• 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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IX - Finding the Brazier

The feeling of knives in his stomach was the first thing he knew when he woke that cycle. His dream may have been a welcome refuge from his struggles, but hunger was ever ready to remind him of his grim reality.

He squeezed his eyes shut and doubled over, pressing his snout into the floor. The cold stone smelled of dust and disuse, and it only served to remind him of the food he no longer had.

He put out a hoof to raise himself up, but his bones felt cemented together. After these last few cycles, he could barely stand let alone prepare for the jump ahead.

He had to do it, though. He would do it.

Luna’s wings rustled at his sides in greeting. It drew his eyes up toward the Moon above the distant castle towers, ever watching, ever patient.

“We must be off, Champion,” Luna said.

There was no command or annoyance in her voice, yet he felt compelled to follow. Her authority came from the sights of the beforetimes—the sounds and smells that made his hooves feel light as feathers, the quiet cloud-top solitude they had shared. Even now as he stared at the Moon, he could feel her hooves around him and her wings draped over his shoulders. It was the most beautiful feeling in the world, and he found himself already standing at the thought.

Reality abruptly reasserted itself in the aches and pains of a dozen injuries. He gritted his teeth as he stretched out what he could and favored the rest, A quick swig from his canteen, and he set his eyes on the gate a good twenty lengths across the way. Its hole seemed smaller than the last time he looked—smaller still for the massive wolf beast sleeping beneath it. He only had one shot at this, and he knew what would happen if they failed.

“Are you ready?” A moment of silence to center himself, and he nodded. Luna flapped her wings, stirring up the cool night air. “Good.”

He captured the gate’s image in his mind’s eye, the distance between, the angle of descent. He headed for the back wall, and there he tucked his scarf into his bandolier and emptied his saddlebags of all but his canteen and the stone.

Only the essentials. Everything else would only weigh him down.

He breathed in and pictured Luna there beside him. She was with him, and nothing else mattered. Together, they were diamond. He breathed out, and the rest was motion.

He sensed the run-up more than he actually processed it happening—heard the clip-clop of his hooves, felt his injuries flare up, smelled the Moonlit chill in the air as he braced his hind legs on the railing for one final leap of faith.

Luna spread her wings wide, every feather like a sword unsheathed in the Moonlight. For a single, breathtaking moment, he felt weightless, and his mind flashed back to his dream. He felt the wind in his mane and Luna’s wings surrounding him, and all was right with the world.

“Hold steady, Champion," rang Luna’s voice through his thoughts.

His mind snapped back to the present and the gate ahead. They were almost there. They were actually doing it!

He dared a glance at Luna’s wings. They spread wide at the corners of his eyes, each feather pulled taught in the wind. But a sense of worry grew in the pit of his stomach as they narrowly, almost imperceptibly, spread wider, their tips flipping up from their downward angle. That worry flared to life in his chest as Luna strained harder, stretched herself thinner than she could endure, and a realization cut through his senses.

She wouldn’t make it.

Panic sent his heart pounding madly against his ribs. He had no voice to give words of encouragement, and could only stare at the gate in desperation, hooves outstretched for the gap no more than two lengths away. He heard what sounded like a pained gasp in the back of his mind, and her left wing hitched, jerking him leftward.

“Champion!”

He caught hold of the opening just before crashing face first into the gate. Pain exploded in his muzzle, but he held on despite the daze and the taste of iron filling his mouth. He spit out a tooth and watched it fall a good three stories to the causeway below. He didn’t hear it clatter on the stone, but his eyes caught the flick of the wolf beast’s ear, and up reared its misshapen head.

Eyes like the slits of open wounds met his gaze, and out rolled a growl that froze the blood in his veins.

“That is not good,” Luna said. “Climb, Champion, quickly!” She beat her wings, but the upward thrust only served to unsettle whatever footing he could find on the gate’s smooth gold.

The wolf barked, and its bassy volume vibrated through his body. It leapt up the side of the gate, its teeth snapping just shy of his hind legs still scrambling for purchase.

It circled beneath him, those slitted eyes skewering him like a slab of meat. It gave another run-up the side of the gate, its paws heavy enough to jostle the gate and almost send him tumbling down into its open jaws.

He flicked his tail up just before its jaws snapped shut, but he was quick enough to kick it in the snout with a hindleg. He used the push-off to launch himself up into the opening, where he grabbed hold of the far edge. It gave him just enough purchase to pull himself up, but Luna’s frantic wing beats overcompensated, and he tumbled through.

He flailed his hooves for anything to grab hold of, but there was only empty air. He cried out as the ground rushed up to meet him.

