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

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Chapter 2

Mount Hatheg-Klop stood tall and alone above the drifting sands of the surrounding desert. Strange shapes danced and leaped in the great bowl carved into its peak, their flinty hooves striking sparks from the stones and their stalked eyes shining with reflected firelight. Lords and rulers of this world, they had danced here for uncounted years, and nothing, nothing, would ever dethrone them from their rightful place, or cast them down. They knew this, and so they danced.

One of the lesser beings, a knob-tailed dog-thing sitting by the fire and clapping to the beat of the drums and whining flutes, paused and raised an ear. He thought for a moment that he had heard something far off in the distance, something like the beating of huge leathery—no, feathery—wings…

Half an hour later the bonfire had been put out, the mists had cleared, the dancing deities had scurried away from their lek in a panic, and a deep blue alicorn sat alone in the mountaintop basin, preening her long feathers and muttering to herself. She raised her horned head and gazed peevishly off at the Sun, resting lazy and red on the horizon.

“Sister, couldst not thou have found the time to cleanse the vermin from the Dreamlands whilst I was gone? For they have made most merry sport of—“

She paused. The Sun continued to be generally Sun-like, making no obvious response, but its tranquil glow must have conveyed some meaning to the reclining goddess, for after a moment’s attentive silence she rolled her eyes and continued, “Very well, then. ‘Couldn’t you.’ But I have been at these jackanapes for nigh on a fortnight, from Ooth-Nagai to Lomare, and still they vex me!“

More uneventfulness from the Sun.

“Faith, is that word also forsook? But I was fond of ‘jackanapes!’” She gave an extremely undignified snort and sat back on her haunches. “’Twas good enow a thousand years ago. How comes it that it be not good enow today?”

The Sun did absolutely nothing.

“Aye, aye,” responded the alicorn. “But I wonder that they have any words at all, these moderns of thine.” She spread her wings. “Belike they dream in ‘probablys’ and ‘couldn’ts,’ as well. I shall return anon, ‘Tia. Sleep well.”

As she soared away from the mountaintop, the cold high wind pressing against her primaries and swirling through her long, star-studded mane, the alicorn smiled in spite of herself. She had come back to this world as a conqueror, ready to blast her sister’s Sun out of the sky forever and reign alone and unopposed. But here she was, little Princess Luna, bickering like a foal with her sister just like in the old days. Or rather, not quite like the old days. The bitterness was gone.

Not, she reminded herself, that she would have minded if the Dreamlands had been better tended in her absence. Celestia had done what she could, but what with managing both Sun and Moon her sister had had little time to spare. Over the years many odd and disturbing things had crept into this realm and made it their home, and Luna feared that some of them had not come out of the nightmares of ponies.

She feared even more that some of them had.

-----

It was three-forty AM. This and the fact that he did not want it to be three-forty AM were the only two things that the Mule was really aware of, and if he had been able to have his way he would soon have been unaware even of them. The noises, bright lights, and pokings that had woken him up in the first place, however, did not abate, and several more realizations gradually forced themselves upon his resentful consciousness. They were all unwelcome.

Without much real hope that it would accomplish anything, the Mule muttered, “Schleepin’ now. Cm’back three t’ five business days. Thankee.”

Something poked him hard in the ribs. “That was an estimate of maximum delay, Mister Mule, not an exclusive range. I command you to wake up!”

He dragged his eyelids open. The pony he had met yesterday afternoon—he forgot her name, Sassy something. Sassafras? Sassaflash, that was it—was standing by his bed and glowering down at him, an impatient frown on her face. Seeing that he was awake, she stamped her hoof and snapped, “Get up! Matters have proceeded slightly faster than anticipated, and I require your services. Now. This very minute, as a matter of fact. Pack your things and follow me.”

The Mule considered this for a moment, glanced blearily around his cramped little tenement room and noted that nothing was on fire, and closed his eyes again. It could wait.

More impatient poking. “I said get up! I will not be ignored!”

Winching his eyes back open, the Mule responded, “I ain’t ignoring you, Miss. I paid real close attention. I just ain’t going to do what you said, that’s all. T’ain’t the time for decent folk to be up and about.”

