• Published 9th Apr 2013
  • 1,262 Views, 110 Comments

Fine Steps - TwilightSnarkle

A collection of stories about the creatures who live in, work in, or visit the little town of Pasofino.

  • ...

In which three venture forth

For a few days beyond the brambles, the route had been surprisingly pleasant. Despite the ever-present gloom of a mountain’s shadow in winter, and the too-rare glimpses of sunlight over its walls, the valley seemed to welcome its new guests: the winds were light, and the weather was calm. Few stones littered the sandy soil of the path, and what trees grew here did not obstruct the ponies’ journey.

Berries were plentiful, as were tender grasses, and the occasional apple tree still had a few hardy fruits clinging to its branches. The streams ran clear and cold, and the travelers often saw the glint of trout beneath the surface.

The occasional briar-bush dotted the stony mountainside, and further up the relatively barren slopes, out of speaking distance, passed the occasional goat.

Evening gradually fell as Aurum paused to watch these creatures with interest.

“Most don’t speak our language,” said Inky, noting his gaze.

“That’s okay. I don’t speak goat, or whatever they call it.”

“Capran,” provided Elly. She set down her pack and busied herself with checking its straps and pockets. There was a long silence as the two earthbound ponies turned to face her, silently blinking in unison.

Elly looked up from her ministrations and grinned. “One of my sergeants lives near their village over on Crimson Ridge. They had settlements here a century ago, before we ponies arrived. She says they’re good folk at heart, if you don’t mind the mood swings.”

“Sounds like my neighbors back home,” replied Aurum with a nod. “They farm rocks.”

Inky tilted her head in confusion. “How do you farm rocks?”

As Aurum opened his mouth to respond, a faint howl sounded from the western ridge.

Elly spun on her rear hooves, flaring her wings for balance, and scanned the hillside. In a low voice, she asked, “What was that?”

“No idea,” whispered Aurum, “but it sounds hungry.”

Another howl sounded from the ridge to the east.

“Please tell me that was an echo,” Inky said, her voice rising into a squeak. She slowly paced backwards towards Elly.

Aurum shook his head. “I think we should keep moving.”

“Good idea,” agreed Elly, lifting her bag. Through the obstruction, she asked, “Ar’m, can y’ carry two packs?”

“I think so, Elly, b—oof.” The stallion stumbled as he tried to adjust to the sudden increase in weight.

Elly grimaced. “Sorry about that.” She looped her sword’s belt over her neck and stretched her wings. “I’m going to get up there and take a look at whatever’s making that noise.”

She jogged away for a few paces and then was airborne, her wings carrying her in ever-widening loops until she caught an updraft and vanished against the blue-grey sky.

Aurum watched her go.

Inky, however, watched the mountains in the deepening gloom. “Let’s keep moving, Aurum,” she said, nudging his shoulder. “Like you suggested.”

“Right,” he agreed. “Let’s walk abreast. If anything is in the high reaches, it will have to make a lot of noise to get down here, and we’ll be able to adjust.”

Quickening their pace, the pair wound along the bottom of the valley as night descended. When the final rays of sunlight left the eastern slope, the howling only intensified. Suddenly, a white shape appeared before them, looming out of the darkness. Inky choked back a scream and Aurum reared on his hind legs, readying to strike, before either recognized Elly.

“Hold,” she hissed in the dark. “Hold still. We’re being herded.”

“Herded?” Inky spun about, looking vainly in the dark for their foes.

Aurum peered ahead. “Towards what?”

“That I don’t know,” Elly replied. “Inky, you used to help with the sun and moon. Can you tell me where the moon is now? I’d like to know how long we have to wait for some usable light.”

“Um, yes. Yes, just a moment,” Inky said. She drew in a breath and forced herself to relax.

A gentle glow radiated from her horn, and pulsed, slowly, as if breathing. Inky stood stock still, every muscle and joint locked as she held her horn perfectly upright. A moment’s silence passed, and then another.

In the dim glow, Elly and Aurum exchanged glances.
Aurum spoke in a bare whisper. “Have you ever seen her do this?”

