Alcohol’s a hell of a thing.
It can loosen lips, bolster egos, and turn even the shyest of ponies into raging party animals. It can boost you up or tear you down, occasionally both at the same time. You can drink for joy, or slug ‘em down just to numb the pain away. Either way, I would say modern Equestrian society wouldn’t be like it is today without my good old friends Barley and Hops.
Some ponies treat the juice with respect, saying it’s something to be savored and enjoyed. Others, like yours truly, use it as an excuse to get as hammered as possible.
I was planted firmly in the latter category when I stumbled through the door of Glowstick Gardens, Manehatten’s premiere rave destination. This was the fourth spot I’d hit in as many hours, and the various brightly colored drinks I’d ingested at the other three were beginning to take their toll.
I glanced around the club’s grimy, light-filled interior, looking for my bar-crawl buddies Colgate and Cloud Kicker, before remembering that they were still back at the our previous venue. They’d been forced to stay behind after Cloud Kicker threw back four of the bar’s signature ‘Applebucker’ shots on a dare from some cute colt. To her credit, she had lasted long enough to get outside before dropping like a rock through a cloud.
Pegasi, I tell ya. Freakin’ lightweights, every one.
Grinning at the memory, I began to work my way through the club’s neon-soaked crowd, swaying from a combination of the music thumping through the speakers and my own drunkenness.
After a couple minutes of meandering and trying not to step on anypony’s hooves, I reached my destination: the club’s bar, shoved up against the rear wall like it had been put there as an afterthought. Which, I realized, it probably was. Glowstick catered more to the ‘come in, get high, dance ‘till you drop’ school of getting wasted than my preferred method of ‘drink until you run out of money, then drink some more.’ Not that I minded. Booze was booze, after all.
I slid onto a cracked black-leather barstool, spinning a couple times and flashing the bartender my best ‘I’m drunk, but still sober enough to spend money’ grin. It was a look I’d perfected through long months of rigorous practice and field testing, guaranteed to sway all but the most jaded of barkeeps into begrudging me another shot or two.
“So, whadoyouguysh got, huh?” I slurred, still holding my smile. The bartender, a reddish unicorn stallion with his mane spiked in a multicolored mohawk, looked at me and rolled his eyes.
“You look like you’ve had plenty already,” he said, gesturing to my forehooves, which were shaking worse than an old mare’s. “You should take a break. Go outside, get some air.”
I narrowed my eyes. If he wanted to play hard to get, I was going to play right back.
“Oh yeah? Well, guesh what? I haven’t even had ONE drink here yet, so you can’t kick me out!” I yelled, drawing a couple stares from the other ponies on nearby stools. “I’ve got dippo- dipilo- the thing in the movies where they can’t kill the guy because he’sh like... yeah! That, but with booze!” As speeches went, it wasn’t exactly my best, but hopefully it would do the trick.
The bartender gave another long-suffering eyeroll. “Fine. But if you start causing trouble, you’re outta here faster than you can say—”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Shutup and let me spend my bitsh,” I muttered, giving him an eyeroll of my own. “So, what’s the hardesht thing you got?” If I was gonna get wasted, I was gonna get wasted right.
“Bottle or shot?” returned the bartender evenly. He had his back to me, polishing the glasses with a spotty, dirt-covered rag.
I considered. Something from a bottle would probably taste better, but I doubted I’d be able to finish it before I dropped, and I hated wasting bits on quality booze.
The bartender turned around and smiled. Not a friendly smile. A ‘you have no idea what you just got yourself into, and I’m gonna enjoy it’ smile. I grinned right back, refusing to be intimidated.
“That’d be the Sonic Rainboom,” he said, gesturing to a chalkboard behind him. On it was a drawing of a pegasus with X’d out eyes next to a shot glass filled with multicolored liquid. ‘THE SONIC RAINBOOM: LAST MORE THAN ONE AND THEY’RE ALL FREE!’ was written below. A second chalkboard beside it seemed to be a hall of fame, listing ponies’ names and the number of Rainbooms they had taken. The letters were swimming slightly, but I didn’t think I saw any number higher than two.
“They’re all free, huh?” I said to the bartender, smirking. “Whassiniit?”
“Half Northern Talon, a quarter Spiked Horseshoe Hard Cider, a little bit of lemon and the secret ingredient,” he replied. “Last more than one, they’re both free and you get your name up on the hall of fame. I wouldn’t bet on it, though. I’ve seen stallions twice your size knocked on their asses from just one Rainboom, and that’s when they were sober.” He rolled his eyes. “You’ve got about as much of a chance as an icicle in Hell.”
“Ish that a challenge?” I asked, blood humming in my ears. “I bet I could take three!”
“Three,” the bartender deadpanned. “Really.”
“What, you scared to let me beat the record?” I squinted at the Rainboom’s chalkboard and frowned. “Waitaminute... you shaid... whassa secret ingredient? I’m not drinking anything that I don’t know what’sh in it.” I’d had too many nasty experiences with spiked drinks to take any ‘secret ingredient’ at face value.
The stallion snorted. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
I gave him the grin again. “Oh yeah? Try me.”
He leaned closer, giving me a nice blast of nasty clubber-breath, and whispered:
“It’s pure rainbow. The good stuff, not that watered-down crap they sell to tourists in the Cloudsdale market. This is cloud-free, straight from the factory. We’re the only club in Manehatten that has it.” His tone made it clear that the method of acquisition used was high-risk and mostly likely very illegal.
I raised my eyebrows. Northern Talon was a griffin vodka that went down cold and bit like a hydra. Spiked Horseshoe was famous for being ‘The Hardest Cider Around’, and lived up to its title. Combining those with a rainbow, which had plenty of kick by itself, didn’t seem like the smartest of ideas.
The bartender saw my gesture and smirked. “What, you chickening out? Can’t handle a little color?” He turned to the bar’s other patrons. “Hey guys, this filly thinks she can take three Rainbooms. Who wants to bet 10 bits she won’t last one?” I heard chuckles and a few mocking whistles from the small crowd that had gathered around us..
Oh, it was on.
I levitated a bag of bits out of my saddlebags and dropped them on the counter with a smack. Probably not one of my better decisions, but hey, a mare’s gotta defend her honor.
“Hit me, barkeep.”
He smirked wider and took the bits.“Three Sonic Rainbooms, comin’ up.” There were some scattered cheers from the crowd. I watched as the stallion turned around and began to mix and shake the drink’s various components, which included running it under a spout from a huge steel drum marked ‘Secret Ingredient’ near the back of the counter. I giggled. Could they get any cheesier?
A half-minute later, the bartender turned back around, levitating three shot glasses full of a translucent, multicolored liquid. He set them down in a row in front of me and crossed his hooves.
“Well? Let’s see it.”
I frowned down at the shots. It might’ve just been the fact that I was already drunk, but I could’ve sworn the contents was bubbling and wriggling slightly.
“If you don’t drink it, you’re paying for the other two,” said the bartender smugly. “You mares are all the same. Comin’ in like you’re the hottest thing since Celestia, then backing out as soon as—”
I spun around on the barstool and gave him a hard smack with my tail. ‘Snarky Barkeeps’ was very near the top of the list of ‘Things Vinyl Does Not Put Up With.’
The stallion reeled back, wincing and grabbing his jaw. “Ow! What the hell is wrong with y—”
I grinned and downed the first shot.
Then my mouth exploded.
Oh dear sweet Celestia that was a hell of kick! I felt like an icepick covered in chili powder had been rammed through my skull and into my mouth and nose. Gagging, I barely managed to swallow, then immediately regretted it as the sensation repeated itself in my gut. I saw the bartender’s smirk through my tear-filled eyes and gritted my teeth. One down, two to go.
The second shot went down a little smoother than the first, if only because most of my head and throat were already numb. It still kicked like a mule, and I had to choke down a little bit of bile as the Rainboom hit my already-churning stomach. There were more cheers from the ponies watching, and I gave a whoop of my own.
“Drink to thish, motherbuckers!” Grabbing the final shot with my teeth, I flipped the glass into the air and caught the liquid in my mouth as it spilled. I coughed, gagged, and nearly puked all over the counter, but eventually managed a triumphant swallow.
“Three for three!” I shouted. “Gimme my bitsh!” My head was spinning, my mouth was burning , and my stomach was on the verge of staging a full-scale revolt, but I couldn’t have been happier.
The bartender smiled, this time genuinely. “Damn. Didn’t think you had it in you. Here’s your money,” he said, sliding my bits back over. I took them and shoved them back in my bag, grinning like a madpony. “And who do I have the pleasure of inducting into the Rainboom Survivor hall of fame?”
“JD... I mean, DJ PON-3. Yep, thash me! Besht drinker in Equestria!” I burst into giggles. “Now, if you’ll excush me, I haveto go and... do DJ thingsh.” Still giggling drunkenly, I spun away from the counter and began to wobble my way back through the crowd. I could already feel the familiar heaving sensation in the pit of my stomach, and I didn’t think the club’s staff would take too kindly to me vomiting on their floor, Rainboom Survivor or not.
My head was pounding, and I was seeing triple, but I somehow managed to make it out the club’s door and into a nearby alley before the Rainbooms decided they wanted out.
The first retch brought forth a literal fountain of glowing chromatic sludge, which splashed and stuck to the alley walls like the world’s nastiest glue. The shots somehow managed to taste and feel even worse coming up than they did going down, and soon I was doubled over, unable to do anything but heave and groan.
A couple minutes of pure hell later, my stomach decided the evacuation was over, and I leaned against the wall, sweating and hunching back over for the occasional dry heave.
“Ugh... never again... hangon, whazzat?” I squinted in confusion. There, a couple inches above my head, was a tiny, flickering mote of chartreuse light. “What the hell.... ‘m not that drunk. Wait. Yesh I am!” I gave a laugh that quickly turned into another bout of dry heaves. When I had finished, the light was still there, hovering above my head as if taunting me. I giggled again and poked it with my hoof. “C’mere, shiny!”
Not one of my better ideas.
There was a CRACK and a brilliant flash of green, and the next thing I knew I was facedown on the puke-slicked ground, my eyes burning in my skull and my mouth tasting oddly of mint. Groaning and coughing, I shoved myself to my hooves and nearly fell right back down in shock.
“Okay, no waaay I’m that drunk.”
Lying in front of me was a pale green earth pony mare, her pink mane singed and her coat dirty and bleeding from numerous large scratches, including a jagged, scabbed knot of tissue on her side. It looked weird, almost like a tumor.
Her eyes were tightly shut, but I was fairly sure I could see the steady rise and fall of breath in her chest. Then again, it could’ve just been the booze.
“Uh, hello?” I prodded her gently. “You ‘kay there?”
The mare groaned, rolling over and rubbing her head.
“Ish that a no?” I asked, backing away slightly. Call me paranoid, but teleporting alley ponies ranked pretty damn high on the Vinyl Scratch weird-o-meter.
The earth pony mumbled something into the ground.
“Didn’t catch that, shorry.”
She gave a huge, racking cough and raised her head from the ground, shaking with the effort and keeping her eyes closed. “Help.”
Oh, Celestia damn me. Now I couldn’t leave without a stain on my conscience.
“Uh... whasswrong?” I asked, still keeping my distance.
“You...” She was cut off by another fit of coughing. My subconscious was screaming at me to get as far away as possible, but I wasn’t going to leave her to bleed out, drunk and terrified as I was. But what could I do? I was already seriously doubting my ability to make it back home by myself, let alone carrying another someone else. But I couldn’t just leave her here...
The mare interrupted my mental tennis match. ”You... attuned?” she rasped. Her eyes were still held tightly shut, and I began to wonder if there was something wrong with them.
“Attuned? Whadoyou mean?” Okay, if the weird-o-meter had been high before, it was redlining now. I was contemplating running away as fast as my unsteady hooves could carry me when she spoke again.
It might have been the alcohol. It might have been my own misplaced sense of pride. It might have been the spirit of Discord possessing my mortal form and driving me to temporary insanity. Whatever it was, it made me answer back:
“Music? ‘Course! ‘M DJ PON-3, besht producer ‘n Equeshtria!”
The mare’s eyes snapped open and locked with mine. There was deep, throaty humming sound, and her irises began to flicker rapidly through every color I could name, and a few I couldn’t.
“The hell... gah!” I gave a yell of surprise as the earth pony’s eyes finally settled on a hue: a bright crimson, the same as my own. I felt a warm, comforting glow spread outward from my stomach, like whiskey without the bite. “Wha... whawaszat?” The weird-o-meter was now broken from overload, and it was taking every fiber of my being not to bolt right then and there.
The mare gave a sigh of relief. “Oh, thank the gods. Finally.” I noticed she was shaking less, and some of the scratches on her chest appeared to have closed. “You have no idea how long... never mind. Not much time.”
“Much time? Okay, mish teleporting earth pony, would you mind telling me what the blueberry-flavored Hell ish goin’ on?”
She shook her head. “No time to explain.... you need to find....” Another bout of coughing. “Find three others...”
I frowned. “You know I’m drunk off my flank, right? ‘M not gonna remember any of thish. Sorry.”
The mare sighed. “Drunk... figures. All right. Just one question.” She stared at me with those eyes, so similar to mine and yet somehow still alien. She had begun to shake again, and her entire outline was starting to flicker and fade.
“If you could save a world... would you?”
My mouth provided the answer before my booze-addled brain could accurately process the question.
“Sure, coursh I would.”
Damnit, Vinyl. Celestia. Effing. Damnit.
The earth pony’s mouth turned upward in a strained smile. “Take this.” She waved her hoof weakly, and there was a flicker of green light as a battered-looking envelope slid out of a rift in the air. I grabbed it gingerly with my teeth and tucked into my saddlebags, not trusting my booze-addled magic. At this point, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Celestia had popped out of a manhole and started doing a stand-up routine.
“Thank... you...” Her outline was really starting to fade now, to the point where I could see the grimy alley wall right through her. “Letter... has instructions...”
She began to glow, and I had to avert my eyes as the light grew bright enough to irritate my already-aching head.
There was another brilliant flash, and she was gone.
But there was something new around my neck.
Glancing down, I saw an amulet in the shape of a quarter note, secured by an elegant silver chain. Inlaid in the note’s head was a small gemstone that pulsed with light, alternating between pink and green. The colors of the mare.
That did it.
I had broken a bar record, drank enough booze to knock a manticore on its ass, vomited my guts out, gotten asked to save the world by a teleporting earth pony, and now I was pretty sure I had just seen said pony turn into a piece of tacky jewelry. My brain had had just about enough, and it was about to make that fact known in the most direct way possible.
“Nighty-night,” I murmured as the world tilted crazily around me. “Sweet dreams, me.”
After everything that had happened, passing out was almost a relief.
Stating the obvious, I know, but really. There’s not much worse than the triple-whammy of cotton-mouth, raging migraine, and feeling of overall crappiness that follow a night of partying too hard. I’d ridden out more morning-afters than I could count, but they all still managed to feel just as terrible as my first. Alcohol’s a bitch like that.
I groaned and rolled over, clenching my eyes shut against the light’s relentless assault. In a couple minutes, they would adjust, and I would be able to sit up and find out where I was. But for now, I was perfectly content to lay right here and wait for my head to stop pounding.
Of course, fate had other ideas.
“Oh, good. You’re awake,” a voice said from somewhere above me. “I was contemplating a bucket of water, but it looks like I won’t need it. This time.”
That voice... I would know it anywhere. Smooth and feminine, with just a hint of a Russani accent left over from her days as a filly back in Stalliongrad. It belonged to the love of my life, the one mare I could trust with just about anything, including morning-after care.
“Mmph,” I mumbled. “Octavia? Zhayou? Whahappened?”
A sigh. “You were drunk. Again. Colgate and I found you passed out in an alley and carried you back home.”
Home? Home. Home was good. The only thing worse than waking up with a hangover was waking up a hangover in an unfamiliar bed.
Moaning, I forced myself into a position that could potentially be considered as ‘upright’. Then, taking a deep breath, I sat all the way up and opened my eyes the tiniest of slivers.
Ow ow ow ow bad idea ow ow. The sunlight from the bedroom’s open window lanced past my eyes and straight into my already-aching head, nearly making me tear up in pain.
“Agh... curtains... get...”
A second later, the evil light receded slightly, and I was able to make out Octavia’s hazy charcoal-coated form standing in front the window, lips parted in the faintest of smiles.
I gave a grateful nod. “Much.” Squinting, I turned my head slowly as the apartment bedroom’s various objects came into focus. There was the chair, the dresser, the pillows on the end of the bed, the white tray with a full plate of toast and a steaming mug of coffee...
Well, that was new.
“I made your favorite hangover cure,” said Octavia, gesturing to the tray. “Black coffee and toast with hotpepper jam.”
I attempted to pick up the coffee mug with magic and immediately regretted it as the base of my horn objected with the force of a thousand fiery suns. Stupid, stupid Vinyl. You’d think that by now I would’ve learned that telekinesis and hangovers don’t mix.
Wincing, I grabbed the cup in my hooves and took a tentative sip.
Oooooh that was good. The hot, strong liquid soothed my throat and cleared my head, and a couple gulps later I was well on my way to the realm of semicoherence.
“Ah. Thanks, ‘Tavi.” I put down the mug and started on the toast, coughing slightly as the hotpepper jam tickled my throat and sinuses. It wasn’t the easiest to eat, but it woke you up nothing else. “You’re a saint.”
She gave me that smile again. “I am aware.”
Show me a better marefriend and I’ll show you a liar.
“So,” I asked in between gigantic bites. “How was the... uh, the thing?” Octavia had declined to to join Colgate, Cloud Kicker and I on our bar-crawl adventures, citing some orchestral performance or other as a reason to skip. After large amounts of pleading, I had reluctantly let her go. Drunk Octavia was definitely fun, but she probably wouldn’t have taken so much as a sip if I had dragged her along. Better to let her have her night out, as sleep-inducing as that night may have been.
“The Manehatten Grand Philharmonic Exhibition?” Octavia asked. Ugh. Even the name reeked of stuffiness and pure boring.
“Gmph... sure, that,” I replied through a mouthful of toast.
“It was incredible,” she gushed. “I’ve seen them perform before, of course, but not with their new conductor, Julius van Starwing.” I had to suppress a smile. Octavia was usually the definition of refined, detached, and classy, but as soon as you got her started on classical music...
“He’s one of the great pegasi contemporaries, and the things he did with melodic layering and controlled dissonance... oh, you have no idea...” She noticed me staring at her and frowned. ‘What?”
I grinned. “Nothing. You’re just so freaking cute when you get into something like that.”
She blushed. “Stop it.”
“No, really. You get all excited and then your eyes get all dreamy—”
“They do not!”
“Denial won’t change anything,” I singsonged. “I swear, if you hadn’t found me, you’d probably be dating a symphony.”
“Oh really? I can think of one thing a symphony can’t do,” Octavia said, leaning in and giving me a quick peck on the cheek.
Now it was my turn to blush. “Wow. Well, if you want to think about it that way...” I gave her the patented Vinyl Scratch Bedroom Stare. “What do you say we-’”
She held up a hoof. “Don’t even think about it. You’re dirty, hungover and your breath smells like vomit and cheap alcohol.”
Damn. “And yet you still love me.”
“With all my heart. Now go take a shower. You’ll thank me later.”
I wasn’t giving up yet. “Of course. You want to join me?”
“Vinyl. Shower. Now.”
Well, you can’t say I didn’t try. “Yes, mom,” I grumbled, heaving myself off the bed and onto the floor. The snack had helped, but I still felt slightly out of it as I stumbled my way towards the bathroom. Or at least what I thought was the bathroom.
“Is there any particular reason you’re trying to open the wall of the bedroom closet?”
Oh. “Just messin’ with ya, ‘Tavi.” I extricated myself from the closet and began to walk towards the actual bathroom. “Thanks anyway.”
She smiled. “Sometimes, I wonder what you would do without me.”
“Continue being gorgeous, incredibly talented, and completely on top of my life?”
“I’ll agree with the first two points.”
“Fair enough,” I said, stepping into the shower stall. “Now, are you sure you wouldn’t like to—”
My question was met with a towel to the head.
“Hang it up when you’re done.”
I giggled. “Love you too.”
Octavia had been right. As usual. I stepped out of the shower’s steam-filled interior and levitated the towel off the floor, savoring the feeling of being able to move things with something other than my hooves and teeth. There wasn’t much better at curing hangover-induced hornaches than copious amounts of soap and hot water.
Humming happily to myself, I finished drying and moved over to the mirror, rubbing my hoof in a circle to clear away the steam. The pony that stared back at me looked exactly as I’d expected her to: Red eyes, white coat, blue mane that refused to do anything except lay in a spiky, uncooperative curtain...
There was only one exception.
“The hell...?” Draped around my neck was a silver amulet in the shape of a quarter note, a pinkish gemstone inset where the note’s head would be. As I stared, it began to slowly change color, shifting from pink to green and back again in an endless pulse.
Okay, exactly what had happened last night?
“‘Tavi?” I asked, telekinetically throwing the towel back on its hook and exiting the bathroom, “Do you know where I got this necklace?”
Octavia was reclining back on the bed, nose buried in the latest issue of Classical Today. She glanced up as I entered and nodded appreciatively. “There. Don’t you feel better?” She saw the amulet and frowned. “You said something about a necklace? I was going to ask you how you found that.”
I sighed. “I was hoping you could tell me.”
She shook her head. “You were wearing it when we found you. Colgate tried to take it off because the amulet was digging into her back, but the clasp wouldn’t budge.”
Frowning, I looked down at the necklace and focused my magic on the clasp. There was a soft click, and the jewelry fell to the floor.
“Huh,” I said, levitating it back up and refastening it around my neck. I motioned to Octavia. “Here, you try.”
She did, several times, but no matter how much she fiddled, pulled, or prodded, the clasp stubbornly refused any kind of interaction.
“Maybe it’s enchanted,” I suggested. “Made so that only the pony wearing it can take it off?”
Octavia nodded thoughtfully. “Possibly. But that still doesn’t explain why you were wearing it in the first place.”
“Yeah. Well, whatever,” I said. “It’s not hurting anything, and besides, I kinda like it.” I patted the amulet appreciatively. “Even a DJ needs some bling.”
Octavia rolled her eyes. “As if those ridiculous goggles aren’t enough?”
“Hey hey now,” I said in mock offense, “Don’t rag on the goggles. They’re part of the DJ PON-3 image, and besides, most ponies tend to get a little creeped out when they see you have eyes the color of blood.”
“Oh really?” she replied, giving me a coy little smile. “When I first met you, I found them quite alluring.”
I ruffled her mane fondly. “You are not most ponies.”
“Well, I suppose I can’t argue with that.”
I was about to reply when I remembered something that had been niggling at the back of my head since I had first woken up.
“Oh crap! ‘Tavi, did you get my saddlebags?” Shiiiiit. There were at least eight hundred bits sitting in my cash pouch, and I REALLY didn’t want to have to explain to my marefriend that we wouldn’t be able to make rent this month because of a drunken misadventure. Shit shit shit-
“Of course. They’re on the kitchen counter.”
I gave a gigantic sigh of relief. “Thanks. I was worried for a little bit there.” Mentally praising Celestia, Luna, and whatever other benevolent deities that had conspired to give me the world’s greatest mare as my lover, I made my way to the apartment’s tiny kitchen.
Let’s see, I thought, rummaging through the slightly-smelly bags with a hoof. Cash? Check. Goggles? Check. Emergency rum flask? I cracked a guilty smile. Octavia was a firm believer in giving partners their privacy, which was just as well, considering she would most likely disapprove of me categorizing Salthoof’s Best as an emergency provision. Check.
Well, looks like it’s all here... hang on, what’s this? My hoof had brushed against something flat and papery as I had withdrawn it from the saddlebags, and I peered back inside, confused.
There, lying crushed and wrinkled against the bag’s rough canvas, was a letter.
Funny. I don’t remember getting any mail...
My curiosity now thoroughly piqued, I levitated the battered envelope out of the saddlebag, frowning as I read the recipient printed on the front:
To whom it may concern: a matter of interdimensional importance.
The script was large and flowing, with lots of unnecessary loops and curls. It looked like it had been written by a pony with a little too much concern for how others viewed their calligraphy. I raised my eyebrows. First the amulet, and now a mysterious letter yammering on about ‘interdimensional importance’?
Seriously. What the hell had happened last night?
Well, might as well read it as long as it’s here, I thought, opening the envelope with a flicker of magic. The paper inside was yellowed and worn, but the green-inked lettering on it looked fresh. The handwriting was very different from the elegant script on the letter’s front, though: this was a hasty, scribbly scrawl that reminded me a bit of my own.
Biting my lip, I began to read.
To whoever I can find:
My name is Aura. If you’re reading this, it means I either I couldn’t stay long enough to explain things to you verbally, or you weren’t in a position to hear it.
Whatever the circumstances, if I gave you this letter, it’s because I’m hoping that you’ll be the one to help me with something I can’t do by myself.
I’ve never been one for foreshadowing, so I’ll just get it overwith now:
Simply put, a world is dying. My world, to be exact.
I gave a soft whistle. Either I had somehow brushed hooves with a Grade A specimen of crazy, or... no, it couldn’t be...
Eyes widening in disbelief, I continued to read.
It’s shattered, fragmented, a shell of its former self. And soon, if nothing is done to help it, it won’t exist at all.
What I’m asking you to do won’t be easy. It probably won’t be fun. The road will be long, painful, and with a fairly high possibility of death along the way. But I’m asking anyway, in the hopes that someone, somewhere, will be willing to help.
Because of everything I’ve mentioned above, I would say there is absolutely no shame in refusing my request. If you do, all I ask is that you pass this letter off to someone who
you think would be better suited, preferably with one with a strong background in music.
A background in music... I wrinkled my brow. Why did that sound familiar?
The memories hit me like a thunderbolt.
Lying in front of me was a pale green earth pony mare, her pink mane singed and her coat dirty and bleeding from numerous large scratches...
Her eyes locked with mine...
I leaned away from the letter, shutting my eyes and taking a deep breath. If this was a hoax, it was a damn good one. And if not...
Hooves shaking slightly, I opened my eyes and read the letter’s final lines:
But if you don’t refuse, if you would truly take it upon yourself to save a fading world...
You’ll have the gratitude of not just me, but all the millions you would save.
It’s your choice, stranger.
Will you help us?
The the letter’s final line began to glow, flickering like a greenish candleflame. It seemed... expectant, somehow. Like it was waiting for an answer. Maybe it was.
Images flashed through my mind: me, the battle-hardened savior of some unknown continent, surrounded by throngs of joyful admirers, Octavia smiling elegantly at my side...
Oh, the hell with it. It was probably a hoax anyway.
I took a deep breath, and, in the most heroic-sounding voice I could muster, replied:
“Yes. I’ll take your quest, mysterious teleporting alley pony. If a world is in danger, it is my solemn duty as the most badass mare in Equestria to protect it. Lead me, and I shall follow.”
I stared back down at the letter, fully expecting absolutely nothing to happen save for me feeling slightly stupid. Instead, however, the ink began to flow and shift, reforming into new words before my eyes.
Thank you, stranger.
Okay. Magical re-writing ink. There’s gotta be a spell for that, right? Yeah. This is probably just some stupid marketing thing, I reassured myself. Of course, that didn’t stop me from continuing to read.
Now that you’ve accepted, there are some other things you’ll need:
-A couple day’s worth of provisions. Food, water, firestarters, some kind of shelter, everything you would need to survive in the wilderness. Pack light, since you’ll be traveling.
-Something made of silver to carry with you at all times. The amulet I’ve given you will be fine.
If you don’t have it, find it as soon as possible.
Silver and camping supplies? Was this a plea for help or a Lil’ Enchantresses field trip supply list?
-You’ll also need to find three other ponies and convince them to come with you. Two other musicians and a healer will work best. Whoever you pick, you should be able to trust them with anything, including your life. They’ll also need their own silver to wear. Anything larger than an half an ounce should work. If their instruments are light and portable, tell them to bring them. It’ll make things easier, but it’s not necessary.
Again with the music. Maybe this was just some indie band’s incredibly convoluted way of finding new members. It seemed more plausible than asking a bunch of musicians to save a dying world, anyway.
-All of this needs to be done in a very short period of time. Three days at most. I realize it’s a lot to ask, but my world won’t last long.
-Once you’ve gotten everything together, go to Legato Records. It should be near the place you know the most. Bring your supplies, your party, this letter, and the amulet. Once you’re there, ask for Clef.
Good luck, and again, thank you. My world is forever in your debt.
I leaned back and shut my eyes as the full implications of what I’d just done washed over me like a sheet of freezing rain. If this was some dumb prank, then I was about to walk right into it. And if it wasn’t, then I had just jumped into something a couple miles over my head.
Sighing, I put the letter back into its envelope and returned it to its previous home at the bottom of my bag, shoving in a couple other miscellaneous objects as I did so. Then, with a grimace, I slung it back over my torso and turned towards the door. If I was going to do this, I would need some help. I already knew one mare who fit the ‘healer’ role to a tee. The real trouble would be convincing her to come along, but I had an idea. But for that idea to work, I would have to leave the apartment now.
“Vinyl?” Octavia asked, emerging from the bedroom. She saw the saddlebags and frowned. “Are you headed out?” The frown darkened. “Don’t even think about going drinking again. Isn’t one hangover enough?”
Crap. I hadn’t wanted to tell her about the letter until I had at least one more pony on my side. Octavia was my obvious first choice for a musical companion, but she would also be the hardest to convince. That mare had absolutely no nose for adventure, unless said adventure was safe, controlled, and landed you back in the safety of your home by noon.
“Uh...” I stalled. “I’m, um...” An idea sparked in my mind. “I’m mailing a letter!” With a telekinetic flourish, I took the battered envelope out of my bag and waved it in front of Octavia’s face, being careful not to let her get a clear look at the writing on the front.
“Oh?” she asked skeptically. “A letter? To whom?”
“My parents!” I blurted the first thing that came to mind. “I figured I’ve been out of touch with them for way too long, so I would send them a letter. You know, tell them how I’ve been doing, what I’ve been up to, all that.” It was a terrible lie, and I knew it.
Unfortunately, so did Octavia.
My marefriend’s eyes narrowed. “Vinyl, the reason you’ve been out of touch with your parents is, and I quote, ‘The only time I want to see those two-bit abusive sacks of crap again is if they’re coming over to sit on my horn and spin.’ For the last four years, you wouldn’t have cared if they had both thrown themselves off the Bucklyn bridge. As a matter of fact, you probably would have celebrated. And now you’re sending them a friendly letter?”
I winced. “Yeah, well, I was young and stupid—”
“Implying you’re neither of those now?” Octavia replied, smirking. Ouch.
“All right,” I said. “Younger and stupider. The point is, I’m going to the post office now. I’ll be back in an hour or less.”
She looked at me, eyes wide and mouth open just the tiniest bit. It was one of the cutest expressions I had ever seen her make, and it was all I could do not to melt into Vinyl-flavored goo right there in the apartment.
“Do you promise?” she asked, voice quivering slightly. This was Octavia’s Cute Innocent Guilt-Trip Routine, a technique she’d perfected over many years of trying to talk me out of various high-risk escapades. It had gotten to the point where I could easily recognize when she was doing it, but that didn’t matter. It was so damn adorable that I usually ended up giving in anyway.
But not today.
I forced myself to tear my gaze away from her wide, sparkling lavender eyes and nodded. “Promise. Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake... whatever the rest of it is. That too.” I perked up suddenly. “Hey, tell you what. There’s a new Pony Joe’s by the post office. You want me to swing by and grab something for you on the way back?”
She smiled slightly, now fully returned to Normal Elegant Octavia. “I would love that.” The coffee shop would be a slight detour from my actual destination, but it was worth it if it made ‘Tavi happy. Plus, a little caffeine right now didn’t sound too bad either.
I opened the apartment’s door and stepped out into the Manehatten summer afternoon, feeling the humidity drape itself over my coat like a wet blanket.
“See ya,” I said. “I’ll grab you the usual from Joe’s. Iced chai, right?”
Octavia nodded. “Thank you.” Then she leaned in and planted a quick kiss on the base of my horn, the most sensitive spot. “Don’t be long,” she said, batting her eyelashes seductively. “I’ll be waiting when you get back.”
I shuddered in delight and gave her a peck back. “Can’t wait.” Then I turned and tore off down the apartment hall as fast as my hooves could carry me.
Pegasi might set all the speed records, but that day, I’m pretty sure I broke a few.
“You want me to what? Vinyl, are you insane?” The white-coated mare looked down at the letter in her hooves, eyes wide in disbelief.
I sighed. “Come on, Redheart. For me? Besides, it’s probably just a hoax anyway. What harm could it be?”
I had anticipated getting Nurse Redheart to join my cause would be difficult, but I hadn’t expected this much outright resistance. Although, in retrospect, I probably should have. Nurses in general weren’t exactly the adventure-loving type, and Redheart took that stereotype and turned it up to 11.
She shook her head so vigorously I half-expected her mane to fly out of the pink bun it was tied in. “No. Not for all the bits in the world. The last time you convinced me to tag along on one of your so-called ‘adventures’, we nearly ended up dead in some Fillydelphia alley! Sorry. You’ll have to find your healer somewhere else.”
I pouted. “I swear, Red, you don’t have a fun-loving bone in your body.”
“I prefer my fun to end with all my vital organs and limbs intact, thank you very much.”
“Oh come on,” I protested. “That was one time, and they reattached the hoof after—”
“Forget it, Scratch. I’m done following you to my near-death every time you get an idea for some idiotic escapade. In case you haven’t noticed, I have responsibilities here.” She gestured around the bustling, gleamingly-white hallway of Manehatten General Hospital. “This is a summer job, so I can’t afford to miss any days. I’m on thin enough ice as it is after your last little exploit. One more screw-up, and boom, I’m out of here and back to the Ponyville clinic with zero bits and zero credibility.”
“Look, Redheart,” I said, trying to look and sound as sincere as possible. “I know my ideas aren’t always the best, or the safest, or the smartest. But I’m asking you now, as a friend you’ve known for years, to help me out just this once. If this doesn’t pan out, if it just turns out to be some stupid prank, then I swear with Celestia as my witness that I’ll never ask you to come along with me on anything again.”
She raised her eyebrows. “And what if it does pan out? What if we go to that record shop and get teleported to some horrible war-torn hell with giant flying snake-bats that eat ponies for breakfast?”
I grinned. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Besides, if that did happen, you’d be able to tell everyone you saw a giant snake-bat and lived to tell about it.”
“Assuming we do live. And knowing you, that’s a pretty big assumption.”
“Don’t be a downer. We’ve made it through everything else, right?” I gave her my best pleading expression. “Pretty please?”
She looked at me for a long moment, her face shifting through a variety of unreadable expressions. Finally, she shook her head.
“No. I’m sorry, Vinyl, but I just can’t afford to miss anything else.”
Crud. Time to play my trump card.
“Well, if you ever change your mind...” I said, smiling, “I don’t think I would mind giving you this as
repayment.” With a flourish, I withdrew a large rectangular box from my saddlebags and levitated it in front of her nose. “So, what do you say?” The package had cost me slightly less than a small yacht when I had bought it on impulse at an auction all those months ago, but those bits were about to pay off big time now.
Redheart took the box in her hooves carefully, almost reverently. “This... this is the complete series special edition box set, including all the alternate cuts, unaired episodes, and director’s commentary,” she breathed. “They were on limited run, and only three hundred were ever made. Vinyl... how did you get this? You don’t even like Star Trot!”
I gave a noncommittal shrug. “I have my sources.” Being a complete and utter sci-fi dork was one of Redheart’s most closely guarded secrets. If you met her on the street, you would have no idea you were talking to a mare who could recite the first three chapters of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Universe word-for-word at the drop of a bit. It was a side of her that not many knew, and even fewer saw, and I was about to use it to my advantage.
“If you come along, it’s yours. I swear in the name of Celestia.” I could almost see the ‘Calm and Rational Nurse’ part of Redheart’s brain furiously battling with the ‘Sci-Fi Fangirl’ section. Eventually, she gave a frustrated sigh and nodded, taking the box and setting it aside. “Fine. But this is the last time, understand?”
I whooped and gave her a hug. “You’re the best, Red! All right, you know what you need to bring?”
She nodded, looking as if she was regretting her choice more each second. “I think so. Food, water, something to sleep in, medical supplies... and something made of silver, right?” She frowned. “Why do I have to bring that, exactly? To ward off ghosts?”
“Or giant flying snake-bats,” I replied, smiling. “But honestly, your guess is as good as mine. The letter was pretty vague about most of it.”
“All right,” she said. “And when should I meet you?”
“Tomorrow, ten a.m, my apartment. You remember where that is, right?”
She nodded. “Of course.”
“Sweet! Thanks again, Redheart.” I flashed her a winning smile. “You won’t regret this.”
“Too late,” she muttered, but I was already on my way towards the hospital’s door, celebrating internally as I ran. It had taken my best persuasion skills, an expensive boxed set, and a promise I wasn’t all too happy about keeping, but the party had its healer.
One down, two to go, I thought. And I don’t think I’ll have to worry about convincing her to come along...
I galloped out of the hospital’s entrance and took a hard left, the amulet bouncing annoyingly against my neck as I ran. I wasn’t exactly sure how much time I had spent convincing Redheart, but I still had my next destination and Pony Joe’s to get to in less than an hour. Even if I sprinted the whole way, it was going to be tight.
Why didn’t I say two hours? Or even an hour and a half? I mentally kicked myself as I tore down the street, droplets of sweat flying off my coat like miniature bullets. Well, too late now. I’ll just have to get there as quickly as I can.
Five minutes of furious sprinting later, I came to a stop outside an older-looking apartment complex, its stone walls worn and browned with age. Wheezing and shaking the sweat off of my coat as best I could, I turned to the door’s buzzer and keyed in a number.
There was a buzz, a blast of static, and a muffled yell of “I GOT IT, BON!” A few seconds later, a mare’s voice came over the buzzer’s speaker. “Hello?”
“Hey, Lyra. It’s Vinyl. You got some time to talk?” I didn’t mention it would need to be in private. Better to have her let me in before I started laying on the details.
“Oh, heya Vi! Sure, I can talk. What about?” the voice answered cheerfully.
“Uh... I’ll explain when I see you. It’s kind of a long story.”
“All right. Gimme a sec, I’ll buzz you in.”
A moment later, there was an electronic squawk and a soft click, and the complex’s door swung open.
“Should be open now. See you in a few!”
“Right. See you then.” I began to walk through the door, then hesitated.
“Is Bon-Bon in?” I asked, dreading the answer.
Crap. Now I would have to convince not just Lyra, but her overprotective (if well-intentioned) marefriend as well.
“Uh, just wondering. Be up there soon!”
Sighing, I walked through the door and began to make my way up the first of the complex’s many flights of stairs. The industrial-strength air-conditioning helped some, but I was still a sweaty, out-of-breath mess by the time I reached the floor of Lyra’s apartment.
I trotted down the plush-carpeted hallway, doing my best to get rid of most of the sweat before I tracked it onto their apartment floor. Finally, after I had deemed myself suitably non-gross, I walked up to door number 304 and gave a tentative knock.
“Lyra? Hello? It’s Vin—”
Before I could finish my sentence, the door was flung open hard enough to nearly clip me in the face. It would’ve, too, if I hadn’t had the presence of mind to jump back as soon as I saw the knob turning. I loved Lyra like a sister, but her entrances were usually a little... energetic.
A unicorn mare leapt into view before the door had even stopped swinging on its hinges, minty green and white mane bobbing furiously and mouth wide in an infectious grin.
“Hey Vi! What’s up?” She noticed the amulet around my neck and nodded appreciatively. “Nice bling. Here, come in. Bon just made cookies.” She pointed a hoof over her shoulder, where I could see a cream-colored mare holding a silver tray in her teeth.
At the mention of her name, Bon-Bon put the baking sheet aside and gave a friendly wave. “Oh, hello Vinyl! What brings you here?”
“Uh...” I muttered awkwardly as Lyra dragged me by my forehoof to a chair in the apartment’s sitting area. I hadn’t been counting on Bon-Bon being a factor in convincing the unicorn to join the party, but she was here now, and probably wouldn’t be too happy about letting her marefriend join me on an interdimensional escapade. Of course, Lyra would be completely on board, thrill-seeker that she was, but even she would be reluctant to leave her lover behind to go adventuring. Hmm. What to do, what to do...
My pondering was interrupted by Lyra dropping a plate of cookies in my lap.
“Here ya go! They’re a new recipe, and Bon wants feedback, so you’re our guinea pig.” She laughed. “Not that there’s anything to worry about. Tartarus would freeze over before she would make a bad batch of cookies.” The complement elicited a slight blush from Bon-Bon, who smiled and mumbled something about ‘too much credit’.
The cookies looked and smelled mouthwateringly delicious. Licking my lips, I took one with my magic and popped it into my mouth whole. They tasted equally incredible, and soon nothing was left on the plate but chocolate smears and crumbs.
Lyra grinned. “Good, huh?” She nudged her marefriend playfully. “See, I told you. Nothing to worry about.” As if to prove her point, she grabbed a cookie in her own mouth, flipped it into the air, and caught it neatly between her teeth.
“Awesome,” I said, swallowing. “Lyra’s right. You’re some kind of freaky desert wizard.”
The cream mare blushed even harder. “Oh, thank you. I’m glad you like them.” Bon-Bon had the double blessing of being both an incredibly talented baker and the most humble ponyI knew. Soft-spoken and kind, she almost always left the spotlight to Lyra, which was perfectly fine with the both of them. The pair seemed like an odd fit, but it was a good one.
“So,” said Lyra, spraying cookie crumbs all over me, Bon-Bon, and all the surrounding furniture, “What’s up, Vi?”
Bon-Bon sighed. “You’re cleaning that up.”
Her marefriend swallowed and nodded cheerfully. “I know!” She turned back towards me expectantly. “Well?”
“Uh... Bon-Bon? Do mind if Lyra and I talk, um, privately? Just for a bit.” I hated going behind anypony’s back, let alone one as sweet as Bon-Bon, but I knew I wouldn’t have any luck convincing them both at the same time.
“Well... sure, I suppose,” replied the cream mare, looking slightly bewildered. “You can use the bedroom if you want.”
“Thanks,” I said, standing up and motioning for Lyra to follow. “It won’t be long, I promise.”
The bedroom was decorated just like the rest of the apartment: cozy and soft, with plenty of quilts and pillows piled on the bed. I noticed the two largest were colored green and cream and smiled. Aw, they match. How cute.
“So,” said Lyra, flopping down on the bed in her characteristically odd position, “What’s so important that Bon-Bon isn’t allowed to hear it?” I had asked her more times than I could count why she preferred sitting so oddly, and had never received an answer beyond “I dunno, it just feels right, I guess.” Such are the great mysteries of life.
Wordlessly, I withdrew the letter from my bag and unfolded it for her.
“A letter? For me? From who?” asked Lyra.
“Not for you. It’s complicated. Just read it.”
She shrugged. “If you say so.”
I watched her eyes grow wider and wider as they traveled down the page, finally stopping somewhere between ‘saucer’ and ‘dinner plate’.
“Wha... Vi, is this for real?”
“Honestly, I’m not sure,” I replied, taking the letter and stuffing it back into my bag. “But there’s something else that makes it seem a lot more real than I would like.” I proceeded to explain to her the previous night’s events as best I could. The alcohol had turned most of it into a melty, colorful haze, but I remembered my encounter with the teleporting earth pony almost perfectly.
When I had finished, Lyra was frowning skeptically.
“Uh, no offense, Vi... but are you sure you knew what went into those drinks?”
I rolled my eyes. “Look, I know it sounds weird, but I have proof. See this amulet?” I poked the strange glowing stone with a hoof. “It’s the same one. I’m positive.”
Lyra nodded slowly. She still looked skeptical, but I could see the familiar adventurous gleam in her eyes. I mentally slapped myself on the back. This was the home stretch. Now all I had to do was convince her to leave behind-
“So, why can’t we show this to Bon-Bon again?”
“Uh, the thing is, the letter specifically calls for three musicians and a healer,” I said, avoiding her eyes. “And, well...”
“Bon-Bon isn’t one of those,” finished Lyra. The frown had returned, and I had a sinking feeling it wasn’t going to be leaving any time soon. “So, what? You’re asking me to just drop everything and come with you on some insanely-dangerous quest, while leaving the mare I love behind for Celestia knows how long?”
“Well, when you put it that way...” Crud. This was not going in the direction I’d hoped.
“I dunno, Vi,” she said with a sigh. “I mean, you know I’m always up for an adventure, but being away from Bon...” She blinked as if realizing something. “Hang on. If I did decide to come along, who would we be trekking with? Have you told anypony else about this?”
“Well, ‘Tavi’s the obvious choice for another musician,” I replied. “And no, I haven’t told her yet. I love her to death, but you know how she is about having fun.”
Lyra smiled. “True that. And a healer?”
I gave a smile of my own. “Don’t worry. We’ve already got the best in the business.”
Her eyebrows shot to the top of her head. “Redheart?”
Lyra’s jaw dropped. “How in the name of Celestia’s shiny incandescent flank did you convince her?”
“Well, I’m not one to brag,” I began, “but it was a long and hard-fought battle, full of witty ripostes and brilliant verbal maneuvers by yours truly—”
“Vi.” Lyra was unimpressed.
I sighed. “I bribed her with Star Trot.”
“That sounds more like your style,” she said, giggling. “So, we have our healer already—”
“And if you agree, we’ll be able to convince Octavia. She might be able to say no to me, but three of her closest friends? Not likely,” I finished.
“Right,” Lyra replied. She bit her lip. “I still don’t like the idea of leaving Bon behind though. I mean, what if something really bad happens, and I—”
“Hey.” I put a hoof on her shoulder. “Don’t think about that. I mean, there’s a fifty-fifty chance it’s just some crazy elaborate set-up, and we’ll all just end up standing in a record shop looking stupid. And if it isn’t, well... this is a once in a lifetime thing. If you do go, and it doesn’t pan out, well, nothing lost, nothing gained right? But if you stay behind, you’ll never know.” I looked at her, eyes pleading. “Come on, Lyra. It’ll be fun.”
