Whiffletree felt well rested when she rose.
It was illogical, of course. They’d escaped a horrible danger, and rested amid the unknown and perhaps the unknowable, and yet she’d slept deeply and soundly.
She stretched, as did Luna beside her, and they both grazed again for a time.
Then it was time to once more set hoof on the black cobblestone road.
Whiffletree paused for a moment. She was growing weary of this journey. She was weary of the road, weary of her broken mind, weary in body, weary in spirit, weary of everything in truth except perhaps Luna’s company, which was congenial and comfortable. That was the only bearable thing in a world that seemed nothing but the unbearable and the tediously miserable. She felt as though at this point she might take any escape from the unending night with its wrong stars that she could find, then shook her head at the thought. Best to not wish for such things, lest she curse herself to have the wish fulfilled in some terrible way.
Still, there was nothing for it, so she once again set off down the path, hooves chiming, the cheery sound very much at odds with the mood of at least one of those who made it.
Luna’s mood was hard to read, but she seemed to be pensive, if she was anything other than merely tired.
The plain around them wasn’t perfectly flat, but the rises and falls were nothing that could be called hills. They did eventually find a stream, carving a shallow valley out of the plain as it meandered slowly across it. It might have even been considered a river, for it was broad, but barely more than hock-deep when they forded it. The road’s cobblestones lay beneath the washing water, and seemed unaltered by it.
Whiffletree drank from the cool rush, then filled both the water bottle and the now-empty brandy bottle there before they went on.
As they continued, they began to pass large stones that jutted out from the plain. They were dark things, and when one bordered directly on the road, Whiffletree noticed that it seemed to be made of the same rock as the road itself.
Had the road’s countless cobbles come from here, then? Did reaching the source of the road’s stones mean reaching the source of the road itself? Whiffletree could hardly believe that the road that had been so strange all this way would simply halt at a black stone quarry, but if not at that, then at what?
The stones were of different shapes and sizes, but most were roughly rectangular, and stood on end, reaching from the dark earth below to the star-strewn sky above. They began to appear in clusters, and the clusters sometimes suggested patterns. One could draw certain angles between them, perhaps, or map out arcane runes with them.
They had gone on among these stones for perhaps a quarter turn of the stars above when there arose a faint sound of chanting from ahead of them.
Luna and Whiffletree paused, exchanging a long, weary glance, and then continued on without a word, towards whatever further madness might lie ahead.
The standing stones stood thick around the road, and for a moment Whiffletree thought there was a great cluster of them ahead, but then she saw that the shapes were wrong, and the sizes also, and instead they were buildings. Low things, with few and narrow windows, spreading out to the left and right of the road to form a modest village, all built of the same dark stone. The road ran through the heart of it, and as she drew closer Whiffletree could see that the road’s cobbles widened to form a broad plaza, circular in shape and lined with tall standing stones, which had lintel stones placed atop them to form a continuous ring of doorways. She gave a shiver, knowing that this must be a place of great power. At the center of the plaza there was an altar. Gathered around it were a dozen robed ponies, chanting, and a thirteenth lay on the altar itself, held there with chains that glinted silver in the moonlight.
The chant was in a language that was almost familiar. Whiffletree couldn’t understand it all, but to her surprise she knew the basics. The chanting was addressing a goddess, offering her worship and praise if she would only come and take up her mantle of moonlight and shadow.
It was somehow not remotely a shock when the chanters called that goddess by name at the conclusion of their verse, and that name was “Luna.”
The real Luna halted just short of the circle in the silence that followed, with Whiffletree taking a place at her shoulder. The air was tense as the robed ponies all turned their shadowed faces towards the new arrivals.
Then one of them put back his hood and spoke, dipping his head. “Welcome, Princess Luna, soon to be goddess.” He was a thestral, slate-gray of coat and bright gold of eye, with slit pupils, tasseled ears and fangs even longer than Luna’s. There was brighter silver sprinkled in the dark color of his coat, especially around his muzzle, and in his hair as well, showing that he was far from young.
“Princess I might claim, but goddess is a bit beyond me just now,” said Luna, her voice calm, her eyes narrowed ever so slightly as she took in the scene.
“You were a goddess, or very like a goddess, once,” said the thestral elder. “You will shortly reclaim that mantle and more.”
“Will I?” Luna’s eyes were fixed on the altar, on the figure bound there. That was a thestral also. A young one, Whiffletree thought, whose eyes were tightly shut and whose chest heaved rapidly in what looked a great deal like fear. He was rust brown in color and Whiffletree noted that one of his wings was stunted, oddly shaped and half the size of the other.
“Yes. We have prepared all. We have performed the rites for months now, seeking the goddess that our prophecies promised. The one who will replace the fading gods of old and wake the light of the moon once more. The one that will save our dying world. And now you have arrived, as foretold.”
“And what have I to do in order to claim this power?”
“Merely accept your sacrifice,” said the thestral elder, his hoof making a sweeping gesture towards the bound thestral on the altar. “The stars are right, the rituals are complete, the power is here in the circle, held by these stones, focused on this altar. Merely claim his blood there and the divinity of an entire world will be yours.”
