• 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 Seven: Appoggiatura

When I opened my eyes, I was falling.

Clouds whipped past my face, rippling and melting into greyish blurs as I shot downwards faster than I thought a pony could possibly go. I would’ve screamed, but the wind slammed against my face, howling and tearing the breath from my throat as fast as it could enter. There was nothing on either side of me but twin walls of grey, shooting past me at impossible speeds but never disappearing. The only thing I could see below was an expanse of muted silver, shooting up and past my face before being replaced by another seconds later.

Then my wings snapped open.

The twin airfoils caught the heavy, humid wind, turning my terrifying plummet into a steep, slightly-less terrifying climb. I shot forwards and upwards, the clouds smacking wetly against my face for a fraction of a second before I was suddenly thrust into a wide-open sea of indigo. I was soaring above the clouds, with nothing around me but the sky, the moon, and an endless canopy of stars.

It was at around that point that I remembered I didn’t actually have wings. Or know how to fly. Or have the slightest Celestia-damned clue where I was.

I tried to twist my neck downwards to get a better look at my surroundings, then felt a stab of fear as nothing happened. None of my muscles were responding. I would’ve yelled, but my tongue refused to listen. I would’ve twisted in shock, but my hooves weren’t mine. My body wasn’t mine. The events that were happening now were happening to somepony else, and I, for whatever reason, was just along for the ride.

Well, stranger shit has happened, I thought, mentally shrugging my shoulders as ‘my’ actual shoulders rolled backward slightly, adjusting my course in midair. The body I was in was a mare’s, I could tell that much, maybe a couple years younger than I was. A pegasus, obviously, with a short, neatly-cut mane and tail. The way the hair fell against my head felt like I imagined professional pegasi racers did their manes: sleek, aerodynamic, and short enough to not get in the way.

I realized I was also wearing some kind of flowing, full-body garment that stayed tight against my fur. It was soft and light, and I felt the familiar weight of a hood against my back. Some kind of robe? I tried to crane my neck to get a look at the ensemble, but quickly remembered there wasn’t any point.

My forelegs extended out in front of me as I dropped into a dive, revealing nothing but the fact that the cloth they were covered in was a pure, sparkling white. Silk, maybe? My hooves were wrapped in a similar material, slightly darker in color than the suit and secured with tiny golden rings. I couldn’t find any purpose for the odd-looking ‘shoes’, but whoever’s body I was in seemed to find them important enough.

There was a muffled fwump as I dropped back through the clouds again, my wings folding tightly against my sides as the masses of grey shot past. I gave little mental jump as I felt something flat and slightly slimy flip up into place over both my eyes, blurring my vision for a moment before everything came back into focus. Pegasi have two eyelids? That’s... kinda cool, I guess, but ew.

A half-second later, the clouds parted, and I emerged over a pristine, spotless ocean of grass, swaying slightly in the cool night breeze. Familiar red-and-yellow flowers dotted the ground below, blurring into orange lines as I sped over them. I was back in the Elrinian Fields.

The meadows seemed more or less identical to when I had visited them myself, with one odd exception: all the chunks of stone and rubble that had covered the landscape were gone. I thought back to what Aura had said when I had first asked about them. They had been... ruins, right? Of old cities? Wait, if they’re not here now, that means... my eyes would’ve widened if I had had any control over them.

I wasn’t just in a different body. I was in a different time.

You know, scratch what I had said earlier. As strange shit went, this was actually pretty high up there.

My ‘host’, totally oblivious to my mounting confusion, scanned back and forth, double-lidded eyes squinting as if looking for something. A second later, she found it: a dark, distant smudge on the horizon, speckled with orbs of flickering light. What it was, I couldn’t tell, but I was headed there, and fast.

As the grass whipped by below, the smudge began to come into focus. I saw spires, arches, and other assorted pieces of fancy architecture, all lit up with the distinct, flickering orange of oil lanterns. The last time I remembered seeing one of those was back in Lower Manehatten, before the firefly light craze had caught on and left everything flashing and lit up bright enough to blind you if you looked at it too long.

I began to climb again, not quite as steeply as I had the first time. The flickering lights grew larger, and I felt myself swallow in apprehension. Whoever I was, they were nervous. That fact alone made me squirm a little mentally, but it didn’t stop me from continuing to glide toward the mass of towers.

A minute or so of rushing wind and quiet wingbeats later, I could see my destination clearly. I realized it wasn’t any kind of castle or fort, like I had first thought: it was a city. Huge and sprawling, with hundreds and hundreds of intricately-carved buildings all built from the same stone I had seen the ruined pieces of just a couple days earlier.

