“Are you sure this is it?” Twilight asked.
Trails narrowed her eyes at the paper in her magical grasp. “The address seems correct.”
“It just… isn’t what I expected,” Twilight said, cocking her head at the building before them.
“Not what you expected?” Trails scoffed, folding the paper up before slipping it into a pocket on her uniform. “I didn’t even think we had an immigration office. The whole thing is unexpected!”
Twilight shot a sideways glare at Trails, squinting as the dawn sun shone into her tired eyes, but said nothing. The building before them looked more like a home than any kind of office. It was a wooden building, something which Twilight had inferred was a sign of wealth in this distant future, with one side set into a tall stone pillar supporting a passing bridge and the remaining three open to the street. The walls were painted a pleasant, inoffensive blue, and if the relative lack of black stains on its sides were any indication, the paint must have been recent. Wide windows flanked wider balconies on the second and third floors, but no matter how hard Twilight looked, she didn’t see any indication or sign that it was a government office.
But this was the address. She had spent a full hour perusing city maps in search of this place, and she was absolutely certain that this was the right spot. She stepped confidently through the open archway, down the paved path, and up the shallow stairway. Resisting the urge to use her magic, she raised a hoof and grasped the silver knocker, giving three solid knocks to the firm wooden door.
Several seconds passed where nothing happened. Twilight shared an uncertain glance with Trails.
The door opened abruptly, revealing a young unicorn stallion wearing a vivid purple bathrobe that clashed just as violently with his bright green mane as it did with his dark brown coat.
The unicorn narrowed his eyes. “What’re you selling?” He leaned over to look behind the two mares. “Are you bringing the cider?”
“Cider?” Twilight let out a nervous little chuckle. “Uh, I think maybe we have the wrong place. Could you direct us to the immigration office?”
The unicorn froze. He leaned in slowly, lowering his voice to a hoarse whisper. “Did my uncle send you?”
Trails rolled her eyes, stomping a hoof. “Look, is this the immigration office or not? We require its services.”
The unicorn’s mouth flopped about uselessly before he spoke. “Well, uh… yes, I suppose it is.” He poked his head outside and scanned the street. “Come on in, I guess.”
Twilight bowed her head politely as she entered. The office looked even more like a home on the inside, with an open parlor decorated with a varied selection of tapestries and sculptures. She even saw a few relics displayed in glass cases, one of which she recognized as a piece of Cloudsdale sky marble. The parlor seemed to take up almost the entire floor, though there was a door set into one wall which hinted at other rooms. An elegant staircase curved up along one corner and past the high vaulted ceiling to the next floor.
“This doesn’t look much like an office,” Twilight said. Are all government offices like this?
Trails snorted. “Looks more like a ballroom to me.”
The unicorn let out a half-hearted laugh. “Uh, no, this isn’t the office. The uh, the office is over here. Please, uh, step into my office.”
He led them towards the staircase, and as they came closer, Twilight picked out a small door set into its side. He pulled the door open with one foreleg, ushering them in with the other before closing the door behind them.
Twilight frowned. It was pitch black inside. “Excuse me?” she called. “There’s no light in here.”
No response. A chill ran down Twilight’s spine. The words ‘salvage’ and ‘sell’ bounced about wildly in her head.
Trails’ voice reached Twilight’s ears. “Ugh, this is unbelievable.” The shuffling of hooves along the wall preceded the flicking of a switch.
Twilight flinched back as the room suddenly burst into a pale, white light. She cracked an eye open, letting it adjust to the sudden brightness. She cut back a sharp gasp. The words ‘disorganized’ and ‘apocalypse’ bounced about wildly in her head.
It was almost as if someone had taken Dusty Tome’s messy airship quarters and shoved them into the cramped confines of the submarine. A thin metal desk set into the middle of the room practically cut it in two with its length, and the metal stools which flanked it looked as if they’d been designed to actively discomfort anyone that sat in them. A quartet of filing cabinets, barely taller than a pony, had been shoved into the small space behind the desk, each one resting at an angle that implied they were too tall to actually fit into the room but had been forced into place anyways. There were no windows. The only source of light was the bare bulb above the desk.
Twilight jumped in surprise as the door opened behind her, smacking into her flank and pushing her aside. The brown unicorn slinked into the room with all the enthusiasm of a stallion paying taxes.
“Alright, uh, my name’s Easy Coast.” He climbed clumsily over the desk, wincing as his horn scraped against the low ceiling, and fell into the stool on the other side. His robe had been replaced with a hasty polka dot bow tie that looked even more nervous than he did. He cleared his throat, adjusting his position in the stool before straightening up. “Welcome to, uh, the office of immigration. How can I, uh... help you?”
Twilight glanced over to Trails. The other mare shrugged cluelessly and waved her on. With a flick of her tail, Twilight stepped up to the desk. “Well, Mr. Coast. I would like to apply for an ID.”
Mr. Coast flinched as if struck by the words. “You mean like, you lost yours and need a new one?”
Twilight shook her head curtly. “No, I mean I’ve never had one and I need one.”
Mr. Coast let out a nervous, breathy laugh. “No uh, I don’t think that’s possible. Everypony gets an ID when they’re born, so—”
He whimpered as Twilight suddenly reared up onto the desk. “Is this the immigration office or not?”
