• Published 17th Mar 2013
  • 985 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.

  • ...


It took some time to clean up the campsite.

Skewbald, as luck would have it, knew a simple sweeping spell that didn't seem to discriminate between the differing weights of the fallen mantaghasts, smaller components thereof, and strewn cinders. A dark and unpleasantly glistening pile now sat a short distance downwind, set afire and vomiting smoke into the black sky.

The same spell had only prompted yelling from Zephyr and Chevalier when he tried to use it to sweep the stricken cadet into a more convenient position, however, but you couldn't expect ponies to be sensible and reasonable about everything, thought Skewbald. That was only how you set yourself up for disappointment.

Now Skewbald had collapsed to his haunches with a sudden exhaustion and a cold tremor that had seemed to jump right out his gut and down all of his limbs. He lay still on the wet grass, watching the other two in the light of the dying ghost-fire and the inferno at his back.

Chevalier had barely moved since finishing off his own mantaghast, beyond forcing himself into an approximately upright lying posture, his forehooves digging into the ground before him and his head raised. Thin lines of blood trickled down from beneath the armour plates covering his neck and back. His expression beneath his helmet was drawn, his teeth clenching and his eyes screwing shut whenever he moved so much as a millimetre. He met Skewbald's gaze only briefly and offered up a tight and weary smile.

Zephyr, on the other hand, seemed to have moved past shock and into some calm lagoon on the far side of it, busying himself with opening his farrier's bag and drawing apparatus from it, screwing on some tight ring holding sockets and protruding needles and other devices around his hoof. Maybe it was the farrier training, maybe it was a chance to prove himself where his skills were vital, maybe it was simple considered awareness of the situation's gravity and the conscious overcoming of his panic.

Maybe it was the light kick or two to his kidneys Skewbald had delivered. That was probably it.

"Relax if you can," said Zephyr, finishing setting up his hoofring and turning to Chevalier. His tone sounded odd, absent any customary hesitation or benign flummoxedness. "Tell me where it hurts, and how much."

"Down across … ah … across my neck and back," said Chevalier in a hushed and strained tone. "Doesn't hurt too much … as much … when I'm still. Hurts when I shift around. I can feel the armour rub against whatever it is."

"Stay still. Are you allergic either to drowsethistle solution or lockwood extract?"

"Don't think I am."

"That's good. Drowsethistle acts as a painkiller and mild sedative in smaller doses. Lockwood encourages hemostasis, so you're not at risk of bleeding out. Your armour's putting pressure on the injury already, which was commendable foresight on your part, well done, but there's no harm in a belt-and-braces approach." Zephyr produced a small jar of large, liquorice-coloured tablets from within his bag, popped it open, and inserted one into an indent in the hoofring. An injection needle on the ring sparkled briefly, and filled from the bottom-up with a murky-coloured liquid in which red motes glimmered.

Even in his pained state, Chevalier eyed the needle with what looked to be entirely unwarranted nervousness. Skewbald snickered at the sight.

"Needle anxiety?" asked Zephyr, catching the look.

Chevalier managed to look sheepish. "Well … not anxiety, per se. I can cope, but … "

"That's quite alright. Make charming conversation with Skewbald, for want of a better adjective, and I'll arrange a different delivery method."

"You don't have to go to … " started Chevalier, his protests fading when Zephyr trotted around him. The cadet breathed out, some measure of relief entering his expression. He looked up and met Skewbald's gaze.

"It might have been the delirium and adrenaline talking," he said, "But I'm sure I saw you smack one of them right out of the sky with a boulder out the corner of my eye."

"You saw correct," replied Skewbald, who had just noticed Zephyr's movements and was trying not to stare and laugh. It was hard not to. His impulses had acquired an oddly stronger quality, his self-control had slipped as a faint muzziness had inveigled around the edges of his senses. He had been stung by one of the mantaghasts. Was something setting in? Why wasn't his mind getting as concerned about this as it ought to be?

Tartarus take whatever idiot Creator had decided to let the entire foundation of the sophisticated sapient mind still be built from uncontrollable, unconscious reactions that an Eohippus would proudly recognise. Tartarus take every single idiot ancestral Eohippus as well, for spite's sake.

