A secluded village known for its curious location at the bottom of Galloping Gorge next to Galloping Valley. Local tourism books stated that many centuries ago, a river flowed at the bottom of the gorge, and it was only after it had dried out inexplicably that ponies founded the town down below. Local ghostly princesses begged to differ, however, claiming that actually, Rarity, Rustle River did not dry out, but was moved underground by Princess Celestia and Princess Luna so that the changelings could live in a secluded spot.
Changelings were another topic Rarity had come to learn much about. Granted, this was entirely due to Twilight's forced six-hour lecture about them, which Rarity could not escape from seeing as she couldn't walk through the bookcase somepony had placed in front of the exit tunnel. Though she understood Twilight's desire to properly prepare Rarity in case of incidents, the unicorn herself found it to be a bit too much. Honestly, even if there were changelings still alive, what reason would they have to harm her?
Rarity's saddlebag thumping against her body sounded loud in the quiet air as she trekked through Galloping Valley. Looking up at the clear blue sky, she could see the floating city of Cloudsdale in the distance and she briefly wondered if they had any of Twilight's books. She turned her gaze back down and focused on her journey towards a little far-off house and a gate, which she assumed to be the one leading down to Heart's Haven.
For the first time, nopony had been roped into accompanying her on her quest, which led to the unicorn ruminating freely over her thoughts. Her main concern was the book, of course, and the potential revelation that whoever still owned that book no longer lived in Heart's Haven.
Her second concern was her necklace. She found herself glancing at it more and more frequently, oftentimes out of the fear of a glowing green warning and not the hope of a flashing pink signal. It felt very much like both a blessing and a curse, just as Applejack had predicted. Yes, she could now know if the Spirit was close, but it also meant she was constantly paranoid about it. Maybe she'd have been better off without the added detection spell.
She shook her head, dispelling her thoughts. It was better to focus on the task at hoof.
As she approached the house, she noticed a pegasus flying circles over the Gorge. It stopped upon noticing her, and the next thing she heard was a distant whistle. Moments later, the door opened and out came a pony, looking right at her.
A system to greet tourists, I suppose? Or… a system to warn changelings of incoming ponies.
She shook her head again, forcefully this time. Dear, dear, it seemed like Twilight's paranoia was getting to her.
When she was close, the pony revealed itself to be a stallion pegasus, waving enthusiastically at her. As Rarity accurately guessed, the house was just on the edge of the gorge, and the gate itself seemed to close off what looked like a path leading down to the village. Additionally, a metal box bearing two red buttons was attached to the gate.
"Hello!" the stallion exclaimed. "Lost, are we?"
Rarity shook her head. "Oh, heavens, no. My name is Rarity, and I'm a dressmaker from Ponyville. I have a delivery pending in Heart's Haven." She took out her map from her saddlebag and opened it up. "This is the right place, is it not?"
The stallion frowned for a split-second before clearing his throat and smiling. "Oh! Yes, I see. We don't get many visitors, you know! If I may, who exactly are you planning on visiting?"
Rarity pursed her lips. She wasn't entirely fond of disclosing her customer information.
"Well, I'm visiting Taffy Scratch. She's the—"
"Owner of the clothes shop! Yes, I know her very well," the stallion interrupted. His tone lowered, and his expression seemed less cheery. "Quite fond of the outside, that one."
Rarity laughed politely. "I assume that's a good thing? Or are Havenites not fond of other ponies intruding into their village?"
"Oh, no! Tourism is good for the economy, don't you know? And we aim to please, of course," the stallion quickly said, his smile returning. "But don't let me keep you! You can tell me all about your visit when you leave."
Despite the fact that several things in that sentence rubbed her the wrong way, Rarity thought it wise to hold her tongue and continue ignoring the Twilight-like voice in her head overanalyzing every word the stallion said.
Oblivious to Rarity's inner turmoil, the stallion trotted towards the gate and pressed the lower button. Rarity's ears clamped against her head as a ridiculously loud sound erupted from the box, probably loud enough that even Cloudsdale could hear it. A moment later, the gate opened up, leaving the path clear for the unicorn.
After thanking him, Rarity crossed the gate and indeed found what seemed to be stairs carved into the side of the rock wall, leading all the way down to the distant village at the bottom of the gorge. Even at a distance, she could see… ponies down there, though they all seemed to have stopped in place to look at her.
What a way to make an entrance, she thought. She wasn't one to resent being the center of attention, but really, did they have to warn practically the entire village? Unless, of course, it was so that they could change into ponies, which they hadn't because—
"Well, even if they are changelings, I will continue to treat them as ponies," Rarity murmured, as if Twilight Sparkle could somehow hear her.
The descent towards the village was longer than she'd expected. The stairs were steep and small, and the only source of security was the rickety wooden guardrail that separated Rarity from a deathly fall. Large holes pockmarked the gorge walls, but she very much doubted she'd be agile or fast enough to catch hold of one if she fell.
Looking up, she noticed the pegasus in the sky was watching her closely. Maybe he'd catch her if she fell; wouldn't that be a heroic gesture?
She stopped for a moment to take a closer look at the village. It was actually much larger than she'd expected, having nearly as many houses as Ponyville did. The only difference was that Heart's Haven ran the length of the gorge, giving the impression of being larger than it probably was. Rarity could see a tall building in the distance, right in front of a sizable plaza. And, still, most of the ponies she noticed from the top of the stairs remained frozen in place, eyeing her descent.
A dozen minutes of not looking down later, she finally reached the bottom of the gorge. As she came closer, the ponies, having been caught staring, quickly scurried away. Only a few foals stayed in place, observing Rarity with wide eyes.