“Never,” Elly murmured in reply. “I always had other duties when she was part of the circle.”

“Wait, has the howling stopped?”

It was true. While the spell glowed above Inky’s brow, there seemed to be no sound at all in the valley beyond their bubble of light.

Slowly, the light faded. Inky shook out her mane, stretched her legs, and smiled at the last spark vanished from her horn. The moment it did, the howling returned, twice as loud as before.

“About twenty minutes before it clears the rise, Elly. It’s waning, but it’ll be better than nothing.”

“Right,” Elly responded, scanning the darkness for any sign of motion. “Inky, when you had your horn lit, the howling stopped. Can you try a light spell?”

“I can, sure. I didn’t want to bring attention to us.”

“I think we’re beyond that, now. See what—”

A beacon burst into existence at the tip of Inky’s horn. At the eruption of light, the howling died immediately.

“Agh! Inky! Too bright!”

“Sorry, sorry, let me shape it.”

The radiance, previously shining in all directions, instead focused in a cone ahead of the unicorn.

“There we go.” She blinked, staring into the night. “Wow. I guess we’d all gotten used to the lighting. This place looks different, now.”

The other ponies stared along with her. Where a strip of grass had grown, now lay a dry, sandy trail. Where trees once stood with thinning leaves and rare fruit, skeletal branches grasped at nothing.

“Inky?” Aurum asked. “Can you shine your light further back the way we came?”

Inky turned in a small circle. In the distance they could still see some healthy trees, bushes, and grasses. In the last few dozen paces, the soil had gone barren, and the brambles had grown thicker.

“I don’t like this,” admitted Elly. “Let’s keep walking and get out of this valley. So long as you have that light, I think we may just keep whatever those things are at bay.”

Inky nodded, turning about to continue their journey, and suddenly stopped dead.

“Aurum,” she breathed. “Elly. I know what we’re being herded towards.”

Thirty paces ahead, the path ended in a smooth stone wall.

“A dead end,” muttered Elly, pacing forward and placing a hoof on the wall. “And not an illusion. I wager the true path veered off shortly after dark.”

A low growl sounded behind them.

“And now we’re cornered,” she sighed, bending for her sword. “Let’s make them earn it.”

Smoke rose in thin tendrils from six broken mounds, glowing white in the moonlight that filled the valley. The light crept slowly from east to west, its baleful eye seeking out every shadow and cleft where it might reveal dangerous secrets. It was in one of these shadows that Inky hid.

The unicorn cowered beneath a spur of grey stone, her gaze flitting between the smoking heaps before scanning the dimly-lit expanse for movement. Each of those piles of broken bramble and vine had once been a timberwolf on the prowl. At first, a spark or a flame had been enough to scare them away, but when they returned en masse, she had been forced to defend herself with a spell that was quickly becoming rote.

She had not stirred since. She knew more lurked beyond her sight. The spell was simple enough, and an efficient use of her power, but its light—and the panic that ensued when she first used it—had forced her to retreat to this precarious sanctuary. In the chaos of the melee, she had lost track of her friends. She neither knew their locations, nor their fates.

Something crunched against loose stones, and Inky’s heart skipped a beat. That much noise must mean a pony, she thought. The wolves have been nearly silent. Still, she waited, and she watched. She had to be sure.

A stallion with a golden coat stepped into view and gingerly approached one of the smoldering heaps. He nudged it with an outstretched hoof, then grunted, and turned to scan the landscape. As his gaze swept over Inky’s hiding spot, she could see something tied across his brow that wept a dark substance into his white braids.

“Aurum,” she whispered. “Aurum, it’s not safe there. Come under some shelter.” She summoned a very weak light and then doused it immediately.

The earth pony peered into the darkness, nodded, and approached.

“Inky, they’ve gone,” he said in a low voice. “I think they’re after Elly.”

“After Elly? Why?” Inky’s light returned—a gentle glow, compared to the earlier flare.

“I was able to defend myself, but she… she took the battle to them. While I handled, with some difficulty, two of them, she…” The light in his eye was only partially Inky’s doing. “Well, she was like a reaper, in a field of grain.”

