Rarity and Fluttershy moved among the books of the Golden Oak library, checking titles and subjects, carefully arranging what they found on a table. With a vague time period as a guide they had looked through local reports for indications of odd happenings. A few years after the dissolution of the barony a detachment of ponies from the Office of the Cult-Finder General had been dispatched to the area and left behind a copy of their investigation report. They had been called to investigate tales of Nightmare Night happenings that went beyond the reasonable expectation of jokes. No Discordian cult activity had been found and the investigation was considered closed, a mysterious happening of the Everfree.
There was no guarantee that the baron's departure, his release of the land and his daughter's death were related to the happening, but it was the closest they had come to anything concrete. The books at the library would serve to tell them more particulars.
“Here it is, darling,” Rarity said, pointing to a page in a list of nobility. “Goodness, I have not needed to do such investigations since school...”
“What does it say?” Fluttershy asked, looking over Rarity's shoulder at the book.
“This says that the baron was husband of one Regal Bearing, who died in an accident involving an old building and falling stone. He went from a distant land manager to hooves-on, bringing his daughter to the region his wife had controlled. It was still majority mare in those days, as opposed to the modern era when noble holdings are more evenly distributed. They inhabited a manor that had previously been used as a vacation destination. But specifies that he left the area after his daughter died of... how odd. It says, 'wasting.'”
“'Wasting'? You mean she got sick and faded away?” Fluttershy asked.
“I... don't know, darling. It seems probable yet there's not indication of such a disease. It only says 'wasting.' Medical science was competent but not quite as highly advanced as ours is now. Still... in any event, with both his wife and daughter dead he returned to Canterlot here it is reported he lived as a virtual recluse, appearing to have lost all semblance of life until he, himself died, old and alone.”
“How terrible...” Fluttershy said softly, shaking her head. “He lost his wife, tried to move somewhere to be with his daughter and lost her too. He really must have loved both of them.”
“My father certainly does love myself and Sweetie. Were he to lose my mother or either of us... oh! I cannot imagine the devastation, the heartache and misery. It is hardly a surprise he did as he did...” Rarity said, leaning against Fluttershy. “Now I cannot stop thinking of my own father, despairing so.”
“It's okay, Rarity... I understand. We'll go visit him later. I'd love some of your mother's tea and you can go fit Sweetie Belle for her couple costume,” Fluttershy said comfortingly, nuzzling at Rarity's neck.
“But of course, you are quite right,” Rarity said, straightening up a bit. “Then I must visit Scootaloo for the matching outfit. She will make the most darling little wolf, as she did a few years prior, but with a fluffier, more domesticated look, to match well with Sweetie's little ewe outfit. I even had the time to make a little hybrid wolflamb pulltoy for them to lead around.”
“We need to make sure our costumes are still ready. My Private Pansy barding is a little tight...” Fluttershy said with a blush.
“That means only you are healthy, and... well-formed,” Rarity said with a saucy wink and a laugh. “My own full figure makes my Princess Platinum outfit all the more fitting. I'll let out the attire just a touch and have it all ready for you in short order.”
The two pored over a few more books to flesh out their information about Baron August and his family, making notes about what they found out. They were interrupted in their endeavor by Applejack and Rainbow Dash bursting into the library, looking shaken and desperate. “Wh-where's Twilight? We've got big news from the Everfree, big news!” Dash blurted out.
“She ain't jes talkin' ta talk! This here news is the kinda thing that ain't nopony expected,” Applejack confirmed.
“It would seem your search was fruitful! Certainly more so than ours. We discovered some indication of something but we have no idea what it may mean,” Rarity said, slightly taken aback by the force of the other two mares.
“We found a dead body!” Dash cried, wings flaring out for emphasis.
“Darin' Do she ain't right now...” Applejack said with a shake of her head, giving the pith helmet on her head a little tip for emphasis. It was seated oddly, being on top of her stetson, but it wasn't too bad of a look. “She's right, though. We found us a dead body underneath that there stone. It was an old, old Diamond Dog skeleton with a cracked head.”
“A Dog? How very usual. And it was buried beneath a stone marker? At least someone cared enough to bury them,” Rarity said.
“It's a strange thing, and none too kind ta jes put 'em under a stone, no name, no nothin'. The flower ain't too purty but that ain't important. It's what it means. Musta meant a lot. That same flower was with him,” Applejack noted.
“That was the other weird part. When we dug up the head there was a flower next to where one of the ears was, but it was all... fresh and perfect. It totally looked new, not like it was buried,” Dash said.
“The earth felt wrong, not 'cause there was a dead body, but... ah don't rightly know why,” Applejack said, shaking her head. “What did ya find?”
