• Published 28th Mar 2013
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The Rise and Fall of the Dark Lord Sassaflash - Dromicosuchus

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Chapter 1

Wanted: Minion. Applicants should be strong, loyal, pain tolerant, cold tolerant, unambitious. Must be capable of following simple instructions. Ideal applicant should be of low to average intelligence and mildly deformed, but exceptions will be made for extraordinary candidates, with extraordinariness to be determined by employer. Must be willing to begin work immediately.

Remuneration will be in the form of room, board, and insight into the true nature of the cosmos. Extremely generous bonuses up to and including subcontinents may be awarded if merited and if circumstances permit. Interviews for the position to be conducted at 108 Haybale Lane at 10:00 AM sharp on 4/7. Applicants are expected to be punctual.

—The Dark Lord Sassaflash

It was morning in Ponyville, and the shifting sounds of local life danced from squeak to whistle to clank to clatter in cheerful aimlessness. There was no rhythm to it, no beat, no planned and calculated goal; it was simply the sound of life being lived, drifting along in its artless, happy way and weaving itself into a medley of disharmonious harmonies.

At length, a new noise began to drift in amongst the other sounds. Distant hooves thudded out an awkward beat, faint but very distinct, and the carefree disorder of Ponyville reached out to take in this new rhythm and thread it into the town's music—but then something went wrong. The friendly clink of wind chimes, extending itself in the hopes of settling into a nice 7:2 beat with the newcomer, tripped over a hoofbeat that should have come half a second earlier and blundered headfirst into the yipping of a small dog. The hum of the marketplace faltered. That shouldn't have happened. It was a game trier, though, so it rallied itself and tried again.

A tap came where there should have been a thud.

For some strange reason, the rattle of wooden cart wheels no longer seemed to mesh quite so melodiously with the operatic bellowing of the salespony hawking his latest shipment of futons. The susurration of noise filling the Ponyille—

A hoofbeat planted itself firmly into the sound of the plaza fountain and sent it careening sideways, reeling drunkenly through a whole host of other noises.

—The susurration of sound—of noise—

Another set of taps and clacks, none falling exactly how or when they should. There was a tense, shivering moment as the music of the town clung to itself, and for a moment it seemed it might manage to hold together—but then the great town bell, which hadn't really been paying attention, boomed out the hour. Normally the interruption would have been easily endured, but now? Chaos.

Dogs barked, voices yammered, metal clanked, birds screeched, all clashing together as each struggled to harmonize with the dull, not-quite-rhythmic hoofbeats of the creature who had just plodded into the marketplace. His coat was gray and uneven, his knees knobbly, his snout hairless and pink, and his eyes rheumy. The newcomer trundled to a halt in the midst of the marketplace, one of his long, hairy ears drooping down for no apparent reason, and he executed a sort of shuffling half-turn to peer around at his surroundings. He sighed, shifted his old bones into motion again, and trudged over to two mares gossiping by a turnip stall. They didn’t notice his approach at first and continued chatting, and as he drew near he caught a fragment of their conversation.

“—Well you know, enough is enough. I’m a patient pony, I hope, but he’s just so mule-headed, that one. Why, I…”

The speaker, a well-groomed mare with a curling mane like a candied orange peel, trailed off as she noticed the gangling creature’s approach. Her eyes widened. The newcomer smiled—not with his mouth or with his eyes, but a private, secret little smile tucked deep away in his mind—and thought, No offense.

“No offense,” said Well-Groomed Pony.

“None taken,” said the Mule. He smiled. “Begging your pardon for the interruption, ladies, I’m sure, but do either o’ you'uns know how to get to Haybale Lane? Only I lost my map.”

The directions were a bit vague—Well-Groomed was evidently not very familiar with that part of town—but taken with what he remembered of the map, they were good enough for the old mule’s purposes. With a lop-eared nod of thanks he plodded off, scraggly tail swishing behind him. The two ponies watched him go. When she thought he was out of hearing range, Well-Groomed turned to her friend and continued, “So like I was saying, he’s completely mule-headed, and I’m just not going to put up with…”

No offense, thought the Mule, as he moved out of earshot and the rest of the mare’s diatribe sank into the raucous babble of the market. None taken.

