Rumble hates winter. It reminds him of everything he's lost. So when the Doctor takes him back to visit a Frost Faire, he's less than happy. Things only get worse when murder enters into the matter. Will this Hearth's Warming be Rumble's last?
Rumble is feeling grumpy. He always is, especially in winter. He hates winter. It's nothing but a reminder of the family he lost, and the night he nearly died. So, when the Doctor takes him back to Hearth's Warming Eve in Old Lawndon, the pegasus is less than happy. Things only get worse when the duo are dragged into a web of murder and intrigue at the Frost Faire. Aided only by a carnival worker and attacked by undead monsters, this may be the last Hearth's Warming for the entire world.
Violence tag for domestic violence and a fight in the middle of a fire. Death tag for lots of things actually, it's a bit morbid. Gore tag for zombies, basically. Also, this work contains references to homophobia and transphobia.
INTRODUCING Our Hero as he Breaks His Fast and Bids a Friend Farewell
Lawndon, Winter of 702 CE: He was being hunted. The stallion’s eyes flickered from side to side, his tongue darting out to lick his lips. A trash bin’s lid crashed behind him, and he spun around with his horn already glowing. With a yowl, the cat sprang away from its late dinner, angry for being interrupted. Dr. Climber sighed, the tension leaving him. Only a cat. He turned back around to continue home. He would be safe at home. He could FIX this at—
He was found by a policeman the next morning. The blood from where his throat had been shredded discolored the purity of the fresh snow.
Rumble stood, shivering, in a patch of snow that came up to his knees. The cold bit into his flesh and gnawed at his bones. He could barely breathe for fear of inhaling the fine, dry chips of ice in the air. He stumbled forward, throwing himself against the great curved wall of glass that imprisoned him. He bounced off harmlessly, only succeeding in wiping away a little frost. Teeth chattering, he rubbed off more of the icy coating and peered through to see what was outside. A face stared back, young and innocent. It was easily big enough for Rumble to use the bridge of its nose as a chair without causing any discomfort to either party. It was his own face, as a child. The ribbons in his hair swung slightly in a breeze Rumble couldn't feel in the snowglobe. Younger Rumble stared at the snow globe for a second. Then, with a smile, he let it drop. As Rumble and his prison entered free-fall, he opened his mouth to scream...
Ponyville, Winter of 6 BAT:The sound of shattering glass echoed in Rumble’s ears as he awoke with a start. He sat upright for a long moment, clutching his pillow against his chest as he slowly allowed himself to relax. It was all a dream. Only a memory, now. He set the pillow down with a deep sigh. What time was it? Time to get up, anyway. Grumbling, he kicked back the covers and rolled out of bed. Poking his head out the door, he glanced to see if the bathroom was free. The door, unfortunately, was shut, and judging by the off-off-Bridleway quality of the booming voice within, Rumble guessed that his brother would be in the shower for some time yet, doing his mane up. He decided to have breakfast, instead.
The kitchen was a disaster area, bowls and dishes everywhere. Finding a few dishes that weren't too dirty, Rumble fixed himself a bowl of cereal and a glass of grape juice. The other pony present watched him idly through heavy and baggy eyes as she enjoyed her hardboiled egg. “That's disgusting,” she observed, regarding Rumble’s meal with derision. “Swear to Celestia, I will never understand ponies who drink milk, it’s disgusting. You know where that stuff comes from.”
“Yeah, yeah, we're the scum at the top of every carton,” Rumble muttered. “You say that every day, Cloudy. Ever convince anypony to change to eating cereal with orange juice?”
“What's got you in such a mood?” Cloudchaser asked. “Can't be my moronic sister, or your idiot brother, they're both still in the bathroom. I don't even think they’re even doing anything in there.”
“Nightmare,” Rumble replied brusquely, digging into his mushy cereal with a vengeance.
The other pegasus winced. “Oh. Sorry.” After a beat, she asked, “Wanna talk about it?”
Rumble scowled into his cornflakes. “I’d sooner stick my tongue in a toaster.”
“Right.” Cloudchaser shrugged. “You wanna do things your way, do ‘em your way. You wanna deal with this stuff, y’know, healthily? Then we can talk.”
Rumble’s spoon poked viciously at his cereal. “Nothing left to deal with,” he growled. “I think we all know where we stand. I think we’ve known for about the last five years.”
“Yeah? So you know—” she was interrupted by a sudden cheerful cry of greeting from behind her.
“Good morning, Rumble!” Flitter chirped, grinning far brighter than anyone had a right to at half-past six in the morning. “How are you today?”
Rumble took a long look at the perky, perennially upbeat pegasus that his brother was dating. “Fine,” he said, shooting a warning look at Cloudchaser. What else, after all, could he say? If he mentioned the nightmare to Flitter, she’d be on him like a mother hen in no time flat.
Cloudy eyeballed him for a long moment, then turned to look at her twin sister. “So. What’s on the agenda today?”
Flitter looked at the fridge and pulled off the weather management schedule. “Looks like light flurries today, followed by major snowfall tonight.”
Cloudchaser groaned. “Oh, goody goody, dealing with the Snow Department again, what fun. Buncha artsy-fartsy weirdos. What do they care if a snowflake isn’t an original? No one looks at them individually! And Celestia forbid you put one of their ‘babies’ at the bottom of a drift, but make sure it’s the first one to fall! Sheesh.”
Flitter shrugged. “At least we don’t have to deal with them personally,” she said.
“Heh. True. Really makes you feel bad for Rainbow, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Thunderlane agreed, trotting into the kitchen. “I tell ya, I wouldn’t want to be head of weather for all the gold in Canterlot.” He paused, considering. “Actually, yeah. Yeah, I would.”
“Morning,” Rumble said.
“Oh, hey bro. How’s life?”
“That bad, huh?”
“I’m fine,” Rumble repeated.
“Alright. Okay,” Thunderlane agreed. “You’re fine. Great. Oh, hey, you got any plans this afternoon?”
Rumble frowned. “Not really. Button, Scoots, and Sweetie are all on vacation, Bloom and her family are leaving for Manehattan today to visit family, and Dinky’s got a cold. Why?”
“Need you to go do some grocery shopping. Oh yeah, and the toaster’s finally fixed, so could you pick that up sometime?”
Rumble shrugged. “Sure.” He looked up at the clock. “Hey, don’t you guys have to be at work in half an hour?”
Flitter, Cloudchaser and Thunderlane froze. “BUCK!” Cloudchaser shouted as they all scrambled for their winter gear. “You guys! I didn’t even get to have a shower!”
“We’ll fly through a cloud on the way!” Flitter replied, throwing open the door and leaping into the air. “Come on!”
Rumble just rolled his eyes. Looked like he was on cleanup duty. Again. Sighing, he started to stack the plates and bowls, wondering if it wouldn’t just be easier to use disposable dishware.
“Arright! Haul ‘em up!” Apple Bloom called, balanced at the edge of the apple cart.
With a grunt, Applejack picked up a suitcase in her teeth and, with a flick of her head, threw it into the back of the cart. Grimacing, she rubbed at her jaw before moving on to the next one. Bloom, meanwhile, was stacking the cases neatly against the sides of the wagon, taking care to leave enough room for Granny to ride along. The old mare herself was waiting impatiently on the porch. “Hurry up, ya whippersnappers,” she called. “Train’s gonna be gettin’ here soon!”
“Not fer another hour’n a half, Granny,” Mac corrected from his place at the front of the wagon to which he was hitched. “We got plenty of time.”
“Hmph! Well, mebee you young’ns do, but I’m an old mare. Yes indeedy! Could go at any second, and I’d rather do it on a train than out here!”
Apple Bloom frowned. “Why’s that?”
The old mare grinned. “More folk to see me croak, more dramatic it’ll be.” She cackled at that.
Applejack rolled her eyes. “Y’all have been alive fer near a century already, Granny. Ye’ll forgive me iffin I’m doubtin’ yer gonna drop anytime soon.”
The old mare smirked. “Respect yer elders,” she replied, sitting back in her old rocking chair.
Suddenly, a flutter of grey caught Mac’s eye. He glanced over to see Bloom’s friend, Rumble coming in for a landing. Mac nodded a greeting. He liked Rumble. That colt was probably the most stable and rational of any of his littlest sister’s friends. Heck, he could be more rational than most of Applejack’s friends, too. Well, except perhaps Princess Twilight. He stared off into the distance, suddenly lost in a sea of purple dreams. Fortunately, nopony noticed. It was one of the benefits of being a wallflower. “Howdy, Rumble!” Apple Bloom said, leaping down from the wagon. “Whatcha doin’ here?”
“Thunderlane’s got me doing the shopping. I thought I’d say goodbye before your train left.”
Apple Bloom grinned. “Aw, shoot, that’s nice of ya.” She threw her hooves open and wrapped him in a warm embrace. “See ya in a week,” she said, letting go.
Granny Smith, meanwhile, had sat bolt upright, frowning at the colt. Were her eyes finally giving up the ghost, or— No. He had flinched, she was sure of it. When Apple Bloom had thrown her hooves around him, he had blanched like he was about to be struck. Granny was old enough to count gossip as one of the few pastimes she had left, and she had most certainly been around long enough to catch on to equine nature. “You there! Bumble! Stumble!” Blast it, what was that colt’s name? “Grumble! Come here and help an old mare close up her house.”
The pegasus paused for a moment, uncertain. “Are ya deaf?” Granny shouted. “Iffin y’are, I can lend you an ear trumpet! But I need you t’help me lock up the doors’n’windows!”
She trotted inside imperiously, and Rumble found himself drawn in after her.
IN WHICH Our Hero Spins his Tale and Visits the Lord of Time
Rumble looked around the darkened foyer with concern. It was a family home, that much was certain— it practically oozed love and warmth from the walls. There was a glass vase on the top of the mantle. Rumble stared at it for a long moment. It was only a vase. Red glass, shiny, would look good with some flowers in it. That’s all. He shuddered and moved on into the kitchen, where Granny was waiting.
“There y’are, ya young lollygagger. Come on over here and help an old mare!” Granny said, pulling out a chair and pushing it over to the kitchen windows. “Climb up there and lock ‘em up.”
He did so, but as he was in the process of locking the last one, Granny continued, “Now, supposin’ you tell me what th’ matter is, eh?”
Rumble froze. “I— I don’t know what-”
“Don’t lie t’Granny, Tumble,” the old mare snorted. “There’s a reason it was mah granddaughter that made Element o’ Honesty.”
Granny Smith sighed. “Is ev’rything alright at home? Yer parents treatin’ y’alright?”
Rumble’s face hardened. “I haven’t got parents,” he said, steel in his voice. “Not anymore.”
Granny blinked. “Oh,” she said. “Ah’m right sorry t’hear that. I lost my son and daughter-in-law some time back. Do ya wanna talk-”
“Not like that,” Rumble interrupted. “They’re still alive. They just… aren’t my parents anymore.”
“...Y’all wanna run that by ol’ Granny once more, Fumble?”
Rumble sighed. “I… okay. Fine.” He turned around, scowling. “I doubt that you’re going to let this go, so, fine. But I want a Pinkie Promise that none of this leaves the room.”
“Aight. How does that ol’ chestnut go? Ack-hem! Bless me ol’ heart, cross my eyes, stick an apple in th’ pie,” the old mare said.
“Right. Granny, you know that… sometimes… stallions like… other stallions? Instead of mares?”
Granny chuckled. “Ah, so that’s it. Don’t you worry ‘bout that. Lotta mah kinfolk are the same way. M’self, Ah’ve always subscribed to the ‘Whosoever Will’ Doctrine -- you ever heard of that? “Whosoever will, let him, or her, or them, come.” Ooh, Celestia, Ah have got some stories…”
“Uh… right,” said Rumble. He paused, took a breath. “And, um, you know that sometimes ponies are born in the… wrong body. For their gender.”
