shotgun shell to the brain,” he added with a half-hearted chuckle. He turned his head to look back down the hallway, then he quickly staggered toward me, on shaky legs and his horn glowed. I felt my saddlebags shift.

“They’re still staked out around the sewer outlets on the edges of town,” he said as he glanced inside the bags. “They think you’ll make a break for it from there.” I watched him levitate healing potions, Med-X syringes, and packages of bandages back to the box. It seemed like he was leaving me with plenty of essentials. “Once you’re back on the street, head for the river. I don’t think they’re watching the bank.”

I nodded, although I fully intended to see for myself before following his advice.

He snapped the box shut and closed my bag. “And when you’re safe, can you help us? So long as the Gravestones think you’re here, we’re in danger.”

I considered that for a moment. It would be best if my trail died in Riverside. A small town was almost as hard to search as entire swaths of the wasteland. But I knew the playbook when a gang thought a town was holding out on them. Ponies would be lined up and examples would be made.

“I’ll throw them some false leads,” I promised. “Enough to convince them that I’ve left Riverside behind.”

There was a clatter behind me, by the front door at the end of the hall and around the corner.

I didn’t waste time by turning to look. I jerked forward, throwing my shoulder into Mal’s and nearly knocking him into the wall. “Sorry,” I gasped, already cantering for the back door.

“Wait!” he said, reaching for me. “In here!”

A turquoise magic glow surrounded the handle of the nearest door and flung it open.

“Hurry!” he hissed.

I glanced between him and the doorway. What if this was a trap? A giant, overcomplicated trap.

Mal waved a hoof towards the door. I gulped, bit down on my gun’s grip, and hurried into the room. Mal slammed the door closed behind me.

I glanced around me. Other than the faint light from under the door, I was in pitch darkness.

Heavy hoofsteps moved toward the door, the ancient floor creaking. I leaned in close to the doorknob. Through the keyhole, I could make out the faded white of Mal’s lab coat where he stood casually in front of the door.

The hoofsteps stopped, and I caught sight of a blue coat and a scarred face. “I’m hungry.” the blue stallion said. “This where you keep food?”

Mal’s coat swished as he took a half-step backward, filling the doorframe with his body. “The kitchen? Sure! Just tell me what you’d like and I’ll get it for you,” Mal said. I could hear the tension in his voice. I hoped this bandit wasn’t any smarter than he appeared.

The stallion snorted. “Piss off, doc. I know your type. Bet you’re itching for a chance to poison one of us. Nopony touches my food but me.”

The door jolted as Mal backed right up into it.

Something wasn’t right. I turned again, and now that my eyes had adjusted enough to see, I understood. A table, cabinets. A broken fridge. A kitchen. I had to hide.

I turned away, glancing around to see if there was another exit out of here, or something. My eyes landed on a closet door next to the fridge. I slipped inside, contorting between empty shelves and dusty boxes. I could barely hear the conversation from the hall.

“What do you think you’re doing, huh? Got something to hide?”

The kitchen door rattled again. “Please. I don’t want you to make a mess in there. I know Riverside is under your authority, but this is still my property.”

I backed up into the cramped closet and squeezed the door closed behind me as I heard the Gravestone reply, his tone now taking on a chill. “I think you should get out of my way before somepony gets hurt.”

“No, please!” Mal yelled. “I just don’t want you to make a mess. T-that’s all!”

I shivered and bit down hard to keep my teeth from chattering. My limbs were frozen and trembling. I had to do something.

A stomp echoed through the house. “Maybe I wasn’t clear enough. By ‘somepony’ I meant you, doc.”

There was silence for a few seconds, then I heard the doorknob turn. “Fine,” Mal said, “You can go in n-” I heard more hoofsteps and a few clatters before Mal spoke again. “W-what are you doing?!”

My heart stopped for a moment as I heard a disgruntled sigh near the closet door “Well, you lookin’ like you’re hiding something now. Just making sure their ain’t anythin’ we’re looking for.”

I heard a stomp on the floor. “This is exactly what I was worried about! You’re making a mess of my kitchen!”

“Come on!” the stallion shouted. “Are ya going to bitch and moan all day? Who fucking cares about how your kitchen looks?”

“I care!” Mal shouted. “And if you have no intention of respecting my property then I-”


My body froze as I heard a gasp, and then a wet thud of meat hitting the floor.

I felt like my lungs were full of iron.

I dared to take a small peak through the door, and saw Mal’s body on the floor of the kitchen entrance. He was missing an eye, and most of his skull. The remains of his face stared blankly as blood pooled below him.

“Worthless needle-pusher,” the stallion grunted, letting go of his battle saddle bit. He stepped over Mal’s corpse and walked across the room, peering under the table. He grumbled.

I ducked back inside, pulling the closet door closed as quietly as I could.

I heard the stallion growl, “Dumbass! There ain’t anything here! You just wanted me to starve, huh? Fuck you!” Over the pounding of blood in my ears, he could have been miles away.

In the dark, dusty closet, I might as well have been sinking through the earth.

"How could you? You just stood there and let her die? Did you just not care?"

I wanted to be angry. This was his own damn fault. I never asked the idiot to die for me.

"You don’t see that this zebra is just a burden to us? She can’t even shoot! And we’re nearly the same age!"

Mal probably hadn’t wanted to die for me either.

"Mewling, pathetic foal!"

I trembled. Why didn’t I run? Or fight. Do anything other than hide. Malpractice was an old, weak stallion, and I’d hid behind him like a foal. More than that, I was hiding from a single pony with a barely functional battle saddle.

The empty pit inside me filled up with a familiar boiling rage. There were, what, three ponies standing between me and escape? I cracked open the closet door and squinted out at the blue pony. He’d found something to eat in the meantime, and now he was crouched over the table, stuffing his face, completely ignoring the pool of blood and gore a few yards away.

I maneuvered my mouth and tongue into position over my shotgun’s trigger, then paused.

Why waste ammo when I had something better?

I set my shotgun down on a nearby shelf, making a tiny clatter as it slid along the wood. I twisted slowly, working my tail around to my front, then stretched my head down until I could reach it with my teeth. I couldn’t see a thing, but I could still feel the bulky shape of the Stampede syringe nestled between my tailhairs. Careful not to stab myself prematurely, I plucked the syringe free and brought it to my forehoof.

Stampede was just Rage and Med-X, right? I’d tried Rage once. Not a full dose, but enough to send my heart racing and my hooves itching. It made things easier. And everyone in the wasteland had used Med-X a few times, either to treat a wound or just to take the edge off. It sounded perfect.

I stabbed the syringe into the thickest part of my leg and fumbled with the plunger until it wouldn’t depress any more. I kicked the spent syringe free with my opposite hoof, and it clattered to the closet floor.

Everything was quiet. For a moment, I wondered if it was even working. Then I felt it. A flow of sensation, somehow cool and warm at the same time, spread through my chest. My heart swelled in glee. The closet was suddenly too small, too cramped. My legs shook, eager to move.

I smashed the closet door open. All color faded away as I glared at the only thing I needed to focus on: the blurry blue shape by the table. It took notice immediately. It must have shouted something, but I was too busy charging right at it. It tried to dodge, but I was faster. I cut it off and slammed my shoulder against it.

It staggered, fetching up against the edge of the table and scrabbling away from me. Blue shouted again, but it was like I was underwater. My ears rang. Lights flashed. It must have been shooting.

I jumped forward and drove it back until it hit something hard and we both stopped.

My hoof caught its chin, slamming its head against the hard thing. It seemed effective. I bashed Blue’s skull against it again. Porcelain dust filled the air. Its jaw went slack. I gave it one more, just in case. It slumped to the ground, and I looked at the sink as Blue’s blood spiralled down the drain.

It was amazing that the pipes still worked after all these years.

I saw bullets pepper the wall to my left. I turned around to see a yellow shape standing in the kitchen doorway. A smaller, light blue shape floated in the air next to it. I stepped away from Blue and made my way over. Everything felt slow all of a sudden, like I was running through molasses. Something slammed into my chest, nearly knocking me clear off my hooves.

Then I was at the door. I tried to focus on Yellow--it was bigger and I wanted to hurt it--but the little Blue floating by my head distracted me. I snarled and wrenched it out of the air with my teeth. My tongue recognized the shape of a trigger.

Yellow thrashed and yelled. I wished it would be quiet. Each shout was like a heavy wave, buffeting my head and leaving me reeling. I aimed my new gun. Yellow was so close that the barrel caught it in the cheek.

I pulled the trigger, and bits of Yellow painted the wall behind it red.

Everything was quiet again. I stood in the hall, swaying a bit on my hooves. The walls were too close in here. I needed more space. I turned and cantered toward the back door.

This was the plan, right? Grab the medical supplies, meet Minty around back, and then leave. It was simple, too simple to go wrong.

I stepped outside, and something pink bolted away from me, running for the next row of houses. My legs were still shaking, but maybe they just wanted to run too. I chased after Pink.

Again I was faster. I tackled Pink to the ground. It started making noise when it hit the ground. It mostly stopped after I stomped a hoof down on its neck, screams becoming gasps and rattles.

I stomped on it again!

And again! And again and again and again and again and again. And again. And... again...


And I felt a dagger to my brain and recoiled, dropping to my haunches and raiseing both my forehooves to my head.

I shook back and forth. I shook forward some more.

An especially heavy wave of pain knocked me down onto my side. A gentle force tipped me back onto my hooves and pulled me forward.


No, I was leaning against something now.

A dripping sound was all around me.

I was shaking. I was breathing. I was gagging.

And more colors entered my sight. But it was different. Everything was darker.

And I saw something green.

Minty Fresh.

“Are… are you okay? I-I …” She looked down on the ground and sat down, frowning.

I looked around at the other colors. This wasn’t the alley, we were next to a highway, under a broken bridge. I leaned against a stone wall as rain poured outside.

I was tired, drained in every way I could imagine. I felt like vomiting.

“H-how long… when did we get here?” I struggled to say between heavy breaths.

Minty gave a confused look. “Uh, I don’t know time that well… I think not too short, but also kinda long? It’s still the same day.”

Hours. I was out of it for hours. I looked down at my legs. My hooves were caked in drying blood, my striped coat stiff and matted, stained dark red. My tongue was a dried up slug in my mouth.

Did I… did I do that?

“So…” Minty began. “When you feel better, we’re going to your hideout, right? J-just asking to make sure I remembered right.”

I felt another stab of pain in my skull, but it subsided quickly. I looked back at Minty as I tried to mentally piece it all together. “Yes. That’s the plan.” I looked around for my weapon. “Where’d my shotgun go?”

“It was in Mal’s house. I put it back in your bag.” Minty said in a somber tone. “And yeah, I… I saw him.”

For a long time, there was an awkward silence in the atmosphere. I caught Minty eyeing my bloodstained legs and casting a glance back toward Riverside. I tried to catch her gaze, but she turned and started rummaging through a pack.

I eventually forced myself up, falling down a bit before fully standing up. “We need to get moving.”

“B-but…” Minty was protesting, but that didn’t last long. “Yeah, you’re right… the sooner we get to your hideout, the sooner everypony’ll be safe.”

That wasn’t my reason for wanting to get on the move.

I never wanted to be in Riverside ever again.

Chapter 4: Something in the Woods

View Online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the fuck?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um, look, it’s kind of a thing—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded, and I crouched down, neck craned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too broke to be Gravestones.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her head turned, eyes wide.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minty was still staring at the dead bandits.

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have a doctor?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And friendship second, I hear you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had my eye on these helpless caravaners.

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

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

I could ask about the map tomorrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minty raised a curious eyebrow.

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

Or did they just need me?

Chapter 5: Down the Road

View Online

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

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

“Like my cooking?”

I gave him a blank stare. “Yes.”

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

“Is that it?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was time to go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minty frowned. “But then those caravanners—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They want to sell me out.”

Aurora looked away and shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our journey back went surprisingly smooth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I fought off a smirk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minty nodded.

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

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

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

“Is this—” Minty began.

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

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

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

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

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

“So what about Mal?” Minty asked.

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

Minty remained mercifully quiet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My glare met sheepish eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That left the Pipbuck.

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

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

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

“Don't drop it. And if ya do make it out alive, be sure not to miss. I hear rad poisonin's a shitty way out.”

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

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

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

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

All those advantages, and yet…

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

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

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

“Good morning, Phishy!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pona Rosa?”

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

“Supposed to be?” Minty asked between bites.

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

“So why are we going there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minty then frowned, and quietly nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minty sighed. “Yeah, I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minty nodded slowly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Why?” I asked.

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

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

“Pfft, Roulette. Who else?”

I squinted. “Roulette?”

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

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

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

“And if I decide not to show?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I entered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I need more details. Is this a hit?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not sure about this.”

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

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

Minty sighed as well, still looking uncomfortable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh… I’d better be?” I said, but Minty’s tail was already vanishing into the crowd.

The betting booth was attended by an older mare. She blinked as I approached. “Well, you’re an interesting face. I reckon you’re here to participate?” She grinned. “I just know the crowd would love to see a zebra in the ring. ‘Specially the same zebra from all those wanted posters.”

I shook my head. “No, I’m just here to bet.”

She sighed and shook her head. “Damn shame. If you did well, I’m sure you’d be a shoe-in for the regulars circuit, just like Sundance out there.” She gestured toward the Cage.

My questions about betting, competing, and circuits were cut short in an instant. “Sundance?”

The mare nodded. “Yup. She’s a bit of an odd one. Never wins, but she keeps coming back, and the everypony eats it up. Almost enough to inspire a boring old mare like myself.”

I turned back toward the Cage. The commotion hadn’t stopped, and after a second I saw more of the same pyrotechnics shoot up into the air. It was her. Sundance.

“And she’s a regular,” the mare continued, talking to my shoulder. “That means she gets a little protection—regulars don’t fight to the death, just until they can’t keep fighting. And they get matches every week or so and a bigger slice of the profits for as long as the bets keep rolling in. With Sundance, it’s the same story every fight. Never, ever wins, but everypony thinks that maybe this’ll be the one, the big turnaround for her.” She sighed. “It won’t last forever, but damn if it ain’t compelling.”

My hooves started moving, and I trotted numbly toward the stands. Behind me, the bookie called, “Hey! Don’t ya want to make a bet?”

A deep horn bellowed, the lights flashed, and the crowd roared as the match ended. I climbed the stands just in time to see Sundance laying on her side, bruised and bloodied, with one of her legs twisted around sickeningly. Her opponent had already left, and the lights dimmed.

I stared, trying to rationalize what I was seeing, who I was seeing. Her coat, her mane, her freckles, her orange eyes…

She raised her head feebly, and her eyes landed on mine. She froze, and I saw the flash of recognition on her face.

It was her. Sundance. One of the three surviving members of the Crossbones, and a pony I used to despise more than anyone else.

Chapter 6: Black Soul

View Online


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.

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.

Chapter 7: Through the Fire and the Flames...

View Online

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.

Chapter 8: ... We Carry On!

View Online

We circled around to the front, giving the Cage itself as wide a berth as we could while still staying out of sight from the streets. So far the chaos hadn’t spilled outside yet, but it was only a matter of time.

“They’re supposed to meet us downtown if things go south,” Sundance whispered. “It didn’t look like anypony was targeting Dove, did it? Oh shit, or Minty? They were together. Do the Gravestones know about—”

“One catastrophe at a time,” I said, ignoring the pit of worry growing in my own stomach. “And downtown, really? That’s as specific as you’ve got?”

“We have a few backup locations, but they’ll probably be at our usual dive.”

From behind us, Vandal said dryly, “The Reaper’s Bounty, right?”

“Huh?” I glanced back. I’d almost forgotten he was there.

Sundance was no less surprised. “How did you know that?”

“Everyone hangs around that place. It’s kind of a tourist trap.”

“What?” I said. “No it’s not. It’s a hole in the wall.”

“It’s the hole in the wall. If you want a drink in Pona Rosa, you either go to Roulette’s casino, that expensive restaurant, or you go to the Reaper’s Bounty.”

Sundance and I shared a look. “The Reaper’s Bounty it is,” I said. “And if they’re not there?”

She visibly shivered. “Let’s cross that bridge when we get there.”

Thankfully, the Cage wasn’t far from the downtown area of Pona Rosa. We stuck to the alleys between buildings and secluded side streets. All I knew for sure was that the Gravestones were in town, but the ramifications of that were staggering. If they were allowed to be in town, anyone could be on their side. We avoided everyone we saw, as a precaution.

At the opening of the alley leading to the bar, I turned to Vandal. “You should scout the place out. Nobody’s out for your head right now, right?”

He shrugged and pointed a talon at the scratched out insignia on his barding. “No more than usual.” He strutted past us and into the bar.

“You trust him?” Sundance asked.

I stared at the closed door Vandal had disappeared behind. “Not really, but I think it’s worth the risk. He knows the town better than either of us, and he knows Roulette.”

“If he gets me or Dove killed, I’ll never forgive you.”

“Fuck off, Sundance.”

“No, you fuck off.”

The bar door cracked open and a feathered head poked out. “Hey, could you two stop bitching?”

Sundance groaned. “Fine, I guess I don’t have a choice.” I relaxed my shoulders and sighed as well.

Vandal nodded and held the door for us.

The bar was nearly empty. It was early afternoon and the lunch crowd must have already come and gone. Vandal was perched on a barstool next to two familiar ponies.

A stool clattered to the floor and loud metal boots clanked across the bar. “Oh, I was so, so worried about you!” Minty shrieked. She tackled me to the floor with all the grace and mass of a friendly bear.

I wriggled free. “Not now, Minty. We need to keep low,” I grunted. She hadn’t gotten any lighter.

From behind the bar, Dead Ringer coughed. It sounded like a rock cracking apart. “Take it y’all are bringing trouble on your heels?”

Dove Trick strode forward and slid between Sundance and I. She gave her marefriend a nuzzle. “Indeed. Were you followed?”

“Course not,” Sundance said, her eyes half-lidded. “We stuck to the alleys and watched our tails.”

“And the skies? There was a griffin in the crowd, the one with the rifle.”

I winced. “She’s with the Gravestones. I don’t know when she caught my trail, but she still seemed pretty busy tangling with the Cage’s security when we left. We’re probably safe for a little while.”

Dead Ringer sighed. “I wouldn’t count on it. For some reason, ponies always think this place is off the grid. It’s the first place locals look when they’re hunting somepony.”

I ground my teeth. Right. Tourist trap. We had to move. Already, people were starting to filter in through the door, and maybe I was just paranoid, but I could feel eyes on my back.

Vandal appeared next to me. “Uh, we might have a problem.”

“No shit.”

“No, I mean a new problem. I just checked outside, and I think there’s a teensy little riot starting.”

“What!” I spun and raced to the door. I heard shouts and gunfire the second I cracked it open. I poked my head outside and saw dancing, flickering light at the end of the alley. Fires.

Of course. After what happened at the Cage, word must have spread that Gravestones somehow found their way into Pona Rosa, and the regular bandits and merchants who come here to do business hated the Gravestones.

Out of context, many of those regulars would pin the blame on the town guards for doing a lousy job at keeping them out, so of course there would be a riot.

And worst of all; a riot meant everypony in Pona Rosa was a criminal waiting to take advantage of the chaos. That meant getting out of Pona Rosa would be hell.

I retreated back inside the bar. “Shit. Shit shit shit shit!” I rounded on Vandal. “Okay, you said you had a way out of town, right?”

Vandal nodded. “Yeah. There’s a secret exit that I know of. I’ve got a ride hidden near there, believe it or not.”

Outside of the bar I heard a window shatter from the distance. It was only a matter of time that the riot would reach this bar. I bit my lip. “A ride?”

“Motorwagon, an RV actually. Long story on how I got it, but it’s in working condition. I hid it outside Pona Rosa, couldn’t risk any random asshole tripping over it, or worse, Roulette finding out.”

“What’s a motorwagon?” Minty asked, head tilted.

Vandal rolled his eyes. “Right, tribal. Uh, it’s a… wagon. A wagon that moves on its own.”

“But?” I asked. There was always going to be a but.

Vandal nodded and tapped a talon on the floor. “Right. My contract.”

“Your contract? That…” That had been the deal. Ugh. “How the fuck am I supposed to get your contract now? Roulette’s gone to ground for sure, and at this point I don’t know who wouldn’t shoot me on sight.”

Vandal groaned. “Shit…” His face twitched and his eyes flitted around the bar as his thoughts raced.

I turned back to Sun and Dove. “What about you two?”

Sundance gave a confident smirk. “Oh, Phisa, we’ve been stirring things up here for months. We’ve got dozens of escape plans.” Dove Trick gave her marefriend a gentle flank bump. Sundance swallowed her glee. “But you know, we could help you out before briefly parting ways.”

I couldn’t help but frown. ”You’d help me? After everything?”

Sundance frowned. “If only to truly bury the hatchet between us. Right now I can see it isn’t exactly the time. But hey, I wouldn’t just be doing it for you.” She gestured to Minty.

“Awww, that’s nice of you!” Minty piped.

I took another glance at Sundance, and sighed. “You could come with us, you know.”

“Really?” Sundance said, but sighed. “But no offense, Dove and I wouldn’t want to get mixed up with your spat with Tomb. Buuuut… if you have any free time, we’d be in Leathersworth. We’ll be cooling down there, then head out of the Pinewood.”

Leathersworth was outside of the Pinewood, away from the Gravestones. It’d be the perfect spot to meet these two con artists. “Alright,” I said. “I’ll think about giving Leathersworth a visit.” I turned to Dove Trick. “Is there a place we could meet?”

“The Shipwreck,” she was interrupted by a loud shout from outside. Dove swallowed. “It’s owned by the pony we want to repay. I mentioned him last night.”

Next to me, Vandal suddenly jumped and started fishing through the pockets of his barding. “Fuck, can’t believe I forgot about this,” he muttered. He withdrew his hand and held up a small, black device.

I raised an eyebrow. “Is that a-”

“Recorder!” he finished for me. “If Roulette thinks I’m still loyal, I might be able to get her talking about something incriminating.”

“Incriminating?” I echoed. “Like what?”

“Like the fact that she let a bunch of Gravestones in to hunt someone down. There are lots of folks in Pona Rosa who’ve crossed the Graves one way or another. That kind of news won’t go down quietly.”

I nodded slowly. Pona Rosa wasn’t much more than a flea market before Tomb and his gang rose to power. The town’s greatest asset by far was its supposed neutrality and resistance to Gravestone influence.

“So we get her to admit to working with Tomb and letting Rave inside the walls, and then…”

“Blackmail,” Vandal said. His beak narrowed into a sharp grin.

I returned the expression. “You took the words right out of my mouth. We get her to give us your contract in exchange for keeping that recording quiet.” I frowned. “That’s going to be dangerous, though. We’re still in her town, and we don’t have any way of sending the recording to anyone else. She could just kill us and take it back.”

The energy in the room deflated and was replaced by a faint sense of dread. Vandal let loose a string of quiet curses while glaring at the floor. I sat down at a nearby table and propped my head on my hoof, wracking my brain for everything I knew about Pona Rosa and its leader.

Vandal reached out with a talon and poked at my foreleg. “Is that what I think it is?” he asked.

“Hm, a PipBuck? Yeah,” I replied. I shifted my leg away from his reach. “Why do you ask?”

Vandal’s grin was back in force. “You know, those PipBucks have a broadcaster. We record incriminating shit, and we can threaten to broadcast it via your PipBuck.”

I couldn't recall if Dice had ever told me that PipBucks could do that. But if I could broadcast… “I take it you’re some pre-war tech expert?”

“Yeah… sorta.” He reached out again, and again I drew back. “Let me look at it, for fuck’s sake. I wanna see if there are any ports.”

Sundance snickered in the background. “Oughta buy a filly a drink before feeling up her ports,” she said. Dove Trick smacked her, while Minty suppressed a giggle.

“Here,” I said to Vandal, offering my limb. “But keep your talons to yourself.”

He leaned in and peered at my PipBuck from every angle, then gestured for me to lift it up. “Hah, there!” He brought the recorder up next to it. Two identical plugs. “We use an AD-2 cable, we can plug your PipBuck into Roulette’s speaker and have the whole place hear her confession if she doesn’t give us what we want.”

“I don’t think my PipBuck came with this cable.”

“No problem. The PA system, right at the casino’s front desk near the entrance, it has one I can snag.”

“We’d have to sneak by to get that. But after that, how do we reach Roulette without getting detected?”

“Employee stairwell to the top floor. We can go through a fire door they never lock. There won’t be a lick of security between us and Roulette.”

We held eye contact for a moment. I could feel my heart pumping. We had a plan. A good one. Things were coming together.

Minty clanked up to us and thumped a hoof down on the table. “Yeah! They can’t stop us with two smart ponies on our team!” She beamed at Vandal and I, two distinctly non-pony creatures. “So how do we get there?”

Get there. Shit. I winced, sighed, and opened my mouth to say—

“Eh hem!” Dove interrupted from the bar. All eyes turned to her. “If I may?”

Minty, Sundance, Dove Trick and I all crouched at the end of the alley outside the Reaper’s Bounty. Hooves thundered past, and shouts rang out up and down the street, and from all across town.

“You’re sure about this?” I asked Dove Trick. “Nobody out there is going to be friendly, especially once you start the light show.”

Dove Trick smiled and said, “I wouldn’t expect anything less from the fine bastards of Pona Rosa. Don’t worry. So long as Sundance is by my side, nothing will touch us.” She turned back and looked at her marefriend with smoldering eyes. “Isn’t that right, dear?”

Sundance swallowed hard and nodded. “We scammed a town of criminals for months together. They’re not going to stop us now.”

I could hear the apprehension behind her words. I didn’t comment. I felt the same way.

Vandal stepped up beside us. “The south gate would be your best way out,” he said to Sun and Dove. “We won’t be there to help you if things go… south.” He groaned, and then muttered to himself, “Pun unintended.”

“Nothing to worry.” Sundance grinned, then made eye contact with Dove Trick, and in one motion they leapt out of cover and into the chaos of the main street.

Fireworks shot into the air, and a thick blanket of smoke choked the air. Bullets slammed into the wall on either side of the alley’s mouth. The sound of explosions rocked the street, up and down and back, like someone had placed mines every other block. Screams and hollers, even the roar of a minigun shattered the night.

It was impossible to know what was an illusion and what was real. Just like we’d planned.

Minty, Vandal, and I turned the corner and sprinted down the street, in the opposite direction of the cataclysm of sound and sight our allies were laying down. Even the rattle and clank of Minty’s armor right next to me was barely an echo in my ears. Perfect.

We cut down another side street and hurried south. Vandal took the lead, cutting through the occasional building to avoid an exposed street corner or ducking through an alley when the riot sounded a bit too close for comfort.

The cacophony seemed just a few blocks behind and beside us. Dove Trick and Sundance were keeping a perfect distance: close enough to attract the attention of everyone in our path, but far enough away to keep the worst of the heat off our tails.

A white blip appeared on the very edge of my EFS display, then disappeared just as fast. I glanced over my right shoulder. The road behind us was empty.

“Something wrong?” Vandal asked.

I shook my head. “Just an aimless pony somewhere behind us, I guess.” I glanced over my shoulder again. “Let’s keep an eye out. The last thing we want is someone sneaking up on us.”

He nodded, and we kept moving.

We turned a corner and the casino came into sight. We all stopped dead in our tracks.

“Shit,” I said.

No less than six large, armored ponies stood in front of the casino’s main entrance, and I could see more dotted around the perimeter.

I turned to Vandal. “Got a way inside?”

“Uhhh, one sec.” He fumbled for a cigarette and jabbed it into his beak, unlit, then stared blankly at the building. He glanced back at us. “Why the fuck couldn’t you two be fliers? Grounders never look up.” He gestured to a window on the second floor. It hung open, and the surrounding buildings on that side were squeezed tight together with barely an alley between them.

If we could just get up there, we’d be nearly invisible from the street.

I let my gaze wander up the neighboring building. “We don’t need to fly. Look, there’s a ladder up to that roof, and there’s that balcony on the next building over. If we’re quick, we can just jump across and climb through the window.”

Vandal looked at me dubiously. “You think you can do that?” Then he gestured sideways at Minty with a thumb. His expression was even more doubtful. “You think she…?” He paused, and glanced at where he was pointing. I followed his gaze.

Empty space.

Fuck everything.

I spun around and caught a flash of a green tail. I darted after it.

“Wait—” Vandal hissed behind me. I didn’t stop.

I crossed the street in half a second and slipped behind a billboard just in time to avoid a glance from one of the guards at the main entrance.

Minty disappeared around the corner of the casino. Low to the ground, I stalked after her, grinding my teeth as I counted the seconds that I was completely visible and exposed. I was actually going to kill her.

I turned the corner and… blinked.

Minty stood next to an open steel door near the loading dock. Two casino guards, unconscious, laid in crumpled piles of body armor at her hooves. She turned and waved at me, her hammer still between her teeth.

I nearly staggered as I siddled up to the wall and stared down at the two incapacitated guards. “How did—”

Minty dropped her hammer into the crook of her foreleg and said, “They weren’t looking.”

I shook my head. “I mean how did you find this entrance?”

“Oh! I just guessed that there might be a door at the back.”

Vandal flew beside me. “Did you knock out both of them?” he said.

“Uh-huh!” She mimed a swing with her weapon. “They were standing pretty close together.”

I couldn’t—she didn’t—what did—?

Vandal touched down next to me and folded his wings. “Are you two insane?”

