• Published 3rd Oct 2012
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The Eternal Song - Stereo_Sub



I'm Vinyl Scratch. DJ, producer, lover, borderline alcoholic... and now, apparently, savior of the universe. Yeah, I don't really know either.

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Chapter Ten: Cambiare

“Lyra, scalpel please,” Redheart said, squinting at the foreleg of a tiny pink filly who couldn’t have been more than four. She whimpered as she saw the tool appear in Redheart’s mouth, and the white mare patted her shoulder reassuringly. “Look, this might hurt a little bit, but there’s a shard of metal stuck in your foreleg, and if I don’t get it out, it’s going to infect your leg, leech into your bloodstream, poison you, and then you’re going to die. You don’t want that, right?” The filly didn’t reply, now looking like she was trying not to burst into tears. I put a hoof to my forehead and stifled a sigh. Rapid diagnosis, applied medicine, and field surgery? Totally Red’s thing. Calming down terrified foals? Not so much.

She might not’ve had the best bedside manner, but Redheart did work fast. With some help from Lyra at keeping the rest of the patients’ fear under control, nearly ever foal in the line had been scalpeled, salved, stitched, and sterilized in a little under an hour. Even the strange grey-eyed filly had allowed Red to clean and bandage a small gash on her chin. It was fresh, too, still shiny and oozing blood from when the Herald she had thrown herself at had clipped her upside the head.

See? She fought the Heralds. She's helping you.

Self-preservation, I replied, shaking my head. I still don't trust her.

I was making the final adjustments to ‘Tavi’s fresh set of bandages when Redheart trotted over, looking exhausted but wearing a small, triumphant smile. “They’re all done,” she said, kneeling over my marefriend and nodding approvingly. “Those look good. How much of the phoenix tears do we have left?”

“Barely any,” I replied, levitating the bottle up and shaking it to make the liquid inside catch the light. “Two or three drops at most. Maybe enough for one more treatment for Octavia.”

Redheart’s eyes narrowed. “Vinyl, we’ve been over this. I’m not going to—”

“Look,” I said, holding up a forehoof and glaring right back at her. “If I have to choose between a little pain and watching my marefriend die of infection, I’m pretty sure you know which one I’m gonna pick.”

“But that’s— ugh!” Redheart huffed, shaking her head. “Fine. I’m still getting some fresh bandages on that leg, though.”

“Go ahead,” I replied, sticking out the offending limb. “Just save the strong stuff for ‘Tavi and you can mummify me for all I care.”

“Keep up that attitude and I just might,” she muttered darkly, grabbing the edge of my bandages in her teeth and beginning to unwrap them. I just grinned.

A few minutes later, my leg was freshly wrapped, and Redheart and I walked over to Lyra, who had at some point moved from sitting near us to pacing around Syl, looking deep in thought. The varra’s eyes were following her as she moved, slowly scanning back and forth and glinting when they caught the sunlight. I had to suppress a shudder. How she could be so damn comfortable around that thing, I had no idea.

“So,” Redheart said, picking up the previous conversation. “We still need to figure out what to do with them.”

“And what to do with us,” I interjected. “I mean, Aura said she has no idea how long ‘Tavi could be like this. Are we just gonna carry her all the way to the Badlands, or what?”

You might have to.

Much as I love her, I’d really rather not.

“I’m not sure about the foals, but I think I’ve got the four of us covered,” Lyra said, smiling. “Syl’s agreed to take us all the way to the outskirts of the Wildwood, right near the edge of the Badlands.”

“She what?” I looked at the varra incredulously. “What did you do, promise her your firstborn foal?”

“No, of course not,” Lyra said, with a laugh that sounded slightly forced. “I just asked nicely. You should try it sometime.”

Oh, of course, I thought, rolling my eyes. Asking nicely. The solution to all of life’s giant-bird related problems.

“So we’re going to be riding, then.” Redheart said slowly, the edges of her mouth tightening. “Through the air.”

“That’s the plan!” Lyra replied, bubbly as usual. “She says it’ll probably take around a day and a half, give or take a couple hours.”

“That long?” Redheart frowned. “The Badlands aren’t that far away, are they?”

“She says she’ll have to fly slower than usual so we don’t get thrown off or suffocate. Walking would still probably take us way longer though.”

“Of course. Right. That’s— all right.” Redheart blinked. “A-anyway,” she said quickly, sounding almost too eager to change the subject. “The foals. Are there any places near here we could take them to?”

“No,” I replied, sighing. “Aura said the nearest one would probably be a couple days’ walk. We can’t afford to waste the time.”

“Even if we’re— you know?” Redheart asked, voice sounding slightly shaky. Whatever her issue was, it would have to take a number and sit tight. One problem at a time.

“Even if we’re flying? Uh, I’m not sure. Hang on.” Would we be able to make it if we flew to the Badlands then? I was hoping against hope for the answer.

No. Remember, the Heralds have been on the move the entire time you all have been chained here. They’re probably in the Badlands already. We need every minute we can get.

Annoying, but expected. I shook my head. “No. Aura says every minute counts. Maybe we could get them to somewhere nearer. Do any of you live around here? Or, like, somewhat close, at least?” Despite what Aura had told me, I figured it was worth a shot.

A few of the foals shook their heads, but most of them didn’t even acknowledge me. The grey-eyed filly, unsurprisingly, was one of them. “No? Okay.” It was never easy, was it? “Let me ask Aura where we should go from here,” I whispered to Lyra and Redheart, who nodded and went back to tending to the foals. Shit. Where’s the safest place we could tell them to hole up until all of this is over?

It took Aura a few seconds to reply. As much as I hate to say it, it would be here. In the Wildwood.

I snorted. Right. Because zombie bug-mutants, giant killer birds, and slave-driving cultists are everything a kid needs to live a happy, healthy life.

