• 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.

  • ...

The Storm's Victory

Herding frogs turned out to be much harder than it sounded.

Once other duties for the day started competing for their attention, the Guard stopped trying.

Skewbald lay on his bed, quietly reading The Theory And Formation Of Glamours: Part Four. A candle suspended on the wall filled the room with a soft yellow light. From the window to his side, what was as yet an early afternoon appeared to have been plunged into an early night. The muffled roar of thunder – as well as another curious drone which he couldn't quite identify the source of – should have been a distraction, but instead somehow lulled him into relaxation.

A courier-bell sat still on his bedside table, arcane markings engraved across its metal surface. They glowed suddenly, and the bell rang. Skewbald glanced around at it, knowing that that was the summons from the fort. With a reluctant sigh, he put the book aside, and reached out to levitate a packed and ready saddlebag onto his back. It wasn't heavy, containing as it did the nullifier's leaflet, a daisy sandwich, and a thermos of coffee.

It was time. And, judging by the clock on his wall, before time as well – the storm must have moved in faster than expected.

Skewbald checked the saddle-bag's straps were secure, clambered off his bed, and made for the front door. He reached for the handle, braced himself for stiff winds and chill, and opened it to trot forth to the outside world.

Then the source of the curious drone revealed itself, and he stopped in his tracks.

Someday, Skewbald swore to himself, he would open his own front door, and there would not be some absurd problem on the other side of it demanding his attention.

"Scat, the lot of you! Go on, away with you!"

The army of frogs outside Skewbald's front door seemed entirely unsympathetic to his heartfelt plea, nor did they seem to be concerned by the gaze of pure and concentrated bale he directed upon them. They were all but a solid mass, a new frog always immediately leaping in to occupy the space another frog would leave as it hopped away. Occasionally, one of the gusts of wind that came pelting down the street would knock a leaper into a cluster of their comrades, and there would follow much aggrieved croaking.

They were all entirely new to this whole existence business, and were mostly remaining still and unmovable, their bulging eyes flickering from point to point as they tried to sort out the world around them. They were communicating entirely via what Skewbald could only assume was a competition to produce the most aggravating ribbet. Most saliently, they had chosen to congregate outside his front door.

Thunder rolled from the iron-grey sky above. Skewbald tried diplomacy once more, oblivious to the glances or muted cackles he was receiving from the few laden-down passers-by still making their way to the fort.

"Get lost!" He threateningly waved a hoof in their direction to emphasise the point. "I have a fort tower to get to, and you are not helping."

The ribbeting mass responded to this by turning in his direction, jerking their pupils to roughly track the movements of the hoof, and extemporised on their thoughts on this development to all their immediate peers while remaining planted firmly in place.

Skewbald bit back a tirade, looked again for any pattern of empty spaces he could hop across without plastering frog all over the bottom of his hoof, and failed to so much as find a single one.

He focused briefly on a point in the air above the central body of the frogs, swiftly heated the air with a calculated outpour of magic, and produced a short but sharp thunderclap with the expansion and shockwave this produced. It briefly deafened him, and from what he could hear as his eyes reflexively shut, several nearby windows must have rattled. If that hadn't worked...

Skewbald opened his eyes. The frogs had turned to direct their attention to the point where the thunderclap had come from. One croaked in a perturbed manner, which others echoed; and then the initial shock became a redoubled wave of fascinated ribbeting.

The noise rose. The last ponies nearby trooped away. Skewbald breathed heavily.

In the end, what proved remarkably effective was levitating a random frog up off the ground, tossing it sharply so that it smacked into a group of other frogs, observing the fleeing frog group and the lovely knock-on effect it had of compelling neighbouring groups to start hopping, and then repeating the process with a certain vicious satisfaction until the horde had been dispersed, the members fleeing in all directions while croaking with terrified confusion.

Skewbald stepped primly out of his front door, another burst of magic slamming it shut behind him, while he levitated the exceedingly woozy frog-bludgeon up before his face.

"I think you ought to know that you entirely deserved that, and that it was - " he started.

The frog opened its mouth, and with a thoroughly static-infused croak, it spat forth a bolt of lightning faster than Skewbald could as much as blink. The lightning slammed right between his eyes, and Skewbald's capacity to control his muscles and form coherent thoughts briefly found something much more interesting to do elsewhere. He fell groundwards with a pained and startled, " - entaaaAAGH!" His magic winked out and the frog fell from his grasp, took a few moments to gather itself, and then beat a hasty retreat.

