I sat back with a sigh, looking over my handiwork. I had filled the entire page, front and back, with careful scribbles. I suspected Starlight didn’t have much access to paper, so I used all the real estate a single page allowed. It contained everything I had observed about my new world, from the political to the scientific. The only blank space I left was a list of seven bullet points, only one of which held an entry: Ruby Drops of Sangria.
Pitiful, really. All plots to overthrow the government would have to wait; I needed to know more about my enemy before I could even begin to plan. The majority of my notes were questions I needed to know the answer to, and a few that were only wants. I would have to look into helping Starlight procure more paper, just so I could have somewhere to put my thoughts.
Although, admittedly, I may have drawn more than a few detailed doodles of me violently disemboweling Autumn during the latter half of Starlight’s nap.
An hour passed before I heard a snorted gasp, and looked back to see that Starlight had startled herself awake. With a groan, she rolled out of bed, shaking herself awake. Then she spotted me at her writing desk, and her eyes widened.
“Eric!” She whispered harshly. “Were you-?”
“Relax,” I reassured, waving the quill over my ‘head’, “I only used one page.”
“Oh, nononono!” She galloped over to the desk. “Eric, these are supremely expens-!”
Starlight paused mid-reproach, looking down at the words of my notes curiously.
“Eric? What language is that?”
“The language of the Smooze,” I bragged. True, it was only English, but it’s not like anyone could call me out on it.
“Really?” She whispered, almost reverently, her earlier righteous fury forgotten. She scanned the paper carefully, devouring every symbol. But then she turned the page over.
“Is… is this…?”
“Ah… yeah. I ran out of things to write and got bored.”
“But this isn’t… You can’t just…” She floundered. “Eric, what if somepony found this?”
She had a point, but I couldn’t allow myself to show weakness.
“It’s fine, I’ll just hide it somewhere no one will ever find it.”
“And where would that be?” She asked sarcastically.
“In the attic, obviously. Maybe tucked in between a joist and a rafter.”
She considered it for a moment, then shook her head.
“No, that won’t work. Even if we hid the ladder, any pegasus could just fly up there and find it. Besides, it’s empty, so there’s nowhere to hide even a single sheet of paper. No, it needs to be incinerated.”
“Woah woah woah, wait, hold on!” I panicked, scrambling to protect the paper from her magic. “I can erase the doodles, alright? See? Watch.”
I slapped a hand down on one of the doodles and let myself permeate the first few layers of the paper, then lightly acidified my hand. With a gentle scrubbing motion, I was able to agitate the ink particles enough to pull them away from the page. A few seconds later, that part of the paper was nearly as good as new, if slightly discolored.
A few minutes later, I had removed all my seditious scribbles.
“There, see? Like it never happened.”
Starlight studied the paper carefully, then sighed almost disappointedly when she couldn’t find any traces of my revenge fantasy.
“Alright, fine, but what if somepony is able to translate it? What does it say?”
“Starlight, nobody will be able to translate it.”
“The Masters might be able to.”
“Well, I wrote it in code!” I cried out, lying out of sheer exasperation.
Suddenly, we heard Coloratura- You know what? I’m just gonna keep calling her Rara. It’s a lot easier. Anyway, we heard Rara’s muffled voice calling up from downstairs. Starlight trotted over and cracked the door open.
“Are you okay up there?” Her voice leaked into the room through the crack. “I heard raised voices. Is somepony up there with you?”
“Oh! N- no, I’m fine, I was just… having a bad dream is all. No one else is here.”
“Alright, well, in that case, dinner’s ready now, if you’re up for it.”
“Thanks, I’ll be down in a second.”
Starlight shut the door and stalked over to the desk. “We’ll talk about this later,” she whispered harshly, snatching up the paper and stuffing it into her good saddlebag.
She made for the door, and I—rebellion welling up within me—covertly followed.
Starlight trotted briskly down the stairs, unaware of my insubordination. I, still wary of prying eyes from the outside, stayed upstairs, crawling along the stairwell wall until I reached a vantage point at the top corner of the doorway to the downstairs. From there, I could watch everything.
Starlight trotted over to the dining table, where Rara sat. The table was set for three, with a steaming, lidded pot in the center. Rara’s ears flicked towards the sound of Starlight’s hoofsteps, and she offered a smile in the direction of the noise.
“There you are, Starlight,” she rasped. “How are you feeling?”
“Ah, b- better, thank you,” Starlight stammered, taking a seat. “How about you? How were things while I was gone?”
“Good! I was able to do the dishes, wash and hang the laundry, and even scrub the floors.”
She accentuated each accomplishment by gesturing in the direction of each chore site with her snout. It was quite intriguing to see. Apparently, she had been blind long enough that she knew the layout of the cottage by heart. An impressive feat, whether she had been born blind or not.
Starlight beamed at her roommate.
“That’s great, Rara! Thank you. And… what about Night Glider?”
“Ah… she’s… throwing herself into her work again. She should be home soon, though.”