At the skyline, there were twisting towers and jutting spires, stabbing up at the night like they were trying to pierce through it. On the streets below, the buildings became more closely packed, shoving tightly up against each other in little pools of flickering orange light and whitish stone. I saw tiny houses, huge cathedrals, market stalls, and hundreds of other structures I couldn’t name, all laid out in an orderly patchwork of winding streets and chiseled stone. The whole thing was surrounded by a massive, sweeping wall that seemed to glimmer and shine even under the half-light of the moon, the dark, indistinct shapes of the ponies atop it thrown into relief by the light of the lanterns. It looked like it had been frozen in time, like something from a fairytale.

My wings snapped back, sending me speeding past the flickering light of the wall and into the city itself. I caught a half-glimpse of the ponies wandering on the streets below before I was shooting forward again, weaving and dodging between the stone jungle of the ancient skyline.

I started mentally as I realized I could hear music wafting up from the streets below. No, hear wasn’t the write word. It was more like I could feel it running on the air, rippling around me like the wind. There wasn’t a defined melody, just little snatches of hundreds and hundreds of different songs. I heard strings, guitars, the heavy beat of a drum, even a note or two of fractured singing. The city itself was full of it, like it was ingrained into the stone of the buildings themselves. Was this how all of Sonus was before Mortem started killing everyone?

My thoughts were jerked back into reality as I suddenly locked my wings against my sides, shooting almost straight down onto a battered, tiled rooftop. My hooves hit the stone with barely a whisper of cloth, and I realized the purpose of the hoofwraps around my legs. But why did I need them in the first place? What was I doing that required so much silence and secrecy? Who the hell was I, and why was I living their memories now?

My host, predictably enough, didn’t answer, instead dropping low and darting along the roof, sliding silently into a pool of shadow left by a stout chimney protruding near the far end. It was almost completely dark here, and even my white cloak was well-hidden.

I squinted upwards, my eyes tracing the rooftops in front of me all the way up to a distant tower. Lights flickered at its top, illuminating its ornate stained-glass windows and beautifully carved stone walls. There were symbols engraved in it, the same ones I had seen on the ruins, though I still had no idea what they meant.

My host gave a tiny, self-satisfied nod, and I felt a familiar warm prickle begin to grow in my gut, slowly worming its way outwards towards my hooves and wings. The sounds and music of the outside world faded away, everything focusing together onto the gentle sound of my breaths. They were steady, stable, like a metronome. In, out. In, out. In...

I pushed the final breath out in a rush and moved.

The rooftop fell away as I leapt upwards, shooting through the air for half a gut-wrenching second before the next building rose up beneath me. I landed lightly on the stone, never breaking stride as I launched myself forward towards my destination.

The music wrapped itself around my body, warming my limbs and making everything sharper, clearer, faster. A wall rose up in front of me. The building’s second story. I tensed my legs and leapt, my wings flickering in a single downbeat that gave me just enough lift to clear it. Each action flowed into the next, my body perfectly synced to the pounding rhythm.

I leapt toward the next roof, flapping my wings again to minimize the shock and hitting the ground running. Innerly, I was questioning why a pegasus who was obviously capable of flight would resort to running around on rooftops, but my body never stopped.

The walls and arches and railings kept coming, a maze of conduits and walkways laid out across the starlit sky. I jumped to the side, running along the side of a building for a few seconds before leaping off and landing in the shadow of an adjacent tower. I realized the reason for the unnecessary parkour even as I continued to move, shooting from rooftop to rooftop like a drop of water on a hot stove. Every time I landed, it was always in a shadow. Every time I jumped, it was always from the darkness. The only time the light touched me was in those split seconds in the air between buildings, and even then it was only the dim glow of the lanterns below. I was trying to get somewhere, and I didn’t want to be seen doing it.

The thought made me uneasy, but I didn’t have time to dwell on it as the ground dropped away once again. I soared through the air, my wings flapping once, twice, three times, and landed, quiet as a ghost, on the balcony of the tower. A stallion clad in golden armor stood there, his eyes widening in surprise as I spun to face him.

The world slowed down. The music hummed through my veins. The stallion’s mouth opened, shouting words I couldn’t hear, and I felt a sudden icy coolness begin to wrap around my forehooves. I didn’t glance down, and a second later, I slammed both my forelegs into his chest.

He crumpled against the balcony railing, eyes going vacant and little wisps of black smoke trailing from his armor. I yanked my forelegs back, revealing two small, dagger-like blades protruding out over my hooves. Each one was attached to a metal ‘cuff’ that had appeared around my forelegs, and they gleamed a silver-white in the moonlight, totally spotless despite having just been inside a pony’s chest.

My host stopped for a second, catching her breath, and my mind reeled. I had just seen murder. Not self defense, not a desperate struggle, but cold-blooded murder. The pony whose memories I was living was a killer.

