The Sun Hides
"Uuugghhh . . . am I dead?"
"I can't feel my face . . ."
I groaned an inhuman sound as I rolled off of the small bed, my whole back sore and wracked with muscle kinks. Goldguard wiped a line of drool from his lip as he slowly stood up from the corner, both of us having slept terribly. The whole fiasco last night left it impossible to get any rest, and only a smidge of barely an hour of false-sleep, the kind of rest you get that leaves you more tired than when you go to bed.
Well, one good thing did come from the previous night. I smiled tiredly down at the small red form cuddling up to my chest, nuzzling his head against my finger. After the initial fright settled down, the little literal fruit bat had taken quite a liking to me, something I had no objections to. Always wanted a little fluttering bat for a pet, even if he was partly edible fruit.
I stood up and stretched, extending my finger up to the ceiling, the little bat switching from hanging from my appendage to latch onto the ceiling, watching us keenly. Goldguard stumbled around, dropping his armor more than once as he struggled to get it all back on, creating such a clanking and chinking racket. I myself wasn't faring any better, stumbling about in my tiredness as I worked my own armor pieces and overcoat on.
"Need food to compensate for lack of sleep . . . "Goldguard muttered as he shakily made his way to the door, and I nodded in agreement, no truer words spoken from the solar guard. I reached back up and the little bat hopped right back onto my extended finger. I opened up my coat and placing him inside, surprisingly warming up to one of the pockets within. Looks like I had a new traveling companion.
We made our way outside, stumbling about tiredly and bumping between each other and the wall. Common direction somehow got us down the hallway, fumbling atop of one another into the room where the main desk was, sending up a spray of dust collected over years on the floor. Ms. Creaks herself smiled down at us with that incomplete grin of hers from behind the desk, chortling dryly.
"Well, lookie who's awake."
"Just barely." I replied, voice muffled from underneath Goldguard, who had decided to take a nap atop of me. I pushed him aside and stood up, wiping off my jacket while he snoozed on the floor. Ms Creaks cackled in reply, waking up Goldy with a start.
"Your lady friends are waiting in the dining area. As is a . . . big white diamond dog." The old mare pointed to the opposite end of the room, a small entrance leading into a wider room. When was that there? Probably didn't notice because how eerily dark it was last night, obscured by the inky blackness.
"Much obliged." I nodded at her, hefting Goldguard back up to his hooves up by his collar. "C'mon Goldy, food." I stated, dragging him along behind me. I ducked under the door into the dining area, noting the rest of my companions sitting at a table. Legion waited silently, watching us as we entered while Agatha kept Penny at bay while trying to eat a breakfast by stuffing her beak with pancakes.
"What do pancakes taste like?" Penny chirped, smiling at the griffin.
"I dunno, like pancakes." Agatha grimaced in reply, pushing the bot further away, her chair squeaking against the wooden floor.
"See you're all off to a good start." I greeted, tossing Goldguard onto a chair, only for his face to smack down audibly onto the table, his grunts and moan unintelligible as he tried to pick himself up. "Sleep well?" I asked, sitting down myself.
"I don't sleep." Penny giggled. Legion grunted and shrugged in reply. "Swamp is strange place to rest, but managed."
"I slept decent 'nuff. after I shoved the walking toaster into the closet and told her to be quiet." Agatha replied through a beakful of pancakes. Really need to get some myself, my stomach demanding a sacrifice through rumbles. Wonder where she got them?
I was answered by Ms. Creaks coming in, balancing two plates of steaming pancakes, piled high and drizzled with syrup, topped lightly with fruit. My mouth watered at the sight, tongue flicking over my fangs. The scent even made Goldguard sit straight up, forcing his eyes and mouth open, readying himself for breakfast. They were set down in front of us, along with a set of cutlery and a glass of juice. Didn't know what kind it was, didn't care. Hunger gnawed at me and commanded that I stuff my maw to make up energy for the lost sleep last night.
Grabbing the fork and ignoring the knife, I ripped a pancake from the stack and stuffed it right into my mouth, sighing contently as I didn't even bother to properly chew. Warmth filled me as I swallowed, smiling at the fluffy pancakes and sticky syrup gracing my palette.
I continued this eating frenzy mindlessly until only one pancake was left on the plate. With another satisfied sigh I stopped to belch and pat my stomach, sending a spray of embers into the air. I looked to my side and chuckled, Goldguard having stuffed every single pancake into his gob and trying to force them all down at once, shoving his hoof into his mouth to help his breakfast run down his throat. Interesting strategy, perhaps he should try incorporating chewing into it?
A small squeak could be heard from within my coat, and I reached in, pulling the small fruit bat out and settling him on the table. Agatha across from me merely arched a brow in expression to the little red creature. ". . . What's that?"
