The Lord of Shadows took one step closer to Trixie, as her eyesight cleared, and the fog burned away before her amazed eyes.
No! Your narrator thought to herself, not one more step further!
"Keep your distance, you audience-murdering Beast! Not one more step!"
"Now, now Dame Trixie, this is all a big mis-"
"No closer, I tell you! I have an amulet, and I know how to use it!"
In truth, Trixie had no idea how the blasted thing worked, or if it were working at all. She rather thought it seemed to be sharpening her sight, which was more than all her night-sight cantrips had done, ever since she'd been transported to this unsettling not-Hades, not-Tartarus, not-anything-in-particular. Trixie could now see all the trees in the murdered Apple's orchards, all the thatching in the mare's tattered roof, and her neighbors' hovels stretching off into the distance. And in the far distance? A crenelated mass of something looming just out of sight, like a castle-wall, if somewhat shorter than what Trixie was accustomed to expect of pony fortifications.
The Beast was clearly visible for the first time, and Trixie angrily eyed his infuriatingly toned and narrow flanks, and the great and broad chest he turned so proudly towards his opponent. His black and wedge-shaped head like a giant's blunted mattock… stared down at her with a comically alarmed expression.
No, no, Trixie was afraid that she couldn't maintain a righteous fury against a fright-mask so sadly self-sabotaging of its own terrible visage. His white, unpupiled eye-splotches were as wide and weepy as if they belonged to a foal too young for the performance, when she fumbled and mis-read the age of the crowd. Trixie hated crying foals. They always got inside her defenses.
Rather than keeping up a head of steam sufficient to power Trixie's way through the danger the Beast presented, she found herself holding back a reassuring, motherly nicker. This gave her pause, because she had come to respect reflex in recent months. The reflexes of performance are powerful, gentlecolts and fillies, and reflex – reflex will carry you through mistake and accident and disaster where simple bravery and nerve will leave you standing poleaxed and waiting for the Ursa Minor to crush you flatter than a bit placed upon a rail tie just ahead of the afternoon freight-express.
"Look, your lord-" started Trixie in what might have been a bit of reconsideration, when their confrontation was interrupted by another distant bell-tone ringing out from what her now-sharper senses could place in the distant fortified tower or house. The cascade of ringing song was somehow more urgent than the previous tune, even to Trixie's still-half-tone-deaf ears and –
The Beast's vulnerability was gone. Just like that, the moment was over. He was a terror again, his protean featureless features now sharpened like a heavy axe-blade.
"I have no time for your foolishness, Dame Trixie. Your servant." And with that, the Beast sprung to Trixie's right, and with three great bounds was out of sight between the trees of the orchard, leaving your narrator blinking and abandoned by her would-be – what? Murderer? Victimizer?
There was a slight growl in the distance of one of the Harriers, no doubt gathering their pride and courage now that their master had left his guest alone, and that broke through Trixie's confusion. She marshalled her righteousness and her self-interest, and justified her actions to herself thus:
"Nopony just walks away from The Great and Powerful Trixie!"
And Trixie ran in the direction the Beast had fled.
She caught up to the tartarus-lord at the edge of a great field of pallid wheat or rye or – look, Trixie is not at all versed in which small grain is which. It was headed, bearded, and the stalks nodded, heavily-burdened. Whatever mad magic made apples grow absent sun and rain, drew from these soils a sickly corn that your poor unicorn-narrator is not equipped to properly identify or describe.
She can tell you of the reaping, though, which had been interrupted by the caroling of the bells, and the appearance of the Beast among the reapers, whose long scythes were left abandoned in the half-cut field, a string of stooks weaving across the slight slope until they came to an end in a spray of half-bound sheaves just behind where the harvest had been interrupted. There were two earth-ponies running through the unharvested stalks, yelling in alarm at the Lord of Shadows.
He met them on the run, his long smoky tendrils reaching out to lance first one, and then the other though the chest. And with that, what had looked like a tall, ugly farming-stallion and a small filly disappeared out of Trixie's sight, the same flash of fell magic lighting up the pale wheat like a flash-pan triggered just off the edge of a stage.
Trixie caught up with the spree-killer not long after that, as he held up two more glittering pieces of obsidian dragon-glass, held with reverence just before a muzzle which looked almost – lonely.