There was quiet snickt as both my hoofblades retracted up, sliding back over the cuffs and allowing me to put my forehooves back on the ground. A second later, I was moving again, the flimsy balcony doors swinging open of their own accord with a rush of air and a flurry of notes.

The interior of the tower was brightly lit and incredibly lavish, with huge crystal chandeliers and soft, fluffy rugs everywhere. I didn’t stop to admire the scenery, instead making straight for the sweeping spiral staircase at the room’s end. I sped up it, clearing the steps three at a time with occasional assistance from my wings, and in what felt like a matter of seconds, I had reached the very top and found myself on a landing. Hallways led off on either side, but I immediately spun to the right and began to run again, windows, paintings, and other decorations melting into blurs as my hooves pounded against the carpet.

I turned a corner, my hoof grabbing the wall and swinging me around. In front of me was a set of ornate double doors, not made of whitish stone, like everything else, but rich, dark wood. They were flanked by two guards, both armed with spears and wearing the same golden armor as the one on the balcony.

I dove forward, my hoofblades snapping back out as I shot through the air towards the guard on the right. He shouted, jabbing his spear, but I twisted in the air, avoiding the deadly point and sinking my blades into his chest. The daggers ripped through the golden armor like paper, and as I yanked them out, he collapsed, the same black smoke rising up from his now-torn chestplate as the guard on the balcony.

I dropped low, retracting my blades and dodging the second guard’s spear sweep. He stumbled, off-balance, and with a quiet grunt I pulled the music in, focusing it towards my hind legs. I felt a wave of power radiate through my muscles, then my legs snapped out in a buck with enough force to shatter the guard’s spear and what felt like at least a couple ribs.

The stallion fell against the wall, choking, and I turned, hoofblades snicking out once more. He didn’t even have the chance to scream before I had scissored his neck in an X-pattern, the blades slicing through body and armor easily. The head didn’t fall, thank Celestia, but I noticed two ugly black marks on his neck where the blades had sliced, smoke rising from each of them. The flesh looked dead, like it had been infected by the ironically pure-looking metal’s touch.

My host, apparently used to the aftermath of killing ponies with evil magical daggers, spun back towards the double doors and blew them inward with another ripple of angry chords. The room beyond was wood-paneled and almost completely empty except for a rich-looking rug, a bench, and a desk that looked out at an almost floor-to-ceiling window with an amazing view of the ancient city below.

The mare sitting at the desk was a unicorn with a dark grey coat, her coppery-green mane pulled back in a simple braid. Her back was to me, and she turned to face as I burst into the room.

“So,” the mare said, slowly getting to her hooves and fixing me with a pair of vivid forest-green eyes. “It’s happened. The others are dead. Dusk has fallen. And now, you come for me.”

Her voice was quiet but clear, carrying easily across the room, and her face utterly impassive. She didn’t look scared, or confused, or even angry. Just... acceptant, like she had been waiting for me for a long time. The thought made my host swallow uneasily, and I couldn’t help but agree. This mare practically radiated ‘don’t fuck with me’, and here ‘I’ was, about to do just that.

“Come then, Death On the Wind,” the mare said, standing and kicking the bench aside in one fluid motion. “Live up to your name.”

The music played on. My hoofblades flicked out. I leapt forward.

The grey mare sidestepped easily, kicking me away into a nearby wall and stepping back as a gleaming jade spear materialized in the air above her with a soft, somber string note. A green glow surrounded the shaft as she took it with her magic, and I threw myself to the left to avoid getting shishkebabed. The thought of what would happened if ‘I’ died now flashed through my mind, but I quickly shoved it away. No use worrying when I couldn’t do anything about it.

The jabs kept coming, blindingly fast and incredibly precise, but I was no slouch either and managed to stay just ahead of the deadly tip. The corner of the wall was coming up fast, though, and I wouldn’t be able to get to my hooves without being skewered.

Just as I was about to roll smack into the room’s corner, I pulled the music inward again. A burst of warmth sparked through my body, and for a blink, everything was melting, shifting blackness. When reality pulled itself together again, I was behind the mare.

I caught her spear between my hoofblades as she spun, the weapon whipping towards me at an almost inequine speed. The jade tip screeched against my daggers, throwing up a spray of brilliant whitish sparks, and I shoved her away. She didn’t stumble, instead feinting to my left and then jabbing low. I backflipped into the air, narrowly managing to avoid the thrust, and snapped my hind legs out in another bone-shattering sonomancy-assisted buck. I felt my hooves touch fur for the briefest of seconds before my back legs were seized in a crushing grip of dark green light and hurled to the ground, the rest of me following soon after.


Freakin’ unicorns.

