• 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 25 - Monster hunter

“Feather!”

I race to my friend’s side. The pegasus is lying in a crumpled heap, halfway down a dune. Sand furrowed behind her, loose feathers scattered about. The armour along her flank is shattered. Steel plates buckled and dented. One of them is missing entirely. No blood that I can see; hopefully the armour took the worst of the damage.

As I skid to a halt beside her I hear a pitiable moan:

”Owww… Luna buck me sideways...”

Feather’s still alive! I am Sergeant Glacier, and I’ve never been happier to hear blasphemy!

“Are you alright? Can you move?”

I begin digging her out of the sand. Careful not to move her too much. Don’t want to exacerbate any injuries.

Her coat and mane are choked with sand. Brushing the worst of it aside, I gently lift her head. My heart skips a beat as I see the blood smeared across her muzzle.

Just a bloody nose from the crash, I tell myself. It doesn’t mean anything. Probably. Hopefully.

Feather cracks an eye open. Looks up at me blearily.

”Ooof. Hey Glace. Let me just…”

She begins sluggishly rolling over, limbs working their way into a sitting position. But when she tries to move her hind legs-

”Argh!”

She collapses back, gasping in pain. Spends a moment just getting her breath back. I press my hoof into hers reassuringly, stroking her mane as she blinks away tears.

”Ok,” she pants. “Leg, uh. Doesn’t feel great. N-not sure I can walk.”

She mostly keeps the panic from her voice. But I’ve known her too long to miss it.

To the guardsmare’s credit, she only hesitates a moment before turning to me:

”Glace, y-you have to go. You have to leave me and-”

“We’re both going,” I say with finality.

”No, listen,” she insists. “There’s a huma- Ow ow owww shit shit aaargh!”

I scoop her onto my back, ignoring her screams of protest. Armour scrapes against armour as I get the balance right.

I hate moving her like this. It clearly hurts like Tartarus. And I could be making her injuries much worse. But it can’t wait.

The sand wyrm is coming.

I glance up. At the top of the dune, a vast darkness slowly crawls into view. A primaeval mass of armour, muscle, and fangs. Beady, slitted eyes stare down at me.

At least the damned lizard doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. Its heavy, knobbled feet drag it along the sand at an almost leisurely pace. Confident I can’t escape? Or maybe it’s just as hurt and exhausted as I am? This hasn’t been the easy ambush it hoped for, after all.

Either way, it’s a small mercy. Seizing the opportunity, I turn and run - or stumble - down the dune. My injured ankle screams with every step, threatening to give out. And the rest of me isn’t much better off. Exhaustion weighs down upon me just as heavily as Feather, filling my limbs with lead. Each breath is a desperate struggle for air. The effort is agonising. And almost certainly futile. There’s simply no way I can outrun the wyrm. Especially not with a fully armoured mare on my back.

But futile or not, it’s my only option. There’s no time to come up with any other plan. No weapons or tricks left to fend the wyrm off. And no way I'm leaving my friend behind. So I run.

At this point, my only real hope is to draw the fight out as long as possible. My signal flare is still burning bright overhead. A chromatic beacon, easily visible against the grey morning sky. Feather already found me; the rest of the Parks and Wilderness crew are surely on their way. We just have to hold out until they get here.

After long seconds of running - maybe a minute or two, it's impossible to say - Feather starts to quiet down. The hyperventilating and cursing subside. She takes a steadying breath. Then, in a strained voice says:

”Sergeant. Listen to me. There’s a human out here! I know it sounds crazy. But please believe me, I saw one!”

It’s hard to focus on her. Every step is a struggle just to stay upright. What’s this about a human? She saw Anon? That's... good, right? That means Anon’s still alive, right? Thank Celestia! When I’d lost him in the storm - saw him tumbling down into darkness with the wyrm at his side - I'd assumed the worst. The fear and guilt had been suffocating. A part of me was surprised at just how attached I’d become to him. Now that I know he’s ok, I can breathe a little easier. Feels like a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders.

Unfortunately, the much more literal weight is still there. Through gritted teeth, I manage to grunt:

“Believe you.”

>”You do?” Feather sounds surprised. “Oh. Good. Well, then you know how serious this is. One of us has to make it back to HQ to warn them. One.”

