• 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 Eight: Staccato

“Celestia damnit!

I cursed and winced in pain as my injured forehoof snagged on a root for what must’ve been the hundredth time, making me stagger and sending a bolt of pain rocketing up my leg and shoulder as I walked back towards the camp. It felt like every loose branch and root in the entire forest had suddenly decided to throw itself under my hooves.

Maybe you should try looking up some time. I’ve heard it works wonders.

Funny, I thought, glaring down at the forest floor below.

Aren’t I? Aura replied. You don’t have anyone to blame but yourself, you know. I think your ‘wit’, if you can call it that, has been rubbing off on me.

I grinned despite myself. Nah, I’m not that bad.

Just keep repeating that.

Whatever, thoughtpony. I winced one last time as my hoof grazed a protruding rock before brushing aside the thicket of branches that led to the camp.

“Back!”

My announcement was answered by a series of quiet, melodic plinks, and I frowned, glancing around. Octavia and Redheart were each in the same place they had been when I had left, chests slowly rising and falling in the gentle rhythm of sleep. All our gear was arranged and intact, and the ashes of the fire had been cold and grey for a while. If someone new was in the camp, they had done a pretty good job of not making it obvious.

I heard the music again and turned, searching for the source of the sound and channeling a lightning chord in the back of my mind. A second later, I found it.

“‘Sup, Vi,” Lyra said, the greeting accompanied by another cascade of notes.

Oh. I blame last night. Made me paranoid.

Of course you do.

Lyra was sitting against a nearby tree in her usual odd way, her horn glowing with a faint yellow light and a small, curved object cradled in her forehooves. As I watched, her horn flared, and the object responded with another burst of music.

“Hey, your lyre!” I walked over to the tree, leaning against the trunk and watching as she coaxed another measure out of the instrument. “Did you have it this whole time?”

She nodded, prodding her saddlebags with a hind leg and smiling. “Yep. Kinda dumb of me to forget it, but it was at the bottom of of my other saddlebag. Ya know, the one without the food.”

“Just never saw the need, huh?” I said, grinning.

She returned it. “Nope.”

“Well, at least you have it now. Be nice to have some music around.” I stretched, arching my back, and sat down next to her, staring up at the canopy. “I mean, I can’t pick up all the slack, awesome as I am.”

“Wouldn’t want you hogging the spotlight all the time anyway,” Lyra replied. I rolled my eyes good-naturedly and smacked her with my tail.

“Whatever, Harpflank.”

“Oh don’t you make me start again, Melody,” she said, smirking.

I groaned, holding my forehooves up in a gesture of defeat. “All right, all right. Truce or whatever.”

Maybe I should start calling you that. It seems to get you to listen well enough—

I stared daggers at a nearby leaf so hard I could’ve sworn it wilted a little. How do you feel about being melted down into horseshoes?

... Point taken.

After that, there wasn’t much talking in my head or out of it. Lyra and I sat quietly against the tree, letting the soft, wandering melody of the lyre drift around us with the breeze.

“Hey Vi?” Lyra’s voice broke the silence, making me start slightly against the tree before I turned to look at her.

“Mm?”

“We should...” She trailed off, frowning as something on my face seemed to catch her eye. “Uh, you okay?” She peered closer, and her frown deepened. “Have you been... crying?

Shit. Play it cool, Scratch.

Admitting weakness isn’t some horrible shame, you know.

Hush.

“No, I’m fine,” I said, casually turning away and rubbing my face with a hoof. “Don’t worry about it.”

“You sure? If there’s something bothering you—”

“No. Seriously. ‘S all good.” I shook my head, standing up from the tree and rolling my neck with a series of satisfying pops. “What were you gonna say?”

“We should probably wake up Redheart. It’s been an hour and a half,” Lyra said, looking at me with more than a hint of disbelief. “But seriously, you sure you’re all right?”

I grinned. “No, I’m Vinyl.”

“All right, you’re fine,” she groaned, smacking a forehoof to her head. “Go wake up Redheart, will you? I think I’ve got something here. I don’t wanna break my flow.”

“Sure thing.” Vinyl, you are too damn good at this.

At what? Lying to your friends? Maybe it’s just me, but that doesn’t really seem like a talent to be proud of.

I huffed an irritated breath out through my nostrils. Hey, remember that time when you said you would stop being a tightass?

That seemed to shut her up for the time being. I turned, about to leave Lyra to her composing, when a sudden idea struck me.

“Hey, Lyra?” I hadn’t been able to tell Aura about my vision... dream... possession... thing, but I wasn’t sure if the mental lock worked on ponies who weren’t also rocks. I hoped not.

“Mm?” she replied, still intently focused on her music. I swallowed, gritting my teeth and steeling myself.

“Last night, I had this—”

The words died in my throat. The vice was back.

I sighed, shaking my head and resisting the urge to scream and incinerate the nearest patch of forest. “Actually, uh, never mind.”

She gave me an odd look. “Uh... okay.” A second passed. “You sure you’re all right?”

Fan-freakin-tastic. Like convincing them about Aura hadn’t been hard enough. “Never better,” I called back, walking over towards the other end of the camp. All right. Guess it’s just me, myself, and my crazy-ass mind. I can deal with that. Maybe. I forced the mystery of the vision out of my mind.

Redheart was still lying against the tree, her chest slowly rising and falling in the faint rhythm of sleep. I knelt down, gave her a gentle shake, and murmured “hey, rise and shine,” as quietly as I could. No need to freak her out any more when she was still sleep-deprived and shaken up already.

Redheart’s eyes snapped open almost instantly, and I heard her gasp before yelping in pain as a white hoof clipped me across the jaw.

“Ow! Damnit Red, what the hell?” I said, rubbing my now-aching face with my uninjured forehoof. “Don’t you guys take oaths against that or something?” She looked at me, blue eyes widening as she seemed to realize that there wasn’t anything about to kill her, then gasped again.

“What... oh Celestia, Vinyl, I’m sorry!” she said, her face reddening. “Are you all right? I didn’t hit you hard, did I?” She prodded my jaw with a forehoof. “Nothing fractured, nothing broken, might bruise though...”

I pushed her away, chuckling slightly even as she continued to blush and mutter. “I’m fine. Chill. What was with that, though? Expecting to get jumped in your sleep?”

Redheart smiled weakly despite her obvious embarrassment. “I... I guess I’m still a little jumpy from last night. Again, sorry.”

“Like I said. No big deal” I replied, shrugging. “Anyway, it’s been an hour and a half. Should we check on ‘Tavi?”

She nodded. “She’ll need another round of phoenix tears, and probably a new set of bandages too. I might need your help with that.”

“Sure thing.” I felt a small twinge of apprehension as I remembered the oozing, greenish sore that had once been my marefriend’s shoulder, but quickly forced it down. ‘Tavi was a fighter. She would pull through.

Redheart and I made our way over to where Octavia was lying underneath the tree. Maybe it was just wishful thinking, but her breathing seemed smoother and less erratic than it had yesterday, and I could’ve sworn I saw the faintest hint of a smile on her face.

“All right,” said Redheart, taking the bottle of phoenix tears out of her saddlebags and placing it carefully on the ground. “Could you unwrap her bandages with your magic, please? I would do it myself, but as long as you’re here there’s no point in me risking infection.”

I nodded, focusing my magic around the wad of gauze that covered ‘Tavi’s shoulder. It came off with a nasty, sticky-sounding schlip, revealing the jagged hole along with a large amount of oozing green pus.

“That... that’s really gross,” I said, gingerly unwrapping the rest of the bandage and holding it in the air at a forehoof’s length. “Uh, what should I do with this?”

