• Published 28th Nov 2021
  • 762 Views, 70 Comments

Agate's vigil - VVingnut

A filly trying to escape from the Crystal Empire gets lost in the north, eventually discovering a new tribe of ponies.

  • ...

Empire of darkness

Agate didn't know how long she ran.

She deliberately zig-zagged instead of moving in a straight line. The terrified filly kept diving, dodging and jumping between the snowdrifts, the frozen landscape moving by in a blur. Desperate to keep herself from being seen by any hostile eyes, she collapsed behind a large drift, her adrenaline finally spent.

Her last conscious thought before collapsing into a panting, tired mess was to make sure she was hidden from the sight of the Spire, too. Agate didn't know whether the soldiers that attacked her family just got lucky, or if they were actually sent to hunt them down because someone spotted the trio from the massive tower. She didn't want to risk it either way.

Well. There was also the fact that Agate could swear the Spire was looking back at her every time she so much as glanced at it from the corner of her eyes.

As she caught her breath, she cocked her ears and listened intently for a few minutes. All she could hear were the soft susurrations of the snow being blown about by the wind. No one seemed to be running after her. Did she really manage to get away?

"I really hope they're not just waiting right behind me to scare me," the tired filly thought as she slowly got up. "I hate when ponies do that.".

Looking around, Agate sighed in relief as she saw that there was not a soul in sight. Carefully raising her head above the snow, she took a tiny peek at the Spire. Her back immediately started crawling, every instinct telling her it's looking at you, it's going to eat you, RUN.

"Gah! Stupid building! Buildings don't eat ponies!" Something wasn't right here.

Forcing her shaky legs to keep still, Agate grit her teeth and tried again. This time, she looked at the offending construction from the corner of her eyes. It seemed to dampen the strange fear effect, though it didn't make the sight any more pleasant. The once-lovely white and blue edifice had been completely taken over by the black crystals at this point. No longer symmetrical, the walls looked jagged and warped.

And then there was the smoke. The oily-looking clouds that had been pouring out of the topmost towers covered a good portion of the city at this point, and it looked like they were spreading fast, covering the city in shadow. The wind didn't seem to be affecting it at all, either. Little tendrils of smoke would crawl across the sky with the main mass following suit, almost like some strange mold infesting the sky itself.

Agate shuddered, trying to keep her stomach calm. Completely unbidden, an old nursery rhyme came to her. And she understood.

"Surrounded by mountains and ice, in the northern deep,
Where the freezing gales and wind eternal weep.
There stands a shining city, proud and tall;
They keep the dark and cold away, with no sword nor wall.

They fear neither windigo nor winter, those are kept at bay.
With shining hope in their hearts, that is the Crystal Pony way.
So don't you worry, my little pony, have no fear;
Just hold your heart full of warmth for those near and dear.

Keep up hope, and the fiercest cold will fade.
Love your fellows, and you will need no blade.
Remember these words, and come what may -
Fear no darkness, you will see the light of day."

Agate didn't even realize she actually recited the thing out loud until she finished. It made her feel much better, though. The little spark of defiance she held on to had grown into a warm fire. Even looking at the corrupted Spire didn't cause the same fear anymore. Giving the city one last sad look, she picked a direction and slowly walked away.

❅ ❆ ❅

It was easy to understand what was happening. Crystal ponies participated in the Empire's rituals and traditions since before they were even aware of it, from their very first Crystalling as newborn foals. Even reading was taught via history. "C" is for "Crystal", "H" is for "Heart"...

Agate idly mused about all the things she was taught in foalhood as she made her way parallel and slightly away from the city. The snow crunched lightly under her shoes, the northern sun hanging feebly in the western sky. She didn't know what time it was, but their escape from the city most likely took a good part of the day. And winter days were shorter, too! Probably no more than a few hours until it got dark.

