“Hmm.” Rarity twisted before the mirrors yet again, pouting thoughtfully. “It will have to do.”
The trio of aides in the room with her let out a collective sigh, and Rarity couldn’t help but smile. They’d been run ragged over the last few hours fetching clothes and accessories for her, and they deserved some rest.
“I’ll be fine for now, dears!” she said. “I’ll be sure to call if I need anything.”
They were quick to slip out of the door of her chamber, just one of the six lavish bedrooms that made up the suite. Each of the rooms had come complimentary with an assortment of clothes, but as far as Rarity could tell each collection had been explicitly designed so that every possible uniform contained at least three horrifically clashing pieces. She didn’t know who it was that handled Mr. Rich’s attire, but they were clearly not as skilled as his architect.
It had only taken her a few hours to finally assemble a worthy outfit, each individual piece sourced from a different corner of the vast estate. A pale blue dress to match her eyes, along with complementary rose socks and a matching shawl formed the base of the outfit. She’d built upon it with an array of matching accessories: a trio of bead necklaces, some exquisitely sparkling glass shoes, a single silver bracelet and a matching pendant that she wore at the base of her horn.
She hummed to herself cheerily as she cast a spell, the magic swiftly collecting the various discarded clothes from the corners of the room before folding them up and stacking them neatly upon the bed. With one last flutter of her carefully curled eyelashes at the mirror, she stepped out into the common room.
“Pinkie, darling!” She called. “I do hope you’ve made yourself proper by now! The ball started half an hour ago!”
Please be proper. Please be proper. Pinkie had promised her that she would “dress up” for the ball, but Pinkie never seemed to have quite the same definitions as her.
“Here I am!” Pinkie hopped out of Fluttershy’s room. The idea of a party seemed to have given her back some more of her old energy, but it clearly hadn’t helped her sense of fashion.
“Pinkie, that’s not dressing up,” Rarity sighed.
Pinkie cocked her head. “What? But I have a bow tie!” She waved a hoof over the blue-and-yellow polka dot tie fastened to her neck.
“Yes, but you’re not wearing anything else! Oh, forget it.” Rarity started for the door with a huff. She should’ve known better than to trust Pinkie with her own fashion. Hundreds of years had passed since the last time she did that and it still haunted her dreams. “Come along, Pinkie. If we dither much longer we’ll be too late.”
“We’re already late,” Pinkie said as she fell in besides Rarity.
“Yes, I know that,” Rarity said. She paused as they came out into the corridor, trying to recall the path to the ballroom. “But we aren’t too late, yet. We’re just late enough to be noticeable, but not so late as to seem distant. Ah! This way.”
“I hope this isn’t one of those boring parties,” Pinkie said, a spring in her step. “Parties always seem to get boring when ponies call them something else. Especially balls.”
“Oh, as if!” Rarity turned to look at Pinkie, eyes widening. “When did you put on a hat?”
Pinkie shrugged. She was now sporting a tall blue top hat with a yellow band around the base. “You said I wasn’t dressed up enough.”
Rarity pursed her lips thoughtfully. “Well… I suppose it is better.”
They arrived at the long staircase which led up and out of the underlevels of the estate, and began the long climb upwards. Rarity wasn’t exactly sure what the social environment was like in the future, but what she was sure about was that she was the best suited of her friends to tackle it. Rainbow Dash and Applejack might be well-suited to helping Twilight plumb the depths in that horrendously loud airship and its tiny submarine, but she would be the one to represent them to the world at large. She knew that Mr. Rich intended to “show them off,” as it were, and it was her every intent to exploit that angle as she maneuvered herself into place. With luck, she may even open up some useful new contacts.
The staircase was much longer when one was going upwards, and the smothering weight of her clothes certainly didn’t help. Rarity grimaced as she felt a bead of sweat drip down her forehead.
At last they reached the top. Rarity pushed the door open with her magic, strutting out with head held high, ready to impress.
In retrospect, there was no reason they would. The crowd of well-to-do mares and stallions were probably already engrossed in their own political dance as they drifted about the floor, and Mr. Rich had probably been keeping his “find” quiet leading up to the reveal. She was nothing more than another attractive mare, though one with an impeccable eye for fashion.
A live band played an upbeat jazz piece from the stairs, with an energetic clarinet providing the melody alongside a number of swinging saxophones and other brass instruments. A piano, bass, and drums had set up at the bottom of the stairway, providing a steady rhythm for the ponies who took to dancing in the cleared center of the room. Two long curving tables framed the dancefloor, each one laden down with heaps of exquisite soups, salads, pastries, favors, and drinks. Smaller, circular tables were scattered about the rest of the room, each one with some relic or more modern art serving as a centerpiece while the high society of Heighton drifted between them. Rarity’s seasoned eye was quick to pick out the way that the more esteemed ponies remained at one table, claiming it as their own while courtiers came and went by the whims of their desires.
No time to waste. She had a lot of social ground to cover, and only the barest idea of what it contained. Her first step was to find Mr. Rich and—
“Ah, Rarity! Pinkie! I was starting to think you two had changed your mind!” Mr. Rich appeared from the crowd, with a wide smile that reminded Rarity of a designer just moments before his models hit the runway. He was wearing an umber coat with silver highlights, and might have even looked quite fetching if not for his ridiculous green socks.