It took the Beast a moment to notice a confused Trixie sitting on her haunches at the edge of the wheat-field, staring at him across the expanse of crushed stalks he had left through the unharvested grain. He began plodding, heavy-hoofed, across the mess he'd made of the grain, the two black stones bobbing in a black-laced grey horn-field behind him.
He came to a stop just inside the half-harvested field, and settled on his great black haunches, sitting like a hunting-hound Trixie had once seen wait on the will of his aristocratic master's whim, dignified and sleek with controlled menace.
"Now," said the Beast, "We have time to discuss matters at our leisure. But!"
He leaned forward, still safely inside the wheat-field, acting as if the meaningless verge between sward and field were an actual barrier.
"Do not presume upon my tolerance when my duty or my ponies are concerned. You put those two in considerable danger by distracting me at exactly the wrong time."
"Danger!" scoffed your narrator. "How much more danger can the dead find themselves, beyond being impaled by mystical lance and reduced to obsidian shards!"
"Argh! No! You continue to misunderstand the situation entirely! They were in peril, and I saved them with far too little time to spare, because I was paying attention to you, Dame Trixie, rather than to my duty."
"You saved them! Marvelous! Trixie has heard of serial killers who firmly believe that their victims are 'saved' by their savagery, but she never thought to encounter such a beast in the smoky flesh! Tell me, my lord, what peril were you saving those poor earth ponies by slaughtering them?!"
"Losing themselves and joining the ranks of the Harriers," ground out the Beast.
Well, that was a heck of a thing to hear. Trixie leaned back on her haunches, and thought that one over.
"Is this a thing that happens here? Was that why the Apple was worried about her hoof?"
"It happens, if I don't take back what I've given quickly enough. The Harriers were once some of our best ponies, good and responsible mares and stallions. Ponies who - look you, let's go collect Mistress Malus and return all of these ponies to their shelves. Easier to show, than to tell."
Trixie couldn't argue with this perfectly conventional artistic assertion, although even now she rebels at the stricture. Trixie loves to tell. It is, in some minor way, her purpose in life.
Trixie's preferences in storytelling aside, she found herself following the great Beast as he returned to the hovel, and we collected the third obsidian stone, chasing away a wayward Harrier which had been sniffing at it in our absence, like a curious dog nosing a bit of spoiled cabbage. One sharp, gravelly bellow later, the Harrier was in flight, and the Malus-stone joined its fellows in orbit around the Beast.
We proceeded towards the distant fortified tower, while Trixie bombarded the Beast with questions which apparently frustrated him more than they amused. But Trixie couldn't find the thread of the mystery before her, and could not contain herself.
"What are those stones?"
"Nopony at the moment. As you saw, they were Short Haft and Mistress Malus and Shook Stack. Some glass, many glasses from now, they will be ponies again. But now, they're pretty stones. Not that I have any control over that."
"Why don't you have this control? Are you not lord in this land?"
"Is your own monarch absolute ruler of time and space in his realm? Do the stones themselves speak at his order, do the stars in the sky dance at his will, do the sun and moon move at his command?"
"In order, no, sort of, and yes, they do, at the Princesses' command, certainly. What manner of devilish worldlet is this, that you'd ask such a silly question?"
"Are you absolutely sure you're from an Equestria? The sun and moon commanded by ponies... wait. What am I remembering?"
Trixie smelled a story in the offing, and kept her boundless curiosity enchained in figurative irons.
"I remember Star Swirl claiming his old council of unicorns did something similar. The rest of us mocked him for his pretensions and arrogance. Until he sent off some sort of magic-scroll message, and the next morning didn't come at all. He left us in pre-dawn gloaming for what must have been three days of night, just to punish us for laughing at him. He really was a bully... wait, what's got you mad again? Did you know your eyes glow red when you're angry?"
Trixie's fury at having been reminded of Beardo the Insignificant was disrupted by this odd claim about her eyes. She summoned a mirror-surface to examine this claim of red-eyes, only to find herself staring at her usual countenance, purple-eyed as always.
"What on earth are you talking about? See, still purple!"
"Yes, of course, it went away as soon as you started up that spell. Why does the mention of Star Swirl - look, there you go again."
