“Yeah. You’ve, um… gained mass?”
I blinked the sleep out of my eyes.
“Starlight, are you calling me fat?”
“No! You’ve gotten bigger! You’re filling up my saddlebag!”
Some primal part of my brain was suspiciously pleased by the words coming out of her mouth, but the part that was enjoying finally having fallen asleep after more than twenty-four hours awake bulldozed that feeling aside with a hearty helping of annoyance. I growled and rolled out of the bag. Apparently, I wasn’t going to be getting any more sleep today, so instead, I’d have to settle for giving her the business.
“Starlight, I was slee-”
My business ground to a screeching halt when I got a good look at Starlight. Somehow, during the night, she had shrunk ever so slightly. Or, at least, she looked smaller. As I found myself looking around, everything appeared just a little bit different from what I was expecting. It was as if somebody had come in while I was sleeping and replaced everything in the room with marginally scaled-down replicas.
Or had I actually gotten bigger?
“Uhhh… Ah! Uh, um, q- quick, mirror! I need a mirror!”
Starlight looked around, but couldn’t find anything. She galloped out into the main room, leaving me to freak out internally. Had I really grown? Maybe I just had bad gas? Was I becoming unstable, like, at a molecular level? What the fuck was happening? The possibilities raced through my mind, each more unhelpful than the last.
Finally, after countless agonizing seconds, Starlight skidded back into the storage room, a small vanity mirror in her magical grasp.
“Here, use this!”
She set the mirror down on the ground before me, and I was whisked into view.
It took me a minute of staring at my reflection, but I eventually realized I was most certainly larger. The only tell was my eyes, which appeared to have shrunk, relative to the rest of my jello-like face. Now, instead of being the size of a grapefruit that had been flung at the ground, I was more like a watermelon. I confirmed it by dragging her saddlebags over to the mirror. Sure enough, I had outgrown them overnight. I would have to compress my mass if I wanted to fit.
I stared, flabbergasted, at my reflection. Was it because I had finally digested all the material I’d consumed? No, any trace of matter had dissolved long before I even arrived in Ponyville. I didn’t feel ill or uncomfortable, either, since I already knew that this body could still feel pain and nausea. So what changed last night? I went out after Starlight had fallen asleep, snuck into the Breeze’s estate, found their coach house, and then…
“What was that?”
“Starlight, I know this is a long shot, but do you have any gold that you wouldn’t mind losing?”
“Uh… You’re kidding, right? The closest I’ve ever gotten to anything made of gold is Autumn’s carriage.”
Then, her eyes narrowed as she began analyzing my expression.
“Why do you ask? Does this have something to do with your sudden growth?”
“I, uh… No?”
“You don’t sound too sure about that.”
Honestly, she was going to find out sooner or later, so I figured it would probably be easiest to do damage control now, rather than risk a panic attack later.
“Okay, so I may have snuck into the Breeze estate, and it’s possible that Autumn’s carriage has been vandalized-”
“Tell me you didn’t…”
“-so, there might be a correlation between my sudden growth and the recent removal of the gold leaf on his carriage, yes.”
Starlight sat heavily on the ground and draped her forelegs across her muzzle, covering her eyes, and groaned like she was dying of dysentery.
“Eric, what were you thinking?!” She all but screamed. “Are you trying to get caught?”
“No, just doing what I can to bring the fight to the bourgeoisie.”
“You can’t do that! We don’t even have a plan!”
“Well, then, let’s get some information so that we can make a plan.”
Before she could continue, Starlight was cut off by the sound of the door to the hallway opening. Panicked, she tried picking me up, only to realize she couldn’t get a grip on me with her magic. Instead, she took the other option, and scooped me up with her saddlebags, whispering harshly for me to shrink down. I complied, condensing myself down until I was cantaloupe sized and the consistency of Play-Doh.
“Starlight! Get up!” Rubeo demanded, striding into the back room just as she set the saddlebags back down.
“H- Here, sir!” She exclaimed. “I’m awake!”
I peeked out of the gap between the flap and the pouch to see Rubeo looking over at Starlight, clearly not expecting her to have woken already.
