• Published 27th Mar 2024
  • 450 Views, 39 Comments

Parks and Wilderness - stphven



A routine monster hunt goes wrong, stranding a lone guardsmare in the desert.

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Chapter 12 - Doubt

“I have no idea what I’m doing!”

My back hoof taps a nervous rhythm on the floorboards. I fidget in my seat, wings twitching and ruffling. Which kinda hurts, seeing as they’re still sore from yesterday. But I can’t help it!

”You’ll be fine, kid.”

Dusty Rose reaches a purple hoof over and gives me a friendly pat on the back.

“Ow.”

For an older mare, she’s got some serious muscle. Crazy earth pony magic.

With a reassuring smile, she casually leans back into her flimsy wooden chair, watching the rest of our party. The quiet little Hoofrest eatery I’d dined in yesterday is currently overflowing with ponies. Volunteers who’d accompanied us from Tranquility Springs, along with what must be nearly all of the population of Hoofrest. And I'm in charge of them.

I am Fruit Punch, and I am are freaking out!

“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!”

I keep my voice down to a low hiss. I don’t want the others to know how screwed they are. Though, come to think of it, that’s how this whole mess started.

Dusty woke me up a few hours before dawn. After a quick breakfast, the two of us trotted across to the Tranquility Springs town square. A colourful, cheery market during the day, but rather lonely at that cold hour.

Soon enough, other ponies started trickling in. Civilians whom the sheriff had recruited earlier that night. 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 by lamplight. I recognised Sandy Miles, bouncing excited around Dusty Rose. Turns out Rose is her aunt. I also spotted Sheriff Prickly Pear checking over a wagon full of supplies.

Once everypony had arrived, Pear asked the group if they had any questions before we all set off. That's when things went pear-shaped, appropriately enough.

I’d expected my 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, then fall in line as just another member of the search team. Maybe offer some positive verbal reinforcement now and again, per my speciality as a member of the Harmony Corps. Unfortunately, it seemed that the civilians saw my golden Royal Guard armour and automatically assumed I was in charge. Never mind that I'm just a private, and a fairly junior one at that! Nor that Prickly Pear probably has decades more experience than me.

And to make matters worse, they’d somehow gotten me and Glacier mixed up. They thought I was the Parks and Wilderness monster expert sent to help them, not just some random Guardsmare who happened to be in the area. This all led to some very excited ponies bombarding me with very confusing questions.

”What's the plan if we’re attacked by a sand shark or sand wyrm?”

”Does the PWG have any secret anti-shadow-monster weapons?”

”Is it true you guys hunt dragons?”

"Will we need to bring cold weather gear?"

”Are vamponies real, and can they beat up wereponies?”

”What’s the coolest monster you’ve ever fought?”

I answered as best I could. But by the time I’d realised their misconceptions, I was so flustered and the crowd was so excited and I just knew how disappointed they’d be if they found out they’re not being led by a super cool monster hunter, that I just…

didn’t...

tell them.

Not that I lied! I just… didn’t immediately point out their mistake! And... kept on not pointing it out...

Urgh. That’s horse apples and I know it. Let's face it: I screwed up. Panicked, and took the easy way out. I know I ought to fess up. As awkward and humiliating as it may be, it’s the right thing to do. But…

If it turns out their “expert” leader is just some lying, clueless nopony, how many of them will still be willing to help? I need every pair of hooves I can get! Is it worth telling the truth if it puts Glacier at greater risk? Why should she pay for my mistake?

Urgh! I was never trained to make these kinds of decisions! Never wanted to make them, never wanted to be in charge!

At least Dusty Rose and Prickly Pear took the complication in stride. They helped answer several questions I couldn’t, and generally covered up my inexperience and ignorance. I suspect Pear wasn’t too happy about being demoted to second in command (not that I wanted command…). Though presumably he came to the same conclusions as me regarding morale. An expert Royal Guard at the helm is much more inspiring than some small town sheriff.

Eventually our awkward little Q&A session came to an end. I even rallied enough to give a little speech, emphasising how a fellow pony needs their help and that together we can overcome any challenge. (Thank you, Harmony Corps pep talk training!)

That was hours ago. Now, here we are, at the same quaint Hoofrest diner we visited yesterday. Simple wooden walls, colourful decorations, and the smell of refried beans. Only this time I'm surrounded by ponies who expect me to lead them! As soon as we all have some food and rest, I'll have to start making decisions.

Maybe I can find someplace to hide? A bathroom or a dumpster or something. Rose or Pear can take over, and then I won’t accidentally catastrophically ruin Glace’s rescue mission.

I start discreetly scanning the room for possible escape routes.

”Easy there, filly. Desertion ain’t great for morale, you know?”

What- Oh, right, Dusty Rose is still here. Gently smirking. I kinda got caught up in my own head for a while there.

“Urgh, am I that obvious?”

How does this mare always know what I'm thinking? I’ve only known her for, like, half a day, and already she’s like an old friend. Patient, supportive, and endlessly amused by my panicking.

"I've seen that look before. Don't worry, your secret's safe with me."

Her smile softens, and she takes on a reassuring tone.

”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?”

“Harmony Corps,” I correct. “We also learned not to lie to our team. I still can’t believe I did that…”

I’ve studied enough Harmony Theory to know this is so gonna bite me in the ass later.

Rose waves a hoof dismissively.

