It had to be admitted, Princess Luna was nothing if not conscientious. A lesser alicorn, faced with a dull meeting with Captain Shining Armor, would surely have skimped when attending to her celestial duties—and upon learning that Canterlot and Equestria itself were in great peril, she could have been forgiven for letting the Milky Way dim, the aurora waver away, and the falling stars remain unfallen. It was getting on towards morning anyway, and it had been a pretty good night. Nopony would have blamed her.
Luna’s standards, though, were evidently higher than that, for the stars sparkled as brilliantly as always, the craters of the moon were sharp and gleaming, and the ragged, exhausted changeling falling out of the sky over the thatched roofs of Ponyville, trailing thin ribbons of green flame, was…not a normal feature of the night sky. Thoroughly abnormal, in fact.
Well, nopony’s perfect.
Corroded black hooves slammed against the packed dirt of one of Ponyville’s side streets, chitinous knees buckled, and Bon Bon fell sprawling to the ground, her momentum sending her skidding across the lane to collide with an exoskeleton-jarring thud against an inconveniently placed house. She lay still for a moment, wheezing through the spiracles lining her flanks, and then tottered to her hooves. Thank Celestia, she was bruised, but unbroken. She pulled on her dwindling reserves of strength—normally she could have made it through weeks at a stretch without Lyra’s love before she started to weaken, but this had not been a normal night, and the multiple transformations and her mad dash from Canterlot to Ponyville had taken their toll—and drenched herself in green fire. Her wings vanished into cream-colored flanks, her horn melded itself into her usual tidy curls, and her eyes shifted back to her everyday pale blue pony eyes, banishing the flickering ghosts of Faerie that had been darting in and out of the corners of her vision during the whole flight back.
Not that they’d stay banished for long, of course. The Unseelie Court would no longer be denied. Bon Bon took a deep breath and galloped off down the dimly lit streets of Ponyville. She wasn’t sure where she and Lyra could go—far to the West or East, perhaps, where Celestia’s Sun dipped down so near to the ground that it kneaded and tugged at the world’s bones as it passed, drawing up liquid fire from deep below and scouring the stones clean of plant life. Bon Bon made a hard left, clods of dirt flying out from under her hooves as she sped on her way. The Sintered Lands were harsh places, inhabited by dragons, phoenixes, and pyralides, but the Unseelie Court would have no interest in them. With cleverness and care, two ponies might eke out a life there.
They might, that is, if Lyra agreed to come. If Lyra forgave her. Bon Bon exhaled heavily, willing herself not to dwell on that, and cantered to a halt in front of their home, its outline barely visible in the moon-cast shadows of the larger homes flanking it. She was relieved to see that the door was intact and the wooden latch unbroken; she had been half-afraid that she’d find the timbers smashed inward or ripped apart by Unseelie magic. Perhaps, she thought as she nudged the latch up with her snout, things wouldn’t be so bad…
She tripped as she crossed the threshold, forehooves sliding forward as if she had been walking down a broken flight of stairs and had tried to step on a landing that wasn’t there. Something was wrong. The quiet, humming warmth of Lyra’s love was only faintly present, drifting like a fading memory, and the house didn’t feel like their home anymore; it was just a baroque and pointless structure built of dead tree limbs, lost stones, baked clay and lime, grass stolen from last summer’s meadows, and other random, mislaid fragments of a vast and eerie world. A creaking husk wrapped around emptiness. Bon Bon stood frozen for a moment, terrified.
The name came out in a high-pitched screech, desperate and raw. Bon Bon tore up the stairs and dashed to their bedroom, bucking open the lovely blue door and gouging the wood. Their bed had been slept in, but it was empty, and the sheets had been pulled from the mattress. The blankets were nowhere to be seen. Bon Bon whirled around and clattered back down the stairs.
“Lyra! Lyra, please! Please!”
She dashed into the kitchen. Nothing but pots and pans. The cellar. The Fing-er loomed in the darkness, but Lyra wasn’t there. The living room. No Lyra. The small, cozy little den, where Bon Bon worked on her candies and Lyra practiced music in the summer evenings. Empty.
