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2 Months, 6 Days (Ibid.)

"I just need to make sure that you are aware of the situation."
"Yes, I understand."
"Do you truly understand what I am saying to you?"
"At best, Rarity has another month, maybe two."

He looked confused by my reaction. I wasn't panicking or anything. It was so unlike me not to get myself worked up, but I guess I just didn't really believe what he was telling me. Rarity having a couple of months to live? It was the most ridiculous notion. When we had first been told that she was desperately ill, we had struggled to cope with the news. I was still finding myself becoming enraged every now and then and requiring the need to vent my frustrations. I had done so a couple of days ago, and I still felt bad for what I had put the staff of this place through. But the pony opposite me was different; I did not care for what I put him through. He was obnoxiously forward and projected himself as a pony who could demonstrate false sentimentality at the blink of an eyelid due to years of training in the field. What was his name again?

"We should continue this conversation with Rarity present," he said, hinting towards the door. I nodded and followed him into the room, taking a seat beside Rarity's bed. She had awoken and was propped up against the crisp white pillow, hooves crossed. Most would have thought that she had adopted such a position in order to warm herself, but I knew that it was because she always wished to maintain an air of authority. She wasn't vulnerable.

"Rarity, how are you feeling?" the doctor asked, and Rarity smiled towards him.

"Oh, I cannot complain..." she muttered. "Although this pillow is giving me frightful backache. Would it be possible for me to have an additional pillow?"

He grinned back at her. "Of course. I'll get some more pillows for you." I thought that he would call for the pillows after finishing our conversation. Instead, he left the room instantly after her request had been made, leaving me standing beside Rarity looking like a fool. I reached a hoof out towards the corner of her pillow and squeezed the edge. It was flat; I don't know what they had stuffed inside it, but it certainly wasn't griffin feathers like Rarity's back at her boutique.

"You don't need to make do with these pillows," I said to her. "I'll go home and get your pillow from your room."

Before I could leave, however, the doctor returned with two pillows dangling from his mouth. He placed them carefully into Rarity's lap and she moved forwards to touch them. They certainly appeared to be softer than the wafer-thin pillow that she currently had. I quickly snatched the pillows from her lap and wedged them behind her back. She shuffled and found the most comfortable position, thanking me for my efforts. The doctor smiled towards us both, although in his desperation he managed to catch one of Rarity's hooves in his own.

"It is important that we discuss options," he found the words to say. I sat beside Rarity's bed and he towered there next to her resting form, speaking down to her as if a parent to an expectant foal.

"Rarity, I have looked extensively into the possibility of treatment, but for your condition it would be a time-saver at the very best."

"How much additional time would it grant us?" I interjected, feeling a thick mass developing at the front of my throat. The doctor sighed and shook his head. "-A minimal amount," he explained. "It would be uncomfortable for Rarity and it would not help her state in any meaningful way."

"So what are the options?"

He was a good actor – he seemed genuinely saddened. "We make Rarity as comfortable as we can for the remaining time that she has."

"That is not a list of options!" I shouted, rising from my chair to my maximum height – I was taller than the doctor. "Our 'option' is singular! We wait for the inevitable?"

"I understand that this is tough for you..." he attempted to reason, "but I cannot offer much advice."

"You could start by coming up with a better list of things that we can do!" I challenged. "The treatment will buy us some time! We need to get that started right away, and then we can think about how we're going to fight this-"

"-No..." spoke a voice most regal and divine. I looked down to Rarity, who was shaking her head defiantly. "I do not wish to become an automaton to be pumped full of drugs and medicines."

"Rarity..."

"I have come to terms with what will happen," Rarity said, finding courage from somewhere that I could not possibly locate, but would one day wish to find in myself. "I have known of the current state of my health for some time."

"Since you collapsed in Manehattan," I nodded, but she shook her head and stared down at the blanket resting over her body. "No...longer than that."

The doctor seemed interested in Rarity's words. He waited patiently as we had our discussion, evaluating and assessing us and making mental notes by our every word.

"How long?" I mouthed.

"Maybe two months," she said quietly. "A little longer, perhaps."

"Why did you not tell me?"

"I visited a doctor in Manehattan," Rarity said, clearing her throat and finally making eye contact with me. "He told me that treatment for my condition was available, but that I would have been immobile for many months in hospital whilst undergoing said treatment."

I attempted to speak, but Rarity was in no frame of mind to slow down. "-I had orders to fill. I was offered the contract between Mr. Orange and Mr. Cross. I could not give up on my career."

I felt the rage growing inside me again, but my anger was substituted through tears. "Of course you could have!" I shouted. "Your career means nothing...nothing means anything if you're dead!"

"-That's why I was working so hard!" she shouted back. "I needed to make sure that Mr. Orange had access to all of my designs and methods and that his workers could imitate my style to satisfaction."

"But why, Rarity?" I asked in bewilderment. "Why was all of that so important?"

"Because..." Rarity whispered. "I knew that that was my one shot...and if I am to be remembered in death then I will, without doubt, be remembered for the beautiful dresses that I make."

I was floored by her words. I had known that she had been working herself to the bone recently, and that her career came before everything else, but she spoke as if she had a deadline to meet before death. Her words were sickening, but through no fault of her own; I could not fathom how she had been keeping all of this inside of her for so long.

"You could have waited..." I found myself rationalising. "Mr. Orange. He would have understood-"

"-No," she reasoned, her head rocking from side to the side. "Mr. Orange would not have waited. He is a businesspony. For a deal to be made, he needed specific deadlines to be met. I could not burden him by spending months in recovery." She closed her eyes and sat back into the pillow, arching her back into its warm embrace. "In this industry, you only get one chance," she explained under her breath. "Right from the very beginning everypony told me that. All of the ponies that I met in Manehattan were certain of it."

I returned to my own seat. My legs felt weak from Rarity's words.

"It was my dream..." she said to me, lifting a hoof to my face and staring into my eyes with her brave blue orbs. "You knew that my dream was everything to me. And I have now realised my dream. Mr. Orange has everything that he needs from me to see my work become famous across Equestria. I will be shining soon."

"But you won't be there to see the light..." I said, tears welling up in my eyes. She brushed her hoof across my face and, without any trace of doubt, smiled. "I don't need to be," she said. "I know that I finally made it. That is all that I need in order to die peacefully."