“Oh, we wouldn’t dream of it, dear. We’ve been looking forwards to it all day.” Rarity extended a hoof, and he took it with a brief bow before letting it fall. Good. At least that hasn’t changed.
“Wow, future not-parties have way more party than old non-parties,” Pinkie said. She pointed to the dance floor, beginning to bounce along to the beat herself. “They even dance! Woo!”
Mr. Rich stepped in front of her hoof. “You can get on the dance floor in good time, now. First we need to introduce you to all of the guests!” He gave them a gentle but firm push towards the staircase, warding off any guests that tried to say hello as he guided them through the crowd. “Miss Rarity, what’s the most impressive spell you know?”
Rarity frowned as he pushed them up the half of the stairway left open by the band, and came to an abrupt stop. “Mr. Rich! I am not just some trophy for you to show off for ‘ooh’s and ‘ah’s. I’m an artiste and a lady of class, and I demand to be treated as such!”
Mr. Rich paused mid-step. He looked to Rarity with a shadow of a grimace that quickly mutated into a broad smile. “Ah, but that’s exactly how I’m treating you!” He returned to her side, laying a hoof over her shoulder. “You’re the guest of honor tonight, at the greatest social event in Heighton! The greats throughout the city and its baronlands all come here to rub hooves, and tonight they’re waiting for you.” His voice lowered, and she let him begin to guide her up the stairs once more. “They don’t know the details just yet, but they won’t believe us when we tell them who you are. There’s never been anypony like you before!”
Rarity blushed, looking away. It certainly did sound fabulous to have the high society of all Heighton vying for her favor. Stars! Think of what I might do with that kind of pull. She could open doors for her friends that they didn’t even know were closed. She saw Pinkie open her mouth to say something, but Mr. Rich wasn’t finished yet.
“You’ll need to show them something to prove that you’re who we say you are. Magic is the quickest way. Which is why, you see, I ask for your most impressive spell.” They had reached the middle point of the stairway, where it briefly paused into a circular landing that extended out over the room like a balcony.
Rarity’s mouth twitched into a brief frown. “Rich, darling, I’m no mage. I don’t have dozens of spells like Twilight does.”
A high-pitched tinkling sound echoed across the room as an attendant standing on the balcony rang a small bell, and the crowd gradually fell into a silence. The brass section in the band drifted off, leaving only the bass, drums, and piano to play a gentle melody. Rarity let out an irritable huff as she saw that Mr. Rich had completely ignored her protests, and was already addressing his guests, one hoof planted on the balcony railing while the other waved about dramatically.
“Fillies and gentlecolts!” he began. “Friends, guests, partners, and fellows of mutual interests! Today marks a great occasion, both for myself and for ponykind as a whole. I’m sure you’re all aware as to my investments into the salvage industry, and many of you have no doubt heard of their recent excursion into Old Canterlot itself…”
He went on for some time, reminding the crowd of past accomplishments of the crew, as well as pointing out several of the relics decorating the smaller tables. Each one of these came with yet another story, which often turned into another one only slightly related. Rarity glanced to the crowd and wasn’t surprised to see a mixture of boredom and impatience reflected in their eyes. It would seem that Mr. Rich did this often. And yet they sit and wait patiently. Is out of respect, anticipation, or just a drunken stupor?
Whichever it was, Rarity wasn’t going to sit aside and watch while he hyped her up without her own permission. She marched up to the balcony and cleared her throat aggressively, intending to cut him off and demand he stop the charade that instant.
Mr. Rich turned to her with a wide grin. “Ah, Lady Rarity! I know you’re impatient, so I’ll skip the rubbish.”
A few appreciative cheers drifted up from the crowd. Rarity frowned. That’s not what I wanted. She opened her mouth to—
“I present to you all!” Mr. Rich stepped aside with a flourish. “Found in stasis deep within the dark vaults of Old Canterlot itself, a survivor from before the floods: Countess Rarity!”
Mr. Rich gave her a bump with one of his hind legs, causing her to half-stumble, half-step up to the railing with a surprised little “Oh!”
The assembled ponies looked up at her expectantly. Varying shades of disappointment and skepticism passed over the crowd, broken only by sparse pockets of disbelieving awe.
Rarity could hardly back down now. It wouldn’t do to lose face on such a hugely humiliating scale before she’d even entered the game. She smiled, raised a hoof, and gave a wave. “A pleasure to meet you all.”
One of the mares in the crowd—sporting a ridiculously large feathered cap—rolled her eyes. “Have you finally lost it, Rich?” she called. “You can’t expect us to believe every ridiculous story you tell us just because you push some tramp onto the stage.”
The word cut through the tension in the air in much the same way that an arrow might cut through an uneasy peace. Rarity’s lip gave a twitch as she registered the insult, and only a half-second later her polite smile was replaced with a blazing growl as her lips curled back.
“Tramp?” she echoed. “I’ll show you a tramp, you oversized peacock!”
