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

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Chapter 10

The scent of rain and the sound of water pattering on oak leaves. Slate-blue storm clouds, curling around the peaks of distant mountains and filling the sky with heavy, soft shadows. The curious whistling cry of a tree snake, the light of scattered sunbeams falling between the clouds, the smell of warm, buttery grits and biscuits, the smiling face of the Dodge Junction mule, her mane tied up in a neat, graying bun…

The Mule trudged through the caverns after the Dark Lord Sassaflash, struggling to breathe in the leaden air as he clambered up and over piles of damp rubble or inched around great arches and chasms of tormented rock, and as he followed he fought to keep the memories of the Dreamlands fresh in his mind. They seemed so much less real, now, here in the dark. The alien Mind coursing over and through and around them bit and gnawed at his sense of self as it surged past, tearing thoughts free and dragging them away with it. The only real things left were the boulders flickering in and out of sight in the carbide lamp’s cone of light, the clammy, muggy wetness of the air clinging to his fur, the overwhelming pressure of the God’s mind smothering his own, and the sound of hunting things, following them in the darkness.

It had only been a suspicion at first, lingering at the edge of the Mule’s thoughts as he and the Dark Lord picked their way through the depths of Voormithadreth, creeping back towards the surface and the pure, wholesome clarity of the Sun. With every new rattle of rocks falling, though, or sluicing, slithering, fluid sound somewhere off in the darkness, he grew more and more sure of it. They were being followed.

They were being followed. He had dismissed the noises after they had first awoken from their sojourn through the Dreamlands--after all, if the not-shoggoths had found them, he reckoned they’d be doing a lot more than just making the occasional ominous noise, particularly with Sassaflash still weak from her earlier mad dash. He glanced over at the mare, noting the long, ugly cut along her flank, her bruised and battered hide, and the awkward, hobbled way she avoided putting weight on her left hind leg, and winced. And her fall. And--a twinge of guilt, here--her drugging with worrywort.

As time passed, though, his confidence wavered into uncertainty, and that uncertainty began to shift to something very like fear. They were being followed. They had trotted along a promising passageway and passed a dark, still lake that reflected the light of the Mule’s lamp like a mirror of black volcanic glass, and when the passageway had turned out to be a dead end and they retraced their steps, they found only an empty basin and a slick, tarry residue that burned to the touch. They were being followed. Once a stalactite plummeted down from above and very nearly impaled the Mule--would have done so, in fact, had Sassaflash not happened to have been looking in the right direction at the right time and shoved him out of the way. They were being followed. Rocks fell, close and sudden,and chasms opened. They were being followed. Ledges cracked underhoof. They were being followed. They were--

“Enough! Enough!” With a snap of her tail, the Dark Lord Sassaflash slammed her forehooves down against the greasy, flaking stone of the cave floor. The crack of breaking rock rang out for just a moment in the suffocating, humid air, and then was swallowed up by silence. Her chest heaving with exhaustion and fear, the mare stared up into the vaulted darkness around them, eyes blazing. “Are we so terrifying, that you hang back from us? Why so coy, Tsathogguanyth? Just end us, if you’re going to end us! Stop playing with us!”

The Mule almost dropped his lamp in surprise, but recovered himself in time. Hurriedly setting it down on the moist cave floor, he stepped forward to the Dark Lord’s side, and in an urgent whisper said, “I reckon we shouldn’t ought to be making noise, miss. Maybe them things don’t know we’uns is here.”

“Oh, they know. They know!” She whipped around, stumbling a bit as her weight fell on her bad leg, and screeched, “Y’ah! Is that not what the Old One commanded? C’ilyaa n’ghaog! Y’stell'bsna n’ghao--

“Miss Sassaflash, stop! Please!” The old creature’s voice broke, his homely face creased with fear and his long ears folded back and quivering. “I tole Missus Mule I wouldn’t make her no widow mare!”

