Spoiled Rich hurried through the house as quietly as she could. That dreadful shadow had passed across the window, and it wasn’t even nighttime yet, but with the sun flashing on and off constantly, who could tell anymore?
She passed by a family photo on a side table and turned it face down. Then maybe it wouldn’t know who lived here. Did it matter? This room had few windows to see in anyway.
A tree branch cracked outside, and Spoiled lurched forward to the hallway, by the butler’s pantry, pressed her back to the wall, and gasped for breath. Quiet, she had to be quiet, or it would hear her sucking down air, her heart thudding. Except it already knew she was here. What good would it do?
She glanced back to the photo again, tried to remember the smile on Filthy’s face in it. They’d taken a lovely family trip to Manehattan, but they hadn’t stayed in the wretched, smog-infested area of town. No, out where the famous truffle-hunting pigs plied their craft, in the Hamtons. Beautiful country, away from the riffraff, and she’d never seen Filthy looking so relaxed—
Her knees buckled as the roof pounded and the house shook.
Not again, not again! Just a moment’s peace, please!
She should have remained in Ponyville. Filthy had begged her to leave, to take their daughter with her, to get out while they still could. He’d try to help… how? What could anypony do? Some creature named Discord had been set loose upon the town and made it his plaything. Maybe living as a toy would be preferable.
Quiet now. Spoiled peered around the corner. Nothing visible through the windows, not that there ever was. She eased the pantry door open. Thankfully, Filthy had always insisted on keeping their lake home stocked so they wouldn’t have to go shopping right away when they came here for a vacation. Out in the sticks, they didn’t exactly have a market she’d be willing to set hoof in anyway.
In the dimness, she could barely make out what sat on the shelves, but she didn’t dare light a candle. A bag of rice, some potatoes. No chance of cooking those, and nopony here to cook them for her anyway. The cans at eye level no doubt contained Filthy’s favorite kind of beans.
Raw beans—she shuddered in the dark—but what choice did they have? Quickly, she glanced back. By stupid habit. Nopony was here. Nopony would see. She swung the door shut behind her anyway.
Spoiled wrapped her pasterns around opposite ends of the can, gritted her teeth, and twisted it in half. Long ago, she used to amuse her kindergarten classmates by doing that. Within a few years, she’d learned to keep that particular talent to herself. Strength went with farming, construction, manufacturing, not an exemplar of high society.
With a sigh, she stuck her nose in the open end and ate, the juice dripping down her chin. How those vulgar students from high school would love to see her now, the circus act with food on her face.
Then she took a second can and—
Celestia help her, another relentless slamming against the wall outside! Each beat rang through her skull, and then the voice, the voice like the singing of a hammer on an anvil: “Let me in.”
She covered her ears for what good it would do—the sound went directly into her head. Constant, unstoppable. It never let up long enough for her to sleep more than a few minutes, only to wake up breathless again at the horrible cacophony. She clenched her dry eyes shut.
Whatever that thing was, it could only come in if invited. She knew that. Somehow.
Where had it even come from? Discord’s awakening had brought other things with him, things attracted by his twisted cruelty. They’d feed on the fringes of his magic, or so Filthy had told her, but how did he know? In any case, Discord had decided to limit his realm to Ponyville, leaving everywhere else to everything else, unchecked.
She should have stayed in Ponyville.
With a gulp, she tore a second can open and slipped into the hallway. The sun had gone down again, but it might only remain dark for a few minutes. Spoiled felt her way along the rug, through the parlor, to the stairs near the servants’ quarters, up, and the linen closet at the top.
Poor Diamond Tiara. That voice always made her cry, but she could stay strong, hidden. It wouldn’t get to her.
“Diamond,” Spoiled hissed.
“Yes.” Spoiled set down the can pieces and turned the knob silently. A soft rustle of sheets, and her daughter came out of the laundry hamper. “Here. You should eat something.”
Diamond wrinkled her nose. “What, no fork? And no napkin?”
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t risk the noise.”
Diamond leaned over one of the half-cans—
“No, hoof only, dear. You’ll cut your nose on the metal edge.”
With a huff, Diamond screwed up her face as if reaching into a mud puddle teeming with worms. But she did scoop some beans into her mouth. “How did you even open this?” she asked through her chewing. “There’s no power for the can opener.”
“I found some tools. Don’t worry about it.” Spoiled took a moment to breathe. Just breathe. She leaned back to the wall and closed her eyes. Her breathing slowed, and—
Spoiled’s head jerked up. “Hm?”
“I have to go to the bathroom.” The sun had come up. Both empty can halves lay shoved against the baseboards.
“Go down the stairs, to the servants’ one. It doesn’t have any windows.”
Diamond took an uncertain step.
“Go on. And don’t flush.”
“Alright. But turn off the water first, so the tank doesn’t refill. It’s noisy. Do you know how?” Diamond looked like somepony desperately trying to find the makeup counter in a poorly laid-out department store.
“How do you know?”
Spoiled waved that off. “Knob on the wall, down below. It’ll only go one way. Turn it until it stops.”
“It’s bad enough I have to use the servants’ room…”
Her daughter paused. “What?”
“I love you.”
A brief tremor raced down Diamond’s body, and she tried to say something back, but it died on her lips.
Then the front door thundered downstairs, and Diamond leapt into Spoiled’s arms. Let me in blared through her head, resonated her skull like a tuning fork. Poor Diamond, she let out a sob, but Spoiled clapped a hoof over her mouth. Diamond still shook, tears tumbling down her cheeks. Why did it affect her so much more?