“I swore an oath, long ago, to never take unwilling blood,” said Luna. Her tone was soft, almost gentle, yet there was steel beneath it.
“He agreed to his place,” said the elder, frowning now.
“He appears to have some reservations still,” said Luna, dryly.
“He agreed,” repeated the elder, voice growing hard and stern.
Luna brushed past him and halted at the foot of the altar. The youth lying on it twisted his head around to look at her. His eyes were wide and terrified. His muzzle had been bound shut, and there were marks around all four ankles where the chains held him.
Whiffletree was not the least bit surprised when Luna’s horn lit and the chains shattered. Pieces of silvery metal flew everywhere, startling curses from several of the gathered thestrals. The bound youth lunged to his hooves and leaped off the altar, then halted, staring at the ponies all around him, sides still heaving. None moved aside for him.
“He agreed, you say?” said Luna, wheeling to the thestral elder. “A youth, and one no doubt already ill-treated because of an accident of birth, bullied into giving up all his years, is hardly the kind of offering I desire. Will you step up onto the altar for me, elder? Will you send your own son or daughter? Your mate, perhaps? No?”
“Please, princess.” The elder bowed his head again. “None of us want to die. We did the best we could. This rite must be completed, though. If it is not, we will all perish, and our world will end. There will be no light, no food, no life at all for any of our children if you do not accept this power.”
Luna snorted in angry disbelief, but the stallion forged ahead. “The old gods are gone, or dead, or mad. They passed on before the memory of any living here. The last lingering gasps of their power keep the grass growing and the fish leaping, but every year there is less. Every year we draw closer to starvation. We cannot bring the old gods back. Finding that a new goddess, and one not lost in madness, was within our grasp, can you blame us for doing all we could to bring you here and aid in your ascension? Please, princess, goddess, please do not let our whole world die. Isn’t one life a small thing to pay for a world? It’s not only my people, it’s all ponies, all living beings here. Maybe the madness beneath the mountains will survive the final dying of this world, but that will be all that remains in only a generation or two more. Please.”
Luna’s face twisted. Whiffletree could see the conflict there. “I swore an oath.”
“One oath, like one life, weighs little against all the world,” said the thestral.
Luna stomped her hoof. “I will not be forsworn! Give me your life, then.”
The thestral began to tremble. “If you wish truly willing blood, princess, it cannot be mine. Forgive me my selfishness. I… I will step on the altar if I must, though.” His voice shook, and he looked away, down at the black cobblestones beneath his hooves.
Whiffletree felt a peculiar ache growing in her chest as the drama played out before her. One life to save a world… It felt, strangely, like fate. Her mind was broken, and would no doubt only break further if she walked past the altar and along whatever road might lie beyond it. And how many more years did she have left anyway? It couldn’t be many.
She stepped forward, gently shouldering the startled thestral elder aside. Luna stared at her in shock as Whiffletree passed her as well, and put her front hooves on the altar. It wasn’t high, barely to her knees, so it was the easiest thing in the world to heave herself up atop it. She settled down there, tucking her legs up beneath herself, and looked up at Luna. “I am willing,” she said simply.
“Whiffletree…” Luna seemed suddenly stricken with uncertainty.
“I think, perhaps, that when you were summoned to this world to become a goddess, I was summoned for a purpose as well. I’m only an old gray mare, I can’t imagine ascending to anything in particular. But I’ve got blood, and if that’s what’s needed to save a world, then I’m willing to spill it.”
Luna stared at her, speechless. Whiffletree, feeling astonishingly calm, began undoing her saddlebags. She dropped them off the edge of the altar, then stretched out on her side on it, arching her head back, baring her throat.
“Go ahead, Luna,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed traveling with you, but I think my journey has come to an end, and you must go on to do what you came here to do.”
“Whiffletree… I…” There were tears in Luna’s eyes, but she nodded. “Our journey has been a strange one, but you have been the light of it for me. This has the feel of fate, doesn’t it? The verse, when last we rested…” She looked up at the stars for a moment, then down at Whiffletree. “I could wish there was another way, but if you are truly willing…”
“Then I and this world thank you.”
The robed thestrals all bowed their heads, even the youth whose place Whiffletree had taken. The stars above watched in silence. The standing stones hummed with barely perceptible energy. All was ready, and Whiffletree felt at peace. She’d walked the long, black road to come to this place, and do this thing, and it was as it should be.
Luna bent her head, her lips drawn back, showing the small, sharp wolf teeth that Whiffletree had noticed the very first time they’d met.
They stung when they pierced her, but it was a small pain, even though Whiffletree knew her life’s blood was now leaving her. She could see the red flash, from the corner of her eye, and she could feel the chill and weakness that began to creep over her. Her head spun dizzily, the already dark world around her darkening further.
Through that dark haze she saw Luna as she had seen her in remembered vision, tall and stately, wings unfurling from her sides, mane and tail carrying the night sky within, and knew that the goddess was arising. Light spilled into the world as the moon edged above the horizon, framing Luna in a silver-white halo and making the thestrals all around gasp in awe, but for Whiffletree darkness was growing. She let her eyes close, surrendering willingly to the darkness, feeling that her life had been well-spent.
Whiffletree and Luna finally reach the end of the road.