“Do you think that is my choice to make, Mr. Mule? Our lives are in their power, now, and it seems they have chosen to drag out our deaths, playing with us before striking the final blow! Why should I not rage at the darkness?” The Dark Lord stared at her minion, angry defiance in her eyes. By degrees the fire faded, and at length her lashing tail fell limp against the cave floor and her spread wings slumped back against her sides. In a quiet, helpless voice, she murmured, “Why should I not?”

At first the Mule made no reply. Then, with a sigh, he replied, “Miss Sassaflash…I knows you was bluffing back in the Dreamlands, telling them lily-white lies to make me and the missus feel easy. I knows you reckon you can’t do nothing against them things.”

He raised his head. “But I reckon different. I seen what you can do when you really puts your mind to it. You’re right skeert, now, and hurt, and tuckered out, and you reckon that means you done lost, and they’ve won, ‘cause you ain’t in control no more. But that just ain’t so. We surprised ‘em onct, when we got the Elder Sign outen your head--and we can do it again.”

Sassaflash considered this. Then, with some hesitation, she said, “You are surprisingly perceptive at times, Mr. Mule. Perhaps you are right.” Her brow furrowed. “But I cannot see a way out. I no longer have the charms that I could have used to drain them of magic--although whether that would even have been effective, so close to Tsathoggua, I cannot say. My command of Aklo is certainly sufficient to direct reality in certain advantageous ways, but where I am merely borrowing power, they were born into it. They could counter anything I brought forth. Despite your successful removal of the Elder Sign from my mind, which must have confused them mightily, they are evidently confident enough in their strength to play with us rather than killing us outright. Unless, of course,” the mare gave a short, humorless laugh, “we actually frightened them with our little amnesia trick, and they’re hanging back because they’re afraid of…”

The Dark Lord trailed off. Her companion tilted his head in puzzlement, long ears flopping over to one side. “You ain’t thought o’ something, have you?”

“No. Yes. Perhaps.” Sassaflash gave a pensive little flick of her tailtip, and for some moments she said nothing, her head bent in thought. Behind her, her shadow stretched out long in the glare of the carbide lamp, the black silhouette falling against the far wall of the cave. She turned, squinting, and looked into the light. In a quiet, pensive tone, she said, “I saw the Elder Sign. Somewhere in these caves, then, the Elder Sign--Cthulhu’s Eye--is visible, and the thralls of the Great Old Ones fear it, for through it they may be perceived by the Dreaming God. In the perpetual darkness of Voormithadreth, of course, it would be invisible, but supposing somepony were to bring a light into the depths…” She pondered for a moment longer, and then, a thread of tension running through her voice, she continued, “I think, Mr. Mule, it might be best if we did not look at the walls of these caverns too closely. Or the floors. Or anything. If I am right, to do so might be...unwholesome. Do not let your eyes focus on any one object for long. We do not know what it looks like, and we do not want to find out.”

Her minion peered at the walls in confusion for a moment, and then his eyes widened, and he quickly shifted his gaze off to one side of the lamp’s cone of light, trying not to look at the illuminated stones. “That’s why they ain’t attacked us? They’s afraid of seeing it?”

“Not precisely. They are afraid of it seeing them. It is not healthy to draw the attention of Cthulhu, even for creatures of their ilk.”

The Mule blinked. “But ain’t they on Kuthoo-whatsit’s side? Them’s sort o’ like His children, ain’t they? Why would they be skeert o’ Him?”

“He is a slavemaster to them, Mr. Mule, not a father.” She turned, lurching as she shifted her weight, and flung her wings wide to keep her balance, broken and missing feathers showing as she stretched them out. “And we are fortunate, perhaps, that that is so. If I am correct in my guess, and they will not dare approach us while we carry light with us, then we may have a chance yet--at least of getting out of these caves. Once outside, where presumably the Sign may not be found, things may prove more...treacherous.”