If all of their love and hope were meant to keep the cold and darkness at bay, then it was only natural that it would come back with a vengeance if said hope was lost. There was probably more to it, but it didn't really matter at this point.

She kept walking, only stopping to scoop up a tiny bit of snow with her mouth here and there. She had food in her bags, but no water. "Anything we take would just freeze, and it's extra weight. We'll just have to eat some snow," dad had explained. It was cold but manageable, as long as she only took a small bite at a time. Anything more would make her teeth sting.

As evening approached, it was slowly getting colder, too. That could be a problem. Her left-side saddlebag held all the food they managed to cram inside there, but her right one had her warmest blanket crammed inside, the thick woolen article making the bag bulge. Crystal sheep wool was said to be magical, able to protect ponies from the fierce cold outside the city.

"I hope my blanket didn't lose it's magic like the city did..." Agate quietly muttered under her breath.

The ponies running the petting zoo during the last Crystal Faire had explained to her how the tiny crystal ewes were actually native to the mountains surrounding them, and were not afraid to go outside at all. However, they preferred to spend winters in the city, due to the abundance of fresh grass grown in the farms surrounding the Empire.

"Hmm. Would be nice to have a coat like that myself," she kept talking quietly. Her classmates would make fun of her for that, sometimes. They'd say she was "talking to herself". Dummies didn't even know the difference between talking to yourself and thinking out loud. Though she'd almost prefer to be with some of her worse classmates to being all alone right now.

Agate sighed and thought about her parents. They got beaten up, but they'd probably be okay. They were tough. Would she be okay, though? Things weren't looking all that good. She was all alone, with the only ponies who knew what to do gone.

"I'm not dumb," she muttered. "I can... what's that saying... I can see the writing on the wall."

And she really could, too. She didn't have the foggiest idea whether the direction she picked was even the right one, which most likely meant it wasn't. Even if she did go south and somehow found the road to Equestria, there was no saying how long it would take to get there, and if she had enough food for the trip. There was just too much that she didn't know.

Problem was, she really, really did not like the alternatives. The filly pulled her scarf tighter around herself, her ears folding down. Going back to the Empire was one option. But Agate could still remember the whistle of the wind as the soldier's steel-shod hoof barely missed her head. Whoosh. "You'll pay in blood!", their leader had screamed. She'd get caught sooner or later. And exactly how much blood would she have to pay when that happened?

If the strength behind the strike was anything to go by, it would be as much as an adult. And she wasn't one yet! Agate wasn't sure if she would survive that, and she wasn't keen on finding out. And so, the filly kept moving towards the mountains, keeping her pace at a steady trot.

"Even if I have to go give up and go back eventually, I have to at least try... My parents tried so hard to get me to safety. I have to try." Nodding resolutely to herself, she kept her eyes firmly forward. "I do hope I'm going south though..." she thought, the northern wind gently blowing in her face.

❅ ❆ ❅

It turned out, the crystal wool blankets really were magical. Or maybe they were just that warm.

Agate yawned, lightly stretching within her cocoon. After walking for an hour or two more, she found a large depression in the ground. It looked like ponies dug it up, a long time ago. Her dad showed her how he polished gems sometimes, and she could recognize tool marks on some of the abandoned boulders. There was one large pile left lying on one side of the quarry, likely material that was deemed of too poor quality to bring back to the city.

Using that knowledge, she circled the pile. The quarry was filled with snow, far too deep to sleep in. But the rocks were stacked in an orderly fashion, and she dug out a tunnel to a small space between two flat rocks that leaned against each other, like a tent.

Once inside, the filly immediately took out her blanket and spread it out on the cold ground, proceeding to wrap it around herself. She didn't even bother taking off her scarf or boots, though she did take off her hat. Wearing it too long made her mane itchy. Sticking her front hooves out of the cocoon, she examined her supplies in the dim light.

