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

The Devil's Details - Carabas

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

  • ...

Simple Expectations

"Forward into their ranks! Skewer them all!"

A wooden lance-head smacked against Chevalier's bare flank to emphasise the instruction. He turned his head mid-trot to fix his rider with a reproachful look.

"Ow! But Your Draconic Highness, I don't have anything to skewer them with."

"Well … " This briefly disconcerted the tiny white-coated filly on his back, before she rallied and waved her toy lance, threatening the living room's dresser. "Improvise! That's an order!"

"Yes, Dread General Chevauchée. Your arbitrary wish is my command!" said Chevalier, rearing back in appropriately dramatic fashion as he prepared to lunge forward into a sedate canter.

He was interrupted by indignant squeaks from his younger sister. "Talon! I'm Dragon Queen-in-Waiting Talon! We're playing the Draconic Wars! You're Hurricane, remember?"

"Ahhh. That makes more sense," replied Chevalier, nodding and turning back towards the dresser. He raised himself into a rearing position, stopped, and then twisted his head back around. "Wait, wasn't Hurricane a mare?"

"Yeah, but Talon never went on anypony else's back into battle. You have to be Hurricane!"

"What if we make a completely alternate history?" said Chevalier, all-innocent. "One where Talon rode Clover the Clever into battle, and ended up negotiating peacefully with the rebel queens, and Hurricane was actually a stallion all alo-"

"Aggh!" was Chevauchée's less-than-enthusaistic rejoinder, as she took advantage of her perch to lunge forwards and try and attack Chevalier's face as best she could. "You're terrible at this!"

Chevalier wasn't quite sure how he'd ever lived a satisfying life before he'd acquired a younger sibling to casually torment, but damned if he wasn't taking advantage while it lasted. He laughed as he wove his head out of the way of her initial flailing. "Mind my eyes, squirt. I need them for a few things."

"I'm not a squirt!" squeaked Chevauchée in tones high enough to splinter glass as she renewed her assault.

There came a sudden knock on the living room door, and Chevalier fell back to his forehooves. Chevauchée paused, her lance tangled in Chevalier's mane. The door creaked open, and Destrier's voice came from the other side. "Offspring? Are you trying to murder each other again? Are you at least using proper combat technique, as we discussed?" The general poked his helmeted head around the edge, one querying brow raised.

"No, dad. I, in my capacity as Commander Hurricane, am bearing Queen-in-Waiting Talon into battle at Draketooth Mountain. Queen Hook's forces are cunningly disguised as our dresser, but we've out-foxed them," said Chevalier, to which Chevauchée nodded.

Destrier looked from Chevalier maintaining a stoic pose to Chevauchée attempting to discreetly remove her lance from her big brother's mane.

"Could you not tell at a first glance?" asked Chevalier.

Destrier rolled his gaze briefly skywards before clearing his throat. "Your mother and I are heading to the town hall for what's apparently an important matter in need of a general and the town recorder. You stay here and look after your sister, Chev. Don't let the house burn down in our absence."

Chevalier bit back a protest. He'd been hoping to go and see Silver Shield at his house, with a day free of training for both of them. But assuming responsibility in times of need had been hammered into him almost to the genetic level, and he instead nodded. "Will do. What's the matter about?"

"We haven't heard much specific so far, but it's apparently a message from the Royal Court to the whole country," came Sagacity's own voice as she pressed the door further open from behind. She loomed from behind Destrier, a white-coated earth pony, Destrier's wife, Chevalier and Chevauchée's mother and Fort Livery's Recorder of deeds. Small bags under her eyes hinted at some residual fatigue from her late homecoming last night. "Apparently, Equestria's in imminent and mortal danger."

"Again?" Chevalier grinned. He felt Chevauchée finally extract the lance and wriggle off his back. "I'll keep it from hitting the house while you're out. How long will you be?"

