• Published 27th Mar 2024
  • 391 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 23 - Complication

”What in Tartarus was that!?”

Or at least, that’s what I assume Anon’s yelling.

He’s standing by the entrance to the mine, goggling at the miniature thunderstorm going off just inside.

“That,” I drawl. “Was a signal flare.”

He tears his gaze from the chromatic spectacle long enough to give me a Look. The kind that says “I have no idea what you’re saying, and you know it.”

“‘s just… magic stuff,” I wave him away. “Don’t worry about it.”

I am Sergeant Glacier, and I am way too tired to explain.

It’s night. Or is it morning? Must be close to dawn. The two of us are out on a dusty shelf, somewhere in the Macintosh mountains. I’ve slumped down against the wooden husk of an old building. Recovering from our fight with the sand wyrm.

“Fight” is, perhaps, putting it too generously. "Ran away screaming" would be more accurate. The two of us just barely managed to survive by setting off a flare right in the beast’s face. Almost blew our own tails off too, but at least there’s no sign of the wyrm.

I doubt it’s dead. Probably just scared it away. It may be a big mean monster, but I’ve yet to meet a monster who wouldn’t be scared by that light show.

There’s another chromatic flash from the cave. The accompanying thunderclap rattles the building behind me, before echoing down the valley. Anon turns back to watch, wide-eyed. I don’t know if he’s scared, or fascinated. Or maybe he doesn’t care, and is just keeping watch for the wyrm. Whatever. Right now, I don’t have the energy to worry.

With the adrenaline wearing off, I feel so very tired. Eyelids heavy. Tail drooping. Limbs weighed with lead. I’ve slept for, what, five hours in the last two days? Two days I’ve been galloping across deserts, crawling under mountains, and almost getting killed half a dozen times. I really need a nap.

But… not yet. Momma didn't raise no quitter.

We're so close to safety. I just need to hold on a little longer. If I gave out right before the finish line, I’d never live it down. So, with a weary sigh, I open my saddlebags.

“Better not have fallen out,” I mutter, shifting through the contents. “Or I am going to be so peeved.”

Thankfully, it isn’t long before my hoof lands on something small and hard. I fish it out, smiling at the unassuming chunk of quartz.

My last signal flare.

Now that we’re back in Equestria, the magic flare should be visible all the way from Hoofrest. And hopefully even further. It’s no longer a question of “Will the Guard find us?”, but “How long until they get here?”

I summon a wisp of magic. Just enough to trigger the dormant spell. The gem glows softly. Tiny sparks fly out, making my hoof tingle. Then, quite abruptly, it leaps into the air! Disappearing into the night sky with a twinkle.

"Five… Four… Three… Oh, shi- Anon! You should probably-"

KA-BOOOOM!

”AAAARGH!”

“...Nevermind.”

A second spectral cloud appears, hundreds of hooves above us. Spitting multicoloured thunderbolts in all directions. Rattling the entire mountainside. In the flashes, the area around us lights up as bright as day. I have to squint to keep from being dazzled, but it provides excellent illumination. I elect to ignore Anon’s renewed screaming in favour of taking stock of our surroundings.

Around us are half a dozen flimsy old buildings. Rough, plain wood structures, all badly weathered. A few have collapsed entirely. Cart tracks run from the largest building down into the mine. I see a few empty carts and boxes scattered around. I also note the deep gouges carved into several of them. And the shattered doors torn from their frames.

“Looks like the wyrm’s been through here.”

I’d had a faint hope of finding some old supplies. Tinned food or dry rations, perhaps. Maybe even some potions or enchanted gemstones; worksites often keep a few for emergencies. But there’s little chance of that now. The sand wyrm’s had the run of the place for years, by the look of things. It’ll have taken everything magical or worth eating.

My eyes alight upon a cluster of tough, spindly shrubs.

“Or… perhaps not everything.”

There’s a few of them growing against the cliffside and pressed up against buildings. Wherever they can find shade. A rather miserable meal, I admit, but better than starving. I pluck a few prickly leaves, chewing absently as I continue looking about. I do my best to ignore the bitter flavour.

