• Published 17th May 2016
  • 2,322 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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VII - Justice

Cycles passed in silence.

The city was impossibly large, and there was no end to its maze of streets. Which was good. More time to walk. More creatures to fight.

He took to the habit of hunting the smaller ones. A lone once-pony staggering through the streets, a pair staring at the wall of a darkened room. He killed them all.

His buck knife forgot the shimmer of steel, and Sunlight found a new home strapped to his foreleg, its gentle glow ever ready to destroy whatever dared shamble across his path.

He was not without his own injuries. Scars traced a path up his legs, a few finding their place among bare patches of skin along his face and jaw. His trek toward the main street started at a bold stride, brought low to a trundling walk, to a staggered limp.

But the adrenaline pumping through his veins, the throbbing in his forehoof, the creaks and pops of joints begging for rest. They were life. They were real.

The water fountains he earned through sweat and blood, and he drank his fill. He slept his cycles in the open, Sunlight welcoming anything stupid enough to think him defenseless.

But Sunlight was not the grand beacon it once was. Where once a roaring fire burned bright to push back the darkness, there was now a reserved flame that seemed all too aware of its mortality. Still, it heeded his thirst for self-actualization, and so it remained his sword against the foul and twisted.

All the while, the chilling flame within crept back into the sky to veil the stars. Even the Moon fell deeper into shadow, its light like an eye closing shut, unable to bear what had become of him.

Or perhaps it was its own shame it couldn’t bear. Good. Feeling guilty was the least it could do.

Luna’s wings lay folded at his sides. Not a twitch, not a flutter, not a word. It was better that way.

One way or another, this journey was his last. Flee, and the darkness would eventually consume him. Fight, and the brazier would rebirth the Sun, ending the dream and himself.

Survival above all, and he was determined to follow that Creed until his final breath.

So he wandered and fought, on his own terms. The bruises, scrapes, and scars were his own, from his own battles. The water he drank from the fountains and the breaths that filled his lungs with life he earned for himself. By himself. Survival above all.

But the fire of contempt could only burn so bright. Slowly, as the flame in his heart smouldered and his food rations dwindled, he sequestered himself to the narrow alleyways and darkened corridors, where the beasts didn’t roam and brick and mortar muffled their cries of hunger and pain. A dozen lonely cycles brought him to the upper floors of buildings and their crumbling rooftops, and the gentlest urge, like a hoof beneath his chin, drew his gaze upward.

For the first time in a dozen cycles, he gazed at the Moon without scoffing, without anger. And the Moon gazed back.

“I am here, Champion,” Luna said. The voice flowed like water from his canteen, eager to rush down and surround him, yet afraid to overstep. Even the stars seemed to twinkle with care. “I never left.”

He let its words fade into silence, content merely staring, his eyes tracing the shadows that pockmarked the Moon’s surface. At last he blinked, and a hoof reached to his saddlebags to withdraw the charcoal, only to remember he had abandoned it long ago. He set his hoof down, ears downcast, eyes no longer able to meet the Moon.

A wingtip touched beneath his chin, directing his gaze back up to see its light as grand as the moment he lit the brazier. “I do not need to read your words, Champion. To know you even wish to speak with me is more than I deserve.”

He could see it smiling in his mind’s eye. Weary, but genuine.

Its free wing ruffled at his side, stirring up the stagnant air. “Lead on, Champion. Wherever your heart desires. I am with you.”

His gaze dropped to his hooves, then across the distant horizon, where a wall of stone girded the cluster of Sunlight-rimmed towers that was the castle.

He had been raised to understand functionality, prize utility. A broken toy was repaired with sticks and stones found in the street, just as a canteen was strapped tighter to one’s saddlebags than anything else. What couldn’t be used or repurposed was cast aside. In these difficult times, that included ponies.

A capable stallion cared for a family unit, like his father. One that could not found himself in the fields, or the workshop, toiling at the seams of cloaks and the metal of tools beaten dull by the worthy. Those of able body and stout will stepped forth into the dark. His turn had merely been protocol, he the next most capable candidate.

It was an honor to be selected, to become the one everypony believed ready to save the world—the strongest and the bravest of them all.

But strength and bravery had wilted in the face of death. In their place the Voice came, saved him from becoming nothing more than a hopeful scrawling on the village walls, and where it dwelled in the deepest depths of his heart let courage take root. It gave him something to fight for, something to look up to, to believe in. The Voice gave him hope.