“Can you still shoot fire?” she asked, stepping away a couple feet, and I grinned.

“One bandage flambe, comin’ up.” I breathed in, drawing the fire chord out just long enough to feel the familiar prickle of warmth run through my hooves, then let it loose in a single flickering tongue of bluish flame. The pus-soaked bandage caught almost instantly, and a few seconds later, the only thing that remained of the gauze was a small pile of ash and the faint smell of rotten eggs. Redheart nodded in approval.

“Great. All right, you might want to stand back for this. If the last time I treated her was anything to go by, phoenix tears don’t exactly play nice with an infection this bad.” She picked up the bottle in her mouth, holding it over the mass of pus and greenish tissue, and I frowned.

“Stand back? Why? Is it gonna— whoa!” I leapt back in shock as Redheart shook two drops free from the bottle, sending a plume of bright orange fire arcing into the air with a sound like a whipcrack. The flames played across Octavia’s coat for a few seconds longer before sputtering down into a small cloud of black smoke, just like they had with my leg. I whistled softly. “Holy shit. Strong stuff.”

Redheart nodded, smiling. “There’s a reason they charge 90 bits a bottle. It’s definitely a gouge, but you can’t argue with the results.” She gestured to Octavia’s shoulder, and my eyes widened as I realized the globs of greenish pus were completely gone, leaving only a jagged bit-sized hole near her shoulder. There were still faint greenish tendrils playing around the wound, but the lack of pus and overall nastiness was definitely an improvement.

Redheart took another swath of gauze from her bag with her mouth, rewrapping Octavia’s shoulder with a series of quick, deft movements before re-corking the bottle and turning to me. “That should hold for a while, maybe eight or nine hours. Assuming the venom doesn’t get more potent in its late stages.” Seeing me glance nervously at Octavia, she quickly added, “Which it won’t. Probably.”

“Hey, how’s Octavia?” Lyra asked, trotting over to the shady base of the tree and peering down at my sleeping marefriend. “She looks... uh, better? Maybe?”

“She’ll be fine,” said Redheart. “From what I can tell, the worst of the infection is over. She’ll have to take it easy for a while once she wakes up, though. Maybe a week and a half of rest, regular rebandaging, plenty of fluids...”

Look, I realize this is going to sound insensitive and awful, but it’s also true.

Oh, look who was back. I repressed a sigh and braced myself for the usual onslaught of irritating pessimism.

There’s no way we’re going to be able to stay here for a week. Honestly, even today is pushing it. The Heralds are mobilizing, and unless we stay three steps ahead of them at all times, we’ll have lost the battle before we even fight it. You saw what happened at the Temple of Elri. If we don’t get a move on soon, the same thing is going to repeat itself again and again.

So what are we supposed we do? I replied, gritting my teeth. Leave her here to die? Force her to come with us while she’s horribly injured? I mean, in case you haven’t noticed, she can’t exactly walk right now. Or move.

A murmur ran through my head as Aura sighed. Look, I understand that you love her. I don’t like this any more than you do, but we have to get moving if you want to have any chance at all. Maybe you and Lyra could—

Nope. Not happening. The party’s staying together. End of discussion.

Stubborn as usual. Fine. But that still doesn’t solve the problem. We need to—

“Vi?” I felt a hoof prod my chest and jerked as I realized Lyra and Redheart were both staring at me. “You there?”

“Sorry,” I said, cheeks reddening slightly at being caught off guard for what must’ve been the hundredth time. “Aura’s being... difficult. She says we can’t stay here if we want to get the Totems, but we can’t leave ‘Tavi...” I sighed. “Being a hero is freakin’ hard.”

“No kidding,” said Lyra. “So, I guess we have to stay here, then. Ugh.” She hopped up and down a few times before planting her hooves back on the ground with a frustrated grunt. “I mean, the forest is pretty and everything, but I’m bored out of my skull.”

“What about your lyre?” I asked, pointing to the instrument, which was floating lazily behind her in a halo of orange light. “Weren’t you composing something like a second ago?”

She shrugged, striking an exaggerated intellectual pose. “I was, but I can’t think of anything now. Ze inspiration, it has... left me. Like a bird on ze first cold winter’s dawn, lost forever...” She broke down into giggles, and I rolled my eyes.

“Celestia, you’re such a dork.”

“Right back atcha, Melody.”

“Harpflank.”

“Melody.”

“Harp— ow! Damnit, Red!” I said, rubbing my the back of my head. “The hell was that for?”

She smiled. “Octavia’s indisposed, so I had to fill in.”

I shot her a glare. “Hilarious. Anyway, so yeah. We need to get moving, but we can’t, but we have to.” Typical problem in the life of an interdimensional adventurer. By this point, you’d think I would be used to dealing with mind-wracking issues of life and death on a regular basis, but apparently the whole ‘saving the universe’ thing had a slightly steeper learning curve than I’d thought.

I looked at the other two conscious members of the party and shrugged. “So, any ideas?”

“I’ve got nothing,” said Lyra, shaking her head. “I mean, we need to move, but we can’t, but... bleh.”

I sighed. “Redheart?” The white mare was gazing off into the distance, looking deep in thought. She turned to me, then slowly nodded.

“Octavia really shouldn’t be moving at all right now, but if we have no choice...” She sighed. “There’s something we can do. It won’t be ideal, and it’ll almost definitely be a massive pain in the flank, but it’s better than splitting up or trying to carry her ourselves. I’ll need your help, though. Both of you.”

See? I knew you would figure something out.

I ignored her before giving Redheart a relieved nod. “All right, sweet. What do we—” I stopped as my stomach let out a rumble that probably could’ve been been mistaken for a very gurgly-sounding species of dragon. When had I last eaten? Too long ago, that was for sure. “You know what?” I said, flopping against the tree next to Octavia and levitating my saddlebags off my back. “Tell me over lunch.”

“Seriously, Redheart? I mean, I knew you had an idea, but this?” I said, shifting uncomfortably as the hastily-constructed harness bit into my shoulders and back. “Isn’t there something else we can do? Anything else?”

Redheart shook her head. “She needs to keep resting while moving her shoulder as little as possible. I realize it’s not ideal, but we’ll just have to make do. With any luck, she’ll be awake soon and we’ll be able to support her when she walks. But until then, let’s just get moving before we waste any more of your amulet pony’s precious time than we apparently already have.” The words sounded slightly irritated, and to be honest, I couldn’t blame her. Taking care of ponies was more or less the only thing outside the realm of nerdery that Redheart could claim expertise in. Having that taken away by someone she couldn’t even see or hear probably wasn’t the best feeling in the world.

If it’s any consolation, you could tell her that I don’t want to do this any more than she does. We don’t have a choice.

I sighed, shaking my head. Somehow, I don’t think that would help.

After we had packed up and eaten a small and simple lunch of dried apples, hay chips, and what remained of Lyra’s cookie tin, Redheart had set us to work on her “idea”: a strange contraption made from vines, leaves, and branches of various sizes tied together to form a pair of saddles connected to an improvised stretcher that Octavia was currently lying on. Impressively, my marefriend had somehow managed to stay asleep through the whole thing despite the near-constant rocking and wobbling of her ‘bed’.

I heard Lyra grunt beside me as she repositioned the other harness on her back. “Wow. I mean, this isn’t exactly comfortable, but it’s kinda impressive. They taught this stuff in med school?”

Redheart blushed. “Well, not exactly. There was an episode of Battlemare Galactica where they...” she trailed off, her face growing even redder before shaking her head. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter. Let’s just get moving to... where are we going, again?” She looked at me and frowned. “You do know, right?”

I nodded and flashed her a winning smile. “Of course.”

