Dear Faithful Student

by Muramasa


CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FOUR:
CLANG


One night, Starlight Glimmer dreamed of utopia.

It haunted her mind to the point of obsession. She'd go to sleep with memories of her childhood and the cutie marks that were burned in her conscious. She'd awaken having tasted a world where ponies were not defined by fate or bound by destiny.

One morning, Starlight Glimmer grew sick of dreams. She yearned for reality.

Finding a place for her bastion of equality would prove to be difficult. Because of her unorthodox plan to rid ponies of their cutie marks, the town could not be too close to any other village or city, lest the local authorities of any jurisdiction get involved--at the same time, however, it could not be too far away, as she needed to be able to sustain her village even if it meant traveling to a nearby locale.

She searched through the Macintosh Hills, the Galloping Gorge, and Neighagra Falls, but just south of the Crystal Mountains and northwest of Manehatten, she found what she was looking for.

"It was rocky and dusty, but not unbearably so," Starlight explained. She had been telling us her story during the carriage ride to her former village, the occasional bump and jolt doing nothing to break the pace of her tale. She looked out the window now, taking a peek at the Equestrian grassland slowly turning to barren dirt.

"It was everything I needed, but there was just one problem," she said. Sunset, who I knew had never gotten the specifics of Starlight's villainy, finished her thoughts.

"There was already something there," she replied. Starlight nodded her head in the affirmative, though I detected a somber air around her when she began to speak next. I had a distinct feeling that we were getting into the darker pieces of Starlight's past, but she seemed to be lifting a weight off her chest as she spoke to us.

"A little hamlet called Hourton," she began, chuckling as she recalled the name. "You know I was originally gonna call the place 'Utopia'? I knew it was dumb, but I couldn't think of anything else until I heard a local elder call the place by name." Starlight looked to the ceiling of the luxury carriage, a reminiscent smirk building faster on her face as she spoke.

"Hourton would be Our Town. A place where the stigma, pressure and role of a cutie mark would be a relic of an inferior age. It was meant to be." Before she could finish, Violet, her eyebrows raised in suspicious confusion, butted into the story with a question.

"Pardon me," she began, "How did thou convince the townspeople of Hourton to abandon it?"

With those words, Starlight's face immediately flipped to a grimace. I had never heard this story myself, but I knew well from her visage that whatever she was about to say wouldn't be pretty.

"I couldn't have anypony finding out about this town. Aside from a trusted messenger to get supplies when absolutely needed, Our Town had to be isolated. At the same time, I wasn't entirely sure my cutie mark spell was going to work, and I needed a few test subjects. So... I didn't convince them to leave at first, Violet--"

"You forced them to stay," I finished curtly. It was the first time I had spoken in a while, and so the carriage's eyes locked on to me immediately. I could feel my face soften as I said my next words.

"Starlight, you don't have to talk about this if you don't want to." She adamantly shook her head with a countenance of conviction, however.

"No, this is important. Violet deserves to know what happened to her home," she began. "And... I really should have told you all of this before, Twilight. I'm just not proud of it." With another heavy sigh, Starlight began her tale again, only this time softly gazing to Violet as she continued.

"I tested my spell, and it worked better than I could have ever imagined. I had erased their cutie marks, and with it, their destiny had been shattered. I remember trying to go to bed that night, but pure adrenaline had kept me awake." She looked up to the ceiling of the carriage now, tapping her hooves idly.

"I... I used those ponies as an advertisement, if you will," she began. Her voice broke up ever so slightly, but she quickly recomposed herself as she continued. "They turned Our Town into an urban legend of sorts. The lost ponies of Hourton would find themselves in bars, telling the tale of how they lost their life's meaning. Many told them there was no way it was possible and didn't think of it further--"

"But some ponies did," Sunset interjected. Starlight nodded grimly, turning back to me with a worn and knowing glance.