Inky frowned, and began to squeeze out of her hiding place. “So they chased her? Where did she go?”

“I didn’t see.” Aurum shrugged. “I was a bit too involved in my own fight.”

Free from her confinement, Inky stretched out her neck. “I know what you mean.”

Aurum turned to leave. “We’ve still got about twenty minutes of moonlight, I think. Let’s get back to the path. She’ll be able to see us from the air.”

Inky lifted a hoof, but paused before setting it down. “I’d rather wait here. It’s good to know we’ve got something solid at our backs, but if you think it’s okay…”

Aurum gave a reassuring smile. A fresh rivulet of blood trickled from his makeshift bandage.

“Oh, Aurum, that looks bad. Hold still. Let me help you.”

“It’s nothing, Inky. Honestly. Scalp wounds are always heavy bleeders.” He raised a hoof to forestall her. “I’ve put a poultice on it and tied it best I can at the moment. Save your magic in case any more of these things appear.” He kicked a fallen timberwolf as he passed.

Inky glowered. “When we find Elly, you’re letting me help you.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied with a chuckle. “Does that mean we’re going to the path after all?”

“Yes. If only to get out of this valley by dawn.”

The two ponies turned together and began a careful descent towards the path. The clatter of stone announced another presence.

Inky spun about, horn flaring as she prepared another bolt of flame. In her haste, she knocked Aurum off balance, and he slid a few paces down the hill before regaining his hooves.

Atop the rocky spur where Inky had hidden stood an enormous timberwolf. Its eyes glowed a sickly green in the dim light. It growled menacingly, hackles of thorn and briar rising on its back.

Equestria itself seemed to slow. Inky focused on the spell’s formula, but even as she released the arcane blast she knew she was fatally delayed. The creature leapt from the outcrop with a roar of verdant rage, claws extended and jaw open to show rows of cruel barbs.

A shadow flickered across her vision, then, and as it did a white blur dropped from the sky. It bore a silvery blade that passed through the wolf’s head, followed by four hooves which drove the monster’s body to the ground with a sickening crunch.

A gout of flame immolated the stone upon which, a moment ago, the wolf once stood, bathing the pegasus and its prey in its flickering orange light. Silhouetted against the fiery tempest, Elly pulled her blade free and, with a practiced sweep, severed the head at the neck, then kicked it away into the darkness.

As the blade neared the end of its arc, she effortlessly returned it to its scabbard, then paused to appreciate the column of flame behind her.

The fires faded, and time lurched back into its rightful place.

“Nice effects, Inky,” Elly quipped. “Aim’s a bit off, though.”

“Elly!” Inky gasped. “You’re okay!”

Elly nodded in reply. “Not a scratch. Aurum, you’ve looked better.”

The stallion made his way back up the hillside. “I might feel better, too, if we could find our way out of this idyllic deathtrap.”

Elly grunted, a wry grin curling the corners of her mouth. “Fair enough. We’ll camp at dawn. That should give us a few hours to get out of the valley proper and find the route to the pass.”

“Fine by me,” agreed Inky. “Let’s move while the moon is still shining. And Aurum, don’t think I’ve forgotten about that cut.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, Inky.”

Weary and worn, the party picked its way down the hillside and up towards the mountain pass. All the while, the moon watched on.

The road from the valley wound between spires of stone and along narrow ledges. Sandy soil gave way to bare stone, and where there was a low point or a crack in a nearby face, gravel pooled along the ground.

“Where, exactly, are we going, Elly?” As she spoke, Inky’s footing slipped in the loose debris and she caught herself with a quick spell. Again.

Elly gazed at the steep mountainside and the thin, winding path that was barely visible. “Up,” she stated.

Aurum trudged along behind the two mares, three packs tied across his back, but seemed no worse for wear.

“I’m going to scout ahead again. According to the Council, the meeting place should only be a few hours away on hoof.” With a sweep of her wings, Elly launched herself into the air, and was soon out of sight.

The two earth-bound ponies stood for a moment, shifting in their footing, when Aurum spoke up. “Leave it to the Council to find the most inaccessible place for an important meeting,” he grumbled.

