• Published 19th Mar 2016
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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 8 - Thread by Thread

Schick-schick-schick-schick—thunk—schick-schick-schick-schick—thunk—schick-schick-schick-schick—thunk

The sound of Rarity’s machine filled the showroom, the greedy, metallic draw of the threading mechanism punctuated by the heavy drive pedal. In the background, Rarity could just make out the faint hiss of her gramophone. The record was spinning idly with the needle trapped in the blank channel at the end. She couldn’t remember when the music had stopped playing.

She let the sewing machine slow to a halt, pulled the sheet she had been stitching from the table, and held it up. She squinted in the dim light, then scowled in frustration and tossed it aside.

Crooked, again! she fumed. She had made no fewer than four complete outfits from scratch in the past two days and discarded all of them. She hadn’t thought about Fluttershy or her mother. She didn’t want to think about them, didn’t want to ponder the realities or the absurdities of what she had done. Instead, she had written her foul mood down to the actions of the Historical Society and buried herself in her work.

Yet, for all her efforts to focus on her designs, something had gone wrong with every single one. The first she had simply written off as a consequence of not having worked on a real outfit in so long. In the second outfit, the angles had lined up all wrong. When she had put it on the dress form, it had looked like it was melting off of it. She didn’t even want to think about the catastrophe that had been the third attempt. But the fourth...

She frowned and looked at the fourth. It was still on the ponnequin by the dressing rooms where she had left it. It was a classical piece in black with understated white lace hiding the lines. She had envisioned it as something that might have graced the decks of an airship fifty years ago and done it almost more for fun than to try to get something she could sell out of it. The little black hat and dark, netted veil cast the ponnequin’s empty eyes into shadow, and the voluminous skirt billowed out in pillowy pleats of black and white behind a stiff, formal bodice. All in all, it had turned out remarkably well.

But something was off. Rarity couldn’t figure out what, and every time she thought she had found out the problem, all would appear normal and correct when she took a closer look. Perhaps it was that one stitch, but no, that was fine. It had to be the width of the hat, but no, that turned out alright as well. She simply could not pin down what had gone awry, but every time she stepped back and looked at the dress as a whole, something about it just seemed wrong.

For the tenth time, Rarity gave up and turned away from it. As she looked back at her sewing table, barely visible in the gloom, she sighed in frustration and glanced at one of the sconces. Safety be damned, I can’t keep living like this. Her eyes were burning and tinged with red from working in the dim winter twilight. With a gritty snap, she lit one of the matches and started to light the lamps. One by one, yellow flames sprang to life, and soon the showroom was filled with a subdued, flickering glow. Rarity snuffed the match and nodded in satisfaction. If the shop burns down, it's about the only thing left that could go wrong anyway. Might as well get it over with.

Rarity returned to the table and pushed another segment of fabric beneath the machine’s shuddering shadow. She tried to resume working, but if the darkness had been bad, the shadows cast by the old lights were almost worse. However Rarity stood, one of the mirrors was always just within her line of sight, playing tricks with her vision. A flicker of movement or a slightly more aggravated twitch of a shadow would startle her out of her concentration every few moments, and she would jerk her head up to try and catch whatever had passed just out of sight. Her skill saved the work most of the time, but it only took one such lapse to ruin an entire segment.

“Ouch!” She jerked her hoof away and let the machine eat the fabric into a wad under its needle. A thin stream of blood was carving a carmine line through the white fur on her ankle. She had gotten distracted again and let her hoof wander too close to the jabbing silver tooth of the sewing machine. She sucked on the cut with a pained expression and tasted thick, coppery sweetness as she glared at the machine.

Somewhere in the room, she heard the faintest rasp of heavy cloth. She looked up, and saw one of the wall hangings swaying just slightly, as if disturbed by a breeze. She blinked at it, and it became still. Frowning, she bent down and pulled the ruined fabric from the machine, examining it to see if she could salvage it.

Again, the sound of cloth rustling, as if somepony had brushed against one of the walls. Rarity looked up, but didn’t see anything moving. None of the wall hangings were disturbed in the slightest. Her ears swiveled just slightly apart, searching for anything out of place, but she only heard the throaty, humming exhalation of the lamps and the thin hiss of the forgotten record player. She rolled her eyes, walked over to the gramophone, and lifted the lever. The hiss faded away.

To her left, the veiled hat slid off the ponnequin’s head and fell to the ground with a hollow, muffled thud. Rarity jumped back, but stepped forward a moment later, shaking her head and grabbing the hat in her magic.