I am not ashamed to say that I wept. I must have appeared as a fool, but I left her bedside and rushed out into the hall, assaulting the nearest wall with my hooves and drenching my face and clothing with tears. I could not begin to visualise Rarity's death, and her own, almost uneventful description of it was too much for me to cope with. Dying peacefully had such a sense of finality to it; I still believed at that time that she could recover. I wasn't there for long before I felt a hoof touch my shoulder. It wasn't a white hoof, and so it did not belong to Rarity. I looked back from the corner of my eye. It was the doctor. And as much as I would have resented his hoof touching me under regular conditions, I appreciated his gesture in that moment and remained there, my head resting against the wall.

"When you are ready, come back inside," the doctor said to me dismissively, although he remained standing there touching me. I took a deep breath and faced him. I must have looked a sight, but he must have seen it all before, for he showed no look of disgust. "-How can Rarity just sit there and talk about herself dying as if it's the most normal thing in the world?" I hissed loudly despite the previous warnings about such a thing. "Why isn't she fighting for survival? How can she just lie back and let this happen?"

The doctor hushed me with his soothing voice. "Listen," he said, and his words seemed to sound less rehearsed than normal. "From what I gathered within the room, Rarity has had months to come to terms with this. It is natural that you would take this as a shock, having only just found out her intentions."

"A shock?" I howled. "This is Rarity's life that we are discussing here! She can't just lay down and die...it can't happen! It doesn't make sense!"

Again, his tone was intended to hush me.

"This is a terrible circumstance," he said. "I understand that watching Rarity in this position is difficult. But you must acknowledge that she is handling this remarkably well."

I dried my eyes with a hoof, watching the doctor through my blurred vision. I did my best to retain my grand voice but my words came out quiet and small. "How is she not scared?" I gulped, my throat aching. The doctor looked back towards Rarity's room and sighed.

"Do you genuinely believe that she is not scared?" he questioned me, and I wasn't entirely sure how to respond. He closed his eyes and let out a deep exhale. "-I have been doing this for thirteen years," he continued, "and during that time I have seen many ponies going through the same situation. Some ponies struggle throughout the entire ordeal; during these occasions things are at their very worst. Days go by with hurt and hate filling the room. The months are arduous and those involved end up hating one another. Relations and lovers turn against each other as nopony learns how to cope."

He hinted towards Rarity's door with a subtle nod. "In there is a pony who is terrified, but she does not wish to let that fear conquer her. Would her crying make the situation better? Would her screaming grant you the closure that you need to know that she is suffering?"

I could not find the words to respond.

"Rarity is dying," he said bluntly, his words burrowing into my head, "and there is absolutely nothing that can be done. When I mentioned options do you, I really only provide you with two, and both are in relation to how you handle this."

He pulled his hoof from my shoulder, holding it out in front of himself. "Your options are either to spend whatever time that Rarity has left hating her and causing her to hate you, or you can do your best to let her know that she is loved."

He paused and stared directly at me. Thoughts were spiralling through his mind. At last he settled on a single question: "You do love her, don't you?"

I swallowed and growled, and found myself nodding without hesitation.

"Then you need to make sure that Rarity is not alone through this," he spoke. "Don't let her waste away in resentment and agony. Her choice has been made. It is up to you to stand by her choices."

He turned away from me. "Get back in there and help her," he said, his gaze fixed ahead. "She needs you."

He took his leave of us for a while. I checked my reflection in a shiny surface, of which there are many within these sorts of places. I straightened out my clothing and brushed away as many tears as I could before opening the door. I watched her from the doorway. She was lying on her side facing away from me. Her form was small. One of her pillows had fallen to the floor. I sighed and approached the foot of her bed. She sensed my presence and looked back at me, her lips puffed out and her eyes red and bloodshot.

"Have you come to scold me?" she asked, and I shook my head slowly.

"I've come to be with you."

"Are you furious with me?"

"Rarity..." I mouthed, lowering a hoof to pick up the fallen pillow. I moved to the side of the bed and climbed up to lie beside her, lifting her head gently and placing the soft pillow behind her as a cushioned support. I arched my body and wrapped my hooves around her from behind, pulling her close to my chest. I breathed in her hair and her skin and kissed at her face. "I can't be furious..." I said, my voice cracking from the weight. "I just..."

I don't think that words were of importance at that moment. I felt her tense body begin to relax to my presence and I just stayed there with her, holding her tightly and refusing to let go. "Let me in," I whispered into her ear, and despite slight reluctance she nodded in acceptance. "Whatever happens," I said as she began to sob into the nearest pillow, "we're not going to fall apart because of this. Whatever we need to do we'll do. I'll be here the entire time. I promise that you won't wake up without me. You won't be alone. Never alone." My words were spoken quickly through kisses and gasps. She did not object, and just remained there shivering and crying despite my presence. As we lay there random images, most of them unrelated to Rarity's current situation, managed to worm their way into my head. By trying not to think about anything other than Rarity, I found myself doing the exact thing that I vowed not to do. I hated how my mind actively sought to sabotage itself.

The whine of her cry began to subside some time later and I was able to lift myself away from her. I was thirsty and knew that Rarity would be as well when she awoke once more. I moved one of the big pillows to rest against her back in my place so that she would not notice my absence as much. "I'll be back in a minute," I said, planting a soft kiss on her horn, although I don't know if she heard my words or not. "I'm going to get us something to drink."

I slipped out of the room and looked around for somewhere to get a drink. I managed to find a small café on the interior of the building and ordered a couple of drinks to take with me back to the room. They hoofed two coffees towards me and I turned to leave, forgetting that even in this institution money was required. They pressured me to pay, but I had no bits on me and almost found myself ready to attack them. But a familiar hoof moved beneath my eyes and slipped some coins to the pony that had served me. It was the doctor. "I'll get that," he said. "Don't worry about paying."

He stood there for a moment or two, perhaps awaiting a response. "So how is Rarity feeling?" he asked eventually. "I was about to head back to the room to check in on her."

"She's fine," I nodded. "She's resting right now."

"It's good to get a lot of rest," he said, smiling. "Did you think about what I said?"

