The doors of the steam-driven train just swung open. A gray mare with a charcoal colored bob cut jumped off all by herself. There was a streak of lighter gray in her mane up front. Her scarlet red eyes monitored the strange new environment around her with an angered stare. This 'station' that was apparently her destination wasn't used at all. After all, it was nothing but a small piece of platform by the rails. A smaller dirt road led through the barren and gray wasteland of dead trees, the only possible way she could go.
She grabbed the handle by the tail and got going as soon as she could. Not even thinking about her baggage or her black dress being a dusty, she strolled down from the concrete, right towards the unknown. All she knew that by the other end of this forest lied a smaller, rural facility running under the name of the Pie Rock Farm. What pies and rocks had in common she had no clue, but she didn't let trivial questions bother her. She was to reside there with three other researchers along with who already live there.
The little bumps and overall rough surface left plentiful of scratches on the already used package, but it was nothing new or serious for her anymore. As long as it held itself together, Lignite could care less about the looks. This was especially true about her dress which's originally long skirt was torn shorter. It was more comfortable this way. Leaving the forest, a smaller, equally deserted clearing welcomed her, all surrounded by an old wooden fence. Dislocated and about to fall apart in few places but it did the job well in marking the premises of the old house on its other side. Beige walls, wooden pillars and a straw roof, it surely fit the ran-down nature around it.
As she circled around the fences towards the gap did she notice how lifeless this whole place is, if not downright abandoned. She was not the one turning back just because this, but instead, this just raised her curiosity even more. Was this really that farm? The rocks were there, that was certain. She was to find it out real soon.
Lignite finally made it to the door. Sounds of ceramic clinging against one another was heard, as well as several hoofsteps. Yes, somepony was definitely living there. She banged on the door like somepony who had no more patience, awaiting an answer.
"Yes?" a brown stallion with a black hat and a grey beard answered. He sure was very serious and cold in his voice, exactly like Lignite was.
"Good afternoon. I'm Lignite. Here for the excavation." the mare responded just as coldly.
"Igneous Rock." the stallion introduced himself, as the two shook hooves, each having quite the grasp on one another. Lignite was pretty impressed by this point, most would have been shown at least nervosity because of her blood red irises, yet Igneous didn't even move a muscle.
"Come in." he added, turning around and showing the way. The house was just how she expected. Beige walls of loam, moss green wooden furniture, ragged, old carpets, the whole place had the 'grandmother's house' feeling to it, especially with that fireplace. Two other mares were chatting inside, but they both stopped as they saw the stranger coming in. One of them had a darker bluish gray coat with a similar bob cut of opal, while the other had a light grayish blue color along with a straight, almost completely gray colored mane.
"I suppose you might be the other researchers." she greeted them, raising one of her hooves as she introduced herself "I'm Lignite, nice to meet you."
The two looked at one another from the corner of their eyes, as if they wouldn't understand her.
"Actually, they're Marble and Limestone, my daughters." Igneous added from behind "The others should be here soon as well."
"I'm Marble, by the way." the darker maned spoke up, accepting the hoofshake. However, she looked quite startled regardless, Lignite could see the fear in those amethyst eyes.
"Limestone." the other one greeted her in a more serious voice. She wasn't as scared of her though, it was seen and heard crystal clearly from that cautious and suspecting look. Possibly trying to mask her fear, Lignite thought.
"You can just leave your things here, we don't enough room for five of us anyway." Limestone pointed it out after noticing the newcomer still holding onto her luggage. With that, she laid her hoof on the back of her sister and lead her upstairs "We got to clean up in our bedroom.".
Lignite just nodded and took a better look around the living room. On her very left was a wooden door with a jittery window. On the right, somewhere in the middle was a fireplace. It was unlit now, but had a plenty of wood in it freshly placed there on top of the ashes. The fireplace was just in front of the old red sofa by the other side, the rug in between them located in the middle of the room. By the back, stairs led upstairs and next to it lied a smaller shelf full of newspapers, followed by another red sofa was slightly smaller, yet still lasted to the corner of the room. In the end, she decided to leave it between the fireplace and the small sofa. She rolled it up there and laid it down on the ground, laying down her tired body on the couch.
