• Published 19th Mar 2016
  • 5,441 Views, 186 Comments

Carousel - Thornquill

There is a part of Ponyville’s past its citizens forgot, a part that was left to rot... until Rarity encounters a dark power in Old Town Hall.

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Chapter 4 - Paintings

A soft, metallic click cut through the stillness of Rarity’s showroom, followed immediately by a faint, clockwork rattling. Flat hissing broke out as a needle was lowered onto the edge of a vinyl record, and shortly after, the thin tones of a slow, trilling violin concerto began to echo through the room. Rarity smiled and trotted away from the gramophone, a new model painted in deep black and bright gold. Behind it, a line of long, flat boxes leaned against the wall, holding all of the mirrors she had bought, and which now waited to be mounted around the shop. A massive desk had been placed in the middle of the room, easily three times the size of her old one. It was heavily laden at one end with heavy cloth in varying shades of bright blue, pink, and purple. Having spent another morning visiting with Fluttershy, Rarity was eager to get to work.

At the other end of the desk perched a brand-new, industrial-grade sewing machine. It was top-of-the-line, ordered directly from the manufacturer in Manehatten, and its red paint gleamed in the light from the chandeliers overhead. Even though it was mid-afternoon and Rarity had finally torn down and thrown out the massive, hideous curtains that had suffocated the windows, she still needed to light all of the lamps to get enough light to work by.

Around her, six huge swathes of fabric had already been hung from the ceiling, creating the first partitions of the showroom and closing in the vast, empty space left in the ceiling. Rarity hoped she wasn’t deluding herself, but she thought the place already felt decidedly more warm and welcoming.

Though, the warmth could just be from the lights, Rarity thought, letting out a sigh and fanning herself lightly with a stray bit of fabric. Even though they had only been burning for a few hours, the lamps had managed to raise the temperature inside considerably. She would need to be careful not to let it get too hot and stuffy inside after opening, and she wondered if a few skylights might not solve the problem of the shop’s abominable dimness, at least during the daylight hours. Like the rest of the exterior, however, that was a problem that couldn’t be solved until spring, and she knew she would just have to soldier through it.

Stepping up to the desk, she started to work a floor pedal with a hind hoof, and the machine rattled to life as she fed more fabric into it. She had spent the past few weeks measuring and creating patterns for the interior while she waited for the materials to arrive, and she hoped to have the entire showroom decorated by the end of the month. The sewing equipment would be moved up to the bedroom eventually, but for now, she wanted to be in the middle of everything as it took shape around her.

A heavy hoof pounded on the door behind her, and Rarity let the machine slow to a halt again. Speaking of getting everything decorated, she thought excitedly. She trotted to the front door, the thin echoes of the gramophone’s symphony accompanying her, and opened it to find two Pegasus stallions in blue, badly-rumpled uniforms facing her. Behind them were two large carts loaded with several wooden crates.

“Miss Rarity?” one of them asked.

“At your service,” Rarity replied with a smile.

“We have a delivery for you from the Fillydelphia Clothiers Suppliers,” he said, giving her a clipboard and quill. “If you wouldn’t mind signing for us, we can bring them in for you.”

“Of course,” Rarity said, taking the proffered sheet with her magic and spinning out her name in dark, elegant swirls. “Please bring them into the main room here, if you’d be so kind—over there, where those other boxes are.”

“You got it, ma’am.” A few minutes later, the crates had been taken in, pried to pieces with crowbars, and the detritus removed to leave behind twelve pristine ponnequin dress forms made of bone-white cloth, ready to hold in-progress pieces and model new designs on the showroom floor.

“Thank you for your trouble,” Rarity said, tipping them several gold bits as they trotted out the door.

“Not at all, ma’am,” he replied, tipping his hat to her. “You have a nice day.”

Rarity closed the door and trotted back to the table. As the old recording of the violins continued to play, Rarity started up the sewing machine and continued fashioning the next of the huge wall hangings that were transforming the showroom.

Somewhere nearby, a faint, muffled thump reached her ears. Rarity slowed the machine and glanced up briefly, wondering if something had fallen from a shelf in her bedroom. With a shrug, she resumed her work almost immediately. Whatever it was, it had not sounded like it had broken.

