• 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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VI - Canterlot

Thankfully, nothing awaited him in the next tunnel but broken stone and twisted rails.

The tunnel led him higher through the mountain, steeper than the previous. He considered himself lucky they defeated the raven beast where they had. He wouldn’t have made it through this tunnel with that creature on his heels. It was bad enough with his leg in a sling.

He made it out the other side of the tunnel to see the great gates of Canterlot looming on the far side of a wide chasm. They glowed a ghostly white in the Moonlight, in stark contrast to the blacks and greys of the mountainside.

“We will be there soon, Champion,” Luna said. Eagerness tinged its words with hope, and it flitted its wings at his sides.

Something about the gates kept him from sharing in its eagerness, though. It seemed like a veil had draped itself over the whole of the city. It stole away the glimmer of the stars just above the walls and cast the lower half of the Moon in shadow.

“We must keep moving. Every moment we tarry is another your supplies dwindle.”

He broke his gaze free of the city’s gravity long enough to look at his saddlebags. They were lighter than when he left. Far lighter than they should have been. He had maintained a tight regimen on rations, ensuring equal shares as the cycles passed to account for a homeward journey. The more cycles that passed, the more he tightened his saddlebags to compensate. He was almost out of notches.

But the concern tugging at his heartstrings didn’t stem from hunger. Hunger was but an old friend. He looked to his canteen, snug in its pouch at the forefront of his saddlebag. He had maybe a cycle’s supply left if he didn’t cut back on an already dangerously low intake.

“You will find water in Canterlot, Champion,” Luna said as if reading his mind. “Its wellsprings draw from the deepest watersheds that run all the way from the Crystal Empire. I cannot speak for sustenance within its walls, but surely water will be in no short supply.”

He blinked back to reality and faced the city. Luna was right. Forward was his only option for survival now.

The rails veered rightward to hug the mountainside in its approach. It lengthened the journey considerably, but was all the better for it. He’d had enough of bridges for one lifetime.

A quarter cycle’s walk brought him to the massive steel gates he saw from a distance. They were twisted and bent inward like some giant creature had torn through them. Sunlight beneath his cape, he slipped through and scrambled up onto the train platform. There, a faint mist skirted the pillars supporting a collapsed shelter.

He followed it toward the exit, careful not to disturb the stone and debris that littered the place. There were many nooks and crannies, and any one of them could be hiding any form of unwanted attention.

“Left,” Luna said as he made it to the street. “Follow the street. There you will find a courtyard, and a chance to slake your thirst, if the springs yet flow this far.”

As good a lead as any. He set on, keeping to the shadows.

It was eerily quiet in the city. Street after street passed by with not even the ghosts of shadows keeping watch, but the pall of death hung like perfume just under his nostrils. The creatures of the dark were about.

The veil that earlier had hidden away the bottom half of the Moon draped it completely now, and the stars were sapped from the sky. The Devourer was here. No other evil could do such a thing.

“Courage, Champion,” Luna said. “We are in its domain now, true, but we still hold the key to its demise. Always remember that you are its greatest threat.” It pressed against his ribcage, directing him forward, and they continued on.

As Luna promised, the street ended in a plaza easily the size of his village. The flagstones that welcomed him in had seen better days, but had weathered the cycles far better than the crumbling ruins around him. In the center of the plaza sat a fountain that would have been a breathtaking work of some strange two-toned stone if not for the wearing of time.

His heart ached at the sight of another raven beast hunched over beside it. It had its wings spread to shield its head from view, and it made quick, jerking motions at whatever unfortunate creature it had hidden away behind its wings. He could hear the wet sounds of meat and gore from here.

“Follow the leftward intersection,” Luna said. “The grid follows a semicircle, and there are more fountains along the street ahead.”

But the water… He could see it glistening from here.

“Champion. You know it is a fool’s hope that plays in your head. Please. Let us be off.”

He bit his lip, but nonetheless conceded. It was right. Trying anything now, especially with his leg in a sling, would be suicide. With a quiet sigh, he skirted the edge of the plaza, keeping to the shadows.

As he expected, the creatures became more numerous near the city’s center. Often he had to duck into a building or alleyway whenever one came by, rooting through the rubble for something to eat. His movement devolved into dashing between houses and long cycles of sitting by the windows, waiting for his next move.