"Gyergh?" was Skewbald's first attempt at speech, after a few seconds of twitching in the street had passed. "Wha – what? I – gah!"

He was going to kill the wyld storm.

The sky rumbled again as if in mockery, a forbidding dark-grey expanse that seemed to have cast the day into a premature night. At the horizon, threads of red and green seemed to briefly ripple through it, stirring up the frothing clouds ever further. Distant pulses of lightning came from it, thunder applauding each one a few moments after.

Skewbald didn't notice the shadow falling across him until it spoke with a soft Trottingham voice that was vaguely familiar to him. "Excuse me, are you alright?"

"Yes. I'm enjoying a nice lie-down in the fresh summer sunshine, you dolt." There weren't any frogs left nearby for a stress-relieving pulping, so throwing feeble barbs at this newcomer would have to do. He would have tried to muster something more scathing, but his brain still felt as though it had been whisked into a fine froth.

Most sensible ponies would have trotted away at that point, in Skewbald's experience, but this one still seemed to be hovering nearby after a moment had passed. Skewbald grunted with aggravation as he turned his head to see them. Them turned out to be a green-coated, blond-maned pegasus stallion, with heavy-duty farrier's saddlebags strapped over his back and what appeared to be rolls of gauze bandages as his Cutie Mark. He was looking at Skewbald with some concern, as if he'd somehow become invested in Skewbald's wellbeing for whatever reason an unpaid farrier might cook up for themselves.

It was the farrier he'd encountered and blown off, Zephyr-something. And rather than leaving Skewbald alone, he extended a hoof downwards and asked, "Do you need a help up?" A wry grin flickered briefly across his expression. "We should stop meeting like this, you know."

"I can do that – arrgh – myself." It took some wriggling, and his legs refused to return to his control without a great deal of angry cogitation in their direction, but Skewbald was able to eventually roll over onto his belly and push himself upright to a standing position. "See? I can - "

All things considered, he opted to not vocally complain when the farrier quickly moved to lean against him as he fell to one side.

"Frog got me," Skewbald muttered, as they began to trot along awkwardly in the direction of the fort. The farrier had folded a wing over Skewbald, keeping him supported whenever his balance threatened to go wandering again. "Lightning. Somehow."

"You're the second I've had to deal with there," said Zephyr. "Don't worry. The wooziness should wear off after a few minutes. Did you try just lifting them up and putting them down elsewhere? They're quite placid; that worked for nearly everypony else."

"... In a sense. Just forcing them out of the way was faster." Skewbald shook his head to try and clear off some of the remaining fuzziness. Next time, he wouldn't make his face a convenient target.

He looked up; over the buildings, he could make out the fort's great towers, their flagpoles bare. Atop the highest of them, stark against the sky, a white obelisk jagged upwards. He nearly stumbled over a drainpipe, and turned his attention back to the path winding between the buildings.

"Do you not think there's maybe a moral lesson in all this?" said Zephyr after a few moments, with some injected levity in his tone. "About treating other creatures kindly no matter how much they aggravate you and all that sort of thing?"

Skewbald merely responded with a snort. "No. You just don't let them near your face, that's all. There's more than a few archaic rituals with equally archaic ingredients that I'm sure can only benefit enormously from this influx."

Zephyr didn't respond to that. They emerged onto a long, broad street leading up the gentle slope to the fort itself, the looming walls strewn with lights across the worn battlements. A crowd of ponies waited before them; townsponies seeking shelter from the storm, families from further out in the countryside with what looked to be significant portions of their worldly goods braced across their backs, crying foals, the mayor's assistants galloping to and fro with sheaths of paper, and several squadrons of Guard trying to maintain some sort of order before the open main gate of the fort, through which the crowd were allowed to trickle through. At the side, a determined-looking cadet with a broom in his mouth shooed a cluster of frogs away down the slope.