“Hmph. So it would seem.” He made a show of looking over at the processing table, and all the empty trays stacked up beside it. “I see you were able to finish processing the materials, at least. I trust they were put away correctly?”
“Yes, sir, every one.”
“Good. Then you may stop by the mess hall before you go back out.” He pulled a folded letter with a wax seal out of his robes before handing it to Starlight. “From what I have seen this morning, you will likely need this if you wish to be allowed through the gates. Now, trot along. Daylight is burning.”
He turned to walk back into the main lab, but then stopped to call back over his shoulder, “Remember, child: thirty bundles of witchwood bark and no less.”
Starlight hesitated, then followed Rubeo out into the lab, out of my view.
“Um, Preceptor, if I may-?”
“Yes, child, what is it?” He grumbled impatiently.
“Th- there’s a book I need to re-checkout from the library-”
“Then do so on your way to the mess. You don’t my writ of passage to enter the library.”
“Well, I… I would, but I-”
“For the love of Camellia, girl, spit it out.”
“The book. It’s… I need to…”
I heard Rubeo let loose a very put-upon sigh.
“Bring it here.”
Starlight trotted back into the stockroom just long enough to swap the letter for the book in her saddlebags. Unwilling to leave her alone with Rubeo and bad news, I climbed out and rolled over to the doorway, edging around the corner just enough to see Starlight and a sliver of Rubeo’s face.
“Um, it’s this one. S- So, you see, I have to fix it before-”
“Oh for goodness’ sake, child. So, I guess it’s true, then; Autumn Breeze brought you into his summer home and it somehow caught aflame.”
“Well… Not ‘somehow’, sir. Autumn threw a lit lantern at the front door.”
“And why would he do that?”
“Well, he was… intoxicated, sir. He tried to… to have his way with me, but fell unconscious in the middle of the attempt. I ended up pinned beneath him. But then, no more than a half-hour later, he woke up screaming about monsters, and ran from the room. I was stunned, and I’m not sure how long I lay there. It took the smell of something burning to bring me to my hooves. My saddlebags were nearly consumed in the fire. I had to leave by the back door, the front of the house was burning so badly.”
She lied admirably, crafting a story that was much more believable than the truth. I had to wonder how long she’d been working on that one. Rubeo studied her for a moment, then snorted distastefully.
“Well, for what it’s worth, I believe you. King knows that that colt has a weakness for the sauce. Not that the fact will do you much good if the brat decides you’ve seen too much. If I were you, Starlight, I would lay low for a few days. Take your time gathering witchwood today. Stay out of the public eye when you return. Give him time to drink the memory away, and pray that he doesn’t go to Lady Ruby when she comes in the next few days. Now, let me see the book.”
Starlight passed the book into Rubeo’s magical grasp. Then, after intently studying the state of its cover and pages, his horn flared brightly. I could only stare in awe as the burn began to recede, as though the VHS of Time was being rewound before my eyes. In mere seconds, the cover was restored to pristine condition.
When not a trace of fire damage was left to be seen, the glow subsided, and Rubeo opened his eyes with a weary sigh.
“There. Try to keep it away from open flames this time.”
“I… I will, Preceptor. Thank you.”
I saw her legs shift and decided it was time to abort my snoopery. My intuition was proven correct when I heard her hoofsteps trot around the corner, just as I was clambering back inside my allotted saddlebag. I know she saw me, because her hoofsteps faltered for a split second.
A moment later, I felt the floor drop out from beneath me, and I smacked into Starlight’s side. I settled into the familiar jostle of her gait, and we were off once more.
“Well, I’ll be off, then,” Starlight said. I couldn’t see Rubeo’s reaction, but I could hear it well enough.
“Yes, fine. No need to hurry back. But do return with my ingredients this time. Fates help you, should you come back empty-hooved while Lady Drops is visiting.” His words may have been a bit terse, but I could sense none of his earlier vitriol. If anything, it sounded like he was trying his hardest not to let his concern slip into his words.
“Of course, Preceptor,” Starlight assured with a bow, “and thank you.”
“Be off with you!” He shouted, his concern even more pronounced with volume, although I suspected that wasn’t his intention.