“No! Don’t take her from me! Bring her back! Lyra!”
Bon Bon galloped through a doorway, rushed past shadowy shapes that might have been furniture, passed another doorway, turned left, dashed right, thudded against something sharp-edged and wooden, dashed right again…
She finally came to a halt back in the anteroom, her breath coming in harsh, shallow gasps and her hooves shivering. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t. She called out Lyra’s name one last time, broken and defeated.
And then, muted but unmistakable, Lyra’s voice answered.
“Bon Bon? I’m—I’m here.”
Bon Bon’s head snapped up and she leapt unsteadily to her hooves, her vision swimming and blotted with darkness. Thank Celestia. Oh, thank Celestia. “Lyra! Where are you?”
“Up here.” Lyra’s voice was coming from somewhere upstairs. “In the—I’m taking a bath. Sorry, didn’t hear you at first.” The relief that had at first overwhelmed Bon Bon’s mind was suddenly tinged with a thread of doubt. There was an oddly stilted quality to the voice, as if Lyra wasn’t quite certain that she had said the right things and was even less sure of what to say next. Bon Bon trotted up the stairs and to the door of their bathroom, hope and fear jostling for precedence in the mind, and nudged the slightly ajar door open. Lyra lay slouched in a bubble-filled bath, her head leaning back against the tub’s rim and her mane dripping water on the floor. The aquamarine unicorn’s eyes were closed, and there was a relaxed smile on her face.
Bon Bon stepped hesitantly forward into the room. Lyra raised her eyebrows and grinned, keeping her eyes closed, and said “’Ey, Bon Bon.”
There was love in the room, but it was faint and diffuse, and none of it was flowing from her marefriend. When Bon Bon had left yesterday morning, there had been shaken trust and pain running through Lyra’s love, but the love had still been there. The bitterness couldn’t have won out, surely? Bon Bon swallowed anxiously. “Lyra? Are you…okay?”
“Mm? Yeah, I’m dandy.” Lyra slouched down further into the tub. “How was your trip? Did you get whatever it was you wanted to do done?”
“Y—yes, I did, but I—“ Bon Bon stopped suddenly. Her vocal cords morphed wildly, as always happened when her concentration was broken. In a very different voice, flat and quavering, she continued “Your mane—there’s waterweed in it.”
Lyra’s brows drew together. “Er, yes. I went swimming earlier today. Or wading, at least, and I tripped.”
“Lyra, open your eyes. I need to see them.” Please, no. It couldn’t be. Please…
“But the light is so tiring! Really now, I can’t relax with it shining in my eyes. Why don’t you head off to sleep, and I’ll follow when I’ve finished my bath.“
Her voice brittle but steady, Bon Bon said, “Your eyes, Lyra. Open them. Now.”
The green unicorn said nothing for a moment, her body tense, and then she sighed and her shoulders slumped. She turned her head towards Bon Bon, and opening brown, goat-like eyes, “Lyra” said “Very well, I concede.” Her mane morphed into the weedy, moldering mane of a kelpie, and her minty green coat grew black and scabrous. “Do give me this credit, I had your adorable little pet’s dialect down perfec—“
“I’LL KILL YOU!” An explosion of livid green fire blasted out from Bon Bon, arcing off her tattered wings in great roiling clouds and flaring from the changeling’s sickle-shaped fangs as she leapt towards the kelpie. “I’ll kill you how DARE you, you evil—"
Aldrovanda jumped backwards with a yelp, bringing about half the bathwater with her as she scrabbled away from the enraged changeling. “Whoa whoa she’s fine she’s alive she’s safe she’s well she’s suffering from a mild case of brainwashing I did not just say that she’s fine!” She tripped and stumbled back, falling to the wooden floor. The kelpie seemed far more ragged and tattered than when Bon Bon had seen her two days before; there were twigs and fragments of grass clinging to her emaciated flanks, and her hooves were encased in masses of pebbles, sticks, leaves, and other detritus. Aldrovanda attempted what she probably thought was a reassuring smile and said “Really, now. I assure you, your pet—er, marefriend is safe and well. Completely un-devoured. Probably having the time of her life, I’m sure.”