“Still yourself!” Luna shouted above the madness.

He went stiff as a board, and Luna spread her wings, righting him into a shaky but controlled fall that saw him tumbling across the flagstones. There he lay a long while, staring up at the stars as they spun nauseating circles in the sky.

Breathe. Just breathe. Defy the darkness. He rolled onto his stomach, and everything hurt. But he was safe.

Something pounded against the gates, and the courtyard resounded with the noise. He jolted to his hooves, backing away from the gates and the wolf beast wanting in.

The gate shuddered beneath another heavy blow, and the gate bent inward ever so slightly to test the ancient crossbar holding it shut. Instinctively, his eyes shot to the open courtyard around him, but it was thankfully empty. Another blow, and another shudder. A short bout of silence left his ears straining for more, before the wolf gave a long, bone-chilling howl. It faded to silence, and there was no more.

His heart still beat a racket in his chest, and he didn’t know what to do with the sudden energy in his legs. He spun around to give the courtyard another scan.

Luna flitted up beside his heart and seemed to wrap a little flicker of flame around him in what he could only describe as a hug.

“Be still, Champion. We have escaped the beast. Collect yourself and let us proceed.” Her little hug tightened, and he swore he felt her wings clench against him at his sides. “I knew you could do it.”

He didn’t do much there besides trust in her. Luna had done all the work in getting them there after he made the jump. But believing was still a contribution, no matter how small, and so he simply gave a nod and thanked her for being deserving of that trust.

The courtyard was as empty as it first seemed. Fields of dry and wilted grass stretched to every corner, framed by the tall white walls that kept out the creatures of the dark. Somehow, despite the untold birthcycles spent in darkness, it almost smelled like the grass in his dream when he put his nose to it. He stole a respectable mouthful at Luna’s behest and moved on, not wanting to waste precious time.

There was an inner courtyard separated by an open gateway. It was smaller than the first, and here the flagstone walkway was flanked by long strips of dirt with no grass.

“These grounds were filled with the most beautiful gardens,” Luna said. “Chrysanthemums of gold and silver. They were Sister’s favorite.” She giggled. “She was always a sucker for more… overt symbolism.”

He crossed the courtyard and stopped before the next gate, a mass of iron that reached into the soft shadows just above Sunlight’s reach. Its bottom dug a series of rectangular holes the size of his hoof into the flagstones. Beyond it, a golden double door stood ajar. Another glance toward its top and the towering iron brought with it wonders of just how much it must weigh.

“If you are thinking of lifting it, Champion, I wish you all the luck in the world.”

He smirked. Though her flame remained steadfast, he had somewhat learned to pick up on her inflection and sense of humor. He wasn’t very good at it still, but he appreciated the banter all the same.

His many cycles spent without food had slimmed him down to the point that he could slip between the bars. His hips gave him some trouble, but with a twist and a pull, he came tumbling out the other side.

Luna smirked in the flicker of cold fire that came to rest on his collar bone. “So much for the vaunted impregnability of Canterlot castle.”

Very much so. Though, whoever built it probably wasn’t expecting such unorthodox methods, nor was he the kind to challenge the might of an entire castle were it at full capacity. Still, all the better for him. He got up and nosed his way through the entrance.

Inside was a grand walkway of stone and a velvet runway carpet, long since beaten to a dingy brown. Pillars ran the length of the hallway, cracks running up their sides like the inedible ivy that carpeted the village walls. Chunks of stone littered the floor, cast down from a tired ceiling.

High up along either wall, large poles of bronze held up the tattered remains of tapestries long since torn to shreds. What remained if their tatters depicted in stylistic curves and points the images of ponies and what he could only guess was day-to-day life.

They shared the walls in even intervals with tall windows that stretched from floor to ceiling. The shattered remains of some hard, clear substance clung to their edges and lay scattered across the floor in sharp pieces that crunched underhoof. From what little he could make of it, it was meant to catch the Sunlight and glow certain colors.

“It has been so long since I have seen this place," Luna whispered in wonder, or perhaps heartache.

He took in as much as he could, on the assumption she saw only through his eyes. He knew homesickness well. What it must be like for her…

“Even in ruins it still holds its splendor.”

He followed the carpet for the winged stairway ahead, and Luna refocused her flames at the forefront of his chest.

“Yes, Champion. Up the foyer stairs and to the left wing. I have not a clue where the brazier may await us, but I suspect a few locations. We shall start with the closest.”