Just then, I heard the whoosh of displaced air and the clomp of hooves on hard packed earth from the front of the house.
“Ah, speak of the devil.”
The door creaked open, admitting an exhausted, azure pegasus with a windswept white mane.
“I’m home,” she announced with a tired huff. She unwrapped a ragged, crocheted scarf and hung it on a wooden rack near the door, then shuffled over to the table and slumped into one of the low seats.
“Welcome home, Night,” Starlight greeted. “How was work?”
Night Glider huffed, ladling out stew for herself, before doing the same for her roommates. “Same old horse apples. Melon Mist has his head so far up the Baron’s ass that the rest of us have to clean up after him. Today, the idiot queued up a batch of cumulonimbus at the factory for the coming shower, rather than nimbostratus. So, okay, great, let’s have a thunderstorm instead of rain. Naturally, it was up to the rest of us to recycle the whole batch.”
“That’s terrible,” Rara sympathized. “Are you going to be finished in time?”
“Yeah, we’ll make it, as long as Mist doesn’t screw up again too badly. So how about you? How was your day?”
“I finished my chores today,” she said, beaming.
“And you, Starlight?” Night Glider asked between bites, cerulean eyes locked on the soup she was wolfing down. “Get anything good?”
“Ah, well…” She shifted her eyes between her roommates, then let out a defeated sigh. “Not really, no.”
“What?” Rara quietly exclaimed. “But you told me you gathered a lot.”
“I… lied. I just didn’t want you to worry.”
Night Glider looked Starlight in the eyes for the first time since she entered the door.
“Star, what happened?”
“Th- there was a slime that attacked, and-”
“Starlight! What did I tell you about being careful?!”
“Night, I can explain-”
“No!” Night shouted, slamming the table with her hoof. “Damn it all, Starlight, we can’t afford to lose you! What would happen if you were to get hurt out there, or worse? I might be a fast flyer, but it doesn’t matter if I can’t find you!”
“I can take care of myself!”
“Oh? And what happens when you come back empty-hoofed one time too many? If Rubeo brings it to Lady Ruby Drops’ attention that his supplies are drying up, what then? We can’t heal you like you did for-”
“Night Glider!” Starlight shouted meaningfully, looking over at Rara.
Night Glider immediately clammed up, ears folding back against her head. She glanced over as well. Rara looked upset, but not terribly so.
“You guys, it’s okay,” Rara reassured with a rough whisper. “I’ve… I’ve come to terms with my injuries, really. You don’t need to worry about me.”
For a while, they continued eating in silence, Starlight and Night Glider with their spoons, and Rara eating directly from the bowl. As this dragged on, a concerned frown developed on Night Glider’s face. Finally, she decided to break the silence.
“Hey, Rara, could you pass the pepper? It’s on your left.”
Rara froze mid-bite. Starlight was about to say something, but Night Glider silenced her with a hoof.
“I… Can’t Starlight pass it?”
Night Glider fiercely shook her head at Starlight.
“Ah, um… sorry, Rara, but my magic hasn’t quite recovered from my trip, and the pepper is… out of my reach? W- would you mind, terribly?”
However, rather than feeling around for the pepper shaker with her hoof, like I expected, she started sniffing it out. Night Glider shared a meaningful look with Starlight, and I saw comprehension dawn on Starlight’s face. I, too, began to understand Night Glider’s game. It occured to me that I hadn’t seen Rara’s forehooves the entire time I had been in their house—they had been tucked underneath her when she was sitting on the couch. Rara eventually found the pepper when she sneezed. She grabbed the shaker with her teeth, struggling to pass it without further contamination.
“Um… Rara?” Starlight started. “Why didn’t you pass the pepper with your hooves?”
“I… I didn’t want to knock anything over.”
“Rara,” Night Glider intoned sternly, “show us your hooves.”
“N- no, it’s okay. I… I’m just… practicing.”
Shamefaced, Rara lifted her front hooves up and set them on the table. Both of her hooves were also wrapped in bandages, but these had the telltale, faint red splotches of fresh blood. Starlight gasped, and Night Glider cried out.
“What the hay, Rara?! Did you cut yourself trying to make dinner?”
“W- well, maybe, but-”
“Oh, for pony’s sake! If you were having that much trouble, you should have waited for one of us to get home.”
“I… I just wanted to have something ready for when you two returned…”
“Rara,” Starlight soothed, “we know you want to feel useful, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of your health and safety.”
“I know,” Rara sniffled. Her teary, torn voice stabbed at my immaterial heart. “I just… You two do so much for me, and I… I do so little in return.”
With an exchanged glance, Starlight and Night Glider got up and moved to either side of Rara, enclosing her in a comforting hug.
“We understand,” Starlight sympathized. “Just remember that we’re here because we want to be. Because we’re your friends. And we always will be, no matter what. You don’t have to feel like you need to do as much as us. Just do what you can, and we’ll be plenty grateful.”
