• Published 17th Mar 2013
  • 900 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.

  • ...
3
 106
 900

Mire

That night, Zephyr slept poorly. When dreaming came to him at last, all he could hear were the screams of a patient under his hooves. Blood spotted Zephyr's tools, Zephyr's coat, and coated the patient under crimson, and the only thing that punctuated the screams were short gasps for breath. He'd delve into his farrier's bag and find it zipped tight and shut, he'd tear it open with champing teeth and find it empty, and he could do nothing.

When wakefulness came at last at the prodding hoof of a contemptuous-looking Skewbald, he found that he'd flurried the grass and detritus around him with thrashing. In the dim light given by a dying campfire, he attended to the still Chevalier. His hooves brushed skittishly and lightly across the cadet's bandages, and his heart caught in his mouth each time he had to peel one wetly back. A farrier caused no harm. A farrier caused no pain.

When his own turn came, Skewbald slept poorly. When dreaming found him, it came on like a black and cold shroud. The underlying magic of the world all around brushed across his mind, as overwhelmingly dark and gnawing and pitiless as before. Amidst its inchoate tangles and shadows, it wasn't impossible to believe something was moving. Was watching back.

Skewbald, even half-conscious, tried to sound that unsounded dark with a brief flourish of arcane percept. He might as well have tried to light the middle of an ocean with a candle.

Chevalier slept like a log. Drowsethistle and forty hours without sleep will do that to a pony.


It'll also leave their mouth tasting like well-salted mud when they awaken, as Chevalier discovered when consciousness finally reared its ugly head.

His armour was the first thing to greet his eyes, lying in a haphazard pile. The criniere and back plates had been left lying upside-down, washed clean by some rainfall during the night. Skewbald was curled up in a bay-and-white ball just past them, snoring gently.

The scent of damp vegetation and the aroma of burnt mantaghast hit Chevalier's sky was dull, the weak sunlight veiled by a pall of a grey clouds. The day was cold; the same drizzle that had washed Chevalier's armour had left his coat clammy and damp. He shivered, winced and felt his bandage-swathed back and neck prickle with the familiar ache of scars on the mend.

"Glaaaaah," Chevalier said, opening his mouth to let some freshness in. On the other side of the campfire's ashes, he saw Zephyr rhythmically zipping his farrier's bag open and shut. Zephyr turned round to see Chevalier. His weary expression shifted into a wan smile that didn't quite reach his eyes, red with what Chevalier presumed to be lack of sleep.

"Rise and shine, patient of mine. How are you feeling?"

"Not at my best, but not at my worst. Thank you for asking," croaked Chevalier.

"Very helpful. How's your back? Does it hurt? Can you move it?"

Chevalier shifted, and was rewarded with the blessed absence of the same pain that had crippled him last night. His back and neck itched, as if a mass of healing tissue were still shifting and trying to find its place in the world, but that was all. The resounding lack of an injury that had left him all but motionless and mindless with agony was the most liberating feeling in all the world, banishing the early-morning cobwebs in his mind and all but cracking his face in half with grinning. Seized by the feeling, he abruptly stood before Zephyr could object. The cool morning breeze beat off his damp coat.

"It doesn't hurt much at all!" said Chevalier with a delighted laugh, trotting in a quick circle and turning back to face Zephyr. "You know your work, farrier."

"I suppose several years and many sleepless nights of study had to leave some sort of impression," replied Zephyr with a weak chuckle.

Chevalier frowned and peered closer at Zephyr. "Are you alright?"

Zephyr didn't respond immediately, waving one hoof in a circle before stammering, "No, it's alright. Not much sleep last night, that's all. That's probably going to become a running theme out here."

Chevalier grinned and opened his mouth to offer a few reassuring words. Just then, his back prickled again. The memories of last night and what he'd done, what he'd tried to insist on, came crashing back like a sledgehammer.

For a moment, he stood there and tried to look anywhere other than into Zephyr's eyes. What had he been thinking?