“It—it is, but—”
She banged a hoof against the desk. “And this is where immigrants would come to get an ID, so they could borrow a book from the public library?”
“Well uh, yeah, b—”
“So then what’s the problem?” Twilight snapped. “I want my books!”
Mr. Coast’s whole body began to shake as he sniffled helplessly. “I—I d-d-don’t know how to do it!” he whined. “I’ve never d-d-done this before, okay?”
A calmness settled over Twilight’s mind as she watched the stallion begin to cry. She had read before that panic, fear, or anger were often replaced with such a calm when ponies were on the brink of death. She wondered if maybe she had surpassed mere rage as her fury fell away from her. She had to get her books, and she wasn’t going to let something as common as an incompetent government employee stop her.
She closed her eyes, taking a deep breath as she eased into the stool behind her. It was just as uncomfortable as she’d predicted. When she opened her eyes again she spoke gently, laying a comforting hoof on the stallion’s shoulder. “Do you have a manual?”
“So I guess you’re like a full Equestrian now, huh?” Trails asked.
Twilight looked away from the alley she’d been eyeing. No use in running away now when I’m so close to figuring things out. “How do you mean?”
Trails shrugged as the two of them walked around a passing wagon. “I mean you used to just be like, I dunno, some salvage we dug up. But now that you’ve got an ID, you’re a citizen like everypony else.”
“Oh,” Twilight said. “Wait, what? Are you implying that natural rights are attached to government-issued forms and not to a pony’s being?”
Trails stopped mid-step, grimacing. “Y’know, I’m starting to feel like maybe Sabre won’t approve of what I’ve done.”
“Hah!” Twilight let out a sharp, barking laugh. “I just can’t wait to finally get some time with my books.” A particularly thick plume of smoke blew into Twilight’s face. She burst into a vigorous coughing fit, scrunching her nose up at the disgusting taste.
“What is it with you and books?” Trails asked, resuming her walk. “They’re just books, it’s not like it’s the end of the world if you don’t get them.”
Twilight blinked. “Not the end of the world? It is the end of the world!” She cut in front of the other unicorn, stopping her with a hoof. “Don’t you get it? All this happened because my friends and I weren’t here, and now we have to fix things and—and make them right again!” Her throat began to tighten. Her mind started to drift, and she swiftly wrestled her thoughts back into focus. Fix things! There’s no time to think about anything else, just focus on fixing things!
Trails frowned, lifting a hoof to brush Twilight’s aside. She looked up thoughtfully as they passed under a bridge. “I don’t think this world is so bad.”
“Not so bad?” Twilight looked around her, at all the ponies trudging past them with their eyes dull and their coats stained black. There was so much smoke, and none of the rolling green hills, blue skies, or thick white clouds that had once characterized Equestria. Her homeland had gone from a vibrant rainbow of color and life to a black-stained skeleton of what it once had been. “You don’t even know how far it’s fallen.”
Trails grinned. “Actually, Twilight, I think things have really been looking up.” She snickered quietly and sped up, taking the lead.
Twilight flicked her tail. “Whatever.”
Luckily, the library wasn’t much further. That was all that had kept her going through the day: the promise of the library, and the books she could use to get some insight on what had happened. Getting the ID had been no easy task. Twilight was convinced that the immigration office manual was written either by or for someone that didn’t ever read it, and the sheer mass of grammar mistakes and ambiguities that marred each page had nearly driven her mad. It hadn’t helped that a dozen other unicorns had arrived half-an-hour in for some kind of party, and had insisted on carousing loudly in the parlor instead of coming back later as Twilight had asked. If she didn’t know any better, she’d think that that Mr. Coast didn’t even care about his job! A government employee ought to take their role seriously, like Ms. Cheerilee always—Nope! Focus, Twilight.
She let out a relieved sigh as she turned a corner and the library came into view. It was a thin structure, made of the same stained stone as most everything else in the city. It was smaller than her old—Focus!—smaller than other libraries she’d seen, though the second floor helped to make up for its cramped dimensions.
Twilight accelerated into an eager canter, noting with some irritation that Trails also sped up to keep pace. The two mares entered together, and Twilight paused to take a deep breath of the library air. The scent of books was a welcome break from the smoky stench of the streets.
Trails closed the door behind them, dulling the clatter of a passing cart. “Alright, make this quick. I’d like to be back before sunset, in case Sabre arrives early.”
“Don’t worry, I already know what I’m looking for.” Twilight pulled a rolled up piece of paper out of her chest pocket, quickly scanning the list of titles, authors, and topics written within. She had made the list last night to keep herself focused. She liked lists. Lists were nice.
Twilight answered the librarian’s flat gaze with a cheery nod as she approached, and she quickly filled out the necessary forms to obtain a library card. At least, she tried to do it quickly. The librarian moved at an agonizingly slow pace, and nearly ten minutes had passed by the time she finally held the card in her hooves.
Twilight suppressed the urge to giggle her joy as she delved into the depths of the library. Even Trails hovering impatiently behind her didn’t dampen her spirits as she retraced her path, pulling books from each section in turn. She spent most of her time in the history section, heart leaping each time she checked another box on her list, pulling out works on ‘modern’ history, pre-flood history, and biographies of historic individuals. She made brief detours into geography and science as well, picking up a pair of atlases and a gigantic tome which seemed to discuss the nature of the floating islands themselves. She found a piece on the Gifted and a treatise on cutie marks, and lastly she visited the library’s painfully scarce magic section.