-----

Two wrong turns and three shortcuts later, the winding, narrow backstreet that was Haybale Lane found itself graced by the appearance of the Mule. Nopony seemed to be about; this place, shaded a deep blue-grey by the clustered buildings leaning overhead and paved with worn, moss-lined cobbles, was clearly not one of Ponyville’s most hot and happening neighborhoods. As the ungainly gray creature made his way down the lane, peering up at the lines of laundry stretched across the jagged crack of blue sky overhead, he found himself feeling a strange sense of patriotic pride as a Ponyville resident. Not many towns of fifty years, he felt, could boast a neighborhood that looked like its last timber had been set in place five hundred years earlier. Fillydelphia couldn’t manage that, he reckoned. Nor New Trottingham. He wondered whether it had been done on purpose, or had just kind of happened.

The shabby creature rolled to a stop and squinted at a mossy wooden plaque to his left. 114? That wasn’t right. With a mild chuckle at his own absentmindedness, he twisted himself around and ambled back the way he had come, paying closer attention to the houses’ numbers this time. 112, 110…Ah, there it was. 108 Haybale Lane.

The old timberframe building before him was more than a little the worse for wear. Strange and unwholesome plants clustered in little pots on the cramped stoop, iron bars had been set in the window frames, and an unseasonal whorl of foul-smelling smoke wafted its way out of a crooked chimney in to the sky above. Red ochre had been rubbed into crude glyphs etched on the timber beams, and a faint, rhythmic thudding sound, like a dragon’s heartbeat, filtered up from somewhere beneath the house.

“Hmpf,” said the Mule, with all the solemnity of a white-maned judge pronouncing a carefully considered verdict.

He lowered himself to his haunches beside the door. It was fifteen or twenty minutes yet ‘til the bell rang ten, and for all he knew this “Sassaflash” character was particular about timing. Best not to go a-knocking just yet.

So he sat and waited, and waited and sat, and Haybale Lane stood silent around him.

It was, the Mule decided at length, a sad sort of silence. There was no mystery to it, or tension, or anything else to make it noteworthy; it was just forgotten, left unseen because everypony had decided that there was nothing worth seeing there. In some far-distant day, he supposed, ponies would abandon this town, and the Wild would take it back and wash away all the meaning that they had so painstakingly given to every cottage and byway—but when it came to this place, it would halt, baffled. There would be nothing for it to do here. This little back way was already meaningless.

Which was sad. Oughtn’t to be so. He wished that somepony would walk out of one of the brooding houses or come trotting down the street, to remind this place that it existed.

By and by, somepony did. The Mule, who had gotten a bit bored, had established to his satisfaction that there were seven dresses and fifteen socks hung up to dry on the clotheslines overhead and was just about to start counting ties and saddlebags when he heard the sound of approaching hooves, clicking against the cobbles of the alley. Peering down the length of the shadowed backstreet, he saw an off-white unicorn filly come in to view, her head down and her curling mane hanging over her eyes. As she trotted she muttered, and every so often she’d pause to give some inoffensive pebble in her path a vindictive kick. It was only when she’d drawn quite near and had veered away from the center of the lane towards No. 108 that, glancing up at the house, she had noticed him at all, sitting there quietly to the side of the stoop. With a surprised squeal, the little unicorn skittered to a halt.

Inclining his head amiably, the Mule said, “Howdy-do, miss. Sorry to startle you. I’m here for to answer an advertisement done by a pony living here.”

“Oh,” said the filly, eyeing him doubtfully. Then something seemed to occur to her, and she squeaked “Oh! Is that today? Ponyfeathers!”

Without saying another word, she scampered past him up the stairs to the stoop, lowered her head, and scraped out a hurried pattern on the door with her horn. There was a faint click and the door gave slightly, upon which the little unicorn cracked it open, slipped inside, and slammed it shut again. The Mule gazed after her for a bit, shrugged, and returned his attention to the Counting of the Laundry.

Four ties, it turned out, had been hung out to dry, but sadly the exact number of saddlebags was destined to remain a mystery. A moment after the Mule had decided that the fifth saddlebag (of an unknown total) was actually some kind of hat, his tally was interrupted by the distant ringing of the town bell, tolling out the turn of the hour. With a grunt and a creak the bony creature hauled himself to his hooves. One, Two, Three, Four, tolled the bell. He twitched his drooping left ear back upright—Five, Six—and arranged himself before the herb-cluttered front door, looking as employable as he could manage.

Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten.

Right on cue, the lock clicked, the heavy wooden door creaked inwards, and a pegasus mare poked her head out of the gap, her thin, teal face wrinkled into a peeved expression. She peered up and down the street, eyes narrowed, and then demanded, “Where are the others?”

The Mule’s eyebrows rose. “The others, miss?”

“Yes.” She twitched her ears in exasperation. “The others. The other applicants. I wish to know where they are.”

