Under A Luminous Sky
Jake The Army Guy
Prologue: Dance of Death
The ponies sat at their bar stools in rapt attention, their drinks all but forgotten as they listened to the drunk mare before them. Berry Punch took a large swig from her mug before speaking again. “So I said, ‘Rectum? Damn near killed ‘im!’”
Peals of laughter filled the small bar as ponies fell off of their stools, gasping for breath. Berry gave a wide smile. The humble pub was a second home, a weekend getaway from the troubles of the work week. The other patrons were like family; friendly faces to share her problems with over numerous rounds of hard cider.
The gray earth pony behind the polished bar shook his head. He slid a full mug of cider to a mare across the bar before turning back to Berry. “You kiss your mother with that mouth?”
“No, Tap, but I kiss your mother with it,” she slurred.
Tap merely rolled his eyes as another wave of laughter filled the bar. “Okay, Berry, I think it’s time you headed home. I doubt Sheriff Shackle wants to deal with you again.”
“Aw, but the karaoke contest starts soon!"
“Oh, let her stay, Tap,” said a unicorn from the other end of the bar, pointing an orange hoof at a clock on the wall. “It’s barely midnight!”
“Yeah, the night is young!”
“Have a heart, Tap!”
The orange unicorn stumbled next to Berry and placed his foreleg over her shoulder. “Come on, Taaaap. I’ll even buy her next round!”
He shook his head, his shoulder-length blonde mane swinging back and forth. “And are you going to bail her out if she gets thrown in the drunk tank again?” He turned back to Berry with a small smile. “Sorry Berry, but I’m cutting you off. It’s for your own good.”
Berry rolled her eyes and blew him a loud raspberry. “You’re no fun,” she said as she turned to face her friends. “Sorry, everypony. Dad says I gotta go.”
Following a loud chorus of goodbyes, Tap led the stumbling mare to the door. “Never a dull moment with you, eh Berry?”
“Awwww, you’re just jealous. You know I’d win that karaoke contest,” she said with a lopsided grin.
“Yeah, you win every week. It’s only a contest if somepony else has a chance. Right, Brick?
The bouncer grunted as he opened the door for her, his rippling muscles bulging underneath his black t-shirt.
Berry turned to face the two stallions. “Winter wrap-up, winter-wrap up! Let’s... uh, something, something, de, de dah, cheer!”
Tap chuckled. “Okay, okay, enough! You gonna be able to make it home okay? Don’t want you getting lost again.”
“Are you kidding?” she said, puffing out her chest. “My sense of direction is spot o—” She tripped over a trash can, spinning around before finding her balance again. “Ah, I’ll be fine.” She turned and stumbled away, leaving the two stallions shaking their heads.
Brick turned to Tap. “Ain’t like you to turn away a paying customer."
Tap just watched Berry stagger away, a warm smile on his face. “Hey, I may be a businesspony, but I’m a friend first.”
Something inside Berry didn’t want the night to end. Going home so early wouldn’t have been a fitting close to such a fun evening, so instead she stumbled through the quiet streets of Ponyville. The thatch-roofed homes that lined the cobblestone roads swayed gently in her vision.
I love this town, she thought, a grin still plastered on her flushed face. Sure, it didn’t have all the razzle-dazzle of bigger cities like Manehattan, but it didn’t need it; even after all these years its quaint, rustic charm never got old. Her juice business did well enough to keep her content, and there was her beloved bar. She wasn’t an alcoholic by any means; she simply enjoyed drinking with her friends.
Berry walked past the town square, rambling and enjoying the bright moonlight, gazing up at the stars. She caught a few ponies giving her sideways glances, but she didn't mind. Gossip shared between ponies she didn't know never fazed her; her friends knew she wasn't a worthless drunk, and that was all that mattered to her.
Time escaped her as she stumbled, her tuneless humming occasionally interrupted by a hiccup. Berry hadn’t lied to Tap; she had spent her entire life in Ponyville, and knew the town like the back of her hoof. Therefore she was perplexed that she eventually found herself not at her apartment, but on the outskirts of the Everfree Forest. The imposing treeline stood sentinel before her, an ancient wall marking the end of peaceful nature and the beginning of wild unknown. Treetops danced and swayed with the gentle wind, a quiet whistling coming from the leaves.
Turning around, Berry saw Ponyville in the distance, only the faint glow from streetlamps separating it from the dark night. Her addled mind couldn’t judge the distance past a vague, “too far,” so she shrugged and turned back to the woods. Grinning widely, she stepped between the line of trees and left the dirt road.
The thick smell of vegetation filled her nostrils as she entered the woods. Heavy vines covered the trunks of trees, and brown, wilting tendrils of ivy reached for the canopy. The bushes surrounding her rustled with life; the glowing eyes of unknown animals peered at her as she stumbled through their territory. Berry was amazed that everypony was so scared of this place. The sights and sounds of nature were very calming to her, despite the occasional hissing of some unknown creature.
Berry stumbled through the thick trees, her soft humming sometimes interrupted by a drunken hiccup while she took in the beauty around her. Small slivers of moonlight illuminated her path, granting an ethereal grace to the lonely woods, accentuated by the gentle swaying of her vision. Getting lost in the Everfree was a very easy thing to do, but she didn’t care. In fact, she didn’t really even care if she made it home at all. The cool mid-autumn air made the outdoors a very appealing place to lay her head. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d passed out someplace strange.