“Before Ponyville was organized as free land it was a barony under the control of a stallion named August Bearing. He lived in the area after his wife died in Canterlot, but left when his daughter also died here, releasing the land to the control of the tenants to live out his days in Canterlot. A few years after there was the first indication something was happening, in the form of a report from the Office of the Cult-Finder General. There had been happenings of a strange and frightening nature, which could not be attributed to simple pranks,” Rarity reported.
“Well, now ya know the time, and ya know a name but there ain't no sign any of it's connected. Beats the hay outta knowing nothin', though,” Applejack said, slowly stroking her chin.
The four mares were silent for a time, the next significant sound coming when Twilight and Pinkie burst into the library, Twilight in a rush and Pinkie just bouncing along in her usual fashion. “Girls! I'm glad you're all here! I have news! Big news, which could shake the very foundation of what we know!”
“And you say I exaggerate,” Dash muttered to Applejack.
“Calm yourself, and please tell us this stunning revelation. From the sound you, perhaps, found more than any of us,” Rarity said, clearing a space on the table in case Twilight needed it.
“The Lonely Larkspur... it's a cairn, a grave marker. And there was something hidden inside of it. This...” Twilight set the antique lacquered box on the table and opened it, peeling back the cloth to reveal Larkspur's monograph.
“An old book? Well, I guess that's pretty Daring Do too, but I usually just read faster when she gets to the old books,” Dash noted, with a slight wave of her hoof.
“It's more than just an old book. This is a cornuscript, an old one on the subject of the natural world. More particularly, it's... well, I know you can't read the title. It's on the subject of a Diamond Dog named Heliotrope! Centuries before ponies had a formal knowledge of Diamond Dogs!”
The other mares went quiet, all of them looking at each other significantly. “Twilight... we found a dead Diamond Dog in the Everfree forest. Buried,” Rainbow said, in a subdued voice.
“What? That's... that's wrong. Diamond Dogs inter their dead in a deep crevasse known as The Beneath. A Diamond Dog wouldn't be buried... unless it wasn't another Diamond Dog that buried them,” Twilight said, a look of shock crossing her features.
“Um, wait... I just thought... The Lonely Larkspur... wasn't the baron's daughter named Larkspur?” Fluttershy asked, turning to Rarity.
“Why yes, darling, you're right,” Rarity said, flipping through one of the books to find the reference. “Here, Larkspur, daughter of Baroness Regal Bearing and Baron August Bearing. She died of 'wasting' before her father gave the land away to his tenants and retired to Canterlot to seclusion.”
“This monograph was written by The Honorable Larkspur; it's on the front page. According to this she met a Diamond Dog scout named Heliotrope and questioned him about his species, while also drawing all his features. I think she intended to present this to the Noble Society and start a formal meeting between Diamond Dogs and ponies, centuries before the first noted meeting,” Twilight said, wrapping the book back up to protect it from possible harm.
“Looks like she never managed ta do it. Ah wonder what happened to her, an' what happened ta him. If that's Heliotrope in th' Everfree he got his head cracked good,” Applejack said.
“Maybe... she did it...” Dash said, drawing stares. “Hey... I know... but bad ponies exist. Maybe she did it, and hid her book so nopony would know that she ever met him.”
“I might entertain the notion... if it wasn't for this section,” Twilight said, lifting the book out of the box and opening it to a particular section. The four who had not seen it got very wide-eyed and blushed terribly.
“O-oh my... she was very, um... thorough with her research,” Fluttershy mumbled, hiding behind her hanging mane.
“Not even Daring Do gets that close to the creatures she finds. At least... I hope she doesn't,” Dash said, actively trying not to think about it.
“It's not just technical illustrations. She writes in notes about how tender he is, how softly he touches her and how he makes her feel alive and free. She was in love with him. Besides, she didn't build her own grave, whoever built it hid this book, and inscribed a message asking why she left him for the sake of a beast,” Twilight said, slowly closing the book and putting it away again.
“That would suggest that the one who entombed her knew of this Heliotrope and wanted to hide that he existed. Such love would have been forbidden yet there is no indication of Larkspur being involved with a beast. The OCFG report would have uncovered such a rumor,” Rarity noted.
“So she died of 'wasting' you said, and she was buried, with a pleading inscription asking why she left a mysterious figure for a beast. Are there any indications of romantic entanglements?” Twilight asked.
“No. I do not believe a slighted suitor was the cause of this. Though in a position and at an age when marriage would be reasonable she was never even formally engaged. There are only notes that she had been working to become a scientist, as many mares did at the time, through thaumatic research involving plants. Apparently she had a rather large and well-tended hothouse and forever intended to make some discovery that would lead to notice from the Noble Society.”
