• Published 17th Mar 2013
  • 984 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.

  • ...

Working In Groups

That first morning, Chevalier took the lead in forging a path through the forest. A drizzle had swept down from the sullen sky during the night, and each slap from a damp branch was a brief jolt to his fatigued-dulled senses. His armour was dripping after a few minutes, and his hooves and steel shoes filthy from where he'd stamped down undergrowth to create a clearer passage for Skewbald and Zephyr at his back.

From time to time, whenever the trees thinned out sufficiently to permit it, Chevalier would hear Zephyr taking to the air below the canopy to hover for a spell, taking some of the accumulating strain off his legs. Skewbald had no such luxury however, and the small unicorn's quick hoofsteps to keep pace with the others came coupled with gradually heavier breathing. Chevalier glanced back often to be sure Skewbald wasn't falling behind. The attention was rewarded with a frosty glower each time.

Chevalier, who'd made cross-country trots a habit ever since the Colt Scouts, swore he'd call for a break soon. The first few days would be the hardest for the three. But everypony, even the unathletic farrier and academic, would find themselves being physically conditioned for the trail by simple virtue of walking it. They'd learn to work together. It would get better soon.

He hoped it would get better soon.

The forest ran on, the trees becoming fewer and fewer as the ground beneath their hooves turned to damp undergrowth and countless coursing little streams. From all around them, there came the sounds of the forest: birdsong and angry high-pitched chattering from the sky and branches above, the scuffs and low barks of Northern wildlife in motion – skvader and smaller creatures that moved too quickly to be identified darted across their path often. The noise of the sea, hidden past the trees, was a constant churning presence at their side. Tide after tide whispered on and off distant sand and crashed upon rocks.

Nothing was trying to kill them. The murder-tree was long-distant. This wasn't quite as unrelentingly hostile as Chevalier had built up the North to be in his head, but every disruption in the current serenity threatened to lurch him away from the thin hope that it wasn't so bad after all. Every especially loud noise or flurry of motion, every instance in which an unusual hush fell across the animal life surrounding them, each moment set Chevalier's heart to pounding and his gaze flickering to every point before him where a predator might spring from.

He tried to not show it, of course. The other two didn't need to see him on edge. He just had to remain controlled and in charge – for he was in charge, for all that this little company had a leader, that much was plain. Letting his discomfort show could come later, when it wouldn't affect anypony else.

It was the De Gendarme way, on a relatively small scale. And if you wouldn't remain a De Gendarme in the darkest wilderness, then there was no point in being one anywhere.

They walked on, and the air grew colder as the sky remained overcast. Whenever Chevalier glimpsed the sea past the trees, the islands out in the water were lost to sight behind a thin wall of sea mist. Distant grey waters dimly shimmered and pounded against the shore rocks. Gulls keened, and Chevalier looked around for them, finally catching sight of one as it swooped briefly down into the forest.

Rather than the sleek white creatures Chevalier dimly recalled from a foalhood visit to the seaside, this gull was about half the size of a pony at the withers, coated in shaggy brown feathers, and with a second beady-eyed head where its tail ought to be. The second head stared impassively backwards as the gull flew down, until a sudden and subtle shift mid-air where it grew alert. Bones in the broad wings bent abruptly backwards with an unpleasant crack, feathers reversed right through the membrane of the wing, and the gull's whole body suddenly swooped in the direction the secondary head was facing.

This came at the expense of a solitary skvader grooming itself on the forest floor of damp dirt and mouldering leaves. There came a paired set of keens and a brief struggle, and the gull took off into the thin canopy once more, its screeching prey in its claws.

"Well, would you look at that," said Chevalier softly, watching the gull fly away with mixed parts fascination and disgust.

"I'm looking," replied Skewbald. "The Creator really gave them the worst position in the whole food chain, didn't It?"

"Not the skvader. The gull. I've not seen any like that before, have you?"

"Once. Stuffed, behind a glass case, and in a museum. I think I preferred it to that one there."

"I think I know the one you're talking about," said Zephyr, who had taken to his wings again, and whose voice had the same note of revolted fascination Chevalier recognised in his own. "Was it the one in the Canterlot Museum's Nature Wing? The one poised so it looked like it was swooping down on the jackalopes?"

"I think so," said Skewbald hesitantly. "It was a while ago."