The sharp crack of a twig snapping nearby cut off her thoughts. She turned her head towards the noise, straining to see in the darkness. After a few moments, she shook her head and continued on. “Darn critters..."
A breeze cooled her alcohol-warmed face as she paused in a beam of moonlight that shone through a break in the canopy. She looked at the stars through half-lidded eyes. “You sure outdid yourself tonight, Pri—”
Berry’s words turned into a quiet yelp when a shadow jumped through her peripheral vision. She whipped her head towards the movement. Once more, she stared intently into the shadows, her slightly bloodshot eyes scanning the darkness. “Wh-who’s there?”
Leaves gently swayed in the breeze, and the shadows seemed to pulsate. Shuffling on her back hooves, Berry started walking again. The calm she had felt only moments before melted away, a sense of unease creeping over her mind. Shivering slightly, she picked up her pace, glancing over her shoulder as she trotted on. Nothing but leaves moved in the darkness, but she kept eyeing the nearby brush.
Berry finally came to a halt in a small clearing. Trotting around in a panic with no clue where she was going was not helping.
"Stay calm, Berry," she said to herself. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Opening her eyes once more, she glanced around, searching for an escape from the darkness that surrounded her.
Her ears perked up, but all she heard was the faint rustle of wind between the leaves. The buzzing of life in the deep woods had stopped, leaving an eerie calm. “Celestia, get me out of here, and I swear I will never drink again... and this time, I mean it.”
A rustling sound came from behind a nearby bush. Berry spun towards the noise, her heart now pounding. She stared with wide eyes, sweat dripping down her face. The muscles in her legs tensed, adrenaline doing its best to counter the alcohol in her blood. Berry narrowed her eyes and peered into the blackness, her vision still swaying slightly. Then, she heard it: a heavy, snuffling sound, like somepony breathing hard after a long run. Berry took a few steps backwards, almost tripping over her own hooves.
“Okay, s-show yourself!” she cried. “I know you’re there! Wh-what do you want?”
For a moment, the only sound in the clearing was the breeze. Then, a gentle whisper wove through the leaves: “You.”
The bush exploded towards Berry, leaves and twigs smacking her in the face as something lunged from the darkness, tackling her onto the ground. The creature rolled on top of her and pinned her forelegs to the ground, one of its limbs holding a large knife. Berry’s shrill cry echoed through the trees as they wrestled, her hooves flailing at her attacker. The thing on top of her brought the knife to bear, aiming it for Berry’s chest.
Berry’s hoof connected with soft flesh, and her attacker fell backwards. At a speed that belied her drunken state, she stood up and stumbled away, the world spinning violently around her. Vines and leaves whipped her muzzle as she ran through the cluttered forest, her legs pumping with a strength born of fear and panic.
“Help! Somepony help me!” she cried, bobbing and weaving through the trees. She could hear her attacker nearing over her heavy hoofbeats and ragged breathing. Sparks danced inside her adrenaline-fueled muscles, urging her tired legs to continue.
She turned to avoid a dead tree when her hooves slipped on a patch of wet leaves. Berry cried out as she skidded and fell. Before she could scramble to her hooves, a heavy weight pinned her back down. A loud gasp came as her breath was crushed out of her. The attacker grunted in frustration and wrapped a hoof around her foreleg. Berry twisted her body violently, managing to wrench her leg free, and stumbled back to her hooves.
The forest only seemed to grow thicker as she galloped. Her lungs burned and her legs ached, but she kept going. The heavy breathing from behind was growing louder, the hoofbeats of her pursuer thundering in her ears. Every nerve in her body was screaming; it felt as if an electric current was jolting through her muscles.
She cried out again, her voice hoarse as she struggled to stay on her hooves. “Please! Somepony, anypo—”
Her cry turned into a loud grunt as her back hoof caught onto an exposed root. She tumbled head over hoof before hitting a tree with a loud thud. The sharp pain of the impact had only just registered when the world fell away, the darkness consuming her.
When Berry’s mind finally returned, a loud ringing filled her ears and her head throbbed painfully. She groaned and slowly opened her eyes, stars dancing wildly in her vision. As she gathered herself, she felt something against her back. Somepony was laying next to her, one foreleg wrapped around her midsection while a hoof softly stroked her mane. She tried to jerk away, but the stranger’s foreleg held her in place.
Berry began to blubber to the unknown pony. “P-please help. Somepony was chasing me.” She bit her lip, trying to hold back her tears. “They... they tried to hurt...” A sharp point pressed against her chest. Berry froze and looked down; it was the same large, curved knife from before. Strange drawings covered the hilt from the tip to the ring that attached it to the pony’s hoof, and the blade reflected the moonlight into her eyes. She tried to move, to run, to scream, anything, but her body refused to obey. Tears flowed down her face, mixing with the small trail of blood from her forehead.
“Please,” she sobbed, “Pl-please don’t do this.”
Far away, in the quiet town of Ponyville, nopony could hear the screams.