• Published 17th Mar 2013
  • 899 Views, 106 Comments

The Devil's Details - Carabas

Three stallions are hurled to the other side of the world from Equestria, and must survive the journey home across a vast and perilous continent. Worse still, they may even have to become friends.

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Afterwards, Zephyr maintained to himself that he had only gibbered in horror a little bit, and that his retreat to place the fire between him and the skvader-devouring spruce hadn’t been too frantic.

In his defence, he thought, Chevalier and Skewbald had joined him almost immediately afterwards, albeit in slightly slower and more guarded fashions. The cadet had slung his helmet back on and was taking care to constantly face the tree, his gaze flicking to the tendril-branches near-constantly. The unicorn kept one gimlet eye on the tree as well, as if assessing whether or not he should just set it on fire at that moment.

Once they had all sat down at the fire and Zephyr felt the terror-induced adrenaline beginning to ebb from his system, Chevalier closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he opened his eyes again, his composure had again asserted itself. “Perhaps we should go through your calculations again, Skewbald,” he said. “Walk me through what you’re doing as you do it.”

The cadet was like a rock Zephyr felt he could lean on. All that Guard training – of which he had only heard sparse and doubtless exaggerated rumours – was probably the single best asset available to them all.

Skewbald threw Chevalier a glower which shortly transitioned to a brief eye-roll. “Try to keep up,” he muttered, and summoned the glowing shapes of an illusory protractor and map in the air.

The unicorn looked similarly composed, but not in such a way that his company reassured Zephyr. It was as if the sight of a tree casually eating something had just bounced off some unfeeling steel core, that had simply taken the whole thing in and made notes as it did so. Mind you, it was unfair to make those judgements based on what could well just be an amazing lack of social graces. The presence of a unicorn with the finest magical education known to ponykind could doubtless only be a good thing.

They began speaking. Skewbald angled the protractor at the horizon just below the rising moon and snapped off facts about the angle of ascent and summer-standard hourly intervals, Chevalier nodding his way through the explanation and interrupting occasionally to have a point clarified. After one such interjection, Skewbald seemed to start speaking exaggeratedly slowly and simply, and the conversation on Chevalier’s part after that turned distinctly colder.

Zephyr knew he should be paying closer attention, knew he should have been ready to provide his own scant knowledge where needed or to defuse any tensions. But his mind was all awhirl. For one thing, his Eohippic lower brain was still loudly advocating screaming and fleeing until everything remotely pertaining to a predator had been banished from sight. His self-esteem was berating the Eohippic part for being the customary foe it always was. His executive function was too busy trying to force the former two to shut up so it could pay attention to what was happening to actually pay attention.

And apart from all that … the North!

It was one of the few places in all the known world where fact was hard to extricate from gruesome fiction. It was one of the few places to not actually be a part of the known world. You could only sometimes reliably know what was outright mythical. According to old Equestrian creation stories, it was in the North that Sleipnir the Great had guarded the first pony souls after rescuing them single-hoovedly from the jaws of the Abyss itself. It was where the last Fires of Creation still burned in the world. All that storybook stuff.

But then you got into more ambiguous territory. Depending on who you listened to, it was where the original pony tribes had dwelt in pre-Princess and even pre-Equestrian times: the pegasus stratocracies, the unicorn kingdoms, and the earth pony republics. It was from the North they had all fled during the Windigo Winter, and it was in the gentler southern lands of Equestria that they had settled. Alternatively, ponykind had always dwelt in Equestria, and such former accounts were mere conflations with the long-vanished Crystal Empire. None of the few pony historians were yet sure, and no Princess had yet formally resolved the matter.

All a pony really could know about the North with certainty was that it was huge, it was inhospitable, and it was wild beyond any easy domestication. It was where a third of the Daring Do series had thus far sited each book’s MacGuffin. It was where explorers went to die. It was not a nice place. Do not go to the North if you want to live today, went the received wisdom. Do not go to the North, period.

Zephyr was apparently in the middle of the North. This, all the components of his brain could concur, was a bit of a pickle.
A disturbance in the conversation before him broke Zephyr out of his train of thought. “Can you create a bigger and clearer picture of that from memory?” asked Chevalier, waving a hoof at a chronoregion of the map – the same chronoregion, Zephyr unhappily noted, which contained the thin peninsula of the furthest North they were currently occupying.