Rarity, resolute about being polite, simply smiled back and tried not to look as disconcerted as she felt. She took out her scroll again and reviewed Taffy's instructions for reaching her house. Once she'd memorized them, she put the scroll away and continued on her way, looking at the houses she passed by. They were quite different from Ponyville's houses. Most of them had two floors and an unflattering amount of oval windows. Through those, Rarity could see several ponies still watching her every step.
Good heavens, they could at least try to be discreet.
Eventually, Rarity reached her destination in the shape of a large, colorful shop, with the name Pony Fashion branded on the front.
The building reminded Rarity of her own boutique in a way, and she knew that Taffy was quite the admirer. The chang— mare had visited Ponyville several times now, and had even purchased several of Rarity's designs.
Continuing to ignore the ponies still staring at her, Rarity trotted towards the shop, the doorbell chiming as she stepped inside. Looking inside, Rarity realized the designs were actually pretty up-to-date, much more so than she would have expected of… well… whatever she'd expected from changelings.
"Hello?" she called out. "Taffy?"
"Oh, Miss Rarity! That was quick!"
Rarity turned around and found the mare trotting towards her, a dress hanging from her back. Despite what she might or might not be, her presence relieved Rarity. It was nice to find somepony familiar in such an unfamiliar place.
"Quick?" Rarity asked. "Ah, yes, I assume that dreadfully loud sound warned you I'd be coming." She paused and added, "What a curious thing, really. I can't help but feel that Heart's Haven doesn't take kindly to visitors."
Taffy Scratch shook her head. "O-Oh, of course not, Miss Rarity! We love visitors! We're just not… very used to them," she explained, leading Rarity towards the back of the shop. "You're the first in a while…"
"You must admit your location certainly isn't inviting to tourism," Rarity replied. "Though I would like to take a look around! I don't believe I'll be traveling here again in the near future, and it wouldn't be advisable to go back to Ponyville during the nighttime. I brought enough bits for a night at the local hotel, and—"
"You can't stay here," Taffy blurted out, stopping and turning to Rarity. Moments later, a flush colored her face and she quickly added, "We don't have a hotel here, you see. Or anyplace for ponies to stay." She bowed her head. "I apologize…"
Of course, they wouldn't. A pony staying the night means they'd have to keep the charade going for much longer than they're probably used to.
"In that case, shall we press on?" Rarity suggested, taking off her saddlebag and placing them on the table. "I'd like to look around the village before leaving!"
An hour passed by, and Rarity was nearly ready to go. Despite her best efforts, Taffy had adamantly kept the conversation related to dresses, evading Rarity's many attempts to talk about Heart's Haven and the Havenites.
"But really, Taffy, you can't honestly tell me it's not bizarre that nopony travels outside of Heart's Haven!" Rarity insisted. "I've seen shy ponies, but the way ponies looked at me made me feel as though I were from a completely different species!"
"We're not used to visitors, Miss Rarity, really," Taffy insisted in return. "We don't have much desire to leave our little village. We have everything we need, and isn't that enough?"
"I'm sorry, Miss Rarity. I wish I had more to tell you, but…" She smiled apologetically. "Maybe some other time?"
Rarity sighed, relenting. Taffy was much better than the other changelings at keeping a secret, and it seemed the harder Rarity pressed, the more Taffy silenced herself.
Looking at the walls, the answer for Taffy's more discreet attitude could surely be attributed to the many photographs of her in different locations throughout Equestria. Rarity wondered how many changelings lived their entire life without ever stepping out of the village.
"You're fond of traveling, I see?"
Taffy nodded, a smile pushing onto her lips as she folded her new dress. "I try to travel whenever I can! The Mayor thinks I travel too much, but the rest of Equestria is so fascinating."
Rarity's eyebrow raised. "Odd. Why would he be bothered by this?"
Taffy blinked, stumbling over her quick reply. "O-Oh, well, like I said, we're a small village, and we're all very close. It's always sad when one of us leaves for too long. Anyway! Thank you so much for the dresses, Miss Rarity!" she said, enthusiastically changing the topic.
"My pleasure, darling," Rarity replied, closing her saddlebag and putting it over her back. "It seems we finished earlier than I expected, so I think I will take my little tour of the village."
"Really?" Taffy asked, forgetting about her dress. "But there's nothing here. Heart's Haven isn't as interesting as Manehattan or Fillydelphia."
"Nonsense! I'm sure this must be a lovely village! I saw a little plaza as I was trotting down the stairs, and it looked like quite the charming place," Rarity insisted, nodding promptly. She then hesitated. "I don't suppose you know somepony called Twist Design, do you?"
Taffy frowned. "No? I don't know anypony by that name, but the Mayor is called Split Design. Maybe they were related?” She paused. “Why do you ask?"
Rarity smiled. "No reason! A friend asked me about him, though I suppose she got the name wrong, silly thing," she replied. No sense in revealing Twilight knew somepony from ages past. Who knew if they were just like the alicorn and had their entire genealogy memorized. "I wager paying the Town Hall a visit would be a go—"
Rarity turned around and found another pegasus stallion trotting into the back of the shop, smiling cheerily at the two mares.
"O-Oh, Mayor Design!"
Well, well, speak of the devil.
"Hello, Taffy! I hope I didn’t come at a bad time? I heard our visitor came to see you, and it only seemed right I come to extend the town's welcome," he said, trotting towards Rarity and extending a forehoof. "Miss Rarity, I presume? Line Rider was kind enough to relay your name to me."
"Ah, Mayor! What a pleasure," Rarity replied. "We were just talking about you! Taffy was telling me that her constant traveling is a bit of a problem? Envy, perhaps? The Mayor of Ponyville often complains her job lets her travel little!"
Mayor Design laughed. "Ah, caught me there, haven't you? Yes, our little Taffy is quite the source of envy in our little town!" he said, affecting a smile. "And she draws in quite a lot of visitors, too! My poor ponies have had to learn to be more receptive of strangers as of late, haven't they, Taffy?" he asked, and immediately the mare recoiled, giving a half-hearted smile.