The Stalkers were sent to track you. They’re not predators, they’re hunters. Once you leave, they’ll have no reason to be here. Neither will the Heralds, for that matter, since they already have the Totem of the Wild, and all the large natural predators were killed off ages ago either by collateral damage from the wars or the Heralds hunting them for food and life force. It’s the safest option we have.

I bit my lip. I guess. Still don’t like it, though—

We don’t have a choice, she replied irritably. Come on. Every second we spend arguing about this is another second the Heralds spend getting closer to the next Totem.

I still have to convince Redheart and Lyra.

Is that going to be a problem?

I shot a glance at Redheart, flitting between the foals, adjusting bandages and cleaning wounds, and then Lyra, smiling and talking animatedly to a rusty-red colt who was holding a shaky grin of his own.. They looked so... well, not happy, in Redheart’s case, really, but content, at least. They were doing what they loved. Entertaining, healing—

Saving the universe...

I rolled my eyes. Fine. If they get mad, though, this is all on you.

There was a hint of smugness in her reply, just enough to make want to grind my teeth into nubs. I think I can deal with that.

“Okay, Lyra, Red?” I said, motioning for them to come closer and huddle, which they did, Lyra waving a hasty goodbye to the colt as she trotted over. “Aura and I figured something out, but you aren’t going to like it. At all.”

Lyra gave a slow, apprehensive nod, while Redheart stood in her usual stoic silence, eyes urging me to go on. I closed my eyes for a minute, collecting myself, then continued:

“We’re leaving them here, in the Wildwood. We can’t afford to waste any time moving them around or looking for another place. Aura said they’ll be safe here, or at least safer than they would be anywhere else. The Heralds should follow us, not them, so the sooner we leave, the sooner they’ll be safe. I know it’s not perfect, not even close, but it’s just...” The words felt bitter and wrong coming out of my throat, and I stared at the ground, unable to meet my friends’ eyes. “It’s just what we have to do.”

Before I could say anything else, Redheart had already spun on her hoof and walked back towards the foals without saying a single word. I bit down on a sigh and let her go. One problem at a time.

“Are you sure?” Lyra asked, tapping a hoof on the ground and shooting an uncomfortable glance at Redheart, who had returned to treating the foals. “I mean, yeah we can’t take them with us, but there isn’t anything we can do? Like, some kind of protection or maybe, I dunno, food? Do we have enough for that?”

The worrying lightness of the saddlebags on my back answered her question before I could, and I shook my head. “Not unless you or Redheart’s been holding out on us this whole time. We only have a few days’ worth of stuff left, less than that for water. I mean, if we fed one of them, we’d have to give them all something, and we can’t do that.” I forced the words out, hating myself more and more every second. At least Aura stayed quiet. If she had chimed in with her usual snark, I probably would’ve snapped and glassed another few hundred feet of woodland.

“Ugh, this sucks,” Lyra said, kicking up a clod of Wildwood dirt with her forehoof. “All right, we’re doing this, sure, whatever. Shouldn’t we, y’know, tell them and get a move on? And, uh, what about Redheart?” I could see the uncertainty and regret on her face and felt another pang of guilt.

“I’ll talk to Redheart,” I replied, keeping my voice low. “You tell the foals. You’re good with kids.”
She frowned. "I’m what?”

“Oh, come on. You must’ve noticed you were the only one who actually hit it off with them. They like you.”

“You think?”

“Goddess, how did you not notice—” I rolled my eyes at her bemused expression. “Yes, Lyra. And that’s why you need to be the one to tell them. It’ll soften the blow a little.”

“Okay, I guess...” She bit her lip, staring at the foals. One of them, the same rusty-red colt, was fully smiling now, trying to start a conversation with another pair of foals. It was an entirely one-sided effort, but that didn’t seem to stop him. “What should I say?”

“Tell them that they’ll be safe here, that they should find a place to lay low and wait this out. They should be able to eat...” I trailed off as I realized I had no idea what a group of twenty-something foals were supposed to eat in the middle of a forest. Aura, I hope your idea includes a plan for feeding them that’s more than ‘look for possibly-edible thing, place in mouth, repeat until full or dead’.

Brightfruit should be easy to find, Aura thought. They’re a Sonian staple, or were, anyway, so most of them will know what to look for. Lumpy, orange, grow under shrubs in the ground, sour but very nutritious. Cresa berries are fairly common too, little wrinkly purple things. You have to peel the skin off first or it’s like eating mushy tree bark, but once you do, they’re very sweet.

I nodded, repeating the description of the fruit to Lyra, then frowned as I realized I was just learning about yet another useful tidbit of information Aura had neglected to share with us.

Why didn’t we know about this? I replied, annoyed. Or is not starving to death a natives-only privilege?

First of all, you had plenty of food, she shot back. Second, it’s not my job to tell you every little scrap of information that might be useful at some point in the future. I’m a pony, Vinyl, not a reference book. If you want one of those, I suggest you look in the expansive, enchanted, incredibly valuable one you actually own. And third, Native Sonian produce is hard for most Outlanders to adjust to. I didn’t want to risk you throwing up for a day and a half just to fill your stomach.

Fine, whatever. We’re going to have to eat something from here at some point, though.

And when that day comes, I hope you have a bucket. Or several.

And what about water? Don’t tell me that grows in shrubs too.

Check the guide. I don’t know the Wildwood all that well, but there’s bound to be a stream or at least a spring a few hours’ walk from here. And before you ask, they all would have been in the wrong direction from where we’re going and would’ve set us too far behind.

I quickly floated the book out of my saddlebags, murmuring “map,” and tapping my forehoof impatiently as I the pages flipped past. I squinted, scanning the field painted trees for something that looked vaguely water-like until I found a small splotch of blue nestled in the northwest part of the Wildwood.

That’ll work, right?

Probably a few days’ walk, but yes, it should.