Skewbald’s eyes narrowed and the green lines of the map split apart into an inchoate tangle. They peeled apart and reformed in the night air, forming a larger picture of the peninsula which Chevalier regarded critically.

“Semi-good news for us,” Chevalier said after a few minutes. “We’re not right at the end of that strip. I remember look at that same peninsula on a map which showed elevation. It’s nearly all solid glacier. That means we’re likely to be here.” He gestured at the lowest and most westerly part of the peninsula, where an east-facing coast ran down into the rest of the continent in a rough curve. “I forget whether that places us in tundra or taiga. Either’s equally unpleasant, I suspect.”

“Shave a hundred miles off the worst-case scenario’s total, then.” Skewbald summoned a small image of the rest of the continent, the peninsula a pitiful nub in comparison. “It’s not that big a difference overall.”

“It’s a hundred miles of glacier. It’s a pretty big difference as far as differences go.” A grin played around Chevalier’s features for a second, before being wiped away by solemnity. “Let’s look at our options, then.”

“Fine,” said Skewbald, falling to a lying position on the ground with a sudden sigh, the green-glowing map suddenly winking out of existence. “But just to pre-empt one of them; no, I can’t contact the Princesses to come to our aid.”

“… Ah. Blast. I thought every student at her school got some familiar, or some way of sending a message to her?”

“The Element of Magic’s not a good model to extrapolate from, no matter what you’ve heard about her. Most students aren’t issued actual dragon eggs to hatch for their first tests.” Skewbald’s mouth twisted in what Zephyr reluctantly labelled a smile. “And I can’t create any messaging-fire of my own, either. I don’t have the magical muscle for this sort of distance, and it wouldn’t be bound to anywhere specific even if I did.”

“Fine, fine,” said Chevalier. “But while we’re on the subject of dragons, would they be worth trying? I know that the Diplomatic Office offers gold and jewel rewards to dragons that rescue ponies in distress. If we could make contact with one here, then they could potentially fly us home.”

“Not likely, I’m afraid.” said Zephyr. It was his first contribution, and the other two seemed startled. He pressed on. “The, um … relatively civilised dragons who respond to those offers tend to gather around the western side of the continent. They mostly rescue ponies who’re lost in the Greycairns or Near North, that sort of thing. Eastwards, where we are, they’re practically feral. They probably wouldn’t respond to words, let alone an official request for extraction with the promise of future compensation.”

Chevalier frowned and rubbed one hoof against the ground. Skewbald’s smirk sharpened.

“… What are you smiling at?” said Chevalier after a few silent moments.

“The world in general. Its nigh-hilarious unfairness in particular. Your frustration. Take your pick.”

“What’s the nearest nation to us?” Zephyr interjected. “If it’s just a matter of surviving a trek there, then we’re -”

“Corva. But it’s a toss-up between it and the North over which is less likely to be friendly to us,” said Chevalier. “They’re still sore over the whole being-handed-their-tailfeathers-in-the-Corvid-Incursion business. Let’s not count on much assistance being found there.”

“They’re surely not all going to be unfriendly towards a lost group of ponies,” said Zephyr.

“They’re a fragmented pack of carnivores whose three national pastimes are fighting anything with a pulse, glorifying the wars they won, and nursing grudges over those they lost. Like I said, let’s not count on assistance there.” Chevalier shook his head. “What are our other options, though? The griffons don’t migrate this far east. There aren’t any Diamond Dog underholds in the east as well, I think. The nearest friendlyish nation past Corva is Bovaland, but that’s still a long trek away.”

Silence fell for a moment across the campsite. Zephyr looked into the dancing flames, bright against the blackness all around, their crackling sharp against the rustling of the trees, their warmth all too small compared to the cold weight at his back.

“No miracles, then,” Zephyr murmured, partly to himself. “A long trek it is.”

Chevalier sighed, his steel-shoed hooves digging small furrows into the ground. “Bring up the map again, Skewbald. Include any terrain you can recall apart from just the outline. We should try and plot a course.”

