• Published 27th Mar 2024
  • 457 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 6 - Reorienting

I screwed up. Knew it as soon as Punch was airborne.

I shift slightly. Dislodging the sand piled on my back. There’s a dull ache all down my left side, and my skull feels two sizes too small. My own damn fault.

Shouldn’t have separated. Shouldn’t have sent an amateur off on her own. Shouldn’t have even been out in this Celestia forsaken desert.

I am Sergeant Glacier, and I screwed up.

With a groan, I lift myself to my hooves. Sand pours from me like water. Still more sand sticks to my matted fur. I'm more orange than blue.

My armour’s all gunked up. Head feels the same way.

The sun pounds down. Blinding. Smothering.

My throat is dry. Lips coated with grit. Painfully thirsty.

My hooves fumble for my canteen. Too dazed to use magic.

The first mouthful is nothing but wet sand. I spit it out.

The second soothes my parched lips. The third clears my throat. By the fourth, my head’s starting to clear a little.

I take a deep breath.

Ok. I screwed up.

Deal with it.

I'm the leader of this expedition. I've got to mare up and take responsibility. First things first: find Fruit Punch. Make sure she’s ok.

I shake the worst of the sand from my coat, and take stock of my surroundings. I'm at the base of a sand dune. Not much visibility from here. Just rolling walls of sand in every direction, radiant heat pooling between them. Stifling. Suffocating.

No sign of Punch. Not surprising; she wasn't with me when the Dust Devil hit. She's probably back near Hoofrest, instead of... wherever I am.

I couldn’t quite make out what happened between her and the mystery creature. It disappeared from view while she was approaching. But I did see her land voluntarily. That means she thought it was safe, right?

I wince, feeling a pang of guilt. Punch is a complete amateur when it comes to wildlife. How’s she supposed to know what’s safe? I was so focused on finally having a lead that I’d slipped back into old habits, issuing orders as though I was working with a veteran PWG.

I kick at the sand in frustration. I’ve put her at risk - put both of us at risk - because I got all worked up over my first assignment. Couldn’t wait for backup, couldn’t play it safe, nooo, I just had to prove I could handle it on my own. Stars above, I'm no better than a rookie myself! She's probably better off without me there to mess things up any-

WHAP!

My telekinetic slap knocks a cloud of sand from my muzzle, leaving a sharp sting.

Enough of this self pitying crap, sergeant! For all you know, Punch is in danger. Screwup or not, you may be the only pony who can help. So quit mewling, and focus on what you need to do!

Blinking away a few tears (from the pain in my muzzle, I tell myself) I take another look around. I can barely see anything surrounded by dunes like this. Need to get to a better vantage point if I'm going to find Punch.

I quickly start trotting uphill. It doesn’t look far to the top, but the seemingly gentle slope is deceptively hard to climb. The damned sand refuses to provide a firm grip, shifting and sliding away underhoof, dragging me back downhill. It takes five exhausting minutes to reach the top. Sweet Celestia, I hate this place.

At least there’s a faint breeze up here. I can see a good deal further now. The Macintosh mountain range, a looming wall of jagged brown, is still fairly near at hoof. Hopefully that means I’ve not been taken too far. A smaller range is visible to the east, hazy with distance. I don’t remember that from the maps.

The sand dunes continue west and south for a mile or two before abruptly transitioning to a dry, dusty plane, random plateaus and ravines scattered throughout. But no matter which way I look, no matter how hard I squint against the glare, there’s no hint of purple pegasus plumage. No dark smudge circling the skies. No gleam of armour on the horizon. Just browns and reds and brilliant blues.

Not a good sign. If Punch isn’t visible overhead, then either I'm in a completely different part of the desert, or...

(Something clenches painfully inside me.)

...Or she’s in no condition to fly.

I sit, or collapse, strength leaving my hind legs. My vision goes blurry once more.

I feel ill. Stifled. Hard to breathe.