Thu-thunk thump.

Rarity’s ears twitched as she stopped the machine again. She had the unpleasant idea that the sounds reminded her of someone trying to sneak through a staircase when they thought they couldn’t be heard. Experimentally, she started the machine, watching her work as carefully as ever while her ears scanned the room for any sign of the sounds. The thread was dragged faster and faster through the twisting metal spines and wheels of the machine until it was nearly at full speed again. Rarity let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding in a satisfied sigh.

Chack. The machine spun to a halt and Rarity looked up sharply towards the kitchen. That was the sound of the basement door, she was sure of it. Frustration overriding apprehension, she strode to the back alcove and into the kitchen, frowning as she sought out the source of the sound. Sure enough, the basement door, coated with sickly gray paint that had faded and flaked with age, was hanging ajar by a few inches. It opened into the thick, impenetrable darkness of the cellar. With a roll of her eyes, she pushed it shut and rattled it briefly to make sure the latch had caught. Without another glance at it, Rarity walked back into the showroom and started up the sewing machine with an exasperated sigh.

Almost as soon as she had settled down, however, she felt tense and restless. The music and the clean, repetitive clatter of automated stitching echoed hollowly around her, unheard by anypony else, and yet she felt almost the same as when her mother would come around and just watch her work. She had never been able to stand it when ponies watched her work. It made her paranoid, as if every move she made was being judged for perfection before she had the chance to really make something shine. As a result, she would never show an unfinished piece to anyone if she could help it.

She held up another length of cloth and scrutinized it, but her attention kept wandering as her eyes moved to the record player or the back alcove. She looked around angrily, but no one was watching her; she was alone. Then, just as she felt she might be getting back into the groove, she heard the increasingly familiar sound of the basement latch popping open again, this time followed by the faint, creaking protest of the door’s hinges.

With a frustrated groan, she threw the fabric down again and stepped away from the table. All the distractions had finally broken her momentum. If I can’t get the ball rolling on getting anything else redecorated, I’ll just have to find some other way to be productive.

She walked back into the kitchen with a huff and fixed her eyes on the basement door. It had drifted open wider this time. Several inches of the darkness behind it were now visible. Rarity’s frown deepened as her heartbeat quickened slightly. The sense of watchfulness seemed to intensify. She felt like something could be looking at her from just inside that doorway, and she was surprised at how deeply the thought was unsettling her. She walked carefully towards it, but nothing moved in the deep darkness behind it, not even when she lit her horn and pushed the smallest amount of extra light behind the door.

Then an idea occurred to her. I have been meaning to have a look at the artwork that got left behind. It was possible she might be able to use some of it to decorate the shop, and who knew, there might even be some old and rare prints hidden away down there. Though, that’s hardly likely in an old Ponyville public office, she thought as she swung the door fully open. The stairs fell away to the left and dissolved into thick, inky darkness. As she laid one hoof on the dry, naked boards, she felt a strange sensation of trespass, and she was reminded of when she had come home and found her door locked against her. There was nothing visibly amiss, and yet she still couldn’t shake the impression that there was something else present down where the light didn’t reach. It was a kind of heaviness in the air that gave her the sense that the darkness was not quite empty, and no amount of shadow could completely hide the anomaly.

The blue light of her horn snatched at the gas valve at the top of the stairs before the idea could drive her away. As the thin sigh of the gas became audible, she grimaced with effort as she switched from levitation to summoning a tiny snap of flame from nothing. The tiniest snick sounded in front of her as a brief flash of yellow and blue dazzled her eyes, but the darkness swallowed it an instant later. She grit her teeth and pushed harder. She grunted in frustration as another spark snapped and vanished without result. She was about to give up and grab the matches from the stove across the kitchen when a third spark finally caught the gas and a pale flame sprang to life.

To her dismay, the feeble light barely pushed back the darkness engulfing the stairs. It didn’t even reveal the next sconce at the bottom. With a roll of her eyes, she intensified the simple light from her horn and started downward. The darkness yielded grudgingly before her, only to snake around the edges of her light to close in behind her again. Her hoofsteps echoed into the empty room ahead of her, announcing her presence. After what felt like far too many steps, the sconce at the bottom of the stairs faded into view, and she ignited it with a relieved sigh as she stepped onto the freezing floor.