As I watched them comfort each other, I came to understand something about the human psyche. So, here’s the thing: every human—barring psychopaths—is born with a visceral, internal sense of justice. Whenever we perceive a situation to be unfair, we become indignant or angry. But, truthfully, there’s no such thing as justice. The world isn’t fair, and it’s not supposed to be. Justice is something we impose on the world, because it doesn’t exist in nature. There wasn’t going to be a change unless somebody stood up and made it happen. Starlight tried to stand up, and I was the result. I had some big shoes to fill, but the righteous fury building in me made me want to grow feet, just so I could hammer at them until they swelled up to size.
Fortunately, any further thoughts of self-mutilation were chased from my mind when Starlight pulled away from the hug.
“Alright girls, as much as I would rather stay, I need to go report in at the Academy. Rubeo will be…”—she gave a weary sigh—“…expecting me to report in, before the night is out.”
The other two turned to face her, anxiety plain on their faces.
“Are you sure?” Rara fretted. “You can’t just… leave it until tomorrow?”
Starlight shook her head.
“No, the sooner I get there, the less trouble I’ll be in. I really only stopped in to eat before meeting with him. Speaking of…” She picked up her bowl. “I’m going to finish this upstairs, while I get ready and think up an excuse to give him.”
That was my cue to retreat. I climbed back up to the ceiling and trailed just behind Starlight as she ascended the stairs. Following her back into her room unnoticed was as simple as it had been when I followed her into Autumn’s ‘study’.
She whispered my name, understandably unable to find me. I dropped down from the ceiling above the door with a squelch. Starlight jumped and whipped around, but let out a sigh of relief when she saw it was just me.
“Eric, you startled me,” she murmured. “What were you doing up there?”
“Well, it wouldn’t do for me to be sitting out in plain sight if somebody else were to walk in here, would it?” I responded in a similarly subtle tone. It was a bluff, yes, but a believable one.
“Ah, right.” She trotted over and set the bowl down in front of me. “Here, I saved you some soup.”
“Oh! Uh, thank you.”
For a moment, I could only stare at her as she trotted over to her saddlebags, to sift through them. Given my ability to consume pretty much anything, I hadn’t expected her to consider my nutritional needs. It was actually quite heartwarming. Unfortunately, without a sense of smell, I couldn’t appreciate the sentiment as thoroughly as I would have liked.
Looking into the bowl, I noticed it was still half-full. I turned a questioning glance to Starlight’s back, since she was preoccupied. I was certain she needed the food far more than I; after nearly eighteen hours, I still hadn’t felt the ‘hunger’ pangs I had earlier.
Wordlessly, I rolled over to Starlight and set the bowl in front of her. Taken aback, she turned to face me, scrutinizing my expression. I headed her off before she could make any assumptions.
“Eat,” I commanded. “You need it more than I do. I’m not even hungry right now.”
“Are you sure?” She fretted. “It’s been nearly a whole day since you… ate.”
“Sure I’m sure,” I asserted. “Besides, until I figure out how I can turn my sense of smell back on, I won’t be able to fully appreciate Rara’s cooking.”
Starlight watched me for any sign of regret, then took the bowl back and quickly finished it off, betraying her hunger. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to segue into the question that had been burning at the back of my mind since I entered her home. I waited until she had finished to field my next question.
“So, just what happened to Rara for her to end up like that, anyway?”
Starlight stiffened for a moment, before letting go of a sigh, and continuing to examine the contents of her saddlebags.
“Well, like I said before, she’s one of the reasons I decided on a plan as drastic as summoning the Smooze. You see, Rara used to be a servant at Baron Stiff Breeze’s mansion. One day a little over a year ago, his wife, Winter Breeze, decided that she didn’t like the way her husband was looking at Rara. So, she reported to Lady Ruby Drops that Rara was making eyes at her husband.
“At first, I thought that Lady Rain would see through her deception. At that point, I’d never actually seen her in person. So I went to see the public trial, full of hope. But the reality was much harsher.”
Starlight moved over to her bed and climbed up onto it, to sit with her front hooves in her lap. I followed to sit before her on the floor.
“Lady Rain holds court during the night. She tells the public that it’s because she considers night to be the most beautiful time of day. But really, it’s because it’s much easier to conceal her dealings under the cover of darkness and sleep.
“The trial started much as I expected it to, with the Baroness making her accusations, although there was barely anypony in the audience. She had this disgustingly smug grin on her face, like she knew it didn’t matter one bit what she told the Lady. The matter had already been settled. The rest of us just didn’t know it yet.
“Rara was never given the chance to defend herself. When it came time for her to give her side of the story, Lady Rain just looks at her, then asks her one question:
“‘How often do you sing?’”
I frowned in confusion, and Starlight smiled sadly.
“Rara used to have a beautiful singing voice. She would sing every morning as the sun rose. Everypony in town loved to hear her songs. Although unsure what that had to with the trial, Rara still confirmed as much to Lady Rain.”
“The Lady only muttered to herself, ‘So, it was you.’
