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Parks and Wilderness

By stphven
Created: 2021-07-16 21:31:33
Updated: 2024-05-12 02:48:53
Expiry: Never

  1. 1
  2. “How did we get so lost?”
  3. >”Dust Devils, ma’am.”
  4. “Dust Devils?”
  5. >”I reckon. That sudden sandstorm, and now all the landmarks are jumbled up? I’d say a Dust Devil picked us up and dropped us way off course. Crafty buggers.”
  6. >You are Sergeant Glacier, and you are melting.
  7. >The desert sun burns overhead. The sand burns underhoof. Even the air burns at it presses up against you.
  8. >Your Royal Guard armour feels like your own personal oven. And the oversized sword slung across your back doesn’t help at all.
  9. >Trotting alongside you, Private Punch - your pegasus companion - seems to be faring a little better.
  10. >Only a few flecks of foamy sweat are visible beneath her golden armour, contrasting sharply against her dark coat.
  11. >Of course, you being a northern unicorn with a dense mane and lengthy fetlocks, most ponies handle heat better than you. You’re practically swimming in your own sweat.
  12. >Seriously, what was the lieutenant thinking, sending you of all ponies out here?
  13. >What were *you* thinking, trying to reach Tranquility Springs on hoof in the middle of the day?
  14. >It hadn’t *seemed* that far when looking at the map in Appleloosa’s Royal Guard outpost...
  15. >And now you’ve managed to get lost before even reaching your first assignment as sergeant.
  16. >Great start, Glacier.
  17. >With a sigh, you finally reach the top of the dune you’ve been struggling up.
  18. >Squinting against the glare, you scan the horizon.
  19. >Rocks. Hills. Rocky hills.
  20. >Nope, still lost.
  21. >That dark line way in the distance is *probably* the Macintosh ranges, but given the size of the range, it doesn’t really help narrow down your position.
  22. >You consider your options.
  23. >None are very appealing, but there is a clear first step.
  24. “I’ve not heard of Dust Devils before, private. Tell me about them.”
  25. >You hate to defer to a subordinate - your very *first* subordinate - when it comes to dangerous wildlife. That’s supposed to be *your* area of expertise.
  26. >But you’d be a fool to risk your lives and your mission for the sake of your pride.
  27. >”Well ma’am, I don’t know if there’s been any, y’know, proper study or anything. I’ve just heard folklore and campfire stories. But the ponies around these parts tell about sudden sandstorms which come outta nowhere and leave travelers disoriented, sometimes miles off course.”
  28. >She turns to fully face you, and you see the corners of her mouth twitching.
  29. >”The way the buffalo tell it, the sandstorms are whipped up by these *eeevil*, mischievous desert spirits - the Dust Devils - who lead travelers to their doom with mirages and illusions, feeding off the poor bastards’ desperation and despair.”
  30. >Punch narrates that last part in an exaggerated “spooky” voice, waving her forehooves in the air for emphasis.
  31. >For a desperate and/or despairing mare, she seems awfully chipper.
  32. >Seriously, how does she have energy to prance around like that?
  33. >Grinning at your deadpan stare, she returns to her normal voice.
  34. >”I guess they’re sorta like the, uh, Hearths’ Warming spirits. Windigos? You have them up north, right boss?”
  35. “There hasn’t been a confirmed Windigo sighting in centuries, but I get you.”
  36. >You frown.
  37. >This information is concerning if true.
  38. >Windigos are an old bogeymare all throughout the north.
  39. >If you’re dealing with creatures of that nature, your trusty sword isn’t gonna cut it.
  40. >Heh. Sword puns.
  41. >The heat must be getting to you. You’re sounding like your dad.
  42. >You chuckle slightly. It comes out more as a cough.
  43. >You try to swallow. With your parched throat, it feels like swallowing sandpaper.
  44. >This leads to more coughing.
  45. >Punch drops the goofy grin and kindly hoofs over her canteen.
  46. >It’s still mostly full. Your own ran out half an hour ago.
  47. >The dusky pegasus watches you closely, professional concern on her face. You want to tell her to stop gawking, but you suppose she’s just doing her job as a medic.
  48. >Still, you’re not going to show weakness in front of your one and only subordinate. You force yourself to take only a single mouthful.
  49. >The water’s uncomfortably warm, but your throat immediately feels better for it.
  50. >Burying your feelings of relief (and desire to down the rest of the bottle), you quickly replace the cap and put on your professional sergeant face.
  51. “Thank you, private.”
  52. >You float the canteen back with your unicorn magic, giving Punch a grateful nod. She gives a grin and a mock salute in return.
  53. “You’ve spent some time with the local buffalo then?”
  54. >”Aye, ma’am. Just finished a two week exchange program with ‘em.”
  55. “I see. So how do the buffalo deal with Dust Devils?”
  56. >Her grin gets even wider, and she ruffles her wings.
  57. >”Mostly they ask me to fly up and look for landmarks.”
  58. “Is that so? Well, far be it from me to question the ancient wisdom of the majestic buffalo. Get your flank into the air and see what you can see, private.”
  59. >With another salute, the pegasus launches herself into the sky, a blast of hot air and sand splashing against you.
  60. >Squinting, you watch her lazily soar in slow circles overhead. A dark smudge, armour glinting in the sunlight, set against an impossibly deep blue sky.
  61. >A few minutes pass.
  62. >You wish you had some shade.
  63. >Eventually Punch glides down to a rest beside you.
  64. >”I reckon we’ve overshot Tranquility Springs, sarge. There’s a town northeast of us, on the other side of that low ridge. Maybe an hour away on hoof.”
  65. >She waves lazily to a brownish plateau away in the distance.
  66. >You think you can just make out rooftops peeking out beyond it.
  67. “Very good, private. Let’s get going.”
  68. >You start trekking down the sand dune, but Punch seems to hesitate.
  69. >”If you like, I could fly ahead and get some help? Find a wagon, or maybe fetch some more water?”
  70. >She’s looking at you with that concerned medic’s eye again.
  71. >You’d kill for some cold water right now, but you’re not about to let yourself be coddled by a subordinate.
  72. “Tempting as that sounds, private, I think we’d best stick together. I can manage another hour. And besides, if the Dust Devils strike again, where else will I find a Private Punch? The buffalo were quite specific about them.”
  73. >Punch grins and falls in beside you.
  74. >”Right you are, boss.”
  76. 2
  77. >You are Private Fruit Punch, and you are melting.
  78. “Ahhhh, this hot tub is *so good*.”
  79. >You were a bit disappointed to find that Tranquility Springs doesn’t actually *have* any hot springs. But this is a pretty nice consolation prize.
  80. >Seriously, after slogging through the desert in your armour all morning, this feels *amazing*.
  81. >The tub is just a simple wooden barrel filled with hot water, but already you feel your muscles loosening and your eyelids getting heavy.
  82. >The nice little stallion who runs the nice little hotel has been super accommodating. No doubt glad that the Royal Guard have finally arrived to deal with the town’s monster problem.
  83. >Whatever that is.
  84. >You should probably figure that out at some point.
  85. “Hey, sarge?”
  86. >”Hmm?”
  87. >Lazily opening an eye, you spot your new crystal pony sergeant resting on a wooden bench on the other side of the washroom, methodically washing her bushy blue mane with her unicorn magic.
  88. >She’d declined the offer of her own hot tub, opting instead to soak her hooves in a small pool of cold water.
  89. >Odd mare, but whatever floats her boat.
  90. “So, uh, what kind of monster are we hunting here, anyway?”
  91. >She continues to focus on lathering and rinsing as she answers, her voice even and measured.
  92. >”We’ve had reports of an unidentified creature scaring the locals. So far it hasn’t caused any real harm, so until we know more we won’t be hunting anything. No point unnecessarily antagonizing it. For now, our job is to observe and advise.”
  93. “Aww, and I was hoping to see the big scary monster hunter use her big scary sword on a big scary monster.”
  94. >The big scary monster hunter in question snorts in amusement, and begins drying her mane.
  95. >With her armour and sword replaced by a fluffy pink towel, the turquoise unicorn looks a lot less intimidating than she did this morning.
  96. >”Sorry to disappoint, but the Parks and Wilderness Guard aren’t the macho monster hunters rumour would have you believe. Most of the work we do is to *minimize* the chance of dangerous encounters.”
  97. >Laame!
  98. >Perfectly reasonable, but still lame!
  99. >”In fact, should we encounter anything *truly* dangerous, standard procedure is to retreat, call for reinforcements, and engage with overwhelming numerical superiority. Seeing as we are the only Royal Guards for miles around, I’m afraid that’s not going to happen.”
  100. “Heheh. Damn. I wanted to see how you use that monster of a sword of yours.”
  101. >Glacier’s weapon is almost as long as you are!
  102. >Granted, your standard issue spear is longer, but couldn’t be more than a third of the sword’s weight.
  103. >”Magic, mostly.”
  104. >Well that just makes you more curious!
  105. >Unfortunately, sarge doesn’t seem interested in volunteering more, and frankly you don’t have the energy to press for details. You’re enjoying this tub way too much.
  106. >Oh well.
  107. >You’ll bug her about it some other day. When you’re not half asleep.
  108. >You sink further back, watching the wisps of steam curl up towards the wooden ceiling.
  109. >The sounds of Glacier’s drying stops, and you hear her lay back and sigh contentedly.
  110. >Hazily, you realize this is the first time she’s stopped working and relaxed all day.
  111. >Even after arriving at Tranquility Springs, she went directly to speak with the mayor, the sheriff, and one or two other important ponies, before organizing your lodging.
  112. >(In your opinion, a shower ought to have been your first stop.)
  113. >You have to admit, she’s got impressive stamina for a unicorn.
  114. >Not to be tribalist.
  115. >You idly ponder if all sergeants are just naturally tough bastards? All yours have been.
  116. >Still, you were starting to get a *liiittle* worried out in the desert. She didn’t let it show, but it must have been tartarus under that thick northerner coat.
  117. >Tough bastard or not, dehydration and heatstroke cause more injuries per year than any monster.
  118. >Seems odd to send a northerner to deal with a desert problem.
  119. >Another question drifts lazily into focus.
  120. >Eventually, you work up the effort to break the comfortable silence.
  121. “So... Does the PWG normally send you guys out solo? One monster, one mare, that kind of deal?”
  122. >You hear Glacier sigh before answering.
  123. >”No, this is… not standard deployment. Typically investigations are performed by a whole squad of specially trained Parks and Wilderness Guard.”
  124. >”We - my previous squad - were tasked with investigating the disturbance at Tranquility Springs. En route we received an urgent summons to deal with a sudden chimera problem.”
  125. >Ooh, they deal with chimeras? That's pretty cool.
  126. >”The detour was pretty far out of the way, so our CO decided to send me on alone to act as an interim advisor to the local guard.”
  127. “Ha! Must have been quite the surprise to find there *was* no local guard.”
  128. >”Pfff. No kidding.”
  129. >You share a chuckle.
  130. >Due to some sort of mixup, the entire regional guard detachment had been called off to Celestia knows where just days before Glacier was supposed to meet them in Appleloosa.
  131. >Granted, the detachment is only like a dozen ponies or so. Deserts don’t normally need a lot of guarding.
  132. >You were just finishing your cross-training with the Appaloosa buffalo, so it made sense you were called in as a temporary replacement.
  133. >What’s ridiculous is that you’re apparently the *only* replacement they could find in time. And they couldn’t even give you a concrete answer on when to expect reinforcements.
  134. >Your meeting with Sergeant Glacier at the train station would have been hilarious if it weren’t so awkward.
  135. >Heh.
  136. >A single monster hunter, in a region she can barely survive, advising a lone guardsmare, who’s not even supposed to be here, on how to defend a town neither of them are familiar with, against a threat nopony knows.
  137. >Yep, ridiculous is right.
  138. >Still, Glace seems pretty sensible. If the two of you are just chasing up rumours around town until backup arrives, you’ll be perfectly fine.
  139. >...
  140. >Unless a big scary monster attacks.
  141. >That might be pretty cool though.
  143. 3
  144. >This is *so cool!*
  145. >Two new Royal Guards in town, and they’re here to see *you?* This is so exciting you might just faint!
  146. >...Maybe later. Too much fanfillying to do!
  147. >These aren’t just *any* Royal Guards (not that normal Royal Guards aren’t exciting!): one’s a pegasus, and the other’s a *crystal unicorn!*
  148. >You’ve never even *seen* a crystal pony before. The glittering blue guard looks so glamorous, so badass, so… so *cool!*
  149. >Hmm, no, that’s not right. Definitely not cool.
  150. >On closer inspection, she just looks really hot.
  151. >Wait no.
  152. >Warm!
  153. >She just looks really *warm.*
  154. >This *is* a desert, after all. Plenty of *warm* mares around here. Yep. Heheh.
  155. >Not to say that she’s *not* attractive, or anything.
  156. >If anything, the flushed cheeks, matted mane, and sweaty muscles beneath her gleaming armour are really doing it for y- No! Bad Sandy!
  157. >Your eyes dart to her partner, a smaller purple pegasus giving you a cute smile.
  158. >She seems to be handling the heat better than her partner, unfortunatel- Nope!
  159. >”Ma’am?”
  160. >You shake your head, trying to dispel any thoughts of hot mares in uniform.
  161. >The glimmering unicorn is looking at you with a polite but slightly confused expression, while the pegasus’ smile has been replaced with a knowing smirk.
  162. >Oh horsefeathers! You’ve been so busy staring at them you forgot to answer their question!
  163. “Y-yup, that’s me! Sandy Miles. Best milliner in town! Also, only milliner in town! But still the best! Ah haha, ha, he…”
  164. >You grin awkwardly at the two glamorous guardsmares standing at your doorstep.
  165. >Gosh it’s hot out this morning!
  166. >”I’m Sergeant Glacier, and this is Private Punch,” the crystal pony explains in a deep, level voice.
  167. >”We’re here about the strange creature causing trouble in the area. Sheriff Prickly Pear said you’d had a run in with it not too long ago? We’d like to ask you a few questions, if you don’t mind.”
  168. “Ohhh! Right. Yeah. Of course. Sure I saw it!”
  169. >In your excitement that last part came out as “Saw I sure it!”
  170. >Cringing, you quickly turn away and gesture the guards into your home.
  171. “C-Come on it, I’ll fix ya some lemonade and tell ya all about it.”
  172. >Leading the way into your living room, you wish you had time to prepare. Your house is a mess!
  173. >Sure, it’s nice enough by Tranquility Springs’ standards, but these glamorous, sophisticated guardsmares are probably used to, like, fancy manors and castles and stuff.
  174. >That’s where all the adventures and mysteries (and *romance*) occur, after all.
  175. >You read all about it in Gallant Guard Magazine.
  176. >Which, incidentally, is lying open on the coffee table.
  177. >At the article about adjusting guard armour to accentuate the plot.
  178. >Crabapples!
  179. >You quickly whisk it out of sight, along with a few dirty magazines and dishes - er, dirty dishes and magazines - giving your best nonchalant smile as you turn to usher your guests in.
  180. >Thankfully, they don’t seem to notice anything amiss. The cute, smiley one’s still cute and smiley, and the hot, serious one - *warm*, serious one - is still warm and serious.
  181. >That reminds you, you should probably see to that lemonade.
  182. >The poor unicorn looks more flushed than you are.
  183. >Number one rule of being a good hostess is to never let your guests die of dehydration in the living room.
  184. >Aunt Sunbeam taught you that.
  185. >It always struck you as oddly specific.
  186. >Still, it seems like good advice in this situation, and soon you and your guests are seated comfortably on your best pillows, cool drinks in hoof, while you relate your recent adventures in the desert:
  187. “So Tumbleweed’s wagon was completely covered in tree sap at this point. After picking the last o’ the scorpions out o’ his mane, we decided we were better off without the kitchen sink anyway. So we just called it a day, set the tent on fire, and turned tail for home.”
  188. >Sergeant Glacier and Private Punch are looking a bit dazed at this point in your story.
  189. >From the heat, no doubt.
  190. >You refill the unicorn’s ice for the third time - she seems to be enjoying it more than the lemonade.
  191. “O’ course at this point we were pretty far from Tranquility Springs, and the afternoon was getting on. So Tumble said we outta head to Hoofrest and stay the night at his uncle’s place, then head on back home in the morning.”
  192. >The crystal mare blinks and clears her throat.
  193. >”Is Hoofrest another town? I don’t recall seeing it on the map...”
  194. “Ehhh, sorta? It’s just like this one street and a bunch o’ houses out in the middle of nowhere, couple o’ hours southeast o’ here.”
  195. “I think there was a mine or quarry or somethin’ ‘round there years ago? Dried up ‘fore I was born, whatever it was. Now it’s just folks that never got ‘round to moving elsewhere, I guess.”
  196. >You shrug awkwardly, but your explanation seems to satisfy the unicorn. She swallows another mouthful of ice and nods for you to continue.
  197. “Right, so Tumble and I was still a ways away from Hoofrest. We were climbing down these rocky hills, and the sun’s setting behind us.”
  198. “We reach the bottom o’ one hill, and start up the next. We step out o’ the shade into the last rays o’ Celestia’s sun, when all of a sudden this great big shadow falls over us! We turn around and are shocked to see…!”
  199. >Dramatic pause!
  200. >All good adventure / mystery stories have dramatic pauses.
  201. >You would know, you’ve read every issue of *Gallant Heart, Royal Investigator*. Even that one terrible, definitely-not-canon issue where Gallant Heart gets shipped with Sir Dashwood instead of her *obvious* true love, Captain Nightingale.
  202. >Sergeant Glacier gently clears her throat.
  203. >Ack! Horsefeathers!
  204. >Dramatic pause over!
  205. “Er, ahem, so, we turn around and see... this big dark shadowy critter rearing up on top of the hill we just came down! It, uhhh… it was right against the sun, y’see, so we couldn’t get a real good look at it...”
  206. “But we heard it! It was panting with this deep, growly... growl, and we could hear it stomping down the slope after us! We knew we were in *terrible* danger!”
  207. >The two guards are listening intently, excited yellow eyes and steady green ones locked onto your own.
  208. >You’re such a good storyteller! Thanks, *Gallant Heart!*
  209. “I thought maybe we were being chased by a blackjackal or mountain lion or somesuch, and I guess Tumbleweed thought the same, cause we both immediately turned tail and hoofed it.”
  210. “Looking back, I could see it trotting down the slope after us, but it was in the shade now so we still couldn’t really make it out. It was big, whatever it was, but we seemed to be getting a lead on it.”
  211. “I turned around to catch up with Tumble, when suddenly there’s a whoosh, and something crashes into the ground next to me! Wham! It was so close I could feel the pebbles pelting my coat!”
  212. >Your heart starts pounding just thinking about it. It was really frightening!
  213. “I thought the monster must have j-jumped at me! I sure wasn’t expecting that! But I was so startled I didn’t even think to look back and see what it was - just bolted faster than I knew I could.”
  214. “W-we didn’t hear it chasing us after that, but you betcha we didn’t stop to look till we’d darn near keeled over, and whatever it was was long gone by then. It was getting super dark out by then and we weren’t too keen on sticking around to look for it, s-so as soon as we got our breath back we hurried to Hoofrest, raised the alarm, crashed at Tumble’s uncle’s place, a-and that’saboutit thanksforlistening.”
  215. >You suck in a lungful of air. You kinda rushed through that last part without stopping to breathe.
  216. >Once you’ve got your breathing under control, you reach out a shaky hoof and take a nice long draught of lemonade to steady yourself.
  217. >Retelling your story was not as fun as you expected.
  218. >You’re pretty sure getting chased by freaky jumping shadow monsters is, like, an instinctive racial fear or something? Nothing to be ashamed of running away from, right?
  219. >Nothing to be ashamed of retelling with a shaking hoof, r-right?
  220. >You hope your guests think so.
  221. >Peeking up at them, you find the two guardsmares talking quietly between themselves.
  222. >The glimmery sergeant notices and turns to face you.
  223. >”Thank you, Miss Miles. You did the right thing by getting out of there as fast as you could. That’s the smartest thing to do when faced with an unfamiliar creature.”
  224. >You can’t help but smile and blush a little at the praise, even if you were acting purely on instinct.
  225. >Punch reaches over and sets a comforting hoof on yours. Your blush intensifies.
  226. >”You can rest assured, ma’am, that the Guard will be investigating this creature further, and we’ll be doing absolutely everything we can to keep your community safe.”
  227. >”You’ve already helped us a bunch, but if you can remember any more *specific* details about this critter it’ll help us make the town even safer.”
  228. >You scrunch your nose in concentration.
  229. >You want to help, but you’re still a little rattled.
  230. ”Umm… It, uhh… Details...”
  231. >Sergeant Glacier interrupts in a practiced tone: “Things like the creature’s general size and shape, number of limbs, number of horns, scent, colouration, whether it had fur or scales, the way it moved, that sort of thing.”
  232. >Huh. For some reason, you find it easier to answer these specific questions.
  233. “Well, the sun was in our eyes the whole time, so it just looked like a big dark blob, but I’m pretty sure it was bigger than me. Bigger than Tumbleweeed even. Like, two or three times as tall, though not much wider.”
  234. >You close your eyes, trying to picture the scene.
  235. >Your heart starts pounding again, but you force yourself to stay focused.
  236. “I-it definitely had four legs, and I don’t remember any horn nor wings. Don’t think I was close enough to catch its scent.”
  237. “I do remember it rearing up on its hind legs both times I saw it, and thinking that was kinda weird. It’d be much faster on all fours, right? Oh, unless it was getting ready to jump, maybe?”
  238. >Sergeant Glacier frowns.
  239. >”You’re sure it was rearing? I can think of a few desert dwelling creatures about that size which are known to walk on two legs instead of four.”
  240. >You cock your head.
  241. “Uhh, maybe? I guess it didn’t look like rearing, exactly, but what kind of critters do you mean? Like, a... giant bird, or something?”
  242. >That doesn’t seem right. The silhouette certainly didn’t look like any bird you’ve ever seen.
  243. >Glacier shrugs. “Not unheard of. But a dragon might be more likely.”
  244. “D-d-dragon?!”
  245. >”Juvenile, maybe. They love hot, sunny places, and often walk on their hind legs.”
  246. >You were being chased by a *dragon?!* How can she talk about this so calmly!
  247. >”Not all dragons have wings, and now that I think about it, that impact you felt striking next to you could have been a fireball.”
  248. >A *fireball?!?!*
  249. >You feel your head start to spin.
  250. >Looks like your body has decided to take you up on that offer of fainting.
  251. >”Of course, this is all just guesswork; it was probably something much more-”
  252. >THUD.
  253. >”...mundane.”
  254. >...
  255. >”Uhh, I think you broke her, boss.”
  257. 4
  258. >You are Sergeant Glacier and you are contemplating desertion.
  259. >Sure, you’d be throwing away your career, likely spending time behind bars, and definitely disappointing your parents.
  260. >But on the other hoof, you wouldn’t have to go back out into that desert sun.
  261. >So, yeah.
  262. >Tough call.
  263. >The flimsy wooden chair creaks as you lean back, gazing over the rundown little eatery you’ve taken shelter in.
  264. >Simple wooden walls. Bright, rustic furniture. Homemade knick knacks covering every surface.
  265. >Kinda reminds you of home.
  266. >Of course, the taverns back home would have a roaring fire and thick rugs along the walls. Even then you’d still see your breath condensing in front of you half the time.
  267. >Far better than sweating a puddle into your seat, in your opinion.
  268. >You shift your weight, trying to expose more of your matted fur to the breeze of the ceiling fan.
  269. >At least this place is cooler than the inferno outside.
  270. >You and Fruit Punch had left Tranquility Springs early this morning, while it was still dark and cool. But by the time you’d reached Hoofrest just a few hours later you were already foamy with sweat and eager to be out of the sun.
  271. >Punch, with her shorter coat and mane, fared better. Upon arriving at the little community’s only cafe, she immediately started chatting it up with the other patrons.
  272. >You’d have reprimanded her, but frankly you couldn’t muster the energy.
  273. >Wouldn’t be the first time you’ve had to remind her of proper Guard etiquette and discipline. While it’s never been a serious issue, you don’t want to encourage her habit of gossiping on duty.
  274. >Perhaps her time studying with the Appleloosan buffalo, away from real guards and protocol, has left her out of practice?
  275. >You can sympathize if so.
  276. >It’s been challenging maintaining a professional relationship when it’s just the two of you for days on end.
  277. >She clearly misses having squadmates to socialize with.
  278. >(And so do you, if you’re being honest).
  279. >But you’re in charge of her and this mission; it’s important to keep things professional.
  280. >Your strategy thus far has been to keep the both of you busy and focused on work. Yourself with research and planning, Punch with standing guard, checking equipment, running errands, or whatever else you can think of.
  281. >Hence why you eventually sent her off to order both your lunches.
  282. >Ok, that one wasn’t strictly necessary for squad discipline. But hey, rank has its privileges.
  283. >She’s been over by the counter for a while now. Seems to be having an in-depth discussion with the proprietor.
  284. >You’re not really sure what there is to discuss. There’s only four items on the menu.
  285. >Oh well. It’ll only be a few more days until reinforcements arrive. Either your sisters from Parks and Wilderness Guard, the long lost Appleloosan Guard, or both.
  286. >That should give Punch some other guards to chat with, and hopefully they’ll set a good example for her.
  287. >And, with any luck, somepony more senior will arrive and take over as leader of this operation.
  288. >You’ve never minded taking charge temporarily when the situation called for it, or when your specialist skills were required.
  289. >But you’re finding that being the leader full time is… exhausting.
  290. >And kinda lonely.
  291. >Punch seems like a nice mare and decent enough guard. It’s a shame to have to keep distance between you.
  292. >*Sigh*.
  293. >You lean back and rest your eyes.
  294. >The gentle breeze from the fan tickles your chest.
  295. >Life was simpler when you just focused on being the best P&W guard you could be.
  296. >Leading ponies isn’t something you’ve ever put much thought into. You just kinda ended up as sergeant without really planning for it.
  297. >Maybe it’s not the right job for you…
  298. >The clip clop of approaching metal hoofguards pulls you out of your reverie.
  299. >”Okay, so we’ve got toasted sandwiches with frijoles, salsa, pickles, and a side of hay fries. *Plus* I managed to scrounge a couple of ice waters. Here you go, boss!”
  300. >Your ears shoot up at the mention of ice water.
  301. >Sitting up and opening your eyes, you see Fruit Punch has finally returned, a tray of food balanced easily on each wing.
  302. >You have no idea what half these ingredients are, but ice water sounds like just the tonic you need.
  303. >She slides your tray onto the table in front of you. You offer a grateful nod as you levitate your perspiring glass towards you.
  304. >Leaning back, you bring the wonderfully cool glass to your lips. In a display that would have made your old squadmates proud, you down the whole drink in one go.
  305. >The icy liquid rushes down your throat, burning with cold, before settling in your stomach like a lump of snow.
  306. “Ahhh…”
  307. >Immediately you feel cool to your very core.
  308. >Bliss.
  309. >”Haha, yeah I thought you might like that.”
  310. >Punch is openly smirking as she sits down opposite you and digs into her sandwich. You let it slide. The chilly taste of home has put you in a good mood.
  311. “Mmm, thanks, Punch. I needed that.”
  312. >”No prob, chief.”
  313. >You lean forward to attend to your food, a small smile making its way to your lips.
  314. >It’s decided, then. No desertion for you.
  315. >You’ll just have to finish your first assignment as sergeant, do a good job of it, and *then* decide if it’s right for you.
  316. >But for now, you’re just going to enjoy lunch with your considerate partner.
  317. >”So, excited to get out into the field and do some real monster hunting?”
  318. “Apart from the unbearable heat? Sure. I always enjoy fieldwork.”
  319. >You levitate a couple of fries into your mouth, slightly wary of the sandwich.
  320. >They taste exactly like hay fries you’d find anywhere else in Equestria. Promising start.
  321. “How about you? Excited?”
  322. >Fruit wiggles her ears.
  323. >”Apart from the unbearable heat? You bet! I’ve met a few dragons before, y’know, so it’ll be interesting to see how they compare with our desert troublemaker.”
  324. “Oh? Ah, that’s right. You’re said you’re with the Harmony Corps, correct?”
  325. >”Bingo. Meeting guards from all different species and cultures, swapping guard techniques and history; all that good stuff.”
  326. >The Harmony Corps is a mixed species branch of the Guard, recently established by Princess Twilight.
  327. >Word is they’re more focused on diplomacy and the *magic of friendship* than actual guarding.
  328. >From what you’ve seen of Punch, that seems pretty spot on.
  329. >You quickly take a bite of sandwich to hide your grin.
  330. >The flavour’s… interesting, but you’ve certainly had worse from the commissary.
  331. ”Mmm. Well, I’m sorry to say our troublemaker’s probably not a dragon, though that’s good news as far as I’m concerned.”
  332. >”Huh? Didn’t you say yesterday Miss Miles got chased by a juvenile dragon?”
  333. >You shrug.
  334. “That was just speculation. I took a look through the town’s records last night. Not a single dragon spotted in this area in the town’s entire history.”
  335. >Fruit pouts at this. The effect is somewhat undermined by half a sandwich she’s crammed into her mouth. She looks like a grumpy chipmunk.
  336. >You take a (smaller) bite of your own sandwich. Texture’s a little weird, but the flavour’s growing on you.
  337. “They do have Sand Wyrms, though. They’re dragon-ish, but probably not our troublemaker.”
  338. >”Fo wha *oo* oo fink ih iff,” Fruit asks around her food.
  339. >You quirk an eyebrow.
  340. “Swallow, Punch.”
  341. >She swallows and grins sheepishly.
  342. >”So what *do* you think it is? Our troublemaker?”
  343. >That’s the million bit question.
  344. >After interviewing Miss Miles yesterday - then making sure you hadn’t broken her - then reassuring her that Tranquility Springs was unlikely to be invaded by dragons - you eventually tracked down a few other potential witnesses.
  345. >On the one hoof, there was no more fainting.
  346. >On the other hoof, there wasn’t much concrete information, either.
  347. >Some folk claimed to have glimpsed a strange shadowy creature, usually from afar or at night. Their descriptions were vague at best, contradictory at worst.
  348. >Not surprising, really. You know how these small towns are.
  349. >Somepony says they saw a windigo or a bunyip or a vampony, and suddenly that’s all the town talks about for weeks. Soon enough, folks are seeing the monster in every shadow, hearing it in every gust of wind, and generally scaring themselves silly.
  350. >While the lack of reliable witnesses can be frustrating, it’s probably for the best. Better the townsfolk be too scared than not scared enough. The last thing you want is a gang of curious teenagers playing at being monster investigators.
  351. >Still, you needed some more concrete information about your quarry. Hence your trip to the town archives and library later that evening.
  352. “Well, according to the records, there are quite a few large predators native to the region. Mountain Lions, Sand Wyrms, Sand Sharks, Sandipedes, Sandy Claws-”
  353. >”Seriously? Do they just call every animal they find “Sand” something?”
  354. “Right? Do I need to get them a thesaurus?”
  355. >Fruit bursts into snorting giggles, and you can’t help but chuckle along.
  356. “Heh heh. Anyway, these very sandy predators are usually found much further out in the badlands, but now and again one will wander closer to pony settlements.”
  357. >You levitate a hay fry, waving it for emphasis.
  358. “Problem is, none of them particularly match Miss Mile’s description. So either her imagination got the better of her-”
  359. >Punch grins.
  360. >”I think she was doing a lot of *imagining* yesterday…”
  361. “-or the creature isn’t native to the area. Wait, what?”
  362. >”Nothing,” Punch beams innocently, her tail swishing side to side.
  363. >You eye her suspiciously, before popping the fry in your mouth.
  364. >While your search through the archives hadn’t turned up any leads, it wasn’t a complete waste of time either.
  365. >Studying exotic creatures and planning how best to deal with them is a comfortably familiar routine. You were able to power through all the material the library had on them in a single night.
  366. >Armed with this new knowledge, you felt it was time to visit the scene of the crime, as it were: the rocky wastes south of Hoofrest, where Sandy had her close encounter.
  367. >You’ll be heading out that way soon as you’re done with lunch and refilled your canteens.
  368. >The Parks and Wilderness Guard might frown upon you venturing out into potentially dangerous wilderness with only a single guard as backup. But you figure that between your tracking skills, and Punch acting as aerial scout, you’ll be able to spot any potential threats long before there’s any danger.
  369. >Not that you’re expecting to run into anything dangerous, or even find the exact location of Miss Miles’ encounter. But there’s always a chance of finding tracks, droppings, or other clues which only an experienced PWG like you would pick up on.
  370. >The prospect of some good old fashioned fieldwork almost makes you eager to head back out into the heat.
  371. >Almost.
  373. 5
  374. >”Don’t move.” Glacier growls as she advances towards you, sword drawn.
  375. >It’s noon.
  376. >You are Fruit Punch.
  377. >After an hour of trekking, you and the boss have taken shelter from the oppressive sun beneath a rocky overhang.
  378. >You *thought* you’d finally gotten on Glace’s good side. But given that she’s currently waving a sword in your face...
  379. “N-now, Sarge, I’m sure whatever this is about we can talk it over.”
  380. >You give your best disarming smile as you back away from the larger, clearly insane mare.
  381. >She just rolls her eyes.
  382. >”You’ve got something crawling up your back, featherbrain. Now don’t. Move.”
  383. >A jolt of panic shoots through you.
  384. >You’re suddenly keenly aware of dozens of tiny pinpricks tickling your flank. Is that perspiration trickling down your back, or something worse?
  385. >It takes all your willpower not to buck wildly and launch yourself into the sky.
  386. >The sergeant advances slowly, her oversized sword hovering beside her.
  387. >”Now what have we here…?”
  388. >You continue to stand stock still, rear hoof frozen mid-step, rictus grin etched in place, as Glacier disappears out of your line of sight.
  389. >Her sword clinks gently against your armour.
  390. >Your ears swivel involuntarily.
  391. >”Cooome on. Here- no, not that way.”
  392. “Not *what* way?!”
  393. >You squeak out of the corner of your mouth, not daring to move further.
  394. >There’s a pause.
  395. >Followed by some scraping.
  396. >”No, no, bad little- stop that!”
  397. >Your tail lashes with nervous tension.
  398. >More scraping.
  399. >”Yeah, theeeere you go. That’s better.”
  400. >To your relief, sarge backs into your field of view.
  401. >”Well, aren’t you a cutie?”
  402. >Her sword floats after her, wrapped in her cyan aura. Something small and dark with far too many legs darts along its surface.
  403. >You spring back, muscles suddenly unfrozen, scrambling to put distance between you and the blade.
  404. >The loose stones underhoof offer little purchase, and you end up on your backside in a tangle of limbs.
  405. “Ow.”
  406. >Glacier raises an eyebrow in your direction.
  407. >”Alright there, Fruit?”
  408. “Yeah, juuust peachy.”
  409. >You decide the floor’s a great place to rest a moment and catch your breath. Nice and far away from the sword.
  410. >That is, until you feel something tickling your flank.