“I... oh, Celestia damn it,” she muttered, jumping off of the bed and back onto the floor. “I’ll go ask Bon-Bon. No promises, though. If she says no, I’m not gonna argue.”
I nodded. “Fair enough.” It wasn’t much to hope for, but at least it was something.
We trotted back into the kitchen, where Bon-Bon was busying herself cleaning up from the baking session. She turned to us and smiled. “Everything all right?”
“Great,” I said, flopping back down into a chair. “But I think Lyra has something to ask you.”
“Oh? What is it?”
Lyra shot me a glare before turning back to her marefriend.
“Uh, well, Vinyl showed me this letter, and it seemed pretty important, and so, I was kinda wondering...” She tapped her hooves uncomfortably. I knew from experience how difficult it was to ask for something this big from the pony you loved, so I jumped in to assist..
“What she’s trying to ask is if she can come with me on a possibly long, probably dangerous, and definitely insane journey to save another dimension,” I blurted. “So, is that cool with you?”
Bon-Bon blinked. “Lyra... is she serious?” The unicorn nodded, giving me another glare. I just shrugged. Can’t fault a mare for trying to help, right?
“Well, um, I’m not sure,” said Bon-Bon. “If it’s something Lyra really wants to do, I don’t want to stop her, but I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen—”
“Trust me,” I interrupted. “If Lyra comes along, she’ll be under the protection of yours truly.” I smacked my hooves together for added effect. “Anything bad tries to mess with us, it’ll get its flank kicked into next Tuesday.”
She chuckled. “I’m sure.”
“So, is that a ‘yes’?” I asked hopefully.
“Well...” She looked back at Lyra. “I don’t know. I hate the idea of leaving you alone, you know that, but do you really want to do this?”
There was a long pause. Then, finally, Lyra nodded. “Yeah. I think I do. I mean, like Vi said, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, right? I mean, I’m gonna miss you like crazy,” she said, grabbing Bon-Bon in a hug, “but with any luck, we’ll have saved the world and be back in time for dinner tomorrow. Uh, I mean, if you’re okay with it, of course.”
I grinned inwardly. Lyra might have had the bigger personality, but any time a decision came up it was pretty clear who wore the proverbial dress in the relationship.
“Well, I really can’t stop you, can I?” Bon-Bon replied, giving Lyra a quick peck on the nose. “Just try to come back in one piece.”
“You bet, Bon,” said Lyra, blushing. She turned back to me. “So, when are we doing this? Should I bring anything?”
I nodded. “Meet me tomorrow at ten in the morning, my place. Bring everything the letter says: food, water, something to sleep in, and something made of silver.”
“Got it. See you then.” She paused. “Why the silver? Are we gonna need to bribe somepony? Oh, and can Bon come along to send me off?” She glanced at her marefriend, who nodded. “If I’m gonna save the world, I want to give her a real goodbye before the adventure starts.”
“Sure thing. And as for the silver, no idea. Redheart asked the same thing, and I still don’t have a decent answer,” I replied. “But hey, better safe than sorry, right?”
“Definitely. When an interdimensional earth pony pops into an alley and gives you a packing list to save the world, you buckin’ follow it.”
I smiled. “True that.”
We exchanged friendly goodbyes, and a few minutes later, I was back outside in the sticky, sweaty blanket of midsummer heat that the setting sun was casting over the city. I was hot, tired, and still had to make it to Pony Joe’s and back in a little under five minutes, but damn if I wasn’t happy.
Turning down the next street, I broke into a sprint and began to make my way towards the general area of the nearest coffee shop. With any luck, I would just barely be able to meet my self-imposed deadline, and pick up some much-needed caffeine in the process.
Two down, one to go.
“Octavia! ‘M home!” I half-yelled, half-coughed as I staggered back into our apartment. Of all the freaking days for the Pony Joe’s to be closed...
“Oh, good,” Octavia said, emerging from the bedroom looking as flawlessly composed as ever. “I was almost worried.” She noticed my entire body was covered in a thin sheen of sweat and gave a soft gasp. “What- Vinyl, are you all right?”
“Fine! Jus...tired,” I wheezed, collapsing onto the couch. “I got... coffee.” I waved a halfhearted hoof at the drinks I had barely managed to land on the end table. “PJ’s was closed, so I... hadta find another one...” I neglected to mention the ‘other one’ had been twelve blocks away, all of which I had covered while sprinting as fast a my legs could carry me. I was already going behind Octavia’s back. The least I could do was keep my promise of delicious liquid caffeine.
She shook her head and tutted, but there was a small smile on her face. “I appreciate the effort, but there’s really no reason to run yourself ragged over something as silly as coffee.”
I shook my head. “I made a promise. I don’t break promises.” I grabbed my coffee with my magic, downing nearly half in one huge gulp. “‘Sides, I needed it as much as you did. Running across the city can tire a mare out.”
“I thought you were only going to be post office,” Octavia said skeptically, picking up the iced chai latte in her hooves and taking a careful sip. “An hour should have been plenty of time.”
“The post office is far away,” I replied. “And besides, the other Pony Joe’s wasn’t exactly close.”
Octavia rolled her eyes.“I suppose.” She took another sip of her coffee before putting it aside and batting her eyelashes seductively. “Well, I hope you’re not too tired. I had something special planned for tonight, but if you’d rather...”
“Not a chance,” I said, leaping up from the couch and smacking my tail playfully against her flank. She smiled and wrapped a forehoof around my shoulder, guiding me back over to the bedroom and onto the blankets.
Octavia lay down next to me, and I buried my muzzle in her mane, nuzzling her cheek. She smelled amazing, like lavender and honey, although she swore she never wore any perfume. Some mares are just lucky, I guess.
With a flicker of magic, I dimmed the bedroom’s lights and gave her another nuzzle.
She turned and looked at me with lidded eyes and a sultry smile. “Yes?”
With that expression, any ideas I had about explaining the real reason for my absence died in my throat, and I settled instead for a long, hard kiss.
Tomorrow, I would either embark on the journey of a lifetime or be made the biggest fool in history. But that was tomorrow.
For now, I was safe, happy, and about to get some with the mare I loved.
I smiled as Octavia broke the kiss, rolling over and staring into my eyes as she straddled me. Her expression was expectant, and I said the only thing that was in my mind:
“I love you.”
For now, adventuring could wait.
I woke up the next morning with a pair of grey hooves wrapped around my chest and a sleepy smile on my face. Last night had been... well, ‘awesome’ would have been an understatement.
I glanced over to my left, where Octavia was still sleeping peacefully, mouth curled in a small smile that matched my own. It was rare I woke up before she did, but she was probably still all tuckered out from our previous... activities.
Chuckling, I stretched and hopped out of bed, then started in surprise when I noticed the time displayed on nightstand’s clock.
It was already past nine, and I was nowhere near packed or ready for our expedition. Cursing softly, I shook my head to clear away any lingering sleepiness and began to dart around the house, grabbing as many bags and various pieces of important equipment as I could. With any luck, I would be ready before Octavia woke up, and then be able to explain my plan to her before the others showed up.
I made my way into the kitchen, opening as many cabinets and drawers as I could and grabbing anything that was bagged, dried, or otherwise preserved.. Shoving the food into my saddlebags, I moved on to the storage closet near the back of the apartment. There, I found an old sleeping bag and some warmer clothes, which I grabbed as well. The letter hadn’t asked for cold-weather gear specifically, but no harm in preparing, right? The sleeping bag was a little small and patched in places, but I didn’t think ‘Tavi would mind sharing with me if the situation called for it.
Now for the firestarters. I trotted back to the kitchen, opening the drawer where we kept our matches and dropping the box in my bags. There weren’t too many left, but I hoped the others would bring some too.
Let’s see. That was food, shelter, and firestarters taken care of. The only thing missing was... water! Of course. I darted back over to the closet, sifting through various piles of assorted junk until I found the objects I was looking for: two canteens, each big enough to hold around a half-gallon. I levitated them back over to the sink, wincing slightly as I felt the weight as they began to fill. The saddlebags were going to be heavy enough as it was. Whatever, I thought. Whatever we can’t carry, we’ll eat, drink, or throw.
Once the canteens had been filled to my satisfaction, I went back into the bedroom and found Octavia’s saddlebags, which I filled with half of the supplies. A couple minutes of frantic packing later, both our bags were filled to bursting with everything a pony could need to survive out in the wilderness, interdimensional or otherwise.
I took another look at the clock and breathed a sigh of relief. Nine forty-five. Never let it be said that Vinyl Scratch can’t do something she puts her mind to, I thought happily. Now to wake up my soon-to-be partner in adventuring.
“Morning, beautiful,” I said, sauntering into the bedroom and giving Octavia a gentle shake. My goggles were still laying on the nightstand next to her, and I threw them around my neck as I prodded ‘Tavi with a hoof. Interdimensional savior or not, I wanted to look good. She mumbled something in Russani before turning away and resuming her slumber. I tried again, more vigorously, with the same result. Obviously more drastic measures were needed, and I thought I knew just the trick.
Giggling to myself, I hopped onto the bed and straddled Octavia in the same position she had used the night before. Then I leaned in and gave her hind leg a quick lick, just short of the inner thigh.
The effect was immediate. Octavia gasped and jerked on the bed, eyes shooting open. “Vlatye skartanov- Vinyl! What was that for?”
I couldn’t help myself. Her expression of outright indignation coupled with her tangled bedhead mane and rapidly reddening cheeks were the perfect storm of adorable and hilarious, and I burst out laughing. Octavia looked on, thoroughly unimpressed.
Once my laughter had subsided, I turned to her. “Sorry about that.”
“No, you’re not,”she replied, rolling her eyes and getting up from the bed. “You know, a simple ‘good morning, Octavia’ would’ve sufficed.”
“I tried that. Several times. If the tongue thing hadn’t worked, I was considering an airhorn, but—”
“Oh, hush.” She gave me a light smack with her tail, but she was smiling. “The one time you’re up before me, and you milk it for all it’s worth.”
I snorted. “One time? Please. There’s been at at least three,” I said, giving the bedside clock a surreptitious glance as Octavia rolled her eyes again. Nine fifty. If I wanted to explain to her the plan, I would have to do it fast.
“Forgive me for not keeping perfect count,” she said. “Why did you wake me, anyway? It’s not like we have anything to do today.”
I grinned sheepishly. “Yeah, well, about that...” I retrieved the letter from my now-bulging saddlebags and unfolded it for her. “I may have not been entirely honest with you last night.”
Octavia’s eyes narrowed as she scanned the parchment. “What do you...”
A minute later, her jaw dropped, and she turned to stare at me. “You’re joking. You are joking, right?.” She gestured incredulously at the letter. “You don’t... you wouldn’t go do something like this without telling me.”
Oh joy. The moment of truth had arrived.
I shook my head and sighed. “Look, ‘Tavi...”
“No! Don’t even start!” she shouted, leaping up from the bed and throwing the letter aside. “Why do you do this, Vinyl? Why do you insist on going behind my back for every idiotic, half-thought-out endeavor that drifts into your mind? I carry you back when you’re drunk and passed out, tend to you, make you breakfast, and this is how you repay me?!”
“And you know I appreciate that an incredible amount,” I replied, cheeks reddening, “but it’s not my fault that you would rather sit at home and slowly bore yourself to death than—”
“I would not!” she yelled , prodding an angry hoof into my stomach. “But, unlike you, I prefer to have at least the tiniest inkling of our potential chances of death or horrible dismemberment before embarking on some hare-brained quest!”
“That’s all? I’ve got those,” I said, taking a small step backward. This was not going over well, but if I could just stall long enough for the others to get here...
“Oh? And what are they? Please, enlighten me,” she said, sarcasm dripping off every word.
I grinned. “Medium to high.”
“Vinyl... that’s... you...” Octavia’s voice began to almost squeak with rage. It would’ve been hilarious, had said rage not been directed at me.
“Come on, Octavia,” I said quickly, trying to quell the rising torrent of psychotic fury that was about to be unleashed upon yours truly. “It’ll be fun! We’ll be able to see the sights, learn new things, meet new ponies. And besides, like I told the others, it’s probably just—”
“Others?” interrupted Octavia, irritation temporarily forgotten. “What others? You’ve found two more?” I breathed a silent sigh of relief.
I nodded happily. “Yep! Lyra and Redheart are both on board. Actually, they should be here any minute now...” Another quick glance at the clock. Nine fifty-seven. Celestia willing, they’d be on time.
Octavia sighed. Some of her anger appeared to have subsided, and she put a hoof around me. “Vinyl, why? I’m the mare you love, aren’t I? If you’re hiding this like this from me, what does that mean about... us?”
“I... I knew you wouldn’t consider it unless I had somepony else to back me up—”
“And for good reason!” she retorted, anger flaring back up like a fanned fire. “This whole thing just reeks of danger and... and... sketchiness!”
I shrugged. “So what? There’ll be four of us. Lyra and I have magic, Redheart’s a trained nurse, and, uh, you are...”
“-not agreeing to this,” finished Octavia, shaking her head. “Not again. Hoax or not, I’m not interested in roaming around the city looking for something that may or may not even exist.” She put a hoof against my chest and gently pushed me back, away from the door. “Why don’t you just forget about all this and—” The obnoxious screech of the entrance buzzer cut her off, and I spun around and made a mad dash for the door, grabbing both our saddlebags as I ran.
“HeyTaviGuessWeHaveCompanyI’llTalkToYouAbouttThisLaterBye!” I blurted, slamming the ‘unlock’ button on the buzzer console and racing out into the hall. She gave an angry snort and chased after me, just as I had hoped she would.
“Vinyl, I swear, when I catch you...”
Oh how I hoped to Celestia that wouldn’t happen before I could meet the others. The weight of the extra saddlebags was slowing me down, and I could feel Octavia gaining on me even as I raced down the hall to the stairwell. I reached the door, slamming it open, and vaulted down the first flight. Spinning on the landing, I turned to leap down the next set of stairs...
Only to smack headfirst into Lyra, Redheart, and Bon-Bon.
I gave a yell of surprise as I tumbled down the stairs, the other three following behind me in a tangled heap of legs and saddlebags. Octavia leapt down onto the landing, still intent on catching me, and stopped short when she saw the scene below.
“Ow. Whose horn is that?” I groaned. “It’s poking my flank.” The other three mares, minus Bon-Bon, were both carrying bags that bulged similarly to my own. I wriggled around, trying to get my mouth somewhere other than the dry canvas of Lyra’s saddle strap.
“No idea. Maybe Redheart or Bon-Bon grew one,” Lyra said, rolling her eyes. “What the hay were you running from, anyway?”
“Long story,” I replied, finally extricating myself from the ponypile and standing up. “But that’s not important—”
“Not important? Not important?” Octavia’s voice came from the landing, her tone now even and deadly quiet. Somehow, that managed to be even more terrifying than her angry yells, and I shuddered and felt my mane stand on end.
“‘Tavi, please...” I started weakly, then broke off as she narrowed her eyes and nearly began to vibrate with rage.
“Vinyl. Fortissimo. Scratch,” she began, still in that same unsettlingly calm tone.
Ooooh crap. The middle name. I gulped, preparing myself for the incoming verbal firestorm that I probably deserved, but was not looking forward to.
And then Lyra, that heroine, that minty-green angel from the blue, jumped in and saved me.
“Yeah, c’mon, Octavia!” she said brightly, hopping in front of me as if to shield me from my marefriend’s rage. “It’ll be fun!”
“Fun?!” she spluttered, her deadly-calm demeanor lost in her indignation. “Walks in the park are fun. Spending time with the mare I love is fun. Attending a classical performance is fun.”
For rocks, maybe, I thought, but didn’t dare voice the jibe out loud.
“Wandering around the city in midsummer heat, with only a vague letter, a drunken memory, and piece of jewelry for guidance? That,” she yelled, stamping a hoof in anger, “is not anywhere close to my definition of fun!”
Lyra sighed. “It won’t be that bad, Octavia. Besides, you will be spending time with Vinyl, and hey, wherever we end up might even have some parks!” she said, flashing my marefriend a winning smile. Octavia tapped a hoof, still unconvinced.
“Assuming it’s not a hoax or some horrible war-torn wasteland,” Redheart muttered. Lyra shot her a look, and the white mare coughed. “Sorry. Er, we’d love to have you, Octavia.”
Octavia glared at us. Lyra smiled. I gave my best pleading expression. Redheart shot ‘Tavi a look that seemed to say ‘please don’t leave me alone with them’. Bon-Bon stood off to the side, staring anywhere but at the standoff going on around her.
The silence stretched on for what felt like minutes on end. I began to wonder what kind of sick joke Celestia had pulled to make time act like the way it did, when Octavia sighed and began to walk down the landing.
“Oh, vyarten korkil utvin. Fine. I’ll go. But only to prove you wrong,” she grumbled, finishing her descent and grabbing her saddlebags away from me. I was fairly sure she had cussed me out in at least sixteen different ways with those three words of Russani, but I was too elated to care.
“Oh, and Vinyl?” she asked, placing a hoof on my shoulder.
I turned toward her, smiling sweetly. “Yes, my love?”
She returned the smile before leaning back, winding up, and giving me a resounding THWACK on the back of the head. I yelled in pain and jumped back, taking a forehoof and massaging my now-aching head.
“Ooooooh, I totally deserved that,” I mumbled, blinking tears out of my eyes. “Eeesh. Thanks, I guess.”
“Any time,” she said, not dropping her smile. “Now, I believe we have a record shop to find. Or rather, a record shop to wander about searching aimlessly for until you finally return home, defeated, and I prove that I was right all along.”
“Ah, don’t be so negative,” said Lyra, skipping down the next flight of stairs. “It’ll be an adventure either way!”
We reached the glass double doors of the apartment complex and pulled them open, sagging collectively as the late afternoon heat washed over us.
“Well,” said Redheart, looking at me with a this better be good expression. “Where should we start?”
I opened my mouth, closed it, then stood silent for several seconds as I realized the letter hadn’t actually given me any particular directions for where to go. Near the place you know the most, it had said, as if that were the most obvious thing in the world. Where did I know the most? My apartment? A club? My parents’ house? Oh how I hoped to Celestia it wasn’t that last one. Well, whatever.
Swallowing, I cleared my throat, spun in the direction of a random street, and jabbed my hoof forward in what I hoped was a leaderly fashion.
“That way,” I said, setting off at a confident stride and motioning for the party to follow. “We go that way.”
“You have no idea, do you?” said Redheart, rolling her eyes but walking after me anyway.
I gave a snort, as if the very idea of me not knowing something was completely ridiculous. “Don’t be silly. Of course I do. The letter was very specific.”
“She has no idea,” muttered Octavia, setting off at a begrudging trot after me. Lyra and Bon-Bon followed, looking unsure but optimistic.
“I do too,” I replied, not turning around. “You know, it’s generally not good adventuring etiquette to doubt the decisions of the party leader.”
“Oh, of course not. Forgive me for slandering the infinite wisdom and guidance of our fearless commander, without whom we would be little more than lost, wandering foals.”
Ouch. If sarcasm could kill, ‘Tavi would’ve been on Equestria’s Most Wanted ages ago. I nodded, refusing to let her get to me. “Apology accepted, lieutenant.”
“Oh, hush and get moving so we can get back sooner,” she snapped.
I smiled, turning my head to the side slightly to let her see. “Yes ma’am.”
Now, I thought, ignoring the grey mare staring daggers at the back of my neck. If I were a record shop with ties to an interdimensional world-threatening catastrophe, where would I hide?
Vinyl Scratch’s life tip of the day:
Manehatten is big. Like, really big. Like, so big that you can spend two hours wandering around its various side streets looking for, say, a record shop, and barely even cover an eighth of the city.
This fact had made itself extremely prominent in my mind as the day wore on, the sun’s heat waging a neverending assault on my back, neck, and shoulders. By now, I was little more than a dripping, panting ball of sweat, stumbling around the heat-hazed cobblestones in an exhausted daze. The others weren’t faring much better.
“It. Is. So. Freaking. Hoooooooot,” Lyra groaned, shuffling along beside me.
I sighed. “I know, Lyra. I knew the last four times, too.”
“This is idiotic,” said Octavia, pausing to wipe a damp streak of mane from her eyes. “We’ve been out here for nearly two hours, and have nothing to show for it but sweaty coats and aching hooves.” She stopped, turning around and pointing back towards the horizon, the direction of our apartment. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m just about finished.”
Redheart nodded in agreement. “Octavia’s right. I have double shifts tomorrow, and I still need to shower and get some sleep. I’m heading home.” She turned to follow, but I ran in front of her, cutting the pair off.
“Come on, you don’t really mean that, do you?” I pleaded, looking at Lyra for support. “Lyra’s still with me, right Lyra?”
The green mare sighed. “I dunno, Vi. When I agreed to this, I kinda thought you at least had some idea of where you were going.” Bon-Bon nodded in agreement. “I... I think we should head home,” she said, looking at me apologetically. “Sorry.”
“W-wait!” I yelled desperately, wringing my hooves as the rest of my so-called party began to walk in the opposite direction, “Come on! You’re gonna give up now? We’re close! I can feel it. Just one more side street. Please?”
Lyra glanced back and gave me another regretful stare, but nopony turned around. “Okay, fine. Be that way. I’ll catch up. Don’t wait for me.”
“Like they were going to anyway,” I muttered, turning a corner and walking huffily down the avenue. Like it was it my fault the letter had been so stupid about where to find the place. Honestly, I thought, staring moodily at the ground as I trotted, if you’re going to expect a mare to save your world, some actual directions seem would be nice. How hard would it have been to write ‘Oh, and by the way, the record shop is on 34th and Cherry, just past the crepe stand.’ But no. They had to go and make it all-
“Ow! Son of a...”
I had been so intent on my brooding that I had barely realized the street I had been walking down was a dead end, and that I had just walked directly into a shabby-looking wooden fence.
“Jeez,” I muttered, rubbing my smarting nose. “Dumb fences should know better than to... hang on...”
I stepped back from the cluster of boards, eyes widening as I glanced around behind me at the deserted street. I knew this place! The alley, the fence, the graffiti on the nearby wall... This was where Octavia and I had shared our first kiss all those years ago, when the boarded-up building to my left had been the hottest underground club in Manehatten. I could still remember every detail of that night, like it had been loaded into a film reel and stuffed into my brain. The drinks, the jokes, the not-so-sly advances made by yours truly, and then, finally, that first, beautiful, spellbinding moment that had made me realize I had found the one mare I wanted to be with forever.
I ran a hoof along the fence, all my resentment towards it gone in the happy light of the memory.
Wait a minute.
The place you know most.
“Oh, you’ve gotta be freakin’ kidding me,” I muttered, turning around and scanning the street. If, after all this searching, it was here...
And there it was. Sandwiched in between an empty, fenced-off lot and what once had been a drugstore, it sat, like it had always been there: a tiny, dusty-looking storefront with Legato Records printed in faded gold above its window. I whooped, the joy of success giving me newfound energy, and set off at a gallop towards where I had last seen the rest of the party.
“‘Tavi! Lyra! Guys!” I shouted, sprinting back around the corner as fast as my exhaustion-weighted hooves could carry me. “I found it! It’s over here! Come on!” The group was already almost two blocks away, and it took nearly another minute of pursuit before they heard and turned around.
“You found it? Really?” Lyra’s grin could’ve split the sides of her face. “Hell yeah! Where was it, Vi?”
“Near the end of a dead-end street,” I replied in between gasps. “The same place Octavia and I had our first kiss. You remember that, don’t you, ‘Tavi?”
She smiled wryly. “How could I forget? That was also the night we nearly burned to death in an alcohol fire and barely managed to avoid getting arrested.” At our partymates’ dumbfounded stares, she rolled her eyes and put a hoof around me. “Oh, don’t be like that. It wasn’t Vinyl’s fault. Well, that time.” Their expressions all shifted to various degrees of relieved and embarrassed, and I giggled.
“Thanks,” I said, pecking Octavia on the cheek. “Now, come on. We’ve got a world to save.”
The soft tinkle of a bell greeted us as we opened the door to Legato Records, the sound seeming oddly out of place in the quiet, musty atmosphere of the shop. The oak-paneled walls were stacked high with shelves housing hundreds upon hundreds of ancient-looking vinyls, and nearly everything was covered in a thick layer of greyish dust. I had the distinct impression that nopony save us had entered for years, and suppressed a shiver.
“Brrr. I don’t like this place, Vi,” Lyra said, eyeing a dust-coated record player warily. “I can’t put my hoof on it, but something about it just feels off.” The others nodded. I couldn’t deny that there was something weird about the place, but I wasn’t about to let that stop me.
“I know what you mean,” I replied. “But we’ve already spent so much time looking that it would be kinda dumb to give up now, right?”
“I guess,” she replied, still looking uncertain. Steeling my nerves, I walked up to the counter and cleared my throat.
“Uh, hello? Anypony here?” My question was only met with the same oppressive silence that had hung over us since we had entered. “Um, it’s Vinyl. Vinyl Scratch. I’m here about the whole saving the world thing. That position’s not taken, right?”
Still no reply. I began to feel a small worm of anger making its way up through my stomach. We come all this way, do everything they ask, and they don’t even have the decency to meet us in person?
“Well, we tried,” said Redheart, sighing and making for the door. “Good game, well played, come back tomorrow. We’re done here.”
“Wait!” I said, staring back over the counter. “There’s gotta be something I’m missing. This can’t be a hoax. I’m don’t remember any Legato Records when I was here all those years ago, and this place looks ancient.”
“Vinyl, you were drunk,” objected Octavia. “Frankly, I’m surprised your remember anything.”
“Even so, this just seems too well thought out. There’s gotta be something else, something I’m missing... Ha! Here we go!” I said triumphantly, pointing to a shiny silver call bell sitting on the corner of the counter. It looked oddly new compared to its dust-choked surroundings, and I felt an almost unconscious urge to give it a tap.
“A bell?” said Octavia dubiously.
“Yep!” I nodded. “It’s a shop thing. You know, ‘ring bell for service’? Here, watch.” I raised my hoof, and, with a flourish, brought it down on the bell, eliciting a soft, clear ding.
The sound seemed to reverberate in the dusty silence, like it had come from something much louder than a simple call bell. Then I heard a shuffle of hoofsteps, and from back behind the counter emerged the most ancient-looking earth pony had ever seen.
His coat, once probably a rich chocolate brown, was now a muted beige and had the appearance of worn leather. His mane had fared no better, and clung to his head in whitish wisps where it remained at all. But his most interesting feature was his eyes. Bright, clear, and intense, the steely blue orbs could’ve belonged to a pony a quarter of his age. He regarded us with a nearly-toothless smile, and said, in a surprisingly full voice, “Well, look at you. My. Times sure have changed, haven’t they?”
I blinked, still slightly jarred by the disconnect between his voice and eyes and the rest of him. “Uh, yeah, I guess they have.” I frowned, remembering the letter’s instructions. “Wait. Are you Clef?”
The stallion nodded, and I swore I could hear joints creaking. “I am indeed.” He glanced down at me, eyes stopping on the amulet around my neck. I hadn’t noticed it before, but the stone inside it had begun to pulse faster as we had entered the shop, almost as if it was eager to get going.
“I suppose you’re the mare little Aura picked to head on after her?” Clef asked, staring at me. His eyes felt like they were boring straight through me and out the back of my head. Not the most pleasant sensation, let me tell you.
“That’s me. I have the letter right here,” I said, opening my saddlebags and rummaging around with my magic until I found it. “Oh, and would it be too much to ask for a little briefing? You know, just an idea of what we’re getting into before we jump headfirst into it?”
He smiled, shaking his head. “Sorry, miss. I couldn’t tell you if I wanted to, and besides, I’m not entirely sure what you’ll find either.”
“Figures,” I muttered, giving him the letter with a sigh.
The envelope was battered and wrinkled, but Clef took it wordlessly, opening it and scanning the paper within with those piercing eyes. After a minute, he nodded, sliding it back across the counter towards me.
“That’s it, all right,” he said. “And I can feel the pulse from that amulet of yours from here.” I didn’t question how that was possible. Old ponies say weird things. “Everpony got their silver?”
“The letter said the amulet would work,” I said, gesturing at it. Clef nodded. “Uh, you guys got yours?”
Lyra whispered something to Bon-Bon, who smiled and ducked down into her saddlebags. A second later, she came up with a small silver ring clasped in her mouth, which Lyra took and slid onto her horn with a flicker of magic. “Got mine,” she said. “Red, you good?”
Redheart nodded. “Right here.” She tapped her hair, still in its customary nurse’s bun, with a hoof. “There’s a silver pin in it.”
“Awesome,” I replied. “So that makes everyone... er... oh, shit.” Four pairs of eyebrows raised at the curse, and I smacked a hoof against my forehead. “Uh, ‘Tavi, you wouldn’t happen to have anything made of silver on you, would you?”
She shook her head, bewildered. “No. Why? Is it important?”
I shrugged. “Apparently. The letter said we would each need one, but I have no idea why.”
A clunk from the other side of the room caught my attention, and I turned to see Clef holding a small wooden box in his mouth, which he set gingerly on the counter.
“It’s your lucky day, miss,” he said, smiling at Octavia. “I’ve been saving this for a while, and you look like the type of mare who would appreciate it.” He leaned in and popped the box’s latches with his mouth, revealing a simple silver hoofband nestled in a bed of dark velvet. “Go on,” he said, gesturing to the jewelry. “Take it. You need it more than this old coot, anyhow.”
“O-oh. Thank you very much, Clef,” said Octavia, blushing slightly. She took the band from the box and threw it into the air before catching it neatly on her front forehoof in that freaky way earth ponies can. The jewelry looked like it fit perfectly, and Clef nodded in approval.
“Now, normally,” he continued, looking around the room at each of us, “I would ask you if you’re ready to leave. But as of now, we seem to have a bit of a problem.”
“Problem? W-what problem?” I asked, casting my mind back frantically for anything I might have missed. Had I really come this far only to get stopped by a stupid technicality?
“Well,” Clef said, gesturing to the group, “Unless my eyesight’s going, I’m pretty sure there’s five ponies in front of me. Now, you do know the letter called for only four, right?”
I nodded, relieved. “Oh, that.” I pointed a hoof at Bon-Bon. “She’s not coming with us. She just wanted to say goodbye to her... um...” I trailed off awkwardly as I realized what I had been about to say. Clef seemed nice enough, but old folks and mare-mare relationships had always seemed to be a touchy subject.
Clef, however, just smiled. “Say no more. Can’t say I understand it, but if it makes them happy, I couldn’t give a damn.” He looked at Bon-Bon. “All right, missy. You say your goodbyes.” She nodded and turned to Lyra, who was looking uncharacteristically melancholy.
“Well... I guess this is it,” the green mare mumbled, grabbing Bon-Bon and pulling her tight.
“Oh, don’t say that,” her marefriend replied, returning the embrace and giving her a kiss. “You’ll be back soon, skipping home celebrating the fact that you saved a world. I know it.”
Lyra smiled, and I turned away awkwardly as I noticed the tears staining both mare’s cheeks. I could only imagine how difficult it was for her. I mean, being away from ‘Tavi... it was almost unthinkable.
“I love you, Lyra. Stay safe.”
“Love you too, Bon. You know I will.”
They broke away, and I turned back around. Lyra’s eyes were still shining, but her mouth was set in a small, confident smile. Bon-Bon looked on from the side, her face somewhere in between proud, joyful, and sad.
“All right,” Lyra said, turning to Clef. “I’m ready.”
The ancient stallion nodded. “Anypony else need to say their farewells?” When we all shook our heads, he turned to the side of the counter, opening the small gate set into it and motioning for us to follow. “All right then. Follow me.”
We obliged, forming a single file line around the shopkeeper as he led us around the corner to a back room that looked just as old and dusty as everything else. The floor was scattered with vinyl sleeves and record player parts, and I hissed in pain as I accidentally stepped on a stray needle.
“Watch your step,” said Clef, chuckling. “I’m not really the organized type.”
Once we had all filed into the tiny, dust-filled space, Clef turned to the seemingly bare wooden wall at the end of the room and tapped it with his forehoof. There was a low, throaty chord, something major, maybe a C, and the wall rippled and warped until it was no longer a wall, but an arched wooden doorway.
“Whoa,” I whispered. “Neat trick.”
“Thank you kindly,” Clef replied, ushering us in. The room beyond the doorway was even smaller than the one in the back, and we had all barely managed to squeeze in before he tapped the doorway’s arch and it morphed back into a wall with a soft A minor.
“Now,” said Clef, gesturing to the room’s center, “I’m going to ask everpony here one last time. You’re sure you’re ready to start? Is there any doubt, any hesitation, any tiny piece of your mind that says, ‘this is a damn fool’s errand?’”
“Well...” muttered Redheart, and the old stallion laughed.
“Good,” he said, patting her on the shoulder. “I would think less of you if there wasn’t. But you’re here, and you’ve said you’re ready, so unless anypony tells me otherwise, I’m going to leave you fine mares alone to get started.” He turned to me, blue eyes like polished balls of ice. “You’re their leader.” It wasn’t a question.
I swallowed. “Guess I am.”
“Then you’re the one to do the honors,” he said, pointing to the middle of the space. I realized the room only had one piece of furniture: an engraved table made of dark wood with a well-polished record player sitting atop it. “Oh, and remember...” He glanced back at me. “You’re the leader. That means you have the best point to see from, but the highest to fall. Don’t let your commitment to a role overtake your commitment to yourself.” And with that, he turned and stepped through the wooden wall behind us with a diminished G.
“Well,” I said, looking around the room. Three mares stared back at me, their faces ranging from nervous to confident to cautiously excited. “You guys ready to save a world?”
Three nods. They weren’t ready, not even close, but hell, neither was I. And it didn’t even matter. They were my friends, the ponies I could trust to stick by me to the end of the world and back. Loyal, kind, capable, and willing to put up with me. A mare can’t really ask for much more than that.
I turned to the record player. The vinyl was already on the platter, and I rotated it carefully with my hoof as I read the golden words that circled the inside:
Visite Sonum Regni Eternus
I had no idea what the phrase meant, but it felt... old. Powerful. Like was it tied to something else, something bigger, something strange and ancient and maybe even dangerous.
Something I was about to be a part of.
“Then let’s get started.”
With a smile, I pushed down the player’s arm and pressed the power button.
The sound the record player emitted seemed too powerful for its tiny speakers. It was indescribable, a steadily-increasing throaty hum that seemed to slide seamlessly between hundreds of pitches at once. I felt a strange whirling sensation in my stomach, like my insides were turning at the same rate as the edge of the vinyl, and motes of white light began to gather at the edge of my vision. The strange song continued to grow steadily, increasing in both volume in tempo until it was vibrating through my entire body. The room began to fade out of focus as the light behind my eyes became brighter and brighter, and I blindly reached out a hoof, finding what I hoped was Octavia and hooking it around her.
The notes came faster and faster, flickering between keys and scales like a pianist on his last legs of sanity. The light had now fully consumed my vision, and I held Octavia tight as the ancient song swirled around me, spinning me around and around the room without moving a step. The hum was deafening now, loud to the point where there was nothing else I felt, and still it grew louder.
Then, the song suddenly stopped, there was an ear-shattering CRACK, and I felt myself being tugged sideways, away from Octavia, through what felt like an infinity of space. I had the brief, strange sensation of being in completely formless, before, with another CRACK, I collided with a soft, greenish surface and everything melted away into soothing nothingness.
When I opened my eyes, my world was blue, and Octavia was gone. A vast, unbroken expanse of deep azure consumed all of my vision, seemingly endless...
At least until I moved my head. Then the rest of the world came into focus, and I felt my stomach lurch as my brain reoriented itself to match the newfound data. The world wasn’t really blue, of course. I had just been lying on my back, staring up into a cloudless sky. That alone was a bit of a shock, but it was nothing compared to the rest of my surroundings.
“Holy crap,” I murmured, picking myself up off the ground and slowly turning to get a good look around.
I was standing in the middle of a vast, rolling meadow, stretching on as far as the blue sea above. The grass was so green it nearly hurt my eyes, and pockets of fiery red-and-yellow flowers grew here and there like tiny sunbursts. Giant, oddly-shaped chunks of stone were studded every thirty feet or so, their intricately carved faces overgrown with moss and vines. They looked like they could’ve been pieces of buildings once, maybe from some ancient city or temple.
Wow. For a dying world, this place doesn’t look too bad. I cracked a smile at the ridiculousness of the thought. Sure, I was stranded in the middle of giant field with no idea where my home was, where my friends were, or how to get back, but hey, at least the scenery was nice.
“All right,” I said aloud, trying to keep my spirits up, “first things first.” I levitated my goggles up onto my face as if to tell the world, ‘I mean business’. As of now, food and water were a priority. I wouldn’t do my friends any good if I starved to death trying to find them, after all.
I glanced behind me and located my saddlebags, which had been thrown into a patch of tall grass near the Vinyl-shaped indent where I had first landed. There. Now I at least had supplies.
Shrugging the bags on, I did a quick 360 of the field, finding nothing but more grass, more flowers, and a couple scattered pieces of stone. Crud.
I closed my eyes, spun in place a couple times, and set off at a brisk trot towards the direction my hoof had stopped on. Hey, it had worked once, right?
“Lyra? Redheart? ‘Tavi? Hello?” I shouted out the query as loud as I could every few minutes, but got no response except the whistle of the wind. The scenery hadn’t changed from the general theme of ‘idyllic vista’, and I frowned, scuffing a hoof against the too-bright grass as I realized the thing that had been bugging me since I had first woken up. This place was beautiful, yeah, but it was quiet. Too quiet. There were no birdcalls, no chirps, no hum of insects. Just the wind and the brush of my hooves against the grass. I shivered despite the pleasant temperature of the meadow. Maybe the world didn’t look dead, but it sure felt it.
Shaking myself back reality, I walked on, continuing to call out for my party members. “Guys? Come on! Anypony there?”
It occurred to me that I was probably broadcasting my location to not just my friends, but everything else within a couple hundred feet, friendly or not. I wasn’t too bothered, though. From I had seen so far, this place was practically a ghost town, or ghost field, and I would be able to see anything coming at me from at least three hundred feet away.
Ten minutes of wandering later, my search finally payed off. I had been on the verge of giving up and breaking camp by myself when my call was answered by a voice that, while far away, was unmistakably Lyra’s.
“Vi? Is that you? Oh thank Celestia!”
Punching a hoof in the air, I sprinted across the field towards Lyra and tackled her into the grass, sending her saddlebags flying. “Hell yeah, it’s me!” I said, laughing in relief. Now she was laughing too, and it took us around a minute before we had both sufficiently recovered enough to stand.
“Ugh. Us being the saviors of the world and all, you’d think they’d have given us a better way to travel, or at least a map,” Lyra muttered, telekinetically repacking her saddlebags and slinging them onto her back.
“Tell me about it,” I replied. “You didn’t see anypony else, did you?”
She shook her head. “Nothing. Just flowers, grass, and weird rocks. What about you? Anything interesting?”
“Nothing you haven’t already seen.” I sighed. “Damn. Guess we should keep moving, then. Hopefully we’ll find the others as quickly as I found you.” The sun was already past its midway point, and it would be getting dark soon. By then, I would have really preferred to have found everypony and set up camp.
I might be able to help you with that.
I jerked back in shock. “The hell- Lyra, was that you?”
The green mare frowned in confusion. “Was what me?”
I shook my head, cheeks reddening. “Never mind.” Great. Not like I didn’t have enough problems already. No, let’s add ‘mysterious voice in my head’ to the list!
Please. I can help you.
Oh, for Celestia’s sake...
“Who... who the hell are you?” My confused yell caused Lyra to turn toward me. She looked concerned, and my face reddened even further.
“Uh, Vi? There’s nopony here but me. You okay?”
I sighed, shaking my head. “I’m fine. Just thought I heard something.”
“If you say so,” she replied, looking unconvinced. Okay. I would deal with this later. For now, finding ‘Tavi and Redheart was priority one, no questions asked.
Vinyl. It’s me. Aura. From the alley. I want to help. Just think your responses, and I’ll hear them.
“I—” I cut myself off before Lyra could question my sanity any further. I don’t understand. You disappeared. How are you still here? Throwing up a nonchalant smile, I nodded at Lyra and continued to walk. No big deal. Just my crazy.
I’m not ‘your crazy’. It’s the amulet, Vinyl. It’s got my essence in it.
The amulet? Oh, right. I glanced down at the little quarter note, eyebrows arching as I noticed the inset stone. It wasn’t pulsing as fast as it had been in Legato, but it seemed shinier and brighter, and the colors blended into each other like running paints.
You know what? Fine, I thought, my temper starting to rise. You’re a little pony inside a necklace who can read my thoughts and talk in my head. Sure. Whatever. Not the weirdest thing to happen today. Now, considering I’m saving your dimension and all, I would really appreciate some freaking answers.
Fine, Aura replied. Tone was hard to tell through thoughts, but I was pretty sure she was on the verge of irritation. What do you want to know?
Okay. First things first. Where am I?
While not the most pressing question, it was the one I was the most curious about. Was this an ancient city? Some faraway planet? Equestria, a thousand years into the future?
No, no, and no. You’re in the Elrinian Fields, in Sonus. The dimension between dimensions, the cosmic bassline that keeps everything else on beat. The world that, if we don’t save it, is going to be gone in a couple weeks.
Oh, thanks, I thought. That really clears things up. Maybe I was being a bit of a jerk, but by this point I had just about had it with whole ‘mystical dimensional wizardry’ schtick. Cosmic bassline? What are you talking about? What does any of this have to do with music?
If a soul-essence could’ve sighed, Aura would have. It’s... complicated. All right. Imagine your universe as a kernel of corn on a cob. Follow me so far?
I frowned. Uh. Sure.
All right. So that kernel is your entire dimension: All the planets, all the stars, all your physical and magical laws and everything else wrapped up into one neat little package. Still following?
I nodded, then mentally kicked myself as I noticed Lyra’s confused stare. Yeah.
Good, she replied. Here’s where it starts getting complicated. Now, you see, your dimension, whatever it’s called-
Equestria, I thought. Well, that’s where I’m from, anyway.
Equestria? The thought sounded amused. Interesting name. Anyway. Equestria, and the entire universe that surrounds it, is only one of thousands, maybe millions of dimensions that make up the Multiverse. That’s the all and everything. The whole corncob. A near-infinite number of possible universes, expanding and collapsing a near-infinite number of times every second.
So... you’re saying that there’s more than one Equestria? I thought, attempting to pry a tiny shard of sense from the pile of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo she had just spouted. Like, there’s more than one universe like mine?
Yes, she replied, sounding pleased at my understanding. Probably thousands, possibly millions. And that’s not even counting the amount of places that are so far removed from standard dimensional law that our minds would implode trying to understand them.
I could almost feel the gears in my brain grinding. Uh. Okay. I think I’m with you. But what does this place have to do with any of that?
Sonus is the cob part of the corncob. Now, imagine what would happen if the cob of a corncob suddenly poofed out of existence. Boom, gone. Just like that.
Uh... the corn would all fall?
Exactly. Now imagine that, but with dimensions instead of kernels.
I swallowed. Ah. That would be bad. Well, at least now I had an idea of what the stakes were, as heart-freezingly terrifying as they may have been.
Yes. Very bad. To put it mildly.
All right, I thought. I think I get it. Now, next-
Vinyl. We’ll have time for Q&A later, once you’ve found everypony else. For now, just focus on the task at hoof.
I repressed a sigh. Fine. You said you could help me find them? How? I was still full to bursting with unanswered questions, but the pony in my head was right. The party was still priority one.
Close your eyes. This might sting a little.
I complied, then gave a small gasp as a sharp spike of pain stabbed through my head, receding almost as quickly as it had came.
There. That should have worked
I looked around, confused. Huh? I don’t- whoa. Octavia and Redheart were still nowhere to be seen, but I realized I could hear a soft, meandering melody coming from off to my left. I focused on it, and it seemed to split, diverging into two separate rhythms from two different directions.
Let me guess, I thought, cocking an ear towards the loudest melody. Follow the music?
You’re a fast learner. Every living thing has its own unique cosmic rhythm, including your friends. I’ve linked your signatures together so you’ll be able to find them however far away they are.
I rolled my eyes. Just a “Yes” would’ve been fine too. Well, thanks, I guess. Does it work both ways? Like, can they find me and each other, too?
No. It’s part of the inherent magic of the amulet, so it can’t be-
‘No’, I thought. Got it.
Turning in the direction of the song, I began to trot towards it, motioning for Lyra to follow. “Hey. Let’s head this way. I’m getting bored of walking in the same direction.”
She shrugged. “Whatever you say.” I was fairly certain she still thought I was at least one flavor of completely insane, but I would have time to deal with that later.
The first melody slowly grew in both volume and complexity as we walked on, while the other one receded until it was barely more then a murmur. I gave a grunt of irritation. Wherever one member was, the other was obviously in a completely different direction. Even if we traveled fast, would be lucky to find both of them before nightfall.
I started as the melody I had been following gave a sudden, discordant screech before picking up again, much faster and more hectic than before.
Vinyl. Somepony’s in trouble.
Swallowing, I broke into a run. Ya don’t freakin’ say.
“Lyra! Come on!” I shouted, clearing a piece of a ruined dome with a single leap. I was not going to lose a pony before we had even started.
“Trust me!” The song was louder now, sounding more panicked by the second, and I urged my legs forward, not bothering to check if Lyra was following. Just a little faster...
And then I heard it.
A shrill, piercing scream that made my mane stand on end, matched by a jarring stop in the melody I had been following. With a panicked yell, I clambered up a sunken pillar, leaping off it and over the next hill. That was Redheart’s scream.
I landed heavily on my left forehoof, hissing in pain before forcing myself onward again. Passing over the crest of the next hill, I was confronted with a scene that looked like something out of a nightmare.
Redheart was sprinting across an open expanse of the meadow, a trio of dark, flickering, pony-shaped forms pursuing her. They moaned, wisps of greenish vapor trailing off their decayed-looking bodies, and I gave a yell of anger and charged.
“I’m coming, Red!”