There’s not much else to see up here. Rocky walls surround us on three sides. On the fourth, the ground drops away steeply, revealing an enormous expanse far below: the moonlit deserts of southern Equestria.

It must be an amazing view during the day. But even with the moon out, I can barely see anything. A dark grey ocean, lapping silently at the cliffs below.

A few twinkling stars sit right on the horizon. Far off towns, perhaps. Appleloosa. Ponyville. Maybe even Canterlot. I think I can make out Tranquility Springs: a little cluster of lights, somewhat closer. And that tiny speck of light, halfway there - that might be Hoofrest.

Well that’s encouraging. If I can see them, then they can see us. I just hope somepony’s looking.


Anon eventually calmed down, after I explained that the storms were my doing. He was mightily impressed by my apparent storm conjuring abilities. The two of us then spent some time patching each other up. We’d both acquired a whole set of exciting new injuries. A lot of scrapes, a lot of bruises, but thankfully nothing too serious.

Most concerning to me were my eyes. I’d been temporarily blinded by sand wyrm saliva back in the tunnel. At the time, it felt like my eyes had been burned out of their sockets! Even though I regained some sight later, I was still worried they’d been permanently damaged.

Anon helped me rinse them out. Gently holding my eyes open one at a time, while washing them with a few drops from his canteen. It stung, and there were more tears and spilled water than I’d like, but eventually the pain subsided to a dull itch. My eyes seemed to be ok.

After wiping my face clean, we then took care of the more mundane injuries. Applying ointment and bandages and so forth. It’s nice having somecreature else patch you up. Sure, there’s the practical advantages - it’s easier patching each other up than treating your own injuries - but there’s more to it than that. There’s just… something comforting about being fussed over. About having someone care for you. I'm hardly the touchy-feely type, but even I appreciate company at times.

Eventually we finished playing doctor, and turned to the next problem: water. We’d lost our last water jar somewhere down in the mine. Probably when I (accidentally!) blinded Anon. Even if the tunnel entrance wasn’t blocked, neither of us were keen to go back looking for it. That just left us with our canteens. And even those were emptying rapidly. (Getting chased through dry old tunnels is thirsty work.)

All in all, we had less than one canteen’s worth of water left between the two of us. This presented us with a rather difficult decision: Do we wait here, trying to conserve water? Or press on?

We could hole up in one of the old buildings. Barricade it as best we can. Then just wait for rescue, avoiding the sun when it comes up. We’re right beneath the flare; shouldn’t take more than a few hours for a pegasus to reach us. However, judging by the damage the wyrm’s already done to the place, I doubt these flimsy old buildings would offer much protection. What if the wyrm comes back? It’s currently blocked by the storm in the tunnel, but there could be other exits. Wyrms are cunning. It may be circling around even now. Attempting to trap us before we can leave its territory. If it finds us before the search party…

The other option is to leave immediately. We’ll use more water climbing down the mountain, but with any luck we’ll be rescued long before it becomes an issue. Though mountaineering at night comes with its own dangers.

A difficult decision either way.

I'd tried explaining it to Anon. But, honestly, we were both so exhausted we could barely understand one another. I think he was in favour of leaving. (Unsurprising, considering his history with the wyrm.) And, ultimately, I agreed.

We wouldn’t have to travel far, I told myself. Sand wyrms are ambush predators; it’ll want to stay near its territory, the mines. We just need to put a little distance between ourselves and it. If we can get off the mountain, down to the valley floor, then it's unlikely to pursue us. And hey, if the path turns out to be too dangerous, we can just wait there for rescue instead of up here.

And so here we are again, marching through the night.

Dead on our hooves, but feeling reasonably optimistic. There’s been no sign of the wyrm. And with every step we leave its lair further behind.

Anon’s whistling again. A rough, off-tempo tune, but I hum along all the same.

Eyes half closed. A weary smile on my lips.

Mountain climbing by moonlight! How nostalgic!

How many times have I dreamt a similar scene? The chill in the air. Silvery powder underhoof. Leaping from crag to crag with total confidence.

The slopes here are rugged and crumbly. The old road loading to the mine hasn’t seen maintenance in decades. But mountains are my home turf. Even half asleep, I have little difficulty picking out the safest routes.