But he had to look up eventually. You couldn't call yourself a De Gendarme if you didn't fight the difficult battles.

"I'm sorry for putting you through that stupid pride of mine yesterday," Chevalier said quietly. "I should have known better."

Zephyr seemed taken aback. "That's quite alright," he said hesitantly. "You were just trying to save our supplies. That was a good thing to do. No hard feelings for the attempt."

"No, it … it was pride. It wasn't just trying to save our supplies. That probably wasn't even most of it. Not even a majority of it." Chevalier sighed and gestured vaguely with a hoof. "I could have saved us both what happened. I should have known what I was capable of. Next time, I'll listen to you. I promise."

"Well, I … I suppose that's gratifying to hear. But really, you did have the right to refuse the treatment, and I won't hold it against you." Zephyr shifted his weight from hoof to hoof. "For that matter, though I can't recall it all that well, I'm reasonably sure you saved my life at least once yesterday. Just call it even?"

Chevalier grinned. "Even." He extended a hoof for Zephyr to bump.

Zephyr moved hesitantly in, and Chevalier went for the bump. Zephyr tried to shake it, and the resulting confusion eventually resulted in a vigorous hoof-shake and a laugh from each of them.

"Oh, good. We're bonding," came the acerbic voice of Skewbald, the instant after they'd finished laughing. "Does it have to happen when ponies are trying to sleep?"

"Not many more sleeping hours ahead anyway, for whatever comfort that's worth," said Chevalier. "The sun's up. We've got another day's march ahead of us. If I'm any judge, two more solid days should put the bay at our back and bring us up to the mountains."

"Here I must interject," said Zephyr. "You're both convalescents. I'd want to keep you both here and still for another day until I can be sure you're back in fighting form. Straining yourselves won't do either of you any good."

"Yes. Let us injured ponies stick around in this exposed place where we've already been attacked by predators. There's a plan that's good for our health." Skewbald stood up, his mouth swishing and a grimace spreading across his narrow features. He spat at the ground. "Uck. I need fresh water. And to refill my thermos. And to graze."

He stalked off towards a small burn that burbled at the edge of the trees. Chevalier caught Zephyr's brief and irritated huff.

"Delivered as it may have been in his usual sweet-natured manner -" said Chevalier in a low tone.

"I heard that," came the distant voice of Skewbald.

"- He's not technically wrong. Standing here would make us sitting ducks for anything that wandered round. More mantaghasts, a timberwolf pack, whatever other awful things the North has to offer. We have to keep going. After a graze and a drink, of course."

"We're not exactly going to avoid the nastier elements if we keep on walking. We'll just be more likely to encounter new ones," said Zephyr.

"True. But this area already stinks of battle, and since we burned the mantaghasts, their scent's in the wind. Other creatures will come to investigate. We wouldn't enjoy the experience." Zephyr frowned, and Chevalier pitched his voice a shade gentler. "We can take it easy, though. No sense in straining ourselves, you're right. If you call a halt, I'll listen and make sure Skewbald does as well."

There came an amused snort from the direction of the unicorn. Zephyr's brow furrowed.

"It's a compromise I can live with," he sighed. "Hopefully, it's one we can all survive with, for that matter. Now eat some grass and drink your fill of streamwater before we start trotting. Farrier's orders."


'Take it easy' was a fine plan in conception. In the North, it emerged stillborn.

The forest running along the bay plunged down into a mess of entwined pines and tangles of thorned undergrowth. Zephyr flew where he could find the space beneath the low canopy; Chevalier, his armour awkwardly worn atop his bandages, bludgeoned a path flat for Skewbald in his wake. The terrain grew damper as it descended, steeper and steeper yet. Tumbling was a constant risk, and where the thorn bushes grew particularly high and dense, it was too easy to imagine falling into one and remaining hopelessly trapped.

