"Sister, what is happening?!" Princess Luna cried in the distant shadows.
"Luna, can you hear me?" Princess Celestia pleaded.
The quaking earth beneath the princess shifted the stone walls, causing loud cracks and fissures to form, and making almost all communication inaudible. Harder still, Princess Luna was sinking and in her panic could not register anything. No matter how much she tried, there was nothing Celestia could do to reach her sister, for the fog kept them apart.
Then the apparition spoke again, this time to Celestia. "Five rises, five descents. The hunger consumes it."
"Who are you? What are you doing to my sister?!" Celestia demanded.
"You would not heed my warnings, so I give you a sign."
"What do you want!?"
The apparition laughed and opened its large, golden eyes, shining like starlight. "I bring you a warning - it was not heeded - I bring you a sign - it is not heeded - I shall then bring you a prophecy - and you shall heed it!"
Princess Celestia could make out a crude shape of an equine standing by a cracked altar, facing her with its side and grinning like a wolf. Behind the equine, a unicorn judging from its disturbingly long horn, was a colossal opalescent window, letting in the only faint light from a crescent moon.
"Who are you?"
The unicorn turned its head to the window. The previously featureless window began to inscribe with black lines to form a figure. At first it looked like a horse jumping for the heavens, then it grew a horn, and then it grew wings. But the unicorn would not give words to the meaning. The opalescent glass, first white, began to ornate itself with colours, colouring the winged horse golden and its mane a fiery colour. The other glass outside darkened to a deep blue.
"Now heed my prophecy, alicorn, or your subjects - your sworn duty - shall perish to the hunger of a great being without sate."
"What being?" Celestia pleaded, "tell me!"
"Sister!" Luna cried again.
to north it fled, from north a new will hail.
To east it harbours, from east it shall ride,
through forests it prowls; none hides from Hyde," the unicorn riddled.
"What does that mean?" Celestia growled impatiently.
Five days of hunger, anger and throe,
Five days of travel, through high and low,
Five days to count, and then to you it will show," the unicorn continued.
Celestia tried to make sense of the words, but realised there were many things in the riddles she was not privy to. Hyde, who was that? What harboured to the east, and when? To make sense of these words, the princess would need others to be her eyes.
Luna cried out again, but this time it was muffled. She had sunken under the cobblestone floor. Celestia tried to find her sister, but to no avail.
then count your stars, for surely the meeter will be taken.
Awake not it from its slumber, for only there will it not hunger.
And let it come to you, or your sister shall never again awaken," the unicorn finished.
"What will come!?" Celestia demanded, but the unicorn disappeared in a flash of light, and suddenly the building collapsed. The window shattered and shot its glass wildly about as stone debris rained down from above. Celestia tried to fly out through the window, but felt a sharp tug at her mane pull her back. She struggled to break lose, even considering fighting the fog that held her back, but as she turned, there was the terrified face of her sister - moments ago disappearing under the floor.
Horse in tow and the long steps up the slant stairs ahead was not a pleasing position to be in. The horse was bickering unrelentingly and the sun was already on its way up the mountain edge. The luminance was approaching fast and the towing masked child was not even half way to its destination.
The child was met with another similarly masked child who placed a palm over its chest and raised the other hand to its side, levelled with its head. This was a formal greeting for those you had great respect for.
"You make a long journey, enforcer," the other child said, "I ask of where you are headed." The other child tilted its head forward and looked slightly to the side - a reinforced politeness akin to 'I hope I am not disturbing.'
"I am taking this stallion to the Culling Grounds. It is an appeasement to the pride court after an executed trouble maker made enemies with them," the enforcer replied.
"Would it not suit to take the stallion oneself?" the other child asked.
The enforcer leaned in on the other child and scanned its eyes intently for hints of colour other than grey before replying: "The pride court is the dominant force within the veil, even I must recognise them. I have no choice but comply."
"I assure you I am no wer, enforcer, but from Yiao Valley," the other man said gestured around his face.
"Your dialect made me wary. Here we do not use the question form."
"The tyrant's tongue, then."
"As you hear it," the enforcer said and crossed its arms.
"How did the executed make enemies with the pride court?"
The enforcer looked at the horse. "Grave digging in the Culling Grounds."
"I do not jest," the enforcer snapped, "the execution was on basis of crimes against our enclave."
"What were they?"
"Deception, debauchery and murder."
"A just execution then?"
"A foul one. Rarely does a convicted struggle as much as this one."
"Who was it?"
"A dressmaker from the Patriarchal Circle. I will say no more than that."
The enforcer resumed its climb, noticing soon it had a partner. "You changed your course," the enforcer remarked to the other child.
"I have never seen the Culling Grounds."
"Then you have never seen a culler."
"Keep to that."
The other child stopped and looked up to the cliff's edge. "That cliff, and all above it, is the Culling Grounds?"
"The second largest cell in this city, after the Commons District, true," the enforcer replied.
The other child looked to the ocean and the mountain range in the horizon.
"There is naught but dragons there," the enforcer said.
"I have heard rumours that dragons are being raised in hatcheries in the Culling Grounds."
"Rumours that are merely lies to be exposed."
A loud yawp boomed from the cliff top as debris rained down. The enforcer shoved the stallion against the cliff wall and took shelter under it, and beckoned the other child to join under, just before the rain of rubble smashed the ground around them. As the dust cleared the enforcer looked up and spotted a large silhouette being thrown over the edge. It landed without bounce before them and cracked with the breaking of bones. A young dragon; a dead dragon.
"The rumours are true!" the other child clamoured.
The enforcer looked up again and saw a figure peering over the edge. A differently masked figure holding a dragon's head.
"This dragon is missing a head! Enforcer, what is the meaning of this?"
The enforcer tapped the other child on its shoulder and pointed up. Upon noticing the figure, the other child withheld a gasp.
"Is that a culler?"
"A culler has a much larger head. It is a loather."
"That loather must have killed this dragon. How reckless to just throw it down like this."
The masked figure at the top of the cliff was no doubt a loather, a Culling Grounds fanatic huntsman. They did not take kindly to strangers.
"Tell me where you are from," the enforcer ordered.
"Yiao Valley, the Cloud Marshes," the other child informed.
The enforcer turned to the other child and took a deep breath.
Forget what you have seen here and return to Yiao Valley.
The other child flinched before sluggishly turning to walk down the stairs. It then adjusted its posture before taking to a jog as it descended the stairs. Before long the other child was out of sight.
The enforcer looked up the cliff again and the loather was no longer visible. By sending the stranger away, the enforcer had appeased the onlooker. The loathers were fierce, and a lone dragon or two would not give them a moment's pause to strike. But how the dragon had come there was a mystery. There were likely to be consequences to follow. But they would be the Culling Grounds' problems, and no one else's.
"That is what I was told," Princess Celestia confirmed.
"Who... what told you this?" Princess Luna asked.
"A unicorn by what I saw. But I will not discount the possibility of another creature."
"What will come... Hyde?"
"I do not know what that is, sister," Celestia said and sighed. "I feel we must be extra careful. But I dread to worry our subjects with the news."
"They may try to face the problem on their own," Luna suggested.
"Yes, sister, as the prophecy speaks against it. I fear the consequences may even be deathly so."
"Hmh, it is a lot to swallow, sister," Luna said and hummed, "I will not think on this lightly. You rest, and I shall patrol to the east."
"Luna, you cannot -..."
"I will seek no trouble, dear sister, I will merely keep an eye out. Even if only to see nothing."
"Rest, sister, the night is young."
The grey pegasus was perched on a mound in a clearing enjoying her sandwich and the lush green that sung with the wind and the chirp of birds and insects. It was a still early afternoon and the sun was blissfully radiant over the cloudless afternoon skies. It was then, halfway into her sandwich, she was disturbed by a panicked rustling in the brush ahead of her.
A disoriented doe staggered into sight lost for space, and mind, as it tripped over a bush and plummeted to the ground. The pegasus quickly packed her remaining lunch and rushed to inspect. She poked and turned the doe's head, hoping for a response, when suddenly it cried:
"A monster attacked me!"
"What monster?" the pegasus asked, not sure what to believe considering the Annual Wildlife Report, 'Forest Friends' Scouting Society', issue #42, would have begged to differ as this was the safest forest in Equestria.
"A monster attacked me," the doe repeated.
The pegasus tried to make sense of the situation. The doe appeared completely unharmed, if panic-stricken, but there had to be some way to find out for sure. She noticed then the red seeping through the grass under the doe's down-facing side and an unpleasant odour was reeking from it. Not sure if consent was at this point important, the pegasus shifted the doe over to look at its origin.
The pegasus recoiled from both sight and scent, as a clearly infected puncture wound came to sight. It was too clean to be caused by accident, too precise for an animal with fangs or claws. But it was definitely a wound intended to kill.
"What did this?" the pegasus asked desperately.
"A sp..." the doe tried, "... monster," it finished after many failed attempts to form a whole sentence again.
Barely a moment after the chaos of the injured doe running into the clearing, the pegasus, who just a moment ago had tried to nurse it back to health, was met with a chilling breeze of wicked omens coming from behind her. The wind carried the sound of rattling chain, a single pair of heavy steps, and a mechanical breathing unlike anything living; one entity, breathing like two. It stopped only a step or so away from her, and she dared not look behind herself.
The doe's eye's flashed open and she opened her mouth, but she could only gasp for air. The final push beyond her threshold, the pegasus tried to take flight.
A voice echoed down the back of the pegasus' head. It crept down her spine, down every limb; itching every nerve with the sensation as if ice cold water was being thrown upon her. She stopped as if frozen in place. She cried to herself as her body disobeyed her every desire. She just wanted to fly away.
Look at me.
Against her will, the pegasus turned around. She tried to keep her eyes closed, but slavishly they pulled open. A spindly, spider-like monstrosity, a viny figure with slender limbs and a wide, capped head with vicious mandibles, and a prominent exoskeleton armouring its body. It gazed with its eyes grey as death into hers, then read every dimension of her being without moving an inch out of its place.
The pegasus felt her body obeying again, and she took flight without thought. She never wanted to go back there. She wanted to go home, and forget that she had ever seen that thing. That monster.
--- Earlier ---
It was a scorching morning without clouds that plagued this Highway Dog spotter to no end, as he awaited a sizeable, rob-worthy carriage to show up on the road. He would have preferred waiting in the shadowed forest behind him, if his occasionally returning supervisor had not threatened to tan his hide if he did. Barely a bird chirped. It was almost as if they were offended by his presence. He could not believe he had not yet died from the heat since arriving at his post in the early morning - as a thought, it would have been a preferable change.
It was then his fellow spotter crept out from the forest behind him and hissed: "Itch, I've got something!"
"Finally," he complained.
They nimbly manoeuvred the vegetation not to make a sound as they arrived at the edge of a high cliff over a chasm.
"There's nothing here, Tick," Itch whispered.
