Trixie thought the amulet she'd bought would bring her vengeance. It brought her something else, something much more important. An audience.
Trixie wasn't sure if it was when she purchased that artifact with her last bit, or when she found herself wandering into a ruined shrine in the woods that she first went astray, but astray she certainly had gone. And now she was standing under an alien sky, empty of Luna's moon, or Celestia's sun.
Trixie was afraid that if she was not the guest of this dark and monstrous lord, she would find herself something much, much worse.
So it it was showtime. Time to earn her keep, her welcome. Because she'd rather be a guest to lunch, than the first course at dinner.
Though she might not want to admit it, it had been too long since she had a captive audience.
And who could be more captive than a Lord of Shadows entombed in a half-tartarus doom-world?
The first thing Trixie would like to establish, before saying anything more, is that there was no thieving father at the root of this particular rose-bush. Trixie was not the victim of a larcenous progenitor, or a foolish parent. Trixie's parents are prosperous, alive, and living in smug retirement outside of Boca Pastern. No, Trixie got into this mess all on her own.
Revenge, simple, red-eyed, squalid vengeance was what animated Trixie's purchase of the dubious artifact she found in a sketchy back-alley pawnshop in the stews behind the Ministry of Cuddles in Lower Canterlot City.
She had no real idea what the evil-looking thing did, but it was so red and shiny, that it had to be of some use in putting that Princess's pet in her - well, the problem was that Sparkle was already in her place, wasn't she?
Not that Sparkle's place belonged to Trixie, Trixie hastens to add. She did not mean to imply such a thing. No, if overpowered purple throne-sniffers must have a place in this peculiar world, a library-tree in an obscure tourist-trap like Ponyville is better than some alternatives, and honestly, Sparkle can keep it.
But that miserable brat had done worse than show up the Great and Powerful Trixie. This happened, from time to time. It was the lot of an itinerant illusionist, to be occasionally embarrassed before a crowd. No, Sparkle let Trixie's sole possession be destroyed. She had to have known that damn bear was lurking out there. How could a Princess's student live next door to Tartarus on Earth and not keep a complete inventory of the hellbeasts that lurked in the neighboring dark forests?
And Trixie's destroyed home must. be. avenged.
Thus, the amulet. The shiny, red and black amulet, glimmering like someone had caught evil in a stone and locked it within a blackened cold-iron cage. Trixie almost fell in love with the simple look of it, that sleekness, that combination of rigidity and smooth gem surfacing... But Trixie was able to put on a disinterested look for the benefit of the decrepit shopkeeper and his equally creepy pawnshop. At least, Trixie thought it was a pawnshop? The signage was inconclusive.
In fact, now that Trixie thinks back on it, she’s not at all sure the shop had any signs or name-plates at all. And she struggles to tell you the address, beyond ‘a block and a half behind the ministry’.
Trixie will have to return once she’s a free mare again, and give that dotard a piece of her mind. Honest business-stallions have no business retailing something as ancient and dangerous as that amulet.
Not that she gave a hoot in the moment. Revenge burned brighter than stars, hotter than the sun, weighed heavier than mountains. And after that moment?
Trixie’s purse was much, much lighter than mountains. Or rocks, or stones, or pebbles for that matter. When she left that curio shop, or pawnbroker’s, or whatever it was behind, Trixie didn’t have enough bits to her name to buy an order of hayfries.
So of course she snuck onto a westbound train out of Canterlot station. Not that she had any particular destination in mind, she just felt that… she needed to get as far away from that shop as she could possibly get.
Trixie tends to not dwell on things she has done. It interferes in the performance when she has to sell a given story for the audience. Better to believe with all of your heart whatever story you’re currently telling. If you believe, the crowd will believe right along with you. So, to reflect the dream as it is woven, one must be an unblemished mirror.
Trixie is as empty as silverglass when it comes time to reflect an audience’s expectations back at them.
And speaking of silverglass and reflections, seemings and appearances are what the Great and Powerful Trixie! excels in performing. She slipped onto that train without a single conductor spotting her, and she took an unoccupied seat in the serene knowledge that she would not be required to pay for her passage, any more than the last thirty times she had dead-headed on the Royal Rails.
And of course that was when Trixie fell asleep, lulled to unconsciousness by the rocking of the rail-car along the long, gentle slopes that stretch of railway meandered down out of the Canterlot highlands into the alpine meadows of the provincial back-country. You can’t hold Trixie accountable for this lapse – she hadn’t really gotten much in the way of sheltered sleep since she’d left Rock Valley. And that rail car had been very warm, toasty even.
Which is why it was such a shock to be forcibly awoken by an incensed conductor demanding to know where the Great and Powerful Trixie got off, hiding on his rail-car.
And he showed Trixie exactly where she got off, as he mare-handled her right out the back of the train, and out onto the rushing tracks, with not a single thought given to a delicate unicorn’s safety or well-being!
Oh, fine. The train was barely going faster than a brisk gallop, and Trixie didn’t get more than a bruise or two, but it was the principle of the thing!
While Trixie was rolling across the tarry sleepers and the gravel of the railbed, the amulet spilled out of her saddlebags. When she came to a stop, Trixie found herself staring at her now-most-precious-possession, dangling by its gold chain off of the end of her horn in front of her crossed eyes.
What did the world have against Trixie? Had she crossed a gypsy crone and not noticed? Had she stolen candy from foals one too many times?
Oh, what? It was part of a stage routine, Trixie swears. And the foals were given the candy ahead of time, it was all part of the game.
Even if Trixie did end up enjoying a truffle or two in front of the large-eyed moppets. Those kids always reaped a proper harvest afterwards. Nopony ever suspected the put-upon urchins whom the big bad showmare had shaken down for candy in front of a disapproving crowd.
Trixie and the triplets only pulled that routine on the most insufferable and cheap of towns. And they’d eventually aged out of the role. Last time Trixie heard, two of the three triplets were in a work camp somewhere near Mareidian, working off petty larceny convictions.
The third? Trixie believes that Lighthoof is happily married to a bailiff in some nameless little burgh in the Smokey Mountains. Nothing sketchy, the triplets worked much 'younger' than they actually were. The appearance of youth is more precious than bits to a pony with the right skills.
The reason that the triplets were on the irrepressible Trixie’s mind at that moment of setback and disarray was because she was well aware that she was in need of co-conspirators. Trixie’s resources had become sharply limited, it was clear, and she was in need of somepony to watch her flank when she couldn’t spare the time for self-admiration.
The Princesses know, when Trixie didn’t have time for self-admiration, the situation was indeed dire.
But, alas, the triplets were unavailable, due to their various engagements, voluntary and otherwise, with Equestrian law-enforcement, and although Trixie was aware of other members of the morally-flexible sisterhood of the road, even Trixie has her standards.
And those yellow-bellied slick-talking con-stallions were as like to leave Trixie holding the bag – cat struggling and clawing through the burlap as enraged villagers descended upon their trail – as help her in her time of need.
And they were far too fond of unreliable gadgetry, anyways. Expensive, dubiously portable gadgetry.
And neither the two-thirds-incarcerated triplets, nor the twins were anywhere to be found upon that sharply sloping mountainside Trixie found herself and her amulet, watching her train rush off into the distance.
And that was when Trixie noticed that the setting sun was setting in the wrong direction. And that this steep slope was not the rolling alpine hillocks that separated Canterlot’s outer boroughs and suburbs from the farm-belt within which Ponyville lurked in wait for unsuspecting show-mares.
Trixie had snuck onto the wrong train.
And had no earthly idea where she was, for that matter. She found herself peering up-slope, trying to identify what massive mound of rocks and dirt she’d gotten herself abandoned upon. The heights were far out of Trixie’s view, but she could see foliage and trees in the ravine running along the lower edge of the slope upon which Trixie was marooned. There was nothing for it but to follow her train in hopes that Trixie could find a path off of the railway before the next train along this route ran her off the tracks and down the precipitous slope.
Trixie gathered her cloak around her, and pulled her hat down on her ears. She’d relied on both in recent days to keep the weather off of her, in lieu of more expensive lodging, but this mountainside looked a good deal more inclement than the roadsides and under-guarded orchards she’d made her pied-a-terre up to this point.
After an hour of increasingly dark and cold mountain hiking, Trixie came across a patchily-overgrown path that crossed the railroad grading and continued downwards into the ravine, offering a smoother descent than the alarming slopes she had passed along the way. Trixie looked uphill, to try and see what dwelling or roadside above the railway had occasioned this mysterious path, but saw nothing but the trail curling out of sight far overhead, disappearing around the foot of an alarming-looking cliff.
So downward it was. Trixie at least wished the comfort of a wind-break, not wanting to be caught out in the open on that rocky slope with a fall storm pushing in behind a front from the – yes, Trixie was quite sure now that storm was coming in from the east. Not that she could see the moon, hidden behind bruised thunder-heads, but Trixie hadn’t gotten turned around enough to forget in which direction the long-gone sun had set.
Trixie barely made it under the upper-most stand of trees at the top of the ravine, before the cloud-burst broke over her heels. She kept moving as quickly as she could in the deep, shadowed darkness of the woods, because the deeper she got into their protection, the less likely Trixie was to be struck by lightning, or hail, or some careless pegasus’s thrown shoe.
Yes, Trixie has heard of ponies who have had that happen to them. But most often, when you look into it, it was actually a turd.
Once Trixie’s hooves started down the incline within the ravine, it was hard to not keep going. So she didn’t. That little night-sight cantrip was useful, though. Trixie shudders to think of what might have happened if she had somehow managed to clothesline herself on a branch, or worse – impale her precious self upon those sharp woody impediments.
Before she knew it, Trixie found herself fetlock deep in a freezing-cold stream at the bottom of the ravine, and used her momentum to drive herself across the waters and up the muddy bank to the far side. There, she laid down, shivering, blowing on her chilled frogs, and cursing all Royal railway employees, earth pony, unicorn, or pegasus.
Eventually some life came back into her lower extremities, and Trixie could spare enough attention to notice a peculiar standing stone in the darkness of the woods, just close enough that she could make it out through the mostly-bare branches. Winter lingered long in these mountain wastelands, long after spring had been welcomed to more pony-friendly lands, and late spring in the mountains was harder on a pony than it was in the lowlands.
Trixie got back up on her hooves, and crept through the stillness towards the strange, tall stone. Faintly, in the distance and far overhead, she could hear the pitter-patter of rain, and the howling of a far-away wind, but down here among the trees and the – stones? Here there was silence.
And there were multiple stones, boulders – pillars of bluestone three times the height of an adult pony. As Trixie circled around the one she had spotted initially, she realized that the stone’s siblings were spread out in a rough curve, one each on either side of the first bluestone. As she passed inside the curve of the stone-line, she saw on the far side, the curve concluded in a circle, with two – no three more piles of stone set on their heels in a – yes, indeed, a true circle.
Trixie stumbled through the darkness as a few droplets fell into this open space, which somehow had been kept clear of the tangle of trees, brush, and vines which tangled the woods in all other directions. The droplets grew fatter and louder with each moment Trixie spent staring wide-eyed at the circle of stones around her.
Then she tripped over the central altar. In Trixie’s defense, it was much shorter than the high stones which encircled it, and was made of some less flashy material. Trixie thinks. And it was when Trixie tripped backwards against this altar, that the damned amulet broke free of its saddlebag home yet again, and clattered against the top of the circular altar.
And the amulet, with its alicorn stylings and baleful red-stone gleam, was not satisfied to simply be evil-looking and expensive. No, it chose at this moment to glare with all the fires of Tartarus, a bright and dark mottling of reddish light which lit up the entire clearing, the entire temple. Trixie’s eyes were dazzled by the unexpected glow, and her night-vision spell was ruined.
Which made the flicker of ghost-lights just behind her left flank all the more startling. Trixie picked up her evil trinket in her blue horn-glow, and spun to meet whatever threat had emerged from the spooky forest-ruin-thingie.
But nothing was there. Just one of the great bluestones, its native bluish rock-face looking purplish in the red glare of the amulet. Trixie felt her eyes narrow in suspicion at this decision upon the part of some ruins-ghast to hide from her righteous fury, and looked side to side, to see if she could spot where it had gone.
And that’s when two different ghostly figures appeared in Trixie’s peripheral vision, standing upon the throne-like depressions in front of two of the stones on opposite sides of both the altar, and Trixie, crouched defensively on top of that altar.
And so long as Trixie didn’t let her eyes focus on the spirits, she could sort of make them out, standing still and staring at her with their wicked ghost-eyes. A great bearded earth stallion, to her left, and just behind her, an ancient and wrinkled eastern unicorn with more wrinkles than the oldest pony Trixie had ever seen in her life. In the very back of Trixie’s peripheral vision, she thought she saw ghost-glows of two additional figures behind her tail, corresponding to the rearmost pillar-stones. Directly to her right and in her front, Trixie’s stillness allowed the final two ghosts to emerge from the red-slashed darkness, and a slightly less ancient-looking bearded unicorn mage in a tasteless hat crouched in front of her, his mouth moving soundlessly. Next to him, a dumb-looking pegasus in archaic Pegalopolisan armor stood stoically, holding an odd-shaped shield in front of him.
Trixie’s grasp on the alicorn-amulet tightened, as the darkness congealed around the flanks of the suddenly shining-bright ghostly figures, and then the old unicorn stallion’s eyes flashed some indescribable color, and then, the whole world was that color.
And while Trixie stood still, trying to describe to herself what exact color it was that had washed everything away – everything came back.
Except it wasn’t everything. It was – a twilight. A half-lit noble’s garden. And above Trixie wasn’t a forest, but an empty, grey sky.
And in front of her, was a statue of that damned bearded unicorn, his stupid hat with its stupid bells hanging stone-ishly above her, three times as tall as life.
And it began to occur to Trixie, that perhaps she wasn’t in Equestria anymore.
Trixie sat in front of the statue of Beardo, the Magnificent, and thought to herself, well, at least Trixie’s not cold anymore. The light she and the statue sat in was a creepy sort of half-light, more than a little green, with a distant red glare somewhere out of Trixie’s line of sight. There were sickly whitish bushes and growth in orderly squared-off plantings all around Trixie’s hooves, stretching into the greenish gloom in all directions. Except behind the statue of Beardo.
Behind Beardo, was nothing. Not darkness, not shadows, not depths nor obscurity – nothing. A deadness that made Trixie leery of testing that deadness with hoof or magic. She strongly suspected that she’d lose whatever she thrust into that nothingness.
Trixie was eyeing a stick, and pondering using it to probe the nothingness when her alert ears caught the slightest sound of… wailing.
Barking? Howling. A strange wavering noise that certainly prophesied nothing good heading Trixie’s way. Trixie immediately started searching her environs, looking for a solid wall or a barrier upon which she could place her vulnerable rear, so that whatever was making that horrid noise wouldn’t have access to her vulnerable nethers.
All she found was a low stone-edged planter, and she cuddled up against it, her horn alit, and her eyes everywhere at once, looking for the source of the predatory-sounding noises.
And as Trixie crouched, glaring into the half-light, her vigilance was rewarded.
A pair of shadows coursed into the part of the garden Trixie could see. They sniffed, like dogs, or wolves. But they were nothing but bits of shadow and darkness, shifting slightly as she watched them. There didn’t look to be any flesh and bone beneath that swirl of darkness. Just shadow teeth, and darkened mouths…
Then they caught Trixie’s scent, and sprang in her direction.
And a third, unseen, leaped over Trixie and her planter-box, landing on paws of darkness and smoke. Too close!
And that’s when Trixie’s magic pulled the little tab which set off the pyrotechnics embedded in the fabric of her cloak and hat, which burst in a flare of terrible light right through the shadow-beast which had gotten within biting range of Trixie’s precious, bitable flesh.
The shadow-beast burst apart like it was nothing at all – a fragment of dimness dispelled by Trixie’s fireworks, which continued, sparking and flaring across the suddenly-brightly-lit garden. Trixie’s dazzled eyes barely registered the other two shadow-beasts as their tattered forms fled the sudden burst of light.
They didn’t actually yelp as they fled, but Trixie was more than happy to interpret the noises they did make in that vein.
Then… a thump. And another thump. And more in sequence, as if a very, very large monster was approaching through the green-and-red-lit shadows and mist. And it was growing increasingly misty – Trixie’s fireworks seem to have drawn out a damp mist from the soil and leaves around her, so that she could see much less further than she had, initially. Only the shadowy bulk of Beardo the Magnificent was still sort of visible in Trixie’s immediate vicinity.
The thumping noises continued, until they were clearly the sounds of something large and dangerous moving through the mist. Something far too large moving through the mist.
And then Trixie saw it. Saw – her? Trixie saw the horn first, jagged and terrible. Then a wing, flicked out in agitation, then the other. Alicorn? And then it grew closer.
And that muzzle – nothing Trixie had ever seen had ever boasted a jaw that square, and yet managed to be female.
A male alicorn?
