The Mane Six investigate Ponyville's Nightmare Night legend and find it's not quite so legendary...
Rarity, who has lived in Ponyville the longest out of all the Element-Bearers, tells them the tale of the three legendary figures that rise on Nightmare Night. Twilight Sparkle imagines that there may be a magically-natural explanation for the consistent sightings on a particular night. She proposes they investigate this. And in the process uncovers shocking secrets long buried and seemingly meant to be consigned to the mists of history. And between the mystery, the real story of a doomed romance, two figures coming together centuries before they should even have been mutually aware of one another.
Happy Nightmare Night and Happy Halloween all! (A note on the title: It's two things. First of all, I am Hispanic and from Southern California, so it's in my cultural wheelhouse. The iconography and feel appeal to me. Secondly, the cover image inspired the story, in the main, and I thank Bronystories for sending it to me. The story is not, itself, a Hispanic tale.)
“The mist pulls in more and more, shrouding all of the land. Whitetail Woods is just a foggy expanse, and the border of the Everfree is more of a dangeous and terrible place than ever before. From out of the concealing mist there comes a howl. It is not the howl of a timberwolf. It is the great Stonebeast, the creature that rises on Nightmare Night to snarl and stomp through the woods. It hides and stalks along, never letting itself be seen, save for the stones that serve as shell to it.
“But there is more. For there come pitiful wails and strangled sobs of abject misery. The Maudlin Mare is up and about, making Nightmare Night more horrible. She is a pale, ghostly figure, all bones and tatters of clothes, wailing pitifully after something she can never find. She walks along, begging mercy of those she finds but can never be satisfied.
“That is not the worst. The worse is the Fiend. He is a creature of flame and rage. Fire trails him, baleful cries emerge from him. He is a huge, hulking beast. He roars his hate for some thing that may no longer exist. He never approaches the town and he does not always appear. Nightmare Nights come without him, but he only ever appears on some Nightmare Nights. He is Ponyville's darkest specter, for he terrifies all. Especially me...”
Rarity lowered the flashlight form her face with a shiver, and leaned against Fluttershy for support. Around her in the darkened boutique her friends were reacting to the story. Pinkie was placidly stuffing her face with popcorn; Applejack and Dash were both nodding to the tale; Fluttershy looked a bit spooked but was trying to be supportive; and Twilight was taking notes, looking fascinated by the whole thing. “This is wonderful!” She said, scribbling additional things. “Local legends would make for a wonderful extra-discipline paper. It's certainly more compelling and more emotive than The Olden Pony or The Headless Horse.”
“It's... not a legend. It's real...” Rarity said, hugging Fluttershy tightly. “I saw the Fiend when I was a young filly, not much older than Sweetie is now. It frightened me so badly I nearly stopped participating in Nightmare Night entirely. I would have disbelieved it if I had not seen it later in life. He is real, and the others are too. I have not seen them but there are others who have heard the Stonebeast or been solicited by the Maudlin Mare.”
“I... I never knew about such scary things before. Cloudsdale has different scary stories. And I didn't like those either,” Fluttershy said, softly rubbing her cheek against Rarity's.
“It's all new to me, too, but it's one of the more awesome stories. Three monsters in one! Cool,” Dash said.
“Pericarp was a bit different but Big Macintosh was there longer than ah was. Ah grew up here and ah've heard it. Ah even heard that there Maudlin Mare once. Ah think,” Applejack said, stroking at her chin.
“Since, by and large, we're all newcomers here, this is a brand new bit of cultural information. It will affect us more because we know different traditions,” Twilight sagely said, setting her notes aside. “Rarity is the only one who is a native. She'd be most affected by the memory from foalhood.”
“Oh Twilight, I know you try so hard to be intellectual, to look for explanations that may not be mysterious, but this is the mystery of Ponyville. As much a Nightmare Night reality as making offerings to the statue of Nightmare Moon,” Rarity said, looking over at the other unicorn.
“Mystery is right,” Twilight said, tapping her hoof on the ground. “It gets me thinking...”
“Umm, do we have to keep talking about scary stories? It's making Rarity uncomfortable. And me too,” Fluttershy whispered, curling a little around Rarity.
“I'm breaking down the background of the tale and seeking a contextual basis for the development of the narrative,” Twilight said.
“Uh, beg pardon?”Applejack asked. “We all like yer smarts, Twilight, but sometimes...”
“It sounds like you're vomiting up a dictionary,” Dash finished, tactlessly.
“Classy, sugarcube. Ah am so glad ya ain't like that all the time,” Applejack said with a shake of her head.
“What I mean is, most tales like that are either developed as a didactic tool...” Twilight coughed into her hoof as blank stares met her statement. “I mean, are designed to teach a lesson, or to communicate the fears or values of a community. Sometimes they are spawned from a grain of truth, like most old stories of the fae are about Changelings. But truthful tales get embellished and inflated to reflect how the culture sees the story and itself.”
“Oh! Like how the simple and moving story of Hearths-Warming somehow grew to include the jolly and giving figure of the Hearthkeeper,” Rarity said, comprehension replacing the dread that had been etched onto her features.
“Exactly! The celebration was good and moving but there needed to be another element to reflect the generosity of our culture, hence the development of a magical figure that gives gifts to the good and who passes the selfish and heartless,” Twilight said with a nod.
“So... yer sayin' this whole thing may be true?” Applejack questioned, an eyebrow raised.
“I'm saying that it's a distinct and intriguing possibility,” Twilight clarified, practically wiggling with nerdy excitement. “There may be magical effects that come about each Nightmare Night. It is, after all, the Autumnal Equinox, when the day and night are of equal length. A lot of mana is swirling and surging during that time, as on other major days of upwelling. There could be special properties of the region that have been primed to happen then.”
“Pfft. Booo-ring!” Dash said with a dismissive wave of her hoof. “No offense, Twilight, but this is egg-headier than usual. It sounds like we'd been going out there to find out that Nightmare Night makes some rocks glow or makes the wind blow over holes in the ground and sound like howling.”
“W-well, true... it may be a simple explanation like that...” Twilight confessed, scratching at the back of her neck. “But there may be more to it. We may uncover some kind of intriguing secret from the history of the town! That's... well, that's exactly the kind of thing Daring Do would do!”
Dash perked up instantly and shot upright, hovering in the air a little ways. “Daring Do? You're right, Twilight! If mysterious things happen she always wants to look and find what's going on. She always does cool stuff while digging around in places. This is gonna be awesome!”
Pinkie softly nuzzled against Twilight's neck and offered some of her popcorn. “And that's why you're my favorite pony.”
Twilight blushed deeply and levitated out a few of the popped kernels. “I just learned by trial and error what works. Stimulus, response. Sometimes it's great being an egghead,” she confessed, nuzzling back at her marefriend.
“I... I don't know... this all sounds really, really scary...” Fluttershy said, looking away from the others. “I don't want to be a bother but I don't think I can do something like this.”
“I must take Fluttershy's stance. While I agree that this is all very interesting... this is something that affects me deeply. The fear from foalhood remains. While I may often forget it and enjoy Nightmare Night, I always know it is there, and I always worry that it will return...”
“I really don't want you to do anything that makes you uncomfortable. I understand that that kind of fear can linger. If you want to sit this out, you can, and we'll all completely understand,” Twilight said with a comforting tone.
“Really? It seems as though taking away two able-bodied searchers would be a burden,” Rarity noted.
“We're your friends. Friends understand one another,” Twilight said, smiling brightly. “Besides, you could still help in non-scary ways. You could help look through archives at City Hall, or check books about local features and things. Maybe even talk to older folks that know more local legends, seeking that grain of truth.”
“What do you think, darling? Would that be alright?” Rarity asked Fluttershy, brushing her mane in a soothing manner.
“I can certainly do that. I really do want to help,” Fluttershy said with a soft smile, looking at all the others. “Thank you for being understanding.”
“No sweat, Fluttershy. We know how you are. And you're our friend. We'll always figure something out,” Dash said with a smile. She then turned to Twilight and grew determined. “Now let's plan for a monster hunt. We're gonna need cages, steel cables, big clubs, packs filled with supplies, kick-flank music...”
“Woah there, missy...” Applejack said, planting a hoof softly on Dash's lips. “We're gonna look inta some old campfire stories, we ain't gonna go out huntin' fer Discord. Ah think all we'll need is some water, some vittles an' that Daring Do hat ya swore ya didn't buy fer way too much money.”
“Worth every bit,” Dash said before clapping her own hooves over her mouth and blushing a bit. After experiencing Applejack's smug smile for a short while she quickly added, “I'm still not one of those squealy fangirls.”
“Ah ain't sayin' ya are... jes saying yer a fan, yer a mare and ah do believe ya squealed when ah gave ya that Darin' Do book fer yer birthday...” Applejack said with a light tone.
“That proves nothing!” Dash insisted, crossing her front legs with a huff of indigence.
“No matter what... this will be a great project to undertake... tomorrow...” Twilight said with a yawn, leaning further onto Pinkie and trusting her earth pony strength to keep her upright. “For now, I declare this sleepover on schedule!”
With rolls of their eyes and soft laughs the others distributed themselves around the library to their sleeping areas.
”Larkspur!” The fertile region around Canterlot mountain was growing nicely, the small homesteads and single-family farms taking advantage of the rich earth mana and availability of pegasi weather-makers to raise up a decent harvest. The one who had cried was a light pink earth mare wearing a set of mud-daubed overalls. A straw hat rested on her head and partially covered her strawberry-blonde mane. “Larkspur! Whereabouts are you going today?”
The one to whom she was speaking was a unicorn. What could be seen of her coat was a rich, deep royal blue, while her mane was a paler periwinkle color. That mane was gathered and swept up over the left side of her head, in a very, very loose wave of two layers. Her eye was almost completely obscured by the effect. She was dressed very properly in a long gray dress pulled up by straps to prevent scraping along the ground. Though the design was simple it spoke of a bit of money. She laughed faintly and turned fully towards the earth mare. “Why, Peony, I am going where the mana leads me. You know that.”
Peony laughed softly and shook her head. “You and that mana. We use it for growing, you know. We can feel it just fine. It's flowing nicely. We may get a bumper crop right before the equinox. That would make for a fantastic celebration. You'll be our Harvest Queen again, won't you?”
“It seems hardly fair. I don't grow the wonderful crops, nor do I harvest them. To make me the queen... it seems silly,” Larkspur commented with a wave of a hoof.
“Your father controls the finest land and he keeps us all employed. It's only right that you get the honor. Besides, you're always so kind to us, Larkspur. You really do embody what it means to be the Harvest Queen,” Peony said.
“Thank you, Peony. It means a lot to hear it. But... I must be off...” Larkspur's attention drifted away, towards the long expanse of low hills and sparse vegetation just before the horizon. “Oh I feel it today...”
“Please be careful. Some folks say that they've seen something out there. They don't know what. Might be a rogue timberwolf or something worse,” Peony said, with a dark tone.
“I-indeed...” Larkspur said, with some trepidation. “Still... I must go where I am led. Despite that... I have a good feeling.”
“You know best. I'll tell your father where you went if he asks,” Peony said with a happier voice.
“Oh please... I know him but he worries so over me. He just can't seem to let me alone after mother...” Larkspur cleared her throat and turned away. “Please keep him in the dark or I will never have any peace or time to myself.”
“Of course. Don't worry. He's pretty easy to distract,” Peony replied with a laugh. She waved a hoof and looked around. “Now go before he actually comes along.”
“Of course. And thank you again, Peony. I will see you again soon,” Larkspur said, trotting off with more speed than was seemly for a well-dressed mare.
“Awww yeah, let's do this,” Rainbow said, hovering above the ground and dressed in a full Daring Do outfit, including a bulging pack stuffed with adventure equipment.
The other three mares involved in the investigation were watching that with various expressions, mostly disbelief. Applejack had facehooved and was slowly shaking her head. “Sugarcube... ah love ya ta death... but ah thought we agreed that wasn't leavin' the bedroom.”
Dash rather boldly shook her rear end and gave a heated wink to Applejack. “What's the matter? Can't keep your mind on the adventure with all this Daring Do goodness in your face?”
“No... it's that ya look like one-a them sweaty Neighponese cosplay girls. It ain't a good look fer ya,” Applejack said, pulling her hat down over her face a little ways as other ponies trotted by and whispered.
“H-hey, I told you I was no fangirl!” Dash insisted. She turned on the small crowd of folks that had slowed down to look at her and scowled. “What are you looking at? It took a lot of effort to get it this accurate! I should be getting an award!”
“Setting all that aside,” Twilight said diplomatically, pushing ahead of Dash, “We should start by deciding if we investigate known areas of sightings or if we interview the oldest residents. Until Rarity and Fluttershy come up with something from the archives we don't have anyone in particular to question, families might have stories that have been told and retold about older happenings.”
“We're not gonna spend our time watching a bunch of old folks napping and don't you say anything, AJ, you know that's mostly what Granny Smith does,” Dash said, shooting her marefriend a quick look.
“Ah wasn't about ta say a thing. Ah know how olden ponies get...” Applejack said. “But it ain't so kind of ya ta say so. They've still got lots-a wisdom. They could help.”
“But I wanna investigate something! Something awesome! Like the Everfree forest!” Dash insisted.
“You don't even know where to investigate. It's a dangerous proposition. And since the sun is out you can't rely on the protection of the Everfree Nightwatch,” Twilight said, tapping a hoof on the ground. “We need a place to start. Mysteries aren't solved by just blindly running at a problem. It needs order and structure.”
“Not another mystery,” Roseluck lamented, pushing her flower cart past the four on the way to the town square. “Mysteries get my blood pressure up and Nurse Redheart told me I need to have less stress in my life.”
“We're just investigating the local Nightmare Night legend about the Stonebeast, the Maudlin Mare and the Fiend. I intend to show there are perfectly natural magical explanations for them,” Twilight said, affecting her 'teacher' voice.
“Oh them. I've been hearing about them since I was a foal, but I've never seen them and I'm glad for it. You want a real mystery that's not scary, there's the Lonely Larkspur,” Roseluck said, leaning on her cart.
“The... Lonely Larkspur?” Twilight asked.
Roseluck nodded and pointed out towards the gem fields. “Over there, at the border of the fertile Ponyville lands and the gem fields there's an oddly-shaped rock with a big hollow in it. Every year a single larkspur grows from out of the hollow, without any help. Nopony takes care of it, nopony makes sure it's ready for next season, it comes on its own. It's like a piece of the Everfree far away from it. I noticed it because flowers are my thing.”
“Seriously, Twilight? First we're talking about interviewing old folks, now we're talking about looking at a flower? What ever happened to going to the Everfree?” Dash asked.
“It's a really odd flower! Ordinary larkspur blooms in early spring; the Lonely Larkspur blooms in fall, right around Nightmare Night. Also, ordinary larkspurs live for two years, this one has always been there, as far as I know,” Roseluck said to Twilight. She then turned to Dash and scowled. “Well, that's some big talk from a cosplay girl! If you want a mysterious Everfree flower there's a rock in there that looks like a lumpy, misshapen hyacinth. It's a few dozen meters in by the right entrance, off the path in a pretty obvious clearing. The whole place has a strange feeling to it, magical but spooky.”
“I'm not a cosplay g- wait... I get to go into the Everfree forest and find a spooky and magical clearing? I'm in!” Dash cried, setting herself to zoom off.
