• 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.

  • ...


Like any trained farrier student, Zephyr looked at the problem before him and the tools he had at hoof to correct it. The problem was determining whatever trauma had been heaped upon the unicorn before him and treating it properly, and the tools were the complete stock of his handsomely-provisioned office.

Getting one to the other would, admittedly, be a problem in itself. But there was a solution at hoof for that as well.

"Cadet Chevalier? Could you help me lift Skewbald to my office?" Zephyr clocked the noise of assent from Chevalier, mentally running through what he could do. There was the standard battery of tests for determining the extent of head injuries, the interview process, the standard and arcane materials he had for healing trauma swiftly…

"Alright, if I can get in from this side … " came Chevalier's voice. Zephyr looked up to see the cadet looking speculatively at the chariot's side and applying greater downwards pressure with his hooves. The wood groaned in protest.

"Wait, no," said Zephyr hurriedly. "You'd want to approach him and lift him from his left, since you don't want to jostle the right too much. Go round the other side, next to me."

"Ah, fair point." Chevalier circled around the chariot, while Zephyr watched him like a hawk. This would be the first patient he'd attended in – in a span of time large enough to be beyond his current capacity for estimation, and he didn't want anything to go wrong. He flapped into the air and hovered at a few feet, his eyes constantly darting from the cadet to the stricken unicorn, who at this moment appeared to be regarding them both with some impatience.

Chevalier insinuated himself next to Zephyr, and Zephyr gave him space, flapping to one side in the air while Chevalier loomed over the left side of the chariot. "Is there enough room to -? No, not enough to get into it and pick him up. This'll have to involve some amount of carefully controlled destruction."

"What are you doing? That's Royal property."

The interjection came from two pegasi seemingly swooping out of nowhere, giving Zephyr a start both at their entrance and as he recognised their armour and curious wings. He was flying next to Nightguard – Nightguard! - the personal force of Princess Luna herself. One of them came to a stop in mid-air next to Zephyr, shooting a briefly-curious glance his way, while the other, a mare, landed on the ground next to Chevalier to shoo him away from the chariot's side.

"Ma'am," said Chevalier, turning crisply to the Nightguard and throwing off a proper salute. "We're trying to retrieve the injured passenger within the chariot. The vehicle seems like it may be - "

There was a brief wobble throughout the chariot; upon which both badly-battered wheels attached to it seemed to just give up the ghost and collapsed into splinters. The whole thing jolted to the ground, and a cut-off curse issued from within.

"- Is definitely a write-off. Dismantling it to retrieve an injured occupant seemed like the appropriate course of action, ma'am."

"Hmm," mused the Nightguard. "You're a cadet, I take it?"

"Yes, ma'am. Cadet First-Class Chevalier, due to enlist with distinction next spring."

"Well, cadet, I'm Dame Nox of Her Lunar Majesty's Nightguard, and I suspect you'll have no trouble rising through the ranks and doing the Guard proud. And I'm awfully sorry to pull rank on you, but as you must be aware, these sorts of chariots are technically part of the Royal Household, personal possessions of the Princesses no matter their condition."

An impatient whicker from within the chariot went ignored. Zephyr was still trying to come to terms with being near actual guards of the Princesses themselves.

"Understood, ma'am," said Chevalier in his own turn. "But …"

"Therefore, if there's any wanton destruction to be dealt to Royal property, as responsible and proper members of Her Majesty's Nightguard, we get to dispense it." The mare looked up. "Sir Gibbous?"


"Let's dispense some wanton destruction. Left side, so the farrier can get in."

"Fine," said Gibbous, gliding swiftly down to the ground beside Nox. "But I'm reserving cleaning this up as my duty. You get 'explaining-today's-spectacular-muckup-to-the-commander' duty."

"Shut your insubordinate and ugly face in front of the civilians, if you would. On my mark."

The two turned to the chariot, hooking one black-armoured hoof over the side apiece, and tore the side down to the ground with one swift jerk, revealing Skewbald Doul glowering owlishly at them. A flurry of stamping flattened the splintered edge at the chariot's bottom, and the Nightguard stood aside. Nox nodded at Zephyr.

"All yours, farrier. We'll take the chariot away when you're done."

"Good show. We'll get the passenger out shortly," Relieved to be back in the action and that all the wanton destruction had ceased, Zephyr sent a glance at Chevalier. "If you could?"

"I could indeed," said Chevalier trotting inside to where he stood over Skewbald. The unicorn looked at him with an expression soured by impatience, which Chevalier ignored. "I don't suppose you're able to stand at all? It's not necessary; it just makes this more … 'elegant' might be the best word."

Skewbald grunted and rose with some difficulty. "There. Will this … "

Chevalier ducked down and under Skewbald swiftly, rising again to yank the unicorn off his feet and sprawl him over Chevalier's back like the world's ungainliest and grumpiest saddle. Objection came only in the form of a short and startled grunt, deprived somewhat of air. Zephyr internally winced at the force of the technique, though he recognised it as the same used by firefighters and paramedics all the time without great calamity.

"There," said Chevalier, shifting slightly to make sure Skewbald's weight was more securely distributed as he began to carefully pick his way backwards. "Now it's just a matter of reversing out of here and putting you where the farrier wants you. You okay up there?"