Sassaflash sniffed. “I am the Dark Lord Sassaflash, not ‘decent folk.’ Sun forbid I be mistaken for one of the rabble.” Trotting over to the room’s small closet and yanking it open, she continued, “And if you are to be my minion, then the same goes for you. I won’t hear of any lackey of mine being mistaken for ‘decent folk.’ It would be a humiliation. Are you aware that you have a shameful lack of wilderness survival gear?”

“Them’s my things,” observed the Mule. “Some folks wouldn’t take kindly to you goin’ through ‘em. Not me, I’m broad-minded, but some folk wouldn’t take kindly to it.”

“No doubt.” The mare slammed the door of the room’s small closet and trotted over to a battered old traveling chest resting in a corner. Pointing a hoof at it she demanded, “What is in here?”

“Them’s also my things.” With great reluctance, the Mule hoisted himself out of bed, his hooves hitting the bare wooden floor with a string of hollow thuds. “How’d you get in, anyhow?”

“Through the doors, of course, regardless of whether that meant turning a latch or cutting through them. A lock is a test of one’s resolve, nothing more.” Sassaflash heaved the sigh of a good pony unjustly treated. “I suppose I can outfit you from my own supplies. So be it. Come!”

Tilting his head, the drowsy creature responded, “I ain’t real inclined to come. What’s got you so het up, anyhow?”

“As my minion, it’s hardly any of your concern.”

“Who said I was your minion?”

The pegasus stared at him for a moment or two, and then, in a voice that was evidently supposed to sound calm and self-assured but that held a distinct note of uncertainty, said, “You applied for the position, didn’t you? And I’ve decided to hire you. Doesn’t that mean you’re my minion?”

“Maybe it do, maybe it don’t.” The Mule yawned. “Maybe I thunk things over and changed my mind. You don’t know.”

“Oh.” Sassaflash‘s left ear twitched as if she were trying to bat away an invisible fly. She opened her mouth, shut it again, and then said, “Right then. Um. Mister Mule, I have reviewed your application, and deman—would like for you to begin work as soon as possible. Payment will be food and board, and—conquest—subcontinents—you know. We’ve gone over that. Do you accept?”

After looking at her in silence for a good, long while, the shabby beast said, “You know, by rights I ought to say no. You ain’t been real mannerly.” He shrugged. “But you did ask, and so far as I can tell asking ain’t no easy thing for you to do. Anyhow, my life’s been a mite dull lately, and if this ain’t excitement then I don’t know what is.” After a few moments of consideration, he chuckled, spat on his hoof, and held it out. “’Ain’t no fool like a mule,’ as the ponies do say. Tarnation, I’ll do it. Miss Sassaflash, you got yourself a minion. Put ‘er there!”

She stared at the proffered hoof for a moment, her wings clamped tightly at her sides and her ears flattened back in mild horror, and then looked up. “I don’t suppose there is an alternative rustic bonding ritual we might engage in? I dislike being touched.”

-----

“I can’t believe you wiped it on your fur!”

“Where else was I supposed to wipe it? They wasn’t no kerchiefs about, and since you was so dead set agin’ the hoofbump, I had to clean my hoof on something. T’ain’t no big deal.”

“I can see that we are going to have to set some ground rules. I will expect you, in future, to be less organic. Sweat, mucus, shed fur, and so on are to be kept to a minimum. Is this understood, Mister Mule?”

“Yes, Miss Sassaflash.“

Two dark figures stole silently through the streets of Ponyville, for some extremely liberal value of “silently.” The scrawnier and more angular of the shadows was burdened with a tangled mass of cloth and rope tied to his back, but he was making a good pace nonetheless. The second figure, indistinct under a flowing black cloak, seemed to be somewhat on edge. She moved in fits and starts, peering about suspiciously and avoiding the glow of the Ponyville street lamps whenever possible. As the pair reached the mouth of a darkened side street, the skittish figure halted abruptly, raising a warning hoof. Pulling back the hood of her cloak, she glanced quickly around and sniffed at the air. The coast was apparently clear, for after scowling up at the full Moon she darted into the shadows of the little side lane and motioned for her companion to follow. There was a rattle and a clink as he ambled in, and then the streets of Ponyville were given over once again to silence.