-----

Step by step, cavern by cavern, they made their way up through the mountain, crawling up out of the miasma of fear and madness clinging around the Thing that squatted, obscene and immense, deep beneath. Whatever the reason for their timidity, their pursuers remained just as strangely cautious, and although there were numerous further indirect attacks--rocks falling out of the darkness above, platforms shattering beneath their hooves, and even once a venomous, choking vapor that rose up out of the cracks in the ground around them, and would have felled them had Sassaflash not quickly spat out a few guttural words, unnatural-sounding and harsh to the ear, that dissipated the mist--they made surprisingly good progress. After a shorter time than he would have thought possible, the Mule began to catch brief whiffs of cold, clean air, very different from the heavy, choking stench of the depths. Mist swirled about them, flowing and eddying in the light of their lamp as chill gusts from above mingled with the humid air, and at long last there came the moment when the Dark Lord nudged him in the ribs and silently pointed a hoof upwards, to a thin, piercing gleam of white daylight shining down through a crevice far above.

It was not, they soon found, the same fumarole by which they had entered; somehow or other, they must have taken a left turn when they should have taken a right, or squirmed beneath some obstacle that they should have climbed over. The way up to the surface proved more difficult than their original path, and if it hadn’t been for the extra supplies the Mule had brought down with him, including another length of rope, they would never have been able to reach it at all. At long last, though, the weary pair struggled up on to one last ledge, crawled up one last slope of scree, and with a grating of stone against stone and a few hisses of pain as the sharp-edged rim of the crevice bit a little too deeply into their bruised hides, pulled themselves out on to the wide, barren flanks of Voormithadreth.

Steam roiled and swirled up from the vent behind them as they panted in the sunlight, savoring the sweet, almost painful bite of frigid air in their lungs. Sassaflash was the first to rise, forcing herself up on to her aching hooves and biting her lip once or twice. Ugly purple-black bruises showed through her turquoise fur, and her shivering flanks were flecked with foam. Turning to her minion, she said, “We must not linger, Mr. Mule. If my guess is correct, our pursuers will not long wait, now that we are no longer near Cthulhu’s Eye. Come. We must find our way back to the campsite.”

With a groan, the Mule lifted himself up, shivering a bit as the icy wind cut across his skin, still damp from the humid depths. Blinking rheumy eyes, he peered slowly about them, taking in the lay of the mountain around the jutting crag on which they stood. Dull, bare basalt surrounded them, rising in uncouth crags and rubble fields and utterly snowless but for a few isolated patches huddling in the crevices beneath great boulders, shining sky blue in the shadows. “Can’t say as how I recognize this place, Miss Sassaflash,” he muttered. “Them stone cliffs all look the same. That rockslide there, though...You see?”

“Indeed.” A curt nod. “I believe we have our heading. Come, Mr. Mule. We must make haste. Be wary.”

Their passage down the mountain was uneventful--too uneventful, almost. Even the rockfalls and crumbling footing that had threatened them were gone, along with the occasional liquid splashings and hissings that they had heard in the depths. Tsathoggua and his spawn had not forgotten them; they could still feel the pressure of the God’s mind bearing down on their own, always drawing their attention backwards and below and scattering their thoughts, and there was a keen edge of attentiveness to that pressure.

Yet the hunting things made no move. Minutes passed, tens of minutes, hours. They crept along precipices from which they could have been easily struck down and passed under precarious rubble slopes that would have needed just a nudge to come crashing down on their heads, and yet nothing happened. Sassaflash began to cast quick, nervous glances behind them, tensing at the slightest sound and muttering or cursing to herself in evil-sounding, forbidden languages, and even the Mule, imperturbable as he was, found himself growing anxious, his scrubby tail switching back and forth as though he could brush away the uncanny sense of watchfulness surrounding them. They were escaping too easily. Something would happen. Something must.