Then it came closer by several more heavy, earth-shaking hoof-steps, and Trixie abandoned all hope of alicornic beneficence. This was no alicorn, no kindly immortal mistress of the Sun, or the heavens, or the star-studded night, or frilly, foolish adoration and crushes and other soft-hearted stuff.
This was Tartarus’s critique of princessdom. This was Hades’ mockery of the alicornic ideal.
This was a Beast.
"Show yourself, Equestrian! I can smell you!" The Beast said this in a voice like stone grinding itself into gravel, a tumble of boulders falling down a slope towards whomever heard it. A doom in vocal cadence, a promise of on-rushing obliteration.
Trixie does not like to admit it, but she may have made a noise. Even squeaked a bit. It was enough, however quiet or dignified the noise she had made, that the Beast turned her way.
She was discovered.
So Trixie gathered what dignity she had remaining to her account, and she raised herself to her full height, and stepped away from her rampart, such as it was. She looked up, at the blackness enshrouded in billowing grey mists and shadow, and did her best to answer her doom in a dignified manner.
"Trixie is most certain that she does not stink. She will admit that it has been a day or two since her last bath, but she has been most careful to not soil herself. Retract your calumny, Lord Shadow!"
The Beast was upon Trixie before she could blink. His hot breath bathed her in yet more steam, and he leaned over her small frame like a wolf might loom over a rabbit.
But Trixie was no rabbit.
"Stand your ground, your Lordship! Trixie the Great and Powerful may not stand as tall as you do, nor does her breath reek of the charnel-house and the abattoir as yours does, but she is powerful, and respected in her own right! Give Trixie her due space!" Trixie accompanied this last sentence with a series of pokes with her left hoof, the alicorn-amulet floating in her magic behind her.
And in a moment of miracle, the Beast retreated a step, and then another, with a look of confusion on its great, terrible muzzle, which resembled a nightmarish mastiff’s mug more than that of a pony.
"Wh-what?" ground out the Beast. "You – you are what you smell like."
It smelled her, closing its eyes in a sort of confused concentration. "No, you are not… not a delusion. I… I think? Say something I wouldn’t expect, phantasm!"
"What? How in Celestia’s name could Trixie possibly know what you expected a delusion to say, Lord Shadow? Do you have an actual name Trixie could use? The Great and Powerful Trixie feels somewhat awkward, repeating herself in this fashion."
"Who- are you talking about somepony else? Who is Trixie?"
"Trixie you see before you, Lord Shadow! Showpony extraordinary, marvel of magic, exemplar of unicornic power and brilliance! Known from here to Trottingham and far Kludgetown, Trixie is mistress of all illusions and imaginings!" Trixie took the chance offered, and fired off another small fireworks squib with this last exclamation. It was possible that the shadow-Beast might interpret it as a threat or an attack, but Trixie felt confident that this great Beast was not to be banished by pyrotechnics and flash-pan displays.
After Trixie was done cringing from the flash, the Beast was still there, looking down at her, perplexed.
"I’ve never heard of any of those places. Can you… say something more? Where is… Trottingham?"
And then Trixie knew she had the Beast.
Or, at least, he wasn’t about to eat Trixie. Which was progress.
Trixie was in no danger of running out of places she could claim to have visited, and towns she had wowed with her stunning performance. And the most of them weren't even lies; Trixie truly had been on the road off and on for the past sixteen years, ever since coming to that little disagreement with her big sister and her stuffy lump of an earth-pony husband.
Trixie's line of patter nearly stuttered there, she can tell you, as her description of her long and storied journey across the length and breadth of proud Equestria wandered too close to stories about her sister's theater-troupe and Trixie's less than successful experiment in working for family. The Beast, who had begun striding through the great Tartarus-garden into the interior of this… whatever it was, looked down at Trixie's showmare self, a great eyebrow of tenumbral shadow crooked upwards at her accidental pause.
"Well! And at that crossroads, Trixie proceeded to the great maretropolis of Baltimare, while some individuals returned to the uncultured backwaters of southern Horseshoe Bay, and the Hayseed Swamps. You cannot imagine how poor the pickings are in those waterlogged hamlets, although they stretch southward along the eastern coast forever and a day!"
"Now that," ground out the Beast in a tolerantly amused gravel of verbal grit, "is the first set of place-names I have recognized in half a watch's time. And the Hayseed Swamps hide a proud if damp nation of bog-trotters. I have known many a fine bog-pony to come from that marshy land."
"A watch? How long is that, Lord Shadow? It has a very old-timey sound to it, 'watches'. Almost naval! Trixie likes it."
"A watch is a watch, Dame Trixie." The great lord of shadows had given her a title! The courtesy warms Trixie's cockles even now, in remembrance. You don't give titles to ponies you plan on having for lunch -- progress! "It contains a fraction of a glass, which I can be confident in saying, is more or less three full days' time. We make our own time here, Trixie."
The great Beast looked upwards through the mist that he and Trixie were walking, towards no sun in the sky, no stars or moons – and barely sky at all, if Trixie were pressed to describe it. Definitely not a cavern ceiling, that much Trixie was… mildly confident in stating?
"For there would be no time, if I did not make it." And here, their civilized conversation was interrupted with a most civilized booming bell-like noise that echoed strangely through the mist, a round and glassy tone, which was followed by another tone of lower pitch, and then a series of musical intonations in the general shape of a rather crude tune. One that Trixie thought she might vaguely recognize, if she hadn't had something of a dead ear for music.
What! No pony's experience and talents are so broad as to have universal application! And Trixie is not ashamed to admit that she only knows two tunes, and one is 'Donkey Doodle Dandy', and the other is not. Trixie can carry a tune in a bucket, with accompaniment and the aid of others, and seven times out of ten, most of the music will not end up slopped out all over the stage. But if given her druthers, Trixie would prefer to work with a proper musician, and limit Trixie's participation to an approving hum, which any given audience will generally interpret as a good-faith effort to participate in the public ritual of, bah! Song!
"Ah," ground out the Beast in his death-of-boulders rumble. "A full watch, ended. I would show you the time-machine, but I have obligations and duties, and while you are easily the most novel thing to enter our world in far, far too many glasses, there are matters which cannot, must not be delayed for mere novelty. Follow me. Or do not, I do not care overmuch."
The Beast changed direction, following a lane at an angle from our previous line of advance, and Trixie scrambled to keep up with her host, looking around her as apple-trees emerged from the mist.
"Ah, good, you're keeping up. I fear if the Harriers tried to eat you again, they might develop some sort of indigestion. You upset them enough as it is, I can hear one or two of them following us, snuffling in outrage and frustration."
Now that the Beast mentioned it, Trixie thought maybe she heard it too, a sad and alarming animal echo to their echoing hoof-steps, and perhaps paw-steps in not-at-all-an-echo? Trixie hurried to put the Beast between her and the unseen 'Harrier' in the mist.
"Oh, I wouldn't worry. I don't think one of the Harriers has actually harmed another pony in, well, a great long while. Who knows what they remember, or why they attack, or why they just lurk about, waiting for who knows what?"
"My Lord of Shadows, what is a Harrier, and why shouldn't Trixie be wary of such… things? They seem rather to have large and sharp teeth, whatever else they might be."
"Ha!" laughed the Beast like a shower of pebbles across a hillside. "When it comes to that, their fangs are shorter than mine, and a little nip will generally keep order in the herd. That, that is a much longer story, for another time, for here we are."
Trixie looked up at a monstrous great black face, nothing but empty white blotches where eyes should have been, and a blackened outline where Trixie's intuition would put a muzzle. The Beast's general shape was that of a pony, but built on a vast scale, and of uncertain and nebulous materials. But Trixie could swear that if a penumbral shadow could look pensive, that shadow-face had managed it.
Trixie looked around the great shadow's haunch, and discovered that they had approached a dwelling while she had been distracted by talk of tartarus-beasts and their master. A very modest place, this little hut, ancient in design, fully thatched and looking rather like something Trixie had once seen in a display on ancient archeo-ponies after sneaking into a museum.
She'd had quite the afternoon, before the guards grew too numerous, and before Trixie had to make an exit lest somepony asked her to pay for her amusement. Or worse, tried to get her involved in the clever theft which had, quite coincidentally, occurred during her visit to said museum of art and history.
Trixie pauses to note this, as explanation for why she was not at all surprised when a living, quite normal, pony in exceedingly archaic garb came stumping out of the hovel to greet her Lord of Shadows. Although Trixie will admit that she was surprised when said peasant-pony proceeded to berate the great Beast in tones similar to an old nanny chiding her one-time charge.
"Stygian! Ye left us aloyn again! Almost an entire glass, an dae I see hoof nur hair of yer lairdly hide in my orchards? I told you last time, I cannae maintain these bludy trees withit somepone tae tend them in all the glasses aam nae aroond fur on accoont ay nae existing!" The old mare's accent was thicker than that of a Griffish tenant-farmer, and Trixie struggled to keep up with the conversation between the peasant, one 'Mistress Malus', and her dark overlord. Who apparently had been neglectful in tending to the peasant-pony's orchards and their precious fruit.
Which Trixie gathered was prone to… 'milk-rot' in these challenging agricultural environs? Honestly, Trixie failed to understand how fruit-trees stayed alive in that eternal half-night, let alone how they managed to fruit in the absence of any sort of sunlight. The wonders of that peculiar half-world were only beginning to dawn upon Trixie.
Which was good, because it was also beginning to occur to Trixie that she had perhaps seen her last dawn, as she'd gathered from the tone of the conversation that the sun never, ever shined on this land. Or world.
Trixie always struggled with these sorts of terms and descriptions. It's always best to use the natives' terminology on the stage, it breeds a camaraderie between audience and performer. But that was difficult when one's encounters with a prospective audience was one pony at a time, and conducted in a brogue peatier than the muck of a Hayseed Swamps rice-fen.
At last, the tenant was done with her beration of her lordship, and said great lord looked down at his Apple, and sort of smiled. If the toothy exposure of a great maw in a swirling black mist of a face could be called a 'smile'.
"Come, Mistress Malus. Our time is coming close. Shall I return you early, and leave you in your home to await your next glass? Or would you accompany us to collect the other furloughs, so that you all might go together when you go?"
"Us, us? Oo is 'us'?" barked the old peasant, looking around the shadowy leg of the Beast. She had not even noticed Trixie's bright coat in all the time she'd been sniping at the Beast! Trixie is still offended at the lapse, although if pressed she'd have to admit that nothing really stood out in that heavy, deadening mist and half-dark, half light gloom.
Trixie knew at that moment, that she would have to work twice as hard to claim the attention of these ponies. It was an existential imperative!
"The Great And Powerful Trixie, a visitor to your proud land and your lovely home, greets you, Mistress Malus! Rejoice, for you have been visited by-"
And the sour old biddy cut Trixie dead! She turned to the great Beast, and said, amazingly, "Look 'er, yer pointy-eadedness, it's aw weel an' guid tae play silly buggers wi' yer magic, but enoogh's enaw! Stopit wi' th' weirdings! It's nae healthy!"
"Truly, Mistress Malus, if this mare is an illusion, it isn't one my mind is projecting."
"Gaw, go awn wid ye! Look at 'er! Is she something' yoo'd fin' haur in Hades?"
"Mistress, I've told you before, I've done the calculations. This is almost certainly not Hades, or anything like it. If it were, would I be left in charge by whatever shade-king commands the place?"
"Och, come on, wee lairdlin', yoo're mair worth than ye gie yerself. Ye make a proper laird ay Hades, ye dae. Makes us aw prood tae see ye groon up sae."
"Excuse me," interjected your narrator. "I'd like to get back ta thees - er, to this business of me not being real. I truly am a pony. Here, see?" And I did a little bit of the old Somnambulan rope-trick with a bit of knotted cloth I kept in a pocket of the back of my hat for the purposes of random prestidigitation.
"Fie! As if a wee bit ay unicorn hornswagglin' woods prove yoo're real. Lookit ye, phantasm, yoo'd better dae better than thes."
"Ah, then, a confirmed neighsayer! A challenge!" Trixie tapped her chin, thus, as she pondered her options. "Can a phantasm pull a bit out of your ear like this?" and so Trixie did.
"Ooh, isnae 'at bonnie? What's th' wee squiggles on it? I dornt recognize th' coinage! But producin' coin frae naethin' still proves naethin'!"
"Well, fair enough, how's about this? The Brave and Powerful Trixie could show you how she once trounced a terrible Ursa Major, using only her wits and vast unicorn magic!" And Trixie began to fire up the old slide-show so worn from use that it damn near had developed a sienna tint, even in the glow of her powder-blue magic.
But instead of watching Trixie's clever illusion of star-bears and brave unicorn fillies in terrible battle, the old mare was staring at her own hoof, which perhaps was more grey than the rest of her in that perpetual half-light.
"Och, Ah dornt hae time fur yer dumb-shows, ghostlin'. Lookit this, laird! Me hoof! Time's a burnin', yer grace!"
"Fine! Fine! Trixie knows when she's not wanted. Be that way!" Trixie was having fun, and was hopeful of more challenges, but sadly, the old mare had lost interest and didn't want to play anymore.
"Aye? An' I will be thes way, coz it is as I am an' I ever will be. If I dornt let th' shadow-curse gie me first. Laird, aam ready tae gang, sod th' others, aam in nae muid fur further company." The ancient Malus took a pose, as if she was expecting somepony to take her picture. "An' best hurry tae the rest, they'll be in their ain trooble suin."
The great Beast bowed his head, and suddenly the billowing grey tendrils which had been lazily flowing about his great bulk straightened and grew sharp, like razors. They reached out stiffly, as Trixie had observed in some of the larger species of spiders when they labored to bind up a struggling insect or fly that had fallen into their web. And like those spiders, the Lord of Shadow took hold of his vassal, and did something peculiar, tugging, twisting – and then piercing the smug-looking mare right through her chest and barrel!
The assaulted peasant reacted not at all, as the shadow-tendrils slashed through her with a terrifying violence, and Trixie fell back on her haunches screaming in absolute horror.
And just like that, the peasant-pony was gone. Without gore, without a noise, but for a small gem-like stone which fell from where she had been standing, a sharp little clatter as it landed upon the flagstone in front of her hovel's front door.
"Well, blast," said the great Beast, looking down at the bit of obsidian its tendrils had dropped upon the front-stoop of the house. "Just call me butter-feathers. I hope she didn't chip. Do you see any chips, Dame Trixie?"
The shadowy monster turned his shadow-head around, to query Trixie's opinion of the rock which he transformed a living pony into, and discovered that your narrator was paralyzed with horror and fear.
"Oh. Oh, bollocks. No, wait, I can explain," said the great Beast in a whining, wheedling tone that completely and totally failed to match the terrible portentous substance of the horror he had just perpetuated in front of what Trixie can tell you was one thoroughly perturbed show-pony.
"Explain what? That's murder! You killed somepony! You killed my audience! Look at that, it doesn't even look like a pony anymore! Stay away, keep away, Trixie has not gotten this far, only to be reduced to a bit of dragonglass!"
And Trixie put on her evil pendant of doom. If she was going to be murdered for her shiny, most rock-like qualities, she would go down fighting.
The Lord of Shadows took one step closer to Trixie, as her eyesight cleared, and the fog burned away before her amazed eyes.
No! Your narrator thought to herself, not one more step further!
"Keep your distance, you audience-murdering Beast! Not one more step!"
"Now, now Dame Trixie, this is all a big mis-"
"No closer, I tell you! I have an amulet, and I know how to use it!"
In truth, Trixie had no idea how the blasted thing worked, or if it were working at all. She rather thought it seemed to be sharpening her sight, which was more than all her night-sight cantrips had done, ever since she'd been transported to this unsettling not-Hades, not-Tartarus, not-anything-in-particular. Trixie could now see all the trees in the murdered Apple's orchards, all the thatching in the mare's tattered roof, and her neighbors' hovels stretching off into the distance. And in the far distance? A crenelated mass of something looming just out of sight, like a castle-wall, if somewhat shorter than what Trixie was accustomed to expect of pony fortifications.
The Beast was clearly visible for the first time, and Trixie angrily eyed his infuriatingly toned and narrow flanks, and the great and broad chest he turned so proudly towards his opponent. His black and wedge-shaped head like a giant's blunted mattock… stared down at her with a comically alarmed expression.
No, no, Trixie was afraid that she couldn't maintain a righteous fury against a fright-mask so sadly self-sabotaging of its own terrible visage. His white, unpupiled eye-splotches were as wide and weepy as if they belonged to a foal too young for the performance, when she fumbled and mis-read the age of the crowd. Trixie hated crying foals. They always got inside her defenses.
Rather than keeping up a head of steam sufficient to power Trixie's way through the danger the Beast presented, she found herself holding back a reassuring, motherly nicker. This gave her pause, because she had come to respect reflex in recent months. The reflexes of performance are powerful, gentlecolts and fillies, and reflex – reflex will carry you through mistake and accident and disaster where simple bravery and nerve will leave you standing poleaxed and waiting for the Ursa Minor to crush you flatter than a bit placed upon a rail tie just ahead of the afternoon freight-express.