"Ghhk!" replied Skewbald, the paint-stripping glare on his face suggesting to Zephyr that he was currently too surprised and outraged to produce vowels, let alone coherent words.

"Thought so." Chevalier continued to step backwards until he noticed a well-packed saddle-bag lying on the chariot's floor, marked with the same three stars that were Skewbald's cutie mark. He dipped his head again to pluck it up in his mouth by the strap. "Ah've got thish fr y'. S' y'rs, yeah?"

Skewbald produced something that could have been, "Yes," or another startled release of breath at Chevalier's sudden motion. Chevalier kept the saddle-bag in his mouth as he backed out of the chariot and turned to face Zephyr. He arched one brow in query.

"Just in here," said Zephyr, alighting on the ground and trotting towards the clinic. He turned back briefly towards the Nightguard. "Thank you for your help, sirs. Ah, sir and ma'am." He flushed. "Er, Nightguard."

"No trouble," replied Gibbous, already gathering scattered splinters into a pile inside the chariot with sweeps of his tail. "If anypony's roof got damaged, direct them to the Dayguard's offices for reparations, alright? They love handling this sort of stuff. Honest."

Chevalier saluted the Nightguard just before he turned and entered the clinic, carefully trying not to bounce his passenger's head or rear off the walls as he did so. Zephyr ushered him on, counting through assessments in his head.

Preoccupied as Zephyr was, he didn't see Skewbald, whose glare in that moment could have frozen a pan of water, reaching out discreetly with his magic to ignite a chariot-splinter at the bottom of the pile, by way of a parting gift.

"Set him down on the chair inside, then raise it up a notch or two. I'll just look out a few things."

Skewbald could hear the farrier's voice ahead in the open office, into which they had entered after passing through the building's reception area. A stallion on the reception desk had made eye contact and grinned at Skewbald slung over the cadet's back. He mouthed, "Royal treatment, eh?"

Skewbald had returned a glare utterly void of anything ponies could call warmth, which had only made the receptionist cackle quietly into his paperback. This hadn't been the desired effect at all, and Skewbald had tried to think of a suitably stress-venting and appropriately vicious insult to sling the receptionist's way before his thought process had been interrupted by the cadet lumbering forwards and booming, "Mind your snout on the door frame." Skewbald leaned his head back to avoid further ignominious injury from inanimate parts of the environment, and the cadet had then rotated, giving Skewbald a good view of the farrier's office.

It seemed to him both drab and barren of much of interest, and those parts with arrangements of objects were apparently trying to spite him with their disorderliness. The floor was speckled with dust, the window was grimy in places, and the cabinet's stock didn't seem to have been arranged with anything approaching coherence or order. Even the air conditioner occupying one corner of the ceiling seemed to be on its last legs. Wild magic had clearly corrupted part of the magic keeping the coiling coils frozen – the sparkly pink steam coming from it could have hardly been produced by anything else.

The cadet called Chevalier took several more steps forward to the other end of the room, jerking Skewbald's viewpoint around further, and then stopped before a much-patched and low-slung farrier's chair. "Braf' yrs'l f'r l'ndin'," Chevalier said – Skewbald didn't want to consider the damage his teeth would be doing to his bag's strap – and gently bowed before the chair as he stretched his hindquarters into the air. Skewbald slid down onto the chair, legs flailing over the edge, and the cadet gently butted him forward so that he was steady on the chair, his right foreleg still hanging free.

"You comfortable there?" asked Chevalier, releasing the bag and pressing down on the lever at one side of the chair to raise it by several inches. His eyes appeared genuinely concerned, and Skewbald had no idea why.

"Quite, thank you," Skewbald replied sharply, arranging himself into an approximately sphinx-like posture on the flat chair, his injured leg twinging whenever he did so. He looked toward the farrier – Zephyr Gauze, that was the name - who was picking through his own bag on the desk and humming cheerfully and tunelessly as he did so.

Zephyr turned, several objects in his mouth as he ambled toward the chair, still humming. Muffled cries of "Why … why is it on fire? How did you set it on fire?" and "I don't know! I swear to the Sun I don't know!" began to spill in from outside, and Zephyr detoured to slam the door shut and cut off the noise.

"Right," said the farrier, carefully placing the objects on the ground by the chair. "That was a nasty tumble you took outside, even by the relaxed standards of a Guard town. You said you thought you hurt your leg and head. Which leg?"

"Right foreleg," replied Skewbald. He considered asking for Chevalier to be removed – the cadet had elected to hover nearby in spite of being of about as much use as a stuffed draconequus at that moment – but that would probably only lead to unnecessary argument and time-wasting.

"Alright. Now, I'm going to check your head first. Just so we can all be assured nothing's been too badly knocked around in there. Could I ask you to take your glasses off?"

Skewbald reluctantly swept off his glasses and floated them over to the now-blurred table. Zephyr loomed in, largely reduced to a blur himself, and said, "Jolly good. Do you happen to know where you are?"

"In an Equestrian Health Service clinic, in Fort Livery, in the Neighvada region."

"Good. What were you doing before you fell?"