Inky giggled despite nearly falling over again. “Why, Aurum!” She laughed aloud. “I do believe that’s the first authentic complaint I’ve heard from you since we started traveling.”

“Even the meekest dog will bark, if you poke him, Inky.” He grinned despite himself. “I don’t like to talk about things I can’t change.”

“Sensible,” she agreed, “but there’s something to be said for a little griping to make you feel better.”

“I like to deal with what is,” he explained. “Keeps your head clear. For example, have you noticed that Elly’s normally back by now?”

“You know,” Inky frowned, turning to scan the sky, “you’re ri—”

Run!” Elly’s voice seemed to come from everywhere, a high-pitched keening that cut the air like a knife. A white streak was rapidly approaching from the mountain’s peak, and behind it was a cloud of… something.

“Run, run, run, run! Downhill!

Aurum dropped the packs and turned to leave, but paused, waiting for Inky to move. Inky, however, kept her position, squinting at the approaching cloud.

“I said move your flanks, mules!” Elly landed atop the discarded packs and began cutting ropes with her teeth. Rivulets of bright red blood ran from a dozen small cuts across her neck and shoulders.

Inky focused a moment, severed the ropes with a thought, and then eyed her friend. “You’re looking for your sword, aren’t you?”

“Yes! Now run!

“No. You might have handled those wolves expertly, but whatever this is has already managed to wound you. You cannot handle it on your own. Either the cloud is malevolent, or whatever’s in the cloud is, and it’ll be here in under a minute. I stand with you.”

Aurum said nothing, but took a step forward. A low buzzing began to fill the air.

Elly stared, incredulous. After a moment, she stabbed the blade into the earth, kicked the packs out from underhoof, then spun about to observe the terrain.

“Fine,” she growled through clenched teeth. “Aurum, move forward, below that outcropping!” She gestured towards a rocky spire with an outstretched hoof. “They saw me first, and will be focusing on me. Your coat blends in better with the grasses. If the fighting starts, take any loose ones down.”

She turned to look at the petite pony by her side, and gestured in a wide circle. “Inky, you’re on perimeter! Let’s see what you can do with that horn.”

The buzzing doubled in intensity, seeming to come from all directions.

“I’ll take the brunt of the fight, if it comes to that.” Elly grasped her blade in her mouth and stared into approaching cloud. “Clear?”

“It had better be,” Inky said in a detached calm. “They’re here.”

Like a rolling fog, the cloud descended from above, churning and spinning about the two mares with a buzzing roar. At this distance, Inky could see dozens, no, hundreds of miniscule winged creatures, no bigger than her hoof. They appeared to be some sort of multi-colored insect, and each one bore a tiny spear, or sword, or worse.

They did not attack, but neither did they disperse. The circle they flew around the pair grew tighter, and a single creature broke off from the swarm to fly before Elly’s muzzle.

“Þjófar! Skepnur! Þið eruð ofurliði bornar, furðuverur! Gefist upp!”

The creature shook a spear threateningly. It looked like an antennaed pony with gossamer wings. It was green, and appeared to have rough black stripes across its face—either natural coloring or war paint. The spear looked to be a shard of stone on a twig.

“I… don’t understand,” replied Elly.

“Gefist upp!” it shouted again, pointing to the ground with a free limb.

The words were alien, but the gestures… “Elly,” Inky said, looking up at her friend, “I think it wants us to surrender.”

Elly shook her head, but did not look away from the creature before them.. “Just because they asked nicely? I don’t think so. I need a distraction. Can you make smoke or a cloud or something for a few seconds?”

Inky thought for a moment. “Yes, yes I can. I know just the—”

“Explain later,” Elly interrupted. “On the count of three. One… two… three.”

Inky’s horn sparked to life. With a flash and a roar, a web of electricity kicked up dust and dirt and whipped it into a cyclone that, just as quickly, began to settle back to the ground. In the midst of the arcane display, Elly reared up, spread her wings wide, and flapped with all her strength.

“Fjölkynngi!” The little creature screeched a warning, but it was too late.