"Visitors aren't bad for us, Mayor."
"I agree!" Rarity quickly said, eager to pull her friend out of the unflattering limelight. "In fact, I'd love to take a little look around and talk more with you, Mayor."
Mayor Design smiled apologetically. "Ah, I'd love to, Miss Rarity, but our village isn't much to look at. You'd be better off heading on your way! Anyway, let me accompany you outside." He bowed his head towards Taffy. "I hope you'll be at the town meeting tomorrow, won't you, Taffy?"
Taffy quickly nodded. "Of course!" She glanced to Rarity and smiled softly. "Thank you so much, Miss Rarity."
"Not at all! The pleasure is all mine," she replied, dipping her head and following the Mayor out of the room with a quick farewell to the other mare.
Once they were outside, Mayor Design looked up at the sky and continued on.
"It's a shame daytime doesn't last long this season," he said, shaking his head. "But, even if it did, Equestria has so much more to offer than Heart's Haven." He turned to Rarity. "In fact, have you visited Trottingham? I've heard the Grand Library there is extraordinary and…"
As the Mayor rambled on, Rarity couldn't help but frown at him. No matter how keen they were on kicking her out, she was not leaving without Twilight's book or, at the very least, information on its whereabouts. Unfortunately, it seemed like the changelings were just as determined as she was to…
"But Mayor!" she exclaimed, pressing a hoof against her chest. "What about the Equestrian Welcoming Tour? I'm rather shocked you've forgotten about it!"
And now the Mayor's smile faded.
"The what now?"
Rarity rolled her eyes with pronounced exaggeration. "Honestly, Mayor, I sincerely hope you're joking. The Equestrian Welcoming Tour? It's only one of the oldest traditions of Equestria! When a mayor personally greets a foreign pony, it is their duty to take the pony on a personal tour of the village."
"What? But, I've greeted ponies before and I've never heard of this… tradition!"
Rarity snorted. "Mayor, that's for your benefit only, I can assure you. They were simply tactful enough to look past your faux pas so as not to embarrass you. Nevertheless! As somepony well-traveled, I can assure you it's quite the common tradition amongst pony villages, and I daresay this is a pony village, is it not?”
"Of course it is!" Mayor Design gasped, stamping his hoof against the ground "Heart's Haven is Equestria's most loyal village! We are an exemplary village of ponies, and we will continue honoring our Princess's kingdom!"
"Good!" Rarity exclaimed. "I knew you would agree!"
Mayor Design promptly nodded, before asking, "Wait. What exactly does this tradition entail? Is it just a tour?"
Rarity examined her hoof. "Well..."
Maybe, one day, Rarity would feel bad about it. Maybe sooner rather than later, when she told Twilight about it and the alicorn inevitably lectured her on lying, but really, if she was going to lie, she might as well go big, no?
"Is your tea alright, Miss Rarity?"
Rarity smiled to the stallion seated behind her on the personal chariot that had been touring her around the village.
"It's perfect, thank you, Lion Flower!" she replied, acknowledging the pony before turning back to the sights.
"Now, right after the Shopping District is Heart's Haven’s main plaza, commonly referred to as the Crystal Heart Plaza, which in turn is the inspiration for our village's name," Mayor Design rambled on, seated beside her, gesturing to the plaza the chariot had just entered.
The Crystal Heart?
Looking further down the path, Rarity noticed a large statue in the middle of the plaza, and more interestingly, there seemed to be a large glowing crystal object in the center.
"And you let them live in Equestria and continue feeding off ponies? Twilight, that's horrible!"
"Of course we didn't! Cadance infused a crystal with a spell that amplified and broadcasted her feelings of friendship and benevolence to the changelings so they could feed off it without harming anybody."
Curious, she put the cup down and jumped off the carriage, trotting towards the statue, almost drawn to it.
It was a magnificent marble statue, reminiscent of the ones Rarity had seen back in Canterlot, and much like those statues, a faint magic aura surrounded it, protecting it from harm. At first sight, Rarity thought it to be a statue of Princess Denza, but closer inspection revealed subtle differences and her breathing hitched as she realized it was not a statue of the current ruler of Equestria, but of the third princess of legend.
She was beautiful, and not just because her resemblance to Denza made Rarity biased. The Princess was sitting down on her hindlegs, a soft smile on her lips, her hooves holding a levitating heart-shaped crystal.
"It was a present from Princess Cadance the First," Mayor Design said, having joined Rarity. "She offered it to the founders of Heart's Haven, back when our village went by a different name. It's a replica of a sacred object from the Crystal Empire province."
She couldn't help but stare at the crystal, which slowly spun around in place like a slow motion top. It was beautiful, glowing with a soft magic aura, and the longer she looked at it, the calmer and warmer she felt. Twilight's words resonated in her mind again, the fact that the heart once – or maybe still – served as an object that channeled the love of Cadance and her descendants and shared it with the world. Rarity's hoof went to her necklace, through which Twilight's own magic could be channeled.
Looking down, Rarity noticed an inscription at the base of the statue.
So long as you stand by me
So will my love nurture and protect you
Such was her awe that Rarity momentarily forgot the secret she was supposed to keep.
"Is this how you feed?" she asked, mesmerized, only snapping back to reality when the Mayor spoke up.
"What did you say?”
"Hmm?" Rarity didn't flinch. "What did I say? Oh! Oh, well, I assume this is how you feed the village with peace and serenity? Looking at this object is so terribly relaxing, I can hardly imagine its effects wouldn't be passed onto the Havenites!"
The Mayor narrowed his eyes, but soon after affected a smile. "Indeed! Our Crystal Heart is the joy of our little town. We owe much to it."