“Not without me yer not, sugarcube,” Applejack insisted, grabbing Dash's tail in her teeth.
“H-hey, I would totally never go on an adventure without you. Just the two of us, awesomest mares in Equestria, kickin' flank in the Everfree forest,” Dash Said, landing and throwing a leg around Applejack.
“Hopefully there ain't too much flank ta kick... is it alright if we go? Dash ain't gonna be able ta focus otherwise,” Applejack said with a resigned shrug.
“Sure. Splitting up actually seems like a really good idea. Any indications of magic and the significance of the Everfree setting are important. We'll meet at the library later today to go over what we found. Hopefully Rarity and Fluttershy will have come up with something,” Twilight said, gently nudging Pinkie. “Let's go check out that larkspur.”
“Okie-dokie-lokie!” Pinkie said, adjusting the provision pack on her back and bounding happily off.
An hour later Applejack and Rainbow Dash were deep in the Everfree forest, following the path as best they could. Their delay had come from stopping at the Apple farmhouse to see Applebloom, who provided them with pouches of mixed herbs she had prepared. The little filly was no expert herbalist, but was getting there; the mixture was a basic creation Zecora had taught her, which kept the Everfree animals at bay and allowed her to walk without fear into the tangled woods. Applebloom used them for courting calls and lessons, while the two marefriends were solely interested in poking around.
“Does it seem like cheating if we do this adventure with special herbs that keep us from danger?” Dash asked, as she hovered to look for a clearing.
“Ah ain't no cheater, and ya know it. Ah wouldn't be doin' this if ah thought it was cheatin'. Mah lil sis uses this ta come a-callin' on her intended, so ah ain't got no objections ta using it. Seems ta be needed,” Applejack replied, pushing aside bushes and hanging branches to try and see a path to a clearing.
“I know, I know, it keeps cockatrices and timberwolves and other stuff away but isn't that half the fun of it? Fighting of creatures while you look around for the mysterious ruins or whatever?” Dash asked.
“It ain't mysterious ruins and ya know it. It's jes an odd rock. And you mean ta tell me that y'all believe that if Darin' Do had a choice she'd keep on getting' attacked by weird creatures? That don't make a lick-a sense,” Applejack answered, shaking her head firmly. “She always seemed smarter than that.”
“I thought you never read the books,” Dash lamely retorted, pushing ahead forcefully. “Anyhow, okay, she'd probably prefer it if Ahuizotl's feline minions didn't always attack her and she'd probably like to avoid normal stuff like timberwolves and such, but she totally rolls with it. And I can too.”
“Don't do it if ya ain't gotta,” Applejack said with the cadence of one imparting homespun wisdom. “Ain't no use ta puttin' yer body an' brain through Tartarus if'n ya got the means ta keep yerself safe from that.”
“I know, I know. I saw the cross-stitch sampler in your room...” Dash said, ears perking and eyes narrowing. “Wait... this is about the right place and I see a clearing over there. Come on!”
Applejack rushed behind Dash as the pegasus crashed through the undergrowth and dodged around the gnarled trunks of the trees. “Dash! Don't you run off on me! This ain't th' clear skies-a Cloudsdale this here is the Everfree!”
“Chillax! We've been in here before and we made it!” Rainbow Dash cried, pouring on the speed and crashing through into the clearing.
As Roseluck has said, there was an aura about the clearing. Something clammy and unnatural. The air temperature dropped a few degrees and the light grew muted, adding to the natural gloom of the Everfree. The edge of the clearing was a rough circle where the sparse, low grass turned to dirt and only the barest hint of stunted, twisted bushes poked through the ground. The only real feature was in the very center. It looked like a rough-hewn stone spike, topped by a non-artist's rendition of a hyacinth. It was mostly in shape, but looked made by an unskilled hoof, further marred by weathering and time.
“Sugarcube... this place... this place don't feel right...” Applejack said, slowly dragging a hoof along the ground. “This here earth mana ain't flowin' like it ought, and that ain't jes 'cause this is the Everfree. This whole place is wrong.”
Dash put on a brave face, despite the fact that she could feel the unmistakable wrongness of the site. “Th-this is... nothing! It's just a rock, a rock that looks like a flower. The mana's all messed up because whoever put it there wanted it to be messed up. It must be a marker for something. Something cool and... archaeological...”
“Archaeo... them Darin' Do books sure are doin' a number on ya. Ah know what yer tryin' ta say and Dash... we oughtn't ta do it. Ah'm tellin' ya, somethin' ain't right, and the mana's sayin' it's somethin' in the ground...”
“We took the time to come out here and find it. Nopony has ever had the guts to do this. But we can! We're the best and bravest, in all of Equestria,” Dash said. She opened up her pack and pulled out a folded-up shovel. She extracted another one and tossed it to Applejack. “Trust me. It's fine.”
“'M ah really gonna marry this crazy mare?” Applejack muttered to herself as she caught and unfolded the shovel. She heaved a sigh and slowly approached Dash, who had started digging near the base of the stone. “'Course ah am. Why not? Ah'm just as crazy as she is.”
“That's the spirit! Between the two of us we'll at least get a little ways down and see if we find treasure or some... what does she say? 'Culturally significant artifacts of great historical import',” Dash said, quoting Daring Do with a sage look on her face.
“Ah'll be happy long as we don't dig up some weird critter. Never know what yer gonna find out in this place,” Applejack muttered, using her natural earth pony strength to crack the hard earth and toss aside large chunks of dirt, stones and other bits of detritus.
The ground was quite unusual. Unlike the loamy, fertile soil of the rest of the forest it was dry but packed, slightly clay-like. It was the kind of dirt they associated with the foothills outside of town, unsuitable for growing plants but perfect for growing rocks and gems. The ground was also tightly packed, as though it had been tamped down in order to protect it from intrusions such as the one that was happening.
The two mares broke and removed ground in a circle, making a trench that hugged tight around the stone in the center. Applejack was just removing another shovelful of dirt when she spied the thing. It was a long lump, that looked like more than just another big rock. “Sugarcube! Bring that there brush. Ah think ah found something.”
“I wanted to be the one to find something! I'm the one that looks like Daring Do. But it's pretty awesome you did it,” Dash said, plopping the pith helmet down on Applejack's head, and giving a saucy wink. “Now you can wear the hat. You can go ahead and keep wearing it tonight...”
“Woah, nellie! Let's get through th' day before ya get on ta talkin' 'bout the night,” Applejack said, taking the brush from out of Dash's pack and sweeping it over the long shape. The sweep of the brush uncovered what looked like a sort of fossil. Stone was in the process of growing into and over a bone, as could happen if someone is buried in a stone-growing mana field. The length and thickness of it spoke of a leg bone, but one that was much longer than a pony's, from a creature larger than a pony. “That's... that's a bone, Dash. A bone!”
“I-it could be the only one,” Dash insisted, her normally husky voice jumping half an octave. She rather boldly stuck her shovel into the ground and threw out a few careless loads of dirt.
“W-wait, Dash! This here is a grave! Ya ain't got no right ta go pokin' 'round in no grave!” Applejack insisted, straining Dash's forelegs with a desperate grasp.
“Come on, let go! Daring Do pokes around in graves all the time! Tombs, barrows, crypts, necropoli, and Twilight says it's alright. As long as it's for science. Well... I need to know what's going on, so it's for sci...” Dash stopped speaking when her shovel and brush uncovered more petrified bone, another portion of a leg that was not attached in any similar fashion to a pony's leg. “This... isn't a pony.”
“We gotta leave this place Dash. We ain't got no right... no right at all ta be here diggin' up some poor feller's final restin' place...” Applejack insisted, tugging on Dash's leg and dragging the pegasus a good way along from the trench.
“No! We wanted a mystery, we found one! Applejack... I know what you're saying, and I know this isn't a good thing but... look at it!” Dash indicated the weathered stone marker and the area around it. “This marker isn't a real headstone. There's no name on it and it wasn't made that well. And these bones aren't far down. Don't you want to know why?”
Applejack ground her teeth as she looked down on the two bones, feeling almost aware of what they might be. “Consarnit Dash... ya ain't wrong... much as it pains me ta say... ah wanna know too. Ah wanna know why this critter is out here, not over in the cemetery or somewhere proper. But we're gonna be respectful. Ah don't care how silly ya think it is, yer gonna apologize ta them bones as ya dig 'em up.”
“Fine! Fine...” Dash turned to the bones and mumbled, “Sorry about this... but I wanted an adventure like Daring Do. Me and my big, stupid mouth...”
Applejack and Dash carefully worked up and around, almost scraping off the dirt layer above where the rest of the skeleton would be. They were a bit reluctant to dig deep enough to reveal what was beneath. Dash accidentally did just that, the scrape of her shovel being interrupted by a bump, which had the character of stone. Applejack wielded the brush and looked to Dash. “We don't gotta... we outta. But don't gotta...”
“We do,” Dash said in a quiet tone, looking at the small dirt-covered lump. She knelt down by the space and said, “Sorry... whoever you are...”
“Mah apologies in advance...” Applejack said softly, leaning down and swiping the brush across the expanse. The dirt was very fine, almost powdery. There was not a speck of moisture to it at all. The brush swept away all the concealing dirt, and left the two mares entirely speechless, looking dumbfounded by the revelation.
When the dust cleared they were looking at face with a short, slightly-blocky muzzle, a high forehead, and pointed teeth, with the skull bearing numerous long, serious cracks; at the side of the head, placed where an ear once had been was a lush, blooming blue hyacinth, looking none the worse for having been buried. It was a Diamond Dog with a battered-in head, buried in a shallow grave in the Everfree.
Larkspur traipsed along joyously, humming a little tune she recalled from an orchestra performance. That had been with her mother, when they still made residence in Canterlot. The memory put a shine to her eyes and a small smile on her face. It surely hadn't been so long. Just a few years. Years.
Before she knew it, she had followed the wavering flow of mana through into the foothills, where things were nothing like she knew them. It was not as wildly chaotic as the Everfree forest, which was a dangerous tangle, but it was not a growing, fertile land. Hardy trees and stubby bushes pushed up occasionally, but it was mostly dust and dirt. The low hills rolled, taller than her head, making them intimidating despite being low.
Larkspur had always been sensitive to the flow of all mana types. The doctors called her a natural tracer, she could detect the flows and fluctuations very well. Had she been more inclined she would have gone into academics or similar. But she preferred her own hobbies and the freedom to follow traces as they came.
The earth mana was strong in the area. Likely the place was conducive to the growth of crystals and gems, perhaps even rock slabs like the Cannonites produced. It would make for a good industry, perhaps, for the local holding. She could feel there was an alteration, a strange variation in the feel which had sent out a waver in the local field. She had never felt such a thing before.
Her pace slowed as she approached the site where the change was most notable. It was as though the mana was being rearranged, reduced and re-concentrated in other areas. The surface told her nothing, it was the same as it ever was, so far as she could remember. But there was still something.
She dug at the ground with a hoof, despite the fact that a gentlemare did not do such a thing. She was used to working in her hothouse, a little dirt did not frighten her. The first few digs revealed nothing, but a later one broke the surface a little bit and revealed an opening. “A sinkhole? How curious. There has not been any rain here...” She said with a tilt of her head.
A scrabbling sound from behind her drew her notice. The ground broke apart and dirt poured out, forming a mound, like a giant anthill. What emerged was not a gargantuan myrmicinian but a creature which Larkspur had never seen before. It had emerged to what was presumably a waist, revealing an upper body, forelegs and head. The head was very like a canid, though shaped slightly flatter, with a higher forehead allowing for large, expressive eyes containing sallow sclreae and solid, slit-like irises of a bright green, and pointed, erect triangular ears. It had a modestly-pronounced underbite and a blocky, pushed muzzle without jowls. The long forelegs were slender-but-muscular near the shoulders, growing thicker and even more robust at the ends, where there were paws with thick digits, whose construction resembled that of a griffin's talons, with the opposable digit for gasping. The creature was covered in fur, like a pony, of a dark green color flecked with spots of dark red. It had a collar of plaited root around its neck, on which hung a glowing green gem, and also wore a rough-made vest in an off-beige color.
The two stared at one another, Larkspur's face a mask of shock, the canine surprised but trying not to show it. Nothing passed between them for the space of a few breaths, the slight blowing of wind the only noise. Finally the canid spoke, looking quickly aside. “Not place for pony. Go away.”
“Wait!” Larkspur's hoof shot out as she called, stopping the creature in mid-vanish, his head and shoulders the only things still above ground. “Wait please... don't go. Why is this not a place for me? Who are you? What are you?”
There came a few shifty, indecisive motions of the yellowish eyes, and a grinding of the underbitten jaw. “Not supposed to talk to pony. Must stay away from ponies. Be quiet, keep hidden. Am only scout,” The creature said.
“Please... I promise I won't... well I don't know what has been said of ponies. I won't... eat you? Is that what you fear?” Larkspur asked with an unsure smile.
The big creature laughed and pulled up from the hole, though only enough to put his hands on the ground again. “Know that ponies not eat us. Must not talk because we are hidden. Live underneath, and are quiet. Not want to make ponies know us.”
“Oh... can you at least tell me what you are? I promise I'll keep your secret. I just... I love to learn things. And meeting a new species...” Larkspur approached, slowly, minding the reaction with every hoofstep.
“Am Diamond Dog. We not want to hurt, want to live under ground and not make ponies mad,” The Dog said, a slight tremble moving through his has his body wavered between remaining up and dropping down.
Larkspur continued to approach, going more slowly. “And your name? Surely you have one. All creatures have names.”
The Dog released a short burst of sound, with a few instances of silence that were probably of a high pitch. “In pony language would be 'Heliotrope', because body look like one.”
“I see the resemblance, yes...” Larkspur said, casting her eyes over the Dog's form.
“Name of you? Is polite to share name,” Heliotrope said.
“Oh! Here I was raised well and a graduate of finishing school and I cannot even remember the basic courtesies... my name is Larkspur. It's a very lovely flower. Oh! I-I'm sorry if that seems rude! I don't mean to imply you are uneducated but you live below ground. You may be less aware of flowers...” A deep blush burned across Larkspur's blue face.
Heliotrope gave a loud, raspy laugh and slowly shook his head. “No, understand. Do not know flowers but know pony names sometimes for flowers and pretty things. Sorry do not talk right. Not learn pony very well because am scout, not leader.”
“You said this before. A scout. Forgive me my curiosity but... a scout for what? What do you seek here?” Larkspur asked.
“Looking at ground. Testing percentage. How much rock, how much dirt, what kind. Much clay, no clay? Have many strata? Layers mostly from flood or from volcano? Are good gems, are crystals, are metals? What is mana pattern in gems? Good flow, bad flow, no flow? Must know things before come to harvest or to live. Many scouts needed to see if new areas good for Dogs,” Heliotrope said, counting off things on his fingers.
Larkspur looked frankly stunned, mouth slightly agape as she regarded Heliotrope. “Scouting is certainly... involved. My word, you would be snapped up as land surveyor for any number of wealthy or noble folk in Canterlot, if not asked to lecture at the university...”
Heliotrope waved a hand dismissively and affected a humble posture. “No no. Am not special. Normal scout, not smart like important Dogs. Only know dirt, and gems, and metal. Not expert in mana, not expert in making stone blocks, or expert in making tunnels. Know little, but can do job.”
