Starlight in a Broken Vessel

by the-pieman

Chapter 204

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Chapter 204

The trip was long but luckily we have more than half of our original food supply left, meaning we don’t have to be as stingy about it on the way back. I look at the map and the vague lines of land poking out over the waves. According to this map, we’ll be on a beach with a rather rough inlet but it looks big enough for a boat. A few minutes later, a pegasus shouts out something and I head up the deck. I assume they were yelling about land as that’s very apparent, as well as... are those buildings? How old is this map? I look around the corners and margins, but it seems cartographers don’t date their work here.

After a few moments, a shout of shock and dismay from the lookout echoes the same sentiments in my head, as I see that the ‘buildings’ are actually towering spires of black-and-green coral, each jagged point coming higher than the railing of the deck itself. The fog and mist that swirls just beyond them seems to taunt us, as there’s absolutely no way of getting through without shredding the ship, though it should be clear sailing after that. I’d have to go in a rowboat or something.

Unless we can make the land work in our favor. “Stop the wind, slow us down a bit. Myrna, get up here.” When we’ve slowed to about half our rate and Myrna’s in front of me I relay my thoughts. “Don’t know how good you are with terraforming, but see if you can do something about that coral.”

“Anthony, that’s live coral! You can’t just smash it! It’s alive!” Myrna protests.

“Fine, guess we’re taking a rowboat. How about you come up with a way to anchor this boat here so the current doesn’t pull it away while we’re gone?”

The sailors are already anchoring us before I’ve finished the command, the captain shouting orders around, the rowboat already laden with our supplies, which include everything from spare clothes and food to a couple of simple weapons and some gold and silver coins for trading if need be.

I hop in the rowboat and grab a roughly-made iron dagger from the tools available. It’s a bit of trouble getting around the coral as I’ve never rowed anything other than a kayak once, but I make it to shore in time to meet Anne, touching down next to Myrna and Dash who’ve already made it. I notice that this area really is not the beach the map said was here. A series of shacks and ramshackle huts stand on spindly supports over the water, fog curling around them and obscuring all but the eerie blue, green, and red lights inside of the various lanterns and from within the buildings. A few dozen rickety little rowboats are tied up to platforms at the water’s edge.

I can’t even see the shore from here, but I can see some hunched, humanoid figures... which basically matches the general description of a ‘Hag’ from the books I read, but there was basically a lot of references to them basically being giants. Which doesn't make any sense...

Until we run up beside one of the ‘little rowboats’ tethered nearby and realize it’s more than half-again as big as my own. I gulp as my boat finally comes to what looks like a dock, though the edge is a half-foot above the edge of my own vessel. A hunched figure stands, holding a lantern on a long stick.

I recall there wasn’t anything in the books about hags speaking, only hearing mention of them using some odd speaking when casting spells. I decide to take a chance. “Hi. You speak Engl- Equestrian?”

The figure slowly moves, shrouded in shadows and a long cowl. A scratchy voice emits from under the hood. “Greetings, travelers. Come you here in peace?” Myrna, sliding over the water, has settled up next to the dock beside me.

“We are here for a... disturbance. There’s been a report of a rather notable individual appearing on your Continent. Our job is to find them and take them to Equestria if friendly. If hostile, we’re to kill it.”

“... Come you here in peace? Be your answer yea or no?” The figure sounds confused.

I sigh. “Yea.”

“Then be welcome in the Black Port. If ye be in need of residence, your mistress may be well to consider the inn down the walk.” the figure pauses for a moment. “Be it known the Port bears no malice toward Warlocks, but do not act out of turn. Bear you payment for use of this dock, and for how long?”

I turn to Myrna. “The continent is mostly marsh, at least from here to where the Class-Four touched down. I don’t think it would take long. What do you think?” I hand the map over so she can give her opinion.

“Probably only a few days, we don’t have enough supplies for longer anyways.” Myrna turns her attention up to the cowled figure, “How much is a four-day tie up?”

“Four nights bears a little fee, for thou. What bear you for payment? I am amenable to coinage if you bear it.” a hand the size of my face extends from the hooded shape, palm up. I remember the money was left in my bags, which are in front of me in the rowboat.

