• Published 24th Jul 2012
  • 3,760 Views, 145 Comments

Darkened Shores - Silver Flare

An adventure that takes the Mane 6 around the world to face the what destroyed the alicorn homeland.

  • ...

18: Adrift

Fluttershy was tired.

The unchanging expanse of the horizon encircled her, a perfectly cloudless blue dome. Celestia's sun was the only indication she hadn't been going in circles for the last two days. With a great deal of effort, Fluttershy had been able to awkwardly thrust herself far enough above the water line to flap her wings and gain a little altitude. Her wings had burned with the effort, and her waterlogged mane and tail only added to the strain, as though the sea wished to drag her back down into its cold embrace. She flew circles for hours that night after the sudden death of the storm, calling out for Dash or Spike. It seemed absurd that they could have been lost so far away from her.

She had an easier time once she'd wrung her tail out and dried off a bit, but there was simply no way to rest. When the sun rose, which was heartening proof that Celestia was probably still alive, Fluttershy managed to fly east for a few hours. But then it seemed as though the water had reached up for her hooves and dragged her back under, sputtering. She alternated floating and treading water to give her trembling shoulder muscles a much needed rest, but eventually she forced herself back into the air. This cycle repeated through two awful days, with her time spent trying to rest growing longer as her time spent aloft grew shorter. She wept, cursing her frailty as she struggled hopelessly on.

Fluttershy had grown bitterly thirsty. She tried not to lick her parched lips while she flew, and her tears had dried up hours ago. The world itself had turned entirely to water, and it did nothing but mock her thirst. She had intended to be lost with Spike and Rainbow Dash. She had intended to help Rainbow, assuming they'd survived the fall, keep Spike afloat and carry him towards land and hope. But she had been afraid of what she had to do. Too afraid to move quickly. And just like always, her fear had kept her from helping her friends when they needed her. Now she was lost, with nothing but her Element and her fears, swimming in a deep black sea further from help and hope then she'd ever been in her life.

She shook her head. It had been more than simple anxiety this time. Fluttershy had spent her life and her foalhood in a constant state of mild panic. Every small thing, from a short fall to the attention of ponies around her caused her heart to. . . well, flutter in her chest. It had become so bad that she had dreaded any small venture from the safety of her home. All of this had begun to change once she'd, quite by accident, made some true and honest friends. A small core of strength had blossomed in her soul, a calm beauty which had bolstered her days and soothed her nights. The magic of friendship had reached gently through her defenses and fears, and encouraged her to become more than what she was.

That is until the young, innocent pegasus had tasted death.

Upon that shoreline, beneath the watchful eye of the moon, Fluttershy had cowered beneath the threat of that other-worldly scream. When she had felt her heart stop beating in her chest, and she'd felt deep within herself the same thing happening to everyone she'd ever grown to love, Fluttershy had broken. Her calm, her courage, her new found faith in friendship had all shattered like small and delicate eggs fallen from a high nest. Before the absolute abyss of death, the magic of friendship was a brittle thing, doomed like all things to die.

She'd discovered that her own kindness had betrayed her, because the world was still the dangerous and uncaring place it had always been. Only now, this pony had found the opportunity to experience losing loved ones; a pain she could barely conceive of, let alone imagine she might survive. She had spent her time upon the airship wishing fervently that she had never met her friends. And hating herself for wishing so. She'd pushed them away as best she could, struggling in vain to give her broken heart a buffer between the warmth it had grown accustomed to and the cold void of loss that lurked just out of sight.

Now, the only flier out of Cloudsdale with a fear of heights found herself immersed in an endless salty ocean containing unseen horrors, beneath a cruelly empty sky, wondering frantically which would happen first. Her finding some sign of her friends, or her limbs giving out, drowning her here on the far side of the world.

Despair threatened to drown her before exhaustion could. It whispered softly into her ear, encouraging her to give up, to let herself slip beneath the water and let someone else worry for awhile. Everything was probably hopeless anyhow, and she had always been too weak to really matter. Always. What point was there in fighting so hard and enduring so much when the odds were so astronomically stacked against her? Was death so much worse than this cold, gasping version of hell? At least death would be peaceful. Wouldn't it?