I looked him up and down. He really was nothing special. What use was a doctor in Rarity's condition? It was his job to make ponies get better; his inability to even attempt to help Rarity proved that he was useless. "I'm going to be good to Rarity," I found myself saying, leaning a little closer to him, "but through no efforts of yours. I am going to be good to Rarity because she deserves it, and because she is mine to care for. I don't need you to tell me how to look after the pony that I love."

I expected him to respond in a shocked way. I wanted him to feel the power of my words. But he simply blinked and retained the exact same homely expression. "I am sure that you will do everything in your power to help her," he said. "Should things become difficult, don't hesitate to ask."

"Neither of us need your help."

"I think that you should let Rarity speak for herself just this once," he replied, patting me on the shoulder. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have another patient to see."

He pulled away. I watched him go, attempting to find the words to refute his own, but finding myself unable to come up with anything to say. He was a malicious character indeed. I balanced the coffee and returned to Rarity's room, still pondering over what I could have responded to the doctor with. Rarity had awoken during my absence. She was still perfectly capable of using magic, it seemed, as she was levitating a pencil and jotting things down on a notepad. With her sitting up there wasn't a lot of room for me to get into the bed with her, so I contented myself to sit on the small chair beside her. I watched her scribbling away at the paper, placing the coffee beside her bed. "What are you writing?" I queried, but she didn't respond and I found myself growing concerned. I asked several more times in slightly different forms over the next couple of minutes, but she seemed immersed in her note. When she eventually finished writing she tore the first page from the notepad, folding it several times and levitating it towards me.

"This is a letter," she said. "I need you to send this letter to Mr. Orange immediately. His address can be found in my address book underneath the desk at the boutique. This is a very important message. I really mean it."

I eyed the note for a moment, reaching up to pluck it from her arcane spell. "Don't read it," she made a point of adding. "It really needs to go off right away."

I slipped the note into my breast pocket. "What else?"

"These are some things that I need," she said, tearing the second page from the pad. "Just a few things from  home. You have permission to enter the Inspiration Room in order to retrieve items five, seven and thirteen. Everything else you can find in the back-room, the bathroom or my bedroom. Stay in the Inspiration Room only for as long as you must and do not touch anything. Do you understand?"

"I understand."

She tore the third piece of paper from the notepad and slipped it beneath her pillow. I watched her action curiously. "What is that?"

"I'm going to hang onto this one for a little longer," she said. "When the time is right you can read it."

I attempted to question her further, but she had no intention of showing me whatever she had written. Not yet, at least. "Can you send the letter off now and bring me the items on the note?" she questioned instead, and I nodded to assure myself as much as her. "I'll get right on it." She smiled and moved back against the pillows; the same irritating one from before slipped off of the bed, and I bent down to pick it up, placing it neatly behind her head once more. Using her magic she opened the door. I walked towards it slowly, both of the notes held closely to my heart in my breast pocket.

"I'll be back soon," I said to her, stopping for a moment longer.

"I'll bring more pillows with me."

1 Month, 14 Days (Ibid.)

I placed the bottle back on the cabinet. I'd had enough to drink. The fire had completely died down now, and so I struggled to make my way around the room without bumping into things. I found myself back in the hallway of Mr. Cross' home, once more at the foot of the marble staircase. Although the building had looked unassuming on the outside, the interior had been decorated with the sort of pomp and decadence that one would come to expect of Mr. Cross. At the top of the staircase was a painted portrait of Mr. Cross himself. Photographs were now the popular image of choice, and so Mr. Cross' insistence on having an archaic painting in his lair seemed curious. My eyes met those of the ghastly painting; small mounted lamps either side of the frame illuminated it eerily and gave me a good view of Mr. Cross, or at least the image of himself that he wished to portray.

The painting itself was exactly what I would have imagined of Mr. Cross and was hardly painted to a realistic ideal. He seemed grander and more welcoming in the image; they had made his eyes wide with hospitality rather than narrow and critical. His moustache stood out as his greatest feature; comically large upon his face and appearing to suck in the rest of his facial features. I could not help but wonder what Mr. Cross would have looked like in the absence of that enormous moustache. I felt tempted to tear that part of the painting out of the image, but I could not find a dagger in my pocket that would allow me to accurately do so. At the bottom of the painting my eyes caught the insignia that Mr. Cross liberally flaunted; it was impossible that he had painted himself, but beside the insignia was a little scribble of a signature. I managed to identify an 'F' and a 'C', and shrugged to myself; he had obviously commissioned somepony to make an inaccurately complimentary image of himself. At the top of the stairs I turned to the left. I had no idea where his bedroom would be, and would now have to stealthily navigate his hallways.

As my hoof met wood at the top of his staircase a floorboard creaked, and I wondered if every staircase suffered from the same whining top step. Nearby I noticed a light flickering; on a little table in the corridor was a small lantern that had been left on with a low-flame burning from a minimal deposit of oil. No doubt it was there in case he needed to navigate during the night, perhaps in order to use the bathroom. I took the lantern in my mouth and approached the nearest door. I opened it with a hoof, but quickly identified that it was indeed the bathroom. I noticed three other doors on this side of the building – going right at the top of the staircase would take me to other rooms – and I approached them one at a time. The first room seemed to be a study of some kind, as I spotted within several bookshelves, a globe and a telescope that was pointing towards the window. A small desk had a map splayed out over it. Red marks had been made at particular points on the map, although even with the light of the lantern I could not deduce what they were in relation to. The map read 'Manehattan plans', which would perhaps have meant more to me had I been there to sabotage Mr. Cross' business plans. That was not, however, why I was in his home at that moment.

My eyes drifted to something else of interest within the study. There was an issue of the Rococo Report, but it appeared to be a different edition to the one that I had burned in Mr. Cross' fireplace. I saw Rarity's name on the front cover and a caption hinting at a story about her within on the tenth page. I opened the article and squinted to read it. I placed the lantern on the table in front of me, which provided just enough light for me to be able to read the words that had been printed. The article had not been written by Gazette this time, I made a note of immediately, but another pony that went by the name, 'Black Burst'. His style read differently to Gazette's as I pooled over the article.

"Miss Rarity, sources reveal, is currently in hospital undergoing medical treatment. Although her current whereabouts are unknown, in the wake of her collapse in Manehattan sources have indicated that she must be nearby."

