• 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 17 - At rest

Maps in the sand. Looming mountains. Dark tunnels. Friends. Monsters.

Thoughts and memories drift in and out, blurring together. My mind is sluggish. Lethargic. But refuses to stop spinning.

The last few days’ events play out over and over again. I think of all the ways things could have gone differently. I think of all the ways things can still go wrong. What if this plan of mine is another mistake? What if I’ve overlooked something important? What if we run out of water? What if my injured leg gets infected? What if Anon is wrong? Or worse, what if he’s right? What if...? What if…? What if…?

With a grunt, I roll over onto my other side. I am Glacier, and I am not sleeping well.

The cool, rough stone of the tunnel brushes against my fur. I screw my eyes shut, trying to keep out the dim orange light permeating the cave. No matter how much I toss and turn, my mind keeps going back to that map.

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 my paper map initially, but soon started adding his own details. Hills. Canyons. Landmarks he’d seen in his travels. But what really caught my attention was the narrow gap he’d left in the mountains, seemingly connecting Equestria to the Badlands. If such a gap existed, then we were as good as rescued! The opening couldn’t have been more than a day’s journey away. Once we were on the far side of the mountains, my signal flares would be visible for miles. Probably all the way from Hoofrest. And even without flares, if we were careful with our water then we should be able to make it back on hoof.

It had seemed almost too good to be true. I frowned at the map, suspicious.

“How is there a gap in the mountains so close to town, yet nopony’s noticed it before?”

I was really just wondering out loud. Anon certainly couldn’t have understood my question. But I must have sounded sufficiently sceptical, as he hurriedly adjusted the map, filling in the gap and replacing it with a dotted line. Which… didn’t really clarify things. At all.

In the end, the two of us spent a good few hours figuring out how to clarify things. For every question I wanted to ask, and every answer Anon wanted to give, we'd need to explain three or four other concepts first. We ended up using a combination of charades and pictures scribbled in the sand. It turned out to be surprisingly effective. (And even kinda fun!) We picked up quite a few new words this way. Though it certainly wasn’t reliable. We often had to draw the same thing multiple times, in multiple different ways, before our partner got it. And even then we couldn’t be totally sure the other had understood. More than once we’d misinterpreted a word but didn’t realise it immediately, leading to much confusion later on.

While this process was occasionally frustrating, it eventually produced enough answers to satisfy me. Long story short: that route Anon had drawn through the mountains? Turns it out it doesn’t go over them.

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. Given that Anon found his “Hoofrest Mining Co” canteen there, I 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. 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.

This could be our ticket out of here! I don’t mind a bit of climbing. And if Anon can manage the trail, then so can I.

Unfortunately, mountaineering may be the least of our worries. It seems Anon had a few… interesting encounters in the area.

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. I’d grimaced as he relayed 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. Interrupting, I'd 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?” I only got confused looks and shakes of his head in response, so I let the matter drop. But that wasn’t the strangest part of his story.

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, a third after that. They’d burst into life, rage and roar, then vanish without a trace. No storm clouds. No breeze. Nothing.

Well, almost nothing. 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. He’d tried to follow it, but quickly lost sight of it among the rocks. And that’s when he found the mine.

Anon entered it cautiously, assuming the figure had fled inside. He never saw the figure again, though he did eventually find the exit on the northern side. 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.

Looking rather apologetic, Anon sketched himself trying (and failing, he stressed) to throw a spear at them. I’d smirked at the crude stick-ponies fleeing stick-Anon. I'm pretty sure I was looking at Sandy Miles and Tumbleweed’s encounter with the “Shadow Monster”.

Sandy had mentioned something crashing into the ground behind her. If my suspicions are correct, it was likely Anon’s spear just barely missing her, and hitting the dirt nearby. A pity they didn’t stop to look more closely. If they’d seen him using weapons, they might have tried to talk to him. I suspect Anon wouldn’t have hurt them if he’d realised they’re people, too. This whole thing could have been resolved weeks ago.

Of course, I can’t really blame them for running away in panic. I did the exact same thing when Anon nearly speared me.

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 me at the distance Anon was throwing. Perhaps it’s those long noodle arms of his. Whatever the case, I'm just glad he keeps missing!

The final encounter Anon related was clearly the most unpleasant. I'm 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.

Anon had returned to the buildings around the mine entrance. Searching for supplies, maybe. He heard noises coming from the tunnel. Went to investigate. In the darkness, something attacked him. Something big. Tore up his left arm pretty bad. He managed to escape, fleeing into the tunnels. Somehow ended up stumbling back out into the Badlands.

I’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.

Anon didn’t go into details, but I 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. 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.

There was a moment of silence after he'd finished his story.

I felt I ought to say something, but I didn't know how or what.

Eventually, to our mutual surprise, I found myself leaning over and giving him a hug. I'm not really the touchy-feely type. But it just seemed like the right thing to do. The poor guy had been through a lot. Had been alone for a long time.

(And Celestia knows I could do with a good hug, too.)

He’d stiffened at the unexpected contact. Then, slowly, relaxed against me. One arm wrapped around my back. Holding me tight. Another pressed against my neck. His hand gently stroking my mane.

The silly human just loves petting my mane.

I let him.


Afterwards, it didn’t take long to put together a plan. We're both still apprehensive about Dust Devils and monsters in the dark. But we can’t stay here forever.

