“Here we are,” Maple said, gesturing to a high, wrought-iron gate. The Doctor and Rumble stared. The building was narrow and incredibly tall. It’s brickwork facade seemed ancient, practically crumbling under the combined force of their gaze. “Well,” said the Doctor. “It’s… not what I expected.”
It was a far cry from Rumble’s idea of a Industrial-era mansion, which no adventurer of the era worth their salt should be without. It was, indeed, a long carriage ride away from any sort of mansion whatsoever. It was, in fact, a cramped, tiny apartment building. It looked scarcely any wider than the cupola at the top of Carousel Boutique, leaving its occupants with scarcely enough room to turn around. Maple shrugged. “We can’t all be millionaire industrialists,” she said mildly. “Somepony has to be at the bottom of the pyramid.”
“Yeah,” the Doctor said, his face tight. “That’s generally how it is, I’ve found.”
“Let’s go inside, I’m freezing,” Rumble said. “And it can’t be any worse inside, can it?”
The other two stared at him. He sighed. “Right. Stupid question.”
The hallway was dark, barely lit at all. The floor was uncarpeted, and the wood was rotting and full of splinters. The wallpaper was dingy and covered in grime, at least those bits of it that hadn’t already peeled away. “Sheesh,” said Rumble. “This place looks like it should be condemned.”
Maple jumped as a shower of dust fell on her head from the cracked and chipped ceiling. “Are you sure that it isn’t already?”
“I’m guessing yer not here to rent, then,” a deep voice grumbled. A squat, shabby stallion shuffled out of the shadows. He stuck out a hoof. “Tartan Stripes. Landlord.”
The Doctor nodded. “Doctor Turner. Time Lord. My friends and I were looking for Dr. Climber. This is his address?”
“Yeah, dis is da place,” the blue earth pony grunted. “He ain’t been home fer a couple days, though.”
Rumble frowned. “You don’t seem surprised.”
The weighty landlord shrugged. “It ain’t ‘xactly unheard of. He’s probably out chasin’ Flutterponies with a net, or sumptin’.”
“I see. Can we go up?”
The landlord stared at them for a long moment. “Awright,” he grumbled. “But I’ll be checkin’ in, so don’t get any bright ideas ‘bout squattin’.”
“Of course. Thank you.”
“I accept gratitude in cash form only,” the stallion replied.
“Ah. Right, well,” the Doctor said awkwardly.
Tartan Stripes rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, I know. Go up. Third floor. Only one door, ya can’t miss it. Be outta here in an hour, or I’ll chase ya out wid a broom.”
Under the landlord’s watchful glare, the three ponies made their way carefully up the rickety stairway, being very careful to avoid the railing.
Maple pulled the door open, stepping back to avoid hitting the others with the knob in the narrow space. She let out a faint, choked noise of shock. “Well,” she said. “This is new.”
Rumble tried to peer around the mare, but there wasn’t enough room to maneuver in the stairwell. The Doctor gently grabbed the pegasus’s hoof and helped him rise up onto his hind legs. Rumble’s eyebrows rose as he took in the technothaumic equipment that lay scattered over every surface. An enormous microscope took up one corner of the room, the platform easily big enough for a pony to lie on. Over the windows, various wires and metal scraps were attached, apparently haphazardly, to the walls. One led out of the tiny apartment window, likely to serve as a makeshift lightning rod. One wall was completely covered with an enormous map of the planet, with several smaller, older maps pinned onto it. The other wall was covered in what appeared at first glance to be butterflies under glass. A closer look however… “I’m going to be sick,” Rumble announced.
The Doctor winced. “Looks like Tartan didn’t know how right he was with that flutterpony comment,” he said, staring in mixed horror and sorrow at the rows and rows of tiny corpses that covered the walls.
Maple stepped into the room, regarding the shadow box full of little bodies with astonishment. “They… they might not be real,” she said slowly. “Clever forgeries. That’s what he does.”
The Doctor shook his head grimly. “No. Like I said at the tent, they’re all real.”
Maple stared at the miniature morgue for another long minute. “Oh my Celestia,” she whispered. Her knees buckled, and she sat down heavily. “Dear sweet Celestia,” she muttered.
“It’s a lot to take in, I know,” the Doctor said.
“I— you— you aren’t crazy,” Maple gaped. “It’s all—”
“Disturbing?” Rumble suggested, glaring at what looked like an inequine fusion of an electrolytic separator and an easy chair. “Hideous? Inequine?”
“Real,” the mare whispered, staring at the dead flutterponies like they were as beautiful as the stars. “They’re really real.”
“Looks like he believed that more than flutterponies were real,” the Doctor agreed idly. “In addition to all the stuff we saw at the tent, you know, the changeling, the centaur, the seapony? Well, it looked like he had a few more expeditions lined up.”
Rumble peered over the Doctor’s shoulder at Dr. Climber’s notes. “Satyrs? Deer? The Smooze? I knew about the last two. Hunting them seems kinda like a terminal pastime.”
