• Published 15th Aug 2015
  • 3,088 Views, 145 Comments

What is Left - OnionPie



Five years of cheap thrills in the big city has left Sweetie Belle in bad debt with dangerous ponies. Forced to pay up, she returns to Ponyville to seek money from an estranged sister she loathes with a passion.

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4. The Color of Poison

I breathed in the the cool air at the top of the curving steps outside. The lamp posts shone halos through the thin rain. Ponies wandered across the square, some in pairs, some alone, their umbrellas of reds and greens and yellows making the square ripple with color.

The doorpony outside didn't look at me. “Miss Belle.”

I smirked. “See? Isn’t it so much easier to just let ponies come and go as they please?”

He did not look amused.

I pricked my ears up. Warm music breathed through the sounds of creaking cartwheels, chattering ponies, and hooves on stone.

I could see the street band at the base of the clock tower. Five of them, tiny in the distance, fiddling tinier instruments, with three others in in colorful clothing cartwheeling and juggling torches in front of them. They would give Rarity’s party the spark it needed.

I grinned and strode down the steps.

"Going somewhere?" a deep voice asked.

I startled so hard I missed the last step and stumbled onto the cobblestones. I scowled to the side. “What are you doing here?”

Chuck-Chuck sat in the shadow of the stone railing on the lowest step. Someone might have mistaken him for a homeless pony, if Ponyville had homeless ponies.

“Bouncer wouldn’t let me in,” he said.

“No, what are you doing here? I don’t want you anywhere near my sister.”

“I’ll always be close,” he said without looking at me.

“But you’ll let a single bouncer stop you? Some killer you are.”

“His time hasn’t come yet,” he said. “Yours is much more interesting.”

I fought down a shudder. “Why did they send someone so damn creepy? Were they out of normal scumbag thugs?”

“Normal scumbag thugs don’t do the things I do.” He looked me in the eye. “Where’s the money?"

I looked away. “I’m working on it.”

“Not as simple as just dropping by and picking it up, is it?”

“I said I’ll get it.”

“I’m starting to hope you won’t.” A fine white smoke rose from his mouth when he spoke, glittering faintly when it caught the light of a nearby lamp post.

My eyes widened. “You’re smoking dust? Now?” I looked around to check if anyone was looking at us. “Are you insane?”

Chuck-Chuck’s horn glowed, and more thin smoke snaked out from his raincoat and into his mouth. He must have been igniting a gemstone inside a pocket. It wouldn’t set his raincoat on fire—gem dust was more magical than physical, and when it burned, it burned cold.

He breathed out a puff of glittering white smoke. “What does the dust show you?”

“What?”

“When you smoke, what do you see?”

I looked away, frowning. “Nothing.”

“Everyone sees something.” He closed his eyes and breathed in deep. “I see the invisible clock in everyone’s hearts, the hour written in stone since birth.” He put a hoof against his ear. “Even without the dust I can hear them ticking away.”

“It isn’t real,” I said.

“The dust doesn’t lie.” He looked up at me. “What does it show you?”

I swallowed, thinking back to the moonlit lake. There was a genuine curiosity in those white eyes of his. “A memory,” I heard myself answer. “From long ago.”

“Must be a good one,” he said. “To make you come back to see it over and over and over.”

I eyed the smoke with hunger, remembering the warmth and sense of belonging that the lake always provided.

“Do you know why most poisons are white?” he asked. “And why so many antidotes are blue?”

I forced myself to look away from the smoke and walked into the square. “I don’t have time for this.”

“Money’s the other way,” he called after me.

I kept walking. He didn’t matter. Rarity needed help and I’d be damned if I’d let some city scumbag stop me. And I needed that money—getting her mood up seemed like a good way to get it.

A small crowd was gathering this side of the square. The party guests were easy to pick out, wearing rich, darkly colored clothing and hiding under black umbrellas.

The rain didn’t bother me. Umbrellas could be expensive in the city, and anything expensive could be sold or traded for dust. A wet mane was nothing new.

I made my way through the growing crowd, feeling better with every pony I put between myself and the debt collector.

Pain crackled through my skull. I winced and stopped in the open square. “Damn,” I whispered, rubbing my forehead. The familiar aching crept across the sides of my head, throbbing at my temples, pushing behind my eyes.

I looked back. The ponies in the square obscured the lower steps, and Chuck-Chuck and his dust pipe were nowhere to be seen. Maybe I should have asked him for a quick drag.

An orange glow flashed in the corner of my eye. The fire breathers. They were close. I could hear the music drifting up from the base of the clock tower.