My muzzle smacked against the floor, leaving a bright stain of red on the plush blue softness of the rug. Stars sparked behind my eyes, and my head pounded with agony, but I jumped to my hooves anyway, parrying what would’ve been a killing blow with my hoofblades and whipping around in a spinning kick.

The maneuver must have been unexpected, and I heard a quiet grunt of pain as my hoof struck bone. The unicorn stumbled for a fraction of a second, putting her weight on her left side, and I tackled her to the ground, forcing the spear from her magical grip with one hoofblade and putting the other to her throat.

Our faces almost touched for a moment, her dark green eyes boring into mine. They were still utterly calm, not looking in the least bit scared or concerned, but now I saw that impassiveness for what it really was. It wasn’t an act designed to intimidate me, or the cool collectedness of a tactician, though I saw a hint of that too. No, it was resignation. Those were the eyes of a mare who knew she was going to die, had known for a while. They weren’t defeated, just waiting. Accepting.

They stayed calm even as I plunged both blades into her throat.

I stood, stepping away from the body and staring down at the twin black marks in her neck. At some point, the world had begun to glow, throwing little motes of white light at the edge of my vision. Everything was growing distant, like a radio signal fading in and out.

As the light grew almost painfully bright, I leaned down closer to the corpse and felt myself speak.

Esaerna,” I said quietly, my own accent sounding unfamiliar on my lips. “Be at peace, lost one. Soon, the sun will set, and the coil will break.” I stood back up, feeling myself slip away, and spoke one last time.

“Soon, all will be pure.”

I bolted upright, gasping like I had just sprinted a mile as my heart pounded in my chest. My eyes snapped around, trying to take in every inch of my unfamiliar surroundings at once. It was around mid-afternoon. Sunny. There were trees, moss, and flowers everywhere. I was laying on something soft, and standing over me were two mares, one green, one white...

Oh, right.

I flopped back down onto what I now realized was my sleeping bag, letting all my breath out in a relieved sigh. Redheart and Lyra were staring down at me, concerned, but I was too busy celebrating being able to move my own body again again to care.

“Hey, wha— ooooooh holyshit that hurts!” Well, most of my body, anyway.

I shut my eyes again, gritting my teeth as a wave of horrible, icy burning rolled through my foreleg. It felt like someone ripping through the skin with a freezing knife, and I moaned in pain.

“Oh Celestia... ow ow ow ow...”

After a few seconds, the burning had subsided enough that I could focus on something else, and I looked up at Redheart.

“Ugh. G’morning,” I said, wincing and trying not to put any weight on my foreleg. “Red, you didn’t inject my leg with hot sauce or anything while I was out, right?” That got a small eye-roll out of her, and I grinned weakly. “Just wondering.” As much as I wanted to look at the leg to see what was wrong, I was slightly afraid of what I would find. After a few seconds of uncertainty, curiosity won out, and I glanced down at the limb, immediately sucking in a breath as I saw the jagged greenish gash slicing down through the white fur. It was oozing something gross-looking and sticky, and I had to stop myself from recoiling as I noticed the small tendrils slowly wiggling outward from the wound.

“Good morning to you too. Now stay still,” Redheart replied, leaning over me with a businesslike expression. “This’ll sting, but you’ll thank me for it later.” She ducked off to the side, grabbing a small glass bottle in her mouth and carefully uncapping it. The liquid inside could’ve been water, except for the fact that it seemed to sparkle and glitter even in the muted sunlight of the Wildwood.

“Bite this and try not to squirm too much,” she said, gently pushing a pad of dry, supple gauze into my mouth. I nodded as best I could, clamping my teeth down on the fabric and lying still. Once Redheart saw I was ready, she took my foreleg in her hooves, carefully extending it and making me hiss in pain. “Sorry,” she said, looking apologetic. “It’ll be over in a few seconds.” She picked up the bottle again, carefully holding it over the spot on my leg where the pain was worst.

“Whm?” I mumbled through the gauze, frowning. “Whm bh ovhr— ohFHCK!

I screamed into the fabric as the drop of liquid touched my skin, sending up a plume of acrid black smoke and a wave of incredible, searing agony through my leg. My teeth were clenched so tightly I was afraid I they would crack, but I bit down harder, squeezing my eyes shut and trying my absolute hardest not to move.

“You’ll be okay, Vi,” said Lyra, her bright voice piercing through the veil of pain. “Just hold on a little longer.” If I had been able to nod, I would’ve, but in light of the situation I settled for a pathetic-sounding whimper instead.

A few excruciating seconds later, the burning began to recede, eventually fading into a dull, aching throb. It was still noticeable enough to be annoying, but at least somewhat manageable. I spat out the gauze, blinking tears of pain out of my eyes, and took another glance at my leg. The cut was still there, but it was now a pale, slightly less awful-looking shade of green, and some of the tendrils seemed to have drawn back slightly.