  411. “Eeeeep!”
  412. >You shoot into the air, swatting wildly at your rump.
  413. >Get it off GET IT O- Oh.
  414. >It was just your tail.
  415. >You sheepishly lower yourself back down.
  416. >On second thought, maybe the floor’s not a great place after all.
  417. >Hovering sounds like a good idea right now.
  418. >”Not a fan of bugs, I take it,” Glacier asks. She doesn’t quite smile, but you can see the amusement in her eyes.
  419. “Not bugs the size of my hoof, no ma’am.”
  420. >You cautiously flap over to peer at the critter still skittering about Glacier’s sword. It looks like some kind of shiny brown worm with hundreds of black legs.
  421. >”Mmm, quite an impressive friend you’ve made.”
  422. >Glace absently straightens your helmet and dusts you off, keeping one eye on her weapon.
  423. >”Baby sandipede, I’d say. The adults get a lot bigger.”
  424. “Not super reassuring there, boss.”
  425. >The sandipede pauses a moment, feeling along an edge of the blade with tiny antennae. You notice its angry red pincers and tail.
  426. “Uhhh, it’s not poisonous, is it?”
  427. >You may not be some veteran Parks and Wilderness Guard, but your medical training at least covered that bites from poisonous critters = bad.
  428. >”It’s venomous, yes. Poisonous means you shouldn’t eat it.”
  429. >Ahem. Bites from *venomous* critters = bad.
  430. >”But this little fella probably isn’t too dangerous yet. Not till she grows up.”
  431. >You feel only marginally safer.
  432. >Glacier has apparently finished cooing over her little monster, and gently floats her sword up against the rock wall. The sandipede quickly scuttles away, disappearing between the cracks.
  433. >Glace then turns to peer at you, sword casually returning to its sheath. She doesn’t seem at all fazed leaving a potentially deadly enemy behind her.
  434. >”You weren’t stung, were you?”
  435. “I- I dunno. How do I tell?”
  436. >You twist around, trying to spot any bite marks along your back. Of course, that’s physically impossible thanks to biology, and you end up flying in a circle.
  437. >A hoof catches you in midair.
  438. >”If you’re not sure, then you weren’t stung,” she explains, gently lowering you to the ground.
  439. >”Come on, let’s get going. The sooner we finish investigating, the sooner we get out of this heat. And away from sandipedes.”
  440. >She turns and starts to trot out of the shade.
  441. >You sigh.
  442. “Yes, boss.”
  443. >It *is* getting uncomfortably hot.
  444. >Your fifteen minutes’ rest in the shade has been undone by a few moments of panicking and flying.
  445. >Stupid bug. How did it even get on you in the first place? You wouldn’t have even noticed it if Glacier hadn’t… mentioned… it.
  446. >A sudden thought sends a shiver down your spine. Despite the heat.
  447. ”M-m-ma’am? Permission to check my armour for any *other* creepy crawlies?”
  448. >Glacier pauses at the edge of the shade, then shrugs and turns back.
  449. >”Alright, go ahead private. Just… hoof the pieces to me when you’re done. If you sit them on the ground then you’ll just get all paranoid again afterwards.”
  450. “Cheers, boss.”
  451. >You quickly begin shedding layers of barding. You give each piece a thorough shake and once over before hoofing it to Glacier.
  452. >After a few minutes of this, the majority of your armour is hovering beside her. Helmet, peytral, gambeson; a lumpy satellite of cloth and metal.
  453. >She chuckles as you shake out your last hoofguard and begin the slow process of putting everything back on.
  454. “Hey come on, it’s not that funny. I don’t know about you, but I don't want to get poisoned - or *venomed* - out in the middle of nowhere.”
  455. >You pout, but she just waves a hoof dismissively, hint of a grin on her muzzle.
  456. >”I’ve got an antidote potion, so I wouldn’t worry too much.”
  457. >Well that’s good to know. Makes sense the PWG carry stuff like that. Kinda wish she’d mentioned it sooner, though.
  458. >”But that’s not what I was laughing about.”
  459. “Oh?”
  460. >”What was it you said the other day? Something about wanting to see the big scary monster hunter use her big scary sword on a big scary monster?”
  461. >She helpfully floats over your next hoofguard, grin barely contained.
  462. >”Guess you got your wish, huh?”
  463. ”Pffff that- that’s not- that doesn’t count! That was *not* a big scary monster!”
  464. >”Big enough to scare you!”
  465. >You sputter out a few more incoherent protests, while sarge chuckles and helps you with your barding.
  466. >You pout a few more moments, but her smile proves infectious. Soon you're sliding the last piece of armour into place, chuckling together.
  467. >Eventually you catch your breaths and turn to leave.
  468. >You’re still hot and sweaty, but at least your break gave you something to smile about.
  469. >The two of you step out into the fierce afternoon sun.
  470. >Oof, it’s… yeah, this is a proper desert.
  471. >You’re in a small rocky gully. One of many, near the base of the Macintosh ranges.
  472. >Loose sand and dust underhoof. Bare stone walls around you. Hours away from civilization.
  473. >You’re not sure how anything survives out here, but Glacier’s been pointing out little signs of life as you travel. Patterns in the sand. Droppings. Bits of eggshell.
  474. >Amazing what you can find if you know what to look for.
  475. >She’s quiet at the moment, as the two of you plod along. Conserving energy, maybe.
  476. >Her eyes are still alert, no doubt picking up all sorts of things you’d never notice.
  477. >That’s ok, though. We all have our special talents.
  478. >Right now, yours are picking up on Glacier’s folded back ears, steadily sagging tail, and early signs of a frown.
  479. >It’s the hottest part of the day, after all. Going back into the sun must be Tartarus for the poor northerner.
  480. >Well, there’s no other ponies around, so it’s up to you to keep her spirits up. Or at least keep her mind off the heat.
  481. >As usual, conversation is your greatest weapon.
  482. “So boss, what *is* the biggest monster you’ve fought?”
  483. >”Hmm. Hydra. Juvenile. Still near five ponies tall.”
  484. >Her sentences are short, punctuated by huffing and panting.
  485. “Yikes. How’d you deal with something like that?”
  486. >”Generally try to lure it away. Or scare it away. Barricades, sometimes. We don’t want them dead. Just away from ponies.”
  487. >She frowns.
  488. >”That particular one was rowdy. Young male, aggressive. Wouldn’t take the hint. Had to get rough.”
  489. “Did you… kill it?”
  490. >”Nah. Gave it a few scars. Sent it packing. Hide’s too thick for normal weapons. Even this,” she nods to her greatsword, “so we had to get creative.”
  491. >She shakes her head, an encouraging gleam in her eyes.
  492. >”This crazy pegasus, Pollen, jumps onto its back. She can’t do any damage up there, but hydras are dumb. Instinct takes over. It rolls over, nearly crushing her.”
  493. >”Hide’s thick, but the underside’s vulnerable. While it’s thrashing about, we get a few good blows in. Nothing lethal. But enough to convince it that we ponies mean business.”
  494. “Haha, wow. Sounds crazy. Didn’t you say you’re *not* all daredevil macho monster hunters?”
  495. >She rolls her eyes, but you’ve learned to spot the hint of a smile she allows herself to wear.
  496. >”There are exceptions. Most of our work is more like this,” she gestures to the desert around you. “Or just teaching ponies how... to...”
  497. >She trails off.
  498. >You notice her ears have perked up and she’s staring intently at something over your shoulder.
  499. >You turn around, but nothing stands out to you. Rocky hills. Hazy mountains. Blue skies.
  500. >”You see that, Punch? Four hundred metres, near the tip of that sandbank we climbed down.”
  501. >You squint. There's… *something* there. A dark smudge against the motley orange backdrop.
  502. ”Is… that a pony? It’s sorta the right outline.”
  503. >”Not sure. Wasn’t there a minute ago.”
  504. >She’s glaring at the distant spot, all signs of weariness vanished.
  505. >”Private, fly up and take a closer look. Don’t get too close unless you’re sure it’s safe.”
  506. “Got it, sarge."
  507. >You launch yourself to the sky, cautiously making your way forward. You recall Sandy's tale of leaping shadow monsters, and resolve to stay well out of reach.
  508. >The figure is just as hard to make out from the air. It looks like it’s moving a little, but that could just be distortion from the hot air around it. It's impossible to be sure of its shape, beyond “kinda sorta pony-ish”.
  509. >You glide in long, slow arcs around and toward it, giving you both plenty of time to observe each other.
  510. >Your eyes must be playing tricks on you. The closer you get, the less sure you are that it’s a creature at all. From here it just seems like a dark smear on the landscape.
  511. >You drop to hover a few hooves above the ground. Then carefully touch down.
  512. >You scoop up a hooffull of sand.
  513. >The topmost layer is a dark, almost silvery black.
  514. >The discolouration only extends a few hooves in each direction, and less than half a hoof down. Everywhere else, as far as the eye can see, pale-orange sand continues uninterrupted.
  515. >Huh.
  516. >You turn and shrug at the distant figure of Glacier.
  517. >You can just make her out in the distance, obscured by the haze and dust.
  518. >It’s hard to tell, but is she… galloping?
  519. “Hey boss! There’s nothing here!”
  520. >You call out, but it’s a struggle to make yourself heard over the wind.
  521. >Wait, wind?
  522. >Your pegasus instincts tell you you’re in a dead calm…
  523. >...because this isn’t any natural wind, you realise with a start.
  524. >You leap into the air, and are immediately thrown back by a blast of whirling sand.
  525. >The Dust Devil forms in front of you with frightening speed, a bellowing tornado of dark sand.
  526. >Glacier is immediately swallowed up and disappears from view. *Everything* disappears from view.
  527. >You’re pelted by a rain of sand and stone, clanging against your armour and stinging any exposed flesh.
  528. >You try to take off again, but the winds nearly rip your wings off.
  529. >You tumble and flail through the air, blind, deaf, and hopelessly disoriented.
  530. >Pain lances out from your shoulder as you're dashed against a rock wall.
  531. >It’s all you can do to close your eyes, hunker down, and weather the storm.
  532. >As quickly as they began, the false winds slow.
  533. >And stop.
  534. >The only sound in the dead calm is your panicked breathing.
  535. >You cautiously raise your head, sand pouring down your neck.
  536. >The landscape looks unchanged. Rocky hills. Hazy mountains. Blue skies.
  537. >There’s no sign the Dust Devil was ever here.
  538. >There’s no sign Glacier was ever here.
  539. “Boss…?”
  541. 6
  542. >You screwed up.
  543. >You knew it as soon as Punch was airborne.
  544. >You shift slightly, dislodging the sand piled on your back.
  545. >There’s a dull ache all down your left side, and your skull feels two sizes too small.
  546. >Your own damn fault.
  547. >Shouldn’t have separated. Shouldn’t have sent an amateur off on her own. Shouldn’t have even been out in this Celestia forsaken desert.
  548. >You are Sergeant Glacier, and you screwed up.
  549. >With a groan, you lift yourself to your hooves. Sand pours from you like water. Still more sticks to your matted fur. You’re more orange than blue.
  550. >Your armour’s all gunked up. Head feels the same way.
  551. >The sun pounds down. Blinding. Smothering.
  552. >Your throat is dry. Lips coated with grit. Painfully thirsty.
  553. >Your hooves fumble for your canteen, too dazed to use magic.
  554. >The first mouthful is nothing but wet sand. You spit it out.
  555. >The second soothes your parched lips. The third clears your throat.
  556. >By the fourth, your head’s starting to clear a little.
  557. >You take a deep breath.
  558. >Ok.
  559. >You screwed up.
  560. >Deal with it.
  561. >You’re the leader of this expedition. Mare up and take responsibility.
  562. >First things first: find Fruit Punch. Make sure she’s ok.
  563. >You shake the worst of the sand from your coat, and take stock of your surroundings.
  564. >You’re at the base of a sand dune. Not much visibility from here. Just rolling walls of sand in every direction, radiant heat pooling between them. Stifling. Suffocating.
  565. >No sign of Punch. Not surprising; she wasn't with you when the Dust Devil hit. She's probably back near Hoofrest, instead of… wherever you are.
  566. >You couldn’t make out what happened between her and the mystery creature - it disappeared from view while she was approaching - but you did see her land voluntarily. That means she thought it was safe, right?
  567. >You wince, feeling a pang of guilt.
  568. >Punch is a complete amateur when it comes to wildlife - how’s she supposed to know what’s safe? You were so focused on finally having a lead that you’d slipped back into old habits, issuing orders as though you were working with a PWG veteran.
  569. >You kick at the sand in frustration.
  570. >You’ve put her at risk - put *both* of you at risk - because you got all worked up over your first assignment. Couldn’t wait for backup, couldn’t play it safe, nooo, you just *had* to prove you could handle it on your own. Stars above, you’re no better than a rookie yourself! She's probably better off without you there to mess things up any-
  571. >WHAP!
  572. >Your telekinetic slap knocks a cloud of sand from your muzzle, leaving a sharp sting.
  573. >Enough of this self pitying crap, sergeant!
  574. >For all you know, Punch is in danger. Screwup or not, you may be the only pony who can help. So quit mewling, and focus on what you need to do.
  575. >Blinking away a few tears (from the pain in your muzzle, you tell yourself) you take another look around. You can barely see anything surrounded by dunes like this. Need to get to a better vantage point if you’re going to find Punch.
  576. >You quickly start trotting uphill. It doesn’t look far to the top, but the seemingly gentle slope is deceptively hard to climb. The damned sand refuses to provide a firm grip, shifting and sliding away underhoof, dragging you back downhill.
  577. >It takes five exhausting minutes to reach the top. Sweet Celestia, you hate this place.
  578. >At least there’s a faint breeze up here, and you can see a good deal further. The Macintosh mountain range, a looming wall of jagged brown, is still fairly near at hoof. Hopefully that means you’ve not been taken too far. A smaller range is visible to the east, hazy with distance. You don’t remember that from the maps.
  579. >The sand dunes continue west and south for a mile or two before abruptly transitioning to a dry, dusty plane, random plateaus and ravines scattered throughout.
  580. >But no matter which way you look, no matter how hard you squint against the glare, there’s no hint of purple pegasus plumage. No dark smudge circling the skies. No gleam of armour on the horizon. Just browns and reds and brilliant blues.
  581. >Not a good sign.
  582. >If Punch isn’t visible overhead, then either you’re in a completely different part of the desert, or…
  583. >Something clenches painfully inside you.
  584. >...Or she’s in no condition to fly.
  585. >You sit, or collapse, strength leaving your hind legs.
  586. >Your vision goes blurry once more.
  587. >You feel ill. Stifled. Hard to breathe.
  588. >You float off your helmet, dropping it unceremoniously. Clumps of tangled blue mane tumble down your shoulders. You feel messy and gross.
  589. >You cough out a few heaving breaths.
  590. >Fanning yourself with a hoof, you allow yourself another mouthful of precious water.
  591. >Not much left in your canteen. You’ve an overwhelming urge to just pour it down your head and neck, washing away the sweat and stench and horrible clinging sand.
  592. >Your only concession is to splash a small hooffull around your face, carefully catching any spilled droplets with your magic.
  593. >The gentle wind tickles at the damp fur, beautifully cool against your skin. Like a fresh spring breeze from the mountains back home.
  594. >The slight chill seems to cut through the haze, helping clear your thoughts.
  595. >You start to feel a little better. Start to feel yourself again.
  596. >With sudden clarity, you realize you’re probably experiencing heat stroke. Nausea, dizziness, weakness: all common side effects.
  597. >You’ve spent too long in the sun, gotten too worked up. You don’t know if you’re actually suffering from heat stroke just yet, or if these are just early warning symptoms, but you know it can’t be far off. You *need* to find shade.
  598. >You take a long draught from your canteen, and splash a few more drops around your neck and ears for good measure. It’s imperative that you keep cool and stay hydrated. No point saving the water until later - you’ll be too weak to move later.
  599. >You wipe the blurriness from your eyes, and scan the desert once more. The dunes offer no respite. The mountains are still a few hours away. But the plain isn’t too far. It’s littered with cliffs and canyons, jagged patches of black shadow stark against the brown. You’ll be cooler in the shade. Especially if you can get below ground. Find a ravine, or cave. Maybe even a stream.
  600. >You take a step downhill. Pause, Royal Guard instincts reminding you to look after your gear. Your helmet floats after you, trailing sand, and the two of you begin your journey.
  601. >Somehow you feel a little better.
  602. >Hooves lighter. Trot quicker.
  603. >Maybe it’s the cool water on your fur, or the prospect of shade at your destination.
  604. >Maybe it’s the resignation that you can’t do anything for Fruit just yet, and that you’re in at least as much danger as her.
  605. >Maybe it’s the familiar, perversely intoxicating fear growing inside you. The rush of pitting yourself against nature, your wits and skills and luck the only things between you and an unmarked grave. Terrifying and exhilarating and *highly* motivating. The first time you felt this way, as a young foal lost deep in the mountains, you ended up earning your Cutie Mark. Maybe it’s your Cutie Mark driving you now, whispering defiance to the hateful desert.
  606. >Or maybe it’s just delirium from the heat.
  607. >Your perception of time certainly seems to be faulty. You could have sworn you’ve climbed this same dune a hundred times already. And the sun seems to be moving backwards in the sky.
  608. >But slowly, slooowly, dune by dune, step by step, huff by puff, the distant plain inches closer, until suddenly the sand is gone and you find yourself on wonderfully firm cracked earth.
  609. >You blink a few times in surprise, waking from a dream of walking and thirsting. You’re a sodden mess of a mare, coated in foamy sweat, hooves caked in sand, ears and nose scorched raw, but you feel a sense of accomplishment. You take a celebratory swig from your canteen.
  610. >The last swig.
  611. >You should feel panic, but all you feel is exhaustion.
  612. >There’s a shallow depression only a few hundred metres away, leading to a narrow gully. You can even see a few rugged looking plants around the entrance. Plants are good. Plants mean water.
  613. >You stumble the last hundred metres, the downhill trail mercifully easier underhoof. To your frustration, the gully’s sides remain sloped instead of sheer, offering no shade. Even worse, the air down here is trapped and stifling, feeling even hotter than on the plain.
  614. >You continue down the slope, and slowly the path grows narrower and steeper. The rocky walls on either side eventually rise high enough to cast the passage into shadow. The drop in temperature is immediate. After the desert sun, it’s like walking into a freezer.
  615. >You slump against the cool stone, pressing your neck and cheek against the smooth surface, panting laboriously. Clumsily you remove your still-hot armour, tossing it down the slope with a resounding racket.
  616. >Your helmet tumbles away downhill, disappearing around a corner. You pay it no mind as it bounces and clatters in the distance, until it stops with a sudden and unmistakable *splash*.
  617. >You hesitate only a moment, ears twitching in disbelief, before bounding after it. No rational thought, just a desperate, overwhelming thirst. You practically fall down the steep, uneven slope, and before you know it you’re ankle deep in painfully, blissfully cold water.
  618. >At this point you do fall over, too hot and exhausted and relieved to care about anything other than immersing yourself in its icy embrace. You crash down, sinking up to your neck. The freezing water seeps into your coat, drawing out the desert heat like poison from a wound.
  619. >Your skin burns from the contrast in temperatures. It feels *amazing*.
  620. >You let your head fall below the surface, feeling the sand and sweat and stress wash away. Luna, this is just like swimming in the frozen lakes back home.
  621. >You start greedily drawing a mouthful of water, only to abruptly stop and jerk your head away. The one part of your mind not exulting in the cold, the part that spent years training as a Parks and Wilderness Guard, shouts a warning not to drink the water. Not yet.
  622. >You sputter and wheeze a few times, spitting out as much as you can. You manage to drag your waterlogged (but oh so wonderfully cool) hide back out of the pool.
  623. >Sitting at the water’s edge, you take in the space properly for the first time. Floodwaters have carved a smooth channel out of the rock, producing a wide, sinuous passage. Sunlight bounces down through the narrow gap high overhead, providing ample light but not much heat. A few steep fissures, like the one you tumbled down, lead up and out from the main waterway. Some small, prickly bushes eke out a living in patches of dust.
  624. >The pool itself fills up little more than a third of the uneven floor, only three or four pony lengths at its widest. It runs the length of the ravine before disappearing around a narrow bend a dozen metres away. Apart from a few dwindling ripples courtesy of your undignified exit, the pool is still. No current. No trickle of running water.
  625. >Stagnant.
  626. >It looks clear, but you know better than to trust stagnant water. You still remember that time Heather filled her canteen from a beautiful clear pond. Didn’t spot the mouldering rabbit among the reeds until it was too late. The poor ditz was sick for days.
  627. >Even desperately thirsty as you are, you know to purify the water first. Boiling it is the traditional way, but you don’t have the fuel or patience.
  628. >You float over your armour and start digging through the saddle bags. Out comes a small pouch containing several hundred bits worth of enchanted gemstones. Part of the PWG standard kit. The spells are nothing too impressive, but potentially life saving in the right circumstances.
  629. >You fill your canteen with water from the pool, then drop in a small blue gem. It starts glowing gently, and you feel the faint thrum of magic. You replace the cap, and count to twenty.
  630. >The delay is frustrating. Now that you’ve cooled off in the water, your throat feels blistered and burned by comparison. Nevertheless, you dutifully wait for the spell to complete, then thoroughly rinse your mouth of any remaining pool water. Then finally, *finally* take a deep, deep drink.
  631. >And another.
  632. >And a third.
  633. >Aaahhh...
  634. >You spit out the expended water purifier, now nothing more than an inert rock, and lie back against the cold stone, sated.
  635. >Your eyelids flutter closed of their own accord. The PWG part of you mumbles something, but it’s hazy and distant. Every other part of you says to ignore it, at least for a few minutes...
  636. >...
  637. >...
  638. >Crabapples.
  639. >You fell asleep didn’t you?
  640. >It doesn’t seem like any time has passed at all, but you’re suddenly stiff and cold and hungry, and alarm bells are ringing clearly in your head.
  641. >Your eyes snap open and you peer out into the gloom. The ravine is noticeably darker, but nothing seems out of place. Your gear is still where you left it. The water’s completely still.
  642. >Your ears swivel back and forth, straining against the silence.
  643. >You take a deep breath, and that’s when you realize what's wrong: the smell.
  644. >There’s an organic musk in the air that doesn’t belong. You might have put it down to your sweaty gambeson stinking up the place, but there’s something else too.
  645. >A wisp of ash. A hint of flowers. The tang of blood, and a layer of rot.
  646. >You were too preoccupied to notice when you first stumbled down here, but it’s clear to you now:
  647. >There’s something living down here.
  649. 7
  650. “Oh come on, this is *not* fair!”
  651. >You kick a stupid rock out of the way as you hurry down yet another slope.
  652. “They said Dust Devils attack desperate and despairing ponies! We were *not* desperate and despairing! We were super positive! There was bonding and everything! YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!”
  653. >You are Fruit Punch, and your accusations go unanswered.
  654. “And getting hit twice in three days? What’s up with that? Harmony’s sake, you’re supposed to be *folklore*, not every-bloody-day occurrences!”
  655. >You scramble up a stony bank, huffing with indignation and exertion. No sign of Glacier here either.
  656. “And - *huff* - waiting for the *one* moment - *puff* - the one moment *aaall* day - *huff* - when I leave her side for like TWO FLAPPIN’ MINUTES!”
  657. >Your throat is sore. You ignore it.
  658. >Your legs are tired. You push on.
  659. “That’s just…”
  660. >Your eyes are moist. You wipe them with a forehoof.
  661. “...just low.”
  662. >A patch of loose gravel shifts beneath you.
  663. >With only three shaky legs on the ground, you’re unable to catch yourself in time, and tumble down the slope.
  664. >Your armour makes an awful racket as it grinds against the rough stone. But it does its job, sparing you the worst of the damage.
  665. “Ow ow owww! Flapping ow!”
  666. >But *only* the worst.
  667. >When you come to rest, your muzzle feels like one big bruise, and there’s the taste of blood on your lips.
  668. >Scraped your knee something fierce, too. It stings like the dickens.
  669. “Stupid rocks! Stupid sand!”
  670. >You don’t have the energy to get up, so you just lay there a while, cursing.
  671. “Stupid desert! Stupid Dust Devils! Stupid Fruit Punch! Stupid, stupid...”
  672. >Eventually, cursing gives way to quiet sobbing.
  673. >You’ve been shouting and calling and complaining this entire time, ignoring the protests of your parched throat. But you can’t keep it up.
  674. >You lie there, feeling completely drained, as the silence closes in about you.
  675. >You hate the silence.
  676. >Ever since the roar of the Dust Devil faded away, taking your sergeant with it, the desert has seemed unnaturally still.
  677. >No movement.
  678. >No sound.
  679. >No sign of anycreature else.
  680. >Just you.
  681. >You’re an outgoing pegasus who grew up in a big family. When you joined the Royal Guard you gained an even bigger family. Working with the Harmony Corps only strengthened your sense of community. You’ve been surrounded by other ponies your entire life.
  682. >And then, just like that, you were alone.
  683. >Utterly, overwhelming alone.
  684. >Your first instinct was to take to the skies. Hopefully spot Glacier from the air, but more importantly (you felt a pang of guilt at the thought) put some distance between you and the unnervingly empty landscape.
  685. >As soon as you flexed your wings, however, a spasm of pain shot down your right side.
  686. >Inspecting your own wings is never easy, but after a few anxious minutes of gingerly flexing and methodically testing, you were reasonably certain you hadn’t broken anything. A nasty sprain most likely, from when the Dust Devil slammed you against the rock.
  687. >Thank Harmony you were wearing your helmet, or you could have gotten much worse than just a sprain. A concussion out here could be fatal.
  688. >As a pegasus and trained medic, you knew you really should keep off your wing for a few days to let it heal properly. Putting stress on it now would not only hurt, but risk exacerbating the injury. Worst case scenario you might even cause permanent damage.
  689. >But as Glacier’s friend, you couldn’t bear to stay groundbound when she might need your help.
  690. >Bracing your wing with bandages from your first aid kit, you attempted a few test flutters. You winced with every flap, but gliding seemed ok, and you could sort of compensate for your right wing by working your left harder.
  691. >You wouldn’t be quick or agile, but you figured a short flight would be manageable.
  692. >Since you were ignoring (your own) medical advice, you decided you might as well break some Royal Guard regulations while you’re at it. Off went the heavy golden armour, piece by piece, for the second time today. Nocreature would see you out of uniform out here in the middle of nowhere, and it would make flying a little easier.
  693. >A slow, painful ascent later, and the desert was a distant patchwork of orange and brown below you. Mountains to the south, Hoofrest to the north. You could just make out Canterlot Spire rising in the distance.
  694. >You started to feel a little better.
  695. >The climb was exhausting, but the wind on your feathers was cool and refreshing. After the stifling heat and limited visibility of the desert floor, you felt alive and free.
  696. >And seeing evidence of other ponies, however distant, helped alleviate the sense of loneliness. Even if you couldn’t see them from the ground, you had friends not too far away.
  697. >But…
  698. “Boss! Sergeant Glacier! Where are youuu?”
  699. >...There was still no sign of this *one particular* friend.
  700. >Gliding in long, slow arcs to minimize flapping, you swept back and forth over the area the Dust Devil hit.
  701. >When that produced no results, you went further afield, flapping faster, climbing higher, pushing your aching wing until the muscles seized up and you were forced to land gracelessly.
  702. >Then you just kept going, legs carrying you where your wings had failed, wandering at random, all the while shouting yourself hoarse.
  703. >It was reckless. It was irresponsible. It was only a matter of time till you hurt yourself.
  704. >Honestly, you’re lucky it wasn’t worse.
  705. >With a groan, you sit up.
  706. >So now here you are, bruised, bleeding, dizzy with exhaustion and worry, and still no sergeant to show for it.
  707. >You’ve been stubbornly refusing to acknowledge it all this time, but you can’t deny it anymore:
  708. “Fine. I’m... I'm alone. I’m not gonna randomly stumble across Glacier like this. I need to stop running about and… make a plan or something. Think things through.”
  709. >You wince as you say it out loud, but you know true.
  710. >You can’t help Glacier if you’re galloping blindly in circles across the desert, letting your emotions get the better of you.
  711. >And before you can help her, you have to help yourself.
  712. >You’ve been out in the sun for hours, flying and running and shouting.
  713. >You’re feeling weak, sick, sore, and disoriented.
  714. >Your medical training asserts itself: first things first, hydrate yourself and cool off.
  715. >You hobble over to a nearby ledge. The afternoon sun is angled just enough for it to cast some shade to lie in. You give it a few swishes with your tail to clear out any lurking sandipedes or other creepy crawlies, then gently lower yourself down.
  716. >Water comes next. Slow, measured mouthfuls. Too much at once and your body won't absorb it all. It can even cause damage.
  717. >Then it's time to clean and bandage your wounds. They're nothing serious, a few scrapes and bruises, all superficial. The pain has already subsided to a mere background ache.
  718. >Then more water. You’ve been sweating horrendously all afternoon, so it’s important you re-hydrate.
  719. >You dig out a bruised apple from the depths of your saddlebags. You didn’t think you’d be out in the desert so long, so this is the only snack you brought. But it's still a pleasant treat, and it's important to keep up your energy.
  720. >You’re feeling much better by the time you finish it.
  721. “Alrighty then.”
  722. >No more tantrums or needless risks.
  723. >You’re a Royal Guard, and a fellow Guard is in danger.
  724. >You’ll do what you have to do, no matter how unpleasant.
  725. “So, I guess my options are: do I keep looking by myself, or do I go back to town and get help?”
  726. >Both are quite tempting. You hate the idea of leaving Glacier out here alone, but you also trust the power of teamwork and friendship. With more ponies searching, you’d be sure to find her sooner, right?
  727. “Buuut… how long will that take? It’s like an hour or two to Hoofrest, maybe half that if I fly a bit. But there’s probably not enough ponies there for a search party... So another couple of hours to Tranquility Springs…”
  728. >You look up at the sun. It’s still early afternoon, but the shadows are starting to grow.
  729. “...Even if I flew all the way - which I probably can’t, and *definitely* shouldn’t - there’s no way I could round up a search party and make it back before nightfall.”
  730. >You’re no expert but you’re pretty sure it’ll be much harder to find Glacier at night.
  731. >Not only that, but there’s still the shadow monster out here, and the Dust Devils.
  732. >A picture of a dark, roaring wall of sand flashes to mind. Your wings ruffle instinctively at the memory.
  733. >Is it even safe to bring a search party out here? You’d be putting even more ponies in danger.
  734. “On the other hoof, I suppose that applies to me, too. Staying out here with no backup is risky. Shadow monsters, sandipedes, dehydration, rocks… And I guess if something happens to me, there’ll be nopony to help Glacier. Buuut, on the *other* other hoof, if it’s so risky can I really just leave her by herself for so long? Heat stroke can set in in just a few hours... Aauugh, why is this so hard?!”
  735. >Why couldn’t the Dust Devil have grabbed you instead?
  736. >You’re just a private. A grunt.
  737. >You’re not supposed to make decisions.
  738. >Normally when you get stuck with a really hard problem, you rely on your friends or coworkers. But that’s not an option this time.
  739. >Or… maybe it is?
  740. >You recall the speech given by Princess Twilight at your class’s graduation.
  741. >You might not be able to speak to your friends right now…
  742. “But... I can have faith in them.”
  743. >You slowly rise to your hooves, determination building within.
  744. “I… I can’t help you right now, Glacier, but I can trust you. You’re tough, you’re smart, you’re a big scary monster hunter! You’ll be ok until I get back, I’m sure of it!”
  745. >You have faith, too, that your friends the good ponies of Hoofrest and Tranquility Springs will be there for you. That together you can find Glacier without putting any other ponies at risk.
  746. >It's decided, then.
  747. >The Magic of Friendship always steers you right.
  748. >Confidently, with a small smile on your face, you start marching north up the hill.
  749. >You feel reinvigorated (if still a little sore and stiff).
  750. >At the summit you pause. Glance over your shoulder.
  751. >The desert continues south, rows of hills piling up higher and higher until they reach the mountains. The nearest hill just a few hundred hooves away.
  752. >You can't stop the thought creeping into your mind: “What if she’s just over that next hill? If you don’t check now, she could be dead by the time you return.”
  753. >Without any conscious thought you’ve turned around, taken a half step back the way you came.
  754. “No.”
  755. >You screw your eyes shut, pressing your wings tightly against your sides.
  756. “Stop it, Private Punch. That kind of thinking’s just gonna drive you crazy. Or get you killed. Or drive you crazy *then* get you killed. Just… complete your mission. It’s the best chance Glacier’s got.”
  757. >The thought steadies you, but only a little. The temptation to stop and check just one more hill continues its siren song in the back of your mind.
  758. >You take a deep breath, turn around, and continue marching down the hill.
  759. >Keep your mind on what you have to do next.
  760. >Get to Tranquility Springs. Talk to the sheriff, round up a search party. Send a distress message to the nearest Royal Guard outpost. Maybe one to Canterlot too, in case Appleloosa’s detachment is still MIA.
  761. >Stop at Hoofrest on the way. Will need to rest and resupply, and let the locals know what happened.
  762. >And hey, maybe Glacier will find her way back on her own, in which case Hoofrest is the first place she’d look for you. She may even be there now!
  763. >You know you shouldn’t push your aching body any more, but you can’t resist one last flight. A final look around the desert, and the promise of arriving at Hoofrest that much sooner; it's gotta be worth the discomfort.
  764. >Slowly, stiffly, favouring your left wing as much as you can, you flap your way up out of the dust bowl.
  765. >There’s a deep seated, pulsing ache at the base of your right wing, and your left is starting to cramp up from overuse.
  766. >But you’re up here now, and can hopefully glide from thermal to thermal with relative ease.
  767. >Ahead of you lies a small, irregular jumble of tiny squares: Hoofrest.
  768. >You angle towards it, and cast an eye over the desert one last time.
  769. >No Dust Devils.
  770. >No mysterious figure.
  771. >No Glacier.
  772. “Just hang on, Glace. I’ll be right back. With friends.”
  774. 8
  775. >The dark tunnel flashes cyan as you float the last hoofguard into place.
  776. >If you’re going to go poking about in an unknown creature’s den, you’re going to do it properly.
  777. >First thing to do is suit up.
  778. >You want to be protected as soon as possible, in case anything dangerous comes wandering while you’re still getting ready.
  779. >You made sure to shake out each piece of armour before putting it on, mindful of Punch’s earlier adventure with the Sandipede.
  780. >You also gave your gambeson a quick dip in the pool to wash out the sweat and stench.
  781. >It feels a lot heavier, but it’s pleasantly cool against your fur.
  782. >Next up is weapon check.
  783. >Your greatsword floats over and emerges easily from its scabbard. Good, good.
  784. >Hasn’t been damaged by the day’s adventures, nor jammed in place by crusty sand.
  785. >Last thing you want is to try to draw your sword in an emergency only for it to get stuck.
  786. >You resheath the blade and strap it across you back.