"Sitting in a chariot drawn by the Nightguard. Ruing my decision to get into it."

"Who's the current Arch-Minister in the Asinial Parliament?"

Skewbald paused. "Ah..."

"Be fair, farrier," said Chevalier. "Nopony knows that. They come and go all the time."

"Fair enough." Zephyr raised a hoof. "High-hoof me and then touch your own snout."

Skewbald opened his mouth, and then decided that a flat look could do all the talking necessary.

"Oh, go on. It's a proper assessment of co-ordination and everything." Skewbald sighed and did as bidden, as there came a poorly-concealed chuckle from Chevalier.

"Well, your brains don't seem to be currently rattled, which is always a good thing." Zephyr held still for a moment, presumably looking at Skewbald's gaze and his eye focus. "Nothing else that's a cause for concern – no headache, no blurred vision, no - ?"

"Yes," interrupted Skewbald. "That's the astigmatism. I'd like to put my glasses back on now."

"Oh, of course," said Zephyr, blushing briefly as Skewbald reached out with his magic to reclaim the glasses. "I'll give your leg a look-over. Make charming conversation while I do so – it might twinge a bit, and that'll help distract you."

Skewbald glanced down at the top of the farrier's head as he stooped to look over the leg, placing his hooves gently upon it. The world was adequately in focus again, and he turned to meet the gaze of Chevalier, who seemed to be regarding Skewbald with some interest.

"So," said the cadet brightly. "You're from the School for Gifted Unicorns, I've heard. A graduate?"

"No," said Skewbald, wondering how quickly the cadet would take the hint if he kept his answers short. "I'm here on an assignment from the Princess. Celestia, that is." Luna's return was still relatively recent, remembering that there was now more than one Princess wasn't yet ingrained.

"Oh? That sounds interesting. What's it about?" Chevalier had perked up at the mention of the Princess, an expression of awe briefly passing across his face. Zephyr's gaze had flicked up as well, naked curiosity fighting a winning battle with aloof professionalism across his expression.

Skewbald hesitated.

"It's … something obscure and magical. High-level theory. You'd have had to have read the books."

"Ah. Not easily explainable, then?"

"Not without big words and a preparatory lecture, no." Lying here was easy. The cadet had no reason to believe he was being told one. Let it stay that way.

"Big words? The horror," replied Chevalier with a grin. "Each of us to our own domain of expertise then. How long are you likely to stay for?"

"I'm not exactly – ow!" Skewbald was interrupted by the jolt of pain that came from his knee and quickly flowed down through his leg like a red-hot river. He reflexively drew back from Zephyr, who was watching him critically, and quickly realised he could move the limb again. It was stiff and sore, but within his control again.

"Dislocated knee," explained Zephyr when Skewbald turned a questioning gaze upon him. "Your patella had been knocked out of place by impacting against part of the chariot, by my estimation. I knocked it back into position and it should stay there, with any luck. Hold still for a second." He dipped his head to retrieve something from his medical supplies, and bobbed up again with what looked like a thick, short roll of gleaming white fabric. "Hold out your leg again, if you would?"

Skewbald presented the leg, and Zephyr wound the fabric around his knee and, with some practised hoof-weaving assisted by his teeth, bound it securely in place. He yanked free a red strip at one of the fabric. Motes of light shimmered briefly across it, and Skewbald felt a shiver coursing down his leg and up through his body.

"Recuperative cloth," said Zephyr. "Leave it in place for a day and it'll assist your tissue in repairing itself. You'll be walking around unhurt in no time."

"Thank you," said Skewbald on trained reflex, paying more attention to the recuperative cloth itself than Zephyr's words, holding up his leg and turning it to examine the cloth. Theory sprung fresh from memory. "This works directly on the Form, doesn't it? It determines the working Form of the pony it's bound around when you release the strip – I'd guess at an enchanted form of Crepuscular's Formula for that – and then it uses a small amount of whatever stored magic's been woven into a reserve to nudge it towards that Form, necessarily healing damage as it does so. Am I correct?"

"I think so," said Zephyr. "I was taught that sort of thing from a biological grounding. The arcane fundamentals weren't much touched upon, unless you wanted to go into research, which I didn't. I preferred learning things which let me whack bones approximately into place and tie bandages nicely. Let nopony say I failed in that." He regarded Skewbald with a touch of pride. "Gosh, I think you're really actually my first proper patient."

"Really?" Skewbald hunted around for where Chevalier had left his saddle bag and found it, lifting it up with magic and slipping it over his back.

"Oh, yes. This is my first placement in a clinic, and I've not seen much experience so far – sorry, are you in a hurry?"

"I need to see the mayor about accommodation, and get myself settled in here." A exertion of his magic tightened the bag's strap, and Skewbald gingerly stepped down off the chair. His leg twinged as he put his weight upon it, but he could take a few steps without falling over, and he fancied he could feel the discomfort ebbing. "I don't know how long I'll be here for, so I'd prefer to get ready sooner rather than later."

"Well, in that case, you should register at this practise," said Zephyr enthusiastically. "It'll only take you a few minutes, and let us access any medical history you had in Canterlot, and all sorts of other bureaucratic fun."

