• Published 3rd Oct 2012
  • 3,833 Views, 263 Comments

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.

  • ...

Chapter Six: Mezza Voce

I woke up the next morning feeling the best I had in days. Arching my back and stretching luxuriously, I wriggled out of my sleeping bag and blinked, taking in the warm sun, the sweet scent of grass...

And the very irritated-looking grey mare standing over me, hooves folded in an obvious expression of disapproval.

“Oh,” I said, doing my best to sound cheerful despite her glare. “‘Morning, ‘Tavi.”

She rolled her eyes. “I think you mean ‘good afternoon.”

“Wha...” I glanced up at the cloudless sky, eyes widening as I realized the sun was already well past its zenith. It was already at least two, if not later.


“Well, shit. You could’ve woken me up, you know.”

Redheart, who had been stomping out the last remains of the fire, walked over and shook her head. “We tried, but whatever you did yesterday just about put you in a coma. You were out cold.”

That’s the price you pay for trying to duel without knowing your limits.

I rolled my eyes, forcing myself out of my sleeping bag and blinking as the sun’s light smacked into my eyes. Hello to you too.

The Wildwood should only be an hour or so from here, so we haven’t lost too much time. We still need to get a move on as soon as possible, though.

I nodded, scrunching up the sleeping bag and shoving it back into my saddlebags as I did so. “Where’s everyone else?”

Octavia pointed over to a nearby chunk of stone, where I could see Lyra lounging in her usual odd way. She glanced up from idly tapping her forehooves, smiling when she saw me. “Oh, hey Vi. I was wondering when you’d finally drag your lazy flank out of bed.” She arched her back and hopped up onto her hooves. “Good to see you’re still alive.”

I gave her a friendly shove. “You try turning into a living powerplant for a couple minutes and see how much you feel like walking afterwards.”

She laughed. “Guess that’s fair. Are we getting a move on?”

“As soon as we can. You ready?”

“Just about.” She concentrated, and a second later her saddlebags floated onto her back in a bubble of yellow-orange light. “All right, everypony else good?”

“I’m ready,” said Redheart. Octavia nodded in agreement.

“As am I. Where are we going?”

I pulled the Guide out of my bag and levitated it open. “Map, please.” There was a rustle of pages as the book complied, and I pointed a hoof at the dark green smear labeled ‘The Wildwood’. “Right there.”

“Wildwood, huh?” Lyra said, eyeing the map curiously. “Sounds fun.”

“Sounds dangerous,” said Redheart. “Do we have a reason, Vinyl? Or are we just expected to blindly follow whatever your amulet pony tells you?” The question was light, but I could hear the irritation underneath it.

“I’ll work on that,” I said. “For now, let’s just get moving.” She nodded, albeit grudgingly, and began to trot east, everypony else following soon after.

She does have a point, I thought, hopping over a stray chunk of broken stone. Now that I’m more or less awake, mind telling me why we’re headed there?

The Temple of Elri. It’s in the Heart of the Wildwood, and if we want to have any hope of actually saving Sonus, it has to be our first stop. There should be an entry on it in the Guide, and I suggest you look it up.

All right. I brought the guide out of my bag and let it hover just beneath my nose as I walked. “Guide, what’s the Temple of Elri?”

There was a rustle as the book’s pages turned, and a second later I was presented with an intricate illustration of a gigantic wooden building, nestled within a grove of equally imposing-looking trees. Dark green vines snaked along its surface, with various leaves and flowers sprouting up between the wood’s natural ridges and grooves. I blinked in surprise as I realized the drawing showed roots snaking off its bottom and into the ground, like the entire building was one gigantic plant. It looked more like it had just sprung up from the ground than been built by equine hooves, and for all I knew, it had.

“Whoa. We’re going there?” A mint-green hoof seemed to materialize on my shoulder, and I jumped in shock, nearly losing my grip on the Guide.

“Damnit Lyra, don’t do that!”

“Sorry,” she said, grinning and not looking sorry in the least. She peered closer at the illustration, eyebrows rising high as she took it all in.“Wow, that’s... kind crazy. How did they even make that? Plant a building seed and water it for a couple hundred years?”

I shrugged. “Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised.” My eyes scanned the next page, where a small block of text accompanied the drawing.

The Temple Of Elri, goddess of beauty, serenity, and all of the wild. It sits in the Heart of the Wildwood as a testament to her love and care for all natural places. In the temple’s deepest recesses lies the Totem of the Wild, one of the ten Divine Totems imbued with the power of the gods.

“Totem of the Wild, huh?” I murmured. This place seemed determined to make sure I had at least three new questions for every one I answered. “Guide, what’s that?”

The book’s pages turned once more, flicking to a picture of a small, finely carved wooden leaf, with veins that pulsed a vivid green even on the page. It was attached to a small loop of brown cord, not big enough to go around a pony’s neck, but the perfect size to go on something like a keyring.

Or an amulet, thought Aura, suddenly emerging from whatever shadowy recess of my head she had retreated to.

I nodded slowly as the mental pieces began to fall into place. So, let me guess. Find all ten totems, save the world?

All nine, actually.

I frowned. But the thing says there’s ten...

Go look up the main entry on them and you’ll understand. I complied, trying to ignore the pair of yellow-orange eyes peering over my shoulder.

The entry on the Divine Totems showed ten different objects, all carved in various shapes and inlaid with the same odd runes I had seen everywhere. One was in the shape of a hammer, another a bolt of lightning, and one, somewhat disturbingly, a grinning skull. There was another block of text accompanying the drawings, which I skimmed while simultaneously trying to hold the Guide at an angle where Lyra wouldn’t be able to read over my shoulder.

Just as each element of the Multiverse has a God or Goddess to match it, each deity also has their accompanying Totem, stored in their respective shrines. Unlike most relics, these Totems do nothing by themselves. They do not grant power, foresight, protection, or even good luck. They were designed this way intentionally to prevent temptation and unrest among mortals, and to ensure their relative security in their sacred places.

However, when combined in times of dire need, the Totems possess perhaps the most important power of all: the power to destroy a god.

My eyes widened, and I read on:

If a situation should ever arise in which one of the ten Sonian deities attempts to seize control from the others, through force, deception, or otherwise, their Totem will shatter, indicating their betrayal, and the magic of the remaining nine will activate. Alone, they will still do nothing, but if brought together and combined with the Clasp of the Eternal Song, they will grant the wearer the right to banish the rogue god from their throne and select a new mortal to ascend and take their place.

Well then.

Eternal Song, huh? I thought, staring down at the amulet around my neck. So this thing is part of the puzzle too?

Yes. It’s one of the most powerful relics ever found, and unlike most of them, is unique to Sonus, not just manifested through rogue magic.