Her voice turns grim. I hate when she gets like this. It sounds wrong, coming from the normally playful pegasus.

”Fact is," she continues. "I’m not going anywhere like this. And neither are you while I’m on your back. Sergeant Glacier, you have to leave me behind and get awaARGH! Motherbucker!”

A well timed jostle interrupts Feather’s stupid suggestion. I'm not going to just ditch her and run off! (Even if she is completely right…)

While she’s busy cussing me out, I chance a look behind me. My heart sinks.

Crawling atop the nearest dune is the wyrm. The monstrous blot is moving parallel to us. Easily keeping pace. Like a shark scenting blood, it knows we don’t have long left. Soon I’ll trip, or collapse from exhaustion. The moment I slow down, the wyrm will be all over us.

Crunch.

I blink. Thought I saw a glint up on the slope, behind the wyrm.

Crunch. Crunch.

The wyrm pauses. Forked tongue flicks out, tasting the air. My own ears twitch.

Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.

Is that… footsteps?

”FAAAAKYUUUU!”

I flinch at the fierce, unintelligible war cry. Feather lets off even more profanity as I almost drop her. At the same time, I see a sword - my sword - lifted high into the air above the wyrm! Then it comes crashing down.

SHRRK!

Wailing in pain and surprise, the sand wyrm scampers aside. Standing behind it, silhouetted against the pink morning sky, is Anon.

A happy shout escapes my throat, too relieved and exhausted for anything coherent. My vision gets a bit blurry for some reason. There's dampness on my cheek.

Feather, meanwhile, isn't quite so relieved:

”Oh, buck me."

I can actually feel the poor mare shivering in her armour. I sympathise completely; Anon looks particularly terrifying right now. Clothes shredded and bloody. Hairless skin covered in fresh wounds. Towering over the wyrm with a snarl on his face, greatsword in hand. He wields the massive weapon easily, his over-long arms making it look like a toy.

He spares a glance in our direction. His eyes soften as they meet mine. I can’t help but beam up at him. Relief radiating from every inch of my face.

He returns the smile. Weary, but heartfelt. Then the moment passes. His attention snaps back to the wyrm, expression furious. The enormous brute growls and hisses at him, but keeps its distance. Though many times longer and heavier than Anon - it’s halfway between a dragon and a boa-constrictor - the sand wyrm doesn’t have much reach. Those stumpy legs and elongated snout are powerful, and faster than they have any right to be. But the human is taller. All long, flexible limbs, able to lash out at a moment’s notice. With my sword extending his range, the wyrm simply can’t get close without a painful slash across the claw or snout.

I notice a dark stain running along the edge of the blade. And a matching trickle running down the wyrm’s thigh. It seems Anon’s sneak attack actually managed to cut through all that thick armour. Impressive. It’s not a serious wound; I know enough about giant beasties to tell that at a glance. But it’s painful enough to force the wyrm to hesitate. For the first time in who knows how many years, the sand wyrm is afraid.

But it doesn’t back down.

Hunger - or pride - compels the wyrm to stand its ground. It observes the strange biped from a safe distance. Forked tongue flickering in and out. Appraising. Biding its time. The two apex predators begin to circle one other. Feather and I watch in terrified fascination. This kind of fight is the stuff of legends among the PWG. I’ve no idea how it will pan out, but one thing’s for sure: if we survive, ponies will be buying us drinks for years.

We’re both so engrossed that we don’t even notice another, lighter set of hoofsteps.

”I… -huff- …found… -puff- …Anon.”

I turn in surprise to see Fruit Punch hurrying down the dune.

“Fruit! Great work. Is he alright?”

Peering at her as she approaches, I add:

“Are you alright?”

The smaller pegasus looks almost as exhausted as me! Her purple coat is matted with sweat and dust. Her dark wings are a dishevelled mess, broken feathers sticking out at all angles. She looks like she can barely stand, she’s panting so heavily.

”Some… -huff- …superficial injuries… -puff- …but he seems… -huff- …ok. Treated the worst of them. Managed to tell him… -puff- …where you are. He immediately ran… -huff- …ALL the way back here. Too much… -puff- …bloody running!”

“You’re damn right,” I mutter.

I'm impressed with Fruit’s ability to communicate with Anon so quickly. It took me hours of panicking and screaming before I sat down and actually talked with him. Guess her Harmony Corps training is useful for something after all.

