The pair, gray earth pony and blue unicorn, slept beside the dying embers of the fire. They slept for an unmarked time, then woke with the stars still gleaming above. The faintest wisp of smoke still came from the fire’s ashes, and without a word Luna scooped water from the stream, carrying a sphere of it within the blue glow of her magic, and dropped it on the ashes. Whiffletree scooped up some water too, more prosaically, and filled a water-bottle that was nestled in her saddlebags.
They grazed again then, filling their bellies with sweet green grass and sweet clear water.
Both finished eating at the same moment, in the silent agreement that a pony herd sometimes has, and went together to the road, which stretched darkly ahead and behind, walled in by earth and hedge in both directions. Luna regarded the road from the grass beside it. Whiffletree had already set hoof to it, the step sounding with a soft ringing. There was no second step, as she paused to look back at Luna.
“It cankers me to blindly trudge forward, answering to some unknown whim,” said Luna, glowering at the road.
“We could follow the track you were on before,” offered Whiffletree, nodding to where the narrow dirt path wound along beside its little stream.
Luna’s scowl encompassed that as well. “That’s no better. It might be worse, to only go on as I began. But…” She looked down the road, then down the path. She glanced too behind her, and back the way Whiffletree had come, regarding each of the four options.
“Or we could simply stand here forever,” said Whiffletree, smiling again, her voice holding a faint lilt of sarcasm.
Luna laughed at that. “Ah, aye, stand here till the stars burn black. That will accomplish much. No, I’ll go on with you, assuming you wish to continue forward?”
“I feel an urge. I don’t trust that urge, but I also feel a great curiosity. There are things that I should know, but which I do not. If something has stolen those things from me, then perhaps that thing also draws me forward to meet it. I would confront it if I can, and see what truth I can wring from it.”
“Maybe it lies behind you, though?” offered Luna, horn gesturing down the path Whiffletree had already trod. “If it took something from you, and then sent you on… Maybe the impulse drives you away from it.”
Whiffletree nodded. “Perhaps. It is certainly possible. But… I don’t know. There’s no true logic to it, but I feel otherwise. I feel drawn, not driven. There’s something at the end of this road.”
“Then let us proceed towards it, and see what we may see,” said Luna.
Luna’s hooves rang on the stones just as Whiffletree’s did. She set a swifter pace than the elder mare had taken, but Whiffletree had trudged from weariness of mind as much as of body, and found it easy enough to keep up. Indeed, before long she found herself taking the lead, and Luna fell in at her shoulder as naturally as anything, as if they’d been traveling herdmates for an eternity.
The road passed beneath their hooves with a steady ringing, and the earthen walls passed alongside them, rising and falling as the land rose and fell. The road itself climbed and dropped as well, though never steeply enough to trouble them.
After a time they came to a place where the road doubled back on itself to snake up the side of a hill. Atop the hill there was a cluster of trees, either dead or dormant. The walls that had framed the road fell away there, giving a view of the countryside for miles around. The road itself, a dark line of black cobblestones, wound on ahead of them, down the hill and into the land beyond. Its course was not straight, but it never meandered far, and from this vantage it was clear that the darkness on the horizon was a mountain range, with the road aimed at the highest peaks.
That was not what drew their eyes as they halted atop the hill, though. What immediately gathered their attention was an object which lay across the road, perhaps a mile beyond the hill.
“Object” was perhaps the wrong term, for it was not a singular thing, but a cluster of weathered, yellowed shapes. Here the arc of ribs all in a row, there the long stretch of a leg bone, above, the rounded dome of a half-buried skull, but all on a massive scale. Whiffletree’s first thought was “dragon”, and one of the greatest of that race, for she swiftly realized that the clutch of darker shapes cupped in the hollow of the former creature’s stomach cavity was a village. Yet the skull, though half-concealed, was obviously too rounded, too short, to be a normal dragon with its long snout, and it had no tail. It had been winged, though, as the long, delicate bones behind the main body of it showed. They were broken in pieces and partially lost, but clear enough all the same.
“I’ve never seen the like,” said Luna, voicing what Whiffletree had been thinking.
“It lies across the road,” noted Whiffletree. The road passed beneath the great skeleton’s spine, just beside its hips. There was a break there, perhaps made to let the road pass, perhaps merely natural weathering, or perhaps the monstrous creature had broken its back when it died. The little village with its dozen huts bordered the road, also; small shapes that looked like ponies moving about within it.
“Indeed. So it seems we must pass it.”
“Or choose to go back, yes. I still vote to move forward.”