Muted colors and poorly-defined shapes faded into place over the flat emptiness as the little space came into view. There were no other lamps, but she thought she had enough to go through the artwork. The basement smelled slightly damp and musty, and there was a strange, dense smell beneath it Rarity couldn’t quite place. She could pick out the faintest hint of an unnatural, tangy pine, almost masked by something that smelled like a combination of something burnt mixed with wet leaves. She was briefly reminded of the dark, narrow path in Whitetail Woods, but unlike the clear, clean smell of damp foliage, this was murkier, muddled in an almost chemical mire that made her wrinkle her nose.

She spotted the mass of haphazardly stacked canvases at once, a tilted pile comprised of white edges and pale brown frames. She hadn’t really paid much attention to them during her tour, so she was surprised when she realized how many there were. The basement was actually larger than she had originally thought, but the canvases crowded the space until almost nothing was left.

I’ll probably end up donating most of these, she thought numbly as she stepped forward and lifted the first canvas.

At first glance, the scene appeared to be a rather nice pastoral with heavily saturated greens, blues, and whites, startlingly clear in the dim light of the basement. The painting seemed to be of the Ponyville park, and Rarity thought she recognized the fountain featured prominently in the lower third. She was already thinking about placing it somewhere upstairs when a spot of fiery red caught her eye. She looked closer, and saw a trail of vibrant crimson seeping away from the fountain. It seemed to bleed from a figure she hadn’t noticed there before, an emaciated equine figure with one hoof crooked around the edge of the fountain, peering out as if trying to get a clearer view of the painter.

Rarity scowled in surprise and distaste, and laid the painting aside. As she picked up more and more, however, her aversion turned to nauseated disgust. Most of the paintings were a bizarre mix of the surreal and the macabre, featuring elements of disturbing organic geometry, dismal horizons, obliterated landscapes, and disfigured, monstrous equines. In some scenes, desiccated bodies that barely resembled ponies crowded against walls and cliffs, their alien jaws stretched painfully wide as their white eyes stared out of the canvas. In others, she seemed to look through a window to another world where ponies strode over burned plains with limbs too long and too numerous, their disproportional bodies infected with strange, plant-like growths. There were pale, disembodied faces hovering in discolored skies, skin drawn tight by mouths hung in expressions of appalled sorrow as their empty eyes stared at something Rarity couldn’t see.

Almost against her will, Rarity kept looking through the paintings. If she had been in a shop or a gallery, she would have moved on from the appalling scenes in search of something more pleasant. But her mind was caught in a kind of trance and a maniacal, morbid curiosity to see just how strange the next painting could possibly be—and they never disappointed. Ghastly, doll-like foals whose bodies were infinitely too small for their enlarged, grotesque heads stared with black eyes into mirrors that reflected nothing. Brutally wounded mares dragged mangled bodies over terrains of bone, their scarcely recognizable faces turned to the heavens in frozen screams of unimaginable agony. A carnival scene that seemed to have been sculpted from molten flesh was dominated by a hellish merry-go-round where skeletal riders had been speared to their larger mount counterparts, and which bore the faded text “Le Carrousel de Temps” on its rotating pavilion.

Every painting she looked at seemed to exude and magnify the basest and most terrible emotions Rarity knew: terror, sadism, masochism, malice, utter loneliness, and even, most unsettling of all, an occasional twinge of inscrutable, venereal excitement provoked by some of the raw, intertwined forms. But even in the face of all that, there was something disconcertingly cathartic about seeing the scenes. It was almost as if by being given form, they had found a kind of permission to exist, an acceptance of all the cruelty and perversion the world was burdened with that Rarity didn’t want them to have.

Rarity found she was breathing harder than normal. She felt terrified and enthralled at the same time. The dense air seemed to press in on her. The flame in the wall behind her danced and shivered as if it was being suffocated, and it cast wildly animated shadows around the room. Rarity turned over a final canvas, and the sudden normality of what she saw, contrasted with all of the lurid scenes she had almost been acclimating to, sent a fresh wave of horror through her that turned her stomach and shrank every vein in her flesh. In the next instant, she found she couldn’t imagine why it would make her feel so.