"There, below," Tick informed.
Itch peeked over the edge to a catwalk below where a pony trod with a beaked passenger on its back. "Never seen a pony do that before..." Itch commented.
"A good spot, no? Look, she's loaded!" Tick hissed enthusiastically.
"What have we got?" a booming voice asked from behind the two spotters.
The supervisor, Scratch, a strong, stout dog, walked in on the two spotters discussion, almost giving them away.
"Hush!" Itch cried as he gestured covering Scratch's mouth, "you don't want to give us away!"
Scratch looked down at their find and said very decidedly: "A pony and a griffon, we'll get 'em quick and easy. Those bags gotta be full of loot."
They sped up the cliff edge and slid down the cliff, blocking the exit to the catwalk. There they stood ground until the pony, revealed to be enormous in size, arrived to meet them.
"Cough up the goods, or we'll take 'em by force!" Scratch threatened.
The pony did not reply, nor act, upon this statement, so Scratch took a bold step forward and flexed his muscles, compelling Tick to follow suit, despite being the thinnest of the three.
The griffon leaned forward and scanned its three adversaries intently, but said nothing.
"Why's nothing happening?" Itch whispered.
Suddenly the griffon tapped the pony on the side and the pony took two steps forward and gave the dogs a disapproving frown.
"I wanna go now," Tick whispered.
"Shut it," Scratch ordered, "we jump 'em on three..."
"Doesn't sound like a good idea," Itch protested.
"There's more of us, two..."
"But it's such a thin playing ground," Tick pleaded.
"We're more agile than 'em, one..."
Scratch charged off, skipped along the wall and jumped for the griffon. Figuring his strength would best serve to take out the clawed opponent, he hoped his two spotters would at least keep the pony still. But neither did the griffon flinch from his assailant, nor had Scratch's fellows aided in his assault. He was alone.
"I've got him, boys, now go for it!" Scratch ordered as he grabbed the griffon's feathers... which were only on one side, and only on the right shoulder, not attached to a wing, for this griffon had none.
"Get off! That ain't a griffon! It's a fake!!" Tick warned.
"Abort, abort! Scratch! Get off, now!" Itch yelled.
Scratch barely turned his head to the side before a cold sensation overtook him. His eyes turned down to find he had been stabbed by a knife, clutched by a thin, leathery talon. His whole body felt empty, yet exploding with sensations he had never felt before. No doubt a poisoned blade. It was pain unlike any he had ever inflicted upon others. And it became dark.
The false-griffon threw aside the heavy dog without a care and kicked the false-pony on the side and rode past the two spotters, soon to disappear out of sight.
"Ohmygoodness-ohmygoodness-ohmygoodness-" Tick kept repeating as he stretched his face.
Itch ran up to investigate the condition of his supervisor, who laid unresponsive where he had landed. "Dead..." he said.
"I dunno what happened to him, but Scratch is cold! I mean, no, he's still warm but, look!" Itch explained and pulled Scratch's tongue out of his mouth, stretched it, and let it fall clumsily to the ground and not back into the mouth.
"Oh fie, oh fie! The boss will kill us! His only brother! Oh fie!" Tick cried and started hammering the cliff wall with his paws. "Dead. We are deader than dead!"
The air, which had felt so unbearably warm before was now cold as ice. Itch began to freeze in the presence of the dog corpse that had been left for them.
"You tell me what you saw Derpy, and this time make sense," Rainbow Dash demanded.
"Um, ah, the thin thingie that attacked me, well never attacked me, that did something - the monster, oh, y'know - it was terrible!"
"And the doe?"
"I don't know, I left her!" Derpy cried.
"We'll get your friend back, don't you worry. Team Beta, take left, Team Gamma, take right! On the double!"
The pegasi squadron, comprised of any pegasus Rainbow Dash had managed to recruit on the fly, split up in their three previously designated groups and charged down into the opening Derpy had led them back to, against her will. The earth cratered under the pegasi's hooves as Derpy was still struggling with her cowardice to even land.
"C'mon now, Beta, perimeter! Gamma, scout and find the doe! Alpha, await Gamma's alarm and be ready to strike, on mark!" Rainbow Dash commanded and pointed to each group as she assigned their orders, "Mark!" she finished and team Beta and Gamma took to their positions.
"I don't wanna land, Rainbow Dash!" Derpy pleaded.
"On the ground, missy! You have more talking to do. While Gamma looks for your friend I need to know more about your monster, so speak up."
Rainbow Dash was not in a foul mood, but certainly taking her role seriously. Frighteningly so.
Derpy panicked and gave her description in an incoherent, sentence, to which Rainbow Dash cocked her head.
"What...?" Rainbow Dash uttered.
"Aiee, uh, this tall, long, slender and really, really scary, wicked evil thing," Derpy said and waved her hooves.
"I'll make sure to look for that 'wicked' part... now, tell me Der-..."
"Ma'am, uh, I mean Miss, look at this!" Thunderlane called and pointed.
"What have we he-... wow, sweet mercy!" Rainbow Dash yelped as she observed the ground.
"What?" Derpy asked.
"Stay back, missy," Rainbow Dash ordered, "you don't wanna know. Thunderlane, Popper, investigate."
The two pegasi darted off into the woods and Rainbow Dash shooed Derpy away from the sight that had caught their attention.
"Rainbow!" Thunderlane's voice called.
A loud high-pitched cry mixed with another, deep, commanding yell from some other individual echoed over the tree from where Thunderlane and Popper had run off.
"Alpha, that's the signal, GO!" Rainbow Dash yelled and took flight, followed by Team Beta and her own Team Alpha.
Derpy was left alone, but despite the circumstances, she felt unsafe away from the immediate danger. Against orders, she inspected the grounds Rainbow Dash had kept her from and saw a deep red, partially coagulated trail over the grass. She knew well what it was, this had been the exact spot the doe had been left on. It was her blood, leading into the forest. Another loud cry came from the treetops, this time a frustrated one, from Rainbow Dash.
Derpy ran into the forest and followed the trail but ran straight into Thunderlane, who was guarding that very opening.
"And now what's she doing here?!" Rainbow Dash roared, "Thunderlane, get her out of here! Silverspeed, goodness, hold it in next time, as if it wasn't disgusting enough! Thunderlane, uh, and Shanks, take Derpy away, now!"
"What's going on?" Derpy tried, but Thunderlane pushed her back, and Shanks held his wings out to block the view.
Being led back to the clearing, Thunderlane and Shanks started giving Derpy light explanations on less-unsettling details of the events that had transpired.
"We found your monster... and we may have scared it off," Thunderlane started.
"Though, Blue Hoof took a hit in the process," Shanks added.
"Who's Blue Hood?" Derpy asked. "And what about the doe?"
"Blue Hoof is in the Ponyville Young Free Flyers' team, with me," Shanks explained, "You don't know her."
"And, um, the doe," Thunderlane started.
"No, leave that out," Shanks advised whilst giving him a stern look and nodding towards Derpy.
As they arrived back at the first clearing, Derpy gave every edge a careful look to ensure the monster had not retreated to her location.
"Don't bother, he retreated to the east," Shanks assured, "I guess we'll just wait until they bring Blue Hoof over."
Derpy walked up to the root of the mound and laid down. She looked upward to it and noticed that her saddlebag, that she had forgotten there, had been stolen.
Time passed and the other pegasi returned to the scene. Rainbow Dash was quick to split Team Gamma into half and had them patrol in shifts, patrolling to see if they could not spot the monster's movement.
"Ok, so here's the situation: Blue Hoof's wing and leg are busted and she's unconscious, because life's hard sometimes," Rainbow Dash explained, "now none of us are a doctor, so do not touch her," she continued as she moved Blue Hoof around into recovery position, "and make sure to listen and look for any sign of her recovery, at a moderate distance," she finished without moving an inch.
Rainbow Dash hastily dug away at the grass to get to the earth below until she had a decent canvas to work on.
"So, what do we do, just wait it out here?" a pegasus asked.
"Give me a second," Rainbow Dash dismissed as she drew in the earth, "okay, here we go." Rainbow Dash called every pony over but asked all the same every pony to keep their distance from Blue Hoof. "We are here, and these are three more clearings in our proximity," she said and pointed to the map she had drawn, "seeing as that thing is hiding from us right now it's impossible to tell what it will do next."
"Is it gone?" Derpy asked.
"It's hard to say," Rainbow Dash replied impatiently, "plus, he's hiding from us, right; Hyde, that's what we'll call him, any objections?"
Every pony shook their head.
"Great, so Hyde, just letting that sink in, was sent off south-east, so well away from us. Keep in mind that this is north," Rainbow Dash continued and drew a long arrow northwards, "so it will be north-west of here we have to go if we want to find Ponyville, got it?" Rainbow Dash finished by drawing a longer line towards Ponyville.
Every pony nodded.
"Good, now, Team Beta, split up. Half of you will scout around for good grub, the others... find a good river and report back."
"And what of Hyde?" a pegasus asked.
"You've got your lungs, don't you, Cloudette? Scream as loud as you can."
Team Beta split up and ran into the woods.
"Team Alpha, keep a relatively safe distance away from the edges, but look out for intruders," Rainbow Dash ordered and sat down. "If we're lucky, Blue Hoof wakes up soon," she turned to Derpy, "I'm sorry about your friend, okay? We were just too late."
Somehow that came as no surprise to Derpy.
Twilight had made her journey through the Everfree Forest to meet with a particular friend of hers, Zecora. Knowing well she had awaited this day since long ago, Twilight was quick to pass over the parcel she had carefully wrapped that morning. The label read: 'Happy Birthday, Zecora!'
"What is that book, anyway?" Twilight asked.
"It is a journal, Twilight. A record of travellers going left and right," Zecora explained and opened to a late page.
"Aren't you going to read from the start?"
"I will get to that eventually, but it is the stories of Jua that interest me."
"Some famous zebra?"
"Yes, and we share the same roots. To read his stories is to feel home with the drinks and fruits," Zecora said and looked rather homesick.
"Could you read it to me?" Twilight asked eagerly.
"Of course I can, but I would not be able to rhyme. To do that I would need more time."
"That's fine though, right? I mean, sure, you're breaking a habit, but I'd love to hear something from your people, Zecora!"
"Then drink your tea and I will begin. Even I don't know what stories are written within!"
"Stop him! He's getting away!" the curator yelled.
The study had been razed to the ground and the floor was covered in books and papers. One of the ponies, a unicorn, had to be pulled out from under a large bookcase before every pony was accounted for.
"We're not chasing after that thing, curator. He tried to knife my face with that shiv he was holding!" a night watch protested.
"He'll wreak untold havoc if you leave him! Go after him now!" the curator ordered again.
The window swung open and a dark pegasus hovered outside the window.
"He's left the mews! We've lost him for sure!" the pegasus exclaimed in panic.
"Fly after him, then, you idiot!" the curator scolded.