The two of us travel in no great hurry. Stopping to rest frequently. Partly to conserve energy. Partly so Anon doesn’t break his neck in the dark. But honestly, at this point our fate just seems out of our hooves. Either the search party will find us, or the sand wyrm will. I just don’t have the energy to worry beyond that.

So we trot along. Inching down the mountain as the world shifts from black to sullen grey. Watching the eastern horizon blush a faint pink.

Time passes in a sleepy blur. One ridge at a time. Till eventually the ground starts to level out before us. No more steep slopes. Just a narrow path running between cliffs on our right and a heap of boulders on the left. Where the path emerges beyond them, it’s immediately swallowed up by a sea of sand dunes.

Urrgh. More sand. I’d sooner stay on the mountain.

I turn back, looking wistfully at the crags and cliffs towering overhead. Maybe it’s delirium from all the exhaustion, but I feel almost fond of them.

“So long, Macintosh Ranges. You were a good climb, but I think we should go our separate ways.”

Anon gives me a funny look as he walks by. I choose to ignore him.

“You’re from the desert; I’m from the snow. It just wouldn’t work out between us.”

The mountain takes this rejection stoically. With faux-seriousness, I turn away and follow after Anon. Struggling to keep the grin from my face.

I take one last drought of fresh mountain air before entering the ravine, and then-


A faint, organic stench. Foetid. Like a garbage heap, or a week-old carcass.


-I skid to a halt. It takes my weary mind a full second to process. Then my heart skips a beat.

“Anon!”

I know that scent! I'm suddenly wide awake, looking around wildly for the source.

Anon turns, puzzled. He’s a few metres ahead. Nearing the end of the path. The cliff looms over him, casting the area deep in shadow. Concealing everything near its base. Anon himself is just barely visible as a pale blur. But surely there’s not enough room for anything large to hide there. Right?

My horn ignites. Cyan light floods the canyon, bouncing off rough stone walls. Everywhere except for one square patch.

Wooden frame. Iron tracks. Empty carts. Another mine entrance!

I can’t see far into it from where I'm standing. But Anon, who’s much closer, stumbles back with a scream. He’s seen it!

The sand wyrm bursts from the tunnel. A great grey bulk, scarcely six metres away. Huge talons raking the earth. Carrion stench spilling from its maw. Slitted eyes gleaming with murderous intent.


Wyrms are cunning. It may be circling around even now. Attempting to trap us before we can leave its territory.


The sand wyrm wasn’t trying to trap us on the plateau. Not while those thunderstorms were going off. But it didn’t need to trap us there - it knew we’d have to leave by this pass. Knew there was another mine opening right here.

It’s been waiting for us.

The thought flashes through my mind in less than a heartbeat. I take in other details, too, in that first split second where I can fully see it. Notice the beast’s long, low body, armoured in heavy ridged scales. Its short legs, barely keeping it off the ground. Angular head, bulging with muscle and bristling with teeth. It’s not as tall as Anon, but longer and far, far heavier. I’ve fought a hydra before, yet I suspect this thing’s in a weight class above. A genuine monster.

It takes a single step forward. Jaws open greedily.

Anon doesn’t move. Why isn’t he moving?!

I don’t have time to wonder. No time to plan. I either act now, or never.

Parks and Wilderness Guard protect others from monsters. That’s all there is to it.

I leap in front of him.

Time snaps back to normal. The beast bounds closer, ungainly but deceptively fast. The passage is narrow. Sheer cliffs on the right. A hill of boulders to the left. No room to go around the wyrm, but boulders? I can work with those.

In less than a second I've leapt up the first rock and am springing to the next, drawing my sword as I go. The wyrm has almost reached me, but it continues heading straight for Anon. Perhaps it’s decided he’s the easier prey. An opportunity I can exploit.

With a cyan flash, my sword flies out. Hardly any power behind the swing - it’s too heavy for my magic - but the wyrm’s own momentum makes up for it. The tip of the blade slips right into the beast’s gaping mouth. Slicing the tender flesh connecting the upper and lower jaw. The brute flinches back, snarling and hissing. I doubt I’ve given it much more than a paper cut, but it’s enough to halt its advance.