Don’t? The hell do you mean, don’t? I thought, leaping towards the closest of the evil-looking things. Redheart’s in trouble, and I’m not-
I gasped as I felt all my limbs lock simultaneously like they had been grabbed by an invisible vice. A second later, my hind legs jerked backwards by themselves, sending me arcing away from the trio of monsters in a graceful backflip. I landed a couple feet away and sighed in relief as I felt the control of my body return to its rightful owner.
What... what the HELL was that? I thought, shaken by the sudden loss of control.
No time! Look!
I felt my blood turn to ice as I realized that my yell and narrow escape had turned the monster’s focus to me. They gave another chilling moan and began to hobble their way towards me, closing the distance much faster than seemed possible. I gulped and turned to run.
Vinyl! Think of a note!
“A what?!” I screamed, too flustered and terrified to remember that I didn’t have to speak out loud. “I’m about to get murdered, and you’re worried about—”
Do it! A musical note! High G!
Just the name of the pitch immediately sparked a subconscious recognition in the musician part of my brain, and I focused on it, sprinting as fast as I could all the while. The monsters were gaining, and it wouldn’t be long before they had caught up entirely.
Okay, now what? I thought-shouted. How does this help?!
Focus harder! Aura replied. Let the pitch fill your entire body, then release!
Gritting my teeth, I imagined the note getting louder and louder, enveloping my entire body in a constant, steady hum. To my surprise, I felt a warm, energizing glow begin to spread outwards from the middle of my body, continuing until it reached the very tips of my hooves.
Good! Now hold it...
One of the monsters gave a snarl and leapt toward me, nearly grabbing my tail in its rotting mouth. It tumbled down into the grass, but I still had the other two close behind.
A little more...
The glow intensified, growing from pleasantly warm to almost painfully hot as I leapt over another broken shard of stone. My hoof caught on a rough edge, and I yelled in shock as I fell heavily to the ground. The monsters slowed, looming over me, their decaying jaws parted in horrible grins. My skin begin to itch and burn as the hum in my chest grew even louder, swallowed up my entire being.
The first of my pursuers lunged for me, and I screamed, releasing the glow in a brilliant blue arc of chain lightning that leapt between all three of the monsters. It bounced back and forth, piercing them through their shadowy ribcages until nothing remained but three piles of black, smoking ash.
I had expected several things to happen when I had screamed, the most obvious being my grisly and untimely death. Spontaneous chain lightning from a musical note I had imagined in my head had not been on the list.
Oh, thank the Gods. That was too close, Aura thought.
No freakin’ kidding, I replied, taking a shaky breath and staggering to my hooves. What the hell were those things?
I’ll tell you later-
That was it!
Like hell you will! I thought, my shock and fear replaced entirely by a prickly flood of anger. I’ve been thrown across the universe, lost my party, almost gotten murdered by a couple of monsters straight out of a budget horror movie, and you know what? I would be okay with all of that, if anypony would actually give me even the tiniest hint of WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON!
There was a long pause. I wasn’t sure if thought-ponies could sulk, but if they could, Aura almost certainly was.
I am not sulking!
“Oh?” I replied, my anger returning in a rush at her indignant tone. “Good! Then you’ll be able to tell me what those monsters were, how I did what I did, and exactly what in the name of Celestia’s shiny left flank is going on in this clusterbuck of a dimension!” Honestly, the freakin’ nerve...
I felt my heart drop somewhere near my hooves as I realized that I had been speaking aloud, and that Redheart and Lyra were standing near me, concerned looks on both their faces.
“Oh, heya Red!” I said, trying and failing to plaster a nonchalant smile on my lips. “That was pretty close, huh?”
She nodded shakily. “Too close. But, Vinyl, what... what was that? And who were you talking to just then? Are you all right?”
“Yeah, Vi, what’s up? Are you hearing things?” Lyra asked, voice worried. “You want to take a break for a little?”
I sighed. Aura, there isn’t a way you’d be able to prove to them that you’re, ya know...
Not just a figment of your crazed imagination? No, I’m afraid not.
Of course. Silly me, thinking I could actually catch a break. Well, nothing for it. I looked between the two mares and steeled myself.
“No. I’m fine. But there’s a snarky little pony stuck in my head who keeps promising me answers, and so far she hasn’t been delivering,” I said, pretending not to see the worried frowns that had appeared on both mare’s faces. “That’s all, really.”
My reassurance worked exactly as well as I had expected, and Lyra sighed, put a hoof on my shoulder.
“Uh... Vi, I think you should sit down for a little. You know, catch your breath, calm down, get yourself together. I mean, you’ve been through a lot...”
I shrugged the hoof off, snorting in irritation. “Lyra. I’m fine! Aura, the pony from the bar, apparently managed to turn her soul into the amulet I’m wearing, and now she can talk in my head.”
She raised her eyebrows. “And you’re sure that’s true because...”
I pointed to the closest ash pile. “Because if she hadn’t, I would probably be dead. Look, just give me a minute to figure everything out, and I’ll tell you guys whatever I find.” I could tell they weren’t still entirely convinced, but I would take what I could get.
Well, at least you give me some credit.
I rolled my eyes. Unless you start giving me some answers, I wouldn’t get used to it.
All right, fine. I can see you’re stubborn enough to keep at this until we’re both out of our minds, no pun intended. Fire away.
I grinned. Progress!
Okay. First. Those monsters. What were they?
Thralls. The souls of dead ponies summoned up from the underworld and shoved into a mortal form. If they touch you, your life force will slowly drain away until you’re nothing but a husk.
I swallowed, now understanding why Aura had been so adamant that I avoid physical contact. Thralls. Undead, bad, don’t touch. Got it.
Good. The three you found were roaming, broken away from whatever had summoned them, but they’re usually within close company of a follower of Mortem, and therefore much more dangerous.
A follower of what now? I thought, growing more confused by the minute. Every answer I got seemed to open up two more questions for me to ask. Why would they be more dangerous?
Mortem, god of death, destruction, and decay. The most powerful of his devotees can raise and command hundreds of Thralls at once, binding them to their soul and commanding them at will. Those are rare, thank the Gods, but they’re almost universally an awful thing to run into.
I frowned. There’s a god of death?
There’s a god for everything. But we’re getting off topic. Next question.
I repressed a snarky reply. No need to push my luck when she sounded irritated enough as it was.
Okay. Death gods and evil ponies who can control souls and raise the dead. This day keeps getting better and better. Now, second: I’ve never done a backflip in my life. How the hell did I manage to pull one off midsprint, and in the opposite direction, no less?
That was me. The soulbond you have with the amulet gives me limited control of your facilities, but only in critical moments. I can’t suddenly decide to possess you, if that’s what you’re worried about, but-
Oh hell no. Talking in my head was one thing, but taking control of my body?
Aura, I thought, gritting my teeth.
How attached are you to living in my head?
Yours? Not particularly, but you’re who I’m stuck with, so I suppose I can’t complain.
I gave a slow nod, ignoring Lyra and Redheart’s stares. All right. Then listen to me, right now. If you ever, ever, so much as make me twitch without my permission again, I swear to Celestia I will rip off this amulet, find the deepest hole I can, and bury you in it.
There was a pause.
...Point taken. Although I did save you from slow, excruciating death by life-force extraction.
And I appreciate that, I replied. But I prefer my body to be property of me, and me alone, thanks.
All right. Anything else, or can we actually begin to attempt some form of productivity?
Last one. The lightning thing. Explain. How did a note I thought of in my head turn three Thralls into undead barbecue?
There was a soft murmur in my head, and I wrinkled my brow in confusion before I realized Aura had sighed. How she had managed that without lungs was beyond me, but after everything that had happened so far I just went with it.
I was wondering when that would come up, she thought. I’m going to give you the short version, because the long one goes a little over even my head and we’re pressed for time.
Fine with me, as long as it makes sense. Which, just like almost everything else she had explained, it probably wouldn’t.
In Sonus, music has power. Well, actually, that’s inaccurate. Music is power. Almost any musically-inclined pony has their overall prowess increased while they’re here, but some, like you and I, take it a step further. You’re a Sonomancer, Vinyl, like I am, or was, ever since the moment I soul bonded with you in that alley. You can take the changes you introduce into the universe’s cosmic song and manifest them in the physical world through sheer force of will. It’s a rare skill, and the intensity varies per individual. Last I checked, there were only a couple hundred, most of them here.
An answer that didn’t involve evil, monsters, death, or general awfulness? Sweet. Chalk one up for Vinyl.
So I’m some kind of music mage? I asked, head spinning slightly from the ‘explanation’ but pleased nonetheless. And you said the power varies from pony to pony... where do I rank up? It’d be just my luck to get blessed with awesome musical-magic powers only to find the best I could do was a couple sparks.
It’s honestly too early to tell, she replied. From that bolt you loosed, it looks like you have plenty of raw power, but that doesn’t mean much if you don’t have the finesse to apply it.
I snorted. Finesse? Finesse? Aura, I don’t think you know who you’re talking to. This mare right here is the queen of finesse.
I don’t think you even know what that means.
‘Course I do. It’s like ‘sexiness’, right? But cooler?
There was a long pause, in which I had the odd mental image of a tiny pink-and-green mare smacking a hoof against her face repeatedly.
So that’s a ‘no’?
You’ve asked enough questions. Now let’s get moving before you make me want to unbond us myself.
Fine with me, I replied, breaking out of the semi-trance the thought conversation had lulled me into and turning to Redheart and Lyra. “All right. I now have almost no idea what the hell is going on, which is a fairly big improvement over what I knew about two minutes ago. But right now, ‘Tavi is out there somewhere, and we need to find her, so I’ll tell you as we go.”
Two hesitant nods. “Er... all right, Vinyl... if you’re sure you’re fine...” said Redheart. “Of all the things I’ve agreed to, this takes the Celestia-damned cake,” she muttered, rolling her eyes.
I began to stroll away from the pillar, following the faint strains of Octavia’s song and pretending not to hear Red’s grumbling. She would come around eventually, she always did. Hell, maybe we would get lucky, one of us would get some major-yet-almost-definitely-not-fatal injury, and she would just retreat into Zen Nurse Mode for the rest of the day.
I’m not sure what it says about you that you would see yourself or your friends badly getting injured as a positive, but I’m fairly certain I don’t like it.
I rolled my eyes. Do you have an off switch?
Of course. It’s a very simple procedure. First, acquire a heavy, blunt object. Second, raise it above your head. Third-
“Very funny,” I muttered, causing Lyra to glance at me. Shit. “I-I mean... hey, let me tell about what I found out from Aura!” Nice save, Vinyl. That’ll be one for the history books.
I did my best to tune out Aura’s periodic snark bombs as I explained to my party members everything I had learned as we walked. They took most of it pretty gracefully, although Redheart did give a little shudder when I explained about the Thralls. I couldn’t really blame her. Tough or not, those things were damn creepy.
“So, let me get this straight,” said Lyra, raising her eyebrows as we carefully navigated over a crumbled archway. “You’re some kind of... music wizard, who can make lightning bolts and stuff appear just by thinking of a note?”
“Pretty much,” I said, nodding. “There’s probably more to it than that, but when I try to think about anything else she told me it makes my head hurt.”
Lyra grinned. “Vi, that’s freakin’ sweet! Anything gets in our way, you just bust out some sick drops and bam, nothing’s left but a couple blobs of ash.”
If only it was that easy, Aura thought.
“Well, Aura says it might not be quite that much of a walk in the park,” I said, “but yeah, at least I have fall back on if we get into another scrape.”
“Right,” she replied. “Wait a minute, though...” Her grin got wider. “If you could do that with just a note, imagine what you could do with a whole song!”
I raised my eyebrows as I considered the possibility. “You know, I didn’t think of that...” Aura, does it work that way?
Sort of. Notes are materials, songs are tools. If you can perform and arrange them correctly, you should be able to channel huge amounts of power, but it’ll take practice.
“Aura says it’ll take a lot of practice, but yeah, once I get it...” I matched her grin. “Watch out, Thralls.”
My smile faded as I noticed the growing shadow I had begun to throw across the grass of the field, and I picked up my pace. “Crud. Come on, guys. The sun’s gonna set soon, and I would really like to have ‘Tavi safe and sound before it does.” They nodded, and we set off at a quick trot towards the steadily-strengthening sound of Octavia’s music.
I was still utterly lost in the middle of a world I didn’t know, with no clue where my marefriend was, how to return, or why I was there in the first place, but hey. I had my two best friends, a bag full of food, and the power to shoot lightning bolts whenever I damn well pleased.
With the day’s events considered, things were looking up.
Two hours later, the sun had set almost completely, and with no sign of ‘Tavi or change in scenery, I was beginning to reconsider my previous assessment. It didn’t help that with the drop of the sun came a substantial drop in temperature, leaving my teeth chattering and hooves heavy as I walked blindly after the faint, wandering melody.
Jeez, Aura. How big are these fields? I thought, trying to make some conversation if only to keep my mind off the numbness that was slowly creeping its way up my legs.
Extremely, she replied. I don’t know the exact dimensions, but at one point several cities were contained within them. That’s what all these ruins are from. Hopefully you got dropped near the edge, otherwise we could be walking for a very long time.
“Fantastic,” I muttered. The others didn’t hear me, thankfully, and I slowed and glanced backwards. “Hey, how are you guys holding up?”
“F-f-f-fine...” Lyra replied, trying to disguise the castanet-like racket her teeth were making. “B-but V-Vi... Are we g-gonna stop and make camp s-soon?”
“I’d like to know that as well,” said Redheart. “I mean, as much as I enjoy the refreshing numbness of hypothermia and frostbite, I wouldn’t mind ending my first day here with all my vital organs intact.”
“Oh, stop,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I get enough of that from Aura.”
If you didn’t act like a pouty, defiant filly, I wouldn’t have to.
I gave a frustrated grunt. Case in freakin’ point, thoughtpony.
I have a name, Aura replied. I wasn’t sure if she was getting better at expressing emotion through my thoughts, or if I was just listening better, but either way, I could tell she was annoyed.
And I’m too busy freezing my ass off to care. So unless you know of some magical nearby place where the temperature isn’t somewhere between ‘snowdrift’ and ‘glacier’, I would suggest you shut up and let me think.
On your left.
“Wha...” I glanced over to my left, squinting in the light of the dying sun at a small, rectangular speck in the distance. I couldn’t be sure, but it looked like a building of some sort, and Octavia’s song pointed straight towards it. I yelled in triumph and punched a hoof in the air, forcing myself to double my pace.
“Hell yeah! We’re not stopping now, girls. Not while she’s this close!”
It was another minute or two before we reached the building’s entrance, and in that time nearly all feeling had managed to recede from my hooves. I couldn’t have cared less. The song was strong and clear now, which meant ‘Tavi was here.
Wherever here was...
I slowed slightly as I approached the large, imposing construction, eyes widening at the intricate, ice-blue runes carved into the greyish stone. There were four pillars near the front, each containing a sconce filled with blue fire that bathed its surroundings in a cold, eerie light. The door, set back behind the pillars and flanked by twin sconces of its own, was no less impressive. Huge and solid-looking, it was covered in the same runes as the rest of the building and pulsed slightly with an inner azure glow.
But, most importantly, it was also slightly ajar, just enough that a slim grey mare would have been able to squeeze through to get to whatever was inside.
Aura? Any ideas? Knowing my luck so far, I wouldn’t have minded having at least some idea of what to expect in there before I charged headlong into it.
None worth sharing, she replied. It obviously looks like a temple or shrine of some kind, but to what, I don’t know. Those runes aren’t familiar to me. It could be... no. She seemed to check herself. Never mind. I have no idea.
Great. Well, time to re-use the time-honored strategy of ‘run straight in there with no idea what to expect’.
When haven’t you been using that?
I rolled my eyes. Touche, thoughtpony.
My pleasure, unicorn.
I walked slowly up the chipped stone steps to the temple’s door, running my hoof along the glowing marks and catching my breath slightly as I realized they were warm to the touch.
“Lyra, Red. Come on. ‘Tavi’s in here, I’m positive,” I said, pointing to the door.
"What, you’re just going to rush straight in there?” Redheart replied, shuffling uneasily. “What there’s more of those... things, or something even worse?” She shuddered, looking terrified at the very thought of whatever that ‘something worse’ was.
I shot her a confident grin. “Then I drop the bass and fry ‘em.”
You make it sound like it’ll be so easy, when you’ve had no formal training, no experience, and no idea how to control your power.
Celestia, wasn’t she just a ray of freakin’ sunshine?
I growled. I thought you were supposed to help me, not mock and insult me every chance you got.
I wouldn’t, if you would behave like a pony who actually understands the gravity of the situation she’s in.
I do understand! I shot back, smacking a forehoof against the door in anger then jerking back as a burst of bluish energy flared up from it. Look, I’m just taking things as they come for now. Once I’ve found ‘Tavi, set up camp, and maybe eaten something, then we can talk world-saving, all right?
There was a silence, then a terse ‘fine.’
Vinyl: one. Thoughtpony: zip.
I heard that, Aura murmured angrily.
Without ears? Impressive.
Another frustrated sigh emanated from my brain. How did she do that?
“Vi?” Lyra’s concerned tone brought me back into reality, and I mentally kicked myself as I realized I had been wasting precious time arguing when Octavia was so tantalizingly close.
“Yeah. Sorry. Talking with Aura, zoned out a little. Won’t happen again. Let’s go,” I said quickly, sucking in my gut and shoving myself through the door’s opening. Lyra and Redheart followed suit, and with a little wriggling and scraping, we were in.
The temple’s interior mirrored its exterior in almost every way, from the glowing runes to the torches filled with icy blue fire set on the walls. We had emerged in what looked like some kind of entrance hall, with archways leading off on each side to what I assumed were other rooms. It was slightly warmer in here, though not by much, and I shivered as I made my way towards the middlemost arch, where Octavia’s song still played.
“Come on, guys. ‘Tavi’s this... way...” I frowned as Octavia’s melody suddenly picked up in speed, the notes flitting around like disturbed birds. It wasn’t frantic, like Redheart’s had been, just more... active.
I darted through the center archway, following the twists and turns of the hall beyond it with only the glow of the runes and the melody to guide me. It only seemed to increase in speed in complexity as I neared its source, and the fear of what could have happened to her gave my hooves wings. I skidded around a corner, nearly bouncing off the wall before spinning around and smacking directly into another large, slab-like door. This one was shut tight, but I could hear Octavia’s song from directly behind it. I heard other things, too: clangs and strange scuttling sounds that set my teeth on edge. I smacked a hoof against the door. It refused to budge, sending out another burst of blue light, and I smiled.
“You guys might wanna stand back.”
Redheart gasped softly, and Lyra grinned and hopped from hoof to hoof like an excited filly. “You got this, Vi. Blow that sucker open!”
Closing my eyes, I conjured another note, an A this time, and let it begin to grow. I felt the warm glow of power build inside me, tingling out to the tips of my hooves with a soft, clear hum. It felt slightly easier than it had when I had fought the thralls, but whether that was because I was getting better at it or because I wasn’t running for my life, I couldn’t tell.
“Just a little more...” I murmured, eyes still shut in concentration. I felt the hot, prickly feeling burning on the tips of my hooves and leapt into the air, releasing the stored light in a burst.
There was blinding flash of bluish light, and the door shattered inward with a crash of stone and an A major, releasing a gigantic cloud of dust and debris into the room beyond. I fell back onto my hooves, panting slightly. Blowing things up with lightning was definitely fun, but it could take a lot out of a girl.
The sounds in the chamber were clear now, screeches and clacks interspersed with the occasional snikt of metal. Fighting sounds.
I frowned, squinting through the veil of dust. Octavia’s melody was clear as day, spinning and thrumming between notes almost faster than I could hear them. I stepped farther into the gloom and stopped short when I saw what was beyond it.
I had been through a lot in the past 24 hours. I had seen things that would’ve made most normal ponies curl up into a ball and scream in terror, and I wouldn’t have blamed them. You would think that, by now, dealing with the weird and insane would have become almost normal.
But the thing before me was so strange, so unthinkable, it made my head pound and jaw drop just imagining it. Something so far away from the ordinary and mundane it probably shouldn’t have had a right to exist at all. But it was here, undeniably, and I could do nothing but stare in awe and murmur.
“Oh no freakin’ way.”
When you’ve been living in the world for a certain amount of time, there are certain fundamental rules you come to appreciate. You know, ‘what goes up must come down’, ‘using spells you don’t know the purpose of will always end badly’, and ‘vodka and chocolate sauce should not mix ever under any circumstances’. Basic stuff.
‘Octavia does not fight’ was another one of those rules. Short of the occasional well-deserved smack to my head, I had never seen her lift a hoof towards anything in a way that could possibly be considered ‘confrontational’. Granted, most of the time, she wouldn’t have had to, since yours truly would’ve stepped in and kicked flank long before she would’ve had to get a hair out of place, but still. It was just something I had accepted about her. Octavia, for all intents and purposes, was not a combative mare.
Of course, apparently jumping a dimension or two just throws all that out the window, since Octavia wasn’t just fighting: she was winning.
There was a of hum of steel as my marefriend leapt away from the closest of a duo of pale, shimmering forms, her silky tail wrapped tightly around a long, curved blade that shone brightly in the chamber’s dim blue light. One of the wispy things lashed out with a tendril of bluish flame, and she parried it before leaping up and slicing its creator neatly in two.
There was a screech and a sound like a hiss of air escaping, and the wisp faded away into nothingness. Its partner didn’t notice, shooting towards Octavia and nearly scorching her mane. She rolled to the side, dodging the fire and retaliating with a spinning leap that sheared off a good portion of the wisp’s ‘body’. It screeched again, setting my teeth on edge, and Octavia took the opportunity to stab her blade straight through it.
With another hiss and screech , the wisp disappeared, leaving Octavia panting in the middle of the chamber, oblivious to the fact that three dumbfounded pairs of eyes were staring at her from its entrance.
Octavia spun around, tail swinging up into a combat stance. “What?” Her eyes widened as she realized who she was talking to, then her face lit up in a relieved grin.
“Oh my Celestia... Vinyl, Lyra, Redheart! You’re all right!” She laughed, sheathing her weapon into a leather strap that looped underneath her saddlebags and bounding across the room to envelope all three of us in a bone-crushing hug. “You had no idea how worried I was... ”
“I can kinda imagine by the way you’re squeezing the life out of me,” Lyra gasped, pushing Octavia back slightly. I smiled. ‘Tavi was surprisingly strong when she wanted to be.
She blushed. “Sorry. I’m just... when I woke up, everypony else was gone, and I had no idea where I was. I tried staying in one place for a while, but eventually I decided to head out across the fields and look for you. It was getting dark when I found... whatever this place is,” she said, gesturing at the temple around us, “and I decided to come in here to wait out the night. I didn’t expect it to be already occupied, much less by malevolent spirits.”
“Neither did we,” I replied. “But, ‘Tavi... what was that? I’ve never seen you so much as squash a fly, and now you’re spinning around the room like a regular freakin’ warrior princess.”
She laughed softly. “Contrary to popular belief, I’m not quite as helpless as I look. Oh, and Vinyl, take those goggles off. It’s the middle of the night and you look ridiculous.”
I rolled my eyes and pulled my goggles back around my neck. “That wasn’t what I—”
“I know,” Octavia replied. “But really, Vinyl, I’ve told you this before. Remember? In Stalliongrad, starting at a very young age, all Russani families teach their daughters the art of cuenvidi. Tail fencing. I held the top spot in my district’s league for six years running.” She hopped backwards, unsheathing the weapon from her side with her tail and spinning it slowly through the air. Little shards of bluish light caught the blade as it rotated, throwing strange, shimmering designs on the chamber wall. Then, with a sharp exhalation of breath, she leapt, spun, and sliced the air with a flurry of quick, precise, strokes.
My eyes widened at the demonstration, and beside me I saw Lyra’s and Redheart’s do the same.
“See?” Octavia said, stopping short and spinning her blade with her tail before bringing it flat against her side with a snap. “I’ve mentioned it before, you know. Mostly when we were visiting my parents.”
I snorted. “That explains why I don’t remember it. I was too busy sweating bullets in the corner and hoping your dad wouldn’t decide to stuff me and mount me on his wall.” Octavia’s father was a huge, slate-grey brick wall of a stallion that glared at everything and barely spoke a word of Equestrian. The few times I had visited her parent’s tiny cottage in the chilly outskirts of Stalliongrad, he had glowered at me the whole time before glancing pointedly the various swords and other implements of death mounted on the wall. I vaguely remembered seeing one that looked a lot like the blade ‘Tavi was wielding, but I wasn’t sure.
“Wait, hold on a second,” I asked, frowning. “Tail fencing? How does that even work?” I attempted to swing my tail in a passable imitation of what Octavia had done, but only managed a halfhearted wiggle.
“It’s an earth pony thing,” said Redheart. “We don’t have magic or wings, so we evolved to compensate with regular old manual dexterity.” She twirled her tail around as if to accentuate her point. “Of course, I’m sure Octavia’s had extensive training as well.”
Octavia nodded. “Three hours a day since I was seven years old. The whole regimen: Sweeps, spins, blade-lock holds, strength training, mock duels... My father was a bit of a fanatic about it, but I suppose it payed off in the long run.”
I grinned. “I always thought you couldn’t have gotten those flanks of yours from just playing the cello.”
She blushed and continued, “Anyway. When I came in here, the kvirza and its sheath were just laying there.” She, pointed to a small altar-like construction in the chamber’s center. “I picked them up, and then those things appeared.”
“So they were linked it somehow?” asked Lyra, trotting over to the altar and poking it experimentally. Octavia nodded.
“Yes. As soon as I touched it, there was a noise, like a gigantic rush of air, and then they appeared out of nowhere in a flash of light.”
“So the lesson here is ‘don’t touch anything that’s shiny and tempting, because it’s most likely a trap that’ll get us all killed,” muttered Redheart. I ignored her and turned to Octavia.
“Hang on. You called the sword something. Kve... Kver..” I said, tongue stumbling over the Russani.
“Kvirza,” finished Octavia. “A tail foil. They’re the weapon of choice for Russani mares, and this one is the nicest I’ve ever seen,” she said, eyeing the weapon and stroking it almost lovingly with a hoof. “It almost reminds me of one of the Dvedosk thousand-layer blades, but it’s tempered well enough that you can’t even see the individual sheets. And this lettering...” she turned it over, and I saw a line of Cyrilian script flowing down the blade. It was all gibberish to me, but Octavia scanned it and smiled. “It has a name. Udyenr. ‘Grace and Elegance’.”
I smiled back. “Perfect for you.”
“Thank you, Vinyl. But really, this forgework and quality... I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” she continued, moving her head around to examine the blade from every angle. “The curve, the hilt bracing, the weighting... everything is perfect. It would take a master smith to craft something like this, and even then, I would expect at least some tiny flaw, or even a signature, but there’s nothing. And why is it here? As far as I know, we’re nowhere near Russani territory, we have a very strict ban on non-native export. It could be a forgery, but I doubt it.” She held the weapon closer to her face, squinting and inspecting it.
“Er, Octavia?” Lyra asked, walking back over to us with a confused expression. “Not to pry... but when exactly did you become the authority on sharp stabby things?”
Octavia laughed again. “Lyra, I’m a smith’s daughter,” she said. “My talent might be for the cello, but from the first day I could hold a hammer, my father had me working in his forge alongside him. You pick up quite a bit doing that for twelve years or so, believe me.”
My mouth opened, shut, then opened again as I attempted to process the words coming out of Octavia’s mouth. Apparently, not only could she fight, but she also knew more about blades and steel than the rest of us put together. The news wasn’t entirely unwelcome, but still. The idea of my marefriend as a blacksmith and weapons expert was just... weird.
“I... uh... okay. Why didn’t I know about this?” I asked. Octavia shrugged.
“It never really came up, I suppose. Not much opportunity for smithing in Manehatten.” The reply was casual, but something in it sounded off.
I frowned. “I guess... but still, that seems like kind of a big thing to just, ya know, not mention for all the time we’ve been together.” I didn’t bring up how amazingly useful it would’ve been to have a trained fencer alongside me in all the various scraps we’d gotten into over the years. Expert or not, I knew she still wouldn’t want to fight unless she absolutely had to.
Octavia sighed, swishing her tail back and forth agitatedly. “It... well, to be honest, I didn’t want to tell you. I mean, you’ve always seen me as this sort of picture of elegance and class, and... well, I suppose I thought...” She kicked the rubble-strewn floor awkwardly with a hoof.
I snorted in disbelief. “Seriously? You thought I would have a problem with you knowing how to kick complete ass and knowing how to make your own weapons? ‘Tavi, that fight was literally the coolest thing I’ve ever seen you do. Ever. Er, no offense.”
Octavia blushed and smiled, looking both slightly embarrassed and incredibly cute. “Oh. Well, I’m sure there will be plenty of opportunities for using both my talents from now on, if what I found here was any indication. I haven’t dueled properly in ages, so this will be a nice refresher.” She twirled the blade around once more before slipping it back into its sheath with a quiet snickt. “ I still think it’s very odd that a kvirza of this quality would just be sitting here, but I’m not going to complain.”
I had been wondering about that myself. Aura? Any ideas about what’s happening here? My resident thoughtpony had been exceptionally quiet over the last few minutes (not that I minded), but if there was anyone who could give us the slightest inkling of what was going on, it was her.
There was a second’s pause, then the reply came:
One, but I don’t like it.
I sighed inwardly. Great. Hit me.
Your friend’s found a relic.
What’s that? I replied. Short version, please.
All right. Because Sonus is the center off all dimensions, it tends to collect a lot of ‘runoff’ magic from various areas of the multiverse. That’s part of the reason sonomancy works, among other things. Especially thick pockets of magic will actually physically manifest themselves as relics. A relic can be anything: a weapon, a set of armor, a flower or a crystal ball. The only thing in they have in common is their latent magical power. This whole temple is made entirely of pure magic, and I’d be willing to guess that the blade your friend found will never dull or rust, and probably is much stronger, physically, than all others like it. The two wisp-like things were probably guardians of some sort, created to stop the magic from being siphoned off.
I frowned. Okay... and this is bad how? I had been expecting the sword to be a trap for everyone, or maybe carry some kind of horrible curse, but ‘enchanted and really powerful’ didn’t exactly strike me as things to be worried about.
In theory, it’s not. But owning a relic is definitely going to get you a lot of unwanted attention. They’re rare and powerful enough that almost anyone you meet is going to try and angle for it. Sometimes fatally.
I snorted. Let ‘em try. They’ll be a pile of ash before they even lay a hoof on ‘Tavi. Who are you even talking about, anyway? This whole world seems like one big chunk of empty space.
It’s definitely not as populated as it used to be, but there’s still plenty of rogue sonomancers, cultists, and various other marauding nasties that would love to get their hooves, claws, or whatever appendages they can on a relic. That’s the main reason that the attuned make the trip to Sonus in the first place: to find a relic that they can take to their dimension for power, prestige or profit. And considering you know a grand total of one effective sonomancy spell so far, I’m not exactly optimistic about your chances of fending them off.
So we just keep the sword in a blanket or something and be fine. I’m not giving up an awesome magical weapon just because some idiots might want to try and steal it.
I’m not suggesting getting rid of it. I’m just telling you to be careful.
I smiled. Aren’t I always?
Another thought-sigh. I’m not going to answer that.
I was snapped back to reality by the gentle touch of Octavia’s hoof on my cheek. “Vinyl?” she asked, her face concerned. “Are you all right? You seemed like you were somewhere else just now.”
“I’m fine,” I said, brushing the hoof away. “It’s just... wow. We’re getting to be a hell of a team, huh? First an amateur lightning mage, now a duelist... If this keeps up, we’ll be finding out Redheart’s a retired member of the Equestrian Special Forces who can break bones with a blink.”
“Don’t count on it,” the white mare replied, rolling her eyes. Octavia chuckled and turned back to me.
“Wait, you said something about lightning mages? What exactly have you all been up to?”
I grinned. “And you thought your day was crazy...”
Fifteen minutes of explaining and one explosive demonstration later, Octavia was more or less up to date on the rest of the party’s adventures. My mention of Aura had raised an eyebrow, but after reassurance by Redheart and Lyra, she seemed to accept it. My sonomancy powers had provoked a slightly more extreme reaction, and by ‘extreme’ I mean ‘screaming and diving back across the room’. To be fair, I hadn’t given her much warning before I released the bolt, and I hadn't expected it to ricochet back over her head and singe the wall.
“Really, Vinyl,” Octavia said, getting shakily to her hooves and leaning against a chunk of stone. “A simple description would have been just as effective.”
“But definitely not as cool,” I replied. She rolled her eyes and gave me a good-natured smack with her tail.
“Well, the next time you’re about to do something cool, a little warning would be much appreciated.”
“Sure thing,” I said, slinging off my saddlebags and opening one with my magic. “Now, unless anyone has a better idea, I’m declaring this room interdimensional adventure camp site number one.” I telekinetically rummaged through the bag, levitating out a package of dried apples and some cheesy pretzels out onto the altar. “Dinner, anyone?”
Lyra nodded. “I’m starving. Here, I brought stuff too.” She opened her bags, taking a large metal tin out and setting it on the ground. “Bon said she packed me a ‘variety box, but I don’t know what she... oh sweet mother of Celestia.” Lyra’s face lit up in a wide grin. “Bon, I freakin’ love you.”
“What’d she do?” I asked, walking over to Lyra and peering inside the tin. I quickly figured out exactly what Bon-Bon had done when I saw its contents: a large assortment of cookies, tarts, chocolates, and miniature pies. “Oh, sweet. Guess that’s dessert figured out.”
“No kidding,” she replied. “Red, you have anything to add?”
“Not much,” Redheart said, sticking her muzzle into her saddlebags and emerging with a bag of carrots. “This is about a quarter of what I’ve got total. A nurse’s budget doesn’t allow much room for splurges.”
“Hey, no worries,” I said, taking the bag and putting it on the altar with the rest of the food. “Dinner of champions right here. Dig in, everypony.”
Lyra laughed. “Perks of being on an adventure: eat what you want.”
The food wasn’t exactly five-star fare, but it was filling and tasted good enough, and soon the atmosphere in the room was warm and friendly, despite only being a few degrees above the fields outside. Lyra and I bantered and traded jokes, Redheart recounted her experiences waking up and running from the thralls, and Octavia simply sat, smiling and quietly taking it all in.
I scooted closer to Octavia, a half-eaten cookie trailing crumbs as I held it in my mouth. I gulped it down and wrapped a hoof around her torso. “How’s it going, love?”
She shrugged. “All right, I suppose. Everything’s happened so fast... I guess I’m just a little overwhelmed.”
“I know what you mean. I don’t really think any of us woke up this morning knowing we would be in a different dimension by the end of the day,” I said. “But hey. As far as adventuring goes, we could be doing a lot worse. I mean, you’ve already found a crazy-powerful magical artifact, and we’re, what, eight hours in? If this keeps up, we’ll have the world saved by tomorrow afternoon.”
Octavia smiled. “One can only hope. But wait. What artifact are you talking about? Udyenr?” She ran a hoof over the blade in question. “I knew it was high quality, but magical as well?”
“Yup,” I replied. “Aura says it’s a relic. Basically a blob of pure magic that got thick enough to melt down into something real. In this case, a sweet-ass sword. It’ll be more powerful than normal weapons, but it’s also kind of an attention-getter.”
She nodded. “Negative attention, I assume.”
“Yup,” I said. “Relics are apparently a pretty big deal around here. Big enough to kill over. But as long as you keep it on the down-low and don’t go showing it off, we’ll be fine.”
“Don’t worry. It’s considered a horrible breach of cuenvidi etiquette to boast about your blade. I don’t think I’ll have too much trouble remembering,” she said, stroking the sword again fondly.
“Sweet,” I replied, levitating another cookie out of Lyra’s rapidly-diminishing tin. “Here, you want one?”
“Please.” She took the offered cookie in her mouth and crunched off a bite, eyes closing in an expression of pure bliss. “Oh, these are fantastic. I wish I could thank Bon-Bon from across a dimension.”
“You and me both.”
A few minutes later, Lyra, Redheart, ‘Tavi and I had made a sizeable dent in the group supplies, and most of the idle banter had been replaced by yawns and the occasional burp. The near-constant walking combined with my sonomancy and the overall stress of the day had hit me like a train, and it was all I could do to keep my eyes open as I laid out my sleeping bag on the temple’s floor.
“Red, what are you doing?” Lyra asked, telekinetically fluffing out her large green sleeping bag with a fwoomf.
The mare in question turned around and frowned, positioning her body so it blocked most of the object behind it. “What does it look like?”
Lyra hopped up onto her hind legs, peering over Redheart’s shoulder. “I dunno, you seemed kinda... what is that?”
Redheart mumbled something and turned away, cheeks reddening.
“Sorry, didn’t catch that.”
“It’s an urgent care blanket. They trap in heat and they’re enchanted to repel disease,” she said defensively. “Look, it was the only thing I could find, all right? The hospital has plenty of extras, and I don’t have a sleeping bag or the bits to buy one. Besides, if one of you gets injured, Celestia forbid, I bet you’re not going to want me doing field surgery on top of your sleeping bags.”
“Hey, it’s fine with me,” said Lyra. “Why’s it all shiny, though?”
“Insulation. The coating reflects heat back inside,” replied Redheart. “Which is good, since it’s not exactly balmy even in here.” She shivered, shaking out the odd-looking blanket with a crinkling sound.
Hmm. Insulating or not, there was no way that flimsy blanket was warm enough to fully stave off the cold that permeated the room. A fire would be the obvious solution, but there wasn’t anything in the stone chamber we could use for fuel, and I definitely didn’t like the idea of heading back outside at night.
Wait a minute.
Aura? There isn’t a way to start a fire using sonomancy, is there?
There is, but something tells me you trying it wouldn’t end well.
I rolled my eyes and snorted in frustration. Hilarious. Now tell me before we all freeze to death in our sleep.
Think of a chord. C major will work. Do the same thing you did before, but with all four notes this time. Be careful, though. Put too much charge in it and I wouldn’t be surprised if you incinerate the whole temple.
I nodded. Got it. Let’s light this sucker up.
“Hey guys?” I said, taking a step back. “You might wanna watch out.” Redheart made a face that seemed to say you better know what you’re doing, but scooted away towards the wall. A second later, Lyra and Octavia followed suit.
Closing my eyes, I imagined the chord, all four notes intermingling and pulsing in harmony. The warm, prickly feeling came again, but it was different this time, more complex. I felt little eddies and flows of power rippling around just under my skin, flitting between my hooves, horn and tail like minnows.
The chord grew stronger, the heat increased, and I smiled as the power hummed through my veins.
Good. All right, release!
I snapped my eyes open, exhaling sharply, and letting the chord shoot out from me in a brilliant azure bolt. It struck the middle of the floor with a CRACK, and a second later, a sparking, bluish flame flickered to life on the stone.
I pumped a hoof in the air. “Hell yeah! One fire, ordered and delivered, baby.”
Redheart trotted back over, holding a hoof out towards the fire experimentally before sighing in relief. “You know, I had my doubts about this whole thing at first, but I’m starting to see how sonomancy can be useful. Thanks, Vinyl.” She trotted back over to her blanket, wrapping it around herself and settling down near the flame. Lyra, already cocooned in her sleeping bag, gave a mumble of agreement.
I managed to get the ‘no’ in ‘no problem’ out before the rest of the sentence was consumed in a gigantic yawn. Creating the fire had sapped whatever last reserves of strength I had left, and I flopped down into my sleeping bag, utterly exhausted.
“I assume we’ll be sharing?” Octavia asked, kneeling down next to me with a smile.
“Mmph,” I murmured. “Get in here. ‘S cold.”
She laughed softly before wriggling her way in beside me and pecking me on the cheek. “Good night, my little heroine.”
I smiled and closed my eyes.
For my first day in a dimension I knew nothing about, filled with things that most likely wanted me dead and dismembered, today could’ve gone a lot worse.
The next morning was relatively uneventful, at least compared to yesterday. After some repacking and a light breakfast of apples and carrots, we were more or less ready to continue our quest.
Whatever that quest actually was.
So, I thought, telekinetically scrunching ‘Tavi and I’s sleeping bag into a passable facsimile of ‘folded’, what exactly are we supposed to do now? I mean, ‘save the world’ isn’t really descriptive. Should I be killing thralls? Roaming the land searching for ponies to join the cause? Retrieving the Magical Muffin of Might from the top of Mount Snooble? What?
None of the above. You’ve still got one step left before you can start on saving the word proper.
Oh joy. And that would be?
Sonus is big, and strange, and mysterious. I’ve spent most of my life living in it, and even I only know a fraction of what’s out there. For you to have any hope of surviving, you’ll need a guide.
I frowned. Isn’t that what you’re for? If you’re not supposed to guide me, why are you in my head?
I’m a mentor. I’m here to teach you sonomancy and give you counsel and advice, not be a live-in encyclopedia. If you want that, you’re going to have to find one instead of badgering me every few minutes. Luckily, that shouldn’t be too difficult.
Oh? I finished folding the sleeping bag and stuffed it back into my saddlebags, and turned to the rest of the party.. “Just a second, guys. Aura’s doing one of her information dumps.” Go on...
There’s a book. The Sonomancer’s Guide. It’s a sort of manual for everything worth knowing here: the gods, the history, the mythology, the flora and fauna, you get the idea. There’s a limited amount of them, around a hundred and fifty or so, but they’re some of the most powerful relics around, so they don’t break easily. You’ll either have to find one that’s abandoned or undiscovered, or, more likely, get it off someone else.
I’m not robbing or killing anypony, if that’s what you’re suggesting.
Not at all. The easiest way would be to find another sonomancer and trade or duel them for it.
Dueling? I already said I’m not killing anypony.
You won’t have to. Sonomancer dueling doesn’t have to be lethal, though it can be. It’s more a battle of wills then anything else.
I nodded slowly. All right. So, I just have to find someone who’s willing to give me or fight me for this book, and I’m good to go?
More or less. You might have to travel a ways before you find anyone, but I know a way to make that easier.
You do? I gave a sharp gasp as the base of my horn flared up in pain. A second later, it faded, and I realized I could hear a new melody trailing off to somewhere outside of the temple.
Ugh. Warn me next time, would you?
Think of it as payback for the finesse comment. Anyway, what I’ve just done is integrate your unique rhythm into the world at large. You’ll be able to detect other nearby sonomancers, but they’ll be able to find you as well. I would suggest heading towards the one you can hear now.
Blindly walking towards something that may or may not dangerous or deadly? Great, I would love a change of pace. Rolling my eyes, I shut my saddlebags with my magic and turned to the center of the room, where the magical flame still sparked and flickered. What about that? Should I dump some water on it or anything?
No. It’ll fade by itself once you get far enough away from it.
Gotcha. “All right,” I said, doing my best to put on my Confident Leader Face despite my own misgivings, “Let’s roll, everpony.”
“Where exactly are we going?” asked Octavia. “I mean, do we have any concrete direction besides ‘save the world?’”
“Surprisingly, yes,” I said, turning around and beginning to walk out the arch. “Follow me. I’ll tell you on the way.”
The Elrinian Fields were just as idyllic as they had been the previous day, and I sighed as I set off at a trot across the vast expanse of grass. The melody was slightly stronger out here, but I still had no way to gauge its actual distance, and I was beginning to resent the peaceful tranquility that permeated the windswept meadow.
“Nothing so relaxing-looking should involve so much walking,” I muttered, hopping over a stray stone fragment and glaring at the grass. “It’s like being on vacation, except you have to walk to the island and back.”
“Oh, hush,” said Octavia. “A little exercise never hurt anypony.”
“My hooves beg to differ,” I replied, but I dropped the topic after that. No use in whining when the rest of the party was probably just as annoyed as I was. “The sooner we’ve gotten that book, the better.”
“So what is it, anyway?” asked Lyra, bouncing up beside me with an inquisitive look. “You said it was some kind of encyclopedia?”
“I guess. Aura said it was basically a guide to the world and everything in it. Seems pretty useful to have.”
She nodded. “Definitely. I wouldn’t mind taking a look at that myself. This place is too weird for me not to want more about it.”
“As soon as I get my hooves on one, I’ll let you,” I replied, smiling. “For now, let’s just keep walking and hope that we don’t run into anything that wants to kill us.”
Three hours that felt closer to days later, I finally saw the first thing in the fields that wasn’t grass, flowers, or old chunks of rock: A tiny yellowish speck on the horizon, with the melody leading straight to it.
“Freakin’ finally,” I muttered. “All right, there’s our friend out on the horizon. Now, I want everypony on their best diplomatic behavior. Redheart, that means no snapping necks or crushing ribs.”
She stared and me, utterly nonplussed. I rolled my eyes. “It’s a joke, Red. You know? ‘Humor’? The thing ponies do to other ponies to make them laugh?” A quick glance to the rest of the party showed similar states of bemusement, and I sighed. “I thought it was funny. Let’s get moving before we lose them again.”
I picked up my pace and set off at a gallop across the fields, letting the melody of the mystery sonomancer guide me. The speck on the horizon gradually increased in size until I could identify it as a vaguely pony-shaped silhouette. That was good, at least. I already unsure how I was going to handle chatting it up with someone from a different dimension without them being a different species too.
“Uh... hey there!” I yelled, trying to sound as non-threatening as possible as I trotted towards the figure. It appeared not to hear me, so I tried again. “Hello? We’re not bandits or anything. Promise!” I was nearly at the crest of the hill it was standing on now, way too close for my voice to have gone unnoticed.
The mystery pony turned, revealing a youngish-looking earth pony stallion with a golden coat, a scruffy brown mane, and a knotted scar over his left eye. He regarded our group with an easy smile, shrugging off his saddlebags and saying, in a voice like mellow honey, “Hello. What do you want from me?”
I blinked, blurting out the first thing that came to mind. “Wow. Very blunt, aren’t you?”
The smile grew. “It helps, I’ve found. Now, what’ll it be? Trade, advice, aid? Or maybe you’re here to kill me. In that case, make it fast. I don’t particularly like pain.”