Eager to continue on and find the book, Rarity cleared her throat and looked around. "By the by, Mayor, would you happen to have a library in this charming little village?" She turned to him and fluttered her eyelashes. "I'm quite the bookworm, and I imagine an age-old place such as this one would have very rare books!"
The Mayor nodded, trotting towards the chariot. "Well, it's not a very big library, mind you, but we do have quite the rare books!" He jumped up on it and gestured for Rarity to join him.
Once she did, shooting the statue one last glance, the chariot went on its way, through the plaza and all the way up to the Town Hall. It was a large building, much larger than the houses, but just like them it was filled with windows. Stained-glass decorated the topmost tower, depicting another interpretation of Princess Cadance.
A question hung on Rarity's lips. As Professor Awe once said, there was proof enough about the ancient princesses’ existence, but did the changelings believe in the legend that claimed they were trapped throughout the land?
"Through here, please!"
Rarity followed Mayor Design into the building's lobby. There was a desk, behind which a mare was busy filling out paperwork. Rarity idly wondered if she ought to ask about it, knowing Twilight would certainly love to know what kind of paperwork changelings filled out.
The Mayor continued on towards some staircases, but Rarity lingered in the lobby, taking in the sight. There was a grand staircase leading up to the second floor, as well as a large painting hanging over the large wooden front door. Rarity didn't need to see the magic preservation spell to know the painting was ancient.
The painting depicted what seemed to be the founding of Heart's Haven, or as it was called back then, Sanctum Village. She could see the then mayor holding a pair of scissors so as to cut the inauguration ribbon; the four princesses standing behind him; and… Discord?
There, floating above the Princesses, juggling some books, was the Spirit of Chaos himself. For a moment, Rarity feared she was seeing things, but the fact that the Twilight in the painting was laughing at him at least confirmed that she wasn't hallucinating it. But why on earth would he be there? She remembered Twilight saying he'd… reformed? for a while, but enough for him to be present on such an occasion?
And why was Twilight enjoying his presence? Her hoof was placed on her mouth as she tried to muffle her laughter, and she seemed to be genuine in her enjoyment of it. Had… Had they been friends?
"Miss Rarity! Are you coming?"
Reluctantly, Rarity trotted towards the waiting Mayor, following him up the stairs and deeper into the building. A few minutes later, they finally arrived at their destination: a medium-sized room filled with bookcases. Though it wasn't Twilight’s library, it was certainly impressive, and the gold plaque nailed to the door proudly claimed that nearly a thousand books could be found in the room.
"Why don't you take a quick look around?" he offered. "It is nearly nighttime, so we can't be here long, I'm afraid."
Thanking him, Rarity did as suggested and ventured into the room, finding a nice secluded spot between two rows of bookshelves. She then retrieved a library card from her saddlebag, making sure not to damage it. 'Princess Twilight's Library' was neatly written at the top, and below was the name of the book: Hidden Valleys of Equestria by Quazar Star.
"Quazar Star," Rarity murmured, looking up to the bookshelves next to her.
To her great misfortune, it seemed like the library followed Twilight's detestable classification system. To her great fortune, Rarity had been actually studying the cursed thing, and it only took her two guesses to find the history and geography section. Goodness, Twilight really was rubbing off on her, wasn't she?
Having reached the appropriate section, Rarity got to work combing the bookshelves, and though she wasn't able to find the appropriate book, it wasn't because the library didn't have it. It had taken her quite a while to understand the precise meaning of the numbers from the system, but she knew enough now to realize when a book was missing.
So what happened to the book in between?
Did somepony already borrow it?
The library card still in her magic grip, she traveled back to the entrance of the library, finding the Mayor perusing some old-looking tome. She politely cleared her throat, rousing his attention.
"Excuse me, Mayor, where is the librarian? The book I was looking for seems to be missing from its bookshelf. Perhaps somepony borrowed it?"
The Mayor blinked, then smiled. "I'm afraid that's impossible, Miss Rarity! We don't lend out books!" His expression turned grave. "Which means either the book is lost or it was stolen." He cleared his throat and approached her. "What book do you say is missing?"
Rarity looked at the card. "Err… Hidden Valleys by Quazar Star?"
The Mayor frowned. "Hidden Valleys by Quaza—" He cut himself off right in the middle of his sentence, regarding Rarity with wide eyes before quickly saying, "No, we don't have that book. Terribly sorry." He put the book he'd been reading away and affected what seemed like a very forced smile. "It's late now, Mis—"
"Are you quite sure you don't have it?" Rarity insisted, firmly standing her ground. "There's a single book missing in the nine hundred and tenth section, specifically S79. It could very well be the bo—"
"Miss Rarity, I can assure you that there is no such book here, and I would suggest we move on. It's nearly closing time and—"
"Yes, yes," Rarity said, thoughtlessly waving the library card around, "But you see, Mayor, I have it on very good authority that a pony living in this village once had that book, and—"
"On good authority? Let me see that!" Mayor Design said, irritation lacing his words. He snatched the library card from Rarity, ignoring her protests, and looked it over. "What kind of autho…" He drifted off, his coat turning a shade paler. He looked back and forth between Rarity and the card before saying, "All right."
Rarity blinked. "…Pardon?"
Without a word to her, the Mayor turned around and barked to the open door: "Effigy! Augury! Come in here!"
Moments later, two mares trotted in, looking at Rarity with thinly veiled caution. They turned to the Mayor, awaiting instructions.
He glanced at the card one last time before hoofing it back to Rarity and addressing one of the mares. "Effigy, please prepare a Shepherd's tea for our guest while she waits, and Augury, please keep her company while I go get what she needs."
"Sh-Shepherd's tea?" Effigy asked, and when the Mayor gave her a pointed stare, she eep'd and rushed off with a "Right away!"