“I’ll figure you out later,” she said irritably, fixing the hat firmly onto the textured head. “Just be patient.”

The hollows of the ponnequin’s eyes wavered in the dancing lamplight, and Rarity could almost imagine its gaze flitting from her face to something behind her and back again the next instant. She wasn’t sure which idea she disliked more. She turned away, trying to ignore the tension bunching her shoulders as she imagined the figure continuing to stare at her.

As she looked back towards the table, she caught sight of her reflection in one of the huge mirrors surrounding the dais on the other side of the room. She saw the ponnequin wearing the dress standing behind her, and was struck by the same sense of wrongness as she looked at its image. Frowning, she walked towards it, her double growing larger in the mirror with every step. She climbed onto the dais, and her image appeared in the center and rightmost mirrors as well. She scrutinized the dress in the background over her shoulder, then blinked in surprise as she realized the feeling was gone. From here, it somehow looked totally normal to her. She glanced at the other mirrors, but she couldn’t see the dress in them.

As she looked back into the left mirror, she froze as she saw herself. She stood there, dark shadows under her reddened eyes, a mare whose normally bright coat was in dire need of brushing and probably a good conditioning. The deep, rich purple of her mane had faded to a dull, muddled plum color. She turned her head a little this way and that, puzzled. The sense of strangeness was no longer coming from the image of the dress. The longer she looked at it, the more she felt it in her own mirror image. Her reflection turned with her, regarding her with dark, puzzled eyes.

She shrank back, and her image mimicked her movement. Had it hesitated just a moment too long before following her? Rarity blinked and stared harder. Her deep, dark eyes gazed back at her, peering into her, as if trying to see through her. Rarity turned to the center mirror, and the feeling faded. Her own pale face looked back at her. She turned to the right mirror, and it was the same. But when she turned back to the left mirror, a feeling of cold sickness swept over her. The eyes were so dark. Rarity realized the redness had almost vanished. Indeed, even the sapphire blue of her eyes seemed to be...

The shadow of the ponnequin, blurry and out of focus over her shoulder, visibly turned its head and looked at her.

Rarity whirled, drawing in a rasping breath and pressing up against the freezing glass of the mirror. The ponnequin was facing off to the side, its dark eyes staring at nothing. No, Rarity thought, stepping away from the mirror and gaping at the inanimate figure. I saw it move this time. I know I did. I...

She wondered if it could have been the shadows from the lamps. The open flames moved so strangely. It made perfect sense that a wayward shadow had made it seem like that head had swiveled with silky smoothness over and up, bringing those hollow pits in its head to rest on Rarity's eyes in the mirror.

The mirror. Rarity stiffened. She wanted to turn back to the mirror, to see if she could spot the illusion that had made her think the ponnequin had moved. But as she started to turn, she paused. Her breath quickened.

She did not want to look into the mirror again. She couldn’t remember seeing her twin turn away from her as she whirled to look at the dress form. She imagined herself standing there on the dais, looking out into the room, while she also stood in the mirror, facing forward, watching herself on the dais with deep, flat eyes that had turned suddenly black.

Not me, Rarity thought wildly. Something like me. She wanted to laugh, to think it was her silly imagination running away with her. But every inch she turned her head towards the mirror was harder than the last. The muscles in her neck knotted and trembled. She couldn’t shake the sense that it hadn't been her in the mirror, but yet something that had looked like her was still there, watching, unmoving. But it would have changed. It would be different, and this time, she would see exactly how.

The gold frame of the mirror crept into her peripheral vision. She sniffed as she tried to calm her breathing. A tremor escaped the muscles in her neck and infected her jaw with unsteadiness. Just another inch or two. It would be her in the mirror, and she would laugh for being so afraid. She would not see dark eyes over a horrible, cruel smile looking back at her. She wouldn’t see...

The barest edge of silver entered her vision. The same eyes Fluttershy had, Rarity thought, and her body suddenly felt cold. Those eyes in her friend and in the mirror, those eyes that had been so dark and still, devoid of depth and reflection. Eyes that gave nothing back when she looked at them.

Rarity choked a little, then turned and jumped off the dais. She couldn’t look at it. She could still imagine it there, standing and watching as she trotted to the stairs, barely maintaining her composure as she passed around the edge of the golden frame. She reached the alcove, and only then did she turn.