I looked further down the page, bypassing a recap of the current situation that the media regarded Rarity to be in. At least this pony remained more objective than Gazette; he wrote in a more matter-of-fact manner. My eyes paused on a particular sentence.

"Should Miss Rarity's whereabouts be made known, any news should be delivered immediately either to The Rococo Report or to Mr. Friesian Cross."

As the article went on, I was able to infer that Mr. Cross had close affiliations with the Rococo Report. Whilst his position within the Manehattan media network wasn't familiar to me, he was certainly working alongside them regarding the current Rarity situation. And this proved to be a particularly troublesome revelation, as they were now attempting to find out where she was, no doubt hungry to feed upon any information that she could provide that would incriminate her further. I had promised myself that I would shield Rarity from these lies. I flipped the article back to the title page and noticed that the date was a couple of days ahead. I had remembered that Gazette had mentioned to me that stories were generally run in the Rococo Report every week. Perhaps this was an early copy that had not yet been distributed? The last copy that I had picked up from the shop mere days ago had been dated earlier than this. It was probably too late to stop the Manehattan media from releasing this copy and the article, but I could still make Mr. Cross pay for his contribution to it.

I withdrew from the study, taking the lantern in my mouth once again, and approached the next door in a hurry. I opened it as quietly as I could despite my furious state and, to my elation, I heard from within the calm breathing of a living resident. I was beginning to think that nopony was home and that my efforts had been for nought. As I hovered in the doorway, I was now given a choice. I knew that I could turn back, but I could not bring myself to do such a thing. I had come too far now. I left the door open slightly and placed the lantern outside the room, allowing a small slither of light to enter. There was a large double bed in front of me, dressed up fancily with elaborate drapes. I took a deep breath and approached the bed, squinting to make out the sleeping figures.

Only, it was one figure, not two. And as I moved closer, I observed that it was not Mr. Cross, but a sleeping mare. I half expected it to be that mysterious Clemency mare, but she did not have the same style of mane, and nor was said mane the same colour. I could tell that much, even in the dark. On her bedside table were an assortment of items, not least a pair of glasses, but also a brush for one's mane and a necklace.

This mare before me appeared at the time to be Florence Cross. I had met her only once before at the party following the Symphony of Seven Paladins that I had attended with Rarity. At the time she had been dressed up in all manner of fancy clothing and make-up, and looked as any pretentious aristocratic type would. But here she seemed different; as she snoozed into the pillow, she seemed utterly at peace and inarguably cute. Her blonde mane had been let out of its bunches, allowing it to flow all over the bed, and she had curled up slightly in her sleep in order to embrace a plush-toy pony between her front hooves. She seemed rather too young, now that I thought about it.

I think my mind was perhaps playing tricks on me. She could not have been that young, and I blamed the lack of light within the room for my assumptions about her. She was definitely alone, and I pulled away from the room, slipping out of the door and searching the remainder of Mr. Cross' house. On the other end of the manor the rooms were almost identical in their positioning, and I managed to find another room that revealed itself as a bedroom. Within I could hear another snoozing form, this one sounding less nubile and innocent. It had to be Mr. Cross. I used the same method of placing the light by the door and sneaking inside.

In this room was another double bed, but again, only one sleeping form. Strangely, it was another female. Her bedside table was noticeably less cluttered than that of my previous find, save for a lamp and a small slip of paper that had been folded in half. I picked the note up carefully in my hoof. Even in the minimal light I was able to read the note after unfolding it, as it had been written in thick, black ink and was not terribly long.

"Florence,

Will be away for two to three weeks in Manehattan. Nothing to worry about, just some business to attend to.

Much love,

F. C"
.

With his wife, at least, he did not use his little insignia, and actually signed using his initials. Now things were beginning to make a little more sense to me. The first pony had not been his wife, but presumably a daughter. I had never heard mention of Mr. Cross' daughter, but then again, I knew very little about his personal life. Mr. Cross, irritatingly, was away in Manehattan, by the sounds of it – I could not tell when the note had been written, but its position at the side of Mrs. Cross' bed led me to assume that it was relatively fresh. Not that it mattered much, now; before there had been daughter in the picture, things had been easier. But now that she was in the house with her mother and Mr. Cross was nowhere to be seen, I could not do anything irrational.

I glanced down. This was certainly his wife – she looked older and seemed much more familiar to me. She was sleeping in a mass of pillows. One of these pillows had fallen off of the bed during her sleep and was on the floor in front of me. I let out a deep sigh and turned to leave, but I was irritated by the presence of the pillow on the floor. It was out of place. I bent down to pick up the pillow in my mouth, placing it down on the bed beside her. I was now comfortable to leave, but the form in the bed before me began to move. My body tensed. She had rolled over, this time facing towards me. Even in the relative darkness I could see, and the shadowy means by which I had invaded her room could not save me when I noticed her eyes open; those dark, black orbs glistened with a liquid-like quality that I will never forget. She was awake, and she had noticed my presence.

"Friesian?" I heard her muffled, disorientated voice question. "Friesian...what are you doing home so soon?"

I began to panic. I could not possibly adopt Mr. Cross' tone, but I could not leave now that she had noticed my intrusion. There was a smashed window downstairs that signified that somepony had broken in. She would know that somepony had been in her home. Desperation consumed me; Florence Cross had sat upright in her bed, fumbling around desperately for the switch for the lamp. My natural instincts kicked in, and I picked up the pillow that I had salvaged from the floor with a hoof. Before I knew what I was doing, I was pressing the pillow down over her head. Her body struggled and she kicked and flailed, screaming into the material. I pressed down harder, forcing her voice to cut off almost entirely. I grunted. My eyelids tightened. Her vocals were strained and she was coughing and gagging beneath me. Still I continued to hold the pillow in place, pinning her legs down with my superior body weight. And then, after finally giving in, her body tensed against mine and her protesting hooves, that had so wildly been hammering at my back, fell limp.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry..." I panted more times than I could count, burying my head down against the pillow. I cried into it and gagged, choking myself. I slowly peeled the pillow back and saw her lying there, her dead face contorted but motionless. I ran a hoof across her pale body, up to her locks of fine mane. She looked as tranquil as she had whilst sleeping. I pulled away from her body, the pillow rolling onto the floor once again. I watched it fall and closed my eyes tightly, getting a hold of myself.