I showed the spring to Lyra, who took the book with her magic and nodded. “Okay. I’ll tell them to head there, look for that fruit, and lay low.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “What about—”

“I’ll talk to her,” I replied over my shoulder, trotting over to where Redheart was tending to a pair of fillies with matching lavender coats, twins maybe. She didn’t look up when I walked up to her, or when I cautiously tapped her on the shoulder with a forehoof.

Vinyl...

What do you want?

Aura was silent for a moment. I realize you’re doing this for me, and I appreciate it, but just... Just don’t say anything you’ll regret.

Oh, is that it? Was worried for a second there, I replied, putting as much sarcasm as I possibly could into the words. Sure thing, easy peasy.

“Redheart?” I asked tentatively, tapping her on the shoulder again. She didn’t look up. “Redheart, come on. We need to get moving.” Still no response. “Redheart. For Celestia’s sake, at least talk to me. I know you’re upset, okay? I get it, but this is—”

“Don’t you dare.”

Redheart’s voice never rose above normal speaking volume, but the ice in those three words was enough to make me stop short, frowning. “Don’t you dare what?” I knew I was probably setting myself up for an thorough chewing out, but I could deal with that if it meant getting Redheart talking again.

“Don’t you dare try to rationalize this. It’s not ‘the best course of action’, Vinyl, no matter what the little pony in your head tells you. These are real foals, real ponies, that went through goddess knows how much before we freed them, and now we’re going walk away? Dump them in a remote section of a forest and tell them ‘good luck’? Do you really not see a problem with that?” she asked, holding one of the filly’s legs in her own and slowly rotating it around. There was a chorus of pops as the limb turned, and I winced.

“It’s not like we’re just leaving them there,” I replied, struggling to keep my voice low enough that the foals wouldn’t hear. “We’ll show them where a spring is for water, tell them where to find safe fruits and stuff to eat—”

“And leave them,” she finished, glaring at me. “A group of children, alone in a forest for goddess knows how long, the same forest where four fully-grown, prepared, and armed mares were nearly killed. Nothing you say will ever make that less terrible, Vinyl. If you want to go and play hero, I won’t stop you, but I’m not leaving until every single one of these colts and fillies is somewhere safe. Actually safe.”

“We’re not leaving without you,” I hissed, grabbing her shoulder. She shrugged me off easily, not turning around.

“Then I guess we’ll be here for a while.”

Oh, for Celestia’s sake...

“What about us?!” I half-shouted, jabbing a hoof to where Octavia was still lying unconscious on the grass. “What about when we need help, Red? What about when we’re the ones that need saving? You’re going to abandon us, abandon that, for a bunch of kids we don’t even know?”

Redheart didn’t turn around, but I saw the muscles in her neck tighten. “I didn’t want to do this," she said, massaging the filly’s hoof where her hind leg met her body. “Do you understand that, Vinyl? Never. Not once. But I came along anyway.”

“What? But I thought—”

“What did you think?” she replied coldly. “That I decided to risk my sanity, my job, and my life over a fucking Star Trot set? Goddess, Vinyl, am I really that shallow to you? That two dimensional?” She shook her head. “I followed you because I’m your friend. Because no matter how many times you decide to put your head down and gallop straight at death, I still think keeping you alive is worth it.”

“Guys?” Lyra’s voice was quiet, tentative, just enough that both Redheart and I completely ignored it.

“And you think I don’t appreciate that?!” I shouted, ignoring the gasps from the fillies nearby. “You think I don’t care? We need you, Red! You’ve already saved our asses more times than I can count, and I—”

“You’re a force of nature, Vinyl,” Redheart said, sighing through her nose. “You don’t pay attention to why you’re doing something, you just... blow through and pull everypony nearby along you. And I’m done being pulled along.”

“So what, you’re gonna stay here and throw away any chance of us actually saving the world we’re supposed to save? If we don’t leave now, the only thing you’ll be doing by staying here is delaying the inevitable. What happens when we do have to leave, and then a few days later the Heralds get all the Totems and the whole dimension, no, all the dimensions go to hell? Would that extra time with the foals have been worth it?” I was trying to keep my anger in check, but something about the icy calm way Redheart handled arguments made my blood boil. I almost wanted her to get mad, wanted to her stomp and shout and give me something to push back on.

“Uh, guys?” Lyra said again, slightly louder. I saw her frowning out of the corner of my eye. She could wait. One problem at a time.

“You keep going back to that,” Redheart said, shaking her head. “‘Time is of the essence, we have to save the world’... how do you know? What do you have to go on besides the promises of the pony in your head? How do you know this whole quest isn’t just a trap or worse?”

“If you thought it was a trap, why didn’t you say anything before?”

Redheart rolled her eyes. “Like you would’ve listened.”

She has a point—

NOT THE TIME, I replied, gritting my teeth. “Look, the foals can handle themselves! Kids are smarter then you give them credit for! They pick up stuff quick. They're not Celestia-damned porcelain dolls, Red, they—" My voice caught for a second as the memories scratched at the edge of my mind again, then I shoved them back. "They can take a lot. These guys have already."

“Guys!”

Redheart shook her “Normal, healthy foals, maybe, but they aren’t normal. They’ve been hurt, abused, put through miles of forced marches—”

ENOUGH.

I grunted in pain, stumbling and almost falling to the ground as Syl’s voice exploded in my head. To my left, I was dimly aware of Redheart doing the same, though she didn’t manage to stay upright.

VINYL... IS CORRECT.

“Thanks for the input,” I muttered, rubbing my aching temple with a forehoof. The varra had changed position at some point, moving inward from the edges of the clearing to almost on top of Redheart and I. The foals were staring up at her, their eyes wide and their expressions somewhere between terror and awe, which was pretty much how I felt too.

HESITATION... IS DEATH.

WE.... MUST GO.