"Look, your lord-" started Trixie in what might have been a bit of reconsideration, when their confrontation was interrupted by another distant bell-tone ringing out from what her now-sharper senses could place in the distant fortified tower or house. The cascade of ringing song was somehow more urgent than the previous tune, even to Trixie's still-half-tone-deaf ears and –
The Beast's vulnerability was gone. Just like that, the moment was over. He was a terror again, his protean featureless features now sharpened like a heavy axe-blade.
"I have no time for your foolishness, Dame Trixie. Your servant." And with that, the Beast sprung to Trixie's right, and with three great bounds was out of sight between the trees of the orchard, leaving your narrator blinking and abandoned by her would-be – what? Murderer? Victimizer?
There was a slight growl in the distance of one of the Harriers, no doubt gathering their pride and courage now that their master had left his guest alone, and that broke through Trixie's confusion. She marshalled her righteousness and her self-interest, and justified her actions to herself thus:
"Nopony just walks away from The Great and Powerful Trixie!"
And Trixie ran in the direction the Beast had fled.
She caught up to the tartarus-lord at the edge of a great field of pallid wheat or rye or – look, Trixie is not at all versed in which small grain is which. It was headed, bearded, and the stalks nodded, heavily-burdened. Whatever mad magic made apples grow absent sun and rain, drew from these soils a sickly corn that your poor unicorn-narrator is not equipped to properly identify or describe.
She can tell you of the reaping, though, which had been interrupted by the caroling of the bells, and the appearance of the Beast among the reapers, whose long scythes were left abandoned in the half-cut field, a string of stooks weaving across the slight slope until they came to an end in a spray of half-bound sheaves just behind where the harvest had been interrupted. There were two earth-ponies running through the unharvested stalks, yelling in alarm at the Lord of Shadows.
He met them on the run, his long smoky tendrils reaching out to lance first one, and then the other though the chest. And with that, what had looked like a tall, ugly farming-stallion and a small filly disappeared out of Trixie's sight, the same flash of fell magic lighting up the pale wheat like a flash-pan triggered just off the edge of a stage.
Trixie caught up with the spree-killer not long after that, as he held up two more glittering pieces of obsidian dragon-glass, held with reverence just before a muzzle which looked almost – lonely.
It took the Beast a moment to notice a confused Trixie sitting on her haunches at the edge of the wheat-field, staring at him across the expanse of crushed stalks he had left through the unharvested grain. He began plodding, heavy-hoofed, across the mess he'd made of the grain, the two black stones bobbing in a black-laced grey horn-field behind him.
He came to a stop just inside the half-harvested field, and settled on his great black haunches, sitting like a hunting-hound Trixie had once seen wait on the will of his aristocratic master's whim, dignified and sleek with controlled menace.
"Now," said the Beast, "We have time to discuss matters at our leisure. But!"
He leaned forward, still safely inside the wheat-field, acting as if the meaningless verge between sward and field were an actual barrier.
"Do not presume upon my tolerance when my duty or my ponies are concerned. You put those two in considerable danger by distracting me at exactly the wrong time."
"Danger!" scoffed your narrator. "How much more danger can the dead find themselves, beyond being impaled by mystical lance and reduced to obsidian shards!"
"Argh! No! You continue to misunderstand the situation entirely! They were in peril, and I saved them with far too little time to spare, because I was paying attention to you, Dame Trixie, rather than to my duty."
"You saved them! Marvelous! Trixie has heard of serial killers who firmly believe that their victims are 'saved' by their savagery, but she never thought to encounter such a beast in the smoky flesh! Tell me, my lord, what peril were you saving those poor earth ponies by slaughtering them?!"
"Losing themselves and joining the ranks of the Harriers," ground out the Beast.
Well, that was a heck of a thing to hear. Trixie leaned back on her haunches, and thought that one over.
"Is this a thing that happens here? Was that why the Apple was worried about her hoof?"
"It happens, if I don't take back what I've given quickly enough. The Harriers were once some of our best ponies, good and responsible mares and stallions. Ponies who - look you, let's go collect Mistress Malus and return all of these ponies to their shelves. Easier to show, than to tell."
Trixie couldn't argue with this perfectly conventional artistic assertion, although even now she rebels at the stricture. Trixie loves to tell. It is, in some minor way, her purpose in life.
Trixie's preferences in storytelling aside, she found herself following the great Beast as he returned to the hovel, and we collected the third obsidian stone, chasing away a wayward Harrier which had been sniffing at it in our absence, like a curious dog nosing a bit of spoiled cabbage. One sharp, gravelly bellow later, the Harrier was in flight, and the Malus-stone joined its fellows in orbit around the Beast.
We proceeded towards the distant fortified tower, while Trixie bombarded the Beast with questions which apparently frustrated him more than they amused. But Trixie couldn't find the thread of the mystery before her, and could not contain herself.
"What are those stones?"
"Nopony at the moment. As you saw, they were Short Haft and Mistress Malus and Shook Stack. Some glass, many glasses from now, they will be ponies again. But now, they're pretty stones. Not that I have any control over that."
"Why don't you have this control? Are you not lord in this land?"
"Is your own monarch absolute ruler of time and space in his realm? Do the stones themselves speak at his order, do the stars in the sky dance at his will, do the sun and moon move at his command?"
"In order, no, sort of, and yes, they do, at the Princesses' command, certainly. What manner of devilish worldlet is this, that you'd ask such a silly question?"
"Are you absolutely sure you're from an Equestria? The sun and moon commanded by ponies... wait. What am I remembering?"
Trixie smelled a story in the offing, and kept her boundless curiosity enchained in figurative irons.
"I remember Star Swirl claiming his old council of unicorns did something similar. The rest of us mocked him for his pretensions and arrogance. Until he sent off some sort of magic-scroll message, and the next morning didn't come at all. He left us in pre-dawn gloaming for what must have been three days of night, just to punish us for laughing at him. He really was a bully... wait, what's got you mad again? Did you know your eyes glow red when you're angry?"
Trixie's fury at having been reminded of Beardo the Insignificant was disrupted by this odd claim about her eyes. She summoned a mirror-surface to examine this claim of red-eyes, only to find herself staring at her usual countenance, purple-eyed as always.
"What on earth are you talking about? See, still purple!"
"Yes, of course, it went away as soon as you started up that spell. Why does the mention of Star Swirl - look, there you go again."
This time, Trixie saw it in the still-shining mirror, her beautiful, lovely eyes - which in no manner resemble those of a stallion, and she resents the insinuation which dogged her hooves all through her time in education from the jealous and the ill-intentioned - had turned crimson-red, as had the horn-field maintaining the silvering mist-glass of the mirror-spell. Both dispersed in Trixie's shock, and she stopped following the great Beast, who turned around and waited until your narrator...
Well, until your narrator collected herself. Trixie will say no more on the subject. Where was she?
Ah, yes. The rude Beast kept prodding at Trixie until she admitted some minor... hostility towards her alleged distant relation with he of the obscenely over-inflated reputation, Beardo the Credit-Thief, Beardo the Plagiarist, Beardo the Self-Aggrandizing. All her life, Trixie has labored under the unfair association her idiot relatives insist on trumpeting far and wide, as if being distant descendants of Equestria's greatest fraud and falsehood were anything to be proud of.
"...ever after that, magical kindergarten was an absolute Tartarus, a Sisyphean nightmare of constant laughter and sneering at the weak-horned descendant of the Great Stallion Himself. Buck Star Swirl the Goat-Bearded! Buck him right in his girlish behind!"
Trixie looked up at somewhat conflicted-looking Pony of Shadows, upon whose shifting features angry-looking eyes warred with a rictus which might, on some less terrifying muzzle, have been a grin.
"You're a descendant of Star Swirl? Really?"
"So they claim. Trixie don't see the resemblance, but who would? It has to have been at least a dozen generations, and maybe closer to twenty. It has never been clear to Trixie exactly when Beardo disappeared, nor when these supposed foals of his were born. And she's never cared to examine the damned genealogical scrolls that supposedly prove it. You'd have to ask her mother, Mamma's retirement-hobby turned out to be genealogical research, it is exactly as tedious as it sounds."
"I," grumbled the Beast in his broken-boulder voice, "can. You share a common brow. And dubious taste in hats."
"You take that back! Trixie's hat is marvelous, and notably lacking in bells! Bells are an idiot's decoration in clothing, anyways. Impossible to get anything done on stage if you're constantly jangling every time your head twitches. Defeats the very purpose of prestidigitation."
The Beast snorted, emitting a great wafting cloud of grey curling mist like a dragon of smoke and dusk. Trixie was braced for it to reek of carrion and filth, but instead it smelled of pipe-smoke and sunlit library-stacks.
"That may very well be so, but he was also one of the traitors who trapped me and mine in this half-world so destructive to equine life that I must infuse my essence and power in my followers to preserve them from a terrible fate."
"Well," sighed Trixie, "that explains the lightshow that brought Trixie here. She thought that stiff old toad-torturer looked familiar. She must have run into some sort of – remnant. How did this banishment occur?"
"It seems rather unlikely. I'm not at all certain I've kept perfect records – and we must get to the time-piece now, so please, let us get going now." The Beast interrupted himself, and surged to his hooves, moving away again. Trixie rushed to follow.
"Where was I?"
"Ah, yes. I've had to replace the parts in the time-piece six times over the years, nothing lasts this long, nothing magical, nothing mortal."
"You did," observed Trixie.
"Yes, well, certain bargains create a sort of permanence, but that takes a pony in the core of it all. The remnants of the spell that banished us back in Equestria – it cannot have left traces so long-lived; only the nature of this place maintains the power and the spell, here – it's self-reinforcing, self-renewing. Especially with the souls of the Six bound to the walls of this prison."
The Beast looked sulfurous, reminded of the terms of its banishment, whatever they were – he was being quite vague in Trixie's opinion.
"It's been at least fourteen hundred years, I think," the Beast continued. "One hundred sixty-eight thousand, seven hundred fifty-six – no, fifty-seven turns of the glass since I built the time-piece. And I'm not quite sure how many theoretical turns of the glass that took. Say another hundred to be conservative."
"Ah, definitely pre-Nightfall," said Trixie knowingly, "And definitely, Trixie thinks, before the defeat of Discord?"
"WHAT?" yelped the great Beast, rocked back on his inky hooves, his white eye-splotches almost as wide as when he had been giving Trixie foal-eyes. "HOW? WHY? WHEN?"
Trixie waved her left forehoof, protecting one of her ears with the other forehoof. She worked her jaw a few times, to try to get hearing back in her temporarily-deafened ears.
"Sorry, sorry, but we had suffered – we had scrabbled – prayed, dodged, cheated, lied, sicced him on the griffons, or the yaks, or the buffalo – somepony defeated the great horror?"
"Well, yes, of course. It was the act that made the reputation of the Princesses. They found an artifact of great and godlike power, and challenged the Spirit of Chaos, after many a season's chase through his trail of destruction and ruin. He's imprisoned in stone in the palace gardens in Canterlot City. Escaped briefly a while back, but somepony got him back in his prison, or so Trixie heard, she wasn't in the central provinces at the time."
"Princesses, princesses, you keep mentioning these princesses. What do royal heirs have to do with anything?"
"The Princesses aren't anypony's heirs, unless you count Star Swirl, who's been gone – well, Trixie's still not sure exactly when he disappeared. Nopony agrees on when Beardo went poof. Which really grinds Trixie's gears. That old goat is everywhere! He's the bride at every Equestrian wedding, the corpse at every funeral. He's always somepony's mentor, their teacher, their grand-father, their lover or their opponent. If he didn't displace them entirely from history, stealing now-anonymous ponies' very existence and over-writing their deeds with his bearded, belled image. Trixie cannot prove any of this is true. But how else can you explain the rubbish that filled the books Trixie was made to read by these fool teachers who all seemed to think that Trixie would be thrilled by her ubiquitous, obnoxious ancestor!"
"Dame Trixie, I think we've gotten off-track. Princesses?"
"Oh, yes," blushed Trixie. Don't let anyone tell you that Trixie has never admitted to embarrassment. It happens. Once in a blue moon.
"Princess Celestia. And, Trixie supposes, the new one, Luna. Er, new-ish? She was gone for a thousand years, something about a family squabble, and a banishment to the moon. She's back now. Trixie hears she's got… personality issues. But who doesn't?"
"Those names sound familiar. The little mutants that Star Swirl kept as pets?"
Trixie couldn't help but snicker, picturing the immense dignity of the ancient alicorn, held on a leash and collar like a border collie, her aurora-tail waving enthusiastically and her tongue lolling out.
"Da-damn you for making Trixie laugh! She is a patriotic filly, and will not hear such offenses against the Peytral. No, she won't, though your eyes say otherwise. They're the ones that raise and set the sun and the moon, they're very powerful and dangerous to offend, you know."
"No sun and no moon here, I don't think they're likely to hear any offenses against their vast dignity, Dame Trixie. Feel free to exercise as much lese majeste as might soothe your republican heart." Trixie had been right. The grinning-Beast was a vast improvement on the alarmed and saddened models. How did featureless blackness and empty white eye-splotches find such room for expression?
"So, Star Swirl's rugrats made something of themselves. Fancy that! I had assumed they were just more sad little pegacorns. He called them alicorns, but trust me, I've seen so many failed experiments and errors over the years – wings and a horn almost always signals some fool making a mistake they'll soon regret." The Beast wiggled one of his sharp-pinioned wings, looking sadly at it.
"Are your… wings nonfunctional, your lordship?"
"Oh? Uh, no, not exactly. There's just not much room in here below the permanent roof of clouds overhead. And I got tired of bouncing off of that monotonous mass of cloud-cover. They're tougher than they look."
"That sounds functional to me, your lordship. Why would you think the Princesses were frauds, if you are not?"
"I didn't exactly come by these… honestly, Dame Trixie. Star Swirl claimed he had simply found those fillies, and as I've told you – he lied. Rather a lot. After a while, you just put your trust in what he did, and ignored what he said."
They pulled up in front of a closed gate in the curtain-wall surrounding the squat fortress-tower, and the Beast reached out to open his own gate.
"Here we are. Welcome to the Old Bailey, Dame Trixie. Seat of the Grand Duke of the Shademarch, Lord Protector of Hollow Shades, Emperor of the Inland Empire."
The Beast sighed, melancholy. "Home, home again."
"Let's put my weary subjects to their rest, and redeem the next batch from their sleep. Time must be given her hostages."
The courtyard inside the walls was well-paved with cut stones, but not, perhaps, as well-fitted as they ought to have been. Beyond the roadway between the gate and the fortified door of the tower across the yard, the paving-stones were tangled in ghost-white weeds, and heaved here and there from the runaway growth that had abused and near-wrecked what looked to Trixie like thousands of bits of work that had gone into laying all of that stone.
Trixie knew in her bones just how expensive and precious paving-stone of that quality was; please don't ask why.
The weeds were much the same as those you would find in Equestrian wood-lots the world over, excepting their shocking whiteness. It was as if the world they grew in drew all of the color and vitality from the nettles, the wild roses, and the pigweed which ran riot and rank inside the walls of this sadly neglected pocket-fortress. There was a rather tumbledown barracks barely visible across the tangle of weeds in the yard; from the looks of it, Trixie rather thought it hadn't been occupied in generations.
Or perhaps centuries.
The hoof-prints of those centuries had kept down the weeds between the paving-stones along the path between the gate and the front portal of the fortified tower, but only barely. Trixie was barely able to restrain her irritation at this lack of maintenance.
The great oaken doors swung open like their hinges had been oiled yesterday, and for all Trixie knows they had been. She followed the great Beast as he passed through the portal, and joined him as they marched up the stairs set at a ninety-degree angle to the left, a stone wall opposite the gates undecorated but for a peculiar-looking bronze shield or aegis of archaic pegasus pattern hung in a place of honor at the head-level of the lord of this little castle.
Trixie eyed the aegis to her right as she climbed behind the curling shadows of the Beast. The shield's design tickled something at the back of your narrator's memory, but nothing shallow enough that it sprung immediately to mind. It shone like it was burnished daily, and it didn't have a fleck of verdigris upon its gleaming surface. It could have been cast…
The uneven high stone stairs that led into the tower were wide but cluttered along each side with… stuff. Barrels full of staves and tools shoved up against the inner and outer walls, rolls of half-rotten cloth, banners, battered-looking boxes, precariously piled jars and waxed containers slowly losing their waxing. It had a sort of pack-rat organization, as if somepony had hauled all sorts of supplies into the fortress, and then just left the most of it in the stairwell, as close to the door as they could fit it all, without having to haul them up the steep stairs any further than they had to go.
The Beast lit the sconces along the right wall of the stairwell, casting a sickly, sad grey light over the stairs as they rose. Trixie rushed to catch up to the long strides of the vast-limbed lord, scrabbling in his wake up and over the awkward stones which were as much ladder as stairwell.