Eventually, the ground flattened as they neared the shoreline. An expanse of brackish wetland awaited them, the whole terrain a slurry of mud, little streams, and pools of foul-smelling water, pockmarked by huge, pale willows. Dark fruit dangled from their low-hanging tendrils, glistening in the paltry light. Clouds of flies hovered this way and that, their buzzing a constant background drone.

"Watch your step," said Chevalier as he ventured out of the wooded descent and onto the marsh's edge. His shod foot crashed through one of the muddles, and slime adhered to it when he drew it out. "This seems like a place for quicksand. Or a deep pool of mud that would have much the same effect. Keep flying, Zephyr. Be ready to teleport yourself clear, Skewbald."

"And what will you be doing?" asked Zephyr.

"Thinking happy thoughts and hoping for the aid of my stout companions should it be needed."

The flies then discovered the nice big warm-blooded mammals stomping their way through the marsh, and the happy thoughts vanished shortly after.

Chevalier, like most Equestrians, didn't especially believe in any deity, instead putting his stock in veneration of the two Princesses and acknowledgement of some initial, dispassionate, and inscrutable Creator. But in that moment, he found himself wishing he did follow some more personal Creator like the Bovish did, just so he could make a point of cursing it.

"Change of plans," he said, as Zephyr flew past at one point. "We keep walking. We keep walking through this swamp until it's far behind us, or until we're too tired to care about anything other than flopping down and sleeping on the spot."

"I find myself hard-pressed to object," said Zephyr. "Gah, why does it have to have mist as well?"

A sea-mist had swept in as they trotted, turning anything past a hundred feet to an indistinct wall of damp whiteness. Willows loomed out like rotting hulks from a shroud, their tendrils whispering on the tops of pools as a gentle wind blew through them.

"It's nice to get out and about in a swamp once in a while," Chevalier remarked as they passed by a willow, the tendrils brushing briefly across his back. "You so rarely get the chance in Equestria, and it makes you appreciate every other kind of terrain so much more."

"We do have some swamps somewhere. There's a Froggy Bottom Bog near Ponyville, I think. And others in that vicinity," said Zephyr.

"That's right on the edge of the Everfree, though. Stands to reason." Chevalier shook his head admiringly. "Hah. I thought Fort Livery was a pretty hardcore place. And then I found out about Ponyville."

"Living next to the Everfree. Idiots, all of them," said Skewbald.

"'Magnificent lunatics' is the polite term ..." Chevalier trailed off when he noticed the others giving him revolted looks. "What?"

"Check your back," said Zephyr, his eyes wide and staring.

Chevalier craned around as far as he could, wincing with the itching pain of the stretch. One of the dark fruits had detached from the willow and had clung to his back, blackly glistening and as roughly large and plump as a hedgehog. Red specks glinted like tiny jewels over its body, little crab-like claws clacked upon his armour. A sucking mouthpart at one end clung onto his backplate, seemingly unsure of what to make of the metal.

Chevalier hissed with disgust, and he knocked the strange leech off with one sharp hoof. It toppled into a pool and vanished with a few bubbles breaching the surface.

"I'm not sure why so many make something of how good it is to have something or someone cling to you with their lips," Skewbald remarked. "It never seems to bode well in nature." He took a step forward, and cursed as his hoof plunged through a thin layer of vegetation and into a stagnant pool.

When he drew it out, something black and glistening gummed at his fetlocks.

Skewbald's own revolted bark pealed around the swamp. He swung his hoof up to send the leech flying into the air, and his bark was almost outdone in volume by the follow-up arcane blast that scattered the leech over a wide area of the swamp.

"For shame. It probably had a family to support," said Chevalier as the last of the leech particles pattered into nearby pools

"Good. Let them starve."

The leeches weren't the only creatures Chevalier sighted as he walked. The same double-headed gulls he'd seen yesterday keened overhead, brief shadows past the overhanging mist. Tiny frogs hopped from pool to stream, easy pickings for the unnaturally large dragonfly nymphs that stalked the same waters restlessly. An unnaturally large adult specimen droned listlessly past at one point as well, its wingspan comparable to that of a pegasus foal; a brief flash of electric-blue that promptly vanished into the grey pall.