“Your kind sound very advanced. How is it that we have never heard of you before? Surely ponies would be very interested in such a great group,” Larkspur said. “We could share so much knowledge.”
“No, is not way of Dogs. For all time can remember, have hidden. Is for best, only come to top to get food cannot find under ground, or find things ponies not want. Should not... be talking...” Heliotrope sunk a little lower into the ground, until only his fingertips, eyes and the top of his head were above the surface.
“So... why are you talking to me?” Larkspur inquired, having finally reached the hole.
Heliotrope hesitated for a bit, softly whimpering as his body fought itself, intending to vanish yet intending to stay. He finally looked up, ears folding back slowly. “Pony was so pretty... wanted to talk. Wanted to be nice. So lonely being scout. Thought that pony might... talk.”
Larkspur smiled brightly, and slowly reached out a hoof to cup one of Heliotrope's blushing cheeks. “I am the daughter of a land-owner. I have no responsibilities save those I impose upon myself. My time is more than my own. If you want to talk... let us talk as long as you desire.”
“Pinkie... how do you manage to do something like that?” Twilight asked as she watched Pinkie bouncing all around, with a giant, stuffed pack on her back. “Earth pony strength should only go so far...”
“Oh, that's easy,” Pinkie said cheerfully, opening her pack to reveal it was filled with balloons. Once freed the balloons floated up and away, leaving the pack far, far less packed. “Awww, I was gonna let them go when we found something.”
“That makes sense... for certain values of 'sense,'” Twilight said with a light blush. She checked the map of the Ponyville area that Roseluck had marked and looked out at the scraggly border area of the gem field. “We should be seeing it soon. She said that the flowers were present but closed at the moment, and that the stone itself was pretty significant...”
“Found it!” Pinkie cried, already a significant distance from where she had been. She was within the territory of the gem field, pointing to a lumpen stone mass. It looked to be composed of several large stones piled together, with forethought, not quite stone blocks but very close, with the top containing the aforementioned hollow that likely reached straight down the center to the ground. As mentioned from out of that hollow stood the stem of a larkspur, flowers budded but closed. Given the lateness of the season that was very odd. “It feels weird here, Twilight. The mana's all wrong, and I know earth mana,” Pinkie reported, tucking herself behind Twilight.
“No, I know. I can feel it too. The flow is off and the feel of it is different. There's something about the whole thing...” Using magic Twilight reached into her own pack and pulled out a charcoal stick and piece of paper, writing as she narrated. “Structure appears to be crudely-constructed and a distinctly unnatural item. Form recalls Griffin-style cairns, but made of ill-dressed stone slabs, affected by weathering and other environmental factors. Flower is an out-of-season un-bloomed larkspur.”
“This is really, really spooky. And it's just a pretty flower. I didn't even know flowers could be spooky,” Pinkie said quietly, all but clinging to Twilight's flank for protection. “You said it looks like a cairn. What's that?”
“A 'cairn' is a grave marker, common in Equestrian Capal and all Griffin Kingdom areas... grave marker...” The phrase struck Twilight suddenly, and she began washing planes of glowing magic over the sides of the stone.
“Now what's going on? Are you cleaning it off?” Pinkie asked.
“Almost... this kind of magic can be used on small areas to detect patterned anomalies. Err, that means it reacts with things that have a pattern but are not natural, like letter traces. Some things like that are very recognizable. It also strips away a small layer of the surface dirt to do that, because the hollows formed by letters would show their edges more clearly if... wait... here,” Twilight said, focusing on one area of the side. As she ran more magical force over the space faint letters began to emerge.
“'Larkspur, my dear Larkspur, why did you go away? I wanted ever the best and nothing more. Why did you leave me, Larkspur, all for the sake of a beast?'” Pinkie read, tilting her head some. “Wow... this is somepony's grave. Somepony named Larkspur. That's a pretty name.”
“It certainly could be or it could be the grave of the one who lost her. There might be another name somewhere, I hadn't finished my look at it. Those letters are very weathered and indistinct, so this was from a long time ago, well over a hundred years at least...” Twilight noted, drawing her magic along more of the stone.
“'A beast'... now that sounds scary. I wonder what kind of beast? There aren't any I would go off with, they're no fun. Timberwolves and cockatrices and hydras are too scary,” Pinkie said, idly picking at a seam in the rock.
“Pinkie... don't pick at somepony's headstone. That's very rude,” Twilight said sternly, making her way back over to Pinkie.
“Sorry. But this looked weird. There was a little dip here,” Pinkie said, in a contrite voice.
“I would imagine some of the stone has slipped. This wasn't exactly professionally m... wait... this part slipped because there's a space here,” Twilight said, her magic probing into the edges of the seam. “It's not all stone. There's glass and metal inside. This is some kind of container hidden by a plug.”
“Who would wanna hide that? Unless there's something inside, like a buried treasure! But wait... it's not buried, it's over someopony who got buried. And if it is treasure, it belongs to that pony. Plus isn't this more rude than picking at somepony's headstone?” Pinkie asked, giving Twilight a serious look.
Twilight blushed a bit as her magic slowly worked to shim out the well-fitted plug of stone. “I-it's for science. Looking at old tombs and things is sometimes what science does. It's how we learn things and... oh!” The plug came off with the scrape of rock and dull clink of glass.
The back of the plug was revealed to be a ring of semi-rotted cork, whose deterioration had led to the sagging of the plug, with glass on the inside of the cork ring. Inside the revealed cavity was a coating of mostly un-rusted metal coated in more glass. A red-lacquered box, about the size of a normal-sized book, sat at the back.
“Oh my... this is... I wish I had an archaeological team from the University here. These kinds of artifacts need special protection...” Twilight said quietly, peering into the cavity with some worry.
“I thought you knew everything about everything. You always know what to do,” Pinkie said, looking in as well, her face pressed against Twilight's.
“Knowing and doing are two different things,” Twilight clarified, “I could know how to do any number of things but doing them requires muscles and responses to variables you can only really understand through practice. I know the mechanics of bucking an apple tree, but Applejack can tell you about how talented I am at it. I don't want to make a mistake and potentially ruin a precious piece of history. Plus I... I never actually had to dig around in a grave, I was always a behind-the-lines academic processing what actual field researchers found.”
“I believe in you. I know you can do this. You can do anything because you're Twilight,” Pinkie said, giving Twilight an encouraging kiss on the cheek.
“That doesn't follow... but your confidence in me is what I need right now,” Twilight whispered, activating her magic and slowly levitating the box. She drew it out of the space with as little swaying as possible, exposing it to the light.
The red lacquer was still somewhat shiny after all the time, protected from the worst of weather by the glass and cork. It appeared to be a simple hinged box, made of wood with silver hinges, whose purity thankfully prevented corrosion. Lifting the lid revealed an object wrapped in heavy white cloth.
Twilight carefully unfolded the cloth with more tendrils of magic, being cautious in case it had grown fragile over the years. The cloth yielded up a small book, bound in the style of centuries back. “That's what's in there? A book? That's a pretty bad buried treasure that's not really buried. Oh! But you love books, so I guess it's a treasure to you. Is it a really treasure-y book?” Pinkie asked.
“Inside of hollow revealed a space covered in metal and glass applied like enamel, which was sealed with cork to prevent water intrusion,” Twilight narrated while she wrote. “Inside was wooden box, red-lacquered with pure silver hinges, which contained a cloth wrapped around an old book of the sort made in prior centuries. Book is smaller than normal, of the kind used for cornuscripts. There is a title calligraphed on the cover which reads...” Twilight stopped narrating and just stared for a long moment. “This gets more and more interesting.”
Pinkie tilted her head as she regarded the strange, flowing letters. “'De Rerum Adamas Canes.'” She read, with poor pronunciation. “'Corpus, Cultura, et Historia de Heliotropus.' What's all that?”
“It's Equusian, a common language for writing cornuscrips of natural phenomenon several centuries ago. The word is pronounced 'cah-nehs'. The initial title means 'On the Things of Diamond Dogs' or 'On the Subject of Diamond Dogs.' The secondary title means, 'Body, Culture and History of Helotropus', potentially 'history' means 'tale' or 'account' and that might be Heliotrope, Equusianized, which would make sense as that is a Diamond Dog name.”
“A book about Diamond Dogs sounds neat. You have some magazines and books about them in the library already. Will you put this one there too? It's a really old one, so that makes it really special,” Pinkie noted.
Twilight opened the book gingerly, picking a random page in the middle. It revealed two pages of carefully horn-illustrated color images of a Diamond Dog's lowest leg joint and toes, in several views, with labels pointing to all the features. Picking a different spot revealed two pages focused on the hand and lower arm.
“This is more than special,” Twilight said, casting her gaze over each new revelation. “Formal, scientific Diamond Dog study came from Jasper of the LaRoulette Chateau and from voluntary, private revelation before the United Colonies became a vassal of Equestria. Prior to that there were no Equestrian references to Diamond Dogs, not in a formal sense. The best that could be said were rumors and vague legend. This shows that at least one pony knew at least one Diamond Dog. One named Heliotrope. And she compiled a cornuscript of scientific study of him, arranged in the fashion of the time.”
“'A beast'...” Pinkie said quietly.
“What was that?” Twilight asked, looking up from the book.
Pinkie pointed to the stone, in the area of the inscription. “'Why did you leave me, Larkspur, all for the sake of a beast?' It's a really meany-mean-pants thing to say... but not everypony likes Diamond Dogs. Does that mean...”
“In an older time other species were accepted by the majority but there were still pockets of negativity,” Twilight said, glancing back down at the book. “And a brand new species, completely unknown, sapience unknown, would have been seen like a beast. This was hidden away because whoever hid it... wanted no one to know that such a thing as a Diamond Dog had ever existed. They would rather throw away knowledge than let the memory continue.” Twilight carefully closed the book and placed it back in the box. “Who were you, Larkspur? If this is you, somepony hid away your greatest contribution to Equestrian understanding, and that's unforgivable...”
“So much drawing...” Heliotrope whined, as he held his hand in front of Larkspur. “Did not know pony was artist, or would have not talked.”
“You never complained before, now please let me work,” Larkspur laughed, magic dragging the colored graphite along the pace to capture the hand correctly. “I am not an artist. But I learned to draw while cultivating my flowers. Conuscripts like this make for fascinating reading no matter the subject. And you... you fascinate me.”
“Not have many books like this, not many papers. Carve on walls or stamp on metal. Always about gems, or math, or magic things. Not fun, but need to know. Must be smart to live safe,” Heliotrope said, taking a seat while keeping his hand out.
“Yes... I will be sure to write that down in the account section. I wish to know everything... if you can tell me. I will never pry or force,” Larkspur said, slowly shading in the illustration of Heliotrope's slightly curled fingers. “I wish to thank you, in fact, for indulging me. I recognize that this is beyond your usual activity.”
“Is fine. May complain but like seeing art. Is very good. And is me, so is better,” Heliotrope said with a rasping laugh. “Make feel special, not just dumb scout. Like minister or scientist.”
“'Dumb scout'? Hardly. You may deprecate yourself but the truth of the matter is the very circumstances and realities of your life require that you be well-educated in subjects considered important by many. I find you smart, in any case,” Larkspur said, with a light blush.
“Pony is too kind. Pretty and kind. Not need to be nice to scout. Only doing job, but take long break,” Heliotrope said, with a softer laugh.
“You are very easy to be nice to, Heliotrope. I am rewarded with new revelations and y... oh... I must mind what I say. I would hate to be improper,” Larkspur said, blush deepening as the colored graphite came down from the book.
“Not hold back. It Dog way. Be honest or bad things happen, may get hurt in tunnels,” Heliotrope stated, flexing his fingers and pulling his hand back.
“Your revelations, of your body, your mind, your culture are all well and good and will make this monograph an earth-shaking landmark in Equestrian history, and there will be much study and so forth. I consider that secondary. Pleasant but irrelevant. What I enjoy most about you is... you,” Larkspur confessed, using plain black graphite to mark features and note observations on the hand illustration.
Heliotrope's tail thumped solidly on the ground and a smile spread across his features. “Too kind... too kind... not worthy of so much. Am only Dog. Look different from pony.”
“How you look is how you look. And certainly is no impediment to my admiration. It makes you unique, special, wonderful. You are unlike any I have ever met before. This opportunity is marvelous, and you made it possible,” Larkspur said, closing the book after finishing her last bit of text. “If I may... I have something for you.”
“For me? What is? More food or useful pony things? Not need to give so much,” Heliotrope said, peering at Larkspur's small collection of packs. Since she had begun illustrating her monograph she had brought along several packs for her supplies, as well as food and beverages to share or little things to give, like paper and cloth.
“This is something special. Something from me, personally, not pony culture at large...” Larkspur said, pulling a small box from a pack. Opening it revealed a lush, blooming blue hyacinth, looking dewy and perfect.
“Oooh... What is?” Heliotrope asked, hands almost reaching out for it.
“It's a hyacinth I grew. Here, let me put it on you...” Larksput took the flower in her hooves, rather than magic, and slowly placed it behind Heliotrope's right ear, the petals just slightly covering the front of the lower part of the ear. “It's a variant, blooms in the fall, is much larger than normal, has a headier fragrance and is very hardy. The bloom lasts for a long while. It's quite unique, like you.”
Heliotrope touched the silky petals with trembling fingers, a blush growing across his face. “N-no... not deserve. Not special. Take pretty gift. Give to better creature.”
“That... would be quite impossible...” Larkspur whispered, still close to Heliotrope after placing the flower on him. “I haven't met all the other creatures in the world but... I don't think there's a better one than you...” She closed the distance between them with an unhesitating motion, pressing her lips warmly against his, and bringing her hooves up to hook them over his shoulders.
Heliotrope was caught quite off guard by the kiss, his initial reaction to throw his hands up and pull back a little. Larkspur maintained a good grip on him, however, and the kiss did not break. After a bit of hesitation Heliotrope returned the kiss, adding pressure, lip motion and the warm, strong wrapping of his arms around Larkspur's body.
They held together for several long, wonderful moments before the kiss broke with a mutual pant, their lips separating by barely an inch. Little strings of saliva connected the two and their tongues were just barely touching tips. Hot breath washed over both faces and they were loath to separate any more. “Sorry...” Heliotrope said, with a slightly downcast look.
“Why do you think you must apologize?” Larkspur asked, stroking one of Heliotrope's shoulders comfortingly.
“Should have asked before touching tongue. Not polite to touch tongues,” Heliotrope said with a blush.
“You may not have noticed, but I started it,” Larkspur said in a giddy whisper. “I liked it. Perhaps when the monograph is finished... one thing at a time. I think... I think we should, perhaps, get back to work and then have something to eat.”
“Oh yes! Do not like holding still but like to eat delicious treats. What you draw now?” Heliotrope inquired.
A playful grin crossed Larkspur's face and she tittered softly. “I think... I'll draw your tongue...”
“That is what we seek, Mayor...” Rarity said, shuffling on her hooves a bit as she bled off some nervous energy. “An... unusual request to be sure but it is the truth.”
Rarity and Fluttershy had gone to the refurbished City Hall, where all the pertinent government records were kept. Gaining access to them was not a hard matter, more of a tedious one. They had had to wait for an appointment with the mayor, then carefully lay out their intentions, with Rarity doing the talking.