The mighty sweep of Elly’s wings blew a large number of the tiny assailants away, spinning out of control. Out of the shade beneath the stone, Aurum leapt forward and, with unexpected speed, smashed his outstretched hooves together—the supposed leader between them.

“Aurum! No!” Inky scrambled forward. “We don’t need to… kill?”

Aurum slowly opened his hooves, revealing a nearly-empty jar of marmalade which now held a furious winged prisoner.

He grinned at the mares, who stared at him, eyes wide. “You suppose I should poke holes in the lid?”

The party continued up the path, their captive’s prison dangling from a branch tied to the packs. At its goading, the other creatures had tried, repeatedly, to intervene.

Every time they got close, Elly’s wings dispersed them, but the warrior bore the aftermath of each encounter with a dark expression and a clenched jaw. She winced every time she folded her wings, and faint rusty stains marred her coat beneath Aurum’s poultices.

After a time, the screeching from the jar faded, and when Inky glanced at it, she found the little creature sitting, despondent, on the bottom, occasionally eating some of the bits of marmalade.

About an hour into the journey, a tiny pinging noise came from the jar. Aurum stopped and swung the branch around, and the ponies gathered around the improvised cell. The captive had broken the stone off its spear, and was tapping the glass with the branch.

It leaned against the curved class wall, sighed, and looked at Elly. “Getum við talað?

“I think it wants to talk, Elly,” prompted Inky.

“How? We don’t understand it.”

“I have an idea,” offered Aurum.

The stallion set the jar on a nearby stone, set the pack next to it, and rummaged in a pocket. “Here,” he said, pulling out a tiny fragment of chalk. “Maybe if it could draw…”

“It’s worth a shot,” agreed Inky.

“I have my reservations,” replied Elly, “but let’s let it out and see what we can learn.”

Aurum unscrewed the top and set the lid down, then tipped the jar onto its side to set its occupant free.

Þakka þér fyrir.” it said, walking out of the container. “Mér þykir þetta leitt. Við réðumst á ykkur án þess að taka tillit til skipanna minna. Ég hef verið að fylgjast með þér, og þú virðist taka hvert tækifæri til að forðast átök með þjóð minni. Ég get sagt þeim að hætta við árásinnar, og ég mun gera það.

It noticed the lack of comprehension, frowned, and took the shard of chalk from Aurum’s outstretched hoof. Turning to a face of the rock, it began to doodle stick-figures.

En það er ennþá málið um hvað þú hefur gert.” A vaguely pony shape came into view on the rock, and then the little creature added wings. It turned and pointed at Elly.

Hin vængjaða hefur stolið matnum okkar.” A low, bushy shape was added next, and on top of it, a number of circles were drawn. Lines connected the circles to the pony’s face.

As each line reached the pony, the creature crossed out the circle. It turned, narrowed its eyes at Elly, then returned to the drawing where it erased the middle of the pony and drew in a large oval.

Inky cackled, which earned her a glare from the pegasus.

"Við krefjum það til baka. Þetta fangelsi inniheldur dásamleg efni." It walked to the jar, reached in, and scooped up a blob of marmalade, then showed it to the ponies, before putting it back in the jar. It licked itself clean before continuing..

Ef þú hefur einhvað meira af því, munum við samþykkja það sem greiðslu, og fara.” A careful drawing of the jar, shaded to show it was full, was then presented next to a pile of circles, and the creature drew lines back and forth between the two pictures.

Elly blushed, and kicked the ground. “I… think I know what happened.”

Aurum and Inky exchanged an unreadable glance. “Do tell,” said Inky.

Elly stared at the mountain top, pointedly avoiding everypony’s gaze. “Well, I was scouting, and I saw a blueberry bush. So, I had a few, and then these things attacked me. Apparently the blueberries were theirs.”

“So, we got attacked by angry bee-ponies because you got snacky?” Inky’s face contorted into a twisted smile, and she bit into her lips to keep from laughing. Tears formed at the corners of her eyes.

“...Yes,” Elly admitted. “Look, do those pictures mean it wants to trade jam for berries?”

