65w, 6dLyra & Bon-Bon
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7w, 4dLyra Heartstrings
Ponyville was far too small to be one of the Canterlots, Manehattans, or Bayjings of Equestria, gliding regally along on their great business and paying little real attention to the daily dance of the Sun and Moon. It had long since ceased, too, to be one of the skittish frontier towns like Appleloosa and Dodge Junction, hesitant to sleep and lurching awake in panic before dawn. The Everfree forest, near as it might be, had long ago learned to respect the might of Canterlot, and safe beneath the watchful gaze of the Sun Princess the little village had grown sleepy and comfortable. It believed in getting its solid eight hours of sleep, and then maybe getting two or three more, just for good measure.
It was no strange thing, then, that as Bon Bon stumbled three-legged to the ticket depot of the Ponyville train station, crude bindle waving wildly over her shoulder as she struggled to carry it without tumbling to the ground herself, she should have found herself the first and only customer. She had considered, in the first wild rush of panic after Aldrovanda had made off with all her carefully-gathered supplies, simply shedding her earth pony form, transforming into a pegasus, and taking to the skies—but she was tired. Exhausted, in fact. She hadn’t slept in twenty-four hours, hadn’t felt the filling warmth of Lyra’s love for nearly as long, and she had performed more transformations in the last night than during the past ten years put together. Try even one more, and she’d have trouble staying on all four hooves, let alone flying. She could probably still manage traveling to Canterlot on hoof, if absolutely necessary (transformations were very draining), but the train would be faster and would leave her in much better shape to deal with—with whatever needed dealing with. Not that she was in very good shape now, of course.
Bon Bon snorted irritably and pushed those thoughts from her mind. No sense in mentally defeating herself before she’d even started out. She trotted up to the ticket seller’s booth, glass-fronted and smelling of freshly-sawn wood, and snorted again a bit more irritably. Despite the brass placard by the booth confidently stating that business hours began at sunrise and ended at midnight, the ticket seller was nowhere to be seen. Bon Bon leaned her bindle against one of the wooden beams in the timber frame wall, and peered through the booth’s window, trying—without much hope—to catch a glimpse of the missing ticket seller through the open door of some back room or other, perhaps sipping a dandelion root latté or polishing off a late breakfast.
No such luck. The ticket office, sparsely furnished and all business and professionalism (it was almost depressing, really. Only a few candy-colored arabesques, not too many hearts carved into the pale blue walls—not up to Ponyville’s usual interior decorating standards at all. Then again, it was a new building; perhaps they just hadn’t had time to get somepony in to do it up properly), showed a distinct lack of employees, other than a few sleepy-looking stallions chatting in the back who, to judge from the tool bags slung over their backs, were part of some sort of maintenance crew. Waiting seemed to be the only option. The changeling mare sighed, lowered herself to a sitting position on the wooden platform abutting the rails, and tried not to think about the many, many things that might have already happened to Lyra.
About ten minutes later, Bon Bon had very definitely not thought about caverns miles beneath Equestria’s surface, bugganes, vengeful changeling queens with flint axes to grind, bugganes, or ancient rituals involving more chanting than is generally found in polite society. She was not thinking about bugganes for the third time that morning, and was particularly not thinking about the rumors she’d heard that there was a colony of the things somewhere deep underground near Canterlot, when her totally-not-a-worryfest was interrupted by an odd sound somewhere nearby: a rhythmic clumping, as if a very large and very clumsy stallion was trying to make his way towards the train station or a normal pony with weights on her hooves was—with weights on her hooves—weights. Surely not. Bon Bon gritted her teeth and, rising to her hooves, glanced around the corner to see a pale green, tousle-maned unicorn that she could almost have mistaken for Lyra were it not for the newcomer’s goat-like eyes, dripping mane, and snaggletoothed smirk.
…Along with, of course, the doorknob attached to her ear, saddlebag glued to her back, pebbles coating her hooves, and a surprisingly wide variety of other kinds of detritus clinging here and there, including a rather pretty flower perched in her mane, which the newcomer had almost certainly not added intentionally. Lyra, eccentric as she sometimes was, had never been prone to decorating herself in Aldrovanda’s caddisfly larvae-like style. The kelpie, catching sight of Bon Bon around the edge of the train station, tried to give a lazy, indifferent toss of her mane but ended up smacking herself in the side of her head with the doorknob instead, where it promptly stuck fast. She clutched her head and started muttering something incomprehensible but almost certainly uncouth (all Bon Bon caught were the words “—smelt it, smelt it, smelt it, gnaw chase-discord with iron bells ringing—“), and from the sound of it probably would have gone along in that vein for quite some time if Bon Bon hadn’t curtly demanded what she wanted.