"Maybe an hour, maybe more, maybe less, maybe until heat death kicks in and the world collapses into the Abyss once more. You know how Red Tape's meetings go," replied Sagacity.

"If we're kept well into the evening or get carried off by a pack of timber wolves en-route, there's still oatmeal in a pot on the oven," said Destrier, heading for the door and ushering Sagacity along with him. "See you both later."

Chevalier waved them off, craning his head to see them leave through the front door, and then turned back to Chevauchée. "Right, not-a-squirt-apparently. What do you – Arrgh!" The lance stabbed up at him the moment he turned. He caught the head straight in the middle of his torso and rolled over to one side, flailing his limbs as if in mortal agony. "Betrayal! Cruel and unusual betrayal!"

"Now we're playing Talon's Reversal!" said Chevauchée, stumbling forwards to get the lance back. "You're still Hurricane!"

"Gauze? If I might prevail upon you?"

Zephyr Gauze looked up from the last few pages of Daring Do and the Griffon's Goblet, recognising with some surprise the head farrier of the clinic. Hippocratic, an elderly earth pony mare with apparent previous service as a Guard medic under her belt, trotted primly into his empty office, her long white coat trailing on the floor.

"Oh, certainly. What do you need?" he said, placing the book down the desk and stepping out from behind his desk. The last time he'd interacted to any great extent with Hippocratic was when he'd first come to the clinic two weeks ago. He'd introduced himself as a student on a placement from Trottingham University, she'd apparently resisted the urge to recoil with horror, and then she'd led him to his dusty office. If he could make a good and professional impression now, at last, then maybe …

"The mayor has apparently received orders from Princess Celestia, and has called an emergency meeting at the town hall. He has requested the presence of the town's head farrier. In my absence, I would, ah, ask that you cover my appointments for today. I understand you don't have any scheduled to deal with yourself."

Because you and the others keep stealing mine, bubbled up the vaguely resentful thought. Zephyr quashed it and said, "Of course. I'll be all too glad to handle them."

"They're simple cases. Not too hard to deal with," said Hippocratic, seemingly to reassure herself as much as to inform Zephyr. "You'll be able to handle them? Hickory will be able to give you the list and details, direct them onto you - "

"I assure you, they'll be fine in my hooves," said Zephyr in as reassuring a tone as he could. "I'll get their details and prepare accordingly."

Hippocratic looked him over, her expression still betraying a certain measure of dread . "You're quite sure?"

Flying feathers, what did prior generations of farrier students do that this sort of impression had to worked past – blazed the same line of thought, which Zephyr didn't consider himself brave enough to seek an answer for. Instead, he nodded serenely.

Hippocratic still looked uncertain, and when she left, it was with many a glance backwards. Zephyr ignored her as best he could, instead focusing upon making sure his equipment was as ready as ever.

When Hickory, the clinic's receptionist, wandered by his office to give him a clipboard with the names and ailments of the ponies due to arrive, Zephyr was all but fluttering around his office with nervous excitement. The unicorn yesterday should have tempered him, should have greatly diminished this need of Zephyr's, even. Instead, his appetite had only been increased.

He had been assured by older graduated farriers back in the university that his genuine desire to help everypony who hurt was a passing and unnatural phase that he would soon be well rid of. This seemed impossible then, and it seemed impossible now.

The time came, and he leaned out of his office door and into the reception area. "Mr Thunder Clap?"

A dun-coated pegasus stallion got up from a chair, wincing as what looked like a twisted pinion shifted. Zephyr held the door open for him as he trotted inside.

"You're looking awfully stallionish, Farrier Hippocratic," said Thunder Clap with a slightly pained chuckle as the door closed behind him.

"I'm covering her appointments for the day. Zephyr Gauze, at your service" said Zephyr smoothly, making sure the patient was seated. "Twisted pinion, I assume?"

"You – ow – assume correctly."

"Mind if I ask how?" said Zephyr, leaning in for a closer look.