The pause in activity was only an intermission, not a finale. Some minutes later a nervous humming sound began to emerge from one of the old, dingy houses occupying Haybale Lane, and the crevices of its window shutters glinted with a sickly light, pale as chalk. Within, Sassaflash sat at a battered little table heaped with glass tubes, books, papers, random detritus, and seven empty tea-stained mugs, scrawling something on a piece of paper with a quill held clumsily in her mouth. Meanwhile the Mule, who had left his bundle by the door and was now hoping to find some good traveling cookbooks, ambled about the room looking through the shelves. He wasn’t exactly sure whether he was having any success or not; so many of the titles were in foreign languages and scripts, or had had the text on their spines rubbed to illegibility by centuries of use, that half of them could have been chockablock with recipes and he’d have been none the wiser. Running a hoof along a row of books in a small, ornately carved bookshelf, the Mule mouthed out some of the names—strange names, names that didn’t seem to fit quite right in his mouth and left a bad taste after they were gone. Lóhonci-kódex, The Princess in Yellow, Cthäat Aquadingen, Liber Rotae Dentalis, Malleus Unicornium, The Ponypei Scriptures...

“Well, don’t that just beat all,” he mused aloud. “What is a ‘Ponypei,’ anyhow?”

“Small island in the southwest ocean,” muttered Sassaflash, her back to the inquirer. “Very wet, too many bugs.” She spat the quill on to the table and turned. “Why do you—”

A pause.

In a monotone as flat and cold as a pool of quicksilver, the pegasus said, “Step away from those books.”

The Mule stepped away from the books.

“Did you touch any of them?”

“No, Miss, I just—“

“We need to establish another ground rule.” She pushed past her minion to the shelves, and after a close examination of their contents turned to face the Mule, placing her body between him and the bookshelf. “That rule is ‘Do not touch, smell, read, or otherwise observe any of the Dark Lord Sassaflash‘s shelved books.’ Is that understood?”

The Mule’s eyes widened. “I’m mighty sorry, Miss Sassaflash. I didn’t know they was delicate, them being books and all.”

“Delicate?” The teal pegasus raised an eyebrow. “Hardly. Most of those books could survive a trip through a blast furnace and come out only mildly singed. I don’t avoid candles and open flames—“ she gestured through a gap in the stacks at the strange glowing apparatus atop the central table “—for their benefit. Now come. There’s much to do before the morning, and it is high time we tested your minionly mettle. Do you know what worrywort looks like?”

“I reckon. I seen it growin’ fornenst the Everfree.” Following the Dark Lord as she threaded her way through a papery arroyo towards an open doorway in the back of the room, he continued, “But about them books, Miss Sassaflash. If they’s so tough, why was you worried about ‘em?”

“It wasn’t their safety that concerned me.” She paused in the entrance to what the Mule now saw was a dingy, neglected kitchen, and turned to face her minion. “Mister Mule, you will be required to perform a great many tasks in my employ, and will most probably be required to face—or rather, turn tail and flee—a great many dangers. Many of these will be of a magical nature, and in an ideal world, you would already be well-versed in the lore, nature, and use of magic.”

Gesturing for him to follow, she trotted into the kitchen. “But we do not live in an ideal world. You are ignorant, and I do not have the time to teach you magic, as I have been trying to teach my acolyte. Consequently, when faced with strange beasts, structures built in impossible shapes, moldering books blazoned with strange symbols, and the like, you are not to investigate them, or stand your ground and face them down. The Equestria we will be exploring is a hidden and dangerous one that most ponies rarely encounter, and that even fewer survive. Fear, Mister Mule, will be your best defense.”

An uncomfortably long pause followed, during which Sassaflash stared at the Mule, waiting for him to respond, and the Mule stared at Sassaflash, wondering exactly how many two-bit adventure novellas it had taken before she started talking that way. The aspiring Dark Lord broke the silence first, abruptly stating “Tea!” in a firm, clear voice.

