There was nothing like morning when the two mares woke and began their journey once more. The sky was as dark as ever, the stars as bright and as strange as ever, and the road as black as ever, but it began to climb more often than it sank, and the walls grew lower and lower.
They walked along for an unmeasured time. Whiffletree found herself almost drowsing. There was an effort in the walk, and in the climb, but nothing happened, and she could let her hooves move step by step without her mind paying any attention whatsoever to them.
There came a moment, however, when Whiffletree realized that the hoofsteps that had echoed hers, just a stride behind, had halted. She stopped and looked back, to find Luna standing in the middle of the road, scuffing one hoof against the cobblestones impatiently.
“What is the point of all this?!” she exclaimed loudly, her hooves spread out, her body lowered but her head tipped back to shout at the sky.
Whiffletree blinked at her. “Luna?”
“What is the point? We walk and we walk and we walk, without sun or moon, under stars that measure off no time I can find, along a road that never changes! Why should I take another single step? What use is any of this?!”
“Do you have any other alternative to offer?” said Whiffletree mildly.
Luna bared her teeth in a snarl of pure frustration. “Of course I don’t. Stars—! Augh. MOON damn it, I will not swear by the stars here!”
Whiffletree dared to step closer to the trembling unicorn and put a hoof on her shoulder. “I’m sorry. But what else are we to do? We need to go on.”
Luna suddenly sagged, head dropping. “Yes. Yes, I know. Let us go on, then.” She straightened, and Whiffletree could see her gathering her resolve. Whiffletree only patted her shoulder again and began walking once more. Luna fell in at her shoulder, and they went on in silence.
The land continued to slowly change around them, becoming more and more hilly. At the crest of each hill they could see more of the terrain. Those glimpses showed a shadow over the higher hills ahead. It stretched for as far as they could see to either side, and all the way to the mountains themselves, which lifted pale, snow-dusted heads above the strange darkness.
When the pair finally reached the line between dark and light, they found that the shadow was a forest of barren trees, dark of limb, that blotted out the starlight beneath their branches. The road went into the wood, an arch of utter blackness. Whiffletree and Luna stood at the border between light and shadow for a time. Then Luna lit her horn, a spark flaring at the tip and casting stark shadows beneath it.
She took the lead now, with Whiffletree a stride behind her, and the pair stepped into the dark tunnel beneath its roof of clawing black branches.
The forest seemed to be dead, and at first it seemed to be empty as well. By the time the arch of starlight had vanished behind them, though, they began to hear rustles in the underbrush around them. Luna lofted the light from the tip of her horn to float higher above, and brightened it as well, revealing more of the wood around them. That sudden increase sent something small and furry squeaking and scurrying away.
Whiffletree caught a bare flash of it. It was the size of a cat, perhaps, but longer in body and coarser in fur, she thought, with a naked, rat-like tail.
“Zoogs,” spat Luna, as a second one bolted out from behind a dead bush and raced after the first. It looked back at them over its shoulder just before it vanished from sight, and Whiffletree shuddered at the glimpse of a cluster of small tentacles, like a bouquet of writing worms, or like some hideous mutation of a burrowing mole’s nose. The eyes were blank circles, showing neither iris nor pupil, only reflecting Luna’s cool blue light with a milky, silver sheen.
Then the things were gone, and the rustles stilled.
“If there are zoogs here there may be less wholesome things,” said Luna. “Though I hardly consider zoogs wholesome themselves.”
“What are they?” asked Whiffletree.
“They—” Luna halted and gnashed her teeth. “They are not normal beings and do not dwell in normal lands, but of course I cannot remember what lands I have encountered them in. Only that I knew them to live in the same lands as ghouls, and perhaps even gugs. I can deal with ghouls. Ghouls can be useful things, even. If we find a gug we will be in great trouble indeed, though.”
“I think I know what a ghoul is, but what is a gug?”
“Gugs are large creatures, with monstrous, bestial inclinations, but they are thinking beings, and so not as easily fought as an animal. Imagine something the size of a smallish adult dragon, carnivorous, and not caring about the origin of its meals, that worships even less wholesome gods with bloody rites. Encounter one, and if all goes badly you have an even chance of ending up on the dinner table or on the sacrificial altar.”
“They build buildings, like many thinking beings, so we will not wander into a family of them without noticing their homes. But if we should find one out and about, I only hope we can escape its notice and flee.” Luna sighed and added, “I function on mere scraps of memory, though. I believe that gugs do not live in zoog woods, only that their lands lie near each other. Hopefully we won’t encounter any.”