I float off my helmet, dropping it unceremoniously. Clumps of tangled blue mane tumble down my shoulders. I feel messy and gross.

I cough out a few heaving breaths. Fanning myself with a hoof, I allow myself another mouthful of precious water.
Not much left in my canteen. I’ve an overwhelming urge to just pour it down my head and neck, washing away the sweat and stench and horrible clinging sand. My only concession is to splash a small hooffull around my face, carefully catching any spilled droplets with my magic.

The gentle wind tickles at the damp fur, beautifully cool against my skin. Like a fresh spring breeze from the mountains back home.

The slight chill seems to cut through the haze, helping clear my thoughts. I start to feel a little better. Start to feel myself again.

With sudden clarity, I realise what's probably going on:

Heat stroke.

Nausea, dizziness, weakness; all common side effects. I’ve spent too long in the sun, gotten too worked up. I don’t know if I'm actually suffering from heat stroke just yet, or if these are just early warning symptoms. But I know it can’t be far off. I need to find shade.

I take a long draught from my canteen, and splash a few more drops around my neck and ears for good measure. It’s imperative that I keep cool and stay hydrated. No point saving the water until later - I’ll be too weak to move later.

I wipe the blurriness from my eyes, and scan the desert once more. The dunes offer no respite. The mountains are still a few hours away. But the plain isn’t too far. It’s littered with cliffs and canyons, jagged patches of black shadow stark against the brown. I’ll be cooler in the shade. Especially if I can get below ground. Find a ravine, or cave. Maybe even a stream.

I take a step downhill. Pause, Royal Guard instincts reminding me to look after my gear. My helmet floats after me, trailing sand, and the two of us begin our journey.

Somehow, I feel a little better. Hooves lighter. Trot quicker.

Maybe it’s the cool water on my fur, or the prospect of shade at my destination.

Maybe it’s the resignation that I can’t do anything for Fruit just yet, and that I'm in at least as much danger as her.

Maybe it’s the familiar, perversely intoxicating fear growing inside me. The rush of pitting myself against nature, my wits and skills and luck the only things between me and an unmarked grave. Terrifying and exhilarating and very motivating. The first time I felt this way, as a young foal lost deep in the mountains, I ended up earning my Cutie Mark. Maybe it’s my Cutie Mark driving me now, whispering defiance to the hateful desert.

Or maybe it’s just delirium from the heat.

My perception of time certainly seems to be faulty. I could have sworn I’ve climbed this exact same dune a hundred times already. And surely sun is moving backwards through the sky. But slowly, slooowly, dune by dune, step by step, huff by puff, the distant plain inches closer. Until suddenly the sand is gone and I find myself on wonderfully firm cracked earth.

I blink a few times in surprise, waking from a dream of walking and thirsting. I'm a sodden mess of a mare, coated in foamy sweat, hooves caked in sand, ears and nose scorched raw. But I feel a sense of accomplishment. I take a celebratory swig from my canteen.

The last swig.

I should feel panic, but all I feel is exhaustion.

There’s a shallow depression only a few hundred metres away, leading to a narrow gully. I can even see a few rugged looking plants around the entrance. Plants are good. Plants mean water.

I stumble the last hundred metres, the downhill trail mercifully easier underhoof. To my frustration, the gully’s sides remain sloped instead of sheer, offering no shade. Even worse, the air down here is trapped and stifling, feeling even hotter than on the plain.

I continue down the channel, and slowly the path grows narrower and steeper. The rocky walls on either side continue to rise, slowly, until suddenly they're tall enough cast the whole passage into shadow. The drop in temperature is immediate. After the desert sun, it’s like walking into a freezer.

I slump against the cool stone, pressing my neck and cheek against the smooth surface, panting laboriously. With clumsy hooves and horn I remove my still-hot armour, tossing it down the slope with a resounding racket. My helmet tumbles away downhill, disappearing around a corner. I pay it no mind as it bounces and clatters in the distance, until it stops with a sudden and unmistakable splash.