“Celestia... that’s a hell of a way to start the morning,” I said, trying to stand and almost immediately being forced back down by Redheart’s firm hoof. “Hey, lemme up!”

“Not yet,” she said, taking my leg in her hooves and sighing in exasperation as I clenched my eyes shut again. “Oh, stop being such a baby. I’m just wrapping it.” She dipped her head back into her saddlebags, retrieving a roll of gauze in her teeth and wrapping around the limb with quick, precise motions. “Give me a minute.”

You can take two Stalkers head-on, but a cut makes you freeze up?

Oh for Celestia’s sake...

Quiet, I thought, gritting my teeth as Redheart wrapped the gauze around my leg. You’re a freaking pony in a rock. You don’t know anything.

I heard a sigh from inside my head. That was supposed to be a joke, Vinyl. You know. Humor?

...Oh. Uh, sorry.

Another sigh. Why do I even try?

In what felt like no time at all, the entire cut was bandaged, and Redheart stepped away. I gingerly stood up, trying to avoid putting too much weight on the injured leg. The bandage made bending my knee a little awkward, and it still ached, but I at least I could walk.

“Thanks,” I said, stretching my legs and wincing slightly. “What the hell was that stuff you hit me with, anyway? Felt like a manticore giving my leg a freakin’ power massage.”

Redheart smiled. “Those were phoenix tears, the most potent stable antivenom in Equestria. A single drop is usually enough to completely flush anypony’s system of toxins. They work by literally burning away impurities, though, so they’re not exactly pleasant.”

“You don’t say,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “Guess I can deal with it if it means I get to walk without feeling like my hoof is gonna fall off.”

She nodded. “We’ll have to reapply it around once every six hours or so to keep the venom from spreading. I don’t know what this stuff is, but it’s nasty. The closest thing I can think of would be hydra venom, but symptoms like this usually only start to show up after almost a week of untreated infection.” She took the bottle of phoenix tears in her mouth, holding it up to the light and frowning. “Damn. Almost half the bottle gone already, and now we have to treat you and Octavia...”

Octavia!

I gave an involuntary gasp as the memories of the previous night came pouring back, quickly followed by a vice of freezing panic clenching around my heart. “Oh shit. Is she okay? Please tell me she’s okay,” I said, voice cracking slightly. If ‘Tavi had... oh Celestia, I didn’t even want to think about it.

“Octavia’s okay, Vi.”

Lyra’s voice rang out across the clearing, and I sighed in relief. “She’s not really awake yet, but she’s fine.” I turned and saw her leaning over my marefriend, who was stretched out on Redheart’s blanket under the shelter of a tree. I quickly trotted over, ignoring the pain in my foreleg and the slight dizziness in my head, and knelt down beside her.

Her normally silky mane was limp and slick with sweat, and her shoulder was wrapped in a blob of gauze that looked even heavier than mine. I put a hoof to her cheek, starting as I felt how cold she was. She jerked slightly at my touch, breath catching, and I felt a pang go through my heart as I watched her eyelids flutter. Seeing her like this, hurt and vulnerable and utterly helpless... it wasn't the easiest thing to deal with.

“Now, let’s see if she’ll actually drink this time. Maybe you’ll be our good luck charm," Lyra murmured, a look of concern etched onto her normally cheerful features. I watched as she levitated out a canteen from her bags, uncapping it and holding it to Octavia’s lips. The water trickled out, splashing against ‘Tavi’s face and causing her eyelids to flutter slightly, but nothing more. Lyra sighed, placing a hoof on my marefriend’s jaw and gently pulling it open before trying again. This time, Octavia coughed, sputtered, and finally refused to swallow before her breathing settled back into the same unsteady rhythm it had been before.

Lyra sighed, recapping the canteen and turning back towards Redheart. “No luck.” The white mare tutted, walking over to Octavia and placing a hoof on her chest. A few seconds later, she stood up, shaking her head.

“Pulse and heart rate are fine, but she’s already dehydrated, and the venom definitely isn’t helping. If she stays like this much longer, I’ll have to figure out some kind of improvised IV,” said Redheart, looking worriedly at Octavia before turning to me with a forced smile. “Er, of course, that probably won’t happen. She’s just recovering, and I’ve seen plenty of patients stay this way for longer. Oh, and that reminds me.” She grabbed another canteen from her bag and threw it towards me, chuckling as I barely managed to catch it with my magic before it clubbed me in the face. “Drink up. You’ve been out for almost 16 hours, and that venom did a great job of sapping almost all the water out of your body before it knocked you out. You’ve probably got a headache, sore throat, feeling dizzy...” The rest of her sentence disappeared in a gigantic yawn, and she blushed. “Sorry.”