He followed the stairs to the left, and it led him to a hallway about four shoulders wide. Smaller windows punctuated the left wall, opposite what once must have been beautiful doorways into now ramshackle rooms. For what little Sunlight illuminated them as he passed, there were only splinters and crumbling stone looking back.

At the end of the hall stood a set of iron double doors, whose faces still held the rearing forms of two winged ponies. Their horns touched at the seam, and above each head was a circle too rusted for details, but seemed formed from words.

“Through there,” Luna said.

The doors resisted his initial push, and only after a heavy shoulder did he manage forcing them open. Inside, the darkness held dominion, the silence more so. He lifted Sunlight high, but all that greeted him were ancient furnishings of wood and gold, things that behind such heavy doors withstood the countless cycles of wear.

He turned back the way he came, but took a side passage at Luna’s request. It led them to a hallway, where she directed him through a door made to look seamless with the wall. It opened to a set of stairs that took him down, down, down into the bowels of the castle. He got the impression this passage wasn’t meant for common eyes, or even that of royalty.

Here, the grand walls gave way to stone and mortar, once polished smooth by pony hooves but pockmarked by time. The scent of mildew lingered just beneath his nostrils, and the already cool air grew colder still, like the few times he was allowed into the cellar beneath the village chapel.

“’Tis a servant’s passage,” Luna said, at his curious glances. It ended in an intersection, where darkness consumed either narrow corridor. “Right, Champion.”

He followed her directions, ears alert for any sounds other than the whisper of his own hoofsteps on the stone floor. Something about the silence of the castle both calmed and unnerved him. This deep into the bowels of the Devourers domain, he half expected legions of creatures hounding after him and waiting to pounce from the shadows of the ceiling.

The passage extended on for countless hoofsteps, to the point where it seemed it would lead on forever. Eventually, it turned right and ended in another door meant to blend in with the wall. It opened into an atrium of sorts, lined with unlit torch sconces and stands of rusted armor. The darkness engulfed the ceiling, and, for the creeping silence, he kept his eyes locked with it, for fear of what might reach down with spindly legs and snatch him up. He flicked his ears about, alert for the tiniest sounds.

“This leads to the main research laboratory. It is where our best arcanists synthesized many of our modern spells in the real world.”

He came to a set of heavy double doors, much like the last, but solid and without details. It opened on rusty hinges, and within lay bits of stone and desks decayed by the passage of time. If there ever were magics performed here, no trace of them remained.

“Turn back, Champion,” she said after they searched the many branching rooms in this dark and musty place. “There is yet another place I suspect.”

He followed the corridor back to the servant’s passage, but went straight at the intersection. It snaked a path between what must have been innumerable storage cellars.

“This silence is unnerving. So near the brazier I would have expected to see hide or tail of this Devourer.”

His thoughts exactly. Or at the very least, seen hide or tail of some other creature prowling these halls. He glanced over his shoulder at what felt like an unspoken request. It was as if something was following rather than waiting. He was anxious enough as it was, walking these long corridors in dead silence. The railroad tunnel had seen to his fear of small passageways.

“Stop,” she said, and he froze as if the slightest movement meant death. She extended a wing toward the wall next to him. “Through there.”

He stared at the wall, wondering just what in Equestria Luna was talking about, until he noticed the slightest outline that didn’t line up with the masonry. He blinked and did a double take. A secret passage within a secret passage? With a push of his hoof, it opened wide to a gloomy hallway, and a draft of birthcycle’s-old air breathed across his coat.

“Onward, Champion. We are almost there.”

Hesitantly, he stepped into this new secretive hallway. It followed a shallow incline into what appeared to be a network of interconnecting hallways, eight in all. He approached the intersection with cautious steps, eyes darting between each darkened corridor for anything that glistened or breathed.

Luna said nothing for an uncomfortable length of time, and soon enough he started fishing for the stone, never taking his eyes off the corridors surrounding him.

“Straight,” she said, as if she struggled to remember these passages. “This hallway, if memory serves, will take us to another that runs the length of the throne room. Take the door there, Champion, and we shall see if this Devourer has a penchant for poetic irony.”

As she described, the corridor led to another hallway, where a small, nondescript double door awaited him. He approached, expecting something—anything—to come crawling out of the shadows, but it seemed this place truly was empty.

He gave the door a push, and it swung outward to reveal a massive room of pillars and windows in that same strangely timeless two-toned stone. The foyer’s long strip of dingy brown velvet continued in from a set of giant doors to the far right. The Moon looked down on him from the missing ceiling of this place, and the stars around it twinkled with care. They were like foalish faces peeking in on something they weren’t supposed to. It reminded him of the twins peeking out from behind Luna’s legs back in the meadow.