At one point, they passed by a tall stork-like bird that seemed to shimmer faintly. They drew nearer and Chevalier saw that its feathers and stiff, upright body gleamed a soft and lustrous grey, as if carved from fine quartz. Some crystalline cousin to phoenixes? Chevalier wanted a closer look.

The bird stepped forwards daintily to impale a passing frog on its beak, revealing massive raptor-like claws on its feet that seemed up to the task of eviscerating any brief annoyance. Chevalier decided to give it a polite berth, and they continued onwards.

The day only got notionally brighter, the sun's light struggling to penetrate the sea mist. At one point when it seemed brightest, presumably mid-day (a notion supported by Skewbald, who seemed to have a little clock hidden amongst whatever was going on in his machine-like brain), a bare hillock rose before them, offering dry elevation out of the swamp. Standing room only, but Chevalier would take what he could get.

"We'll have a break here," he announced, and was met with no dissent. The three clambered out of the clammy wetness and onto the marginally less damp hill. Chevalier let himself collapse to the grass, the fading ache along his neck and back flaring up once more. He cropped at the grass and screwed his face up as he tried to chew and force the thick, bitter stuff down. Skewbald slumped next to him, bit at the grass, and immediately spat his mouthful to one side.

"We could stop here for the day," said Zephyr, flapping in the air just above them. "Make sure you're not straining yourselves."

"I know I said I'd follow my farrier's orders," Chevalier hesitantly replied, "But I don't think this is anything like the right sort of place to dig in for the night. It's not sheltered, there's no firewood, there's hardly room for the three of us to lie down."

"The first two to sleep would freeze to death where they lay, and the first on watch would be carried off by some unspecified but undoubtedly horrible bog-monster. Assuming eating this grass doesn't kill us first," said Skewbald. "We press on through the swamp and find better ground. That's the only sensible course."

"Problem is, we don't know how far away that might be," said Zephyr. He looked speculatively skywards. "I could fly up. Try and breach the mist, take a look around."

"No," said Chevalier. "You'd be out of sight and out of our ability to help. What if there's another mantaghast pack?"

"They won't be a worry, they're crepuscular and nocturnal hunters for the most part," said Skewbald. "They'll be most likely to come for us while we're settling in for the evening. Or when we're sleeping."

"...Good to know. But the point stands. It'd be like ..." Chevalier screwed up his face as he tried to think of a light-hearted example. "Did you ever read any Daring Do books? It'd be like in Daring Do and the Crown of Shadows, where they make camp one night -"

"Make camp in the Cold Claw Hills, Short Stuff wanders off and gets snatched away by a skin-trotter, Daring and the rest split off one by one to find him, they get hoovered up by Palomino who's in cahoots with the skin-trotter and get imprisoned in his air-ship … yeah, I read more than my share of Daring Do." Zephyr's brief blush was outshone by a grin. "Not my personal favourite in the series, that one, but I get your point. No wandering off lest I get captured by a skin-trotter."

"Really? I loved that one, even if it was just for the whole fight scene on the air ship when it's circling Mount Shadow at the climax. I wanted my own air ship after reading that. Annoyed my mom and dad about it for days after. But, ah, yes. Exactly. We wouldn't be able to save you in any case, since we'd have lost our closest Daring Do equivalent."

"Heh. I'm not that much of a Daring Do. Though I'll tell you the truth, and this passes no further than the immediate company, I did once dress up as Scalpel Edge when I was a foal, when my school had a dressing-up day. He was probably far too formative for my own good."

"...Wasn't he the mad farrier she had to outwit in The Sea of Chaos?"

"Hey, he had good intentions." Zephyr glanced towards Skewbald. "Are you much of a Daring fan as well?"

"I don't even have the faintest comprehension of whatever you're both blithering about, and I intend to live a long and happy life keeping it that way." A sneer spread across Skewbald's face "Isn't that a foal's series?"