“I... er...” My tongue seemed to stick in my mouth as I tried to come up with a suitable response to that. One thing was for sure: this pony was weird.
“I guess I’m here for... trade?” I said, still slightly taken aback. Behind me, I saw Lyra nod vigorously in agreement. “Yeah. Trade sounds good.”
The golden stallion nodded. “I figured as much. None of you look injured, and if you were here to kill me, I’m fairly sure I would already be dead. Now, I’m afraid I don’t have too much in the way of wares, but feel free to peruse my meager assortment.” He kicked the saddlebags open, revealing a small assortment of odd-looking fruits, spices, and a couple shards of multicolored crystal that sparkled in the sunlight like tiny stars. “Nothing too interesting, I know, but the life of an explorer leaves little time for collecting.”
I frowned at the pile below me. The crystals were pretty, and some of the weird fruit looked like it could taste pretty good, but none of them looked close to any kind of book, magical or otherwise.
“Uh... you wouldn’t happen to have a copy of The Sonomancer’s Guide for sale, would you?” I asked, trying to be as nonchalant as possible. “Not that your other stuff isn’t appealing.”
The stallion regarded me for a long second, as if trying to confirm whether I was serious. Then he threw back his head and laughed, long and loud. I frowned, face reddening. I’d probably just displayed my ignorance more obviously than a boldface sign, but I didn’t care. I needed that book, and if asking for one didn’t work, I had a backup plan.
“Oh, gods above... you’re serious, aren’t you?” the stallion said, still chuckling. “I had a hunch you were a new one, but if you’re going around asking for Guides...” His smile faded for a moment, and he locked his golden eyes with mine. “I’m sorry, young mare. I do happen to own a copy myself, but it’s not up for trade. If there’s anything else you require, however, feel free to ask.”
“I’ll duel you for it.” The words came out of my mouth almost before I realized what I had said. I saw Octavia and Redheart’s eyes widen, while Lyra just grinned.
The stallion stared at me, looking as if he hadn’t even considered that possibility. “I suppose that would be an option,” he said. “However, the general etiquette for a sonomancer’s duel requires each party to wager something of equal value. Unless you have something that could match a Guide in both utility and power, I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline.”
“You know, I just might. Give me a second to check in with the party.”
He smiled and turned around, revealing a cutie mark of a worn-looking map with a golden line meandering across it. “Of course. I look forward to your verdict.”
Vinyl, I know what you’re thinking, and I’m telling you that it would be an incredibly stupid thing to do.
Smiling, I turned around and looked at Octavia. When has that ever stopped me?
Oh for the love of...
“Octavia, can I see Ellie for a minute?”
She frowned. “Ellie?”
“You know. Your sword thing. ‘Grace and Elegance’ is a mouthful, and I can’t pronounce Russani. Anyway, I was wondering if-”
“Absolutely not!” she said, wrapping her tail protectively over where I knew her blade was sheathed underneath her saddlebags. “This is a cultural artifact, not a gambling chip!”
I sighed. “Please, ‘Tavi? If I’m going to have any idea of what I’m doing, I need one of those books, and this is probably the easiest shot I’m going to have at getting one.”
“Yeah,” Lyra chimed in. “She does have a point, although I dunno if we really want to bet Octavia’s awesome sword for a book.”
Octavia glanced from me to the sheath and back again, looking torn. “I... I don’t know, Vinyl. I mean, you said yourself you still need training, and-”
“Octavia, I can shoot lightning bolts. Lightning bolts. By this point, I’m pretty sure I’m overqualified for kicking ass. Pretty please?” I pleaded. “You trust me, right?”
“Oh, fine,” she said, sighing. “But so help me Celestia, if you lose this, it’s by the book from now on. No more stupid risks or high-stakes wagers. We have enough excitement without you plunging us into dangerous situations every few minutes.”
Why couldn’t I have been soulbound with her?
Shut up before I decide to bet the amulet instead, I thought, before turning to Octavia and nodding. “Deal.”
She unsheathed Ellie with a metallic shink and held it out to me with her tail. I took it with my magic and turned back towards the golden stallion, smiling broadly. “Does this work?”
He peered closer at the blade, eyes widening as he took the smooth, almost crystalline steel. “A relic blade? I can’t say I would have much use for one, but it will most likely fetch quite a price from those more inclined. You have yourself a deal, miss...”
“Vinyl,” I said, extending a hoof. “Vinyl Scratch.” I levitated Ellie back over towards Octavia, and she sheathed it carefully away. If everything turned out right, It would be staying there.
He shook it vigorously and smiled. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Vinyl Scratch. I am Windsor. Now, shall we begin?” He took several large steps back, leaving a space of around twenty feet of open grass between us.
I nodded, motioning for the rest of the party to back away. “Let’s do this. Guys, you might wanna stand back.”
“You go, Vi!” Lyra shouted, retreating to what looked like a relatively safe distance. Octavia smiled and blew a kiss in my direction, and I felt myself redden slightly.
“Now,” Windsor said, looking amused. “Since you’re the challenger, I will announce when the duel begins. It will end when the losing party says cesura, as is the custom. So, without further ado: Three...”
Hey Aura? If you have any tips on what I’m supposed to do, now would be a great time to spill ‘em.
Oh, gods... All right. This is hundreds of times more complicated than notes and chords, and you’re going to have to learn it as you go. Start with a rhythm.
I focused, letting my mind drift to the hazy place it went when I was composing my best tunes. A few seconds later, I stamped a hoof on the ground and snapped my goggles onto my face with my magic. The rhythm was here now, pulsing through my head, waiting to be set free, and I smiled.
Oh that was a rush! As soon as I heard Windsor’s words, I let the rhythm free, spinning it into a hard, punchy melody that sparked through my veins like lightning. Even though it was all improvisation, it felt good, natural, like it had always been lurking just underneath my brain. I concentrated, adding a new layer of synths to the pounding beat, and felt the now-familiar warm glow inside me intensify.
All right, what now? I thought, hopping from hoof to hoof in as the song radiated out from my hoovetips. Windsor was slowly circling me, a faint golden aura shining around him, and I followed suit, eyeing him warily. I could hear snatches of his song as he wove in and out, a strange, classical-sounding composition with lots of low, flowing notes.
Keep developing it. Don’t overextend, but if he attacks you, try to dodge it.
I nodded, continuing my circle and never taking my eyes off of Windsor, coaxing my song out ever further all the while. Then, with a flurry of quick, plucking notes, he disappeared, materializing in front of me in a flash of golden light. I yelped and rolled out the way, narrowly managing to avoid the wave of glowing daggers he threw out in a strange, disjointed chord.
Holycrap! I thought, leaping to my hooves and struggling to keep the melody building steadily as I ducked to avoid a second volley. This one nearly clipped my ear, and I gritted my teeth as he wound up for a third.
Shit. Can I fry him now? I though, leaping out of range of the daggers and bringing the harsh rhythm down to a low, pulsing synth.
No. You need to take him out all in one burst, since you don’t have the stamina for a sustained fight yet. Build it more, play defensive. Trust me.
I nodded, morphing the song into a twisting, flowing synth lead backed by a simple low bass. The sparky feeling faded to a slow, steady burn, and I noticed trails of blueish light following my hooves as I hopped and dodged.
Windsor seemed to not want to give up on the dagger strategy just yet, and I used the opportunity to gather the song back together, slowly building it ever closer towards the inevitable climax.
Be careful. He could try something soon. If you lose all the power you’ve stored up now, that’s it. Game over.
I nodded, jumping forward and smiling in satisfaction as he feinted away, throwing another fast but predictable wave of daggers at my head. For my first duel, this wasn’t going so bad.
Don’t get cocky—
There was another flash of light, and then Windsor was next to me with a net of golden chains in his hoof. I yelped, kicking out instinctively and jerking back in surprise as my hoof connected with his chest with a thump of bass and an arc of light.
Windsor flew back, winded from the unexpected attack, and lay on the ground, twitching slightly as the lightning sparked off his body.
Press your advantage! Jump and build it until he gets up!
Without asking why jumping would make any kind of difference, I leapt in the air, starting slightly as I remained there, slowly floating higher and higher. The inner pulse inside me grew louder, higher, stronger, and the prickly feeling grew an almost unbearable level. I saw arcs of azure lightning radiating off my hooves in huge, glowing tendrils, and closed my eyes. Whatever was about to happen, it was gonna be big.
Now! Don’t do it all at once, or—
I never heard the rest. With a half-scream, half-roar, I unleashed the stored power in an unstoppable torrent, gasping as a burning, flickering mass of bolts and sparks tore itself out of my chest and flew in all directions. The song rocked and twisted wildly, but I was powerless to stop it, an acorn in a river. There was nothing I could do but yell and convulse as burst after burst of brilliant energy shot away from my core. This was nothing like the powers I had used before. This was a force of nature.
Through eyes dimmed by tears of pain and exertion, I glimpsed a flash of grey, green, and red as three forms that I hoped were my friends dove for cover underneath a nearby stone. I tried to shout something, tried to warn them, but my tongue was burning, all the moisture sucked away by the raging storm. The bursts only seemed to intensify, and I managed a strangled scream as my entire body felt like it was going to burn itself to a crisp.
And then, with a sudden yanking sensation in my gut, I was facedown on the ground, the storm reduced to a dull roar of synths and drums. I gasped, holding a hoof to my stomach. My entire body felt scalded, hollow, like everything important inside it had been burned away.
“Fuck,” I wheezed, trying and failing to stagger back up onto my hooves. “Wha... wha was—” My query was cut off by a fit of choking coughs.
Overload. Too much power, too fast. I tried to warn you, but it was too late. You’re done. Surrender now before you kill yourself.
Blinking my tears away, I saw the Windsor slowly getting to his feet, looking dazed. My display might not have done too much damage, but it had definitely bought me some time.
I forced a grim smile onto my face, got to my hooves, and shook my head. I’ve got one more in me. Let’s do this right.
Gods, you’re stubborn. Fine. Let’s see it.
I wove the song back into the same twisting melody it had been before, letting the occasional arcs that still sparked from my hooves keep the dazed Windsor at bay. Then, with a deep breath, I leapt back into the air, closed my eyes, and began to build the pulse again.
I did it differently this time, forcing each waiting glow of power to a different part of my body until I was nothing but a glowing, sparking mass of warm energy.
This is your last shot. Remember. Short controlled bursts!
There was a moment of near-silence as I cut the song short, the air itself warping around me as I drew in the last dregs of everything I had.
Still holding my breath, I opened my eyes, exhaled...
Oh, this was more like it! The storm came again, but this time, I was its master. Every pulse of the bass was another brilliant arc of lightning, striking directly at the spot where Windsor stood. He took the first one straight on, flying back a couple feet before teleporting into the air and throwing up a glistening golden bubble. I laughed, smacking my hooves together, and two pillars of energy shot down from the sky. They hit the ground with twin CRACKS, shattering the bubble but leaving Windsor unscathed. He tried to retaliate with a wave of daggers, but I swatted them away with a pulse of bass and lightning.
And I wasn’t done yet. With another laugh, I released the charge that had been keeping me floating, smacking into the ground in a ring of discharged energy. I began to advance towards Windsor, each beat drawing another bolt from the darkening rings of clouds that had formed above, before stopped to admire them for a minute. I had done that. By myself. With a song.
This was sonomacy. This was power. This was awesome.
Windsor teleported away and threw his shield up again, trying to get behind me, but I released another pulse and blasted him to the ground, shattering it. Then, with a final gigantic burst, I smashed a lightning-charged forehoof into his chest, sending him rocketing across the field until he finally skidded to a stop around fifty feet away.
“Oh, crap...” With the final strains of the song lightening my hooves, I galloped towards him, closing the distance in a matter of seconds. I had meant to hit him pretty hard, sure, but, well... not that hard.
Windsor groaned, slowly opening his eyes as I stood over him. “Ugh... cesura. Cesura. No more. I surrender.”
I was on the verge of doing a happy little victory dance before I remembered I had probably just severely injured an innocent pony, and a friendly one, no less. “Oh, crap. I’m sorry. Are you okay?” There weren’t any visible injuries, but I did see what looked like a line of scorch marks leading down underneath his chest.
Those things tend to happen when you blast somepony straight on with a full-force burst of sonatic lightning. Not that I’m complaining about your methods. They’re a little flashy for my taste, but they seem to be effective.
I raised my eyebrows. Was that... a compliment?
There was no reply. Well, I would take what I could get.
I heard a weak laugh from the ground below and turned to see Windsor slowly getting up, holding a forehoof to his head. “That was definitely something,” he said, smiling despite his obvious discomfort. “It was my mistake, underestimating you in your newness. I’ll make sure to not make it again if we ever cross paths. And to answer your question, yes, I’ll be all right. We sonomancers are made of sterner stuff than we first appear. A few days of rest and a bite to eat, and I’ll be good as new.” He pointed back across the field where the duel had started. “Now, let me get my saddlebags, and I’ll honor my bet. I’m sure your friends will want to see that you’re all right as well.”
I nodded, and we set off together back towards the area where the duel had started. I had to stop to catch my breath a couple times, but Windsor waited patiently, smiling and saying nothing.
Note to self: lightning storms, while fun, are also really freaking exhausting, I thought, struggling to keep myself on my hooves as we walked. Is is always gonna be like this?
No. You’ll build up stamina over time, like any other skill, but for now, you’re pretty much relegated to short bursts.
I sighed. Guess you can’t have everything.
Around a minute of arduous walking later, we reached the spot of the duel. My eyes widened as I took in the various giant scorch marks, shattered stones, and patches of burnt grass that surrounded the area.
“Holy... was that me?”
Windsor nodded. “That was quite a show you put on. I’d heard tales of what a true sonatic overload could look like, but I had never seen one for myself until today. I wasn’t disappointed.” He chuckled. “But where are your friends? I saw them dive for cover, but after that...”
I frowned, glancing around. The rest of the party was nowhere to be found. “I’m not su—”
“OHMYGOSH VI!” There was a squeal, and suddenly I was on my back against the grass, a grinning, mint-green muzzle inches from my own. “Vi, that... that was... just... holy shit.”
I cocked an eyebrow. Lyra hardly ever swore, a trait that had been ingrained into her by years of living in the snob-filled snoozefest that was Canterlot. Curse words were generally only reserved for the most epic or insane of occasions, and I grinned.
“I know, right?”
She jumped off my chest, hopping from hoof to hoof and motormouthing ecstatically.
“When you jumped up in the air and it was all like ftcheew and then the clouds and the lightning, and you could hover, and that drop was so freaking sick, like seriously, and then—”
“Lyra,” I said, getting up and calmly putting a forehoof to her mouth. “I know. I was there.”
She stopped, looking sheepish. “Oh. Yeah. Sorry. But seriously, that was so... so COOL!” Her ears flicked up in sudden realization, and she turned around, calling out, “Hey! Octavia, Redheart! It’s okay! Vi’s fine, and she won!” She turned back to me, whispering, “you did win, right?”
I nodded. “Sure did. Windsor put up a hell of a fight, though.”
The golden stallion dipped his head modestly. “You give me far too much credit,” he said. “I was never skilled in the combative arts, and I was a fool to take you on without first gauging your strength. It was a mistake I payed for with my pride, and, of course, this.” He turned to his saddlebags, still laying open on the ground, and retrieved a small, battered, very normal-looking book from one of them. “Here you are, Vinyl. One Sonomancer’s Guide, slightly used. I’m going to miss it quite a bit, but it’s yours, fair and square, as the saying goes.” He sighed. “I suppose I’ll just have to learn to rely on my memory, spotty as it may be.”
I took it with my magic, and glanced at it dubiously. ‘The Sonomancer’s Guide’ was written in faded golden lettering on the front, with a subtitle written in some indecipherable collection of runes. The jacket and spine were both made of worn leather in the same incredibly boring color: a faded brown, worn almost beige with age. It looked like something you would find in the reference section of a library, not a magical guide to a different dimension.
I said as much, and Windsor laughed. “At the risk of sounding cliche, looks can be deceiving. Try opening it up.”
I complied, cracking it open to the very first page. There wasn’t much, just a line with “Property of Windsor Goldenhoof” was written in greenish ink. As I watched, the ink seemed to twist and ripple, rearranging itself until the letters became ‘Property of Vinyl Scratch”. I heard Lyra’s breath catch in suprise.
Well, so much for ‘normal’.
“It’s yours now,” said Windsor. “I suggest a quick skim at the least before you begin your travels again, just to get an idea of what to expect. I would also ask you to take good care of it, but the Guides have an odd way of taking care of themselves.”
I nodded. “Thanks, Windsor. Uh, and sorry about the burns.”
He laughed. “Don’t be. Like I said, they’ll heal. Now, I’m afraid I must be off. Places to go, people to meet, all of that. I hope we’ll meet again, Vinyl Scratch.” He picked up his saddlebags and tossed them on. “May your path be smooth and your hoofsteps sure.”
There was a flurry of strings, a flash of golden light, and he was gone.
Note to self number two: learn how to do that at some point.
“Wow,” said Lyra, looking slightly dazed from the whole encounter. “You think everypony here is as weird as he was?”
“No idea.” Are they?
There was a strange sound in my head, like a gentle ringing, and I started as I realized it was coming from Aura. Was that...
Most of them, give or take. Welcome to Sonus. Please check all expectations of normalcy at the door and enjoy your stay.
The thought sounded like she was about to say something more, but I was distracted by by a familiar Russani-accented voice.
“Vinyl? You’re all right? You’re all right!” Octavia galloped towards me, throwing her hooves around me and nearly crushing my windpipe in the process. She frowned as she noticed my burn marks and shaking hooves. “Are you all right?”
I nodded, gasping, “I’ll be even better if you could stop strangling me.”
She released her grip and blushed. “Of course. Sorry. But, Vinyl...” she stepped back, giving me a once-over, and her frowned deepened. “Are you sure you aren’t hurt? You look pale, and are those burn marks?” She reached out a hoof, and I pushed it away, shaking my head.
“‘Tavi, seriously. I’m fine. Just a little tired. That’s it,” I said, then nearly ended up eating my words as I overbalanced and fell straight on my flank. Lyra offered me a hoof, and I took it gratefully, standing back up as straight as I could. “See? Look. Fine.”
“I’ll see about that.” Redheart had walked up from wherever she had been hiding without me noticing, and I nearly cringed as I noticed the expression on her face. She was in No-Nonsense Nurse Mode, and no amount of whining, protesting, or witty retorts would stop her from giving me a complete and thorough check-up.
“Sit,” she said, pointing to a spot on the ground. I complied, sighing in resignation. Wordlessly, Redheart began to circle me, poking and prodding every inch of my body with a carefully-practiced touch. Occasionally, she would issue a command: ‘open your mouth’, or ‘turn around’, and I would obey it as quickly as I could. Just Red was one thing, but I knew better to try and cross Nurse Redheart.
After a couple excruciatingly boring minutes, Redheart stepped back, nodding in satisfaction. “You’re in much better shape than I expected after that amount of lightning, I’ll say that much. Those burn marks look only skin-deep, and the only thing you seem to be actually suffering from is a case of extreme fatigue. You need sleep, Vinyl. Lots of it. Whatever you did during that duel must have drained your body’s energy like a Celestia-damned sieve.”
“Sleep would be good right now,” I agreed, “but it’s barely even sunset yet. I wanna at least get a little more trekking in before we bed down for the night. Okay?”
She sighed. “No, it’s not okay, but I know better than to argue with you. Lead on, and try not to drop dead from exhaustion while you do it. Where are we headed, anyway?”
“Wish I knew,” I replied. All right, Aura, where to?
The Guide has a map. I’ll need to see it first.
Sure. I levitated the old book up to eye level, pretending not to notice Lyra peering over my shoulder at it. I flicked to the first page, expecting a table of contents, or maybe a prologue...
I really hope I didn’t nearly kill myself just to get my hooves on a forgery, I thought, flipping through a couple more pages with similar results.
You didn’t. The Guide is... unique. You have to ask it what you want.
I shrugged. After what I’d been through so far, asking a book for directions seemed totally plausible. Clearing my throat, I looked down at the blank page and said, “All right, Guide. Show me a map.”
There was a rustle of paper as the book’s pages began to turn. Faster and faster they went, pages flapping like they were caught in some invisible wind, until they settled a few moments later on a brilliant, full-color map entitled ‘Sonus and Surrounding Territories.”
I whistled softly as my eyes scanned the page. The map was incredibly detailed, with forests full of individually-drawn trees and winding, snaking rivers and streams that seemed to flow and ripple across the pages. The names of the places on it sounded like they had come out of a fantasy novel: Taurun’s Forge. The Shattered Sea. Riftshire. The Morter Wastes. And in the middle, a large blob of green dotted with red-and-yellow specks: The Elrinian Fields.
“Holy...” murmured Lyra, eyes widening. “Vi, can I see?”
I nodded. “Go ahead.”
She took the book almost reverently, slowly tracing a hoof across the map as Octavia and Redheart watching curiously over her shoulder. It came to rest near the eastern edge of the Elrinian Fields, near something I hadn’t noticed before: a small blue arrow facing north and pulsing slowly with a faint light.
“Is that...” I took the book from Lyra and turned in place experimentally. Sure enough, the arrow turned with me. “Whoa.”
Lyra grinned. “Sweet! It’s like a ‘you-are-here’, except ancient-magical book style.”
“Pretty much,” I said, chuckling. All right, Aura. Here’s your map. Now what?
You’re lucky. We’re only a couple hours east of the Wildwood, our next stop.
Can I ask why we’re going there? And is the answer going to be short?
Yes, you can, but no, it won’t.
I groaned, holding a hoof to my already-aching head. The rest of the party all shot me concerned looks, but I was too tired and frazzled to care. In that case, let’s just go, and you can tell me in the morning.
Best idea you’ve had all day.
I was too exhausted to formulate a witty response. “C’mon, guys. This way.”
“Why?” asked Redheart, tapping a hoof.
“Because the little pony in my head said so,” I snapped. “Now let’s get moving before I fall asleep on my hooves.”
She seemed to realize I wasn’t in the best shape to be argued with and nodded. Lyra and ‘Tavi joined her.
I turned, stifling a yawn, and began the long trek east.
It was nearing sunset when my hooves finally decided they were finished carrying my exhausted meatsack of a body around any longer and dumped me unceremoniously on the ground. The grass felt cool and comforting as I laid in it, and I had to fight the urge to drift off right then and there.
“Okay,” I murmured, stopping halfway through to release a gigantic yawn. “We’re done for today. Uh, set up camp, I guess. I dunno. Neesleep.”
Octavia laughed softly, removing my saddlebags and rummaging around in them. A few seconds later, she had pulled out the sleeping bag and had pulled it around me before snuggling in alongside. I wriggled in delight at the warm touch of her body and sighed contentedly, glancing around as Lyra and Redheart prepared their respective beddings.
“No fire tonight, Vi?” Lyra asked half-jokingly as she fluffed out her bag.
I groaned. There was no way in hell I had the strength to conjure up something as big as the fire chord, not after nearly burning myself out a few hours earlier.“Make it yourself.”
She grinned deviously. “Fine.” There was the sound of rummaging, then she emerged levitating a small jar labeled ‘Lil’ Ignis’ Firestarting Spell Seals.’ “I totally forgot I had even packed these until just now. Crazy, huh?”
“I didn’t know you were a Lil’ Enchantress,” I said, yawning again even as the sentence finished. “I mean, I know you love the outdoors and all, but I always thought the whole ‘organized environment’ thing would just be too much lame to handle.”
Lyra laughed. “It was. Quit after my first year. Didn’t even get my Conjurer badge. Kept the fun stuff, though.” She twisted the top on the jar, levitating out a flat, black, cookie-sized disk with a rune carved on it. Then, with a flourish, she threw it hard against the ground, leaping back as it exploded into a ball of orange flame.
I smiled sleepily. “Ahhh. Thanks, Lyra. ‘S nice.”
“Don’t mention it, Vi,” she replied, settling down into her sleeping bag. “‘Night.”
“‘Night.” I rolled over and saw that Octavia was already asleep, an adorable little bubble of drool visible between the edge of her lips. Apparently walking all those miles and the stress of nearly getting accidentally incinerated had gotten to her more than she had let on. I rolled back over and shutting my own eyes.
Good night, Vinyl.
Night, thoughtpo... er, Aura. Our relationship had slowly been improving over the last couple hours, and I didn’t entirely want it to go to waste.
And I thank you for it. This will go much better for the both of us if we can cooperate without wanting to kill each other doing it. Sleep well.
I giggled slightly in my exhaustion, closing my eyes and letting that comforting blanket of nothingness whisk me away.
Will do, Aura. Will do.
I woke up the next morning feeling the best I had in days. Arching my back and stretching luxuriously, I wriggled out of my sleeping bag and blinked, taking in the warm sun, the sweet scent of grass...
And the very irritated-looking grey mare standing over me, hooves folded in an obvious expression of disapproval.
“Oh,” I said, doing my best to sound cheerful despite her glare. “‘Morning, ‘Tavi.”
She rolled her eyes. “I think you mean ‘good afternoon.”
“Wha...” I glanced up at the cloudless sky, eyes widening as I realized the sun was already well past its zenith. It was already at least two, if not later.
“Well, shit. You could’ve woken me up, you know.”
Redheart, who had been stomping out the last remains of the fire, walked over and shook her head. “We tried, but whatever you did yesterday just about put you in a coma. You were out cold.”
That’s the price you pay for trying to duel without knowing your limits.
I sighed, forcing myself out of my sleeping bag and blinking as the sun’s light smacked into my eyes. Hello to you too.
The Wildwood should only be an hour or so from here, so we haven’t lost too much time. We still need to get a move on as soon as possible, though.
I nodded, scrunching up the sleeping bag and shoving it back into my saddlebags as I did so. “Where’s everyone else?”
Octavia pointed over to a nearby chunk of stone, where I could see Lyra lounging in her usual odd way. She glanced up from idly tapping her forehooves, smiling when she saw me. “Oh, hey Vi. I was wondering when you’d finally drag your lazy flank out of bed.” She arched her back and hopped up onto her hooves. “Good to see you’re still alive.”
I gave her a friendly shove. “You try turning into a living powerplant for a couple minutes and see how much you feel like walking afterwards.”
She laughed. “Guess that’s fair. Are we getting a move on?”
“As soon as we can. You ready?”
“Just about.” She concentrated, and a second later her saddlebags floated onto her back in a bubble of yellow-orange light. “All right, everypony else good?”
“I’m ready,” said Redheart. Octavia nodded in agreement.
“As am I. Where are we going?”
I pulled the Guide out of my bag and levitated it open. “Map, please.” There was a rustle of pages as the book complied, and I pointed a hoof at the dark green smear labeled ‘The Wildwood’. “Right there.”
“Wildwood, huh?” Lyra said, eyeing the map curiously. “Sounds fun.”
“Sounds dangerous,” said Redheart. “Do we have a reason, Vinyl? Or are we just expected to blindly follow whatever your amulet pony tells you?” The question was light, but I could hear the irritation underneath it.
“I’ll work on that,” I said. “For now, let’s just get moving.” She nodded, albeit grudgingly, and began to trot east, everypony else following soon after.
She does have a point, I thought, hopping over a stray chunk of broken stone. Now that I’m more or less awake, mind telling me why we’re headed there?
The Temple of Elri. It’s in the Heart of the Wildwood, and if we want to have any hope of actually saving Sonus, it has to be our first stop. There should be an entry on it in the Guide, and I suggest you look it up.
All right. I brought the guide out of my bag and let it hover just beneath my nose as I walked. “Guide, what’s the Temple of Elri?”
There was a rustle as the book’s pages turned, and a second later I was presented with an intricate illustration of a gigantic wooden building, nestled within a grove of equally imposing-looking trees. Dark green vines snaked along its surface, with various leaves and flowers sprouting up between the wood’s natural ridges and grooves. I blinked in surprise as I realized the drawing showed roots snaking off its bottom and into the ground, like the entire building was one gigantic plant. It looked more like it had just sprung up from the ground than been built by equine hooves, and for all I knew, it had.
“Whoa. We’re going there?” A mint-green hoof seemed to materialize on my shoulder, and I jumped in shock, nearly losing my grip on the Guide.
“Damnit Lyra, don’t do that!” The green mare had always had an unnatural knack for appearing out of almost nowhere, something that was both endearing and occasionally irritating depending on when she did it.
“Sorry,” she said, grinning and not looking sorry in the least. She peered closer at the illustration, eyebrows rising high as she took it all in.“Wow, that’s... kind crazy. How did they even make that? Plant a building seed and water it for a couple hundred years?”
I shrugged. “Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised.” My eyes scanned the next page, where a small block of text accompanied the drawing.
The Temple Of Elri, goddess of beauty, serenity, and all of the wild. It sits in the Heart of the Wildwood as a testament to her love and care for all natural places. In the temple’s deepest recesses lies the Totem of the Wild, one of the ten Divine Totems imbued with the power of the gods.
“Totem of the Wild, huh?” I murmured. This place seemed determined to make sure I had at least three new questions for every one I answered. “Guide, what’s that?”
The book’s pages turned once more, flicking to a picture of a small, finely carved wooden leaf, with veins that pulsed a vivid green even on the page. It was attached to a small loop of brown cord, not big enough to go around a pony’s neck, but the perfect size to go on something like a keyring.
Or an amulet, thought Aura, suddenly emerging from whatever shadowy recess of my head she had retreated to.
I nodded slowly as the mental pieces began to fall into place. So, let me guess. Find all ten totems, save the world?
All nine, actually.
I frowned. But the thing says there’s ten...
Go look up the main entry on them and you’ll understand. I complied, trying to ignore the pair of yellow-orange eyes peering over my shoulder.
The entry on the Divine Totems showed ten different objects, all carved in various shapes and inlaid with the same odd runes I had seen everywhere. One was in the shape of a hammer, another a bolt of lightning, and one, somewhat disturbingly, a grinning skull. There was another block of text accompanying the drawings, which I skimmed while simultaneously trying to hold the Guide at an angle where Lyra wouldn’t be able to read over my shoulder.
Just as each element of the Multiverse has a God or Goddess to match it, each deity also has their accompanying Totem, stored in their respective shrines. Unlike most relics, these Totems do nothing by themselves. They do not grant power, foresight, protection, or even good luck. They were designed this way intentionally to prevent temptation and unrest among mortals, and to ensure their relative security in their sacred places.
However, when combined in times of dire need, the Totems possess perhaps the most important power of all: the power to destroy a god.
My eyes widened, and I read on:
If a situation should ever arise in which one of the ten Sonian deities attempts to seize control from the others, through force, deception, or otherwise, their Totem will shatter, indicating their betrayal, and the magic of the remaining nine will activate. Alone, they will still do nothing, but if brought together and combined with the Clasp of the Ancients, they will grant the wearer the right to banish the rogue god from their throne and select a new mortal to ascend and take their place.
Clasp of the Ancients, huh? I thought, staring down at the amulet around my neck. So this thing is part of the puzzle too?
Yes. It’s one of the most powerful relics ever found, and unlike most of them, is unique to Sonus, not just manifested through rogue magic.
Hmm. Assuming I can find all nine totems, who exactly am I up against? It talked about a god rebelling... am I going to have to kill them?
There was a long silence in my head. When Aura did reply, it was one word, murmured quietly and with hint of apprehension.
The name was familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. The Guide, somehow sensing my confusion, began to flip its pages again, and I let them turn until they settled on a new one.
I swallowed as I saw the drawing on the page. It showed a jet-black unicorn stallion with a harsh, cold expression, surrounded by the same trails of greenish vapor I had seen on the Thralls. His horn was as dark as the rest of him, and twisted into an odd, broken-looking shape that made my own horn tingle with how plain unnatural it looked.
That’s Mortem? Wait. My brow wrinkled as I remembered what Aura had told me earlier. He’s the god of death and destruction and all that sunshiney stuff, right? Why isn’t he an alicorn?
Yes, he is, and a what?
An alicorn. You know. Really tall, long muzzle, horns and wings?
They have both? Aura asked incredulously. I nodded, forgetting that she couldn’t appreciate the gesture.
Yeah. Why, you’ve never heard of one?
No. Is that what the gods of your dimension are? Alicorns? They have wings and horns?
Yeah, I guess.
There was an unidentifiable murmur from in my head. Equestria... sounds like a strange place.
I shrugged. Ah, it’s not so bad. There aren’t any evil death gods or zombies, and the mares are pretty hot. I glanced at Octavia, who was walking a few feet in front of me at a very appealing angle, and grinned.
I could almost feel Aura rolling her eyes. Spare me. Look, just read the entry on Mortem and it’ll answer almost all the questions you’re going to ask.
All right, fine. I skimmed the page, levitating the Guide under my nose and being careful not to bump into anypony else as I walked.
Mortem, the god of decay, destruction, and death. He is responsible for taking the souls from mortal’s bodies and returning them to their rightful place in the cosmic rhythm, and for maintaining the eternal balance of growth and decay throughout the multiverse. His symbol is the Totem of Souls.
I looked back at the picture and noticed a detail I had missed the first time: the jade skull from the totem entry was hanging around Mortem’s neck. A skull for a death god. How original, I thought, rolling my eyes and continuing to read.
For untold millennia, Mortem performed his duty as the keeper of souls, seeking out those who were about to depart and sending them on to the next world. He was feared by mortals, understandably so, but also commanded a healthy amount of respect and reverence from those who understood that death alone was not an evil thing.
Some, however, did not. They cursed his name when misfortune befell them, and created hexes and rituals to supposedly ward him off. To them, death was not a natural part of life. It was a malicious force that hunted them day after day, waiting for its chance to pounce.
Mortem saw this, and was displeased. He implored the other gods to help him show that death was simply the next step in a cycle, but they refused, saying it was not their place to meddle in the affairs of those below.
I frowned. The names might’ve been different, but the story itself seemed familiar, like I’d heard it before a long time ago.
As the years passed, Mortem began to grow bitter and resentful of the other gods. Each of them had their own sect of devoted followers and temples to their name, while he was shunned by all but a few. Those who did follow him only did so with a dark intent: to become masters of their own death and command it over others. Originally, the god of death would have rejected such foolish advances, but as the years wore on and his following grew, he began to embrace it. The Heralds, as they called themselves, continued to grow in both size and power until they nearly outnumbered the other deities’ followers combined. Mortem provided them with ancient rites and forbidden magic that would let them bind souls to mortal forms and take dominion over death itself, and with his aid, they managed to seize power over all of Sonus.
Although his mortal presence was far superior in both count and power, Mortem was still only one deity, and even he, with all the power he had accrued, could not stand against the combined might of the rest of the pantheon. With his totem shattered and his power broken, he was banished to a cosmic rift for eternity.
Well, obviously ‘eternity’ wasn’t quite as eternal as it was supposed to be, I thought. So he escaped?
Yes, Aura replied. The banishment happened around a thousand years ago, and he returned three months ago, razing cities and laying waste to the land at large in the first few days.
Of course! My ears flicked up as the nagging memory forced itself to the front of my brain. That story sounds almost exactly like the legend of Nightmare Moon!
Of what? Aura asked, sounding confused.
It’s a story from my dimension. Basically, there were two princesses, Luna and Celestia. They were sisters. One ruled the day, one ruled the night. Luna was jealous of Celestia because ponies slept through her night and never paid attention to her, so she turned into Nightmare Moon, tried to kill Celestia, and almost caused eternal night. Celestia banished her to the moon for a thousand years, but as soon as those years were up, she came back, and nearly did it again. Some unicorn stopped her just in time, though. Twilight something. Glimmer? No. Whatever, it doesn’t matter. I just think it’s weird that the same thing is happening here.
It’s actually not weird at all, replied Aura, sounding pleased at my inference. Because Sonus is both a reflection and the origin of all the dimensions around it, large-scale shifts in the balance of power here often have repercussions throughout other dimensions.
Wait. So you’re saying that Nightmare Moon returned because of Mortem?
Most likely, yes.
I paused, thinking it through. That.... actually makes a lot of sense. So, things have just been getting worse and worse, right? If what Aura said was true, it would actually explain a lot of the general weirdness that had been happening recently.
More or less. There are a couple pockets of resistance still left, but for the most part, Sonus is either empty or controlled by the Heralds.
My eyes widened as everything clicked. Nightmare Moon, Discord, the changeling attacks... all events that had happened over the past few months with seemingly little to no reason. Equestria hadn’t suddenly been tagged as ‘nice juicy land full of peaceful multicolored ponies, evil villains welcome’, it had just been feeling the effects of Sonus getting taken over by the god of freaking death.
Wow, I thought, a small smile growing on my face despite the dire implications of what Aura had just told me. You know, I think I’m actually starting to get all this. There’s one thing I’m still confused about, though. If he could take out cities in a couple days like you said, why hasn’t he won yet? Shouldn’t everything be dead by now?
You’d think so, but luckily, there’s still one thing stopping him.
I hope you mean ‘besides us’, I thought, gulping.
Yes, as a matter of fact, Aura replied, a soft, ringing peal of laughter echoing through me head. Sonus is, first and foremost, the definition of balance. It simultaneously embodies every major universal force at once in equal measure, and if that equilibrium is disrupted by something like what’s happening now, things start to fall apart. The fabric of reality isn’t designed to handle being controlled completely by one dominant force. The only reason Mortem hasn’t assumed total control yet is because he’s too busy trying to stop the entire dimension from collapsing in on itself, or just fading away entirely. He needs those totems as much as you do, which is why we need to get a move on to the temple as quickly as possible.
I... okay. That makes sense. I guess, I thought, nearly nodding again but catching myself just in time. I’m not going to ask any more questions for a while. My head needs some time to recover.
Another ringing laugh. Fine with me.
I shut the Guide with a snap, putting it back into my bag and jumping slightly as I noticed my surroundings. I had been so absorbed in my reading and conversation with Aura that I had barely noticed the large, dark-colored tree stumps that had begun to appear around the field. The grass had gotten taller, too, almost enough to tickle the bottom of my chest.
“Trees, huh? Looks like we’re getting close,” said Lyra, bounding up beside me with her ever-present grin. She poked my saddlebags hopefully. “Hey, you done with that book yet? I wanna see if I can find out some more stuff.”
I nodded, getting Guide back out and passing it to her.“Be my guest. Between that thing and Aura, I’ve probably learned more in the past two days than I did in most of school.” Lyra took it gleefully, hopping back to the rear of the group and nearly burying her nose in the pages.
“Considering most of what you did in school was slack off, skip class, and ogle the cheerleader mares, I can’t say that’s too much of a shock,” said Octavia, slowing her pace from in front of the party and nudging me playfully. “But you’re right, in a way. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you that focused on something that wasn’t a turntable, a meal, or me.”
I shrugged. “Hey. Simple mare, simple pleasures.”
“I won’t argue with that, but I am glad to see you reading, even if it’s only to avoid a gruesome and premature death,” she said, smirking.
That’s my ‘Tavi. Always cutting right to the heart of things. “Well, I’ll have you know that I read at least, like, eight pages today, and understood almost all of them.” I stuck my nose up in mock pride.
Octavia giggled and ribbed me again. “Such a treasure trove of knowledge. Would you care to share any with me, oh great scholarly one?”
“Sure. A lot of it was actually pretty interesting, shockingly enough,” I said, trying to keep whatever shred of my dignity remained intact.
A little late for that, don’t you think? Aura’s laughter echoed Octavia’s in my head.
I rolled my eyes. Oh, hush. Honestly, those two would’ve gotten along so well it was a little scary.
“Well, in that case, I can’t wait to hear it,” Octavia said, slowing her pace slightly to walk alongside me. From my left, Redheart did the same, moving closer to the two of us and breaking her self-imposed silence to agree.
“I wouldn’t mind knowing either,” she said. “As fun as this all is, having absolutely no idea what’s going on at any time can start to wear on you eventually.”
I sighed. “All right, anypony else want a free history lesson? Lyra?” I glanced behind me and saw the mint-green mare squinting pointedly at something in the Guide as she walked, looking utterly absorbed and not in the least bit interested in anything else. “Okay, guess not.” I cleared my throat, and in a voice I hoped sounded scholarly, began:
“Well, it all started with the god of death...”
“... and that’s why we’re here,” I finished, coughing slightly as I felt the now extremely dry inside of my mouth with my tongue. “Whew. I need a drink.” Pulling out my canteen, I popped the top with my magic and took a large gulp, then nearly choked as I realized I had accidentally grabbed my other flask. Rum would’ve been welcome in almost any other situation, but when most of your throat feels like it’s been rubbed with sandpaper? Not so much.
“Ugh... damnit, Vinyl,” I muttered, spitting out the drink and stifling another cough. “Green canteen, water. Blue canteen, booze. It’s not that difficult.”
I would question why you would pack rum as an adventuring provision in the first place, but knowing you, that seems par for the course.
Shut up, I thought, grabbing the correct canteen and sighing in relief as the cool water soothed my throat. I heard Octavia giggle from beside me.
“Serves you right for packing that in the first place,” she said, tapping the side of my saddlebags. “But getting back on topic: is it really the four of us up against a rogue god and his legion of zealots and undead minions?” I heard a small undercurrent of apprehension in the question and put my hoof around her shoulder.
“Yeah, it sounds bad, I know, but we’ve been doing pretty well so far, right? I mean, no one’s hurt, you’ve got a sword, I’m a badass lightning mage, we’ve got a guide... things could be worse.” Sure, things could’ve been a lot better, too, but nopony said universe-saving was an easy job.
Octavia nodded, looking slightly reassured. “I suppose. Still, though. The god of death? Really?”
“I know, so original, right?” I said, laughing. “And get this. He even wears a skull.”
“You know, I think I DM’d a campaign like this once,” said Redheart, unexpectedly breaking her stoic silence for the second time that day.
“Oh? How’d it go?” I had never gotten much insight into the geeky half of Redheart’s life, so I was genuinely curious about even a brief glimpse like this one.
“Not well. The barbarian got one-hit by a lucky crit check a half-hour in and things just kind of went downhill from there.” She shrugged. “Hopefully we’ll have better luck.”
I snorted. “No kidding.” A sudden gasp from behind us caused me to turn my head, and I nearly smacked facefirst into the open pages of the Guide.
“Holy crap! Guys, look at this!” Lyra had apparently had enough of being quiet and peaceful for the day, and was compensating for it by switching into full-on hyper mode. She was levitating the Guide so close to my nose I was afraid I would get a paper cut on my muzzle, and seemed extremely agitated about something she had read. I held my hooves up in a ‘whoa, there gesture and gently pushed her back.
“What’s up? I mean, I’m glad you’re not ignoring us anymore, but what’s the problem?” The poor filly looked like she was going to explode.
“This!” Lyra jabbed a hoof down at the page. “Look at this!”
I did, and almost wished I hadn’t.
“Oh sweet Celestia,” murmured Octavia, sounding almost as horrified as I felt. “What... what is that? How...” Redheart just stared, eyes wide and full of fear and revulsion but unable to tear her gaze away.
The thing illustrated on the page looked like it might have been an earth pony at some point, though it was difficult to tell through the haze of shadowy greenish vapor that had been drawn surrounding it. It still had four legs, a vaguely equine-shaped muzzle, and what looked like the stubby remnants of a tail, but that was where the similarities ended. The front legs were nearly twice as long as the hind ones, and hooked back into vicious serrated points like some kind of giant mantis. Its entire body was a pure, abyssal black and skinny-looking enough to the point of the bones being visible, and its back was covered in some kind of thick, shiny carapace. The face was no better. Its eyes burned bright with the same sickening greenish glow I had seen on the Thralls, and its cheeks and mouth had been horribly twisted and split to make room for a pair of deadly-looking mandibles. It was horrible, unnatural. Something from a nightmare.
“T-the guide says they’re called ‘Stalkers’,” Lyra said shakily, closing the book and giving it back. I shoved it in my saddlebag and buckled it tight, as if that would somehow protect me from the monsters lurking within its pages. “They’re a special type of Thrall, one that’s been messed up by dark magic and forced to back to life by a necromancer. The book says process only works on earth ponies, and only the strongest ones have enough will to survive it without their soul being ripped out of their bodies.”
I swallowed, still trying to get the image of the thing’s twisted, gaping mouth out of my head. “Awesome. Regular zombies just weren’t bad enough, huh?” I turned back to Lyra. “Is it too much to hope that we won’t meet any? How many are there?”
Lyra shook her head, looking agitated. “The book says they’re pretty rare, thank Celestia, but what they do...” She swallowed, her eyes bright with fear. “They’re hunters, Vinyl. They’re made to track down specific ponies and kill them as quickly as possible. They can sense prey from miles away, they don’t get tired, they don’t need to eat... once they’ve found you, they’re almost impossible to shake.”
“Perfect killing machines,” murmured Redheart, gaze distant. “And to think, they were ponies once. Ponies like us, with hopes, dreams, families... now they’re just shells. Twisted beyond recognition on the surface but empty on the inside.” Octavia nodded solemnly in agreement, looking shaken herself.
“Uh, okay,” I said, trying to inject a tiny bit of levity back into the now thoroughly-downtrodden party’s spirits. “Thanks for that, Lyra. Now that the mood has been successfully killed, any other bombshells you’d like to drop on us?”
She shook her head, expression apologetic and still slightly scared. “Sorry. I shouldn’t’ve—”
“Hey, no problem,” I said, putting a hoof on her shoulder. “I mean, better we know about it now than when one of ‘em jumps out of the bushes, right?” My grin was slightly forced, but it seemed to console her. Redheart, not so much.
“Don’t even joke about that, Vinyl,” the white mare said, shuddering. “Let’s just get a move on before...” She stopped, her eyes tracing upward and her jaw dropping. “Oh.”
We had reached the Wildwood.
A vast, unbroken line of dense, dark green stretched out over the horizon, looking almost like a solid wall from a distance. I pumped my hoof in the air, doubling my pace and smiling as Lyra bounded up beside me, all traces of apprehension forgotten in the thrill of discovery. Stalkers or no Stalkers, I was just happy to get somewhere other than these freaking fields.
You might think differently a couple hours from now.
Oh, look who was back.
Aaaand all that happiness is now gone, I thought, nearly kicking a nearby stump in irritation as I ran. Seriously. What is with you? Did you have your own personal raincloud following you around as a child or something? Get a stick stuck up your ass? Parents eaten by dragons? What?