Unfortunately, the library didn’t seem to have much in the way of books on magic. She needed some kind of healing or diagnostic spell, or at least some base she could attempt to construct her own spell from. She paced back and forth before the single small bookshelf that constituted the library’s magic ‘section,’ but she found mostly fundamental knowledge or theoretical texts, the sort of basics that she had read herself in magic kindergarden. The closest thing she found to an actual spellbook was a collection of advanced levitation techniques, all of which were incorrectly named.
She groaned in frustration. “Where are all the spellbooks?”
Trails cleared her throat from behind her. “You do realize that pretty much nopony has magic, right?”
Twilight blinked. She looked back, licking her lips. “But… but there’s the Gifted, right? They have magic?”
Trails snorted. “Yeah, we have magic, but we’re like—I dunno, a thousandth of the population, if that? You’ll hardly find a spellbook in a public library. Spellbooks only exist in little filly’s stories.”
“But what about you?” Twilight drew closer to Trails, looking at her horn. “You’re a unicorn. Where did you learn your spells?”
“Heh.” Trails rolled her eyes. “You mean spell, right? Nopony can have more than one spell, even among Gifted. What good is a spellbook?”
Twilight felt her legs go weak, and she sat down heavily. Of course there’s no spellbooks. If there’s nopony with the talent or magic to learn new spells, then what good would one do? She was probably the only unicorn for hundreds of years that wasn’t restricted to the instinctive talent spells that unicorns came to learn on their own. She bit her lip, shivering. How am I going to save Fluttershy?
“Uh, you okay there?” Trails tentatively reached out and pat her on the back. “Don’t cry, alright? Please? Can we just go back now?”
Twilight fought back her tears. She thought of Fluttershy lying asleep, never waking up again. I don’t want to lose you too. She’d already lost so much. No time to cry. She would fix things.
She looked up to Trails, pulling her close with a hoof. “Can you teach me your spell?” If I can learn from Trails, then that shows that I can learn from anypony. And then I just have to find a unicorn with the right spell.
Trails flinched back from the sudden intensity in the mare’s voice. “Well, uh, I don’t really know if that’s possible—”
“It is!” Twilight snapped. She leapt back to her hooves, not breaking eye contact. “I can do it, okay? I was Princess Celestia’s personal—” She paused, closing her eyes before pushing the next word forth. “—faithful student. I can learn any spell you show me!”
Trails glanced furtively side-to-side. Twilight followed the mare’s eyes, and saw a few other library patrons watching from a distance. Oh.
Trails pulled herself away from Twilight’s grasp, lowering her voice. “Okay, okay, I believe you! But not here, alright? Sabre’ll be mad enough as it is and it’s getting late. Let’s just get your books and head back.”
“Just one more book,” Twilight said. She looked up to the top of the magic bookshelf, horn glowing as she magically grasped a leyline atlas and levitated it into her bags. She was curious to see how the leylines had shifted during her absence.
“Ah, stars! Stop that!” Trails flicked Twilight’s horn—shorting the magic—before grabbing her by the collar and tugging her towards the front desk. “Let’s go!”
Twilight was practically shaking in anticipation as she waited before the Long Salvage Inc. office. She had spent the entire twenty minutes of the walk from the library fighting the urge to levitate a book out of her bags and read it on the go, restrained only by Trails’ stern glares and the constant need to dodge and weave through the crowds of Heighton, but now she was here. There was nothing left to stop her from reading these books. She would fix things.
Trails pulled her key out and tried the door, but it didn’t even budge. She let out an exasperated growl and pounded on the wood with a hoof. “Flint! Get up!”
Twilight heard the shuffling of heavy hooves on the other side of the door, and it opened to reveal a groggy Flintlock on the other side.
“Oh good, ye’re back. Was gettin’ worried that Sabre’d beat ye to it,” he said. “I didn’t think ye’d take so long.”
“Yeah well, neither did I.” Trails stepped inside, heading for the desk. “Did we get any customers? Any issues?”
Flint shrugged as Twilight stepped past him. “Hard to say. That blue pony was gettin’ real insistent on leavin’, so I just propped myself against the door and told ‘er she could leave if she moved me. She kept it up for ‘bout half an hour, then I fell asleep.”
Trails shook her head as she settled down behind the desk. “Damn, you’re lazy. Go upstairs, I’ll tend the shop.”
Twilight didn’t hear his response, as she was already halfway up the steps. She came out on the second floor to see her friends in more or less the same positions as when she left. Rainbow was prowling the ceiling next to the window, occasionally making a half-hearted attempt to open it. Applejack and Rarity were having a hushed conversation on one sofa, occasionally throwing furtive glances across the table in the center of the room.
Twilight didn’t bother to look to the other sofa. She didn’t need to be distracted by Fluttershy’s sleeping form. Her ears drooped as she tried to shut out Pinkie’s quiet mutterings, and she immediately began to organize her freshly borrowed books by subject, page length, priority, and publishing date. Now where did I put my notepad?