But she didn't quit. Even when her legs burned and her lungs heaved, Fluttershy kept swimming east. Long after her fragile mind had given up all pretense of hope, her heart refused to stop beating. Her legs refused to stop kicking. And even when her wings refused to bear her weight anymore and they ached from the base of her neck to the very tips of her primaries, she weakly swept her wings along the water's surface like a makeshift pair of oars.

Fluttershy actually made much better time than she gave herself credit for. It was only the unchanging nature of her surroundings that made her feel as though she barely moved at all. It was a testament to the intransigence of her spirit that she didn't give up without a fight. There was no way for her to know that, at her pace, she would die of dehydration and starvation long days before seeing land.

Fluttershy had tried leaping back out of the water twice in the last hour, but she had failed both times. Either her legs simply could not generate enough power to propel her out of the water, or her wings just couldn't support her weight anymore. Possibly both. As the sun set behind her she swam doggedly forward, pushing herself through the cold water.

The dreary monotony changed quite suddenly when a fin broke the surface about twenty paces out. It took a moment for Fluttershy's exhausted brain to process what her eyes were seeing in the fading light of the day, but once it did, her eyes flew wide. She felt alarm thread through her legs to the tips of her hooves, and she launched herself out of the water, spraying salty droplets everywhere.

She floundered unsteadily in the air, already struggling to stay aloft. Her wings protested mightily, and the finned creature kept pace easily, gliding through the water beneath her with lazy grace. Fluttershy cried out weakly, openly sobbing in frustration and fear. In between reflected glints of fading sunlight off the water's surface she thought she could make out the creature's grey body. It was big. Much larger than a bear. And she was certain that, whatever this aquatic creature was, it was hungry. She could sense it. It radiated hunger as though it had never known any other emotion in its long life.

She felt like a foal again, running away from something in a nightmare where one can never quite move fast enough. Her vision began to blur, and every labored heartbeat seemed to constrict her vision into a dark tunnel. Although her skin crawled with panic, her wings refused to carry her any higher. It was all she could do to remain conscious from one flap to the next.

As suddenly as it came the ominous fin disappeared, leaving Fluttershy alone with her panicked flight and her shuddering gasps. The pegasus kept herself going by counting wingstrokes out loud. She just couldn't let herself touch the water again. Not when there were. . . things in there. Alien things that were both massive and hungry. But she couldn't stay in the air, either. She gasped breathless prayers to whomever might be listening and fought her own weakness with everything she had left.

Yet, before her wings could falter and fail her, a massive torpedo exploded out of the water. She barely had a moment to register a pair of soulless, dead eyes on either side of an unbelievable number of serrated teeth lining a deep, black gullet. It was a monster her sleeping mind could never have imagined on its own.

Fluttershy screamed.

In an entirely different, yet identical, bit of ocean a worried Rainbow Dash also kicked her hooves through the water, pointed more or less east.

She spoke in panting breaths. "So it looked like Sea Dreamer had the lead, right, and there were only a couple more laps left in the race, but then Wavebreaker started, I dunno, doing something strange with her wings. She didn't flap them or anything. I mean, that would have been stupid underwater. These things aren't made for swimming, you know. But Wavebreaker did this thing where she kind of wiggled her wings a little, like. . . like this."

Dash's face immediately dropped beneath the water and she reappeared, blowing salt water out of her mouth and flipping her wet bangs out of her eyes. "Well, it works much better when she does it. Hey, don't give me a hard time about it! I'm the best flyer in Equestria. I never claimed to be a great swimmer." Tied atop her back, Spike continued to say nothing. Just like the last two long, boring days.

"Right. Well, if we get out of this mess, I'm totally gonna hit the pool four times a week. My quads are killing me, and if I'm gonna keep being Twilight's friend, it looks like I'm gonna need all kinds of endurance. Ugh, and I'm totally dragging you with me, tubby! Seriously, you weigh a metric ton! I really think you might weigh more than I do. Sheesh, I'll never diss Twilight's lack of a workout regimen ever again. I'm surprised that trotting around Ponyville with you on her back hasn't killed her by now."

