Parks and Wilderness

by stphven

First published

A routine monster hunt goes wrong, stranding a lone guardsmare in the desert.

A single monster hunter, in a region she can barely survive, advising a lone guardsmare, who’s not even supposed to be here, on how to defend a town neither of them are familiar with, against a threat nopony knows. Welcome to the Parks and Wilderness Guard.

Originally written as a greentext for /mlp/'s Royal Guard Mare Thread. 2nd person version can be found here.

Chapter 1 - Lost

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“How did we get so lost?”

“Dust Devils, sarge.”

“Dust Devils?”

“I reckon. That sudden sandstorm, and now all the landmarks are jumbled up? I’d say a Dust Devil picked us up and dropped us way off course. Crafty buggers.”

I am Sergeant Glacier, and I am melting.

The desert sun burns overhead. The sand burns underhoof. Even the air burns as it presses up against me. My Royal Guard armour feels like my own personal oven. And the oversized sword slung across my back doesn’t help at all.

Trotting alongside me, Private Punch - my pegasus companion - seems to be faring a little better. Only a few flecks of foamy sweat are visible beneath her golden armour, contrasting sharply against her dark coat. Of course, what with me being a northern unicorn with a dense mane and lengthy fetlocks, most ponies handle heat better than me. I'm practically swimming in my own sweat.

Seriously, what was the lieutenant thinking, sending me of all ponies out here?

What was I thinking, trying to reach Tranquility Springs on hoof in the middle of the day? It hadn’t seemed that far when looking at the map in Appleloosa’s Royal Guard outpost...

And now I’ve managed to get lost before even reaching my first assignment as sergeant. Great start, Glacier.

With a sigh, I finally reach the top of the dune I’ve been struggling up. Squinting against the glare, I scan the horizon.

Rocks. Hills. Rocky hills.

Nope, still lost.

That dark line way in the distance is probably the Macintosh ranges. But given the size of the range, that doesn’t really help narrow down my position. I consider my options. None are very appealing, but there is a clear first step.

“I’ve not heard of Dust Devils before, private. Tell me about them.”

I hate to defer to a subordinate - my very first subordinate - when it comes to dangerous wildlife. That’s supposed to be my area of expertise. But I’d be a fool to risk our lives and our mission for the sake of my pride.

“Well sarge, I don’t know if there’s been any, y’know, proper study or anything. I’ve just heard folklore and campfire stories. But the ponies around these parts tell about sudden sandstorms which come outta nowhere and leave travellers disoriented, sometimes miles off course.”

She turns to face me fully face. I can see the corners of her mouth twitching.

“The way the buffalo tell it, the sandstorms are whipped up by these eeevil, mischievous desert spirits - the Dust Devils - who lead travellers to their doom with mirages and illusions, feeding off the poor bastards’ desperation and despaaair.”

Punch narrates that last part in an exaggerated “spooky” voice, waving her forehooves in the air for emphasis. For a desperate and/or despairing mare, she's awfully chipper.

Grinning at my deadpan stare, she returns to her normal voice.

“I guess they’re sorta like the, uh, Hearths’ Warming spirits. Windigos? You have them up north, right boss?”

“There hasn’t been a confirmed Windigo sighting in centuries, but I get you.”

I frown. This information is concerning if true. Windigos are an old bogeymare all throughout the north. If I'm dealing with creatures of that nature, then my trusty sword isn’t gonna cut it.

Heh. "Cut it". Sword puns.

The heat must be getting to me. I'm starting to sound like dad.

I chuckle slightly. It comes out more as a cough. I try to swallow. With my parched throat, it feels like swallowing sandpaper. This leads to more coughing.

Punch drops the goofy grin and kindly hoofs over her canteen. It’s still mostly full. My own ran out half an hour ago.

The dusky pegasus watches me closely, professional concern on her face. Part of me wants to tell her to stop gawking, but I suppose she’s just doing her job as a medic. Still, I'm not going to show weakness in front of my one and only subordinate. I force myself to take only a single mouthful. The water’s uncomfortably warm, but my throat immediately feels better for it. Burying my feelings of relief (and desire to down the rest of the bottle), I quickly replace the cap and put on my professional sergeant face.

“Thank you, private.”

I float the canteen back with my unicorn magic, giving Punch a grateful nod. She gives a grin and a mock salute in return.

“You’ve spent some time with the local buffalo then?”

“Aye, sarge. Just finished a two week exchange program with ‘em.”

“I see. So how do the buffalo deal with Dust Devils?”

Her grin gets even wider, and she ruffles her wings.

“Mostly they ask me to fly up and look for landmarks.”

“Is that so? Well, far be it from me to question the ancient wisdom of the majestic buffalo. Get your flank into the air and see what you can see, private.”

With another salute, the pegasus launches herself into the sky, a blast of hot air and sand splashing against me. Squinting, I watch her lazily soar in slow circles overhead. A dark smudge, armour glinting in the sunlight, set against an impossibly deep blue sky.

A few minutes pass. I wish I had some shade.

Eventually Punch glides down to a rest beside me.

“I reckon we’ve overshot Tranquility Springs, sarge. There’s a town northeast of us, on the other side of that low ridge. Maybe an hour away on hoof.”

She waves lazily toward a brownish plateau in the distance. I think I can just make out rooftops peeking out beyond it.

“Very good, private. Let’s get going.”

I start trekking down the sand dune, but Punch seems to hesitate.

“If you like, I could fly ahead and get some help? Find a wagon, or maybe fetch some more water?”

She’s looking at me with that concerned medic’s eye again. True, I’d kill for some cold water right now, but I'm not about to let myself be coddled by a subordinate.

“Tempting as that sounds, private, I think we’d best stick together. I can manage another hour out here. And besides, if the Dust Devils strike again, where else will I find a Private Punch to look for landmarks? The buffalo were quite specific about them.”

Punch grins and falls in beside me.

“Right you are, boss.”

Chapter 2 - Tranquility

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I am Private Fruit Punch, and I am melting.

“Ahhhh, this hot tub is so good.”

I was a bit disappointed to find that Tranquility Springs doesn’t actually have any hot springs. But this is a pretty nice consolation prize.

Seriously, after slogging through the desert in my armour all morning, this feels amazing. The tub is just a simple wooden barrel filled with hot water, but already I can feel my muscles loosening and my eyelids getting heavy.

The nice little stallion who runs the nice little hotel has been super accommodating. No doubt glad that the Royal Guard have finally arrived to deal with the town’s monster problem. Whatever that is. I should probably figure that out at some point.

“Hey, sarge?”


Lazily opening an eye, I spot my new crystal pony sergeant resting on a wooden bench on the other side of the washroom, methodically washing her bushy blue mane with her unicorn magic. She’d declined the offer of her own hot tub, opting instead to soak her hooves in a small pool of cold water. Odd mare, but whatever floats her boat.

“So, uh, what kind of monster are we hunting here, anyway?”

She continues to focus on lathering and rinsing as she answers, her voice even and measured.

“We’ve had reports of an unidentified creature scaring the locals. So far it hasn’t caused any real harm, so until we know more we won’t be hunting anything. No point unnecessarily antagonising it. For now, our job is to observe and advise.”

“Aww, and I was hoping to see the big scary monster hunter use her big scary sword on a big scary monster.”

The big scary monster hunter in question snorts in amusement, and begins drying her mane. With her armour and sword replaced by a fluffy pink towel, the turquoise unicorn looks a lot less intimidating than she did this morning.

“Sorry to disappoint, but the Parks and Wilderness Guard aren’t the macho monster hunters rumour would have you believe. Most of the work we do is to minimise the chance of dangerous encounters.”


Perfectly reasonable, but still lame!

“In fact, should we encounter anything truly dangerous, standard procedure is to retreat, call for reinforcements, and engage with overwhelming numerical superiority. Seeing as we are the only Royal Guards for miles around, I’m afraid that’s not going to happen.”

“Heh. Damn. I wanted to see how you use that monster of a sword of yours.”

Glacier’s weapon is almost as long as I am!

Granted, the standard issue Royal Guard spear is longer, but couldn’t be more than a third of the sword’s weight.

“Magic, mostly.”

Well that just makes me more curious! Unfortunately, sarge doesn’t seem interested in volunteering more, and frankly I don’t have the energy to press for details. I'm enjoying this tub way too much.

Oh well. I'll bug her about it some other day. When I'm not half asleep.

I sink further back, watching the wisps of steam curl up towards the wooden ceiling. The sounds of Glacier’s drying stops, and I hear her lay back and sigh contentedly. Hazily, I realise this is the first time she’s stopped working and relaxed all day. Even after arriving at Tranquility Springs, she went directly to speak with the mayor, the sheriff, and one or two other important ponies, before organising our lodging.

(In my opinion, a shower ought to have been our first stop.)

I have to admit, she’s got impressive stamina for a unicorn. Not to be tribalist. I wonder, are all sergeants are just naturally tough bastards? All mine have been. Still, I was starting to get a liiittle worried for her out in the desert. She didn’t let it show, but it must have been Tartarus under that thick northerner coat. Tough bastard or not, dehydration and heatstroke cause more injuries per year than any monster. It seems odd to me, sending a northerner to deal with a desert problem.

That train of thought lazily pulls another question into focus. Eventually, I work up the effort to break the comfortable silence.

“So... Does the PWG normally send you guys out solo? One monster, one mare, that kind of deal?”

I hear Glacier sigh before answering.

“No, this is… not standard deployment. Typically investigations are performed by a whole squad of specially trained Parks and Wilderness Guard. We - my previous squad - were tasked with investigating the disturbance at Tranquility Springs. En route we received an urgent summons to deal with a sudden chimera problem.”

Ooh, they deal with chimeras? That's pretty cool.

“The detour was pretty far out of the way, so our CO decided to send me on alone to act as an interim advisor to the local guard.”

“Ha! Must have been quite the surprise to find there was no local guard.”

“Pfff. No kidding.”

We share a chuckle at that. Due to some sort of mix-up, the entire regional guard detachment had been called off to Celestia knows where just days before Glacier was supposed to meet them in Appleloosa.

Granted, the detachment is only like a dozen ponies or so. Deserts don’t normally need a lot of guarding.

I was just finishing my cross-training with the nearby Appaloosa buffalo, so it made sense I was called in as a temporary replacement. What’s ridiculous is that I'm apparently the only replacement they could find in time. And they couldn’t even give me a concrete answer on when to expect reinforcements. My meeting with Sergeant Glacier at the train station would have been hilarious if it weren’t so awkward.

Heh. A single monster hunter, in a region she can barely survive, advising a lone guardsmare, who’s not even supposed to be here, on how to defend a town neither of them are familiar with, against a threat nopony knows.
Yep, ridiculous is right.

Still, Glace seems pretty sensible. If the two of us are just chasing up rumours around town until backup arrives, we’ll be perfectly fine...

Unless a big scary monster attacks.

...That might be pretty cool though.

Chapter 3 - Sandy

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This is so cool!

Two new Royal Guards in town, and they’re here to see me? This is so exciting I just might faint!

...Hmm, maybe later. Too much fanfillying to do!

These aren’t just any Royal Guards (not that normal Royal Guards aren’t exciting!): one’s a pegasus, and the other’s a crystal unicorn! I’ve never even seen a crystal pony before. The glittering blue guard looks so glamorous, so badass, so… so cool!

Hmm, no, that’s quite not right. Definitely not cool. On closer inspection, she just looks really hot.

Wait no. Warm!

She just looks really warm. This is a desert, after all. Plenty of warm mares around here. Yep. Heheh.

Not to say that she’s not attractive or anything. If anything, the flushed cheeks, matted mane, and sweaty muscles beneath her gleaming armour are really doing it for m- No! Bad Sandy!

I force myself to look over at her partner, a smaller purple pegasus giving me a cute smile. She seems to be handling the heat better than her partner, unfortunatel- Nope!


I shake my head, trying to dispel any thoughts of hot mares in uniform. The glimmering unicorn is looking at me with a polite but slightly confused expression, while the pegasus’ smile has been replaced with a knowing smirk.

Oh horsefeathers! I’ve been so busy staring at them I forgot to answer their question!

“Y-yup, that’s me! Sandy Miles. Best milliner in town! Um, that means I make hats. Also, I'm the only milliner in town. But still the best! Ah haha, ha, he…”

I grin awkwardly at the two glamorous guardsmares standing at my doorstep. Gosh it’s hot out this morning!

“I’m Sergeant Glacier, and this is Private Punch,” the crystal pony explains in a deep, level voice. “We’re here about the strange creature causing trouble in the area. Sheriff Prickly Pear said you’d had a run in with it not too long ago? We’d like to ask you a few questions, if you don’t mind.”

“Ohhh! Right. Yeah. Of course. Sure I saw it!”

Or at least, that's what I meant to say. In my excitement that last part came out as “Saw I sure it!” Cringing, I quickly turn away and gesture the guards into my home.

“C-Come on in. I’ll fix ya some lemonade and tell ya all about it.”

Leading the way into my living room, I wish I had time to prepare. My house is a mess! Sure, it’s nice enough by Tranquility Springs’ standards, but these glamorous, sophisticated guardsmares are probably used to, like, fancy manors and castles and stuff. That’s where all the adventures and mysteries (and romance) occur, after all. I read all about it in Gallant Guard Magazine.

Which, incidentally, is lying open on the coffee table. At the article about adjusting guard armour to accentuate the plot. Crabapples!

I quickly whisk it out of sight, along with a few dirty magazines and dishes - er, dirty dishes and magazines - giving my best nonchalant smile as I turn to usher my guests in. Thankfully, they don’t seem to notice anything amiss. The cute, smiley one’s still cute and smiley, and the hot, serious one - warm, serious one - is still warm and serious.

That reminds me, I should probably see to that lemonade. The poor unicorn looks more flushed than I am. Number one rule of being a good hostess is to never let your guests die of dehydration in the living room.
Aunt Sunbeam taught me that. It always struck me as oddly specific.

Still, it seems like good advice in this situation. Soon my guests and I are seated comfortably on my best pillows, cool drinks in hoof, while I relate my recent adventures in the desert.

“So Tumbleweed’s wagon was completely covered in tree sap at this point. After picking the last o’ the scorpions out o’ his mane, we decided we were better off without the kitchen sink anyway. So we just called it a day, set the tent on fire, and turned tail for home.”

Sergeant Glacier and Private Punch are looking a bit dazed at this point in my story. From the heat, no doubt. I dutifully refill the unicorn’s ice for the third time - she seems to be enjoying it more than the lemonade.

“O’ course at this point we were pretty far from Tranquility Springs, and the afternoon was getting on. So Tumble said we outta head to Hoofrest and stay the night at his uncle’s place, then head on back home in the morning.”

The crystal mare blinks and clears her throat.

“Is Hoofrest another town? I don’t recall seeing it on the map...”

“Ehhh, sorta? It’s just like this one street and a bunch o’ houses out in the middle of nowhere. Couple o’ hours southeast o’ here. I think there was a mine or quarry or somethin’ ‘round there years ago? Dried up ‘fore I was born, whatever it was. Now it’s just folks that never got ‘round to moving elsewhere, I guess?”

I shrug awkwardly, but my explanation seems to satisfy the unicorn. She swallows another mouthful of ice and nods for me to continue.

“Right, so Tumble and I was still a ways away from Hoofrest. We were climbing down these rocky hills, and the sun’s setting behind us. We reach the bottom o’ one hill, and start up the next. We step out o’ the shade into the last rays o’ Celestia’s sun, when all of a sudden this great big shadow falls over us! We turn around and are shocked to see…!”

Dramatic pause!

All good adventure / mystery stories have dramatic pauses. I would know, I’ve read every issue of Gallant Heart, Royal Investigator. Even that one terrible, definitely-not-canon issue where Gallant Heart gets shipped with Sir Dashwood instead of her obvious true love, Captain Nightingale.

Sergeant Glacier gently clears her throat.

Ack! Horsefeathers! Dramatic pause over!

“Er, ahem, so, we turn around and see... this big dark shadowy critter rearing up on top of the hill we just came down! It, uhhh... it was right against the sun, y’see, so we couldn’t get a real good look at it... But we heard it! It was panting with this deep, growly... growl, and we could hear it stomping down the slope after us! We knew we were in terrible danger!”

The two guards are listening intently, excited yellow eyes and steady green ones locked onto mine. I'm such a good storyteller! Thanks, Gallant Heart!

“I thought maybe we were being chased by a blackjackal or mountain lion or somesuch, and I guess Tumbleweed thought the same, cause we both immediately turned tail and hoofed it. Looking back, I could see it trotting down the slope after us, but it was in the shade now so we still couldn’t really make it out. It was big, whatever it was, but we seemed to be getting a lead on it.

“I turned around to catch up with Tumble, when suddenly there’s a whoosh, and something crashes into the ground next to me! Wham! It was so close I could feel the pebbles pelting my coat!”

My heart starts pounding just thinking about it. It was really frightening!

“I thought the monster must have j-jumped at me! I sure wasn’t expecting that! But I was so startled I didn’t even think to look back and see what it was. Just bolted faster than I knew I could!

“W-we didn’t hear it chasing us after that, but you betcha we didn’t stop to look till we’d darn near keeled over, and whatever it was was long gone by then. It was getting super dark out by then and we weren’t too keen on sticking around to look for it, s-so as soon as we got our breath back we hurried to Hoofrest, raised the alarm, crashed at Tumble’s uncle’s place, a-and that’saboutit thanksforlistening.”

I suck in a lungful of air. I kinda rushed through that last part without stopping to breathe.

Once I’ve got my breathing under control, I reach out a shaky hoof and take a nice long draught of lemonade. Retelling my story was not as fun as I expected. I'm pretty sure getting chased by freaky jumping shadow monsters is, like, an instinctive racial fear or something? Nothing to be ashamed of running away from, right? Nothing to be ashamed of retelling with a shaking hoof, r-right?

I hope my guests think so.

Peeking up at them, I find the two guardsmares talking quietly between themselves. The glimmery sergeant notices and turns to face me.

“Thank you, Miss Miles. You did the right thing by getting out of there as fast as you could. That’s the smartest thing to do when faced with an unfamiliar creature.”

I can’t help but smile and blush a little at the praise. Even if I was acting purely on instinct.

Punch reaches over and sets a comforting hoof on mine. My blush intensifies.

“You can rest assured, ma’am, that the Guard will be investigating this creature further, and we’ll be doing absolutely everything we can to keep your community safe. You’ve already helped us a bunch, but if you can remember any more specific details about this critter it’ll help us make the town even safer.”

I scrunch my nose in concentration. I want to help, but I'm still a little rattled.

“Umm… It, uhh… Details...”

Sergeant Glacier interrupts in a practised tone:

“Things like the creature’s general size and shape; number of limbs; number of horns; scent; colouration; whether it had fur or scales; the way it moved. That sort of thing.”

Huh. For some reason, it is a little easier answering these specific questions.

“Well, the sun was in our eyes the whole time, so it just looked like a big dark blob, but I’m pretty sure it was bigger than me. Bigger than Tumbleweeed even. Like, two or three times as tall, though not much wider.”

I close my eyes, trying to picture the scene. My heart starts pounding again, but I force myself to stay focused.

“I-it definitely had four legs, and I don’t remember any horn nor wings. Don’t think I was close enough to catch its scent. I do remember it rearing up on its hind legs both times I saw it, and thinking that was kinda weird. It’d be much faster on all fours, right? Oh, unless it was getting ready to jump, maybe?”

Sergeant Glacier frowns.

“You’re sure it was rearing? I can think of a few desert dwelling creatures about that size which are known to walk on two legs instead of four.”

I cock my head.

“Uhh, maybe? I guess it didn’t look like rearing, exactly, but what kind of critters do you mean? Like, a... giant bird, or something?”

That doesn’t seem right. The silhouette certainly didn’t look like any bird I’ve ever seen.

Glacier shrugs.

“Not unheard of. But a dragon might be more likely.”


”Juvenile, maybe. They love hot, sunny places, and often walk on their hind legs.”

I was being chased by a dragon?! How can she talk about this so calmly!?

“Not all dragons have wings, and now that I think about it, that impact you felt striking next to you could have been a fireball.”

A fireball?!?!

I feel my head start to spin. Looks like my body has decided to take me up on that offer of fainting.

“Of course, this is all just guesswork; it was probably something much more-”



“...Uhh, I think you broke her, boss.”

Chapter 4 - Hay fries

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I am Sergeant Glacier and I am contemplating desertion.

Sure, I’d be throwing away my career, likely spending time behind bars, and definitely disappointing my parents. But on the other hoof, I wouldn’t have to go back out into that desert sun. So, yeah. Tough call.

The flimsy wooden chair creaks as I lean back, gazing over the rundown little eatery we’ve taken shelter in. Simple wooden walls. Bright, rustic furniture. Homemade knick knacks covering every surface.

Kinda reminds me of home. Of course, the taverns back home would have a roaring fire and thick rugs along the walls. Even then you'd still see your breath condensing in front of you half the time. Far better than sweating a puddle into your seat, in my opinion.

I shift my weight, trying to expose more of my matted fur to the breeze of the ceiling fan. At least this place is cooler than the inferno outside. Private Fruit Punch and I had left Tranquility Springs early this morning, while it was still dark and cool. But by the time we’d reached Hoofrest just a few hours later I was already foamy with sweat and eager to be out of the sun.

Punch, with her shorter coat and mane, fared better. Upon arriving at the little community’s only café, she immediately started chatting it up with the other patrons. I’d have reprimanded her, but frankly I couldn’t muster the energy.

Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had to remind her of proper Guard etiquette and discipline. While it’s never been a serious issue, I don’t want to encourage her habit of gossiping on duty. Perhaps her time studying with the Appleloosan buffalo, away from real guards and protocol, has left her out of practice? I can sympathise if so.

It’s been challenging maintaining a professional relationship when it’s just the two of us for days on end. She clearly misses having squadmates to socialise with. (And so do I, if I'm being honest). But I'm in charge of her and this mission; it’s important to keep things professional.

My strategy thus far has been to keep the both of us busy and focused on work. Myself with research and planning, Punch with standing guard, checking equipment, running errands, or whatever else I can think of. Hence why I eventually sent her off to order both of our lunches.

(Ok, that one wasn’t strictly necessary for squad discipline. But hey, rank has its privileges.)

She’s been over by the counter for a while now. Seems to be having an in-depth discussion with the proprietor. I'm not really sure what there is to discuss. There’s only four items on the menu.

Oh well. It’ll only be a few more days until reinforcements arrive. Either my sisters from Parks and Wilderness Guard, the long lost Appleloosan Guard, or both. That should give Punch some other guards to chat with, and hopefully they’ll set a good example for her. And, with any luck, somepony more senior will arrive and take over as leader of this operation.

I’ve never minded taking charge temporarily when the situation called for it, or when my specialist skills were required. But I'm finding that being the leader full time is… exhausting.

And kinda lonely.

Punch seems like a nice mare and decent enough guard. It’s a shame to have to keep distance between us.


I lean back and rest my eyes. The gentle breeze from the fan tickles my chest.

Life was simpler when I just focused on being the best guard I could be. Leading ponies isn’t something I’ve ever put much thought into. I just kinda ended up as sergeant without really planning for it. Maybe it’s not the right job for me...

The clip-clop of approaching metal hoofguards pulls me out of my reverie.

“Okay, so we’ve got toasted sandwiches with frijoles, salsa, pickles, and a side of hay fries. Plus I managed to scrounge a couple of ice waters. Here you go, boss!”

My ears shoot up at the mention of ice water. Sitting up and opening my eyes, I see Fruit Punch has finally returned, a tray of food balanced easily on each wing. I have no idea what half these ingredients are, but ice water sounds like just the tonic I need.

She slides my tray onto the table in front of me. I offer a grateful nod as I levitate one of the perspiring glasses. Leaning back, I bring the wonderfully cool beverage to my lips. In a display that would make my old squadmates proud, I down the whole drink in one go. The icy liquid rushes down my throat, burning with cold, before settling in my stomach like a lump of snow.


Immediately I feel cool to my very core.


“Haha, yeah I thought you might like that.”

Punch is openly smirking as she sits down opposite me and digs into her sandwich. I let it slide. The chilly taste of home has put me in a good mood.

“Mmm, thanks, Punch. I needed that.”

“No prob, chief.”

I lean forward to attend to my food, a small smile making its way to my lips.

It’s decided, then. No desertion for me. I’ll just have to finish my first assignment as sergeant, do a good job of it, and then decide if it’s the right job for me.

But for now, I'm just going to enjoy lunch with my considerate partner.

“So,” Punch begins after taking her own sip of water. “Excited to get out into the field and do some real monster hunting?”

“Apart from the unbearable heat? Sure. I always enjoy fieldwork.”

I levitate a couple of fries into my mouth, slightly wary of the sandwich. They taste exactly like hay fries you’d find anywhere else in Equestria. Promising start.

“How about you? Excited?”

Fruit wiggles her ears.

“Apart from the unbearable heat? You bet! I’ve met a few dragons before, y’know, so it’ll be interesting to see how they compare with our desert troublemaker.”

“Oh? Ah, that’s right. You’re said you’re with the Harmony Corps, correct?”

“Bingo. Meeting guards from all different species and cultures; swapping guard techniques and history; all that good stuff.”

The Harmony Corps is a mixed species branch of the Guard, recently established by Princess Twilight. Word is they’re more focused on diplomacy and the magic of friendship than actual guarding. From what I’ve seen of Punch, that seems pretty spot on.

I quickly take a bite of sandwich to hide my grin. The flavour’s… interesting, but I’ve certainly had worse from the commissary. After finishing the first mouthful, I continue:

“Mmm. Well, I’m sorry to say our troublemaker’s probably not a dragon. Though that’s good news as far as I’m concerned.”

“Huh? Didn’t you say yesterday Miss Miles got chased by a juvenile dragon?”

I shrug.

“That was just speculation. I took a look through the town’s records last night. Not a single dragon spotted in this area in the town’s entire history.”

Fruit pouts at this. The effect is somewhat undermined by half a sandwich she’s crammed into her mouth. She looks like a grumpy chipmunk.

I take a (somewhat daintier) bite of my own sandwich. Texture’s a little weird, but the flavour’s growing on me.

“They do have Sand Wyrms, though. They’re dragon-ish, but probably not our troublemaker.”

“Fo wha oo oo fink ih iff,” Fruit asks around her food.

I quirk an eyebrow.

“Swallow, Punch.”

She swallows and grins sheepishly.

“Sorry. So what do you think it is? Our troublemaker?”

That’s the million bit question.

After interviewing Miss Miles yesterday - then making sure I hadn’t broken her - then reassuring her that Tranquility Springs was unlikely to be invaded by dragons - we eventually tracked down a few other potential witnesses. On the one hoof, there was no more fainting. On the other hoof, there wasn’t much concrete information, either. Some folk claimed to have glimpsed a strange shadowy creature, usually from afar or at night. Their descriptions were vague at best, contradictory at worst.

Not surprising, really. I know how these small towns are. Somepony says they saw a windigo, or a bunyip, or a vampony, and suddenly that’s all the town talks about for weeks. Soon enough, folks are seeing the monster in every shadow, hearing it in every gust of wind, and generally scaring themselves silly.

While the lack of reliable witnesses can be frustrating, it’s probably for the best. Better the townsfolk be too scared than not scared enough. The last thing we want is a gang of curious teens playing at being monster investigators.

Still, we needed some more concrete information about our quarry. Hence our trip to the town archives and library later that evening.

“Well, according to the records, there are quite a few large predators native to the region. Mountain Lions, Sand Wyrms, Sand Sharks, Sandipedes, Sandy Claws-”

“Seriously? Do they just call every animal they find “Sand” something?”

The thought had definitely crossed my mind. Allowing a brief smile, I reply:

“Think I should get them a thesaurus?”

Fruit bursts into snorting giggles, and I can’t help but chuckle along.

“Heheh. Anyway, these very sandy predators are usually found much further out in the Badlands. But now and again one will wander closer to pony settlements.”

I levitate a hay fry, waving it for emphasis.

“Problem is, none of them particularly match Miss Mile’s description. So either her imagination got the better of her-”

“I think she was doing a lot of imagining yesterday,” Punch grins.

“-or the creature isn’t native to the area. Wait, what?”

“Nothing,” Punch beams innocently, her tail swishing side to side.

I eye her suspiciously, before popping the fry into my mouth.

While my search through the archives hadn’t turned up any leads, it wasn’t a complete waste of time either. Studying exotic creatures and planning how best to deal with them is a comfortably familiar routine. I was able to power through all the material the library had on them in a single night. Armed with this new knowledge, I felt it was time to visit the scene of the crime, as it were: the rocky wastes south of Hoofrest, where Sandy had her close encounter.

We’ll be heading out that way as soon as we’re done with lunch and refilled our canteens. The Parks and Wilderness Guard might frown upon my venturing out into potentially dangerous wilderness with only a single guard as backup. But I figure that between my tracking skills, and Punch acting as aerial scout, we’ll be able to spot any potential threats long before there’s any danger.

Not that I'm expecting to run into anything dangerous, or even find the exact location of Miss Miles’ encounter. But there’s always a chance of finding tracks, droppings, or other clues which only an experienced PWG like me would pick up on. The prospect of some good old fashioned fieldwork almost makes me eager to head back out into the heat.


Chapter 5 - Encounters

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“Don’t move,” Glacier growls as she advances towards me, sword drawn.

It’s noon.

I am Fruit Punch.

After an hour of trekking, the boss and I have taken shelter from the oppressive sun beneath a rocky overhang. I'd thought I was finally getting on Glace’s good side. But given that she’s currently waving a sword in my face...

“N-now, Sarge, I’m sure whatever this is about we can talk it over.”

I give my best disarming smile as I back away from the larger, clearly insane mare. She just rolls her eyes.

“You’ve got something crawling up your back, featherbrain. Now don’t. Move.

A jolt of panic shoots through me. I'm suddenly keenly aware of dozens of tiny pinpricks tickling my flank. Is that perspiration trickling down my back, or something worse? It takes all my willpower not to buck wildly and launch myself into the sky.

The sergeant advances slowly, her oversized sword hovering beside her.

“Now what have we here...?”

I continue to stand stock still. Rear hoof frozen mid-step. Rictus grin etched in place. Glacier disappears to my left, out of my line of sight. Her sword clinks gently against my armour. My ears swivel involuntarily.

“Cooome on. Here- no, not that way.”

“Not what way?!” I squeak out of the corner of my mouth, not daring to move further.

There’s a pause. Followed by some scraping.

“No, no, bad little- stop that!”

My tail lashes with nervous tension. More scraping.

“Yeah, theeere you go. That’s better.”

To my relief, sarge steps away, back into my field of view.

“Well, aren’t you a cutie?”

Her sword floats after her, wrapped in her cyan aura. Something small and dark with far too many legs darts along its surface.

I spring back, muscles suddenly unfrozen, scrambling to put distance between me and the blade. The loose stones underhoof offer little purchase, and I end up on my backside in a tangle of limbs.


Glacier raises an eyebrow in my direction.

“Alright there, private?”

“Yeah, juuust peachy.”

I decide the floor’s a great place to rest a moment and catch my breath. Nice and far away from the sword.

That is, until I feel something tickle my flank.


I shoot into the air, swatting wildly at my rump! Get it off! GET IT O- Oh.

It was just my tail.

I sheepishly lower myself back down. On second thought, maybe the floor’s not a great place after all. Hovering sounds like a good idea right now.

“Not a fan of bugs, I take it,” Glacier asks. She doesn’t quite smile, but her eyes twinkle with amusement.

“Not bugs the size of my hoof, no ma’am.”

I cautiously flap over to peer at the critter still skittering about Glacier’s sword. It looks like some kind of shiny brown worm with hundreds of black legs.

“Mmm, quite an impressive friend you’ve made.”

Glace absently straightens my helmet and dusts me off, keeping one eye on her weapon.

“Baby sandipede, I’d say. The adults get a lot bigger.”

“Not super reassuring there, boss.”

The sandipede pauses a moment, feeling along an edge of the blade with tiny antennae. I notice its angry red pincers and tail.

“Uhhh, it’s not poisonous, is it?”

I may not be some veteran Parks and Wilderness Guard, but my medical training at least covered that bites from poisonous critters = bad.

“It’s venomous, yes. Poisonous means you shouldn’t eat it.”

Ahem. Bites from venomous critters = bad.

“But this little fella probably isn’t too dangerous yet. Not till she grows up.”

I feel only marginally safer.

Glacier has apparently finished cooing over her little monster, and gently floats her sword up against the rock wall. The sandipede quickly scuttles away, disappearing between the cracks. Glace then turns to peer at me, sword casually returning to its sheath. She doesn’t seem at all fazed leaving a potentially deadly enemy behind her.

“You weren’t stung, were you?”

“I- I dunno. How do I tell?”

I twist around, trying to spot any bite marks along my back. Of course, it's physically impossible to turn that way, thanks to pony biology, so I end up flying in a circle.

A hoof catches me in midair.

“If you’re not sure, then you weren’t stung,” Glacier explains, gently lowering me to the ground. “Come on, let’s get going. The sooner we finish investigating, the sooner we get out of this heat. And away from sandipedes.”

She turns and starts to trot out of the shade. I sigh.

“Yes, boss.”

It is getting uncomfortably hot. My fifteen minutes’ rest in the shade has been undone by a few moments of panicking and flying.

Stupid bug. How did it even get on me in the first place? I wouldn’t have even noticed it if Glacier hadn’t mentioned it!

That thought brings me to a halt. A sudden shiver runs down my spine, despite the heat.

“M-m-ma’am? Permission to check my armour for any other creepy crawlies?”

Glacier pauses at the edge of the shade, then shrugs and turns back.

“Alright, go ahead private. Just... hoof the pieces to me once you've checked them. If you sit them on the ground then you’ll just get all paranoid that bugs crawled into them while you're not looking.”

“Cheers, boss.”

I quickly begin shedding layers of barding. I make sure to give each piece a thorough shake and once over before hoofing it to Glacier. It doesn't take me long - getting in and out of armour at speed is a vital skill in the Royal Guard. After a few short minutes the majority of my armour is hovering besides Glace, trapped in her horn's glow. Helmet, peytral, gambeson; a lumpy satellite of cloth and metal. She chuckles as I shake out my last hoofguard and begin the slow process of putting everything back on.

“Hey come on, it’s not that funny. I don’t know about you, but I don't want to get poisoned - or venomed - out in the middle of nowhere.”

I pout for effect, but she just waves a hoof dismissively, hint of a grin on her muzzle.

“I’ve got an antidote potion, so I wouldn’t worry too much.”

Well that’s good to know. Makes sense the PWG carry stuff like that. Kinda wish she’d mentioned it sooner, though.

“But that’s not what I was laughing about.”


“What was it you said the other day? Something about wanting to see the monster hunter use her big scary sword on a big scary monster?”

She helpfully floats over my next hoofguard, grin barely contained.

“Guess you got your wish, huh?”

“Pffff, that- that’s not- that doesn’t count! That was not a big scary monster!”

“Big enough to scare you!”

I sputter a few more incoherent protests, while sarge chuckles and helps with my barding. I pout a few more moments, but her smile proves infectious. Soon we're sliding the last piece of armour into place, chuckling together.

We take a moment to catch our breaths before turning to leave. I'm still hot and sweaty, but at least our break gave us something to smile about.

The two of us step out into the fierce afternoon sun.

Oof. It’s... yeah, this is a proper desert, alright.

We’re in a small rocky gully. One of many, near the base of the Macintosh ranges. Loose sand and dust underhoof. Bare stone walls around us. Hours away from civilization. I'm not sure how anything survives out here, but Glacier’s been pointing out little signs of life as we travel. Patterns in the sand. Droppings. Bits of eggshell. It's amazing what you can find if you know what to look for.

She’s quiet at the moment, as the two of us plod along. Conserving energy, maybe. Her eyes are still alert, no doubt picking up all sorts of things I’d never notice. That’s ok, though. We all have our special talents. Right now, mine are picking up on Glacier’s folded back ears, sagging tail, and early signs of a frown. It’s the hottest part of the day, after all. Going back into the sun must be Tartarus for the poor northerner.

Well, there’s no other ponies around, so it’s up to me to keep her spirits up. Or at least keep her mind off the heat. As usual, conversation is my greatest weapon.

“So boss, what is the biggest monster you’ve fought?”

“Hmm. Hydra. Juvenile. Still near five ponies tall.”

Her sentences are short, punctuated by huffing and panting.

“Yikes. How’d you deal with something like that?”

“Generally try to lure it away. Or scare it away. Barricades, sometimes. We don’t want them dead. Just away from ponies.”

She frowns.

“That particular one was rowdy. Young male, aggressive. Wouldn’t take the hint. Had to get rough.”

“Did you... kill it?”

“Nah. Gave it a few scars. Sent it packing. Hide’s too thick for normal weapons. Even this,” she nods to her greatsword, “so we had to get creative.”

She shakes her head, an encouraging gleam in her eyes.

“This crazy pegasus, Pollen, jumps onto its back. She can’t do any damage up there, but hydras are dumb. Instinct takes over. It rolls over, nearly crushing her. Hide’s thick, but the underside’s vulnerable. While it’s thrashing about, we get a few good blows in. Nothing lethal. But enough to convince it that we ponies mean business.”

“Ha, wow! Sounds crazy. Didn’t you say you’re not all daredevil macho monster hunters?”

She rolls her eyes, but I’ve learned to spot the hint of a smile she allows herself to wear.

“There are exceptions. Most of the work is more like this,” she gestures to the desert around me. “Or teaching ponies how... to...”

She trails off. I notice her ears have perked up and she’s staring intently at something over my shoulder. I turn around, but nothing stands out to me. Rocky hills. Hazy mountains. Blue skies.

“You see that, Punch? Four hundred metres, near the tip of that sandbank we climbed down.”

I squint. There's... something there. A dark smudge against the motley orange backdrop.

“Is... that a pony? It’s sorta the right outline.”

“Not sure. Wasn’t there a minute ago.”

She’s glaring at the distant spot, all signs of weariness vanished.

“Private,” she says in a professional tone. “Fly up and take a closer look. Don’t get too close unless you’re sure it’s safe.”

“Got it, sarge."

I launch myself to the sky, cautiously making my way forward. Sandy's tale of leaping shadow monsters comes to mind, and I resolve to stay well out of reach.

The figure isn't any easier to make out from the air. It looks like it's moving a little, but that could just be distortion from the hot air around it. It's impossible to be sure of its shape, beyond “kinda sorta pony-ish”.

I glide in long, slow arcs around and toward it, giving us both plenty of time to observe each other. My eyes must be playing tricks on me; the closer I get, the less sure I am that it's a creature at all. From here it just seems like a dark smear on the landscape.

I drop to hover a few hooves above the ground. Then carefully touch down.

I scoop up a hooffull of sand.

The topmost layer is a dark. Almost silvery black.

The discolouration only extends a few hooves in each direction, and less than a quarter hoof down. Everywhere else, as far as the eye can see, pale-orange sand continues uninterrupted.


I turn and shrug at the distant figure of Glacier. I can just make her out in the distance, obscured by the haze and dust. It’s hard to tell, but is she... galloping?

“Hey boss! There’s nothing here!”

I call out, but it’s a struggle to make myself heard over the wind. Wait, wind? My pegasus instincts tell me I'm in a dead calm...

...But this isn’t any natural wind, I realise with a start! Leaping into the air, I'm immediately thrown back by a blast of whirling sand.

The Dust Devil forms in front of me with frightening speed. A bellowing tornado of dark sand. Glacier is immediately swallowed up and disappears from view. Everything disappears from view. I'm pelted by a rain of sand and stone, clanging against my armour and stinging exposed flesh.

I try to take off again, but the winds nearly rip my wings off. I tumble and flail through the air, blind, deaf, and hopelessly disoriented. Pain lances out from my shoulder as I'm dashed against a rock wall. It’s all I can do to close my eyes, hunker down, and weather the storm.

As quickly as they began, the false winds slow...

And stop.

For several long moments, the only sound in the dead calm is my panicked breathing.

Cautiously, I raise my head. Sand pours down my neck.

The landscape looks unchanged. Rocky hills. Hazy mountains. Blue skies.

There’s no sign the Dust Devil was ever here.

There’s no sign Glacier was ever here.


Chapter 6 - Reorienting

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I screwed up. Knew it as soon as Punch was airborne.

I shift slightly. Dislodging the sand piled on my back. There’s a dull ache all down my left side, and my skull feels two sizes too small. My own damn fault.

Shouldn’t have separated. Shouldn’t have sent an amateur off on her own. Shouldn’t have even been out in this Celestia forsaken desert.

I am Sergeant Glacier, and I screwed up.

With a groan, I lift myself to my hooves. Sand pours from me like water. Still more sand sticks to my matted fur. I'm more orange than blue.

My armour’s all gunked up. Head feels the same way.

The sun pounds down. Blinding. Smothering.

My throat is dry. Lips coated with grit. Painfully thirsty.

My hooves fumble for my canteen. Too dazed to use magic.

The first mouthful is nothing but wet sand. I spit it out.

The second soothes my parched lips. The third clears my throat. By the fourth, my head’s starting to clear a little.

I take a deep breath.

Ok. I screwed up.

Deal with it.

I'm the leader of this expedition. I've got to mare up and take responsibility. First things first: find Fruit Punch. Make sure she’s ok.

I shake the worst of the sand from my coat, and take stock of my surroundings. I'm at the base of a sand dune. Not much visibility from here. Just rolling walls of sand in every direction, radiant heat pooling between them. Stifling. Suffocating.

No sign of Punch. Not surprising; she wasn't with me when the Dust Devil hit. She's probably back near Hoofrest, instead of... wherever I am.

I couldn’t quite make out what happened between her and the mystery creature. It disappeared from view while she was approaching. But I did see her land voluntarily. That means she thought it was safe, right?

I wince, feeling a pang of guilt. Punch is a complete amateur when it comes to wildlife. How’s she supposed to know what’s safe? I was so focused on finally having a lead that I’d slipped back into old habits, issuing orders as though I was working with a veteran PWG.

I kick at the sand in frustration. I’ve put her at risk - put both of us at risk - because I got all worked up over my first assignment. Couldn’t wait for backup, couldn’t play it safe, nooo, I just had to prove I could handle it on my own. Stars above, I'm no better than a rookie myself! She's probably better off without me there to mess things up any-


My telekinetic slap knocks a cloud of sand from my muzzle, leaving a sharp sting.

Enough of this self pitying crap, sergeant! For all you know, Punch is in danger. Screwup or not, you may be the only pony who can help. So quit mewling, and focus on what you need to do!

Blinking away a few tears (from the pain in my muzzle, I tell myself) I take another look around. I can barely see anything surrounded by dunes like this. Need to get to a better vantage point if I'm going to find Punch.

I quickly start trotting uphill. It doesn’t look far to the top, but the seemingly gentle slope is deceptively hard to climb. The damned sand refuses to provide a firm grip, shifting and sliding away underhoof, dragging me back downhill. It takes five exhausting minutes to reach the top. Sweet Celestia, I hate this place.

At least there’s a faint breeze up here. I can see a good deal further now. The Macintosh mountain range, a looming wall of jagged brown, is still fairly near at hoof. Hopefully that means I’ve not been taken too far. A smaller range is visible to the east, hazy with distance. I don’t remember that from the maps.

The sand dunes continue west and south for a mile or two before abruptly transitioning to a dry, dusty plane, random plateaus and ravines scattered throughout. But no matter which way I look, no matter how hard I squint against the glare, there’s no hint of purple pegasus plumage. No dark smudge circling the skies. No gleam of armour on the horizon. Just browns and reds and brilliant blues.

Not a good sign. If Punch isn’t visible overhead, then either I'm in a completely different part of the desert, or...

(Something clenches painfully inside me.)

...Or she’s in no condition to fly.

I sit, or collapse, strength leaving my hind legs. My vision goes blurry once more.

I feel ill. Stifled. Hard to breathe.

I float off my helmet, dropping it unceremoniously. Clumps of tangled blue mane tumble down my shoulders. I feel messy and gross.

I cough out a few heaving breaths. Fanning myself with a hoof, I allow myself another mouthful of precious water.
Not much left in my canteen. I’ve an overwhelming urge to just pour it down my head and neck, washing away the sweat and stench and horrible clinging sand. My only concession is to splash a small hooffull around my face, carefully catching any spilled droplets with my magic.

The gentle wind tickles at the damp fur, beautifully cool against my skin. Like a fresh spring breeze from the mountains back home.

The slight chill seems to cut through the haze, helping clear my thoughts. I start to feel a little better. Start to feel myself again.

With sudden clarity, I realise what's probably going on:

Heat stroke.

Nausea, dizziness, weakness; all common side effects. I’ve spent too long in the sun, gotten too worked up. I don’t know if I'm actually suffering from heat stroke just yet, or if these are just early warning symptoms. But I know it can’t be far off. I need to find shade.

I take a long draught from my canteen, and splash a few more drops around my neck and ears for good measure. It’s imperative that I keep cool and stay hydrated. No point saving the water until later - I’ll be too weak to move later.

I wipe the blurriness from my eyes, and scan the desert once more. The dunes offer no respite. The mountains are still a few hours away. But the plain isn’t too far. It’s littered with cliffs and canyons, jagged patches of black shadow stark against the brown. I’ll be cooler in the shade. Especially if I can get below ground. Find a ravine, or cave. Maybe even a stream.

I take a step downhill. Pause, Royal Guard instincts reminding me to look after my gear. My helmet floats after me, trailing sand, and the two of us begin our journey.

Somehow, I feel a little better. Hooves lighter. Trot quicker.

Maybe it’s the cool water on my fur, or the prospect of shade at my destination.

Maybe it’s the resignation that I can’t do anything for Fruit just yet, and that I'm in at least as much danger as her.

Maybe it’s the familiar, perversely intoxicating fear growing inside me. The rush of pitting myself against nature, my wits and skills and luck the only things between me and an unmarked grave. Terrifying and exhilarating and very motivating. The first time I felt this way, as a young foal lost deep in the mountains, I ended up earning my Cutie Mark. Maybe it’s my Cutie Mark driving me now, whispering defiance to the hateful desert.

Or maybe it’s just delirium from the heat.

My perception of time certainly seems to be faulty. I could have sworn I’ve climbed this exact same dune a hundred times already. And surely sun is moving backwards through the sky. But slowly, slooowly, dune by dune, step by step, huff by puff, the distant plain inches closer. Until suddenly the sand is gone and I find myself on wonderfully firm cracked earth.

I blink a few times in surprise, waking from a dream of walking and thirsting. I'm a sodden mess of a mare, coated in foamy sweat, hooves caked in sand, ears and nose scorched raw. But I feel a sense of accomplishment. I take a celebratory swig from my canteen.

The last swig.

I should feel panic, but all I feel is exhaustion.

There’s a shallow depression only a few hundred metres away, leading to a narrow gully. I can even see a few rugged looking plants around the entrance. Plants are good. Plants mean water.

I stumble the last hundred metres, the downhill trail mercifully easier underhoof. To my frustration, the gully’s sides remain sloped instead of sheer, offering no shade. Even worse, the air down here is trapped and stifling, feeling even hotter than on the plain.

I continue down the channel, and slowly the path grows narrower and steeper. The rocky walls on either side continue to rise, slowly, until suddenly they're tall enough cast the whole passage into shadow. The drop in temperature is immediate. After the desert sun, it’s like walking into a freezer.

I slump against the cool stone, pressing my neck and cheek against the smooth surface, panting laboriously. With clumsy hooves and horn I remove my still-hot armour, tossing it down the slope with a resounding racket. My helmet tumbles away downhill, disappearing around a corner. I pay it no mind as it bounces and clatters in the distance, until it stops with a sudden and unmistakable splash.

I hesitate only a moment, ears twitching in disbelief, before bounding after it. No rational thought, just a desperate thirst. I practically fall down the steep, uneven slope, and before I know it I'm ankle deep in painfully, blissfully cold water.

At this point I do fall down, too hot and exhausted and relieved to care about anything other than immersing myself in the icy embrace. I crash down, sinking up to my neck. The freezing water seeps into my coat, drawing out the desert heat like venom from a wound. My skin burns from the contrast in temperatures. It’s the best feeling ever.

I let my head fall below the surface, feeling the sand and sweat and stress wash away. Luna, this is just like swimming in the frozen lakes back home.

I start greedily drawing a mouthful of water, only to abruptly stop and jerk my head away. The one part of my mind not exulting in the cold, the part that spent years training as a Parks and Wilderness Guard, shouts a warning: "Don't drink the water. Not yet."

I sputter and wheeze a few times, spitting out as much as I can. I manage to drag my waterlogged (but oh so wonderfully cool) hide back out of the pool. Sitting at the water’s edge, I take in the space properly for the first time.

Floodwaters have carved a smooth channel out of the rock, producing a wide, sinuous passage. Sunlight bounces down through the narrow gap high overhead, providing ample light but not much heat. A few steep fissures, like the one I tumbled down, lead up and out from the main waterway. Some small, prickly bushes eke out a living in patches of dust.

The pool itself fills up little more than a third of the uneven floor, only three or four pony lengths at its widest. It runs the length of the ravine before disappearing around a narrow bend a dozen metres away. Apart from a few dwindling ripples courtesy of my undignified exit, the pool is still. No current. No trickle of running water.


It looks clear, but I know better than to trust stagnant water. I still remember that time Heather filled her canteen from a beautiful clear pond. Didn’t spot the mouldering rabbit among the reeds until it was too late. The poor ditz was sick for days.

Even desperately thirsty as I am, I know to purify the water first. Boiling it is the traditional way, but I don’t have the fuel or patience. I've got something better.

I float over my armour and start digging through the saddle bags. Out comes a small pouch containing several hundred bits worth of enchanted gemstones. Part of the PWG standard kit. The spells are nothing too impressive, but potentially life saving in the right circumstances.

I fill my canteen with water from the pool, then drop in a small blue gem. The water starts glowing gently, and I feel the faint thrum of magic. I replace the cap, and count to twenty.

The delay is frustrating. Now that I’ve cooled off in the water, my throat feels blistered and burned by comparison. Nevertheless, I dutifully wait for the spell to complete. Then I carefully rinse my mouth of any remaining pool water. Then finally, finally I take a deep, deep drink.

Then another.

And a third.


I spit out the expended water purifier, now nothing more than an inert rock, and lie back against the cold stone. Completely sated. My eyelids flutter closed of their own accord. The PWG part of me mumbles something, but it’s hazy and distant. Every other part of me says to ignore it, at least for a few minutes...





I fell asleep didn’t I?

It doesn’t seem like any time has passed at all, but I'm suddenly stiff and cold and hungry. Alarm bells are ringing clearly in my head.

My eyes snap open and I peer out into the gloom. The ravine is noticeably darker, but nothing seems out of place. My gear is still where I left it. The water’s completely still.

My ears swivel back and forth, straining against the silence. Nothing there either.

I take a deep breath. And that’s when I realise what's wrong:

The smell.

There’s an organic musk in the air that doesn’t belong. I might have put it down to my sweaty gambeson stinking up the place, but there’s more to it than that. A wisp of ash. The reek of decay. And the tang of blood.

I was too preoccupied to notice when I first stumbled down here, but it’s clear to me now:

There’s something living here.

Chapter 7 - In circles

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“Oh come on, this is not fair!”

I kick a stupid rock out of the way as I hurry down yet another slope.

“They said Dust Devils attack desperate and despairing ponies! We were not desperate and despairing! We were super positive! There was bonding and everything! YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!”

I am Fruit Punch, and my accusations go unanswered.

“And getting hit twice in three days? What’s up with that? Harmony’s sake, you’re supposed to be folklore, not every-bloody-day occurrences!”

I scramble up a stony bank, huffing with indignation and exertion. No sign of Glacier here either.

“And - huff - waiting for the one moment - puff - the one moment aaall day - huff - when I leave her side for like TWO FLAPPIN’ MINUTES!”

My throat is sore. I ignore it.

My legs are tired. I push on.

“That’s just…”

My eyes are moist. I wipe them with a forehoof.

“...just low.”

A patch of loose gravel shifts beneath me. With only three shaky legs on the ground, I'm unable to catch myself in time, and tumble down the slope.

My armour makes an awful racket as it grinds against the rough stone. But it does its job, sparing me the worst of the damage.

“Ow ow owww! Flapping ow!”

But only the worst.

When I come to rest, my muzzle feels like one big bruise, and there’s the taste of blood on my lips.

Scraped my knee something fierce, too. It stings like the dickens.

“Stupid rocks! Stupid sand!”

I don’t have the energy to get up, so I just lay there a while, cursing.

“Stupid desert! Stupid Dust Devils! Stupid Fruit Punch! Stupid, stupid...”

Eventually, cursing gives way to quiet sobbing.

I’ve been shouting and calling and complaining this entire time, ignoring the protests of my parched throat. But I can’t keep it up.

I lie there, feeling completely drained, as the silence closes in about me.

I hate the silence.

Ever since the roar of the Dust Devil faded away, taking my sergeant with it, the desert has seemed unnaturally still.

No movement.

No sound.

No sign of anycreature else.

Just me.

I'm an outgoing pegasus who grew up in a big family. When I joined the Royal Guard I gained an even bigger family. Working with the Harmony Corps only strengthened my sense of community. I’ve been surrounded by other ponies my entire life.

And then, just like that, I'm alone. Utterly, overwhelming alone.

My first instinct was to take to the skies. Hopefully spot Glacier from the air, but more importantly (I felt a pang of guilt at the thought) put some distance between me and the unnervingly empty landscape. As soon as I flexed my wings, however, a spasm of pain shot down my right side. Inspecting your own wings is never easy, but after a few anxious minutes of gingerly flexing and methodically testing, I was reasonably certain I hadn’t broken anything. A nasty sprain most likely, from when the Dust Devil slammed me against the rock.

Thank Harmony I was wearing my helmet, or I could have gotten much worse than just a sprain. A concussion out here could be fatal.

As a pegasus and trained medic, I knew I really should keep off my wing for a few days to let it heal properly. Putting stress on it now would not only hurt, but risk exacerbating the injury. Worst case scenario, I might even cause permanent damage.

But as Glacier’s friend, I couldn’t bear to stay groundbound when she might need my help.

Bracing my wing with bandages from my first aid kit, I attempted a few test flutters. I winced with every flap, but gliding seemed ok, and I could sort of compensate for my right wing by working my left harder. I wouldn’t be quick or agile, but I figured a short flight would be manageable.

Since I was ignoring (my own) medical advice, I decided I might as well break some Royal Guard regulations while I was at it. Off went the heavy golden armour, piece by piece, for the second time today. Nocreature would see me out of uniform out here in the middle of nowhere, and it would make flying a little easier.

One slow, painful ascent later, and the desert was a distant patchwork of orange and brown below me. Mountains to the south, Hoofrest to the north. I think I could just make out Canterlot Spire rising in the distance.