Her horn glowed, and the arrogant mare jumped in surprise as her hat was suddenly plucked from her head. A wave of gasps rolled over the crowd—a mixture of both awe and shock—but Rarity wasn’t done yet. She’d been holding back a certain frustration ever since arriving in this mismatched palace, where the attendants all wore clashing oversaturated colors and the host dared to ruin the only perfectly reasonable outfit she’d seen all day with those outrageously green socks. It had only built upon her irritation at the constant stain of soot and ash which permeated Heighton, the humidity that had ruined her wedding haircut after it literally survived the apocalypse, and Pinkie’s insistence on wearing nothing more than a bowtie to a formal event. The insult was the last tug which snapped the fraying fabric of her composure.
With a practiced seamstress’ eye she scanned the crowd. Mr. Rich might have had a horrific eye for color, but the assembled rich and wealthy made for a far better wardrobe. Brace yourselves, Heighton, to see what a true lady of culture looks like!
Across the room, mares and stallions let out shouts of alarm, glee, or outrage as the blue glow of Rarity’s magic yanked away hats, scarves, ties, and shawls. Each piece floated briefly in the air before becoming undone, its threads unraveling as it separated into its components.
It wasn’t enough. Shirts, suits, and entire dresses came next. Those who were well-dressed were left alone, like islands in a sea of ponies left nude or just short of it. A veritable maelstrom of fabric swirled in the air, painting the room with a pale blue tint.
Rarity narrowed her eyes, looking over her fresh material. Her patching kit floated out from within a sleeve. She would’ve preferred to do this at a proper workstation, but sometimes a lady had to make do with less.
With the needle in her magic and the pattern in her mind, Rarity set to work. She had to be quick, lest the crowd grow frustrated before she finished. Luckily for her, everypony seemed to be following some fad involving three-tone cool color combinations and feathers, which made it easy for her to take what she wanted from each outfit and fuse the pieces together with a few recycled threads. Within just a few minutes, she was done.
She allowed the leftovers to fall, casting at a simple glamour at the same time. The room seemed to dim even as a bright light in front of the balcony hid her from view. She glanced back, quietly calling Pinkie’s name.
By the time the light faded, the transformation was complete. Rarity stood proudly before the assembled crowd now wearing a thick blue and silver gown fit for a princess. Swirling patterns of silver thread raced across the fabric, coming together to draw shining renditions of her cutie mark. A high feathered collar ran up the back of her neck, cutting low in a graceful curve towards the front. The gown had a high, wavy hemline which kept clearly visible the sparkling silver socks she wore, each one capped with a ring of ruffled cyan feather. On her she had donned a sharp feathered cap, the brim decorated with a blue trim.
Rarity hadn’t ignored Pinkie, either. Her gregarious natural colors hadn’t made it easy, but Rarity had managed to put together a short-cut dress with two tones of pale blue and a complementary yellow trim.
Rarity raised her voice, striking a pose. “I! Am! Rarity!”
The crowd broke out into a cacophony of overlapping shouts. It took Rarity a few seconds, but she couldn’t help but break into a wide smile when she realized what was happening. They’re petitioning me! The display had convinced them to abandon their initial doubts, and they had fallen back onto their first instinct: to clamor for the favor of the wildcard that had just been dropped into their game.
Pinkie was bouncing excitedly at her side. “Wowie, Rarity! What a crazy-fantastical dress! I didn’t know you were a Countess!”
Rarity’s smile faltered, but for only an instant. She had nearly forgotten Mr. Rich’s unexpected use of the title. Countess Rarity. She didn’t know why he’d said that, but it certainly had a pleasant ring to it. It had always been a dream of hers to marry into nobility, but to start her own noble line? It was more than she had ever even imagined, shoved into her unexpecting hooves without so much as five minutes’ warning.
Applejack wouldn’t approve. Her other friends probably wouldn’t either. But Rarity couldn’t back down now, not with the whole room vying for her attentions and already convinced of her nobility. To pull back the curtain would be to ruin her; her social caliber was entirely dependent on the belief that she was, in fact, from pre-flood Equestria. Anything which suggested dishonesty on her identity would throw that belief onto unsteady ground, and the backlash could harm the reputation of not only herself, but also of her friends and Mr. Rich. She didn’t think that Mr. Rich would take kindly to having his image soiled, and he may even withdraw his aid. For a brief moment she imagined Twilight with wide eyes and gaping mouth, her hopes of solving the past swept away as she suddenly found herself without the tools she needed. It was too much to risk.
It was a gruesome lie, but Rarity would allow it to pass. For her friends, if nothing else. Besides, the crowd had already accepted her, were already calling for her attention. She smiled at the rush of her newfound position. She would give them what they wanted.
“Thank you, Pinkie. I worked quite hard on it.” She beckoned to Pinkie with an extended hoof. “Come here, dear, and introduce yourself!”
Pinkie bounced up to Rarity’s side, waving vigorously at the crowd below. “Hiya, everypony! I’m Pinkie Pie! Are you all ready to party?”
For a moment the crowd faltered, until Rarity wrapped her hoof around Pinkie’s shoulder in a friendly embrace. It was a social cue that they were quick to pick up on. These two are connected, it said. Befriend one, and you befriend the other.