This time, Trixie saw it in the still-shining mirror, her beautiful, lovely eyes - which in no manner resemble those of a stallion, and she resents the insinuation which dogged her hooves all through her time in education from the jealous and the ill-intentioned - had turned crimson-red, as had the horn-field maintaining the silvering mist-glass of the mirror-spell. Both dispersed in Trixie's shock, and she stopped following the great Beast, who turned around and waited until your narrator...
Well, until your narrator collected herself. Trixie will say no more on the subject. Where was she?
Ah, yes. The rude Beast kept prodding at Trixie until she admitted some minor... hostility towards her alleged distant relation with he of the obscenely over-inflated reputation, Beardo the Credit-Thief, Beardo the Plagiarist, Beardo the Self-Aggrandizing. All her life, Trixie has labored under the unfair association her idiot relatives insist on trumpeting far and wide, as if being distant descendants of Equestria's greatest fraud and falsehood were anything to be proud of.
"...ever after that, magical kindergarten was an absolute Tartarus, a Sisyphean nightmare of constant laughter and sneering at the weak-horned descendant of the Great Stallion Himself. Buck Star Swirl the Goat-Bearded! Buck him right in his girlish behind!"
Trixie looked up at somewhat conflicted-looking Pony of Shadows, upon whose shifting features angry-looking eyes warred with a rictus which might, on some less terrifying muzzle, have been a grin.
"You're a descendant of Star Swirl? Really?"
"So they claim. Trixie don't see the resemblance, but who would? It has to have been at least a dozen generations, and maybe closer to twenty. It has never been clear to Trixie exactly when Beardo disappeared, nor when these supposed foals of his were born. And she's never cared to examine the damned genealogical scrolls that supposedly prove it. You'd have to ask her mother, Mamma's retirement-hobby turned out to be genealogical research, it is exactly as tedious as it sounds."
"I," grumbled the Beast in his broken-boulder voice, "can. You share a common brow. And dubious taste in hats."
"You take that back! Trixie's hat is marvelous, and notably lacking in bells! Bells are an idiot's decoration in clothing, anyways. Impossible to get anything done on stage if you're constantly jangling every time your head twitches. Defeats the very purpose of prestidigitation."
The Beast snorted, emitting a great wafting cloud of grey curling mist like a dragon of smoke and dusk. Trixie was braced for it to reek of carrion and filth, but instead it smelled of pipe-smoke and sunlit library-stacks.
"That may very well be so, but he was also one of the traitors who trapped me and mine in this half-world so destructive to equine life that I must infuse my essence and power in my followers to preserve them from a terrible fate."
"Well," sighed Trixie, "that explains the lightshow that brought Trixie here. She thought that stiff old toad-torturer looked familiar. She must have run into some sort of – remnant. How did this banishment occur?"
"It seems rather unlikely. I'm not at all certain I've kept perfect records – and we must get to the time-piece now, so please, let us get going now." The Beast interrupted himself, and surged to his hooves, moving away again. Trixie rushed to follow.
"Where was I?"
"Ah, yes. I've had to replace the parts in the time-piece six times over the years, nothing lasts this long, nothing magical, nothing mortal."
"You did," observed Trixie.
"Yes, well, certain bargains create a sort of permanence, but that takes a pony in the core of it all. The remnants of the spell that banished us back in Equestria – it cannot have left traces so long-lived; only the nature of this place maintains the power and the spell, here – it's self-reinforcing, self-renewing. Especially with the souls of the Six bound to the walls of this prison."
The Beast looked sulfurous, reminded of the terms of its banishment, whatever they were – he was being quite vague in Trixie's opinion.
"It's been at least fourteen hundred years, I think," the Beast continued. "One hundred sixty-eight thousand, seven hundred fifty-six – no, fifty-seven turns of the glass since I built the time-piece. And I'm not quite sure how many theoretical turns of the glass that took. Say another hundred to be conservative."
"Ah, definitely pre-Nightfall," said Trixie knowingly, "And definitely, Trixie thinks, before the defeat of Discord?"
"WHAT?" yelped the great Beast, rocked back on his inky hooves, his white eye-splotches almost as wide as when he had been giving Trixie foal-eyes. "HOW? WHY? WHEN?"