"Remain calm and orderly!" An orange-coated Guard mare addressed the crowd from atop the fort's gatehouse, the strain in her voice suggesting she'd done this recently and often. "Approach the fort entrance, and Guard cadets on the other side will escort you to a safe location within the main fort building! Excess personal belongings must be stored separately, for which receipts will be issued if desired! Food and water will be available, as well as milk for younger foals! If you're part of a family group, remain together, and if you become separated, ask the nearest free cadet for assistance! Remain calm and orderly! - "

"Do you need some help getting to a spot in the fort?" said Zephyr gently, his voice still soft in utter contrast to the Guard mare's. "I don't have to be at my own post yet, so if you need ..."

"I'll be fine," said Skewbald, feeling at last in full control of his legs again, and stepping away from the farrier. "I'm not some evacuee." He cast an eye over the crowd, which was moving far too slowly into the fort for his patience.

"You're not?" said Zephyr sceptically. "Then what are you doing here?"

"Helming the nullifier," replied Skewbald, a movement by the fort catching his attention. An armoured cadet was cantering in his direction around the edge of the crowd. Skewbald narrowed his gaze, and realised that they – a unicorn mare, on closer inspection – were waving directly at him.

"You there!" the cadet shouted, skirting the crowd and continuing to wave at Skewbald. She neared him and Zephyr, regarding each in turn appraisingly. "Are you the student from the School for Gifted Unicorns? Skewbald Doul, correct?"

"Yes. Why?"

"General Destrier said you'd be coming. The nullifier's at the top of the riverside tower – tallest one, you can't miss it. Whoever's on guard will let you right through." The cadet seemed to remember something, and extended her hoof. "Cadet First-Class Comet Trail, by the way. I'm your understudy for tonight should anything go horribly wrong."

"Nothing will," replied Skewbald, perfunctorily shaking her hoof. "Will whoever's guarding the fort gate let me through quickly as well?"

"I should think so. You as well, farrier," said Comet Trail, turning to Zephyr. "Just step up and let the guards see your farrier's bag; they'll let you on through to your designated spot -"

Skewbald quickly trotted away from them towards the gatehouse while they were occupied, taking a path around the edge of the crowd. He had no need to waste more time with the two, and with any luck the ponies at the gate wouldn't impede him.

At the gatehouse itself, the crowd was as-yet relatively orderly. A pair of cadets and a pegasus stallion in silver Guard armour were keeping the influx controlled, waiting for a cadet returning from elsewhere in the fort to take the next pony or family in hoof. A stressed-looking mare and stallion with a foal in a pram were hurried through, one of the cadets breaking off to lead them in, and Skewbald quickly trotted in ahead of those next in line, an elderly unicorn mare with young grandchildren at either side.

"Excuse me," said Skewbald to the pegasus officer, ignoring the calls of protest from behind him. The officer looked up at Skewbald, his expression a bright and brittle smile.

"Good day, sir," said the officer. "Shall we have a talk about the concept of 'queuing', or shall I just tell you to get to the back of the line now?"

"Alternatively, you could let me through to helm your town's nullifier," snapped Skewbald. He levitated the device's leaflet out of his saddlebag and waved it in the pegasus's direction, while turning slightly to make his cutie mark visible. "Skewbald Doul. School for Gifted Unicorns, etcetera."

The officer squinted, and then grunted dismissively. "Oh, rapture, our saviour is come unto us. Go through to the Riverside tower. Closest stairs are on the west wall. Try not to get too lost, now."

Skewbald brushed past him before he'd even finished talking, trotting into the fort proper and leaving him to address the old unicorn coming up behind Skewbald. "Apologies for that, Mrs Cygnus. Follow the cadet here to -"

Inside the fort itself, Skewbald took a moment to get his bearings. Within the walls, a great and low-slung stone keep filled much of the fort's space. Most of the ponies Skewbald could see were cadets escorting others through the various open doors leading into the keep, and cadets filtering out of the keep at a swift trot, their escorts presumably left somewhere within. Looking up, he saw a couple of pegasi officers taking down the last of the flags that adorned the multitude of poles dotted around the keep's exterior. They struggled to maintain steady flights in the sudden winds that had picked up.

He sighted the tallest tower at the eastern side, the white shape of the nullifier visible at its top. Stone steps ran down from the doors set at either side of it, descending to the level of the rest of the walls. Another stone door sat at the base of the tower, through which Skewbald could glimpse stairs. He made for the door at a brisk canter, speeding nearly to a gallop when he began to feel the first fat raindrops splashing down against his hide.