  787. >Most Royal Guards have little need of weapons in their day to day duties, and so keep their swords concealed beneath their armour.
  788. >Helps maintain the friendly public image.
  789. >Your own sword is much too long for that, but that’s ok.
  790. >Parks and Wilderness Guard interact with civilians less than most. And when you do, it’s often helpful to put on a bit of a show of force.
  791. >Show them that the - how did Punch put it? - “big scary monster hunters” are here to save the day.
  792. >Hence why a lot of PWGs have oversized weapons.
  793. >Of course, there's a practical side too:
  794. >When dealing with some of Equestria's nastier inhabitants (a certain hydra springs to mind), you generally want your weapons to provide as much reach and power as possible.
  795. >Still, you do keep a smaller blade in your armour’s weapon compartment: a utility knife.
  796. >Endlessly useful for outdoors work and, with a stick and bit of rope, can be turned into an impromptu spear.
  797. >A lightweight, versatile backup weapon.
  798. >You draw it with a hoof and hold it up for inspection.
  799. >In your opinion, too many Guard unicorns rely exclusively on magic.
  800. >While it may be acceptable in some posts, at the PWG you train to use your hooves and mouths too.
  801. >The job can get pretty physical sometimes, stomping around through the dense bush or wrangling ornery jackalopes.
  802. >You wouldn’t want to be rendered completely useless by something as minor as a bump to the horn.
  803. >Satisfied with the knife’s condition, you resheath it manually and turn to the rest of your gear.
  804. >Which is currently strewn all about the floor.
  805. >The aftermath of your desperate rummaging for a water purifier earlier.
  806. >You quickly and efficiently pack it up, taking stock as you go.
  807. >One small spool of rope, thin but strong enough to hold your weight.
  808. >(If you ever go marching through the desert with Punch again, you might just tie the two of you together so you don’t lose her again.)
  809. >One waterproof envelope. Inside are a map of southern Equestria (not detailed enough for your liking), a notebook (with your meager notes on the investigation), a compass, and a pencil.
  810. >One medical kit, including a few potion flasks. All still intact.
  811. >You’d hope so, too, considering how much they cost.
  812. >Specially built to be more compact and rugged than your typical alchemists’ flasks.
  813. >Four bars of long life rations. Basically trail mix, but stamped into shape and somehow devoid of flavour.
  814. >Your stomach noisily informs you it doesn’t care about flavour, and that you haven’t eaten since brunch.
  815. >Obligingly, you unwrap a bar and start to munch on it while continuing to pack.
  816. “Blech.”
  817. >You scrunch your nose at the morsel. Compared to the rich flavours of this morning’s toasted sandwich, it’s like eating gravel.
  818. >But food is food, and you need to keep your energy up.
  819. >Especially with night approaching.
  820. >Deserts get cold; you’ll need the calories.
  821. >Maybe later you’ll try some of the wild plants you passed on your way down here.
  822. >Bland and not terribly filling as a rule, but you don’t know how long you’ll be stuck out here.
  823. >Better to live off the land where you can, and try to ration your rations.
  824. “Heheh. Ration your rations.”
  825. >Clearly you should have been a comedian. Significantly lower chance of being abducted by sand demons.
  826. >Your smirk turns into a grimace as you absentmindedly take another bite.
  827. "Bleargh."
  828. >Significantly lower chance of having to eat rations, too.
  829. >Alright, back to inventory.
  830. >Next up is your gem pouch.
  831. >You still have one remaining aquamarine (enchanted with a water purification spell), one fire ruby (instant campfire), one sunstone (illumination), and two thunder quartzes (signal flares) - all in separate, magically isolated compartments.
  832. >Wait-
  833. “I forgot the damn flares!”
  834. >You slap a hoof to your forehead.
  835. >You should have sent up a flare immediately after the Dust Devil attack!
  836. >You start to pace about the room, tail twitching.
  837. >You’ve seen thunder quartz flares in action before. A reverse gravity enchantment sends the stone flying when activated. A few seconds later, some sort of pegasus magic causes it to vapourize into an artificial cloud, illuminated from within by flashes of rainbow lightning.
  838. >You’re not much of a spellcaster, but you’re assured it’s all simple, low power magic. Makes them very reliable and long lasting. In calm weather the distinctive shimmering cloud can last for days, though the light show fades out after only a few minutes.
  839. >If only you’d thought to use one!
  840. >Even in the middle of the bright desert, it would have been visible for miles.
  841. >Fruit would have seen it and come flying!
  842. >You could have been rescued by now!
  843. >You draw in a deep breath, ready to shout in frustration!
  844. >Your hoof brushes against a small stone.
  845. >It clatters away into the darkness, the tiny noise echoing loudly.
  846. >You pause, lungs still full.
  847. >...This isn't the time or place for shouting, a small part of you insists.
  848. >You'd alert any nearby creatures, putting yourself in needless danger. You should be better than that.
  849. >You've already made enough mistakes for one day.
  850. >Slowly you deflate.
  851. >You sigh, and step over to the pool.
  852. >Leaning downing, you scoop up some of the cool water, splashing across your head and neck.
  853. >It helps.
  854. >As your frustration drains away, reason starts to reassert itself.
  855. >Getting all worked up again isn’t going to help. What’s done is done.
  856. >Besides, if you were so addled by the heat that you forgot your own equipment, then you probably couldn’t have stayed out there much longer anyway.
  857. >While you *may* have been rescued, waiting would have been a dangerous gamble.
  858. >Especially since there was no sign of Punch anyway, who ought to have been visible for miles herself.
  859. >Odds are nopony would have seen the flare, and by the time you’d given up on waiting you’d have been too overheated to make it to shelter.
  860. >You shake your head, water spraying from your muzzle.
  861. “Never mind. Just… focus on the task at hoof.”
  862. >You stuff the gem pouch into your saddlebag, vowing to remember it next time.
  863. >You’ll see about sending up a signal flare soon, but first you have to find somewhere safe to wait.
  864. >The faint odour of blood and decay are an ever present reminder of just how little you know about this place.
  865. >It’s quiet down here, but you’ve barely explored the main tunnel, let alone any of the side passages. Who knows how many creatures use this pool as their watering hole?
  866. >Speaking of which, the last item to pack is your canteen.
  867. >Normally you’d have a cloak or poncho too, but you figured you wouldn’t need one for day trips in the desert.
  868. >You might end up regretting that decision real soon.
  869. >Hefting your canteen with a hoof, it feels about half full.
  870. “Hmm...”
  871. >Is it worth using your remaining purifier to top it up?
  872. >If there *is* something dangerous living down here, you might have to leave in a hurry.
  873. >Then who knows when you’ll next find water?
  874. >But it is your *last* purifier. Once that’s gone, you’ll either have to find running water, or boil it.
  875. >You finish off your ration bar as you deliberate. (Resigned to the blandness at this point.)
  876. >It’s risky either way, but you decide to save the purifier for the time being.
  877. >It might be egotistical of you, but you *think* you can handle most wildlife you’re likely to run into.
  878. >And if not, well, you’ve already found water once; hopefully it wasn’t just a fluke.
  879. >(Something vaguely bothers you about that thought, but you can’t quite put your hoof on it.)
  880. >Shaking your head, you drape the canteen over your neck and take a quick sip to wash away the last of the ration taste.
  881. >And with that, you’re ready for adventure!
  882. >Well, not quite.
  883. >After guzzling all that water earlier, nature is calling.
  884. >Insistently.
  885. >Plus, you need to make sure you have a line of retreat. You more or less stumbled down here in a haze, after all.
  886. >You should memorize the way out, in case you need to make a hasty exit.
  887. >The opening you originally entered from is just a few hooves away. You trot over and inspect it.
  888. >It’s a dusty slope about one pony length wide. It doesn't really have a floor to speak of, the walls simply narrowing until they meet up, but in a few places the rock has broken away, forming irregular steps.
  889. >It’s pretty steep, but you’re a mountain mare.
  890. >You leap up easily, agile as any goat.
  891. >The passage curves and widens as it rises, the temperature rising along with it.
  892. >A few broken rocks and loose pebbles litter the path, but it’s otherwise quite smooth.
  893. >This whole place is likely a funnel for floodwaters.
  894. >The pool below would be the remains of the last flood, however many months ago it swept through.
  895. >You continue climbing, the air quickly heating up as you near the surface.
  896. >You’re glad for the still-wet gambeson keeping you cool.
  897. >Soon the high walls part, and you emerge into a familiar shallow ravine, painted red by a magnificent sunset.
  898. >Directly ahead of you the horizon is a blinding band of brilliant orange - the molten heart of a furnace, poured over the dark mountaintops.
  899. >From there, the vast expanse overhead fades from vivid scarlet to violet to darkest blue.
  900. >A few distant clouds catch the last rays of the sun, glowing a shocking pink.
  901. >Even in a place as inhospitable as this, Equestria never ceases to be breathtaking.
  902. >Despite the obvious differences, you’re reminded of home. Of the harsh beauty of the frozen north.
  903. >If you underestimate them, the mountains will kill you just as surely as any desert.
  904. >Yet they’re also the home of some of the most spectacular sights you’ve ever seen.
  905. >You see that same contrast here:
  906. >Beauty and danger.
  907. >Serenity and awe.
  908. >You find yourself starting to appreciate the desert.
  909. >Just a little.
  910. >Grudgingly.
  911. >At this point your bladder interrupts, stating that for the record it doesn’t appreciate the view, and it *definitely* doesn’t appreciate the delay.
  912. >You quickly scoot behind some bushes a little ways off to the side.
  913. >After taking care of business, you return to the main path and look east again, admiring the sunset.
  914. >Wait, east?
  915. >The sun sets in the *west.*
  916. >The Macintosh mountain range looms just a few miles south of you. This other smaller range is on their left, and thus definitely to the east.
  917. >Despite the fact that the sun just set behind it.
  918. >And it’s definitely setting, not rising. Air’s still hot from the heat of the day, and you’re pretty sure it’s gotten darker since you stepped out here.
  919. “What in Celestia’s name…?”
  920. >Ok, remember your equipment this time. Your sense of direction is usually fine, but you *do* have an actual compass.
  921. >You quickly float the containing envelope out from the depths of your saddlebags, and bring the compass up to bear.
  922. >The needle spins, wobbles, and eventually settles.
  923. >The sun *is* in the west, right where it should be. Good, good.
  924. >Villains haven’t hijacked the sun while you were gone.
  925. >(Again.)
  926. >But... the Macintosh range is to the north??
  927. >It’s supposed to be to the south!
  928. >When did the mountains move!?
  929. “What is going o- Oh. *Ohhh.*”
  930. >You sit down, feeling faint as realisation dawns.
  931. >The mountains didn’t move.
  932. >*You* did.
  933. >The damn Dust Devil moved you to *the other side of the mountains.*
  934. >Huh.
  935. “Huh.”
  936. >You’re officially outside of Equestria.
  937. >With shaky hooves, you take a large gulp from your canteen.
  938. >You wish you had something harder to drink.
  939. >The water doesn’t quite go down right.
  940. >You splutter and cough, dribbling a bit down your chest.
  941. >A few seconds of painful hacking and wheezing do a great job of snapping you out of your shock.
  942. “Ok. *cough* Ok.”
  943. >You wipe your mouth on the back of a hoof and pull out your map.
  944. >The area south of the Macintosh range is mainly restricted to the margins.
  945. >A large, empty place, drawn in even less detail than the rest of the already vague map.
  946. >A single ominous label fills most of the space:
  947. “‘Badlands.’ Well, I suppose that’s accurate. Not particularly helpful though.”
  948. >You’ve heard of the Badlands, of course.
  949. >Not technically part of Equestria, but a variety of dangerous creatures are known to live within.
  950. >Since they tend to creep into Equestria from time to time, you’ve read about them as part of your PWG training.
  951. >You look up from your map and face the dark, narrow crevice leading back down into the ravine.
  952. >You gulp instinctively.
  953. >Suddenly you’re a little less confident in your ability to handle any wildlife you run into.
  954. >Alright, time for some serious reevaluation.
  955. >You take a seat and set aside your helmet, giving your thick, bushy mane room to breathe.
  956. >(Amazing that it can still be so hot out here at this time of day.)
  957. >So: you’re south of the Macintosh ranges.
  958. >On the plus side, this explains why you couldn’t find Punch earlier.
  959. >She’s probably fine; there just happens to be a kilometres wide rock wall between you.
  960. >On the minus side, you’re not lost hours from civilization.
  961. >You’re lost *days* from civilization.
  962. >The map shows a route back to Equestria if you travel east far enough, where the Macintosh range finally ends.
  963. >But without more detailed information, for all you know that's a week of travel through nonstop desert.
  964. >You’d also be travelling *away* from any potential rescue efforts.
  965. >Not a great option, all things considered.
  966. >Lowering the map, your gaze turns northward.
  967. >The Macintosh mountains glower back.
  968. >A massive, jagged wall, black and menacing red in the sunset. Standing between you and civilization.
  969. >But you’re a mountain mare.
  970. >The looming slopes don’t intimidate you.
  971. >Even without equipment, crossing them is not completely out of the question.
  972. >That said, you know better than most:
  973. >If you underestimate them, mountains will kill you just as surely as any desert.
  974. >So, also not a great option. Let’s call that Plan B.
  975. >But what’s Plan A?
  976. >Thunder quartz flares are good, but not visible-over-a-mountain good.
  977. >You could wait here for rescue, but it could be days or weeks before anypony thinks to look this far south.
  978. >(If they ever do at all.)
  979. >And you still don’t know if you *can* wait here. Mysterious, possibly predatory wildlife, and all that.
  980. >Brings you back full circle, you suppose.
  981. >Before you can make any long term plans, you really need to know if this place is safe. To stay the night, at the very least.
  982. >It’s been a long day, and the prospect of exploring dark caves is not terribly appealing.
  983. >But trying to find another shelter, in this vast wasteland, at night? Even less so.
  984. >There’s still a number of concerns on your mind, but the last of the daylight is fading fast.
  985. >Better to ponder them *after* you’ve established a base of operations.
  986. “Alright, Glace. Enough dilly-dallying. Let’s get this over with.”
  987. >You replace your helmet and return the map to your bag.
  988. >Your knife levitates out in its place, your sword being too large for the confined spaces below.
  989. >Quietly as you can, you begin creeping down the dark passage.
  990. >The walls close in on either side. The narrowing slit of sky provides little illumination.
  991. >With a thought, you force more magic through your horn.
  992. >The tunnel lights up a murky green. Every bump and crack and pore is cast into sharp relief, minute shadows shifting with each step.
  993. >Despite your best efforts, the sounds of your descent echo ahead of you: metallic clanks and scrapes against the cold stone.
  994. >You glumly accept that, between the light and the noise, you’re not likely to take anycreature by surprise.
  995. >After a few minutes you reach the pool chamber.
  996. >It’s just as empty as you left it.
  997. >Glancing both ways, you decide to head right, leaving the water behind and following the main passage as it climbs uphill.
  998. >You figure it should just lead back to the surface, so it’ll be an easy path to check off.
  999. >It’s also another potential escape route, and so worth scouting.
  1000. >Soon enough you’re proven right: after a few turns, the passage widens into a small valley.
  1001. >Some spindly, sweet smelling silhouettes resolve into bushes and even a few short trees.
  1002. >Good find.
  1003. >There might be enough food here to last a week or two.
  1004. >Wild plants tends to make even ration bars seem tasty by comparison, but beggars can’t be choosers.
  1005. >As you return to the pool chamber the fresh scent of plants fades behind you, replaced by that faint reek of rot.
  1006. >You follow it, pausing to sniff this way and that as you slowly advance.
  1007. >The watercourse winds along gently, the dark pool sometimes widening, sometimes narrowing, but steadily rising.
  1008. >Soon water fills the entire passage, and you have to cling to the sloped sides to avoid it.
  1009. >Now and again you pass an opening or small side passage, mostly climbing up and out.
  1010. >At each you stop, smell the air, listen, and move on.
  1011. >Until you reach a split where the odour is noticeably stronger:
  1012. >Rot, and ash, and musk.
  1013. >You wait a moment at the entrance, ears perked.
  1014. >The opening is quite small; no more than a ragged fissure in the wall, widened and smoothed by years of flooding but still uncomfortably narrow.
  1015. >It’s just as silent as the others.
  1016. >With a grunt, you lift yourself in.
  1017. >The tunnel climbs steeply, but it’s mercifully short. You can see the evening sky opening up just a few hooves above you.
  1018. >After some not-so-stealthy clambering, you emerge into a dusty bowl five or six pony lengths across.
  1019. >The rock walls overhang slightly, rising a few metres before pulling away to reveal the reddish-purple sky. A gravelly slope to the right leads up and out of sight.
  1020. >The source of the burning smell is immediately apparent:
  1021. >In the center of the bowl is a ring of blackened rocks surrounding a mound of ash.
  1022. >A campfire!
  1023. >It’s long dead, but the sight is reassuring - it’s the first trace of civilization you’ve seen since entering the Badlands.
  1024. >And if somecreature else can survive here, that’s a good sign you might be able to, too.
  1025. >Still, you proceed with caution.
  1026. >There can’t be too many other ponies lost in the Badlands, but you have heard stories of griffon bandits and changeling rebels calling the place home.
  1027. >They’re unlikely to be particularly welcoming towards a Royal Guard.
  1028. >Scanning the rest of the area, you see a crude bed of leaves and grass tucked beneath an overhang. An odd, musky smell emanates from it.
  1029. >On the opposite side of the bowl, in a shallow pit, lies a small pile of bones and gore - a midden.
  1030. >In the twilight you can more clearly smell it than see it. The source of the rotting stench.
  1031. >A small cloud of flies disperses as you approach. Your tail flicks automatically, driving away any insects which fly too close.
  1032. >A few other small mounds, covered over with sand, indicate previous middens. The inhabitant has been here a while, then.
  1033. >You begin to telekinetically shift through the muck, professional curiosity having long since replaced revulsion for such grisly tasks.
  1034. >Charred bones. None quite as large as pony bones, encouragingly.
  1035. >Intestines, scraps of meat, and other offal. Not the most diligent eater. Possible evidence that the creature is primarily a predator, rather than a scavenger. Weaker digestive system can’t take advantage of all the odds and ends.
  1036. >Scales, but little fur. Not too surprising - you imagine reptiles would be more common than mammals around here.
  1037. >Fruit rinds? Ok, an omnivore, then. Or facultative carnivore. Prey is probably quite scarce, so even a predator might supplement its diet with plants.
  1038. >You set the foul mess back down and step away, still thinking.
  1039. >Off the top of your head, dragons or griffons might fit the bill. Intelligent, independent predators.
  1040. >Though surely a dragon wouldn’t bother with a campfire?
  1041. >And you’re no expert, but it doesn’t really *smell* very griffon-y down here. No loose feathers, either.
  1042. >A diamond dog, maybe? You can’t see any claw marks or signs of digging...
  1043. >Quite the mystery.
  1044. >You'd like to stay and investigate further, but you really should check the perimeter first.
  1045. >Make sure nothing’s sneaking up on you while you poke around.
  1046. >Now that you’re outside again with enough light to see by (if just barely), you shift your knife to your mouth and extinguish your horn.
  1047. >No point making yourself more visible than necessary.
  1048. >The path to the right passes beneath a narrow stone arch before climbing up and widening into a jagged, uneven slope, dotted with boulders and a few small shrubs.
  1049. >The top of the slope is still some distance away. By your reckoning, from there you’d be out of the valley in which the water passage runs through, and would have a pretty good view of the whole area.
  1050. >Quietly and cautiously, you sneak your way uphill, the rough terrain posing little challenge for you.
  1051. >A few loose rocks are dislodged by your passage, but it can’t be helped - lighting your horn to see better would be even more of a giveaway.
  1052. >You’re halfway up the hill when another clatter nearby gives you pause.
  1053. >You didn’t *feel* anything shift underhoof that time.
  1054. >You wait, ears straining.
  1055. >There!
  1056. >A soft crunch, then another.
  1057. >Not too near, but not too far either.
  1058. >Instinct screams at you to flee, but curiosity and training overrule it.
  1059. >Quietly as you can, you duck into the shadow of a nearby overhang - not much defense against a predator’s sense of smell, but it’ll give you a clear view of whatever’s coming.
  1060. >You’re better off knowing what you’re dealing with, than running away blindly without a plan.
  1061. >Or so you hope.
  1062. >The faint noises - hoofsteps, perhaps - continue steadily, sounding heavier and heavier.
  1063. >Your hoof inches towards your greatsword.
  1064. >Craning your neck, you can just make out the top of the slope without exposing yourself.
  1065. >A silhouette slowly rises into view, not thirty metres from you.
  1066. >As it crests the hill, the last light of the sunset falls on it, illuminating it.
  1067. >It takes you a moment to register what you’re seeing.
  1068. “Oh buck me, is that what I think it is?”
  1070. 9
  1071. >Silently you creep forward, one infinitely cautious hoofstep at a time.
  1072. >Your body is tense; a bow, drawn, waiting for the perfect shot.
  1073. >You need to end this quickly. You haven’t been spotted yet, but one wrong move could spell disaster.
  1074. >Your hoof inches forward. Almost there...
  1075. >Three sharp knocks at the door break your concentration. Your back hoof clips against a chair, producing a slight scraping noise as it slides across the tiled floor.
  1076. >Sunbeam looks over at you from her place by the kitchen counter, amber eyes widening in surprise as they meet yours.
  1077. >You’re still frozen in place, one mauve hoof halfway to the bowl of cookie dough she’d set aside.
  1078. >Her eyes narrow dangerously.
  1079. >”And what do you think *you’re* doing?”
  1080. >You give her your best winning smile.
  1081. “Stealing cookie dough.”
  1082. >Her frown turns icy.
  1083. “...I’m in trouble, aren’t I?”
  1084. >Sunny waves a dough-speckled wooden spoon menacingly. (Anypony who’s not afraid of a spoon hasn’t seen what Sunny can do with one.)
  1085. >“Out of the kitchen, thief! Go get the door, then report back for your punishment.”
  1086. >Dangit!
  1087. >You were so close this time. Your wonderful wife’s a brilliant chef, but a tyrant when it comes to snacking on the ingredients. You dare not challenge her in her domain.
  1088. >You slink away, shoulders slumped in defeat.
  1089. >Wait. When she said punishment, did she mean punishment, or *punishment*?
  1090. >You perk up at the thought.
  1091. >Maybe not a total loss after all.
  1092. >Humming to yourself, you open the door to your cozy little Tranquility Springs home.
  1093. >Warm light spills out onto the dim wooden porch, while warm evening air presses in. An orange stallion wearing a tan vest and a very deliberately neutral expression stands stiffly on the welcome mat. The gold star pinned to his chest gleams, perhaps on purpose, as he shifts his weight.
  1094. >”Evening, Rose,” he says carefully.
  1095. “Why, Prickly Pear, what an unpleasant surprise.”
  1096. >You smile and close the door in his face, humming again as you turn back to the kitchen.
  1097. >There’s another series of knocks.
  1098. >”Come on, Rosie, this is serious.”
  1099. >With a roll of your eyes, you open the door again, leaning against the frame.
  1100. “What can I help the sheriff with?” you deadpan.
  1101. >This time you notice the other pony accompanying him, hanging a little further back. Pegasus, purple coat, green mane, wearing golden armour.
  1102. >A Royal Guard? Hmm, perhaps this *is* serious.
  1103. >”If you could drop the attitude for once, that’d be a start,” Pear mutters, massaging his temples. “Anyway, Dusty Rose, this is Fruit Punch of the Royal Guard.”
  1104. >He gestures the pegasus forward. As she steps into the light, you notice she looks a bit out of sorts. Armour’s scuffed and dirty. Bandages around one wing. Sagging posture.
  1105. >The poor dear’s obviously had a long day.
  1106. >”Private Punch, Harmony Corps. Pleasure to meet you, ma’am.”
  1107. >At least her voice is firm and professional, and there’s a small smile on her lips as she raises a hoof.
  1108. >You bump it with your own, returning her smile.
  1109. “Hey, don’t “ma’am” me, kid. I used to be enlisted just like you. Just “Rosie”’s fine. Now come on in, you look like you could use a cuppa.”
  1110. >You step aside, letting the filly in. She gives you a grateful smile as she enters.
  1111. >Lingering in the doorway, you give Prickly a critical look. He returns it with a flat stare of his own.
  1112. >Eventually you nod towards the door.
  1113. “Hmm, I suppose I oughta let you in, too.”
  1114. >”Mighty gracious of you,” he says, almost completely managing to conceal the sarcasm.
  1115. >As he steps past and you move to close the door, a slight rustle in the darkness makes you pause.
  1116. >You turn to peer out into the gloom. For a second you thought you saw a silhouette in your peripheral vision. But as your eyes adjust to the dim light, nothing seems amiss.
  1117. >A few shrubs wave gently in the evening breeze. Lights flicker in the windows of houses across the street. Bats flitter overhead, snatching at invisible insects.
  1118. >You shrug, and close the door.
  1119. >Soon everypony is settled around the living room table. Assorted cushions, bookshelves full of knick knacks, and thick cream curtains line the room. Sunny’s put the kettle on and offered your guests some fresh cookies (pointedly ignoring you) before returning to the kitchen, leaving you to get down to business.
  1120. >Thankfully, Prickly seems to be in a hurry himself, and wastes no time with chitchat.
  1121. >”So you heard ‘bout them two Royal Guards who arrived the other day? Miss Punch and another one?”
  1122. “Yeah, little Sandy came by yesterday gushing about them."
  1123. >(Not that you can blame her. Those golden uniforms have a mighty powerful effect on mares. Just ask your wife.)
  1124. >You smile over at Punch.
  1125. "She seemed quite smitten with her handsome houseguests.”
  1126. >Your ears twitch at some brief, high pitched squeal, though your guests don’t seem to hear it. Punch is looking equal parts amused and embarrassed, while Prickly just looks his namesake.
  1127. >”Uh huh, lovely. Well, the two of ‘em went out into the foothills past Hoofrest this morning, despite my advice, and long story short the other mare’s gone missing.”
  1128. >Your ears perk up in surprise. Oh my, that *does* sound serious.
  1129. >”Got separated during a sandstorm, apparently.”
  1130. >”Dust Devil,” Punch corrects. “I’m no weathermare but I know for sure that wasn’t any natural storm. Oh, and it wasn’t even our first Dust Devil - we ran into a smaller one on our way here two days ago.”
  1131. >Well, that’s a most peculiar coincidence.
  1132. >You arch an eyebrow at Prickly, silently asking his opinion. He shrugs in return, looking unconvinced.
  1133. >Dust Devils aren’t exactly common, especially not in this area. For outsiders to run into them *twice* while investigating out in the desert? Well.
  1134. >That almost sounds like…
  1135. >*Her*.
  1136. >You shake your head.
  1137. >Most likely, they were just blown off course. Outsiders tend to think any old gust of sand or bout of bad weather is some desert wraith personally tormenting them.
  1138. >Desert’s dangerous enough without bringing spirits into it.
  1139. >You turn to face Punch, taking a moment to study her more closely.
  1140. >Her expression is honest and confident, though you see a hint of concern in her eyes. But really, she looks half asleep.
  1141. >She’s been doing a good job of hiding it, but she’s been swaying ever so slightly this whole time. Her ears are just a little bit droopy, and she has to periodically blink herself awake. There’s a tiny, carefully controlled tremor in her voice when she speaks, and she hasn’t *quite* managed to clean the grime around her eyes marking where she’s been crying.
  1142. >Poor thing. A young private, all alone, separated from her unit and the chain of command? The kid’s clearly in way over her head, worried and exhausted.
  1143. >Easy for somepony like that to start imagining things.
  1144. >”Anyway,” says Prickly, interrupting your train of thought. “We obviously need to put together a search party. And since this is your fault, I figured you’d want to volunteer.”
  1145. >His little jab doesn’t bother you, but he’s right about the volunteering.
  1146. >You doubt he’s really noticed Punch’s state - he’s too wrapped up in his own responsibilities. But you’re older than him, you've seen it all before.
  1147. “Of course I’ll help. Now then,” you stand up, and start ushering the sheriff towards the door. Your old squad leader instincts, or perhaps your normally dormant maternal side, are crying out to help this filly. “I’m sure you have plenty to do, so why don’t you go make yourself useful somewhere else? I’ll make preparations here, and look after Miss Punch.”
  1148. >He frowns, confused by your sudden bout of helpfulness, but lets himself be escorted to the door.
  1149. >Once on the porch, he turns, professional sheriff expression back in place.
  1150. >”I’m thinking we all meet up outside Town Hall 'bout three hours ‘fore dawn. I’ll see if I can’t round up another dozen other volunteers by then, and a couple o’ wagons for supplies. Four or five barrels of water, some grub, some firewood.”
  1151. >It’s not a question, but you know he’s asking for your opinion. As much as the two of you don’t get along these days, at least you respect each other’s experience.
  1152. >You quickly run the numbers through your head, nodding in agreement when they line up with your own estimates.
  1153. “Six barrels. And see if you can get Mr Woodwind to help - we could use a pegasus.”
  1154. >Woodwind is the town’s weather pony, and one of the few pegasi permanent residents.
  1155. >”I was thinking ‘bout sending him to Appleoosa with a message for the Guard,” Prickly admits.
  1156. >You shake your head.
  1157. “He’ll be more use with us. Send one of your deputy colts - Fields is pretty quick on his hooves, isn’t he?”
  1158. >He frowns.
  1159. >”Need to keep the deputies here in my stead. Remember, this whole mess started ‘cause of some alleged monster sighting. So if some critter’s gotten bold enough to snatch a Royal Guard, then now’d be the worst time to leave Tranquility undefended.”
  1160. >You don’t bother pointing out that Tranquility Springs is hours away from the potential monster site. No point aggravating Prickly - you know how much he must dislike the idea of leading civilians into the desert, and you don’t want to accidentally talk him out of it.
  1161. “Not a deputy, then," you concede. "Send Tumbleweed - he’s always full of energy, and knows the way well enough.”
  1162. >He grunts in ascent.
  1163. >"Well, I'd best mosey along. Lots to get done tonight. See you in a few hours, Rose."
  1164. “Yep. Good luck, Pear.”
  1165. >As he trots away into the darkness, you once again have the feeling you’re being watched. The bushes aren't quite rustling right; the usual chirp of nighttime insects is muted.
  1166. >Casually you close the door, and head back inside.
  1167. >Sunny has returned with a pot of tea and another tray of cookies, which Punch is gratefully wolfing down. Your darling wife graciously allows you a cookie of your own. It even has those rainbow chocolatey bits. Bliss.
  1168. >”’Scuse me, Rosie, but what did the sheriff mean when he said this was your fault?” Punch asks, spilling a few crumbs.
  1169. “Oh, just a bit of a disagreement. He was against getting the Royal Guard involved with our little monster problem. I ended up going around him, called in a few favours from some old Guard buddies."
  1170. >You shrug.
  1171. "So, in a way, I suppose it *is* my fault you’re here.”
  1172. >Punch nods, blinking slowly.
  1173. >”Whyaaaaahhh-” a mighty yawn escapes her. “-Why was he against involving the Guard?”
  1174. >You smile and shake your head.
  1175. “Let’s leave the questions till morning, alright kiddo? We've got a big day ahead of us, and you need some rest. Though if you feel you can stay awake just a little longer, I’ll run you a nice hot bath, while Sunny here keeps stuffing you full of cookies and other delicious things.”
  1176. >”I’d like nothing better,” Sunny beams, tousling Punch’s mane.
  1177. >”Mmm, that sounds fantastic. Thank you both so much.” Punch is already starting on her next cookie.
  1178. >Heh. Good kid.
  1179. >She’ll be alright with some food and rest.
  1180. >You set the bath running, and, on a hunch, add a bit of bubble bath formula. You have a feeling Punch is the type to enjoy it.
  1181. >Instead of returning to the living room, you quietly make your way out through the back door, the rumble of the filling tub drowning the door’s quiet squeak.
  1182. >You step out into the darkness of your backyard. As your hooves press against the hard, dry earth, your earth pony senses reach out, once again feeling a presence lurking in the shadows.
  1183. >Though this time you’ll be the one doing the watching.
  1184. >Quietly you trot around the side of the house, pausing to peer around the corner.
  1185. >Just a few metres away, a dark figure is pressed up against the glass of the living room window, listening through the thick curtains.
  1186. >It hasn’t noticed you yet.
  1187. >Silently you creep forward, one infinitely cautious hoofstep at a time.
  1188. >Your body is tense; a bow, drawn, waiting for the perfect shot.
  1189. >You need to end this quickly. You haven’t been spotted yet, but one wrong move could spell disaster.
  1190. >You pause, inches away.
  1191. >A small amount of light passes through the heavy curtains, just barely illuminating the figure.
  1192. >You grin to yourself.
  1193. >Leaning forward until you’re right next to her ear, you whisper:
  1194. ”And what do you think *you’re* doing?”
  1195. >Sandy Miles shrieks in surprise, leaping almost out of her skin before crashing to the ground at your hooves.
  1196. >"Eeeek! Auntie Rose! Oh, um, hi! I was just uh..."
  1197. >She gives you her best winning smile.
  1198. >“Snooping?”
  1199. >You put on your best Angry Sunbeam impression.
  1200. >“...I’m in trouble, aren’t I?”
  1201. >From inside the house you hear Sunny shout, “What the heck was that?!”
  1203. 10
  1204. >As with all branches of the Royal Guard, Parks and Wilderness initiates go through a period of training and study before becoming full fledged members.
  1205. >Due to the nature of the work, this tends to be a bit more hooves on than usual. Lots of trekking around the countryside with an instructor, learning to repair traps and inspect nests and so forth.
  1206. >But it’s not without a theoretical side. There are plenty of important tasks which are either too impractical or too dangerous to learn firsthoof.
  1207. >From surviving forest fires to surviving paperwork, you endured a solid month in a dinky little PWG training center, memorising facts and procedures.
  1208. >Nearly half that time was spent studying Equestria’s more dangerous flora and fauna. Aardsharks, bugbears, cragodiles, and more; you learned where they live, the problems they can cause, and how best to deal with them.
  1209. >Mostly this just covered the basics. You’d receive more region-specific mentoring after being assigned to a post.
  1210. >But for some creatures, just the basics weren’t enough.
  1211. >These were the creatures deemed so dangerous, so completely out of your league, that even though the odds of encountering them were slim to none, you still had to spend a full three days studying them. A full three days studying The List.
  1212. >All sorts of rumours surrounded The List.
  1213. >As far as you know, no living member of the PWG has ever encountered any creature on The List.
  1214. >So either they’re incredibly rare, or those who do encounter them quickly cease to be living.
  1215. >Given that most of the entries seem to be taken straight from folklore and ghost stories, you’d always assumed this was just a case of “Better safe than sorry.” Sure, maybe some of these creatures *did* exist once upon a time, but their presence in modern Guard training material was just a reminder of the dangers that Equestria once faced, rather than providing actual relevant skills. A fable to frighten cocky young guards.