“Well, certainly ah do. More’n a few o' them in the ol’ Apple Family Tree there, too. Ah remember when mah sister came out, tol’ our parents that she wanted to be called Ida Red. Celestia’s sake, poor mare was so nervous, Ah think she thought we was gonna… throw her… out… oh.”
“Got it in one,” Rumble agreed grimly.
The old mare’s brow darkened and she pursed her lips tight. “Well. If that ain’t the lowest thing Ah ever did hear tell of...” She caught a glimpse of the pegasus’s face and paused. “Who-all’s lookin’ after ya, then?”
“My big brother. He’s got a place with his marefriend and her sister, so I just kinda moved in.” He forced a chuckle. “Sometimes, though, I wonder who’s looking after who.”
The old mare’s face was still drawn and grim. “Ah’m sorry. Shouldn’t have pried.”
“No. You shouldn’t have.” Rumble sighed. “But I know you. You only did it because you cared. I forgive you.”
“Welcome. That all for the windows?”
“Hm? Oh, yes.”
Rumble nodded. “I’d better get going, then. Errands to run.”
“Humble!” Granny called after him. He paused, turning back to look at the old mare. Her lined face was full of concern. "When Ah call ya by th' wrong name... Ah ain't never called you by the... wrong name?"
"No, Granny. You're not likely to run into it by accident, either."
"Good, good." She hesitated. "Ah bin' round fer awhile now, young'n. Ah've loved, Ah've lost, an' Ah like t' think Ah learned a thing or two. So... if y’ever need to talk.”
He nodded. “Thanks, It’s been about five years now, so I think I’m alright, but thanks.”
He walked out the door. Granny Smith sighed and sat down heavily. She pulled a bottle of cider out of a cupboard. “One for th’ road? Yes please, thank you very much…”
She looked at the door contemplatively, taking a long swig of the foaming amber liquid. “T’aint fair,” she murmured. “Poor child. Who’d want t’ leave ‘im out in the cold like that?”
Rumble winced as he fluttered down the road. The wind was fierce now, and icy. He’d always hated this time of year. It was cold and miserable and blank. Others might have found the snow comforting, but to Rumble, it was nothing but ice and stark misery.
When he was four, he’d fallen into a snowdrift. His father had lifted him out, brushing away his tears and getting him to a hot bath and a mug of hot cocoa.
When he was eight, he’d gotten hurt in a hockey game. His mother had given him a bandage, a kiss, and a candy cane.
When he was twelve, on a cold, dark evening, he’d told his parents that his name was 'Rumble,' and he still had a crush on that colt from school. Neither one had picked him up that time.
Rumble glared at the snow as though it had personally offended him. He trudged along a little faster. The sooner he got to the shops, the sooner he could go home, and the sooner he could get out of the snow.
“There you are, madame Mayor,” the Doctor said, smiling. “One cuckoo clock, good as new!”
Mayor Ivory Scroll gave the stallion a long look. “You did add that special feature?”
“Yes ma’am. The clock won’t chime between the hours of nine in the evening and eight in the morning,” the Doctor replied.
She breathed out a sigh of relief. “Thank Celestia,” she said. “That thing kept me up half the night, and it’s an heirloom, of course, so I can’t get rid of the Tartarus-forsaken thing.”
“I’ll make sure she gets your thanks,” the Doctor grinned.
“I— who— oh. OH.” Ivory blushed. “Well. I suppose without the sun and moon, we’d have nothing to set the clocks by.”
“True enough,” the Doctor agreed with a smile. Then he caught a glance at the clock’s face. “Oh, dear, is that the time? Must be going…”
The mayor’s ears perked up. “Are you going on an adventure?” she asked hopefully. “Full of danger and exciting things and… maybe… handsome stallions?”
The Doctor looked at her. “No. It’s my tea break.”
Ivory turned as deep a crimson as her official sealing wax. The Doctor smiled. “Don’t worry. I promise, I’ll be glad to take you along sometime.”
“That would be nice,” she agreed with a small smile, “but I’m afraid I just don’t have the—” she paused for a moment and snickered. “I just don’t have the time,” she concluded, shoulders shaking with laughter.
The Doctor watched with raised eyebrows as, still chortling, the mayor took her leave. “Don’t have the time,” she repeated, shaking her head. “Oh, I’ll have to remember that for the council meeting, they’ll love it.”
“Right,” the Doctor said to himself. “And, with that brief reminder that every living being in this town is absolutely bonkers, I could really go for a cuppa.”
Whistling a theme from an opera idly, he popped out to lock the door, only to be confronted with a familiar face. “Oh! Hello there, Rumble!”
“Hi, Doctor.” He seemed distracted.
After a long pause, the Doctor prompted, “Is there something you wanted?”
Rumble shook himself out of his stupor. “Oh. Yeah, I’m here to pick up the toaster?”
“Ah. Well, actually, I was just about to close up for a bit…”
The pegasus seemed quite distraught, the Doctor thought. “Ere! Why don’t you come in? I’d hate to leave one of my daughter’s friends out in the cold like this. Come in, I’m making tea.”
He trotted toward the back room and, after a moment’s hesitation, Rumble followed him.
The back of the repair shop was fairly spacious. Rumble looked around, frowning. “Where are all the…”
“Tools?” the Doctor suggested. “Right here.”
He waved toward a table standing against the wall. It appeared, at first glance, to be empty, but looking closer, Rumble saw a bronze cylinder with a light at the end. “The sonic screwdriver,” the Doctor said, grinning. “Beautiful little thing- does just about everything. Cuts wires, undoes locks, fixes toasters— once, I even used it as an actual screwdriver!”
“Wow. That’s impressive,” Rumble replied.
“Isn’t it just?” the Doctor beamed, not noticing the dullness of the pegasus’s tone, nor his slouching posture. “Mind, it doesn’t do wood. But I’m working on that.”
“So! What would you like? Earl Grey? Green? Oolong? I’ve got some more obscure varieties, too…”
“Whatever you’ve got is good.”
This time the Doctor paused, setting the kettle down, and turned to look at Rumble more closely. “You alright there? You seem a bit out of it.”
Rumble stared sullenly into space. “I’m fine,” he replied flatly. “I’m just…” he trailed off, lost for words.
“Hm.” The Doctor stared at him for a long moment. “You know what you need?”
“Nah, nah. Well. Maybe that, too. But what you need is a trip. Take yourself out of things for awhile.”
He walked over to the TARDIS and patted its side gently. He looked over at Rumble, brows raised. “Well? How ‘bout it?”
Rumble hesitated. On the one hoof, he had things to do here— grocery shopping, getting home, and so forth. On the other hoof… well, he could do with a break. And it was a time machine, after all… “Alright,” he agreed, a small smile forming. “Let’s do it.”
WHEREIN Our Heroes Visit Old Lawndon for a Merry Hearth's Warming
“So!” the Doctor exclaimed as he trotted around the console, flipping switches and pressing buttons, “Where to? Ancient Spurta? The Tenochtitlan Basin? The far future or the distant past? On Gaea or off?”
Rumble shrugged. “Surprise me,” he said.
“Oh, come on, you have to have somewhere you want to go!”
“Right now, ‘anywhere but here’ sounds nice.”
The Doctor frowned momentarily, but then shrugged. “Alright then! Let’s see, where shall we go… Ah!” Leaning forward, he pushed a few more buttons, pulled a lever, and with a violent shaking and groaning, they were off.
Rumble picked himself up from where he’d fallen. “Sheesh. Rough takeoff much?”
“Actually, that one was pretty decent, all things considered,” the Doctor said, rubbing the back of his head and grinning sheepishly. “This was always meant to have five more pilots…”
“So… why don’t you?”
The Doctor hesitated. “I… may or may not have borrowed her without permission.”
“You stole the TARDIS?”
“Stole is such a strong word,” the Doctor said breezily. “I prefer… liberated. Or borrowed, perhaps. Anyway, doesn’t matter now, we’re here.”
Rumble did a double take. “We are?”
“Yeah. Great thing about time travel, it doesn’t really take you any more time to travel a thousand centuries into the future of a far distant planet than it takes to get you to the chemist’s five minutes ago.”
“And we are…”
The Doctor nodded at the doors. “Why don’t you take a look?”
Rumble eyed him suspiciously, but slowly trotted toward the doorway. Pushing through, he felt an icy-cold breeze tickle his mane, fresh snowflakes sticking in his coat. Directly in front of him was a brick wall, but turning his head to the right, he saw well-lit shops and merrily burning street lights, a cheerful street full of jovial ponies. The festive smell of roasting apples and fresh cinnamon was strong in the air, and merry laughter echoed from a pub up the road. The pegasus promptly pulled his head back into the time ship. The Doctor grinned broadly. “Hearth’s Warming Eve, 702. The middle of Equestria’s first major industrial revolution. Lawndon. Whaddya think?”
Rumble shook the snowflakes from his pelt. “Try again,” he said shortly.
The Doctor’s face fell. “What?” he gasped. “What’s wrong with it? It’s perfectly lovely! Practically something out of a storybook, that’s how good it is. Well,” he added conscientiously, “At least, if you’re rich. Less so if you’re not, but all told, your lot did pretty good here. Better than Earth, anyway.”
“Fine. Great history lesson. Can we go now? I have… bad memories about winter.”
The Doctor studied him. “Bad memories.”
Rumble glared back. “Yes.”
The Time Lord nodded. “There’s a cure for that, you know,” he offered. “Bad memories, I mean.”
“I thought you weren’t that kind of doctor,” Rumble said warily.
“What, you mean medical?” He pulled a face. “Nah. But I’ve lived long enough to pick up a couple things, y’know.”
Rumble waited a few moments. The Doctor merely looked at him, eyebrows raised and mouth quirked. The pegasus sighed, deflating. “Fine. What’s your cure?”
The Doctor grinned and trotted toward Rumble. “The cure for bad memories? Well. There’s only one tried-and-true method of doing that.” He leaned in close to the colt’s ear, then paused and leaned back to study him intently. “You ready for this? I mean, really ready?”
Rumble rolled his eyes. “Yes,” he replied flatly.
“Right. The cure is…” the Doctor leaned forward to whisper in Rumble’s ear. “Go and make some good ones.” Then, with a grin, he pushed forwards through the doors, taking a very surprised Rumble with him.
The colt struggled to rise from the snowdrift, half out of surprise and half from the cold. He rose for the briefest of moments, just long enough to see the Doctor turn the key in the TARDIS door—and then tumbled back into the pile of snow once more with a grunt. A brown hoof wrapped round his barrel and helped him upright. The Doctor grinned brightly at Rumble. “Allons-y!”
The pegasus glared at the Time Lord. “Is summer too much to ask?” he grumbled.
“Oh, come off it. Winter’s brilliant! Besides, you can’t just spend your life hating an entire quarter of the year.”
“Watch me,” Rumble shot back.
“We’re going to go have a nice warm cider,” the Doctor said firmly. “Then, we can go skating, or build a snow fort or something. After we’re done with that, if you still hate winter, fine. But at least give it a go, yeah?”
The colt hesitated. The Doctor was looking at him with a mixture of hope and determination in his eyes. “Yeah, fine,” Rumble sighed. It did sound like a pretty nice time, after all.
The Doctor’s face split into a wide grin. “That’s the spirit,” he said, cantering down the alleyway. “I can taste that cider now. Not as good as a banana daiquiri, mind, but still...”
Rumble set off after him, a faint smile developing on his own face.
