The ritual

The answer lies in the east.

Right. Creepy voice coming out of nowhere. What answer? She didn’t even have any questions! Kena turned, throwing her blanket on the ground in the process. The night was warm, and she knew it wouldn’t cool down for a while. When the hot summer air settled in the Crown, it wouldn’t leave until the coming of fall. It had something to do with the mountains and the lack of wind.

It had been days since she had visited the shrine and heard the voice. After those last words the water had released her and the next thing she remembered was arriving  at the castle gates, completely out of breath. She couldn’t remember the running, or the crying. She had to have cried, because her eyes were red and puffy and her cheeks were wet.

Ugh. Kena buried her face in her pillow, trying to forget about that day or the way she had felt the days after. What on earth was wrong with her? At times she even wondered if the voice had been real, but those thoughts were quickly dismissed every time. It had to have been real. The voice still resonated in her mind at times; it was not a voice she would have made up.

Kena had spent days locked up in her room, and other days busying herself with chores and work to get her mind off things, but none of it seemed to help. She couldn’t forget about what had happened. She hadn’t talked to anyone about it. She had avoided Flin, something that had made her feel even worse. So often she had considered leaving the castle and rushing to see him, telling him all about what had happened. He probably would have no idea what had happened either, but at least she’d be able to share her story.

But she couldn’t. Somehow, she couldn’t share it with him. Not yet, anyway. Whoever that voice had belonged to, she had spoken only to her. The message had been for her and her alone. Her, Kena, princess of the Crown and daughter of High Queen Raena. She had to figure out what it meant first, and who had sent it to her. Had it been a Guardian? It had to be. It was the most reasonable explanation. Anything else was just madness.

Flin and her had to go visit the shrine, as they had talked about. Kena sighed deeply, knowing she couldn’t put it off any longer. There was only one way to find out if a Guardian had talked to her; to ask one. And the only way to do that was to go to one of the Keepers and see if they could contact them. It was a long shot, but the only option she had.

Kena climbed out of her bed and moved her curtain aside. It wasn’t even that late yet; the sky was still slightly purple from the evening sun. Her mother would still be awake; the High Queen didn’t have the luxury of going to bed early. She might as well ask her now. Her mother often did her paperwork in the evening; a perfect time to ask a question. And now that those ponies from the west had left, she would have some time for her again, right?

Kena gazed in her mirror in the moonlight and quickly fixed her hair. If she wanted her mother to take her seriously, she had to look the part. The hallways were silent. The servants were off to their own quarters and her sisters were all in bed, Kena guessed. She tried not to wake them and walked softly on the yellow carpet.

Her mother’s study was located at the other side of the castle, away from the throne room and the reception areas. It wasn’t a place meant for visitors. The High Queen used it as a solitary retreat, where she could work without being disturbed. Which was all good, except that it meant that Kena had to make her way through the entire castle in the dark.

“Mom?” Kena whispered as she pushed the door open. Strange; the entire room was dark and there was no sign of her mother. How could she not be here? She was always in her room at night. Or had she been mistaken and was it already much later than she had guessed? Kena glanced out of the windows of the dark room and saw the purple skies. Definitely not that late yet.

Her mother had an appointment with some trade partners the next day. Maybe she was in the throne room to prepare the meeting, Kena guessed, so she made her way back through the dark hallways, without meeting a single soul. How strange that the castle, which was so crowded during the day, could be this desolated at night. What difference a little light made.

The throne room was nothing if not eerie in the dark. The soft moonlight fell into the room through the large open windows, casting long dark shadows on the ground. The throne stood forlorn on the dais at the other end of the room, a shadow so dark that Kena wondered if even the sunlight could brighten it.

Her mother wasn’t there, either. And she had already checked the other rooms on her way. Maybe for once, her mother had gone to bed in time. Just her luck, that Raena had listened to her on the one day Kena needed her to work late. She shook her head and exhaled, her breath a deafening sound in the darkness of the throne room.

“Might as well go back to bed,” she murmured. No use to look through the entire castle. She was better off asking her mother the next day, even if she would be busy with the trade partners. She turned around and almost headed back to the open door when a movement caught her eye.

For a moment she thought it was an animal from the forest, lost in the castle gardens. But that was impossible. The castle was guarded with magic that turned the larger animals away. It didn’t work well on small rodents, but what she had seen was definitely larger than that. Curious, Kena moved towards the window. Everything seemed still; the flowers were asleep and the stars shone silently in the sky. She almost thought she had been mistaken when she saw the movement again, close by the castle walls.