A delicate cough threatened to shatter her fragile focus. “Twilight, darling?”
Hoofsteps approached from behind. Twilight flicked an ear irritably as a dainty hoof laid itself upon her shoulder.
“Twilight, I think we should talk,” Rarity said.
“Can we do it later?” Twilight asked, not looking back. “I really need to look over these books.”
“Later?” Rarity let out a feminine huff. “You’ve barely spoken to us at all since we… well, since we woke up in this dreadful place.”
Applejack stepped in front of Twilight, stooping low to catch her eye. “I know what I said earlier, Twi, but ya can’t just stick yer nose in a book and disappear.”
“Why not?!” Twilight snapped. She squeezed her eyes shut, wrestling with the pain in her chest. “We need to fix all of this, and I need to figure out how! Every minute I’m not doing that is another minute that we’ve failed Equestria!”
A hoof pulled at her face, and she opened her eyes to see Rarity’s blue pupils looking down at her sternly. “Because we need you, Twilight! Do you think you’re the only one who’s had nearly everything she knows taken from her?” Her eyes softened as she pulled Twilight into a hug. “All we have left is each other.”
Twilight blinked the wetness away from her eyes. She returned the embrace, looking over Rarity’s shoulder to where Pinkie Pie was sitting on the couch. The pink mare’s mane was completely flat, her face hidden behind it as she continued to murmur something under her breath. Rainbow made another tug at the window, her lower lip quivering as she admitted defeat once again.
Twilight let out a heavy sigh. Maybe she had been shutting herself away from her friends too much. She just wanted to fix everything so badly, to make it all as it once was. But things will never be the same, will they? Your world’s been gone for centuries. What’s another minute, day, month, or even year going to change?
“You’re right, Rarity. I’m sorry.”
Rarity pulled out of the hug, leaving a hoof on her shoulder. “It’s quite alright, dear. But Applejack and I were hoping for your help with something…”
“What is it?” Twilight asked.
Applejack cleared her throat quietly. “It’s Pinkie. We reckon she’s been takin’ things worse than all the rest of us. We were hopin’ to talk to her all together, but y’know how stubborn Rainbow is. Ain’t nothin’ we can do to calm her down till she does it herself. That just leaves us three.”
Twilight nodded, glancing to where Pinkie was sitting once more. “I understand. Let’s go.”
Together the three mares advanced on the sofa, their shoulders brushing past each other. Pinkie’s mutterings grew clearer to Twilight’s ears as she drew closer, and she was finally able to make out some of the words.
“Jonagold, Sunshower... Open Skies, Wensley, Berry Frost... Cloudchaser, Cloud Kicker, Brass Blare, Peachy Sweet... Amethyst Star, Comet Tail…”
Twilight’s throat tightened. She recognized some of these names. Amethyst Star had been an event planner, Cloud Kicker one of Rainbow’s deputies on the weather team, and Jonagold an Apple Family cousin. Ponies that had all lived in Ponyville with her.
Wet tears streaked down Pinkie’s face as she recited the names, each one only coming clearer as Twilight came closer. She realized that of all her friends, Pinkie had to be taking things the worst. And how couldn’t she? She had been friends with everypony in Ponyville, as she had always so loved to declare. Twilight had always been somewhat of a loner, even after meeting her best friends after leaving Canterlot, and she hadn’t even lost half a dozen friends or family to the apocalypse that had befallen the world.
Pinkie Pie was mourning hundreds.
She couldn’t help it. The shaky dam she’d constructed finally broke as she pulled Pinkie into a tight, quivering embrace. The tears flowed freely, unimpeded by any thoughts of a world that needed saving.
“Cherry Spices, Diamond Mint, Blossomforth, Fly Wishes, Junebug…”
The names kept on coming. Twilight heard Pinkie’s voice begin to waver as she felt Rarity and Applejack join the hug, lending their own bodies. There was the flap of wings, and Rainbow Dash’s prismatic mane fell into view. Together with her friends, Twilight mourned not only the passing of her world or her family, but also of the hundreds of ponies that had been her neighbors in Ponyville, and the forgotten millions that had lived all across Equestria.
Twilight couldn’t say how long they stayed that way. After an eternity, Pinkie’s voice finally fell silent, only to be replaced by Applejack’s as she recited the names of her extended family. Rarity and Rainbow Dash both spoke the names of their lost loved ones, voices breaking as they remembered the lost Cutie Mark Crusaders. Twilight spoke last, finally taking the time to acknowledge exactly whom she had lost.
“Spike, Twilight Velvet, Night Light, Shining Armor, Cadance… Princess Celestia…”
The group lapsed into a silence broken only by their quivering sobs. Finally they broke away, standing in a small, teary-eyed circle that huddled together as if they feared some torrential rain may come to sweep each other away at any moment.
Twilight took a deep breath to steady her voice. “Pinkie, we came to… to see if you were okay,” she said. She couldn’t help but laugh at the ridiculousness of the statement. Obviously none of us are okay.
“Heh.” Applejack let out a low chuckle. “I suppose we weren’t quite okay ourselves, huh?”
Rainbow Dash flicked her head, straightening her mane with a hoof. “Ugh, you guys even got me all sappy.”
