• Published 17th May 2016
  • 2,656 Views, 139 Comments

Into the Dark - Corejo

Equestria has fallen to a curse of eternal darkness. Together with the spirit of Luna, a stallion seeks to return the sun and moon to the sky, before the Devourer consumes all.

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II - Shield of Feathers, Voice of Hope

When he woke the next cycle, the first thing he noticed was the smell of old wood.

He shifted his head and felt the scratch of woodgrain against his cheek, familiar and homely. He pressed his nose into the floorboards, breathed it deep, wishing for the ghostly traces of home to linger just a little longer. He breathed out, and with it went the last vestiges of sleep.

This was not his house. This was not home. This was the Outer World, where the darkness lay its corrupting touch on all that its grasping tendrils could reach.

The room sat shrouded in darkness, save for the little spots of Sun and Moonlight peeking through the tears in his cape. They danced along the walls like children playing a game.

He rose on stiff legs to shake out last cycle’s weariness. He disliked the feeling, but held it close all the same. Pain and fear were symptoms of life, and that he felt them meant he still defied the darkness.

His mouth smacked of paste and called for the canteen at his side, but his stomach growled like the distant rumbles of the Devourer. He ate first, to silence it.

The grime went down thick, his food rationed so as to rid himself of the heavier, grittier slop first, saving the bread and dried grass for last when he’d need it most. Stale bread went down better than rotten mash.

A swig of water to cleanse his palate, and he started his trek down the stairs. He took them slow, careful not to let them creak out their complaints of a centuries-old slumber now disturbed.

Out in the street, he took care in revealing his lanterns—not all at once with sweeping cape, but with careful withdrawal. Signalling his presence, at least, he would do on his own terms. Thankfully, the streets seemed as empty as they sounded, and he set off.

The city was a masterpiece of proportions. He lost count of the rows of houses he passed, the fields that once must have been grass and the shattered stone centerpieces of the cobblestone plazas. They looked to be tiered stone basins of a sort, perhaps for some past ritual.

He heard noises down the street. A quiet shuffle through an alley quickly put them behind him.

The creatures seemed to follow a sort of code. Their noises were words to them, like how ponies used writing. As insane as it seemed, they communicated by voice.

The louder they made their noises, the larger or more dangerous they must have been. Yips and howls split the distance, cries of anger and pain, hunter and hunted. How they earned the Devourer’s ignorance was a mystery best left untouched, but regardless, he made sure to travel only in the solitude of silence.

Half a cycle passed by the time he came to a great wall of crumbling stone. Massive windows twice his size towered into the distant dark and stretched both ways for a distance he couldn’t imagine. Their sills were a good three meters above his head, and with naught the black squares beyond staring back, he could only wonder what lay inside. He followed the wall leftward, to keep his good hoof toward the wall should anything make itself known.

He traveled a long while, and the wall didn’t change, save for window after window passing him by. Something about them got his withers standing on end.

The wall itself stood tall and strong, as good as any to put his back to should he need it, but the windows themselves seemed more like rectangular eyes—watching, waiting. Hiding away whatever creatures made the ones before yip and howl in fear. His thoughts devolved into gangly claws and slavering teeth reaching out to drag him away, and so he skirted wide around the windows as he passed them, keeping them just within the rim of light should his fears come true.

But to that end, what was on the other side?

The wall continued farther than he imagined a wall ever could. Such a thing was not built without reason. What did it hide away? What had taken up residence within? Had he, perhaps, found another wall like that of his village? He had walked at least half the length of his village by now. Any further and—

Something broke the darkness ahead.

He froze in place, every muscle in his body tensed and ready to run. He pulled Sunlight from his bandolier and crept forward, watching the darkness for the glimmer of any hungry eyes that might be looking on.

As he came closer, it became apparent that the something he saw was less a what and more a who. It was the remains of another pony—specifically, a leg, girded in three silver bands connected by a steel bar that ran its length.

Blood trailed off ahead, the scant remains of this unfortunate soul dragged away to a den of teeth. The sight of death got his skin crawling with that uneasy feeling he often felt when walking the distance between village fires, but his nose knew he could relax. This one died untold cycles ago. Blood had a distinct smell to it, and not even that lingered in this lifeless place.

He went to move on, but the way Sunlight glistened off the silver bands made him reconsider them.