I started to feel a little better. The climb was exhausting, but the wind on my feathers was cool and refreshing. After the stifling heat and limited visibility of the desert floor, I felt alive and free. And seeing evidence of other ponies, however distant, helped alleviate that sense of loneliness. Even if I couldn’t see them from the ground, I had friends not too far away.


“Boss! Sergeant Glacier! Where are youuu?”

...There was still no sign of this particular friend.

Gliding in long, slow arcs to minimise flapping, I swept back and forth over the area the Dust Devil hit. When that produced no results, I went further afield. Flapping faster, climbing higher, pushing my aching wing until the muscles seized up and I was forced to land gracelessly.

Then I just kept going. Legs carrying me where my wings had failed. Wandering at random. All the while shouting myself hoarse.

It was reckless. It was irresponsible. It was only a matter of time till I hurt myself. Honestly, I'm lucky it wasn’t worse.

With a groan, I sit up.

So now here I am, bruised, bleeding, dizzy with exhaustion and worry, and still no sergeant to show for it. I’ve been stubbornly refusing to acknowledge it all this time, but I can’t deny it anymore:

“Fine. I’m... I'm alone. I’m not gonna randomly stumble across Glacier like this. I need to stop running about and… make a plan or something. Think things through.”

I wince as I say it out loud, but I know it's true. I can’t help Glacier if I'm galloping blindly in circles across the desert like a lost foal. Letting my emotions get the better of me.

And before I can help her, I have to help myself. I’ve been out in the sun for hours, flying and running and shouting I'm feeling weak, sick, sore, and disoriented.

My medical training asserts itself: first things first, hydrate myself and cool off.

I hobble over to a nearby ledge. The afternoon sun is angled just enough for it to cast some shade to lie in. I give it a few swishes with my tail to clear out any lurking sandipedes or other creepy crawlies, then gently lower myself down.

Water comes next. Slow, measured mouthfuls. Too much at once and my body won't absorb it all. It can even cause damage.

Then it's time to clean and bandage my wounds. They're nothing serious, a few scrapes and bruises, all superficial. The pain has already subsided to a mere background ache.

Next comes more water. I’ve been sweating horrendously all afternoon, so it’s important I re-hydrate. I dig out a bruised apple from the depths of my saddlebags. I didn’t think I’d be out in the desert so long, so this is the only snack I brought. But it's still a pleasant treat, and it's important to keep up my energy.

I'm feeling much better by the time I finish it.

“Alrighty then.”

No more tantrums or needless risks. I'm a Royal Guard, and a fellow Guard is in danger. I'll do what I have to do, no matter how unpleasant.

“So, I guess my options are: do I keep looking by myself, or do I go back to town and get help?”

Both are quite tempting. I hate the idea of leaving Glacier out here alone, but I also trust the power of teamwork and friendship. With more ponies searching, we’d be sure to find her sooner, right?

“Buuut… how long will that take? It’s like an hour or two to Hoofrest, maybe half that if I fly a bit. But there’s probably not enough ponies there for a search party... So another couple of hours to Tranquility Springs…”

I look up at the sun. It’s still mid afternoon, but the shadows are starting to grow.

“...Even if I flew all the way - which I probably can’t, and definitely shouldn’t - there’s no way I could round up a search party and make it back again before nightfall.”

I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure it’ll be much harder to find Glacier at night. Not only that, but there’s still the shadow monster out here, and the Dust Devils.

A picture of a dark, roaring wall of sand flashes to mind. My wings ruffle at the memory.

Is it even safe to bring a search party out here? I’d be putting even more ponies in danger.

“On the other hoof, I suppose that applies to me, too. Staying out here with no backup is risky. Shadow monsters, sandipedes, dehydration, rocks… And I guess if something happens to me, there’ll be nopony to help Glacier. But on the other other hoof, if it’s so risky can I really just leave her by herself for so long? Heat stroke can set in in just a few hours... Aauugh, why is this so hard?!”

Why couldn’t the Dust Devil have grabbed me instead? I'm just a private. A grunt. I'm not supposed to make decisions!

Normally when I get stuck with a really hard problem, I rely on my friends or coworkers. But that’s not an option this time.

Or… is it?

I recall the speech given by Princess Twilight at my class’s graduation. Seeing the Princess Herself talk about the power of friendship made a huge impression on me. I clearly remember the event, even now, years later, though I can never remember her exact words. Something about...

"I may not be able to speak to my friends right now... But I can have faith in them."

I slowly rise to my hooves, determination building within.

“I… I can’t help you right now, Glacier, but I can trust you. You’re tough, you’re smart, you’re a big scary monster hunter! You’ll be ok until I get back, I’m sure of it!”

I have faith, too, that my friends the good ponies of Hoofrest and Tranquility Springs will be there for me. That together we can find Glacier without putting any other ponies at risk.

It's decided, then. The Magic of Friendship always steers me right.

Confidently, with a small smile on my face, I start marching north up the hill. I feel reinvigorated (if still a little sore and stiff).

At the summit I pause. Glance over my shoulder. The desert continues south, rows of hills piling up higher and higher until they reach the mountains. The nearest hill just a few hundred hooves away. I can't stop the thought creeping into my mind: “What if she’s just over that next hill? If you don’t check now, she could be dead by the time you return.”

Without any conscious thought I’ve turned around, taken a half step back the way I came.


I screw my eyes shut, pressing my wings tightly against my sides.

“Stop it, Private Punch. That kind of thinking’s just gonna drive you crazy. Or get you killed. Or drive you crazy and then get you killed. Just… complete your mission. It’s the best chance Glacier’s got.”

The thought steadies me, but only a little. The temptation to stop and check just one more hill continues its siren song in the back of my mind.

I take a deep breath, turn around, and continue marching down the hill.

Keep your mind on what you have to do next: Get to Tranquility Springs. Talk to the sheriff, round up a search party. Send a distress message to the nearest Royal Guard outpost. Maybe one to Canterlot too, in case Appleloosa’s detachment is still MIA. Stop at Hoofrest on the way. Will need to rest and resupply, and let the locals know what happened. And hey, maybe Glacier will find her way back on her own, in which case Hoofrest is the first place she’d look for me. She may even be there now!

I know I shouldn’t push my aching body any more, but I can’t resist one last flight. A final look around the desert, and the promise of arriving at Hoofrest that much sooner; it's gotta be worth the discomfort.

Slowly, stiffly, favouring my left wing as much as I can, I flap my way up out of the dust bowl. There’s a deep seated, pulsing ache at the base of my right wing, and my left is starting to cramp up from overuse. But I'm up here now, and can hopefully glide from thermal to thermal with relative ease.

Ahead of me lies a small, irregular jumble of tiny squares: Hoofrest. I angle towards it, and cast an eye over the desert one last time.

No Dust Devils. No mysterious figure. No Glacier.

“Just hang on, Glace. I’ll be right back. With friends.”

Chapter 8 - Discovery

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The dark tunnel flashes cyan as I float the last hoofguard into place.

If I'm going to go poking about in an unknown creature’s den, I'm going to do it properly.

First thing to do is suit up. I want to be protected as soon as possible, in case anything dangerous comes wandering while I'm still getting ready. I made sure to shake out each piece of armour before putting it on, mindful of Punch’s earlier adventure with the Sandipede. I also gave my gambeson a quick dip in the pool to wash out the sweat and stench. It feels a lot heavier, but it’s pleasantly cool against my fur.

Next up is weapons check. My greatsword floats over and emerges easily from its scabbard. Good, good. Hasn’t been damaged by the day’s adventures, nor jammed in place by crusty sand. Last thing I want is to try to draw my sword in an emergency only for it to get stuck.

I resheath the blade and strap it across my back. Most Royal Guards keep their weapons concealed beneath their armour. Helps maintain the friendly public image. My own sword is much too long for that, but that’s ok. Parks and Wilderness Guard are an exception to the rule. We interact with civilians less than others, and when we do it’s often helpful to put on a show of force. Show them that the - how did Punch put it? - “Big scary monster hunters” are here to save the day. Hence why a lot of PWGs have oversized weapons.

Of course, there's a practical side too: when dealing with some of Equestria's nastier inhabitants, you generally want your weapons to provide as much reach and power as you can get. A certain hydra springs to mind.

Though I do keep a smaller blade in my concealed weapon compartment: a utility knife. Endlessly useful for outdoors work and - with a stick and bit of rope - can be turned into an impromptu spear. A lightweight, versatile backup weapon. I draw it with a hoof and hold it up for inspection.

In my opinion, too many Guard unicorns rely exclusively on magic. While it may be acceptable in some posts, at the PWG we train to use our hooves and mouths too. The job can get pretty physical sometimes, stomping around through the dense bush or wrangling ornery jackalopes. We don't want squadmates to be rendered completely useless by a single bump to the horn.

Satisfied with the knife’s condition, I resheath it manually, then turn to the rest of my gear. Which is currently strewn about the room. The aftermath of my desperate rummaging for a water purifier earlier. I quickly and efficiently pack it all up, taking stock as I go.

One small spool of rope, thin but strong enough to hold my weight. (If I ever go marching through the desert with Punch again, I might just tie the two of us together so I don’t lose her again.)

One waterproof envelope. Inside are a map of southern Equestria (not detailed enough for my liking), a notebook (with my meagre notes on the investigation), a compass, and a pencil.

One medical kit, including a few potion flasks. All still intact. (I'd hope so, too, considering how much they cost. Specially built to be more compact and rugged than your typical alchemists’ flasks.)

Four bars of long life rations. Basically trail mix, but stamped into shape and somehow devoid of flavour.

My stomach noisily informs me it doesn’t care about flavour, and that I haven’t eaten since brunch. Obligingly, I unwrap a bar and start to munch on it while continuing to pack.


I scrunch my nose at the morsel. Compared to the rich flavours of this morning’s toasted sandwich, it’s like eating gravel. But food is food, and I need to keep my energy up. Especially with night approaching. Deserts get cold; I’ll need the calories.

Maybe later I’ll try some of the wild plants I passed on my way down here. Bland and not terribly filling as a rule, but I don’t know how long I’ll be stuck out here. Better to live off the land where I can, and try to ration my rations.

“Heheh. Ration your rations.”

Clearly I should have been a comedian. Significantly lower chance of being abducted by sand demons.

My smirk turns into a grimace as I absentmindedly take another bite.


Significantly lower chance of having to eat rations, too.

Alright, back to inventory.

Next up is my gem pouch. I still have one remaining aquamarine (enchanted with a water purification spell), as well as one fire ruby (instant campfire), one sunstone (illumination), and two thunder quartzes (signal flares) - all in separate, magically isolated compartments.


“I forgot the damn flares!”

I slap a hoof to my forehead. I should have sent up a flare immediately after the Dust Devil attack!

I start to pace about the room, tail twitching.

I’ve seen thunder quartz flares in action before. A reverse gravity enchantment sends the stone flying when activated. A few seconds later, some sort of pegasus magic causes it to vaporise into an artificial cloud, illuminated from within by flashes of rainbow lightning. I'm not much of a spellcaster, but I'm assured it’s all simple, low power magic. Makes them very reliable and long lasting. In calm weather the distinctive shimmering cloud can last for days, though the light show fades out after a few minutes.

If only I’d thought to use one! Even in the middle of the bright desert, it would have been visible for miles. Fruit would have seen it and come flying! I could have been rescued by now!

I draw in a deep breath, ready to shout in frustration! My hoof brushes against a small stone. It clatters away into the darkness, the tiny noise echoing loudly.

I pause, lungs still full.

...This isn't the time or place for shouting, a small part of me insists.

I'd alert any nearby creatures, putting myself in needless danger. I should be better than that.

I've already made enough mistakes for one day.

Slowly I deflate.

Sighing, I step over to the pool. Leaning down, I scoop up some of the cool water, splashing it across my head and neck. It helps.

As my frustration drains away, reason starts to reassert itself. Getting all worked up again isn’t going to help. What’s done is done. Besides, if I was so addled by the heat that I forgot my own equipment, then I probably couldn’t have stayed out there much longer anyway.

While I may have been rescued, waiting out there would have been a dangerous gamble. Especially since there was no sign of Punch, who ought to have been visible for miles herself. Odds are nopony would have seen the flare, and by the time I’d given up on waiting I’d have been too overheated to make it to shelter.

I shake my head, water spraying from my muzzle.

“Never mind. Just… focus on the task at hoof.”

I stuff the gem pouch into my saddlebag, vowing to remember it next time. I’ll see about sending up a signal flare soon, but first I have to find somewhere safe to wait. There's water and shelter here, but the faint odour of blood is an ever present reminder of just how little I know about this place. It’s quiet now, but I’ve barely explored the main tunnel, let alone any of the side passages. Who knows how many creatures use this pool as their watering hole?

Speaking of which, the last item to pack is my canteen. I'd normally have a cloak or poncho too, but I figured I wouldn’t need one for day trips in the desert. I might end up regretting that decision real soon...

Hefting my canteen with a hoof, it feels about half full.


Is it worth using my remaining purifier to top it up?

If there is something dangerous living down here, I might have to leave in a hurry. Then who knows when I’ll next find water?

But it is my last purifier. Once that’s gone, I’ll either have to find running water, or boil it.

I finish off my ration bar as I deliberate. (Resigned to the blandness at this point.) It’s risky either way, but I decide to save the purifier for the time being. It might be egotistical of me, but I think I can handle most wildlife I'm likely to run into. And if not, well, I’ve already found water once; hopefully it wasn’t just a fluke.

(Something vaguely bothers me about that thought, but I can’t quite put my hoof on it.)

Shaking my head, I drape the canteen over my neck and take a quick sip to wash away the last of the ration taste.

And with that, I'm ready for adventure!

Well, almost. After guzzling all that water earlier, nature is calling. Insistently.

Plus, I need to make sure I have a line of retreat. I more or less stumbled down here in a haze, after all. I should memorise the way out, in case I need to make a hasty exit.

The opening I originally entered from is just a few hooves away. I trot over to inspect it. It’s a simple fissure in the wall, just wide enough to comfortably climb. It doesn't really have a floor to speak of; the walls simply get narrower until they meet. Though in a few places the rock has chipped away, forming irregular flat steps. It’s pretty steep, but I'm a mountain mare. I leap up easily, agile as any goat.

The passage curves and widens as it rises, the temperature rising along with it. A few broken rocks and loose pebbles litter the path, but it’s otherwise fairly smooth. This whole place is likely a funnel for floodwaters. The pool below would be the remains of the last flood, however many months ago it swept through.

I continue climbing, the air quickly heating up as I near the surface. I'm glad for the still-wet gambeson keeping me cool.

Soon the high walls part. I emerge into a familiar shallow ravine, painted red by the magnificent sunset. Directly ahead the horizon is a blinding band of brilliant orange: the molten heart of a furnace, poured over the dark mountaintops. From there, the vast expanse overhead fades from vivid scarlet to violet to darkest blue. A few distant clouds catch the last rays of the sun, glowing a shocking pink.

Even in a place as inhospitable as this, Equestria never ceases to be breathtaking. Despite the obvious differences, I'm reminded of home. Of the harsh beauty of the frozen north. If you underestimate them, the mountains will kill you just as surely as any desert. Yet they’re also the home of some of the most spectacular sights I’ve ever seen. I see that same contrast here.

Beauty and danger.

Serenity and awe.

I find myself starting to appreciate the desert. Just a little. Grudgingly.

At this point my bladder interrupts, stating that it doesn’t appreciate the view, and it definitely doesn’t appreciate the delay. I very quickly scoot behind some bushes a little ways off to the side.

After taking care of business, I return to the main path and look east again, admiring the sunset.

Wait, east?

The sun sets in the west.

The Macintosh mountain range looms just a few miles south of me. The sun is setting behind the other, smaller mountain range, to the Macintoshes' left. That would put the sun, impossibly, in the east.

And it’s definitely setting, not rising. I might conceivably have napped through the entire night, but then the air would be much, much cooler. And I'm pretty sure it’s gotten darker since I woke up, not lighter.

“What in Celestia’s name is going on?”

Ok, remember your equipment this time. My sense of direction is usually fine, but I do have an actual compass. I quickly float the containing envelope out from the depths of my saddlebags, and bring the compass up to bear.

The needle spins, wobbles, and eventually settles.

The sun is in the west, right where it should be. Good, good. Villains haven’t hijacked the sun while I was gone. (Again.)

But... the Macintosh range is to the north?? It’s supposed to be to the south! When did the mountains move!?

“What is going o- Oh. Ohhh.

I sit down, feeling faint as realisation dawns.

The mountains didn’t move.

I did.

The damn Dust Devil moved me to the other side of the mountains.

I'm officially outside of Equestria.


With shaky hooves, I take a large gulp from my canteen. Wish I had something harder to drink.

The water doesn’t quite go down right. I splutter and cough, dribbling a bit down my chest. A few seconds of painful hacking and wheezing do a great job of snapping me out of my shock.

“Ok. cough Ok.”

I wipe my mouth on the back of a hoof and pull out my map. The area south of the Macintosh range is mainly restricted to the margins. A large, empty place, drawn in even less detail than the rest of the already vague map. A single ominous label fills most of the space:

‘Badlands.’ Well, I suppose that’s accurate. Not particularly helpful though.”

I’ve heard of the badlands, of course. Not technically part of Equestria, but a variety of dangerous creatures are known to live within. Since they tend to creep into Equestria from time to time, I’ve read about them as part of my PWG training.

I look up from my map and face the dark, narrow crevice leading back down into the ravine. Home to who knows what badlands monstrosities.

I gulp. Suddenly I'm a little less confident in my ability to handle any wildlife I run into.

Alright, time for some serious re-evaluation. I take a seat and set aside my helmet, giving my thick, bushy mane room to breathe. (Amazing that the air can still be so hot out here at this time of day.)

So: I'm south of the Macintosh ranges. On the plus side, this explains why I couldn’t find Punch earlier. She’s probably fine; there just happens to be a kilometres wide rock wall between us. On the minus side, I'm not lost hours from civilisation; I'm lost days from civilisation.

The map shows a route back to Equestria if I travel east far enough, where the Macintosh range finally ends. But without a more detailed map, for all I know that's a week of travel through nonstop desert. I’d also be travelling away from any potential rescue efforts. Not a great option, all things considered.

Lowering the map, my gaze turns northward.

The Macintosh mountains glower back. A massive, jagged wall, black and menacing red in the sunset. Standing between me and civilisation.

But I'm a mountain mare. The looming slopes don’t intimidate me. Even without equipment, crossing them is not completely out of the question. That said, I know better than most: if you underestimate them, mountains will kill you just as surely as any desert.

So, also not a great option. Let’s call that Plan B, and walking east for a week Plan C. But what’s Plan A?

Thunder quartz flares are good, but not visible-over-a-mountain good. I could wait here for rescue, but it could be days or weeks before anypony thinks to look this far south. If they ever do at all. And I still don’t know if I can wait here. Mysterious, possibly predatory wildlife, and all that.

Brings me back full circle, I suppose. Before I can make any long term plans, I really need to know if this place is safe. To stay the night, at the very least.

It’s been a long day, and the prospect of exploring dark caves is not terribly appealing. But trying to find another shelter, in this vast wasteland, at night? Even less appealing.

There’s still a number of concerns on my mind, but the last of the daylight is fading fast. Better to ponder them after I’ve established a base of operations.

“Alright, Glace. Enough dilly-dallying. Let’s get this over with.”

I replace my helmet and return the map to my bag. My knife levitates out in its place. My sword will be too large for the confined spaces below.

Quietly as I can, I begin creeping back down the dark passage. The walls close in on either side. The narrowing slit of sky provides little illumination.

With a thought, I force more magic through my horn. The tunnel lights up a murky green. Every bump and crack and pore is cast into sharp relief, minute shadows shifting with each step.

Despite my best efforts, the sounds of my descent echo ahead of me. Metallic clanks and scrapes against the stone. I'm glumly forced to accept that, between the light and the noise, I'm not likely to take anycreature by surprise.

After a few minutes, I reach the pool chamber. It’s just as empty as I left it. Glancing both ways, I decide to head right, leaving the water behind and following the main passage as it climbs uphill. I figure it should just lead back to the surface, so it’ll be an easy path to check off. It’s also another potential escape route, and so worth scouting.

Soon enough I'm proven right: after a few turns, the passage widens into a dusty, shaded dell. Some spindly, sweet smelling silhouettes resolve into bushes and even a few small trees. Good find. There might be enough food here to last a few weeks. Wild grass tends to make even ration bars seem tasty by comparison, but beggars can’t be choosers.

I turn around, heading back down into the ravine. As I return to the pool chamber the fresh scent of plants fades behind me, replaced by that faint reek of rot. This time I follow it, pausing to sniff this way and that as I slowly advance.

The watercourse winds along gently. The dark pool in the centre sometimes widening, sometimes narrowing, but steadily rising. Soon water fills the entire passage. I have to cling to the sloped sides to avoid it.

Now and again I pass an opening or small side passage, mostly climbing up and out. At each I stop, smell the air, listen, and move on.

Until I reach a split where the odour is noticeably stronger.

Rot, and ash, and musk.

I wait a moment at the entrance, ears perked. The opening is quite small; little more than a ragged fissure in the wall, widened and smoothed by years of flooding but still uncomfortably narrow.

It’s just as silent as all the others.

With a grunt, I lift myself in. The tunnel climbs steeply, but it’s mercifully short. I can see the evening sky opening up just a few hooves above me.

After some not-so-stealthy clambering, I emerge into a dusty bowl five or six pony lengths across. The rock walls overhang slightly, rising a few metres before pulling away to reveal the reddish-purple sky. A gravely slope to the right leads up and out of sight.

The source of the burning smell is immediately apparent: in the centre of the bowl is a ring of blackened rocks surrounding a mound of ash. A campfire!

It’s long dead, but the sight is reassuring - it’s the first trace of civilization I’ve seen since entering the Badlands. And if somecreature else can survive here, that’s a good sign that I might be able to, too.

Still, I proceed with caution. There can’t be too many other ponies lost in the Badlands, but I have heard stories of griffon bandits and changeling rebels calling the place home. They’re unlikely to be particularly welcoming towards a Royal Guard.

Scanning the rest of the area, I spy a crude bed of leaves and grass tucked beneath an overhang. An odd, musky smell emanates from it. On the opposite side of the bowl, in a shallow pit, lies a small pile of bones and gore - a midden.

In the twilight I can more clearly smell it than see it. The source of the rotting stench. A small cloud of flies disperses as I approach. My tail flicks automatically, driving back any insects which try to land on me. A few other small mounds, covered over with sand, indicate previous middens. The inhabitant has been here a while, then.

I begin to telekinetically shift through the muck, professional curiosity having long since replaced revulsion for such grisly tasks.

Charred bones. None quite as large as pony bones, encouragingly.

Intestines, scraps of meat, and other offal. Not the most diligent eater. Possible evidence that the creature is primarily a predator, rather than a scavenger. Weaker digestive system can’t take advantage of all the odds and ends.

Scales, but little fur. Not too surprising - I imagine reptiles would be more common than mammals around here.

Fruit rinds? Ok, an omnivore, then. Or facultative carnivore. Prey is probably quite scarce, so even a predator might supplement its diet with plants.

I set the stinking mess back down and step away, thinking. Off the top of my head, dragons or griffons might fit the bill. Intelligent, independent predators. Though surely a dragon wouldn’t bother with a campfire? And I'm no expert, but it doesn’t really smell very griffon-y down here. No loose feathers, either. A diamond dog, maybe? I don't see any claw marks or signs of digging...

Quite the mystery.

I'd like to stay and investigate further, but I really should check the perimeter first. Make sure nothing’s going to sneak up on me while I'm poking around.

Now that I'm outside again with enough light to see by (if just barely), I shift my knife to my mouth and extinguish my horn. No point making myself more visible than necessary.

There are only two ways out of this hollow: the crevice I climbed out of, and a dusty path on the other side. It passes beneath a narrow stone arch before ascending steeply. I approach from the side, keeping to the shadows. The path quickly widens out, joining onto a large, rough slope dotted with boulders and low shrub. The top of the slope is still some distance away. By my reckoning, from up there I’d be out of the valley in which the water passage runs through, and would have a pretty good view of the surrounding area.

Quietly and cautiously, I sneak my way uphill. The rough terrain poses little challenge for me, though I do knock a few rocks loose. Can’t be helped; lighting my horn to see better would be even more of a giveaway.

I'm halfway up the hill when another clatter nearby gives me pause. I didn’t feel anything shifting underhoof that time.

I wait, ears straining.


A soft crunch, then another. Not too near, but not too far either.

Instinct screams at me to flee, but curiosity and training overrule it. Quietly as I can, I duck into the shadow of a nearby overhang - not much defence against a predator’s sense of smell, but it’ll give me a clear view of whatever’s coming. I'm better off knowing what I'm dealing with, than running away blindly without a plan.

Or so I hope.

The faint noises - hoofsteps, perhaps - continue steadily. Sounding heavier and heavier.

My hoof inches to my greatsword.

Craning my neck, I can just make out the top of the slope without exposing myself.

A silhouette slowly rises into view. Not thirty metres from me.

As it crests the hill, the last light of the sunset falls on it, illuminating it. It takes me a moment to register what I'm seeing.

“Oh buck me, is that what I think it is?”

Chapter 9 - Rose

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I creep forward silently. One infinitely cautious hoofstep at a time.

My body is tense; a bow, drawn, waiting for the perfect shot.

I need to end this quickly. I haven’t been spotted yet, but one wrong move could spell disaster.

My hoof inches forward. Almost there...

Three sharp knocks at the door break my concentration. My back hoof clips against a chair, producing a slight scraping noise as it slides across the tiled floor. Sunbeam looks over at me from her place by the kitchen counter, amber eyes widening in surprise as they meet mine. I'm still frozen in place, one mauve hoof halfway to the bowl of cookie dough she’d set aside.

Her eyes narrow dangerously.

”And what do you think you’re doing?”

I give her my best winning smile.

“Stealing cookie dough.”

Her frown turns icy.

“...I’m in trouble, aren’t I?”

Sunny waves a dough-speckled wooden spoon menacingly. (Anypony who’s not afraid of a spoon hasn’t seen what Sunny can do with one.)

“Out of the kitchen, thief! Go get the door, then report back for your punishment.”

Dangit! I was so close this time.

My wonderful wife’s a brilliant chef, but a tyrant when it comes to snacking on the ingredients. I dare not challenge her in her domain. I slink away, shoulders slumped in defeat.

Wait. When she said punishment, did she mean punishment, or punishment?

I perk up at the thought. Maybe not a total loss after all.

Humming to myself, I open the door to our cosy little Tranquility Springs home. Warm light spills out onto the dim wooden porch, while warm evening air presses in. An orange stallion wearing a tan vest and a very deliberately neutral expression stands stiffly on the welcome mat. The gold star pinned to his chest gleams, perhaps on purpose, as he shifts his weight.

”Evening, Rose,” he says carefully.

“Why, Prickly Pear, what an unpleasant surprise.”

I smile and close the door in his face, humming again as I turn back to the kitchen. There’s another series of knocks.

”Come on, Rosie, this is serious.”

With a roll of my eyes, I open the door again, leaning against the frame.

“What can I help the sheriff with?” I deadpan.

This time I notice the other pony accompanying him, hanging a little further back. Pegasus, purple coat, green mane, wearing golden armour.

A Royal Guard? Hmm, perhaps this is serious.

”If you could drop the attitude for once, that’d be a start,” Pear mutters, massaging his temples. “Anyway, Dusty Rose, this is Fruit Punch of the Royal Guard.”

He gestures the pegasus forward. As she steps into the light, I notice she looks a bit out of sorts. Armour’s scuffed and dirty. Bandages around one wing. Sagging posture.

The poor dear’s obviously had a long day.

”Private Punch, Harmony Corps. Pleasure to meet you, ma’am.”

At least her voice is firm and professional, and there’s a small smile on her lips as she raises a hoof. I bump it with my own, returning her smile.

“Hey, don’t “ma’am” me, kid. I used to be enlisted, like you. Just “Rosie”’s fine. Now come on in, you look like you could use a cuppa.”

I step aside, letting the filly in. She gives me a grateful smile as she enters.

Lingering in the doorway, I give Prickly a critical look. He returns it with a flat stare of his own. Eventually I nod towards the still open door.

“Hmm, I suppose I oughta let you in, too.”

”Mighty gracious of you,” he says, almost completely managing to conceal the sarcasm.

As he steps past and I move to close the door, a slight rustle in the darkness makes me pause. I turn to peer out into the gloom. For a second I thought I saw a silhouette in my peripheral vision. But as my eyes adjust to the dim light, nothing seems amiss. A few shrubs wave gently in the evening breeze. Lights flicker in the windows of houses across the street. Bats flitter overhead, snatching at invisible insects.

I shrug, and close the door.

Soon, everypony is settled around the living room table. Assorted cushions, bookshelves full of knick knacks, and thick cream curtains line the room. Sunny’s put the kettle on and offered our guests some fresh cookies (pointedly ignoring me) before returning to the kitchen, leaving me to get down to business. Thankfully, Prickly seems to be in a hurry himself, and wastes no time with chitchat.

”So you heard ‘bout them two Royal Guards who arrived the other day? Miss Punch and another one?”

“Yeah, little Sandy came by yesterday gushing about them."

(Not that I can blame her. Those golden uniforms have a mighty powerful effect on mares. Just ask my wife.)

I smile over at Punch.

"She seemed quite smitten with her handsome houseguests.”

My ears twitch at some brief, high pitched squeal, though my guests don’t seem to hear it. Punch is looking equal parts amused and embarrassed, while Prickly just looks his namesake.

”Uh huh, lovely. Well, the two of ‘em went out into the foothills past Hoofrest this morning, despite my advice, and long story short the other mare’s gone missing.”

My ears perk up in surprise. Oh my, that does sound serious.

”Got separated during a sandstorm, apparently.”

”Dust Devil,” Punch corrects. “I’m no weathermare, but I know for sure that wasn’t any natural storm. Oh, and it wasn’t even our first Dust Devil - we ran into a smaller one on our way here two days ago.”

Well, that’s a most peculiar coincidence. I arch an eyebrow at Prickly, silently asking his opinion. He shrugs in return, looking unconvinced.

Dust Devils aren’t exactly common, especially not in this area. For outsiders to run into them twice while investigating out in the desert? Well. That almost sounds like…


I shake my head. Most likely, they were just blown off course. Outsiders tend to think any old gust of sand or bout of bad weather is some desert wraith personally tormenting them. Desert’s dangerous enough without bringing spirits into it.

I turn to face Punch, taking a moment to study her more closely. Her expression is honest and confident, though I see a hint of concern in her eyes. But really, she looks half asleep. She’s been doing a good job of hiding it, but she’s been swaying ever so slightly this whole time. Her ears are just a little bit droopy, and she has to periodically blink herself awake. There’s a tiny, carefully controlled tremor in her voice when she speaks, and she hasn’t quite managed to clean the grime around her eyes marking where she’s been crying.

Poor thing. A young private, all alone, separated from her unit and the chain of command? The kid’s clearly in way over her head, worried and exhausted. Easy for somepony like that to start imagining things.

”Anyway,” says Prickly, interrupting my train of thought. “We obviously need to put together a search party. And since this is your fault, I figured you’d want to volunteer.”

His little jab doesn’t bother me, but he’s right about the volunteering. Though I doubt he’s noticed Punch’s state - he’s too wrapped up in his own responsibilities. But I'm older than him; I've seen it all before.

“Of course I’ll help. Now then,” I stand up, and start ushering the sheriff towards the door. My old squad leader instincts, or perhaps my normally dormant maternal side, are crying out to help this filly. “I’m sure you have plenty to do, so why don’t you go make yourself useful somewhere else? I’ll make preparations here, and look after Miss Punch.”

He frowns, confused by my sudden bout of helpfulness. But he lets himself be escorted to the door. Once on the porch, he turns, professional sheriff expression back in place.

”I’m thinking we all meet up outside Town Hall 'bout three hours ‘fore dawn. I’ll see if I can’t round up another dozen other volunteers by then, and a couple o’ wagons for supplies. Four or five barrels of water, some grub, some firewood.”

It’s not a question, but I know he’s asking for my opinion. As much as the two of us don’t get along these days, at least we respect each other’s experience.

I quickly run the numbers through my head, nodding in agreement when they line up with my own estimates.

“Six barrels. And see if you can get Mr Woodwind to help - we could use a pegasus.”

Woodwind is the town’s weather pony, and one of the few pegasi permanent residents.

”I was thinking ‘bout sending him to Appleoosa with a message for the Guard,” Prickly admits.

I shake my head.

“He’ll be more use with us. Send one of your deputy colts - Fields is pretty quick on his hooves, ain't he?”

He frowns.

”Need to keep the deputies here in my stead. Remember, this whole mess started ‘cause of some alleged monster sighting. So if some critter’s gotten bold enough to snatch a Royal Guard, then now’d be the worst time to leave Tranquility undefended.”

I don’t bother pointing out that Tranquility Springs is hours away from the potential monster site. No point aggravating Prickly - I know how much he must dislike the idea of leading civilians into the desert, and I don’t want to accidentally talk him out of it.

“Not a deputy, then," I concede. "Send Tumbleweed - he’s always full of energy, and knows the way well enough.”

He grunts in ascent.

"Well, I'd best mosey along. Lots to get done tonight. See you in a few hours, Rose."

“Yep. Good luck, Pear.”

As he trots away into the darkness, I once again have the feeling I'm being watched. The bushes aren't quite rustling right; the usual chirp of nighttime insects is muted.

Casually I close the door and head back inside.

Sunny has returned with a pot of tea and another tray of cookies, which Punch is gratefully wolfing down. My darling wife graciously allows me a cookie of my own. It even has those little rainbow chocolatey bits. Bliss.

”’Scuse me, Rosie, but what did the sheriff mean when he said this was your fault?” Punch asks, spilling a few crumbs.

“Oh, just a bit of a disagreement. He was against getting the Royal Guard involved with our little monster problem. I ended up going around him, called in a few favours from some old Guard buddies."

I shrug.

"So, in a way, I suppose it is my fault you’re here.”

Punch nods, blinking slowly.

”Whyaaaaahhh-” a mighty yawn escapes her. “-Why was he against involving the Guard?”

I smile and shake my head.

“Let’s leave the questions till morning, alright kiddo? We've got a big day ahead of us, and you need some rest. Though if you feel you can stay awake just a little longer, I’ll run you a nice hot bath, while Sunny here keeps stuffing you full of cookies and other delicious things.”

”I’d like nothing better,” Sunny beams, tousling Punch’s mane.

”Mmm, that sounds fantastic. Thank you both so much.” Punch is already starting on her next cookie.

Heh. Good kid. She’ll be alright with some food and rest.

I set the bath running, and, on a hunch, add a bit of bubble bath formula. I have a feeling Punch is the type to enjoy it.

Instead of returning to the living room, I quietly make my way out through the back door, the rumble of the filling tub drowning the door’s quiet squeak. I step out into the darkness of my backyard. As my hooves press against the hard, dry earth, my earth pony senses reach out, once again feeling a presence lurking in the shadows. Though this time I’ll be the one doing the watching.

Quietly I trot around the side of the house, pausing to peer around the corner. Just a few metres away, a dark figure is pressed up against the glass of the living room window, listening through the thick curtains. It hasn’t noticed me yet.

I creep forward silently. One infinitely cautious hoofstep at a time.

My body is tense; a bow, drawn, waiting for the perfect shot.

I need to end this quickly. I haven’t been spotted yet, but one wrong move could spell disaster.

I pause, inches away. A small amount of light passes through the heavy curtains, just barely illuminating the figure.

I grin to myself.

Leaning forward until I'm right next to her ear, I whisper:

”And what do you think you’re doing?”

Sandy Miles shrieks in surprise, leaping almost out of her skin before crashing to the ground at my hooves.

"Eeeek! Auntie Rose! Oh, um, hi! I was just uh..."

She gives me her best winning smile.


I put on my best Angry Sunbeam impression.

“...I’m in trouble, aren’t I?”

From inside the house Sunny shouts, “What the heck was that?!”

Chapter 10 - Monsters

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As with all branches of the Royal Guard, Parks and Wilderness initiates go through a period of training and study before becoming full fledged members. Due to the nature of the work, this tends to be a bit more hooves on than usual. Lots of trekking around the countryside, learning to repair traps and inspect nests and so forth.

But it’s not without a theoretical side. There are plenty of important tasks which are either too impractical or too dangerous to learn firsthoof. From surviving forest fires to surviving paperwork, I endured a solid month in a dinky little PWG training centre, memorising facts and procedures.

Nearly half that time was spent studying Equestria’s more dangerous flora and fauna. Aardsharks, bugbears, cragodiles, and more; I learned where they live, the problems they can cause, and how best to deal with them. Mostly this just covered the basics. I’d receive more region-specific mentoring after being assigned to a post.

But for some creatures, just the basics weren’t enough.

These were the creatures deemed so dangerous, so completely out of our league, that even though the odds of encountering them were slim to none, we still had to spend a full three days studying them. A full three days studying The List.

All sorts of rumours surrounded The List. As far as I'm aware, no living member of the PWG has ever encountered any creature on The List. So either the creatures are incredibly rare, or those who do encounter them quickly cease to be living.

Given that most of the entries seem to be taken straight from folklore and ghost stories, I’d always assumed this was just a case of “Better safe than sorry.” Sure, maybe some of these creatures did exist once upon a time. But their presence in modern Guard training material was just a reminder of the dangers that Equestria once faced. A fable to frighten cocky young guards, rather than providing actual relevant skills.

Then again, there was a rumour that some entries had been added at the direct request of the Princesses. I don’t see the Crowns intervening like that without good reason.

Whatever the case, all new recruits were made to memorise The List until they could recite it in their sleep.

I am Sergeant Glacier, and even all these years later, as I cower behind a boulder watching that thing stalk towards me, the list still comes to mind easily.

First, alphabetically, are the Alicorns.

Not the Princesses, obviously. While technically incredibly dangerous, they’re clearly not a threat to Equestria - they practically are Equestria.

No, the creatures on The List are the Wild Alicorns.

There’s a whole genre of folk stories about regular ponies who, by magic or alchemy or a deal with Tirek, obtain the power of the Alicorns, only to accidentally destroy their home towns and end up as haunting spectres in the wilderness. Sounds pretty far-fetched, to be honest. But it is true that Princess Twilight and Princess Cadance used to be regular ponies. If the two of them managed to ascend in the span of just a few years, who’s to say there can’t be others? I suppose it’s prudent to at least acknowledge the possibility.

Next on The List is the Angel Bunny. I’d never heard of it up north; it’s apparently a central Equestrian thing. Some sort of violent, capricious demon in the guise of a white rabbit. Ever since learning of it, I’ve been just a little bit leery around rabbits.

Next are the Deep Ones. Now these things scare me.

I know little about them. Just a vague physical description, the fact that they live in remote coastal caves, and that they’re very hostile.

The scary part is how some PWG veterans refuse to talk about them. Tough as nails instructors would clam up - or clam everypony else up - whenever the creatures were mentioned. Speculation was rife amongst my fellow students, but I stayed clear of it. Whatever the truth was, I was happy to leave well enough alone.

Fourth are Draconequus.

As far as anypony is aware, there’s only one Draconequus, and the Princess of Friendship reformed him years ago. But considering the amount of damage he’s said to have caused, it makes sense to be aware of the danger should I ever encounter a second one.

Or should Discord decide to duplicate himself. Apparently he does that sometimes.

What was next…? Oh, yes. Hollow Breezies.

I never really found a satisfactory answer as to how they differ from normal breezies. But after a bit of independent research, I did find a record blaming Hollow Breezies for some calamity a few hundred of years ago. Details were unclear on exactly what they did or how such tiny creatures could be a threat. But to this day, several empty villages can still be found in northwest Equestria, which the locals refuse to resettle.

I’ve heard a few horror stories about Hollow Breezies since then, but they’re all wildly inconsistent and unrealistic. Seriously, ribcages do not work that way.

Next on The List was another name from horror stories. All sorts of sinister things are attributed to them, from eating pony flesh to causing earthquakes to stealing horseshoes. In old fables and breezy tales, they often featured as terrifying monsters or evil enchanters, whom the heroine would have to outwit or escape. I’d studied their description years ago, but never in my life imagined I’d actually see one.

Until tonight.

Standing atop the ridge, illuminated by the last rays of the setting sun, I see one now all too clearly. Perfectly matching the memorised description.

Looming, bipedal form, held aloft on stilt-like legs.

Slender, elongated forelimbs, ending in worm-like digits entwined around a crude spear.

Muscle and bone and vein visibly shifting beneath hairless, exposed flesh.

A human.

I shrink back into the shadows of my hiding spot as this horror from a hundred foal’s tales descends towards me.

It moves quickly. Powerful, over-long legs easily traversing the rugged terrain.

It hasn’t noticed me yet, but it’s getting closer. In seconds it will pass my hiding place - or turn and spot me.

Instinct and training and panic scream conflicting instructions: Run! Hide! Draw your sword! Prepare a spell! Curl into a ball and pray it doesn’t find you!

Through the turmoil and indecision, a single memory overrules the rest: the last thing I learned about The List.

I remember the cramped lecture hall. The gruff, accented instructor. What was his name? Doesn’t matter. His words still ring clearly in my memory:

”Now listen up! This is the important part! There’s a reason you just spent half a week learning about creatures which allegedly don’t exist. Should any of you have the incredible misfortune of actually encountering one of these bastards, there is exactly one standing order for you to remember: If you see a creature on The List, you get the hell out of there.

”You do not engage.

”You do not observe.

”You evacuate any civilians you can, but your highest priority is to inform HQ of the situation ASAP. This is not your fight.”

This was drilled into us over and over. The only response to finding a creature on The List is to drop what we’re doing and run.

Over the years, I’ve heard speculation that this is the true purpose of the Parks and Wilderness Guard. That all the monster hunting and forest maintenance is just busywork. The real reason we’re deployed to remote corners of the kingdom is to act as Equestria’s early warning system. Sentries, with enough knowledge to identify a crisis before it hits, and enough training to survive to report it.

Whatever the truth, I'm not fool enough to pick a fight with a monster from literal horror stories. While it may just look like a twisted, emaciated minotaur, I’ve no idea what it’s really capable of. (Apart from, presumably, skewering me with that spear). For all I know, my own sword might not even be able to harm it. Like I told Sandy the other day, best to steer clear of unfamiliar creatures.

All this flashes through my head in the time it takes for the human to take a single step closer.

So what do I do? I need to make a decision, but there's so much I don't know! Has it seen me? Is it moving towards me specifically, or just heading to its camp behind me?

Crunch. It takes another step.

Should I run? There's still some distance between us - I'd have a head start. But I'd immediately draw attention to myself. Or I could wait, hiding in the shadows, hoping it doesn't notice me. But that would mean letting it get a lot closer.


Both options are risky. How fast can it run? It’s only got two legs to my four, but they’re a lot longer. And can it attack at range? It's got that spear, and who knows what magic or other abilities.


How acute are its senses? Its nose and eyes are so small they seem almost vestigial, but it’s striding through the darkness with complete confidence. Could it have some sort of echolocation?


Getting real close now. Is it too late to run? Every moment spent deliberating brings it that much closer.


I can't think. Can't move. Fear and indecision pinning me in place. And a tiny bit of morbid curiosity, too. I’ll be the first pony to see a human up close in who knows how long. Even if it kills me.


It’s right there.

The silhouette towers over me, blacking out the starry sky.

I could reach out and touch it.

It could reach out and touch me. Or skewer me in the blink of an eye.


And just like that, it passes me.

Doesn’t pause. Doesn’t turn my way.

It missed me!



The footsteps continue steadily downhill. The human fades from view, swallowed up by the shadows of the valley below. For a few moments I can still make out flickers of movement in the dark. Then it's gone completely. Soon even the footsteps die away.

Silence descends over the valley.

I let out a shaky breath I hadn’t realised I’d been holding. My heart is hammering painfully. A cold sweat soaks through my coat. That was too close.

I screwed up again, freezing in place like that. Thank the Alicorns this time it didn’t cost me. Though honestly, I dare any PWG to meet a creature from The List and not freeze up. Especially when you’re alone, at night, in the middle of nowhere...

...Darnit, I’ve become one of those hapless horror story protagonists, haven’t I? I'm checking off every cliché. All I'm missing is for a stallion to show up for poorly explained reasons, we have have sex for even more poorly explained reasons, then the human inexplicably appears and kills him. Happens every time.

I shake my head. Focus, Glacier! I’ve got a mission to do. I need to get out of this desert. Not just for my sake, but for Equestria’s. The Princesses must be warned.

It’s a long way back to Tranquility Springs, but I’ll make it. Somehow. I’ve got to. And I’ve got to start immediately!

I begin climbing up the slope and away from the human. Extremely careful not to make any noise as I go. Weariness settles over me as I resign myself to yet more trudging through the desert. Haven’t had enough of that for one day, gosh no. At least I had that nap earlier, so I should be good for a few more hours. Plus, the air is finally starting to cool. With the sun set, the unbearable desert heat is quickly abating. In a few hours it will probably be too cold even for my liking, but for now it’s quite tolerable.

After a few minutes of stealthy clambering, I’ve reached the top of the slope. With one last leap I'm finally clear of the valley. Phew! I should be safe now. The wide plane of the badlands spreads out before me, bathed in pale moonlight. And immediately in front of me...

“What the-”

A blast of wind and sand slams into me, almost knocking me back down the hill. With a startled cry I slip back a step, rear hooves scrabbling on the rocky slope. I sputter and spit as I pull myself forward, trying to gain a firmer hoofhold.

Blinking the silvery sand from my eyes, I quickly look around. There’s nopony here.

What the heck? I just saw somepony! Didn't I? For a split second there was a pony-shaped silhoutte right in front of me. I think?

I look all around, frantic. But there’s nowhere for a pony - or any creature - to hide. Just flat, dry earth, and silvery sand.

Am I seeing things? Is the stress and exhaustion finally catching up with me?

Could it have been a trick of the light? A tumbleweed or bunch of leaves or something, caught up in the gust, momentarily forming a pony-ish shape? I know how easy it is to start seeing things at night; every rock and shrub starts looking like a predator out to get you. And after that run in with the human, my prey instincts are probably on overdrive...

Hmm. Could the human have something to do with it? There were all those stories about human enchanters and necromancers. Could this have been some kind of... shadowy… magical... sentry?

(Magic was never my strong suit.)

My ears flicker as I register a clattering noise behind me. Peering back down the hill, my heart sinks as I see the cascade of rocks tumbling loudly away. Damnit! I must have knocked a few loose in my panic. Ghost sentry or not, the human’s sure to come investigate now.

So much for escaping undetected. Well, in the words of that one instructor whose name I forget: time to get the hell out of here!

With Luna’s light shining bright overhead, I dash forward, galloping across the barren wasteland. No more figures appear in my path. Looking back over my shoulder, there’s no sign of the human yet. I keep running.

The harsh contrast between moonlight and shadow makes the world seem flat and unreal. There’s no depth, no detail. Just pools of black, and patches of colourless light. Distances are hard to judge. Are those dark bands looming cliffs and abyssal canyons? Or just small hills and shallow dips? Silhouettes on the horizon watch my progress. They're immobile and mundane when I glance directly at them - rocks or bushes, probably - but in the corners of my eyes they’re humans creeping stealthily towards me.

I keep going. Don’t know where I'm going to. East, roughly, but I never saw this side of the valley in the daylight. I’ll need to start heading north eventually. But for now I'm just trying to get away.

After a while - probably minutes, but feels much longer - I duck behind a convenient rock, panting for breath. I'm uncomfortably hot again, despite the cooler air. A mouthful of water helps, a little. I'd love to finish the whole bottle off but I have to ration it. I've got a long night ahead.

I catch my breath, and try to get my bearings. A quick check of my compass confirms I'm still headed in the right direction. Then I spend a few moments scanning the horizon. Trying to decipher the silhouettes and shadows. Best I can tell, there's open planes to the north. Low hills or cliffs to the east. Higher cliffs to the south. And to the west-


My heart skips a beat, seeing the familiar outline. A long, lean phantom, carried on stilt-like legs. Definitely not a trick of the light this time. It's hard to judge the distance - thirty metres? fifty? - but it's moving.

The distant shape seems to spasms suddenly. A flicker of shadow and a glint of light are all the warning I get before-


The spear glances off the rock next to me, sparks flying. Nearly taking my head off before tumbling away into the darkness. I don't see where it lands - I've already bolted.

Prey instinct has taken over. I run blindly through the night, primal panic pushing me to run harder and faster than ever in my life.

I’ve been chased by dangerous creatures before. Even had training to overrule my natural instincts to flee. But this is different. This is a genuine monster from The List.

I do not engage. I do not observe. I get the hell out of there.

And I absolutely do not slow down, no matter how much my lungs start to burn and my legs start to shake.

Time passes in a painful, terrified blur. The surreal lighting, monotonous landscape, and dizzying weariness makes it feel like I'm in one of those nightmares where I run, run, run, but never make any progress.

Until suddenly I stumble. Tripped over a loose stone in the gloom.

Miraculously I manage to catch myself. Just narrowly avoid breaking an ankle, thank Celestia. The near miss snaps me out of my trance. Blinking, I spare a quick look over my shoulder. The human is still in pursuit, but far in the distance, and receding further. It’s working? I'm outrunning it? Ha! Suck it, two-legs!

Looks like the human's bipedal form is ill suited to chasing down prey. Probably an ambush predator, using its spear or magic to strike from a distance. Given how much faster I am than it, hopefully it will decide I'm not worth the effort.

Still, I keep running. Legs seizing up, lungs full of needles, but I keep running. The human shrinks until it’s little more than a notch on the horizon. As I enter a patch of rough gullies it finally disappears from view.

I collapse, gasping. For a solid minute it's all I can do just to breathe. Trying to sate my overworked lungs. Rest my abused limbs. In the chilly evening air, I'm literally steaming with perspiration. Now that I've hopefully lost my pursuer, terror-fueled adrenaline has given way to utter exhaustion. It's been a long day.

Eventually I manage to levitate up my canteen. Hooves are too shaky to hold it. Two long draughts leave the bottle empty. I'm desperate for more. Feels like I'm melting in my own skin.

I float my helmet off. Let my mane breath a bit. I press the exposed parts of my coat to the cold earth, doing anything and everything to cool off.

By the stars, I just want to close my tired eyes and rest. But there's no risk of accidentally falling asleep this time. The fear that the human might still be following is enough to get me back on my hooves after just a few minutes. My legs are filled with lead, but I force myself towards the top of the nearest ridge. Need to be sure I'm safe before I let myself relax.

I'm barely halfway there before I see the tell-tale shape of the human.

Damnation! Does this creature never quit?!

At least it's still quite a ways away. But the distance between us is dwindling steadily. Worse, the creature shows no sign of slowing down. Just how much stamina does this thing have? It has to slow down eventually, right?

This really is starting to feel like a genuine horror story. The monster may not be as fast as me, but it's relentless. No matter how far I run, in just a few minutes it's caught up again, leaving me no chance to rest. I just have to try to outlast it. Hope it gives up before I do. But even if I had a full canteen, I don't know how much more running I could do. What chance do I have against a predator that never stops?

Or maybe... Maybe I've misunderstood its strategy. Maybe it’s not chasing me, but wearing me down. Forcing me to run while it conserves its own energy.

The pony instinct when faced with danger is to flee. But fleeing isn’t always the right response. Some predators rely on this instinct, driving their prey to flee until they’re too exhausted and weak to fight back, making them easy pickings. If the prey had just stood its ground in the first place, the predator may well have backed off.

Not that I really have the option of standing my ground. Not against a creature from The List. But fleeing in a blind panic is clearly not working.

I need to calm down. Come up with a plan. Play to my strengths, rather than letting the human dictate the engagement.

I duck back out of sight and begin heading down the hill. No need to make myself more visible than I already have.

Alright. Running’s not a long term solution. Fighting’s a last resort. Given that the human tried to skewer me the moment it saw me, I'm not optimistic about negotiation, either. That leaves hiding, or trying to scare it off.

I’ve got a few tricks for the latter - my enchanted fire ruby springs to mind - but this isn’t some dumb animal I'm dealing with. I shouldn't count on a bit of fire being enough to intimidate it. So hiding sounds like my best option.

The human did miss me in the dark back in the ravine, even when it was just hooves away. Its senses don’t seem that keen. It has since managed to track me through the desert, but I’ve been pretty much running in a straight line. It could have spotted me initially and just kept travelling in the same direction. Or maybe it’s following my tracks in the dusty earth.

I look over at my helmet lying at the base of the hill. The moonlight gleams off it like a beacon.

...Yeah, polished armour probably isn’t helping with the whole “stealth” thing, either. I quickly ditch the rest of my golden armour, tucking it out of sight behind a rock. I feel naked without it, but my best bet is still to avoid confrontation.

Next step: Reduce my scent as much as possible. Finding a suitable patch of dirt, I drop down and start rolling in it, dignity be damned. It sticks to my sweaty coat easily. Soon I'm coated in a thick layer of powdery dust. It's itchy and gross, but should mask my scent a little. Plus I'll blend in better with the surrounding environment.

I take a cautious peek at the human. Getting closer, but still a few minutes away. Enough time for one more trick.

I climb part way down the rocky wall of the nearest trench. There's a whole maze of these things, winding and criss-crossing. Most are about three or four pony-lengths deep, and twice as wide. From there, I keep moving parallel to the ground, leaping from crag to crag like a filly playing "The floor is lava." By sticking to the hard, sloped surfaces and avoiding the soft sand along the tops and bottoms of the channels, I'm able to move without leaving any hoofprints.

For any other pony, climbing jagged cliffs in the dark while fleeing a predator would probably be a terrible idea. But I was raised on jagged cliffs. I make reasonably good time, though I'm careful not to move too quickly. I can’t risk falling and injuring myself. Or knocking a stone loose and drawing the human’s attention. Every step is cautiously judged.

After maybe ten minutes I’ve travelled scarcely two hundred metres. My legs feel like jelly, but at least I'm not galloping. And it's kind of fun, in a nostalgic way. I've even managed to cross a few channels and make a few turns. Hopefully it’s enough to throw the human off. It'll have to do - if I stay out in the open much longer the human may spot me anyway. Time to find someplace to hide.

I’ve already passed a few small caves and crevices among the cliffs. After another minute of searching I find something suitable: A tall, narrow opening between a jumble of rocks, completely hidden in shadow. I only noticed it when I stuck a hoof in and found it dangling in empty air. I only hesitate a moment before climbing in. There can hardly be much worse hiding in there than what’s already chasing me out here.

The inside is pitch black. I daren’t risk lighting my horn, so I have to explore by hoof. It feels like little more than a cleft in the hillside, narrowing as it recedes.

After crawling forward a few paces, I turn back to look out through the opening. A sliver of pale earth and starry sky are my only light in the void around me.