Trixie waved her left forehoof, protecting one of her ears with the other forehoof. She worked her jaw a few times, to try to get hearing back in her temporarily-deafened ears.
"Sorry, sorry, but we had suffered – we had scrabbled – prayed, dodged, cheated, lied, sicced him on the griffons, or the yaks, or the buffalo – somepony defeated the great horror?"
"Well, yes, of course. It was the act that made the reputation of the Princesses. They found an artifact of great and godlike power, and challenged the Spirit of Chaos, after many a season's chase through his trail of destruction and ruin. He's imprisoned in stone in the palace gardens in Canterlot City. Escaped briefly a while back, but somepony got him back in his prison, or so Trixie heard, she wasn't in the central provinces at the time."
"Princesses, princesses, you keep mentioning these princesses. What do royal heirs have to do with anything?"
"The Princesses aren't anypony's heirs, unless you count Star Swirl, who's been gone – well, Trixie's still not sure exactly when he disappeared. Nopony agrees on when Beardo went poof. Which really grinds Trixie's gears. That old goat is everywhere! He's the bride at every Equestrian wedding, the corpse at every funeral. He's always somepony's mentor, their teacher, their grand-father, their lover or their opponent. If he didn't displace them entirely from history, stealing now-anonymous ponies' very existence and over-writing their deeds with his bearded, belled image. Trixie cannot prove any of this is true. But how else can you explain the rubbish that filled the books Trixie was made to read by these fool teachers who all seemed to think that Trixie would be thrilled by her ubiquitous, obnoxious ancestor!"
"Dame Trixie, I think we've gotten off-track. Princesses?"
"Oh, yes," blushed Trixie. Don't let anyone tell you that Trixie has never admitted to embarrassment. It happens. Once in a blue moon.
"Princess Celestia. And, Trixie supposes, the new one, Luna. Er, new-ish? She was gone for a thousand years, something about a family squabble, and a banishment to the moon. She's back now. Trixie hears she's got… personality issues. But who doesn't?"
"Those names sound familiar. The little mutants that Star Swirl kept as pets?"
Trixie couldn't help but snicker, picturing the immense dignity of the ancient alicorn, held on a leash and collar like a border collie, her aurora-tail waving enthusiastically and her tongue lolling out.
"Da-damn you for making Trixie laugh! She is a patriotic filly, and will not hear such offenses against the Peytral. No, she won't, though your eyes say otherwise. They're the ones that raise and set the sun and the moon, they're very powerful and dangerous to offend, you know."
"No sun and no moon here, I don't think they're likely to hear any offenses against their vast dignity, Dame Trixie. Feel free to exercise as much lese majeste as might soothe your republican heart." Trixie had been right. The grinning-Beast was a vast improvement on the alarmed and saddened models. How did featureless blackness and empty white eye-splotches find such room for expression?
"So, Star Swirl's rugrats made something of themselves. Fancy that! I had assumed they were just more sad little pegacorns. He called them alicorns, but trust me, I've seen so many failed experiments and errors over the years – wings and a horn almost always signals some fool making a mistake they'll soon regret." The Beast wiggled one of his sharp-pinioned wings, looking sadly at it.
"Are your… wings nonfunctional, your lordship?"
"Oh? Uh, no, not exactly. There's just not much room in here below the permanent roof of clouds overhead. And I got tired of bouncing off of that monotonous mass of cloud-cover. They're tougher than they look."
"That sounds functional to me, your lordship. Why would you think the Princesses were frauds, if you are not?"
"I didn't exactly come by these… honestly, Dame Trixie. Star Swirl claimed he had simply found those fillies, and as I've told you – he lied. Rather a lot. After a while, you just put your trust in what he did, and ignored what he said."
They pulled up in front of a closed gate in the curtain-wall surrounding the squat fortress-tower, and the Beast reached out to open his own gate.
"Here we are. Welcome to the Old Bailey, Dame Trixie. Seat of the Grand Duke of the Shademarch, Lord Protector of Hollow Shades, Emperor of the Inland Empire."
The Beast sighed, melancholy. "Home, home again."
"Let's put my weary subjects to their rest, and redeem the next batch from their sleep. Time must be given her hostages."