“Oh, we’re voting, are we? But who will be a tie-breaker if I vote to go back?” Luna grinned at Whiffletree.
“Flip a bit?” offered Whiffletree, matching Luna’s grin.
“If you have one. But no, I vote to continue as well.”
“Then let’s be about it.”
They went on, down the dark road as it wound across the face of the hill and proceeded towards the monstrous skeleton beyond.
Time passed, and the bleached bones drew nearer, until they loomed overhead, blocking out the starlight above. The road rose up from between its walls, becoming a street that ran through the heart of the tiny village. The traveling pair halted there, at the border of the town where the first little huts stood, for they had little choice. Athwart the road stood a trio of villagers, earth ponies all, standing shoulder to shoulder and blocking the road completely. Whiffletree and Luna could have left the road, treading on the village gardens to go around them, but instead the pair halted, and silence fell as the ringing of hoofsteps ceased.
After a long moment, the pony who stood at the center of the trio spoke.
He was a broad-chested and broad-hoofed stallion, with feathery fetlocks over cracked, shoeless hooves. His coat was a deep slate gray and his shocking green mane fell in greasy dreadlocks all around his face. That face was off, somehow; unsettling in a way that Whiffletree couldn’t quite put a hoof on. Were his eyes too small? His forehead too flat? His ears somehow set wrong on his head? Whatever might be strange about him, it was strange about his fellows too; a skinny stallion with coat and hair the color of the bones that loomed overhead on his left hoof and a plump, pink mare, face lined and coat faded, stringy mane burgundy dark, on his right. Whiffletree wanted to look between him and Luna, to compare the way a pony ought to be, but she did not, she regarded him steadily, and he regarded her in turn.
“Strangers. Why have you come to the Sleeping One?” asked the stallion, his voice a low, guttural growl.
Whiffletree squashed sarcastic thoughts about a sleep so deep it had resulted in cleansed bones, and said only, “We are passing along the road, that is all.”
“To what purpose?”
“Our business is our own,” said Luna, giving the stallion a quelling look.
He failed to be quelled, though Whiffletree thought that most ponies would have been. “Those who pass beneath the shadow of the Sleeping One must pay him homage.”
Whiffletree exchanged a glance with Luna. Luna curled her lip, obviously willing to fight, but Whiffletree said, “Tell me about this homage.”
“We will perform the rites at the setting of Aldebaran. We will sing the songs of awakening. We will chant that which cannot be chanted beneath the wrong stars. Then we will feast, and drink, and sleep.”
“I see. And we are invited, then, to join this? We do not know your songs, or your chants.” Whiffletree felt a deep, creeping unease, but she said nothing of it. She felt that in her youth she might perhaps have fought all three ponies, and the rest of the village beside, especially with Luna at her side. But she was past her prime, and she couldn’t think of a reason to insist on conflict. It wasn’t as though there was a deadline to whatever journey she might be on, after all. Not that she knew of, at least.
“It is permitted to watch,” said the stallion flatly. He had not moved so much as an ear’s flick in all the time he’d been speaking. Only his lips had moved, and only enough to form the words. “The foals watch. You may watch with them.”
Whiffletree looked at Luna again. Luna rolled her eyes, but didn’t give any sign of insisting on fighting so Whiffletree nodded at the big, dark stallion. “We will stay, then, and witness your rites.”
“It is good.” The stallion nodded, and jerked his head towards the village. Still feeling uneasy, but not knowing what else to do, Whiffletree stepped from the road and onto the grass beside it.
They were ushered to a place where grass grew beneath the shadow of the great skeleton’s arching ribs. Both mares grazed a little as they waited, but neither settled down. They didn’t speak of it, but Whiffletree could tell that Luna felt the same unease that she did. Something wasn’t right here.
Perhaps it was only the skeleton. Such a thing was uncanny enough to be off-putting, certainly, yet Whiffletree thought it was more than that. She waited, though, and cropped the grass, and watched, doing nothing more. Her memories seemed more hole than cloth, yet she was certain that patience had paid off for her often in times past, even if all she could recall was hints and glimpses of those times.
Luna, beside her, fidgeted and tossed her head often, casting wary glances at the villagers as they went about their business. She got some in return, especially from the foals, who stared at her shamelessly. Whiffletree almost immediately realized the likely cause of those stares. The village was entirely of earth ponies. Luna was the only unicorn present.
The stars continued their slow dance above. Whiffletree didn’t know their patterns, yet apparently at some point the one the dark stallion had called Aldebaran must have set, for the villagers began to congregate at the center of their village. They formed rings and lifted their heads to the sky, mouths open as if about to speak or sing.