"Young adult!" assured Zephyr. "When the writing's as good as it is -"

"Let's not start a fellowship-destroying argument over Daring Do. That would be a terrible thing to have inscribed on our tombstones," interjected Chevalier. He paused, and then added, "Though seriously, if you didn't read any of it, then you had one heck of a misspent foalhood, Skewbald."

Skewbald didn't reply, instead turning away with a derisive snort. Zephyr flapped down to eat his own share of the grass, and expressed his opinion on its quality shortly afterwards by doing his damnedest to not throw up.

They broke that makeshift camp shortly after, pressing on eastwards. The swamp grew damper, the streams wider and deeper, the pools deeper and less stagnant. The sun shifted in the sky and the mist receded at one point. The way ahead curved out of sight past a craggy cliff-face. Pines flourished from its top and sprouted in isolation up its sides, overlooking the swamp and the waters of the bay.

Other creatures were revealed by the receding mist. Chains of rocks rose near the shore like the serrated edges of a saw breaching the water, black and barnacle-encrusted. Atop several of them, creatures like cousins to hydras lay lazily in the cool day. Their broad green-black bodies supported clusters of comically long necks topped with tiny heads, which continually dipped into the water and emerged with mouthfuls of seized fish. One head of one of the creatures turned to regard the three as they passed, beady black eyes glinting above a snaggle-toothed mouth dripping with fish guts.

"Come to the sunny North if you're tired of life," muttered Chevalier as they kept on trotting, his back itching with the constant motion. "Experience its hospitality. Swim in the beautiful waters. Interact with the magnificent wildlife. Bring your family – the inhabitants are always hungry for fresh company."

There was a brief moment of relative excitement when one of the long-necked heads plunged into the water, and was discouraged in its egress by the intervention of a small shark. Chevalier watched wide-eyed as the creature's other heads trumpeted in alarm, as the seized neck was drawn tight into the water amidst a growing stain in the water. Zephyr balked when the neck abruptly flopped back, red spraying from the stump where its head used to be. Skewbald regarded the dark fin moving through the water with a detached expression and a slightly tilted head, until he was encouraged to move on via prodding.

The mist drew back in as the day wore on and the three kept walking; Chevalier was hard-pressed to see more than a few metres in front of them. Deep and hidden streams threatened to trip them over at every step, and thickening mud made taking these steps a trial. Sweat beaded his brow, an unwelcome companion that quickly caught the cold air and made him shiver past his exertion.

The sky was getting darker as well, the mist more of a shroud than ever before. Chevalier by now had settled into that frame of mind that fed the pain mounting in his limbs as fuel to a bull-headed drive to see the job done. He knew he could keep trotting until they found better ground to sleep on, and he would – but the others couldn't. Zephyr had the luxury of alternating between his wings and his hooves, but both were beginning to tire. Skewbald was worse off yet, his small frame demanding more energy to keep up the pace. He'd fallen into a pool of mud in his fatigue, and when Chevalier had whirled round to help, the unicorn had struggled briefly and had then teleported himself free with a eye-splitting blast of nigh-uncontrolled magic. He trotted past Chevalier without a sideways glance, dripping stinking mud all the way.

It was dark, they were dead on their hooves, and there was no end to the swamp. But Chevalier sighted another grassy rise, and he knew that would have to do.

"We'll stop there," he called out, his voice surprising himself with its hoarseness. Zephyr offered up a weak "Huzzah." Skewbald didn't respond.

They half-trotted, half-crawled up onto the knoll, which had a little bit more lying room than the previous one. Zephyr and Skewbald slumped down almost immediately, Chevalier stopped to regard the world around the rise. A few metres of dark, dank grass and water on all sides, and past them, grey nothingness.

He shivered where he stood. But there was nothing to burn, and their unicorn was probably out of commission.