“Beg pardon, Miss Sassaflash?”

“Tea,” she repeated. “You are to brew some. I take three leaves of worrywort as flavoring in my tea, which you will find in the pantry—just there, to the left of the acid burn. No, Mister Mule, that is not an acid burn. That is a scorch mark. I find your unfamiliarity with the aftermath of violent chemical reactions to be very worrying”

“Beg pardon, Miss Sassaflash. Found it, Miss Sassaflash.”

“Acceptable.” The pegasus gave a little satisfied flutter of her wings, and half-turned towards the door to the Lair of Books. “I shall leave you to it, then, unless there are any problems.”

“Well, I—”

“Yes, you may help yourself to the contents of the pantry.” Her ears twitched in irritation. “‘Food and board’ were the terms, after all. I should have thought that was clear enough.”

“That ain’t what I was a-going to ask you, actually,” said the Mule. “I was wonderin’ about them magic lessons you said you was giving the filly. Ain’t you, um, a mite lackin’ up-a-top?” He tapped his hornless forehead.

“I am not a unicorn, true. I cannot produce magic.” The Dark Lord’s eyes narrowed. “But you are neither a stove, a fire, a tea sachet, nor a kettle, and yet you are able to make tea—or so you claimed on the questionnaire, although I have seen little evidence of tea-making ability thus far.”

“That ain’t the same thing, though.”

“Mister Mule, it is exactly the same thing. A unicorn is a mere—a mere spigot, out of which magic flows. It may be turned on or off. Its flow may be decreased or increased. If one is particularly clever, and places one’s hoof over the opening just so, one may even force it to flow as one wishes—and perhaps create a directed jet, or a spray of droplets. But ultimately it is still only good for one thing.”

“Most unicorns never even realize their limitations. They hone their abilities, and some among them become truly great.” She sneered. “But a great spigot is still just a spigot. We pegasi and Earth ponies, lacking magic of our own, must take a more difficult but ultimately more rewarding path.” With a rustling flourish the mare spread her wings wide for emphasis. “The only good mages are unicorns—but the only great mages are Earth ponies and pegasi.”

She stared impressively at him, and then snapped her wings shut and executed a swift about-face. Looking back over her shoulder, she snapped, “Tea. Three leaves. Exactly three,” and trotted back into the Book Room, leaving the Mule amongst the heaps of dirty dishes and rusted fixtures littering the little kitchen.


The following hour or two were among the oddest of the Mule’s life. Things began quietly enough; after finishing the herbal tea prepared by the Mule (“Always use worrywort when preparing my tea, Mister Mule, and always use three leaves. And only use it for my tea. It is my tea, not yours. You can’t have any. My tea”), Sassaflash trotted back to her overburdened wooden table and scribbled out a few lines of script, which she rolled up into a little scroll. Turning to the Mule, she said, “There is an amateur veterinarian of sorts who lives on the borders of the Everfree forest. Take the side road on Stirrup Street opposite the haberdashery, and then just keep on going away from town until you reach her hut. I wish you to deliver this there.”

He leaned forward and gingerly took the scroll in his mouth. “Ysh Mss. Thnn I gvv it too thish vetrinrnn?”

“What? No.” The teal pegasus frowned. “Of course not, she’s an idiot. Goes around singing to wild animals. She probably writes poetry. No, I want you to deliver this to a small rabbit living with her; she calls him ‘Angel Bunny,’ for some deranged reason. Ask for him at the door, and then give him this and tell him it came from me. You will attempt no further communication with either the milksop or the rabbit, and will return here immediately. Is this understood, Mister Mule?

He dropped the scroll to the floor and said, “Understood, Miss Sassaflash, but…”

The mare raised an eyebrow. “What?”

Gesturing towards a clicking, whirring thing on the wall that he was reasonably sure was either a clock or a device for puréeing cabbage, the Mule asked, “Ain’t it a mite late—or early, as might be said—to go a-knocking on ponies’ doors?”