Reaching the safety of the door, if not before he managed to be comprehensively drenched by the sudden rain, Skewbald knocked it shut behind him with a swung hoof, leaving him in the pitch-darkness of the tower's base. He took a moment to shake himself dry, listening to the low drone of raindrops hammering off the stone walls outside.

Skewbald concentrated and summoned light from the tip of his horn, sending cold green-hued illumination spilling across the dark stone of the walls and up the spiral staircase. He scrutinised the stairs, the steps of which seemed to have been made for a much larger pony than himself. Hoofprints had been impressed into the thin layer of dust, and from far above he thought he could hear voices.

He started to climb the stairs, and became grateful for the several landings en-route where he could stop and briefly gather breath. Arrowslits ran along the wall to his left all the while, intermittently letting natural light into the tower whenever lightning flashed in the sky without.

The distant voices became clearer and clearer as Skewbald climbed the stairs, and he guessed that these were the guards Comet Trail had mentioned. They seemed to be on the last landing, and he caught glimpse of a soft orange light coming from there.

Eventually, he heaved himself up onto the last landing and saw the source of the light; a fire-fly lantern containing several of the insects, sitting on the middle of the floor. A pair of earth ponies in bronze-coloured cadet armour stood by it, warm dark cloaks tucked about their shoulders. One of them turned to face him, and Skewbald recognised the cadet, Chevalier, from the day before yesterday. Chevalier seemed about to demand identification, and then relaxed as he recognised Skewbald.

"We've got our unicorn," said Chevalier, nodding to the other cadet before turning his attention back to Skewbald. He didn't appear to be fazed from their last meeting, instead simply seeming glad that Skewbald had made it. "About time as well. The storm seems like it's really picking up. How's everypony doing out there?"

"Everypony seems to be getting safely into the fort. I assume that's the desired course of events," replied Skewbald. He looked behind the cadets to a last section of staircase winding up to a trapdoor in the ceiling. The wind from outside was all but tangible to Skewbald as it scraped and howled across the surface beyond. "Has the nullifier been fully deployed?"

"We believe so," said the other cadet, whose own coat was silvery in contrast to Chevalier's white. "The control panel's been protected by a screen against the rain, and it's been tethered down so that it doesn't go flying all the way to the Utmost South or where-have-you. We're here in case something goes wrong and you need help, whatever that help may be. Did you meet Comet Trail en-route?"

"I did. She explained she was my understudy, and hence useless." Skewbald glanced again at the stairs. "It's up there, I take it?"

"Yes -" started the silver-coated cadet, his ears flattened slightly and his tone slightly less warm.

"Good," replied Skewbald, trotting around them and up the stairs, focusing on the latch for the trapdoor. He expected driving wind and rain when he opened it, reached out with his magic, and wasn't disappointed. Rain came slamming down, and he quickly summoned up his protective dome to ward off the worst of it. The wind was a different matter, threatening to send him tumbling backwards down the stairs, and it took nearly all the strength he had to climb against it.

"Leave the door open!" called Chevalier, straining to make himself heard. "Just so that we can get up quickly if need be!"

Skewbald pulled himself up past the last step, leaving the trapdoor wide open on the stone surface of the tower. He raised his head to face into the buffeting wind, angling his protective dome to try and keep the force of it from sweeping his glasses away. Before him, there rested the nullifier.

It stabbed up towards the seething black sky like a white lance, trembling only slightly in the fury of the storm. The white material of it came to a point, and shimmered slightly as small parts of its innards processed the growing level of wild magic in the air. Under a stiff canvas canopy, open at one side and wrapping around the base like a shell, the control panel for it gleamed. On the stone ground within the canopy was Red Tape's promised cloak.

Skewbald stepped inside, the canopy immediately seeming to muffle the worst of the storm. He levitated the cloak up and around himself with some effort; it was as weighty as Red Tape had claimed. Once the hood had been draped over his head, he felt even more insulated. It was waterproof, warm, and the nullweave which would shrug off most magic that might strike at him was an entirely welcome bonus.

He turned to the control panel. Everything the leaflet and the film had promised was there, everything he'd need to handle it.

He looked to the sky. Past the protective dome of his magic, upon which raindrops constantly pelted, the sky was a churning abyss, elemental forces beating at its heart and raw magic sending great sheets of light flickering through it in an eye-blink.