She couldn’t see the left mirror. In the rightmost mirror, she could see herself poised on the first step, with no indication that anything was amiss. She couldn’t see the ponnequin either. It was hidden at the other end of the room by the curtains that partitioned the dressing rooms.

In one mental motion, she shut off all the lamps, plunging the showroom into inky darkness. She trotted up the stairs, bypassing the bathroom entirely. She couldn’t stand the idea of facing the huge, gray-framed mirror inside, certainly not long enough to remove her makeup. She could leave her face unwashed for one night.

As she entered the upper chamber, Rarity turned and locked the bedroom door for the first time in her life, pulling the key from the lock as she headed towards the bed.

* * *

She awoke with a faintly sweet, heavy scent clogging her nostrils. She screwed up her face, snorted, and pushed herself away from the pillow as she blinked in dazed confusion. Long bars of bright, silver moonlight sprawled over the floor from the far windows, filling the room with a cold radiance. Surfaces seemed to drift and sway as she tried to clear the sleep from her eyes.

It made her slightly sick, like she was looking at something underwater. She walked sleepily to the window and looked out. The sky was perfectly clear, a soft, velvety black that arched over the landscape to meet the gentle curve of the horizon in a perfect seam. Below her, Ponyville was laid out in vague, hazy shapes that reminded her of cottages.

Rarity blinked, trying to bring them into focus, but they wouldn’t resolve themselves. They looked almost blotchy, and she rubbed her eyes again to no avail. They looked so far away. Her bedroom wasn’t that high up, yet it felt like she was looking down from a mountaintop. Something else was strange about the scene in front of her too; something was missing.

The moon, she realized, looking up at the black, empty sky. Where is the moon? Although the town below was bathed in pure, silver moonlight, there was nothing in the sky to cast it. The absence made her recoil from the cold glass.

Somewhere below her, a faint, long cry sounded, a muffled wail that emanated from the boards and carpet beneath her. It was followed an instant later by its dissonant echo rushing up the stairs and through the hall after it. She turned her head, her breath quickening a little as she saw the black, gaping hallway through the wide open door. Didn’t I lock that?

The blind tunnel swelled in size, and Rarity realized she was walking towards it. The darkness swallowed and enfolded her as she left the bedroom, but she didn’t miss a step on her way down. She felt like she knew every board, every grain of the curved stairwell, and glided down as effortlessly as if she were descending a brightly lit staircase in a Canterlot ballroom.

The showroom swept slowly into view as she found the landing. The moonlight penetrated the windows and saturated the room, but it seemed less bright, less pure than it had been upstairs. It had turned from silver to the dull gray of granite, and every surface it touched was drained of color.

In the lurid light, Rarity saw with befuddled shock that the room had been completely changed. All of her wall hangings, decorations, and furnishings were gone. The walls were bare, dark wood. Old, splintery boards creaked under her hooves. She heard a slight hiss, and looked around for the source, thinking for a moment that the gramophone must still be running.

Another long, mournful wail pushed past her, and she snapped her head back to the center of the room. Her sewing table was there, exactly where it ought to have been, and she couldn’t think how she had missed it before. The room swam and rippled, and she blinked hard before trying to rub the fatigue from her eyes again.

When she opened them, she realized the walls weren’t bare—they had been covered in paintings. Gray, smooth faces gaped at her with luminous silver eyes, and disfigured bodies seemed to be trying to claw their way out of the walls to get to her. Every instant she looked at them, she felt a slight pulse in the air, like a thunderclap but without sound, as if the walls were the massive, fleshy ventricles of an enormous, throbbing heart.

Who— Rarity’s mind reeled, confusion competing with rage in her soporific mind. Who did this? Who ruined my work? She looked around the room, trying to find the source of the incessant wailing. She spotted a colorless figure lying on her couch, its head propped on its curled forelegs as it breathed quietly. Rarity recognized the enormous, tacky mound of mane piled on top of its head.

Mother, Rarity thought with a feral growl. She stalked forward, ready to berate her mother for staying so late and undoing all of her hard work when another cry struck her ears, causing her to stumble and look around angrily. She looked at the desk in the center of the room, and was startled to see a shapeless figure rolling and thrashing billowing limbs on top of it. She was sure there had been nothing but empty space there before, and it was only after a moment of bewildered terror that she realized it was Sweetie Belle. Her sister lay next to the sewing machine, which stood poised over her like a skeletal vulture. It was she who was screaming, thrashing her tiny legs against her swaddling linens as she filled the air with her cries.