“Nonsense. Just knock hard enough, and you’ll eventually get a response. Use fire if absolutely necessary. This delay is beginning to irk me, Mister Mule, so—” She stopped, and then raised her hoof. “Wait, one more thing. Avoid the moonlight as much as possible, and travel along shaded paths so that the Moon can’t—so that you can’t see the Moon. Now go! The Dark Lord Sassaflash commands it!”

The delivery of the rabbit’s message (written in a series of strange, spiky scratches that spread out from the center of the paper like cracks in a sheet of ice) was actually one of the least bizarre errands given to the Mule that night. It made sense, if one mentally squinted at it and tilted one’s head the right way: there was a note to be delivered to a house, and it needed to be given to a pon—to an animal who lived inside that house. Perfectly everyday. Nothing unusual about it.

The second errand, though, in which she bade him take a bulky metal object, roughly spherical and carved with peculiar glyphs, sneak on to the Ponyville train platform, and wedge it into a hidden gap on the outside of a very specific train car, was somewhat less prosaic. The third was odder still and resulted in a hastily-written letter and one of Haybale Lane’s flagstones being scorched out of existence in a burst of green flame. After completing the fourth task, the Mule decided that it would be best if he just tried to forget that it had happened at all. He was only partially successful in this, as it would be at least three months before he was able to look at anything even remotely slug-shaped without wincing.

Sassaflash made no response when the dazed Mule stumbled back into her lair after this last errand, trailing little puddles of slug slime and helplessly muttering something about eyestalks. She was deeply involved in an effort to pack many very large things into one very small saddlebag and seemed disinclined towards conversation. As the door creaked shut behind him, however, he caught the sound of paper rustling off in one of the nooks of the book-infested room, and after peering around for the source spotted the little unicorn filly he had met the day before, sitting in a heap of scrolls and manuscripts and squinting in the bleached, chalky light of the room’s bizarre lamp.

“Well, I never,” murmured the homely creature, and clomped over to the sleepy unicorn, his odd face wrinkled in concern. “Miss Sweetie Belle, you ain’t been here all night, have you?”

With an enormous yawn, the filly shifted a treatise on third century griffon alchemists aside and rose to her hooves. “No, I—wait, why are you here?”

“I been starting to wonder the same thing,” muttered the Mule, as he raised a hoof and brushed off an errant slug still clinging to one of his long ears. In a normal tone, he continued, “I got hired, is why. But shouldn’t you ought to be in bed? T’ain’t no time for foals to be up.” Another thought occurred to him. “Hold on a minute. Miss Sassaflash here ain’t your kin, is she?” He turned and raised his voice. “Miss Sassaflash? What’s this filly doing here at this time o’ night?”

“Being stubborn!” The pegasus poked her head up from behind a heavy oak bookcase, and snapped, “You’re not coming, and that’s final!”

“But I don’t want to stay behind,” whined the filly. “It’s no fair. I could be really helpful! Angel could take care of things here, and if he needed help Crowded Parchment could—“

“We have discussed this before, Sweetie Belle. Angel is too small to attend to everything, and Parchment is a—“ She hesitated, glanced at the Mule, and finished, “—a strange pony, and can hardly be expected to just waltz into Ponyville.”

“But—“

“Silence! The Dark Lord Sassaflash is packing!” The mare ducked back behind the bookcase and began to make industrious rustling noises. Sweetie Belle opened her mouth as if to make a retort, let it hang open for maybe five seconds, and then plunked herself down on her hindquarters with her forehooves crossed in irritation.

After glancing back and forth at the two of them in some confusion, the Mule shrugged. It was clear that there was a fair bit going on here that he didn’t understand, but he thought he understood enough. Trudging over to Sweetie Belle, he said, “Alright, missy, on your hooves. Best you got back home afore your folks start fussing.”

For a moment she looked like she was going to object, but then she sighed and lowered her head. “Yeah, I guess.”

“That’s right.” The scruffy creature nodded. “And you’d best have somepony go back with you; it’s awful dark out.” Looking up, he called, “Miss Sassaflash? D’you think you might could see this filly back to—”

“Packing!”