“Left, Champion,” Luna said, and there he followed her wingtip with his eyes to behold two empty seats atop a throne. His heart sank in his chest. One for Luna, and one for Celestia.

“Now is… not the time to dwell on what was lost, Champion. We must find the brazier. I suspect one last place, if my dream is as fickle as any.” She extended a wing to the door opposite he came through. “Take it left, then left again.”

He gave her throne one last glance before continuing down the hallway. Not long into the walk, she pressed against his ribcage, stirring him onward.

“Yes, Champion, this is the way. I can feel her. Sister calls to me.”

The hallway came to a final bend, and there towered a door of gold far grander than any he had seen before. It opened on creaky hinges, and inside something caught Sunlight much the same way the castle’s glittering tower tops caught the Moonlight. A lot of somethings. The whole room practically radiated with Sunlight’s glow as he stepped inside.

All manner of things gold and silver glittered like tiny Sun cinders. From heaps of little gold disks, to plates and cups, to polished rocks of all colors he could imagine. Curiosity got the better of him, and he withdrew the concrete sliver.

What is?

“The royal treasury. Or, a representation of it, if you will. I had not the opportunity to craft its true likeness, as I only saw it once since my return from the Moon.”

Treasury? he wrote, then poked a pile of golden disks. It chinked and spilled onto the winding pathway leading toward the back wall. What special about these?

A small pause. “My apologies, Champion. I sometimes forget myself. The real world does not struggle with survival, and ponies place value in less sentimental and functional things for it.”

He stared at one of the little golden disks. These were the things he saw those ponies exchanging for flowers in Luna’s dream. There was the image of a smiling pony on it, a crown atop its head. Probably the Celestia that Luna had spoken of.

He continued along the treasury’s serpentine path through the mounds of gold. He gazed long into the millions of little Sunlights reflecting off the shiny trinkets, wondering just how such things could be treasured so. There was no practicality to them, unless one were to use them for reflecting light throughout the village.

All too suddenly, the gold fell away toward the back wall, as if the pieces themselves were afraid to encroach on this space, and when he finally broke his gaze from the piles and looked ahead, he saw why.

Against the back wall of the treasury, there awaited him a dais whose stairs were engraved with the most intricate patterns of prancing ponies, immaculate despite the eternities spent in darkness. At its center was a bowl-shaped indentation a little larger than himself. Deep gouges had been ground along the stone leftward, as if something heavier than the Moon itself had been dragged from here.

“This…” Luna said. There was a hollowness to her voice, a longing. “This is where it was.”

With his eyes, he followed the gouges off the dais and through a large open doorway. Hooves followed suit, and beyond the gleam of gold waited a room as dark and bleak as the world before the Moon.

Like the treasury, the ceiling here rose beyond Sunlight, and the far wall lay in shadow. Only the left wall stood close enough for Sunlight to reach. It chased the shadows into the cracks spidering up its surface, and the light itself seemed to dim the further in he stepped, the darkness eating away at the edges of light. A chilling draft blew in from ahead.

“Careful, Champion. I do not like the look of this.”

He kept his pace slow and measured, eyes up and ears alert, the left wall always within sight. One less direction something could surprise him from. He found the far corner and followed it to the right in search of a doorway, or worse.

His mind wouldn’t stop slipping down the dark corridors of his deepest fears. He remembered keenly the raven’s caw back in the tunnel, and the otherworldly clack of its beak and the hunger in its eyes. The other beasts whispered and played in the shadows at the edge of sight, ever tricking him into thinking they were real. But Luna stirred her wings at his sides whenever he found himself too afraid to continue forward, and that was enough to find his courage.

The further along the wall he walked, the more he began seeing scattered chunks of stone and earth of all sizes. Sunlight threw shadows across the floor behind them that leapt toward the safety of the surrounding dark, and they got larger the further on he went.

Eventually, the wall ended in a jagged hole larger than the dome of Sunlight. Judging by the curve of the opening, it reached at least four stories high.

“The dust is recent,” Luna said. “As is the moisture.” She brushed a layer of dust from one of the boulders beside him. “It must have known that you would come for Sister’s brazier after you lit mine.”

It?

“You know of what I speak.”

He did, but part of him didn’t want to. There still existed the faintest hope that they were wrong in their assumptions and that the brazier awaited them elsewhere in the castle. But he knew in his heart that wasn’t the case. Delving the dark to destroy the Devourer was what they came here for, and that was exactly what must be done.