Hmm. Assuming I can find all nine totems, who exactly am I up against? It talked about a god rebelling... am I going to have to kill them?

There was a long silence in my head. When Aura did reply, it was one word, murmured quietly and with hint of apprehension.


The name was familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. The Guide, somehow sensing my confusion, began to flip its pages again, and I let them turn until they settled on a new one.

I swallowed as I saw the drawing on the page. It showed a jet-black unicorn stallion with a harsh, cold expression, surrounded by the same trails of greenish vapor I had seen on the thralls. His horn was as dark as the rest of him, and twisted into an odd, broken-looking shape that made my own horn tingle with how plain unnatural it looked.

That’s Mortem? Wait. My brow wrinkled as I remembered what Aura had told me earlier. He’s the god of death and destruction and all that sunshiney stuff, right? Why isn’t he an alicorn?

Yes, he is, and a what?

An alicorn. You know. Really tall, long muzzle, horns and wings?

They have both? Aura asked incredulously. I nodded, forgetting that she couldn’t appreciate the gesture.

Yeah. Why, you’ve never heard of one?

No. Is that what the gods of your dimension are? Alicorns? They have wings and horns?

Yeah, I guess.

There was an unidentifiable murmur from in my head. Equestria... sounds like a strange place.

I shrugged. Ah, it’s not so bad. There aren’t any evil death gods or zombies, and the mares are pretty hot. I glanced at Octavia, who was walking a few feet in front of me at a very appealing angle, and grinned.

I could almost feel Aura rolling her eyes. Spare me. Look, just read the entry on Mortem and it’ll answer almost all the questions you’re going to ask.

All right, fine. I skimmed the page, levitating the Guide under my nose and being careful not to bump into anypony else as I walked.

Mortem, the god of decay, destruction, and death. He is responsible for taking the souls from mortal’s bodies and returning them to their rightful place in the cosmic rhythm, and for maintaining the eternal balance of growth and decay throughout the multiverse. His symbol is the Totem of Souls.

I looked back at the picture and noticed a detail I had missed the first time: the jade skull from the totem entry was hanging around Mortem’s neck. A skull for a death god. How original, I thought, rolling my eyes and continuing to read.

For untold millennia, Mortem performed his duty as the keeper of souls, seeking out those who were about to depart and sending them on to the next world. He was feared by mortals, understandably so, but also commanded a healthy amount of respect and reverence from those who understood that death alone was not an evil thing.

Some, however, did not. They cursed his name when misfortune befell them, and created hexes and rituals to supposedly ward him off. To them, death was not a natural part of life. It was a malicious force that hunted them day after day, waiting for its chance to pounce.

Mortem saw this, and was displeased. He implored the other gods to help him show that death was simply the next step in a cycle, but they refused, saying it was not their place to meddle in the affairs of those below.

I frowned. The names might’ve been different, but the story itself seemed familiar, like I’d heard it before a long time ago.

As the years passed, Mortem began to grow bitter and resentful of the other gods. Each of them had their own sect of devoted followers and temples to their name, while he was shunned by all but a few. Those who did follow him only did so with a dark intent: to become masters of their own death and command it over others. Originally, the god of death would have rejected such foolish advances, but as the years wore on and his following grew, he began to embrace it. The Heralds, as they called themselves, continued to grow in both size and power until they nearly outnumbered the other deities’ followers combined. Mortem provided them with ancient rites and forbidden magic that would let them bind souls to mortal forms and take dominion over death itself, and with his aid, they managed to seize power over all of Sonus.

Although his mortal presence was far superior in both count and power, Mortem was still only one deity, and even he, with all the power he had accrued, could not stand against the combined might of the rest of the pantheon. With his totem shattered and his power broken, he was banished to a cosmic rift for eternity.

Well, obviously ‘eternity’ wasn’t quite as eternal as it was supposed to be, I thought. So he escaped?

Yes, Aura replied. The banishment happened around a thousand years ago, and he returned three months ago, razing cities and laying waste to the land at large in the first few days.

Of course! My ears flicked up as the nagging memory forced itself to the front of my brain. That story sounds almost exactly like the legend of Nightmare Moon!

Of what? Aura asked, sounding confused.

It’s a story from my dimension. Basically, there were two princesses, Luna and Celestia. They were sisters. One ruled the day, one ruled the night. Luna was jealous of Celestia because ponies slept through her night and never paid attention to her, so she turned into Nightmare Moon, tried to kill Celestia, and almost caused eternal night. Celestia banished her to the moon for a thousand years, but as soon as those years were up, she came back, and nearly did it again. Some unicorn stopped her just in time, though. Twilight something. Glimmer? No. Whatever, it doesn’t matter. I just think it’s weird that the same thing is happening here.

It’s actually not weird at all, replied Aura, sounding pleased at my inference. Because Sonus is both a reflection and the origin of all the dimensions around it, large-scale shifts in the balance of power here often have repercussions throughout other dimensions.

Wait. So you’re saying that Nightmare Moon returned because of Mortem?

Most likely, yes.

I paused, thinking it through. That... actually makes a lot of sense. So, things have just been getting worse and worse, right? If what Aura said was true, it would actually explain a lot of the general weirdness that had been happening recently.

More or less. There are a couple pockets of resistance still left, but for the most part, Sonus is either empty or controlled by the Heralds.

My eyes widened as everything clicked. Nightmare Moon, Discord, the changeling attacks... all events that had happened over the past few months with seemingly little to no reason. Equestria hadn’t suddenly been tagged as ‘nice juicy land full of peaceful multicolored ponies, evil villains welcome’, it had just been feeling the effects of Sonus getting taken over by the god of freaking death.

Wow, I thought, a small smile growing on my face despite the dire implications of what Aura had just told me. You know, I think I’m actually starting to get all this. There’s one thing I’m still confused about, though. If he could take out cities in a couple days like you said, why hasn’t he won yet? Shouldn’t everything be dead by now?

You’d think so, but luckily, there’s still one thing stopping him.

I hope you mean ‘besides us’, I thought, gulping.

Yes, as a matter of fact, Aura replied, a soft, ringing peal of laughter echoing through my head. Sonus is, first and foremost, the definition of balance. It simultaneously embodies every major universal force at once in equal measure, and if that equilibrium is disrupted by something like what’s happening now, things start to fall apart. The fabric of reality isn’t designed to handle being controlled completely by one dominant force. The only reason Mortem hasn’t assumed total control yet is because he’s too busy trying to stop the entire dimension from collapsing in on itself, or just fading away entirely. He needs those totems as much as you do, which is why we need to get a move on to the temple as quickly as possible.

I... okay. That makes sense. I guess, I thought, nearly nodding again but catching myself just in time. I’m not going to ask any more questions for a while. My head needs some time to recover.

Another ringing laugh. Fine with me.