"A fruit bat." I replied, pinching off a bit of the last pancake and placing it in front of him, the bat taking it in his tiny hands and nibbling at it thoughtfully. "His name's Berry Barry." I went on with a small laugh.
". . ."
"Y'know . . . as in berry, the fruit? Then barry the name? It's funny . . . cause they both sounds the same."
". . ."
""You're not laughing."
"It's not funny." She crossed her arms, watching Barry with a spiteful glance. I rolled my eyes at her disdain for him, while Penny seemed to have taken quite a liking for the little mite already. "Hello-o-o-o friend!" She beeped, leaning across the table to get her face right in front of him. "I'm Penny. Nice to meet you Barry."
The small strawberry bat turned to her wistfully, small nose sniffing her own, almost touching, before squeaking as if in greeting before returning to eating the pancake bit I had given him.
"What is the plan, Alpha?" Legion interrupted, blank white eyes drilling into me. I turned to him and coughed. "Same as before, find out info on the changeling sightings, see if the locals know anything." I stated, pointing at each and everyone present. "Legion, did you find anything last night?" I asked, knowing full well the dog was probably up sniffing all night.
The diamond dog shook his head slowly. "No, Alpha Oddjob. We could not find anything on the strange scent. It is all around, yet we cannot pinpoint it. Perhaps it is just the general smell of the area, but we have never come across a swamp that smells quite like this."
"Wot dosfsh eet smurll laike?" Goldguard asked through his mouthful of foodstuff, still trying to shove it all down, now employing the use of his juice to try and soften it all up, only succeeding in making himself gag.
"Old. Stone. Cold. Scent a swamp should not have. Swamp should be muggy, slimy, wet." Legion replied. "Scent almost reminds us of . . ."
". . . Tartarus?" I finished, knowing what Legion was speaking of all too well, getting a taste, quite literally I might add with my hyper-sensitive tongue, of the underground dwellings of the most heinous of monsters. The mutt nodded in reply to my words.
"Maybe we're above one of the . . . entrances and exits to the damned place?" Agatha suggested an answer. "Rumors are there are hundreds of them all over the world, Tartarus running deep through the earth. Would explain why some monsters reappear."
"Maybe." I nodded, but sighed. "Not here for Tartarus or any monster down below, just the changelings. Ask about 'em, and if possible, find 'em. Then maybe we can be one step closer to finishing this investigation."
Most nodded, Agatha merely rolling her eyes and sighing. She'd be helping whether she wanted to or not, seeing as how we had to tow her around now. Sure, could let her go, but that would definitely bring about a group of angry griffins and drakes upon us, something I do not definitely want.
"Agatha and Goldguard," I nodded at the two, thinking she wanted some time away from Penny. "You two stay here and talk to Ms. Creaks, see what you can get." I said, to which Goldy saluted and Aggy frowned.
"Legion, keep looking round the area, see what you can gather."
"We understand, Alpha." He nodded, many voices replying at once.
"Penny, you're with me." I pointed at her, to which the robotic mare nodded, clapping her hooves and cheering lightly. I stood up and stretched, picking up Barry and tucking him back into my jacket, feeling the small warmth rest against me as he hung inside it. "Everyone ready?"
They all nodded and stood up, Goldguard and Agatha heading towards the front desk, Legion slipping by them and outside. I smiled down at Penny, who beamed up just as brightly. "I don't have many files on changelings, sorry." She beeped upwards to me. "Uncles Flim and Flam didn't really bother with info on them."
"It's fine." I chuckled, leaving the dining room, motioning for her to follow beside. I nodded at Gold just as he began ringing the bell, the strange old mare not behind the front counter anymore. I opened the door, feeling the incredible mugginess of the area overtake us, making me blink. A steady rain was coming down outside, and the sky was filled with darkened clouds, already making the gloomy village moreso.
"Oh. Water." Penny said uncertainly from beside me, tentatively peeking outside. "I don't really like it."
I nodded, tapping my scaly chin. Electronics didn't really work well when wet. I smirked, taking off my overcoat, leaving me in just my breastplate, greaves, and gauntlets. "Here, you keep yourself and Barry dry." I said, draping the large coat over her. She giggled, peeking her head out from under the fur collar, eyes glowing in the shadow. "Thank you Oddjob."
"Welcome." I nodded with a chuckle, stepping aside to allow her outside first. Manners Oddy, manners. Penny raised a foreleg and slowly placed it on the porch, myself following behind and closing the door behind me.She stepped out onto the wet and muddy ground, her legs actually rising up via a twisting corkscrew gear connecting her hoof to her limbs. I chuckled as she giddily giggled, safe from the moisture and wet around her, walking around in a marching manner, as if mocking the very elements that once threatened her.