Skewbald wanted to leave this office and Zephyr's company – which had started to wear on his patience – but the pegasus was right. "Fine. I'd have to do it sometime. May as well do it here."

"I'll get the paperwork for you," said Zephyr, heading for the door.

Chevalier had trotted up to Skewbald's side. "You're going to meet with the mayor, then?"

Skewbald glanced in his direction. "Yes. Why?"

"I'll walk you there," offered Chevalier. "Help you get your bearings. Show you some of the sights. Make sure you don't get lost and carried off by a pack of timberwolves. All that sort of thing."

"Joy," muttered Skewbald, knowing it would be sensible to agree and resenting it for being so, as Zephyr came rushing back in with a wad of paper and a pencil held in his mouth.

"There you go," said Zephyr, as Skewbald plucked the papers and pencil free. "Just fill them in at your leisure."

Skewbald wordlessly accepted them and suspended the papers in mid-air, briskly filling them in. Name, date of birth, cutie mark, existing conditions, previous registered clinic, security number, nothing he couldn't recall in his sleep.

"You know, there's a get-together I'll be attending this evening after my shift ends," ventured Zephyr after a few minutes. "Nothing major, just a few friends I've made in the town. Snacks, a game of Beasts and Basilicas, that sort of thing. If you'd like to come along, I'll introduce you to the others, and you'd be more than welcome - "

"I'll probably be busy this evening," said Skewbald, entering his signature in the last space it was required, and setting the papers down on the chair. "Is that all?"

"Oh, well, yes," Zephyr hesitantly replied, looking slightly crestfallen. He hadn't seriously expected Skewbald to take him up on that, had he? "If you ever want to meet when you're not busy on an evening, or if – well, get in touch and I'll see you then."

"Perhaps. See you later," said Skewbald, trotting in the direction of the exit. He'd no intention of getting injured in this town again, and the farrier's hurt feelings and social gatherings were about of as much relevance to Skewbald as the beasts in Celestia's private menagerie. He ignored Zephyr and Chevalier exchanging their own farewells behind him. He'd wasted too much time here as it was.

He'd just trotted out of the building when he became aware of Chevalier falling into step beside him.

"The mayor'll be in the town hall this time of day," said Chevalier. "You got time for the scenic route, or do you just want to go in as close to a straight line as possible?"

"The latter."

"I hear you. That should still take us by a scene or two in any case."

"...And those're the earliest members of the family we've got on the records honoured right there in statue form," said Chevalier. "Cataphract and Oriflamme, kicking flank as a married item one-and-a-half thousand years ago, back when Commander Hurricane was still defending Equestria in the Draconic Wars. Founders of Fort Livery as well, sort of, though that's a whole mess of a story - "

A scene or two turned out to be a scene or millions, and the majority of them – whether statue, fountain, or plaque – seemingly commemorated some distant member of Chevalier's own family line, which had apparently been in the business of idiotically dying in some violent manner for Equestria ever since ponykind had been capable of articulating the word 'Charge!'

Skewbald had accepted it as a chance to practise turning his brain off and nodding whenever Chevalier started forming words with his mouth. At least there had been nods to the local general store and library amidst the drivel.

"Over there's a memorial bench to great-great-uncle Flanchard. Highest-ranking casualty at the Battle of Dream Valley, during the Corvid Incursion. Apparently the corvids have a black powder that explodes when you put a flame to it, and he was struck by a thrown bomb full of the stuff. Bits everywhere, like you wouldn't believe - "

Skewbald wondered if any of the other ponies about in Fort Livery, if any out shopping or visiting neighbours at this time of day, or any of the elderly trio currently resting their haunches upon the General Flanchard memorial bench, or any of the foals playing hopscotch in the street, were so much as physically capable of giving as much of a damn about this as Chevalier apparently did. He suspected otherwise.

"...And here we are, just at the top of Pig-Iron Avenue," said Chevalier, coming to a merciful halt as he indicated the town hall, a tall and sharply-angled building towering above the houses on either side. The flag at its top snapped in the sudden stiff wind that sprung up, strong enough to make Skewbald wobble on his feet and make Chevalier place a steadying hoof on his helmet.

"Odd," said Chevalier, turning to look up into the sky. Skewbald followed his gaze, at the clear blue sky marked only by a few swiftly-moving white clouds … and a darker band of them at the northern horizon. "I don't think we were scheduled for winds. I'll have to see what the Weather Patrol's up to." He shrugged, and turned back towards the town hall. "This is your stop for Mayor Red Tape in any case. Want to see if I can get you one of his assistants? That'll get things moving much quicker, in all honesty."

"No," said Skewbald. "I can take it from here. You can get back to … whatever it was you were doing before I arrived here."

Chevalier frowned. "Are you sure? I don't want to have to wander by here later and find you old and bearded and still waiting for a meeting, or carried off by aforementioned timberwolves."

"Very sure. I can handle these sorts of things by myself. In fact, I prefer to."

"It's your call." Chevalier turned to leave, and then glanced around. "You know, if you want to get yourself settled in and introduced to some of the folks around here, you could come by my family's house for dinner some night. You could … "

"You heard what I said to the farrier. I'll be busy this evening." Skewbald let sharpness enter his tone; he had cleared himself of one needless contact, he had every intention of avoiding another, and impatience was biting at his hooves. He was halfway up the steps to the town hall.