Spoiled pressed her muzzle to her daughter’s ear. “It’s alright. Don’t listen. I’m here, I’m here, I won’t let go.” Banging, smashing, and—
It stopped. It never left a mark on anything, no broken glass, no scratched paint, no footprints in the yard. What did it want? What would it do if it got in here?
Diamond panted as if she’d just finished a hard sprint. She would get through this. She was a Rich. Spoiled gave her a squeeze, but Diamond—she stared at the floor, still worked her mouth as if to say something. Only a timid smile surfaced.
“Go on, now,” Spoiled whispered. “Downstairs. Quickly. Then back in the linen closet.”
A half-step away, then Diamond faltered, glanced back. “Mom…”
“Go on.” Spoiled waved a hoof toward the bathroom.
In an instant, the sunlight faded. Merely a shadow, blending in with all the rest, but Diamond picked her way down, hooves on soft carpet, gliding hinges. No windows in this part of the house—it wouldn’t see. A minute passed, and then another. “Diamond?”
“Diamond?” she said a little louder.
Then the rush of water, and Diamond came bounding up the stairs, crashed into Spoiled, both their hearts racing. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t find the knob, then I forgot and—”
“Shhhh, it’s okay. Calm down, quiet, quiet.” She hugged Diamond to her. It had seen her once, she was sure, but not Diamond. It didn’t know about Diamond, unless it could somehow tell. As long as she kept its attention, maybe it couldn’t—
LET ME IN.
Overhead, the roof sounded like the whole mountain had collapsed on it, and Diamond trembled uncontrollably in her arms. “Why won’t it stop, Mom? What does it want?” she whimpered, her eyes clenched shut.
“I don’t know, but you’ll be safe. It hasn’t seen you. It can’t get in, not on its own. Somepony has to let it in.”
“How can you tell?”
“I don’t know. Trust me. We’re safe in here.” Was the voice worse in her own head, since the thing knew she was here? Or the same for everypony? She wouldn’t ask Diamond. Better to try keeping her mind off it.
She held Diamond against her chest, wrapped her in her arms as the chandelier in the distant dining room jingled and the windows rattled. “Sh, sh, we’ll be okay.” She turned her daughter and held her like an infant, or—no, she hadn’t held Diamond much as an infant. She had ponies to do that. But the warmth of it! She should have. They locked eyes. “I just need you to keep hiding in the linen closet. Somepony will be along. The princesses won’t let this go on.”
The poor girl grimaced and bit down hard, like she always had at the voice. But Spoiled hadn’t heard it! Was it really worse for Diamond? Or—oh no…
Was it speaking directly to her?
She hugged Diamond tighter. “Don’t listen. Don’t listen, it can’t do anything to you, keep hidden, sleep if you can!” She hustled Diamond back into the closet, shut the door silently, and descended the stairs.
Over by the picture window, an oily memory of a shadow oozed, lurked in the rising sun. Spoiled had never seen it, not directly, always something at the edge of her vision, a hint, a suggestion, She had to get its attention on her.
With a gulp, she stumbled past a chair, opened and shut the china hutch, bumped over a vase of silk flowers. Then the air outside rippled, and the space around her turned a leaden density, like the ether had a dreadful substance to it. She staggered forward to the kitchen, all windows and sunlight. Until they’d taken refuge—a day ago, two days, a week?—she’d never stepped hoof in the kitchen before. She shoved aside some of the chairs from the small servants’ table, dove under it.
Let me in.
The plumbing groaned and howled, hailstones pelted the skylight, and a great huffing of breath sounded, like an immense hound sniffing after a cornered fox. But it couldn’t get in, it couldn’t hurt her, it couldn’t even touch her, but it could make her fray her own mind, and her daughter, her precious Diamond, even if somepony rescued her now, how long would it take for Diamond to return to a normal life, not to jump at every little noise in the dark? How would she take her rightful place as the leader of her peers when she’d had her resolve stolen from her?
She covered her head and imagined herself somewhere in the river country, but the scurrying, like rats digging at the ceiling or flies swarming on the doors.
Something had changed. The air no longer had a weight to it. The view out the window was clear, not hazed as with flakes of ash. Had somepony come to save them? Spoiled clambered out from under the table, knocking over a chair. She leaned over the sink and peered outside, as far as she could in either direction. Nothing.
In the silence, a window sash slid upstairs.
“Diamond?” she said, her voice cracking. Her poor daughter, had she felt it too? But it was too soon to assume they were safe! Keep everything shut, keep quiet until they knew for certain.
“Diamond!” she hissed. “Keep hiding! I’ll tell you when to come out!” Unlikely Diamond could hear her from down here, though.
Hoofsteps coming down the stairs, slowly. But not quietly.
“Diamond, go back upstairs! Hide!” Her heart raced, and icy sweat trickled down her neck.
The overturned vase in the parlor rolled aside.
Could it understand their language? Would it know what she was yelling, if she was saying it to somepony else? “Diamond!” she shouted. “Go back! Get in the closet until I tell you it’s safe!”
The hoofsteps approached the kitchen and turned the corner into the doorway. Spoiled’s heart thudded so hard that she coughed, and she backed against the cabinets to see—
Diamond Tiara. Her daughter stood calmly in the entry.
Spoiled started toward her. “Really, Diamond! You nearly gave me a heart attack! Now please, stay hidden until—”
Diamond had her head cocked sideways. Far too sideways. And her eyes radiated a faint red. Spoiled’s breath hitched.
“It’s okay, Mother,” Diamond said. “We’re friends now.”