Bon Bon splashed forward across the bathwater-soaked floor. Planting a hoof on Aldrovanda’s damp chest and pinning her against the wall, she brought her head level with the kelpie’s and hissed, “What do you mean, brainwashing? Where is she, Aldrovanda? What have you done with her?”
Aldrovanda blinked nervously, and licked her fangs with a serpentine tongue. “It’s possible that she may have been kinda sorta cast under a Glamour. Just a little bit. And I did nothing with her! Believe me, Mendax—sorryImeantBonBon!—I would have been only too happy to leave you to your little games here. This was not my idea, and if it had been up to me—“
“Where. Is. She.”
Aldrovanda opened her mouth, shut it, and then meekly said, “Canterlot. She’s in Canterlot.”
The changeling sank back to her haunches. That was it, then. Queen Chrysalis knew, and had probably known even when she had encountered Bon Bon in Canterlot. Lyra had been taken—and it was this creature’s fault. Bon Bon glared at the cowering kelpie, and Aldrovanda shrank back, apparently hoping that the extremely solid wall behind her would suddenly develop a heretofore-undiscovered hole in which she could hide herself. “Now look, Bon Bon, be reasonable. Try to see things from my point of view.”
“Your point of view? Your point of view!?”
“Well, it’s not as though I wanted to have things turn out this way,” whined Aldrovanda. “It was those two changelings’ fault. Why, I’m practically the victim here. None of this would have happened, you know, if you weren’t so unutterably boring.”
“Boring—I—you—what.” Bon Bon spluttered incoherently for a moment, and then massaged her brow with a hoof like a cheese grater. It hurt, but honestly a little pain was a good thing right now; she needed to clear her mind of Aldrovanda’s—Aldrovanda-ness.
The kelpie shifted awkwardly. “See, I may possibly have been hanging around near Ponyville because the Court was suspicious of you and wanted someone to keep an eye on you. And the Court may have gotten just a bit suspicious of me after I stopped keeping tabs on you years ago because, well, you’re unutterably dull, after which it’s within the realm of possibility that they set a pair of changelings to keep an eye on both of us. Following which, it’s not impossible that these two changelings may have observed the little visit you paid me the evening before last, along with the revelation that you’d been indulging in about seventeen different kinds of perversion and harboring all kinds of treasonous sentiments, upon which they may have decided that if they abducted your lady love as a guarantee of your good behavior you’d be more tractable. And, finally, they might just have decided to punish me for my—how did they put it? It was rather clever. Ah, yes—“selfish incompetence and apathy at a level that beggars belief” by assigning me to give you their terms.”
“Which was all my fault because I’m not interesting enough.”
The kelpie nodded.
Bon Bon took a deep breath. “Look, just…whatever. Fine. I just want to know one thing, kelpie, and you’re going to tell me. How do I get her back?”
“Get her back?” Aldrovanda made a noise that probably would have become a derisive chortle if she hadn’t remembered that Bon Bon’s three-inch fangs were within easy reach of her throat. “You can’t get her back. That’s the whole point. They stole that little mortal away from you to keep you on your best behavior; as long as you crawl a shadowed and Unseelie path, they won’t harm her, but keep up your sungrubbing infatuation with ponykind—or for that matter do anything not to the Court’s liking, which knowing you probably wipes out most of your plans for the next year or so—and you know best what the upshot would be.” The kelpie paused, considering. “As a matter of intellectual curiosity, what would Chrysalis be likely to do with a hostage whose guarantor had not done as wished? Something involving acid, perhaps? Velvet ants? Manchineel trees?”
“She—she forgets about them.” Bon Bon swallowed painfully. Grand treason would probably be very much not to Chrysalis’ liking. All that remained was for the Shee carrying Lyra to arrive in Canterlot, and for Queen Chrysalis to put two and two together. There was a chance that Chrysalis might be fooled by Bon Bon’s pretense, when she had talked to Princess Luna and Shining Armor, that she was a spirit possessing a pony and not a changeling, but if so the queen wouldn’t stay fooled for long. She stepped back from Aldrovanda, ears pinned against her head and eyes wide. “I have to go. I have to save her. I have to go now.”
