The Steadfast Sky : Chapter 1
The Grey Potter
I had an old storybook once. Every page had a picture, some bigger, some smaller. Each was one painted onto the paper, with details illuminated in gold and silver leaf. Endless bright fields of flowers and grass. Day with a golden sun and night that glittered with innumerable stars. Regal ponies of a thousand colors, playing in the light. Happy, no, overjoyed.
I wish I still had that book to show Luna, I don’t know what happened to it. All she’s ever known, all I’ve ever known, is endless rows of worn stone. Walls and towers rise high, too high, vanishing into the cloud cover, gripping onto the sky with its black fingers. There are too many shadows in this city. They’re born from the height of the towers, raised by the constant gray sky, obscuring the streets even at noon. At night, darkness itself rises up from the ground and eats bad little ponies who dare go out. And don’t tell me I’m too old to believe in those silly stories. I’ve seen them. Big black snakes, five times as long as a pony, head big enough to bite you right in half. You can’t look at them too long, they can sense your eyes, the lights in your soul. It offends them.
There’s no such thing as fields and flowers here. I’ve never seen a garden, never seen grass or even a single weed. I wonder sometimes, does she even know where hay and apples come from? Do I?
I hate this place, this city of cold rock. I hate Canterbury. I hate Equestria. I’d leave, take Luna with me, but I’m afraid. I like to think that the fields and flowers lie beyond the walls, but what if they don’t? What if I crossed the last boundary, the retaining wall that holds the city, and find nothing beyond but an expanse of the same black cobblestone?
It’s difficult to tell in this city when dim turns to actual dark, but I’ve got quite a knack for it. Ponies tell me sometimes, ‘Celestia, if there was a cutie mark for being able to tell the time, you’d have it.’ I know, they’re trying to make me feel better, but it always feels like a backhand insult to me. I’m a year from being a full-grown mare, and I’m still sporting a blank flank. I don’t need ponies giving me vague sympathy about a problem they barely understand.
Usually it’s no trouble going about my business, getting home on time. Mornings, I help Hot Cross at the bakery. I collect that day’s bits at noon, pick up enough hay for dinner, and maybe squeeze in a little time chatting with the market ponies. Flutter your eyelashes enough and people give you all kinds of things. Apples, carrots, a couple more bits for hay… Oh horsefeathers, I hope I don’t get a cutie mark in begging. That would be completely unbecoming of a young baroness.
Well, today it went on a bit long. An older mare, Apple-a-Day, won’t stop talking sometimes. And a lot of the time, I don’t like to stop listening. She knows about special things, farms and trees, birds and bunnies. Today she was telling me about the Sun and Moon, and the changing of seasons. Too often I think Apple-a-Day is full of herself, but she can spin quite the fascinating tales. I’m not the only pony who stops to listen, but I am certainly the oldest who lies by her small apple cart.
So before I knew it, day had nearly ended.
“Oh my, the Witching Hours are almost here…” Apple-a-Day says, craning her head slowly up at the vacant sky. “I best be closing shop…”
“Do you need help with that, Apple?” I reply, rising from my position on the cold flagstones. I stumble a bit, try to balance. My legs were asleep. How long was I here for?
“No, no, best to hurry home dearest.” She nudged her cart with her nose, trying to open a shutter. “I hope you live nearby…”
“Sort of. Just Endwreck Street.”
“Endwreck? That’s a bit far… do you want to risk such a trip, child?”
“Don’t worry, if I canter fast enough, I’ll make it.” I levitated my brown paper bag, tonight’s dinner. Hay again. One of these days, I need to learn how to cook something nicer. Or learn how to afford baking ingredients.
“Then go, go! Don’t let me hold you up any longer!” She shooed me away and I trotted off, still a little unsteady. My bag hovered behind me, glowing yellow. It only took one look at the sky before I picked up the pace, numb legs be darned. Oh, how did I let this go so late?
My hooves clattered noisily on the cobblestones. Only a few others ambled by me as night began to fall. At first they nodded kindly, but that stopped soon enough as they began trotting. Cantering. It wasn’t long until the only ponies I met were in a full gallop, in a panic that caused them to slip across the smooth cobblestone, braying and whinnying.
There was a bit more time left, just a few more streets, I could make it. My eyes were telling the time, and it certainly wasn’t past twilight yet. I could still see my hooves in front of me and the shape of the buildings around me. Nothing to worry about. Nothing. The shadows were just an old tale and, oh apples what am I saying?
A pony screamed to my right. I leapt into a gallop.
Magic fizzled with my jolt forward. My bag dropped behind me. I tried to stop, skidded sideways instead. Dropped down to my flank, bruised it, and stumbled back up. My bag was a half block away, hay scattered around it.