“Yeah,” Minty nervously hummed to herself. “I might have overdone it… but hey! Now we’ve got an easy way in!”

I cleared my throat. “Minty, I appreciate your help, but if you ever do that again without telling me, I’ll—”

“Can we do this another time, please?” Vandal asked, eyes darting around. Minty took a step, and he flinched. “And keep that hammer away from me!”

“Sorry…” Minty holstered her hammer.

I took a deep breath. “Well… we can sneak in there,” I gestured to the steel door, then turned to Minty. “Keep low, and make sure nobody else enters. Alert us if something happens.”

“Guard duty? Again?” Minty whined.

I pointed at Minty’s armor. “Your armor makes noise. It’s better if you stay back.”

She frowned, and her tail whipped behind her.

“Look,” Vandal said, rubbing the edge of his beak. “We need someone to watch our only exit. Probably ain’t fun, but the last thing we want is to have this place sealed out.”

Minty gave a quiet groan. “Okay… but what should I do if someone comes by?”

Vandal pointed at the knocked out guards. “I think you can handle it.”

Color me impressed. Vandal had an easier time convincing Minty than I usually would. After we left Pona Rosa, I could ask him for some advice.

“So are you alright with that?” I said to Minty. “We need this steel gate left open no matter what.

Minty hummed to herself before finally nodding and smiling. “Okie dokie! Current objective: keep door open!”

I turned to Vandal. “You know the building better than I do. Lead the way.”

Vandal took out his magnum pistol and nodded. “My pleasure.”

Everything seemed to be set… but I oddly felt something was missing.

Then I remembered. I gave Minty a stern look. “And whatever you do, don’t do anything stupid.”

The door led to a stark, dim industrial hallway. The concrete floor was stained with centuries of partially cleaned spills and coated in dust. The sounds of ponies at work came dimly through the walls on either side of us.

Vandal motioned ahead, straight down the hall. We crept forward, ducking across doorways as we passed them, hugging the wall whenever the sound of voices or hoofsteps got louder.

“Right here,” said Vandal, gesturing to the next doorway. “It’s a closet or something, but there’s a door on the other side that leads to the elevators.”

I waited a moment for him to proceed.

He frowned, then carefully pulled the door open, keeping his body hidden behind it, then glanced inside. “All clear.” He looked at me expectantly.

Okay, I guess I was taking the lead now.

‘Closet’ was right. The space was barely three feet wide and four feet deep, and the bare, flickering lightbulb above us barely illuminated all of it. Boxes were stacked haphazardly against the walls, leaving only a narrow passage from one door to the other.

Vandal stepped inside after me, and I instantly felt a touch of claustrophobia; more because we were in hostile territory than the tight space.

The door in front of me cracked open, and adrenaline shot through my veins in a heartbeat. I couldn’t retreat back to the hallway with Vandal on my heels, and there wasn’t time or space to hide.

So instead I lurched forward and ripped the door open, grabbed the pony behind it by the neck, and pulled him into the room with us.

He started to scream, but I quickly shoved my other hoof into his muzzle. We crashed to the ground and I quickly wrestled my way on top of him.

Vandal already had his magnum trained on the guard’s head. He looked at me questioningly.

I shook my head, clenched my jaw, repositioned myself so that the knee of my foreleg pressed into the guard’s throat, and bore down with all my weight.

His thrashing stopped after a few seconds. I didn’t let up. We couldn’t afford him waking up and sounding the alarm.

When I gathered myself and stood up, I caught a flicker of disgust cross Vandal’s face. I winced and did my best not to think of it.

We proceeded out the door, and Vandal took the lead again. From the elevator area, we could see the main gambling hall and the lobby beyond. People of all kinds mulled around the various tables and machines, and Roulette’s armed guards dotted the room.

“A riot is going on outside, and they’re still open?” I asked Vandal.

“Well, knowing her, Roulette probably isn’t letting anypony out for their ‘safety’.”

“Their caps?”

Vandal shrugged. “Yeah. Isn’t the first time this has happened.”

The lobby, however, seemed deserted apart from a lone receptionist sitting behind the front desk. I checked my E.F.S. to confirm. “Any secret passages to the front desk?” I asked sarcastically.

He sighed. “‘Fraid not.” His eyes scanned the casino floor. “But we might not need one.” He started forward, keeping close to the wall, and slid behind the nearest row of slot machines.

I followed, trying to breathe as little of the smoke-filled air as possible. The stench of tobacco clung to every surface, and was strong enough that I nearly gagged with each inhale.

On the other hoof, the haze of smoke in the air might work to our advantage, and it seemed that some of them weren’t any more comfortable with the smoke than I was. More than one of them had loose bandanas tied around their necks and tucked over their chins in vain attempts to filter the air. It wasn’t the best cover, but it was better than none.

I had just about picked out a route through the gambling hall that minimized our exposure to their guards when I heard a faint metallic clank beside me.

I turned to Vandal and found him elbow-deep in the wires and circuits of the nearest slot machine, its panel leaning against the wall behind him.

“That desperate for caps?” I whispered.

He rolled his eyes and pulled his arm free. “Just set up some cover. Ready to roll?”

“What? You think a defective slot machine is going to empty the entire room? That’s insane.”

Vandal grinned. “Trust me, I know what I’m doing. Just be ready to move.” He gestured toward a poker table, and as if on cue, every light in the room flickered, sparked, and died, plunging the room into nearly total darkness.

We slid under the table as groans and curses filled the air.

“Ah shit!” one guard shouted. “Did one of you dumbasses plug in all the machines at once again? You know it trips the fucking breaker every time.”

“Wasn’t me! Must have been one of the guests.”

The first guard growled. “Well I hope they got their fucking caps’ worth, cause I’m throwing them out as soon as we get the lights back up. You, go reset the breaker. And you two, go make sure we only have eight machines plugged in, or the lights are just gonna die again.”

I was left awestruck as the guards began to leave their posts, giving us a clear shot across the floor, and with the dim light we were unlikely to be seen even if one of them glanced back toward us.

“Roulette’s been putting off upgrading the spark generator for years, so we get blackouts all the time.” Vandal said. “We’ve got a good minute or two.”

“Color me impressed.” I couldn’t help but smirk at his resourcefulness.

We crossed the casino floor in seconds, darting from table to table. We never came within twenty feet of a guard.

Vandal motioned for me to wait under the last table before the lobby, and he crept forward around the front desk. He returned moments later with a short, coiled wire in his beak.

“Piece of cake,” he whispered.

We quickly snuck back to the elevators and were halfway up the stairs to Roulette’s office before the lights finally came back to life.

At the top landing of the staircase, Vandal stopped to light a cigarette and bring it to his beak. He turned to face me. “Ready to do this?”

“Not much other choice at this point. Getting cold talons about betraying your boss?” Unlikely, based on his attitude toward Roulette in general.

He breathed out a laugh. “Hah, at this point I’d probably kill her myself if you backed out. Just checking that we’re on the same page here. We get my contract and get out of there?”

“That’s the plan. Once we’re even, we can all get the fuck out of Pona Rosa.”

“Right,” he said. “Even.”

I snorted. “What, you want more from me than freeing you from indentured servitude?” He did save Sundance and me at the Cage, and by extension Minty. Maybe I did still owe him.

He cleared his throat and turned away. “No, we’re even. I don’t do that kind of debt anyway.” I swore I saw a slight blush, but I brushed it off.

“Where will you go?” I asked, almost surprising myself. Why did I care where this washed-up ex-Talon ended up? “Once we’re out of Pona Rosa and you’ve got your contract?”

He opened his beak, paused, and shook his head. “One step at a time,” he said, and gestured ahead.

We gathered by the door. There was a hallway beyond it, and then Roulette’s office. Usually unlocked, according to Vandal. We steadied ourselves.“Stay outside her office until I give the signal,” Vandal said. “She’s more likely to run her mouth if she’s alone with me. Once she’s talked enough, or shit starts going sideways, we’ll incapacitate her together.”

I nodded, and we proceeded into the hallway. All clear. I placed myself to one side of the office’s entryway, where I would be hidden by the open door. Vandal withdrew his recorder and pushed a button, and a red light on the device started blinking. He slipped into a pocket of his barding, squared his shoulders, and knocked.

“What?” came the reply, clipped and frustrated. “Who is it?”

“It’s me,” Vandal said.

“Vandal.” Roulette’s voice was flat and unimpressed. The lock clicked, and the door swung open. “Have you found them?”

“What does it look like?” Vandal gestured around the empty corridor. “We need to talk.”

There was an icy silence for a moment. I held my breath. If she swung the door open much further, there was a chance she’d see me.

“You ‘ll make it quick,” Roulette commanded. They both disappeared into the room, and the door closed behind them.

I let out a slow breath, then crept up to the door and pressed one ear against the wood.

“Gravestones? In the city?”

“It’s being dealt with, hon. Your concern is—”

“The whole fucking town is rioting, and we know those Gravestones are to blame! And yet here you are, telling me to tail some rogue zebra instead! My contract states that I’m supposed to make sure this place doesn’t burn to the ground. That’s my concern. So tell me what we’re supposed to do with these Gravestones before shit hits the fan.”

I heard Roulette inhale deeply. “Vandal… Darling. I ain’t lying when I say that your concern should be tailing that zebra.”

“Okay, but what does-”

“Let me finish,” Roulette said in a harsh tone. “Those Gravestones you’re worried about? I have it under control. But I suppose by now I ought to have learned to be clear and simple with you. Bring that striped bitch to my office, and the Gravestone problem will be fixed.”

I grit my teeth at that. Why was it always the unimaginative insults that pissed me off?

“They’re… they’re here for the zebra? And you’re just going to give her to them? Since when have we cooperated with the Gravestones?” Vandal said with alarm.

Roulette groaned. “Yes, yes, officially they still ain’t friends of ours. But… They’ve promised to leave us alone in exchange for giving them a bit of leeway in this one case.”

“Uh… Okay?” Vandal was a decent actor, thankfully. He sounded genuinely surprised. “So all that stuff about you helping her take down the Gravestones?”

She laughed. “Oh, believe it or not, I actually considered what she had to offer. Tomb’s word ain’t exactly golden, and getting rid of all ‘em Gravestones could mean other bandits can flourish. But Phisa’s reputation ain’t what it used to be neither. News from Horseshoe is that she’s gone and grown one of them bleeding hearts. I don’t fancy a zebra like that in charge of any gang at all, let alone the Gravestones.”

Horseshoe. It felt like another life, but it had only been a week ago. Back when I was Tomb’s enforcer. Back when I believed I had finally gained the respect I worked hard for. Back when I felt I had finally done it: I had finally become a bandit that would make the deceased Crossbone gang proud.

I hadn’t really reflected on it before, but that one decision had led to all of this. Sparing a hooful of lives was all it took to make me a bandit pariah. Of course word would have spread by now. Pinewood Valley was a small place. My blood simmered anyway.

“What’s this about Horseshoe?” Vandal asked. I restrained the urge to burst into the room then and there.

“Run-down place,” Roulette answered. “They owed the Gravestones caps, but Phisa let them off scot-free. Left a mighty poor impression. Here she is, big scary enforcer for the baddest gang around, and she’s playing at being Velvet Remedy.”

Vandal was silent for a moment.

“And all that stuff about the Cage?” he asked.

“To be her… cage.” She snickered. “She needed to stay long enough for the Gravestones to send their assassin. Her fighting in the Cage though… well, I couldn’t have planned a better execution myself. All visible and isolated in public, just waiting for a bullet in the head. She was all gift wrapped in there, and they fucked it up.

“So now, hon, I want you to find that striped simpleton and drag her ass in here for our guests. I’d prefer her delivered alive, but knowing Tomb, she won’t have a long life once he’s got his hooves on her, so use your best judgement, hon.”

I heard a click. The sound of a button on a voice recorder.

“Very impressive, boss. You really pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes.”

“We bandits are a lotta things, but none of us with any sense tolerate traitors. She lied to her boss, far as I’m concerned she got what she deserved. Besides, with or without our help, she stands no chance against the Gravestones. Call it my best judgement.”

“Even if lying to the boss is her ‘best judgement?’” He chuckled. “Your words.””

I turned the doorknob and gave it a little push. The door creaked open slowly, so slow and dramatic that it was almost comical. I was greeted by the sight of a very shocked Roulette sitting behind her desk.

“She’s been listening the entire time.” Vandal smirked as he brought out his magnum. With his other hand, he raised the recorder. “And soon all of Pona Rosa will hear it, if you don’t do what we say. Oh, and by the way, I quit.”

Roulette’s eyes widened as she tried to reach for a speaker. I aimed my sawed-off at her. “Call your guards and we shoot.”

Her eyes narrowed. “If you shoot, everypony in the building will hear!”

“You’d be dead by the time that would matter,” Vandal said, inching closer toward Roulette.

Her face contorted into a scowl as I gently tapped her forehead with my gun. “Don’t. Move.”

She obliged, and I turned to Vandal. He appeared to have the same idea I had. He brought out some rope from his pack, and tied Roulette against her chair.

“You broke your contract,” Roulette muttered.

Vandal snorted. “You think I gave a shit about a piece of paper?”

Roulette grit her teeth and sneered. “Yes.”

“Fucking naive.” He pushed Roulette’s chair against the wall. “So where is it?”

Roulette laughed nervously. “Vandal, hon, if this is about your pay you coulda just-”

“Caps aren’t going to save you,” Vandal said as he popped out the holotape from his recorder. He tossed it over to me, and I slid it into my PipBuck.

“He’s right,” I said as I attached the AD-2 cable into the intercom. “Tell us where Vandal’s contract is. Otherwise,” I tapped my PipBuck. “Your clients will do the rest.”

Roulette shook her head, and gave a soft laugh. “Hon, please, You ain’t going to do jack shit. What do you think will happen once you air that tape? I go, Pona Rosa goes down in anarchy. And you wouldn’t want Tomb to take control, would ya?”

I recalled Dove’s speech about ‘small details’. I holstered my gun and came face to face with her.

I reared back and slammed her head down against the desk with a loud thud. Blood poured out from Roulette’s nose and onto her desk as I forced her head onto the table with a hoof. Now she knew I mean business.

Roulette gasped and tried to raise her head. I wouldn’t let her, and kept my hoof on her head. “You know, I can’t help but be disappointed. I always imagined Pona Rosa being a valuable asset, but after a few days I realized it’s a dump.” I lowered my head down and stared at Roulette eye to eye. “I couldn’t give a damn if Tomb took over. And we don’t have all day. Tell us where Vandal’s contract is or we expose you and find that scrap of paper ourselves.”

Vandal said nothing as he nervously smoked, his talons fidgeting.

Roulette trembled and coughed out some blood, but otherwise said nothing.

“Very well,” I removed my hoof from Roulette’s head and used it to press the play button on my PipBuck.

What? Who is it?” Roulette’s words came out from my Pipbuck.

Vandal stepped over to Roulette’s desk and flicked on her radio.

It’s me,” said Vandal’s recorded voice from the radio’s crackling speakers.

“Stop!” Roulette shouted. “It’s under my desk, there’s a hidden locker. Combination is ten, forty-two, and twenty-eight.” she said in a weak, defeated tone.

I pressed the stop button, and Vandal went under the desk and popped the locker open, and pulled out a piece of paper that had ‘Vandal’ scripled in a big, messy talon-writing. He brought out his lighter and set the paper on fire.

“That was all?” Roulette almost whimpered.

I shook my head. “Do your guards have orders to kill me?”


“Then we’re done here.” I trotted toward the door. “Vandal, leave her tied up.”

“Yeah.” The catbird said as we departed the room. He closed the door behind him and exhaled. “You have to hit her?”

“She needed to know who’s in control,” I snorted. “Is there a problem?”

He closed his eyes and hummed. “You hitting her? No, I actually enjoyed that, the bitch done a lot to have it coming…”

“So what’s your issue?” I narrowed my eyes at him.

He shrugged. “Well… Couldn’t help but feel you were compensating for being called a bleeding heart. What’s the deal with Horseshoe?”

I groaned. “I’ll set the record later. Let’s get Minty and leave.”

My ears perked as the noise of gunfire came out down below. A muscle tensed in my fetlock.

I told that idiot to not do anything stupid!

Screams echoed from downstairs. “Hey, Mints isn’t this bloodthirsty, is she?” Vandal said as we approached the main casino floor.

“She shouldn’t be bloodthirsty now!”

The main casino floor appeared as though it was struck by a hurricane: tables and chairs were overturned. Customers were crouching under tables as armed guards fired rounds toward the familiar hooded griffon.

Vena. She really was stalking me!

“Phisy! Vandy!” I heard a yell down the hallway. Minty stopped charging through when she noticed the both of us. “I’m so, so sorry. I was on guard duty doing nothing stupid until that griffon came by asking if you were inside. I told her to go away and-”

“And now she’s murdering everyone.” Vandal interrupted. “I don’t know about you girls, but we should get the fuck out of here.”

I looked back toward the carnage the Vena was performing. There were already a few dead guards bleeding on the ground, some having limbs smashed hard by what I presumed to be her bat, others bleeding to death from slash marks… one that creeped me out the most was the guard who appeared to have had the entire front of his throat torn out.

Another time and another place I would be confronting her, murder machine or not. Right now however, we needed to leave. “Vandal’s right. We’re leaving!”

As all three of us exited the casino, I turned back once just to catch a glimpse of Vena’s talons ripping out a chunk of wet meat on a poor guard’s neck.

That secret exit Vandal told me about turned out to be an abandoned parking building, which was part of Pona Rosa’s wall, and was close by. The path was clear, thanks to Vena’s distraction.

“Hey, wait up!” Minty shouted behind us as her armor clanked.

Vandal groaned beside me. “It’d help if you wore normal armor like everyone else.”

“Yeah, but this armor makes me look sexy!”

I was the wrong zebra to hold a good opinion on what made ponies look ‘sexy,’ but I was pretty sure only a specific group of ponies would find Minty’s armor to be a turn on.

Regardless, I kept my pace slow enough for Minty to catch up, and gave a quick glare at Minty. “When we are out of here, you and I need to have a talk.” Though the ‘hostage’ situation was now resolved, I couldn’t afford to have Minty pull a stunt like that again.

“Um, yeah,” Minty gave a nervous smile. “I want to ask some questions after we leave.”

I gave her a quizzical look, but now wasn't the time to ask about that.

We approached a vine covered five story building, and I could see that the door to it had been blocked by rubble.

“Elevator shaft.” Vandal pointed at an open hole a few meters away from us. We trotted over to it, and got a clearer look at the hole. It was an open shaft, it’s doors torn off, and missing it’s elevator. “There’s a ladder you two can climb down from. Strong enough to hold even… err, Minty, right?”

“Uh huh!” Minty chimed. “And in mint condition!”

“Heh, is that supposed to be some catchphrase?” He said with a smirk.

“Uh huh! I thought of it myself!” Minty beamed with a grin.

Vandal snickered. “Cute.”

I approached the shaft and saw the ladder on the right. The bars on it looked a little rusty, but still intact. That didn’t comfort me. “You’re sure this is safe?” I asked.

“Yeah, I climbed up them once just to test it. You know, just in case I wasn’t in the right condition to fly.” He stepped past me and tapped the ladder, a clank echoing through the shaft. “Doesn’t hurt to come prepared.”

I narrowed my eyes. “You’re certain?”

Minty appeared on the first rung of the ladder. When did she get there?! “Last one down is a rotten radroach!” She slid down on it while shouting out a ‘wee’ in the process.

Vandal laughed behind me, no doubt having missed Minty grab onto the ladder as well. “That answers it. You should be safe.” I narrowed my eyes at him. He sighed. “If you slip, I promise I’ll catch you.”

I took a deep breath as Vandal latched onto the ladder. “Fine,” He gave me enough space for me to get on it as well. “You better keep your word.”

“Relax,” he said as he climbed down.

To my relief, the bars of the ladder weren’t slippery, and in fact it was the opposite. Rust had made the steel rough enough to have a firm grip with my hooves. When we reached the final floor, Minty was leaned against a way merrily humming herself. I jumped off and landed on all fours, just before Vandal placed a hindleg on the floor.

“It’s official! Vandy is a rotten radroach!” Minty exclaimed.

“Cheater.” Vandal said playfully.

The underground parking building wasn’t completely dark. The bleak interior was illuminated by thin rays of sunlight which reached inside through small cracks and holes in the walls. Still, I turned on my PipBuck’s lamp to get a better view.

Defunct motorwagons were strewn about. Most of the pillars were still intact, though they showed signs of heavy erosion. Water dripped from the ceiling, creating small puddles near the walls. I could see a toll booth, and beyond that was a large, vine riddled garage door.

“Does Roulette not know about this place?” I asked Vandal as we trotted down a ramp to the bottom floor.

“She does,” he replied. “But she wrote it off as a death trap. Door can only be opened from the inside, and see where that other building is leaning on it? Try to blow your way in and the whole thing would collapse on you.”

“How do you know if the door can be opened?”

He smirked. “Got curious. Spent some of my free time down here and figured out how to get it open. It helps to have an emergency exit if things fly south.”

From the distance I heard Minty grunting as she tried to lift the garage door with her bare hooves. I facehoofed. “Minty!” I shouted. “You’re not going to have any luck opening it.”

“Awwwww!” Minty whined as she returned. “It was worth a shot.”

Vandal suppressed a laugh as he shook his head. “Yeah, it can only open via control panel." He pointed at the toll booth. "Should be in there. Already tested it, but it’s old as hell. It’ll take a long-ass time to open up.”

I couldn’t help but smile at him as he headed over to the toll booth. Minty must of noticed since she came beside me and grinned. “Phishy,” she whispered. “Do you have your eyes on a certain pair of wings?” My threatening glare made Minty step back a bit. “Sorry!”

I relaxed my expression. “Not in that way. He’s the only thing we’ve gained from our visit here.”

Minty beamed up. “That’ll be so cool! First I befriended a zebra, a buncha mares like me, and now a griffon! I can’t wait to make more friends!”

I kept forgetting that Minty left her tribe to meet new people. Her optimism wasn’t going to last. Eventually she’d wish she’d been jaded from the start, just like everyone else.

“Either way,” my head shook, “Don’t get your hopes up. Vandal could refuse to join us.”

Minty’s ears drooped. “Don’t be a party pooper.”

I glanced over to my PipBuck, realizing that I hadn’t checked up on my E.F.S. Red blips. And six of them pointing towards the garage door.

“Vandal!” I called out. “Get your gun out, we have hostiles!”

I heard a mechanical whirl as Vandal stepped out of the booth with wide eyes. “What?“ He glanced over to my PipBuck. “How many?”

“Six.” I really hoped it was just a colony of bloatsprites that had wandered around near that garage door. But knowing I was pursued, that was a wishful thought.

“What if they’re those Gravestones?” Minty said.

More Gravestones? Now that she mentioned it, Vandal did say that two others aside from Rave got VIP rooms. Were there more outside of Pona Rosa? And did they predict I’d be here?

I was just about to swear to myself… but instead I grinned as a realization hit me. Right here, where we held the field advantage, was the perfect spot to end Rave. She was literally leading her crew into a counter ambush!


I turned off my PipBuck’s lamp. “Both of you, we’re going to counter-ambush them. Hit and run!”

Vandal was already ahead of himself as he took out his magnum and hid behind a pillar. Minty meanwhile took out her hammer but kept still.

“Hit and run?” Minty asked.

I groaned. “Hide in cover, attack them one at a time, then hide again.”

“But I can-”

“You might not feel pain, but that doesn’t make you invincible!” I took a deep breath and frowned. “Please?”

Minty brought her hammer to her mouth and nodded. “Owkay.” She rushed over behind a motorwagon.

“Vandal!” I shouted. “How equipped are you?”

I heard a loud sigh from his cover. “Magnum. Seven clips. And just one frag grenade. Hoping I stay cool enough to use them.”

“Just be careful with that grenade.” I said as I made my way over to a motorwagon.

I made sure my sawed-off was fully loaded as I glanced back at the opening gate. Gravestone grunts were the least of my worries. Rave on the otherhoof was a tough customer. As much shit as I gave her for her temperament, she was a seasoned fighter.

If the grunts she brought along with her all died however, it’d be three on one. The only thing I could not account for were my two allies. But I was confident that we could make it out.

The garage door opened up halfway, but there was enough space for the five grunts, one of whom I recognized as a familiar yellow unicorn, Sparkplug. Of all the mooks I had to manage during my time as an enforcer, Sparkplug was one of the few bandits I actually took a liking to. While it was a shame that she was out to kill me… knowing that she doesn’t get along with with Rave could be to my advantage.

She was equipped in leather armor and held her assault carbine in a telekinesis field. The rest of the grunts were outfitted the same way (with battle saddles for non-unicorns).

The last one to come in was Rave, her bozar in her talons as she smirked. “Gig’s up, Phish! We know you and your losers are here!” The Gravestone grunts began to spread out. “You really thought that the boss wouldn’t think you’d be coming here?”

She was baiting me to respond, trying to get me to do something stupid. It was tempting, if my muscles tensing up were to say anything. But I wasn’t an idiot, so I waited for the right opportunity.

Funny, Rave should know how I operate, but then again I don’t think she particularly paid attention to how I led.

Rave growled. “You can’t hide forever. Make it easy for us eh? You ain’t gonna take down Tomb anyhow, not without Pona Rosa.” She turned to her subordinates. “Remember, Phish is mine.”

The grunts nodded and had spread out enough that I could get away with a sneak attack on one of them. But I needed to keep waiting…

After Minty jumped from her cover and swung her hammer against the grunt unfortunate enough to get to close, that was when I sprung out and aimed my sawed-off at Rave.

The feathered bitch reacted in time to move enough that the blast only struck her armor’s shoulder pad. She spun a bit before taking cover. Soon enough the entire building erupted in gunfire.

Minty had drawn the attention away from most of the grunts, but unsurprising, Sparkplug in particular seemed to defy Rave’s orders and took aim at me. She fired a barrage of bullets, one nicked me at my shoulder before I safely took cover.

“Hey! What did I just say!?” I heard Rave shout.

“Shut the fuck up Rave! We wouldn’t be in this mess if ya did your damn job!” Sparkplug replied.

Perfect! She’s distracted!

I rushed over to where my former subordinate was while they were distracted. Jumping over the guardrail she had placed herself at, Sparkplug couldn’t respond in time before I swept my rearlegs to cause the mare to fall down, and then used my SATS and targeted her legs.

They exploded into chunks as she gave out a shrill shriek. Her telekinesis failed her and before she could get the chance to act again I stomped a forehoof against her neck and pressed hard until I heard a snap. Her blip disappeared from my EFS.

Rave cursed out as she began to fire more rounds toward me. I rolled away just in time and took cover behind a pillar.

An explosion of a grenade caused me to turn back to see that Vandal had caught two other grunts in a bloody mess. Minty was busy chasing after the last remaining grunt, who began to retreat. I couldn’t help but smile.

We’re getting through this better than I thought.

I reloaded my sawed-off and thought out my next course of action. Vandal had flown over to my side and shouted. “Hey, most of your friends are all dead! You could make this easy and follow your last friend.”

“Shut up!” Rave shouted before she flew out from her cover and fired at Minty. Minty yelped as bullets struck against her armor, with one of the bullets piercing through a shoulder. She couldn’t feel pain, but I was glad Minty was wise enough to get behind a motorwagon after the fact.

“Vandal, keep her in cover!” I rushed out toward Rave, intending to use SATS and target her head.

Rave took wise to that when she noticed the PipBuck on my leg, and attempted to shoot at it. I canceled SATS and weaved to my left. Rave was forced back into her cover as Vandal tried to shoot her.

I reached over to Minty and we both took cover behind a motorwagon. Unsurprisingly Minty was unfazed, but blood was seeping out from her armor.

“You can still move?” I asked Minty, who nodded. “Okay, we’re going to do a pincer attack on Rave.”

“Pincer attack?”

I growled. “We’ll charge at her from both sides. You take the right, I’ll take the left.” Minty seemed to understand that.

Vandal had only briefly stopped his suppression fire to reload as Minty and I executed our maneuver. Rave’s eyes widened as we approached her from both sides. The griffon dodged Minty’s hammer, which cracked a stone pillar while I fired my sawed-off at Rave and hit her in the chest.

She stumbled back and grunted. Her armor protected her from most of the damage, but the blast shoved her out of her cover. I rushed over and kicked her rifle out of her talons. Rave responded with her talons slashing my left shoulder.

Minty charged over with her hammer swinging at Rave. The feathered bitch flew away in time as Minty’s weapon collided with the pavement, a slight crack forming on it.

Rave was panicking now that it was three against one. She tried to swoop in for her gun but Vandal managed to shoot her chest. I heard her curse again as she went for new cover.

As both me and Minty made way to her, something was tossed across from Rave’s cover and toward us. A flashbang grenade.

“Minty! Look away!” I yelled, but it was too late as a bright flash filled my eyes along with a high pitched ping.

When I came to my senses, Minty was beside me still dizzy (I guess she wasn’t immune to that). Rave was nowhere to be seen as Vandal rushed over to us. “Hey, you two alright?” He asked.

“Uhhhhh, everything was really bright and loud for a moment.” Minty said.

“Alive… But that bitch got away.” I growled.

“You two have some history?”

I didn’t answer his question, and instead helped Minty get back up. Her leg was still bleeding, but she was otherwise alright. “Let’s get out of here and to your ride. It isn’t far away from here right?”