“—Or I could do it, I reckon,” continued the Mule, placidly.

The Dark Lord waved a dismissive hoof. “Yes, yes, whatever.” After a moment’s thought, she added, “And make sure her parents know, I don’t want her sneaking out here again. I’ve got too much to deal with as it is.”

“Alrighty.” Turning to Sweetie Belle, the Mule said, “Come on, then, let’s get you back to your kin. A filly your age shouldn’t ought to be out alone with strange ponies.”

“Miss Sassaflash isn’t a strange pony. I mean, she’s—um.”

The unicorn trailed off into silence. After waiting a moment or two for her to continue, his face a respectful blank, the Mule turned to look at the Dark Lord Sassaflash, and Sweetie Belle reluctantly followed his gaze. The teal pegasus was stalking back and forth in the cramped confines of a little arroyo of books, surrounded by scattered vials, books, hay bricks, herbs, canteens, and woolen cloaks, and was hissing nasty-sounding words in a weird, guttural language at one of the saddlebags. The saddlebag, showing commendable self-restraint, did not appear to be making any response.

The Dark Lord’s minion turned and ambled over towards the front door. “You know best, I ‘spose.”

“Okay,” conceded Sweetie Belle, following him, “but she’s not strange like you mean. I’ve been her acolyte since winter, and—No, Miss Sassaflash, I won’t forget to lock the door behind me—and my mom and dad know I come over here in the afternoon for lessons.”

“That don’t signify,” declared the Mule, holding out a hoof to the filly to help her down the stairs. She ignored it and hopped down to the street, upon which he shrugged and withdrew the extended hoof. “Hit ain’t the afternoon right now, and I’ll bet that your ma and pa don’t know you is up, does they now?”

Sweetie Belle looked at the cobblestones and said something indistinct, and the Mule nodded. “I figured as much.”

Raising her head, the little pony said, “But I don’t do it often, I promise! I just really, really don’t want to get left behind.”

“Why might that be? This here’s a mighty nice town, full o’ mighty nice ponies. Ain’t you got friends to play with?”

“No, I’ve got two best friends.” The unicorn sighed. “But they’re not around right now. One of them’s got to help out on her family’s farm while her sister goes to the Grand Galloping Gala, and the other’s visiting her aunt in Cloudsdale. I thought if I did a really good job helping Miss Sassaflash, I might get my cutie mark in magic or potion-brewing or necromancy, and then I could warp the very plywood of space and time and summon dark demons, holding them in thrall to my terrible will!” Sweetie Belle reared up on her hind legs, waving her forehooves theatrically, before dropping down to all fours again with a cheerful smile. “And then I’d make the demons give Scootaloo and Apple Bloom—they’re my friends—their cutie marks.”

“What was that about necromancy?”

“But I can’t do any of that if I get stuck here. It’s not fair! I’m a really, really good acolyte, but Miss Sassaflash never lets me do anything.” She struck her forehoof against the cobblestones for emphasis. “I’ve learned a lot, and I can do more than just getting stuff and carrying messages. When she wrote this morning that she was leaving tomorrow—or today, I guess—I thought maybe if I could just get her to listen she’d let me come with.” Her ears drooped. “You saw how that turned out.”

“That I did. Which way, missy, right or left?”

“Left. My house is down at the lake, near—“ Coming to an abrupt halt under the stone arch shadowing the path out from Haybale Lane, the unicorn squeaked, “Wait! Stop!”

Bony limbs tumbled around one another as the Mule lumbered to a halt, surprised. “What’s wrong?”

In answer, Sweetie Belle pointed out to the empty square, draped in blue-black shadows and silvered with moonlight. “The Moon’s up! Miss Sassaflash said that I shouldn’t walk where I can see it. She said it’d get into my dreams and see what I’m thinking.”

“Did she now.” The Mule turned and ambled out in to the pale, brittle light, ignoring his companion’s shocked squeak. Turning, he said, “They ain’t no call to be afeared o’ the Moon. The Mare in the Moon’s gone, and I heard tell Princess Celestia’s been studyin’ her sister to be good, these past few month. She ain’t a-going be bringing nightmares no more.”