The mayor stroked her chin softly and nodded as she considered. “I used to swear I could hear the Stonebeast all the time, and once a friend of mine told me she had met the Maudlin Mare and ran away before she could be asked for anything. These are very deep and important things around Ponyville.”
“Indeed they are, Mayor. They reach out and grab all we natives powerfully and even ensnare immigrants like my friends,” Rarity noted, reflexively hugging Fluttershy tight.
“Immigrants... and tourists...” The Mayor noted, turning slightly to look out of her window. “Have you considered your actions? Maybe some folks would prefer the mysteries remain unsolved. Perhaps it would be better with a hint of doubt. It's what Nightmare Night is all about, and it helps us draw in more ponies.”
“Mayor! I am shocked! Learning is for the betterment of all, so Twilight tells me. It's a general good. Ponies should always promote learning. Why this cold look at the figures of tourists drawn in by a mystery that's...” Rarity said, hesitating in her accusation.
“No! Don't say it. I don't mean it that way,” The Mayor said quickly, tapping her hoof nervously on the desk. “There are sometimes thin lines but rest assured I am on the Equestrian side of that line, and firmly so. But I think this was for the sake of those who do a good job on Nightmare Night and who find that the legend, as a mystery, helps them.”
“I apologize for nearly making an accusation that was unfair,” Rarity said. “But revealing the mystery for what it is would only affect those who care overmuch. We know Nightmare Moon will not gobble us up, but we offer candy all the same, and we know the Hearthkeeper does not bring our presents but we still offer cookies and hay. It could even help those who saw what they did not understand. It would be a comfort and relief to those who... who had met the Fiend...”
The Mayor winced softly and cleared her throat. “I... I didn't know. Yes... for every harmless and fun mystery there is something that hurts. Knowing the truth could heal those hurts... I think we would all like to know what the reality is behind the Fiend. I support you all the way.”
“So... may we have access to the archives?” Rarity asked, looking hopeful.
“Of course. But it will be... a very difficult task. I heard about the legend from my own grandparents who told me they were told by their own grandparents. And I suspect it was passed down from older traditions. I would suggest that you look at the oldest records. Before this region was Ponyville it was a small noble holding that was given to the farmers. That was the origin of the town. There might be something there.”
“If nothing else, we will have tried our best,” Rarity said. “I know that the archives are in a lower area, but... how low must we go?” She asked with a shiver.
“You know how important records are. When we had the chance we put in a deep sub-basement for the oldest records. Are you certified to work with archival materials? Our resident archivist can be there to assist you,” The Mayor said, beginning to activate her intercom.
“I... I took the courses for that,” Fluttershy whispered out, stepping forward a little bit. “Twilight said I should try something new, and suggested the care and viewing of old documents, because she said I had a naturally gentle touch. She helped me get certified in Canterlot.”
“I had wondered about the old parchment you had about your home, and that sudden trip to Canterlot you invited me on,” Rarity said with a smile.
“I-it's just a silly little hobby. It wasn't that important, and I knew you loved to go. So I took my exam while you were out,” Fluttershy said, blushing.
“You should have told me, darling, you know how proud I am of all the things you do,” Rarity noted, kissing the bridge of Fluttershy's nose.
The Mayor smiled at the show of affection and pulled a form from in her desk. “Since I doubt you have the certification with you I'll take your word and likely the word of Miss Sparkle. You are both what I would consider trustworthy citizens. Just sign this form stating you may work with archival materials and that damage incurred is not the fault of the city administration, should any occur.”
“Of course. A standard APS-19 form, general indemnity from an internal or external audit for letting non-government personnel view and work with delicate material,” Fluttershy said before signing the proper section of the form. She noted that both the Mayor and Rarity were looking at her with shock. A dark blush crossed her features and she hid behind her mane. “I-I had to memorize the common forms. Twilight had flashcards...”
Both mares broke into a soft laughter while Fluttershy blushed deeply.
With the legal matters taken care of the duo entered an elevator and rode it deep into the earth, arriving at a level four floors below the ground. Thaumatoelectric lights crackled to life, washing the space in a blue-tinted light. The elevator let out in a semi-circular room of plain, polished stone with plaster molding along the ceiling and floor. A few tables with the same curve as the wall were pressed against it, while a short corridor led into the archival space, its lights a bit dimmer, and dust covering everything.
Both mares hesitated as the elevator closed and went back up behind them, both appearing quite unnerved. Rarity finally gave a breathy laugh and shook her head. “My goodness... I would imagine you dislike the dark while I despise the dust. My, aren't we a sight?”
Flufftershy laughed lightly and nodded, a little smile coming to her face. “Yes. We really shouldn't be worried. It's not like we're going to the Everfree or really poking around in anyplace that's dangerous.”
“Indeed that is quite so, darling. Look at these walls...” Rarity tapped on the walls with a hoof. “Solid, straight and precise. This was Dog-built. It would last through anything. We may feel secure here however dark or, err, dirty it may be.”
“Speaking of Dogs, has there been any change? I've sewn a few of the pieces but there were some alterations...” Fluttershy said as she and Rarity braved the dim and dusty archive room.
“Oh you know how males are. No matter their race or their species, be they griffin, pony, donkey or Dog, they will always go on and on about their clothes. How it doesn't flow well under the arms or how his cousin Lazulite cannot move properly or that the color is too dark but then it can't be too light. 'Not bituminous coal, anthracite,'” Rarity groused, affecting the exact tone of her client on the quotation.
Fluttershy laughed softly, finding once again that Pinkie's advice eased her tensions. “But you like it. It's a good thing, helping a wedding.”
“If I had not the desire to be a designer of all classes then I think I would exclusively design wedding attire,” Rarity said with a romantic sigh. “It will be a beautiful one. And of course, you and I are both invited. After that business with Opal and Angel plus preparing the nuptial wear Doctor Soft Heart decided it was only fair we be invited.”
“Oh such a wonderful thing. I'll have to thank her the next time I take in one of my animal friends,” Fluttershy said with a smile. She looked over the rows of papers, some in scroll form with tags, some in heavy tome form. “Will you help me? Magic is very useful in preventing damage and you have a very light touch with your horn.”
“As you always compliment,” Rarity noted with a saucy wink.
“O-oh...” Fluttershy said with a blush. “R-rarity...”
“I apologize, darling. But we are alone, and I know you appreciate such affectionate boldness when we are by ourselves,” Rarity said.
“I wish we could flirt like the other girls. But I like being quiet, and private,” Fluttershy said with a small cough. “The mayor said this used to be a holding before it was converted to free land. That would be in the oldest records.”
Fluttershy slowly looked through the shelves. Despite the chaotic and disheveled look of the shelves there was typical pony order and careful attention to detail. There appeared to be a lot of dry information, reports of land usage, notations of property allowances, collections of taxes and other duties. “It doesn't look like there's a lot here about legends or things. It's very normal government files. Plus documents about the change.”
“We should see about who used to own this land, perhaps there are secondary sources in the library that could relate if they ever made mention of such things. In those older times the nobility were very serious about reporting any unusual things, especially from the Everfree, before the Nightwatch came in to protect it,” Rarity noted.
“That would be this one, right here...” Fluttershy said, pointing to a large, heavy-looking old scroll tagged as 'Notice of land conversion.'
Rarity's magic slowly flowed around the old document, lifting it evenly by molding her magic field around the lowest portion. She drew it out and carried it slowly over to the tables in the front room. She laid it out and stepped away. “You perform this activity, darling, I may deal with delicate fabrics and be able to walk on rice paper but I don't believe I could accomplish such a feat.”
Fluttershy nodded and stepped forward with a tremble. “You can do this. You can...” She whispered to herself. Her soft, gentle hooves touched the ancient, yellowed scroll and slowly pushed it open, letting her read the text, the letters reasonably ornate and black ink turning reddish from age. “'Let it be hereby known that the controller of this land, as demarcated below, situated beneath the sight of her Glorious Solar Majesty Princess Celestia of Canterlot, of the Diarchy-in-Abeyance, the Principality of Equestria, hath, by will and word, forsaken all rights, responsibilities, privileges and duties attached. The Baron August Bearing, whom hath held the land in demesne, hath paid the fees required and divided his real property in form of the below-demarcated land unto his tenants, with no passing of title. The Baron now maintains title in honorarium without land, while the prior barony hath been dissolved to free lands in ownership of tenants below-named...'”
“It seems the words of government have changed little in all the years. A comforting thought, as it keeps us so stable,” Rarity said with a small laugh. “So... Baron August Bearing. We should examine the records of this year, to see about significant events.”
“What do you mean?” Fluttershy asked.
“Even today a landed noble making free land of their holding is a serious thing. A significant event surely must have happened to make him consider such an action,” Rarity noted.
“Oh! Of course...” Fluttershy rolled the scroll back up and supervised Rarity putting it back into place. She scanned the shelves again and indicated a large tome tagged as the records of births, deaths, arrivals and departures, its large size due to the presence of reports on transient ponies and others.
“Tell me how I must turn these pages, darling, they seem stiff but fragile, like metal filaments,” Rarity pleaded.
“Just turn when it feels good, don't rush, don't force it, and use even pressure,” Fluttershy said softly, one hoof on Rarity's back, her cheek against Rarity's cheek.
“I remember seeing the date on the declaration. I shall find a near period before...” Rarity carefully looked for the date, and then began to run through all the notices before that. “Oh dear...”
“What's the matter?” Fluttershy asked, casting her own eyes over the book. “Oh... oh...”
Under one of the death notices, roughly a month after Nightmare Night and just before the freeing of the land, there was an entry reading, 'The Honourable Larkspur, Sole Daughter and Heiress of his Honor Baron August Bearing.'
“I wish I could be here forevermore,” Larkspur whispered, snuggling herself more tightly and comfortably in Heliotrope's powerful hold. Like an earth pony or a donkey his strength was great, yet he only ever held her tight enough to make it clear without harming her comparatively fragile unicorn form. Powerful yet moderated and careful.
“Wish I could hold until rocks go away. Until coal turn to diamonds and sand to opal,” Heliotrope whispered, softly kissing Larkspur's forehead beneath her horn. “Do not deserve... am only scout. Bad scout who not do job. Should be working. But do not want to work. Work is over... must leave precious pony.”
“Never say that you are lowly or stupid again, Heliotrope,” Larkspur insisted, kissing her paramour on the chin. “Your eloquence is evident. Perhaps it is selfish of me to take you away from your work... but I don't care. I love you and I want you to stay here with me.”
“Have already dug test tunnels, put in torch places, made soundings. Ground is good for Dogs, has solid strata, grows gems, makes stone, has Beneath. This good place to live. Cavities and local conditions would make good Colony,” Heliotrope said with a sigh.
“You... you could lie,” Larkspur said, pulling Heliotrope tighter against her body. “Or just... just never go back.”
Heliotrope whimpered softly, and looked to the side. “Idea not... bad... want to stay...” He went quiet for a time, and then looked at the sky. “Sun going down. Time for you leave. Always leave now.”
“Would that I never had to go away...” Larkspur sighed, reluctantly removing herself from Heliotrope's grip and stretching out. She started arranging her items, the packs of drawing materials, containers for food, and the quilt on which she and Heliotrope had made love.
“Wait, have present for you...” Heliotrope said. He touched the flower that he kept tucked behind his ear, the petals still lush and beautiful. “You give flower, say it go to best creature...” He leaped down into the hole which led to his den and came up a moment later with a stone. It looked like a broken-off stalactite or stalagmite, a fairly robust one. The pointed end had been blunted, to look something like a column bottom, while the wider upper portion had been roughly and inexpertly carved into the image of a hyacinth. “This flower also for best creature.”
Larkspur gasped on seeing it and took it slowly in her magical grip. The weight was not too terribly bad, and the object itself, despite being roughly made, was well-balanced and it did not sway when moved around. “This is beautiful. And it's for me? Th-thank you... whenever I see it I'll think of you.”
“Is good. Wish other way to be with pony. But cannot. Even if make love in sunlight, still hide...” Heliotrope said with a sigh.
Larkspur tapped a hoof on the ground, considering something for a moment. “Do you know about Nightmare Night?”
Heliotrope tilted his head. “'Nightmare Night'? Have heard in classes. Is pony celebration, yes?”
“Yes. And the important part of that is the disguises. We all wear costumes. I know this isn't perfect, it's just one night, and it's not all you... but would you accompany me to Nightmare Night, see me crowned Harvest Queen and be there with me? All night long you and I will be together, with ponies all around wondering at the mysterious figure with me. A mystery. Everyone loves a mystery; it will make it all the better.”
“Can be with you, in front of ponies? Not care if disguised. Not care if other ponies not know am Dog. You know. Most important pony in world. Only pony that matter,” Heliotrope said, pressing a warm kiss on Larkspur.
Larkspur savored the kiss as long as she could, but she eventually pulled back, wrapping the quilt around the stone flower and pressing her head to Heliotrope's chest. “I'll make you a costume. And then we can have our night. A real date. One that will be repeated more publicly once I finally finish and submit my monograph to The Noble Society in Canterlot. We'll never have to hide again.”
“Dog way is to hide. Live in ground, not meet ponies, not make noise,” Heliotrope said gravely. He then stroked over Larkspur's ears and a cupped a cheek, adding, “But you... want to have whole world know about Dogs if can be here...”
“They will, and you can be. Until tomorrow, farewell, my love...” Larkspur trotted off, hearing Heliotrope shuffled back into his burrow.
Larkspur took a circuitous route back to the manor, avoiding the public areas and dodging around anypony she might meet. She preferred to not answer questions or exchange pleasantries while she felt so sad. She just made her way through the gates and up the walk to the house.
Past the foyer was a pony she could not avoid. Her imposing father the baron. August Bearing was a large, robust example of a unicorn, the sort with feathered ankles and a regal presence. He was a fiery red all over, with a yellowish-orange mane styled short and tight. He was dressed in his Canterlot best, a formal suit coat and shirt. He stared down at his daughter with a stern gaze. “So, Larkspur, just where have you been?”
Larkspur was inclined to go off without comment but knew that could only make matters worse. “I was where I always am, following the mana traces where they lead me and making a record of all those things I see.”
“The doctors never should have told you how sensitive you are but your mother insisted. I knew it would make you flighty and unfocused. You make records incessantly but nothing ever comes of it. Proper gentlefillies are scientists and researchers or other important things by your age. But you have never assembled anything more significant than your floral variants which fail to gain notice,” August harrumphed.
“Don't worry father, I am certain that I shall find something which will gain notice, flighty and unfocused as I may be,” Larkspur snapped. “Then I shall present a monograph to the Noble Society, and my name will be remembered forever.”
“We can only hope...” August muttered. He took a look at all the cases, and especially the quilt wrapped around an object and snorted. “You bring so many things when you are just wandering aimlessly. And what is that in your quilt..?”
Larkspur moved quickly away, directing herself to the staircase. “Nothing, father. I simply gathered some unique examples of stone. Maybe I can make a name in geology.”
August raised a brow and approached his daughter slowly. “A gift... somepony has given you a gift. Who is she? Or he?”
“No one! There's no one,” Larkspur insisted, a wave of revulsion passing through her. She so casually threw Heliotrope aside. She disgusted herself, but there was little she could do. “I promise you. I know just how much you treasure keeping me locked here. This is hardly a hothouse and I am no flower.”