Rarity sniffled as she wiped a black trail of mascara from her cheeks, pouting. “Oh, this is just awful! All this crying has ruined my makeup, and I haven’t a clue of where to get more.”
Pinkie Pie giggled, her mane puffing up ever so slightly. For a brief moment she almost sounded like she had before they’d woken up at the end of the world, and Twilight wondered if she would ever be back to how she used to be. Will any of us ever be the same?
The sound of her laughter was like a streak of vivid sunlight cutting through a dark room. Twilight could feel herself relaxing, and saw her friends doing the same around her. Perhaps it was instinct, or force of habit, or maybe just some secret magic that only Pinkie possessed. The laughter spread between her friends like wildfire, and soon all five of them were giggling uncontrollably, neither one quite sure what they were laughing at, but relieved to do it nonetheless. They were together. Despite anything else that might have happened, they were still together. Even if they had lost everything else, they still had each other to cling to.
Twilight looked around for the first time in what felt like hours, and saw Flint shaking his head grumpily by the stairway.
“Y’all mares are crazy,” he grumbled.
The comment spurred on another round of laughter, harder this time. They fell to the floor, writhing about in fits. When the last of the giggles finally died down, Twilight climbed back to her hooves feeling miraculously refreshed. It was as if a dark haze had cleared from the room, and she was able to breathe and see clearly for the first time in days.
“Thanks, girls,” Pinkie said, looking up. “I guess I really, really, needed that.”
“I think we all did, Pinkie,” Applejack said. “I’m just glad y’all’re alright.”
“Yeah.” Pinkie closed her eyes, taking a deep breath.
The mares moved with a renewed energy, and Twilight was pleased with the new clarity in her mind. They fell into a comfortable silence, simply basking in each other’s company. Twilight glanced at the pile of books in the corner, feeling their call to her, but resisted the urge to devour their contents. The world wasn’t in any immediate danger—at least not of its current equilibrium being disturbed—and she felt safe in the knowledge that a few moments relaxing with her friends couldn’t possibly do any harm.
The red-orange light of sunset was filtering through the one window of the second floor when Twilight heard the sound of the front door opening below. She raised her head blearily from its place on Pinkie’s shoulder, ears twitching at the sound of conversation approaching up the stairway.
Sea Sabre stepped into view, her eyes immediately darting to the veritable hoard of books next to the table. “Where did these books come from?”
Trails shrugged sheepishly as she came to a stop by Sabre’s side. “Oh, uh. Twilight wanted to read up on some history, so I went out and borrowed some books from the library.”
“The library?” Sabre slowly turned to face Trails. “The same library that you borrowed that comic from two years ago?”
Trails blinked. “Uhh… yes?”
There was a long moment where Sabre didn’t say anything, only narrowing her eyes as Trails shied away.
“You got her an ID and took her to the library, didn’t you?”
Trails looked away, suddenly finding the pile of books to be very interesting. “Well, I suppose you could say that, yeah.”
Sabre sighed, running a hoof through her mane. “Did you at least manage to keep her Gift hidden?”
“Nevermind, we’ll talk later.” Sabre turned, arching a brow at the pile of mares on the floor. “Mr. Rich apologizes for any inconvenience. He’d like to extend an invitation to dine with him at his estate tonight.”
Twilight straightened up, climbing to her hooves as her friends stirred around her. Rainbow Dash was the first to speak. “Invitation, huh? And what happens if we say no?”
“Then you’ll be free to go,” Sabre said. “Mr. Rich is not in the business of keeping ponies against their will.”
“What is he in the business of, exactly?” Twilight asked.
Flint spoke up from his spot in the corner. “That ain’t an easy question t’ answer, little mare.”
Sabre nodded. “He describes himself as a businesspony, but all the businessponies I know say otherwise. Do you want to come, or not?” She glanced over to the pile of books. “I would recommend that you do.”
“And why’s that?” Applejack asked.
“Where else would you go?” Sabre asked. “Out onto the street? You have no bits to pay for a room, and I doubt you want to take up labor in the factories or mines. There’s a dozen ponies on every street corner waiting to con you. If nothing else, I can assure you that Mr. Rich has no malice in his mind, and he will help you understand what’s happened to the world in your absence.”
Twilight’s mind lingered on that last sentence. It was true that she had no idea what they might do if they were set free, and ultimately she could end up seeking out a pony like Mr. Rich anyways. Sabre and her crew had treated them well so far, and as far as she could tell hadn’t lied about anything yet. If it was true that they were free to go, then she had nothing to lose from accepting the invitation. I’ve already lost so much.
“I think we should go meet him,” Twilight said, turning back to her friends.
“What?” Rainbow Dash exclaimed. “Twilight, this is the guy that’s been holding us here!”
Rarity raised a hoof delicately. “Sabre just said that we could leave whenever we wanted, darling. And it’s not as if we were tossed into some grimy dungeon and locked behind bars.” She wrinkled her nose as she eyed the dirty fabric of the sofa behind her. “Though it’s hardly a Canterlot suite.”
“Twilight might be right, Rainbow,” Applejack said. “Where else are we gonna go, huh? This Mr. Rich fella might even be able to help us out.”