It wasn't yet descending, ready to be caught by the nullifier. Skewbald pulled out his thermos and sandwich. And he waited.

Celestia flew through the skies above Seaddle. The lights of the little port's houses gleamed below her, the ponies here having battened down in their own homes rather than go to a central refuge. The sea slammed itself against the coloured stone wharf like a raging beast, and the forest at the town's back whipped itself into a rustling frenzy in the midst of the wind. Both she quietened with but a thought; the townsponies hardly needed more cares competing for their attention.

The stormclouds over the port weren't descending yet; no streamers of chaotic energy came whipping down from them. Celestia focused briefly, and in an instant she was flying over Appaloosa.

No rain fell here, on these parched red plains. But the storm hung heavy and oppressive regardless, and the magical energies within it flared with terrible force. The town and the orchard on its outskirts were both illuminated with mad and ever-changing colours. The storm here was ready to break.

As Celestia flew, green flames constantly materialised in the air around her, spitting out paper. Messaging-fire, from all the towns in Equestria to her presence, bearing word of their readiness for what followed. Many of the names she recognised as past students in her School; others that she didn't recognise would the most magically-adept unicorns in their community.

Manehattan bade her know that Moondancer helmed their nullifier atop their highest building, that they were ready. Canterlot informed her that Cadance, with Captain Shining Armour in watchful attendance, was at the city's nullifier. Rune Carver stood ready in San Franciscolt. Each paper was spat into existence around Celestia, was immediately read, and was then rolled away into the gilded saddlebag she bore to join the multitude already there. All were carefully noted, and she waited with all due anticipation for those yet to come.

Baltimare's message informed her that Lapis Lazuli was ready at their nullifier, and that their own storm was yet to break. Twilight Sparkle's letter, borne by Spike's own enchanted messaging-fire, informed Celestia that she had Ponyville's nullifier well in hoof. A letter from Fort Livery told her that Skewbald Doul was now helming their nullifier – and wasn't that fine serendipity. Celestia briefly smiled at it, and then turned her attention back to the storm.

A cloud was about to break near her. Celestia saw it pulse, beating as if a heart pounded within it to the breaking-point – and then it did. Teal-edged lightning lashed out of it in an instant, aiming for Appaloosa.

It stopped in the next instant. To Celestia, it had seemed to move almost comically slow, and her power contained it and dispersed it with little exertion. It fell apart into motes of harmless light, and Celestia turned her attention to the other clouds. None of them were threatening the town yet, and so in the next instant, she flew into the skies over Omareha.

A song from her distant fillyhood in an earth pony tribe came to Celestia's mind then. She found herself singing it softly. "Come little foal an be thou still, put rain and tumult from worry -"

A thunderhead screamed above, magic ripping out of it in an eruption of light and concussive noise. Celestia dove right up at it, and the wild magic faltered, drew back, and devoured itself, less than half a second after it had first emerged.

She had memories – vivid in spite of the passage of years – of curling up next to her own mother while a storm raged outwith their cold hut, and of hearing the same song sung gently to her. Amazing, that she still had the memories.

"- The winds shall cease an dark shall pass, let dawn and sun find thou merry - " Seaddle, again, and now the storm about her buffeted with force that would have sent a dragon crashing down to the ground. She remained a still point in the sky, and the calm about her radiated outwards. Streams of magic sparked and vanished, and the clouds stopped in their wild routes.

"- The sky shall turn and storms shall die, let bright hope return with its grace -"

A last letter popped into existence before her, in a flash of dark blue fire. The message was short.

Cloudsdale is secure. Best of luck, sister.

Celestia smiled, and stared down the storm over Salt Lick City.

"- See the night and all chaos pass, and let harmony take its place," she finished. She tore the stormclouds apart with a thought, aware of the unscratched layers far above it, and raised her head to face them with grim determination.

From below her, from every town she flew over, she could feel the fear and anticipation of her little ponies as an all-but-tangible force pressing up into the sky.

With one great sweep of magic, Celestia soothed their fears, stilled their terrors, softened anxiety so that hope would have more room to flourish.

With another, she did battle with the storm.

At Skewbald's back, the distant noise of the crowd filing into the fort had gone completely. He turned and peered out over the tower's side, and saw nopony still out in the open.