“—And stick ‘em with a wiggin stick. Ow,” finished the kelpie, and attempted a smirk. “I’m disappointed in you, Mendax. Truly, I am. I needled you mercilessly, was an accessory—unwilling, granted, but an accessory—to the snatching of your pet, stole all the little essential trinkets you’d gathered for your astonishingly ill-conceived rescue mission, and to top it all off I persist in calling you ‘Mendax’ instead of—what was it again? Dum Dum? Something like that.” She started to give another careless toss of her mane and stopped when she remembered what had happened the last time. “Honestly. What do I have to do to get a little pursuit?”
Bon Bon snarled, baring very un-pony-like fangs. “This—You—I can’t believe you!”
“I am rather incredible, aren’t I? Hard as it might be to credit, though, I’m only implausible, not actually impossible.”
The changeling ignored her. “This is all just a game to you, isn’t it? Just a fun little game of Bait the Changeling. Well, I don’t feel like playing. Leave me alone.”
“Oh come now, Mendax, humor me. Just a little chase? I’ll almost let you catch me, I promise.”
“Not interested. Go away.” Bon Bon turned, trotted back around the corner of the building, and planted herself firmly in front of the still-absent ticket seller’s booth. Aldrovanda sidled after her, cast an inquisitive glance at the booth, looked to Bon Bon, then back to the booth.
“So...what’s this wooden box all about? Some sort of shrine?”
“It’s a ticket booth. I’m waiting for the pony that should have been here half an hour ago to arrive, so that I can buy a ticket and save Lyra.”
Aldrovanda raised her eyebrows, impressed. “They sell tickets for that?”
If only. “It’s for a train, kelpie. A sort of traveling box on wheels that’ll take me to Canterlot. Why are you still here?”
Aldrovanda yawned, and stretched herself. “I find your obtuseness enthralling, that’s all. I have your stuff, you need your stuff, I run away, you run after—is this concept really so difficult for you to wrap your little mind around?”
Okay, that was it. “Leave me alone, you horrible little thing! Just leave me alone! I don’t care what you steal, I don’t care how snarky you are, I don’t care how sly and capricious and fey you are. I am going to save Lyra and nothing—do you hear me? Nothing!—is going to distract me from that! If I had to, I would walk to Canterlot!” Bon Bon stepped forward. Aldrovanda stepped back. The little old gray-maned ticket seller, unnoticed by both of them, stepped into his booth. “Go back to your swamp, mimic half of Ponyville, report me to Chrysalis—I don’t care. Just leave me the hay alone. Do you understand?”
“But Mendax, I—“
“Bite iron. Conveniently, there’s a bar of it in the saddlebag on your back. You’ll find it in the left satchel. What,” she snapped, whirling around with a snarl to face the ticket seller, who had been tapping on the glass of the booth and trying to get her attention, “do you want?”
The ticket seller shrank into himself, peering nervously out from behind his whiskers and making squeaking noises. Bon Bon briefly considered demanding how much he had heard, but rejected this notion. Bad enough that he thought she was insane; she didn’t need him thinking she was criminally so. The not-quite-pony drew a deep breath, and forced her ears back up into a friendly, peaceable position. Rearranging her scowl into something that, even in poor light, would still probably not have been mistaken for a cheery smile, she said, “Sorry. Didn’t mean to snap at you. Name’s Bon Bon. One ticket for the morning train to Canterlot, please.”
There was the clink of bits—about all she had to spare, as most of her savings were in the saddlebag on that wretched kelpie’s back—against the wooden counter. The elderly pony swiped the bits into the booth and then, after some clumsy bustling with a roll of tickets and a cutting device that had clearly not been designed with an earth pony in mind, he nudged a ticket through a slot in the window. Snatching it up in her teeth, Bon Bon managed something more closely approximating a real smile, and nodded thanks. The ticket seller, emboldened by this, peered to his right and asked, “Will your friend be wanting a ticket too, then?”