Starlight trotted out of the lab, shutting the door gently behind her. We made it a few paces before she whispered to me.
“See? He isn’t all bad.”
I snorted derisively. “I’m still going to pay back that temper of his.”
Starlight didn’t say anything, but I could feel her self-satisfied smile through the bounce in her step. Worst of all, I was starting to understand why. The relationship between Starlight and Rubeo felt almost familial, like he was a grandfather to her, albeit one with a rotten temper. Thinking about the previous night still sent spasms of righteous fury along my jelly-like arms, but I knew, more than anything, that retaliation would not be received well by Starlight. With everything that had happened and everything I had learned, the feeling of helplessness was beginning to set in, and it was all I could do just to try and shake it.
Before I had time to process it, we had come to a stop, and I could hear Starlight talking to someone.
“-new the borrowing period on this book?”
“Hah, yes, I doubt there will be a problem there. Nopony pays as much heed to fairy tales and legends as you.”
The stallion spoke with such a pompous sneer that I had to get a look at his face, just to see if the reality fit the caricature in my mind. I moved one of my eyes down through the hole in the bag, made sure the coast was clear, then peered up from under the base of my cloth container.
We had arrived at the library while I was preoccupied, and—sure enough—the stallion sitting behind the desk couldn’t be any more pretentious if he tried. He might even give Autumn a run for his money, with all the frills and shiny, golden accoutrements on his royal blue waistcoat. I nearly salivated at the prospect of getting my grubby mitts on all those buttons and cufflinks. That was, of course, out of the question, no matter how badly he deserved a pimp slap. Still, with a school undoubtedly full of rich pricks, I had to wonder just how much jewelry might be lying around. Having it all suddenly go missing might not teach them any manners, but it would surely be a step towards righting the karmic imbalance.
Starlight cleared her throat. “Yes, well, I have a couple other books I’d like to borrow, so…”
“Fine, just be quick about it. I have more important things to do than foalsitting,” he griped, and kicked his rear hooves up on the desk. He then pulled an emery board out from somewhere under the desk and began filing his hooves. I gritted my teeth as Starlight walked us away, wishing I knew how to pick pockets.
A little more than an hour later, we were outside the city walls once again, two books and a decent breakfast heavier. It had been fairly simple to get out of the town, despite the derisive sneers aimed at Starlight in the campus and the sideways glances on the streets. The latter was likely because news traveled quickly on bored lips, but the former was much more aggravating. It seemed like no matter where she went in the school, elitist assholes were waiting around every corner to jeer at her and rub her snout in their affluence. By the time we left the school grounds, I had already begun planning such a midnight burglary spree that even Lupin the Third might have been impressed.
The trip through town hadn’t been much more relaxing, however. The guards were out patrolling en force, stopping random ponies in the street and searching them. I had to disguise myself as a head of cabbage several times, just to get out of the Noble’s District. The gate, especially, posed a challenge. The number of guards there had increased tenfold overnight, and the progress of the lines in and out of Ponyville had slowed to a snail’s pace. Each and every pony was being frisked like they were known smugglers, and the carts and wagons very nearly overturned before they were allowed through the gates. They had eyes in every direction, letting no patch of grass go unmonitored. We wouldn’t have made it through, were it not for Rubeo’s writ of passage.
But once we had made it out of sight of the wall, I was able to let go of the breath I hadn’t known I was holding in. Not that it really mattered. I couldn’t have suffocated myself if I tried. I clambered out of the saddlebag, revelling in the feeling of open air.
“Oh, thank sweet monkey Jesus,” I exhaled. “I was beginning to feel claustrophobic.”
“You think you had it bad?” Starlight chided. “I would’ve had a heart attack if one more guard had stopped us out of nowhere.”
“Well, no matter, we made it out without too much of a fuss, and that’s what counts.” I situated myself on her back and pulled out one of the books. “I’ve got some studying to do, so let me know if you need anything.”
Now, at first, I had intended to just look through the book for illustrations to entertain myself. To that end, I had lucked out with my first blind pick; it appeared to be a volume of myths and legends. But as I flipped through the pages, something strange happened. Occasionally, when I glimpsed one of the words, recognition would flash through my mind. I was even able to read a couple of sentences. And then, I came across something truly special.