“I hope so too.” Whiffletree felt her whole hide shiver, as if she’d had a swarm of flies land on her. As far as she could recall she’d never encountered a gug, but she knew she’d fought monsters before, and the idea of a thinking monster was hardly pleasant.
“We should move on. And pick up the pace, if we can. The sooner we’re out of this wood, the better,” said Luna.
Luna took off at a trot, her captive light floating above her head. Whiffletree matched her pace willingly. She didn’t want to linger here either.
They moved on swiftly, alternating a rapid trot with a brisk walk to avoid winding themselves. There were other rustles and motions in the woods, but for a long time they saw no other things, not even the zoogs.
Some hours into the wood they halted at a stream. Whiffletree was wary of it, but the water smelled wholesome, and Luna opined that it was likely safe enough. They paused there to drink, taking it in turns to watch and to slake their thirst.
“Hist,” said Luna, just as Whiffletree swallowed the first mouthful. She lifted her head swiftly, and followed Luna’s gaze off into the words, where a faint, hazy glow bobbed in the distance. Whiffletree had the thought that it must be a pony with a lantern. She turned to go towards it, thinking that any pony out in the woods must need her aid, but after only a step halted. Something in the back of her mind dredged up a fragment of memory, and she realized that the absurd conviction that a light here must be a pony was a glamor, part of the will o’ the wisp’s uncanny power.
“Of course there are fae here,” said Luna with a snort. “Next I suppose we’ll be besieged by changelings.” She gave another snort and shook her head.
“We should be certain to not leave each other’s sight then,” said Whiffletree.
Luna blinked at her, then nodded. “Aye. That is a wise plan.”
“I’ll finish my drink swiftly,” said Whiffletree, and turned back to the stream. She took her fill of the cold, rushing water, and then she and Luna trotted on.
The ground went up and down still, since the forest was covering the foothills at the mountains’ base, and the way still tended up, probably still aimed at those no longer so distant peaks. Though Whiffletree thought that it hardly mattered if the road ran somewhere else, so long as it eventually left this uncanny wood.
They continued through the unchanging dark under Luna’s light; the only other glimmer of illumination was an occasional will o’ the wisp attempting its futile lure. Whiffletree knew they could be dangerous, but only if you didn’t know what they were, or were very tired, or drunk, or otherwise compromised. Alert and aware, it was easy to avoid their snare. Though, as the endless night wore on, she feared they might become tired enough to fall for the glowing lights. She didn’t want to sleep in the wood, but she had no idea how far it stretched.
Then, suddenly, a distant baying sounded, and both Luna and Whiffletree halted, heads raised, ears swiveling to locate the sound.
“You had to mention changelings,” said Whiffletree, knowing what the sound must be.
“It could just be some other sort of hounds,” offered Luna weakly. “And they’re probably not hunting us, given how far away they seem.”
“I hope so. But either way we should pick up the pace.”
“Yes.” Luna broke into a trot, and the two moved swiftly down the road, the distant sound of baying hounds echoing through the wood.
The sound grew and faded, the direction seeming to change impossibly, twisted by the trees and by the dips and hollows of the hilly terrain. It soon became clear, though, that it was headed in their general direction. Luna muttered a curse. Whiffletree only broke into a canter, and prayed that the road would take them away from the Hunt, and not toward it.
They seemed, as far as she could tell from the shifting sound, to be moving at right angles to the progress of the Hunt. The belling cries of the hounds grew and faded unpredictably, but overall they were growing louder, which made Whiffletree more and more nervous.
Something crashed through the brush just ahead of them and both mares halted, Whiffletree nearly running into Luna’s hindquarters.
The thing blundering through the brush stumbled onto the road, then let out a loud, meeping sound, head whipping around to stare at the two ponies and their light.
It was not entirely unlike a pony itself. Its hind limbs were equine, with cloven hooves, and a bony tail with a few long, scraggly hairs clinging to it might once have been a pony’s tail. But its front limbs were distorted; cloven hooves elongated into claws, and a pair of spindly dew-claws acted as bizarre double thumbs. It held these limbs tucked up against its chest, its posture half-hunched as if it couldn’t decide if it wanted to drop down to all fours or continue to shamble upright.
There were clumps of wispy mane atop its head, and its face was an equine face, but was sunken in, cheeks hollow, muzzle distorted, cracked lips splitting too far back from a wide-hinged jaw whose teeth were too many and too sharp. Its eyes were black pits, and yet it was just equine enough that the pure terror in its expression was crystal clear.