I stepped out, feeling the rain pouring down cover myself, feeling cool on my scales and matting down my fur. Every drop did chill me a bit, but I reached down into the pit of myself and let a bit of fire roar up within, seeping like smoke through my fangs. I smiled at the internal furnace I had going on, watching the fumes spiral upwards only to dissipate quite quickly from the raindrops piercing through them like falling bullets.
"Where do we start?" Penny asked, dancing around a pool of mud that had gathered near the entrance. I looked up, spying the small market stands I had noted earlier the night before, seeing some forms move around them.
"So just let me do the talking."
". . ."
"I've got it covered. Years of military training and guard duty has given me quite the silver tongue and conversation skills. We'll get our information, don't worry." The Solar Guard smiled, patting Agatha on the shoulder with a hoof. She swatted it away and glared at him.
"Touch me again and I'll rip your leg off."
"Duly noted." Goldguard replied, about to ring the bell once more before the wrinkled mare jolted up from out of nowhere, shocking him quite a bit and making him jump back to her cackling. He collected himself and coughed, puffing out his chest as he stepped forward to speak with her.
"Yes sonny, how can I help you?" Ms Creaks chuckled at his visage of bravado, leaning against the desk with a cheek resting against her hoof.
"Yes." Goldguard replied, deepening his voice as much as he could. "My companions and I have come to Hollow Shades for investigative purposes."
"Oh, and what are you investigatin'?" She asked, mildly interested, playing with the particles of dust floating around her.
"Recent reports have indicated that changelings are on the rise again, and we wish to settle this matter before it escalates to the point of the great changeling invasion of the royal wedding some years ago."
"Yeah?" She smirked, half her teeth gone, half cracked and rotted.
"We seem to have information that changelings have been spotted in this area, or coming to this area. Do you have anything to comment about that?"
"Nope." She shrugged. "All I do all day is dust inside the inn. Have the help go get me my supplies. Could ask them."
"Okay then . . . where is your help?"
"Have the day off today."
"Do you know where we could find them?"
"Nope. They don't live in the Hollow."
"Then . . .where?" Goldguard asked, deep voice lightening up to more of his regular tone.
". . . Where in the swamp?"
"The swamp." Creaks repeated, now sounding entirely bored with the conversation, only for her eyes to widen as Agatha slammed her forelegs onto the desk, making every inch of the room shake and sending dust flying everywhere, almost sending Goldguard into a sneezing fit.
"Listen lady! We know the changelings are here!" She shouted, adding a pound for every word for emphasis. "So tell us what we want to know! NOW!" She added a booming lion's roar at the end, shaking the whole inn. Goldguard retreated behind her, not wanting to face such a wrath.
"Fine." Creaks shrugged, only backing up a little from Agatha's shouting and desk slamming. "But you'll have to take it up with the help."
"You said they're not here." Agatha growled.
"They are now." Ms. Creaks said, clapping her hooves. Every lit lantern suddenly went out, engulfing the room in a very familiar darkness. Before Goldguard could shout or Agatha draw her blade, something grabbed them in the shroud of blackness.
Legion padded lightly through the swamp, avoiding any areas that seemed too unstable and where he could sink in easily. His entire coat was wet and matted down from the rain, but he did not mind.
"We have been this way already." Came one voice inside the head, a grunt.
"The scent is very familiar." Siria's voice called. Fenrir merely growled in reply.
"Fine then. Where do you suggest we go?!" He shouted, voice echoing against the nine-hundred and ninety-nine other souls.
"Perhaps that small open area we passed on the way here?"
"I say we leave Alpha Oddjob. I do not trust shiny metal pony with him now."
"Ooh, ooh, let us howl and run around in circles."
Fenrir sighed. More than three centuries, and he still had not become accustomed to every voice of his clan speaking at once. Siria let out an inner howl, and they all quieted down. They had opted to just keep moving forward and see if they could catch any new scents.
Legion walked on all fours before feeling the ground give way a bit, soft and muddy, even softer from the rain. Not safe to go through, so he turned around, only to feel the area behind him just as unsteady. The dog growled and whined a bit as the area he stood on now became just like the rest, forcing the dog to sink steadily, paws stuck in muck.
"Hold your breath." Came a command from the clan. "Get ready to dig."
The ancient diamond dog reared up before diving straight down, sharpened and honed claws digging straight through the earth, powerful forelimbs ripping right through the gooey ground and bringing it deep down. They all expected to keep digging until they found much dryer dirt, then surface. They didn't expect to land in an underground tunnel reeking of the scent that had been eluding them this whole time.
The scent of old. Of stone. Of Tartarus.