“Ok, he’s bought us a few moments. I need you to take a look at Feather. She’s hurt. Could be bad.”

”Forget that,” Feather cuts in. “Let’s grab Anon and go while the human’s distracted with the wyrm. Where is he, anyway?”

Ah. Right. She still thinks “Anon” is some pony I found. Because a Parks and Wilderness Guard befriending a human is absolutely insane.

As if on cue, said human starts shouting like a madman. Raising my sword, he actually charges at the wyrm. Even more amazingly, the multi-ton monster backs away, snapping and huffing in distress. Anon continues his reckless assault, swinging wildly at any part of the wyrm he can reach. He gets a few glancing blows in, but I can tell none of them manage to penetrate the scales.

In response to Feather’s question, Fruit wordlessly points a wing at the human. Feather cocks her head.

”...Wait. That’s Anon!?”

“Yeah, about that…” I begin sheepishly.

Strong hooves grip my shoulders. Punctuating every word with a shake.

”You’re telling me your "friend" is a bucking human?!”

Fruit Punch tilts her head.

”Wait… -huff- …he’s, like, a human from the… -puff- …old mares’ tales? They’re real?”

I shake my head.

“Long story. Anon’s no threat to us.”

”A human is no threat!?”

I wince as Feather practically screams in my ear.

”For what it’s worth,” Fruit wheezes. “He didn’t threaten me. He kept asking about “Gray” - I think he meant Glacier.”

”Look, it doesn’t matter,” Feather says, starting to regain her composure. “We have very strict orders about this. We see a human, we run. End of story.”

Her voice turns pleading.

”Glacier, come on. The human’s given us an opportunity to escape. We might not get another.”

I bite my lip. She’s not wrong.

As far as the Royal Guard is concerned, retreating now would be 100% justified. Anything less would be in direct violation of my orders. And likely be considered reckless endangerment of my fellow Guards. I could be court-martialed - assuming I even survived.

And seriously, even if we stay here, what good would it do? How can three tired and injured ponies hope to stand against a sand wyrm? Between us we don’t have a single weapon that can hurt it! Now that Anon’s got my sword, if anypony can defeat the wyrm, it’s him. We could fall back and regroup with the rest of the PWG. Maybe convince them to come help Anon. They’re already on their way; we might only be gone for a few minutes. Heck, Anon might even have slain the sand wyrm by then!

Sigh. If only I could believe that. But my gut tells me otherwise.

Anon’s slowing down. His first blow was able to cut through the wyrm’s armour thanks to surprise, momentum, and pure luck. But none of his other attacks have managed since. It’s not his fault; he just doesn’t have the training to use the awkward weapon properly. Every time he swings, he’s wasting energy. Every time he hits, the angle is all wrong. Each blow sends the wyrm flinching back - but each time it recovers a little faster.

I'm not sure why Anon’s gone so all out on offence. Is this some predator thing? Sensing weakness in the wyrm? Or perhaps he wants revenge for the damage it did to his arm? Or... could he be trying to protect me? Maybe Feather was right - maybe he is giving us a chance to escape.

Whatever his reasons, he can’t keep this pace. I can already see the exhaustion in his face. See the shaking in his limbs.

The momentum of the fight is shifting. And the sand wyrm knows it.

As though thinking the same thing, the massive beast suddenly leaps forward. Damn thing’s fast when it wants to be! Anon scarcely has time to raise my sword, blocking the wyrm mid-lunge. My breath catches as the bulk of the brute presses down upon him, pinning him in place. It’s amazing he’s not crushed outright! He manages to stabilise himself in a sort of half-crouch, struggling to keep his footing. Great heavy claws scrabble against the hilt of the blade. Fangs the size of my hooves snap angrily at Anon’s throat. With a desperate grunt, Anon adjusts his grip, one hand grabbing the bare blade for greater leverage. Incredibly, he manages to lever his way out from underneath the colossal mass, shoving it aside and bashing its face with the pommel for good measure. The two combatants separate, and I can finally breathe again.

The whole interaction took less than two seconds.

It's only cemented my fear: Anon doesn’t have minutes to spare. If I leave now, I'm leaving him to die alone.

I couldn’t do that to Feather. I can’t do that to Anon.