The Sun sank lower in the sky, drawing the vast, icy plains of Hippoborea down into the shifting twilight of the northern night, painted in shades of blue for which there were no words in common Equestrian. There were, Sassaflash told the Mule, wandering tribes of mammoths in the ice-clad forests to the South of this frozen waste whose language had words for these shades--goluboy, they would have called some of the pale, unearthly hues, and other, deeper ones would be siniy. The Mule gave a vague nod, said something good-natured about “furriners” and their strange ways, and plodded on. In the gloom he was beginning to recognize the boulders and rocks around them. They were no longer following their path from a distance, but were now retracing their own hoofsteps, passing along ridges and around crevasses that they had encountered when first leaving their camp to journey up the mountain. They were close, very close. Sassaflash quickened her pace at his side, evidently thinking along the same lines as he was. Just past that boulder, beyond that cleft in the mountain’s flanks...They crested one last pile of jagged, fragmented ʻaʻā, thrown up by some ancient convulsion of the Earth, and the Mule’s heart leapt at the sight of the white fabric of their tents in the hollow below. They were very far from being out of danger, of course, but it was still a huge relief, somehow, to see shelter again--to see something crafted by good, simple ponies, and not by the wild forces of nature or the incomprensible minds of ancient Gods.

Then he stopped, a shiver of fear running up his back, and beside him the Dark Lord drew a sharp, hissing intake of breath. There was something wrong about the shapes of the distant specks of white; rather than sitting, neat and orderly, as they ought to have, they lay scattered about the hollow, torn and flapping in the night winds. As they stood, frozen to the spot, one of the distant fragments of fabric broke loose from the rock that had been pinning it down, and went snapping and fluttering off into the darkness.

Neither the Dark Lord nor her minion said a word as they slowly picked their way down to the remains of their campsite. There was no need to; as they drew closer they could see what had happened, plain enough. Everything had been destroyed. Tents ripped to shreds, supplies torn, crushed, dissolved, eaten away by noxious acids or befouled by evil-smelling secretions. A few scattered books lay about them, one or two pages still clinging pathetically to their mutilated bindings. Her steps slow and uncertain, Sassaflash stumbled over to the sad, bent remnants of what had been a particularly hefty tome, now lying with its spine cracked across a sharp chunk of rock glistening with oily black liquid. Half of its cover lay some yards away; walking over to it, the Mule could just make out the letters “-unomicon,” the stitched glyphs darkened and frayed by the acidic dampness that had soaked into the binding.

He raised his head and looked over to the Dark Lord. She sat, shoulders hunched and head bowed, staring down at the fragment in front of her with empty eyes. Her shoulders shook and she slumped forward, one hoof resting on the destroyed book.

The Mule stepped towards Sassaflash, hurrying to comfort her, but to his astonishment she had begun to wrench herself back under control before he had even covered half the distance between them. As he drew near she raised a hoof and gestured him away, her face averted. “No...No.” Another shudder ran down her body. “Away. Please.”

“Miss Sassaflash, I--”

Away!

The Mule stood beside her for a moment, uncertain, and then stepped back. As he did Sassaflash forced herself to her hooves, her wings held half-open and quivering at her sides. She gave a small gasp of pain as the muscles along her flank flexed, stretching the inflamed, scabbed-over gash along her side that she had sustained within Voormithadreth. Her minion’s ears fell back against his head, and his face twisted in worry. “Miss Sassaflash, we ought to see to that there cut you got. Maybe they’s some bandages left somewheres.”

“We…” She drew a ragged, choking breath as she turned to look at him, eyes steely. “We need to see to our supplies. Food. A compass. My...my books…” Her voice quavered, and then she was in control again. “We must find out if they have left us anything. If there’s any way for us to keep alive long enough to get home. Search. Hurry!”

The Mule hesitated, but after another fiery glare from the Dark Lord he turned and did as she had bidden. There was, unfortunately, very little searching required; the Things from beneath had done their job too thoroughly. The only food he found, a few scattered wisps of hay and half an alfalfa brick, had been soaked in the same black, acrid residue they had encountered in the caverns, and were in the process of dissolving into a sort of greenish-black goo. He gave the alfalfa brick an extremely tentative lick, on the off chance it was still edible, and then had to spend the next five minutes washing his mouth out with snow scooped from a shadowed hollow beneath a boulder before he was able to breathe without gagging. Their cloaks and other cold-weather gear had been shredded and scattered to the winds, their maps had simply disappeared, their cooking ware was buckled, torn, and corroded, the tents were nothing but a few fraying tatters...It was all gone.