“Don't you take that strident tone with me! I may be but a stallion but I am your father!” August cried, with a stomp of his hoof. He closed his eyes and composed himself slowly, taking several large, deep breaths. “I'm sorry... you know that I... you're very important to me. I've already lost your mother. It's why I moved to this place from Canterlot. I could not bear the memories. But this place is wild and untamed. If I lost you...”
“You won't, father. I promise,” Larkspur said softly, coming in to give her father a peck on the cheek. “I know there is danger. I am ever on my guard. But what danger is there in love? I needn't be taken away. Someone could be brought in and make our family larger and more friendly.”
“You may say it... but I don't think I can believe it,” August said, with a hollow laugh. “I just... I can't lose you. Though harm or heart. Not when I still... I...”
“I do too. I miss her so much. But I'm learning there's more to life than just remembering. I hope you find that out too...” Larkspur gave her father another quick peck and made her way up the stairs to her room.
August sniffed softly and wiped at his eye. Some little trace of something made him sniff again. Hiding in the traces of his daughter's favorite perfume, inside the melange of her hothouse blooms there was the small hint of something distinctly masculine.
A scowl crossed the baron's features. She had lied to his face. She was seeing a mysterious somepony. She was so eager to leave she would lie to do it. He didn't know what to think, except to be enraged by the deception and the betrayal.
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.
“Twilight... ah never mean ta be unkind, ya understand but... somehow ah can't help but think there may be a better way ta go about this,” Applejack said as she and Twilight stood at the edge of the Everfree forest. It was the day of Nightmare Night, but early, well before the sun had passed the midpoint. Applejack was dressed up as a Wonderbolt, with false wings giving her the proper appearance. Over that she wore overalls, and had a shovel hooked in one leg.
“Honestly, I'd be delighted to hear it. I'm just as nervous as you, maybe more. Because Fluttershy and Rarity are not able to participate in this, Pinkie and I have to tackle the middle portion,” Twilight said. She was wearing the dress that she had for her coronation and abdication, also with a set of fake wings. “It's desperate, it's... unpleasant. But it might work. And it requires the fastest mares in Equestria, not to mention the strongest.”
“Ah don't envy Dash her duty. She wanted ta be Darin' Do but this... it ain't gonna be good. She'll be needin' plenty-a love when she comes round here,” Applejack said with a sigh.
“We're all counting on the two of you. There's no getting around it, you'll have to go through town. Hopefully everypony will think it's just a Nightmare Night stunt produced by a fun-loving couple,” Twilight said.
“Ah never thought ah'd be wishin' fer a normal Nightmare Night with Dashie playin' pranks on everypony,” Applejack chuckled.
“Next year... assuming we can survive this one,” Twilight said with a laugh.
Applejack gave Twilight a deadpan stare. “Always seein' the tree half-unbucked, ain't ya?”
“I had hoped that humor would defuse the tension. You know, like Pinkie says,” Twilight explained with a blush.
“Ain't nothin' much funny 'bout what it all means an' what we gotta do. But ah 'preciate th' effort,” Applejack said.
“Thanks... I think it's time to check on the progress of Dash's side. I have a checklist for all this and I'm eager to finish it off, file it away and hopefully never have to do anything like this again,” Twilight said.
“Send her along as soon as she's done, ah'll be needed some help on th' same kinda thing and, well, we may as well get it over with all at once,” Applejack said, turning to slip into the forest.
“Right. I'll make sure she comes straight to you,” Twilight said, turning away towards Ponyville.
In Ponyville proper, at Carousel boutique there was much activity. Besides being a popular place to purchase specialty costumes, it was where the Cutie Mark Crusaders prepared for their Nightmare Night. Rarity was down below selling pre-made attire to last-minute shoppers and collecting final payment on custom jobs ordered weeks before. Fluttershy was upstairs, with the three fillies.
“There, don't you look cute? I mean... oh, so scary...” Fluttershy said with a mock quiver as she finished attired Scootaloo.
The young pegasus was in her wolf costume, with a twist. The formerly-fearsome head had smaller teeth, the eyes a more friendly lid position, and the mouth curved up into a pleasing smile. The fur was notably fluffier and better groomed, and the fake claws on her front hooves were shortened and filed. “I guess it's still cool. I'm a wolf and all but really... I look more like a big, puffy dog,” Scootaloo said with a look at herself in one of the full-length mirrors.
“No, you're the nice wolf that came in to guard the sheep from bad ones. Then you saved one of the ewes, she fell in love with you and the Princesses thought it was so wonderful they gave us a baby cublamb,” Sweetie Belle said, pressing up against Scootaloo's side. The young unicorn was already in her outfit, a slightly pink-tinted little ewe outfit with large, innocent eyes, a big smile and a split painted on her front hooves. Tied to her tail was a string that pulled along a little toy that resembled a short-haired lamb with wolf legs, a longer, pointed snout and perked ears. “Just like in the movie we watched like five times.”
“Okay, okay, I get it. I thought getting a makeover from those crazy sorority mares was weird,” Scootaloo grumbled, a huge blush dominating her cheeks.
“Does this look alright?” Applebloom asked. She was dressed in a large white lab coat, with red rubber booties on her front hooves. Her mane had been done up in a crazy style and dyed white, while goggles rested above her eyes. Her coat pockets were bulging with real potion-making ingredients, while a Grand-Veldt-style braided grass necklace hung around her neck.
“It's looks perfect. You look just like the mad herbalist Zecora saw in a movie she watched while she was on her journey of learning,” Fluttershy said, giving Applebloom a little more mane fluffing, getting it to look crazier.
“Wanna trade outfits, Applebloom?” Scootaloo asked on the sly.
“Not if yer meanin' ta trade marefriends too!” Applebloom snapped.
“Woah! Chill! I was just kidding,” Scootaloo said with a nervous blush suddenly feeling two angry glares and one minor application of The Stare.
The lesson seemingly learned, Fluttershy halted The Stare and smiled. “Good! You all look just right for tonight's big festivities. Rarity and I will be your chaperones tonight.”
“Why isn't Pinkie Pie doing it again this year? You know what she says, 'Time is Candy' and she never gives up free candy,” Scootaloo asked.
“Ummm... well...” Fluttershy wasn't sure what to say about that. She couldn't reveal the horrifying details to fillies. Talk of murdered Dogs and self-starved mares was hardly appropriate for the cheerful scares of Nightmare Night. “She and Twilight have... something they need to do.”
“Probably going to play more dice-rolling roleplaying games,” Scootaloo noted. “Twilight is my dad's best customer. I knew it was a good idea to stock all the geek stuff.”
“Y-yes... yes, that's what she's doing,” Fluttershy said with a false smile, accompanied by her trademark squeaky noise. She was a terrible liar, but she hoped it was enough.
“She's missing out. I hope that I don't get like that,” Scootaloo said, suddenly getting a soft hoof-thump to the back of her head. “Ow!”
“Just for that, I'm intentionally going to make you stay in one night a week and play seamstress,” Sweetie said with a firm tone.
“Me and my big, stupid mouth,” Scootaloo grumbled, to a small chorus of laughter.
”Stop! Please stop! You don't need to run!” Larkspur yelled, as she followed Heliotrope's trail in the Everfree Forest. He was not hard to track; he may have been smooth and cool underground but he was a no expert above, particularly in disguise as he was. He left a trail of broken branches and crushed bushes.
“Father is here! You say he angry and mean!” Heliotrope called from deep in the dark expanse.
“I can make him understand! Please come back! I'll show him the monograph! He'll understand!”
“Larkspur!” The baron cried from behind her, his voice heavy with anger. “Come here and explain yourself!”
“Don't be afraid of him! Please stop!” Larkspur pleaded.
The decision was made for Heliotrope when his luck with running in the restrictive outfit ran out and he crashed to the ground, damaging or tearing off a good portion of it as he rolled to a stop in a small clearing. As he rose, a hand on his unmasked head, Larkspur arrived and pressed into him. “Must... run...” He said.
“No. It'll be fine. It'll all be fine, he'll understand,” Larkspur said, with a hopeful smile as her father's cries and hoofbeats drew closer.
“We're set for the happening. It should all come off right... I hope,” Twilight said as she nestled against Pinkie Pie. She wasn't being very careful with her coronation dress, letting is fold and deform under her as she laid out comfortably on her bed with her marefriend.
“You worry too much, Twilight! You have your super awesome checklist, you have all our friends helping, you have a great and romantic idea. I think this will be the best Nightmare Night ever, even if there's not candy! Even better than the time Princess Luna came over, and we'll have less yelling... unless the ghosts come through Ponyville. Then we'll have screaming. Lots of screaming,” Pinkie said, laying over Twilight's back on her own back, forming a plus sign with their bodies. Pinkie was wearing a shawl around her neck, black with intersecting white lines and a small cameo on the front holding it closed. She also had on a set of half-glasses on a chain and her hair was done up in a messy, but recognizable bun. On the whole she looked like a young, pink version of her mother.
“Well, with that vote of confidence and... with those visions of terrorized townsfolk I guess I'm mentally prepared for this,” Twilight said with a huff and a roll of her eyes. “Are you ready to go, Goody Pie? It's a bit early but we can help set up and prepare for coordination duties.”
“Sounds like fun! I'll make sure I can get up onto all the roofs I'll need and get all the decorations looking just right. This is a party and I'm the party pony!” Pinkie said, leaping up off of the bed and landing in a dramatic pose.
“That you are, Pinkie, that you are,” Twilight chuckled, more sedately getting off of the bed and giving a stretch. "Don't bring your party cannon. We don't need a repeat of the incident. Which was a repeat of another incident.”
“I swear, as Celestia and Luna are my witnesses, I thought turkeys could fly. Good thing there was a haystack...” Pinkie said.
“No, the other one. 'The Day of the Cake Batter,'” Twilight said.
“Oh! I apologized to Cranky, and to the whole town. I thought I put the confetti in the cannon and the batter in the oven. Again. Fine. No cannon,” Pinkie said with a closing grumble. “One little mistake...”
“Don't be so down, this way we can take more time, so it'll be dark by the time we begin. We're gonna need it to be around the time the Stonebeast and the Maudlin Mare show up. Then the plan comes into motion, we finish everything off, and we can enjoy what remains of Nightmare Night,” Twilight said, pulling her checklist from a hidden pocket and looking it over.
“And we pick up some candy, plus bob for apples, and throw spiders at a web, and dance and-” Pinkie's words were cut off by a kiss, Twilight pointing to the checklist as she broke it.
“In the 'Optional Activities' section, assuming there's time, I have it all down. I know you, Pinkie. I know you very well,” Twilight said with a warm smile.
Pinkie bounced gleefully around the room. “Then let's get this decoration started, Pinkie style! Party planning instincts are a go!” She cried, zooming out of the room and leaving a cloud of dust in her wake.
“Pace yourself! Pace yourself! We're tying to make it last longer!” Twilight yelled, as she ran out behind Pinkie.
Spike watched the two of them go, shaking his head. He was dressed in a dark suit and black bow tie, with sunglasses on his head and his favorite mustache on his upper lip. Peewee was sitting on his shoulder, wearing an extremely tiny dress shirt and dark jacket, and a miniscule set of sunglasses. He also had a little mustache attached to his beak. “I'll tell ya, Peewee, I'm actually glad I saw them running out. If I had just heard that I'd probably be too traumatized for Nightmare Night. Well, let's go. As my mom-to-be likes to say, 'Time is Candy.'”
Baron August reached the clearing in short order, the gloom and blurriness caused by fatigue meaning he thought his daughter was pressed up to the earth stallion he had seen at the festivities. “Larkspur... you lied to me! This thing I found... you've been keeping a secret...”
“Father I... I know it was wrong. I should have been up-front. I was wrong. It was very wrong of me to keep you in the dark about something so import. So earth-shattering and special. I should have included you, so you would not worry. But... you just get this way and sometimes I'm the one who worries about how you plan to react,” Larkspur said, pressing to Heliotrope a bit tighter then slowly stepping in front of him.
“I can't... my own daughter. You know what it's been like since your mother...” August began.
“I know, father. I know. I know it very well. I loved her too, I miss her too. But father... it doesn't give you the right to hold me so tightly I suffocate. You made it necessary to keep a secret, I didn't have another choice,” Larkspur whispered, coming forward to give her father a hug.
August returned the hug with a sigh and looked down at Larkspur. “I know I seem unreasonable. It's just the way I am. Now, show me this stallion of yours...”
“He's not a stallion, not in the strict sense,” Larkspur said with a laugh.
“One of the Veldtfolk? A jack?” August asked, looking up at Heliotrope. He went stiff when he finally noticed the fake snout had fallen off and his disguise was no longer hiding his hands.
“No, father. There's really no proper masculine term. 'Male' is what I've gotten from study...” Larkspur said, finding herself shoved back by her father's body.
“Behind me! This... what is this thing, this beast? He's wearing that armor that was on that stallion from the dance... it must be the fae! They can change forms! I'll protect you!” August said, thoughtlessly waving the carved stone.
“No, father! His name is Heliotrope and he is a Diamond Dog,” Larkspur insisted forcefully, pushing her way around her father's attempt at protection.
August was barely taking in what his daughter was saying. He was only watching the strange beast approach his Larkspur, his only foal, and place its strange, unnatural paw on her back. Then it reached out for him with another, a strange look on it's short-muzzled face. It showed off the teeth of a meat-ripping predator and spoke with the harsh rumble of a Discord-forged monster. “Am Heliotrope. Not wanted to meet. But now have met...”
Rarity checked her outfit in the mirror again, twirling slowly to admire herself as the lovely gown flowed and the crown glinted on her head. As she did at the Hearths-Warming Eve pageant, she made a lovely Princess Platinum. Certainly, the material in the dress was only a passing imitation of the real thing and her crown wasn't actually made of platinum, but she was carrying the look off and that was the important part. “Fluttershy, darling! Come along! We must chaperone the foals.”
“Um, alright, I'm coming...” Fluttershy slowly and carefully made her way down the stairs, lightly clanking in her light barding. Though mostly made of heavy cloth there was still metal in the form of rivets, reinforcing strips and most of the helmet. It was just tin, and so was very light, but Fluttershy still looked weighed down. “I'm ready... I think... it fits much better but, um... well...”
“I know, darling, I know. You prefer sequestration on Nightmare Night, to hide from the things that may frighten you. But our friends have need of us. We are already avoiding the most daunting talks. Would you prefer the grim duties of Applejack or Rainbow Dash?” Rarity asked.
Fluttershy shivered softly and looked away. “N-no, of course not. I know it's necessary but it's still bad...”
“Or even the coordination duties of Pinkie and Twilight? They will be the ones to first head-off the Fiend. Should it arise, and I hope it does not,” Rarity noted, trembling a little herself.
Fluttershy nodded slowly and came closer, to nuzzle against Rarity. “If our friends can do that, then I can certainly help foals gather up candy. M-maybe we can even have some punch, or dance, or play games, as long as they aren't scary.”
“Everything is scary on Nightmare Night, darling. But as our gracious Princess Luna learned, sometimes there is fun in being frightened. If the fear is safe and those around you are there to protect you why... it can be a little exciting, and set off laughter once it ends,” Rarity said, gently nuzzling Fluttershy back.
Fluttershy gave a little smile, and nodded her head. “I trust you, Rarity. Even if I get scared and want to run away I won't. I know you're all looking out for me and nothing's going to hurt me.”