“I’d rather not,” said Skewbald, a sudden yawn breaking from him. Zephyr noted then that his eyes were red-rimmed, and that small tendrils of smoke were creeping up from the cervices of his horn. “I’m tired, battered, and still magically-drained from preventing your entire town from being turned into porridge or lava or a portal straight to Tartarus. Whatever we need to plan can be planned after some sleep.”

“That’s not a bad suggestion,” said Zephyr quickly just as Chevalier’s expression hardened. “I’m feeling a bit out of sorts myself. Once we’ve had some rest, we’ll be much better equipped for planning our way out of this.”

“Fine,” said Chevalier after a moment, his hard expression softening. Skewbald had only briefly glanced at Zephyr before resuming curling down next to the fire. “We’ll arrange a proper watch rota if this has to become a habit, just so we’re not likely to be taken by surprise by anything out there. But for tonight, I’ll take the full watch. I woke up late today anyway.”

“Very gracious,” grunted Skewbald, taking off his glasses and setting them down beside his curled-up form. He closed his eyes there and then.

Zephyr looked from Skewbald to Chevalier, where the cadet met his gaze. “Are you sure you don’t want to split the watch?” he enquired softly. “I’m admittedly still a bit on edge. I wouldn’t mind.”

“You came straight to us at the fort, farrier,” replied Chevalier. “You did well. Better than could have been asked of you. Have a rest. My treat.”

Zephyr, at a loss for how to respond to that, slowly bedded down next to Skewbald. The unicorn had taken the prime position, within a small dip in the ground close to the fire that was directly opposite to the ever-waiting murder-spruce. Zephyr made himself as comfortable as possible, and closed his own eyes in turn.

Past the crackle of the fire and Skewbald’s soft snores, Zephyr was aware of cut-off barks and screeches deep within the forest, of the soft rustling of what was either the wind moving through the trees or the murder-spruce readying for action. His mind’s eye, apropos of nothing, helpfully played out the likely course of events should a timberwolf creep up on him while he slept.

When that lost its edge, the letter to his family he’d never quite finished entered his thoughts.

Thus it was that Zephyr Gauze didn’t sleep a wink during his first night in the North.

Elsewhere, the grey sky was clearing.

General Destrier had been one of the last into the safety of the fort. A heavily pregnant mare had alighted upon the worst possible time to enter the active phase of labour; and between her difficulties, her partner’s panic, and Destrier’s attempts at shouting for a farrier past the din of the storm, he had only managed to get her into the fort as the storm finally broke.

He’d seen it all from a ground-floor window. The nullifier blazing with light, the storm striking down in one savage thrust, the ponies clustered around it. One armoured form in particular, helping push at something at the nullifier’s base.

The explosion as the storm’s bulk was funnelled into the top of the nullifier, the follow-up assassin’s blow from a stray bolt. The tower all but erupting, a cascade of stone falling to the ground far below.

It was at that point the general had galloped for the building’s exit as fast as his crippled foreleg would allow, nearly battering Lieutenant Vanguard to the floor before several cadets had jumped in to (just) restrain him, nearby civilians wide-eyed with confusion and fear.

He remembered Chevalier’s look of delight when he’d found out that he’d been randomly assigned the position below the nullifier alongside his coltfriend, as prestigious and risky as befitted a De Gendarme. Only theoretically risky, Destrier had thought at the time. Everything will be well in hoof.

But it hadn’t been entirely random, had it? What was the point of a little power if you couldn’t take advantage of it once in a while? What harm was there in putting an exceedingly competent cadet in a position of responsibility, and making your colt all but explode with delighted pride in the bargain?

Now the storm was dying down, and the cadets’ grip had loosened enough for Destrier to shrug free and pelt for the doorway, bursting through and galloping out into the damp and ozone-sharp air. The sky was still dark overhead and the ruin of the tower darker yet against it.

At its base, a door had opened. A cadet was trudging out, a struggling duck tightly held at their side. Destrier’s relief evaporated when they came closer.

“General -” started the broken-looking Silver Shield, raising his free forehoof in an attempt at a salute and trying to not fall over.

“Cadet Shield, where is Cadet Chevalier?” said General Destrier. His voice didn’t break. Not yet. Not quite yet.

“General, I -”

“Silver Shield,” said Destrier, smacking down the salute and leaning in close to the cadet, so close that he could all but see himself reflected in the cadet’s wet eyes. “Where’s my son?”