  1216. >Then again, there was a rumour that some entries had been added at the direct request of the Princesses themselves. You don’t see the Crowns intervening like that without good reason.
  1217. >Whatever the case, all new recruits were made to memorize The List until they could recite it in their sleep.
  1218. >You are Sergeant Glacier, and even all these years later, as you cower behind a boulder watching that *thing* stalk towards you, the list still comes to mind easily.
  1219. >First, alphabetically, are the Alicorns.
  1220. >Not the Princesses, obviously. While technically incredibly dangerous, they’re clearly not a threat to Equestria - they practically *are* Equestria.
  1221. >No, the creatures on The List are Wild Alicorns.
  1222. >There’s a whole genre of folk stories about regular ponies who, by magic or alchemy or a deal with Tirek, obtain the power of the Alicorns, only to accidentally destroy their home towns and end up as haunting specters in the wilderness.
  1223. >Sounds pretty farfetched to you, but it is true that Princess Twilight and Princess Cadance used to be regular ponies. If the two of them managed to ascend in the span of just a few years, who’s to say there can’t be others? You suppose it’s prudent to at least acknowledge the possibility.
  1224. >Next on The List is the Angel Bunny.
  1225. >You’d never heard of it up north, but it’s apparently a central Equestrian thing. Some sort of violent, capricious demon in the guise of a white rabbit.
  1226. >Ever since learning of it, you’ve been just a little bit leery around rabbits.
  1227. >Next are the Deep Ones.
  1228. >Now *these* things scare you.
  1229. >You know little about them, other than a general physical description, the fact that they live in remote coastal caves, and that they’re *very* hostile.
  1230. >The scary part is how some PWG veterans refuse to talk about them. Tough as nails instructors would clam up - or clam *you* up - whenever their name was spoken.
  1231. >Speculation was rife amongst your fellow students, but you stayed clear of it. Whatever the truth was, you were happy to leave well enough alone.
  1232. >Fourth are Draconequus.
  1233. >As far as anypony is aware, there’s only one Draconequus, and the Princess of Friendship reformed him years ago.
  1234. >But considering the amount of damage he’s said to have caused singlehoofedly (singleclawedly?), it makes sense to be aware of the danger should you ever encounter another one.
  1235. >Or should Discord decide to duplicate himself.
  1236. >Apparently he does that sometimes.
  1237. >What was next…? Oh, yes.
  1238. >Hollow Breezies.
  1239. >You never really found a satisfactory answer as to how they differ from normal breezies.
  1240. >But after a bit of independent research, you *did* find a record blaming Hollow Breezies for some calamity a few hundred of years ago.
  1241. >Details were unclear on exactly what they did or how such tiny creatures could be a threat. But to this day, several empty villages can still be found in northwest Equestria, which the locals refuse to resettle.
  1242. >You’ve heard a few horror stories about Hollow Breezies since then, but they’re all wildly inconsistent and unrealistic.
  1243. >Seriously, ribcages don’t work that way.
  1244. >Next on The List was another name from horror stories.
  1245. >All sorts of sinister things are attributed to them, from eating pony flesh to causing earthquakes to stealing horseshoes. In old fables and breezy tales, they often featured as terrifying monsters or evil enchanters, whom the heroine would have to outwit or escape.
  1246. >You’d studied their description years ago, but never in your life did you ever imagine you’d actually *see* one.
  1247. >Until tonight.
  1248. >Standing atop the ridge, illuminated by the last rays of the setting sun, you see it now all too clearly.
  1249. >Looming, bipedal form, held aloft on stilt-like legs.
  1250. >Hairless, exposed flesh, muscle and bone and vein visibly shifting beneath translucent skin.
  1251. >Slender, elongated forelimbs, ending in worm-like digits entwined around a crude spear.
  1252. >A human.
  1253. >You shrink back into the shadows of your hiding spot as this horror from a hundred foal’s tales descends towards you.
  1254. >It moves quickly; powerful, overlong legs easily traversing the rugged terrain.
  1255. >It hasn’t noticed you yet, but it’s getting closer. In seconds it will pass your hiding place - or turn and spot you.
  1256. >Instinct and training and panic scream conflicting instructions: Run. Hide. Draw your sword. Prepare a spell. Curl into a ball and pray it doesn’t find you.
  1257. >Through the turmoil and indecision, a single memory overrules the rest: the last thing you learned about The List.
  1258. >You remember the cramped lecture hall. The gruff, accented instructor. What was his name? Doesn’t matter. You remember his words.
  1259. >”Now listen up, this is the important part! There’s a reason you just spent half a week learning about creatures which allegedly don’t exist. Should any of you have the incredible misfortune of actually encountering one of these bastards, there is exactly one standing order for you to remember: If you see a creature on The List, you *get the hell out of there*.”
  1260. >”You do *not* engage.”
  1261. >”You do *not* observe.”
  1262. >”You evacuate any civilians you can, but your highest priority is to inform HQ of the situation ASAP. This is *not* your fight.”
  1263. >This was drilled into you over and over. The *only* response to finding a creature on The List is to drop what you’re doing and run.
  1264. >Over the years, you’ve heard speculation that this is the *true* purpose of the Parks and Wilderness Guard. That all the monster hunting and forest maintenance is just busywork. The *real* reason you’re deployed to remote corners of the kingdom is to act as Equestria’s early warning system.
  1265. >Sentries, with enough knowledge to identify a crisis before it hits, and enough training to survive long enough to report it.
  1266. >Whatever the truth, you’re certainly not fool enough to pick a fight with a monster from horror stories.
  1267. >While it may *look* like a twisted, emaciated minotaur, you’ve no idea what it’s really capable of. (Apart from, presumably, skewering you with that spear). For all you know, your own sword might not even be able to harm it.
  1268. >Like you told Sandy, best to steer clear of unfamiliar creatures.
  1269. >All this flashes through your head in the time it takes for the human to take a single step closer.
  1270. >Alright. Time to make a decision.
  1271. >Fighting is a no go. Your options have been whittled down to “run” or “hide”.
  1272. >Crunch. It takes another step.
  1273. >If you run, you’ll alert it for sure, but at least you’ll have a head start.
  1274. >If you hide, it *might* miss you in the dark, but it will definitely get a lot closer first.
  1275. >Crunch.
  1276. >Both options are risky. There’s a lot of unknowns.
  1277. >How fast can it run? It’s only got two legs to your four, but they’re a lot longer.
  1278. >Crunch.
  1279. >How acute are its senses? Its nose and eyes are so small they seem almost vestigial, but it’s striding through the darkness with complete confidence.
  1280. >Crunch.
  1281. >Getting *real* close now. Is it too late to run? Every moment spent deliberating brings it that much closer.
  1282. >Crunch.
  1283. >It’s hard to think straight. You’re paralyzed by indecision and fear.
  1284. >And not a little bit of morbid curiosity, too - you’ll be the first pony to see a human up close in who knows how long. Even if it kills you.
  1285. >Crunch.
  1286. >It’s *right there*.
  1287. >The silhouette towers over you, blacking out the starry sky.
  1288. >You could reach out and touch it.
  1289. >It could reach out and touch *you*. Or skewer you in the blink of an eye.
  1290. >Crunch.
  1291. >And just like that, it passes you.
  1292. >Doesn’t pause. Doesn’t turn your way.
  1293. >It’s missed you!
  1294. >Crunch.
  1295. >Crunch.
  1296. >The footsteps continue steadily downhill.
  1297. >The human disappears from view, swallowed up by the shadows of the valley below.
  1298. >For a few moments you can still make out a glimmer of movement in the darkness, then it’s gone completely. Eventually even the footsteps die away.
  1299. >Silence descends over the valley.
  1300. >You let out a shaky breath you hadn’t realised you’d been holding.
  1301. >Your heart is hammering painfully. A cold sweat soaks through your coat.
  1302. >That was *too* close.
  1303. >You screwed up again, but thank the Alicorns this time it didn’t cost you.
  1304. >Though honestly, you dare any PWG to meet a creature from The List and not freeze up. Especially when you’re alone, at night, in the middle of nowhere...
  1305. >...Darnit, you’ve become one of those horror story protagonists, haven’t you? You’re checking off every cliche.
  1306. >All that’s left for you to do is find a stallion, have sex for poorly explained reasons, then wait around for the human to suddenly show up and kill him.
  1307. >You shake your head.
  1308. >Focus. You’re still alive, and that means you’ve got a mission to do.
  1309. >You need to get out of this desert. Not just for your sake, but for Equestria’s. The Princesses must be warned.
  1310. >It’s a long way back to Tranquility Springs, but you’ll make it.
  1311. >Somehow.
  1312. >You’ve got to.
  1313. >And you’ve got to start immediately.
  1314. >You begin climbing up the slope and away from the human, cautious not to make any noise in the darkness.
  1315. >Weariness settles over you as you resign yourself to *more* trudging through the desert. Haven’t had enough of that for one day, gosh no.
  1316. >At least you had that nap earlier, so you should be good for a few more hours.
  1317. >Plus, the air has finally cooled. With the sun set, the unbearable desert heat has abated. In a few hours it will probably be too cold even for your liking, but for now it’s quite pleasant.
  1318. >After a few minutes of stealthy clambering, you’ve reached the top of the slope. With one last leap you’re finally clear of the valley. The wide plane of the badlands spreads out before you, bathed in pale moonlight.
  1319. >Directly ahead is a dark figure.
  1320. “Wha-”
  1321. >A sudden gust of wind and sand blasts into you, almost knocking you back down the hill.
  1322. >With a startled cry you slip back a step, rear hooves scrabbling on the rocky slope. You sputter and spit as you pull yourself forward, trying to gain a firmer hoofhold.
  1323. >Blinking the silvery sand from your eyes, you quickly look around.
  1324. >There’s nopony here.
  1325. >What the heck?
  1326. >You turn this way and that, but there’s nowhere for a pony - or any creature - to hide. Just… flat, dry earth.
  1327. >Are you seeing things? Is the stress and exhaustion finally catching up with you?
  1328. >Or could it have been a trick of the light? A tumbleweed or bunch of leaves or something, caught up in the gust, momentarily forming a pony-ish shape?
  1329. >You know how easy it is to start seeing things at night; every rock and shrub starts looking like a predator out to get you. And after that run in with the human, your prey instincts are probably on overdrive...
  1330. >Hmm. Could the human have something more to do with it?
  1331. >There were all those stories about human enchanters and necromancers. Could this have been some kind of... shadowy… magical... sentry?
  1332. >(Magic was never your strong suit).
  1333. >Your ears flicker as you register a clattering rumble behind you.
  1334. >Peering back down the hill, it seems you knocked a few rocks loose in your panic. Which have in turn gone and started a whole cascade, tumbling loudly down the valley.
  1335. >Darnit. So much for a leisurely trot through the cool night. Ghost sentry or not, the human’s bound to come investigate now.
  1336. >Well, in the words of that instructor whose name you forget, time to get the hell out of here!
  1337. >With Luna’s light shining bright overhead, you dash forward, galloping across the barren wasteland.
  1338. >No more figures appear in your path. Looking back over your shoulder, there’s no sign of anycreature following you.
  1339. >Yet.
  1340. >The harsh contrast between moonlight and shadow makes the world look flat and unreal.
  1341. >There’s no depth, no detail. Just pools of black, and patches of colourless light.
  1342. >Distances are hard to judge. Are those dark bands looming cliffs and abyssal canyons, or just small hills and shallow dips?
  1343. >Silhouettes on the horizon watch your progress. They appear stationary and mundane when you look at them - rocks or bushes, probably - but in the corners of your eyes they’re humans creeping stealthily towards you.
  1344. >You don’t know where you’re running to. East, roughly, but you never saw this side of the valley in the daylight. You’ll need to start heading north eventually, but for now you’re just trying to get *away*.
  1345. >After a while, you duck down behind a large rock to catch your breath.
  1346. >Despite the cooler night air, you're once again uncomfortably warm.
  1347. >A mouthful of water helps. It’s not enough, but you have to ration it.
  1348. >You sit there for a few minutes, panting, before deciding to get your bearings.
  1349. >You scan the horizon, trying to decipher the various shapes and shadows.
  1350. >Looks like open planes to the north. Low hills or cliffs to the east. Higher cliffs to the south. To the west-
  1351. “Human!”
  1352. >It’s the familiar looming shadow, still some distance away but *definitely* not a trick of the light.
  1353. >It’s moving, probably in your direction, but it’s hard to be sure.
  1354. >A spasm of motion and a glint of light are all the warning you get before *CRACK*!
  1355. >The spear glances off the rock next to you, narrowly missing your head before disappearing into the darkness.
  1356. >Instinct takes over and you immediately bolt, running blindly into the night.
  1357. >A primal panic urges you to gallop harder and faster than you’ve ever galloped in your life.
  1358. >You’ve been chased by dangerous creatures before. Even had training to overrule your natural instincts to flee.
  1359. >But this is different.
  1360. >This is a genuine monster from The List.
  1361. >You do *not* engage.
  1362. >You do *not* observe.
  1363. >You *get the hell out of there*.
  1364. >And you absolutely *do not* slow down, no matter how much your lungs start to burn or your legs start to shake.
  1365. >Time passes in a painful, fearful blur.
  1366. >The surreal lighting, monotonous landscape, and dizzying weariness makes it feel like you’re in one of those nightmares where you run, run, run, but never make any progress.
  1367. >Until suddenly you stumble. Tripped over a loose rock in the gloom.
  1368. >Somehow you manage to catch yourself, instead of breaking an ankle, thank Celestia.
  1369. >The near miss snaps you out of your stupor. Blinking, you risk a glance over your shoulder.
  1370. >The human is still in pursuit, but far in the distance, and receding further.
  1371. >It’s working!
  1372. >Suck it, two-legs!
  1373. >Looks like its bipedal form is ill suited to chasing down prey. Probably an ambush predator, using its spear or magic to strike from a distance.
  1374. >Given how much faster you are than it, hopefully it will decide you’re not worth the effort.
  1375. >Still, you keep running. Legs seizing up, lungs full of needles, but you keep running.
  1376. >The human shrinks until it’s no more than a notch on the horizon. Eventually it disappears completely as you enter an uneven patch of small hills and cliffs.
  1377. >You finally slow to a trot, gasping for breath.
  1378. >In the chilly evening air, you’re steaming with perspiration.
  1379. >Now that you’ve seemingly lost your pursuer, terror-fueled adrenaline is giving way to exhaustion. It’s been a *long* day.
  1380. >You flop to the ground, resting your abused limbs.
  1381. >For a solid minute it’s all you can do to breathe, trying to sate your overworked lungs.
  1382. >Eventually you levitate up your canteen. Your hooves are shaking far too much to use.
  1383. >Two long draughts leave the bottle empty. You’re desperate for more. Feels like you’re melting inside your own skin.
  1384. >You float your helmet off, letting your mane breathe. Then press the exposed parts of your coat against the cold earth.
  1385. >It helps.
  1386. >You just want to close your tired eyes and rest.
  1387. >But there’s no risk of accidentally falling asleep this time. The fear that the human might still be following is enough to get you back on your hooves after only a few minutes.
  1388. >Wearily, you make your way to the top of the nearest ridge. You need to be sure you’re safe before you can relax.
  1389. >You’re barely halfway to the summit before you see the telltale stick-like figure in the distance.
  1390. >Damnation!
  1391. >Does this creature never quit?
  1392. >It’s still not moving at a great pace, but neither does it seem to have slowed down at all.
  1393. >You're really starting to feel like a character in a horror story. The monster isn't fast (or at least, hasn't shown itself to be), but it's relentless. No matter how far you run, in just a few minutes it's caught up again, leaving you no chance to rest.
  1394. >Just how much stamina does this thing have? It has to slow down eventually, right?
  1395. >Maybe...
  1396. >Maybe you’ve misunderstood its strategy.
  1397. >Perhaps it’s not *chasing* you, but *wearing you down*. Forcing you to run while it follows leisurely.
  1398. >The pony instinct when faced with danger is to flee, but fleeing isn’t always the right response. Some predators rely on this instinct, driving their prey to flee until they’re too exhausted and weak to fight back, making them easy pickings. If the prey had just stood its ground in the first place, the predator may well have backed off.
  1399. >Not that you really have the option of standing your ground, not against a creature from The List. But fleeing in a blind panic is clearly not working.
  1400. >You need to calm down. Come up with a plan, and take back control.
  1401. >You duck back out of sight, heading back down the hill. No need to advertise your presence more than you already have.
  1402. >Alright.
  1403. >Running’s not a long term solution.
  1404. >Fighting’s a last resort.
  1405. >Given that it tried to skewer you the moment it saw you, you’re not optimistic about negotiation.
  1406. >That leaves either hiding, or trying to scare it off.
  1407. >You’ve got a few tricks for the latter - your enchanted fire ruby springs to mind - but this isn’t some dumb animal you’re dealing with. You doubt a bit of fire will be enough to intimidate it.
  1408. >So hiding sounds like your best option.
  1409. >The human *did* miss you in the dark back in the ravine, even when it was just hooves away. Its senses don’t seem that keen.
  1410. >It *has* since managed to track you through the desert, but you’ve been pretty much running in a straight line. It could have spotted you initially and just kept travelling in the same direction. Or maybe it’s following your tracks in the dusty earth.
  1411. >You look over at your helmet lying at the base of the hill. The moonlight gleams off it like a beacon.
  1412. >...Yeah, polished armour probably isn’t helping with the whole “stealth” thing, either.
  1413. >You quickly ditch the rest of your armour, tucking it out of sight behind a rock.
  1414. >You feel naked without it, but your best bet is still to *avoid* confrontation.
  1415. >Next step: reduce your scent as much as possible.
  1416. >You’re still doubtful of the human’s sense of smell, but better safe than sorry.
  1417. >Finding a suitable patch of dirt, you drop down and start rolling in it, dignity be damned. It sticks to your sweaty coat easily, and soon you’re coated in a fine layer of powdery dust.
  1418. >That should mask your scent at least a little bit. Better than nothing.
  1419. >You take another peek at the human. Getting closer, but still a few minutes away.
  1420. >Too close for comfort. Time to leave.
  1421. >You start clambering along the rocky side of the slope, moving parallel with it.
  1422. >By sticking to the hard rock and avoiding the patches of sand along the top and bottom, you’re able to move without leaving any hoofprints.
  1423. >For any other pony, climbing jagged cliffs in the dark while fleeing a predator would probably be a terrible idea. But you were raised on jagged cliffs, and are able to make reasonably good time, leaping from ledge to ledge.
  1424. >Still, even you can only move so quickly. You can’t risk falling and injuring yourself, or knocking a stone loose and drawing the human’s attention, so every step has to be cautiously judged.
  1425. >After ten minutes you’ve only traveled a few hundred metres, and your legs feel like they’re made of jelly.
  1426. >At least you’ve managed to cross a few corners and make a few turns, so you’ve not been moving in a straight line. Hopefully it’s enough to throw the human off.
  1427. >Speaking of which, it’s probably almost caught up by now. If you stay out in the open much longer it’ll probably spot you. Time to find someplace to hide.
  1428. >You’ve already passed a few small caves and crevices among the cliffs, and after another minute of searching you find something suitable:
  1429. >A tall, narrow opening between a jumble of rocks, completely hidden in shadow. You only noticed it when you stuck a hoof in and found it dangling in empty air.
  1430. >You hesitate a moment before climbing in. There can hardly be anything worse in there than what’s chasing you out here.
  1431. >Inside is pitch black. You daren’t risk lighting your horn, so you settle for exploring by hoof.
  1432. >It feels like little more than a cleft in the hillside, narrowing as it recedes.
  1433. >After crawling forward a few paces, you turn back to look out through the opening. A sliver of pale earth and starry sky are your only light in the void around you.
  1434. >Nothing moves.
  1435. >You draw your sword with your mouth, just in case.
  1436. >You don’t hear anything, save for your muffled breathing and pounding heart.
  1437. >Time drags on with no sign of the human.
  1438. >You begin to relax.
  1439. >Leaning against the cave wall, you wonder if it’s finally safe to rest.
  1440. >The cave wall moves.
  1441. >There’s a clattering, chittering sound behind you.
  1442. >You leap away, but not fast enough.
  1443. >Something pierces your hind leg. Feels like a knife’s been rammed straight through, just above the ankle.
  1444. >You scream, sword crashing to the ground.
  1445. >Something tugs at your wound, producing fresh waves of agony.
  1446. >You buck instinctively, hitting something hard and heavy. More pain, as whatever was lodged in your leg is violently torn out.
  1447. >You gasp, falling to the floor.
  1448. >More skittering noises in the dark. They’re close, so very close.
  1449. >Your horn bursts to life, blindingly bright, all thoughts of stealth forgotten.
  1450. >The narrow crevice lights up. Suspended along the walls and ceiling is a great, black sandipede, easily twice your size. Its head hovers near your flank, two needle-tipped mandibles the size of your forelegs grasping towards you.
  1451. >Your sword flies up to intercept. But the huge weapon is clumsy in the confined space. You don’t have room to turn it around in time, and just barely manage to bludgeon the creature’s head aside with pommel.
  1452. >The sandipede backs away from the strange intrusion. But it quickly moves to find another approach, scuttling along the narrow ceiling as it bears down on you.
  1453. >You take a step back, almost collapsing as pain shoots up your leg.
  1454. >Gritting your teeth and blinking through your tears, you quickly focus on reorienting your sword, then slamming it upwards with all of your telekinetic might.
  1455. >Unfortunately you’re fighting against gravity, with little room to aim or build momentum.
  1456. >The blade glances off the creature’s thick, shiny carapace, completely failing to penetrate.
  1457. >It’s enough to distract it, at least. The sandipede skitters away from the impact, snapping blindly at the weapon.
  1458. >You continue stabbing upwards wildly, while dragging yourself out of the cave. Most of the blows miss or bounce off the armour. You eventually manage to crush a single leg against the ceiling. Thick, black goo dribbles down your blade and onto the floor.
  1459. >The monster doesn’t like that, squirming away, then approaching more cautiously, antennae flicking towards you.
  1460. >But you’re tiring out. Each strike is weaker than the last.
  1461. >You feel sick from the pain. Dizzy. Your wounded leg feels... wrong. Pins and needles are spreading along your flank.
  1462. >Venom.
  1463. >You told Fruit Punch that the juvenile sandipede she found wasn’t dangerous. But this is a full sized adult. Enough venom in its stingers to kill you a dozen times over.
  1464. >You need to end this fight quickly. There’s antivenom in your pack, but it’ll be no use if you can’t get away.
  1465. >Your pack…
  1466. >You make one last jab at the sandipede's head, hoping to distract it while you shrug your saddlebags to the floor.
  1467. >Tearing through the contents, you grab your gem pouch.
  1468. >The enchanted fire ruby glows softly as it floats to your hoof.
  1469. >It’s supposed to be used for starting campfires when it’s too cold or wet, or when fuel is sparse. But a sudden bonfire out of nowhere also happens to be one of the best ways of scaring off wildlife.
  1470. >You turn to face the sandipede, just in time to see it make another lunge at you. You scamper away, favouring your uninjured leg, only to be yanked back.
  1471. >Your naturally bushy tail, matted with sweat and dirt until it’s just one big tangled mess, has gotten hooked on one of the stingers.
  1472. >The beast doesn’t seem to comprehend this, simply snapping at you instead of trying to reel you in closer. But you can’t get away, either.
  1473. >You kick and buck and flail desperately, narrowly avoiding being skewered.
  1474. >No time to aim. You send a spark of magic into the heart of the fire ruby, then throw it blindly towards the sandipede.
  1475. >It misses, sailing over it and crashing into the far wall.
  1476. >There’s a crack, followed by a wave of heat and light.
  1477. >A ball of fire the size of your head drops to the floor, searing the nearby coils of sandipede.
  1478. >The worm screeches, darting out of the cave in panic, dragging you along with it.
  1479. >You spot your sword lying by the entrance. You snatch it up as you slide past.
  1480. >Once outside, the sandipede pauses, antennas twitching, as if trying to orient itself.
  1481. >You take the opportunity to kick yourself off the ground with your good leg, greatsword arcing overhead.
  1482. >It barely scratched the carapace before. But then, your greatsword was never *meant* to be wielded by magic. Too long, too heavy.
  1483. >Most ponies would never guess it’s a weapon specifically intended for unicorns.
  1484. >Its true power comes from using your magic to augment your physical abilities, not replace them. When held with both forehooves, using magic to balance and to empower your blows, you’re able to put your entire body into each swing - your whole weight and strength and magic, concentrated into a single cutting edge.
  1485. >Not a practical weapon against, say, a pony. But against a large, lumbering creature with a very thick hide…
  1486. >Your sword slices down, punching through the hard carapace. The mandible ensnaring your tail is sheared clean off.
  1487. >You roll to your hooves as the sandipede shrieks, backing away from the source of pain.
  1488. >You bring the sword up, balanced in the crook of your foreleg and resting against your shoulder, ready to strike again.
  1489. >*If* you can strike again.
  1490. >That last blow took nearly all of your energy.
  1491. >You can barely stand. Barely focus on the threat in front of you.
  1492. >Crunch.
  1493. >The sandipede watches you warily, blood dribbling from its severed appendage.
  1494. >Crunch.
  1495. >It rears up, towering over you as it prepares to strike.
  1496. >Crunch.
  1497. >Its neck explodes outwards, spraying black gore over you.
  1498. >You see the tip of a spear withdraw, leaving a gaping hole.
  1499. >The sandipede flops to the earth, writhing and spasming feebly.
  1500. >Standing behind it, bathed red in the light of the fire, is the human.
  1502. 11
  1503. >You are still Sergeant Glacier.
  1504. >Probably.
  1505. >Some of your convictions have been shaken by recent events.
  1506. >Take the human, for example.
  1507. >Expectation: it impales you on its spear, devours your flesh, and raises your desecrated corpse as an unholy thrall.
  1508. >Not necessarily in that order.
  1509. >Reality: it helps you bandage your leg, and shares its canteen with you.
  1510. >The water wasn’t even poisoned.
  1511. >So, yeah. Clearly your life needs some serious reevaluation.
  1512. >You shift slightly, wincing as your injured leg brushes against the floor.
  1513. >Ow ow OW!
  1514. >Questioning your sanity can come later; you’re way too sore and tired for that. What with all the almost dying you’ve been doing lately.
  1515. >Hmm. There’s a thought.
  1516. >Maybe you *are* dying, and this is all just a venom-induced fever dream. Perhaps you’re really just lying on the desert floor, delirious, while the human munches on your entrails.
  1517. >It would certainly make a lot more sense than the last hour or so.
  1518. >After killing the sandipede, you and the human just sort of stared at each other in confusion for a minute.
  1519. >Then it spoke.
  1520. >You assumed it was speech anyway. Couldn’t understand a word of it.
  1521. >Given the gravity of the situation, you responded with as much eloquence and dignity as you could muster.
  1522. “Uhhh… Hi.”
  1523. >Which wasn’t much.
  1524. >In your defense, you *were* dying at the time.
  1525. >The human rumbled some more maybe-words in response, but otherwise didn’t move.
  1526. >It was looking at you with… curiosity? Surprise? Hard to tell.
  1527. >Seeing as it wasn’t *currently* trying to impale and/or devour you, you decided you really ought to do something about the whole “dying” thing.
  1528. >Rooting through your saddlebags (though never quite taking your eyes off the human), you quickly dug out your first aid kit.
  1529. >The universal antidote potion is a marvel of modern magical medicine. While not truly universal, it’s effective against a wide range of toxins, poisons, and even curses. Those it can’t cure, it can often slow or weaken, giving the body a chance at fighting it off, or buying time for a true remedy to be applied.
  1530. >It’s not cheap, but given the variety of dangerous critters PWG regularly face, it’s one of the most important pieces of your kit.
  1531. >Downing the potion in one go (it tasted of spoiled milk, for some reason), you just hoped it would work on sandipede venom. You know it works on most other arthropods - scorpions, spiders, even manticore stingers - so you’re reasonably optimistic.
  1532. >The human just stood there the whole time.
  1533. >Watching.
  1534. >Kiiinda creepy.
  1535. >Its expression was hard to read. With such small ears and eyes, and no tail, there weren’t a lot of obvious tells.
  1536. >Of course, it’s dangerous to assume you can read an unfamiliar creature’s body language. A gesture can mean one thing among one species, but something completely different among others. Plenty of silly ponies learned the hard way that an animal baring its teeth is probably *not* smiling at you.
  1537. >Still, the human wasn’t displaying any of the more common signs of aggression. Its posture seemed relaxed. Its weapon lowered. No teeth visible at all.
  1538. >So… maybe it wasn’t going to murder you?
  1539. >Sure, it had tried less than an hour ago. But perhaps that was just hunting? And with a fresh sandipede corpse in front of it, the human no longer had any reason to murder you. So long as you kept away from its prize, it might just let you leave un-impaled.
  1540. >Or at least, no more impaled than you already were.
  1541. >With the adrenaline wearing off, your injured leg was *really* starting to hurt.
  1542. >Whatever the human’s deal was, you needed to treat your wounds ASAP. If it wanted to watch, so be it - you could hardly make yourself *more* vulnerable than you already were.
  1543. >Pulling out bandages, antiseptic, and painkillers, you began inspecting the damage.
  1544. >Your rear right leg was a bruised and bloody mess, but thankfully it only *felt* like it was going to fall off.
  1545. >Some (very painful) cleaning revealed the sandipede stings had *not* penetrated all the way through, as you’d initially feared. Still, there was a good inch or so gouged out on either side, and a nasty gash running down to your ankle.
  1546. >You set about cleaning, disinfecting, and binding the wounds. Tricky work at such an awkward angle. You had to cut away some of the surrounding fur, sawing bloody clumps off with your knife.
  1547. >Your magic gave out halfway through the process. Had to resort to mouth and hooves.
  1548. >You’ve always said unicorns should be able to get by without their horns. But *sweet Celestia*, that was a frustrating experience!
  1549. >The taste of blood on your lips. Shaky hooves slipping and fumbling. Every mistake costing blood and pain and tears.
  1550. >After failing to apply the bucking bindings properly for the third or fourth time, suddenly a pair of long, lithe limbs wove around your leg. Before you could really register what was happening, the human had gently but firmly taken charge. In moments it had bound the wounds and neatly tied off the bandages.
  1551. >If you weren’t so weak and dizzy you probably would have bucked or bolted in surprise.
  1552. >Instead, you just sat there, incredibly confused as the human finished up and sat down opposite you, inspecting its work.
  1553. >It had done a pretty good job.
  1554. “Huh. Well, uh... Thanks?”
  1555. >Your voice was raspy and uneven. You could still taste the tang of iron with each word.
  1556. >The human rumbled something in response. The noise was deep and rough, but it didn’t *sound* like it was threatening you.
  1557. “Uh- *cough* -just so you’re aware, I have *no idea* what you’re saying. I assume the feeling is mutual?”
  1558. >Another rumbling response. Shorter this time.
  1559. >The human seemed lost in thought for a moment. Muttered something to itself.
  1560. >Then, pressing a hand to its chest, it looked you in the eye and started speaking slowly.
  1561. >You still couldn’t recognize any of the words, or even the language. But it repeated the final word a few times, pronouncing it carefully, tapping its chest with each repetition.
  1562. >Was it trying to teach you something? Its name? Its species?
  1563. >You attempted to mimic the word.
  1564. “Ahnarnam… Anornahym... Arnorn, err...”
  1565. >You rather butchered the pronunciation. Pony lips and vocal cords don’t seem perfectly compatible with human speech. (Or so you told yourself).
  1566. >Still, the human seemed to find your attempts acceptable. Nodding emphatically, it tapped its chest and repeated a simplified version of the word:
  1567. >”Anon.”
  1568. >Fantastic. Now you had a name for your super persistent nightmare predator.
  1569. >This whole encounter was getting *really* surreal.
  1570. >Though, honestly? You were also getting kinda intrigued.
  1571. >Sure, the human - Anonawhatever - was still intimidating as heck. A creepy, lean, furless hunter, its beady eyes gleaming in the flickering firelight. Luna’s sake, you’d just seen it effortlessly kill an adult sandipede moments before.
  1572. >But despite its appearance - and reputation - *and* previous aggression - it was now inexplicably friendly.
  1573. >Even outright helpful.
  1574. >You were clearly missing something.
  1575. >And you wanted to find out what.
  1576. >And hey, in your current state, it’s not like you could follow your “run away from the human” orders anyway. Might as well take advantage of the opportunity to indulge your curiosity.
  1577. >Maybe you’d even figure out how to communicate “Please don’t eat me, I’m really not that tasty.”
  1578. >Vital information, that.
  1579. >Mimicking Anon’s gesture, you pointed a hoof at you chest:
  1580. “Glacier. Glaaacieeer”
  1581. >”Guurraiichii... Gura- Graychior? Graykior?”
  1582. >It seemed to have just as much difficulty with pronunciation as you.
  1583. >Oh well. You could be “Gray” for the time being.
  1584. “Gray.”
  1585. >You nodded, again mimicking it.
  1586. >You weren’t exactly sure if nodding meant confirmation. For all you knew, nodding was how humans expressed amusement. Hopefully it would understand you were just trying to reciprocate.
  1587. >”Gray,” it repeated, pointing at you. “Anon,” pointing to itself.
  1588. >Progress! You were definitely exchanging information. A big improvement over the whole “trying to murder you” thing.
  1589. >Anon said a few more words, unfamiliar to you, though you caught “Gray” again at the end.
  1590. “Er, it’s... nice to meet you too, Anon? So... *cough* Now wh- *cough* *cough*.”
  1591. >With all the more pressing issues, you’d forgotten just how parched you were. Running through a desert and fighting for your life are thirsty work. All this speaking was irritating your already dry and scratchy throat.
  1592. >Lifting your canteen, you were dismayed to find it practically empty.
  1593. >Only a few tantalizing drops trickled down your lips.
  1594. >You groaned.
  1595. >Not again!
  1596. >You couldn’t survive another day in the desert without water. You’d have to find some. Tonight! While it was still cool.
  1597. >Of course, you’d never be able to spot any signs of water in this darkness. No, you’d have to go *aaall* the way back to the one place you *knew* had water: the valley you’d just spent the last hour running from.
  1598. >Dropping the empty bottle, you let out a pained whinny.
  1599. >Seriously? *More* walking through the desert? And this time on an injured leg?!
  1600. >The thought was almost enough to bring you to tears.
  1601. >Celestia, Luna, was it too much to ask for a break?
  1602. >”Gray.”
  1603. >Blinking moisture from your eyes, you looked over at Anon.
  1604. >Its arm was outstretched towards you. In its grasp was something dark, round, and sloshing gently as it moved.
  1605. >Your ears perked at the sound.
  1606. >Reverently, as though receiving a blessing from the Sisters themselves, you took Anon’s canteen with your hooves.
  1607. >It was almost full!
  1608. >A small part of you wondered if this was a trap.
  1609. >A much larger part didn’t care.
  1610. >You took a slow, deep mouthful. Let the water seep into every parched corner of your mouth and throat.
  1611. >Beautiful, delicious relief.