It was, Rumble admitted to himself, a pretty good argument in favor of winter. The atmosphere was so full of Hearth’s Warming cheer that it practically tasted like pine sap and cloves. The streets thronged with merry holiday well-wishers. Even the flickering yellowish fires of the streetlamps seemed to crackle with more jolliness than usual. Every now and again, Rumble found himself smiling. But then, his eyes would drift to the dark snow clouds above, or the deep drifts, or a row of icicles, and his grin would melt in much the way that they currently weren’t. The Doctor was not oblivious to this, and his brow wrinkled as he thought. What event could have occurred in Rumble’s life to cause such a hatred of snow and ice? When he noticed the colt staring up at him, he quickly brightened. “Good cider, hey?” he grinned.
“Yeah,” the colt admitted. “I don’t usually have it warm. It’s good. Almost better than Sweet Apple Acres cider.”
“Well, I’d be surprised if the pony who made it wasn’t some sort of ancestor to that lot.” He frowned. “Have you noticed, they’ve got something of a monopoly on the market?”
Rumble shrugged. “Dunno. Maybe apple ponies attract other apple ponies, or something.”
“Like attracts like? Yes, I suppose— Rumble, are you alright?”
The colt had suddenly winced like he’d taken a punch to the gut. “Fine,” he replied gruffly. “Just got a bit of a headache.”
The Doctor tutted. “Here, let’s sit for a little while.” He trotted to a nearby bench and plopped down.
Rumble slid onto the bench next to the Time Lord. The crowd continued to bustle around them, barely giving them a second glance.
The two sat in silence for several minutes. “You want to talk about it?”
“Already been over this once today. Rather not do it again,” Rumble replied brusquely.
“Fair,” the Doctor nodded. “This have something to do with your parents?”
“What parents?” Rumble retorted.
“Ah.” The Doctor stared into space. “I never really got on with my parents, either.”
“Hnh,” Rumble grunted.
“They didn't think I’d ever make a Time Lord. Dad never supported me, and Mum never stood up to him. My brother, Brax, he was the golden child.”
“Yeah? They ever throw you out?”
“I think I was disowned after I, ah, liberated the TARDIS. Maybe not quite the same thing, but I get the idea.”
Rumble was silent. “Why?” the Doctor asked, eyes growing hard and cold.
Rumble got up. “Let's go do something,” he said. “Ice skating, you said?”
The Doctor stared at him for a moment longer, then grinned, relaxing. “Sure. That sounds brilliant. Right, the rink ought to be… this way. Allons-y!”
In a moment, it had turned to pandemonium. In a fraction of a second, smiles had frozen, turned plastic and dangerous. Love withered and fear bloomed. The vase barely missed his head. Rumble flew out the front door into the bitter winter night, his tears turning to ice.
WHICH INTRODUCES a Mystery, an Ally, and a Funfair
The Doctor paused at the edge of the frozen lake. “Ah. I’d forgotten about this.”
Rumble stared. Tents and stalls and shacks covered the ice, looking for all the world like… “A circus?”
“Fair, technically, but basically, yeah. Sort of like a great big midway. Games, clowns, sideshow exhibits, maybe a couple rides… It's fun!”
Rumble regarded the high, fluttering flags and balloons of the fair with mild curiosity. “Alright. Let's go.”
“Really? Molto bene! Oh, you are going to love this.”
Rumble followed behind the Doctor. He regretted this already.
“Where is that stallion?” the ringmaster growled. “I need to find him so I can throw him out on his ear!”
“Mr. de Raptor, I ask you to reconsider,” the pegasus standing by him said. “Dr. Climber has been—”
“A nuisance, a pain, and a drain on our cash box for too long,” the griffon snapped. “He constantly asks for more money for his precious experiments, which makes the others demand more money as well.”
“He’s also been one of our largest draws,” the pegasus noted, leafing through a journal. “His tent was responsible for almost half of our income last month.”
“Fine, then we’ll keep the tent,” the ringmaster retorted. “But Climber has to go. When I let him show his freaks here, out of the goodness of my heart—”
“I seem to recall lots of begging and pleading. Not on his part, either,” the pegasus said drily.
The griffon eyeballed her. “Out of the GOODNESS of my heart, I expected him to bring in some sort of shaved monkey, like the Fiji Human. A fake seapony or changeling, perhaps. Maybe bring in some statues, call them… what’s that new thing called?”
“Hm, yes, that. Utter nonsense, of course, but John Q. Public doesn’t know that.”
“Oh, you know, that government stallion, the inspector that comes to approve our show,” the griffon replied. “Dumb as a box of rocks. But that’s not the point! Those are all proper sideshow exhibits! Those,” he waved a talon in the general direction of the tent, “are not.”
The pegasus opened her mouth to reply, but snapped it shut quickly. “Visitors,” she hissed.
The ringmaster hesitated. “Look for Dr. Climber,” he muttered. “Bring him to me so I can have the pleasure of bouncing his plot onto the cobblestones once and for all.”
The mare sighed. “Yes, sir.”
“Bien. You’re an assistant in a million, Maple.”
The cream-colored pegasus smiled slightly and trotted away.
“Well?” the Doctor asked, trotting down the midway. “What d’ya think, eh? Pretty nice carnival?”
“It’s awfully quiet,” Rumble said, raising an eyebrow.
“Well, it’s only just opened for the day,” the Time Lord replied with a shrug. “Means we’ve got the run of the place, hey? Where do you want to start?”
Rumble stopped and glanced around. Most of the booth workers regarded them with idle interest. “Why don’t we talk to him?” the colt suggested, nodding at a large griffon in a top hat. “He looks like he’s in charge.”
“Alright,” the Doctor agreed. “Ah, the powers of a good hat. I used to be obsessed with them. Wound up with an ugly little stovepipe, though.”
The griffon smiled broadly at their approach. “Bonjour, gentlemen,” he said with an accent so thick and cheesy it might as well have been melted mascarpone. “‘Ow may Ai aidez vous?”
“Well,” said the Doctor, “We’re quite new around these parts.What would you suggest?”
“Ah, monsieur, vous are in la place correct,” the griffon exclaimed, raising an eyebrow in what was probably meant to be a flamboyant manner. “Pour vous see, Ai am la ringmaster. I run this carnival and know all of its attractions.” He leaned in, dropping his voice dramatically. “And all of its secrets, n’est pas?”
Rumble leaned back from the griffon. He was too dramatic to be real, and his breath stank of fish. “So, uh, what would you suggest?” he asked.
The griffon sprang upright, tapping his beak with a claw. “Eh bien, there are many games to be played on the midway, of course… many fine foods for the pony to enjoy, yes… perhaps you would like to see the strong mare bend a bar of iron in half? Or, or, there are the shadow puppets! So lifelike, you would think them real.”
“And what about this tent? What’s in there?” the Doctor asked, nodding to the structure directly behind the ringmaster.
The griffon flinched for a second. “That? That is… the freak show.”
“Is it really?” the Doctor asked, trying to peer around the larger male. “Always liked looking at that. Meet some of my best friends there. The Lizard Woman, the Shapeshifter Robot, the— Rumble? Are you alright?”
The word cut him to the bone like an icy wind. Freak.
It had chased him for years. He was constantly dodging it, swooping away from any suspicion. He hadn’t told his friends. He still didn’t know why he’d told Granny Smith. Maybe it was just easier to face her than ponies he was actually close to.
He would not let anypony hurt him again.
He would not give them the chance.
The colt blinked. “Yeah?”
“You alright? You looked like you were a million miles away.”
Rumble stared at the tent. “Yeah. Fine. I’m hungry, let’s get something to eat.”
“Alright. But let’s take a peek in here, first. You’d be amazed, the things you see in these places.”
“NO!” Rumble and the ringmaster shouted at once.
“It’s, uh. It is closed for repairs,” the griffon said, regaining control of himself quickly.. “Yes. Closed today, no ponies to go in there right now.”
The Doctor frowned. “Oh, what a pity. Might I ask how long it’ll be closed?”
A hard glint entered the ringmaster’s eyes. “Indefinitely.” As soon as the air of menace had come, it was gone once more. “Pardonnez, messieurs, pardonnez,” he said, pushing by them. “Enjoy your day.”
“So,” said Rumble, trotting off toward the food carts. “What do you want to eat? The roast chestnuts look nice.”
The Doctor stared. “Rumble.”
“We’re going into the tent.”
The Doctor leaned back, shocked. “What?”
“No. We are going to have some nice roast chestnuts. Maybe some popcorn. Then we can go skating, or build a snowpony. And then we will go home.”
“But— but, he was lying!” the Doctor said. “That was the face of someone spinning a tale off the top of their head.”
“So? It’s not our business,” Rumble said stubbornly. “Anyway, I thought you were here to teach me the ‘wonders of winter’ or whatever.”
“I, well, yes, I suppose,” the Doctor stuttered.
The Doctor sighed. “Fine. We’ll have some food.”
“Glad you agree.”
“After lunch,” the Doctor murmured. “That’s another matter.”
WHERE Caramel Corn is Used to Ends of Convincing a Reluctant Hero, and a Heart-to-Heart is Conducted
“Po-TAY-toes! Po-TAH-toes! Get ‘em fresh off the griddle!”
“Finest veg’table sausages! Best in Law-nun, bar nun! Five bucks apiece, an’ tha’s cuttin’ me ane throat!”
The food sellers bustled and clustered along the way, shouting and hollering up the skies. The smells of fresh food mingled together into a beautiful mixture. Rumble almost smiled. Combined with the warmth coming off the grills and food and the cheerful florid faces of the vendors, it all felt oddly homey. As soon as that thought struck him, any trace of a smile was wiped from his face.
“Well?” the Doctor asked. “What’ll it be?”
Rumble glanced around. “What’s ‘scumble’?” he asked.
“Apples,” the Doctor replied promptly. “Well. Mostly apples. Probably not great for you.”
“How about some caramel corn, then?” Rumble asked, gesturing to a different cart.
The Doctor beamed. “Brilliant! Oh, I love caramel corn. Lovely and sweet and salty all at once.”
There was no line for the treat, so the two hurried over to the cart. They weren’t quick enough, however, and a cream-colored pegasus with a short brown mane caught the seller’s attention first. Rumble and the Doctor hung back. The pegasus’s mane was frazzled and her brow was damp with sweat. She leaned over the counter. “Hey, Pops. Got a spare bag?”
The elderly vendor looked at the mare sympathetically. “Boss gotcha running fool’s errands again?” he asked in a scratchy voice.
“Yeah, something like that. I gotta find the Doctor so they can have a, ah, ‘talk’.”
The Doctor leaned forward. “The Doctor, you say?”
The mare leaned away from the Time Lord. “Yes? Why, do you know where he is?”
“Well, I should hope so, seeing as I am, in fact, the Doctor.” He held out a hoof. “How do you do?”
The mare stared a moment longer in confusion, then broke into an understanding grin. “Oh, I see. I’m sorry, but I’m looking for a specific doctor. Dr. Mountain Climber? Grey unicorn, white mane, green eyes, cutie mark of a snowflake?”
“I’ve not seen him, no,” the Doctor said, shaking his head. “We could help you look, though.”
“Wait, what?” Rumble asked.
The mare smiled. “That’s very kind of you, sir, but I wouldn’t like to impose.”
“Nonsense! We’d be glad to help, wouldn’t we, Rumble?”
The colt sighed deeply. He glared flatly at the Doctor. “Fine. But buy me my caramel corn first.”
“So, Miss…” the Doctor trailed off, idly fishing his hoof around in his bag of sweets.
“Leaf. Maple Leaf.”
“Who exactly is this Dr. Climber?”
“He’s… an employee. He’s in charge of the freak show.”
The Doctor looked at Rumble, who was trailing some steps behind, and raised an eyebrow significantly. Rumble stared back, his eyes flat and cold. The Doctor quickly turned back to Maple. “That’s been closed, hasn’t it?”