He passed the time conversing with Luna.

It’s getting worse, he wrote slowly to keep his strokes silent as he eyed two passing once-ponies.

“They are drawn to Its power. And, presumably, they are afraid.”

Afraid? He glanced outside. Now was his chance. He jumped out the window and sprinted for the corner building diagonal to his, leaping through its abandoned storefront.

Rows of shelves lay broken and strewn across the floor. A flurry of dust kicked up by his entrance danced in the Moonlight filtering through a hole in the ceiling. Nothing was in here as it appeared from across the way, and he followed the width of the building as far as it would go, where he set up by the window for his next move.

His foreleg flared up every time, as it still hadn’t healed from his fight on the bridge, but he needed all four hooves right now, and so he did his best to ignore the pain.

Afraid of what? he scribbled.

The voice laughed. It was a little laugh, but a laugh nonetheless. “You, Champion. Do you not remember what I said earlier? You are the instrument of their destruction. You brought the Moon back. You… You brought me back.”

The Voice tinted soft on its final sentence, and it pressed itself against his heart. He took it as an unspoken thank you.

“I only pray that we have the strength to live up to the challenge when the time comes. Or perhaps…”

He waited for it to continue. When it didn’t, he blinked. Perhaps what?

All was silent, and the street was clear. He jumped through the window and made a break for it down the street. Just before he got to the next storefront, a pack of once-ponies shambled across the intersection ahead, and there was no alleyway to duck into. They perked up at the sight of him.

His withers bristled before he took off the way he came.

They were hot on his heels, their yips and snarls like needles on the back of his neck.

He led them on half a block down the street, but it was clear he couldn’t run in his state. His hoof throbbed in time with every step, and a searing pain flared up in his hind leg where last cycle’s wound reopened, the bandage growing red with blood.

Gritting his teeth, he dove through the nearest storefront and vaulted the bar counter for the back door. A quick pivot on his good hoof, and he kicked the door open. But instead of diving through, he slid beneath the counter, curling in his hooves and tail just as the once-ponies trampled in. The door swung back and forth on squeaky hinges, and he hid away Sunlight beneath his cape, praying to the Cinders they would fall for it.

They took the bait. The bar counter creaked and moaned as they clambered over the counter—jumping, climbing, falling over, hooves scraping on the slick tile floor.

He held his breath, afraid to make the slightest sound. All it would take was an errant turn of the head, and they would see him huddled there waiting to die.

But luck was on his side. They shouldered through the swinging door, and their noises faded to silence. He ducked out the front as soon as he felt safe, putting ample distance between himself and the store.

He found a small house at the end of the street whose corner location commanded a dominating view of the cross streets, a good place to rest this cycle. Such a view would give him plenty of warning should anything come looking for him.

He peeked inside to find the remains of a living room—broken chairs and a couch that had been torn to shreds, its stuffing strewn across the floor alongside splintered boards from the walls. The stairs leading up had all collapsed save a few jagged floorboards rising up toward the darkness. Wallpaper peeled down what little remained of the walls, revealing the rot that scented the otherwise stale air. He wrinkled his nose at the smell, but it looked clear, so he hobbled in and lay down.

“The castle is not far from here,” Luna said. “When you are ready, continue north through the gate across the way and you will find the main street leading to the castle.”

He nodded. That seemed simple enough. He took a swig of water to quench his thirst and then withdrew the charcoal from his bags.

What was it you were going to say earlier?

“Nevermind it, Champion. ’Tis better to focus on what lies ahead.”

He frowned at the wood beneath his hooves. He was focusing.

There’s something you’re not telling me.

Luna dipped down lower in his chest, and its flames seemed distant, afraid to touch him. “Do not trouble yourself with it, Champion. It is my burden to bear, not yours.”

This had to do with its fears that cycle on the bridge, didn’t it? Over the course of their journey, he had gotten better at reading Luna’s movements within his chest, and vocal attributes like inflection were no longer foreign concepts to him.

Luna was going out of its way to hide something. And that was a problem.