“Ain’t no others, miss. Just me.” He inclined his head. “I think the bits in your advertisement about just room and board and needing to be tolerant o’ pain might’a skeert 'em, miss.”

The mare digested this for a few moments, glowering at him as though she held him personally responsible for the lackluster response, and then muttered, “Right. Fine. You’d better come in, then. I’ll need to interview you, and there are other things. A questionnaire, waivers…” She waved her left hoof vaguely. “Don’t go near any of my books, and if you see a purple-black symbol burned into a bookshelf or chair or something, don’t touch it.” Leaning outside to cast another suspicious glance up and down the street, the mare muttered something under her breath in a language that did not quite sound like Common Equine and then slipped back inside the house, shutting the door in the mule’s face.

There were several moments of silence during which the Mule remained where he sat, a bemused expression on his face. At length the door swung open with a petulant little creak, and the pegasus peered out and snapped, “I said you’d better come in. You can operate a door, I suppose? That shiny thing is a latch. It turns.”

“Yes miss, only I—“

“Good.” Slam.

The sound echoed and died amongst the tall, leaning houses, losing itself in gray-blue shadows and malnourished sunbeams. Haybale Lane drifted back into placid silence.

“Well now,” mused the Mule. “I do believe she’s a loon.”

Raising a hoof, he scratched absently at one of his ears, while the lair (such as it was) of the Dark Lord Sassaflash loomed above him, waiting. He could turn away. Miss Carrot Top would be needing help with her harvest soon, and until then the grass around Ponyville wasn’t so tough to the tooth, and the bank under the West Ponyville bridge wasn’t so cold. Not so cold at all. He’d roughed it before.

With a whuffing chuckle, the Mule shook himself and trotted up the vine-strewn steps to the door. His life had been a mite dull lately, and a little looniness would do him good. Besides, he never had liked roughing it. The door drifted open under the gentle pressure of his hoof, and he ambled inside.

-----

Every autumn, the Mule begin saving up bits for his annual Hearth’s Warming visit to Canterlot to visit friends and family. He liked walking through the snowy streets at night, his neck wrapped in five or six scarves and a festive hat perched jauntily atop his head, and taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the holiday season. Sometimes the locals got a mite uptight when they saw him strolling along through their fine city, his body all knobbles and his legs all bones, but that, he felt, was their concern and not his. The fact was, the Mule had never spent a moment of his life feeling out of place. His body might not always do exactly what he wanted it to, but it was tough enough in its ramshackle way and any spot where ponies lived—or where donkeys lived, or griffons, or cows or sheep or diamond dogs or dragons—was somewhere he could call home. So long as he wasn’t on fire or wasn’t drowning, he figured that wherever he was was exactly where he ought to be.

As the door of No. 108 Haybale Lane closed behind him, the Mule found himself reconsidering this position.

It was the light that first unsettled him. The windows of the claustrophobic room were barred and shuttered, and there were no candles burning anywhere. Instead, arranged in the center of the room on a stout little wooden table was a collection of odd glowing glass tubes, sprouting up from a mass of gears and servos and glowing with a bleached white light unlike anything the Mule had ever seen before. Despite its intense whiteness it somehow managed to be quite colorless, and the unsteady stacks of books rising around it cast long black shadows across the room.

In fact, it seemed that there was much more shadow than light, which possibly had something to do with the fact that there seemed to be far more books than room. There were books everywhere, books scattered on the floors, books lining the walls, books towering overhead in great unsteady stacks, books pinned to the walls like great alien moths or dangling from the ceiling. Books of every kind and shape, every color and smell, every texture and age. Familiar books, foreign books, books ripped to shreds and scattered loose-leaved around the entire room, and ancient books padlocked to their shelves and held shut by iron bars bolted straight through their yellowed pages.

It wasn’t a library, or even a storehouse. Libraries and storehouses were built with the expectation that ponies would visit them and use them, but this place offered no such concessions. It had been utterly given over to the books, scrolls, tomes, and scraps of paper filling its every corner, and although it might be willing to tolerate living things, the Mule felt that it clearly didn’t like them.

“I know I specified low intelligence as a desirable trait, but I had hoped that any applicants would have at least seen a book before. The sight appears to be a completely novel one to you.” The pegasus who had met him at the door popped out from beneath a suspended bookcase, hung by chains from the ceiling, and glared up at the mule. “Are you quite done gawking?”

He rolled the question over in his mind, considering it carefully from all angles, and came to a conclusion. “I ‘spose so. You got quite a fine lot 'o books here, if'n you don't mind me saying so.”