Her saddlebags were fairly large, given that they were the same ones she went to school with. The one with the food had the loaf of bread and jar of jam her mom gave her at the inn, along with the rest of the food they took from home. Three bunches of carrots, two bunches of hay, a bag of nuts and a sack of oats.

After what she went through, Agate felt that she deserved some dessert. She ate a quarter of the bread, dipping it into the jam. Still, she did half a bunch of hay afterwards. Didn't want her parents to get mad when they found out or to get sick from too much sugar, after all.

She went to sleep after her meal. Now that she was awake again, her belly was demanding more. Sticking her muzzle outside, she winced a bit at the cold. Looking around, she retrieved her hat, took a breath, and stepped out from under the blanket.

"Bleh. Cold cold cold... maybe I should wear this on my back when I walk. Hey, that's actually not a bad idea..."

Deciding to try it out if things got bad later, Agate folded the blanket, put it in her saddlebag, and started on some simple breakfast. Dry oats and jam wasn't the most pleasant food, but she managed to get it down. After licking her lips clean, she gathered her courage, and went out to brave the icy plains again.

Stepping out of her little cave, Agate couldn't quite tell whether it was morning yet. Looking up, it became quite clear why. The black clouds, if they were even that, had covered a large portion of the visible part of the sky, stretching out far from beyond the city. The usually clear winter day turned into a murky twilight.

Not even bothering to look at the city, the intrepid filly turned her back on the source of the darkness and resolutely marched towards the mountains. A few beams of sunlight shone from that direction, the few slivers of still pristine blue sky giving her hope. Somewhere in those hills, there was a passage that lead to Equestria.

Problem was, the entire Empire was completely ringed by mountains, with the exception of that one pass. Perhaps she could see the path once she climbed higher, even if the current direction she was heading in was wrong.

And so Agate marched on, trying to keep the little flame in her heart burning.

❅ ❆ ❅

The trip was uneventful. There were no monsters, no animals, no sounds but the wind and her boots crunching on the snow. Perhaps Agate was just lucky. Or maybe every living creature felt the darkness radiating from the city, and got the heck away.

The landscape was similarly dull. Nothing but snowy, rocky plains all around, a few flurries being blown about here and there. Far ahead, in the direction of her goal, were the mountains. The foothills far ahead seemed to have a small forest of evergreens to break up the monotony of snow and rock, at least.

Agate forcefully kept her eyes on the goal, refusing to look back at the city. The entire time she walked, the filly felt hostile eyes drilling into her back. The only way she could resist looking backwards was by distracting herself, repeating more foalhood rhymes and thinking of her family.

"Ringed by mountains oh so strong
With green forests lost in their song
Bushes laden with berries oh so sweet
Where the northern winds meet

The river's waters run crystal clear
To be replaced by sparkling ice every year
Oh, I truly love the beautiful land
Around us, the empire most grand..."

After a large amount of walking and a short break to eat some food and suck down some snow, Agate reached the foothills of the mountains. At least she thought she did. They didn't look quite like she imagined they would.

There was no sudden, huge wall of stone, but the mountains did seem closer. And the land was slowly getting steeper. A number of small evergreens were scattered around, with some bigger trees further on. The mountains... This was, more or less, the border of the Empire. For the first time that day, the filly turned back to glance at the city.

She could barely see it at this point. The darkness pouring out of the city brought visibility down quite a lot. However, the cursed fear effect was as strong as ever, if not stronger. While she was deliberately ignoring it, it was manageable. But now...

Now that she took the sight head on, the darkness gripped her mind again. Heart pounding, Agate yelped, taking off into the forest. Scattering snow in all directions, she weaved between the evergreens. After a while of running, she hid behind a tree, a few tears falling from her eyes. Slowly, a dark expression overtook the filly's features, an uncharacteristic scowl twisting her features.