“Yes. We’ve had to let Dr. Climber go for… various reasons.”
“So why are you looking for him now? Something wrong with the tent?”
“No, no. We just need to find him so we can actually tell him that he’s been fired.”
The Doctor’s face fell. “Ah.”
A smirk played across Rumble’s face, but it disappeared as quickly as it had come when the Doctor shot him a look.
“I’ve checked almost everywhere for him,” she continued. “Nopony’s seen him at all today. I’m starting to doubt that he even came to the fair today.”
“The writing was on the wall, perhaps?” the Doctor suggested.
Maple snorted. “Oh, yeah. He went through wages like water, always trying to work on his ‘expeditions’ and ‘experiments’. They were always impressive, though, I’ll say that much for him. You’d almost think they were real.”
Over the years, the Doctor had managed to make a sort of mental directory of significant words and phrases that might suggest something fishy was afoot. This list was not, perhaps, very organized; the approach it took toward investigation might be described as ‘holistic’, a word which here means ‘vague, random, and based largely on bias’. However, another thing the Doctor had developed over the years was a very well-tuned sense of ‘people’, a word which here means ‘all sentient beings’. This was why, when Maple Leaf said “You’d almost think they were real,” the Doctor ‘took note’, a word which here means ‘the mane all along the back of his neck stood on end, his eyes widened, and he choked slightly on a kernel of caramel corn’.
Maple Leaf pounded the Time Lord on the back. “Are you alright?” she asked, eyes wide.
The Doctor waved her back. “Yes, fine, fine,” he said. “Just went down the wrong pipe. Tell me more about his exhibits.”
“What?” Rumble asked, frowning. “I thought we just wanted to find the guy.”
“Well,” the Doctor shrugged. “You never know. Are you sure he isn’t hiding in his tent?”
Maple frowned slightly. Then, slowly, her eyes went wide. “I never checked there,” she said. “But that’s a good idea.”
She turned and galloped off. The Doctor made to follow her, but a glance back showed that Rumble had stopped dead in his tracks. Slowly, the Doctor walked back toward the colt. “What’s wrong?” he asked quietly. “You don’t have to tell me the whole story if you don’t want to, but I really do want to help.”
Rumble didn’t reply. The Doctor sighed and sat down next to him. “Did I ever tell you about my friend Jack?”
“No,” Rumble said flatly. “Go on.”
“Brilliant guy, he was. A bit rough ‘round the edges, to be sure, but incredibly brave. He gave his life for me’n Rose. I mean, he got it back eventually, but it’s the thought that counts.”
Rumble wrinkled up his nose. “Huh?”
“Not important. Anyway, quite brave, really very funny, rather clever. Saved my life a few times. ‘Course, I saved his pretty often, too.”
Rumble waited. “And you’re telling me this because…”
“Well, no one’s perfect,” the Doctor said. “Jack was a good friend, but he just wouldn’t stop flirting with Rose. And me. And basically everyone else we ever met.”
Rumble’s brain heard two and two and returned five. “Uh? Wait— what? How did you—”
“Educated guess. I wouldn't hazard a guess on the specifics, of course. But I’ve been around the block a few times, and I've never been anything but queer by the standards of my own people and those of my traveling companions. Besides, your poker face is nearly as rubbish as Applejack's.” The Doctor smiled. “What I’m saying is, I’m not going to judge you, no matter how you identify, and nopony else in Ponyville will either.”
“How do you know?” Rumble asked bitterly. “I didn’t think my parents would—” he broke off abruptly and shot a look at the Doctor.
The Time Lord’s brow had gone dark and heavy as a stormcloud. “Yes,” he said. “I had wondered why your brother was minding you.”
Then, glancing at the grey pegasus, his face lightened. “Just remember. If they matter, they won’t mind.”
The image of Granny Smith’s concerned face flashed through the colt’s mind. “What about my parents?” Rumble asked again. “They minded.”
“Then they don’t matter,” the Doctor replied. “Simple as that. If they don’t want you in their life, well, that’s altogether their loss.”
He rose. “Rumble, you are cleverer than you know, braver than you believe, and more sensible than just about any other pony in your town. Not that the last one’s any great feat, but still. It’s a good quality. Lots of words can describe you, but let me tell you, ‘freak’ is not among them.”
"How did you--"
"Again, you've got an absolutely rubbish poker face." The Doctor hesitated. "So... are you feeling up for going on?"
Rumble was quiet for a moment. Then he rose to his hooves. “Let’s go check out that tent,” he said, nodding firmly.
The Doctor smiled. “Allons-y,” he agreed.
CONTAINING an Exhibition, an Escape, and an Enigmatic Enemy
Maple was already a good way through the exhibit. “Where did you two go?” she asked, glancing up from the seapony corpse she was examining.
“Thought we saw a chip stand,” the Doctor replied. “I love chips.”
Maple stared for a moment, then shrugged. “Well, you’re here now, I suppose. I haven’t found hide nor hair of him yet, but there’s a lot of stuff in here. Feel free to look at the other exhibits, by the way. I think they’re really well-made, but they aren’t going to be around much longer.” Her eyes fell and her smile dropped. “Too bad, really.”
Rumble frowned. “What’s wrong?”
Maple looked up from what appeared to be a mouse with tiny antlers attached to it. “Hm? Oh, it’s nothing, really.”
Rumble stared at her. “No, it isn’t.”
“Perceptive colt, aren’t you?” she said, half laughing. Then she sighed, her face falling again. “Ever since I was a little filly, I always wanted to be an adventuress. I read, oh, so many adventure stories. Tales about the Mares from Mars, the great zebra explorer Zippering, the gentle bull detective How-Now Brown…” Her expression was distant, her smile dreamy.
“I wanted to be like them. Travelling the world, solving mysteries, learning about other places and cultures. But instead…” she gestured around the room. “Well, this is as close as I can get.”
The Doctor looked up from a suit of armor that was apparently meant for a being easily four times as large as a pony. “Looks like it got you pretty close,” he commented. “I mean, look at some of this! A cameleopard, a changeling, a…” he paused. “That’s a centaur,” he said.
“Yeah?” Rumble asked. “Mythical being, just like everything else here. What’s your point?”
The Doctor leaned in close to Rumble. “Centaurs aren’t myths. I’ve fought them before.”
Rumble glanced up from the ammonite he was studying. “Oh… kay? I’ll take your word for it. So, what are you saying?”
“I’m saying,” the Doctor hissed, “that THAT is a real centaur! And that’s a real changeling as well! Looking around, I can’t see a single thing that’s been forged or made up! P.T. Barnum would sell his granny for just one of the things in here!”
“Not important,” the Doctor whispered. “Point is, everything in here is real. Question: where did he get these exhibits?”
“You’re not saying he collected all of these himself?” Maple gasped.
“It looks that— GAH!” The Doctor stumbled backwards. “How long were you standing there?”
The mare cocked her head in thought. “Um, you were talking about how you’d fought centaurs before.”
“So you heard…”
“That all of this is real?” Maple nodded, eyes wide. “Yeah. Can’t exactly say I’m surprised, honestly. Well. Yes, I am, actually. Very surprised. But he’s an odd fellow, you know?”
The Doctor looked at Rumble. Rumble looked at the Doctor. “No,” said the colt. “We don’t know.”
“Why don’t you tell us a little more about this Dr. Climber of yours?” the Doctor asked, stepping a little closer to the mare.
“Well, there’s not much to tell,” she said, shying back. “He’s not very open about his work. Most of us just put it down to, you know, not wanting to reveal his secrets. I guess those secrets went a little deeper than we expected.”
The Doctor nodded thoughtfully. “There’s an empty cage over there,” he said thoughtfully. “I wonder what was meant to go in it?”
Maple frowned. “An… empty… cage?” She turned and followed the Doctor’s line of sight to an iron cage which indeed appeared to be devoid of anything to display. She pointed at it in surprise, mouth fallen slightly open. “That’s the Yeti’s cage. His only ‘live’ exhibit.”
Rumble was already trotting over to the exhibit. “Is there a hole in this tent or something? ‘Cause it just got a lot colder over here.”
Maple frowned. “There shouldn’t be any holes,” she said. “There was an inspection just the other day.”
“An inspection?” the Doctor asked.
“Health and safety stuff. You know.”
Rumble had, by this point, gotten close enough to the cabinet to look into the cage. His eyes went wide. “Um. If there was a Yeti in here, it’s escaped.” A gaping, jagged hole had been made— apparently punched through— in the back of the cage.
“It WHAT?” the Doctor gasped.
“The Yeti?” Maple laughed. “It’s not really a Yeti, just an illusion. It’s just an old fairy tale.”
“Like centaurs and changelings?” the Doctor asked, eyebrows raised.
The pegasus paused. “Good point,” she said quietly.
“Wait, Yeti are real? I thought they were just robots, like in the TARDIS that one time.” Rumble asked, turning to face the Doctor, who merely shook his head.
“Who knows?” he replied. “Equestria is a land of truly incredible biodiversity. I mean, there are still things on Earth I never knew about, and I’ve spent much more time there than I have done here.”
Maple looked from one to the other. “Sorry, you’ve lost me,” she said. “What’s the Earth?”
The Doctor, grinning, simply continued. “I mean, there might be actual Yeti around. How brilliant would that be, eh?”
“Or,” Rumble countered, “they might be more robots.”
The Doctor’s grin fell. “Yes. Well. I hope not. You know who made them, after all.”
“Um, no I don’t.”
The Doctor furrowed his brow. “Did I never tell you? It was the Intelligence.”
“And… what’s the Intelligence?” Maple asked
Rumble ignored her. “I thought we already dealt with that,” he said. “Button bucked it into smithereens!”
“Yes, from our perspective,” the Doctor agreed. “But this is the past. That hasn’t happened yet, not from its point of view. Or, well, it might not have. Or something.”
Rumble stared, then facehoofed. “Time travel,” he grumbled.
“Yes, it is a bit annoying,” the Doctor agreed. “Also, the Intelligence can’t really be killed, only discorporated or contained, so there’s that aspect of it as well.”
Maple glanced between one pony and the other. “I have no idea what you’re on about, but it certainly sounds interesting.”
“‘Interesting’?” Rumble repeated flatly. “Maybe. Try ‘terrifying’, ‘impossible’, and ‘near-fatal’.”
“Oh, come off it,” the Doctor scoffed. “It wasn’t that bad!”
“You nearly fell to your death.”
“Happens all the time.”
“So did your daughter.”
The Doctor paused. “There, you have me,” he admitted.
Maple rolled her eyes. “Right. As interesting as this conversation is, I would like to know what’s really going on here. So, either you two start talking, or I scream for help.”
The Doctor looked at her. “In a word, Miss Leaf? Adventure.”
Maple regarded him for a long moment, then nodded. “Alright. I’m in. How can I help?”
The Doctor grinned. “Of course. Tell me, do you know where Dr. Climber lives? We’ll explain all we can on the way.”
Maple Leaf stared up at the sky as the three hurried down the icy streets. “So,” she said calmly. “You two are from the future.”
“Yep,” the Doctor replied with a sharp nod, popping the ‘p’.
Maple shook her head. “I don’t believe you.”
The Doctor shrugged. “I’d be surprised if you did.”
Rumble cocked his head, frowning. “If you don’t believe us, why are you helping us?”
Maple shrugged. “I want to find Dr. Climber as well, so our goals are, for now, aligned. Besides, on the off chance that you are telling the truth… Well, I want in.”
Rumble stopped walking. “By ‘want in’, you mean…”
Maple turned to look at him. “Time and space. A world full of adventures! Aliens, apparently, exist. So does time travel. It sounds like something out of Wells! The grandest adventure of all time!” She blinked, suddenly realizing that she had been yelling the last couple of sentences. She blushed. “Um. So, I want to do that.”