  1612. >Thank you, Alicorns!
  1613. >Oh, and the human too, you guess.
  1614. “Ahhhh… Thanks, Anon. You’re a lifesaver.”
  1615. >(Also your attempted murderer.)
  1616. >(You let it slide for now.)
  1617. >You were tempted to finish off the whole bottle, but that would just be rude.
  1618. >Instead, you decided to respond in kind.
  1619. >After returning the canteen, you started delving through your saddlebags, soon emerging with a pair of ration bars.
  1620. “Here, try one of these.”
  1621. >You held a bar out to Anon, who stared a moment before taking it.
  1622. >Its fingers accidentally brushed against your hoof. You were half expecting it to be cold as the grave, or have razor-sharp claws, or something. But no, just a brief touch of warmth. The rough skin on its fingers almost felt like you were bumping hooves.
  1623. >After unwrapping your own bar, Anon seemed to catch on, quickly and excitedly tearing off the paper.
  1624. >It inspected the bar briefly, smelling and licking it, before biting off a big mouthful. You followed suit.
  1625. “Bleargh.”
  1626. >”Bleargh.”
  1627. >You exchanged glances.
  1628. >Then both started laughing.
  1629. >It wasn’t even all that funny. But after all the stress and weirdness of the last few hours, bonding over mutual dislike of PWG field rations seemed the funniest thing in the world.
  1630. >You flopped to your side, ignoring the pain from your leg, letting out great heaving laughs. Anon was leaning back, its laughter a deep, gravelly cackling, almost barking.
  1631. >Eventually, the two of you caught your breath, and returned to your meal. But the tension between you seemed to have diminished.
  1632. >Anon looked more relaxed, leaning back and happily chewing its ration bar, while you started to feel a little safer, too.
  1633. >You still didn’t exactly *trust* this Anon, but for the time being you didn’t feel you were in any danger.
  1634. >After finishing off its rations, Anon seemed to have an idea. Speaking to itself, it stood up and walked into the sandipede's cave. It seemed to inspect your enchanted fire, which was still burning merrily against a wall.
  1635. >Still chattering away, it started looking at the walls and floors. Eventually it picked up a large, flat stone and placed it partially in the fire.
  1636. >Then it walked out again, past you, towards the dead sandipede. After giving the lifeless pile of chitin a few cautious kicks, Anon casually hoisted the massive thing by the tail and dragged it back into the cave.
  1637. >Your snout wrinkled in distaste as you guessed where this was going.
  1638. >Sure enough, after a minute or so of examining the carcass, Anon draw a knife from somewhere and started butchering it.
  1639. >You’re hardly a squeamish pony. But watching a carnivore feed is never exactly pleasant.
  1640. >Still, you were curious about the process. And you were actually starting to get a little cold.
  1641. >Yes, you, proud northerner that you are. Normally your thick coat would suffice to keep you warm, but it was still soaked with sweat, which had long since cooled. And losing all that blood certainly didn’t help.
  1642. >So somewhat reluctantly, you ended up following Anon into the cave.
  1643. >Though this time you made sure to check the walls and ceiling first.
  1644. >Thoroughly.
  1645. >Laying down by the fire, you watched with morbid fascination as Anon methodically disassembled the carcass. Soon, several strips of pale flesh were sizzling on the cooking stone, while a small mountain of discarded bits was piled outside.
  1646. >The acrid stench of burning insect juices mingled with the slightly sulphurous tang of the magic-fueled fire. Not a very appetizing smell, but even after finishing your ration bar you were still a bit peckish.
  1647. >Academically, you knew ponies could eat meat. Your teeth and stomachs aren’t properly equipped for it, but it can be done. Some coastal ponies even make a habit of it, supplementing their diets with seafood.
  1648. >But a giant bug? One that tried to eat *you* not an hour ago?
  1649. >Urgh.
  1650. >This day is just *weird*.
  1651. >Anon seemed unfazed. After a few minutes of turning and prodding, the meat was eventually deemed ready. Spearing a slightly smoking strip with its knife, Anon offered you first taste of the... questionable meal.
  1652. >You eyed it suspiciously.
  1653. >Burnt bug was not at all appealing.
  1654. >Buuut… You could *probably* digest it safely. And you really needed to replenish your energy. Your one remaining ration bar wouldn’t go very far.
  1655. >Plus, you didn’t want to seem ungrateful.
  1656. >Grimacing, you gingerly took the knife and took a very reluctant bite.
  1657. >Hot, disgusting juices spilled into your mouth. The parts which weren’t burnt to charcoal tasted… not terrible, surprisingly. Sort of nutty. But the *texture* was awful. Slippery, rubbery; like soggy cardboard, but far worse.
  1658. >You gagged, but refused to spit it out. Lacking a carnivore’s incisors, you had to mash and grind the unpleasant mulch for far too long before you could swallow. Feeling it slide down your throat was almost too much to bear.
  1659. >By the time you’d finally finished the horrid thing, Anon was already starting on its third serving.
  1660. >You politely but firmly declined the offer for seconds. One taste was enough, thank you very much.
  1661. >Laying your head down, you watched the human continue to eat. While it didn’t seem particularly thrilled with the taste either, that certainly didn’t stop it from going back for fourths, or even fifths.
  1662. >Heh, no wonder Anon had chased you so persistently. It was clearly starving.
  1663. >Despite the aftertaste, it felt good to have some hot food in your belly.
  1664. >With a warm, crackling fire beside you, it was hard to keep your eyes open.
  1665. >For the first time in hours, you felt safe enough to let them close.
  1666. >...
  1667. >Now here you are.
  1668. >Drifting in and out of fitful sleep.
  1669. >Body aching, but grateful for the rest.
  1670. >Wounds pulsing with a steady but manageable pain.
  1671. >Mind replaying all of the day’s adventures. Trying to make sense of it.
  1672. >Sometimes you wake up in a panic, matted in sweat, while some shadowy nightmare fades from memory. Instructors shouting for you to run. Looming figures you can’t escape. Coiled monsters skittering towards you.
  1673. >You roll over to your other side, trying to clear your head.
  1674. >Next to you, the fire has dwindled to a few gently glowing ruby shards. They just barely keep the cold at bay. On the other side lies Anon, sleeping.
  1675. >Judging from the sudden flinches and occasional cry, its sleep is just as troubled as yours.
  1676. >For several minutes you just lay there, watching Anon’s quiet breathing.
  1677. >Chest rises. Pauses. Falls.
  1678. >Rises. Pauses. Falls.
  1679. >Seeing it asleep somehow ends any mysticism you felt about the human. Anon’s no longer some unstoppable mythological horror. It’s just… another creature. Needs food, and rest, like you.
  1680. >A dangerous creature, no doubt. But you’ve worked with dangerous creatures for years.
  1681. >You can work with this one.
  1682. >You close your eyes, and soon return to sleep.
  1684. 12
  1685. “I have no idea what I’m doing!”
  1686. >Your back hoof taps a nervous rhythm on the floorboards. You fidget in your seat, wings twitching and ruffling. Which kinda hurts, seeing as they’re still sore from yesterday, but you can’t help it.
  1687. >”You’ll be fine, kid.”
  1688. >Dusty Rose reaches a purple hoof over and gives you a friendly pat on the back.
  1689. “Ow.”
  1690. >For an older mare, she’s got some serious muscle. Crazy earth pony magic.
  1691. >With a reassuring smile, she casually leans back into her flimsy wooden chair, watching the rest of your party. The quiet little Hoofrest eatery you’d dined in yesterday is currently overflowing with ponies. Volunteers who’d accompanied you from Tranquility Springs, along with what must be nearly all of the population of Hoofrest.
  1692. >And you’re in charge of them.
  1693. >You are Fruit Punch, and you are freaking out.
  1694. “I’m serious! I’m just a private! I don’t know how to lead ponies! If I’d wanted this job I’d have gone to officer school!”
  1695. >You keep your voice down to a low hiss. You don’t want the others to know how screwed they are.
  1696. >Come to think of it, that’s how this whole mess started.
  1697. >Dusty woke you up a few hours before dawn. After a quick breakfast, the two of you trotted across to the Tranquility Springs town square. A colourful, cheery market during the day, but rather lonely at that cold hour.
  1698. >Though soon enough, other ponies started trickling in. Civilians whom the sheriff had recruited earlier that night.
  1699. >They arrived in ones and twos, bleary and quiet, or nervous and chatty. Soon there was a good sized herd, sixteen ponies in all. Introductions were exchanged, though you found it hard to keep track of faces when everypony was just a silhouette in the gloom.
  1700. >You did recognize the pale yellow shape of Sandy Miles, the young mare you’d interviewed the other day. Turns out she’s Dusty Rose’s niece. She'd somehow talked her aunt into letting her come along.
  1701. >You also spotted Sheriff Prickly Pear by the gleam of his badge. He was busy counting the arrivals and checking over a wagon full of supplies.
  1702. >Once everypony had arrived, Pear asked the group if they had any questions before you all set off. That, appropriately enough, is when things went pear-shaped.
  1703. >You’d expected your role in all of this would be to bring news of Glacier’s disappearance back to the local constabulary, point them in the right direction, and then fall in line as just another member of the search team. Maybe offer some positive verbal reinforcement now and again, per your specialty as a member of the Harmony Corps.
  1704. >Unfortunately, it seemed that the civilians saw your golden Royal Guard armour and automatically assumed *you* were in charge. Nevermind that you’re just a private, and a fairly junior one at that. Nor that Prickly Pear probably has decades more experience than you.
  1705. >And to make matters worse, they’d somehow gotten you and Glacier mixed up. They thought *you* were the Parks and Wilderness monster expert sent to help them, not just some random Guardsmare who happened to be in the area.
  1706. >This all led to some very excited ponies bombarding you with very confusing questions.
  1707. >”What's the plan if we’re attacked by a sand shark or sand wyrm?”
  1708. >”Does the PWG have any secret anti-shadow-monster weapons?”
  1709. >”Is it true you guys hunt dragons?”
  1710. >"Will we need to bring cold weather gear?"
  1711. >”Are vamponies real, and can they beat up wereponies?”
  1712. >”What’s the coolest monster you’ve ever fought?”
  1713. >You answered as best you could. But by the time you’d realised their misconceptions, you were so flustered and the crowd was so excited and you just *knew* how disappointed they’d be if they found out they’re not being led by a super cool monster hunter, that you just…
  1714. >Didn’t...
  1715. >Tell them.
  1716. >Not that you lied! You just… didn’t immediately point out their mistake!
  1717. >And... kept on not pointing it out...
  1718. >Urgh.
  1719. >That’s horse apples and you know it.
  1720. >Let's face it: you screwed up. Panicked, and took the easy way out.
  1721. >You know you *ought* to fess up. As awkward and humiliating as it may be, it’s the right thing to do.
  1722. >But…
  1723. >If it turns out their “expert” leader is just some lying, clueless nopony, how many of them will still be willing to help? You need every pair of hooves you can get!
  1724. >Is it worth telling the truth if it puts Glacier at greater risk?
  1725. >Why should she pay for your mistake?
  1726. >Argh!
  1727. >You were never trained to make these kinds of decisions! Never wanted to make them, never wanted to be in charge!
  1728. >At least Dusty Rose and Prickly Pear took the complication in stride. They helped answer several questions you couldn’t, and generally covered up your inexperience and ignorance.
  1729. >You suspect Pear wasn’t too happy about being demoted to second in command (not that you *wanted* command…). Though presumably he came to the same conclusions as you regarding morale. An expert Royal Guard at the helm is much more inspiring than some small town sheriff.
  1730. >Eventually your awkward little Q&A session came to an end. You even rallied enough to give a little speech, emphasizing how a fellow pony needs your help and that together you can overcome any challenge.
  1731. >(Thank you, Harmony Corps pep talk training!)
  1732. >That was hours ago.
  1733. >Now, here you are, at the same quaint Hoofrest diner you visited yesterday. Simple wooden walls, colourful decorations, and the smell of refried beans.
  1734. >Only this time you’re surrounded by ponies who expect you to lead them! As soon as you all have some food and rest, you'll have to start making decisions.
  1735. >Maybe you can find someplace to hide. A bathroom or a dumpster or something. Rose or Pear can take over, and then you won’t accidentally catastrophically ruin Glace’s rescue mission.
  1736. >You start discreetly scanning the room for possible escape routes.
  1737. >”Easy there, filly. Desertion ain’t great for morale, you know?”
  1738. >Wha- Oh, right, Dusty Rose is still here. Gently smirking.
  1739. >You kinda got caught up in your own head for a while there.
  1740. “Urgh, am I that obvious?”
  1741. >How does this mare always know what you’re thinking? You’ve only known her for, like, half a day, and already she’s like an old friend. Patient, supportive, and endlessly amused by your panicking.
  1742. >"I've seen that look before. Don't worry, your secret's safe with me."
  1743. >Her smile softens, and she takes on a reassuring tone.
  1744. >”Listen, honey, you’ll be fine. You’ve got me and Prickly to work out all the details. You just need to stay calm and act confident. Keep team morale up. You learnt all about that stuff at the Friendship Corps, right?”
  1745. “Harmony Corps,” you correct. “We also learned not to *lie* to our team. I still can’t believe I did that…”
  1746. >You’ve studied enough Harmony Theory to know this is *so* gonna bite you in the ass later.
  1747. >Rose waves a hoof dismissively.
  1748. >”Eh, you didn’t technically lie. Besides, what’s done is done. At this point, explaining everything would just undermine the team’s confidence. No point jeopardizing the mission over a little misunderstanding.”
  1749. “But they’re relying on me to be a monster expert! What if we’re attacked by a, uh, I dunno, sand… wolf? Ponies could be in danger!”
  1750. >Rose maintains her relaxed position, looking as though she's just watching the room. But her magenta eyes flicker over to you. Her gaze is firm, but not unkind.
  1751. >”Your sergeant’s already in danger, remember? Being a leader isn’t about avoiding risk. It's about minimizing it. Sometimes you’ve gotta put one group in danger to help another. And, in my opinion, the risk to these ponies is pretty low. They’re all folk who’ve lived their whole lives in the desert.”
  1752. >She gestures broadly at the colourful assortment of ponies around you.
  1753. >”Beat Root over there travels between Tranquility and half a dozen other desert towns every other week. Saddle Saw - the one in the corner - used to do mapping up around the Macintosh Ranges. Old Mrs Marmalade’s run into so many blackjackals that *they* avoid *her* now. Heck, even Sandy’s probably safer in the desert than most PWGs.”
  1754. >”I’m safer than the what now?”
  1755. >Sandy Miles emerges from the crowd, the petite earth pony somehow balancing two trays of food on her back while speaking around a third in her mouth. Crazy earth pony magic.
  1756. >”Sorry, dear. Secret Royal Guard business.” Rose is completely deadpan. “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.”
  1757. >Sandy giggles as she sets down her trays.
  1758. >”Sure thing, auntie. Here, I got you both some breakfast. Or… lunch? Food.”
  1759. >”Thank you, dearie.” Rose smiles over at the younger mare, before giving you a quick sidelong look. Guess your conversation is on hold for now.
  1760. >Right.
  1761. >Well, until you figure out a better solution, you suppose you ought to continue pretending to be a confident, competent leader. It’s the only useful thing you can do.
  1762. >At least you can rely on your social skills here. You’ve received several commendations during your time with the Corps for your positive interactions with civilians.
  1763. >So long as nopony realizes you're a total fraud, keeping morale up should be a cinch.
  1764. “Thanks, Miss Miles, that’s super nice of you. Here, lemme just pull up a chair and you can sit down and join us.”
  1765. >Sandy immediately turns a cute shade of red.
  1766. >“O-ok. Thanks, Miss Private Punch, ma’am.”
  1767. >Rose smiles indulgently as Sandy fumbles into her seat.
  1768. >You make polite conversation for a few minutes as the three of you work through your food. A repeat of yesterday’s meal: toasted sandwiches and hay fries. Not the fanciest dining in Equestria, but tasty.
  1769. >Between mouthfuls, you observe the rest of your search party. Six mares, seven stallions, all earth ponies save one green pegasus. They’re seated in twos and threes, working on their own breakfast/lunch/foods, chatting away happily.
  1770. >Well, except Sheriff Pear. He’s chatting away with the proprietor. Doesn’t look like he’s doing it happily, though.
  1771. >You’ve never seen him without that signature frown of his. Then again, you’ve only ever seen him while he’s on duty during an emergency. So, yeah, fair enough.
  1772. >Though that reminds you:
  1773. “Say, Dusty. Last night you mentioned that the sheriff wasn’t too keen on involving the Royal Guard in this monster business. Is it alright if I ask why?”
  1774. >Sandy freezes mid-bite. Rose dabs her lips with a napkin, almost managing to hide her grin.
  1775. >”I’m sure Prickly wouldn’t mind telling you himself. Though I have my suspicions. For one, there’s his pride as Tranquility Springs’ sheriff. He thinks he ought to be the one keeping folks safe, not relying on some fancy gold-wearing city-dwellers. Probably figures the Royal Guard wouldn’t be much help around these parts anyway. Which, like I was saying before, is not totally unjustified.”
  1776. >You shift awkwardly. Sandy looks like she’s trying to shrink into her seat.
  1777. >”And two, this isn’t the first time our dear little Sandy’s caused the sheriff problems.”
  1778. >”You get lost *one time* and you never hear the end of it,” Sandy grumbles, having sunk almost below the table.
  1779. >”Yep, one time,” agrees Rosie, corners of her mouth twitching. “Plus the *one time* you went camping and didn’t tell anypony. We had to send out a search party. Plus the *one time* you went chasing a vulture for three days ‘cause you thought it was a phoenix. Plus the *one time* you thought the town was under attack by giant earthworms, and managed to convince the whole neighbourhood to-”
  1780. >”Auntie!” squeeks Sandy, mortified.
  1781. >Rose pats her head affectionately. “Point is, Prickly’s a naturally skeptical pony, *especially* when Sandy’s involved.”
  1782. >You nod sympathetically.
  1783. “Yeah, he seemed pretty skeptical when I told him about our run in with the Dust Devils."
  1784. >Sandy looks up with interest, but your attention is on Rose. Prickly wasn't the only pony who looked skeptical last night.
  1785. >It's not the most subtle bait, but Rose falls for it anyway, a brief frown crossing her features.
  1786. >"Well…"
  1787. "You don’t believe me either?”
  1788. >She cringes for a moment. Then, choosing her words carefully:
  1789. >”It’s just… Dust Devils are pretty rare. So rare that a lot of ponies think they’re just tall tales. I’ve lived in the desert nearly my whole life and even I couldn’t confidently say one way or the other.”
  1790. “Huh. Really? I was staying with some buffalo a few days ago and they seemed quite sure the Dust Devils are real. Said they’re evil spirits who feed on lost travelers’ despair.”
  1791. >”Ooh!” squeaks Sandy. “You stayed with the buffalo? What are they like?”
  1792. >You chuckle.
  1793. “Exhausting, but super friendly. They do just about everything the old fashioned way, following these elaborate traditions. Sometimes that means even the simplest things can take ages, but it’s also surprisingly satisfying.”
  1794. >Rose frowns slightly.
  1795. >”Yeah, that’s kinda the problem. No offense to them, I’m sure they’re great and all, buuut… they’re not exactly known for their modern scientific knowledge, are they? Those stories they tell about Dust Devils - where did they come from? Because I don’t exactly see their ancestors performing a rigorous scientific study, y’know?”
  1796. >Hmm.
  1797. >That’s… kinda rude, but you suppose there’s truth to it.
  1798. >The buffalo you studied with were wonderful hosts and excellent storytellers, but a lot of their traditions were certainly... out of date, by Equestrian standards.
  1799. >You remember taking part in an elaborate rain dance ceremony, and thinking how much easier it would be to just fly up and make a few rain clouds. Sure, the buffalo may not share your innate pegasus connection with the weather, but even earth ponies have more practical methods for managing water. Dams, wells, irrigation, uhh… probably a bunch of other things, too.
  1800. >”Anyway,” Rose continues. “Even if Dust Devils are real, they’re certainly less common than regular dust storms. So just, statistically, most folk who say they encountered a Dust Devil probably just got lost in a regular storm. And two Dust Devils in a week is practically unheard of.”
  1801. “I get what you’re saying,” you admit. It really does seem strange, when put like that. “But I’m pretty sure that was no normal storm. It’s hard to explain to non-pegasi, but I know weather. I know how it *feels*. And those storms just felt *wrong*.”
  1802. >”Maybe it was the sand witch?” Sandy puts in.
  1803. “The what now?”
  1804. >From the corner of your eye, you notice Rose shift to a very deliberately neutral expression.
  1805. >She’s got a very good poker face; you've no idea what she thinks of this topic, but she’s certainly keeping it to herself. Interesting.
  1806. >Sandy, meanwhile, is all gleaming eyes and guileless enthusiasm.
  1807. >”The sand witch! The buffalo aren’t the only folk with stories about the Dust Devils! Tumbleweed’s uncle Hayseed - I think I saw him over by the door? Is he still there? …Oh well, can’t see him now, but he’s around here somewhere - anyway, he told us this cool story about the old mine up in the mountains, and how the sand witch would appear on the horizon, watching the miners.”
  1808. >You recognize Sandy entering her “Storyteller Mode”.
  1809. >You hope the mare remembers to breathe this time.
  1810. >”Whenever anypony would approach her, she’d disappear, leaving only a black mark in the sand as a warning, but the miners didn’t heed her warnings, and kept intruding upon her domain, so she used her dark magic to create the Dust Devils, which she used to drive the miners away and destroy the mine, and so they had to abandon it, and that’s why Hoofrest is so rundown, because they made the sand witch real angry, and nowadays all the old folk in Hoofrest say that if you see a Dust Devil, it means the sand witch is sending you a warning, so I guess if you saw two Dust Devils then she’s giving you a double warning!”
  1811. >She finally stops for breath. If nothing else, her storytelling style is impressive for the sheer stamina required.
  1812. >Rose allows a small smile. “I’m not sure campfire ghost stories are the best idea right now, sweetie. We're about to go trotting through the desert in a few minutes; we don’t want you scaring away the rescue team!”
  1813. “Actually, she might be onto something.”
  1814. >Rose freezes mid-response. Seems to be having trouble processing that.
  1815. >”Wait, really?” Sandy looks just as surprised, though a lot more enthusiastic.
  1816. “Yeah. We *did* see a pony in the distance just before the second Dust Devil hit. Or at least, we thought we did. That’s actually how we got separated.”
  1817. >You think back. Yesterday already seems a long time ago, but you can still vividly recall the scene. Glacier, matted with sweat but standing tall and alert, glaring at the dark smudge you’d never have noticed if she hadn’t pointed it out.
  1818. “We were near the mountains, in the middle of nowhere, so there shouldn’t have been anypony else around. A figure appeared behind us, a few hundred metres away. Glacier was sure it hadn’t been there before. I flew up to take a closer look. But as I got closer, it seemed to… fade into the sand beneath it. Now that I think about it, there was this patch of dark grey sand, kinda silvery, where it disappeared. Is there any, like, naturally occurring silver sand around here?”
  1819. >The two mares shake their heads, eyes wide and ears perked.
  1820. “Well, I didn’t get a chance to investigate because the next moment the Dust Devil hit. Just appeared right on top of Glacier, who was back where I’d left her. This was the first time I’d left her side all day, and within *seconds* she was gone. That kinda drove the whole sand pony thing out of my head. I’d honestly forgotten all about it until now, but thinking back on it, the whole thing *does* seem really suspicious."
  1821. >Rose says nothing, a thoughtful expression on her face.
  1822. >Sandy, meanwhile, is practically vibrating with excitement.
  1823. >"Ohhh my gosh!" she squeaks, voice rising in volume. "You mean you actually *saw* the sand wiMMPH!"
  1824. >Rose shoves a hoof into her mouth before she accidentally informs the whole diner.
  1825. >You shrug.
  1826. "Honestly, I don't know. It sounds pretty farfetched, but *something* weird's going on. What do you think, Rose?"
  1827. >"I think," she says slowly. "We'd better go get the sheriff."
  1829. 13
  1830. >The cold floor presses up against your side, stealing your warmth. Small stones bite into you, causing you to shift and turn.
  1831. >You’d forgotten just how uncomfortable it is sleeping in a cave.
  1832. >Dully, you realise you must be awake if you’re starting to notice this.
  1833. >With a yawn, you force yourself to sit up.
  1834. >You are Sergeant Glacier, and you are sore and stiff, but very much alive. You weren’t sure you’d survive the night.
  1835. >The light and warmth spilling in from the small cave’s entrance tell you you’ve overslept. Not surprising, given how long and exhausting yesterday was.
  1836. >Your muscles still ache, but the good kind of ache. The kind you get after a long day of fieldwork and a good night’s sleep.
  1837. >Climbing to your hooves, you wince as you put weight on your bandaged hind leg. It throbs dully in protest, still sensitive.
  1838. >Your human companion - Anon - is stirring too, probably disturbed by your movement. It’s curled up by the remains of the fire, practically on top of it. Must have been a cold night for the furless creature.
  1839. >Or… not so furless? In the morning light, you can see Anon isn’t actually completely naked. Its skin - where it isn’t covered by tatters of clothing - has a thin layer of extremely fine hairs. Compared to your thick, bushy coat, it must be far more comfortable during the heat of the day, but freezing overnight.
  1840. >You also notice just how lean Anon looks. Obviously, you don’t know how humans *ought* to look, but you know mammals in general. Such clearly visible ribs are usually a sign of malnourishment.
  1841. >You’re beginning to suspect Anon isn’t native to this area. The campsite you saw yesterday looked fairly new, and the human doesn’t seem well fed. Perhaps it’s just passing through, or even lost? Another interloper, struggling to survive this Celestia-blasted wasteland.
  1842. >A number of minor wounds across Anon’s body support the theory. Scrapes. Blisters. Bruises. Not fresh, but not fully healed either. If Anon were a native then you’d expect fewer superficial injuries, and more calluses.
  1843. >The worst of the damage is to the left arm. Looks like something took a serious bite out of it, leaving deep puncture marks and raking the flesh from wrist to elbow. Ouch!
  1844. >It’s currently a mass of scabs and scar tissue. Looks like it has been healing for several weeks, badly. You’re guessing Anon didn’t have the supplies to properly treat it.
  1845. >Unfortunately, much of the damage is probably permanent, but you may be able to offer some aid with your medical kit. At the very least, you can ensure the wounds don’t reopen. And you really ought to return the favour for Anon's help last night.
  1846. >Slinging the kit across your back, you carefully approach the yawning human.
  1847. “Good morning, Anon. Um...”
  1848. >You falter, trying to figure out how best to communicate this.
  1849. >Anon sits up, blinking sleepily towards you.
  1850. “Er, heal.”
  1851. >You tap the bandages around your own leg a few times, repeating “Heal”. Then, floating out more bandages, you point at its wounded arm.
  1852. “Heal.”
  1853. >Anon starts back suddenly, letting out an exclamation. You flinch back in surprise, then realise it’s not looking at you, but something over your shoulder.
  1854. >You spin around, fearing another sandipede attack.
  1855. >Only to find an empty cave.
  1856. >You glance back, trying to figure out what’s got Anon on edge. It seems to be staring at your floating bandages for some reaso- oh. Right.
  1857. >Unicorn magic.
  1858. >Most creatures are startled the first time they see it. Anon *may* have caught a glimpse of it last night, from a distance, but now you’re waving it right in its face.
  1859. >”Gray?” Anon asks, pointing cautiously to the levitating bundle.
  1860. >You nod, slowly transferring it from your aura to your hoof.
  1861. “Gray heal,” you promise.
  1862. >The human still looks a bit stunned, but doesn’t seem to be panicking or backing away. You take that as a good sign, and get to work, cleaning and bandaging the injured limb. Just as Anon did for you yesterday.
  1863. >(You really hope your antiseptics and ointments aren’t dangerous to humans. They’re safe to use on *most* mammals…)
  1864. >Anon watches in amazement every time you levitate up a new bottle or fresh roll of bandages, barely noticing your ministrations. It’s chatting a lot; you think it’s trying to ask questions, but you can’t understand them and it can’t make itself understood, so it eventually gives up.
  1865. >Once you've finished, it starts twisting and bending its arm, showing off impressive flexibility. It seems to be inspecting your work, murmuring in what you hope is approval.
  1866. >As if sensing your uncertainty, Anon leans over and gives you a smile. Its uninjured arm extends towards your head, slowly. Giving you the option to back off.
  1867. >Instinctively you shy away from the strange appendage, but force yourself to stand still. You remind yourself that it means you no harm (probably), and has been nothing but helpful (lately).
  1868. >The gangly limb gently brushes the top of your mane, giving your head a soft pat.
  1869. >Huh.
  1870. >That was… unexpected, but not unpleasant.
  1871. >If that’s Anon’s way of showing appreciation, well, you suppose you can live with it.
  1872. >The human stands up abruptly, giving a mighty stretch. Golly, you’d forgotten just how tall Anon is! Still kinda intimidating.
  1873. >After completing its stretch, the human turns and makes its way out of the small cave. It has to duck its head frequently to avoid the roof.
  1874. >You follow, curious.
  1875. >Once outside, it stops and turns to you. Gesturing and speaking something, it then turns away and heads out to the left. You have no idea what it was trying to say. With a shrug you keep following.
  1876. >Stepping out of the cave, the sun and hot air immediately crash into you. For once you savour the warmth, feeling it soak into your cold, stiff limbs. With a nicker and shake of your mane, you turn to follow Anon.
  1877. >After a few more steps, the human again notices you and stops. This time its gestures seem a bit more urgent. You catch it saying “Gray” a few times, pointing back to the cave, buuut you’ve still no idea what it wants. You tilt your head, ears flicking in confusion.
  1878. >Eventually Anon seems to give up. Shrugging its shoulders, it turns to face a nearby rock wall, then lowers its ragged pants and- oh!
  1879. >Right.
  1880. >Ahem.
  1881. >You quickly turn around, embarrassed.
  1882. >Looks like it - or rather *he* - needs to relieve himself.
  1883. >You caught an eyeful of a very male-looking organ you *really* didn’t need to see.
  1884. >You quickly trot away, stammering apologies Anon probably can’t even understand.
  1885. >The soft splashing behind you reminds your own body of similar needs, and you set off to find your own private nook.
  1886. >...
  1887. >Several minutes later, the two of you are back in the cave, sharing a somewhat awkward breakfast. You’ve got cold roast sandipede (bleargh!) and your last remaining ration bar (double bleargh!).
  1888. >Once again, Anon has graciously shared his canteen with you. You thank the Sisters that your terrifying monster companion is turning out to be a real gentlecolt.
  1889. >Before hoofing the (nearly empty) bottle back, something catches your eye. Turning it over, you notice something you’d missed in the darkness last night: the words “Hoofrest Mining Co” stamped into its side. In Equestrian.
  1890. >This is a pony canteen.
  1891. “Where did you get this,” you ask in surprise.
  1892. >Anon looks at you blankly.
  1893. “...Right, right, you have no idea what I’m saying. Er, Anon? Canteen? *Can-teen*?”
  1894. >You tap the bottle for emphasis. Still nothing. Anon just tilts his head. It’s kinda adorable.
  1895. >You frown. How do you communicate “Where?” without words? And how could he answer in a way you can understand? You need some way to gesture or indicate position…
  1896. >Aha!
  1897. >Turning to your saddlebags, you levitate out your map, unfolding it on the ground between you.
  1898. “Anon, Grey,” you say, tapping your current location.
  1899. >(Approximately.)
  1900. >(The badlands aren’t drawn in much detail.)
  1901. >Anon seems very excited by the document, practically shoving you aside as he leans in for a closer look. From the way his eyes methodically scan the paper, fingers hovering over landmarks, lips silently muttering to himself, you’re pretty sure he understands what the map is.
  1902. >Which is quite reassuring, actually.
  1903. >If he can read a map, then not only can he probably give you directions, but it’s likely that he’s from a society capable of *producing* maps. Proof that humans aren’t just wild savages, but an intelligent people capable of planning and cooperation.
  1904. >After a few more moments studying the map, Anon hastily looks up, as though scanning for landmarks around you. You follow suit.
  1905. >Only to be reminded you’re both still in a cave. The only things visible are rocks. And some sand.
  1906. >Feeling a bit silly, the two of you trot outside, Anon holding the map. You can’t see much from the small ravine outside, so you climb to a nearby ridge. It’s a little tricky with your sore leg, but you manage.
  1907. >From the summit you can see the full immensity of the desert around you. Miles and miles of gleaming orange and yellow, disappearing into a hazy horizon. To the north of you, the massive brown slopes of the Macintosh Range dominate the skyline. The closest and largest landmark. A number of lesser black and brown splotches dot the desert - hills and cliffs and mesas. However, these don’t seem to correlate to any specific feature on your map.
  1908. >Gesturing north with a sweep of your hoof, you announce:
  1909. “Mountains.”
  1910. >Then, drawing a hoof across the corresponding part of the map:
  1911. “Mountains.”
  1912. >”Mantens,” Anon echoes, nodding.
  1913. “Canteen?”
  1914. >You tap his bottle as you ask, then tap the map again.
  1915. >Anon frowns. You’re not sure if he understands the question, or if the map is even detailed enough to answer it.
  1916. >Eventually he points to the spot you’d given as your current location.
  1917. >”Gray, Anon.”
  1918. >His finger slides a short distance west.
  1919. >”Cantain.”
  1920. >You scooch up closer to peer at the map.
  1921. >The location he’s indicating is still well within the Badlands. Probably only a few kilometres away.
  1922. >Anon raises an arm and gestures towards the western horizon. Squinting against the glare, you can see a vaguely familiar canyon in the distance. The valley which holds Anon’s campsite, and the pool which saved you yesterday.
  1923. >You’ve no idea how some Hoofrest pony’s canteen ended up down there. Prospectors? Dust Devils?
  1924. >Either way, that has to be your next stop. Travelling anywhere else with an empty canteen would be suicide.
  1925. >”Gray?”
  1926. >You turn back to find Anon crouched over the map, drawing something in the sand. His long arms and thin fingers skim across the ground in quick, precise motions. In seconds he’s scribbled a pair of... shapes, or symbols.
  1927. >”Gray,” he declares, pointing to one of the scribbles. Then “Anon”, pointing at the other.
  1928. >You tilt your head, trying to understand what he’s saying. Walking around to view them from his side, suddenly it clicks. The “Gray” symbol is a simplified picture of a pony. Four straight lines for legs, a horizontal line for the body, a circle for the head, and a narrow triangle for your horn. Not unlike foals’ stick pony art.
  1929. >You surmise that the other symbol is a “stick human”. It seems to match up: two lines for legs, vertical line for body, two arms, one head, no horn.
  1930. “Gray, Anon,” you repeat, intrigued but unsure where he’s going with this.
  1931. >He quickly leans over and scribbles three more stick humans. Then, looking back to you, he gestures to himself and carefully pronounces an unfamiliar word. He repeats the word while tapping the group of stick humans.