Vandal nodded as he helped me pick up the still dizzy Minty and we made our way out of the parking building and into the wilderness.

We met no other trouble as we approached the highway overpass and turned left. Rave must not have come with too many Gravestones, but the next time we met there was no doubt that she would bring in more grunts. I put that worry on hold as we approached a giant object covered in a green cloth that was waiting right near the forest.

“So this is it, your ride?”

“Yeah,” he said as he took off the cloth, revealing a large, bulking brown RV that appeared to have been reinforced and armored with steel plates through its sides, rear, and the windows themselves. The front in particular caught my attention; the motorwagon had a plow attached tightly to its front with teeth painted on it.

Minty beamed at the machine. “Woooooow, it looks so cool! Does it have a name? Where’d you get it? How does it-”

“Easy,” Vandal sighed and smiled. “Her names’ the Timberwolf. How I got her… eh, long story. Really we should be getting her running and get the hell out of here.”

I checked my E.F.S. One white blimp was in the distance. Looking up, I spotted Vena just a few meters away from me, standing on top of a dead gray oak that still stood, cackling as she no doubt was staring at me.

Vandal took notice as well and frowned nervously. “Fuck, that crazy bitch made it out of the casino alive.” He took notice of me trotting over to her. “Uh hey, why don’t we leave the psycho bat griffon alone?”

“I need answers.”

“Do you really need them?”

I replied with only a sigh and glare.

Vandal waved his arms. “Okay, okay, fine. I’ll get her running by the time you’re done. Or dead.”

I rolled my eyes. “Thanks.”

It didn’t take long for me to approach Vena. The hooded griffon made it easier as she flew down in front of me. Her blip on my EFS was a neutral white, but I still kept my guard up, making sure my sawed-off was still on me.

Her cloak was riddled with bullet holes, and her bat dripped with fresh blood. Getting a better glimpse into her hood than I had at this point, could see scars across her face and beak. Radiation scars, judging by the patches of skin not covered by feathers. I’d set aside asking about that.

“Start talking. Why have you been following me?” Nothing but laughter came out from her.

Okay, so she’s going to make this difficult.

I stomped a hoof at the ground. “I’m grateful for your help at the Cage, but I don’t appreciate this silent treatment. Talk now or else.”

Vena frowned and had a free talon grab the handle to her bat. I was just about to unholster my gun before I found Vena’s bat right beside my right shoulder. I had almost flinched, but kept my ground.

The crazed griffon grinned as she holstered her bat. “Nice backbone, you’re not like he said you were.”

I sighed in relief, for a moment there I thought I was going to fight her. “Your pegasus friend?”

“So you’ve met Thunder.”

“I have,” I said with a growl. “Asked him why you were interested in me, but he didn’t know, and said that he-”

“Is my bitch?”

To say I was bewildered would be an understatement.

Vena lost control of herself and began yipping hysterically. I backed away a few inches, giving the mad griffon her space.

She eventually calmed down, her laughs replaced with painful pants. She took a few deep breaths before speaking. “Answer my question. What are you going to do now?”

“Now?” I recalled what Thunderstruck had told me. “I get your boss’ attention. I’m going to raise hell against the Gravestones. Make them regret backstabbing me. Thunder said your gang would notice and take an interest in me.” I looked back at the Timberwolf. “But you know what? Even if I don’t get your gang’s help I’m still going to take down Tomb.”

Vena responded with another yip. She beat herself in the chest and spoke. “I like you. And so would my boss.” She turned away and flapped her wings.

Before I could ask further, Vena launched herself up into the sky and flew off into a blur. Even if I asked Vandal to follow her, I doubt he’d be able to catch up. Nor would he be willing.

I heard a motor behind me, and saw the Timberwolf parked beside me. The door opened, revealing Vandal sitting on the driver’s seat. “We done here?”

I felt the soft rumble of the engine beneath my hooves as I climbed in. “Didn’t get any good answers from her.”

“You surprised?”

I shook my head. “No.” Shit, I had almost forgotten about Minty. “Do you have any medical supplies?”

“Yeah. Left of the sink, second cabinet on the bottom.”

“Thank you.” A grin grew on my face. “You know, we made a good team. Maybe you’d be interested in employment?”

Vandal gave a blank stare and sighed with exhaustion. “How about we get far away from Pona Rosa, then we can talk about work.”

“Fair enough.”

I passed through a curtain into the back of the vehicle. The RV was cramped and messy: the floor itself was littered with an assortment of junk: pre-war magazines, used food wrappers, empty alcohol bottles. I hesitated to shove them aside out of fear that they’d skitter in every direction.

The Timberwolf had the usual commodities I’d expect from an RV, a prewar vehicle that I recognized from my small collection of old tech magazines. There were sinks, fridges, a bathroom, and windows. Said windows (sans the ones at the back) were reinforced with steel plates.

The rear back of the vehicle, where two bunk beds were laid, and the kitchen table were the only spots that were mostly clear to walk through. I took notice of the cabinet Vandal had told me about, and noticed another right next to it locked up. No doubt what he put in there.

I took out a Ministry of Peace first aid box and came toward the table, where Minty sat. She had already taken her armor off, and I could see an oozing bullet wound by her side. Of course, she showed no signs of any pain.

The engine revved and lurched beneath my hooves as Vandal hit the gas. I sat down beside Minty and noticed her apologetic look. She opened her mouth to say something but couldn’t come up with anything.

I sighed. “Let’s patch you up.”

I bandaged both of our wounds, then we shared a healing potion. I plopped myself onto one of the bunk beds and contemplated on everything that happened in Pona Rosa.

Reuniting with Sundance, discovering Roulette’s deal with the Gravestones, seeing Vena, and finding an ally in Vandal… They were a long three days.

I looked through the back window and saw Pona Rosa shrink into the distance, replaced with the dead oaks of the Pinewood.

Chapter 9: I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)

View Online

Even over the deafening roar and radioactive stink of the river, I could still hear Rave’s intolerable snickering. I was fumbling with the knife, the bag was wrestling against me. I couldn’t let this be the end. Rave was gonna pay. Tomb was gonna pay. All the Gravestones were going to pay! Gotta keep cutting, gotta survive, gotta kill… I can’t let the Crossbones dow-


Minty’s pleading voice woke me with a start. I hadn’t planned to fall asleep inside Vandal’s Timberwolf. I cursed myself for being careless. We didn’t know if we could trust Vandal yet. Sure, Minty made for good insurance, but there’s no telling if… Minty called out for me again.

“Ugh… Minty? What’s wrong?” I said with a growl, tumbling out of the bunk, fearing the worst, but trying to play it calm.

“Oh, um. It’s nothing much…” Minty said, as she gently set her right forehoof on the RV floor, only for it to suddenly spring back up.

I watched her do this three more times. I could feel my own face slowly shift from an expression of alarm to something like incredulous pity.

“You can’t hold your leg down can you.” I said, more as an observation than a question.

“It just won’t stay! It makes walking funny.” she said.

“Alright,” I said with a quick breath. “Take your damn armor off.” With a sigh I immediately set about helping her peel herself out of it again.

Sure enough, I hadn’t been thoroughly checking her over, no doubt due to my fatigue from our prior battle. In a morbid sense of deja vu, the healing potion sealed a little lump of shrapnel in her leg that was bumping into a nerve in there. Only now it was much deeper into her leg than the last time.

I couldn’t recall the Gravestones using a frag grenade… but then it struck me that Minty must’ve gotten this from Vandal’s frag!

Fucking catbird! I was going to give Vandal an earful for this, but only after Minty was treated.

It was uncanny how I could just pull a knife and do some impromptu field surgery on Minty. Not only would the painless idiot let me, she smiled down at me, as if appreciating a pedicure or something, just happy for the attention.

I felt the Timberwolf rock to a stop as I finished her sutures.

“Okay, we’re here!” Vandal yelled back to us from the driver’s seat.

“Where’s here?” I demanded.

“On a cliff with good visibility, and ‘far away from Pona Rosa’, as requested.” he said, walking toward us. He blinked as he saw me working on Minty. “Is everything alright?”

“It’s not,” I gave him a sneer. “Minty had a grenade fragment in her hoof. From your grenade.”

Vandal’s eyes widened. “Shit, I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“It’s okay!” Minty said, wagging her tail like a puppy. “Accidents happen! And I couldn’t feel it anyway!”

He cocked an eyebrow. “Couldn’t feel it?”

“We can go over this later!” I barked. “Get me a leg sling, it’s in my bag.” It was the least he could do to make up for his mistake.

Vandal followed through my order without complaint. Grabbing the sling with my mouth, I began to fit the brace into Minty’s leg. She squirmed a little at the process, much to my annoyance.

“Phishy! What are you doing! It’ll still be hard to walk this way!” Minty whined.

“We’re not wasting another damn healing potion. That hoof is going to heal on its own. Just put up with it for a couple days.” I said.

Meanwhile, Vandal had begun rooting around in a mini-fridge. He brought out two bottles: one sparkle-cola, and the other rum. I scrunched my nose at the latter. He tossed the cola to Minty.

He said, “Promise to be more careful next time. I hope this’ll do for an apology?”

Minty gasped with delight, “Aww, thank you!”

He turned to me and asked, “Anything for you? Got another bottle of Sparkle-Cola. Or,” he tapped his rum.

I shook my head. “I’m fine. I’m not in the mood for sugar, also, not exactly professional to get drunk during an interview. Besides all that, not sure how much I trust your driving if you’re intoxicated.”

Vandal smirked. “Relax, I can handle a small buzz. Besides, not like there’d be any traffic to worry about out here.”

Though saying that, he shrugged contentedly as he put the rum away.

“Well, if it’ll make you feel safer, I won’t drink.” He sat down at the table, his rear legs crisscrossing. “So, let’s get started.”

I glanced over to Minty. “Minty, could you go outside?”

Not that I didn’t want Minty to hear our dealings, I just didn’t want didn’t want to deal with her being disruptive.

Minty had just opened up her bottle when she heard me.

“Nawwwww,” she groaned. “Couldn’t I stay and listen? I promise I won’t make too much noise.”

“Yeah,” Vandal frowned as he adjusted himself at his side of the table. “Mints’ supposed to be on the same team, right?”

I snorted. If he was going to take her side on this, there was little use trying to argue over it.

“Fine. You can listen, Minty. Just don’t interrupt us unless you’re sure it’s important.”

“Okie dokie!” She then opened her sparkle-cola bottle, and began to drink from it.

After a moment, I forced a cough, briefly considering the first words I’d say, and turned to Vandal.

He beat me to the punch, “So what happened between you and the Gravestones.”

That question startled me for a moment. “Why do you care?” I snapped back coldly.

That made him raise an eyebrow.

“Sorry”, I said, making an effort to relax my tone, “is it that important that you know?”

He was flat, and a little more serious now, “You’ve met Roulette. That farce she put you through? Imagine having to work for someone like that, only you go through that a dozen times. I’ve worked for shitty people in the past, and to be frank I’ve gotten sick of it. So I’ve resolved to be more selective with my employers, from now on. If you can’t be honest with me about the people you’re going to be asking me to shoot, well, I can carry you two into the next town, and we can part ways.”

“You trying to tell me you grew a conscience in a place like Pona Rosa?” I said.

“Something like that, maybe,” He sighed. “I didn’t like the shit that went on there, even at the best of times. Roulette backstabbing you was the last straw. So it’d be nice if you were at least better than that.” He gestured to Minty. “Mints here thinks you’re nice.”

“That’s true Phishy!” Minty interjected.

She turned away after I gave her a stare.

Vandal continued. “What it comes down to is this: I just want to trust you. And that’s something you bandits value a lot, right?”

“It is…” I confessed, but a bandit’s reputation is worth more than its weight in caps.

To have my subordinates know about what happened in Horseshoe… These two wouldn’t care, but any future bandit I recruited certainly would. They wouldn't respect a 'bleeding heart'. Especially those Rockfalls.

The first lesson I learned as a bandit was to avoid showing any signs of weakness. A bandit who didn’t feel good about robbing a house was a bandit who starved. A bandit who didn’t beat the snot out of someone for screwing them over was a bandit you could push over with ease. A bandit who didn’t get results became the center of stories told in bars, and was seen as a joke.

A weak bandit was a dead bandit.

I could try to change the subject again, but it was obvious that wasn’t working. Vandal wasn’t an idiot, and refusing to answer his question would leave me with only Minty Fresh once more.

My pride would take a hit… but there wasn’t any other choice in the matter. I took a deep breath, and looked at both Minty and Vandal. “You are to tell no one.”

Minty pantomimed zipping her mouth with a forehoof, while Vandal merely stayed silent.

“Horseshoe was a settlement under our, The Gravestones, prote-”

“Your extortion?” Vandal interrupted.

I snorted at him. “Protection. They weren’t paying us, so I was tasked to make sure they gave what they owe us or else… What I wasn’t aware of is how much of the settlement was falling apart.” In hindsight, I realized that Tomb should’ve informed me of the condition of Horseshoe, and thinking more on that, other settlements as well…

I continued. “I did what any smart bandit would do: I let them live, but only to be walking advertisements on the Gravestones’ strength. Let the rest of the Wasteland know that the residents of Horseshoe would rather flee their homes than invoke our wrath.”

Vandal took a long time to respond, before finally saying “That’s a long winded way to say you felt pity for Horseshoe.”

I bit my lip and decided to not retort on that.

“Either way, Tomb didn’t like my reasoning. He had one of them, Rave, ambush me in my bed. I was tied up and thrown in a toxic river. Rave was always sloppy, and petty.

I turned to Minty. “You should know what happened next.” I wasn’t going to go over the fact that I wasn’t entirely honest with Tomb… but to be frank, I don’t think it would’ve mattered to these two.

“Wow… They sound really mean.” Minty frowned. “They tried to kill you over being nice… I mean sure, you…” Minty blinked. “I actually don’t understand any of this bandit stuff.”

“Bandits like to keep a strong image.” Vandal said. “Appear soft, and other bandits would take advantage. Am I right?”

I nodded. “You guessed right.”

Vandal shrugged. “It’s the same thing with most Talon companies. No Talon likes another Talon who’d break their contract, ruins their image. I imagine your old gang is no different.”

“A Talon?” Minty asked.

Vandal groaned. “Ugh. Organized griff mercs. Used to be one, moving on-”

Minty gave a whine. “There are more griffons!? Can we talk about that instead?” She gave Vandal puppy dog eyes.

Vandal groaned. “Just not now. I promise.”

One of the Crossbones who raised me, a griffon named Bariolage, told me about this. I was too young to understand everything she had told me, but I did recall a few things. Made me wonder…

“You’re not wanted, are you?” I asked Vandal.

Vandal sighed, and shook his head. “By other Talons you mean? I don’t know, I’ve cut myself off from interacting with other Talon mercs. Like I said, I wanted to get my contract from Roulette so those assholes wouldn’t know I’m here. Otherwise, I’d have to head to the desert.” He grimaced. “And I really don’t want to go there.”

I didn’t exactly know what the desert parts of the Wasteland were like, but I probably didn’t need to. “Okay,” I said. “I doubt you’d be joining me for free. So name your price.”

“Oh, fuck, right,” Vandal scratched the back of his head. “Well… Give me food, don’t make me do fucked up shit, treat me right, and I’ll fucking stay. Don’t, well… I’ll just leave if you don’t. That a deal breaker to you?”

A weird way to ‘pay’ a mercenary, and a restriction on my actions. But best case scenario, by the time I got the Rockfalls to help me I might not need Vandal anymore. “I want your contract, just to be safe.”

Vandal groaned, and took out a pen and a stack of sticky notes from his barding. He hastily scribbled on it, peeled a page and handed it to me. “Not as fancy as Roulette’s contract, but I guess this will do.”

It said, in rather crude talonwriting: Vandal’s Contract. Don’t be an ass to Vandal. I took a serious look at Vandal. “Is this as much detail you’re willing to write?”

“Eh,” he shrugged. “I didn’t think you’d care too much.”

Now that he mentioned it, caring meant having to wait for Vandal to write an imitation of some pre-war legal document. I didn’t have time for that. I merely sighed. “Well… it’ll work. Welcome to the gang.”

Minty stomped with excitement. “Woohoo! Vandy joins the party!”

Vandal smirked, and turned to me. “So, we got an idea for our next course of action, boss?”

It felt good being called boss. “Against the Gravestones? Not yet. Right now I want to get back to my hideout. We’ll plan something against those bastards in there.”

“Ok,” Vandal said as he went over to the driver’s seat. “Tell me where to drive.”

The Timberwolf had been on the move for the past hour. Minty had been playing with a portable radio that Vandal showed her. He told Minty how to operate it, and tasked her with finding DJ Pon3’s signal, hoping that Velvet Remedy would be on the air. I had pointed out that his glove department was filled with holotapes. A quick question confirmed my suspicion that Velvet’s music was recorded. Vandal could play them, but said he didn’t want to miss if his favorite singer made a new song.

“Hmmm,” Minty hummed to herself as she turned the knob with her left forehoof. All that came out from the radio was pure static. “Vandy! I still can’t find this DJ Pon3.”

“Move the antenna a bit, it might not be in the right position.” Vandal responded. Minty puffed her cheeks, a determined look on her face as she followed Vandal’s instructions.

As for myself, I had tried to read one of Vandal’s issues of ‘Amazing Tales from Amazing Ponies’ to kill time. Key word being ‘tried’. The muscle in my leg coiled when one of the stories encountered an evil cult of zebras. I debated opening up a window and tossing it out, but I wanted to respect Vandal’s belongings, regardless of how disgusting it could be.

Just then the static on the radio turned into the sound of saxophones. “Ah hah! Minty Fresh saves the day once mo-”

Her triumph was drowned out by the sound of the Timberwolf’s engines struggling.

“You’ve got to be shitting me!” Vandal whispered, his talons gripping the wheel in barely contained panic, as the Timberwolf ground slowly to a stop.

“Fucking hell!” Vandal shouted, slamming a clenched talon against the horn. He abruptly got out of his seat and went outside.

Minty nervously looked back at me and the radio. “I didn’t break it.“

I growled, and shook my head. “Radios don’t stop motorwagons. Stay here.”

Getting outside, I could see the Timberwolf’s hood opened up, with Vandal looking into it with a sour expression. “What’s the problem?”

“Spark battery is busted,” he angrily exhaled. “Something must’ve happened to it while it was out of duty during those months I spent in Pona Rosa. This is fucking great.” He stomped at the ground. “Dammit, should’ve bought a battery back there when I had the chance.”

“Then we’re going to have to leave it here.”

Vandal shook his head. “Yeah, no, we ain’t leaving the Timberwolf behind. Your Pipbuck should have a map, could you see if there’s any recharge station or whatever where there might be one?”

I brought up my Pipbuck, and was pleased to discover that there was a recharge station about half a day’s walk from us. “There is, but it’s a bit of a detour, and we won’t make it there before sunset.”

“Great! Well, not great, but good enough. I’ve got some cables we could use to pull her with us.” He sighed.

“I can do it!” Minty awkwardly three legged pranced toward us out of the Timberwolf. “I’m used to pulling heavy stuff whenever my tribe is on the move!”

I shook my head. “Not with that leg you’re not.”

Minty pouted. “I’ll be fine! I’m really strong!”

I rubbed my temple with my hoof and said, “Minty, I know you’re strong, but even with all four hooves on the ground the Timberwolf has to weigh as much as a train freight car, you’d tear yourself in half-”.

“Hey!” Vandal shouted.

We turned to see Vandal opening up a compartment door on the Timberwolf. He tossed us each a set of harnesses.

“I agree, she’ll need help.” he said.

“We’ll be coming down the mountain as she comes!~ We’ll be coming down the mountain as she coooooomes!~” Minty sang to herself, occasionally bobbing her head back and forth as all three of us pulled the Timberwolf. She thankfully kept her injured hoof in her sling.

Honestly, as hard as it was getting her into the sling, it was pretty easy to get her in the pull harness. I rigged myself to it on her right side, to help support her leg. Vandal was on her left. I guess this isn’t the first time the Timberwolf has had this kind of trouble if Vandal was keeping these harnesses handy. He was rather evasive when I asked why he had more than one. Minty had asked if Vandal used them for... a fetish. Vandal was also evasive about that, but the smirk on his beak suggested he did so more out of amusement than reluctance.

I had tried to convince Minty against singing while we were out in the open, but Vandal managed to make a compromise between us; Minty could sing, but only if she wasn’t too loud. For a while I assumed Vandal just didn’t want to hear us bicker, or just humoring Minty, but hearing the catbird softly hum back to the song made me suspect he was humoring ME by not singing along at full volume.

It was fine. A recharge station was just a mile or two away from where we were on the road, which was sandwiched between a plain of dull grass. My Pipbuck had it marked on it’s map, and Vandal had already flown up to spot it, so there was no risk in getting lost. He told us he didn’t feel safe trying to loot it alone, in case someone was camping it, and besides, spark batteries are a little too heavy, and often too unstable to carry far in the air.

“-as she cooooooooomes!~” Minty finally finished her song. “Woooo! How was my singing?”

Vandal smirked. “It was nice. Certainly made me forget that we’re tugging the Timberwolf.” He grunted for a while.

“You don’t need to pull with us.” I said. “The two of us were fine as is.”

“Eh,” Vandal sighed. “Doesn’t sound fair to make you two do all the heavy lifting. Thanks for the consideration, wish my older bosses were like that.”

“Bosses?” Minty asked Vandal.

Vandal turned away to his right. “Yeah, you know, ponies who’ve hired me when I became a solo merc.”

“What made you go solo?” I asked.

Vandal stayed silent for a moment before shaking his head. “Long story. I’ll just say the company I was in was full of shitty griffs and leave it at that.”

“Company?” Minty asked.

Vandal groaned. “Right. So us Talons? We ain’t really a united faction, just a bunch of independent companies competing with each other. Only thing that unites them is taking care of Talons who break contract.”

“Contract?” Minty gave a quizzed look at the catbird.

“Yeah, Talons have a rep of always being loyal to the contract they sign. Anyone who does break contract gets hunted down…” I could tell from his downcast expression that he wanted to do anything but talk about the Talons. He shook his head and sighed. “Eh… Anyway, I’ve kept my promise. What about you Mints? Where’d you come from.”

“Hmmmmm… Don’t really know. My tribe moves around once every year.” She replied, looking up at the sky.

“They’re called the Sweetmeats, right?” I asked her, surprised that I recalled that.

“Uh huh!” Minty brightened up. “They’re really nice ponies!” She frowned. “Although, they really don’t trust outsiders that much. Especially after…” Minty hesitated to continue.

Vandal forced a cough. “This something you’re not comfortable with?”

Minty blinked. “Huh? Sorta? But it’s fine. It’s just that when my Mama was about to give birth to me, my tribe got an outsider to help her. I survived… Mama didn’t.”

“What happened to that outsider? Did your tribe kill him?” I asked.

“No! Papa can be really rough, but he knew that Mama would’ve wanted him to live. He and his daughter, Sweet Tart, are members of our tribe now,” Minty sighed. “Still, Papa doesn’t want to have anything to do with any other outsiders. Especially anyone not an earth pony. And since Mama died, he’s super protective of me and wouldn’t let me go out of the camp, even when my older brother Jawbreaker and his friends go out.”

“And you wanted to get out of that cage?” Vandal asked.

“Yup. Papa was sorta right about the Wasteland being dangerous, but I got to meet both of you guys! And Aurora! And Sunny and Dovy! And Mal,” She frowned. “Even though he died.”

“Mal?” Vandal raised an eyebrow.

A muscle in my hoof coiled upon hearing Mal be brought up again, “A doctor who helped us. The Gravestones killed him.”

Vandal nodded at us.

“But yeah,” Minty continued. “It’s been really nice being out here! Being able to hang out with po- err people like you! Sure, those Gravestones are scary, but at least I can forget about all the stress Papa puts onto me on being the next leader.”

I had to blink a few times, processing the last words Minty had said.

My left eye must have been twitching when I stared at Minty. “What?”

“Oh yeah, I never did tell you that my Papa was the leader. Jawbreaker could’ve been next, but he’s an idiot and would probably push us all down a cliff. So that left me to be the one to inherit the Sweetmeat tribe’s leadership!” Minty exclaimed.

“And you’ve never bothered to bring this up with me until now?!” I yelled with widened eyes.

Minty cringed a bit from my shout. “I-I didn’t really think it mattered.”

“You do realize how much danger you’re putting us in? You’re the heir to a tribe of juggernauts who can’t feel pain, and you’re running around getting in the way of grenades? If you die- do you think your father will even slow down before he turns me into paste?” The thought of an entire tribe of Mintys coming after me was something I didn’t want to deal with on top of the Gravestones.

“Hey,” Vandal interjected. “Don’t stress over that. Mints’ is pretty tough, ain’t she?”

“T-that's right!” Minty nodded. “I’m too stubborn to die!”

I relaxed my muscles, but I still didn’t feel assured. “And what if they come after us to ‘rescue’ you?”

“I can tell them that you two are alright. And if that doesn’t work, you can make me a hostage!”

I groaned. “I don’t think that’d work… but whatever, I’ll take your word. For now.” I narrowed my eyes at Minty. “You still should’ve told me about this from the start.”

“Sorry,” Minty frowned. “I didn’t think it mattered.”

Vandal took a look ahead of us, pointing to the recharge station off in the distance. “Hey, think we’re here.”

The recharge station was stationed in the middle of a bunch of ruined houses. Vines had covered the building and the garage adjacent to it, but they looked like they were ripped off rather recently. Piles of wooden debris, mostly broken up furniture and the like, surrounded the building.

I had checked my EFS, and noticed a single white dot on it pointing to our destination.

I unholstered my sawed-off. “Minty, Vandal, get ready for action.”

Vandal tried to take a glance at my Pipbuck. “How many are we dealing with?”

“It’s just one for now, but we shouldn’t put our guards down-” Just as I spoke, five more dots entered my EFS. Red dots.

In front of us, the wooden debris became enveloped in a green glow, swirling together in the air before the pieces of junk began to form four different bodies. These were timberwolves, actual timberwolves, coming from outside the more wooded areas that they’d often never leave.

I knew they haunted the Pinewood, but they’re supposed to be bound to trees (or at least the remains of trees). It was beyond me how they could be out here in the waste.

I didn’t have the luxury to continue asking myself how they could be near a recharge station away from any forest. The fact that they were coming after us took precedent.

And all three of us were still connected to our harnesses!

Fuck me.

The timberwolves wasted no time in charging at us. There wasn’t enough time for me to disconnect myself from the cables as one of the timberwolves lunged toward me. I weaved to my left, letting the timberwolf hit the RV. Pieces of its wood broke off from it, only for a green glow to levitate those pieces and reattach it to its owner.

Another timberwolf charged at me from my right. I ducked in time, and with quick thinking I wrapped the cable around its neck. Despite being pieces of wood assembled together, the timberwolf began to choke. I couldn’t hold onto my grip with the cable as the previous timberwolf swiped its claw at my neck. I jumped, but not before a small, and not deep, gash landed across it. I flinched in pain as I backed up, and came to an abrupt stop as my cable reached its limit.

Vandal and Minty were struggling just as much as I was. Vandal had received a bite mark on his shoulder before Minty managed to knock the timberwolf off of him with her hammer.

“Hey, you almost killed me with that!” Vandal shouted, with pained breathing.

“Sowwy!” Minty replied with her sledgehammer in her mouth.

Vandal wasted no time arguing further and took out his magnum, firing a few rounds at another timberwolf coming closer. Its wooden body broke apart and was pushed away, only to then reassemble itself.

I almost didn’t see one of the timberwolves leaping toward me. Activating SATS, I targeted its head with my sawed-off, and unleashed a storm of pellets. They tore off half of the timberwolf’s face, knocking it out of the air. The timberwolf was still alive however, the broken up wood forming back onto it.

Dammit, the only way to actually beat these wolves would be to destroy every piece of wood they had, and that could take too long!

“Minty, Vandal, disconnect from your cables and retreat!” I shouted as I reloaded my sawed-off.

“And leave my ride behind?” Vandal barked back.

“What other choice do we have?!” I retorted while trying to disengage myself from my harness.

Vandal soared on top of the RV. “Well I ain’t leaving her behind. I don’t want that bitch to find it lying right here and take it back!”

That bitch? What the hell was Vandal talking about.

“Uh, guys?” Minty timidly tried to interject.

“Not now!” I shouted at Minty, then returned my glare at Vandal. “You work for me, dammit! If I say we need to retreat because I don’t want any of us to die, then we’re retreating!”

“Ain’t the RV too useful to you?!” Vandal argued.

“GUYS!” Minty shouted between us. “The timberwolves aren’t attacking us!”

I had been too busy getting riled up with Vandal that I didn’t notice that all four timberwolves were looking away from us, and instead looking at a cloaked figure walking over toward us.

Some shouting came from the figure, its words foreign, but no doubt was a scolding tone. The timberwolves whimpered and gave space for their supposed master as he passed them.

The figure had a brown cloak and hood, with a lantern with a strange green glow beside his right rear leg. The further he came I too noticed that he was rather elderly, with matted white fur, no… white with black stripes?

My jaw almost dropped my sawed-off at the sight. Another zebra? For my entire life, I have never seen another zebra. I had wondered as a foal if I was the last of my kind. And here I was, staring at another like me.

Vandal didn’t unholster his weapon, keeping it aimed at the timberwolves. “They’re yours?” he spat, a clear sign of distrust on his face.

