• 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.

  • ...
3
 39
 420

Chapter 5 - Encounters

“Don’t move,” Glacier growls as she advances towards me, sword drawn.

It’s noon.

I am Fruit Punch.

After an hour of trekking, the boss and I have taken shelter from the oppressive sun beneath a rocky overhang. I'd thought I was finally getting on Glace’s good side. But given that she’s currently waving a sword in my face...

“N-now, Sarge, I’m sure whatever this is about we can talk it over.”

I give my best disarming smile as I back away from the larger, clearly insane mare. She just rolls her eyes.

“You’ve got something crawling up your back, featherbrain. Now don’t. Move.

A jolt of panic shoots through me. I'm suddenly keenly aware of dozens of tiny pinpricks tickling my flank. Is that perspiration trickling down my back, or something worse? It takes all my willpower not to buck wildly and launch myself into the sky.

The sergeant advances slowly, her oversized sword hovering beside her.

“Now what have we here...?”

I continue to stand stock still. Rear hoof frozen mid-step. Rictus grin etched in place. Glacier disappears to my left, out of my line of sight. Her sword clinks gently against my armour. My ears swivel involuntarily.

“Cooome on. Here- no, not that way.”

“Not what way?!” I squeak out of the corner of my mouth, not daring to move further.

There’s a pause. Followed by some scraping.

“No, no, bad little- stop that!”

My tail lashes with nervous tension. More scraping.

“Yeah, theeere you go. That’s better.”

To my relief, sarge steps away, back into my field of view.

“Well, aren’t you a cutie?”

Her sword floats after her, wrapped in her cyan aura. Something small and dark with far too many legs darts along its surface.

I spring back, muscles suddenly unfrozen, scrambling to put distance between me and the blade. The loose stones underhoof offer little purchase, and I end up on my backside in a tangle of limbs.

“Ow.”

Glacier raises an eyebrow in my direction.

“Alright there, private?”

“Yeah, juuust peachy.”

I decide the floor’s a great place to rest a moment and catch my breath. Nice and far away from the sword.

That is, until I feel something tickle my flank.

“Eeeeep!”

I shoot into the air, swatting wildly at my rump! Get it off! GET IT O- Oh.

It was just my tail.

I sheepishly lower myself back down. On second thought, maybe the floor’s not a great place after all. Hovering sounds like a good idea right now.

“Not a fan of bugs, I take it,” Glacier asks. She doesn’t quite smile, but her eyes twinkle with amusement.

“Not bugs the size of my hoof, no ma’am.”

I cautiously flap over to peer at the critter still skittering about Glacier’s sword. It looks like some kind of shiny brown worm with hundreds of black legs.

“Mmm, quite an impressive friend you’ve made.”

Glace absently straightens my helmet and dusts me off, keeping one eye on her weapon.

“Baby sandipede, I’d say. The adults get a lot bigger.”

“Not super reassuring there, boss.”

The sandipede pauses a moment, feeling along an edge of the blade with tiny antennae. I notice its angry red pincers and tail.

“Uhhh, it’s not poisonous, is it?”

I may not be some veteran Parks and Wilderness Guard, but my medical training at least covered that bites from poisonous critters = bad.

“It’s venomous, yes. Poisonous means you shouldn’t eat it.”

Ahem. Bites from venomous critters = bad.

“But this little fella probably isn’t too dangerous yet. Not till she grows up.”

I feel only marginally safer.

Glacier has apparently finished cooing over her little monster, and gently floats her sword up against the rock wall. The sandipede quickly scuttles away, disappearing between the cracks. Glace then turns to peer at me, sword casually returning to its sheath. She doesn’t seem at all fazed leaving a potentially deadly enemy behind her.

“You weren’t stung, were you?”

“I- I dunno. How do I tell?”

I twist around, trying to spot any bite marks along my back. Of course, it's physically impossible to turn that way, thanks to pony biology, so I end up flying in a circle.

A hoof catches me in midair.

“If you’re not sure, then you weren’t stung,” Glacier explains, gently lowering me to the ground. “Come on, let’s get going. The sooner we finish investigating, the sooner we get out of this heat. And away from sandipedes.”

She turns and starts to trot out of the shade. I sigh.

“Yes, boss.”

It is getting uncomfortably hot. My fifteen minutes’ rest in the shade has been undone by a few moments of panicking and flying.

Stupid bug. How did it even get on me in the first place? I wouldn’t have even noticed it if Glacier hadn’t mentioned it!

That thought brings me to a halt. A sudden shiver runs down my spine, despite the heat.

“M-m-ma’am? Permission to check my armour for any other creepy crawlies?”

Glacier pauses at the edge of the shade, then shrugs and turns back.

“Alright, go ahead private. Just... hoof the pieces to me once you've checked them. If you sit them on the ground then you’ll just get all paranoid that bugs crawled into them while you're not looking.”

“Cheers, boss.”

I quickly begin shedding layers of barding. I make sure to give each piece a thorough shake and once over before hoofing it to Glacier. It doesn't take me long - getting in and out of armour at speed is a vital skill in the Royal Guard. After a few short minutes the majority of my armour is hovering besides Glace, trapped in her horn's glow. Helmet, peytral, gambeson; a lumpy satellite of cloth and metal. She chuckles as I shake out my last hoofguard and begin the slow process of putting everything back on.

“Hey come on, it’s not that funny. I don’t know about you, but I don't want to get poisoned - or venomed - out in the middle of nowhere.”

I pout for effect, but she just waves a hoof dismissively, hint of a grin on her muzzle.

“I’ve got an antidote potion, so I wouldn’t worry too much.”