“Death? Leaving them behind is death!” Redheart shouted, shoving herself to her hooves. Her composure had finally slipped, and now her cheeks were flushed pink through her white coat. She stalked up to Syl, unflinching under the varra’s steely gaze, and jabbed a forehoof back at the foals. “You would really abandon a group of children? Leave them to die?” she said, staring up into Syl’s massive green eyes. The varra clicked her beak in what sounded like irritation.

MANY... HAVE DIED.

THE SCOURGE... CONSUMES.

IF... WE STAY...

MORE STILL... WILL DIE.

“Oh, of course,” Redheart spat, the words dripping contempt. “It’s all metrics, isn’t it? Kill a few to save the many? Just logic. Numbers. That’s all we are to you, isn’t it? Little datapoints, pins on the board for your so-called gods.” Lyra was gesturing frantically, shaking her head and waving her forehooves, but Redheart either didn’t notice or didn’t care. She was still glaring at Syl, her blue eyes bright and cold with anger. “You make me sick.”

Oh, gods... this won’t end well.

I gulped. You think?

The silence in the clearing was absolute, suffocating. My eyes flicked back and forth between Redheart and Syl, waiting for either of them to move. I didn’t know what chance I would have against an immortal god-bird, but if she so much as laid a talon on Red...

Syl broke the silence with a low, rippling growl, then smashed a talon into the dirt so hard I felt the shockwave in my hooves.

YOU WISH THEM... SAFETY?

Redheart nodded slowly, still standing inches from where the talon was embedded in the forest floor.

Well, she’s fearless, I’ll give her that...

Syl clicked her beak, then her eyes went to the foals, sitting quiet and terrified.

SAFE... THEY SHALL BE.

A faint rhythm started to hum through the air, low and fast and flowing. There were soft strings, bells the plink of a harp and a hundred other instruments I couldn’t name. I could feel it, too, a fluttery lightness in my stomach that grew in time with the music.

The others were noticing it now, too. Lyra was pale and terrified, silently mouthing words to Syl, but she was either being ignored or dismissed. I saw Redheart glance back at the foals, something like panic flashing across her face for a fraction of a moment before she spun back to face the varra.

The hell is she doing? I thought, inhaling and preparing a burst of lightning, though it was hard to focus past all the music already humming in the air. This had the potential to get very ugly very fast.

I don’t know. Varra magic is hard to read. Too many planes above me.

Redheart was glaring at Syl. “What? What would you do to a group of defenseless children?” she said quietly, stepping even closer with not a single hint of fear in her steely blue eyes.

The varra didn’t answer. The fluttering in my stomach picked up, though, and with it came a soft glow of heat in the tips of my hooves. The air was changing, rippling and warping as the song seemed to pick up speed, and with a sickening drop of my stomach I saw a jade-green glow slowly forming around the foals. Syl had said she would make them ‘safe’, but goddess knew what ‘safe' meant to a varra.

“Syl, wait—!” Lyra’s shout was drowned out by a blare of something like trumpets, quickly followed by a blinding burst of greenish light. I heard a scream, high and piercing, then everything was quiet.

I blinked a few times, clearing my head, then gasped as I saw the center of the clearing.

Where the foals had been seconds before, there was only a grove of saplings. They were tiny, barely coming up to my neck, each sprouting a few buds of varying colors. The pair closest to me had lavender leaves. The twins. I felt a weight forming in my stomach, like the fluttery lightness from Syl’s magic was slowly being replaced by lead.

“What...what is this?” Redheart’s voice pierced the eerie silence of the clearing, quiet but practically vibrating with anger. “What did you do?”

THEY ARE... ALIVE, Syl replied, tapping a talon against the dirt while looking straight back into Redheart’s eyes. I wasn’t sure if I was getting used to her migraine-inducing method of communication or if she was deliberately toning it down for us, but either way, my skull wasn’t pounding as much as it normally did.

NOW... THEY SLEEP.

“Sleep? For how long?” Redheart’s eyes narrowed. I could practically feel the tension dripping off the words.

UNTIL... AWAKENED.

“By you, I’m assuming,” I interjected quickly, panic overriding my fear and giving me my voice back. "You know, when this is all over." For all the insults Redheart had thrown at her before, Syl seemed surprisingly not full of murderous rage, and I intended to keep her that way.

You, doing something logical and self-preserving? What's the world coming to?

I ignored Aura as usual, instead mentally bracing myself for Syl's reply.

CORRECT.

“Well, okay then." I shrugged, smiling weakly. "You know, that's not the solution I would've used, but the important thing is that they're safe, and now we should really get a move on and recover before everything goes to hell again. Which it probably will." I wouldn't call myself a cynical pony, but after what I had been through in the last few hours, I would say I had a pretty decent reason for being a little pessimistic.

"Fine with me," said Lyra, glancing at Syl. "We should—"

"Wait." Redheart's voice was calm and cool again, without a hint of the anger it had had barely a minute before. I knew she was still pissed, very pissed, but I also knew that she could hide it incredibly well and would sit on it for ages until she decided it was time to let you know how you had fucked up. It was just how she was.

"What's up, Red?" I said lightly, doing my best to diffuse the lingering tension in the air. She didn't say anything, just pointed with a hoof to the center of the grove of saplings, where a small, blue shape sat unmoving against the scorchmarked grass. "Oh, you've gotta be kidding…" Of all the foals to somehow dodge the transformation, it had to be the only one that completely creeped me out.

"Lyra? Why didn't it work?" I said, taking a few steps back from the center of the sapling grove. "Why didn't it work?"

Lyra's brow furrowed "Syl says it's because she's… different, I guess. Something got in the way of her magic, something old and really powerful. She can't tell what it is, though."