Nothing moves.

Quietly, I draw my sword with my mouth. Just in case.

I don’t hear anything, save for my muffled breathing and pounding heart.

Time drags on. No sign of the human yet.

Maybe he's missed me? He could still be searching, but the rocky waste outside has innumerable hiding holes. He could search all night and might never find me.

I begin to relax. Leaning against the cave wall, I wonder if it’s finally safe for me to rest.

The wall moves.

There’s a clattering, chittering sound behind me. I scramble to my hooves, frantically trying to leap away. But I'm not quick enough.

Something pierces my hind leg. Like a knife’s been rammed straight through, just above the ankle.

A scream tears its way out of my throat. Shattering the night's silence. It's accompanied by the ringing of metal as my sword clatters to the ground.

The thing tugs at my wound, producing fresh waves of agony. Shock and panic override the pain enough for me to buck wildly. My good leg hits something hard and heavy. More pain, as whatever was lodged in my leg is violently torn out. I fall to the floor, gasping. My ears twitch at the sound of skittering all around me. It's close, so very close.

My horn bursts to life, blindingly bright. All thoughts of stealth forgotten. The narrow crevice lights up. Suspended along the walls and ceiling, mere hooves away, is a great, black sandipede. Easily twice my size. Its head hovers near my flank, two needle-tipped mandibles the size of my forelegs grasping towards me.

Instinctively I levitate up my sword, floating it between me and the threat. But the huge weapon is clumsy in the confined space. I don’t have the time or space to turn it the right way. Instead I just barely manage to bludgeon the creature with pommel, swatting its mandibles aside.

The sandipede backs away from the sudden intrusion. But it quickly moves to find another approach, scuttling up and along the narrow ceiling. Winding its way towards me.

I take a step back. Almost collapse as pain shoots up my leg. Gritting my teeth and blinking through tears, I spend a precious moment reorienting my sword. Then I slam upward with all of my telekinetic might!

Unfortunately, I'm fighting against gravity. With little room to aim or build momentum, the blade merely glances off the creature's thick, shiny carapace. Completely failing to cause any harm, but at least it's a distraction. The sandipede skitters away from the impact, snapping blindly at the weapon. I continue stabbing upwards wildly, while dragging myself out of the cave. Most of the blows miss or bounce off the armour. I do eventually manage to crush a single leg against the ceiling. Thick, black goo dribbles down my blade and onto the floor.

The monster doesn’t like that. Quickly squirming away, it begins approaching more cautiously, antennae flicking towards me. I've bought myself a little space, but I don't know if I can keep this up. Each strike is weaker than the last. I feel sick, and dizzy with pain. My wounded leg throbs, sending pins and needles up my flank.

Venom, I realise shakily. I'd told Fruit Punch that the juvenile sandipede she found wasn’t dangerous. But this is a full sized adult. Enough venom in its stingers to kill me a dozen times over.

I need to end this fight quickly. There’s antivenom in my pack, but it’ll be no use if I can’t get away. My pack…

I make one last jab at the sandipede's head, hoping to distract it while I shrug my saddlebags to the floor. Tearing through the contents, I grab my gem pouch. The enchanted fire ruby glows softly as it floats to my hoof. It’s supposed to be used for starting campfires when it’s too cold or wet, or when fuel is sparse. But a sudden bonfire out of nowhere also happens to be one of the best ways of scaring off wildlife.

I turn to face the sandipede, just in time to see it make another lunge at me. I scamper away, favouring my uninjured leg, only to be yanked backwards! My naturally bushy tail, matted with sweat and dirt until it’s just one big tangled mess, has gotten hooked on one of its mandibles. The beast doesn’t seem to comprehend this, simply snapping at me instead of trying to reel me in closer. I buck and kick and flail desperately, narrowly avoiding being skewered.

No time to aim. I send a spark of magic into the heart of the fire ruby, then throw it blindly towards the sandipede. It misses, sailing past it and crashing into the far wall. There’s a crack, followed by a wave of light and heat. A ball of fire the size of my head drops to the floor, searing the nearby coils of sandipede.

The worm screeches, darting out of the cave in panic. Dragging me along with it.

I spot my sword lying by the entrance. I snatch it up as I slide past.

Once outside, the sandipede pauses. Antennas twitching, as if trying to orient itself. I take the opportunity to kick myself off the ground with my good leg. My greatsword arcing overhead.

It barely scratched that carapace before. But then, my greatsword was never meant to be wielded by magic alone. Too long, too heavy.

Most ponies would never guess it’s a weapon specifically intended for unicorns. Its true power comes from using magic to augment my physical abilities, not replace them. When held with both forehooves, using magic to balance and to empower my blows, I'm able to put my entire body into each swing. My whole weight and strength and magic, concentrated into a single cutting edge.

Not a practical weapon against, say, a pony. But against a large, lumbering creature with a very thick hide…

My sword slices down, punching through the hard carapace. The mandible ensnaring my tail is sheared clean off!

I roll to my hooves as the sandipede shrieks, skittering away from the source of pain. I bring the sword up, balanced in the crook of my foreleg and resting against my shoulder, ready to strike again.

If I can strike again.

That last blow took nearly all of my energy. I can barely stand. Barely focus on the threat in front of me.


The sandipede watches me warily, blood dribbling from its severed appendage. I blink heavily, wanting this just to be over.


It rears up, towering over me as it prepares to strike. I ready my counter-attack.


Its neck explodes outwards, spraying me with black gore. I see the tip of a spear withdraw, leaving a gaping hole.

The sandipede flops to the earth, writhing and spasming feebly.

Standing behind it, bathed red in the light of the fire, is the human.

Chapter 11 - Midnight snack

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I am still Sergeant Glacier. Probably.

Some of my convictions have been shaken by recent events.

Take the human, for example. Expectation: it impales me on its spear, devours my flesh, and raises my desecrated corpse as an unholy thrall. Not necessarily in that order.

Reality: it helps me bandage my leg, and shares its canteen with me. The water wasn’t even poisoned.

So. Yeah. Clearly my life needs some serious re-evaluation.

I shift slightly, wincing as my injured leg brushes the floor. Ow ow OW! Questioning my sanity can come later; I'm way too sore and tired for that. What with all the almost dying I’ve been doing lately.

Hmm. There’s a thought. Maybe I am dying, and this is all just a venom-induced fever dream. Perhaps I'm really just lying on the desert floor, delirious, while the human munches on my entrails. It would certainly make a lot more sense than the last hour or so.

After killing the sandipede, the human and I just sort of stared at each other in confusion for a minute. Then it spoke.

I assume it was speech anyway. Couldn’t understand a word of it. Given the gravity of the situation, I responded with as much eloquence and dignity as I could muster.

“Uhhh… Hi.”

Which wasn’t much. In my defence, I was dying at the time.

The human rumbled some more maybe-words in response, but otherwise didn’t move. It was looking at me with… curiosity? Surprise? Hard to tell.

Seeing as it wasn’t currently trying to impale and/or devour me, I decided I really ought to do something about the whole “dying” thing. Rooting through my saddlebags (though never quite taking my eyes off the human), I quickly dug out my first aid kit.

The universal antidote potion is a marvel of modern magical medicine. While not truly universal, it’s effective against a wide range of toxins, poisons, and even curses. Those it can’t cure, it can often slow or weaken, giving the body a chance at fighting it off, or buying time for a true remedy to be applied. It’s not cheap, but given the variety of dangerous critters PWG regularly face, it’s one of the most important pieces of my kit.

Downing the potion in one go (it tasted of spoiled milk, for some reason), I just hoped it would work on sandipede venom. I know it works on most other arthropods - scorpions, spiders, even manticore stingers - so I'm reasonably optimistic.

The human just stood there the whole time. Watching.

Kiiinda creepy.

Its expression was hard to read. With such small ears and eyes, and no tail, there weren’t a lot of obvious tells. Of course, it’s dangerous to assume you can read an unfamiliar creature’s body language. A gesture can mean one thing among one species, but something completely different among others. Plenty of silly ponies learned the hard way that an animal baring its teeth is probably not smiling at you.

Still, the human wasn’t displaying any of the more common signs of aggression. Its posture seemed relaxed. Its weapon lowered. No teeth visible at all.

So… maybe it wasn’t going to murder me? Sure, it had tried less than an hour ago. But perhaps that was just hunting? And with a fresh sandipede corpse in front of it, the human no longer had any reason to murder me. So long as I kept away from its prize, it might just let me leave un-impaled.

Or at least, no more impaled than I already was.

With the adrenaline wearing off, my injured leg was really starting to hurt. Whatever the human’s deal was, I needed to treat my wounds ASAP. If it wanted to watch, so be it; I could hardly make myself more vulnerable than I already was.

Pulling out bandages, antiseptic, and painkillers, I began inspecting the damage. My rear right leg was a bruised and bloody mess, but thankfully it only felt like it was going to fall off. Some (very painful) cleaning revealed that the sandipede stings had not penetrated all the way through, as I’d initially feared. Still, there was a good inch or so gouged out on either side, and a nasty gash running down to my ankle.

I set about cleaning, disinfecting, and binding the wounds. Tricky work at such an awkward angle. I had to cut away some of the surrounding fur, sawing bloody clumps off with my knife.

My magic gave out halfway through the process. Had to resort to mouth and hooves.

I’ve always said unicorns should be able to get by without their horns. But sweet Celestia, that was a frustrating experience! The taste of blood on my lips. Shaky hooves slipping and fumbling. Every mistake costing blood and pain and tears.

After failing to apply the bucking bindings properly for the third or fourth time, suddenly a pair of long, lithe limbs wove around my leg. Before I could really register what was happening, the human had gently but firmly taken charge. In moments it had bound the wounds and neatly tied off the bandages.

If I weren’t so weak and dizzy I probably would have bucked or bolted in surprise. Instead, I just sat there, incredibly confused as the human finished up and sat down opposite me, inspecting its work.

It had done a pretty good job.

“H-huh. Well, uh... Thanks?”

My voice was raspy and uneven. I could still taste the tang of iron with each word.

The human rumbled something in response. The noise was deep and rough, but it didn’t sound like it was threatening me.

“Uh- cough -just so you’re aware, I have no idea what you’re saying. I assume the feeling is mutual?”

Another rumbling response. Shorter this time.

The human seemed lost in thought for a moment. Muttered something to itself. Then, pressing a hand to its chest, it looked me in the eye and started speaking slowly.

I still couldn’t recognise any of the words, or even the language. But it repeated the final word a few times. Pronouncing it carefully, tapping its chest with each repetition.

Was it trying to teach me something? Its name? Its species?

I attempted to mimic the word.

“Ahnarnam… Anornahym... Arnorn, err...”

I rather butchered the pronunciation. Pony lips and vocal cords don’t seem perfectly compatible with human speech. (Or at least, that's what I tell myself.) Still, the human seemed to find my attempts acceptable. Nodding emphatically, it tapped its chest and repeated a simplified version of the word:


Fantastic. Now I had a name for my super persistent nightmare predator.

This whole encounter was getting really surreal. Though, honestly? I was also getting kinda intrigued.

Sure, the human - Anonawhatever - was still intimidating as heck. A creepy, lean, relentless predator, its beady eyes gleaming in the flickering firelight. Luna’s sake, I’d just seen it effortlessly kill an adult sandipede moments before.

But despite its appearance - and reputation - and previous aggression - it was now inexplicably friendly. Even outright helpful.

I was clearly missing something.

And I wanted to find out what.

And hey, in my current state, it’s not like I could follow my “run away from the human” orders anyway. Might as well take advantage of the opportunity to indulge my curiosity. Maybe I’d even figure out how to communicate “Please don’t eat me, I’m really not that tasty.” Vital information, that.

Mimicking Anon’s gesture, I pointed a hoof at my chest:

“Glacier. Glaaacieeer”

”Guurraiichii... Gura- Graychior? Graykior?”

It seemed to have just as much difficulty with pronunciation as I did. Oh well. I could be “Gray” for the time being.

“Gray,” I nodded, again mimicking it. I wasn't exactly sure if nodding meant confirmation. For all I knew, nodding was how humans expressed amusement. Hopefully it would understand I was just trying to reciprocate.

”Gray,” it repeated, pointing at me. “Anon,” pointing to itself.

Progress! We were definitely exchanging information. A big improvement over the whole “trying to murder me” thing.

Anon said a few more words, unfamiliar to me, though I caught “Gray” again at the end.

“Er, it’s... nice to meet you too, Anon? So... cough Now wh- cough cough.”

With all the more pressing issues, I’d forgotten just how parched I was. Running through a desert and fighting for my life is thirsty work. All this speaking was irritating my already dry and scratchy throat.

Lifting my canteen, I was dismayed to find it practically empty. Only a few tantalising drops trickled to my lips. I groaned.

"Oh no... Not again."

I couldn’t survive another day in the desert without water. I’d have to find some. Tonight! While it was still cool.

And of course, chances are I’d never be able to spot any signs of water in this darkness. No, I’d have to go aaall the way back to the one place I knew had water: the valley I’d just spent the last hour running from.

Dropping the empty bottle, I let out a pained whinny. Seriously? More walking through the desert? And this time on an injured leg?! The thought was almost enough to bring me to tears. Celestia, Luna, was it too much to ask for a break?


Blinking moisture from my eyes, I looked up at Anon. Its arm was outstretched towards me. And in its grasp was something dark, round, and sloshing gently as it moved.

Reverently, as though receiving a blessing from the Sisters themselves, I took Anon’s canteen with my hooves. It was almost full!

A small part of me wondered if this was a trap. A much larger part didn’t care.

I took a slow, deep mouthful. Let the water seep into every parched corner of my mouth and throat.

Beautiful, delicious relief.

Thank you, Alicorns! Oh, and the human too, I guess.

“Ahhhh… Thanks, Anon. You’re a lifesaver.”

(Also my attempted murderer.)

(I let it slide for now.)

I was sorely tempted to finish off the whole bottle, but that would just be rude. Instead, I decided to respond in kind. After returning the canteen, I started delving through my saddlebags, soon emerging with a pair of ration bars.

“Here, try one of these.”

I held a bar out to Anon. The human stared a moment before carefully taking it.

Its fingers accidentally brushed against my hoof. I was half expecting it to be cold as the grave, or have razor-sharp claws, or something. But no. Just a brief touch of warmth. The rough skin on its fingers almost felt like we were bumping hooves.

After unwrapping my own bar, Anon seemed to catch on, quickly and excitedly tearing off the paper. It inspected the bar briefly, smelling and licking it, before biting off a big mouthful. I followed suit.

“Blech,” we said in perfect unison.

We looked up at each other. Then started laughing our asses off.

It wasn’t even all that funny. But after all the stress and weirdness of the last few hours, bonding over mutual dislike of PWG field rations seemed the funniest thing in the world.

I flopped to my side, ignoring the pain from my leg while I let out great heaving laughs. Anon was leaning back, its laughter a deep, gravely cackling, almost barking. Eventually, the two of us caught our breaths, and returned to our meal. But the tension between us seemed to have diminished.

Anon looked more relaxed, leaning back and happily chewing its ration bar, while I started to feel a little safer, too. I still didn’t exactly trust this Anon, but for the time being I didn’t feel I was in any danger.

After finishing off its rations, Anon seemed to have an idea. Speaking to itself, it stood up and walked into the sandipede's cave. It spent a moment inspecting my enchanted fire, which was still burning merrily against a wall. Still chattering away, it started looking around at the walls and floors. Eventually it picked up a large, flat stone and placed it partially in the fire. It then walked out again, past me, towards the dead sandipede. After giving the lifeless pile of chitin a few cautious kicks, Anon casually hoisted the massive thing by the tail and dragged it back into the cave.

My snout wrinkled in distaste as I guessed where this was going. Sure enough, after a minute or so of examining the carcass, Anon draw a knife from somewhere and started butchering it.

I'm hardly a squeamish pony. But watching a carnivore feed is never exactly pleasant. Still, I was curious about the process. And I was actually starting to get a little cold.

Yes, me, proud northerner that I am. Normally my thick coat would suffice to keep me warm, but it was still soaked with sweat, which had long since cooled. And losing all that blood certainly didn’t help. So, somewhat reluctantly, I ended up following Anon into the cave. Though this time I made sure to check the walls and ceiling first. Thoroughly.

Laying down by the fire, I watched with morbid fascination as Anon methodically disassembled the carcass. Soon, several strips of pale flesh were sizzling on the cooking stone, while a small mountain of discarded bits was piled outside. The acrid stench of burning insect juices mingled with the slightly sulphurous tang of the magic-fueled fire. Not a very appetising smell, but even after finishing my ration bar I was still a bit peckish.

Academically, I knew ponies could eat meat. Our teeth and stomachs aren’t properly equipped for it, but it can be done. Some coastal ponies even make a habit of it, supplementing their diets with seafood.

But a giant bug? One that tried to eat me not an hour ago? Urgh. This day is just weird.

Anon seemed unfazed. After a few minutes of turning and prodding, the meat was eventually deemed ready. Spearing a slightly smoking strip with its knife, Anon offered me first taste of the... questionable meal.

I eyed it suspiciously.

Burnt bug was not at all appealing. Buuut… I could probably digest it safely. And I really needed to replenish my energy. My one remaining ration bar wouldn’t go very far. Plus, I didn’t want to seem ungrateful.

Grimacing, I gingerly took the knife and took a very reluctant bite. Hot, disgusting juices spilled into my mouth. The parts which weren’t burnt to charcoal tasted… not terrible, surprisingly. Sort of nutty. But the texture! Sweet Celestia, that was awful! Slippery, rubbery; like soggy cardboard, but far worse.

I gagged, but refused to spit it out. Lacking a carnivore’s incisors, I had to mash and grind the unpleasant mulch for far too long before I could swallow. Feeling it slide down my throat was almost too much to bear. By the time I’d finally finished the horrid thing, Anon was already starting on its third serving.

I politely but firmly declined the offer for seconds. One taste was enough, thank you very much. Laying my head down, I watched the human continue to eat. While it didn’t seem particularly thrilled with the taste either, that certainly didn’t stop it from going back for fourths, or even fifths.

Heh. No wonder Anon had chased me so persistently: it was ravenously hungry.

Despite the after-taste, it felt good to have some hot food in my belly. With a warm, crackling fire beside me, it was hard to keep my eyes open. For the first time in hours, I felt safe enough to let them close.

Now here I am.

Drifting in and out of fitful sleep. Body aching, but grateful for the rest. Wounds pulsing with a steady but manageable pain. Mind replaying all of the day’s adventures. Trying to make sense of it.

Sometimes I wake up in a panic, matted in sweat, while some shadowy nightmare fades from memory. Instructors shouting for me to run. Looming figures I can’t escape. Coiled monsters skittering towards me.

I roll over to my other side, trying to clear my head. Next to me, the fire has dwindled to a few gently glowing ruby shards. They just barely keep the cold at bay. On the other side lies Anon, sleeping. Judging from the sudden flinches and occasional cry, its sleep is just as troubled as mine.

For several minutes I just lay there. Watching Anon’s quiet breathing.

Chest rises. Pauses. Falls.

Rises. Pauses. Falls.

Seeing it asleep somehow ends any mysticism I felt about the human. Anon’s no longer some unstoppable mythological horror. It’s just… another creature. Needs food, and rest, just like me.

A dangerous creature, no doubt. But I’ve worked with dangerous creatures for years. I can work with this one.

I close my eyes, and soon return to sleep.

Chapter 12 - Doubt

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“I have no idea what I’m doing!”

My back hoof taps a nervous rhythm on the floorboards. I fidget in my seat, wings twitching and ruffling. Which kinda hurts, seeing as they’re still sore from yesterday. But I can’t help it!

”You’ll be fine, kid.”

Dusty Rose reaches a purple hoof over and gives me a friendly pat on the back.


For an older mare, she’s got some serious muscle. Crazy earth pony magic.

With a reassuring smile, she casually leans back into her flimsy wooden chair, watching the rest of our party. The quiet little Hoofrest eatery I’d dined in yesterday is currently overflowing with ponies. Volunteers who’d accompanied us from Tranquility Springs, along with what must be nearly all of the population of Hoofrest. And I'm in charge of them.

I am Fruit Punch, and I am are freaking out!

“I’m serious! I’m just a private! I don’t know how to lead ponies! If I’d wanted this job I’d have gone to officer school!”

I keep my voice down to a low hiss. I don’t want the others to know how screwed they are. Though, come to think of it, that’s how this whole mess started.

Dusty woke me up a few hours before dawn. After a quick breakfast, the two of us trotted across to the Tranquility Springs town square. A colourful, cheery market during the day, but rather lonely at that cold hour.

Soon enough, other ponies started trickling in. Civilians whom the sheriff had recruited earlier that night. They arrived in ones and twos. Bleary and quiet, or nervous and chatty. Soon there was a good sized herd; sixteen ponies in all. Introductions were exchanged by lamplight. I recognised Sandy Miles, bouncing excited around Dusty Rose. Turns out Rose is her aunt. I also spotted Sheriff Prickly Pear checking over a wagon full of supplies.

Once everypony had arrived, Pear asked the group if they had any questions before we all set off. That's when things went pear-shaped, appropriately enough.

I’d expected my role in all of this would be to bring news of Glacier’s disappearance back to the local constabulary, point them in the right direction, then fall in line as just another member of the search team. Maybe offer some positive verbal reinforcement now and again, per my speciality as a member of the Harmony Corps. Unfortunately, it seemed that the civilians saw my golden Royal Guard armour and automatically assumed I was in charge. Never mind that I'm just a private, and a fairly junior one at that! Nor that Prickly Pear probably has decades more experience than me.

And to make matters worse, they’d somehow gotten me and Glacier mixed up. They thought I was the Parks and Wilderness monster expert sent to help them, not just some random Guardsmare who happened to be in the area. This all led to some very excited ponies bombarding me with very confusing questions.

”What's the plan if we’re attacked by a sand shark or sand wyrm?”

”Does the PWG have any secret anti-shadow-monster weapons?”

”Is it true you guys hunt dragons?”

"Will we need to bring cold weather gear?"

”Are vamponies real, and can they beat up wereponies?”

”What’s the coolest monster you’ve ever fought?”

I answered as best I could. But by the time I’d realised their misconceptions, I was so flustered and the crowd was so excited and I just knew how disappointed they’d be if they found out they’re not being led by a super cool monster hunter, that I just…


tell them.

Not that I lied! I just… didn’t immediately point out their mistake! And... kept on not pointing it out...

Urgh. That’s horse apples and I know it. Let's face it: I screwed up. Panicked, and took the easy way out. I know I ought to fess up. As awkward and humiliating as it may be, it’s the right thing to do. But…

If it turns out their “expert” leader is just some lying, clueless nopony, how many of them will still be willing to help? I need every pair of hooves I can get! Is it worth telling the truth if it puts Glacier at greater risk? Why should she pay for my mistake?

Urgh! I was never trained to make these kinds of decisions! Never wanted to make them, never wanted to be in charge!

At least Dusty Rose and Prickly Pear took the complication in stride. They helped answer several questions I couldn’t, and generally covered up my inexperience and ignorance. I suspect Pear wasn’t too happy about being demoted to second in command (not that I wanted command…). Though presumably he came to the same conclusions as me regarding morale. An expert Royal Guard at the helm is much more inspiring than some small town sheriff.

Eventually our awkward little Q&A session came to an end. I even rallied enough to give a little speech, emphasising how a fellow pony needs their help and that together we can overcome any challenge. (Thank you, Harmony Corps pep talk training!)

That was hours ago. Now, here we are, at the same quaint Hoofrest diner we visited yesterday. Simple wooden walls, colourful decorations, and the smell of refried beans. Only this time I'm surrounded by ponies who expect me to lead them! As soon as we all have some food and rest, I'll have to start making decisions.

Maybe I can find someplace to hide? A bathroom or a dumpster or something. Rose or Pear can take over, and then I won’t accidentally catastrophically ruin Glace’s rescue mission.

I start discreetly scanning the room for possible escape routes.

”Easy there, filly. Desertion ain’t great for morale, you know?”

What- Oh, right, Dusty Rose is still here. Gently smirking. I kinda got caught up in my own head for a while there.

“Urgh, am I that obvious?”

How does this mare always know what I'm thinking? I’ve only known her for, like, half a day, and already she’s like an old friend. Patient, supportive, and endlessly amused by my panicking.

"I've seen that look before. Don't worry, your secret's safe with me."

Her smile softens, and she takes on a reassuring tone.

”Listen, honey, you’ll be fine. You’ve got me and Prickly to work out all the details. You just need to stay calm and act confident. Keep team morale up. You learnt all about that stuff at the Friendship Corps, right?”

“Harmony Corps,” I correct. “We also learned not to lie to our team. I still can’t believe I did that…”

I’ve studied enough Harmony Theory to know this is so gonna bite me in the ass later.

Rose waves a hoof dismissively.

”Eh, you didn’t technically lie. Besides, what’s done is done. At this point, explaining everything would just undermine the team’s confidence. No point jeopardising the mission over a little misunderstanding.”

“But they’re relying on me to be a monster expert! What if we’re attacked by a, uh, I dunno, sand… wolf? Ponies could be in danger!”

Rose maintains her relaxed position, looking as though she's just watching the room. But her magenta eyes flicker over to me. Her gaze is firm, but not unkind.

”Your sergeant’s already in danger, remember? Being a leader ain’t about avoiding risk. It's about minimising it. Sometimes you’ve gotta put one group in danger to help another. And, in my opinion, the risk to these ponies is pretty low. They’re all folk who’ve lived their whole lives in the desert.”

She gestures broadly at the colourful assortment of ponies around us.

”Beat Root over there travels between Tranquility and half a dozen other desert towns every other week. Saddle Saw - the one in the corner - used to do mapping up around the Macintosh Ranges. Old Mrs Marmalade’s run into so many blackjackals that they avoid her now. Heck, even Sandy’s probably safer in the desert than most PWGs.”

”I’m safer than the what now?” Sandy asks, emerging from the crowd. The petite earth pony is somehow balancing two trays of food on her back while speaking around a third in her mouth. Crazy earth pony magic.

”Sorry, dear. Secret Royal Guard business.” Rose is completely deadpan. “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.”

Sandy giggles as she sets down her trays.

”Sure thing, auntie. Here, I got you both some breakfast. Or… lunch? Food.”

”Thank you, dearie.” Rose smiles over at the younger mare, before giving me a quick sidelong look. Guess our conversation is on hold for now.

Right. Well, until I figure out a better solution, I suppose I ought to continue pretending to be a confident, competent leader. It’s the only useful thing I can do.

At least I can rely on my social skills here. I’ve received several commendations during my time with the Corps for my positive interactions with civilians. So long as nopony realizes I'm a total fraud, keeping morale up should be a cinch.

“Thanks, Miss Miles, that’s super nice of you. Here, lemme just pull up a chair and you can sit down and join us.”

Sandy immediately turns a cute shade of red.

“O-ok. Thanks, Miss Private Punch, ma’am.”

Rose smiles indulgently as Sandy fumbles into her seat. I make polite conversation for a few minutes as the three of us work through our food. A repeat of yesterday’s meal: toasted sandwiches and hay fries. Not the fanciest dining in Equestria, but tasty.

Between mouthfuls, I observe the rest of our search party. Six mares, seven stallions, all earth ponies save one green pegasus. They’re seated in twos and threes, working on their own breakfast/lunch/foods, chatting away happily. Well, except Sheriff Pear. He’s chatting away with the proprietor. Doesn’t look like he’s doing it happily, though.

I’ve never seen him without that signature frown of his. Then again, I’ve only ever seen him while he’s on duty during an emergency. So, yeah, fair enough. Though that reminds me:

“Say, Dusty. Last night you mentioned that the sheriff wasn’t too keen on involving the Royal Guard in this monster business. Is it alright if I ask why?”

Sandy freezes mid-bite. Rose dabs her lips with a napkin, almost managing to hide her grin.

”I’m sure Prickly wouldn’t mind telling you himself. Though I have my suspicions. For one, there’s his pride as Tranquility Springs’ sheriff. He thinks he ought to be the one keeping folks safe, not relying on some fancy gold-wearing city-dwellers. Probably figures the Royal Guard wouldn’t be much help around these parts anyway. Which, like I was saying before, is not totally unjustified.”

I shift awkwardly. Sandy looks like she’s trying to shrink into her seat.

”And two, this isn’t the first time our dear little Sandy’s caused the sheriff problems.”

”You get lost one time and you never hear the end of it,” Sandy grumbles, having sunk almost below the table.

”Yep, one time,” agrees Rosie, corners of her mouth twitching. “Plus the one time you went camping and didn’t tell anypony. We had to send out a search party. Plus the one time you went chasing a vulture for three days ‘cause you thought it was a phoenix. Plus the one time you thought the town was under attack by giant earthworms, and managed to convince the whole neighbourhood to-”

”Auntie!” squeeks Sandy, mortified.

Rose pats her head affectionately.

“Point is, Prickly’s a naturally sceptical pony. Especially when Sandy’s involved.”

I nod sympathetically.

“Yeah, he seemed pretty sceptical when I told him about our run in with the Dust Devils."

Sandy looks up with interest, but my attention is on Rose. Prickly wasn't the only pony who looked sceptical last night.

It's not the most subtle bait, but Rose falls for it anyway, a brief frown crossing her features.


"You don’t believe me either?”

She cringes for a moment. Then, choosing her words carefully:

”It’s just… Dust Devils are pretty rare. So rare that a lot of ponies think they’re just tall tales. I’ve lived in the desert nearly my whole life and even I couldn’t confidently say one way or the other.”

“Huh. Really? I was staying with some buffalo a few days ago and they seemed quite sure the Dust Devils are real. Said they’re evil spirits who feed on lost travellers’ despair.”

”Ooh!” squeaks Sandy. “You stayed with the buffalo? What are they like?”

I chuckle.

“Exhausting, but super friendly. They do just about everything the old fashioned way, following these elaborate traditions. Sometimes that means even the simplest things can take ages, but it’s also surprisingly satisfying.”

Rose frowns slightly.

”Yeah, that’s kinda the problem. No offence to them, I’m sure they’re great and all, buuut… they’re not exactly known for their modern scientific knowledge, are they? Those stories they tell about Dust Devils - where did they come from? Because I don’t exactly see their ancestors performing a rigorous scientific study, y’know?”

Hmm. That’s... kinda rude, but I suppose there’s truth to it. The buffalo I studied with were wonderful hosts and excellent storytellers, but a lot of their traditions were certainly... out of date, by Equestrian standards. I remember taking part in an elaborate rain dance ceremony, and thinking how much easier it would be to just fly up and make a few rain clouds. Sure, the buffalo may not share my innate pegasus connection with the weather, but even earth ponies have more practical methods for managing water. Dams, wells, irrigation, and, uhh, probably a bunch of other earth-pony things I don't know about.

”Anyway,” Rose continues. “Even if Dust Devils are real, they’re certainly less common than regular dust storms. So just, statistically, most folk who say they encountered a Dust Devil probably just got lost in a regular storm. And two Dust Devils in a week is practically unheard of.”

“I get what you’re saying,” I admit. It really does seem strange, when put like that. “But I’m pretty sure that was no normal storm. It’s hard to explain to non-pegasi, but I know weather. I know how it feels. And those storms just felt wrong.”

”Maybe it was the sand witch?” Sandy puts in.

“The what now?”

From the corner of my eye, I notice Rose shift to a very deliberately neutral expression. She’s got a very good poker face. I've no idea what she thinks of this topic. But I know that she's deliberately keeping it to herself. Interesting.

Sandy, meanwhile, is all gleaming eyes and guileless enthusiasm.

”The sand witch! The buffalo aren’t the only folk with stories about the Dust Devils! Tumbleweed’s uncle Hayseed - I think I saw him over by the door? Is he still there? …Oh well, can’t see him now, but he’s around here somewhere - anyway, he told us this cool story about the old mine up in the mountains, and how the sand witch would appear on the horizon, watching the miners.”

I recognise Sandy entering her “Storyteller Mode”. I hope the mare remembers to breathe this time.

”Whenever anypony would approach her, she’d disappear, leaving only a black mark in the sand as a warning, but the miners didn’t heed her warnings, and kept intruding upon her domain, so she used her dark magic to create the Dust Devils, which she used to drive the miners away and destroy the mine, and so they had to abandon it, and that’s why Hoofrest is so rundown, because they made the sand witch real angry, and nowadays all the old folk in Hoofrest say that if you see a Dust Devil, it means the sand witch is sending you a warning, so I guess if you saw two Dust Devils then she’s giving you a double warning!”

She finally stops for breath. If nothing else, her storytelling style is impressive for the sheer stamina required.

Rose allows a small smile.

“I’m not sure campfire ghost stories are the best idea right now, sweetie. We're about to go trotting through the desert in a few minutes; we don’t want you scaring away the rescue team!”

“Actually, she might be onto something.”

Rose freezes mid-response. Seems to be having trouble processing that.

”Wait, really?” Sandy looks just as surprised, though a lot more enthusiastic.

“Yeah. We did see a pony in the distance just before the second Dust Devil hit. Or at least, we thought we did. That’s actually how we got separated.”

I think back, recalling the scene. Glacier, matted with sweat but standing tall and alert. Glaring at the dark smudge I’d never have noticed if she hadn’t pointed it out.

“We were near the mountains, in the middle of nowhere, so there shouldn’t have been anypony else around. A figure appeared behind us, a few hundred metres away. Glacier was sure it hadn’t been there before. I flew up to take a closer look. But as I got closer, it seemed to… fade into the sand beneath it? Now that I think about it, there was this patch of dark sand where it disappeared. Is there any, like, naturally occurring silvery-black sand around here?”

The two mares shake their heads, eyes wide.

“Well, I didn’t get a chance to investigate because the next moment the Dust Devil hit. Just appeared right on top of Glacier, who was back where I’d left her. This was the first time I’d left her side all day, and within seconds she was gone. That kinda drove the whole "mystery sand pony" thing out of my head. I’d honestly forgotten all about it until now. But thinking back on it, the whole thing does seem really suspicious."

Rose says nothing. Thoughtful expression on her face. Sandy, meanwhile, is practically vibrating with excitement.

"Ohhh my gosh!" she squeaks, voice rising in volume. "You mean you actually saw the sand wiMMPH!"

Rose shoves a hoof into her mouth before she accidentally informs the whole diner.

I shrug.

"Honestly, I don't know. It sounds pretty far-fetched, but something weird's going on. What do you think, Rose?"

"I think," she says slowly. "We'd better go get the sheriff."

Chapter 13 - Language barrier

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The cold floor presses up against my side, stealing my warmth. Small stones bite into me, causing me to shift and turn.

I’d forgotten just how uncomfortable it is sleeping in a cave.

Blearily, I realise I must be awake if I'm starting to notice this. With a yawn, I force myself to sit up.

I am Sergeant Glacier, and I am sore and stiff, but very much alive. I wasn't sure I’d survive the night.

The light and warmth spilling in from the small cave’s entrance tells me I’ve overslept. Not surprising, given how long and exhausting yesterday was. My muscles still ache, but the good kind of ache. The kind you get after a long day of fieldwork and a good night’s sleep.

Climbing to my hooves, I wince as I put weight on my bandaged hind leg. It throbs dully in protest, still sensitive. My human companion - Anon - is stirring too. Probably disturbed by my movement. It’s curled up by the remains of the fire, practically on top of it. Must have been a cold night for the furless creature.

Or… not so furless? In the morning light, I can see Anon isn’t actually completely naked. Its skin - where it isn’t covered by tatters of clothing - has a thin layer of extremely fine hairs. Compared to my thick, bushy coat, it must be far more comfortable during the heat of the day, but freezing overnight.

I also notice just how lean Anon looks. Obviously, I don’t know how humans ought to look, but I know mammals in general. Such clearly visible ribs could be a sign of malnourishment.

I'm beginning to suspect Anon isn’t native to this area. The campsite I saw yesterday looked fairly new, and the human doesn’t seem well fed. Perhaps it’s just passing through, or even lost? Another interloper, struggling to survive this Celestia-blasted wasteland.

A number of minor wounds across Anon’s body support the theory. Scrapes. Blisters. Bruises. Not fresh, but not fully healed either. If Anon were a native then I'd expect fewer of these superficial injuries; he'd know how to avoid them, or would be so used to them he'd have developed calluses.

The worst of the damage is to the left arm. Looks like something tried to take a serious bite out of it, leaving deep puncture marks and raking the flesh from wrist to elbow. Ouch! It’s currently a mass of scabs and scar tissue. Looks like it has been healing for several weeks, badly. I'm guessing Anon didn’t have the supplies to properly treat it.

Much of the damage is probably permanent, unfortunately, but I may be able to offer some aid with my medical kit. At the very least, I can ensure the wounds don’t reopen. And I really ought to return the favour for Anon's help last night.

Slinging the kit across my back, I carefully approach the yawning human.

“Good morning, Anon. Um...”

I falter, trying to figure out how best to communicate this. Anon sits up, blinking sleepily towards me.

“Er, heal.”

I tap the bandages around my own leg a few times, repeating “Heal”. Then, floating out more bandages, I point at its wounded arm.


Anon starts back suddenly, letting out an exclamation. I flinch back in surprise at the sudden motion. Though quickly realise it’s not looking at me, but something beside me! I spin around, expecting to see another sandipede-

Only to find an empty cave.

What the heck was that about? I glance back to Anon. The human still seems on edge. I follow his gaze. Looks like he's staring at... the bandages floating next to me? What's so scary about them? The human even helped me put some bandages on last night, so what's so different about- oh. Right.

These are floating bandages.

Most creatures are startled by unicorn magic. Heck, even non-unicorn ponies can be surprised by it if they're not used to it. Anon may have caught a glimpse of my magic last night, and from a distance, but now I'm waving it right in its face. If humans don't have levitation magic of their own - and most races don't - then I can see how it would be startling.

”Gray?” Anon asks, pointing cautiously to the levitating bundle.

I nod, slowly transferring the bandages from my aura to my hoof, holding them up for him to see.

“Gray heal,” I promise.

The human still looks a bit stunned, but doesn’t seem to be panicking or backing away. I take that as a good sign, and get to work, cleaning and bandaging the injured limb. Just as Anon did for me yesterday.

(I really hope my antiseptics and ointments aren’t dangerous to humans. They’re safe to use on most mammals…)

Anon watches in amazement every time I levitate up a new bottle or fresh roll of bandages, barely noticing my ministrations. It’s chatting a lot; I think it’s trying to ask me questions, but I can’t understand them and it can’t make itself understood, so it eventually gives up.

Once I've finished, it starts twisting and bending its arm, showing off impressive flexibility. It seems to be inspecting my work, murmuring in what I hope is approval. As if sensing my uncertainty, Anon leans over and gives me a smile. Its uninjured arm extends towards my head, slowly. Giving me the option to back off. My instinct is to shy away from the strange appendage, but I force myself to stand still. I remind myself that the human means me no harm (probably), and has been nothing but helpful (lately).

The gangly limb gently brushes the top of my mane, giving my head a soft pat.


That was… unexpected. But not unpleasant. If that’s Anon’s way of showing appreciation, well. I suppose I can live with it.

The human stands up abruptly, giving a mighty stretch. Golly, I’d forgotten just how tall Anon is! Still kinda intimidating. After completing its stretch, the human turns and makes its way out of the small cave. It has to duck its head frequently to avoid the low roof. I follow, curious.

Once outside, Anon stops and turns to me. Gesturing and speaking something, it then turns away and heads out to the left. I have no idea what it was trying to say. With a shrug I keep following.

Stepping out of the cave, the sun and hot air immediately crash into me. For once I savour the warmth, feeling it soak into my cold, stiff limbs. With a nicker and shake of my mane, I turn to follow Anon.

After a few more steps, the human again notices me and stops. This time its gestures seem a bit more urgent. I catch it saying “Gray” a few times, and pointing back to the cave. Buuut I’ve still no idea what it wants. I tilt my head, ears flicking in confusion.

Eventually Anon seems to give up. Shrugging its shoulders, it turns to face a nearby rock wall. Then lowers its ragged pants and- oh!

Right. Ahem.

I quickly turn around, embarrassed. Looks like it - or rather he - needs to relieve himself. I caught an eyeful of a very male-looking organ I really didn’t need to see.

I quickly trot away, stammering apologies Anon probably can’t even understand. The soft splashing reminds my own body of similar needs, and I set off to find my own private nook.

Several minutes later, the two of us are back in the cave, sharing a somewhat awkward breakfast. We’ve got cold roast sandipede (blech!) and my last remaining ration bar (double blech!). Once again, Anon has graciously shared his canteen with me. Thank the Sisters that my terrifying monster companion is turning out to be a real gentlecolt.

Before hoofing the (nearly empty) bottle back, something catches my eye. Turning it over, I notice something I’d missed in the darkness last night: the words “Hoofrest Mining Co” stamped into its side. In Equestrian.

This is a pony canteen.

“Where did you get this,” I ask in surprise.

Anon looks at me blankly.

“...Right, right, you have no idea what I’m saying. Er, Anon? Canteen? Can-teen?”

I tap the bottle for emphasis. Still nothing. Anon just tilts his head. It’s kinda adorable.

I frown. How do I communicate “Where?” without words? And how could he answer in a way I can understand? I need some way to gesture or indicate position…


Turning to my saddlebags, I levitate out my map, unfolding it on the ground between us.

“Anon, Grey,” I say, tapping our current location. (Approximately. The badlands aren’t drawn in much detail.)

Anon seems very excited by the document, practically shoving up against me as he leans in for a closer look. From the way his eyes methodically scan the paper, fingers hovering over landmarks, lips silently muttering to himself, I'm pretty sure he understands what the map is.

Which is quite reassuring, actually. If he can read a map, then not only can he probably give me directions, but it’s likely that he’s from a society capable of producing maps. Proof that humans aren’t just wild savages, but an intelligent people capable of planning and cooperation.

After a few more moments studying the map, Anon hastily looks up, as though scanning for landmarks around us. I follow suit, only to be reminded we’re both still in a cave. The only things visible are rocks, and some sand.

Feeling a bit silly, the two of us trot outside, Anon holding the map. We can’t see much from the small ravine outside, so we climb to a nearby ridge. It’s a little tricky with my sore leg, but I manage.

From the summit we can see the full immensity of the desert around us. Miles and miles of gleaming orange and yellow, disappearing into a hazy horizon. To the north of us the massive brown slopes of the Macintosh Range dominate the skyline. The closest and largest landmark. A number of lesser black and brown splotches dot the desert - hills and cliffs and mesas. However, these don’t seem to correlate to any specific feature on my map.

Gesturing north with a sweep of my hoof, I announce:


Then, drawing a hoof across the corresponding part of the map:


”Mantens,” Anon echoes, nodding.


I tap his bottle as I ask, then tap the map again. Anon frowns. I'm not sure if he understands the question, or if the map is even detailed enough to answer it.

Eventually he points to the spot I’d given as our current location.

”Gray, Anon.”

His finger slides a short distance west.


I scooch up closer to peer at the map. The location he’s indicating is still well within the Badlands. Probably only a few kilometres away. Anon raises an arm and gestures towards the western horizon. Squinting against the glare, I can see a vaguely familiar canyon in the distance. The valley which holds Anon’s campsite, and the pool which saved me yesterday.

I’ve no idea how some Hoofrest pony’s canteen ended up down there. Prospectors? Dust Devils? Either way, that has to be my next stop. Travelling anywhere else with an empty canteen would be suicide.


I turn back to find Anon crouched over the map, drawing something in the sand. His long arms and thin fingers skim across the ground in quick, precise motions. In seconds he’s scribbled a pair of... shapes, or symbols.

”Gray,” he declares, pointing to one of the scribbles. Then “Anon”, pointing at the other.

I tilt my head, trying to understand what he’s saying. Walking around to view them from his side, suddenly it clicks. The “Gray” symbol is a simplified picture of a pony. Four straight lines for legs, a horizontal line for the body, a circle for the head, and a narrow triangle for my horn. Not unlike foals’ stick pony art.

I surmise that the other symbol is a “stick human”. It seems to match up: two lines for legs, vertical line for body, two arms, one head, no horn.

“Gray, Anon,” I repeat, intrigued but unsure where he’s going with this.

He quickly leans over and scribbles three more stick humans. Then, looking back to me, he gestures to himself and carefully pronounces an unfamiliar word. He repeats the word while tapping the group of stick humans.

Is he telling me the name of these humans? His family, or tribe? Or perhaps it's the humans' name for their own species?

I tentatively catalogue it as the latter for now.

“<Human>,” I say the word awkwardly.

(I still think Equestrian is easier on the tongue. Maybe being the common language for all creatures of Equestria - from yaks to griffons to dragons - necessitates that it be easy to pronounce? The human’s language, by contrast, seems all... blurry, and has far too many similar but apparently separate sounds.)

(Hard to explain. I'm a guard, not a linguist.)

Returning to the problem at hoof, I tap each stick figure in turn to show I understand.

“<Human>, <human>, <human>, <human>, not <human>,” ending on the stick pony.

Anon smiles and nods excitedly. I feel a surge of excitement too. Each new word and gesture I learn feels like a small but significant accomplishment. Another step closer to getting some real answers. Another victory shared with my new companion.

Anon points to the map and asks eagerly:


And just like that, my elation dies.

Anon's asking if there’s other humans in Equestria. Or maybe if there’s other humans, period. Poor guy’s lost. Trying to find his own kin.

Just like me.

I feel my ears droop as I shake my head sadly.

“Not <human>,” I confess, gesturing across the map.

Anon’s ears don’t droop - they don’t seem to move much in general - but the excitement leaves his face.

Human body language is still new to me, but it doesn’t take an expert to realise I’ve just dashed his hopes.

We’re both quiet for some time.

Chapter 14 - Searching

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I’d expected the sheriff to object to investigating the old mine.

I hadn’t expected him to insist on accompanying us.

”She’s a tired old nag,” he’d said, pointing to Rose. “And you’re a grounded pegasus.”

My bandaged wing twitched at the reminder. Rose harrumphed.

”More importantly, neither of you know where the mine is. The last thing we need is more ponies getting themselves lost.”

I am Private Fruit Punch, and I have to admit: the sheriff had a point.

”Now, don’t get me wrong,” he continued. “I still don’t reckon you actually saw the Sand Witch. But on the off chance She really is involved, I ain’t gonna risk sending any civilian ponies Her way. And seeing as somepony oughta search that area for our missing unicorn - and I know dissuadin’ Rose here is a lost cause - I suppose that means we’re all goin’ together.”

So here we are. All goin’ together.

The mid morning sun burns overhead. The orange and brown landscape ripples in the heat. We’ve been climbing up and down these foothills for well over an hour, slowly inching our way towards the base of the Macintosh Ranges.

Ahead of me, Sheriff Prickly Pear and Dusty Rose plod along, occasionally sniping at one another. I'm pretty sure they don’t mean any harm - I get the impression they’re old friends having a bit of a spat. Or maybe this is normal for them, and they just like being passive-aggressive at each other.

”-shouldn’ta got the Guard involved in the first place,” Pear is saying.

”Now you’re just tryin’ to have it both ways,” Rose insists. “You can’t say ‘Monster huntin’s too dangerous for civilians,’ then complain when I bring in professionals.”

”Sure, and look what the ‘professionals’ have gotten us into. O’ course, we wouldn’ta needed monster hunters if that Sandy o’ yours could keep her nose out o’ trouble.”

”Hey, if it hadn’t been her, it woulda been some other pony the monster attacked. You can’t just stick you’re head in the sand and hope the monsters go away!”

”I can if they’re way out in the middle of nowhere. I don’t care if there are monsters this far from town - it ain’t nopony’s business to be foolin’ around out here.”

”Only fool out here is you, ya stubborn mule!”

”Meddlesome old crone!”

...I'm pretty sure they don’t mean any harm.

The two earth ponies are still arguing with the same enthusiasm they’ve had all morning. They don’t seem at all bothered by the desert heat. Crazy earth pony endurance.

I sure hope Glacier isn’t out in this sun. My coat is much shorter than hers, but I'm already halfway through my first canteen of the day.

Rose had insisted that everypony in the search party carry extra water and wear a hat. The purple mare is currently sporting a rather large, flowery sun hat. Courtesy of her niece; as the resident hatter, Sandy had brought along quite the collection. I’d been persuaded to exchange my Royal Guard helmet for something more comfortable, once we were well out of sight of the other volunteers. Technically, I could get in trouble for being out of uniform. But then it’s not like we’re going to run into any Guard officers out here.

I’d picked out a small cream-coloured hat with a slightly conical shape. It looks kinda like that old timey Daring Do-style adventurer hat. I think that’s pretty cool. And it definitely helps! By this time yesterday, the tips of my nose and ears, which peek out from under my helmet, were already scorched. And keeping a metal tin can clamped around my head had only exacerbated the issue, quickly giving me a headache. Today, the heat feels much more manageable.

I take another sip from my canteen, just to be safe. Gotta keep my fluids up.

In addition to water and hats, the nearly two dozen ponies making up the search party were divided into smaller teams, each team given medical supplies and signal flares. The flares, Rose told the group, could double as a weapon if you needed to scare away any desert monsters.

As the “leader”, it had been my job to decide where to send each team. In reality, Dusty and Prickly handled all that logistics stuff. I’d just announced their decisions, then given a final pep talk before we all went our separate ways. At least I was useful for something.

The good ponies of Hoofrest and Tranquility Springs deserve a better leader. They’ve been nothing but helpful, interrupting their own lives to help a complete stranger, offering me kind words and smiles, assuring me that Glacier will be ok. Even knowing the dangers of the desert, and with rumours of Sandy’s shadow monster circulating, so many of them still leapt at the call. It’s a great reminder of what I learned in the Harmony Corps: it may take an emergency to bring out the best in ponies, but when the chips are down you can always count on the power of friendship.

I smile at the thought. Then absent-mindedly bump into Rose, whom I now notice has stopped.

Shaking my head and offering a quick apology, I quickly notice why we've stopped: We’re here.

The three of us stand at the peak of a wide sand dune, overlooking a narrowing valley. A sheer cliff wall rises up on the left, three or four stories high before transitioning to a steep slope. A dusty trail runs along its base, deep in the cliff’s shadow. To the right is a large hill of loose stones, some as big as a house, spilling down across the trail. The Macintosh Mountains rise up behind them, an absolutely enormous backdrop. Despite looking like a solid wall of brown from a distance, up close I can see nearly every surface is covered in a layer of wiry green scrub.

”This is it,” Prickly announces. “The old mine entrance. Or one of ‘em, at any rate. The main one’s a bit further up.”

It takes me a few moments to spot what he’s talking about. In the shadow of the cliff face is an even darker patch - a passage leading into the mountain. I can just barely make out the pale shape of wooden supports framing the entrance, and the glint of metal tracks along the floor.

“The main one? There are others?”

My knowledge of mining is, um, minimal. As far as I know, miners just dig a hole in the ground, pick up the gold and gems they find, then climb back out.

”Yep. The main entrance had a base camp built around it. A place for the miners to rest and eat and such. There were a couple other entrances around the mountain, so they could reach other deposits more easily. This one was where they’d take the carts to be unloaded, and the contents shipped off to Hoofrest.”

Makes sense.

“So it sounds like we should check the base camp after we look around here?”

Pear seems uncomfortable at the suggestion.

”Look, missy, I don’t know whether this Sand Witch or Dust Devils or whatever exist. But I do know that all the old timers - including the previous sheriff - told folk to stay away from these mines. Whether it’s ghosts, or monsters, or just a natural dust storm funnel - whatever it is, we oughtn’a be here.”

”We’ve already come all this way, ya big chicken,” Dusty taunts. Though I can see through her grin - she has her own misgivings about this.

”Though speaking of Dust Devils...”

She reaches into her saddlebags and pulls out a length of rope.

”Tada! Now we just gotta tie ourselves together, and then we won’t have to worry about getting separated by any dust storms, magical or no. So it’s perfectly safe to continue searching!”

She sounds like she’s trying to convince herself as much as Prickly.

The sheriff looks unimpressed.

”Weren’t you the one sayin’ a minute ago that there’s witches and spirits and stuff hauntin’ this place? What makes you think a rope will do much good?”

Rose huffs.

”Well, it’s better than nothing. And like you said, dissuading me’s a lost cause - I’m going down there to look for that lost filly. You can either come with me or you can stay here.”

I want to chime in, to try and convince the sheriff to join us. But I'm still self conscious about how unqualified I am to lead anypony. What if Prickly’s right? Should I be talking more ponies into danger?

The tan earth pony sighs, shaking his head.

”Now who’s being a stubborn mule?”

But he grabs one end of the rope in his mouth, and starts tying a loop around his barrel. Rose starts doing the same.

Well. That was easy. Guess Dusty Rose knows Prickly too well. Knows just what to say to convince him.

That, or he knows just how stubborn she is. Just like her niece. And he isn’t willing to abandon her as she runs off into danger.

Either way, yay friendship!

(I can’t help but feel glad that the decision has been taken out of my hooves. And guilty at how glad I feel.)

Rose flicks a length of rope over to me, interrupting my thoughts. I quickly distract myself with tying a knot.

A few minutes later, the three of us reach the bottom of the valley. The sand is replaced by dry, parched earth and hard stone. The shadow of the cliff is a relief from the sun. I almost feel too cold now.

We approach the mine entrance. The dark passage runs down at a gentle slope, eventually curving out of sight. A few wooden beams holding up the roof have buckled, but overall it doesn’t look too bad. There’s a few empty crates and pieces of old rubbish lying by the wall, but nothing that looks recently moved. Though I'm far less perceptive about these things than Glacier.

Rose pokes around through the boxes, while I take a few cautious steps into the tunnel.

“Glaaaciiieer? Are you theeere?”

”Eere - eere - eere,” the tunnel echoes back.

I listen intently. Straining to hear anything over the echo.

It fades slowly. Long moments pass as I wait for a response.


There’s no sound at all. Not even Rose shuffling about behind me, I realise with surprise.

I spin around, suddenly afraid the earth ponies have been magicked away. To my relief, they’re still right outside the tunnel, the rope between us still firmly attached. But there is something odd.

They’re both standing stock still. Heads raised. Ears high. Staring at something I can’t see.

”There’s something out there,” Pear mutters.

”I felt it too,” Rose quietly agrees. “You better get over here, Punch.”

I trot out, heart quickening as I unbuckle the straps of my shortsword. I follow Rose and Pear’s gaze to the huge mound of boulders just a few metres from the path. I don’t see anycreature, but up close I notice that the pile is riddled with narrow gaps and openings, leading to who knows where. Many of them are easily large enough for a pony - or something else - to climb through.


A sharp tap draws my attention to the top of the heap. A single stone has come loose, bouncing down the slope in a series of echoing cracks.

It takes a long time to reach the bottom, eventually landing near my hoof.

It takes even longer for the echoes to die down. They reflect and rebound off the valley walls, blurring together into a dull roar.

Something isn’t right.