The Doctor regarded her for a long moment. “I can’t just take anypony,” he warned. “I can be very particular about…” he paused. “Eh, why not,” he grinned. “Enthusiasm, that’s the important thing. An important thing. There’s others. But enthusiasm is a good place to start.”
Rumble frowned. “Wait, then why am I here? I’m not enthusiastic. At all. Especially in winter.”
The Doctor paused. “Er,” he said. “Like I said, there’s other things. Like… determination. Yes, that’s a good one, determination. Anyway, are we almost there, Maple?”
The mare glanced around. “Almost. It’s just a few more blocks,” she replied, setting off at a brisk trot once more.
The Doctor quickly followed, but Rumble lagged behind, a faint scowl on his face. Determination? Really? Was that the best he could come up with? He had just finished telling Rumble how much he thought of him, and now the best he could do was 'determination'? To Rumble’s mind, determination was just another way of saying ‘stubborn’. Rocks were stubborn, but you didn’t see Tom travelling in the TARDIS. A chilly breeze ruffled through Rumble’s mane. He shuddered, then moved on quickly.
A thousand thousand tiny fragments of a mind watched him go. In the distance, the wind howled, a long, low note that sounded more like a hunting horn.
WHERETOFORE Our Trio of Heroes Encounter a Slumlord, More Corpses than a Stick May be Shaken At, and the Deep Horror of Scientific Curiosity
“Here we are,” Maple said, gesturing to a high, wrought-iron gate. The Doctor and Rumble stared. The building was narrow and incredibly tall. It’s brickwork facade seemed ancient, practically crumbling under the combined force of their gaze. “Well,” said the Doctor. “It’s… not what I expected.”
It was a far cry from Rumble’s idea of a Industrial-era mansion, which no adventurer of the era worth their salt should be without. It was, indeed, a long carriage ride away from any sort of mansion whatsoever. It was, in fact, a cramped, tiny apartment building. It looked scarcely any wider than the cupola at the top of Carousel Boutique, leaving its occupants with scarcely enough room to turn around. Maple shrugged. “We can’t all be millionaire industrialists,” she said mildly. “Somepony has to be at the bottom of the pyramid.”
“Yeah,” the Doctor said, his face tight. “That’s generally how it is, I’ve found.”
“Let’s go inside, I’m freezing,” Rumble said. “And it can’t be any worse inside, can it?”
The other two stared at him. He sighed. “Right. Stupid question.”
The hallway was dark, barely lit at all. The floor was uncarpeted, and the wood was rotting and full of splinters. The wallpaper was dingy and covered in grime, at least those bits of it that hadn’t already peeled away. “Sheesh,” said Rumble. “This place looks like it should be condemned.”
Maple jumped as a shower of dust fell on her head from the cracked and chipped ceiling. “Are you sure that it isn’t already?”
“I’m guessing yer not here to rent, then,” a deep voice grumbled. A squat, shabby stallion shuffled out of the shadows. He stuck out a hoof. “Tartan Stripes. Landlord.”
The Doctor nodded. “Doctor Turner. Time Lord. My friends and I were looking for Dr. Climber. This is his address?”
“Yeah, dis is da place,” the blue earth pony grunted. “He ain’t been home fer a couple days, though.”
Rumble frowned. “You don’t seem surprised.”
The weighty landlord shrugged. “It ain’t ‘xactly unheard of. He’s probably out chasin’ Flutterponies with a net, or sumptin’.”
“I see. Can we go up?”
The landlord stared at them for a long moment. “Awright,” he grumbled. “But I’ll be checkin’ in, so don’t get any bright ideas ‘bout squattin’.”
“Of course. Thank you.”
“I accept gratitude in cash form only,” the stallion replied.
“Ah. Right, well,” the Doctor said awkwardly.
Tartan Stripes rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, I know. Go up. Third floor. Only one door, ya can’t miss it. Be outta here in an hour, or I’ll chase ya out wid a broom.”
Under the landlord’s watchful glare, the three ponies made their way carefully up the rickety stairway, being very careful to avoid the railing.
Maple pulled the door open, stepping back to avoid hitting the others with the knob in the narrow space. She let out a faint, choked noise of shock. “Well,” she said. “This is new.”
Rumble tried to peer around the mare, but there wasn’t enough room to maneuver in the stairwell. The Doctor gently grabbed the pegasus’s hoof and helped him rise up onto his hind legs. Rumble’s eyebrows rose as he took in the technothaumic equipment that lay scattered over every surface. An enormous microscope took up one corner of the room, the platform easily big enough for a pony to lie on. Over the windows, various wires and metal scraps were attached, apparently haphazardly, to the walls. One led out of the tiny apartment window, likely to serve as a makeshift lightning rod. One wall was completely covered with an enormous map of the planet, with several smaller, older maps pinned onto it. The other wall was covered in what appeared at first glance to be butterflies under glass. A closer look however… “I’m going to be sick,” Rumble announced.
The Doctor winced. “Looks like Tartan didn’t know how right he was with that flutterpony comment,” he said, staring in mixed horror and sorrow at the rows and rows of tiny corpses that covered the walls.
Maple stepped into the room, regarding the shadow box full of little bodies with astonishment. “They… they might not be real,” she said slowly. “Clever forgeries. That’s what he does.”
The Doctor shook his head grimly. “No. Like I said at the tent, they’re all real.”
Maple stared at the miniature morgue for another long minute. “Oh my Celestia,” she whispered. Her knees buckled, and she sat down heavily. “Dear sweet Celestia,” she muttered.
“It’s a lot to take in, I know,” the Doctor said.
“I— you— you aren’t crazy,” Maple gaped. “It’s all—”
“Disturbing?” Rumble suggested, glaring at what looked like an inequine fusion of an electrolytic separator and an easy chair. “Hideous? Inequine?”
“Real,” the mare whispered, staring at the dead flutterponies like they were as beautiful as the stars. “They’re really real.”
“Looks like he believed that more than flutterponies were real,” the Doctor agreed idly. “In addition to all the stuff we saw at the tent, you know, the changeling, the centaur, the seapony? Well, it looked like he had a few more expeditions lined up.”
Rumble peered over the Doctor’s shoulder at Dr. Climber’s notes. “Satyrs? Deer? The Smooze? I knew about the last two. Hunting them seems kinda like a terminal pastime.”
“Mm. I'd say an apocalyptic hobby, really. Satyrs are even worse. Oh, what’s this?” The Doctor’s brow cinched. “Hunting fluffy ponies. That’s terrible!”
Rumble frowned. “Fluffy ponies?”
“Er, they’re sort of like… little fluffballs,” Maple said. “Except they look like ponies. They’re… savages, basically.”
The Doctor looked up at her sharply. “Don’t go knocking savages. One of my best friends was a savage. Leela of the Sevateem. Brilliant.”
“None of that answers my question,” Rumble said.
The Doctor looked down. “The fluffy ponies,” he began, “are the result of experimentation by my old schoolmate Ushas. Better known as the Rani, a brilliant but deeply immoral biologist. She bred them to be a sort of race of intelligent lab rats for more accurate readings.” His curled lip and furrowed brow spoke volumes.
“How she got here, I’ve yet to find out. Any rate, my companion and I freed them after… generations of experimentation. Relocated ‘em to the River Lirium area, and let them run free. Went into hiding, and they've not come out yet.” The Doctor sighed. “They became the pygmies of Gaea,” he said solemnly.
Rumble said nothing. Maple shifted uncomfortably. “So… how are they now?”
“Growing,” the Doctor said with a short nod. “They’ll be making contact with the world at large in, oh, about five or six centuries.”
“Only to get crushed again?” Rumble guessed darkly.
The Doctor opened his mouth to reply, but Maple cut him off. “Hey, look at this!” she said, holding a worn, crudely bound book aloft. “I think it’s his journal!”
The other two hurried over to take a closer look at the stack of papers. “It’s pretty interesting stuff,” the mare said, flipping through the pages. “He’s been all over Gaea looking for these… he calls them ‘cryptids’?”
“Check near the end,” Rumble suggested. “Maybe he wrote down where he was going.”
Maple paged through to the final entry in the journal. Reading it, she shook her head. “Just an entry on Windigoes.” She paused. “Wait, are Windigoes real? I thought they were just a story to scare kids!”
The Doctor snorted. “You’d best believe it. They were a sort of crude attempt by the Intelligence to destroy the planet. Ultimately, they were blasted apart by the union of three pony tribes.”
“The Fire of Friendship,” Maple guessed.
“Mhm. It was less about ‘friendship’, per se, and more about power. I mean, think about it, a unicorn, a pegasus, and an earth pony all working together to perform a spell, for the first time in centuries? Essentially, it was more like they became an alicorn for just long enough to banish the Intelligence and destroy its constructs.”
Rumble stared. “... okay, you need to be in charge of next year’s Hearth's Warming pageant.”
Maple frowned. “So, what exactly is the ‘Intelligence’? You keep mentioning it.”
“Do I?” the Doctor asked.
“Yeah,” Rumble replied. “Remember, back at the fair? You said that the Intelligence made the Yeti robots.”
“Hm. Now that you mention it, it does seem something of a coincidence that our Dr. Climber would be after both of those creatures,” the Doctor said slowly. “Of course, it might be that it’s just that, with the cold weather, those two would naturally spring to the mind of a cryptozoologist…”
“Emphasis on ‘crypt’,” Rumble added, glaring at the wall of flutterponies.
“Don’t be morbid,” Maple admonished.
“Morbid?” Rumble spluttered. “Morbid? I’m not being morbid! You’d know if I was being morbid. This is just cynicism. Huge difference.”
“Well, just don’t be so negative, then,” Maple said, frowning.
Rumble huffed and stormed off to the other side of the room to look at bell jars filled with specimens of animals, vegetables, and minerals.
“Anyway,” the Doctor said. “To answer your question, the Intelligence is a sort of gestalt consciousness: a hive mind, if you like. It can’t really do much directly, but it can influence minds and sometimes even possess objects.”
Maple nodded slowly. “I understood maybe half of that,” she said.
The Doctor’s eyebrows rose. “That much? Very good. Most don’t get much more than two-fifths.”
“Uh, thanks? So,” she scrunched up her muzzle. “What does it look like?”
The Doctor shrugged. “No idea. I doubt it even has a physical form of its own. It can, as I said, possess objects, even corpses. It can also take control of other things, like the Yeti robots, or, or…”
“It can possess corpses?” Maple asked slowly.
The Doctor looked at her. Her face was full of growing dread. “...Yes?” he said. “Why do you ask?”
“Corpses like the ones which are currently surrounding us?” Maple said, her voice a few registers higher than normal.
Slowly, the Doctor turned his head to look at the glass case of flutterponies. One by one, their heads turned to look back at him, their eyes glowing. A jar full of preserved eyeballs, all a dead, icy blue, rotated to stare at the ponies. In a bell jar, a monkey’s paw sprang up onto its fingertips and scuttled around like some kind of twisted crab.
“Ah,” said the Doctor, and then all Tartarus broke loose.
WITHINTOWHERE A Respiratory Bypass is Very Useful, and a Cunning Plan is Not
“Run!” Rumble yelped, leaping away from the crashing storm of glass jars that fell to the floor as the creatures inside fought their way to freedom. The Flutterponies pulled the pins out of their abdomens and began to rap sharply at the glass imprisoning them. Taxidermied animals began to slowly pull themselves from their fastenings and lumber steadily toward the ponies. The jar of eyeballs… bubbled. Menacingly. As menacingly as a jar full of eyeballs in formaldehyde can be. The Doctor bucked a large table, and it collapsed in the path of many of the attacking corpses. Unfortunately, it also fell directly into Rumble’s escape route.