They boasted a finer construction than simple ornamentation. It looked like a brace of sorts, the silver bands meant to hold the steel bar in place, which housed what looked like some sort of spring-loaded contraption. Then he noticed the fine silver point poking out the bottom, and his eyes shot wide.

It wasn't a brace at all. It was a buck knife. The coiled spring released a thin blade with the extension of one's leg and retracted it on the pull-back. Perfect for defending himself should the lanterns prove insufficient.

His stomach squirmed at the thought of touching this disembodied leg, but his mind did backflips at the prospect of a weapon—a real weapon for defending himself. The last his village had seen of sharpened steel happened to be on his fifth birthcycle, when his neighbor made the journey beyond the gate. His eyes remained transfixed by its silver sheen.

That meant this had to be birthcycles old, but even by that count it would still be sharp as the day it was forged. His eyes wandered to the leg, the only remaining piece of a brazier-seeker before him, a prize denied the victorious monster by well-crafted steel.

How many seekers had the knife serviced? Taken once beyond the gate, and from there left lying in the cold and dark, awaiting a new brave soul to claim it as their own. A darker fantasy wondered how many more after him would ponder the same.

No. He clamped its adjustable brace to his leg, a tiny smile on his face. He would break that cycle. He had a weapon now, and the next creature to step into his ring of light would get a faceful of it.

He put Sunlight back on his bandolier and continued confidently along the wall, without even a concern for the windows above him. They were less a concern and more a curiosity now.

As if the universe wanted to give him a reason to use his new toy, something made noises up ahead. It was the raspy breathing of a once-pony. He slowed his pace but proceeded, Sunlight raised overhead, confident in the steel about his back-right ankle.

Sunlight washed over the once-pony, its sickly, hairless skin paler than Moonlight at his chest. It stared at the wall as he approached.

When he was close enough to smell the disease festering in the open sores across its body, it cranked its head around like a door on a broken hinge and stared at him with unblinking eyes. Its jaws clacked together, and a glob of drool trailed to the stones at its hooves. A demonic haste brought it to its hooves, and it was already on him.

He pivoted on his forelegs to bring his hindleg around. As designed, the spring activated to the sliding of metal on metal, the blade extending to bring home an effective if clumsy strike to the once-pony’s chest.

He didn't account for its momentum, though, and despite the weight behind his kick he found himself tackled to the ground.

The once-pony screeched in pain and flailed its hooves in a manic attempt to get away from the blade. A thick, dark liquid oozed from its chest and left a trail in the dirt as it slunk backward into the darkness beyond lantern light. Its cries died off into silence, leaving him with the tremors in his legs now that his brain had a chance to process what happened.

He was lucky there had been only one. But lucky or not, he still breathed, still defied the darkness, and that was reason enough to hope. He hooked Sunlight back on his bandolier and was about to continue when a sound reached his ears.

His ear twitched instinctively, and he swivelled his head to track the source, one hoof at his cape to hide away the lanterns.

A pause, and then there it was again, a low, rumbling that vibrated in his heart. He probed for the wall behind him with his back legs, eyes locked on the darkness ahead.

Large, heavy steps and crunching gravel signalled the coming of another creature from the dark, far larger than the others. Courage gave way to common sense, and he threw his cape over the lanterns to drape himself in shadow.

The rubble at his hooves jittered with every meaty step it took, close enough now that he could smell the damp heat of its breath, pungent as a body left to rot. It stopped, and the world went silent.

Just stay quiet. Wait for it to pass. A bead of sweat rolled down his face, and he could hardly control his shaking hooves.

The creature let a low, predatorial growl roll in from the dark. The hair went up on his nape, and all sense of safety left him.

Before he could make a break for it, something smashed him against the wall. His head swam beneath a sudden weight pinning the Moonlight lantern to his chest and crushing the life from him.

He struggled for breath, his eyes gaining focus on the massive jaw of some eyeless monstrosity opened wide around him. Inches from his face, its teeth seemed to strain and grate against the sphere of silver light pulsing from the Moonlight lantern beneath his cape.

He aimed a panicked kick that caught it in the thick flesh of its long, meaty neck. Again, again, he drove the buck knife home to the sickening schlick of steel through flesh as hot blood fell in sticky splatters to the ground.