The kelpie cocked her head. “Have you not listened to a single word I said? Unless you’re having second thoughts about my suggestion that you kill—“ Aldrovanda paused, and blinked. “Wait, ‘forgets about them?’ Was that just your accent playing tricks on me, or did you actually say that? Perhaps you changelings are more needy than I realized, but that doesn’t seem so bad.”
“Oh no, she’s very nice about it. She drags you down to some lost cave miles under the surface, leaves you in the dark with no food, no water, and no idea where the exit is, and then—forgets about you.” Bon Bon turned her back on Aldrovanda, still sprawled against the wall, and made for the open door. “I’ve already been to Canterlot, and told them everything I know. Chrysalis doesn’t have any reason left to care whether Lyra lives or…or…” She swallowed again, and forced her ears to stand straight and her tail to flow free. She would not let this creature see her fear. In a steadier voice, she continued, “I have to go. My marefriend needs me.”
With a flailing and clattering that was probably less graceful than she had intended, Aldrovanda righted herself. “As if she’s still alive! Come now, Bon Bon, surely even you can see that—”
“Bite iron, kelpie.” Bon Bon kicked the door shut in Aldrovanda’s face and trotted downstairs.
Iron. That wasn’t a bad idea. She might well need to fight before this was over, and the last thing that a Shee would expect would be for one of their own kind to be carrying Faebane. It wouldn’t be much use against the likes of Chrysalis, of course, but against lesser Shee it might well make all the difference. Most of the household implements that she and Lyra owned were made of brass or copper, for obvious reasons, but she thought she remembered an old iron poker that lay buried in some chest or other. If it didn’t have a wooden guard, it could always be wrapped in cloth or something of that nature so she could safely hold it.
From upstairs, there came the sounds of a kelpie engaged in battle with advanced pony technology, represented by a doorknob. Judging from the rattling and cursing, the doorknob was winning. Bon Bon ignored the sounds, lit a candle, and continued searching for the poker, mentally reviewing the other things she’d be likely to need. Bread might be a good idea. As a changeling, she couldn’t eat it herself, but fresh-baked bread was a very homely, real sort of thing; just the smell alone would keep her anchored in reality, and might also drive off some of the eerier kinds of Shee who had trouble existing anywhere but in Faerie. A few quarts of water would definitely be wise, along with a map, enough bits to take care of the train ride there and back (and a little more for emergencies), flint and tinder, and a length of good, stout rope in case the worst happened and she had to seek out Lyra somewhere deep underground. She still had no clue where her saddlebag was, though, and Lyra’s was somewhere in Canterlot. Bon Bon took a moment to berate herself for having been so incredibly stupid as to have just left it lying there, with the incriminating list and the lyre clasp and—well, that was in the past, and there was no point in worrying about it now. It wasn’t as if it could make things any worse than they already were.
Still, the saddlebag would be a problem; she might not be planning to take much with her, but what she was taking was unwieldy. She could always buy another saddlebag—what did bits matter anymore?—but time was precious, and if she wanted to catch the morning train to Canterlot messing about in the markets wasn’t a good idea. Early as it was, the first tentative glow of dawn was already glimmering in at the windows, filling in the shadows cast by her candle. If only she had somepony she could send for a replacement…
There was a sudden sound of splintering wood, several cracks and metallic thuds, and a muffled “I loathe doors” from somewhere over Bon Bon’s head. The not-quite-pony sighed, and made an addendum to her earlier wish. If only she had somepony to send for a replacement saddlebag, and a way to get rid of Aldrovanda. A moment later the kelpie clomped down the stairs, the pebbles covering her hooves clacking noisily with each step. A few slivers of broken wood and a doorknob hanging jauntily from her left ear had now joined the rest of the detritus clinging to her body. She nodded irritably towards the upper story, and said, “You’ll be wanting to pick up another one of those round bronze devices. It was holding the door shut with some kind of gramarye, and I’m afraid I may have slightly, ah, destroyed it. My sincerest apologies.” The ragged Shee paused, and eyed Bon Bon. “Far be it from me to criticize your face, by the by, but honestly I think I prefer it when you scowl at me. That smile is positively unnerving. I’m willing to take your impeccable dental care on faith, you know. You don’t have to show me every last incisor.”