Well that’s good to know. Makes sense the PWG carry stuff like that. Kinda wish she’d mentioned it sooner, though.

“But that’s not what I was laughing about.”

“Oh?”

“What was it you said the other day? Something about wanting to see the monster hunter use her big scary sword on a big scary monster?”

She helpfully floats over my next hoofguard, grin barely contained.

“Guess you got your wish, huh?”

“Pffff, that- that’s not- that doesn’t count! That was not a big scary monster!”

“Big enough to scare you!”

I sputter a few more incoherent protests, while sarge chuckles and helps with my barding. I pout a few more moments, but her smile proves infectious. Soon we're sliding the last piece of armour into place, chuckling together.

We take a moment to catch our breaths before turning to leave. I'm still hot and sweaty, but at least our break gave us something to smile about.

The two of us step out into the fierce afternoon sun.

Oof. It’s... yeah, this is a proper desert, alright.

We’re in a small rocky gully. One of many, near the base of the Macintosh ranges. Loose sand and dust underhoof. Bare stone walls around us. Hours away from civilization. I'm not sure how anything survives out here, but Glacier’s been pointing out little signs of life as we travel. Patterns in the sand. Droppings. Bits of eggshell. It's amazing what you can find if you know what to look for.

She’s quiet at the moment, as the two of us plod along. Conserving energy, maybe. Her eyes are still alert, no doubt picking up all sorts of things I’d never notice. That’s ok, though. We all have our special talents. Right now, mine are picking up on Glacier’s folded back ears, sagging tail, and early signs of a frown. It’s the hottest part of the day, after all. Going back into the sun must be Tartarus for the poor northerner.

Well, there’s no other ponies around, so it’s up to me to keep her spirits up. Or at least keep her mind off the heat. As usual, conversation is my greatest weapon.

“So boss, what is the biggest monster you’ve fought?”

“Hmm. Hydra. Juvenile. Still near five ponies tall.”

Her sentences are short, punctuated by huffing and panting.

“Yikes. How’d you deal with something like that?”

“Generally try to lure it away. Or scare it away. Barricades, sometimes. We don’t want them dead. Just away from ponies.”

She frowns.

“That particular one was rowdy. Young male, aggressive. Wouldn’t take the hint. Had to get rough.”

“Did you... kill it?”

“Nah. Gave it a few scars. Sent it packing. Hide’s too thick for normal weapons. Even this,” she nods to her greatsword, “so we had to get creative.”

She shakes her head, an encouraging gleam in her eyes.

“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.”

“Ha, wow! Sounds crazy. Didn’t you say you’re not all daredevil macho monster hunters?”

She rolls her eyes, but I’ve learned to spot the hint of a smile she allows herself to wear.

“There are exceptions. Most of the work is more like this,” she gestures to the desert around me. “Or teaching ponies how... to...”

She trails off. I notice her ears have perked up and she’s staring intently at something over my shoulder. I turn around, but nothing stands out to me. Rocky hills. Hazy mountains. Blue skies.

“You see that, Punch? Four hundred metres, near the tip of that sandbank we climbed down.”

I squint. There's... something there. A dark smudge against the motley orange backdrop.

“Is... that a pony? It’s sorta the right outline.”

“Not sure. Wasn’t there a minute ago.”

She’s glaring at the distant spot, all signs of weariness vanished.

“Private,” she says in a professional tone. “Fly up and take a closer look. Don’t get too close unless you’re sure it’s safe.”

“Got it, sarge."

I launch myself to the sky, cautiously making my way forward. Sandy's tale of leaping shadow monsters comes to mind, and I resolve to stay well out of reach.

The figure isn't any easier to make out from the air. It looks like it's moving a little, but that could just be distortion from the hot air around it. It's impossible to be sure of its shape, beyond “kinda sorta pony-ish”.

I glide in long, slow arcs around and toward it, giving us both plenty of time to observe each other. My eyes must be playing tricks on me; the closer I get, the less sure I am that it's a creature at all. From here it just seems like a dark smear on the landscape.

I drop to hover a few hooves above the ground. Then carefully touch down.

I scoop up a hooffull of sand.

The topmost layer is a dark. Almost silvery black.

The discolouration only extends a few hooves in each direction, and less than a quarter hoof down. Everywhere else, as far as the eye can see, pale-orange sand continues uninterrupted.

Huh.

I turn and shrug at the distant figure of Glacier. I can just make her out in the distance, obscured by the haze and dust. It’s hard to tell, but is she... galloping?

“Hey boss! There’s nothing here!”

I call out, but it’s a struggle to make myself heard over the wind. Wait, wind? My pegasus instincts tell me I'm in a dead calm...

...But this isn’t any natural wind, I realise with a start! Leaping into the air, I'm immediately thrown back by a blast of whirling sand.

The Dust Devil forms in front of me with frightening speed. A bellowing tornado of dark sand. Glacier is immediately swallowed up and disappears from view. Everything disappears from view. I'm pelted by a rain of sand and stone, clanging against my armour and stinging exposed flesh.

I try to take off again, but the winds nearly rip my wings off. I tumble and flail through the air, blind, deaf, and hopelessly disoriented. Pain lances out from my shoulder as I'm dashed against a rock wall. It’s all I can do to close my eyes, hunker down, and weather the storm.

As quickly as they began, the false winds slow...

And stop.

For several long moments, the only sound in the dead calm is my panicked breathing.

Cautiously, I raise my head. Sand pours down my neck.

The landscape looks unchanged. Rocky hills. Hazy mountains. Blue skies.

There’s no sign the Dust Devil was ever here.

There’s no sign Glacier was ever here.

“Boss...?”