"Well, not necessarily this evening. But sometime this ..."

Skewbald turned on the steps, letting an acidic smile find its way onto his features as sharpness took up a full roost in his voice. "Look. Assume that I'll be busy every evening and we can draw this to a happy close. Understand?"

He didn't wait for a response, but simply turned around and kept on walking up the stairs. Behind him, he heard the sound of Chevalier beginning to speak, and then simply letting out a long breath.

That hadn't ended too badly at all in Skewbald's eyes. If he was fortunate, the remainder of the day could be set on a similarly smooth course.

Minutes ticked by, gradually giving way to hours. The sky shifted, the sun moved, and the clouds ran onwards. Unscheduled rain pelted down briefly, was contained by a perplexed Weather Patrol, and then resumed in earnest from a darkening sky. The afternoon turned into evening.

Round about the point where evening started to shift towards night was the point where the door to the town hall creaked upon, from which Skewbald Doul stalked out with a jangling set of keys suspended in a magical grip.

He wasn't sure what he had expected from a mayor whose parents had named him Red Tape, and all things considered he really should have expected that. Thrice he'd had to remind himself that setting legal authorities on fire wouldn't improve his chances of getting back into the School for Gifted Unicorns. But somehow he'd survived, finally had his papers from the Princess verified, and had been directed to a dwelling apparently built around the back of the Town Hall itself in a moment of bizarre architectural whim. He'd been advised about finding a good, steady job in the understaffed local post office, or some seasonal work in the farms for the upcoming harvest season. He was free and clear.

He glanced skywards; the weather was foul and getting fouler. Rain pelted down, and a mutter of a rote trick he'd learned some years ago produced a translucent dome in the air above him, patterned to resemble an umbrella. It kept the rain off as he made his way around the building to where his new home awaited him; a squat structure that was painted to resemble a protrusion from the town hall itself. A moment's fumbling with the keys unlocked the door, and as he stepped inside, another rote trick to produce light let him see.

He coughed at the dust he disturbed as he ventured inside, and knew he'd have to do a lot of cleaning and re-arranging of the furniture before he'd feel comfortable. Unlit candles hung suspended from the ceilings of the rooms he ventured into, and a flame-producing trick applied to each gave the place a much warmer atmosphere.

Locating the bedroom, he slung his saddle-bag onto the bed and dug out the contents, which were all the personal possessions he had in the world. They were few in number – an apple for this night's supper and another for tomorrow's breakfast, a manebrush and toothbrush, a small bag of bits, writing material, and a couple of thick books liberated from the School library – Firebrand's Past Reflections On Fundamental Attribute-Manipulation Of Forms, and Winter Rose's The Theory And Formation Of Glamours: Part Four. He was already partway through them, and with any luck they'd sustain him for another few days.

An hour's dedicated dusting and reshuffling – resorting to physical exertion where his magic simply wasn't strong enough – finally got the whole place in something approaching a habitable state, and Skewbald threw himself onto his bed with satisfaction. He drew out a pen, paper, and the apple, and ate as he considered his next approach.

He'd not divulged his Celestia-sent purpose to Zephyr and Chevalier. 'Learning about the magic of friendship' was the aim of his stay here, but it was one that seemed entirely pointless to Skewbald. He knew you only became friends with other ponies for the value they offered you in that acquaintance, and he'd usually been able to get what he wanted from other ponies with a blessed minimum of contact. It was undeniable that there was some manner of potent magic developed by sustained and productive friendship – you only had to pick up a newspaper detailing how the Elements of Harmony and the ponies who bore them had liberated Princess Luna from Nightmaredom or vanquished Discord for evidence of that.

But as far as Skewbald could tell, you would only ever actually acquire friends if you were incompetent enough to need them or patient enough to tolerate them, and he was certain he was neither of these things. Whatever methods other ponies used to acquire friends, he found a tiresome and patience-eroding chore with no benefit. But if he couldn't overcome that, then his chances of getting back into the School were non-existent.

Luckily, that wasn't his only means of educating himself on the magic of friendship, wasn't it?

After all, wasn't there a student in the year above him in the school – one favoured by Celestia, especially – who had apparently found the magic of friendship where she had been sent? Who had used it successfully in dispatching not one but two crises that had threatened Equestria? Who he had seen in the library from afar almost every time he entered the place while they'd both been in the School, and, although he'd never had any interest in speaking to her, would presumably be open to sharing her knowledge?

Setting pencil to paper in the air above him, he wrote:

Dear Ms. Twilight Sparkle,

Our mutual teacher at the School for Gifted Unicorns and sovereign, Princess Celestia, has assigned to me the task of learning about the magic of friendship. In your capacity as an Element-Bearer and a fellow student of advanced magic, I would particularly value any advice you might offer on pursuing such knowledge.

In particular, in the spirit of scholarship, I would appreciate access to copies of any written findings you may have developed for the magic of friendship.