By coincidence, I flipped to a full-page illustration of something that looked like a short, fat caterpillar. As I examined it closer, however, I noticed that the things I first assumed to be unusually vertical hairs or spines had arched windows, balconies, and parapeted walkways spanning the gaps. I took another look at it’s legs, and I found evidence of pistons and joints. Then, I noticed the tiny shapes of birds flying up from the tufts of what I mistook for moss.
It looked like a massive, mechanical fortress in the shape of a caterpillar.
Imaginary heart pounding, I turned to the block of text next to it, hoping to glean some small amount of information from the words I could understand. Instead, I was greeted with a page I could read as clearly as English.
HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE
During the Dark Era, many legends were spawned about the magically inclined disciples of the heretic, Starswirl the Bearded. While the focuses of these stories have either been debunked or positively identified—ponies like Clover the Clever, Mage Meadowbrook, Mistmane the Sorceress, and Stygian—a few remain unverified. The stories of Cosmo Howl are some of the more unbelievable.
According to stories from those times, Cosmo Howl—also known as the Tinkerer—was an earth pony engineer of prodigious talent, seduced away from the path of righteousness by Starswirl’s slanderous propaganda. He is said to have designed many of the weapons used against the Masters in the Equestrian Civil War, and even to have personally built some incredibly powerful artifacts. Most descriptions of these weapons are outlandish at best, and no evidence of their existence remains. But the most incredible of these tales describe his greatest weapon: his Moving Castle.
Tales are told of a massive fortress, many miles long, shaped like a vile centipede. It is claimed to have been used as a mobile command center for the Insurrectionist faction. Many conflicting accounts exist of the castle’s capabilities; claims that it could fly, that it could swim in the ocean like a fish, that its segments could rearrange themselves at a whim, that its destructive capabilities rivalled those of the Accursed Princesses, and some that it had no offensive capabilities at all, but instead a nigh-impregnable defense. Of course, not one of these stories has any basis in fact. Even so, all the old tales agree that Cosmo fled when Starswirl was defeated, though very few storytellers agree on where he fled to. However, the location most often referred to is the Southern Badlands.
King Argent has, of course, dismissed all of these claims as baseless rumors, that even if something had fled to the desert, he and the other Masters would have found it. Still, he reminds us that, should we come across anything that we might suspect to be a remnant of the War, it is our duty to report it to the proper authorities, for our own safety, if not that of our country’s.
Unfortunately, this has had the unintended side effect of attracting dozens of ponies daily to our fair capital, clutching at old cogs and scraps of metal, hoping to somehow garner the attention of our illustrious leaders with their—
After that, it just devolved into a bunch of political claptrap, so I stopped reading. However, two words stuck with me.
“Mmm?” She mumbled around a mouthful of bark. Apparently, she had found a witchwood tree while I was reading.
“Are the Southern Badlands very far from here?”
She frowned at me, questions tumbling around behind her eyes, and placed the bark strip on the ground.
“About a week south of here… why?”
I gave her my most wicked grin.
“I do believe I’ve discovered the first step in our long game.”
When I presented the page to her, I probably looked entirely too pleased with myself. Her only reaction was to raise an eyebrow. Naturally, I was a bit put-off by this.
“You do realize Howl’s Moving Castle is just a legend, right?”
It was my turn to be incredulous, so I turned it up to eleven with a smug grin.
“Oh? Then I suppose you’re just talking to a figment of your imagination right now, huh?”
She opened her mouth to retort, paused, then snapped it shut. “Alright, point taken.”
“I’m not saying we should pull up roots and go off frolicking into the desert. But, if my hunch is correct, we need to find a way to mount an expedition into the Badlands. Have you ever been there before?”
“No, I haven’t. Most of my life has been spent behind Ponyville’s walls. I can hardly even remember my own birth town.”
“Then we’ll either have to make our plans covertly, or trick someone into funding a trek out there.” I pondered our options for a moment. “Do you think you could convince the ol’ snotrag to conduct a research venture down south?”