  1932. >Is he telling you the name of these humans? His family, or tribe? Or perhaps it's the humans' name for their own species?
  1933. >You tentatively catalogue it as the latter for now.
  1934. “<Human>,” you say the word awkwardly.
  1935. >You still think Equestrian is easier on the tongue. Maybe being the common language for all creatures of Equestria - from yaks to griffons to dragons - necessitates that it be easy to pronounce?
  1936. >The human’s language, by contrast, is all... blurry, and has far too many similar but apparently separate sounds.
  1937. >Hard to explain. You’re a guard, not a linguist.
  1938. >Returning to the problem at hoof, you tap each stick figure in turn to show you understand.
  1939. “<Human>, <human>, <human>, <human>, *not* <human>,” ending on the stick pony.
  1940. >Anon smiles and nods excitedly. You feel a surge of excitement too. Each new word and gesture you learn feels like a small but significant accomplishment. Another step closer to getting some real answers. Another victory shared with your new companion.
  1941. >Anon points to the map and asks eagerly:
  1942. >”<Human>?”
  1943. >And just like that, your elation dies.
  1944. >Anon is asking if there’s other humans in Equestria.
  1945. >Or maybe if there’s other humans, period.
  1946. >Poor guy’s lost. Trying to find his own kin.
  1947. >Just like you.
  1948. >You feel your ears droop as you shake your head sadly.
  1949. “Not <human>,” you confess, gesturing across the map.
  1950. >Anon’s ears don’t droop - they don’t seem to move much in general - but the excitement leaves his face.
  1951. >Human body language is still new to you, but it doesn’t take an expert to realise you’ve just dashed his hopes.
  1952. >You’re both quiet for some time.
  1954. 14
  1955. >You’d expected the sheriff to object to investigating the old mine.
  1956. >You hadn’t expected him to insist on accompanying you.
  1957. >”She’s a tired old nag,” he’d said, pointing to Rose. “And you’re a grounded pegasus.”
  1958. >Your bandaged wing twitched at the reminder. Rose harrumphed.
  1959. >”More importantly, neither of you know where the mine is. The last thing we need is *more* ponies getting themselves lost.”
  1960. >You are Private Fruit Punch, and you have to admit the sheriff had a point.
  1961. >”Now, don’t get me wrong,” he continued. “I still don’t reckon you actually saw the Sand Witch. But on the off chance She really is involved, I ain’t gonna risk sending any civilian ponies Her way. And seeing as *somepony* ought to search that area for our missing unicorn - and I know dissuadin’ Rose here is a lost cause - I suppose that means we’re all goin’ together.”
  1962. >So here you are. All goin’ together.
  1963. >The mid morning sun burns overhead. The orange and brown landscape ripples in the heat. You’ve been climbing up and down these foothills for well over an hour, slowly inching your way towards the base of the Macintosh Ranges.
  1964. >Ahead of you, Sheriff Prickly Pear and Dusty Rose plod along, occasionally sniping at one another. You’re pretty sure they don’t mean any harm - you get the impression they’re old friends having a bit of a spat. Or maybe this is normal for them, and they just like being passive-aggressive at each other.
  1965. >”-shouldn’ta got the Guard involved in the first place,” Pear is saying.
  1966. >”Now you’re just tryin’ to have it both ways,” Rose insists. “You can’t say ‘Monster huntin’s too dangerous for civilians,’ then complain when I bring in professionals.”
  1967. >”Sure, and look what the ‘professionals’ have gotten us into. O’ course, we wouldn’ta *needed* monster hunters if that Sandy o’ yours could keep her nose out o’ trouble.”
  1968. >”Hey, if it hadn’t been her, it woulda been some other pony the monster attacked. You can’t just stick you’re head in the sand and hope the monsters go away!”
  1969. >”I can if they’re way out in the middle of nowhere. I don’t care if there *are* monsters this far from town - it ain’t nopony’s business to be foolin’ around out here.”
  1970. >”Only fool out here is you, ya stubborn mule!”
  1971. >”Meddlesome old crone!”
  1972. >...You’re *pretty* sure they don’t mean any harm.
  1973. >The two earth ponies are still arguing with the same enthusiasm they’ve had all morning. They don’t seem at all bothered by the desert heat. Crazy earth pony endurance.
  1974. >You sure hope Glacier isn’t out in this sun. Your coat is much shorter than hers, but you’re already halfway through your first canteen of the day.
  1975. >Rose had insisted that everypony in the search party carry extra water and wear a hat. The purple mare is currently sporting a rather large, flowery sun hat. Courtesy of her niece; as the resident hatter, Sandy had brought along quite the collection.
  1976. >You’d been persuaded to exchange your Royal Guard helmet for something more comfortable, once you were well out of sight of the other volunteers. Technically, you could get in trouble for being out of uniform. But then it’s not like you’re going to run into any Guard officers out here.
  1977. >You’d picked out a small cream-coloured hat with a slightly conical shape. It looks kinda like that old timey Daring Do-style adventurer hat. You think that’s pretty cool.
  1978. >And it definitely helps! By this time yesterday, the tips of your nose and ears, which peek out from under your helmet, were already scorched. And keeping a metal tin can clamped around your head had only exacerbated the issue, quickly giving you a headache. Today, the heat feels much more manageable.
  1979. >You take another sip from your canteen, just to be safe. Gotta keep your fluids up.
  1980. >In addition to water and hats, the nearly two dozen ponies making up the search party were divided into smaller teams, each team given medical supplies and signal flares. The flares, Rose told the group, could double as a weapon if you needed to scare away any desert monsters.
  1981. >As the “leader”, it had been your job to decide where to send each team. In reality, Dusty and Prickly handled all that logistics stuff. You’d just announced their decisions, then given a final pep talk before you all went your separate ways.
  1982. >At least you were useful for *something*.
  1983. >The good ponies of Hoofrest and Tranquility Springs deserve a better leader. They’ve been nothing but helpful, interrupting their own lives to help a complete stranger, offering you kind words and smiles, assuring you that Glacier will be ok.
  1984. >Even knowing the dangers of the desert, and with rumours of Sandy’s shadow monster circulating, so many of them still leapt at the call.
  1985. >It’s a great reminder of what you learned in the Harmony Corps: it may take an emergency to bring out the best in ponies, but when the chips are down you can always count on the power of friendship.
  1986. >You smile at the thought.
  1987. >Then absentmindedly bump into Rose, whom you now notice has stopped.
  1988. >Shaking your head and offering a quick apology, you quickly notice why you've stopped:
  1989. >You’re here.
  1990. >The three of you stand at the peak of a wide sand dune, overlooking a narrowing valley. A sheer cliff wall rises up on the left, three or four stories high before transitioning to a steep slope. A dusty trail runs along its base, deep in the cliff’s shadow. To the right is a large hill of loose stones, some as big as a house, spilling down across the trail.
  1991. >The Macintosh Mountains rise up behind them, an absolutely enormous backdrop. Despite looking like a solid wall of brown from a distance, up close you can see nearly every surface is covered in a layer of wiry green scrub.
  1992. >”This is it,” Prickly announces. “The old mine entrance. Or one of ‘em, at any rate. The main one’s a bit further up.”
  1993. >It takes you a few moments to spot what he’s talking about. In the shadow of the cliff face is an even darker patch - a passage leading into the mountain. You can just barely make out the pale shape of wooden supports framing the entrance, and the glint of metal tracks along the floor.
  1994. “The main one? There are others?”
  1995. >Your knowledge of mining is… minimal. As far as you know, miners just dig a hole in the ground, pick up the gold and gems they find, then climb back out.
  1996. >”Yep, the main entrance had a base camp built around it. A place for the miners to rest and eat and such. There were a couple other entrances around the mountain, so they could reach other deposits more easily. This one was where they’d take the carts to be unloaded, and the contents shipped off to Hoofrest.”
  1997. >Makes sense.
  1998. “So it sounds like we should check the base camp after we look around here?”
  1999. >Pear seems uncomfortable at the suggestion.
  2000. >”Look, I don’t know whether this Sand Witch or Dust Devils or whatever exist, but I do know all the old timers - including the old sheriff - told folk to stay away from these mines. Whether it’s ghosts, or monsters, or just a natural dust storm funnel - whatever it is, we oughtn’a be here.”
  2001. >”We’ve already come all this way, ya big chicken,” Dusty taunts. Though you can see through her grin - she has her own misgivings about this.
  2002. >”Though speaking of Dust Devils...”
  2003. >She reaches into her saddlebags and pulls out a length of rope.
  2004. >”Tada! Now we just gotta tie ourselves together, and then we won’t have to worry about getting separated by any dust storms, magical or no. So it’s perfectly safe to continue searching!”
  2005. >She sounds like she’s trying to convince herself as much as Prickly.
  2006. >The sheriff looks unimpressed.
  2007. >”Weren’t you the one sayin’ a minute ago that there’s witches and spirits and stuff hauntin’ this place? What makes you think a rope will do much good?”
  2008. >Rose huffs.
  2009. >”Well, it’s better than nothing. And like you said, dissuading me’s a lost cause - *I’m* going down there to look for that lost filly. You can either come with me or you can stay here.”
  2010. >You want to chime in, to try and convince the sheriff to join you. But you’re still self conscious about how unqualified you are to lead *anypony*. What if Prickly’s right? Should you be talking more ponies into danger?
  2011. >The tan earth pony sighs, shaking his head.
  2012. >”Now who’s being a stubborn mule?”
  2013. >But he grabs one end of the rope in his mouth, and starts tying a loop around his barrel. Rose starts doing the same.
  2014. >Well. That was easy.
  2015. >Guess Dusty Rose knows Prickly too well. Knows just what to say to convince him.
  2016. >That, or *he* knows just how stubborn *she* is. Just like her niece. And he isn’t willing to abandon her as she runs off into danger.
  2017. >Either way, yay friendship!
  2018. >(You can’t help but feel glad that the decision has been taken out of your hooves.)
  2019. >(And guilty at how glad you feel.)
  2020. >Rose flicks a length of rope over to you, interrupting your thoughts. You quickly distract yourself with tying a knot.
  2021. >A few minutes later, the three of you reach the bottom of the valley. The sand is replaced by dry, parched earth and hard stone. The shadow of the cliff is a relief from the sun. You almost feel too cold now.
  2022. >You approach the mine entrance.
  2023. >The dark passage runs down at a gentle slope, eventually curving out of sight. A few wooden beams holding up the roof have buckled, but overall it doesn’t look too bad.
  2024. >There’s a few empty crates and pieces of old rubbish lying by the wall, but nothing that looks recent. Though you’re far less perceptive about these things than Glacier.
  2025. >Rose pokes around through the boxes, while you take a few cautious steps into the tunnel.
  2026. “Glaaaciiieer? Are you theeere?”
  2027. >”Eere - eere - eere,” the tunnel echoes back.
  2028. >You listen intently, straining to hear anything over the echo.
  2029. >The noise slowly fades.
  2030. >Several long moments pass.
  2031. >Nothing.
  2032. >There’s no sound at all.
  2033. >Not even Rose shuffling about behind you, you realise with a start.
  2034. >You spin around, suddenly afraid the earth ponies have been magicked away.
  2035. >To your relief, they’re still right outside the tunnel.
  2036. >But there’s something odd.
  2037. >They’re both standing stock still.
  2038. >Heads raised. Ears high. Staring at something you can’t see.
  2039. >”There’s something out there,” Pear mutters.
  2040. >”I felt it too,” Rose quietly agrees. “You better get out here, Punch.”
  2041. >You trot out, heart quickening as you unbuckle the straps of your shortsword.
  2042. >You follow Rose and Pear’s gaze to the huge mound of boulders just a few metres from the path. You don’t see anycreature, but up close you notice that the pile is riddled with narrow gaps and openings, leading to who knows where. Many of them are easily large enough for a pony - or something else - to climb through.
  2043. “Glacier…?”
  2044. >A sharp tap draws your attention to the top of the heap. A single stone has come loose, bouncing down the slope in a series of echoing cracks.
  2045. >It takes a long time to reach the bottom, eventually landing near your hoof.
  2046. >It takes even longer for the echoes to die down. They reflect and rebound off the valley walls, blurring together into a dull roar.
  2047. >Something isn’t right.
  2048. >The roar is getting louder.
  2049. >Then you feel it.
  2050. “Dust Devil!” you shout, pulling the others close.
  2051. >Rose and Pear glance around, seeing nothing, but backing up all the same.
  2052. >The false winds start whipping around you, and begin roaring in earnest.
  2053. >Dozens more rocks are knocked loose, their crashes adding to the cacophony.
  2054. >Sand is quickly kicked up and sucked into the air, making the whirling winds visible to your earth pony friends.
  2055. >You grab the two ponies as their hats are blown away. You close your eyes and hold on tight, determined not to lose anypony this time.
  2056. >Rose shouts something, but her voice is overwhelmed. Instead, she starts tugging you back, towards the cliff. Turning, you open your eyes to see she’s trying to lead you into the mine. You tap Pear’s shoulder, nodding towards the entrance. The three of you scurry inside.
  2057. >You stumble several metres down the passage. The noise slowly recedes behind you, though the wind echoing down the shaft produces an unnerving wail.
  2058. >With the storm blocking the light outside, the tunnel is almost completely black. You’d have immediately lost each other if not for the ropes keeping you together.
  2059. >Eventually you all pause, unwilling to go further in the dark. You turn to look back at the opening, hoping the unnatural storm will abate soon.
  2060. >For a few moments, it seems to die down. The dark curtain of whirling sand slows, falling apart. A little light trickles in.
  2061. >You see something silhouetted against the tunnel’s entrance. A large, shadowy figure, eyes gleaming.
  2062. >With a roar that shakes the whole tunnel, the sand rushes in and takes you.
  2064. 15
  2065. >You’re pressed up against Anon, panting and sweating as his powerful muscles pound away rhythmically.
  2066. >His arms are wrapped tight around you. Fingers tangled in your matted blue mane.
  2067. >You feel lightheaded. The two of you have been going like this for some time. His stamina is impressive.
  2068. >You would be in *so* much trouble if the PWG caught you doing this. If you didn’t die of embarrassment first!
  2069. >You’ve known Anon for, what, a few hours? And despite him knowing barely a dozen words in Equestrian, he’s somehow convinced you into such an intimate and vulnerable position.
  2070. >In your defense, there was nopony else around. You were *really* desperate.
  2071. >You are Sergeant Glacier, and you are currently slung backwards over Anon’s shoulder with all the dignity of a sack of potatoes.
  2072. >You glower down at your bandaged leg, flopping feebly beneath you. The two of you were halfway through your trek across the desert when your damned leg gave out. Through some creative charades, Anon offered to carry you.
  2073. >So now here you are. Bouncing up and down. Listening to Anon huff and puff beside you. Watching the desert crawl by.
  2074. >You are not happy with this situation.
  2075. >For one thing, you must look ridiculous! A grown mare - a Royal Guard, no less! - being carried around like a filly who scraped her knee.
  2076. >You’re just glad Fruit Punch isn’t here to see this.
  2077. >And another thing, you’d really rather not be in such a vulnerable position.
  2078. >Not only are you *completely* disregarding your orders to run from any human you meet, but you’re literally putting your life in his hands. If Command ever hears about this, they’ll have a fit!
  2079. >...Not that you seriously think you’re in danger. Anon’s been nothing but helpful since last night. You’re pretty sure he only tried to hunt you in the first place because he thought you were a wild animal, not a person. He’s clearly never met a unicorn before.
  2080. >Despite the rocky start to your relationship, you’re glad to have a friend out here. And you’re super grateful for his help, honest! But…
  2081. >He is kinda sweaty.
  2082. >And smelly.
  2083. >And uncomfortably warm.
  2084. >Of course, it’s not like you’re any better. Your coat is clogged with dirt and sweat. And your mane *desperately* needs a comb.
  2085. >But between the desert air and Anon’s body heat, you feel like you’re trapped in a sauna.
  2086. >A sauna full of old soaks.
  2087. >At least you have a little bit of shade. You’d ditched your armour while fleeing Anon last night, and returned this morning to pick it up again. But after sitting in the sun for hours, the metal was painfully hot.
  2088. >Wearing it was out of the question. Instead, you’ve been floating it above your head as an impromptu umbrella. When Anon offered to carry you, you added his spear to your levitating bundle, freeing up his hands.
  2089. >”Gray.”
  2090. >Speaking of hands, Anon is tapping you on the shoulder.
  2091. >You squirm around to see what’s up. He raises one arm to point ahead.
  2092. >”Canteen.”
  2093. >Wha- oh, thank the Sisters, it looks like you’ve finally arrived!
  2094. >The long, narrow valley that is your destination lies just ahead of you. Numerous smaller cliffs and ridges radiate out from its center. A rocky maze, hiding the precious water within.
  2095. >You notice a few landmarks you’d passed yesterday, and guess Anon is taking you back down to his campsite.
  2096. >Sure enough, after a few minutes clambering down the steep slopes - and Anon almost dropping you - you pass beneath a familiar stone arch and enter into a smooth dusty bowl.
  2097. >You immediately recognize the sight (and smell) of the camp. Now that it’s daylight, you can properly appreciate the choice of location.
  2098. >High, overhanging walls provide enough shade to make the chamber noticeably cooler than outside, while still allowing plenty of light. The confined space would also help retain a campfire’s heat overnight. The steep path leading up and the narrow fissure leading down to the pool are the only entrances, both acting as excellent choke points. And most importantly, the pool itself is only a short climb away.
  2099. >Your only problem with the place is the *smell*.
  2100. >Those rubbish pits full of rotting meat rather stink up the place. Anon’s sense of smell doesn’t seem very well developed, so maybe he just doesn’t notice it. Still, it risks attracting unwanted scavengers.
  2101. >You take all this in as Anon carefully sets you down, still huffing and puffing. With a sweeping gesture, he grandly announces… *something* indecipherable. Probably some variation of “Welcome to my humble abode.”
  2102. >You smile up at him.
  2103. “Thanks, Anon.”
  2104. >You’re not sure he understands “Thanks” just yet, but you don’t want to seem ungrateful for his hard work and hospitality.
  2105. >He smiles back down at you and gives you a friendly pat on the head.
  2106. >He seems to like giving pats.
  2107. >Eh, he’s earned it. You indulge him.
  2108. >Eventually he breaks off and walks over to a section of wall, gesturing for you to follow. You deposit your armour and his spear in a corner before hobbling after him.
  2109. >Tucked against the wall is a motley collection of clay pottery. Mugs, plates, and lidded jars of various sizes.
  2110. >The quality is… well, they look like a foal’s arts and crafts project. But they’re apparently functional. When Anon removes the lid from a jar larger than your head, you see it’s full of deliciously clear-looking water.
  2111. >Scooping up a mug, Anon dunks it in the jar and offers the precious drink to you.
  2112. >”Canteen.”
  2113. >Canteen? Again? That’s not a-
  2114. >Ohhh. “Canteen.” Right.
  2115. >You’d asked about “canteen” earlier this morning, trying to find out where his pony-made canteen had come from.
  2116. >He seems to have misinterpreted that as you asking where to find water.
  2117. >Oh well. Right now, water *is* much more interesting to you.
  2118. “Thanks.”
  2119. >You take the cup in your hooves (not willing to risk startling him with your magic), and raise it to your lips.
  2120. >And hesitate.
  2121. >Is this safe to drink?
  2122. >You’ve no way of knowing if this has been purified, or if it’s straight from the stagnant pool below.
  2123. >And a small part of you can’t help but wonder: could Anon have put something sinister in it?
  2124. >You frown at the thought. Surely you’re just being paranoid? It’s not like Anon hasn’t had plenty of opportunities to harm you already. Why go to the effort of saving you, patching you up, and carrying you back here, just to poison you now?
  2125. >You glance up at Anon, hoping he isn’t offended by your delay.
  2126. >Luckily, he seems completely oblivious at the moment. Having filled his canteen from the jar, he’s now greedily chugging it down, determined to finish the whole thing in one go.
  2127. >Well, you’ve drunk from that same canteen before with no ill effects. If this is where he’s been filling it from, then it should be fine. Right?
  2128. >With a shrug, you take a mouthful.
  2129. >It tastes like water. Normal, refreshing, absolutely delicious water. Your dehydrated body screams for more!
  2130. >You quickly slam the rest of the drink down, then go back for seconds.
  2131. >And thirds.
  2132. >Anon follows suit.
  2133. >By the time you’re both sated, the jar is completely empty.
  2134. >The two of you lean against the wall, sighing contentedly. For a long minute, you just rest there, feeling the cold seep through your core.
  2135. >Since you haven’t immediately doubled over in pain or fallen unconscious, you’re going to assume you’ve not been poisoned. Though after all that sun you’re certainly feeling drowsy...
  2136. >Anon eventually gets up. Hoisting the now empty jar, he sluggishly makes his way to the crack in the wall leading down to the pool.
  2137. >Oh, right. The pool. You’d somehow forgotten about that beautiful ice bath just waiting for you. With a stretch and a yawn, you amble after him, eager to get all this gunk out of your coat.
  2138. >Watching Anon clamber down the steep fissure is... entertaining. He’s clearly not a very good climber. With the pot taking up one arm, he almost loses his balance several times, comically flailing about. But his long, noodly limbs are great for reaching distant hoofholds, and he even uses them to brace against the ceiling.
  2139. >It’s like watching a really drunk spider try to squeeze through a gap. Hilarious.
  2140. >You grin as you easily climb down after him, even with your injured leg.
  2141. >When Anon reaches the bottom, he politely offers to help you with the last few steps. Not that you really need help. But hey, after being carried through the desert like a foal, what pride have you got left to lose?
  2142. >The two of you emerge into a familiar ravine. Dark, still waters cover the floor, while the smooth walls arch high overhead, almost meeting. It’s much brighter down here than you’d expected. The narrow sliver of sky is a blinding band of blue, while the walls are almost pumpkin orange.
  2143. >Anon crouches by the water’s edge, filling his jar from the pool. (Oh dear. He *did* boil the water last time, right?)
  2144. >Placing the jar down, he then starts setting aside his canteen, his shoes, and - oh, hello! - his clothes.
  2145. >Despite living in a desert, Anon has quite a lot of clothing. Even if it’s mostly tatters. You suppose it’s to protect his bare skin from the elements, the way a proper fur coat does? Though curiously, Anon seems to have *more* fur beneath his clothes than he does on the parts which were exposed...
  2146. >He notices your staring. Pauses, pants halfway down.
  2147. >With a start, you quickly turn away.
  2148. “S-sorry, Anon.”
  2149. >You don’t know much about human culture, but it’s *probably* impolite to stare at his junk.
  2150. >Even if your curiosity is *completely* academic.
  2151. >Besides, the last thing you want to do is give Anon the wrong idea. The two of you have far more important things to worry about than… *indulging your curiosity.*
  2152. >Heh. And just think what Command would say! Forget being *carried* by a human; imagine if they caught you and Anon with his junk in-
  2153. >Wait. No. No no no! Stop imagining that!
  2154. >With a great splash (and a squeal from Anon), you dive into the icy pool before your thoughts can lead anywhere too dangerous!
  2155. >...
  2156. >Some time later, feeling wonderfully clean and refreshed, the two of you share a meal of wild prickly pears. Anon has a whole jar full of them.
  2157. >True to their name, the bright red fruits are covered in spines. You’ve been using sharp stones to scrape them off before eating.
  2158. >After living off rations and bugs for the last twenty four hours, their sweet flesh is a welcome treat.
  2159. >In between bites, Anon is poking at the small fire you helped start. He’s set the big pot of water nearby, so you assume he’s planning on boiling it.
  2160. >You’d rather have waited until sundown before starting a fire, as the campsite is already hot enough. But maybe it’s prudent to fill your canteens sooner rather than later. You never know when something big and nasty might crawl by your campsite. Or, from Anon’s point of view, something big and delicious.
  2161. >Humans seem to be opportunistic hunters, so it makes sense that Anon would want to be ready for the next opportunity. Much safer to go hunting if you’ve got a full canteen.
  2162. >With one last poke, Anon seems happy with the state of the fire. You watch as he uses a pair of pronged sticks to lift an egg-sized stone from the flames, then deposit it carefully in the waiting jar.
  2163. >The water fizzles and hisses, but quickly subsides. Anon repeats the process, dropping in several more burning hot rocks. With each addition, the simmering lasts longer and longer, as more and more heat is transferred.
  2164. >It’s an old technique for boiling water without a metal pot. You’d learned about it years ago during a camping trip, but never had a need to use it until now.
  2165. >It’s kind of fun doing it this way.
  2166. >You notice Anon struggling to fish the now-cooled stones from the bottom of the jar. Still munching on a pear, you wave your horn in his direction. The rocks float out of the pot, briefly startling him, before heading back over to the fire.
  2167. >”Thangks, Gray,” he says in a passable mangling of Equestrian.
  2168. >You share a smile, and continue cycling the rocks between the fire and the pot.
  2169. >Soon the water has reached a rolling boil, threatening to spill over the sides. You pull out the last of the stones, replace the lid, then very carefully set the heavy pot aside to cool.
  2170. >Phew! That’s the drinking water problem solved for the time being.
  2171. >Though that reminds you of something you need to clear up...
  2172. “Hey, Anon. Canteen?”
  2173. >”No canteen,” he replies with a shake of his head. He opens the bottle and holds it upside down to show that it’s empty.
  2174. “May I…?”
  2175. >Your cyan aura envelopes the container and gives it a gentle tug. Anon lets go with a start, then watches in fascination as it floats over to you, still impressed by the simplest of magics.
  2176. >You take a moment to inspect the bottle. The words “Hoofrest Mining Co” engraved into its side are proof that Anon must have had *some* contact with Equestria. And it’s not the only clue.
  2177. >You’ve noticed a professionally crafted wooden crate tucked into a corner. Alongside it is a wooden bucket with a metal handle and banding. There’s also Anon’s knife and spear, both tipped with strips of scavenged metal. Corrugated iron, perhaps, smoothed and ground to a sharp edge.
  2178. >There’s no way Anon has the tools or resources to produce metal. He must have found these items somewhere in the desert. An abandoned campsite, maybe, or perhaps they just washed up in the pool below?
  2179. >With any luck, he’s happened upon an old shelter or way station; the kind of place a search party may check. And even if that’s not the case, it may still be worthwhile investigating. Given Anon’s unfamiliarity with magic, it’s possible there’s some magical emergency equipment which he’s completely overlooked.
  2180. >You take a moment to consider *how* to ask this.
  2181. >Anon waits patiently, finishing off his fruit.
  2182. >Eventually you point to the gently simmering pot.
  2183. “Water.”
  2184. >You speak slowly, using your explaining-a-new-word voice. Next, you point to the passage leading down to the pool.
  2185. “Water.”
  2186. >Finally, you tap Anon’s empty canteen.
  2187. “*Not* water. Canteen.”
  2188. >You focus, carefully levitating a hooffull of boiling water from the jar.
  2189. >Anon “Oooh”s appreciatively at the minor magic show.
  2190. >Taking care not to waste a drop (or scald yourself), you pour the water into the waiting canteen. Replacing the lid, you give it a few taps.
  2191. “Canteen, *and* water.”
  2192. >You look expectantly at Anon, hoping he’s followed your logic. He still looks a little uncertain, but gives a slow nod.
  2193. >Pointing to the canteen, jar, and fissure in turn, he asks:
  2194. >”Canteen, not canteen, not canteen?”
  2195. >You nod and smile happily.
  2196. “Yes. Canteen, not canteen, not canteen.”
  2197. >Anon gives a more confident nod, but still looks curious. He’s probably wondering where you're going with this.
  2198. >Shifting a little further away from the fire, you float over your saddlebags and dig out your map. Unfolding it so that both of you can see, you gesture to it and ask:
  2199. “Canteen?”
  2200. >Anon scooches around the fire to get a closer look. He picks up the canteen... then lets out a string of human profanity as the hot metal scorches his fingers. Muttering to himself, he readjusts his grip to hold it more gingerly by the lid. He looks back and forth between you, it, and the map, as if trying to understand the connection.
  2201. >After a few seconds he slaps a hand to his forehead.
  2202. >”Ohhh, *canteen*.”
  2203. >Leaning forward, he scans the map for a moment before jabbing a finger.
  2204. >"Canteen," he declares confidently.
  2205. >The indicated spot is at a relatively narrow part of the Macintosh Range, north and slightly east of you. Maybe a half day’s travel to the base of the range. But it must be at least another day of climbing to get that deep into the mountains. Having seen Anon’s climbing skills, you’ve no idea how he managed to get up there in the first place.
  2206. >Anon makes a “hrmm” noise. You look up to see him frowning at the map.
  2207. >Pushing it aside, he starts smoothing out the sand on the ground between you. Once he’s made a large, even surface, he extends a finger and begins scribbling, with frequent pauses to consult the map.
  2208. >Soon he’s sketched a crude, enlarged version of the map, or at least the desert portion. You see the main mountain ranges, the valley containing your campsite, and even a little Stick Glacier and Stick Anon.
  2209. >You smile at them.
  2210. ”Anon, Gray,” you tap the figures to indicate you understand.
  2211. >Anon nods, then gestures across the mountain range.
  2212. >”Mantens.”
  2213. >He taps a point in the range, north and slightly east of you.
  2214. >"Canteen."
  2215. >Then, slowly, wipes away a narrow part of the mountains around it, leaving a tiny channel running north to south.
  2216. >”NOT mantens.”
  2217. >It takes you a moment to process what he's just said.
  2218. >Then your jaw drops.
  2219. “There’s a *gap* in the mountains?”
  2221. 16
  2222. >”...ose? Dusty Rose? You haven’t gone and died on me, have you?”
  2223. >Your ears eventually stop ringing enough to make out Prickly Pear’s voice.
  2224. “Uuurgh.”
  2225. >You are Dusty Rose, and you do not seem to have gone and died. Though the various aches all over your body remind you that you’re not a young mare anymore.
  2226. >You crack open an eye. The dark orange blur that is Pear looms above you, silhouetted against the crystal blue sky. No sign of the tunnel or the Dust Devil.
  2227. >Upon seeing you awake, a wave of relief washes over Prickly’s expression. He quickly hides it under his usual frown, but not fast enough to fool you.
  2228. >You grin up at him.
  2229. “You’re - *cough* - not getting rid of me that easily.”
  2230. >”So I see. Well, there’s always next time.”
  2231. >He offers you a hoof. You accept it, gingerly pulling yourself upright. Loose sand cascades off you, piling around your hooves. You must have been half buried!
  2232. >A groan to your right draws your attention. You look over to see Fruit Punch wobbling on three hooves, a fourth covering her muzzle.
  2233. >”Ooof... I think I’m gonna be sick. Flight instincts and - urp! - fake whirlwinds are not a fun mix...”
  2234. >You’re feeling a bit dizzy yourself. Earth ponies are not meant to be plucked off the ground like that! Though it could just as easily be the heat affecting you. You seem to be back in the desert again. The sun blazes overhead, and you’ve gone and lost dear Sandy’s hat.
  2235. >You’ll have to apologise later. But for now you’ve got more important things to worry about.
  2236. >You cough a few times to clear your throat.
  2237. “Ok everypony, status report. Any injuries?”
  2238. >”I’m fine.” Pear looks a bit hot and dishevelled, but no worse for wear. He seems a little lost without his signature sheriff hat, constantly fussing with his mane.
  2239. >”Urgh, same. More or less.” Fruit Punch still looks a little queasy, but seems to be recovering. She’s more orange than purple, thanks to all the sand in her coat. She flicks an ear, sending a rivulet down her neck.
  2240. >”How about you? Looks like you had a rough landing.”
  2241. >You absently rub your sore ribs. Your hoof bumps against the rope still wrapped tight around you. You’d all tied yourselves together to keep from getting separated. It seems to have worked.
  2242. “Oh, I’m fine, dearie. Just a little bruised where the rope pulled on me.”
  2243. >”Hmm. You haven’t broken anything, have you? Should I take a look?”
  2244. >She’s already pulling out her first aid kit. You wave her away.
  2245. “None o’ that, now. I’ll be fine with a drink and a few moments rest.”
  2246. >You pointedly open your canteen and take a long swig. Pear follows suit. Fruit frowns, but soon joins you.
  2247. >The three of you spend a few moments washing the sand from your faces and getting thoroughly rehydrated. You finish off your first canteen in the process. Luckily you’d insisted everypony bring a spare.
  2248. >You take the opportunity to look around.
  2249. >After the Dust Devil swept into the mine and sucked you all up, for a while there was only tumbling and noise and darkness. But it seems you were ultimately deposited back out into the desert. It’s hard to say *where* exactly. The ever-present Macintosh mountains are still visible, though noticeably further away. But you can’t see anything else beyond the sea of sand.
  2250. >Fruit puts her canteen away and kicks the ground with a huff.
  2251. >”This is getting bloody ridiculous. Three Dust Devils now? Three!? What did I do, personally offend the Sand Witch or something?”
  2252. >You give her a sympathetic smile.
  2253. “Mmm, I’d like to know that, too.”
  2254. >You turn to Pear, who’s looking towards the mountains.
  2255. “So, Sheriff. I’d say our little adventure is pretty conclusive proof that the Sand Witch is real. Wouldn’t you agree?”
  2256. >”Eyup.”
  2257. >His ears flicker towards you, but he continues staring off into the distance.
  2258. >“And if’n you remember the old stories, they say the Dust Devils are Her way of warning folk. Well, I ain’t fool enough to need to be warned twice - let alone three times. We’d best get on outta here.”
  2259. “Gotta agree with you there, Sheriff. Dust Devils, Sand Witches, shadow monsters - there’s something going on out here. We need to regroup and reassess. Come up with a new plan of attack.”
  2260. >Pear grunts, and starts walking north, up the nearest sand dune.
  2261. >You notice the length of rope that was connecting the two of you is now hanging limply, trailing behind him in the sand.
  2262. >You look around for your end of the rope. Eventually you find a short stub, barely a hoof long, dangling from where it connects to the loops around your chest.
  2263. >Curious.
  2264. “Say, Pear. Did you cut this?”
  2265. >He turns to see what you’re talking about.
  2266. >”Huh? The rope? Nope, haven’t touched it. Guess it snapped in the whirlwind?”
  2267. >He shrugs.
  2268. >”Seems we didn’t need it after all.”
  2269. >He continues up the slope. You frown.
  2270. >The rope isn’t all that thick, but it should be plenty strong. While you certainly felt a few sharp tugs from it during the storm, surely that wouldn’t have been enough to snap it?
  2271. >And the break looks too… clean? You’d expect to see more fraying and unravelling if it had come apart naturally. It looks more like something sliced through it.
  2272. >You think back to the shadowy figure you saw at the mouth of the tunnel, eyes gleaming in the dark. When the Dust Devil picked you up and dragged you out, you must have been carried right by it.
  2273. >You look down at the rope. Severed inches from your neck.
  2274. >A shiver runs down your back. You can all too easily imagine some unknown creature slashing at you in the dark, missing you by a split second.
  2275. >You lick your lips, suddenly parched again.
