The Life That Late He Led: Chapter 8

Hollow Shades appears on all the recent maps of Equestria, but none of those maps bothers to make clear whether it’s the name of the forest or of the little village that sits along its southern edge, though The Griffon’s Guide to Equestria, published in Twistedspire in 964 and not updated since, makes the implausible assertion that the town was built first and the forest grew up around it:

A rare unicorn outpost in an area largely controlled by earth ponies, the town of Hollow Shades was founded in 783 by a small band of Canterlot nobles who had chafed under the rule of Princess Celestia and yearned for a place of their own, far from her influence. The spot they chose was roughly halfway between Canterlot and the eastern coast of Equestria, just beyond a minor mountain range, an area of rolling hills and small farms. It is believed that the nobles obtained title to the lands by paying off some of the residents and threatening the rest. In retrospect, it would have been better for them had they retained at least some of the earth ponies as farm workers; as nobles often do, they presumed that anything the commoners could do, they could do better, and they were greatly pained to discover that this was not actually the case. While their architecture, largely copied from Canterlot originals, survives, their agriculture was an abject failure, so poor that most of the original settlers fled to avoid starvation, and in 790, the town was down to a single despairing family. Celestia, visiting the area that year, issued a blanket pardon to the surviving nobles, and then chose to obliterate the now-fallow fields of Hollow Shades by replacing them with a copy of one of the milder sections of the Everfree Forest, south of Canterlot. This action replenished the land, but also made the town virtually unlivable, there being no demand for residences near anything like the Everfree.

References in Equestrian texts, however, show only that the town is located on the edge of the forest, and that there were several periods when nopony at all lived there.

<======>

“I don’t like this place,” declared Twilight Sparkle.

“We’re not even off the platform yet,” Desert Brush grumbled. “Kind of early for that sort of decision, don’t you think?”

She stepped off the platform. “I still don’t like this place.”

“Okay, it’s not exactly bustling with activity. But hey, it’s quiet, just like Rarity said it was.”

“Did she say why it was so quiet?”

“I didn’t ask her that,” Brush said sheepishly.

Twilight stared at him.

“Well, I didn’t. Sue me.”

“This isn’t actionable under Equestrian law, so far as I know.”

“Figure of speech, darling. We’ve been through this a few times before. Now what don’t you like about this place?” He looked around. “Other than the fact that it’s seriously creepy-looking, I mean.”

“Isn’t that enough?”

“Should we ask Fluttershy to come out here?”

“Why would we want to do that?” asked Twilight crossly.

Brush pointed a forehoof at the woods. “I’m not your Royal Cartographer or anything, but I’d swear, that looks like the Everfree.”

“It’s certainly dark enough,” Twilight said. “But the Everfree doesn’t come within a day’s journey of here, as far as I know.”

“And if anypony knows about living on the edge of the Everfree, it’s Fluttershy, am I right?”

Twilight shook her head. “We’re not getting anywhere with this. We are not sending for another pony to come join us on what’s supposed to be our honeymoon. Especially one you think is cute.”

“Aren’t they all cute?” asked Brush innocently.

“You’re not helping,” Twilight snapped.

“Sorry. I’m merely insensitive, not blind.”

Twilight mumbled something indistinct under her breath.

<======>

Ten minutes of walking brought them to the center of town, and what might have been the old Town Hall.

“It must have been,” said Twilight. “The old borough headquarters in all four quadrants of Canterlot have exactly this same design. Obviously somepony from Canterlot must have settled this place.”

Brush looked puzzled. “Okay, I admit, I’m the new pony in town, but why haven’t I heard about any of these boroughs?”

“Back in the eighth century,” Twilight explained patiently, “Princess Celestia, in an effort to maintain order in a growing Canterlot, subdivided the city into quadrants, and appointed a governor for each. The Noble Houses objected, of course.”

“Of course,” Brush said. “Nobles have a tendency to object to being governed at all.”

Twilight ignored him. “After months of protest and the threat of a general strike, the Princess dissolved the boroughs, and the buildings were sold.”

“That might explain why this place looks like the Canterlot Express building, only creepier.”

She smiled at him. “You know, you’re right. Yellow Ink bought the Northeast Borough office and started publishing his paper there. It’s changed hooves several times since then, but the Express has stayed in that one location for over two hundred years.”