“Fruit, get Feather to safety,” I order, shifting Feather onto Fruit’s back. The smaller pegasus buckles under the sudden weight, while the larger squawks in protest. “As soon as you’re clear, check her for injuries. She might need emergency treatment.”

”W-what about you?” Fruit gasps, straining. “Y-you’re coming with us, right?”

”Glace, please,” Feather begs. “This isn’t your fight!”

“Like Tartarus it isn’t!”

And with that, I charge towards Anon.


I am Private Fruit Punch, and I am panicking. I hate letting Glacier leave like this. Though it’s not like I’ve got much choice! If I try to follow her, I’ll have to leave Feather behind. I can look after one pony or the other, but not both!

Ultimately, it’s all I can do to trust that Glacier knows what she’s doing. At least she won’t be alone; she’s going to help that Anon creature, right? Hopefully the two of them can keep each other safe.

I drag the injured corporal out of sight, over a dune and behind a small boulder. Then I set about stripping off her armour with quick, practised motions. Not the easiest thing to do when the armour’s a mangled wreck! Luckily, the mare underneath seems mostly intact. No lacerations or open wounds. No obvious signs of concussion or internal trauma, thank Twilight. But she’ll need a proper examination to rule them out.

The main damage seems to be across her back right leg. Extensive bruising is already visible beneath her short gold fur. I can’t feel a break in the bone, but she hisses in pain every time I touch the tender area. A fracture seems likely. Her wings are also a mess. Missing half the feathers on one side. Probably more fractures there, too; those little flight bones are delicate.

The older guardsmare takes my inspection like a pro. Holding still as ordered, and complaining very little. I do what I can with my limited first aid kit, administering painkillers and applying a makeshift splint. Gosh, it’s been a long time since I’ve had to do first aid for real! I hope I'm not forgetting anything! I’ve rushed the whole process more than I'm comfortable with. But the distant shouting and roaring is a constant reminder that time is of the essence.

After what can only have been a few minutes - but feels like ages - I step back, checking over my work one final time.

”Ugh. Thanks, Punch,” Feather moans through gritted teeth.

Her initial shock and adrenaline have worn off. Now there’s nothing to distract her from the pain. Poor mare - it looks pretty bad. It’ll be another few minutes before the painkillers kick in. Despite this, she’s still focused on the task at hoof.

”Y-you’d better get going. I’ll be ok, but Glace will need all the help she can get.”

“You’re sure?” I ask, pawing the ground anxiously. I am eager to go. But leaving a wounded friend behind just doesn’t feel great.

Feather nods firmly.

”Consider it an order, private! Go!”

With a last, concerned glance, I turn and dash away.

”And watch out for that human!” Feather’s voice trails after me.

I'm not entirely sure why Feather’s so scared of Anon. Maybe she’s just not used to working with other species? It’s not that unusual; most Royal Guard regiments are still one hundred percent pony. The Harmony Corps was established specifically to buck that trend. I’ll have to have a talk with Feather about her prejudices… But that can wait. For now, I just focus on putting one shaky leg in front of the other.

The first dune passes underhoof, and the sounds of battle draw nearer. As I crest the final hill, a familiar sensation starts to tickle my wings. There’s a drop in the air pressure. The winds begin to stir. Unnaturally.

“Oh, for the love of…! Another Dust Devil? Seriously!?”

But this is no mere Dust Devil.


“Wow, this is stupid,” I mutter under my breath. “What am I doing, this stupid, I’m going to die, oh Celestia, this is so, so stupid…”

I am Glacier, and despite my earlier bravado, I am absolutely quaking in my boots. As I gallop up the dune, I don’t see a sand wyrm anymore. Instead, looming above me is an abattoir. A living fortress. Visions of my violent, painful death play out over and over. I feel sick, and scared, and every single instinct in my body screams for me to turn tail and run home.

But I see Anon up there, too. I’ve only known him for a few hours. But that’s enough to read the expression on his face. Whatever confidence or bloodlust he had earlier is gone. Now he’s just as sick and scared as me.

I press on.

The battle isn’t going well. The sand wyrm’s back on the offensive. Constantly slithering forward. Leaping and snapping at Anon’s legs. He retaliates with heavy sword blows. But they just make the wyrm mad. Only the human’s quick footwork is keeping him alive.