The desired effect was quick to come as the rowdier of the crowd bellowed their agreement. Pinkie’s mane seemed ready to burst from excitement as she raced down the stairway and leapt headfirst into the thick of the crowd, backed by a sudden resurgence of the band’s brass section. The crowd was quick to clear the dance floor, leaving room for Pinkie to enjoy the music alongside the guests with enough energy or enthusiasm to join her.
Rarity’s smile widened. The subtle motion on her part had lent Pinkie some of her own status, and it would be laughably easy for the pink mare to make the friends that she so desired. Even better, Rarity could be sure to chat with her later about any gossip she might pick up, and Pinkie was certain to quickly learn the birthdays, desires, fears, and ideas of near everypony in the room by the time the night was over.
Turning around, Rarity made her own way down the stairs, albeit with a far more ladylike gait. She met eyes with Mr. Rich and the two of them exchanged quick bows. He was clearly more than satisfied with her ‘performance.’ She had only pushed him ever further up into the lofty ranks of high society.
With her own position secure, Rarity could now devote her attentions to learning more about Heighton, and finding the connections that her friends may need later on. She allowed herself to be absorbed into the crowd, her conscious mind taking a backseat while her body went through the well-practiced motions of social interaction. Hooves were shaken, bows were exchanged, and poorly made jokes were rewarded with laughter far too real to be anything but fake. All the while, Rarity’s mind was piecing together the puzzle.
The upper class of Heighton—indeed all of Equestria, as far as she could tell—was divided into three major factions. There were the politicians, elected by the masses or appointed by others, who made the laws and scrabbled amongst themselves for offices of power in the cities. Then came the land barons, a collection of nobility and landed rich who owned and worked plots within ‘baronlands.’ The baronlands were the largest of the floating islands, their mass taken up by either the widespread farmsteads which fed the populace or the labyrinthine industrial complexes that churned out airship parts, mining equipment, or other heavy machinery. Lastly were the merchant houses, extended families that travelled with skyways between island clusters with cargo-laden airships. Many of them also operated the more refined companies which assembled more advanced mechanisms, or the shallow-water mines that extracted ore from underwater mountains only a few hundred meters below the surface.
It was these three classes which competed for power, against rivals both within and without. The barons controlled the food, the bureaucrats controlled the populace, and the merchants controlled the technology. A delicate balance which kept either side from getting too far ahead of the others. The main currency of power, it would seem, were the Gifted themselves. Any one Gifted could be the trump card that a baron might need to defend his land from rivals hoping to seize it through force, or the tool that could allow a merchant lord such as Mr. Rich to search the deepest of ruins for valuable salvage.
So it was that even when Rarity eventually took a seat at one of the larger tables, claiming it for her own, she was treated to a constant stream of noble suitors, savvy politicians, and mercantile industrialists vying for her allegiance. She brushed the vast majority of them off, always politely leaving the door open for a possible agreement in the future, instead focusing on learning what she could and scoping out the scene. What good were they to her, anyways? Her goal was to help her friends, and Mr. Rich had already supplied just about everything they needed. She had no interests in helping these elites with their own petty squabbles.
There was an exception, however.
It was near the end of the ball. Pinkie Pie was busily exhausting the last, most determined dancers, and the band had settled down into a relatively relaxed tune. The orange-red light of sunset streamed in through the open door as Mr. Rich and his attendants saw off a steady trickle of guests, many drunk off the endless reserves of cider. Rarity had just finished politely declining yet another baron suitor—Funny how one’s interests change upon becoming a noble, she thought—when a more familiar stallion took a seat at her table.
“Ah, Whitehorn.” Rarity greeted him with a warm smile. “A pleasure to see you, dear.”
The unicorn offered her a curt nod in response. “Do you have a moment? I wanted to chat.”
“Certainly, darling.” Rarity levitated her glass, taking a sip of a rather fruity white wine that she had taken a liking to. To her surprise, Whitehorn didn’t even seem to notice.
Isn’t that something? Every other courtier that had sat with her so far had shown some mix of awe or surprise whenever she first levitated something. It was a little stunt she had quickly come to open up nearly every conversation with.
Then again, Whitehorn didn’t seem to fit into the usual categories. He didn’t wear the tight-cut uniforms of the barons, the lavish robes of the merchants, or the clean suits of the bureaucrats. Instead he sported a simple white button-down shirt—the sleeves rolled high—under a silver vest that matched neatly with his pale blue coat. His mane and tail were a cool gray, both cut clean and trim. Especially peculiar was his horn, which was the same solid white as the frame of his eyeglasses.
All in all, Rarity decided, he was somepony to be paid attention to.
“I was wondering just how attached you were to Crazy’s estate,” he said. He leaned forwards, putting a hoof on the table. “I know that he lends you and your friends his materials, but what would it actually take you to leave?”
Rarity blinked. She took another sip of wine to stall for time. It wasn’t the question that had surprised her so much as the way it was asked. It seemed to her that every pony that thought himself significant enough to have a chance had been asking the same thing, but none of them had been so blunt in approach. You’re certainly one to watch, aren’t you? “I’m not just some trinket to be bought at the market,” Rarity said, lowering the glass. “And especially not if it brings inconvenience to my friends.”