I wonder if, given the Bit system, gold is worth more than silver here... Well, might as well try. “Gold and silver for payment if acceptable.” I reply, handing five of both coin types into the large hand. “Is this sufficient?”

“That is enough, Warlock. I accept thy payment.” The hand withdraws, and a pair of lights, like green embers, burn where I guess the hag’s eyes are, and vines suddenly wrap securely around the rowboat’s frame, locking it in place. “The binding will be gone in four nights. Return, else it will be sunk.” The hag suddenly seems to grow, before I realize it just stood up, more than doubling its height. The hag moves off into the mist, lantern swinging from over its shoulder.

I gesture for Dash and Anne to land, Rainbow doing so arguably more graceful than Anne. “So, see anything worth mentioning up there?”

“Lots of lights on the shore, but they stop only a little ways into the forest on the marsh.” Anne says. “I couldn’t make out much beyond that in this fog, though.”

Dash nods. “About what I saw. Also, these fog clouds are really squishy. It’s like soggy bread under my hooves, not like real clouds, or even the fog the weather factory makes.”

“Could the weather team move it?”

“Yeah, but it’d feel gross, and idunno if the locals would like that.” Dash replies, giving suspicious looks at the few bundled hags moving slowly across the planks. The town is eerily quiet beside the creaking wood, movement of the waves, and the slight sounds of insects in the distance.

“Then we should all move on foot to avoid getting lost in the fog. Everyone got whatever supplies they might need? Since we’re on a time limit here, we probably shouldn’t go back until we’re done here.”

“Yeah, we’re all packed.” Anne reports. “I made sure before we left.” On her back is a giant external-frame backpack loaded with supplies, a comparably-sized one on Myrna’s. Dash has much smaller bags, but she’s basically a scout anyways, so that’s alright. And I have two bags, one a backpack, the other with a  few others things I thought I might need.

“Alright, we have a general idea of our destination, where we are, and a compass. Let’s not waste time.” I gesture into the foggy marsh towards where the compass says we should be heading.

The four of us begin moving along, though the Hags are definitely looking at Dash. It’s obviously making her uncomfortable, as she’s beginning to poof up like a frightened cat. Even her tail kinda goes straight. It’s not really intimidating, but I guess if it makes her feel better...

Surprisingly, Myrna, Anne, and I don’t seem to be getting many odd looks at all, though I’m pretty sure I catch a few whispers and such directed at the girls. A few sound like... pity? Yeah, like pity or derision, possibly a mix thereof.

We just keep moving along. Our job is to get in, figure out what’s up, and leave. As long as we leave the hags alone, they’ll leave us alone... right?

Either way, we continue on, the marsh looking pretty much exactly the same in every direction due to the fog. But as long as this compass keeps pointing North, I know where we’re going... just not exactly where we are since the map isn’t very detailed.

After some walking over what feels like half-rotted planks and a setting fresh from some bayou-centered horror movie -maybe creature from the black lagoon? That might be fun to introduce to ponykind later- we finally find our way to the marshy ground, descending a flight of wobbly stairs that appeared to be more slime-mold than wood.

The ground itself is muddy and wet, and I sink halfway up my shins almost instantly, and both Anne and Rainbow Dash take flight to avoid stepping in it after they hear my foot ‘squish-plop’ into it.

“Well, can’t say this is the weirdest stuff I’ve been in, but it is the grossest.” I continue trudging through the muck as I try to make steps high enough to get my feet out of the goop as I walk. The fog is getting a little annoying so I decide to try fighting it off; hold my hand up in front of me, a swirl of embers running along my fingers.

A few seconds later, I feel myself get pulled from the sucking muck by Myrna and Anne, my eyebrows smoking slightly. “Okay...” I mutter, dazed. “Bad idea. Anyone got a better plan to let us see in this?”

“... We should probably ask for one of those lanterns the hags were using. They didn’t seem to light this stuff on fire.”

“Alright, fine...” I look around for a light, indicating a nearby hag. I saw a few a little ways back, but they all seem gone now. “Looks like we aren’t getting any help from them. Let’s just keep going, we don’t want to waste time if we can help it.”

After getting my bearings again, we head off into the marsh again, towering trees and a few rotted husks lining the muddy expanse. Pools of standing water dot the landscape between the trees, and the ever-present fog blurs details further than a few yards away. This is not going to be a fun trip.