The colt, seeing the obstacle, skidded on his hooves, spread his wings and leapt into the air. The next moment, however, a hefty weight smacked him back down to the floor. Rumble rolled out of the way of another blow just before it would have turned him into a throw rug. The pegasus stared in horror at the rocky creature. “A cave troll? How did we not see a cave troll?”
“I think it was behind the microscope,” the Doctor said, pulling the colt to his hooves. “Come on! Run!”
“Oh my word,” Maple stammered, staring in horror at a disembodied tentacle that had unfurled off of the wall. “Oh my giddy aunt!”
“Maple! Move!” Rumble shouted. The other pegasus snapped to and leapt away from the grasping appendage.
The trio raced down the steps. Tartan Stripes stepped out of the shadows to glare up at them. “Hey, hey, keep it down up— what th’—”
“Come on!” the Doctor shouted, racing past the landlord. The stout earth pony backed away from the oncoming cloud of beasts. He wasn’t fast enough. The screams echoed out into the street as Maple, Rumble, and the Doctor raced over the snow-covered ground.
Rumble peered out from the alleyway. “I don’t see anything,” he whispered. “I think we lost them.”
“Good,” Maple said, shivering. “That was terrifying! It’s not like that in the newspapers…”
“You shouldn’t believe everything you read,” the Doctor said. “Even Daring Do leaves a few things out of her books.”
Maple’s brow furrowed. “Daring who?”
“Never mind, after your time,” the Doctor said with a wave of his hoof.
“So now what?” Rumble asked. “How do we stop the Intelligence? I mean, there’s no convenient cloud to buck this time.”
“No,” the Doctor agreed thoughtfully. “It’s clever like that, always has a new strategy. What’s its game this time, I wonder?”
“And where’s Dr. Climber in all of this?” Maple asked.
“Dead?” Rumble suggested.
“Rumble!” the Doctor sighed. “Stop being… so…” he trailed off. “Actually, that would probably explain a few things.”
Maple gasped. “What? Dead?”
“Probably killed by his own creatures,” Rumble said. “Poetic, really.”
“See, now that’s just unnecessarily morbid,” the Doctor said, pointing a hoof at the colt. “Really? Poetic?”
“Well, it is,” the pegasus replied defensively. “He built his whole career on capturing and killing those guys to put in his sideshow, and now they’ve killed him. It’s like karma.”
“Except for the part where they’re also trying to kill innocent ponies,” Maple said.
“Yeah, apart from that,” Rumble agreed.
“Well. I know of one way to settle this,” the Doctor said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.
“Oh?” asked Maple. “What’s that?”
Maple and Rumble stared up at the building in front of them. The hospital loomed up before them like a haunted castle. “You want us,” Rumble said deliberately, “to go in there.”
“Yep!” the Doctor replied.
“To the morgue,” Maple said.
“Which is full of dead bodies,” Rumble said.
“Well, that is what we’re looking for!”
“So that we can find clues to stop a monster that can control, for example, dead bodies?”
“Yes!” The Doctor paused. “Ah. Well, when you put it like that, it does seem a tad risky.”
“A tad risky?” Rumble asked. His cheeks were turning scarlet, and it wasn’t just from the cold. “A tad risky? If we go in there, they won’t need to take us back out!”
The Doctor puffed out his cheeks and sighed. “Well…” He caught sight of something, and grinned suddenly. “Oh. Oh! That is good!”
Maple cocked her head. “What?”
The Doctor pointed to a clothesline. A white bedsheet flapped in the icy breeze, suspended over a campfire. Rumble squinted. “Who uses a clothesline in winter?”
“Ponies who need dry sheets and don’t have a fireplace?” the Doctor guessed. “That’s why the fire’s there, I suppose, to get that lovely warm feeling of coming right out of the drier. Clever, very clever.”
Maple frowned. “So… what, are we going to do with a sheet? Snuggle the Intelligence to death?”
The Doctor frowned and tilted his head. “That might work on the Windigoes, but I doubt it would affect the Intelligence itself. Not a bad idea, though…”
“I was… I was just joking.”
The Doctor glanced over with either genuine surprise or an excellent facsimile. “Were you? Well, never mind that, then. Now, here’s what we’re going to do…”
Shutter Screen, the elevator operator, looked at the newcomers to her elevator with mild suspicion. “I’ve never seen you ‘round here before,” she said, glancing first at the short, cream mare and then at the young grey colt beside her.
“Uh,” said the mare.
“We’re students,” the colt explained. “We’re getting some work in to earn our medical degrees.”
Shutter eyed the covered figure closely. “An’ I suppose this is your practice cadaver?” she asked drily.
“Yeah. It is,” the colt snipped. “You want to check for a pulse? See if he’s breathing, maybe?”
Shutter eyed the covered figure. It appeared to be perfectly still. Nevertheless… She whipped off the sheet. “Ah—”
A brown earth pony lay on the gurney. His eyes were wide and empty, and his mouth was snapped shut. The two medical students gave Shutter identical flat looks. She swallowed. “Hhhhaaah,” she said.
The grey colt sighed and, snatching the cloth back from the elevator operator, re-covered the body. The cream mare frowned. “Have some respect,” she scolded.
“Yes. Of course. Terribly sorry, it’s just— there’s been some grave robbers running around lately, you know.”
The two pegasi exchanged glances, their hard glares melting. “We didn’t know, actually,” the mare said.
“Bodies have been stolen from this building?” Rumble asked.
“Mhm. Only practice cadavers, for some reason. Still, better safe than sorry. But, um, sorry.” She nodded at the deceased. “You want the morgue?”
“Yes, please,” said the colt.
Shutter pulled a lever, and the grate on the elevator closed. Another lever, and the lift began slowly to descend. The sheet on the gurney shifted slightly, and Shutter’s eyes flicked toward the figure on top. “That’s, uh, rigor mortis setting in, right?” she asked.
“Sorry?” the colt asked.
“The twitching. Rigor mortis?”
“Oh, is he twitching?” Rumble asked. “Yeah, that’d be a muscle spasm of some sort. Nothing to worry about.”
A few seconds of silence. Then, the other medical student asked, “Uh, how many floors down is the morgue?”
“Almost there,” Shutter promised. “Just three… two… one…” She yanked back on the lever, and the lift came jostling to a halt. “And there you are,” she said with satisfaction, pulling the grille open once more to reveal a torchlit stone chamber.
The two students wheeled the gurney out of the lift. “You want me to wait for you?” Shutter asked.
The duo glanced at each other. “No,” said the colt. “This might take awhile. You go on ahead.”
“Right,” Shutter said with a nod, closing the grille once more.
As soon as she was out of sight, Rumble lifted the sheet off of the Doctor’s head. “Clear,” he said.
The brown eyes of the ‘corpse’ blinked, and the Time Lord sat upright. “Thank heavens for that. I think I’m about toowWACHOO!” He sniffed. “That.”
“So, explain to me again how we’re safe from the Intelligence?” Maple asked, glancing nervously around.
“Well,” said the Doctor, examining open one of the bodies. “The Intelligence may like to believe itself a god, but it’s far from omnipotent. I’d wager that putting itself in all those sideshow exhibits spread it too thin. Too many bodies, not enough Intelligence. It was a sloppy attack, hardly what I’d expect of it.” He frowned.
“Isn’t that a good thing?” Rumble asked.
“Not really,” the Doctor said, trotting over to the next body in the room. “It means that whatever part those creatures play in the Intelligence’s scheme, it isn’t a very important one. Worse, it means that it’s more willing to be sloppy, which means it’s much less predictable.”
“Oh,” Rumble said, scratching his head.
“So… how does that keep us safe?” Maple asked again.
“Well, that means when it lost track of us, it really did lose track of us. It didn’t see us steal the sheet, gurney, and doctor’s outfits, it didn’t see me activate my respiratory bypass, and it doesn’t know that we’re here.”
Rumble blinked. “It seems like there’s just… so much that could go wrong with that plan.”
“I agree,” said Maple.
“So do I.”
The Doctor scowled. “Neigh-sayers,” he sniffed. “One way or another, we had to get in here without attracting too much attention, and this was the best plan we had.”
Rumble glanced around at the slabs that filled the room. “You probably should’ve worried more about finding the body once we got here,” he snipped.
The Doctor sighed. “I didn’t think it would be so full! Look, we know what he looks like! Unicorn!”
“Grey coat,” Maple agreed.
Rumble rolled his eyes. “Isn’t there a mortician or somepony we could ask?”
The Doctor frowned and glanced about. “You know, that’s a good point. There really ought to be somepony on duty.”
“It’s not that big a room,” Maple said. “Maybe they’re out having a coffee or something?”
“Or maybe,” said the fourth pony, who was a grey unicorn with a white mane, blue eyes, and a scarlet-stained throat, “I killed her.”
WHERETOWHICH Rumble Learns from History, Maple Tells a Story, and the Doctor Spins a Lie
The morgue was as silent as… well, the grave. The unicorn sneered. “Oh, come now, Doctor. No wry jape? No wiseacre remark? I’m rather insulted.”
At length, the Doctor licked his lips. “Well, even the best laid plans of mice and men, you know.”
Rumble furrowed his brow. “I don’t think I get that one.”
“I think it’s from a poem,” Maple said.
“Robert Burns?” the Intelligence guessed. “Well. It’s something, I suppose. Though perhaps Robert Frost would have been a better choice.” He smiled thinly.
The three ponies exchanged glances. “I really didn’t get that one,” Rumble said.
“Nor I,” Maple agreed. “And what kind of a name is ‘Robert’, anyway?”
“Are you trying to make a pun about the cold?” the Doctor guessed. “If you are, I’ve gotta say, that’s a real stretch.”
“What? I— no! No!” the corpse of Dr. Mountain Climber said, waving a hoof. “I just happen to appreciate Frost!”
Maple looked more closely at the cadaver. “Are his cheeks turning green, or is it just me?”
“Ah,” the Doctor said. “That’d be the preservatives in his blood. Formaldehyde and whatnot.”
“So he’s blushing?” Rumble asked, chuckling. “Big bad eternal consciousness, embarrassed about public speaking?”
“If you like,” the Doctor said, grinning. “I’d blush, too, there’s no shame in it. That pun was truly horrible.”
The grey pallor of the unicorn’s cheeks flushed a darker green. “Fine,” he hissed. “Laugh this one off, my little ponies.”
Ice began to form under his hooves as the ambient temperature of the room began to drop dramatically. The corpse’s grin was a rictus. “I told you I appreciated frost,” he said.
The Doctor’s teeth began to chatter. “What’s your game?” he demanded. “What’s your big plan this time, Intelligence?”
The corpse made a show of pulling out and checking a pocketwatch. “Much as I’d love to stay and chat, I have other appointments to keep. A pity you won’t be here for the show.” He nodded at the call switch for the elevator, and it bent out of position as the moisture that had dripped inside froze and expanded. His horn glowed pale blue, and with a burst of light, he was gone.
The room was silent once more. “Doctor?” Maple asked quietly. “We’re going to die, aren’t we?”
The Doctor glanced back at her. “What? Die? Nah, I’ve had enough of that for a lifetime already. Come on, keep moving, there has to be a way out of here around somewhere. Stairs, maybe.”
Rumble just stared at the damp floor, now slick with ice. He was so cold. So terribly, terribly cold.
He was cold. He was so terribly, terribly cold. The cloud he had landed on was bog-standard, no substitute for a bed at all. It was cold and wet, and like trying to sleep in a puddle. Rumble shivered and curled up into a ball, grey on grey. He had no home, no bed, no friends, no family. He was alone. Then, he paused. No family? That wasn’t quite true, was it? The colt stumbled to his hooves, practically tripping over himself. It was a long shot. There was no guarantee that he’d be able to make it that far. But it was the only thing he had. Wobbling slightly, Rumble took off at a flutter, flitting unsteadily toward his only hope. He would have to ask for help.
