• Published 17th May 2016
  • 2,318 Views, 135 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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IV - The Tunnel

In time, they learned to communicate.

They started with the alphabet, first learning the noises that equated to the letters he knew and how their pronunciation changed depending on their order. It was a strange concept, but one he was eager to learn. As cycles passed, he built a semblance of understanding—no more than a village foal knew how to write, but he held that knowledge dearer than anything in the mortal world.

The Voice taught him of the world before, when the Sun and Moon traded places in the sky. When pegasi—ponies with wings!—soared through the air. When grass grew in endless fields, beneath the very ground he walked.

But most of all, it taught him of the sounds the world made, and the innumerable things that made them.

Birdsong, water babbling at the brookside, the crack of thunder on a cool summer’s night. How such creatures and things from the time of sound must have looked and felt, where water ran free across the land and the birds flew high above—cawing, chirping, tweeting, warbling. Dogs barked and squirrels chittered from their rustling branches, and foals laughed—laughed—as they played through the streets. The crackle of fire—true fire, unlike the village braziers—red and yellow and hot. It was enough to drive the imagination wild.

But always he had to rein it in when something scurried or lumbered across his path in the pale Moonlight. For the beasts and once-ponies had acclimated and now roamed the plains in search of food.

They made noise, too, but they were not the noises Luna described. Theirs were of fury and hurt, of the desire to kill and consume. They slowed his journey toward the looming shadow, but with the Voice in his chest and the knowledge it gave freely, the dangers seemed that much less.

He carried with him a link to the past, a power that knew the world as it should be—the world he sought to explore with his own five senses. The unending Moonlight and little specks of light that twinkled all around it—stars, as Luna called them—granted him the gift of sight, and yet his limitless gaze only served to whet his appetite for more.

They came across a dip in the earth, a long, twisting trench that stretched left and right as far as the eye could see.

“A riverbed,” Luna said to answer his wandering gaze. It had taken up the habit of pointing out every detail that caught his eye. Water once ran freely through the trench, enough to swallow him whole a million times over. It could have babbled a lullaby to carry him off to sleep, or roared a hellish fury after a downpour—a symphony all its own—swelled it beyond its banks. The way the Voice described everything gave lightness to his hooves.

Cycles more found them before a canyon, whose winding crags and grottos would have howled like the monsters of the abandoned city, had there been this “wind” Luna spoke of. Still more brought sight of towering wood. Long-dead trees and hollow logs stood still as a cemetery, their husks effigies of the terrible beasts he avoided in the city.

Daylight, a concept Luna had yet to describe in understandable terms, once flooded the very ground he walked with a color it called “green.” Colors beyond the sheen of steel and fire of blood and dark of dirt did not exist, not anymore, and he hadn’t a clue how to envision the trunks reaching toward a lightened sky, the Sun’s rays transformed from gold to green as the wind rustled through their leaves. Here, in a forest, all manner of animals lived, all with their own sounds that came from their own throats.

Luna regaled him with the beauty of life as it was—as it would be, once their task was done—as he followed the downward curve of the earth. Like the cathedral on the hill, the world rolled away before him with expanses beyond anything he could have ever imagined in the limited reach of brazierlight.

Far off to either side, great mountains rose from the darkness, shadowed triangles like vicious teeth reaching up to swallow the ever-vigilant Moon. They narrowed into the distance, leading him toward Canterlot Mountain in the middle.

He happened upon a pair of steel beams running along the ground, connected at intervals by wooden planks in various stages of rot.

“A railroad,” as Luna put it. A method of transportation meant for “trains.” They were loud things, according to the Voice, great lengths of steel that roared with smoke and fire to move untold weights. Yet another piece of civilization lost to the Devourer. He followed it onward, toward the base of the mountain, where he came to an all too sudden standstill.

The tracks led him to a great hole in the wall, like a mouth carved into the very rock that devoured what little Moonlight dared cross its threshold. Even Sunlight seemed hesitant, barely illuminating anything beyond the first few steps.

“It is the first of many,” Luna said. It moved higher up in his chest, as if directing that he look up. Far above, the railroad weaved in and out of more holes in the cliff side.

His eyes fell back to the entrance in front of him. He knew he had to proceed, but there was something wrong with this place, something different about this darkness. It seemed to reach out to him, beckon him inward. The pall of death hung about this place, evident in the faintest smell that floated just beneath his nostrils.

There’s something in there, he scratched into the dirt.

“I know,” Luna said. “But we must brave it nonetheless. Fear not, Champion. I am with you. Every step of the way.”