His legs felt like noodles as he took his first step in, but Luna wrapped the ridge of her wingbone up to his chest. “Nay, Champion. I fear I know where this tunnel leads, and we have searched long this night. ’Twould be best that you sleep before we endure this trial.”

The rational part of his brain screamed that this was the best idea she had ever come up with and that he should turn tail immediately. Another part waffled on the thought that it was now or never. He had the momentum. Turn away now, and next time he might not have the courage to take that first step.

But he couldn’t argue against the weakness in his hooves. He could barely stand without swaying, and the shadows gnawing at the edges of his vision had just as much to do with the need for sleep as it did the evils ahead.

And, if he were honest with himself, he wanted to see Luna again. He nodded before hobbling back to the treasury.

“To the throne room, Champion,” Luna said. “There, at least, if worse comes to worst, we will have our options for flight.” Another nod, and he followed the corridor back.

The Moon had kept vigil over the throne room in his absence. Dustmotes danced in the Moonshafts spotlighting the twin thrones atop the dais, and in the silence that had settled thicker than the dust and disregard of time, a chill worked its way up his hooves.

An emotion stirred in his heart, a reaching out of his self toward this the loneliest of sights: empty thrones before an empty hall. He felt a connection to this place, unexplainable with mere words, but a calling nonetheless.

In this place untold cycles ago, ponies gathered to see their Princesses. They came in droves to bear witness to their deeds and wisdom, to seek shelter from and aid for whatever burdens might have plagued the beforetimes. Here before him stood the greatest testament to a civilization he would never know, but standing here amongst the forgotten stone and reverent silence he could almost see their ghosts gathering beside him.

“I miss this,” Luna said. Her voice was hollow, as if her heart reached out same as his. She had moved to the forefront of his chest sometime during his rumination for a better view. “Not the throne. It is but a hunk of rock. Nay, the view, looking out upon our little ponies and the worries they brought before us. Seeing to their quarrels and woes. Being somepony who could be trusted with the responsibility of leading a nation.”

He stepped up to the base of the dais, looking up the length of the carpet toward the thrones. This here before him was hallowed ground. Like the dais within the village chapel, stepping hoof beyond this point would break innumerable laws enforced diligently by the Elders of his village. And yet his heart told him this was the right thing.

Luna had been stripped of all she knew, cast into the dark and insanity of eternal nightmare. Here, mere lengths from the foot of her throne, he couldn’t imagine the heartache she felt seeing it in this state, much less the world at large. And though some might dare call it punishment for the boundaries she overstepped, she was still Luna. She was still a Princess.

With ears flat back, he took a tentative step, and when Luna made no complaints, he climbed to the top. There he spun about to sit at the foot of the throne and was awarded with a lordly view of the empty Moonlit hall. He made sure to take in as many details as possible, for her sake.

“The view is a bit low,” she said. The stately jaunt of her voice suggested there was a secondary meaning to her words, and the pleasant chill against his heart seemed to imply his intentions weren’t lost on her. “Higher, Champion. Please.”

It felt wrong to sit on her throne, but by her word he did just that. The change in view was imperceptible, yet Luna’s cold flame expanded to encompass his heart in thanks. She brushed her wingtips against the stone armrests, as if trying to remember the feeling.

“Despite the reverence our ponies showed us with bowed heads and doffed caps,” she said in a near whisper. It almost sounded like she was trying not to cry. “This hall was always filled with the sound of chatter, and quite often, even laughter.”

He looked down at his hooves, then at the swirls of the two-toned stone that made up the dais. He pulled the concrete from his saddlebags, but quickly stuffed it back in after realizing what he was about to do. Instead, he settled for tracing his words with a hoof:

You’ll hear them again soon.

To that, she made no reply, though her flame sank further down in his chest and turned away. “’Twould be a lie if I said I did not believe you, or wish it were so. But the closer we come to achieving our goal, the more I find it impossible to place this burden upon your shoulders.”

He lowered his gaze to his hooves. Again, it all came back to his inevitable end. And yes, it was inevitable. Even had he decided against this, there was no making it back to the village, not on his rations. He could count the cycles he had left by the notches in his saddlebag strap.

Soon enough, survival above all wouldn’t even mean nothing, for he would no longer exist. But… It wouldn’t be so bad. It couldn’t be. He remembered all the sights and sounds and wonders of the beforetimes Luna had shown him. His heart got that full-to-bursting feeling, and a whim came to him.

Then show me more, he traced.

Before she could reply, he laid himself down and closed his eyes. Sleep came quickly enough.

Author's Note:

Onward and Upward!