For one long instant both ghoul—for Whiffletree knew it was a ghoul—and ponies were frozen, staring at each other. Then the hounds bayed again, very near now, and the ghoul flung itself at the ponies. Whiffletree shied—she couldn’t help it—and she saw Luna flinch too, but the ghoul didn’t attack. Instead, it dropped to lie prostrated at Luna’s hooves.
“Sanctuary! Please! Oh please, ponies, have pity on a thing that was once alive and still wants to live. Please!” It’s voice was as twisted as the rest of it, both harsh and horribly liquid at the same time.
Whiffletree and Luna exchanged brief glances. Whiffletree recognized the question in Luna’s eyes, and gave the smallest of nods.
“Get behind me then,” said Luna, and the ghoul scrambled to cower in her shadow. Even as it did the hounds, pale white creatures with pink eyes and ears, began to spill out of the woods and onto the road. They halted too, on seeing the pair of ponies, and milled about, pausing now and then to sniff at the road where the ghoul had stood and bay.
A moment later other creatures emerged from the black forest. The first was an ordinary changeling, lambent blue eyes narrowed in Luna’s light. It went straight to the hounds, calming them and setting them in order. Close behind it came a taller, more elegant changeling, one that Whiffletree knew must be highly ranked, though she did not have the fully developed, slit eyes of a queen. A lesser princess, then, or a lady. The creature had no crown, so most likely a lady.
“Ponies,” said the changeling, her voice a high-pitched buzzing, her tone an arrogant sneer. Four more lesser changelings came out of the forest to range themselves behind their leader. The hounds now sat in an orderly rank about the hooves of their minder, red tongues lolling as they panted.
Whiffletree knew in an instant that she and Luna were outnumbered and likely outmatched. She didn’t want to fight if she could avoid it, but would if she must. Still, changelings could be reasoned with, and many of them weren’t terribly smart. When Luna didn’t immediately step forward, Whiffletree did, ducking her head and bowing. “Lady Changeling. It is an honor to behold one of such surpassing beauty.”
“You flatter me shamelessly,” said the changeling, but she nevertheless arched her neck and preened, her wings giving a flutter.
“I only speak the truth, Lady Changeling.”
The changeling gave a little scoff, but also angled her head the other way, still obviously posing. Whiffletree managed to not smile. She might actually pull this off.
“I notice that you ponies are standing between me and my quarry,” said the changeling.
Whiffletree put on an expression of surprise. “What, the ghoul here? An obviously important lady like yourself, bothering with such a lowly creature?”
The changeling actually flushed, her cheeks turning green. “Yes, well, it irritated me.”
“Ah, of course. Ghouls are uncouth things, aren’t they?”
“Very.” The changeling’s ears flicked in obvious annoyance, and Whiffletree quickly forged ahead, not wanting to let her focus too much on her anger.
“I’m truly surprised you bothered with a hunt, all the same. It’s such an inconsequential creature, compared to your obvious status. Yet unfortunately we now have a bit of a problem, my lady. I hesitate to bother you with it, but this lowly thing has claimed sanctuary of us, and sanctuary does carry certain obligations. I know, of course, that I cannot possibly stand against you, but I hate to put you to any effort on behalf of such a worm. It is a petty little conflict, far beneath you, and I am ashamed to find myself even considering that you might stoop to dealing with such nobodies as ourselves.”
“Oh, well, truly I am hardly that exalted…” The changeling looked hesitant now. Insisting on fighting for the ghoul suddenly looked like losing face, yet she obviously didn’t want to give the ghoul up.
“There’s no need to be so humble, my lady. I know you must be one of the great ones. Your power and beauty are both plainly apparent to anyone with eyes! But if you need to dirty your hooves fighting us for this bit of slime, I understand.”
“Ah…” The changeling glanced at her retainers. The one managing the hounds was sitting among its charges, and as oblivious to all this as they. The other four stood stock still, with carefully neutral faces, but were all looking intently at her, obviously curious what she would decide. She tossed her head, putting her muzzle up, and said, “Hmmph. It is a little nothing, isn’t it? Why don’t you punish it for me? I cannot possibly let rudeness such as it showed go unanswered, but if you whip it a few times, I will consider my honor upheld.”
“Of course, my lady,” said Whiffletree, bowing again, deeply. “We will be certain that justice is carried out.”
“Excellent. See that it is done, then.” Nose still in the air, she turned and stalked back into the wood, her servants immediately following after her, hounds bounding and yelping all around them as they went.
Whiffletree stayed with head bowed, and Luna and the ghoul both kept perfectly still as well until the last sign of changelings and hounds had vanished, and then a little longer.
Finally Whiffletree straightened with a deep sigh. “Thank the sun and moon.”