He would have to ask for help. Rumble rose to his hooves, purpose in his violet eyes. He marched over to the elevator shaft and pulled open the grille. The Doctor looked at him oddly. “Rumble, what are you doing?”
Rumble ignored him. Instead, he poked his head into the shaft. “HEY!” he shouted. “MISS ELEVATOR PONY! I DIDN’T GET YOUR NAME! CAN YOU HEAR ME?”
His words echoed briefly. Several long, agonizing seconds ticked by.
Rumble pumped his hoof. Yes! “THE CALL SWITCH IS BROKEN, BUT WE NEED TO COME UP NOW. CAN YOU COME DOWN?”
“... on my way!”
The Doctor grinned through chattering teeth. “Oh, well done, Rumble!”
“Yes,” Maple agreed, fluffing out her feathers. “I just hope she gets here soon!”
“What the—” Shutter said, surveying the icy morgue with horror. “How did this happen? And— and aren’t you meant to be dead?” she asked, looking at the Doctor.
“Just take us up, we’ll explain on the way,” Rumble said, squeezing by the mare.
Shutter looked at them. They were shivering, and she thought that the cream one’s ears were turning blue. “Alright,” she said. “I don’t want to be down here either. But you aren’t getting out until I’ve had a satisfactory explanation!”
The lift rose slowly from the frozen chamber, and slowly, the travelers massaged some feeling back into their extremities. “Alright, now talk,” the lift operator said, crossing her hooves.
“Sorry we had to deceive you,” the Doctor said smoothly, holding up a piece of paper. “Inspector Time Turner of Shetland Yard. These are my associates, Constable Tomtit and Sergeant Tuppenny Bit. We’ve been investigating that invasion of body snatchers.”
“Oh? Oh!” said Shutter, looking at the paper with interest. “Of course. But, er, if you don’t mind my asking, why did you check the morgue? Almost all the thefts took place up in the theatre.”
The Doctor smiled, slipping his ID away. “Well! All of those had already been stolen, so the next logical target would be the bodies that were still here! As it turns out, we were mostly correct. Unfortunately, we got ambushed and left to freeze.”
“Oh. That... makes sense,” said Shutter, scratching her head. “But, um, how did the crooks get out? There’s no other exit from that room.”
The Doctor paused. Maple Leaf cut in. “The chap teleported out. I suppose you have wards against that type of thing?"
"...I believe so."
"Interesting. Then our next step must be to find out how he bypassed them.”
This answer apparently satisfied the mare’s curiosity, for she released the lever and opened the grille. “Sorry to have kept you, officers,” she said, grinning sheepishly.
“Quite understandable,” Maple assured her. “Have a nice Hearth’s Warming!”
“Thanks! You too!”
As they trotted away, Maple leaned in next to the Doctor. “So, we’re the police now?”
“Psychic paper,” he muttered back. “Terribly convenient for getting out of awkward conversations.”
“Awkward conversations?” Maple asked, frowning.
“Like the one we would’ve ended up having with the real police,” Rumble said flatly.
“What?” Maple asked, wings fluttering out nervously. “Why would they want to talk to us? We’re the good guys!”
“Well, yes, but they don’t know that,” the Doctor explained. “While I could prove my credentials eventually, that would take time and patience that we really don’t have.”
“Oh,” said Maple, quietly.
“I’m guessing it isn’t like that in your adventure stories?” Rumble guessed drily.
“Not really,” Maple admitted. “Not at all, really. I mean, there’s that one about Ruffles, the gentleman safecracker, but…”
“Real life rarely imitates art,” the Doctor said. “Well. Not by accident. I mean, sometimes it’s done on purpose, which can be a good thing. Or, well, not. Like trying to bring storybook characters to life!”
The two pegasi exchanged glances. “Sure,” said Maple slowly. “If you say so. I just mean—” she sighed. “I don’t know what I mean,” she said sadly. “It’s almost like one of my adventures, but it’s all wrong! None of the coincidences mean anything useful!”
Rumble squinted. “Coincidences? What coincidences?”
Maple waved a hoof. “You know. The Yeti being gone. The Intelligence attacking on Hearth’s Warming Eve, the anniversary of its failure. Dr. Climber dying.”
The Doctor stared. “That’s— that’s—”
“Useless, I know,” Maple sighed, slumping. “Real adventures don’t work like that.”
The Doctor snorted. “In my experience, they can.”
Rumble started to pace. “Okay. The Yeti is pretty obvious. The Intelligence is probably possessing it like it did back at Dr. Climber’s apartment. Dr. Climber himself was a loose end. The Intelligence likely killed and possessed him to…” He trailed off. “I want to say ‘lure us here’, but that’s just insanely convoluted and kinda sociopathic.”
“Yeah, that’s the Intelligence all over,” the Doctor said. “As for attacking on Hearth’s Warming Eve…” He scratched his chin. “Symbolism, perhaps? He wants closure for the defeat of the Windigoes, but that’s likely not all there is to it.”
“...He said something about a show,” Maple said slowly. Her eyes widened. “The fair! He’s going back to the fair!”
WARNING: MAY CONTAIN Self-Fulfilling Prophecies, Dangerous Yeti, Feels, and Nuts
The sky was growing darker. The clouds began to roil, deep grey against deeper blue. Ringmaster Gordon de Raptor adjusted his top hat to sit a little more snugly on his head and pushed onwards into the icy wind. He didn’t normally feel the cold. He had been born in the mountains, after all, where summer merely meant that the water wasn’t frozen for three months. By comparison, Lawndon winters were practically room temperature. Today, however, the chill in the air cut him to the bone. He shivered. “Stoke the fires!” he barked at a passing carnie. “No one wants to come to a cold carnival!”
The pony quickly nodded, and scuttled off. For a brief moment, Gordon felt a pang of sympathy for his employee. If he felt cold, he could only imagine how the natives must feel. Then, a brisk breeze ruffled his pinions and he turned back to the problem at talon. It was Hearth’s Warming Eve. This was meant to be the biggest, most grandiose day of the carnival. All of Lawndon would be out celebrating, and the throngs of the crowds would flood into the fair.
At least, that was the idea. In this weather? He would have to work a lot harder. Thunder rumbled overhead, and Gordon stifled a curse. A storm? On Hearth’s Warming? What were the weatherponies thinking? And where had Maple gone? She should’ve been back with Climber ages ago. Dark thoughts swirled around the ringmaster’s head like the stormclouds above.
It wasn’t as fun as ponies thought, running a carnival. It was less like being the head clown, and more like a fantastical juggling act. It took a special kind of mind to keep everything up in the air, and it wasn’t the sort of mind that tended to laugh a lot. It took precise calculation and ruthless determination to keep the performers and workers in line. He glowered at the sideshow tent. Dr. Climber had been undermining his power from the day he’d started here. He was always off gallivanting after some new exhibit. Whenever he actually was at work, he constantly needled Gordon for a higher salary. What was worse, Gordon always found himself giving in to the unicorn’s demands. He had been letting it go on for far too long. The next time he saw that charlatan, he vowed silently, it would be the last. He trudged into the wind, glaring at nothing in particular. Nothing in particular gazed back, an amused smirk on its invisible, intangible face.
The wind howled around the three travelers, the snow stinging their faces. Nopony was out in the streets now. They were all inside, gathered with their friends and family around the ceremonial fires of the holiday, eating, drinking, and generally being merry. Nopony should be alone on Hearth’s Warming. It was a time for joy and love and togetherness. The weather, however, stood in bleak contrast to that ideal. The snow was so blinding, it was almost impossible to see the streetlamps. The icy chill bit and whipped and cut the flesh asunder. “I think I can almost hear my skin drying out,” Maple grumbled.
The Doctor paused for a moment. “Nah. Just the wind. Skin drying out sounds much different. Trust me. But I’ll get you some moisturizer or something when we get back to the TARDIS.”
“I don’t understand why we’re doing this,” Rumble said. “I mean, we came from a couple of centuries into the future, right? And the Intelligence hadn’t taken over the world or whatever. So, what’s the problem?”
“It doesn’t work like that,” the Doctor replied, raising his voice to be heard over the howl of the wind. “Time is flexible. We’ve come from a future, but that doesn’t necessarily make it the future. It’s entirely possible that the Intelligence takes over the world tonight and destroys your timeline.”
Rumble paused. “Uh. What happens then?”
“To you personally? Nothing, really. You’re just stuck in the wrong timeline. Either you were never born, or there's an alternate version of you wandering around... It’s awkward.”
“Oh,” said Rumble, relieved.
“As for the rest of the world…” the Doctor sucked in through his teeth. “Well. Let’s not be morbid about it.”
“Oh,” said Rumble, much less relieved.
“What does this thing even want?” Maple asked, holding a hoof up to shield her eyes from a sudden icy gust.
“The Intelligence?” the Doctor asked. “Well. Revenge against me, for a start. Also, a physical form. Not just possessing things, but a body all of its own.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad,” Rumble said.
“No?” the Doctor asked. “Last time it tried, it nearly killed a whole monastery to get enough energy to exist properly. It’d go on killing, too, to make the body last. Does that still sound 'not too bad?'”
Rumble was silent. “I didn’t know,” he said quietly.
There was a long moment. “I know." The Doctor huffed a massive sigh. "I’m sorry I was being sharp.”
They struggled along in silence for a few seconds. “Do either of you actually know where we are?” the Doctor asked suddenly.
The others stopped and exchanged glances. The silence thickened. “...No,” Rumble admitted.
“Me neither,” Maple said.
The Doctor sat down heavily. “Right,” he said. “So to sum up, we’re lost in a city that only one of us really knows well, likely being stalked by an intangible, invisible evil that wants to kill everypony and could strike at any time. Am I missing anything?”
Another howl of wind sprung up. But this one sounded less like the wind, and more like…
A large, furry figure appeared in the snow. Its arms swung akimbo, and its eyes were bright blue. The Yeti growled and advanced on the trio. “Oh, there’s always something, isn’t there?” the Doctor groaned. “Run!”
Their hooves pounded on the pavement. Their hearts pounded in their chests. Snow flew behind them. The Yeti roared defiantly and loped after them. Its lolloping gait was not quick, but its strides were wide. It reached out a long, shaggy arm and swiped at the trio. The Doctor and Maple skidded around a corner, but Rumble ran straight on. The creature followed.
His breaths were short and labored. His lungs were fire. His flesh, ice. He ran on. It was close behind him. Its fingers brushed the tip of his tail. Its breath made clouds of steam in the air. Still he ran. He could escape. He could get away. He would run and run until the beast was no longer there, he would run until he was safe, he would run—
His hooves met a patch of ice and he slipped. He grunted in pain as he crashed to the street. It was looming over him in the space of a moment, raising its arm to deliver a deadly blow. “NO!” Rumble cried.
The creature hesitated. Rumble stared up at it, hardly believing his luck. Why had it stopped? The creature’s eyes burned bluer for a second. Then, with a snarl, it struck at Rumble, but he had already rolled under its legs and sprung back up on his hooves.
Its breath made clouds around it. It was breathing. It was still alive somehow! There was a living creature in there! The Doctor’s words from earlier floated back to the colt. 'I’d wager that putting itself in all those sideshow exhibits spread it too thin. Too many bodies, not enough Intelligence.'
Rumble’s eyes narrowed as the Yeti wheeled around to face him. It roared. “Wait,” said Rumble. “Listen to me.”
It paused once again, and this time the colt took advantage of that. “You feel that thing in your head?” he asked. “That cold thing, cold and blue and angry? It’s hurting you, isn’t it? It’s making you hurt others.”