"You know the rest. I did the same damn routine every time," she began. "We welcomed our visitors, I showed them to the cutie mark vault. Believe it or not, quite a few ponies were willing: pour souls who thought they were missing something in their lives or wanted to change something. But if they didn't--like you all--I did it anyway, and I made them stay." She turned back to Violet, who had a countenance of intense thought as she listened to Starlight's tale. Starlight gently rested a hoof on her shoulder as she finished up her story.

"Violet, the weight of what I did in this place haunts me every day, even still. I had a chance to make up for it a while ago, but, uh, it didn't work out so well." Starlight looked to Trixie with a sly smile, and Trixie began a faint chuckle as the two briefly reminisced about their previous visit to Starlight's village.

"I'm sorry, Violet," she began quickly. "For what I did to your village. And I hope you can forgive me and I entirely understand if you do not, but I do have something I want to tell you." Everypony's ears perked up at that, and Starlight began to shake her head as she continued.

"I never saw a graveyard or cemetery anywhere in that village. And I was very thorough because I wanted to destroy any last semblance of Hourton." Violet had already begun shaking her head in the middle of Starlight's sentence, and she looked out the window as she spoke next.

"Our ancestors were not buried in the village," she began. "'Twas better to have them near the sky than in the dirt, closer to the world after death." Everypony glanced to violet with a confused look, but a memory of Starlight and I came flooding back to me as I finished her answer.

"It isn't a graveyard, it's a tomb," I began. "And it's in the mountain pass."


To Steel Sentinel, the silence was not golden.

He'd just finished his guard route around the outside of the Crystal Palace. There wasn't much to it: the underneath section of the palace, lavishly adorned with a snowflake at the center of the floor, looked the same as it always did, but with four entrances on each side of the castle's underbelly, it was a guard's job to ensure that no thieves, bandits or otherwise unsavory ponies don't find their way inside. There never was, of course, and if any would-be assassin did make it through this time around they'd be sorely disappointed: Shining Armor and Princess Cadance were out of town, and so the castle's guards and servants were sanctioned to protect an empty nest.

Today should have been like any other day in the down week. He'd been patrolling the grounds under the palace for close to two hours, but his shift had established itself as offputting right from the get-go: where there was almost always a guard to greet him for a change of shift when he arrived at the palace, he found the grounds unsettlingly barren upon arrival. While he chalked it up to one of the guards leaving their shift early, it still left him disturbed for the remainder of his time at the castle's base.

That was going to end, however, as it was now time to enter the castle itself in order to begin making rounds near the throne room. Steel looked around the empty underbelly one final time before he opened one of the corner doors and began his ascent.

Everything is fine, Steel thought to himself as he began to clamber the steps that led to the castle's main floor. Nothing ever happens here. I'm sure the other ponies just are doing work as usual.

Upon reaching the last step, Steel Sentinel rose to meet the ground floor of the palace, the crystalline walls and glimmering marble floor bursting across the landscape as bright as ever, the bad feeling he'd held in his gut was immediately vindicated upon a simple scan of the room.

There wasn't a soul in sight.

Steel stood there for a moment. The guards absolutely should have been there: there was always close to fifteen patrolling the first floor of the palace alone, so to hear and see nothing upon arriving up the stairs was a red flag waving fiercely in the wind. Looking around one more time in an effort of surreal verification before calling out to the void.

"Hello?" he shouted. The only response was his own words echoing across the palace, the silence in the room now deafening as it faded away.

"This some kind of prank?" he shouted again. A few seconds passed as the echo returned to him, confirming his hopeful suspicion was incorrect. Gripping his spear considerably tighter, Steel began a slow but alert walk down the hall immediately in front of him, the gentle clack of his own hooves reverberating across the palace.

In no time, Steel found himself in the throne room, the two chairs meant for Cadance and Shining Armor empty and barren: what disturbed Steel more was that the room was barren as well. Even if the guards had miraculously disappeared, the servants still tended to the castle while the Royals were gone, and many of them would exclusively touch up the throne room to have it spotless before the monarchs returned from their political business. While the servants' absence added even more to the unsettling vibe of the castle, what Steel believed more disturbing was the fact that the room was spotless: the floors were shining brighter than they ever had been and the ornate stained glass seemed to glow with an eerie perfection.