Spite was growing harder. Skewbald let himself be content with the Creator and every Eohippus as Tartarus's share. Mantaghasts suddenly occurred. They could all go to the Cold Fire as well. They should have come first in the tally, now he thought about it.
Chevalier was still talking for some reason. Skewbald had forgotten what he'd been talking about.

" … probably pulled our flanks out of the fire there, with the boulder-flinging and directing Zephyr's lightning," Chevalier continued from some unknown starting point. A grim smile passed across his features. "We owe you one."

"Um," said Skewbald (Um? Um? Since when did he ever say um?!), trying to unravel the conversation. "Yes."

"All our past terseness aside -" Chevalier started before yelping in pain as Zephyr stuck a needle into the back of his hind leg. His pained whisper was briefly forgotten. "Gah! That … that isn't a different delivery method!"

"Sneaky injections are different from overt injections. Take your farrier's word for it." Zephyr smoothly trotted to Chevalier's front. "Stay still while that takes effect. I'll just check on Skewbald, and then I'll see about taking that armour off to inspect the injury."

"Despise … you."

"That's a common reaction. You'll get over it." Zephyr moved towards Skewbald's own prone position. "Let me get a look at you."

"Cuts on my side where one seized me, some bruising where I bounced off a few branches while escaping from it. Nothing serious there," Skewbald said quickly. He had never been fond of close attention. A numbing wave shivered out from his gut to the ends of his limbs, while his brain felt as if it were being ever-further smothered in cotton wool. "I was stung with some sort of venom, though. I think it's doing something to me."

"I'll be the judge on the cuts and bruises. Tell me about what the venom seems to be doing to you," said Zephyr, his expression briefly sharp and questioning as he made eye contact with Skewbald. He trotted round to Skewbald's side, examining the cuts left by the mantaghast and muttering to himself as Skewbald spoke.

"My limbs feel numb at the extremities. I can move them and balance on them, but it feels awkward to do so. It's done something to my thought process as well. It's like trying to think while sleep-deprived – hss!" Skewbald drew in breath as the cold pain of iodine being swabbed across a cut came from his side. He craned his neck to look at Zephyr, who rotated the hoofring to spread a sticking plaster across the cut he'd just cleaned.

"Nothing's deep enough to warrant stitches. No sense in risking infection, though. Keep talking while I work." The farrier continued to clean and cover the cuts on that side, flapping directly over Skewbald to his other side after a few painful moments had passed.

Skewbald, for his part, tried to describe the curious sensation of the toxin seemingly pressing a pillow over his mind and his physical sensations, but found his thoughts drifting. Each swab of iodine was a little shock back to reality, but only a brief one.

When was the last time he'd ever had to have a cut cleaned and dressed? Was it in Canterlot? Coltsburgh? One of the homes, certainly, but he couldn't recall the incident that prompted it.

Hang on, no; it had last been at the School for Gifted Unicorns, during his first year there. Another student's backfiring spell had flung Skewbald into an old set of pony armour, complete with gratuitous spikes all over the barding.

"…Skewbald? Still with me?" Zephyr was speaking as if from the other side of the continent.

"Always hated group work," murmured Skewbald before his now-feeble executive function was able to jam its spurs in. "Hmm? What is it?"

"Your cuts are fine, and nothing looks like it was broken by the mantaghast or your fall. And the toxin can be addressed as well. We're probably lucky you're not the size of a skvader, or it could have been nastier." Zephyr pushed a jar containing a few large yellow pills along the ground towards Skewbald. His stern expression slipped to betray wry concern. "One of these will patch you up. But they're not particularly fun to take. I'd stand in a bush while you took it."

"Oh. Why's that?"

"To cut through reams of medical jargon, this'll essentially hunt out wherever the toxin's meddling with your nervous system and unbind any instances of it from your body. It'll quickly collect into a non-lethal form within your body. That'll be when your body has to discharge it."

"Okay," replied Skewbald.

"You gather what I mean by 'discha-'"

"Yes, yes, whatever makes me able to think again," said Skewbald past clouds of cotton wool. He picked a pill up with telekinesis, and rose with some effort to his hooves, glancing around for a convenient bush.