I’ve nearly reached them now. Approaching from the monster’s rear, I rack my brains for any way to help. But no matter how I slice it, it seems I'm all out of tricks. No more magic stones. No high ground. No weapon. No- well, ok, technically I do still have a weapon.

I draw my utility knife. Frown down at the puny thing. Even the strongest earth pony couldn’t cut through those scales with this! The only way it could possibly hurt the wyrm is to strike somewhere unprotected. The eyes, or open mouth maybe. Impossible to reach from this angle. And extremely risky to get any closer.

Maybe I could float it over with my magic? It wouldn’t be easy. Few unicorns have the telekinetic strength or finesse to use weapons that way, and I'm no exception. At best, I could launch it with slightly more precision than the average pony. Not great odds.

While I creep forward, fearful and uncertain, it finally happens: Anon stumbles.

I don’t even see the cause. A loose stone underfoot, maybe? A gust of wind? It wouldn’t take much. Doesn’t matter. I look up in time to see him toppling backward. See the horrified realisation in his eyes. Before he even hits the ground, the sand wyrm charges.

I wasn't fast enough. Too indecisive. Too afraid.

No chance of reaching the eyes or mouth now. Only the legs and tail are in range. Covered everywhere in heavy scale. Completely impenetrable. Everywhere, except for…

My eyes widen.

Momentum is on my side. Like a freight train, the colossal wyrm takes time to get up to speed. I have a split second opportunity to catch it before it reaches Anon.

No more hesitation.

I leap forward, knife clamped between my teeth.

“BUCK OFF!”

I strike.

The wyrm yelps, pain and surprise derailing its attack as I plunge the knife forward. Deep into the only unarmoured spot within reach: the bloody, open wound Anon slashed along its flank.

“Anon! Go!” I shout, immediately dashing back. I'm forced to abandon the knife, embedded in the wyrm’s side. Anon takes the hint, scrambling away as fast as he can.

The sand wyrm doesn't even notice us. It's too busy writhing and thrashing, trying to dislodge whatever's stinging it. Kicking up great plumes of sand as it does so. Its head swings around wildly - almost comically - as though expecting to see some larger predator has snuck up on it.

I slink away as quick and as quiet as I can, looping around towards Anon. Not quick enough. Finding no other culprit, the sand wyrm settles its gaze upon me. Recognition gleams in those cold, slitted eyes. The pony who blinded it back in the mine. The pony who hurt it. Deafened it. Defied it.

“...Shit.”

The titan charges. Massive claws tearing up the dunes as it thunders towards me. It doesn’t even bother opening its jaws - it intends to crush me and be done with it!

I try to run. But that last exertion to save Anon took a lot out of me. My limbs just can't move fast enough. Each stride feels like running uphill, like swimming through molasses.

In the span of three panicked heartbeats, the wyrm crosses the distance between us. Numb with terror, I can only watch as the monster rears up, towering over me. The beast roars in triumph.

Only to be drowned out by an even louder roar.

An explosion of noise and motion strikes the wyrm dead in the chest. At the same time, the sand and dust already swirling about intensifies a hundredfold! Hurricane winds spring to life around me, forming a vast, dark funnel. And in the centre of it all, standing just hooves away, is a pony.

Silvery-black sand shifts and swirls over her coat. Or maybe that is her coat. Her outline is blurred. Drifting. Like smoke in the wind. But the overall shape is clear. Great black wings stream away behind her. Spiralled horn glows with eldritch power.

Not a pony.

An alicorn.

From one outstretched hoof flows a torrent of sand, blasting into the wyrm. The jet must be moving incredibly fast; even from a few metres away, the ricocheting sand stings every inch of my exposed fur. The noise is deafening. Like a hundred thousand wasps buzzing angrily.

I should run. Another creature from The List? I should definitely run. But it's just too much. The fatigue, noise, and shock, and now a fricken alicorn!? I'm done. I manage to crawl a few paces away, before collapsing to a sitting position. Staring dumbfounded at the scene before me.

Incredibly, the wyrm is still in one piece. That blast of sand would have flayed a pony instantly. But those damned thick scales, imbued with ancient draconic magic, manage to hold out against even an alicorn’s power. The sand beam physically forces the brute back, inch by inch, but can’t penetrate the armour.