I rolled my eyes. Awesome. A perfect eleven on the one-to-ten scale of 'answers I didn't want to hear'. "Of course she's different. Lyra's different, I'm different… This whole freaking place is Land of the Special Snowflakes. So now what do we do?"

"We're taking her with us," Redheart said, in a tone that left very little room to argue. Of course.
You know what? Fine. Let her have her little demonspawn. I'm done getting upset about this.

Vinyl…

What? You said it yourself, she creeps you out too.

"I figured" I said to Redheart, sighing. "Fine. But you're dealing with her, all right? Rations, comforting, the whole thing. This your choice, not ours." Yeah, it was bitchy, but I wasn't about to go out of my way to pamper a filly who could very well want to murder all of us in our sleep.

"Fine," she replied coldly. "I will." She turned towards the filly, who hadn't moved, and said, in a softer tone, "Do you have a name?"

The filly looked at Redheart for a moment, then murmured, "Shimmer," in a soft, smooth voice. It was surprisingly normal for such an unsettling pony, but there was still something in it, that same undercurrent of… well, I wasn't sure what, but it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

"All right, Shimmer. You can come with us. We'll keep you safe." Redheart said, doing what I assumed was her best impression of a warm, friendly, smile. It was actually closer to an awkward grimace, but I wasn't about to irritate her any more than I had already.

"Will you?" Shimmer said, her eyes flickering to the motionless form of Octavia.

I frowned. "Is that a question or a challenge?"

"What do you think?" came the quiet reply.

Obnoxiously cryptic, too? Wow, okay, definitely don't like her. "We don't have time for this," I said, shaking my head. "Lyra, help me with 'Tavi, and we'll… wait. How exactly are the four of us plus one kid going to hang on to Syl's back for a day and a half?"

She shrugged. "Syl says she has it covered."

"Very reassuring."

I… DO.

Ow okay goddessdamnit I believe you ow ow ow.

With Lyra's help, I carried 'Tavi over to where Syl was waiting, laying her down an ample distance away from the varra's gleaming talons. "All right," I said, tapping my hoof against the ground. "Now what?"

"Stay still, she says." Lyra said, taking a few steps away from me. "Don't try to thrash around."

"Thrash around? What do you— gyah!" I jerked back as four thick, snakelike vines whipped out from somewhere underneath Syl's back feathers. Two of them yanked the saddlebags off of me, depositing them in some fold between her plumage, then the other pair coiled around my legs and lifting me up onto her mossy, bark-covered back. I gritted my teeth, forcing myself not to try and break free despite the fact that my whole coat was crawling.

The vines kept going, wrapping up my legs and around my forehooves until I was laying flat on my back against Sy's feathers, staring up into the sky with a dark green cocoon covering everything but my head, which I turned to glare at Lyra.

"Really?" I said, my voice shaking slightly. "A day and a half of this? I might go insane, Lyra. It's an actual possibility." I wasn't claustrophobic, at least not in the 'panic attack' sense, but spending over 24 hours barely able to wiggle my hooves wasn't something I was looking forward to.

Oh, come on, you've been through worse already.

Especially not with an irritating thoughtpony along for the ride.

"Just think of it like a sleeping bag!" Lyra replied brightly, barely seeming to notice the vines wrapping around her legs. "Besides, you'll sleep some of the way, right?" She giggled as the tendrils slowly lowered her next to me, wriggling around as much as she could in the tight embrace. "Ah! It kinda tickles!"

I sighed, letting my head drop down against the surprisingly soft bark of Syl's plumage. "At least one of us is happy."

A minute later, all five of us were tied securely to Syl's back, our saddlebags and equipment stashed in some vague area between her feathers. "It's some magic thing," Lyra whispered when I asked. "She can sort of bend the space around her wings… I don't really understand it, but it'll get our stuff there safe."

"It better," I muttered, and then the wind punched the breath out of my throat as Syl took off, climbing higher and higher toward the afternoon sun. After a few heart-stopping seconds of climbing, we leveled out, settling into an easy glide under the afternoon sun. Syl's neck crest even managed to block most of the wind, something I was extremely grateful for.

I stared up at the sky, imagining the Wildwood below us. It was probably just a big blur of green and brown now, slowly stretching out into forever. It was a weirdly peaceful thought, almost comforting. I let my eyes droop as I imagined the towering trees and wild undergrowth, going on and on and on…

The sun was warm and relaxing against my face, and as we glided forward I suddenly realized how utterly exhausted I was. Getting captured by slavers, watching my marefriend almost die, almost dying myself… it had been a hell of a day.

And the afternoon isn't even over yet.

Oh, shut up, I replied sleepily, shifting as best I could to a more comfortable position. Let me have my moment. Goddess knows it won't be this peaceful for long.

You're probably right, Aura replied, with what might've been the faintest hint of a laugh. Enjoy it while it lasts, I suppose.

Now you're making sense. I smiled slightly, relaxing all of my muscles as much as I could, and a few seconds later, I was out like a light.

The first thing I felt as I woke was the darkness.

Literally, ‘felt’. The blackness was like a physical force, pushing in on me from all sides, crushing my lungs and making it hard to breathe. I coughed, nearly choking, then gasped as another sensation smacked into me like a freight train.

Pain. Fiery, excruciating pain, running through my body in horrible, scream-inducing waves. I didn’t scream, though, or even whimper. I wanted to, but my body had other ideas.

My legs bent, and I nearly fell to the ground, breathing hard and gritting my teeth as I waited for the agony to subside. Eventually, after what seemed like hours, it did, and as I slowly recovered I realized I could feel a pair of feathery somethings against my torso, and the soft touch of some kind of fabric on my body. Wings and robes. I was back in the body of the pegasus in white.

I slowly pushed myself to to ‘my’ hooves, still staring at the ground, though there wasn’t really anything to stare at. The room was so utterly dark that I couldn’t even see the my hooves in front of me, let alone anything else. I felt myself tense, body going tight like a coiled spring, and if I could’ve gulped in fear I would’ve. Where was I? What was this?