"Forget it! The specimen just mashed Errantworth's head with his voice alone!"
"Where is - what!?"
The pegasus led the group up the road to an alleyway where, in the centre of a circle of fissured cobblestone, a dead stallion lay. The pegasus prodded Errantworth's head and recoiled in repulsion from the texture.
"Wow, we kept that thing tucked in Poncey's basement..." a stallion remarked.
The feminine stallion named Poncey swallowed and visibly shivered. He had shared house with such a destructive creature.
"Surprised he didn't just kill you these last three weeks," the stallion finished.
"Shut up, we have a new matter on our hooves. A monster is on the run and he definitely does not trust ponies any more," the curator began, "each of you must go on as if this never happened. Poncey, I need you to process those fishing reports as your new priority. You must look like you've been busy crunching those numbers for the Fisher's Guild or the dogs will wonder what's keeping you."
"Uh, yeah, sure," Poncey whimpered.
"Map Wright, you must move that meeting with the Canterboroughs to the evening so I can have the other stallions clear this mess."
"Can do," the unicorn, Map Wright, replied.
"What of us?" the pegasus asked.
"You'll fly with the others. If not catching the specimen, at least monitor his movements."
"I hate this," the pegasus complained.
"What is the plan?" a stallion asked.
"Find the specimen, and then kill him," the curator said and walked away from the group. "Oh, and get rid of the body. Errantworth's dealings with us should be unknown to others. Better he disappears than turn up dead."
"Kill... him?" Poncey asked.
"He's no good to us alive if he's that dangerous," the curator informed, "we wash our hooves and move on before an investigation begins."
"Uh, Map Wright," one of the stallions started, "you've lost your horn..."
"I don't know, a bipedal creature like that doesn't sound like such a big deal," Twilight said as she toyed with her hooves, laying on her back on a pillow.
"It is quite strange for me too, Jua definitely saw minotaurs before me and you," Zecora said in agreement, "now this creature has him puzzled like this. I wonder what this creature is."
"Aw, come on, he really didn't go into detail. What did they look like now again?"
"'On two legs, the tree is alive. It walks nimble as a cat when it fights. The animals heeds its will, the others - its enemies - it hunts down and kill'" Zecora translated and tilted her head in disbelief.
"What did you say?" Twilight asked.
"It controls the animals around it and dispatches of its foes. This is a creature of darkness and woes!"
"Did he draw it, at least?"
Zecora held a page over to Twilight who inspected the illustrations intently.
"He drew himself for size to compare. To measure yourself to them must have been quite a dare," Zecora said.
Much right, the tree-like creature was almost three times his height, but drawn slim as a rod, with spindly limbs.
"Looks a lot like a tree, yeah. An ent? A tree spirit?" Twilight suggested.
"An animate tree with a will so ill? I shirk at the thought such a creature could lurk here still." Zecora skimmed through the next few pages. "Oh, ho ho, how foolish of me, this creature lives across the sea!" she laughed in relief.
"Two weeks or three north-east of here, near a distinct mountain range that 'seems to stretch forever'" Zecora replied and placed the book upon the table, revealing a sketched map. Equestria was marked on it.
"How come no pony has found that land yet? It looks so close!" Twilight asked sceptically.
"'Each aspect of this land and the journey to it is worthy of its own book' it says," Zecora replied and shrugged.
"Give me the short version, Zecora, this is getting to a 'made-up' level of craziness," Twilight laughed.
Zecora hastily glanced through each page before giving a versed summary: "In a land where no ponies dwell, a mighty tree-walker treads instead, and slaves the animals below and above the height of its head. Is that not swell?"
The two ponies laughed together and finished their tea. Either they were both in denial or convinced the story was fabricated. The assurance that there was at least two weeks of ocean separating these two lands helped relieve tension, as these two lands had not clashed yet, so chances are they would not either in the near future. Twilight bid her goodbyes and gave Zecora the usual goodbye hug before departing. Zecora would have many more stories to read, though, and Twilight had her plans to return to her library and forget about this creature altogether.
"Twilight," Zecora called from her home.
"You too do not believe in this creature, right?"
"Of course not! The story has too many convenient excuses for previous encounters to not have occurred. Jua must have written this story for lack of better options."
Zecora waved as Twilight cantered off into the woods.
When you had floated over the ocean for so many cycles you had lost count, on a vessel that barely qualified as a boat, you would have been forgiven to think death was inevitable. But the sailor feebly raised its head and spotted the endless mountain range spanning across the horizon, and prayed to the twenty three patrons - including the seven wicked ones.
"The Sky Curtain, at last!" the sailor cheered and climbed up on its two feet, having lied down on the floor for the most part.
The wind blew very lightly and a quick glance at the sail showed that it was not in the boat's favour. Not disappointed, nor overly concerned with this, the sailor took a deep breath and breathed at the sails, vocalising:
The sails took wind that had not been there before, and carried the boat with great speed towards the mountain range ahead. The sailor gauged the distance, and the location, roughly estimating where the entrance was. Though it took a considerable while to arrive, the sailor was too distracted with optimistic thoughts to worry about the hunger and thirst that had ached over the last few cycles. At least the water had stopped falling from the sky; the snow did not fall out of nowhere in these oceans; and the sun could not reach into the small hut, nor would it return once the sailor passed to the other side of the mountain. The safety of shade would soon be upon the sailor.
The entrance was treacherous and secret, and the sailor was alone in finding it at the start of the venture that had brought the sailor so far from home. Keeping steady and using an oar to push away from the walls, the sailor skilfully manoeuvred through the passage, and was soon in home waters.
"Heaven Over the Azure," the sailor cried and looked to the blue lands in the horizon.
This was home where everything was different. Green leaves on trees was unheard of in this land, as was brown trunks. It was just as it was, and questions only further complicated the matter. The sailor sat down and sung in false tone, from lack of practise.
the treacher-soul, the cold and heat, the whip's lash, we abscond.
Beyond and above--- the sky blue o'er our home---
for feel of flight---, the farers sing their song---
Brushing the water surface with the fingers, rippling the grizzled reflection.
and off we fare, as far we dare, below us shadows hung.
For us small, the way of all, the way is set
near and far, beyond that star, to treasures hold soon yet.
In unknown land--- touched with our own hand---
brazen fortune sky--- and we begin again---
It was clear the sailor had lost touch with its muse long ago, barely able to keep to a note, or remember the right lyrics (it seemed). But just as well, as singing had not saved the sailor all this time, nor would it have served a purpose.
Just then a ship came within frightful distance, seemingly without origin as it turned to meet side-by-side. It was a large vessel with many hatches for cannons, enough to perforate another vessel in a single run. On that ship's edge a tall figure leaned over and smiled.
"Fortune smile on us, a farfarer is within our midst!" the figure cheered, "come, board our vessel, behold its maiden voyage for yourself."
Not one to argue against an invitation likely to lead to food and drink, the sailor climbed aboard, struggling with the new design of ladder, comprised entirely out of rope.
"Tell me your name, farfarer, so that I, and my crew, may know you," the other sailor said extending a helpful hand.
"Valkon, son of Dusell, of the Commons District's Far Steppe, the Horse Acres," the sailor replied in characteristic archaic mode; but immediately regretted using a lengthy titular introduction as a farfarer should be divorced from their origins.
"A commoner, sure to have such a long, tedious name. I trust you do not introduce yourself like so at every encounter," the other sailor said, inadvertently belittling the implications of Valkon's noble birth, "I am Dal Vega," the other sailor continued, "and you know my name well."
In truth Valkon was unfamiliar with the name Dal Vega; but made an educated guess at weapons trade, considering Dal was the name of the patron of battle. Dal Vega, on the other hand, seemed oblivious to the name Valkon, the patron of leadership. But with a surname came rank, and with a ship came power, so Dal was likely reckoning himself above Valkon and offered no due respect other than to the farfarer's trade.
"Tell us your story, farfarer, my crew will delight in it at this dreary time," Dal urged and called his deck hands over.
This was not what Valkon wanted. Yet, in hope of compensation, an offer was made: "I will, if you tell which story you would like to hear."
"Your most recent one, farfarer, so we may know why you..." Dal paused and gestured around Valkons head, "... look like a pouch-weaver spider's nest."
The crew, each one with a shaven face like Dal's, appeared eager. Valkon's face was hairy indeed - an impressive feat considering his kind, the children, barely grew any hair on their faces, unlike their wer counterparts. But this story was not one to tell the masses, certainly not a military child such as Dal. Before Valkon could begin to lie, however, another ship came into view, and Valkon dismayed at the sight of the make.
"Today is a day of matrimony," Valkon suggested to Dal, not certain, but worried.
"You remember the days well, farfarer. True. It is so. Now tell us, tell us of your journey," Dal urged again.
Valkon might have been penalised for failing to address this day, by virtue of class-versus-class injustice, but not this day. Taking a deep breath, Valkon uttered the first sentence that came to mind: "It is surely a story you will soon wish to..."
Suddenly, as if the world itself along with all its smells and sounds had vanished, the whole crew stood dumbfounded at their spots. Valkon looked worriedly around the deck, trying to gauge the condition of the crew, but relaxed when Dal toppled over and fell to the floor without anyone reacting. Valkon hurried back down to the boat and prepared to sail away when, next to the small boat, a larger one more suited for speedy sailing appeared. It was, however, occupied.
"Farfarer," the occupant started and hooked the vessels together, "the dragons breath ire of me; I must subvert them. Tell me where their ilk can not reach."
Valkon knew time was short, but was eager to trade ship if possible: "I know of a place, far away, if you are willing to trade vessels."
The occupant did not pause before replying: "Vessels we may trade, but I keep my provisions."
"I say fair deal," Valkon replied, knowing well a ship sails faster without cargo.
The occupant, without a sense of urgency, began shifting its possessions over to the farfarer's boat. Valkon, who had no way of knowing how long the spell cast upon Dal and the crew would last, was getting progressively more anxious and began, by own initiative, to help organise the occupant's possessions into stacks in order to accelerate the trade.
And then Valkon noticed the horse. Strong and tall as a war horse should be, it was standing on the deck of the occupant's boat. Valkon hid the tears of anxiety and began to guide the horse over to the other vessel, and into the hut that was small for a child, but smaller still for a war horse.
"It is for an equine to stand in," Valkon informed as the horse laid down in its cramped lodging.
"To lay down in," the occupant said, sounding very unconvinced whilst stepping over to Valkon's boat.
"You know of recent events," Valkon presumed, "I wish to know of any transitions in the Far Steppe."
"The Commons District means nothing to me," the occupant riddled, "although the dock workers hinted at a change in the distribution of power. A House fell long ago."
"House Moss then, always the weak one they were," Valkon said in relief.
"I await your end of the bargain."
"I am House Alabaster. I make it a matter of urgency to learn of any transitions when I return from travel."
The occupant pointed to the horse and said: "That is an Alabaster war horse, I am sure you recognise."