And you are mine. He scratched the words into the wood harder than intended. He didn’t mean to be rude, but he needed to know what it was if it was something big enough to worry even the Voice.

Ah, true, Champion, but I am certain. It is… It is better this way.” Its final words were a near whisper.

His frown got bigger. He could recognize hesitation when he heard it.

It is my duty to find the Sunlight brazier, and I can’t do that if you’re hiding something important from me. And—he hesitated—I don’t want you to get hurt.

A pause. “That is… That is noble of you, Champion, but y-you would not like the answer. It is my burden… Please.”

The sound of cans tumbling to the ground rolled in front the next room over. From a cellar staircase in the back shadows of the room shambled a lone once-pony, and its hungry eyes locked on him. Half its jaw was missing, and its tongue lolled out the gaping hole in its cheek. It charged at him before he could stand.

Luna threw its wings up like a shield, catching the beast just under the chin with a wingbone. It threw the creature’s momentum off enough that its jaws snapped closed just shy of his muzzle, and it tackled him over backwards.

It landed on him with its full weight, jaws snapping frantically and drool speckling his face with long, slimy strands. He got his hooves underneath its stomach and pushed as hard as he could, sending it sailing across the room. It crashed through the kitchen wall, letting out a yelp of surprise.

He was on his hooves as quickly as his aching body would allow. Fighting was a bad idea with his bad leg, but there was no running from this one.

“You are in no state to fight, Champion.”

He gritted his teeth as it said those words. What did Luna know about how capable he was? It was keeping secrets from him, and he aimed to prove a point. He staggered through the doorway, unhooking Sunlight from his bandolier.

Luna shielded him with its wings. “Champion, do not risk—”

He pushed its wings out of the way and swung at the once-pony.

As mindless as they seemed, these creatures understood danger. It backed away as Sunlight swung past, and it used the opening to lunge at him.

Luna buffeted it with a wing to send it crashing into a cabinet. “Champion! Cease this foolishness!”

The once-pony snarled at him, bits of spittle flying from its broken teeth. Mindless and persistent, it scrambled to its hooves and lunged at him again. Luna put its wings up to block, but he wasn’t having any of it.

He swatted its wings away and just as the beast leapt, he brought Sunlight up into its jaw like a club. The blow snapped its neck back at an unnatural angle, and the rolling flames threw a harrowing shadow across the ceiling. He used the momentum to bring his hind leg around and catch it in its exposed throat with his buck knife.

It crumpled to the ground, its snarls reduced to bloody gurgles. It tried dragging itself away, but he caught it by the tail, yanking it back and pinning it to the floor. It kicked and tore at him with its hooves, and it snarled murder as it reached up to bite him.

He beat its face in. Dark blood splattered warm across his face as his hoof sank deeper with every hoofbeat. His shoulder was ablaze with pain, but he bit down on his tongue until the sour tang of iron filled his mouth.

The moment passed, and all too suddenly he became aware of all that transpired. He heaved for breath, staring at the unrecognizable mess beneath his hooves, before turning aside and scrawling with its blood:

Tell me

Silence followed, as long and unbroken as death.

“I… I was not forthright with you earlier, Champion.” Luna had shrunk in on itself, its flames all but extinguished. There was fear in its voice.

He took a deep breath to settle his wits and hobbled over to the wall, where he withdrew his charcoal. About what?

“My dream. I… I did not tell you the truth of my dream.”

The one of the whispers? Before the Devourer destroyed the world?

Another pause. Luna trembled inside, low down in his chest. In his mind’s eye, the great pony hid its face, fighting back tears.

“The Devourer never destroyed the world, Champion.”

It never what? What kind of ridiculous statement was that? The darkness was real. The Devourer swallowed the Sun and Moon ages ago. The Voice itself witnessed it. The Voice itself was the victim. All that survived was his little village within the walls. That alone was proof enough.

But I’ve seen it, what it can do. You’ve seen my dreams.

“That is not what I mean…”

He frowned at his words etched into the wood grain. It was stringing him along.

Then what happened to our world?

It pressed itself against his ribcage, to get as far away from his heart as it could be. It spoke in barely a whisper.

“I never woke from my dream, Champion. The darkness, the Devourer… You. It is all but a part of my dream that I cannot escape.”