"Ah. Same situation as me, then? Family going on a visit to the city across the country when you were a colt, going to see all the landmarks, the museum, the airyards, the palace, all that sort of exciting stuff?"

"No. I lived in the city." Skewbald's tone had found a cold edge.

Zephyr hadn't seemed to notice or he wanted to work past it, Chevalier couldn't tell which. "You know, I couldn't help but notice a bit of a Coltsburgh influence in your accent. Do you have a parent from there, or did you move from there to - ?"

"That's none of your business," said Skewbald, in a tone as sharp and cold as a knife in an ice-bucket.

Zephyr fell silent for a few minutes then, and eventually broke it quietly with, "I only asked because I've got family in -"

"Well, keep trotting quietly. We'll be less likely to attract something. You might even get to see your family again that way."

They trotted on in silence. This time, it lasted.

It would get better, Chevalier told himself. He tried to put aside the pleasant mental image of Skewbald getting a hoof to the muzzle in favour of focusing on the terrain ahead. The sun rose ever onwards through the sky, climbing to a peak.

The forest grew thinner and thinner, the trees growing wider and wider apart. Little streams snaked around them like strands in a spiderweb, as if a river had given up and disintegrated just before hitting the shore. The ground squelched underhoof, insects buzzed past their ears, and a sudden humidity had somehow insinuated itself into this little pocket of the forest, as if it wanted to be a swamp when it grew up.

Chevalier could feel the moisture gathering under his armour. His own legs were starting to ache, which combined with the buzz of insects and his sleeplessness to do no wonders for his mood. He cast his gaze around, and saw a hillock rising from the forest floor, several small trees sprouting from its sides. He waved a hoof in its direction. "Let's break there. We'll lie under the trees and get our breath back. Bound to be a little dryer than anywhere else nearby."

"You had me at 'lie under the trees'," said Zephyr, gliding towards the hillock. Skewbald followed him at a canter, with Chevalier taking the rear. He glanced backwards as he joined the other two, back to where they had started walking from.

It was hard to tell past the trees and the gently rising and falling terrain, but he was sure they'd covered several, maybe half a dozen miles. Not bad going for the first half of the first day.

"We'll give ourselves ten minutes," said Chevalier, turning back to the others. "Then we'll keep on trotting until the daylight starts to go or one of us reaches their limit, whichever comes first. Skewbald, if you keep track of the distance we've … Zephyr?"

Zephyr had paused where he had alighted, and was regarding something on the ground between the trees with all-but-concealed revulsion. "Come look at this," he said quietly.

Chevalier trotted over to see what had revolted the farrier. Amongst the undergrowth, the body of a small creature. In life, it might have looked like a large mole rat with spindly limbs and insectoid mandibles where most self-respecting mammals would have been happy to have a mouth. In death, it looked pinched and withered, the skin drawn tight across bones and an interior that seemed to have been made entirely hollow. A ragged and dry hole had been made in its abdomen, as if something had clawed a way in or burst out. Several disinterested flies crawled across it.

"Ick," said Chevalier, drawing up close beside Zephyr. "Handy to have the reminder that there's still predators about." He glanced at the grass around the creature, and noticed something odd. "Huh. It doesn't look old, or especially … decomposed."

"Yes?" said Zephyr.

"You'd expect there to be tracks around it, whether from it or whatever's hunted it, if it was recent. And you'd expect more of it to be eaten."

"It could have fallen from the trees," said Zephyr, looking up. "Some sort of … organ-draining hunting bird or something like that? I hate the North for not making that unfeasible."

"It could have come from further than that," said Skewbald, trotting up and abruptly poking himself in between Chevalier and Zephyr. He leaned in for a closer look, and Chevalier saw faint disgust join the unicorn's emotional repertoire of impassivity, annoyance, icy anger, and scorn. "Pegasi aren't the only ones who make homes in clouds."

"Like those beasts you mentioned earlier, that I'd seen. Mantaghasts?" Zephyr looked down at the torn-open creature. "I don't suppose this is their handiwork?"

"Don't know enough of their feeding behaviour to say. Maybe." Skewbald turned away, leaving Chevalier and Zephyr standing and still looking down.

"We're probably safe," reassured Chevalier. "It looks like they go after prey that's smaller than us."

It was a temptation to append 'at least, most of us' while glancing back at Skewbald. Chevalier shrugged it off. He had to be a leader, remember? If he wanted to coax the unicorn's better instincts to the fore, he'd have to lead by example.