It was a simple, if grim, portrait of a perfectly normal-looking pony. She was an Earth Pony with a pink coat and beautiful, pale blue eyes. She had the kind of rare multicolored mane and tail that Rarity had only seen a few times even in the fashion catalogs: her mane was yellow, dark pink, and orange, while her tail was a more muted scheme of purple, blue, and teal. Her body was angled towards an easel that was positioned beside her, though her face was turned to the painting’s viewer. She held a long, thin, crimson brush in her right hoof, and there was a small mirror in a dark red frame behind her which, curiously, showed a reflection of the pony from the wrong angle. Rarity realized there must have been another mirror positioned exactly where Rarity would have been standing had she been in the scene.

Rarity tilted her head, a slight frown settling on her face as she looked down on the scene. After the strange shock had worn off, something about the image was chilling and curiously melancholic. The mare’s face was fixed in an expression of calm concentration, her eyes narrowed and jaw set in a thin downward curl as she focused on what she was looking at—which, Rarity realized, must have been the mirror she had used to paint herself. And yet, there was something in those eyes Rarity didn’t like, a sense of barely-concealed revulsion or hatred for the object of the pony’s gaze.

As she pushed the painting away, she noticed a tiny plague of gray metal tacked to the bottom of the simple, square frame. As she looked closer, she could make out that it read, “Farewell: A Self-Portrait. T.R. C.E. 966.” The inscription puzzled Rarity, as none of the other paintings had been labeled in any way. She was struck again with a sense of vague familiarity, but still couldn’t place its source. Those eyes seemed to stare out of the oiled canvas, cold and challenging, and their intensity finally broke Rarity’s reverie and gave her cause to lay the painting aside.

As if released from a spell, Rarity stacked the paintings back up, making certain that none of the “art” would be visible. Nevertheless, she couldn’t help but handle them with a kind of reverent care, making certain not to damage them.

I think I’d rather burn the shop down than hang any of these on my walls. Still, an artist never stoops to disrespecting somepony else’s hard work and creative vision.

She left them piled as she had found them before extinguishing the lamps and heading back to the showroom. Instead of going straight to the table, she went to one of the tall windows and looked out to the road beyond. The sight of the muted daylight and the ordinary, snow-burdened houses and streets outside calmed her, and she took a few deep, measured breaths as the oppressive atmosphere of the basement faded. She couldn’t imagine who could have painted such ghastly and disturbing art, and she didn’t really care to find out. The only problem was that she also couldn’t think of who in Ponyville would be willing to take a collection like that off her hooves.

At least it’s out of the way, she thought. I don’t need the cellar space right now, so it’s probably best just to leave it. There are more important things to take care of first.

As she watched the quiet street outside, her attention was caught by the distant shape of a pink earth pony leaving the market and heading down the road towards her. The memory of her first dark night in that place and the figure she had seen advancing on her from outside came back to her from the corner of her mind where she had almost managed to forget about it. It was followed quickly by a mental glimpse of a portrait of a grim, pink Earth Pony lying in her basement.

That’s what that portrait reminded me of, she thought with a soft gasp. But she had no time to consider the connection, as a moment later, she recognized the distinct mountain of purple hair balanced atop the pony’s head. The tension in her back released and she slumped as she breathed a sigh of relief. Mother.

As her mother drew near, Rarity went over to the door and opened it before it became necessary for her mother to knock. As she did, Rarity noticed the foal carrier slung at her mother’s side and heard soft little grunts and moans from Sweetie Belle fussing inside.

“Oh, there you are!” her mother said, bursting into a huge grin as she saw Rarity. “I stopped by earlier, but no one answered! It’s been awhile since we heard from you, so I thought I’d pop by for a short visit!”

“I’m terribly sorry, I was out visiting Fluttershy,” Rarity replied. “I hope you didn’t take time out of your schedule just for me.”

“Oh don’t be silly,” she replied cheerily, edging closer to the entrance. “I was a little miffed when I stopped by the first time because I could have sworn I saw you through the window, and I couldn’t help but think you might be avoiding me! But it’s good you still get to spend time with your little friend.”

