• Published 27th Mar 2024
  • 396 Views, 32 Comments

Parks and Wilderness - stphven

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

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Chapter 18 - Harmony

The large mare in gleaming armour accepts my proffered drink gratefully. 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.

She raises the glass, nodding to me in thanks. Then, with a wink, upends it all over her face.


I dart back as water splashes off the mare, a few stray drops landing on my muzzle. By now, everypony in the Hoofrest eatery is openly staring.

”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!”

A few ponies around the room chuckle weakly. Dusty Rose lets out an unladylike snort, while Prickly Pear simply raises an eyebrow.

“It’s, er. It’s fine! Totally fine!”

I am Fruit Punch, and no amount of water can dampen my spirits. The Guard are finally here!

(Well, ok, more of the Guard. Not just me anymore.) Finally, somepony more senior can take over! Judging by her rather abused-looking armour and peculiar, oversized spear, I'm guessing that she’s another Parks and Wilderness veteran. The PWG are sure to know how to find Glacier! But, er…

Where’s the rest of them?

The yellow pegasus - a corporal, from her insignia - seems to have flown in by herself. Glancing out the window, I see no sign of any other guardsponies. She can’t be my only reinforcement, right?

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

”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?”

I give a hesitant nod.

“Jointly,” I concede. “Along with Sheriff Pear and Mrs Rose, here.”

I gesture to the two ponies still sitting nearby. They give a polite nod and smile, respectively.

“Would you like a seat, or…?”

”Thanks, but we need to get going.”

I blink in surprise.


”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.”

Pear opens his mouth to answer, but Rose beats him to it.

”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.”

Trail looks at me in surprise. I sheepishly raise my bandaged wing, dark purple feathers peeping through the white fabric. The pegasus winces in sympathy.

”Ouch. Sorry, didn’t see that.”

She frowns.

”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.”

She nods to Prickly Pear.

”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…”

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 us, there are no pegasi.

The corporal hesitates, a thoughtful expression clouding her face. She ruffles her wings a few times, before eventually turning back to me.

”...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.”

She flashes a weary grin.

”Mind if I take that seat now?”

I do my 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 our tale of Dust Devils and Sand Witches, but doesn’t interrupt. She’s not the only one surprised, however. The other ponies sitting nearby can’t help but overhear. By the time we’ve finished, the room is full of whispered conversations and questioning looks.

I’d already planned on telling everypony all this. But I’d hoped to break it to them more… delicately. Hearing it like this - rushed, incomplete, and not even addressed to them - is far from ideal. But we 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.

And I'm certainly not going to hide anything from these ponies a second time. I’ve made that mistake once already. So I swallow my pride. Tell the whole truth. And resign myself to being despised by the residents of Tranquility Springs.

”Well,” says Trail as I finish. “That’s… quite the adventure. Also somewhat concerning.”

Then she blinks. Looks around, noticing the many eyes and ears still pointed in her direction.

”But, er, we’ll figure something out, no worries! Glace- er, Sergeant Glacier’s a smart pony. She’ll be fine!”

A confident smile settles on her face. I return a hopeful one of my own.

“Yeah. I’m sure you’re right.”

(I say this as much for my own reassurance as for the ponies around me.)

”Anyway, I’d best get going,” Trail announces, rising from her seat.

Quick goodbyes are shared, and I soon find myself escorting the pegasus back out into the burning sun. Despite the intense heat of the afternoon, it somehow feels less oppressive out here.

I 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. We exchange tired waves as they pass, their eyes lingering curiously on Trail.

“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 for her. Heh. Just imagine if she managed to get back on her own, only to find we'd lost some other pony, and now we had to send her out to search for them!”

She chuckles, shaking her head.

”If that happened to a civilian, she’d be livid. No, best to just sit tight until the professionals get here.”

“Yeah, I suppose,” I agree halfheartedly.

She turns to leave, yellow wings extending.

”Alright. See you in a few hours. Keep your chin up, kid.”

“I’ll try. And you keep an eye out on your way back. Last thing I need is another PWG getting Dust Devil’d.”

”Ha, it’d have to catch me first!” she smirks.

Then, with a blast of her wings, she’s gone.

I watch her for a few moments. A golden smudge against the dazzling blue sky, steadily receding.

After a full minute has passed and no Dust Devil has appeared to gobble her up, I reluctantly turn away. Time to face the music.

The music sounds like a lot of ponies arguing. Loudly.

I 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.

I step inside. Twenty pairs of eyes fix on me.

I see Dusty Rose and Prickly Pear have risen from their seats. Most of the search team has also risen, and are crowding around them. For a split second panic grips me. It looks like the group has turned hostile, angrily mobbing my friends. But no. A quick glance at their expressions is enough to reassure me. There’s indignation, sure. As well as surprise, confusion, and concern. But no real anger. At least, not yet.

Drawing a breath, I march forward through the crowd. The ponies part to allow me through. My steps are measured and precise. My face a careful mask of confidence I don’t feel, and contrition I do.

I take my place beside Dusty and the sheriff, and face the assembled ponies. For a moment, nopony says anything. Hooves shuffle. Somepony coughs. Then:

“So, is it true? About the Dust Devils and Sand Witch being real?”

The dam breaks. Dozens of questions spill out all at once. Ponies are quickly shouting over each other.

I hold up a hoof. The golden hoofguard gleams as it catches the light. Silence descends with gratifying speed. (I've always been good with crowds.)

“Thank you, everypony. I’ll answer your questions one at a time, but first please let me give you a proper explanation.”

The group eyes me expectantly. A quick whisper here or there, but nopony interrupts. I feel myself sweating beneath their collective gaze. It takes some effort to keep my voice and expression under control.

“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.”

More whispering. A few older ponies (and Sandy Miles) nod knowingly.