There was a dead body in this house now, and his daughter was still alive on the other side of the building. As fragile as I was at that moment, I was capable of rationalising, at least in my mind, what would happen next. She would wake up in the morning and find a smashed window downstairs. She would go into her mother's room and find her deceased corpse. And then an investigation would begin. I don't know how this could be tracked back to me, but there was undoubtedly something that could incriminate me. I couldn't afford for his daughter to find out about this. At least with both of them gone, it would be several weeks before Mr. Cross would return home to find his family dead.

As I hurried from Florence Cross' body towards the first bedroom that I discovered, I began to reason with myself and the situation that I found myself in. As much as I hated what I had done, it was necessary to avoid further conflict. Mr. Cross deserved having his family taken from him. A pony as terrible as him did not deserve love. I had not known Mrs. Cross. By tomorrow I would have forgotten her face. In a week, I would not remember what I had done. By detaching myself from my crime I was able to keep my sanity in check. I entered the daughter's room again and approached her bed. Smothering her mother had been easy enough; I imagined that the same practice would work here. At any rate, it would leave no marks or broken bones, and would make it difficult to establish a cause of death. If it hadn't been for that damned smashed window downstairs, they could easily have both died of natural causes. Or perhaps a gas leak. I had images in my head of burning the house down and blaming it on a freak accident as I found myself staring down at the mare below me.

She hadn't moved. She was as still as the first time, her body clutching that plush toy and her chest gently rising and falling. Her bottom half was beneath the covers, but her top half was on show and beautiful. I licked my dry lips, reaching out for a pillow that wasn't being used and picking it up, taking a deep exhale of breath. She spluttered a little in her sleep, holding her toy closer as if she knew what I was about to do. I felt my hooves trembling, ready to bring the pillow down over her head in order to suffocate her. My entire body was shaking, my throat beginning to close up with a familiar ache.

"You have to do this..." I reasoned to myself. "It's Mr. Cross' child. She deserves everything coming to her."

But Mr. Cross' child was, for some reason, refusing to die. I could not physically bring the pillow down to kill her. I could only watch her and cry. I stepped back. I could not bring myself to murder her. Whoever this pony was – I didn't even know her name – she wasn't a pony that I could harm. She was too elegant and too innocent. I dropped the pillow and rushed out of the room. I had no idea if I had woken her in the process or not. I closed her door behind me and put my head back against it, staring up and taking a deep breath. I felt a rise in my stomach but managed to keep myself from vomiting.

"What the fuck have I done?" I whispered to myself like a maniac. How could I get out of this situation? There was nothing that I could do to keep this from coming out. It would make all of the headlines and ruin me. I had gotten what I wanted in hurting Mr. Cross, ultimately, although I had never considered what the repercussions of my plan would be. If Mr. Cross had been there that night, I would have killed him, and probably his wife in the process, as she would no doubt have woken up whilst I was butchering her husband. But in becoming a murderer, I was jeopardising everything. I really hadn't been thinking straight that day, and there was no just cause for my actions.

I ended up forming a quick plan. It would hide any evidence of any of this happening and erase this entire ordeal as much as possible. I walked around the house and found every lamp, candle and lantern that I could find. Where there was oil in lanterns I smashed the glass and tipped it out onto the carpets. I found myself pouring oil into the living room, where I noticed the fireplace once again with its metal guard up. An idea entered my brain and I opened the guard, pouring some more oil into the fireplace and, using a pack of matches that sat on the mantelpiece just above the fireplace, I set the logs on fire once again. I could make this entire thing look like a terrible accident that had occurred when Mrs. Florence Cross had foolishly forgotten to close the guard on the fireplace, inadvertently causing her home to burn down during the night.

I left the living room and continued around the house. I started downstairs actually lighting a fire, using some of the matches to set fire to books and anything that I could find that was flammable. The study and the living room went up in flames quickly. I hurried upstairs. Mrs. Cross' room appeared to have plenty of items that easily caught on fire, although I stayed as far away from her bed as possible. I remained in the home setting fires off wherever I could until they were beyond being put out. I then slammed a hoof against the door of Mr. Cross' daughter's room, turning on my hooves and running downstairs. I passed the painting on the way; it had caught fire and the paint was melting, pooling at the base of the frame. The image that Mr. Cross portrayed to the world was beginning to burn away. I did not observe the painting for long; fire had now consumed the hall, but I had intelligently unlocked the door when I had first entered, and ran through the flames towards the exit. I made my way out into the open air, coughing from the effect of the dark smoke from within.

I did vomit then, although I could not slow down to recover. I ran away from the home and located the wall that I had leapt over in order to enter his estate. There was no tree on my side, but by some miracle I was able to leap high enough and somehow scramble over the wall. I landed in some bushes and rushed to the other side of the path, diving into the foliage opposite the gate of the manor. I watched as the building began to burn noticeably from the outside.

"Come on...come on..." I stuttered to myself, watching the doorway. Terrible thoughts passed through my mind; had I remembered to do my best to wake the girl? I could have done more! I could have opened the door and thrown something – anything – at her. I even felt the inclination to rush back in and save her, but my hooves kept me rooted to the ground. I was in a state of giving up when I noticed movement, and the front door of their manor home did indeed open. The mare was there, appearing as if in her teenage years in the light of the fire behind her, and she was coughing and retching. She gulped in a strained breath and ran back into the building. I assumed that she was mad; she emerged minutes later dragging a pony behind her. It was her mother. She must have left the manor momentarily in order to catch her breath before rushing right back in for her. The blonde mare pulled her further away from the building, closer towards me – so close, in fact, that she was just on the other side of the gate – and there she fell on top of her elder, breathing into her mouth and moaning. She pressed heavy hooves against her mother's chest in a desperate attempt to help her breathe once again, but I knew that she was not going to wake.

As the foundations of the building behind her immolated further, the entire structure began to crack and smash. It was doubtful that there would be any way to tell that I had even broken into the place, now that it was all going up in flames. The mare was still attempting to revive her mother. It was a horrible spectacle to watch, and I found myself looking away in the grim hope that she would stop. But she continued trying to give life back to her mother for longer than I could have counted. Minutes must have rolled into hours as she sobbed against her mother's corpse, unable to let her go. Her death had been sudden; the living mare had had no time to prepare for it. It was natural that she would take this ordeal as a shock.