I slowly nodded. “Now that you mention it, I do feel kinda woozy.” I had attributed it to the standard post-nap haze, but Redheart’s explanation seemed a lot more plausible. Uncapping the canteen with my magic, I took a large swig and immediately felt a wave of energy roll through my body, clearing my head and wetting my parched throat. “Ah. Wow, that’s way better. Thanks, Red.”

There was no reply. I frowned, glancing around the clearing, and saw Redheart laying against a nearby tree, eyes shut and breathing slow and regular. Lyra giggled before walking over and gently tapping Redheart’s shoulder with a hoof, causing the other mare to jerk up in shock, another blotch of pink blossoming over her white coat. “O-oh. Sorry. Guess I just dozed off for a little. Afternoon heat and all.” She stood up, pacing back and forth and not making eye contact with either of us. “It won’t happen again.”

My frown deepened. “You okay? You were yawning before, too. Did you not get enough sleep or something?” As I looked at her closer, I began to notice the little details: the way she seemed to sway slightly on her hooves, the split ends and stray hairs in her mane, the double layer of bags under her eyes...

Redheart shook her head, then paused, then shrugged. “Well, I had to stay up for a while to treat Octavia, and then Lyra went to bed, and I didn’t want to leave us all here undefended in case any...” She broke off, shuddering. “You know. But really, I’m—”

“She’s been up the whole night,” Lyra interrupted, earning herself a glare from Redheart an eyebrow-raise from me. “I tried to get her to get some sleep, but she said she was used to it from her shifts at the hospital.”

“And I am!” replied Redheart defensively. “Honestly, I’m fine. A little tired, sure, but fine.” Whatever shred of believability her argument might’ve had was instantly destroyed as she yawned again, even bigger than the first time. I rolled my eyes.

“Red, go get some sleep.”

“But—”

“No,” I said, putting a hoof to her mouth. “Nope. You can’t argue. I’m the leader, remember? Go rest.” I pointed over to where Octavia lay on the blanket. “It’s not like we’re going anywhere soon anyway.”

Redheart rolled her eyes and muttered something about abuse of power, but eventually laid back down against the tree. “Wake me up in an hour and a half so I can treat Octavia again,” she said, closing her eyes. A few seconds later, I grinned as I saw her breathing settle into the rhythmic rise and fall of sleep.

“That was fast,” said Lyra, looking slightly awed.

I nodded. “Must be a nurse thing.”

“Guess so,” she replied, laughing. “So, we’re just gonna chill here until Octavia’s better?”

“Why are you asking me? I don’t even know where ‘here’ is.”

Well, there is the fact that you’re the self-appointed party leader, Aura thought.

Oh, right. Damn my naturally commanding instincts.

“We’re around fifteen minutes away from the temple,” Lyra said, pointing behind her at the line of trees. “Redheart wanted to move away from... y’know.” She swallowed, eyes flicking back in the direction of the temple before looking back at me.

“So, they’re still there? The bodies?” I asked, my mind swelling with unwanted images from the previous night. I could still see the mountain of dead ponies, still hear Octavia’s scream... I had to fight down a shudder as Lyra cocked an eyebrow.

“Uh, yeah. I mean, unless they got up and walked.” She giggled nervously. “You know what, I probably shouldn’t jinx it.”

“Probably not,” I agreed. The images were still there, and I shifted uneasily on my hooves. Something about just leaving those ponies like that refused to sit right with me. I sighed. “Hey, Lyra. You’ll be okay on your own for a few minutes, right?”

She looked around the clearing at the two sleeping mares, then nodded. “Sure, I guess. Why?”

“I’m gonna take a walk. Just... need to think about some stuff.” As lame excuses go, that one probably could’ve won some kind of award, but Lyra seemed to believe it.

“All right. Don’t be gone too long, though, ‘kay?” she said, swallowing again. “I don’t want to be alone after sunset, especially not after last night.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll be back way before then,” I replied, shaking out my injured leg to get the blood flowing in it again. “See you soon.”

Lyra’s ‘see ya’ seemed to almost melt away as I walked into the trees, the ancient stillness and shrouded half-light absorbing the words like a sponge. The Wildwood was just as dense and mysterious as it had been the previous day, albeit slightly brighter, and I couldn’t stop myself from tensing slightly at every snapped twig or crinkled leaf. After the fourth time or so I had jerked around, scanning the trees while mentally readying a volley of lightning, even I was beginning to get irritated with myself.

Damnit, Vinyl, I thought, kicking a stray branch aside with a frustrated sigh. What are you, a little filly on Nightmare Night? Get a grip on yourself, for Celestia’s sake.