“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.”

This causes an even greater stir. Nearly everypony breaks into not-so-hushed whispering. I hear “Witch” and “Her” muttered repeatedly. After a few moments I hold up my hoof again.

“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.”

The crowd looks relieved at the mention of reinforcements. But I still owe them an explanation. Best to just get this over with.

I clear my throat.

“The reason we didn't tell you any of this before now is, well…”

I shrug.

“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.

“But…” I 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.”

Burning cheeks. Poison in my veins. Shame and regret seep through me, dizzying, nauseating. I push through it. Force myself to tell the whole truth, even if I can no longer meet their eyes.

“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…”

I stop. Take a deep breath.

“I’m sorry. You deserved to know what you were getting into, and I let you down. It’s my fault and I-”

”Ok, that’s enough.”

Prickly Pear steps forward, voice clear and commanding. I raise my head, turning to him in surprise. I'm not the only one - every eye in the room is now squarely on the sheriff. Even without his hat, he seems taller somehow.

”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.”


My confused stammer is drowned out by the crowd’s. Pear continues on regardless.

“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.”

There’s a few chuckles and eye rolls among the crowd, and a muttered “Damn straight” from Rose.

”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-”

He reaches up to take off his hat. Remembers he lost it in the Dust Devil. Continues on, looking slightly awkward.

”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.”

He gives me a sidelong glance.

”This one’s on me, fair and square.”

Well. So much for my carefully controlled expression. My jaw has long since hit the floor.

Surprise and gratitude play out openly on my face. As much as I try to get along with everypony I meet, the sheriff has always seemed rather… Well, Prickly. I’d wondered if I’d offended him somehow when we first met. Or perhaps he simply resented me for all the hassle my presence had caused. Whatever the case, I certainly wasn’t expecting him to stand up for me like this.

I'm still not sure what to say when I hear a sigh to my left. Dusty Rose steps forward. Her expression is resigned, but I can just make out a faint smile tugging at her lips.

”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.”

She turns to face the crowd.

”We all screwed up, and we’re all very sorry for it.”

Leaning towards me slightly, she adds in a lower voice:

”And I'm especially sorry to you. Some role model I’ve been, huh?”

“It’s ok,” I croak quietly, blinking away tears. I’d like to give the mare a big hug to show there’s no hard feelings, but I'm kinda still in the middle of a public apology. I settle for gently bumping shoulders with her.

I feel some of the stress from earlier leaving me. Whatever happens, these two ponies are on my side. That's enough to keep me going. I address the crowd again. Time to see what the damage is.

“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-”

There’s a snort from the back of the crowd.

”Aww, come now filly, don’t be so big headed.”

An older mare with a fading red coat waves a hoof in my direction.

“Just cause y’all done goofed don’t mean that mare out there needs any less rescuin’.”

A few ponies in the crowd nod. I squint a bit, trying to figure out what the hell she just said beneath all that accent.

”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.”

The crowd seems to agree, nodding and “Eyup”ing. I'm still struggling to understand what they're agreeing with.

”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?”

More murmurs of agreement (and an “I’d believe them!” from Sandy Miles). After a moment the stallion continues, a little awkward now that he’s the centre of attention.

”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?”

”And, hey,” chirps Sandy, waving to me. “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!”

She blinks.

”Uhh, n-not that I’m calling you a hot mess or anything!”

Several ponies chuckle, while Rose just rolls her eyes.

”Thank you, sweetie.”

The tension in the room seemed to ease after that. I still felt the urge to apologise every other sentence. And perhaps the search team were a little more sceptical of me now. But it no longer felt like I was standing trial. I was able to talk with these ponies once again.

There were still a few matters to clear up. The crowd had more questions for me, but they were no longer accusatory. Everypony wanted to get back to planning and cooperating. Back to working together in harmony.

To my 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. I 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.

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.

This all required a surprising amount of preparation. True, we weren’t organising any further expeditions just yet. But we 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 we also had to factor in Corporal Trail’s PWG unit. Which we still didn’t know the size of, or if they'd made their own arrangements. 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.

Prickly and Rose took care of most of this. I’d tried to keep up, I really did. But all the physical and mental stress of the last few days was starting to take its toll. After noticing me stumbling over my own hooves for the fifth time, Rose marched me straight into a back room and ordered me to take a nap.

I’d intended to argue with her. But somehow, laying my head down for just a moment seems to have caused time to skip ahead.

It’s darker now. Quieter.

Lifting my heavy head, I see no sign of Rose. I do admittedly feel much better. Though I could probably keep sleeping all week.

At first, I'm not sure what woke me up. But then my ear flicks - did somepony just say my name?

A babble of voices and shuffling hooves drift down the corridor to my room, muffled by the door. Sounds like something’s happening.

With an effort, I force myself to sit up. Sleeping in armour is never fun but, like most guards, I’ve had plenty of practice. I spare a few moments to tidy my mane and find my helmet (it had rolled into a corner). Then, yawning, I head back to the main room. The job waits for nopony.

Nearly a dozen gold-clad guards dominate the café. Axes, halberds, and all sorts of large, peculiar weapons protrude from their backs, while bulging saddlebags are strapped to their sides. Reinforcements!

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. I spot a familiar looking corporal among them, empty glass in hoof, mane suspiciously wet.

I stare at her blearily for a moment, brain still waking up. She quickly notices me and gives me a wave.

”Ah, there she is! Hi, Punch! Whistler, go get the sergeant, will you?”

One of the other guards nods and heads outside. Corporal Trail finishes shucking her pack and trots over to me (dripping water all the while).

”Hey, so, uh, we might have a bit of a problem,” she says through a strained smile.

I manage a blink in response.

”You remember that Sand Witch you told me about earlier? You didn’t mention that she’s an alicorn.”