A single flight of this led us out of the narrow confines of this cluttered entry-way through another pair of heavy, oaken doors, unbarred and open, and into a vast darkness barely relieved by the dim outside half-light trickling fitfully through the narrow slit-windows Trixie had seen cut into the heavy outer walls of this little donjon. Trixie's eyes barely had time to adjust to the darkness when the Beast repeated his trick with the sconces, and greyfire licked the walls around this great hall, spiraling outwards with the thoughtless, practiced ease of centuries.
It had once been a place of some grandeur and style, an ancient earth-pony-style dining hall with some unicornic grace-notes. Trixie couldn't go so far as to say it had a high ceiling, as this was not exactly true, the roof-line bulged downwards here and there overhead where apartments had been set in the corners of each of the confluences of the heavy masonry walls, thinner inner half-timbered walls framing out from the massive stones which represented the strength and armor of the tower itself. As Trixie spun around on her hooves, she noted that the upper floors were separated by a high and narrow vault between the apartment-stacks, leading her eyes upwards in an almost elevating fashion until she could spy a clerestory letting some of the outside green-grey light into the space from full-size windows stories overhead.
Above the stairwell from which we had emerged, crouched a heavy dais, with a great lord's-chair placed so that the owner of this fortress-tower could hold court in a narrow, somewhat perilous space to the right of the main floor of the great hall, and at the same time, keep an eye on the main foyer in case of interruption. There was a smaller throne next to the larger one which was buried under with all the detritus of lordship – scrolls, codexes, quills and papers, trinkets and what looked like a half-eaten bowl of – gruel? – perched precariously on a stack of said books.
As Trixie looked around this ancient example of an earthen great hall, she noted that almost the whole of the space was overtaken with further examples of the lesser throne's slovenly disarray. Projects half-completed, half-discarded cluttered up every horizontal space. Rubbish, trash, and outright garbage lurked in every corner, and various little tables and stools and chairs – many of them themselves half-battered to rubbish – lay scattered everywhere, making yet more corners in places that ought not have had them, turning what should have been a wide and solemn space into a riot of decay and disarray.
It reminded Trixie of nothing so disreputable as Cousin Cattail's dubious 'maintenance' of the ancient family homestead. Trixie was beginning to think that this aggressive refusal to keep one's living-spaces clean and presentable was an inextricable aspect of stallionhood, or at least, stallions living without the benefit of proper feminine oversight.
The Beast had not paused to allow Trixie time to take in the details of his living-arrangement, and had continued onwards and upwards, passing behind the lord's-chair to yet another, more modest door framing a stairwell stack. When Trixie got over her mild revulsion at the filth and disarray, she noticed that she was alone, and raced to follow the tromp of shadow-hooves upward into the second stairwell.
This one was somewhat more airy and light than the heavy-framed entrance to the great hall, and a generous half-light poured down the curve of the stairs from a cupola at the head of this sub-tower. Mostly closed doorways lined the stairs as they ascended, and as Trixie's hooves tapped on the solid oak timbers which made up the steps, she could see overhead something glowing which was far more substantive than the sickly twilight that she'd grown accustomed to outside the Old Bailey, as the Beast had called it.
Another turn around the stairwell brought Trixie to where she could see the source of the greenish light, a large, shining magic time-piece, all glass and sand and gears. As she followed the Beast upwards, the time-piece came into full view, and Trixie had a brief impression of something built solidly, and cleverly. An archaic design, but tightly fit and cleverly arranged, the time-piece's gears were mounted to a levered apparatus which used the weight of the grains as they descended into the lower chamber of the overlarge sand-glass to advance various gearings. The gear-trains were mounted to a clever sort of belled glass harmonica, which Trixie had been hearing this entire time, telling off the nonexistent hours of this half-world, the Beast's 'watches' and 'glasses'.
She watched the Beast re-set the timepiece, rotating the fully-descended sands of the lower bulb around the axis of the device, inverting lower and upper bulbs, and re-setting the restraining-pin. Oddly enough, the elegant design had been built around a gross and nonsensical axle holding up the sand-glass bulbs, a heavy, rough shovel-handle run through the middle of the device. The shovel head itself was still attached to this improbable axle, as well-maintained and spotless as the pegasus-shield in the foyer had been.
The resetting of the time-piece in the cupola at the top of the tower took only a moment, and then, suddenly, Trixie's ears were assaulted by the heavy, punishing tones of this retrofitted clock-tower, trapped inside the bell-space. Thankfully, the design of the sounding bells were such that the majority of the cacophony was directed outside the walls of the tower, and she was not deafened.
More or less.
"Come," said the great Beast, when his contraption's ration of aural abuse had been expended in its war against the unheralded advance of the hour. "I have these villains to return to their rest, and others to wake from theirs."
"Villains? Did you say villains? What were their offenses? Why is Trixie only now hearing about this villainy? Is this a prison-world?"
The Beast stared down at your redoubtable show-mare, and squinted in confusion. "How on earth did you come to that – no, villains, villagers – peasants, servantry, the help, mechanics, the lower order. Has Equish decayed so much over the centuries?"
Trixie may have blushed a bit. But only a bit. "Uh, carry on?"
"Hrm," graveled the Beast in uncertainty, and Trixie had to suppress a reflexive start, so much did it sound like the tower's stonework settling or shifting. "Yes, of course. Follow me. To their rests, these must go."
Trixie and the Beast doubled back on their trail, and the great lord opened one of the doors they had passed on the way up, revealing another large chamber full of the tower's usual kibble and disarray. It had once been a unicorn lord's ritual space, and you could make out the painted circles under the tumble of the usual wizard's tools and supplies splayed out over all surfaces.
At the back of the chamber where Trixie would have expected the primary ritual-court was, indeed, a cleared space dominated by a vast half-built cabinet, all luminous ebony woods with silver chasings. It would have been immensely impressive, if it weren't, indeed, half-constructed, well over a third of the shelving replaced by oak planks laid out on stacks of cut stone clearly taken from the same quarry that had been used to pave the courtyard outside the tower.
But the rest of the cabinet was quite fine work, the work of a master-carpenter, carefully and painstakingly wrought. Trixie could see the work-space of said master-carpenter to the side, all the wizard's kibble pushed far out of the way of the missing artisan, whose ebony-wood supplies and partially-fitted pieces were sitting upon work-benches as if he or she had merely stepped out to find a garderobe, and never returned.
Upon the rough planks and the elegant ebony framings of the great cabinet lay stone after stone, hundreds of them, in rank after rank. Each was individually labeled, in some tiny horn-script which Trixie could not make out from where she sat, watching the great Beast as he worked.
He placed each of the obsidian stones which had so recently had been earth-ponies into empty slots in the face of this great cabinet, reverencing before each as he went. Then he bowed his great black mattock-head, and closed the white blotches which served as his eyes.
"Do you need Trixie to be quiet?" asked Trixie after a couple minutes of this tedious meditation.
"That would have been nice, Dame Trixie, but it is not necessary. I merely needed to make my decisions here."
Trixie didn't quite have time to express her alarm at this unsettling assertion, before the Lord of Shadows' tendrils licked out from his centred pose in front of his cabinet, and picked up a stone from the finished portion of the construction, and then two stones sitting side-by-side on the rough planking to the left.
All three blackstones looked as much alike to your educated narrator as any other hoof-full of igneous dragon-glass she had seen, including the three the Beast had just returned to the holding-cabinet. But then, Trixie's skill in rock identification was mostly the fruit of six months' anonymous labor on a southern Equestrian rock-farm, so don't expect of her the expertise of a proper rocktorate. The blackstones glided into rotation around the bulk of the great Beast, and glowed in some preparatory cantrip.
And then three tendrils shot out like spear-heads, and impaled each stone in an impressive display of thaumaturgic precision. The tendrils warped the stones away from their interrupted orbit, and pulled them down into the open space between the Beast and his ritual-cabinet. The rocks and the tendrils throbbed and flashed an unsettling black-light as they were directed into their places, and Trixie's eyes were dazzled by the display.
In one moment, the three black blotches were throbbing before the Lord of Shadows, three smaller but growing points of shadow in echo of their Lord, and then – it was over.
And three ponies stood upon the oaken floor of the Beast's ritual chamber, staring up in adoration at that terrible black visage. They were clothed like the others had been, two in rough head-wrappings and saddle-bags, and the third in a more prosperous yet still archaic vest and hat, a key hanging by a chain upon his vest. All earth ponies, they took a moment, and then their stillness was broken, as they snapped out of whatever trance the Beast's magic imposed upon its… subjects?
One of the worker-ponies, looking around, spotted Trixie sitting over beside a pile of jars and scrolls half-tumbling off of a work-bench.
"Hej Sharp Hone, se på det, se engang, en dame!" said the sturdy peasant-mare.
"Ja, det er en dame, du er dog også den skarpeste kniv I skuffen, Loose Bind. Som næste trin arbejder vi på at skelne mellem forskellige træer," replied the other villager, a nervy-looking stallion with a yellow coat.
" Tror du, at vores herre har fået sig en elskerinde ?" asked the mare.
"Hvordan skulle jeg vide det? Måske?" demanded the stallion in return.
Then the more prosperous stallion’s hoof licked out, and clipped both peasants across the ears.
"Spick proper Ponish in front ay th' laird, ye latrine-scrapings!" barked the clearly-dominant earth pony stallion. "Yer pardon yer grace, there's nae much tae be expected frae thes lot. An' why are they an' I oot an' aboot at th' sam time?"
"We weren't able to finish up the harvest in the last glass, so I need Sharp Hone and Loose Bind here to finish the reaping."
"Ah, but 'at means mah materials arenae ready! Hoo can Ah mill if Ah hae naethin' tae grist?"
"I'm sure you'll make do, and we have an extra set of hooves this glass, as I can see you're asking with your aggressive refusal to mention Dame Trixie's presence, despite her sitting right there."
"Dame Trixie, may I introduce Miller, our little world's foremost expert in organization and most importantly, milling my land's grain. Miller, this is the Great and Powerful Trixie, a visitor to our humble land."
"Ah, an' it's guid tae meit a guest ay his Grace, yer ladyship. Welcome tae thes, uir prood Land ay Ever-Dusk! But first, Ah need tae gie these muckle-heids started oan their wark, ur we'll ne'er finish in thes glass. 'Main 'en, ye boggarts!"
And with that, the Miller drove his underlings out of the ritual-chamber, and down the tower-stairs. As Trixie stared after the mechanics and the burgher, at a loss for words, the Beast strode past her to join his folk in the beginning of their day – no, their glass.
"These are my ponies, Dame Trixie. They exist, from time to time, so that this land does not fall into total disarray and decrepitude."
He paused, standing in the doorway.
"And perhaps, so I might have a little company from time to time."
Trixie's energy levels were flagging badly by the time she followed the Beast downstairs to the kitchens. The kitchens could be found down yet another set of stairs, on the far side of the grand hall from the dais and the thrones, and down a passageway wide enough for heavily-laden servers and fat cooks to shuttle vast tureens and platters to the tables for hungry courtiers and followers that clamored in their ghostly hordes for their supper.
Then Trixie blinked, and the tables were once again covered in dust, filth, and the detritus of centuries, and the ghosts of the past were gone. She hurried to follow the Beast, and thought that this world was forever compelling her to scamper at the heel of this smoky lord, staring at the cloud of smoke which was his tail.
At least the view was worth it.
Trixie was just thinking that the kitchens were surprisingly neat and tidy, when she realized the shifting shadows weren't an artifact of her tired eyes, or the Lord of Shadow's uncertain horn-fire. The Beast bellowed like a boulder rolling down a hillside, and the gentle greyfire which had been lighting the wall-sconces turned instead to a series of lightning-blasts at the little scurrying bits of darkness covering the preparation-tables and counters.
"Damn your eyes, you little pests! Git! Git!" the Beast barked as he swatted at the – Trixie wasn't sure what they were. The shadow-things moved and were somewhat shaped like mice or rats, but there was nothing casting these shadows, only the shadows of the mice themselves.
They had done mice-like damage to the food and preparatory materials laid out on the counters and tables, though. Aside from one or two little shadows splattered into nothingness by a blast of greyfire, nothing much came of the Beast's tantrum, but it left his chest heaving, and his eyes wild with a strange sort of elevated enthusiasm and anger.
It was a good look on him.
Trixie looked over what the shadow-mice had left, and wondered to herself how often the Beast and his retainers left food out like this, if they had pests.
"My Lord Shadow, do you always leave your cooking-stuff out like this? Of course you'll get rats if you don't clean up after yourself."
"Bah!" Another blast of lightning. "There's five million things to do around here. I was going to come back to it, and then you interrupted." Lightning, again. "I still don't know how these things keep getting in." Greyfire! "It's not as if any other large animals survived the shadows for long." Fire!
"My lord, how you have escaped burning this tower down to its foundations, if this is how you deal with –" and Trixie quickly dodged another blast of fire, with which the Beast nearly blew her hat right off of her mane. "BE MORE CAREFUL!"
"Oh, sorry, sorry. My apologies. It's just – that was my dinner. Or it was going to be. Bah, I suppose they're gone now. I can eat what I was planning to make for the harvesters and Miller. I simply loathe waste, is all."
Trixie helped the abashed Beast clean up the partially-gobbled mess, and scraped the waste into a barrel for later disposal. The kitchens came with a clever bit of pipes that brought in cold water from somewhere overhead – Trixie supposed from a cistern somewhere upstairs. Those pipes led into prettily-cast taps over broad and clean wash-basins, almost as cleverly drained as any modern kitchen-sink Trixie has ever seen. Not that she's made a practice of examining wash-basins; Trixie is nopony's washer-mare, as she'd told Cloudy Quartz on many a – no, never mind all that.
The Beast's sinks were an vast improvement on some wash-basins, despite having to have been hundreds of years out of date. Trixie thinks that certain innovation-allergic earth ponies could have learned a few things from the Beast's kitchens.
Anyways, Trixie and the Beast washed their hooves in those generous sinks, and began preparation to make a snack – no, no, to feed the reapers and the miller.
The Beast took pity on Trixie's hunger when her protesting stomach loudly announced her incipient starvation to her kitchen-audience. She'd not had a bite to eat since stealing some pastries off of a cart on the train from Canterlot, after all. The Beast made a cold gruel from a barrel of oats the shadow-mice hadn't gotten to, yet, pasted together with something Trixie mistook for honey, along with diced bits of apple and some fruit she did not recognize in its mangled state.
"What is this stuff? Mmmhm. Sweet! And tangy, despite being in storage!"
"Ah? Oh, those are pomegranates. They grow best in this climate, for some reason. Even Malus's apples don't quite develop properly without sunlight, but pomegranates? They thrive."
"Well, it seems as if your bees thrive here. Trixie thought you said that no other animals…?"
"Bees? We don't have bees. Oh, that. That's maple syrup. We have a grove of sugar maples that produce surprisingly regularly. More strange shadow-earth-magic, I suppose. Here, we need these firmly formed in bricks, like – yeah, that. And roll them in dry oats, for tidy eating in the field. Right."
The Beast laughed.
"Try to leave a few for the field-hoofs, Dame Trixie."
Trixie has never been one for domestic affairs, or for futzing around the home. Which has generally suited her way of life, because she never really had a home. But as a mare who was always on the road, she had long since mastered the art of keeping herself fed, and clean in her beautiful, marvelous vardo. What?
Oh, for the love of the princesses, what are they teaching in schools these days? A vardo – a caravan, a camper, a wagon – a home on wheels! Yes, that's a thing. And it was a thing of perfection, Trixie's very much prized possession, her stage, her living-space, her life on wheels.
And wheels betrayed Trixie's trust. Wheels and SPARKLE!
Ahem. Pardon the digression. Where was Trixie?
Oh, yes, pigging out on the field-hoofs' din- NO!
Really, will you be a good audience, or will Trixie have to get out the ropes and the manacles?
Very well then. Trixie's hunger was sated in the preparation, and she found herself rather enjoying the work together, which was not at all characteristic of Trixie's natural temperament. Trixie's former employer at the rock farm, after she had lost her livelihood and was compelled to take – ugh! – honest employment. Well. The Pies may very well be good ponies, and so everypony who knows them insists, but as far as their food and their matriarch's approach to house-work – well indeed. It left Trixie with something of a contempt for playing the farmwife, the housewife, the homely home-keeper. Dullness and starchy grimness doesn't even begin to describe it.
But this! This was quite charming.
So charming, Trixie is sad to relate, that apparently she nodded off right there, face down in the oats and the diced apples. Not that she recalls this personally, but the Beast has tasked her often enough with his ‘hilarious anecdote', that she can relate it in her sleep.
And supposedly has done so, on at least one occasion.
In any event, Trixie's memory jumps directly from something amusing said over apple-bits, to twitching awake under a disgusting, dusty bit of fabric that smelled and tasted more like a drop-cloth than a bedsheet.