"Maybe," said Zephyr. The pegasus looked a moment longer at the creature, and then ventured a hopeful grin up at Chevalier. "They shouldn't be too much bother, then?"

The sight of Zephyr's trusting smile buoyed Chevalier's spirits. Of course he could lead this strange and motley group through the worst the North had to offer them. And Tartarus take whatever stood in his way.

"Not even a little," he said with the most confident smile in his arsenal, offering Zephyr that universal symbol of friendship and reassurance between stallions, a solid punch to the withers. "Hang close and keep our eyes open, and we'll be drinking streetside coffees in Canterlot before we know it. They'll give us our own stained glass window in the Palace for being awesome."

"Touch of exaggeration in those last couple of sentences, I'm sure," Zephyr said, the smile persisting as he let himself collapse to the grass with a grateful groan.

"We'll be paraded through the streets. Mares and stallions alike shall swoon at the very glimpse of us. The Element Bearer who does these Sonic Rainboom things will do half-a-dozen in our honour, and that'll all be before Princess Celestia anoints us three as new Princes."

"Aaaaand now you're not even trying to be -"

"Verily, the constellations themselves shall descend from the Darkness Beyond to offer their homage -"

"Princesses above," came Skewbald's mutter. "Mute him. Deafen me. Scour the North with lightning. I'm not fussy."

Chevalier settled as he sank to the ground for his few minutes of rest. The grass here, while somewhat damp and with a faint piquancy of mud, had a better taste than the grass in the initial clearing. They might even bump into some edible shrubs along the walk. Ponykind couldn't live on forages alone, but they could go a while yet without supplements.

The sky started to clear overhead. Chevalier took it as a good omen.

In the wake of the storm, reports were assembled by Guard ponies picking through the rubble. Examinations of the lightning-struck tower were conducted thrice for surety's sake. When nothing was found, there was only one sad conclusion that could be reached.

Letters would have to be sent.

The first of them lurched into the depths of the Equestrian Postal Service by messaging-fire, skychariot, and pegasus courier, and was spat out again in the direction of Trottingham.

In a large greenhouse at the back of a compact and comfortable home in the heart of the green and sprawling city, Anemoi fussed over a bonsai.

"What's wrong with your graft, you wee bugger?" the pastel-green earth pony mare muttered. "Getting fussy, are we?"

The bonsai looked supremely unmoved by the invective. It was one of several on a single workbench, which were in turn a few amongst hundreds in the greenhouse. Most had already been wrapped with tags attached. This one had elected to start disintegrating before Anemoi had had a chance to send it off, however.

"Don't think I'm going to take sympathy just because you're ailing." Anemoi fixed it with a turquoise glower. "Lady Redwood requested a well-proportioned informal-upright specimen, and she's getting one even if I have to cannibalise you for parts."

The bonsai stood stalwart against the threat and the unconscious earth pony magic she provided it with. A grafted-on branch fell off with a thunk of defiant finality.

"Have it your way." Anemoi shrugged and looked around for where she'd laid her patented absurdly small shears. "Hope you're ready to meet the Creator, because that's -"

There came the sound of a key turning and of the home's front door opening, and Anemoi brushed her hooves off on a cloth before briskly trotting back into the main building, narrowly missing tripping over an abandoned set of roller-skates as she did so.

"Boreas, Eurus?" she called out, glancing at the face of a battered grandfather clock as she passed it by. "Hurly-Burly? Some miscreant's back home early, whoever it may be."

"I allus wanted t'be a miscreant," came the familiar Trottingham Dales voice of her husband. She emerged into the hallway to see Hurly-Burly, a big, lean pegasus stallion whose golden coat was hidden, as always at each homecoming, beneath an impenetrable wall of coal-dust. He looked up from where he was stamping some of it off his hooves onto the welcoming mat to grin crookedly at Anemoi. "How do, love?"

"Directing invective at miniature arboreal specimens, the usual. You're home awfully early."

"Pit's still closed," said Hurly-Burly, stepping off the mat onto the dark carpeting. "Nopony's gettin' back in for work, nopony, till the Guard's finished their look-through for whatever the storm might have sprung on us."

"And yet you return covered in coal dust regardless."

"One o' life's mysteries." Hurly-Burly opened one wing, revealing a tan-coloured, black-smeared letter that had been pressed against his side. He deftly caught it with his teeth and flicked it over to the ground at Anemoi's hooves. "Bumped into the postie on my way back."