Luna gave him hope.

Was it merely a sense of repayment stirring in his chest? An ounce of salt for a strip of cloth at the tailor’s? As went life in the village, the Voice sought a trade. And that moment after the brazier swathed the cathedral in blue and silver, when the sky flashed and the world was ready to end with a cluster of teeth and a deafening wail, was his life not forfeit to its will? Even the fact that he still breathed the rotten air of this decaying city he owed to the Voice. But all the same, was his life worth trading for another?

It was right, though—about his life. He was not real, not in the explicit sense of the word. The very moment it spoke, its words rang true deep in his bones. The cracks in the façade of his reality were there, the missing details of his existence and that of the village. He didn’t truly exist. He was nothing more than a dream.

But he felt, same as anypony Luna could call real. He felt denial and anger, sadness and acceptance, happiness and fear. He: a dream, a figment of some voice’s imagination. He lived, breathed, hurt. His were feelings both raw and real. How could he be simply nothing?

Regardless of what the Voice said, no matter how true its words were, he was a pony. No amount of truth or imagination could change that. Nothing could take that away from him.

He was real, and he had to survive. Survival above all. That was the law of life.

To that end, his life was priceless. By the edicts of the Council he could not barter his life for another, not even a million others. Stepping forth into the darkness to face its dangers on behalf of the village was merely the community as a whole baring its teeth against the end.

But now that he knew the outcome of his journey would destroy him, the village, and everything he knew… It conflicted with the very core of his beliefs.

He owed the Voice. That much nopony could argue. One for one—he for Luna—perhaps. But one for tens of thousands, plus itself? Such a trade lay vastly in the Voice’s favor. It hadn’t earned such a trade.

But that was the gamble. Even with every safeguard, every intention of survival, he had resigned himself to that possibility of failure, the failure that befell every lantern bearer before him. And if he had made that promise to the village, did the dreambound ponies—did Luna—not have a right to that promise?

It was not an equal trade. One for one, always and forever. But still…

He held in his hooves the power to stand, to walk, to live and breathe, to fight and die that had been taken from these ponies. They could do nothing to save themselves from the darkness.

Was his life in trade for that of countless others really fair? He blinked, and the towers glistened steadily in the distance.

No. It was not. But it was right all the same.

He stood, brushed himself off, and climbed down a slant of rubble into an upper-floor hallway, toward the castle.

≈≈≈×≈≈≈

“We are almost there, Champion.”

He allowed himself a glance up from the ledge at his hooves. The castle towers stood tall in the Moonlight, almost seemed part of the backdrop itself for how they glinted like the stars around them. Back to the ledge. It was a four-story drop. Below, a once-pony shambled through the alleyway.

They’d become more numerous the closer he came to the castle. By this point, it had become safer to simply leap from building to building than to risk the dusty back alleys between them. But this… This gap was a whole different level of dangerous.

“We can make the jump.”

Certainty sharpened its words to a swordpoint, and for a moment he almost believed them. But none of the previous alleyways were quite as wide as this one—nearly four lengths across. It was a cross-path for carriages and important couriers, Luna had said, as if that mitigated anything.

Had it been at the start of their journey, he might have felt some level of confidence about this. As it was, his bones ached, his foreleg throbbed with an infection he couldn’t cure, and his stomach begged for rations he no longer had. How he had made the last few jumps surprised even himself.

“Trust me, Champion.” It spread its wings wide to catch the starlight as if the stars lived within the individual feathers.

He took another glance down to the alleyway below, where another once-pony tramped in. The two started snapping and snarling at each other over what looked like a rat the first one had caught.

No chance sneaking past that. He took a deep breath, eyes back to the hole in the wall across the way. He then stepped back, hiding Sunlight beneath his cape. Not that it concealed much of its light any more. It and Mother’s scarf had been reduced to tatters in his aimless cycles. As such, it threw splotches of yellow along the broken walls around him, like starlight he could actually reach out and touch.

He shook his head. Four lengths. Luna’s wings waited half open at his sides. He could make it.

He dashed forward, Sunlight thumping against his chest, hooves pounding on stone. He planted his final steps on the building’s ledge and forced everything into his hind legs.