Yours with respect,

Skewbald Doul

With that, he filled in the necessary addresses, and considered it further. Short, simple, and, with any luck, bound to unearth any knowledge he'd need. He wasn't actually sure what manner of technical studies he might receive if she responded – mental techniques on extracting arcane power from pony interactions? Interpersonal techniques that had been necessary for unlocking the Elements of Harmony, for all the use that might be to him? He had no idea in all honesty, but he'd deal with that as it came. He could post the letter tomorrow when he ventured to the post office. He'd explore a possible job there as well, one which wouldn't require him to deal with too many other ponies, with any luck.

Rain slammed down against the walls of the house, a constant muffled noise that gradually lulled him towards sleep. It had been a bizarre day as his days went – but he'd survived. He could even begin to adjust quite happily.

If everything happened as predicted (and a small sardonic voice in his head mocked the thought even as it came, though he wasn't sure why), then he would get through this without any trouble at all.

Chevalier trotted home, rain pelting down upon his armoured back as he went. The overcast sky had turned the streets pitch-black and shrouded them past sheets of rainwater. It hardly slowed him. He could have navigated Fort Livery blindfolded if he'd had to.

He gently pressed open the door to the home of the De Gendarmes, nudging open the exterior latch and shouldering his way in when as narrow a gap as possible had been made, letting as little rain and wind as possible into the house. The rain lashed after him as he worked his way inside and went ignored. A grin still lingered on his dripping-wet features after Silver Shield had kissed him and departed, laughing.

Kicking the door shut at his back, Chevalier flipped his head quickly forward, sending his helmet tumbling to the thick carpet beneath his hooves. Other pieces of armour followed, to be placed on the rack that sat at the hallway's side. On another rack, purple armour sections lay arrayed and gleaming.

"You're back late," came the voice of his father.

Chevalier looked to face the direction of the voice. Destrier was lying on a couch in the large and open living room that faced the front entrance, lit by a roaring fireplace. Papers were spread on the floor, next to where his metal-braced leg dangled. Tired red eyes looked up to regard Chevalier, a frown tugging at the corners of the general's mouth.

The countless portraits that lined the living room's walls seemed to regard Chevalier as well. Past De Gendarmes looked down, whether triumphant, grim, impassive, weary, whether clad in full parade uniform or battered and stained armour. They shared space with framed pieces of archaic pony-armour and crossed lances, with old banners and even older woodcuts, with a small and truly ancient tapestry showing Paladin herself being knighted by Celestia.

"Sorry, dad," said Chevalier, venturing into the living room as well to dry himself at the fire. "I went out with Silver Shield after training. We went for a run in the rain, and then for dinner at his place."

"Hmmph. Well, I suppose I can imagine worse things to be doing at your age." The faint frown softened. "Never mind imagine. I probably did most of them. Not that I'm advising you follow my wise example."

A wry grin passed across Chevalier's features. "Where are mom and Chevauchée?" he asked, glancing around the room. Normally, if he'd arrived back this late, other voices would be joining in, and he'd have to soon assist in reminding his little sister it was stupidly past her bed-time.

"Your mother's train back from Trottingham was delayed by the weather. Chevauchée's at a friend's house for a sleepover. They should both be back in the morning, assuming neither of them have to look into acquiring boats to do so." This came on the heels of a thunderclap from outside. "Guess what I'm looking over, incidentally."

"Hmm." Chevalier pored over his father to get a look at the papers himself. "I'm guessing this is about the weird weather?"

"That indeed. The Weather Patrol's baffled, and so are the teams in other towns and cities. Luckily, I know how to turn this to good advantage. I have it on good authority that cadets love training in downpour conditions, and couldn't stand to do without it."
"Ah. I don't suppose I could convince you of an opposing viewpoint on the matter?"

"Why would you want to do that? Surely I'm the best authority on those matters." A thin smile touched Destrier's gaunt features. "Get yourself dried off, lad. The water in the kettle recently boiled, and there's enough left for another cup of something suitably above room-temperature, I'm sure."

"Thanks, dad," said Chevalier, heading in the direction of some towels.

"Incidentally," called Destrier. "What came of that student you were meeting? Did you get him settled in?"

Chevalier paused, considering tactful phrasing. "Yeah, I did my best."

"Hmm. Did you get on with him?"

"Well, ah … honestly, he's about as likeable as a kick to the flank from steel shoes." Chevalier felt slightly guilty about the remark as soon as it left his mouth. Silver Shield had left him in a good enough mood to try and feel more charitable. "He's in a new place and among strangers. Maybe it'll just take him a while to warm up."

"Well," said Destrier with a wry grin that matched his son's. "There's always a slim hope, isn't there?"

Zephyr hurried home from Vanguard's house, the Guard officer who was currently hosting and Games-Mastering the weekly sessions of Beasts and Basilicas. Iron Thews the barbarian had somehow managed to survive another session of inept dice-rolling and monsters with far too disproportionate a challenge rating, though his character sheet might not survive this deluge. Zephyr kept it tucked under one wing as he cantered through puddles.

His other wing was spread out. The dripping feathers brushed through the currents and texture of the air all around. Even as part of Zephyr's mind stayed focused on not tripping head-over-hooves and falling face-first into a puddle, another part of him considered the sensations he was getting from the wing.

