They went on. The road had stretched forever, Whiffletree was sure, and the forest nearly as far. They would walk on worn black cobblestones until the universe died its final, cold death. Yet with each stride the road curved and climbed more, snaking its way back and forth as it ascended the foothills, and finally—finally!—there was a glimmer of starlight ahead, and the trio emerged from the forest to find themselves halfway up a mountain pass with nothing growing ahead but stunted shrubs and dry grass.
Cotton Candy gave a shudder as she looked up at the looming peaks. “I go no further,” she said. “You can see the old domain of the Elder Things already, and I have no desire to meet their monster, if it exists.”
“Thank you for your help,” said Whiffletree, and Luna echoed her.
“Thank you for the rescue,” was Cotton Candy’s reply. “And best of luck wherever the road takes you.” She waved one abhorrent forelimb, and Whiffletree waved back. Then Cotton Candy vanished back into the dark, and the pony pair were left to climb onward on their own.
Surveying the road ahead, Whiffletree couldn’t help but notice that the mountain’s slopes were oddly shaped. They were pierced with many holes to begin with, and though some of those openings were irregular, most were constructed of straight lines, joining at odd angles, but definitely not accidents of nature. Even the rougher holes showed where they might once have been more even, before untold years had weathered them.
Looking for straight lines, Whiffletree began noticing them everywhere. It wasn’t only the doorways: the hills had been carved into buildings, or buildings built out of the hills. Both peaks, the one to the right and the one to the left of the pass, were cities, all the way from just above where they now stood to the white gleam of the snow line, and perhaps even higher still.
She and Luna both stood there for a long time, taking it in. Finally Whiffletree started forward again, for there was nothing else to do. That seemed the tone of this whole journey. They did it because there was nothing else to do.
Whiffletree was sure things hadn’t always been that way. She remembered a world of sunshine and moonlight, of song and laughter, of friendship expressed with food or gifts rather than by guarding a friend’s back from mortal danger. She felt there had been other dire times, but that good times had lasted for a longer span.
She let her mind wander as she climbed the slope, the mountains now looming on either side, their slopes full of strange angles seldom found in nature. What had happened, between those sunlit years and now? What had broken her mind and made her so much less than she’d once been? How had she come here, to a place that seemed to have never seen the sun, from that idyllic land she could almost recall?
The wind picked up, chill here so high up the slopes, and it brought with it a faint, hollow, fluting sound. Luna and Whiffletree both halted, pricking their ears towards it.
“The wind across some empty doorway, pitched just so, I think,” said Luna after a moment.
Whiffletree nodded, and they continued, accompanied by that eerie, monotone music. They were well into the pass, now, though the road still sloped upward ahead, but they would crest it before needing to halt, Whiffletree thought. She was glad of that. She didn’t want to bed down amid so many open doorways. Even if the monster Cotton Candy had mentioned didn’t exist, anything at all might be sheltering inside those black holes.
The distant fluting seemed to shift about, coming from one direction and then another. There must be many different doorways that could catch the wind, each doing so in turn as the wind gusted. As they went on there were often several of them, though they always sounded the same note.
Something about the sound began to set Whiffletree on edge, though she couldn’t put a hoof on why.
Luna, though, managed to do so, for after a time she said, “How is it that many different openings, in many different places, all resonate to the same pitch?”
Whiffletree considered if she knew any curses that suited the sudden realization. “It’s not the wind, is it?”
“Not the wind,” said Luna, nodding. “And whatever it is, there are a number of them, on all sides of us.”
Whiffletree looked around. They were short of the crest of the pass yet, but not that short. They were completely surrounded by the buildings though, and some of the doors opened out almost directly onto the road. “Any ideas?” she said.
Luna shrugged. “Run?”
“It’ll be uphill, and towards at least some of them. And it will be noisy. If they’re busy having a communal concert or whatever that is, they may not have noticed we’re here yet. Even if they have noticed, they may not be interested in us, but running tends to attract attention.”
“True.” They both were still walking as they spoke. “I’ve readied several spells of both defense and attack if needs be, but there are only so many creatures I can fend off, and we know nothing of their nature. Other than that I can think of nothing to do.”
“We proceed, then, and hope they leave us be.”
The piping sounds seemed to grow more numerous as they reached the crest, but reach it they did—and without seeing so much as a hair, scale, or feather of whatever lurked in the ruined mountain-city.
From that vantage, they could see what lay on the far side of the mountains; a high plateau, dotted with shadows that could be forests, and threaded with things that might be rivers. It was at such an elevation that the road down from the pass was far, far shorter than the road up to it. Once it reached the plateau, the road ran ruler straight, though it eventually became a thread too thin to follow, so Whiffletree couldn’t see if there was an end to it.