"Take your water thermos as well. You'll need to rehydrate. I'll be with Chevalier. Call for me if you have any problems."

"Yes, yes," said Skewbald airily (airily? He would choke on these pills if that was what it took.) as he trotted over to the bush. He wobbled as he made his way, the ground seeming like sky under his hooves. Stepping into the bush and trampling down what parts impeded him, he stood stock-still and casually gulped down the pill.

After a second, he chased it down with a swig of water. Nothing seemed to have much taste anymore.

And then, a few seconds after that, he woke up again, the effect all but instantaneous. A daybreak in swift and furious motion. Lightning seemed to crackle down his limbs, taste returned to his mouth, the world suddenly exploded with the vibrant colours that had slowly slid out of his vision. His mind lunged into action once more like one of the mighty diesel-fuelled engines he'd seen blaze across experimental tracks in Canterlot's yards. By all that was glorious under Celestia's sun, he was himself again…

His stomach shivered. Something clenched in his throat. Zephyr's advice regarding the pill came back to Skewbald.

"Oh, Tartarus," he whispered, just before his world turned to concentrated indignity.

Several torturous moments later, he'd managed to raise his body from where it had buckled nearly to the ground (though without actually touching it, thank Celestia), sobbed out one last empty retch, and discovered that breathing through one's mouth as opposed to the nose didn't so much minimise the sensational unpleasantness as it did redistribute it. He scouted around for his thermos, swished the first swig furiously around his mouth, spat it out, and then guzzled water like there was nothing else in the world worth doing. With another part of his magic, he plucked a patch of dock leaves to conduct whatever wiping-off of parts needed doing.

Oh, for some running water and soap. His horn for some soap.

He looked blearily up at Chevalier and Zephyr. The farrier looked concerned even past his professional decorum. The cadet winced, seemingly not just because of his own pain.

"For whatever my sympathy's worth, that looked outright awful to go through," said Chevalier, whose helmet had been removed at some point during these moments. Blood matted his mane at the sides Skewbald could see.

Skewbald tried to retort, but the acid lining his throat made him break down into rasping coughs.

His horn and his favourite limb for some toothpaste, for that matter.

"Attend me for a moment," he was aware of Zephyr saying to Chevalier. "I suspect that if I took your barding off, I'd find a burn left by the lightning, running down your neck and across your back. It's chafing against the metal."

"Seen pictures," murmured Chevalier, still trying to inject more levity into his tone than he had any right to feel. "Fern-shaped scars. Very pretty, depending on your perspective."

"Yes. It'll come out silver upon your coat once it's healed up, I expect. Something to show off to mares once we're home and dry, eh?"

"Prefer stallions myself."

"Beg your pardon. But that happy eventuality will have to wait until I've taken your armour off and treated it. Both of these will hurt. More than you may wish to experience." Zephyr drew in a breath. "I can administer an anaesthetic. Concentrated drowsethistle extract. It'll knock you out cold for a couple hours, in which time I can treat and dress the burn, and you'll be left in a deep sleep for the rest of the night."

Chevalier closed his eyes then, letting out a long and low breath before he opened them again. "How many doses of the anaesthetic do you have in that farrier's bag?"

"Just one." Zephyr looked briefly apologetic. "The bag was packed for a single quick evening's emergency work. Some excess and spares of some things, precious little of others."

"I'd rather not take the anaesthetic, then, if you're not exactly working with unlimited supplies. Best to save it for a rainy day, when one of us might be in real pain. That painkiller earlier will be enough for me."

"No, it really won't," said Zephyr with a sigh. "I won't give you the anaesthetic if you don't consent. But I do strongly advise taking it. This will hurt."

"For the sake of a future rainy day, consider my consent withheld. I'll just bite down on a branch or something if I need to control myself." Chevalier ventured a grin up at Zephyr.

Zephyr sighed, composed the farrier's expression once more, and leaned down towards the back of Chevalier's armour. "You're an idiot."

"Please, a 'De Gendarme' if you would. It sounds more dashing."

Both of Zephyr's hooves latched around the first section of barding, covering Chevalier's neck and lower back. Firmly, smoothly, he began to prise it off.