“Yes, they are. I must apologize,” the elderly zebra spoke, thick with some accent. “My wolves, as you see, were fighting on my behalf. That scary looking machine you have made me assume you were bandits, but then I saw one of you were… gah, stars curse us girl, you’ve ruined your mane! From a distance you looked like a pony!”

I was at a loss for words, but at the same time, had so many questions.

Chapter 10: Get 'em up!

View Online

The stars… Before the war, zebras believed that the stars were evil spirits. Spirits that had rained down destruction on an ancient city in our homeland. Spirits that corrupted Princess Luna into its agent ‘Nightmare Moon’. When Luna gained leadership of Equestria during the war, our kind believed that Equestria itself became an unwitting puppet to the stars. The war, the zebras believed, was a crusade.

“We believed in this bullshit?” I said.

Zubri, the old zebra, and master of the timberwolves, raised an eyebrow and scouled.

“No past tense about it child, this is the truth as it ever was.” he said with irritating patience.

“I’m not dismissing that we believed this,” I said, my eyes narrowing down at Zubri. “I’m just disappointed that our mentality on creating this Wasteland hinged on us believing in the most ridiculous religion I’ve ever heard.”

Zubri took a long breath as his eyes trailed off me. His teapot began to whistle as steam seeped out of the spout. After making sure his lantern was still beside him he got up to attend his portable stove.

I had a weird feeling from that lantern since I first saw it. When I asked him about it, he explained that it was a zebra talisman. It acted as a magical anchor for the timberwolves. The lantern sustained them in place of whatever trees they were originally bound to.

As he busied himself with making tea, I looked out of the garage we were under, and saw my two companions.

The elderly zebra offered us all healing potions that he himself crafted. They were bitter, but seemed to work a lot better than normal healing potions, if Minty’s now healed leg indicated anything.

I had contemplated ordering Minty to still wear it, just in case, but considering how good I felt after drinking the same potion I decided against it.

She was outside, playing with one of Zubri’s timberwolves as if it were a puppy, the two of them chasing each other around the old cracked patch of asphalt, while the rest kept their distance, keeping a vigil over all of us, no doubt wanting to protect their master.

Vandal was less quick to forgive the old zebra, but either changed his mind or kept his true thoughts to himself after Zubri helped him find a fully charged spark battery within the station. The griffon was busy replacing the old one with it. He was pretty short with me last time I checked in on him. I suspected maybe he was still taking my order to abandon the RV during the fight personally.

Zubri came back, setting cups of tea in front of each of us. After some brief hesitation, I accepted the cup and took a small sip. The strange, foreign taste put me off for a moment.

“Bah,” Zubri said as he sat down. “It pains my soul to see young blood like you be ignorant of our beliefs. But the blame should not be on your shoulders, it should be on the ponies who kidnapped-”

“Adopted.” I corrected him. “The Crossbones adopted me.”

It was bad enough that this geezer was looking down on me for not being a proper zebra, but having my caretakers be blamed riled me more.

Zubri forced a cough, “Yes, well…”

I took notice of his eyes rolling, and my urge to barge out grew before he continued, “You remind me of my little niece. Went down a dark path because she didn’t take the danger of the stars to heart. I would hate for you to follow.”

“Well, rest assured, I have no interest in making deals with evil star spirits,” I said, those last three words dripping with condescension.

He sighed, and shook his head. "You don’t understand, young blood. In our culture, it is important for all to understand the threat the stars bring. Equestria did not heed those warnings, and suffered for it.”

I blew out air between my lips. "They suffered because you blew up the world. All for what, because you believed the Princess was some spooky star monster?”

Granted, I had no love for the old Equestria and their rulers, and had imagined that maybe they weren’t justified in demonizing my race.

Jet Rush, the only ghoul in the Crossbones, had even told me the whole war started over the fact that the zebras stopped trading coal, and that Equestria started the war.

So perhaps the zebras used the balefire bombs as an act of self-defense. Maybe they didn’t intend to blow up all of Equestria, maybe one city, but something wrong happened. Fantasizing about that made me less ashamed of my own stripes.

But no, now I learned that it wasn’t in self-defense. It was to purge an imaginary monster their hokey religion made up…

That gave the wasteland justification for hating me before I even became a bandit. All those days trying to find new friends after the Crossbones perished were filled with ponies either shooting me on sight, or taking advantage of me somehow.

And learning about this star bullshit meant those assholes had a justification.

And it disgusted me.

Zubri hadn’t said anything after my response. I suppose he contemplated on hoof waving away his ancestors' mistakes, but I guess he knew better than to do that given the somber look on his face.

I could ask more about zebra culture to him, but I was still upset at the information I had learned thus far. Not to mention that if I was told more, I’d just wound up feeling alienated from not just Zubri, but every other zebra… Something I had thought occasionally whenever I looked at the mirror.

It didn’t feel right to take my anger out on Zubri. As disproving as he was of my lack of proper zebra mannerisms, he did look like he was trying his best to teach me what he could. Maybe he hoped that I’d adopt some of his culture, make himself feel less alone.

That said, I was running out of patience. Maybe when I had more time and came in less angry I could visit the old geezer and hear his stories. But now it was time to leave.

“Well, this chat has been nice, but I’m on a tight schedule…” I said, “I’m in the middle of a war against the Gravestones. You wouldn’t want to get caught in that kind of trouble.”

The elderly zebra looked a little crestfallen, before his eyes brightened up a little, saying, “Ah yes! Those no good bandits who steal from settlements around here! I take it you’re going to do something about the guns they’re moving through here?”

I was dumbstruck for a second, but a smile crept onto my face. Before I ‘parted ways’ with the Gravestones I knew we were in the process of making Buckborn, which had a working gun and ammo factory, recognize the benefit they’d receive from being part of our turf. I guess the ‘negotiations’ went smoothly, and the tribute payments had started. Visualizing a map in my head, I realized it would make sense that the delivery from there to headquarters would have to cross near here.

“That’s right,” I lied, “we heard about them in Pona Rosa. We were on our way to scout them out before our motorwagon broke down.”

“Good,” Zubri snorted. “Saw them last night passing through here. They came from the road between a low mountain and the river.” He frowned. “I’ve thought about having my companions tear them apart, but there were too many,” He looked at his lantern. “And I would endanger myself.”

“No worry,” I said as my smirk grew wider. “We won’t fight them here.”

I quickly informed my gang of the change of plans. After briefly explaining what I had learned, and having one final discussion with Zubri, we were on our way to the place where the elderly zebra had spotted the Gravestones.

Vandal kept silent as he drove to our new destination, while Minty and I were talking together.

“Do we really have to do this?” Minty laid her head against the table. “I was really hoping to see Sunny and Dovey again after we went to your hideout.”

I had almost forgotten that Sundance told me that she and her marefriend would hang out in Leathersworth for awhile before heading to Tenpony Tower.

“Minty, we don’t have time to visit them. Raiding this tribute shipment is an opportunity we can’t miss,” I said with a scolding tone.

“Can’t we see them after this?” Minty begged.

The Timberwolf’s engine came to a stop. “Hey!” Vandal called out to us from the driver’s seat. “We’re here.”

A sad look crossed her face as I got up without answering, but it seemed she decided against pushing the topic any further. Just as she should.

Getting outside, I noticed the Pinewood river and the low hills that sandwiched the road. The geiger counter on my PipBuck began to tick when I got too close to the river, reminding me of the unpleasant memory of almost dying from it.

“We’re setting up an ambush here?” Vandal asked as he stepped outside, a weary tone in his voice.

“We are,” I looked up at the hills, noticing the number of dead oaks and rocks embedded deep into the earth that were littered throughout it. “You have a rifle? And some mines?” I asked, suspecting what that locked cabinet in the Timberwolf contained.

Vandal nodded. “An old hunting rifle and a few landmines… Let me guess, we’re gonna set up a trap, and you want me to do some sniping?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Gravestone shipments are guarded by seven ponies; six on guard duty, and one pulling the cart. We’re going to set up a trap for them.”

Vandal cocked an eyebrow. “That’s it?”

I shook my head. “No, I doubt the trap will take care of them all. We’re going to hide, and when those mines go off, we’ll spring up on them. Vandal, I want you up in the air providing us sniping support. If things get dicey for you, you can take cover in the hills. Minty will be a distraction at the front, and I’ll sneak around the caravan, and cut their escape route. The hills would take too long for them to climb, and the river is an irradiated death sentence, so they’ll be effectively trapped.”

“Oh, another pincer’s attack?” Minty chimed excitedly.

She then gasped, looked at the hill, then looked back to me. “Wait, what if we dropped rocks on them?”

“Excuse me?” I said, startled.

Minty jumped. “Yeah! We can have rocks fall down and hit them!”

My eyes looked away from Minty and toward the hills. While there were certainly rocks, they all looked too embedded into the hill to loosely roll down.

“How?” I questioned.

“Easy! I can stomp on them until they fall down!” Minty replied with enthusiasm.

“With your bare hooves?” Vandal asked, disbelief in his voice.

“Uh-huh!” Minty gave an enthusiastic nod to Vandal. “I’ll just stomp really really hard, and rocks will fall!”

An awkward silence fell between the three of us. I knew Minty was strong… but I doubt she could pull off something like that with her bare hooves. I decided not to comment on her moronic plan.

My attention went to Vandal, who had kept rather silent for most of the planning. A frown had grown on his beak, and that made me feel that he was hiding something.

“Is something wrong?” I asked in a blunt tone.

“Aside from Minty’s dumb rock plan?” Vandal said.

“It’s not dumb…” Minty whined.

The catbird scratched the back of his head. “I don’t know about this plan. You said that this would be the perfect spot to ambush them.”

A muscle in my fetlock tensed up. I knew where this was going. “Your problem?”

The catbird nervously tensed up a bit. “We’re up against bandits who’d think the same thing when they passed through here. ‘Perfect spot to get ambushed, better prepare ourselves when we cross here again.’ Is what I imagine is in their heads. So you know… Maybe we should stage it somewhere less predictable?”

I cocked an eyebrow. “Where else would we stage it?”

Vandal opened his beak for a moment, but said nothing.

“Thought so,” I snorted. “There’s nowhere else we could ambush them. Even if they anticipated it, they’ll come through here a nervous wreck. When we spring on them, they’ll panic. Especially more so when they realize that they’re dealing with me instead of some run of the mill gang with no experience.”

Vandal clicked his tongue. “Okay… but how many are we gonna go up against? I mean yeah, you said we’d be up against seven ponies. But what if they’ve changed things up after you left?”

That reminded me of what that Dashite I met in Pona Rosa told me.

“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?”

Tomb might be paranoid enough to mix things up, but he couldn’t have changed too much so soon. It didn’t hurt to have some confirmation, and luckily I had a pair of wings to help me.

“I want you to scout.” I ordered Vandal.

“You want me to scout?” Vandal said with an uneasy look.

Are you shitting me?

I grit my teeth in irritation. “Yes. You wanted to know how many there were, so I want you to see what their numbers are, and if they have anything worrisome. What’s your problem with that?”

“Oh, you know… I could get spotted. What would happen if-”

“Those idiots keep forgetting to look at the sky! You’ll be fine!” I stomped on the ground.

“Guys?” Minty frowned.

“Not now Minty.” I replied to her, then glared at Vandal. “I gave an order to scout, and I’m not going to repeat myself.”

“I…” Vandal gave a frustrated sigh. “Alright, whatever you say boss. I’ll be back.”

Without saying anything else, he flew up into the air.

I rubbed my right temple as Minty trotted over to my side. “Did you really have to be harsh to him?” Minty asked.

I almost glared at her, but instead gave an exhausted sigh. “We’re a bandit gang Minty. And as the leader of this gang I have to be stern…”

I shook my head, trying to clear it, and said, “Anyway, we should go over some fighting strategies.”

Minty hummed for a moment. “But what about my rockslide plan?”

I rolled my eyes, and said, “It can be our Plan B.”

“Have any sixes?” Minty said.

I shook my head, not even bothering to tell her to ‘go fish’. Minty sighed, and drew a card from the deck.

Three hours had passed since Vandal went out on his own to scout. Night was coming, so Minty and I had been waiting for the catbird inside the Timberwolf.

We had just started playing this game half an hour ago to pass time, using dirty old playing cards Vandal had.

“Uh, Phishy? It’s your turn.” Minty interrupted my thoughts, a worried tone present in her voice.

I grunted. “Yeah. Jacks?”

Minty hoofed me a card that I took with my tail, adding it to my hoof. “Say, Phishy, Vandy hasn’t been happy lately ever since we fought Zuby’s timberwolves.”

“I’ve noticed,” I placed my cards face down on the table.

Minty frowned. "He was really upset when you wanted us to ditch the Timberwolf."

“And it was the right call,” I looked at her sternly. “If Zubri wasn’t in control of those timberwolves, we would’ve died continuing to fight them. He should understand that.”

“Yeah… but… Maybe he still isn’t happy with it. Maybe, when he gets back, you should talk to him about it? And make him feel better! I mean, you’re supposed to be his friend, and that’s something friends do!

That reminded me of the conversation I had with Zubri just before we left him…

“I wish you luck. I’m hoping you and your friends will come back to visit someday.” Zubri had said.

I recalled snorting at him. “They’re my subordinates, not my friends.”

“Hmmm, I find that hard to believe young blood. Your glyph mark paints a different story.”

“Glyph mark?” I remembered looking at the mark on my flank: lines swirling across each other to form a crossbone.

“Ah! More ignorance! You thought of it as a cutie mark, eh?”

“Isn’t it the same thing?”

“No no no! A pony’s cutie mark represents their special talent. A zebra’s glyph mark may be similar, but for us, that mark represents what we most cherish. There were worrying implications for you, but after you mentioned these ‘Crossbones’ having adopted you. You sounded very fond of them, so I assumed what you cherished were ponies like that.”

I suppose I did cherish having ‘friends and family’ that cared deeply for me. The Crossbones were not a particularly large gang like the Gravestones, and were much more informal toward each other.

I looked away from the old stallion, and said, “I did, but those cherished people are gone. One of the hardest lessons I ever had to learn, out in the real world, was that I’d never have something like that again.”

I shook my head. “I’ve tried, but either I wound up betrayed, or they died like the Crossbones. It also didn’t help that I have stripes. So I can’t risk growing attached to my companions. They’re just my subordinates. That’s how things should work…”

The old zebra winced as if there was a disgusting taste in his mouth.

He said, “You know, youngblood, when I spoke of dark paths, I don’t just mean being wary of invisible spirits.”

He looked up into the cloudless sky before continuing, “The worst thing the stars can do to us is convince us to be something other than ourselves. Don’t betray your own heart, child. If only to save your own life.”

He gave me a sad smile. “I hope we meet again.”

Returning to the present moment, with Minty across from me, and the old zebra far behind us…

“I should,” I said to Minty, “But not because Vandal is a friend. He’s a hired gun who needs to understand how things work.”

A new white blip appeared in my EFS. Predictably, Vandal came into the Timberwolf, a tired look on his face.

“Vandy! You’re back!” Minty said.

“Yeah, I am.” Vandal replied, then turned to me. “You were right. One cart, six guards, another pony carrying the cart. Seven total. Spotted them camping out twenty miles from here. Couldn’t get a good look at their arsenal, but nothing too dangerous we can’t handle. My guess is that they’ll be coming here in the morning, so I’m gonna hit the hay.”

He walked over to the bunk beds, but I got in his way. “We need to talk.”

Vandal gave me a lethargic stare. “Okay?”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Are you still upset about my orders to abandon the Timberwolf?”

Vandal groaned and looked away. “... Yeah? But it’s whatever, it was a heat of the momen-”

“And when we were going over plans for this raid, you kept questioning my leadership.” I poked a fore hoof at his chest. “I’m losing my patience with you. If you have an issue with me, spit it out!”

“Phishy!” Minty said. “You don’t have to be rude to ask that.”

“Yeah…” Vandal said, narrowing his eyes at me. “You want my answer? It’s cuz you act like an insufferable bitch.”

“That’s my job.” I replied, the urge to put him in a headlock rising.

“And that’s my issue. Kinda hard to trust you know what we’re up against when you act like fucking Roulette.” Vandal said.

“Vandal, I was the second in command of the Gravestones. What I’m doing is standard procedure. Otherwise, why would any of you follow a leader without a backbone?” I retorted.

“Guys…” Minty whined.

“Oh?” Vandal said. “Guess what? That might’ve worked when the only people you worked with were violent fuckheads. But your bully tactics are making both of us miserable!”

I scoffed, “Both of you?”

He nodded. “Yeah,” He pointed to Minty. “Mints over there? She’s always scared of being one hundred percent honest with what she’s feeling, since you’ll either get angry at her or you’ll explain how because she’s brand fucking new to post-apocalyptia that she’s an idiot.”

“What are you talking about?” I turned to Minty. “You’ve always been honest with me…”

Minty swallowed. “Well… Not everything…”

Just before I could come up with a response, I remembered something Dove Trick had told me back in Pona Rosa.

“Oh my, Minty was not exaggerating. You are neurotic.”

It hadn’t crossed my mind until now that Minty had told a stranger something negative about me, instead of telling it to my face…

Silence filled inside the Timberwolf. Vandal sighed, and when he opened his eyes he looked tired rather than irritated. “I’d bring up how you’ve even been breaking my contract by being an ass to me… But whatever. I don’t give a shit about it anyway.”

I had forgotten the ‘don’t be an ass to Vandal’ condition in the contract.

When the catbird tried to pass through me, I muttered,“Vandal?”

“It’s been a long day, and I’m still new to all this bandit bullshit. Tomorrow's the raid, so it should be in your best interest that I get some rest.”

I simply nodded, “It is…”

Hearing that, Vandal laid down onto a bed.

I turned to Minty, who had a scared expression across her face. “P-Phishy… I…”

I shook my head. “You’re fine. We should probably be resting as well.”

Minty nodded. “Okay.”

Vandal’s words haunted my thoughts for the rest of the night before I eventually fell asleep.

Vandal was surprisingly the first one to be awake in the morning. He had gotten busy setting up his equipment.

Vandal and I had placed the landmines at the road and did our best to cover them up with dirt. When that was finished, we began to position ourselves.

Minty had hidden herself in a bush on the left side of the road, her green coat and armor made for good camouflage. Vandal was positioned up on the mountain at the right side of the road, hidden from sight. I was also at the right side of the road, but hid behind a tree on the lower part of the mountain.

The Timberwolf was parked behind us on the road, serving as a blockade.

Hours passed as we waited for the Gravestones to arrive. Minty would periodically ask if she could come out and stretch. The only time I permitted her to do so was when she needed to take a piss.

I would constantly check my EFS, waiting for new blips to signal that our soon to be victims were in the vicinity.

Vandal would occasionally fly up into the air and see if the Gravestones were arriving or not. Eventually, he flew down beside me, eyes wide.

I growled at him. “You’re supposed to be at the top of the mountain! What’s wrong?”

“There’s two caravans.” Vandal replied.

Two caravans? Gravestone procedure was for them to carry only one caravan, to avoid the risk of having too many supplies get stolen. Why would there be another?

Soon enough, blips began to appear in my EFS… but all red. That confused me, because that told me that they were already prepared to fight. Looking from my cover I could see two caravans being carried, the front one carrying a large crate that required two ponies to pull the cart, and a second having a smaller box covered in a cloth.

The guards, armed with pristine battle rifles and smgs that I wager came from Buckborn’s factory, were focused around the second caravan.

Something was wrong, but I couldn’t warn Minty right now or else I’d blow my cover. The two ponies pulling the front cart had battle saddles with shotguns attached. They were on high alert, but otherwise failed to notice when one of them stepped on a landmine.


The two ponies carrying the cart were shredded by the fragmentation, and fell to the floor. The other caravan began to flee back to where they came from, while the other guards shouted orders to prepare for an attack.

That was when Minty jumped out from her bush. “Awtawck!” Minty shouted with the hammer handle in her mouth as she charged over toward the guards, past the crate.

It was only now that I realized that there was a blip on my EFS pointing to that crate.

“Minty wait!” I shouted.

It was too late. The crate erupted from within, a steel-clad figure with a minigun mounted on their battle saddle came out screaming. “SURPRISE! I WAS THE GOODS ALL ALONG!”

The muscles in my back tightened when I recognized that voice. His name was Savage Strike. When he worked under me, he’d always been highly effective as a blunt instrument, but you could never assign him to anything that required even a hint of nuance. It was impossible to keep him out of a fight if he had any chance of starting one. Did my successor station him in Buckborn? And if that was the case, what was he doing out here?!

And who gave him the power armor!?!

Minty had already struck one of the guards down with her sledgehammer when Savage yelled, and rushed toward him. That green idiot was going to get herself killed!

“Vandal, fly up and support me!” I shouted, taking out my sawed-off, and rushed out of my hiding place. The other guards became alerted to my presence, shouted my name and turned their attention away from Minty and onto me.

“PHISA?! SO THAT WAS YOUR GRIFFON WE SPOTTED? I HAVE TO THANK YOU THEN! I’VE BEEN BORED WAITING FOR SHIT TO HAPPEN IN BUCKBO-” Savage was interrupted just as Minty slammed her hammer against his helmet.

Savage was unphased and merely laughed. “HA! NICE TRY TRIBAL, BUT MY ARMOR IS INVINCIBLE!” He punched Minty, shoving her by an inch.

Griffon spotted? No…

There was no time to come up with curses for the catbird as the guards began to take aim at me, I zigzaged across the road to make myself harder to hit. Activating SATS, I targeted the head of the nearest Gravestone grunt and fired a shot at her. Her head exploded, and her body fell to the road.

Shots fired at me from the other guards, a few of which impacted the armored parts of my leather jacket. I held in a pained grunt and activated SATS again, this time aiming for a guard’s leg. Blood erupted from it, and the guard fell down screaming in agony.

Savage’s minigun fired, with Minty taking a few hits from it, and while she showed no signs of pain, that worried expression on her face told me she was in danger.

A shot rang against Savage’s helmet. He turned up to the sky to see Vandal.

“Hey bucket head, over here!” Vandal yelled before firing another round at Savage.

“BIG MISTAKE GRIFFON!” Savage said, firing his minigun into the sky.

As he did, Minty ran off into the mountain.

I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen her run from a fight unprompted, but this wasn’t the time to worry about it. With no time to reload my sawed-off, I holstered it as I came close to unicorn Gravestone levitating an smg. I kicked her in the skull and seized the smg with my tail before it fell. Deciding not to wait to find out if she was stunned or dead, I tossed it in my mouth and put two rounds in her brain.

That left three grunts alive. One of them turned their weapon on me, but I pulled the trigger first, three bullets penetrating his neck. The other two got closer and fired at me, but I swerved away just in time and delivered a kick to the closest Gravestone.

Vandal must have retreated into the mountain, because Savage aimed his minigun at me. The Gravestone I had kicked had the misfortune of getting caught in the crosshair when I made a dash for the forest in the mountain, while the other one had run for cover the moment the roar of the minigun began. Seems Savage’s penchant for friendly fire hadn’t changed since I left.

Savage’s spray of bullets followed behind me, some even striking the trees, before a series of clicks played out on his minigun. “COME BACK, COWARD!”

I weaved through each tree, hoping Savage would lose sight of me. I spotted Vandal laying his back against a large dead oak. After getting behind it, I stared at Vandal intensely, before the catbird gave me a distraught face.

“Yeah, yeah, go ahead yell at me. Fuck, whatever, if we survive you can fire me. Fuck…” Vandal groaned.

I gritted my teeth, seething from the pain I’ve ignored, trying to come up with an angry response…

Nothing. Whatever energy I had to shout at him simply wasn’t there. Sure, Vandal got caught… but this was something he was worried about when I ordered him to scout.

And I dismissed his concern.

My stomach sank as I recalled what Vandal had told me last night.

“This is my responsibility.” I whimpered.

Vandal was definitely not expecting that. He looked a little disoriented, saying, “What?”

I swallowed. “I’m the one at fault here. You were right, I broke your contract, dismissed your input for my plan, and gave you an order you weren’t confident with. This is my failure as a leader! You aren’t-”

Vandal interrupted, “Doesn’t matter, I got caught, and now we’re…” An inaudible swear left his beak. “Look, I appreciate you owning up for being a bitch, but maybe we should get the fuck out of this mess first?”

I bit my lip, saying “We’re going to need to retreat.”

Vandal peeked his head around the corner and pulled it back, thankfully still intact, as shots rang out. He gave me a nervous smile.

“Maybe a little easier said than done.” I confessed.

Vandal glanced around, looking for options, then blinked.
“Wait… Where’s Mints?” he asked.

Just as he said it, there was a roar like thunder. It was the sound of countless tons of rock and earth, churning toward the river like a dry tidal wave. Vandal seemed to have caught on to what it meant before I did. He snatched me up and took off into the air.

I could hear Savage screaming and cursing my name until suddenly, all was silent.

We both looked down on the scene below. Where Savage and his remaining goons should have been, was nothing but loose rocks, dirt, and uprooted deadwood all the way down into the river.

He had been buried or washed away. In either case, no longer our problem.

“Mission Accomplished!” I heard Minty shout in the distance.

I looked at the scene stupefied. “... She actually did it.”

Vandal nodded. “Yeah… Guess I gotta be extra careful not to get hit by her hammer.”

Minty gave a confused look at me. “Why are you surprised?” She shouted. “This was Plan B!”

The battle had ended after the avalanche. The remaining Gravestone had either ran off or got buried in the rocks alongside Savage, who continued to garble out obscenities underneath it.

The Gravestones would come back here, if not to rescue Savage, then to salvage the power armor they entrusted on him. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time, tools, or patience to dig enough of him up to finish him off. So we resolved to get going and hope he screamed away his remaining breathable air.

Minty had been in an upbeat mood in the aftermath of her rockslide plan. To my pleasure, she didn’t receive any grievous injuries that some bandages and a sip of a healing potion couldn’t fix.

I tasked her with searching around the battlefield, collecting whatever guns, ammo, or other supplies we could salvage that the rockslide didn’t hit. Hopefully there’d be ammo for both my sawed-off and my newly acquired smg.

Meanwhile, Vandal and I were beside the Timberwolf. We had just finished treating each other's wounds before we resumed our previous discussion. My back was near the Timberwolf’s door, while Vandal leaned against the hood, nervously smoking.

“So… Power armor. Never warned us about that.” Vandal said.

“It’s the only one we had,” I sighed. “A former Steel Ranger sold it at a hefty price. Tomb bought it, but he couldn’t decide who to entrust it to.”

I shifted my forelegs a bit before resuming. “Despite not getting much out of this, least we now know that he’s willing to deploy it now…”

Vandal exhaled smoke. “That means they’re gonna come back for him.” He said, more of a statement than a question.

I nodded. “You’re right, we need to prepare.”

The catbird gave a silent, unsteady look at me.

“If there’s something on your mind, you’re allowed to speak clearly.” I said softly.

Vandal took out his cigarette and tossed it to the ground, saying, “This is new, having a boss apologize to me. Even after I ruined-”

“Again, I was the one who ordered you to scout, you admitted you were uneasy, and I broke the contract by being an ass to you about it,” I interrupted.

Vandal grunted, and said “Yeah, but didn’t I mention before that I don’t really care about contracts? We still needed this info, and I got spotted, and almost got us all killed… I have to make up for this somehow.”

That didn’t sit well with me. While he didn’t care too much about that sticky note, I did. If I’m to become the most feared and respected bandit in the Pinewood, then I had to respect my gang.

Still, Vandal looked unsatisfied being put off the hook. And there’s been something on my mind that I’ve been meaning to ask…

I said, “You can repay me now by answering my question.”

That got the catbird to cock an eyebrow.

I asked, “Yesterday when I gave the order to abandon the Timberwolf, you mentioned something about not wanting some ‘bitch’ to find the RV?”

Vandal blinked. “Did I say something like that?”

I nodded. “You did. Is there someone-” I stopped myself, realizing my tone came out aggressively. “Is there someone out for you? Someone who’s a Talon?” I finished, my words coming out more soft and concerned for my griffon companion.

Vandal hesitated for a moment. “My mom.”

“Your mom?” I said, wide-eyed.

He looked away from me. “That company full of shitty griffs I mentioned yesterday? My mom’s the leader of them. Long story short, she signed a contract that got us on a suicide mission. We…” He shook his head. “I got pissed, stole the Timberwolf, and never went back to that bitch.”

“That’s why you’ve been avoiding Talons?” I asked.

Vandal shrugged. “Yeah. Bad enough that I broke the contract my mom signed, but betraying a blood relative is worse. A lot of Talon companies take blood ties seriously. Maybe Gawd and her Talons in the NCR might be more forgiving, but I ain’t taking that risk… Not to mention that Gawd’s indirectly responsible for mom’s obsession with being the ‘best’ Talon leader in the entire wasteland.”

The muscles in my left forehoof coiled at the thought of having another family to worry about. First Minty’s family… and now Vandal’s. I was starting to wonder if future members would follow this trend.

Vandal took notice of my uneasiness. “You’re not mad, are you?”

I shook my head. “Upset, but not at you.” I sighed. “Just another thing to add on my list of things to worry about.”

“Huh?” Vandal took out his cigarette. “This ain’t enough for you to fire me?”


He tossed his cigarette to the ground, and stomped on it until the smoke ceased. “Last boss I shared this with did. Almost was going to expose me…” He shrugged. “Well, he almost.”