Rainbow tossed her hooves up in frustration, hovering a few inches off the floor. “I don’t know! I’m just so tired of sitting around and doing nothing, and going to dinner with the guy that’s been holding us prisoner doesn’t sit right with me!”
“He’s also the guy that dug us up in the first place,” Applejack said, stomping a hoof.
Pinkie Pie stepped in front of Rainbow Dash, cutting her off. “He doesn’t seem like a really bad pony, Dashie,” she said. “Why don’t we become friends with him?”
Rainbow snorted, tossing her mane. “Okay, okay, fine! We can go! I guess every one else doesn’t mind being imprisoned in some stupid office for two days.”
“Hey!” Trails said. “Our office isn’t stupid!”
Sabre smiled, giving a little nod. “Great. We’ll leave now, then.”
“Already?” Rarity asked, her eyes darting about. “Oh, but I haven’t seen a mirror in days! I’m hardly proper!”
“It’s already sunset,” Sabre said, turning for the stairs. “Dinner will be served shortly after. Let’s go.”
She didn’t bother to wait for any further response. Sea Sabre was already out of sight as the other ponies set about preparing to leave. Twilight and Trails packed the sizeable pile of books into the bulging saddlebags that had been borrowed from the office’s stores, and Applejack wasted no time in hefting the sleeping Fluttershy onto her back once more. Rainbow’s grumbles and Rarity’s panicked titters fell on deaf ears as the mares were guided out of the building and a short ways down the street, where a lonely pier jutted out from a small patch of exposed rock between a pair of wooden buildings.
Floating lazily at the end of the pier was a simple airship, little more than a balloon and a propeller attached to a small boat. Sunfeather was waiting patiently near the front, next to a large wooden wheel and a pair of levers that stuck out of the floor.
They boarded quickly, with Sabre releasing the rope from the pier before making a wing-assisted jump aboard. Sunfeather pushed a lever forwards with a wing, silently guiding the ship away from the mainland as the propeller spun up. Twilight stayed pointedly in the center of the deck, distracting herself from the thought of all the open air beneath her by watching the islands pass by.
They traveled east, away from the setting sun and gaining in altitude. The mainland grew distant as they flew, with the islands passing by above and below gradually growing smaller as they went further east. Twilight thought back to the map of Heighton she had seen before, trying to keep track roughly of their position.
The islands east of the mainland were as varied in architecture as they were in altitude. They seemed to be organized into loose groups, and Twilight saw thick ropes running between many neighboring islands, with open gondolas ferrying ponies between the packed tenements of some islands to the smoke-clogged streets or busy markets of others. More than once their ship turned to avoid columns of smoke rising up from the factories beneath them, and several other vessels of similarly sparse design criss-crossed their path as they went..
The sun was low on the horizon by the time they finally reached their destination, with much of its light blocked by the bulk of Heighton beneath them. They pulled up to a small but sturdy pier at what looked like the easternmost island in Heighton, and Twilight actually found herself somewhat short of breath from the thin air, her ears having popped multiple times during the ride. A bleached white tower dominated the center of the island, its thick stones reminiscent of some kind of medieval castle. Four wide gravel paths extended out from its base, each one decorated with stone statues fashioned into abstract shapes that reminded Twilight of the spiraling magical diagrams of her youth. Smaller, packed dirt walkways snaked between the paths, weaving between an array of colorful trees and bushes that filled the air with the heady scent of their flowers.
Twilight took a deep breath, savoring the scent as she and her friends disembarked and followed Sabre down the closest gravel path, which led directly to their pier. It was the first time since her arrival in Heighton that the air had felt fresh, unmarred by the bitter taste or thick clog of smoke which seemed to linger over every part of the larger islands. Her ears flicked at the sound of songbirds in the depths of the garden, and she turned to see a pair of blank-flanked gardeners stretching up to trim at a tall passing bush with long shears.
Rarity let out a soft gasp behind her. “Oh, heavens, what a divine estate!”
“Eh, I’m not impressed,” Rainbow said, hovering above the group.
“The gardens’re certainly somethin’ special, if nothin’ else,” Applejack said.
“Does Mr. Rich live up in that tower?” Pinkie Pie asked. “It’s really, really, big! He must have some crazy-fantabulous parties!”
Trails looked back with a smirk. “Quite possibly the best parties in Heighton,” she said.
Pinkie sucked in a great big breath of air, and Twilight braced herself to parse an indecipherable assault of words, only to be saved by Sea Sabre’s voice.
“It is his tower, though it’s mostly for show,” she said. “He doesn’t really go up there that often, except for his open parties. He normally likes to entertain guests downstairs.”
Twilight cocked her head, looking back at the receding silhouette of the small ship they’d taken here. “He pays for all this with salvage crews?” The only other ships she saw docked were all of the same spartan, air-taxi design that seemed to be used for getting around locally. There wasn’t any sign of any other large, long-range roaming ships like the Argo that other salvage crews might use, and as far as she knew, the crew’s little office hadn’t had a single customer for the past two days.
Flint let out a low chuckle from the back of the group. “We’re more a hobby of his, actually.”
Sabre nodded. “You can ask him about it yourself, if you want. We just work for him.”
They came at last to the ornate wooden door at the end of the path, its surface carved into swirling patterns and further decorated with the same flowering vines that crawled across the marble statues of rearing earth ponies. It opened of its own volition as they approached, sweeping inwards with startling silence.