There was no end in sight to the plateau, so if further mountains lay on the far side they were very far off indeed. Or perhaps the world was flat, and the end of the plateau dropped off into space. Or maybe it simply stretched out forever, and the road too, and they would journey on like this, beneath the strange stars, for all eternity. Whiffletree sighed. Just now that latter thought seemed more likely.
Still, even if the plain stretched forever, she would be glad to set hoof on it, and be out from among all these strange buildings with their unknown, pipe-playing occupants.
Luna let out an audible sigh, which Whiffletree echoed. “Let’s move on,” she said, and they began making their way along the road as it wound down through the mountain-city towards the plain below.
The piping was still all around them as they moved. Whiffletree felt as though her hair had all been standing on end for an eternity now. She picked up the pace, anticipating relief once they left the city behind for the plain.
Then she halted, for there was something reaching out of one of those dark doorways only a few strides ahead of her. “Luna…”
“I see it.”
It was a tentacle. That was Whiffletree’s first impression. It was a tapering length of…stuff, crawling along the ground. Then it bunched itself up to lift a smaller tentacle from part of it, behaving not like the arm of an octopus, but more like a slime mold greatly sped up. The lifted portion of it gathered a larger blob at the tip, and this suddenly opened up into an eye, which swiveled around until it came to rest staring directly at the two ponies.
The piping sound cut off abruptly, from all directions.
“Oh dear,” said Whiffletree, her voice barely above a whisper.
“This does not bode well,” replied Luna, just as softly. “Yet…”
“Yet we need to continue on, yes.” Whiffletree started forward again, angling to one side of the road, so as to give the staring blob-thing as wide a berth as possible. Its single, unblinking eye followed Whiffletree as she walked by. She’d thought her hair had been standing on end before, but now she was certain that every single fiber in her entire coat was at attention, and that her whole hide might crawl away, given half a chance. The whatever-it-was unnerved her thoroughly.
A second tentacle emerged from a different door, a little further from the road and further ahead. Whiffletree trotted a little faster.
Luna, still just at Whiffletree’s shoulder, suddenly cried out and staggered. Whiffletree wheeled, and saw that the first tentacle was wrapped around one of Luna’s legs, just at the pastern. Luna’s horn lit, and a beam of power struck the thing, making it recoil and let go. Several mouths suddenly opened along it and it wailed through them, half a scream, half the sound of piping that they’d heard before.
The tentacle ahead of them, slowly creeping towards the road, sprouted wailing mouths as well.
“It bit me!” said Luna, sounding as outraged as injured, and indeed she was leaving bloody hoofprints now as she continued, but the injury couldn’t be severe, given that she wasn’t limping.
“Better run,” said Whiffletree. She broke into an outright gallop, racing past the next reaching tentacle before it could get to the road, and Luna ran neck and neck with her. All around them irregular tentacles flowed out from doorways like a hideous liquid, studded with mouths that screamed and eyes that stared. It was a terrible cacophony that made Whiffletree wish she could clap her hooves over her ears. She was much too busy running with them, though. She raced, hoping to somehow outrun the reaching masses. Yet all too soon there was one fully blocking the road ahead, and Whiffletree felt a stab of despair.
With a cry Luna leaped forward, horn aglow, and a beam shot out and hit the thing. There was a chorus of screeching from the amorphous masses all around as the one in front of them was partially vaporized. Whiffletree leapt the smoking remnants of it at Luna’s heels and galloped even faster, rushing recklessly down the slope. Ahead yet more of the things loomed, though, tentacles merging where they met to form threatening masses, whose mouths opened wide enough to swallow Whiffletree whole.
The glow from Luna’s horn grew brighter, its blue turning nearly white, and a bubble of energy popped into place around the running mares. As they reached the next abominable mass the shield hit it and forced it aside, the nearly-liquid nature of it letting it part around the bubble of force.
Whiffletree could see the strain this put on Luna, but she felt a wave of relief to have some barrier, however slight, between her and the monstrous, churning mass.
They ran on, blundering through blob after blob, until they were continuously forging through an ocean of appalling quasi-liquid. Their pace had already slowed, but now it slowed further, and Whiffletree feared that if they came to a halt they’d be drowned in a sea of horror, never to move again.
“If I push the shield from the inside, can I move it?” she cried.
“If…” Luna’s eyes went wide and she said “Yes! Yes, please!”
Whiffletree lowered her head, leading with her shoulder, and leapt forward. The magic felt solid when she hit it, which it must be if it was to hold the abominable sea that foamed about it. It tingled, also, a crackling energy against her coat, but she hardly noticed for her whole being was concentrated on setting her hooves in the way of earth ponies and pushing.
They’d slowed to a walk, but she soon was pushing at a trot, shoving the knee-high wave of horror aside while Luna trotted just behind her, concentrating on maintaining the bubble, but relieved of the need to move it.