The charcoal hung loose in his mouth, and he furrowed his brow. Luna, that’s ridiculous. I’m talking with you right now.

A long pause. “I know, Champion…”

He stared at his words, slowly shaking his head. What in the world did it mean? It couldn’t possibly… His ears fell back, and the charcoal fell from his mouth.

He blinked to, scrambling to pick up the charcoal. That’s nonsense. I’m not a dream. I’m a pony. I’m real.

“You are real in my dream, Champion. I do not deny that. I have dreamed you, and here you are, real as the Moon and stars above. But this world is nothing more than the shattered remains of a dream… the one I originally left in search of the whispers.”

That makes no sense, he wrote frantically. I exist. You said ponies were caught in your dream from the Devourer. Am I not one of them?

“Are you? Champion, what is your name?”

His withers bristled at the rebuttal. He ground his teeth into the charcoal, and his heart hammered in his chest. It was wrong. Luna was wrong.

The village never assigns names to its ponies.

“But you would still have a name.” Luna flared up, rising higher toward his heart, as if daring to look him in the eye after all it had said. “A name from the real world. No matter how broken, no matter how deep, one never loses their sense of self in a dream.

“I loathe the words as much as you, Champion. Truly, I do. But it does not change the way things are.”

He scowled at the chicken scratch that littered the floor around him, charcoal rolling back and forth in his teeth, the nicks from his teeth growing larger the harder he bit.

But I dream.

Silence. Sunlight threw his shadow across the wall, and for a moment, he thought maybe Luna would relent with its vile words. At last it spoke, and it sounded as if every word were a tear running down its face.

“It is the same dream of your village every night. There are no sounds or color or love. There is no Equestria in your dreams, Champion. Anypony would dream of more than darkness, even in a nightmare. That much I know.”

He looked up at the Moon. His heart beat fast, not for fear or flight, but for an intense yearning to prove the Voice wrong. It couldn’t be true. Luna couldn’t be telling the truth. Could it?

“They call to me, Champion. Sister, Twilight, Cadance. All our little ponies… trapped in this purgatory of nightmares I have brought forth. I hear their screams even now, but cannot reach them.

“But I know I can.” Luna rose up toward his clavicle, as if peering upward through the ceiling at the Moon and stars. It beat its wings at his sides to kick up a layer of dust before refolding them. “My dream has broken me from the Devourer’s hold—my lantern that you tossed to the brazier. So, too, should the one at your chest save Sister. I know not what powers birthed them or the braziers, as I had not created them whilst here, nor am I certain what maintained my dream when the Devourer destroyed all others, but I know from the bottom of my heart that it is the key to drawing her from that ocean of nightmares and into this world, that we may combine our strength and banish this darkness.”

A whisper of hope: “That we might wake.”

He looked back to his shadow dancing on the wall, then at his hooves. He stared a long while before taking up the charcoal.

You wish to save your kingdom from a mistake you’ve made, and you need my help to do it.

“Yes, Champion. I cannot bear the thought of my subjects suffering any further for my mistakes.”

Even if I was a dream, you’re asking me to help you wake up.

“I… I am. I must wake to free them from this accursed slumber.”

But you said it yourself. Dreams end when we wake up.

“Y-yes, Champion,” it whispered. It withdrew to the bottom of his chest again. “They… They do.”

Silence hung between them. His mouth hung open a sliver as he stared into his words. Slowly, he bit down on the charcoal, and his eyes filled with tears.

“Champion, I know what this is asking of you, but please—”

He scraped his hoof across the floor to drown out the Voice. He snorted, staring long and hard at the streak it made in his words, like a knife through skin. He blinked away the tears, and with teeth gritted, wrote:

If you are my dreamer, then I am your dream. If you wake, I disappear.

What little of its flames dared reach up toward his heart flickered out, and its wings lay limp at his sides. “Champion, I did not mean it that way.”

He scrubbed away his message to write another. I may be your dream, Voice, but I am still me.

He threw the charcoal aside and staggered to his hooves, cinching up his bandolier. The words stared back at him, as if to mock him for his gullibility, before he hobbled onto the street and away from the castle.

Author's Note:

Onward and Upward!