“Mm. I'd say an apocalyptic hobby, really. Satyrs are even worse. Oh, what’s this?” The Doctor’s brow cinched. “Hunting fluffy ponies. That’s terrible!”
Rumble frowned. “Fluffy ponies?”
“Er, they’re sort of like… little fluffballs,” Maple said. “Except they look like ponies. They’re… savages, basically.”
The Doctor looked up at her sharply. “Don’t go knocking savages. One of my best friends was a savage. Leela of the Sevateem. Brilliant.”
“None of that answers my question,” Rumble said.
The Doctor looked down. “The fluffy ponies,” he began, “are the result of experimentation by my old schoolmate Ushas. Better known as the Rani, a brilliant but deeply immoral biologist. She bred them to be a sort of race of intelligent lab rats for more accurate readings.” His curled lip and furrowed brow spoke volumes.
“How she got here, I’ve yet to find out. Any rate, my companion and I freed them after… generations of experimentation. Relocated ‘em to the River Lirium area, and let them run free. Went into hiding, and they've not come out yet.” The Doctor sighed. “They became the pygmies of Gaea,” he said solemnly.
Rumble said nothing. Maple shifted uncomfortably. “So… how are they now?”
“Growing,” the Doctor said with a short nod. “They’ll be making contact with the world at large in, oh, about five or six centuries.”
“Only to get crushed again?” Rumble guessed darkly.
The Doctor opened his mouth to reply, but Maple cut him off. “Hey, look at this!” she said, holding a worn, crudely bound book aloft. “I think it’s his journal!”
The other two hurried over to take a closer look at the stack of papers. “It’s pretty interesting stuff,” the mare said, flipping through the pages. “He’s been all over Gaea looking for these… he calls them ‘cryptids’?”
“Check near the end,” Rumble suggested. “Maybe he wrote down where he was going.”
Maple paged through to the final entry in the journal. Reading it, she shook her head. “Just an entry on Windigoes.” She paused. “Wait, are Windigoes real? I thought they were just a story to scare kids!”
The Doctor snorted. “You’d best believe it. They were a sort of crude attempt by the Intelligence to destroy the planet. Ultimately, they were blasted apart by the union of three pony tribes.”
“The Fire of Friendship,” Maple guessed.
“Mhm. It was less about ‘friendship’, per se, and more about power. I mean, think about it, a unicorn, a pegasus, and an earth pony all working together to perform a spell, for the first time in centuries? Essentially, it was more like they became an alicorn for just long enough to banish the Intelligence and destroy its constructs.”
Rumble stared. “... okay, you need to be in charge of next year’s Hearth's Warming pageant.”
Maple frowned. “So, what exactly is the ‘Intelligence’? You keep mentioning it.”
“Do I?” the Doctor asked.
“Yeah,” Rumble replied. “Remember, back at the fair? You said that the Intelligence made the Yeti robots.”
“Hm. Now that you mention it, it does seem something of a coincidence that our Dr. Climber would be after both of those creatures,” the Doctor said slowly. “Of course, it might be that it’s just that, with the cold weather, those two would naturally spring to the mind of a cryptozoologist…”
“Emphasis on ‘crypt’,” Rumble added, glaring at the wall of flutterponies.
“Don’t be morbid,” Maple admonished.
“Morbid?” Rumble spluttered. “Morbid? I’m not being morbid! You’d know if I was being morbid. This is just cynicism. Huge difference.”
“Well, just don’t be so negative, then,” Maple said, frowning.
Rumble huffed and stormed off to the other side of the room to look at bell jars filled with specimens of animals, vegetables, and minerals.
“Anyway,” the Doctor said. “To answer your question, the Intelligence is a sort of gestalt consciousness: a hive mind, if you like. It can’t really do much directly, but it can influence minds and sometimes even possess objects.”
Maple nodded slowly. “I understood maybe half of that,” she said.
The Doctor’s eyebrows rose. “That much? Very good. Most don’t get much more than two-fifths.”
“Uh, thanks? So,” she scrunched up her muzzle. “What does it look like?”
The Doctor shrugged. “No idea. I doubt it even has a physical form of its own. It can, as I said, possess objects, even corpses. It can also take control of other things, like the Yeti robots, or, or…”
“It can possess corpses?” Maple asked slowly.
The Doctor looked at her. Her face was full of growing dread. “...Yes?” he said. “Why do you ask?”
“Corpses like the ones which are currently surrounding us?” Maple said, her voice a few registers higher than normal.
Slowly, the Doctor turned his head to look at the glass case of flutterponies. One by one, their heads turned to look back at him, their eyes glowing. A jar full of preserved eyeballs, all a dead, icy blue, rotated to stare at the ponies. In a bell jar, a monkey’s paw sprang up onto its fingertips and scuttled around like some kind of twisted crab.
“Ah,” said the Doctor, and then all Tartarus broke loose.