Oh, that’s funny, Vinyl, I thought, attempting to sigh and failing miserably. Yeah, like you’ll ever get a straight answer to anything ever. Real cute—

“Begin.”

The voice echoed out from the darkness, cold and commanding, and I felt a stab of inexplicable fear as I heard it. My host didn’t seem to notice. Maybe she was used to it, being a Herald and all.

That’s right, I thought, anger bubbling up over all my over thoughts as I remembered. I was certain she was a Herald, despite what Aura had said about them only accepting unicorns. Maybe she was an exception? Had the standards changed? Whatever. It didn’t matter. She was still one of those child-stealing, innocent-killing, world-destroying bastards, and I was here, in her body, living her memories. The thought made me feel sick despite the fact that I didn’t have any control over my stomach.

I was focused now, my breathing slow and regular as I shifted my weight gently around my hooves. My eyes flicked around the darkness, searching for things that weren’t there. I was waiting for something.

My train of thought quickly hopped the tracks as my host suddenly threw herself to the side, reacting faster that I thought a pony could ever move. A millisecond later, I felt the rush of air as something whizzed past my ear, whistling faintly before hitting what was probably a wall with a thunk. I didn’t know what it was, but my host did, whether from instinct or experience I wasn’t sure. I had just gotten a blade thrown at me, fast enough to kill.

I didn’t stop to celebrate that my ear was still intact, instead dropping low to the ground and rolling as another volley whistled past above me. There had been at least three that time, and something in my gut told me there would be more soon. Was this some kind of training exercise? Maybe they figured the threat of actually dying would keep ‘me’ on ‘my’ hooves. At this point, I wouldn’t have put it past them.

“Tell me, Domina. Who is the most important pony in an army?” the voice said, smooth and terrifying.

Domina. I had a name.

I leapt to my hooves, standing rigidly in place as another blade shot past my nose, then dodged to the left to avoid two more before I spoke.

“The most important pony in any force is not the general,” I said, even as I dodged and wove my way through another salvo of blades. My accent was odd, exotic but strangely familiar. Another mystery to solve, like I didn’t have enough of those already.

The volleys were speeding up now, with less downtime between them and more blades in every wave. I took it in stride, whipping around in time to feel one of them just barely graze my short-cut mane, then threw myself into the air. My wings flared out of their own accord as I leapt, flipping once, twice, three times and curving my body around and away from another volley. I landed lightly on my hooves, barely panting, and continued.

“Nor is it the healer, the smith, or the archer.” I paused to hop to the left and duck another wave. ”The most important pony in an army is its weakest. The soldier who will break ranks and run, who will let the chaos of battle consume his spirit, who will scream and cry as his fellows die around him. He is weak, but he may also inspire weakness in those around him. From weakness comes chaos, and from chaos comes defeat. A wall cannot stand divided.”

There was a silence, broken only by the hum of daggers through the air and the quiet sound of my exhales.

“Correct.”

I felt my host give a tiny, relieved sigh, too quiet for anyone but me —us?— to hear, then the voice spoke again.

“What if the army is hardened to its core? What if its members show no weakness?”

I closed my eyes, standing perfectly still as my wings rustled softly and extended of their own accord. I felt an air current from my left, faint but noticeable, and easily dodged the six daggers that followed it before standing up and staring out into the darkness. I couldn’t see anything, but I had the eerie, skin-crawling sensation that somepony, or something, was staring back.

“Then you must break them,” I replied. “Force the weakness upon them in any way you can. Shatter the spirit, and the mind will follow.” The words sounded rehearsed, like I had memorized them a long time ago.

Blades from all directions. I leapt sideways, feeling my hooves touch something cool and slick for a second before I sprung off the wall and dove to the ground, twisting and spinning in a desperate dance.

“Crumble the mind, and the body will fall.” Thunkthunkthunk. Three more that would’ve impaled my forehooves if I hadn’t hopped back at the last second.

“Tear down the body, and the inner song will ring hollow.” I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. The air currents swirled around me, an invisible map that showed me everything from the shape of the room to the four very fast disturbances flying at my face.

Oh shit what am I— the rest of the thought was lost in a haze of panic as I jumped again.

Clink.

I landed back on the ground, spitting out the dagger I had caught between my teeth and feeling my lips twitch upward in a tiny, self-satisfied smile. “Silence the song, and chaos consumes all.”

Oh, for Celestia's sake, they had their own little mantras too?

I realized the room had gone quiet. The silence was odd after the relentless hum of the daggers, and I felt another flicker of fear. It wasn’t just in my head this time. My host was scared, too, which somehow made it even worse.

“Well-spoken, Domina.” The voice was cold as ever, but also somehow reserved, like it was holding something back. What that something was, I didn’t want to think about. “Would you remind me the purpose of this training?”

I had been right! It was training! Score one for Vinyl!

“To hone my senses and instill the essence of purity within me,” my host replied, interrupting my mental hoof-pumping, “so I may carry out my duty and live a life free of the temptations of chaos.” I could’ve sworn I heard the tiniest tremor in the last part of the sentence.

“Correct. Not, as you seem to think, to demonstrate your showmareship. I have no doubt our enemies will be impressed by your knife-catching skills, just as they will be impressed at the ease in which they will end you.”

Goddess. If catching a moving knife in your mouth in complete darkness was grounds for punishment, I hated to think what you would have to do to deserve a reward.

“I... I understand,” I said, whatever tiny spark of pride I had felt flickering and dying the instant the words left my mouth. “Puritum aya chaotica. I have sinned, and must be cleansed.”

Puritum supera omni,” the darkness replied. “You repent, and so you shall.”

I closed my eyes, feeling my shoulders sag and my wings droop, and then it hit me again.