"Oh, that's good," said Anemoi absently, not recognising the envelope paper beyond that it looked official. Maybe some missive from the Duchess about the storm clean-up efforts. "That reminds me, we'll have to write to Zephyr. Remind him that he'll have to write us back and tell us how he's getting on in his placement."

"Give the sprog time. If he's anything like his da, then he'll get round to it sure as the sun turns rump over teats. Might be we'll both of us be wearing cobwebs by then, but he'll deliver."

"Betimes I forget the grace of your poetry in mere spoken prose."

"Flatterer." Hurly-Burly trotted past her, stopping only to give her a quick and mischievous sooty peck on the cheek before she could protest. "I'll have a bath and a sup o' summat, and I'll pick the lads up from school after. Ya finish what ya need to with yer trees, love."

Anemoi grudgingly smiled as the stallion trotted past her and towards the bathroom. Looking down at the letter, she frowned as she recognised a wax seal with the insignia of the Equestrian Guard. She broke it deftly with a hoof and scooped out the slip of paper within.

The same Guard seal was emblazoned at the top, and the text started:

Dear Mr Hurly-Burly, Mrs Anemoi,

It is with deepest regret that we inform you that your son, Zephyr Gauze…

"…Hurly?" stammered Anemoi, trying to not raise her voice as she stared unblinkingly at the rest of the black text, trying to swallow down the cold dread that coiled in her gut and made breathing hard. "Hurly, please come and see this."

It was a fake, clearly it was. Some vile joke, come clad in crisp government paper and meticulous lettering and the proud seal of the Equestrian Guard.

The sound of running water from the bathroom blocked out her speaking voice. Paralysed to the spot, her composure slipped away as she pitched her suddenly-hoarse voice that little bit higher. "…Hurly?"

Skewbald was contemplating ways he might be able to magically dull sensation throughout his aching legs by the time Chevalier's call came from the front of the group. "We'll stop here!"

About time. The sun had all but sunk into the west, down through a clear indigo sky that blazed a steady golden-red across the horizon. The trees were starting to grow taller once they had left the damp terrain behind, with the shadows beneath the high canopies growing ever darker. Boulders loomed in their midst.

The location Chevalier had apparently chosen as that day's stopping point was a thin stretch of clearing that sloped up from the trees on either side, forming a tapering hillock that seemed to have been scraped down to a ridge of stone running along its summit. It ran south where it abruptly ended at a cliff descending sharply down to the forested hinterland between them and the distantly booming sea.

Small blue and purple flowers were strewn like jewels throughout the dark and coarse grass covering the ridge, shining in the dusk's dying light. Skewbald sank down amongst them, trying not to groan with relief at the weight taken off his legs.

Chevalier inclined his back, letting another load of dry wood roll off it. He'd found a dead and dried-out tree a few minutes before stopping here, and had spent what seemed to be a happy few minutes kicking it into usable chunks. Well, good for him. Simple pleasures for matching minds, and all that.

Zephyr flew up beside Chevalier, and the two of them kicked and poked the wood pile into something resembling a sensible fire. Once finished, Chevalier looked up from it to Skewbald and gave a brief nod.

Skewbald felt an extravagant impulse. Fire blossomed to life in the heart of the pile, a plume of it flaring out of the top and briefly taking the approximate shape of an alicorn with outspread wings. A wave of heat raced through Skewbald, dispelling a chill he had all but gotten used to. The fire died down the next instant, but the aftereffect of it remained in the twilight air.

Zephyr trotted backwards, letting out a whoop as he did so. A great, gleaming grin plastered itself across Chevalier's features. "Sol In-freaking-victus," he murmured.

"Tip your entertainer afterwards," said Skewbald, suddenly remembering the existence of creatures that might have been attracted by that burst of flame. Too late to do anything about that now, though, and he didn't let his expression betray his sudden recollection. He focused his magic again, and the map sprung to life in the air before him. "Let's see where we are."

"I'm not the best at estimating distance, and in this case, I might overestimate," said Zephyr, as Skewbald pared down and expanded the green-glowing map of the continent, focusing on their section of the North. "I think we might have come about fifteen miles today."

"Close. I'd put us at twelve miles in total, though it could have felt like more considering the roughness of the terrain and all." Chevalier looked out towards the sea, and frowned. "Call it twelve miles west by south."