Starlight grunted as she pulled another strip of bark off of the tree.
“Assuming that by ‘ol’ snotrag’, you mean my preceptor… it might be possible. We’d need to present him with a very compelling reason to journey out there.”
“Well then, we’ll have to either find one, or make one up.”
I continued to flip through the book for other items of interest, but I was only half paying attention. In my mind, I was already creating a hypothetical checklist of what I would need in order to effectively claim a legend.
First and foremost, I needed a disguise. I already knew I could change shape, so the most obvious choice would be to take the shape of a pony. With what I’d seen, my coloration was a non-issue; these ponies came in all the colors of the rainbow. All I needed was more mass. And for that, it appeared that I needed gold. A deficiency I was already planning on remedying.
Once I had a disguise, I could start recruiting allies. If I was to get this Moving Castle back up and running, I would need those with the skills and knowledge I lacked to complete repairs. For this, I needed information most of all: information of where the Moving Castle ended up, how to get it moving, whether or not there were multiple sections to the castle, and how long it could sustain a population living in it.
“What are you planning?”
“I’m planning to get swole.”
Starlight paused for a moment. “Get what?”
“Step one of my plan: I need to get big enough to blend in.”
“What do you mean big enough? How will you getting bigger help you to blend in?”
“Don’t worry about it. You’ll see what I mean when I’m done.”
“Eric, we can’t bring attention to ourselves! Especially now that Lady Ruby is coming.”
“I won’t. Nothing I’m planning will be traceable to you, I assure you.”
Starlight said nothing, but the way she shifted on her hooves spoke volumes.”
“Hey, no need to be nervous. You won’t be back in town for another couple days, right? So, while you’re gone, I’ll head back and enact my plan, giving you plausible deniability. Then, when you get back, I’ll meet you at your house, looking like a completely different pony.”
“But you don’t even look like a pony!”
She looked at me like I’d suddenly sprouted a horn and wings, and started calling myself a pretty pony princess, but then realization dawned on her. She gnawed on her lower lip for a moment, before turning back to me.
“Alright, just… whatever you’re planning, promise me you won’t hurt anypony.”
“… What if my plans involve Autumn?”
“Well, don’t hurt any innocent ponies, anyway.”
“Cross my heart and hope to die.”
“Die? Why on Equus would you hope to die?!”
In the face of her literal-minded concern, I blinked first.
“Is, uh… Is that not how it’s said around these parts?”
There are few times in life that killing can be considered a kindness, but Fluttershy was very close to discovering the end of the list.
As she dumped the prescribed amount of feed into cows troughs, she couldn’t help but look some of them in the eye. Every time she did, it broke her heart. Each and every one was dead to the world, and she understood why. Crammed flank to flank into rows upon rows of unyielding stalls of iron bars, barely able shuffle on their own hooves. Their udders were continuously connected to milking machines that siphoned away every drop they produced. They weren’t even allowed out of the stalls to sleep or relieve themselves. Workponies would come through periodically to shovel out the waste, but the smell lingered, burning Fluttershy’s nose. She wasn’t sure if the cows were even aware of the stench anymore.
She could only swallowed her misgivings. Lady Ruby owned her contract now. Fluttershy had been bought from Gold Standard nearly a week ago. While her indentured servitude to the whale-like alicorn had been anything but pleasant, she was quickly finding that the lecherous and possessive stallion was ever so slightly more preferable to to the soul-crushing misery of Ruby Rain’s “dairy farm”. But Fluttershy had no say in how things were managed. All she could do was keep her eyes down, follow orders, cry herself to sleep at night, and hope she would become numb to the pain eventually.
She dumped out the next portion of feed. For the briefest of moments, Fluttershy thought she heard a groan and a whimper. Terror gripped her heart. Had the ponies in the red plastic aprons come again, to take one of the cows through the double doors at the south end?
Heart pounding, she glanced around. Nopony else was around, not even the guardspony in the observation room on the second floor. But then her eye caught the cow next to her.
She was a newer cow. Even though she didn’t want to, Fluttershy remembered all the faces that came through, and this one hadn’t been here more than a few weeks. She was looking at the feed in her trough with barely disguised distress. Then Fluttershy heard another groan, and she realized that the cow’s stomachs were growling. The poor thing was hungry, and Fluttershy could tell why.