Once the first mare was gone, he turned to Rarity, his smile returning. "If you'll wait here a bit, I'll go get the book. Augury will keep you company and make sure you don't get lost," he emphasized, and Rarity didn't need magnificent social skills to recognize the underlying warning.
That said, Mayor Design walked out, leaving behind Rarity and a very jumpy assistant. The mare kept staring at Rarity with an awkward, cautious smile, which Rarity returned with a polite one.
"Quite the library you have, I must say," Rarity noted, receiving only a hasty nod in reply.
Seeing that small talk would be a fruitless endeavor, Rarity withheld a sigh and turned her attention to the door. She didn't quite know what to do. She very much doubted the Mayor had gone to get the book, and something told her that it wouldn’t be a bright idea to stick around for this Shepherd’s tea.
"That's a nice necklace."
Rarity blinked, turning her attention to the mare. "Hmm?"
Augury cleared her throat and pointed to Rarity's necklace, "That necklace. I've never seen any necklace glow like that."
Rarity smiled, an acquired reflex when thinking of Twilight. "Why yes! It's a rather special necklace," she said, turning her attention down to it. "A dear friend of mine has…"
Rarity drifted off, Augury's curious expression completely unnoticed. The necklace was indeed glowing, but rather than glowing its usual pink, it was glowing a soft but noticeable green.
Well, then. Well, well, well, well.
Rarity was not one to use curse words, but several of them ran through her mind.
"Pardon me, Augury! The sentence seems to have gotten away from me." She cleared her throat and ran a hoof through her mane, hoping she didn't look nearly as terrified as she now felt. Her eyes wandered over the room, trying but failing to find any sign of him. "In any case, I'm sure you won't mind if I take another look around while we wait…?"
Augury shook her head, smiling amiably.
Rarity smiled in return before trotting deeper into the library, forcing herself to glue her eyes to the books, no matter how dearly she wanted to look for the Spirit. She felt the urge to call Twilight, but that wouldn't be a natural reaction at all, would it? And if she suddenly started losing her composure over absolutely nothing at all, then the Spirit would know she knew he was there.
Much like the changelings, she had to play pretend.
As she went about, she toyed with the necklace, occasionally glancing at it and mentally cursing each time because it still glowed green. How long had the Spirit been following her? Was he following her, or was Heart's Haven similarly plagued with remnants of chaos magic, as the Everfree Forest was?
She idled around for a few more minutes, nonchalantly leafing through a book here and there, and it wasn't until she reached the end of the room and the necklace glowed such an intense green that she made up her mind about what to do. She lingered in the spot a moment longer, as if admiring an antique bust of a mare, before trotting back to the front of the room where Augury waited.
"Pardon me, Miss Augury," she said, "but where might one find the little filly's room here?"
Augury stared. "The little filly's room? Why would you want to know?"
Rarity raised an eyebrow. "Well, my makeup is impeccable last I checked, so there's only one other reason I'd be interested in visiting such a place. I hope you'd understand why I wouldn't want to go into detail about it."
"O-Oh! Yes, uhm, sorry! I…" Augury winced, a blush creeping up her face. "Is it very urgent…?"
Rarity nodded. "Oh, goodness yes! Extremely so, I'm afraid." She took several hurried steps towards the door. "So, where did you say it was?" A thought then occurred to her. "In fact, why don't you take me? Wouldn't want to let me get lost, now would we?"
"O-Oh, yes! Follow me!"
With a hurried smile, Rarity followed Augury out of the library. It was obvious that being alone would have better suited Rarity's needs, but she simply would never rest easy if she knowingly left an innocent creature in the same room as the Spirit. Not that Rarity could do much against the Spirit anyway, but at least two ponies could put up more of a fight than just one, no?
The second they were out of the room, Rarity looked down at her necklace and was immensely relieved to find it had regained its normal pink glow.
"Thank goodness," she murmured, rubbing the necklace against her chest. She was extremely delighted to have Twilight back, not that ghastly demon.
"Is everything alright?" Augury asked, and Rarity remembered she wasn't alone. The mare wore an expression hovering between concerned and suspicious, which Rarity's nervous laugh did nothing to alleviate.
"Oh, yes! Yes, it is, sorry!" she quickly said, clearing her throat and letting go of the necklace. She glanced around, trying to figure out her next move. The sooner she got the book, the faster she could get far, far away from that ghastly being. She had half a mind to go back in there and confront him, but her better sense argued she wasn't really prepared for that step quite yet. "Shall we be off?" she asked. "Where's the ladies' room?"
Augury bit down on her lip. "Follow me, please."
Rarity followed her down the winding hallway, passing by several doors as they trotted along. Each door had a silver plaque above it, detailing what one could expect to find in the room. 'Mailing Room', 'Uniform Storage', and other such names went by, and she could do nothing but hope that the 'Treasure Room' was related to taxes and finances, not so much age-old treasures such as a princess's book.
Rarity looked around and was dismayed to see Mayor Design marching towards them, his severe expression drawing a squeal from the assistant. Rarity drew herself up, unwilling to let herself be bossed around by anypony. Anyway, there were other creatures in the building that intimidated her vastly more than an undercover changeling.
And then, she noticed the book he carried with him, and then did she let her guard down. Her eyes flicked back and forth between the book and the Mayor. Was that…? Had she misjudged the changeling?
"Ah, where are you going?" Mayor Design asked, and Rarity wondered if his smile was wholly genuine. He gave Augury a pointed look and continued, "I thought you'd wait for me inside the library."
Augury winced. "Er, Mayo—"
"I fear I'm at fault, Mayor!" Rarity quickly interjected. "I expressed my desire to go to the fillies' room, and Augury here was kind enough to indulge me, but no matter!" She cleared her throat and eyed the book. "That's the book, I assume?"