The mare frowned. “Your approval is appreciated. Follow me.”

She disappeared back under the bookcase like a snake down a burrow. The Mule hesitated a moment, and then knelt and squirmed in after her to emerge in a very slightly less bookish area. The odd pegasus glanced up at him behind the room's single surreal lamp, her hooves folded in front of her as she eyed him through a pair of gleaming half-moon spectacles. Sitting at her right hoof was the little unicorn filly the mule had seen earlier, a stern, official look on her tiny face.

The pegasus said nothing until the mule had risen to his hooves and brushed the dust out of his fur. Then, addressing a patch of air about a yard in front of her face, she said, “Acolyte Sweetie Belle! Present the applicant with writing materials!”

“Yes, Miss Sassaflash,” said Acolyte Sweetie Belle, her voice soaring up a few dozen registers halfway through the “Yes” and then cracking open like a frozen soap bubble at “-flash.” She bustled forward, planted herself directly in front of the mule, and squeaked, “Quill!”

A tatty quill that looked like it had been chewed at one time landed in front of him.

“Ink!”

An inkwell slid off the filly’s back and rattled to the floor, nearly spilling its contents in the process.

“Paper!”

A sheaf of paper—more, the mule hoped, than he would actually need—flopped down at his feet. Acolyte Sweetie Belle opened her mouth as if to announce a fourth item, paused, shut it again, and scuttled back to Sassaflash‘s side. The teal pegasus nodded. “Well done.”

Sweetie Belle beamed.

Turning an austere eye on the mule, Sassaflash continued, “As the first applicant—“

“I think he’s the only applicant, Miss Sassaflash,” interrupted Sweetie Belle.

The mare blinked several times and continued, her voice tinged with just the tiniest hint of ice. “Yes, thank you, Sweetie Belle. As the only applicant thus far, you have shown commendable promptitude and initiative. However!” She barked the word, and several particularly unstable stacks of books bumped and thudded to the floor as Sweetie Belle started back against them. “That will not be enough. In my employ, you will be expected to jump when I say jump, freeze when I say freeze, and run when I say run—or when being pursued by unholy relics of the distant past brought to horrific life, either/or, let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that.”

“I beg your pardon, Miss?”

Sassaflash raised an eyebrow. “Granted. Furthermore, your duties—should you be blessed with the honor of being my underling—will involve exposure to extreme cold and carrying heavy burdens for long periods of time under harsh conditions. A certain minimum level of durability will be expected. Do you consider yourself suited for this? Will you die of exposure, your numbed legs collapsing beneath your frigid body as wendigos howl overhead, or are you only likely to die in such a manner?”

The mule hesitated. “I ain’t sure I understand exactly what sort o’ job I’m bein’ called to do.”

A cold smile. “Exactly the sort of job? You aren’t expected to. Answer the question.”

“Well, I did spend a couple o’ years up North in griffon country, helpin’ them move stones up one o’ their mountains for a castle they was workin’ on. Pretty cold up there, and the work weren’t easy, neither.”

“Hm.” The pegasus peered over her spectacles at him. At length she smiled. “Well, perhaps you’ll do. Perhaps. The main questionnaire is yet to come, of course, and that will be the true deciding factor, but you aren’t completely unsuited, at least. Just one more thing.” She turned to the young unicorn at her shoulder and bent down to whisper into her ear. The filly’s eyes widened and she vanished off into the stacks of books, shoving and pushing her way through in a papery rustling commotion.

Several long moments passed. Sassaflash stared up at the ceiling, apparently fascinated by the joists. At length there came a few muffled clanks and thuds somewhere off in the forest of books, and Sweetie Belle burrowed her way out of a pile of thin librettos.

“All clear, Miss Sassaflash.”

“Excellent.” The mare turned her attention to the mule, coughed, and in a voice like a snake with bronchitis hissed, “Y'sll'ha c'chtenff.

“Bless you,” said the mule, politely.

Aklo nafl'ai? Mnahn'uh'e wgah'nshugg, mnahn'f'nyth, mnahn'grah'n. Lloighrii ya k'yarnakeeog. Kadishtu?

The mule tilted his head, looking at the mare with a worried expression. “You feeling alright, Miss?”

Naflkadishtu—mg'naflmnanh'.” she finished, and then continued in Common Equine, “Yes, fine. Your opinion, Sweetie Belle?”