Excellent. It was now just him and the storm, which had built to a fever-pitch. The protective canopy all but buckled in the gale-force winds, and the nullifier's body gleamed a constant, steady white from the gradually-escalating level of background wild magic.

Above Skewbald, the morass of black clouds drifted in the shape of a spiral, coming to one central point that practically throbbed with magical power. It drew in all it could from its surroundings like a whirlpool, and then – with the same ponderous unstoppability that a falling mountain would have possessed – it began to descend.

It was time. Skewbald kept a watchful eye on the nullifer's control panel, and reached out for the big red button at the left. It sank in, and with an appropriately enthusiastic powering-up roar from the mechanisms within the nullifier, the whole device started to tremble. The white light suffusing from it began to grow in brightness; the storm above seemed to take pause.

Then there was an alarming gurgle from within the nullifier, an even more alarming screeching from some component of the mechanisms, and a downright-appalling ebbing in the light streaming from its body. The innards fell silent, and the storm's raging continued unabated.

Skewbald stared at the device for but a second, regretting having wasted his entire good bale on the frogs earlier, before he reached out for the front of the control panel. A moment's questing with his magic found the screws holding it in place; a moment's focused telekinesis yanked it free. The front panel clattered on the ground, and Skewbald leaned in to investigate the workings.

Past the now-exposed and naked-seeming button and scale, the mix of enchanted pieces and bright steel clockwork glittered. But in the centre, a section of the delicate cogs and gears had turned to little more than a solid patch of rust. Skewbald gingerly probed it, and it crumbled apart.

He took a step back. This was …

… 'less than convenient' was the politest possible way of putting it. This would require some thought. The storm roared as it continued to descend. This would require some exceedingly good thought.

There was a bare metal flag-pole next to him, jutting out of the crenellations. The first impressions of some exceedingly good thought came to him just as the storm broke.

A bolt of crimson-edged lightning zigzagged down from the sky, aiming straight for the tower. Skewbald didn't have time to think, time to pass through panic and come up with a plan, before it slammed into the side of the tower past the nullifier. He staggered back, briefly blinded by the flash, and the thunder that came pealing on its heels knocked the rest of his senses away.

Wind drove down, stronger than anything Skewbald had yet felt, strong enough to almost lift him away in spite of the weighted cloak. The nullifier wobbled wildly, and Skewbald realised only too late that the lightning-strike, whatever else it had done, had ripped apart the device's tethers on one side.

The nullifier swayed too far. It loomed over Skewbald, and with what seemed like a scream of triumph from the storm, came crashing down. Still dazed, he bolted to one side to try and avoid it, half a second too late.

It crashed down, catching one of his back legs as it did so. He was knocked straight to the ground, the pain that immediately shot up from his back leg becoming a mass of white-noise that made thought impossible. Skewbald screamed with the sudden agony as he tried to pull himself free from the overbearing weight. He scrabbled with his front hooves and tried to twist his body as far as his pain threshold would let him. He yanked his pinned leg free with an agonised hiss, and twisted his head to try and get a clear line of sight on the nullifier. Acid-green magic coiled around his horn and arced towards the nullifier to try and lift it.

The magic collided off the white trunk of the nullifier and was then neatly absorbed, becoming nothing more than a glowing pattern playing off the surface. Skewbald's subsequent curse was lost amidst another roll of thunder.

The clatter of hooves on stone steps sounded from below, and Comet Trail rose from the open trapdoor. She stared at the fallen nullifier with shock, turned to Skewbald with concern, and then glanced around at the other two cadets following at her rear.

"Right!" she yelled, straining to make herself heard above the noise of the descending storm. "Silver Shield, you get Skewbald below to safety! Chevalier, help me get the nullifier pointing skywards - !"

Comet Trail got no further. Lightning arced suddenly down from the sky, and she looked up just as it struck her. Her entire form blazed white briefly, and shrank down suddenly as a distorted scream escaped her.

"Comet!" screamed Silver Shield, starting forward before he suddenly paused.

The duck formerly known as Comet Trail had a great many instincts rushing throughout its new duck brain amidst the chaos of the storm, and foremost amongst them was murder. The duck launched itself at Silver Shield's face beak-first, and the noise produced by both filled the tower-top.