I slowed as we approached the treeline, expecting a snarky retort. When it didn’t come, I shrugged, stepped forward, and leaned against a nearby tree for Octavia and Redheart to catch up. Pouty thoughtponies were not on my list of things to deal with today.
A little bit later, ‘Tavi and Redheart had met us at the tree, and we were ready to set off into the greenish gloom. The Wildwood reminded me even more of a fantasy novel up close, with a thick, rich carpet of multicolored undergrowth and huge trees stretching their gnarled, arching limbs up into the distant sky. I even thought I heard a birdcall, that could’ve just been wishful thinking.
“All right,” I said, stepping forward onto the closest thing the Wildwood had to a path. It was less ‘trail’ and more ‘vague area where the plants were thin enough to see through’, but I would take what I could get. “Everypony ready?”
“I... I guess,” said Redheart, her face uneasy but determined. Octavia nodded in agreement.
“Nope,” said Lyra. I turned toward her in disbelief.
“Nope?” Of all the ponies to refuse...
Lyra shook her head. “I’m starving. Let’s have dinner first.” She flopped down against a nearby stump, retrieving her cookie tin and taking a bite out of an apple tart. “I don’t wanna start adventuring on an empty stomach.”
I nearly burst out laughing from a combination of nerves and relief at her utter nonchalance, and sat down beside her. “You know, dinner actually doesn’t sound too bad. What time is it? Five, six?” A quick glance at the sky revealed absolutely nothing besides the fact that the sun was now slightly lower than it had been an hour ago. I was many things, but I was not a weather pony. “Close enough. Let’s eat.”
I found a bag of carrot sticks and began to munch on them, gesturing for Redheart and Octavia to join us. Octavia did so gratefully, but Redheart shook her head.
“I’m not hungry,” she said quietly, sitting down next to a stump. “You eat. I’ll just wait here.” She turned away, putting her head on her hooves and gazing listlessly out at the trees.
I frowned. “You sure?” This level of self-imposed isolation was a little weird, even for Redheart. There was definitely something bugging her, but what?
I grabbed a cookie from Lyra’s tin before turning to my marefriend for answers. “Hey,” I muttered, scooting up beside her and doing my best to be quiet. “What’s up with Redheart?”
Octavia glanced at me, then Redheart, and than back again. Then, swallowing a slice of dried apple, she replied, equally quietly, “What do you mean?”
“Well, look at her. I mean, I know she’s quiet and all, but she’s usually not... not...” I made an indistinct gesture with my hooves and sighed in frustration. “Not like this.” Oh, language, why must you be so difficult?
She nodded in understanding. “Oh. Isn’t it obvious?” I had to stop myself from rolling my eyes. No, Octavia, no it is not obvious. If it was, don’t you think I would be next to her, trying to help?
My disgruntled silence seemed to answer her question, and she smiled wryly. “Honestly, Vinyl, I love you, but you can be so oblivious sometimes.”
I did roll my eyes this time. “Thanks. I try. Can you tell me now?”
Her smile dropped suddenly, and she looked again at the unmoving form of the white mare before replying.
“She’s an urgent care nurse, Vinyl. She’s probably seen more death than the rest of us put together, and all of it was right there in front of her. The Thralls... they’re an abomination. A mockery of death itself. I can cut them down, Lyra can laugh them off, and you... you can just be yourself...” A hint of a smile flickered onto her face before disappearing just as quickly. “But with Redheart... she heals ponies. She saves them. And when she finds something that’s so far gone, so horrible, so twisted, that they’re beyond any kind of hope...” Octavia sighed. “I think she just doesn’t know how to deal with it.”
Mental hoof, meet mental forehead. Octavia’s answer was blindingly obvious now that I thought about it, and I cursed myself for not realizing it earlier. I had known Redheart worked in a hospital. I had seen her first reaction to the Thralls. And yet, somehow, I hadn’t made the connection. Sure, perceptiveness had never really been one of my strong points, but still.
Thank Celestia I had somepony around to pick up the slack for me. “Thanks, ‘Tavi,” I said, giving her a grateful peck on the cheek. I swear, that mare ticked all the boxes: gorgeous, elegant, badass wants to be, and smart as hell to boot. “So, what do you think I should do?”
She shrugged. “Right now? Honestly, nothing. Redheart’s practically the definition of an introvert, and probably needs some time to figure things out herself. Just leave her alone for now, and she’ll come around sooner or later.”
Hopefully, it would be ‘sooner’. I really didn’t like the idea of the only pony in our group with any medical experience closing herself off from the world to deal with her inner demons, especially as we trekked deeper and deeper into unknown territory.
I finished the last of my carrot sticks and stood up from the stump, saying, in a much louder voice, “Everypony good to go?”
Lyra glanced up from the Guide, a half-eaten cookie dangling from her mouth, and nodded. “Yeah.” Octavia nodded too, and Redheart just stood wordlessly, filing back in behind us but otherwise not acknowledging my existence.
“Uh, okay. Cool.” And with that impressive declaration of leadership and confidence, I stepped forward, swallowed the stubborn knot of fear that was stuck inside my throat, and entered the Wildwood.
“And I thought the Everfree was big...” Lyra said softly, looking up at the towering wooden pillars in that surrounded us in awe. I couldn’t help but agree. I was Manehatten girl at heart, so tall, impressive-looking things normally wouldn't faze me, but this...
This was something else.
The Wildwood wasn’t a forest. It was a world unto itself.
The trees were the centerpiece of it all, looming over us like ancient giants. They were so tall, so large, and so closely spaced that I couldn’t see where one canopy ended and another began. They just melded into one another, causing the sun’s rays to melt into a kind of eerie greenish half-light that only grew darker as we pressed on further into the gloom.
The undergrowth was just as dense. When we had first started walking, I had attempted to count all the different species of flower I saw but gave up somewhere around thirty. The sheer variety of plant life, with hundreds and hundreds of odd-looking flowers and twisting vines of every conceivable shape and color at every turn, was almost enough to make my head ache.
Aura? I thought, stepping over a rotting log and trying to stop myself from jumping as a shrill birdcall pierced the heavy silence. At least, I hoped it was a birdcall. Where is the Heart of the Wildwood, anyway?
Just keep walking. You’re going the right way, she replied tersely. I sighed. Unlike what had happened with Redheart, I at least knew why she was upset. Not that it made the situation any better, of course, but I could at least try to do something about it.
Look. I’m sorry about what I said earlier, all right? That was kinda out of line, even for me. I guess I was just a little shaken up by those Stalkers... and... hey, wait a second. Why didn’t you tell me there were different types of Thrall, anyway? That seems like knowledge that might’ve been useful. Because obviously a complete history of an entire dimension was required knowledge for anypony trying to save it, but anything about the stuff that could brutally murder you and everything you loved was just fluff.
When Aura’s reply came, it wasn’t, shockingly enough, dripping with snark like I had anticipated. Instead, it sounded... subdued? No. Embarrassed?
I... I didn’t tell you because I didn’t know, she thought, mumbling as best a pony with no actual mouth could mumble. When I left to find a Soulbond, I had only seen a few Thralls, and all of them had just been Shamblers, the basic kind. That was all they needed back then, really. The numbers advantage was so huge... The special types didn't start appearing until later, when the rebel movement really started to gain momentum. I had never even seen one myself until that picture in the Guide. There was a murmur in my head as Aura sighed. That’s why you have it, really. I’m just a pony, Vinyl, just like you. I make mistakes. I’m not infallible. So I would really appreciate it if you would stop expecting me to be.
There was a pause, broken only by the rustle of our hooves through the undergrowth. I sighed inwardly. For all her irritating pessimism, Aura was still the only mentor I had that I could actually ask for advice, and honestly, I didn’t want her to hate me. Tease me? Sure, I didn’t mind banter. Be irritated with me? Fine, most ponies usually are at some point anyway. But hate me? No. I didn’t want that.
You’re right, I thought, swallowing my pride with a little difficulty. Like I said, that was outta line, and I’m sorry. Honest. But really, would it kill you to be a little more positive once in a while? Irritated with me or not, that still didn’t excuse her being a constant drain on even my large reserves of optimism.
Apology accepted. And I’m sorry, too. Look. I just need you to understand that, from here on out, this is serious. Things matter. There are ponies that want to kill you. There are things worse than ponies too, much worse. Things that want to kill all of us. You’ll probably have to face them at some point or another, and I... I just don’t want anypony dying because of you overestimating yourself. All right?
I nodded. All right. I get it. Believe me, I’m in this as much as you are. It was true. As insane as this had all been, I had no intention of backing out now. Not when the fate of the universe hung in the balance.
Aura seemed to accept that. And since you asked, I’ll try to, oh, what’s the phrase... ‘look on the bright side’? Yes, that. I’ll do that. She still seemed a little cold, but any improvement was good enough for me.
I stifled a giggle. Sounds good. Don’t burst a vein or anything. First Aura apologizes, now she’s ‘looking on the bright side’? If this kept up, I would have to seriously consider interrogating Redheart about her former life as a fiery loose cannon agent who didn’t always play by the rules but got the job done no matter what.
Speaking of Redheart... I glanced backwards, checking as much to make sure she was still there as anything else. The white mare hadn’t said a word since the episode at dinner, and I had been keeping an eye on her as much as I could for the better part of an hour. She hadn’t talked to anypony or been the least bit social, but she also hadn’t broken down crying yet. I considered that a small victory.
“Are we there yet?” asked Lyra for what might’ve been the billionth time. After the Stalkers, she had taken a break from the Guide, which meant that her usual high-energy motormouth had returned in force.
“No, Lyra,” I replied, plucking a stray twig from the ground with my magic and flicking it at her. “We weren’t there the last four hundred times you asked, we aren’t there now, and we won’t be there until we’re there. Okay?”
She nodded, ears drooping slightly in embarrassment. “Oh. Okay. Sorry, Vi.”
“Hey, no big deal. Just try not to— ah!” I yelped in surprise as a retaliatory twig bounced off my horn, sending a twinge of pain down the base. Lyra looked away, whistling innocently, and I chuckled slightly despite myself. “Nice shot, Harpflank.”
The nickname had been the result of Lyra and I watching the awkward, fumbling, and hilarious advances of a heavily-intoxicated colt while out at a club years ago. He had seen the vaguely instrument-shaped nature of Lyra’s cutie mark and decided to try and make a pet name out of it, with little success. Years later, the colt was long-forgotten, but the nickname had stuck, much to its owner’s chagrin.
“Thanks, V... uh...” Lyra’s face fell. “Aw, that’s not fair. I need a dumb name for you, too.” Her brow furrowed in concentration as she began to think. “Gimme a minute.”
I smiled. Sure, there were a couple annoying variations of ‘Scratch’ that she could use, but I had heard them all before. As far as embarrassing nicknames went, I was, for the most part, safe. Unless...
“What, you mean you don’t know the truth about Vinyl’s name?” Octavia said, walking up beside us with a devilish smile on her face.
Oh no. Oh nooooooo.
“No,” said Lyra, her smile growing to match my marefriend’s. “No, I don’t. You wouldn’t mind telling me, would you?” My eyes narrowed, and I shot Octavia a glare.
“You wouldn’t dare.” The amount of work I had put into getting rid every scrap of information related to that stupid thing...
Octavia looked at me and shrugged nonchalantly.“What? It’s only fair. I mean, Lyra’s had to deal with ‘Harpflank’ for years now. Don’t you think it’s time she gets some ammunition in return, Vinyl?” Her grin intensified. “Or, should I say, Melody?”
Smart, beautiful, elegant, and evil.
I groaned, staring at the ground and rolling my eyes as Lyra began to giggle uncontrollably.
“Oh Celestia... Melody? Seriously?” she said, wiping tears of laughter from her eyes. “I mean, it’s not a bad name, but for you... I mean, really?” I glared at Octavia again. There were some things that deserved to die quiet, whimpering deaths under a hundred millions tons of nopony freaking knowing. My stupid, idiotic, unfitting birth name was one of them, but some things were just not meant to be.
“All right, Me-lo-dyyyy,” said Lyra, intentionally stretching out the word and giggling again. “C’mon. I wanna find the temple before it gets dark, and I don’t think you’ll be able to see too much like with your head like that.” She put a hoof under my neck, gently raising it back up until I shrugged it off with another eyeroll.
“Whatever you say, Harpflank.”
“Vate nyer! Would you give it a rest already?” Octavia said, her lapse into Russani betraying her irritation. I sighed. Banter was all well and good, but not when it led to cranky ‘Tavi.
“Sorry, Ha— uh, Lyra,” I said, offering a hoof and smiling sheepishly.
“Me too, Vi,” she replied, taking it and returning the smile. “Truce?”
I nodded. “Truce.” Octavia smiled in approval.
For the next few minutes, there wasn’t any talking at all. Something about the Wildwood made everything feel... muted, somehow, like life itself was playing at half volume. Conversations would start, then die almost as quickly, and after a few minutes, the ever-present greenish half-light began to feel oppressive instead of ethereal. The ‘path’ had long since faded into the wild undergrowth, and every few minutes one of us would have to stop to remove some vine or other from tangling around their legs.
Not to be Lyra, but do you know how close we are to the Temple? I asked, jumping slightly as a loud screech echoed through the air. Nightfall was definitely approaching, and the thought of setting up camp in the middle of the Wildwood made my skin crawl.
We should be close. A few more minutes at most.
Good. The sooner we’re out of here, the better.
And to think, just a few hours ago you were ecstatic about leaving the Fields. Ugh. She was right, which made it even worse.
Oh, be quiet.
When those few minutes had passed, I nearly asked her again, but stopped as I noticed that the trees had begun to thicken almost to the point of forming a complete wall of gnarled bark and rustling leaves. I remembered the illustration of the temple in the Guide and felt a thrill of excitement race through me. We were close. I could feel it.
“C’mon, everpony. This is it,” I whispered, the heavy air stealing the rest of my voice’s volume away. I slipped between the trees, nearly scraping my chest against the rough bark, and felt the rest of the party follow me. It was dark here, so dark I could barely see, but I pushed on. Just a few more seconds, and I would be at the Heart.
Come on... I thought, wriggling my way through the increasingly-small gaps between the trunks. Whoever Elri was, she seemed pretty intent on making her temple a massive pain in the flank to get to, but I could see the faintest hint of light from beyond the maze of trunks. I grinned. Time to earn my hero cred.
Aren’t I always?
With one last push, I stepped out of the thicket of trees and into the sheltered clearing beyond. It was deathly quiet here, and much brighter for some reason. The surrounding trees seemed to twine together, their leaves and branches huge, dome-like shape with a large hole at its top. Pale, unfiltered moonlight streamed down through it, explaining the clearing’s unnatural brightness and illuminating...
"Tala kve Celestia mendel...” Octavia’s words were a horrified whisper. I felt her hoof around my shoulder, but it might as well have been a lead weight.
No. This couldn’t... No. Not now. Not when I was barely off my hooves yet, still wandering around trying to figure out what the hell I was supposed to do. Not already. I couldn’t take this. No.
The moonlight didn’t listen, throwing the scene below into a harsh relief of cold silver highlights and dark, sharp-edged shadows. It remained, stubborn and defiant, like it was mocking my weakness. I forced myself to look. I had to be strong.
The Temple of Elri was ash.
Nothing remained of the building but a blackened skeleton, with little pieces of burnt wood and charred vines littering the ground around it. Its roots were twisted and shriveled, rising up through the cracked, scalded earth like grasping claws. It was dead. Murdered. All the beautiful green vibrance that I had seen in the illustration, all the life... all of it was gone. Nothing was left. Nothing but ash.
And that wasn’t even the worst part.
In the center of the ruined temple lay a dark, unmoving mass, turned silver-grey by the moonlight above. It was misshapen and indistinct, but even from this distance, I recognized the still, sprawling forms within. I heard Lyra retch from somewhere behind me, and felt the bile begin to rise in my own throat. I choked it down, forcing my eyes back up and staring hard, taking it in.
‘There are things worse than ponies. Things that want to kill all of us...’
Bodies. The temple’s shell was full of bodies.
Layer after layer of corpses, their limbs locked against each other in horrible contortions, poses too painful to have died in naturally. They weren’t Thralls. The flickering, emaciated quality of the things wasn’t there, and neither were the greenish eyes. No. These were ponies. Had been ponies.
I could see the faces, too, most of them with eyes still frozen open in masks of terror and pain. No one had been spared. There were colts, fillies, old mares and young stallions. There were angry faces. Sad faces. Friendly faces. Faces with laugh-lines in the corners of their eyes, like the ones Octavia’s mother had. Faces of friends. Lovers. Brothers. Sisters. Ponies. Faces of the dead.
What did they matter now?
I sank to my hooves, letting Octavia’s foreleg slide off my shoulder. She didn’t notice, probably just as shocked as I was. This wasn’t fair.
I stared at the spongy ground below, poking it with a hoof and almost wishing it would just swallow me up. Wouldn’t that be nice? Just sinking into the soft, quiet earth, letting it absorb you and cover your eyes with comforting darkness. I wouldn’t have to face anything anymore. I wouldn’t have to lead them, wouldn’t have to worry. Over time, they would just fade away. Octavia, Lyra, Redheart...
Oh sweet mother of the eternal sisters, Redheart.
I sucked in a breath, choking as the stench from the pile of corpses slammed into my nostrils and forcing myself to my hooves. I was still shaken, but my self-imposed trance had been broken. My friend needed me. She needed all of us.
I wasn’t about to let her down.
Holding a forehoof over my nose, I stumbled past Octavia, who had barely moved, and Lyra, doubled over and still retching. Redheart had nearly had a breakdown when she had seen the Stalker. What she would be like now... I didn’t want to imagine.
I found her laying against a charred stump, her body curled in the fetal position and utterly still. I lifted her head with my hoof, starting as I saw her eyes. They were wide and glassy, huge but unfocused. I realized her entire body was slick with a thin sheen of sweat and gulped. This was bad. This was very bad.
“Redheart?” I said quietly, trying and failing to make eye contact with her. She didn’t seem to acknowledge the question, or even realize I was there at all.
Okay, Aura, I thought, trying to force my rapidly-increasing levels of panic and fear down to a manageable level. Everything's dead, there’s no totem, and I’m pretty sure our only medical pony just went into shock. Why? What should I do?
The Heralds got here first, she replied grimly. They took what they wanted and destroyed everything else. Those bodies were probably slaves, used as life force containers for the same ritual that burned the temple. You can’t do that with normal weapons. You need dark magic, sacrifices. As for what you should do, right now, just—
I lost track of Aura’s voice as a ear-splitting screech pierced the air, followed by an odd, rhythmic clicking, like teeth chattering together. My blood turned to ice water as I realized I remembered the sound. I had been hearing it all day, off in the distance. I had thought it was a birdcall. Now I was praying I was right.
The screech came again, louder this time, and I winced in pain. Whatever the source of the sound was, it was close, and it had been following us for a while. I felt my muscles tense, sparks flickering on the tips of my hooves as my body prepared to fight. Something was here. Something bad.
The silence stretched on. Nothing moved in the deathly stillness except Lyra, now down on her knees as she was wracked with dry heave after dry heave. My eyes flickered back and forth, trying to focus anywhere but the dark shapes in the clearing’s center. I waited. I watched. I—
I whipped around, throwing up a forehoof a millisecond too late before being slammed into by what felt like a piece of steel wrapped in razor wire. The breath I had stored in my lungs left my body in a wheeze as I smacked against the ground, stars flickering in my eyes as my muzzle pressed against something hard and shiny. I tried to shove it back, but it was like shoving a wall.
The thing reared up, releasing its horrible call again, and I gasped in terror as I saw the twisted remains of its face. Where there had once been a muzzle, there were mandibles, sharp, black, and deadly. Its green eyes burned bright, boring into me as it raised its sharpened forelimb above my head. A Stalker, ready for the kill.
Too bad I don’t die easily.
As the blade-like limb arced towards my head, I released the note I had been channeling, headbutting the thing and wincing as my horn glanced off its slick carapace with a blast of blue sparks. It hissed in pain, falling back slightly, and I kicked out with both my hind legs in the strongest buck I could muster. I heard another screech from somewhere nearby, followed by an equine scream and the clashing ring of steel against chitin. The scream had sounded like Octavia. I wanted to cry.
I was fairly sure I felt something shatter in my leg as my hooves connected with the Stalker’s ribs, but the buck had the intended effect: it was shoved back enough for me to leap to my hooves, drawing a chord around me as I did. The thing hissed again, as if sensing what I was about to do, and leapt towards me.
A millisecond before the twin scythes cut me to red and white ribbons, I lashed out with both my forehooves, sending a fork of lightning directly into its chitinous torso. The impact caused me to scream in pain as I felt the energy bounce back, shooting up my forelegs and into my core like liquid fire, turning the warm glow into scalding heat.The Stalker seemed to barely notice the blast, only stumbling back for a second before leaping at me again. Through the haze of pain, I forced myself to roll, letting its legs embed themselves in the soft ground next to me. This wasn’t working. I was going to die. I was going to fail.
The idea was slightly stupid, but plenty of my stupid ideas had worked already. I leapt up and began to channel a chord again, ignoring the fire licking at the inside of my skin. The Stalker hooked its leg left, and I dodged, narrowly avoiding the serrated edge. But it was smart. Even as I landed back on my hooves, the right leg was already speeding toward me, too close to duck. Too close to avoid. I tried anyway.
Careful, Vinyl— Aura’s advice was in vain.
The leg-blade felt icy cold as it sliced across my skin, leaving a line of numbness in its wake. I stumbled, nearly fell, but somehow managed to keep the chord going. Just a little longer...
The Stalker reared up, mandibles clicking hungrily, and I moved.
I didn’t dodge this time. I jumped straight at it, yelling loud enough to rival its own call, and let the fire chord out in a blaze of azure. The flames roared up, licking across its carapace hungrily, and it screamed.
I heard a chorus of loud pops and realized it was the Stalker’s armor cracking and snapping in the heat. It lurched toward me, a shambling bluish candle, but I wasn’t about to stop now.
Another bolt of fire, another screech, and the evil thing fell.
I landed on my hooves, stumbling at the numbness in one and breathing hard. The entire fight had begun and ended in seconds, butI felt as drained as if I had been going for hours. The numbness in my right foreleg probably had something to do with that, but I was too scared to look.
I jerked back to lucidity, eyes flickering around the clearing. I had heard a second screech before. There were two. One was dead. The other...
Tavi, my ‘Tavi, was dueling the second Stalker, her beautiful face set in a grim line as she parried its slashing legs with expert strokes from her tailblade. I tried to run toward her, but my numb leg didn’t listen, buckling under the weight and dumping me on the ash-covered ground. All I could do was watch, and dare not to speak in case I broke her concentration.
She wove in and out between its blades, deflecting each and every strike with expert grace. Occasionally, she would move in close, baiting just enough to make the Stalker overextend before countering with a flurry of slashes. They didn’t do much damage, most barely scratching its armor, but they kept it at bay. For now.
It dove low, screeching in what could’ve been either fear or frustration and scissoring its legs together. An execution attack. Octavia parried the left leg, then, with a spin and a deft flick of her blade, sliced off the right with a shower of greenish goo. I cheered from the ground, my silence forgotten in the face of her victory.
“Hell yeah! You go, ‘Tavi!”
She turned toward me, smiling that amazing smile for a brief second.
A brief second too long.
I saw the Stalker's left leg before Octavia did, a yell of warning escaping my lips just as she turned and leapt to the side. Quickly, but not quickly enough. I watched, as if in slow motion, as smooth grey coat gave way to hard black chitin, the leg stabbing through her shoulder like a hot knife through butter. She screamed, dropping Ellie with a clang, and I screamed too.
“Octavia!” Adrenaline raced through my veins, turning my blood to fire and temporarily blocking out the pain and numbness in my leg. I staggered over to her fallen form, the fire chord already humming in my chest. The Stalker didn’t even notice, too busy screeching in victory. It did notice when I blasted a fireball whatever remained of its face, but by then, it didn’t matter. I was a storm, burning and battering away with burst after burst of fire and lightning. I felt some bolts glance off, turning pieces of the ruined temple to ash, but I didn’t care.
“Don’t, you, fucking, touch, her!” I screamed, each word punctuated with an harsh, discordant note and an electric fireball. The Stalker was barely more than a shell filled with ash now, but I didn’t stop. Octavia was hurt. I needed to hurt back.
A few seconds later, my energy finally ran out, and I almost collapsed next to Octavia. I wanted to. Wanted to just lie there and comfort her and tell her it was all going to be okay, but I couldn’t. It wouldn’t be okay, not unless I could—
“Vinyl! Octavia!” Lyra was sprinting towards me, her face a picture of terror. Her mouth dropped open as she saw Octavia’s limp body, the shiny black Stalker leg still protruding from her shoulder. “Oh my Celestia... I’ll... I’ll get Redheart.”
I shook my head, forcing my rapidly-renumbing leg into motion. “I’ll go. Red’s completely out of it. We need to make sure she’s here first.” I began to stumble away, barely managing to keep myself on my hooves as the energy surge from the adrenaline faded. A root caught my foreleg, and I grunted as I felt myself tip forward, falling...
“Together,” Lyra said, catching me against her side. I nodded wordlessly and began to limp again, occasionally leaning back against her for support.
Redheart was exactly where we had left her, still in the same position against the stump. I doubted she had even moved at all during the Stalker fight, considering they had gone almost directly for me and Octavia. She didn’t acknowledge either of us as we approached, and I had to lift her head up with my hoof again to even see her eyes.
“Redheart,” I said, shaking her slightly and staring into the glassy orbs. She didn’t respond, not even a little, and I would’ve thought she was dead if not for the rapid rise and fall of her chest. Shit. No. This couldn’t happen. No.
“Redheart!” I repeated again, louder and with more than a hint of urgency. Her face didn’t change, and I felt little prickles of warmth beginning to form behind my eyes.
“Red, please,” I said, the words coming out as a half-sob. “You... you can’t do this. You can’t!”
“When she finds something that’s so far gone, so horrible, so twisted, that they’re beyond any kind of hope...”
Octavia’s words echoed in my head, and I jabbed my working forehoof towards the ruins of the temple, forgetting for a moment that she couldn’t see it. “You can’t save them! They’re gone! There’s nothing you could’ve done! But just because you can’t save them, doesn’t mean... doesn’t...” I paused to catch my breath, trying to ignore the fact that the numbness in my leg was gradually creeping upward. “Doesn’t mean you can’t save us. Octavia needs you, Redheart. I need you. We need you! Please!” I was full-on sobbing now, shaking Redheart's shoulders and not even bothering to wipe away the tears streaming down my cheeks. “Please...”
For a few agonizing seconds, Redheart did nothing, only her soft, panting breaths betraying the fact that she was still alive. Then, with the suddenness of a spring, her eyes snapped back into focus, darting to me, then Lyra, then around the rest of the clearing.
“Oh Celestia...” She leapt to her hooves, looking at me with a blue-eyed stare that felt hard enough to pierce diamonds. “Who’s hurt?” She glanced at the cut running down my leg, and her eyes widened. “Oh, that’s not good. Definitely infected...” Her eyes met mine. “Is there anypony worse? Where’s Octavia?”
I smiled through my tears. Nurse Redheart was back.
“Octavia’s over there,” said Lyra, pointing back towards the middle of the clearing. “She’s hurt bad. One of the... things stabbed her right through the shoulder.” I felt a little thrill of fear as Redheart’s eyes seemed to glass over again, but a second later, she shook herself and nodded.
“All right. Show me.”
We walked (or in my case, limped) back across the clearing to where Octavia lay, covering the distance in a matter of seconds. I swallowed as I saw the area around where the leg still lay lodged in her shoulder. It was a horrible, sickly green, with pulsing tendrils radiating outwards towards her leg and neck like roots.
Oh, the freaking irony.
Redheart wasted no time. In less than a minute, she had opened her saddlebags, laid out her odd, silvery blanket, and moved Octavia onto it. My marefriend’s breaths came in harsh, unsteady pants as she lay on the mat, eyes darting around but focusing on nothing. Almost exactly like Redheart’s had been a minute ago. Funny how that worked.
“All right,” said Redheart retrieving a white box from her saddlebags and popping it open. “Thank Celestia I packed the full field kit and not just the hospital standard...” The rest of her sentence disappeared as she grabbed a tiny bottle filled with clear liquid in her mouth, carefully setting it aside. “That’s for later. For now, we need to get... that...” She pointed at the remains of the Stalker’s leg, shuddering slightly “Out. For a normal puncture wound, I wouldn’t bother, but it’s obviously venomous, and the longer it stays in, the worse things are going to get.”
Images flashed through my head: Octavia lying limp, her eyes bright green and her entire body covered in glowing, pulsing tendrils... I squeezed my eyes shut, forcing them away. No. That wouldn’t happen. “Can I help?”
“Yes, actually. It looks like it’s got polarized serration,” said Redheart, squinting closer at the limb and shuddering slightly. “That is, it’s designed to pierce and slide in easily one way, but tear coming out. Like a fish hook. We’ll need to push it all the way through instead of pulling it out or risk severing a tendon.” She coiled her tail around Ellie, taking it from Octavia’s limp grasp and holding it gingerly above the leg. “Vinyl, Lyra, could you hold this tight with your magic, please?”
I complied, despite the fact that my head was swimming slightly, and the limb was enveloped in a corona of blue-and-yellow light. Redheart nodded in approval, then, with a quick slicing motion, cleanly severed the tip of the leg from the from the rest of the Stalker’s charred corpse.
“Perfect. Thank you.”
I released the magic, letting the leg fall and gasping at even the slight effort. “No... problem...” The world was definitely swimming now, twisting trees into impossible shapes and ballooning Lyra and Redheart’s features to ridiculous proportions. There was a wet, sucking sound, and I saw the Stalker’s leg being pushed out of Octavia’s shoulder by a grim-looking Redheart. “Anythin’ else.. I can do...?”
She looked down at me and shook her head. “You and what hoof-eye coordination? No, Lyra and I are fine for now. You’ve done enough, Vinyl,” she said, taking a section of her blanket and pulling it over me. “You just need to rest until I can deal with that cut on your leg.”
“B...’Tavi...” I murmured, trying to stand but only managing a slightly spastic jerk. “Needta.. help...”
Redheart gently pushed me back down with a hoof. “Like I said. You’ve helped enough. Octavia will be fine.”
“Promise?” I slurred, even as the darkness began to creep at the edge of my vision.
She nodded. “I promise.”
I smiled, lying back against the spongy ground and closing my eyes. “‘Anks, Red.”
She might’ve replied, but I didn’t hear, already slipping off into the all-encompassing darkness that was exhaustion-induced sleep.
Things were bad now, sure, but they would get better. Octavia would get better. I would get better. Sonus would get better.
They had to.
When I opened my eyes, I was falling.
Clouds whipped past my face, rippling and melting into greyish blurs as I shot downwards faster than I thought a pony could possibly go. I would’ve screamed, but the wind slammed against my face, howling and tearing the breath from my throat as fast as it could enter. There was nothing on either side of me but twin walls of grey, shooting past me at impossible speeds but never disappearing. The only thing I could see below was an expanse of muted silver, shooting up and past my face before being replaced by another seconds later.
Then my wings snapped open.
The twin airfoils caught the heavy, humid wind, turning my terrifying plummet into a steep, slightly-less terrifying climb. I shot forwards and upwards, the clouds smacking wetly against my face for a fraction of a second before I was suddenly thrust into a wide-open sea of indigo. I was soaring above the clouds, with nothing around me but the sky, the moon, and an endless canopy of stars.
It was at around that point that I remembered I didn’t actually have wings. Or know how to fly. Or have the slightest Celestia-damned clue where I was.
I tried to twist my neck downwards to get a better look at my surroundings, then felt a stab of fear as nothing happened. None of my muscles were responding. I would’ve yelled, but my tongue refused to listen. I would’ve twisted in shock, but my hooves weren’t mine. My body wasn’t mine. The events that were happening now were happening to somepony else, and I, for whatever reason, was just along for the ride.
Well, stranger shit has happened, I thought, mentally shrugging my shoulders as ‘my’ actual shoulders rolled backward slightly, adjusting my course in midair. The body I was in was a mare’s, I could tell that much, maybe a couple years younger than I was. A pegasus, obviously, with a short, neatly-cut mane and tail. The way the hair fell against my head felt like I imagined professional pegasi racers did their manes: sleek, aerodynamic, and short enough to not get in the way.
I realized I was also wearing some kind of flowing, full-body garment that stayed tight against my fur. It was soft and light, and I felt the familiar weight of a hood against my back. Some kind of robe? I tried to crane my neck to get a look at the ensemble, but quickly remembered there wasn’t any point.
My forelegs extended out in front of me as I dropped into a dive, revealing nothing but the fact that the cloth they were covered in was a pure, sparkling white. Silk, maybe? My hooves were wrapped in a similar material, slightly darker in color than the suit and secured with tiny golden rings. I couldn’t find any purpose for the odd-looking ‘shoes’, but whoever’s body I was in seemed to find them important enough.
There was a muffled fwump as I dropped back through the clouds again, my wings folding tightly against my sides as the masses of grey shot past. I gave little mental jump as I felt something flat and slightly slimy flip up into place over both my eyes, blurring my vision for a moment before everything came back into focus. Pegasi have two eyelids? That’s... kinda cool, I guess, but ew.
A half-second later, the clouds parted, and I emerged over a pristine, spotless ocean of grass, swaying slightly in the cool night breeze. Familiar red-and-yellow flowers dotted the ground below, blurring into orange lines as I sped over them. I was back in the Elrinian Fields.
The meadows seemed more or less identical to when I had visited them myself, with one odd exception: all the chunks of stone and rubble were gone that had dotted the landscape were gone. I thought back to what Aura had said when I had first asked about them. They had been... ruins, right? Of old cities? Wait, if they’re not here now, that means... my eyes would’ve widened if I had had any control over them.
I wasn’t just in a different body. I was in a different time.
You know, scratch what I had said earlier. As strange shit went, this was actually pretty high up there.
My ‘host’, totally oblivious to my mounting confusion, scanned back and forth, double-lidded eyes squinting as if looking for something. A second later, she found it: a dark, distant smudge on the horizon, speckled with orbs of flickering light. What it was, I couldn’t tell, but I was headed there, and fast.
As the grass whipped by below, the smudge began to come into focus. I saw spires, arches, and other assorted pieces of fancy architecture, all lit up with the distinct, flickering orange of oil lanterns. The last time I remembered seeing one of those was back in Lower Manehatten, before the firefly light craze had caught on and left everything flashing and lit up bright enough to blind you if you looked at it too long.
I began to climb again, not quite as steeply as I had the first time. The flickering lights grew larger, and I felt myself swallow in apprehension. Whoever I was, they were nervous. That fact alone made me squirm a little mentally, but it didn’t stop me from continuing to glide toward the mass of towers.
A minute or so of rushing wind and quiet wingbeats later, I could see my destination clearly. I realized it wasn’t any kind of castle or fort, like I had first thought: it was a city. Huge and sprawling, with hundreds and hundreds of intricately-carved buildings all built from the same stone I had seen the ruined pieces of just a couple days earlier.
At the skyline, there were twisting towers and jutting spires, stabbing up at the night like they were trying to pierce through it. On the streets below, the buildings became more closely packed, shoving tightly up against each other in little pools of flickering orange light and whitish stone. I saw tiny houses, huge cathedrals, market stalls, and hundreds of other structures I couldn’t name, all laid out in an orderly patchwork of winding streets and chiseled stone. The whole thing was surrounded by a massive, sweeping wall that seemed to glimmer and shine even under the half-light of the moon, the dark, indistinct shapes of the ponies atop it thrown into relief by the light of the lanterns. It looked like it had been frozen in time, like something from a fairytale.
My wings snapped back, sending me speeding past the flickering light of the wall and into the city itself. I caught a half-glimpse of the ponies wandering on the streets below before I was shooting forward again, weaving and dodging between the stone jungle of the ancient skyline.
I started mentally as I realized I could hear music wafting up from the streets below. No, hear wasn’t the write word. It was more like I could feel it running on the air, rippling around me like the wind. There wasn’t a defined melody, just little snatches of hundreds and hundreds of different songs. I heard strings, guitars, the heavy beat of a drum, even note or two of fractured singing. The city itself was full of it, like it was ingrained into the stone of the buildings themselves. Was this how all of Sonus was before Mortem started killing everyone?
My thoughts were jerked back into reality as I suddenly locked my wings against my sides, shooting almost straight down onto a battered, tiled rooftop. My hooves hit the stone with barely a whisper of cloth, and I realized the purpose of the hoofwraps around my legs. But why did I need them in the first place? What was I doing that required so much silence and secrecy? Who the hell was I, and why was I living their memories now?
My host, predictably enough, didn’t answer, instead dropping low and darting along the roof, sliding silently into a pool of shadow left by a stout chimney protruding near the far end. It was almost completely dark here, and even my white cloak was well-hidden.
I squinted upwards, my eyes tracing the rooftops in front of me all the way up to a distant tower. Lights flickered at its top, illuminating its ornate stained-glass windows and beautifully carved stone walls. There were symbols engraved in it, the same ones I had seen on the ruins, though I still had no idea what they meant.
My host gave a tiny, self-satisfied nod, and I felt a familiar warm prickle begin to grow in my gut, slowly worming its way outwards towards my hooves and wings. The sounds and music of the outside world faded away, everything focusing together onto the gentle sound of my breaths. They were steady, stable, like a metronome. In, out. In, out. In...
I pushed the final breath out in a rush and moved.
The rooftop fell away as I leapt upwards, shooting through the air for half a gut-wrenching second before the next building rose up beneath me. I landed lightly on the stone, never breaking stride as I launched myself forward towards my destination.
The music wrapped itself around my body, warming my limbs and making everything sharper, clearer, faster. A wall rose up in front of me. The building’s second story. I tensed my legs and leapt, my wings flickering in a single downbeat that gave me just enough lift to clear it. Each action flowed into the next, my body perfectly synced to the pounding rhythm.
I leapt toward the next roof, flapping my wings again to minimize the shock and hitting the ground running. Innerly, I was questioning why a pegasus who was obviously capable of flight would resort to running around on rooftops, but my body never stopped.
The walls and arches and railings kept coming, a maze of conduits and walkways laid out across the starlit sky. I jumped to the side, running along the side of a building for a few seconds before leaping off and landing in the shadow of an adjacent tower. I realized the reason for the unnecessary parkour even as I continued to move, shooting from rooftop to rooftop like a drop of water on a hot stove. Every time I landed, it was always in a shadow. Every time I jumped, it was always from the darkness. The only time the light touched me was in those split seconds in the air between buildings, and even then it was only the dim glow of the lanterns below. I was trying to get somewhere, and I didn’t want to be seen doing it.
The thought made me uneasy, but I didn’t have time to dwell on it as the ground dropped away once again. I soared through the air, my wings flapping once, twice, three times, and landed, quiet as a ghost, on the balcony of the tower. A stallion clad in golden armor stood there, his eyes widening in surprise as I spun to face him.
The world slowed down. The music hummed through my veins. The stallion’s mouth opened, shouting words I couldn’t hear, and I felt a sudden icy coolness begin to wrap around my forehooves. I didn’t glance down, and a second later, I slammed both my forelegs into his chest.
He crumpled against the balcony railing, eyes going vacant and little wisps of black smoke trailing from his armor. I yanked my forelegs back, revealing two small, dagger-like blades protruding out over my hooves. Each one was attached to a metal ‘cuff’ that had appeared around my forelegs, and they gleamed a silver-white in the moonlight, totally spotless despite having just been inside a pony’s chest.
My host stopped for a second, catching her breath, and my mind reeled. I had just seen murder. Not self defense, not a desperate struggle, but cold-blooded murder. The pony whose memories I was living was a killer.
There was quiet snickt as both my hoofblades retracted up, sliding back over the cuffs and allowing me to put my forehooves back on the ground. A second later, I was moving again, the flimsy balcony doors swinging open of their own accord with a rush of air and a flurry of notes.
The interior of the tower was brightly lit and incredibly lavish, with huge crystal chandeliers and soft, fluffy rugs everywhere. I didn’t stop to admire the scenery, instead making straight for the sweeping spiral staircase at the room’s end. I sped up it, clearing the steps three at a time with occasional assistance from my wings, and in what felt like a matter of seconds, I had reached the very top and found myself on a landing. Hallways led off on either side, but I immediately spun to the right and began to run again, windows, paintings, and other decorations melting into blurs as my hooves pounded against the carpet.
I turned a corner, my hoof grabbing the wall and swinging me around. In front of me was a set of ornate double doors, not made of whitish stone, like everything else, but rich, dark wood. They were flanked by two guards, both armed with spears and wearing the same golden armor as the one on the balcony.
I dove forward, my hoofblades snapping back out as I shot through the air towards the guard on the right. He shouted, jabbing his spear, but I twisted in the air, avoiding the deadly point and sinking my blades into his chest. The daggers ripped through the golden armor like paper, and as I yanked them out, he collapsed, the same black smoke rising up from his now-torn chestplate as the guard on the balcony.
I dropped low, retracting my blades and dodging the second guard’s spear sweep. He stumbled, off-balance, and with a quiet grunt I pulled the music in, focusing it towards my hind legs. I felt a wave of power radiate through my muscles, then my legs snapped out in a buck with enough force to shatter the guard’s spear and what felt like at least a couple ribs.
The stallion fell against the wall, choking, and I turned, hoofblades snicking out once more. He didn’t even have the chance to scream before I had scissored his neck in an X-pattern, the blades slicing through body and armor easily. The head didn’t fall, thank Celestia, but I noticed two ugly black marks on his neck where the blades had sliced, smoke rising from each of them. The flesh looked dead, like it had been infected by the ironically pure-looking metal’s touch.
My host, apparently used to the aftermath of killing ponies with evil magical daggers, spun back towards the double doors and blew them inward with another ripple of angry chords. The room beyond was wood-paneled and almost completely empty except for a rich-looking rug, a bench, and a desk that looked out at an almost floor-to-ceiling window with an amazing view of the ancient city below.
The mare sitting at the desk was a unicorn with a dark grey coat, her coppery-green mane pulled back in a simple braid. Her back was to me, and she turned to face as I burst into the room.
“So,” the mare said, slowly getting to her hooves and fixing me with a pair of vivid forest-green eyes. “It’s happened. The others are dead. Dusk has fallen. And now, you come for me.”
Her voice was quiet but clear, carrying easily across the room, and her face utterly impassive. She didn’t look scared, or confused, or even angry. Just... acceptant, like she had been waiting for me for a long time. The thought made my host swallow uneasily, and I couldn’t help but agree. This mare practically radiated ‘don’t fuck with me’, and here ‘I’ was, about to do just that.
“Come then, Death On the Wind,” the mare said, standing and kicking the bench aside in one fluid motion. “Live up to your name.”
The music played on. My hoofblades flicked out. I leapt forward.
The grey mare sidestepped easily, kicking me away into a nearby wall and stepping back as a gleaming jade spear materialized in the air above her with a soft, somber string note. A green glow surrounded the shaft as she took it with her magic, and I threw myself to the left to avoid getting shishkebabed. The thought of what would happened if ‘I’ died now flashed through my mind, but I quickly shoved it away. No use worrying when I couldn’t do anything about it.
The jabs kept coming, blindingly fast and incredibly precise, but I was no slouch either and managed to stay just ahead of the deadly tip. The corner of the wall was coming up fast, though, and I wouldn’t be able to get to my hooves without being skewered.
Just as I was about to roll smack into the room’s corner, I pulled the music inward again. A burst of warmth sparked through my body, and for a blink, everything was melting, shifting blackness. When reality pulled itself together again, I was behind the mare.
I caught her spear between my hoofblades as she spun, the weapon whipping towards me at an almost inequine speed. The jade tip screeched against my daggers, throwing up a spray of brilliant whitish sparks, and I shoved her away. She didn’t stumble, instead feinting to my left and then jabbing low. I backflipped into the air, narrowly managing to avoid the thrust, and snapped my hind legs out in another bone-shattering sonomancy-assisted buck. I felt my hooves touch fur for the briefest of seconds before my back legs were seized in a crushing grip of dark green light and hurled to the ground, the rest of me following soon after.
My muzzle smacked against the floor, leaving a bright stain of red on the plush blue softness of the rug. Stars sparked behind my eyes, and my head pounded with agony, but I jumped to my hooves anyway, parrying what would’ve been a killing blow with my hoofblades and whipping around in a spinning kick.
The maneuver must have been unexpected, and I heard a quiet grunt of pain as my hoof struck bone. The unicorn stumbled for a fraction of a second, putting her weight on her left side, and I tackled her to the ground, forcing the spear from her magical grip with one hoofblade and putting the other to her throat.
Our faces almost touched for a moment, her dark green eyes boring into mine. They were still utterly calm, not looking in the least bit scared or concerned, but now I saw that impassiveness for what it really was. It wasn’t an act designed to intimidate me, or the cool collectedness of a tactician, though I saw a hint of that too. No, it was resignation. Those were the eyes of a mare who knew she was going to die, had known for a while. They weren’t defeated, just waiting. Accepting.
They stayed calm even as I plunged both blades into her throat.
I stood, stepping away from the body and staring down at the twin black marks in her neck. At some point, the world had begun to glow, throwing little motes of white light at the edge of my vision. Everything was growing distant, like a radio signal fading in and out.
As the light grew almost painfully bright, I leaned down closer to the corpse and felt myself speak.
“Esaerna,” I said quietly, my own accent sounding unfamiliar on my lips. “Be at peace, lost one. Soon, the sun will set, and the coil will break.” I stood back up, feeling myself slip away, and spoke one last time.
“Soon, all will be pure.”
I bolted upright, gasping like I had just sprinted a mile as my heart pounded in my chest. My eyes snapped around, trying to take in every inch of my unfamiliar surroundings at once. It was around mid-afternoon. Sunny. There were trees, moss, and flowers everywhere. I was laying on something soft, and standing over me were two mares, one green, one white...