Mayor Design nodded. "It is, indeed. It slipped my mind earlier that we had one copy left." He took the book, but rather than giving it straight to Rarity, he opened it to the third page, turned it around, and showed it to Rarity. "It's a very delicate book, as you can see by the material used for the pages."
Rarity smiled. "Well, worry not, I'll be delicate with it," she replied, making a move to take the book before Design pulled it back.
"What chapter are you interested in?" he asked. "I'll have Augury write out some copies for you."
"That really won't be necessary," Rarity replied, trying to take the book in her hooves and gritting her teeth when again the Mayor pulled it away. "I'd just like to look at it, if you please." Before he could pull it back again, Rarity snatched it away from him, nearly crying out in victory when she did so.
"So!" Rarity interrupted, eager to get going. Having successfully silenced the Mayor, she completely disregarded the majority of the book's contents and went directly to the first page, upon which she found it to be completely lacking Twilight's usual inscription.
"Is something wrong?" Mayor Design asked, eyeing Rarity carefully.
Don't play innocent! You know exactly what's wrong! Rarity thought, biting down on her lip and staring at the blank page. What was she going to do now? She couldn't simply ask for another book when she had a perfect copy here, and she couldn't try and activate the defense spell if the Mayor was watching.
"Oh, not at all!" she quickly replied, turning her gaze back to the Mayor. "Why would there be? This is the book, isn't it?"
She looked at it for another moment, brushing her hoof against the page, and it wasn't until then that she noticed something peculiar. The area where Twilight's signature always was… if years of dealing with fabrics had taught her anything, it was to differentiate between the subtlest of variations in textures, and she could clearly tell something was off.
She ignored the Mayor's call and touched a very thin layer of paper that had been pasted onto the pre-existing page. With no regard for the Mayor or the book, her horn glowed to life and she ripped the paper off, revealing the neat and familiar lavender hoofwriting.
"AH-HAH!" she exclaimed, jumping back. "I knew it! Twilight's signature! You really are related to that Twist Design changeling!"
And as fast as she'd spoken, so did she realize what she’d inadvertently just blurted out. Mayor Design stepped back, eyes wide as saucers, terror pouring out of them at the discovery that yes, in fact, she knew.
“Guards,” the Mayor whispered, so quietly Rarity almost didn’t hear. It wasn’t until he bellowed it out again that Rarity realized she needed to act, and fast.
Wasting not a single second, she screamed and bolted the other way, trying to find any exit out of the building. She could hear Mayor Design screaming in the distance, and when she turned a corner, came to a screeching halt at the sight of not one, two, nor three, but five ponies blocking her escape route. Figuring that running back to where she came from would be an unwise decision, she made for the nearest door, yanking it open, rushing inside the room, and then slamming it shut.
She pressed her body against it, breath ragged, until she deemed her magic strong enough to keep it shut while she looked for an exit – which, once again, was understandably hard when she turned around and found herself faced with roughly a dozen changelings sitting at a table, every single one bolting up.
“Oh dear,” she whispered, the door opening behind her as her magic faded out from shock. “This isn’t the little fillies’ room, is it?”
It had to be karma.
Karma for tricking the Mayor into carting her around on a chariot and serving her chamomile tea, tending to her every whim. Maybe that, plus some additional bad karma acquired in her youth, could explain why the universe seemed very keen on trapping Rarity in different locations. Dungeons, makeshift detainment rings, and now… a basement?
If this is how they treat ponies who discover their little secret…
The basement she'd been stuck in for the past hour was big, illuminated by a dim magic light bulb dangling from the ceiling. It was dusty and dirty, but nothing that would make it intolerable for another few hours. There were some stairs leading up to the exit door, but her earlier attempts to open it had been in vain, so she'd resorted instead to looking for another way out.
"They can't just keep me here forever," she mumbled, poking around the walls for a loose brick or secret path like in her more daring adventure novels. Well, that isn't entirely true. They can keep me in here, but they won't.
It was obvious that the changelings had incarcerated her not out of ill-will, but the simple fear of having been found out, and despite Twilight's warnings about them, the changelings Rarity had encountered were all mostly polite and amicable — until the incarceration matter, mind.
She felt the desire to ask Twilight for help, but considering the cracked state of the necklace, she didn't want to try unless it was her absolute last resort. Speaking in Ponyville hadn't put much strain on the crystal, but Heart's Haven was considerably farther away from the library than Ponyville was.
And… she didn't want to risk attracting the Spirit's attention again now that he seemed to be gone, did she?
She went back to her wall inspection, only briefly diverting her attention when she heard sounds upstairs. Once they died down, and her hopes at being released died with them, she continued her inspection of the wall.
After she’d finally accepted the wall would yield no secret escape, she trotted towards the middle of the room, moving onto trying to find hidden switches on the floor. Unfortunately, just as with the wall, her search was fruitless, ending with her staring down at her… multiple shadows?
She blinked once, twice, thrice, furrowed her brow, looked up at the only source of light and then back again at the two shadows she was somehow managing to cast. That can't be right, she thought, pressing her hoof against her chest and toying with her necklace. A quick glance at it revealed a green glow much more luminous than it was earlier in the library.
Rarity slowly looked back, once again petrified by fear. She wanted to scream, she wanted to scream very badly, but that would only show she knew he was there, and… and…
And she took a step forward, as nonchalant as she could, quickly trotting towards the stairs, the intruding shadow still mimicking her steps. She went up and politely knocked on the door, insisting she please be let out, after which her polite insistence became full-fledged yells that grew louder the longer her pleas remained unanswered.
Another series of expletives crossed her mind as she galloped back down and tried to remain calm. How could she escape? Damn those useless teleportation lessons! Why couldn't she just… she just… A memory came back to her, of that agonizing headache in the train and how Twilight cured it, and just like that, the solution was before her.