Chevalier looked from them to Skewbald to the nullifier to the storm, and his face set as if carved from stone. "Shield, get her below!" he yelled. "I'll stay here and get the nullifier raised. Go below!"

"But what about - !" started Silver Shield, who had managed to pin the enraged duck down in a full-body lock.

"I'll be fine! I'm always fine! Now get her below!" Chevalier wheeled back towards Skewbald, and there was a note of pleading in his expression. "Tell me you can still operate this if I get it raised."

"With … difficulty …" hissed Skewbald, the words a strain to produce. His back leg – the left, this time – refused to obey any function beyond register pain. "I – I need to be closer -"

There came the crash of something landing hard on the stone next to him. Skewbald turned, and saw Zephyr Gauze. His wings were sodden, his eyes were wide and terrified, and his mouth moved quickly as if on panicked reflex. "I saw the nullifier fall and somepony go down beneath it are you hurt can I -"

Whatever twist of fate insisted on having the farrier constantly loom above him, Skewbald wasn't going to complain about now. "Get me standing!" he said. "Get me near the nullifier! Worry – worry about other things after."

The farrier nodded, his eyes still wide, and leant down to support Skewbald's attempt at standing on his useless back leg. Zephyr's head pressed up from beneath Skewbald's chest, extracting the unicorn from the folds of the cloak and the broken canopy. Skewbald rose, painfully, and leant upon the farrier's body as he hobbled forwards to the nullifier. The device itself was being gradually raised off the ground by Chevalier, in spite of its absurd weight and the buffeting force of the wind against it. The cadet's eyes burned with effort, his teeth were gritted, and his muscles under his armour bunched with sustained effort. Inch by inch, the nullifier rose.

"Let me down here!" ordered Skewbald once they were a couple of feet from the still-slanted control panel of the nullifier. "Leave me – I can fix this."

Zephyr let him down gently. Skewbald lay sphinx-like on the stone surface, and fixed the exposed and rust-eaten mechanism with a look of utmost concentration.

A brief exertion of magic, possible even past the pain, cleared out all of the rust. It seemed to have been only steel components that had been destroyed due to a lapse in care. That would make this easier.

He breathed in, seeking for a still point within himself, an eye within the storm of brute physical pain and sensory overload that filled his mind.

"Give me a helping hoof, farrier!" came the distant voice of Chevalier, a vague and easily-ignored distraction in the state of mind Skewbald was aiming for. "This has to be vertical!"

Another bolt of lightning tore down from the sky, striking distant woodland far on the other side of the river. Skewbald saw it flash as it hit a tree, and saw the tree turn into magma that briefly held its shape before collapsing into fire. The forest about it burned. This too was irrelevant.

He breathed out. Sheer will drove down the distractions his body imposed, just in this moment. The pain wasn't gone, but it wasn't something to be feared. Merely something to be worked past. His mind could get to work. His magic could be properly unleashed.

From memory, the diagram of the nullifier's innards. Before him, the broken nullifier. The image of the former was summoned from mind and layered atop the other, an illusory model of green-glowing lines that indicated what parts were missing and where they were. With the cold efficiency of a mechanism, Skewbald noted each missing part and its purpose, derived approximations of each part's dimensions and weight, held the whole and weighted the individual components.

Skewbald blinked, and in the next instant turned his attention to the bare metal flag-pole. It still stood. It was made of steel, if he was any judge.

Assume stainless steel. Use Standard Fire Trick, suspended at co-ordinates x, y, and z relative to current orientation, adjusted to 750 degrees Coltigrade above norm, diameter of two inches to encompass entire width of pole shaft. Diminish y-co-ordinate at rate of one inch per second.

Green magic flared out, and incandescent fire erupted at the top of the flag-pole. It blazed down the rapidly-collapsing length, molten steel flowing out and being quickly caught in a containing aura Skewbald summoned to envelop the entire pole.

Modify interior dimensions of the aura to contain three-dimensional bubbles. Assign stored dimensions of parts one through sixteen to these bubbles. Align the current of steel to flow through and fill each dimension, remove temperature with Standard Cooling Trick. Set in assigned co-ordinates within the nullifier once solidified.