I flopped back down onto what I now realized was my sleeping bag, letting all my breath out in a relieved sigh. Redheart and Lyra were staring down at me, concerned, but I was too busy celebrating being able to move my own body again again to care.
“Hey, wha— ooooooh holyshit that hurts!” Well, most of my body, anyway.
I shut my eyes again, gritting my teeth as a wave of horrible, icy burning rolled through my foreleg. It felt like someone ripping through the skin with a freezing knife, and I moaned in pain.
“Oh Celestia... ow ow ow ow...”
After a few seconds, the burning had subsided enough that I could focus on something else, and I looked up at Redheart.
“Ugh. G’morning,” I said, wincing and trying not to put any weight on my foreleg. “Red, you didn’t inject my leg with hot sauce or anything while I was out, right?” That got a small eye-roll out of her, and I grinned weakly. “Just wondering.” As much as I wanted to look at the leg to see what was wrong, I was slightly afraid of what I would find. After a few seconds of uncertainty, curiosity won out, and I glanced down at the limb, immediately sucking in a breath as I saw the jagged greenish gash slicing down through the white fur. It was oozing something gross-looking and sticky, and I had to stop myself from recoiling as I noticed the small tendrils slowly wiggling outward from the wound.
“Good morning to you too. Now stay still,” Redheart replied, leaning over me with a businesslike expression. “This’ll sting, but you’ll thank me for it later.” She ducked off to the side, grabbing a small glass bottle in her mouth and carefully uncapping it. The liquid inside could’ve been water, except for the fact that it seemed to sparkle and glitter even in the muted sunlight of the Wildwood.
“Bite this and try not to squirm too much,” she said, gently pushing a pad of dry, supple gauze into my mouth. I nodded as best I could, clamping my teeth down on the fabric and lying still. Once Redheart saw I was ready, she took my foreleg in her hooves, carefully extending it causing me to hiss in pain. “Sorry,” she said, looking apologetic. “It’ll be over in a few seconds.” She picked up the bottle again, carefully holding it over the spot on my leg where the pain was worst.
“Whm?” I mumbled through the gauze, frowning. “Whm bh ovhr— ohFHCK!”
I screamed into the fabric as the drop of liquid touched my skin, sending up a plume of acrid black smoke and a wave of incredible, searing agony through my leg. My teeth were clenched so tightly I was afraid I they would crack, but I bit down harder, squeezing my eyes shut and trying my absolute hardest not to move.
“You’ll be okay, Vi,” said Lyra, her bright voice piercing through the veil of pain. “Just hold on a little longer.” If I had been able to nod, I would’ve, but in light of the situation I settled for a pathetic-sounding whimper instead.
A few excruciating seconds later, the burning began to recede, eventually fading into a dull, aching throb. It was still noticeable enough to be annoying, but at least somewhat manageable. I spat out the gauze, blinking tears of pain out of my eyes, and took another glance at my leg. The cut was still there, but it was now a pale, slightly less awful-looking shade of green, and some of the tendrils seemed to have drawn back slightly.
“Celestia... that’s a hell of a way to start the morning,” I said, trying to stand and almost immediately being forced back down by Redheart’s firm hoof. “Hey, lemme up!”
“Not yet,” she said, taking my leg in her hooves and sighing in exasperation as I clenched my eyes shut again. “Oh, stop being such a baby. I’m just wrapping it.” She dipped her head back into her saddlebags, retrieving a roll of gauze in her teeth and wrapping around the limb with quick, precise motions. “Give me a minute.”
You can take two Stalkers head-on, but a cut makes you freeze up?
Oh for Celestia’s sake...
Quiet, I thought, gritting my teeth as Redheart wrapped the gauze around my leg. You’re a freaking pony in a rock. You don’t know anything.
I heard a sigh from inside my head. That was supposed to be a joke, Vinyl. You know. Humor?
...Oh. Uh, sorry.
Another sigh. Why do I even try?
In what felt like no time at all, the entire cut was bandaged, and Redheart stepped away. I gingerly stood up, trying to avoid putting too much weight on the injured leg. The bandage made bending my knee a little awkward, and it still ached, but I at least I could walk.
“Thanks,” I said, stretching my legs and wincing slightly. “What the hell was that stuff you hit me with, anyway? Felt like a manticore giving my leg a freakin’ power massage.”
Redheart smiled. “Those were phoenix tears, the most potent stable antivenom in Equestria. A single drop is usually enough to completely flush anypony’s system of toxins. They work by literally burning away impurities, though, so they’re not exactly pleasant.”
“You don’t say,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “Guess I can deal with it if it means I get to walk without feeling like my hoof is gonna fall off.”
She nodded. “We’ll have to reapply it around once every six hours or so to keep the venom from spreading. I don’t know what this stuff is, but it’s nasty. The closest thing I can think of would be hydra venom, but symptoms like this usually only start to show up after almost a week of untreated infection.” She took the bottle of phoenix tears in her mouth, holding it up to the light and frowning. “Damn. Almost half the bottle gone already, and now we have to treat you and Octavia...”
I gave an involuntary gasp as the memories of the previous night came pouring back, quickly followed by a vice of freezing panic clenching around my heart. “Oh shit. Is she okay? Please tell me she’s okay,” I said, voice cracking slightly. If ‘Tavi had... oh Celestia, I didn’t even want to think about it.
“Octavia’s okay, Vi.”
Lyra’s voice rang out across the clearing, and I sighed in relief. “She’s not really awake yet, but she’s fine.” I turned and saw her leaning over my marefriend, who was stretched out on Redheart’s blanket under the shelter of a tree. I quickly trotted over, ignoring the pain in my foreleg and the slight dizziness in my head, and knelt down beside her.
Her normally silky mane was limp and slick with sweat, and her shoulder was wrapped in a blob of gauze that looked even heavier than mine. I put a hoof to her cheek, starting as I felt how cold she was. She jerked slightly at my touch, breath catching, and I felt a pang go through my heart as I watched her eyelids flutter. Seeing her like this, hurt and vulnerable and utterly helpless... it wasn't the greatest feeling.
“Now, let’s see if she’ll actually drink this time. Maybe you’ll be our good luck charm," Lyra murmured, a look of concern etched onto her normally cheerful features. I watched as she levitated out a canteen from her bags, uncapping it and holding it to Octavia’s lips. The water trickled out, splashing against ‘Tavi’s face and causing her eyelids to flutter slightly, but nothing more. Lyra sighed, placing a hoof on my marefriend’s jaw and gently pulling it open before trying again. This time, Octavia coughed, sputtered, and finally refused to swallow before her breathing settled back into the same unsteady rhythm it had been before.
Lyra sighed, recapping the canteen and turning back towards Redheart. “No luck.” The white mare tutted, walking over to Octavia and placing a hoof on her chest. A few seconds later, she stood up, shaking her head.
“Pulse and heart rate are fine, but she’s already dehydrated, and the venom definitely isn’t helping. If she stays like this much longer, I’ll have to figure out some kind of improvised IV,” said Redheart, looking worriedly at Octavia before turning to me with a forced smile. “Er, of course, that probably won’t happen. She’s just recovering, and I’ve seen plenty of patients stay this way for longer. Oh, and that reminds me.” She grabbed another canteen from her bag and threw it towards me, chuckling as I barely managed to catch it with my magic before it clubbed me in the face. “Drink up. You’ve been out for almost 16 hours, and that venom did a great job of sapping almost all the water out of your body before it knocked you out. You’ve probably got a headache, sore throat, feeling dizzy...” The rest of her sentence disappeared in a gigantic yawn, and she blushed. “Sorry.”
I slowly nodded. “Now that you mention it, I do feel kinda woozy.” I had attributed it to the standard post-nap haze, but Redheart’s explanation seemed a lot more plausible. Uncapping the canteen with my magic, I took a large swig and immediately felt a wave of energy roll through my body, clearing my head and wetting my parched throat. “Ah. Wow, that’s way better. Thanks, Red.”
There was no reply. I frowned, glancing around the clearing, and saw Redheart laying against a nearby tree, eyes shut and breathing slow and regular. Lyra giggled before walking over and gently tapping Redheart’s shoulder with a hoof, causing the other mare to jerk up in shock, another blotch of pink blossoming over her white coat. “O-oh. Sorry. Guess I just dozed off for a little. Afternoon heat and all.” She stood up, pacing back and forth and not making eye contact with either of us. “It won’t happen again.”
My frown deepened. “You okay? You were yawning before, too. Did you not get enough sleep or something?” As I looked at her closer, I began to notice the little details: the way she seemed to sway slightly on her hooves, the split ends and stray hairs in her mane, the double layer of bags under her eyes...
Redheart shook her head, then paused, then shrugged. “Well, I had to stay up for a while to treat Octavia, and then Lyra went to bed, and I didn’t want to leave us all here undefended in case any...” She broke off, shuddering. “You know. But really, I’m—”
“She’s been up the whole night,” Lyra interrupted, earning herself a glare from Redheart an eyebrow-raise from me. “I tried to get her to get some sleep, but she said she was used to it from her shifts at the hospital.”
“And I am!” replied Redheart defensively. “Honestly, I’m fine. A little tired, sure, but fine.” Whatever shred of believability her argument might’ve had was instantly destroyed as she yawned again, even bigger than the first time. I rolled my eyes.
“Red, go get some sleep.”
“No,” I said, putting a hoof to her mouth. “Nope. You can’t argue. I’m the leader, remember? Go rest.” I pointed over to where Octavia lay on the blanket. “It’s not like we’re going anywhere soon anyway.”
Redheart rolled her eyes and muttered something about abuse of power, but eventually laid back down against the tree. “Wake me up in an hour and a half so I can treat Octavia again,” she said, closing her eyes. A few seconds later, I grinned as I saw her breathing settle into the rhythmic rise and fall of sleep.
“That was fast,” said Lyra, looking slightly awed.
I nodded. “Must be a nurse thing.”
“Guess so,” she replied, laughing. “So, we’re just gonna chill here until Octavia’s better?”
“Why are you asking me? I don’t even know where ‘here’ is.”
Well, there is the fact that you’re the self-appointed party leader, Aura thought.
Oh, right. Damn my naturally commanding instincts.
“We’re around fifteen minutes away from the temple,” Lyra said, pointing behind her at the line of trees. “Redheart wanted to move away from... y’know.” She swallowed, eyes flicking back in the direction of the temple before looking back at me.
“So, they’re still there? The bodies?” I asked, my mind swelling with unwanted images from the previous night. I could still see the mountain of dead ponies, still hear Octavia’s scream... I had to fight down a shudder as Lyra cocked an eyebrow.
“Uh, yeah. I mean, unless they got up and walked.” She giggled nervously. “You know what, I probably shouldn’t jinx it.”
“Probably not,” I agreed. The images were still there, and I shifted uneasily on my hooves. Something about just leaving those ponies like that refused to sit right with me. I sighed. “Hey, Lyra. You’ll be okay on your own for a few minutes, right?”
She looked around the clearing at the two sleeping mares, then nodded. “Sure, I guess. Why?”
“I’m gonna take a walk. Just... need to think about some stuff.” As lame excuses go, that one probably could’ve won some kind of award, but Lyra seemed to believe it.
“All right. Don’t be gone too long, though, ‘kay?” she said, swallowing again. “I don’t want to be alone after sunset, especially not after last night.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be back way before then,” I replied, shaking out my injured leg to get the blood flowing in it again. “See you soon.”
Lyra’s ‘see ya’ seemed to almost melt away as I walked into the trees, the ancient stillness and shrouded half-light absorbing the words like a sponge. The Wildwood was just as dense and mysterious as it had been the previous day, albeit slightly brighter, and I couldn’t stop myself from tensing slightly at every snapped twig or crinkled leaf. After the fourth time or so I had jerked around, scanning the trees while mentally readying a volley of lightning, even I was beginning to get irritated with myself.
Damnit, Vinyl, I thought, kicking a stray branch aside with a frustrated sigh. What are you, a little filly on Nightmare Night? Get a grip on yourself, for Celestia’s sake.
Honestly, I can’t blame you, thought Aura. After last night, it’s only natural to be on your guard— BEHIND YOU!
I yelped in shock, spinning around and blasting the immediate area behind me with burst of lightning and a roar of bass. The bolts flickered and arced, turning a nearby bush into ash and blackening the side of a tree, but revealed nothing except empty forest.
What? Where— My thought was interrupted by a peal of ringing laughter, and I stood stock-still as I realized what had just happened.
Oh no she freaking didn’t.
Got you pretty good, didn’t I? Aura thought gleefully, her laughter still echoing in my head. I stomped a hoof on the ground and growled in reply, then winced as I felt a bolt of pain shoot up my injured leg.
Oh, calm down. it was just a joke. Besides, weren’t you the one who told me to lighten up in the first place?
I rolled my eyes. Call me crazy, but scaring the shit out of a mare who has a tendency to shoot lightning bolts when she gets nervous doesn’t seem like the best idea, no? Sighing in irritation, I stamped out the remaining embers from the bush I had incinerated and set off at quick trot towards what remained of the temple.
Wow, you really are on edge today, aren’t you? Is something wrong? Did you sleep well?
I nearly tripped over a nearby root as I began to remember exactly what had happened while I had slept. My memories of the vision had been hazy and indistinct when I had woken up, but now they were crystal clear. I could see it all perfectly in my mind’s eye: the lights of the city, the silver blades, the look on the green-maned mare’s face as the life drained out of her eyes...
It was time to get some answers.
Actually, about that., I thought. Aura, what do you— I blinked in surprise as my question stopped of its own accord.
Um. Well. This was weird.
My ‘thought-speak’ with Aura was felt slightly different in my head then my usual mental ramblings, although I was pretty sure she could hear both. But now, as soon as I had even begun to consider asking her about the pegasus in white, it was like a vice had been clamped down over my thoughts. I frowned, trying again.
Do know know—
Again! What the hell was going on? I kicked a nearby branch in frustration as I walked, being careful to use my non-injured leg. This whole place was just one weird-ass thing after another.
Yes? thought Aura, interrupting my brooding. What were you asking?
The instant my thoughts turned to the vision, the mental vice clamped down again, forcing me into silence. I sighed. Forget it. I’m fine.
Great. This was great. Not only was I injured, confused, and still expected to save the universe from total collapse, but now I had a mysterious vision messing with my head to top it off?
I nearly kicked something again, but decided against it after I realized Aura probably couldn’t hear my frustration either. No point in making her ask questions when I couldn’t answer them even if I wanted to. I made a mental note to ask Lyra and the rest of the party about the vision when I got back, but knowing my luck, I wouldn’t be able to tell them either. Let’s just get to the temple.
If I recall, you’re the only one with the actual limbs, Aura replied, her characteristic snark returning in full force. Why do you need to go back there, anyway? It’s nothing but ash now.
Ash and a pile of bodies, I reminded her. It just doesn’t feel right leaving them there like that. I want to... I don’t know, lay them to rest, I guess. Better than leaving them all to rot, right?
I suppose, she replied, the thought sounding oddly restrained. What do you plan to do? Dig a mass grave with your hooves?
I frowned. I’ll figure something out. Kicking aside a stray branch, I pushed through a patch of brush and steeled myself as I walked back into the clearing of the ruined temple.
The place was more or less the same as I had remembered it, though the sunlight filtering in through the trees helped to make everything a little less terrifying. The blackened husk of the temple, the twisted roots, and, of course, the pile of dead ponies at its center were all still there, along with the new addition of the two Stalker corpses.
I took a deep breath, slowly walking closer towards the ruins and stopping as I felt my hoof touch something slightly sticky. I looked down and swallowed as I realized I had stepped in a patch of dried blood on the grass. I didn’t know whose it was, but it was pretty gross either way, and I wiped the hoof on the ground before continuing over to the pile.
Without the harsh light of the moon and the terror of the Stalkers, the bodies didn’t look nearly as horrible as they had the night before. I walked over to the nearest one, a young-looking mare with a bright green coat and a turquoise mane. She was sprawled out near the temple’s edge, her forehooves clasped protectively over her chest. Unlike most of the corpses, her eyes were clenched tightly shut in an expression that could’ve been pain, terror, or a mixture of both. There was no blood on her body, no obvious injuries. If I hadn’t known better, I would’ve thought she was sleeping, or cowering in fear.
I leaned closer, gently turning her cold body over to see her flank. Her cutie mark was bright against her fur: a long, yellow instrument with rows of strings running along its curved length. A harp. She was a musician.
Had been a musician, I corrected myself, staring down at the mare’s body. She could’ve been amazing, for all you know. She could’ve been the best damn harpist in the freaking universe. She could have been awful. But you don’t know. You’ll never know. Nopony will know, because she’s gone, just like all the others. I felt warm tears begin to prick the corners of my eyes and blinked, trying to force them away. It didn’t work. The longer I looked at her, the more I began to see not just a pony I had never known, but a pony who could’ve been any of the ones I loved. If I had been a few seconds slower last night... If Redheart hadn’t snapped out of it in time... it could’ve been Lyra lying here. It could’ve been ‘Tavi. It could’ve been any of us.
“I... it’s not fair!” I yelled, my voice cracking as it echoed into the stillness of the forest. “It’s not fucking fair!” The tears were falling hard now, dappling the mare’s body with drops of wetness. I didn’t care enough to wipe them away. “What the hell did she ever do to you!?” I wasn’t sure who I was talking to. The Thralls? The Heralds? Mortem himself? At this point, just like with everything else, I didn’t care. My shock and sadness was slowly being replaced by the slow, searing gnaw of hopeless anger.
“She could’ve been anyone! She could’ve had hopes and dreams and brothers and sisters and parents who loved her and a coltfriend or marefriend and a job and a life and now nobody will know because they fucking killed her!”
Vinyl, you can’t—
“Shut up!” I screamed, half-sobbing the words. “Just... just shut up!” The anger was white-hot now, boiling through my veins and humming through my ears. I barely noticed the warmth in my hooves until I looked down and saw the faint blue glow surrounding them. “I know I can’t bring her back! Nopony can bring any of them back!” The warmth in my hooves had begun to burn, matching the fire in my gut.
“They’re all dead, and nopony will care about them anymore, but I... I can...” The fire inside me sputtered, choking slightly, and I matched it with a hitching sob. “I can at least send them off.”
I smacked my forehooves down on the ground, ignoring the pain that shot up my injured leg, and a wave of fire erupted from them. It roared across the clearing, turning the green mare to dust and ash before my eyes. She didn’t even have time to burn, just evaporated into a few wisps of grey. I watched the rest of the corpses follow, swallowing the lump in my throat as the clearing was consumed by azure fire.
A half-second later, I let the chord fade, and the fire died, leaving nothing but the sharp smell of ozone and a pile of ashes. I sniffled, breathing hard and wiping my nose messily with a hoof, and turned to walk away. The bodies might’ve been gone, but the clearing still reeked of death. I needed to get back to the living.
Feel better? Aura asked, the thought sounding actually sincere for once. I shrugged listlessly, pushing aside the brush again as I exited the clearing.
I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t really know how the hell I’m supposed to feel right now. It was true. Now that my anger had faded, I was left with a kind of odd numbness that seemed to have seeped its way into my entire body, preventing me from feeling anything at all.
I had a few seconds of silent walking before before Aura replied.
You did a good thing, she thought, surprising me with her firmness. You’re... you're right. They didn’t deserve to die, but we can’t change that now. You gave them back their dignity, and they’ll even help the forest regrow. As morbid as it sounds, organic ashes are very rich in nutrients.
How practical of you, I thought, a bitter smile escaping the cloud of numbness and slowly making its way onto my face. I’m sure they’ll appreciate it.
Sorry. I’m still getting used to... you know.
The smile grew, losing its bitter edge. Being less of a tightass?
I was going to say ‘being more optimistic’, but...
I laughed slightly, and the sound of it burned some of the numbness away. It’s fine. I’ll get over it. I’m just a little shaken up now, I guess, with last night and all. Still new to the whole hero thing.
Well, for a rookie, you’re not half bad. A little irritating, sure, but not bad. The compliment was genuine, without a hint of sarcasm or snark, and I couldn’t help but smile even wider.
Sure, I was still slightly shell-shocked from everything that had happened in the past two days. Sure, the love of my life was badly injured, and I wasn’t doing too well myself. Sure, I still had almost no idea what the hell I was doing. But you know what?
My friends were alive. Lyra was alive, with her bouncy, heartfelt optimism and unquenchable curiosity. Redheart was alive, with her quiet calmness and expert knowledge keeping us all safe. ‘Tavi was alive, injured but beautiful, elegant and strong and giving me a reason to keep pushing on. They were all alive. Maybe not perfect, maybe not prepared, but hell, neither was I.
For now, they were alive, and that was all I needed.
Thanks, Aura, I thought, wiping my eyes one last time and increasing my pace to a steady trot in the direction of the camp. Now, quit flattering me and let’s go save the universe.
I cursed and winced in pain as my injured forehoof snagged on a root for what must’ve been the hundredth time, making me stagger and sending a bolt of pain rocketing up my leg and shoulder as I walked back towards the camp. It felt like every loose branch and root in the entire forest had suddenly decided to throw itself under my hooves.
Maybe you should try looking up some time. I’ve heard it works wonders.
Funny, I thought, glaring down at the forest floor below.
Aren’t I? Aura replied. You don’t have anyone to blame but yourself, you know. I think your ‘wit’, if you can call it that, has been rubbing off on me.
I grinned despite myself. Nah, I’m not that bad.
Just keep repeating that.
Whatever, thoughtpony. I winced one last time as my hoof grazed a protruding rock before brushing aside the thicket of branches that led to the camp.
My announcement was answered by a series of quiet, melodic plinks, and I frowned, glancing around. Octavia and Redheart were each in the same place they had been when I had left, chests slowly rising and falling in the gentle rhythm of sleep. All our gear was arranged and intact, and the ashes of the fire had been cold and grey for a while. If someone new was in the camp, they had done a pretty good job of not making it obvious.
I heard the music again and turned, searching for the source of the sound and channeling a lightning chord in the back of my mind. A second later, I found it.
“‘Sup, Vi,” Lyra said, the greeting accompanied by another cascade of notes.
Oh. I blame last night. Made me paranoid.
Of course you do.
Lyra was sitting against a nearby tree in her usual odd way, her horn glowing with a faint yellow light and a small, curved object cradled in her forehooves. As I watched, her horn flared, and the object responded with another burst of music.
“Hey, your lyre!” I walked over to the tree, leaning against the trunk and watching as she coaxed another measure out of the instrument. “Did you have it this whole time?”
She nodded, prodding her saddlebags with a hind leg and smiling. “Yep. Kinda dumb of me to forget it, but it was at the bottom of of my other saddlebag. Ya know, the one without the food.”
“Just never saw the need, huh?” I said, grinning.
She returned it. “Nope.”
“Well, at least you have it now. Be nice to have some music around.” I stretched, arching my back, and sat down next to her, staring up at the canopy. “I mean, I can’t pick up all the slack, awesome as I am.”
“Wouldn’t want you hogging the spotlight all the time anyway,” Lyra replied. I rolled my eyes good-naturedly and smacked her with my tail.
“Oh don’t you make me start again, Melody,” she said, smirking.
I groaned, holding my forehooves up in a gesture of defeat. “All right, all right. Truce or whatever.”
Maybe I should start calling you that. It seems to get you to listen well enough—
I stared daggers at a nearby leaf so hard I could’ve sworn it wilted a little. How do you feel about being melted down into horseshoes?
... Point taken.
After that, there wasn’t much talking in my head or out of it. Lyra and I sat quietly against the tree, letting the soft, wandering melody of the lyre drift around us with the breeze.
“Hey Vi?” Lyra’s voice broke the silence, making me start slightly against the tree before I turned to look at her.
“We should...” She trailed off, frowning as something on my face seemed to catch her eye. “Uh, you okay?” She peered closer, and her frown deepened. “Have you been... crying?”
Shit. Play it cool, Scratch.
Admitting weakness isn’t some horrible shame, you know.
“No, I’m fine,” I said, casually turning away and rubbing my face with a hoof. “Don’t worry about it.”
“You sure? If there’s something bothering you—”
“No. Seriously. ‘S all good.” I shook my head, standing up from the tree and rolling my neck with a series of satisfying pops. “What were you gonna say?”
“We should probably wake up Redheart. It’s been an hour and a half,” Lyra said, looking at me with more than a hint of disbelief. “But seriously, you sure you’re all right?”
I grinned. “No, I’m Vinyl.”
“All right, you’re fine,” she groaned, smacking a forehoof to her head. “Go wake up Redheart, will you? I think I’ve got something here. I don’t wanna break my flow.”
“Sure thing.” Vinyl, you are too damn good at this.
At what? Lying to your friends? Maybe it’s just me, but that doesn’t really seem like a talent to be proud of.
I huffed an irritated breath out through my nostrils. Hey, remember that time when you said you would stop being a tightass?
That seemed to shut her up for the time being. I turned, about to leave Lyra to her composing, when a sudden idea struck me.
“Hey, Lyra?” I hadn’t been able to tell Aura about my vision... dream... possession... thing, but I wasn’t sure if the mental lock worked on ponies who weren’t also rocks. I hoped not.
“Mm?” she replied, still intently focused on her music. I swallowed, gritting my teeth and steeling myself.
“Last night, I had this—”
The words died in my throat. The vice was back.
I sighed, shaking my head and resisting the urge to scream and incinerate the nearest patch of forest. “Actually, uh, never mind.”
She gave me an odd look. “Uh... okay.” A second passed. “You sure you’re all right?”
Fan-freakin-tastic. Like convincing them about Aura hadn’t been hard enough. “Never better,” I called back, walking over towards the other end of the camp. All right. Guess it’s just me, myself, and my crazy-ass mind. I can deal with that. Maybe. I forced the mystery of the vision out of my mind.
Redheart was still laying against the tree, her chest slowly rising and falling in the faint rhythm of sleep. I knelt down, gave her a gentle shake, and murmured “Hey, rise and shine,” as quietly as I could. No need to freak her out any more when she was still sleep-deprived and shaken up already.
Redheart’s eyes snapped open almost instantly, and I heard her gasp before yelping in pain as a white hoof clipped me across the jaw.
“Ow! Damnit Red, what the hell?” I said, rubbing my now-aching face with my uninjured forehoof. “Don’t you guys take oaths against that or something?” She looked at me, blue eyes widening as she seemed to realize that there wasn’t anything about to kill her, then gasped again.
“What... oh Celestia, Vinyl, I’m sorry!” she said, her face reddening. “Are you all right? I didn’t hit you hard, did I?” She prodded my jaw with a forehoof. “Nothing fractured, nothing broken, might bruise though...”
I pushed her away, chuckling slightly even as she continued to blush and mutter. “I’m fine. Chill. What was with that, though? Expecting to get jumped in your sleep?”
Redheart smiled weakly despite her obvious embarrassment. “I... I guess I’m still a little jumpy from last night. Again, sorry.”
“Like I said. No big deal” I replied, shrugging. “Anyway, it’s been an hour and a half. Should we check on ‘Tavi?”
She nodded. “She’ll need another round of phoenix tears, and probably a new set of bandages too. I might need your help with that.”
“Sure thing.” I felt a small twinge of apprehension as I remembered the oozing, greenish sore that had once been my marefriend’s shoulder, but quickly forced it down. ‘Tavi was a fighter. She would pull through.
Redheart and I made our way over to where Octavia was lying underneath the tree. Maybe it was just wishful thinking, but her breathing seemed smoother and less erratic than it had yesterday, and I could’ve sworn I saw the faintest hint of a smile on her face.
“All right,” said Redheart, taking the bottle of phoenix tears out of her saddlebags and placing it carefully on the ground. “Could you unwrap her bandages with your magic, please? I would do it myself, but as long as you’re here there’s no point in me risking infection.”
I nodded, focusing my magic around the wad of gauze that covered ‘Tavi’s shoulder. It came off with a nasty, sticky-sounding schlip, revealing the jagged hole along with a large amount of oozing green pus.
“That... that’s really gross,” I said, gingerly unwrapping the rest of the bandage and holding it in the air at a forehoof’s length. “Uh, what should I do with this?”
“Can you still shoot fire?” she asked, stepping away a couple feet, and I grinned.
“One bandage flambe, comin’ up.” I breathed in, drawing the fire chord out just long enough to feel the familiar prickle of warmth run through my hooves, then let it loose in a single flickering tongue of bluish flame. The pus-soaked bandage caught almost instantly, and a few seconds later, the only thing that remained of the gauze was a small pile of ash and the faint smell of rotten eggs. Redheart nodded in approval.
“Great. All right, you might want to stand back for this. If the last time I treated her was anything to go by, phoenix tears don’t exactly play nice with an infection this bad.” She picked up the bottle in her mouth, holding it over the mass of pus and greenish tissue, and I frowned.
“Stand back? Why? Is it gonna— whoa!” I leapt back in shock as Redheart shook two drops free from the bottle, sending a plume of bright orange fire arcing into the air with a sound like a whipcrack. The flames played across Octavia’s coat for a few seconds longer before sputtering down into a small cloud of black smoke, just like they had with my leg. I whistled softly. “Holy shit. Strong stuff.”
Redheart nodded, smiling. “There’s a reason they charge 90 bits a bottle. It’s definitely a gouge, but you can’t argue with the results.” She gestured to Octavia’s shoulder, and my eyes widened as I realized the globs of greenish pus were completely gone, leaving only a jagged bit-sized hole near her shoulder. There were still faint greenish tendrils playing around the wound, but the lack of pus and overall nastiness was definitely an improvement.
Redheart took another swath of gauze from her bag with her mouth, rewrapping Octavia’s shoulder with a series of quick, deft movements before re-corking the bottle and turning to me. “That should hold for a while, maybe eight or nine hours. Assuming the venom doesn’t get more potent in its late stages.” Seeing me glance nervously at Octavia, she quickly added, “Which it won’t. Probably.”
“Hey, how’s Octavia?” Lyra asked, trotting over to the shady base of the tree and peering down at my sleeping marefriend. “She looks... uh, better? Maybe?”
“She’ll be fine,” said Redheart. “From what I can tell, the worst of the infection is over. She’ll have to take it easy for a while once she wakes up, though. Maybe a week and a half of rest, regular rebandaging, plenty of fluids...”
Look, I realize this is going to sound insensitive and awful, but it’s also true.
Oh, look who was back. I repressed a sigh and braced myself for the usual onslaught of irritating pessimism.
There’s no way we’re going to be able to stay here for a week. Honestly, even today is pushing it. The Heralds are mobilizing, and unless we stay three steps ahead of them at all times, we’ll have lost the battle before we even fight it. You saw what happened at the Temple of Elri. If we don’t get a move on soon, the same thing is going to repeat itself again and again.
So what are we supposed we do? I replied, gritting my teeth. Leave her here to die? Force her to come with us while she’s horribly injured? I mean, in case you haven’t noticed, she can’t exactly walk right now. Or move.
A murmur ran through my head as Aura sighed. Look, I understand that you love her. I don’t like this any more than you do, but we have to get moving if you want to have any chance at all. Maybe you and Lyra could—
Nope. Not happening. The party’s staying together. End of discussion.
Stubborn as usual. Fine. But that still doesn’t solve the problem. We need to—
“Vi?” I felt a hoof prod my chest and jerked as I realized Lyra and Redheart were both staring at me. “You there?”
“Sorry,” I said, cheeks reddening slightly at being caught off guard for what must’ve been the hundredth time. “Aura’s being... difficult. She says we can’t stay here if we want to get the Totems, but we can’t leave ‘Tavi...” I sighed. “Being a hero is freakin’ hard.”
“No kidding,” said Lyra. “So, I guess we have to stay here, then. Ugh.” She hopped up and down a few times before planting her hooves back on the ground with a frustrated grunt. “I mean, the forest is pretty and everything, but I’m bored out of my skull.”
“What about your lyre?” I asked, pointing to the instrument, which was floating lazily behind her in a halo of orange light. “Weren’t you composing something like a second ago?”
She shrugged, striking an exaggerated intellectual pose. “I was, but I can’t think of anything now. Ze inspiration, it has... left me. Like a bird on ze first cold winter’s dawn, lost forever...” She broke down into giggles, and I rolled my eyes.
“Celestia, you’re such a dork.”
“Right back atcha, Melody.”
“Harp— ow! Damnit, Red!” I said, rubbing my the back of my head. “The hell was that for?”
She smiled. “Octavia’s indisposed, so I had to fill in.”
I shot her a glare. “Hilarious. Anyway, so yeah. We need to get moving, but we can’t, but we have to.” Typical problem in the life of an interdimensional adventurer. By this point, you’d think I would be used to dealing with mind-wracking issues of life and death on a regular basis, but apparently the whole ‘saving the universe’ thing had a slightly steeper learning curve than I’d thought.
I looked at the other two conscious members of the party and shrugged. “So, any ideas?”
“I’ve got nothing,” said Lyra, shaking her head. “I mean, we need to move, but we can’t, but... bleh.”
I sighed. “Redheart?” The white mare was gazing off into the distance, looking deep in thought. She turned to me, then slowly nodded.
“Octavia really shouldn’t be moving at all right now, but if we have no choice...” She sighed. “There’s something we can do. It won’t be ideal, and it’ll almost definitely be a massive pain in the flank, but it’s better than splitting up or trying to carry her ourselves. I’ll need your help, though. Both of you.”
See? I knew you would figure something out.
I ignored her before giving Redheart a relieved nod. “All right, sweet. What do we—” I stopped as my stomach let out a rumble that probably could’ve been been mistaken for a very gurgly-sounding species of dragon. When had I last eaten? Too long ago, that was for sure. “You know what?” I said, flopping against the tree next to Octavia and levitating my saddlebags off my back. “Tell me over lunch.”
“Seriously, Redheart? I mean, I knew you had an idea, but this?” I said, shifting uncomfortably as the hastily-constructed harness bit into my shoulders and back. “Isn’t there something else we can do? Anything else?”
Redheart shook her head. “She needs to keep resting while moving her shoulder as little as possible. I realize it’s not ideal, but we’ll just have to make do. With any luck, she’ll be awake soon and we’ll be able to support her when she walks. But until then, let’s just get moving before we waste any more of your amulet pony’s precious time than we apparently already have.” The words sounded slightly irritated, and to be honest, I couldn’t blame her. Taking care of ponies was more or less the only thing outside the realm of nerdery that Redheart could claim expertise in. Having that taken away by someone she couldn’t even see or here probably wasn’t the best feeling in the world.
If it’s any consolation, you could tell her that I don’t want to do this any more than she does. We don’t have a choice.
I sighed, shaking my head. Somehow, I don’t think that would help.
After we had packed up and eaten a small and simple lunch of dried apples, hay chips, and what remained of Lyra’s cookie tin, Redheart had set us to work on her “idea”: a strange contraption made from vines, leaves, and branches of various sizes tied together to form a pair of saddles connected to an improvised stretcher that Octavia was currently lying on. Impressively, my marefriend had somehow managed to stay asleep through the whole thing despite the near-constant rocking and wobbling of her ‘bed’.
I heard Lyra grunt beside me as she repositioned the other harness on her back. “Wow. I mean, this isn’t exactly comfortable, but it’s kinda impressive. They taught this stuff in med school?”
Redheart blushed. “Well, not exactly. There was an episode of Battlemare Galactica where they...” she trailed off, her face growing even redder before shaking her head. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter. Let’s just get moving to... where are we going, again?” She looked at me and frowned. “You do know, right?”
I nodded and flashed her a winning smile. “Of course.”
Redheart remained unimpressed. “Would you mind sharing?”
“Uh, no, not at all...” Aura where are we going, and why do you never tell me these things until they become an issue?
The Temple of Taurun, came the sullen reply. And I don’t tell you because it should’ve been fairly self-explanatory. If you had taken the time to look at the map that you nearly killed yourself getting—
“Well excuse me for being busy fighting for my friend’s lives!” I snapped, then smacked a forehoof over my mouth as I realized I had spoken out loud. “Uh, sorry. Nothing against you guys, just Aura being herself. One second.”
Ugh, whatever. Temple of Taurun? Fine. That’s another god, right? With another totem?
Yes. The god of strength and fire, to be exact. It’s the closest to the Wildwood, and most likely the one the Heralds will go for next. Use the Guide if you want to know more. Now, come on.
“All right,” I said, taking a step forward and promptly stumbling as Lyra did the same a half-second later. “We’re going to the Temple of Taurun, which is...” I put my tongue between my teeth, levitating the Guide out of my saddlebags and muttering “where?” The pages flickered, and I was presented with the map of Sonus, this time with a glowing blue line that began somewhere in the middle of the Wildwood and seemed to lead north. I traced it with a forehoof, gradually following it upwards through a sandy-colored blotch of land dotted with mesas and fissures labeled “Whispering Badlands” before stopping on a jagged, greyish mass of peaks and spires. I squinted, then my eyes widened in surprise as I realized I could see tiny rivers of orange lava snaking their way between the towers of stone. “Taurun’s Forge” was written next to it in the usual flowing script of the Guide, and I had to stop myself from gulping slightly as I imagined facing the massive flows of molten rock head-on.
Lava? You didn’t say anything about lava.
You never asked.
Celestia, you’re annoying.
“Uh,” I said, clearing my throat and shoving the Guide back into my bags with my magic. Some extra info might have helped, but right now, with a snarky thoughtpony riding my metaphorical back and a harness biting into my real one, I didn’t feel like reading all that much. “Right. In Taurun’s Forge, up to the north, through the Whispering Badlands. This way.” I jabbed my good hoof forward and began to move, then almost tripped again as Lyra was pulled after me with a yelp.
Vinyl. That’s east.
“Disregard that. This way!” I turned, much slower this time, and sighed in relief as Lyra did the same without tripping both of us, though I still felt myself sway a little. “Ugh. I feel like a pack mule.”
“Then consider this cultural sensitivity training,” replied Redheart, a genuine smile creeping onto her face for the first time in what seemed like days. “Now, let’s go before you forget the existence of gravity and start floating away.”
I rolled my eyes. “It would definitely make lugging this thing less of a pain—” I grunted and rolled my shoulders again as the vines in my harness began to slip, then hissed in a breath as my injured foreleg flared up with pain.“—in the freakin’ flank.”
“Oh, stop whining,” replied Redheart, casually walking ahead as Lyra and I stumbled our way after her. “I said we would do rotations.”
“You’re an earth pony,” I muttered. “You can’t talk.” Honestly. Despite her slim frame, Redheart was probably more than capable of lifting the stretcher by herself, not to mention handling it much better than Lyra or I, and yet she had still insisted that we take the first rotation despite my injury. ‘Need to keep an eye on her’ my flank.
There was the faintest hint of ringing in my head as Aura snickered. Stop whining.
I sighed and gritted my teeth, putting one hoof in front of the other with a conscious, concentrated effort.
It was gonna be a long way to the Badlands.
“Is it... a tree?”
Lyra sighed. “Oh darn. Got me again.”
I rolled my eyes, my face twisting somewhere between a smile and grimace. “You’re horrible at this.”
“It’s not my fault,” Lyra replied, pouting. “I’ve already done leaves, branches, flowers, the sky, you, me, Redheart... kinda running out of options here.”
It had been at least three hours since we had left the camp, and the Wildwood had stubbornly refused to become any more interesting than it already was. Everything but the pattern of the trees and brush was almost exactly the same: the stillness of the air, the way the light distorted into a weird, greenish haze, and the roots that seemed hell-bent on throwing themselves underneath my hooves every chance they got. I sighed. “We need a new game. I mean, ‘eye spy’ only really works if the place you’re in has more than like three colors.”
“Yeah.” Lyra’s brow furrowed in thought. “Maybe we could... oh! I know!” She twisted around, and I yelled in shock as I was nearly yanked off my hooves and onto the spongy ground below.
“Oh.” she said, looking sheepish. “Right. One second.” She focused, and her saddlebags were wrapped in a yellow-orange glow as her lyre floated out of them. “I wanna see if I can work on this some more.”
“Sounds good,” I replied, shaking out my bad leg and wincing slightly as the cut began to burn again. Even with us taking turns carrying the stretcher, I could feel my hooves beginning to ache, and though she hid it behind her usual cheerfulness, I was pretty sure Lyra wasn’t doing much better. “Just don’t walk into a tree or anything.”
Lyra nodded. “Don’t worry. I got this. I was in a parade troupe. Well, once.” She hoisted up her harness and began to walk, humming an aimless, wandering tune that her lyre echoed seconds later. It wasn’t exactly memorable, but the sound of her voice and the plucking of the strings was a nice break from the forest’s eerie stillness.
After what felt like another three hours of trudging, broken up only by the twenty seconds of fiddling with the harnesses it took to change rotation, I stopped, panting and holding my forehoof out in a gesture of defeat.
“Hey, you guys mind if we take a break? I mean, as fun-filled and action packed as all this walking in a straight line has been, I wouldn’t mind making it out of here with all my legs intact. Sound good?” I didn’t wait for a reply, instead flopping down onto the softest-looking patch of forest floor and grunting slightly as I felt the makeshift stretcher collapse on top of me.
Redheart, who had been attached to the other harness, gave an exasperated sigh as she fell next to me, nearly dumping Octavia out in the process. “Really, Vinyl? You couldn’t give us a second or two more of warning?”
“Sorry,” I mumbled, wriggling out from under the stretcher and looking down at Octavia, who despite her unexpected journey to the ground didn’t look any worse for wear. “How’s ‘Tavi?”
With some magical assistance from Lyra, Redheart managed to escape from her harness. She turned to Octavia, prodding her in various places and muttering to herself. “She’s fine,” Redheart said, rolling her eyes. “Stable, more or less, no thanks to you nearly dropping her. Although...” Her expression shifted, as if she was debating saying something, then she sighed. “She’s still dehydrated. Badly. If we can’t get some water in her now, or at least very soon...” Redheart trailed off. She didn’t need to say it. Probably didn’t want to, either.
I knelt down next to Octavia, gently pressing my lips to hers, then jerking back as I felt the icy coolness of her skin and the stiffness of her frame. If it wasn’t for the gentle rise and fall of her chest, she could’ve been a statue. Or a corpse.
“C’mon, love,” I whispered, levitating my now worryingly-light canteen out of my saddlebag and uncapping it. I took her head gently in my hooves and floated the canteen’s neck to her lips, then pulled them apart with my magic and sent a small trickle of liquid flowing in between them.
Octavia gasped as the water hit the back of her throat and began to cough and sputter, thrashing around on the remnants of the stretcher,. I tipped the canteen farther, figuring that some reaction was better than nothing, and was rewarded with another gasp.
Then, suddenly, for the first time in days, those beautiful lavender eyes opened.
“She’s awake!” Lyra yelled, and I felt my heart leap in my chest.
Octavia gazed up at me blearily, still coughing, and made a weak attempt to push the canteen away with her forehoof. “V— vaani!” she half-shouted, her voice hoarse and raspy. “Vaani! Lude, vaita vaani! Kavel ziva en!”
“She’s still delirious,” Redheart said quietly, appearing behind me like a shadow. “Do you know—”
I shook my head, easing up on the canteen slightly as Octavia continued to cough. “No idea. I tried learning Russani once and gave up after ‘Tavi told me there were 18 different conjugations for each class of verb. The only thing I remember are a few of the curses.”
“Leto izdra, vaani!”
I giggled. “There’s one. But what’s vaani?” Redheart shrugged, and I bit my lip. Damnit, ‘Tavi! I needed Equestrian!
“All right, that’s enough water for now. I don’t think we’ll be getting any more in her as it... is...” Redheart’s words slowed, and I turned to her, frowning. The canteen felt almost empty now, and I saw a few drops of rich, mahogany-colored liquid dribble down its bluish surface before I spoke. “What? What’s...”
Water. Water was not rich mahogany. The water canteen wasn’t blue, either.
Vinyl, did you really just—
And now she chimes in. Of course.
“Oh, shit shit shit,” I muttered, ignoring my mental peanut gallery and focusing my horn.
I practically tore the flap of my saddlebag off as I brought the correct canteen out with a glow of magic, wrenching the top off and nearly turning it upside-down over Octavia’s convulsing form before Redheart pulled it away.
“No!” she said vehemently, shaking her head. “Slowly. She’ll choke and probably go into shock if you do it that way.” I felt my face redden and scooted away slightly as Redheart administered the water, putting a hoof under Octavia’s throat as the grey mare choked and sputtered.
A few minutes later, ‘Tavi had calmed down enough to sit up, supported by a combination of a nearby tree stump and my body curled against her. Lyra was stretched out on the ground, aimlessly plucking at her lyre and looking straight up at the canopy above, while Redheart muttered to herself and attempted to piece together the broken pieces of the harness.
“Ugh...” Octavia mumbled, snuggling closer to me and burying her head under my neck. I smiled, shifting on the ground until she could fit comfortably, and was rewarded by a small murmur of pleasure.
“How’re you feeling?” I asked, running a hoof through her mane. It was a stupid question. I didn’t care. I just wanted to hear her voice, raspy and weak as it was.
“I... I’ve been better,” she replied, smiling weakly. “My shoulder feels like it’s slowly being drained of a gallon of molten lead, but besides that, the cramps, nausea, sore throat, and dizziness...” She gave a short laugh that almost immediately turned into a coughing fit. “I’m perfectly fine. Though I think accidentally force-feeding me a canteen of rum didn’t exactly help. I was asking you for water the entire time, you know.”
“Yeah, in Russani,” I replied, my face reddening. “Is that what vaani means?”
Octavia nodded, and I smiled sheepishly. “Sorry. Just a misunderstanding, I promise. Won’t happen again.”
“You got rid of it, I hope,” she said, the gleam in her eyes making it clear she knew I hadn’t.
“What, and waste perfectly good booze?”
I sighed. “Fiiine.” Turning to my saddlebags, I went to retrieve the rum canteen before realizing it was already out, held in Redheart’s mouth, with the last of the liquid inside slowly trickling to the ground.
“Red, what the hell?!” I yelled, leaping over my saddlebags in a futile attempt to save the last precious drops of alcohol before they were lost to the hungry dirt below.
“You’ll be fine,” she said. “Besides, this isn’t the first time you’ve picked the wrong canteen. Next time, it could be worse. I just don’t want to risk it.”