Trixie looked around her, disoriented, and realized she was laid out on a lumpy, musty-smelling bed, the old-fashioned sort made of rope and straw and a sheet binding up both in an approximation of something semi-comfortable. It was actually quite familiar.
The Pies had believed in rope-beds. Sigh.
Trixie lit up her horn, and discovered her missing cloak and hat placed carefully on a chair next to her bed, awaiting her return to action. She had been left in an unfamiliar bed-room, not especially fancy or elaborate. Clearly a guest-room, but all the dirt and clutter had been pushed into the corners and onto the side-tables and dressers and so forth. Honestly, it was in better shape than the grand hall with all of its trash laid out on the benches and tables.
Trixie felt a slight pinch, under her neck, and looked down to find the amulet still wrapped snugly around her throat. Had the Beast undressed her, but left her necklace in place? Perhaps he didn't want to lay hooves on something as precious as her amulet. If so, she thought the better of him for it; it showed some sense of boundaries and basic decency.
Then Trixie's horn-light lit upon the night-stand, and lurking in the darkness was a –
Fresh flower? Trixie isn't an expert when it comes to flowers and flower-language – that's pretty much an earth-pony pastime – so she wasn't exactly sure what an orchid means, but she had a vague notion of it being something somewhat racy. Trixie might have felt that she should be blushing a bit upon finding such a gift first thing after waking.
Trixie got up from her bed, and took a closer look at the orchid. It was beautiful. It was fresh.
It was impossible. The orchid was a living confection of brilliant red and pink, the most living color Trixie had seen in this half-world, aside from her own lovely coat.
And then as Trixie stood there, regarding the flower, she had a flash of a half-remembered dream, of strangely familiar ghost-ponies shouting, screaming, arguing. Yelling at Trixie, yelling at a scrawny little grey unicorn Trixie didn't recognize, yelling at each other. Then a terrible bright red light and – the memory of the dream ended. An ugly, pointless dream, truly unlike Trixie's usual fare.
Trixie is generally proud of her technicolor nightscapes. She has always had vivid and well-formed dreams, and is quite skilled at lucid dreaming. She firmly believes that the creativity of a pony is reflected in the unconscious constructions their dreaming selves project against the screens, nay, upon the very walls of sleep itself!
Having decided to ignore such ill-constructed meaningless dream-nonsense, Trixie stared at her orchid-flower, wondering at its beauty. Why was it so vibrant, when everything else was washed out and drained by the eternal greenish half-light?
Speaking of light, Trixie realized then that the only light in her little apartment was coming from her horn. Trixie looked around for a window, finding it with its attendant heavy shutter carefully latched against – were there any elements in this world?
Trixie opened the shutter – which had been made for sieges, and was heavy-built oak, proof against ancient pegasus projectiles, Trixie imagines – and squinted in reflex against an expected sunlight glare which disappointingly failed to shine in her eyes.
The sun had failed to rise and dispel this whole strange nightmare.
The prospect from her room's window was impressive, and the mists which had hung over the land when last Trixie had looked out over it had dispersed. Trixie could see a forest's edge in the distance, crowding two of the great statues she had seen in her first moments in this place. Between the forest and her window stretched the Lord of Shadow's demesne – Trixie loves this word, de-mes-ne, so delicate and possessive, don't you think? And it was like something out of a history-book. The fields stretched out in narrow strips between wood-lots and orchards, with the occasional cottage and shed crouched charmingly beside paths and little roads. At a distance, it was a picture-post-card.
Colored dusty-green and dark, like the last moments of dusk before the fall of true night.
Trixie thought she could see where the harvesters were working, the point at which the distant grain turned to stubble and tiny little dots which must have been the stooks she had seen yesterd- no, the glass before? Yesterglass? How do you conjugate that?
No matter. Trixie could see a little cart approaching the little dotted line of stooks, and a great mass of shadow and darkness drawing that cart like a dray-pony pulling a foal's toy.
Trixie got quickly dressed, and tumbled out of her bedroom, giving the orchid a wave in passing as she rocketed through the door and down what turned out to be yet another set of steep stairs.
The next several 'watches', to use the Beast's time-conceits, went by in a green-half-lit blur of exertion. Trixie found her host laboring like a common drover, smoky tail flitting back and forth over the traces of a very, very prosaic dray-cart, piled heavy and thick with the milky-white grains of that peculiar field-crop.
Your noble and talented narrator can offer you proof of her status a proper duchess of the rails. Trixie is a credentialed marchioness of the roadways – she has it on parchment! And yet, despite this documentary evidence, she still could not prove precedence ahead of an actual landed aristocrat, let alone one who had somehow managed to give himself stature like a ursa minor. Nothing is so demonstrative of natural nobility as wings and a horn!
Damn his magnificent flanks!
Despite Trixie's mild and understandable envy of the Beast's magnificence, all she could do in the face of this demonstration of the nobility of labor was to fall in line, and swallow her contempt for breaking a sweat. What else could Trixie do, but join her host in bringing in the harvest? It wasn't as if she could pretend that such work was beneath a lady of her stature, not when the lord of the manor played teamster for his peasants and his Miller.
And so this proud show-mare found herself once again breaking a sweat in the dust of a field-harvest. Thankfully, the mists which had greeted Trixie when first she arrived in this place had evaporated, leaving the air over the Beast's corn-fields cool and dry. Which, naturally, led to clouds of choking dust churned up by stomping hooves and the damage done by the sweeping blades of sickle and scythe.
Thankfully, Trixie had more than enough scarves within her cloak of tricks to supply all the workers in the field, so that they did not cough themselves into the next life.
Where does one go, Trixie wonders, if you die in the after-life?
That nonsense aside, she was touched to be thanked by the mechanics, whose eyes went great at the quality and brilliance of the silk-scarves she gave them to keep out the dust of the harvest. Trixie was glad to accept their 'tusind tak' for her benevolence.
The scarves weren't real silk, anyways.
Miller was less enthused to find that Trixie was encouraging his liege in the Beast's non-liege-like behavior.
"Och, yer ladyship, it's bad enaw when he indulges himself loch thes in front ay th' hoople-heids. Dornt ye be encooragin' heem tae stump aroond loch thes!" groused the Miller.
Or 'Miller'? Trixie had to ask.
"Och, an' whit? Och aye, mah nam is Miller, an' I mill. Mah nam an' mah duty ur a body an' th' sam. An' wa woods it nae be? Yer nam is yer life, is it nae? Is 'at nae wa they caa ye Trixie?" The miller pointed at the twirling bit of twine Trixie had taken up as she listened to him, weaving a bit of nothing to keep her hoof in.
Trixie blushed to be caught fiddling like a school-filly, and cleared her throat.
"Perhaps most modern ponies don't generally take names quite so literal-minded, Master Miller. If only because there's just so many rock-farmers or mail-mares, or royal guards, or what have you."
"Weel, aam sure ah dunnae ken what's modern these days, yer ladyship. But when yoo're th' only miller in th' warld, ye micht an aw be Miller. Saves oan hemmin' an' hawin', dornt it?"
By then, the Miller and the Beast had unloaded the lord's cart into the bin-hopper, and Trixie hoofed the Miller another one of her silk scarves, for which he 'thenked' Trixie kindly. Then the gruff stallion threw off his miller's-vest and loaded up another cart with a pile of what looked like wooden poles to Trixie, and shrugged into the traces.
"You're coming out with us, Miller?" asked the Beast.
"Ah can hardly sit haur an' fiddle aroond wi' th' coople ay cupfuls ay grist yoo've given me sae far, mah laird. An' mony hooves make lecht wark, doesnae it?"
The Miller grinned through Trixie's donated scarf.
"Let's gie some grain threshed!"
And so it was that Trixie learned how wheat got off of those drying bundles of shooked stalks, and into the Lord's carts.
It was absolutely brilliant!
The wooden poles turned out to be wheat-threshing flails, and Miller had brought along enough additional flails that Trixie was able to join in the festivities. And Trixie did so with a vengeance. She pictured Sparkle's face in every pile of stalks, and pounded that smug purple muzzle into grain-less straw again and again and again.
Trixie swapped Sparkle out for her brutish friends in her frenzied imaginings. Then she conjured the images of various towns-ponies who had likewise made Trixie's life on the road a Tartarus for far too long. Towards the end of that field, Trixie had a dozen sets of flails grasped firmly in her red horn-glow, simultaneously battering entire platoons of imaginary oppressors into clouds of shattered hulls, dust, and little bits of dried-out stalk.
Trixie may have torn a few tarps in the process, but by the Long Road did she get some built-up stress properly vented!
Miller had stood aside when Trixie had picked up her first flail, and after the third flail went into operation in Trixie's increasingly-crimson hornglow, he threw up his hooves and left the threshing to the horned ponies in the field. Trixie was vaguely aware of the miller collecting the properly threshed straw behind her and the Beast, and had some notion that Miller had disappeared with one of the carts several times during her rampage across the stook-stippled wheat-field. When she got to the end of the stooks, she looked back, and saw the Beast pouring a tarp full of threshed grain into his own cart, while the Miller passed by on the cart-track, pulling up to collect Trixie's last few stooks-worth of straw.
Time for the next field!
Now, Trixie was fully aware that this method of threshing was insanely archaic. She'd never had to work in the grain fields before, and if she'd had to do this day in, day out, it would have been an excruciating bore, Trixie is sure. As a novelty and an opportunity for exercise it might have been superlative, but Trixie made a mental note to see if she could remember any details of the modern threshing-machines she could have sworn she'd seen in use by the Pies' grain-farming neighbors.
Well, neighbor – proper food farming wasn't exactly popular in Rock Valley.
That first field was a joy and a lark. These were not large fields, Trixie should point out, but rather were narrow strips laid out in between berry-bushes and nut-bearing trees. So they went by fairly fast, at least at the pace she and the Beast maintained. The second and third fields were amusing, but Trixie had already begun to vary the experience with displays of legerdemain with the stalks and some bits of flash and illusion to entertain herself and the Beast.
By the fourth field, Trixie had had more than enough of threshing. Her horn-magic had once again faded into her natural violet, and the rush of energy she'd felt at the beginning had faded away as the tedium of the task reasserted its dominion. Trixie was more than ready when the Miller said something about lunch.
The Beast used some sort of cleaning cantrip to blast the field-dirt from his black hide and hooves, and Trixie, realizing that a break was in the offing, thought to herself for a second, and then shrugged when she realized that she'd forgotten her own personal hygiene-spell in all the excitement.
The Beast's simple spell was easy enough to sight-read, anyways. Trixie managed to replicate the feat on the second pass.
She didn't need those extra hairs in her tail, anyways.
By the time she caught up to Miller and the Beast, the Miller had a table-cloth spread out on the verge next to the field the reapers had been harvesting, and the Beast was fiddling around with a large tureen that Trixie had apparently not been awake for during the previous watch's food-preparation. The tureen glowed a slight cherry-red for a second or two, and then the Beast's grey tendrils took off the cover, revealing a bubbling mass of soup. It might have been three-bean soup, or just some sort of lentil with extra beans, but in either case, it was a very, very beany soup, and once the gathered harvesters tucked into it, Trixie found that it was also an excellent soup. The bean-heavy broth was exactly the proper match to the oatcakes she and the Beast had made, exactly the sort of proper filling that hard-working farm-ponies deserve after a long – well, not morning, but a long set of watches in the field.
"Åh, vidunderligt, det er den tre-bønne igen," said Sharp Hone to the mare.
"Ja, ja. Stærke svingende suppe gør for søde sang suppe," cackled Loose Bind in response.
"Og vi alle sang i harmoni i eftermiddag!" chorused the both of them, "Åh, musikalsk suppe, vi skal flyve på din vind!"
"Och, pit a cork in it, ye tois flatulent breech-bursters! thes is wa th' laird doesnae trooble himself wi' buyin' breeks fur ye lot!" barked Miller at the giggling farm-hoofs. "Dornt coont yer farts afair they're hatched, ye villains! An' ye best nae be lollygaggin' in th' fields efter lunch. 'er ladyship haur is a huir uv a devil wi' th' flails. she'll catch up tae ye an' yer damp-arsed sloppy stooks afair suin!"
Trixie eyed the mush-mouthed farm-workers, and their sweat-slicked manes and coats. The reapers had been out here all this time, while Trixie had enjoyed her beauty-sleep. But thus is the lot of the peasantry, and Trixie is sure that a long life – or half-life in the event – of back-breaking field-work had bred the two mechanics to this sort of thing. Trixie, on the other hoof? A delicate mare of the road. Trixie's hooves might be iron-hard from thousands of miles trotted in the harness, her legs strong and well-muscled from pulling her beloved stage-vardo every single one of those miles, but she was still a lady!
Trixie will deny it to her dying day if you repeat any of this, by the by. Trixie knows she can trust you all – you're such a lovely audience!
And Trixie has kept the wheat-flails.
After this lovely lunch-break of oatcakes and sang suppe under darkling skies, we returned to our respective work. Trixie tried to keep up her enthusiasm from before her heavy meal, but the joy was largely spent. It had become work.
As it proved, the Miller had been correct. Trixie did, indeed, catch up to the reapers' work, and found the stooks too damp for threshing. Or so the Beast assured her. The reapers were nowhere in sight, of course, as they themselves had been working their way through the narrow little field-strips, and were probably halfway across the world by then.
Trixie found herself wondering exactly how large this place was. She asked the Beast and Miller as she helped them load the last carts full of, respectively, straw and grain.
"Och, fa has time tae explore? I've got sae leetle time tae gie anythin' dain, mah quine. Ah gie myself started oan a project, an' afair I look up, th' laird is back, ready tae put me back in mah cubby-hole. Th' flittergibbets say thaur isnae much beyond abit a league ur two beyond uir doors, I hink?"
Trixie followed the Miller back to his mill, although she had been tempted to tag along with the Beast and see what he was doing with all of that straw. Still, it was a fact that Miller would only be here for a brief time, and Trixie wanted to interrogate the burgher about his liege without said Beast being in ear-shot.
"Weel, yer ladyship, ah dunnae kinn if Ah want tae be tellin' tales it aut ay school. His lordship deserves some privacy, doesnae he?" Miller said to Trixie's entreaties. "I-"
Wait a tick. Trixie should ask you all – do you want Trixie to continue with the accent? She can do this all glass, an' nae e'en break a sweat. Trixie has bin talkin' burgher fur sae lang, 'at sometimes she dreams in it, she swears. Nae? Ah, weel, braw.
Trixie will summarize.
The lord, Trixie wheedled out of Miller, hadn't always been this way. No, once upon a time, he had been a modest little unicorn of some privilege and stature, His Grace the Grand Duke's grand-nephew by a disfavored sister of the Grand Duke's second wife.
The Miller told Trixie this as they unloaded the carts into the mill's silo-hoppers, which was more of a production than you'd think. The Miller had to operate the hopper-belts by hoof. Trixie eyed the mill's gearing, and wondered why they couldn't just use the drive-train for this, but the Miller continued speaking.
"Lord Stygian was made steward of our manor in his great-uncle's name, just before Discord happened. He was a thin, undistinguished colt just barely marked, and was he not a sight when he came stumbling off the Duke's highway with that old cart packed over-flowing with books!"
Hrm. Yes, Trixie agrees, loud sir. It rather doesn't sound like something a Miller would say. Back to the accents! What? No?
Sorry, loud sir, the others are louder all together than just you in the back there.
Fine. No accents.
"And it was as if Discord was just waiting for Lord Stygian to take up his post. As soon as he had settled into the tower, everything changed."
"What? I thought the Lord of Shadows said that Star Swirl was to blame for your exile here!"
"Oh, no, Miss. Not this exile. The one before that. I think? Let me count… yes, the first one."
"Discord did… something. And the Lord was exiled?"
"Oh, no, Miss. All of us were. We looked out the next morning, and it was a tea downpour. Everything smelled of herbs and beet-sugar for a week afterwards. After we cleaned up the flood, his lordship sent somepony the next manor over to see if they needed any help there. Except they weren't there, nor were what was supposed to be on the other side of that hill."
We finished cranking the cartloads into the silos, and the Miller went back outside to throw the levers which opened the flues from the water-race into the millwheel. Trixie looked upstream from the millrace, and asked a question which hadn't even occurred to her before laying eyes on that water-wheel.
"The creek? Oh, who cares where it comes from? It comes, and that's all I needs to know. Do any but pegasi care where the rains come from? Not that we get rains here. Damned unseelie mists rising up out of the earth and the creek-"
What? No, Trixie wasn't doing an accent. How else would you describe such a scene, madam, in that dreadful greenish half-light, the water blackly burbling away under the paddles of the water-wheel, its ancient bulk squealing its outrage at having to move once again, after so many glasses of inactivity. Trixie's new world was decidedly unsettling, madam, and if she cares to give her characters – er, relate her compatriots' words in terms that are unfamiliar to you, well, that is not Trixie's problem!
Now where was Trixie? Ah, mysterious creeks.
"Trixie has to ask – if she drinks from this water, will she forget all her days and become some sort of blank slate?"