A smartly dressed unicorn mare was waiting for them in the expansive vaulted chamber that served as the tower’s foyer. Twilight couldn’t help but stare at the blank spot on her exposed flank as she bowed.
“Welcome to the estate. Mr. Rich is waiting in his study,” the mare said.
“Thank you, Aura,” Sabre said, not breaking stride. She led the group across the room, to a wide archway set into the base of the staircase which curved up the walls. Beyond the arch was another curved stairway with a similarly gradual slope, though this one sloped downwards.
Gently flickering lanterns set high on the rounded walls illuminated the carpeted steps as well as the sweepingly intricate murals painted onto each side. The murals seemed to tell a story, perhaps that of a popular legend, and Twilight studied them with wide eyes as they passed in the hopes of learning more of the history she had missed.
The beginning of the murals seemed to be the artist’s interpretation of Equestria during Twilight’s time, with wide plains and rolling hills, each side showing a stylized depiction of the alicorn sisters watching lovingly over the cottages that dotted the countryside. The Princesses were depicted as watchful goddesses, with their flowing manes each taking up the entire sky at one point, their manes flowing in gentle twirls across sunny day or starry night. Twilight’s eyes especially lingered upon the warm gaze of Princess Celestia, her pale pink eyes full of a knowing kindness.
They delved further down the stairway, and Twilight was forced to tear herself away from her old mentor as the mural changed. The Equestrian countryside grew dark as heavy clouds rolled into view, carrying on their backs a trio of hazy ethereal beasts with the tall, majestic bearing of horses, their flanks little more than wispy curls of grey smoke.
Wendigos. Twilight recognized the creatures from the old Hearth’s Warming legend of Equestria’s founding, despite a few noticeable differences. These wendigos were dark and grey, with flashing yellow eyes that crackled with electricity, and each sported a pair of wide sweeping wings that released torrents of water in their wake. Does anyone still remember Hearth’s Warming?
A great wave of water passed over the Equestria in the mural, and left in its wake an image of the land drowning beneath torrential rains. The peaceful cottages of the countryside were half-submerged amongst the waves of ponies stood on their roofs or hovered above the waters, all of ponykind looking up to the skies. There the two alicorn princesses faced off against the three wendigos, with powerful magic beams criss-crossing the wall. As Twilight followed Sabre further down the stairway, another wave of water washed over the land, smashing against a wall of swirling gold and blue magic.
Princess Luna was nowhere to be seen in the penultimate frame of the mural, which showed only Celestia casting a beam of magic into a huge wave of water spouting from the last remaining wendigo’s horn. The Equestrian continent was now completely submerged, though the mural did show a single island floating alone above the waves. A small swarm of pegasi seemed to be rushing between the island and the water beneath, rescuing what unflighted ponies they could find before bringing them to the safety of the island.
A flash of radiant gold separated the last part of the mural from the rest. Now both Celestia and the last wendigo were gone, leaving only the floating island sandwiched between the thick stormclouds and the raging waters beneath. A small group of ponies, mostly pegasi, huddled together on the landmass.
They came to the bottom of the stairway, the wooden door framed on top by carved clouds. Painted waves sloshed against the lower part of the door, while a few islands floated gently above.
“What is all this?” Twilight asked as Sabre opened the door. “Is this history?”
Sabre shrugged, holding the door open. “More like a legend.”
The underground part of Mr. Rich’s estate was just as impressive as the gardens and tower above, and perhaps even more expansive. Twilight had been expecting cramped corridors and darkness, but clearly the network of chambers were constructed with appearance in mind before cost. Support beams were disguised as carefully carved decorations, and no expense had been spared on lighting every corner with sparkling gold or silver lamps or chandeliers. If it wasn’t for the lack of windows or the recent descent, Twilight wouldn’t have even been able to tell that they were currently traversing the depths of an island.
They passed more ponies here, mostly servants wearing strangely colorful assortments of bow ties and trim coats that were quick to step out of the way or offer little bows before carrying on with their business. Twilight saw Rarity curling her lip more than a few times at some of the more unusual color combinations, the white unicorn letting out little titters and gasps at the very worst.
Finally they arrived at their destination, a tall wooden double door flanked on either side by hanging red curtains and chipped old statues of the alicorn princesses. Each of the doors was decorated by a trio of golden trim moneybags arranged in a tight triangle.
Sabre paused as she raised her hoof to knock, looking back to Twilight and her friends. “He can be a bit tactless sometimes, but he doesn’t mean it. Try not to get offended.”
Her knock was quickly answered by a stallion’s voice, heavily muffled by the thick wood but still clearly discernable. “Come in!”
The doors gave way with an eerie silence as Sabre pushed them open, the well-oiled hinges giving no complaint at the weight. Behind them was a wide semicircle of a room, with the curved wall made up of a series of rectangular window panes separated with thin red framing. The center of the room was dominated by two wide columns of brick, each housing a square fireplace framed in by carefully constructed arches. Tall bookshelves laden with a colorful variety of books covered the two flat walls besides the doorway, each volume thickly bound with golden trim. One side of the room had a raised wooden platform, currently vacant except for a large phonograph that was playing a quiet orchestral tune which sounded vaguely familiar to Twilight.