"I'll take first watch," Chevalier said. "Then Zephyr. Then Skewbald. Skewbald, if there's anything you can do to produce any lasting heat throughout the night – anything at all -"

The unicorn looked up with dull eyes, apparently lacking so much as a barbed remark. "Stand aside," he muttered eventually.

Chevalier did so, and Skewbald's gaze acquired some degree of focus as he looked where Chevalier had been standing. Green flickered around his horn in shifting, complex patterns, and after a few moments of twitching and muttering, a plate-sized orb of blazing green light flared to life. It hung suspended like a will-o'-wisp, shedding flickering green light and a steady warmth. Nothing like a campfire's comfort, but it would have to serve.

"An hour," said Skewbald, his voice vague with tiredness. A curl of smoke trickled up from the tip of his horn. "That's as long as we're getting. Might be able to renew it when my watch starts. Now let me sleep." He rolled over, green light spilling across his muddy back, and he shortly began to snore. Zephyr joined him soon after.

Chevalier took his armour off, and cleaned it as best he could with a grimy cloth drawn out from a compartment in the metal. He passed his watch with one eye on the skies and one on the marsh around, expecting and seeing nothing.

He woke up in the morning barely recovered and utterly frozen, and found the mist gone. Skewbald and Zephyr were united for once in staring at a cleared point with wrathful disgust. The swamp ended and the forest rose some twenty metres distant from their position.

Chevalier joined them. It was something they could all bond over.


The forest rose, up into what was a rippling series of foothills before the beginning of the mountains. It was a hard ascent up merely the one hill, its sides steep and thick with trees and trailing roots eager to trip up unsuspecting ponies. Patches of thickly-growing bracken and grey-and-purple heather provided obstacles or mouth-holds, most often the former. Rocks slipped underneath their hooves, small animals darted past while screeching their adorable and irritatingly kickable heads off, and branches alternated between whipping at their sides and looming immovably in their path; all uphill, all the way.

But amongst its virtues was this, it wasn't a swamp.

At the hill's summit, they stopped and took stock. West of them, the mountains rose like a great grey wall, dark clouds pulsing around their distant peaks. South of them, past the narrowing waters of Blackwards Bay, the horizon had grown to fill a good quarter of their field of vision. Individual trees and boulders were visible. If there'd been a rival trio on the other side, they would have stood a good chance of noticing them and being able to wave across.

"One more day," said Chevalier. "One more day of trotting and we'll reach the furthest tip of the bay. Then it'll be a matter of crossing the mountains through whatever handy gap presents itself."

"And after that?" said Skewbald archly.

"And after that, we shall be miraculously happened upon by a flight of friendly griffons, who shall wine and dine us in their mead halls and beseech us for tales of our journey thus far, and who will then fly us back to Equestria and a warm hero's welcome there."

Silence ensued.

"I'll be the first to admit that plan-making is not an exact science, but – alright, fine. Zephyr, could you fly up for a moment? Don't go too far, just enough to see if there's anything like a clear trail from here to the edge of the mountains."

Zephyr looked up into the sky, closed his eyes briefly and swallowed, and said, "Okay. I can do that."

"If you'd rather -" Chevalier started, only to be interrupted by Zephyr taking off. He flew straight up until he was a speck against the furrowed fields of clouds and pale blue sky far above. Chevalier saw him fly to and fro, shifting his position.

After several minutes, Zephyr flew back down. "I think there's a trail," he said, shaking off his wings. "If we go down the other side of this hill and stick to the low ground, it's marginally clearer and easier to trot through. It winds all the way up to what looks like a gap between the mountains. I can keep flying up, make sure we're on the right track."

"Excellent!" Chevalier turned to face the mountains with a grin. "Five minutes to crop here. Then we march until the bay's just something we can look down on from afar."

"An astonishingly agreeable series of words," said Skewbald. "Keep that habit up."

It was still hardly easy going, through the twisting and dense little gullies that ran between the foothills. Streams coursed down their centres, and brambles and thorn bushes grew thick and fast. Timberwolves shared the terrain, though the few the three saw seemed to decide to steer clear of any group in favour of easier pickings.