“Exactly, darling. We shall keep you safe, happy and full of delicious candy. It's half the fun of Nightmare Night,” Rarity said with a laugh. “Now go and summon our first little charges, we must be off to gather the rest.”
“Girls! Girls! It's time to go. The sun is down and the whole town is ready. Let's get going so we don't miss out on anything,” Fluttershy called.
The Cutie Mark Crusaders scampered eagerly down the steps, Sweetie Belle taking it a bit slower because she had to carry the little cublamb pulltoy on her back as she came down. They all looked eager and ready, with sacks for candy slung across their back like miniature highwaymares. “Let's get goin'! Ah wanna be all candied up when it's time fer Zecora ta lead us all ta Nightmare Moon's statue. She said she was gonna come back ta th' farm fer dinner an' a night over,” Applebloom said, bouncing energetically in place.
“Alright, alright, settle down. I know you are eager to 'go a-courting' as Applejack frequently puts it. But we still have others to gather into our little coterie. I do hope that it will not take long but... oh!” As soon as Rarity opened the front door to Carousel Boutique she was confronted with a small mob of youngsters dressed in all manner of costumes. “It would seem that the process was more expedient than I thought it would be.”
“Such wonderful costumes, it looks like you and your parents worked really hard on all of them,” Fluttershy said, looking over the assortment. Vamponies, another lupine-like costume besides Scootaloo's, witches, mummies, and characters from popular television shows. As was appropriate for the cosmopolitan village there was a modest mix of other species, including a mule, three Diamond pups and a Changeling nymph, which was very much like a Changeling, but smaller.
“What're we waitin' for? Let's go get our candy!” Applebloom cried, dashing out to the crowd with Sweetie and Scootaloo following in her wake.
The youngsters marched off in a mass chanting 'Candy! Candy!' while Rarity and Fluttershy scampered at the rear of the group. “W-wait! Please wait! Don't wander off!” Fluttershy pleaded.
“Now, now, please remain orderly! We're trying to maintain propriety,” Rarity said, with a rather hopeless look growing on her face.
The stone hyacinth swung through the air, missing Heliotrope more by luck than through any skill inherent in the flailing dodge he performed. “Wh-what? What is? Why is..?” He started to ask, the awkwardness of his rear leg disguise sending him tumbling.
“Father stop this at once! What do you think you're doing? He has been helping me prepare the single most important monograph since the days of Starswirl!” Larkspur shouted, using her magic to try and break her father's hold on the pillar.
“I can tell he's got your mind. These evil creatures do that. He's making you say things, do things, I know,” August said, magic increasing and sending Larkspur's magic force back to her horn with a crackle of conflicting mana. “You keep away from her! You've got teeth like a timberwolf and a body by Discord! You're trying to steal her away to devour her!”
“No! No eat ponies! Eat gems and metal and plant, some rodent things... tell him!” Heliotrope cried, shuffling back to avoid another swing of the carved stone.
“It's true! I observed him consuming the materials! Stop this!” Larkspur tried again, pouring as much magical force as she could into her attempt to wrest control of the pillar from her father. She also got in front of him and attempted to physically interfere with his magic.
“Don't worry, I'll protect you. I'll save you from this thing, this beast!” The pillar wavered, trembling as the magical auras fought over control. The physical and magical interference left the match dead even, until the pouring of force struck both of them, dual sparks of magic knocking back both of their heads and dropping the stone to the ground. “L-larkspur...”
“He's not some beast, father. He's an intelligent creature. You'll see. There's a whole civilization. They're wise and well-experienced in the ways of magic and stonecraft. Soon all of Equestria will know. And... and besides...” Larkspur slowly went to the fallen Heliotrope and helped him up, pressing a kiss on his cheek as she did so. “I've quite fallen for him...”
“Mister Baron father pony,” Heliotrope said, unsure what title was appropriate after the scare, “Not mean to cause harm, not want to make angry but want to say, love daughter very much. Is good pony, sweet, soft, very kind to scout...”
Anger surged in August's eyes as he watched his brainwashed daughter forced to kiss a monster. He grew sickened as the thing tried to speak to him like it was a sensible being, a creature with sapience and good intentions. But every word dripped with his real intent, his malevolence. “Get away from her!” he screamed, magic force violently separating the two, throwing Larkspur solidly into a tree and knocking the wind out of her, while Heliotrope was tossed to the ground and rolled in the dirt. August's magic resumed a grip on the stone. “I'll end your evil for good...”
“How's it looking?” Twilight asked, standing at the Everfree border with Applejack.
“Dash is finishing up the last of it. It ain't good sugarcube, it jes ain't good. Ah don't like it more'n she does but ah'm ready,” Applejack said with a sigh.
“Was the stone-intrusion effect too great or was it all coating and filling?” Twiilight inquired.
“Near as we can tell it's all jes coated. Pinkie'd probably know better, ah grow apples, not rocks, but there ain't no boulders attached if that's what yer getting' at,” Applejack replied.
“Thank the Princesses for small favors,” Twilight said. “You know you might see him there. If he's the Stonebeast that's where he'll appear after the fog comes up. Pinkie and I will be where the Maudlin Mare likely begins the night, after we see your path clear through Ponyville. And then the Fiend...”
“Ain't no guarantee he'll be there. He ain't always. And he never comes ta town, accodin' to Rarity. If we see him it'll be here 'r out there at the end. But ah think we'll get it off without a hitch,” Applejack confidently said.
“Good. I promised Pinkie we could have some fun at the Nightmare Night fair if there was time. And I'd really, really like there to be time,” Twilight said with a blush.
“Don't worry 'bout a thing. Dash an' ah can take care-a this. We got blankets an' all, and we're the fastest mares yer gonna find,” Applejack said.
“Good. I'll go tell Pinkie. We'll be expecting you in town shortly. We'll clear the way so you can make straight for the gem fields and your destination,” Twilight said, trotting off towards the lights and sounds of Ponyville.
Applejack turned her hooves towards the Everfree and galloped through the growth, back to the clearing with the stone hyacinth. Rainbow Dash was there, in her traditional Nightmare Night Shadowbolt outfit. She was working with a shovel and brush, uncovering Heliotrope's entire skeleton and looking none too happy at the idea. “Ah'm here ta help ya finish. We gotta move, Twilight wants this happenin' before he shows up as the Stonebeast.”
“Daring Do can keep her lousy job. If this is what it means to be an archaeologist, I'll stay a weather pony,” Dash said with a shiver. “Look at this. It's more than just his head that got cracked.”
“We all figured that baron had a mean streak, hidin' his daughter's book, killin' this poor feller, ain't a surprise ta know he didn't jus' hit him once an' let him alone...” Applejack said, taking up a brush and a small shovel to finish the excavation.
“Larkspur!” Both males cried. August was shocked out of his rage momentarily, and stopped cold. Heliotrope was not so restrained and rushed to the fallen mare.
“Larkspur! Is alright? Must be alight...” Heliotrope said, kneeling beside her, body hunched over her prone form.
“Mm, I have a handsome and strong scout seeing to me. I think I'm fine,” she said with a breathy laugh and a slight wince. “Maybe a bruised rib or two but I'll live.”
“So worried, couldn't bear thought-” Heliotrope was cut off by the stone pillar being whacked against his back.
“Get away!” August shouted, swinging the stone again.
Heliotrope braced himself and took the blow, feeling a fiery, radiating ache coming from his bones. If they weren't broken they might as well be, the pain couldn't be any different. “You not hurt her!” He tore the false lower legs off of his paws, to restore his natural prowess and turned on August, eyes narrowed in rage. “Already hurt her once, not do it again!” He leaped at August, fists balled and ready to strike.
“Stop! No!” Larkspur's magical aura reached out to restrain Heliotrope, stopping his punches, if only just, and keeping him from advancing on her father. She also reached out to try and hold her father back again, and bring some kind of peace.
“We'll need to subtly clear everyone from the path that AJ and Dash have to run, so that might mean getting creative with things,” Twilight said across to Pinkie. The two were walking through the center of Ponyville, keeping track of the festivities and waiting for a sign from Applejack or Rainbow Dash.
“That's easy, I know every way possible to get ponies to move, and I get really creative with things. Did you want that creativity with or without buttercream frosting?” Pinkie asked.
“Errr... without?” Twilight ventured.
“Then I'll need some time to come up with something,” Pinkie said, pulling out a piece of paper and a graphite stick, seeming to work on some kind of plan.
“Well, glad to see I'm rubbing off on you, at least a little. I enjoy our distinct features but I think we could both learn to take in salient...” Twilight was silenced by a hoof pressing over her mouth.
Pinkie slapped her paper up against a pole. It was just a note that said, 'Keep Pathway Clear.' A few milling ponies who were headed in that direction turned off after seeing the sign. “There! Now what were you saying?”
“I was saying that sometimes your inimitable skills are all the solution we need,” Twilight said with a chuckle.
Heliotrope was stopped, standing there and restrained from attacking August in a misguided defense of Larkspur. But because of the pain and distraction of her injuries Larkspur's magic was pushed off of August who swung the pillar of stone at Heliotrope and cracked him solidly over the head.
“No!” Larkspur's magic dropped and Heliotrope fell to the ground, bleeding, semi-conscious, and attempting to paw at the ground, ripping out some hunks of dirt. “Heliotrope...”
“Pony... was so... pretty...” Heliotrope mumbled, whining softly and making a few other canine noises. “Wanted to talk. Wanted to be nice...”
“You were, so nice, and so...” Larkspur's comment ceased when the pillar came down again and split Heliotrope's head, making her scream in horror.
“It's done...” August said with a businesslike huff. “The beast is dead. And you're free to-”
“How could you?! How could you just kill an innocent creature?! How, father, how?!” Larkspur flew at her father in a rage, crying and screaming in pain as her battered body impacted him over and over.
“Y-you're still under his control. That will pass. Come along, we'll get you situated,” August insisted, pulling his struggling daughter from him and leading her out of the forest.
“No! You go back! I can't... not with him... like this...” Larkspur insisted, her angry hiss turning into a choked sob.
“This will pass. I'll return to the manor, and when your mind becomes your own, you will too,” August stated, turning out of the tangled forest and trusting his daughter to follow.
“I never should have spoken to you...” Larkspur whispered, tentatively kissing Heliotrope's bloody lips and shivering at his stillness. “I did this. This is my fault. Your kind were content to be unknown. My pride brought you to this, and I should be ashamed.” She took a moment to cradle the huge, silent body before she stuck her hooves into the ground and started to dig, using hooves and magic to move the earth. She knew it wasn't his way. But it was hers. The only apology she could possibly make. She wouldn't let him moulder on the ground. She'd at least give him the honor of burial.
“So this is how we're gonna do it? Just put the bones in a blanket and carry them through town?” Dash asked, in an incredulous tone.
Applejack was already moving Heliotrope's bones onto a blanket. “Best way ta do it. We move quick enough an' ain't nopony gonna get in the way. Then we jes settle 'em down with Miss Larkspur an' that should settle the Maudlin Mare.”
“And the Stonebeast. But if these are all the same folks... the Fiend is the evil dad. Do you think that a guy who killed his daughter's non-pony love is gonna let us bury them together? He didn't even do that,” Dash noted.
“'Lucky' would be not carrying bones through town on the way to another open grave,” Dash mumbled, taking her own collection of bones and placing them in a blanket. “Keep pace, AJ, I want this over fast.”
“We both do, sugarcube, and it will be,” Applejack responded.
“I'll believe it when it happens...” Dash said, placing the blanket of bones between her wings and shivering a little bit. “Just think Daring Do thoughts... I've got a dead Dog's skull on my back. And the magic flower isn't making it less weird.”
Applejack settled her own bones on her back and huffed. “And ah've got his chest on me. It's 'bout half rock, them ribs is all cracked an' ah know who done it. Quitcher whimperin' an' get ta runnin'.”
“I'll get there before you!” Dash said, taking off. There was a smile on her face for about half a moment before she heard a howl and the clatter of stones behind her in the clearing. “I hope that's you, AJ!”
“Only if ya got yer weather friends makin' this fog!” Applejack called, squinting as a sudden fog rose up, accompanied by a growling roar. “If we ain't prankin' each other...”
“Larkspur...” A guttural voice said, followed by heavy stomps, along with the clatter and grind of rocks moving against one another.
Larkspur stumbled into the manor hours later, her Luna attire torn and filthy, her face a mask of horror, her eyes holding a thousand-mile stare. August went up to her and embraced her tightly, kissing her filthy head. “Do you feel more yourself, my dear?”
“I feel... very calm. I know the right thing to do now. I... need to wash, and sleep. I'm sorry, father...” Larkspur said, her voice hollow and distant, barely above a whisper.
“Dangerous creatures are everywhere. They have terrible powers and abilities, and can affect the innocent. But you're here now, safe and whole. You have nothing to fear any longer,” August said, reluctantly pulling away from his daughter and smiling at her as she walked away.
“I'm sorry...” Larkspur whispered as she passed her father. When she was out of earshot she muttered, “I'm sorry for what I do... but you have earned every bit of it...”
“So far this has been a success... to an extent,” Rarity said, her mane slightly frazzled but mostly in place. She and Fluttershy were still behind the group of youngsters chanting 'Candy!'
“I don't know how Granny Smith did it for so long,” Fluttershy commented, shaking her head a bit.
“Well... though Applejack is not here to approve of such tales, she knows well that her grandmother is... iron-shod, to say the least. And she had Pinkie there. Though a bit wild she maintains efficiency to get candy a-plenty,” Rarity commented, using magic to sweep the stray bits of mane into place.
“O-oh, right...” Fluttershy went quiet for a moment and then said, “I know it's wrong, but... is Granny Smith like..?”
“She is more socially restrained. Harmless,” Rarity said succinctly. “Let us pause for a moment, children, so we may refresh ourselves at the party.”
“Alright, but let's not take too long, I can't just hang around...” Scootaloo began.
“Miss Zecora! Don't ah look scary?” Applebloom asked loudly, running up to the zebra, who was in her usual spider-inspired attire.
“Oh Applebloom, my dear, you're very scary this year,” Zecora said with a small laugh. She leaned down to give the young filly a kiss on the forehead, agreeable mumbles coming from those around.
“Ugh, fine. Applebloom can go visit and I can-” Scootaloo found herself confronted with the toy cublamb.
“You can lead the baby along now, while I get us the treats I think we should have,” Sweetie said firmly, tying the string of the pulltoy to Scootaloo's tail. That accomplished, she sauntered off, leaving the pegasus filly dumbfounded.
“She is a proper lady, an iron frame under a silken raiment,” Rarity said with a small laugh. “I hope you don't expect to lump about on weekends watching sports.”
“It crossed my mind...” Scootaloo grumbled.
“Rarity? Fluttershy? I didn't expect to see you out here, I heard that you both took refuge on Nightmare Night,” a voice from the crowd said. From out of it stepped the speaker and a compatriot, Doctor Soft Heart and her fiance Labradorite. The Ponyville veterinarian was dressed in a light gray vest, with a broad gem-studded collar around her neck, along with a fake Diamond Dog muzzle over her pony snout. Her greenish-brown, small-breed compatriot had on a lab coat, with a stethoscope around his neck, a sphygmomanometer in one pocket and a stick of small rodent food in another pocket.