“Flower!” Rainbow cried, drawing all eyes. “The Diamond Dog, that Heliotrope guy. He was buried with a flower. It was where one of his ears used to be. But it was perfect, still blooming and healthy-looking after all that time. It was the same kind of flower as the marker, what is it... tastes alright, a little bitter..?”
“Hyacinth,” Applejack said. “It surely did look like that stone. Pity the stone weren't too good-lookin'.”
“She was classically trained in the arts, to a degree. Likely this Larkspur could have produced a fair-looking stone hyacinth if she worked with them enough to create a non-fading bloom. But a Diamond Dog scout, with no formal training, would make a rough copy,” Twilight said, tapping at her chin.
“Oh! That's it! He made it, he gave it to her, after she gave him that magic flower. So he was buried under his gift and she was buried with any clue he ever existed. Does that mean the same pony buried both of them?” Dash asked.
“No romantic entanglements, an emotionally moved father, and an involvement with a creature with unknown sapience and intentions. I have a thought. A horrible thought. Rarity... Nightmare Night is the key. Did she die around Nightmare Night?” Twilight asked.
“Around a month afterward. We saw the death notice. Is there a significance in it?” Rarity questioned.
Twilight hesitated for a moment, then spoke in a quiet, matter-of-fact manner. “According to the records kept from times of privation, back in the days before the peace and plenty of the Principality, if allowed sufficient water... a pony will starve to death in a month...”
“He- he starved his own daughter? That's... barbaric!” Rarity shouted, trembling. “And to think I had felt sorry for his pain...”
“It's doubtful he did that. Even in those days there were ways to contact others or seek help, especially being so close to Canterlot. And you said she had a hothouse of flowers, with no notice of it being destroyed or cleaned out. He didn't starve her. She must have starved herself,” Twilight said, sitting back heavily.
“Why would she do something like that?” Pinkie asked. “I can't even imagine going a day without food if I can help it.”
“Starvation is slow, painful and emotionally-affecting. It's also markless. The slow nature may have been what she wanted. She died slowly, day after day, while her father watched. I think she was punishing him, and showing she had been serious,” Twilight said, tapping thoughtfully at the floor.
Fluttershy's head came up suddenly and she turned to Twilight. “He killed Heliotrope. That's what you're saying, isn't it? He killed that poor, innocent Dog because Larkspur was in love with him, and then she made him watch her die.”
“I think she probably buried Heliotrope, because it's unlikely she could have taken him to The Beneath for a proper Dog burial, then her father hid her monograph to make sure all the memories of what happened were completely hidden away. He released his land and retired to Canterlot because he was filled with guilt over everything that happened,” Twilight said.
“We've got real ghosts,” Dash said, in a voice that was midway between awed and elated. “That is so cool!”
“Rainbow Dash!” Applejack said in a chiding tone, turning a powerful scowl on Dash. “Two innocent folks died, one of 'em cracked on the head and th' other starved ta death all 'cause an unkind pony didn't want his daughter carryin' on with a non-pony. There ain't nothin' 'cool' 'bout that!”
“Okay! Okay...” Dash shook her head and shivered. “I'm trying not to think it's real. Like it's just another Daring Do adventure.”
“There's still adventure to come,” Twilight said, pulling out a quill, an inkwell and a piece of heavy-duty parchment. “I have a notion, and it's not going to be easy.”
“Just what're y'all plannin', Twilight? This ain't gonna involve that there time travel spell again. Didn't work none too good the first time...” Applejack said, giving Twilight a hard look.
“I can no longer use it, I don't know another unicorn that could use it that would be willing to, and it wouldn't help anything; it might make things worse by either changing history or making the traveler the one that sets the terrible events in motion. We need to work in the present. On Nightmare Night. I have a plan that no one has likely tried. We'll encounter the Maudlin Mare and the Stonebeast and do something desperate... and hope the Fiend doesn't interfere,” Twilight said, scribbling down a checklist.
“Th-the Fiend...” Rarity said softly, quivering in fear and pulling up tightly to Fluttershy. “It is... almost worse. When he was a frightening and mysterious creature I feared what I saw. Now that I suspect that he is a murderous bigot he is more frightening...”
Fluttershy softly cooed her comforting lullaby into Rarity's ear, caressing her marefriend's coat sweetly. “Shh... it's okay... I'm not much happier about a scary plan. But we should do something, if it helps innocent folks.”
“As ever, you are correct,” Rarity sighed, planting a kiss on Fluttershy's nose. “Tell us, then, Twilight... what is this plan.”