As she crumbled her skirt up to make herself more comfortable, she heard a door open. It was a mare with pale coat and a light blue mane she wore in a bun. However, her most eye-catching feature was her gold-rimmed glasses that was curved to lay very low, almost in the line of the nose. Such things had been out of production since ten years ago.
"Oh, greetings. You're the volunteer, am I right?" she asked. Her voice was strict and orderly, though reflecting her old age.
"Yes. Lignite." the guest introduced herself once again. She didn't go for the hoofshake this time, just admired the mare from a distance. For some reason Lignite was quite fond of her style. Maybe the glasses, maybe that black, white-checkered collar around her neck, she couldn't put her hoof on it.
"Cloudy Quartz, but call me Cloudy." she replied "Sorry for not coming, I had to finish the dishes first."
"Oh yes, that reminds me," Igneous added as suddenly something popped into his head "if you want to stay here you also got help around the house, understood?" he demanded, his wife giving gentle nods by him.
"Yes, this is not a hotel, this is the least you should do now that Maud arranged your stay here." Cloudy topped it with similar, cold orders.
"Maud?" Lignite asked back. Great, yet another name to remember. She didn't mind the household chores, at least she had something to do in the meanwhile. Though all this information dump was a bit too much for her. She already forgot which one was Marble and Limestone of the two.
"She's our other daughter beside Limestone, Marble and Pinkamena. She travels around Equestria as a rock researcher." Cloudy explained with visible pride, the motherly kind. Lignite started to put it together now. So she was to work with here with the Pie family and this Maud mare plus one pony at the excavation site. Quite a busy schedule, but it was exactly the reason she was here... and the coal, of course.
"So, Miss Lignite, where are you from?" Cloudy asked as she sat down on the other sofa. She was staying for quite a while so it was natural to at least open up to her. Igneous just followed her wife, but didn't actually choose to talk, only listen. Cloudy was much better at talking to guests.
"Manehatten. I run a jewelry shop there." she explained in her usual, slightly irritated voice. Yet on the inside, Lignite was amazed. Cloudy wasn't afraid of her glare either, for some reason. What in Equestria made these ponies so resistant to something of this caliber was a complete mystery to her. Not like she was bother by that, of course, she was glad she found somepony that didn't break down in shivers when looking into their eyes.
"My, that sounds interesting. This explains why you applied here. There are many jewels in the rock ridge nearby." Cloudy responded, trying to act interested to have the gray mare open up to her a bit more. She needed to carry this conversation on as much as she could.
"I only work with jet lignite, but supplies have been running quiet short recently." Lignite explained, her voice not changing one bit, up until a sigh broke free from her throat. For the first time, her almost weapon-grade glare broke and turned into a more melancholic look towards the lower left corner of the room.
"Jewelry made of coal? I mean, can they... catch on fire?" Cloudy asked, visibly disturbed by what she heard.
"No, of course not. They are coated with a polish that doesn't let it happen. Question is how many of that is out there on the site." the gray mare responded, slowly trailing off in her thoughts for just a moment. Soon she noticed it she turned back to her normal self, this time with a question.
"How much do you know about the excavation?" she asked as if she'd interrogate somepony.
The wife and the husband looked at one another, hoping for either of them to come with a better response before Cloudy decided to answer.
"Just as much as you, really. Somepony found a piece of a pre-Nightmare era relic, and that the place is swarming with diamond dogs. That's all we were told."
A frown grew on Lignite's face along with an audible hum. No new information she could get from them, it seemed. As such, she didn't waste any more time with them.
"Mind if I take a look around?" she asked.
"Oh, no, not at all." Cloudy responded, as the question took her by surprise.
"Thanks." Lignite answered, standing up, brushing off the dust from her dress, then making her way towards the stairs. The wood rasped under each of her steps the way upwards, so much in fact she tried to climb it as lightly as she could. The whole thing sounded like it was to collapse under her. The stairs were quite steep, but within a few seconds she was on their top.