“I’m impressed,” said Luna. “I will freely admit that I was preparing for a fight.”
“I thought I should at least try diplomacy first,” said Whiffletree with a shrug. “It was admittedly a crude and hasty effort. I’m very glad it worked.” She then peered behind Luna, at where the ghoul still crouched low to the ground. “Are you alright?”
“Somehow, yes. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” The ghoul scrambled to its feet, resuming its off-putting, hunched posture.
Luna cleared her throat. “Considering who we have dealt with to spare you, and how, I believe we must do one more thing, lest the fates fall against us.”
The ghoul cringed, but nodded. “Of course. I accept my punishment.”
“Whiffletree? Would you please, since you made the deal?” Luna gave Whiffletree a wink.
Whiffletree smiled and winked back. One could not lightly break a promise to a changeling, especially not in a place of their power such as this wood likely was; so she was bound to whip the ghoul. She looked around, and immediately saw just what she needed. Bending, she took a dry grass stem between her teeth and plucked it. The ghoul had its unsightly, clawed hoof-hands over its eyes, but it let them fall and stared in astonishment as Whiffletree stuck it across the shoulder with the grass stem thrice. The ghoul began laughing, a strange, gurgling sort of sound.
“Truly I have been harshly punished.” It grinned, showing far too many teeth. “Thank you again. I was called Cotton Candy, when I lived.”
There was the briefest possible moment when the old gray mare found she couldn’t remember her own name. Was her memory growing worse somehow?
“I am Luna,” said Luna.
“Whiffletree,” she finally said, though it was odd; she could conjure no memories of being called that name by any except Luna, in the unmeasured span since they’d met at the crossroads. If she had another name she couldn’t recall that either. Her mind must be fading even further. Perhaps she was simply too old. She couldn’t put a number of years to herself—that too was missing from her mind—but just looking at her coat she knew she was far from young.
“Are you going toward the mountains, or away?” asked Cotton Candy. The name was incongruous, but it was true that beneath the grime and rot, the ghoul’s coat had once been a pale pink. Her ears were mere tatters, but she perked them towards the ponies inquisitively as she spoke.
“Toward,” said Luna.
“Tch.” The ghoul’s shredded ears went back. “I owe you a debt, possibly of my life, but if you go to the mountains, I can accompany you only to the edge of the wood.”
Whiffletree found herself once again exchanging a meaning-laden glance with Luna. “What lies in the mountains that’s more dangerous than these woods?” she asked.
The ghoul gave a little shrug. “Nothing I know for certain. The woods I know. The mountains I do not. But they were once the home of the Elder Things, long ago, and there are tales that they made a terrible, monstrous servant, a being far worse than a small horror like myself, that remained behind when they grew tired of this world and set off into the void in search of another.”
“I see.” Another glance was exchanged. The tale of a monster to be feared might be true, but it might be only the sort of story that thinking beings of all sorts had always told about the strange terrors of “over there” as opposed to the familiar conditions “over here.”
“We will go on,” said Luna firmly. “We have no other direction to go.”
Cotton Candy looked at them curiously for a long moment, then nodded. “I’ll go with you to the edge of the wood, then.”
“Thank you,” said Whiffletree.
“Yes, thank you,” echoed Luna. She lifted her head, and the light that had hovered above them all this time bobbed. “We should move on, now.”
They did. Luna once again took the lead, with Whiffletree at her shoulder, and Cotton Candy at Whiffletree’s shoulder in turn. Whiffletree had to make an effort to not spook, having the ghoul so close. Cotton Candy smelled of blood and corruption, and the way she moved made Whiffletree want to shy every time she caught that motion from the corner of her eye. Yet in a way, Cotton Candy was still a pony. Ghouls were fallen things, but even through the haze of broken memories, Whiffletree knew that Cotton Candy hadn’t chosen her lot. Becoming a ghoul was something that sometimes happened to ponies who had certain bloodlines, and who perished in certain ways. So Whiffletree did her best to trot steadily and remain calm.
This effort seemed familiar, as if she’d often had reason to welcome predators into her herd. Why must her memory be so inconstant? She could grasp vague glimpses of walking with gryphons and even speaking at times with dragons, but had no notion of when or why she’d done these things.
She tried to put it out of her mind—that should be easy enough, with her mind going, shouldn’t it?—and continue on. Eventually, though, tiredness dragged at her, and she noted that Luna had slowed to a walk and hadn’t attempted a trot in some time. Looking back at Cotton Candy, Whiffletree said, “How much further to the edge of the wood?”