After half an hour of fruitless searching, the Mule heard the sound of hooves crunching on the black volcanic clinkers behind him, and turned to see his employer hobbling towards him, wincing a bit as she walked. Her eyes were red, but dry, and her breathing was even. In a level, controlled voice, she said, “Did they leave us anything? Even something inconsequential--a scarf, a grapnel, some worrywort? Was there any worrywort left? Any at all?”

He shook his head. “Not as I can make out. They done ruined everything.” A pause. “Miss Sassaflash...what are we going to do?”

“I don’t--I cannot say.” There was a strange expression on her face that the Mule did not quite like. “Nothing, most likely. That is certainly what they intend...Come, Mr. Mule. Let us away from this place. I will not die on their doorstep.” She plodded past him, her wings hanging low and her tail dragging limply through the grit.

“We ain’t dead yet, you know,” said the Mule, hurrying after her. She made no response, simply trudging on down Voormithadreth’s slope towards the glacial outwash plain surrounding the mountain, its surface braided with countless wandering rivulets of water. After the silence grew too uncomfortable, the old creature ventured, “Where they’s life, they’s--”

“Hope? Is that what you were going to say? Ha!” A bitter laugh. “Hope is a lie, told by the ignorant to the foolish. There is no hope in a world shaped and dominated by the Great Old Ones. Where there’s life, there’s death. That is how the saying should go. That is the truth.”

“I allow as how it looks like that, now, but I don’t reckon that that’s so.” A pause for thought. “It shouldn’t ought to be so. We shouldn’t let it be so! I promised Dodgy that I’d come home safe to her, and I ain’t a-going to give up on that promise just yet. I can’t.”

“Can you not?” Sassaflash raised her head, gazing out across the broad plain surrounding them. They had left the mountain’s flanks behind, now, and all around them were the scattered boulders, rubble, grit, and sand that had been borne down from the ice sheet surrounding Voormithadreth, washed out into a great, empty expanse. “No, perhaps you can’t.” She sighed. “I made a promise, too--that I would bring you back safe to her. And,” she continued, her ears pricking up and eyes widening in mild surprise, “I think I meant it. I believe I truly did. Perhaps…”

The Dark Lord stopped suddenly, and raised her head, ears aloft. The Mule blinked. “Miss Sassaflash, what--”

“Quiet!” She stood, tall and alert, wings flared while she scanned the horizon, and then turned to look back the way they had come. Her eyes narrowed, and the Mule started and looked backwards, as well. There had been a sound, a sharp, ringing crack of rock shattering back across the outwash plain, on the slopes of Voormithadreth. Its echoes rang out across the emptiness, fading away into a silence that endured for a half a minute, a minute, two minutes…

Then something moved there, among the deep blue shadows between the boulders--a distant shadow, black as midnight and swift as quicksilver, coursing like water down the mountain’s face. Across cliff faces, up precipices, and over gorges in fluid flowing leaps it sped, glinting in the moonlight as it rushed down the mountain towards the Dark Lord and her minion.

Another crack rang out, and the first hunting thing was joined by a second, gushing out of a crevice in a sheer cliff and splashing to the rocks below. A third joined them, and then a fourth, and a fifth...Sleek, glistening, and horribly alive, they poured noiselessly down the mountain towards the Dark Lord and her minion. The Mule took a step back, ears flattened back against his head and horror on his face, but Sassaflash simply stared, unbelieving. “But they--they had already as good as killed us! We were going to die, freezing to death in the wastes! They knew that!” The foremost of the liquid things poured out along the last outflung rampart of the mountain, sliding swiftly towards the plain where its prey waited. Sassaflash stamped a hoof, her voice rising. “Is it not enough? Is it not enough, gof’nn Tsathoggua, that you have trapped us in a pit from which there is no escape? Must you strike the killing blow as well? Can you not grant us the simple dignity of dying on our own terms?”