  2276. >But wait, wasn’t that creature the Sand Witch? The one who controls the Dust Devils? Why would it try to kill you while simultaneously sending you to safety?
  2277. >Surely it wasn’t actually trying to cut the rope? As Pear pointed out, the rope doesn’t seem to have done anything - the Dust Devil plopped you all down together anyway.
  2278. >So what really happened in the tunnel? What *was* that creature? Was it really trying to attack you, and if so, why did the Dust Devil save you?
  2279. >Your head swims as you try to process all these mysteries. Maybe the heat is getting to you?
  2280. >You take another mouthful of water, deciding you’re far too hot and rattled to figure this right now. You need to focus on finding some shade.
  2281. >There’s a soft ‘paf’ as something hits the sand. You turn to see Fruit Punch has untangled herself from the rope and dropped it to the ground, and is now fiddling with her armour.
  2282. >Noticing your questioning look, she gestures up at the sky.
  2283. >”Just gimme a sec to take my armour off, and I’ll fly up and see where we are.”
  2284. >You blink in confusion.
  2285. “What? No! You’ll do no such thing.”
  2286. >Punch freezes, her ears standing up in surprise.
  2287. “You said it yourself, that wing needs rest. You are *not* putting any weight on it, private.”
  2288. >She glances guiltily at her bandaged wing.
  2289. >”It’s… not that bad-”
  2290. “No flying. That’s an order.”
  2291. >”But then… how do we figure out where we are?”
  2292. >The silly filly looks genuinely worried.
  2293. >You give her a reassuring smile while ruffling her mane.
  2294. “The earth pony way, of course!”
  2295. >”Wait, what? You guys have a special way of doing that? How? Is it some cool earth pony magic?”
  2296. “Ha! No.”
  2297. >You point over to Prickly Pear as he reaches the crest of the dune.
  2298. “We climb the nearest tall thing and look around.”
  2299. >”...Oh.”
  2300. >...
  2301. >Red smoke billows out from the signal flare, forming a ruddy cloud over Hoofrest.
  2302. >Prickly Pear gives it one last check, making sure it won’t accidentally roll towards any buildings. Then he turns around and starts trotting back.
  2303. >You watch him through the window of the Hoofrest eatery. The little shop has inadvertently become your base of operations.
  2304. >Several other ponies share the restaurant with you. A couple of locals, as well as two search teams who have already finished their morning expedition.
  2305. >No sign of Glacier from either of them.
  2306. >Fruit Punch is interrogating them for details, but you doubt she’ll find anything more.
  2307. >The other teams are due back soon, but Pear insisted on signalling for them to return ASAP.
  2308. >He’s spooked by what happened. And you can’t blame him.
  2309. >After getting dumped back into the desert by the Dust Devil, the three of you climbed the nearest sand dune to get your bearings. Only to find yourselves scarcely a hundred metres from Hoofrest.
  2310. >Somehow, the Sand Witch knows where you came from.
  2311. >And if the Dust Devil can transport you that far, then the other search parties are surely within Her reach.
  2312. >You should have taken Fruit Punch’s warnings more seriously. Part of you still believed - or wanted to believe - that there was no Dust Devil. That Punch had spent too long with the buffalo, filling her head with nonsense. That Glacier had simply become lost in a regular sandstorm.
  2313. >And so neither you nor Pear bothered to warn the volunteers about Dust Devils. When he told them that Glacier was lost during some sort of sudden sandstorm - never explicitly mentioning Dust Devils - you let it be. Not worth worrying them needlessly, you thought.
  2314. >It was a bad call.
  2315. >Well, now you know better. Time to correct your mistake.
  2316. >You’re completely onboard with calling back the volunteers and letting them know, even if it means eating humble pie. But Pear… He’s taking this much more personally.
  2317. >You were a sergeant in the Royal Guard for many years. You know that bad calls - even ones that put ponies in danger - are a part of life. That doesn’t excuse them, but you can’t let them mess you up, either. You can’t stop doing what’s right for fear that you’ll get it wrong again.
  2318. >You’ve learned to take responsibility, and move on to the next task. But Pear - despite his many years as sheriff - has never had ponies under his command in serious danger.
  2319. >Even if the search teams all return safe and sound, even if the Dust Devils leave everypony else alone, you’re worried Pear might get a bit… overprotective.
  2320. >The bell over the front door jingles. The stallion in question walks in.
  2321. >He trots over, pulls up a chair, and sits down.
  2322. >Neither of you say a word.
  2323. >You watch as he rests his hooves on the table. Then, on the back of the chair. Then, in his lap.
  2324. >His eyes flicker about the room. Taking note of every member of the search party. And the many more vacant seats.
  2325. >He keeps absently brushing his mane. The reddish-brown hair is sticking up in tufts. Still full of sand, no doubt. He just doesn’t look right without his hat.
  2326. >After a few minutes of this, you can’t stand it any longer.
  2327. >You pull out a comb and handkerchief.
  2328. >His eyes widen as he sees you approach. Tries to swat you away without causing a scene, but you will not be deterred. Resistance is futile.
  2329. >By the time Fruit Punch returns, Prickly Pear is looking halfway presentable. Which is about as presentable as he ever looks. He’s still scowling, but you count that as a success - if he’s busy being annoyed at you, that means he’s not busy fretting.
  2330. >”No luck from either team,” Fruit announces glumly. She flops into the seat between you.
  2331. >”No tracks, no markings, no clues whatsoever.”
  2332. >It’s what you expected, but it’s still disheartening to hear.
  2333. >”At least they didn’t run into any Dust Devils,” she continues. “So that’s something, I guess. But I just don’t get it!”
  2334. “Don’t get what?”
  2335. >She waves her hooves.
  2336. >”The fricken Dust Devils, or Sand Witch, whatever - why do they hit when they do? One of the search teams was in the area Glacier and I explored yesterday. Why weren’t *they* hit by a Dust Devil? And why did our Dust Devil today take us back to Hoofrest, but Glacier’s didn’t yesterday?”
  2337. >”You almost sound like you *want* more Dust Devils showing up,” Prickly grouses.
  2338. >Fruit shakes her head.
  2339. >”Ha. No way. But if they were at least consistent then we’d have a better shot at figuring them out.”
  2340. >You think back to your own ponderings on the subject.
  2341. “You said you saw a dark figure yesterday, just before the Dust Devil hit, right? And then today we saw the same thing in the tunnel? I’m assuming it’s the Sand Witch, but whatever it is it’s obviously connected to the Dust Devils. Did you notice any differences in its appearance or behaviour today? Maybe it, I don’t know, panicked that we tracked it to its lair, and instinctively sent us away?”
  2342. >You’re grasping at straws here.
  2343. >”Hmm. Yesterday it was more… Huh.”
  2344. >A frown crosses Fruit’s face. Her eyes drift down, unfocused, as she thinks.
  2345. >”...Come to think of it, it seemed… Was that even…?”
  2346. >She looks back up to you.
  2347. >”The one from yesterday definitely looked like a pony. But it was sort of… Insubstantial? Rough around the edges? Like a… a pony made of cloud. But that thing in the tunnel - that was very substantial, right? It completely blocked off all light behind it. Had a very definite outline. And that outline didn’t look all that pony-ish to me.”
  2348. >Oh? Interesting.
  2349. >You turn to Prickly Pear.
  2350. “What do you think? My old eyes ain’t what they used to be.”
  2351. >He shakes his head.
  2352. >”Sure wasn’t no pony. I got a pretty good look at it. Thing was way too big, and all the wrong shape. Too low to the ground. If it hadn’ta been for the eyes, I’da thought it was a cave-in.”
  2353. >He turns to Fruit Punch.
  2354. >”You sure you saw somepony yesterday? Not that I’m doubtin’ yer story, not any more. But it’s plenty easy to start seeing things out in the desert. ‘Rough around the edges’ sounds an awful lot like a mirage, to me.”
  2355. >Fruit hesitates. Bites her lip.
  2356. >”...I can’t be one hundred percent sure, but I still *think* there was somepony there. Even if I didn’t trust my own eyes, Glacier saw it too. And she’s a lot more perceptive about these things.”
  2357. >Pear nods slowly, not looking entirely convinced but willing to take her word.
  2358. “So, we’ve got Sandy’s bipedal shadow monster. Fruit’s insubstantial cloud pony. Dust Devils. And now, something big but low to the ground in the mine.”
  2359. >Fruit looks thoughtful. Pear looks grim.
  2360. “*Something’s* going on out there. Bucked if I know what, though.”
  2361. >”So, what do we do next?” Fruit asks. “I mean, I guess we need to combine the search teams into larger groups, for safety, but… what else can we do to keep them safe? And where do we send them? Is it still worth scouring the desert, or should we focus on the mine?”
  2362. >Pear shakes his head.
  2363. >”’Fraid the only place we’ll be sending ‘em is back home.”
  2364. >Fruit’s ears shoot up.
  2365. >”Wait, what? Why?”
  2366. >”It’s like Dusty said. We got a whole bunch o’ unknown monsters running around the desert. Maybe even the Sand Witch Herself. At least one of ‘em’s already tried to attack ponies. And now not only have we confirmed Dust Devils are real and disappearing folk, we know they can reach as far as Hoofrest. At *lesat*.”
  2367. >He snorts.
  2368. >”Ain’t no way I’m sending civilians out into that. We’re heading back to Tranquility Springs, and waitin’ for the rest of the Guard to show up.”
  2369. >You frown, but stay silent. You don’t like this one bit. But that doesn’t mean Pear is wrong, either.
  2370. >”But- but what about Glacier?” Fruit isn’t willing to give up so easily. “We can’t just abandon her! It could be days until the Guard arrive! She needs our help *now*!”
  2371. >Pear shifts uncomfortably.
  2372. >”Look, I hate leaving a pony out there, too. But with how far the Dust Devils can travel, for all we know she could be on the other side of the mountains. And the longer we keep sending folk out there, the more chance that some of them won’t make it back. We need-”
  2373. >”We’ll be careful!” Fruit insists desperately. “We’ll take every precaution we can think of! I don’t want civilians in danger either, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up entirely!”
  2374. >”How do you stop a Dust Devil from swallowing a pony?” Pear asks flatly.
  2375. >”We… Uh… Maybe with some rope we could…?”
  2376. >Fruit falters. Her gaze lowers, ears folded back.
  2377. >Pear sighs.
  2378. >”I’m sorry, private, but I can’t endanger dozens of civilians to *maybe* save one Royal Guard. It may sound harsh, but it’s the Guard’s job to keep everypony else safe; if that means risking one Guard to protect dozens of others, then so be it.”
  2379. >Fruit looks towards you. Golden eyes blinking back tears.
  2380. >”...Rose?”
  2381. “I…”
  2382. >You want to look away. You feel like a mule for what you’re about to say, but it can’t be helped.
  2383. >You force yourself to return her gaze.
  2384. “I think… the sheriff’s right. We don’t know what we’re up against, and what little we do know we still can’t fight. It isn’t right, sending civilians out there. Even if it’s to save a fellow Guard.”
  2385. >She shuts her eyes. But you still saw the pain and betrayal in them.
  2386. “Listen, we can still look for Glacier,” you promise. “If you want, the two of us can keep searching. Maybe Pear can even spare some of his deputies to come help - they’re not Royal Guard, but they’re not exactly civilians either.”
  2387. >You gently press a hoof to her shoulder.
  2388. “We’re not giving up, ok? This is just… a delay.”
  2389. >You know how hollow the reassurance must sound.
  2390. >Fruit Punch is a medic. She knows how quickly dehydration can set in.
  2391. >Without a source of fresh water, the sergeant may only have hours left. Assuming she’s even lasted this long.
  2392. >You only hope the Parks and Wilderness Guard veteran is as hardy as reputation makes them out to be.
  2393. >The front door bell jingles.
  2394. >You look up to see another search team has returned.
  2395. >You count them quickly. Thankfully, nopony is missing. None of them seem to be hurt, either.
  2396. >They’re as hot and sweaty as you’d expect after trudging through the desert for hours. They immediately stumble into some empty seats, grateful for the shade and a chance to rest their hooves. The proprietor emerges, a tray of cool drinks on his back.
  2397. >One of the volunteers - a copper coated mare named Bright Vein - gives you an exhausted wave.
  2398. >”Hey, - *huff* - Rose. What’s with the - *huff* - smoke? Did did you - *huff* - find her?”
  2399. >You shake your head.
  2400. “No such luck. We’ve got some new information you all need to hear. But it can wait - you go ahead and rest up.”
  2401. >She nods, too busy downing her drink to answer. The group begins unslinging their saddlebags and shaking the sand from their coats.
  2402. >Pear wearily gets to his hooves.
  2403. >”Guess I’ll go tell the other teams to start packing up. No need to keep them away from their jobs and families longer than need be.”
  2404. >”Wait.”
  2405. >Fruit puts a hoof on his shoulder.
  2406. >”You were right before. It is a Guard’s job to keep civilians safe.”
  2407. >Her voice has steadied.
  2408. >”But it’s a pony’s *duty* to help those in need. Especially their friends.”
  2409. >Pear wearily shakes his head.
  2410. >”Private, it’s not your call to-”
  2411. >”It’s not your call, either. It’s theirs.”
  2412. >She stands, face to face with the sheriff.
  2413. >”I’m going to tell everypony the truth. The whole truth. About the dangers, about my screw ups, everything. They deserve to know. And then, they deserve to make their own decisions.”
  2414. >She smiles softly.
  2415. >”Princess Twilight once told our class, ‘You should never deny a pony a chance to do the right thing.’” I believe in these ponies. Whatever choice they make, leave or stay, I’ll believe it’s the right one.”
  2416. >”What’s this about a choice?” Bright Vein pipes up, looking over from her table. “And dangerous screw ups?”
  2417. >Prickly Pear scowls.
  2418. >”We’re talking about a lot more than denying a chance to help. You really want to invite civilians back out into *that*?”
  2419. >Despite his huffing, you can tell he’s conflicted. He glances over to you, wordlessly asking your opinion.
  2420. >You grin at Fruit Punch, feeling kinda proud of the little filly.
  2421. “Well, it’s not like we can stop them if they choose to stay.”
  2422. >Her whole face lights up in a smile.
  2423. >”Hmph. I could have them all arrested,” Pear mutters.
  2424. >You chuckle.
  2425. >”No, seriously, what’s this about being arrested?” Vein insists.
  2426. >Just then, the front door jingles open.
  2427. >Conversation pauses as all eyes turn to the gleaming figure in the doorway. And then up, following the massive spear resting against her shoulder.
  2428. >The large pegasus steps into the room, turning towards your table.
  2429. >”Private Punch? I’ve been looking for you.”
  2431. 17
  2432. >Maps in the sand. Looming mountains. Dark tunnels. Friends. Monsters.
  2433. >Thoughts and memories drift in and out, blurring together.
  2434. >Your mind is sluggish. Lethargic. But refuses to stop spinning.
  2435. >The last few days’ events play out over and over again. You think of all the ways things could have gone differently. You think of all the ways things can still go wrong.
  2436. >What if this plan of yours is another mistake? What if you’ve overlooked something important? What if you run out of water? What if your injured leg gets infected? What if Anon is wrong? Or worse, what if he’s right? What if...? What if…? What if…?
  2437. >With a grunt, you roll over onto your other side.
  2438. >You are Glacier, and you are not sleeping well.
  2439. >The cool, rough stone of the tunnel brushes against your fur. You screw your eyes shut, trying to keep out the dim orange light permeating the cave.
  2440. >No matter how much you toss and turn, your mind keeps going back to that map.
  2441. >Anon had sketched a rough outline of the Badlands and Southern Equestria, using the sandy floor of his camp as a canvas. He’d consulted your paper map initially, but soon started adding his own details. Hills. Canyons. Landmarks he’d seen in his travels.
  2442. >But what *really* caught your attention was the narrow gap he’d left in the mountains, seemingly connecting Equestria to the Badlands.
  2443. >If such a gap existed, then you were as good as rescued! The opening couldn’t have been more than a day’s journey away. Once you were on the far side of the mountains, your signal flares would be visible for miles. Probably all the way from Hoofrest. And even without flares, if you were careful with your water then you should be able to make it back on hoof.
  2444. >It seemed almost too good to be true.
  2445. >You frowned at the map, suspicious.
  2446. “How is there a gap in the mountains so close to town, yet nopony’s noticed it before?”
  2447. >You were really just wondering out loud. Anon certainly couldn’t have understood your words. But you must have *sounded* sufficiently sceptical, as he hurriedly adjusted the map, filling in the gap and replacing it with a dotted line.
  2448. >That… didn’t really clarify things. At all.
  2449. >In the end, the two of you spent a good few hours figuring out *how* to clarify things. For every question you wanted to ask, and every answer Anon wanted to give, you needed to explain three or four other concepts first.
  2450. >You ended up using a combination of charades and pictures scribbled in the sand. It was surprisingly effective. And even kinda fun! You picked up quite a few new words this way.
  2451. >Though it certainly wasn't *reliable*. You often had to draw the same thing multiple times, in multiple different ways, before your partner got it. And even then you couldn’t be totally sure they’d understood. More than once you’d misinterpreted a word but didn’t realise it immediately, leading to much confusion later on.
  2452. >While this process was occasionally frustrating, it eventually produced enough answers to satisfy you.
  2453. >Long story short: that route Anon had drawn through the mountains? Turns it out it doesn’t go *over* them.
  2454. >It seems he’d stumbled upon a cave or tunnel entrance around the lower slopes. It connects to a whole maze of underground passages, eventually exiting into some sort of abandoned camp on the other side of the mountain.
  2455. >Given that Anon found his “Hoofrest Mining Co” canteen there, you suspect this is the old mine that Ms Miles mentioned. Whatever it is, it’s certainly worth investigating. Anon seemed to think there could be more supplies there. But more importantly, the camp connects to a path leading back down to Equestria.
  2456. >By his account, it’s not an easy path. It zigzags down the mountainside, through some pretty difficult terrain. It likely hasn’t been maintained in decades. But it’s surely safer than trying to cross the mountains anywhere else.
  2457. >This could be your ticket out of here! You don’t mind a bit of climbing. And if Anon can manage the trail, then so can you.
  2458. >Unfortunately, mountaineering may be the least of your worries.
  2459. >It seems Anon had a few… *interesting* encounters in the area.
  2460. >The first was an unusual bout of sandstorms. He’d been wandering the Badlands, near the Macintosh foothills, when a sudden storm came out of nowhere.
  2461. >You’d grimaced at the all-too-familiar tale. Suffocating darkness, deafening winds, stinging hail. But curiously, when the dust settled, there was no mention of Anon finding himself displaced. He continued the tale as though nothing was amiss.
  2462. >Interrupting, you tried to question him about it. Though it was hard to phrase the question without sounding crazy. “Hey, are you *sure* that storm didn’t magically teleport you somewhere?”
  2463. >You only got confused looks and shakes of his head in response, so you let the matter drop. But that wasn’t the strangest part of his story.
  2464. >After the whirlwind had subsided, Anon resumed his travels, thinking nothing of it. Only to be hit by *another* storm minutes later. And when that passed, *another* one after that.
  2465. >They’d burst into life, rage and roar, then vanish without a trace. No storm clouds. No breeze. Nothing.
  2466. >Well, almost nothing.
  2467. >When the storms finally seemed to have given up for good, Anon noticed a figure in the distance, further up the slope. What kind of figure, he couldn’t say.
  2468. >He’d tried to follow it, but quickly lost sight of it among the rocks. And that’s when he found the mine.
  2469. >Anon entered it cautiously, assuming the figure had fled inside. He saw the figure again, though he did eventually find the exit on the northern side.
  2470. >It was there, in Equestria, that he had his second encounter. After exploring the old camp near the exit, he took the mountain path down into the desert. And that’s where he ran into a pair of earth ponies.
  2471. >Looking rather apologetic, Anon sketched himself trying (and failing, he stressed) to throw a spear at them.
  2472. >You'd smirked at the crude stick-ponies fleeing stick-Anon. You’re pretty sure you were looking at Sandy Miles and Tumbleweed’s encounter with the “Shadow Monster”.
  2473. >Sandy had mentioned something crashing into the ground behind her. If your suspicions are correct, it was likely Anon’s spear just barely missing her, and hitting the dirt nearby.
  2474. >A pity they didn’t stop to look more closely. If they’d seen him using weapons, they might have tried to reason with him. You suspect Anon wouldn’t have hurt them if he’d realised they’re people, too. This whole thing could have been resolved weeks ago.
  2475. >Of course, you can’t really blame them for running away in panic. You did the exact same thing when Anon nearly speared you.
  2476. >He’s got a scary amount of range with that weapon. Ponies don’t really use thrown weapons all that much - don’t have the body structure for it. But even a minotaur would struggle to reach you at the distance Anon was throwing.
  2477. >Perhaps it’s those long noodle arms of his. Whatever the case, you’re just glad he keeps missing!
  2478. >The final encounter Anon related was clearly the most unpleasant.
  2479. >You’re still no expert on human expressions, but Anon’s mood seemed to darken as the story went on. Though there wasn’t really much to it.
  2480. >Anon had returned to the buildings around the mine entrance. Searching for supplies, maybe.
  2481. >He heard noises coming from the tunnel. Went to investigate.
  2482. >In the darkness, something attacked him. Something big.
  2483. >Tore up his left arm pretty bad.
  2484. >He managed to escape, fleeing into the tunnels. Somehow ended up stumbling back out into the Badlands.
  2485. >You’d seen the wounds on his arm this morning. Whatever claws or fangs caused them must have been pretty large. Even now, after healing for weeks, the injury still looks painful.
  2486. >Anon didn’t go into details, but you can imagine how rough those next few days must have been. No painkillers, no antiseptic, no bandages other than shredded cloth. And all this on top of the daily struggle just to survive in this blasted desert.
  2487. >It’s honestly impressive that he’s still alive. Let alone managed to recover. Either humans are tough bastards, or he’s just damn lucky.
  2488. >There was a moment of silence after he'd finished his story.
  2489. >You felt you ought to say something, but you didn't know how or what.
  2490. >Eventually, to your mutual surprise, you found yourself leaning over and giving him a hug.
  2491. >You’re not really the touchy-feely type. But it just seemed like the right thing to do.
  2492. >The poor guy had been through a lot. Had been alone for a long time.
  2493. >(And Celestia knows you could do with a good hug, too.)
  2494. >He’d stiffened at the unexpected contact. Then, slowly, relaxed against you.
  2495. >One arm wrapped around your back. Holding you tight.
  2496. >Another pressed against your neck. His hand gently stroking your mane.
  2497. >The silly human just loves petting your mane.
  2498. >You let him.
  2499. >...
  2500. >Afterwards, it didn’t take long to put together a plan.
  2501. >You’re both still apprehensive about Dust Devils and monsters in the dark. But you can’t stay here forever.
  2502. >It’s only a matter of time until a Dust Devil strikes again, dragging you off to who knows where. Or you run into some even nastier predator out in the wastes. Or a simple cut gets infected and you end up losing a leg.
  2503. >Better to take your chances now, while you’re still relatively healthy, than wait for a rescue which may never come.
  2504. >Anon didn’t take much convincing. He's even more sick of this place than you are.
  2505. >Of course, if *you* were lost in a foreign land, you’d also be keen to reach civilization. He’s probably hoping Equestria will have some clues as to the whereabouts of his people. Though first you’ll have to convince everypony he’s not a pony-eating monster.
  2506. >Hmm.
  2507. >Y’know, it’s funny.
  2508. >Thinking back on it, you’d just automatically assumed you’d be travelling together. The thought of leaving him behind never crossed your mind.
  2509. >Sure, you’re still under orders to flee the big scary human and report back to the Princesses. But you’re in no condition to flee. And even if you could ditch him, you’re not sure you'd want to.
  2510. >Anon’s been a kind and welcome companion. (Attempts on your life notwithstanding.) Even if he is some legendary spooky monster, you feel a sense of kinship. You want to help him, if you can.
  2511. >If that means disobeying orders… Well, it’s not like you can report his existence if you don’t make it back alive. And since travelling with Anon is your best bet of doing just that…
  2512. >Really, your hooves are tied. Such a shame.
  2513. >You chuckle quietly to yourself.
  2514. >Aaand immediately regret it.
  2515. >That tiny amount of physical activity was all it took to wake the rest of your body up.
  2516. >No way are you gonna be able to fall asleep now.
  2517. >With a sigh, you sit up, blinking heavily.
  2518. >You’ve been lying in the pool cave, near the water’s edge. Judging by the dwindling orange light, it must be getting close to sunset.
  2519. >You and Anon had agreed to get some sleep, saving your energy for your upcoming journey. Though the heat of the afternoon quickly drove you into the cooler caves below.
  2520. >That crazy human had elected to stay up top. Madness.
  2521. >But honestly, you haven't had much luck sleeping down here either.
  2522. >The stone floor isn’t exactly comfortable. And your stupid brain just won’t shut up.
  2523. >Oh well. Now that you’re up, you may as well get a drink.
  2524. >With a lazy stretch, you start climbing.
  2525. >You emerge into the dusty stone bowl that is Anon’s camp. It’s noticeably hotter up here, but at least the high walls keep the sun out.
  2526. >You tiptoe up the last few steps, not wanting to wake Anon.
  2527. >But it looks like sleep’s eluded him, too.
  2528. >He’s sprawled out on his grass-and-leaves bed, with his head and shoulders resting upright against the wall. His eyes are half closed, though as you enter he gives a weary wave in your direction.
  2529. >”No sleep?”
  2530. >(He’s getting good at asking simple yes/no questions.)
  2531. “No sleep,” you agree, waving back.
  2532. >You fill a clay cup full of water. Then, on a whim, fill a second and take it over to him.
  2533. >He accepts it with a thankful nod.
  2534. >You sit down next to him, leaning against the wall.
  2535. >If you’re going to fail to sleep, you might as do it with some company.
  2536. >The two of you sip your drinks in silence.
  2537. >The heavy afternoon heat slowly permeates through you. Your coat is sticky with sweat where it presses against the wall and floor. You consider doing something about it, but simply don’t have the energy.
  2538. >Minutes crawl by.
  2539. >Anon idly fiddles with a bit of twig. Rolling it around between his fingers.
  2540. >Now and again a fly buzzes over. You halfheartedly flick it away with your tail.
  2541. >At one point you hear the call of some desert bird, far off in the distance. You wonder what kind it is.
  2542. >”Grey?”
  2543. >You blink. Look over to Anon.
  2544. >He has a familiar expression of thoughtfulness on his face. It usually means he’s trying to find the right words to ask a question.
  2545. >Eventually he leans over to where your saddlebags are stowed. Grabs your map from within, and sets it down between you.
  2546. >Gesturing to it, he asks “Gray?”
  2547. >You’re not really sure what he’s asking.
  2548. >Confused, you tap the area of the Badlands where the two of you currently are.
  2549. >Anon shakes his head, thoughtful look returning. With one arm, he covers up the Badlands. And with the other, gestures to the rest Equestria.
  2550. “Where am I… in Equestria…?” you wonder aloud.
  2551. >You still don’t get it.
  2552. >You shake your head at him.
  2553. >With a “Hrmm”, Anon sets the map aside, clearing a patch of sand between you.
  2554. >After a moment of thinking, he starts drawing.
  2555. >Stick Glacier and Stick Anon. You recognize them easily.
  2556. ”Gray. Anon,” you say out loud.
  2557. >Anon nods. Then, a little to the left of them, he draws another Stick Glacier. Or at least a stick unicorn. This one’s a little smaller than the other, and there’s no sign of Stick Anon.
  2558. >”Gray,” he says, gesturing at her.
  2559. >Ok. Still not sure where he’s going with this.
  2560. >Once again, further left of the other pictures, he draws an even smaller stick unicorn. Filly Glacier?
  2561. >”Gray,” he confirms.
  2562. >Tapping the filly, he pulls back the map and once again gestures at Equestria.
  2563. >”Gray?”
  2564. >Ah. You think you get it.
  2565. >He wants to know where you come from. Where Filly Glacier comes from.
  2566. >You smooth out the sand above the top of the map (which only shows Southern Equestria), and start drawing.
  2567. >Northern Equestria. The Crystal Empire. Yakyakistan. It’s not the most accurate map in the world, but Anon won’t know the difference.
  2568. >You finish by adding a little Stickfilly Glacier, peeking out between the mountains bordering the three countries.
  2569. “Home.”
  2570. >As soon as you say it, you’re struck by a wave of homesickness.
  2571. >Memories of your childhood come to mind, unbidden.
  2572. >Crisp, bracing winds.
  2573. >Snow laden pines.
  2574. >Heavy boots, and warm scarves.
  2575. >Hot drinks by the fire.
  2576. >Friends.
  2577. >Family.
  2578. >With a sigh, you lower your head, feeling further from home than ever.
  2579. >A warm hand presses gently against your shoulder.
  2580. >You lean into it, giving Anon a tired smile.
  2581. >He must be getting better at reading your expressions.
  2582. >You’re glad he’s here with you.
  2583. >And really, you shouldn’t be the one moping. At least you know *where* your family is.
  2584. >Pushing your self-pity aside, you turn to focus on your companion.
  2585. “Anon home?”
  2586. >He shrugs, expression turning downcast.
  2587. >Pushing aside the map and smoothing out the sand, he begins drawing a collection of squiggly shapes. Too varied in size to be writing. Probably a map. Those could be islands, or continents.
  2588. >When he’s finished, he adds a little Stick Anon to one of the land masses.
  2589. >”Home.”
  2590. >You don’t recognize any of it.
  2591. >Wherever he’s from, it’s nowhere near Equestria.
  2592. >Judging by his expression, he already knows.
  2593. >You place a hoof on his shoulder.
  2594. >Neither of you speak much after that.
  2595. >As the afternoon slowly turns into evening, the two of you finally drift off to sleep, side by side.
  2597. 18
  2598. >The large mare in gleaming armour accepts your proffered drink gratefully.
  2599. >She slips her helmet off with a golden wing. A short ponytail tumbles out, a few loose strands matted to her forehead. She’s puffing slightly, rosy cheeked, but her expression is composed and professional.
  2600. >She raises the glass, nodding to you in thanks. Then, with a wink, upends it all over her face.
  2601. “Eeep!”
  2602. >You dart back as water splashes off the mare, a few stray drops landing on your muzzle.
  2603. >By now, everypony in the Hoofrest eatery is openly staring.
  2604. >”Phew! Sorry about that,” the mare grins through sodden bangs. “I’ve been flying back and forth all morning. It’s like a desert out there!”
  2605. >A few ponies around the room chuckle weakly. Dusty Rose lets out an unladylike snort, while Prickly Pear simply raises an eyebrow.
  2606. “It’s, er. It’s fine! Totally fine!”
  2607. >You are Fruit Punch, and no amount of water can dampen your spirits.
  2608. >The Guard are finally here!
  2609. >(Well, ok, *more* of the Guard. Not just you anymore.)
  2610. >Finally, somepony more senior can take over! Judging by her rather abused-looking armour and peculiar, oversized spear, you’re guessing that she’s another Parks and Wilderness veteran. The PWG are sure to know how to find Glacier!
  2611. >But, er…
  2612. >Where’s the rest of them?
  2613. >The yellow pegasus - a corporal, from her insignia - seems to have flown in by herself. Glancing out the window, you see no sign of any other guardsponies.
  2614. >She can’t be your only reinforcement, right?
  2615. >The mare flips her damp mane aside with a hoof. A professional expression settles back into place, unfazed by the water still dripping from her muzzle
  2616. >”Now, what was I saying? Right, I’m Corporal Trail, with Parks and Wilderness. I’m told you’re in charge of the search efforts?”
  2617. >You give a hesitant nod.
  2618. “Jointly,” you concede. “Along with Sheriff Pear and Mrs Rose, here.”
  2619. >You gesture to the two ponies still sitting nearby. They give a polite nod and smile, respectively.
  2620. “Would you like a seat, or…?”
  2621. >”Thanks, but we need to get going.”
  2622. >You blink in surprise.
  2623. “We?”
  2624. >”Yep. You and me. My unit’s kinda flying blind at the moment. We need somepony to bring us up to speed before we move out. If the two of you,” she nods to Rose and Pear, “wouldn’t mind holding down the fort for a few hours, we’ll be on our way.”
  2625. >Pear opens his mouth to answer, but Rose beats him to it.
  2626. >”Hold up now, corporal. Where’s the rest of your unit? If you’re intending to fly back, I’m afraid Punch is in no condition to join you.”
  2627. >Trail looks at you in surprise. You sheepishly raise your bandaged wing, dark purple feathers peeping through the white fabric.
  2628. >The pegasus winces in sympathy.
  2629. >”Ouch. Sorry, didn’t see that.”
  2630. >She frowns.
  2631. >”Yeah, that complicates things. My unit’s all the way back at - well, hopeful Tranquility Springs by now. We’d just gotten off the train at Appleoosa this morning when some colt ran up to us, carrying an SOS from the good sheriff here.”
  2632. >She nods to Prickly Pear.
  2633. >”I’ve been sent ahead to gather as much intel as I can before they leave Tranquility. So I’m kinda on the clock. Hrmm…”
  2634. >She glances around the room. The cosy little restaurant is almost overflowing with earth ponies, and even a few unicorns. But, other than the two of you, there are no pegasi.
  2635. >The corporal hesitates, a thoughtful expression clouding her face. She ruffles her wings a few times, before eventually turning back to you.
  2636. >”...Alright. You’d better just fill me in on what’s been happening. But, uh. Keep it short? I need to head back ASAP. And - more importantly - I’ve gotta remember it all.”
  2637. >She flashes a weary grin.
  2638. >”Mind if I take that seat now?”
  2639. >...
  2640. >You do your best to condense the events of the last few days into a five minute summary. Rose and Pear chime in occasionally, adding a few missing details. The corporal looks mildly surprised by your tale of Dust Devils and Sand Witches, but doesn’t interrupt. Possibly because she’s busy drowning glass after glass of cold water.
  2641. >She’s not the only one surprised, however. The other ponies sitting nearby can’t help but overhear. By the time you’ve finished, the room is full of whispered conversations and questioning looks.
  2642. >You’d already planned on telling these ponies everything. But you’d hoped to break it to them more… delicately. Hearing it like this - rushed, and incomplete, and not even addressed to them - is far from ideal.
  2643. >But you don’t have the luxury of time right now. It’s been twenty four hours since Glacier vanished; even if she’s safe, she must have run out of water by now. The sooner Trail leaves, the sooner the search can resume.
  2644. >And you’re certainly not going to try and hide anything this time. You’ve made that mistake once already.
  2645. >So you swallow your pride. Tell the whole truth. And resign yourself to being despised by the residents of Tranquility Springs.
  2646. >”Well,” says Trail as you finish. “That’s… quite the adventure. Also somewhat concerning.”
  2647. >Then she blinks. Looks around, noticing the many eyes and ears still pointed in her direction.
  2648. >”But, er, we’ll figure something out, no worries! Glac- er, Sergeant Glacier’s a smart pony. She’ll be fine!”
  2649. >A confident smile settles on her face. You return a hopeful one of your own.