“Half a turn of the stars, or a little less,” she said, and Whiffletree wanted to sigh. That meant what, half a day? Twelve hours? Much too far to keep walking.
“We should rest then,” she said.
“There’s a hollow not far ahead,” said Cotton Candy, “and a stream near it. It’s as safe as most places here. And there are fish.”
Luna looked sharply at the ghoul with a sudden eagerness in her eyes, which Whiffletree didn’t fail to notice, but the gray earth pony only nodded. “That sounds good.”
When they reached the hollow, Whiffletree was pleased to see that it was a curve of steep, barren earth with just enough space for the three of them and their fire beside the stream. A little ways upstream, a bend in the water created conditions that Luna gleefully declared perfect for fish, and no sooner was a fire kindled than she and Cotton Candy were standing in the shallows of the stream, intent on the spot.
Whiffletree lay beside the fire and watched the fishing. Luna’s magic made short work of it. It took perhaps fifteen minutes until Cotton Candy was hunched over a fat trout, and shortly after that Luna’s magic was dissecting a second one in an almost disturbingly neat fashion, planes of force tidily separating skin, guts, bones, head, and fins from the fish’s pale, striated flesh. Luna dropped everything else into the stream, and floated the pair of perfect fillets she’d made over the fire, while Cotton Candy curled up beside it, still clutching her fish and gnawing it happily.
“I thought ghouls only ate dead flesh?” asked Whiffletree.
Cotton Candy looked up, her teeth stained red, and chuckled. “Yes. I killed the fish first, and nothing says I must wait until it rots, though decay is a fine spice. Very few things eat living flesh.”
“I suppose that’s true,” said Whiffletree, managing to firmly tamp down any disgust at the ghoul’s dinner, and at Luna’s as well. With her fillets roasted, Luna was now tearing into them eagerly. This once again felt as familiar as it felt disturbing. She had dined with carnivores before.
Feeling a deep, bitter frustration at the state of her memory, Whiffletree dug into her saddlebags again. Once more the bottle of apple brandy, somewhat lowered now, emerged, and once more the little black book did as well. She passed the brandy to Luna, who drank, and Cotton Candy, who sniffed it and then refused. Whiffletree smiled at the thought of a ghoul being teetotal, but the smile didn’t last. She opened the book, seeking some augury within.
Oh Celestia, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?
How long shall thy hoof be stayed and thine eye, yeah thy fiery eye, behold from the heavens the wrongs of thy people?
How long shall thine ear be penetrated with their cries?
Oh Sun almighty, let thy hoof be stretched forth, thy pavilion be taken up; let thy hiding place be no longer covered. Let thine ear be inclined and thy bowels moved with compassion.
Whiffletree sighed. A deep melancholy came over her. She still didn’t understand what this book was to her, but those words brought sadness, regret, and even something like shame. The words were associated with failure, somehow. With something she hadn’t done, something she hadn’t seen, someone she hadn’t saved.
“Read it to me?” asked Luna.
Whiffletree shook her head and instead hoofed the book over. “I don’t feel like reading.”
Luna’s eyes scanned down the page. Then, out loud she said, softly, “My daughter, peace be unto thy soul. Thine adversity and afflictions shall be but a small moment. And then, if thou endure it, the Sun shall exalt thee on high. Thy friends do stand by thee, and they shall hail thee with warm hearts and friendly hooves.” She looked up, and smiled sadly at Whiffletree. “Was missing friends what made you sigh at the page so?”
“I read a different verse,” said Whiffletree with a shrug. “That one is nicer, I suppose. I don’t know. I should stop reading, the book always seems to be upsetting somehow.”
“I know I have friends somewhere, even if I can’t remember them,” said Luna. “That is a comfort, regardless of what the book may say.” She looked at Whiffletree again, and over at Cotton Candy. “I have friends here too, perhaps.”
“Ghouls do not have friends,” said Cotton Candy, looking away from Luna, her expression guarded.
“Well, ponies do,” said Whiffletree. “And I think ghouls could if they wanted to. But friendship is hardly mandatory.”
Cotton Candy looked back, and gave a little shrug. “Friends or no, ponies need sleep. I will watch while you rest.”
“Thank you,” said Whiffletree. She had the thought that the ghoul could get a very fine meal of recently dead flesh, if she wanted to kill two ponies while they slept. But she was too exhausted to think of anything else to do, and the ghoul seemed genuinely grateful for her rescue.
Whiffletree’s heart apparently believed that as well as her mind, for she slept deeply, and woke refreshed.
Whiffletree and Luna continue along the road... (And meet Cotton Candy, one of my favorite personal OCs. She's way too much fun!)