"What in Celestia's name... " muttered Steel as he looked around the room once more. Although a sense of approaching dread began to crawl down his spine, he laid the castle blueprint out in his mind and tried his hardest to think of the best place to go in a situation like this. After a moment of mulling it over, a lightbulb went off in his head as he began to move before he could fully process his thoughts.

The guard bunks, he thought as he could feel his pace quickening. There were always guards sleeping to prepare for their night shifts, and unless they all collectively disappeared with the rest of the planet they'd be resting ever still. Steel had worked the night shift himself two years ago, so the path to the bunks has been long engraved in his mind.

Turning another corner, Steel quickly exhaled when he realized he'd been holding his breath: it was right as he did this, however, that he tripped over a large object that crashed into his hoof with a clang. Coughing wildly as he stumbled, he stopped for a moment to reposition himself before advancing forward. He took two steps before he stopped dead in his tracks, the sudden realization of what had just occurred hitting him like a freight train.

Clang.

Turning around slowly, Steel laid his eyes on what he fully expected to see: a guard with black fur and a white mane and tail slumped across the ground haphazardly, his spear resting a few feet away. Steel called out loudly, but his internal radar that had been violently going off all day knew well enough that his efforts were in vain.

"Hello?" he called, his voice a mere shell of the power he'd intended. His words fell flat, the figure hunched upon the ground still as a stone. Cautiously, Steel walked towards him, and when he reached the prone body, he turned it over to his side to observe the guard's face.

The guard's fur showed an immense amount of struggle, with pieces of it mottled and frayed if it wasn't entirely gone, but it took everything in Steel's power not to scream when his gaze drifted to the guard's eyes. There was quite literally nothing there: where the sclera, pupil and iris should have been was merely a black void, not a reflection or hint of existence to be seen. It was so dark that Steel brought his hoof to the eye just to be sure there was anything there, and the cold and dead film that met his hoof was more than enough confirmation.

Staring a second longer at the horror that lie beneath him, Steel quickly stood up from his crouched position and began to rapidly pace back and forth, doing everything within his power not to hyperventilate.

"No, no, no, no, no, no, no... " he began, forcing himself to stop and take deep breaths. While he hadn't expected to step into a scenario that made any horror movie or novel pale in comparison, he was trained for it, and so he closed his eyes and quickly began to move in the direction of the guard bunks, gripping his spear tighter than he ever had before.

There is something here, he thought to himself as he rounded another corner. I need to get to the guard bunks if it has not already. Everything is going to be fine. Everything is going to be fine. Everything is going to be fine.

Steel quickly reached a large, crystalline dining hall that signified his destination was close. The next hall, Steel knew, was the path to the guard bunks, and with an exasperated breath, he prepared himself for the worst. Sure enough, he was immediately greeted with the sight of two bodies strewn about on the floor beneath him as he approached the hallway, both within about five or six feet away from each other. The farthest one was turned away like the last guard, but the closest to him was unfortunately not: it was a mare, her fur an arctic white and her mane and tail matching, whose nightmarish voided eyes were on full display like the previous victim he saw. Unlike the previous victim, however, her mouth was wide open in what appeared to be an attempted scream, the vain effort fossilized upon her visage.

With a panic-stricken slowness, Steel looked up to the doorframe of the guard bunks, knowing well he'd have a full few of the center of the room. Only a quick glimpse revealed a prone figure lying on one of the beds, giving him all the information he needed to know. He gripped his spear tighter, quelling the shake he began to develop across his body.

I need to leave this place. Tell the townsfolk they aren't safe and write to the monarchs as fast as I can, though Steel. He whipped around and took a step forward only to screech to a grinding halt as the dining room came into view.