I shut the Guide with a snap, putting it back into my bag and jumping slightly as I noticed my surroundings. I had been so absorbed in my reading and conversation with Aura that I had barely noticed the large, dark-colored tree stumps that had begun to appear around the field. The grass had gotten taller, too, almost enough to tickle the bottom of my chest.

“Trees, huh? Looks like we’re getting close,” said Lyra, bounding up beside me with her ever-present grin. She poked my saddlebags hopefully. “Hey, you done with that book yet? I wanna see if I can find out some more stuff.”

I nodded, getting Guide back out and passing it to her.“Be my guest. Between that thing and Aura, I’ve probably learned more in the past two days than I did in most of school.” Lyra took it gleefully, hopping back to the rear of the group and nearly burying her nose in the pages.

“Considering most of what you did in school was slack off, skip class, and ogle the cheerleader mares, I can’t say that’s too much of a shock,” said Octavia, slowing her pace from in front of the party and nudging me playfully. “But you’re right, in a way. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you that focused on something that wasn’t a turntable, a meal, or me.”

I shrugged. “Hey. Simple mare, simple pleasures.”

“I won’t argue with that, but I am glad to see you reading, even if it’s only to avoid a gruesome and premature death,” she said, smirking.

That’s my ‘Tavi. Always cutting right to the heart of things. “Well, I’ll have you know that I read at least, like, eight pages today, and understood almost all of them.” I stuck my nose up in mock pride.

Octavia giggled and ribbed me again. “Such a treasure trove of knowledge. Would you care to share any with me, oh great scholarly one?”

“Sure. A lot of it was actually pretty interesting, shockingly enough,” I said, trying to keep whatever shred of my dignity remained intact.

A little late for that, don’t you think? Aura’s laughter echoed Octavia’s in my head.

I rolled my eyes. Oh, hush. Honestly, those two would’ve gotten along so well it was a little scary.

“Well, in that case, I can’t wait to hear it,” Octavia said, slowing her pace slightly to walk alongside me. From my left, Redheart did the same, moving closer to the two of us and breaking her self-imposed silence to agree.

“I wouldn’t mind knowing either,” she said. “As fun as this all is, having absolutely no idea what’s going on at any time can start to wear on you eventually.”

I sighed. “All right, anypony else want a free history lesson? Lyra?” I glanced behind me and saw the mint-green mare squinting pointedly at something in the Guide as she walked, looking utterly absorbed and not in the least bit interested in anything else. “Okay, guess not.” I cleared my throat, and in a voice I hoped sounded scholarly, began:

“Well, it all started with the god of death...”

“... and that’s why we’re here,” I finished, coughing slightly as I felt the now extremely dry inside of my mouth with my tongue. “Whew. I need a drink.” Pulling out my canteen, I popped the top with my magic and took a large gulp, then nearly choked as I realized I had accidentally grabbed my other flask. Rum would’ve been welcome in almost any other situation, but when most of your throat feels like it’s been rubbed with sandpaper? Not so much.

“Ugh... damnit, Vinyl,” I muttered, spitting out the drink and stifling another cough. “Green canteen, water. Blue canteen, booze. It’s not that difficult.”

I would question why you would pack rum as an adventuring provision in the first place, but knowing you, that seems par for the course.

Shut up, I thought, grabbing the correct canteen and sighing in relief as the cool water soothed my throat. I heard Octavia giggle from beside me.

“Serves you right for packing that in the first place,” she said, tapping the side of my saddlebags. “But getting back on topic: is it really the four of us up against a rogue god and his legion of zealots and undead minions?” I heard a small undercurrent of apprehension in the question and put my hoof around her shoulder.

“Yeah, it sounds bad, I know, but we’ve been doing pretty well so far, right? I mean, no one’s hurt, you’ve got a sword, I’m a badass lightning mage, we’ve got a guide... things could be worse.” Sure, things could’ve been a lot better, too, but nopony said universe-saving was an easy job.

Octavia nodded, looking slightly reassured. “I suppose. Still, though. The god of death? Really?”

“I know, so original, right?” I said, laughing. “And get this. He even wears a skull.”

“You know, I think I DM’d a campaign like this once,” said Redheart, unexpectedly breaking her stoic silence for the second time that day.

“Oh? How’d it go?” I had never gotten much insight into the geeky half of Redheart’s life, so I was genuinely curious about even a brief glimpse like this one.

“Not well. The barbarian got one-hit by a lucky crit check a half-hour in and things just kind of went downhill from there.” She shrugged. “Hopefully we’ll have better luck.”

I snorted. “No kidding.” A sudden gasp from behind us caused me to turn my head, and I nearly smacked facefirst into the open pages of the Guide.

“Holy crap! Guys, look at this!” Lyra had apparently had enough of being quiet and peaceful for the day, and was compensating for it by switching into full-on hyper mode. She was levitating the Guide so close to my nose I was afraid I would get a paper cut on my muzzle, and seemed extremely agitated about something she had read. I held my hooves up in a ‘whoa, there' gesture and gently pushed her back.

“What’s up? I mean, I’m glad you’re not ignoring us anymore, but what’s the problem?” The poor filly looked like she was going to explode.

“This!” Lyra jabbed a hoof down at the page. “Look at this!”

I did, and almost wished I hadn’t.

“Oh sweet Celestia,” murmured Octavia, sounding almost as horrified as I felt. “What... what is that? How...” Redheart just stared, eyes wide and full of fear and revulsion but unable to tear her gaze away.

The thing illustrated on the page looked like it might have been an earth pony at some point, though it was difficult to tell through the haze of shadowy greenish vapor that had been drawn surrounding it. It still had four legs, a vaguely equine-shaped muzzle, and what looked like the stubby remnants of a tail, but that was where the similarities ended. The front legs were nearly twice as long as the hind ones, and hooked back into vicious serrated points like some kind of giant mantis. Its entire body was a pure, abyssal black and skinny-looking enough to the point of the bones being visible, and its back was covered in some kind of thick, shiny carapace. The face was no better. Its eyes burned bright with the same sickening greenish glow I had seen on the thralls, and its cheeks and mouth had been horribly twisted and split to make room for a pair of deadly-looking mandibles. It was horrible, unnatural. Something from a nightmare.

“T-the guide says they’re called ‘Stalkers’,” Lyra said shakily, closing the book and giving it back. I shoved it in my saddlebag and buckled it tight, as if that would somehow protect me from the monsters lurking within its pages. “They’re a special type of thrall, one that’s been messed up by dark magic and forced back to life by a necromancer. The book says process only works on earth ponies, and only the strongest ones have enough will to survive it without their soul being ripped out of their bodies.”