"Gust at mid-altitude. Took me by surprise and bounced me right off the fort wall," started Thunder Clap. He shook his head. "Some days, I get the impression the weather just doesn't want to be managed at all."

Skewbald had scarcely stepped outside his front door when the call rang out. "You there! Are you the student from Canterlot?"

He briefly wondered if this was his new lot in life, to be continually harassed by Fort Liverians, and that this was some sort of drawn-out punishment by Princess Celestia rather than an attempted learning opportunity. He turned in the direction of the call, to the burly and grey-coated stallion that had produced it. "Last I checked, yes."

The stallion snorted with satisfaction. Skewbald suddenly recognised him as one of the assistants that had been floating around the town hall last night. "Mayor Red Tape requests your presence at a meeting in the town hall, post-haste."

Skewbald juggled his inclination to tell the stallion where he could stick another meeting with the mayor with curiosity about this might actually involve. He'd had a plan of action when stepping out of his door; he'd rested a few hours into the early afternoon after the incident with the pegasi, and then intended to deliver the letter to Twilight Sparkle and see what the local library could offer. Getting some food from the general store was also intended to come in as an objective somewhere on the list, as was enquiring about a job at the post office – he had enough bits to postpone that for a few days yet, however.

Curiosity won out. "What's the meeting about?" he asked, stepping towards the assistant, who, seemingly encouraged by this, started trotting in the direction of the front of the town hall. Skewbald followed him.

"There's apparently a wyld storm inbound," replied the assistant. "They're going to unearth the old nullifier, and that might need a competent unicorn at its helm. The fortuitous recent arrival of a student from the School for Gifted Unicorns came up in the discussion."

A wyld storm? That would explain the aberrant weather of late. Using the nullifier (something Skewbald had never done before, though if any vaguely savvy cretin with a horn plucked off the streets could use it, there was no reason he couldn't) wouldn't be too much of an ordeal.

In fact, this seemed promising now that he thought on it. There was probably going to be a certain amount of kudos to be gained in this town from doing something like helming its nullifier in a time of need, and that might pay off in terms of favours and requests Skewbald could make later.

A new spring entered Skewbald's step as he followed the mayor's assistant around the building, carefully stepping over puddles produced by the torrential rain yesterday. Reaching the front, they passed through the open door and into the hallway, which here consisted of the entire circular ground floor of the building. It seemed quiet in the place, save for a secretary furiously tapping away at a typewriter behind an over-large desk and for the muted sounds of a discussion with multiple participants talking at once from a room upstairs. The assistant made for the circular staircase that ran up and around the building, and Skewbald continued to follow him.

They stopped at the third floor, outside the door for the level, from which the sounds of a discussion could be clearly made out. The assistant knocked twice, and the discussion stopped. A call of "Come in!" issued, and the assistant pressed down on the door's ornate handle with his hoof, granting entry.

Ponies were already seated at the round table at the room's centre, some of which Skewbald recognised as they turned to face him. He recognised Mayor Red Tape, a pegasus stallion with a vivid red coat and drooping white whiskers, sitting at the opposite end of the room with papers spread out before him. To his right, there was a gaunt-looking Guard specimen in purple armour, and to his left, an earth pony mare in a farrier's coat. Skewbald knew neither of them, though he guessed they were the head of the Guard presence and the local farrier's clinic respectively. Another mare next to the Guard officer seemed to be carefully picking her way through a towering stack of papers, and several other ponies who Skewbald took to be members of whatever council this town elected crowded that end of the table as well. Most of them could probably be safely dismissed from mind.

"Ah, we have a student! Thank you, Helping Hoof," announced Red Tape, and with a nod, the stallion who had escorted Skewbald left the room, closing the door behind him. Skewbald stepped slowly towards the table, aware of the gathering regarding him with some interest. "Skewbald, wasn't it?"

"Good day. I believe I was called here for something about a wyld storm?" Assume good manners; present yourself as if you were knowledgeable. Even Skewbald himself could instinctively feel somewhat more well-disposed to a pony that followed those rules.