Champion. He had learned the word that sound related to. A fearless hero who shouldered the burdens of lesser ponies and stood fast when all hope was lost. A pony who stared death in the face and carved their glory into the rock of ages. So went the stories written by the firelight of his youth.

He was no champion, only a survivor. Mere luck had seen him to his age, and barely at that.

Champions didn’t exist, not anymore. Ponies lived, and that was all they could do. Survival above all. Still, if Luna could not read his thoughts—which seemed to be the case—then he could play the part. If only for the sake of hope. He stepped forward, and like walking through a wall of fog, he found himself suffused in darkness.

All was quiet, save for the gravel crunching underhoof. He drew Sunlight out from beneath his cape to hold it high against the dark. It chased the shadows away from the walls to either side, but they gathered above him like frightened animals waiting for him to pass.

“Let us be on, Champion,” Luna said. “At the top is where our journey will come to an end.”

Luna’s shadows at his sides—wings as he had come to learn—flitted and resettled. Anxious? Regardless, he desired the journey no more than it did, so he started in.

The tunnel marched ever upward into the heart of the mountain. He wasn’t used to such inclines, which settled into his legs like a well-kindled fire, but an ever-present draft from the other end kept his face cool. A quarter cycle, a half. The mountain went on forever.

The silence carried on with them, settled over his shoulders like a heavy shawl. It had him looking up to see the Moon more than he liked to admit. After the first taste of light, it was an impossible grace to forget. He’d see it again once he reached the end of the tunnel, and the thought lent strength to his step.

His mind wandered to Luna and the mystery of the Voice itself. The wings at his sides, its swiftness in battle, the strength to raise the Moon and forever hold it aloft for all to see. To meet it in the flesh would be a humbling experience.

But to that end, what did a pony who was the Moon look like?

He had his previous impressions: tall, powerfully built, of strong bust and broad shoulder. Silver as the Moon and doubtlessly just as breathtaking to behold.

The Moon. Those back home surely marveled at it. The village. Home. His little house of stone and mud. His bed, the musty, moldy stack of hay he had taken to nibbling on in the waning hours of his sleep cycle whenever the village stocks ran low. The table at its foot, the one Mother had made before she had been taken for raising a cry of madness to the dark.

“What plagues you, Champion?”

He blinked away the memory, then shook his head. Its brow in his mind’s eye furrowed in concern. It didn’t need to know.

Champion…

A champion didn’t harbor feelings of home, didn’t let them deter him from reaching his goal. He didn’t want to be a champion, but he had been chosen. Keep moving. Find the Moon. Survival above all.

The Moon called to him. Luna called to him. He had to see it again. It was all he could think about.

The tunnel crawled a slow curve in its ascent. He wouldn’t have noticed it, if not for how the brick bowed out from the earth that sought to retake the space it had long been denied. Here and there it had succeeded in pushing back a section of wall, leaving him to step, hop, or otherwise clamber over. Always the path lead up, and ever onward he marched.

See the Moon. See Luna.

A smile crept onto his face, the tiredness in his legs all the less noticeable with every step. Just a little farther, and he could rest in the open Moonli—

Something thumped to the ground behind him.

He swung around, Sunlight outstretched to chase away the dark. Less than two lengths away, the upper half of a once-pony lay on the tracks, its legs bent at unnatural angles. A bloody mess of a spine protruded from the remains, and thick strips of flesh had been peeled from its shoulders like bark from a tree. Its eyes were missing.

He looked up, and from the darkness two glowing coals stared back at him.

A mass of mottled feathers, black as the pre-Moon sky, landed on top of the now forgotten meal, crushing its skull with massive raptor claws. Blood matted its facial feathers, and bits of gore dangled from the chips and cracks in its beak.

It turned its head to stare at him with a single eye, its pupil dilating to better take him in. A series of rapid clacks emanated from its beak, and out purred the grotesque mockery of a raven’s caw.

Luna flared up in his chest. There was a rapidness to the way it flickered, as if the flames licking at his insides were the Voice’s heartbeat pounding alongside his.

“Champion, do not think to fight this, not here. ’Twill be the death of us.”

Never in a thousand birthcycles would he have ever considered standing his ground against a creature like this—this, raven, as he surmised from Luna’s descriptions of the beforetimes—here or otherwise. He took a hesitant step backward, trying his hardest to not let his fear show on his face. But it was hard to hide the weakness in his knees, the dryness in his mouth.