I left before finding out what happened next with the young mare. She was alive, and that was enough closure for me. Although Mr. Cross' home was on the outskirts of Trottingham, no doubt a blaze as big as this would be seen from the town and ponies would come flocking soon. They would find a distraught daughter, agonised but alive, and a deceased mother, who had died for all intents and purposes by inhaling too much smoke. Things had really worked out perfectly; I may not have been able to stop Mr. Cross, but I had hit him arguably where it would hurt more. The death of Florence had been a tragedy, but if the newspapers would print that she died in a house fire, I would be willing to believe it. I left the area under the cover of darkness, avoiding the roads to the best of my ability. I could not wait to see the stories in the papers over the next few days.

Mr. Cross would have to prepare himself. As the old saying goes...

Fight fire with fire.
VIII
# II


The second part of the eighth chapter of a large ten-part series detailing both the formation and eventual deformation of a strong relationship between Rarity and a kind stranger with the time to give to her. The story focuses on Rarity's fashion career, her rapidly deteriorating lifestyle and the difficulty of looking after a loved one in poor health. This chapter has been divided into two sections due to its length.

A large inspiration for this story comes from the album Hospice, by The Antlers. I recommend everyone go and listen to that album - it is an incredibly touching concept, and the above artwork is modeled on the album cover.

Artwork courtesy of *polar59
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:iconjundigon:
Jundigon Featured By Owner Mar 8, 2012  Student Writer
My word, good sir, that was quite the amazing installment!

So, now we finally know why Rarity is in the hospital. While her condition hasn't be given a name, it really is irrelevant when you realize it's terminal. Rarity, a mare so young and beautiful coming to terms with the thought of death with an air of maturity as she displayed is truly inspiring, and I really felt emotional over it. I've personally lost loved ones to terminal illness, and it's not easy, that is for certain. To resign one's self to die is an incredible demonstration of will and courage, despite the fact that she is still very much afraid and upset. Honestly, who wouldn't be, especially when she is so young? The narrator in that situation really displayed a lot of emotion, perhaps the most emotion thus far in the narrative. That one scene really played up the air of a tragic Romance novel, which, ultimately, I see this story as, at least in part. As such, I very much enjoyed it. :D

The second half of this installment was very much intense. Our narrator has sunk to a new level of gritty, apathetic cynicism. The murder of Mrs. Cross was an unfortunate necessity to remain undetected, but it's a sad realization on the narrator's part to actually have it come to such detestable actions, not to mention how confident he is that he'll forget about the tragic ordeal easily. Then again, he was drinking, so like that was going to help him.

I felt a great amount of sympathy toward the Cross' daughter. The extraordinary amount of innocence that young mare possessed was clearly the highlight of why the narrator couldn't bring himself to kill her, too. Sweet and pure, it was painful to read about the heart-wrenching tragedy that befell her. More than likely, she's completely oblivious to the kind of stallion Mr. Cross truly is, and as such, one feels even more sympathy for her. Her home was destroyed in a fire, and her mother is dead. What's worse, the daughter will most likely blame herself for not getting her mother out of the fire in time, and that's why she died.

The polarity between these two segments is astounding, and as such, I enjoyed it very much! It's extremely difficult now to accurately place your opinion of the narrator anymore; there are intense amounts of both tear-jerking sympathy for him as there is a scathing apathy. This narrator is complex and intriguing, and I must say, I am very excited to see how this ends! Excellent work! :D
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Cuddlepug Featured By Owner Mar 9, 2012
Rarity's condition is deliberately kept ambiguous, playing into the idea that it's not so much an illness as a state of mind brought about by her excessive labour and abuse. She is literally working herself to death. Rarity at this stage copes well with her condition - she might not always have that same fortitude, but at this point she demonstrates a great level of maturity. The interaction between the narrator and Dr. Tawleed at this stage is also of importance, for Tawleed is clearly doing his best, and yet the narrator still views him in the same light as characters like Mr. Cross - as a threat to Rarity.

For the second segment, it's important that the narrator has now become a villain himself. While it has only been inferred in the past that the narrator could be a potentially destructive force, murdering Florence Cross creates a darker level to his personality and there will undoubtedly be consequences for his actions. It's ambiguous as to what extent the alcohol affected his behaviour. And while he presents himself as being able to get over the murder, it's unlikely that after doing such a thing he will truly be able to overcome it. It's likely that he is doing his best to rationalise the murder as revenge on Mr. Cross rather than an actual illegal act.

As for Cross' daughter, she will eventually prove to be of immense importance. We haven't seen much from her at all - barely a spoken word - and yet she's already made an impression as an innocent and loving character. Sadly, while the narrator gets out of this situation with barely a scratch, she will have to now live with the damage that he caused. Definitely remember her - she will certainly, as you suggest, come to feel immense guilt and doubt over what happened.

Thanks for the kind words, as always! I hope that the ending lives up to expectations - there's still plenty more to be revealed about both Rarity and the narrator. It'll be interesting to see your opinions on the narrator by the end.
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:iconjundigon:
Jundigon Featured By Owner Mar 9, 2012  Student Writer
Dr. Tawleed never struck me as a bad character, so it was somewhat sad to see the narrator seeing him as a threat. He was just doing his job, and he has seen a lot throughout his career. He's only trying to help, and at least our narrator has a few small moments where he almost thinks positively of the doctor.

Awesome, the daughter will be seen again! I really look forward to that. I can't explain it, but I just like her character, so it's going to be interesting to see how she is portrayed in the story.