Brush pointed to a corner of the building. “Different stuff growing on the outside, I suspect.”

“What is that stuff?” Twilight approached the building, slowly, tentatively. “It’s not organized enough to be a plant, but it’s not random enough to be mildew either.”

“Whatever it is,” said Brush, “there’s a lot of it.”

“You wouldn’t expect this kind of growth on a building that is regularly used,” Twilight observed.

“None of these buildings look like they’re regularly used.”

“Then why does the train even stop here?”

Brush shrugged. “Tradition?”

“The railroad regulations are quite clear. There must be at least one freight delivery, or two passengers, every other day to justify maintaining a train stop.”

“Assuming you’d call what they do to this place ‘maintenance’,” Brush quipped.

“Tell me this,” Twilight said. “Did you notice anything … peculiar happening when you ordered the train tickets?”

“No weirder than usual,” Brush replied. “You think this is a conspiracy by Equestrian Rail?”

“Well, no,” she admitted. “But why would anyone ever come here voluntarily?”

“There’s supposedly an orphanage here,” Brush pointed out. “I have to assume that the residents have no choice in the matter, but the staff probably wasn’t conscripted.”

“Do you see anything here that looks like an orphanage?”

“I’ve never seen an orphanage, here or anywhere else. What are they supposed to look like?”

“I have no idea,” Twilight began, accompanied by something that sounded very much like giggling.

Brush grinned. “Neat how you can throw your voice.”

“Ssshh.”

Suddenly she turned around and cast a beam of light into a group of overgrown shrubs, and the giggling voice turned into a shriek.

A foal — he couldn’t have been more than four or five years old — froze in terror.

“We’re not going to hurt you,” Twilight said. “We just want to talk to you.” She stopped the light-projection spell. “Can you tell us who you are?”

“Do you live around here?” Brush asked.

Twilight glared at Brush. “Do you think some poor foal would actually visit this place if he didn’t have to?”

The foal saw his chance, and ran.

“I believe we can take that as a No,” Brush said laconically.

<======>

They trotted together along what they thought had been the foal’s path. Dark, empty buildings lined the route; most of them exhibited at least some trace of the growth that wasn’t a plant and wasn’t mildew.

“So,” said Brush. “Orphan, or not orphan?”

“If you want to know the truth,” Twilight answered, “I’m not entirely convinced that it was a pony at all.”

Brush stared. “Changeling, maybe?”

“Probably not. For a changeling to duplicate a pony, there must be an actual pony, either nearby or within recent memory. That’s the theory, anyway.”

“So you don’t think this place is at all inhabited by ponies?”

“It surely was at one time,” Twilight said, “but it’s not now.” The faintest of smiles crept across her face. “I think we’ve seen a revenant.”

“A which?”

“A revenant. The animated remains of a pony who has long since passed on.”

Brush shivered. “Some poor colt dies, and his body has to trot around for the rest of eternity?”

“That’s the story, anyway,” said Twilight. “I always thought it was just another old myth, something invented to scare the foals at bedtime.”

“Well, it’s way past my bedtime, and I’m a long way from foalhood,” grumbled Brush. “And I’m scared.”

“Why?”

“What you call a revenant,” he said, “is something like what the humans know as a zombie: it’s kept alive by a witch doctor with some sort of spell for some nefarious purpose.” He shuddered. “No will of its own, but plenty of strength.”

“You’re pretty strong,” Twilight pointed out.

“But I lack the ability to project sheer mindless fury. In the time it takes me to make up my mind, that — that thing could take me out for good.”

“Oh, please,” scoffed Twilight. “You’re sounding mindless yourself.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” said Brush. “But really, can an undead pony move that fast?”

Twilight pondered. “Maybe we’re going about this the wrong way.”

“There’s a right way?”

“When Celestia brings up the sun, we’ll be able to get a better look at this place. Until then, we should simply bide our time.”

Brush nodded. “I like the idea. How soon is sunrise?”

She calculated, apparently didn’t like the results, stared at a different part of the sky, and calculated again.

“Uh, twenty minutes ago.”

“I’m thinking maybe I like the idea a little less,” said Brush.

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