The raven matched his steps with heavy footpads and the scrape of talon along stone. Head low to the rails, its crest feathers rose up all down its back, and out spread massive, tattered wings that made the tunnel feel suddenly cramped. It let out a screech from the darkest depths of Tartarus and was on top of him in an instant.

Its monstrous weight smashed him to the ground, the rotting crossties digging into his back. It stabbed at him with its beak, but Luna had its wings up to shield his face.

“Hold fast, Champion,” Luna said as if through gritted teeth. “Ready your strike.”

Waiting to act was the last thing he had the courage to do. He kicked at the tough leather of its legs with his buck knife, but the raven seemed more concerned with weaseling its long beak through the feathers of Luna’s wings.

It forced its way through and opened wide to clamp down about his head, but Luna spread its left wing wide, giving him the opportunity to smash it in the throat with Sunlight.

There was a flash of white-hot light as Sunlight gave the word “fury” new meaning. The torrent of fire it let loose glinted off the wet stone walls and roared in his ears.

The raven squawked and stumbled sideways into the wall. Bricks fell clattering to the stone and dust rained from the ceiling, kicked up into a storm as the raven beat its wings for balance.

Sunlight back on his bandolier, he was on his hooves and out of there as fast as his legs could carry him. Fallen stone and twisted metal did nothing to slow him down. He heard its lumbering steps behind him, and it gave another horrifying screech that snapped his ears flat down.

“Fly, Champion! It gains on us!” Luna pumped its wings to give speed to his step in what little space the tunnel allowed, but he feared it wasn’t enough.

The tunnel veered rightward, climbing ever steeper and sapping the strength from his legs. A fierce fire kindled in his lungs.

His mind flashed back to the image of that once-pony, the half-eaten meal the raven had ripped to pieces. That would be him if he didn’t push harder, but he didn’t have much left to give. If only…

The tunnel straightened out again, and far ahead the faintest speck of silver broke the darkness. His heart did a backflip.

The Moon. He gritted his teeth and fought through the pain.

The exit came closer with every haggard breath he took. It was so close, he could see the shadow spots that dotted the Moon’s surface. But just before breaking free of the darkness, a sharp pain shot through his hindleg.

The raven had caught him by the ankle and dragged him back into the dark, Luna’s wings flailing helplessly at his sides. The chips and cracks in its beak acted as a serrated edge that tore into his skin as much as it crushed.

He screamed in pain, aiming wild kicks at its face with his buck knife, but its feathers were like steel and his blows glanced off uselessly.

“Focus, Champion!” rang Luna’s Voice between his ears. “Aim for the eyes!”

He sucked in a deep breath through gritted teeth and centered on its words. A glance over his shoulder at the raven’s blood-red eye, and he aimed a kick that would have sent another pony through a wall. His hoof sank a good two inches into the jelly-like substance, and the blade engaged to the sliding of steel and a screech of pain.

But rather than let go, the raven bit down harder, and he felt the hot breath pour out its nostrils like steam. It lifted him into the air by his ankle and slammed him to the ground. His teeth clacked together, and the blow jolted through him like lightning.

The next few moments were a blur. He felt himself yanked sideways into the left wall, and his head went fuzzy. There was another impact on his right side. The ceiling, the other wall. He couldn’t tell anymore.

The next thing he knew, he was on his stomach again, Sunlight lying inches from his face, still chained to his bandolier. Its golden fire danced frantically within its cage as if trying to snap him out of his haze.

The raven’s steps rumbled the ground beneath him, and before he could get his bearings, it yanked him backward to clamp down higher up on his leg. The sharp pain sliced clean through his head fog.

He aimed a series of frantic kicks at the raven’s eye, his hoof sinking farther with each strike until there was nothing left but a leaking mess down the side of its face.

That was seemingly enough to punch through whatever rage had consumed it. It let go of him, squawking in pain, and he scrambled free for the exit.

The moment he stepped into the light, Luna spread its wings wide in the freedom of the open air. “Follow the tracks. We still must flee this beast.”

As Luna spoke, there was a blood-chilling screech and the collapsing of stone. Behind him, the raven had crashed through the exit, its head having smashed out the top support beam of the tunnel entranceway. Boulders twice his size crashed into place behind it to block off the entrance.

He heard the snort of hot breath from its nostrils, and it snapped its head aside to skewer him with its glare. There was murder in its eye. It spread its ragged wings, wider than Sunlight’s reach wingtip to wingtip, and let out a terrifying screech that left his ears ringing. It charged, its full weight sending tremors through the earth that almost shook him from his hooves.