Little? Rarity thought with a slight scowl.

“You wouldn’t get to do that in a big town like Manehatten, would you?” her mother continued. “I’m so glad you were able to find something here at home. Do you mind if I come in for a little bit? It’s so cold out here!”

“Not at all, please,” Rarity said, suppressing a groan. She could see where this was going, and the idea of a long visit was not palatable to her after all the other distractions she had allowed so far.

“Goodness, it’s stuffy in here!” her mother continued as she followed Rarity inside. “And no wonder, with all those lamps burning in the middle of the day! What in Equestria do you need all of those for?”

“It does get a bit close,” Rarity admitted, speaking a little louder over Sweetie Belle, who seemed to be getting fussier. “The light really isn’t good, and I need a lot of it to work. I’ve been trying to get things done all day, you know,” she said with a sidelong smile, hoping her mother would take the hint. “Once Winter Wrap Up is over, I’m sure I’ll be able to do something about getting more natural light in here.”

At that point, Sweetie’s fussing escalated to a full wail. “Oh, now now, what’s the matter, little Sweetie?” Her mother cooed, pulling her out of the carrier and sitting down with her on Rarity’s long sofa. Rarity’s smile became strained as she glanced at her desk, piled high with unfinished hangings.

“Perhaps she wants to go home, mother,” she suggested. “I doubt she enjoyed being out in the cold much.”

“Oh, she’s just fussy because she’s tired, aren’t you, Sweetie?” her mother replied. “It’s ok, don’t you want to visit with your big sister? You haven’t seen her in so long!”

“I visited last week,” Rarity grumbled, but her mother didn’t seem to notice. Sweetie only responded with a wail that was louder than anything Rarity had ever heard from her before. “Really, mother, I don’t wish to be rude, but I have so much to do, and she really seems like she wants to be taken care of...”

“Oh, she’ll calm down soon,” her mother said with a dismissive wave. “You go ahead and do your thing, I can listen to you from here. I want to hear all about how things have been going for you! Do you know, I was just in at the library today, and when I told Ms. Dog-Ear you’d moved into the Old Town Hall, I thought she was going to faint. Apparently, she never thought anypony would make anything of this old place again. She grew up here when this place was still in use, you know. She probably remembers what this place was like back in its heyday! You should pop in and ask her about it; I’m sure she’d have some wonderful ideas about how to make this place look grand again!”

“I’m sure she would,” Rarity said, stepping to the desk and looking at the fabric with loathing. Behind her, her mother prattled on over Sweetie Belle’s cries about who had said what around town that week. It was all Rarity could do to keep from slamming a hoof against the desk in frustration. Her breath hissed out between her painfully clenched teeth. Am I ever going to be allowed to get anything done?

* * *

Rarity’s sleep that night was worse than it had been yet. Her mother had stayed for nearly two hours, and Sweetie Belle hadn’t shut up for one moment the entire time. The entire day had nearly been a total waste, and she had gone to bed angry with a lingering headache from Sweetie’s echoing screams. She was angry at herself for getting distracted, she was angry at her mother from coming by, for bringing her stupid infant sister along, and for wasting the entire afternoon with her inane gossip. Why can’t she just respect that I have things to work on?

She tried to calm herself down and tell herself that Cookie was just trying to cope with her daughter moving out, but the feelings of annoyance just kept flaring up again. I can’t keep letting myself get sidetracked; I can’t. They’ll just have to get used to it. With a firm resolution to not allow herself to be distracted by anything tomorrow, she finally managed to drift into a restless sleep.

Her mind flitted from one agitated dream to another. An orange farm pony talked about how a friend of hers had never liked working on the house. Shadows moved slowly in a huge, circular room that was filled with an acrid, earthy smell and pale flames that seemed to whisper and hiss when Rarity wasn’t looking at them. She was trying to make a dress, but she kept pricking herself with the needle. The severe, silver sliver of metal turned crimson as it slid away from her punctured skin, and a pink earth pony laughed and sneered at her for her clumsiness.

“You’re such a lazy-pants,” Pinkie Pie said the first time. “I can’t believe Minny gave this place up to someone like you.”