But they persevered as the shadows lengthened and the sun drifted down through the sky. One last ascent, before the blue-and-white of the sky darkened into indigo-and-orange twilight, and they were done.

Below, at one side, Blackwards Bay stretched out like an expanse of shimmering copper under the darkening sky, flanked by rocky hills and a dank coastline. On the other side, mountains rose past sight, threatening the stars themselves.

Chevalier, as he took off his armour and let Zephyr fuss over and remove his bandages, couldn't help but heave a sigh of relief. A foul beginning was behind them. The mountains lay ahead.


On dark wings, the figure glided down through the darker sky. He had followed the wake of the storm for such a distance – a vast distance, by most normal measures. Several days and nights of leisurely but unbroken flight had been enough to take him all the way.

The strange, encumbered arcane trails of the storm led here, to this little jag of land at the absolute east. A bay swept in beneath it, like a little hungry mouth swallowing seawater at the land's edge.

It was an apt comparison. He knew the entity that haunted this place. It was always hungry, in its own twisted manner.

He sniffed twice, hunting around for the termination of the trails, for the residue of that final burst of magic. There – just below him in the air, a little to his left as he swept down. A exit point in mid-air, the invisible energies swirling around it not yet dispersed by the latent wild magic. There were two others nearby, likewise all mid-air, all showing a similar magical yield.

A hardly desirable exit point, if the cargo was alive and unable to fly, but it trumped a termination somewhere beneath the earth's surface.

He flew down into the forest beneath the exit point, hunting around for any signs of whatever had been carried this far away from Equestria. If it had been something inert – a suit of pony-armour or a hearthstone, something of that nature – then he'd find its shattered ruins. If it had been something alive, then he'd either find nothing or a skeleton picked clean and scattered.

He found nothing, save for the remains of some hoofprints in the undergrowth that hadn't yet been entirely swept away by rain. Teeth bared in an approximation of a smile.

He followed the hoofprints, finding them doubled next to the remains of a tree stump seemingly yanked free of the ground. The new set left a heavy impression, as if the wearer were wearing shoes. The twin sets led to a cluster of pines that had knotted themselves together. In the ground at their bases, a third set of hoof prints, somewhere between the heaviness of the first and second sets, had alighted briefly.

One light set of hoofprints, one heavy set, and one set that could take off from the ground at will. The figure's smile sharpened. This was promising.

Onwards through the forest they ran, and onwards he pursued them. Strange wee rabbit-creatures hopped out of his way or were flattened under his hooves. The trees thinned, and he came to a clearing. A new kind of tree stood alone, and a short distance away from it, the remains of a campfire lay strewn across the damp ground.

The figure did laugh then, a brief bark that emerged from his ruined throat like a cough. No need to glamour it, nobody was around to hear.

"What fine gifts, to be sent so far from home," he murmured to himself. "They shall be sought and appreciated, have no fear."

They only had one way to go. He looked west, along the edge of the bay. He could find them without much difficulty, assuming they were still alive. The campfire looked several days old. But if they were, and he found them … then observation. Interrogation. Whatever suited his purposes. Let him see what Equestria and Equestrians had made of themselves over nine hundred years of his absence.

Some rest first, though. He wasn't as strong as he'd once been, and while the feeling rankled, it wouldn't be productive to deny it..

There was a tickling sensation on his leg, and he looked down to see one of the tree's thin branches coiling around his knee. It pulled, with all the success of a ant pulling at a mountain.

The figure rolled his eyes before focusing on the tree. A heartbeat passed, and then every exposed inch of the tree blazed amidst a sudden inferno. Leaves crackled and fell apart in black fragments, flames coiled up and around branches, and the expanding pressures at the tree's heart made the wood creak and groan, made the tree all but scream.

The figure lay down beside, casually nibbling at the grass as he did so. The burning tree beat a warm heat upon his hide. It was good to be warm again.