Something was there, or rather someone. It had to be a pony, that she was sure of now. But who would be out there, this late in the evening? The gardener never worked this late and Kena knew of no other pony who would have business in the garden, especially not at this hour.

Her curiosity awakened, Kena trotted through the castle to the kitchen. The front door would be locked and guarded now and she had no desire to explain to the guards why she had to go out at this hour. With some luck, the kitchen would be quiet now as well, and that exit was usually not guarded. Plus, she knew where to find the spare key.

A light shone in the servant quarter. Kena recognized the room as the laundry room and a soft singing drifted her way. Some of the servants were still working hard to get everything clean in time for tomorrow. Kena held her breath and tiptoed through the hall as fast as she could. The singing stopped for a moment and she froze, certain that she’d been spotted. She would be able to lie of course and say she was still hungry, but that would definitely get back to her mother and the servants would be chastised for not feeding her properly.

Luckily the singing continued and Kena quickly trotted through the hallway to the storage room. She lifted the third barrel on the right, the only one that was empty at all times, and took out the key from under it. She spotted some chocolate cookies and had to fight the urge to take one before trotting back out.

The kitchen was dark and she couldn’t see a thing, but she had sneaked out this way so often she could easily find her way. Finding the keyhole in the dark was a harder task, but she managed with some effort. The moonlight was a relief when she stepped outside. She tried to make as little noise as possible, not just to not scare the pony away but also as not to wake up her family. Her mother would never let her go on a holiday if she’d found her sneaking outside in the dark.

For a few moments Kena was sure she’d been mistaken. There was absolutely no one in the garden beside herself. She scanned the area where she had seen the movement, but she didn’t see anybody. Maybe she’d been mistaken after all. Maybe it had just been the shadow of the trees moving slightly in the summer night breeze.

Slowly she moved closer to the wall, already half convinced that her mind had played tricks on her. She’d been so sleep-deprived and so worried about the stupid voice and its message. She must look ridiculous, sneaking around the castle like this at night.

“Go to bed, Kena…” she whispered to herself. But she knew she wouldn’t rest properly until she had inspected the place where she’d seen movement. She kept going, even if only to ease her mind. There was no movement now, no sound apart from her own hooves on the grass. There was just the trees, the flowers and the wall, and a door which was slightly ajar.

She gasped softly as she froze where she stood. A door. There wasn’t supposed to be a door in the wall here. She was the expert on this wall and knew all of its secret passages, the cracks and the trees that you could climb. There was no door here, she was sure of it.

And yet there it was. It was made of the same stone as the rest of the wall and there was no doorknob or anything of the sort. No wonder she had never noticed it. If this door was closed you wouldn’t notice it at all, and if magic had been used to conceal it…

Kena pushed the door slightly open and stepped through, her earlier worries all but forgotten now. The darkness of the forest invited her in and Kena found she couldn’t resist. Who had used this door in the dark? Did her mother even know of this?

She had only taken a few steps when a soft moaning made its way to her. It wasn’t a pleasant sound, a wailing that reminded Kena of the time she had seen Flin’s father put a sheep down when it had complications during childbirth. She followed the sound through the woods, scratching herself on branches and thorns multiple times before she reached the clearing.

The wailing was louder now, sometimes spiking up, sometimes losing force. Whoever was making it was in pain, and Kena sped up her step. She had to help whoever was in trouble.

The wailing, however, was accompanied by something more sinister. A chanting Kena had never heard before, a song made of dark words she didn’t recognize. They blended together, the wailing and the song until they were one continuous sound that drummed in her ear telling her not to get closer.

Later, Kena would curse her own stubbornness. She should have listened to that voice and she should have headed back to the castle, crawl into bed and wake up on another bright summer day without knowing. But she didn’t do any of those things. She kept going until she reached a moonlit clearing.

Two ponies stood there, facing each other. One of them looked down at what appeared to be a small animal in between her legs. She held a large black feather that Kena almost couldn’t see in the darkness of the night, as if the moon was not strong enough to light it. She brought the feather down and the wailing intensified. The other pony started chanting even louder.

It was a cat. A cat as white as moonlight, with dark red blood staining its fur. Why were these ponies stabbing a cat with a feather? She wanted to step out and yell at them to stop, but the chanting was too strong and her heart beat too loud. The cat was dying. It was under some sort of spell, cast on it by the chanting pony, but it was crying out and it was dying. The dark feather lit up at the tip, shining with a dark red color in the moonlight. Kena could feel herself getting sick right then and there.

But that was not even the worst part. The worst was recognizing her eldest sister’s hooves holding the feather, and her mother’s eyes staring down at the creature, watching its life drain away while she chanted the song of darkness.