I didn’t need to inquire what happened to that boss.

He must’ve taken notice of my uneasy silence. “Eh, changing subject, but do we have a name for our gang?”

I blinked. “What?”

“You know, a kickass gang name? The Gravestones have their fun name so… what about us?”

It had escaped my mind to come up with a name for my gang. At first I was thinking of just taking the Gravestones name if I ever got a chunk of them to join me… But that would mean using a name Tomb made.

I looked at my flank, and recalled Zubri’s words. My glyph mark represented what I cherished most, that being the Crossbone gang that raised me.

I wasn’t sure if I could be confident in equating Vandal and Minty on the same level, nor was I sure if Dice would approve of me using the gang’s name for my own.

But I’d imagine Down would encourage me.

“The Crossbones.” I finally said.

“Crossbones… Huh.” Vandal replied.

Minty strolled over before I could come up with a response, her bags filled with different firearms and other supplies. “Dun dun dun! Prospector Minty Fresh has looted everything she could find!”

"Nice!" Vandal grinned as he glanced at our rewards, his eyes focused mainly on a scoped battle rifle.

I forced a cough. "Minty… I need to apologize. I should’ve taken Plan B more seriously. We couldn’t have made it out without it.”

“Awww!” Minty hopped into the Timberwolf. “It’s okay. I’m just glad I was able to help!”

Vandal smirked at Minty.

This felt strange… but these past few minutes have reminded of how the Crossbones were like. They weren’t as business focused as the Gravestones, nor were they all that big… but it always felt nice being around them.

I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

“So,” Vandal interrupted my thoughts. “Next destination gonna be your hideout?”

I shook my head. “Actually,” I looked at Minty. “Why don’t we head to Leathersworth?” Not only could Minty see Sundance and Dove one last time, but perhaps there would be some equipment I could purchase that could help me against Savage.

Besides, it felt wrong not to reward Minty.

“Really!?” Minty’s eyes sparkled.

“Yes,” I looked at my PipBuck’s map. “I’m guessing it’ll take us a day to get there with the Timberwolf…” I turned to Vandal.

Vandal nodded. “Aight, no more wasting time here. I’ll get her started.”

Intermission 1

View Online

Three hours after Phisa’s escape from Pona Rosa…

“Goddess dammit,” Thunderstruck murmured to himself before taking a bite of his cooked squirrel. Occasionally he would look out into the sky, and grit his teeth in frustration.

When he finally spotted a familiar cloaked griffon flying in the sky, Thunder shouted, “Finally! Took you long enough tah git back!”

Thunderstruck took notice of Vena’s condition when she landed near him. The griffon panted heavily, and her cloak and baseball bat were soaked with blood.

Thunder couldn’t help but grin. “See ya had a lotta fun. Shame I had tah miss it all.”

He blinked and tilted his head. “Hey, where’s Buzz? Ya didn’t ditch him back at Pona Rosa?”

Vena didn’t answer, and sat down against the stone bridge’s wall. A chuckle escaped from her as she glanced at the cooked squirrel Thunderstruck had.

A chill crept through his skin, and after grumbling for a moment, Thunderstruck tossed his meal toward Vena, who began to consume what was left of it.

Thunderstruck growled. “Ya gonna answer?”

She swallowed, then said “He’s coming.”

“Really? Well hot damn, we can finally meet up with the others.” The pegasus groaned. “That striped bitch better not have done anything with Four while I was with you.”

Vena merely laughed, her talons tensing up to the point that they impaled her cooked squirrel. Eventually she calmed down, and resumed her meal.

Thunder clicked his tongue. “So… Any reason you decided to start a murder spree back at the Cage?”

Vena tilted her head, giving Thunder a confused look.

“Aah mean, we’re friends, ain’t we? So, Aah’m jus’ a little curious is all. Did ya have something that made you ‘feel like it’, or were ya jus’ that bored?”

Vena almost choked on her food due to her laugh, and took deep breaths before saying, “You know why.”

Thunder pffted. “Real funny Vena. But Aah’m serious. Why’d ya do it?”

“... Phisa,” Vena finally said with a huff. “She can’t die.”

Thunderstuck couldn’t help but snicker. “What, that washed up has been? Ya do fucking realize that striped attention whore was part of Sunfuck’s matchfixing scheme, don’tcha? If she’s that desperate for caps, then she ain’t worth being part of our family.”

Vena remained silent for a full minute, her breathing beginning to intensify.

Thunderstruck blinked and said, “Uh… Ya doin’ alright Ve-”

Vena swiftly gripped Thunderstruck’s neck with a talon. The pegasus gasped and had his eyes widen in terror as his companion’s face got close enough for him to catch a glimpse at Vena’s full face. He could never get used to it, the shock was always fresh and stomach churning.

Vena let out a single high pitched cackle, as her talons tightened ever so slightly.

“HeHEH, You don’t know her?” Vena said ominously.

Thunder grit his teeth and panted. “Yes aah know who she is! She used to be the Gravestones number two, but now she ain’t! Aah don’t git what this is all about!”

“... You really don’t know? ha-HAhaha...” Vena said, before tossing Thunderstruck to the ground,

“You really. Don’t. Know.” She leaned against the bridge, and began to madly giggle.

Thunder felt around his neck with his wings as he stared at Vena continuing to laugh. “Fuck… Ya laughing for reals this time…”

He forced a smile on his face, seething through his teeth, “Really had me scared there…”

“Ummm,” a timid voice spoke out, catching Thunderstruck by surprise.

It’s owner appeared to be a pink earth pony stallion with a green and yellow mane, carrying a saddle bag, and a pink Pipbuck with a pink screen on his left forehoof.

Slowly, he trotted over to the two familiar faces. “I-Is this a bad time? I could… You know, go somewhere else while you two… sort things out.”

Thunderstruck groaned, “Nah, aah think we’ve settled things out, Buzzkill.”

Vena cackled again, “We haven’t, but whatever. I can’t wait to get back,”

She grinned at Thunderstruck for a moment before turning back to Buzzkill. “You alright, Buzz?”

Buzz nodded and smiled. “Y-y-yeah. Things got hectic, but I got out fine…”

He frowned when he looked at the blood on Vena’s cloak and weapon. “W-what about you? Do you need any… help, with that?”

Vena shook her head. “No, hehe. I’m fine.”

Thunderstruck sighed and looked at Buzzkill’s back. “Really? Ya jus’ had tah walk here? Could’ve saved time.”

Buzzkill glanced away. “I-I know. But… well…”

Thunder shrugged. “Eh, whatever. Did ya at least finish ya job?”

Buzzkill nodded and took out a notebook from his bag, presenting them to the pegasus, “Yeah! Finished mapping out all the important places before Vena started… fighting.”

Thunderstruck began to skim through the notebook, and slowly began to grin. “Not bad, Buzz, not bad at all.” He blinked when he reached the last page. “Ya can’t be serious.”

“Oh!” Buzz nodded. “Yeah, I was just scouting around the outside, you know, just to double check on if I missed something. That gate wasn’t open before, a-a-and it seems none of the guards station around it.”

Thunderstruck hummed to himself. “Mah oh mah, this is a serious security breach for Pona Rosa…”

A sinister grin grew on his face. “A shame if somepony exploited it.”

Chapter 11: Joker and the Thief

View Online

Six hours had passed since our raid against the Gravestones tribute. In that time, I had been examining the loot we’d salvaged (minus the battle rifle Vandal had ‘called dibs’ on). Out of the weapons we were able to gain, I took a liking to that smg I had taken earlier. A good secondary weapon for my sawed-off.

The rest we kept inside Vandal’s gun locker. Whether we’d hold onto them for future members, or sell them at Leathersworth, I hadn’t decided yet.

In the meantime, Vandal and I had been discussing future plans with my Crossbones after our stay in Leathersworth, while Minty kept quiet to herself as she read a pre-war magazine.

“Savage was the big shot in Buckborn, right?” Vandal said, exhaling smoke from his cigarette. “So how about raiding that weapon factory they have?”

“Tempting, but too risky,” I sighed. “Considering how important Buckborn is to the Gravestones, I’d imagine Savage wouldn’t be the only Gravestone operating there. With no knowledge on how many we’d be up against, added with our current size… You get the picture.”

Vandal groaned. “Shit, that was the only idea I had.”

“We’ll come up with something,” I said, wanting to at least give Vandal some consolation.

“I don’t get any of this bandit stuff.” Minty mumbled, her head turning away from her magazine and toward me. “Why are these Gravestones so obsessed with bullying all these towns to give them stuff?”

Always kept forgetting that Minty was naive on ‘bandit politics’.

“A strong reputation is more powerful than ten thousand bullets.” I said, “As long as your rivals and victims think you're invincible, you can avoid ever having to even fire a shot. But in order to keep that rep, and remain safe, you need to make a show of power if anyone dares to push back. If you can make an occasional ‘example’ of anyone who thinks they can fight back, it weakens the resolve of the next gang or settlement who thinks of doing the same.”

Vandal gave a tired snicker. “Yet here we are, planning to take them down. Guess they ain’t done a good enough job on the ‘reputation’ front.”

I snorted. “I built their reputation. I know where the foundations are laid, I know how to tear it down.”

His response also made me remember something. I had almost forgotten to inform my gang about the Rockfalls. It didn’t feel right leaving them in the dark.

Clearing up my throat, I said, “Well, we aren’t the only ones aiming to topple the Gravestones.”

“Huh?” Vandal hummed.

Minty tilted her head, waiting to hear my response.

“You remember the griffon that followed us at Roulette’s casino?” I asked.

Vandal groaned. “Yeah, the crazy bitch who couldn’t lose at the Cage.”

“Yup!” Minty nodded. “She also followed us outside Pona Rosa as well…” She began grinning, “You think she wanted to be friends with us?”

“Pfft,” Vandal snorted. “She probably just had some screws loose or some shit.”

“Actually, I think Minty’s right… to a degree.” I said.

I begun to tell my gang what I knew about the Rockfalls; that they had been gathering allies from Pona Rosa, that Vena and whatever that annoying pegasus’ name was were members, and that they told me that their boss might be interested in making a deal with me, should I do something to really hurt the Gravestones.

“A pegasus?!” Minty shouted.

Somehow I wasn’t surprised that that would be what she cared about more.

Vandal eyebrow raised and he told Minty, “Why are you surprised? There’s been a lot of pegasi after their stunt two years ago.”

Minty gave a confused look at Vandal. “I mean, Phishy told me that there’s a buncha pegasuses out in the wasteland now, but I’ve never seen one. And what’s this about a stunt?”

“Could we get back on topic?” I snapped, not particularly in the mood to explain yet more things about the world to Minty.

Minty folded her ears. “Sorry.”

I sighed. “As I was saying, if we can prove to these Rockfalls that we’re an effective thorn against the Gravestones, we may be able to work out an alliance with them.

“I’ve seen Vena fight, and if that pegasus’ word can be trusted, they have more fighters like her. With their help, we may be able to succeed in taking down the Gravestones.”

Minty gave a merry hum. “And that means making new friends! I’m down for this!”

Vandal didn’t appear to share Minty’s enthusiasm if that frown on his beak indicated anything.

“What’s wrong?” I asked him.

The catbird took out his cigarette, and placed it in the ashtray on his dashboard before saying, “I’m not sure we can trust these assholes.”

“Go on.” I said.

“So, you want to be the queen bitch of the Pinewood, but these Rockfalls seem to have similar ambitions. Let’s say we do impress them, and we get to chat with them, then what? Would they be helping us… or would we be helping them?”

He had a solid point. Even if I did manage to get their attention, what’s to stop them from forcing me and my gang into being their subordinates?

And worse, what’s to stop them from backstabbing us once they no longer had a use for us? I couldn’t afford to have that happen again, and not just for the sake of my pride.

I bit my lip, berating myself for not having thought this ahead. “As much as I hate to admit it, you’re right. But the Rockfalls are the only ponies I know who are up against the Gravestones. If we’re going to deal with them, we need to have leverage. We need to prove to them that we’re not coming to them hat in hoof. That we can hold our own, and are worthy of respect.”

“What if…” A grin formed on Minty’s muzzle. “We make friends with all the settlements being bullied! We could be nice bandits to them, and they could help us fight back those meanies!”

“Really?” I snorted, then shook my head. “There’s no such thing as nice bandits Minty.”

The earth pony puffed her cheeks. “Well, we could be the first nice bandits!”

I shook my head at Minty. “And the Rockfalls will think we’re soft and easy pickings. Besides, even if we were to try being nicer, those settlements aren’t just going to trust us. Especially considering that I’m…”

Upon seeing Minty flinch, I took a moment to soften my tone and expression before I said, “Even if I wasn’t a bandit, they wouldn’t want to trust a zebra.”

Minty’s ears folded as she sighed. “Yeah, a lotta ponies don’t like you, even when you aren’t being mean.”

I was just about to respond to Minty before realizing only now that Vandal had been suspiciously quiet. Not to mention that the Timberwolf had been slowing down.

“Vandal? Are you alright?” I asked.

“Huh?” He groaned. “Yeah… Sorta. Don’t normally drive this long, and having us talk about all this shit is stressing me out. It’d be cool with you if we took a pitstop somewhere for a while?”

He had been driving for quite a long time. It hadn’t crossed my mind that you could get tired from operating a motorwagon, but then again, I wasn’t the one doing the driving.

After clearing my throat I said, “Go ahead. Be sure to park us somewhere safe.”

It didn’t take long before Vandal parked the Timberwolf right beside a small pre-war school building.

Minty was the first to step outside and immediately stretched her body, no doubt feeling relieved with having more space to move.

I followed her out, with Vandal stopping behind me to sit down at the Timberwolf’s entrance.

“Minty!” I said to her, “Check that building to see if there’s anything dangerous.” Normally I wouldn’t trust a single pony to check out a location alone. But after being with Minty for this long, I was confident she could take care of herself.

“Okie dokie!” Minty saluted and then trotted over to the station.

I turned to Vandal. “I’m going to scout the area, will you be fine on your own here?”

Vandal smirked. “I wouldn’t mind just sitting around,” he scratched the back of his head, then frowned. “But I’m betting you’re gonna need my wings?”

I was hesitating to say yes. It had only been yesterday that I had dismissed his worries about getting caught the last time I sent him out to scout. That, and he was also too exhausted to really scout efficiently.

I shook my head and said, “It’s fine, I have this covered.”

The area surrounding the school was tranquil, yet unsettlingly familiar. Behind the school was a playground, its equipment having rusted over the centuries, yet still miraculously functioned on some level.

It reminded me of that playground the original Gravestones would let me visit occasionally…

I had been lost in my thoughts for a brief moment before looking at my EFS to check for hostiles. Minty and Vandal’s blips were shown… but there were two other blips just west of the school.

One non-hostile, and the other hostile.

I gave the playground one last look before heading toward where those other blips on my EFS were. Finally, I spotted two figures out in the open, just a few hooves away from an eroded water fountain I hid behind.

The red blip on my EFS pointed towards an older looking unicorn stallion with a galleon hat. A shotgun levitated in the air beside him. He had an intense scowl on his face before saying something I couldn’t pick up.

The other pony took me by surprise; she was a teenaged filly, with a fuchsia pink coat, with a light fluffy purple mane and tail with bright pink streaks. She wore some sort of khaki jacket and a yellow bandana around her neck… and a series of chains wrapped around a brown blanket on her torso?

The last detail bewildered me, given that the chains didn’t extend enough for the unicorn to use as a leash.

Taking another look at the scene made my muscles tense up. The teenage filly was digging a hole…

It finally clicked together what was happening.

When I was working my way up the ranks of the Gravestones, I must have done this a dozen times. Forcing a pony to dig their own grave at gunpoint.

Besides saving the exocutioner some sweat, it was effective psychological torture for the condemed. Naturally, you never admitted to them what specifically the hole was actually for. The victim had plenty of time to fret, hoping for some last minute reprieve. Maybe the hole wasn’t for them after all?

But of course, it was. It always was.

To have that happen to a filly…

“Psst. Phishy? Phishy? What are they doing over there?” Minty whispered.

“Minty!?” I had almost blurted, but kept my voice to a hush, “What are you doing here?”

And how did she sneak behind me without my notice?

“I was done looking into that building,” Minty said, thankfully keeping her voice low. “But what’s going on over there?”

“I don’t know, maybe… treasure hunting…” I lied, scrambling to think of a way to keep her from doing something reckless.

Minty’s ears perked up with excitement, “Treaaaasure hunting?”

Oh, great, I made it worse.

“Calm down!” I hissed, slipping my attention between Minty and the unicorn with the shotgun.

On the up side, maybe there was an outside chance I wasn’t lying. There were foodcashes all over the waste. That filly might just be doing some slave labor. Which would probably explain the chain...

I couldn’t know for sure if that was really the case or not. Asking the stallion was out of the question, my EFS showed he was hostile. So my best chance to learn what was going on was to either subdue him, or kill him and ask the filly what was going on.

First I had to take away that shotgun from him.

“Stay here,” I ordered Minty. “Don’t act unless something happens to me.”

The tribal mare gave me a nod.

With that out of the way, I skulked toward them, the soft dirt making it easy to avoid making noise. Anxiety began to flow through my blood, but neither of them had looked behind yet.

“Yur slacking off. I ain’t got all day, dig faster.” said the unicorn, his voice like tar slathered gravel.

The little filly looked like she was on the verge of passing out. She huffed and puffed as if trying to muster the strength to say something.

“Alright. If that’s the way it’s gotta be…” the unicorn chuckled hideously, as he aimed and readied to fire.

Adrenaline rushed through me as I made a mad dash toward the unicorn. By the time he had taken notice of me my tail had already wrapped around his shotgun. With a quick yank it left his telekinetic hold just as it fired a round into the ground.

“Whut?!” He shouted with grit teeth and a glowing horn as he began to unholster a bulky looking sidearm that took me by surprise. A laser pistol.

I didn’t give him the luxury of space as I swung a hoof at him. He ducked, my hoof knocking his hat off his head, but he didn’t change his position.

Acting fast I tackled him to the ground and slammed a hoof in his face. Some teeth broke out from his mouth before he bucked me in the chin with both rearhooves.

I quickly regained my balance as he got up to charge at me, our forehooves beginning to wrestle with each other.

Minty had begun to rush over with her hammer but paused, no doubt realizing that she’d run the risk of striking me alongside this unicorn. After having seen her cause a rockslide, I did not want to be hit by her.

The unicorn grinned. “Hah! Shouldn’t have poked your muzzle in this, you dirty stripe!” His horn gleamed once more as he reached for his laser pistol…

The moment it was drawn out, the same filly, who had moments ago looked exhausted, had rushed forward and snatched the laser weapon out of the air with her mouth.

My opponent was dumbfounded for a brief moment, enough that it allowed me to shove him away from me before the filly aimed and fired her newly acquired weapon.

He couldn’t finish swearing before being struck by the laser. Watching another pony’s body be consumed by a red light before crumbling to a fine powder was a rare and horrible sight.

Everything was silent for a heartbeat, but it felt like forever…

“Phishy! Are you alright?” Minty yelled by my side before taking notice of the filly.

“I am,” I said, then glanced at the panting filly. I pondered if she had actually had everything under control, considering the stunt she had managed to perform. Was she only pretending to be completely vulnerable, or was it just her second wind?

The filly was speechless, no doubt that I was the first zebra she had laid eyes on. Eventually she mustered up the courage to say, “A zebra? Who are you two?”

I was about to say something before Minty interjected. “She’s Phishy, and I’m Minty Fresh, the mare in mint condition. What was going on with that stallion? Is it true that he was making you dig for treasure?”

The filly blinked for a second, blank faced, before saying in a tone of childlike awe, “How did you knooow?”

I was thrown. Well. I guess it wasn’t impossible… but...

Just then I heard someone land behind me. It was Vandal, a worried expression on his face.

“Hey, heard a gunshot, everything alright,” He blinked when he saw the filly. “And who’s she?”

The filly’s eyes laid onto Vandal for a moment, particularly focusing on the battle rifle he had holstered on his back. Her eyes turned back to me. “I’m Merry Go. And yeah, I was digging for treasure!”

“You were?” I said, keeping my expression neutral.

It seemed just too good to be true.

The filly nodded. “Yup! I bought a map from a caravan a few days ago that’d lead to a cache of caps.”

She turned over to the ash pile of what used to be the unicorn I had fought earlier. “That unicorn was looking to get that map. When he heard I already bought it, he began chasing after me. He caught me good, but I had destroyed the map and told him I still remembered the location.”

“And that was why you were here?” I asked, looking at the dig spot. It was at least two hooves deep, and it didn’t look like there were any signs of some container.

“Yeah, but this wasn’t the right place…” Merry then frowned. “In fact, I’ve sorta forgotten the exact location. But it’s around the old school building.”

Vandal took a look at the chains wrapped around Merry and asked, “Huh, somebody wrap these around you?”

“I assume that unicorn I fought did it. Didn’t seem to do a good job at binding her though.” I replied, and noticed Merry grinning in response.

Vandal turned to the ash pile. “And I’m guessing that the key was ashed alongside him?”

“Oh no!” Merry blurted out, waving her forehooves. “These chains are actually mine! They’re a fashion statement.”

“That’s an odd sense of fashion.” I replied with a raised eyebrow.

“Said the zebra wearing a spiked collar.” Vandal snarked.

I narrowed my eyes at the catbird.

“That was a compliment.” Vandal said with wide eyes.

“So the treasure is somewhere around here?” Minty asked, her body trembling with anticipation.

Merry appeared put off by Minty’s enthusiasm, but gave a sheepish smile and said, “Yeah… In fact, you guys can have it!”

“Reallly?!” Minty squealed, then turned to us. “Phishy? Vandy? Can we look for the treasure, pleeeeeeease?”

Vandal smirked. “Shit, didn’t think you’d be the sort of mare obsessed with money.”

Minty shook her head. “Oh no, it’s the whole act of finding the treasure I want to do! There was a book all about a group of fillies looking for treasure and I’ve always, always, always, wanted to do something like that when I decided to explore the outside world? Can we treasure hunt Phishy?”

I was really peeved. Yesterday she had stressed with me about wanting to go to Leathersworth to see Sundance and Dove Trick, and now she wanted to forget about that and focus on some dumb treasure hunt?

I was just about to harshly scold Minty… but thought against it. I sighed and said, “Remember Sundance and Dove?”

Minty frowned. “I mean, yeah… but they said that they’d be around in Leathersworth for awhile before leaving.”

Vandal beat me before I could respond. “I mean, your friends aren’t going to be at Leathersworth when we get there. We have a motorwagon, they don’t.”

“I’m surprised you’re advocating for it.” I said to Vandal.

The catbird shrugged. “Eh, it’s harmless fun for Mints’. She did save our asses today. Plus, we could get some extra spending caps.”

I would argue that going to Leathersworth was Minty’s reward for saving us against Savage… But I was clearly outnumbered in my opinion anyway. Besides, those extra spending caps sounded nice.


I looked at Merry and said, “If we find that cache, we’re splitting it fifty-fifty.”

Merry’s eyebrows raised. “Huh, are you sure? I mean, you guys did-”

“And you were the one who bought the map.” I countered.

“Yeah! Wouldn’t be fair if we took it all.” Minty shouted before taking the shovel from the hole, her body shaking with anticipation. “I can’t believe we’re really going on a treasure hunt. This is going to be so much fun!”

I rolled my eyes. “Just to be clear, this doesn’t mean I’m going to participate in this little game. I’m sitting it out.”

At first it was just Minty and Merry going around the playground, digging holes in spots where Merry thought she remembered where the location was.

Me and Vandal, on the other hoof, kept out of the way to be ‘bodyguards’... though to be fair, Vandal was really the only one doing any bodyguard work, having a bird’s eye view of our location. He was a bit skittish at first, fearing a repeat of getting spotted by potential danger. It made sense, so I assured him if that happened, my EFS would detect them.

Minty had bombarded me with requests that I join in on the ‘fun’. I reiterated my stance in not participating, up until Merry admitted that she was getting a little worn out, and was in need of a break. I eventually gave up and tagged in, if only to get Minty to shut up and stop making that face at me.

We were digging near a slide when Merry had asked, “So… What is it like, being a zebra?”

If I got a cap everytime someone asked me that...

“A lot of ponies really don’t like her,” Minty said after placing her shovel aside.

I narrowed my eyes at Minty. “I can answer for myself.”

“Sorry,” Minty eeped.

“But like she said,” I began speaking to Merry. “Almost everypony I met assumes the worst, even if they don’t always admit to it at first.”

Merry shook her head, “Not me!”

“Oh?” I said, raising an eyebrow, pretty used to hearing that as a lie.

“Yeah!” she continued, stubbornly stomping a little hoof in the dirt, “I don’t have anything against you. Before I was on my own, a lot of ponies kept telling me you were all monsters and such. But you seem to be nice, so I know they're wrong.”

There was something hilariously tragic about the fact she was telling that to a lifelong bandit. I’m a murderer, an extortionist, and plenty worse. Besides all that,after meeting Zubri… I wasn’t really sure if I could really be considered a ‘zebra’, what with the large culture gap I was now aware and conscious of.

I decided to change the subject. “You’re on your own? Wasteland orphan?”

“Uh… I guess…” She looked away uncomfortably, taken by surprise at my question. “Used to live in a town with my parents. But… two years ago stuff happened, and I had to run away. I don’t know what happened to my parents.”

Two years ago…

“So the Enclave attacked your settlement?” I guessed.

Merry’s eyes widened, her stiff body answering my question.

“Enclave?” Minty asked with her head tilted.

Well, I couldn’t avoid answering Minty this time.

“Remember two years ago when the sky was just an endless cloud?” I said, receiving a nod from Minty. “The pegasi made it like that to seal themselves off from the surface. Two years ago they tried to attack the surface, and lost. The cloud cover has been gone since then.”

“Ohhhh… So that’s why the sky broke?” Minty said.

I blinked and said “Excuse me?”

“Yeah! The sky broke two years ago, and eeeeeverypony in my tribe were panicking. They thought the world was ending or something! Jawbreaker even flipped over the giant outhouse we carry! But then the next day came and everypony got over it.”

We both took notice of Merry shaking uncontrollably. Minty briefly panicked and said, “Oh my gosh, I’m sorry!”

Merry shook her head, her ears drooped as she spoke. “No! It’s fine. But yeah, those Enclave were really bad… and so were those pegasi for having followed them…”

I couldn’t help begin to sympathize with her. Like me, she must’ve grown up having been sheltered from the wasteland. And now she was out on her own, having to adapt to her new environment.

There was also something else in Merry’s tone that made me want to ask something.

Two gunshots rang in the air a distance from where we were. I turned to the sky to see Vandal beginning to descend down.

“What’s going on?” I asked him.

“Shot a critter. Think it’s editable. Could Mints’ help me carry it back?” Vandal said with a grin.

By the time Vandal and Minty came back with the ‘critter’ that Vandal spotted (apparently a giant spider living inside a shack that he saw through the window), night had begun to fall. We decided to postpone our treasure hunt and set up a campfire.

As all of us ate, Minty had been telling us a story about her brother that while I had already heard about it, the other two hadn’t.

“Right through the cheek?” Merry gasped.

“Uh-huh!” Minty said, her right forehoof poking at her cheek. “Had to get stitches and lost some teeth, but luckily he survived!”

“Teh,” Vandal snorted. “Hope the lucky bastard learned how to actually hold a mouth held pistol.”

“Oh, he gave up on wanting to use guns after that,” Minty frowned. “But he keeps insisting it’s because he thinks they’re lame.”

“Probably for the better,” Vandal sighed. “Take it that’s why you never use guns?”

“Yup!” Minty nodded, and gestured to the sledgehammer holstered on her back. “That and I’m fine enough with my hammy.”

“But damn, I didn’t think a pony could live through getting shot in the cheek.” Merry said.

“Well, Sweet Tart always says that my brother is ‘too stupid to die’.” Minty replied.

Vandal snickered. “Shit, I can imagine this isn’t the first dumb accident he lived through.”

Minty grinned. “Well, there was that time when-”

It suddenly realized… I was smiling. It was just like the old days. The original Crossbones sitting around a campfire, sharing food and stories. It was too comfortable. I was too comfortable. And Merry was just a little older than I was when…

I stood up, causing Minty to look at me with concern and say, “You alright Phishy?”

“I am, I just need to rest. I’ll be in the Timberwolf if you need me.” I said, a little more rough than I’d meant to.

After getting into the Timberwolf and retrieving my canteen from the bedroom, I sat at the table and sighed.

About twenty minutes passed before Vandal came in. “Not feeling too well?”

“I’m fine,” I said, looking at my canteen.

Vandal frowned. “Doesn’t sound like it.”

I sighed. I didn’t want him to keep poking me for questions… but I knew he wouldn’t leave me alone unless I told him something.

Besides… I still had to uphold our contract.

“This playground we’re at? My caretakers would bring me to a place almost exactly like this from time to time.” I said.

Vandal blinked. “Caretakers?”

I nodded. “My adopted family. The original Crossbones. It’s what I named my- our gang after.”

I looked out through the small gap in the window’s reinforcement, looking at the campfire, and said, “I’m not in the mood to share my entire life story, but I cherished those days… It also isn’t helping that Merry is reminding me of myself.”

“Reminding you of yourself… Your caretakers are dead?” Vandal guessed.