Skewbald nodded, gauged a proper scale, and summoned a small glowing point where they had approximately started, on the north side of Blackwards Bay. Then he moved it to the left by a couple of millimetres, where it remained still.

Zephyr's cautious grin drooped into a frown. "Oh," he said. "That's … not much."

"It's good going for a first day," said Chevalier reassuringly. "Nopony said this wouldn't take a while. But we'll improve our pace."

"I suppose," said Zephyr. "But there's going to be mountains up ahead, aren't there?"

"At least one range, most likely two, before we reach Corva." Skewbald's gaze flicked from point to point on the map. "And they'll be surrounded by twisting foothills and rivers we'll have to cross too."

"We'll cross those bridges – metaphorically speaking – when we come to them," said Chevalier. "We have a pegasus. Worst case scenario, he can just carry both of us over the mountain."

"I can … what? I could maybe carry Skewbald for a stretch, but not for especially long … and you're joking."

"If my weight's an issue, then I'll take the armour off and put it in a saddlebag. You can just make a return journey for it." Chevalier offered a grin, and Zephyr returned a weak one. Skewbald dispelled the map.

For a few moments, they lay there in silence at the world's edge, next to the warmth and crackle of the fire. The sun passed down below the horizon, and the stars brightened to life one by one across the vastness of the darkening sky. A steady wind whistled overhead, stirring the trees around them to a gentle and continuous whispering. The tide kept track like the greatest heartbeat in the world.

"Come on," said Chevalier, rising to his hooves with a sigh. "We'll get some forage in ourselves and Skewbald can pass around his water thermos. After that, we'll sort out tonight's watch and …"

"… And?" Skewbald prompted after a moment of silence.

"… And appreciate silver linings." Chevalier's voice had grown quieter, had found a note of reverent awe. Skewbald twisted his head around and rose to his hooves to see what the cadet was seeing, aware of Zephyr doing the same.

Over the black expanse of ocean, great sheets of light undulated through the sky. Green and red, blue and gold, all shimmered as if stars had been caught in their weaves and all faded softly into the blackness at their edges. They flickered and pulsed against one another as if gods were playing with fire, yet did so in silence. Bolder ribbons of colour and the ghost-lights of orbs drifted through their midst like ships on the tide. All of it was reflected within the dark water, each broken mirror image a brightly-shimmering echo of the sky above.

For a long moment, the three stood and watched.

Skewbald found himself trying to track and decipher patterns into the movement of the light, but gave up. There was too much of it, and probably too little time for it.

"Is this one of Princess Luna's auroras?" whispered Chevalier after a few minutes had passed.

"Not exactly," said Skewbald, his own tone also quiet. "It's ghost-fire. Wild magic in the lower atmosphere and the sea can ascend or descend depending on the movement of the sun and moon. If a descending quantity ever meets an ascending quantity, then … ghost-fire happens."

"Can't remember where I read it, I must have been a colt," said Zephyr, his voice oddly choked, "But others say it's the souls of the seaponies, keeping watch over sailors and land creatures lost on the ocean. Emerging to help them. Guiding them to land."

"Well, if you're going to be fanciful about this …"

"Shut up, both of you," said Chevalier, no rancour in his voice.

A hush fell once again, and with the whispering of the trees and the crash of the tide as their music, the lights danced across the sky.

A shadow flitted in front of them.

Skewbald frowned. "What was -" he started.

And at that point, a lightning bolt slammed straight into Chevalier's back.

Skewbald blinked and staggered to one side, briefly blinded and half-deafened by the eruption of light and noise to his side. Chevalier crumpled like a puppet with its strings slashed, and as if from a great distance, he heard the panicked cry of Zephyr as well.

His focus was all but shattered, his world seeming to move in slow motion. Skewbald twisted his body around, seeing two great shadows coming swooping down upon them. One swooping down on him in particular, a low chittering coming from its depths.

No time for thought. Reflexes hammered into him through the magical self-defence classes at the School rose to the fore, and with an action born of pure reflexive alarm and cogitation that only brushed briefly at the level of conscious thought, Skewbald closed his eyes, focused …

… And teleported to just behind the oncoming shadow, a swift flash-step through the air and out the other side of whatever creature this was. Every unicorn capable of teleportation had their own take on the experience, and Skewbald's was the sensation of a helium balloon swelling in his gut.