Honestly, I can’t blame you, thought Aura. After last night, it’s only natural to be on your guard— BEHIND YOU!

I yelped in shock, spinning around and blasting the immediate area behind me with burst of lightning and a roar of bass. The bolts flickered and arced, turning a nearby bush into ash and blackening the side of a tree, but revealed nothing except empty forest.

What? Where— My thought was interrupted by a peal of ringing laughter, and I stood stock-still as I realized what had just happened.

Oh no she freaking didn’t.

Got you pretty good, didn’t I? Aura thought gleefully, her laughter still echoing in my head. I stomped a hoof on the ground and growled in reply, then winced as I felt a bolt of pain shoot up my injured leg.

Oh, calm down. it was just a joke. Besides, weren’t you the one who told me to lighten up in the first place?

I rolled my eyes. Call me crazy, but scaring the shit out of a mare who has a tendency to shoot lightning bolts when she gets nervous doesn’t seem like the best idea, no? Sighing in irritation, I stamped out the remaining embers from the bush I had incinerated and set off at quick trot towards what remained of the temple.

Wow, you really are on edge today, aren’t you? Is something wrong? Did you sleep well?

Did I...

I nearly tripped over a nearby root as I began to remember exactly what had happened while I had slept. My memories of the vision had been hazy and indistinct when I had woken up, but now they were crystal clear. I could see it all perfectly in my mind’s eye: the lights of the city, the silver blades, the look on the green-maned mare’s face as the life drained out of her eyes...

It was time to get some answers.

Actually, about that., I thought. Aura, what do you— I blinked in surprise as my question stopped of its own accord.

Um. Well. This was weird.

My ‘thought-speak’ with Aura was felt slightly different in my head then my usual mental ramblings, although I was pretty sure she could hear both. But now, as soon as I had even begun to consider asking her about the pegasus in white, it was like a vice had been clamped down over my thoughts. I frowned, trying again.

Do know know—

Again! What the hell was going on? I kicked a nearby branch in frustration as I walked, being careful to use my non-injured leg. This whole place was just one weird-ass thing after another.

Yes? thought Aura, interrupting my brooding. What were you asking?

Um, I—

The instant my thoughts turned to the vision, the mental vice clamped down again, forcing me into silence. I sighed. Forget it. I’m fine.

Great. This was great. Not only was I injured, confused, and still expected to save the universe from total collapse, but now I had a mysterious vision messing with my head to top it off?

I nearly kicked something again, but decided against it after I realized Aura probably couldn’t hear my frustration either. No point in making her ask questions when I couldn’t answer them even if I wanted to. I made a mental note to ask Lyra and the rest of the party about the vision when I got back, but knowing my luck, I wouldn’t be able to tell them either. Let’s just get to the temple.

If I recall, you’re the only one with the actual limbs, Aura replied, her characteristic snark returning in full force. Why do you need to go back there, anyway? It’s nothing but ash now.

Ash and a pile of bodies, I reminded her. It just doesn’t feel right leaving them there like that. I want to... I don’t know, lay them to rest, I guess. Better than leaving them all to rot, right?

I suppose, she replied, the thought sounding oddly restrained. What do you plan to do? Dig a mass grave with your hooves?

I frowned. I’ll figure something out. Kicking aside a stray branch, I pushed through a patch of brush and steeled myself as I walked back into the clearing of the ruined temple.

The place was more or less the same as I had remembered it, though the sunlight filtering in through the trees helped to make everything a little less terrifying. The blackened husk of the temple, the twisted roots, and, of course, the pile of dead ponies at its center were all still there, along with the new addition of the two Stalker corpses.

I took a deep breath, slowly walking closer towards the ruins and stopping as I felt my hoof touch something slightly sticky. I looked down and swallowed as I realized I had stepped in a patch of dried blood on the grass. I didn’t know whose it was, but it was pretty gross either way, and I wiped the hoof on the ground before continuing over to the pile.

Without the harsh light of the moon and the terror of the Stalkers, the bodies didn’t look nearly as horrible as they had the night before. I walked over to the nearest one, a young-looking mare with a bright green coat and a turquoise mane. She was sprawled out near the temple’s edge, her forehooves clasped protectively over her chest. Unlike most of the corpses, her eyes were clenched tightly shut in an expression that could’ve been pain, terror, or a mixture of both. There was no blood on her body, no obvious injuries. If I hadn’t known better, I would’ve thought she was sleeping, or cowering in fear.

I leaned closer, gently turning her cold body over to see her flank. Her cutie mark was bright against her fur: a long, yellow instrument with rows of strings running along its curved length. A harp. She was a musician.