The mass lapped slowly higher, more and more of the creature flowing out of the doors all around, converging on the pony pair. It grew harder to forge through it, and Whiffletree was soon sweating just keeping to a walk. She soldiered on, digging in her hooves and shoving with all her might as the horror rose and rose. It was as high as her head now, and the whole world was made of mouths and eyes that pressed against the wall, gibbering and staring, separated from her by only a paper-thin blue glimmer. Something in the back of her mind was hanging tightly to sanity, and she knew she would pay for it later, but now there was only pushing and pushing.
Despite all she could do, though, she slowed, and slowed further, until at last the bubble was moving only by inches, and finally not at all.
Whiffletree sagged. “I’m sorry.” All around them mouths pressed hungrily to the bubble, and lidless eyes rolled against it. They were completely enclosed now, buried beneath the thing.
“No!” said Luna. “I refuse to accept defeat.” Her horn glowed bright, gaining a double corona, and then a triple. Then it seemed to explode, magic slamming into the shield, which itself turned white-hot for an instant before exploding outward. There was an unbearable light, a hot pressure and release, a bang that near deafened Whiffletree, and a shrieking that was nevertheless audible from all around them.
They were suddenly standing in a crater, with a terrific burned reek filling the air, and charred lumps of the thing lying about for what must be two or three furlongs at least. Whiffletree found herself surprised at that. She couldn’t summon concrete memories, but she felt that this was an unusual amount of power, more than most unicorns could wield, even in extremity.
“Swift, let us go,” said Luna, and the bubble popped back into place. Whiffletree could see that the unicorn was exhausted, but she only nodded and trotted at Luna’s side as they climbed back onto the road from the pit Luna had blown in it and resumed their retreat.
The vast ocean of awful being didn’t react immediately, but it wasn’t long before it was once again sending tentacles out to press against the bubble. Luna gritted her teeth audibly, her horn sparking and guttering as Luna drained her power to the dregs, and Whiffletree knew they might well die, yet the road was beginning to level out as they neared the plain. Perhaps once they were out of the city, no longer surrounded by the thing, they might have a better chance at holding it off.
As more and more tentacles wrapped around the bubble, Whiffletree put her shoulder down again and pushed it. Luna was exhausted, and she was swiftly growing exhausted too, but the tide of creature was not even knee-high and she could see the edge of the city ahead. If they were merely not surrounded, she could surely keep pushing on. The thing’s tentacles didn’t seem that fast. If she didn’t have to push, maybe they could outrun it. Or something.
She knew that was all futile and they would probably die, but she shoved wearily on all the same, with Luna wearily holding her magic—down the last curve, past the last crumbling mountainside-building, past the last door half-filled with the mass of crawling horror, and out onto the sudden transition from slope to utterly flat plain.
As she did she literally fell on her face, for all resistance suddenly vanished.
The trailing edge of the bubble slapped her in the rump, and Luna stumbled but did not fall at the unexpected impact tied to her horn. Whiffletree slowly climbed back on all four hooves and looked back, puzzled.
There was a seething mass of alien flesh, studded with mouths that shrieked and wailed and, as she watched, began to both chant some unholy syllables and with other mouths purse and whistle that fluting tone that had grown so familiar. But it was bounded by a sharp line, precisely where the city stopped and the plain began.
“Okay, that’s creepy,” said Whiffletree.
Luna let the spell bubble pop. “Indeed.”
“Uh…” Whiffletree found herself completely unwilling to turn her back on the abomination wailing, changing, and piping at the edge of the plain, so she started to back up.
Luna tossed her head and said, “If it stops short of the plain, what does it fear here? Let us walk with eyes forward.”
“Ah. Uhm. Yes, good idea.” Feeling the back of her neck absolutely crawling, but also unhappily aware that Luna was right, Whiffletree turned and began walking forward.
They were still on the road, and the road was still the same. It never changed. Whiffletree half expected that if she somehow backtracked to the spot where Luna had blown a hole in it, it would already be restored, grown back in an instant.
Looking back over her shoulder, Whiffletree saw the abomination slowly withdrawing into the doors it had spewed forth from. The wailing and chanting tapered off, and only the eerie piping remained. It was still audible even when the last tentacle had vanished.
At that point Luna halted, and Whiffletree did as well.
“I am spent,” said the unicorn, collapsing to the grass that grew along the side of the road. The plain was dry, and the grass was too, but it smelled wholesome as Whiffletree let herself fall to lie on it as well.
“Yes. That was…some kind of thing.”
“I have never seen nor heard of anything like that.”
“Me neither. But now you have me thinking of what something like that might fear.” Whiffletree gave a shudder.
“Perhaps its existence is bounded somehow,” said Luna, taking a mouthful of grass as she lay. “Some magical things are created thus. The ghoul said it was a created servant.”
“I can hope,” said Whiffletree. She tried a mouthful of the grass herself, and found it dry but sweet, like hay. She let out a small sigh, unwinding just a little, and managed to get to her hooves to graze.