I didn’t reply at first. Vandal briefly panicked and said, “Shit, that was a sensitive button I pushed, wasn’t it?”

I shook my head. “Two are alive. You’ve already met one of them.”

“I did?” Vandal raised an eyebrow, before widening his eyes. “Oh yeah, Sundance was part of a gang you once were in… guessing that’s the one that raised you.”

I nodded. “The only original Crossbone I had a bad memory of.”

Vandal lit his cigarette and sighed. “Fuck… Kinda feel envious.”

I raised an eyebrow, about to ask ‘how’ before I remembered that he had told me he had stolen the Timberwolf from his own mother.

“Was she that bad?” I asked.

“Hell yeah.” Vandal exhaled smoke. “Bad enough that my pops left her while me and Gaige were pretty young.”


“My little bro, just by a year. Far too soft for the Talon business, but mom wanted to raise us to succeed her since ‘that’s what my parents did’, and cause she wanted us to compete with Gawd’s brats.”

That name rang a bell. “Gawd Grimfeather?” I said.

“Yup. Mom was obsessed with being the better Talon than her…” His face turned grim. “That obsession is what got Gaige killed.”

Was that why he stole the Timberwolf?

Vandal caught my surprised expression and sighed. “Shit, I was almost going to go on a mad rant. Don’t mind if we change subject? There was actually something else I wanted to ask.”

I nodded. “Go ahead.”

“So… Merry had asked me about how us griffs felt about the fucking Enclave forcing us off our home…”

Merry Go exited from the bedroom appearing nervous. It had been four hours since the others went to bed, and she did everything to avoid making noise as she retrieved a bobby pin and screwdriver to work on the lock on her chains.

Once unlocked, she carefully placed them and the cloak on the ground, and flexed out her wings that no doubt had felt cramped from how long they were bound and hidden.

She grinned, then began work on lockpicking the gun cabinet. Once that was finished, she brought up a bag and began to place firearm after firearm into it with surprisingly nimble handling.

Her looting complete, she came over to open the door to the Timberwolf, confident that she would make a clean getaway with her wings.

That was all put to a halt when she saw me at the front door, and didn’t react fast enough before I tossed the net at her.

“What?!” Merry yelled, attempting to escape from her net. “Phisa?”

I had never actually gone to bed. I had actually been out of the Timberwolf before Vandal came out to call the girls in for bed. In my place, on the top left bunk bed, was a pillow covered in a blanket… admittedly it was the crudest form of a decoy that could’ve been exposed had Merry investigated.

I would then keep watch through the windows, and wait to see if Merry really would be confident enough to rob us in the middle of the night.

Merry froze in silent terror as I leaned down to look at her in the eyes. Before she could say anything, Vandal had already gotten out of bed, smirking. “Well, turns out my hunch was right.”

“Huh? What’s going on?” Minty groaned, having just gotten out of her bed. She stared at Merry in the net, paying special attention to the pair of wings.

Minty had begun to gasp, no doubt wanting to comment on Merry being a pegasus.

I interjected before she could speak. “Merry had been aiming to steal our guns this entire time. That stallion we rescued her from? She wasn’t digging for treasure at all, she was being made to dig her own grave… no doubt for getting caught stealing from him.”

“What?” Minty said, completely disoriented.

“No I didn’t!” Merry said, prancing awkwardly in place as best as the net would allow.

The three of us just stared at her for what felt like an age.

Merry bit her lips, and spoke with clenched teeth. “Okay, yeah, fine. I made up the treasure map story. Or, well, it was the first thing out of the tribal’s mouth and I just decided to roll with it. I figured you’d probably just kill me or abandon me if you knew the truth.”

“Shit, and I was starting to doubt my hunch,” Vandal said, looking at Merry’s wings. “You tried to steal from that unicorn too right? Kinda hard to imagine a pegasus getting caught though.”

“Oh yeah! You’re a pegasus!” Minty said. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

Merry looked away uncomfortably. “Usually don’t, but you all didn’t think I was one. I thought, you know, most ponies hate me for what the Enclave did, so why not hide my wings this time. Maybe you all would trust me more if you thought I was an earth pony.”

That’d explain her reaction before. “You’re not wrong. It’d be difficult to earn the trust of ponies you’re trying to steal from if we knew you were a pegasus.”

“So,” Vandal sighed. “What are we gonna do with her?”

“Well we can’t kill her!” Minty shouted. “Sure Merry tried to rob from us, but she’s-”

“We’re not going to kill her.” I with a huff.

For all it was worth, I understood Merry’s predicament too well. Even if I did hold a grudge against the pegasi for trying to wipe us out…

What Merry was experiencing was no different than what I have gone through.

I removed the net on top of Merry. “If she’s that desperate for a gun, we’ll give her one of ours and a box of ammo. That’s all we’re going to give her.”

Merry just looked dumbfounded at me. “What? But…”

I shook my head. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m upset that you tried to steal from us… but I’m more upset that you were so amateurish at it. Next time you try to con ponies out of their supplies, spend at least more than a day with them before stealing.”

“But… There is still treasure, right?” Minty whimpered.

Vandal was keeping it together, but I could tell he was on the verge of cracking up laughing. I just rolled my eyes.

“Wait a sec,” said Vandal, the mirth leaving him, “You never answered my question. What was with that unicorn? What’d you try to steal from him?”

Merry shook her head. “I didn’t steal anything from him specifically! I was stealing from his stupid gang. When the Gravestone’s caught me taking extra rations for my friends, they had him drag me out here.”

Minty blinked. “Wait, you have friends?”

“Gravestones?!” I said, almost spitting with surprise.

Merry looked hesitant to speak for a while, but eventually she continued. “Yeah… awhile ago, I was living in an orphanage in Buckborn. Used to be a pre-war gun factory-”

“Wait,” I said, my mind running upon hearing her mention Buckborn. “You said you’re from Buckborn.”

“And they made an orphanage in a gun factory?” Vandal said.

“Yeah.” Merry replied, then turned to Vandal. “It was the only free building with enough space! It was nice enough for a while. One of the few places that could tolerate me. Then the mayor made a pact with the Gravestones. Forced us all out of the place so they could rebuild it back into a factory.”

“And now Buckborn are building guns for the Gravestones?” I asked.

Merry nodded. “I’ve heard other settlements under their ‘protection’ weren’t monitored that much, but in Buckborn they keep a close eye on us all. Mayor keeps telling us all that it’s for our own good… But I know that’s bullshit.

“Me and my friends have wanted to leave Buckborn. But we don’t have weapons to keep us alive on our trip out, nor food or water. I wanted to help them out and well… I got caught, and you know the rest.”

My right forehoof tapped against the ground as I thought about this new information. Earlier, Vandal had suggested that we rob Buckborn’s factory with Savage out of the picture. But with our lack of information on the area, I didn’t think it was a good idea unless we had more members in my gang.

But now…

A sly grin grew on my face. “So you know the layout of this factory?”

Merry gave a quizzed look at me. “Well, yeah. I don’t work there though… but one of my friends does work in it.”

Vandal whistled. “I think I know where this is going.”

I nodded to him, and turned to Merry. “I’d like to meet this friend of yours. I think we can work out something that will benefit us all.”

Chapter 12: Burning Down the House

View Online

A barbed fence had been erected by the Gravestones around the settlement of Buckborn. Without Merry, we would’ve had to take riskier options if not for the tunnel she and some of her friends had made for their inevitable departure, positioned just at the blind spot of the town’s snipers.

Minty’s armor was a complication. It was too bulky to fit through the tunnel, and she was hesitant to remove it. Vandal wasn’t excited at the thought of her removing it either, both out of fear of being caught and knowing he’d be the one who’d have to carry the ridiculously heavy suit. After some persuasion Minty complied, to Vandal’s chagrin.

“Fucking hell,” Vandal hissed and grunted as he flew down beside us, dropping Minty’s armor on the ground, then turned to Minty. “Couldn’t you wear normal armor?”

Minty grinned as she put on her armor. “And lose my sexy outfit? I think not!”

“Yeah, ‘outfit’…” Vandal huffed.

I gave Merry a stern look. “You’re sure we can trust your friend?”

That ‘friend’ was Tunnel Snake, Merry Go’s friend who worked in Buckborn’s factory. She had spent the last three hours getting in contact with him, and came back to us claiming that Tunnel would be waiting at the factory.

I was skeptical. For all I knew Merry could be lying to us again, and had made some deal with the Gravestones to pardon her in exchange for my life. Of course, knowing the Gravestones, Merry asking for their forgiveness was stupid. Inexperienced as she was, Merry was smart enough not to take that risk.

Besides, with Savage Strike currently buried, and Merry and her friend’s guidance, we could sneak in, steal as many weapons as we could carry, and while we were at it, why not sabotage the factory so the Gravestones couldn’t use it anymore?

That would humiliate the Gravestones, and no doubt would word spread far enough for those Rockfalls to hear. I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.

“Of course he’ll be there. And if you’re worried he’d get caught by the Gravestones, relax. He has some really neat magic that would keep him out of sight.” Merry said.

“Huh, neat magic? And that’d be?” Vandal asked.

“Eh… He’s pretty shy about it.” Merry replied.

“That’s enough chit chat,” I said, then turned to Minty. “And can you hurry up? We don’t have all day.”

“Just one more,” Minty said as she placed the final piece of armor back onto her. “Done!”

I sighed in relief, then told Merry to lead the way.

Buckborn wasn’t very active this early in the morning. We spotted a few Gravestone guards as we snuck behind houses and buildings, tired yet attentive. Their numbers increased as we made it through town.

It was interesting, the Gravestones normally didn’t occupy a client settlement this hard. Under me and Tomb, we didn’t dedicate so many of our bandits to guard our clients, mainly to prevent ourselves stretching thin and because the more Gravestones present daily, the more likely the town could rebel against us and cause us to lose a valuable asset.

It was why we often only left a single ‘Ambassador’ and a few of their subordinates to monitor the settlement.

But I could see an exception being made for an asset like Buckborn. A working postwar weapons factory would not only be an almost irresistible target for rivals, but what if the Buckborn residents decided they could defend themselves with their own product? The Gravestones couldn’t take that risk. Especially not after Horseshoe wounded Tomb’s pride.

We were just close to the factory, but stopped upon finding two guards standing around, smoking and chatting.

Merry nervously gritted her teeth. “Oh crap, they’re not supposed to patrol here.”

“Has your secret entrance been found?” I asked Merry.

Vandal took a look at the guards and said. “Looks like they’re just relaxing.”

Even if they weren’t doing guard duty, crossing over now would expose us. I turned to Merry and said, “Do you know another route?”

Merry bit her lip. “Yeah… but it’s all around the other side of town. And we don’t have enough time.”

“What if we go tell them they’re guarding the wrong secret entrance? That this is ours, and they should go guard something else?” Minty said as her brow furrowed in concentration.

None of us replied to her suggestion.

Vandal raised his talon, “Permission to try something?”

I raised an eyebrow at him, “Depends.”

He grinned, “What if there’s a suspiciously heavy gust of wind for them to check on… waaaay over there.” he said, gesturing his wings and at a garbage can from a boarded up convenience store. I contemplated the potential risk of exposing us with his plan and tried thinking of alternatives as I scanned around. Vandal seemed to catch my hesitation as he frowned.

“Uh,” Merry interrupted. “The secret entrance can only be reached here. Otherwise, there’s the front door…”

A deep breath later, I said, “If you get caught out, we won’t be able to back you up. Are you sure about this?”

“Wouldn’t open my beak about it if I wasn’t,” Vandal said with a cocky smirk.

He flew towards the other end of the house we were behind. With a mighty flap of his wings, he created a gust strong enough to cause the trash can to fall down with a loud clang.

That caught the Gravestones attention exactly where we wanted. By the time they’d run out of view looking for the source of the noise, Vandal rejoined the rest of us as we quickly made way to the factory.

“Way to go Vandy!” Minty chimed, giving the catbird a pat on the back once we hustled behind Merry's lead, and immediately gave Vandal an apology after realizing she had put more force into the pat than she intended.

“Come on, it’s over there!” Merry said excitedly.

I almost caught myself cursing in frustration as the filly rushed over to our destination recklessly, but stopped myself, fearing that it’d blow our cover. We promptly followed her, eventually finding her at our destination; a hole with a short chute leading to a conveyor belt inside.

“Used to be a package drop for parts back then. But nopony has used the mailroom after the bombs, so it’s mostly forgotten,” Merry explained as she looked into the chute.

This was disappointing. I’d thought the Gravestones would be smart enough to have found this and done something about it. I’d have ordered the Gravestones of Buckborn to do, had I still been an enforcer.

Oh well. This will at least make them regret losing me even more.

My leg muscles tensed up upon realizing that Tunnel Snake was nowhere to be seen. “Where’s your friend?” I asked, hoping Vandal’s concern won’t come true.

Merry, her face betraying no worry, simply smiled and said, “Oh he’s coming, we just have to wait-”

A flash came from the chute, revealing the head of a red unicorn buck. Judging from him being slightly older than Merry, and the fact that her smile didn’t falter, this had to be Tunnel Snake.

Merry gave a toothy grin. “You’re here! Awesome, now we can start-”

“Beat it,” Tunnel said with eyes focused on me, causing Merry’s enthusiasm to crumble.

“Pardon?” I asked, furrowing my brow at him.

He crawled out of the chute, giving me a better look at him. His mane was slicked back, and with the greaser jacket with a snake stitched onto the right sleeve, he came off as a colt who was making a conscious effort to look intimidating. I could appreciate his sense of fashion, if only he wasn’t staring daggers at me and my friends.

“Yous heard me!” He jabbed a forehoof at my chest. “Fucking beat it!”

“You said he’d be helping us,” I said to Merry with a growl.

Merry was flabbergasted for a moment before looking at Tunnel and muttered, “Yeah, you said that you’d be on board.”

“I’s didn’t agree to jack shit!” He hissed at Merry, making her flinch. “Yous came back to us this morning after we was all worried for ya. Before I’s could ask what happened you blabbered on about some chumps wanting to help us steal guns, and left ‘fore I’s could say no!”

Merry bit her lip. “Okay… I was in a rush, but still, these guys could-”

“Merry,” I interrupted. “Let me handle this.”

Merry looked like she was biting back the impulse to say more, but upon seeing both Minty and Vandal giving her a reassuring expression she held out and simply nodded.

“I apologize for this, but I have a proposition that both of us can benefit from.” I said.

Tunnel Snake snorted. “Oh yeah? And yous think busting into the factory is gonna be easy peasy? Forget it, yous all’re gonna fail and drag me, Merry, and rest’ve us down with you!

“Besides,” He sneered at me. “I know who you are. Yous actually expect me to trust a ‘Stone like you?”

Merry’s eyes widened. “What?!”

I shouldn’t really be that surprised. Since I was the number two Gravestone that confronted clients for not paying up, of course someone like Tunnel would hear about a zebra working for his oppressors. Knowing that there must be some bounty placed on me, most ponies had to have known I was no longer with the Gravestones.

Though maybe he did know, and didn’t care.

There was no turning back. I kept myself composed as I said, “You’re sadly outdated, kid. The Gravestones and I didn’t part on good terms.”

“Yeah!” Minty interjected. “They tossed her in a river!”

I narrowed my eyes at Minty, causing her to make a small “eep” and shrink back in embarrassment.

That didn’t seem to remove the daggers in Tunnel’s eyes, however. So I shrugged and said, “Look, if it’s too hard to believe I’m doing this out of the goodness of my heart, you’d best believe it’ll damage the Gravestones, and let me tell you… It’s my vested interest to hurt them.”

Tunnel began to look uneasy, but wasn’t shaken yet. “I already know that. But a bandit’s still a bandit. Yous could double cross us.”

Merry puffed her cheeks. “Come on Tunnel. If Phisa were the same sort of bandits as those Gravestones, I wouldn’t be here. I’m alive because of them!”

“Well ya’s? They might’ve kept you alive since you’re from here!”

She raised her hooves in the air. “They caught me stealing their guns, and they were willing to let me go! All this before they learned I was from Buckborn!”

Tunnel winced a bit. “Okay, yeah, but she coulda saved yous cause-”

“Tunnel, there’s easier traps to be set on us!”

Tunnel appeared to struggle coming up with a response to that.

Vandal cleared his throat before interjecting. “Look, we're already out here, and Phish is the kind of bandit to keep her word. So why hesitate, especially if those guns help you and your friends leave this dump?”

Tunnel rubbed his temple and grumbled. “Alright, alright already! Yous had me at hurting the ‘Stones. But even still, what makes you chumps think that yous could actually raid this place? Savage will be back anytime today so-”

“Oh, you mean the loud pony in that really fancy armor?” Minty began asking. “He’s buried.”

Tunnel blinked. “Um… what?”

Minty grinned. “Yup! Buried under a mountain of rocks! By me!”

“She means it too,” Vandel said, a look of mild horror creeping unto his face, “an entire goddess damned mountain…”

Tunnel shook his head. “No… That’s bullshit, all of it. The mountain of rocks part, and the taking down Savage part. All of it!”

“I mean sure we did,” Vandal said before bringing up his battle rifle. “How else would we have gotten some loot from the caravan he was supposed to guard?”

Finding I could use this to my advantage, I took out my SMG and said, “Really, you didn’t think we’d come to do this raid without getting rid of Savage first?”

Merry’s eyes widened, and she muttered, “So they did come from here…”

Tunnel paused for a moment. “So wait a sec… You three lured Savage out jus’ so yous could get this raid done?”

“Well-” Minty began, as if to begin correcting his assumption, but Vandal reached out his talon and muffled anything else she was about to say.

I said, “Yes.”

Tunnel bit his lip. “There ain’t no way we can do’s this without a fight. But if yous could handle Savage…”

He shook his head, turned to me and said, “Nothings gonna change between us, but for Merry and the other’s sake, as well as giving those Gravestones a good kick in the nuts, I’m game. But yous better not be thinking of backstabbing us.”

A smile formed on my muzzle. “You have my word. Now, where do they store guns?”

“Basement floor, inside the gun safe room,” Tunnel said. “Security keep their eye on the door though. But since you jerks are good with fights, yous in luck, the guards downstairs are lax most of the time.”

Even if that was the case, it’d still be tricky. The risk of making noise was great, but if I and the others played our cards right, we could wipe out all the basement guards before they managed to alert the rest. That would require me having my gang with me…

Which is exactly why I began to worry upon noticing Minty, her armor set aside, trying to fit herself into the chute with no success.

“No good,” Minty whined as she came out. She looked back at the chute and began saying, “Maybe if I-”

“No!” I said, already guessing that I wouldn’t like what she had in store. Brief panic chilled my blood, but a quick glance at the rooftop deck made me wonder.

“How many snipers will there be if we reach the rooftop?” I asked Tunnel.

Tunnel tilted his head. “Two of em. Shifts should’ve changed by now. Why yous asking?”

Vandal’s eyes widened, already anticipating what I had in store.

I gave a firm look at the catbird. “Stay behind and watch Minty. Once the snipers are dealt with, I’ll signal for you to hoist Minty up to the rooftop.”

“And her armor again?” Vandal groaned.

“Nothing you can’t handle,” I said, honestly teasing him a bit. “Once that’s done, we’ll head to the basement, deal with security as quietly as possible, take what we can, exit through the roof, give what we owe to Merry, and blow this joint.”

“And what if our assault on the basement makes noise?” Vandal asked.

“We’ll make a stand in a gun safe.” I replied.

“Yeah, kay, tha’s enough planning!” Tunnel declared as he began to go through the chute. “My shift ain’t starting til three in the afternoon, but I ain’t got all the time in the world!”

“Hey! Don’t forget me!” Merry said as she was about to join her friend. Before I could say anything she turned to me and gestured at her laser pistol.

“Go ahead.” I said. Merry then proceed into the chute.

I gave Vandal one stern look before saying, “Make absolutely sure Minty doesn’t do anything stupid.”

“Whaaat?” Minty pfft as she waved a hoof. “You don’t have to worry about that!”

Vandal rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, I’ll keep a close eye on her.”

“Good.” I said, before crawling into the chute.

The loud whirs and buzzing of machinery helped hide our hoofsteps while traversing the first floor. We’d stick to the hallways that Tunnel assured me most Gravestones on their hours wouldn’t trot through. That didn’t stop that one bandit who had trotted down our hall to reach the bathroom.

Merry’s laser pistol made short work of them. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to seeing anypony just, wilt into ash like that… But at least there wasn’t a body left to hide. We still had to act quick before his absence was noticed.

We had one more hallway to cross before reaching the stairs that would lead us to the rooftop… but we hit a snag.

Just by the entrance to the room where workers made stocks, a gray earth pony Gravestone was dragging a yelping unicorn against the hall.

We kept ourselves hidden by crouching just on the corner between the hallways. My fetlock muscles tensed having to wait this out, though judging by how hard Tunnel was grinding his teeth and how worried Merry looked, I think they were more anxious about this than I was. I gestured at them to keep quiet.

“Saw ya slacking off!” The Gravestone yelled as he pressed the unicorn against the wall with enough pressure to cause the unicorn to breathe hard.

“I-I just woke up! Working as hard as I can!” The unicorn struggled to say.

“Well yeah? Tough shit!” The Gravestone grinned as he readied his forehoof to buck the unicorn’s face. “Maybe this will-”

“Bucket…” a voice echoed across the hall, it was shrill, sharp, and precise.

Bucket froze instantly, like a foal with his hoof caught in the ration box. My eyes followed along with his to the source of that voice.

I instantly understood why Bucket was sweating. He was being approached by a stern, lean unicorn, wearing an immaculately maintained blue blazer vest, necktie, and dull horn rimmed glasses.

“Pencil Pusher…” I hissed under my breath.

I should have known Tomb had sent someone to hold Savage Strike’s leash. Pencil was a special kind of crazy, one of those ponies who idolized prewar society, and tried to behave as if civilization was still a thing.

I respected him for how well he kept himself organized, but his fussiness over “maintaining procedure” could get grating real quick. He didn’t look like a bandit, he didn’t act like anyone would expect of a bandit. But…

Bucket gave a nervous smile at his boss. “O-oh, boss I was only-”

Pencil’s telekinesis unholstered his revolver in the blink of an eye. Bucket had no time to react before the weapon fired!

Bucket’s cheek was grazed, the bullet leaving a smoking hole in the wall.

Yeah, cleancut on the outside… but at the end of the day Pencil was a goddess damned maniac.

“Honestly, Bucket, we went over this in orientation just yesterday. This is not how one maintains a productive work environment.” Pencil’s tone was as sharp and cool as an icicle driven into a pony’s eye socket.

Bucket was shivering. He knew as well as I did that if Pencil had meant to hit him with that shot, he’d already be dead.

“This will have to impact your quarterly performance review I’m afraid,” Pencil said, never blinking or breaking eye contact as his revolver slid smoothly back into its holster. “How precisely is our employee going to work harder if he should become physically handicaped?”

“U-uh…” Bucket stammered.

With a sharp slight nod of his head, Pencil made it clear he wished Bucket to step aside and observe. Bucket understood, and obeyed hurriedly.

Bucket slumped with relief as Pencil’s unhinged stare snapped off of him and unto the native Buckborn worker, “Your name is, Tumble? Yes?”.

“Y-yes.” Tumble replied, uncomfortable under Pencil’s laser intense scrutiny.

“I can sympathize with the fact that you’ve had to come in to work while drowsy. I understand that even the best planned sleep schedule can be disrupted, but we have daily quotas to meet, Tumble…”

Pencil paused for a moment, and licked his thin lips before continuing, “Tumble, you have children in town, don’t you? A son if I’m not mistaken?”

“No! I mean! A daughter, sir. I, I have a daughter…” Tumble said, staring up at Pencil like a mouse mesmerized by the horror of a looming snake.

Pencil smiled. It was grotesque.

“You wouldn’t want anything to happen to her would you? We Gravestones are here, to protect you, and your daughter, but, we, cannot, do that, if we, cannot, meet, quota! Tumble, do you need a demonstration of the sorts of things that could happen to your daughter if we weren’t here to protect her?

“Do I have to send Bucket here over to your home, to demonstrate the sorts of things that could happen to your daughter if we had to stop protecting her?”

Tears were flowing down Tumble’s muzzle, “M-may I please return to my s-station sir… I-I’m behind on today’s quota.”

“Nothing would please me more, Tumble.”

Once Tumble made his way toward the workroom, Pencil returned his focus to Bucket,”Do you see how basic management skills can raise worker efficiency without damaging them physically?”

“Y-yeah? I, uh, yeah I guess.” muttered Bucket, increasingly uncomfortable with Pencils unwavering glare.

“Be sure you do. If I catch you trying to damage manufacturing equipment again, I’ll reassign you to working directly under Savage Strike.”

“Yessir!” Bucket said, shivering in terror at the thought.

“Then get back on the line…”

Bucket wasted no time rushing back to the workroom. Pencil steamed for a moment, before glancing at my direction. I retreated further back against the corner, my body stiffening, hoping he hadn’t spotted me.

After a long moment of silence, I heard him trot into the distance down the hallway. I didn’t relax until I heard a door slam.

Merry and Tunnel sighed with relief.

I gathered my composure back and said, “Let’s get moving.”

With steady hoofsteps, we managed to reach the end of the stairs to the doorway leading to the rooftop. I quietly opened the door a bit before poking my head out to examine the area.

Two snipers appeared in my sight, both sitting down in folding chairs, their rifles beside them as they glanced down at the town. To my relief, a quick glance at my EFS revealed that there weren’t anyone else on the deck besides me, my companions, and the snipers.

Good, that meant they were screwed.

I wiggled my tail to double check whether my knife was still inside it, then turned to my companions and whispered, “Which one of you has a knife?”

Tunnel grinned as a small pocket knife was levitated to his side. The incredulous look I gave him made him sneer and say, “Might be small, but I’ve poked good holes in some bastard’s neck with this once.” Merry’s brief grimace seemed to support Tunnel’s claim.

“Well then, let’s make this quick.” I then turned to Merry. “Keep an eye on the stairs for us. Don’t come out unless something goes wrong on our end.”

Merry unholstered her laser pistol and gave me a salute with one of her wings.

I briefly glared at Tunnel and told him, “Don’t fuck this up.”

“Likewise,” Tunnel replied.

With that, I slowly opened the door, allowing me and Tunnel to tiptoe out. The kid went for the sniper on the right of the roof, while I crept towards the one on the left. My target had barely been doing her job; the unicorn mare had been gorging herself on a can of beans, her rifle beside her chair.

My tail flicked as I readied the hidden blade. I was about just a few inches away when she took her eyes off her meal to look out at the town. Her body stiffened when she saw me, and she looked like she was about to jump out of her seat and shout.

A swift delivery of my knife jammed into her neck and my forehoof covering her muzzle wouldn’t let her. She convulsed, struggling to escape, but her life faded away, and soon her blip on my EFS would disappear.

As I gently placed the corpse to the ground, I glimpsed the rest of the town and noticed how quiet it was in the streets below. A little while earlier it was starting to bustle, but now it was practically deserted of civilians. I could see a hoofful of Gravestones here and there who looked about as confused as I was.

A sharp cry turned my attention over to my right, where I saw Tunnel struggling to plunge his pocket knife that was held back by the unicorn stallion sniper’s rifle.

The muscles tensed as I dashed over to the scene, wanting to assist Tunnel. Tunnel, however, managed to slip his knife into the sniper’s neck… but not before the unicorn fired a round into the air.

Tunnel was swearing to himself as Merry came out from the door and flew over to assess the situation. “Are you alright?” The teenaged pegasus asked.

Tunnel swallowed. “Uh… Y-yeah! I’s alright just-”

“You’ve just alerted every Gravestone in the area!” I hissed. There was no time for me to chastise the kid any further and instead focused my mental energy figuring out how to work with this setback.

No doubt Pencil would call up a number of guards upstairs to check on the snipers, meaning that a fight up here would be inevitable. There wasn’t much cover to use or much space for me to gun and run.

I needed my gang.

I swiftly looked down where my other companions were waiting for me… and of fucking course they weren’t there!

I was furious, but managed to reign it in. Now was a bad time to panic. Maybe something happened to them, and they had no choice but to move out.

Tunnel and Merry took notice of my excitement and saw the absence of Minty and Vandal as well. Tunnel gave me an incensed glare and almost appeared he was about to accuse me of some set up.

I didn't have the patience for that. Things had to be kept on track. “I don’t know where they went. And the rest of Buckborn looks abandoned as well. Is something going on today that I’m not aware of?”

Merry blinked. “Not that I’m aware of,” She turned to Tunnel. “Was there some sort of meeting the town planned while-”

“I don’t knows!” Tunnel said, his eyes darting toward the town before quickly saying. “L-look, I messed up. I can go find your pals and get everything straight.”

Before I had the time to protest, Tunnel’s horn flashed, and he was nowhere to be seen… until finally spotting him on the ground, about the size of a mouse!

“I’ll make this quick!” A high pitched squeal came out of Tunnel. I could only stare in disbelief as the tiny Tunnel made his way to a drainage pipe, riding it down like a slide, before another flash came from below and Tunnel was normal sized. A quick wave at me and he was already out.

It was only after that I had realized I was too stupefied to point out that Merry could’ve flown down herself and looked for my gang for us, and that I needed Tunnel as a guide!

To say that I was internally screaming would be an understatement.

We didn't bother trying to hide the snipers bodies, there was blood everywhere from where Tunnel's knife had caught an artery and sprayed the unfortunate unicorn’s last bloody fuck-you all over the place. With the gunshot somepony would be up here well before we could clean that up.