“Immediately after, she pronounced judgement. She sentenced Rara to… to have her eyes… burned out. With hot coals. ‘For adulterous advances and subversive plotting,’ she claimed. She… Lady Rain carried out the punishment right then and there. The screams… I can still remember…”
Starlight put a hoof over her mouth, turning green around the gills.
“Then… then, when she was done, she said, ‘You were hollering quite a bit, there. Here, you must be parched.’ And she summoned a… a kettle of boiling water.”
My expression must have gone from disgusted to horrified, because she seemed to decide I need not be told what Lady Rain did with the water. I really didn’t.
“Rara was so close to dying. If I had hesitated even a few seconds before healing her, she might not have survived, let alone still been able to speak.”
“And that’s what led you to summoning the Smooze,” I stated. Surely, that was the end of this terrible story.
“…No. But it’s what led to the final straw.”
Starlight took a deep, shuddering breath, and continued.
“After I had brought Rara back to our cottage and made sure she had been stabilized, I returned to the court to confront the Baroness and appeal to Lady Rain for mercy. But when I got there, the Baroness had already returned home. So, I marched up to Lady Rain, intent on making her understand the full extent of her mistake.”
Starlight scoffed bitterly, continuing with a sneer. “Because she couldn’t possibly be as cruel as I had just witnessed. It went against everything I had ever been told.
“I know now that she was going to kill me that night, after I confronted her in her courtroom. She told me to follow her, and I did, telling myself that I was seeing my plan through. But, really, I knew deep down that I didn’t have a choice.
“As we walked, she rattled off some horse apples about ‘the greater good’ and ‘keeping order.’ It wasn’t until she led me into the dungeons beneath her keep that I began to understand just how royally mulched I was. But then, as we walked… something caught my eye.”
Starlight went silent. The seconds dragged on into minutes. I couldn’t tell if she was just thinking about how to phrase her thoughts, or if she was getting lost in the labyrinthine atrocities of her past. But I dared not speak up, even if only to reassure her. If I broke the silence, I feared I might also break her conviction in telling this story. And I needed to know, to truly understand this hellhole of a world.
After what felt like hours, she resumed.
“When I was young, I had a friend. His name was Sunburst. We were almost inseparable. I… If things had been different… we might have gotten married one day.”
Here, her voice cracked, and pit of dread began to grow in my core, sucking out what little warmth I felt from the room.
“Sunburst went to Silverglow at a young age. He always had natural talent for magic. For years, we regularly sent each other letters, even visited each other on occasion. As the years went on, it seemed like Sunburst grew busier and busier, and our visits fewer and fewer. Then, one day, the letters… changed. Like it wasn’t really Sunburst writing anymore. He stopped visiting me altogether. The days when I got letters grew further apart… until one day, even the letters stopped coming. I… I studied to get into Silverglow, to find out what happened.”
Starlight bit back a sudden sob. The tears that had been pooling behind her eyes broke through the dam, sending rivulets down her cheeks. My heart leapt up into my throat.
“Th- that night, in Lady Ruby’s dungeon, I saw him in one of the cells. He looked… dead. There was no l- life in his eyes, though I c- could see him breathing. Then… Then Lady Rain noticed. Her face became this… hideous smile. She d- dragged Sunburst out of the cell with her magic. Our eyes…”
For a moment, it seemed like she was going to be unable to continue speaking. Her shoulders shook with each strangled sob, biting down on her hoof so that her roommates downstairs wouldn’t hear. But then she hiccuped, and the words came tumbling out.
“Our eyes met, and- and he recognized me, and it was like the last bits of hope he had left suddenly evaporated. And he was crying. And then she started beating him for crying without permission… and… and…”
At this point, she was sobbing openly into her hooves. I felt dirty, like I was the one who had caused her grief. Irrational, I know, but I just hated that I had thought it was a good idea to ask her to dredge up these painful memories. So, I did the only thing I could think of, and pulled myself up beside her on the bed. As I did, I condensed my outer surface into a tough, pliable, and—most importantly—dry skin, so I wouldn’t accidentally get stuck to her blanket. This shrunk me down to the size of a navel orange, but there really wasn’t another option. I had to comfort her, somehow.
I couldn’t even reach the elbow of her foreleg at my height, and her hooves were busy wiping the tears away from her eyes and covering up her sniffles, hiccups, and sobs. I didn’t really have any appropriate angles of approach, so I went with the one that seemed the least offensive. I placed my acorn-sized hands on the outside of her thigh and gently stroked, like a parent might the head of their crying child.
Starlight gasped and twitched, looking down at me with eyes like dinner plates. Then, I was suddenly swept up and crushed. It took me a moment to realize that she was hugging me. As she attempted to squeeze the life out of a creature with no internal organs, I felt all my reservations about helping this poor mare being swept out the window. The absolute desperation with which she clung to me, and the violence of her grief; those kinds of things can’t be faked, even by the best of method actors.