The first time the barding shifted before apparently clinging to something beneath, an involuntary gasp escaped Chevalier and his hooves ground short furrows into the dirt. His teeth clenched shut, and he leaned his head forward as if preparing for a charge.

Zephyr pulled again, and this time a faint yet horrible wet noise came from between the barding and Chevalier's back. Zephyr hesitated at that, while his patient remained stock-still. Every part of Chevalier seemed to have tensed, and liquid crept out from between his clenched-shut eyes.

The third time, the barding was lifted a centimetre or so off Chevalier's back. There was the same wet sound of something becoming unstuck.

Then Chevalier screamed, convulsing forwards and away from Zephyr. Zephyr himself released the barding amidst a sudden frantic flapping, jolting another cry of pain from Chevalier as it slapped back down.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Chevalier wretchedly babbled between feeble gasps. "I can't, I need, please, the anaesthetic, not again, I'm sorry, I'm sorry -"

"Hush, hush," said Zephyr, his own eyes wide with horror and panic, his farrier's composure destroyed beyond recovery. He groped in his nearby bag for a vial, hooves trembling wildly as he tried to secure it on his hoofring. "It's alright, it'll be alright."

The screams and gasps from both of them stabbed into Skewbald's tender senses like a flurry of blades. An impatient desire to end it would have sufficed to try and help Zephyr's fumbling efforts to secure the vial. But even as he reached out with his magic and did exactly that, there was some other strange feeling prickling at the back of his motivation.

No time for contemplating it. He watched the farrier – Zephyr, rather, for there was nothing of the farrier about him any longer apart from the tools he groped uncertainly with – settle Chevalier with shushes and stammered exhortations, saw him gently place a syringe's point at the cadet's side. It didn't seem to go noticed.

"C - count to ten with me," said Zephyr. "One, t - two, three, four -"

"Five, I'm sorry, six, I tried, sev – sev…"

After a long moment, Chevalier slumped forward. Zephyr drew in a long and rattling breath, glanced uncomprehendingly at Skewbald, and then cautiously returned to the business of taking off the barding.

Skewbald paid little attention to the process of removing the armour and treating the red mess underneath. Sterilised cloth and pastes and more of these good recuperative bandages were produced in a solid half-hour's continuous work. At the end of it all Zephyr stepped back and regarded the soundly-sleeping cadet, whose torso was now all but entirely wrapped around with shimmering bandages.

"Need to … need to give him the full night," Zephyr said, as if in a dream, his voice thick and trembling as he wiped his hooves clean. "Split the watch between us? I … if you could please take the first watch, I can get a rest now. Wake me up when it's my time. That way, I'll be up when he wakes. I can see to the bandages. If that's alright -"

His talking was an irritant. "Yes, yes, go to sleep," snapped Skewbald. "One of these days, we'll manage a proper watch rota, I'm sure."

Zephyr nodded feebly, lay down and rooted around briefly, presumably for a comfortable position. Skewbald assumed he found it, as he soon settled down. The night sky drew his attention. The ghost-fire had faded, leaving only a broad wash of stars against the clear black sky.

He considered the Arcane Summaries for the stars, as from beside him there came Chevalier's gentle snores and what seemed like Zephyr trying to hide the sound of crying himself to sleep.

Quicksilver worked an afternoon mail route in Coltsburgh, along the side of the river. It was always best around that time, when the initial delivery boats had moored or sailed off to leave the river relatively quiet. The old pegasus mare loved the city more than anything, but she dearly adored the hushes in between its customary bustle and thunder.

It looked to be a good day as well. Her satchel was light across her shoulders. The weather teams had clearly been busting their haunches, and the sun shone down through a smokeless sky. Ducks and river birds quacked and chirped as she flew past them. Sweet smells came from the front gardens of the row of small houses here, with nearly every small garden boasting an outsized collection of vividly coloured flowers.

It was a lovely street in a lovely city, and Quicksilver believed she had the best job in the whole world.

There was one house in particular she had to deliver a letter to, make notable by the lack of flowers in its front garden. The grass was bare, all the way up to the house's drab walls and ever-dark windows.

She even saw the house's sole occupant out tending that garden, holding a small knife aloft with unicorn magic and paring the grass down to an even level. The patchwork-coated unicorn didn't seem to notice her as she flew nearer.