It’s only a matter of time until a Dust Devil strikes again, dragging one of us off to who knows where. Or we run into some even nastier predator out in the wastes. Or a simple cut gets infected and somepony end up losing a leg. Better to take our chances now, while we’re still relatively healthy, than wait for a rescue which may never come.

Anon didn’t take much convincing. He’s even more sick of this place than I am. Of course, if I were lost in a foreign land, I’d also be keen to reach civilisation. He’s probably hoping Equestria will have some clues as to the whereabouts of his people. Though first we’ll have to convince everypony he’s not a pony-eating monster.

Hmm. Y’know, it’s funny. Thinking back on it, I’d just automatically assumed we’d be travelling together. The thought of leaving him behind never even crossed my mind.

Sure, I'm still under orders to flee the big scary human and report back to the Princesses. But I'm in no condition to flee. And even if I could ditch him, I'm not sure I’d want to. Anon’s been a kind and welcome companion. (Attempts on my life notwithstanding.) Even if he is some legendary spooky monster, I feel a sense of kinship. I want to help him, if I can. If that means disobeying orders… Well, it’s not like I can report his existence if I don’t make it back alive. And since travelling with Anon is my best bet of doing just that… Really, my hooves are tied. Such a shame.

I chuckle quietly to myself. Aaand immediately regret it. That tiny amount of physical activity is all it takes to wake the rest of my body up. No way am I gonna be able to fall asleep now.

With a sigh, I sit up, blinking heavily.

I’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.

Anon and I had agreed to get some sleep, saving our energy for the upcoming journey. Though the heat of the afternoon quickly drove me into the cooler caves below.

That crazy human had elected to stay up top. Madness!

But honestly, I haven't had much luck sleeping down here either. The stone floor isn’t exactly comfortable. And my stupid brain just won’t shut up.

Oh well. Now that I'm up, I may as well get a drink. With a lazy stretch, I start climbing.

I 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. I tiptoe up the last few steps, not wanting to wake Anon. But it looks like sleep’s eluded him, too.

The human'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 I enter he gives a weary wave in my direction.

”No sleep?”

(He’s getting good at asking simple yes/no questions.)

“No sleep,” I agree, waving back.

I fill a clay cup full of water. Then, on a whim, fill a second and take it over to him. He accepts it with a thankful nod.

I sit down next to him, leaning against the wall. If I'm going to fail to sleep, I might as well do it with some company.

The two of us sip our drinks in silence.

The heavy afternoon heat slowly permeates through me. My coat is sticky with sweat where it presses against the wall and floor. I consider doing something about it, but simply don’t have the energy.

Minutes crawl by.

Anon idly fiddles with a bit of twig. Rolling it around between his fingers.

Now and again a fly buzzes over. I half-heartedly flick it away with my tail.

At one point I hear the call of some desert bird, far off in the distance. I wonder what kind it is.

”Grey?”

I blink. Look over to Anon.

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. Eventually he leans over to where my saddlebags are stowed. Grabs my map from within, and sets it down between us.

Gesturing to it, he asks “Gray?”

I'm not really sure what he’s asking. Confused, I tap the area of the Badlands where the two of us currently are. Anon shakes his head, thoughtful look returning. With one arm, he covers up the Badlands. And with the other, gestures to the rest Equestria.

“Where am I… in Equestria…?” I wonder out loud.

I still don’t get it. I shake my head at him.

With a “Hrmm”, Anon sets the map aside, clearing a patch of sand between us. After a moment of thinking, he starts drawing.

Stick Glacier and Stick Anon. I recognize them easily.

”Gray. Anon,” I say out loud.

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.

”Gray,” he says, gesturing at her.

Ok. Still not sure where he’s going with this.

Once again, further left of the other pictures, he draws an even smaller stick unicorn. Filly Glacier?

”Gray,” he confirms.

Tapping the filly, he pulls back the map and once again gestures at Equestria.

”Gray?”

Ah. I think I get it. He wants to know where I come from. Where Filly Glacier comes from.

I smooth out the sand above the top of the map (which only shows Southern Equestria), and start drawing. Northern Equestria. The Crystal Empire. Yakyakistan. It’s not the most accurate map in the world, but Anon won’t know the difference. I finish by adding a little Stickfilly Glacier, peeking out between the mountains bordering the three countries.

“Home.”

As soon as I say it, I'm struck by a wave of homesickness. Memories of childhood come to mind, unbidden.

Crisp, bracing winds. Snow laden pines. Heavy boots, and warm scarves. Hot drinks by the fire. Friends. Family.

With a sigh, I lower my head. Feeling further from home than ever.

A warm hand presses gently against my shoulder. I lean into it, giving Anon a tired smile. He must be getting better at reading my mood. I'm glad he's here with me.

And really, I shouldn’t be the one moping. At least I know where my family is. Pushing my self-pity aside, I turn to focus on my companion.

“Anon home?”

He shrugs, expression turning downcast. Pushing aside the map and smoothing out the sand, he begins drawing a collection of squiggly shapes. Too varied in size to be writing. Perhaps another map. Those could be islands, or even continents. When he’s finished, he adds a little Stick Anon to one of the land masses.

”Home.”

I don’t recognise any of it. Wherever he’s from, it’s nowhere near Equestria.

Judging by his expression, he already knows.

I place a hoof on his shoulder. Neither of us speak much after that.

As the afternoon slowly turns into evening, the two of us finally drift off to sleep, side by side.