Ode to a Sign

by the dobermans

First published

Nightmare Moon searches for something she lost.

The sole ruler of Equestria ventures out to try to regain something from her past.

Chapter 1

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It was night, because it was always night in the land of the midday moon. At the rim of the Everfree Forest, a heavy mist broke at the hooves of a traveler walking alone towards a distant light. Here, the dripping pillars of the tree trunks and the curtains of hanging moss and vines had given way to flat, cultivated fields. Derelict barns sagged in the dim ultraviolet glow that sustained the surrounding crops, their empty, disjointed windows wondering at the outlier trees that, whether by some ancient magic or stubborn force of will, had found a way to persist.

The traveler stopped and stood a while where a sign listed at a branch in the road, studying, still and silent within an all-concealing, frayed black cloak. The words ‘Gourmet Goodies’ were painted in blue, red and yellow on the flaking slat of wood. They glowed above fat white candles that had been arranged below them in the outline of a bird. The candles trailed off into the misty hills, haloed stars in a restive night, as if marking the trail of the bird’s flight. The traveler lingered a moment longer before following them.

The lights hovered above a gravel path, seeming now a procession of fairy lights that haunted the marshes. They danced deep into the gentle knolls in a switchback pattern, beckoning the chance wanderer to see the delights over which they kept watch. The crunch of the hoof-worn stones mingled with the chorus of crickets that flooded in from every side. Shredded clouds sailed overhead, sped on by a wind that did nothing to disperse the eternal fog. The shrouded outline of the moon came and went.

With a slow, elegant gait, the traveler descended the final hill. Before her, stooped beneath the sparkling veils of an ancient willow, stood a roadside shack, the nexus of a dozen or more streams of light flowing in from the blind benighted lowlands. The birds, it appeared, had their sanctuary here.

A mother and her two children were chatting with someone behind the counter. Their laughter reached out like the call of a school bell and mingled with the ringing, singing gloom. Others stood behind them, and when their turn at the counter came, they gestured or nodded at the pumpkins and ears of corn to show the shopkeeper what they wanted. The children took turns walking up to the willow’s massive trunk and touching it at a spot. The traveler watched until the last of them left, and none could be heard approaching.

The shopkeeper straightened, scooping the last customers’ coins into a jar. “Hello there!” she said. “Who’s next?”

“Greetings, Ms. Honeydew,” the traveler spoke from the inscrutable darkness of the cloak's hood.

“Well now, my tall friend! I almost thought you weren’t coming, and the special batch I whipped up would go to someone else. One year to the day. The time does pass, doesn’t it? How have you fared?”


“I’m very glad to hear that! Would you like to see what I’ve cobbled together for you this time?”

“Yes,” came the reply.

“Perfect!” said Ms. Honeydew. She ducked down, extracted a broad box of confections from a hidden shelf, and slid it onto the counter.

“I’ve got tarts, fried dough, and if I’m not mistaken, your favorite! Which would you like?”

A great hoof lifted from the front of the cloak, shod and encased with metal thicker than the countertop. It pointed at a caramel apple decorated with candy beads.

“Very good! That one took a fair bit of time, I might say. So many sprinkles! But it’s more than worth it for patrons like you. Please, help yourself.”

A sickly neon blue spiral of light grasped the makeshift stem that had been pushed into the apple’s navel. The tendril retracted, drawing it into the shadows of the hood. Ms. Honeydew smiled upward, watching and waiting.

There was a ragged sigh. Something scraped within the hood’s black hole, like the tines of a bear trap being forced open. The traveler’s labored breath hissed, then was cut short by the crunch of the apple. The jaws of the unseen trap opened and shut, but with quiet whimpers and choked cries in place of the squeal of rusted hinges. Clear drops of liquid dripped onto the counter, accompanied by punctured pieces of apple glued together by softened caramel. The gnashing continued until the wooden stem fell onto the remains of the murdered fruit.

Up across the luminous screen of the endless night, stars began to fall.

The head lowered as if burdened by a weight, slowly shaking from side to side. “I’m sorry,” the traveler said, her voice thick and harsh.

Her magic swept the counter clean, burning the remnants of the apple into a blue ash that disappeared in a flare of cinders. There was a second flash, and a bag of coins landed in front of Ms. Honeydew.

The shopkeeper flinched at the thump and rattle of the counter. “Oh … oh my. You mustn’t, ma’am. It was only worth—”

“Please,” the stranger interrupted.

“Thank you, ma’am. Thank you. You don’t know how much this helps. I count my blessings at the hour of sleep, and at the hour of waking, that me and mine live here in the Dell o’Echoes, and in this age, with gracious ponies such like yourself. Can’t imagine what it was like in the stories they tell of old. So much light! Can’t reckon the bustle. The to do. And the wretched White City, with its proud sun mare never knowing, never caring for what happened outside her ivory walls. Bless the sacred darkness! The Princess’s own wings sheltering her people, it is. Everywhere, always with us. Everything now is perfectly a dream.”

“Yes, a dream.”

Ms. Honeydew gathered the money bag and slipped it behind a display of gourds. “Thank you again. They say a good deed never dies! Perhaps”—she paused, canting her head as she had with the children—“perhaps this time you’d like to lay hoof on the Old Sisters? It’s good luck, you know. Stars only know how they got here. Magic probably. But there they’ve been, dancing I like to think, since my grandma’s time at the least. Every pony in the Dell has borrowed a bit of their luck, and that’s no tale!”

She stepped aside and opened the swinging door that kept eager customers from getting too close to the more delicate decorations. Inviting the traveler in, she held it, smiling.

The towering shadow took a step forward. The proprietor’s booth was dim, despite the glow of the clusters of candles and firefly lamps that were set on the shelves beside mushrooms of every size and color. Cloves, cinnamon and ginger lingered like incense around the warm heart of the tree, where something disturbed the vague disorder of its wrinkled skin.

She moved closer, far less sure than the children who had leapt to tap the spot not minutes before. Carved into the grooves of the bark was the barest remnant of two figures. Their wings were obscured by lichen, and their horns, bloated over by untold centuries of growth. They seemed to dance at foal’s height from the ground, frozen where they had been engraved.

Once again the satin-draped hoof raised up, trembling as its owner considered the solemn humor of the land. The candles on the paths whispered in the same language as the muted moonlight. They spoke of their radiant veins reaching up the hills to blend with the over-abundant golden streaks of dying stars above, and of the high wind moving the fronds of the willow, making its bright roots become the buttresses of the cross-swept architecture that spanned the kingdom she’d won.

The featureless hood turned upward toward the moon. The tricolor face looked back, full of longing. Full of compassion.

She could not hold the gaze. The moon was fixed dead in its arc. There was no reason to move it.

“I can’t,” she said, and turned to leave.

Ms. Honeydew let the door swing shut behind her. “Oh. Alright, no bother.” She followed a few paces. “Won’t you tell me your name, then? I’d be thrilled to know who to advocate in my devotion to the Princess. I’ll be making a pilgrimage to the Castle come Sunday. I could write your name in the remembrance scroll by the votive. She loves us; reads them all, you know. I’ve seen her with my own eyes. She cares for her own, and will reward you. Give your own crops a boost, maybe. Please, I’d love to know what to call you?”

The night had already welcomed back its shadow. Its voice called from the ghostly gravel path.

“I … I can’t remember.”