“So as the current foremost expert on this place...” I begin. “I’m totally fucking lost. Rainbow, see if you can get above the fog, find out where we’re going.”

“Right-o!” She yells, then rockets away, straight up. A cylindrical tube of clear air is left in her wake, before it collapses into the mist around it.

For a minute, we wait.

And we wait a little more.

And a bit more. Anne and Myrna both look worried.

A faint noise catches my attention, but it’s muffled. I look around, trying to find the source.


I whirl around, sure I heard something this time.


I definitely heard that!

Turning towards the sound once more, I see a faint blue shape moving in the fog, not quite moving towards us.

“Rainbow? That you? Whatcha see up there?”

The blue shape stops, then moves towards us directly. After a few moments, Rainbow Dash, flying parallel to the ground, meets up with us again. “There you gals are! Where did you go? I got above the fog, but it’s so thick I can barely even see the tops of these trees!” she sounds a little panicked. “I thought you guys had left without me.”

“We wouldn’t bring you along if we intended to ditch you. But if you really can’t see anything, then I guess we just keep going straight until we find some sort of landmark.”

“O-okay.” Dash hovers a little closer to us, and we start off again.

“Don’t tell me Equestria’s bravest daredevil is cared of a sticky, foggy swamp...” if I can rile her up, it’ll probably get a bit of her usual cockiness back.

“Pfft, nah. I, uh, just don’t like being left behind, y’know?”

“Yeah, we get it. So exactly how far up did you have to go to get past the fogbank? Rough estimate of how thick this stuff really is.”

“Idunno... about ten, fifteen yards? It’s just barely under the tops of the trees, too. If it weren’t for most of them being broken off halfway, I bet there’d be no light down here, even though it’s noon.”

“So no chance of increasing visibility down here? I swear it’s getting worse the farther we go.” I hold up my hand to see if it’s visible. It is, but very obscured.

“Not really. I might be able to budge some from around us, but that’s really tiring. I don’t take naps all the time because I’m lazy y’know.”

“I figured it was because your hobby involves high-altitudes, your lungs adapted to low oxygen so when you’re closer to the ground, the extra oxygen intake makes you sleepy.”

“... Huh, that’s a neat excuse, I might use that sometime. But nah, it’s mostly because Weather Captain is a twenty-six-hour job. Weather waits for no mare, after all, and I could be needed at any time of the day or night to deal with some rogue clouds or rampaging fog bank coming from the Everfree.”

“So if you need to be there all the time but that’s kind of impossible, who fills in while you’re off being a superhero?”

“Well, I’m not on duty every day, of course. Most of the time, Blossomforth is my co-captain, and we’re a good team. She also helps pick up the slack when I’m away, and it gets her a fat extra paycheck from Canterlot whenever that happens.”

“Well, all I know for sure is that I am going to ask Rarity for new shoes after this. I swear they’re so mucked up I can barely tell I’m wearing any.”

“Eh, Anthony? You’re not. You literally got blown out of them back there.” Myrna tells me.

“Well that’s just great... oh well, one thing at a time. Let’s just try and get through this crap and hope the fog thins out a bit.”

I don’t think I ever truly understood the verb ‘slogging’ until today. It’s high noon and my feet are covered in god knows what swamp muck up to my shins, making the most disgusting noise I can imagine as the ground tries to swallow my legs with every step. This is a new level of ‘gross’. All I can think about is moving forward and trying to keep my balance so I don’t fall into this shit face-first.

I’m jolted out of a semi-trance by Myrna, tapping on my shoulder. “Anthony,” she whispers, “stop walking.”

“What?” I whisper back, freezing in place. “Something found us?” I reach for the dagger in my pocket before I notice that the muffled ‘jungle-noises’ have stopped, replaced with a slow but steady ‘squish-plop’, the same sound my feet make in the mud. Except... I just stopped moving, Anne and RD are flying, and Myrna’s been sliding along smoothly.

Leaving the dagger where it is, I reach for my other side and grip the sword at my belt. I have a feeling I’d want a weapon I know how to use. Hand to the handle, I wait for the sound to get closer.

Slowly, a human shape takes form in the mist behind us, moving steadily into view. It looks like a person... but something in my gut is telling me that’s the wrong assumption to make.