The creature didn't seem to care, driven by a mindless hunger that didn't understand the power of Moonlight. Its tongue lashed about deep in its throat, eager for the first taste of its meal. It pressed harder against the shell of Moonlight, driving him up the wall, the jagged stone ripping and tearing at his back.

He bit down a scream as his body tensed up at the pain. With Sunlight’s handle caught beneath the Moonlight lantern, all he could do was throw kick after useless kick into the thing’s neck.

Until suddenly, he was falling.

The lanterns illuminated the rectangular shape of a window as he tumbled backward through it. He fell for what felt like cycles, the lanterns dangling before his eyes as if weightless.

His skull cracked hard against stone, and his sight went blotchy. He rolled onto his side, clutching at the back of his head. The cold stone kissed him on the cheek as if reminding him that he still lived, and he sucked in a deep breath through gritted teeth. His hooves came back slick with blood. Superficial. Merely superficial.

Get up. Get out of there. But where was “there?”

He rolled onto his stomach. Rows of splintered wood surrounded him. They looked like they were benches, once upon a time.

A deafening roar vibrated in his heart and drove his ears to his skull. There was a heavy thump and the sound of cascading stone as dust rained down on him from unseen rafters. Another thump. The wall bulged inward, its individual stones breaking free and clattering to the floor in a cloud of dust.

He staggered to his hooves and backed away with his tail between his legs. A final roar reverberated in his heart before the creature smashed through the wall, and he was off in an instant, his legs as light as feathers.

Sun and Moonlight clanged together like bells as he sprinted past the splintered benches and over the fallen timber and ceramic of a crumbling roof. His breaths came in frantic gasps.

He didn’t care how loud he was. All that mattered was getting away. He was never meant to die here. Not like this. Survival above all.

He could hear it gaining on him, its heavy footfalls shaking the walls and almost throwing him to the floor as he scrambled for even footing amongst the rubble. He chanced a look over his shoulder, and his hoof caught on something heavy.

He landed square on top of Moonlight, and its sturdy cage knocked the wind out of him. Sunlight gave a shrill screech of annoyance as it scraped across the floor, scattering little bits of wood and stone. It came to a stop at a set of stairs, polished smoother than even those of the village chapel. At the top, its light flickered against rounded stone and the bas relief of a crescent moon barely visible beneath the gnawing of countless cycles.

His ears perked up, and his heart did a somersault. The brazier. He was in one of the cathedrals! Of all the lantern bearers, he was the first and only to make it this far. If nothing else, he could go out knowing he had returned Moonlight to its rightful place.

A deafening roar brought him back to the present, and he felt the thunderous steps almost on top of him.

He dashed for the stairs, gripping Moonlight’s hook in his teeth. Up the stairs in a mad scramble, he let it fly up and over the rim just as his hoof caught the final stair to send him tumbling face first into the brazier. He rolled over in time to see the creature coming at him with open jaws, and he shut his eyes, taking one final breath in defiance of the dark.

But then he took another. And another. Hesitantly, he peeked open his eyes to behold the strangest sight.

A series of long shadows held back the creature’s jaws the same way Moonlight had not moments ago. They were dark blue, yet ghostly and transparent, save for a silver sheen that trimmed their lengths. They reached back behind him, near his saddlebags where he couldn’t see. Above, a strange silver disk set the sky aglow in a dozen shades of dark blue.

Before he could marvel any further, the shadows opened wide like the gates of his village to throw the creature tumbling backward off the dais.

“Champion! We are with you!”

The sounds rang clearly between his ears, yet they were not his thoughts. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end.

Those were… those were words. Not just words, spoken words.

He felt the presence inside him, a blazing mote of cold fire in his chest. Its words were a mystery—for there was no such thing as a spoken language—but they carried a commanding weight all their own: fight, kill, survive.

He wasted no time in bounding down the stairs for Sunlight before the creature could get back up. He snagged it just as a long, thin shadow rose above the creature’s form.

Before he even processed what had happened, he was three feet to the left and teetering on his left hooves, as if yanked aside by some supernatural force. An ear-shattering crack split the air, and where he had been standing, a whip-like tail left a small crater and a kick-up of dust. The Moonlight shadows receded to his sides.

The creature got to its paws, and by the light of the silver disk in the sky, he got a fuller view of just how much it towered over him, made the cathedral’s wide walls seem cramped and confining.