The remainder of the room was filled with a wild collection of mismatched furniture pieces. It was as if someone had gone out of their way to make sure that every item came from a different set, with smooth marble, intricately carved wood, gently curving glass, and even blocky stone all fighting for dominance. A pair of stallions were seated around a gently curved marble table with a glass top, in the middle of conversation.
The first, a plain brown earth pony with a black mane slicked to one side, was quick to jump off of the rainbow of pillows slathered over the carved wooden sofa he’d been reclining on. He spread his hooves wide in welcome, beaming brightly at the new arrivals.
“Ah, and these must be my latest finds! Welcome, welcome!” he said, beckoning to them eagerly. “Please, sit wherever you’d like!”
The second stallion—a unicorn—also stood, looking towards with the newcomers with a detached interest. “I didn’t know you were expecting visitors.”
The first stallion ignored the comment, making straight for Sea Sabre. “Everything went well? No issues at all?”
Sabre shook her head. “No, sir. Did you need anything else?”
“That’ll be fine, Sabre. Keep your team here for now though, alright?”
Sabre dipped her head. “Yes, sir.” She beckoned to Trails and Flint with a flick of her tail, and the three ponies promptly stepped outside, closing the door behind them.
The stallion immediately rounded on Twilight and her friends, who had remained standing near the door while they took in the scene. Rainbow Dash, who had been hovering closest to him, let out a little yelp as he reached out and snatched her hoof into an eager shake.
“Ah, you must be the fast one! And flying too, how impressive! I’m Mr. Rich, but please, just call me Crazy.”
Rainbow blinked, the corner of her mouth twitching upwards. “Uh, I’m Rainb—”
“Ah, and the two unicorns!” Mr. Rich advanced on Twilight and Rarity, reaching a hoof up to tap at the latter’s horn experimentally. “Which one of you two has the—or is it both of you? Did you have formal magic training in your youth?”
Rarity stepped back at the touch, her eyes darting side-to-side as if the garish furniture was threatening to attack her. “Well, Twilight is much better at—”
Mr. Rich had already turned to face Twilight directly. “So it’s you, then? You’re the one with that magical ability I’ve heard so much about?”
Twilight flinched back at the intensity in his gaze. Those bright silver eyes reminded her all too much of her own expression as she flipped open the cover of a fresh spellbook, eager to uncover the secrets of their target. She wasn’t sure if she wanted herself to be read quite so thoroughly.
“I’m, uh—nothing special, Mr. Rich. I only cast a few major cantrips,” she lied. A good compromise. Stronger than your average unicorn, but not enough to be noteworthy.
Mr. Rich’s eyes bored into her own as he leaned in even closer. “Multiple spells? Magnificent!” He looked over her to the door, raising his voice. “Aid!”
Twilight started, looking back to see a stiff-backed attendant mare standing in the open doorway. She hadn’t even heard the hinges creak.
“Send for Aura!” he said. “Tell her to arrange for a reveal dinner for tomorrow, and then a followup next week. The best of everything!”
The attendant frowned. “We already have the ball tomorrow, sir.”
“Even better!” Crazy let loose with an excited laugh. “We shall make the reveal at the ball, then!”
The mare dipped her head as she stepped backwards, the door drifting silently closed behind her. Twilight glanced over to Pinkie Pie, and was happy to see the pink mare’s ears perked up attentively.
“Oh! Oh! Are you throwing us a party?” she asked. “Can I help? Please let me help!”
Mr. Rich gave Pinkie little more than a passing glance, instead taking a few steps backwards to address the group as a whole. “So then, guests from another time! I imagine you’re quite hungry!”
The unicorn stallion—who had been waiting alone by the marble table with faltering patience—cleared his throat loudly. “I wasn’t expecting our visit to be interrupted by other guests, Crazy.”
Mr. Rich froze for a second, and for a moment Twilight thought that he had actually forgotten that the other stallion had even been there. He recovered quickly, however, giving a friendly beckon with his head as he started for the door. “Don’t worry about it, my friend! Come along and join us for dinner!”
The double doors glided open at Mr. Rich’s approach, and the other stallion followed along with a begrudging flick of his tail. Twilight exchanged a few glances with her friends, giving Applejack a sympathetic smile as the mare re-adjusted Fluttershy’s weight on her back.
“I suppose we had better follow him,” she said.
Rainbow fluffed her wings and snorted as she landed. “I’m getting tired of all this following.”
“You and me both, sugar cube,” Applejack huffed.
“Just a little bit longer, dears,” Rarity said. “We can get some well-deserved rest and relaxation after we fill ourselves with the exquisite food that’s surely waiting for us. And perhaps have some of our questions answered, as well!”
“And he’s throwing us a party!” Pinkie Pie added.
Twilight couldn’t help but smile at the party pony’s energy. “Let’s go, girls. I think it’s been too long since we had a good meal.”
Together they followed after Mr. Rich and his guest, Pinkie and Rarity making quiet conversation at the back of the group. As much as the concept of food excited her belly, it was the enticing lure of answers that truly tugged Twilight forwards. And even though she knew a good night’s rest would be good for her, Twilight didn’t think she’d be able to truly relax for a long time.