“Do not waste precious seconds staring. Fly, Champion!”

He broke into a sprint for the far tunnel entrance. It was a good three hundred feet away, just across a bridge that looked beaten down by endless cycles of disuse. He was sure of his footing on each and every crosstie, but he couldn’t help looking down between them at the distant earth. He had never known the concept of heights, but he had broken his pastern once falling from the roof of his home. He didn’t want to think what would happen should he fall here.

Just as he reached the midway point, a shadow passed over him. He heard the beating of wings and turned in time to see the raven’s talons outstretched as it came crashing down on top of him. It pinned him on his back, supported only by the creaking wood of two crossties digging into his haunches and shoulders.

Luna kept the raven from crushing him into a paste, one wing clenched in its talons, the other struggling to hold its monstrous weight off of him. Its fire flared out to fill in the crevices of his chest with the chilling touch of the Moon, as if straining with every ounce of its power.

“Strike it, Champion! Drive it off us!”

He tried unhooking Sunlight from his bandolier, but he could barely think over the raven’s constant screeching and the sight of that beak opening wide above him.

It stabbed at his face in a blind rage, its beak leaving inch-long dents in the wood where he moved his head just in time to avoid it. Feathers danced wildly in the air with every beat of its wings, all sense lost to the madness driving it to kill. It caught him by the left pastern when he tried shielding his face, and it twisted and jerked it in an attempt to tear his leg clean from his shoulder. Blood dribbled on his face, and he screamed as it bit down to the bone.

With his free hoof, he managed to unhook Sunlight, but as he brought it overhead to strike, the wood beneath him cracked and he lurched downward an inch. It jolted him from the moment, and he stole a wide-eyed glance over his shoulder, toward a few pebbles falling to the muted blues of the earth far below.

“The railway will not hold, Champion,” Luna said. “Strike it now!”

The raven placed a claw on the crosstie to the right of his haunches for better leverage, but just as it shifted its weight, the crosstie snapped. It fell through the gap between the rails, and his lower half went with it.

He had only a moment to turn and grab hold of the crosstie beneath his shoulder blades to keep from falling. He hooked his pastern under the rail to brace himself just as the raven caught him by the hind leg, its monstrous weight pulling him taut and popping his shoulder out of its socket. It was all he could do to bite back a scream.

It let out a shriek and beat its wings as it dangled upside down from the single claw. His buck knife’s steel brace moaned within its vice-like grip, the only thing saving his leg from being crushed to a pulp. It was the smallest of silver linings in a situation gone to Tartarus, and it started up a little earworm in the back of his mind.

He was going to die. He was going to die if he didn’t get this thing off him. Death had been an ever-present and recurring fear in his cycles outside the walls, but Luna had been there for the worst of it. The Voice kept him safe and had guided him across this vast and strange land. But Luna, for all its strengths, couldn’t fly. If the raven had its way, or the crosstie gave out, death would come for him. He would see it coming all the way down, and there was nothing he or the Voice could do to stop it.

He swung Sunlight frantically at the claw gripped about his leg. It was a shoddy strike, but Sunlight knew its role and out poured its golden flames to boil away even the thickest parts of its calloused skin.

The raven screeched and beat its wings in retaliation, but it knew better than to let go. Rather, it reached up higher with its other claw to try and grab him by the haunches. It meant to climb him.

“Back, foul demon!” Luna shouted as it buffeted the claw away with a wing. It brushed a primary along Sunlight to coax out a little tongue of fire. “Fear not the pain, Champion. Fear only your own hesitation. Take heart in your strength, and you shall never know failure. Strike hard, strike true, Champion, for I am with you!”

He let Luna’s words flow through him, felt the chilling flames flicker in his chest. It knew the truth of what it said. All he had to do was believe.

With a grit of his teeth, he channelled that belief into another strike at the raven’s claw. His aim was true, and again the flames washed over its blistering skin and made little embers of the down feathers at the base of its leg.

But the raven was far quicker than he realized, and just as determined. It reached up with unnatural speed to catch his forehoof in its beak.

He screamed, the little bones in his pastern cracking with every twist and jerk it made. His blood ran freely to splatter its face, and it bit down harder as if relishing the scent.

It wanted him to let go of the lantern, but doing so meant death. Survival above all, and he gripped Sunlight tighter despite the pain.