She was barely more than half the size of the other cows, probably a few years younger, too. She was still growing, and yet she was being given the same portions as all the rest. What’s more, her brown coat was marred by painful red welts, although her white underside was left mercifully untouched. The cow glanced up at Fluttershy with apprehensive green eyes, then quickly back down. Fluttershy realized that she hadn’t moved onto the next stall since giving the cow her portion.
Fluttershy bit her lip. She glanced back up at the observation room. Still empty. She looked all around the floor. Nopony in sight. With barely any internal debate and without looking, she reached over to her grain cart with a wing and scooped up some feed; barely any at all, really. Then, turning two-hundred seventy degrees back to the cart, she made a show of troweling up the next portion. As she did, her filled wing darted into the young cow’s trough and unfurled, dropping the feed in as quickly and secretly as she could manage.
The cow gasped, then looked up at Fluttershy with eyes as wide as saucers. Fluttershy glanced at her and gave her a brief, sad smile.
The doors at the north end crashed open with a resounding bang.
It was the voice Fluttershy feared most in the entire world. Her heart skittered around her rib cage, as if trying to find a place to hide. Fluttershy scrambled over to the grain cart, dumping the trowel in as did she so. She took up her spot next to the cart and stood ramrod straight, eyes locked forward. The young cow shoved her muzzle into the feed trough, quickly scarfing down as much food as she could.
Above the heads of the cows, all frozen in fear, a messy auburn bun bounced down the lines somehow reminiscent of a shark fin. Fluttershy broke out in a cold sweat, watching her worst nightmare draw closer, powerless to stop her. Time seemed to slow as the alicorn’s predatory gaze crept around the end of the stalls, crawling along Fluttershy’s neck.
“Well, well, what do we have here?” Ruby Drops purred, a cat with a cornered mouse. “If it isn’t my favorite new… employee.”
As Ruby prowled around behind her, Fluttershy’s skin prickled and her hairs stood on end. She swore she could feel Ruby breathing down her neck. Except, moments later, the alicorn walked back into her field of view nearly a yard away.
“Are you enjoying your new position, my dear? You should. You get to take care of all manner of dozy, disgusting animals. That is your talent, is it not? Debasing yourself before inferior creatures?
“I wonder, is it some misplaced sense of camaraderie, perhaps?” She sneered, stopping right in front of Fluttershy. Ruby then drew back, licking her upper lip with perverse glee. “Or could it be you have some even baser motive?”
Ruby resumed prowling around Fluttershy. “Oooh, yes, I can see it now. Poor thing. Cowards like you always have such difficulty attracting a mate. It’s sooo much easier to entice some dumb beast to have its way with you.”
Fluttershy had to stifle a yelp, as a bony weight suddenly bore down on her. Ruby stood over the smaller mare, uncomfortably close. Fluttershy’s throat tightened painfully.
“How does it feel,” Ruby hissed into her ear, grinding obscenely into the small of Fluttershy’s back, “to have a lesser being thrust into you? To feel it’s seed bla—”
Ruby suddenly went quiet, and Fluttershy’s heart nearly stopped. Had she done something wrong? Maybe—hopefully—Ruby had gotten bored of tormenting her already.
But then panic exploded in her gut, as Fluttershy felt a powerful magic grip her wing by the leading joint. The wing the she had used to sneak the extra feed. She tried to hold her wing closed, but Ruby would not be denied. Her joints popped and strained and her muscles burned, but fighting it was like trying to fight a machine. In moments, her wing was fully extended, and she felt Ruby prying her feathers apart, searching. For a moment, the pressure vanished.
Something passed in front of Fluttershy’s vision, and she felt the floor drop out from under her. Crumbs of feed, encased in Ruby’s sanguine aura, hovered tauntingly before them. The blood nearly drained from her body when Ruby gave a contemplative hum.
“Well, now, what’s this?”
Fluttershy felt Ruby lean forward, and the short fur of Ruby’s neck brushed against her cheek. Ruby sniffed Fluttershy’s mouth.