At the time, my mind was telling me two things. One, I was not nearly as prepared for this situation as I tried to convince myself I was. And two, that wasn’t going to stop me from kicking in the teeth of everyone who tried to get in the way of my eventual coup. Like bile in my throat, I could feel the rising urge to stomp up to this Ruby Drops and stuff her head-first into a septic tank, where she belonged.
Of course, my premature insurrection was put on hold by reality stepping in.
“Hey Starlight, are you okay in there?” Night Glider called through the door.
Starlight gasped and unceremoniously shoved me beneath her covers. I heard the creak of hinges and the light clop of hooves as Night Glider entered the room. There was a great deal of sniffles and rustling as Starlight rushed to cover up her distress.
“Y- yeah, I’m fine! Why do you ask?” Her voice cracked and wavered like a balsa wood bridge.
Night Glider didn’t say anything at first, but I could hear the disbelief in her silence.
“This is about Sunburst, isn’t it?”
Starlight whimpered pitifully. There was a shuffling of hooves, and I was nearly squashed by Night Glider sitting down next to Starlight. For a long time, they didn’t say anything. Night Glider just leaned into Starlight, rubbing her back and giving her a shoulder to cry on. Then, Night Glider gently cleared her throat.
“I won’t say everything will turn out alright. We both know that much. But, I mean, there’s always the possibility that, in a decade or so, Lady Rain will get bored of tormenting you two and let him go. Or, at the very least, put him out of his misery.”
I winced. How fucked up do things have to be for the thought ‘maybe he’ll die’ to be considered comforting? Of course, Starlight only cried harder. She continued to cry for almost an hour. Once her sobbing had petered down to sporadic hiccups, Night Glider separated from the embrace.
“Are you going to be okay?”
Starlight nodded. “Y- yeah, I’ll be alright. Thanks.”
“No problem, Star. Chin up, okay? We’ll help you through this.”
“Right.” She sniffed thoroughly, clearing her nose. “Okay, I really do have to get going.”
“Alright. See you downstairs.”
I waited until I could hear Night Glider’s muted hoofsteps heading downstairs to exit my hiding place. Starlight was rubbing her snout with a fetlock, so I gave her a reassuring pat on the knee. I then dropped to the floor, let go of the tension keeping me small and solid, and rolled over to her saddlebags. As I was filtering through the hole in the burned bag, Starlight called out to me.
“Eric, what are you doing?”
“Getting into position, obviously. What, you didn’t think I was going to let you go alone, did you?”
“What?! No, you can’t! I just got you somewhere safe! You can’t go outside. What if someone finds you?”
“Then we’ll deal with it. Look, I’m not letting you out of my sights. We’re in this thing together, for better or worse.”
Starlight huffed shakily.
“I… You’re right. I have no room to complain.”
Starlight took a deep breath, then got to her hooves.
The walk to the school was uneventful. Most ponies were already at home, getting ready for bed. The few that weren’t paid us no mind. The only sounds were the rustling of leaves in the evening breeze and Starlight’s hooves on the hard-packed earth. Night air filtered into my saddlebag and chilled me to my core. I was almost relieved when we reached the school.
Silverglow itself was just as cold and foreboding as its Victorian silhouette. The halls were dark and empty, sparsely decorated with tapestries and curtains in deep blues and purples, and the occasional somber portrait, illuminated by wrought iron torch sconces. We crossed paths with even fewer ponies inside. Before I could even consider defacing one of those portraits for looking at us funny, we were standing before a deep red door.
Starlight took a few deep breaths, trying to steady her nerves. I patted her side through the bag, to remind her that I would be there for her. She took heart in the gesture, and a moment later I heard the knock of her hoof on the door.
“Enter,” a wizened male voice called out from inside.
Starlight pushed open the door, and we entered the office. From what I could see in between the cracks, it was meticulously well-kept. A wooden workbench spanned the length of the far wall, housing a wide array of scientific equipment underneath a handful of west-facing windows. Books and sheafs of paper were stacked neatly between the various experiments, and completely covered the low island counter in the center of the room. Bookshelves lined the wall next to us, packed full of various sets of tomes and single titles, along with the occasional curio. A massive chalkboard took up a majority of the north wall, apart from a small door that led into a small side room, probably a stockroom. A heavy writing desk sat pushed up against the southern wall, next to a large, clockwork model of what had to be this planet’s solar system.
Sitting at the writing desk was a mature unicorn stallion with a brick red coat and a dusty grey mane and tail. A long, tidy beard hung from his muzzle, ending in a little outward swoop. He wore some kind of black robes, like an old professor’s gown made to fit a horse. As we neared, he turned to observe his guest, fixing Starlight with deep brown eyes.
“Ah, Miss Glimmer, you have finally returned. Certainly took your time getting from the town gates to my office.” He got up and moved over to the workbench. “Now then, let’s have a look at what you brought for me today, hm?”
Starlight shuffled on her hooves. “Er, well… Preceptor Rubeo, the thing is-”
“Come now, Starlight, I haven’t got all night. If you have questions about something, we can address them as we go.”