You're quite welcome for the kind words, more will be on the way soon! :D
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Cuddlepug Featured By Owner Mar 10, 2012
The narrator's opinion on Tawleed changes over time, so it's interesting to track the development of their relationship. In a tale of morally ambiguous characters, Tawleed is perhaps the most morally righteous. As for the daughter, she's mentioned a bit more in the Hospice narrative, but her true significance is in the in-the-works sequel, where she'll be playing more than just a minor role.
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:iconjundigon:
Jundigon Featured By Owner Mar 10, 2012  Student Writer
A sequel, you say?! Amazing, most exciting! I can't wait until you come out with that one. I'd love to see the daughter return. :)
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:icondrwhoof:
Drwhoof Featured By Owner Feb 15, 2012
Great story. The narrator goes from being delightfully hateful to evoking feelings of immense empathy, then back again. Can't help but feel that he's like some kind of embryonic Patrick Bateman ;-)
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:iconcuddlepug:
Cuddlepug Featured By Owner Feb 16, 2012
Thanks! I can understand the Patrick Bateman comparisons, although I didn't consciously model him around American Psycho. He's not necessarily psychotic, and he doesn't seem to have any pathological obsession with murder. His actions in this chapter seemed to be pragmatic rather than malicious. Thanks for taking the time to read!
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:icondoctordapples:
doctordapples Featured By Owner Jan 29, 2012
Wow.
Definitely wasn't expecting it to turn into what it did. I knew that the narrator was on the edge, but I didn't realize his mental state had degraded that badly. And he still feels justified in his actions. I'm definitely curious as to if this will get back to Rarity. For her sake, I rather hope it doesn't.
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:iconturkeysm:
TurkeySM Featured By Owner Jan 29, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
Sorry this is late again, I was occupied with some festivities! But now that I'm here, I have to say that you really made me smile with this piece. The 2 Months, 6 Days half was extremely well-written in my humble opinion. I don't know if you've been in a situation like this in your own life, but the way you write gives me the impression that you've had some experience with moments like the hospital scene. I love how the doctor is always saying things that make him appear kind, or at least professionally respectful, and yet the narrator constantly spins these descriptions to insult the doctor whenever he can. The narrator's anger and frustration regarding Rarity's impending demise and the doctor's lack of power to stop it are very realistic, at least to me. I like how the narrator seems to accept Rarity's death all too easily after he helps her cry herself to sleep, but the desperate, sorrowful feeling one gets without having to even read too much into the narrator's words and actions afterwards is a prime show of your writing capability. The doctor's words to the narrator regarding how he needs to be there for Rarity in love and not hate was, in my opinion, the greatest example of how well you can write. That whole conversation was...amazing and so touching. I could feel this dramatic tension regarding what the narrator must do for Rarity. Just astounding... Of course, the words between the narrator and Rarity afterwards were also very well written, as they conveyed the love the narrator has for Rarity in a very enjoyable-to-read way.

Hmm, to tell you the truth, as much as I loved the first half of this segment, the 1 Month, 14 Days half wasn't as appealing to me. By all means, you wrote it very well as you always do, but I felt that it was missing something. I felt, personally, that you didn't convey the desperation and crazed fear the narrator had as well as you could have. I'm no expert in criminology or psychology, but I feel that if the narrator freaked out and acted on his natural instincts without thinking, he would be more inclined to run away rather than actively kill Mrs. Cross. Killing someone on natural instinct would be more believable if he was caught and there were guards or obstacles that cornered him and prevented escape. Again, this is but my own foolish view and I'm no expert, so I bow to any greater judgment your explanations can give. Regardless of the circumstances of the murder, I liked and disliked how the narrator reacted after his murderous act at the same time. I liked how the narrator's morality was ambiguous for the rest of the piece, as he grieves for Mrs. Cross's death while, at the same time, he puts more importance in the fact that he got revenge on Mr. Cross in the end with his "fight fire with fire" line. However, the steps his mind goes through from trying to kill Mr. Cross's daughter to burning down the house are not expressed clearly enough I think. He was so shaky and conflicted when deciding whether or not to kill the daughter, but he then becomes so resolute and quick-witted in his arson. I feel that you could have added a line or two that mentions how he shakes himself out of his crazed state and sets his mind completely and utterly to the act of arson. I feel that he was emotionless throughout this act until the end when he worries for the daughter's safety, but again, I feel that the period of time between trying to kill the girl and setting the house on fire before could have been better expressed. Again, I apologize if this is just my own inability to see the meaning of your character's actions rather than any improbable flaw in your writing. But besides these points, I still feel that this installment is a very good addition to the rest of the story. You write wonderfully as always!

Oh yes, before I forget, I saw what you were doing with the pillows, and I thought it was very clever. Picking it up for Rarity in the hospital and then picking it up in Mr. and Mrs. Cross's room was a rather noticeable motif that I enjoyed. I really do like things like that!

Once again, you've done marvelously in your work! I feel that parts 9 and 10 will be just as excellent, if not more so, than these two installments for part 8! I am look forward with much interest to the conclusion of this wonderful story.

Sorry, but one more thing. Could you give me some details on this visual novel I've been hearing about? I was glancing at the other comments, but I feel that you can explain it to me in better detail. Thanks for any information!
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Cuddlepug Featured By Owner Jan 30, 2012
I'm glad that you enjoyed the first half of this chapter especially. Tawleed, the doctor, is a good guy - the way that the narrator constantly clashes with him is always interesting to write. The narrator dislikes him, one would assume, because of his frustration with how Tawleed manages to remain composed and doesn't cave before the narrator, which is something that he is used to from other ponies. You credit my writing at every angle, which is something that I appreciate; if it's the interaction between the narrator and Rarity that you like the most, the final two chapters will, naturally, appeal to you a lot. I won't dwell too much on the first half, as you clearly enjoyed it a lot. The pillow imagery was an important part of that chapter, so I'm glad that you picked up on that as well.

Now, the second part of this chapter was designed to polarize the audience, so I'm glad that someone responded to that the way that you have. Everyone else seems to have taken to that scene well, so I'm glad that you didn't necessarily get the same positive vibe from it. While I can't change your opinion on the scene, I can perhaps give more context behind it in order to, possibly, alter your perception of it.

The scene is not designed to be a part of the Hospice narrative, per se. Why include it here, you might ask? Well, Hospice is a small part of a much larger narrative, one that requires certain gaps to be filled from other perspectives. We will be returning to this scene in the future, so anything that you feel is missing in it is largely intentional. I did not mention, for example, that the narrator, before burning the place down, went back into Cross' study and then managed to find an interesting little photograph. I also paid very little attention to the fireplace guard, which is incredibly important at a later date.

You say:

I felt, personally, that you didn't convey the desperation and crazed fear the narrator had as well as you could have. I'm no expert in criminology or psychology, but I feel that if the narrator freaked out and acted on his natural instincts without thinking, he would be more inclined to run away rather than actively kill Mrs. Cross.