Whitehorn smirked, leaning back. “No, Lady Rarity, not a trinket at all. I’m afraid I don’t have the funds nor means to lure you to me, either way. I was just curious as to if you had any plans for furthering your horizons.”
Rarity cocked a brow. “Whatever are you getting at, darling?”
“You seemed a little reluctant to let Crazy show you off, earlier. I suppose you’ve noticed how Crazy doesn’t exactly see ponies as ponies,” Whitehorn said. He snorted, waving a hoof around the room. “Look at all this. He doesn’t even use this tower except for his parties. A full band, full catering, all—tell me, Lady Rarity, do you know why he bought this island?”
Rarity pursed her lips. “I’m afraid I don’t. Care to enlighten me, dear?”
“He did it because the Rich Family manor had no garden.” Whitehorn chuckled lightly, looking up. “It’s in the city, you see, no room for a garden without demolishing some of the manor itself, and that was unacceptable to him. So one day he decides he wants a garden, and he buys this island. Digs out his whole complex underground just how he likes it, then builds this extravagant tower and starts throwing these balls every month, just so he can plant a garden and show it off.”
“They are magnificent gardens, though,” Rarity said. A good and neutral response. “The entire island is magnificent.” Except for the clothes. She suppressed a shiver of disgust at the thought.
Whitehorn shook his head slowly. “That’s just it. He picks up a new fad every few months and spends a fortune to show off to anyone that’ll come to his parties. You know what I’m getting at, Lady Rarity.” He pointed a hoof at her. “You’re just another trophy to him, for him to show off at his parties until he picks up something shinier in a couple months.”
Rarity frowned. He was echoing her own reservations perfectly. She had realized that Mr. Rich was using her as a trophy, of course, but she’d been willing to accept it, however grudgingly. Just as he boosted his own position with her, she would feed off of his. It was a compromise that she was coming to accept. “Go on.”
Whitehorn smirked. “I have your attention, then? After all those richlings failed?”
“Maybe you should be more worried about keeping it,” Rarity quipped.
He nodded, looking to where Mr. Rich stood by the doorway, speaking to departing guests. “It’s ridiculous. Preposterous, even. He stands there in his suit and socks, buying whole islands just to plant a fancy garden, digging up… well, you just to show it off. Even after all that he would still have the money to fill this whole island with bits, lock the doors, and never come back. He probably doesn’t even bathe himself.” He chuckled quietly.
Rarity forced herself to giggle politely. “Whether he bathes himself or not, I for one am grateful for the magnificent bath chambers in his guest suites. The city itself is far too grimy for my tastes.”
Whitehorn arched a brow. “Is that so, Lady Rarity? I’ve long wondered what it was like to walk down the streets of Old Canterlot during its prime. Would you care to humor me?”
“Of course, darling.” She looked down to her glass, sighing wistfully. “I wasn’t from Canterlot myself, actually. I was—” She paused, catching the potential faux pas just in time, and instead feigned a few petite, ladylike coughs to cover herself. Of course if she was to be Countess Rarity then she couldn’t just be a seamstress from Ponyville. “Excuse me. My family actually held the de jure title to a rural county just south of Canterlot proper, well known for its master seamstresses. I did make a number of trips to and from the capital for business and pleasure, however, and kept an apartment in the city proper.”
She couldn’t help but smile as she recalled her visits to the royal city. “If ever there was a place that could truly be called divine, it was Canterlot. The Canterlot marble was whiter than any other in Equestria, making the city shine like a second sun whenever the Princess summoned the dawn. You could find anything a pony might ever want there. The spas, the clothes, the street performers, the food, the architecture! And the palace itself, oh! And to think that it was even grander before Nightmare Moon’s banishment!”
“Nightmare Moon?” Whitehorn repeated.
“Oh, that’s nothing, dear.” Rarity giggled again as she waved a hoof. I suppose Princess Luna was remembered more for her good deeds, after all. “Just an old mare’s tale.”
He shrugged. For a couple of minutes they kept a polite silence. Rarity cut off a piece of her bruschetta and levitated it into her mouth.
“What were the Princesses like?”
“Hrm?” Rarity cocked her head ever so slightly, swallowing the food.
“They were alive in your time. Did you ever have the chance to attend Court?” Whitehorn was gazing into his drink, eyeing the golden liquid with a sort of somber ponderance.
I knew them far better than any courtier. But alas, she had to maintain her new identity. “I did, yes. On occasion. They were the very definition of untouchable nobility, and yet nothing like any noble. Celestia was like… she was like a mother to every pony in Equestria, always watching over us and ensuring that everyone was given their fair lot in life. Luna as well. She wasn’t quite as approachable, but she perhaps cared with even more ferocity than her sister.”
Whitehorn nodded, looking up to Rarity. “How do you think they would feel about what their Equestria has become?”