Rarity couldn’t think. Everything about what she was seeing cried out to her that it was wrong, but the wailing echoed from the painting-laden walls, pummeled her ears, and ripped through her skull. It drowned out any capacity she had for thought, leaving room only for a shrieking frustration that quickly evolved into a burning fury.

“Shut up,” Rarity demanded in a trembling voice, spiny with hate and rising with every word. “Why are you doing this? Why are you all trying to stop me? I’m trying to sleep, I’m trying to work, why can’t you all just go away?

She turned her head back and forth, looking around furiously. The eyes of the mutilated and surreal figures in the paintings watched her. Their open mouths seemed to add to Sweetie Belle’s wails. How can you sleep through this, mother? She approached Sweetie Belle and grasped the foal’s legs with her magic, pinning her down and stilling her thrashing. The screaming only increased.

“Stop it, stop it, stop it!” she yelled. She couldn’t think. Her vision was clouded with her anguished rage. She saw her sister through a haze of thick ripples and running lines that pulsed like veins.

An idea came to her, whispered in a voice that was unlike any she had ever heard in her head before. The rage seemed to bleed away, and a tiny, thin smile spread across Rarity's face. She plucked the needle from her sewing machine and levitated it to her sister. Another glimmer of magic, and her sister’s mouth was forced shut, finally stifling the unendurable screams into desperate, pleading moans.

“That’s better,” Rarity said, as candidly and primly as if she were commenting on the color of the thread. “There there now, don’t fret. Your sister knows how to fix this.”

With simple, precise efficiency, like re-attaching a popped button, she ran the light blue thread—a perfect complement to her sister's mane—through the edges of the straining mouth, mending the gap and forming a perfect cross stitch.

“Almost done,” she said, and the voice rang strangely in her ears. It barely sounded like her. But she couldn’t think about that; there were a few more gaps to mend before everything would finally be perfect.

A few moments later, she was done. She closed the last loop and bit off the end of the thread. The sounds finally stopped, and near-total silence descended on the shop. A few little grunts and feeble moans rose as the figure beneath her thrashed and spasmed with increasing violence. Then it fell silent and convulsed, heaving its chest as if trying to push its lungs out from between its straining ribs and into the thick, stifling air.

It shivered, twitched, and finally, it lay perfectly still. In that moment, Rarity was totally alone, and she relished a feeling of complete and thorough contentment.

The air was pierced with a deafening, horrified shriek. Rarity’s head whipped to face the couch. Her mother leapt up, eyes alight and bloodshot with mindless terror. She flew towards Rarity, shrieking a note befitting a banshee as she raised a pair of scissors over her head. Rarity stumbled back, tripping and falling as her mother descended on her, the unbroken wail filling her ears. The last thing she saw before she closed her eyes and raised her legs in a feeble gesture of defense was a portrait of a pink mare, standing in front of an easel and a mirror, her face twisted into a grotesque, gaping, black roar of unrelenting and violent hatred as she glared down at Rarity.

Rarity screamed.

Then she heard only silence. Her breath came in lightning gasps as she waited for an assault that wasn’t coming. She opened her eyes and peered past her legs. The painting was gone. Clarity came to her in an icy wave as if a dam in her mind had been suddenly broken.

“Sweetie Belle?” she shrieked, scrambling up and clawing her way to the table. Her mother was nowhere to be seen. She pulled herself up to the desk, and found its surface empty. She looked around wildly. She was surrounded by colorless but very real wall hangings, and there wasn’t a painting to be seen. There was soft, cool carpet bristling against her hooves. Her next breath was a gasping sob, and she slumped over the table as terrified, stifled weeping took over.

It had been a nightmare. A terrible, appalling nightmare, but a nightmare nonetheless. Sweetie Belle isn’t dead, she told herself, gratitude washing over her in increasing waves each time she thought it. I didn’t hurt her. This is real, not that. It didn’t happen. She’s fine. Mother won’t hate me.

She laughed a tiny, bitter chuckle at the absurdity of that last thought, opening her eyes again and heaving a heavy sigh. A moment later, however, dread filled her like poison as she remembered the details of the dream. She had sewn up her sister like a doll until she hadn’t been able to breathe, and she hadn’t felt any remorse or compunctions while doing it. Even if it were the nonsense of a stress-induced dream, the very idea that such an act was in any way conceivable in her head disturbed her deeply.