"Stupid fear! Stupid Sombra! I hate you! I wish you'd go away forever! I hate you and your dumb dark magic and your stupid face and your DAMNED CURSE YOU PUT ON THE EMPIRE! I WISH YOU'D DIE, YOU GREEDY-"

She didn't even notice furiously pounding on the pine tree she was hiding behind, but the laws of physics did. They reacted predictably, the vibrations dislodging the snow collected on the tree's branches, and unceremoniously dumping them on the filly.

"Ack!" The snow got in her ears, and mouth, and pretty much everywhere. At least it broke whatever spell took hold of her mind. After taking a few deep breaths and calming down slightly, Agate began to cry.

She never wished death on anybody before. She knew what death was, more or less. Her friend Sugarberry came from a family of crystal berry farmers, and she once invited Agate to help her out. A bunch of icky grubs started eating the leaves from her berry bushes, and the fillies helped out Sugarberry's parents by collecting them and putting them in jars.

Sugarberry's father didn't bother with a jar, though. He'd just sweep the grubs on the ground, squishing them beneath his hooves. "Remember, fillies, it's just nature. If this was the wilds, there would be birds that would come and eat the grubs. 'Course, they might help themselves to some berries, too. Now, in here, there's nothing to stop them but us. If we just let them be, they'd eat every single leaf clean off every bush, and then just starve to death anyway. And so would we, because the berry bushes would go next, and we'd have no berries to harvest."

The fillies euugh'd and blegh'd at the life lesson, but they understood. This was different, though. Those were just bugs that didn't know any better. You didn't wish a pony would go away forever. You didn't... you didn't scream at the top of your lungs how badly you wanted them to die.

Agate cried for a while, letting out all her pain. After some time, she wiped away her eyes, and collected herself. That rage, that hate... This wasn't her. It couldn't be. More of Sombra's tricks, it had to be. At the thought of that name, a stab of anger went through the filly again.

Shaking her head, she dove into her saddlebags to distract herself. Pulling out a carrot to munch on, she took stock of her supplies again. One bunch of hay had been eaten, one left. Two bunches of carrots, a quarter of a loaf of bread and a third - full jar of jam. The sack with oats was two thirds full, the nuts untouched. She tried to do some maths. It didn't look great.

If Agate kept eating at the rate she was (and she would, or exhaustion would get her), she had food for 3-4 more days. And it took a day and a half to get here from the Empire. She didn't know how far Equestria was, but seeing as the Empire was still in sight, it was probably too far.

She sighed. One day. She'd give herself one more day to explore around, and then turn back. Back to... that place. It was crushing to think that her once-beloved home evoked such dark feelings in her now.

Her thoughts bleak, Agate turned back to the forest and started looking for a place to sleep. It was still light out, but the motivation to explore had gone out of her.

❅ ❆ ❅

Another morning came to the nameless mountains. Did the mountains actually have a name? Probably, but Agate didn't know it.

The feeble morning light found her tired and grumpy, curled up in a small burrow under a tree's roots. Despite going to sleep early, her night hadn't been restful. Fitful dreams haunted the filly, of dark figures chasing her across the frozen plains. Her parent's voices called out to her, but she couldn't reply. A fierce blizzard rose up, her shouts ripped away by the furious wind.

Wiping the sand from her eyes, Agate lethargically dug through her saddlebags. More oats went down her gullet, with the last tiny helping of jam. Folding and storing her blanket, she fixed her scarf and hat, trying to get at least a tiny bit of energy into her tired limbs.

The food helped a little. After a couple minutes of yawning and stretching, she set off again. The forest was deathly quiet. Nothing made a rustle, not even the wind. The snow was thicker here, making her plow a path through the stuff. She tried to look where the land tilted up, hoping to find a better vantage point.

Some time later, Agate came across a rather large branch that must have broken off from a tree not too long ago. All the needles were still bright green, tempting her to taste them. Were they edible? It wasn't something that she ever ate back home.