Rule one of nature: Bigger fish win. I let go of my sword and grow until I tower over the figure by about ten feet. “Friend or foe?”

The figure doesn’t answer, still moving steadily. Squish-plop, squish-plop, squish-plop-plop...

Wait, that’s not right... I turn around as the realization hits me. The fog is muffling the noises. There’s more than one set of footplops heading towards us. From my higher vantage point, the figures are more obscured than from ground level, but I can tell there’s at least a dozen of them. Probably more, with the way every squish-plop seems to have an echo.

Alright, strategy change. Shrinking down, I start up my Dynamo form. “Myrna, ground yourself.” I whisper. “I’m gonna see how well this muck conducts.”

Myrna simply takes a deep breath and slides into the mud, leaving no trace beyond a slight ripple and a sound like a shoe being dropped in pudding.

Good enough. “One more chance. Friend or foe?”

The sounds continue unabated, though a new one is added to the mix: an eerie chuckle, carried on a non-existent wind.

I charge up and send a shockwave down my legs across the top, slimiest layer of the murk. The strangest sensation returns back up my legs, and I get the vague feeling of more than three dozen things in the murk around me with pulses - none of which correspond to the figures shambling forth. Weird sensations aside, the shapes don’t seem to notice the electrical discharge, beyond seeming to pick up the pace a little. They’ll be fully visible in a few moments.

Okay, size reduces visibility, electricity doesn’t help, and fire would turn me into KFC so... Sword time I guess. Drawing my weapon, I aim it at one of the vague shapes. “Think something’s funny, chuckles?”

The disembodied laughter returns for a moment, and then the shapes finally come close enough to resolve what they are.

They’re zombies. Of course it’s fucking zombies. Creepy black swamp with evil laughter in the air? Gotta be zombies. What’s weird, though, is that they look like human zombies, minus a few that look much too large, but hunched over into nearly the same look.

“Anne, gonna need some help. Dash, see if you can knock some down, just don’t expect them to stay down.” I raise my sword to a defensive position as I turn around, looking for whichever of the zombie-things is closest.

One of the more human ones moves closer by way of a stumble; likely a root or something. Either way, it’s closest now. I swing my sword in its direction, aiming a wave of electricity at the humanoid. Never really clear with how zombies react to electricity, but worth a shot.

The electrical lance pours out, turning into a white-blue blade of crackling energy, nearly blinding in its intensity. The heat sets a wave of fire to follow the blade’s movements, like a rolling explosion following the swing. Judging by the way the electricity blade goes right through the undead, it’s probably for the best, as the ensuing detonation from swing blows it up from waistline to hairline. Cutting the power, the blade vanishes with a crackle of ozone, a bed of baked mud trapping the zombie’s legs in place.

“Got your number, creeps. Uh... where’s that backup? Gonna need some help here.” I take another swing at the horde.

 Suddenly, four of the zombies are pinned to the muck by what looks like meter-long, gleaming spears. They wiggle and thrash weakly, but tirelessly. A ripple in the fog, and pair of zombies fall in two, their torsos beginning to crawl towards me as their legs flail. Next, a sharp crack splits the air, and the fog is cleared out in a wide circle, RD visible high above and rising fast with the fog sucked up behind her.

Thankful for the improved visibility, I take the chance to move around the horde. Their slow movements making it easy to get behind some and cutting a decent-sized row of them into halves, their torsos falling into the muck. Keeping my distance from them anyway, I move onto some more coming from out of the quickly returning fog.

The torsos begin moving towards me as well, until a series of stone hands erupt from the slimy mud and grab them, restraining them rather than damaging them. The hands then retreat into the ground below, the torsos vanishing with the sound of a shoe in pudding.

I need to find a better onomatopoeia for that sound. Not to mention, a shotgun would be nice here. Until then, I deal with melee weapons. I cut my way through another row and wonder where they’re all coming from. “Myrna, can you keep them from moving? Dry this muck up and trap them like instant cement?”

Myrna slides from the mud, not a single spatter sticking to her. “No, not really. I can drag them into the rock and dirt underneath, though. They don’t seem to notice me when I’m underground.” she says. Her arms are covered in stony gauntlets, and her human body is similarly armored. Where her backpack is, I have no idea.