“Yes, yes... situations have, er, conspired to keep us occupied this night with the care of these wonderful foals,” Rarity said, keeping her smile bright as her young charges dashed around making lots of noise and leaving a bit of a mess.
“Is good to help children. Much love needed to raise them right,” Labradorite said, laughing at the antics. “And thank you for new design. Fit better, color is good.”
“Oh it was my pleasure, I want your wedding to go off without a hitch,” Rarity said, looking between Soft and Labradorite. “You know... more than ever... I truly wish this wedding to be a smashing success and for you two to be blissfully, deliriously happy.”
The pair looked between one another, Soft asking, “Well... thank you but... what brought on this position?”
“Certain facts from history have made me more aware of how beautifully broad our society is, and I want nothing more than for it to remain so...” Rarity said.
“Oh! You're... here...” Twilight was suddenly there, looking a little shocked at seeing Rarity and Fluttershy. “I thought you and Fluttershy would be across town right now, with the children.”
“We needed to stop. Honestly Twilight, Pinkie must be three mares to be able to wrangle this mob,” Rarity said, on the edge of whining.
“It's... not really so bad...” Fluttershy commented, looking down. “Should we leave? Where are Applejack and Rainbow Dash?”
“They're off-schedule, not by a lot but in this case that's not good,” Twilight responded. “I need to go and see...”
“They're coming! But they're not alone!” Pinkie zipped into the scene and pointed desperately down one of the Ponyville streets.
Applejack and Rainbow Dash were running up the street, hooves clacking loudly on the cobblestones and stone-crusted bones clattering in the blankets on their backs. Behind them loped the great Stonebeast, a collection of gray rock in the vague shape of a double-sized Diamond Dog. It let out a howl filled with pain and longing and cried out, “Larkspur!”
“Oh dear... this wasn't part of the checklist!” Twilight said, using a pulse of magic to clear the path. Applejack and Dash were off their scheduled route but given their panic that was natural. “I should have considered the possibility that the ghosts of the local dead were tied to their graves. That means that they can't range too far from their remains. I was right! Putting them in the same grave will...”
An incomprehensible roar of anger nearly shook the scene, forcing all the folk in the area to hit the ground. Fire leaped up out of the earth and coalesced from the air, leaving the large, flame-licked figure of a unicorn standing right in front of Applejack and Dash. “What the hay?” Applejack cried, hooves skidding her to a halt before the fiery brute.
“Th-the... the Fiend!” Rarity shrieked, pointing and trembling.
“Woah... okay, I think this puts me one up. Ahuizotl's got nothing on this!” Dash shouted, backpedaling and doing her best to hold her blanket of bones.
“Uhh... think we can giggle at this ghost?” Twilight asked across to Pinkie, looking quite stunned.
“Nope... I hope screaming scares it away because I'm about to do that,” Pinkie confessed, huge, frightened eyes tracing over the roaring form of the Fiend.
“You said it never comes to town!” Fluttershy squealed, hiding behind Rarity.
“It never did... but then... it never...” Comprehension dawned in Rarity's mind. “It's here to stop the bones. It probably came if the Stonebeast or Maudlin Mare were helped by anypony or either tried to go too far from their graves.”
Larkspur was in her hothouse the very next day, bright and early. Her dedication to her plants had waned in the previous weeks, and she had much to do. Rather than making notes or performing further experiments she was rather busily dismantling everything and uprooting her plants.
Baron August came by to see how his daughter was recovering, and looked taken aback by the destruction of what he always took to be one of his daughter's favorite places. “Dear... what are you doing? Your hothouse was supposed to provide the means to make a name for yourself in science...”
“I can't stand to look at it any longer,” Larkspur said with a cold tone. “It will never give me what I want, not unless I can brew and distill the elixir of life out of these odious weeds.”
“Elixir of..? I thought you were over this. The filthy monster is dead and probably eaten by timberwolves. Your mind ought to be your own once more. Do I need to call in a doctor?” August asked.
“Only for yourself if you persist in insisting my mind was ever not mine,” Larkspur huffed. “It does not fit in with your controlling, arrogant pride, father, but I may have thoughts that are not in concord with yours. This is normal and natural. If you do this to convince yourself you did not perform an act of murder then I pity you. If you do this because you have some secret hatred for non-ponies then I condemn you to Tartarus with the other fiends.”
“You will not speak to me in such a manner! I am your father and I will have your respect,” August growled, stomping firmly. “It cannot be murder, he was some creature that imitated speech like a parrot. I have no hatred of non-ponies but I recognize that ponies are best with one another.”
“The coward's cover,” Larkspur said icily, throwing uprooted plants into a trash can and throwing certain chemicals over them, making them shrivel and wither. “Have it your way, father. You are a well-respected and loved champion covered in mercy, liberality and glory.”
“Your mocking notwithstanding, I thank you all the same for at least attempting conversation rather than petty physical assaults. Now come along, breakfast has been served,” August said, motioning to his daughter.
“I do not wish to eat,” Larkspur said, simply.
“It has been a long night, nerves are on edge, and a meal will help you,” August said.
“I said I do not wish to eat. I will not eat,” Larkspur insisted.
“Very well. Shall I have the midday meal brought to you or will you come to it on your own?” August asked.
“You do not understand, father. I will not eat, again. I won't nourish myself,” Larkspur said, withering more clumps of greenery.
“Don't be ridiculous. You're not honestly going to starve yourself. Now come along,” August said firmly.
“Just watch me. Watch me... wither...” Larkspur said, openly pouring her withering compound on her namesake plant, the green stalk shriveling up and dying.
“You!” Rarity shouted suddenly, striding forward and leaving Fluttershy to huddle in terror on her own. “How dare you come to this town and frighten these good folk?!”
“Rarity? What are you doing?” Fluttershy squeaked. “You said you were afraid of him.”
“As a young filly I was terrified of him, and I stayed terrified of the mysterious, fiery Fiend. But I am not as ignorant as my filly self had been. Now I know his crimes and my fear has gone. Now I feel anger!” Rarity called back to Fluttershy.
The Fiend roared out, swatting a hoof towards Applejack and Rainbow Dash, preventing them from moving around him. He even held the great Stonebeast at bay, causing the big thing to meld itself down into the cobblestones of the street. “Larkspur... will mind me!”
“Why need she mind a fiend like you? Why need she obey a father unworthy of the title? A terrible creature like you is unworthy of holding respectable titles like 'Baron', 'Father' or 'Equestrian,'” Rarity said, using flares of magic to try and move the flaming creature away from Applejack and Dash.
“My daughter! She was my only daughter and she betrayed me! She betrayed me for a beast! A monster! A thing! I gave her everything and she repaid me with betrayal!” The Fiend stomped hard, a flare rising up from the street.
Rarity was washed in the heat of the flare and covered her eyes to protect herself from the flash of light. When it was over she remained standing proud, stepping even closer to the raging stallion. “I'm no longer afraid of you. You don't scare me, you sicken me,” Rarity hissed, her normal calm fury replaced with undiluted anger. “You foul and horrible bigot! You beat an innocent creature to death because he dared to give your daughter love?”
“My Larkspur was a good pony, a quality pony, she would think better of herself than to love some monster,” The Fiend replied.
“She loved you for most of her life. She loved at least one monster,” Rarity said, voice heavy with disdain. “How deeply does your bigotry cut? Would you have similarly killed a griffin? A cow? A donkey? A zebra? A ROA?! Just how pervasive is your hate, you disgusting, prejudiced beast?!”
Dash looked at Rarity in awe, while paused in her attempt to get around the Fiend. “Remind me never to piss Rarity off,” she said aside to Applejack.
“Noted,” Applejack said with some trace of amazement.
The final word of Rarity's accusation made the flames leap higher on the surface of the Fiend and he turned his flaring eyes on Rarity. “I am no beast! My name is Baron August Bearing, a true noblepony of Canterlot! I am nothing like you say, and I am only concerned with my daughter!”
“Concerned with her unhappiness, perhaps, if all you could do was hide her discovery and kill the one she loved. Even now you won't admit you did so,” Rarity said, in a slightly calmer tone.
The flames lowered a little bit, though the petulant look remained on the flaming face. “I am a proper father, a protective father. I saved her from a beast taking over her mind and I want my just reward for doing right.”
“You did nothing of the sort. She was an innocent mare, in love with a new species, excited by the prospect of presenting the coup of the era to the Noble Society. She needed your support and your love. She received your rage and your hate,” Rarity accused.
Baron August paced the halls, his anger fighting with his worry before he made his way to Larkspur's room and opened the door. Lately she had grown too weak to move around the manor and had confined herself to her room, to languish in bed. “Larkspur... this has gone on long enough. Now eat something and be done.”
Larkspur laughed from the bed. She had grown drawn, pale and cloudy-eyed. Her skin was pulled tight on her bones. “There remains... breath in my lungs and be... beats in my heart. I'm not done yet...”
“You've proven your point. You had a serious message to convey and it has been. Now, please eat something. Look at you! You're scarcely more than skin and bones,” August said.
“When I am only bones I think I will be finished,” Larkspur said in a single, long breath, eyes closing afterward while she rested.
“You will not just kill yourself. I know you to be a sensible pony,” August said, evenly.
“I knew you were... kind and loving. I suppose we... we were both wrong...” Larkspur whispered, still laying back with shut eyes.
“I still love you, dearest daughter. I wish you could understand that,” August pleaded.
“Your actions say otherwise. But that is immaterial. I have a request...” Larkspur said softly, rising up slightly and opening her sunken eyes to look at her father.
“Please, my dear, anything. Anything I can do to make this end, to get you back,” August said eagerly, approaching the bed.
It took Larkspur a moment to activate her magic and get it strong enough to lift her book. “You remember this. I tried to prove he w... was a sapient creature. This book for wh-which he died...”
“Yes, I recall. Are you going to yell again? I find it very unkind,” August grumbled, looking almost contemptuously at the book.
“I haven't the strength to yell. This is my magnum opus. This work killed an innocent. This work fills me with guilt. But this work is vital. When I am gone... present it to the Noble Society in my name. Equestria must know. And when I am gone at least... one guilty party will have been punished...” Larkspur said, her magic fizzling, the book falling to the bed.
August took up the book and looked it over, repulsed by the detailed depictions of the body of a beast. “You want this to be your legacy? A monster's catalog?”
Larkspur huffed in exasperation and fell back onto the bed, looking entirely drained. “You can't even muster love to make this happen. I knew you were a liar.”
“If it's what you want...” August said, rising up and slowly backing out of the room, watching as Larkspur's eyes slowly closed and her breathing became slow and even. He looked at the book again and shook his head. He had been placed in an untenable position.
“All I ever did was for her. All I ever wanted was never to lose her. Larkspur... Larkspur could have had a good life...” The Fiend rumbled, his fires down to a dull roar, revealing some trace of the glowing-hot unicorn body beneath.
“She was trying to have that. A successful scientific endeavor, perhaps some form of political position, and well... she could have been very, very happy with this Heliotrope fellow...” Rarity commented.
“Never. Never! I knew her, I knew her mind and her heart. She was a good mare. She never, ever could have been happy with some mere beast,” The Fiend snarled out.
“You did not know. In the end, you brought it on yourself. It was your doing. You lost her,” Rarity scolded.
“She took herself away... my little filly took herself away from me. How could she do that to me?” The flaming stallion pleaded, his fires burning lower than ever, showing that the smoldering form beneath was smaller than the robust specimen of ponyhood he had been in life.
Rarity slowly shrugged her shoulders. “Because she was guilty, I suppose. The gift her darling gave to her ended his life, and her own father wielded it in ignorant anger. She was upset, and preferred to die before your eyes, rather than live with what you did to her, and to him...”
August was beside himself. He couldn't believe it. Even after the doctor had confirmed the case he couldn't believe his little filly was gone. She had finally slipped away, with hardly a word, little more than a barely-living skeleton. Her body was being prepared for burial, and he had to make the preparations.
Little fillies were supposed to bury their parents, it was not supposed to be the other way around. She was gone, taken away by her own stubbornness. All for the sake of a beast.
The thought of a beast brought August to the cornuscript she had given him, the one he was meant to give to the Noble Society, to let them know about the beast that had trapped her mind. It would be good to let them know that such creatures were out there. He would have to tell them of what happened to Larkspur... from beginning, to end.
His eyes darted quickly to the fireplace burning high and bright, and the book in his magical grip. With one simple motion he could destroy every trace of that from the face of the world. All evidence that such a thing had existed would vanish in a puff of smoke.
He hesitated, however. This was his daughter's work. Her great work, she had said. Her guarantee of fame and notice by the Noble Society, all the nation and posterity. He had promised her he would present it. He didn't want to be a liar, but he couldn't just show it. It could not be shown or destroyed.
He saw a small box on his desk, a red-lacquered wooden thing with silver hinges, used mostly for ink and quills. It was the right size for the book. And he still had to come up with the headstone and plot for her. She had mentioned the fields outside of town as the place they had met one another. The best way to keep folks away would be to put a burial plot there. And the book could be placed in the headstone. It could stay with her, forever.
“I'm sorry, my daughter. I can't destroy your work but I won't flaunt your shame. You can keep this testament to a beast's power over you, but hidden. Let no one know this ever happened...” August said, wrapping the book in a piece of white cloth that had served as a decoration for a small side-table and settling it inside the box.
“I couldn't let the knowledge go, couldn't let the nation know she had ended her life for the sake of a beast,” The Fiend said.
“You say that over and over, but you are wrong. We know about Diamond Dogs, we are more than well acquainted with their ways. Their United Colonies are a vassal of the Principality, and their citizens are Equestrians. They may move among us freely. And more...” Rarity motioned towards Labradorite and Soft, the Diamond Dog standing protectively before his fiancee.
The flames died down more around the Fiend, little licking waves of orange all that was left coursing over his body. The form beneath was no grand noblestallion. He was a haunted-looking, shriveled figure, all made of gray ash. This was the hermit-like recluse that had scurried to Canterlot and locked himself away until he was nothing but rage and regrets. “You're sapient, aren't you? You have the ability to know you love that mare...”
“Do love Soft, is most precious gem in all world, worth more than all crystals in Crystal Empire,” Labradorite asserted, one hand gently stroking Soft, the other thumping his chest firmly.
“I did it... I killed her... and I killed him too...” The flames on the Fiend's body waned to nothingness, his ashy form flaking and cracking. “I did not merely kill a beast, a cruel thing on its own. I killed a sapient creature. She was right. I deserve Tartarus. I was a fiend all along...” His body crumbled into powdery soot, blowing away on a breeze that moaned, 'Forgive me.'
The whole town had been holding its breath, watching the war of words with great interest. As the Fiend crumbled and blew away they all let out a tremendous cheer. Rarity did not join in that jubilation, she summoned and fell into her fainting couch, soon joined by a very relieved-looking Fluttershy. Twilight approached with a stunned expression. “Rarity, that was incredible! I know you said you were angry but... you started off fearful. How did you overcome that?” she asked.
“It was just as I told Fluttershy,” Rarity said, stroking her marefriend's mane as her heartbeat came back down to normal. “As a child I was afraid of a screaming and unknown figure, a flaming monster roaring on the most frightening night of the year. I learned the truth, he was the last pieces of an unworthy father, a bigot and a murderer who never accepted he had killed the one his daughter loved, and brought about her own death with his callousness. He even hid away her creation, because of his own unwillingness to admit she had been so in love.”