"Helping Hoof gave you some of the details, then? A wyld storm indeed." Red Tape reached out and snared a paper near the stack-sorting mare, pulling it closer to him to examine it. "Category Five or thereabouts, due to hit us at about eight o'clock tomorrow evening. Word got to us from the palace at about mid-day, and I've been going over plans with the assorted miscreants here." There came chokes and protests from around the table which Red Tape blithely ignored. "We've sorted out everything – the announcement I'll make in an hour, the patrols General Destrier here will dispatch to the isolated farmsteads to see them warned and taken to safety if they want it, where the farriers will be stationed in case of emergency, and some good sturdy evacuation points – by which I mean the fort and every space inside it."

"Indeed," muttered the general. "You've been remarkably – nay, uncharacteristically efficient."

"I can neither confirm nor deny whether I've been recently replaced by a changeling," said Red Tape. "I will happily confirm, however, that I can be efficient when I need to be. It's just more fun the rest of the time to watch you all get frustrated."

"And to think you keep on winning re-election," said the farrier dryly.

"I'm as amazed as you are most of the time, Hippocratic. But we digress. The point is, we still require a unicorn with their head on their shoulders working that nullifier when the storm comes plunging down." Red Tape turned back to Skewbald. "You're from the School in Canterlot, and I understand scholarships there aren't handed out as party favours. You've got the grades – and an apparently secret mission from the Princess herself – to give me confidence. If you volunteered – there's nothing binding you, I add – then you'd earn my thanks, certainly."

Skewbald didn't need to make his mind up. He just needed to present the appropriate enthusiasm. "I'd be more than happy to helm the nullifier for Fort Livery. It's the least I can do as a guest."

"Good show, that unicorn," said Red Tape approvingly while the rest of the table. "We'd be placing the nullifier on top of the fort's highest tower – the higher-up, the better, apparently – and you'd get a good resilient cloak with weighting in the trim and nullweave throughout. You won't get blown away or transformed inside-out or what-have-you with that all about you."

"There'd also be a Guard unicorn on standby if you become incapacitated," said the general. He seemed familiar to Skewbald in no way that he could immediately place, and seemed to be regarding him with a measured hardness. "Cadet Comet Trail will be able to keep you covered."

"That's a comfort," said Skewbald, immediately forgetting the name. "I wouldn't mind looking at the nullifier itself and any documentation it might have, while I'm here. I assume it's yet in storage?"

"Here's the documentation," said the stack-sorting mare suddenly, pushing what looked to be an old-fashioned leaflet across the table at Skewbald. She rose to her hooves as well. "I'll show you the nullifier as well. It's currently in the building's basement. With your leave, everypony."

There was indeed a nullifier in the town hall's basement. There even turned out to be an old instructional film reel as well, of all the joys.

"Good day, everypony!" said the scratchy voice from the black and white image produced by the town hall's projector. A genuinely and worryingly (one informed the other) enthusiastic pegasus mare trotted across a monochrome meadow, accompanied by a unicorn stallion who seemed to keep glancing about his environment in a paranoid manner. "I'm Sunny Countenance, and with me is my ever-faithful assistant, Punching Bag!"

"Hurrah," said the unicorn in a tone almost too quiet for the primitive film to have picked up.

"You may remember us from other instructional films such as 'Hydra Self-Defence: A Practical Demonstration' and 'First-Aid In Polar, Desert, And Acidic Environments' - "

"I remember precisely none of those, but your prompting is appreciated," muttered Skewbald. He was perched on a dusty bench in the darkened basement, watching the film displayed onto a bare wall.

"Oh, shush," said the mare, who had introduced herself as Sagacity. She sat next to him, riveted on the film. "This is nostalgic for me. I remember when they moved on to Bridleway."