I rolled my eyes. “Redheart, if the fate of the universe hinges on whether I pick water or booze, I’m pretty sure we’re screwed already.”
You can’t talk, I shot back. How many times have you told me how screwed everything was?
Fine. Er... sorry, I suppose. I still agree with Redheart, though. This is going to be hard enough as it is without you being drunk off your flank.
I grabbed the empty canteen from Redheart, telekinetically throwing it in the general direction of my saddlebags before flopping back down next to ‘Tavi. She smiled, kissing me gently on the cheek and curling around me like a grey blanket, her body surprisingly warm now that she had woken up and laid in the sun. I was about to kiss her back when a familiar murmur ran through my head.
Er, not to ruin the moment, but...
I sighed. Right. Ain’t no rest for the awesome.
Don’t flatter yourself.
“All right,” I said, prodding Octavia’s stomach lightly with a hoof and forcing myself upright. She squeaked, and I couldn’t help but laugh. “‘Tavi, can you walk?”
“Can I...” she put a hoof to her head, then set her jaw, a faint glimmer of steel in her eyes. That was the Octavia I knew. Confident, determined to do whatever she set her mind to, and look drop-dead gorgeous doing it.
She hissed out a breath as she put her weight on her injured leg, then looked up at me, tears of pain pricking the corners of her eyes. “I can try.”
“Oh, jeez, ‘Tavi, you don’t have to if you’re—”
“No.” She cut me off, shaking her head and staggering to her hooves with another huff of breath. “We have to keep moving, don’t we? We’re probably far enough behind as it is. How long was I out?” Her last sentence was punctuated by a gasp as her knees buckled, and I had to shove my full weight against her to keep her from falling over.
“Only about a day,” I said, propping her up against me the best I could. “Which is pretty impressive, considering you’ve got a hole the size of a bit coin in the middle of your shoulder.” She smiled again at that. “But, I mean, yeah, we should probably keep moving, if you think you can—”
“I really hope you’re not suggesting that she walks with us like that,” said Redheart, a hard edge to her voice. I sighed.
“Well, if she thinks she can do it—”
“Absolutely not. She’s still exhausted and infected. If I had my way, we wouldn’t have moved at all, but as it is...” She glanced toward the splintered remains of the stretcher, and I saw her shoulders sag. “We’ll just... make do.”
“Hey,” I said defensively, “Don’t blame me, blame the thoughtpony.”
I could practically feel the burst of annoyance in my head. Oh, of course, Aura thought. It’s obviously my fault that there’s an insane rogue god trying to take over the universe, and that—
I practically leapt out of my skin as Lyra seemed to materialize next to me, instrument hovering beside her and a triumphant gleam in her eye. “I got it!” she said, almost hopping from hoof to hoof in excitement.
How the hell did she do that?
“Got what?” I asked, heart still pounding in my chest. Octavia looked on curiously from leaning against my shoulder.
“The song, dork!” Lyra replied, grinning. “Well, some of it. But it’s a melody! Wanna hear?”
I shrugged. I had been catching bits and pieces of the song for most of the day, but Lyra was obviously proud of it, and a little music was never a bad thing. “Sure, why no—”
The words were torn from my throat as a sudden, massive gust of wind threw me off my hooves, accompanied by a momentary darkening of the canopy above. It was like the sun had been snuffed out for a split second and then reappeared...
Or something very, very big had passed in front of it.
I slowly got up, looking up and around the clearing for anything that could’ve caused the disturbance, but only saw the rest of the party. They all looked more or less the same as I felt: dazed, confused, and in Octavia’s case, vaguely nauseous.
“Ugh...” Lyra muttered, putting a hoof to her head and retrieving her lyre, which had nearly been blown into a patch of brush nearby. “What was that? Maybe I shouldn’t play...”
I shook my head. “I’m pretty sure that wasn’t you.” Aura. Explain, please. I wasn’t in the mood for snark or small talk. If there was something big enough to get rid of the Celestia-damned sun flying around above us, I needed to know about it right the hell now.
I... Aura sounded confused, but not entirely unsure. There’s only one thing it really could be... but that’s impossible. Unless...
Less breakoffs. More explaining. Quickly. I was pacing now, nervously squinting up at the tiny shards of sky that made it through the forest’s thick canopy. I saw Lyra and Redheart begin to do the same, while Octavia just sat and looked like she was trying not to vomit.
Yes, your highness, Aura replied, the thought oozing sarcasm despite the fact she couldn’t actually express it. It was probably a varra. Huge, incredibly powerful birds sworn to protect the gods. They take on the primary element of the deity they’re bonded to. Highly magical, nearly immortal, and very, very territorial. I assumed the Heralds would have killed it when they took the totem, but maybe they thought they couldn’t face it head-on. There’s not much that can sneak past a varra, but if there was anyone who could find a way, it would be them.
Great, great, I thought, trying to ignore the bead of sweat that was slowly rolling down my brow. Giant pissed-off guardian bird strafing us when one party member’s down and two others don’t even have so much as a sharpened stick. And you didn’t tell us this why?
Like I said, I thought it wouldn’t have been a problem—
Of course. Fine. You’re lucky I’m too busy freaking out right now to argue. I backed up, still looking around the clearing, until I was directly in front of Octavia, all four hooves planted firmly on the ground in a protective stance. Guardian bird or not, there was no way I was letting anything touch her. Hey, there isn’t any chance it won’t attack us, is there?
Well, they usually don’t—
I didn’t hear the rest. Suddenly, an ear-shattering sound split the air. It was a strange, otherworldly cross between screech and a low, rumbling roar, and I dropped to the ground, holding my head in my forehooves. A second later, the shockwave hit, sending me tumbling back across the forest floor in a tangle of limbs, dirt, and pain. I forced myself upright as quickly as I could, ignoring my still-ringing ears and the tears in my eyes. I could deal with myself later. If that thing got to ‘Tavi, she wouldn’t have a later.
Holy shit, I thought, stumbling across the now-oddly bright-looking forest floor. Everything was still slightly blurry, but when I looked up, I started as I realized I could see clear blue sky. The trees all around us had been blown backwards by the force of the blast, arching away and leaving a center of unobstructed sunlight in the depths of the Wildwood. That was...
I froze, every single cell in my body simultaneously going rigid and icy cold with sheer terror. I wanted to back away, to run, to do anything at all, but my limbs refused to listen.
The thing in front of me didn’t look like a bird as much as it did a piece of the Wildwood shaped like one. Everything, from its knotted talons to its huge, moss-covered wings, looked like it had been grown straight from the dirt below me. Its feathers were made of rough brown bark, and everything they didn’t cover was overtaken by moss, vines, creepers, and even a few scattered flowers. Though its talons and beak were equally mossy, barky, and otherwise natural-looking, they still glittered in the sunlight that poured through the makeshift clearing, and I was certain that if I touched them they would shred me just as easily as if they were made of steel.
It was massive, too, at least ten times my height if not more, with wings that looked like they could casually swat a delivery carriage out of the air just by flapping. That deadly, mossy beak could probably swallow a pony whole. Several ponies, for that matter. There seemed no way something so Celestia-damned huge could possibly fly, but then again, dragons could, and this thing somehow scared me more than any dragon ever had. Maybe the fact that I had never been stared down by a pissed-off dragon had something to do with it.
Aura, I thought, doing my best to keep myself from shaking. This.. you didn’t say this.
What is that supposed to mean?! Aura replied. She sounded nearly as scared as I was, which didn’t exactly help my quickly-increasing level of panic.
You said they were huge magical birds. You didn’t say, ‘it’s like a timberwolf and an eagle the size of a building had the scariest fucking child in the history of the universe, and then that child grew up, is also the size of a building, and is extremely angry at you and everything you love.’ That would have been much more accurate. Now tell me how to make this one go away before it kills us all.
I swallowed, hoping the varra wouldn’t notice, and immediately and firmly regretted it as a piercing emerald-green eye swiveled in my direction from inside a hooked, craggy brow of bark and moss.
All right. Don’t move. Breathe slowly. Try not to blink a lot. Any sudden twitches and you’re dead. Let me think.
I began to nod, then stopped immediately, trying to ignore the throbbing in my injured foreleg. In my peripheral vision, I could see the other members of the party, frozen in fear just like I was. Redheart stood completely still, eyes wide, a rigid, pink-and-white statue. Lyra was gaping, her mouth hanging open in shock as she shook in place, and Octavia was lying limp on the ground. She might have been as scared, unconscious, or worse, and I felt a stab of panic spike through my chest, then turned my head a fraction of an inch to get a better look.
I screamed as a bark-covered talon the size of a fruit cart slammed down into the forest floor between me and Octavia, sending up a miniature mushroom cloud of of damp soil and dead leaves. The varra made its terrifying call again, and I felt the gust of wind as its head reared up, diving downwards to tear my flimsy pony body limb from limb with its gigantic beak. I closed my eyes, waiting for the end...
Lyra’s voice was like a whipcrack in the tense stillness of the forest air, breaking me out of my terrified stupor and sending the varra’s gaze shooting in her direction. I tried to hold out a hoof, tried to shout at her shut up and stand still, but it was too late.
Oh, Celestia, no...
The varra’s talon lifted from the ground in front of me and whipped towards Lyra, moving almost impossibly fast for something so large. She shrieked, throwing herself sideways and dodging the gleaming claws by a hair’s width. I saw her horn spark, then flicker, then glow, and a second later, her lyre rose from the ground, hovering in front of her in a cocoon of amber light like a shield.
What the hell was she playing at?
Aura? I thought, desperate for an explanation. Do you—
No idea. Your friend is either about to get herself killed or save you all. Don’t move. Just watch.
Oh, sure, just stand still while your friend sticks her neck out in front of a bark-covered killing machine the size of a two-story house. Easier said than done, thoughtpony. I gritted my teeth and waited.
The varra paused, looking down at Lyra like it was debating whether to eat her then or save her for later. Lyra looked back, gaze terrified but still unwavering, and plucked a single, solitary note on the gently floating lyre.
Silence. The varra’s eyebrows, if it even had any, seemed to raise, and it made a sharp, harsh sound, clacking its beak together and ruffling its wings. You’ve interested me, it seemed to say. Now make my time worth it before I kill you and all your little friends.
The last part might have just been a product of my panic-filled mind, but at that point, I doubted anyone would blame me.
“Please don’t hurt us,” whispered Lyra, her voice carrying across the clearing despite its quietness. “We’re trying to save the universe. We want to help. I bet you want to help too.”
More silence. The tension in the air was thick enough I was surprised I hadn’t choked on it.
The varra looked at Lyra impassively, raking her up and down with its bright green eyes for a few infinitely long seconds, then dipped its head the tiniest fraction. I saw Lyra’s face split in a broad grin and felt mine do the same a second later. My foreleg was really starting to ache now, but I just bit the inside of my cheek and continued to stand still. I wasn’t about to be the one that got us all killed.
“I don’t know what you are,” Lyra whispered, “but it would really be amazing if you could help us, or even just let us go. Please? I’ll... I’ll even play you a song, if you want.”
Is she really...? Aura sounded as incredulous as I felt.
I don’t even know.
Lyra’s request was accompanied by a small step forward, moving her barely a foot closer to the mass of bark-covered feathers. It was a tiny gesture. Insignificant. Most ponies would’ve ignored it.
The varra didn’t.
With another wild screech, it spread its wings to their full, terrifying length and smashed its talon in front of Lyra, nearly tearing off what would’ve been most of her muzzle as it slammed into the ground. She froze in place, lyre held tight against her chest with her magic, and squeaked, “Sorry! Sorry! I get it now. Don’t move towards you. Bad. I’ll.. I’ll just back away now, okay? Okay.” She took several large steps back, then stopped again as the varra clicked its beak threateningly.
“What? Don’t move back? What do you...” Lyra’s question faded as the thing raised a single talon, moving it slowly, almost lazily, until it was pointing at her lyre. “Oh, the song?” she said, nodding quickly. “All right. Uh, it’s not done yet, but...”
Lyra, if you pull this off, I am going to owe you like... something. I don’t know. A lot of somethings, I thought, desperately trying to drive my mind away from the image of her limp body being tossed in the air like a ragdoll by a moss-covered talon.
Lyra took a deep breath, her horn shining bright with yellow-orange light. "Here."
It was a simple melody, soft and light, echoing through the otherwise-silent clearing. The notes seemed to hang in the air for a few seconds after they were played, and I felt an odd lightness in my chest as Lyra continued. The varra watched impassively, not showing any sign of approval, but not making any move to stop her.
Lyra had her eyes closed, her face set in an expression that seemed just a little too serene for somepony currently being given the death stare by a massive forest-bird. She was swaying gently back and forth as the melody rose and fell, her lips curled in a faint smile. She looked happy. Calm. Confident. The polar opposite of a pony standing next to a few tons of sentient, pissed-off flying tree. Either she knew something I didn’t, or I would have to find out where Redheart was hiding the crazy pills.
A few seconds later, the song wound to a close. As the last notes faded, Lyra exhaled gently, opening her eyes and grinning from ear to ear. The tense stillness from before still hung in the air, but it seemed lighter, somehow. Less suffocating.
The varra still hadn’t moved. I saw its eyes flick from Redheart, still frozen, to ‘Tavi, lying on the ground, to me, sweating bullets in the middle of the clearing, and finally to Lyra, who beamed right back. Its gaze stayed locked with hers for nearly a minute, never faltering or fading. I took the opportunity to get a good look into its eyes, and realized, with a slight shock, that they weren’t cold, emotionless orbs like I had first though. There was something in them, that same spark you saw in ponies young and old. Intelligence and emotions. Pride. Frustration. Anger. Humiliation. Confusion...
The varra blinked.
It was a split-second gesture, almost unnoticeable, but it had definitely happened. It arched its head downwards towards Lyra, almost close enough to put them beak-to-muzzle, and for the tiniest fraction of a second I thought I saw something else in its eyes.
Respect. Given and earned.
That’s it. I’m giving her, like, all the somethings. Ever.
What a generous and benevolent leader you are. I’m sure Lyra will be overjoyed.
Okay, seriously. Is this some kind of defensive thing? I thought, gritting my teeth as I continued to stand completely still. Like, if you get angry or frustrated or scared, do you just naturally shift into ‘sarcastic bitch’ to ward off predators? Because I don’t think it works, unless you count pissing me off constantly a victo—
There was another eardrum-bursting screech-roar, and with a gust of wind that could have flattened houses, the varra flapped its wings and shot up into the sky. The blast of air threw me onto my back, and for a while, I just lay still, watching the figure of the bird grow smaller and smaller until it was nothing but a brownish speck in a sea of blue.
“Whew. That was close, huh?”
Lyra’s voice rang out from somewhere above me, as bright and chipper as always. I turned my head and saw her standing above me, beaming, and before I had even realized it, I was laughing. Loud uncontrollable giggles, flowing out in an unstoppable wave of nerves and relief. Then Lyra was laughing too, and we collapsed next each other, high off the sheer joy of just being alive.
When our giggle fits had finally subsided, Lyra and I got to our hooves and trotted over toward Octavia, who was already being tended to by a shaken-looking Redheart. I flopped down near them, peering at the charcoal-grey mare. “Is she okay?”
“Fine. Well, relatively,” Redheart replied, her voice slightly shaky. After what had just happened, I couldn’t blame her. “Unconscious, but no obvious signs of trauma. Breathing, heart rate, and everything else seem normal. I’m almost certain she just fainted. She should be up within twenty minutes.”
I grinned. “That’s what you think.” Pushing Redheart gently to the side, I practically leapt on top of Octavia, pushing my lips against hers in a hard, passionate kiss. She squirmed slightly, but otherwise didn’t respond, and I redoubled my efforts, stroking her mane with my forehooves and gently slipping my tongue into her mouth—
Octavia woke with a yell, bucking me off her with a surprising amount of strength for someone still recovering from a giant hole in their shoulder. I landed heavily on my injured leg, yelping in pain, then grinned as I saw her crawling towards me, scowling.
“Vinyl! What in Celestia’s name were you—” She broke off as she saw me holding my foreleg, her face changing almost instantly from indignant to concerned. “What... was I out again? What happened? Are you all right? I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
I shook my head, still smiling. “Welcome back, babe. And no, I’m fine. You’ve got a hell of a kick, though. Guess those legs are as good at buckin’ as they are at f—”
I giggled, giving her a peck on the nose as a fiery blush rose under her cheeks, and helped her up to her hooves, letting her lean on my shoulder like she had before. “Sorry, sorry. But yeah, you were out for like 5 minutes. Didn’t miss much, only us nearly getting killed by a giant guardian tree-bird and Lyra scaring it away with her mad lyre skills.”
Octavia frowned, glancing around at Redheart, who was glaring at me disapprovingly, and Lyra, who looked like she was trying not to burst out laughing. “Is she joking?”
“Nope,” Lyra replied, shaking her head. “Look, the whole clearing’s messed up from when it landed, see?” She began to pace around, pointing out the various ruts and holes torn up in the earth. As she did, I saw Redheart turn to Octavia, shrug her saddlebags, and begin to unwrap my marefriend’s bandage with her mouth, face set in her standard businesslike expression. I smiled. Red might’ve been quiet, reserved, and antisocial by almost anypony’s standards, but when the going got tough, you couldn’t ask for a more dependable, reliable friend.
“This is where it almost killed Vi,” Lyra said, pointing at a particularly large tear in the ground, “and this... whoa.” She knelt down, squinting in disbelief, then her eyes widened in surprise. “Oh, no way! Check this out!” Her horn glowed, and a long, slender object rose from the ground in front of her. With a start, I realized it was a huge, bark-covered feather, nearly twice as long as my foreleg. “Souvenir!” She ran a hoof across it, then jerked it away with a yell. “Gah, it’s sharp!”
“What?” I snorted. “No way. It’s made of wood. It can’t be that bad. Let me see.” She obliged, holding it out to me point-first. I gently poked the tip, and was rewarded with a stab of pain. “Ow! Jeez, that’s weird.”
Lyra nodded. “No kidding. Pretty sweet, though. You could almost use as some kinda sword or something...” Her face split in a confident grin, and she picked the massive feather back up with her magic, whipping through the air a few times with a whistling sound. “Heh. Watch out, thralls.”
“If you keep swinging it around like that, it’ll be ‘watch out us’, too,” Redheart said, rolling her eyes as she sinched Octavia’s bandages tight again. Lyra let the feather drop to her side, lower lip stuck out in an exaggerated pout.
“Oh fine, Ms. No-Fun.”
That’s strange, Aura thought. I don’t think varra shed naturally. Their feathers are too strong too just fall out like that. It might have left it intentionally, though if it did, I have no idea why.
I said as much to Lyra, and her face lit up.
“You mean it did that on purpose? Like some kind of gift?”
“That’s what Aura said. I mean, you seemed like the only one of us that it didn’t want to rip into little pony-flavored chunks. What was that, anyway? I mean, if I was getting the evil eye from a bird the size of a house, my first instinct wouldn’t exactly be to put on a performance for it.”
Lyra shrugged. “It was just a split-second thing, I guess. I already had music on the brain from when I told you guys about it, and it just kinda went from there. I mean, yeah, I was pretty much expecting to just get squished at some point, but it just looked at me, and... ugh, that was weird.” She shuddered slightly, like she was remembering something extremely uncomfortable. I frowned.
“What? Unless I’m remembering it wrong, you looked pretty pleased with yourself.” From the corner of my eye, I saw Redheart helping the now freshly-bandaged Octavia back to her hooves. I trotted over, letting her practically flop on top of my shoulder, and she made a soft murmur of gratitude that made me smile involuntarily as Lyra continued.
“Well, I was smiling because I thought it would be less likely to kill me, but if you had felt it...” Lyra shuddered again before continuing. “It felt like it wasn’t looking at me, it was looking in my head. The stuff I want, the things I hate, the ponies I love, my fears and dreams and hopes and everything else... it saw all of that. It wasn’t a good feeling.”
Well, that’s consistent with what I know, at least, Aura chimed in. All varra are blessed with Truesight, the innate ability to see the soul of any living thing. You can’t lie to one, and gods help you if you try. It must’ve seen something it liked in your friend and let you off because of it.
I repeated Aura’s thoughts out loud to Lyra, and she nodded excitedly. “You think? Well, that’s kinda awesome. Not every day you get the approval of a giant bird... tree... thing—”
“Aura says they’re called varra,” I said. “Flows off your tongue better than ‘giant killer death bird, huh?”
“Varra...” Lyra murmured, her horn flaring up with amber light. My saddlebag flipped open, and a second later, the Guide hovered out, pages already flicking to the appropriate entry. “Here we go. I think I’m gonna try to find out more about them. I mean, no point in getting surprised twice, right?”
I hope she can read while walking. Not that I blame you for the varra, but now we’re even farther behind the Heralds. We need to get moving as soon as possible.
I sighed. Right. “Lyra, you don’t mind reading and walking, right? We still have to head to the temple.”
She shook her head cheerfully. “Nope, fine with me. Let’s head out and kick some nasty zombie-worshipping flank.”
“Ready when you are,” said Redheart, throwing her saddlebags back onto her body with a quick flick of her head. “I still don’t want Octavia walking, though. The venom weakened her muscles, and if she tears something—”
“Don’t worry,” I said, flashing her my most leaderly grin. “I got this.” I planted my hooves on the ground, gritted my teeth, and lifted ‘Tavi over my back with a burst of magic, grunting slightly as her weight settled on my shoulders and sent a burst of pain through my foreleg. “Oof. See? You don’t mind, right ‘Tavi?”
“Not at all,” she said, smiling, “but are you sure you should be putting weight on your foreleg like that? I wouldn’t want you to get injured for my sake.”
“What, you think I’m not up to it?” Come on. What kind of marefriend would I be if I wouldn’t carry your hot, beautiful body through a forest full of insane cultists and pony-eating monsters without a second thought?”
“A smart one?” she said, rolling her eyes and giving me a good-natured swat to the back of the head.
“I think you’re just jealous of my amazing stamina,” I replied, grinning even as my foreleg burned in protest. I could practically feel the entire party’s eyes rolling in their sockets. “Well, whatever. Let’s just get moving. I need to stretch my legs after all that standing.”
“Where are we going?” Octavia asked. “I heard something about a temple. What exactly happened while I was out?”
“Yeah, we’re pretty much jumping out of the frying pan and into the lava-filled hellhole,” I said, setting off at a brisk trot out of the clearing with Redheart and Lyra following behind me. “The usual. Here, I’ll tell you more on the way.”
“... and they have different suffixes at the end depending on what element they’re attuned to. The one we saw was a varra-el. The root word ‘el’ means root, or tree, so that makes sense. The fire ones are varra-tau, and the water ones are...”
“Lyra,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I realize this is really interesting and important and whatever, but would you mind just... shutting up for a few minutes?” I had finished telling Octavia what she had missed ages ago, and now the only sound in the calmness of the Wilwood was Lyra’s constant, unstoppable motormouth, aided by the seemingly endless stream of information she was finding in the Guide hovering in front of her nose.
“Oh. Yeah. Sorry. Guess I was getting kinda annoying, huh?”
I shrugged. “No big deal. But yeah, a little peace and quiet would be nice.” I swear, by the end of this she’ll probably have read the entire Guide cover-to-cover.
And that’s a bad thing?
That wasn’t what I meant and you know it, I replied. Someone needs to do the research, and if you had known me in school, you would realize we’re all much better off with it being her.
We had been walking in comfortable silence for a few minutes, the late-afternoon sun slowly fading in the sky, when I heard it. A rhythm, faint yet insistent, leading off into a thicket of dark, foreboding brush. It was different from anything I had heard in Sonus: heavy and measured, with a steady, trudging beat that prickled the hair on the back of my neck.
I stopped short, ignoring Lyra’s yelp as she nearly smacked into my rump, and cocked an ear towards the source of the sound. There was another sonomancer near us. Maybe several.
That rhythm... I would know it anywhere. Vinyl, the Heralds are here, Aura thought, sounding grim. If there’s even a chance they have the totem, we need to at least see what’s going on, but don’t do anything stupid. They probably have it under heavy escort, and the last thing we need is for you to get captured or worse.
I nodded, whispering, “Guys. Heralds. Probably lots. This way. C’mon.”
Lyra, Redheart, and I ducked into the brush, crawling commando-style through the sea of leaves, roots, and branches. Octavia was now lying asleep on Redheart’s back after I had realized that carrying an earth pony with only three fully-working legs wasn’t one of my better ideas. She murmured slightly as Redheart shifted her weight, but didn’t wake. I wasn’t going to change that. Better for her to sleep the day off safely than try to go in injured and hurt herself more.
You know, that might just be the smartest thing you’ve thought this entire trip. A bit hypocritical, maybe, but still.
Hypocritical? You were the one who told me to check this out, I replied.
Fair enough, though this isn’t the only time you’ve jumped into something with blatant disregard for your own safety.
What makes you think I’m doing that now?
Do you really need to ask that?
The music was louder now, a somber, pounding rhythm that seemed to echo through my hooves, dragging them down and making each step heavier. I could feel it affecting the other members of the party too, their melodies slowing and skipping in the face of the steady, unrelenting dirge.
Ugh. They really know how to ruin your good mood, huh? I thought, ducking to avoid a low-hanging branch. At this point, I was just making conversation to fill the silence, but Aura, for once, didn’t seem to mind.
Your cosmic signature reflects the contents of your soul. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, Heralds don’t exactly have much in the way of kindness or compassion.
I crawled a few feet further, then stopped short as my head was suddenly thrust into the open air. I could see a faint greenish glow in the trees ahead of me, with the melody leading straight toward it. A fire. The Heralds had a camp.
I wriggled my way out of the bushes, getting to my hooves as silently as I could and motioning for Redheart and Lyra to follow. They did, equally quietly, and we began to inch our way towards the flickering light.
I don’t like this, Aura though. It still only sounds like a few of them, maybe only two or three. There’s no way the totem escort would have anywhere near that few. We could be walking into a trap.
Well, we’re this far now, I replied, ducking behind a nearby tree and poking my head out a fraction of an inch to get a closer look. Let’s at least check it out... oh, sweet Celestia.
We hadn’t found the totem escort. We had found something worse.
The sickly greenish light of the fire illuminated a row of tiny, starved-looking forms: a group of at least twenty fillies and colts, chained together by manacles on their fore and hind legs. The oldest one of them couldn’t have been more than ten, the youngest, maybe five, and they were all unicorns. If that had some kind of significance, I didn’t know what it was.
This is a drafting camp. Heralds don’t use children for labor. To them, unicorns are the only race worth saving. You’re looking at new recruits before they’ve been inducted.
Oh, of course. So they’re not just genocidal, child-enslaving, world-destroying assholes, they’re racists too? Figures.
Looming over the terrified foals were two figures, their faces obscured by hoods and the rest of their bodies covered by long, flowing white robes. My eyes widened as I realized I recognized the clothing. It was all the same, even down to the hoofwraps, though the rings securing them were black instead of gold.
The mystery pegasus from my vision had been a Herald. What that meant, I didn’t know, but as of now it was the least of my problems. I closed my eyes, shoving all the potentially world-shattering revelations away into some dark corner of my brain. I could deal with them later.
I heard Redheart’s breath catch as she saw the camp, then a thump as Octavia slid off her back and onto the ground. Lyra was trembling, her face turned away and her eyes shut tight. I wanted to do the same thing, but forced myself to look. I would be strong. I had to.
No sign of the totem. The escort’s probably long gone, Aura thought, sounding subdued. This... this isn’t ideal.
You don’t fucking say, I replied, struggling to stop myself from shaking in despair and fury. I felt the warm glow of my sonomancy begin to spread out to my hoovetips, casting a faint blueish tint on the leaves below me.
Look, I realize you want to help—
No. Don’t you dare tell me to walk away. I realized I was hyperventilating, beads of sweat rolling down my forehead, and stamped a hoof on the ground, sending up a small burst of lightning that incinerated a nearby patch of brush. No. This wasn’t happening. How long had it been? Ten years? Twenty? Too long. I couldn’t take this. Not now. Not again.
We don’t have a choice! You’re injured, the pony you love is hurt even worse, and you’re about to charge into something that could easily be a trap. That would be something the Heralds would do, you know. Play off your empathy. Your sense of compassion. The things that make you better than them. They’ll take them and twist them around until they can use them to hurt you and everyone else.
You seem to know a lot about them, I replied, hooves shaking as tiny, flickering arcs of electricity played around them. I could feel the glow rising. I didn’t stop it. I didn’t care. Why should I trust you, anyway?
Oh for the love of the gods... you’re bringing this up now? Look, back off from here, find a safe spot to camp, and I swear I’ll tell you everything. But please, don’t get yourself killed trying to play the hero. Vinyl, I want to protect you. I want to protect all of Sonus. And I swear, with the gods themselves as my witnesses, that I’m doing this only for your own good.
Is that what you think? I thought, a tiny, bitter smile forcing its way onto my face as I stalked out from behind the tree. I motioned for Lyra and Redheart to stay put, and to their credit, they did, despite plenty of hoof-wringing and head-shaking. ‘Don’t worry,’ I whispered. ‘Just getting a closer look.’ It was a lie, but it was also the lesser of two evils.
You think I’m doing this for the glory? To be the mare who swoops in and saves the day? You know, maybe I was when I started all this, but your ideals have this weird way of changing when the ponies you’re up against start committing mass murder and enslaving fucking foals.
What... oh, seven hells. You’ve got some baggage, don’t you? Of all the possible things... There was a low murmur in my head as she sighed. Look, I don’t know what happened and I won’t ask, but don’t let your past cloud your judgement now. I’ve learned that the hard way.
You don’t know what it’s like. I replied. To have nopony to help you, to cry on when you’re scared, to tell you you’re something more than a worthless whore’s daughter who’ll probably just end up strung out on the corner with bloodshot eyes, begging for bits... heh. I grinned wolfishly. Look at me now, you assholes. Look at me from whatever back-alley hellhole you’re hiding in and watch as I do something you were never strong enough to.
I ignored her, flicking my goggles down over my eyes with a quick burst of magic. The world turned darker. Muted. I wasn’t Vinyl anymore. I was somepony else, somepony who could make a difference. Who could stop the hellish cycle before it started.
No, I thought, walking out into the eerie light of the clearing with my hooves wrapped in blue fire. My foreleg was throbbing in agony, but I ignored it. My pain was nothing to theirs. I’m doing this for them. No filly or colt deserves anything like this. Hurting adult ponies is one thing. At least they can try to fight back, or even just understand what’s going on. But hurting kids... I let out a shaky breath through my nose, trying to block out the dark, scrabbling claws of the memories that threatened to tear their way back into my head. That’s... that’s just... no. You don’t... you don’t fucking do that.
“Hey, bastards!” I screamed, my voice layered with rippling undertones of bass and lightning. There was a storm around me now, a wild, unchained whirlwind that crackled and spit at the world around it with forks of brilliant blue power. “How about you try a pony who can actually fight for herself?”
I saw the white-robed figures turn, shouting something in a harsh, guttural language, then the world slowed down as I channeled the biggest, most destructive blast of sonomancy I had ever released in my life. There was no melody to it, no rhyme or reason or rhythm or beauty, just raw, angry power.
I turned to them and reared up in the air and roared.
The blast left me in a single, gut-wrenching rush, like it had torn out a few of my vital organs on its way through my forehooves. The storm around me was whipped into a frenzy, shooting forward and eviscerating everything in its path. It kept going, farther and faster and brighter, until it had pulled every last scrap of warmth from my body and tears streaked down my cheeks and my eyes burned with the afterimage even through the lenses of my goggles.
I staggered as the last of the power faded away, sparking out in little fits and starts every time my hooves hit the ground, then looked up, blinked away the worst of the burning in my eyes, and gasped.
The ground in front of me was completely blackened, a long, unbroken path of charred carbon that went on longer than I could see. It was like a massive black line had been drawn across the entire forest, erasing everything in its path and dividing the trees into two sections with nothing but ashes in between. I had burned a path through the Wildwood, torching everything for miles in my anger and frustration.
I swallowed, then immediately began to cough as my mouth came up completely moistureless. Wow, Vinyl, I thought, smiling wryly through a pair of cracked, dry lips. Some hero you—
I froze, the smile dying on my lips as my eyes flicked to the right.
How... That wasn’t possible. No.
The white-robed figures were getting to their hooves, rubbing their heads and muttering to each other as the row of foals cowered behind them. One of them saw me, barking something angry and triumphant, and as the pieces fell into place, I started to laugh. Short, raspy bursts of humourless wheezing, ripping themselves from my throat like a cough that wouldn’t stop. It was almost funny, in a way. As much as impending death could be.
For a few brief seconds, I had held the power of a god in my hooves. I had been the storm, the embodiment of fire and lightning, the unstoppable tempest that destroyed anything and everything it pleased...
And then I, Vinyl Scratch, the overconfident, insecure, undeserving, lying fuckup of a mare, had missed. Missed so completely and spectacularly that it was funny. That I could laugh about it, even as my own death drew closer and closer with every hoofstep the white-robed figure took towards me.
“You’ve... you’ve gotta be fucking kidding,” I wheezed, still chuckling as the world began to fade and blur. “Of all the... I mean, seriously?”
The ground rose up to meet me as my legs gave out, my muzzle hitting the charred dirt with a thump that sent the coppery tang of blood bursting through my mouth. There were tears in my eyes now, tears of sadness and loss and defeat, and my laughs quickly gave way to dry, choking sobs as the white figures stood over me.
Lyra, Redheart, Aura, Clef, Cloudchaser, Colgate, ‘Tavi... oh, Celestia, ‘Tavi... I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.
There was a crack and a sharp pain in the back of my head, and then everything melted away.
Snow. It was always snowing.
Huge, powdery flakes drifted down through the inky sky, settling themselves over the Manehatten street like a stifling white blanket. The city was quiet tonight. The oil streetlamps around me flickered dim in their holders, casting a faint orange glow onto the snow-covered cobblestones. They weren’t warm enough to stop me from shivering.
I bit my lip, taking in a deep breath of frozen air, and slowly turned around.
He was there. He was always there.
Standing in the doorway of the beat-up duplex that was the setting for so many of my childhood nightmares. Barely more than a shadowy outline, like some kind of monster that you would whisper about to scare colts and fillies back into their beds. If only he was. If only I could make him vanish with a flashlight and a smile and some reassuring words.
“Oh, look who’s back.”
No such luck.
“Who the hell do you think you are?” That voice. Low and gravelly and full of cruelty, just like always. Grating on my eardrums. I huffed out the breath I had been holding, sending a small cloud of mist into the air, and stared back at him.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I kept my voice as cool as I could, but I couldn’t stop the tiniest bit of shakiness from creeping in. He heard it. He always did, like some goddessdamned jaguar waiting to pounce.
“Don’t give me that bullshit. You know your curfew,” he spat, stamping a hoof on the ground. “You’re lucky I don’t just slam the door now and leave you to fucking freeze—”
“Do it. Not like I could be any worse off.” The words had come from somewhere deep inside me, a tight little ball of wriggling, burning hatred that had been growing for Celestia knew how many years. My knees were shaking, and my DJ goggles felt tight and cold against my neck, but I held my ground.
“What did you just say?” That was it. The predator’s growl. Right before the pounce. I steeled myself.
“You ungrateful little bitch!” he roared, the strength of it almost making me cringe away out of habit. I forced myself to stand, staring dead on into what I could see of his eyes. “I raise your worthless ass for seventeen Celestia-damned years and this is how you repay me?! Waltzing around like you own the city with those stupid fucking goggles on your neck—”
“Bull shit you raised me. Last time I checked, being a live-in maid while you get drunk and mom goes to blast herself on salt isn’t exactly the definition of a healthy childhood.” The words tumbled out before I could bite them back. A tiny part of me quaked in fear, but an even tinier part felt a little thrill of satisfaction.
“Don’t you fucking backtalk me...” He lunged out from the doorframe, right hoof raised in that all-too-familiar windup. My body knew what was coming next before I did, and I nearly went limp, curling up on the ground just like I had so many times before. Just wait it out, thought a part of me, the broken, shattered part that didn’t want anything but for it all to be over. Roll with the pain and it’ll be done soon. Ice is in the freezer, bandages in the cabinet over the sink, towels under it. Make sure to wash your face. Pull your hoodie down tomorrow and tell the teachers you fell down the stairs or screwed up your makeup or what-the-hell-ever. You know the drill.
Fuck off, I told it. I’m done. Not this time. No more.
I threw up my forehoof and caught his with it, the clop they made as they touched echoing around the street as loud as a cannon blast. I stumbled a little, but stayed upright, still glaring at him with as much fire as I could manage. I was done hiding. Done crying. Done being a coward.
He stopped for a moment, frozen in place. His hoof was cold in mine, but I didn’t let go. Didn’t move at all. Just stood there and stared and waited.
He started to laugh.
It wasn’t happy or nervous or relieved, no, it was mean. Long and loud and full of barely contained anger, like a hiss of steam escaping through the top of a boiling pot.
“You wanna play hardball?” he whispered, muzzle barely an inch from mine. I could smell the thick, sour tang of the booze on his breath, but I refused to move. It was too late anyway. I’d poked the jaguar with a stick, and now it was time to face the claws. He shoved me back, forcing his hoof out of mine, and grinned, baring his teeth. “Then let’s fuckin’ play.”
I heard the hook before I felt it, the whip-swish of his foreleg through the winter air reaching my ears a half-second before my cheek exploded in pain. I grunted, staggering and spitting out what felt like a chunk of tooth before shoving him as hard as I could.
He barely moved, chuckling horribly before shoving me back hard enough to make me hit the cobblestones with a crack. I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from crying out, but I stayed quiet. I wouldn’t be weak. Not now. Not for him.
I tried to leap back up, but he was already standing over me, shoving me down and pinning me down with one forehoof while the other wound up again.
The first hit was the hardest. It always was. Something crunched in my nose as the foreleg smashed into my face, sending a warm trickle of a familiar liquid oozing out. He didn’t stop, landing blow after blow anywhere he could and spitting curses all the while.
“Ungrateful little...” Smack.
“Too weak to even fight for herself, isn’t that right, bitch?” Thud.
“C’mon, get up again. Shove me again, bitch. I dare you.” Thump.
They kept coming, and eventually I stopped thrashing under the iron-like bar of his other forehoof and lay still, keeping my head up and my eyes pointed at him even as the hoof whipped down again and again.
“Useless piece of gutter trash...” Crack-clink.
I jerked as I heard the sharp, splintery sound of breaking glass, then my eyes widened as I looked down and saw the jagged crack running through the left lens of my goggles. He saw it too, and smiled.
“Oh, that’s too bad. Maybe you’ll think next time before you try to pull this shit, huh? Those things were fucking stupid anyway. Worthless. That’s what you are, you know that? Everything about you. No money, no job, your talent’s a fucking joke... He stopped to laugh, then smacked my flank hard enough to make me gasp. “Music? I can make music, for Celestia’s sake! And you don’t even have the decency to go get yourself fucked by a stallion, maybe bring in a few bits on the side...” He felt me tense, my muscles going taut with rage at the words, and his smile grew wider. The little ball in my stomach was twisting around on itself, growing bigger and hotter until it felt like it was going to tear out of my chest. I settled instead for clenching my teeth and glaring at him.
“Not like you’d be worth much anyway. Assuming you could to make it down to the corner without shoving your face in some other mare’s cu—”
The ball burst.
“Shut up!” I screamed, a wave of anger and humiliation washing over me as I heard my voice crack. Because an attack of teenage hormones was exactly what I needed right now. “Shut up shut up shut UP!” I thrashed around in his grip, kicking out with my hind legs and trying to hit anywhere that would hurt. He grunted, leaning in and trying to force me down farther, and I bucked out as high and hard as I could.
He bellowed in pain as my back hooves smacked between his hind legs, staggering away and easing up on me the tiniest bit. It was all I needed.
I wriggled out from underneath his foreleg and stood up, panting. I could already feel the bruises beginning to form, growing from red marks to huge, blue-black welts that stood out bright and shiny against my coat. Not just on my neck or legs or chest, places that I could hide with a scarf or a coat or a well-placed glare at whoever made the mistake of staring. No, these were everywhere. Too many to hide. Too many to forgive.
As I stood over him, body throbbing and soaked with sweat, blood and melted snow, I felt like I was being torn in half. Part of me wanted to jump on him, just like he had done to me, and lash out with everything I had until every last bit of fear and pain had been repaid in full. But another part just wanted to turn and run, to sprint through the snow-filled streets and not stop until I had put as much distance between myself and my goddess-forsaken hellhole of a life as I could.
He moaned, rolling over and slowly propping himself up onto his forehooves, and I made my decision.
The cold air burned in my lungs as I bolted down the street, hooves nearly soundless against the layer of snow covering the stone below. My goggles rattled against my neck, but I didn’t stop to adjust them, didn’t even look down. I couldn’t, because I knew if I slowed for even a few steps I would sink to the ground and start to cry and never stop.
So I didn’t. I didn’t slow down. Not when I slipped and cracked my knee on a patch of black ice. Not as I darted across the ancient, run-down bridge that had divided North and South Manehatten for as long as I could remember. Not as my legs began to numb and my mind began to feel fuzzy and frayed, like I was a blob of cotton balls slowly being pulled apart...
Finally, my hooves gave out. I collapsed against a park bench, wheezing and curling up into the tightest ball I could, and before I knew what was happening I was crying. Huge, choking wails that took my body like a leaf in the wind, making me shake against the unforgiving wood. They were unstoppable, like tidal waves full of years of pent-up hurt, and all I could do was lay there, eyes shut, and let all my pain leech out into the cool, clear nothingness around me.
I groaned, rolling over as far as I could before something jerked me to a halt. There was what felt like a bracelet around each of my legs, connected by a length of long, metallic something. Chain, probably. They were tight, tight enough that I could already feel numbness setting in, and
felt colder than any metal I could remember. My saddlebags and goggles were missing, leaving me feeling uncomfortably naked without the familiar weight on my sides and neck. I could live without the supplies, but the goggles...
I tried to block the memories out, force them back down like I usually could, but it was already a long way past too late. They all flooded back like water breaking through a dam: every bruise and bloody nose, every screaming match, every night spent crying into a pillow—
No. Quit it, Vinyl. You’re over this. Time to be a big girl.
I took several slow, deep breaths, swallowing the pain and panic back down, and a few seconds later I could think clearly again. I hadn’t had that dream in years, but last night had apparently screwed up my head just as much as it had everything my else.
So. On the upside, I was pretty sure I wasn’t dead. On the downside... pretty much everything else.
Yep. Everything else.
What do you want? I thought, opening my eyes and wincing as I was nearly blinded by the sudden blast of sunlight. Wait. Sunlight? That meant it had been...
Only a day, as far as I can tell. Stay still. Look around as best you can, but don’t draw their attention to you, Aura thought. Her tone was urgent enough that I complied without arguing, squinting as my surroundings gradually morphed from fuzzy blobs of light into recognizable objects.
I was lying down in the middle of the same clearing I had nearly killed myself in the night before, with my legs chained, my head throbbing, and no sign of any of my friends. The huge line of scorched earth was still there, even more obvious in the light of day, as was the group of chained foals I had failed miserably at saving. Just seeing them again was enough to make me want to rip out of my bonds and blast anything wearing a white robe into a pile of ash, but I forced myself to keep still.
Don’t even bother with sonomancy, or magic at all, for that matter. The chains block it. You’ll only hurt yourself.
I immediately attempted to channel a note, and was rewarded a burst of freezing pain in my gut instead of the usual warm glow. I had to grit my teeth to stop from yelling.
Seriously? What did I just say?
Nothing. You don’t have a mouth. Shut up. So that hadn’t been one of my best decisions. Fine. Things were bad enough without being snarked at.
I risked a glance around and jerked in surprise as I found a pair of piercing steel-grey eyes staring back at me. They belonged to the pony chained in front of me, a young filly with an azure coat and an silvery mane. She flicked her gaze away as soon as she saw me, and I shuddered, doing my best not to rattle my chains. That stare had been like looking down a well: deep and dark and full of things that had no place being in a filly. I made a mental note to avoid glancing in her general direction again if I could help it.
I don’t like judging ponies at face value, but this time I think you might actually be right. Something about her feels... off.
Whoa. If Aura was actually agreeing with me about something, that filly must’ve had even more going on under the surface than I had first thought. And of course I was bound directly next to her, with plenty of chains stopping me from escaping when the impassive line of her mouth split apart to reveal a gaping maw full of dripping fangs—
All right, that’s a bit much. If Aura could’ve rolled her eyes, I had the impression she would’ve. And you’re one to talk about hidden depths, considering your little outburst last night.
I sighed irritably at the jab, then my eyes widened in fear as I realized what it might’ve meant. Wait. You can’t... see into my head while I’m out, can you? Like my dreams or anything?
Dreams? she thought, sounding confused. No, I can’t. Why? Was there—
Uhhh no reason forget I said anything, I replied, mentally smacking myself upside the head. Sure, Aura still didn’t know about the pegasus in white, but she hadn’t known anything about my less-than-peachy formative years before, she sure as hell did now. Great going, Vinyl. What’s next, a book deal and an auction for exclusive rights to your fucked-up life’s story?
You know, if you want to talk about it...
No. Talking about it is exactly what I don’t want to do. Now, do you have any ideas for how we’re going to get out of here, or is this going to be the lamest end to an adventure ever? And where the hell are Lyra, Red, and ‘Tavi? Wait. I gulped as a horrible thought crossed my mind. If the Heralds only care about unicorns, then what would they do with... oh Celestia...
Calm down. They’ll probably be fine, at least for now. You’re Outlanders, so you’re automatically more interesting than normal captives. That should keep you safe until they decide what to do with you.
Dimension-jumpers. Anyone or anything not native to Sonus. To the Heralds, it’s only slightly less worse than not being a unicorn.
I should’ve figured. We’ve already got racism, slavery, and genocide, so why not throw some in some good ol’ xenophobia to complete the cocktail of fucked-up-ness?
And you said this was a good thing?
It’ll delay them for a little while. Outlanders are rarer now, so you’re probably the first they’ve seen. They won’t be sure what to do with you, since you can’t be ‘recruited’ to join them.