Bon Bon glanced at Aldrovanda, who waved meekly, and said “Distant acquaintance. Extremely distant acquaintance. And no, she will not. Where will the Friendship Express be pulling in? Over there? Thank you.” She turned and hobbled three-legged off in the direction the ticket seller had indicated, bindle slung awkwardly over her back. Aldrovanda watched her go, eyes half-lidded and lips pursed, and then she trotted up to the ticket seller’s booth. Giving him her most winning smile, she said “Name’s, uh, Lyra. One ticket for the morning—um, what she said. ‘Train to Canterlot,’ wasn’t it? Yes. One of those.”
Miraculously, absolutely no major outrages were committed in the time between Aldrovanda’s purchase of the ticket and the arrival of the Friendship Express at the station. This was not for lack of motivation; on the contrary, as soon as she realized that the kelpie intended to join her on the trip to Canterlot, Bon Bon found herself feeling that a few major outrages, ideally inflicted on Aldrovanda in as painful a manner as possible, would be just what the doctor ordered.
Her forbearance likely had something to do with the presence of several fellow travelers, finally arriving to purchase their tickets, along with the attention of the ticket seller, whose job was not a particularly exciting one and who was very obviously watching the two of them in the hopes that they’d continue being odd. Bon Bon, an old master at being boring, proved a disappointment to him, but Aldrovanda was rather more entertaining. After trying and failing to engage Bon Bon in further conversation, she ended up sidling back to his booth and began chatting with him. She was, he felt, quite a nice young mare; it was such a shame about her teeth and eyes, which (she explained) were the result of a congenital condition which she didn’t like to talk about. She seemed, for some strange reason, to have trouble believing that the train to Ponyville was really called the “Friendship Express,” and after he assured her that it was so she inquired as to whether the names “Happy Happy Fun Train” or “Hearts and Happiness Railways” had already been taken. For no reason that he could see, she collapsed into hysterical laughter when he admitted that Fillydelphia had beaten them to the latter name, but after wheezing a bit and repeating “Fillydelphia!” once or twice, she managed to pull herself together, and after learning that he and his family had recently moved to Ponyville, she began to describe the beauties of Froggy Bottom Bog to him, explaining that its bad reputation was an exaggeration. There was no danger at all, she said. He should really take a walk there sometime; make a party of it, bring the wife and foals along, go for a swim…
It was at this point that Bon Bon, who had been paying no attention to the conversation with such determination that it looked like she was about to sprain a muscle, trotted over, bit down on one of the saddlebag’s loose straps, and yanked Aldrovanda away, muttering furiously past the cloth in her mouth.
“Oo defpiable, e’el, mufferuff, wiyuh, fyopaffih, oaffuh—“ She spat the strap out of her mouth. “—Sociopathic, cannibalistic, wretched—“
“Ponies are waa-aaatching, ‘Bon Bon,’” warbled the kelpie, “and technically speaking, I’m not cannibalistic. Well,” she added in an undertone, “not since the exile. Honestly, I don’t know why Queen Xubidu made such a fuss; he was already dead when I found him, after all, and it wasn’t like I…wasn’t like…“ Her shrill voice wavered and trailed off into silence, her snide smirk shifting to an expression of pure horror. She stumbled back, eyes fixed on something behind Bon Bon, and screeched, “Epona and Danu! What is that thing!?”
Bon Bon whirled around, muscles tensed and ready for flight, and then relaxed. About time. “That,” she said, turning to the cowering kelpie, “would be the train.”
“Ah. Yes. Of course.” Aldrovanda stared up at the train as it drew level with the platform, free ear plastered flat against her head and doorknob-encumbered ear bent back as far is it would go. “‘Box on wheels,’ you said. So it is. Fancy tha—what was that is it supposed to do that?”
“That’s a train whistle. It’s harmless.”
Bon Bon hobbled towards the door of the train, ticket in her mouth and bindle on her back, and Aldrovanda followed, eyes still glued on the smoke-belching, iron-laced artifact of pony technology looming over their heads. For once, she had nothing snarky to say about candy-themed decorations; the sheer size of the machine seemed to have impressed her too much for that. It was a shame, Bon Bon reflected, that she hadn’t been scared away by it completely, but at least the wretched Shee wasn’t likely to get her in any trouble during the ride.