“But, Preceptor, I-”
“No buts! I’m a busy stallion, Starlight, now hurry up and come over here.”
Starlight stayed where she was, gaze fixed on her hooves. Rubeo watched her with a growing frown.
“Ms. Glimmer, I don’t know what you’re playing at, but-”
“I don’t have anything!”
Rubeo went silent, eyes growing dark.
“I- I was attacked, and there was a slime, and it- it got into my bags, and-”
Rubeo advanced on Starlight, expression growing angrier with every word. Finally, he interrupted her, voice quivering with barely suppressed fury.
“So, what you are telling me… is that you failed to bring back even a single thing of value… even after I made it absolutely clear that our Lady Rain would be visiting soon…?”
Starlight didn’t respond, staring shamefaced at the floor.
There was a sudden, loud crack, and Starlight’s head jerked to the side, as Rubeo’s hoof on the opposite side of my saddlebag entered my vision. I was stunned. He had just slapped her across the face.
“Idiot foal! Did I not explicitly tell you never to return from a gathering trip without something to show for it? Do you have holes in your brain, or are you deliberately trying to draw the Lady’s attention? Because this is how you get expelled, or worse!”
By now, Rubeo was pacing harshly in front of Starlight. I bristled, feeling the fury wash over my mind like burning static. I watched him like a hawk, preparing to whip him in the eyes with a tentacle at the first sign of further violence.
“And think about how that reflects on me as a teacher! I don’t know about you, but I’d rather my commitment to the Lady’s education system not be questioned! Not to mention the rumors I’ve been hearing about what happened at the Baron’s summer home today. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were trying to put yourself on the Inquisition’s watchlist! Therefore, tomorrow, you will go back out there and show everypony that you aren’t insurrectionary by gathering thirty bundles of witchwood bark, or you will not come back at all! Now get your sorry flank in the stockroom, and I had better see all of the incoming materials—that you didn’t provide—processed by morning, or you will wish it had been timberwolves, and not just a simple slime!”
Rubeo stalked out of the room, slamming the door behind him with his telekinesis. I glared claymores at his back, wishing that looks kill, or at least severely maim. Then, a soft sound caught my attention: the patter of water on hardwood. I turned around to find that Starlight was crying again. I bit my tongue, unable to put my jumble of thoughts into words. Instead, I opened the hole a crack, extended out a dry, hollow tendril, and stroked her mane. She sniffled and leaned into my touch. Eventually, I gathered up the presence of mind to say something.
“I’m… I’m sorry, Starlight. If I had been paying better attention, I would have been able to stop him. But I promise, if he tries that again, I will flay him within an inch of his life.”
“Oh, no, please don’t! H- he means well. And it… it really was my fault. If I had been thinking, I would have gathered at least something while we were making our way back from the cairn. I just… I didn’t remember that Lady Rain is coming. I was so obsessed with letting you out… W- what are we going to do?”
I gritted my teeth. “Don’t worry, we’ll think of something. If nothing else, we can just stay away until she leaves, and claim that it took longer than expected to gather his witchwood. Besides, I need time to figure out the logistics of how to stuff thirty bundles of sticks up a crotchety old stallion’s ass.”
Starlight had to stifle a surprised laugh.
“Eric, don’t. We’re already in enough hot water, as it is.”
“Alright, fine… Can I at least put spiders in his desk?”
“No!” She denied as she wiped away the tears. Still, as exasperated as she tried to sound, I could detect a hint of amusement.
“Okay, okay! Well, let’s get started, then. Just tell me what you need me to do.”
The next couple hours were spent at the small table in the stockroom, processing large quantities of a few dozen different types of flora, liquids, minerals, and animal parts. Much of it required heavy use of a mortar and pestle. I helped out where I could, using the spare mortar set and cleaning out the mortars much more thoroughly than any amount of of water could. Some things needed to be boiled and distilled, so we put those in the alembic while we worked on other materials. Other things didn’t require much preparation, and could quickly be sorted into the shelves and iceboxes. For the few things that required a complicated series of tasks to be properly preserved, I just helped in whatever way I could, watching her work and following her instructions. While we worked, I made sure the bruise forming on her cheek was kept iced, letting my anger simmer under the surface.
As I was pouring the last of the mandrake root juice—our final chore—into its phial, a quiet snore drifted by me from behind. I turned to see Starlight asleep, head on her hooves. I smiled, though I felt a heavy weight in the pit of my imaginary stomach. Gently, I made sure to remove all residue of our work from her hooves and the surrounding desk. Didn’t want her to inhale something toxic as she slept, after all. Then, as quietly as I could, I set everything in order, shelving the ingredients, cleaning out the various pieces of equipment, and putting them all back in their places.
No sooner had I set down the last beaker, than I heard the door to the office open. Panicked, I quickly hid under one of the shelves, watching the door to the stockroom.
Rubeo emerged from the doorframe, scowling. I tensed up, white hot rage burning behind my eyes. If he so much as moved towards Starlight, I was ready to leap out and strangle him.