Anon’s still just standing there! Why?

“Anon! Run!”

Then I see his face. I’ve only known him for a day, but I can already recognise the signs of panic. He’s frozen in place, shaking like a leaf as the monster from his nightmares prepares to charge.

He had an attack like this back in the tunnel. But there’s no time to calm him down - I need to snap him out of it. Now!

My magic doesn't seem to work on him directly, but it works just fine indirectly. A telekinetic pebble to the cheek is enough to startle him. He blinks. Tears his gaze from the wyrm to look over at me and my glowing horn.

“GO!” I scream, gesturing back up the mountain path.

He hesitates, glancing worriedly at me. Then, without a word, he turns and flees out of sight, disappearing behind the hill.

Well, that’s one less thing to worry about. My attention snaps back to the wyrm. Just in time to see it hurl itself at me!

I leap back instinctively. The monster slams into the spot I’d just been as I scrabble for higher ground. No time to attack; I bound from ledge to ledge in panic, desperately trying to stay out of its reach.

But I'm a mountain mare. Fear turns to confidence as I scale the mound, quickly putting distance between the two of us. The wyrm is large and fast, but I'm light and agile. Where it slips and scrabbles on the loose stone, too heavy for many of the smaller hoofholds, I confidently climb higher and higher. After a frantic minute, I'm able to stop and catch my breath. Safely out of the wyrm’s reach. I'm panting hard, but there’s a cocky grin on my face.

“That’s -hah- that’s right! Just -huff- try and catch me up here!”

My expression slowly sours as I watch the wyrm climb. Though clumsy, it is making progress. I can’t stay out of its reach forever - I’ve already nearly run out of mound to climb.

I take the opportunity to count my options. Perhaps I can fend the wyrm off? With this height advantage, my greatsword might have enough power to punch through those scales. And if not, I can still harass it as it climbs. Maybe it’ll decide I'm not worth the effort?

I make a few tentative jabs with my blade. Relying more on gravity than magic. They punch down into the beast’s back with a heavy THWACK, but fail to penetrate. The wyrm snarls in frustration. Annoyed, but clearly unharmed. It begins flailing up the slope even harder.

Whether by accident or intent, it ends up slamming its full weight into the hill. The stones beneath my hooves shudder alarmingly. Many of the smaller ones are knocked loose, and sent tumbling down the gully. I'm forced to leap from my perch before I suffer the same fate. I aim for a much larger and sturdier looking boulder just a little further down. My form is perfect-

“Aargh!”

-My landing is not.

I gasp, clutching my leg as lightning and needles stab through my ankle. For a second I think the wyrm's caught me - but no, I've just jarred my existing wound. Badly.

There's a clattering and flashing below me. Shit! My sword! I start after it, reaching out desperately with my magic. But my vision is blurry, my mind hazy with pain. I miss. The silvery rectangle vanishes in the gloom, lost among the tumbling rocks.

I barely have time to process this latest disaster before I feel myself starting to slide.

“No, no, nonono!”

Between the shaking, leaping, limping, and lunging, I've ended up far too close to the edge. With a sickening lurch, my forelegs slip. I spin round, flinging out my uninjured legs to grab any possible hoofhold. I just barely manage to catch myself as I crash to the floor, driving the breath from my lungs, teeth rattling in my skull. My armour spares me the worst of the damage, grinding noisily against the stone. Back legs scrabble helplessly over the empty air, unable to find purchase. More shocks of pain every time my ankle strikes the stone. Desperate panic shoves the pain aside.

For a few terrifying seconds I just dangle there. Hyperventilating. Kicking wildly as the wind picks up, streaming through my tail.

I risk a glance downward. The sand wyrm is right there! Forelimbs halfway up the hill. Mouth gaping wide. Rows upon rows of teeth, waiting to tear into me!

Whatever courage I had fails. My eyes fill with tears as my grip slowly slips away.

“No... Please…”

I fall. Down, down, to the awaiting jaws.

But something beats me to it.

A screaming blur crashes into the wyrm’s side. For a split second I see Anon - more bestial, more terrifying than ever - slam an enormous rock right into the beast’s face. Then the two of them are gone, sent tumbling down the ravine by the sheer momentum of the assault.