“Assuming you can’t petrify them, that ‘pull them under’ trick is the best we have, we need major crowd control. My mid-range swings aren’t stopping enough of them.”

“They don’t seem to have eyes, any of them. I think we need to retreat.” Another set of zombies are pinned to the ground or trees, leaving them unable to do more than lash out in my general direction.

A sinister growl echoes from the encroaching fog, and I see Dash coming back down to draw away the fog again. Suddenly I have a stupid, dangerous, possibly effective idea. “Everyone huddle together, Myrna, give us a small bunker and make it thick.”

Myrna begins making motions with her arms, and thick sections of stones, like flower petals, begin closing over us. I stick the tip of the Sword through one of the cracks before it closes, and Myrna obligingly flows the stone around it. Once we’re in the dark core of the foot-thick stone...

“Fire in the hole, you undead bastards.” I channel fire through the sword-


“Alright, that should clear enough of them for us to get away, let’s get out of here!” Nobody argues as we make our way out of the area as fast as possible. The fog is still thick, but given the amount of ringing that explosion caused in my ears from inside the bunker, I say I roasted most of them.

After nearly half an hour of slogging at top speed through the mushy earth, we find ourselves at the edge of what is more definitely a bog than a marsh, and my legs are soaked and freezing cold. Myrna is kind enough to lift me onto the back of her coils as she starts sliding along the tops of the frigid water. She looks rather uncomfortable, but she looks like she’s bearing it.

We eventually cross a warm, flowing river, several eight-yard-long ‘logs’ very suddenly vacating the area as Myrna slithers across the water. Eventually, we find ourselves back at the edge of the water, this time much further along. In a few places, the muddy water would’ve been deep enough for me to stand upright and still have my head a few inches under the water. However, the air is starting to warm, and we’re on drier land.

A few minutes of walking, and I trip on something knee-high hidden in the waist-high muck. I windmill my arms in an attempt to regain my balance, but the damage is done; I fall flat on my face- onto somewhat damp dirt. Huh. I... think we may have found the edge of the swamp?

I look up, wiping the dirt from my face. Ahead of me is a strip of forest, then wide open flatlands, without any traces of fog remaining. I pull myself onto the dirt and dry myself off with my heat form. “Any of you cold or wet, get over here then we set up camp for the evening.”

The other three make various noises of assent, and we begin working on getting a camp set up. Unfortunately, I’ve got an inch-and-a-half thick layer of mud caked to my pants, so it looks like they’re going to have to go if I’m going to warm up.

I peel them off and do my best to find some clean-ish water to wash them in. The closest I can get is ‘dirty water’ but it’s a step above ‘muddy’ so I dry myself off, then get to work on scrubbing the muck off my pants and underwear.

“Uh... Anthony? Er, d’ya need to be, er, hangin’ out right now, man?” Rainbow Dash asks, blushing slightly as she stares at, ah, me.

“Well I don’t have anything to cover up with until I can clean off my clothes. Don’t like it, don’t stare, perv.”

“You’re the one hangin’ outta your sheath over there, buddy.”

“What sheath? The one humans don’t have?”

“Wait, what?” Dash says, sounding confused. Anne reaches over and pulls her closer, then leans in and begins whispering to her. “Wh- you mean it’s out all the time?! That’s gross!” Dash says, recoiling away from me. “Man, that’s just weird, dude. How do you humans stand it?”

“By wearing clothes to cover it up, duh! Why do you think I find it kinda weird that you ponies walk all over the place wearing your birthday suits?”

“Yeah, but we got, like, fur and stuff!”

“As I recall you saying when I first got here, you already noticed I was... how did you put it, bald? You’re just realizing what that means now?”

“Uh... Can’t say I thought about it before. It’s not like I went around imagining you naked or anything.” Dash states indignantly.

“Don’t give me crap for the way I was born and I won’t do the same to you, deal?”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Just point that shrinky dink somewhere else, alright?”

“It’s not ‘pointing’ anywhere right now. I need to be thinking about a desirable girl for that to happen, Dashie.” I smirk.

Myrna presses herself against my back. “What, are we invisible, then?”

“No, I just wasn’t thinking about you- I mean, uh...”

“Oh, look, he’s coming up to join the party!” Anne yells, pointing between my legs.