Pain. Heart-freezing, skin-peeling pain, like a thousand fiery needles running up and down through my veins. I thought earlier had hurt, but that had been a light tickle compared to this. My host doubled over, somehow managing to stay silent despite the fact that I wanted to scream like a horde of banshees. She was used to this. She had to be. Somehow, ‘Domina’ had managed to build up a tolerance to the feeling of every single cell in your body simultaneously being sliced in half by a red-hot knife, something I would’ve been impressed by if my thoughts had been anything other than an increasingly-colorful string of profanities.

It could have gone for minutes or hours. I wouldn’t have known. Eventually, the burning began to fade, and I took a slow, shaky breath as I got back to my hooves. Everything seemed fuzzy and distant, though whether it was from the pain or something else I couldn’t tell. The darkness pressed in, pushing at me from all directions, and my host let out one more shuddering breath. Then the blackness slipped in, and I fell away.

Comments ( 58 )

This is great!!

CWi

Loved every second. :rainbowkiss:

You were one of the first stories I read( up to chapter nine) and only now do I realise how good you are and how much I have missed your writing style

That feeling when a story updates for the first time in months literally /as/ you're rereading it.

Speaking of, rereading it was a joy. The new chapter is great, as are the rest. Sub should be commended for this, this is awesome.

Well, it happened again - I randomly think of a story I've read that hasn't updated in a long while and the next day: *BAM*, there it is.

Credit to Redhart to standing up to Syl. That took guts.:twilightoops:

Yeah, if I went up against a Varra , I would probably be a nice plate of Mystery Meat...

Speaking of which.... I must ask...

Why do you not capitalize Varra?

2768368
BECAUSE REASONS

(Fixed, thanks)

2768491

GLAD I CAN BE OF SERVICE.

(you're welcome. I actually thought it was a writing style... Some people don't capitalize species' names, like Human or Ponies, Geth, Vulcan, yada yada..... Always wondered why...)

2768570
Well, that was originally why they weren't capitalized, but then I realized I had been capitalizing Thralls, so I opted for consistency. I dunno, I might change it back. Seeing it like that looks a bit weird.

I'm going to consider Syl a full party member soon. Considering that she is the only one capable of untreeing those kids, Redheart will be protecting her (odd as it may seem), and Lyra is already fond of her. I can't wait for the next installment!

2768712
Sadly, you won't be seeing more of her for the next few chapters, sorry D:
Hope you enjoy them anyway.

2768757 absolutely. And who knows? Other than you, of course. She might pop up again later.

2768785
You're absolutely right. :pinkiesmile:

2768584

Can you tell me why species names are sometimes not capitalized? 90 percent of the time, it is, but once in a while, it is not....

2768951
You mean in general? Honestly, I have no idea. Conventions or something. If you meant in this story, specifically, that's an error on my part. Let me know where they are and I'll fix them.

2768982

Oh, no no. I meant in general.... Umm... I'm starting to write little things, just wanted to know the reasoning behind it...

But, if you like, I can help pre/re-read.

2768991
Oh. As I said, no idea. Different writers use different conventions. And as for your offer, thank you, but I'm all right where I am as of now.

2768999

After a brief search, I dug this, and I shall share it with you...

Some authors controversially capitalize common names of some animal and plant species. As a general rule, names are not capitalized, unless they are part of an official list of names, in which case they have become proper nouns and are capitalized. Names referring to more than one species (e.g., horse or cat) are always in lowercase. This is most common for birds[8] and fishes. Botanists generally do not capitalize the common names of plants, though individual words in plant names may be capitalized for another reason: (Italian stone pine). See the discussion of official common names under common name for an explanation.

So it's really up to the author, as you said. Fire away!

Thank you for still being alive and continuing to write this! Thank you so much!

OMG You continue to amaze me sir. This is as wonderfully written as ever. Keep up the great work!

Really neat world building so far. I am sad I finally finished the currently complete chapters and now wait for the next update.

3096979
Augh, thanks again. :fluttershbad:
That's the problem with writing without an editor

3098512
3098688
Thank you and thank you again. I really need to make it a priority to start releasing error-free chapters -_-

Also, again with the AC comparisons! I'm starting to regret using that music now. For what it's worth, I've never played the games, and I only picked the music because it seemed like a perfect fit. The other similarities are purely coincidental.

3099457
Fixed! I really appreciate you taking the time to do this, by the way.

This is one of my favoritestical stories on fim fiction. Any idea how long 'til the next chapter is out? I can't stand the wait!:raritydespair:

3130851
Couldn't say, honestly. Unfortunately I'm only about 2k words into chapter 11, but I tend to write in bursts so that could change by a lot in a few days.

3130875 as long as you are still working on it, I'm happy :pinkiehappy: I'm curious, to what extent do you have the plot mapped out, and when it is done how long do you think it will be?

3130885
I'm an awful plot mapper, but I have a few... 'interesting' scenes mapped out at various points around the story. Unfortunately, they're pretty disconnected from each other, so most of my time is spent finding the drive to 'fill in the blanks'.

As for length, oh lordy. I originally estimated about 100-120k but now it's probably leaning closer towards 200 and maybe even more than that.

3131290 well, if you ever need someonepony to brainstorm with, i love helping people write...:rainbowderp:

3131305
Hmm, I may take you up on that, you wouldn't mind pre-reading an incomplete draft at some point would you?

3131330 OH MY GLOB I WOULD BE EXTREMELY HONORED TOO!!! :pinkiegasp:

3131336
All right, let me finish up the bit I'm working on a little more and I'll shoot you a PM.

3131347 Awesome sauce! Cool Beans! :yay:

3099704
Brace yourself. Multiple words incoming.
You're welcome!(^5)
Sorry, for some reason I never got any sort of alert for those replies! :raritydespair: No need to thank me though, the stuff I point out slips through the cracks on every story, regardless of whether or not an editor is present.