There was a pony a few feet away standing eerily still: Steel hadn't heard any movement behind him at all, but this was certainly no illusion. The upper half of its face was obscured by a black cloak, its mouth barely visible through the shadow. It didn't take long to identify its features, though: the pony was a unicorn, as its horn poked through the top of its hood, and it appeared to be male based on its stock and build. He had a pleasant, arctic white coat, and his mane and tail appeared to be a muted shade of amber. He wasn't using a spell at the moment, but he also wasn't moving a muscle, so Steel quickly brought his spear back to his side. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, Steel broke his silence.

"Hello?" he asked. His echo bounced around the room as it had all day, but Steel now truly wished it was his only company. After a few moments, the pony replied.

"Hello." The voice was oddly normal, a tiny bit higher than average: the cadence could have belonged to any stallion in Equestria. "You are Steel Sentinel, yes? I was wondering where you were. I triple checked the list." Steel could feel his eyes widen at that remark, but he did all he could to keep his composure: tilting his spear forward and crouching in a battle position, he began to bark at the stallion with an added ferocity.

"Don't move. Flip your hood up and get on the ground. Now." Steel had no idea how menacing he sounded, but nonetheless, the stallion complied, if only partially. He slowly drew back his hood, revealing the face he'd been hiding.

His face was extremely well defined, and he was a clearly handsome stallion, but it wasn't his face that drew Steel's gaze. His sclera was a bright and sickly green, both simultaneously blinding and lifeless. The irises were bright red while the pupils were colored of blood, seemingly flowing and pulsing like a vein. From his eyes seeped a dark purple mist, flowing constantly with no sign of stopping.

Steel had seen the very same eyes in the mad King Sombra, and it took much more than a spear to fell him.

"It took me some time to find you," the stallion said, seemingly ignoring Steel's commands. "But you're here now. I take it you've noticed the fate of your compatriots?" The calmness and steadiness in his voice were chilling, but Steel wasn't about to back down: taking a step forward, gritted his teeth as he spoke next.

"The guards... m-my friends... you killed them," he said, the cocktail of fear and anger slowly rising in his voice. The stallion merely raised his eyebrows at his words.

"Dead? I think you're mistaken, Steel Sentinel. Your friends are more alive than they ever have been." Steel leaned back in surprise at the comment before quickly reverting to anger at his words.

"Alive? What do you mean, they--"

Upon turning around, Steel was greeted with the sight of the two guards he had just seen lifeless standing in their spots. They were as still as statues, and their heads were cocked ever so slightly to the left, both guards perfect mirrors of one another. Their eyes were still an empty, black void, and upon leaning over slightly Steel could see that a pony was now very clearly standing on the bed in the exact same pose with its eyes locked upon him. If he hadn't seen them dead only moments ago, he could have easily believed they were wax figures.

The ponies did not move. They did not breathe. They did not blink.

They stared.

When Steel turned back around, he was greeted with the sight of the stallion mere inches from his face, his dead an emotionless expression burning right through him. Silently screaming in terror, Steel lept backward only to be more horrified to feel fur behind him. Not daring move a muscle any longer, Steel watched in dread, but not before he let out a whisper barely loud enough to be heard.

"What are you?" he asked, the whisper not enough to hide the shaking in his voice. The stallion chuckled quaintly as he began a slow walk towards Steel.

"I am a vessel of the void," the stallion said simply. "A priest of the shadows." His horn lit up black, with the green and red touches of darkness dancing slightly around it. The stallion began a carefree advance towards Steel, who attempted to thrust his spear forward: the "ponies" behind him quickly wrapped their front legs around his own, disarming him and locking him tightly. He attempted a struggle, but it was of no use, as the strength in the beings holding him seemed nigh supernatural. The only thing Steel could do was look up in horror.

"I am suffragan to the darkness. I believe it my sacred duty to spread its word." The stallion leaned down slowly to meet Steel's gaze, placing his horn within an inch of his forehead. With a dripping malice, the stallion whispered to Steel as he placed his horn between his eyes.

"And I will make you believe."

To Steel Sentinel, the silence was not golden, but once the horn touched his fur and the darkness flowed through him, it was all he'd ever know.