“ANO-oof!

I strike the ledge below, bouncing to a stop. Armour helps, but I'm still stunned. Ears ringing, world spinning around me. For a dizzying moment I just lay there, aching all over. For some reason, of all the things I could be worrying about, should be worrying about, the one thing my groggy mind latches on to is the breeze. Why is there a breeze here suddenly? And why does that feel like a bad thing?

A dull roar - not the sand wyrm this time - rises up around me. Dark clouds close in, choking the meagre morning light. And then, with a sudden rush, the world turns black.


“Twilight bucking damnit, not again! Not NOW!”

I am Private Fruit Punch, and this is not a good time! Why can’t I just rescue Glacier in peace!

Deaf to my pleas, the Dust Devil roars to life. There’s no gradual build-up this time. The sands crash into me immediately, blacking out the stars and drowning the sound of my voice. I feel myself being violently wrenched from the sky. A dizzying, nauseating motion through total darkness. I dare not call out for Feather Trail - I’d immediately choke on the torrent of sand whirling alongside me.

And then, like turning off a switch, the storm ends.

I stumble, finding myself suddenly on solid ground. A thick coat of sand covers my… my everything. I shake my head, trying to at least clear my eyes and ears.

Looking around, I see the Macintosh mountains still looming right above above. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, this is the old mine entrance we just visited yesterday.

What is going on?! Why would the Sand Witch take me here of all places? This is barely a kilometre from where I was just flying! I can still see the signal flare hovering further up the mountain! And the last time I was here, the Sand Witch kicked us out all the way back to Hoofrest! What gives?

Before I can figure any of this out, I'm interrupted as the ground next to me bursts upwards, covering me in sand again. A pair of familiar eyes blinks open.

“Oh hey! Feather! You’re still here! What a relief.”

The disoriented pegasus rises from where she'd been half buried, fluffing her wings like a bird in a dust bath. She spits out a mouthful of sand.

”What -pffft pfeh pfeh!- what just happened? Was- was that a Dust Devil?

"Yeah. You get used to it. Though I'm not sure-"

”Anon!”

We both look up, startled by a third voice. There’s another pony here!

I can dimly see the figure in the moonlight, clambering down a boulder barely thirty hooves away. I can’t quite make out her coat colour in the grey morning gloom. But it’s impossible to mistake the gleaming armour of the Royal Guard, or the shimmer of a crystal pony.

“Glacier!”

Feather and I cheer in unison, surging forward. The mare jumps in surprise at our voices, almost falling down the slope. We're already galloping over, relief washing away all weariness. We've found her!

”Who- Trail? Punch? Is that you?”

”Sure is, filly!” Feather is practically prancing as she approaches, wings vibrating with excitement. But she keeps her voice casual. “What are the odds, the two of us running into each other out here, huh?”

Glacier hops down to the sandy valley floor and begins trotting over to us. My trained medic’s eye immediately notices the limp, and the way she’s wobbling unsteadily on her hooves. There’s bandages around her ankle, and her lips are parched and cracked, but all in all she looks okay. Nothing immediately life threatening. That's a great start!

“Are you ok? What happened to your leg?”

I begin pulling out my first-aid kit.

”Later,” she insists, waving me away.

Her voice is rough. I pause, suddenly concerned. Up close, she looks worse than I thought. Bags under her eyes. Face streaked with dirt and tears. Pupils dilated, breath coming out short and fast.

”Glace?” Feather asks, turning serious. “What’s wrong?”

Glacier wipes at her face.

”We, we have to find-”

An explosion of dirt and sand rocks the valley, cutting her off! We all flinch, turning to face the source. Clouds of dust are being violently kicked up near the base of the rocky hill. A rain of small stones pelts the area as something moves among the boulders.

“W-what is-”

”UURRRAAAUGGHH!!!”

With an earth-shaking bellow, an enormous beast claws its way to the surface. Like a great lizard stretched out to nearly the length of a train car. Dark blood oozes from its mouth. Beady eyes slither over towards us, fixing me in its gaze.

”That’s…” Feather trails off, shaken.

”A sand wyrm,” Glacier finishes grimly.