Instead of dying down, the roar is getting louder. Then I feel it.

“Dust Devil!” I shout, pulling the others close.

Rose and Pear glance around, seeing nothing, but backing up all the same. The false winds start whipping around us, roaring in earnest. Dozens more rocks are knocked loose, their crashes adding to the cacophony. Sand is quickly kicked up and sucked into the air, making the whirling winds visible to my earth pony friends.

I grab the two ponies as their hats are blown away. I close my eyes and hold on tight, determined not to lose anypony this time. Rose shouts something, but her voice is overwhelmed. Instead, she starts tugging me back, towards the cliff. Turning, I open my eyes to see she’s trying to lead us into the mine. I tap Pear’s shoulder, nodding towards the entrance. The three of us scurry inside.

We quickly stumble several metres down the passage. The noise slowly recedes behind us, though the wind echoing down the shaft produces an unnerving wail. With the storm blocking the light outside, the tunnel is almost completely black. We’d have immediately lost each other if not for the ropes keeping us together.

Eventually we all pause, unwilling to go further in the dark. I turn to look back at the opening, hoping the unnatural storm will abate soon. For a few moments, it seems to die down. The dark curtain of whirling sand slows, falling apart. A little light trickles in.

I see something silhouetted against the tunnel’s entrance. A large, shadowy figure, eyes gleaming.

Then, with a roar that shakes the whole tunnel, the sand rushes in and takes me.

Chapter 15 - Cartography

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I'm pressed up against Anon, panting and sweating as his powerful muscles pound away rhythmically. His arms are wrapped tight around me. Fingers tangled in my matted blue mane.

I feel light-headed. The two of us have been going like this for some time. His stamina is impressive.

I would be in so much trouble if the PWG caught me doing this. If I didn’t die of embarrassment first!

I’ve known Anon for, what, a few hours? And despite him knowing barely a dozen words in Equestrian, he’s somehow convinced me into such an intimate and vulnerable position.

In my defence, there was nopony else around. I was really desperate.

I am Sergeant Glacier, and I am currently slung backwards over Anon’s shoulder with all the dignity of a sack of potatoes.

I glower down at my bandaged leg, flopping feebly beneath me. The two of us were halfway through our trek across the desert when my damned leg gave out. Could hardly take another step. Through some creative charades, Anon offered to carry me.

So now here I am. Bouncing up and down. Listening to Anon huff and puff beside me. Watching the desert crawl by.

I am not happy with this situation.

For one thing, I must look ridiculous! A grown mare - a Royal Guard, no less! - being carried around like a filly who scraped her knee. I'm just glad Fruit Punch isn’t here to see this!

And another thing, I’d really rather not be in such a vulnerable position. Not only am I completely disregarding my orders to run from any human I meet, but I'm literally putting my life in his hands. If Command ever hears about this, they’ll have a fit!

...Not that I seriously think I'm in danger. Anon’s been nothing but helpful since last night. I'm pretty sure he only tried to hunt me in the first place because he thought I was a wild animal. Not a person. He’s clearly never met a unicorn before.

Despite the rocky start to our relationship, I'm glad to have a friend out here. And I'm super grateful for his help, honest! Buuut… He is kinda sweaty. And smelly. And uncomfortably warm.

Of course, it’s not like I'm any better. My coat is clogged with dirt and sweat. And my mane desperately needs a comb. But between the desert air and Anon’s body heat, I feel like I'm trapped in a sauna. A sauna full of old soaks!

At least I have a little bit of shade. I’d ditched my armour while fleeing Anon last night, and returned this morning to pick it up again. But after sitting in the sun for hours, the metal was painfully hot. Wearing it was out of the question. Instead, I’ve been floating it above my head as an impromptu umbrella. When Anon offered to carry me, I added his spear to my levitating bundle, freeing up his hands.


Speaking of hands, Anon is tapping me on the shoulder. I squirm around to see what’s up. He raises one arm to point ahead.


Wha- oh, thank the Sisters, it looks like we’ve finally arrived!

The long, narrow valley that is our destination lies just ahead of us. Numerous smaller cliffs and ridges radiate out from its centre. A rocky maze, hiding the precious water within.

I notice a few landmarks I’d passed yesterday, and guess Anon is taking me back down to his campsite. Sure enough, after a few minutes clambering down the steep slopes - and Anon almost dropping me - we pass beneath a familiar stone arch and enter into a smooth dusty bowl.

I immediately recognise the sight (and smell) of the camp. Now that it’s daylight, I can properly appreciate the choice of location.

High, overhanging walls provide enough shade to make the chamber noticeably cooler than outside, while still allowing plenty of light. The confined space would also help retain a campfire’s heat overnight. The steep path leading up and the narrow fissure leading down to the pool are the only entrances, both acting as excellent choke points. And most importantly, the pool itself is only a short climb away.

My only problem with the place is the smell. Those rubbish pits full of rotting meat rather stink up the place. Anon’s sense of smell doesn’t seem very well developed, so maybe he just doesn’t notice it. Still, it risks attracting unwanted scavengers.

I take all this in as Anon carefully sets me down, still huffing and puffing. With a sweeping gesture, he grandly announces… something indecipherable. Probably some variation of “Welcome to my humble abode.”

I smile up at him.

“Thanks, Anon.”

I'm not sure he understands “Thanks” just yet, but I don’t want to seem ungrateful for his hard work and hospitality.

He smiles back down at me and gives me a friendly pat on the head. He seems to like giving pats.

Eh, he’s earned it. I indulge him.

Eventually he breaks off and walks over to a section of wall, gesturing for me to follow. I deposit my armour and his spear in a corner before hobbling after him. Tucked against the wall is a motley collection of clay pottery. Mugs, plates, and lidded jars of various sizes. The quality is… well, they look like a foal’s arts and crafts project. But they’re apparently functional. When Anon removes the lid from a jar larger than my head, I see it’s full of deliciously clear-looking water.

Scooping up a mug, Anon dunks it in the jar and offers the precious drink to me.


Canteen? Again? That’s not a- Ohhh. “Canteen.” Right.

I’d asked about “canteen” earlier this morning, trying to find out where his pony-made canteen had come from. He seems to have misinterpreted that as me asking where to find water. Oh well. Right now, water is much more interesting to me.


I take the cup in my hooves (not willing to risk startling him with my magic), and raise it to my lips.

And hesitate.

Is this safe to drink? I’ve no way of knowing if this has been purified, or if it’s straight from the stagnant pool below. And a small part of me can’t help but wonder: could Anon have put something sinister in it?

I frown at the thought. Surely I'm just being paranoid? It’s not like Anon hasn’t had plenty of opportunities to harm me already. Why go to the effort of rescuing me, patching me up, and carrying me back here, just to poison me now?

I glance up at Anon, hoping he isn’t offended by my delay. Luckily, he seems completely oblivious at the moment. Having filled his canteen from the jar, he’s now greedily chugging it down, determined to finish the whole thing in one go.

Well, I’ve drunk from that same canteen before with no ill effects. If this is where he’s been filling it from, then it should be fine. Right?

With a shrug, I take a mouthful.

It tastes like water. Normal, refreshing, absolutely delicious water. My dehydrated body screams for more! I quickly slam the rest of the drink down, then go back for seconds. And thirds.

Anon follows suit. By the time we’re both sated, the jar is completely empty.

The two of us lean against the wall, sighing contentedly. For a long minute, I just rest there, feeling the cold seep through my core. Since I haven’t immediately doubled over in pain or fallen unconscious, I'm going to assume I’ve not been poisoned. Though after all that sun I'm certainly feeling drowsy...

Anon eventually gets up. Hoisting the now empty jar, he sluggishly makes his way to the crack in the wall leading down to the pool.

Oh, right. The pool. I’d somehow forgotten about that beautiful ice bath just waiting for me. With a stretch and a yawn, I amble after him, eager to get all this gunk out of my coat.

Watching Anon clamber down the steep fissure is entertaining. He’s clearly not a very good climber. With the pot taking up one arm, he almost loses his balance several times, comically flailing about. But his long, noodly limbs are great for reaching distant hoofholds, and he even uses them to brace against the ceiling. It’s like watching a really drunk spider try to squeeze through a gap.

I grin as I easily climb down after him, even with my injured leg. When Anon reaches the bottom, he politely offers to help me with the last few steps. Not that I really need help. But hey, after being carried through the desert like a foal, what pride have I got left to lose?

The two of us emerge into a familiar ravine. Dark, still waters cover the floor, while the smooth walls arch high overhead, almost meeting. It’s much brighter down here than I’d expected. The narrow sliver of sky is a blinding band of blue, while the walls are almost pumpkin orange.

Anon crouches by the water’s edge, filling his jar from the pool. (Oh dear. He did boil the water last time, right?) Placing the jar down, he then starts setting aside his canteen, his shoes, and - oh, hello! - his clothes.

Despite living in a desert, Anon has quite a lot of clothing. Even if it’s mostly tatters. I suppose it’s to protect his bare skin from the elements, the way a proper fur coat does? Though curiously, Anon seems to have more fur beneath his clothes than he does on the parts which were exposed.

He notices my staring. Pauses, pants halfway down.

With a start, I quickly turn away.

“S-sorry, Anon.”

I don’t know much about human culture, but it’s probably impolite to stare at his junk. Even if my curiosity is completely academic.

Besides, the last thing I want to do is give Anon the wrong idea. The two of us have far more important things to worry about than… indulging my curiosity.

Heh. And just think what Command would say! Forget being carried by a human; imagine if they caught me and Anon with his junk in- Wait. No. No no no! Stop imagining that!

With a great splash (and a squeal from Anon), I dive into the icy pool before my thoughts can lead anywhere too dangerous!

Some time later, feeling wonderfully clean and refreshed, the two of us share a meal of wild prickly pears. Anon has a whole jar full of them.

True to their name, the bright red fruits are covered in spines. We’ve been using sharp stones to scrape them off before eating. After living off rations and bugs for the last twenty four hours, their sweet flesh is a welcome treat.

In between bites, Anon is poking at the small fire I helped start. He’s set the big pot of water nearby, so I assume he’s planning on boiling it. I’d rather have waited until sundown before starting a fire, as the campsite is already hot enough. But maybe it’s prudent to fill our canteens sooner rather than later. You never know when something big and nasty might crawl by the campsite. Or, from Anon’s point of view, something big and delicious and worth tracking for hours. Humans seem to be opportunistic hunters, so it makes sense that Anon would want to be ready for the next opportunity. Much safer to go hunting if you’ve got a full canteen.

With one last poke, Anon seems happy with the state of the fire. I watch as he uses a pair of pronged sticks to lift an egg-sized stone from the flames, then deposit it carefully in the waiting jar. The water fizzles and hisses, but quickly subsides. Anon repeats the process, dropping in several more burning hot rocks. With each addition, the simmering lasts longer and longer, as more and more heat is transferred.

It’s an old technique for boiling water without a metal pot. I’d learned about it years ago during a camping trip, but never had a need to use it until now. It’s kind of fun doing it this way.

I notice Anon struggling to fish the now-cooled stones from the bottom of the jar. Still munching on a pear, I wave my horn in his direction. The rocks float out of the pot, briefly startling him, before heading back over to the fire.

”Thangks, Gray,” he says in a passable mangling of Equestrian.

We share a smile, and continue cycling the rocks between the fire and the pot. Soon the water has reached a rolling boil, threatening to spill over the sides. I pull out the last of the stones, replace the lid, then very carefully set the heavy pot aside to cool.

Phew! That’s the drinking water problem solved for the time being. Though that reminds me of something I need to clear up...

“Hey, Anon. Canteen?”

”No canteen,” he replies with a shake of his head. He opens the bottle and holds it upside down to show that it’s empty.

“May I…?”

My cyan aura envelopes the container and gives it a gentle tug. Anon lets go, watching in fascination as it floats over to me. He's still impressed by the simplest of magics.

I take a moment to inspect the bottle. The words “Hoofrest Mining Co” engraved into its side are proof that Anon must have had some contact with Equestria. And it’s not the only clue. I’ve noticed a professionally crafted wooden crate tucked into a corner. Alongside it is a wooden bucket with a metal handle and banding. There’s also Anon’s knife and spear, both tipped with strips of scavenged metal. Corrugated iron, perhaps, smoothed and ground to a sharp edge.

There’s no way Anon has the tools or resources to produce metal. He must have found these items somewhere in the desert. An abandoned campsite, maybe, or perhaps they just washed up in the pool below?

With any luck, he’s happened upon an old shelter or way station; the kind of place a search party may check. And even if that’s not the case, it may still be worthwhile investigating. Given Anon’s unfamiliarity with magic, it’s possible there’s some magical emergency equipment which he’s completely overlooked.

I take a moment to consider how to ask this. Anon waits patiently, finishing off his fruit.

Eventually I point to the gently simmering pot.


I speak slowly, using my explaining-a-new-word voice. Next, I point to the passage leading down to the pool.


Finally, I tap Anon’s empty canteen.

Not water. Canteen.”

I focus, carefully levitating a hooffull of boiling water from the jar. Anon “Oooh”s appreciatively at the minor magic show. Taking care not to waste a drop (or scald myself), I pour the water into the waiting canteen. Replacing the lid, I give it a few taps.

“Canteen, and water.”

I look expectantly at Anon, hoping he’s followed my logic. He still looks a little uncertain, but gives a slow nod. Pointing to the canteen, jar, and fissure in turn, he asks:

”Canteen, not canteen, not canteen?”

I nod and smile happily.

“Yes. Canteen, not canteen, not canteen.”

Anon gives a more confident nod, but still looks curious. He’s probably wondering where I'm going with this.

Shifting a little further away from the fire, I float over my saddlebags and dig out my map. Unfolding it so that we can both see, I gesture to it and ask:


Anon scooches around the fire to get a closer look. He picks up the canteen - and immediately drops it, letting out a string of human profanity as the hot metal scorches his fingers. Good thing I put the lid on! Muttering to himself, he picks it up again, this time carefully holding it by the strap. He looks back and forth between me, the canteen, and the map, as if trying to understand the connection.

After a few seconds he slaps a hand to his forehead.

”Ohhh, canteen.”

Leaning forward, he scans the map for a moment before jabbing a finger.

"Canteen," he declares confidently.

The indicated spot is at a relatively narrow part of the Macintosh Range. North and slightly east of us. It would take maybe a half day’s travel to reach the base of the range. But from there it it must be at least another day of climbing to get that deep into the mountains. Having seen Anon’s climbing skills, I’ve no idea how he managed to get up there in the first place.

Anon makes a “hrmm” noise. I look up to see him frowning at the map. Pushing it aside, he starts smoothing out the sand on the ground between us. Once he’s made a large, even surface, he extends a finger and begins scribbling, with frequent pauses to consult the map. Soon he’s sketched a crude, enlarged version of the map, or at least the desert portion. I see the main mountain ranges, the valley containing our campsite, and even a little Stick Glacier and Stick Anon. I smile at them.

”Anon, Gray,” I tap the figures to indicate I understand.

Anon nods, then gestures across the mountain range.


He taps a point in the range, north and slightly east of us.


Then, slowly, wipes away a narrow part of the mountains around it. Leaving a tiny channel running north to south.

”NOT mantens.”

It takes a moment to process what he's just said. Then my jaw drops.

“There’s a gap in the mountains?”

Chapter 16 - New information

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”...ose? Dusty Rose? You haven’t gone and died on me, have you?”

My ears eventually stop ringing enough to make out Prickly Pear’s voice.


I am Dusty Rose, and I do not seem to have gone and died. Though the various aches all over my body remind me that I'm not a young mare anymore.

I crack open an eye. The dark orange blur that is Pear looms above me, silhouetted against the crystal blue sky. No sign of the tunnel or the Dust Devil.

Upon seeing me awake, a wave of relief washes over Prickly’s expression. He quickly hides it under his usual frown, but not fast enough to fool me. I grin up at him.

“You’re - cough - not getting rid of me that easily.”

”So I see. Well, there’s always next time.”

He offers me a hoof. I accept it, gingerly pulling myself upright. Loose sand cascades off me, piling around my hooves. I must have been half buried!

A groan to my right draws my attention. I look over to see Fruit Punch wobbling on three hooves, a fourth covering her muzzle.

”Ooof... I think I’m gonna be sick. Flight instincts and - urp! - fake whirlwinds are not a fun mix...”

I'm feeling a bit dizzy myself. Earth ponies are not meant to be plucked off the ground like that! Though it could just as easily be the heat affecting me. We seem to be back in the desert again. The sun blazes overhead, and I’ve gone and lost dear Sandy’s hat. I’ll have to apologise later. But for now I’ve got more important things to worry about.

I cough a few times to clear my throat.

“Ok everypony, status report. Any injuries?”

”I’m fine.” Pear looks a bit hot and dishevelled, but no worse for wear. He seems a little lost without his signature sheriff hat, constantly fussing with his mane.

”Urgh, same. More or less.” Fruit Punch still looks a little queasy, but seems to be recovering. She’s more orange than purple, thanks to all the sand in her coat. She flicks an ear, sending a rivulet down her neck.

”How about you? Looks like you had a rough landing.”

I absently rub my sore ribs. My hoof bumps against the rope still wrapped tight around me. We’d all tied ourselves together to keep from getting separated. It seems to have worked.

“Oh, I’m fine, dearie. Just a little bruised where the rope pulled on me.”

”Hmm. You haven’t broken anything, have you? Should I take a look?”

She’s already pulling out her first aid kit. I wave her away.

“None o’ that, now. I’ll be fine with a drink and a few moments rest.”

I pointedly open my canteen and take a long swig. Pear follows suit. Fruit frowns, but soon joins us. We spend a few moments washing the sand from our faces and getting thoroughly rehydrated. I finish off my first canteen in the process. Luckily I’d insisted everypony bring a spare.

I take the opportunity to look around. After the Dust Devil had swept into the mine and sucked us all up, for a while there was only tumbling and noise and darkness. But it seems we were ultimately deposited back out into the desert. It’s hard to say where exactly. The ever-present Macintosh mountains are still visible, though noticeably further away. But I can’t see anything else beyond the sea of sand.

Fruit puts her canteen away and kicks the ground with a huff.

”This is getting bloody ridiculous. Three Dust Devils now? Three!? What did I do, personally offend the Sand Witch or something?”

I give her a sympathetic smile.

“Mmm, I’d like to know that, too.”

I turn to Pear, who’s looking towards the mountains.

“So, Sheriff. I’d say our little adventure is pretty conclusive proof that the Sand Witch is real. Wouldn’t you agree?”


His ears flicker towards me, but he continues staring off into the distance.

“And if’n you remember the old stories, they say the Dust Devils are Her way of warning folk. Well, I ain’t fool enough to need to be warned twice - let alone three times. We’d best get on outta here.”

“Gotta agree with you there, Sheriff. Dust Devils, Sand Witches, shadow monsters - there’s something going on out here. We need to regroup and reassess. Come up with a new plan of attack.”

Pear grunts, and starts walking north, up the nearest sand dune. I notice the length of rope that was connecting the two of us is now hanging limply, trailing behind him in the sand.

I look around for my end of the rope. Eventually I find a short stub, barely a hoof long, dangling from where it connects to the loops around my chest.


“Say, Pear. Did you cut this?”

He turns to see what I'm talking about.

”Huh? The rope? Nope, haven’t touched it. Guess it snapped in the whirlwind?”

He shrugs.

”Seems we didn’t need it after all.”

He continues up the slope. I frown.

The rope isn’t all that thick, but it should be plenty strong. While I certainly felt a few sharp tugs from it during the storm, surely that wouldn’t have been enough to snap it? And the break looks too… clean? I’d expect to see more fraying and unravelling if it had come apart naturally. It looks more like something sliced through it.

I think back to the shadowy figure I saw at the mouth of the tunnel, eyes gleaming in the dark. When the Dust Devil picked us up and dragged us out, we must have been carried right by it.

I look down at the rope. Severed inches from my neck.

A shiver runs down my back. I can all too easily imagine some unknown creature slashing at me in the dark, missing me by a split second.

I lick my lips, suddenly parched again.

But wait, wasn’t that creature the Sand Witch? The one who controls the Dust Devils? If She was trying to kill us, why would She simultaneously pull us out of the tunnel and carry us to safety? Surely it wasn’t actually trying to cut the rope? As Pear pointed out, the rope doesn’t seem to have done anything - the Dust Devil plopped us all down together anyway. So what really happened in the tunnel? What was that creature? Was it really trying to attack us, and if so, why did the Dust Devil save us?

My head swims as I try to process all these mysteries. Maybe the heat is getting to me?

I take another mouthful of water, deciding I'm far too hot and rattled to figure this right now. I need to focus on finding some shade.

There’s a soft ‘paf’ as something hits the sand. I turn to see Fruit Punch has untangled herself from the rope and dropped it to the ground, and is now fiddling with her armour. Noticing my questioning look, she gestures up at the sky.

”Just gimme a sec to take my armour off, and I’ll fly up and see where we are.”

I blink in confusion.

“What? No! You’ll do no such thing.”

Punch freezes, her ears standing up in surprise.

“You said it yourself, that wing needs rest. You are not putting any weight on it, private.”

She glances guiltily at her bandaged wing.

”It’s… not that bad-”

“No flying. That’s an order.”

”But then… how do we figure out where we are?”

The silly filly looks genuinely worried. I give her a reassuring smile while ruffling her mane.

“The earth pony way, of course!”

”Wait, what? You guys have a special way of doing that? How? Is it some cool earth pony magic?”

“Ha! No.”

I point over to Prickly Pear as he reaches the crest of the dune.

“We climb the nearest tall thing and look around.”


Red smoke billows out from the signal flare, forming a ruddy cloud over Hoofrest. Prickly Pear gives it one last check, making sure it won’t accidentally roll towards any buildings. Then he turns around and starts trotting back.

I watch him through the window of the Hoofrest eatery. The little shop has inadvertently become our base of operations. Several other ponies share the restaurant with us. A couple of locals, as well as two search teams who have already finished their morning expedition. No sign of Glacier from either of them. Fruit Punch is interrogating them for details, but I doubt she’ll find anything more.

The other teams are due back soon, but Pear insisted on signalling for them to return ASAP. He’s spooked by what happened. I can’t blame him.

After getting dumped back into the desert by the Dust Devil, the three of us had climbed the nearest sand dune to get our bearings. Only to find ourselves scarcely a hundred metres from Hoofrest.

The Sand Witch knows where we came from.

And if Her Dust Devil can transport us that far, then it stands to reason they can snatch a pony from that far. In other words: every single pony currently searching the desert is within Her reach.

We should have taken Fruit Punch’s warnings more seriously. I had initially believed - or wanted to believe - that there was no Dust Devil. That Punch had spent too long with the buffalo, filling her head with nonsense. That Glacier had simply become lost in a regular sandstorm.

And so neither I nor Pear bothered to warn the volunteers about Dust Devils. When he told them that Glacier was lost during some sort of sudden sandstorm - never explicitly mentioning Dust Devils - I let it be. Not worth worrying them needlessly, I thought.

It was a bad call.

Well, now I know better. Time to correct my mistake.

I'm completely onboard with calling back the volunteers and letting them know, even if it means eating humble pie. But Pear… He’s taking this much more personally.

I was a sergeant in the Royal Guard for many years. I know that bad calls - even ones that put ponies in danger - are a part of life. That doesn’t excuse them, but you can’t let them mess you up, either. You can’t stop trying to do what’s right for fear that you’ll get it wrong again.

I learned to take responsibility, and move on to the next task. But Pear - despite his many years as sheriff - has never had ponies under his command in serious danger. Even if the search teams all return safe and sound, even if the Dust Devils leave everypony else alone, I'm worried Pear might get a bit… overprotective.

The bell over the front door jingles. The stallion in question walks in.

He trots over, pulls up a chair, and sits down. Neither of us say a word.

I watch as he rests his hooves on the table. Then, on the back of the chair. Then, in his lap. His eyes flicker about the room. Taking note of every member of the search party. And the many more vacant seats. He keeps absently brushing his mane. The reddish-brown hair is sticking up in tufts. Still full of sand, no doubt. He just doesn’t look right without his hat.

After a few minutes of this, I can’t stand it any longer. I pull out a comb and handkerchief. His eyes widen as I approach. Tries to swat me away without causing a scene, but I will not be deterred. Resistance is futile.

By the time Fruit Punch returns, Prickly Pear is looking halfway presentable. Which is to say, about as presentable as he ever looks. He’s still scowling, but I count that as a success - if he’s busy being annoyed at me, that means he’s not busy fretting.

”No luck from either team,” Fruit announces glumly. She flops into the seat between us. "No tracks, no markings, no clues whatsoever.”

It’s what I expected, but it’s still disheartening to hear.

”At least they didn’t run into any Dust Devils,” she continues. “So that’s something, I guess. But I just don’t get it!”

“Don’t get what?”

She waves her hooves.

”The fricken Dust Devils, or Sand Witch, whatever - why do they hit when they do? One of the search teams was in the area Glacier and I explored yesterday. Why weren’t they hit by a Dust Devil? And why did our Dust Devil today take us back to Hoofrest, but Glacier’s didn’t yesterday?”

”You almost sound like you want more Dust Devils showing up,” Prickly grouses.

Fruit shakes her head.

”Ha. No way. But if they were at least consistent then we’d have a better shot at figuring them out.”

I think back to my own ponderings on the subject. There was one thing I'd been meaning to ask:

“You said you saw a dark figure yesterday, right? Just before the Dust Devil hit? And then today we saw another figure in the tunnel? I’m assuming it’s the Sand Witch, but whatever it is it’s obviously connected to the Dust Devils. Did you notice any differences in its appearance or behaviour today? Maybe it, I don’t know, panicked that we tracked it to its lair, and instinctively sent us away?”

To be honest, I'm grasping at straws here. But it sometimes pays to lay out all the details and talk them over.

”Hmm. Yesterday it was more… Huh.”

A frown crosses Fruit’s face. Her eyes drift down, unfocused, as she thinks.

”...Come to think of it, it seemed… Was that even…?”

She looks back up to me.

”The one from yesterday definitely looked like a pony. But it was sort of… Insubstantial? Rough around the edges? Like a… a pony made of cloud. But that thing in the tunnel - that was very substantial, right? It completely blocked off all light behind it. Had a very definite outline. And that outline didn’t look all that pony-ish to me.”

Oh? Interesting.

I turn to Prickly Pear.

“What do you think? My old eyes ain’t what they used to be.”

He shakes his head.

”Thing in the tunnel sure wasn’t no pony. I got a decent look at it. Was way too big, and all the wrong shape. Too wide, and low to the ground. If it hadn’ta been for those eyes, I’da thought it was a cave-in.”

He turns to Fruit Punch.

”You sure you saw somepony yesterday? Not that I’m doubtin’ yer story, not any more. But it’s plenty easy to start seeing things out in the desert. ‘Rough around the edges’ sounds an awful lot like a mirage, to me.”

Fruit hesitates. Bites her lip.

”...I can’t be one hundred percent sure, but I still think there was somepony there. Even if I didn’t trust my own eyes, Glacier saw it too. And she’s a lot more perceptive about these things.”

Pear nods slowly, not looking entirely convinced but willing to take her word.

“So, we’ve got Sandy’s bipedal shadow monster. Fruit’s insubstantial cloud pony. Dust Devils. And now, something big but low to the ground in the mine.”

Fruit looks thoughtful. Pear looks grim.

Something’s going on out there. Bucked if I know what, though.”

”So, what do we do next?” Fruit asks. “I mean, I guess we need to combine the search teams into larger groups, for safety, but… what else can we do to keep them safe? And where do we send them? Is it still worth scouring the desert, or should we focus on the mine?”

Pear shakes his head.

”’Fraid the only place we’ll be sending ‘em is back home.”

Fruit’s ears shoot up.

”Wait, what? Why?”

”It’s like Dusty said. We got a whole bunch o’ unknown monsters running around the desert. Maybe even the Sand Witch Herself. At least one of ‘em’s already tried to attack ponies. And now not only have we confirmed Dust Devils are real and disappearing folk, we know they can reach as far as Hoofrest. At least.”

He snorts.

”Ain’t no way I’m sending civilians out into all that. We’re heading back to Tranquility Springs, and waitin’ for the rest of the Guard to show up.”

I frown, but stay silent. I don’t like this one bit. But that doesn’t mean Pear is wrong, either.

”But- but what about Glacier?” Fruit isn’t willing to give up so easily. “We can’t just abandon her! It could be days until the Guard arrive! She needs our help now!”

Pear shifts uncomfortably.

”Look, I hate leaving a pony out there, too. But with how far the Dust Devils can travel, for all we know she could be on the other side of the mountains. And the longer we keep sending folk out there, the more chance that some of them won’t make it back, too. We need-”

”We’ll be careful!” Fruit insists desperately. “We’ll take every precaution we can think of! I don’t want civilians in danger either, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up entirely!”

”How do you stop a Dust Devil from swallowing a pony?” Pear asks flatly.

”We… Uh… Maybe with some rope we could…?”

Fruit falters. Her gaze lowers, ears folded back. Pear sighs.

”I’m sorry, private, but I can’t endanger dozens of civilians to maybe save one Royal Guard. It may sound harsh, but it’s the Guard’s job to keep everypony else safe. If that means risking one Guard to protect dozens of others, then... so be it.”

Fruit looks towards me. Golden eyes blinking back tears.



I want to look away. I feel like a mule for what I'm about to say, but it can’t be helped. I force myself to return her gaze.

“I think the sheriff’s right. We don’t know what we’re up against. And what little we do know we still can’t fight. It isn’t right, sending civilians out there. Even if it’s to save a fellow Guard.”

She shuts her eyes. But not fast enough; I saw the pain and betrayal in them.

“Listen, we can still look for Glacier,” I promise. “If you want, the two of us can keep searching. Maybe Pear can even spare some of his deputies to come help - they’re not Royal Guard, but they’re not exactly civilians either.”

I gently press a hoof to her shoulder.

“We’re not giving up, ok? This is just… a delay.”

I know how hollow the reassurance must sound. Fruit Punch is a medic. She knows how quickly dehydration can set in. Without a source of fresh water, the sergeant may only have hours left. Assuming she’s even lasted this long. We just have to hope that our Parks and Wilderness Guard veteran is as hardy as reputation makes them out to be.

The front door bell jingles. I look up to see another search team has returned. I count them quickly. Thankfully, nopony is missing. None of them seem to be hurt, either. That's about as much as we could hope for.

The ponies are as hot and sweaty as I’d expect after trudging through the desert for hours. They immediately stumble into some empty seats, grateful for the shade and a chance to rest their hooves. The proprietor emerges, a tray of cool drinks on his back.

One of the volunteers - a copper coated mare named Bright Vein - gives us an exhausted wave.

”Hey, - huff - Rose. What’s with the - huff - smoke? Did did you - huff - find her?”

I shake my head.

“No such luck. We’ve got some new information you all need to hear. But it can wait - you go ahead and rest up.”

She nods, too busy downing her drink to answer. The group begins unslinging their saddlebags and shaking the sand from their coats.

Pear wearily gets to his hooves.

”Guess I’ll go tell the other teams to start packing up. No need to keep them away from their jobs and families longer than need be.”


Fruit puts a hoof on his shoulder.

”You were right before. It is a Guard’s job to keep civilians safe.”

Her voice has steadied.

”But it’s a pony’s duty to help those in need. Especially their friends.”

Pear wearily shakes his head.

”Private, it’s not your call to-”

”I know. But it’s not your call, either. It’s theirs.”

She stands, face to face with the sheriff.

”I’m going to tell everypony the truth. The whole truth. About the dangers, about my screw ups, everything. They deserve to know. And then, they deserve to make their own decisions.”

She smiles softly.

”Princess Twilight once told our class, ‘You should never deny a pony a chance to do the right thing.’” I believe in these ponies. Whatever choice they make, leave or stay, I’ll believe it’s the right one.”

”What’s this about a choice?” Bright Vein pipes up, looking over from her table. “And dangerous screw ups?”

Prickly Pear scowls.

”We’re talking about a lot more than denying a chance to help. You really want to invite civilians back out into that?”

Despite his huffing, I can tell he’s conflicted. He glances over to me, wordlessly asking my opinion.

I grin at Fruit Punch, feeling kinda proud of the little filly.

“Well, it’s not like we can stop them if they choose to stay.”

Her whole face lights up in a smile.

”Hmph. I could have them all arrested,” Pear mutters.

I chuckle.

”No, seriously, what’s this about being arrested?” Vein insists.

Just then, the front door jingles open. Conversation cease as all eyes turn to the gleaming figure in the doorway. And then up, following the massive spear resting against her shoulder.

The large pegasus steps into the room, wooden floorboards groaning beneath her armoured weight. She turns to our table.

”Private Punch? I’ve been looking for you.”

Chapter 17 - At rest

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Maps in the sand. Looming mountains. Dark tunnels. Friends. Monsters.

Thoughts and memories drift in and out, blurring together. My mind is sluggish. Lethargic. But refuses to stop spinning.

The last few days’ events play out over and over again. I think of all the ways things could have gone differently. I think of all the ways things can still go wrong. What if this plan of mine is another mistake? What if I’ve overlooked something important? What if we run out of water? What if my injured leg gets infected? What if Anon is wrong? Or worse, what if he’s right? What if...? What if…? What if…?

With a grunt, I roll over onto my other side. I am Glacier, and I am not sleeping well.

The cool, rough stone of the tunnel brushes against my fur. I screw my eyes shut, trying to keep out the dim orange light permeating the cave. No matter how much I toss and turn, my mind keeps going back to that map.

Anon had sketched a rough outline of the Badlands and Southern Equestria, using the sandy floor of his camp as a canvas. He’d consulted my paper map initially, but soon started adding his own details. Hills. Canyons. Landmarks he’d seen in his travels. But what really caught my attention was the narrow gap he’d left in the mountains, seemingly connecting Equestria to the Badlands. If such a gap existed, then we were as good as rescued! The opening couldn’t have been more than a day’s journey away. Once we were on the far side of the mountains, my signal flares would be visible for miles. Probably all the way from Hoofrest. And even without flares, if we were careful with our water then we should be able to make it back on hoof.

It had seemed almost too good to be true. I frowned at the map, suspicious.

“How is there a gap in the mountains so close to town, yet nopony’s noticed it before?”

I was really just wondering out loud. Anon certainly couldn’t have understood my question. But I must have sounded sufficiently sceptical, as he hurriedly adjusted the map, filling in the gap and replacing it with a dotted line. Which… didn’t really clarify things. At all.

In the end, the two of us spent a good few hours figuring out how to clarify things. For every question I wanted to ask, and every answer Anon wanted to give, we'd need to explain three or four other concepts first. We ended up using a combination of charades and pictures scribbled in the sand. It turned out to be surprisingly effective. (And even kinda fun!) We picked up quite a few new words this way. Though it certainly wasn’t reliable. We often had to draw the same thing multiple times, in multiple different ways, before our partner got it. And even then we couldn’t be totally sure the other had understood. More than once we’d misinterpreted a word but didn’t realise it immediately, leading to much confusion later on.

While this process was occasionally frustrating, it eventually produced enough answers to satisfy me. Long story short: that route Anon had drawn through the mountains? Turns it out it doesn’t go over them.

It seems he’d stumbled upon a cave or tunnel entrance around the lower slopes. It connects to a whole maze of underground passages, eventually exiting into some sort of abandoned camp on the other side of the mountain. Given that Anon found his “Hoofrest Mining Co” canteen there, I suspect this is the old mine that Ms Miles mentioned. Whatever it is, it’s certainly worth investigating. Anon seemed to think there could be more supplies there. But more importantly, the camp connects to a path leading back down to Equestria. By his account, it’s not an easy path. It zigzags down the mountainside, through some pretty difficult terrain. It likely hasn’t been maintained in decades. But it’s surely safer than trying to cross the mountains anywhere else.

This could be our ticket out of here! I don’t mind a bit of climbing. And if Anon can manage the trail, then so can I.

Unfortunately, mountaineering may be the least of our worries. It seems Anon had a few… interesting encounters in the area.

The first was an unusual bout of sandstorms. He’d been wandering the Badlands, near the Macintosh foothills, when a sudden storm came out of nowhere. I’d grimaced as he relayed the all-too-familiar tale. Suffocating darkness, deafening winds, stinging hail. But curiously, when the dust settled, there was no mention of Anon finding himself displaced. He continued the tale as though nothing was amiss. Interrupting, I'd tried to question him about it. Though it was hard to phrase the question without sounding crazy. “Hey, are you sure that storm didn’t magically teleport you somewhere?” I only got confused looks and shakes of his head in response, so I let the matter drop. But that wasn’t the strangest part of his story.

After the whirlwind had subsided, Anon resumed his travels, thinking nothing of it. Only to be hit by another storm minutes later. And when that passed, a third after that. They’d burst into life, rage and roar, then vanish without a trace. No storm clouds. No breeze. Nothing.

Well, almost nothing. When the storms finally seemed to have given up for good, Anon noticed a figure in the distance, further up the slope. What kind of figure, he couldn’t say. He’d tried to follow it, but quickly lost sight of it among the rocks. And that’s when he found the mine.

Anon entered it cautiously, assuming the figure had fled inside. He never saw the figure again, though he did eventually find the exit on the northern side. It was there, in Equestria, that he had his second encounter. After exploring the old camp near the exit, he took the mountain path down into the desert. And that’s where he ran into a pair of earth ponies.

Looking rather apologetic, Anon sketched himself trying (and failing, he stressed) to throw a spear at them. I’d smirked at the crude stick-ponies fleeing stick-Anon. I'm pretty sure I was looking at Sandy Miles and Tumbleweed’s encounter with the “Shadow Monster”.

Sandy had mentioned something crashing into the ground behind her. If my suspicions are correct, it was likely Anon’s spear just barely missing her, and hitting the dirt nearby. A pity they didn’t stop to look more closely. If they’d seen him using weapons, they might have tried to talk to him. I suspect Anon wouldn’t have hurt them if he’d realised they’re people, too. This whole thing could have been resolved weeks ago.

Of course, I can’t really blame them for running away in panic. I did the exact same thing when Anon nearly speared me.

He’s got a scary amount of range with that weapon. Ponies don’t really use thrown weapons all that much - don’t have the body structure for it. But even a minotaur would struggle to reach me at the distance Anon was throwing. Perhaps it’s those long noodle arms of his. Whatever the case, I'm just glad he keeps missing!

The final encounter Anon related was clearly the most unpleasant. I'm still no expert on human expressions, but Anon’s mood seemed to darken as the story went on. Though there wasn’t really much to it.

Anon had returned to the buildings around the mine entrance. Searching for supplies, maybe. He heard noises coming from the tunnel. Went to investigate. In the darkness, something attacked him. Something big. Tore up his left arm pretty bad. He managed to escape, fleeing into the tunnels. Somehow ended up stumbling back out into the Badlands.

I’d seen the wounds on his arm this morning. Whatever claws or fangs caused them must have been pretty large. Even now, after healing for weeks, the injury still looks painful.

Anon didn’t go into details, but I can imagine how rough those next few days must have been. No painkillers, no antiseptic, no bandages other than shredded cloth. And all this on top of the daily struggle just to survive in this blasted desert. It’s honestly impressive that he’s still alive. Let alone managed to recover. Either humans are tough bastards, or he’s just damn lucky.

There was a moment of silence after he'd finished his story.

I felt I ought to say something, but I didn't know how or what.

Eventually, to our mutual surprise, I found myself leaning over and giving him a hug. I'm not really the touchy-feely type. But it just seemed like the right thing to do. The poor guy had been through a lot. Had been alone for a long time.

(And Celestia knows I could do with a good hug, too.)

He’d stiffened at the unexpected contact. Then, slowly, relaxed against me. One arm wrapped around my back. Holding me tight. Another pressed against my neck. His hand gently stroking my mane.

The silly human just loves petting my mane.

I let him.

Afterwards, it didn’t take long to put together a plan. We're both still apprehensive about Dust Devils and monsters in the dark. But we can’t stay here forever.

It’s only a matter of time until a Dust Devil strikes again, dragging one of us off to who knows where. Or we run into some even nastier predator out in the wastes. Or a simple cut gets infected and somepony end up losing a leg. Better to take our chances now, while we’re still relatively healthy, than wait for a rescue which may never come.

Anon didn’t take much convincing. He’s even more sick of this place than I am. Of course, if I were lost in a foreign land, I’d also be keen to reach civilisation. He’s probably hoping Equestria will have some clues as to the whereabouts of his people. Though first we’ll have to convince everypony he’s not a pony-eating monster.

Hmm. Y’know, it’s funny. Thinking back on it, I’d just automatically assumed we’d be travelling together. The thought of leaving him behind never even crossed my mind.

Sure, I'm still under orders to flee the big scary human and report back to the Princesses. But I'm in no condition to flee. And even if I could ditch him, I'm not sure I’d want to. Anon’s been a kind and welcome companion. (Attempts on my life notwithstanding.) Even if he is some legendary spooky monster, I feel a sense of kinship. I want to help him, if I can. If that means disobeying orders… Well, it’s not like I can report his existence if I don’t make it back alive. And since travelling with Anon is my best bet of doing just that… Really, my hooves are tied. Such a shame.

I chuckle quietly to myself. Aaand immediately regret it. That tiny amount of physical activity is all it takes to wake the rest of my body up. No way am I gonna be able to fall asleep now.

With a sigh, I sit up, blinking heavily.

I’ve been lying in the pool cave, near the water’s edge. Judging by the dwindling orange light, it must be getting close to sunset.

Anon and I had agreed to get some sleep, saving our energy for the upcoming journey. Though the heat of the afternoon quickly drove me into the cooler caves below.

That crazy human had elected to stay up top. Madness!

But honestly, I haven't had much luck sleeping down here either. The stone floor isn’t exactly comfortable. And my stupid brain just won’t shut up.

Oh well. Now that I'm up, I may as well get a drink. With a lazy stretch, I start climbing.

I emerge into the dusty stone bowl that is Anon’s camp. It’s noticeably hotter up here, but at least the high walls keep the sun out. I tiptoe up the last few steps, not wanting to wake Anon. But it looks like sleep’s eluded him, too.

The human's sprawled out on his grass-and-leaves bed, with his head and shoulders resting upright against the wall. His eyes are half closed, though as I enter he gives a weary wave in my direction.

”No sleep?”

(He’s getting good at asking simple yes/no questions.)

“No sleep,” I agree, waving back.

I fill a clay cup full of water. Then, on a whim, fill a second and take it over to him. He accepts it with a thankful nod.

I sit down next to him, leaning against the wall. If I'm going to fail to sleep, I might as well do it with some company.

The two of us sip our drinks in silence.

The heavy afternoon heat slowly permeates through me. My coat is sticky with sweat where it presses against the wall and floor. I consider doing something about it, but simply don’t have the energy.

Minutes crawl by.

Anon idly fiddles with a bit of twig. Rolling it around between his fingers.

Now and again a fly buzzes over. I half-heartedly flick it away with my tail.

At one point I hear the call of some desert bird, far off in the distance. I wonder what kind it is.


I blink. Look over to Anon.

He has a familiar expression of thoughtfulness on his face. It usually means he’s trying to find the right words to ask a question. Eventually he leans over to where my saddlebags are stowed. Grabs my map from within, and sets it down between us.

Gesturing to it, he asks “Gray?”

I'm not really sure what he’s asking. Confused, I tap the area of the Badlands where the two of us currently are. Anon shakes his head, thoughtful look returning. With one arm, he covers up the Badlands. And with the other, gestures to the rest Equestria.

“Where am I… in Equestria…?” I wonder out loud.

I still don’t get it. I shake my head at him.

With a “Hrmm”, Anon sets the map aside, clearing a patch of sand between us. After a moment of thinking, he starts drawing.

Stick Glacier and Stick Anon. I recognize them easily.

”Gray. Anon,” I say out loud.

Anon nods. Then, a little to the left of them, he draws another Stick Glacier. Or at least a stick unicorn. This one’s a little smaller than the other, and there’s no sign of Stick Anon.

”Gray,” he says, gesturing at her.

Ok. Still not sure where he’s going with this.

Once again, further left of the other pictures, he draws an even smaller stick unicorn. Filly Glacier?

”Gray,” he confirms.

Tapping the filly, he pulls back the map and once again gestures at Equestria.


Ah. I think I get it. He wants to know where I come from. Where Filly Glacier comes from.

I smooth out the sand above the top of the map (which only shows Southern Equestria), and start drawing. Northern Equestria. The Crystal Empire. Yakyakistan. It’s not the most accurate map in the world, but Anon won’t know the difference. I finish by adding a little Stickfilly Glacier, peeking out between the mountains bordering the three countries.


As soon as I say it, I'm struck by a wave of homesickness. Memories of childhood come to mind, unbidden.

Crisp, bracing winds. Snow laden pines. Heavy boots, and warm scarves. Hot drinks by the fire. Friends. Family.

With a sigh, I lower my head. Feeling further from home than ever.

A warm hand presses gently against my shoulder. I lean into it, giving Anon a tired smile. He must be getting better at reading my mood. I'm glad he's here with me.

And really, I shouldn’t be the one moping. At least I know where my family is. Pushing my self-pity aside, I turn to focus on my companion.

“Anon home?”

He shrugs, expression turning downcast. Pushing aside the map and smoothing out the sand, he begins drawing a collection of squiggly shapes. Too varied in size to be writing. Perhaps another map. Those could be islands, or even continents. When he’s finished, he adds a little Stick Anon to one of the land masses.


I don’t recognise any of it. Wherever he’s from, it’s nowhere near Equestria.

Judging by his expression, he already knows.

I place a hoof on his shoulder. Neither of us speak much after that.

As the afternoon slowly turns into evening, the two of us finally drift off to sleep, side by side.

Chapter 18 - Harmony

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The large mare in gleaming armour accepts my proffered drink gratefully. She slips her helmet off with a golden wing. A short ponytail tumbles out, a few loose strands matted to her forehead. She’s puffing slightly, rosy cheeked, but her expression is composed and professional.

She raises the glass, nodding to me in thanks. Then, with a wink, upends it all over her face.


I dart back as water splashes off the mare, a few stray drops landing on my muzzle. By now, everypony in the Hoofrest eatery is openly staring.

”Phew! Sorry about that,” the mare grins through sodden bangs. “I’ve been flying back and forth all morning. It’s like a desert out there!”

A few ponies around the room chuckle weakly. Dusty Rose lets out an unladylike snort, while Prickly Pear simply raises an eyebrow.

“It’s, er. It’s fine! Totally fine!”

I am Fruit Punch, and no amount of water can dampen my spirits. The Guard are finally here!

(Well, ok, more of the Guard. Not just me anymore.) Finally, somepony more senior can take over! Judging by her rather abused-looking armour and peculiar, oversized spear, I'm guessing that she’s another Parks and Wilderness veteran. The PWG are sure to know how to find Glacier! But, er…

Where’s the rest of them?

The yellow pegasus - a corporal, from her insignia - seems to have flown in by herself. Glancing out the window, I see no sign of any other guardsponies. She can’t be my only reinforcement, right?

The mare flips her damp mane aside with a hoof. A professional expression settles back into place, unfazed by the water still dripping from her muzzle

”Now, what was I saying? Right, I’m Corporal Trail, with Parks and Wilderness. I’m told you’re in charge of the search efforts?”

I give a hesitant nod.

“Jointly,” I concede. “Along with Sheriff Pear and Mrs Rose, here.”

I gesture to the two ponies still sitting nearby. They give a polite nod and smile, respectively.

“Would you like a seat, or…?”

”Thanks, but we need to get going.”

I blink in surprise.


”Yep. You and me. My unit’s kinda flying blind at the moment. We need somepony to bring us up to speed before we move out. If the two of you,” she nods to Rose and Pear, “wouldn’t mind holding down the fort for a few hours, we’ll be on our way.”

Pear opens his mouth to answer, but Rose beats him to it.

”Hold up now, corporal. Where’s the rest of your unit? If you’re intending to fly back, I’m afraid Punch is in no condition to join you.”

Trail looks at me in surprise. I sheepishly raise my bandaged wing, dark purple feathers peeping through the white fabric. The pegasus winces in sympathy.

”Ouch. Sorry, didn’t see that.”

She frowns.

”Yeah, that complicates things. My unit’s all the way back at - well, hopeful Tranquility Springs by now. We’d just gotten off the train at Appleoosa this morning when some colt ran up to us, carrying an SOS from the good sheriff here.”

She nods to Prickly Pear.

”I’ve been sent ahead to gather as much intel as I can before they leave Tranquility. So I’m kinda on the clock. Hrmm…”

She glances around the room. The cosy little restaurant is almost overflowing with earth ponies, and even a few unicorns. But, other than the two of us, there are no pegasi.

The corporal hesitates, a thoughtful expression clouding her face. She ruffles her wings a few times, before eventually turning back to me.

”...Alright. You’d better just fill me in on what’s been happening. But, uh. Keep it short? I need to head back ASAP. And - more importantly - I’ve gotta remember it all.”

She flashes a weary grin.

”Mind if I take that seat now?”

I do my best to condense the events of the last few days into a five minute summary. Rose and Pear chime in occasionally, adding a few missing details. The corporal looks mildly surprised by our tale of Dust Devils and Sand Witches, but doesn’t interrupt. She’s not the only one surprised, however. The other ponies sitting nearby can’t help but overhear. By the time we’ve finished, the room is full of whispered conversations and questioning looks.

I’d already planned on telling everypony all this. But I’d hoped to break it to them more… delicately. Hearing it like this - rushed, incomplete, and not even addressed to them - is far from ideal. But we don’t have the luxury of time right now. It’s been twenty four hours since Glacier vanished; even if she’s safe, she must have run out of water by now. The sooner Trail leaves, the sooner the search can resume.

And I'm certainly not going to hide anything from these ponies a second time. I’ve made that mistake once already. So I swallow my pride. Tell the whole truth. And resign myself to being despised by the residents of Tranquility Springs.

”Well,” says Trail as I finish. “That’s… quite the adventure. Also somewhat concerning.”

Then she blinks. Looks around, noticing the many eyes and ears still pointed in her direction.

”But, er, we’ll figure something out, no worries! Glace- er, Sergeant Glacier’s a smart pony. She’ll be fine!”

A confident smile settles on her face. I return a hopeful one of my own.

“Yeah. I’m sure you’re right.”

(I say this as much for my own reassurance as for the ponies around me.)

”Anyway, I’d best get going,” Trail announces, rising from her seat.

Quick goodbyes are shared, and I soon find myself escorting the pegasus back out into the burning sun. Despite the intense heat of the afternoon, it somehow feels less oppressive out here.

I see the final search party is just now returning, wearily trotting down the main street. No Glacier with them, of course. But at least they all seem to be accounted for. We exchange tired waves as they pass, their eyes lingering curiously on Trail.

“My unit and I should be back in a few hours,” Trail is saying, replacing her helmet. “Now I’m just a corporal, but for what it’s worth, I think you’re doing the right thing by pulling the civilians out. Glacier wouldn’t want anypony taking unnecessary risks for her. Heh. Just imagine if she managed to get back on her own, only to find we'd lost some other pony, and now we had to send her out to search for them!”

She chuckles, shaking her head.

”If that happened to a civilian, she’d be livid. No, best to just sit tight until the professionals get here.”

“Yeah, I suppose,” I agree halfheartedly.

She turns to leave, yellow wings extending.

”Alright. See you in a few hours. Keep your chin up, kid.”

“I’ll try. And you keep an eye out on your way back. Last thing I need is another PWG getting Dust Devil’d.”

”Ha, it’d have to catch me first!” she smirks.

Then, with a blast of her wings, she’s gone.

I watch her for a few moments. A golden smudge against the dazzling blue sky, steadily receding.

After a full minute has passed and no Dust Devil has appeared to gobble her up, I reluctantly turn away. Time to face the music.

The music sounds like a lot of ponies arguing. Loudly.

I push the door open. The hinges squeak softly, but it’s somehow loud enough to cut through the din. Every conversation stops all at once.

I step inside. Twenty pairs of eyes fix on me.

I see Dusty Rose and Prickly Pear have risen from their seats. Most of the search team has also risen, and are crowding around them. For a split second panic grips me. It looks like the group has turned hostile, angrily mobbing my friends. But no. A quick glance at their expressions is enough to reassure me. There’s indignation, sure. As well as surprise, confusion, and concern. But no real anger. At least, not yet.

Drawing a breath, I march forward through the crowd. The ponies part to allow me through. My steps are measured and precise. My face a careful mask of confidence I don’t feel, and contrition I do.

I take my place beside Dusty and the sheriff, and face the assembled ponies. For a moment, nopony says anything. Hooves shuffle. Somepony coughs. Then:

“So, is it true? About the Dust Devils and Sand Witch being real?”

The dam breaks. Dozens of questions spill out all at once. Ponies are quickly shouting over each other.

I hold up a hoof. The golden hoofguard gleams as it catches the light. Silence descends with gratifying speed. (I've always been good with crowds.)

“Thank you, everypony. I’ll answer your questions one at a time, but first please let me give you a proper explanation.”

The group eyes me expectantly. A quick whisper here or there, but nopony interrupts. I feel myself sweating beneath their collective gaze. It takes some effort to keep my voice and expression under control.

“The truth is: yes, Dust Devils are real. And what’s more, we seem to have stirred them up somehow. I’ve personally seen three of them in just the last four days. It was one of these which caused Sergeant Glacier to disappear.”

More whispering. A few older ponies (and Sandy Miles) nod knowingly.

“We don’t know if this is some natural, random process, or if they’re somehow being directed. But there have been sightings of what could be the Sand Witch, coinciding with the Dust Devil attacks.”

This causes an even greater stir. Nearly everypony breaks into not-so-hushed whispering. I hear “Witch” and “Her” muttered repeatedly. After a few moments I hold up my hoof again.

“I should stress that this Sand Witch stuff is still only speculation. We’ve seen some strange figures in the distance, but we have no idea if they’re related to the Dust Devils, or if they’re even hostile. Still, just to be on the safe side, we’ve decided to pause the search for a few hours. Just until the rest of the Royal Guard reinforcements arrive.”

The crowd looks relieved at the mention of reinforcements. But I still owe them an explanation. Best to just get this over with.

I clear my throat.

“The reason we didn't tell you any of this before now is, well…”

I shrug.

“Frankly, we weren’t sure ourselves. For my part, I’m still a complete rookie when it comes to the desert. For all I knew, those first two Dust Devils could just have been regular sandstorms. We only really confirmed the Dust Devils’ existence in the last hour. Same with the Sand Witch - we only started to seriously suspect Her recently.

“But…” I sigh. This is where it gets tough. “That’s not a good enough excuse. We should have told you everything this morning. Let you make your own decisions about the risk. But… We were afraid of scaring you off. Of causing “unnecessary” panic. So we… we kept some details from you. We lied.”