Redheart remained unimpressed. “Would you mind sharing?”

“Uh, no, not at all...” Aura where are we going, and why do you never tell me these things until they become an issue?

The Temple of Taurun, came the sullen reply. And I don’t tell you because it should’ve been fairly self-explanatory. If you had taken the time to look at the map that you nearly killed yourself getting—

“Well excuse me for being busy fighting for my friend’s lives!” I snapped, then smacked a forehoof over my mouth as I realized I had spoken out loud. “Uh, sorry. Nothing against you guys, just Aura being herself. One second.”

Ugh, whatever. Temple of Taurun? Fine. That’s another god, right? With another totem?

Yes. The god of strength and fire, to be exact. It’s the closest to the Wildwood, and most likely the one the Heralds will go for next. Use the Guide if you want to know more. Now, come on.

“All right,” I said, taking a step forward and promptly stumbling as Lyra did the same a half-second later. “We’re going to the Temple of Taurun, which is...” I put my tongue between my teeth, levitating the Guide out of my saddlebags and muttering “where?” The pages flickered, and I was presented with the map of Sonus, this time with a glowing blue line that began somewhere in the middle of the Wildwood and seemed to lead north. I traced it with a forehoof, gradually following it upwards through a sandy-colored blotch of land dotted with mesas and fissures labeled “Whispering Badlands” before stopping on a jagged, greyish mass of peaks and spires. I squinted, then my eyes widened in surprise as I realized I could see tiny rivers of orange lava snaking their way between the towers of stone. “Taurun’s Forge” was written next to it in the usual flowing script of the Guide, and I had to stop myself from gulping slightly as I imagined facing the massive flows of molten rock head-on.

Lava? You didn’t say anything about lava.

You never asked.

Celestia, you’re annoying.

“Uh,” I said, clearing my throat and shoving the Guide back into my bags with my magic. Some extra info might have helped, but right now, with a snarky thoughtpony riding my metaphorical back and a harness biting into my real one, I didn’t feel like reading all that much. “Right. In Taurun’s Forge, up to the north, through the Whispering Badlands. This way.” I jabbed my good hoof forward and began to move, then almost tripped again as Lyra was pulled after me with a yelp.

Vinyl. That’s east.

“Disregard that. This way!” I turned, much slower this time, and sighed in relief as Lyra did the same without tripping both of us, though I still felt myself sway a little. “Ugh. I feel like a pack mule.”

“Then consider this cultural sensitivity training,” replied Redheart, a genuine smile creeping onto her face for the first time in what seemed like days. “Now, let’s go before you forget the existence of gravity and start floating away.”

I rolled my eyes. “It would definitely make lugging this thing less of a pain—” I grunted and rolled my shoulders again as the vines in my harness began to slip, then hissed in a breath as my injured foreleg flared up with pain.“—in the freakin’ flank.”

“Oh, stop whining,” replied Redheart, casually walking ahead as Lyra and I stumbled our way after her. “I said we would do rotations.”

“You’re an earth pony,” I muttered. “You can’t talk.” Honestly. Despite her slim frame, Redheart was probably more than capable of lifting the stretcher by herself, not to mention handling it much better than Lyra or I, and yet she had still insisted that we take the first rotation despite my injury. ‘Need to keep an eye on her’ my flank.

Vinyl.

What.

There was the faintest hint of ringing in my head as Aura snickered. Stop whining.

I sighed and grit my teeth, putting one hoof in front of the other with a conscious, concentrated effort.

It was gonna be a long way to the Badlands.

“Is it... a tree?”

Lyra sighed. “Oh darn. Got me again.”

I rolled my eyes, my face twisting somewhere between a smile and grimace. “You’re horrible at this.”

“It’s not my fault,” Lyra replied, pouting. “I’ve already done leaves, branches, flowers, the sky, you, me, Redheart... kinda running out of options here.”

It had been at least three hours since we had left the camp, and the Wildwood had stubbornly refused to become any more interesting than it already was. Everything but the pattern of the trees and brush was almost exactly the same: the stillness of the air, the way the light distorted into a weird, greenish haze, and the roots that seemed hell-bent on throwing themselves underneath my hooves every chance they got. I sighed. “We need a new game. I mean, ‘eye spy’ only really works if the place you’re in has more than like three colors.”

“Yeah.” Lyra’s brow furrowed in thought. “Maybe we could... oh! I know!” She twisted around, and I yelled in shock as I was nearly yanked off my hooves and onto the spongy ground below.

“LyraWaitI’mConnectedToYouRemember!”

“Oh.” she said, looking sheepish. “Right. One second.” She focused, and her saddlebags were wrapped in a yellow-orange glow as her lyre floated out of them. “I wanna see if I can work on this some more.”

“Sounds good,” I replied, shaking out my bad leg and wincing slightly as the cut began to burn again. Even with us taking turns carrying the stretcher, I could feel my hooves beginning to ache, and though she hid it behind her usual cheerfulness, I was pretty sure Lyra wasn’t doing much better. “Just don’t walk into a tree or anything.”

Lyra nodded. “Don’t worry. I got this. I was in a parade troupe. Well, once.” She hoisted up her harness and began to walk, humming an aimless, wandering tune that her lyre echoed seconds later. It wasn’t exactly memorable, but the sound of her voice and the plucking of the strings was a nice break from the forest’s eerie stillness.

After what felt like another three hours of trudging, broken up only by the twenty seconds of fiddling with the harnesses it took to change rotation, I stopped, panting and holding my forehoof out in a gesture of defeat.

“Hey, you guys mind if we take a break? I mean, as fun-filled and action packed as all this walking in a straight line has been, I wouldn’t mind making it out of here with all my legs intact. Sound good?” I didn’t wait for a reply, instead flopping down onto the softest-looking patch of forest floor and grunting slightly as I felt the makeshift stretcher collapse on top of me.

Redheart, who had been attached to the other harness, gave an exasperated sigh as she fell next to me, nearly dumping Octavia out in the process. “Really, Vinyl? You couldn’t give us a second or two more of warning?”

“Sorry,” I mumbled, wriggling out from under the stretcher and looking down at Octavia, who despite her unexpected journey to the ground didn’t look any worse for wear. “How’s ‘Tavi?”

With some magical assistance from Lyra, Redheart managed to escape from her harness. She turned to Octavia, prodding her in various places and muttering to herself. “She’s fine,” Redheart said, rolling her eyes. “Stable, more or less, no thanks to you nearly dropping her. Although...” Her expression shifted, as if she was debating saying something, then she sighed. “She’s still dehydrated. Badly. If we can’t get some water in her now, or at least very soon...” Redheart trailed off. She didn’t need to say it. Probably didn’t want to, either.

I knelt down next to Octavia, gently pressing my lips to hers, then jerking back as I felt the icy coolness of her skin and the stiffness of her frame. If it wasn’t for the gentle rise and fall of her chest, she could’ve been a statue. Or a corpse.

“C’mon, love,” I whispered, levitating my now worryingly-light canteen out of my saddlebag and uncapping it. I took her head gently in my hooves and floated the canteen’s neck to her lips, then pulled them apart with my magic and sent a small trickle of liquid flowing in between them.

Octavia gasped as the water hit the back of her throat and began to cough and sputter, thrashing around on the remnants of the stretcher. I tipped the canteen farther, figuring that some reaction was better than nothing, and was rewarded with another gasp.

Then, suddenly, for the first time in days, those beautiful lavender eyes opened.

“She’s awake!” Lyra yelled, and I felt my heart leap in my chest.

Octavia gazed up at me blearily, still coughing, and made a weak attempt to push the canteen away with her forehoof. “V— vaani!” she half-shouted, her voice hoarse and raspy. “Vaani! Lude, vaita vaani! Kavel ziva en!”