“But Miss Sassaflash said—“

“I reckon she’s been spending too much time in amongst her books.” And filling your head with all manner o’ boogiemares and haints. I’m gon’ have to talk to her about that. She can be as tetched as she wants, but that don’t mean she can go ‘round scaring foals. With a reassuring smile, he continued aloud, “See? Ain’t nothing bad happening to me. Miss Sassaflash, she’s probably been reading so many old pony tales that she’s gone and convinced herself that they’s true.” Chuckling at the quaint notion, he turned and started to amble off, then stopped when he realized that the little unicorn wasn’t following him. Looking back, he called, “Come on, missy, ain’t nothin’ gon’ hurt you.”

The young unicorn sat hunched in the shadows, looking down at the cobblestones. After a moment she raised her head and said, in a quiet but surprisingly strong voice, “They are true. I know they are.”

“Now, just ‘cause Miss Sassaflash says it’s so don’t mean it is. I don’t mean no disrespect to her, but—“

“They are true! I’ve—” Sweetie Belle hesitated for a moment, and then stomped her forehooves on the cobblestones, squeaking in exasperation. “Oo! You need to find out anyway. I’ve seen them! Some of the things. That she talks about, I mean.”

One of the Mule’s ears flopped over sideways of its own accord. He didn’t seem to notice. “And what kinds o’ things might these be?”

“Just—just things. Miss Sassaflash says it isn’t a good idea to say their names, mostly.”

Nudging his ear back into place, the Mule said, “And them things comes in dreams, is that it?”

“Well, some of them. Miss Sassaflash says there’s a place called the Dreamlands, and some ponies can go there when they sleep if they know how. It’s not—I’ve never been there myself, but Miss Sassaflash says she can almost do it, sometimes. Some things from there sometimes get here, but I don’t know how. I met one with her once near the Everfree forest. She said it was called a “zoog.” It was like a little rat thing covered in fur, only the fur was—I don’t know, slippery. It was dry, but it stuck to the zoog’s body like it was wet.” She hesitated, and then finished in an uncertain, dwindling undertone, “I didn’t like its eyes…”

The Mule stared at the little filly with one eyebrow raised and a pensive expression on his oddly shaped face. Then he nodded. “Well, now. I ain’t never heard tell o’ nothin’ like that in the Everfree forest, but then they’s a lot o’ things I ain’t never heard tell of.”

Glancing up at the cold blue stars overhead, he gave a strange sort of chuckle that somehow had very little humor in it, and walked slowly back into the shadows of the overhanging buildings. “And one o’ them things is a pony that knows ‘bout the Dreamlands, and knows that they’s such things as zoogs. They ain’t much for Dreaming in general, the ponyfolk. They lives their lives too fast, and sleeps too shallow. Mostly it’s just mules that knows the ways, and donkeys that finds ‘em by accident.” With a shrug, he continued, “Ain’t no small thing that Miss Sassaflash knows o’ such things. Tell you what; I’ll keep outen the moonlight, and what say on the way back to your folks’ house you tell me more about these stories o’ hern?”

Author's Note:

Yikes. High time this got posted, really. Sadly, I have no tales of derring-do today; it's mostly talking and vague Lovecraftian hints. Interesting ones though, I hope, and the next chapter (whenever it arrives) should be a bit more exciting, so hopefully that'll make up for it. Oh, and I have managed to pin down the Mule's accent to something definite; I'm aiming for an Appalachian dialect, mostly because I love the area and the inventiveness of the dialect itself. If any of y'all actually hail from Appalachia, I am so, so sorry for my mangling of the local accent. Oh, and there are also still sort of all the potential racial pitfalls I mentioned after chapter one. So that's fun too.

With that out of the way, I do have some very good news with regard to future chapters. The extremely talented Desert Sage, who goes by Raster in these parts, has offered to create occasional illustrations for future chapters of this story--and based on the lovely illustration he whipped together for Mendacity, I personally can't wait to see what he does with some of the later scenes.