I kept walking. The dust could wait. I could tough it out for a little longer. I had to get that band before the party started.

My head swam. The world bobbed and spun and tilted. Alarmed, I tried to stop, but only staggered sideways like a drunkard. I could feel the headache in my teeth. The shadows of a hundred oblivious ponies wandered past me, around me, through me.

There was a painful emptiness in my lungs that no amount of air could satisfy. The hunger began choking me. I couldn’t breathe. All sound faded until there was only the thumping blood in my throat. The street lamps shone brighter and brighter until the world was a yellow blur. I clenched my eyes shut and gritted my teeth.

Something bumped against me. I reached out and clung to it, whatever it was. I was barely able to stand on my own. Something shook me by the shoulders. I opened my eyes, dazed, and saw Chuck-Chuck’s ugly face scowling down at me.

“Breathe,” he said.

I heaved for air, trembling. I pushed myself away from him, staggered a few steps, and fell on three knees, coughing and feeling sick.

A stallion with a blue umbrella stepped up to me. “Miss, are you all right?”

“Piss off!” Chuck-Chuck snarled.

The stallion scurried away.

“Get up,” Chuck-Chuck said.

“Don’t touch me, you—”

“You’re making some serious effort at pissing me off.”

A sound drifted through the rain. Music. Faint, distant, but full of life. It was always there—I had just forgotten. I moved toward it.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Chuck-Chuck asked.

I heard him following. I walked faster.

The crowd was denser here. The music grew louder, clearer. Quick strides of fiddles, bashing of drums, melodic chirping of a harmonica.

A lance of fire flashed through the rain above the ponies in front of me, dying as quickly as it appeared.

I pressed through the colorful umbrellas and emerged in a small clearing in the shadow of the clock tower. And there they were: three ponies in ridiculously colored clothes and five ragged musicians playing their instruments. I stood there entranced, watching the band of five keep in rhythm with each other as the acrobats performed. They looked poor, wet, and dirty, but they smiled and stomped their hooves despite the rain.

I took a breath, stepped forward, and shouted over the music. “Hey!”

They kept playing.

I raised my voice. “Hey!”

One of the players turned his head to me. “What?” she shouted back, still fiddling her violin.

“I need you,” I shouted back, barely hearing myself over the music. “All of you. I’ll pay.”

That last part made the rest of the band turn their heads, but none of them stopped playing.

“Need what?” said the stallion with the drums.

“You,” I said. “The music. Everything.” I pointed up at the huge white building across the square. “Up there.”

The band looked up at the building, then back to me. “That there’s for fancy ponies,” the drummer shouted. “They got their own music.”

“I’m from up there, and I say I’m hiring you.”

The music petered out as they, one by one, stopped playing. “She does look like she’s from up there,” said the mare with the harmonica.

“Bit wet, though,” said the violinist.

“I’ve always had that effect on— Ow!” The drummer rubbed his half-bald head. “What did you do that f—”

The violinist hit him again with her bow.

“You’re serious?” asked the mare with the harmonica.

“How much?” asked the drummer, rubbing his head.

I grinned. “Fifty bits for each of you.”

“Fifty?” the violinist asked, eyes wide. “For one night?”

“That’s right.” I looked to the fire breathers. “Same deal for you three. I need some real entertainment in there.”

“No,” Chuck-Chuck’s deep voice said beside me.

I looked sideways at him. I hadn’t even noticed him sneaking up on me. I looked back to the band. “You start now. Pack up and follow me. It won’t be long until the…”

Chuck-Chuck stepped between the me and the band. “No. Spending. Money.”

I frowned, wincing at a stab of pain in my head. “My sister will cover it.”

“Then why am I sitting out in the rain when I could be on my way out of this shithole with the money?”

“You’ll get it. I just need—”

Chuck-Chuck glared at me like some wild animal. “You’re not spending a single bit until your debt is paid.”

“But—”

“Turn around, get in there, and don’t come out until you have the money.”

I swallowed. “You don’t understand. My sister needs—”

“I don’t care about your damn sister. The only thing that whore needs to—”

I hit him.

He winced, touched his cheek, and looked at me with an expression somewhere between shock and fury. He raised his hoof to strike me.

I cringed, closing my eyes.

Nothing happened.

I opened my eyes. He stood still, hoof in the air, looking at something behind me. I followed his gaze to three guardsponies walking in the square. They wore no weapons that I could see, and their blue uniforms didn’t look nearly as menacing as the ones in the city.