“She’s still delirious,” Redheart said quietly, appearing behind me like a shadow. “Do you know—”

I shook my head, easing up on the canteen slightly as Octavia continued to cough. “No idea. I tried learning Russani once and gave up after ‘Tavi told me there were 18 different conjugations for each class of verb. The only thing I remember are a few of the curses.”

Leto izdra, vaani!”

I giggled. “There’s one. But what’s vaani?” Redheart shrugged, and I bit my lip. Damnit, ‘Tavi! I needed Equestrian!

“All right, that’s enough water for now. I don’t think we’ll be getting any more in her as it... is...” Redheart’s words slowed, and I turned to her, frowning. The canteen felt almost empty now, and I saw a few drops of rich, mahogany-colored liquid dribble down its bluish surface before I spoke. “What? What’s...”

Water. Water was not rich mahogany. The water canteen wasn’t blue, either.

Vinyl, did you really just—

And now she chimes in. Of course.

“Oh, shit shit shit,” I muttered, ignoring my mental peanut gallery and focusing my horn.

I practically tore the flap of my saddlebag off as I brought the correct canteen out with a glow of magic, wrenching the top off and nearly turning it upside-down over Octavia’s convulsing form before Redheart pulled it away.

“No!” she said vehemently, shaking her head. “Slowly. She’ll choke and probably go into shock if you do it that way.” I felt my face redden and scooted away slightly as Redheart administered the water, putting a hoof under Octavia’s throat as the grey mare choked and sputtered.

A few minutes later, ‘Tavi had calmed down enough to sit up, supported by a combination of a nearby tree stump and my body curled against her. Lyra was stretched out on the ground, aimlessly plucking at her lyre and looking straight up at the canopy above, while Redheart muttered to herself and attempted to piece together the broken pieces of the harness.

“Ugh...” Octavia mumbled, snuggling closer to me and burying her head under my neck. I smiled, shifting on the ground until she could fit comfortably, and was rewarded by a small murmur of pleasure.

“How’re you feeling?” I asked, running a hoof through her mane. It was a stupid question. I didn’t care. I just wanted to hear her voice, raspy and weak as it was.

“I... I’ve been better,” she replied, smiling weakly. “My shoulder feels like it’s slowly being drained of a gallon of molten lead, but besides that, the cramps, nausea, sore throat, and dizziness...” She gave a short laugh that almost immediately turned into a coughing fit. “I’m perfectly fine. Though I think accidentally force-feeding me a canteen of rum didn’t exactly help. I was asking you for water the entire time, you know.”

“Yeah, in Russani,” I replied, my face reddening. “Is that what vaani means?”

Octavia nodded, and I smiled sheepishly. “Sorry. Just a misunderstanding, I promise. Won’t happen again.”

“You got rid of it, I hope,” she said, the gleam in her eyes making it clear she knew I hadn’t.

“What, and waste perfectly good booze?”

“Vinyl.”

I sighed. “Fiiine.” Turning to my saddlebags, I went to retrieve the rum canteen before realizing it was already out, held in Redheart’s mouth, with the last of the liquid inside slowly trickling to the ground.

“Red, what the hell?!” I yelled, leaping over my saddlebags in a futile attempt to save the last precious drops of alcohol before they were lost to the hungry dirt below.

“You’ll be fine,” she said. “Besides, this isn’t the first time you’ve picked the wrong canteen. Next time, it could be worse. I just don’t want to risk it.”

I rolled my eyes. “Redheart, if the fate of the universe hinges on whether I pick water or booze, I’m pretty sure we’re screwed already.”

That’s reassuring.

You can’t talk, I shot back. How many times have you told me how screwed everything was?

Fine. Er... sorry, I suppose. I still agree with Redheart, though. This is going to be hard enough as it is without you being drunk off your flank.

Whatever.

I grabbed the empty canteen from Redheart, telekinetically throwing it in the general direction of my saddlebags before flopping back down next to ‘Tavi. She smiled, kissing me gently on the cheek and curling around me like a grey blanket, her body surprisingly warm now that she had woken up and laid in the sun. I was about to kiss her back when a familiar murmur ran through my head.

Er, not to ruin the moment, but...

I sighed. Right. Ain’t no rest for the awesome.

Don’t flatter yourself.

“All right,” I said, prodding Octavia’s stomach lightly with a hoof and forcing myself upright. She squeaked, and I couldn’t help but laugh. “‘Tavi, can you walk?”

“Can I...” she put a hoof to her head, then set her jaw, a faint glimmer of steel in her eyes. That was the Octavia I knew. Confident, elegant, determined to do whatever she set her mind to and look drop-dead gorgeous doing it.

She hissed out a breath as she put her weight on her injured leg, then looked up at me, tears of pain pricking the corners of her eyes. “I can try.”

“Oh, shit, ‘Tavi, you don’t have to if you’re—”

“No.” She cut me off, shaking her head and staggering to her hooves with another huff of breath. “We have to keep moving, don’t we? We’re probably far enough behind as it is. How long was I out?” Her last sentence was punctuated by a gasp as her knees buckled, and I had to shove my full weight against her to keep her from falling over.

“Only about a day,” I said, propping her up against me the best I could. “Which is pretty impressive, considering you’ve got a hole the size of a bit coin in the middle of your shoulder.” She smiled again at that. “But, I mean, yeah, we should probably keep moving, if you think you can—”

“I really hope you’re not suggesting that she walks with us like that,” said Redheart, a hard edge to her voice. I sighed.

“Well, if she thinks she can do it—”

“Absolutely not. She’s still exhausted and infected. If I had my way, we wouldn’t have moved at all, but as it is...” She glanced toward the splintered remains of the stretcher, and I saw her shoulders sag. “We’ll just... make do.”

“Hey,” I said defensively, “Don’t blame me, blame the thoughtpony.”

I could practically feel the burst of annoyance in my head. Oh, of course, Aura thought. It’s obviously my fault that there’s an insane rogue god trying to take over the universe, and that—

“Hey guys!”

I nearly leapt out of my skin as Lyra seemed to materialize next to me, instrument hovering beside her and a triumphant gleam in her eye. “I got it!” she said, almost hopping from hoof to hoof in excitement.

How the hell did she do that?

“Got what?” I asked, heart still pounding in my chest. Octavia looked on curiously from leaning against my shoulder.

“The song, dork!” Lyra replied, grinning. “Well, some of it. But it’s a melody! Wanna hear?”

I shrugged. I had been catching bits and pieces of the song for most of the day, but Lyra was obviously proud of it, and a little music was never a bad thing. “Sure, why no—”

The words were torn from my throat as a sudden, massive gust of wind threw me off my hooves, accompanied by a momentary darkening of the canopy above. It was like the sun had been snuffed out for a split second and then reappeared...

Or something very, very big had passed in front of it.

I slowly got up, looking up and around the clearing for anything that could’ve caused the disturbance, but only saw the rest of the party. They all looked more or less the same as I felt: dazed, confused, and in Octavia’s case, vaguely nauseous.

“Ugh...” Lyra muttered, putting a hoof to her head and retrieving her lyre, which had nearly been blown into a patch of brush nearby. “What was that? Maybe I shouldn’t play...”

I shook my head. “I’m pretty sure that wasn’t you.” Aura. Explain, please. I wasn’t in the mood for snark or small talk. If there was something big enough to get rid of the Celestia-damned sun flying around above us, I needed to know about it right the hell now.

I... Aura sounded confused, but not entirely unsure. There’s only one thing it really could be... but that’s impossible. Unless...