The filly, who had been staring intently at the Mule the while, looked up at Sassaflash. “Well, he kinda twitched when you said Mannanannagranna—you know—but I think that was just because you accidentally spat on him a little. I don’t think he understood it. And, um, did you mean any of that?"

"Of course not." The mare smiled. “But I agree. Well then, mule,” she added, “I think it not impossible that you might be worthy to serve the Dark Lord Sassaflash. Kindly fill out the form provided for you, give it to my acolyte when you’re done—“ She motioned to Sweetie Belle, who raised a hoof and waved energetically, “—and I’ll get back to you shortly. Thank you for your time, Mr.—ah—?”

“I’m the Mule,” said the Mule.

Sassaflash blinked. “Your name, not your species.”

The bony creature smiled tolerantly. “You don’t understand, Miss. That is my name. Or if’n you want to be formal, I’m the Ponyville Mule. Begging your pardon, but do you got something in your eye? Only you done gone all squinty."

"Um. Thank you for your concern, but no. 'The Ponyville Mule?'"

“Yes indeed.” The Mule inclined his head. “Ain't but one mule here in Ponyville, and I'm him. It's the same for other cities, or leastwise the small ones. Ponyfolk don't fall in love with donkeys much, you know, or t’other way round, so mostly there ain’t enough o’ us for it to make much sense to bother with names.”

“I see,” said the teal pegasus, massaging her yellow-maned forehead. “And how many of you are there, exactly…?”

“Eightee—no, sorry, I’m a liar. Seventeen. The Dodge Junction Mule died this last summer. We all misses her; she was such a fine ‘ol molly. But then, we've all got to go sometime, don't we?"

“No. I mean yes. I mean...” The Dark Lord shook her head, and snapped, “Be that as it may, ‘Mule’ is hardly an acceptable form of address. Supposing that, improbable as it may be, you prove worthy to be my minion, I refuse to refer to you by your species. It’s—it’s gauche.”

“Okay.” The Mule shrugged. “Howsabout Mister Mule?”

Sweetie Belle tried to suppress a giggle and failed spectacularly. Sassaflash started to respond, stopped, and then shrugged hopelessly. “Very well. ‘Mister Mule’ it is. At any rate, complete that questionnaire, Mister, ah, Mule, sign the attached waivers, and return the completed forms to my acolyte. We should have finished looking through the other applications in three to five days, by which time—“

“But Miss Sassaflash, nopony else applied for the—“

“Acolytes should be seen and not heard, Sweetie Belle. As I was saying, the applications should be processed in three to five days, by which time you will be hearing back from us. Good day, Mister Mule.”

He nodded. “Good day, Miss Sassaflash.”

“Yes. Well.” The pegasus gestured for her acolyte to come close, hissed “Don’t let him touch anything,” and disappeared off into the jungle of books. A moment later the Mule heard the clump of hoofsteps ascending overhead, which he supposed was the Dark Lord retreating to some more hospitable and less bookish region of the house. With a vague smile, he turned his attention to the first page of the questionnaire, filled in “The Ponyville Mule” and “I can’t rightly say” for the “Name” and “Birthdate” fields, decided that the other bits about previous employers and suchlike were dull and could be filled in later, and moved on to the first question: “1. How do you feel about deicide?”

The Mule nibbled pensively on the quill. Yup. Definitely a loon. He was glad he hadn’t decided to wait it out ‘til Miss Carrot Top’s crop was ready for the harvest; this was going to be much more interesting. He dipped the nib of his quill into the inkwell, and began writing.

Author's Note:

I think we can all agree that this has been quite long enough in coming. Here it be, though; my second story, with the epilogue to Mendacity to arrive in ~2 weeks' time and the next chapter of this tale coming by the next full moon. This particular story will draw rather heavily from the Cthulhu Mythos for the background elements of the story, and will also feature a character with a Southern-esque accent in a subservient position to another character. Oh, and the former is lower-class, and is exposed to a sort of mild fantastic racism. Did I mention that this draws from the Cthulhu Mythos? Yes? Ah. Did I also mention that Lovecraft was horrifically racist, and that bled over into more than a few of his stories?

...So, yeah. In short, the bedrock on which this story is set has about fifteen different racially sensitive points woven into it, and I confidently expect that, my best intentions and efforts notwithstanding, I'll end up hurting someone's feelings with this within a picosecond or so. Just bear in mind that despite the fact that I've basically picked up a gun with all six chambers loaded and am playing Russian Roulette with it, my intentions are good, and hamhanded as the results may end up being I do mean well. Please, if things do fall apart somewhere along the way, let me know.