He may not have been a pegasus who had opted for weather-control training, but it was still something he had some base talent for – he was a pegasus, after all. The sensation of the weather about, the currents that could be manipulated and the outcomes of doing so, all were available to him in a perception that had been available to him even before he could fly.

Something broiled on the edge of that perception. Something was off with the weather, something sinister and wild almost seemed to be making it unpredictable. It was a fundamental percept being knocked away, and something about it set Zephyr's teeth on edge.

He hurried home, as thunder rolled overhead.

And several thousand miles distant, where the night skies were clear and crowned by distantly-gleaming stars, a crow flew through the open darkness.

He flew over the Greycairns, over the jags of the grasping mountaintops, over the ragged gashes of the bracken-filled river glens, over the solitary titan pines and copses of their smaller brethren. A favourable wind drove him onwards, giving strength to his wingbeats and sending a tingle down the lengths of his tucked-in claws, sheathed as they were in sharp steel.

Amidst the serrated ranks of mountain after mountain, he saw his destination. One mountain, different from the others in its base, which was so crumpled and jagged as to make the mountain look as if it had been pressed into the world by an angry god.

One mountain which had recently acquired occupants, of all the queer things to happen to a mountain in this part of the world.

The crow circled the mountain at a steady glide, regarding it from afar. He had been here before, and at the base of one side he should have been able to see an open doorway, lit by burning torches at its front. Instead, the doorway stood cold and closed, and the snaking pathways that led to it were empty.

It was quiet. Too quiet, to borrow that cliché so beloved by the bards.

He dipped in the air, flying down towards the doorway. As he descended, he caught a strange scent as if from a great distance, like ash and burned stone. The crow frowned and continued his descent. Could the denizens have had some calamity happen below ground, involving fire in some capacity? They were meant to be great miners, but even great miners surely had their off days.

Personally, the crow was betting on them delving too deep and unsealing some ancient horror long forgotten by the gods that would unleash itself upon the world once more. He'd heard the stories and how that sort of thing invariably happened to the suicidally curious, and he wouldn't put it past anyone who hadn't had the sense to be born a corvid.

Alighting at last on the ground before the stone door, he regarded the closed doorway and the cold torchpoles, dark within the shadow of the mountain itself. The doorway itself didn't look disturbed or broken at all. It was the same flat stone surface, had the same strange runic script flowing across the top. The smell of ash was stronger here, though.

Nothing ventured, nothing discovered. The crow hopped close to the door, balanced himself on one upright leg, and struck the door with the steel claws of the other twice. "Diamond Dugs? Are ye all still alive in there? There's been no sign of ye in a day, at least."

A few silent moments passed and he knocked again. "Diamond Dugs? If ye're alive and weel, chap back once. If ye're all deid, chap twice."

No answer. The crow considered his options, and flying back without information to the Cormaer wasn't amongst them. He edged closer to the door, and shoved upon it with one claw and all the strength his powerful mass gave him. He hoped it wasn't shut or barred from the inside – flying back to the hometree for some black powder would be a pain in the tailfeathers, and the Cormaer would get impatient, and –

But before he could finish that line of thought, the door opened slowly inwards. It moved as if pressing against a small but constant force behind it. Ash trickled out of the growing gap.

He finally shouldered it open far enough to get himself inside, and peered in through. He coughed immediately, the opaque air of the black corridor beyond thick with ash. The smell of it hammered outwards, forcing the corvid to take a few hopping steps back to clear his lungs.

A glint from the corridor caught the crow's attention, and he turned to see one of the helmets worn by the Diamond Dog's fighters. It was all but melted on one side, the running metal bright against the black soot and the scorched remainder of the helmet. Thick ash pooled around it, a few larger and scorched fragments nestled in the midst. Bone fragments?

The crow looked down at the helmet, and then back down the unseeable stretch of corridor. The wind cut a chill across his back, and the wind was all he heard.

He wished for a moment that he'd had a wyrdling raven with him, who could have wrought a spell to let him see through this murk, or a magpie who could have called a wind to buffet away the dark clouds of ash.

But he was a crow, as hard as the mountains and swift as the wind itself, and he did not shrink from a challenge just because it made him cough a little. Nor was he about to become known as the scout who'd fled like a fledgling from imaginary bogles in a tunnel. He stepped into the corridor, drawing one wing across his beak like a veil to try and keep the air he breathed clean.

He took another step clear of the entrance, and in that moment, two blazing points of blue light flashed to life in the darkness beyond.

The crow blinked to clear his vision of the flash of blue, and hurriedly hopped back towards the doorway. Red light coalesced around a point above the blue points, and the crow found himself slamming into a sudden flame-red wall of sheer magical force that filled the doorway at his back. He jabbed out a claw behind himself reflexively, and it found the force wall as yielding as solid granite.

He was trapped. Panic swelled briefly in his chest like a tide, and was hammered down by words and instincts that ran deeper than corvid blood. All things can be fought. All things can be killed. Call yourself a corvid, and educate whatever this is of that in explicit and unnecessary detail. The crow found his footing, and rallied to stand with his back straight and his eyes narrowed and glinting.

The red light dimmed and faded away, and the blue focused into two bright eyes. From the darkness, a voice came.