I swallowed, still trying to get the image of the thing’s twisted, gaping mouth out of my head. “Awesome. Regular zombies just weren’t bad enough, huh?” I turned back to Lyra. “Is it too much to hope that we won’t meet any? How many are there?”

Lyra shook her head, looking agitated. “The book says they’re pretty rare, thank Celestia, but what they do...” She swallowed, her eyes bright with fear. “They’re hunters, Vinyl. They’re made to track down specific ponies and kill them as quickly as possible. They can sense prey from miles away, they don’t get tired, they don’t need to eat... once they’ve found you, they’re almost impossible to shake.”

“Perfect killing machines,” murmured Redheart, gaze distant. “And to think, they were ponies once. Ponies like us, with hopes, dreams, families... now they’re just shells. Twisted beyond recognition on the surface but empty on the inside.” Octavia nodded solemnly in agreement, looking shaken herself.

“Uh, okay,” I said, trying to inject a tiny bit of levity back into the now thoroughly-downtrodden party’s spirits. “Thanks for that, Lyra. Now that the mood has been successfully killed, any other bombshells you’d like to drop on us?”

She shook her head, expression apologetic and still slightly scared. “Sorry. I shouldn’t’ve—”

“Hey, no problem,” I said, putting a hoof on her shoulder. “I mean, better we know about it now than when one of ‘em jumps out of the bushes, right?” My grin was slightly forced, but it seemed to console her. Redheart, not so much.

“Don’t even joke about that, Vinyl,” the white mare said, shuddering. “Let’s just get a move on before...” She stopped, her eyes tracing upward and her jaw dropping. “Oh.”

We had reached the Wildwood.

A vast, unbroken line of dense, dark green stretched out over the horizon, looking almost like a solid wall from this far away. I pumped my hoof in the air, doubling my pace and smiling as Lyra bounded up beside me, all traces of apprehension forgotten in the thrill of discovery. Stalkers or no Stalkers, I was just happy to get somewhere other than these freaking fields.

You might think differently a couple hours from now.

Oh, look who was back.

Aaaand all that happiness is now gone, I thought, nearly kicking a nearby stump in irritation as I ran. Seriously. What is with you? Did you have your own personal raincloud following you around as a child or something? Get a stick stuck up your ass? Parents eaten by dragons? What?

I slowed as we approached the treeline, expecting a snarky retort. When it didn’t come, I shrugged, stepped forward, and leaned against a nearby tree for Octavia and Redheart to catch up. Pouty thoughtponies were not on my list of things to deal with today.

A little bit later, ‘Tavi and Redheart had met us at the tree, and we were ready to set off into the greenish gloom. The Wildwood reminded me even more of a fantasy novel up close, with a thick, rich carpet of multicolored undergrowth and huge trees stretching their gnarled, arching limbs up into the distant sky. I even thought I heard a birdcall, though that could’ve just been wishful thinking.

“All right,” I said, stepping forward onto the closest thing the Wildwood had to a path. It was less ‘trail’ and more ‘vague area where the plants were thin enough to see through’, but I would take what I could get. “Everypony ready?”

“I... I guess,” said Redheart, her face uneasy but determined. Octavia nodded in agreement.

“Nope,” said Lyra. I turned toward her in disbelief.

“Nope?” Of all the ponies to refuse...

Lyra shook her head. “I’m starving. Let’s have dinner first.” She flopped down against a nearby stump, retrieving her cookie tin and taking a bite out of an apple tart. “I don’t wanna start adventuring on an empty stomach.”

I nearly burst out laughing from a combination of nerves and relief at her utter nonchalance, and sat down beside her. “You know, dinner actually doesn’t sound too bad. What time is it? Five, six?” A quick glance at the sky revealed absolutely nothing besides the fact that the sun was now slightly lower than it had been an hour ago. I was many things, but I was not a weather pony. “Close enough. Let’s eat.”

I found a bag of carrot sticks and began to munch on them, gesturing for Redheart and Octavia to join us. Octavia did so gratefully, but Redheart shook her head.

“I’m not hungry,” she said quietly, sitting down next to a stump. “You eat. I’ll just wait here.” She turned away, putting her head on her hooves and gazing listlessly out at the trees.

I frowned. “You sure?” This level of self-imposed isolation was a little weird, even for Redheart. There was definitely something bugging her, but what?

I grabbed a cookie from Lyra’s tin before turning to my marefriend for answers. “Hey,” I muttered, scooting up beside her and doing my best to be quiet. “What’s up with Redheart?”

Octavia glanced at me, then Redheart, and then back again. Then, swallowing a slice of dried apple, she replied, equally quietly, “What do you mean?”

“Well, look at her. I mean, I know she’s quiet and all, but she’s usually not... not...” I made an indistinct gesture with my hooves and sighed in frustration. “Not like this.” Oh, language, why must you be so difficult?

She nodded in understanding. “Oh. Isn’t it obvious?” I had to stop myself from rolling my eyes. No, Octavia, no it is not obvious. If it was, don’t you think I would be next to her, trying to help?

My disgruntled silence seemed to answer her question, and she smiled wryly. “Honestly, Vinyl, I love you, but you can be so oblivious sometimes.”

I did roll my eyes this time. “Thanks. I try. Can you tell me now?”

Her smile dropped suddenly, and she looked again at the unmoving form of the white mare before replying.

“She’s an urgent care nurse, Vinyl. She’s probably seen more death than the rest of us put together, and all of it was right there in front of her. The thralls... they’re an abomination. A mockery of death itself. I can cut them down, Lyra can laugh them off, and you... you can just be yourself...” A hint of a smile flickered onto her face before disappearing just as quickly. “But with Redheart... she heals ponies. She saves them. And when she finds something that’s so far gone, so horrible, so twisted, that they’re beyond any kind of hope...” Octavia sighed. “I think she just doesn’t know how to deal with it.”

Mental hoof, meet mental forehead. Octavia’s answer was blindingly obvious now that I thought about it, and I cursed myself for not realizing it earlier. I had known Redheart worked in a hospital. I had seen her first reaction to the thralls. And yet, somehow, I hadn’t made the connection. Sure, perceptiveness had never really been one of my strong points, but still.

Thank Celestia I had somepony around to pick up the slack for me. “Thanks, ‘Tavi,” I said, giving her a grateful peck on the cheek. I swear, that mare ticked all the boxes: gorgeous, elegant, badass when she wanted to be, and smart as hell to boot. “So, what do you think I should do?”

She shrugged. “Right now? Honestly, nothing. Redheart’s practically the definition of an introvert, and probably needs some time to figure things out herself. Just leave her alone for now, and she’ll come around sooner or later.”

Hopefully, it would be ‘sooner’. I really didn’t like the idea of the only pony in our group with any medical experience closing herself off from the world to deal with her inner demons, especially as we trekked deeper and deeper into unknown territory.