Elsewhere, the night was falling over the cloud-shrouded Greycairns. Through the sky, at heights where the air was too thin for a pegasus to breath, a figure of fire cut a lazy route in no particular direction.

Plans could wait. For now, the freedom of the sky was all there was.

His initial boiling-over fury had subsided. The starlight and open air had robbed it clean away, and given his mind the space it needed to think. To be exacting and rational about the whole business. Part of that rationality was now telling him that he maybe shouldn’t have scoured that underhold off the face of the planet or burned that corvid. He dismissed it; those could hardly be helped now. The venting of destructive magic may have even done his head some good. At least it confirmed he still had the capacity, even after nine hundred years.

Nine hundred years! Nine hundred years spent screaming in silence for the space to stretch paralysed pinions, to move trapped legs. Nine hundred years spent choking on the same pathetic pocket of air breathed a million times before. Nine hundred years with nothing but a slew of memories to rage at, nothing but ghosts from memory to gnaw and weep at, nothing to consider but all he could have won and all he’d been denied. Nothing to measure the years by but the rasp of his breath against the stone, the only thing he ever heard in that space under the mountain.

Madness must have surely found him during that time. Maybe he was mad now, and this was nothing but a magical delusion he’d plunged himself into, mind and soul both.

So what if it was?

He summoned fire, casting it forth in loops and curves of brightly burning beauty against the black sky. An artist’s strokes, a flexing of the muscles he’d had once, while he let himself think.

Celestia and Luna, the broodmares both, would have to wait. He would have to recover his form, muster a measure of strength again. He tentatively reached out to the stars, an oft-repeated action in the last few days.

Nothing. He would have to do this again the hard way, then.

Recover his form. Gather information and interrogate who he could. Stay as discrete as possible. Gather his strength, gather whoever and whatever he could under his banner. And when the time was right, he’d cast the die once more…

But he could wait. Until he had something in his corner, and until freedom had lost its savour.

He sniffed the air. He reached out with his magic, briefly losing himself in the happy sensation of simply feeling things once again before he actually focused.

A wyld storm had passed this way recently, the magic and weather below still in turmoil. Its path was long and broad, and questing examination and rough calculations based on where he guessed his current location to be – the Central Greycairns, northeast of the Capric Satraps of old - gave a promising answer for its termination.

Equestria. Good. Let there be a bit of havoc before his return in force. Let there be chaos and confusion that his subjects would cry out for deliverance from.

Tendril-lines of magic ran back from it, back into the North. They smacked of the residue of teleportation, of atoms and Base Magic left flurried by arcane projection.

“What artefact hast thou delivered, Equestria?” he purred to himself.

Perhaps he should venture a peek. See if whatever had been teleported his way was still intact. Learn from it. Break it apart. Mould it, use it, interrogate it, whatever would be applicable. What else could he do for the meantime?

Wings swerved, and he shifted course, his flight as yet unhurried. To the North once more.

Skewbald first became aware of the early-morning light as a mounting bright pressure on his eyelids, rousing him gradually from unconsciousness. He grudgingly opened one, hoping against hope that the events he remembered before sleeping were just some concussion-induced fever dream, and that he wouldn’t see an ebbing campfire, a clearing, an expanse of forest, and a respectively doltish and pathetic earth pony and pegasus.

He opened his eyes and saw an ebbing campfire, a clearing, an expanse of forest, a doltish earth pony, and proceeded to groan faintly and heartfeltedly before staggering to his feet.

“Morning,” said the slightly-drained looking Chevalier, still clad in his armour, lying beside the dead fire’s ashes. “Sleep well?”

“No,” replied Skewbald. The bed of damp grass and the conspiracy of the fire and Northern air to leave his body split between too-warm and freezing-cold had accounted for part of that. His dreams accounted for another.

Unicorns were especially sensitive to the magical currents in the world, as Skewbald knew and was customarily proud of. When unconscious, the magical energies and forces all about them would intrude on their minds in semi-coherent form. They could allow skilled unicorns to assess their surroundings even when unconscious, and even forewarn them of any magical maladies they may be suffering from. In Equestria, Celestia’s own domain, this usually produced little but deep and blissful sleeps. Luna’s return had improved these, for reasons nopony had yet guessed.