“Will you stop this foolishness?” her mother said next. “You’ve wasted enough time trying to make it big somewhere. It’s no use, can’t you see that? Just stay here in Ponyville. It’s safer here.”

“They’ll never love your work,” both said, their faces fading between each other. But there was a third voice and face there as well, but only for an instant before it blended back into Pinkie’s or her mother’s like thin, wet paint dissolving in water. “It’s idiotic to try. You should just give up.”

“What?” Rarity asked, faintly becoming aware that she was dreaming. She struggled in that dim, formless space between sleep and wakefulness. “What are you talking about?” She clung to the dream, inexplicably desperate to hear what the voice had to say before it faded away into the stability of her waking mind. But it was gone.

Rarity lay on the bed, the sheets twisted around her, breathing hard with her head turned to the side. Behind the sound of her breaths, however, she noticed something else. A thin, echoing wail seemed to bleed from between the fibers of the floorboards and rise to the vaulted ceiling like smoke. It was coming from downstairs.

Rarity rose, all drowsiness gone. The clouds obscured the moonlight, and only the faintest, most muted shade of gray permeated the room, revealing misty forms that coalesced into walls and furniture. She opened the bedroom door, and the volume of the cries increased. The echoes distorted them, and they wavered between the sounds of a child, those of an adult, and an almost animalistic sound. The stairs creaked as she made her way down, guided only by the thinnest moonlight that ran over the floors and walls like water. The sound, now a cry of total, miserable despair intermingled with terror, became suddenly clear as she came into the showroom. She blinked dazedly as she tried to find the source of the sound. Her mother had fallen asleep on the couch, and the wall hangings Rarity had worked so hard on were piled on the floor. Someone had taken them down.

Mother, Rarity thought with a groan. As she looked at the desk in the center of the room, she was startled to see a shapeless figure rolling back and forth on it as it thrashed at the air with billowing limbs. The bundle was the source of the screaming, small limbs flailing inside linens and casting fluid, shapeless shadows on the walls.

Rarity’s breathing became ragged. The scene before her was somehow wrong, but the wailing that ripped through her skull and echoed off the walls to pummel her ears drowned out any capacity she had for thought. She had the impression that the scene before her was faintly distorted, like she was seeing it through the rippling haze of summer heat. But the room was as cold as the winter night outside, and the ripples did not move. She stepped forward sluggishly. Her legs felt like they were moving through a thick, clinging paste.

Make it stop. The thought seemed to leak from her mind and murmur through the room, stealing between the beams above, slithering over the floor around her hooves, and tickling the sensitive skin of her neck as it climbed back towards her. Rarity then heard the whisper echo back to her as if it were molten silver trickling hotly into her ears, a deadly heat seeping into the base of her skull. Make it stop. A surge of anger and frustration swelled in her chest, and she scowled as her vision clouded with dark, aimless hatred.

Another wail assaulted Rarity’s senses, and she staggered. The scene before her seemed to pulse once as if it were the surface of a billowing sail. She blinked and gasped, feeling suddenly nauseous. An acrid stench washed over her, an earthy, liquid smell that was almost floral, but immersed in an asphyxiating reek of something acidic and mineral, so strong it stung her tongue with an invasive flavor. She coughed, snorted, and looked up, her weary confusion written on her face.

The room was quiet. The space in the center of the sewing table, clearly visible in the faint moonlight from the front windows, was distinctly bare. Rarity snapped her head around to look at the sofa where she had seen her mother resting, but it too was empty. She was alone.

Of course, she thought, her memories returning lethargically. Mother went home hours ago. She looked blearily around the room, blinking to try to clear the viscous, filmy tears of sleep from her eyes. The wall hangings were back in place. Of course she didn’t take them down, why would she do that...

Rarity sighed, feeling the pangs of a sleep-deprived headache beginning. It had been another dream. It still lingered in her drowsy memories, like tiny glimpses of another version of the room were still pushing at the corners of her vision.

She felt dizzy and sick. Her bed called too strongly for her to care about the showroom or any dreams, just as long as they went away and finally allowed her to sleep. Her legs dragged like lead weights as she pulled herself up the stairs and back to bed. She lay there for some time before the pounding in her head slowly subsided and her exhaustion finally pulled her back to sleep.