I finished the last of my carrot sticks and stood up from the stump, saying, in a much louder voice, “Everypony good to go?”

Lyra glanced up from the Guide, a half-eaten cookie dangling from her mouth, and nodded. “Yeah.” Octavia nodded too, and Redheart just stood wordlessly, filing back in behind us but otherwise not acknowledging my existence.

“Uh, okay. Cool.” And with that impressive declaration of leadership and confidence, I stepped forward, swallowed the stubborn knot of fear that was stuck inside my throat, and entered the Wildwood.

“And I thought the Everfree was big...” Lyra said softly, looking up at the towering wooden pillars in that surrounded us in awe. I couldn’t help but agree. I was a Manehatten girl at heart, so tall, impressive-looking things normally wouldn't faze me, but this...

This was something else.

The Wildwood wasn’t a forest. It was a world unto itself.

The trees were the centerpiece of it all, looming over us like ancient giants. They were so tall, so large, and so closely spaced that I couldn’t see where one canopy ended and another began. They just melded into one another, causing the sun’s rays to melt into a kind of eerie greenish half-light that only grew darker as we pressed on further into the gloom.

The undergrowth was just as dense. When we had first started walking, I had attempted to count all the different species of flower I saw, but had given up somewhere around thirty. The sheer variety of plant life, with hundreds and hundreds of odd-looking flowers and twisting vines of every conceivable shape and color at every turn, was almost enough to make my head ache.

Aura? I thought, stepping over a rotting log and trying to stop myself from jumping as a shrill birdcall pierced the heavy silence. At least, I hoped it was a birdcall. Where is the Heart of the Wildwood, anyway?

Just keep walking. You’re going the right way, she replied tersely. I sighed. Unlike what had happened with Redheart, I at least knew why she was upset. Not that it made the situation any better, of course, but I could at least try to do something about it.

Look. I’m sorry about what I said earlier, all right? That was kinda out of line, even for me. I guess I was just a little shaken up by those Stalkers... and... hey, wait a second. Why didn’t you tell me there were different types of thrall, anyway? That seems like knowledge that might’ve been useful. Because obviously a complete history of an entire dimension was required knowledge for anypony trying to save it, but anything about the stuff that could brutally murder you and everything you loved was just fluff.

When Aura’s reply came, it wasn’t, shockingly enough, dripping with snark like I had anticipated. Instead, it sounded... subdued? No. Embarrassed?

I... I didn’t tell you because I didn’t know, she thought, mumbling as best a pony with no actual mouth could mumble. When I left to find a Soulbond, I had only seen a few thralls, and all of them had just been Shamblers, the basic kind. That was all they needed back then, really. The numbers advantage was so huge... The special types didn't start appearing until later, when the rebel movement really started to gain momentum. I had never even seen one myself until that picture in the Guide. There was a murmur in my head as Aura sighed. That’s why you have it, really. I’m just a pony, Vinyl, just like you. I make mistakes. I’m not infallible. So I would really appreciate it if you would stop expecting me to be.

There was a pause, broken only by the rustle of our hooves through the undergrowth. I sighed inwardly. For all her irritating pessimism, Aura was still the only mentor I had that I could actually ask for advice, and honestly, I didn’t want her to hate me. Tease me? Sure, I didn’t mind banter. Be irritated with me? Fine, most ponies usually are at some point anyway. But hate me? No. I didn’t want that.

You’re right, I thought, swallowing my pride with a little difficulty. Like I said, that was outta line, and I’m sorry. Honest. But really, would it kill you to be a little more positive once in a while? Irritated with me or not, that still didn’t excuse her being a constant drain on even my large reserves of optimism.

Apology accepted. And I’m sorry, too. Look. I just need you to understand that, from here on out, this is serious. Things matter. There are ponies that want to kill you. There are things worse than ponies too, much worse. Things that want to kill all of us. You’ll probably have to face them at some point or another, and I... I just don’t want anypony dying because of you overestimating yourself. All right?

I nodded. All right. I get it. Believe me, I’m in this as much as you are. It was true. As insane as this had all been, I had no intention of backing out now. Not when the fate of the universe hung in the balance.

Aura seemed to accept that. And since you asked, I’ll try to, oh, what’s the phrase... ‘look on the bright side’? Yes, that. I’ll do that. She still seemed a little cold, but any improvement was good enough for me.

I stifled a giggle. Sounds good. Don’t burst a vein or anything. First Aura apologizes, now she’s ‘looking on the bright side’? If this kept up, I would have to seriously consider interrogating Redheart about her former life as a fiery loose cannon agent who didn’t always play by the rules but got the job done no matter what.

Speaking of Redheart... I glanced backwards, checking as much to make sure she was still there as anything else. The white mare hadn’t said a word since the episode at dinner, and I had been keeping an eye on her as much as I could for the better part of an hour. She hadn’t talked to anypony or been the least bit social, but she also hadn’t broken down crying yet. I considered that a small victory.

“Are we there yet?” asked Lyra for what might’ve been the billionth time. After the Stalkers, she had taken a break from the Guide, which meant that her usual high-energy motormouth had returned in force.

“No, Lyra,” I replied, plucking a stray twig from the ground with my magic and flicking it at her. “We weren’t there the last four hundred times you asked, we aren’t there now, and we won’t be there until we’re there. Okay?”

She nodded, ears drooping slightly in embarrassment. “Oh. Okay. Sorry, Vi.”

“Hey, no big deal. Just try not to— ah!” I yelped in surprise as a retaliatory twig bounced off my horn, sending a twinge of pain down the base. Lyra looked away, whistling innocently, and I chuckled slightly despite myself. “Nice shot, Harpflank.”

The nickname had been the result of Lyra and I watching the awkward, fumbling, and hilarious advances of a heavily-intoxicated colt while out at a club a few years ago. He had seen the vaguely instrument-shaped nature of Lyra’s cutie mark and decided to try and make a pet name out of it, with little success. Years later, the colt was long-forgotten, but the nickname had stuck, much to its owner’s chagrin.

“Thanks, V... uh...” Lyra’s face fell. “Aw, that’s not fair. I need a dumb name for you, too.” Her brow furrowed in concentration as she began to think. “Gimme a minute.”

I smiled. Sure, there were a couple annoying variations of ‘Scratch’ that she could use, but I had heard them all before. As far as embarrassing nicknames went, I was, for the most part, safe. Unless...

“What, you mean you don’t know the truth about Vinyl’s name?” Octavia said, walking up beside us with a devilish smile on her face.

Oh no. Oh nooooooo.

“No,” said Lyra, her smile growing to match my marefriend’s. “No, I don’t. You wouldn’t mind telling me, would you?” My eyes narrowed, and I shot Octavia a glare.