He opened his eyes, released a high-pitched hiccup, and turned towards the creature he had teleported behind. His gaze burned into its back, and every mental resource he could muster was diverted towards the details of surviving, planning and blowing whatever this intrusion was apart.

From the back, the creature resembled a broad kite of dark and pitted leather. Its body flattened at the spread-out edges, forming two great wings that were broader than a pony was long, with a long and serpentine tail lashing behind it. A mantaghast. That stood to reason. The mantaghast flapped awkwardly as it drove forwards, deprived of prey and seeking to correct its course.

Skewbald didn't give it the chance. A heartbeat after he teleported, he gathered his magic, lowered his horn, and let fly with a battery of every basic combative blast he knew in rapid-fire succession. Green blast after green blast hammered into the mantaghast's back. A low, chittering rasp came from the creature as its flight stumbled and faltered through the air, burns and scars and plumes of smoke blistering across its back.

Skewbald breathed in and took a step back, adopting a more stable stance on the ground. He flicked his gaze around, taking in how the others were faring.

Zephyr had been caught off guard by the mantaghast that had plummeted down upon him, barely scrabbling to stay ahead of it with frantic flaps of his wing. He made for the cliff edge at a mad gallop, his wings buzzing blurs in the air that brought him aloft an inch shy of the sheer descent.

The mantaghast plunged after him, the air no defence against it. It caught a buoyant current as it cleared the cliff's edge as well, sweeping up at Zephyr in a headlong rush for which the pegasus had no answer beyond screaming and desperately raising his hooves to try and swat it away.

And in that instance, the mantaghast stopped short in the air, as if suddenly hooked from behind.

Where he lay, and where he was struggling to rise, Chevalier had clamped his teeth around the mantaghast's tail. His hooves scrabbled and clawed at the ground as he fought to rise, red dribbled down from the edges of the armour on his back in a dozen different places, and his red eyes burned with a berserk inner fire.

The mantaghast chittered and tried to pull forwards, but Chevalier had managed to rise and plant his hooves like trees in the earth. His muscles bunched as he pulled in turn, and a muffled rasp that was part battle-cry and part pained scream escaped him as he furiously yanked the mantaghast back. Between its furious flaps and Chevalier's pulling, it managed to swing through the air like an upside-down pendulum, coming crashing down upon the campfire with an explosion of sparks and flying wood.

Skewbald saw Chevalier springing after it; he saw Zephyr flapping back down onto the ground. Then he saw a flash of dark leather in the edge of his vision, and turned his attention back to his own problems.

An angry black stormcloud hung low in the air, the likely source of the lightning bolt earlier, brought here and manipulated by the mantaghasts. Beside it, another mantaghast spread its wings in the sky over Skewbald, giving him a view of its front. Shrouded by the vast wings, segmented black eyes gleamed like cut jet stones. Claws writhed and wriggled down its front like the legs of a centipede, each coming to a wickedly sharp point.

In silence, it descended towards Skewbald.

In the corner of his field of vision, a boulder. Grass and dimly-glowing flowers ran out beneath his hooves.

A plan etched across his mind like living lightning, and a wordless instant later, he had the Arcane Summaries for a random flower and the boulder both. His magic spread out to encompass them both as the mantaghast came rushing down.

Next, a single spell binding, to be maintained. Skewbald held the Arcane Summaries in mind, and Transposed the Property of Weight. Magic surged out of him, more than he expected, and he fought to keep the spell-energies in control as the flower before him sunk suddenly into the grass. There was more to come.

He maintained the Transposition, splitting off a part of his concentration to keep it going. With another part of his will and magic, he levitated the boulder off the ground. Quite gently, and quite easily. It only weighed as much as a flower, after all. So easily, in fact, that it was no great trouble to suddenly sink in the magic required to send the boulder rapidly flying straight up at the descending mantaghast.

Before it impacted, he released the Transposition.

The flower bobbed out of the grass. From above, there came several sickening cracks and a cut-off rasp of agony. The boulder crashed to the ground a few seconds later, and the lifeless, boneless form of the mantaghast drifted gently on top of it.

"Who's a clever pony?" muttered Skewbald with relief, turning back towards the rest of the battlefield. "You is -"

And in that instant, a dark weight blindsided him from his left, snatching him right off the ground and turning his world to blackness.