An undecorated, narrow corridor welcomed her from her right, with two similarly jittery glassed doors on the other end, plus one right in front of her. Since that one was the closest, she decided to look into that one first. She strolled over to the door, and carelessly twisted its knob to open it.
"I wouldn't go there if I were you." a voice warned her from the right.
"Marble!" a scolding whisper was heard just afterwards.
As Lignite turned her head that way, she saw the two sisters watching her from the left doorway by the end. Yet, while Marble looked slightly worried, Limestone shared the same angered expression the guest did. Though the door was just slightly opened, Lignite took a step back and shut it the way it was.
"Why not?" she asked.
"That's our parents' room, even we aren't allowed to go there." came the quiet explanation from Marble. Strange enough, but Lignite respected that, and headed towards the other two that was left. She found it best to look around now so she knows where to find things, just in case.
"I suppose the last two is your room, then." Lignite said, walking through the empty corridor towards the room on the right, opening it without interruption.
"That's Maud's and Pinkamena's." Limestone pointed out, clearly implying Lignite should just brake in there either. It went pretty much unnoticed, however, as the guest was already in the next second.
The room followed the same scheme as the other ones. Simple greenish lumber furniture, gray old walls of loam and overall lack of color, except for the pink blanket. A bunk bed was placed by the left side along with a large wooden chest, next to it, just in front of them was the window, and on the right were a desk, mirror, wardrobes and shelves. Still, that off-pink blanket on the lower bed was weird. It was tucked in neatly, its vibrant color just popping out of the depressing environment.
"I suppose this was Pinkamena's?" she asked. No answer. Curious, whoever that pony was surely different than the rest. Very... pink, most likely. Just what did it all mean, that was the question. She was very interested in this Pinkamena figure now everypony brought it up, yet she herself was nowhere around. The room itself didn't have much more to it so she found no reason to stay.
Turning back, Lignite made one last comment.
"I suppose I'm not allowed to take a look at your room either?"
"That's right." Limestone replied, much to Marble's shock. Lignite and Limestone eyed one another for a couple more seconds. The tension between them was tangible, they weren't to get along well that was for sure. Marble shied away and just let it happen, resenting with the thought she could not do anything. Several ages passed but Lignite broke contact and left the room, leaving the two of them behind her. Marble tried to follow her, but was stopped by a gate of her sister's hoof. She obeyed and let the mare go, watching her take the stairs back down.
Lignite could feel her blood slowly reaching its boiling point again. Fine, if she could not find out more about Maud or Pinkamena now, she'll do it later. Why, she might even ask the parents about the two. Yet Cloudy and Igneous were nowhere in the hall by that time. The only things that were left to check were the bathroom and the kitchen, but she could guess where those were now.
"I go take a look outside."
Again, no answer. She didn't care, just huffed and ripped the door open, leaving. She needed to chill off before her anger could take control over her. Only then did she notice the tall windmill and the even taller pantry by the side. Not having anything better to do, she thought she might as well get a better look at them too.
The windmill was made out of nothing but wood. Its wooden pillars dry and rough, yet still firm enough to hold the whole thing together, at least for a while. Part of its propeller atop however was broken down entirely, making the whole thing unable to spin, but rather just wiggle awkwardly.
"I should have repaired this long ago, if not my back." the voice of a stallion noted from behind her "Lignite, here are a couple bits, stroll down to Ponyville for some yeast, please." he asked, handling over three golden coins.
"Sure." Lignite replied, then put the bits away in her mane and took the way towards the old gates. She didn't ask any questions, just let the flow of the events turn out as they desired. She had more than enough time and she wanted to take a look around Ponyville anyway. Maybe she could even calm down on the way.
Igneous watched her stroll away, not turning back at him once. He felt somepony's hoofsteps from behind himself, but he didn't bother to turn back. He knew well who it was.
"Do you think we can trust her, Dad?" Limestone asked, joining the stallion in keeping an eye on the newcomer.
"We'll see if she passes the test first." Igneous replied, turning back and taking the way back to the house.
Limestone, however, kept her eyes on Lignite for just a little longer, until she faded into the forest entirely. Something was not right about that mare.