“Perverts. But hey, you don’t have anyone to blame but yourselves. Now can I get back to cleaning my pants?”

Both of the girls mocking me as I shift a bit uncomfortably slowly withdraw, giggling, as I finish scrubbing my pants as best I can. Lucky not-ground-restricted people getting to not have to clean their pants. “If you had to get naked too, you’d be singing a different tune!”

I stop for a moment. Huh... I’m the only one here actually wearing pants. Myrna and Anne are both wearing long shirts, and Dash is a pony, so...

A pair of shirts flop in front of me, accompanied by more giggles and a bra. “Can you get those hung up to dry, pretty please?”

“You just like a guy who can do laundry... but sure.” I toss the shirts onto a low-hanging tree branch.

“Hey, I’m not sexist...” Dash says from somewhere behind me.

“Wasn’t talking to you. You don’t have anything to take off. That said, I have always wondered how long it’d take for a shaved pony’s coat to grow back.” I turn to give Rainbow an evil grin, summoning some coal from the bag of supplies and making an electric razor blade.

“Uh... no thanks?” Dash says, edging further away from me. Neither Anne nor Myrna are wearing anything, and both are sprawled out in the late afternoon sun on their backs, only a short distance from the fire.

“You know, I figured the flirting on the ride here would end when we got off the boat, but if you just fling your clothes at me like a pair of strippers, I’m gonna have to remind you I don’t like the ‘horny teenager’ type.”

“Wait, you actually think you have a chance of getting laid this trip?” Myrna says, peeking up from behind her boobs. “Dude, I’m just getting some sun. It feels warmer out here than near ponyville. And the ground was colder back in the swamp. This feels nice.” Anne just gives a small whistling snore.

“Sure, that’s your excuse. Also, I just said I wasn’t planning on getting laid on this little adventure, but if you girls keep teasing, it won’t be my fault if we do end up spending some ‘time’ together.”

Rainbow tries to act indignant. “Yeah well, why would they? I mean, you are kinda dinky down there, dude.”

“You call it small. I call it ‘one-size fits all’ Dashie.”

“Fits all what, pinholes?”

“Would you like to find out?” I ask, already knowing the answer.

“Aww, no, disgusting! Geez, what a perv...”

“You’re the one who can’t stop talking about it. Besides, what’s your deal? I thought you and Mac were getting closer. Don’t tell me you haven’t already.”

“Haven’t already what?”

“Had him bend you over and fuck your brains out.” I reply, finally getting the last of the dirt off. I move to speed-drying. “What else?”

“Aw, ew, man! I’m not gonna take advantage of him like that!”

“Take advantage... oh, lemme guess, more gender reversal stuff, right?”

“Uh, what?”

“Like how your cultural language usually has hints of females being the dominant gender. In human history, though much less so at this point, it was mostly a ‘the guy is in charge’ deal.”

“That’s so weird, though. You guys are so messed up, y’know.”

“We’re messed up? You guys are the weird ones, having a bunch of your human-equivalent positions replacing ‘Man’ with ‘Mare’.”

“Well, that just makes sense. I mean, stallions can work nowadays, but, like, a hundred years ago or whatever, they just didn’t. Too dangerous, cuz there’s so few. I mean, it’s not right, cuz they didn’t have a lotta rights, but it makes sense. And heck, it looks like humans are the same, too! There’s one guy, and two girls right now. And, I guess, Clark’s a demon, so he doesn’t count.”

“Alright Dash, you just went from ‘misinformed’ to ‘really stupid’ with just that. Let’s just get to sleep before I lump your head.”

“Oh, fine...” Dash says, pulling out a can. She takes off the top, and a small, fluffy cloud forms, which she collapses onto. “Oh, who’s gonna be on guard first? Ya gotta have guards each night, or stuff gets stolen and stuff. I read that in a Daring Do book.”

I’m about to give a rebuttal about Daring Do being tripe, but she’s right. “Yeah fine, I’ll stay up for the first few hours, then it’s your turn and it continues clockwise, we switch every three hours. Any objections?”

Myrna and Anne snort in their sleep, the larger gorgan rolling onto her side as she curls into a large ball of snake.

“Fine... four hour shifts.”

Next Chapter: Chapter 205 Estimated time remaining: 2 Hours, 16 Minutes

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