Sound rushed in his ears as Luna spread its wings to give a downward burst. He stretched himself long to reach for the ever-rising ledge. His front hooves cleared it, but he caught the jagged concrete with his back-left shin. He collapsed amidst the rubble, clutching at his leg, face screwed in pain.

He sucked in a sharp gasp and blinked away the tears. Blood ran freely in sticky streaks from a deep gash in his hindleg, almost to the bone, bits of rubble embedded like a grotesque mockery of gemstones in bedrock. He grimaced and looked away.

He washed it clean with precious water from his canteen, then wrapped it with a strip of Mother’s scarf. It throbbed painfully as he stood up, and he favored it down the hallway, teeth gritted, breaths sharp on every step.

The voice was silent. At least it knew when it was wrong. Guilt seemed in no short supply. Not that it didn’t have enough reasons to brood on such things. What it must be like to know an entire civilization fell into never-ending nightmare because of its curiosity. It was bad enough holding that responsibility for oneself.

He looked down at Mother’s scarf about his neck, and his ears fell back. He stopped and touched a hoof to it where it draped over his heart.

What pain was this, this twisting, writhing in his chest? About the dreambound ponies, whenever their fate crossed his mind. The more he thought of them, of Luna’s quest to free them, the more this feeling took hold. Something was wrong. These thoughts. An emotion of sorts?

Anger, fear, happiness—even greed he knew well. They were instincts meant to arouse responses of survival. A means of staving off the end in an empty life. But this was not an emotion he had ever experienced, or even been taught. There was no word in their written language for it. He was not the victim, nor the perpetrator of what befell Luna’s ponies, yet there remained an undeniable connection, a desire to set things right. These ponies he knew nothing about, had never met, who would never know him or his sacrifice. They could give him nothing in return, yet their soundless cries rose up in his heart.

What had he done that no other ponies before him had? His ears drew forward, toward the rubble at his hooves, and he released a slow breath. He already knew the answer to that.

He had accepted death. Or, at the very least, knew that he must die. The Voice had set before him an impossible task, but it was his all the same. It was practical, but not for himself. No longer survival above all, but survival of another. The very idea sent a shiver through him.

Still, it felt… It felt right.

Death, for him, was guaranteed. No path remained where he saw the end of the darkness and stood beneath the light of Sun and Moon, heard the noises of the world before, birdsong in the windswept boughs of trees, the laughter of children unafraid of what skittered in the void beyond the walls. Darkness was his, now and forever. He was but a dream, a nothing born into a world of nothingness.

But in this world of greater nothings he carried within himself the very being that held it all together, the Voice ready to lead him toward an end where life and all the beautiful things of the world went on. The end he wanted. He had the power, if only to put one hoof in front of the other.

He chose this.

And that was… That was something.

“Champion?” Luna said. The Moon gazed down at him through a hole in the roof. “What troubles you?”

He took a breath. It was alright. For Luna. For them. He shook his head and continued on.

“Champion,” it said after a while. The sharpness of its tone drew a wince from him, and he came to a stop. “I have lived my fair share of millennia. I know a pony who is hiding something when I see one.”

A moment of silence, then, softly: “I wish to make amends. I can only do so if you are open with me, as I now am with you.”

He set his hoof down. For all the rubble beneath him, there was no pattern, no scattered chaos that could carry his mind away from the moment. He sighed and sat down.

A hoof reached for his saddlebags, but remembered he still had no charcoal. A sliver of concrete lay amidst larger chunks and shattered pebbles. Worth trying. He grabbed it and scrawled against the floor.

It hurt his teeth to press hard, as the stone made no effort to etch his words, so he had to use his hoof to muscle his scrawling letters into the stone. They were hardly legible and it took twice as long, but they sufficed.

This feeling. I’ve never felt it before.

The Voice didn’t reply immediately. The twisting flame in his chest coiled tighter in the silence, until a curious tone answered back.

“What feeling is that, Champion?”

He hesitated on how to describe it, but settled on the best he could think of. The effort of this new form of writing took its toll, and his weary foreleg could bear no more than fragments and half-sentences.

A need Like water Must do for your ponies Because they cant

“You have claimed ignorance to love, Champion, but you have never felt the need to defend the innocent? Do these Elders of yours not preach such deeds?”

There was that word again: love. What did it mean? He shook his head, refocusing on its question.