I hesitate only a moment, ears twitching in disbelief, before bounding after it. No rational thought, just a desperate thirst. I practically fall down the steep, uneven slope, and before I know it I'm ankle deep in painfully, blissfully cold water.

At this point I do fall down, too hot and exhausted and relieved to care about anything other than immersing myself in the icy embrace. I crash down, sinking up to my neck. The freezing water seeps into my coat, drawing out the desert heat like venom from a wound. My skin burns from the contrast in temperatures. It’s the best feeling ever.

I let my head fall below the surface, feeling the sand and sweat and stress wash away. Luna, this is just like swimming in the frozen lakes back home.

I start greedily drawing a mouthful of water, only to abruptly stop and jerk my head away. The one part of my mind not exulting in the cold, the part that spent years training as a Parks and Wilderness Guard, shouts a warning: "Don't drink the water. Not yet."

I sputter and wheeze a few times, spitting out as much as I can. I manage to drag my waterlogged (but oh so wonderfully cool) hide back out of the pool. Sitting at the water’s edge, I take in the space properly for the first time.

Floodwaters have carved a smooth channel out of the rock, producing a wide, sinuous passage. Sunlight bounces down through the narrow gap high overhead, providing ample light but not much heat. A few steep fissures, like the one I tumbled down, lead up and out from the main waterway. Some small, prickly bushes eke out a living in patches of dust.

The pool itself fills up little more than a third of the uneven floor, only three or four pony lengths at its widest. It runs the length of the ravine before disappearing around a narrow bend a dozen metres away. Apart from a few dwindling ripples courtesy of my undignified exit, the pool is still. No current. No trickle of running water.

Stagnant.

It looks clear, but I know better than to trust stagnant water. I still remember that time Heather filled her canteen from a beautiful clear pond. Didn’t spot the mouldering rabbit among the reeds until it was too late. The poor ditz was sick for days.

Even desperately thirsty as I am, I know to purify the water first. Boiling it is the traditional way, but I don’t have the fuel or patience. I've got something better.

I float over my armour and start digging through the saddle bags. Out comes a small pouch containing several hundred bits worth of enchanted gemstones. Part of the PWG standard kit. The spells are nothing too impressive, but potentially life saving in the right circumstances.

I fill my canteen with water from the pool, then drop in a small blue gem. The water starts glowing gently, and I feel the faint thrum of magic. I replace the cap, and count to twenty.

The delay is frustrating. Now that I’ve cooled off in the water, my throat feels blistered and burned by comparison. Nevertheless, I dutifully wait for the spell to complete. Then I carefully rinse my mouth of any remaining pool water. Then finally, finally I take a deep, deep drink.

Then another.

And a third.

"Aaahhh..."

I spit out the expended water purifier, now nothing more than an inert rock, and lie back against the cold stone. Completely sated. My eyelids flutter closed of their own accord. The PWG part of me mumbles something, but it’s hazy and distant. Every other part of me says to ignore it, at least for a few minutes...

...

...

...

Crabapples.

I fell asleep didn’t I?

It doesn’t seem like any time has passed at all, but I'm suddenly stiff and cold and hungry. Alarm bells are ringing clearly in my head.

My eyes snap open and I peer out into the gloom. The ravine is noticeably darker, but nothing seems out of place. My gear is still where I left it. The water’s completely still.

My ears swivel back and forth, straining against the silence. Nothing there either.

I take a deep breath. And that’s when I realise what's wrong:

The smell.

There’s an organic musk in the air that doesn’t belong. I might have put it down to my sweaty gambeson stinking up the place, but there’s more to it than that. A wisp of ash. The reek of decay. And the tang of blood.

I was too preoccupied to notice when I first stumbled down here, but it’s clear to me now:

There’s something living here.