Burning cheeks. Poison in my veins. Shame and regret seep through me, dizzying, nauseating. I push through it. Force myself to tell the whole truth, even if I can no longer meet their eyes.

“And, and then there was that whole thing about me being a Parks and Wilderness monster hunter. That was just a stupid, stupid misunderstanding I should have cleared up right away, but I, I didn’t want to undermine your confidence in the expedition, and I…”

I stop. Take a deep breath.

“I’m sorry. You deserved to know what you were getting into, and I let you down. It’s my fault and I-”

”Ok, that’s enough.”

Prickly Pear steps forward, voice clear and commanding. I raise my head, turning to him in surprise. I'm not the only one - every eye in the room is now squarely on the sheriff. Even without his hat, he seems taller somehow.

”Listen up, everypony. Fact of the matter is, it wasn’t Private Punch who wanted to keep this stuff from y’all. It was me.”


My confused stammer is drowned out by the crowd’s. Pear continues on regardless.

“Punch and Dusty here both tried to warn me about all sorts o’ dangers out in the desert. Dust Devils and sand monsters and whatnot. But y’all know how much of a stubborn fool I can be.”

There’s a few chuckles and eye rolls among the crowd, and a muttered “Damn straight” from Rose.

”I refused to believe a word of it, naturally. So when I explained the situation to y’all this morning, I was the one who chose to leave out those details. Of course, Punch is completely right - I shouldn’ta been making that kinda decision for you. I’m-”

He reaches up to take off his hat. Remembers he lost it in the Dust Devil. Continues on, looking slightly awkward.

”I’m mighty sorry for putting y’all in danger you didn’t sign up for. And I’m just glad none of you ended up paying for my mistake.”

He gives me a sidelong glance.

”This one’s on me, fair and square.”

Well. So much for my carefully controlled expression. My jaw has long since hit the floor.

Surprise and gratitude play out openly on my face. As much as I try to get along with everypony I meet, the sheriff has always seemed rather… Well, Prickly. I’d wondered if I’d offended him somehow when we first met. Or perhaps he simply resented me for all the hassle my presence had caused. Whatever the case, I certainly wasn’t expecting him to stand up for me like this.

I'm still not sure what to say when I hear a sigh to my left. Dusty Rose steps forward. Her expression is resigned, but I can just make out a faint smile tugging at her lips.

”Sorry sheriff, but I can’t let you take all the credit. I was right there with you when you skimmed over the important bits, and I kept my mouth shut too. Hell, I approved. Ugh, guess I reverted to my old Guard habits, huh? Keeping things on a need-to-know basis.”

She turns to face the crowd.

”We all screwed up, and we’re all very sorry for it.”

Leaning towards me slightly, she adds in a lower voice:

”And I'm especially sorry to you. Some role model I’ve been, huh?”

“It’s ok,” I croak quietly, blinking away tears. I’d like to give the mare a big hug to show there’s no hard feelings, but I'm kinda still in the middle of a public apology. I settle for gently bumping shoulders with her.

I feel some of the stress from earlier leaving me. Whatever happens, these two ponies are on my side. That's enough to keep me going. I address the crowd again. Time to see what the damage is.

“So… Now that you know everything, we’ll understand if any of you want to return home. None of you signed up for this kind of danger. And, honestly, the Royal Guard might end up sending you home anyway. Plus, I know I wouldn’t want to work with somepony who’d just lied to me, so-”

There’s a snort from the back of the crowd.

”Aww, come now filly, don’t be so big headed.”

An older mare with a fading red coat waves a hoof in my direction.

“Just cause y’all done goofed don’t mean that mare out there needs any less rescuin’.”

A few ponies in the crowd nod. I squint a bit, trying to figure out what the hell she just said beneath all that accent.

”Now, don’tcha get me wrong. Ain’t none too happy ‘bout this all hush-hush busin’ss. But we’s all knew the desert was full of dangers when we’s signed up. Jus’ tell us these things straight in future and y’all can avoid wastin’ e’ryponies’ time with these long-winded confessionals.”

The crowd seems to agree, nodding and “Eyup”ing. I'm still struggling to understand what they're agreeing with.

”To be fair,” notes a grey stallion in a far more parsable dialect, “even if they’d told us everything this morning, most of us probably wouldn’t have believed them. I mean, yikes, Sand Witches? Really?”

More murmurs of agreement (and an “I’d believe them!” from Sandy Miles). After a moment the stallion continues, a little awkward now that he’s the centre of attention.

”Er, what I mean is, I guess I can see where they were coming from? And I’m not saying they shouldn’t have told us everything, but I don’t see how it would have made much difference either way?”

”And, hey,” chirps Sandy, waving to me. “You’d already had, like, a super rough day yesterday, right? What with losing your friend and getting your wing banged up? And then, today, waking up at like five in the morning? You should cut yourself some slack! Anypony would be a mess after that!”

She blinks.

”Uhh, n-not that I’m calling you a hot mess or anything!”

Several ponies chuckle, while Rose just rolls her eyes.

”Thank you, sweetie.”

The tension in the room seemed to ease after that. I still felt the urge to apologise every other sentence. And perhaps the search team were a little more sceptical of me now. But it no longer felt like I was standing trial. I was able to talk with these ponies once again.

There were still a few matters to clear up. The crowd had more questions for me, but they were no longer accusatory. Everypony wanted to get back to planning and cooperating. Back to working together in harmony.

To my surprise and delight, not a single pony ended up leaving. There were certainly apprehensions about going back into the desert. Especially among those with family or jobs depending on them back home. I assured them all that there’d be no hard feelings if they decided they couldn’t take the risk. Rose helpfully added that there were still plenty of ways they could help the search team without venturing into the desert.

In the end, everypony agreed to wait at least until the Royal Guard arrived. A few said that, regretfully, they’d be returning to Tranquility Springs afterwards. But they’d also promised to pass along any messages, or even return with supplies the next day. The rest of the team would wait here for the Guard’s verdict.

This all required a surprising amount of preparation. True, we weren’t organising any further expeditions just yet. But we still had nearly two dozen ponies to house, in a town with barely that many houses. That wouldn’t have been too difficult on its own - the folk of Hoofrest are wonderfully hospitable - but we also had to factor in Corporal Trail’s PWG unit. Which we still didn’t know the size of, or if they'd made their own arrangements. Then there were the meals to cook, water barrels to refill, minor injuries to treat, hats to replace (Sandy was most understanding), and a seemingly endless stream of small but important tasks.

Prickly and Rose took care of most of this. I’d tried to keep up, I really did. But all the physical and mental stress of the last few days was starting to take its toll. After noticing me stumbling over my own hooves for the fifth time, Rose marched me straight into a back room and ordered me to take a nap.

I’d intended to argue with her. But somehow, laying my head down for just a moment seems to have caused time to skip ahead.

It’s darker now. Quieter.

Lifting my heavy head, I see no sign of Rose. I do admittedly feel much better. Though I could probably keep sleeping all week.

At first, I'm not sure what woke me up. But then my ear flicks - did somepony just say my name?

A babble of voices and shuffling hooves drift down the corridor to my room, muffled by the door. Sounds like something’s happening.

With an effort, I force myself to sit up. Sleeping in armour is never fun but, like most guards, I’ve had plenty of practice. I spare a few moments to tidy my mane and find my helmet (it had rolled into a corner). Then, yawning, I head back to the main room. The job waits for nopony.

Nearly a dozen gold-clad guards dominate the café. Axes, halberds, and all sorts of large, peculiar weapons protrude from their backs, while bulging saddlebags are strapped to their sides. Reinforcements!

It looks like they’ve just arrived. The guards are in the process of removing their packs, while the wait staff are busily passing around cool drinks. I spot a familiar looking corporal among them, empty glass in hoof, mane suspiciously wet.

I stare at her blearily for a moment, brain still waking up. She quickly notices me and gives me a wave.

”Ah, there she is! Hi, Punch! Whistler, go get the sergeant, will you?”

One of the other guards nods and heads outside. Corporal Trail finishes shucking her pack and trots over to me (dripping water all the while).

”Hey, so, uh, we might have a bit of a problem,” she says through a strained smile.

I manage a blink in response.

”You remember that Sand Witch you told me about earlier? You didn’t mention that she’s an alicorn.”

Chapter 19 - Starlight

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This is nice.

The sand crunches beneath my hooves. Stars twinkle overhead. Cool night air fills my lungs, carrying the reassuring scent of my companion.

I am Sergeant Glacier, and I am enjoying this.

I was so busy last night - what with all the running and fighting and nearly dying - that I didn’t get a chance to properly appreciate the moonlit desert. During the day, this place is overwhelming. It leaves me feeling blind, dizzy, and smothered. But at night, with the light and heat drained away, I find myself exploring a tranquil dreamscape.

Beyond the light of my horn, the world fades to streaks of grey and black. No colours. No depth. No movement. Just a silent, surreal vastness. It's oddly beautiful. With the cold air nipping at my ears, and the powdery sand underhoof, I can almost imagine myself back home. Trekking through some midnight snowfield.

Of course, back home I never went for a stroll with a towering, skeletal monstrosity. The human, peculiar at the best of times, looks downright alien in the gloom. And to make the whole scene even more bizarre, the terrifying monster of legend is currently whistling.

It’s actually pretty catchy.

I shake my head at the weirdness that is my life. But I'm smiling all the same.

Funny how things can change so much in the span of a day. Yesterday, I spent the evening running in terror from Anon. Today, I spent the evening sleeping with him.

Ahem. Next to him. I spent the evening sleeping next to him. Admittedly, the two of us were a bit… entangled by the time we woke up. But we were probably just, er, trying to stay warm. Deserts get cold at night, everypony knows that!

Well, anyway, the two of us awoke about an hour after sunset. After a quick breakfast (dinner?) of leftover sandipede and the last of Anon’s fruits, we packed our things and set off. By that time, it really was starting to get cold. We were both glad to be walking. Or in my case, hobbling.

It’s been barely 24 hours since the sandipede bit a chunk out of me. Even with medication, my back leg is still swollen and painful. I really shouldn’t be walking on it for at least a few days. But I don’t have much of a choice.

I’ve found I can just about manage to limp along with minimal discomfort so long as I'm not carrying anything. Thus my armour and saddlebags are all floating along beside me, suspended in a green glow. Anon, meanwhile, is hauling a pair of heavy water jars, dangling in simple rope slings I fashioned for him. They’re glowing faintly, too: I'm partially levitating the jars, making them just a little lighter. Anon shouldn’t have to carry all our supplies by himself.

It’s hard to tell how long we’ve been travelling like this. A few hours, at least. Time and distance have all sort of blurred together. It's like moving through a dream. Still, as far as dreams go, this is a pleasant one.

I start whistling, too.

The tunnel entrance yawns before us. An even deeper darkness against the shadowy cliffs.

I was expecting something a bit more… conspicuous. Maybe some wooden scaffolding, some old mine carts, or a big “Keep Out” sign. Instead there’s simply a low, triangular gap between the cliffs and a protruding boulder. No fanfare; just another notch in the hillside.

I’ve no idea how Anon managed to find this place in the dark. It’s completely hidden among the steep ridges and foothills at the base of the mountains. Was there some landmark he’s been following? Well, however he managed it, we’re here now. Time to get this over with.



Neither of us make a move.

I glance over at Anon. It’s hard to make out his expression in the dark. But I don’t imagine he’s happy to be back here. His last journey through these tunnels nearly cost him his arm. And I'm not exactly thrilled about it, either. Sure, I’d rather be travelling through a nice, cool tunnel than risk another day in the desert. But after yesterday’s encounter with the sandipede, I'm a little nervous about dark, confined spaces.

I suppress a shudder at the memory. Perhaps I’d be better off wearing my armour after all.

I set my gear down and begin putting it on piece by piece. Anon takes a seat beside me, probably glad for the delay.

We end up spending nearly an hour outside the cave. Neither of us are in a hurry to start the next leg of our journey. And the previous one has left us tired and hungry.

We’ve got plenty of water, thankfully. But not much food. Anon brought the very last of his supplies with him: some sort of pale root vegetable he'd had stored in a jar. He offered to share it with me, but I declined. I reasoned that I can subsist on the few bushes around here, whereas Anon can’t. The vegetation has been slowly increasing as we neared the mountains. Tough, spindly desert shrubs for the most part. Unpleasant, but better than nothing.

While sitting there munching on a few tasteless leaves, a thought occurs to me.

“Hey, Anon. How did you manage to see inside the mine?”

He raises an eyebrow at me. A brief game of charades follows. We’ve both gotten pretty good at it, so it only takes a few minutes to get the idea across. Anon answers with charades of his own. He gestures to the cave a few times, and then to... some rocks on the ground? I'm not really sure what that’s supposed to mean.

At length he seems to change tack, pointing to my horn and waving his arms. Seriously, I have no idea what he's trying to say. (So much for being good at charades.)

I give him a flat look. With a roll of his eyes, he stops gesturing, and clears a space on the ground. He then scribbles a familiar stick-Glacier, with little lines emanating from her horn.

Ok. Something about my magic?

After making sure I'm watching, he carefully erases the lines. Then gestures to me.

He… wants me to stop using magic? Okaaay…

I slowly dim my horn, watching his reaction. He nods in encouragement, so I let the light spell drop entirely. For a few moments I just sit there, blind, waiting for things to make sense. My eyes eventually adjust to the darkness. I can vaguely make out the shape of Anon in front of me. (His silhouette is still creepy.) He seems to be gesturing towards the cave. I turn to look. And to my surprise, there’s actually light coming from it!

Just a few tiny pinpricks, twinkling faintly. Like stars peeping through a mist. They’re so dim I wouldn’t have noticed them while my horn was lit up.


I take a few cautious steps towards the cave. At the threshold I briefly pause, lighting my horn just enough to check for sandipedes. Satisfied, I dim it once again and approach one of the tiny lights. Up close, I can see it’s a cluster of tiny glowing crystals. They’re embedded in the rock wall in random streaks and swirls - clearly a natural formation. Their light isn’t nearly bright enough to see by. But by moving my head around and using them for reference, I can sort of make out the rough shape of the tunnel.

Significantly, their light is the same cyan colour as my magic.

“Huh. Let me just check something.”

I slowly turn my horn back on, steadily pumping more power into the spell. The cave walls quickly begin to glow a brilliant off-green. I hold my magic for two, three, four seconds. Then snuff it out.

This time, the tunnel stays lit.

The little crystals are now shining like candles. Still individually weak, but there’s dozens of them. Dotted all over the walls and ceiling. Together they provide just enough light to comfortably navigate by.

“Yep, that’s Magicite all right. I wonder if this is what they were mining?”

The gems are highly useful as magical reagents, though they're hardly rare in Equestria.

Anon walks over beside me. With a “Tada!” sound, he gestures theatrically to the glowing rocks.

“Yes, yes. Very good,” I deadpan, smiling despite yourself. “Magicite glows when exposed to magic, everypony knows that. I suppose that’s one way to see where you’re going. All you need to do is- wait. Wait wait wait. How did you get it to start glowing? You don’t have any magic!”

Anon looks down in confusion.

Ok. So I'm not the most magically sensitive unicorn out there. But surely if Anon were capable of magic, I would have felt something by now. And remember how fascinated he was when he first saw my levitation? That’s about as basic as magic gets! Plus, if Anon could use magic, then surely he’d just make his own light, rather than bothering to light up the magicite? There’d be no reason for this roundabout method.

I spend a few minutes trying to interrogate Anon. “Did you light the crystals yourself, or were they lit when you got here?” "Did you notice any residual magic when you arrived?" “Do you actually have any magic of your own?” Unfortunately, most of it seems to go over his head. It's just too complex for charades and our (very limited) shared vocabulary. It doesn’t help that my own grasp of magical theory is, well, minimal. And I'm pretty sure Anon knows even less than me.

I briefly theorise that the human might be radiating magic subconsciously. That could be enough to activate the magicite. But no - one quick test and one confused Anon later, I find the crystals don’t react to him at all.



So if Anon didn’t light the magicite, who or what did?

My best guess is that some other magical creature lit the passage shortly before he arrived. But what? And why? Anon did mention seeing a figure just before finding the cave. Perhaps there’s some magical wildlife living here?

I really hope it doesn’t have anything to do with the Dust Devils he encountered. Or, worse, the creature that attacked him. Sure, dealing with magical monsters is literally my job, but I’d much rather do it with a full squad of veterans at my back.


Whatever the case, it’s not like we’ve got much choice. Monster or no, these tunnels are still our best chance of getting out of here alive. We’ve got to at least give them a try. I just hate going into danger blindly like this.

I snort in frustration.

"There's too many damn mysteries in this desert!"

The two of us finish packing our things, and make ready to enter the mine. We’ve been procrastinating long enough. Best to just get this over with. No more delays!

I take one last breath of fresh air. Then step forward into the tunnel.


Only to be immediately delayed.


Damnit, Anon. I’d just gotten all fired up and everything!

”Gray, Gray, Gray.”

“Ugghh, fine. What is it?”

I turn to see what he wants. The human is just inside the entrance, picking through a pile of rocks. Or at least, that’s what it looks like. He lifts something large and flat, holding it up for me to see.

It’s not a rock at all, but an old wooden signpost! Surprised, I trot over to inspect it.

“‘Danger,’” I read aloud. “‘Badlands ahead. Emergency exit only.’”

Oh hey! So there is a big "Keep Out" sign, after all!

It’s written in Equestrian. The large red letters are faded with age, but still clearly legible. Below them, an old piece of parchment is nailed to the board. With a bit of effort, I can make out the title “Site Map”. And “Hoofrest Mining Co.” stamped in one corner. But the rest of it…

I squint. The page is a mess of overlapping lines and peculiar symbols. It’s clearly some kind of technical diagram. Presumably a map of the entire mine, written in some mining shorthand. Which would be super helpful if I could actually read any of it. All the random characters and squiggles mean nothing to me.

I glare at it. This is just the kind of lucky break we need. But if I can’t read the damn thing, then what’s the point?

Anon seems to pick up on my frustration. He gives me a reassuring pat on the shoulder, saying something in a soothing voice. Placing the board where we can both see it, he points to the end of a particularly long, meandering line.

”Gray, Anon,” he announces.

My ears perk up.

“Is... that where we are? How'd you figure that out?”

Of course, as soon as I ask, I remember that Anon’s been here before. He must have a rough idea of the mine’s layout. In fact, he may have seen this very map before - that would explain how he knew where to find it.

I shake my head.

“Nevermind. Now let’s see here…”

I swish my tail, excitement building.

“So if you’re right, then these lines must be the tunnels. And those symbols must mean "Exit"? So that would make our current position… the furthest point from the rest of the mine? Yeah, that sounds about right. The main entrance is probably on the Equestrian side. According to the sign, this is just an emergency exit.”

I glance up at the slanted stone walls and uneven floor. There’s no sign of artificial tunnelling; it all looks naturally formed.

“What do you think? You reckon this is just a natural cave system the miners found? Maybe ran into while digging, and decided ‘Hey, free tunnel.’”

Anon answers with a surprisingly lengthy response. I’ve no idea if he actually understood the question... or if he’s just gone off on a completely random tangent. I shrug, and go back to studying the map.

At least our path seems pretty straightforward. As much as this tunnel winds and zig-zags, there aren’t many side passages until we reach the main body of the mine. At which point we’re practically home free; just a few short, straight passages to reach one of the main exits.

A small smile forms on my lips.

“Y’know, maybe this won’t be so bad after all.”

Chapter 20 - Darkness

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Jagged walls crawl by, flashing green as I pass. Underground rivers, long since dried, have carved out a network of passages. Their twisting, sinuous forms feel almost organic. Like we’re crawling through the veins of some fossilised giant.

The floor - where there is a floor - is broken and uneven. In other places the ground simply sinks out of sight, lost down some abyssal crevice. We’re forced to clamber along the sides of the tunnel, scrambling for hoofholds. Hoping the stone doesn’t give way. Hoping nothing comes crawling up out of the darkness.

A flicker of movement. I snap to face it, sword floating at the ready.

A cave spider - tiny, translucent - skitters away. Disappears down a hairline crack.

I exhale. Try to slow my heart rate. It’s hard to breathe down here.

I am Sergeant Glacier, and I am jumping at shadows. To be fair, there’s a lot of them to jump at.

Darkness reigns down here. My feeble horn-light pushes it back, a little, but it’s always waiting. Pressing in around us. Ahead, only our next few steps are visible. Behind, our path is quickly lost. Swallowed by the pursuing void.

A few twinkling lights still mark our trail. Veins of magicite, embedded in the walls and floor. But my magic is dim; I’ve been conserving my energy, casting just enough light to see by. The crystals glow only weakly in response. Not enough to dispel the dark, but at least we have a clear path to the exit.

With no horizon, among interchangeable stretches of cave, it would be all too easy to get turned around down here. An unexpected tumble, or a sudden sandipede ambush; just a few moments’ distraction, and we’d have no idea which way is forward and which is back.

Thankfully, we haven’t encountered anything worse than a few bats and some cave insects. Anon was particularly freaked out by the latter. (Much to my amusement). My own deeply held fear of humans - these legendary monsters from The List - is rapidly dwindling. Hard to take them seriously after hearing Anon’s squeals of panic.

I suppress a chuckle. I shouldn’t be making fun of him. He’s clearly having a much harder time down here than me. For several reasons.

I turn to check on my friend. The lanky creature is clambering a few paces behind me. The jagged ceiling isn’t quite tall enough for him, forcing him into an uncomfortable crouch. He uses his long arms to grab onto walls and stalagmites, anchoring himself as he passes. With the way his limbs curl in on himself, then suddenly stretch out alarming distances, he seems rather like a spider himself.

I give my spider-friend a hoof over the last few rocks. It’s a bit tricky with my injured leg, and with him balancing our last water jar, but we manage. Anon scrambles to my side, panting. Breath visible in the frigid air. Up close, I can make out the streaks of dirt and sweat staining his hide. (I don’t even want to think about what my own coat looks like.)

The human gives a thankful nod, and moves to keep going. I wave him to a stop. He glances around, instantly alert. When nothing manifests from the darkness to attack, he turns to me with a questioning look. In answer, I levitate up his canteen and float it to his lips. He catches it in surprise, while I take a swig from my own bottle. Anon spends a few more seconds looking around, before allowing himself a quick sip.

He’s clearly anxious to keep moving. So am I. But I know better than to rush into some monster’s den blindly. We can’t risk running into danger while exhausted. We need to pace ourselves. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Besides, there’s something else bothering me.

I take a step towards my human, inspecting him more closely. He barely seems to notice me. Too busy glancing over his shoulder. We’ve both been on edge since entering the mine. But for me, this is a familiar, almost routine feeling. I’ve plenty of experience dealing with caves, climbing, and monsters. As Punch would say, this ain’t my first rodeo. If anything, the tension is helping me stay focused. Anon, however… Now that I'm really looking, I see just how bad he’s become. Shallow, rapid breaths, even as we rest. Hands shaking, white knuckled, as he grips his spear. Eyes wide, darting at every shadow.

I feel a pang of guilt. The poor creature’s terrified! Expecting to be attacked at any moment. The stress is visibly wearing him down. Turning the tireless hunter - the predator who pursued me halfway across the desert - into a nervous wreck.

With a sigh, I sit down on a rock ledge.

Of course he’s terrified! Anycreature would be, after what he’s been through. He nearly lost an arm down here! A good leader - a good friend - would have noticed this earlier.

Well, I’ve noticed now. But what can I do to help?

Anon continues to stand at the ready, spear in hand. Anxiously peering into the gloom.

Hmm. Well, that’s one thing I can help with.

I set my sword down. Then, with a bit of effort, push more power through my horn. The light around me intensifies, driving the shadows back. I keep the magic flowing, ignoring the growing headache. Only once the scattered swirls of magicite start glowing as brightly as my horn do I let the spell drop.

Sitting back, panting a little, I take a moment to admire my handiwork. The tunnel is lit up bright as day. A thousand shining gems illuminate the cave, leaving not a single shadow for monsters to lurk in. True, we can only see a dozen metres in either direction before the passage curves out of sight. But for the first time since entering, we can be confident that nothing’s sneaking up on us.

Anon blinks in surprise. Looks around the newly visible cave, before looking at me curiously. I smile up at him.

“Anon. Sit.”

I pat the stone next to me. Looking almost dazed, the human complies.

Using hooves this time, I raise his canteen again and press it towards him. He takes the hint, taking a longer, slower drought. Allowing himself to relax a little.

Rummaging through one of his pouches, I retrieve the last of his dried vegetables. Nothing like a snack to raise one’s spirits. I more or less shove the food down his mouth. He half chokes, half chuckles at my assertive ministrations. I pout.

“Ok, fine, so I’m not cut out to be a nurse. Shut up.”

He grins, ruffling my mane as he allows himself to be fed. Once I'm satisfied he’s eating his greens, I sit back and wonder what to do next. I vaguely recall something about how bonding with your teammates is good for morale. One of my previous sergeants would set me aside now and again to have a nice, long chat. Another sergeant bonded with my team by constantly making bad jokes. There was a third one who kept making passes at the mares in his squad, buuut I'm pretty sure that got him fired, so I'd better stick with the first two options.

“So, er… Anon: why did the cockatrice cross the road?”

I look at Anon expectantly. He pauses mid-chew. Raises an eyebrow.

“Because it was trying to catch the chicken!”

Eyebrow raises higher.

“That’s, ha, some classic Parks and Wilderness humour for you. Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s pretty terrible. Ok, cards on the table: for a moment there I kinda forgot you have no idea what I’m saying. Heheh. Guess I look pretty silly right about now, huh?”

I certainly feel pretty silly right about now. Anon resumes chewing. Slowly. Eyebrow still poised aggressively.

“Ah, who cares. You can’t understand me. There’s no-one else here to listen to me. I might as well just ramble on. Maybe it’ll do some good, somehow.”

I shrug.

“I don’t know, it all seems pretty silly to me. To be honest, I never really got the hang of this “bonding” stuff. Not much of a pony-person, I guess. Seems like a pretty major flaw for a squad leader, right?"

Leaning back against the wall, I let my eyes droop. Feel the cold, rough surface against my fur. Absently watch as my breath mists in front of me.

"You want to know a secret? I'm not actually a sergeant. At least, not yet. I’ve done most of the training. But I’m not due for a promotion for another few weeks. The LT just gave me an early field promotion before sending me off to Tranquility. So that the local Guard wouldn’t be bossed around by a mere corporal. Pff, can you imagine? But the paperwork couldn’t have gone through by now, so, yeah. I’m still technically just Corporal Glacier.”

There’s warmth by my side. Anon leans back against the wall, snuggling up next to me. At some point he’s started stroking my mane.

“Honestly, I still don’t know if I even want to be a sergeant. It seems like a lot of responsibility. But… I suppose I didn’t mind looking after Fruit Punch. And I don’t really mind looking after you either, you big weirdo. If being a leader is just looking after your ponies, then… I guess it’s not so bad?”

I’ve somehow ended up with my chin on Anon's lap, his arm draped over my shoulders. I'm not entirely sure who’s comforting who, but at least Anon seems to have calmed down. I can feel his pulse slowing, hear his breath steadying. He’s even set down his spear, using both hands for dual petting action.

I’d normally protest, but this is rather relaxing. Er, for Anon. Yes, this is all for Anon’s sake. I'm only letting him brush my mane because it’s my duty as a leader. Mostly.

Oh, whatever! Five more minutes won’t hurt.

Five minutes pass. Then rather more than five. But eventually the two of us resume our journey.

This time it's Anon's turn to be talkative. He keeps up a steady stream of chatter as we scramble through the darkness. It's a pity I can't understand him - it would be fascinating to learn more about humans. But just being here to listen to him seems to be doing him good. It must have been a long time since he’s had somepony to talk to. And it seems to be keeping his mind off potential cave monsters.

Of course, the chatter also makes it harder to hear potential cave monsters. I’ll just have to be extra alert to make up for it. I'm not going to shush him now that he's feeling better!

Luckily, it’s not too long before we reach the mine proper. (Thank Celestia! With all this armour on, my injured leg is starting to give out.) The haphazard series of caves and grottoes end abruptly, opening onto a smooth, straight passage. Wooden beams hold up the ceiling, while iron rail tracks line the floor. Dusty unicorn lamps - basically just magicite in a bottle - hang from the walls.

The sight of equine civilisation is hugely reassuring. I turn to Anon with a grin, but pause - there's something odd here.

Scattered around our hooves are a number of broken planks. Not part of the supports holding up the ceiling, thankfully. Something else.

Sifting through them like a giant jigsaw puzzle, I quickly realise they're the remains of a wall or barricade. Probably blocking access to the tunnel we just came through. But many of the planks have been shattered, deep gouges slashed into them. From the way the pieces seem to spill inwards, it’s likely something forced its way into the mine. Something with very big claws.

A hint of writing peeks out amongst the wreckage. Fishing it out, I see it's the remains of a signpost. The words “Badlands Emergency Exit” have been crossed out. Over the top, in red letters, is simply written “DANGER”.

I gulp.

Right. We’re not out of the woods yet. In fact, it was near the exit on this side that Anon was attacked.

This is it, then. The final hurdle. If we can get through the next fifteen minutes, then we’re practically home free.

I float out my map of the mines - the one Anon found near the entrance. A quick glance confirms the route I’d memorised earlier. A few more lefts, a few more rights. Then, hopefully, Equestria.

A giddy thrill runs through me. We’re so close! But I squash the feeling down. Now’s not the time to get careless.

I quickly go over my equipment. Sword floating at the ready. Dagger in its sheath. Enchanted gem pouch at the top of my left saddlebag. First aid kit in the right. Then I turn to Anon, inspecting him like a soldier on parade. He’s sensed the change in atmosphere, too, and has gone quiet. Not panicking, like he was before. But tense.

One hand holds his trusty spear. It’s no longer shaking, I note with approval. Dangling from his other hand is our one remaining water jar. We'd started our journey with two, but we finished off the first jar a while ago, and so left it behind. I briefly consider leaving this jar, too. It would free up a hand for climbing or fighting. Ultimately I decide against it. He can drop the jar easily enough if there’s an emergency. And once we've made it back to Equestria, we still have to contend with the desert. Water isn’t something to abandon lightly.

Just to be safe, I quickly top up both our canteens from the jar. And with that, we’re ready to go.

I give Anon a reassuring pat on the hip. He ruffles my mane - carefully - with his spear hand. Then, together, we set off into the dark.

Chapter 21 - Change of plan

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“So… the Sand Witch… is an alicorn?”

I raise a hoof to rub my aching temples. I am Private Punch, and I am in waaay over my head. Again.

Story of this whole assignment, really. I've gone from training with buffalo, to hunting desert monsters, to leading a search party, and now... this. Urgh! I'm supposed to be in the Harmony Corps, for Harmony’s sake! I should be off befriending cute seaponies or something! Not… fighting alicorns?? Also, since when are there random alicorns haunting the desert???

Dusty Rose gives me a reassuring pat on the back. The two of us, plus Sheriff Pear, are holding yet another meeting in the little Hoofrest eatery. (Somehow I still haven’t learnt this place’s name.)

”An alicorn? Seriously?” Rose is levelling a stern look at the pony seated opposite us. “You don’t actually believe that, do you?”

Sergeant Able Oak is a big, grey earth pony. Slung over his shoulder is a bigger, greyer war hammer. His armour is covered in dust and years of battle damage. His grey coat is even more so. He's the very image of a grizzled, veteran monster hunter. The finest of the Parks and Wilderness Guard.

And he's currently squirming sheepishly beneath Rose’s gaze.

”W-well,” Oak rumbles, sounding far from comfortable. “Nnno, I don’t think it’s very likely. But, well, you reported that this “Sand Witch” is real. So we asked the folks at Tranquility Springs what they know about her. And they seemed quite certain she’s an Alicorn. Er, mostly.”

Rose’s glare intensifies.


Oak wilts even further into his seat. (That mare scares me sometimes.)

”I mean, they weren’t entirely consistent,” he admits. “There were some… conflicting stories. But an Alicorn was the, um, general consensus?”

Rose snorts. Before she can reply with anything too acerbic, Sheriff Pear cuts in.

”Folks out these ways are always tellin’ tall tales ‘bout the desert. It’s practically a local pastime. Now, I won’t deny there’s some mighty peculiar critters out there, but still, nine times outta ten these stories are just a load o’ hooey.”

I nod eagerly.

“The sheriff’s right. And hey, even if there is an alicorn, so what? We should be trying to befriend her, not avoid her! If the Sand Witch really did take Glacier, then we can probably ask her what she wants. Then we’ll have Glace back in no time!”

Oak seems completely caught off guard by this idea, practically choking in surprise. He’s rescued by the arrival of Feather Trail, a tray of drinks balanced between her wings.

”The thing is,” chirps the golden mare, setting the drinks down. “We have all these rules in the PWG about what kinds of monsters we’re allowed to engage. There’s a whole List and everything.”

Oak gives her a grateful nod as she slides into an empty seat.

”And right at the top of that List is - you guessed it - wild Alicorns.”

“But it’s not like we’re trying to pick a fight with her,” I insist. “We just want to talk.”

The sergeant shakes his shaggy head.

”It’s not about picking a fight. If there’s reason to suspect there might actually be a wild Alicorn, then we have very strict orders about how to proceed. That includes keeping our distance.”

”You’re still assuming it is an alicorn,” Rose points out. “You said yourself it doesn’t seem likely. Are you really going to abandon a fellow Guard, leave Glacier out there to die, based on such flimsy evidence?”

Oak and I both wince. Feather shoots out of her seat, wings flared.

”Hey!” she exclaims indignantly. “Nopony cares more about Glace than us! Sarge doesn’t want to do this, but we’ve got a-”

Oak puts a hoof on her muzzle, gently but firmly silencing her. It's easily apparent why. Quite a few heads have turned our way. Even at this late hour, with half of the search party off getting some well deserved rest, the eatery is still bustling. Parks and Wilderness Guard, volunteers, and curious locals have been coming and going all evening. Feather’s little outburst has drawn attention.

Oak waits a few moments for the normal background chatter to resume. Then, after taking a breath, replies in a low voice:

”Look, we’re not abandoning anypony. We’ll continue to search the area Glacier disappeared in, and the nearby desert. She’s a tough filly. If anypony can live off the land for a few days, it’s her. But based on your own report, it seems clear there’s something powerful living near those mines. That alone would be reason enough to be cautious, but with all the rumours around town…”

He shrugs helplessly.

”I just don’t have the authority to allow an expedition to the mines, not until-”

“But that’s our best lead!” I whine.

(At this point, it’s really our only lead.)

”Not until our LT arrives,” Oak continues.

His voice takes on a conciliatory tone.

”Listen, we sent for the lieutenant as soon as we heard Glace was missing. And then sent another emergency alert straight to HQ when we heard about the Alicorn thing. With any luck, the LT and a whole bunch more Guard will be here by morning. Then we can go check out the mines. It’s just… a few more hours.”

He sounds almost pleading. Like he's trying to convince me it’ll be fine. Or trying to convince himself.

I bite back my response, realising he’s probably more upset about this than I am. I’ve only known Glacier for, what, a few days? But Oak is her old squad leader. Probably her friend and mentor, too. And now he’s essentially forced to call off her search? All because of some old mares’ tales he knows are bullshit? Being in charge sucks!

I might not agree with his decision, but he’s clearly just following orders. And he clearly hates them, too. No point making him feel any worse about it.

So I sink back into my chair, feeling defeated. The conversation continues on around me. Something about reorganising the search teams. I just nod along. With the real PWG here, there’s nothing left for me to offer. Rose and Pear know the desert better than I do, while Oak and Feather know monsters and search parties.

I’ve gone from being the highest ranking Royal Guard present, to just another private among the squad.

No, not even that - even the other privates are all Parks and Wilderness veterans. Every one of them is busying themselves about the room. Every one of them has a clear purpose here.

Unlike me.

I shiver.

The sun has long since set, taking with it all traces of warmth. Hard to believe the temperature can drop so quickly.

My tired hooves clop along slowly, leaving small furrows in the sand. The lantern in my mouth clangs gently with each step, illuminating a small circle of anonymous desert. I dutifully search it for clues. Expecting nothing. Finding nothing.

At least I'm properly rugged up this time. It was still warm when I started my previous shift earlier in the evening, so I'd declined to bring any clothes. Big mistake. I spent the next few hours freezing my tail off, while my team and I combed the darkening sands.

This time I'm better prepared. A hot meal and a quick nap have left me, well, not exactly refreshed - I'm running on fumes, to be honest - but ready to continue the search. Even if it all seems pretty pointless right now.

I look up towards the mountains. A great, jagged shadow, silhouetted against the stars. Somehow, I know that’s where we’ll find Glacier. All this searching down here is just going through the motions. Killing time until the lieutenant arrives and organises a search of the mine. Assuming she actually authorises one.

What if she wants to wait for confirmation from higher up, too? Will we have to wait for a captain to personally show up? A major? How many more delays?

I’ve genuinely considered going AWOL and just trotting up to the mines myself. But what good would a grounded pegasus do? I'm no PWG. I'm not even a particularly good Royal Guard. Without any kind of support, odds are I’d get Dust Devil’d and dragged off to who knows where.

That’s one issue the PWG have taken seriously, at least. Sergeant Oak’s priority has been ensuring nopony else gets lost or abducted. In addition to avoiding the mines, the search teams have been consolidated and reorganised. Each team of volunteers is now led by a professional Parks and Wilderness Guard, and must have at least one pegasus for scouting or delivering messages. (My busted wings mean I can't even fulfil that role, so our squad has two pegasi.) In addition, we’re each carrying more supplies, flares, and rope we can quickly loop ourselves together with. If a Dust Devil does strike, it’ll have to take all of us, or none.

At least, that’s the theory.

One downside to this arrangement is we all have to keep closer together. It’s been hard hiding my gloomy mood from the others. I'm supposed to be part of the Harmony Corps, damnit! The one unique skill I have left is keeping ponies’ morale up. I’ll be damned if I bring down our team’s mood with my moping!

So, minute after minute, hour after hour, I maintain the charade. Give a smile to the ponies around me. Pass around a hot drink if anypony looks too cold. Chat with the ones who are falling asleep on their hooves. Maybe share a joke to wake them up.

Honestly, at this point I'm not really listening to their replies. This is all foals’ play, stuff you learn by rote at the HC. I could do this in my sleep. (I practically am.) So it comes as a bit of a surprise when I realise somepony is talking about Glacier. Not just the usual “Oh, I hope she’s ok,” either.

”And so she’d never actually seen a non-frozen lake before. I mean, she must have known they existed, but I guess it just didn’t register consciously, y'know? So anyway, she just casually hops off the pier, expecting to land on solid ice. SPLASH! She gets water all over our unit, including the instructor. The look on her face when she resurfaced was priceless!”

I blink myself out of my stupor. Feather Trail is walking along beside me, smiling wistfully. I vaguely recall asking if she’d known Glacier well. Judging from her anecdote, the two seem to have gone way back. It takes a moment for my brain to catch up, but soon there’s a genuine smile on my face. The first in a while.

“I’m glad to hear Glacier had friends in her old unit. Honestly, I was kinda worried about that. She seems a bit too… well, icy for most ponies.”

”Ha. Yeah. I couldn’t stand her at first, either.” Feather shrugs. “But nah, she’s cool. Takes a while to warm up to you, though.”

She grins.

”But you’re right. Outside of our squad, I don’t think she really has many friends. She’s better with monsters than she is with ponies, I reckon. Which can be a bit of a problem.”

She shakes her head.

“It’s honestly not that surprising she went off into the desert without waiting for the rest of us. Glacier’s good at what she does, but she can never get it through that thick head of hers that she’s supposed to rely on other ponies. Monster hunting’s a team sport, after all. Sarge is always telling her, ‘You can’t do this on your own.’”

Her smile fades.

”I guess this is her chance to prove him wrong.”

Neither of us say anything after that.

Our group continues on in silence. A cluster of lights floating in the dark.

To the east, the sky slowly turns murky grey. Dawn isn’t far off.

Our shift is just about over. Time to turn this party around and head back to Hoofrest. But before I can call the group to attention, something catches my eye.

I turn to the south. A tiny speck of light is rising steadily above the mountains. Before I can even begin to wonder what it is, it explodes! A small but brilliant burst of colour splashing against the black backdrop. The sound reaches us a few moments later. A soft but distinct thunderclap.

“Look!” I hiss to Feather Trail.

My warning is unneeded. The pegasus is already taking to the air. My bandaged wings twitch as I watch her ascend, wanting to join her for a better view.

The colourful shape in the distance seems to shimmer, changing hues. It periodically lights up, followed by a distant rumbling sound. Like some kind of funky disco thundercloud. Our search party watches eagerly, while Corporal Trail circles overhead. After a few moments she touches down again, all traces of weariness gone.

”That’s a thunder quartz signal flare. Standard Parks and Wilderness issue.”

A ripple of excitement runs through the group. I can hardly keep my own wings from buzzing with glee.

A flare! No search teams were sent that far south. So either one of the other teams has actually been Dust Devil’d and carried all the way down there, or…

“It’s Glacier!”

Feather turns towards me, professional expression on her face.

”Private Punch, that flare looks to have come from near the mines, correct?”

Her use of my rank snaps me into military mode. Finally, time for action!

“Yes, corporal!”

”Alright. Punch, you’re in charge of this group until I return. I want you to lead them back to Hoofrest.”


And just like that, military protocol goes out the window. Screw the chain of command, I need answers!

“You mean we’re not going to the mines?”

Feather maintains a neutral expression, despite my outburst.

”We’re to regroup and inform Sergeant Oak. I’ll fly ahead and let him know what’s happened.”

“Oh, come on!” I just about shout. “There’s no way Oak hasn’t spotted the flare, even from all the way back in Hoofrest.”

I see hesitation briefly flicker across her face. It's obvious (to a Harmony Corps graduate, at least) that she wants to fly straight to the rescue.

“Glacier could be in trouble now! We’re the closest search party to her - we can’t afford to go all the way back to Hoofrest!”

Her composure cracks a little more. Ears flicking back. Eyes darting between the flare and the search party.

”But… What about the volunteers? I can’t just leave-”

”Yes you can,” says an older mare sternly.

A figure limps over into my lamp light. I recognise her as Mrs Marmalade; the one who chastised me for assuming the volunteers would quit at the first sign of danger. (I instinctively inch back.)

“Why, I’ll have you know I was fendin’ off sandipedes an’ blackjackals ‘fore you was even outta diapers. Y’all go right on ahead and save that little lost filly; she’s the whole reason we’re out here in the first place! We’ll be perfectly fine on our own.”

There’s a chorus of agreement from the other volunteers. A huge smile threatens to spill over my face. I could kiss that wrinkly old mare!

Feather is still undecided, fidgeting anxiously in place.


Time for the coup de grâce. I place a hoof on her shoulder and flash her a cheeky grin.

“Well if you don’t come with me, then I’ll just have to save Glacier all by myself.”

”Wait, what?” she sputters. “I thought you said you couldn’t fly!”

I shrug.

“I shouldn’t fly. But this is an emergency. I’ll be fine. Probably.”

I say the last part quiet enough that I hope she doesn’t hear.

She glares at me, but I just begin taking off my heavy scarf and coat. I shiver as the cold nips at the newly exposed fur.

”Uuurgh! Fine!”

With a stomp of her hoof, Feather turns to the assembled ponies.

”Listen up! You all head back to Hoofrest, quick as you can. Tell the sergeant that the two of us are en route to the mines. And be careful on your way back. After your little speech,” she turns to Mrs Marmalade, “it would be really embarrassing if you ended up getting in trouble! So make sure it doesn’t happen!”

The old mare gives a smart salute.

Feather then turns on me, redoubling her glare.

”And you! You’ll be worse than useless if you end up crashing halfway to the mine. So we’re gonna take it real slow, and you’re gonna stick to my tailwind the whole way. Understood?”

“Yes, corporal!”

”Alright, let’s move out!”




This was a terrible idea.


With each (ow) painful beat (ow) of my wings, the glowing cloud inches a tiny bit closer. To my left, the sky is starting to turn grey-blue. The stars fade out, and the black desert below begins to gain depth and detail.

I think I can pinpoint where the flare was sent from: nestled in a low valley between peaks is a cluster of dark, boxy shapes. Too geometric to be a rock formation. The old mine buildings, perhaps? The cloud looks to be hovering right above them, a few thousand hooves up. It’s still twinkling bright as a signal fire, though the rumblings seem to have died away.

I don’t see anypony moving on the mountainside. Though in this dim light, they’d be easy to miss. Hopefully Glacier’s just taken shelter in one of the buildings.

It takes an agonisingly long time to reach them. I absolutely wouldn’t have been able to fly this far on my own. Even with Feather’s help, producing a tailwind for me to follow, it’s all I can do to glide along slowly in her wake. But we’re almost there. Just a few more minutes.

I can see the buildings in more detail now. Dilapidated old wooden structures. Shiny tin roofs, or at least the few which still have roofs. Crisscrossing iron tracks, leading down into a gaping mine entrance.

This is it! We’re so close!

But something's wrong. Why isn't Feather getting any closer? She seems to have slowed to a cautious hover, alert.

It takes my sleep-deprived brain a few seconds to notice the signs. But by then it’s too late.

“Twilight bucking damnit, not again! Not NOW!”

Deaf to my pleas, the Dust Devil roars to life.

Chapter 22 - Interlopers

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We’re close. I can smell it.

Fresh air.

I am Sergeant Glacier, and after the dead, choking air of the mines, the sweet fragrance feels intoxicating.

I breathe in deeply. Wanting nothing more than to gallop for the exit and fill my lungs with the stuff. Unfortunately…

“How in the world did you manage that, Anon?”

I level an unamused stare at my companion. The human looks back sheepishly. Or at least, so I assume; his shirt is pulled over his head, covering most of his face. One arm is tangled up in the twisted fabric, while the other is clinging to a wall, barely keeping him from falling over.

I shake my head.

The two of us had been continuing our journey through the mines when his shirt had gotten caught on something. A protruding nail, perhaps. Easy to miss in the gloom, with only my horn to light the way. Unfortunately, his efforts to untangle himself have only made things worse. Somehow he’s managed to tumble almost sideways, get his foot stuck in a broken floorboard, and very nearly knock over the water jar. Twice.

“You are,” I grasp him with my magic. “The most, -hmmf!- undignified -hrrrgh!- monstrosity I have ever -uurgh!- met.”

I step back, panting a little.

It's weird. I’d tried to telekinetically yank him from the wall. But despite my best efforts, all I’d managed to do was give myself a horn ache. Feels like trying to lift a boulder!

Hrrmm. He’s not that heavy. I’ve already helped him up a few slopes and ledges, earlier in the cave. So why can’t I levitate him?

Anon flails about a bit more, letting out a string of human profanity. Eventually he gives up, and turns to me.

”Gray help?” he pleads, muffled by his shirt.

“Yes, yes. Just a moment,” I answer absently.

Focusing my magic once more, I give his hand an experimental shove.


No magic glow. Certainly no movement, even as I pour more and more power into the spell, despite my growing headache. Weird, weird, weird.

I frown at the offending limb. Then poke it. Cautiously. As though it might bite me.

It doesn’t bite. It just flops about a bit. Like a perfectly normal appendage. I poke it a few more times. Then give it a shake for good measure.

Anon clears his throat.

“Er, right. Sorry.”

A mystery to investigate later.

I turn to Anon, pondering how best to get him unstuck. Eventually I shimmy around between him and the wall, awkwardly clambering beneath his arms. Then, bracing myself against the stone, I push.

“So -hrrrg!- are you humans related to -hrrp!- dragons, by any chance?”

This works a lot better. Anon’s still too heavy for me to lift alone, but between the two of us we’re able to lever him away from the wall, off whatever he was hooked on. With his shirt no longer pulled tight, he quickly untangles himself. I gently set him down, taking a seat beside him.

“Because,” I continue, catching my breath. “My magic does not seem to work on you. Any ideas why that might be?”

He smiles at me, brushing my mane out of my eyes.

”Thanks, Gray.”

“Uuuhh, s-sure.”

The unexpected bit of intimacy catches me off guard. I feel myself blushing, to my embarrassment.

”Not, er, not exactly what I was asking,” I mumble.

He’s just being friendly, I tell myself. Don’t read too much into it. Now’s not the time for… whatever it is I'm imagining.

I stand up abruptly, focusing on his stuck foot. Or trying to, anyway. I can’t help but notice how his warmth and scent linger where he’d pressed against me… Ahem. Which is, you know, a completely normal thing to notice. Honestly, it’s amazing I can smell the fresh air at all, with how sweaty the two of us are. The tunnel is beginning to smell like-

I pause. Sniff. Turn, sniffing once in each direction.

My ears shoot up, alert.

“There's something here,” I hiss.

Anon notices my change in tone immediately. In a flash he’s readied his spear, metal tip pointing down the dark corridor.

I still can't see anything down there. But I can smell it. A faint, organic stench. Certainly not Anon’s sweat; I'm used to that. No, this is different. Foetid. Like a garbage heap, or a week-old carcass. And it’s getting stronger.

“We should go,” I whisper.

I force a little more light through my aching horn. It hurts. Like grinding my skull against a rock. But I grit my teeth and push through it.

Rough stone walls shine back at me, revealing an empty tunnel. Wooden beams hold up the ceiling, casting a network of pitch-black shadows. A narrow track runs along the dusty floor; iron rails on wood. Many of the planks are damaged, deep gouges carved into them. Some have cracked down the middle, as though buckling under a tremendous weight.

Anon must have stepped on one of these weakened boards. His foot is sunk between two broken halves, wedged in place by the jagged edges. Fortunately, his raggedy old shoe absorbed most of the damage. Unfortunately, the fabric’s gotten all tangled up among the splinters. I see pain and fear flashing across his face. Trying to yank his leg free is just causing the wood to bite down harder. If he’s not careful, he’ll tear his foot to shreds on the way out. But carefully working his foot free will take time. Time we may not have.

I spare another glance down the tunnel. Still empty. Quickly grasping my sword with my mouth, I set the tip down by the edge of the plank. Anon’s eyes widen as he sees the blade align with his ankle.


I roll my eyes, and simply give the handle a sharp tug. Acting as a giant lever, the blade presses against one half of the broken plank, lifting it a quarter inch. Not quite enough to get off Anon’s foot, but enough to loosen it.

A look of understanding comes over him, and he starts wriggling even harder. I continue pulling on the blade, neck straining. Locked in place like this, I can’t quite see what he’s doing, or how close he is to escape. I can’t even see behind me. But I can still hear.


Beyond my muffled panting and Anon’s desperate scrabbling, there’s… something.


Not just an echo. A low, irregular grinding. Like something heavy dragging over the cave floor.


It’s getting closer. My tail lashes nervously. I feel myself sweating. Muscles starting to shake. Fear, adrenaline, the strain of pulling against the sword - whatever it is, I can’t hold on much longer.


I need to turn around, to see what’s coming. I don’t have time to focus on Anon! With a panicked whinny, I begin to release the blade… only to feel it suddenly press towards me. Blinking, I look up to see Anon towering over me, long arms easily manipulating the enormous weapon. He’s pushing down against it, adding his considerable weight and strength to my own.


Screwing my eyes shut, I yank back down on the handle with everything I’ve got.

Slowly, slooowly, I feel the wood yield.


Then, with a sudden CRACK, it gives way entirely. I stumble back, teeth rattling in my skull. The snapped-off plank bounces away, clattering. Anon quickly disentangles himself from the other half. As soon as he’s free he leaps up, readying his spear. I lose a few precious moments repositioning my sword, the unwieldy weapon too big for these narrow tunnels. Finally I manage to spin around, sword floating at the ready.


The tunnel is still empty.

I breathe a sigh of relief. But when I inhale, that gutter-stench is even stronger.


And that’s when I see it. A twinkle in the depths. I’d assumed it was just a patch of magicite, ignited by my magic. But this patch is moving.


Not magicite. Eyes. Glinting in the dark.

It’s impossible to make out anything else. The glow of my horn is barely enough to see the walls around us, let alone anything further away. But from the way the more distant constellations of magicite wink out, one by one, the creature must be big. Really big.


The grinding is closer than expected. It echoes down the tunnel, startling me with its volume. My magic flares up instinctively. The old unicorn fight-or-flight reflex, gathering enough power to ready a spell.

Bad move.

A lance of pain hits me between the eyes as my overworked horn finally gives out. The glow of my magic sputters and dies. The tunnel plunges into darkness.

I hear my sword clatter to the ground, followed by a scream. Anon’s or mine, I can’t tell.

Scchrrrk! The grinding picks up pace. Scchrrrk! Scchrrrk! Closer and closer.

I stumble back, blind, disoriented. Half deaf from the thunderous echoes. Dizzy with pain. Terror threatens to take hold. Primal instincts spur me to flee.

But another part of me - the part I spent years honing as a Parks and Wilderness Guard - warns me not to be a fool. Running blindly in the creature’s lair will just get me killed. I have other ways to make light. Use them!

Whipping my head around, I tear open the flap on my saddle bag. The gem pouch is on top, right where I left it. A quick flick of the neck and I pour the contents out in front of me. I can’t see the aquamarine or the thunder quartzes, but the sunstone glows with an inner light.

Scchrrrk! ScchrRRK!

”Gray!” Anon’s voice rings out in panic.

I look up to see a vast, black form looming over me. Blotting out the meagre light of the magicite.

I close my eyes and pour everything I’ve got into my burning horn.


There’s an explosion of light and pain.


Followed by a deafening roar, slamming into me with concussive force.

I stumble back, body feeling like jelly as the noise reverberates around me. My ears are ringing so loudly that I feel more than hear the next few sounds. A great thumping and scrabbling. Shouting from Anon.

Through the white-hot pain in my horn, I force an eye open.

The passage is dazzlingly bright. Every stone, every plank, every mote of dust shines as though under a floodlight. By my hoof lies the sunstone. Ignited by the last of my magic, it blazes like its namesake. Blinding. Overwhelming. I quickly look away from it, squinting to see beyond the glare.

Teeth. Beyond the glare is teeth.

Rows and rows of them. Nestled in a cavernous, stinking maw. Large enough to swallow me whole. The head housing it is long and narrow. Armoured in thick tan scales. Bulging with muscle. The beast’s eyes are screwed shut as it recoils, screaming, from the light. I can’t see much of its body beyond a pair of short, heavy forelegs, tipped with concerningly large claws. But I don’t need to see any more. I know exactly what it is.

Sand wyrm.

I should have guessed. While not true dragons, wyrms nevertheless love caves and gemstones. A magicite mine in the middle of the desert, right next to the badlands? Textbook sand wyrm lair.

The wyrm rears back, blinded or at least startled by the light. It begins to shuffle away, surprisingly fast for such a large creature. Its pale belly drags along the floor, making a grinding noise with every step. Scchrrrk! Scchrrrk!


Anon sounds terrified. I turn to him, and nearly get impaled for my trouble. He’s waving his spear around blindly, his other arm covering his eyes.