Less breakoffs. More explaining. Quickly. I was pacing now, nervously squinting up at the tiny shards of sky that made it through the forest’s thick canopy. I saw Lyra and Redheart begin to do the same, while Octavia just sat and looked like she was trying not to vomit.

Yes, your highness, Aura replied, the thought oozing sarcasm despite the fact she couldn’t actually express it. It was probably a varra. Huge, incredibly powerful birds sworn to protect the gods. They take on the primary element of the deity they’re bonded to. Highly magical, nearly immortal, and very, very territorial. I assumed the Heralds would have killed it when they took the totem, but maybe they thought they couldn’t face it head-on. There’s not much that can sneak past a varra, but if there was anyone who could find a way, it would be them.

Great, great, I thought, trying to ignore the bead of sweat that was slowly rolling down my brow. Giant pissed-off guardian bird strafing us when one party member’s down and two others don’t even have so much as a sharpened stick. And you didn’t tell us this why?

Like I said, I thought it wouldn’t have been a problem—

Of course. Fine. You’re lucky I’m too busy freaking out right now to argue. I backed up, still looking around the clearing, until I was directly in front of Octavia, all four hooves planted firmly on the ground in a protective stance. Guardian bird or not, there was no way I was letting anything touch her. Hey, there isn’t any chance it won’t attack us, is there?

Well, they usually don’t—

I didn’t hear the rest. Suddenly, an ear-shattering sound split the air. It was a strange, otherworldly cross between screech and a low, rumbling roar, and I dropped to the ground, holding my head in my forehooves. A second later, the shockwave hit, sending me tumbling back across the forest floor in a tangle of limbs, dirt, and pain. I forced myself upright as quickly as I could, ignoring my still-ringing ears and the tears in my eyes. I could deal with myself later. If that thing got to ‘Tavi, she wouldn’t have a later.

Holy shit, I thought, stumbling across the now oddly bright-looking forest floor. Everything was still slightly blurry, but when I looked up, I started as I realized I could see clear blue sky. The trees all around us had been blown backwards by the force of the blast, arching away and leaving a clear disk of unobstructed sunlight in the depths of the Wildwood. That was...

Ah.

I froze, every single cell in my body simultaneously going rigid and icy cold with sheer terror. I wanted to back away, to run, to do anything at all, but my limbs refused to listen.

The thing in front of me didn’t look like a bird as much as it did a piece of the Wildwood shaped like one. Everything, from its knotted talons to its huge, moss-covered wings, looked like it had been grown straight from the dirt below me. Its feathers were made of rough brown bark, and everything they didn’t cover was overtaken by moss, vines, creepers, and even a few scattered flowers. Though its talons and beak were equally mossy, barky, and otherwise natural-looking, they still glittered in the sunlight that poured through the makeshift clearing, and I was certain that if I touched them they would shred me just as easily as if they were made of steel.

It was massive, too, at least ten times my height if not more, with wings that looked like they could casually swat a delivery carriage out of the air just by flapping. That deadly, mossy beak could probably swallow a pony whole. Several ponies, for that matter. There seemed no way something so Celestia-damned huge could possibly fly, but then again, dragons could, and this thing somehow scared me more than any dragon ever had. Maybe the fact that I had never been stared down by a pissed-off dragon had something to do with it.

Aura, I thought, doing my best to keep myself from shaking. This.. you didn’t say this.

What is that supposed to mean?! Aura replied. She sounded nearly as scared as I was, which didn’t exactly help my quickly-increasing level of panic.

You said they were huge magical birds. You didn’t say, ‘it’s like a timberwolf and an eagle the size of a building had the scariest fucking child in the history of the universe, and then that child grew up, is also the size of a building, and is extremely angry at you and everything you love.’ That would have been much more accurate. Now tell me how to make this one go away before it kills us all.

I swallowed, hoping the varra wouldn’t notice, and immediately and firmly regretted it as a piercing emerald-green eye swiveled in my direction from inside a hooked, craggy brow of bark and moss.

All right. Don’t move. Breathe slowly. Try not to blink a lot. Any sudden twitches and you’re dead. Let me think.

I began to nod, then stopped immediately, trying to ignore the throbbing in my injured foreleg. In my peripheral vision, I could see the other members of the party, frozen in fear just like I was. Redheart stood completely still, eyes wide, a rigid, pink-and-white statue. Lyra was gaping, her mouth hanging open in shock as she shook in place, and Octavia was lying limp on the ground. She might have been as scared, unconscious, or worse, and I felt a stab of panic spike through my chest, then turned my head a fraction of an inch to get a better look.

Vinyl, no!

FuckFuckFuck—

I screamed as a bark-covered talon the size of a fruit cart slammed down into the forest floor between me and Octavia, sending up a miniature mushroom cloud of of damp soil and dead leaves. The varra made its terrifying call again, and I felt the gust of wind as its head reared up, diving downwards to tear my flimsy pony body limb from limb with its gigantic beak. I closed my eyes, waiting for the end...

“Stop! Please!”

Lyra’s voice was like a whipcrack in the tense stillness of the forest air, breaking me out of my terrified stupor and sending the varra’s gaze shooting in her direction. I tried to hold out a hoof, tried to shout at her shut up and stand still, but it was too late.

Oh, Celestia, no...

The varra’s talon lifted from the ground in front of me and whipped towards Lyra, moving almost impossibly fast for something so large. She shrieked, throwing herself sideways and dodging the gleaming claws by a hair’s width. I saw her horn spark, then flicker, then glow, and a second later, her lyre rose from the ground, hovering in front of her in a cocoon of amber light like a shield.

What the hell was she playing at?

Aura? I thought, desperate for an explanation. Do you—

No idea. Your friend is either about to get herself killed or save you all. Don’t move. Just watch.

Oh, sure, just stand still while your friend sticks her neck out in front of a bark-covered killing machine the size of a two-story house. Easier said than done, thoughtpony. I gritted my teeth and waited.

The varra paused, looking down at Lyra like it was debating whether to eat her then or save her for later. Lyra looked back, gaze terrified but still unwavering, and plucked a single, solitary note on the gently floating lyre.
Silence. The varra’s eyebrows, if it even had any, seemed to raise, and it made a sharp, harsh sound, clacking its beak together and ruffling its wings. You’ve interested me, it seemed to say. Now make my time worth it before I kill you and all your little friends.

The last part might have just been a product of my panic-filled mind, but at that point, I doubted anyone would blame me.

“Please don’t hurt us,” whispered Lyra, her voice carrying across the clearing despite its quietness. “We’re trying to save the universe. We want to help. I bet you want to help too.”

More silence. The tension in the air was thick enough I was surprised I hadn’t choked on it.

The varra looked at Lyra impassively, raking her up and down with its bright green eyes for a few infinitely long seconds, then dipped its head the tiniest fraction. I saw Lyra’s face split in a broad grin and felt mine do the same a second later. My foreleg was really starting to ache now, but I just bit the inside of my cheek and continued to stand still. I wasn’t about to be the one that got us all killed.

“I don’t know what you are,” Lyra whispered, “but it would really be amazing if you could help us, or even just let us go. Please? I’ll... I’ll even play you a song, if you want.”

Is she really...? Aura sounded as incredulous as I felt.

I don’t even know.

Lyra’s request was accompanied by a small step forward, moving her barely a foot closer to the mass of bark-covered feathers. It was a tiny gesture. Insignificant. Most ponies would’ve ignored it.

The varra didn’t.