Valkon looked at the horse again, but did not recognise it. It had the typical dark brown coat, and strong muscle that showed well in any light, but it also had a silvery mane, which one never saw an Alabaster horse boast. Indeed, they would be dark throughout.
"False, in honest, it looks different."
"So it does," the occupant said in agreement, "but I dare say the breeder passed it to me in person."
"That is good news," Valkon said, meaning that House Alabaster could not have been the House that fell.
"You still have not fulfilled your end of the bargain," the occupant said calmly.
Valkon looked at the occupant, who had just sat down and begun adjusting the helmet on a small casket by the hut. Armoured from head to toe in leather, chain and plate fitting for a fearsome fighter - likely a mercenary - and masked with a dragon's skull. The occupant further had a fine sword with a bone-crafted hilt, set with two small, round, black stones at his side, and curved knives at each hip. A stiletto sheathed in a leather pouch was mounted on the breast plate, akin to the old legend of poisoned blades used in death matches.
"A mercenary does not easily anger dragons so much as to need sheltering in faraway lands," Valkon pried, having almost forgotten about the earlier urgency to escape Dal and the crew.
The occupant met Valkon's eyes with its own silvery ones, a feature all children shared, revealing his deep contempt of the implied question. Valkon backed away to avoid eye contact, despite having missed seeing the look of other children's eyes.
"You placed those men under an obliviating influence. It will not last much longer," the occupant said and stood up again, revealing a light blue and silver trimmed surcoat bearing the Culling Grounds' insignia, "I await you to uphold your end of the bargain."
The Culling Grounds insignia, the winged silver equine with a fiery, golden mane - a fabled creature never before witnessed by child or wer - was adorned only by the loathers: the feared hunters of all things living. Valkon wanted to make an informed statement about the insignia, in line with what had been witnessed in this most recent of journeys, hoping to dissolve the loather's provoked contempt for him, but fret the consequences of delaying further.
"There," Valkon said and pointed, "you will sail through the Sky Curtain, through a crevice as wide as this boat can pass through. The dragons will not see you enter, and they never spy over the edge on the other side. Sail south-west for a two-of-ten (twenty) or more cycles and you will find land."
The loather drew breath.
Get off this boat.
Valkon felt a creeping sensation never felt before. Having frozen in snow, and swum in cold waters, this was as if the two had been combined and Valkon's limbs moved on their own. Valkon tried to dive into the water without willing, but was caught by the loather and thrown over to the other vessel.
"Loather! Beware when you get there!" Valkon tried after regaining the ability to speak, "In that land are strange things! Let nothing surprise you! Question not that which you do not understand!"
The loather looked patiently at Valkon whilst pushing the boats away from one another. "A fine religion," the loather complimented.
Valkon's new boat was now turning towards port whilst the loather blew upon the mast, sending the vessel away at tremendous speed as it cut through the waves without resistance. It was a true sailing vessel, but Valkon feared a mistake had been made. Loathers were cunning beings. Almost entirely carnivorous, and very secretive indeed. As for the insignia, the winged equine, Valkon wished having dared to speak of the sights that had been seen. But now the winds carried Valkon away, the loather was only a speck on the horizon, and they would never meet again.
Valkon sat up and pondered as the Commons District's waterfronts came into sight. The time away had surely warranted house arrest. It would not be a smooth returning. This would be a grim one.
The sun sunk over the horizon and only its last light illuminated the clearing. Rainbow Dash was pacing back and forth next to Blue Hoof and Derpy as Team Alpha, a while back split into twos, took turns watching their borders. Thunderlane had long since been sent to Ponyville to warn and call for an appropriate response team; Blue Hoof had been out cold for a long while now.
Batches of berries had been brought over for eating, though they were mostly of displeasing flavour which barely half the gathered pegasi had the stomach to swallow.
"Who got these anyway?" one pegasus asked.
"Eat or don't, I'm not an outdoorspony, okay?" another pegasus defended.
"Well that answers my question."
"Quiet every pony, I think I hear Blue Hoof wake up," Rainbow Dash ordered.
The blue pegasus shifted and moaned as she got to laying flatly on her back. She murmured many nothings before opening an eye and peering at Rainbow Dash before saying anything. "Rainbow Dash? What are you doing here?"
"Me? We're holding out for Hyde, that's why I, uh, we, are here!" Rainbow Dash replied.
"Who's Hyde? Why are we in a forest?"
"What don't you remember?!"
"Uh, how you and I got here?"
Rainbow Dash groaned and shook her head. "Take it from the top, where does your memory end?"
"We were, y'know, flying and stuff, and you thought I was doing pretty well. Said I was getting good and ready for the Young Flyers' Competition in Cloudsdale. Um, then you said you wanted to show me something... I guess?"
"And what did I want to show you?" Rainbow Dash asked with a confused look on her face.
Blue Hoof rubbed her forehead and looked around, noticing the other pegasi. She squeaked loudly and jolted at the revelation she was, in fact, recounting a dream of very different circumstances. "Nothing, you didn't wanna show me anything out here!" she cried out and Shanks, amongst other stallions, couldn't help laughing. She had, it seemed, forgotten that she was not the only pegasus to be led out on the rescue mission.
"Well you're awake, how are you feeling?"
"Fine, I'm fine! Who's Hyde, anyway?"
"That one guy you tried to bulldoze, who shot you down. You're lucky to be here."
"What's so lucky? Oh - I remember now! We were there, Thunderlane and Silverspeed were going for it. And I was getting really close, but then I heard this voice, like, 'sleep,' and it just got kinda warm and fuzzy. It was dodgy all over the place."
"So, you're not in any pain?" Rainbow Dash asked and leaned in.
"Should I be?" Blue Hoof asked and raised her front legs in a shrug, noticing then her right leg being both broken and dislocated, "oh, goodness..." she murmured and slipped out of consciousness again.
Rainbow Dash sighed. "Okay, so we have a confirmed living pegasus here, but she's out cold again. Now I'll tell you all our next move."
The pegasi gathered in to listen.
"Okay - so by now we are all well tired, and probably really bored with waiting for goo-..."
A rustling came from the distance, alarming the pegasi.
"Horse apples, he's close by!" Rainbow Dash looked around and saw behind her how the brush were moving. "Get Blue Hoof out of here! Next clearing, next clearing!"
The largest stallion balanced Blue Hoof on his back and carried her away through the forest passage as Rainbow Dash pointed the others to head in the same direction, making sure she was the last to leave. At the other clearing, a much larger and completely flat one, the pegasi decided to gather round close to the centre, making sure to keep close to Blue Hoof so they would not take as much time moving her as they had this time. Rainbow Dash skipped out and applauded the sensible initiative.
"Okay, that was a precaution, and better safe than sorry. But we can't do this too many times, or we'll run out of escape options. So tell me, which clearing did we just go to?" Rainbow Dash asked.
One of the pegasi shrugged and Derpy shook her head.
"Great, one of us has to go back there and check the map."
"I'm not going back there!" a stallion protested.
"Noble of you," Rainbow Dash remarked, "I'll do it myself. Just keep her safe and listen out in case I need help. Time me at, I dunno, one minute or two tops, then something's up."
Rainbow Dash dived into the forest again and soon emerged into the last clearing where a pony now stood - a horse, in fact. Rainbow Dash backed away quickly, uncertain of whether to hide or approach this stranger.
"I know you are there, little equine," the horse said gently, her deep voice warped slightly by a strange mouthpiece.
"Who are you?" Rainbow Dash asked, trying to sound unsurprised.
"The one you ran from," the horse replied.
"That was you? Oh! I thought you were Hyde, ha ha! Wow, we've sure gotten edgy."
"Hyde? A fitting name."
"You know him?"
"I know it is not his name."
"What are you doing out here anyway? You're clearly a traveller," Rainbow Dash pried as she pointed at the numerous personal effects the horse carried.
"This is true, but I fret not a stranger such as Hyde," the horse said boldly.
"I have tender company. I am safe."
"We were, like, ten pegasi going straight at him, and he just shot one of us down and took off without touching her," Rainbow Dash informed. "He's got some mean tricks up his sleeve, y'know."
"Yeah, pegasus; pony with wings? What, horses don't have pegasi?"
"I'm a pony. You're a horse, I'm smaller than you... that stuff,"
"Hmm, I had no idea these words existed," the horse said, "thank you for teaching me this."
"You're a foreigner?"
"Where's your friend then?" Rainbow Dash asked, "you said you had good company."
"You are here, are you not?"
"You're weirding me out, ma'am, I just gotta check this map and I'll be..." Rainbow Dash looked at the map and came to a revelation. She had already trotted over next to the horse by this time, and realised what a bad idea that was. "You're with him, with Hyde..." she uttered weakly.
Rainbow Dash looked up slowly and was met with a blank grin, one which had no remorse for what might come to those around her. "Why? Why with him?"
"I am safest that way, and I am well kept. Not every horse is so lucky to have a master to protect them, you see."
"Where is he?!"
"Around, looking for new game, now that your little fellowship spoilt his meat."
"The doe? He already got her, didn't he?! Why's he coming for us?"
"Maggots long since got that creature before he returned to it, and he grows ever hungrier still." The horse began leaning in over Rainbow Dash. "If I were you, I would hide your little 'pony' friend before he finds you. A few 'pegasi' will not see him starve to death."
"What's your problem!?"
"I gave you a fair warning."
Rainbow Dash only then realised the voice of Cloudette, a Team Beta member, was shouting her name.
"If you're there, Rainbow Dash, we're retreating back to Ponyville!"
"He lurks toward them, 'pegasus', I can distract him for a moment, but then you better have taken flight."
"You'll help us?" Rainbow Dash asked as she started toward the forest passage.
"And why not?" the horse challenged, and began to follow, "you want to escape, so I will give you the fair chance Hyde will deny you."
"You fly, I cause a distraction, you guide your fellow 'pegasi' away, and Hyde comes looking to see why I clamoured. It is simple, really."
Rainbow Dash instinctively took flight and soared above the horse. "Like this?"
"Fascinating," the horse complimented, "now, lead them wherever they need to go, but do not stop for one another, for he will not tire unless he loses track of you."
Rainbow Dash flew over the trees to the large clearing and waved her hooves. "Every pony that way, that way! We're running back to Ponyville, quick, quick, quick!"
"What took you so long?" Cloudette asked as her group began mobilising.
"A stranger, let's just say! C'mon, Hyde could be here any moment!"
The horse's promised clamour echoed over the trees and gave the other pegasi a jump.
"What was that?!" Popper cried.
"Just a distraction! Go, go, go, GO!"
Hyde could not possibly mistake the loud sound of the stampeding pegasi moving through the forest, so Rainbow Dash hoped the horse's plan had worked. The pegasi disappeared out of sight into the trees as Rainbow Dash remained their eye in the sky. Though Hyde would have been the more sensible target to look for, Rainbow Dash was more concerned about the horse. If she was misleading them into a chaos that would help Hyde pick them off, or if she was really sincere in her efforts, was hard to tell; and it was too late to gain anything from speculation.