Oh, right. I didn’t warn him about the sunstone. Couldn’t, really. I knew to close my eyes ahead of time, but he took the full blast. Going from pitch-black to blazing daylight in an instant? That’s gotta hurt.

He should recover in a few minutes. But so too will the wyrm. I don’t have time to wait for him.

“One second, Anon!”

Scooping up the scattered gemstones, I toss them carelessly into my pack. Even through the thick fabric, the sunstone provides plenty of light. I quickly grab and sheath my sword, then carefully skirt my way around Anon. Rearing up, I place a cautious hoof on his back.

“Come on, this way!”

He flinches but thank Celestia doesn’t immediately stab me. An arm blindly gropes towards me, feeling along my leg. I pull it towards my mane.

“Hold on!”

Pressing his hand firmly down, I begin to trot along the tunnel. Anon stumbles along beside me, holding on for dear life. Behind us, we hear the raucous flailings of the wyrm. Receding, but still uncomfortably close.

I lead Anon away as quick as I can. Which isn’t nearly as quick as I’d like, what with him being blind and me hobbled. Pain shoots down my leg with every step, courtesy of the sandipede bite. Worse, I can feel a wet trickle running down my ankle. I must have torn open the wound at some point. I really don’t need to be losing blood right now.

The two of us stagger down the passage. Pain, exhaustion, and adrenaline causing me to reel drunkenly. Anon’s just as bad - not only is freaking out about the sand wyrm, he’s also completely blind. But every time he slips, I'm there to help him. And every time I fumble, Anon manages to catch me. The two of us lean together, supporting each other every step of the way. And, slowly, the noise of the sand wyrm fades from hearing.

After a few minutes of nothing but panting and clip-clopping, I allow myself to relax a little. Gather my thoughts, ignoring the throbbing headache.

“Ok, Glacier. Sand wyrms. What do we know about them?”

Desert monsters were never really my forte. Good thing I did a little research back at Tranquility Springs.

“Let’s see… Ambush predators. Capable of bursts of speed, but not built to chase prey over long distances. So if we get far enough away, it should give up, right?

"What else...? Territorial. So at least we’re not likely to run into any other monsters. That’s something.

“And, uh, believed to be nocturnal? They have been known to hunt during the day, but at least the sunstone might make it think twice.”

I rack my brains, trying to remember anything else that could prove useful. There hasn’t been a whole lot of research done on wyrms. Probably because the researchers tend to get eaten.

“Uhhh… They’re not true dragons. No wings, no fire breath. But they have the same draconic hide. Very tough, very magic resistant. Sooo, once again, it seems like my best option is to run away.”

I flash a tired grin at Anon.

“That worked out so well for me yesterday, didn’t it?”

Anon glares down at me. Or maybe squints? After what I did to him, it’s hard to tell if his eyes are still recovering, or he’s just peeved. Could be both!

At least he can see now. Somewhat. He’s moving more confidently, anyway. Though that probably means that the sand wyrm is also-



Looking back, I see movement down the tunnel, at the very edge of the sunstone’s light. The dusty grey scales blend in perfectly against the stone walls. I can only see the wyrm when it passes in front of a wooden beam.

It’s surprisingly stealthy this time around - I can barely hear it over my own hoofsteps. I watch as the shadowy brute takes another step, body low to the ground. It’s easily keeping up with us, but seems to be holding back. Avoiding the light?

Wyrms aren’t intelligent like dragons (for a given value of “intelligence”), but they’re not stupid, either. Worse, they’re stubborn. Persistent. This one seems to be observing us. It’s in no rush to catch us; it’s seen how slow we are. It’s taking its time, waiting for a safer opportunity to strike.

We’ll have to find a way to lose it. And soon! The longer it observes us, the bolder it will become.

We can’t outrun it. We’re too injured and exhausted. Weapons? No good. Hide’s too thick. I might do some damage if I had room to swing my sword properly, but the tunnel’s too narrow. Fire? Wouldn’t hurt it much, but it might scare it away. No time to light one, though. If only I had more fire rubies…

Wait. I do have other gemstones. The aquamarine won’t help, but I’ve still got a pair of thunder quartz flares. How would the wyrm react to one of those going off in its face? I was planning on using them to signal for help once we got back to Equestria. But first we have to actually get to Equestria. Surely I can afford to use one of them, right?

My nose twitches, interrupting my train of thought. Something’s changed.

Blinking, I look around. I don’t see anything different. But I can feel a slight ruffle on my fur. In my mane. As we continue trotting down the passage, a sweet smell fills my nostrils. Cutting through the stale cave air and the wyrm’s stench. We turn one last corner, and there it is.

“The exit!” I exclaim, Anon shouting something simultaneously.

The tunnel runs ahead for another 20 metres or so, rising gently. At the end, a wooden frame opens out into the night sky, revealing a patch of twinkling stars.

We made it!

Scchrrrk! ScchrrRK!

The instant we turned the corner, the sand wyrm started barrelling forwards. I realise too late that we’ve just left the previous passage in darkness; perfect for the wyrm to close the distance.


I shove Anon forward, charging after him.

The wyrm bursts around the corner, talons raking the floor where we’d stood seconds ago. Either it doesn’t care about the sunstone, or it’s more concerned about us escaping. Even as I leap out of range of its claws, it begins snapping furiously at me, enormous jaws moving way too fast! I dodge instinctively, years of combat experience just barely enough to keep me in one piece.

But not quite enough to avoid the spray of drool. Wyrms may not have fire breath, but they still eat gemstones; their saliva is caustic enough to cut through rock.

Blinding agony overwhelms me as a few stray drops splash into my eyes. I keep running, body on autopilot, as the pain blots out everything else. I think I might be screaming. I don’t know where the sand wyrm is, or Anon, I can’t think straight, there's a dizzying sensation of falling, then sudden more pain all along my side as I crash into the ground, then the burning in my eyes takes precedence again. It’s all I can do to curl into a ball, sobbing, as I rub furiously at my eyes, tears flowing freely.

(Through the delirium of pain, a small part of me notes the irony. I’d just blinded everypony else moments ago; guess it must be my turn.)

I don't know how long I lay there, unaware of anything but the hurting. But mercifully the pain begins to dull to something manageable. I become vaguely aware of the noises around me. Shouting. Crashing. Bellowing. Then, without warning, I'm yanked painfully from the ground, and back into consciousness.


Amazingly, it’s not the sand wyrm snatching me up. Pressed against me is the wonderfully familiar warmth and scent of Anon.

Blinking in surprise, I'm relieved to note that I can still see. A little. Still burns like bloody Tartarus, but at least I'm not completely blind. Then I realise what I'm seeing.

Teeth! Those damn teeth again! The sand wyrm right behind me, roaring in - no, not roaring. Squealing?

Blurrily, I see something jutting from its gums. Anon’s spear! Not much more than a toothpick compared to the hulking monstrosity, but apparently painful enough to distract it.

Kudos to Anon: the mouth is one of the wyrm’s few vulnerable bits. He’s either a really good shot, or he got really lucky.

Speaking of Anon, I find myself slung over his shoulder again as he stumbles towards the exit. We… we might actually make it out of here alive! I could kiss that hairless ape!

A bellow from the wyrm distracts me before I can I can follow through with that thought. I look back to see the beast clawing at the spear, still lodged in its mouth. I know that any moment now the spear will be knocked loose, and then the wyrm will catch up to us in seconds. I have to do something!

The thought is enough to refocus me. The flare! Now’s my chance!

Tearing open my pack, I'm briefly blinded again by the damn sunstone! Grabbing it in my teeth, I hurl it at the sand wyrm, hoping to buy a few more seconds. Without even bothering to see if it worked, I immediately dive back in to my pack, fishing out the nearest thunder quartz. My magic is still weak, but enough time has passed that I can muster up the tiny burst of energy needed to ignite the flare.

With a grunt of pain, a bolt of magic leaps from my horn to the crystal. The clear stone turns cloudy, tiny sparks of lightning spitting out from it. It falls from my hoof, upwards, towards the ceiling. I hear it bounce among the rafters, but it’s quickly lost from view.

My attention snaps back down to the sand wyrm, which has finally finished dislodging the spear. With a truly earthshaking roar, it turns and bounds after us.

“Anon, whatever you do, don’t slow down!”

He replies with what I can only assume is human for “FUUUCK THIIIS!”

And then everything explodes.

Chapter 23 - Complication

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”What in Tartarus was that!?”

Or at least, that’s what I assume Anon’s yelling.

He’s standing by the entrance to the mine, goggling at the miniature thunderstorm going off just inside.

“That,” I drawl. “Was a signal flare.”

He tears his gaze from the chromatic spectacle long enough to give me a Look. The kind that says “I have no idea what you’re saying, and you know it.”

“‘s just… magic stuff,” I wave him away. “Don’t worry about it.”

I am Sergeant Glacier, and I am way too tired to explain.

It’s night. Or is it morning? Must be close to dawn. The two of us are out on a dusty shelf, somewhere in the Macintosh mountains. I’ve slumped down against the wooden husk of an old building. Recovering from our fight with the sand wyrm.

“Fight” is, perhaps, putting it too generously. "Ran away screaming" would be more accurate. The two of us just barely managed to survive by setting off a flare right in the beast’s face. Almost blew our own tails off too, but at least there’s no sign of the wyrm.

I doubt it’s dead. Probably just scared it away. It may be a big mean monster, but I’ve yet to meet a monster who wouldn’t be scared by that light show.

There’s another chromatic flash from the cave. The accompanying thunderclap rattles the building behind me, before echoing down the valley. Anon turns back to watch, wide-eyed. I don’t know if he’s scared, or fascinated. Or maybe he doesn’t care, and is just keeping watch for the wyrm. Whatever. Right now, I don’t have the energy to worry.

With the adrenaline wearing off, I feel so very tired. Eyelids heavy. Tail drooping. Limbs weighed with lead. I’ve slept for, what, five hours in the last two days? Two days I’ve been galloping across deserts, crawling under mountains, and almost getting killed half a dozen times. I really need a nap.

But… not yet. Momma didn't raise no quitter.

We're so close to safety. I just need to hold on a little longer. If I gave out right before the finish line, I’d never live it down. So, with a weary sigh, I open my saddlebags.

“Better not have fallen out,” I mutter, shifting through the contents. “Or I am going to be so peeved.”

Thankfully, it isn’t long before my hoof lands on something small and hard. I fish it out, smiling at the unassuming chunk of quartz.

My last signal flare.

Now that we’re back in Equestria, the magic flare should be visible all the way from Hoofrest. And hopefully even further. It’s no longer a question of “Will the Guard find us?”, but “How long until they get here?”

I summon a wisp of magic. Just enough to trigger the dormant spell. The gem glows softly. Tiny sparks fly out, making my hoof tingle. Then, quite abruptly, it leaps into the air! Disappearing into the night sky with a twinkle.

"Five… Four… Three… Oh, shi- Anon! You should probably-"




A second spectral cloud appears, hundreds of hooves above us. Spitting multicoloured thunderbolts in all directions. Rattling the entire mountainside. In the flashes, the area around us lights up as bright as day. I have to squint to keep from being dazzled, but it provides excellent illumination. I elect to ignore Anon’s renewed screaming in favour of taking stock of our surroundings.

Around us are half a dozen flimsy old buildings. Rough, plain wood structures, all badly weathered. A few have collapsed entirely. Cart tracks run from the largest building down into the mine. I see a few empty carts and boxes scattered around. I also note the deep gouges carved into several of them. And the shattered doors torn from their frames.

“Looks like the wyrm’s been through here.”

I’d had a faint hope of finding some old supplies. Tinned food or dry rations, perhaps. Maybe even some potions or enchanted gemstones; worksites often keep a few for emergencies. But there’s little chance of that now. The sand wyrm’s had the run of the place for years, by the look of things. It’ll have taken everything magical or worth eating.

My eyes alight upon a cluster of tough, spindly shrubs.

“Or… perhaps not everything.”

There’s a few of them growing against the cliffside and pressed up against buildings. Wherever they can find shade. A rather miserable meal, I admit, but better than starving. I pluck a few prickly leaves, chewing absently as I continue looking about. I do my best to ignore the bitter flavour.

There’s not much else to see up here. Rocky walls surround us on three sides. On the fourth, the ground drops away steeply, revealing an enormous expanse far below: the moonlit deserts of southern Equestria.

It must be an amazing view during the day. But even with the moon out, I can barely see anything. A dark grey ocean, lapping silently at the cliffs below.

A few twinkling stars sit right on the horizon. Far off towns, perhaps. Appleloosa. Ponyville. Maybe even Canterlot. I think I can make out Tranquility Springs: a little cluster of lights, somewhat closer. And that tiny speck of light, halfway there - that might be Hoofrest.

Well that’s encouraging. If I can see them, then they can see us. I just hope somepony’s looking.

Anon eventually calmed down, after I explained that the storms were my doing. He was mightily impressed by my apparent storm conjuring abilities. The two of us then spent some time patching each other up. We’d both acquired a whole set of exciting new injuries. A lot of scrapes, a lot of bruises, but thankfully nothing too serious.

Most concerning to me were my eyes. I’d been temporarily blinded by sand wyrm saliva back in the tunnel. At the time, it felt like my eyes had been burned out of their sockets! Even though I regained some sight later, I was still worried they’d been permanently damaged.

Anon helped me rinse them out. Gently holding my eyes open one at a time, while washing them with a few drops from his canteen. It stung, and there were more tears and spilled water than I’d like, but eventually the pain subsided to a dull itch. My eyes seemed to be ok.

After wiping my face clean, we then took care of the more mundane injuries. Applying ointment and bandages and so forth. It’s nice having somecreature else patch you up. Sure, there’s the practical advantages - it’s easier patching each other up than treating your own injuries - but there’s more to it than that. There’s just… something comforting about being fussed over. About having someone care for you. I'm hardly the touchy-feely type, but even I appreciate company at times.

Eventually we finished playing doctor, and turned to the next problem: water. We’d lost our last water jar somewhere down in the mine. Probably when I (accidentally!) blinded Anon. Even if the tunnel entrance wasn’t blocked, neither of us were keen to go back looking for it. That just left us with our canteens. And even those were emptying rapidly. (Getting chased through dry old tunnels is thirsty work.)

All in all, we had less than one canteen’s worth of water left between the two of us. This presented us with a rather difficult decision: Do we wait here, trying to conserve water? Or press on?

We could hole up in one of the old buildings. Barricade it as best we can. Then just wait for rescue, avoiding the sun when it comes up. We’re right beneath the flare; shouldn’t take more than a few hours for a pegasus to reach us. However, judging by the damage the wyrm’s already done to the place, I doubt these flimsy old buildings would offer much protection. What if the wyrm comes back? It’s currently blocked by the storm in the tunnel, but there could be other exits. Wyrms are cunning. It may be circling around even now. Attempting to trap us before we can leave its territory. If it finds us before the search party…

The other option is to leave immediately. We’ll use more water climbing down the mountain, but with any luck we’ll be rescued long before it becomes an issue. Though mountaineering at night comes with its own dangers.

A difficult decision either way.

I'd tried explaining it to Anon. But, honestly, we were both so exhausted we could barely understand one another. I think he was in favour of leaving. (Unsurprising, considering his history with the wyrm.) And, ultimately, I agreed.

We wouldn’t have to travel far, I told myself. Sand wyrms are ambush predators; it’ll want to stay near its territory, the mines. We just need to put a little distance between ourselves and it. If we can get off the mountain, down to the valley floor, then it's unlikely to pursue us. And hey, if the path turns out to be too dangerous, we can just wait there for rescue instead of up here.

And so here we are again, marching through the night.

Dead on our hooves, but feeling reasonably optimistic. There’s been no sign of the wyrm. And with every step we leave its lair further behind.

Anon’s whistling again. A rough, off-tempo tune, but I hum along all the same.

Eyes half closed. A weary smile on my lips.

Mountain climbing by moonlight! How nostalgic!

How many times have I dreamt a similar scene? The chill in the air. Silvery powder underhoof. Leaping from crag to crag with total confidence.

The slopes here are rugged and crumbly. The old road loading to the mine hasn’t seen maintenance in decades. But mountains are my home turf. Even half asleep, I have little difficulty picking out the safest routes.

The two of us travel in no great hurry. Stopping to rest frequently. Partly to conserve energy. Partly so Anon doesn’t break his neck in the dark. But honestly, at this point our fate just seems out of our hooves. Either the search party will find us, or the sand wyrm will. I just don’t have the energy to worry beyond that.

So we trot along. Inching down the mountain as the world shifts from black to sullen grey. Watching the eastern horizon blush a faint pink.

Time passes in a sleepy blur. One ridge at a time. Till eventually the ground starts to level out before us. No more steep slopes. Just a narrow path running between cliffs on our right and a heap of boulders on the left. Where the path emerges beyond them, it’s immediately swallowed up by a sea of sand dunes.

Urrgh. More sand. I’d sooner stay on the mountain.

I turn back, looking wistfully at the crags and cliffs towering overhead. Maybe it’s delirium from all the exhaustion, but I feel almost fond of them.

“So long, Macintosh Ranges. You were a good climb, but I think we should go our separate ways.”

Anon gives me a funny look as he walks by. I choose to ignore him.

“You’re from the desert; I’m from the snow. It just wouldn’t work out between us.”

The mountain takes this rejection stoically. With faux-seriousness, I turn away and follow after Anon. Struggling to keep the grin from my face.

I take one last drought of fresh mountain air before entering the ravine, and then-

A faint, organic stench. Foetid. Like a garbage heap, or a week-old carcass.

-I skid to a halt. It takes my weary mind a full second to process. Then my heart skips a beat.


I know that scent! I'm suddenly wide awake, looking around wildly for the source.

Anon turns, puzzled. He’s a few metres ahead. Nearing the end of the path. The cliff looms over him, casting the area deep in shadow. Concealing everything near its base. Anon himself is just barely visible as a pale blur. But surely there’s not enough room for anything large to hide there. Right?

My horn ignites. Cyan light floods the canyon, bouncing off rough stone walls. Everywhere except for one square patch.

Wooden frame. Iron tracks. Empty carts. Another mine entrance!

I can’t see far into it from where I'm standing. But Anon, who’s much closer, stumbles back with a scream. He’s seen it!

The sand wyrm bursts from the tunnel. A great grey bulk, scarcely six metres away. Huge talons raking the earth. Carrion stench spilling from its maw. Slitted eyes gleaming with murderous intent.

Wyrms are cunning. It may be circling around even now. Attempting to trap us before we can leave its territory.

The sand wyrm wasn’t trying to trap us on the plateau. Not while those thunderstorms were going off. But it didn’t need to trap us there - it knew we’d have to leave by this pass. Knew there was another mine opening right here.

It’s been waiting for us.

The thought flashes through my mind in less than a heartbeat. I take in other details, too, in that first split second where I can fully see it. Notice the beast’s long, low body, armoured in heavy ridged scales. Its short legs, barely keeping it off the ground. Angular head, bulging with muscle and bristling with teeth. It’s not as tall as Anon, but longer and far, far heavier. I’ve fought a hydra before, yet I suspect this thing’s in a weight class above. A genuine monster.

It takes a single step forward. Jaws open greedily.

Anon doesn’t move. Why isn’t he moving?!

I don’t have time to wonder. No time to plan. I either act now, or never.

Parks and Wilderness Guard protect others from monsters. That’s all there is to it.

I leap in front of him.

Time snaps back to normal. The beast bounds closer, ungainly but deceptively fast. The passage is narrow. Sheer cliffs on the right. A hill of boulders to the left. No room to go around the wyrm, but boulders? I can work with those.

In less than a second I've leapt up the first rock and am springing to the next, drawing my sword as I go. The wyrm has almost reached me, but it continues heading straight for Anon. Perhaps it’s decided he’s the easier prey. An opportunity I can exploit.

With a cyan flash, my sword flies out. Hardly any power behind the swing - it’s too heavy for my magic - but the wyrm’s own momentum makes up for it. The tip of the blade slips right into the beast’s gaping mouth. Slicing the tender flesh connecting the upper and lower jaw. The brute flinches back, snarling and hissing. I doubt I’ve given it much more than a paper cut, but it’s enough to halt its advance.

Anon’s still just standing there! Why?

“Anon! Run!”

Then I see his face. I’ve only known him for a day, but I can already recognise the signs of panic. He’s frozen in place, shaking like a leaf as the monster from his nightmares prepares to charge.

He had an attack like this back in the tunnel. But there’s no time to calm him down - I need to snap him out of it. Now!

My magic doesn't seem to work on him directly, but it works just fine indirectly. A telekinetic pebble to the cheek is enough to startle him. He blinks. Tears his gaze from the wyrm to look over at me and my glowing horn.

“GO!” I scream, gesturing back up the mountain path.

He hesitates, glancing worriedly at me. Then, without a word, he turns and flees out of sight, disappearing behind the hill.

Well, that’s one less thing to worry about. My attention snaps back to the wyrm. Just in time to see it hurl itself at me!

I leap back instinctively. The monster slams into the spot I’d just been as I scrabble for higher ground. No time to attack; I bound from ledge to ledge in panic, desperately trying to stay out of its reach.

But I'm a mountain mare. Fear turns to confidence as I scale the mound, quickly putting distance between the two of us. The wyrm is large and fast, but I'm light and agile. Where it slips and scrabbles on the loose stone, too heavy for many of the smaller hoofholds, I confidently climb higher and higher. After a frantic minute, I'm able to stop and catch my breath. Safely out of the wyrm’s reach. I'm panting hard, but there’s a cocky grin on my face.

“That’s -hah- that’s right! Just -huff- try and catch me up here!”

My expression slowly sours as I watch the wyrm climb. Though clumsy, it is making progress. I can’t stay out of its reach forever - I’ve already nearly run out of mound to climb.

I take the opportunity to count my options. Perhaps I can fend the wyrm off? With this height advantage, my greatsword might have enough power to punch through those scales. And if not, I can still harass it as it climbs. Maybe it’ll decide I'm not worth the effort?

I make a few tentative jabs with my blade. Relying more on gravity than magic. They punch down into the beast’s back with a heavy THWACK, but fail to penetrate. The wyrm snarls in frustration. Annoyed, but clearly unharmed. It begins flailing up the slope even harder.

Whether by accident or intent, it ends up slamming its full weight into the hill. The stones beneath my hooves shudder alarmingly. Many of the smaller ones are knocked loose, and sent tumbling down the gully. I'm forced to leap from my perch before I suffer the same fate. I aim for a much larger and sturdier looking boulder just a little further down. My form is perfect-


-My landing is not.

I gasp, clutching my leg as lightning and needles stab through my ankle. For a second I think the wyrm's caught me - but no, I've just jarred my existing wound. Badly.

There's a clattering and flashing below me. Shit! My sword! I start after it, reaching out desperately with my magic. But my vision is blurry, my mind hazy with pain. I miss. The silvery rectangle vanishes in the gloom, lost among the tumbling rocks.

I barely have time to process this latest disaster before I feel myself starting to slide.

“No, no, nonono!”

Between the shaking, leaping, limping, and lunging, I've ended up far too close to the edge. With a sickening lurch, my forelegs slip. I spin round, flinging out my uninjured legs to grab any possible hoofhold. I just barely manage to catch myself as I crash to the floor, driving the breath from my lungs, teeth rattling in my skull. My armour spares me the worst of the damage, grinding noisily against the stone. Back legs scrabble helplessly over the empty air, unable to find purchase. More shocks of pain every time my ankle strikes the stone. Desperate panic shoves the pain aside.

For a few terrifying seconds I just dangle there. Hyperventilating. Kicking wildly as the wind picks up, streaming through my tail.

I risk a glance downward. The sand wyrm is right there! Forelimbs halfway up the hill. Mouth gaping wide. Rows upon rows of teeth, waiting to tear into me!

Whatever courage I had fails. My eyes fill with tears as my grip slowly slips away.

“No... Please…”

I fall. Down, down, to the awaiting jaws.

But something beats me to it.

A screaming blur crashes into the wyrm’s side. For a split second I see Anon - more bestial, more terrifying than ever - slam an enormous rock right into the beast’s face. Then the two of them are gone, sent tumbling down the ravine by the sheer momentum of the assault.


I strike the ledge below, bouncing to a stop. Armour helps, but I'm still stunned. Ears ringing, world spinning around me. For a dizzying moment I just lay there, aching all over. For some reason, of all the things I could be worrying about, should be worrying about, the one thing my groggy mind latches on to is the breeze. Why is there a breeze here suddenly? And why does that feel like a bad thing?

A dull roar - not the sand wyrm this time - rises up around me. Dark clouds close in, choking the meagre morning light. And then, with a sudden rush, the world turns black.

“Twilight bucking damnit, not again! Not NOW!”

I am Private Fruit Punch, and this is not a good time! Why can’t I just rescue Glacier in peace!

Deaf to my pleas, the Dust Devil roars to life. There’s no gradual build-up this time. The sands crash into me immediately, blacking out the stars and drowning the sound of my voice. I feel myself being violently wrenched from the sky. A dizzying, nauseating motion through total darkness. I dare not call out for Feather Trail - I’d immediately choke on the torrent of sand whirling alongside me.

And then, like turning off a switch, the storm ends.

I stumble, finding myself suddenly on solid ground. A thick coat of sand covers my… my everything. I shake my head, trying to at least clear my eyes and ears.

Looking around, I see the Macintosh mountains still looming right above above. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, this is the old mine entrance we just visited yesterday.

What is going on?! Why would the Sand Witch take me here of all places? This is barely a kilometre from where I was just flying! I can still see the signal flare hovering further up the mountain! And the last time I was here, the Sand Witch kicked us out all the way back to Hoofrest! What gives?

Before I can figure any of this out, I'm interrupted as the ground next to me bursts upwards, covering me in sand again. A pair of familiar eyes blinks open.

“Oh hey! Feather! You’re still here! What a relief.”

The disoriented pegasus rises from where she'd been half buried, fluffing her wings like a bird in a dust bath. She spits out a mouthful of sand.

”What -pffft pfeh pfeh!- what just happened? Was- was that a Dust Devil?

"Yeah. You get used to it. Though I'm not sure-"


We both look up, startled by a third voice. There’s another pony here!

I can dimly see the figure in the moonlight, clambering down a boulder barely thirty hooves away. I can’t quite make out her coat colour in the grey morning gloom. But it’s impossible to mistake the gleaming armour of the Royal Guard, or the shimmer of a crystal pony.


Feather and I cheer in unison, surging forward. The mare jumps in surprise at our voices, almost falling down the slope. We're already galloping over, relief washing away all weariness. We've found her!

”Who- Trail? Punch? Is that you?”

”Sure is, filly!” Feather is practically prancing as she approaches, wings vibrating with excitement. But she keeps her voice casual. “What are the odds, the two of us running into each other out here, huh?”

Glacier hops down to the sandy valley floor and begins trotting over to us. My trained medic’s eye immediately notices the limp, and the way she’s wobbling unsteadily on her hooves. There’s bandages around her ankle, and her lips are parched and cracked, but all in all she looks okay. Nothing immediately life threatening. That's a great start!

“Are you ok? What happened to your leg?”

I begin pulling out my first-aid kit.

”Later,” she insists, waving me away.

Her voice is rough. I pause, suddenly concerned. Up close, she looks worse than I thought. Bags under her eyes. Face streaked with dirt and tears. Pupils dilated, breath coming out short and fast.

”Glace?” Feather asks, turning serious. “What’s wrong?”

Glacier wipes at her face.

”We, we have to find-”

An explosion of dirt and sand rocks the valley, cutting her off! We all flinch, turning to face the source. Clouds of dust are being violently kicked up near the base of the rocky hill. A rain of small stones pelts the area as something moves among the boulders.

“W-what is-”


With an earth-shaking bellow, an enormous beast claws its way to the surface. Like a great lizard stretched out to nearly the length of a train car. Dark blood oozes from its mouth. Beady eyes slither over towards us, fixing me in its gaze.

”That’s…” Feather trails off, shaken.

”A sand wyrm,” Glacier finishes grimly.

Chapter 24 - Divided

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The mountain of claw and scale glares down at us. Reptilian eyes gleaming in the dark. A deep, rumbling growl spills from maw, shaking the very earth beneath my boots. Or maybe I'm just shaking in my boots. Hard to tell, really.

”Well, bugger this,” Feather Trail announces, tail firmly between her legs. “Time to go.”

She loops her forehooves around Glacier’s midsection and extends her golden wings.

”Private, you still good to fly?”

“Wha…? Ah! Y-yes, corporal!” I squeak.

I am Private Punch, and I am most definitely not still good to fly. After spending the last half hour soaring through the desert, my injured wings feel like they’re about to fall off. But I’ve still got enough left in me to escape a ground-bound beastie. Right?

As if in response, said beastie takes a step towards us. Slow and purposeful. Like it’s trying to sneak up on us, absurd as that is. It’s still some distance away, yet far too close for comfort.

“D-d-definitely time to go!”

”Wait!” Glacier suddenly exclaims. We both jump in surprise at the outburst, Feather almost toppling over. “Anon’s still here! We can’t leave him!”



We both stare at Glacier in confusion. (Though never quite taking our eyes off the giant monster.) Glace continues looking ahead, eyes darting. I’d thought she was just watching the sand wyrm, but now I realise she’s looking beyond it.

”Anon,” she says, distracted. “H-he was near the tunnel entrance when the Dust Devil hit. But I, I lost track of him.”

“There’s another pony here?” Feather asks, rearing in surprise. My own ears perk up at the unexpected news.

Glacier begins to shake her head. Then pauses.

“A- a friend,” she settles on.

Feather looks even more incredulous. But my attention is squarely on Glacier. Her distress is clearly genuine, even bordering on panic. Her ears are pinned back; breaths coming in short and fast; blinking away tears. But she never once stops searching the valley ahead. Looking for any sign of her friend.

I exchange concerned glances with Feather. See the unspoken question in her eyes: “Could there really be another pony out here? Or is Glacier delirious?”

I shrug helplessly. Glace has been lost in the desert for the last two days. Heatstroke, an infected wound, or even just extreme isolation could cause a pony to start seeing things. That seems more likely than her actually running into somepony out here. But I don’t have time to properly assess her condition. And as Royal Guards, can we really risk retreating without first confirming Glacier’s story?

Panicked thoughts swirl through my head as I search for the right answer. But it only takes Feather a moment to reach her conclusion. She turns back to Glacier, determination written on her face. (She is a Parks and Wilderness Guard. Protecting civilians from monsters is kinda her thing.)

”Alright. Glace? Sergeant?”

Feather lifts a hoof and gently shakes her friend. Glacier blinks, and turns to face her.

”We need a plan,” Feather continues in a professional tone. “What are our orders?”

The crystal mare seems dazed for a moment. Lost.

Seconds slip by. The wyrm continues prowling forward. Long snout open lazily, as though anticipating the meal to come.

The tremors in my hooves intensify. I'm just on the verge of declaring Glacier medically unfit for duty - she looks like she’s about to collapse! - when suddenly she shakes her head. Her eyes refocus, and her expression sharpens. She turns to look appraisingly at the wyrm, now scarcely a dozen metres away.

”Corporal Trail,” she barks, voice even and controlled. “Get into the air and fly rings around that thing. Nothing risky; just keep it distracted.”

”On it!”

Feather Trail launches into the air, kicking up a burst of sand. Within seconds she’s bearing down on the lumbering drake, her oversized spear gleaming in the twilight. Unfortunately I've no time to watch the epic clash between monster and monster hunter, as Glacier immediately turns to me.

”Private Punch, keep a low profile and circle around behind the wyrm. Anon should be somewhere near the base of those cliffs. Find him, and get him out of here. We’ll buy you some time.”

My ears flick. I don’t like leaving Glacier like this. I’ve only just found her again! Plus, she clearly needs medical attention. Though now that she’s giving orders, she does look and sound much more like her old self. That’s a good sign. And if there really is a civilian around here, then their safety has to be my priority.

“Yes, sergeant!”

Still, I wish I could do something for her…

“Oh! Here, you’d better take this.”

I quickly unsling my canteen and hoof it over. Glacier’s eyes light up as she receives the precious cargo. The bottle’s still mostly full. She can’t resist taking a quick swig immediately.

“You always were running out of water,” I say with a cheeky grin.

Glacier chokes and sputters, ears red with embarrassment.

”Gee, -cough- thanks, Fruit,” she deadpans, putting the bottle away. But she can’t quite hide her grateful smile. “Now get going!”

I salute, and take to the sky (less dramatically than Feather Trail). I feel a little better now, sore wings notwithstanding. Though I still can’t shake this feeling of apprehension. Like I’ve missed something important. Things are just moving too fast!

But it’s not like I’d be any help if I stayed with Glacier, right? What am I gonna do, fight the humongous sand dragon? Ha ha, no. I would get super murdered. Better leave the scary stuff to the professionals. Escorting civilians to safety is more my speed.

“Alright. You can do this,” I tell myself. “All you’ve gotta do is find Anon, and get him out of here. What could go wrong?”



Feather’s spear glances off the beast’s snout. It lunges at her as she passes, furious. But its jaws catch only air. She’s far too nimble for the hulking brute.

The golden mare arcs away gracefully. A gleaming blur against the grey and pink sky. She takes a moment to observe her foe, gliding almost leisurely. But soon she’s diving back towards it. She has to keep the wyrm focused on her. Can’t risk it growing bored.

The beast rears up as she approaches. Like an old fashioned joust, the two strike at each other as they pass. But Feather isn’t aiming for injury. These are probing attacks. Gauging her target’s speed and reach. She uses her spear to bait the wyrm, keeping as much distance herself as possible.



The wyrm snaps at the silver needle as it whizzes by. But all it gets for its trouble is a slash across the neck. No penetration, though; I can tell just from the ringing sound. Those draconic scales are too thick, even for Feather’s greatspear.

I am Sergeant Glacier, and I really wish I hadn’t lost my sword. The one weapon which had any hope of punching through that armour, and I dropped it back by the cliff. Now it’s probably been buried by the Dust Devil.

Not that I could accomplish much if I still had it. Just look at me! I'm bleeding, exhausted, and can barely use magic. Plus, I'm trying to lead the wyrm away from the cliffs; if I engaged it now, I’d be fighting it on open ground, with no cover or elevation.

Still, it would have been something. A sharp, heavy lump of metal thrust at the eye will give even a dragon pause. And even if I had no chance of beating the wyrm, I could at least have taken some of the pressure off Feather. Instead, I'm forced to watch helplessly as my friend takes all the risks.



”Woah!” Feather exclaims as the wyrm suddenly leaps forward, surprising her with its reach. It may be big and clumsy, but it’s certainly not slow. Feather just barely manages to tumble out of the way, wings beating furiously.

I grit my teeth, resisting the temptation to shout advice. The mare knows what she’s doing. Making noise will only draw attention to myself. And if the wyrm decides I'm the easier meal, that’ll make Feather’s job even harder. No, better for me to lay low and observe. Ready to act in a critical moment. I can’t take the wyrm head-on, but a well timed warning or distraction could save my friend’s life.

Perhaps I could fling my knife in the beast’s eye or open mouth, should I get the chance? Though that’s the problem: I'm only going to get one chance. As soon as I make myself known, I doubt even Feather will be able to protect me.

I just hope Fruit finds Anon before it comes to that.

“Anon? Ow! Twilight bucking damnit! Anon!”

I'm Fruit Punch, and I am not a clever pony. I’d taken to the air to scout for Glacier’s missing friend… only to be quickly reminded that my wings are a giant ball of pain.

“Ow, ow, ow!”

After thirty seconds or so of graceless, painful flapping, it was clear that flight was not an option. One clumsy landing later, and I'm now galloping around on hoof. Doing my best to ignore my throbbing wings.

“Anon? Anypony here?”

I call out in a kind of stage-whisper, as loud as I dare. I don’t want to draw the sand wyrm’s attention, but I’ve gotta find this Anon soon.

Nopony answers me. The only sounds are the kinda-distant-but-not-distant-enough roars of the wyrm. I do my best to ignore them. It’s not easy.

The Macintosh mountains stretch far up above me. Tinted red in the early dawn light. But down here, everything is still draped in shadow. All dreary greys and pools of black. To my right, I can vaguely make out a pile of boulders. The aftermath of some ancient rockslide, perhaps. However it got there, the jumbled heap must have a million nooks and crannies big enough to hide a pony. I just hope that if Anon is in there somewhere, he hasn’t been knocked unconscious or anything. It could take hours to search thoroughly.

I give the pile a quick once-over, but dare not spend too long. Turning left, I peer up the dark cliff looming nearby. While it has its fair share of cracks and fissures, there’s one obvious place to look: the old mine entrance.

With a shudder, I remember my last journey down that tunnel. How we’d barely taken a dozen steps before some hulking monster blocked the entrance.

Come to think of it, that must have been the sand wyrm, right? Same size, same shape.

I grimace as I realise just how close I’d come to getting murdered yesterday. The wyrm had followed us into the tunnel, trapping us inside. If it weren’t for that Dust Devil spiriting us out of there, we’d almost certainly be wyrm food.

Heh. And I’d been so mad at the Dust Devil, too! Now it turns out it saved my life? Was that the Sand Witch’s doing? Had She rescued us from the wyrm? If so, why send us back now? If she wanted to help Glace and Anon, why not just Dust Devil them to safety, too?

“Urgh. I appreciate the help, sand lady, but you’re not making much sense!”

Unfortunately, the Sand Lady does not conveniently appear before me in order to justify her actions.

I shake my head. Gotta stay focused.

I can’t do anything about the Witch, but the longer I delay the more danger Glace and Feather are in. And Anon might already be hurt, bleeding out into the sand somewhere. I saw how roughed up Glacier was, and she’s a fricken Parks and Wilderness veteran!

I continue towards the mine entrance. Ancient timbers framing a deep darkness. Mounds of sand are piled up around the opening, probably a leftover from all those Dust Devils. Tiptoeing around the corner, I cautiously peek inside.

Nopony in sight.

(No sand wyrms, either.)

But the tunnel runs deeper and deeper into the mountain. The pale, sandy floor quickly disappears into the gloom. Anon could have taken shelter further in.

“H-hello?” I call out.

After our last expedition, I'm not overly keen to go back down there. Maybe Anon will come out to meet me?

”ello… llo… lo…”

I wait as the echoes slowly fade. Trying to pick up anything over the distant sounds of battle.

Seconds pass.

Perhaps I ought to take a few steps inside? Have a quick look around?

I'm just mustering up the courage to enter, when suddenly the sand next to me moves.


I leap aside, wings flaring painfully. What I had thought was just a loose pile of sand starts to rise. Long limbs snake their way to the surface, hauling a large mass behind them. Royal Guard training finally kicks in. I fumble for my sword, heart racing.

The shape continues to emerge, oblivious to my drawn weapon. Great, rumbling coughs shake the sand loose from its back, giving me a better glimpse of the creature beneath. The beast is thin and gaunt, sand clinging to its naked skin. It’s taller than me. Taller even than the sand wyrm. Higher and higher it rises, standing unsteadily on two enormous legs. And in its hand is-

“Hey! That’s Glacier’s sword!” I exclaim, slightly muffled by my own weapon.

The creature starts back, seemingly just as surprised to see me here. Which is actually kinda reassuring. It probably wasn’t sneaking up on me, then.

We eye each other warily for a moment. It’s certainly a strange, scary looking critter, but I'm pretty sure it’s no wild animal. For one thing, it’s wearing clothing of some sort. (Well, rags, really.) For another, it’s actually holding Glacier’s sword by the handle, like it knows what it’s doing. So, wait. If it’s got Glacier’s sword…

“C-could you be… Anon?”

It blinks in surprise, looking at me curiously. Its face isn’t as expressive as a pony’s, but I'm in the Harmony Corps; I work with other species all the time. I'm pretty good at picking up on their body language.

Tapping its chest, the creature nods and repeats “Anon”. Then, in a deep, rough voice, it says… something else.

“Sorry, what was that?”

I couldn’t understand a single word!

The creature speaks again. A whole bunch of words, tumbling out in a worried rush. With a sinking feeling, I realise he’s not speaking Equestrian. Or any language I know, for that matter.

“Ahhh… Well, shit. This complicates things.”



I dive out of the way, hearing the huge jaws snap shut behind me. I grin at the narrow escape, adrenaline and exhilaration keeping me one flap ahead of the monster.

I am Corporal Feather Trail, and I haven’t cut loose like this in years!

Sure, inspecting traps and monitoring monster populations is important work. But it’s nice to get my hooves dirty once in a while. Prove I can still go hoof-to-claw with the biggest, baddest beasties in Equestria.

However, no matter how much fun I'm having, I'm still a professional. I ignore the temptation to try some of my flashier moves. Instead, I stick with the boring but safe stuff. I’ve got a job to do, and I'm not going to let my guard down. Or let my Guards down, for that matter.

I glance towards Glacier. The glittery unicorn is laying low, avoiding the sand wyrm’s notice while staying near enough to help. Good mare. She looked pretty rough when we found her; glad she’s not doing anything reckless. I'm not entirely sure what her plan is, but I’ve worked with her long enough to know she’s got a good head on her shoulders. I'm perfectly okay with leaving the decisions to her, while I focus on the fight.



Heheh. That was a pretty good hit, if I do say so myself. Pricked the wyrm right in the ribs.

The big lizard is definitely getting more pissed off at me. I see how it’s staying coiled low to the ground, head tracking my every move. Ready to snap as soon as I approach. I may be no more than a stinging insect to it, but there’s nothing more annoying than an insect that won’t go away.

I can’t hurt the beast, and I doubt I can outlast it. Not after spending all of yesterday flying back and forth, and much of last night too. Still, I might be able to annoy this creature enough that it just goes away. That tactic works surprisingly often.

I bank around slowly, giving my wings a break while I catch my breath. The wyrm’s still waiting some distance away, expecting I’ll come back for another attack. I let it wait. The longer I can draw this out, the better. Even if the wyrm never gives up, reinforcements are on the way. Sergeant Oak and the rest of my squad can’t be too far off. And that other filly - Private Punch - is off galloping around near the cliffs, presumably looking for Anon. Once she finds him then she and Glace can withdraw, leaving me free to disengage and fly away safely. Assuming this "Anon" actually exists.

I spare a glance towards the mountains, trying to spot Punch. Last I saw her she was scrabbling around the base of those boulders. I can’t see her at the moment, but then again I don’t have a lot of altitude right now. She could be behind the heap, or a sand dune, or something.

No, wait. There is something moving down there.

What… is that thing?

I squint. It’s no pony, that’s for sure. And where’s Punch?

I slow down a bit, trying to make out details in the twilight. The… creature is speeding towards me on two long legs, kicking up a trail of sand. It’s holding something in one of its forelimbs. A... sword?? The way it holds the weapon and the way it stands upright suggest it’s a minotaur. But I don’t see any horns. It’s tall, and thin, and worryingly familiar. Why does it feel like I should know what it is?

I rack my brains. Memories of the old Parks and Wilderness training centre slowly surface. Days spent memorising the greatest threats to Equestria. And the worst of the worst, the legendary monsters on The List.

My heart stops beating for a moment as I realise what I'm looking at.

“Oh, bloody hell.”

What is she doing?

I am Sergeant Glacier again, and Feather Trail is acting strange.

She had been happily strafing the sand wyrm for several minutes, playing it fairly safe after learning the creature’s capabilities. But now she’s slowed to a stop, and is just hovering there. Only a few dozen hooves above the desert floor. And the wyrm has taken notice.

The great, scaly beast stalks towards her. Surprisingly quiet on the soft sands.

“C’mon, Trail,” I mutter, creeping along behind it. “Look behind you! What are you doing?!”

She seems to be watching something intently. Is she looking at Fruit Punch? Did something happen to her? There’s unlikely to be any other large monsters nearby. Sand wyrms are too territorial - this one would have fought them off long ago. So unless Punch picked a fight with Anon, I can’t think of any other reason she’d be in trouble.

True, Anon doesn’t speak Equestrian. And he does look kind of frightening. And humans are supposed to be monsters so terrifying they deserve a place on The List…

My sluggish mind finally kicks into gear. The List! Anon’s a creature from The List, and I didn’t warn Feather!

It hadn’t seemed important at the time. Not to my sleep-deprived brain, panicking brain. But if Feather saw a genuine human running across the desert…

Well, I said it myself:

Honestly, I dare any PWG to meet a creature from The List and not freeze up. Especially when you’re alone, at night, in the middle of nowhere...

The wyrm is almost upon her. Muscles bunching up as it prepares to leap into the air. I’ve no choice. With a flash of my horn, I shout:


My magically-enhanced voice booms across the sand dunes. Feather Trail flinches violently, but immediately starts forward. Years of military training forcing her to obey the order before it even consciously registers.

Even the sand wyrm seems perturbed by the noise, hesitating a moment. But only a moment.

It’s not enough.

Launching after the fleeing pegasus, the giant wyrm streeetches its neck forward, jaws gaping wide. Moving faster than I thought possible.

There’s a blur of motion. A metallic ringing noise. A crushing snap.

And a scream.


I gallop forward, all thoughts of stealth long gone. A golden streak tumbles away from the wyrm’s mouth. Falling limply to the ground. Before it can impact, yellow wings shoot out, converting downward motion into horizontal speed.

Feather rockets forward, skimming unsteadily over the surface of the sand. Veering towards me. She’s almost reached me when one of her wings clips the ground. She’s sent into a violent spin, toppling and crashing through the sand, deep furrows in her wake.

She slides to a stop a few hooves away. Half-buried. Unmoving.

Stomping its great, clawed feet, the sand wyrm roars in triumph.

Chapter 25 - Monster hunter

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I race to my friend’s side. The pegasus is lying in a crumpled heap, halfway down a dune. Sand furrowed behind her, loose feathers scattered about. The armour along her flank is shattered. Steel plates buckled and dented. One of them is missing entirely. No blood that I can see; hopefully the armour took the worst of the damage.

As I skid to a halt beside her I hear a pitiable moan:

”Owww… Luna buck me sideways...”

Feather’s still alive! I am Sergeant Glacier, and I’ve never been happier to hear blasphemy!

“Are you alright? Can you move?”

I begin digging her out of the sand. Careful not to move her too much. Don’t want to exacerbate any injuries.

Her coat and mane are choked with sand. Brushing the worst of it aside, I gently lift her head. My heart skips a beat as I see the blood smeared across her muzzle.

Just a bloody nose from the crash, I tell myself. It doesn’t mean anything. Probably. Hopefully.

Feather cracks an eye open. Looks up at me blearily.

”Ooof. Hey Glace. Let me just…”

She begins sluggishly rolling over, limbs working their way into a sitting position. But when she tries to move her hind legs-


She collapses back, gasping in pain. Spends a moment just getting her breath back. I press my hoof into hers reassuringly, stroking her mane as she blinks away tears.

”Ok,” she pants. “Leg, uh. Doesn’t feel great. N-not sure I can walk.”

She mostly keeps the panic from her voice. But I’ve known her too long to miss it.

To the guardsmare’s credit, she only hesitates a moment before turning to me:

”Glace, y-you have to go. You have to leave me and-”

“We’re both going,” I say with finality.

”No, listen,” she insists. “There’s a huma- Ow ow owww shit shit aaargh!”

I scoop her onto my back, ignoring her screams of protest. Armour scrapes against armour as I get the balance right.

I hate moving her like this. It clearly hurts like Tartarus. And I could be making her injuries much worse. But it can’t wait.

The sand wyrm is coming.

I glance up. At the top of the dune, a vast darkness slowly crawls into view. A primaeval mass of armour, muscle, and fangs. Beady, slitted eyes stare down at me.

At least the damned lizard doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. Its heavy, knobbled feet drag it along the sand at an almost leisurely pace. Confident I can’t escape? Or maybe it’s just as hurt and exhausted as I am? This hasn’t been the easy ambush it hoped for, after all.

Either way, it’s a small mercy. Seizing the opportunity, I turn and run - or stumble - down the dune. My injured ankle screams with every step, threatening to give out. And the rest of me isn’t much better off. Exhaustion weighs down upon me just as heavily as Feather, filling my limbs with lead. Each breath is a desperate struggle for air. The effort is agonising. And almost certainly futile. There’s simply no way I can outrun the wyrm. Especially not with a fully armoured mare on my back.

But futile or not, it’s my only option. There’s no time to come up with any other plan. No weapons or tricks left to fend the wyrm off. And no way I'm leaving my friend behind. So I run.

At this point, my only real hope is to draw the fight out as long as possible. My signal flare is still burning bright overhead. A chromatic beacon, easily visible against the grey morning sky. Feather already found me; the rest of the Parks and Wilderness crew are surely on their way. We just have to hold out until they get here.

After long seconds of running - maybe a minute or two, it's impossible to say - Feather starts to quiet down. The hyperventilating and cursing subside. She takes a steadying breath. Then, in a strained voice says:

”Sergeant. Listen to me. There’s a human out here! I know it sounds crazy. But please believe me, I saw one!”

It’s hard to focus on her. Every step is a struggle just to stay upright. What’s this about a human? She saw Anon? That's... good, right? That means Anon’s still alive, right? Thank Celestia! When I’d lost him in the storm - saw him tumbling down into darkness with the wyrm at his side - I'd assumed the worst. The fear and guilt had been suffocating. A part of me was surprised at just how attached I’d become to him. Now that I know he’s ok, I can breathe a little easier. Feels like a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders.

Unfortunately, the much more literal weight is still there. Through gritted teeth, I manage to grunt:

“Believe you.”

>”You do?” Feather sounds surprised. “Oh. Good. Well, then you know how serious this is. One of us has to make it back to HQ to warn them. One.”

Her voice turns grim. I hate when she gets like this. It sounds wrong, coming from the normally playful pegasus.

”Fact is," she continues. "I’m not going anywhere like this. And neither are you while I’m on your back. Sergeant Glacier, you have to leave me behind and get awaARGH! Motherbucker!”

A well timed jostle interrupts Feather’s stupid suggestion. I'm not going to just ditch her and run off! (Even if she is completely right…)

While she’s busy cussing me out, I chance a look behind me. My heart sinks.

Crawling atop the nearest dune is the wyrm. The monstrous blot is moving parallel to us. Easily keeping pace. Like a shark scenting blood, it knows we don’t have long left. Soon I’ll trip, or collapse from exhaustion. The moment I slow down, the wyrm will be all over us.


I blink. Thought I saw a glint up on the slope, behind the wyrm.

Crunch. Crunch.

The wyrm pauses. Forked tongue flicks out, tasting the air. My own ears twitch.

Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.

Is that… footsteps?


I flinch at the fierce, unintelligible war cry. Feather lets off even more profanity as I almost drop her. At the same time, I see a sword - my sword - lifted high into the air above the wyrm! Then it comes crashing down.


Wailing in pain and surprise, the sand wyrm scampers aside. Standing behind it, silhouetted against the pink morning sky, is Anon.

A happy shout escapes my throat, too relieved and exhausted for anything coherent. My vision gets a bit blurry for some reason. There's dampness on my cheek.

Feather, meanwhile, isn't quite so relieved:

”Oh, buck me."

I can actually feel the poor mare shivering in her armour. I sympathise completely; Anon looks particularly terrifying right now. Clothes shredded and bloody. Hairless skin covered in fresh wounds. Towering over the wyrm with a snarl on his face, greatsword in hand. He wields the massive weapon easily, his over-long arms making it look like a toy.

He spares a glance in our direction. His eyes soften as they meet mine. I can’t help but beam up at him. Relief radiating from every inch of my face.

He returns the smile. Weary, but heartfelt. Then the moment passes. His attention snaps back to the wyrm, expression furious. The enormous brute growls and hisses at him, but keeps its distance. Though many times longer and heavier than Anon - it’s halfway between a dragon and a boa-constrictor - the sand wyrm doesn’t have much reach. Those stumpy legs and elongated snout are powerful, and faster than they have any right to be. But the human is taller. All long, flexible limbs, able to lash out at a moment’s notice. With my sword extending his range, the wyrm simply can’t get close without a painful slash across the claw or snout.

I notice a dark stain running along the edge of the blade. And a matching trickle running down the wyrm’s thigh. It seems Anon’s sneak attack actually managed to cut through all that thick armour. Impressive. It’s not a serious wound; I know enough about giant beasties to tell that at a glance. But it’s painful enough to force the wyrm to hesitate. For the first time in who knows how many years, the sand wyrm is afraid.

But it doesn’t back down.

Hunger - or pride - compels the wyrm to stand its ground. It observes the strange biped from a safe distance. Forked tongue flickering in and out. Appraising. Biding its time. The two apex predators begin to circle one other. Feather and I watch in terrified fascination. This kind of fight is the stuff of legends among the PWG. I’ve no idea how it will pan out, but one thing’s for sure: if we survive, ponies will be buying us drinks for years.

We’re both so engrossed that we don’t even notice another, lighter set of hoofsteps.

”I… -huff- …found… -puff- …Anon.”

I turn in surprise to see Fruit Punch hurrying down the dune.

“Fruit! Great work. Is he alright?”

Peering at her as she approaches, I add:

“Are you alright?”

The smaller pegasus looks almost as exhausted as me! Her purple coat is matted with sweat and dust. Her dark wings are a dishevelled mess, broken feathers sticking out at all angles. She looks like she can barely stand, she’s panting so heavily.

”Some… -huff- …superficial injuries… -puff- …but he seems… -huff- …ok. Treated the worst of them. Managed to tell him… -puff- …where you are. He immediately ran… -huff- …ALL the way back here. Too much… -puff- …bloody running!”

“You’re damn right,” I mutter.

I'm impressed with Fruit’s ability to communicate with Anon so quickly. It took me hours of panicking and screaming before I sat down and actually talked with him. Guess her Harmony Corps training is useful for something after all.

“Ok, he’s bought us a few moments. I need you to take a look at Feather. She’s hurt. Could be bad.”

”Forget that,” Feather cuts in. “Let’s grab Anon and go while the human’s distracted with the wyrm. Where is he, anyway?”

Ah. Right. She still thinks “Anon” is some pony I found. Because a Parks and Wilderness Guard befriending a human is absolutely insane.

As if on cue, said human starts shouting like a madman. Raising my sword, he actually charges at the wyrm. Even more amazingly, the multi-ton monster backs away, snapping and huffing in distress. Anon continues his reckless assault, swinging wildly at any part of the wyrm he can reach. He gets a few glancing blows in, but I can tell none of them manage to penetrate the scales.

In response to Feather’s question, Fruit wordlessly points a wing at the human. Feather cocks her head.

”...Wait. That’s Anon!?”

“Yeah, about that…” I begin sheepishly.

Strong hooves grip my shoulders. Punctuating every word with a shake.

”You’re telling me your "friend" is a bucking human?!”

Fruit Punch tilts her head.

”Wait… -huff- …he’s, like, a human from the… -puff- …old mares’ tales? They’re real?”

I shake my head.

“Long story. Anon’s no threat to us.”

”A human is no threat!?”