With another wild screech, it spread its wings to their full, terrifying length and smashed its talon in front of Lyra, nearly tearing off what would’ve been most of her muzzle as it slammed into the ground. She froze in place, lyre held tight against her chest with her magic, and squeaked, “Sorry! Sorry! I get it now. Don’t move towards you. Bad. I’ll.. I’ll just back away now, okay? Okay.” She took several large steps back, then stopped again as the varra clicked its beak threateningly.

“What? Don’t move back? What do you...” Lyra’s question faded as the thing raised a single talon, moving it slowly, almost lazily, until it was pointing at her lyre. “Oh, the song?” she said, nodding quickly. “All right. Uh, it’s not done yet, but...”

Lyra, if you pull this off, I am going to owe you like... something. I don’t know. A lot of somethings, I thought, desperately trying to drive my mind away from the image of her limp body being tossed in the air like a ragdoll by a moss-covered talon.

Lyra took a deep breath, her horn shining bright with yellow-orange light. "Here."

It was a simple melody, soft and light, echoing through the otherwise-silent clearing. The notes seemed to hang in the air for a few seconds after they were played, and I felt an odd lightness in my chest as Lyra continued. The varra watched impassively, not showing any sign of approval, but not making any move to stop her.

Lyra had her eyes closed, her face set in an expression that seemed just a little too serene for somepony currently being given the death stare by a massive forest-bird. She was swaying gently back and forth as the melody rose and fell, her lips curled in a faint smile. She looked happy. Calm. Confident. The polar opposite of a pony standing next to a few tons of sentient, pissed-off flying tree. Either she knew something I didn’t, or I would have to find out where Redheart was hiding the crazy pills.

A few seconds later, the song wound to a close. As the last notes faded, Lyra exhaled gently, opening her eyes and grinning from ear to ear. The tense stillness from before still hung in the air, but it seemed lighter, somehow. Less suffocating.

The varra still hadn’t moved. I saw its eyes flick from Redheart, still frozen, to ‘Tavi, lying on the ground, to me, sweating bullets in the middle of the clearing, and finally to Lyra, who beamed right back. Its gaze stayed locked with hers for nearly a minute, never faltering or fading. I took the opportunity to get a good look into its eyes, and realized, with a slight shock, that they weren’t cold, emotionless orbs like I had first though. There was something in them, that same spark you saw in ponies young and old. Intelligence and emotions. Pride. Frustration. Anger. Humiliation. Confusion...

The varra blinked.

It was a split-second gesture, almost unnoticeable, but it had definitely happened. It arched its head downwards towards Lyra, almost close enough to put them beak-to-muzzle, and for the tiniest fraction of a second I thought I saw something else in its eyes.

Respect. Given and earned.

That’s it. I’m giving her, like, all the somethings. Ever.

What a generous and benevolent leader you are. I’m sure Lyra will be overjoyed.

Okay, seriously. Is this some kind of defensive thing? I thought, gritting my teeth as I continued to stand completely still. Like, if you get angry or frustrated or scared, do you just naturally shift into ‘sarcastic bitch’ to ward off predators? Because I don’t think it works, unless you count pissing me off constantly a victo—

There was another eardrum-bursting screech-roar, and with a gust of wind that could have flattened houses, the varra flapped its wings and shot up into the sky. The blast of air threw me onto my back, and for a while, I just lay still, watching the figure of the bird grow smaller and smaller until it was nothing but a brownish speck in a sea of blue.

“Whew. That was close, huh?”

Lyra’s voice rang out from somewhere above me, as bright and chipper as always. I turned my head and saw her standing above me, beaming, and before I had even realized it, I was laughing. Loud uncontrollable giggles, flowing out in an unstoppable wave of nerves and relief. Then Lyra was laughing too, and we collapsed next each other, high off the sheer joy of just being alive.

When our giggle fits had finally subsided, Lyra and I got to our hooves and trotted over toward Octavia, who was already being tended to by a shaken-looking Redheart. I flopped down near them, peering at the charcoal-grey mare. “Is she okay?”

“Fine. Well, relatively,” Redheart replied, her voice slightly shaky. After what had just happened, I couldn’t blame her. “Unconscious, but no obvious signs of trauma. Breathing, heart rate, and everything else seem normal. I’m almost certain she just fainted. She should be up within twenty minutes.”

I grinned. “That’s what you think.” Pushing Redheart gently to the side, I practically leapt on top of Octavia, pushing my lips against hers in a hard, passionate kiss. She squirmed slightly, but otherwise didn’t respond, and I redoubled my efforts, stroking her mane with my forehooves and gently slipping my tongue into her mouth—

“Gyah!”

Octavia woke with a yell, bucking me off her with a surprising amount of strength for someone still recovering from a giant hole in their shoulder. I landed heavily on my injured leg, yelping in pain, then grinned as I saw her crawling towards me, scowling.

“Vinyl! What in Celestia’s name were you—” She broke off as she saw me holding my foreleg, her face changing almost instantly from indignant to concerned. “What... was I out again? What happened? Are you all right? I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

I shook my head, still smiling. “Welcome back, babe. And no, I’m fine. You’ve got a hell of a kick, though. Guess those legs are as good at buckin’ as they are at f—”

“Vinyl!”

I giggled, giving her a peck on the nose as a fiery blush rose under her cheeks, and helped her up to her hooves, letting her lean on my shoulder like she had before. “Sorry, sorry. But yeah, you were out for like 5 minutes. Didn’t miss much, only us nearly getting killed by a giant guardian tree-bird and Lyra scaring it away with her mad lyre skills.”

Octavia frowned, glancing around at Redheart, who was glaring at me disapprovingly, and Lyra, who looked like she was trying not to burst out laughing. “Is she joking?”

“Nope,” Lyra replied, shaking her head. “Look, the whole clearing’s messed up from when it landed, see?” She began to pace around, pointing out the various ruts and holes torn up in the earth. As she did, I saw Redheart turn to Octavia, shrug her saddlebags, and begin to unwrap my marefriend’s bandage with her mouth, face set in her standard businesslike expression. I smiled. Red might’ve been quiet, reserved, and antisocial by almost anypony’s standards, but when the going got tough, you couldn’t ask for a more dependable, reliable friend.

“This is where it almost killed Vi,” Lyra said, pointing at a particularly large tear in the ground, “and this... whoa.” She knelt down, squinting in disbelief, then her eyes widened in surprise. “Oh, no way! Check this out!” Her horn glowed, and a long, slender object rose from the ground in front of her. With a start, I realized it was a huge, bark-covered feather, nearly twice as long as my foreleg. “Souvenir!” She ran a hoof across it, then jerked it away with a yell. “Gah, it’s sharp!”

“What?” I snorted. “No way. It’s made of wood. It can’t be that bad. Let me see.” She obliged, holding it out to me point-first. I gently poked the tip, and was rewarded with a stab of pain. “Ow! Jeez, that’s weird.”

Lyra nodded. “No kidding. Pretty sweet, though. You could almost use as some kinda sword or something...” Her face split in a confident grin, and she picked the massive feather back up with her magic, whipping through the air a few times with a whistling sound. “Heh. Watch out, thralls.”

“If you keep swinging it around like that, it’ll be ‘watch out us’, too,” Redheart said, rolling her eyes as she sinched Octavia’s bandages tight again. Lyra let the feather drop to her side, lower lip stuck out in an exaggerated pout.

“Oh fine, Ms. No-Fun.”

That’s strange, Aura thought. I don’t think varra shed naturally. Their feathers are too strong too just fall out like that. It might have left it intentionally, though if it did, I have no idea why.

I said as much to Lyra, and her face lit up.

“You mean it did that on purpose? Like some kind of gift?”

“That’s what Aura said. I mean, you seemed like the only one of us that it didn’t want to rip into little pony-flavored chunks. What was that, anyway? I mean, if I was getting the evil eye from a bird the size of a house, my first instinct wouldn’t exactly be to put on a performance for it.”