“I think so,” said Aurum. He set his pack down and rummaged through one of the pockets. “I’d think most of these would be too heavy to carry, but…” He set down a number of small jars, then opened the lids, and gestured to them with an outstretched hoof. “Please, try them, and take whichever you want.”

The little “bee-pony” buzzed from jar to jar, sampling each preserve, before stopping at the strawberry jam. It buzzed happily around it, and then landed on the rim. “Ég vel þetta.

Aurum grinned. “That’s my favorite, too.” He dug back into his pack and retreived a small drawstring bag. He put the jar’s lid back on, but not too tightly, and then stuffed the jam into the bag. “I don’t know how many of you will be needed to carry this, but the strings on the bag should help.”

The little creature flew close to Aurum’s muzzle, saluted brisky, then turned towards some nearby scrub. “Komiði, við höfum nýjann mat til að taka heim.” A few brightly-colored streaks buzzed through the sky, and then more and more seemed to come from every rock or crevice. As one, they alit upon the strings from the bag and lifted it into the air.

The one they had captured turned and bowed. “Takk fyrir. Mér leiðist misskilningurinn. Ég óska ykkur heppni. Ég veit að þú skilur mig ekki, en verið þið varkár. Undarlegir hlutir eru að gerast.” And with that, the little creatures were gone.

Elly, grumbling to herself, shouldered her pack and returned to the path. Inky followed suit, light-hooved despite the pack’s weight. Aurum, as usual, brought up the rear. From time to time he would chuckle quietly. Elly’s blush only grew deeper. She tried to change the subject.

“According to the Council’s instructions, we’re less than a league from the site. It should be visible over that next rise.”

“Well, let’s see what we’re getting ourselves into,” replied Inky.

The party made good time to the top of the ridge. As Elly and Inky crested it, they stopped cold, staring into the distance. Aurum was soon beside them, and saw the reason why.

The valley ahead, for the next half-mile or so, was filled with green, rolling hills and the occasional copse of trees. A stream, fed by mountain springs, meandered lazily through it. A dozen tents and pavilions bearing the banners and crests of the Council were arrayed here and there near the running water.

A little beyond the tents, however, something else lay waiting. It looked as if some powerful event had erased the mountain, and in its place left a spiraling, spherical void that filled the valley. In that void, stars collided, lightning crackled, and a low wail constantly issued forth—a wail that could be heard, faintly, even at this distance.

“It’s… it’s a hole… in the world…” breathed Inky.

The void and the valley met at a knife’s edge which nothing but light could cross. While the ponies could faintly see the layers of stone deep beneath the surface, nothing else seemed to survive the transition. Where the stream touched it, it simply vanished, rather than fall. Where a tree leaned too close, its branches seemed to be cut.

“But not a permanent one,” said Aurum. “Look at the trees move,” he continued, gesturing at a copse in the distance. “See, when the tree moves in the wind, and rocks away from the hole, the branches return. We can’t see in, but it doesn’t seem to be doing any harm. Not yet, at least.”

Elly nodded. “I can see it, yes. Well, there’s one mystery solved.”

Inky tilted her head and gazed at Elly as if she were a potentially hazardous creature. “How in Equestria does this solve anything?”

Elly frowned, staring ahead, and took a step down the path. “We know why the Council called us.”

“We have no idea what that thing even is!” she shouted.

“I suspect those are the details the Council will want us to work out,” she replied, her shoulders drooping. She sighed audibly, shook out her mane, and spared Inky a glance before carefully stepping down the incline.

Inky could only watch her walk away. Aurum stopped at Inky’s side.

“Come on. We’ve defeated pony-eating shrubs and mildly angry insect ponies.” He forced a smile, and nudged her with a shoulder. “What’s a terrifying mountain-sized void got that we can’t handle?” He followed Elly further down the path.

“I’m not ready,” whispered Inky. “I’m not ready for this.” Still, she followed behind, walking stiffly, unable to take her eyes off the sphere of nothing that slowly rose before her.

Author's Note:

All speech has been translated from Old Equestrian.
All Breezy dialogue repaired by FIMFiccer palinalif. - Snarkle

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