• Published 27th Mar 2024
  • 420 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 14 - Searching

I’d expected the sheriff to object to investigating the old mine.

I hadn’t expected him to insist on accompanying us.

”She’s a tired old nag,” he’d said, pointing to Rose. “And you’re a grounded pegasus.”

My bandaged wing twitched at the reminder. Rose harrumphed.

”More importantly, neither of you know where the mine is. The last thing we need is more ponies getting themselves lost.”

I am Private Fruit Punch, and I have to admit: the sheriff had a point.

”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 oughta 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.”

So here we are. All goin’ together.

The mid morning sun burns overhead. The orange and brown landscape ripples in the heat. We’ve been climbing up and down these foothills for well over an hour, slowly inching our way towards the base of the Macintosh Ranges.

Ahead of me, Sheriff Prickly Pear and Dusty Rose plod along, occasionally sniping at one another. I'm pretty sure they don’t mean any harm - I 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.

”-shouldn’ta got the Guard involved in the first place,” Pear is saying.

”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.”

”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.”

”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!”

”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.”

”Only fool out here is you, ya stubborn mule!”

”Meddlesome old crone!”

...I'm pretty sure they don’t mean any harm.

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.

I sure hope Glacier isn’t out in this sun. My coat is much shorter than hers, but I'm already halfway through my first canteen of the day.

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. I’d been persuaded to exchange my Royal Guard helmet for something more comfortable, once we were well out of sight of the other volunteers. Technically, I could get in trouble for being out of uniform. But then it’s not like we’re going to run into any Guard officers out here.

I’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. I think that’s pretty cool. And it definitely helps! By this time yesterday, the tips of my nose and ears, which peek out from under my helmet, were already scorched. And keeping a metal tin can clamped around my head had only exacerbated the issue, quickly giving me a headache. Today, the heat feels much more manageable.

I take another sip from my canteen, just to be safe. Gotta keep my fluids up.

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.

As the “leader”, it had been my job to decide where to send each team. In reality, Dusty and Prickly handled all that logistics stuff. I’d just announced their decisions, then given a final pep talk before we all went our separate ways. At least I was useful for something.

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 me kind words and smiles, assuring me that Glacier will be ok. 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. It’s a great reminder of what I 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.

I smile at the thought. Then absent-mindedly bump into Rose, whom I now notice has stopped.

Shaking my head and offering a quick apology, I quickly notice why we've stopped: We’re here.

The three of us 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. The Macintosh Mountains rise up behind them, an absolutely enormous backdrop. Despite looking like a solid wall of brown from a distance, up close I can see nearly every surface is covered in a layer of wiry green scrub.

”This is it,” Prickly announces. “The old mine entrance. Or one of ‘em, at any rate. The main one’s a bit further up.”

It takes me 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. I can just barely make out the pale shape of wooden supports framing the entrance, and the glint of metal tracks along the floor.

“The main one? There are others?”

My knowledge of mining is, um, minimal. As far as I know, miners just dig a hole in the ground, pick up the gold and gems they find, then climb back out.

”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.”

Makes sense.

“So it sounds like we should check the base camp after we look around here?”

Pear seems uncomfortable at the suggestion.

”Look, missy, I don’t know whether this Sand Witch or Dust Devils or whatever exist. But I do know that all the old timers - including the previous 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.”

”We’ve already come all this way, ya big chicken,” Dusty taunts. Though I can see through her grin - she has her own misgivings about this.

”Though speaking of Dust Devils...”

She reaches into her saddlebags and pulls out a length of rope.

”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!”

She sounds like she’s trying to convince herself as much as Prickly.

The sheriff looks unimpressed.

”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?”

Rose huffs.

”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.”

I want to chime in, to try and convince the sheriff to join us. But I'm still self conscious about how unqualified I am to lead anypony. What if Prickly’s right? Should I be talking more ponies into danger?

The tan earth pony sighs, shaking his head.

”Now who’s being a stubborn mule?”

But he grabs one end of the rope in his mouth, and starts tying a loop around his barrel. Rose starts doing the same.

Well. That was easy. Guess Dusty Rose knows Prickly too well. Knows just what to say to convince him.

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.

Either way, yay friendship!

(I can’t help but feel glad that the decision has been taken out of my hooves. And guilty at how glad I feel.)

Rose flicks a length of rope over to me, interrupting my thoughts. I quickly distract myself with tying a knot.

A few minutes later, the three of us 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. I almost feel too cold now.

We approach the mine entrance. 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. There’s a few empty crates and pieces of old rubbish lying by the wall, but nothing that looks recently moved. Though I'm far less perceptive about these things than Glacier.

Rose pokes around through the boxes, while I take a few cautious steps into the tunnel.

“Glaaaciiieer? Are you theeere?”

”Eere - eere - eere,” the tunnel echoes back.

I listen intently. Straining to hear anything over the echo.

It fades slowly. Long moments pass as I wait for a response.

Nothing.

There’s no sound at all. Not even Rose shuffling about behind me, I realise with surprise.

I spin around, suddenly afraid the earth ponies have been magicked away. To my relief, they’re still right outside the tunnel, the rope between us still firmly attached. But there is something odd.

They’re both standing stock still. Heads raised. Ears high. Staring at something I can’t see.

”There’s something out there,” Pear mutters.

”I felt it too,” Rose quietly agrees. “You better get over here, Punch.”

I trot out, heart quickening as I unbuckle the straps of my shortsword. I follow Rose and Pear’s gaze to the huge mound of boulders just a few metres from the path. I don’t see anycreature, but up close I 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.

“Glacier…?”

A sharp tap draws my attention to the top of the heap. A single stone has come loose, bouncing down the slope in a series of echoing cracks.

It takes a long time to reach the bottom, eventually landing near my hoof.

It takes even longer for the echoes to die down. They reflect and rebound off the valley walls, blurring together into a dull roar.

Something isn’t right.

Instead of dying down, the roar is getting louder. Then I feel it.

“Dust Devil!” I shout, pulling the others close.

Rose and Pear glance around, seeing nothing, but backing up all the same. The false winds start whipping around us, roaring in earnest. Dozens more rocks are knocked loose, their crashes adding to the cacophony. Sand is quickly kicked up and sucked into the air, making the whirling winds visible to my earth pony friends.

I grab the two ponies as their hats are blown away. I close my eyes and hold on tight, determined not to lose anypony this time. Rose shouts something, but her voice is overwhelmed. Instead, she starts tugging me back, towards the cliff. Turning, I open my eyes to see she’s trying to lead us into the mine. I tap Pear’s shoulder, nodding towards the entrance. The three of us scurry inside.

We quickly stumble several metres down the passage. The noise slowly recedes behind us, though the wind echoing down the shaft produces an unnerving wail. With the storm blocking the light outside, the tunnel is almost completely black. We’d have immediately lost each other if not for the ropes keeping us together.

Eventually we all pause, unwilling to go further in the dark. I turn to look back at the opening, hoping the unnatural storm will abate soon. For a few moments, it seems to die down. The dark curtain of whirling sand slows, falling apart. A little light trickles in.

I see something silhouetted against the tunnel’s entrance. A large, shadowy figure, eyes gleaming.

Then, with a roar that shakes the whole tunnel, the sand rushes in and takes me.