Lyra shrugged. “It was just a split-second thing, I guess. I mean, I already had music on the brain from when I told you guys about it, and it just kinda went from there. I mean, yeah, I was pretty much expecting to just get squished at some point, but it just looked at me, and... ugh, that was weird.” She shuddered slightly, like she was remembering something extremely uncomfortable. I frowned.

“What? Unless I’m remembering it wrong, you looked pretty pleased with yourself.” From the corner of my eye, I saw Redheart helping the now freshly-bandaged Octavia back to her hooves. I trotted over, letting her practically flop on top of my shoulder, and she made a soft murmur of gratitude that made me smile involuntarily as Lyra continued.

“Well, yeah, I was smiling because I thought it would be less likely to kill me, but if you had felt it...” Lyra shuddered again before continuing. “It felt like it wasn't looking at me, it was looking in my head. The stuff I want, the things I hate, the ponies I love, my fears and dreams and hopes and everything else... it saw all of that. It wasn’t a good feeling.”

Well, that’s consistent with what I know, at least, Aura chimed in. All varra are blessed with Truesight, the innate ability to see the soul of any living thing. You can’t lie to one, and gods help you if you try. It must’ve seen something it liked in your friend and let you off because of it.

I repeated Aura’s thoughts out loud to Lyra, and she nodded excitedly. “You think? Well, that’s kinda awesome. Not every day you get the approval of a giant bird... tree... thing—”

“Aura says they’re called varra,” I said. “Flows off your tongue better than ‘giant killer death bird, huh?”

“varra...” Lyra murmured, her horn flaring up with amber light. My saddlebag flipped open, and a second later, the Guide hovered out, pages already flicking to the appropriate entry. “Here we go. I think I’m gonna try to find out more about them. I mean, no point in getting surprised twice, right?”

I hope she can read while walking. Not that I blame you for the varra, but now we’re even farther behind the Heralds. We need to get moving as soon as possible.

I sighed. Right. “Lyra, you don’t mind reading and walking, right? We still have to head to the temple.”

She shook her head cheerfully. “Nope, fine with me. Let’s head out and kick some nasty zombie-worshipping flank.”

“Ready when you are,” said Redheart, throwing her saddlebags back onto her body with a quick flick of her head. “I still don’t want Octavia walking, though. The venom weakened her muscles, and if she tears something—”

“Don’t worry,” I said, flashing her my most leaderly grin. “I got this.” I planted my hooves on the ground, gritted my teeth, and lifted ‘Tavi over my back with a burst of magic, grunting slightly as her weight settled on my shoulders and sent a burst of pain through my foreleg. “Oof. See? You don’t mind, right ‘Tavi?”

“Not at all,” she said, smiling, “but are you sure you should be putting weight on your foreleg like that? I wouldn’t want you to get injured for my sake.”

“What, you think I’m not up to it? Come on. What kind of marefriend would I be if I wouldn’t carry your hot, beautiful body through a forest full of insane cultists and pony-eating monsters without a second thought?”

“A smart one?” she said, rolling her eyes and giving me a good-natured swat to the back of the head.

“I think you’re just jealous of my amazing stamina,” I replied, grinning even as my foreleg burned in protest. I could practically feel the entire party’s eyes spinning in their sockets. “Well, whatever. Let’s just get moving. I need to stretch my legs after all that standing.”

“Where are we going?” Octavia asked. “I heard something about a temple. What exactly happened while I was out?”

“Yeah, we’re pretty much jumping out of the frying pan and into the lava-filled hellhole,” I said, setting off at a brisk trot out of the clearing with Redheart and Lyra following behind me. “You know, the usual. Here, I’ll tell you more on the way.”

“... and they have different suffixes at the end depending on what element they’re attuned to. The one we saw was a varra-el. The root word ‘el’ means root, or tree, so that makes sense. The fire ones are varra-tau, and the water ones are...”

“Lyra,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I realize this is really interesting and important and whatever, but would you mind just... shutting up for a few minutes?” I had finished telling Octavia what she had missed ages ago, and now the only sound in the calmness of the Wilwood was Lyra’s constant, unstoppable motormouth, aided by the seemingly endless stream of information she was finding in the Guide hovering in front of her nose.

“Oh. Yeah. Sorry. Guess I was getting kinda annoying, huh?”

I shrugged. “No big deal. But yeah, a little peace and quiet would be nice.” I swear, by the end of this she’ll probably have read the entire Guide cover-to-cover.

And that’s a bad thing?

That wasn’t what I meant and you know it, I replied. Someone needs to do the research, and if you had known me in school, you would realize we’re all much better off with it being her.

We had been walking in comfortable silence for a few minutes, the late-afternoon sun slowly fading in the sky, when I heard it. A rhythm, faint yet insistent, leading off into a thicket of dark, foreboding brush. It was different from anything I had heard in Sonus: heavy and measured, with a steady, trudging beat that prickled the hair on the back of my neck.

I stopped short, ignoring Lyra’s yelp as she nearly smacked into my rump, and cocked an ear towards the source of the sound. There was another sonomancer near us. Maybe several.

That rhythm... I would know it anywhere. Vinyl, the Heralds are here, Aura thought, sounding grim. If there’s even a chance they have the totem, we need to at least see what’s going on, but don’t do anything stupid. They probably have it under heavy escort, and the last thing we need is for you to get captured or worse.

I nodded, whispering, “Guys. Heralds. Probably lots. This way. C’mon.”

Lyra, Redheart, and I ducked into the brush, crawling commando-style through the sea of leaves, roots, and branches. Octavia was now lying asleep on Redheart’s back after I had realized that carrying an earth pony with only three fully-working legs wasn’t one of my better ideas. She murmured slightly as Redheart shifted her weight, but didn’t wake. I wasn’t going to change that. Better for her to sleep the day off safely than try to go in injured and hurt herself more.

You know, that might just be the smartest thing you’ve thought this entire trip. A bit hypocritical, maybe, but still.

Hypocritical? You were the one who told me to check this out, I replied.

Fair enough, though this isn’t the only time you’ve jumped into something with blatant disregard for your own safety.

What makes you think I’m doing that now?

Do you really need to ask that?

Whatever.

The music was louder now, a somber, pounding rhythm that seemed to echo through my hooves, dragging them down and making each step heavier. I could feel it affecting the other members of the party too, their melodies slowing and skipping in the face of the steady, unrelenting dirge.

Ugh. They really know how to ruin your good mood, huh? I thought, ducking to avoid a low-hanging branch. At this point, I was just making conversation to fill the silence, but Aura, for once, didn’t seem to mind.

Your cosmic signature reflects the contents of your soul. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, Heralds don’t exactly have much in the way of kindness or compassion.

Right.

I crawled a few feet further, then stopped short as my head was suddenly thrust into the open air. I could see a faint greenish glow in the trees ahead of me, with the melody leading straight toward it. A fire. The Heralds had a camp.

I wriggled my way out of the bushes, getting to my hooves as silently as I could and motioning for Redheart and Lyra to follow. They did, equally quietly, and we began to inch our way towards the flickering light.

I don’t like this, Aura though. It still only sounds like a few of them, maybe only two or three. There’s no way the totem escort would have anywhere near that few. We could be walking into a trap.

Well, we’re this far now, I replied, ducking behind a nearby tree and poking my head out a fraction of an inch to get a closer look. Let’s at least check it out... oh, sweet Celestia.

We hadn’t found the totem escort. We had found something worse.