The pegasi came out into the next clearing, still carrying Blue Hoof, but suddenly a visible disturbance in the trees below caught Rainbow Dash's attention. Out sprung Hyde to the pegasi's flank, charging toward them at speed, skipping on his two spindly legs. Rainbow Dash threw to heck her senses and charged a frontal assault.
"RUN!" she screamed mere moments before impact.
Hyde was raised well off the ground, suspended by Rainbow Dash's head and carried far off into the forest where they landed. Rainbow Dash tried to recover with her legs but felt them sack down as if sapped of all their strength. She was now laying on top of the downed Hyde, but unable to get back up again. Her head began to ache, and that ache began carrying down her neck and spine. She had gotten hurt in this attempt of bravery.
Hyde then coughed and raised his torso upward as much as he could, grabbed hold of Rainbow Dash's muzzle with his leathery talon and forced eye contact. His eyes were dead grey with void blackened pupils and his head armoured with thick bone, unlike any creature Rainbow Dash could recognise. He chuckled at her and lay down once more, whether winded was uncertain, but he certainly was unharmed by this exchange. He stroked his talon across Rainbow Dash's mane and revealed her damage, as his talon was stained with red from the caress.
Her eye sight began to fail her, as did her mind as she could barely think coherent thoughts. But worst of all, Hyde started cackling wildly at his situation. What roused him to this, Rainbow Dash barely had the clarity to ponder and her mind began echoing with his harrowing laugh. Then he spoke:
Rainbow Dash's pain faded as did the gravity upon her body. Her head bobbed and her eyes shut gently. Her legs lost all sense of weariness, and her wings felt no burden or strain. She was floating in a piece of paradise where all her worldly concerns were banished, save for the clutch of talons upon her neck and head - a last embrace.
Whether she was to die or to sleep was beyond her care, as for the first time in her life, she felt only ease. And all else perished in this darkness, as did all sights in this dark encroaching night.
Applejack and Granny Smith had set the table for dinner, awaiting Apple Bloom and Big Macintosh to arrive at the table. A labourer's dinner of hay, oatmeal porridge, guest drink and a stiff one to sooth the aching muscles of a hard day's work awaited the adults. Apple Bloom had her nice treat of much the same, barring the drink in exchange for juice. A simple meal, but Granny Smith knew well the importance of a strengthening meal over a fancy one.
"Where are those ponies at?" Applejack wondered, remembering having sent Apple Bloom to look for her older brother.
The front door sounded the arrival of two ponies, a young one and an adult and there the other half of the family arrived.
"What took ya'll so long?" Applejack asked as she sat down by the table.
"Oh, I was tellin' Big Mac 'bout this thing in school, is all," Apple Bloom explained.
"Anythin' ya wanna share?"
Big Macintosh gave Apple Bloom an encouraging wink before taking his seat.
"Well... it's a funny story Pip was tellin' us when we caught 'im drawin' this funny thing on the playground durin' recess. It wasn't finished then, but he said it was one of them ponytales up in Trottin'ham 'bout some creature stealin' food. I don't rightly recall how he told it, but I reckon it was some sprite or spirit that lurked 'round the trees and took food when no pony was lookin'"
"Well, that's sumthin'. What did it look like?" Applejack asked.
"Like this," Apple Bloom replied and passed over a detailed drawing.
Applejack threw the paper aside of fright when she first saw the creature detailed in the drawing.
"What manner of apparition is that, I ask!?" Applejack demanded, resting a hoof over her chest, "tryin' 'ta give me a heart attack?"
"It's not that scary," Apple Bloom claimed as Big Macintosh chuckled.
"Wuz that?" Granny Smith asked and Applejack picked up the paper and passed it over.
"Just don't look right at it, Granny Smith," Applejack warned.
"My, quite the resemblance to your uncle, Apple Strudel, ho ho!" Granny Smith joked.
"Am I the only pony here who finds that thing scary?" Applejack demanded as the other three laughed at her.
"Wuz that? A tree spirit, or sumthin'?" Granny Smith asked.
"Like I said before, I don't rightly recall. I just took the drawin' home after school," Apple Bloom repeated.
"You took Pip's drawin'? Why in the world would you do that?" Applejack asked.
"He didn't take it, and I kinda liked it. And Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon would probably give him a hard time if they knew he was drawin' it anyway."
"Now, now, return that drawin' tomorrow, or at least ask permission to keep it. We don't take none of what's not ours in this house, Apple Bloom."
"Fine, I'll do that tomorrow; first thing."
The gathered ponies bit into dinner, but Applejack was still puzzled by that drawing. Such a strange face on a tree. A food thief.
"Still, that is one strange thing to put on paper," Applejack remarked, "this is in Trottin'ham, you say?"
"Uh-huh. Probably wouldn't prowl 'round our orchard, though. But it would be right fun if it did."
"Don't say that, Apple Bloom!"
"Well I had this chill earlier today," Big Macintosh informed, "and it wasn't right at all. A pony should not have been freezin' on a day like this."
"Perhaps its the spirit!" Apple Bloom said enthusiastically. "Pip said it was called the 'Weight of the Watchers' or sumthin' like that!"
"Says 'Wight of the Waters' on the paper," Granny Smith corrected.
"Yeah-yeah, but that might have been it, big brother! You could have felt it's presence!"
"Enough now!" Applejack scolded. "Don't go scarin' other ponies needlessly."
"But you're the only pony scared of it, sis!"
Big Macintosh let out a loud laughter. Applejack was sure they were just playing a prank on her.
"You drew that, didn't you, Big Mac! You took art classes, so I know you can draw!"
Big Macintosh shook his head in denial and kept laughing.
"Laugh it up, but I'm not gonna let you get to me more tonight!" Applejack asserted and finished her meal.
Applejack was awoken from the whimpering coming from Apple Bloom's room. Sure a scare prank was being plotted against her, Applejack snuck up on her sister's door and slid in carefully so as not to make the door creak. To her surprise, Apple Bloom was still in her room, and not doing anything other than spying out the window.
"What'cha doin' up so late, sis?" she asked.
Apple Bloom jumped with fright. "Don't scare me like that!" she hissed under her voice, trying best not to be heard.
"Why you lookin' out the window like that?"
"Somethin's in the barn, and it's tryin' to get out!"
"What're ya talkin 'bout?" Applejack said and glanced out herself, spotting the barn doors rocking back and forth.
"It's a monster for sure!" Apple Bloom cried, still trying to remain silent.
Applejack made a rational headcount and realised one family member had been missing since earlier that day: Winona.
"Gosh darn it, I must've locked our Winona in the barn when I shut the door!" Applejack grunted and trotted downstairs.
"It could be dangerous!" Apple Bloom pleaded from the threshold.
Applejack rolled her eyes as she stepped out into the dark and skipped over to the barn, where Winona could be heard scratching furiously at the woodwork.
"Gonna need to replace some planks after this," Applejack sighed.
Just then she heard a strange noise. It come form the distance, like a heavy trot from a pony heavy as Big Macintosh; no, much heavier than Big Macintosh. Applejack looked to the orchard from where she swore it had come from but saw nothing standing out. A faint flicker or two, perhaps, but nothing conclusive.
"What in tarnation...?"
Applejack had barely touched the padlock before Winona tried to squeeze her head through the non-existent gap between the two doors. Figuring this might not be an easy open-and-get-back-in kind of thing going on, she stopped, went back into the house and fetched a lantern. Just in case Winona was planning on storming off into the night.
Back at the padlock, Applejack turned the key and, much to her suspicion, the little dog shot through the widening gap and soared into the orchard. Applejack groaned loudly at the thought of having to follow the dog out there.
"Where did she go?" Applejack wondered to herself, after the third time she could have thought she had heard Winona's panting.
Big Macintosh held the lantern high and inspected every tree they passed. He was not keen on detail but was still no less thorough for it when he wanted to be.
"I don't think the trees have taken her," Applejack joked and kicked a fallen apple aside. "But dear, oh, dear, have these trees dropped a lot of apples."
"Somepony's disturbed 'em," Big Macintosh asserted.
"Tell me about it. Yeah, we had an apple thief here, no doubtin' it."
"This here don't add up."
"Not sayin' I know much of trails, but it just stops here. Not sure what to make of it." Big Macintosh pointed to the sudden stop of fallen apples.
He hung the lantern over the lowest branch by a nearby tree as the two siblings began surveying the area, not missing a single nook or cranny. They parted ways in agreement to return in five minutes and Applejack tapped her hat to signal trust in her brother staying safe.
Applejack, tired as to be expected, took a short break. She knocked her forehead against the trunk of the tree with the lantern hoping for a pain-induced burst of energy. To her surprise, instead of a hard surface, she found a cushion.
"What the hay...?" she thought and backed away. The bark on this tree looked a little odd. In fact, the whole tree seemed a little out of place. "This ain't our tree, is it?" she wondered.
The tree was shorter than most, and barely had a crown to speak of. And certainly no apples growing from it. Behind it grew a large brush that had no place there. If this tree and brush had managed to grow from spring and reached this height, it surely was a record, but it certainly was not a tree she would have planted.
"I think I hear Winona," Big Macintosh said and pointed to the dark.
Much right, the little dog was incessantly sniffing around, looking for something it could not quite locate.
"There she is," Applejack said with a sigh of relief.
As she turned back to the tree before her, it seemed to have changed. The top of the tree looked to have twisted from its original position, almost as if it had followed her with its gaze, had it possessed a head. Also now one of the branches looked like it was reaching for the lantern, as if trying to take it off.
"What've you got, AJ?" Big Macintosh asked.
"I've gone crazy, brother. I really have."
Suddenly the brush behind the tree shook and let out a loud sigh and inhaled like a living being. Applejack fell on her back and screamed in horror as the tree opened a pair of dead eyes that gazed right into hers.
"THAT TREE'S ALIVE!" she cried and crawled backwards.
Winona came snarling like a rabid wolf and jumped at the brush. The animate tree caught her mid-air by the throat and suspended her between itself and Applejack. Winona coughed and barked whilst trying to wriggle free from the tree's grip, but just then the tree thrust another of its branches into her neck. Winona whined and the tree took the lantern and threw it toward Big Macintosh who was just charging in, forcing him to halt.
The tree jumped up the brush and gave a loud, mind-numbing call prompting it to come alive and gallop away, crying out with the sound of an equine. Both disappeared into the dark in moments and Big Macintosh rushed to help Applejack up.
"IT HURT WINONA!" Applejack roared and tried to charge after. Before she got more than a step away the sound of hooves approached. Heavy hooves, too heavy to belong to a pony.