“You wouldn’t dare.” The amount of work I had put into getting rid every scrap of information about that stupid thing...

Octavia looked at me and shrugged nonchalantly.“What? It’s only fair. I mean, Lyra’s had to deal with ‘Harpflank’ for years now. Don’t you think it’s time she gets some ammunition in return, Vinyl?” Her grin intensified. “Or, should I say, Melody?”

Smart, beautiful, elegant, and evil.

I groaned, staring at the ground and rolling my eyes as Lyra began to giggle uncontrollably.

“Oh Celestia... Melody? Seriously?” she said, wiping tears of laughter from her eyes. “I mean, it’s not a bad name, but for you... I mean, really?” I glared at Octavia again. There were some things that deserved to die quiet, whimpering deaths under a hundred millions tons of nopony freaking knowing. My stupid, idiotic, unfitting birth name was one of them, but some things were just not meant to be.

“All right, Me-lo-dyyyy,” said Lyra, intentionally stretching out the word and giggling again. “C’mon. I wanna find the temple before it gets dark, and I don’t think you’ll be able to see too much like with your head like that.” She put a hoof under my neck, gently raising it back up until I shrugged it off with another eyeroll.

“Whatever you say, Harpflank.





Vate nyer! Would you give it a rest already?” Octavia said, her lapse into Russani betraying her irritation. I sighed. Banter was all well and good, but not when it led to cranky ‘Tavi.

“Sorry, Ha— uh, Lyra,” I said, offering a hoof and smiling sheepishly.

“Me too, Vi,” she replied, taking it and returning the smile. “Truce?”

I nodded. “Truce.” Octavia smiled in approval.

For the next few minutes, there wasn’t any talking at all. Something about the Wildwood made everything feel... muted, somehow, like life itself was playing at half volume. Conversations would start, then die almost as quickly, and after a few minutes, the ever-present greenish half-light began to feel oppressive instead of ethereal. The ‘path’ had long since faded into the wild undergrowth, and every few minutes one of us would have to stop to remove some vine or other from tangling around their legs.

Not to be Lyra, but do you know how close we are to the Temple? I asked, jumping slightly as a loud screech echoed through the air. Nightfall was definitely approaching, and the thought of setting up camp in the middle of the Wildwood made my skin crawl.

We should be close. A few more minutes at most.

Good. The sooner we’re out of here, the better.

And to think, just a few hours ago you were ecstatic about leaving the Fields. Ugh. She was right, which made it even worse.

Oh, be quiet.

When those few minutes had passed, I nearly asked her again, but stopped as I noticed that the trees had begun to thicken almost to the point of forming a complete wall of gnarled bark and rustling leaves. I remembered the illustration of the temple in the Guide and felt a thrill of excitement race through me. We were close. I could feel it.

“C’mon, everpony. This is it,” I whispered, the heavy air stealing the rest of my voice’s volume away. I slipped between the trees, nearly scraping my chest against the rough bark, and felt the rest of the party follow me. It was dark here, so dark I could barely see, but I pushed on. Just a few more seconds, and I would be at the Heart.

Come on... I thought, wriggling my way through the increasingly-small gaps between the trunks. Whoever Elri was, she seemed pretty intent on making her temple a massive pain in the flank to get to, but I could see the faintest hint of light from beyond the maze of trunks. I grinned. Time to earn my hero cred.

Be careful.

Aren’t I always?

With one last push, I stepped out of the thicket of trees and into the sheltered clearing beyond. It was deathly quiet here, and much brighter for some reason. The surrounding trees seemed to twine together, their leaves and branches huge, dome-like shape with a large hole at its top. Pale, unfiltered moonlight streamed down through it, explaining the clearing’s unnatural brightness and illuminating...



"Tala kve Celestia mendel...” Octavia’s words were a horrified whisper. I felt her hoof around my shoulder, but it might as well have been a lead weight.

No. This couldn't... No. Not now. Not when I was barely off my hooves yet, still wandering around trying to figure out what the hell I was supposed to do. Not already. I couldn't take this. No.

The moonlight didn’t listen, throwing the scene below into a harsh relief of cold silver highlights and dark, sharp-edged shadows. It remained, stubborn and defiant, like it was mocking my weakness. I forced myself to look. I had to be strong.

The Temple of Elri was ash.

Nothing remained of the building but a blackened skeleton, with little pieces of burnt wood and charred vines littering the ground around it. Its roots were twisted and shriveled, rising up through the cracked, scalded earth like grasping claws. It was dead. Murdered. All the beautiful green vibrance that I had seen in the illustration, all the life... all of it was gone. Nothing was left. Nothing but ash.

And that wasn’t even the worst part.

In the center of the ruined temple lay a dark, unmoving mass, turned silver-grey by the moonlight above. It was misshapen and indistinct, but even from this distance, I recognized the still, sprawling forms within. I heard Lyra retch from somewhere behind me, and felt the bile begin to rise in my own throat. I choked it down, forcing my eyes back up and staring hard, taking it in.

‘There are things worse than ponies. Things that want to kill all of us...’

Bodies. The temple’s shell was full of bodies.

Layer after layer of corpses, their limbs locked against each other in horrible contortions, poses too painful to have died in naturally. They weren’t thralls. The flickering, emaciated quality of the things wasn't there, and neither were the greenish eyes. No. These were ponies. Had been ponies.


I could see the faces, too, most of them with eyes still frozen open in masks of terror and pain. No one had been spared. There were colts, fillies, old mares and young stallions. There were angry faces. Sad faces. Friendly faces. Faces with laugh-lines in the corners of their eyes, like the ones Octavia’s mother had. Faces of friends. Lovers. Brothers. Sisters. Ponies. Faces of the dead.

What did they matter now?

Vinyl, please.

I sank to my hooves, letting Octavia’s foreleg slide off my shoulder. She didn’t notice, probably just as shocked as I was. This wasn’t fair.

I stared at the spongy ground below, poking it with a hoof and almost wishing it would just swallow me up. Wouldn’t that be nice? Just sinking into the soft, quiet earth, letting it absorb you and cover your eyes with comforting darkness. I wouldn’t have to face anything anymore. I wouldn’t have to lead them, wouldn’t have to worry. Over time, they would just fade away. Octavia, Lyra, Redheart...



Oh sweet mother of the eternal sisters, Redheart.

I sucked in a breath, choking as the stench from the pile of corpses slammed into my nostrils and forcing myself to my hooves. I was still shaken, but my self-imposed trance had been broken. My friend needed me. She needed all of us.

I wasn’t about to let her down.

Holding a forehoof over my nose, I stumbled past Octavia, who had barely moved, and Lyra, doubled over and still retching. Redheart had nearly had a breakdown when she had seen the Stalker. What she would be like now... I didn’t want to imagine.

