I was chained down to the ground. People stood around me, but I couldn't see their faces; they were obscured by a thick, eternal darkness, darkness that took sight and made it stretch on and on forever. I needed to tell them something, something so important I would give my life to tell them, to make them know, to make them hear me, for just a second. But as I shouted, no sound sprang forth; I strained against my bonds, they asked what was wrong, why could I not speak, would I please stop struggling. I tried to scream, but produced only silence. I thrashed and flailed, but they showed only gentle, loving concern for my violent plight. I began to cry out, but it was always, always, in vain.
I surged awake into a frigid cold; cold from sweat, cold from the air, and my chest hurt from rapid and heavy breaths. My throat was parched. But the nightmare...it made my blood freeze, my muscles deaden. I had to sit and gather myself for entire minutes before I could function again.
The night or day beyond the cave hadn't changed. My phone registered midday, but I was dubious as to whether to trust the thing or not in these circumstances.
A morning ritual, something rehearsed, natural, fitting to start the day...wake at 7, turn off alarm, shower, breakfast, listen to the Gorillaz while on the train to university. How that seemed like a comforting luxury right now; how it had been a granted thing only one day ago. All I could do was rub sleep from my eyes with my fingers and feel that weakening thirst in my throat. I missed my bed, my water, my collection of Star Trek models, my desk where I brought all the pieces of a new model kit together, bought with student loan money, and made loving replicas of my favourite star ships, arranged in order of fame from top to bottom.
Bringing my palm down my face to crash back to reality, I considered my situation. Nothing had come during the night to find me lurking in their cave; I had seen nothing as I walked in the forest before I fell asleep. It was safe to assume that there was nothing out there but frogs and crickets, and I was the top of the food chain.
I set off again into the wilderness in search of hydration. I wasted no time setting out away from the forest-facsimile I had awoken in. The soft impact of grass under my shoes as I walked was most welcome. If there was clean water, it would be in this direction.
It'd been some time, walking to the ambience of birds and the wind, before I came across tracks that made me stop and stare, muscles seizing up. Whatever had made them was bloody enormous. They were easily twice as large as my own feet, in the shape of paws, like a giant lion. No size of lion I could even imagine could make tracks like that. Even worse, they were inconsistent; two huge paws, two tiny paws, as if whatever had made them was misshapen and deformed, its front paws twice the size of its back paws. The same could not be said of similar tracks that ran parallel to whatever monster had made the first; tracks that appeared to belong to some kind of miniature horse. Both sets ran in the same direction, together.
Tentative walking had become a shaky attempt at stalking. As I travelled, the gradual increase of the "wellbeing" of the land eased my nervous state somewhat, but regardless my nerves were on a knife-edge, eyes in constant alert on the trees and even their branches above. As I did so, however, it was unquestionable that the sky was turning shades of blue, daylight beginning to form, moving away from the alien night I'd been so awestruck by only so many hours ago. To punctuate this fact, I saw a sun beginning to form in the sky. It would be far easier to see whatever titanic beast had created those tracks in daylight, even if the same applied to my own silhouette.
Then I saw it, to my left as I kept watch for the beast: a tree with large red orbs hanging on its branches. Unmistakably an apple tree. I would have settled for some freakish, blue, foreign substance as nourishment on this alien world! Perhaps I was in some bizarre, obscure country where the sky could be purple
stranger things have happened.
Once at its roots, I broke a branch from a nearby tree and started to beat an apple down. As one fell to the ground I picked it up like a diamond in the rough, I gave it a cursory examination, and wondered why my careful nibble had suddenly become a ferocious bite.
Mother of all things holy
This was gorgeous.
It set a tidal wave of taste over my parched tongue that eroded away my mind's rationality. I felt my body go weak from the sheer impact of it; every bite was another surge of pleasure. My once-sandpaper mouth had been flooded with ambrosia, where I would have settled for a trickle of water.
I relished the taste of apple in my mouth as I collected an armful of apples from the tree and set back towards my cave. With food that could both nourish and hydrate, I would be just fine until I found some way back to normality. I had come here; there would surely be some way to go back.
I could almost see my cave when I heard it. Something big. I froze upon hearing it, and dropped to the ground, moving behind whatever could obscure me. Just controlling my breathing and my booming heart was all I could do. What was undoubtedly the shape of a lion emerged from the forest.