I wince as Feather practically screams in my ear.

”For what it’s worth,” Fruit wheezes. “He didn’t threaten me. He kept asking about “Gray” - I think he meant Glacier.”

”Look, it doesn’t matter,” Feather says, starting to regain her composure. “We have very strict orders about this. We see a human, we run. End of story.”

Her voice turns pleading.

”Glacier, come on. The human’s given us an opportunity to escape. We might not get another.”

I bite my lip. She’s not wrong.

As far as the Royal Guard is concerned, retreating now would be 100% justified. Anything less would be in direct violation of my orders. And likely be considered reckless endangerment of my fellow Guards. I could be court-martialed - assuming I even survived.

And seriously, even if we stay here, what good would it do? How can three tired and injured ponies hope to stand against a sand wyrm? Between us we don’t have a single weapon that can hurt it! Now that Anon’s got my sword, if anypony can defeat the wyrm, it’s him. We could fall back and regroup with the rest of the PWG. Maybe convince them to come help Anon. They’re already on their way; we might only be gone for a few minutes. Heck, Anon might even have slain the sand wyrm by then!

Sigh. If only I could believe that. But my gut tells me otherwise.

Anon’s slowing down. His first blow was able to cut through the wyrm’s armour thanks to surprise, momentum, and pure luck. But none of his other attacks have managed since. It’s not his fault; he just doesn’t have the training to use the awkward weapon properly. Every time he swings, he’s wasting energy. Every time he hits, the angle is all wrong. Each blow sends the wyrm flinching back - but each time it recovers a little faster.

I'm not sure why Anon’s gone so all out on offence. Is this some predator thing? Sensing weakness in the wyrm? Or perhaps he wants revenge for the damage it did to his arm? Or... could he be trying to protect me? Maybe Feather was right - maybe he is giving us a chance to escape.

Whatever his reasons, he can’t keep this pace. I can already see the exhaustion in his face. See the shaking in his limbs.

The momentum of the fight is shifting. And the sand wyrm knows it.

As though thinking the same thing, the massive beast suddenly leaps forward. Damn thing’s fast when it wants to be! Anon scarcely has time to raise my sword, blocking the wyrm mid-lunge. My breath catches as the bulk of the brute presses down upon him, pinning him in place. It’s amazing he’s not crushed outright! He manages to stabilise himself in a sort of half-crouch, struggling to keep his footing. Great heavy claws scrabble against the hilt of the blade. Fangs the size of my hooves snap angrily at Anon’s throat. With a desperate grunt, Anon adjusts his grip, one hand grabbing the bare blade for greater leverage. Incredibly, he manages to lever his way out from underneath the colossal mass, shoving it aside and bashing its face with the pommel for good measure. The two combatants separate, and I can finally breathe again.

The whole interaction took less than two seconds.

It's only cemented my fear: Anon doesn’t have minutes to spare. If I leave now, I'm leaving him to die alone.

I couldn’t do that to Feather. I can’t do that to Anon.

“Fruit, get Feather to safety,” I order, shifting Feather onto Fruit’s back. The smaller pegasus buckles under the sudden weight, while the larger squawks in protest. “As soon as you’re clear, check her for injuries. She might need emergency treatment.”

”W-what about you?” Fruit gasps, straining. “Y-you’re coming with us, right?”

”Glace, please,” Feather begs. “This isn’t your fight!”

“Like Tartarus it isn’t!”

And with that, I charge towards Anon.

I am Private Fruit Punch, and I am panicking. I hate letting Glacier leave like this. Though it’s not like I’ve got much choice! If I try to follow her, I’ll have to leave Feather behind. I can look after one pony or the other, but not both!

Ultimately, it’s all I can do to trust that Glacier knows what she’s doing. At least she won’t be alone; she’s going to help that Anon creature, right? Hopefully the two of them can keep each other safe.

I drag the injured corporal out of sight, over a dune and behind a small boulder. Then I set about stripping off her armour with quick, practised motions. Not the easiest thing to do when the armour’s a mangled wreck! Luckily, the mare underneath seems mostly intact. No lacerations or open wounds. No obvious signs of concussion or internal trauma, thank Twilight. But she’ll need a proper examination to rule them out.

The main damage seems to be across her back right leg. Extensive bruising is already visible beneath her short gold fur. I can’t feel a break in the bone, but she hisses in pain every time I touch the tender area. A fracture seems likely. Her wings are also a mess. Missing half the feathers on one side. Probably more fractures there, too; those little flight bones are delicate.

The older guardsmare takes my inspection like a pro. Holding still as ordered, and complaining very little. I do what I can with my limited first aid kit, administering painkillers and applying a makeshift splint. Gosh, it’s been a long time since I’ve had to do first aid for real! I hope I'm not forgetting anything! I’ve rushed the whole process more than I'm comfortable with. But the distant shouting and roaring is a constant reminder that time is of the essence.

After what can only have been a few minutes - but feels like ages - I step back, checking over my work one final time.

”Ugh. Thanks, Punch,” Feather moans through gritted teeth.

Her initial shock and adrenaline have worn off. Now there’s nothing to distract her from the pain. Poor mare - it looks pretty bad. It’ll be another few minutes before the painkillers kick in. Despite this, she’s still focused on the task at hoof.

”Y-you’d better get going. I’ll be ok, but Glace will need all the help she can get.”

“You’re sure?” I ask, pawing the ground anxiously. I am eager to go. But leaving a wounded friend behind just doesn’t feel great.

Feather nods firmly.

”Consider it an order, private! Go!”

With a last, concerned glance, I turn and dash away.

”And watch out for that human!” Feather’s voice trails after me.

I'm not entirely sure why Feather’s so scared of Anon. Maybe she’s just not used to working with other species? It’s not that unusual; most Royal Guard regiments are still one hundred percent pony. The Harmony Corps was established specifically to buck that trend. I’ll have to have a talk with Feather about her prejudices… But that can wait. For now, I just focus on putting one shaky leg in front of the other.

The first dune passes underhoof, and the sounds of battle draw nearer. As I crest the final hill, a familiar sensation starts to tickle my wings. There’s a drop in the air pressure. The winds begin to stir. Unnaturally.

“Oh, for the love of…! Another Dust Devil? Seriously!?”

But this is no mere Dust Devil.

“Wow, this is stupid,” I mutter under my breath. “What am I doing, this stupid, I’m going to die, oh Celestia, this is so, so stupid…”

I am Glacier, and despite my earlier bravado, I am absolutely quaking in my boots. As I gallop up the dune, I don’t see a sand wyrm anymore. Instead, looming above me is an abattoir. A living fortress. Visions of my violent, painful death play out over and over. I feel sick, and scared, and every single instinct in my body screams for me to turn tail and run home.

But I see Anon up there, too. I’ve only known him for a few hours. But that’s enough to read the expression on his face. Whatever confidence or bloodlust he had earlier is gone. Now he’s just as sick and scared as me.

I press on.

The battle isn’t going well. The sand wyrm’s back on the offensive. Constantly slithering forward. Leaping and snapping at Anon’s legs. He retaliates with heavy sword blows. But they just make the wyrm mad. Only the human’s quick footwork is keeping him alive.

I’ve nearly reached them now. Approaching from the monster’s rear, I rack my brains for any way to help. But no matter how I slice it, it seems I'm all out of tricks. No more magic stones. No high ground. No weapon. No- well, ok, technically I do still have a weapon.

I draw my utility knife. Frown down at the puny thing. Even the strongest earth pony couldn’t cut through those scales with this! The only way it could possibly hurt the wyrm is to strike somewhere unprotected. The eyes, or open mouth maybe. Impossible to reach from this angle. And extremely risky to get any closer.

Maybe I could float it over with my magic? It wouldn’t be easy. Few unicorns have the telekinetic strength or finesse to use weapons that way, and I'm no exception. At best, I could launch it with slightly more precision than the average pony. Not great odds.

While I creep forward, fearful and uncertain, it finally happens: Anon stumbles.

I don’t even see the cause. A loose stone underfoot, maybe? A gust of wind? It wouldn’t take much. Doesn’t matter. I look up in time to see him toppling backward. See the horrified realisation in his eyes. Before he even hits the ground, the sand wyrm charges.

I wasn't fast enough. Too indecisive. Too afraid.

No chance of reaching the eyes or mouth now. Only the legs and tail are in range. Covered everywhere in heavy scale. Completely impenetrable. Everywhere, except for…

My eyes widen.

Momentum is on my side. Like a freight train, the colossal wyrm takes time to get up to speed. I have a split second opportunity to catch it before it reaches Anon.

No more hesitation.

I leap forward, knife clamped between my teeth.


I strike.

The wyrm yelps, pain and surprise derailing its attack as I plunge the knife forward. Deep into the only unarmoured spot within reach: the bloody, open wound Anon slashed along its flank.

“Anon! Go!” I shout, immediately dashing back. I'm forced to abandon the knife, embedded in the wyrm’s side. Anon takes the hint, scrambling away as fast as he can.

The sand wyrm doesn't even notice us. It's too busy writhing and thrashing, trying to dislodge whatever's stinging it. Kicking up great plumes of sand as it does so. Its head swings around wildly - almost comically - as though expecting to see some larger predator has snuck up on it.

I slink away as quick and as quiet as I can, looping around towards Anon. Not quick enough. Finding no other culprit, the sand wyrm settles its gaze upon me. Recognition gleams in those cold, slitted eyes. The pony who blinded it back in the mine. The pony who hurt it. Deafened it. Defied it.


The titan charges. Massive claws tearing up the dunes as it thunders towards me. It doesn’t even bother opening its jaws - it intends to crush me and be done with it!

I try to run. But that last exertion to save Anon took a lot out of me. My limbs just can't move fast enough. Each stride feels like running uphill, like swimming through molasses.

In the span of three panicked heartbeats, the wyrm crosses the distance between us. Numb with terror, I can only watch as the monster rears up, towering over me. The beast roars in triumph.

Only to be drowned out by an even louder roar.

An explosion of noise and motion strikes the wyrm dead in the chest. At the same time, the sand and dust already swirling about intensifies a hundredfold! Hurricane winds spring to life around me, forming a vast, dark funnel. And in the centre of it all, standing just hooves away, is a pony.

Silvery-black sand shifts and swirls over her coat. Or maybe that is her coat. Her outline is blurred. Drifting. Like smoke in the wind. But the overall shape is clear. Great black wings stream away behind her. Spiralled horn glows with eldritch power.

Not a pony.

An alicorn.

From one outstretched hoof flows a torrent of sand, blasting into the wyrm. The jet must be moving incredibly fast; even from a few metres away, the ricocheting sand stings every inch of my exposed fur. The noise is deafening. Like a hundred thousand wasps buzzing angrily.

I should run. Another creature from The List? I should definitely run. But it's just too much. The fatigue, noise, and shock, and now a fricken alicorn!? I'm done. I manage to crawl a few paces away, before collapsing to a sitting position. Staring dumbfounded at the scene before me.

Incredibly, the wyrm is still in one piece. That blast of sand would have flayed a pony instantly. But those damned thick scales, imbued with ancient draconic magic, manage to hold out against even an alicorn’s power. The sand beam physically forces the brute back, inch by inch, but can’t penetrate the armour.

Of course, the armour doesn’t cover everywhere. Great, clumsy claws protect the wyrm’s head as best they can. The initial blast must have caught it off guard, getting into its eyes. The beast thrashes about in a literal blind rage. A nightmarish blur in the storm, held at bay by the even darker shape of the alicorn.


I squeak in surprise as something touches my shoulder! But it’s only Anon. I turn to see the human crouched over, leaning heavily into the wind. He looks haggard, eyes wild with fright. Completely out of his depth. I feel absolute sympathy.

He speaks again, but I can barely hear him over the wind. (Hopefully he didn’t hear my earlier squeak...) But he gestures away from the terrifying combat. Can't see where he's pointing to - the horizon is gone, lost behind a whirling wall of darkness. But his expression is clearly saying “Let’s get out of here!”

I hesitate. Glancing towards the alicorn at the eye of the storm. I... I don’t know if I can go. An alicorn’s presence is dominating. Overwhelming. Slinking away is almost unthinkable.

As if sensing my thoughts, the sand pony turns. Or… it’s hard to see, but it almost looks like She dissolves, then reforms so that She’s now facing me. One leg remains casually raised towards the sand wyrm. Blasting away with blisteringly fierce magic.

Her eyes settle upon me. Twin lighthouses piercing the storm.

With a single nod, I'm suddenly released from Her aura. Like I’ve been dismissed. A wordless voice in my head seems to say “I’ll take it from here.”

Anon shakes my shoulder again, more urgently. Blinking, I look up at him. Our eyes meet, and I nod. With firm hands, Anon helps me to my hooves. Leaning against each other, the two of us begin wading through the storm. Out into safety.

I spare a glance back at the alicorn. She’s still watching me. Not even bothering to look at the wyrm as it writhes under the force of Her onslaught. I'm not sure how I can tell - She’s little more than a blur at this point - but somehow I feel She’s smiling at me. There’s something like a… a maternal fondness there. And something else. It feels almost… apologetic?

Then from out of the gloom a black tail slams into her. For a split second I see a look of surprise on Her face. Then She explodes in a shower of sand.

With an obnoxious roar, the not-Dust-Devil crashes down before me. Another great, whirling sandstorm. A non-pegasus wouldn't be able to tell the difference. But I've become uncomfortably familiar with Dust Devils. I can feel the intentionality here. Compared to this, a Dust Devil is nothing more than a foal fumbling to pick up a toy. I don't know what's going on, but it's clear there's a purpose to this storm.

It's also clear the storm is directly in my way.


I am Fruit Punch, and I am getting sick of these magical storms! I spend a few moments stomping and fuming at the edge, my curses drowned by the tumultuous winds.

Now what? From the brief glimpse I caught, it looks like Glace and Anon are right in the centre of whatever-this-is. But how do I get to them? The last time I charged into a Dust Devil, I got spat back out so hard I nearly broke my wings! (They twinge painfully at the memory.)

But there’s no way I'm losing Glacier again! I just got her back! Think, think, think..!

Maybe… maybe if I stay low to the ground I’ll be ok? Last time I went into the storm I was flying. Down low I’ll have more cover from the wind, more grip on the sand. Maybe that could work?

Ah, who am I kidding. That’ll still be incredibly dangerous. But I'm going to do it anyway, right? Right.

I take a deep breath. Then charge in.

From a distance the storm looks impenetrable. A solid wall of dark, churning sand. But as I push in closer, lashed by stinging hail, I begin to make out shapes. Figures in the gloom. To my left is a large blur, thrashing violently. The sand wyrm? And on the right are one, two, three smaller figures. They must be Glacier, Anon, and- wait. Three?

I squint at them. Not daring to open my eyes any wider. The figure in the middle looks even more blurry than the others. A mirage, maybe?

Before I can get much closer, the hulking shadow of the sand wyrm blunders into my path.

“Motherbucker!” I exclaim, starting back.

I turn, ready to flee, but the big jerk doesn’t even seem to notice me! Just stumbles around, one clawed limb protecting its face.

“Ha! What’s the matter, got sand in your eyes? Serves you right, you big dumb AAUGH! Pfft! Pfft! Pfft!

I cough and sputter, trying to get the deluge of sand out of my mouth. Lesson learned: keep your damn mouth shut when you're in a sandstorm!

There’s a sudden whoosh of air nearby. Audible even over the howling winds. I flinch as something long and dark whips past, nearly taking my head off! The sand wyrm’s tail, I realise after the fact. Damn thing’s as thick as a tree trunk! I'm not sure if it was aimed at me, or the wyrm’s just flailing blindly. Just to be safe, I quickly start backing away. I should be able to creep around it, circumnavigating the storm. The looming silhouette steadily recedes, stumbling deeper into the gloom.

I breathe a sigh of relief as I notice the two smaller figures - one equine, one human - have started moving away from the wyrm. But that third maybe-figure is still there. And I see… a light flickering from it? Blinking through the storm, like the tail lights on an airship. I get the feeling that’s no mere mirage.

Then all of a sudden the wyrm’s tail slams into it, snuffing the light instantly. Everything explodes.

The shockwave knocks me off my hooves. I tumble end over end through the darkness, buckets of sand pouring all around me. After a nauseating couple of seconds I hit the ground. The roar of the wind quickly dies away, leaving only a ringing in my ears. But the world still feels like it’s spinning.


I am Sergeant Glacier, and it’s a good thing I've barely eaten, because I feel like I'm going to lose my lunch.

I lift a shaky hoof. Feel sand sliding off it. Piling alongside me. Slowly, I open an eye.


Pure, pale blue sky, fading to peach near the horizon. Not a single trace of sandstorm to be found.

Doesn’t make sense. Everything’s still blurry and confusing.

I lie there a few more seconds. Wait for the world to calm down. The ringing in my ears to fade.


The heavy footstep sets my heart racing all over again. I roll to my hooves, head whipping around to see:

The sand wyrm.





Teeth. Rows upon rows of teeth, stained and jagged. Close enough to count. Close enough to see scraps of its last meal wedged between them.

Hot, heavy breath rattles out of the open maw. Washes over my coat, into my eyes and mouth. The stench of blood and death makes me dizzy all over again.

My watering eyes climb higher. Beyond ridges of horn and scale, a pair of slitted eyes glare down at me. The inner eyelids blink, sideways. Tears clogged with sand run down its craggy snout.

The sand wyrm looks tired. Tired, but triumphant. Topaz eyes flicker with some primal intelligence. It knows there’s nothing more I can do. Knows this is checkmate. And draconic pride demands a final moment of gloating before the feast. It wants me to know I’ve lost.

I'm so very tired. I just want to rest.

As those stained, jagged teeth descend upon me, I close my eyes one last time.

The shockwave knocked me off my hooves. But I was further back from the blast. Able to roll with it. Then quickly scramble up.

I am Fruit Punch, and I am the first to recover from… whatever the heck that explosion was!

I could swear there was some pegasus magic in it. But stronger, and all… bent out of shape. Like the weather factory in Cloudsdale opened all its valves at once!

Whatever. I’ve got more important things to worry about! Already that big brown lump - the bucking sand wyrm! - is pulling itself to its feet. Mountains of sand spill off its back, building little dunes around its legs.

I backpedal instinctively, heart hammering. But the wyrm doesn’t seem to notice me. Or if it does, it’s looking for something else. It glances around, forked tongue flicking out creepily.

Then it pauses. I follow its gaze to something half buried in the sand. Something that gleams gold and blue.


Neither the mare nor the monster respond. The huge beast simply starts stomping her way.

“No! Leave her alone!”

I see movement in the corner of my eye. Anon is stirring. Digging himself out of his own sandy mound. But I can already tell he’s too far away, too dazed to help.

There’s something in his hand. Gleaming. Glacier’s sword? I could dash in and grab it!

But… then what? I'm no monster hunter! If Glacier and Feather Trail together couldn’t stand up to this beast, what hope do I have? I don’t know the first thing about fighting monsters! In all the time we spent together, Glacier barely told me anything! All I can remember is that one story about fighting a, uh, what was it? Hydra? Some kind of big… lizard…?

I think back to the conversation. Only a few days ago, but it seems like weeks:

”Hide’s too thick for normal weapons. Even this,” Glacier nodded to her greatsword, “so we had to get creative. This crazy pegasus, Pollen, jumps onto its back. She can’t do any damage up there, but hydras are dumb. Instinct takes over.”

My eyes widen. Suddenly I know what to do.

I am Glacier, and as those stained, jagged teeth descend upon me, I close my eyes one last time. Only to do a double take as a purple and gold meteor slams into the wyrm’s back!



The small mare crashes more than lands. Hooves held out in front of her, eyes screwed shut. Her wings beat furiously, losing feathers at an alarming rate! Even with all the added weight from her golden armour, the impact barely rattles the sand wyrm. But it’s enough to give it pause.

With a surprised snort, the wyrm cranes its neck around, trying to find the source of the unexpected pressure. Unable to twist around far enough, it begins to shake and buck, trying to dislodge the interloper. Its back sways and heaves from side to side, like a ship during a storm. The great stomping of its legs is like a miniature earthquake. I have to scramble back just to avoid being crushed!

Somehow, Fruit manages to hold on, wings splayed out for balance. After a few more futile shakes, the wyrm abruptly changes tack. With ponderous slowness, it hurls itself onto its side, and then over onto its back.


With a shout, Fruit topples out of sight. Lost beneath the mountain of knobbled hide.

Before I can even cry out in panic, another voice cuts through the din.


I look right to see Anon - still alive! - over a dozen metres away. He’s not standing - one of his legs dangles limply behind him. But in his hand is my greatsword!

Our eyes meet. He raises the sword above and behind him. I recognise that pose! It’s how he does his scary-effective human throw! Is he trying to spear the wyrm?

No. I realise his plan a split second before he throws. Enough time to spring to my hooves.

With a shout, Anon hurls the massive weapon. An incredible throw for a pony. He makes it look easy. His aim is dead on. The weapon likely to land just in front of me. But I have other plans.

As the wyrm writhes in the dust, the sword arcs overhead. Flashing gold as the first rays of the sun blaze along its edge.

Then it begins to fall. The golden light fades.

Then a new glow to takes its place.

I leap into the air, horn flashing cyan. The sword flies home to my open hooves. Welcome back, buddy.

We fall together.

Towards the sand wyrm.

And its pale, lightly armoured belly.

“This crazy pegasus, Pollen, jumps onto its back. She can’t do any damage up there, but hydras are dumb. Instinct takes over. It rolls over, nearly crushing her. Hide’s thick, but the underside’s vulnerable. While it’s thrashing about, we get a few good blows in. Nothing lethal. But enough to convince it that we ponies mean business.”

In a single, graceful motion, I spin around. Sword poised to strike.

The magic from my horn redoubles. The wyrm is dyed a sickly green. Emerald flames dance along my blade’s edge.

My greatsword was never meant to be wielded by magic alone. Too long, too heavy.

Most ponies would never guess it’s a weapon specifically intended for unicorns. Its true power comes from using magic to augment my physical abilities, not replace them. When held with both forehooves, using magic to balance and to empower my blows, I'm able to put my entire body into each swing. My whole weight and strength and magic, concentrated into a single cutting edge.

Not a practical weapon against, say, a pony. But against a large, lumbering creature with a very thick hide…


With a war cry to rival Anon’s, I slash down.

All my weight and strength and magic - all my momentum - all my fear and frustration and rage - concentrated into a single cutting edge.

The armour breaks.

Scale and flesh part before the blade, leaping aside almost eagerly. Blood splashes out in thick gouts, coating my hooves and chest. An ear-splitting shriek erupts from the wyrm, but still I press down, cleaving ever deeper. I only stop when the beast starts to roll away beneath me, flipping back to its feet.

The ancient, monstrous predator turns to look at me. In its eyes I see disbelief. I see terror.

It turns, and flees.

I stand still, blade poised to strike again, as the wyrm skitters away. A trail of crimson marking its passage. Only when the last tip of its tail disappears behind a dune do I finally exhale.

I let my sword drop to the ground. Then I let myself drop to the ground.

Only to be caught by waiting hooves and hands.

Chapter 26 - Oak

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I blink.

I am Sergeant Oak, of Their Megesties' Royal Guard. As a sergeant, shouting is my natural dialect. I can go entire days without lowering my voice. But something about the purple pegasus frowning at me gives me pause.

Maybe it's the novelty of a sergeant being shushed by a private. Maybe it's the mare's confidence - the quiet authority of a medic looking after her patients. Or maybe it’s because one of those patients is a freaking human. Given that the human appears to be asleep, maybe shushing is a good idea after all.

Licking my lips, I start again. Much quieter.

"Ahem. Private Punch. I'm tremendously happy to see you've found my lost Glacier. But could you please explain to me why she appears to be sleeping in a human's lap?"

I can't help but goggle at the strange scene in front of me. Judging by the muttering behind me, neither can the rest of my squad. We’d all been out searching until about an hour ago, when a signal flare caught our attention. Despite working through the night, we immediately took off through the desert. After a gruelling gallop, we’d arrived to find an injured and seemingly delirious Corporal Trail. And now… this.

Glacier, scuffed and dirty, is draped carelessly over the human's crossed legs. The strange, elongated creature is slumped forward over her, cradling Glace protectively. Its deep, slow breaths are matched by her cute, quiet snores. Both mare and monster are covered in fresh bandages. Though thankfully none of the injuries look too severe. Well, none of Glacier's; I've no idea what to make of the human. I doubt I would have even recognised it as a human, if not for-

"See? I told you!" Feather Trail chirps, far too lively for a mare being carried on a stretcher. "An honest to Celestia human! I told you so! Now who's the crazy pony? Hahaha!"

I rub the space between my eyes. It’s going to be another long day.

"Yes, thank you, Trail. I concede you're no crazier than usual. Now please shut up and get some rest."

Fruit Punch - sitting casually by the human - giggles quietly into her hoof.

"I had to give Feather some painkillers," she explains. "She may be a bit, uh… Loopy."

"You don't say," I answer dryly.

"As for the human..." Fruit continues, shrugging. "Well, it seems Glacier found a new friend out in the desert."

She nods approvingly.

”Good on her.”

As I struggle to formulate the proper response to this suggestion - something along the lines of “Are you crazy?” - Glacier’s ears twitch. With a lazy yawn, the crystal mare sits up, rubbing her eyes.

"Mmhmf... Wha- Sarge? Oh, hey, everypony. I guess you found me." She still sounds a little bit out of it. "Does this mean I'm -yawn- rescued?"

"I'm not so sure yet," I admit, eyeing the human.

I instinctively raise my weapon an inch. My squad immediately follows suit.

Glacier’s eyes widen. She sits up straighter, waving her forehooves.

"Woah woah woah! Okay, let's slow down here. Yes, there's a human. That's not exactly normal, but please don't freak out?"

"Bit too late for that," one of my guards mutters, nervous. Privately, I agree. Even among hardened veterans of the Parks and Wilderness Guard, few can claim to have survived a monster from The List. I study the seemingly sleeping creature warily. Standing orders in this situation are to disengage and fall back. Glacier knows this, but she's showing no sign of trying to move away.

Could this be a trap? Is she bait to lure us in? I note the long, powerful arm still resting on Glacier's withers. Waiting, perhaps, to wrap around Glacier’s throat if she misbehaves?

But that doesn’t feel quite right. I’ve worked with Glacier for years. Learned her expressions pretty well. And right now, she looks genuinely more scared of us than the human. And Fruit Punch - well, I don’t know much about her, but she looks far too relaxed for a hostage. If anything, she seems amused by this standoff.

In either case, alerting HQ must be our highest priority. Without taking my eyes off the human, I bark out my orders.

"Pitter and Kite, head back to Tranquillity. Find the lieutenant, tell her what's going on. Then, I want you on the next train to Canterlot. You're to report all this to HQ, in person. On the double!"

There's a pair of affirmatives, then the beating of hooves as the two guards hurry back to civilisation. At least they’ll be safe; I chose Pitter and Kite specifically because they're the youngest. The rest of my squad are veterans; they know what they’re getting into.

Glace nods approvingly as the two rookies gallop away.

"Ok. The warning's been sent. So now there's no reason for anypony to do anything rash, right?"

”Right,” Fruit Punch nods. “We’re all friends here.”

Glacier looks up at me expectantly. A slight flicker of her ear betraying her nervousness, but she seems genuine.

I grunt.

"I sure hope you’re right."

With a gesture to my squad, they begin lowering their weapons. With understandable reluctance. They’ve probably reached the same conclusion as me by now: whether this is a trap or not, we don’t want to provoke the human if we can avoid it.

"Now Glacier, don't take this the wrong way - I'm pleased as punch to see you, all alive and in one piece - but what in Tartarus is going on? And can you please step away from that thing?"

"Huh?” Glace follows my gaze to the human. Realising she’s still sitting between his legs, she hurriedly climbs out, cheeks glowing red. ”Uh, right! Right."

I breathe a sigh of relief as she extracts herself without incident, stepping out of the beast’s reach. Trotting up to me, she continues in a low voice:

"Look, Sarge, the human saved my life a whole bunch of times. He even risked-"


"Has a penis, Sarge, so I'm assuming he's male."

"...I'm not going to ask how you know that," I say, eyeing the clothing around his waist.

"Well, I want to know," Feather Trail chimes in from somewhere.


”I kinda want to know too,” Fruit chirps.

"The point is," Glacier continues, blushing harder than ever. "He risked his life to save me. There was a sand wyrm attack; it was a whole thing. Fruit Punch saw it all. Right, Fruit?"

"He totally charged in to save her," Fruit nods, eyes sparkling. "It was awesome."

"Right." Glacier takes a steadying breath. "I know he's from The List and everything, but I don't believe he's a threat to us. He's just lost, and alone. Like I was. We obviously can't take him back to town, and I'm not saying we shouldn't be careful. But after all he's done, I- I can't just leave him here."

Ugh. This is getting more and more complicated. The whole situation is way above my pay grade. And Glacier chooses now to start disobeying orders?

I let her know what I think of all this by way of Frowning at her. A serious, sergeant-grade Frown. The kind that sends lesser guards scurrying for cover.

Glace returns my gaze steadily. Steely turquoise eyes, gleaming in the morning light. Familiar eyes. Tired eyes. But no less determined.

I maintain the offensive, searching for any sign of doubt or weakness. But I know Glacier; when she makes up her mind about something, she can be as immovable as her namesake. Eventually I relent, sighing in exasperation.

"Whatever happened to my dependable, by-the-book little Glacier? You know, back when you were a corporal, you never used to cause me this much trouble."

She grins. A real full-faced beam. Stars, it's good to see her smiling again.

"Guess that promotion went straight to my head, huh?"

"Eyup. Happens all the time. Now come here, you."

I step forward, hooves open wide. Glacier trots into my embrace eagerly, squeezing me tight.

The moment doesn't last long. Armoured hugs are always awkward, and neither of us are the hugging type. But this is something we both need.

Other members of our squad soon gather round. A quick hug; a pat on the shoulder; a ruffling of her mane - Glace may not have many friends, but her sisters-in-arms will always be family.

I step aside, letting them have their moment. Somepony's got to keep an eye on the human, after all. Now that he's not looming ominously over Glacier, he does seem a little less threatening. Still dangerous, but I'm starting to notice the scars and signs of malnutrition. Whatever humans are, they're clearly not invincible.

I cautiously inch my way over to Fruit Punch. The purple mare’s still sitting right next to the human, eyeing some bandages critically. I'm not sure if she’s incredibly brave, or incredibly foolish. Why are all pegasi like this??

“Is it - er, he - really asleep? We haven’t exactly been quiet.”

Fruit gives me a gentle smile.

”From the sounds of it, he and Glace have been having all sorts of adventures for the last two days. The moment I finished patching him up, he was out like a light.”

Her smile turns impish.

”Plus, I may have given him some slightly stronger than normal anaesthetic. Feather Trail seemed kinda freaked out by him-”

”I’m still freaked out,” Trail supplies helpfully.

”- so I thought it might be best if he took a nap.”

“Huh. Good thinking.”

I let out a low whistle.

“So. A real, live human. Never thought I’d see the day. I guess all those rumours about there being a wild alicorn out here had the wrong cryptid.”

”Um. Well. About that…”

Chapter 27 - Go fish

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“Got any Princesses?”

“Go fish.”

I draw a card from the deck. Eight of hearts. My wings ruffle in irritation.

Across from me, Anon squints at the cards in his hand. He doesn’t know the numerals for numbers yet, so he has to count the pips to figure out their value.

”Got… freeze?”

“Threes,” I correct, hoofing over my three of moons. Anon takes it from me, smirking as he lays it down with a three of his own. Cementing his already formidable lead.

I am Private Fruit Punch, and I am getting cleaned out! The human’s already won two ration bars, my good mane brush, and a random ten bit coin I found in my saddlebag. The responsible part of me wants to quit before I lose anything really important. But on the other hoof, surely I'm due for a win! Just gotta pick the right card…

A clip-clopping of hooves interrupts my intense focus. The two of us look up to see a familiar crystal unicorn duck into our tent.

“Hey, Sarge!” I say, simultaneous with Anon's ”Hey, Gray.”

Glacier pauses, eyebrow raised as she surveys the scene. Anon and I are sprawled lazily across the sandy floor. Water bottles and empty snack wrappers scattered nearby. My armour is lying in a heap in one corner - as a medic, I’ve officially declared it Too Damn Hot to keep wearing. In the centre of the tent is a wide, flat rock Anon found, acting as a card table. Circling it are a bunch of empty saddle bags we’ve repurposed as cushions.

I pat a bag invitingly. With a grateful nod, Glacier gingerly lowers herself down. Like me, she’s out of armour and sporting quite a few bandages. She’s still a little unsteady on her hooves, but is looking much better now that she’s had plenty of water and rest.

”Ahhh... Thanks. Well, it looks like you two are having fun. What are you playing?”

“Go Fish,” I say with a smile.

”Huh. Does Anon even know how to play?”

“I taught him! Though it’s a pretty easy game, to be honest. He just needed a little help with the numbers.”

“I see. So who’s winning?”

“Urrgh! Don’t even ask,” I pout. “That reminds me: Anon, you got any fours?”

”Go fish.”

“Damn it.”

Glacier chuckles as I draw another card. Shifting her shoulders, she sets down a few items she had balanced on her back. Her horn must still be sore if she’s not just using magic to float everything around.

“Whatcha got there?”

”Lunch,” she says, nudging the pile towards the table. “I just finished debriefing with Oak. He sent me off to get some food and some more rest. I thought I’d grab some for both of you as well.”

“Ooh, thanks!” I chirp, eyeing the pile. She’s got a pretty good spread. There’s the basic ration bars and trail mix I’ve come to expect from the PWG. Then there’s a couple of daisy sandwiches (slightly crushed, but still good); three apples (mostly fresh); a tin of peaches; a packet of hay crisps; a bag of jellybeans; some weird Neighponese candy; and a big block of salted caramel. Nice!

“Quite the haul you’ve got here.”

Glace smiles, looking a little embarrassed.

”The whole squad chipped in. You’d think I’d been gone a month, the way they’re trying to fatten me up.”

“Ha! They’re just happy to have you back. Hey Anon, anything here look edible to you?”

Glacier and I gesture to the pile, then mime eating. Anon gets the idea pretty quick. Soon the three of us are happily sampling all the different treats, our card game conveniently forgotten.

“So Glace,” I say between mouthfuls of crisps. “Any idea how long we’ll be stuck out here?”

I gesture vaguely at the rocky walls around us. We’re currently encamped in one of the many low ravines near Hoofrest. After Glacier convinced the PWG to stay with Anon, the next step had been to find someplace safe to wait. Nopony wanted to stay out in the open, under the blazing desert sun, and in Sand Wyrm territory to boot. Going back to Hoofrest was, apparently, out of the question. So the PWG ponies found a nice bit of overhanging cliff, and set up tents in the shade. They’ve rigged them up sort of like marquees - basically just roofs with no sides - so we get shelter without it being too stifling.

“I mean, it’s not so bad here, compared to out in the desert. But isn’t this where we ran into that sandipede the other day? Not super keen on sharing the shade with more creepy crawlies.”

I frown at the craggy walls, suspicious. Glacier finishes a mouthful of sandwich before answering.

”Shouldn't be too much longer, I suspect. We’re just waiting for the LT to get here. Oak says they left Cookie - uh, that’s our lieutenant, Sugar Cookie - back at Appleoosa. She was trying to round up the local Guard detachment. You remember them? The Guards who were supposed to meet us at the train station and never showed up?”

“Ah, yeah. Them. Whatever happened to them?”

Glacier shrugs.

”No idea. Hopefully we’ll find out soon - Cricket said she saw a few figures flying over Hoofrest.”

I rack my brains for a moment, before matching Cricket’s name to a face. Pegasus, green with pink curls, currently on lookout duty. She’s been circling overhead for the last hour or so, clearly marking our location for any reinforcements.

”There are hardly any pegasi in Hoofrest or Tranquility Springs, so the ones Cricket saw might be from our missing Guard unit. If they’re on their way, then Cookie is probably leading them.”

"Makes sense," I nod. “So what happens when Cookie gets here?”

”Well, she’s a bit of a softy, so I’m hoping she’ll let us take Anon somewhere more comfortable. The outskirts of Tranquility Springs, maybe, or the Guard station in Appleoosa? Then I guess we just wait for… I don’t know. A company of PWG to take him into custody? Some elite mages from PCSGU? Honestly, I have no idea what the procedure is. And I doubt Cookie knows either.”

Turning to Anon, she adds teasingly:

”You sure are causing quite a bit of trouble, mister!”

Anon pauses, half eaten apple raised to his mouth.


"Aww, don’t bully him,” I laugh, wrapping a hoof around his shoulder. “It’s not his fault that the entire PWG is scared of one itty bitty human.”

Anon glances between the two of us, then shrugs and goes back to eating his apple. Glacier just chuckles.

“You really aren’t scared of humans at all, are you?”

“I don’t see why I should be,” I shrug. “He’s cool. We’ve just been shooting the shit the whole time you were debriefing. Oh! That reminds me, check this out: Anon, hoofbump!”

Anon obligingly raises a fist and bumps it to my own raised hoof.

“Nice!” we say in unison.

Glacier doubles over laughing.

”Wha-,” she wheezes. “What have you been teaching my poor boy? And! And how do you shoot the shit when you don’t even speak the same language?”

“Eh,” I say, rolling your hoof. “Happens all the time in the Harmony Corps. You should have seen my first partner: a minotaur who only spoke Prench!”

Glacier just laughs even harder.

Anon reaches a long arm over, gently patting her head.

”Gray okay?” he asks, amused.

Glacier manages to stop giggling long enough to reply "Gray okay." He gives her mane a playful tousle. She grins up at him. She’s clearly not afraid of the human, either.

“D’aww. It’s good to see you both smiling like this.”

They’ve been through a lot, as their various scars and bandages can attest. It’s also nice to see Glacier smiling in general. Just a few days ago it took me loads of effort to earn a single, quick grin. Now she seems far more… cheery? Content? Whatever it is, Anon has apparently been a good influence on her.

As if reading my mind, Glacier smirks. “Don’t get used to it. I’m sure it’s just the blood loss and lack of sleep that’s making me act silly. I’ll probably be back to being Sergeant Grumpy first thing in the morning.”

“Sure, sure,” I grin. “You keep telling yourself that.”

That earns me another warm smile. All the blood, sweat, and tears were worth it to see Glacier starting to open up like this.

The three of us continue happily chatting the day away. Mostly me and Glacier, to be honest, but Anon seems to enjoy just having other people around. We ask him questions now and again, or make jokes, and he responds in kind. He and Glace have gotten really good at their little games of charades. He won’t be speaking Equestrian any time soon, but he’s picking up plenty of useful words. And I'm quickly overtaking Glacier as the foremost expert on human language. No surprises there - I'm expected to pick up new languages in the Harmony Corps.

The afternoon slowly wears on in a pleasant haze. The kind of hot, lazy day where it’s too warm for anything but lying around. At some point we resume our card game. With Glacier joining as a third player, I think it’s time to try some of my more advanced Go Fish strategies. They’re bound to win!

...They don’t win. Glace is kind enough to loan me some candy so I can pay off my crippling debt to Anon. I swear I'm never playing cards with him again! Just as soon as I can win back my stuff…

Occasionally, Sergeant Oak or one of the other guards comes in to check in on us. Not that they’re ever very far; the rest of the PWG are in a cluster of tents just a few hooves away. They keep an eye on Anon - there’s at least one guard watching his tent at all times - but otherwise keep to themselves. Allegedly the human’s tent is set a ways from the others “so he doesn’t feel overwhelmed.” I suspect it’s really so the PWG don’t feel overwhelmed. Oh well. Better than trying to lock him up or something.

Eventually, as the sun is beginning to sink towards the horizon, I hear a bit of a commotion outside our tent. Hooves stomping, excited chattering, Oak barking orders. Glace and Anon start to rise from their seats, but I quickly put my hoof down.

“None of that. You two stay right where you are. I’ll go see what’s up, while you invalids take it easy.”

Glacier grumbles something about not being an invalid, but I ignore her. Stepping out of our tent, the sun hits me like a - a, uh… A really hot, bright thing. Whatever; it’s too hot for metaphors. As my eyes adjust to the brightness, I see the whole camp is in action. Ponies strapping on armour, packing up saddlebags, and generally scurrying about in the way all enlisted ponies do when they know an officer is approaching.

Several of them are looking up to the sky, pointing at something. I squint against the glare, trying to figure out what they’re looking at. But a booming voice interrupts me.

”Punch,” Sergeant Oak calls out, striding towards me. “Get your gear on, ASAP. We’re about to have company.”

“Oh, good. So Lieutenant Cookie’s finally arrived?”

”Not just her,” Oak glances behind him, at a new pony I hadn’t noticed yet. No, not a pony - a griffon! Wearing immaculate Royal Guard armour. A familiar starburst emblem emblazoned on his chestplate.

”Princess Twilight is here.”

Chapter 28 - Escort

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”Princess Twilight is here!”

Or at least, that’s what Fruit Punch wailed as she returned to our tent, scrambling to get her armour back on.

Turns out she wasn’t entirely correct.

Emerging from Anon’s tent, I step out into the blistering afternoon sun. The camp around me, previously calm and sleepy, is now alive with activity. My fellow PWG ponies are busy disassembling tents and packing saddlebags. Sergeant Oak moves to and fro among them, shouting directions.

The cause of the excitement is obvious: a pair of sky carriages have parked at the mouth of the canyon. Resting in the shade nearby are a dozen newcomers, all Royal Guard. The style of their armour and carriages - all gilded edges and silver filigree - speaks of a more ceremonial branch of the Guard. They must look quite noble in Canterlot, but out here I think them almost comically out of place.

One pony stands out among them by virtue of her more plain (and practical) armour: Lieutenant Cookie, my commanding officer.

”Glacier!” Cookie exclaims, noticing me. “Thank goodness! Are you alright?”

The stocky tan unicorn canters over, a relieved smile on her lips. I snap a quick salute, wincing as I shift some weight onto my injured leg.

“I’m alr- OOF!”

She pulls me into a tight hug. Really does nothing to improve my leg situation.

“Err…” I wheeze, physically and mentally thrown off balance. “I’m… I’m okay, ma’am? Uhhh… H-how are you?”

My ears redden at the chorus of snickers directed my way. The new guards are at least trying to maintain a straight face, but my PWG buddies are grinning openly. They know how Cookie gets.

Sugar Cookie is by far the most maternal officer of any us have served with. How she ended up in the rough-and-tumble Parks and Wilderness Guard, I’ll never know. Not that I normally mind - an officer who genuinely cares for her ponies is great. But I doubt I’ll ever get used to an officer showing affection. And in front of another unit? Mortifying!

”I’m just glad Oak managed to find you,” Cookie says, pulling away. “I was afraid the desert might be too much for my little northern filly.”

She eyes me up and down. Noting every bandage and bruise. I shift my weight awkwardly.

“Well. I, er, had some help.”

”Oh! That’s right.” Cookie leans in conspiratorially. “Oak said you actually befriended a human?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I reply, regaining some composure. “Completely unintentional, I promise. Or at least, it was at first. But it soon became clear that he meant me no harm, and that we’d stand a much better chance of survival if we worked together.”

A small smile creeps to my lips, unbidden.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t have made it back without him.”

”Goodness!” Cookie exclaims. From her expression, she’s still clearly still struggling with the idea of a harmless human. Turning aside, she continues: “Well, it certainly sounds like you were right, Captain.”

”The Princess is usually right about these things,” says a new voice, relaxed and with just a hint of Griffish accent. “Princess of Friendship, and all that.”

I stiffen into salute at the word “Captain”. Without turning my head, I see a large, blue pony - no, a griffon? - stride casually into view.

”Of course, sir,” Cookie nods. “Well, sir, this is Sergeant Glacier - the little lost filly I was telling you about.”

I wince internally, doing my best to remain expressionless as Cookie continues:

”Glacier, this is Captain Gallus, Commander of Princess Twilight’s Palace Guard.”

“Hey there,” the captain smiles. “Glad you made it back to Equestria. At ease, sergeant.”

I lower my hoof, though I let myself relax only slightly. A captain is already a big deal. But I'm talking to possibly the most important captain in Equestria! And he’s a non-pony? Clearly he must be an extraordinary officer.

Despite his relaxed demeanour, I feel a certain intensity about him. Maybe it’s the service medals and honours gleaming on his armour. He’s clearly accomplished more in his career than I ever could. Or maybe I'm just not used to griffons. Those curved talons and unblinking eyes remind me uncomfortably of another predator.

I wish I had my armour on. I'm feeling very exposed right now.

"I hate to say it," the captain continues. "But - speaking from experience - you look like you've been wrestling a dragon. Should you be up and about? We can fly you to a hospital if we need to.”

“I’m fit for light duty, sir,” I insist. Oak would probably disagree, but he's not here. “And uh, incidentally, you’re not far off about the dragon thing.”

”Huh.” He raises an eyebrow. “You’ll have to tell me about it sometime. But right now, I’ve got a human to meet. If you’re sure you're up for it, then perhaps you can introduce us?”

“Of course, sir,” I nod, a little hesitant.

Sugar Cookie must have noticed my confusion, as she helpfully adds:

”The captain is here to determine if the human is, well, safe enough to meet the Princess. She’s apparently very keen on meeting him.”

She bites her lip, apparently not very comfortable with the idea. I can’t blame her - I wouldn’t want the Princess anywhere near an unfamiliar creature from The List, either.

Though where is the Princess? My eyes flicker over to the sky carriages. They certainly seem fit for royalty, but I don't see anypony else inside. Cookie, perceptive as ever, simply shakes her head.

”Princess Twilight is waiting for us in Tranquility Springs. I thought it would be best to confirm the human’s safety before bringing him into town. She was kind enough to lend us her carriages.”

I give a grateful nod.

”Understood, ma’am. Sir, please follow me.”

I lead the officers towards Anon’s tent. A pair of Palace Guard corporals join us, flanking the captain. Guess they’re not taking any chances with the human, either.

Reaching the tent’s door flap, I remember Fruit Punch was still getting changed when I left her. Stalling for time, I loudly announce:

“Ahem. Anon? It’s Sergeant Glacier. Captain Gallus of the Palace Guard is here to see you.”

I hear a faint “Eeep!”, followed by muffled rustling. But I can only delay for so long, so after a short pause I push through the flap.

Fruit Punch is standing at attention, saluting as the officers enter behind me. Thankfully, she’s managed to get all her armour on in time. (Though I think I spy some unfastened buckles towards the back). Anon is also standing, watching the newcomers with interest. I wish I’d found him something more presentable to wear; his tattered human rags don’t make a great first impression.

The ponies and griffon finish piling in. There’s a moment of tense silence as everypony realises just how tall the human is. With the low ceiling and limited space, Anon is forced to literally loom over us all. Sugar Cookie gulps audibly, while the corporals subtly shrink back.

Captain Gallus, though, appears unperturbed. He merely eyes the human with a sort of mild professional interest. Perhaps it helps that the size difference isn’t so great - though still shorter than the human, the griffon is likely nearly as heavy.

“Captain Gallus, Lieutenant Cookie, may I present Anon the human.”

”Hey, big guy,” the captain says, extending a claw. “Nice to meet you.”

Anon gives me a questioning glance. I reply with what I hope is a reassuring nod towards the captain. The human doesn’t look entirely sure of himself; maybe he feels the same way as I do about the griffon’s claws? But after a moment he extends his own hand, and the two of them share a slightly awkward hoofshake. Clawshake? Whatever.

“Ahem. Please excuse Anon, sir. He only knows a hooffull of Equestrian words.”

”Oh? I don’t suppose he speaks Griffish, does he?”

“I’m afraid not, sir. Private Punch here,” I nod towards her, “is from the Harmony Corps, and she doesn’t recognise Anon’s language at all.”

Gallus turns to Punch.

”Harmony Corps, eh? At ease, private. So what languages have you tried?”

”Sir! We’ve tried Griffish, Prench, Old Thestral, uhh, Neighponese… Oh, and a couple of the Buffalo dialects. He’s not familiar with any of them.”

I was surprised to learn Fruit’s such a polyglot. Trying out different languages with Anon was one of the first things she’d done. When asked her about it, she’d explained that she’d grown up in a multilingual household - apparently, she’s got a bit of batpony heritage. She’s always found other languages and cultures fascinating, hence her appointment to the Harmony Corps.

”Hmm,” Captain Gallus frowns for a moment, then shrugs. “Oh well. I’ll leave the language problem for the Princess to solve. I’m sure she’ll have fun with that. But in the meantime, you two have been able to talk with him, right? Or at least, found some other way to communicate?”

“Yes, sir. To an extent. It’s, uh…”

I glance at Anon, trying to figure out how to phrase this without sounding too foalish.

“Honestly, it’s mostly just been a lot of pointing at things and then naming them. Or miming actions and then naming them. Sometimes drawing stuff. Uhh. A bit like playing charades, maybe?” I trail off lamely.

”She’s actually pretty good at it, sir,” Fruit chimes in. “It doesn’t take them long to share new words.”

She gives me a reassuring smile. I shoot her a quick “thank you” look.

”Well,” the captain cocks his head. “If it works, I don’t mind how you do it. I just need to figure out this guy’s deal. See if he’s safe enough for civilisation. Since he hasn’t tried to bite my head off, I’d say we’re off to a pretty good start. Still, if you think you’re up for translating, I’ve got a couple of questions I’d like to try.”

”Of course, sir,” I say, heart sinking. This is going to look very silly. But a request from an officer is as good as an order. So I grit my teeth and do my best.

“Anon, please stop touching me there. It’s inappropriate.”

It’s later. Anon is grabbing onto all sorts of things he shouldn’t be. Fruit Punch is sitting nearby, grinning. She likes to watch.

“You know," I say, glaring at her. "You could help.”

”Nah. This is more fun.”

The sky carriage hits another patch of turbulence. Plush seats shudder beneath me. Anon clings even more tightly, holding on for dear life.

The three of us are crammed into what had looked like a spacious, luxurious cabin. But even a carriage built for a Princess is apparently too small for the human. Between the limited space, periodic shaking, and some mild panicking on Anon’s part, I’ve somehow ended up in his lap. On the plus side, this seems to have helped calm him down somewhat. (And, much as I hate to admit it, it's more comfortable than anywhere else.) But on the minus side, he's latched on to me like a filly with a teddy bear. Those big, strong hands of his keep inadvertently finding their way to some rather sensitive areas.

“Hey!” I squeak. “Cut that out!”

I swat a hand away.

“Come on, Anon, it’s not that bad!”

I do feel a bit bad for him. It's clearly his first time flying. Maybe if the two of us were alone I wouldn't mind so much... But with Fruit Punch sitting right there, giggling at my predicament, I just feel all kinds of embarrassed.

I shoot another glare at the cheeky pegasus.

”Sorry, sorry," she grins, clearly not sorry. "Though I’m actually surprised you’re handling this so well. You seem pretty used to it.”

I blush a little.

“W-weeell, Anon and I have been together for - I mean, not together together, just together, you know? - we’ve been physically, platonically together for a few days. And, and it gets cold in the desert, so we, uh, we had to sleep next to each other a couple times, to stay warm. Because he doesn’t have a fur coat. A-a-and then when when we were in the mines it was really cold and cramped and we had to sort of snuggle up a few times and-”

Fruit doubles over, cackling wildly. My blushing quadruples.

”Oh mare,” she manages to wheeze out, blinking back tears. “Tha- That's not what I was asking about at all! But wow! Your reaction was priceless!”

“Y- Wha- I didn’t-” I sputter helplessly, face burning. I glance toward the carriage window, wondering if I could survive jumping out mid-flight. It’s probably worth the risk.

A comforting hand pats my shoulder gently. Anon, still a little green around the gills, smiles down at me. He doesn’t know what’s going on, but he can tell when I'm upset.

Of course, this just reminds me of how compromising my current seating arrangement is. I put my hooves over my head, praying to Celestia that the chariot explodes.

”Aww, come on, don’t be like that,” there's still a hint of laughter in Fruit’s voice, but she sounds reasonably apologetic. “I promise I’ll stop teasing you.”

I think I hear her whisper “For now,” but glaring up at Fruit I see nothing but angelic sincerity. I glare harder.

“Fine,” I eventually grouse, sitting up. (As much as I can sit up while wrapped in Anon’s arms.) “So what were you talking about?”

”How well you're handling flying. I’d expected something like this from Anon,” she gestures to the human, who keeps peeping out the window, wincing, then ducking back in. “But most unicorns aren’t much better, to be honest. I was trying to pay you a compliment.”

“Well. Thanks,” I shrug, a little mollified. “I’m just used to it, I suppose. We get ferried around Equestria fairly often in the PWG.”

”Cool,” Fruit nods. “In the HC, we’re usually told to catch a train or make our own way to wherever we’re stationed. Not too bad for us pegasi, but I hear the earth ponies and unicorns complaining about it all the time.”

“Mmm. Well, it’s probably because we’re normally stationed so remotely. Whenever there’s an emergency they’ll send a fleet of pegasi to pick us up. The alternative would be to wait a week for us to trudge back to civilisation.”

”Yeah, that-”

Whatever she was about to say is interrupted as the chariot starts rattling again. The wind picks up, whistling noisily through the open windows.

”Sorry about that, sergeant,” calls one of the pegasi from outside. “We’re still getting used to these desert updrafts. Might be a little bumpy for a few minutes.”

“Okay,” I shout back.

A glance out the window shows the orange desert is still comfortably far away, and not getting any nearer, so I let myself relax back into Anon. Fruit seems to decide it’s too loud to continue conversation, so she settles back too, watching as Anon redoubles his panic-hugging. I squirm as best I can, trying to find a position with at least a little more dignity. But his arms are like fuzzy boa-constrictors, pinning me to his chest. Eventually I'm forced to resign myself to this embarrassing fate. Though I swear I’ll make Fruit sit next to Anon next time.

At least the flight shouldn’t last much longer. We’re only headed to Hoofrest for now. Less than twenty minutes away. It seems our little Q&A session with Anon was enough to satisfy Captain Gallus. With Fruit’s help, we’d mimed some basic questions, and eventually worked out Anon’s answers. Nothing very new for me - Anon doesn’t know how he got here, doesn’t even know where “here” is, and feels nothing but grateful to Equestria - but that was apparently enough for the captain.

”He seems harmless enough,” Gallus commented afterwards. “Of course, it’s my job to assume the worst, so we’ll be keeping an eye on him all the same. But I wouldn’t worry too much. Princess Twilight thinks he’s okay, and even if he’s up to no good, the Palace Guard have dealt with worse.”

Just to be safe, the captain politely requested the PWG’s continued assistance. Which works out pretty well for everypony. Anon is free to enter Equestria, under the supervision of the Palace Guard. The Palace Guard are advised and assisted by Equestria’s foremost monster wranglers. The PWG get to stay in the loop, backed by the most elite Royal Guards they could ask for. And Fruit and I get to stay with Anon, acting as his translators and chaperones.