They ate, and settled down in the grass a little ways away from the road. There were no brambles to burn here, nor streams to shelter beside. Whiffletree pulled out her water bottle from one bag, and drained about half of it. She didn’t know when they’d next find water, but it was still just as well to carry it on the inside as on the outside. She hoofed the bottle over to Luna. Then she followed it with the brandy bottle, after taking a longer than usual pull. Her nerves could use some settling after all that. There was a part of her mind that was insisting on replaying the way the mouths and eyes had pressed up against her as she shoved her shoulder against Luna’s shield, and it was all too easy imagining what would have happened if the shield had failed.
Luna took a long drink too. The bottle was definitely growing low, and with a feeling of reckless disregard Whiffletree had another swig when Luna passed it back. She offered it again, and Luna took her up on that offer.
They passed the bottle back and forth until it was all gone. Then, beneath the merciless stars, whose patterns Whiffletree still didn’t know, Luna said, “Will you read me a verse from your book?”
“They’ve all seemed like ill omens to me thus far,” she replied, knowing that the drink was making her more candid than she perhaps should be. “They’ve all been nothing but sorrows.”
“Perhaps, but they’ve spoken to me all the same. Read me one more, please?” A spark kindled on Luna’s horn, and Whiffletree sighed and pulled out the book.
Once more she opened it at random, and began to read, out loud this time.
“And in that day shall the sun be darkened, or rather shall the face of Celestia be darkened in wrath, and the moon shall be turned to blood, or rather Luna shall turn to the power of blood, and rise again in darkness to rule upon the earth forever more.”
Whiffletree halted, a scrap of memory stunned back into her mind by the verse. She could picture a pony, whose face was that of the Luna sitting before her, but whose being was utterly different, for this Luna was tall and terrible, with vast dark wings, wreathed about by a mane and tail bearing the night sky within their waving umbra.
“The moon,” said Luna, her own eyes wide with memory. “It’s not just my cutie mark, I was the moon.”
“I remember. I remember seeing you and being afraid,” said Whiffletree. She clawed at the memory, seeking more. When had she seen and feared Luna? Why? What had she been doing, to be in the company of the moon goddess? What had Luna done to cause such fear?
No matter how she beat at her own mind, though, no further memory emerged.
“But how? I’m no goddess now. How did I lose such power?”
“There’s no moon,” noted Whiffletree. “Perhaps something happened to it. Or…” She thought again of a lifetime worth of memories, tattered as they might be, and said, “Or perhaps we came here from somewhere else, somewhere with a sun and a moon. You lost your moon, and I lost my past, but I feel like everything we’ve seen here has been alien to me.”
Luna shook her head. “I don’t know. Some of it was familiar. The zoog wood was. But it’s true I’ve never seen anything like the dead god, or the piping monster we just escaped. Perhaps zoogs, fair folk, and ghouls are found on many worlds. Ponies must be, that we are ponies and have met ponies here.”
“The verse, though…” Luna looked away from Whiffletree, out across the dark plain. The stars came down to the horizon in every direction save where the mountains made a long, dark wall behind them. The eternal night was beautiful, in its way. “The verse speaks of something yet to come. I wonder… My own memory is as rotten as a long-fallen tree. Yet I have no memory of rising in blood. I think… I think I have dealt in darkness, as I suppose the moon might. I’ve done bad things. But though what memories I have suggest I have long borne a blood-craving, I’ve seldom indulged in it that I can recall. A prophecy that I will take blood and rise to rule… It strikes me as ominous.”
“It is a bit, isn’t it?” Whiffletree smiled. Somehow, despite that sudden memory of past fear, she wasn’t afraid now. Even the idea of Luna giving in to vampirism and becoming some kind of dark goddess didn’t seem all that fearful. She could hardly be a more awful monster than the one they’d just escaped, and probably would be no worse a deity than the dead god dreaming his skeletal dreams, after all.
Luna gave Whiffletree a long look, but Whiffletree only shrugged, still smiling. “If you’re destined to rise in blood, then you are. I feel there’s probably not much point to fighting destiny. I may not remember much, but I remember how those sorts of stories go. You set out to be certain your son can never marry you, and all you do is create the circumstances where he definitely will.” Whiffletree’s smile broadened, and Luna smiled back.
“You’re right.” Then Luna yawned. “Regardless, I am beyond exhausted, so certainly for now there is nothing to be done but sleep.”
Whiffletree nodded, and, feeling strangely confident in the gesture she wished to make, rested her head on Luna’s withers.
Luna flinched from the contact, but only for a single surprised instant, then she relaxed and shifted to rest her own head on Whiffletree in turn. So they slipped into slumber together, as herdmates had since the earliest days of ponykind.
Whiffletree and Luna continue along the road...