Of course, the armour doesn’t cover everywhere. Great, clumsy claws protect the wyrm’s head as best they can. The initial blast must have caught it off guard, getting into its eyes. The beast thrashes about in a literal blind rage. A nightmarish blur in the storm, held at bay by the even darker shape of the alicorn.

”Gray!”

I squeak in surprise as something touches my shoulder! But it’s only Anon. I turn to see the human crouched over, leaning heavily into the wind. He looks haggard, eyes wild with fright. Completely out of his depth. I feel absolute sympathy.

He speaks again, but I can barely hear him over the wind. (Hopefully he didn’t hear my earlier squeak...) But he gestures away from the terrifying combat. Can't see where he's pointing to - the horizon is gone, lost behind a whirling wall of darkness. But his expression is clearly saying “Let’s get out of here!”

I hesitate. Glancing towards the alicorn at the eye of the storm. I... I don’t know if I can go. An alicorn’s presence is dominating. Overwhelming. Slinking away is almost unthinkable.

As if sensing my thoughts, the sand pony turns. Or… it’s hard to see, but it almost looks like She dissolves, then reforms so that She’s now facing me. One leg remains casually raised towards the sand wyrm. Blasting away with blisteringly fierce magic.

Her eyes settle upon me. Twin lighthouses piercing the storm.

With a single nod, I'm suddenly released from Her aura. Like I’ve been dismissed. A wordless voice in my head seems to say “I’ll take it from here.”

Anon shakes my shoulder again, more urgently. Blinking, I look up at him. Our eyes meet, and I nod. With firm hands, Anon helps me to my hooves. Leaning against each other, the two of us begin wading through the storm. Out into safety.

I spare a glance back at the alicorn. She’s still watching me. Not even bothering to look at the wyrm as it writhes under the force of Her onslaught. I'm not sure how I can tell - She’s little more than a blur at this point - but somehow I feel She’s smiling at me. There’s something like a… a maternal fondness there. And something else. It feels almost… apologetic?

Then from out of the gloom a black tail slams into her. For a split second I see a look of surprise on Her face. Then She explodes in a shower of sand.


With an obnoxious roar, the not-Dust-Devil crashes down before me. Another great, whirling sandstorm. A non-pegasus wouldn't be able to tell the difference. But I've become uncomfortably familiar with Dust Devils. I can feel the intentionality here. Compared to this, a Dust Devil is nothing more than a foal fumbling to pick up a toy. I don't know what's going on, but it's clear there's a purpose to this storm.

It's also clear the storm is directly in my way.

“OI! SAND WITCH! YOU BETTER NOT BE ABDUCTING GLACIER AGAIN, OR I’LL KICK YOU IN YOUR SANDY CUNT!”

I am Fruit Punch, and I am getting sick of these magical storms! I spend a few moments stomping and fuming at the edge, my curses drowned by the tumultuous winds.

Now what? From the brief glimpse I caught, it looks like Glace and Anon are right in the centre of whatever-this-is. But how do I get to them? The last time I charged into a Dust Devil, I got spat back out so hard I nearly broke my wings! (They twinge painfully at the memory.)

But there’s no way I'm losing Glacier again! I just got her back! Think, think, think..!

Maybe… maybe if I stay low to the ground I’ll be ok? Last time I went into the storm I was flying. Down low I’ll have more cover from the wind, more grip on the sand. Maybe that could work?

Ah, who am I kidding. That’ll still be incredibly dangerous. But I'm going to do it anyway, right? Right.

I take a deep breath. Then charge in.

From a distance the storm looks impenetrable. A solid wall of dark, churning sand. But as I push in closer, lashed by stinging hail, I begin to make out shapes. Figures in the gloom. To my left is a large blur, thrashing violently. The sand wyrm? And on the right are one, two, three smaller figures. They must be Glacier, Anon, and- wait. Three?

I squint at them. Not daring to open my eyes any wider. The figure in the middle looks even more blurry than the others. A mirage, maybe?

Before I can get much closer, the hulking shadow of the sand wyrm blunders into my path.

“Motherbucker!” I exclaim, starting back.

I turn, ready to flee, but the big jerk doesn’t even seem to notice me! Just stumbles around, one clawed limb protecting its face.