"Not that I ever noticed, miss. But you'd best not, any rate."
"No, miss. You're just likely to catch the trots. This isn't a clean stretch of the creek by any measure, and nopony's been maintaining the watershed hereabouts. But I need to get inside, we're wasting grist-time."
And so we did, and while the Miller did his thing, mysteriously pushing levers here, pulling cords there – if you labor under a peculiar need to understand the mechanical processes of an amazingly archaic water-mill, Trixie is sure there are books in a library somewhere, go, read up, you pedantic ponies, you!
While the Miller did his work, he told Trixie further of the story of poor little lord Stygian and his peasantry. How the world beyond their manor had been wiped away in a storm of strong tea and crumpet hail-stones, leaving in its steeped wake a land utterly unrecognizable, peopled by creatures they had never seen before.
"That was the first time most of us had ever seen people who weren't ponies. Deer that spoke – cows that spoke! This was before the griffons and the minotaurs and the buffalo, of course, but what we ran into was passing strange enough! Lord Stygian, though, he kept his calm. Good colt! Not much to look at, mind you, but a steady temperament."
The Miller pulled one last lever, and grain began pouring out of the silo in a controlled stream into the grinding chamber, and the low grumbling of the stones against each other became an ear-assaulting crackling roar. Miller shouted over the horrible noise, one last observation. "It weren't Discord's world that brought us here, Miss! It were the damned heroes that brought us to this pass!"
Trixie thought to winkle more back-story out of the Miller, but the Beast had returned from wherever it was they were disposing of the harvest-straw, and he'd clearly heard at least some of the Miller's tale.
The Beast's angry glare sent the burgher hurrying off to disappear into his work, babbling "Ah didne pure techt tae gab it ay skale!"
Trixie and the Beast exchanged wordless glares, but Trixie's glare was not strong enough to challenge that of the Lord of Shadows, and she broke first. So, looking for something else to focus her attention upon, Trixie turned her eyes away, and told the Beast she was going to go exploring. He waved his irate permission, asking only that she not disturb the Harriers if they appeared.
Trixie took a direction at random, and followed a track along the millrace over to where a little, rickety hoof-bridge carried a tow-path over that diversion beside the main creek. Somepony had once smoothed out the banks and the course of that greater stream, and Trixie could see the traces of canal-scrapings here and there. She turned downstream, and followed the tow-path along the bank of that abandoned canal, its flow lazy and strong.
Trixie thought on the probability that those waters had flowed for hundreds of years unattended, neither flooding in wet seasons, nor slacking and growing brackish in drought. It did not look like a canal left abandoned for fourteen hundred years, which by the Lord of Shadow's own reckoning, was the time they had been in this darkling exile. But then Trixie passed over another rickety hoof-bridge that carried the tow-path over a weed-choked ditch. That ditch was a landing, a drag-path leading up out of the canal to a tumbledown shed, and Trixie stopped to look down at the rotten boards and decay which must have once had been a brace of canal-boats put up into storage.
Here was all the centuries of decay and desolation, concentrated. As if the long, long years had crawled, wounded, into the shadows to die of the neglect of ages. Even the nails were nothing but spots of rust-stains among the rubble.
Trixie passed the peasants reaping yet another wheat-field beside the canal and its tow-path, and she exchanged cheerful waves with the ponies with which she didn't really share a language. She continued onwards, downstream toward the line of towering trees, and rising up out of the half-darkness, half-light, one of the great statues.
Trixie climbed up the slight slope, to look at the base of the stone pegasus, vast and sightless like a similar statue she had once seen in sandy, isolated Somnambula.
She knew that face, knew it even as the expression of it diverged so greatly from the noble, blind-folded visage which had graced its Equestrian opposite. This one was almost – mischievous. Not giddy, but full of determined humor, as if the stone knew something that flesh had forgotten.
"And what do you find so funny, my lady stone? Is it your prank that brought Trixie here, to share these rustics' eternal exile? If Trixie were not Trixie, she might even join you in laughing at the joke." Trixie looked around at the oddly open ground around the feet of the statue, which simply stood bare-hooved in the dirt, as if it had grown right in place, no tool-markings or jointures. Was it a true statue, or was it some vast giant of a pony, turned to stone?
"Or was the joke on you, Milady Stone? Is this where the great savior of Anugypt ended her days of legend? The ponies of Somnambula never do tell the story of where their benefactor and namesake disappeared to, and there are no crypts bearing your name. The Miller curses his heroes – but surely you were so ancient that even these exiles could not possibly have lived in your time?"
Trixie had never been one for staring pompously at statues and tumble-down ruins, so she quickly ran out of the piety necessary for such ponderings. But when she tried to pass around the base of the statue of the hero-pegasus and resume her travels along the canal-stream, she found herself turned around, and facing the manor in the distance, standing on the other side of Somnambula's hooves.
So Trixie tried, again and again, stymied each time by thickets too tangled to pass through, and each attempt to by-pass the blockages found her once again standing turned-around, facing towards the distant tower and the fields and the outbuildings of the exiles in their shadowed darkness.
Trixie burst into a gallop, and ran around the wooded edge of her world, red tinting her sight as she passed yet more great statues, blurs of stern stone in her peripheral vision. She ran and ran, until her lungs worked like a bellows, and her hat blew off her head, her mane streaming behind her.
Trixie came to a stop before the statue of Beardo, the Omnipresent, her damnable ancestor. The point at which Trixie had been pitchforked into this midden. Trixie's hat bobbed in her rage-red hornglow, and Trixie thought seriously about taking up a boulder she spied in the woody verge just beyond the wizard's petrified hooves. See if she couldn't bash some expression into that smug stone muzzle!
"You! Beardo! Is this where you fetched up, after bedding all the mares of history, and cuckolding all of their husbands? All the stories of legend, and in the end, you amounted to nothing but a pile of rocks in a devil's trouser-pocket?"
The stone Star Swirl said nothing to Trixie, and Trixie was done talking to rock. The Pies say otherwise, but as far as Trixie has ever seen, sweet-talking stone has never made them do what you want them to do.
So Trixie gave up on walking the perimeter of the manor, and went on back to find the Beast, and a meal.
The Lord of Shadows and his ponies divided up their glasses into roughly day-shaped packets, four watches long. You'd think that ponies who spent the overwhelming majority of their eternity as little bits of obsidian wouldn't feel the need to sleep away what little fragment of existence the Lord granted them when their time came up in the furlough-rotation, but it seems that even bodies infused with, and animated by, dark magic, need to sleep.
The Miller kept busy, making flour of the little harvest, and the peasants kept their scythes sharp and active, but Trixie and the Beast had little to do until the new stooks dried out. Trixie tried to follow the Beast around on his errands, as she was increasingly bedeviled by that demon of curiosity which has ever been her special torment.
The Beast paid little attention to Trixie in his rounds, his full attention dedicated to his tasks. Trixie found, by following him, where he and the Miller had been depositing their straw, in a depot full of piles of various varieties of straw and assorted sedge and so forth. The heaping high pile of fresh straw had been set aside, and the Beast concentrated on the older, slightly greening piles of wheat, of oat, of rye, and other grasses' straw that were beyond Trixie's limited capacity for farm-pony wisdom.
Trixie sat on her haunches, and watched the great and terrible Lord of this afterlife, using his dread and eldritch greyfire tendrils, carefully weave varied and aged straws into tight mats of thatch, piling each completed mat upon a cart set conveniently to hoof. Trixie observed carefully for several hours, and after a bored while, began attempting to mimic the great demon-lord's thatch-work. But, Trixie is sad to report, thatching is not nearly as easy to learn as cleaning-spells or threshing, and her attempts to produce those nice, neat blankets of thick, fresh thatch were… not so neat. Or at all nice.
After a half-dozen of Trixie's failures to produce acceptable thatch, the Beast looked up from his fixation upon his work, and discovered her failed attempts at mimicry. The great Lord of Shadows barked out a gravelly demand that Trixie cease wasting his straw, and a touch from one of his tendrils exploded Trixie's mistakes into a cloud of ten thousand bits of straw and moss, which circled his head in a dizzying display of power and control.
"Dame Trixie, if you must be helpful, please go assist Sharp Hone and Loose Bind. I have six cottages to re-thatch, and very little time left for the work."
Trixie did not remind her host, that she shared no languages in common with the peasants, nor that the Miller was determined to air no more of his lordship's business before outsiders. So, recognizing that she was in the way, Trixie wandered by her lonesome, kicking at weeds along the byways, and meandering until she came upon the canal-creek upstream from Miller's mill. She followed it that watch upstream, on the bank opposite of the tow-path. It was a bit of a stretch, casting back and forth along tracks and trails not precisely parallel to the stream, but Trixie generally was able to keep it in sight as she worked her way to the far side of the manor, where the creek poured out of a cleft in a wooded rise behind yet another great stone statue.
This statue was of a greatly aged eastern unicorn, her face's crevasses mournfully deep, as if she had once looked over this dark land, and had been captured in all of her heart-break at the fading of the light.
"Cease that at once, you judgmental old nag! It is not that bad! It isn't even close to horrible! Trixie is rather warming to the prospect, and does not appreciate your condescension! She would like to see you keep such a huge estate clean and tidy with so few servants."
Trixie stomped up to the statue's hooves, and laid back against that reassuring coolness, looking back across the slight slope towards the distant tower, and the various cottages, which only the other glass, Trixie had been so rude as to call 'hovels' in her own imaginings.
"Trixie has never," confided Trixie to the great mare's statue, "met a great lord so willing to work like an impoverished tenant at his own estates' upkeep. Trixie thought at first that the Lord of Shadows had no other choice in the matter. But that's hardly true, is it? He could simply let it all go to wrack and ruin. Do demon lords of shadow starve? She has seen him eat, one supposes he wouldn't do that if he could simply exist from shadows and dark magic.
"Trixie has no idea who you are, lady stone. Given your august company, and your air of nobility, you are no doubt some paragon of virtue Trixie should have learned of, if she had only paid closer attention in unicorn school. But Trixie has never had that sort of time, not when there was magic or rhetoric or trickery to be absorbed. And History was always a tedious mass of Star Swirl-infested botheration. Perhaps in Trixie's zeal to avoid further idiocy about Beardo, she skipped out of whatever lesson you lurked within."
Trixie looked up at the great, sagging chin of that mare of infinite sadness.
"You look like a mother who's been disappointed by her progeny. Are we such a disappointment to you?
"Bah, Trixie gets enough of that from her own relatives, she doesn't need it from utter strangers. Keep your woes to yourself, Lady Lugubrious."
Trixie eventually found her way back to the tower, and found the Miller and the reaper-ponies burbling happily, slick and clean, perhaps from a dip in the canal-creek, Trixie supposes.
"Hej, Lady Trixie!" greeted the peasants as they caught sight of her. "Ikke vores herre? Ikke en elskers skænderi allerede?" asked the mare.
"You be leaving the Miss be, you chatterbox!" chided the Miller, looking worriedly at Trixie, as if he were worried for the giddy peasant mare. As if Trixie would harm a gossipy wench for laughing at her lonel- at her having refused to hang on the traces of the Beast like a needy little foal!
Trixie trotted in front of the peasantry, her tail high and proud, and led them into the fortress, opening the great doors of the gate and the tower itself with her magic. They found the great hall in as terrible and disordered a shape as it ever had been, and Trixie busied herself clearing the previous several meals' worth of detritus and used plates in her magic, trotting down into the kitchens as the peasants helped themselves to tankards and a conveniently-placed half-barrel of beer the Beast must have hauled up from the pantry.
Trixie found the Lord of Shadows acting the cook yet again, boiling up another pot of bean-soup, oatcakes sitting on a platter already finished and prepared on a counter. Trixie quickly washed the dirty dishes she'd found upstairs, and flung the filth into the mulch-barrels, which looked to be needing emptied quite soon, lest the whole kitchen stink like death. Trixie washed off her hooves, and helped the Beast carry the dubious feast upstairs to his small court of minions. Neither of us said a word to the other, somehow separated by too many hours of drudgery and the Beast's disinterest in talking about what he'd heard the Miller disclose to Trixie.
Upstairs, the two harvesters had gotten deep into the beer-barrel, and were singing folk-songs back and forth over their cups. The Beast's monotonous feast interrupted this serenade briefly, as everypony tucked into the soup and the cakes, but soon enough, they had cleaned their bowls, and returned to the beer, and their songs. One went like this:
Der camptown mare, plejede at plove og synge Og hun elskede at muldyr og muldyr elskede hende Da dagen blev lang som den gør om nu Jeg ville høre ham synge til hendes muley-beau Opkald, "Kom på min søde gamle colt, og jeg ville vædde på hele den forundrede verden At vi kommer til at gøre det endnu i slutningen af rækken"
Sang "hårde tider vil ikke regne mit sind Hårde tider vil ikke regere mit sind, Balsam Hårde tider vil ikke regne mit hjerte mere"
The two of them, Loose Bind and Sharp Hone, stared sloppily into each others' eyes as they sang back and forth. As they tore through those verses, the grand hall seemed to fill up with their earthy intentions. If you've ever seen two earth ponies drunkenly court each other, you'll know exactly what Trixie is telling you. They were about two cups beyond being subtle about it.
De spiste på tårer, de spiste på vin Vi kommer alle til himlen i vores egen søde tid Så kom alle dine Tambelon colts og skru op din gammel-tid støj Og spark 'til støvet kommer op fra revnerne i gulvet
It was then that Sharp Hone turned to the Beast, and bowed his head, and asked him, "Herre, hvis du ikke har noget imod lejernes lejlighed?"
And the Beast, a complex expression of amusement and sadness crossing his black face, levitated a pair of heavy keys to his drunken retainer, and the two stumbled across the hall and up the stairs to the guest apartments,
Sang, hårde tider vil ikke regere mit sind, søster Hårde tider vil ikke regne mit sind Hårde tider vil ikke regne mit hjerte mere
The Miller, having drunk his own fill from the Lord's beer, looked sadly after the two peasants. "She's married, you know," he said, draining his tankard. "But the husband, he must be thirteen hundred years into the dust by now. Sharp Hone, too, but his wife's on another rotation, and I do believe they neither of them have seen each other in the last thousand rotations. Lord Stygian?"
"It was Jute Bale's decision, Miller," ground out the Lord of Shadows, who had picked up the half-barrel, and drank from it like it was a tankard. "I will need another half-barrel, tonight, I think. Dame Trixie, if you wouldn't mind? It occurs to me, that I've taken your share, here. They're downstairs in the cold pantry, to the left as you enter the kitchens."
Trixie had her own thirst by now, and acquiesced in the Lord's request. As she went down the stairs, she could hear the Miller and the Beast continue the peasants' Low Ponish song, singing,
Men camptown mare, hun plover ikke mere Jeg så hende at gå ned til tobaksbutikken Gæt hun mistede den talent, og hun glemte den sang Vågnede en morgen og muldyren var væk Så kom, du tigger dronninger, og kom videre, du diamanthunde og syng Og tag det støvede gamle horn op og giv det et slag.
Thank you, thank you. Trixie might not quite understand Low Ponish, but she can remember it like those stallions were singing right here, in front of her, even now.
Spille, hårde tider vil ikke regne mit hjerte, skat Hårde tider vil ikke regere mit sind, sukker Hårde tider vil ikke regne mit hjerte mere
Trixie found the Beast's beer-pantry, and something more besides. She stood for a good many minutes in that space lined with well-oaked barrels heady with the scent of alcohol, and stared up at the mask hanging over the Lord's beverage-storage. Trixie knew that fright-mask, had seen it every time she'd visited her earth-pony cousins in the Hayseed Swamps. She didn't know why it was here, better-preserved than it ever had been in Cousin Cattail's disgrace of a home.
Eventually, Trixie went back upstairs, with the beer she had been sent for, and questions besides. But first, she intended to get as drunk as anypony else in the Old Bailey.
It took nearly a full barrel of beer, less the Miller and Trixie's withdrawals from the Lord's drinking-vessel, but eventually the two of them were able to drink away their imaginings of what the other two were doing overhead, cheating on their respective, long-lost spouses. And Trixie mostly was able to forget the thing she had seen downstairs.
After the Miller passed out, and even the Beast was in his cups, the great Lord of Shadows rose up off of his muzzle, which had been pressed into the remains of our feast, at the head of the table.
"This is all my fault. My fault, do you understand? The Miller, and all my followers, they blame our stone-struck guardians, but I know what happened, and I've had fourteen hundred years to think it over. Oh, I was so very, very angry for so very, very long. And most of my followers, that time is so much closer to them than it is to me. It's like they carry my past self's rage for me, long after it burn out in my own breast."
The Lord belched a flaming shadow into the air overhead, lolling back in his chair, lighting up the vast open space underneath the distant rafters.
"I am but a shadow of my evil self, I fear. No fit host for a proper mare."
"Trixie would like to understand, My Lord – Lord Stygian?"