“It was quite a thing to do. You were very brave. I guess a little knowledge really is a powerful weapon,” Twilight mused.
“Now, without the interruption of that monster, let us all go bring these remains to the site they were always intended to occupy, the love of his life,” Rarity said, rising from and dismissing her fainting couch, speaking to Applejack and Rainbow Dash.
“Oh, right, the bones. You know I was getting used to it,” Dash said with a sheepish grin.
“I think that's a good idea. Something to take the terror out of this Nightmare Night,” Twilight said, sending up a beacon of magic to gather the other ponies. “I think everypony's going to want to see this. This should make up for that frightening interruption of a good time.”
Though the entire town was a trifle frazzled from the experience of seeing the fiend in all his rage they were also eager for anything that could take the memory away. In short order they organized a procession, with Rainbow Dash and Applejack at the head. It was a bit of a jaunt to the gem fields, but no one seemed to grow winded, neither did they seem to notice the trailing bulge in the dirt, the hidden Stonebeast on the move with them.
There was a ring around the cairn marking Larkspur's grave, where Dash had dug to find her body, plus the open pit that led directly to her. Once they had arrived Applejack and Rainbow Dash set the blankets full of bones beside the pit and opened them up. Twilight came forward rather boldly and began to arrange the bones into their correct anatomical positions.
Stalking around the stones was the figure of the Maudlin Mare, Larkspur's questing form. She was just a skeletal pony, with tatters of Larkspur's Princess Luna costume hanging off of her bones. She wailed and wept and made the gathered ponies quite uncomfortable, as they were not quite afraid but unsure of what to think.
From out of the ground the Stonebeast emerged, hunching over before the Maudlin Mare to bring his head at least somewhat close to hers. No words passed between them, then simply embraced, bones scraping on stone as the ghostly lovers finally had the chance to be together.
A small collection of soft and encouraging sounds emerged from the crowd, and many quiet conversations voiced approval. “Nothing can make up for an error that lasted several hundred years,” Twilight said, drawing all eyes, “But perhaps we can ease some of the harm. Rarity, can you help me with this?”
“It would be an honor,” Rarity replied, trotting over to the graveside. Though the sight of two skeletons should have been unnerving she was buoyed up by the rightness of what she was doing. She and Twilight carefully lifted Heliotrope's bones and laid them in the grave with Larkspur, adjusting the reposed mare such that the two figures were seen to embrace.
As each piece was interred and the positions adjusted in a respectful manner the two embracing spirits regained themselves, the stone cracking and falling from Heliotrope's form, the flesh growing back over Larkspur's frame. They were restored, top to bottom, embracing as they had once long ago. They kissed firmly, to the cheers of the crowd. That finally seemed to make them aware of the others, both looking surprised, yet not afraid.
“What is? Ponies cheer Dog like me? Is not what you said...” Heliotrope's ghost said.
“Look at them, my love. There are more than just ponies here. Your own kind are among them. This... must be a dream. But it is a beautiful dream. It feels so real. Come, my dearest. Let us dream together,” Larkspur's ghost said, drawing Heliotrope down to the ground with her and getting into a restful pose.
“Yes, dream. With you, all life is dream,” Heliotrope's ghost said, wrapping his arms around Larkspur and squeezing her firmly. The ethereal images faded away as the first scoop of dirt fell on the mingled skeletons.
The citizens of Ponyville came forward as a group, to help move some of the dirt back into place. They didn't have the whole story and on some level it didn't matter. They knew only that a very bad creature had been defeated and that two lovers were reunited. All the important matters had been touched upon. The details were only going to make all the participants known, which would make the celebration of the event more wonderful.
“I got it! I got it!” Pinkie cried cheerfully, running into the library with a paper bag on her back. It was several months after that fateful Nightmare Night. Things had changed quickly, almost the very next day. Canterlot and the Colonial authorities had sent out scholars, researchers, and both the Minister of Inter-Sentient Affairs and the Minister of Community Relations. “They said they were holding a copy because they knew I'd come for it.”
“Pinkie, you mean you actually went out and bought it?” Twilight looked up from her book, surrounded by stacks of others. She had fielded all kinds of questions about how she had cared for Larkspur's cornuscript and about the circumstances of its discovery. She had been in her element, delivering all the answers with just the right mix of smugness and humility.
“It's so nice, I just had to have it,” Pinkie said, pulling a book from out of the paper bag. It was slightly larger than a regular novel, as far as dimensions went, though it was smaller than the usual examples of what it seemed to be, which was a coffee table book. The cover read, 'On the Subject of Diamond Dogs: The first scholarly study of our subterranean citizens.' “The pictures are all beautiful and they even translate what was written down.”
“I was hardly surprised they published it as a popular piece. It's not just a fascinating bit of history for those of us above ground. Because details were often left out this provides the Colony with a first-hoof account of the congressional composition, styles, projects that were never recorded... a window into a distant time,” Twilight said.
“Yea, and Larkspur was a really great artist,” Pinkie said, flipping through the pages happily. She had been questioned by the researchers too. She was the one that actually found the hollow containing the book. They didn't get much out of her other than cake and a repetition of what Twilight had said.
“But Pinkie, the real thing is going to be here next week,” Twilight noted. The book, after getting months of close scrutiny and being scanned for archiving and the production of things like the coffee table version, was sent to the Grand Royal Museum of Equestrian History in Canterlot for display, to then be sent around the principality for display in other museums and universities. It was coming to the relatively modest Ponyville library because it had, in a sense, been written in the town.
“You can't touch that one. It's a... what did that mare call it? 'An important and precious Equestrian cultural artifact.' I think that means it's gotta stay behind glass,” Pinkie said, continuing to flip through the book.
“And by 'that mare' I presume you mean the Minister of Community Relations?” Twilight asked.
“That's the one. She seemed nice, and her wife was really, really pretty. I didn't know Diamond Dogs could be purple,” Pinkie said.
“They come in every color gems, metals and minerals come, with the far ends of the visible spectrum being rarer than the center, with some having a few tones, like, well, Heliotrope, as seen in that very book,” Twilight sad.
“The back of the books is talking about the movie they're planning on making,” Pinkie said, having reached the back cover's dust jacket flap.
“I've seen the location scouts. They want to film in the Everfree and the gem fields. You'd think they'd avoid both places, there's a stream of tourists,” Twilight said with a shake of her head.
“Tourists? Are you speaking of the new statue?” Rarity asked. She had just stepped in the front door, along with Fluttershy, Applejack and Rainbow Dash. All four of them had paper bags from the same store as Pinkie.
“I see you got your copies too,” Twilight said with a laugh. “No, I was talking about the site of Heliotrope's former grave and the joint one he and Larkspur share. But that statue's probably going to be just as popular.”
“Our most ingenious mayor has, naturally, begun the concoction of a method of delivering tourism bits and high praise to Ponyville. She is one civil servant who does love to keep the town well-regarded,” Rarity said.
“She's started a legend that any interspecies couple that gets their picture taken with the statue will have a long and happy relationship,” Fluttershy said softly.
“It's a brand new statue, how can she know that? And besides, most interspecies couples are undertaking their relationship with a pre-understood seriousness and dedication in the face of a manifest difference. Of course they're likely to stay together,” Twilight noted.
“Oh it's just a harmless bit of fun to increase the profile of the town. As I said, she does love this town, that's why we elect her,” Rarity laughed.
“It ain't a bad place fer any couple. It's a right beautiful statue,” Applejack said.
“I agree. They had some good material to work from. The sketches in Larkspur's work effectively constituted the necessary drawings for the production of a full body statue. There was less available for her, but a few paintings and descriptions were uncovered, being that she was a noblemare. The sculptors did a good job putting it together. I thought it was a nice touch that they actually incorporated the stone hyacinth and the real one,” Twilight said, closing her book and moving over to be with her friends.
“Why don't I get a statue for doing all that work?” Rainbow Dash grumped, pulling out her book and flipping through it to the dedication page. “Sure, I got my name here at the front but I had to dig up a bunch of dead bodies.”
“Two, it was two dead bodies and ah helped ya,” Applejack noted, giving Dash a light shove. “'Sides, if Twilight's right that's what yer supposed ta do if yer like Darin' Do.”
“The Daring Do books have been lying to my face behind my back from the very beginning,” Dash said with a slam of her hoof. “Sure I got chased by a stone-covered Diamond Dog ghost and got fire tossed at me by an evil pony spirit but where was the vine swinging, the death traps and the exotic location? I didn't even get to pick up a priceless ancient artifact.”
“Larkspur's cornuscript is fairly priceless...” Twilight said.
“But we found that one!” Pinkie interrupted. “You, um, found the bones. That's pretty priceless too.”
“Alright, I found the bones of a murder victim and helped to solve a crime that's been hidden for centuries. But the author needs to go back into the Daring Do series and put in a few chapters of Daring digging in the sun, brushing off everything that looks like a bone and having to deal with loads of questions from government ministers.”
“It weren't that bad, sugarcube. The Colonial authorities jes wanted ta make sure we'd been treatin' Heliotrope's bones with the respect they deserved. At least they ain't gonna make us dig 'em up again,” Applejack said with a chuckle.
“But why not? Oh! I don't mean to say I think we should disturb Larkspur and Heliotrope again, since they seemed to be so happy together but... shouldn't they have taken Heliotrope to The Beneath?” Fluttershy asked.
“It's exactly because Heliotrope and Larkspur are together that they're leaving him,” Twilight answered. “He was buried by Larkspur, which fit with local traditions. He probably would have requested it. And since he ended up with her, he was obviously supposed to stay with her.”
“Everyone got what they deserved. Ah even heard they stuck it ta that nasty father a-hers,” Applejack said.
“It's true. Princess Celestia informed me about it. He held his title to the end and was buried in accordance with his rank. It was determined he was unworthy of that title at the time, for a variety of reasons. He was posthumously stripped of his rank and his grave moved to an undisclosed location for exiles and general heretics,” Twilight said.
“Serves him right, the brute!” Rarity said firmly.
“His title was transferred to Larkspur, as would have been the appropriate action at the time. For all the good it does her now, she's properly Baroness Larkspur. I guess it's best to do good things, even late,” Twilight said with a shrug.
“I had heard they were even going to marry them! Have some big ceremony and a wedding for them even though they've been dead for a long time,” Pinkie said, tapping thoughtfully on her chin. “I've never thrown a wedding reception for a dead pony/Dog pair. That would have been fun. And cute. They were going to get married anyway, it was obvious.”
“Given the tender descriptions in the work, you're probably right,” Twilight said. “And it would mean that Heliotrope would be installed Baron Heliotrope, retroactively the first noble Diamond Dog.”
“Speaking of weddings, guess who has had a venue change for theirs,” Rarity said.
“Doctor Soft Heart and Labradorite,” Dash said with a huff. “I know that because she put in a rush order for clear skies over the statue, and I didn't even get invited.”
“Ya certainly didn't. But ah did and yer mah plus-one,” Applejack said with a smug look. “Glad ah took all them cotillion classes. Now ah know how ta lead a proper dance.”
“Wait a minute, how did you get an invite? And what do you mean 'lead'?” Dash asked, incredulous.
“Surprised the hay outta me too. Turns out th' doc wanted ta invite us because of what happened ta Winona, Gummy, Angel an' Opal. And fer solvin' that old mystery and showin' Dogs 'n' ponies've been fallin' in love right from the start. She knew ah'd be takin' ya; saves on invitations if she just says plus one and knows who it'll be,” Applejack said, giving Dash a kiss on the snout. “And as fer leadin', yer mah plus-one. Ah'll be leadin' ya all over the dance floor.”
“That is how it works, Dash,” Twilight said, giving Pinkie a squeeze. “I'm Pinkie's plus-one, and I don't mind at all that she'll be the one leading the dance. Just... as long as it's not the Pony Pokey.”
“It's the Chicken Dance,” Pinkie said with a nod. “I wanted to do the Piggie Dance but I thought I'd save that for the Cake twins' birthday.”
“I think we'll be getting in some supplemental learning. I don't know how to do a chicken dance. And I'll have to teach you the proper formal steps for the spotlight dances,” Twilight said, rubbing snouts with Pinkie.
“It ain't so bad, Pinkie, it's jes the dancin', ya ain't gotta be trained how ta sit down, be quiet an' use the right fork,” Applejack said, bitterness creeping into her voice.
“You really don't want to be a deb, do you?” Dash asked.
“Not even if ah had the chance,” Applejack said firmly. “But at least ah can be cultured at events like this. And ah know how ta get around Granny's fancy table, and ah can help ya when ya start ta go under.”
“Where do you even keep all that silverware? Is there a vault in your house?” Dash asked with some exasperation.
“It's a perfectly lovely day, and we all have a brand new book. What say we sit under the statue of author and subject and give it a look?” Rarity asked, using magic to open the door.
Following agreeable mumbles and nods the six mares took off from the library and wound their way through the streets of Ponyville. They arrived at a small park-like space near the edge of town leading out in the direction of the gem fields. On a stepped pedestal there stood the new statue.
Both Heliotrope and Larkspur had been carefully rendered, according to the best information available to the sculptors. Both were clad in stone versions of period-appropriate attire, Heliotrope with his rough vest and crude collar, Larkspur in a more formal dress. They were locked in a sideways embrace, heads pressed together while they looked out with love on the scene before them. The magic hyacinth had been sealed in a glass globe and carefully melted into position behind Heliotrope's ear, while the stone version of the same was held in Larkspur's free foreleg.
The benches around the statue were all occupied by ponies and others who had a similar idea about what to do with the day. The six mares spread themselves out through the area, as couples, and settled down on available grassy spaces. They then cracked the books and began to look through them, with Pinkie and Twilight sharing her copy.
While they shared, Twilight idly scribbled out a note, inspired by her vision of the statue.
Dear Princess Celestia,
Time has passed since the events of that night, and now I finally have time to see the fruits of solving the mystery come about. There is much joy here, and the Principality is celebrating the ancient love, even though they once knew nothing at all about it.
Learning made it so, but learning also helped my dear friend Rarity. As a filly she was frightened by the Fiend, and that fear lingered into her adult years. But she was not scared of the Fiend, she was scared of his mystery, the unknown nature that was part of him being simply a mysterious figure.
When Rarity learned what he was, what he had done, she wasn't afraid anymore. She was angry, and with good reason. Knowing what he was destroyed her fear and gave her the courage to confront the stallion and take him to task for the terrible things he had done.
Fearing the unknown is very natural, but that doesn't mean it's right. We learned that lesson many times over, personally and nationally. About Zecora here in Ponyville, about buffalo in Appleoosa, about Changelings after the invasion... about Diamond Dogs, such that now we're planning a wedding that would have been the ideal of the two folks by whose statue I currently sit. Learning changed minds, and hearts.
Baron August was worried about his daughter leaving, but there was also the fear of a being he didn't understand. Larkspur understood. Had she taught him... there could have been a long line of noble Dog-sired folks. Ponyville wouldn't exist but that would be fine. Lives would have been created, not destroyed.
To learn is to erase fear. Fear of unknown cultures, unknown sapient species, unknown figures, just the unknown in general. Erasing fear makes life more harmonious. Learn... and laugh. Laughter removes fear too. They're reciprocal. A beautiful and harmonious thing.