Whiffletree wasn’t aware of the sound at first. It was so low, so subtle, that it crept up on her. Her coat was all standing on end for no apparent reason long before she realized that there was a dissonant, uncanny chant emerging from the throats of the villagers. It grew and grew, and Whiffletree had to squash a cowardly urge to crowd up against Luna’s side and take shelter in the taller mare’s presence. Luna shifted fractionally towards Whiffletree, and her eyes were wide and wild. No doubt she heard it too.
It began to have words, though they were no words that Whiffletree knew. She could recognize dozens of languages, but this was nothing that should have issued from pony throats.
The villagers moved, then, also slow at first, but their pace increasing, moving in a spiral dance, circling in and out among each other. Their steps were strange, stiff here and fluid there, and unlike any dancing Whiffletree had seen before.
Whiffletree’s eyes began to glaze over, and she felt as if the chant were numbing her mind. Was she awake, or did she dream? Surely such sounds, such inequine contortions, could not be real? She gave into her impulse and leaned against Luna, feeling that the other pony was trembling. That was real, but nothing else was. The very stars were unreal, dancing freely above them as if stars could be moved so.
The cries were shrill and strange, the mares sounding like the skrilling of alien pipes, the stallions a deeper drone beneath, even the foals adding high-pitched, animal wailings to the cacophony.
Reality twisted further. The huts were stranger, taller, built as if for creatures utterly unlike the ones that danced before them. Or were they? Were the ponies now upright, dancing on hind legs, raising long, horrible limbs with narrow, unnatural fingers to the dark sky above? And was the great skeleton that arched above them joining the dance, raising a vast, indescribably horrible head that blotted out the stars with writhing madness, body now clothed on ghostly flesh over its bare bones, membranous wings spreading wide?
Was that real? How could it be? Yet Whiffletree saw it, she knew she saw it. She saw the god of madness looking down at her, and its eyes were chaos and discord. Not the bland discord she suddenly knew, not the fresh memory of a mixed creature full of jests, but the flesh-rending discord that leaves ponies biting at their own limbs in bloody, frenzied insanity.
“Ia!” cried the circling ponies—not-ponies, and a profoundly basso drone, as if from the largest pipe of the world’s greatest organ responded, vibrating the earth beneath Whiffletree’s hooves. Luna was nearly clinging to her now, and Whiffletree clung back with no shame. All they could do was cower beneath the unreal thing that loomed above them.
“Fomalhut rises!” cried a voice, suddenly. “The eyes of the Old Ones must not see the Sleeper walk!”
There was a wailing as of mourning, and the dance skidded to a halt. The thing above became a ghost, a shadow, and collapsed back to be only its own bleached bones in mere seconds. The villagers were ponies once more, their huts only huts, the stars only stars.
Whiffletree could feel Luna blow out a long breath. She herself felt a profound relief. She took a half step away from Luna, just far enough to be decent, and straightened herself.
“He woke!” chortled the village leader, his eyes wild, his face stretched into a broad, manic grin. “The sleeping one woke! Not since my great-grandsire’s day has he woken!” He looked at Whiffletree and Luna, while the other village ponies capered and danced in glee around him. “You have been a good omen to us, visitors. Now there will be feasting in joy. Will you join us to celebrate?”
The pair exchanged glances that carried clear agreement—neither wanted to remain and celebrate the awful thing they’d just witnessed. Whiffletree said, “We would be honored, but our journey calls to us. I don’t think we can linger long.”
“Of course, of course. But come! Come! The feast is being laid out even now.”
And so it was. Ponies rushed about, bringing out tables, and pitchers of drink, and food also, fruits and nuts and many other things, some familiar and some strange. Each pony in the village brought something and added it to the feast, it seemed. Having had only grass for who knew how long, Whiffletree was tempted by the things on offer. Yet she still felt a profound unease. The ponies might perhaps seem less uncanny by comparison than the horror that had walked not long ago, but they were still somehow not right, and Whiffletree wondered at the wholesomeness of their food.
An apple, though, familiar—indeed somehow almost nostalgic—seemed safe enough. She bit into it, and noticed that Luna had chosen much the same, holding a pear in her hoof.
The apple tasted of nothing stranger than apple, thankfully.
When it was done, and Luna had eaten her pear, Whiffletree begged off the remainder of the celebration, and though the stallion who’d been so cold to them before now implored them to stay, to remain until the next time of ritual and join the rites, even, both mares were insistent that their journey could not wait.
For a brief moment there was something of both anger and madness in the village leader’s eyes, and Whiffletree thought they might have to fight, but it was only a flash, and when Luna gave him one of her stern looks he cringed back and let them go their way.