As expected, this thing was beyond massive. Unexpected, however, was what looked like a massive flap of raw flesh that seemed to be made of dried meat. Behind it seemed to float some sort of beaded rope that coiled towards its head. It was moving away from me, towards a small clearing, whereupon the true nature of the beast became apparent.
A wing. And a tail. A scorpion's tail. It was a Manticore of legend, a gargantuan, winged lion with the tail of a scorpion. Its back legs were sickly and thin, but its front legs were thick columns of muscle. I stared at it, failing to connect the sight to reality. But there it was. At any point it could turn and look my way, and my final moments would be pitiful resistance and then a vicious cacophony of crushed bone and ripped flesh. But the Manticore's slow, lumbering path bore it away from me. All I would have to do is try not to shriek in terror, and I would survive.
I watched it prowl away from me, out of sight, like a man on an electric chair watches a man who has come to free him from its binds, waving a letter of pardon. But in my tension, I had failed to realise that I was carrying a large armful of apples.
I barely had time to register the movement of the topmost few until they had landed against a tree root, bounced up, and came down through the leaves of the bushes where I hid.
I looked down at the apple in shock, and then up to the Manticore.
Our eyes met.
My apples thudded to the floor. I bolted. I ran, as fast as I could away from the thing. As I ran, stumbling and terrified, I could hear it approaching, getting louder and louder as it closed the space between us, taking massive, leaping bounds, terrifying speed, thunderous approach, roars of ferocity singing of the impending carnage it would make of me in mere seconds.
I tore at my breast pocket, pulled my phone out, mashed the buttons in blind desperation and threw it behind me.
As the phone left my hand I lost my footing and crashed forward onto the forest floor. I froze, breathing into the ground, waiting for the beast to expose my innards to the air.
I heard the Manticore's heavy footfalls stop, and turn. I heard a distant, irritating, digital tone grow even more distant. I was still in disbelief for a few seconds, until I heard the Manticore slide to a halt, roar, and begin to run in the other direction.
I scrambled away, listening to a claw the size of a large frying pan pound on cracking plastics. I don't know how long I ran for, but I never looked back.
I had climbed into a tree, and was hugging a tree branch in what I could only identify as shock. The Manticore was so big. It stood as tall as I did, at nearly two metres tall. It was so fast. And when it travelled, the ground shook with mighty earthquakes. I couldn't go for a single minute without remembering the sight of it behind me, growing larger, getting closer, the look of primal fury and open jaws...
A weapon. Something to hold, something to brandish, anything that could help me. I set two hands around a nearby branch and heaved until it broke free. As soon as I clutched it to my chest I began to breathe again.
After much gathering of courage, I scurried back to the cave I'd found earlier. I examined again my weapon of choice. As I held it, gripped it, swung it in experimentation, I was struck with the thought that this may be the first time something has ever fashioned a weapon in this world. For some reason, that thought calmed me more than actually wielding the thing.
The stick was a paltry weapon, barely a defence, but it was something. Better than my bare hands. With an idle thought, I wondered to myself: did anything else have hands in this world? Would I be a special kind of gourmet for whatever mythological beast found was to
Mythological? I blinked. I knew what the Manticore was. It wasn't some alien creature, it was something I knew.It was something that had been documented in my world. Whether it had roots in this one, or mine, I knew of the Manticore legend. There was a connection.
I was of an open mind. Perhaps in dreaming someone had come by this world through their visions, and glimpsed the mighty beast, whose countenance was then engraved upon their unconscious mind to be depicted in legend. I had arrived here; perhaps I was not the first. It could be anything, and I wasn't ready to burden my mind with impossible conundrums when I had threats of the body to deal with.
It was nearly night. I had observed that the violet sky above me did, in fact, change; the "clouds" moved and the sky changed shades over time, ranging from a warm violet darkness to pitch black. I had moved alongside the brighter lands, in terrible fear of coming across the Manticore or anything else again. If my cave was right next to or even in an area the Manticore considered its territory, I would be wise never to return there again.
But for the first time I had seen stars up in that sky tonight, which confirmed that this was the first night I'd ever seen in this world. This nameless world, I wondered. It was hardly my right to name it, even if I was the only sentient being on its face capable of doing so. The thought was ridiculous an entire planet without any trace of settlements or civilisation? but the thought of it made something stir, deep in my spirit; a stirring of wonder, of exploration, of majesty at worlds unknown, and for that split second I was in awe at the very idea of naming a world. I would never even think of doing such a thing, but I couldn't deny I dreamed of it.