I wanted to take their guns, good long-guns are rare and worth their weight in caps, but they're also unwieldy as hell, and as I was pretty sure I was about to have to fight in the next few heartbeats I didn't want them weighing me down. I tossed them off the side instead, into the back alley. Maybe we could grab them on the way back out… assuming we lived.

I had just given Merry some advice and a spare weapon before I situated myself beside the door, ready to blow away the first unlucky bastard who came out.

Merry had flown on top of the rooftop entrance, under strict instructions to hold her fire until more than one pony came out. She would be a hidden asset in our standoff. Still, even though she understood my orders well, she couldn’t stop fidgeting, causing her wings to occasionally give away her position behind the vent she was using as cover.

I sighed. “You’re going to give yourself away.” I told Merry, trying hard to keep my tone stern enough for her to take.

“This is my fault,” Merry muttered, her fidgeting stopping.

I rolled my eyes, “You can disasterize once we get out of this alive.”

“But if I never got caught stealing, never met you, neither you, your friends, or my friends would get killed. The Gravestones will figure out real quickly I was involved and-”

I grit my teeth. “You know, if you’re that worried for your friends, why don’t you fly off and warn them to leave this dump of a settlement?”

“And abandon somepony again!?” She said, her voice wavering.

“Again?” I asked, one of my eyebrows raised.

That got Merry to go still for a second. She rubbed the back of her head. “Yeah… When the cloud cover was gone, and after learning about Friendship City and the other towns hit… My pops served, and instead of waiting to see if he was a cold blooded monster… I just ran away.”

“And you feel guilty over that?” I said.

“... Yeah. What they did was wrong… but there were some good ponies who didn’t know anything. Mom raised me with care… and I ran away from her. Don’t know how she’s doing out in the Wastes.”

A sense of deja vu struck me. I was suddenly reminded of the day when Downburst died protecting me, my grief, Dice Roll finding me, and…

“I can handle myself,” I said, my tone surprisingly gentle. “As can my gang, wherever they are.”

Merry kept breathing hard, but her voice wasn’t filled with panic when she spoke. “No, I’m staying.”

There wasn’t any more time for me to argue. My attention drifted to my EFS, and I saw a large number of blips making their way to our location.

“They’re here!” I told Merry, who wasted no time dipping her head back behind the cover, now fully hidden.

I tore my eyes away from her and steeled my nerves. The door burst open, and I didn't even get a good look at the first pony's face before my trusty sawed-off turned it into pink mist.

Without missing a beat, I strafed in to unload the other barrel into the one behind them, before bucking the heavy roof access door closed.

After tumbling back into cover, I double checked the EFS. The way the dots were scattering backward made me grin. They must be tumbling down the stairs. They were panicked, I was in control.

There were at least five more idiots on that staircase. That was fine, nothing I couldn’t fix.

The door was damaged with my kick, enough that there were some warped sections I could shout into. After reloading my sawed-off I yelled, “Come on up, there’s a half dozen of us up here! If you think you can take us all, bring it on! But you’re all going to end up dead on the concrete like your friends!”


Good. I must've had them sweating.

Then I saw a single blip come up the stairs, hoofsteps being heard as it came right next to the door.

My blood froze at the sound of Pencils voice, "This is a distraction. There must be a larger force converging elsewhere. You lot, search the lower floors. I'll take care of this myself…”

Half of the other blips on my EFS showed guards heading downstairs… but there were three that remained.

“Phisa, that is you, isn’t it? I must admit, this is a bold move on your part, but it does present us both with some unique opportunities. Now, if you’d be so kind as to holster your weapon, I would like to parley.”

Pencil wasn’t the type to tell overt lies, but I knew he was always fond of lies by omission. I doubted he knew I had a pipbuck now, so the three goons he kept with him could either be for an ambush, or just insurance in case I’m not willing to hear him out…

Merry had poked her head out again, and I mouthed the words ‘shoot when I say go’ to her. She nodded, and dipped back down while I holstered my sawed-off.

After hiding my pipbuck behind my jacket’s sleeve I said, “Come on out.”

The door screeched open. After a pause, Pencil Pusher came cautiously through. I trotted back from the doorframe, giving him some breathing room. It was a tough choice, my first instinct was to tackle him down and take him as a body shield against the goons inside.

His revolver was still holstered as he surveyed the rooftop, seeing the corpses of both the snipers and the poor bastards who had died earlier. He whistled, turned his eyes on me and said, “Well… they were obviously underperforming. It’s pleasing to see that you haven’t lost your edge. Further evidence that your early dismissal was, by all accounts, a suboptimal command decision.”

Okay, that threw me. Pencil never second guessed his superiors that openly, particularly when addressing someone he regarded as a hostile, or an outsider.

On the one hoof, giving Marry the word ‘go’ would solve a lot of problems right now, but on the other, something was going on here, and I HAD to know what.

I could always kill him after he’d spoken his piece.

“Suboptimal?” I said, almost laughing.

He smiled and clicked his tongue. “Does it really surprise you to learn your absence has been mourned? For my own part, you were always one of my favorites, even in spite of your degenerate origins.”

I should have shot him right there and then, but I clenched my teeth. I still wanted to know where this was all supposed to be going.

Pencil continued. “Punctual, goal oriented, frugal with the expenditure employee lives. All the traits of ideal command material. It was a mistake to discard you as a resource, but now that you’re here, it’s a mistake we can potentially rectify.”

I furrowed my eyebrows. “What are you suggesting?”

Of course I knew, but it was unbelievable. I needed to see if he was really willing to say it explicitly.

Pencil frowned. “While Tomb should be respected for his outstanding work founding the organization, he is proving to be an increasingly inefficient manager of ongoing operations. I want you to take his place.”

I had to blink twice before saying, “Excuse me?”

“Well, yes, it does go without saying you’ll be excused of all prior accusations of malfeasance, including these most recent incidents of destroying company property,” he said, indicating the dead bodies.

He continued, “Tomb’s paranoid purges are inducing the very sort of disloyalty he’s constantly squandering pony-resources trying to weed out. Cinder, meanwhile, has badly mismanaged our company’s acquisition of the Hayton settlement. Not only are The Followers much stronger than prior intelligence indicated, but our resources that would otherwise be consolidated toward crushing them have been scattered, ironically, in an effort to hunt down and destroy you. Business has been… in sharp decline, since your dismissal.

“Wait, Cinder?” I was baffled, “She’s supposed to be in Riverside. And what about Rave?”

Pencil looked like thinking about it was giving him an ulcer. “Due to Rave’s failure to destroy you, she has been on a remote assignment, effective exile, until she returns with your head.”

Rave was fucked then. I was surprised to be rather pleased about hearing this. I wasn’t going to express that here though. “And Cinder?” I asked.

Pencil shakily adjusted his glasses. “Yes… Her reward for having informed us of your survival was promotion to enforcer… despite having also failed to have you destroyed when you were in her grasp!”

He caught himself shouting, and after adjusting his tie continued. “I have to say I have found her command style… spectacular, in that it has transformed our organization into a spectacle. And I for one find it hard to watch.”

“What’s going on with Hayton?” I asked, the name of the town sounding familiar. Those caravaners I had traveled with for a while had said they were heading there.

Pencil grit his teeth, his eyes lost focus as he stared into the distance and said, “… Chaos!”

He remained that way for a long uncomfortable minute before composing himself.

“First, the envoy Cinder had sent to negotiate terms and agreements were scared off… By alicorns! Three to be precise who apparently came from the Followers! But nothing an organized party and thoughtful planning couldn’t exterminate… if only Cinder could coordinate our supposedly disciplined forces better than a hodge podge rabble of refugees and mongrels can apparently command themselves!”

He grinned. “But that’s alright, this is convenient for me. Or rather, convenient for us. I’m aware you seek vengeance against your former employer, and I, and a few other fellow Gravestones, would love nothing more than to have productive leadership return. So I intend to help you.”

This was too good to be true, but I also had a hard time seeing how it could be a trap. Pencil wouldn’t bother with such a weird runaround, he was always one to go straight for the kill.

I had wanted to get back at Tomb, and take command over whatever Gravestone I could, didn’t I?

“What about my gang? And what if I say no?” I said.

Pencil gave a puzzled look. “You can have whatever talent you’ve scouted in the meantime apply for Gravestone membership through the usual channels, of course. But… if you say NO?!”

His eyes lost focus again for a moment and he waved a forehoof in the air. He collected himself. “Very well, if you need more personal incentive, perhaps I can offer some complimentary intel. Before his termination, did Lead Rain ever tell you about his business partnership with Tomb in the early days?”

My raised eyebrow gave him the answer.

“Hmm, seems I’m the only one he told.”

“Told you what?” I spat out.

“That he discovered something about Tomb’s magic.”

My ears rose in alarm. Tomb was incredibly secretive about his magic. He kept its true nature from the entire gang, even from me.

Pencil grinned at my reaction, it was awful to see. “Why yes. Lead had told me when we were having a private lunch together. He was inebriated at the time and told me an interesting story. During a meeting between him and our employer, Tomb had begun to scold Lead for his inefficiency. Nothing unusual, but he was much more excited than usual. Tomb’s horn glowed and…”

Pencil paused, and after I awkwardly waited for him to finish, he said, “The rest I will only reveal if you accept my proposal.”

If he was bluffing only to sell me his pitch, he’d have a shotgun round in his skull. But then again, as a rule he never liked to lie, only omit.

Pencil interrupted my thoughts. “To answer one of your earlier questions: Refusing my offer will mean, unfortunately, I’ll have to exterminate you, and bide my time until a more suitable replacement can be found.”

He gave a wide toothy grin. “But there’s really no good justification for you to say no. Not at the prospect of us reorganizing the Gravestones together: as queen and accountant!”

He was right, there was no good reason I should turn this offer down. Pencil was in charge of the guns the Gravestones had, meaning he had control over their resources. With that on my side, as well as whatever secret Tomb had that Pencil was aware of, this was a deal I couldn’t say no to.

My eyes looked up at the vent Merry was hiding at. I could see her poking her head out, her ears lowered, eyes questioning.

“You know,” I began saying. “You really do know how to make a good sales pitch. I like that… Too bad you made the mistake of calling the mare you’re interested in a degenerate. Rather unprofessional of you.”

Pencil’s face went cold and blank.

“Kill her!” he shouted.

“Go!” I shouted.

Pencil, as always, was faster on the draw, but recoiled and retreated to cover before he could blow my brains out, as the magical shimmer of Merry’s laser cut the air in front of him. .

Meanwhile, when the door flew open, I had my SATS up just in time to blow the head of one of the guards rushing in. I tumbled into cover before the remaining two could lay into me with their weapons.

“Execute the zebra. I’ll clip the juvenile!” Pencil shouted as he began to aim his revolver into the sky. Pencil was extremely frugal with everything, including his bullets. If he couldn’t kill at close range with a single suprise quickdraw, he’d take his time aiming.

Merry was a moving target, which gave her a little more time than most, but when Pencil was ready to fire, he was going to hit. I had to do something, and do it fast.

He had to be taken care of, but both guards that now faced me, one large earth pony mare with a fire axe gripped in her mouth, and a unicorn mare with a shotgun levitated to her side were in my way.

The earth pony guard charged at me, her axe swinging towards my face. I sidestepped in time to the guard’s left, and unleashed a shotgun shell at her left shoulder. The guard flinched, but didn’t go down before swinging her axe again. The axe smashed against my sawed-off, knocking it out from my mouth and causing it to tumble down the building.

I growled, and seeing the unicorn taking aim at me, I quickly slid behind the still wincing earth pony, kicking her forward right in front of the unicorn’s line of fire.

The earth pony’s side was blasted into bloody chunks, leaving the unicorn distraught long enough for me to take out my SMG, kicking on SATS, and fill her with enough holes to keep her down.

A shot rang from Pencil’s revolver. My heart raced upon seeing Merry drop onto the rooftop, blood pooling beneath her as she struggled to get up.

Before I even got the chance to shoot, Pencil had his revolver aimed at Merry. He snarled. “I am very disappointed in you, Phisa. Despite wanting revenge, you choose to turn into a weak, sentimental nobody. No doubt the consequence of surrounding yourself with pests. Why lower yourself to such a standard!? You could’ve been a perfect CEO for the greatest center of power since-”

He never finished that sentence. A bullet struck Pencil’s head from above. After a long second, his glasses slid off his face, cracking into the pool of blood and brains at his hooves. His body collapsed soon after.

I looked above and sighed with relief. Vandal was the one to have landed the shot with his battle rifle.

I was interrupted when looking back at Merry. Looked like he caught her in the wing, most of her injuries looked like a result of her crash landing, but nothing that couldn’t be healed with treatment. I rushed over, taking out bandages from my bag, my breathing being more rapid than I thought it should.

“Are you alright?” I said.

“Y-yeah, I’ll be fine.” Merry forced a grin.

“Shit, glad I made it in time,” I heard Vandal say as he flew down over to my side.

“Where were you, and where’s Minty?” I asked.

“Uh,” Vandal said nervously. In his pause, I took notice of my EFS, and counted the new blips behind me.

Dozens of blips, some red, but more white. More and more white blips flooded the mini-map.

Down below I could hear shouting and gunfire fill the air.

“So… I think Minty might have a talent for public speaking…” Vandal said, smiling sheepishly.

Minty had been filling me in on what had happened during her disappearance.

As she was waiting for me, she got bored, wandered over to talk to somepony, then to somepony else, and again…

Before long she’d wandered away from the waiting area, and refused to listen to Vandel’s protests otherwise. She was just so offended by everypony’s living conditions in their own town.

One thing led to another, she started shouting in the middle of the town square, about me, mostly, and how The Crossbones were here, and how they didn’t have to stand for this kind of treatment by the Gravestones anymore.

Seems the ponies of Buckborn assumed from the way Minty talked about us that I’d brought an entire liberating army with me, and that was all the motivation they needed to go berserk on their oppressors. Within minutes their mayor had been tied up to a lamp post, the factory was being stripped bare by the settlers, and most of the Gravestones had either surrendered, fled, or got killed in the process.

Apparently converging riots and disconnected groups who were hoarding weapons for this sort of thing all mistook each other for my invading army coming to support them.

Needless to say, once the townsponies figured out they only had themselves to blame for driving the Gravestones out of here, they had no intention of staying in Buckborn for too much longer. Not with the inevitable retaliation of a larger Gravestone force as waiting for them on the horizon.

Everypony was still thankful enough to give some of what the factory had to offer (despite the suspicious glares they gave me, and frustration that I hadn’t really brought an entire army with me): A variety of different shotgun and SMG ammo, a silencer for my SMG , the two sniper rifles I had tossed into the back alley of the factory, and some various other assorted goodies. Most importantly, Merry and her friends were now armed to make a safe travel.

The best part, this whole incident is definitely going to give me enough of a PR boost to satisfy those Rockfalls.

Minty had continued talking to me about the speech she gave to Buckborn after I had been checked up by Buckborn’s doctor. We were making our way toward the Timberwolf, where Vandal had extended a ‘bench’ out from the Timberwolf to inspect my sawed-off.

We had fortunately found it, but it had been damaged to the point that I couldn’t wield it. Vandal seemed to have picked up my surprising distress, and offered to fix it up with some parts we got from the factory’s shotguns.

“Gonna take a while,” Vandal huffed. “Might be better to fix her up after we arrive at Leathersworth.”

Right, Leathersworth. I had almost forgotten about that.

“You’re right, we’ve been delaying our visit there for too long,” I said.

Minty beamed up. “Yay! Can’t wait to see Sunny and Dovy about how much fun we all had!”

“Hey!” Merry shouted from behind us, waving. Tunnel was behind her as she flew toward us, albeit weakly. Bandages and a healing potion had helped Merry out, but she certainly wasn’t in the best condition to fly for too long.

“Hey Merry!” Minty said with a bright smile, then turned to Tunnel. “And hey Tunny!”

“It’s Tunnel Snake!” Tunnel protested, his chest raising high as he came to greet us. “Just thought I’d thank yous for helping us all out.”

“Yeah!” Merry said as she rushed over in front of me. “You were a badass back there against Pencil!”

A frown formed on my face. Pencil had said that he had vital information about Tomb’s magic, but I never did get the chance to get him to spill it out before Vandal had killed him. Though, in all fairness, I don’t think Pencil would’ve been willing to disclose it, especially if it meant screwing me over for not joining him.

“Shouldn’t you be gathering your friends and head out?” I asked Merry.

“Well,” Tunnel answered first. “We would be heading out over to Hayton, but Merry-”

“Hayton?” I interrupted, an eyebrow raising. “They’ve been giving the Gravestones trouble, haven’t they?”

“Yeah!” Merry said, grinning. “But I thought really hard on this-”

“Yous thought it for a few seconds!” Tunnel interjected.

Merry rolled her eyes. “I thought about it, and I want to join you guys!”

Vandal and I blinked as Minty excitedly jumped. “Ooooo, can we have her tag along Phishy? Really really please?” Minty asked.

“And endanger a kid?” Vandal scoffed.

“I’m no kid!” Merry protested.

“Under eighteen is what I consider a kid,” Vandal replied.

The two went back and forth for awhile as I began to recall something I once overheard Down say to Sundance years ago.

“Stop worrying squirt, Phish will be a kickass bandit someday! But she’s gonna need more time to get used to it compared to you.”

Vandal was right, I didn’t want to endanger Merry. No matter how more experienced she was at her age than me, Merry was too rough. But on the other… It didn’t feel right to dismiss her. If I were to be honest, I sorta wanted to help her adjust better to Wasteland life.

Plus… I’d be killing two birds with one stone.

“I have a job for you.” I told Merry, causing everyone to stop speaking. “I want you, Tunnel, and the rest of your friends to head to Hayton. They want the Gravestones gone, and so do I. Stay there and send a message that I’m interested in offering them a deal. As a Crossbone.”

“Hey, I didn’t agree to join your stupid gang!” Tunnel protested.

Merry gave a salute and grinned. “You can count on me!”

“Awwww,” Minty whined. “I was hoping to play games with her.”

Vandal smiled and whispered to me. “Guess that’s our next destination?”

“After seeing Sundance in Leathersworth,” I whispered back.

“A name?” I asked Vandal as I sat at the table behind the driver’s room.

“Yeah, lotta ponies and griffs like me name their guns from where I’m from. Mostly to make them feel more special,” Vandal replied while driving. “Besides, you said it yourself that bitch Rave gave you that gun as a joke, so why not add more irony by naming it?”

Minty was busy bobbing her head to the music of Velvet Remedy filled the RV as I conversed with Vandal. I bit my lip. “I don’t know, that sounds rather tacky.”

“Hey, it wouldn’t be tacky if it wasn’t a trend.” Vandal smirked.

“I’ll think about it,” I said.

“If you also want, I could engrave that name-” Vandal never finished his sentence. He immediately hit the brake, causing me and Minty to nearly lose our balance.

“What’s wrong?” I shouted at Vandal.

“Uh… So there’s a pony on the road.” He said.

I groaned. “A dead pony?”


“The Timberwolf has a horn. Use it to make him realize he’s in our way.”

“Yeah that’s the thing; he's staring right at us as if he’s daring me to run him over.”

“What makes you think-”

“HA! KNEW YOU COWARDS WOULD CHICKEN OUT!” A loud and obnoxious voice came from outside.

Minty’s face paled. “Oh no.”

I gave a quizzed look at Minty. “What’s wrong?”

Minty gave a nervous smile. “Uhhh, I need to use the restroom really badly. Could you take care of whoever’s outside, peacefully, please?”

I never got the chance to say anything before Minty went into the restroom.

“Minty,” I grumbled to myself, then turned to Vandal. “He’s not getting out of our way, is he?”

“Nope,” Vandal said.

I sighed. “I’ll take care of it.”

I stepped out of the Timberwith with my SMG still in my holster. There I saw a large earth pony stallion with a white coat, and a mane that was a palette of blue, red, orange, green, and yellow.

There were a few other ponies beside him that weren’t on the road, all of whom were howlering with excitement (besides one wearing goggles on her forehead and a pained expression on her face). Trotting closer, my eyes widened at their armor.

It was exactly like Minty’s.

“THAT LOSER WASN’T LYING. A ZEBRA DOES LIVE IN THAT MACHINE!” The large earth pony in the road shouted with a shit eating grin.

I forced a cough before replying to them. “Excuse me, who are you, and what do you want?”

The large earth pony, who, now that I could see him closer, stood out more for his armor being a stripped down version of Minty’s, pounded his chest and yelled. “I’M JAWBREAKER. AND YOU’RE GOING TO LIFT MINTY’S CURSE!”

Chapter 13: Rock It For Me

View Online

I stood there nonplussed, surprisingly having maintained my composure upon Minty’s elder brother announcing himself to me.

This was inevitable. Sooner or later I was going to have a run in with Minty’s tribe. I had been contemplating on the best manner on how to approach them, but now there was no time for planning. Good improvisation was needed now.

Minty’s behavior now made sense to me: Her tribe's protectiveness of her was why she was even out in the Pinewood. The moment they found her would be the moment they’d force her back home. And I knew she wouldn’t want that, or else why hide in the Timberwolf’s restroom? She is my subordinate, and it’s my responsibility to assit her.

First… I needed to figure what the fuck Jawbreaker meant by ‘lift Minty’s curse.’

“Curse?” I said with a raised eyebrow, hoping the question would bait Jawbreaker into elaboration.

“THAT’S RIGHT, SHE’S CURSED!” Jawbreaker shouted, then gestured over to one of the other tribals, a honey-yellow mare with a wheelbarrow. “HONEY, BRING HER OVER!”

Honey began gingerly making her way to the front of the crowd, the wheelbarrow squeaking along the way. The other tribals parted before her, looking at the wheelbarrow’s contents with expressions of mournful reverence, as if regarding the dead body of a loved one (except for the mare with goggles around her neck, whose eyes rolled).

It had a pillow in it. Jawbreaker dramatically pointed at it.


… Oh. That was what he meant…

Minty was right. Her brother is an idiot.

As were the rest of her tribe, since all the Sweetmeats present (minus the goggle mare, who stood in silence as her eyes were glued to me) were also under the belief that Minty had been cursed.

I just stood there, taking deep, careful breaths. My body relaxed, and I looked Jawbreaker straight in the eyes to say. “Why do you think your sister is this pillow?”


Minty had to get credit for having the foresight to stuff her sleeping bag with a pillow, making it look like she was still asleep in her tent, thus buying her escape a little more time. But to think the deception worked so well they assumed she’d never left at all…

Jawbreaker searched through his saddlebag, producing an issue of ‘Amazing Tales from Amazing Ponies’.

It was the same issue Vandal had.

He flipped through the pages until an illustration of a maniacal zebra wearing a skull as a mask, cackling in glee. He looked at me with a serious expression, and for the first time spoke softly. “This is an ancient text from the world before! It’s written here that zebras have the power to curse ponies! So, since Minty is a pillow now, that must mean she’s been cursed. And if zebras can curse ponies, that must mean they can also lift them! We’ve spent the last two moons searching for a zebra that would aid us.”

You. Have. To. Be. Kidding. Me.

He grinned and made a heavy stomp on the ground. His normal voice returned. “AND NOW WE’VE FOUND YOU! YOU CAN CORRECT THIS WRONG FOR YOUR KIND! THE SWEETMEAT TRIBE’S FUTURE DEPENDS ON YOU!”

Behind him, his three friends were glaring daggers at me. Their weapons consisted of a power hoof, a machete, and… a stop sign,of all things, which they seemed ready to use. The goggled mare shook nervously.

My EFS hadn’t shown them to be hostile just yet, their blips were still white, but there was no doubt that they’d turn red if I made the wrong move.

All of this, from Minty’s panic, to Jawbreaker’s utterly brilliant deduction skill, to the chance that violence could brew between my gang and Minty’s tribe… All of it had made my brain boil. This bullshit was making me lose my composure, with the temptation to snach that ridiculous magazine from Jawbreaker, tear it to pieces and tell him how stupid he was.

If these were just random bastards seeking to mug me, a combination of SATS and my SMG would get me out of this. But they weren’t. They were Minty’s family. A fight that could result in casualties. Casualties that I knew Minty would be heartbroken over. Minty would never travel with me again if that happened.

So giving into my id was not an option. This had to be handled peacefully. Which honestly wouldn’t be hard: I had Minty with me, after all. I could just play along with this whole zebra curse bullshit, take the pillow with me in the Timberwolf, and then have Minty step out, manufacture made up bullshit on why she’d need to avoid going home, and the potential for bloodshed would null.

But that plan had a bump: Minty obviously was too scared to face her tribe, else why hide herself? I would need to convince Minty to come out, and that would take time. Time that these tribals might not have the patience for.

I had to give them a reason to be patient. As well as a reason to not harm me.

I smiled at Jawbreaker. “Well… That’s noble of you, wanting to save your sister. You were lucky to find me, since I’m the only zebra living around here.” There was that old coot they could’ve ran into, and for obvious reasons I wasn’t going to bring him up.

I continued. “I’m curious. What would happen if I said no?”

Jawbreaker snorted. “THEN WE’D… UH… UH…” He paused, struggling to figure out what to say.

“Then we’ll crush the zebra’s bones and use‘em for a potion to fix Minty!” One of the tribals, Honey, yelled in the background.

Jawbreaker smiled and nodded. “YEAH, WHAT SHE SAID, WE’LL CRUSH YOUR BONES AND-”

“So you’re an alchemist?” I interrupted him.

That actually caused the large earth pony to flinch, taking a step back as a forehoof nervously rubbing his stitched up right cheek.

“AL-AL-ALCHEWHAT?” He stuttered, his confused stare being shared by the rest of his tribemates, minus the goggled mare. She just rolled her eyes.

I averted my eyes from his and relaxed my posture, radiating the conviction that there was nothing to fear. “So you don’t know alchemy. Then if you killed me, and crushed my bones, your attempts at brewing a potion would fail.”

I pointed to the pillow. I added, “Besides, even if you did know what to do, that doesn’t stop the fact that pillows. Don’t. Have. Mouths.”

That did it. All the valiance and bravado Jawbreaker had flushed away from his face. He turned back to his three friends, hoping for some word of encouragement, but they were just as lost as he was.

He and the rest of these Sweetmeats were now at my mercy. It was time for the next stage of my plan.

“Well,” I said. “You’re lucky that I have a kind heart. Your sister’s curse can indeed be lifted. But you will have to listen to my instructions, and you will also owe me a favor.”

Jawbreaker moaned in confusion, clearly still lost at words. “I… Give me some time to think.” He scrunched his face and began to hum.

One of the other tribals, a berry-colored stallion, narrowed his eyes on me. “What would an evil enchantress like you want!?”

“Yeah…” Honey gave me a side glance. “Maybe it was you who cursed Minty into being a pillow! So you can turn us into pillows as well!”

“Hahah!” a mocha-maned stallion exclaimed. “Jawbreaker, if you beat her up maybe the stripe’s curse will wear off!”

Jawbreaker had paid no attention to what his friends had said. He was still humming.

“Okay, stop it, all of you!” The goggled mare finally yelled. Her tribemates narrowed their eyes at her and were about to protest before the tired mare glared at them. “I’m handling this now.”

They stepped aside, allowing the goggled mare to trot to me. We were face to face now. “I am Sweet Tart. I will speak on behalf of the tribe.”

Sweet Tart, that was a name Minty had dropped plenty of times before.

“You don’t feel pain?” I remembered asking Minty some time after leaving Riverside.

“Nope. None of us. Um, except for Sweet Tart, but she’s weird in lots of ways.”

As well as the time when we dragged the Timberwolf together.

“No! Papa can be really rough, but he knew that Mama would’ve wanted him to live. He and his daughter, Sweet Tart, are members of our tribe now,”

So this was Sweet Tart? She was one of the few ponies in the Sweetmeats to come from outside the tribe. And if Minty’s brother and her friends were an accurate first impression of the tribe…

Now I knew what Minty had meant by ‘weird in lots of ways’: Sweet Tart was weird for being the only normal pony in this tribe.

Sweet Tart was a turquoise mare, an earth pony like all the others, with her signature goggles (the left lens cracked) dangling around her neck. Her white mane with streaks of red was rumpled, and she had bags underneath her eyes. A Ministry of Peace First Aid box was attached to her saddle. Her body would occasionally tip left and right like a metronome, as if ready to collapse at any moment. But she still stood tall.

She was sleep deprived, no doubt from having to tag along on Jawbreaker and his pals' game of needle in the haystack of looking for me. The huge breath she let out once in a while gave me the impression she was relieved.

I took a guess that she didn’t buy the dumb ‘Minty is a pillow’ bullshit, and she seemed to have known that Minty was with me. But that was a guess. If I was right… Perhaps she could help me convince Minty to come out.

“Sweet Tart,” I said, taking a step forward. “You’re willing to follow my instructions, as well as owe me a favor?”

She sighed. “Well, I’m not sure if I can promise you a favor, but I’ll follow your instructions. You’ve got a deal.”

“Sweet Tart!” Honey yelled. “You can’t make decisions for us! Especially Jawbreaker!”

Sweet Tart looked at Jawbreaker (still humming, and at a louder volume), then rolled her eyes. “He’s in the ‘thinking dimension’ right now, he won’t be out for awhile.” She turned to me. “Don’t ask. So how are you going to help Minty? How long will it take?”