”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 jeopardising the mission over a little misunderstanding.”

“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!”

Rose maintains her relaxed position, looking as though she's just watching the room. But her magenta eyes flicker over to me. Her gaze is firm, but not unkind.

”Your sergeant’s already in danger, remember? Being a leader ain’t about avoiding risk. It's about minimising 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.”

She gestures broadly at the colourful assortment of ponies around us.

”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.”

”I’m safer than the what now?” Sandy asks, emerging from the crowd. The petite earth pony is somehow balancing two trays of food on her back while speaking around a third in her mouth. Crazy earth pony magic.

”Sorry, dear. Secret Royal Guard business.” Rose is completely deadpan. “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.”

Sandy giggles as she sets down her trays.

”Sure thing, auntie. Here, I got you both some breakfast. Or… lunch? Food.”

”Thank you, dearie.” Rose smiles over at the younger mare, before giving me a quick sidelong look. Guess our conversation is on hold for now.

Right. Well, until I figure out a better solution, I suppose I ought to continue pretending to be a confident, competent leader. It’s the only useful thing I can do.

At least I can rely on my social skills here. I’ve received several commendations during my time with the Corps for my positive interactions with civilians. So long as nopony realizes I'm a total fraud, keeping morale up should be a cinch.

“Thanks, Miss Miles, that’s super nice of you. Here, lemme just pull up a chair and you can sit down and join us.”

Sandy immediately turns a cute shade of red.

“O-ok. Thanks, Miss Private Punch, ma’am.”

Rose smiles indulgently as Sandy fumbles into her seat. I make polite conversation for a few minutes as the three of us work through our food. A repeat of yesterday’s meal: toasted sandwiches and hay fries. Not the fanciest dining in Equestria, but tasty.

Between mouthfuls, I observe the rest of our 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. Well, except Sheriff Pear. He’s chatting away with the proprietor. Doesn’t look like he’s doing it happily, though.

I’ve never seen him without that signature frown of his. Then again, I’ve only ever seen him while he’s on duty during an emergency. So, yeah, fair enough. Though that reminds me:

“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?”

Sandy freezes mid-bite. Rose dabs her lips with a napkin, almost managing to hide her grin.

”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.”

I shift awkwardly. Sandy looks like she’s trying to shrink into her seat.

”And two, this isn’t the first time our dear little Sandy’s caused the sheriff problems.”

”You get lost one time and you never hear the end of it,” Sandy grumbles, having sunk almost below the table.

”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-”

”Auntie!” squeeks Sandy, mortified.

Rose pats her head affectionately.

“Point is, Prickly’s a naturally sceptical pony. Especially when Sandy’s involved.”

I nod sympathetically.

“Yeah, he seemed pretty sceptical when I told him about our run in with the Dust Devils."

Sandy looks up with interest, but my attention is on Rose. Prickly wasn't the only pony who looked sceptical last night.

It's not the most subtle bait, but Rose falls for it anyway, a brief frown crossing her features.

"Well…"

"You don’t believe me either?”

She cringes for a moment. Then, choosing her words carefully:

”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.”

“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 travellers’ despair.”

”Ooh!” squeaks Sandy. “You stayed with the buffalo? What are they like?”

I chuckle.

“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.”

Rose frowns slightly.

”Yeah, that’s kinda the problem. No offence 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?”

Hmm. That’s... kinda rude, but I suppose there’s truth to it. The buffalo I studied with were wonderful hosts and excellent storytellers, but a lot of their traditions were certainly... out of date, by Equestrian standards. I 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 my innate pegasus connection with the weather, but even earth ponies have more practical methods for managing water. Dams, wells, irrigation, and, uhh, probably a bunch of other earth-pony things I don't know about.

”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.”

“I get what you’re saying,” I 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.”

”Maybe it was the sand witch?” Sandy puts in.

“The what now?”

From the corner of my eye, I notice Rose shift to a very deliberately neutral expression. She’s got a very good poker face. I've no idea what she thinks of this topic. But I know that she's deliberately keeping it to herself. Interesting.

Sandy, meanwhile, is all gleaming eyes and guileless enthusiasm.

”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.”

I recognise Sandy entering her “Storyteller Mode”. I hope the mare remembers to breathe this time.

”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!”

She finally stops for breath. If nothing else, her storytelling style is impressive for the sheer stamina required.

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!”

“Actually, she might be onto something.”

Rose freezes mid-response. Seems to be having trouble processing that.

”Wait, really?” Sandy looks just as surprised, though a lot more enthusiastic.

“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.”

I think back, recalling the scene. Glacier, matted with sweat but standing tall and alert. Glaring at the dark smudge I’d never have noticed if she hadn’t pointed it out.

“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 sand where it disappeared. Is there any, like, naturally occurring silvery-black sand around here?”

The two mares shake their heads, eyes wide.

“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 "mystery 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."

Rose says nothing. Thoughtful expression on her face. Sandy, meanwhile, is practically vibrating with excitement.

"Ohhh my gosh!" she squeaks, voice rising in volume. "You mean you actually saw the sand wiMMPH!"

Rose shoves a hoof into her mouth before she accidentally informs the whole diner.

I shrug.

"Honestly, I don't know. It sounds pretty far-fetched, but something weird's going on. What do you think, Rose?"

"I think," she says slowly. "We'd better go get the sheriff."