The servants of the Sleeper of N’kai swept out on to the plain, twisting and writhing across the rubble with impossible speed. Rocks hissed and snapped as they flowed past, exploding and cracking at their corrupting touch. The Dark Lord’s eyes blazed, and she stepped forward, putting herself between the onrushing monsters and the Mule. “I will not die as just another helpless victim, crying in the dark! I am far more than that. I have walked in the hoofsteps of Abd Al-Hisan! I have seen Irem of the Pillars, in the wastes of the Rub’ al Khayl! I have glimpsed Leng, and stolen forbidden secrets from the claws of the Mi-Go! I have brought the dead back to life!” The nearest of the flowing things began to rise as it plunged towards them, curling itself up into a great black wave. Behind it, the others began to do the same. The Dark Lord spread her wings, and at her hooves pebbles trembled, rocking back and forth with a faint clicking and clattering. “And I am the Dark Lord Sassaflash!”

Sassaflash bent her right wing in front of her, and then swept it wide--and with a rush and clatter, a stream of pebbles shot up from the ground, following her wing through the air to stretch out into a hovering diagonal line of stones. Another wingbeat, and a second and third branch of pebbles shot out at an angle from the line’s middle, one stabbing up and the other stretching out to her left to form a strange, suspended sigil like a bird’s claw, floating in midair. She bent both her wings forward, raised a hoof--

And the wave of death rushing towards them foundered and crashed, falling in on itself and flowing harmlessly around them in a wide semicircle. The others behind it slowed their mad rush forwards, trailing off into black, waiting pools.

Absolute silence.

A predatory ripple shivered across the thing half-surrounding them, and with a quick sweep of her forehoof, the Dark Lord ripped another line of pebbles up into the air, forming a second upward branch bound to the long diagonal line. The little stones hung, sharp and clear in the twilight, between the two mortals and the Godspawn.

Then, slowly and reluctantly, the foremost mass of black fluid flowed away from them, draining back towards the mountain from whence it had come. The others hesitated, but Sassaflash brought another hoof forwards, as if to command more pebbles into the air in front of her, and they fell back as well, washing across the plain like a retreating tide with an occasional crack of shattering rock or a tinging sound like hot metal cooling. The black beings banked against the mountain’s slopes, and then, in sullen drifting motions, slid back up the slopes and sank into the crevices from which they had emerged.

The pebbles fell from out of the air, rattling to the ground and bouncing here and there around the mare and mule. The Mule abruptly realized that he had been holding his breath, and inhaled with a sharp gasp. After drawing a deep breath herself, Sassaflash said, very decisively, “Those were not shoggoths.”

“That’s, um--I’m mighty glad to hear that, miss,” said the Mule. “But what--how--”

“That was the Elder Sign, Mr. Mule, or part of it. I did not draw the whole thing.”

Her minion’s eyes widened. “But you--you know it? And we don’t have no more worrywort now, so we can’t--”

“Calm yourself, Mr. Mule. I did not say I knew the Elder Sign.”

“But that don’t make no sense. If’n you don’t know it, then how was you able to draw it?”

The mare looked at her minion, an odd smile on her face. “It was your wife who gave me the idea, truth be told. Before we left your cottage, she took me aside and told me that she hadn’t been fooled by my show of false confidence. That she knew I was bluffing. ‘But these beasts that are after you,’ she told me, ‘aren’t going to be impressed by a bluff. You better have something ready when you meet them.’” Another smile. “She was wrong.”

The Mule’s brow wrinkled. “I don’t follow.”

“It is quite simple. It was a bluff. I do not know the Elder Sign--but I do know part of it, because my sister, back in the Hollow Shades, very kindly showed it to me when she was trying to cast me out or repel me or--or whatever the poor foal thought she was doing. So, when confronted by Tsathoggua’s formless spawn, I drew the part of it that I knew, and acted as though I knew the rest, and would show it to them if they attacked. And it worked.”

The Mule gave a long, low whistle. “Well, don’t that just beat all. That’s mighty clever o’ you, Miss Sassaflash, and I don’t care who knows I said it.”

“Hrmph! It would have been clever had I thought of it earlier. As it was it was merely fortuitous.” But the smile remained on her face, nonetheless.