"Ah, all you have to understand, Dame- Dame Trixie, is that Stygian Crop-Tail has been dead these fourteen hundred years. I and his ambition conspired to – oh, I suppose it's no longer important. Not like what came before. Even before Stygian betrayed his heroes, and his principles, and grasped after mere power – oh, damn."
The Lord of Shadows drained his barrel-tankard dry in a great and terrible gulp.
"My Lady, let me tell you a tale. It goes like this:"
And the Beast, drunker than a lord, told Trixie this story:
Suppose a demon, all-powerful in the realm he made, decided to fill its empty and sterile confines with fragments and shards stolen from happier lands. Not great on the scale of cosmic thievery, but rather a sort of petty larceny of the gods. A town taken here, a province there, a mountain range, a lake, a river, a port-city.
This malevolent land-developer looked into an infinity of pony-settled worlds, and picked out of those infinities, seven stones. Six pearls of great price, and an irregular lump of glossy obsidian. And the trickster stole these seven stones from their proper settings, and flung them into his bowl of night.
And seven sisters birthed a single, patchwork foal all unknowing, six heroes and their worlds gathered around them, and one lackey gathered up with a random assortment of his regal relative's subjects.
I was that lackey, stolen away from my world along with a random collection of rural hamlets, and a modest market-town called Hollow Shades. We were not a continuous land, like some of the other seven sisters whom Discord carefully placed like golden settings around his stolen gems. It is my theory that he missed his catch in grabbing us away from our kith and kin, and flung us carelessly aside where-ever we might fall. Whichever precious stone he had grasped for, when he grabbed us up, he only got me.
The seven sisters of Equestria were not the only stones flung into Discord's garden of chaos. Minotaurs, griffons, zebra, buffalo, yaks, strange disordered fragments of monster-haunted woods and blasted wastelands - if there were any order to the chaos with which the demiurge cobbled together our patchwork-world, I never saw it. Star Swirl insisted he could see the outlines, the purpose beneath the madness. But Star Swirl was fond of lying to himself, and through himself, others. And he hated to admit that he did not understand something.
I gathered together the heroes of each of the pearls of Equestria. Not Star Swirl, not one of the other heroes. They all were sufficient in themselves, they could handle what horrors Discord's chaos threw at them. They were heroes, after all. I – I could not protect my ponies alone. I needed help. And so I went out to find my help – and I found them. All six of them. The irony is, I think my world, the one I and my people were stolen from, was older than theirs, for I knew every one of these heroes' names, these ponies of myth and legend. The great drake-bane, Flash Magnus the brave. Rockhoof, greatest of the Mighty Helm, and the rod and staff of his sea-faring nation. Somnambula the faithful, the trust of nations in her princes. Mistmane, the fountain of virtue, who poured forth beauty, and left nothing for herself. Star Swirl himself, who in my world had been gone for generations beyond counting.
All, that is, but for the sixth, but I sometimes think that sixth was wiser than any of us. Meadowbrook knew too much, I thought, and Star Swirl exploited her knowledge ruthlessly. Even – no, no.
That is not my story to tell, not -
Here, the great lord pulled over one of the emptied half-barrels, and vomited up a great stream of bile and beer. You'd think that after fourteen hundred years of drinking himself into a stupor, the Lord of Shadows would be able to hold his liquor better than this, but there it was.
He wasn't finished, though.
"Seven stones, six precious and beautiful and stronger than diamonds. And the seventh, friable, breakable, fallible me. Can you understand why I tried to steal a little of their strength, their virtue? They had so very, very much, and I was so very, very little…"
Then he started to snore, hugging his barrel. Trixie pried the barrel full of filth away from him, and went upstairs to figure out where he kept his guest-blankets. She came down with as many clean ones as she could find, to make a nest for the Beast to sleep off his drunk. The Miller Trixie hauled upstairs, and chucked in the bed the Beast had made up for her in the upper guest rooms.
Trixie looked in on the peasants, to make sure that neither was likely to drown in their own sick. Then she went back down to the great hall, and kept watch over the great lord of the manor as he snored into his blanket-nest. Trixie curled up with a spare blanket in his throne, after she'd cleaned it off and blown off the dust.
The next morning – if you want to call something without a dawn, or sunlight, or a true night to put to bed, a 'morning' – Trixie found herself with a very special conundrum.
Have you ever tried to mix a hangover cure without eggs? Trixie eventually figured it out, but it was a very close-run thing, Trixie swears. And she might have doped the mixture with a bit of hair-of-the-dog. But you really, really don't want a demon-lord stumbling about the place with a pounding head and the capacity to light things afire with his muddled mind.
And Trixie hardly imagines that it could be pleasant to be sent away into non-existence hung-over and bleary-eyed and the Wise and Benevolent Trixie is never one to send an audience away miserable and headachey. Not since that mishap in her youth with the mis-mixed fireworks and the Dodge Junction state fair, anyways.
So Trixie poured her barley-bean-and-beer-tea into the Miller as test-bed, and when he perked up with a screwed-up expression on his muzzle, triple-dosed the Beast, and then tracked down the love-birds in their nest of sin to do the same.
Everypony survived breakfast, and since the Beast and the Miller had nothing planned before the ceremony, there was plenty of time to recover in the great hall as Trixie cleared away the remnants of the drinking-party down into the kitchens and the Beast's surprisingly forward-thinking sinks for disposal.
They almost didn't wince at all the clatter and commotion as they nursed their triple-B teas.
The four of them trooped up into the Beast's ritual chamber, and, as Trixie said, made a proper going-away ceremony of it. As the final watch of the glass tolled loudly up the stairs, the Miller shook hooves with his liege, and hoofed over some bits of paper scrawled over with notes, muttering last-minute advice and suggestions. Trixie stood between the two embarrassed peasants, whose day-after regrets had led them to essay a sad pretense that nothing had happened the drunken night before.
Well, never say that Trixie is not Great and Compassionate. She shook hooves with Sharp Hone and Loose Bind – individually! – and stood witness as the Beast began his somewhat terrifying little ritual to put away his ponies into their semi-eternal rest.
Trixie will never grow used to seeing living, breathing ponies reduced to slivers of obsidian. It is against all laws of magic and sensibility. And more than a little heavy on the tentacles…
Anyways, the Beast and Trixie were briefly alone, as he put away his former-ponies, and consulted the notes the late Miller had given him. Trixie looked at the woodworking detritus left by some unnamed carpenter-pony, and wondered how many glasses would pass before this woodworker could return to her work.
The new trio of ponies reclaimed from the void and the Beast's half-built vassals-cabinet included a unicorn this time, and Trixie found herself looking up with curiosity. The new mare immediately pulled the Beast aside, and grabbed the Beast's notes from his greyfire with her own horn-glow. The other two ponies looked around in placid delight as the ivory-coated unicorn poured over the Miller's instructions, muttering to herself and her Lord.
Trixie walked up to the two earth ponies, and introduced herself in what she thought was proper Old Ponish.
"'Godt at kende dig', hvad betyder det? Hej, Pole Bean, tror hun introducerer sig selv?" asked the one mare of the other.
"Hej, Tight Seams, rart at se dig igen. Og jeg ved det ikke, lyder som en ædel, ikke sandt? Hvad tror du 'stor og kraftfuld' kan betyde?" replied the second to the first.
"Did, did Trixie say that wrong?" asked your narrator of the new ponies. "Trixie is quite sure that was what Loose Bind suggested to Trixie."
"Ha! Loose Bind fortalte hende at sige det? Hvis den mare har været igennem, forklarer det, hvorfor vi er ude, Pole Bean."
"Ja, de skærer, vi sår. Verdens made. Hej, blå dame - Dame Trixie, gjorde de to buck endnu?" This last bit was delivered with a salacious grin, and Trixie was starting to understand that ancient language, because she was pretty sure she was being asked if…
"A true lady never gossips, ma'am." The two peasant-mares looked so woebegone at being rebuffed, that Trixie relented. "Although perhaps one of the guest rooms might need cleaning once again, from what Trixie did not hear."
The two earth-ponies tittered at this. The Beast's field-vassals might not speak proper Equish, but they seemed to understand it well enough. Trixie is still not quite sure how that worked, to be honest. How could one resist the urge to speak as the wealthy and powerful spoke?
Trixie dun drop dem Gullah-wallah fo' Buckrah-langwidge de secun' 'e lef' de do'. Langwidge 'e b'long t' ah hawss, yent hawss 'e na' b'long t' th' langwidge.
As Trixie was saying, the Beast and his unicorn were muttering back and forth over the Miller's suggestions. Trixie shuffled closer, to overhear what they were on about.
"…What I cannot understand is how you can possibly be out of beans. The last harvest I remember, we put away enough lentils to bury the tower up to its foundation-stones. Have you been eating anything else, my lord?"
"Now, Tally Stick, don't be like that…"
"Stygian! It can't be healthy for a lord to eat nothing but beans!"
It rather appeared to Trixie like the Lord of Shadows had summoned his steward, and so it proved. Tally Stick's accent was barely noticeable, and if Trixie was still doing funny voices for you all, she'd probably have to stuff toffees up her nostrils to quite get the affect of that stiff-flanked mare.
Trixie is still not sure why the new cadre of the Beast's servants were entirely female. Perhaps to avoid a repeat of that little incident? Bah, not worth thinking of!
The Beast continued quarrelling with his tetchy steward, while his other minions nosed around the books and ephemera in the chamber, until Trixie could stand no more.
"Look, you two! Those are probably delicate. Uh, Ingen! I to! Omsætning med alt det!" Trixie's Old Ponish was quite laughable at that point, Trixie is sad to relate, and her attempt to ask the peasants to stop messing with the Lord's tools attracted the attention of the new unicorn.
"Who are you, and why are you yelling at my ponies about pastries, ma'am?" demanded the snooty steward.
"Ah, Tally Stick," interjected the Beast as he dashed in between his unicorn and the inoffensive and mild Trixie. "This is a guest of the manor, one Dame Trixie."
"Your name is Dame? What are you, some lord's byblow? And what is that, a Star Swirl costume? Who do you think you are, you blowsy bint!" sneered the newcomer.
"If you must demand my name without any return, you see before you a showmare among showmares, paragon of prestidigitators, mistress of miracles, sultana of sleight-of-hoof, the Great and Powerful TRIXIE LULAMOON!"
Now, usually, Trixie would punctuate this declaration with a flashbang and some pocket-rockets, but as we all were indoors and nearby more delicate equipment than Trixie cares to think of, she merely punctuated this with a handkerchief-rope flourish. Unfortunately, she'd forgotten that she'd loaned out half of her handkerchiefs the other day, and hadn't re-tied her rope, so all she managed to do was fling the other half across the room, just missing Tally Stick-up-her-rear's sparking horn.
"Nope! No! Nope! You two are not doing this in here!" The Beast pushed Trixie out of the room out onto the stairs, while his other greyfire-tendrils snuffed out whatever spell his steward had been brewing. "Dame Trixie! Wait for me upstairs, until I am ready to turn over the time-piece! Tally Stick! Behave yourself with my guests! No, I don't care that I haven't had one in over a millennium, I've got one now. Take these two downstairs, and see what we can get planted – Trixie! Please, go now."
Trixie closed the door behind her, and tromped up the long stairwell, hearing behind her the raised voices of the Lord of Shadows and his jealous steward. She knew he didn't mean anything by that tone of voice, but after all Trixie had done for him that day…
Trixie found the sand-clock ticking along as it had the last time she'd laid eyes on it, the last cup or so of time-keeping grains trickling from the future downward into the past. She found herself pulling her hat off of her mane, and lying down against the base of the time-machine. She sniffed at her forelock, and wondered if she shouldn't have gone to find where the last bunch of minions had found to bathe.
The Beast did not appear with any celerity, and Trixie eventually got tired of her moping, and reached up to leverage herself up on her hooves. She grabbed that peculiar shovel-axle that the Beast had built his sand-clock around, and her frog came into contact with the base of the shovel-blade.
And suddenly the turret's spartan interior was lit up like a bonfire of celestine-fireworks all bursting at once like an accident in a pyrotechnics shop. Trixie pulled her hat down over her face to protect her eyes and her nostrils, and waited for the crimson flare to burn itself out, falling to her knees to protect her other vulnerable bits.
After the flares burnt out, Trixie dared a look around the surprisingly un-scorched brim of her wizard's-hat. The turret was astonishingly not destroyed, despite that amazing light-show. Not fireworks going off? Trixie blinked the after-images out of her dazzled eyes, and looked around the empty, if somewhat dusty walkways and floors around the sand-clock. Nothing obvious was out of place, and nothing could be seen out of the windows overhead, or the eaves hanging over those.
Then, as Trixie was turning around one more time, she thought she'd seen something red and glowing out of the corner of her eye, and she spun around violently, trying to track what she'd spied.
It was at that point, while Trixie was standing braced and wild-eyed, looking back and forth and in general looking like a very model of a madmare, that the Beast came stomping up the stairs. Thankfully, his heavy hoof-falls were such that Trixie was able to restore herself to some semblance of sanity, and when his great and massive horned-head came up out of the stairwell, Trixie was sitting on her haunches, smiling innocently.
Not at all out of her screw-headed mind.
"Did you just see something, Dame Trixie? One of the peasants said she saw a flash up here. Is the time-piece operational?"
"What?" Trixie looked behind her, and watched the last few grains drop into the lower bulb, and then turned back to the Beast with a rictus-grin which she hoped he would mistake for further innocence. "Looks fine to me!"
"Hrm. It's not good that they're seeing things so soon out of the cabinet. Seeing phantasms and phantom lights is one of the markers of shadow-rot. Well, along with the actual shadowing. But I'd hate to think that we rushed Tight Seams in the furlough schedule, just because I needed a thatching-pony this glass."
As the Beast mused to himself, and passed by Trixie to look at his sand-clock, Trixie found her eyes widening in horror as a spectral pony strode through the stone wall behind the Lord of Shadows.
"Phantasms, you say, your Lordship?"
The ghost was nearly as tall as the Lord of Shadows, with a vast, terrible beard, a white blaze down the middle of his face, and grim, staring eyes. Trixie couldn't tell what color the phantasm's coat was, through the baleful crimson glare which it radiated like a torch on fire.
"Oh, yes, skittering shadows, horrible things with staring yellow eyes, sometimes seeing other ponies like they were dead or decaying or what have you. Really threw us for a loop the first few times it happened, we lost far too many of my ponies to the Harriers before we figured out the signs."
The earth-pony ghost was moving his jaw, as if it ached, or as if he was chewing peanut-butter.
"Oh, Trixie might have used a bit too much horn-glow a few minutes ago? There might have been a bit of a light? Trixie is sure that your peasant is not defective."
The ghost leaned forward, glaring at the Beast, so close to the more tangible monster that Trixie couldn't understand why his ectomorphic breath didn't tickle the nape of the Beast.
Traitor, whispered the spectral stallion like the echo of a distant rockfall. Thief. Warlock.
The ghost drew in a great chestful of imaginary air, and bellowed in the Beast's ear, STYGIAN!
And still, the loudest noise that enormous barbaric crimson-hued mass of ghostly muscles and sinew and bone could project was like a tumble of gravel displaced by a scurrying mouse.
Trixie couldn't help it, she giggled. Which proved to be a mistake, as both the imaginary stallion and the very, very real one turned their eyes to your narrator, glaring.
Oh, didn't Trixie mention it? While the ghost was attempting to scream into the Beast's ear, the Lord of Shadows had been awkwardly trying to apologize for his ill-behaved underling's rudeness towards Trixie.
"Dame Trixie! While I grant that Tally Stick's attitude left much to be desired, I must say that your attitude is not helping matters! My little cousin's lot in life was hardly an easy one even before the great kidnapping. This manor by all rights should have been hers in feoffment, not simply as castellan. I-"
"All apologies, your lordship. Trixie did not mean to insult or respond to insults, and she is, herself, penitent before your grace. Sometimes Trixie's temper runs away from her, and you must have noted her pride is perhaps, if only slightly, over-sufficient to requirements. Trixie will endeavor to make peace with your - is she a steward or a chatelaine?"
Trixie was now positive – both stallions were staring at her in disgust.
"You won't even look me in the eyes, Dame Trixie! If you won't take me seriously, I really have pressing business elsewhere," the Beast said, offended, and clearly feeling as if Trixie was mocking him. He pushed past Trixie to the sand-clock
At the same time, the ghost-stallion was rumbling something so indistinct, Trixie could not make it out, and indeed, Trixie was so distracted by the Beast turning over his enormous time-piece, that the grumbling of the re-setting gears drowned out whatever malediction the phantasm was sending in Trixie's direction.
The Beast stomped past Trixie again, and down the stairs, leaving your narrator alone with the angry, red-faced ghost.
Well, he was rather red all over, but the expression on the enormous phantasm was that which is usually associated with choler among your average pony. Not that this stallion had been average, even in life. Trixie recognized him now, now that she did not have a piqued alicorn prince of darkness to distract her from the raging ghost now advancing upon her.