Face darkness or go hungry. Risk unknown, or go hungry. Horsefeathers! I charged back down the street, magic blasting hay and dirt and whatever else back inside. Bag, mouth, no more screwups, home! Just two more streets to safety! Just two!
Down one street, one down. I whipped around the corner, spun around, stumbled back where I came, hooves clattering. Too loud, too loud! Whatever I had seen, it had certainly heard me. A little wormy thing, I caught a glimpse of a tail flit before it vanished. Not a pony, I didn’t hear anypony else anymore. I don’t know where the thing went, it was too dark to tell now. How did I let it get this dark, how? Sitting still wasn’t going to help me, whatever these shadows were, cover of darkness sure didn’t stop them.
I leapt around the corner and charged down the street. Through the gate, across the courtyard, up the steps, all the way to my door, unharmed. Magic open, magic in, magic slam shut and bar it for the night.
I spat out the paper bag and dropped to the ground, catching my breath. I’m no sprinter, no master of sport. It must have been nothing out there, there was no way to outrun those shadows once they appeared.
I took a few minutes to myself, then stood. Goodness, how completely unbecoming of me. What would Luna think if she saw me in such a state? I corrected my gait immediately.
The foyer was dim, lit by a single lantern hanging by the door. I lifted the light towards me, carrying it as I circled the room, lighting candles with my horn. I wondered if Luna was napping, or just ignoring her chores. I told her, as it gets dark, light the lamps and candles. Sometimes she complains she wasn’t as good at magic as me, but really, I think she’s just being lazy.
Luna and I were both technically baronesses, but nobody really paid much attention to titles anymore. The only title that mattered was the grand ruler’s… But in any case, Luna and I had a decently sized home to ourselves. It was made out of that same stone one sees everywhere in Canterbury, but the inside walls were thankfully coated in smooth white plaster, the floors made of varnished wood. Decorations were Spartan, of course, no symbol beside the Shadow Stallion’s were allowed. I felt it better to be without decorations at all. I had seen enough of the alicorn imposed on a black star to last me a lifetime. I had taken all the banners in our home down when our parents left and discreetly disposed of them with my magic. When and if they returned, I’m sure they would barely be able to see the burn marks.
Technically the home had two floors, but there was almost no point in going upstairs anymore. Luna used her old room as a playpen, but with just the two of us and no servants, all the empty rooms on the second floor began to take on a dark basement kind of feel. My sister and I spooked each other by swearing there were ghosts up there. Instead of sleeping separately in this empty house, we made the bottom floor our home. We bedded in the drawing room, didn’t even bother to put the blankets and pillows away. Each night was a slumber party.
So, when I had lit the foyer to my satisfaction, I carefully edged into our bedroom drawing room, nudging the heavy wooden door open with my hoof. I magically dimmed the lamp and nudged my nose in the door crack.
“Luna? I’m home,” I whisper. No reply. I push the lantern in front of me, brightening the drawing room. The dim light illuminated just enough to make the shadows have their own form, only moving in the flicker of the candlelight. I’ve had too many shadows today, I am not messing with this. I let the lantern glow to its full potential. The room looked like it usually did. Furniture shoved to the back. Blankets and pillows took up the most space, forming irregular, flat lumps. Not here.
“Luna, where on earth have you gotten to?” I huff. I heard laughter, muffled, but not in this room. Upstairs. “Of course…” I didn’t bother lighting any candles in the bedroom, instead I headed upstairs, to the far end of the single dark hall. I held my ear close to the door, making sure Luna was in there. Nothing.
It wasn’t surprising. I smiled and backed up.
First there was darkness...
Then there was me!
I shoved open the door and blasted the lamplight into the empty ghost room, shouting, “Give me back my sisters, dark evil upstairs ghosts!”
Atop Luna’s old pallet bed sat a tent fort. Her toys and dolls were scattered around the room, untended. There was no Luna.
“Horsefeathers. I guess she’s not in here… No point in hanging around a creepy ghost filled room…” I crept closer and closer to the tent, swinging the lantern in front of me, “I guess I’ll just be leaving now…” a scratching sound came from behind me. I knew what to do.
“AHA!” I spun around and sent a surge of light behind me, expecting to reveal my sister, trying to sneak up on me.
What I revealed was something monstrous.
It looked like a lizard with a pony’s face, the same size as Luna, hugging the far wall, frozen midstride as light washed over it. I shrieked, it recoiled. My spell faded quickly, too quickly, plunging the room back into its cloak. I heard its claws scrabbling and scratching on the walls, out the door.
“Oh no you don’t!” In two beats I was at the top of the stairs, grabbing magically at the escaping beast’s tail. It squeaked and scratched at the floors, uselessly, as I hefted it aloft.
“What have you done with my sister?!” I screamed.