“Ha! What’s the matter, got sand in your eyes? Serves you right, you big dumb AAUGH! Pfft! Pfft! Pfft!

I cough and sputter, trying to get the deluge of sand out of my mouth. Lesson learned: keep your damn mouth shut when you're in a sandstorm!

There’s a sudden whoosh of air nearby. Audible even over the howling winds. I flinch as something long and dark whips past, nearly taking my head off! The sand wyrm’s tail, I realise after the fact. Damn thing’s as thick as a tree trunk! I'm not sure if it was aimed at me, or the wyrm’s just flailing blindly. Just to be safe, I quickly start backing away. I should be able to creep around it, circumnavigating the storm. The looming silhouette steadily recedes, stumbling deeper into the gloom.

I breathe a sigh of relief as I notice the two smaller figures - one equine, one human - have started moving away from the wyrm. But that third maybe-figure is still there. And I see… a light flickering from it? Blinking through the storm, like the tail lights on an airship. I get the feeling that’s no mere mirage.

Then all of a sudden the wyrm’s tail slams into it, snuffing the light instantly. Everything explodes.


The shockwave knocks me off my hooves. I tumble end over end through the darkness, buckets of sand pouring all around me. After a nauseating couple of seconds I hit the ground. The roar of the wind quickly dies away, leaving only a ringing in my ears. But the world still feels like it’s spinning.

“Urgh.”

I am Sergeant Glacier, and it’s a good thing I've barely eaten, because I feel like I'm going to lose my lunch.

I lift a shaky hoof. Feel sand sliding off it. Piling alongside me. Slowly, I open an eye.

Blue.

Pure, pale blue sky, fading to peach near the horizon. Not a single trace of sandstorm to be found.

Doesn’t make sense. Everything’s still blurry and confusing.

I lie there a few more seconds. Wait for the world to calm down. The ringing in my ears to fade.

THUMP.

The heavy footstep sets my heart racing all over again. I roll to my hooves, head whipping around to see:

The sand wyrm.

Right

next

to

me.

Teeth. Rows upon rows of teeth, stained and jagged. Close enough to count. Close enough to see scraps of its last meal wedged between them.

Hot, heavy breath rattles out of the open maw. Washes over my coat, into my eyes and mouth. The stench of blood and death makes me dizzy all over again.

My watering eyes climb higher. Beyond ridges of horn and scale, a pair of slitted eyes glare down at me. The inner eyelids blink, sideways. Tears clogged with sand run down its craggy snout.

The sand wyrm looks tired. Tired, but triumphant. Topaz eyes flicker with some primal intelligence. It knows there’s nothing more I can do. Knows this is checkmate. And draconic pride demands a final moment of gloating before the feast. It wants me to know I’ve lost.

I'm so very tired. I just want to rest.

As those stained, jagged teeth descend upon me, I close my eyes one last time.


The shockwave knocked me off my hooves. But I was further back from the blast. Able to roll with it. Then quickly scramble up.

I am Fruit Punch, and I am the first to recover from… whatever the heck that explosion was!

I could swear there was some pegasus magic in it. But stronger, and all… bent out of shape. Like the weather factory in Cloudsdale opened all its valves at once!

Whatever. I’ve got more important things to worry about! Already that big brown lump - the bucking sand wyrm! - is pulling itself to its feet. Mountains of sand spill off its back, building little dunes around its legs.

I backpedal instinctively, heart hammering. But the wyrm doesn’t seem to notice me. Or if it does, it’s looking for something else. It glances around, forked tongue flicking out creepily.

Then it pauses. I follow its gaze to something half buried in the sand. Something that gleams gold and blue.

“Glacier!”

Neither the mare nor the monster respond. The huge beast simply starts stomping her way.

“No! Leave her alone!”

I see movement in the corner of my eye. Anon is stirring. Digging himself out of his own sandy mound. But I can already tell he’s too far away, too dazed to help.

There’s something in his hand. Gleaming. Glacier’s sword? I could dash in and grab it!

But… then what? I'm no monster hunter! If Glacier and Feather Trail together couldn’t stand up to this beast, what hope do I have? I don’t know the first thing about fighting monsters! In all the time we spent together, Glacier barely told me anything! All I can remember is that one story about fighting a, uh, what was it? Hydra? Some kind of big… lizard…?