Enclosing upon the brim red light was two discernible figures. A dark horse and, upon it, a strange figure, not a tree, but a living thing clutching Winona with its talons under its reptilian maw. It rode the horse over the fire, almost extinguishing it, and flew past Applejack and Big Macintosh at speed. Applejack got just one short moment to see the face of their intruder. Indeed, some tree spirit. Pale bark-like skin it had, and a solid, inorganic body top to toe. And a pair of dead, grey eyes with pupils that felt as the pull of the void to look into. The horse disappeared into the dark once more, but this time the sound of it also faded.
Big Macintosh gave chase, but Applejack knew already that neither of them could hope to match the speed of a galloping horse. And Winona had not uttered as much as a peep after the sting.
"Give it up!" Applejack yelled, "we lost her! Big Mac!"
She had seen that face only once before. The drawing Apple Bloom had taken from Pipsqueak. The Wight of the Waters. Such visage. Such malice. Applejack felt her eyes well with tears. Winona had been taken from her, before her very eyes, to never return.
Upon a mountain range far-stretched and totally surrounded by water a strange folk prowled with purpose. They were tall, they were thin, some were horned, some were big-headed, others, still, were different even from that. All of them black in the darkness of this night, save for their lantern-like eyes, shining as stars do in the sky. They all turned their heads constantly on high alert, ready to catch the slightest movement.
The ground which they walked upon was not all dry rock, but a disturbing amount of wetness could be derided. It was not from water, as this was far above water, but devoid of ice to melt.
It was in fact the bodies of a thousand fallen that wet this passage, for their blood was allowed to leak. It was the dreadful aftermath of a bloodbath. The victims: the dragons. An entire roost, and many more wherever the eyes could see.
After a horrified cry from afar aroused the attention of the dark creatures, the harrowing silence was broken by the sound of steps splashing the blood on the rocks. It was a hunt, and no creature seemed willing to stop. A lone dragon guarded the targeted brood upon a peak, staring down his attackers. "Why have you come?" he asked, but received no answer. "Why are you attacking my kingdom?" he begged, but received no answer.
To the dragon's meet, a lone creature stepped forward. It held in its forelimbs a deep purple egg and presented it to the dragon. What would have been mistaken as a call for a truce was then quickly destroyed as, when the dragon tried to take the egg, the creature threw it to the ground and smashed it. The dragon was not in time to withdraw as another call echoed over the mountain. A language, but unknown.
"IS!" called the creature upon the dragon, and its ears spout blood and it flinched. "VIS!" called the creature upon the dragon, and its eyes ruptured violently. "VOS!" called the creature finally, and the dragon's scaled armour tore and rent itself off, leaving its muscles below exposed. The dragon, blinded, deafened, and stripped of its armour, staggered and collapsed; its massive bulk, dwarfing the creature, rolled over the mountain edge, bouldering down to the ocean below.
A moment of silence, with only the breeze of the wind stroking over the mountain, was soon broken by the beasts' final charge upon the last dragons still standing.
"Hail our throne," called a dragon as it fled, "hail our empire," it cried and dove into a cave beneath a temple, "hail the pride and glory of the tyrants, and know in all eternity that we stood up against you - evil, oh evil children of the end!" it screamed as it sealed off the entrance behind itself. The darkness of the cave was complimented only by the muffled cries and thunderous trampling above. This dragon would not live to see his kind's fall, but he set his claws upon the walls and began scribing, using his own claws to carve in the stone. But to the onlooker it was too dark to see what was written.
The princess awoke to the setting sun, beholding the twilight sky and its beauty. The sound of the city's commerce was dying down leaving room for ponderous thoughts and the appreciation of the stillness. Her duties were to begin soon, but a troubling dream had begun bothering her, like an ill wind carrying with it the omen of darkness to come. A darkness not of the good of night, but the ill will of a threat.
Princess Luna recalled it, having seen that creature before, but then it had no origin, no purpose, no reason. They had met that winter night, but they had not understood one another. And then that creature had disappeared. It could not have been the same. Princess Luna loathed the thought, the thought that she had once nurtured a creature of such evil. It had to have been impossible - she knew nothing of it. And yet, they were so similar.
A single star broke through the twilight sky, and Princess Luna adorned herself with her crown, her crest and her shoes. She trod with dignity to her station upon the castle courtyard's platform where from she would raise the moon. To her side she could glimpse her sister, Princess Celestia, observing her from her study's window. Not long ago had she returned from banishment, less time still had she met that strange creature of no origin, but tonight she would only be the princess of the night, and that dream had to remain a dream. At least for now.
Princess Luna could feel her own legs betray her. In the presence of her own sister, there was no hiding your feelings. It would not be long before the two would encounter one another that night and Princess Celestia would remark on that one queer step. She wanted to deny it, but yielded to the her sister's enquiry. Princess Luna paused before replying. A dream like this had never been so lively, so deep in context. Even Princess Luna would dream the absurd and abstract, but this was the opposite. It had meaning, it had purpose. 'Children of the End'.
"Why are you troubled by a dream?" Princess Celestia asked.
"It suddenly feels important, sister," Princess Luna confessed, "but I do not know its purpose, or its meaning."
"You of all ought to know the importance of dreams."
"I do, but I never much delve into my own. They are part of me, and I cannot be my own advisor."
As understanding as she was, Princess Celestia was not hesitant to lend aid at her time of rest. But Princess Luna was apprehensive. As it was the first of its kind, she could not guarantee to dream the same dream, but a lost message could be more harmful than an ignored one.
The moon was risen and all was quiet. Perhaps an attempt was in order? There was no harm in it. However, as the sisters were making their way to the study, Princess Luna felt compelled to ask:
"What do you know of the 'Children of the End?'"
Princess Celestia stopped suddenly. "Where did you hear that?"
"It was in my dream. A dragon said it, it was fleeing a terrifying horde."
"I confess, that name had been all but forgotten to me. I fathom it has been a good 400 years since I last heard of it. Were it the Sky Tyrants you saw?"
"I am not sure, sister. You never really told me much about your dealings with them."
"Well I must confess I kept most of it from you. I never learnt much about them, but after many centuries of obscurity, they suddenly vanished. I hear only one thing: they are at war with the children."
"The 'Children of the End?'" Princess Luna asked.
"Maybe, but I cannot be certain. I presume 'children' in their language refers to their young. I thought it was a civil war for dominance. They were dragons after all. But to think that they would spirit away as they did was beyond my comprehension."
"What happened to them?"
"I never saw their homeland, but I have documentations of it, which they provided me with. They wished to educate me, but I never gave them the satisfaction."
"Can I see it?"
"Of course, Luna," Princess Celestia said and opened the door to the study. "They were secretive, but not subversive. I have many documents here, many detailing their life and history."
"What of the 'children'?"
"Perhaps there is something to be found," Princess Celestia replied, and started browsing through a specific corner of her study.
After finding a large carved disc and a tablet, Princess Celestia beckoned her sister to a table on which she placed them and began reading the texts aloud. The tablet detailed a dogmatic code of conduct, an economical structure and the distribution of power between families, none of which Princess Luna recognised. But after being placed together with the disc, the tablet would also detail a calendar of what foods were to be eaten at what times. All these foods were living creatures, without a doubt, even if Princess Luna could not recognise some of the names. The language was draconic, so some words were alien to her.
"They did not eat gemstones?" Princess Luna asked.
"No, Luna, these dragons were totally carnivorous. They earned their name of Sky Tyrant for a reason, unfortunately."
"What about the 'children'? Are they not there?"
"Not as food, no. But this tablet does reference them. Listen here: 'far away must you stay from the children below or untold consequence befall you and us.' It means that they were weary of them. The 'children' were a threat." Princess Celestia looked at her sister. "But I do not know what they were, what they looked like, or what they could do."
"Were there no carvings? Nothing detailing their appearance?"
"No, that they never taught me."
"That is... unfortunate, sister."
There was a short moment of silence.
"What have you seen in your dreams?"
"Nothing... of the 'children'..."
Time heals all wounds, especially for children, who well outlive many of the other creatures in Heaven Over the Azure. Valkon knew this notion well, but habitually disagreed with the sentiment, particularly now that the farfarer's face was repeatedly being planted into the table, resulting in a lost tooth and a broken nose. Seemingly a means to vent the frustration of the enforcer.
It was not so much out of vengeance or contempt, neither was it the fact that the enforcer felt Valkon was deserving of punishment for the indirect involvement in the death of Dal Vega and the entire ship's crew. Their deaths had been deemed a case of multiple murders. But to digress: the enforcer was a very busy child indeed. Before the rising it was the enforcer's duty to pass out instructions to the justiciars' hierarchy; during the luminance to give a lengthy recital of the twenty-seven mantras to the masses; and after the descent to patrol the Commons District forums where trade was abound (usually hoping to find an interesting trinket or such from foreign lands). And for this exact reason heavy frustration was taken out on Valkon for intruding on highly treasured, but much to scarce, pass-time.
"I deride no amusement from your suffering, farfarer," the enforcer grunted, finally letting go of Valkon's neck. "But I would not grieve were that scorched face of yours to be irreparably battered by my own wrath - so speak, I command you, of what dealings you had with a loather that cut short the lives of those..." the enforcer paused, "nobles of the Patriarchal Circle."
Valkon tried to smile with lips struggling against the notion. "Beating me will yield no answer, enforcer," Valkon mocked. "I have starved and I have been burnt by the sun. I have endured and surpassed a wrath of nature that you cannot fathom," .
"I can break through your threshold, farfarer, and I will see you make my life, as well as your own, I pray, easier."
Valkon grinned through the pain of the stretching lips, but could not muster the strength to speak. The defiant grunt was soon met with a back-handed clap across the face from the enforcer.
"Not 'arrogance', false, not the word I seek. It is 'fear,' fear indeed!" the enforcer riddled. "You saw the insignia, the burning equine and its wings. The loather brought you here to my hand, but you will not disclose its whereabouts."
Valkon spat and licked the teeth before replying with much struggle: "I am under house arrest for breaking curfew, and I did not kill those nobles."
The enforcer sat down opposite Valkon with crossed arms. "This you did not, that is the truth of it. But the nobles are heckling me for 'justice,' this... idea, a... sentiment they coined many seasons ago that a life for a life is a fair trade."
"I had not known much of it," Valkon remarked with a shake of the head to regain senses, "but I was almost at the wrong end of their social mandates upon arrival."
"I wager the 'matrimony'," the enforcer said and sneered.
"That is a new concept; even you outdate it," the enforcer said presumptuously.
"To be sure."
The enforcer stared at Valkon for a long while without saying anything. Valkon took this as the best moment to focus on anything other than the aching nose.
"I met a child from Yiao Valley a few cycles ago," the enforcer said finally.
Valkon raised a brow.
"Said child wanted to see the Culling Grounds."
"I said this was a bad idea; I said you would not want to meet a culler." The enforcer awaited a passive response, but received none. "Everyone of us children are right to fear the cullers." The enforcer looked away, out of the window. "The child would not be easily dissuaded, but a culler can kill with its breath if they chose to, and they anger easily. You wonder how the loathers can share living grounds with them."