The molten steel flowed through the aura, and with great effort – splitting one's mind multiple ways for simultaneous calculations and magical manipulations was something Skewbald would have preferred to prepare for in the best of circumstances. It flowed into moulds in the aura, taking the shapes of the small component parts, and with a flash of magic about each one, they shone silver in the howling darkness.

Skewbald swiftly levitated each one as it set over to the exposed nullifier, quickly slotting them into position amidst the frame. His horn felt like it was burning, a headache was building in the back of his skull, but he wouldn't stop, he couldn't stop. Little else existed but the flow of calculations, the numbers neatly stored and recalled in a torrent from memory, the path from what is to what ought.

He was only vaguely aware of the slash-like smile that had emerged on his face in the last few minutes, even as small fires seemed to burn in the crevices of his horn

Skewbald finished off the last of the parts and slotted them into place seven seconds after he'd first touched fire to metal, just as the nullifier finally settled onto its base with one last heave from Chevalier and Zephyr's combined efforts. With another great burst of magic that now sent acute shivers of agony running down from his horn, Skewbald set the panel back on the front of the nullifier. He strained to reach the red button with his hoof, and when he finally managed to shove it in, he held his breath.

The nullifier blazed white, and Skewbald released his breath in relief. The mechanisms within roared to life, and he set his attention on the scale and lever before him. This seemed almost restful now.

"Is that it?" came the astonished voice of Chevalier, trotting over. Skewbald had half-forgotten he'd even existed. "Is it working?"

"It's descending now," said Zephyr in turn, his voice quiet and trembling, and Skewbald looked up.

The wyld storm was hurling itself downwards, bellowing as it seemed to aim directly for the active nullifier. It came streaming down, vast and primal and mindless, as if it were being poured down some vast funnel. Lightning raced around the outside, colours pulsed and flickered within its depths. The very air seemed to have an electric charge.

Skewbald turned his attention to the nullifier, hoping against hope that its mechanisms would hold. The dial on the scale swung straight into the red segment, and he threw all the arcane might he had left into pressing against the lever to keep it controlled. He felt the prickle of the mollifier leeching off part of his magic to sustain its own self-control – but it wasn't enough. He couldn't push the lever far enough, the dial flickered on the edge of red, the whole nullifier was trembling, he needed -

"Help me!" he rasped. "Push against the lever! Push against it!"

Chevalier was already there, throwing his own might into the lever to try and push it to the left. Zephyr was at his back in a moment, throwing utterly terrified glances up at the storm as it came pelting down.

The dial edged out of the red. The mechanisms settled down to a steady, throbbing bellow. The nullifier blazed like a beacon. Skewbald looked up, at the very tip of the storm which was now all but within spitting distance, which touched the top of the nullifier.

From above, white spat down.

Skewbald raised a hoof, trying to shield his face.

White crashed into him, and conscious perception left him and robbed him of wits and insight, left his world a screaming and blind rush of pure happening, images and sounds and experiences slamming into him with the grace of a freight train.

the dark skies over Canterlot, cloud-wreathed spires spearing through blackness

Caballus flailing as he fell from the window, his eyes wide with shock

a vast expanse of mountains, over which a squadron of armoured griffons flew in neat formation

a multihued egg descending sharply onto a table edge, fragments of shell flying as the invigilators shouted

rippling mountains and forest-choked valleys, as far as the eye could see

huddling amidst flowers in an attempt to become warm, red and yellow petals shaking all around

a forest girdled by a great and unknown sea, the spines of some vast beast cutting through the churning waves

a door slamming open, and a stallion's voice blazing I said GET OUT

Consciousness returned to Skewbald. He was cold. He was in freefall, wind whipping at his whole body and sending him tumbling through the empty sky.

Below him, rather than the river past Fort Livery or the courtyard of the fort at his back, as might be expected, there instead lay an night-shrouded expanse of wild forest, the sea on one side and mountains on the other.

This is silly, and obviously a hallucination, observed Skewbald. At any moment, just before I'll impact with those trees most likely, I'll wake up and reality will hit me again.

Instead, he hit a springy tree branch, a lower branch on an adjacent tree, a somewhat stiffer branch below that one, the top of a grassy knoll face-first, the side of the grassy knoll repeatedly as he rolled helplessly down, and finally a boulder at the knoll's base.

At that point, Skewbald stopped resisting the inevitable and let the world go black.