The Yeti snarled and made to move forward, but just as suddenly jerked back. Rumble continued to speak quietly. “I don’t know why it’s doing this. I don’t know what it wants. But you don’t have to let it hurt you.”
The Yeti tilted its head to one side, regarding the colt with curiosity in its eyes. Rumble looked directly back. “Why are you doing this?” he asked. “What do you want?”
The creature’s eyes hardened. It moved forward, and Rumble flinched, but it stopped in mid-motion. It placed a hand against an invisible wall. The colt breathed out slowly, half in realization and half in relief. “You were a captive,” he said slowly. “You wanted to break free.”
The creature’s eyes turned a brighter blue. “Rather more than that,” it said in a rasp. “She was stared at, laughed at, day after day, a prisoner. She was a freak, kept solely to be ogled and humiliated for the rest of her life. I made her an offer to be something more.”
Rumble’s eyes darkened. “Get out of that Yeti, Intelligence.”
The Yeti examined its fingernails thoughtfully. “Hm. Tempting offer, but I’m afraid I’ll have to refuse.”
Rumble nodded. “Alright. Yeti, get him out of there.”
The creature laughed. “You can’t seriously believe that this beast could overpower ME. I am powerful beyond your puny imagining! I am as a god! I am—” his face contorted, and for a second, blue eyes flickered brown. “I am—” he repeated, a little more strain evident. A hand went to his forehead. “Impossible,” he gasped.
“Listen to me,” Rumble said. “You’re angry. You’re scared. You’re outside of everything you ever thought you knew. You want to hurt things. I get it. I’ve been there, believe me.” He took a deep breath in and let it out slowly. “But that isn’t how you fix things,” he said. “Drive everypony away, and what’s different from your old situation? Nothing, except now they’re hurt too.”
The blue eyes flickered to brown once again, for a little longer this time. “You have to trust me,” Rumble said. “Let me help you.”
The bright, icy blue burned almost white for a moment before fading to a warm, deep, golden-brown. The Yeti heaved a ragged breath and stumbled, stabilizing herself against a wall. After a moment's recovery, she turned and looked at the colt. She reached out a hand. After another moment, he placed his hoof in the massive palm. They gazed at each other solemnly for a few seconds. Then, together, they turned and walked back the way they had come.
WHEREWITHIN Fears and Deaths, Old and New, are Faced Alike, and Witty Rejoinders are Bandied
The Doctor didn’t reply. He simply gazed blankly into the snow, which had lessened in its ferocity. “He was so young,” he whispered. “I’ve travelled with others, but…” he trailed off. “He didn’t want to come here. Why didn’t I listen?”
The mare placed a wing over him. “It wasn’t your fault,” she said. “You couldn’t have known!”
“No,” the Doctor said. “But I should’ve. This always happens! Rose? Stuck in an alternate dimension! Donna? Forgot about me forever! Leela? Burned along with Gallifrey! Adric? Dead with the dinosaurs!” He shook off Maple’s wing. “You don’t want to get too close,” he said bitterly. “Everything I touch dies.”
Maple breathed in and let it out slowly. Then, very calmly, she said, “Shut up.”
The Doctor turned in surprise. “Wha—”
“Shut up! Look. I’ve known you for, what, ten hours now? Probably about that. You know what those ten hours have been for me? Dangerous. Crazy. Almost fatal. The best time I’ve had in my life.”
The Doctor paused. “You don’t mean that.”
Maple held up a hoof. “Was it the ‘shut’ or the ‘up’ that you didn’t understand? Look. You obviously have seen a lot of dark stuff. You’ve lost friends, and you blame yourself for it. But do you ever stop to think about what they got out of it? I mean, I just found out that Yeti are real! And aliens, and flutterponies, and probably time travel too! I could die happy right now knowing that!”
The Doctor stared at her, mouth agape. She set down her hoof. “Now you can talk,” she said.
The Doctor still said nothing. He merely raised a hoof and pointed behind the mare. Frowning, she turned around. Dr. Climber stood there, his head tilted at an odd angle and his grin far too wide and feral. Behind him… well. The body-snatcher mystery had been solved. A small mob of corpses in various states of physical condition were gathered around the two travellers in a rough semicircle. Maple swallowed. “Ah. When I said that I could ‘die happy right now,’ I hope you realize it wasn’t meant literally.”
“What a pity,” Climber said. When Maple relaxed slightly, he continued, “I do hate to wait.” His grin widened as she snapped upright once more. “Now. If you’ll both come with me, I might be able to avoid getting… impatient.”
The pegasus and the Time Lord exchanged glances. Reluctantly, they trotted after the ex-doctor, flanked all around by zombies.
“Back to the fair?” the Doctor asked, eyebrows raised. “Really?”
The Intelligence glowered at him. “I have elected to keep you alive so that you may perish with the rest of your precious ponies, Doctor. It will be poetic. However, I am fully prepared to simply freeze your lungs and be done with it.”
The Doctor studied him, but said nothing more. Maple was more vociferous. “You won’t get far,” she said. “Climber was fired this morning.”
“I’ve no doubt,” the corpse replied. “I only recently stopped influencing the ringmaster’s mind. All of his anger would have caught up with him rather quickly.”
“You were… playing with Mr. de Raptor’s mind?” Maple asked, horrified.
The corpse eyed her. “His mind is pitiful. Filled to the brim with nothing more than idle concerns and figures. Utterly mundane. Manipulating him was little more effort than knocking over a stack of cards. He put up no fight.”
“That doesn’t change anything!” Maple shouted. “He’s still a living being! You can’t just—”
“You would pose hardly any more of a challenge,” the Intelligence interrupted.
Maple lapsed into silence. The Intelligence smiled. It was not a nice smile. It was the smile of a marionette, merely painted on for show. When a string was pulled, it would dance, but nopony would say it was alive. The Intelligence tilted a control bar and Climber raised a hoof in a gesture. His mouth opened and closed as the wires were pulled. “Shall we go to the fair?” asked the puppetmaster.
The carnival was almost abandoned. Nopony wanted to be out on a night like this. It was too cold, too bitter, too sharp. It suited the Intelligence just fine. They walked through the ice-slick alleys under the cover of the night and the snow, past frost-coated ring toss games and cotton candy booths. Icicles covered the fronts of the stalls, giving the impression of a cage. There was no sound aside from the howling wind. At length, the Intelligence stopped in front of a familiar tent. “In,” he commanded, jabbing a hoof.
Reluctantly, the Doctor and Maple trotted into the sideshow of Dr. Climber. As they did so, several dozen dead blue eyes turned to face them. Maple took a step back. “What is this?” she demanded. “What are you going to do?”
The Doctor stared grimly at the creatures. “An army,” he said quietly. “All the things that ponies thought were fairy tales are going to spring on them tonight. Chupcabra… zombies… yeti… There’ll be mass chaos, hysteria.”
“And once I’ve done that,” the Intelligence said smoothly. “It will be as child’s play to set Equestria at war with the rest of the world. This planet will dissolve into anarchy, and I shall rise to power.”
“You’re a monster,” Maple whispered.
The corpse raised an eyebrow. “I should be more careful about that word were I in your position, Miss Leaf. You are, after all, surrounded by monsters, all very ready to take offense.”
“No,” Maple said, fire in her eyes. “There’s only one monster here, Intelligence, and that’s you. All of them? They’re beautiful, impossible, wonderful! They’re magical! And you, you want to take that and use it to destroy the world. You’re the monster.”
Rumble nodded. “Well said.”
“Thanks,” Maple replied, nodding back. Then she blinked at stared at the colt. “Rumble? What? How did you—”
The colt smirked. “I’d like you to meet my new friend,” he said with a gesture. A massive shaggy white figure rose from where it had been crouching behind a table. The Yeti grinned with far too many teeth. “Funny how far a little kindness can go,” he said nonchalantly.
The Intelligence growled. “Kill them all,” he said shortly.
The creatures burst forward from their displays, fangs bared and eyes a dead, dull blue. Rumble merely grinned. “You know something?” he asked. “I really don’t hate this time of year that much anymore. I’ve come to realize a few things today, and one of them is that you can’t just blame the world for the actions of a few ponies.”
“How lovely for you,” the Intelligence replied.
“Hold on, not done yet,” Rumble said, holding up a hoof. “There’s one thing I really love about this time of year, more than anything else.”
“Do tell,” said the corpse drily.
Rumble’s mind raced back to when he had been twelve.
He was on his last wings, barely staying aloft over the clouds. He could practically feel ice forming in his fur, in his mane, in his feathers. He could see the light on the horizon, a faint gleam of yellow. Gritting his teeth, he struggled to his hooves and trotted across the cloud. “HEY!” he yelled. “HELP!”
He waited a second. Then a few seconds more. Struggling to get airborne once more, he shouted, “HELP!” once more before puttering into a gentle glide. He landed with a grunt on another cloud. Glancing up, he could see a figure silhouetted in the yellow light of the house. “Help,” he called, weakly.
The figure took flight. As it drew closer, the colt could see its spiky white mane and lilac coat. “Rain-- sorry, Rumble?” it asked hesitantly. “Oh, sweet Celestia, Rumble!” Cloudchaser landed beside him. “What the Tartarus do you think you’re doing? Did you fly all the way here from your house? What were you thinking, it’s freezing out! You don’t even have a hat, you idiot!”
“Got kicked out,” Rumble said quietly.
Cloudchaser ground to a halt. “You what.”
“Mom and Dad kicked me out,” Rumble repeated, even more quietly than before.
Cloudchaser was silent. “Rumble. It is literally below freezing.”
“Is it?” he replied, too tired even to roll his eyes.
The older mare looked at him. “You’re soaking.”
“Okay. Okay. We’re getting you inside, now. Celestia. No more flying for you. Get on my back.”
“You sure you can carry me?” Rumble asked doubtfully.
“Kid. You weigh less than a sack of potatoes, and that’s when you’ve just gotten out of the shower. Yes, I can carry you, you dumb idiot. Now get on before you freeze to death.”
“K,” Rumble said, gratefully scrabbling up between the mare’s wings.
She took off, fluttering quickly back to her house. “Lane! Flitter! Get your flanks off the couch!” she shouted. Moments later, two figures could be seen in the doorway of the cloudhouse. Cloudchaser touched down in front of them.
Thunderlane gasped. “Rumble?”
The colt slid off of Cloudchaser’s back, collapsing to the ground in a heap. Almost instantly, Flitter scooped him up, hurrying him to the parlor. “Your coat is like ice!” she exclaimed. “What happened?”
“His idiot parents chased him out of the house in the middle of winter, that’s what happened,” Cloudchaser spat.
Thunderlane stared. “They what?” He spread his wings, but Cloudchaser blocked him.
“We deal with Rumble now, your parents later,” she said. “You get blankets, I’ll get some cocoa or something.”
Flitter sat on the couch, her wings wrapped around the grey colt. “It’s going to be okay,” she whispered. “It’s all going to be okay.”
Rumble smiled at the Intelligence. “My favorite part about winter is knowing what comes after all the cold and misery. What comes after the sharp ice, and the cold, wet snow that saps the marrow from your bones. No matter how cold you feel, inside or out, there’s always going to be a cup of cocoa and a roaring fire. Like so.” He nodded to another corner of the room, where the massive tear in the canvas blew aside to reveal a bulky griffon in top hat and tails. “Now!”
Ringmaster Gordon de Raptor, grinning, touched a torch to the canvas of the tent. Assorted other carnival workers did the same. From a dozen different points, the tent set alight.
The Intelligence stared in astonishment. Then, its face twisted into rage. “If we burn,” it snarled, “you’ll burn too. Destroy them!”