A rustle of branches interrupted my thoughts, and I rolled over as quietly as I could in time to see a familiar white-robed figure emerge from the treeline. There was something behind it, too. Three somethings. Three ponies.
I felt a simultaneous burst of relief and rage as my friends came into view, each bound with chains just like mine and sporting a variety of new injuries. Lyra had a split lip and a gash on her cheek, Redheart’s white coat was almost covered in a layer of ugly bruises, and Octavia... My stomach tightened. Her beautiful face was cratered by a large, purplish lump around her right eye, she was limping badly on her injured leg, and her mouth looked like it was clamped shut to stop herself from crying out. I closed my eyes as a wave of seething anger washed over me, followed closely by soul-crushing guilt. They had suffered for my mistake while I had been sleeping off my bruises.
Those towel-wearing bastards are gonna pay, I thought, hooves shaking in a combination of weakness and anger. What do you think? Three broken bones per chained foal sound like a good exchange rate? Maybe a few extra for my friends.
Don’t do anything stupid. We’ll get out of this, but not right now.
I chuckled, softly and humorlessly, and opened my eyes. Me? Stupid? Wouldn’t dream of it.
The Herald was escorting my friends to somewhere near the front of the slave line as his partner continued to stand guard somewhere behind me. I tried to catch ‘Tavi’s eye as she walked past, but she was staring straight ahead, shoulders stiff and head held high. Regal to the end.
Even if I had been able to get her attention, I wasn’t sure what I would’ve done. Flashed her a fake reassuring smile? Mouthed ‘sorry I fucked up again’, for all the good it would’ve done? Broken down crying? Whatever. It didn’t matter. I would find a way out of this.
Together, the Heralds locked my friends into place with quiet clinks, then, with a barely-noticable ripple of his hood, I heard the taller one speak.
The voice was cool and emotionless, much different than the guttural barks I remembered from the night before. The hell? I thought, frowning. They didn’t sound anything like they did before, unless I’m remembering it wrong.
No, you’re right. I’ll explain later, I promise. For now, just do what they say.
All around me, I heard soft groans and the rattle of chains as the foals got to their hooves. I followed suit, though my foreleg was still aching from a combination of the Stalker venom and nearly being cooked inside-out the night before. A second later, there was another command, just as emotionless as the first:
I walked. The slave foals around me did too, some tripping or stumbling before they were shoved back into place by their linemates. Moving in chains was incredibly awkward, and I almost fell a few times myself before I found something that worked: a weird sort of half-shuffle that kept my hooves as close to each other as possible. It still hurt, but much less than any other way I had tried. The Heralds had moved into place on either side of the line at some point, providing a silent escort to the grim parade, and with them came the return of the song: that same steady, pounding rhythm I had heard the night before. It droned on and on, never changing or varying the slightest bit, until it had nearly blotted out all other sound. I gritted my teeth and kept moving.
With walking more or less figured out, I had more time to look around, not that there was much to see. This section of the Wildwood had so far been keeping faithfully to the general theme of trees, more trees, and not much else. At least the creepy filly chained in front of me hadn’t done anything else but walk straight ahead. At this point, I would be grateful for anything I could get.
So, I thought, wincing as I accidentally put my full weight on my injured foreleg. You said you would explain? About everything? We had been walking for around ten minutes, though to my aching hooves and throbbing head it might as well have been a day or two. Also, where are we going?
I’m not sure, Aura replied. Probably to a rift spire, which is a sort of fast-travel mechanism they use to quickly move around Sonus. I’m not sure where the nearest one is, though. Could be hours, could be days.
Fast-travel? I thought incredulously. There’s been fast-travel this entire time and we haven’t been using it?!
The Heralds have them all locked down. At least fifty guards on each one, plus a full complement of summoned Thralls. Trying to use one as a group would be suicide.
Right. Obviously something that convenient would have to be completely unusable when I finally learn about it. You’d think by now I’d start expecting this stuff. Anyway. Explain.
You asked me earlier how I knew so much about the Heralds. I suppose I owe it to you, after what we’ve been through so far.
Hmm, ya think? I shot back. What was the tipping point? Was it watching my marefriend get stabbed through the shoulder by a mutated undead freak of nature? Or maybe it was the time where I almost killed myself. Oh, wait, that’s been like, three times, now. My bad. The words felt good coming out, but as soon as I had finished I felt a pang of regret. Sorry. That was bitchy.
You’re forgiven, if only because I think that was the first actual apology I’ve heard out of you so far. Anyway, as I was saying, the reason I know what I do is because for more than two years, I almost was a Herald myself.
I stopped dead, earning myself a shove and an irritated grunt from the pony chained behind me. You better be kidding—
Let me explain!
I sighed. Please do. I desperately wanted to give Aura the benefit of the doubt, if only to save whatever shred of optimism I still had left.
I was part of the resistance, back when Mortem and the Heralds were still gaining power. They sent me as an infiltrator, an agent to gain whatever inside information I could and report it back to them.
But they only accept unicorns, right? Unless you’ve had a horn shoved up your rump this whole time, I don’t see how that would work. Though it would actually explain a lot. It was a cheap shot, but I couldn’t help myself. In just a few days, needling Aura whenever I could had almost become second nature. Call it stress relief.
...I’m going to ignore the horn comment. Anyway, it was actually the perfect opportunity. I had to prove myself adept at sonomancy first, of course, which I did, moreso than even some of the lieutenants. They only accepted me after I nearly killed one of them in a duel, but even then they still refused to teach me any of their magic or techniques. I was just ‘the earth pony’. Lower than dirt. Untouchable and unnoticeable. Only called upon when I was needed, then sent away again. It was ideal for information-gathering.
But they found out. From what I’d learned of the Heralds so far and Sonus in general, I was pretty sure there was no way this story could have a happy ending.
Aura sighed. The sound echoed through my head for a few seconds before she continued. Yes. They found out. It couldn’t have been at a worse time, either. I was about to complete my mission by stealing the Clasp of the Eternal Song from their fortress in the Morter Wastes.
Whoa. You were in their base? I cocked an eyebrow. And they didn’t suspect you once? The more I learned, the more I had to admit a grudging admiration for the pony I was sharing headspace with. She might have been a snarky, insufferable killjoy, but she had some street cred.
Thanks. I think, she replied. And as for suspecting me, they didn’t have any reason to. I had been stationed there for a while as a servant-guard, and had even managed to make myself the ‘favorite’ of a few of the high commanders. Not that that meant much. I was supposed to be getting one of them something, I forget what it was, when I made my move. Took out the closest Herald I could find, stole his robes and burned the body. I had learned how to speak Purita by then, so none of them gave me a second look.
The language of the Heralds. It’s a bastardization of traditional Sonian with some old cantrip phrases added for extra power. It’s what they spoke just now when they told you to move, as opposed to last night, which was some mountain dialect I can’t remember the name of. Maybe Highlander Elrani? No, that has more consonant emphasis...
I sighed. Does it matter?
Actually, it does. It means they’re new inductees. Veteran Heralds wouldn’t be caught dead speaking anything other than Purita. This pair will be unsure of themselves. More prone to mistakes and irrationality. We can use that.
Oh, I thought. Finally, some luck! Well, that’s good. Now, what were you saying about stealing—
I blinked as a flicker of movement caught my attention, then tensed as I heard Lyra and Redheart gasp from somewhere farther up the line. The sound was quickly followed by a rattle of chains and the thump of a pony’s body hitting the forest floor. I swallowed, heart leaping into my throat as I strained to see what had happened.
Oh my Celestia...
Octavia had collapsed. She was lying limp and still, eyes closed and bruises shining in the afternoon sunlight. The foals chained ahead and behind her were already shuffling back, doing their best to distance themselves from the scene. I felt a surge of anger that almost immediately turned to guilt. What the hell are they going to do? I berated myself. They’re kids, idiot. Probably just as terrified as you are. They definitely looked terrified, at least from what I could see. All of them except the filly with the grey eyes, who stood silent and still, staring straight ahead.
Definitely a weird one. At least she wasn’t backing away like the rest.
“Halt,” a voice said, cold and robotic as usual. We stopped. A few scattered whispers made their way up and down the line, but they quickly faded as the Herald who had spoken began to move, stalking over to where Octavia had fallen. I clenched my teeth as he passed me, fighting the urge to leap onto him and try to wrap my chains around his neck. I would bide my time. For now.
Oh, no... Aura thought. She sounded genuinely scared for what was probably first time in the entire trip, which didn’t exactly help my already-spiking levels of panic.
Not very reassuring, Aura. Not reassuring at all, actually. I took a deep breath, trying and failing to calm myself down. What are they going to do to her?
It—it’s not important. We need to do something right now. Just give me a few seconds to—
It’s better you don’t know.
Tell me or I swear to Celestia I’m going to rip this amulet off with my teeth and—
Please, Vinyl. Trust me, just this once. We just need to get her out now.
I’m not leaving the foals, I thought, glaring down at a patch of moss. I had gotten myself into this. I wasn’t about to let it be for nothing.
I know you want to help, but just think logically! You can’t fight two on one when you nearly killed yourself less than a day ago.
I’m not leaving them.
Elri’s teats, you are so gods-damned pigheaded!
I managed a tiny smile in spite of myself. Is that, like, an actual curse? I mean—
The smile died on my lips.
Octavia didn’t respond, either ignoring or not noticing the Herald looming over her. He waited a few seconds, then repeated the command.
“Rise.” The word sounded exactly the same as it had the first time. There was no change in tone, no variation in pitch. It was like a recording.
Working on it...
“Rise,” the Herald said again, stepping away from Octavia. He raised a white-clothed forehoof, causing the slave foals closest to him to shy away almost instantly. They had seen this before. Maybe even felt it. The thought made all the anger I had felt last night bubble up in a searing wave, and I tensed in my manacles, ready to spring the millisecond he laid a hoof on ‘Tavi.
All right, I’ve got it, Aura thought, sounding anxious. It’s a gamble, a massive one, but it’s the only thing that might work. Pray to whatever gods you have.
Dear Princess Celestia, please don’t let me fuck this up, thanks, Vinyl Scratch. Done. The black ring around the Herald’s hoofwrap was beginning to glow a sickly green, with tendrils of power playing out around it like tiny snakes. I steeled myself. Now what?
When I say, take a deep breath and hold it, then start to channel a chord. You’ll have to overload the chains. It’ll hurt, but you’ll have to push through it. Don’t worry about controlling the flow, but for gods’ sake don’t run it through the foals!
Sounds incredibly dangerous. Awesome. Why can’t I do it now? I thought, staring at the Herald’s ring. It was almost hard to look at now, shining bright and pulsing with that same droning rhythm.
They’ll notice. Blue lightning isn’t exactly inconspicious. Wait until they’re distracted.
What do you mean distract—
“You refuse, and so you perish,” the Herald said coldly. His hoofring flared a brilliant green, the rhythm of the drums grew to a roar, and I heard Octavia began to scream.
Now! Start it!
What the hell are they doing to her?!
It doesn’t matter! Focus or she could die!
Octavia was writhing on the ground, face twisted in agony as the green tendrils coiled and squeezed around her body. I clenched my eyes shut, trying to block out her screams, but they were loud, piercing, drilling into my head and making it almost impossible to focus. I did anyway.
Oh goddess, that hurt like a bitch!
The notes of the chord felt like they were punching frozen holes in my stomach as I channeled them, but I pushed through it, forcing the tones louder, stronger, brighter. I saw a flash of white out of the corner of my eye. The other Herald. Not much I could do about him now.
You’re almost there! Come on, Vinyl, Aura murmured faintly. You’ve survived twice this much feedback before. I know you can do this.
I could still hear ‘Tavi’s screams, but now they were distant, fading in and out like a badly-tuned radio. My entire body was one solid block of icy pain. I couldn’t feel my legs. There was something dripping down my face, too, something that tasted salty and metallic as it pooled in my mouth. It took me a few seconds to realize it was blood, and a few more to realize it was my own. I was cold. So cold...
Vinyl, listen! Do you hear it?
Hear what? The screaming? Was it Octavia’s? Aura’s? Mine? Did it matter?
No! Listen past it! The chains!
I flicked my ears as high as I could, straining for anything other than the soul-tearing sound of my marefriend being tortured, and then I heard it: A keening, hissing whine, rising from the chains around my hooves and mingling with the screams.
That’s it! They can’t take the energy! Just a little more!
Suddenly, the cold wasn’t so suffocating. A rush of fiery warmth shot outwards from my stomach, sending pins and needles down my legs and hooves, and I let out a ragged yell of triumph as one of my chains broke cleanly in half with a SNAP. I was so close...
The heat of the chord lapped across my body, fighting back the horrible chill and pouring strength back into my limbs. There was another SNAP, and I staggered forward, my hind legs free from both their shackles. I heard a guttural shout from somewhere in front of me, followed by a filly’s yell. What was happening? No. Focus.
Two more! Aura sounded half exhilarated, half terrified, almost exactly how I felt.
SNAP. The third one broke easily, twisting and cracking as the energy pulsed through it. One, I thought, spitting out a glob of blood and letting the roar of the chord drown out everything else. Just one left—
Then, with one last, choking cry, Octavia’s screaming stopped. The Herald was stepping away, his hoofband fading back from green to shiny black...
“NO!” I shouted, dropping to my knees and slamming my forehooves against the ground. All the warmth I had been gathering left me in a single burst, arcing across the chains before ricocheting back into my chest. It passed through me, singeing my fur and burning my insides before shooting into the ground with a faint crackle. The cold was seeping in again, dulling my senses and sapping any strength I had left.
I had failed. Again. And this time it had cost me everything.
The Heralds were talking to each other, shouting in the same harsh language as the other night. I opened my eyes, pushing myself upright, and sucked in a breath as I saw the filly with the grey eyes lying on the ground, twitching faintly. My eyes narrowed.
I still had three hooves free. I would make them pay. For her. For ‘Tavi. For all of us.
The white-robed figures marched closer, muttering back and forth and gesturing at me. I spat at the closest one, sending a red blob spinning toward his robe, and he turned, hoofring already glowing and ready to deliver my agonizing death. I shoved myself to my hooves, glaring straight into the darkness of his hood even as my eyesight started to blur from tears and exhaustion. I would make them pay.
“Be pure,” he said, green tendrils spiraling outward from his ring towards my chest. I leapt back, holding my one remaining manacle up like it was a sword from Celestia herself.
“Burn in Tartarus, you son of a bitch.”
Then the sun went out.
I yelped as my hooves were swept out from under me by a sudden gust of wind, sending me tumbling head-over-hooves into the darkness. From the yells and shrieks nearby, it sounded like the slave foals had been hit too, which meant the Heralds were probably just as disoriented.
I tried to get up again, but my legs refused, weighed down by the freezing pain running through them. I sighed. The mini-eclipse would only delay the Heralds a couple seconds at most. Not enough time to do anything other than reflect on exactly how badly I had fucked up, which was pretty goddess-damned bad.
A second later, the forest burst back into light, and I was about try to stand one last time when a deafening wave of sound pierced the air. I’d only heard it twice, but it was unforgettable: a half-screech, half-roar that made the ground tremble and the leaves flutter on the trees.
It can’t be, I thought, shaking my head in disbelief. I’m not buying this. No fucking way am I this lucky.
Thanks be to Elri...
The varra was back.
Another screech-roar rang through the forest, then the trees around us were swept backward by a huge wave of air, exposing the slave line to the open sky. I saw the varra’s gigantic silhouette against the blue and whooped as it dove downward, talons outstretched and pointed straight at the pair of dumbfounded Heralds. One of them dove to the side, missing the bark-covered claws by what looked like inches. The other wasn’t so lucky, and I felt a stab of savage joy as I heard the meaty thunk of wood against flesh. Fucker had deserved it.
The varra shot upwards, circling around for another pass, then flicked its talon and sent the body of the Herald spinning out over the forest like a ragdoll. I jumped to my hooves, realizing with a start that the numbness in my limbs was almost entirely gone. It was like the forest itself was singing, humming and pouring life back into me with every note. It was a tune I recognized, too. Simple and upbeat, but full of wild, exhilarating energy...
I gasped in realization just as I heard a cheer from somwhere ahead of me.
“It’s mine!” Lyra shouted, hopping up and down in her shackles as the varra sped closer. Redheart, who was chained next to her, stood still and silent, eyes wide in awe. “The song! It’s playing my so—”
She broke off, her yells morphing into screams of pain as a wriggling tentacle of green energy looped around her neck. The other Herald had gotten behind her while we had been distracted by the varra, and now he was standing with his hoof outstretched and his hoofring glowing, slowly choking the life out of my friend.
“Get off her!” I leapt forward, swinging the chain around my forehoof and ready to rip him limb from white-robed limb, but Redheart, of all ponies, was faster. I felt the line go taut as she slammed into the Herald, yanking the slave foal chained to her back hooves forward and sending all four of them tumbling to the ground in a heap. The green tendril flickered, then began to fade, and I heard Lyra’s screams begin to fade with it.
Wow. Who knew she had it in her?
Redheart rolled to the side, tangling the Herald in her chains and slamming a manacled forehoof into his collarbone. I heard him hiss in what might have been pain before shoving her away, hoofring charging up for another blast. He never got to use it.
The varra landed with an explosion of wind and earth, its massive head darting out and snatching the Herald away from Redheart in one smooth motion. The music in the air swelled as it tossed him upward like a piece of white-robed popcorn, then grew to a deafening crescendo as the huge, mossy beak yawned open before shutting around his midsection with a clean snap. I turned away, slightly naseous, then jerked as something warm and wet showered against my back.
Oh my Celestia that better not be what I think it is, I thought, shaking out my coat as hard as I possibly could. I just threw up in my mouth a little.
Varra aren’t exactly known for their clean hunting habits, Aura thought, sounding almost giddy with relief. But what made this one come back? They don’t normally interfere with mortals unless it’s to chase them away from their territory.
Don’t know, don’t care, I thought, a sudden panic setting in as I saw the charcoal-grey form lying in the middle of a group of scared-looking foals. Gotta get to ‘Tavi.
Vinyl, you’re still—
I broke into a gallop, making it a grand total of around three feet before the shackle around my foreleg pulled tight, sending me sprawling down into the grass and making the foalI screamed in frustration, yanking pointlessly at the chain as if my anger would somehow magically turn it into paper. The varra’s song had helped with the exhaustion and pain in my limbs, but I doubted I had the energy to overload the chains again. Celestia damn it, this wasn’t fair! We had just cheated death for what must’ve been the millionth time, and now I wasn’t even going to get to see—
I started as I heard the sound of cracking metal, then froze in a combination of terror and awe. The varra’s beak was literally inches from my muzzle, still clamped over what was left of my shackle chain. I gulped, looking back into its emerald eyes and desperately hoping it wasn’t considering Vinyl Scratch Surprise for dessert.
“Thanks,” I whispered, then the urge to get to ‘Tavi overwhelmed my fear and I bolted forward, severed manacle clanking around my forehoof like the world’s ugliest piece of jewelry. I heard the varra screech behind me, but didn’t look back. Right now, only one thing mattered.
I reached the front of the slave line in seconds, stumbling a few times as my injured foreleg threatened to give out on me, then shoved my way through the circle of foals that had formed around my fallen marefriend. I earned myself a few glares from the ones who weren’t completely petrified, but I ignored them and collapsed in the center, panting.
Redheart had untangled herself from the foals and was kneeling on the ground, eyes pained and face somber. She didn’t acknowledge me as I crawled past her. I was grateful for that. This was something I needed to face alone.
The rest of the my surroundings seemed to fade away as I reached Octavia, melting around me into a dull-colored haze. “Hey, you,” I whispered to her, knowing I wasn’t going to get an answer. “Don’t worry. It’ll be okay.” Her eyes were closed, and her coat was still a smooth, downy grey, unbroken by a single scratch or bruise. She could have been sleeping.
The Bloodless Death, thought Aura. No marks, no trauma. Just— wait. Vinyl.
I ignored her, reaching out a hoof and placing it on her chest. Her fur was cold to the touch. I waited. One second. Two seconds. Three.
I wanted to move, to take my hoof away from her lifeless chest and stroke her cheek and kiss her and make her be okay, but I was frozen to the spot. It all seemed so unreal, like the whole thing had been a nightmare and I was just about to wake up.
Vinyl, look at her foreleg.
My eyes panned downward, slowly tracing every inch of Octavia’s body as they made their way toward her hooves. Those legs had hugged me, slapped me, carried me and held me and pulled me in close for hundreds and hundreds of kisses...
I squinted, blinking my tears away as something on her leg caught my attention. The silver hoofband was still there from when she had put it on in Legato Records what felt like an eternity ago, but it was dull now, tarnished almost black.
Those idiots, Aura thought, sounding triumphant and relieved and a hundred other emotions she had no right to feel. Those gods-damned fools. It must have blended in with her fur well enough that they missed it when they were putting on the shackles. Vinyl, take it off.
I stood still, brain struggling to process the command. Memories were flashing through my head, replacing each other at an almost sickening speed: Octavia smiling. Octavia laughing. Sleeping next to me, her body warm and soft against mine. Cheering in the audience of my first gig in Canterlot, when I had been so nervous I had almost thrown up onstage. Sitting across from me, mouth curled in a confident smirk as she threw back another glass of vodka, daring me to follow. I had lost that bet.
Vinyl. Take. Off. The bracelet.
Dueling the Stalkers, dancing gracefully around the screeching monstrosities with her tailblade singing through the air. Staring up at me, smiling despite her bandaged leg as we cuddled against the tree. Lying on the ground, screaming in pain as the glowing tendrils squeezed the life out of her—
I jerked forward, my forelegs moving of their own accord and yanking the hoofband off. As soon as it left Octavia’s body, it crumbled to a chalky black powder that stained my hooves like ink. What the hell was that?! I thought, shaking as I regained control of my limbs. What did you—
You were completely lost in your own self-pity. I had to intervene or she would’ve died.
Would’ve? I thought numbly, staring at the mossy ground. I still hadn’t fully accepted what had happened. I probably never would.
Just look, Aura thought. I looked, a tiny, flickering spark of hope igniting inside me as I did. It wasn’t possible, it shouldn’t have been possible, but maybe, just maybe...
Octavia coughed. The spark flared.
I heard Redheart’s breath catch from somewhere to my right, and within seconds she was nearly on top of ‘Tavi, ignoring the manacles still around her hooves as she pressed and prodded my marefriend’s body. I scooted reluctantly to the side, fighting my desire to shove her away, leap on top of Octavia, and hug her as tightly as I could until nothing was wrong anymore.
Probably best you didn’t, Aura chimed in. She could have broken ribs already. Hard to tell the extent of the damage from just looking.
Goddess, I hated it when she was right.
“Heartbeat steady, breathing fine, pulse strong...” Redheart murmured, sounding relieved and confused at the same time. “This doesn’t make any sense.”
“What doesn’t?” I asked, leaning over Octavia and putting a forehoof to her chest again. This time, I didn’t have to wait. There was a rhythm, strong and steady and wonderful. My smile was so wide I thought it was going to split my face open.
Didn’t I tell you? Aura thought. I just shook my head.
How? I felt it myself. A few seconds ago, there was nothing. No heartbeat, no pulse. She was... I stopped, reluctant to even think about what had almost happened. You know. Wait. The hoofband had something to do with it, didn’t it? I’m not a metalologist—
That’s not a word.
Shut up, but I’m pretty sure silver doesn’t normally act like that.
You’re right, Aura replied, sounding pleased. In Sonus, silver is a dimensional anchor. As long as you have some on you, it binds a piece of your soul to wherever it came from.
And this saved ‘Tavi how? I thought, frowning. It was never a straight answer with her, was it?
The primary technique the Heralds use for torture and execution is animalci, or, literally translated, ‘soul shredder’.
I shuddered, remembering the green tendrils wrapping around Octavia’s body. Sounds fun.
It basically attempts to tear your spirit out of your body and force it into another container, sometimes the user, sometimes a soul crucible or something else.
You really don’t want to know, Aura replied, and this time I believed her. I had realized why she hadn’t wanted to tell me what was about to happen to ‘Tavi, and whatever a ‘soul crucible’ was, I was confident that it would probably be several more levels of fucked-up than anything I was willing to deal with today.
So it tries to rip out your soul or whatever, but the silver is already pulling you back to your dimension, so it balances out? I thought. But wait. What’s stopping you from just putting on a suit of silver armor and waltzing through the Herald army like it isn’t even there?
Besides the fact that silver doesn’t exist natively in Sonus, it doesn’t work like that. The amount doesn’t affect the strength of the bond, and neither does the purity of the metal. It’s a fixed thing that can only take so much before it severs, which is why it made Octavia resistant to the soul shredder, but not immune. The hoofband’s useless now, of course. You saw how it crumbled away when you took it off. As soon as the piece of corrupted soul is removed from the body, it severs permanately. Octavia’s soul was still trying to hold on to the piece that had been corrupted, which was why she seemed dead. No soul, no life. At least not without some extremely technical and horrifying reanimation magic.
Right, I thought, noddingly slowly. Why didn’t you tell me this before? Seems pretty Celestia-damned important. I was too relieved to feel that irritated with her, but Aura’s endless withholding of information was still starting to become annoying.
If you knew you could resist the Herald’s power to an extent, you would try to abuse it. Take risks. Stupid ones. Well, more stupid than usual.
I smiled wryly. Fair enough. So this amulet lets me hang on to my soul for a little longer, too, right? What happens if it breaks? Do you—
The Clasp of the Eternal Song is different, Aura thought. It’ll still give you resistance to animaci, but because it’s an artifact, your body will give out a long time before it does. Magic can’t destroy magic. Not easily, anyway.
Oh. That’s... comforting, I guess—
“...unless the extreme pain triggered some kind of delayed chemical response that jump-started her neural processes and it just cascaded off from there...” Redheart was muttering. She saw my slightly glazed expression and blushed. “Sorry. I’m rambling.”
I blinked. “What? Oh, no, you’re fine.” Hopefully she hadn’t noticed that I had been completely absorbed in Aura’s lecture for the last two minutes. “And she’s fine, too, right?” I asked, pointing at Octavia and feeling a thrill run through me as I saw her chest rise and fall.
Sometimes it’s the little things.
“She is,” murmured Redheart, still frowning. “I don’t know how, or why, but unless there’s something I’m missing, she’s perfectly healthy. Besides the pre-existing injuries, of course.” She gestured to Octavia’s bandaged leg, which was obviously swollen even through the gauze. “Ugh, that definitely needs treatment. But I still don’t understand. When I got here... Vinyl, she was dead. Clinically dead. Ponies don’t just... come back from that.” She blushed deeply, realizing the implications of what she had just said. “N-not that I’m not happy that she’s back or anything—”
“Look,” I said, grinning and throwing a hoof around her shoulder. “I could give you a whole long explanation about souls and dimensions and silver and a million other things that would make it all make sense, or I could just say ‘magic and shit’ and we could get on with being heroes. Sound good?”
Oh for the love of the gods...
Redheart nodded, smiling her small, quiet smile. “Sounds good. Your nose is bleeding, by the way, a lot, and the rest of you doesn’t look very good either. No offense. I should check—”
I shook my head, rubbing a hoof under my nose and wiping the resulting blood on the ground. “I’m fine. What about you? Some of those bruises look pretty nasty. What happened, anyway? What’d they do to you guys?” I realized I was treading on dangerous ground, since whatever had happened to my friends had more or less been my fault, but I needed to know.
“Don’t worry, they’re all surface-level,” Redheart replied, sounding like she was carefully squeezing every last drop of emotion from the words. “They look bad, but they should heal on their own in a few days. And as for what happened...” She sighed. “After you collapsed, they found the rest of us and knocked us unconscious. We woke up around a half-hour before you, and when we did, our saddlebags and supplies were gone, and they were waiting. They chained us up, then one of them took us into the trees and interrogated us. He asked us everything: who we were, why we were here, where we had gotten our supplies... we didn’t tell him anything, of course. I don’t think he appreciated that.” She shook her head slowly. “He beat all of us. Octavia tried to attack him halfway through it. She got hit the worst. Then he made us march back into the clearing in front of everypony as an example. The rest, you know.” Redheart stared at me for a moment longer, then went back to checking over ‘Tavi, leaving me standing motionless with a mountain’s worth of guilt weighing on my shoulders.
Well. I think the generally accepted response here would be some kind of apology, Aura thought, sounding none too pleased about what had just happened. I mean, you did almost cost them their lives by charging into an enemy camp with a wounded party member and absolutely no idea what you were up against—
That’s it. As soon as we get to those mountains, I’m finding the deepest pit of lava I can and throwing you into it.
Oh, I’m shaking in my nonexistent horseshoes.
Ugh. Even my sarcasm was rubbing off on her. As obnoxiously as she had said it, though, Aura was still right. I owed my friends an apology. Well, I owed them a hell of a lot more than that, but it would at least be a start.
“Hey Redheart?” I asked softly, staring at the ground. She nodded, but didn’t turn around. “I— I’m sorry. Really sorry. I fucked up bad, I know, and I hope you can forgive me.”
Redheart didn’t respond for a while, and when she did, her voice was clipped and toneless. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she said quietly, still examining Octavia. “There are a hundred terrible, hurtful things I could say to you that would all be completely justified and deserved, but right now the only thing I care about is keeping everypony alive. Save your apologies for when we can actually talk about what happened, not when I’m bruised, exhausted, and just watched one of my best friends nearly die in my hooves.”
Somehow, those few softly-spoken sentences were a thousand times worse than if she had just stood up and screamed at me for a few minutes. Redheart had always had a gift for making you feel like dirt without a single curse or yell.
“Oh, and I am going to treat you at some point, but I want to see Lyra first,” she said, standing up from Octavia. “Whatever the Herald did to her with that ring couldn’t have been healthy.” She frowned, peering over the heads of the slave foals gathered around us. “Where is Lyra?”
“Ugh... ‘m here...” a voice groaned from somewhere behind me. I turned to see the unicorn lying in the same position she had been when the Herald had attacked her, looking even greener than usual but still smiling weakly. “‘M okay. I just—Ulp!” She broke off, eyes going wide as she noticed something out of my field of view, and I looked away as the unmistakable sound of vomit hitting the ground echoed through the too-still air.
I wouldn’t look back unless you want to see half a Herald, Aura thought. Varra are notoriusly picky feeders, but they still rip all their prey to shreds regardless if they want to eat it or not.
I nodded, feeling a little queasy myself. Thanks. Think I’ll pass.
When Lyra had finally finished getting rid of what must have been at least five meals and had undergone a thorough inspection by Redheart, the three of us met in the middle of the clearing, sitting around the still-unconscious Octavia. I had already asked Aura when she would be up several times, only giving up after the fourth or so ‘I’ve already said it varies, so for gods’ sake stop asking!’
“So,” said Redheart, chains jingling as she checked ‘Tavi’s pulse for what must’ve been the hundredth time. I had the sneaking suspicion she was still having trouble believing my marefriend had more or less come back from the dead. Not that I would blame her. “What now? We don’t have any slavedrivers, but we’re not exactly free either.” She shook her manacles as if to prove her point.
“The varra bit through mine,” I said, gesturing over to where the it was sitting and trying not to look at the white-and-red chunk of Herald nearby. The massive bird hadn’t moved since it had freed me from my chains, and had been staring at us with those steely emerald eyes for around the past five minutes. “Maybe we could convince it to—”
“It’s not an it, it’s a she, and her name is Syl,” Lyra piped up, nodding at the bird, which met her eyes for a moment before dipping its head in return.
“Oookay,” I said slowly, glancing back and forth between Lyra and the varra like I was expecting a pair of tin cans and some wire to materialize out of thin air. “So did you suddenly learn to speak giant bird, or...”
She giggled. “No, you dope. She told me, back when I was lying on the ground. You know, like in my head?” From the way Redheart and I stared at her in disbelief, it was pretty clear that no, we didn’t.
Lyra sighed, looking at the varra and clicking her tongue in disappointment. “Syl, these are my friends! Introduce yourself!” she said, motioning to us. Syl clacked her beak and rumbled softly, and Lyra nodded in approval. “You should hear something in your head, kinda like a whisper but louder. I dunno how to describe it, really, but you’ll know it when you hear it.”
Oh joy. Because having a pony talking to me in my thoughts just wasn’t enough—
I AM... SYLAVAEN.
I gasped as a sudden wall of sound exploded in my head, making me reflexively clamp my forehooves around my ears and then swear loudly as the shackle on the right one smacked into my temple. The words were everywhere, filling up my thoughts and ringing through my entire body. I closed my eyes, bracing myself for more, but thankfully none came.
“Goddess, Lyra,” I muttured, opening my eyes and massaging my aching head with my non-manacled forehoof. To my left, I saw Redheart doing the same, looking shaken. “You’ve had a whole conversation like that? How did you not go deaf after the first sentence?” Can you even do that? Go, like, thought-deaf?
No, though sometimes I wish.
I rolled my eyes. Har har.
Lyra looked bemused. “What do you mean? She was fine when I heard her.”
TRUESPEECH... DIFFICULT. The voice was back, thundering in my brain like an orchestra made of hammers. I winced, putting a hoof to my head and sinking to the ground as it reverberated through me. LANDBEAST... NOT RECEPTIVE.
What’d you call me? I thought, frowning even as my skull throbbed in protest.
YOU ARE... LANDBEAST.
I AM... VARRA.
Oh. At least she wasn’t cussing me out. If it’s hard to talk to us, why can you talk to Lyra? I thought, my curiosity beating out the pain in my head for the time being.
I nodded. Yeah. The green one who says she can talk to you without feeling like a chisel’s getting pounded into her skull.
LANDBEAST... YET NOT.
Is that why you let her play for you back in the clearing? And why you left her the feather? Syl’s replies weren’t exactly clear, even by my rapidly-lowering standards, but at least she was answering instead of tearing our throats out.
YES. WAS... CURIOUS.
FEATHER... A GIFT.
And what about right now? Why did you help us? Not that I’m complaining.
THEY ARE... SCOURGE. Syl jabbed a talon at the remains of the Herald.
YOU ARE... A HOPE.
I frowned, biting my lip. Sorry, but I’m not buying that. I heard Lyra’s song when you came down to save us, and you gave her your own feather, too. There’s more to it than just ‘oh hey, you guys are fighting Heralds, so am I, let’s be buds.’
YOU... DOUBT ME? the thought-voice roared, somehow managing to get even louder despite its already deafening volume. I doubled over, putting my forehooves to my head and half-expecting to feel blood oozing out of my temples. There wasn’t any, thank Celestia, but I was pretty sure I would have a splitting headache for at least the next three days or so.
YOU... ARE STRONG.
INSOLENT... BUT STRONG.
Syl had returned to her normal level of ‘slightly louder than a fully-cranked stage speaker’. I let out a shaky breath, blinking the tears out my eyes. Thanks, I guess. Still wanna know, though. Some ponies would’ve called me stupid for continuing the train of thought that was most likely to make me a midday snack, but I wasn’t one of them, and I needed answers.
LYRA... PLAYS WELL.
SHE IS... INTRIGUING.
DEAD... LESS INTRIGUING.
I cracked a smile. A giant bird with a sense of humor. Who woulda thought. All right, so you followed us and want to keep her alive because you think she’s... what? Your soul mate? Your queen? Your long-lost twelfth cousin twice-removed?
I AM... UNSURE.
Go on... I thought, eager to finally get some real information. Syl growled softly.
NOT... LANDBEAST... LEGENDS.
I sighed. Of course. I had gotten enough out of her already that I didn’t want to push my luck, but still.
What about Lyra? You said she was different. Can you tell her?
There was a long silence. Syl clicked her beak.
Well, it was something. “Ugh,” I mumbled, slowly opening my eyes and blinking as the blurry shapes around me came back into focus. “Note to self: don’t talk to varra unless you have some kind of migraine fetish.”
Redheart nodded in agreement at that, but Lyra just shrugged, shaking her head. “I don’t understand. Was it really that bad?”
“You’re different,” I told her. “According to Syl, anyway. You can hear her better than us. Something about a legend. She didn’t want to tell me anything more than that, though, so you’ll have to coax it out of her yourself.” I shot a reproachful glance at the varra, who responded by idly tapping her talons against the ground. The message was clear: ‘Don’t cross me if you like having all your limbs.’
I swallowed and looked away. Answers could wait.
“Syl says she might have a way to get us all out of here,” Lyra said. “There was something on one of the Heralds.” The varra dipped her head again, then a long, thin vine snaked out from somewhere on her back and dropped something small and black in front of me with a plunk.
The release talisman! Aura thought excitedly. But it only works for them... Wait. I may be able to get around that.
“Sure, I guess,” I said, glancing at Syl and picking up the talisman with my teeth. It was cold on my tongue and tasted vaguely bitter, but I didn’t trust my horn yet, not with one magic-suppressing shackle still around my hoof. “Better this than accidentally getting my leg bitten off.”
Syl made a sound that could have been a snort, and Lyra gave a nervous giggle. “She says if she wanted to bite your leg off, she would’ve done the rest of your limbs too, for symmetry. I... I’m not sure if she was joking.” A second passed, then she looked at me anxiously. “No. No she wasn’t. Uh, Vi, maybe wanna lay off for a while, huh?”
One of the perks of having a pure-white coat is that nopony can see you go pale. I nodded vigorously. “Yeah. I’ll do that.”
Yes, how about we refrain from insulting the gigantic, near-immortal magical creature that is currently helping us for absolutely no reason other than out of the goodness of her heart? Aura thought, obviously irritated. It was bad enough having her use Truespeech when I’m already in here. Being forced to share metaphorical space with something that has a few hundred thousand times the cosmic presence you do isn’t exactly pleasant.
I get it, thanks, I shot back, rolling my eyes. “All right, I’m gonna get us out of these shackles. Just give me a sec to ask Aura.” There were a few soft murmurs from the slave foals around me. They sounded hopeful but disbelieving, like they didn’t think it was possible for them to actually be free. I couldn’t wait to prove them wrong.
So what do I do to make this thing work?
Well, you can start by spitting it out, she replied dryly. I did, flicking the talisman from my tongue onto my outstretched forehoof and peering at the symbol carved into the polished black stone. It wasn’t one I recognized.
It’s a mechanism glyph. You use them to transmit basic movements through magically charged materials. This one should release the shackles as soon as some charge is put through it, provided that charge comes from a Herald. I should be able to repattern your cosmic rhythm to match theirs closely enough it won’t know the difference.
Less explaining more doing, I thought, shuffling my hooves impatiently.
Keep yourself together. This shouldn’t hurt, but it might be cold.
It was cold. I had to fight down a yelp as an icy chill ran through me, making me shiver and gasp for breath. A moment later, it passed, and the manacle around my forehoof fell open with a soft click. I grinned. “About damn time, huh?”
“Thank Celestia,” Redheart muttered, shaking out her legs and grimacing. “I’m surprised my hooves haven’t fallen off from lack of bloodflow.”
Lyra nodded in agreement. “And thank you, Syl,” she said, looking pointedly at me.
Oh. Right. Gotta stroke the giant bird’s ego so it doesn’t kill everyone except its interspecies girl-crush. Standard adventurer stuff. “Yeah. Thanks a bunch, Syl,” I said, smiling thinly at the varra. She jerked her head in acknowledgment, but otherwise ignored me. Typical.
For a pony that was just saved from a slow and incredibly agonizing death, you don’t seem very grateful.
I rolled my eyes. I don’t like things I don’t trust, and I don’t trust anything that’s the size of an apartment block and has already almost killed each of my friends. I’m grateful, I’m just more worried about getting eaten. And there’s also the whole ‘just watched my marefriend being tortured and almost die’ thing.
A soft, ringing laugh echoed through my head. I suppose that’s fair. Now, what are you going to do with these foals you worked so hard to save? I mean, you can’t exactly take them along to the Badlands, and the Wildwood is at least a few days’ walk from anywhere inhabited. At least, it was when I was here. It could be twice as long now, and we don’t have time for any detours.
We’ll figure something out, I thought, sighing. I mean, they don’t look like they’ll be moving any time soon, either.
The slave foals were still huddled together on the ground, sitting as far away from us and Syl as their chains would let them. Most of them hadn’t even realized they had been freed yet, and the few that had were staring blankly at their newly-unshackled hooves like they were some kind of alien creature. All except one.
The grey-eyed filly was already up, pacing around the rest of ex-captives like a circling shark. I realized with a small amount of surprise that her flank was blank, despite the fact that she seemed at least ten if not older. Most foals got their cutie marks at about seven or eight, and even the ‘late bloomers’ rarely went past nine. Weirder and weirder.
“What are we gonna do with them?” Lyra whispered, sounding worried. I was about to reply with what I had told Aura when Redheart interrupted, her jaw set in a determined line.
“I know what I’m going to do,” she said, each word quiet, calm and measured. “I’m going to find my saddlebags, open them up, and treat you, Lyra, Octavia, and every single one of those foals until you’re all completely healthy.” The ‘and don’t you dare try and stop me’ wasn’t spoken, but it was definitely implied. I nodded.
“Sounds like a good idea to me. I mean, we’re gonna need our stuff anyway. You know they took my goggles too? Assholes. You guys have any idea where they might’ve put it all?”
Redheart and Lyra shook their heads. “They must’ve taken it while we were unconscious,” Lyra said, glancing around as if another look would suddenly reveal the location of our missing gear. “I didn’t see any kind of storage thing, though, and they weren’t wearing any saddlebags.”
They would have put them in a storage rift. Little pocket dimensions that bind to the user on creation. When they die, the dimension—
Please don’t tell me it’s destroyed... With everything that had happened in the past 24 hours, I didn’t think I’d be able to keep it together if we lost all our supplies including ‘Tavi’s relic.
No. It becomes orphaned, but it’s still accessible. I’m going to change your cosmic signature again, and then I need you to reach out with your mind and just sort of... feel around for a dimensional hole. Once you find it, just pull. It’s really one of those things that only makes sense when you do it.
Seems like a lot of stuff here is that way, I thought, bracing myself for another icy chill. I was ready for it this time, but I still couldn’t stop myself from shivering a few times as it hit me. No wonder the Heralds wear those robes. They must be freezing their flanks off all the time.
Focus, Vinyl, Aura interrupted.
Right, right. I closed my eyes, trying to ignore the cold and letting my mind drift through the space around me, then started as I felt it brush up against a strange, nebulous something.
That’s it! There’s the rift. Now just reach in and pull it inside out to our dimension. Think of it like a bag, if it helps.
I pushed into the rift, shuddering as it pulsed and contracted around my mental probe, then pulled it back inward on itself a sleeve. There was a rushing, sucking sound as it collapsed, and when I opened my eyes, Ellie, Lyra’s varra feather, my goggles, and a pile of saddlebags were lying at my hooves. Lyra whooped as she saw them, bounding over and clapping me on the shoulder. I grinned in return.
“And they said you couldn’t make something from nothing!” she said, levitating her bags up onto her back and tucking the feather in between the straps. She closed her eyes blissfully. “Oh my gosh does it feel good to use magic again. Those chains were just...” Lyra shuddered. “Blergh.”
Technically, it isn’t something from nothing, but—
Nopony cares, I replied, lifting up my saddlebags and goggles in a bubble of red light. Lyra had been right. Being able to use magic again was definitely nice, but feeling the familiar weight of my gear again was even better.
Aura sighed. I was going to say ‘I suppose it’s irrelevant’, but that was the general idea, yes.
Redheart was already going through her bags, carefully examining the various medical supplies she had brought one by one before replacing them in their respective flaps and pockets. Once everything had been fully inspected and inventoried, she flipped them onto her back and nodded in satisfaction.
“Everything’s there, as far as I can see,” she said. “We are running running low on phoenix tears, though, so Octavia’s going to get priority. How’s your foreleg?”
I shrugged, giving the bandaged limb an experimental shake. It still twinged, but definitely felt better than it had before. “It’s okay,” I replied. “Not 100 percent yet, but I can manage. Give the tears to ‘Tavi.”
Redheart looked unamused. “I will, but you’re still not wiggling out of treatment.”
“Who says I’m trying to?”
You know you’re trying to. Faking wellness won’t change the fact that you’re injured.
Yeah, I’m hurt. So is Lyra, so is ‘Tavi, so is Red... what’s your point?
Aura didn’t reply, which suited me perfectly. Let her pout. I had some innocents to save.
I looked back at Redheart, who was already kneeling next to a cream-colored filly, holding the smaller pony’s forehoof in hers and talking too quietly for me to hear. Whatever she said, it must’ve worked, because a second later I saw the filly nod anxiously and point to a few of the other foals. Redheart nodded in return, then stood up and turned to me and Lyra, expression determined and businesslike.
“All right,” she said, gesturing to the remains of the slave line around us. “According to Sonata over there, there are four foals that are badly injured, mostly the older ones that have been on the line a while. I’ll take care of them. Vinyl, take this.” She ducked into her saddlebags, emerging a second later with the bottle of phoenix tears clamped in her mouth. I took it gingerly with my magic, holding it up to the light and swallowing as I realized how little was left.
“You watched me treat Octavia. You know what to do. Unwrap the leg, burn the bandages, get a few drops on the puncture wound, then rewrap. Don’t worry about making it airtight. At this point, the only thing that really matters is keeping it enclosed and giving the tears time to soak in.” Redheart was moving now, pacing back and forth between us like a drill sergeant. I saluted, barely managing to hide my grin.
“Yes’m. Will do.” I might’ve been the party leader, but right now, Nurse Redheart was in command.
She rolled her eyes, then turned to Lyra. “Lyra, you stay with me. I might need your magic for some finer work, and I could also use your help at keeping the rest of the foals calm. If one of them starts to look bad, goddess forbid, try to keep the rest away. I’m going to have a hard enough time working without a bunch of hysterical fillies and colts pressing in on me.”
The green mare nodded. “Gotcha.”
“Once the foals are treated, I’ll move on to you two. And don’t you dare object or I’ll show you exactly how painful a sterilized needle can be.” She took a deep breath, then trotted over to the first of the injured foals, a blue colt with a nasty-looking scab over his right eye. “Now, let’s get started. The sooner we get everypony healthy, the sooner we save the universe."
I wasn’t about to argue with that.