A cold wind swept past them, driving thin wisps of powder-dry ice dust along with it and whistling mournfully around the edges of the stones of the sandur. The Mule shivered. “So...what do we do now?”

“Die, quite possibly. That is certainly what they intended, and with no food, no supplies, and no shelter, it would seem inevitable. But you were right, Mr. Mule, and I was wrong. We are not dead yet. Not quite.” She raised her head, peering off at the jagged silhouette of the distant mountains, brooding in silence on the horizon.

At length she turned to her minion. “Mr. Mule, I have been considering our position. The Thing beneath intends for it to be hopeless, and so it would be--but I refuse to allow it to be so. I, the Dark Lord Sassaflash…!” She raised a hoof as if to shake it defiantly in the air, and then gave an odd, sad laugh and lowered it again. “That is, there may be a chance. May be. There was a famine, of course, and after all these millennia any food would have long since crumbled away even in this clime, but there may be some of the old magics remaining. Perhaps a teleportation spell might be arranged...Well. We shall see.” Pebbles grated under her hooves as she stepped forth, limping along at an angle to Voormithadreth towards the peaks that rose beyond and behind it.

The Mule hurried after. “Begging your pardon, I’m sure, but I can’t say as how I follow. What are you fixing to do?”

She made no answer at first, gazing out across the windswept sandur at the rising wall of ice beyond and, far above it but not so very far away, the nearest mountain in the Eiglophian range. Then, still looking ahead, she said, “There is an old story told by ponies, Mr. Mule. One of the oldest, in fact, although few guess at its true antiquity. It tells of six wanderers, who left their homeland behind and journeyed far in search of a new land. Two were pegasi, two were unicorns, and two were Earth ponies--and they hailed from three different nations, ravaged by famine and sundered by mutual hatred. The names of those nations are long since lost to us, but by tradition they are given the names that their sole survivors thought to give to the new land they found: Unicornia, Pegasopolis, and Earth.”

“The Hearth’s Warming Eve story.”

“Precisely.” Sassaflash gave a curt nod. Water splashed around her hooves as she waded through a twisted, wandering outwash channel, snaking its way across the plain, and she shuddered at the bone-freezing chill of the icy water splashing against her skin. “A quaint little fable, with an agreeably anodyne moral. It soothes the rabble. It would be of little interest to the seeker into hidden truths, but for the peculiar fact,” here she came to a halt and looked back at the Mule, “that it is true.”

“Is that so?” prompted the Mule, with just the right note of surprised wonder. He might have said more--particularly about that word “anodyne,” which he wasn’t familiar with, but suspected was not complimentary--but he had been in the company of the Dark Lord long enough to recognize when she was monologuing. Something resembling an actual response would only fluster her, and she had had a hard day. He was content to humor her.

His short acknowledgement of her speech seemed to satisfy her, at least. “Indeed. The nations we call Unicornia, Pegasopolis and Earth were very real, and they did indeed succumb to ice and hunger long ago, in the forgotten ages of the world, and were abandoned." A pause. "But did you never stop to wonder, Mr. Mule, what became of them after that?"

"Can't say as how I ever thought on that," said the Mule. "I reckon the storms and ice snows them wendigos brought went away sooner or later, and they's a-lying out there somewheres, all them old towers and walls just standing empty." He blinked. "That's a mite creepy."

"I would have thought you'd be used to that at this stage in the game," observed the Dark Lord. "But your surmise is incorrect. The ice never melted, and the cold never waned." She looked out across the sandur at the great white rampart that marked the beginning of the ice sheet, the mountains rising black and snowless beyond it. "Quite the contrary, in fact..." Glancing back at her minion, Sassaflash said, "Welcome to the Unicornian Empire, Mr. Mule."

Author's Note:

My most hearty thanks to Themaskedferret, without whose invaluable editing and author-prompting this chapter would both shabbier and, most likely, still incomplete. Thanks to the aforementioned prompting and editing, I confidently expect the next chapter to be finished far, far sooner than this one was (as in, just a few weeks, possibly. The train's back on the rails!). All praises unto her!