"Well, I probably won't get sick if I try just a tiny bit..." With that, she bit off a bunch of the stuff. Hmmm. Coarse, strong flavor, kind of dry, but not bad. After waiting a few minutes and listening whether her stomach would present any objections, she helped herself to some more, washing it down with a carrot.

After the snack, the young traveler set off again. It took her a few hours of wandering, stumbling, and sometimes tripping on a hidden root, but she managed to make her way out of the forest. She eventually discovered a large, flat shelf of stone that overlooked the treetops.

The sight was truly breathtaking, the entirety of Dream Valley laid out before her even with the dark magic obscuring the sky. Trying not to let her gaze land on the city, Agate intently scanned the surrounding mountains for any signs of pony-made paths. Or huts, buildings, road signs, anything that would lead her to Equestria.

But... there was nothing. Nothing marred the pristine snow and rock of the mountains around her. There was no safe harbor to be found around here, only the untamed wilderness.

Hanging her head low, her ears folded, the lonesome filly slowly laid down on the icy ground. Tears started falling from her eyes, though she made no sound. After she came so far, tried so hard, it didn't even matter. Her spirit crushed, she just lay there, the cold slowly seeping into her limbs.

Some time after she started shivering, Agate got up and shook off the snow clinging to her coat. There was nothing left to do but go back. Back to the city. Maybe she could hide in that inn they stopped at before leaving... Just hide out in the pantry until somebody fixed things...

Sniffling to clear her nose, Agate willed her shivering legs to start moving back towards the forest. It didn't go as well as she thought it would. She started shivering so hard she slipped, landing on her butt. Blinking a few times, she tried again. Her teeth started clattering too, and her back crawled. Her eyes went wide, understanding and utter horror flooding the filly.

The city was right in front of her. Even if she looked down towards the forest, she could still see the Empire from the corner of her eyes. And that was enough to make her feel the unnatural terror Sombra was casting from that place. Enough to make her legs shake. Enough to force her body to shut down, completely refusing to take a step forward towards that place of nightmares.

"No. No, no, no, no, nooooononononono...." She was crying now, weeping, trying to force her disobedient legs to move. All she could do was flop forelegs around, her hindlegs frozen to the ground.

She felt fear, she felt sadness, anger, concern and other things as she fled her home. This was the first time she felt absolute panic, though. She couldn't keep going deeper into the mountains, there was nothing for her there. But her way back to the Empire had been barred, it seemed.

In her desperation, Agate tried tricking the dark magic. She closed her eyes and managed to stumble forward for a while, but when she opened them again and looked around, her tracks in the snow just led her in a semi-circle. Her body refused to get any closer to the source of evil, even if she couldn't see it.

She tried walking backwards, her butt towards the forest, but it didn't go that well either. After spending an hour stumbling about and almost falling off the steep cliff, she was forced to admit that it wouldn't work out. Her pace slowed to a crawl, and it'd probably take a week to get to the city at that pace, if she could even get close. Agate could still remember the foreboding feeling she felt during the journey to the woods, even with her back towards the city.

This was it, the last drop. Agate snapped. No longer holding back, she screamed, cursed, and thrashed around, shrieking out every vile thing about Sombra that her young mind could come up with.

"I HATE YOU! I HOPE YOUR PARENTS LEAVE YOU FOREVER! IF YOU EVEN HAVE PARENTS, YOU DUMB, STINKY POOPHEAD!" She coughed, getting some air back into her lungs. "I hope they kick you out of the Empire so hard, you get lost in the snow forever! Curse you! Damn you! Freeze! I wish they just bury you in ice, so you freeze solid! Just like your cold, dead heart!!! How can you be so mean, you.. you... " She trailed off, hanging her head in defeat. The small fire of defiance she kept in her heart sputtered out, leaving her empty and hopeless.

Slowly, darkness came over the mountains again. There was no sound but the whistling of the wind. Nothing marred the pristine rock and snow of the wilderness.

Nothing but the tiny form of a filly lost in the snow, listlessly trudging her way deeper North.