"Mr Oddbald?" she chirped as she dipped into the satchel with her mouth and rummaged for his mail. "Letter for you."

The middle-aged, powerfully-built unicorn, who Quicksilver could only assume came into the world with a grim, emotionless expression and who presumably intended to leave it that way too, turned to face her. Deep blue eyes that were nearly as dark as a shark's regarded her from behind rimless glasses.

"From?" he said, wiping the knife clean on his coat.

"Not sure, Mr Oddbald. Looks like official mail to me. Could be a Guard letter."

One brow rose an imperceptible amount, and Oddbald wordlessly plucked the letter away from her with his magic. The knife was brandished and neatly slit open the envelope's top, flicking out the piece of paper within. The unicorn caught it and started to read it.

Partway through, his expression shifted slightly, an event like the cracking of a landscape. Something … complicated passed beneath the stoic outlook.

"Good news, Mr Oddbald?" ventured Quicksilver.

Oddbald read through the letter once more, holding his silence for a moment longer. He then glanced back at Quicksilver, his normal expression returned once more.

"News," he said with a shrug, and tossed the paper through the dark open door of his house.

The doors to Celestia's bedchambers edged gently open when Luna pushed upon them. Two Dayguard turned to face her from where they stood at attention on the inner side of the door. She paid them little attention.

"Celestia?" she called.

"Come in," came the feeble voice of the figure smungled under blankets on the room’s huge bed. A single window high above permitted a single ray of sunlight, casting the large room mostly into dimness. The royal regalia glittered faintly on a stand near the back. "Give us some time alone, Sir Stratus, Sir Berserkergang."

The two Dayguard stiffly nodded, one sleek-looking pegasus, one hirsute-looking earth pony, and just as stiffly marched past either side of Luna and out of the bedchamber. Luna stepped forward, bearing some papers at her back. The door was shut behind her.

Luna turned to face the ailing Celestia with a look of no little reproach.

"Thou art a gigantic idiot," she said.

"I love you too, my sister," came the answering hoarse chuckle from Celestia. The Sun Princess wriggled her head out from underneath the blankets. Her eyes had lost some of their lustre, her horn's spiral groove seemed to have become a curving scorch-marked line. A faint smile flickered around the edges of her mouth. "So. Sixty settlements at once. I think I did rather well, myself."

"I think thou art an idiot."

"We've covered this. You have to say nice things about the heroic invalid now."

"A self-sure, forgetful, conceited idiot who forgets that she isn't all-powerful!" Luna strode towards the bed. "Exhausting thyself! Spreading thyself and thy power thin! And collapsing only on the instant each town under thou declares the all-clear. Let us bow to the gracious and moderate wisdom of Ever-Resplendent Celestia, for it is truly unequalled on this vast earth."

"…Worth it," Celestia said after a few moments, a wry grin edging its way into her tone. "Didn't lose a single one. Good day's work. Should strive for more like it."

"Don't scare me like that!" Luna shouted. The Royal Canterlot Voice threatened, and her voice dropped and trembled. "I … I was still in Cloudsdale battling the storm there when word came from Canterlot that thou had appeared and collapsed. A full hour I had to remain at my post till the skies had cleared, and every second -"

"Shh," said Celestia gently, pushing back the blanket and, with effort, raising one wing as if in invitation. "Come here."

Luna paused mid-gulp, and then crept closer. Heaving herself up onto the bed, she lay down and let Celestia's great wing envelop her. She felt the warmth of the feathers around her, felt the strong and slow heartbeat against her ear, heard Celestia's wearied but gentle breaths next to her. For a moment, they were fillies in the forest once again.

"I'm sorry I scared you," she heard Celestia say. "I truly am. I should have been wiser."

Luna moved her head to venture a smile up at Celestia's tired expression. "Th'art alive. As is Equestria. That's all that's important at the end of the day, I suppose."

"The first part is especially something of a comfort," said Celestia. "I may have to ask you to fill in for my stead in court for a time. Until I am back on form."

"I can manage it," said Luna. "I am up to speed on the law and thine own record of deliberations and decisions. I'm sure I'll find room for improvement along the way as well."