“Well... I hope you girls still have a Daring Do mindset,” Twilight said to Dash and Applejack. “You're going to be back at it for the first part of the plan...”
”I'm sorry the attire isn't very... gainly... but I tried my best to make it as properly-fitting as possible while giving you anonymity,” Larkspur said with a blush, as she stood back to admire her work.
Before her was Heliotrope, transformed. Cloth, wood, metal and glass had been combined into a series of items made to turn the large-bodied Diamond Dog into a passable imitation of a very robust earth pony in a costume. Artificial hooves had been knocked together and placed as boots and gloves over his feet and hands, then hidden behind silver-toned tin, the construction of his legs hidden by a flowing set of pantaloons. His thick arms were hidden in a loose shirt, while over the shirt was a set of glass-accented plate barding, resembling old ceremonial attire for royal knights. His blunt-muzzled face was given a snout through the use of stiff cloth, metal bracing and more barding holding it in place. It was hidden behind the drop-down faceplate of a hastily-made tin helmet, which let his ears protrude, so he could keep his still-fresh hyacith with him. Capping off the look was a tied-on bundle of dried grass serving as a tail, hiding the real tail. “Is fine, but cannot talk much...”
“I think it's for the best if you not talk. Your voice and diction give you away. Keep the mystery alive and all that. I am especially sorry you have to go around continuously on all fours. I think that your posture means that you can bear such a thing but it's still not a kindly thing,” Larkspur said.
“Is alright. Have practiced since day when was told of plan. Is normal for dogs. Can run fast. Not so easy on stilts,” Heliotrope noted, looking awkwardly back at the risers that lifted up his back end and gave him a more proper pony appearance.
“But you look the part, and that is what matters. It's a good thing I kept such careful measure of all your... various bodily features...” Larkspur said with a cough and an even deeper blush. “I hope this works and is wonderful.”
“Is night with you, can be with precious pony love. Is already wonderful,” Heliotrope said. His smile could not be seen but there was certainly happiness in his eyes.
Larkspur came in and pressed her neck against his neck. Even through the thick cover of the costume she could feel him, and the sensation made her sigh. “This will be a beautiful night. And it is almost here. Her majesty is bringing the sun low and will bring the moon up for the autumnal equinox, the time of equal day and night. Then the festivities will begin in town.”
“We come in after night, see sights, dance, you crowned queen?” Heliotrope inquired with a tilt of his head.
“If we could I'd want to dance all night and into the dawn. But yes... we will dance and see things, maybe play games. I will be crowned queen and you, dearest, will be my prince, my most precious consort,” Larkspur said, her moony and romantic look turning into a slightly embarrassed one as she said 'consort.'
“Then we come back, kiss and go to homes. Like this plan, is good, solid, work on straight angles, proper by square,” Heliotrope said with a nod that wobbled his helmet a bit. He also wagged his tail with made the fake one slip just a touch.
“Your kind has such a wonderful flare for the orderly, and wonderful expressions for the same. Cooperation would be a good fit. We, too, prize order and harmony, and always seek to integrate learning. Your skill with magic gems would be very admired by the scientists of Canterlot. Not much longer... soon I will present my monograph. Soon... we will be together,” Larkspur said, sighing as she sank down against Heliotrope's disguised side.
“Cannot believe. Will be important Dog. Maybe scold for talk to pony, but will still get much praise, elected to congress maybe. Or stay here, be noble Dog, have fancy suit and pretty wife,” Heliotrope said with a slight chuckle and a glace aside at Larkspur.
“Which would I prefer? Mmm, wife of a congress Dog, or baroness with a handsome baron by my side? So many things to decide, once it all comes to reality...” Larkspur said with a slight sigh, keeping careful watch over the sky.
When the sunset had turned to night proper, and the lights from the central gathering area in the midst of the collection of farms grew bright Larkspur and Heliotrope made their way towards it, to join the festivities that had begun as soon as the sun had passed the horizon.
There was much revelry in the area, which was done up with streamers, hay bales and tents. A band of local farmers played, a few pipers, two lute players, and a drummer keeping the mood high. Ponies of all species mingled about in costumes ranging from the historical to the odd, like the earth stallion covered in sticks and leaves, with a carved log worn like a hat, meant to suggest the head of a timberwolf.
All eyes fell on Larkspur, who had put on a costume before leaving them gem fields. Her coloration naturally made her well suited to be attired in a dark purple and midnight blue gown shot through with silver threads. She had artificial wings of paper, wood, cloth and lace on her back and a polished silver tiara resting on her head. Looking, as she was, like the long-gone Princess Luna, everypony found it appropriate but curious she was accompanies by a robust royal guard.