We help Always But survival above all We accept but I feel urge to fight despite

“So you seek to give of yourself for the sake of others.” It was not a question, but the power of its tone deserved an answer regardless.

Yes

Silence. His heart beat in the stillness, and he flicked his ears about, straining for a response despite knowing it would only come from within. Luna’s power pressed down upon him. Not forcefully, but as that of the wool blanket Mother draped over him whenever he sat shivering by the dying embers of the hearth. Only after a moment did the brush of feathers against his hooves draw his gaze to the wings wrapped about him.

“Justice,” it whispered. “It is justice that you feel.” The Moon shone brighter and, for once, warmer. “Take heart, Champion. Hold true to this feeling, and you shall know invincibility.”

He stared at the words scrawled into the stone at his hooves. Justice. The ponies in the stories, the heroes—the champions—he read about by the firelight of his youth. The deeds they accomplished and the nightmares they overcame for the good of the village cycles long past. Did they know of this justice when they stood tall against the darkness, when they cast aside their fear and stood firm against the unknown?

The stories always wrote of their struggle to survive, even when they failed. But there must have been more to it. They fought for the village, died for the village. There was a sense of community only these ponies seemed to understand, a perversion of self-survival—rather, an extension of it over the rest, the survivors. Would they be heroes if they hadn’t? What more was there to it?

This thing, this word: love. Luna had used it when referring to the innocent. It spoke of it as a tool, or maybe a responsibility over its ponies. The voice was a leader in the world before, the ponies its charge, like his sister in their family unit. To command ownership, leadership, guardianship. Did love mean all these things?

There had to be more.

“Champion,” Luna said softly, as if careful not to startle him. He stirred, and before him lay the scribbles of their conversation, his thoughts and fears laid bare to the voice that sought his trade. “We must be off. We cannot tarry any longer, for your sake or mine.”

His stomach growled, and a twinge shot through him. Luna was right. Time remained their biggest enemy now. At least, until they found the brazier. He placed the concrete sliver in his bag and started forward on creaky legs.

“We are almost there. This was once the Hall of Champions.” Its flame within flickered—a tiny smile. “It is the last building along the castle mall. Find the stairs. There is a balcony atop its highest tower. From there we can survey for an entrypoint.”

The staircase awaited him at the far end of the hall, just past a catwalk that gave a clear view of an atrium below. He could only guess as to what marvels he would have seen had it stood in its true glory.

It was dark in the stairwell, the Moon’s light able to peek through only a few cracks in the walls. The stairs themselves fared little better than the crumbling walls and shattered flagstones of the atrium. He stumbled on a broken stair and turned to watch its rubble fall into the distant darkness below.

The gash in his hind leg throbbed the more he climbed, and he swore a silent prayer to the Moon when he reached the top floor. There the Moon answered with a soft pool of light on the checkered floor, cast through the balcony opening at the far end of the empty room.

He stepped toward it, the glint of fake Sunlight drawing his eyes down from the Moon to Canterlot Castle. Even destroyed as it was by the Devourer and the passage of time, it was a breathtaking sight.

Dozens of ancient and crumbling towers reached ever toward the Moon as if vying for its favor. Their golden parapets twinkled like tiny points of Sunlight to join the stars in their little dance far above a wall that cloistered them so royally from the squabbling houses and dilapidation of the city. Moonlight glowed off the wall’s surface to give it a strange and holy aura, as if there was magic within each and every stone.

A gate, made of the same Sunlight shimmer as the tower tops, stood tall in the center. Its surface stood testament to the wearing of the cycles. Long cracks like the scars of the Devourer itself gouged deep into its face, and a large hole was missing from the top half, as if torn away by something wanting in.

At the foot of the gate, atop a bridge spanning a barren moat, slept a monstrous beast of mangy fur and massive fangs. It lay with its head on its paws. Around it were the scattered bones of once-ponies and raven beasts, picked clean and left to perfume the air with their rot. The gore carved out a vague boundary around the mouth of the bridge, a warning to other shamblers that death slept nearby. Even at their distance, he could hear its growling snores as if he stood beside it.

He felt the cold grip in his heart as the sight sank in. Not of his own worries, but that of Luna’s. Whatever bold face it tried to wear in the brightness of the Moon and shimmer of stars, it couldn’t hide from the cold, squirming doubt in his chest.