Skewbald screamed and struggled and tried to gather his magic, his orientation lost amidst the loss of his grounding and vision. He was aware of sharp and painful clutching in his sides, undoubtedly the claws of a mantaghast stabbing into him and holding him tight. His legs were pinned tight, and he kicked them in their limited range of movement to feeble effect against what he guessed was the front of the mantaghast. He willed magical energy to his horn that he may blast his way free, but every movement jolted his horn sharply against the surface of the beast and dissipated whatever paltry amount he had brought to bear.

He could feel the ascent, though. He could feel cold winds building beneath him, hear the sounds of far below growing fainter.

And he felt something stab suddenly into the front of his chest, a stinger from some hidden orifice of the mantaghast's. He gasped with the pain, and winced at the appalling coldness building around the area that had been jabbed.

Images and words came to him. Speculation from the grim accounts of Borealis and Literal Minded, comparisons with parasitic wasps and the known subspecies of vampire. The drained and dry body of some small forgotten creature, fallen from far above after something had burrowed its way out.

His heart hammered, and Skewbald fought like he'd never fought before. "Let me out!" he screamed, slamming his hooves forwards with every ounce of strength he had, punching his horn forwards and jabbing and goring at whatever he could reach, clawing for a space to break free. "Let me out! Let me out, let me outoutoutoutout - "

A hoof smacked into the joint of a claw. His horn plunged into something soft that might have been a segmented eye. With a chitter, the mantaghast's grip released, and Skewbald found himself in freefall through the dark. Glorious, beautiful freefall.

For the second time in as many days, he fell through the blackness, too disorientated to think properly. And as before, his fall was arrested by a tree branch, and then another tree branch, and then the branch of a neighbouring tree, which sprung him into a magnificent bellyflop onto a thicker branch near the tree's base.

There he rested for a moment, quietly hating the universe and everything in it, before raising his head and turning his bleary gaze upon the battlefield. By the sounds of it, he was still nearby.

Chevalier was still atop the mantaghast amidst the ruins of the campfire, bringing his steel-shoed forehooves down upon it again and again, screaming with every plunge and drawing back with a shudder of effort with every crunch from the mantaghast below. The mantaghast flailed, and then twitched, and when it stopped moving altogether, only then did Chevalier let himself roll off it. He flopped to his side in the dirt, red mixing from his coat with the mud. His eyes bulged and he released short and pained little gasps, as if he hurt too much to do anything else.

And Zephyr …

Zephyr was frantically spinning on the spot, surrounded by what looked to be a blazing halo of lightning. Two mantaghasts circled him, one of which Skewbald recognised as his spell-scarred own from earlier. The other looked to be the newly-cyclopic one Skewbald had been seized by.

Pegasi could capture static electricity on their wingtips, couldn't they? Had that been how this started? A frantic spin in place meeting with unexpected success when the attacking mantaghast withdrew after a nasty shock, forming a defensive habit that was proving hard to break.

Skewbald watched the pegasus frantically rotate on the spot, a lightning bolt chasing around his outstretched wings, and yelled, "Release it! You can take one of them out!"

"I'm not sure how!" screamed Zephyr, his eyes wide and brimming with terror both at the mantaghast and the explosive weapon now held by his own body.

"For skyfire's sake!" Skewbald forced the uncooperative pieces of his brain that had had enough thinking for one evening back into furious cogitation. Observe the lightning, observe the trail it took relative to Zephyr's right pinion, observe the position of the mantaghasts.

Wait for harmony.

"Now," growled Skewbald, and one telekinetic jolt swept Zephyr off his hooves and sent the lightning bolt flashing out to meet a mantaghast face-first.

There was a brief and ghastly eruption mid-air. Various organic components pattered down around Zephyr, who sprawled in the dirt covered with liquid that had previously been circulating around a mantaghast.

The remaining mantaghast, who bore the scars from Skewbald's encounter, seemed to take stock of the situation and its three obliterated compatriots, suddenly remembered a pressing appointment elsewhere, and glided away at a smart pace, becoming lost in the blackness of the sky.

The light of the ghost-fire played as if in mockery over the pieces of mantaghast, over the glimmering ashes and smouldering remains of the campfire, over the ponies bearing witness to it all.

And until a few minutes later, when Skewbald was finally able to wriggle off the tree branch and kick Zephyr out of shock, there wasn't a sound to be heard except the whisper of the wind through the trees, the pound of the sea upon the shore, and the pained meeps and heavy breathing from three sets of pony throats.