If she couldn't teleport, then Twilight Sparkle would simply have to do it for her.
Closing her eyes, she cast the familiar spell, and waited, waited, waited for Twilight to please, please, please picku—
There was a moment of silence, both minds unsure of how to proceed, until Rarity's mind went off in a frenetic scramble trying to recapitulate everything that had led her there. There seemed to be no response from Twilight, no fear or surprise or anything, but Rarity plowed through, trying desperately to somehow extract the secret to teleportation from the other mind.
And just like that, Twilight seemingly halted the spell, leaving a shocked Rarity standing there alone. Was… Surely Twilight wasn't… Surely she wasn't going to just LEAVE Rarity there?! She knew Twilight wanted her to learn teleportation by herself, but this was just… just downright cru—
Her thoughts came to a screeching halt when a flashing pink glow overpowered the green one. Panicked, Rarity cast the spell again, and before her own mind could try to formulate a question, it was flooded with Twilight's thoughts. Diagrams in books that Rarity had read before, instructions on mental and physical exercises, words that Rarity once found useless suddenly made absolute sense as she learned —or rather, remembered— how to teleport.
She, or Twilight, or both really, took the proper wide stance, her body slightly lowered. She'd done this a thousand times before, in the library, and it felt so remarkably easy to do, she didn't quite understand how she'd never managed it before. The urge to teleport to a different part of the building overpowered her, and now it was her own mind that took over, mapping out what she remembered of the town hall. She focused so completely on the library from before, it was like she could see a vivid rendering of it inside her mind.
Pooling all of her magic, Rarity prepared the teleportation spell and...
Everything went dark, and her body felt as if it had been jerked off the ground, out of reality. It was only a fraction of a second, really, but to her it felt like an eternity spent in darkness before she landed with an oomph in a wholly different yet familiar room. She picked herself up off the ground, looking at the library with wide eyes.
We… We did it?
"We did it!" she gasped, her hoof slamming against her mouth. "We did it, Twilight! We did it, we did it!" She quickly grabbed onto her necklace, her joy dying out the moment she realized something wasn't quite right.
She looked down to her necklace, and though it was no longer green, it wasn't pink either. It was completely translucent, looking exactly as it had the day Rarity bought it save for the minor fact that half of the crystal had cracked clean off, probably left below in the basement.
"No. No, no, no, no, please, nooooo...”
Before she could finish mourning the necklace, the door to the library slammed open and three ponies rushed in.
"There she is!"
Rarity stepped back, closing her eyes and desperately trying to salvage whatever information was left regarding teleportation. If she'd done it once, she could do it again, right? She cast the spell as far as she could remember it, visualized the entrance of the building and… and again the darkness enveloped her, but rather than finding herself at the entrance like she'd hoped, she managed only to teleport to the adjacent hallway. More to the fact, what before felt like an effortless spell now felt as if she'd gone through some kind of rigorous hour-long training crammed into less than a second.
Steadying her breathing, she jumped up and rushed off, the ponies close behind. She could hear voices all around her and even coming from the upcoming hallway, but she was so intent on getting out, she was prepared to use any means necessary, no matter how unladylike they may be.
She went around the corner, but rather than find more changelings, she found a familiar guard from Canterlot Castle.
Rift Shield blinked at her before smiling brightly. "If it isn't Miss Lost Visitor! Am I going to have to keep getting you out of scrapes the rest of our lives?"
Moments later, the ponies caught up to her, but just as she did, so did they stop, gawking at the stallion.
"C-Captain Shield! This is the mare—! She somehow escaped the—!"
"So," Rift interrupted, cracking a smile to Rarity, "Got any new evidence for me?"
Rarity fell silent. Her eyes darted down to her necklace, and the moment she realized it was no longer glowing green, she launched herself at the guard.
"I found Princess Luna!" she blurted out, as if an unstoppable force now drove her.
Rift blinked. "Wh-What? His eyes grew wide. "Princess Lu—”
"Yes, and she's somewhere near Hollow Shades!" she continued, still shaking him. "And she's been guarding nightmares there ever since she's been trapped! The caves near Rainbow Falls are completely plagued with chaos magic because that's where he and Celestia last fought with the dragons, and I have her crown as evidence of it! And—! And the reason Discord declared war on the princesses and trapped them isn't because they refused to give him land, but because Twilight Sparkle refused to give her dragon companion called Spike! And they—!"
She pointed to the changelings.
“They have one of Twilight's books and tried to hide it from me, and they're not ponies! They're changelings, and I know this because Twilight told me herself that Princess Cadance the First founded this village for them! So there!” She finally let him go, the guard stumbling back in shock as she withdrew. "If that isn't enough evidence to prove I found Twilight Sparkle, Rift Shield, then I will go to Princess Denza myself if you don't take me!"
"Whoa, calm down, Rares!"
"Do not 'calm down, Rares' me!"” she snapped back. "I've just been falsely imprisoned, and I am fed up that the rescue of monarchs of Equestria is being carried out by three other ponies and myself when we could have had the assistance of the entire royal army months ago! If I managed to talk my way out of being a dragon appetizer, I can damn well talk my way into an audience with Denza!"
Out of breath and words, Rarity stepped back and tried to steady her breathing. Even more ponies had by now arrived, among them the Mayor, but she found she could not bring herself to be worried. She stood tall and proud, ready to put up a fight if she deemed it necessary.
"R-Rift!" Mayor Design called, looking back and forth between Rarity and the guard, who was now climbing to his hooves.
"I'm okay, old man," Rift said, his bright smile having returned. He glanced at Rarity for a moment before turning to the Mayor. "Mind if we use the conference room? This beautiful lady and I need to have a long conversation."
Thirty minutes later found a much calmer Rarity seated around a large conference table, another cup of chamomile tea next to her alongside some old cookies. Changelings, after all, needn't eat, and it was all they had in their pantry.