He withdrew the concrete sliver. In?

“Yes. This is our entrance.”

That thing, he wrote. He couldn’t tear his gaze from the sleeping form, the rise and fall of its massive, furred chest. Even for how the Moon washed away color, he could see the blood caked to its muzzle, swore he could smell it. Can’t pass

“We need not get past the wolf, Champion, nor even raise a hoof against it. We must merely get over it. The opening in the gate.” It extended a pair of feathers toward the hole in the top half of the gate.

The hair stood up on the back of his neck. Over? Insane Distance Even as he wrote those words, he gauged the distance, almost—

“At least twenty lengths, yes.”

Last jump was—

“Four. I know, Champion. But we are far higher.” The stars twinkled its certainty, and it gave its wings a few test flaps. “We can make it. I can make it.”

The Voice was right in that they were farther up, but no. That… wolf thing. If they didn’t make it… He shook his head. It was impossible.

Another way, he wrote. Must be

The Moon flickered but a fraction of an instant. “Nay, Champion. ’Tis the safest way in. There are a few secret entrances about the city, but I refuse to delve the crystal caverns. After restoring the Moon to the sky, I fear what manner of evils have retreated to its impenetrable darkness.”

His head still shook of its own accord. Luna no Too far Youre not strong enough You said too

“Then would you rather chance the caverns?” Luna’s words stabbed like daggers in his chest, and the stars above flared to life. “Would you rather step blindly into that dark abyss where the teeming horrors await you with tooth and claw? You do not know the passage through that labyrinth, Champion, and Tartarus be damned, neither do I!”

The stars regressed to their normal twinkle, and the Moon seemed to fall into shadow, as if the Voice were scolding itself for its outburst. Silence reigned for untold moments before the Voice continued in a reserved tone.

“I know the layout of the caverns’ upper reaches, but where and how they connect… I do not trust we have the time nor the strength to chance them. Nay, the caverns are not an option. You have carried us far, Champion, father than I could have ever truly asked of you. Now you must allow me to repay the favor. You must jump, and believe.”

He stepped forward again, eyes slowly coming around to the gate and its hole that seemed smaller than ever. He sucked in a breath, held it, defied death with its slow release. Four lengths, to twenty. He lowered his head, ears falling back.

Before he could put concrete to stone, Luna spoke in a near whisper. “You are not the only one who wants to see this through. You know this, Champion, deep within your heart, that I want nothing more than to light the brazier and return the Devourer to Tartarus. I would gladly lay down my life for those of my subjects, but death I spite with bared teeth and unfurled wing until our task is through.”

His heart squirmed in his chest, and he couldn’t help the tremors shaking the sliver in his hoof as he held its point against the floor. I am afraid

He released the sliver from his grasp and set his hoof to the floor, but it did little to stop the tremors. A wingtip tucked beneath his chin and coaxed it toward the Moon’s gentle glow.

“Do not fear the darkness ahead, Champion. I am with you, as I have always been, as I always will be.”

He took another breath, and the Moon seemed to smile down at him, casting off the shadow hanging over Canterlot. He smiled back, but the creeping doubt drew his gaze back to the scrawlings on the floor and drained the smile from his face.

Im not strong enough

“You are strong enough, Champion. You have overcome your fears of death and found within yourself the courage to seek justice. That is a strength few have ever found.”

For all the steps he had taken to reach this very spot, had he really? Death was forever, a darkness no light would ever penetrate, not even Sunlight that glowed so radiantly against his chest. To feel its warmth ripped from him, to feel his heart beat its very last and his breath leave him to never be drawn again. He couldn’t bring himself to write it.

What if—

“Shh… Fear not the darkness,” Luna whispered. “Whatever evils lie ahead, I am here. Every step of the way. Now, lie yourself down. Close your eyes. I wish you show you, Champion…”

He drew a slow breath, then released it. Not to spite death or darkness, but to calm himself and focus on Luna’s words. A heaviness overtook his eyelids, and it seemed the weight of the Moon laid itself upon his shoulders coax him to the floor. He rested his head on his forelegs and closed his eyes while Moonlight pooled around him. As he drifted into darkest slumber, there was, faintly, the soft touch of lips against his forehead.

“… What it is you fight for.”

Author's Note:

Onward and Upward!