If this is your personal feeling, then I can't argue with that. However, you are assuming that the narrator is experiencing a state of desperation and crazed fear. But let's look at the evidence: did the murder really affect his mental state that much at all? Whilst apologetic towards Mrs. Cross - and who is to say he even was sorry? - he makes it his immediate mission to try and kill the daughter, and the only reason that he can't bring himself to do that is because she reminds him of Rarity (more on this later). I think if you attempt to rationalise his behaviour, then you can argue that yes, he would be likely to run away. But is our narrator rational?

I've always viewed him as a pragmatic individual whose previous behaviour has been building up to this final act of depravity. Think about it: he's been destroying letters, lying to people, beating up old friends and dreaming of killing people that he hates for months. In this chapter, there is one line that really summarises the narrators stance:

By detaching myself from my crime I was able to keep my sanity in check.

Note how unusually literal and lyrically amateurish this is. Very, very rarely does the narrator adopt this basic, informative style of telling the audience something. If you look throughout the entirety of Hospice, the narrator barely ever says, 'I did this because of this', instead allowing the reader to read between the lines. Typically, he acts without a justification for his actions. In this chapter, however, he finally feels the need to flat-out tell the audience that he had to detach himself from his crime to keep his sanity in check, which is brazenly redundant. Compare this to in the past when he's torn up Rarity's letters or beaten up Gazette; he never once said, 'I did this because I was sad' or 'I beat up Gazette in order to punish him for hurting Rarity'. It's telling that here, he finally feels the need to tell the audience why he's doing something, almost insulting our ability to infer from the text in the process. That, to me, better conveys his desperation than an incredibly blatant line where he says, 'I couldn't believe what I had done'. His very linguistic style is altered by this event.

Would it even fit with the narrator, who is, as always, talking in retrospect, to have a mass-panic? Or is he, the egotistical, draconian individual that he is, more likely to gloss over the finer details? He barely ever presents us with information that would prove to be a weakness. Take this line, for example:

But Mr. Cross' child was, for some reason, refusing to die.

Note how he doesn't say, 'I was unable to kill her', which would put him in a position of weakness. To him, it's her fault that she will not die. He barely ever takes the blame for anything that he does. While you may perceive his behaviour as glossed-over and illogically well-devised given the circumstance, is our narrator really the sort of character who would run away? Or is he, more likely, the sort of psychotic entity who would focus on the tiny, precise details in systematically trying to cover his own tracks? He has become something of an expert in covering his tracks, as suggested by the excessive disposal of Rarity's letters throughout the entire narrative. One would hope that this would part-way explain how he is now quite capable of doing whatever he can to avoid being found out. In this situation, normal people wouldn't likely develop a plan as complex as his right in the wake of killing someone. However, note the line before his reasoning to burn the building down:

I ended up forming a quick plan.

This would be rather different if it read 'I quickly formed a plan'. 'Ended up' implies that he wrestled with the idea for a while, and he did indeed do this. It is later revealed that he spent a painfully long time outside the bedroom door, staring up at the ceiling with thoughts passing through his mind. Also, let's not forget this oft-repeated line throughout the passage:

I really hadn't been thinking straight that day

This comes up several times throughout and is a very literal way of letting us know that he's not thinking straight, which in terms of his narration makes it more unreliable than normal. If a naturally unreliable narrator is actively telling us that on this particular day he was especially unreliable, you know there's something very wrong with him that would no doubt have ramifications on the way that he's delivering his narrative.

For the narrator, killing Florence Cross puts him in absolute risk of being imprisoned. And, seeing as he's aware that Rarity has barely any time left to live at this point, he wants to spend every minute that he can with her (after reaping revenge, of course). For that reason, he would do anything to cover his tracks so that he could be with Rarity and help her avoid the consequences of what he has done.

I feel that you could have added a line or two that mentions how he shakes himself out of his crazed state and sets his mind completely and utterly to the act of arson.

Would such a line be necessary, when one can infer that he makes that conscious decision? Hospice rarely, if ever, tells you anything solid: the entire thing is about reading between the lines. If you genuinely thought that the narrator here jumped between doubt and resolve too quickly, that's reasonable; however, I do believe that you are concerning yourself too much with the notion that the narrator is a nice guy who approaches matters as a normal individual would. He doesn't really care about killing Florence - he will later reason that he tried to help her by putting a pillow on her bed - and his sudden consideration for Mr. Cross' daughter is because all of this (Hospice) is being spoken of from a later perspective; a perspective where he has come to grow fond of the daughter. I won't say more than that, as I don't want to give too much away about what's coming up. Suffice to say, because he later cares about Mr. Cross' daughter, he inserts things into that part about her that might not have existed at the time.

Do you think he really bashed on the door to try and wake her up, or that he modified what happened at a later date in order to try and make himself look better? I wouldn't take much that the narrator says about caring about ponies other than Rarity without a hint of doubt.

And so, I am curious about:

I feel that the period of time between trying to kill the girl and setting the house on fire before could have been better expressed.

The narrator clearly glossed over that event quickly for a reason. Details were omitted. For example, while the entire thing appears to be over in the period of half an hour, he was actually in the house for several hours. Also, let's not forget how much he hates Mr. Cross. Burning down the house isn't just a way of destroying evidence; it's a way of eliminating 7 months of hatred for this pony who tried, in his mind, to steal Rarity from him. He blames Mr. Cross for Rarity's current health issues; by this logic, he believes that Mr. Cross is a murderer himself.

As I say, this scene will be revisited at a later date. It's not intrinsically a part of Hospice, but this scene needs to be here as it is in order for something coming up later to have some context to go off of. If you still dislike elements of this part, that's to be expected: there are so many blanks that are to be filled in at a later date. For example, what was the true significance of the painting and its signature? If he drank an entire bottle of Mr. Cross' wine before committing the crime, was he drunk for the entire event, and thus would his behaviour be especially obtuse? I suggest having a read over again, and if you still have any objections then let me know. I would hope that the narrative is written coherently enough to not disappoint; if this is the case, then I want to be alerted of that.

As for the visual novel, it's an ongoing project being worked on by 30 or so bronies. I'm writing the parts of Rarity and Applejack for it. Most information is currently being kept a secret until we release our first official demo, but here is the Facebook page for some sneak-peeks: [link]
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