Rarity frowned, humming thoughtfully. What would they think? She may have discovered some familiarity with how high society functioned in the new Equestria, but the Princesses had never cared much for the squabbles of the rich as long as the everyday pony was happy. Rarity truthfully didn’t know that much about modern life in Equestria beyond the constant stain of soot or the smoke that drifted through the streets in strangling hazes. Now that she thought about it, she did suppose that most of the ponies she’d seen had a certain weariness about them.
“I honestly couldn’t say much on that matter, Mr. Whitehorn. I feel like Equestria was a happier place in my time. It was most definitely cleaner, if nothing else.” She gave a half-hearted shrug, slowly stirring her wine with a levitated spoon. “Either way, I’m sure that my friend Twilight will find some way to reverse whatever damage has been done.”
Whitehorn cocked his head. “Twilight? That’s the other unicorn, right? The purple one that left this morning with Crazy’s salvagers?”
Rarity dipped her head, grinning proudly. “Just the one! If there’s anypony who can solve this mystery, it’s her. She’d work her whole life to do it if she had to.”
The stallion snorted. “I don’t know, Lady Rarity. It may take more than a single lifetime to change things back. It may not even be possible.”
“Oh, well of course it is!” Rarity placed a hoof against her chest. “She is an unparalleled master of magic! I have no doubts that she can discover what happened and reverse the process.”
“I’m not talking about magic, my Lady.” Whitehorn gestured to the room around them. “I’m talking about the ponies themselves. You say that once we had kind alicorn Princesses watching over us, ensuring that all was fair and good? They have been gone for centuries, maybe even millennia. Nopony knows for sure. What I do know is that society itself has changed, and that is not a reversal that can be made with a mere flick of the horn even by the strongest Gifted.”
“Changed how, darling?” Rarity asked, brow creasing.
Whitehorn downed the rest of his drink in one gulp, sliding the empty glass away from him. “Take a walk around the city sometime, Countess. Keep your eyes open. You may find that the soul of ponykind has been tarnished far more than the land beneath their hooves.” He reached into his vest pocket, removing a small card and pushing it across the table. “Here. I’m afraid I must take my leave, but you’re certainly a mare worth knowing. Do feel free to stop by if you wish to talk more.”
With that, he turned and made for the door. Rarity watched him with furrowed brow as he weaved between the smaller tables, gave Mr. Rich a curt nod and quick smile, and then stepped out into the dawn air.
She looked down at the card on the table. The words, “Whitehorn, Freelance Author,” stared back up at her, right above an address for what looked like some apartment in Heighton.
“Hrm.” Rarity looked back up towards the door, head cocked. Mr. Rich glanced in her direction and caught her eye. He offered her a beaming grin, and she smiled politely in return. Her mind was elsewhere, however.
She would have to take a walk later.
“Twilight! Y’all okay?”
“Give me a sitrep! What’s going on in there?”
“I’m okay! I’m okay!” Twilight yelled. She looked down to her hooves, a shriek pushing past her lips as her flashlight followed her gaze.
Sweet Celestia, I’m not okay!
She had landed on the mutilated head of a stallion, her armored weight having easily crushed his skull and splattered its contents on her hoof. She followed the trail of blood attached to the head with her light, letting out another shrill cry as it illuminated what must have once been the stallion’s body, crumpled in a pool of fresh blood. Deep gashes criss-crossed his body, and chunks of meat had been torn from his flanks.
“Twilight! Talk to me, damnit! Trails, suit up and go get her! Flint, arm the torpedoes!”
No! Even as her baser instincts flooded her mind with terror, her rational thoughts cried out in protest. If the seal is broken then the whole library will be lost!
Twilight backpedaled wildly. She tripped over another gruesome corpse, curling up in the puddle of blood around it and breaking out into heavy sobs. She was vaguely aware of her friends calling her name, and Sea Sabre barking orders. Pull yourself together, foal! These bodies have been here for centuries, preserved by your own spell! Whatever did this must be long gone by now, so snap out of it!
“Wait…” she said, quietly at first, then stronger. “Wait! Don’t break the seal, I’m alright!”
The radio chatter cut out. Sabre’s voice was clear in her helmet. “What the hay is going on in there?”
“It’s just—there are bodies. They scared me.” Twilight quited her sobs, picking herself up out of the blood. “I was just scared. I’m safe.” After a moment, she added, “Sorry.”
Sabre sighed. “It’s alright. Belay that torpedo, Flint. Trails, stay at the ready.” Flint’s thick laughter sounded faintly in the background.
“Consarn it Twi, y’all half-near scared the apples outta me!” Applejack said.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” Rainbow asked.
Twilight nodded, finding some small solace in the voices of her friends. “I’m fine. Just a little shaken.”
“Hey, what’s it look like in there?” Trails asked.
“Hang on. It’s dark.” Twilight cast a simple cantrip, spawning an orb of purple light before her. The orb traveled towards the ceiling in a lazy arc before coming to a sudden stop. The purple glow cast an eerie illumination over the library, lengthening the shadows into a perpetual twilight.
A quiet whimper escaped her. Sweet Celestia… what’s happened here?