“Hmm… You weren’t taking feed for yourself, it seems. But that’s nothing new. You lack the spine to try something that bold. So then, why…?”
Fluttershy felt Ruby look around the aisle. Her eyes darted over to the new cow. This couldn’t be happening. It wouldn’t! She’d already eaten the extra feed, so she’d be safe.
But then, Fluttershy noticed something she had missed. A single, downy yellow feather, stuck to the young cow’s chin. She felt time slow to a crawl. Fluttershy had to warn her. She had to get the cow to notice.
But it was already too late. Ruby suddenly went still, then slowly—gloatingly—dismounted Fluttershy. She sauntered over to the young cow, who was staring at Ruby as if the alicorn were an entire pack of timber wolves. The look of fear transformed into open-mouthed horror when Ruby plucked the feather from her chin. Ruby chuckled, and the room seemed to grow twenty degrees colder.
“I see…” She whispered triumphantly, turning slowly to watch Fluttershy out of the corner of her eye. “Perhaps I was wrong about your… preferences.”
“You know,” Ruby jeered, “I was a bit short on my last shipment of meat. Perhaps I need a little something to add to the next one.”
Suddenly, a knife—sharp as a winter midnight—appeared next to Ruby, floating in her aura. Fluttershy heard a gasp escape her mouth, even as she told herself not to make a sound. Before she could stop herself, a single word escaped her lips.
Ruby Drops went still as a statue. Then, slowly, menacingly, she turned her head to look fully at Fluttershy. Only the faintest of incredulous smiles appeared on her lips.
“What did you say?”
If Fluttershy had had anything in her bladder, it would have been trickling down her leg right then.
“I… I’m sorry! I- it won’t happen again. Just, p- please don’t…”
“Don’t what? Butcher this animal? As I said, I’m behind on my quota, and I have no use for livestock that might tempt certain employees. This one has already sealed her fate. Besides, I feel like I might be getting a little… rusty,” Ruby implied with a flourish of the knife. “I could use the practice.”
“That is, unless… you want to take a stab at it?” She added, smirking wickedly at Fluttershy.
Fluttershy’s pounding heart caught in her throat. “I… I don’t… I can’t—”
“Oh, come now, my dear. This is something you will have to learn eventually. Besides, wouldn’t you rather it be you to put this poor, pathetic beast out of my misery. Otherwise, I’ll have to do it myself. And you wouldn’t want to put me out, would you?”
Fluttershy stood frozen to the spot. Even while her blood had turned to ice, her mind raced. Guilt, fear, shame, and panic all ran amok, while indignation wailed at the injustice of it all. She didn’t want to hurt the poor cow. She had only been trying to help. But her indiscretion was going to cost the young newcomer her life. It was only a matter of how quickly and painlessly she would go.
Bile rose in her throat. Could she really do it? Could she really abandon her to Ruby’s whims? Fluttershy was the one who broke the rules, and yet the prisoner was the one to pay. It wasn’t fair. Nothing about this situation was fair. But she knew, deep down, that she wouldn’t be able to live with herself if she ran away now.
Fluttershy took one shaky step forward, then another. Ruby’s triumphant smirk grew with each step. Fluttershy’s felt a burning behind her eyes. Try as she might to contain it, the dam began to leak and hot tears trickled down her cheeks. Ruby only laughed.
“Come, let’s hurry along to the main event, shall we?”
With her magic, Ruby unlatched the bars across the young cow’s stall and shoved her out into the aisle. The cow was then forced to her stomach by an aura like a palette of bricks. Fluttershy took a shuddering breath as she came to a stop before her soon-to-be victim, but it devolved into a distressed hiccup. Ruby continued to cackle as she summoned up a stool to sit on.
“Take up your implement,” she commanded, levitating the knife over to Fluttershy, handle first. Fluttershy sat back and grasped the handle between her hooves, unwilling to put her mouth anywhere near the instrument of pain. She turned back to the young cow, and a spear was driven through the core of her resolve.
She was looking back at Fluttershy with pain and fear, yes, but also something much worse: understanding. Even gratefulness. Fluttershy choked on a sob.