The dragon continued to say nothing. His shallow breaths were the only counterpoint to the one-sided conversation. "Okay, I need a little break." Dash slowed her legs, resting them with a comparatively easy treading motion. Then she reached up with a gentle wing and lifted a waterproof sack off of Spike's stomach. Using a wing and her teeth, Dash carefully opened the sack and withdrew a modest hunk of bread. She devoured it in a pair of bites and carefully replaced it atop the unconscious whelpling. Then she took a canteen hung around her neck, lifted it above the waterline, unscrewed the cap and took a long drink.

"It's nice to know everypony on the airship is okay. It was really thoughtful of Celestia to send us supplies via your smelly dragon breath." Dash replaced the cap on the canteen as though she were working with demolition explosives. She didn't want to waste a single drop. "I just wish you'd wake up and drink some of this with me. And maybe start pulling your own weight. Have I mentioned how freaky heavy you are?" With a long sigh, Dash started swimming again. "Heh, I'd better get you to safety. If I let anything happen to you out here, Twilight would probably strangle me to death herself."

She wasn't sure how much longer she could keep them both afloat. Dash had never before learned just how dense dragons were, or how quickly they would sink in deep water. She didn't stand a chance of getting airborne without Spike waking up and swimming himself. The oppressive sun kept arcing through the sky, setting towards the horizon behind them.

"Spike." She murmured, struggling to keep her head above the water line, "I could really use your help right about now."

Several hours later.

"Oh, yes. I'm very comfortable, thank you."

There was a series of deeply guttural clicks varying in pitch.

"No. Well, I mean, yes. I. . . I am quite hungry. But I don't think. . ."

More clicks and a snarl.

"I don't mean to be rude at all, but I don't think raw fish would sit well with me, um, since I've never eaten any kind of meat in my life. . ."

A deep snarl, followed by a high-pitched trill.

"Oh, I'm certainly not judging you, Mr. Finley. I'm friends with all kinds of critters back home in Ponyville. Herbivores, carnivores, omnivores, insectivores, scavengers, you name it. I respect your diet as part of the natural order of things."

A fluctuating trill, followed by clicks and emphasized by a light tail splash.

Fluttershy giggled. It was a sound she hadn't made in a long time. "Oh, it's kind of you to worry so much about me." She flipped her mane out of her face and scooched herself across the shark's broad nose. She was careful to avoid the spray of water arcing up into the night sky as she tried to look into his small, black button eye. "I'm more worried about you. You seem absolutely famished! Are you sure you don't need to stop and eat something?"

A gurgle.

"Well, if you insist. . ."

More clicks, followed by a light jaw-snapping noise.

"I'm certainly glad you didn't eat me, mister! I mean, just look at this thick necklace I'm wearing! You'd just have given yourself the worst indigestion swallowing jewelery like this!"

Oscillating clicks, flowing into more light trills.

"You. . . you ate the dagger board off of a skiff before? I don't even know what that is!"

Another snarl.

"And the. . . jib sail?"

Another snarl.

"And half of the skiff?"

A single click.

"Oh my. Um, you certainly have a strong constitution, Mr. Finley."

A prolonged growl, accompanied by a light side-to-side swish.

"Well, I'm certain the minotaur might have agreed, um, if he'd had the chance."

The shark's silence could be construed as a shrug, since the shark had no shoulders.

"Um, are. . . are you certain we're still going the right way?"

Head bob and tail splash.

"Yes, I'm sure I need to get to land. It's my best chance for finding my friends."

A long pause, followed by a worried-sounding trill.

"Oh, okay. I understand, I think. If you could just get me close, I'm sure. . ."

Pronounced and strident click-chomps.

"No, you wont have to get any closer than you want to. I'm just so very grateful for your help. Why, is there something unpleasant about the coast we're heading towards?"

The night passed swiftly for Fluttershy as the miles disappeared behind them. She still felt terribly thirsty, and her stomach grumbled at her almost constantly. But she was grateful for the chance to rest her trembling limbs. Her wings slumped off of her back, and her legs occasionally twitched, as though she dreamt of running through fields. She even found lifting her head to be more taxing than she would have believed, so she simply closed her eyes against the rush of wind and the twin sheets of water that her new friend cut through the silver ocean.