At least a dozen mangled corpses were scattered across the main floor, their accumulated blood like little red streams all running into a single gruesome lake at the center of the room, lapping at the base of the room’s horsehead centerpiece. Bone-deep gashes and torn flesh marred each body in grotesque groups, their faces twisted in eternal reflections of final agonies.
Twilight gagged, fighting the urge to retch into her helmet. She gave a silent prayer of thanks for the fact that her pressurized armor and oxygen tanks saved her from having to smell the stench that must have hung in the room. However long ago this massacre had been, her preservation spell had kept the corpses fresh. It had even stopped the blood from drying.
“There’s bodies everywhere,” she said. She took a few tentative steps deeper into the tree. “Looks like some kind of clawed animal attack.”
“Bodies, huh?” she heard Trails ask. “Any horns?”
The question spawned a wave of revulsion in Twilight. They’re more than just horns for sale. “There are.”
Now that she looked, Twilight realized that all but a few of the corpses belonged to unicorns. It seemed that the only exceptions were a pair of pegasi and a lone earth pony. Scrolls full of scribbled notes littered the tables and floor, competing for space with vials full of colored liquids.
Twilight gasped, her fear shoved aside by a surge of curiosity.
She reached out with her magic, pulling the parchments and scrolls to float around her in a series of spinning rows. With a practiced eye she scanned the pages, searching for the most significant information and discarding anything too bloodied or tattered to be read. Her heart skipped a beat as she picked out a name, and pulled the scroll out of the rotation.
“Dear Diary,” it said. “I’m sorry I haven’t written for a couple weeks, but time has been a rare commodity. I’ll start with the bad news: the holdforts surrounding Canterlot have been lost. My team was forced to pack up our lab as the Guard fended off the beasts outside, and the fighting retreat we took to Ponyville was the most exhausting week of my life.
“It is not all bad, however! We were merged into two other teams, and given royal writ to continue our research in the home of the late Element of Magic itself! An aura of study permeates this place, and the owl assistant has been a great boon in fetching and reshelving books. I feel for the creature, but he seems eager to help us solve this mystery. Even Princess Celestia herself came to speak to us!
“The vicinity of the Everfree should grant us plentiful subjects. I shall be on one of the first expeditions to retrieve samples.
“Here we have all of the tools we need. With the Princess’s blessing and the Element of Magic watching over us, we shall not fail!”
“They were a research party,” Twilight said. Her throat tightened as she returned the page to its place in the rotation. “They came here to try and solve some mystery, but it looks like they never finished.” Because I wasn’t here to help.
Applejack’s voice was quick to respond. “Now I know what y’all’re thinking, Twi. I’m telling ya, it wasn’t y’all’s fault.”
“I should’ve been there, Applejack. We all should’ve been there. When Equestria needed us most we were nowhere to be found.” Twilight began to pace, papers still spinning around her.
“Hey!” As usual, Rainbow’s voice sounded far too close for comfort. “This thing isn’t over yet, Twilight! The fight isn’t over until we’re all gone, and we’re all still here!”
“You know you don’t have to eat the mic, right?” Trails voice asked in the background.
Sabre spoke next. “Focus on the present. We can always discuss findings or come back later, but your suit’s oxygen won’t last forever.”
Twilight nodded. “Alright.” The faint sound of Rainbow bickering with Trails leaked into her helmet.
Her thoughts drifted to Owloysius. “A great boon.” Looking around now, her throat began to burn as she realized that the bookshelves were all perfectly organized. Every book was exactly in the place she had left it, except the ones she’d left out. They had been returned to their proper places. Had the owl even understood that she was gone? Perhaps he somehow had known that she was still alive, and had kept the shelves tidy in some vain hope of her return? She shook her head, pulling another sheet of parchment to her teary eyes as she continued to pace.
“Week Three Progress Report.” The writing on this paper was long and elegant, each letter flowing into the next. “Reports from the frontline indicate an acceleration in the spread of the corruption. Spikes in attacks across Equestria as well as in-house studies of creatures from infected land show that living things exposed to it grow hostile and feral. Validated rumors seem to confirm that even ponies seem to become solitary and selfish after prolonged exposure.
“Progress has continued to stall since last week. We are planning another Everfree expedition, as the uniquely violent creatures there may hold the key to our dilemma. Princess Luna has agreed to personally accompany it alongside an escort of Nighthooves.
“Food is becoming scarce. We pray to Celestia that the solution becomes clear soon.”
Luna had been here, too? The Everfree would have to be the next stop, unless something else came to light first. Had Equestria been defeated through military might? Perhaps the changelings had pushed outwards from Canterlot, but what was this ‘corruption’ the report spoke of?
“Oof!” The steadily spinning cylinder of paper abruptly collapsed as Twilight bumped into something, her concentration shattering. A loud metallic rattle filled the tree as the papers began to fall gently to the floor.
Her hooves had carried her unbidden up to the second level of the library, where her personal rooms had been. The orblight’s purple glow didn’t shine as brightly up here, but her suit’s flashlight was more than enough for her to see the battered and tarnished birdcage she had knocked over.
Twilight’s vision began to water once more as she knelt down to inspect the cage. Dents and scratches marred the inside, all tinged the red of blood. The latch had been forcibly broken.