Had been a musician, I corrected myself, staring down at the mare’s body. She could’ve been amazing, for all you know. She could’ve been the best damn harpist in the freaking universe. She could have been awful. But you don’t know. You’ll never know. Nopony will know, because she’s gone, just like all the others. I felt warm tears begin to prick the corners of my eyes and blinked, trying to force them away. It didn’t work. The longer I looked at her, the more I began to see not just a pony I had never known, but a pony who could’ve been any of the ones I loved. If I had been a few seconds slower last night... If Redheart hadn’t snapped out of it in time... it could’ve been Lyra lying here. It could’ve been ‘Tavi. It could’ve been any of us.

“I... it’s not fair!” I yelled, my voice cracking as it echoed into the stillness of the forest. “It’s not fucking fair!” The tears were falling hard now, dappling the mare’s body with drops of wetness. I didn’t care enough to wipe them away. “What the hell did she ever do to you!?” I wasn’t sure who I was talking to. The thralls? The Heralds? Mortem himself? At this point, just like with everything else, I didn’t care. My shock and sadness was slowly being replaced by the slow, searing gnaw of hopeless anger.

“She could’ve been anyone! She could’ve had hopes and dreams and brothers and sisters and parents who loved her and a coltfriend or marefriend and a job and a life and now nobody will know because they fucking killed her!”

Vinyl, you can’t—

“Shut up!” I screamed, half-sobbing the words. “Just... just shut up!” The anger was white-hot now, boiling through my veins and humming in my ears. I barely noticed the warmth in my hooves until I looked down and saw the faint blue glow surrounding them. “I know I can’t bring her back! Nopony can bring any of them back!” The warmth in my hooves had begun to burn, matching the fire in my gut.

“They’re all dead, and nopony will care about them anymore, but I... I can...” The fire inside me sputtered, choking slightly, and I matched it with a hitching sob. “I can at least send them off.”

I smacked my forehooves down on the ground, ignoring the pain that shot up my injured leg, and a wave of fire erupted from them. It roared across the clearing, turning the green mare to dust and ash before my eyes. She didn’t even have time to burn, just evaporated into a few wisps of grey. I watched the rest of the corpses follow, swallowing the lump in my throat as the clearing was consumed by azure fire.

A half-second later, I let the chord fade, and the fire died, leaving nothing but the sharp smell of ozone and a pile of ashes. I sniffled, breathing hard and wiping my nose messily with a hoof, and turned to walk away. The bodies might’ve been gone, but the clearing still reeked of death. I needed to get back to the living.

Feel better? Aura asked, sounding actually sincere for once. I shrugged listlessly, pushing aside the brush again as I exited the clearing.

I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t really know how the hell I’m supposed to feel right now. It was true. Now that my anger had faded, I was left with a kind of odd numbness that seemed to have seeped its way into my entire body, preventing me from feeling anything at all.

I had a few seconds of silent walking before before Aura replied.

You did a good thing, she thought, with surprising firmness. You're right. They didn’t deserve to die, but we can’t change that now. You gave them back their dignity, and they’ll even help the forest regrow. As morbid as it sounds, organic ashes are very rich in nutrients.

How practical of you, I thought, a bitter smile escaping the cloud of numbness and slowly making its way onto my face. I’m sure they’ll appreciate it.

Sorry. I’m still getting used to... you know.

The smile grew, losing its bitter edge. Being less of a tightass?

I was going to say ‘being more optimistic’, but...

I laughed slightly, and the sound of it burned some of the numbness away. It’s fine. I’ll get over it. I’m just a little shaken up now, I guess, with last night and all. Still new to the whole hero thing.

Well, for a rookie, you’re not half bad. A little irritating, sure, but not bad. The compliment was genuine, without a hint of sarcasm or snark, and I couldn’t help but smile even wider.

Sure, I was still slightly shell-shocked from everything that had happened in the past two days. Sure, the love of my life was badly injured, and I wasn’t doing too well myself. Sure, I still had almost no idea what the hell I was doing. But you know what?

My friends were alive. Lyra was alive, with her bouncy, heartfelt optimism and unquenchable curiosity. Redheart was alive, with her quiet calmness and expert knowledge keeping us all safe. ‘Tavi was alive, injured but beautiful, elegant and strong and giving me a reason to keep pushing on. They were all alive. Maybe not perfect, maybe not prepared, but hell, neither was I.

For now, they were alive, and that was all I needed.

Thanks, Aura, I thought, wiping my eyes one last time and increasing my pace to a steady trot in the direction of the camp. Now, quit flattering me and let’s go save the universe.

Author's Note:

Despite all the comments to the contrary, the first scene of this chapter was not inspired by Assassin's Creed. I have never played the games and picked the music just because I thought it was fitting. If you had any worries about the story continuing to lift obvious themes from the franchise, let them be quelled here.