Instead, he looked at her, glanced at the spot on the floor where the unprocessed materials had sat previously, then back at her. The scowl on his face softened, and he let out an exasperated sigh.
“Foolish girl,” he muttered to himself. His horn lit up and I coiled up like a spring. There was a sudden flash, and I launched myself towards his head. But then, for a split second, I caught a glimpse of what he had conjured, and was somehow able to stop myself mid-attack. I whipped a tendril back the way I came and yanked myself back to my hiding place, like a bungee jumper on the rebound.
I looked back in time to see a blanket fluttering down onto Starlight’s sleeping form. Rubeo stood in the doorway, watching her for a moment. Then, as he turned to leave, he whispered shakily to her over his shoulder.
“I… I’m sorry, young Starlight. Please, try to stay out of trouble. For your own sake, if not mine. I have lost far too many students already… Far, far too many…”
I watched him leave, incredulity battling with relief and confusion. I wasn’t sure what to make of this turn of events. On the one hand, I wanted to hate his guts for hitting Starlight. But here, I had just been presented with evidence that he regretted losing his temper, and that he actually cared for her well-being. It sent my mind spinning. Quite abruptly, I no longer had a clear target for my anger.
Frustrated, I rolled out from under the shelves as soon as I heard the door had shut once more, and climbed up the table leg. Starlight was still fast asleep, with a slight smile on her lips. I frowned harder, fussing with the blanket and a few strands of her mane that had fallen across her face. I’d have to test just how sorry he truly was later. For now, I needed to let off some steam.
I dropped off the desk and rolled over to the far end of the stockroom, where a small window was set high in the stone wall, looking out on the town. A short, slurping climb later, and I could glare at all the ant-like pony figures down below. I found myself wondering how their world had become so screwed up. Surely somebody had tried to make a stand against their oppressors by now. So what had happened to them?
Honestly, I could guess what had happened, but I just didn’t know the details. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to, with what I learned about Rara. Still, it made me livid to think that creatures as adorable as you ponies could have anything similar to the Dark Ages of human history. All I needed now was an overzealous religious sect, and it would be like I was living in 12th century Europe.
Except for those few ponies that lived in their own personal Renaissance. I was acutely reminded of the ruling class when that abomination of a carriage rolled into view, casting mocking glints at me in the light of the Noble District’s streetlamps. As I watched Autumn’s status symbol travel down the streets, likely towards the Breeze’s villa, an idea insinuated itself into my subconscious. A horrible, awful, wonderful idea. All my acidic frustration, my feelings of impotence and helplessness, it all came to a head. I couldn’t really harm anybody, not without drawing attention to myself.
But some good, old-fashioned vandalism of private property probably wouldn’t go amiss.
I looked back at Starlight, to make sure she was asleep, then back out at the carriage. I followed it with my eyes, until it drove up a long, empty road to a grand mansion, and pulled into a wide, multi-vehicle coach house just off the main building. I grinned wickedly. Finally, I had an outlet for all this piss and vinegar building up in me.
To prepare for my return, I hurried out into the main office and grabbed a piece of chalk, bringing it back to the window. I popped the latch, leaned over the edge, and drew a nice, thick circle on the stone beneath the glass. My re-entry point identified, I set the chalk on the window ledge and slithered out into the night.
Eager and impatient to set out, and less than concerned about the consequences of gravity on my boneless, bloodless form, I decided to run another experiment. I coiled up, just like I had done not fifteen minutes prior. After a few steadying breaths—not that they really did anything for me—I let go of my inhibitions and sprang away from the wall. For a split second, my mind reeled with the sensation of the free-fall. But I gathered my wits and pulled up memories of videos of flying snakes.
In moments, I was not just falling, but falling with style. I glided, albeit at a fairly steep angle, but from my height, I still manage to clear the school’s outer wall. I landed with a splat amid some barrels, just outside what looked like a general store. After a quick look back to make sure I could still see my mark under the window from this distance, I rolled off in the direction of the Breeze estate.
The trip was fairly easy. I wasn’t terribly concerned with disguising myself while under the cover of night, and I didn’t come across many guards. Those that did cross my path stuck to the main streets, and weren’t really on the lookout for rat-sized creatures. It took me about an hour to reach the edge of the estate, but there was no doubt in my mind when I had found it.
The outer fence stretched at least a hundred yards in either direction, from where I sat. It was a large, intricate, wrought-iron number, backed by a large hedgerow; a scaled up version of the one outside the summer house. Of course, for someone of my physicality, it posed about as much of a hindrance as a colonnade.
I rolled up their front lawn with about as much difficulty as an afternoon stroll. No one was looking out of the mansion’s darkened windows. The few private security guards patrolling the grounds appeared to be as alert as narcoleptic koalas. I had to restrain myself from laughing out loud at the absolute ease with which I penetrated their quote-unquote “defenses”. I was able to roll right up to the coach house and provoke nary a twitch of the guards’ ears. Slipping inside the garage-like building proved only slightly more difficult than the approach. The doors were locked, but the building was anything but airtight. After a few minutes of searching, I was able to find a hole large enough for me to slip my incompressible eyeballs through, followed by the rest of my amorphous form.