Chuck-Chuck slowly lowered his hoof, his expression hard, and looked at me with eyes that screamed ‘I’ll hurt you later.’

I’d always been small and weak, even when I pretended not to be. But it wasn’t fear that clouded my mind in that moment; it was pure, burning hatred for this disgusting creature who represented everything I was trying to escape.

I screamed like a theater performer. “Release me, you ruffian!"

Every head in the square turned in our direction.

I reached out with my magic, took hold of his hoof, and slammed it into my face, making a dramatic fall to the cobbled ground.

The nearby ponies gave a collective gasp.

"What the..." Chuck-Chuck said.

"Hey!" a nearby stallion shouted.

Chuck-Chuck's eyes went from me on the ground, to the hoof he had just hit me with, to the group of angry guards charging toward him, and finally back down at me, his mouth hanging open.

I grinned.

A uniformed stallion slammed Chuck-Chuck to the ground with a grunt.

Another guardspony jumped on top of him. A third stepped up beside me, offering me a hoof. "Miss, are you alright?"

"Oh heavens, no," I said, putting on the sort of face I imagined Rarity having after tearing stitches on a dress. "This... This vicious criminal attacked me out of nowhere!” I let the guard help me to my hooves.

"You—oph!"

The biggest of the three kneed Chuck-Chuck’s stomach and pressed his head against the ground.

"Thank you ever so much for coming to my rescue," I said. "I dare not even think what he would have done if you three brave stallions had not come when you did."

"It’s our...” The second guard grunted as he struggled against Chuck-Chuck’s squirming. “...pleasure.”

“You will take him to the dungeons, won't you?" I put on a nervous face. "I fear I will not be able to sleep at night if he’s not locked away."

The guards looked at each other. “We don’t... have a dungeon.”

“Ah,” I said. “Of course.” Why would Ponyville need a dungeon? “Just… keep him somewhere he can’t hurt anyone for a while, will you?”

“We’ll keep him under watch, Miss, you can rest assured of that. This scum has no place on the streets of Ponyville.” The third guard grinned and stood a little straighter. “Would you like us to escort you anywhere? I would be more than happy to—”

“Oh, no,” I said, smiling the way stallions loved. “I’m quite fine on my own, thank you.” I eyed Chuck-Chuck while the other two pulled him to his hooves and clasped shackles around his legs.

My chest tingled at a thought.

I leaned in closer to the debt collector, reaching into his raincoat with my magic, feeling glass vials, knives, a pipe, and… a pocket with what felt like half a dozen tiny stones.

I pulled out a dust gem and quickly hid it in a fold in my dress.

Chuck-Chuck eyed me in icy silence.

“I’ll bail you out when I have the money,” I whispered to him, hoping against hope that he’d understand. “I need to get it my way.”

The guards gave the debt collector a shove and marched him away past the acrobats, who stood staring and whispering to each other, their torches hovering still in the air.

Even with Chuck-Chuck restrained, I couldn’t run. Until a collector cleared my contract, either with my repayment or my death, they’d be able to track my magic anywhere. But I had time, and I would use it well.

* * *

“And make sure it’s something cheerful,” I said to the ragged band as they settled on the stage in the great hall. “Set a good mood for the party, you know?”

A few of the servants still cast strange looks at the newcomers, but none of them questioned it. Even that stuck-up doorpony had let them through once I told him to. Word had gotten around that Rarity’s sister was in town.

“Are you sure this is appropriate?” the drummer asked, the only one of the company who wasn’t still gaping at the lavish hall.

“I’ll make it appropriate,” I said. “I want the music to be so good the dead themselves leap from their coffins to dance.”

“When did you say we’re getting paid for this?” the violinist asked.

“Later. My sister will take care of it. Just pull back the curtains and do your thing when the guests arrive.”

“But...”

I tugged the curtains closed in front of the stage, hiding the band, and grinned out at the hall.

A small group of servants dispersed when my eyes fell on them.

“Hey,” I called, cornering one of them against a table. “Where’s Rarity?”

“Uh… She hasn’t been on the floor for a while, Miss… Belle."

“She hasn’t come down yet?” I looked up at the gallery, concern wiping away my smile. She’d been in a awful state when I’d left her. She hadn’t done something bad while I was away, had she?

I hurried to the nearest staircase and up to the gallery, turning the corner to the short hallway I’d left her in.

She wasn’t there.

The hallway only led one way: a flight of steps going up into shadow. I could just barely make out a glass door up there in the dark, standing half open, curtains stirring in the cold wind.