Valkon became silent again.
"I presume you have never met a culler."
Valkon did not answer.
"As I thought," the enforcer said before Valkon could reply, "perhaps I could arrange your release to be in the Culling Grounds. It is certainly more dangerous than the Troll Woods, and much less... predictable. It will be something to think about, should you decide to stay your tongue."
The enforcer stood up and walked over to Valkon again.
"All I want is to know where you sent that loather, nothing more. I can then placate the nobles, and hopefully restore the peace. Once they know the culprit, and realise it is out of my hands to settle, they will stay their tongues too, and it will all be as nothing ever happened. That loather will not feel betrayed, nor will there ever be cause for you to worry about some rumoured dispute between justiciars and loathers resulting in a war between the enclaves. I pray you ponder on this, the cullers will not be eager to see a farfarer intrude upon the grounds."
The enforcer was halfway to the door when Valkon finally spoke.
"Send me to the Culling Grounds, I say," Valkon challenged and blew blood out of the nostrils. "There I know a culler by the name of Alabaster, like the flower, who tended my family garden. I will be welcomed as a friend, and the culler will see me home where I shall offer honey and horse milk as a reward for the service."
Valkon was not lying, of course, and the enforcer could tell, which added to the anger. Turning quickly and walking back to Valkon the enforcer said:
"I do not hate you Valkon, and I never have. I pray you will reconsider your attitude after I tell you this: I know something about House Alabaster that you do not. Ponder on that."
The enforcer left the room. Now Valkon was curious beyond measure. Breaking the nose back into place, that sentence kept repeating itself in the farfarer's head: 'I know something about House Alabaster that you do not.' It did not bode well.
"Okay, I confess, it was us whi messed up! I swear, there was nothing we could do!" Itch pleaded.
The boss of the Highway Dogs was intent on strangling the last breath of life out of Tick as revelation had arisen that his brother-in-law had died on the job at the hands of an unknown.
"What do I have to do to convince you that I am sorry!? Look, don't kill my friend! What could we have done?!"
The boss let his paws off from Tick's throat and threw a straight punch at Itch, who flew across the room as if weightless.
"What fiend slays a dog and then dumps him in the river?!" the boss demanded, "I want revenge! I want justice! I want a life for a life!
"How are we supposed to get something like that?! That horse was a war machine!" Itch declared, in continuation with a lie they had told. They had omitted the false-griffon upon the horse's back.
"Bring me that horse, even if it kills you! Then you can think about redeeming your faulting me!" the boss said and threw Tick across the room before stomping away.
"I thought I was done for!" Tick cried as he tried to properly regain his breathing.
"You still will be if we don't come up with a solution to our new problem," Itch warned.
"Chasing down a horse? Think about all we're gonna need to accomplish that."
"For another time, let's get out of here before he kills us out of spite."
The two spotters tapped out of the boss' chamber and tried to make their way across the bridge without arising attention from their comrades, but were intercepted almost immediately by the last dog they had hoped to meet. The right hand of the boss, Brawler.
"Y'know, if I didn't know better, I'd think you two were the ones who dumped Scratch into the river," Brawler mocked as he crept up behind them.
"Of course we didn't," Tick tried to lie, "it was entirely out of our paws!"
"Strangely it did not occur to you to swim after him and fetch him out of the water. I presume you can both swim, right?"
"Well... yes," Itch replied.
"If I didn't know better, you were trying to scapegoat and get out of this one. It wouldn't be the first time you lied to cover your asses."
"What do you know about that!?" Tick challenged, but Itch slapped him over the head for bursting out.
"I make it my business to spy on the dogs around here, and when one of you are guilty of something, I will know it. And I will know it before you do," Brawler mocked.
Tick massaged his throat as a nervous response.
"Not a pleasant feeling, being strangled, is it?"
"... No," Tick replied.
"So what are you gonna do about it?"
"Catch the killer...?"
"Good boy. Off you go," Brawler dismissed.
The two spotters took a last look around the hideout, a truly magnificent sight. With the wealth accumulated over the last few years, they lived collectively as royalty with their cavern having been transformed from a torch-lit scum hive, into an underground theme park, just short of the carousels. Even the cavern ceiling was lined with lighting, making it look roughly like the starry night sky, and the large river below the bridge gave this place that added feeling of 'home,' especially since you could also catch fish in it. But Itch and Tick was taking their last look at this place, foreseeing no return here until they had caught the horse who 'killed Scratch.'
"I hear the Waterfronts of Trottingham isn't so bad..." Tick suggested.
"I'm not leaving this place," Itch said determinedly, "my mum raised me here, and she's not fit to leave, so neither will I."
"Heh, we're doomed."
"At least I am dying with a friend," Tick joked, having only moments ago almost died at the hands of his leader.
"That's not funny, Tick, I was so scared I was about to drop my tail!"
"And I was so scared I could have died," Tick said without irony and ran off.
Itch took a pause to contemplate his predicament a while longer before setting out to plan his strategy. Fleeing was not an option with a deceptive and back-stabbing dog like Brawler in the pack, but Itch was not exactly spoilt for choice. Run away, or catch a horse he had no idea where it had gone. It was only to step out into the dead of night and begin the search. It did not bode well.
"I wish to see it," Princess Celestia said, "that which you saw."
"I can't promise to control it," Princess Luna warned, "it feels an eternity since last winter."
"But you saw it nonetheless. Perhaps some clues lie there."
"Granted." Princess Luna averted eye contact, trying to think of better omens. "I will try this once, but I pray it is in vain."
"I want to share that optimism, Luna, but I also want closure."
What was about to take place was for Princess Luna to let some pony else dive into her own dreams to seek answers. Between the two sisters, only she had any potential insight on the 'children,' which was presented to her in the form of a vivid dream. Princess Luna laid herself in her bed awaiting sleep to take her, yearning for the comfort of knowing. Soon her mind was adrift in the vast plane of inner universes, filling rapidly with landscapes, skies, individuals, creatures, scents, sounds, feelings, emotions, but not time. But everything here was other ponies' dreams; she had to find her own, and lay aside her curiosity for others.
A light in front of her blinded her briefly before awakening in a wintry landscape, not far away from Canterlot. The snow was barely light enough to make out the city lights from this distance.
"I know this place..." Princess Luna thought to herself.
"What have you found?" a familiar voice asked, soon revealed to be the slowly embodying voice of her sister.
"This is the place I saw it," she replied, pointing to a lone evergreen tree growing from a trench.
"What did it look like?"
"I... cannot remember..."
The two sisters trod together to the evergreen. Princess Luna was obsessively scanning the snow for prints, but found none; she knew Princess Celestia would not leave prints of her own, and she noticed soon too that she was not either.
"This is no good, sister, I am not dreaming of this place yet," Princess Luna said.
"Maybe you have found another's eyes for this place? It seems too empty here."
Princess Luna looked around trying to make sense of the scene, realising soon what was amiss. Ponyville was supposed to be clearly visible from this spot from morning to evening, but was nowhere to be seen. "This must be before Ponyville's time."
"Then time must pass," Princess Celestia said using her magic.
The sisters watched the sun and moon come and go in rapid haste as seasons passed before them in seconds. Soon a small settlement erected in Ponyville's place, expanding in great haste along with the passing days, months and years that to the sisters seemed no longer than the wink of an eye.
"This is it," Princess Luna said when winter came again. This time the snow was heavier and it was the dead of night, and not evening. "It should be around here."
"Then retrace your steps."
Princess Luna shut her eyes for a moment and felt the wind sweep across her face, opening them up to find herself soaring in the air. She was departing Canterlot in the night to see the land with her own eyes. She wore a winter cloak and a pair of goggles to ward the snow flakes from her eyes. She swooped down the mountain to fly low above the land below, gliding over the train tracks for simple navigation. It was a great winter to re-explore an Equestria that had changed little, yet changed so much, in her absence.
It then came to her mind to be adventurous and leave the trail and see the untouched landscape. She turned south and began counting tracks in the snow to see how lively the world was. Well into a high two-digit number a different type of track caught her attention. It was unlike the others; unwell, sluggish, asymmetrical... unnatural.
Princess Luna landed by the trail and followed the track for a while. It crossed a vast empty field in a straight line, yet wobbled much from its trajectory. The thing that had made these tracks was clearly weak and disoriented. Nearing the end of the trail stood a large evergreen, where the tracks had spaced further apart as it neared it, implying the creature had begun to run. But the track now revealed another interesting detail: there was only one set of prints per cycle. It was not a common animal making this journey.
The tracks ended at the trunk of the tree with no evidence that it had ever left. Princess Luna looked around but found nothing, and the tracks were clearly not used to backtrack either. It was still around, or it had somehow flown away.
"It is here, isn't it?"
"It must be," Princess Luna replied in thought, unable to speak in this dream.
"Where is it?"
Princess Luna tried to look up the branches, but saw nothing in the shadow. She created magical light and sent it up the tree but still saw nothing, despite having perished all darkness.
"Did you see it?"
"Not until a while," Princess Luna confessed. "I saw something... but what was it?"
Princess Luna gave up the search and started trotting away when she heard a faint rustle in the tree. In her peripherals she could clearly see the branches moving by no means of their own as this was a windless night.
"The tree moved," Princess Luna recalled. "I returned to the tree."
"What did you see?"
"Fog, unnatural fog, like the tree was breathing."
The princess looked to the small gap between the branches, spotting two pearly lights shining out. Each was centred with a distinct black dot, like pupils. Whatever was hiding in the tree was now looking straight at her. But these eyes did not warrant cheerful curiosity. Even Princess Luna knew what they were; two eyes, spaced closed together, forward inclined, built for depth perception... a predator. She withdrew with haste and flew away. Suddenly it seemed as if time coursed by again in rapid speed.
"You left it?"
"I was scared. I had never seen something like that before, and instinct took over."
"Yes. On a whim of stupidity."
"What did you see?"
What seemed to be a few weeks passing with the Canterlot streets suddenly riddling in holiday lights and activity, the princess was once again flying out over the vast landscape, following the same route. Out of curiosity, Princess Luna flew to the same tree one more time. This time it was early morning, only barely passed midnight where the princess had decided to end her night with another flight. The tree showed signs of much activity. Some faint, some fresh, the tracks were both coming and going from that evergreen, always from the same creature. But there were no signs of prey being brought to or from it. It seemed as if the tree had become merely a nest for a hibernating wilder-being.
Princess Luna landed again at a safe distance. She approached the tree carefully, noticing a few changes. Some branches from other trees had been gathered to build a primitive wall around the trunk. It had become a small hut without lighting to accommodate exactly one occupant.
"Is it in there?"
"Yes, it's there," Princess Luna replied.
"I startled it."