“I don’t... I don't hate my sister,” she told herself, hearing her pleading tone echo back to her. “I’d never hurt her. I’d never even think of such a thing.”

But she had thought of it. The events of the past ten minutes were proof of the emptiness of her protests. And because of that, she felt as guilty and afraid as if she’d actually done it. She pressed her hooves against her eyes and tried to slow her heavy, panicked breathing. When she opened her eyes again, she looked around in confusion. She was indeed downstairs in the showroom by her sewing table.

Did I sleepwalk again? But the more she thought about it, the more she realized it hadn’t felt like a dream or even a nightmare. It had been vivid and precise, and she had felt fully awake the entire time. The only anomaly was the strange, muddled way everything had looked.

It was almost like... like how Fluttershy looked yesterday, she realized. She drew in a thin gasp and felt as if she had swallowed a bucket of ice water. Everything had looked just that little bit off, fuddled and stretched, like the figures in an oil painting where the lines were never quite straight and shapes never clearly defined.

It’s ok, Rarity, she thought. You’re stressed, you’re upset, and your mind latched onto everything that’s been bothering you lately.

But the words felt weak and pleading. The magnitude of what had just happened battered her mind. It was just one of so many things that had steadily been getting worse from the moment she had set hoof in the Old Town Hall.

In the old Roola Gallery, was the unbidden thought that came to her mind. She frowned as she thought back to what little she had managed to learn about the artist who had lived there before here.

I wonder if she was like me at all, Rarity thought, looking sadly around the room. Ambitious and confident, only to run into a wall at every turn. I wonder how much work she put into this place before it bled her dry. That’s certainly what it feels like it’s doing to me.

Rarity shook her head, wondering just how similar their lives would turn out to be. Would she also fade quietly into the background, her work unappreciated and forgotten, just like Toola Roola? Had Toola started to buckle under the stress, endured the same nightmares, felt the same suffocating pressure of the hall as the old building dragged her into lonely obscurity?

Rarity shivered as she imagined what kind of stress a mind would have to suffer to paint the kind of things she had seen in the basement and hanging on the walls in her vision. What terrified her more, however, was that she was beginning to understand them a little more as her own stress escalated, and the things happening to her became increasingly fantastic and impossible.

What if something more is happening? she asked herself reluctantly. What if something more than stress and bad luck started to affect Toola Roola, and now it’s starting to affect you too?

“Don’t be stupid,” Rarity scolded herself aloud, the loudness of her voice startling her a little in the stillness of the night. Then, more quietly, “There has to be a concrete answer to everything. You’re smart enough to figure that much out, aren’t you?”

Magic, came the instinctive answer. Rarity’s brow furrowed as she considered it. It wasn’t impossible that something else was indeed happening to her, something beyond stress and fatigue and bad luck. It was known that there were oddities, strange occurrences that came and went in Equestria: little ripples of magic that produced unexplainable and unpredictable effects. They were rare, never fully understood, and most confusingly of all, usually fleeting. But they were known to happen. And if she had somehow stumbled into one of those bizarre currents and it was affecting her this strongly, then her list of priorities was probably about to get a lot longer.

It doesn’t make sense, though. I should have been able to tell if there was powerful magic nearby from the moment I walked in the door. She screwed up her eyes in concentration and listened with her mind, reaching out for the gentle, ethereal currents of power that suffused everything around her. The only thing she felt was stillness. There wasn’t even the faintest echo of a spell or anomaly, not that she could detect, at any rate.

Although... that horrible feeling I had by the mirrors earlier...

Silver. There was no material known to ponykind that was more receptive to magical energy, and the number of applications Unicorns had found for mirrors in spellcraft was endless. It didn't seem far-fetched that the many mirrors scattered throughout the room might be drawing in a power too subtle for her to detect, serving as foci and projecting it out in uncontrolled bursts.

Odd things were happening even before I brought the mirrors in... they couldn't be the issue, but is it possible they're exacerbating it?

She didn't need to hope it was possible. It was enough that it was a possibility she could investigate, a promise of an explanation and perhaps even a solution. It was something she could act on, and she felt suddenly calmer. The intensity of the vision had finally faded a little, and her body ached as if she had run a marathon. Her bed was calling to her.

But as she looked down at the table and her sewing machine, she saw, as if she had been left a parting jab, that the needle of the machine had been pulled out, and several feet of pale blue thread had been unspooled and discarded in a messy tangle on the table’s surface.

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