Celestia chuckled. "I may have to postpone the upcoming state tour as well." Her voice grew briefly somber. "It may have to be cancelled altogether."

"Postpone it to a month hence, no more," said Luna. "By that time, thou will at least be well enough to sit in court and Parliament and enjoy all they have to offer. I can take thy place in the tour."

Celestia hesitated then. "I suppose the other heads of state will be curious to make your acquaintance," she said at last.

"I'll even take the Nocturna," said Luna. "It might even fly by that time, who knows."

The words And I'll attend to certain other things didn't need to be spoken.

"You had papers when you entered," prompted Celestia after a comfortable while. "Matters for my attention?"

Luna sighed. "Yes. I crossed paths with Minister Fancy Pants on my way here, and he requested that I pass them on. Not pleasant reading for the most part, I fear." She floated the first one around until it rested before them on the bed. "A preliminary sum of damages to infrastructure in the storm's wake."

Celestia scanned it briefly. "The Disaster Relief Fund should be enough to cover that. If not, I know certain nobleponies and businesses that have been remiss on their duty to the national revenue. I can wave a donation tin in quite a threatening manner when I am pressed. What else?"

Luna put the paper away and drew forth the next one. "A plea for aid from the Asinial Parliament. Their seawalls were ruined in spite of minimal damage elsewhere, and they'll struggle to rebuild them before the autumn floods threaten Asincittà itself."

"I doubt they'll object too much to the deployment of Equestrian troops on their soil, but I'll … you, rather, will send the formal requests for passage regardless. A Legion's complement of engineers should speed the process considerably."

Luna drew forth the last piece of paper. "Lastly, for now, this. A sum of all casualties at this stage."

Celestia's gentle expression fell grim, and she looked down at the neat lines of writing. "Five," she said, a note of bitterness entering her voice.

"Once upon a time, we would have been relieved had it been as few as a hundred times that number," said Luna.

"That was once upon a time. We must strive to improve. Always improve." Celestia put the paper aside. "Read me their names."

"What good will it possibly do?" Luna said softly.

"Luna," said Celestia, turning to her, "Please."

Luna held still for a moment, then cleared her throat and turned to the paper and the names and details therein. "Sun-Dapple and Mahogany, a farmer couple in the countryside outside Baltimare. They were old. They probably refused to evacuate when alerted by the Guard. They were found this morning in their bed. The storm had set their house afire and then doused it under rainwater, but not before their bedroom was choked in fumes."

Celestia nodded, her expression far away. Luna continued.

"In Fort Livery, Zephyr Gauze, Chevalier De Gendarme, and Skewbald Doul." It was an odd and bitter thing to still see a De Gendarme haunt a list of casualties even after all this time. The last name poked at Luna's memory as well, and she suddenly recalled the student who had been mentioned in the meeting a few scant days before. She turned to Celestia's own expression and saw a carefully-presented blankness. "A farrier student, a Guard cadet, and the unicorn who helmed the nullifier. They were seen trying to correct the fallen nullifier just as the storm struck. They succeeded. The town's fort was undamaged. But they … well."

Celestia's blank mask fell away. No tears followed. She just looked infinitely and impossibly tired. Luna, after a further moment's hesitation, gently nuzzled her.

"I hope thou aren't doing anything so foolish as blaming thyself for what happened," she said. "To any of them. They went knowingly to risk, the student volunteered for the duty. Thou couldn't have known -"

"No. I'm past that stage of leadership of pointless self-loathing." Celestia sighed, and weakly returned the nuzzle and dipped her head back onto a pillow. "The road to perfection's just a long one to walk. One day, it'll be perfect. No more illness, no more death, no more ponies dying or being hurt by cruel chance in a cruel world. One day."

Luna broke the silence after a while of it hanging heavy in the still air. "We'll meet that day together when it comes, sister. It'll come." She kissed the top of Celestia's head, and picked her way out from underneath her wing and off the bed. "I'll let thou get to thine rest. I'll be back soon. Cadance will almost certainly come by, if she hasn't been here already."

Celestia nodded vaguely, and closed her eyes as she sunk further into the pillow and blankets.
"Sleep well," murmured Luna, trotting to the door.

The room was silent in her wake.