I think back to the conversation. Only a few days ago, but it seems like weeks:


”Hide’s too thick for normal weapons. Even this,” Glacier nodded to her greatsword, “so we had to get creative. This crazy pegasus, Pollen, jumps onto its back. She can’t do any damage up there, but hydras are dumb. Instinct takes over.”


My eyes widen. Suddenly I know what to do.


I am Glacier, and as those stained, jagged teeth descend upon me, I close my eyes one last time. Only to do a double take as a purple and gold meteor slams into the wyrm’s back!

”Aaaaaaaargh!”

“Fruit!?”

The small mare crashes more than lands. Hooves held out in front of her, eyes screwed shut. Her wings beat furiously, losing feathers at an alarming rate! Even with all the added weight from her golden armour, the impact barely rattles the sand wyrm. But it’s enough to give it pause.

With a surprised snort, the wyrm cranes its neck around, trying to find the source of the unexpected pressure. Unable to twist around far enough, it begins to shake and buck, trying to dislodge the interloper. Its back sways and heaves from side to side, like a ship during a storm. The great stomping of its legs is like a miniature earthquake. I have to scramble back just to avoid being crushed!

Somehow, Fruit manages to hold on, wings splayed out for balance. After a few more futile shakes, the wyrm abruptly changes tack. With ponderous slowness, it hurls itself onto its side, and then over onto its back.

”Woah!”

With a shout, Fruit topples out of sight. Lost beneath the mountain of knobbled hide.

Before I can even cry out in panic, another voice cuts through the din.

”Gray!”

I look right to see Anon - still alive! - over a dozen metres away. He’s not standing - one of his legs dangles limply behind him. But in his hand is my greatsword!

Our eyes meet. He raises the sword above and behind him. I recognise that pose! It’s how he does his scary-effective human throw! Is he trying to spear the wyrm?

No. I realise his plan a split second before he throws. Enough time to spring to my hooves.

With a shout, Anon hurls the massive weapon. An incredible throw for a pony. He makes it look easy. His aim is dead on. The weapon likely to land just in front of me. But I have other plans.

As the wyrm writhes in the dust, the sword arcs overhead. Flashing gold as the first rays of the sun blaze along its edge.

Then it begins to fall. The golden light fades.

Then a new glow to takes its place.

I leap into the air, horn flashing cyan. The sword flies home to my open hooves. Welcome back, buddy.

We fall together.

Towards the sand wyrm.

And its pale, lightly armoured belly.


“This crazy pegasus, Pollen, jumps onto its back. She can’t do any damage up there, but hydras are dumb. Instinct takes over. It rolls over, nearly crushing her. Hide’s thick, but the underside’s vulnerable. While it’s thrashing about, we get a few good blows in. Nothing lethal. But enough to convince it that we ponies mean business.”


In a single, graceful motion, I spin around. Sword poised to strike.

The magic from my horn redoubles. The wyrm is dyed a sickly green. Emerald flames dance along my blade’s edge.


My greatsword was never meant to be wielded by magic alone. Too long, too heavy.

Most ponies would never guess it’s a weapon specifically intended for unicorns. Its true power comes from using magic to augment my physical abilities, not replace them. When held with both forehooves, using magic to balance and to empower my blows, I'm able to put my entire body into each swing. My whole weight and strength and magic, concentrated into a single cutting edge.

Not a practical weapon against, say, a pony. But against a large, lumbering creature with a very thick hide…


“HYAARRGH!”

With a war cry to rival Anon’s, I slash down.

All my weight and strength and magic - all my momentum - all my fear and frustration and rage - concentrated into a single cutting edge.

The armour breaks.

Scale and flesh part before the blade, leaping aside almost eagerly. Blood splashes out in thick gouts, coating my hooves and chest. An ear-splitting shriek erupts from the wyrm, but still I press down, cleaving ever deeper. I only stop when the beast starts to roll away beneath me, flipping back to its feet.

The ancient, monstrous predator turns to look at me. In its eyes I see disbelief. I see terror.

It turns, and flees.

I stand still, blade poised to strike again, as the wyrm skitters away. A trail of crimson marking its passage. Only when the last tip of its tail disappears behind a dune do I finally exhale.

I let my sword drop to the ground. Then I let myself drop to the ground.

Only to be caught by waiting hooves and hands.