“Do they normally throw passengers out of trains like that?” asked Aldrovanda.
Bon Bon didn’t appear to have heard her. The changeling was slumped by the side of the railway tracks, five hours from Ponyville and Celestia knew how many hours from Canterlot, staring glumly at the rapidly shrinking train as it sped off into the distance, slowly rising up the mountain foothills. Canterlot itself was just visible far above, its delicate spires and towers lightly grasping the rocky bones of the Canterhorn like a cluster of titanic icicles dangling impossibly up into the sky. It looked surreal and untouchable, and horribly far away.
Which, unfortunately, it was. Bon Bon brought her gaze down, surveying the miles of low-lying, boggy countryside that lay between her and Lyra. The Canterhorn was not a natural mountain; its origins weren’t really known, but Bon Bon had heard legends describing how, in the distant past, Celestia had raised it as a memorial to her corrupted and banished sister—
Aldrovanda, who seemed to be feeling that not enough attention was being paid to her, piped up “Honestly, it wasn’t really my fault. You could have explained the concept of a restroom to me before we got on the train.”
—Or had once been a great valley, rich and full of life, that Discord had inverted to the heavens thousands of years earlier in a divine prank—
“As for the windows, I consider myself blameless. They looked wet to me; how was I to know that they weren’t and that I’d stick to them if I touched them? Nasty stuff, glass, by the way. How do ponies make it? Some kind of salivary secretion, I suppose? It does decay, yes?”
—Or that it was the tailings of Tartarus, cast up from the deeps when Celestia and Luna had first dug out that cavernous prison for all the worst monstrosities created by Discord during his reign—
“And I think that, in all fairness, I deserve to be praised for trying to eat the seat cushions. Granted, I had no reason to suppose that they were edible, but I was getting peckish and I knew how you’d fuss if I ate one of the other passengers. I really think a more levelheaded conductor would have contented himself with a reprimand, particularly after I explained to him how it was really all your fault because I was mentally unstable and you were supposed to be looking after me.”
—Or (this, told by the Shee; Bon Bon wasn’t fond of their legends, but she was running out of thoughts to distract herself from Aldrovanda’s prattle. Any port in a storm) that it was the first and the greatest menhir, carved and set in the Earth by Epona Herself, and that eventually the Stone-Shod Queen would wake from Her multimillenial slumber and strike the Sun Princess’ castle from the crest of the Canterhorn, casting it down in crumbling ruin to the valley below and cleansing Her menhir of the blasphemy that had been committed against it.
“I thought for sure he’d see it was all a big misunderstanding, and then we’d laugh about how silly we’d all been. I suppose, in retrospect, I shouldn’t have told him all that while you were asleep. Rather gave the impression you were shirking your duties, now that I think about it.”
Whatever the truth was, the Canterhorn was something separate and apart from the mountains nearby, a towering iceberg of stone resting in the soil of the central Equestrian valley. Over the millennia the Earth beneath it had slowly buckled, creaking down into a vast bowl that had just as slowly filled with silt and water to create a great sunken bogland.
“Still, like I said, a more sensible conductor would have…” Aldrovanda cocked her head, glass shards embedded in her mane clinking against the doorknob. “Mendax, are you even listening to me?”
It was not an ideal landscape for traveling on hoof, but thanks to—Bon Bon shook her head. Best to avoid thinking about…the thing making noises next to her. Naiacidal rages, cathartic as they might be, would only end up being a distraction from the matter at hoof. Best get going. The pale yellow changeling sighed, hoisted her bindle up on her back, and set off alongside the railway bed, hopping and stumbling her three-hooved and sleep-deprived way towards Lyra. Aldrovanda, who had been occupied in trying to detach fragments of cushion from her face and was so far failing miserably, glanced up at the sound of Bon Bon’s departure. She stared after the departing changeling for a moment and gave an enormous, toothy yawn—she might not have been up as long as Bon Bon had, but the night was her time for wakefulness, and all this trotting around under the sun was leaving her feeling drowsy. With a clunk and a clatter she rose to her hooves, cast one quick, suspicious glance at the steel train tracks, and trotted after Bon Bon.