From my cave mouth I could see the stars coming out. 'Who are we, if full of care; we have no time to stand and stare'. I pitied those who didn't see the void above us every night, I laughed at those who looked up into infinite possibility and saw nothing of interest in the black, night sky. These stars that shone above me were truly magnificent.
If God existed, and He created the stars, then surely they were His masterpiece.
The idea came to me that I could try and find Orion's Belt the only constellation I knew in the blanket of black above. I stepped out of the cave and looked up around the night sky.
The sight hit me like a solemn, heartfelt vow of true love.
Oh god, the moon. It was so beautiful. It was so peaceful, so graceful. It put everything to shame. Everything. The stars were jokes beside it. Jesus Christ, it filled me with such intense wonder. This moon was of such passion that just looking at it made my body surge with what I can only describe as raw love.
It just hung there, moving so gradually over its domain, its own personal night, master of all below. The sight of it seemed to fill me entirely; the colour of it seeped behind my eyes and into my brain, filling every crevice of my body with its gorgeous hue; I felt that nameless colour that it bestowed upon all below, I felt it under my palms, which pressed against my temples. I sat down on the ground and watched it sail through the sea of stars.
Hours passed as I watched her. I made absolutely certain I could see the moon until it was no more, moving here and there, finding trees to climb. When the horizon began to claim the moon back, I gave her a bittersweet farewell, and an aching loneliness ebbed at me as soon as she had vanished. A profound loneliness that planted one irrefutable thing in my mind: I was alone in this world. Cut off. Estranged. But I will see her again the next night. To see her it was almost a reason to live, in and of itself.
Whether it was above my station or not to give names to this world, I named her and by extension, this world that she watched - Arddun Lleuad, Welsh for Beautiful Moon.
"Praetor hasn't brought his chess set."
Red Forest emitted a low whistle. "When was the last time he didn't bring it to the field?"
"Are you kidding?" replied Morning Down. "I don't think any of us are old enough to remember that."
The two Guardsponies walked down Ponyville's cosy street, in the cool air of dusk. All lights were out by now; the tents had gone up just before Ponyville had started to collectively drift off to sleep. As ponies were laying their heads to rest, the hustle and bustle had stopped right on schedule.
Every tent they passed stood up to impromptu inspection; maps prepared, squads in order, rotations clear. Each tent had its search pattern displayed prominently amongst the documents and paperwork, but by now the assembled Guardsponies knew their routes like they knew their own cutie marks. Each tent was stocked with the right herbs and salves they would need.
The inspector duo enjoyed strolling back through idyllic Ponyville at night on their way back to the central command tent. Inside the command tent, as they both expected, Praetor himself was pouring over the same maps he'd been scrutinising ever since he'd drawn them up. Even while sitting, he was easily the most prominent thing in the room; larger than most ponies, as was appropriate, with his being the Praetor of the Guard.
They approached, and both Guardsponies bowed. Morning Down uttered a respectful "Sir" before Praetor looked at them. That scholarly look was well known to both Guardsponies that stood there; Praetor always looked like that when he was examining plans or strategies: intelligent, focused, intent.
"Ah, there you are, gentlecolts."
Red Forest and Morning Down stood at attention. "All squads are ready to begin in the morning, sir. No shortcomings to report."
"As expected. Marvellous. Before you retire for the night, I have made a slight error in regards to the third and fourth search party routes. Here are the revised documents would you be so kind?"
Red Forest bowed slightly. "I'll take them, sir. Not a two-pony job, Morn. You go get some shut-eye."
Morning Down put a hoof over his mouth to cover a conveniently-timed yawn. "I think that's my body saying 'Yes please', Red. Thanks." Red Forest smiled in camaraderie, took the new routes in his mouth and left the warm glow of the command tent.
Morning Down watched him leave before he turned to Praetor, who stood facing him expectantly.
" began Morning. Praetor nodded, encouraging him to continue.
"What will we do when we find whatever it is we're looking for?"
Praetor considered for a moment. "If it's an object, we'll simply take it back to Canterlot. If it's a beast of some description, should it cooperate, then we won't have a problem. If it doesn't, well
Morning waited with baited breath as Praetor thought to himself.
"We shall perform our function by any means necessary," Praetor spoke quietly, as one who understands the gravity of his words.
"I see, sir," spoke Morning.
After they had parted, and Morning Down had crept into his tent and taken place in his bed, he felt hopeful. If anypony could find what they were looking for, it was Praetor.