“Half an hour. The ritual takes a while to prepare.” I point to the Timberwolf. “I’ll need to do it inside my motorwagon. With you, the pillow, and nopony else, present with me.”

“You can’t go with her!” The mocha-maned stallion with the stop sign rushed over to Sweet’s side. “What if she turns you into a pillow!”

Sweet Tart gave a deadpan expression. “You don’t say Truffle? Wanna bet on it?”

Truffle’s eyes widened. “N-no!”

Sweet gave a sly grin to Truffle. “Oh? Afraid of losing?”

Truffle bit his lip.

Sweet continued. “Five snack cakes for you if the zebra turns me into a pillow. Five for me if I don’t. If I don’t go with her, that means I have a hundred percent chance of winning. Don’t you want to win?”

Truffle began to wheeze, and then said, “Alright, I have no more complaints.”

I gave Sweet a bewildered stare.

She turned to the other Sweetmeats, taking the pillow from the wheelbarrow. “Honey Crisp. Berry Good. And Truffles. All of you are going to wait outside and not interfere until we come out. Is that clear?”

They all nodded.

I turned to Jawbreaker, who hadn’t stopped humming. “What about him?”

Sweet shrugged. “I think we have enough time before he’s done. Come on, let’s get going.”

We began to make our way to the Timberwolf. I leaned beside her and whispered in her ear. “How do you know Minty is with me?”

Sweet whispered back. “The gun runners we ran into said you and a mare who had armor just like ours attacked them. They also said that motorwagon was present. That’s how.”

My hunch was right, she knew what really happened. “And that didn’t convince your tribe that Minty wasn’t cursed?”

Sweet groaned. “Of course not. It’s just Jaw and his pals who think Minty is cursed, mind. The rest of the tribe aren’t even aware Minty left: they think she’s been cooped up in her tent having a ‘phase’, and doesn’t want anypony to see her.”

“Having a phase? How-”

“Friend. She’s been inside Minty’s tent the entire time. Good with vocal impressions. Our tribe often forgets she even exists. When she’s done, and they ask where she’s been, I’ll just say ‘What? You all forgot about Candy Apple again?! She’s been here out in the open all this time. You didn’t notice her?’ Then they’ll apologize and once Minty returns, nopony will ever suspect anything.”

I raised an eyebrow at her. “Do you gaslight your tribe this often?”

Sweet inhaled. “Yeah, I do. No more questions, I need to see Minty.”

“And we need to work out a plan.”

Sweet Tart narrowed her eyes at me.

I returned a much sharper glare toward her. “Minty wants to keep traveling with me, and I am going to be at her side no matter what. So if your goal is to make her return home, you’d best spit it out now.”

She blinked, and looked away. Biting her lip, she whispered. “I just want to know if she’s safe.”


We quickly made our way inside the Timberwolf. Vandal was face to face with the bathroom door and was saying something, but I never caught what it was when our entrance made him turn toward us. “Phisa! Everything under control? Mints hasn’t- Who’s that?” He pointed to Sweet Tart.

“A very tired pony,” Sweet Tart said as she uncomfortably squeezed herself through the Timberwolf, tossed the pillow onto the table, and made her way to the bathroom’s entrance.

The catbird turned to me, hoping I’d answer his inquiry. I obliged. “She can help us.”

Sweet knocked on the door. There was no response from inside. She growled and exhaled through her nose. “Minty, I know you’re in there. Please, come out now.”

The bathroom door opened, with Minty’s jittery head poking out. She swallowed, and turned away from Sweet. “Hey Sweety… I…”

Sweet Tart opened the door further, and embraced Minty in a hug. She sniffled. “Minty, you idiot. I was so worried.”

Minty flinched, but returned the weeping Sweet Tart’s hug.

“-and so after that, we met Merry! She told us that she was digging for treasure, so we helped her until we learned she was actually a pegasus from the sky! And then it turned out the treasure was a lie and and was actually-”

Minty had been giving her recap of her entire adventure thus far to Sweet Tart, who had calmed down as she listened intently to her tribemate.

In the meantime, I had been speaking with Vandal over our situation.

“You really think they’d be open for that?” Vandal asked, as sweat dripped off his feathered face. The thought of going against a whole tribe of ponies like Minty had made him a nervous wreck. He was shaking too much to place a cigarette in his beak.

“Maybe. Minty told us that her father can be rough, but he was lenient enough to allow Sweet and her father to join their tribe. If we could provide something his tribe needed, he might be open to an alliance of sorts.”

“Of sorts?”

“At least, to the point that he allows Minty to continue aiding us.”

I turned back to Minty.

“-And now we’re about to head to Leathersworth to meet Sunny and Dovy! And that’s everything that’s happened to me!” Minty smiled.

Sweet stoically nodded, then turned to me. “So, Minty stumbled into your stupid faction war?”

“Is that going to be a problem?” I asked.

“Hey!” Minty pouted. “I wanted to help Phishy fight those meanies!”

Sweet sighed. “It seems we’re all in this bandit mess now.”

I raised an eyebrow at her. “What do you mean?”

Sweet sighed. “The day Jawbreaker found that pillow, some bandits came to our camp demanding that we pay a protection fee, and informed us of the consequences if we refused. Jawbreaker headbutted one of them, and now we’re in trouble with them. Never got their name, but I’m going to assume they’re these Gravestones.”

That was them alright, though I didn’t recall having organized a party to ‘negotiate’ with tribals. But I shouldn’t be surprised at this point. Tomb kept his negotiations with Pona Rosa a secret, so why couldn’t he hide more?

Minty began to fume. “What?! Those meanies tried to hurt us as well?”

“Yup,” Sweet nodded. “That’s why we were planning on moving away from this region.”

“W-wait! We’re already moving?” There was panic in Minty’s voice.

“Were. But since the whole tribe is convinced that you’ve been in your tent having a ‘phase’, they’re not going until it’s over.”

“Huh? The rest of them think I’m still there? But how-”

“Candy Apple is covering for you.”

Minty’s eyes widened and she nodded. “Ahhh! I see. Wow… I actually forgot about her.”

Vandal cleared his throat, then asked Sweet Tart, “Okay, so that means Mints would still be able to be with us for a little longer?”

She shook her head. “Well… You’ve kept Minty safe. I appreciate it. And Papa Rocky might too if he was aware right now.”

“So her pops is reasonable?” Vandal asked.

She shrugged. “Just so long as you aren’t like most outsiders and come guns blazing, he’ll be willing to at least talk with you.”

“Guns blazing?” I asked.

“Most outsiders assume we’re raiders.”

“Because of your outfits?” I guessed.

“Hey!” Minty protested. “Our outfits are sexy! There’s nothing raider about them!”

Sweet Tart rolled her eyes. “Tell that to them. That, alongside another tribe that keeps following and annoying us- don’t ask- is why the Sweetmeats have been nomadic. We are trying to find a place where we won’t be troubled.”

I nodded. “Then all I’d have to do to get on your leader’s good side is to offer land and protection to him in return for an alliance.”

Sweet bit her lip. “Maybe. Won’t know until we try. If I was in the right position, I’d just leave and inform Papa Rocky that there’ll be visitors…”

“But you’re not in the right position?” I frowned, knowing where this was going.

A groan escaped her lips. “No, I’m not. He is.” Sweet pointed outside the window, to where we could see Jawbreaker, still in his ‘thinking dimension’ meditation, and now loud enough that we could even hear him through the RV!

“He’s our obstacle?” I asked.

Sweet nodded. “Him and his friends. And before you ask, it’s fifty-fifty when it comes to convincing those dorks. They didn’t listen to me when I told them Minty probably ran away instead of getting cursed. ‘Noooo, silly Sweet Tart, Minty is clearly cursed!’ It’s only when I make dares or play along with whatever bullshit they believe in at the moment that they’ll listen to me. So yeah… fifty-fifty. Not easy.”

I couldn’t help but sympathize with her. I knew from experience how draining it could be to manage idiots.

“Well,” Vandal grinned. “It’s a good thing Mints is good at talking to ponies!”

Minty jumped and gave a sheepish smile. “Um… Uh… Couldn’t Phishy handle the-”

“No,” I shook my head. “You’re more equipped than me to deal with this. They’re your tribe, so you know them better than I do. It shouldn’t be hard to tell them what you want.”

Minty winced. “W-w-well- Um, but-”

“Why are you hesitating?” I glared at Minty.

She gulped. “I-I-I mean… we don’t have bad blood, but Jawy has been really really REALLY protective of me since I was born. You know, since our mom died. He can be full of himself at times, but he’s a nice pony. I… I just don’t have the heart to tell him that I don’t need his protection anymore. I-I might hurt his feelings!”

“So you’re telling me that you can take on whatever hits you, convince a whole town to fight on our behalf, take a few lives, and buck a mountain, but being honest with your blood and kin is above your abilities?!”

Minty furrowed her brow. “Phishy, I-”

“That’s right, you should be mad!” I stomped at the ground. “Mad that you’re being held back by your fears. You’re a powerful mare, Minty. Every hiccup that we’ve gone against? You overcame them all, and you did all of that without any hesitation. So why hesitate now?”

Minty was at a loss for words. She looked at everyone inside, and muttered, “D-do I really have the power to speak honestly with Jawy?”

“Of course you can. You’re in Mint Condition.” I can’t believe I remembered that catchphrase she used when we met.

“I-I’m in Mint Condition?” Minty repeated.

Vandal smirked. “Yeah, Mint Condition!”

“What they said,” Sweet added.

A smile grew on Minty’s muzzle. “You’re right. There shouldn’t be a reason why I can’t speak my true feelings to Jawbreaker! Or the rest of my tribe! I’m a mare in Mint Condition! I can do it!”

Vandal nervously laughed. “Yeah, and if your words fail, you could always headbutt your brother and hope he immediately understands everything!”

I glared at Vandal.

“It’s a joke,” Vandal quickly added. “Don’t take it seriously.”

Minty nodded, and began to trot out as she muttered, “Mint Condition. Mint Condition,”

She exited out of the Timberwolf, and yelled. “I’m in Mint Condition!!!”

Jawbreaker’s friends all looked shocked at seeing Minty. They began to tear up.

“Minty…” Honey said.

“The curse…” Berry Good added.

“I lost the bet!” Truffle said with a devastated face as he saw the rest of us exit the Timberwolf. His two friends glared at him. “I mean… It’s been lifted!”

“That’s right!” Minty stood triumphantly, and got in front of Jawbreaker. “I’ve returned from the pillowverse! And I’ve got an announcement to make!”

Jawbreaker didn’t stop humming.

It had been half an hour since we all waited for Jawbreaker to get out of his spell. Vandal and I had been playing Go Fish on the dirt with Sweet Tart. Minty was catching up with how the Trio handled their quest to find a zebra, as well as answer questions about the ‘pillowverse’.

“So,” I asked Sweet Tart after drawing a card. “The Sweetmeats can’t feel pain?”

Sweet looked at her cards in contemplation. “Yeah. Dad said that those irradiated rocks they kept eating over the entire tribe’s existence made them develop an immunity to pain that their children then inherited and it kept getting passed down. That’s his theory at least. I don’t really know why, and I stopped caring about finding out the truth. Anyway, anypony- anyone got a jack?”

“Hold on.” I said, with a bewildered look on my face. “They eat rocks?”

Sweet nodded. “Yeah. I’m not into it though.”

Vandal grunted as he handed over his card to Sweet. “That honestly scares me. A whole fucking tribe of Minty’s.”

Sweet Tart and I snorted simultaneously and said in unison, “It’s annoying to deal with.”

Vandal nodded. “So where’d this tribe come from? Looking for a four, by the way.”

We shook our heads. Vandal groaned and drew a card.

“Some Stable that they bailed out from, maybe a century ago. Don’t really have anything from it except for Boulder and a picture of their ancestor.”

“Boulder? And a seven.” I asked.

Vandal sighed and gave me a seven.

“The pet rock of their Many Greats Ancestor, who was the first Overmare. They don’t remember her name, or the number their Stable was. We just have a portrait of her. That and Boulder are Sweetmeat Treasures. We are as protective of them as we are with Papa Rocky’s personal outhouse.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Personal outhouse?”

“Papa Rocky is huge. That outhouse is the only bathroom he can fit in.”

Vandal cast a puzzled look at Sweet. “But… We’re in Postapocalyptia, why can’t he just take a shit wherever he wants?”

Sweet hummed. “Because they think only savages do that. Any of you got two?”

“Wait, how big-”

I never got to finish what I was saying, since Jawbreaker chose that moment to cease humming. His eyes blinked rapidly, and he flashed a grin and yelled, “OKAY ZEBRA, YOU’VE GOT A-” He blinked, finally having noticed Minty was outside.

“Jawy!” Minty exclaimed, trotting away from the Sweetmeat trio and toward her brother. “You’re finally done having your imaginary talk with yourself!”

Jawbreaker wasted no time rushing over to Minty, and forced her into a tight hug. He began to rub his forehoof against the top of Minty’s mane, starting to cry. “OH MINTY I WAS SO WORRIED I’D NEVER SEE YOU AGAIN!

Honey Crist, Berry Good, and Truffle all cheered in the background.

“Jawy,” Minty struggled to breathe. “You’re hugging too tight.”


Minty took a deep breath. “Uh Jawy? And everypony? There’s something I want to say.”

The cheers from the Trio came to an end, while Jawbreaker cocked his head. “M-Minty?”

Minty beat her chest. “I went on an epic quest in the pillowverse. At the end of it, the Pillow Gods gave me a prophecy! A prophecy that told me that our tribe would finally find a permanent home to be safe in. And that I must find a zebra known as Phishy, who will aid me!”

She gestures to me. “This is Phishy by the way!”

Vandal moaned. “Why wasn’t I in the prophecy?”

I jabbed his shoulder.

Jawbreaker blinked as he processed all the bullshit Minty just fed him.

“Wait a second!” Berry Good yelled. “What if there is no pillowverse? What if Minty’s been cursed to be the zebra’s slave, and is being forced to lie to us!”

Honey slapped her face. “Ah crap, I never took that into account!”

“Would this mean the zebra rigged my bet?” Truffle licked his lips.

Minty began to panic. “What? No! No! I’m not under another curse I swear!”

“That’s what a mare under a zebra’s control would say!” Honey stomped. The trio began to take offensive positions. “Jawbreaker! If we kill the zebra, maybe Minty’s new curse will be lifted!”

I grit my teeth, Vandal began to shiver, while Sweet Tart didn’t seem worried at all.

Minty bit her lip, probably thinking over what to say to get us out of this.

Jawbreaker nervously looked at me, and then to the Trio, and then back to me, and then to Minty, and then to-

He stopped looking when Minty Fresh headbutted her brother in the forehead.

Vandal’s gasp sounded as if his soul had just left him. He croaked, “I was only joking about that!”

Jawbreaker appeared unphased. He looked Minty square in the eyes and nodded. “I understand now…”


Minty silently stood there in a confused daze.

Jawbreaker pointed to me. “ZEBRA!”

“Phisa” I corrected him.

“PHISA! MY SISTER WANTS TO TRAVEL WITH YOU. YOU’RE GONNA TAKE GREAT CARE OF HER, OR ELSE! ISN’T THAT RIGHT GUYS?” He turned to the Trio, who slowly began voicing agreements.

My posture relaxed, and I turned to Sweet, who quickly said, “I’ve known these ponies for a long time. I don’t get surprised anymore.”

Jawbreaker addressed me once more. “PHISA, WE STILL OWE YOU A FAVOR! TELL US WHAT YOU WANT FROM US!”

I trotted forward and cleared my throat. “I wish to speak to your leader. I wish to conduct diplomacy with him in regards to forming an alliance against a common foe.”

Not a single one of them seemed to understand that. I rolled my eyes. “Some ponies came to your tribe demanding tribute?”

The Trio sans Truffle nodded.

“I am enemies with those ponies, and I want to work together with your leader to eliminate them. And also arrange a permanent home for all of you. It will benefit my gang and your tribe.”

They awed, and collectively nodded.

“So that means you want to be friends with us?” Berry asked.

“We hold feasts for new friends, don’t we?” Honey turned to Jawbreaker.

“Was my bet still rigged?” Truffle muttered with a sad sigh.


I frowned. “That’s not going to be-”


With that, Jawbreaker and his friends stampeded away into the distance at surprisingly great speed, and disappeared in the distance.

Vandal, who had been hyperventilating, gave a sigh of relief. “Oh fuck, I thought we were goners.”

Sweet Tart chuckled. “Well… Guess I can finally head back home and get some good rest…

She gestured to my pipbuck. “Before I go, I should probably point out where our camp is. You can set markers on your pipbuck’s map, right?”

I nodded, and then turned to Minty, who still hadn’t said anything. “Minty?”

She turned to me with a wrinkled nose. “Wait… It was a metaphor the entire time? The… The pillowverse is real, isn’t it?”

We had said our goodbyes to Sweet Tart, and had been back on the road toward Leathersworth. It took us the next day to finally arrive at our destination. Leathersworth was a settlement that the Gravestones never had an interest in claiming, both due to it being at the border between the Pinewood and the rest of the Wasteland-

As well as being a dump.

There were no gates or toll to go through, sans the small rusted fences that could easily be stepped across, and with no guards to greet us, we came in with zero resistance.

The buildings were just a mix of either weathered structures haphazardly stitched together with junk, or wooden houses that began to show some rot. The population was sparse, with a few ragged ponies simply lying around in the shade or having idle chat with one another.

As we passed through the street, a dog with a leg bone in it’s mouth ran past us.

Was that a pony bone?

“Well,” Vandal said, a duffel bag with my sawed-off and various gun parts he took from our stash held tightly by his side, “if Sun and Dove wanted to meet us in a safe town, this is it.”

Minty cocked her head at Vandal. “But this town doesn’t look safe.”

“It doesn’t, but this town has nothing to offer, so no one important would ever come here.” I pointed to one of the locals. “Let me take care of this.”

I trotted over to her. She was a scruffy unicorn mare with a stained white cowgirl hat. Her eyes widened in awe when I came in front of her.

“Ah shit,” she said as her eyes beamed. “You’re the Striped Menace!”

“You know me?” I raised an eyebrow.

She enthusiastically nodded. “Yeah yeah. Every town in the Pinewood is talking about you. That chaos you gave to Pona Rosa and Buckborn! The radio pony has been talking about you, so word has spread.”

“You mean DJ Pon3 or?”

“No no, Mr. Dead Air, new DJ from the Pinewood. Went on air a few days ago and the first thing he went over was about what you did to Pona Rosa! You’re an Important Pony… er, Important Zebra now!”

Dead Air? Never heard of him, but if he’s only just been on the air that would explain why. I had to wonder where he got information about Pona Rosa… or the fact that the Cage gave me that ‘Striped Menace’ epithet.

But what did I have to complain about? Whoever he was, however he knew about my actions, and wherever he hosted his channel, it was free publicity.

That would mean the Rockfalls will know what I’m capable of.

“Good, so you know who I am. That means you’ll know exactly what will happen if you don’t answer my questions.” I sized her up.

There wasn’t a nervous shiver emitting from this mare. Instead, there was an excited smile and sparkle in her eyes. She licked her lips. “Well, I could… If you sign an autograph on my hat!”

I glared at her.

She laughed. “So this is how the Striped Menace does her menacing?! Wicked!”

“Answer. My. Questions.” I hissed, my right forehoof readying to strike her face.

She gave a toothy grin. “You’re going to take over our town as your base, and turn our Nowheresville into Somewhereville?”

Okay, intimidation tactics weren’t working. Time for a different route. I huffed and turned my head away from her. “I was… but honestly, now that I’m here, I’m not so sure.”

She gasped and panicked. “W-what?!”

“It’s not really hospitable. Your infrastructure looks like it could fall apart from a breeze. You lack any good security. And it has no resources or services my Crossbones need… Not to mention how everypony I’ve spoken to won't answer a single question from me.”

She was the only pony in Leathersworth I’ve spoken to thus far, but she didn’t need to know that.

“W-w-well, I mean… Yeah, we haven't had any guards since… You know, nothing really happens here so they just… go elsewhere.”

“To Somewheresvilles?”

She scratched behind her ear. “Yeah… B-but if everypony knew our town was your turf, then we’d get ponies interested in us! A-and that would mean more caravans, a-and maybe we can finally afford higher fences! We wouldn't be Nowheresville anymore! We’ll be Somewheresville!”

I smiled. “Then this means you’ll answer my questions?”

She nodded. “Y-yeah! Uh… what were they again?”

“Sundance and Dove Trick. Two acquaintances of mine. Told me that if I wanted to see them again, then we’d meet here. You wouldn’t happen to know where they are? Or if they’re even here yet.”

She rubbed her chin. “Hmm… Oh! Did they say they got in trouble with them Dashers?”

“The Dashers would be?”

“Right right, local gang who make a living off stolen chems! Dash, mostly! Come here often to drink. They’re the only ponies who trade with us.” A sigh escaped her lips. “If only that trouble got word to spread about us.”

I nodded. “I’m taking a guess: the two I’m looking for ripped off the Dashers. Those two hid in your bar, and the Dashers trashed the place?”

That sounded like something they'd do.

“Yeah! The Shipwreck, Fix’s place! He was very happy after that day!” She began to jump a bit in excitement.

“He was happy?” I frowned.

“Hmm mmm! Doesn’t get the chance to use the talent his cutie mark gave him!”

Oh… So he was one of those ponies. The ponies who were really obsessed with the special talent associated with their cutie mark. That kind of pony. Of course.

Though… I found it odd. Wouldn’t he want to repair the rest of the town? I had just opened my mouth to ask, but this mare spoke first.

“We only got enough supplies to repair one of our buildings, and everypony voted on it being the Shipwreck since… you know, it’s the Shipwreck. It always needs to be fixed up. Almost as if it’s under a curse. Maybe it is under a curse… anyway, all of that was the reason Fix-it volunteered as our bartender!”

We were starting to get off-track. I tsked and said, “So I assume this means that neither Sundance nor Dove Trick are here in town?”

The scruffy mare hummed. “Not really. Though I always hang out here and maybe didn’t see them. Maybe you should ask the others? And hey, about turning our town into your gang’s hideout?”

I rolled my eyes. “I’ll arrange something later.”

That meant never.

Just as I turned away from her she yelled, “And hey! If you go to the Shipwreck: don’t break the jukebox. We pooled enough caps to buy it off the Dashers. A lot of caps. We don’t want to pay for another.”

I said nothing, and returned to my friends. Vandal had been looking at a two centuries old newspaper (or what remained of it) at a bench while Minty had already been chatting with another mare.

Her tail was swishing back and forth. She was flirting.

Vandal took his eyes off the newspaper when I came in front of him. “Got leads?”

I shook my head. “Let’s ask around. Then let’s head to the Shipwreck.”

An hour later, and nearly everypony else we spoke to were just as weird as that scruffy mare. They were also obsessed with turning their seedy town into a ‘Somewheresville’, each for their own reasons. And like that mare, they all (sans that one pony I had to give a firm buck to the face) saw me as their ticket to becoming known to the Pinewood, if not the entire Equestrian Wasteland.

Maybe Vandal and Minty cared, but honestly I was just ambivalent to this town’s blight. Failed settlements were too common in the Wasteland to really move me.

What I did care about were the answers they gave us: Sundance and Dove Trick hadn’t arrived. It turned out that we managed to beat them, which made sense. We had a vehicle. They had only their hooves.

Minty insisted on being on the lookout for the two. I’d protest, but I didn’t have the energy to talk her out of it, after the past hour. And who knows? Sun and Dove could trot into town today and Minty would catch sight of them and return to inform us.

In the meantime, Vandal and I decided to take a break at the Shipwreck, the bar Dove Trick had informed me she owed caps for letting her hide from bandits (that I now knew were the Dashers) they scammed.

The Shipwreck, it turned out, was a very appropriate name.

The entire building was shaped like a galleon ship, both externally and internally. Fake barnacles were plastered around it, fishnets hung from the sides, holes were covered by hastily nailed planks of wood. The fact that those planks were all odd-colored showed me that this building was repaired with whatever Leathersworth could get their hooves on.

Thinking about it now, I had to wonder if this was an actual ship that ponies managed to place here in their town before the bombs and rebuilt it into a bar.

When we entered, we were greeted by Fix. He was a cobalt blue earth pony stallion with a simple buttoned shirt. Fix was friendly enough to make us both feel welcome. When I inquired about Dove’s debt to him, he blinked in confusion.

Apparently, it was hard for him to remember that event when the Shipwreck got damaged once every month. He even confessed to me that he didn’t really feel he was owed anything from Dove when I reminded him of her and her marefriend.

After ordering drinks (I a Sparkle-Cola, and Vandal a shot of whiskey), we sat over at a table. Vandal had gained permission to use the table as an improvised workbench from Fix, and was now beginning to make the final touches to my sawed-off’s repair, with it and various other parts he took from some of the guns we’ve stolen by his side.

On the other side of the building was Leathersworth’s prized jukebox. A mix of piano and harmonica were being played from it (Vandal called it folk music, specifically of griffon origin), something that both of us found soothing. I was drowning my thoughts to the song as I sipped through a straw provided by Fix, thinking about how my next meeting with Sundance would go.

I wasn’t even sure if I still held my grudge against her.

My contemplation came to an end when Vandal asked, “So… you really don’t drink booze?”

I raised an eyebrow, and pushed my bottle aside. “You ask because?”

“Curiosity. There a reason you don’t do it?”

My leg muscles tensed. “As a professional bandit with responsibilities, I can’t afford to get inebriated. It would inhibit my-”

“What’s the real reason?”

I frowned. “I don’t even know if I’ll like the taste. It smells weird to me.”

Vandal smirked. “Really?”

If Sundance’s first response to drinking from the old Crossbones’ stash while we were alone had taught me anything, it was that enjoying alcohol was an ‘acquired taste’. There was also that time Downburst had returned from business one night drunk as hell. It had spooked a much younger and more sensitive Phisa.

I wasn’t going to share that right here, so I simply nodded at Vandal’s question.

He began polishing the sawed-off’s barrel. “You should at least give it one shot. Every coming of age journey ends with your first drink. You like Sparkle-Cola, so why not rum. Those two go together well.”

I sighed. “Maybe, just not now. Not when this town looks like it’s on the verge of collapse.”

He nodded. “Right. So, remember when I said I could engrave a name on your gun?”


“So… your whole deal is getting back at your ex-boss and his goons. Revenge and that kind of shit. So why not Vendetta?”


I was just about to answer until the doors opened. About five ponies poured in, each wearing cyan leather with rainbow badges. They wielded revolvers and lever-actions. One of the ponies, a lanky unicorn with sunglasses, trotted over to our table.

I stood up, and glared at the newcomer.

He tipped the bridge of his sunglasses down, exposing her emerald eyes. “Howdy. Heard you’re acquaintances with two ponies we’ve been looking for.”

I didn’t answer him.

“Sundance and Dove Trick. Locals told us you’ve been around asking for where they are. Either you’re their friends… or her next victims.”

These were the ponies Sundance and Dove stole from.

He cleared his throat. “Pardon my rudeness. Name’s Trip, just Trip, of the Dashers. And what’d your name be, my exotic cutie?”

I couldn’t tell if that was a genuine compliment or a thinly veiled insult. I still glared at him. “Phisa. Striped Menace. Leader of the Crossbones. I assume you know about me?”

While Trip hadn’t flinched, the rest of his cronies were whispering among each other. They knew who I was.

I eyed Vandal, who quietly began inserting shells into the barrels. The repairs were finished.


I snorted, and turned my eyes back to Trip to finally answer his question. “And why does it matter that we’re acquainted with who you’re looking for?”

“Well…” Trip looked back to his gang and back to me. “You see, those two were with us for quite some time.”

“It was just one day,” One of the Dashers interjected. She cowered upon meeting Trip’s narrowed eyes.

Trip took a deep breath. “Okay, I’ll make this quick. They robbed us while we weren’t looking, and we just wanted to talk with them. Now, don’t you go pretending to know nothing. Folks already told us that you asked-”

I sneered at him. “Then I’ll make this quick as well: Fuck off, or else you’ll regret it.”

He stiffened, forcing a chuckle. “Really? Don’t know if you blind but we’ve got you outgunned.”

Really, he’s playing the numbers game against me?

I shook my head. “Pona Rosa and Buckborn had numbers too. And I’m still alive. So you know that if you start shit with us, you’re going to end up earning a trip to hell.”

Trip readjusted his sunglasses and looked back to the other Dashers, who were half petrified, half ready for a gun fight. He turned back to me. “You really think that?”

“I was the former second in command of the strongest bandit gang in the Pinewood. You’re just a bunch of chem dealers. You’re noponies to me. Don’t bullshit yourself, you don’t stand a chance against me.”

Trip narrowed his eyes at me as I did at him. The Dashers were preparing to draw their weapons. I could already sense Vandal readying himself to toss my sawed-off.

This was going to be a bloodbath.

“STOP!” Fix yelled angrily, a shotgun on his battle saddle. “STOP RIGHT NOW!”

All eyes were on Fix as he trotted over to the jukebox. He turned the music off and gave us an agitated glare. “Could you at least wait until I drag this to the back? Then you can kill each other.” He hefted the jukebox onto his back and began making a slow and steady trot to the back. “Geeze.”

Our attention turned back to each other. None of us said anything as Fix carried the jukebox.

I stared at Trip, who seemed lost in thought, possibly pondering whether he’d back down…

Or take a dare.