"So thy kind still flock where the maddest fear to tread. And act as Our welcoming honour guard into the waking world once more. Betimes We suspect Our lot to be cursed, and find the world eager to confirm it."

It was no properly harsh corvid voice, nor was it any Diamond Dog’s bark. It was deep and melodious; as soft and rich as velvet. A undertone of amusement thrummed through it.

"Aye? And who or whit's speaking?" The crow tried to peer through the ash for any sign of a face around the blazing blue eyes, and found himself thwarted. "Shall ye give me a name, or would ye prefer I gave ye a slur? Whit are ye?"

"We are no longer a prisoner. We are impatient beyond measure. We have more names and fair descriptors and titles than thou could fathom." The blue eyes narrowed. "And We welcome thy company, little fly. Talk to Us of Equestria."

"Equestria? The cuddies?" Why this voice in the shadows wanted to know about the cuddy queendom, the crow had no idea. "I've heard they're all too-welcoming of gowks who gurgle on like they're a plural. Fly south-west for about a continent, ye cannae miss it. Trade ye an answer for an answer, whit have ye done with the Diamond D-"


The word came as a command of pure, searing force. It slammed straight into the very mind of the crow, bypassing his hearing entirely and going straight for pure mental comprehension. He tried to react, to move, but he couldn't move so much as a single claw. He couldn't blink his eyes as the ash particles in the air began to itch upon them; a multitude of tiny agonising points. Terror rose in his chest like fire as he realised that his breathing was stilled, that he couldn't breathe in spite of the ever-tightening constriction wrapping around his lungs.

Silence stretched out for a long moment before another command – Move – slid into the crow's mind like a white-hot blade. He collapsed on the spot where he had been paralysed, blinking away to relieve the agony that had built on the surface of his eyes, and sucking in air with rapid, greedy breaths that mixed with small, terrified gasps.

"Thou wilt speak," came the voice again; still soft, still melodious, but with little amusement. Red light drifted around the eyes like volcanic clouds, still showing nothing of the speaker. "Speak on Equestria. Speak well."

"Equestria, Equestria," gasped the crow, trying to piece together what he'd been taught by his elders so long ago, what the peddlers and bards chattered about. "The cuddies still dwell there, so far as I ken, and the last Cormaer we had a hundred years back brought us tae war wi' them, and the new one's promising mair of the same, and –"

He stopped then to cough a deep, rasping cough. He recovered, and drew in one breath and then another, the process of them seeming to take achingly long moments. He was aware of the red light simmering, the blue eyes narrowing – no, one was constant, but another was growing smaller and dimmer all the while.

He finally recovered, and moved to speak, but before he could -


The crow all but trembled where he stood; fear now crowding out every other emotion in his mind. The red light intensified while the blue eyes grew ever more lopsided, one now a mere pinprick. His lungs screamed with the lack of air, and the burning sensation around his eyes built and built until their removal would have seemed like a mercy.

The blue eyes held steady. From the darkness, there came the sound of an indrawn breath.

Then the red light erupted into an enveloping storm of fire, and the thunder of the voice came with it. "DOES CELESTIA STILL CLAIM THE THRONE IN CANTERLOT?"

The noise of it all but tore the crow’s eardrums to shreds, his conscious thought reeling away from the volume. The voice’s softness and melodiousness had melted away like sea-mist, scoured down to something as grinding and guttural as an avalanche. "DO THOSE CRAVEN ENOUGH TO CALL THEMSELVES HER CHATTEL STILL KNEEL AT THE BROODMARE'S HOOVES? HAS EQUESTRIA ENDURED THESE LONG CENTURIES, FLY? SPEAK OR BURN."

Some unseen force seized the paralysed crow and tightened about him, his heart pounding and his gaze jerking and his lungs burning, burning, burning. The volcanic heat of the corridor now blistered, matching the pain of the final bellow that blasted the growing black cobwebs out of his mind. “SPEAK!

Move slid into the crow's mind then, and as soon as he could so much as gabble the words, he choked out, "Aye, aye, the cuddy queen still rules there! Celestia! She's got a new one, Lunar or something like that!"

The fire quieted, becoming a constant red glow once more. The heat diminished, becoming almost tolerable. The force holding the crow withdrew. The crow drew in deep, rasping breaths, and tried to not topple over as he trembled.

The blue eyes shone steady and still, returned to equal sizes. They seemed to focus on some point far beyond the crow.

"Now there’s a pretty tale,” purred the soft voice, the brief harshness hidden once more. “Two princesses reunited after so very, very long, after so much grief and conflict. Side by side on the throne, leading Equestria to peace and harmony and all such cloying promises. Fools to think themselves secure, with Our might still existent. Pinned 'neath stone, pah! Did they think We'd meekly sleep 'till Tartarus froze?"

The eyes began to move forwards down the corridor. The crow saw a great form beginning to emerge from the ash, broad wings stroking the air and long legs striding across the floor.

The crow, who had started this whole encounter confused, felt himself go past some critical threshold of complete befuddlement when he recognised the shape of the speaker. "Ye … but ye're one of - !"

"We fancy that the last thing Equestria is about to enjoy is a time of peace," said the figure. "We shall make certain of it."

The crow opened his beak once more.

His world turned red.