So now here we are, flying back to civilisation in luxury. The rest of the PWG are either flying back in the other carriage alongside us, or trotting back on hoof. So for now it’s just me and my two best friends. Sure, I'm still a little sore and tired, and I'm still all tangled up in a human’s limbs. But all in all things are going great.

”Ah, I see a smile,” Fruit waggles an eyebrow at you. “So has Anon started putting those fingers to good use? Started using them properly?”

“Properly? What do you m- YOU SAID NO TEASING!”

Chapter 29 - Homeward

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“Welcome back, Miss GlaciAAAAGH SHADOW MONSTER!”

I sigh. I am Fruit Punch, and I haven’t even finished climbing out of the chariot before Sandy Miles has found something to panic about.

“Hi, Sandy. Hey, everypony. Yep, we found your monster.”

I hop from the polished wooden step down onto the dusty street. The Royal Chariot has landed smack dab in the middle of Hoofrest. Rustic old buildings and equally rustic ponies gather around me, painted orange by the setting sun. I recognise most everypony here from the search teams. Though instead of welcoming smiles, they’re all looking a bit shocked and/or terrified as Anon emerges behind me.

He practically tumbles out of the carriage, chattering cheerfully as he sets his feet on solid ground. He’s halfway turned around, helping Glacier out of the carriage, so he doesn’t immediately notice the crowd.

Then he does.

Stopping in his tracks, he turns slowly. Blinking at the dozens of faces staring up at him. A long moment passes. He raises an arm, kinda stiffly, and gives an awkward little wave. When the ponies don’t respond, he turns to me, eyebrow raised in confusion. I shoot him a reassuring smile, then address the crowd once more.

“Everypony, I’d like to introduce Anon the human. Anon, say ‘Hi’.”

”H-hi,” he repeats timidly.

The crowd begins to murmur to itself. Sandy Miles cautiously peeps her head out from behind her aunt Rose, where she’s taken shelter.

”Y-y-y-you brought the monster here!?” Sandy whispers loudly. Rose absently swats her with her tail. But even the older ex-guardsmare is looking a little stunned.

“Don’t worry, he’s actually a big softy,” I insist. I give the human a friendly pat to show he’s safe. “The whole ‘Shadow monster chasing you through the desert’ thing was just a misunderstanding.”

By now, Glacier has finished climbing down, careful of her bandaged leg. Taking up position on Anon’s other side, she calls out:

”Ahem. Thank you everypony for being here to welcome us back. And thank you for all your help in the last few days. I’m very sorry for all the inconvenience I’ve put you through. But it is extremely heartening to know there’s so many wonderful ponies willing to help a stranger in need.”

Aww, look at her go. My normally stoic sergeant isn’t too bad at this public speaking stuff. She’s even smiling a little bit. She’s not exactly Harmony Corps level, but, y’know. 'A' for effort.

Several ponies in the crowd smile at Glacier, though the overall mood is still a bit leery.

”Now, I believe Anon has something more to say?”

She gives Anon a gentle nudge. Looking extremely awkward, he crouches down, coming to rest at about eye level. Clearing his throat, he gently nods to Sandy Miles.

”Err… Eyem zzorry?”

Rose and Sandy blink. Scanning the faces in the crowd, I see some of the trepidation start to drain away, replaced by surprise and curiosity.

”He doesn’t speak Equestrian very well,” Glacier admits. “So on his behalf, I’d like to apologise. He’s very sorry he scared Miss Miles the other day. As Private Punch said, it was an unfortunate misunderstanding.”

”Ahhh,” Sandy stammers. “I, uh, t-that’s, um… That’s okay?”

Anon holds out a hoof - er, hand - ready to be bumped, just like I taught him. Sandy stares at it for a moment. Then, inching forward, she very carefully bumps it with her own.

I smile.

“Funny story, but Anon here actually helped rescue Glacier! He may look kinda scary, but he’s a hero!”

”R-really?” Sandy asks, looking up at Anon with wide eyes.

More murmurs from the crowd. More curiosity and interest. A few ponies near the front dare to come a little closer, while those at the back crane their necks. Dusty Rose leads the way, taking a more confident step forward.

”Well, it sounds like there’s quite the story there. But first, welcome back to Equestria, sergeant! I’m Rose. Happy to finally meet you.”

She lifts a hoof to Glacier, who bumps it firmly. Then, without missing a beat, Rose offers her hoof to Anon, who smiles and bumps it in turn.

”Thank you, Rose,” Glacier says, looking happily at the interaction. “Fruit Punch told me you were a huge help in organising the search party. I’m very grateful.”

”Aww, any time, sweetie. Now, you three are looking pretty roughed up. Why don’t you all come inside? We can get you nice and comfortable with a cup of tea, some hot food, and then settle in for the night.”

Glacier shakes her head ruefully.

”Thank you, but we can’t stay for long. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Princess Twilight herself is actually in Tranquility Springs right now, and she’s summoned us personally. We wouldn’t want to keep the Princess waiting.”

There’s various “Awww”s from the crowd (and an “Ohmygosh!” from Sandy). I quickly add:

“But we just had to stop by and say thank you, and let everypony know everything’s okay. Although,” I turn to Glace with a grin. “Now that we’ve landed, I’m sure our gallant pegasus charioteers would like a break. Maybe we can stay for just one drink?”

The Royal Guards hitched to our chariot fluff their wings, standing proudly. They don’t look tired at all, but flattery goes a long way. Glacier just rolls her eyes and fails to hide her smile.

”Well, I suppose the captain’s still on his way,” she says, glancing up at the sky. The second Royal Chariot, carrying Captain Gallus, Lieutenant Cookie, and a few others, is circling overhead, slowly descending. Somehow our chariot had managed to get a few minutes ahead of them. “And it would be impolite to turn down the hospitality of such wonderful ponies. But just a few minutes, okay?”

“You hear that, everypony? The drinks are on me!”

There’s a cheer from the crowd, and they start making their way to the local tavern just across the street. Though a few linger behind to personally congratulate me and Glacier, and even shake Anon’s hoof. Er, hand.

While Sandy is gushing about something guard related to Glacier - who is looking a bit overwhelmed - I turn my attention to Dusty Rose. The greying mare is smiling warmly at her niece.

“By the way Rosey, whatever happened to Sheriff Pear? I haven’t seen him since we got back.”

”Oh, he’s back at Tranquility Springs. He left a few hours ago. As soon as he heard that Glacier was safe, and that there was suddenly a Princess back in town, he decided he’d be more useful there than waiting around here.”

She chuckles, a wicked grin on her face.

”I can’t wait to see the look on his face when he meets the ‘Shadow Monster’. I’ll be teasing him about this for months!”

“Go easy on the poor stallion!" I giggle. "Sounds like he’s going to have his hooves full for a while. Missing ponies, desert monsters, Sandy, and now a visiting Princess!”

We continue chatting happily while we slowly make our way to the eatery, drawn towards the delicious smells wafting across the street. Anon has proven surprisingly popular. Sandy keeps looking up at him in awe as she walks, before inevitably bumping into some hapless bystander or lamp post. Old Mare Marmalade, completely fearless, is dragging the human inside, prattling on about needing to fatten him up.

I follow them all with a smile, though I pause at the doorway. Glancing back, I notice Glacier is still out in the street. The second chariot is just touching down a few houses away, but Glace seems to be looking beyond that. Ears perked. Eyes staring intently.

“What’s up?” I ask, trotting over.

”You see that?” she asks softly, nodding towards the mountains in the south. “Four hundred metres, at the base of that sound dune.”

I stiffen.

“It’s Her,” I say quietly.

Glacier nods. Just beyond the edge of town, a dark pony-shape watches us. Her outline shimmers, blurring into the evening shadows around her. But I can still make out the smokey wings and horn.

We regard each other silently. I should be panicking - all my previous encounters with the Sand Witch seemed to lead to disaster. But somehow this feels different. An aura of calm quietly envelopes me.

Slowly, the figure raises a foreleg. Holds it up as though she’s waving to us. I raise my own in acknowledgement. In my peripheral I see Glacier doing the same.

The distant figure seems to vaguely bobble. Perhaps nodding to us. Then, despite my pegasus senses telling me we’re in a dead calm, a gust of wind catches the figure. Her dark form dissolves, spilling into the air like a cloud of ash. Soon, all that’s left is a streak of silvery sand.

I blink. The spell is broken. Glacier and I let out a shared breath, before exchanging looks.



“So she’s alright after all?" I wonder aloud. "Guess it takes more than a sand wyrm to kill an alicorn.”

”I guess so. Whoever she is.”

Glacier looks like she wants to say more, but then a third voice calls out:

”Hey, fillies. What are you two doing out here?”

We turn to see Lieutenant Cookie happily trotting our way. Behind her, the rest of the passengers are exiting the newly landed sky carriage.

Glacier thinks for a moment, frowning. Then she smiles.

”I think we were saying goodbye.”

“Well hello there.”

”Anon, no!” Glacier scrambles up, cheeks reddening. “This is the mares’ washroom! Stallions’ is next door! Shoo! Shoo!”

I wish I had some popcorn. A delightfully flustered Glacier is trying to hurry a very naked Anon back out through the door he just entered.

After our brief stopover at Hoofrest, we’d all hurried on back to Tranquility Springs and our meeting with the Princess. It was dark by the time our chariot landed. It had been a long day - a long couple of days - and we were all exhausted. Unfortunately, royal meetings come before rest.

Or so I had thought. But after trudging over to the hotel where the Princess is staying, we’d barely entered the lobby before receiving a message from Her Highness. Apparently Captain Gallus had reported our various injuries to the Princess, and She’d immediately insisted we take the night off. Not only that, but She’d organised a team of doctors to check up on us. And ordered a hot meal be delivered to our room. Best Princess ever!

It had been fun watching the doctors puzzle over Anon. Eventually - after being poked and scanned and bandaged and magicked - we’d all received verdicts of “Should make a full recovery.” Phew! Though we’re all to take medical leave and complete some rehab programs. Oh, and Feather Trail will be joining us! I’d last seen her this morning, being carried off to town on a stretcher, still loopy from painkillers. The doctors had treated her earlier today, and are confident of her eventual recovery. The four of us are to report for further treatment tomorrow. But tonight our orders are to rest and relax.

And so Glace and I find ourselves in the hotel's cosy little washroom. The same washroom we’d spent our first evening together in, at the very start of our adventure. It’s a familiar scene. Wisps of steam curling around the low wooden ceiling. Moisture gleaming on the tiled walls and floors. A nice hot tub for me to soak in, while Glacier cools off in her little ice pool. Just me, her, and her twelve hoof tall bare naked human.

”N-no, you can’t bathe with me again!” Glacier whines. “That was a one time thing! A-and Fruit’s here, too! So! You have to wash elsewhere!”

She’s frantically trying to shove the confused human towards the door. Though given how much larger he is, he’s not exactly easy to budge. Fun as the scene is, I should probably intervene. My sergeant is supposed to be relaxing, after all. If she slips and faceplants into his crotch (which is looking increasingly likely), she'll be wound up all evening.

“Ehh, just let him stay," I say from the comfort of my tub. "He’s not doing any harm. I certainly don’t mind the view, and it sounds like you two are already bath buddies.”

Glacier pauses, cheeks reddening as she realises what she just said aloud.

“Besides,” I continue, waving a hoof. “If you send him off unsupervised he’ll just run into some poor pony in the corridor. Probably give them a heart attack, and definitely make a ruckus. Better to keep him here where we can keep an eye on him.”

The flustered unicorn bites her lip, glancing toward the doorway and pointedly not towards any pieces of anatomy on display. Anon looks down at her, honest concern on his face. He hesitantly reaches down to pet her mane, asking a question in his human language. Then, like a switch being flipped, his expression shifts to understanding and embarrassment. He quickly backs up a step, one hand covering his stallion bits, while the other snatches up the closest towel. In a flash, he’s wrapped the fluffy pink thing around his midsection, tying it in place with a simple knot.

Glacier and I can’t help but stare. The comparatively tiny pink rectangle doesn’t leave much to the imagination. Somehow, it even makes him seem lewder. Still, the human seems pleased with himself.

”Gray safe, yes?” he asks, pointing at the towel. The sheer earnestness in his voice finally sends me over the edge.

“Pfffhahaha! Oh, sweet Harmony, yes! Yes, that’s perfect, Anon! We are so very safe now.”

Glacier, meanwhile, is trapped somewhere between laughter, embarrasment, and indignation. Her nose scrunches, her cheeks puff, and a high pitched whining builds up in her throat. Finally, with an explosive sigh, she slumps down.

”Yes, Anon, fine, whatever,” she grumps, defeated

Making her way back to the bench she was sitting on, she flops down lifelessly, knocking aside a hairbrush. Anon gives her a happy smile. Reaching down, he ruffles her mane with his hand. She swats him away, glaring, but it’s a familiar glare. The one she uses when she’s trying not to smile.

”Actually, since you’re here, you can make yourself useful.”

She picks up the brush and thrusts it towards Anon. He takes it, looking a little uncertain till Glacier gestures to her mane. Her thick, blue curls have been washed and re-washed, expelling prodigious amounts of sand. Now they’re dangling limply around her neck in thick clumps. Sparkly clean and horribly tangled.

”My horn still hurts,” she pouts. “And brushing by hoof is a pain. So you can brush me instead.”

She tries to sound snobbish and dignified, but can’t help glance nervously at Anon. For his part, the big guy seems delighted with his task. Taking up a clump of mane in one hand, he begins carefully working the brush through, using his long fingers to gently separate the strands.

Quiet minutes go by. I dreamily watch him work, fascinated. Glacier finally starts to relax again. Her eyelids droop, and she lets herself lean into Anon’s strong hands. Nopony says anything as we all just soak in the atmosphere. Warm steam filling the air. The plip-plip-plip of a dripping tap. An occasional happy murmur from Glace.

I almost start to feel jealous. If my hot tub wasn’t so comfortable, I’d be tempted to snuggle next to the human too and ask for my own brushing. Though my mane isn’t nearly as long or pretty as Glacier’s. Hmm. Perhaps the human can do massages? I bet those fingers could do wonderful things…

I let my fantasies idly play out for a while. Eventually my focus drifts away. I wander from thought to hazy thought, half asleep. Recent events play over in my mind, coming and going in no particular order. Bathtubs. Sand storms. Alicorns, and Princesses.

“Hmmglais?” I mumble.

”Hmm?” Glacier asks, eyes still closed. I clear my throat, and try again.

“Hey. Glace? Random question.”

”Hmm,” she almost purrs. “You did this last time, you know.”

“Wha? Did what?”

”When we were last here. Ask questions out of the blue. Not a fan of long silences, I take it.”

“Oh. Uh, sorry.”

”It’s fine,” she chuckles. “What’s up?”

“It’s not important." I consider leaving it at that, but now that I'm a little more awake: "I was just wondering. How’d Princess Twilight hear about Anon so fast?”

One cyan eye cracks open, looking at me with sleepy curiosity. The rest of her remains completely still, as Anon continues his ministrations.

I bring my hooves up out of the water, tapping them to emphasise my points.

"So, like, our search party finds you this morning. Oak is all “Ooh, there’s a big scary human, let’s all freak out about it.” He sends a couple of messenger ponies to report this to HQ. It’d take ‘em, what, most of the day just to reach Appleoosa, right? Let alone Canterlot? So how did the Princess know to get here by, like, lunch time?”

Glace gives a lazy shrug.


I level an unamused stare at her over the rim of my bath. Eventually she cracks, smiling and waving away my frown.

”No, really! Okay, okay! So, since we operate in so many remote places, each commissioned officer in the PWG is given an enchanted scroll. They're these single-use items which can send a message to HQ instantly. They're super expensive, though, so we save them for emergencies. I’m guessing that when Oak's messenger ponies told Sugar Cookie what had happened, she decided to use her scroll. After all, a confirmed sighting of a human is pretty much the textbook use case.”

Anon places a firm hand on Glacier’s withers, preventing her from moving about so much. The mare recomposes herself, smiling and nodding at Anon to continue.

”From there, HQ would have immediately alerted the Princess." She frowns slightly. "Though the part that I don’t understand is how she reached Tranquility so quickly. Even if she received a scroll as early as noon, surely it would take Her least a day to fly here from Canterlot, yes?”

“Oh, I know the answer to that.”

”You do?”

I smirk.


Glacier snorts.

”Pfft! Alright, I walked right into that one. My apologies. But seriously, do you actually know?”

”I mean, she’s literally the Element of Magic,” I shrug. “I hear she can teleport from one side of Equestria to the other, as easily as you or I could walk across a room. She was probably all like “Oh, a human? Perhaps I shall pop in for a quick visit after supper.” Then POOF!, she casually ‘ports herself and her entire palace guard to Tranquility, easy as.”

”Hmm. Perhaps you’re right.”


We both chew this over for a while. Too drowsy to think of anything more to say.

The quiet washroom sounds take over again. Groaning timbers. Quiet breathing. Anon's steady brushies. He's really doing a great job over there. Glace’s mane is looking sleek and gorgeous. Normally the human likes to be included in our conversations, but he seems to be fully engrossed in his work. That, or he’s just too tired to ask for a translation.

Which suits me just fine; I'm too tired to translate. Besides, it’s probably time we all head to bed. Bath water’s starting to get a bit tepid.

With a reluctant groan, I flop out of the tub, onto the cool tiled floor. Anon kindly uses his super long arms to fetch me a towel.

“Thanks, 'Non. I think I’m done for the night. You heading to bed soon, Glace?”

No response. I blink sleepily in her direction. Then smile.

Coming from the fuzzy blue bundle leaning against Anon are the cutest little snores.

Chapter 30 - Goodbyes

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”Are you nervous?”


”You should be!” Fruit Punch squeaks, her short mane quivering with agitation. “This is THE Princess of Friendship we’re talking about! There’s not a nicer, more powerful, more important pony in Equestria! This is a Big Deal!”

Wow, this pep talk sucks. So much for Fruit’s Harmony Corps training; I'm actually feeling more worried now!

I am Sergeant Glacier, and in just a few moments I’ll be brought before the highest authority in the land to explain exactly why I repeatedly disobeyed orders and put multiple ponies in danger. Or at least, that's what it feels like.

Yeah, yeah, I know; that's probably not what's going to happen. The Princess is here to meet the human; She wouldn't concern Herself with something as mundane as military discipline. This will likely be a quick meet and greet; "Welcome to Equestria, please tell Us about yourself, blah blah blah." But still, I can't stop my imagination from running wild. All the ways this could end very badly. All the ways I've already let the Guard down.

So am I nervous? Absolutely. But I refuse to show it. It's time to mare up, accept responsibility for my actions, and face what's coming head on. And besides, somepony's got to act professional around here. With Fruit Punch apparently having a meltdown, that duty falls to me.

"Why are you so panicked, anyway?" I glance over to Fruit, pacing carpeted hotel room as she straightens her armour for the twelfth time. "Isn't the Princess supposed to be super nice? Haven't you met Her before?"

"Yeah, I met Her. At graduation! We spoke for all of two seconds! And of course She's super nice! That makes it all the more important everything is perfect! She deserves perfection! Now where's my helmet gone?!"

I roll my eyes. Not bothering to point out her helmet's still on her head. Like it was the last time she asked. Instead, I turn to check on Anon. I could use a bit of sanity right now. (Part of me is still amazed to be associating sanity with a human.)

The big guy is currently checking himself out in the room's large mirror (still not tall enough for him). Lieutenant Cookie was sensible enough to place a rush order last night for some brand new clothing. Can't have Anon meeting The Princess in his old rags. And given he doesn't have nearly enough fur down there, going clothesless isn't an option either.

His new ensemble consists of something like a plain white tunic, bound with a wide belt. And draped over his shoulders is a colourful poncho that looks suspiciously like it might until recently have been a tablecloth. Topping it off is one of Sandy Mile's decorative hats: black, sweeping, and with far more buckles than I'd have a thought a hat could ever need.

Does he look good? Uhh... Couldn't say. I never really know what counts as "Fashion". He certainly looks much more civilised. I could picture him going about town, standing out no more than your average yak or minotaur. Which I suppose is the point. He looks safe. Buuut, if I'm being honest... it does feel like kind of a let down? He's a human, that one part of me still insists. He's supposed to be this half-naked savage. Rough, and dangerous, and primal, and exotic or some other word that sounds like exotic.

But, er, this is fine too! Definitely more Princess-appropriate!

"L-looking good there, Anon," I cough, forcing a smile.

He gives me a companionable smile in return. Though it quickly morphs into something more playful. Still eyeing me through the mirror, he begins striking a series of poses. Very silly poses. Completely shattering any possible fantasies anypony might be having about cool, mysterious hunks. Hmph! Well at least he seems to be enjoying his clothes!

I can't help but giggle at his antics. Though to me, it's a bittersweet moment. With all the excitement yesterday, it only occurred to me this morning that we may be parting ways soon. Very soon, even. I'm still a Parks and Wilderness Guard; as soon as I finish rehab, I'll be shipped off to lead a squad of ponies in some remote corner of Equestria. Meanwhile Anon will probably be taken back to Canterlot. Perhaps even straight after this meeting. Watching Anon goof around in his silly clothing may be the last private moment we share together.

The thought makes me choke up a bit. I can't quite hold back a sniffle. Raising a hoof, I quickly rub my eyes, hoping he didn't see anything. I- Isn't it weird how quick you can get attached to things? I've only known Anon for three d-days...


He pauses his posturing.

Three days, zero languages in common, but already he can tell when I'm feeling blue.

"It's ok, Anon," I say softly.

The human kneels down, concern clear on his face. One hand reaches out towards me. Hesitates, uncertain.

I smile at him, willing my eyes to stay dry. With only a slight ache from my horn, I levitate my helmet off my head, setting it aside. Then I step forward, gently guiding his hand to my mane. Silly human just loves petting my mane.

"It'll be ok."

I'm gonna miss this goofball.

"Now presenting: Anon the human."

The ornately armoured hypogriff steps aside, allowing us entrance to the hotel's luxury suite. Several more guards - including Captain Gallus - line the richly decorated entrance hall. If they're surprised or concerned about letting a human in, they're too professional to show it. Though the human certainly shows his surprise.

Anon shoots me a nervous glance. His eyes asking if he should be worried. It's probably all the increased security and formality; he doesn't know we're about to meet royalty. I can't break my professionally neutral expression, but I give him a subtle shoulder bump. The warm touch lingers for a moment, as he leans slightly into me. Then a quick nod, as though he's satisfied with my reassurance, and he begins striding forward. Fruit and I follow on either side, Fruit moving with stiff, overly formal precision.

The three of us enter into a spacious (by Tranquility Springs standards) penthouse. Floor to ceiling windows, arched in the local style. Silk carpets from Saddle Arabia, or reasonable facsimiles thereof. Ostentatiously plush couches - the kind you only ever see in magazines - arranged around a central low table. And seated at the head of the table, in a grand lounge chair which still seems woefully inadequate for the occasion, is The Princess.

Everypony's seen photos. We all know what Twilight Sparkle looks like. But actually meeting Her...

The aura of an alicorn is overwhelming. Poets have tried to describe it for centuries. The PWG taught us to be wary of it. I've even experienced it firsthoof. But Hers still catches me off guard.

The Sand Witch's presence asserted power and authority; I was in Her domain, and only for as long as She allowed it.

But for Twilight Sparkle, Princess of Friendship, Ruler of Equestria:

Hers is an invitation.

A playful wink, saying that all this "Princess" stuff is just playing dress up. That She'd genuinely love to hang out and grab a hayburger with me, at any time. That She's ready to really listen to my worries, to help me with my problems. Because that's what friends do.

I bow low. Suddenly appreciating Fruit's sentiment: the Princess deserves our admiration.

Opposite me, Fruit Punch is already bowing. Anon follows suit shortly. I don't know whether he feels the same profound respect we do, or whether he's just correctly deduced that the floating-maned, crown-wearing alicorn is a Big Deal.

"Welcome to Equestria, Anon," says the Princess warmly. Her voice is strong and smooth, but with a youthful vivacity that occasionally bubbles to the surface. "Please, rise. And welcome home, Sergeant Glacier. It's wonderful to have you back."

She sounds like She means it.

"Thank you, your Highness," I reply, barely keeping my voice steady. My eyes go misty for the second time today. It really feels like I'm finally home.

I haven't forgotten my duty as translator, however. After a pause to get my breathing under control, I gently nudge Anon out of his bow.

"Anon," I start, thinking how best to phrase this. "Um... Equestria. Friend. Anon."

I gesture broadly in all directions, hoping he remembers "Equestria" from when we were talking about the map. And Fruit already taught him "Friend" yesterday; one of the first words she shared. It's not exactly "Welcome to Equestria," but I think the meaning is close enough, and it's the best I can manage on the spot.

Anon seems to follow my reasoning. In his deep voice, rough by comparison to the Princess but still earnest, he replies:

"Anon friend Equestria."

The Princess's smile widens, excitement dancing in Her eyes.

"That's wonderful to hear, Anon. And thank you for your help with translating, sergeant. I'm actually quite interested in learning about Anon's language, and his linguistic adaptation to modern Equestrian. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Please, have a seat everypony."

We do so. I subtly guide Anon to sit at The Princess's right, while placing myself next to him. Fruit takes the seat opposite us, still stiff as a board. An attendant gracefully places a tray of fancy looking biscuits between us, and asks for our choice of drinks. Her Highness picks a delicate sounding tea, which Fruit quickly copies. I stick with ice water, and recommend Anon has the same. Don't want to accidentally poison him with something that's safe for ponies but not for humans. (At least, not in front of The Princess.)

With hospitality and etiquette now satisfied, Twilight eagerly returns to the conversation:

"Before we get started, I'd like to try casting a translation spell on Anon. Just to make our conversation go a bit easier, you know? Do you think you could communicate this to him, and ask for his consent? I realise this might be a bit of a challenge to convey."

"Of course, Princess," I reply. My voice stays level, but I feel my stomach sinking.

Darn. I didn't know "translation spells" were a thing. I'd... I'd hoped to stay on as Anon's translator a little while longer. But I can't hold it against Her Highness. It's a perfectly reasonable suggestion; we should try anything that makes it easier for Anon to communicate. And, I admit, I'm a little excited at the prospect of conversing with him freely, in Equestrian or however the spell works. Maybe I'll even get some answers out of him, before we part ways.

I glance over at Fruit, wondering if she has any ideas for how to start the translation. The smaller pegasus is chewing her lip, clearly thinking hard. At least the task has finally distracted her from her own silent panicking.

I turn the problem over in my own head for a moment longer, before a new thought occurs to me.

"Actually, Princess, I've just remembered: Anon seems to have some kind of... magic resistance? I- I noticed I can barely affect him with my levitation magic. Would that make any difference to your spell?"

"Interesting," Twilight hums, Her amethyst eyes alighting on Anon. "Humans do seem to have a funny relationship with magic. Hmm. If you'll excuse me for just a moment..."

With a flash from Her long horn, a notepad and quill appear floating beside Her. Anon flinches in surprise. (Though, to his credit, only slightly. He's getting used to unicorns and their flashy tricks. I give him an encouraging pat under the table.) Though I'm rather surprised myself; the Princess sounds like She knows something about humans. But before I can work up the nerve to ask Her, She continues:

"If you don't think he'd mind, I like to conduct a few quick tests. Nothing dangerous or painful! He won't even know I cast them. Probably. They'll just give us a baseline to work with for estimating the efficacy of future magical effects."

Fruit and I exchange glances. The pegasus shrugs, knowing nothing about spellcasting, and probably not understanding even half of Twilight's jargon. I hardly know much more myself, but surely we can trust the Element of Magic when it comes to this stuff? Those wild stories about a younger Twilight Sparkle causing weekly magical mishaps are probably all made up, right?

I give the Princess a hesitant nod. The magenta glow around Her horn brightens. No visible effect or change comes over Anon. He and Fruit just wait quietly, both looking slightly confused. I'm not sure what's happening either, but I can at least feel something. There's a... kind of magical hum, is the best way I can describe it. Like a tone, right on the edge of hearing, constantly shifting in frequency. No idea what any of it means; it feels vaguely similar to the diagnostic magic the doctors performed on us last night. But that was foal's play compared to this.

Every few seconds the Princess takes a note on Her pad, nodding or frowning to Herself. After half a minute of silence, the tone stops. The glow around Twilight's horn dims, and She smiles up at us.

"Right then. You're quite correct, Glacier. Anon has a most peculiar blend of - as you called it - "magic resistance". It's fascinating, really! I've already got some ideas on how to work around it. But, for today, it's probably best if we leave the translating to the two of you." She winks. "From what I've been told, you've been doing a great job."

A smile makes its way to my lips. Both from the praise, and relief at not being replaced just yet. Though I quickly school my expression as we get down to business. For the next half hour, Fruit and I do our best to translate for the Princess. It's a slow, sometimes frustrating process, involving lots of pointing and miming and stick figure drawings. But Twilight is patient - even offering a few insightful suggestions - while Anon is eager to hear what She has to say. Though we're performing in front of an audience of elite Palace Guards, with the four of us working together I don't feel at all embarrassed.

Our efforts steadily bear fruit. To summarise: Princess Twilight had already spoken with Captain Gallus, Sherrif Pear, and Sergeant Oak last night. The latter had relayed my report in detail, so She already knew pretty much everything I did about Anon. Maybe even more! (Seriously, I'm getting the feeling that the Princess knows a lot about humans that we were never taught in the PWG. Which seems a bit unfair!) Twilight was saddened to hear that Anon had become separated from his people, lost in the Badlands with no way of knowing where he was. She promised (through us) that Equestria would welcome him as a guest for as long as he stayed here, and pledged to help him in his search for his people. She even hinted that She has some ideas of where to start looking!

Anon was overjoyed when we managed to convey this. He actually picked me up and hugged me! I mean, he's hugged me before, but this was in front of Fruit, all the other guards, and the Princess! I couldn't decide if I was happy or mortified! I think he would have hugged Twilight, too, if not for all the jumpy looking guards with spears glaring at him when he moved in Her direction.

With that initial excitement over, it's clear Anon now has a hundred questions he wants to ask. (I do too!) Just what does the Princess know about his home? And how does She know it? Unfortunately, we still lack a lot of the vocabulary necessary for this kind of back and forth. That, and Twilight seems to be deflecting most questions for now.

"I'll be happy to answer your questions later," She promises. "And I've got quite a few questions of my own, believe me! But I really shouldn't keep you much longer. You've already had a lot to take in this morning. Plus you're all still recovering from your ordeal in the desert. I promise, once you're a bit more rested, and either we've got that translation spell working or you've taken a few lessons in Equestrian, then the two of us will sit down and have a nice, long talk."

Ah. There it is. "The two of us."

My excitement dims again. Reading between the lines, it looks like I won't be part of Anon's story much longer. Understandable, really; between the Princess's spell and Anon learning our language, there simply won't be any need for me. Heck, Fruit Punch is already just as good at translating as I am. I'm completely redundant.

Fruit begins dutifully translating the Princess's message. I do my best to help, but... my heart just isn't in it. I catch Fruit glancing at me while we work. But she's being a good guard and maintaining her professional neutral expression, and I'm not in the right head space to guess what those glances mean.

After a few more minutes, we (mostly Fruit) finish translating the gist of the message. The Princess smiles down at us once more.

"Thank you, my little ponies. You've both been a big help today, and I'm sure Anon appreciates it, too. I'm afraid we can't stay too much longer, but if either of you have any questions or requests, I'd be happy to help."

My mind latches on to the "We". So She's leaving with Anon? Right now? I guess this really is goodbye...

It's... hard to look in Anon's direction right now. I want to ask if we'll get to see him again. But it's obvious I'm no longer needed. He'll go to Canterlot. I'll go to my next assignment. Maybe, in a few months when I get some time off between postings, I'll be able to see him again. Do they let random ponies visit royal guests? Will he even still be in Equestria by then?

I shake my head, ready to-


I flinch as Fruit practically growls at me. Anon stares at her across the table, equally surprised.

"Is... everything all right?" Twilight asks, genuine concern on Her face.

"No!" Fruit continues, glaring. "Glace, I can see you getting all... all gloomy, and defeated! What is up with you today? Why are you giving up on Anon so easily!?"

"I- I-"

"I'm sorry, Princess, but Glace is getting some things twisted around, and she really needs a few things clarified! Things like, what happens next? Where are you taking Anon? And the one Glacier really wants to ask: "Will she ever see him again?""

I flinch. Harder this time. Twilight's eyes widen in dismay. She quickly waves Her hooves placatingly.

"Of course! Of course she'll...! I never meant...!" She stops. Takes a breath, composing Herself. Then, with an apologetic smile: "I'm sorry, I worded that all wrong, didn't I? I meant my guards and I need to leave soon. Not Anon. I actually wanted to talk with you about this afterwards, Glacier, but it seems I'd better clear a few things up right away."

The churning, sick feeling in my gut pauses. Starts to drain away, a little. Feels like I can breathe a bit deeper. I'm still not quite in full control of my voice yet, so I just nod.

"Anon's future will be up to him, of course," Twilight continues, looking at each of us in turn. "But for now, I recommend he remain here, in Tranquility Springs. He needs time to heal, and to get used to Equestria. I was actually hoping the two of you might stay with him, while you recover. He'll need guides. And, more importantly, friends."

A rough, warm hand takes my hoof beneath the table. I look up in surprise. Anon's eyes flickers to the other mares as they speak, but never leaves my face for long. He gives my hoof a reassuring squeeze.

"Eventually, I'd like to take him to stay at the castle. Of course, wherever he ends up, you're more than welcome to visit each other as often as you like." Her smile turns a little wistful. "It's true we all have our own duties to attend. And they can keep us from our friends for longer than we'd like. But that certainly doesn't mean that will be the end of your friendship! It just means you'll have to fight a little harder for it. And from what I've heard, the three of you are fighters! You'll be okay; I'm sure of it."

"Thank you, Your Highness," I manage, thickly. Hearing that from the Princess of Friendship really does help. "And thank you, Fruit."

"Any time, boss," she grins happily at me. "Oh, a-and, um... S-sorry about m-my little outburst there, P-P-Princess."

Aaand Fruit's back to being a nervous filly. She really flips between outspoken and insecure, huh?

Twilight beams at her.

"Not at all, Fruit Punch. I'm glad to see you looking out for your friend. You do the Harmony Corps proud. Though, er, maaaybe a tad less shouting next time?"

Fruit's dark cheeks turn bright red. Her wings fluff and re-fluff, seemingly on automatic. Twilight laughs.

"Alright, I promise I'll get back to you with some of those other answers soon. But we really can't stay too much longer. If there aren't any more urgent questions...?" She looks to each of us. We shake our heads, and the Princess continues. "In that case, thank you for your time, Anon and Private Punch. Sergeant Glacier, if you wouldn't mind staying for just a few more minutes, there's still a few things I'd like to discuss with you."

What have I got myself into now?

Icy winds ruffle my fur. Frigid air fills my lungs, making my breath mist. The sunlight feels distant, brittle; a fragile warmth, set in a crystal blue sky. Thick packed snow crunches beneath my hooves, the ground level for a few steps before spilling down a steep mountain slope.


"Eight and half kilometres north of the Crystal Empire," Twilight states matter-of-factly.

I'm still reeling from the sudden shift. Fruit Punch and Anon had just said their polite thank-yous and goodbyes, Anon giving me one last squeeze as he went. Then Twilight asked Her guards to step outside, too. That struck me as odd, but they had complied without question. For an awkward moment it was just me and the ruler of all Equestria. Then She smiled and asked "How are you handling the heat?" In truth, the hotel room had been uncomfortably warm for me, and I told Her as much. She'd lit up Her horn, and then-

"I thought you might be more comfortable here."

I look around, still in shock. White and grey peaks extend to the horizon. Snow-laden pines cling to the steep slopes in thick clusters. Some distance to the south, I can make out the very tip of the iconic spire of the Crystal Palace.

"We- we just teleported? We're outside of Equestria?"

Twilight nods. Breathes in deeply of the crisp mountain air, sighing happily.

"Just for a few minutes. To be honest, I'm not much of a desert pony, either. I grew up in Canterlot; I'm a mountain mare, too."

It's strange to think of Twilight as anything other than an ageless alicorn Princess. But that little tidbit about her past fills me with a sudden sense of kinship. For a brief moment I see a vision of a little purple unicorn filly playing in the snow. Perhaps not so different from my foalhood.

"I like to come here sometimes. When I need some fresh air."

Twilight winks at me conspiratorially.

"Don't tell Gallus. He hates it when I don't take a guard with me."

"Uh. Well, um, technically you did take a Guard with you..."

I don't know what I think I'm doing, making jokes with the Princess! But out here, with just the two of us - I don't know, it just seems more natural?

Twilight laughs. Not the dainty laughter of a princess in court, but an inelegant, dorky snort.

"Pffft! You're absolutely right. Though I think perhaps Gallus meant a guard fit for active duty... Still, his fault for not specifying."

The Princess grins at me. I grin back. Again, it just feels more natural in this place.

A quiet moment passes between us. It really is nice out here. I savour the chill seeping into my coat, the fresh pine scent clearing my head.

"So... What was it you wanted to talk about, Your Highness?"

"Please, just Twilight is fine."

"Okay. Twilight. So, what's up?"

Deep amethyst eyes peer into my own. Curious, probing, but not critical. A teacher getting to know her new student.

"I have a question for you," she begins slowly. "But before we get to that, I feel it's only fair you should have your own questions answered. You've done a lot for Equestria, without understanding the full picture, and I know how frustrating that can be. Previously I avoided answering some of Anon's questions, for various reasons. But now I promise to do my best to answer yours."

Twilight beams, looking like an eager filly.

"Let's chat."

Chapter 31 - Resolution

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I am Glacier. Regular, boring guardsmare, from nowhere special.

So I don't exactly know how to respond when an immortal alicorn princess / manifestation of the very concept of magic offers to answer my every question.

While I stand here gaping like an idiot, said manifestation just smiles patiently.

"Don't worry, my little pony," Twilight says with a hint of laughter. "This isn't a test or anything."

She leans in conspiratorially.

"Between you and me, I can't stand leaving unresolved loose ends at the end of an adventure. It's like finishing a good book but the author never explained that one detail that's been nagging at me, you know? So unsatisfying! Plus, I want to make sure you're fully informed about everything before we move on to my question. So if there's anything you're still unclear on or curious about, please, ask away!"

"A-alright. Thanks, Twilight"

I relax a little. Feel the calming cold seeping into my coat. Okay, so I'm not expected to ask about, like, the big, philosophical questions. Life, the universe, and everything. Twilight's just genuinely offering to satisfy my own curiosity. She really is Best Princess.

I take a moment, trying decide where to start. I had so many questions throughout the last few days! But now that I'm being put on the spot they're frustratingly hard to remember.

My eyes wander as I get my thoughts in order. Across the mountainous skyline. Many of the peaks are familiar. We can't be more than a day's climb from my village. To think, a pony can just be plucked from the desert and transported to the far side of Equestria, just like that! Alicorns sure are something else.

That line of thought finally leads me to my first question:

The Sand Witch and the Dust Devils

"...When I was a young filly," Twilight begins, eyes closed. "My grandmother kept a beautiful flower garden. And all sorts of colourful butterflies would come to visit. The two of us would spend hours watching them flitter all through the yard. But sometimes a butterfly would accidentally make its way inside her house. When this happened, my grandmother would gently but firmly shoo it towards an open door or window. Or scoop it up in a jar and release it outside. Not because she didn't like them. But because she wanted to protect them. There were cats living in her house, you see."

Her eyes open again, settling gently on me. I give a slow nod.

"So... the Sand Witch has been using the Dust Devils to scoop ponies up and take them to safety? Away from the sand wyrm?"

"Among other things, yes. I believe so. I admit, I'm speculating here. But I did manage to do a bit of late night research yesterday. I suspect the "Sand Witch" chased away Hoofrest's miners all those years ago because they'd accidentally opened a passage to the Badlands. Dangerous creatures started to take an interest, and she believed it wasn't safe for ponies to be there any more."

"I see." A pause. "But then, why did She bring me into the Badlands?"

"She wanted to help Anon, too," Twilight says with a smile. "From your report, I gather she already tried using her Dust Devils on him, hoping to send him to safety. Unfortunately his "magic resistance" rendered him immune. She next tried leading him to Equestria herself, lighting a path through the mine to guide him. But then the sand wyrm happened to find him, and Anon fled back to the Badlands. Given the state of his injuries, it's surprising he managed to survive on his own; she might have been helping him during that time, too, guiding him to food or water. Finally, she decided to bring in some help. Somepony who knows all about monsters and surviving in the wild."

She looks at me proudly as she says that last part. I blush.

"H-huh. Well, that... explains a few things." I think back over the last few days. Little coincidences which had been bothering me start to fall into place. Though I am feeling a bit frustrated at how... indirect this all was. "Um. Couldn't She have just... told us about all this? Face to face?"

Twilight giggles into her hoof. It's weird seeing an almighty alicorn look so cute.

"I think she might be a bit shy," muses Twilight. "Or perhaps she prefers to help others indirectly? Arranging for them to be in the right place at the right time. I had a teacher like that."

"Okay. So... do you know who She really is? Is She actually an alicorn? And if so, why isn't she a princess, too?"

I stare awkwardly at the Twilight, wondering if it's rude to ask an alicorn about alicorns. She just smiles again, enigmatically, and shakes her head.

"I know the answers to some of those questions. And I think I can guess others. But it’s not my place to divulge her secrets. Friends respect each other’s privacy. And this isn’t the first time she’s shown friendship to Equestria. Suffice to say, she's a powerful mare who, for her own reasons, has chosen to live apart from society.”

I nod, accepting the end to that line of questioning.

A little more quietly, Twilight adds:

"I... hope that one day she reconsiders. It sounds lonely, living out there."

A chill gust of wind wails down from the snowy peaks, matching the melancholy in the Princess's voice. It takes a few seconds for the noise to die down, giving me time to think of my next question.

Humans and The List

"You know, I only heard about this "List" of yours for the first time yesterday."

"Wait, really?"

"Yep," Twilight looks a little bashful. "Lieutenant Cookie had to explain it all to me. I found it quite fascinating."

Huh. The possibility had never occurred to me. I scratch my head, thinking through the implications.

"So, er, I guess those rumours about the Princesses adding creatures to The List were wrong after all?"

"Well, perhaps not. Celestia, Luna, and I have asked the Guard to keep an eye out for certain creatures of interest from time to time. Not necessarily because they're dangerous, mind you. Given that some of Celestia's requests were made centuries ago, it's entirely possible that the context has simply been forgotten."

"You mean The List is... just a big misunderstanding?" I ask incredulously.

Twilight shrugs.

"Could be. Or at least parts of it. Don't feel too bad; it happens more often than you'd think. A thousand years of bureaucracy, and all that. If I ever get a free afternoon, perhaps I'll see about updating it. I did note several misconceptions about some of the creatures in the list."

"Like humans?" I ask, half jokingly.

A slight frown clouds Twilight's face.

"Yeah. It's a shame there's so much misinformation still circulating. I can't really blame the Guard for it; Celestia was a wise ruler, and wonderful pony, but she did tend to keep information close to her chest. A habit she’d formed during Equestria's less… harmonious periods. As for humans, well..."

Twilight snorts, producing a visible puff of condensation. A wry grin sneaks onto her lips.

"I can certainly see why she'd want any humans in Equestria be rounded up. It's not that they're directly dangerous, but they tend to lead to... complications."


"You've dealt with humans before, haven't you?"

It's not really a question.

"What makes you say that?" Twilight responds. Her expression remains perfectly pleasant and perfectly neutral. Giving absolutely nothing away.

I take a moment to put my thoughts into words. Digging idly into the snow with a boot. Eventually I settle on:

"The way you talk about them, I guess. You sound like you've experienced these "complications" first-hoof."

Twilight simply nods.

"A reasonable enough deduction. Yes, I've worked with humans before."

"What's their deal?" I blurt out. Not the most elegantly phrased question, though perhaps the most important so far. "Where do they come from? And how did Anon wind up in the Badlands?"

"Like I said, it's complicated," Twilight frowns. She begins pacing back and forth along the snowy ledge. Like a professor in a lecture hall. "Without getting too technical, or giving away too many state secrets: Humans come from a place far from Equestria. There's no easy way for them to get here, so magic is typically involved when they do. Normally, we'd welcome open contact with an intelligent species like them. But in this case, there are... some reasons we can't, and some reasons we shouldn't. The details aren't particularly relevant. I hope that one day we'll be able to sort things out, but for now it's in everycreature's best interest that we keep going our separate ways."

Twilight pauses. Looks around, perhaps noticing the lack of lectern. She frowns, then flashes her horn. A sun-emblazoned thermos appears, wrapped in her magic. Twilight takes a quick sip. Pauses again. Looks at me awkwardly.

"Er, sorry. I forgot teacups. Would you, erm, like a drink?"

She offers me the bottle. A pleasant aroma wafts out, tempting me. B-b-but drinking directly from the same thermos as the Princess!? That's waaay too familiar! I stutter out a polite "no". Twilight quickly resumes her lecture, as we both pretend we're not mutually embarrassed.

"Ahem. Where was I? Right, so, we almost never have humans in Equestria. When a human does turn up, it's usually by accident. We do our best to help them get home. But that's where things can get tricky."

She waves her thermos for emphasis.

"Humans have a... very different relationship with magic than we ponies do. "Unpredictable", some call it. The kind of unpredictable that can pluck a random human from his home, and deposit him at an arbitrary point in the Badlands, for example."

"Wait, that can happen?!"

I mean, I'd heard stories of magic gone wild and conjuring creatures from distant realms. Everypony has. But who really believes that stuff?

"In exception circumstances," Twilight nods. "Once again, I'm skipping a lot of detail, and making a few assumptions. We won't know for sure what happened until we can communicate more fluently with Anon. But yes, a lot of the time this sort of stuff is just the result of pseudo-random magical happenstance."

"Huh," I blink. "You know... no offence Twilight, but I'm glad I never got into advanced magical studies. This all sounds like a massive headache."

"Oh trust me, I know," the Princess grimaces. "You would not believe how much of my job is just dealing with random magical nonsense!"

She kicks the snow in exasperation.

"There's always some dabbling magician or reckless archaeologist ready to carelessly release apocalyptic quantities of magic. All that power's got to go somewhere. And sadly, historic Equestria had a habit of banishing its problems to other realms. We've metaphorically left the door open. So when we find a human in Equestria, it's good odds that it was errant Equestrian magic that summoned them. Another reason for us to help them."

Twilight stops her pacing, turning to face me fully.

"This is brings me more or less to the topic I wanted to discuss with you. Depending on the nature of Anon's arrival, getting him home could be challenging."


I shift my weight. My hooves are getting chilly from standing in one place. Don't get me wrong, I love it up here. Everything's so crisp and beautiful. But normally I'm properly shod and dressed when mountaineering.

Twilight doesn't seem to mind the cold, despite wearing even less than me. Whether due to her alpine background, her earth pony magic, or some sort of personal heating spell, the Princess looks physically at ease. Her expression, however, is clouded.

"I'm still hopeful that we can return Anon to his home relatively quickly," she begins. "I've got a few options to try right away. But again, until we know more, I can't make any guarantees. It's possible that Anon will be with us for quite some time."

I nod. A tiny part of me is happy to hear Anon might not be leaving just yet, but I shush that part. Anon deserves better.

"To keep him busy in the interim," Twilight resumes pacing, "I'm thinking of giving him a job. Better than leaving him to fret idly while he waits. He can make friends, and learn more about Equestria. Given that he'll be sharing languages and culture, he'll essentially be acting as a de facto ambassador anyway. So I might as well just give him the official title."

"That's... very generous and thoughtful of you, Your Highness. I mean, Twilight." I rub the back of my neck awkwardly. "I, er. I admit I hadn't really thought that far ahead. But I think it's a good idea, if Anon's happy with it."

Twilight nods.

"I'm glad to hear it. We can discuss it with him later. But, assuming he agrees, as a visiting diplomat on Equestrian soil he'll be entitled to several benefits. Quarters in the palace, a modest stipend, and a military escort."

I hadn't thought of that either, but it's a good point. A convenient excuse for Her Highness to give Anon room and board. It'll publicly mark him as officially recognised, and under the Crown's protection. The last one, though...

"A military escort? If I may, that seems... a bit excessive?"

That gets an amused look from the Princess.

"Oh? You don't think he'd like having a guard around? Maybe a very specific guard, whom he already likes?"

Wait. Is she-

"Anon will need somepony to look after him," Twilight continues. "To guide him as he learns about Equestria. To keep the peace between him and those with misconceptions about humans. To be his friend, should the worst come to worst and he cannot return home."

The alicorn's eyes fix me in place.

"So, Sergeant Glacier. Here is my question for you:"


"We're back!" Fruit Punch chimes, holding the door open for Anon.

"Hey guys," I say, glancing up from my paperwork. The secretary desk in the foyer isn't all that comfortable, but we don't have a lot of other furniture yet.

"Hi, Glace," Anon waves as he enters. Noticing I don't have my helmet on, he goes straight for the kill, reaching over and ruffling my mane. I roll my eyes and smile. Our usual greeting.

"Welcome back," I say around Anon's torso. "How'd language class go? Learn anything interesting?"

I'd elected to stay behind this time. There's still so much work to be done setting up Anon's new quarters. The palace doesn't exactly have an excess of human-sized furnishings, and we can't just keep mooching off the minotaur embassy. I'm currently neck deep in requisition forms.

"It was great!" Punch chirps, helping Anon with his coat. "I learned five new human swear words!"

"Admirable. Though I was mainly asking Anon."

She sticks out her tongue, like the true professional she is. Really, just a terrible influence on our VIP. I don't know how I managed to convince the Princess to let me bring her along.

I stand up from my desk, and accompany Anon to his main office / living space. Clean white walls, thick carpets, large windows. All beautifully trimmed and decorated in the classic Canterlot style. There's lovely matching furniture, too, but again it's the wrong size. We've pushed it all to one side of the room for now; I'm still trying to get somepony over to take it away. All we have left are a few mismatched chairs, a coffee table, and the largest sofa we could find.

Anon takes a seat on the sofa, while I settle down opposite him. Speaking a little more carefully, I repeat:

"So Anon, did you learn anything new today?"

He nods, looking pleased with himself.

"Weird magic," he rumbles in his thick accent. "Twilight says many things weird magic. Too weird I don't know."

His Equestrian really is getting better. Most of the time I can guess what he means right away. Not sure what's this about "weird magic", though.

"Oh? Princess Twilight was there again?"

"Yeah," Fruit chips in as she brings over a tray of drinking glasses. "I think we understood maybe five percent of what she was saying? She kinda took over the lesson. I think she was trying to teach us magical basics, but, uh, I may be a lost cause."

"Lost cause both of us," Anon groans, pouring out three glasses of water.

"Oh, magic's not that hard," I lie, floating over a glass to demonstrate. "You'll be fine. Though on that note, you should probably go get changed. You've got your physical therapy with the new doctor soon, remember? Said he'd be trying that scar-reversing spell?"

Anon grumbles, an amusing mix of human and Equestrian, but gets up and heads towards his room. He's got an adjoining suite with a bed that's too small (I'm working on it) and a dresser full of new clothes. These were supplied by a friend of Princess Twilight's. She was suspiciously knowledgeable of human fashions. Even had a few existing human outfits hidden away at the back of her boutique. They ended up being too small and girly for Anon, but we eventually settled on a suitable wardrobe.

"Hey, Glace?"

Fruit Punch is still waiting by the table, idly playing with her glass. The purple pegasus has her Thinking Face on, which is rare. Wait, no; that sounds mean. I just meant, she's usually more of a go-with-the-flow, don't-worry-about-things-too-much type of pony. It's part of what makes her such a good partner for me.

"What's up?" I smile encouragingly.

"So, weird question," she sets her glass down and looks up at me. "Why does the Princess spend so much time and effort helping Anon?"

I raise an eyebrow. She waves me off before I can respond.

"D-don't get me wrong, it's great, and obviously She's a wonderful pony! But, like? There are other diplomats in the castle, with their own challenges. Some of them speak even worse Equestrian than Anon! So, is there something special about him? Or about humans, maybe?"

I sip from my drink, taking a moment to consider. It's nice that we're halfway up a mountain now; I don't need to crunch ice cubes constantly to stay cool.

During that first meeting with Princess Twilight, when she offered me the job of Anon's personal guard, she told me a lot of things in confidence. Perhaps not all of them were strictly state secrets. But if she hasn't spoken of them to Fruit Punch yet, I'm not sure it's my place to reveal them. Friends respect each other's privacy.

Still, Fruit deserves some answers. She's been with Anon almost as long as I have. And agreed to take on this assignment even though it's such a wild departure from her previous postings. (We'd both had reservations about leaving our old positions, but Twilight assured us neither choice would have to be permanent. We can change our minds if this new job doesn't work out, or even rotate between this and our regular assignments. She even jokingly suggested Anon might eventually join me in the PWG. Now there's a thought.)

All this to say, I ought to tell Fruit something. Just gotta do it without technically spilling any secrets.

"I think," I begin carefully. "That Twilight's planning for the future. The long term future. The kind an immortal ruler has to consider."

I glance towards Anon's room, making sure he's still out of earshot. Fruit leans forward, ears perked, eyes wide. She has a thing for gossip about Twilight Sparkle.

"I should say, all this is guesswork on my part. Twilight has never told me any of this directly. Still, now that I've spoken with a few times, I feel like I'm starting to see the bigger picture. Yes, she's friends with Anon, and wants to help him. But him being here, and us being friends with him - there's something more important than the three of us.

"You were right, this is about the humans. You've probably heard by now - or at least guessed - that they've been here before. Long ago. And if it can happen once, then it will probably keep happening. Given enough time, Twilight figures it's inevitable humans will work out how to travel to Equestria freely. Or vice-versa. So she'd really like to find out if we can co-exist before that happens.

"That's why she's investing so much in us. She's the Princess of Friendship, and we are her friends - but she's also responsible for the future of Equestria. The three of us, we're a research project. To find out if humans and ponies can live in harmony."

"Woah," Fruit gulps. "That seems like... suddenly a lot of pressure? You really think that's the case?"

She takes a sip of water, perhaps wishing it was something harder.

"Well, that's my theory, anyway," I shrug. "Or it could just be that Twilight ships Anon and me really hard."

The timing is perfect. Fruit snorts violently, spraying water everywhere.

While she's still flailing and coughing and squawking indignantly, Anon emerges from his chambers. Now clad in his more sporty attire he prefers to use during physical therapy.

I set my helmet on my head and smile up at him.

"Shall we go?"

Personally? I'm not worried about Twilight's big experiment. I already know what the result will be. I've known ever since that first night, when the big scary human bandaged and fed a little lost guardsmare.

Anon smiles down at me.