There was a small note attached, stuck to the lock with glue. “DO NOT TOUCH,” it said, with a smaller scribble underneath adding, “seriously!”
“What?” Twilight muttered. “That’s crazy.”
“What is it?” Sabre asked.
Twilight shook her head. “Nothing.” Whatever hardships Owloysius might have gone through without her, she hoped he had found some measure of peace before the end.
Turning away, Twilight’s light shone over her old bed. She grimaced at the sight of a mare’s body curled up beneath her blankets. This mare looked strangely peaceful compared to the others, her eyes and mouth closed and her body clean of wounds. If not for the stillness of her chest, Twilight may even have thought her to be simply asleep.
Stepping closer, Twilight saw a small journal open next to the mare. She grabbed it in her magic, levitating it closer to read.
“Lily Quick’s Journal, Entry 242.
“As I write this, I know that my life is over. Perhaps all of Equestria is over. Either way, if Equestria is ever to find salvation, it won’t be by our hooves.
“It’s been raining for over a week now, harder than I’ve ever seen before and without any pause or hesitation. It only took a couple days for the waves to being washing away homes with the ponies trapped inside. There’s some enchantment over this place which seems to shield us, but Noonstar says that any breach in the tree will break its protection. The final begging shrieks of those being swept to their deaths haunt my dreams.
“We don’t have enough food for more than a couple days, and the flood has risen so high that no light can reach us. There’s nothing but blackness outside. It’s as if we’re the last ponies alive. Perhaps we are. Our world has ended.
“Still, I hold some small hope that even if we have failed, others might still succeed. The team has fallen to bickering and brawling over what little we have left. I think the corruption must be picking away at our nature, and so I have compiled as much of our research as I could fit into a copy of Predictions and Prophecies, and have stowed the book away in the bookshelves. If you’re reading this, then maybe we still have a chance after all.
“Find my notes. Continue our work. May Celestia have mercy on us all.”
Twilight lowered the letter. She felt terribly hollow inside. This mare, Lily Quick, had taken on the same mission which Twilight pursued now. She and her friends had set out with the enthusiasm and optimism of those who never truly believed that failure was ever a possibility. But she had failed, and all of Equestria had drowned around her.
Curious, Twilight flipped over to the next page. Blood dripped freely from this page, which was unlabeled and held only three lines written in scratchy, panicked writing.
“SOMETHING IS KILLING THEM”
“I CAN’T LET IT GET TO ME”
A cold chill ran down Twilight’s spine. She glanced behind her, ears flicking within her helmet. Had she heard something just then? It would’ve been a trivial matter to sneak up on her, with the narrow eyeholes blocking her peripherals and the thick armored shell dulling even the sound of her own metallic hoofsteps. Probably just my imagination. She tugged at Lily Quick’s leg, curious to get a better look at the mare.
Twilight gasped as the body rolled over, revealing the red stain on her neck. A bloodied scalpel lay on the bed beneath her. Whatever Lily had heard happening downstairs, she’d decided to slit her own throat before it could get to her.
Sabre’s voice crackled into her helmet. “How’re you doing, Twilight?”
“I think the bodies are starting to get to me,” Twilight said. She started back down the stairs. “I’m going to grab the books I need and come back.”
Twilight pursed her lips as she climbed downstairs. The bodies in the main room had been mutilated as if by some hungry predator, but they didn’t look as if they’d been eaten completely. Twilight had assumed that whatever beast had killed them had moved on. Lily Quick’s untouched body suggested that there was something more to it, however. Why wouldn’t the beast have done anything to her body? Had it even killed the rest of the research team out of hunger?
Was it still there?
She couldn’t know for sure, and paranoia was beginning to gnaw at the edges of her mind. She brightened her orb light with a burst of magic, checking any corners that remained dark with her flashlight.
Reaching the ground floor, Twilight broke into a trot. “Trails, have you scanned the tree?”
Trails’ low chuckle was quick to respond. “I would, but there’s half a dozen barriers in the way.”
“Oh, right.” After a moment’s thought, Twilight dispelled the antimage fields she’d stacked on the old tree so long ago. They had weakened too much to be useful anyways, after so many years.
“Alrighty then, door’s open! Scanning now, but don’t expect anything quick. Somepony broke my terminal.”
Twilight couldn’t help but smile at the mare’s jest, even if for a few brief moments. She sent out a quick sonar pulse as she crossed the library. It didn’t tell her anything she hadn’t already known. It did nothing to calm her nerves.
It didn’t take long for her to find Predictions and Prophecies. Twilight had spent years carefully optimizing systems for sorting, organizing, and finding books, and the Golden Oak Library had used her most developed system. The book glowed a soft purple as she grabbed it in her magic.
She froze, ears perking up. She allowed her magical grasp to fizzle as she looked behind her. She was certain she had heard something that time. It had been so faint, only just barely registering at the very edge of her armor-dulled hearing. She waited there for a few seconds, shining her light into the dark corners of the room.
Whatever it was, it didn’t change what she was here to do. She turned back to the shelf, quickly plucking the book from its place with her magic.
She heard the noise again. Clearly this time.
Right behind her.