I found her lying against a charred stump, her body curled in the fetal position and utterly still. I lifted her head with my hoof, starting as I saw her eyes. They were wide and glassy, huge but unfocused. I realized her entire body was slick with a thin sheen of sweat and gulped. This was bad. This was very bad.

“Redheart?” I said quietly, trying and failing to make eye contact with her. She didn’t seem to acknowledge the question, or even realize I was there at all.

Okay, Aura, I thought, trying to force my rapidly-increasing levels of panic and fear down to a manageable level. Everything's dead, there’s no totem, and I’m pretty sure our only medical pony just went into shock. Why? What should I do?

The Heralds got here first, she replied grimly. They took what they wanted and destroyed everything else. Those bodies were probably slaves, used as life force containers for the same ritual that burned the temple. You can’t do that with normal weapons. You need dark magic, sacrifices. As for what you should do, right now, just—

I lost track of Aura’s voice as a ear-splitting screech pierced the air, followed by an odd, rhythmic clicking, like teeth chattering together. My blood turned to ice water as I realized I remembered the sound. I had been hearing it all day, off in the distance. I had thought it was a birdcall. Now I was praying I was right.

The screech came again, louder this time, and I winced in pain. Whatever the source of the sound was, it was close, and it had been following us for a while. I felt my muscles tense, sparks flickering on the tips of my hooves as my body prepared to fight. Something was here. Something bad.

The silence stretched on. Nothing moved in the deathly stillness except Lyra, now down on her knees as she was wracked with dry heave after dry heave. My eyes flickered back and forth, trying to focus anywhere but the dark shapes in the clearing’s center. I waited. I watched. I—

Behind you!

I whipped around, throwing up a forehoof a millisecond too late before being slammed into by what felt like a piece of steel wrapped in razor wire. The breath I had stored in my lungs left my body in a wheeze as I smacked against the ground, stars flickering in my eyes as my muzzle pressed against something hard and shiny. I tried to shove it back, but it was like shoving a wall.


The thing reared up, releasing its horrible call again, and I gasped in terror as I saw the twisted remains of its face. Where there had once been a muzzle, there were mandibles, sharp, black, and deadly. Its green eyes burned bright, boring into me as it raised its sharpened forelimb above my head. A Stalker, ready for the kill.

Too bad I don’t die easily.

As the blade-like limb arced towards my head, I released the note I had been channeling, headbutting the thing and wincing as my horn glanced off its slick carapace with a blast of blue sparks. It hissed in pain, falling back slightly, and I kicked out with both my hind legs in the strongest buck I could muster. I heard another screech from somewhere nearby, followed by an equine scream and the clashing ring of steel against chitin. The scream had sounded like Octavia. I wanted to cry.

I was fairly sure I felt something shatter in my leg as my hooves connected with the Stalker’s ribs, but the buck had the intended effect: it was shoved back enough for me to leap to my hooves, drawing a chord around me as I did. The thing hissed again, as if sensing what I was about to do, and leapt towards me.


A millisecond before the twin scythes cut me to red and white ribbons, I lashed out with both my forehooves, sending a fork of lightning directly into its chitinous torso. The impact made me scream in pain as I felt the energy bounce back, shooting up my forelegs and into my core like liquid fire, turning the warm glow into scalding heat.The Stalker seemed to barely notice the blast, only stumbling back for a second before leaping at me again. Through the haze of pain, I forced myself to roll, letting its legs embed themselves in the soft ground next to me. This wasn’t working. I was going to die. I was going to fail.

Wait. No.

The idea was stupid, but plenty of my stupid ideas had worked already. I leapt up and began to channel a chord again, ignoring the fire licking at the inside of my skin. The Stalker hooked its leg left, and I dodged, narrowly avoiding the serrated edge. But it was smart. Even as I landed back on my hooves, the right leg was already speeding toward me, too close to duck. Too close to avoid. I tried anyway.

Careful, Vinyl— Aura’s advice was in vain.

The leg-blade felt icy cold as it sliced across my skin, leaving a line of numbness in its wake. I stumbled, nearly fell, but somehow managed to keep the chord going. Just a little longer...

The Stalker reared up, mandibles clicking hungrily, and I moved.

I didn’t dodge this time. I jumped straight at it, yelling loud enough to rival its own call, and let the fire chord out in a blaze of azure. The flames roared up, licking across its carapace hungrily, and it screamed.

I heard a chorus of loud pops and realized it was the Stalker’s armor cracking and snapping in the heat. It lurched toward me, a shambling bluish candle, but I wasn’t about to stop now.

Another bolt of fire, another screech, and the evil thing fell.

I landed on my hooves, stumbling at the numbness in one and breathing hard. The entire fight had begun and ended in seconds, but I felt as drained as if I had been going for hours. The numbness in my right foreleg probably had something to do with that, but I was too scared to look.


I jerked back to lucidity, eyes flickering around the clearing. I had heard a second screech before. There were two. One was dead. The other...


'Tavi, my ‘Tavi, was dueling the second Stalker, her beautiful face set in a grim line as she parried its slashing legs with expert strokes from her tailblade. I tried to run toward her, but my numb leg didn’t listen, buckling under the weight and dumping me on the ash-covered ground. All I could do was watch, and dare not to speak in case I broke her concentration.

She wove in and out between its blades, deflecting each and every strike with expert grace. Occasionally, she would move in close, baiting just enough to make the Stalker overextend before countering with a flurry of slashes. They didn’t do much damage, most barely scratching its armor, but they kept it at bay. For now.

It dove low, screeching in what could’ve been either fear or frustration and scissoring its legs together. An execution attack. Octavia parried the left, then, with a spin and a deft flick of her blade, sliced off the right with a shower of greenish goo. I cheered from the ground, my silence forgotten in the face of her victory.

“Hell yeah! You go, ‘Tavi!”

She turned toward me, smiling that amazing smile for a brief second.

A brief second too long.

I saw the Stalker's left leg before Octavia did, a yell of warning escaping my lips just as she turned and leapt to the side. Quickly, but not quickly enough. I watched, as if in slow motion, as smooth grey coat gave way to hard black chitin, the leg stabbing through her shoulder like a hot knife through butter. She screamed, dropping Ellie with a clang, and I screamed too.

Octavia!” Adrenaline raced through my veins, turning my blood to fire and temporarily blocking out the pain and numbness in my leg. I staggered over to her fallen form, the fire chord already humming in my chest. The Stalker didn’t even notice, too busy screeching in victory. It did notice when I blasted a fireball at whatever was left of its face, but by then, it didn’t matter. I was a storm, burning and battering away with burst after burst of fire and lightning. I felt some bolts glance off, turning pieces of the ruined temple to ash, but I didn’t care.