“Larkspur, you've done it again,” Peony said, trotting up to the pair. She was attired in an apron and toque, like a chef. “I never tire of seeing you as Princess Luna. And I see you even brought your own royal knight. Ave, miles,” she said, giving a bow.
Heliotrope looked aside to Larkspur, unsure about what to do. She smiled brightly and nodded her head. “Thank you, Peony. He is playing the part of a silent protector. He will follow me and be my guardian but not speak,” Larkspur said with a soft pat on Heliotrope's masked cheek.
“He plays the part well. But say... who is it? He's a bit more robust than the fellows we have here, though not by too much. Have you been keeping secrets?” Peony asked, with a grin.
Larkspur laughed, a soft and musical tone. “Can you keep one? He is... not from around here. But I can't say more than that. I'll let you in on this in due time. The important thing is keeping him from...”
“Your father,” Peony finished with a nod. “No, I understand. Come along and enjoy the festivities? If he can't talk then can he dance, or is dancing forbidden to royal knights?”
“No, no, dancing is very allowed. Come, knight-protector, defend me as I wheel,” Larkspur said with another laugh, leading Heliotrope to the crowd of dancing ponies, who all parted for them. Though the restricting attire made the dancing awkward, there was a close sincerity to it. All observing could tell there was a genuine affection as they moved together.
Baron August was not in attendance at the festivities. He had never been much of a fan of such events even when his wife had been alive. With her gone his disinterest was even greater. So on Nightmare Night and similar, though it pained him to do so, he let his daughter out to have her fun, while he paced the manor and waited for her to return.
That year, however, his nervous energy was not so undirected. He was in her room, looking through her things, feeling internally conflicted. He knew it was wrong, to violate her trust so, yet he also knew that he needed answers. She had been lying to him, been out with some stallion. He couldn't trust her assurances so he needed to get answers for himself.
His search was almost over, and he had found nothing. No love letters, no favors, no indicators of any kind that she was courting or being courted. His last area of searching was the wardrobe, but he paused momentarily. He had been looking in plain sight, or just under things. His own internal sense of parental honor had kept his from basely prying, even when he was aware that it would likely be hidden. To search the wardrobe was surely a point of no return.
Though it hurt him to do it he pulled open the doors and looked inside. The clothes were swept to one side, forming a barrier, concealing some object. A sweep of magic pushed them away and exposed the carven hyacinth-shaped pillar. It was rough and ill-formed, but the intention of it was very clear. A gift, to one beloved, resembling her prized hyacinths.
That she hid it was proof she did not make it. She would have proudly shown off her accomplishment. Her secret was revealed, leaving no space within August for his guilt over how he came to know. There was only the anger at knowing. She was preparing to run off with a secret lover and simply abandon him, as if he didn't matter.
He finally left the manor, the stone pillar training behind him as he made a run for the festival. He would confront her with what he had found. She would be angry. She might be unreasonable. But he had every right to ask for answers.
He arrived, panting, lathered and still as upset as when he left just as Larkspur was being crowned the Harvest Queen. The crowd of disguised ponies cheered, stomping their hooves in delight. One odd sound struck him. A large, robust earth stallion, larger than any he knew to live in the area, was thudding his front hooves together, making the metal of his costume clang together over and over. When the applause had stopped he returned to a proper posture, showing his tail to be waving about, as if in happiness. No one else saw it, but the baron could not help but see as the tail flew off, revealing some long, seemingly-hairless appendage with nubby spikes at the end.
Larkspur descended from the stage and went right to the mysterious... thing dressed as a royal knight. She pressed close to him, in a most overly familiar way, then pulled away and began to dance. They were dancing together with a singular focus, eyes locked on one another, swaying in time to the music and the cheers of the crowd.
“Larkspur!” August cried, the music ceasing abruptly and all eyes being drawn to him.
“F-father?!” Larkspur asked, with wide eyes. “You never leave the manor...”
“Father? No!” Heliotrope yelped, running off from the scene quickly in the direction of the nearest cover he could see, the Everfree forest.
“Wait! Don't leave!” Larkspur cried out, rushing off in Heliotrope's wake.
“Come back! Larkspur! You can't do this! I demand an explanation!” August bellowed, charging off with only slightly less passion, his previous fatigue melting away, anger and hurt renewing his strength. He still had the pillar with him, and several ponies had to move out of the way before it hit them.
The ponies assembled looked curiously as the three departed. They wanted to know, but none were willing to brave the Everfree Forest at night. They made some brave claims but mostly milled about, until somepony suggested they return to their homes. With some sage nods and no thought to the decorations they simply walked away.