Its stocky legs and gangly claws glistened like wet stone in Sunlight’s golden glow, and its long meaty neck, still weeping black liquid from where his buck knife struck home, ended in the perpetual snarl of a lipless cluster of teeth. A series of cracked, uneven spikes ran along its spine, tapering into its whip-like tail that now idly snaked along the ground behind it.

Though it had no eyes, it tracked his movement as if drawn to the hammering of his heart, and it let loose a roar that flecked him with hot saliva.

“Steady, Champion,” the Voice said. It sounded wary, but emboldened.

Onward, he felt within its words, and so he took a step forward.

The fang beast tracked his movements with its long neck. Despite its size, it was still faster than him, and in one swift motion, brought its claws around in an arcing swipe that he had no hope of dodging.

He braced for the strike, but felt his body lurch sideways and stone slide underhoof. The shadows stretched out in front to protect him where the blow would have caught him across the shoulder, and still he could only wonder at their power.

This presence knew strength, more powerful than anything he had ever seen, if it was able to stand up to this creature. It ignited a fire inside him. With it on his side, he was invincible.

He charged the beast again, gritted his teeth as it coiled back to strike. In a whirlwind of motion, the shadows yanked him aside just before the fang beast crushed him beneath its massive jaws. He used the momentum to bring Sunlight around in an uppercut just shy of the knife wounds pockmarking its neck.

As it had with that unfortunate once-pony, Sunlight knew its enemy and let loose and inferno that raked across its bare skin. The flames overpowered the cathedral’s silver glow in a fierce gold, and the heat brought a flash sweat to his face.

The beast staggered away from the flame, letting loose a frightful cry far removed from its threatening roar moments ago. It slammed backward into the walls and brought down clattering stones and clouds of dust.

The stink of burning skin filled his head, but he pressed forward. He could feel the mote of cold flame swelling in his chest to fill every crevice between his ribs.

“Give no respite!”

The Voice resounded in his skull. He didn’t know what its words meant, but he didn’t need to. He understood the desire in its tone, the power in its volume. The Voice was out for blood. Moonlight wanted vengeance against this creature of the dark, and he as a steward of Sun and Moon would see its wish fulfilled.

The fang beast roared as threateningly as it could, still backpedaling away, but it may as well have been whimpering with its tail between its legs. It snapped at him with another grating clack of its jaws, but the shadows glided him out of harm’s way and into position to bring Sunlight down on the same blistering wound. The flames cascaded outward and melted its flesh away like candle wax in a fire, down to the bone.

“Strike! Strike it down!”

Desperation filled the voice, and it fueled one final pivot of his forelegs. He caught it perfectly in its neck joint with his hindleg, and he felt the buck knife slide cleanly between the vertebrae.

Its head flopped like a snapped twig. It let out a little whine as it struggled to drag itself backwards before slumping to the ground and going still. All was silent save the beating of his heart.

Finally the situation caught up with him, and his legs gave out. He hacked up dust and blood, watched it mingle on the floor and tasted its grit on his lips. Every part of his body hurt, but he was alive.

“Claim your rest, Champion. You are braver than you think.”

The voice spoke softly. How sweet, how beautiful it sounded. Was he dreaming?

Dreaming. His heart had slowed to normal, and with aching legs he dragged himself to his hooves and climbed the stairs to the brazier.

Its fuelless fire burned silent and bright, rising high toward the shattered roof, where above shone the silver disk, massive and unmoving in the sky. The… Moon? It must be.

It was the embodiment of Moonlight’s power, the very being that was once devoured alongside the Sun and their lights snuffed from the sky.

“It is beautiful, isn’t it?” Wonder filled the voice, a near breathlessness between his ears. “For so long have I been consumed.”

His gaze drifted to his flanks in search of the Moonlight shadows. Folded against his sides, they shimmered with the faintest trim of silver.

“I do not have the strength to fly. I am but a fraction of myself.”

He closed his eyes, laying down his head, letting the soothing voice carry him adrift.

It let out a strange sound, high and ringing like the little bell his sister kept hidden in a box beneath her bed. A sound they would sometimes hushedly play with when nopony was around.

“Sleep now, dearest Champion. No evil will venture here.” He took a deep breath and let his mind relax, the voice his sole focus.

“I will be with you in your dreams.”

Author's Note:

Onward and Upward!