They walked off down the road, and Whiffletree was very glad when the sound of their hoofsteps blotted out the last traces of merriment from behind them.
The pair walked long, and then longer still before finally calling a halt where the road crossed another small stream. Whiffletree felt that they’d walked a day’s round, though the stars were still too strange for her to be certain. Were their patterns slowly changing?
“I wish we had soap,” said Luna, staring at a place where the stream widened into a broad pool. “I would wash the stink of that… That…thing from my hooves.”
“I might have some,” said Whiffletree, twisting to nose through her saddlebags. “Yes! Here.” She nudged the paper-wrapped, herbal-scented bar with her muzzle, and Luna’s magic tingled against the sensitive hairs there for just a moment as she plucked the soap from the bag.
The feel of magic was familiar, and Whiffletree prodded at her patchy memory. She must have known many unicorns, for magic to seem such a familiar, natural thing to an earth pony like herself.
Luna stepped into the stream and began to lather up. Whiffletree settled beside it, and when her fellow traveler was done she took the soap and did the same. They washed up companionably, and more thoroughly than Whiffletree might have if only washing off the dust of the road. It was good to get the metaphorical scent of the Sleeping One off of her.
“What do you think that thing was?” asked Luna, as she shook water from her mane.
“An old, dead god, I suspect.”
Luna flicked an ear at that. “Oh?”
“Gods are strange things. Life and death mean different things to them than to mere mortals. Despite being only bones, it may be true that it sleeps. Or it may be dead but some fading power remains in some way. Who knows?”
“That is not dead which can eternal lie,” murmured Luna.
“Hmm?” Whiffletree cocked her head at Luna.
“Something I heard once. I can’t remember where. I can’t remember so many things. It’s maddening!”
“The whole world is maddening, it seems. Now, though, I am hungry. One apple many hours ago has left my stomach aching.”
“Yes. I’ll be sick of grass before long, but I don’t regret not joining fully in the feast.”
Whiffletree only nodded, then lowered her head and set about cropping the verdant green that grew beside the stream. Its color was muted by starlight, but it seemed like perfectly ordinary grass.
She thought, then, to wonder at her memories of grass by sunlight. She had no memories of a world where the sun never rose, not before she’d found herself walking the dark road. What did that mean? Had something changed in this place, or had she come from elsewhere? Nothing here was familiar, save for such mundane objects as grass, apples, and streams.
Luna once again gathered dead brambles and fallen branches for a fire. Whiffletree settled near it with a soft sigh, and pulled out the bottle of apple brandy. Luna took it when offered and drank a generous measure. Whiffletree did too. She was tempted, in truth, to pass the bottle back and forth until it was gone, taking shelter from all that had happened in drunkeness. Yet she had only the one bottle, and who knew how far to go. So she stowed it away again beside the little black book.
On impulse she pulled that out once more and ruffled through its delicate pages.
Luna opened her mouth, as if to say something, then shut it again, and turned to stare silently into the fire.
Whiffletree opened the book at random, and let her eyes slide over the verses she found there.
Oh clap your hooves all ye ponies. Shout unto Celestia with a voice of triumph.
For the Sun most high is terrible. She is a great ruler over all the earth.
Celestia is gone up with a shout, the Sun with the sound of the trumpet.
Shout unto the sun, all you ponies.
Sing praises to Celestia, sing praises: sing praises unto your Princess, sing praises.
She felt strange as she read. Something in her lifted at the book’s words, and something sorrowed in loss, and something, inexplicably, felt guilty. Why should a hymn of praise to a goddess she did not know move her in such strange ways?
“What have you read this time?” Whiffletree looked up to see Luna send a sidelong glance at her.
“Do you want me to read it to you?” she asked Luna, and then instantly regretted the asking..
“I… Perhaps I should not, but yes. Please do.”
Whiffletree did, and the strangeness she felt grew no less from speaking the words aloud.
“It is strange,” said Luna softly, looking again into the fire.
“Before, the words made me sad, as if I’d lost something dear to me. I remembered my sister, though I cannot recall the color of her coat nor her name, but she had something, I feel, to do with the sun, and the verse about it made me miss her. This one, though, makes me angry. I feel angry and bitter at the thought of ponies singing praises to the sun. I cannot understand it.”
“I wonder what this book was to me—or to you—before we came here?”
“I don’t know,” said Luna, and she gnashed her teeth together, showing again the small, sharp fangs she had there. “I don’t know too many things.”
All Whiffletree could do was nod in agreement.
Whiffletree and Luna continue along the road...