No such blissful deep sleep occurred here in the North. Here, his mental dreamscape had been a constant clash of arcane images and ideas, multihued and harsh and ever-shifting. Various magical beasts and flora burned like brief and bright candles all around. Background magic formed a constant static. From far away, one great unknown beacon had all but blazed with power. No great pattern to be deduced or warnings to be gleaned. Ugly chaos abounded on all sides.

All except for one constant sensation. Beneath it all, a bleak emptiness had pervaded. Mindless, cold, and hollow as the Abyss. No foundation beyond a perfect void, no sensation but a gnawing and angry hunger.

And that would have been bad enough, but expected - there was no shielding Princess at hand. But in the dream’s last moments, Skewbald would have sworn that he was trying to examine that emptiness, and it was looking back -

- And now he was awake, and talking to Chevalier, and all things considered he wondered what had been so bad about the dreams in the first place.

“The grass here is good for grazing, though I’m not sure about the nearby shrubs,” said Chevalier. “There’s a stream nearby, though we probably shouldn’t split off on our own to drink or anything else. Zephyr’s up in the sky, getting some of the lay of the land. He woke before you. I don’t think he slept at all.”

“Don’t imagine so,” grunted Skewbald, turning his head to try and spit out the early-morning taste of his mouth as best he could. Failing that, he stooped to begin grazing.

Chevalier waited a moment before speaking. “Look, before we begin planning a route and start to walk, I’d just like to say something. We seemed to get off on the wrong hoof in Fort Livery, though I’m not sure why. If I said or did something to offend you, tell me what and I’ll apologise.”

Skewbald didn’t respond immediately, still chewing on the stringy and moist grass. Chevalier continued, filling the silence.

“It’s patent nonsense, what’s happened to us. We’re going to have to hang close, know we can rely on each other for … well, for what’s up ahead. Let’s try and get along. Not make this any more of a miserable ordeal than it has to be.”

Skewbald finished chewing, swallowed, and looked up to face Chevalier. “You can rely on me to offer my magical talents and mind, and contribute to our collective survival. You don’t need more than that. Pray to Celestia or cuddle Zephyr if you want warmth.”

Chevalier’s jaw set. “I want us to be a team. To actually care about each other’s survival and chances, and to know that each other cares.” Skewbald didn’t respond, and Chevalier continued. “Look, is it something about me personally that sets your back up? You may as well speak plainly now, so we both know what we have to work with.”

“It’s not about you,” replied Skewbald. “I don’t care about you. If you’re intent on looking for a non-existent problem, then maybe that’s it.”

Chevalier opened his mouth, and then slammed it shut. His expression was unreadable. “Well,” he said in a low tone. “So long as we know where we stand.”

A motion from above caught Skewbald’s attention, a distraction he welcomed in that moment. He looked up to see Zephyr flying down from the sky, a bright piece of green against the morass of chalk-grey clouds. The pegasus looked breathless, his wings flapping ten to the dozen, and his descent to the ground wasn’t so much a landing as a vaguely controlled impact.

“Oof. That was educational,” he muttered, before taking several steadying breaths and looking at the pair with a slightly brighter expression. “Morning, Skewbald. I, ah, did a bit of scouting.”

“And what did you find?” asked Skewbald. He summoned the map once more, pleased to find that his horn had fully recovered from the previous day’s exertions. A moment’s concentration, and the green outlines of mountains and as many rivers and lakes Skewbald could remember sprang to life across it.

He’d seen various maps of the continent and secured them in his memory, and if the variations in them when it came to the North were any indication, there came a point where cartographers just gave up trying to extrapolate from the accounts of half-maddened explorers and just began filling in spaces at random. But what else was there to go by?

Zephyr took another breath before beginning. “Okay. From what I saw, the water here’s almost certainly the edge of a sea, and the coast runs on a little further south-west before it begins to run into what looks like a large bay – I went just below the cloud cover and I could just see the other side of it from our own.”

Skewbald glanced over his map, and saw a likely culprit around the area Chevalier had pointed out – a short and comparatively small bay stabbing into the continent’s side like a stiletto, variously labelled in the maps he’d read and gleaned memories of as either Blackwards Bay, Hackamore’s Bight, or Seriously, Just Turn Back Now, You’ve Suffered Enough Bay.