Yet she couldn't sleep. She still dreaded what lay before her. Had the airship crashed somewhere in the storm? Had anyone survived? Fluttershy imagined running a hoof along the collar of gold she'd been cursed to wear, since she was too tired to actually move. She imagined she would feel something through her Element if one of her friends had actually died. She hoped she was right. But she still dreaded what she might find with all of her heart.

In all that chaos, Rarity had been hurt, hadn't she? Fluttershy was sure of it. She imagined what Ponyville would be like if the Carousel Boutique was shut down permanently. She imagined visiting the spa alone, without hearing her friend's excited opinions or eager gossip. Trips to Sugarcube Corner would be just a little more dull, the very walls of the place sapped of just a little joy without the company of a certain angelically-white unicorn obsessed with making everything fabulous.

She forced herself to think about bunnies and ferrets and sparrows. She thought about her parents. She mentally sorted the plants in her care into categories depending upon how much light they needed to grow, and then sorted them again based upon how often they should be replanted. She thought about anything she could to keep herself from crying.

The moon had nearly set, and Fluttershy had just about dried off when she heard some hesitant clicks vibrating up through the massive snout she was stretched out upon. She lifted her head. The water had stilled around them as her new friend slowed his advance. He seemed almost hesitant as he slid through the burnished water.

As Fluttershy's eyes focused, a deeper black emerged out of the night. The moon above may have presided over an ocean of stars that swirled through the sky in a dazzling symphony of light and beauty, but it cast no light upon the hulking menace of land that crouched in the darkness. Even the massive predator beneath her refused to draw near the shore, as though the land itself might somehow snatch them out of the sea.

The pegasus climbed to her hooves and gulped audibly. Something about that shoreline wasn't right. The land was perfectly still when she looked right at it, but any stretch of shore caught out of the corner of her eye seemed to move, to coil in on itself somehow. As eagerly as she had longed for a dry patch of land to stand upon, Fluttershy suddenly found herself strangely homesick for the undefined and star kissed ocean she'd left behind.

Despite squinting hard in both directions, nothing caught her eye. Her heart sank into her hooves. There was no wreckage, no glint of metal, no islands, no lit fire or beacon. Nothing but black and somewhat menacing shoreline stretching in both directions. She brushed her mane out of her face. She would have to pick a direction and follow the shore, and the wrong choice would lead her farther from her friends.

Fluttershy sighed heavily. "I don't see them anywhere. I'm going to have to explore, and hope I can find some sign of my friends."

The shark beneath her trilled and quivered with fear.

"Oh, it's okay. You don't have to stay near the shore with me if you don't want to." Fluttershy licked her parched lips. "You've done more than enough. I would never have made it this far without you." She knelt down and ran a gentle hoof across the shark's forehead. "I'll. . . I'll be fine. I'm sure I'll find a stream or something. Thank you so much Mr. Finley. You've been a real big sweetheart."

A few gurgling clicks were the only response.

Fluttershy's breath caught in her throat, and the corners of her eyes crinkled up. Her lips quivered, and she threw her forelegs as far as she could around the shark's snout. A minute later, she pushed herself back up into a hover and flew herself towards the shore. The shark hesitated, shuddered from his nose to the tip of his tail, then turned and vanished under the moonlit water.

As Fluttershy flew, the shoreline ahead resolved into a thin pale strip of sand separating the ocean from the rest of the continent. She squinted. It was difficult to tell in the predawn light, but it seemed like tendrils of shadow curled up out of the ground, obscuring what the land might have actually looked like. In fact, the closer she drew, the more oozing darkness seemed to coalesce, forming a pulsing wall across her way. She knew immediately she'd rather die than step into that creeping evil aura. In fact, there may have been no difference between the two choices.

Fluttershy's heart sank even lower. As she neared the shore she slowed her flight, eventually dropping herself gently into the surf. By now the cursed zone before her was a tangible, living thing. It raked across her senses, like falling into a thicket of thorns. It was a physical representation of a vast gulf of despair, an invitation to abandon all hope and simply break upon the reality that all things end. Several lifetimes ago, Celestia had tried to explain what they might find on this shore. But she hadn't described it well enough. None of them had been scared enough. Not even this trembling pegasus who was afraid of everything.