“Stay your hoof, Champion,” Luna shouted as Sunlight dangled just beside the raven’s good eye. A rush of sound above prompted he look up to see Luna’s wings framing the Moon far above. They seemed to glow with an inner Moonlight all their own. “On this day, demon, we drive thee back to the depths of Tartarus. Sister, find thy mark!”

The shadows surged downward toward the lantern, and a rush of sound turned flame to inferno.

The raven shrieked as its feathers took up the blaze. It let go of his leg to fall into the distance, wings flailing in a pathetic attempt to fly. Burning feathers danced in the darkness like fallen stars, until its cry cut abruptly short.

He stared at the burning speck on the distant earth far longer than he should have, until he realized his hind leg was on fire. He flailed in surprise before re-hooking Sunlight and scrambling up onto the crosstie to bat away the flames. With the final bits of adrenaline leaving him, he closed his eyes and let out a deep sigh.

Luna made a strange repetitive noise, loud and full-bodied. It seemed happy, though he couldn’t say for certain. Was… Was that laughter?

“Come, Champion,” Luna said, most definitely happy. He could imagine the twinkle in its eye, the smile on its face as it said those words. “The beast is slain. Raise with me your victory cry!”

The Moon shone brighter than ever, as it well deserved after such a battle, and the stars twinkled in time with its laughter. Even Sunlight seemed to flicker merrily in its lantern, satisfied with its contribution regardless of how much dimmer it was for it.

Part of him wanted to join in, but he looked away, ears flat back. He had laughed once as a child. His father beat him for it.

“Do you not wish to join me in merriment? Cheating death is a most fitting occasion, would you not say?”

Still he averted his gaze from the Moon, but his eyes came around to the cliff, and just how far the ground looked from where he lay. A smirk found its way to his lips, and one ear perked up. He snorted.

Luna chuckled. Softly, “I see a mere snort will have to suffice. Very well, Champion.”

He rolled to his side to take stock of his injuries, but wavered when his hoof found open air between crossties. He should probably get to solid ground before anything else.

He hobbled to the far end of the bridge, careful not to put weight on his dislocated foreleg, and took comfort in the sweet sensation of solid rock beneath his hooves. Oh, after what he just went through, he never wanted less than two hooves on the ground for the rest of his life. He gave the ground a loving pat before tenderly sitting down to inspect himself.

He tested the crook of his dislocated foreleg. It throbbed from the pain of playing the part of fulcrum and holding the weight of that raven beast, but it was nothing compared to the fire in his shoulder, which felt like Sunlight had given it a healthy dose of divine fury.

His right forehoof shimmered with coagulated blood where the raven had gotten hold of his pastern. That would need cleaned and wrapped, same as his back leg, where the raven got him before escaping the tunnel. He’d get to those later, though. As important as preventing infection was, he couldn’t do much self care with only one forehoof. He hobbled over to the cliff side.

There, he undid the straps of his bandolier and saddlebags and set them aside. He took a strip of bandage from one of the many pockets of his saddlebags and tied Sunlight around the pastern of his dislocated foreleg. Gently, he lay down, easing Sunlight over the cliff side, and he relaxed his shoulder so that Sunlight’s weight would pop it back into place. It was a trick Mother once taught him after a particularly bad argument with another colt.

“Champion…”

On any other occasion, he would have simply looked up at the Moon to indicate his attention. But something weighed heavy on the Voice—a sentiment, perhaps a tinge of worry in the way it trailed off. He looked up hesitantly.

“I… I couldn’t help but notice, whilst you battled the demon… What happened to your cutie mark?”

Eyes still locked with the Moon, he cocked his head. He withdrew the charcoal piece from his nearby saddlebags.

My what? His heart beat alone in the uncomfortable moments that followed. I didn’t mean to offend, he scribbled hastily.

“No, you did not offend.” The Voice sounded nothing like the proud warrior it had moments ago. It sounded broken, defeated, its tail between its legs and head hung low to the dirt. Even its chilling flame seemed all but snuffed beside his heart. “I am sorry… For everything I have caused.”

The Moon still watched him from above, silver as the cycle he brought it into being, but the stars seemed to have retreated further into the night sky. Guilt hung heavy on its words, an emotion he had not expected of the all-powerful being inside him. It knew of the world before the darkness, and certainly what had caused it. The questions inside him demanded answers, but how best to ask them? He started with the simplest.

Why is the world the way it is?

Silence lingered uncomfortably long as he stared at his question, and he couldn’t help but picture Luna with downcast eyes. When it answered, its tone couldn’t be mistaken for anything but regret.

“I dreamed.”

Author's Note:

Onward and Upward!