"- But today, we're going to walk you through the ins and outs of operating a nullifier!" A still image of what was either a brightly-shimmering cloud in a forest or a smear on the reel replaced the pair. "Nullifiers are used to counteract the chaotic effects of wild magic! If left unchecked, wild magic can undo and change things about it in an unpredictable manner - " This came accompanied by a still shot of Punching Bag screaming and trying to flee from a swarm of bees emerging from a distant hive, each bee about the size of a wagon. "Luckily, the Magic Office came up with the nifty solution of nullifiers a few years ago to protect against the great wyld storm that hit Equestria then. Walk us through how it works, my faithful assistant!"

A diagram of the nullifier popped up, a white obelisk shape about three times the height of a pony with a metal band about it at about operating height. It was similar to the diagram in the back of the old leaflet, which Skewbald had hovering and spread-out in the air beside him. "The nullifier works by essentially drawing in the wild magic from the environment into itself. Once inside, the magic is able to be processed naturally by enchanted mechanisms within the base of the nullifier and converted into light, thus removing it safely." The stallion's voice wasn't only bereft of enthusiasm; it actively sucked it from the very air.

Arrows appeared on the diagram, pointing to components and control on the base. "To make sure that the nullifier operates properly, a unicorn must be able to attend to the controls and permit the automated processes access to a small portion of their own magic for as long as the nullifier is in operation. The red button at the left turns on the mechanisms and makes the nullifier able to safely process the wild magic. The rate of the process is indicated by the position of the dial on the scale here. To keep this process controlled and to make sure nothing gets damaged inside the nullifier, the operating unicorn must make sure that the dial keeps out of the red section of the scale as much as possible, and ideally keep it in the middle of the scale to keep the process efficient. This they can do by shifting the lever here in the desired direction with their magic. Mechanisms inside the nullifier can handle the rest."

"Very clever! Whatever will the Magic Office think of next?"

"I shudder to think."

"Oh, you card." The diagram vanished, and was replaced by a film of ponies with a nullifier atop a cliff-top, pointing it up towards a broiling sky. "With nullifiers, ponies have been able to keep themselves safe from wyld storms ..."

Now a film of a small nullifier being wheeled into an arcane laboratory, while some unicorn students hovered by and looked sheepish. "... Quickly remove any threat from when we make mistakes ourselves – the Magic Office can't get it right all the time, can they, Punching Bag?"

"Apparently not."

" … And also clear high-magic areas to make them safe for pony habitation." This time, the film was of what appeared to be some edge of the vast Everfree forest, with Punching Bag manning an active nullifier that was levelled toward the forest like a lance. A large shape moved between the trees, and then pounced out into the open, taking the form of a somewhat perturbed manticore. Punching Bag got off a brief "Oh, mother of -" before the manticore pounced and the film abruptly shorted out, to be replaced with Sunny Countenance trotting through the meadow.

"Don't worry, everypony. Punching Bag, as always, eventually made a complete recovery! But that brings me onto the second part of this video. Operating your nullifier safely is simple, but requires that -"

Skewbald reached out with his magic and stopped the reel running. He considered the diagram in the leaflet again.

"They're both retired now, I assume?" he said.

"Oh yes. Just a couple of years ago, actually," replied Sagacity.

"And like that, Equestria seems a little sunnier in my eyes," said Skewbald, jumping off the bench and keeping a hold of the leaflet. "That seems satisfactory. I'll take this home for study and give it back to you afterwards."

"Do so," said Sagacity. She looked toward Fort Livery's nullifier itself, a great vague shape still covered by a dusty tarpaulin. "We'll test the nullifier to be sure it works, and then get some cadets to wheel it up to the top of the fort's tower. We'll arrange to call on you when the hour's at hand."

Skewbald didn't respond. He was already leaving the basement via the winding stairs, giving the leaflet another look over.

This was going to be absurdly simple.

The afternoon, the evening, and the night thereafter passed without any noted incident.

It wasn't until the next morning, the day of the storm, that anypony discovered the initial rain of frogs.