The sickly greenish light of the fire illuminated a row of tiny, starved-looking forms: a group of at least twenty fillies and colts, chained together by manacles on their fore and hind legs. The oldest one of them couldn’t have been more than ten, the youngest, maybe five, and they were all unicorns. If that had some kind of significance, I didn’t know what it was.

This is a drafting camp. Heralds don’t use children for labor. To them, unicorns are the only race worth saving. You’re looking at new recruits before they’ve been inducted.

Oh, of course. So they’re not just genocidal, child-enslaving, world-destroying assholes, they’re racists too? Figures.

Looming over the terrified foals were two figures, their faces obscured by hoods and the rest of their bodies covered by long, flowing white robes. My eyes widened as I realized I recognized the clothing. It was all the same, even down to the hoofwraps, though the rings securing them were black instead of gold.

The mystery pegasus from my vision had been a Herald. What that meant, I didn’t know, but as of now it was the least of my problems. I closed my eyes, shoving all the potentially world-shattering revelations away into some dark corner of my brain. I could deal with them later.

I heard Redheart’s breath catch as she saw the camp, then a thump as Octavia slid off her back and onto the ground. Lyra was trembling, her face turned away and her eyes shut tight. I wanted to do the same thing, but forced myself to look. I would be strong. I had to.

No sign of the totem. The escort’s probably long gone, Aura thought, sounding subdued. This... this isn’t ideal.

You don’t fucking say, I replied, struggling to stop myself from shaking in despair and fury. I felt the warm glow of my sonomancy begin to spread out to my hoovetips, casting a faint bluish tint on the leaves below me.

Look, I realize you want to help—

No. Don’t you dare tell me to walk away. I realized I was hyperventilating, beads of sweat rolling down my forehead, and stamped a hoof on the ground, sending up a small burst of lightning that incinerated a nearby patch of brush. No. This wasn’t happening. How long had it been? Five years? Ten? Too long. I couldn’t take this. Not now. Not again.

We don’t have a choice! You’re injured, the pony you love is hurt even worse, and you’re about to charge into something that could easily be a trap. That would be something the Heralds would do, you know. Play off your empathy. Your sense of compassion. The things that make you better than them. They’ll take them and twist them around until they can use them to hurt you and everyone else.

You seem to know a lot about them, I replied, hooves shaking as tiny, flickering arcs of electricity played around them. I could feel the glow rising. I didn’t stop it. I didn’t care. Why should I trust you, anyway?

Oh for the love of the gods... you’re bringing this up now? Look, back off from here, find a safe spot to camp, and I swear I’ll tell you everything. But please, don’t get yourself killed trying to play the hero. Vinyl, I want to protect you. I want to protect all of Sonus. And I swear, with the gods themselves as my witnesses, that I’m doing this only for your own good.

Is that what you think? I thought, a tiny, bitter smile forcing its way onto my face as I stalked out from behind the tree. I motioned for Lyra and Redheart to stay put, and to their credit, they did, despite plenty of hoof-wringing and head-shaking. "Don’t worry," I whispered. "Just getting a closer look." It was a lie, but it was also the lesser of two evils.

You think I’m doing this for the glory? To be the mare who swoops in and saves the day? You know, maybe I was when I started all this, but your ideals have this weird way of changing when the ponies you’re up against start committing mass murder and enslaving fucking foals.

What... oh, seven hells. You’ve got some baggage, don’t you? Of all the possible things... There was a low murmur in my head as she sighed. Look, I don’t know what happened and I won’t ask, but don’t let your past cloud your judgement now. I’ve learned that the hard way.

You don’t know what it’s like,I replied. To have nopony to help you, to cry on when you’re scared, to tell you you’re something more than a worthless whore’s daughter who’ll probably just end up strung out on the corner with bloodshot eyes, begging for bits... heh. I grinned wolfishly. Look at me now, you assholes. Look at me from whatever back-alley hellhole you’re hiding in and watch as I do something you were never strong enough to.

Vinyl—

I ignored her, flicking my goggles down over my eyes with a quick burst of magic. The world turned darker. Muted. I wasn’t Vinyl anymore. I was somepony else, somepony who could make a difference. Who could stop the hellish cycle before it started.

No, I thought, walking out into the eerie light of the clearing with my hooves wrapped in blue fire. My foreleg was throbbing in agony, but I ignored it. My pain was nothing to theirs. I’m doing this for them. No filly or colt deserves anything like this. Hurting adult ponies is one thing. At least they can try to fight back, or even just understand what’s going on. But hurting kids... I let out a shaky breath through my nose, trying to block out the dark, scrabbling claws of the memories that threatened to tear their way back into my head. That’s... that’s just... no. You don’t... you don’t fucking do that.

“Hey, bastards!” I screamed, my voice layered with rippling undertones of bass and lightning. There was a storm around me now, a wild, unchained whirlwind that crackled and spit at the world around it with forks of brilliant blue power. “How about you try a pony who can actually fight for herself?”

I saw the white-robed figures turn, shouting something in a harsh, guttural language, then the world slowed down as I channeled the biggest, most destructive blast of sonomancy I had ever released in my life. There was no melody to it, no rhyme or reason or rhythm or beauty, just raw, angry power.

I turned to them and reared up in the air and roared.

The blast left me in a single, gut-wrenching rush, like it had torn out a few of my vital organs on its way through my forehooves. The storm around me was whipped into a frenzy, shooting forward and eviscerating everything in its path. It kept going, farther and faster and brighter, until it had pulled every last scrap of warmth from my body and tears streaked down my cheeks and my eyes burned with the afterimage even through the lenses of my goggles.

I staggered as the last of the power faded away, sparking out in little fits and starts every time my hooves hit the ground, then looked up, blinked away the worst of the burning in my eyes, and gasped.

The ground in front of me was completely blackened, a long, unbroken path of charred carbon that went on longer than I could see. It was like a massive black line had been drawn across the entire forest, erasing everything in its path and dividing the trees into two sections with nothing but ashes in between. I had burned a path through the Wildwood, torching everything for miles in my anger and frustration.

I swallowed, then immediately began to cough as my mouth came up completely moistureless. Wow, Vinyl, I thought, smiling wryly through a pair of cracked, dry lips. Some hero you—

I froze, the smile dying on my lips as my eyes flicked to the right.

How... that wasn’t possible. No.

The white-robed figures were getting to their hooves, rubbing their heads and muttering to each other as the row of foals cowered behind them. One of them saw me, barking something angry and triumphant, and as the pieces fell into place, I started to laugh. Short, raspy bursts of humourless wheezing, ripping themselves from my throat like a cough that wouldn’t stop. It was almost funny, in a way. As much as impending death could be.

For a few brief seconds, I had held the power of a god in my hooves. I had been the storm, the embodiment of fire and lightning, the unstoppable tempest that destroyed anything and everything it pleased...

And then I, Vinyl Scratch, the overconfident, insecure, undeserving, lying fuckup of a mare, had missed. Missed so completely and spectacularly that it was funny. That I could laugh about it, even as my own death drew closer and closer with every hoofstep the white-robed figure took towards me.

“You’ve... you’ve gotta be fucking kidding,” I wheezed, still chuckling as the world began to fade and blur. “Of all the... I mean, seriously?”

The ground rose up to meet me as my legs gave out, my muzzle hitting the charred dirt with a thump that sent the coppery tang of blood bursting through my mouth. There were tears in my eyes now, tears of sadness and loss and defeat, and my laughs quickly gave way to dry, choking sobs as the white figures stood over me.

Lyra, Redheart, Aura, Clef, Cloudchaser, Colgate, ‘Tavi... oh, Celestia, ‘Tavi... I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.

There was a crack and a sharp pain in the back of my head, and then everything melted away.