Once I had infiltrated the building, I had a brief look around. Apart from my target, there was one other carriage inside; a trim, dark-colored coach, much more tastefully designed than that gilded monstrosity of Autumn’s. Most likely his father’s vehicle, I reasoned, but no less of a valid target for it. There were also a few tool cabinets, as well as a plethora of woodworking facilities; lathes, sawhorses, and the like. I rolled over to the cabinets, and gently opened them up. The first was all tools, while the second held nails, screws, and other fixings, as well as a few unlabeled jars, likely linseed oil and perhaps some other finishes. I grinned evilly when I found some jars of what could only be turpentine. My next lucky finds were the barrels of pine tar stacked next to the cabinets. I found one with a loose lid and pried it open. I set aside a few tools for my own purposes, then took all the tools that I feasibly could and dumped them into the pine tar, one by one.
A petty move, perhaps, but nothing I was doing tonight could really be considered anything but.
I pried open one of the other barrels and dumped the nails, screws, and a few other tools that I wasn’t able to fit into the first. Then I replaced the lids and closed the cabinets. Those small mischiefs achieved, I turned to my main objective.
The possibilities swarmed in my head. Should I just saw the axles in half? Dump turpentine all over them? Perhaps I could find a dead raccoon, throw it inside and seal the doors shut. Fire would take care of them for good, but it was too noticeable. Could I somehow get the wood to rot?
As I sat there contemplating, that same little voice that gave me the idea to vandalize these vehicles in the first place spoke up once more.
Perhaps I should peel off the gold leaf first. No sense in letting it go to waste.
The more I stared at Autumn’s gilded monstrosity, the more it felt like my mouth was watering. Just like it had when I first saw the stupid thing. It was perplexing, but I couldn’t find a reason not to. I was already planning on ruining these status symbols, why not take a little something for myself?
In a trance, I rolled over to Autumn’s carriage, and placed a hand on one of the gilded wheels. It appeared my body had automatically decided that this was the best course of action, because moments later, the gold began to flake off and drift towards the center of my mass. The oddest sensation washed over me, the closest thing to taste I had experienced since awakening in my new form. It was like the subtle sweetness of dark chocolate, the spicy tang of cajun barbeque, and the rib-sticking goodness of down-home Southern comfort foods, all rolled into one. I couldn’t get enough. Before I knew it, I had stripped the one wheel bare and started on the rest of the paneling.
An untold amount of time later, I reemerged into the land of the conscious, reeling like a drunkard—though in truth, I felt less like I was drunk and more like I had downed a gallon of water too quickly after severe dehydration. I looked up to find that I had gobbled up every last bit of gold I could find on both of the vehicles. There wasn’t nearly as much on the Baron’s carriage, but that hadn’t mattered to me at all. Fortunately, I’d at least had the presence of mind to penetrate the grain of the carriages’ axles, worrying the fibers apart until they splintered. Unfortunately, however, that was about as far as I would get.
Through my bleary haze, I recognized shouting and the barking of dogs. Large dogs. And they were coming towards the coach house.
I cast about haphazardly, trying to remember where I had come in. The voices were at the door. I could hear the rattle of a key in a padlock, and the scratch of canine claws on wood. I found a hole and squeezed through it; a markedly more difficult task than it had been before. The coach house doors rattled open, right as I flopped out into the night.
I rolled across the lawn as fast as my RPMs would allow. Somehow I felt faster than I had been earlier. The fence loomed up, also not quite as high as I remembered. Still, I could hear the dogs barking behind me, so I didn’t stop to contemplate.
The trip back to the school was a blur. I travelled across the rooftops for a majority of it, trying not to leave a trail for the dogs to follow. It seemed to work, because I could hear them falling further and further behind, until they were nothing more than a siren in the distance. Almost without warning, I found myself scaling the walls of the school, watching the sky above me lightening with the coming dawn. Despite the fog in my mind, I found the chalk circle, and absorbed it as I pried open the window and climbed through.
The stockroom was the same as I had left it. Starlight still slumbered at the prep table, and nothing had been moved or replaced. Sleepily, I crawled into Starlight’s saddlebag, and nestled in, feeling fatigue for the first time in days.
After what felt like only a few minutes, I was startled awake by the saddlebag being jostled around. I heard a feminine, strained grunt, that I eventually recognized as Starlight’s voice. The morning light suddenly flooded into the bag.
“Sheesh, Eric, what did you put in he-”
Starlight choked up. I stared up at her, my eyes dry and bloodshot—or at least whatever passed for blood in this form—trying to figure out why she was interrupting my nap.
“Starlight, I’m trying to sleep. Is it important?”
“Ummm… Eric? Have you gotten… bigger?”