“Don’t, you, fucking, touch, her!” I screamed, each word punctuated with a harsh, discordant note and an electric fireball. The Stalker was barely more than a shell filled with ash now, but I didn’t stop. Octavia was hurt. I needed to hurt back.

A few seconds later, my energy finally ran out, and I almost collapsed next to Octavia. I wanted to. Wanted to just lie there and comfort her and tell her it was all going to be okay, but I couldn’t. It wouldn’t be okay, not unless I could—

“Vinyl! Octavia!” Lyra was sprinting towards me, her face a picture of terror. Her mouth dropped open as she saw Octavia’s limp body, the shiny black Stalker leg still protruding from her shoulder. “Oh my Celestia... I’ll... I’ll get Redheart.”

I shook my head, forcing my rapidly-renumbing leg into motion. “I’ll go. Red’s completely out of it. We need to make sure she’s here first.” I began to stumble away, barely managing to keep myself on my hooves as the energy surge from the adrenaline faded. A root caught my foreleg, and I grunted as I felt myself tip forward, falling...

“Together,” Lyra said, catching me against her side. I nodded wordlessly and began to limp again, occasionally leaning back against her for support.

Redheart was exactly where we had left her, still in the same position against the stump. I doubted she had even moved at all during the Stalker fight, considering they had gone almost directly for me and Octavia. She didn’t acknowledge either of us as we approached, and I had to lift her head up with my hoof again to even see her eyes.

“Redheart,” I said, shaking her slightly and staring into the glassy orbs. She didn’t respond, not even a little, and I would’ve thought she was dead if not for the rapid rise and fall of her chest. Shit. No. This couldn’t happen. No.

“Redheart!” I repeated again, louder and with more than a hint of urgency. Her face didn’t change, and I felt little prickles of warmth beginning to form behind my eyes.

“Red, please,” I said, the words coming out as a half-sob. “You... you can’t do this. You can’t!

“When she finds something that’s so far gone, so horrible, so twisted, that they’re beyond any kind of hope...”

Octavia’s words echoed in my head, and I jabbed my working forehoof towards the ruins of the temple, forgetting for a moment that she couldn’t see it. “You can’t save them! They’re gone! There’s nothing you could’ve done! But just because you can’t save them, doesn’t mean... doesn’t...” I paused to catch my breath, trying to ignore the fact that the numbness in my leg was gradually creeping upward. “Doesn’t mean you can’t save us. Octavia needs you, Redheart. I need you. We need you! Please!” I was full-on sobbing now, shaking Redheart's shoulders and not even bothering to wipe away the tears streaming down my cheeks. “Please...”

For a few agonizing seconds, Redheart did nothing, only her soft, panting breaths betraying the fact that she was still alive. Then, with the suddenness of a spring, her eyes snapped back into focus, darting to me, then Lyra, then around the rest of the clearing.

“Oh Celestia...” She leapt to her hooves, looking at me with a blue-eyed stare that felt hard enough to pierce diamonds. “Who’s hurt?” She glanced at the cut running down my leg, and her eyes widened. “Oh, that’s not good. Definitely infected...” Her eyes met mine. “Is there anypony worse? Where’s Octavia?”

I smiled through my tears. Nurse Redheart was back.

“Octavia’s over there,” said Lyra, pointing back towards the middle of the clearing. “She’s hurt bad. One of the... things stabbed her right through the shoulder.” I felt a little thrill of fear as Redheart’s eyes seemed to glass over again, but a second later, she shook herself and nodded.

“All right. Show me.”

We walked (or in my case, limped) back across the clearing to where Octavia lay, covering the distance in a matter of seconds. I swallowed as I saw the area around where the leg still lay lodged in her shoulder. It was a horrible, sickly green, with pulsing tendrils radiating outwards towards her leg and neck like roots.

Oh, the freaking irony.

Redheart wasted no time. In less than a minute, she had opened her saddlebags, laid out her odd, silvery blanket, and moved Octavia onto it. My marefriend’s breaths came in harsh, unsteady pants as she lay on the mat, eyes darting around but focusing on nothing. Almost exactly like Redheart’s had been a minute ago. Funny how that worked.

“All right,” said Redheart retrieving a white box from her saddlebags and popping it open. “Thank Celestia I packed the full field kit and not just the hospital standard...” The rest of her sentence disappeared as she grabbed a tiny bottle filled with clear liquid in her mouth, carefully setting it aside. “That’s for later. For now, we need to get... that...” She pointed at the remains of the Stalker’s leg, shuddering slightly. “Out. For a normal puncture wound, I wouldn’t bother, but it’s obviously venomous, and the longer it stays in, the worse things are going to get.”

Images flashed through my head: Octavia lying limp, her eyes bright green and her entire body covered in glowing, pulsing tendrils... I squeezed my eyes shut, forcing them away. No. That wouldn’t happen. “Can I help?”

“Yes, actually. It looks like it’s got polarized serration,” said Redheart, squinting closer at the limb. “That is, it’s designed to pierce and slide in easily one way, but tear coming out. Like a fish hook. We’ll need to push it all the way through instead of pulling it out or risk severing a tendon.” She coiled her tail around Ellie, taking it from Octavia’s limp grasp and holding it gingerly above the leg. “Vinyl, Lyra, could you hold this tight with your magic, please?”

I complied, despite the fact that my head was swimming slightly, and the limb was enveloped in a corona of blue-and-yellow light. Redheart nodded in approval, then, with a quick slicing motion, cleanly severed the tip of the leg from the from the rest of the Stalker’s charred corpse.

“Perfect. Thank you.”

I released the magic, letting the leg fall and gasping at even the slight effort. “No... problem...” The world was definitely swimming now, twisting trees into impossible shapes and ballooning Lyra and Redheart’s features to ridiculous proportions. There was a wet, sucking sound, and I saw the Stalker’s leg being pushed out of Octavia’s shoulder by a grim-looking Redheart. “Anythin’ else.. I can do...?”

She looked down at me and shook her head. “You and what hoof-eye coordination? No, Lyra and I are fine for now. You’ve done enough, Vinyl,” she said, taking a section of her blanket and pulling it over me. “You just need to rest until I can deal with that cut on your leg.”

“B...’Tavi...” I murmured, trying to stand but only managing a slightly spastic jerk. “Needta.. help...”

Redheart gently pushed me back down with a hoof. “Like I said. You’ve helped enough. Octavia will be fine.”

“Promise?” I slurred, even as the darkness began to creep at the edge of my vision.

She nodded. “I promise.”

I smiled, lying back against the spongy ground and closing my eyes. “‘Anks, Red.”

She might’ve replied, but I didn’t hear, already slipping off into the all-encompassing darkness that was exhaustion-induced sleep.

Things were bad now, sure, but they would get better. Octavia would get better. I would get better. Sonus would get better.

They had to.