“Now then, how will you proceed, I wonder?” Ruby purred. “Just don’t take too long. I may grow bored and decide to join in on the fun.”
Fluttershy thought, and thought hard. How would she do this? How could she possibly do this? It wasn’t right! But she couldn’t fight it. If she even so much as looked at Ruby the wrong way, it might be her on the chopping block. And despite the guilt and indignation eating away at her insides, there was a single truth that kept her from speaking out:
Even if she sacrificed herself, the young cow would be no better off.
Years ago, not long after she had discovered her special talent, a bird had flown into the closed window of her family’s home. Fluttershy had rushed outside to tend to it, but it had already passed away. She found out later that it had been flying fast enough to instantly break its neck.
The unbidden memory brought on another shuddering sob. She realized what she had to do. Shakily, she reared onto her hind hooves, holding the knife in the crook of her right fore-pastern. Her hooves raised into her line of sight almost mechanically, like someone else was moving her body for her. But there was no magical aura around her legs, just the sense that she was trying to dissociate herself from her reality.
Slowly, agonizingly, she brought the knife up behind the young cow’s head and placed the point against the base of her skull, her other hoof coming to rest on the pommel. The cow tensed up. A whimper escaped her throat. Somewhere seemingly far away. Fluttershy heard Ruby cackling. Through blurry vision, Fluttershy saw tears began to fall down the cow’s cheeks, and felt the heat and tingle throb sympathetically on her own. She took another shuddering breath and whispered to her victim, as the rest of the world drowned in silence.
“I’m s- so, so sorry.”
She lunged forward.
For a moment, her hooves were searing hot. But she didn’t come to a stop. Her hooves slipped and she fell forward onto the heaving body of the poor, wretched thing she had condemned to death. Panic squeezed her ribcage, threatening to burst her heart and crush her lungs. She scrambled up, desperate to remove herself from her grisly deed.
There was no blood.
There wasn’t even a knife. The young cow’s head whipped left and right, the same panic and confusion in her eyes. Sound came rushing back into Fluttershy’s ears, and with it, Ruby Drops laughing uproariously. Fluttershy looked up.
There—above and adjacent to Ruby’s laughter-wracked form—hovered the knife, immaculately clean and glittering cruelly in the cold incandescent light.
“Ha! Hahaha! You! You actually did it! Hahahaha!” Ruby rolled on the stool and clutched at her sides. “You really are a coward!”
Fluttershy’s skin suddenly felt like she had been dunked in arctic waters. The room spun around her head and her heart hammered in her ears. Between the sobbing and the horrified gasps, she could barely catch her breath. Her gorge steadily rose, until it could no longer be denied. Fluttershy turned just in time to keep the contents of her stomach from hitting anypony. As the laughter ringing in her ears intensified, so too did the shame burning away at the corners of her mind.
So distracted was she, that Fluttershy didn’t even notice the pony approaching down the aisles until he was right next to Ruby.
“My Lady,” the guard murmured, “your coach is prepared and ready to depart for Ponyville.”
Ruby’s laughter petered out until she was merely chuckling.
“Ha. Ha ha. Hooo. Oh my. Very well, let them know I’ll be out shortly.”
With a curt nod, the guard left them alone once more. Ruby turned to leer at Fluttershy with her damnable smile, sauntering over to her.
“Well, my dear, I hope you’ve learned a few lessons today. For example: you cannot defy me, no matter how hard you may try. But the one I want you to really ruminate on is this…”
Ruby leaned down to whisper into her ear.
“You can’t save them all.”
Ruby’s braided tail whipped across Fluttershy’s snout as she turned to walk away. Without looking, she picked up the young cow with her magic and unceremoniously tossed her back in her stall. As she did, she called back to Fluttershy over her shoulder.
“And clean up your mess. I don’t want your cowardice spoiling the milk.”
Fluttershy couldn’t even convince herself to move until Ruby had left the warehouse. But once she was alone, she stood shakily and moved towards the cleaning supply closet. Shame bowed her head, unable to even glance in the direction of the life she had almost taken.
If she had, she might have seen the sympathy in the young cow’s eyes.