Princess Luna moved in and readied another light spell. She shot the small ball of light into the tree branches to see if the creature was in there. She had hoped to spy its coat colour or perhaps its shape. What she got instead was a loud cry and a fright, on both parties.
Out from the tree jumped a deformed figure wrapped like a mummy from head-to-hoof - only it had no hooves. It had talons for forelimbs and flats for feet, showed no signs of ears and only the barest that could constitute a tail. It had no face to speak of as it too was hidden in the wrappings, but the eyes were there as before. Grey, dead, but glowing with almost supernatural intensity without any light to reflect. It was too dark to make more details out, and since the ball of light was in the tree branches, Princess Luna cast another one, scaring the creature another time, causing it to stumble backwards into the tree hut.
"You scared it."
"I had not planned on it."
Princess Luna approached the tree, trying to see the creature lit up, but a sudden cry of terror blasted from within the branches, sending spines shooting like needles around the tree. Princess Luna recoiled, but her cloak and goggles rendered the assault ineffective. The tree was now exposed, revealing the curled up creature and the ball of light above it.
It breathed rapidly, irregularly, and its eyes glowed vividly revealing its pin-thin pupils - a sign of fear. It clenched its teeth, to muffle the breathing, allowing Princess Luna to see its canines that, as its eyes, seemed to glow under its fogging breath.
"What happened then?"
The stars moved rapidly for a moment but neither the creature nor the princess had moved. The snow kept falling down, and the princess herself began to feel the chill. She turned and stepped away, extending her wings to take flight. Then she heard it again. After a long time of what now appeared to have been restraint, the creature began to breathe with a shivering racket, teeth snapping rapidly and the breaths were longer and farther apart between inhaling and exhaling. She had not, and would not have, thought about it, but the one thing she could not see on that creature was a coat of fur. Now that its shelter had been destroyed, it was freezing.
"What did you do?"
Princess Luna turned again and approached the creature, who was now rocking back and forth, seemingly unable to register her presence any longer, or too worn to react. While she had stood in warmth for all this time, it had only lost out of body heat. In a spell of compassion, Princess Luna removed her cloak and presented it to the creature. When the creature did not react, she placed it on the ground before it and turned around. She gave it a few moments before observing through her peripherals how the creature carefully took the cloak and wrapped it around itself, but remained curled up.
Luna flew away again, and many nights would pass without her visiting. But she would many times ponder on its existence. It was unlike anything she had seen, with a behaviour she perceived as sapient. A little secret of her own, it felt like.
One night she would make another journey across the field to look upon that lone evergreen tree. The trails were still there, some fresh, some old. The creature had not left its shelter, but rather gathered new branches to build a new wall. But it looked improved upon. This was not a primitive's fixture, but a concious effort to construct a home. A shelter for the winter. Though she wanted to, Princess Luna would not land that night. She would not land the next night either, nor the next after that. She soon found herself visiting every night, but never once touching down. Sometimes she would notice changes; improvements, redesigns, accidents and reparations. It was a constant struggle to muscle through the winter, and Princess Luna wondered if it was not worth to at least consider bringing such a thing to civilisation, which it clearly had within sight, but never made an effort to reach.
Princess Luna touched down for the first time in weeks, but something seemed different. She did not leave any prints in the snow, and suddenly Princess Celestia stood beside her.
"I have slipped out of my own dream, sister," Princess Luna confessed.
"Perhaps we can still learn. But see, the sun is already rising," Princess Celestia said.
Princess Luna inspected the tree hut, but it was empty. She looked at the tracks, indicating that the most recent ones were supposed to have been heading towards the hut, not away from it. She had never seen the creature in the day, which had made her assume it was nocturnal. But was it then possible that this being a slip, she would not be able to see it? She had to focus, try to dream again, but she was suddenly distracted.
"My mind..." an unfamiliar, masculine voice spoke.
Princess Luna looked around but found no source. "Where are you?"
"My mind..." the voice repeated. "My mind... is my own."
Upon the finishing of that sentence, Princess Luna suddenly felt an agonising headache.
"Are you alright?" Princess Celestia asked.
"I don't know, sister. Why does it hurt to sleep?"
"My mind... is my own," the voice repeated again, causing Princess Luna's headache to worsen. "My mind is my own."
Princess Luna bit down as hard as she could, trying to concentrate, but her eyes were failing her and she could hardly stand. It was as if she was awake.
"What is that?" Princess Celestia asked.
Princess Luna faced the east horizon, spotting a silhouette like the creature facing away from them. It turned its head slightly, but not enough to reveal a face. It wore a wide hat and a foreign ensemble of clothes and armour.
"Is that the creature? Is that the child?" Princess Celestia asked.
"I don't know," Princess Luna answered, still trying to clear her vision.
Now the silhouette turned, revealing the familiar glowing grey eyes. Its hat appeared affixed to a dragon mask which covered most of the face, and nothing of its body was revealed. Furthermore it did not possess the cloak Princess Luna had offered, showing signs that it was not the same creature.
"My mind is my own," the silhouette repeated one more time. This time Princess Luna could not bear the pain and let out a loud growl.
"Is that the child? Is that a Child of the End?" Princess Celestia asked once more.
"... Yes," Princess Luna replied and collapsed.
Princess Luna awoke in agony. The headache had been real. Too real. Princess Celestia stood over her with a hoof on her back, gently massaging her.
"How are you feeling?" Princess Celestia asked.
"I am scared."
"Scared of what?"
"That thing, that creature we saw... it was not just a slip," Princess Luna explained.
"What was it then?"
"It was its dream we had entered."
"It must have been. There was more to mine, but it somehow must have gotten interrupted."
"What did it say to you?" Princess Celestia asked.
"You didn't hear it?"
"I could not understand it."
"It said: 'my mind is my own.'" Princess Luna explained.
"'My mind... is... my own?'"
"It kept repeating that sentence. Each time it hurt me - gave me a headache I could never imagine."
"What does it mean?"
"It was trying to expel me from its dreams. We accidentally entered its mind."
"I didn't know we could be detected unless we wanted to."
"When you travel into another pony's dreams, usually you can't," Princess Luna confirmed, "but this creature noticed me instantly. It looked at and spoke to me. I should have been able to disappear right there, but I could not."
"And then it attacked you?"
"Yes. But that should not have been possible. I don't understand what happened."
"Rest, Luna, I shall watch the night this time."
Princess Celestia left the room to allow her sister to recover. Princess Luna was still shaken and could feel a belated cold shiver run down her spine. She shut her eyes and tried to sleep, but her headache kept her twisting and turning in bed. Too surreal was it that another creature would command such power in the dreamscape, a place where she had considered herself an adept. A guardian.
"What are you...?" Princess Luna moaned.
She opened her eyes and looked out the window. She counted the stars to distract herself for a moment, when she suddenly heard a strange voice. It was unintelligible, but definitely from within the room. She looked around but saw nothing, and decided to lay down flat. What she could not see might still see her, yet strangely her instincts told her to lay still instead of move. Her eyes once again turned to the window. Two stars shone brighter than the rest, appearing more than they ought to have been.
Those two stars suddenly turned, like two eyes locking onto her. And for the briefest moment they blinked. Two eyes. Two grey, dead eyes. "My mind... is my own."
"I can't believe it," the young hippogriff sighed as he heaved his rucksack into the carriage.
It would take two days, but for the first time in years he would make another visit to Equestria, and to see the royalty, no less. This hippogriff was the prince and son of the High King of the Griffin Empire, but no less bashful and ready to slip when under pressure. He had grown to near adulthood - even taken on a title of knight and dragoneer, by no means of his heritage or status. No easy feat for any to claim.
"I see you packed your Dragon Tongue, too, my boy," the elderly, plump griffon said.
The Prince's escort and preferred carer, Baron Whiteplume, the prince's own seneschal, was a griffon of many means. He valued sentimentality and the idealised vision of rank and military. But above that, he valued the Prince, considering him his son - much attributed to having lost his own to a fatal infection.
So mighty was the High King reign, that only the nobles had the privilege to serve under the throne, or even as soldiers.
"I don't want Celestia to see me without it," the Prince insisted. He pulled the sword from its sheath and held it up at face-level. "Celestia knows the history of these swords as well as any griffon, and now that I have one for myself, I don't want to squander the chance to show it."
"Just don't go scratching it now, Prince, it's a relic of old."
"It was forged with unicorn magic! No spell or blow can tarnish it and it always radiates with a blue hue!"
"I know what a Dragon Tongue is, prince, but there's only twenty-eight known surviving blades out of the 120 that were forged. I only worry it might be lost."
"Would I lose it?" the Prince challenged.
"... Of course not. You are always so cautious."
"Can we get a move on? Or am I gonna moult in here before we're off?" cried a nagging voice from the carriage.
"Patience," Whiteplume urged, "we have not yet seen the King."
A messenger descended the stairs in composed haste to meet Whiteplume and the Prince.
"What have you?" Whiteplume demanded.
"The King regrets he will not be seeing you off," the messenger started, "but he asked that I pass this to you, the Prince. A parting gift."
"For me?" the Prince asked.
"Yes, your sheath is not befitting of the sword it carries. Your father commissioned a master craftsman to create a new one."
The messenger held up a wrapped, elongated object. The Prince took the gift and unwrapped it. A new sheath, of dark wood with golden trims and symbols. Encrusted with hot gemstones, it had a dark finish.
"It matches the hilt to my sword," the Prince said in surprise.
"I had the chance to describe it to the King," Whiteplume explained, "but I didn't expect him to do this."
"Give father my gratitude," the Prince said and began replacing the old sheath for the new one, "this is a fine gift I won't soon be able to repay him even if I live a hundred years more."
"So sentimental, boy," Whiteplume said in admiration, "treasure it well. And let's be rid of that dragon hide sheath you once called yours."
"I'm fine to be rid of it, Baron. Cotton was never quite fond of it."
"I can hear you!" the voice inside the carriage nagged.
"Consider it payment for your service," the Prince said and passed the old sheath to the messenger. Dragon hide was priced by its weight in gold, no less.
The two climbed inside the carriage where Cotton, a light pink dragon, half the height of a griffon, sat with her arms crossed. At her age she had become exceptionally irate, but remained loyal nonetheless to the Prince she swore to serve. And now she only wanted to be gone from this place; having never left the empire before.
"You'll love Equestria," the prince assured. "There are many dragons there."
"In captivity?" Cotton demanded.
"No, the ponies don't capture dragons as we do," the prince insisted. "Theirs' roam free, gather hoards and sleep their time away when they feel like it. They also partake in migrations every now and then when the time comes."
Cotton inspected her own wings upon hearing this. Hers were not yet grown enough to be called true wings, more like sprouts.
"One day you'll go on one, and decide for yourself if you'd rather stay with us," Whiteplume informed, "such has always been the way of the dragoneers."
The Prince smiled and saw Cotton barely restrain a smile of her own. "Just you wait, everything will be great."