By then, Rarity had been given the time to reflect on her actions, especially since it seemed the Spirit had decided on leaving her alone. She'd revealed all her secrets to Rift in less than a minute, and now did all of Rainbow's and Professor Awe's warnings come crashing back down upon her. Of course… Of course, being wary of Rift meant she indeed believed her sovereign ruler was working together with the Spirit, and despite the evidence for it, she couldn't truly bring herself to believe it. Her entire life she'd been taught that the royal family sought only the better interest of Equestria, and as such she made the choice to stand firm in her loyalty to the crown.
The only thing she hadn’t told him about was her encounter with the Spirit. Not that she hadn’t wanted to, mind, but even though her necklace was no longer glowing green, she didn't know if the tracking spell still worked and… the last thing she wanted was to tell the Spirit she had a way of, well, tracking him down.
"I gotta apologize for them again," Rift said, sitting opposite Rarity. "Ponies don't come down here a lot, so they have no idea how to deal with it. They've only ever dealt with the castle guards and the Princess when she needs to recharge the life heart."
"They called you?"
He nodded. "Yeah. Shepherd's tea is the codeword to have a chariot bring a guard here ASAP. I mean, they weren't really going to keep you there forever, y'know? They just wanted somepony to come in and convince the intruder not to blab out the secret." He grinned. "I've bailed a mare out of here at least five times in the past three years."
Rarity delicately placed her tea back on the table. She could mention Pinkie Pie, but she decided she might as well keep that card under the table until she herself knew what Pinkie’s story was. “So, are you in need of any more evidence?”
Rift laughed, shaking his head and then leaning in, riveted by Rarity. "No, I’m fine. Though… You're really something else, aren't you, Rarity?" he asked, ending his question with a wink.
Months ago, maybe, Rarity would have leaned in and smiled, but now, Rift's attempts at flirting were met with a solemn stare.
"Why do you refuse to help?" she asked instead. "Did you know there are ponies out there who firmly believe Princess Denza is working with the Spirit?"
Rift frowned. "Don't be dum—"
"Then, again, why isn't there an active search for them?" Rarity demanded. "Like many others, I firmly refuse to believe that Princess Denza would stoop to such levels, but her army is doing a very good job at showing their lack of desire to help.”
"Hey! It's not that I didn't want to help, but…" He drifted off, rubbing his forehead. "Look, it's complicated."
Rarity didn't bat an eyelid. "Try me."
Rift sighed, furrowing his brow. "I'm doing my rounds these next couple weeks, but can you come to Canterlot in two weeks? If you really want to speak to Princess Denza, I can arrange it."
Rarity paused. Pinkie Pie was supposedly coming to Ponyville sometime next week, and it wouldn't do to be away when she arrived. Her only option was to send her a letter asking her to come sooner rather than later.
"Two weeks?" she repeated. "You're sure of this? You won't back out?"
Rift shook his head. "Two weeks. Soldier's honor. Look, I'll even send you a letter this week with a signed parchment, just because I'm great like that."
Rarity sighed, her hoof going over her necklace. "And I will meet Princess Denza?"
Rift faltered. "Y-Yeah."
She furrowed her brow and crossed her legs. "My, you don't seem too convinced."
Rift sighed. "Look. It's just… This isn't as easy as you think. There's a lot you don't know, and… If we're not careful…" He got up and took his helmet. "It's a lot to plan."
Rarity similarly stood up. "Really? It's just a meeting."
He put his helmet on and grinned. "You'd be surprised!" Without another word, he trotted around the table and towards the door, opening it to reveal Augury and Effigy patiently waiting outside. "What're you two doin' here? Did the old man ask you to spy on us?"
The two mares blushed, shaking their heads profusely.
"No, no!" Augury quickly said. "I just… We just wanted to return what Miss Rarity asked for."
Effigy stepped forwards, lifting her hoof and displaying the missing part of Rarity's necklace.
"Oh, thank you," she said, sadly taking the necklace into her own magical grip.
She didn't have the necessary tools to fix it right now, and even if she had those, she feared it might never truly be strong enough to hold the spell again. She delicately placed it inside a little pocket in her saddlebags, hoping Twilight's reaction to the communication spell having ended wasn't as explosive as last time.
"Before you go, Miss Rarity," Effigy said, "The Mayor wanted to invite you for tea as an…" She drifted off, cheeks tinted red, "Apology?"
"Actually, gals," Rift interrupted, smiling at them and then at Rarity, "I was hoping to take this lovely lady away from here with me. My train leaves for Tall Tale soon, and I figure she might like visiting there before going back home tomorrow."
Rarity didn't miss a beat, smiling back at him. "I do appreciate the offer, Rift, but I have somepony waiting for me at home, and I wouldn't want to be late," she said, not missing his disappointed expression. She looked to Augury and Effigy. "I believe I'll take your offer before going home, yes. I have a few questions for the Mayor."
The two mares nodded, quickly setting off into the hallway, leaving Rarity and Rift Shield alone. The stallion exhaled deeply and let out a soft laugh.
"Man, I gotta say, whoever's waiting back home is one lucky guy. Here I thought we'd hit it off pretty well back in Canterlot. You're sure seeing me again hasn't made you change your mind?"
Rarity smiled again, pressing her hoof against the necklace. "Now, Rift, being a sore loser isn't becoming of you," she chastised, trotting into the hallway and following after the two mares. "I'm sure you'll find your fairytale someday soon, too."
"She's getting good at this, isn't she? Too good, one might say!"
". . ."
"The changeling village, Princess Luna, even the dragons!
And now, I wonder… shall we let her go through the test?"
". . ."
"Now, now, isn't this mare deserving of a meeting with Your Royal Highness?
I think she is! Don't you agree?"