  2650. “Yeah. I’m sure you’re right.”
  2651. >(You say this as much for your own reassurance as for the ponies around you.)
  2652. >”Anyway, I’d best get going,” Trail announces, rising from her seat.
  2653. >Quick goodbyes are shared, and you soon find yourself escorting the pegasus back out into the burning sun. Despite the intense heat of the afternoon, it somehow feels *less* oppressive out here.
  2654. >You see the final search party is just now returning, wearily trotting down the main street. No Glacier with them, of course, but at least they all seem to be accounted for. You exchange tired waves with them as they pass, their eyes lingering curiously on Trail.
  2655. >“My unit and I should be back in a few hours,” Trail is saying, replacing her helmet. “Now I’m just a corporal, but for what it’s worth, I think you’re doing the right thing by pulling the civilians out. Glacier wouldn’t want anypony taking unnecessary risks. Heh, just imagine if she found her own way back, only to be sent out again to find some *other* lost pony!”
  2656. >She chuckles, shaking her head.
  2657. >”If that happened to a *civilian*, she’d be livid. No, best to just sit tight until the professionals get here.”
  2658. “Yeah, I suppose,” you agree halfheartedly.
  2659. >She turns to leave, yellow wings extending.
  2660. >”Alright. See you in a few hours. Keep your chin up, kid.”
  2661. “I’ll try. And you keep an eye out on your way back. Last thing I need is *another* PWG getting Dust Devil’d.”
  2662. >”Heh, it’d have to catch me first,” she smirks.
  2663. >Then, with a blast of her wings, she’s gone.
  2664. >You watch her for a few moments. A golden smudge against the dazzling blue sky, steadily receding.
  2665. >After a full minute has passed and no Dust Devil has appeared to gobble her up, you reluctantly turn away.
  2666. >Time to face the music.
  2667. >...
  2668. >The music sounds like a lot of ponies arguing. Loudly.
  2669. >You push the door open. The hinges squeak softly, but it’s somehow loud enough to cut through the din. Every conversation stops all at once.
  2670. >You step inside.
  2671. >Twenty pairs of eyes fix on you.
  2672. >You see Dusty Rose and Prickly Pear have risen from their seats. Most of the search team has also risen, and are crowding around them.
  2673. >For a split second, panic grips you. It looks like the group has turned hostile, angrily mobbing your friends.
  2674. >But no. A quick glance at their expressions is enough to reassure you. There’s indignation, sure. As well as surprise, confusion, and concern. But no real anger.
  2675. >(At least, not yet.)
  2676. >Drawing a breath, you march forward through the crowd. The ponies part to allow you through. Your steps are measured and precise. Your face a careful mask of confidence you don’t feel, and contrition you do.
  2677. >You take your place beside Dusty and the sheriff, and face the assembled ponies.
  2678. >For a moment, nopony says anything.
  2679. >Hooves shuffle.
  2680. >Somepony coughs.
  2681. >Then:
  2682. >“So, is it true? About the Dust Devils and Sand Witch being real?”
  2683. >The dam breaks. Dozens of questions spill out all at once. Ponies are quickly shouting over each other.
  2684. >You hold up a hoof. The golden hoofguard gleams as it catches the light. Silence descends with gratifying speed.
  2685. >(You’ve always been good with crowds.)
  2686. “Thank you, everypony. I’ll answer your questions one at a time, but first please let me give you a proper explanation.”
  2687. >The group eyes you expectantly. A quick whisper here or there, but nopony interrupts.
  2688. >You feel yourself sweating beneath their collective gaze. It takes some effort to keep your voice and expression under control.
  2689. “The truth is: yes, Dust Devils are real. And what’s more, we seem to have stirred them up somehow. I’ve personally seen three of them in just the last four days. It was one of these which caused Sergeant Glacier to disappear.”
  2690. >More whispering. A few older ponies (and Sandy Miles) nod knowingly.
  2691. “We don’t know if this is some natural, random process, or if they’re somehow being directed. But there have been sightings of what *could* be the Sand Witch, coinciding with the Dust Devil attacks.”
  2692. >This causes an even greater stir. Nearly everypony breaks into not-so-hushed whispering. You hear “Witch” and “Her” muttered repeatedly.
  2693. >You give them a few moments before holding up your hoof again.
  2694. “I should stress that this Sand Witch stuff is still only speculation. We’ve seen some strange figures in the distance, but we have no idea if they’re related to the Dust Devils, or if they’re even hostile. Still, just to be on the safe side, we’ve decided to pause the search for a few hours. Just until the rest of the Royal Guard reinforcements arrive.”
  2695. >The crowd looks relieved at the mention of reinforcements. But you still owe them an explanation. Best to just get this over with.
  2696. >You clear your throat.
  2697. “The reason we didn't tell you any of this before now is, well…”
  2698. >You shrug.
  2699. “Frankly, we weren’t sure ourselves. For my part, I’m still a complete rookie when it comes to the desert. For all I knew, those first two Dust Devils could just have been regular sandstorms. We only really confirmed the Dust Devils’ existence in the last hour. Same with the Sand Witch - we only started to seriously suspect Her recently.”
  2700. “But…” you sigh. This is where it gets tough. “That’s not a good enough excuse. We *should* have told you everything this morning. Let you make your own decisions about the risk. But… We were afraid of scaring you off. Of causing “unnecessary” panic. So we… we kept some details from you. We lied.”
  2701. >Burning cheeks.
  2702. >Poison in your veins.
  2703. >Shame and regret seep through you, dizzying, nauseating.
  2704. >You push through it. Force yourself to tell the whole truth, even if you can no longer meet their eyes.
  2705. “And, and then there was that whole thing about me being a Parks and Wilderness monster hunter. That was just a stupid, stupid misunderstanding I should have cleared up right away, but I, I didn’t want to undermine your confidence in the expedition, and I…”
  2706. >You stop.
  2707. >Take a deep breath.
  2708. “I’m sorry. You deserved to know what you were getting into, and I let you down. It’s my fault and I-”
  2709. >”Ok, that’s enough.”
  2710. >Prickly Pear steps forward, voice clear and commanding.
  2711. >You raise your head, turning to him in surprise. You're not the only one - every eye in the room is now squarely on the sheriff.
  2712. >Even without his hat, he seems taller somehow.
  2713. >”Listen up, everypony. Fact of the matter is, it wasn’t Private Punch who wanted to keep this stuff from y’all. It was me.”
  2714. “W-wha-”
  2715. >Your confused stammer is drowned out by the crowd’s. Pear continues on regardless.
  2716. >“Punch and Dusty here both tried to warn me about all sorts o’ dangers out in the desert. Dust Devils and sand monsters and whatnot. But y’all know how much of a stubborn fool I can be.”
  2717. >There’s a few chuckles and eye rolls among the crowd, and a muttered “Damn straight” from Rose.
  2718. >”I refused to believe a word of it, naturally. So when I explained the situation to y’all this morning, *I* was the one who chose to leave out those details. Of course, Punch is completely right - I shouldn’ta been making that kinda decision for you. I’m-”
  2719. >He reaches up to take off his hat.
  2720. >Remembers he lost it in the Dust Devil.
  2721. >Continues on, looking slightly awkward.
  2722. >”I’m mighty sorry for putting y’all in danger you didn’t sign up for. And I’m just glad none of you ended up paying for my mistake.”
  2723. >He gives you a sidelong glance.
  2724. >”This one’s on me, fair and square.”
  2725. >Well. So much for your carefully controlled expression. Your jaw has long since hit the floor.
  2726. >Surprise and gratitude play out openly on your face. As much as you try to get along with everypony you meet, the sheriff has always seemed rather… Well, Prickly. You’d wondered if you’d offended him somehow when you first met. Or perhaps he simply resented you for all the hassle your presence had caused.
  2727. >Whatever the case, you certainly weren’t expecting him to stand up for you like this.
  2728. >You’re still not sure what to say when you hear a sigh to your left.
  2729. >Dusty Rose steps forward. Her expression is resigned, but you can just make out a faint smile tugging at her lips.
  2730. >”Sorry sheriff, but I can’t let you take all the credit. I was right there with you when you skimmed over the important bits, and I kept my mouth shut too. Hell, I approved. Ugh, guess I reverted to my old Guard habits, huh? Keeping things on a need-to-know basis.”
  2731. >She turns to face the crowd.
  2732. >”We *all* screwed up, and we’re all very sorry for it.”
  2733. >Leaning towards you slightly, she adds in a lower voice:
  2734. >”And I'm *especially* sorry to you. Some role model I’ve been, huh?”
  2735. “It’s ok,” you croak quietly, blinking away tears. You’d like to give the mare a big hug to show there’s no hard feelings, but you’re kinda still in the middle of a public apology. You settle for gently bumping shoulders with her.
  2736. >You feel some of the stress from earlier leaving you. Whatever happens, these two ponies are on your side. That's enough to keep you going.
  2737. >You address the crowd again. Time to see what the damage is.
  2738. “So… Now that you know everything, we’ll understand if any of you want to return home. None of you signed up for this kind of danger. And, honestly, the Royal Guard might end up sending you home anyway. Plus, I know *I* wouldn’t want to work with somepony who’d just lied to me, so-”
  2739. >There’s a snort from the back of the crowd.
  2740. >”Aww, come now filly, don’t be so big headed.”
  2741. >An older mare with a fading red coat waves a hoof in your direction.
  2742. >“Just cause *y’all* done goofed don’t mean that mare out there needs any less rescuin’.”
  2743. >A few ponies in the crowd nod. You squint a bit, trying to figure out what the hell she just said beneath all that accent.
  2744. >”Now, don’tcha get me wrong. Ain’t none too happy ‘bout this all hush-hush busin’ss. But we’s all knew the desert was full of dangers when we’s signed up. Jus’ tell us these things straight in future and y’all can avoid wastin’ e’ryponies’ time with these long-winded confessionals.”
  2745. >The crowd seems to agree, nodding and “Eyup”ing. You’re still struggling to understand what they're agreeing with.
  2746. >”To be fair,” notes a grey stallion in a far more parsable dialect, “even if they’d told us everything this morning, most of us *probably* wouldn’t have believed them. I mean, yikes, Sand Witches? Really?”
  2747. >More murmurs of agreement (and an “I'd believe them!” from Sandy Miles).
  2748. >After a moment the stallion continues, a little awkward now that he’s the centre of attention.
  2749. >”Er, what I mean is, I guess I can see where they were coming from? And I’m not saying they *shouldn’t* have told us everything, but I don’t see how it would have made much difference either way?”
  2750. >”And, hey,” chirps Sandy, waving to you. “You’d already had, like, a super rough day yesterday, right? What with losing your friend and getting your wing banged up? And then, today, waking up at like five in the morning? You should cut yourself some slack! *Anypony* would be a mess after that!”
  2751. >She blinks.
  2752. >”Uhh, n-not that I’m calling you a hot mess or anything!”
  2753. >Several ponies chuckle, while Rose just rolls her eyes.
  2754. >”Thank you, sweetie.”
  2755. >...
  2756. >The tension in the room seemed to ease after that.
  2757. >You still felt the urge to apologise every other sentence. And perhaps the search team were a little more sceptical of you now. But it no longer felt like you were standing trial. You were able to *talk* with these ponies once again.
  2758. >There were still a few matters to clear up. The crowd had more questions for you, but they were no longer accusatory. Everypony wanted to get back to planning and cooperating. Back to working together in harmony.
  2759. >To your surprise and delight, not a single pony ended up leaving. There were certainly apprehensions about going back into the desert. Especially among those with family or jobs depending on them back home. You assured them all that there’d be no hard feelings if they decided they couldn’t take the risk. Rose helpfully added that there were still plenty of ways they could help the search team without venturing into the desert.
  2760. >In the end, everypony agreed to wait at least until the Royal Guard arrived. A few said that, regretfully, they’d be returning to Tranquility Springs afterwards. But they’d also promised to pass along any messages, or even return with supplies the next day. The rest of the team would wait here for the Guard’s verdict.
  2761. >This all required a surprising amount of preparation.
  2762. >True, you weren’t organising any further expeditions just yet. But you still had nearly two dozen ponies to house, in a town with barely that many houses. That wouldn’t have been too difficult on its own - the folk of Hoofrest are wonderfully hospitable - but you also had to factor in Corporal Trail’s PWG unit. Which you still didn’t know the size of, or if they'd made their own arrangements.
  2763. >Then there were the meals to cook, water barrels to refill, minor injuries to treat, hats to replace (Sandy was most understanding), and a seemingly endless stream of small but important tasks.
  2764. >Prickly and Rose took care of most of this. You’d tried to keep up, you really did. But all the physical and mental stress of the last few days was starting to take its toll. After noticing you stumbling over your own hooves for the fifth time, Rose marched you straight into a back room and ordered you to take a nap.
  2765. >You’d intended to argue with her. But somehow, laying your head down for just a moment seems to have caused time to skip ahead.
  2766. >It’s darker now. Quieter.
  2767. >Lifting your heavy head, you see no sign of Rose.
  2768. >You *do* admittedly feel much better. Though you could probably keep sleeping all week.
  2769. >At first, you’re not sure what woke you up. But then your ear flicks - did somepony just say your name?
  2770. >A babble of voices and shuffling hooves drift down the corridor to your room, muffled by the door. Sounds like something’s happening.
  2771. >With an effort, you force yourself to sit up. Sleeping in armour is never fun but, like most guards, you’ve had plenty of practice. You spare yourself a few moments to tidy your mane and find your helmet (it had rolled into a corner). Then, yawning, you head back to the main room. The job waits for nopony.
  2772. >Nearly a dozen gold-clad guards dominate the cafe. Axes, halberds, and all sorts of large, peculiar weapons protrude from their backs, while bulging saddlebags are strapped to their sides.
  2773. >Reinforcements!
  2774. >It looks like they’ve just arrived. The guards are in the process of removing their packs, while the wait staff are busily passing around cool drinks. You spot a familiar looking corporal among them, empty glass in hoof, mane suspiciously wet.
  2775. >You stare at her blearily for a moment, brain still waking up. She quickly notices you and gives you a wave.
  2776. >”Ah, there she is! Hi, Punch! Whistler, go get the sergeant, will you?”
  2777. >One of the guards nods and heads outside. Corporal Trail finishes shucking her pack and trots over to you (dripping water all the while).
  2778. >”Hey, so, uh, we *might* have a bit of a problem,” she says through a strained smile.
  2779. >You manage a blink in response.
  2780. >”You remember that Sand Witch you told me about earlier? You didn’t mention that she’s an *alicorn*.”
  2782. 19
  2783. >This is nice.
  2784. >The sand crunches beneath your hooves. Stars twinkle overhead. Cool night air fills your lungs, carrying the reassuring scent of your companion.
  2785. >You are Sergeant Glacier, and you are enjoying this.
  2786. >You were so busy last night - what with all the running and fighting and nearly dying - that you didn’t get a chance to properly appreciate the moonlit desert.
  2787. >During the day, this place is overwhelming. It leaves you feeling blind, dizzy, and smothered. But at night, with the light and heat drained away, you find yourself exploring a tranquil dreamscape.
  2788. >Beyond the light of your horn, the world fades to streaks of grey and black. No colours. No depth. No movement. Just a silent, surreal vastness.
  2789. >You find it oddly beautiful. With the cold air nipping at your ears, and the powdery sand underhoof, you can almost imagine yourself back home. Trekking through some midnight snowfield.
  2790. >Of course, back home you never went for a stroll with a towering, skeletal monstrosity. The human, peculiar at the best of times, looks downright alien in the gloom. And to make the whole scene even more bizarre, the terrifying monster of legend is currently whistling.
  2791. >It’s actually pretty catchy.
  2792. >You shake your head at the weirdness that is your life. But you're smiling all the same.
  2793. >Funny how things can change so much in the span of a day. Yesterday, you spent the evening running in terror from Anon. Today, you spent the evening sleeping with him.
  2794. >Ahem. *Next to* him. You spent the evening sleeping *next to* him.
  2795. >Admittedly, the two of you were a bit… entangled by the time you woke up. But you were probably just, er, trying to stay warm. Deserts get cold at night, everypony knows that!
  2796. >Well, anyway, the two of you awoke about an hour after sunset. After a quick breakfast (dinner?) of leftover sandipede and the last of Anon’s fruits, you packed your things and set off. By that time, it really was starting to get cold. You were both glad to be walking.
  2797. >Or in your case, hobbling.
  2798. >It’s been barely 24 hours since the sandipede bit a chunk out of you. Even with medication, your back leg is still swollen and painful. You really shouldn’t be walking on it for at least a few days. But you don’t have much of a choice.
  2799. >You’ve found you can just about manage to limp along with minimal discomfort so long as you’re not carrying anything. Thus your armour and saddlebags are all floating along beside you, suspended in a green glow. Anon, meanwhile, is hauling a pair of heavy water jars, dangling in simple rope slings you fashioned for him. They’re glowing faintly, too: you’re partially levitating the jars, making them just a little lighter. Anon shouldn’t have to carry all your supplies by himself.
  2800. >It’s hard to tell how long you’ve been travelling like this. A few hours, at least.
  2801. >Time and distance have all sort of blurred together. It's like moving through a dream.
  2802. >Still, as far as dreams go, this is a pleasant one.
  2803. >You start whistling, too.
  2804. >...
  2805. >The tunnel entrance yawns before you. An even deeper darkness against the shadowy cliffs.
  2806. >You were expecting something a bit more… conspicuous. Maybe some wooden scaffolding, some old mine carts, or a big “Keep Out” sign.
  2807. >Instead there’s simply a low, triangular gap between the cliffs and a protruding boulder. No fanfare; just another notch in the hillside.
  2808. >You’ve no idea how Anon managed to find this place in the dark. It’s completely hidden among the steep ridges and foothills at the base of the mountains. Was there some landmark he’s been following?
  2809. >Well, however he managed it, you’re here now. Time to get this over with.
  2810. >...Neither of you make a move.
  2811. >You glance over at Anon. It’s hard to make out his expression in the dark. But you don’t imagine he’s happy to be back here. His last journey through these tunnels nearly cost him his arm.
  2812. >And you’re not exactly thrilled about it, either. Sure, you’d rather be travelling through a nice, cool tunnel than risk another day in the desert. But after yesterday’s encounter with the sandipede, you’re a little nervous about dark, confined spaces.
  2813. >You suppress a shudder at the memory. Perhaps you’d be better off wearing your armour after all.
  2814. >You set your gear down and begin putting it on piece by piece. Anon takes a seat beside you, probably glad for the delay.
  2815. >You end up spending nearly an hour outside the cave. Neither of you are in a hurry to start the next leg of your journey. And the previous one has left you tired and hungry.
  2816. >You’ve got plenty of water, thankfully. But not much food. Anon brought the very last of his supplies with him: some sort of pale root vegetable. He offered to share it with you, but you declined. You reason that you can subsist on the few bushes around here, whereas Anon can’t.
  2817. >The vegetation has been slowly increasing as you neared the mountains. Tough, spindly desert shrubs for the most part. Unpleasant, but better than nothing.
  2818. >While sitting there munching on a few tasteless leaves, a thought occurs to you.
  2819. “Hey, Anon. How did you manage to see inside the mine?”
  2820. >He raises an eyebrow at you. A brief game of charades follows. You’ve both gotten pretty good at it, so it only takes a few minutes to get the idea across.
  2821. >Anon answers with charades of his own. He gestures to the cave a few times, and then to... some rocks on the ground? You’re not really sure what that’s supposed to mean.
  2822. >At length he seems to change track, pointing to your horn and waving his arms.
  2823. >Ok, seriously, you have no idea what he's trying to say.
  2824. >(So much for being good at charades.)
  2825. >You give him a flat look. With a roll of his eyes, he stops gesturing, and clears a space on the ground. He then scribbles a familiar stick-Glacier, with little lines emanating from her horn.
  2826. >Ok. Something about your magic?
  2827. >After making sure you’re watching, he carefully erases the lines. Then gestures to you.
  2828. >He… wants you to stop using magic? Okaaay…
  2829. >You slowly dim your horn, watching his reaction. He nods in encouragement, so you let the light spell drop entirely.
  2830. >For a few moments you just sit there, blind, waiting for things to make sense. Your eyes eventually adjust to the darkness. You can vaguely make out the shape of Anon in front of you. (His silhouette is still creepy.) He seems to be gesturing towards the cave.
  2831. >You turn to look. And to your surprise, there’s actually light coming from it!
  2832. >Just a few tiny pinpricks, twinkling faintly. Like stars peeping through a mist. They’re so dim you wouldn’t have noticed them while your horn was lit up.
  2833. >Curious.
  2834. >You take a few cautious steps towards the cave. At the threshold you briefly pause, lighting your horn just enough to check for sandipedes. Satisfied, you dim it once again and approach one of the tiny lights.
  2835. >Up close, you can see it’s a cluster of tiny glowing crystals. They’re embedded in the rock wall in random streaks and swirls - clearly a natural formation. Their light isn’t nearly bright enough to see by. But by moving your head around you can sort of make out the rough shape of the tunnel.
  2836. >Interestingly, their light is the same cyan colour as your magic.
  2837. “Huh. Let me just check something.”
  2838. >You slowly turn your horn back on, steadily pumping more power into the spell. The cave walls quickly begin to glow a brilliant off-green. You hold your magic for two, three, four seconds. Then snuff it out.
  2839. >This time, the tunnel stays lit.
  2840. >The little crystals are now shining like candles. Still individually weak, but there’s dozens of them. Dotted all over the walls and ceiling. Together they provide just enough light to comfortably navigate by.
  2841. “Yep, that’s Magicite all right. I wonder if this is what they were mining?”
  2842. >The gems are highly useful as magical reagents. But they’re hardly rare in Equestria.
  2843. >Anon walks over beside you. With a “Tada!” sound, he gestures theatrically to the glowing rocks.
  2844. “Yes, yes. Very good,” you deadpan, smiling despite yourself. “Magicite glows when exposed to magic, everypony knows that. I suppose that’s one way to see where you’re going. All you need to do is- wait. Wait wait wait. How did *you* get it to start glowing? You don’t *have* any magic!”
  2845. >Anon looks down in confusion.
  2846. >Ok. So you’re not the most magically sensitive unicorn out there. But surely if Anon were capable of magic, you would have felt *something* by now. And remember how fascinated he was when he first saw your levitation? That’s about as basic as magic gets!
  2847. >Plus, if Anon *could* use magic, then surely he’d just make his own light, rather than bothering with the magicite. There’d be no reason for this roundabout method.
  2848. >You spend a few minutes trying to interrogate Anon. “Did you light the crystals yourself, or were they lit when you got here?” “Do you actually have any magic of your own?” "Did you notice any residual magic when you arrived?"
  2849. >Unfortunately, most of it seems to go over his head. It's just too complex for charades and your (very limited) shared vocabulary. It doesn’t help that your own grasp of magical theory is, uh. Minimal. And you’re pretty sure Anon knows even less than you.
  2850. >You briefly theorise that the human might be radiating magic subconsciously. That *could* be enough to activate the magicite. But no - one quick test and one confused Anon later, you find the crystals don’t react to him at all.
  2851. >Hrmm.
  2852. >Hrrmmm.
  2853. >So if Anon didn’t light the magicite, who did?
  2854. >You have to assume some other magical creature lit the passage shortly before he arrived. But what? And why?
  2855. >Anon *did* mention seeing a figure just before finding the cave. Perhaps there’s some magical wildlife living here?
  2856. >You really hope it doesn’t have anything to do with the Dust Devils he encountered. Or, worse, the creature that attacked him. Sure, dealing with magical monsters is literally your job, but you’d much rather do it with a full squad of veterans at your back.
  2857. >Sigh.
  2858. >Whatever the case, it’s not like you’ve got much choice. Monster or no, these tunnels are still your best chance of getting out of here alive. You’ve got to at least give them a try.
  2859. >You just hate going into danger blindly like this.
  2860. >You snort in frustration.
  2861. "There's too many damn mysteries in this desert!"
  2862. >...
  2863. >The two of you finish packing your things, and make ready to enter the mine. You’ve been procrastinating long enough. Best to just get this over with. No more delays!
  2864. >You take one last breath of fresh air. Then step forward into the tunnel.
  2865. >”Gray.”
  2866. >Only to be immediately delayed.
  2867. >”Graaay.”
  2868. >Damnit, Anon. You’d just gotten all fired up and everything!
  2869. >”Gray, Gray, Gray.”
  2870. “Ugghh, fine. What is it?”
  2871. >You turn to see what he wants. The human is just inside the entrance, picking through a pile of rocks. Or at least, that’s what it looks like. He lifts something large and flat, holding it up for you to see.
  2872. >It’s not a rock at all, but an old wooden signpost!
  2873. >Surprised, you trot over to inspect it.
  2874. “‘Danger,’” you read aloud. “‘Badlands ahead. Emergency exit only.’”
  2875. >Oh hey! So there *is* a big "Keep Out" sign, after all!
  2876. >It’s written in Equestrian. The large red letters are faded with age, but still clearly legible. Below them, an old piece of parchment is nailed to the board. With a bit of effort, you can make out the title “Site Map”. And “Hoofrest Mining Co.” stamped in one corner. But the rest of it…
  2877. >You squint. The page is a mess of overlapping lines and peculiar symbols. It’s clearly some kind of technical diagram. Presumably a map of the entire mine, written in some mining shorthand. Which would be *super* helpful if you could actually read any of it. All the random characters and squiggles mean nothing to you.
  2878. >You glare at it. This is just the kind of lucky break you need. But if you can’t read the damn thing, then what’s the point?
  2879. >Anon seems to pick up on your frustration. He gives you a reassuring pat on the shoulder, saying something in a soothing voice. Placing the board where you can both see it, he points to the end of a particularly long, meandering line.
  2880. >”Gray, Anon,” he announces.
  2881. >Your ears perk up.
  2882. “Is... that where we are? How'd you figure that out?”
  2883. >Of course, as soon as you ask, you remember that Anon’s been here before. He must have a rough idea of the mine’s layout. In fact, he may have seen this very map before - that would explain how he knew where to find it.
  2884. >You shake your head.
  2885. “Nevermind. Now let’s see here…”
  2886. >You swish your tail, excitement building.
  2887. “So if you’re right, then *these* lines must be the tunnels. And *those* symbols must mean "Exit". So that would make our current position… the furthest point from the rest of the mine? Yeah, that sounds about right. The main entrance is probably on the Equestrian side. According to the sign, this is just an emergency exit.”
  2888. >You glance up at the slanted stone walls and uneven floor. There’s no sign of artificial tunnelling; it all looks naturally formed.
  2889. “What do you think? You reckon this is just a natural cave system the miners found? Maybe ran into while digging, and decided ‘Hey, free tunnel.’”
  2890. >Anon answers with a surprisingly lengthy response. You’ve no idea if he actually understood the question... or if he’s just gone off on a completely random tangent.
  2891. >You shrug, and go back to studying the map.
  2892. >At least your path seems pretty straightforward. As much as this tunnel winds and zig-zags, there aren’t many side passages until you reach the main body of the mine. At which point you’re practically home free; just a few short, straight passages to reach one of the main exits.
  2893. >A small smile forms on your lips.
  2894. “Y’know, maybe this won’t be so bad after all.”
  2896. 20
  2897. >Jagged walls crawl by, flashing green as you pass. Underground rivers, long since dried, have carved out a network of passages. Their twisting, sinuous forms feel almost organic. Like you’re crawling through the veins of some fossilised giant.
  2898. >The floor - where there is a floor - is broken and uneven. In other places the ground simply sinks out of sight, lost down some abyssal crevice. You’re forced to clamber along the sides of the tunnel, scrambling for hoofholds. Hoping the stone doesn’t give way. Hoping nothing comes crawling up out of the darkness.
  2899. >A flicker of movement. You snap to face it, sword floating at the ready.
  2900. >A cave spider - tiny, translucent - skitters away. Disappears down a hairline crack.
  2901. >You exhale. Try to slow your heart rate. It’s hard to breathe down here.
  2902. >You are Sergeant Glacier, and you are jumping at shadows.
  2903. >To be fair, there’s a lot of them to jump at.
  2904. >Darkness reigns down here. Your feeble horn-light pushes it back, a little, but it’s always waiting. Pressing in around you. Ahead, only your next few steps are visible. Behind, your path is quickly lost. Swallowed by the pursuing void.
  2905. >A few twinkling lights still mark your trail. Veins of magicite, embedded in the walls and floor. But your magic is dim; you’ve been conserving your energy, casting just enough light to see by. The crystals glow only weakly in response. Not enough to dispel the dark, but at least you have a clear path to the exit.
  2906. >With no horizon, among interchangeable stretches of cave, it would be all too easy to get turned around down here. An unexpected tumble, or a sudden sandipede ambush; just a few moments’ distraction, and you’d have no idea which way is forward and which is back.
  2907. >Thankfully, you haven’t encountered anything worse than a few bats and some cave insects. Anon was particularly freaked out by the latter. (Much to your amusement).
  2908. >Your own deeply held fear of humans - these legendary monsters from The List - is rapidly dwindling. Hard to take them seriously after hearing Anon’s squeals of panic.
  2909. >You suppress a chuckle. You shouldn’t be making fun of him. He’s clearly having a much harder time down here than you. For several reasons.
  2910. >You turn to check on your friend.
  2911. >The lanky creature is clambering a few paces behind you. The jagged ceiling isn’t quite tall enough for him, forcing him into an uncomfortable crouch. He uses his long arms to grab onto walls and stalagmites, anchoring himself as he passes. With the way his limbs curl in on himself, then suddenly stretch out alarming distances, he seems rather like a spider himself.
  2912. >You give your spider-friend a hoof over the last few rocks. It’s a bit tricky with your injured leg, and with him balancing your last water jar. But you manage.
  2913. >Anon scrambles to your side, panting. Breath visible in the frigid air. Up close, you can make out the streaks of dirt and sweat staining his hide. (You don’t even want to *think* about what your own coat looks like.)
  2914. >The human gives a thankful nod, and moves to keep going. You wave him to a stop.
  2915. >He glances around, instantly alert. When nothing manifests from the darkness to attack, he turns to you with a questioning look.
  2916. >In answer, you levitate up his canteen and float it to his lips. He catches it in surprise, while you take a swig from your own bottle. Anon spends a few more seconds looking around, before allowing himself a quick sip.
  2917. >He’s clearly anxious to keep moving. So are you. But you know better than to rush into some monster’s den blindly.
  2918. >You can’t risk running into danger while exhausted. You need to pace yourselves. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
  2919. >Besides, there’s something else bothering you.
  2920. >You take a step towards your human, inspecting him more closely.
  2921. >He barely seems to notice you. Too busy glancing over his shoulder.
  2922. >You’ve both been on edge since entering the mine. But for you, this is a familiar, almost routine feeling. You’ve plenty of experience dealing with caves, climbing, and monsters. As Punch would say, this ain’t your first rodeo.
  2923. >If anything, the tension is helping you stay focused. Anon, however…
  2924. >Now that you’re really looking, you see just how bad he’s become.
  2925. >Shallow, rapid breaths, even as you rest.
  2926. >Hands shaking, white knuckled, as he grips his spear.
  2927. >Eyes wide, darting at every shadow.
  2928. >You feel a pang of guilt.
  2929. >The poor creature’s terrified! Expecting to be attacked at any moment.
  2930. >The stress is visibly wearing him down. Turning the tireless hunter - the predator who pursued you halfway across the desert - into a nervous wreck.
  2931. >With a sigh, you sit down on a rock ledge.
  2932. >Of *course* he’s terrified; anycreature would be, after what he’s been through. He nearly lost an arm down here.
  2933. >A good leader - a good friend - would have noticed this earlier.
  2934. >Well, you’ve noticed now. But what can you do to help?
  2935. >Anon continues to stand at the ready, spear in hand. Anxiously peering into the gloom.
  2936. >Hmm. Well, that’s one thing you can help with.
  2937. >You set your sword down. Then, with a bit of effort, push more power through your aching horn. The light around you intensifies, driving the shadows back. You keep the magic flowing, ignoring the growing headache. Only once the scattered swirls of magicite start glowing as brightly as your horn do you let the spell drop.
  2938. >You sit back, panting, and admire your handiwork. The tunnel is lit up bright as day. A thousand shining gems illuminate the cave, leaving not a single shadow for monsters to lurk in. True, you can only see a dozen metres in either direction before the passage curves out of sight. But for the first time since entering, you can be confident that nothing’s sneaking up on you.
  2939. >Anon blinks in surprise. Looks around the newly visible cave, before looking at you curiously.
  2940. >You smile weakly up at him.
  2941. “Anon. Sit.”
  2942. >You pat the stone next to you.
  2943. >Looking almost dazed, he complies.
  2944. >You raise his canteen to his lips again (this time with your hooves). He takes the hint, allowing himself to relax as he takes long, slow droughts. Rummaging through one of his pouches, you retrieve the last of his dried vegetables. Nothing like a snack to raise one’s spirits.
  2945. >You more or less shove the food down his mouth. He half chokes, half chuckles at your assertive ministrations. You pout.
  2946. “Ok, fine, so I’m not cut out to be a nurse. Shut up.”
  2947. >He grins, ruffling your mane as he allows himself to be fed.
  2948. >Once you’re satisfied he’s eating his greens, you sit back and wonder what to do next. You vaguely recall something about bonding with your teammates is good for morale. One of your previous sergeants would set you aside now and again to have a nice, long chat. Another sergeant bonded with your team by constantly making bad jokes. There was a third one who kept making passes at the mares in his squad, buuut you're pretty sure that got him fired. Better stick with the first two.
  2949. “So, er… Anon: why did the cockatrice cross the road?”
  2950. >You look at Anon expectantly.
  2951. >He pauses mid-chew. Raises an eyebrow.
  2952. “Because it was trying to catch the chicken!”
  2953. >Eyebrow raises higher.
  2954. “That's, ha, some classic PWG humour for you. Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s pretty terrible. Ok, cards on the table: for a moment there I kinda forgot you have no idea what I’m saying. Heheh, guess I look *pretty* silly right about now, huh?”
  2955. >You certainly *feel* pretty silly right about now.
  2956. >Anon resumes chewing. Slowly. Eyebrow still poised aggressively.
  2957. “Ah, who cares. You can’t understand me. There’s no-one else here to listen to me. I might as well just ramble on. Maybe it’ll do some good, somehow.”
  2958. >You shrug.
  2959. “I don’t know, it all seems pretty silly to me. To be honest, I never really got the hang of this “bonding” stuff. Not much of a pony-person, I guess. Seems like a pretty major flaw for a squad leader, right?"
  2960. >You lean back against the wall, eyes drooping. Absently watching your breath mist in front of you.
  2961. "You want to know a secret? I'm not actually a sergeant. At least, not yet. I’ve done most of the training. But I’m not due for a promotion for another few weeks. The LT just gave me an early field promotion before sending me off to Tranquility. Probably so the local Guard wouldn’t be bossed around by a mere corporal. Pff, can you imagine? But the paperwork couldn’t have gone through by now, so, yeah. I’m still technically just Corporal Glacier.”