Actually, you should pretty darn proud of yourself. It’s difficult for an author to edit his own stuff – I die if I try to reread the vomit that makes its way out of my head and onto the screen the hundred or so times necessary to make sure it's clean. Since the writer already knows what the letters are supposed to be saying, you have to really buckle down to analyze everything and ensure you dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t’. Really, consider this as my way of saying ‘Hey, thanks for making an awesome story!’

I've been enjoying the journey through TES so far, and though there are a few things that I think could be redone a little better, I am definitely interested in seeing you continue it! And if I can help at all, let me know!

Now as I’ve reached the 'final' frontier at the moment, I’d like to take the time to give you a bit of feedback on more than pesky mistakes!

First off: Sonomancy. This is a really interesting and fantastic element of TES, one that I was literally awestruck by back in Chapter Five. You’ve definitely not lost my interest there, and I encourage you to try and have Vinyl describe it a little more throughout the rest of this novel. I only say this because chapter Six’s battle with the Stalkers felt pretty lacking in terms of sonomatic ferocity after Five, but the following scenes where she uses it have recovered mostly at this point. So anyway, more badassedly melodic magic (And I mean in words, not just songs, but those have been really awesome so far too)!

Another thing I'd like to reply to is the Memory-ish scene, in Seven, where Vinyl relives the memories of an Assassin-like pegasus who infiltrates a city against fierce opposition and slays some sort of a VIP. Now, the reason you are getting comments about Assassin's Creed isn't just because of the music (Or at least, not for me), but actually because that is pretty much the exact plotline of the games: reliving the memories of assassin ancestors and using that knowledge in present-day. The fact that you haven't played the games actually makes that scene way more interesting to me, because there must be deeper reasons behind everything that goes on other than the fact that it follows AC's themes. An author's note at the end of the chapter or something might help point readers away from that line of thinking, and force those who got the AC vibe to re-examine what happened there. Just a suggestion, misdirecting us might have been your evil scheme all along! In which case, well played. :moustache:

I'd also like to take the time to compliment you on the general idea of Sonus, Aura's metaphor about the dimension/world being the core of the corn cob of the multiverse was a fantastic way to present the idea. I am not sure if anything is truly unique anymore, but that's an idea I've not seen before, so kudos to you!

Alright, that's basically what I wanted to say. There are other critiques I could voice, but at this point they're pretty unimportant. What's far more vital is you writing moar!

Just kidding, write at your own pace and have as much fun as possible doing it! I know the pain of trying to figure out how one connects the random dots of scenes and plots in their heads with an actual story. So far though, you've done a pretty darn good job! If you ever want someone to throw words at, I could try to help out.

Oh, and I almost forgot! Have a few little errors, and thanks for making this example of how to write well!

Chapter 9 fixes:

I heard Octavia began to scream

begin*

your talent’s a fucking joke... He stopped to laugh

Unless Vinyl's father is schizophrenically crazy on top of abusive, there should probably be a quotation mark after the ellipse!

Chapter 10 fixes:

Would we be able to make it if we flew to the Badlands then? I was hoping against hope for the answer.

You've got this little bit italicized too, I believe it should be normal Vinyl-thought.

probably verypissed,

Missing a space here.

Random Chapter 7 fix:

I heard strings, guitars, the heavy beat of a drum, even note or two of fractured singing

A* note

And that's that! It's been fun going through this story. You've definitely got something wonderful going here, Stereo Sub, and I very much look forward to seeing where all these different events are leading.

~Fluttersyke Out

3131653
All fixed, thank you so much!

Regarding the assassin, I have a very interesting arc set out for her that will play a big role in a later part of the story, don't worry. And as for sonomancy...

Well, let's just say I think you're gonna like Chapter 11. :ajsmug:

This is quite good. I rarely ever see anything around here that's written this well.

I would be honored if you would add me as a friend on Skype and perhaps discuss writing (in general) with me. Just send me a PM if you're interested.

Yo dog, weren't you gonna send me a draft to look at or something. I CAN'T WAIT I WANT CHAPTER 11 NAO!!! :flutterrage::flutterrage::flutterrage::flutterrage::flutterrage::flutterrage:

:pinkiecrazy::heart::pinkiecrazy::heart::pinkiecrazy::heart:

3292142
I was, but then real life happened D:

I have a draft of 11, but it's short and unfinished and rough and not really anything I'd consider ready for publication. I mean, I could give it to you if you wanted, I guess? Dunno how satisfying it would be though.

3292725 I would be happy, delighted, and honored to see your chapter 11 draft to offer feedback on it.

Blah blah blah why you no update blah blah blah.

Any guesstimates on when an update will be out?

3556275
Maybe mid-december? Maybe longer? Sorry, I'm pretty shit at deadlines. Rest assured, though, it is being worked on, and when it does come out, it's gonna be big.

3556669 Am loving this alot, and i hope that red hreat can laern to growe to know when it's time where you can't help everyone only the one you can save at the time and ways.

I really hope this doesnt become a dead story its too good to become anything like that. Its got a nice RPG kinda fell that would be awesome in Pathfinder or Pony Tales especially the sonomancy concept. That was a really cool idea on your part, that is if it was yours or just a simple suggestion from someone. Hope an update comes out real soon!!!!!:pinkiesmile:

4000469
That's correct. It's going to be similar, but not entirely the same, and some of the stuff you remember is probably going to end up stripped out and replaced. Hope you enjoy it nonetheless.

All the old stories be's getting edits and new chapters.
Praise be to the fanfic gods!
Gonna give this a re-read after class.

Maybe someday even Quantum Castaways will update...

I absolutely love this fic! It even inspired a little piece of art from me.

fc07.deviantart.net/fs71/f/2014/103/0/7/the_note_caverns_by_sea_gnash-d7ec8r2.png

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