Among the few explorers he’d heard of, Literal Minded had been always Skewbald’s favourite. Regardless, Blackwards Bay was scribed across his map.

“Alright,” said Chevalier, nodding his head. “What’s on our side of the bay?”

“South-west of us, sticking to our side of the bay, the forest looks like it continues for a while, getting more and more rugged before the terrain becomes all mountainous. If we stuck to a more southerly than westerly course, then it looks like we’d bypass the worst of it, but it looks like we’ll have to do some amount of mountaineering in the near future.”

“Alright for some,” muttered Skewbald, glancing at Zephyr’s wings before marking down what looked to either be the Scunner Peaks or the Yet More Bloody Mountains Range. “What’s north of us? Mountains and precious little else?”

“Mountains and precious little else. If there’s any easy way to go from here, it looks like we’ve got to go between them and the bay.”

“Were you able to get any sense of the terrain beyond that? Or is it out of your range as yet?” said Chevalier.

“A bit out of range, yes. I tried going higher, above the cloud cover, just in case there were any gaps I could peer down, but – there’s flocks of things up there. I didn’t get that close to them. I don’t think I was noticed.”

“Ah. What were they?”

“I don’t know their species name, or even if they have one. But imagine something like a huge leathery kite with teeth. They didn’t look pleasant.”

“Mantaghasts. Or depending on whose account you read, Horrible Flying Bastards That Prove The World Is Basically Horrible,” said Skewbald absently. “Wise to not go too near them or get noticed. Apparently, they make cloud-eyries at high altitudes. Paralyse their prey and keep them alive there as long as possible.”

“Ah. Nice to know in retrospect,” said Zephyr in a slightly higher tone. “So … thoughts? On the terrain, not the mantaghasts.”

“Going by what you say, then we stick to a straight south-westerly course for now. Hug the side of the bay when we come to it, and try and pick the least terrifying stretch of mountains when we come to them.” Chevalier frowned. “Did you see any larger streams or rivers in the forest? Just so we’ve got potential drinking spots and forewarned of any obstacles.”

“There seemed to be a few streams where the tree cover was particularly thin. I didn’t notice any rivers.”

“Good. If we do find one, then we’ll figure out a way around.” Chevalier glanced around. “Anything else we need to do here? Anything anypony needs to collect? I’ve got everything I came with on me already. Zephyr, have you got your farrier’s bag?”

“Yes,” said Zephyr, patting it where it sat on the ground and stooping to heave it onto his back. “It’s fairly full as well, and nothing looks broken inside. Yourself, Skewbald?”

“Glasses and saddlebags. All the latter’s got is an empty thermos.”

“Fill that at the next water source we come to. I’ll collect firewood as we go, and see if I can remember any of the shelter-building techniques the Colt Scouts taught me. Or tried to teach me, at least.” Chevalier ventured a grin. Skewbald didn’t return, instead dispelling the map. Zephyr was preoccupied sending nervous glance after nervous glance towards the clouds.

“We’ll stick close together as we walk. No going out of eyesight or hearing distance from the other two. If anypony has to excuse themselves to attend to whatever in a bush, then make sure the others know and can hang around at a socially-respectable distance. We’ll walk for a few hours, take a rest, and walk a little further before bunkering down. Keep movement to daylight hours, and stay as fresh and alert in the evenings as we can. Sound fair?”

“Fair enough,” said Skewbald, while Zephyr nodded.

Chevalier looked them both over, and then ventured another grin. “And if we’re ever losing morale, just sit back and think about the parade we’ll get once we’re back in Equestria. We’ll have to pick ticker tape out of our manes for weeks.”

Zephyr returned a weak smile. Skewbald said, “Inspiring, truly. Shall we start walking now?”

“No sense in delaying it any further,” replied Chevalier. He looked around the campsite, and at the remains of the fire. “Any sense in clearing this up before we go, do you think?”

“What’s the point?” said Skewbald, already trotting. “It’s not as if we’re going to be followed.”

Author's Note:

It lives! Again.

As noted in a recent blog post, all chapters published thus far have been revised to varying degrees. Old readers are advised to glance in the direction of chapters 2 and 4 for new plot-relevant updates.