The ghost-companion of Beardo, in that blasted stone-circle in the wilderness below the rail-line from Canterlot. The bearded stallion and, now that Trixie thought about it, the ancient eastern unicorn whose statue she had seen the other glass on the far side of the manor. The pieces were starting to fall into place, Trixie remembers having thought at the time –
If only a vast bellowing rage-ghost was not getting into Trixie's face, and distracting her from thoughts of magic and ritual and things seriously beyond a poor show-mare's knowledge and understanding.
"My Lord Ghost! The more you shout and bustle at Trixie, the less she is able to understand what it is you're on about! Kindly calm down and find your words!"
The phantom, enraged beyond all control, swung a transparent limb at Trixie, and she cringed, throwing up her hooves.
And he connected, knocking Trixie into the wall, and just barely avoiding driving her into the ticking time-piece.
"Ow! That hurt! What kind of ghost are you?"
Ghost? whispered the great ghost stallion. Thou thinkst me a ghost? I just knocked thee for a loop, thou blasted mare. Clearly I am as real as thee. See? And he kicked out a rear hoof, clearly expecting to splinter the bannister behind him.
And tumbled hoof over withers when his leg went right through the heavy oak bannister, and then fell through the wooden floor beneath him, as if the solid surface had, once broken, refused to maintain his considerable weight.
Trixie got up from where the ghost had thrown her, and walked over to where the ghost had disappeared, prodding the too, too solid surface of the turret-flooring. Solid oak, like the rest of the wooden surfaces and fittings of that sturdy space.
Trixie rapped on the planks through which the ghost had dropped. "Lord Ghost? I rather think we were in the midst of a discussion?"
Trixie clopped down the stairs, looking for her phantom. The chamber below the turret was hidden behind a closed door, but not, thankfully, a locked one. Trixie noted that her horn-glow had gone crimson again, but it revealed no baleful ghosts, nor vengeful ones, nor even an embarrassed one.
She checked several floors in succession, before she found a small library across the stairwell from the Beast's ritual space, and within that library, an embarrassed ghost hanging halfway through the floor, his left forehoof clinging precariously to a heavy, ancient-looking tome.
Well, they all looked ancient to Trixie, but this one was particularly substantial-looking, and strangely, in fairly good shape, given its neighbors on either side of it on the shelf in question. Trixie looked at the woebegone ghost-stallion, dangling by its hoof-hold on the book, and giving her half-annoyed, half-pleading colt-eyes.
"Find a friend, did you, Lord Ghost? Trixie cannot keep calling you this. Did you have a name in life, spirit?"
Bedamn thee, thou hoofmaiden of evil! Undo thy wicked spell, and restore to my hooves solid hoofing!
"Ah-ah-ah! First, names, Lord Spirit! Show me that you have some courtesy in your ghostly breast!'
Fine, fine, whispered the ghost. Thou perceivest before thee, one Rockhoof, serjeant and stalwart of the Mighty Helm, and companion to heroes and wizards.
Rockhoof, hero of ancient Equestria, legend of strength and power, exemplar, dweller-within of countless foals' books. Including, sadly enough, several Trixie remembered from her unlamented foaldom.
She'd always hated those blasted books. And now she'd have to figure out how to get her hateful haunt back onto solid ground.
Trixie, having agreed on her performer's honor to draw the ghostly stallion back from his precipice, inched towards the dangling phantom across what looked to Trixie's eyes to be a perfectly stable and solid oaken floor. But, however solid and tangible said planking appeared, it was still a fact that an enormous and red-tinted earth-pony was swaying back and forth like a somewhat anxious pendulum through the middle of that supposedly-solid floor, and Trixie was taking no chances.
The ghost's hoof had been solid enough when he had knocked Trixie halfway across the turret in which the Beast's sandclock ticked everypony's lives away.
Trixie probed carefully with her hooves, tapping on each plank as she advanced, even feeding a bit of magic into her ensorcelled shoes to put proper stress on her hoofing before she committed her full weight to each step.
What? Yes, of course Trixie wears horseshoes. Any pony who travels as much as Trixie does, who claims to go bare-hooved, is an arrant liar and a fool. Trixie knows that the bare-hooved look is the feminine ideal, and of course she is fully committed to making a proper display for Trixie's audiences. Trixie respects her audiences, and part of that respect is a full faith effort to look Trixie's absolute best for her lovely viewers.
See? Are they not gorgeous?
What, yes, of course she has her shoes on, here – there! See? No, that's not an illusion, that's her precious, precious thunder-forged horseshoes, twice enchanted by a specialist Trixie knows, and then ensorcelled again according to a series of cantrips Trixie learned when she was a youngling and first went on the road with her sibling's carnival.
Hmm? Yes, thunder-forged. Trixie has a farrier who specializes in this sort of thing, she shoes all of the cadets at Hobblehurst. Oh, no, no. These are not combat shoes, Trixie is a lover, not a fighter. But Trixie used to spend ten months of the year on the road, and on her hooves every single minute of those months. Trixie doesn't care how much ladylike stamina and resilience a mare might be able to boast of – hooves chip, they crack, they split – unless one puts a great deal of investment and effort into preserving and protecting one's hooves. Which Trixie has. Once Trixie's vardo was destroyed by that damnable star-bear, Trixie's shoes became the single most expensive possession she had to her name.
Well, until Trixie spent her savings on this amulet. But still! Excellent shoes! Absolutely vital to a young mare's career!
Trixie used her excellent shoes to probe the edges of the phenomena through which the ghost threatened to plummet, dangling over an entirely invisible precipice. And Trixie could find no gap, no weakness in the boards. They were there, until they were not, for whatever instant in which there was ghost and not planking as he swung through the flooring.
And then he ran into Trixie's extended left forearm, and the fireworks were back.
The library faded before the crimson burst of light, and Trixie's other three hooves, spread out to grip at her hoofing on the supposedly-solid floor, suddenly felt like they were frog-deep in something soft, permeable – almost wet.
And Trixie experienced the most amazing sensation, as if she had been, all this time, floating placidly in a strong river-current, holding her up, supporting her entire body. And then, all at once, the current reversed itself, and flung Trixie – not backwards, but in the opposite direction, as if every motion had been reversed and she floated, free for that one instant of a force she hadn't even been aware had been pushing her forward in time.
And then Trixie felt the instant end, and gravity re-asserted itself, and she felt her hooves begin to slip through the substance of the floor-boards.
Trixie may have panicked a bit.
Trixie's marvelous, ensorcelled shoes burned as they were born from their thunder-forges, crimson lightning licking her hooves and her frogs for just the slightest of seconds. That reflexive flow of magic stopped the slippage, whatever had caused it, and then…
The world made physical sense again. Trixie was on firm, if somewhat scorched, oak planks. Her left forelimb was still in contact with the ghost, who was staring awkwardly over his shoulder, still straining to keep hold of the book on that shelf.
But at least his pendulum-motion was stilled, though he still dangled right through the planks upon which Trixie was standing.
Trixie licked her lips, and pulled back her arm, and tapped her chin with the edge of her hoof.
Trixie shuffled to one side, and reached down with her magic hoof to take a grasp of the ghost's right thigh. He started to struggle again, and Trixie, irate, clipped him one across the back of his crest just under that preposterous mane-style.
"Stop struggling, and give me your leg!"
Trixie grabbed the dangling leg again, and lifted it, carefully. The poor stallion went into a strange contortion, as if he were being held up by some force mightier than Trixie's feeble mare hooves – as if a giant was pulling him to one side. Trixie tried to not think about what she was doing, as she concentrated, and brought that leg back down, so that his knee hovered just over the planking. His leg glowed with the amulet's power, and she laid his knee down, putting it into contact with the surface. And…
It took his weight.
"Try to use that as a leverage-point, Sir Ghostling."
Augh! How didst thou do that? What am I kneeling upon?
"The same thing I'm standing on, you doofus. The floor. Here, get your other leg up. Come on, stop being so damned shy, I'm not going to grab anything else down there. And get that tail out of my face, big boy!"
After a bit of struggling and uncomfortable weirdness, Trixie had gotten reality and Rockhoof back into a détente with each other, and he lay there, quivering with reaction, his now-solid forelegs stretched over the library floor like a half-drowned mare hugging dry land.
"Not that Trixie is exactly sure what just happened, but she'd like to offer as a hypothesis that this was because you took a swing at her precious self. Try not to do that again, Trixie's not sure what would have happened if you had been on solid land, instead of most of the way up a tower."
The ghost of the earth-pony just kept wittering on about the wonders of solidity, and Trixie took that as acquiescence. This gave her time to plan out how to sneak this inconvenient phantom out of the Beast's fastness. Trixie wasn't quite sure if other ponies would be able to see her haunt. She supposed that she could just parade the stallion right through the grand hall, and if it was now visible to the others, all her troubles were at an end.
Well, more or less.
But if the late Rockhoof was now Trixie's personal retribution from a blind and judgmental fate? She didn't quite trust herself to not react to her new semi-tangible acquaintance's rough starts and demands. Trixie wasn't quite sure how exactly the Beast would respond to Trixie acting as if an invisible companion was present, but she strongly suspected her future fate might feature a nice padded slot in the Beast's half-built stone-cabinet if she wasn't careful.
In the end, Trixie coaxed the somewhat addled ghost off of his stomach, and back up on his hooves, and prodded him down the stairs. Really, fall through a half-dozen floors of an ancient, creepy castle-tower, and some ponies just lose all composure and self-assurance.
As they passed through the great hall, Trixie fell back a bit, and let the crimson-glowing phantom stallion walk unsteadily across the somewhat filthy rush-covered stone floor, looking to see if they had any audience observing them.
What doth we here, witch? the stallion suddenly blurted out, as he looked back and forth between the doorways leading to the other tower and the kitchens on the one hoof, and the stairwell down to the main gate. I have been here before. Stygian's squalid little fortified tower. So house-proud, the little warlock. Never thought he wouldst come back here after he stole away our magic, our power for himself.
The ghost of Rockhoof turned to stare up at the two thrones, the one cleared of its clutter, the other full of rubbish.
I imagine he returned to his seat of authority, when the wizard's grand plan failed to contain his evil. We did fail, did we not? This land, it clearly groans under the shadowy yoke of the Pony of Shadows. Equestria has fallen, it were all for naught. He fell to his haunches, thumping solidly down on top of the dirty straw and stonework.
All unicorns be damned anyhow.
"Ha!" laughed your narrator, doing her best to ignore the ghostly earth-pony's tribalism. "As if all the troubles in the world can be laid at our hooves, you great blustery fool. What makes you think this is Equestria?"
What? blinked the great lummox at Trixie. It is the Old Bailey. The Old Bailey is in Equestria. What foolish riddle is this?
"Trixie rather thinks that there has been no Old Bailey in Equestria for some fourteen hundred years, Sir Ghost. She has lived most of her life in Equestria and this, Sir Ghost, is not Equestria. We stand in some afterlife, or worldlet, or fragment of existence floating in what Trixie knows not. Probably not the void? Although she is less certain of that than she was before you nearly fell into whatever lies beneath this place. Seeing physical objects slide through each other like fish through water rather leads one to lose faith in reality as a thing, don't you think?"
The ghost made a face at this little speech, which Trixie rather thought was worth taking pride in, but she supposes you can't please everyone.
That maketh my head hurt. I believe I need to see this with mine own eyes. The exit lies below, or has that changed as well as what world we findeth ourselves within?
And down we went, down the stairwell to the outside world, such as it was. The ghost paused before the polished shield that had pride of place in the foyer, saying nothing, but looking troubled.
"Sir Ghost! Please, Trixie does not wish to linger here where somepony who is not a ghost might find her in conversation with – she is not at all sure if others will see you."
He sighed, and pushed his way through the doors into the courtyard. The heavy timbers of the doors themselves parted for him as if he were a living, breathing pony. Trixie was blessed once again with a lack of audience. She was beginning to adore this dingy, dark half-world – when she needed an audience, it appeared; when she needed them to go do something else, they were nowhere to be found. It was as if they knew her intentions before Trixie knew them herself!
Trixie subtly guided the ghost-serjeant out of the compound, and followed him as he stomped through the abandoned little manor-village, door after door barred against the mist and the occasional Harrier. Trixie thought of the hundreds of obsidian shards lying in their mostly-padded cubby-holes in the Beast's cabinet, and wondered what this place looked like when all of its inhabitants were out and about, bustling in the infinite tasks of rural industry.
Where are all the ponies? whispered Rockhoof in his voice like shifting sands. There should be… ponies.
"Trixie has been told that the magic of this realm can only support a hoof-full of ponies at any one time. The Beast rations existence among his minions, equitably as far as Trixie can tell, if in a somewhat utilitarian fashion."
The Beast… Rockhoof rumbled a ghostly laugh. Do you call him such to his face? It is a good name for him. More proud than the sly sneaking colt deserves, though. And taketh away all responsibility for his culpability for what he hath become. That were his choice, thou witchy thing, you.
Trixie wrinkled her muzzle at this – the ghost was recovering his pride, and with it, his lack of manners.
We passed beyond the village, and the empty farmer's hovels, and Trixie noted that the crimson ghost's hooves were drawn as if by magnets outwards in a spiral, towards the distant hazy bulk of one of the great statues, on an edge of the manor into which Trixie had not yet ventured. The mists were rising again, and moisture beaded on the tumbledown fences and weeds by the side of the way. Trixie found herself wondering of what use fences were in a world without wild animals.
Well, aside from the Harriers. Which Trixie had neither seen, nor heard from in a good number of watches. The two of us came to the foot of the ghost's own great statue, in a sort of clearing between two arms of wildwood curling into the heart of the manor from outside. The clearing was full of high grass, growing wild itself, and the bare bones of a dead hovel was visible at the mouth of the clearing, as if it had been given even less attention than the abandoned dwellings closer to the center of the manor.
Roofhoof looked up at his own stony visage, an indescribable expression upon his great bearded muzzle.
The Pony of Shadows built a… monument to me? What in the seven seas did that warlock think he was about?
"Trixie is not at all sure that any pony made those statues. She hasn't examined all of them in detail, but they are cleverly made, and would have taken a great deal of effort by many sculptors to create. The Lord of Shadows can barely keep his larders full, and hasn't even managed to build a proper cabinet. He almost certainly does not have a corps of masons hidden in a croft somewhere in this place. That is your face, is it not, Sir Ghost?"
Kindly cease ‘sirring' me, thou witchy perplexity. I have never been knighted; I work for a living.
"Ha! Then maybe you might consider not ‘thouing' me, if you're nothing but a humble serjeant, Mister Rockhoof. Even the Lord of Shadows is polite enough to grant me a ‘Dame'. My name is Trixie, and I am not a witch."
Are you not? asked the ghost. …Dame Trixie, is it? Well enough.
He looked away from Trixie again, up into the face of the evidence of his posterity. Not in Equestria, are we?
"No, Serjeant. Nor in your era. Not by millennia, from what the Lord of Shadows says. And I have observed. You are a legend, you know. Rockhoof of the Mighty Helm. Protector of the weak, scourge of the monster and the beast and those who would subjugate ponies. Where is your helmet? With the horns?"
Helmet? What helmet? Oh, the Helm. No, no, that was never the meaning of the name, Dame Trixie. Although Flash always mocked us for it. The Helm was our steady hoof upon the tiller of our nation. Our command stood in the helm, and directed our ship upon uncertain seas. Even when the great abomination tore us away from our neighbors, and gifted us terrors and confusion in their stead.
"The Beast said certain things about that, but Trixie still doesn't understand. Why has she never heard these stories of towns and cities torn away from their proper homes before?"
Do not look at me, Dame Trixie. For I, I was engaged in banishing the damnable Pony of Shadows not an hour ago. Worlds come and gone in the moment it took me to blink. The ghost turned away from his statue, and sat on his haunches, looking back at the distant tower which was disappearing in the rising mist.
I was a yearling, still a foal when the skies turned mad, and the adults they all lost their minds. Many never quite found them again – their senses. Our elders were always a bit mad. In some ways it helped, in others, their judgment was often… lacking. We were blessed, compared to some. The great thief stole not simply our villages and isles, but an entire archipelago, and several peninsulas as well, the entire Helmmark, or near as much as made no difference. The griffons found in us no easy mark, I can tell you that, no, nor the bugbears either, nor the lumber bears, nor any of the insanities the draconequus laid around our lands like fencing, or barriers against our might.
I grew up under the rule of the Mighty Helm, and grew strong in their example. We found ponies here and there, and brought them under our protection. No two groups had the same story to tell. And then Stygian appeared, at a moment when we needed somepony clever. And the warlock was clever enough – his suit was clever, in spades. No magic to speak of, but cleverness by the bucketful.
I cannot believe how easily we fell into his clutches, fell in with his schemes. So clever, so sly. So often right. It is hard to not put your trust in somepony who is always right. Gave him too much credit, and then he cashed it all out, did he not? Wait – what is that barking?
And the ghost was correct. There was some sort of commotion on the far side of the copse of wildwood to our right – and Trixie thought she recognized that noise.