Fluttershy cringed, holding one wet hoof against the gem set at her throat. But then she squared her shoulders and nodded. Perhaps there was a time when standing this close to something truly corrupted would have been too much for her to bear. At one time, something like this might have broken her spirit. But Fluttershy's spirit had already been broken. She'd felt, through the strange connection her Element allowed her, all of her closest friends' heartbeats stop, even if for a moment. She could encompass nothing worse with her mind or her heart.

Fluttershy turned and trotted north through the surf. Even if north was the right direction, she hoped there was someone out there to find.

It had only been an hour, but it felt like so much more. Fluttershy hadn't slept in days, and she hadn't found a drop of drinkable water in that time either. As the tide receded, she had stopped to pick up a clump of seaweed in her chapped hooves. It smelled sour. With a grimace, she'd taken a bite, chewing the tough, salty, sandy mouthful as best she could before forcing herself to swallow. It'd nearly come right back up. She'd shaken her head and dropped the seaweed back onto the sand. It was the lowest point in her life, by a long shot. At least so far.

As the sun peeked over the horizon, it just seemed to blur her vision. She found herself trotting in a zig-zag, listing dangerously close to the moiling darkness on her right before scrabbling away from it to the left. She wasn't sure she could feel her hooves anymore, because she kept stumbling in the soft sand, kicking up clouds of fine, white grit. She panted drily, as though she'd been running all night.

Her vision blurred, and her hoof caught in a tangle of seaweed. Her chin hit the sand, and as she lay there panting, her only coherent thought was that she was glad she didn't have her tongue between her teeth when she fell. Her mother was always warning her about that. Her mother had always been warning her about every little danger. The danger of snapping a new feather and bleeding out. The dangerous calories in hay. Stranger danger. The danger in catching a cold staying out late. Dangerous hoof infections if you didn't dry them off properly. With a snorted exhalation that might have been a distant cousin of a laugh, Fluttershy wondered what her mother would say if she could see her daughter now.

With a start, Fluttershy realized that she hadn't actually stood back up. She was still lying in the sand. She struggled to pull her hooves back underneath herself when, several paces ahead of her, something else fell onto the sand with her. Her eyes swam into focus on the small shape ahead of her. It. . . it looked like a large rabbit. And it was hurt. Fluttershy gasped, and she pushed herself up on wobbly legs.

Something was wrong. Maybe the bloated, grey and pink thing crawling pitifully towards her used to be a bunny, but it wasn't anymore. The corrupting darkness had twisted its soul into something vile, and its body had followed suit. It mewled pitifully, grains of sand adhering to open sores at it dragged itself limply in a straight line towards her. There was no help she could give it.

Fluttershy was too weak to panic. She had nothing left. As she turned to trot the other way, her vision blurred again, and she almost stumbled over another creature reaching towards her. The pink-maned pony recoiled, suddenly faced with a large badger, its startlingly-red cheek muscles strained as its mouth opened silently, exposing a swollen, black tongue.

And behind it were several more creatures. Dozens more scattered across the beach she'd just crossed. How long had they been following her? How long had they been reaching towards her tail, shambling or oozing or flopping limply after her retreating form?

She should have let herself drown.

Fluttershy twitched her legs back out of reach as the creature arched towards her, looking for all the world as though it just wanted to rest its bloody head against her leg. She flapped her wings, finally grasping her danger and lifting herself off of the nightmare the beach had become.

Just a moment too late. The rabbit behind her had latched onto her tail, and it was crawling up it towards her body. She snapped her tail left and right trying to dislodge the creature, but it seemed to hang on effortlessly. She was so distracted, she didn't see the badger-thing rear up on its hind legs and gently sink its teeth into her foreleg.

There was no air left for screaming as Fluttershy felt acid knives slicing into her leg. She lost control of her wings and crashed back onto the dry sand. She noticed that the burning pain was followed by the chill of ice. It was paralyzing. Her struggles became weaker as more of the creatures converged upon her. She gasped out a prayer to Celestia and squeezed her eyes shut.

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