“Sorry,” hissed Bon Bon, grimacing cheerfully. “I just had an idea, that’s all. Aldrovanda, how would you like to go shopping?”
The sun was still below the horizon, but only just, and Bon Bon was now clad in her normal pony form, pawing through the heap of items she had piled in the anteroom. She’d decided that, for lack of a saddlebag, tying everything up in a pillowcase and making it into a bindle would have to do. It wasn’t ideal, of course; she’d need to hobble along with one hoof held up to keep the bindle from falling off, and anything in the nature of a gallop would be completely out of the question. She’d seen some ponies—typically Earth ponies, for whatever reason—balance parcels like these without needing to hobble along on three legs, but she had never been able to figure out how they did it, and they’d never quite been able to explain.
Still, it was all she had to work with; she wasn’t holding her breath waiting for Aldrovanda’s return. Although the kelpie had agreed to head to the marketplace and buy a saddlebag with surprisingly little backchat, Bon Bon expected her to make a beeline for Froggy Bottom Bog and stay there. That was, honestly, the whole point of sending her off in the first place: to get rid of her with as little fuss as possible. If she came back with a saddlebag, great, but if she didn’t—well, even better. As she looped the loose end of the pillowcase around a broomstick, Bon Bon muttered, “I doubt she’s even familiar with the concept of money.” She drew the slack through the loop with her teeth, tugged it tight, and spitting out the cloth added to herself, “Wouldn’t be surprised if she ate the bits I gave her.”
“You wound me, Mendax,” drawled a far-too-familiar voice. Bon Bon started, and raising her gaze saw Aldrovanda, disguised as Lyra once more, peering in through one of the open ground-floor windows and eyeing Bon Bon’s hoofwork with a patronizing grin. “I haven’t been up there in some time, of course, but I used to make the occasional sojourn amongst your little ponies for various reasons—I won’t go into the details, they’d only distress you—and I kept my eyes open. I’m quite familiar with the basic drill: ask shopkeep for price of object, haggle if necessary, toss over the requested sum, and take the goods. If there are no witnesses, devour shopkeep.” The kelpie licked her fangs wistfully. “Shame that last item didn’t really pan out today.”
“It’s ‘Bon Bon.’ Go away.”
“’Go away?’ Now look, you’ve gone and wounded me again. This is really starting to become a habit with you. I tolerate your frankly insulting attitude, run your pointless little errands, brave the twee banality of a Ponyville marketplace, devour absolutely no one—nopony, I mean, of course—and all you have to offer in return is more rudeness! The stalls were all pink, Dum Dum! Pink! Some of them even had little hearts and candies on them! And not the meaty kind of heart, dripping with blood, but the sappy kind, dripping with—with sap. Or something. It was horrifying, is the point.”
Bon Bon said nothing, and hoisted the bindle up. Aldrovanda blinked. “Are you honestly planning to trek all the way from here to Canterlot carting that whatever-it-is with you? But I brought a saddlebag!”
Bon Bon paused, bindle hanging awkwardly off her back. “You did?”
“Of course I did. Do you suppose I returned solely for the sake of making devastatingly witty remarks? Don’t kid yourself. You’re a good foil, but you aren’t that good.”
“Well, I, uh…” The faux-pony blinked and slid the bindle off her back. “That’s great, then. Um. Thank you, Aldrovanda. Toss it over.”
A snaggletoothed smile spread its way across the kelpie’s face. “Ah, yes, I thought we might hit this stumbling block. I’m terribly sorry, but I can’t quite manage that. You see,” she finished apologetically, “the saddlebag is dry.”
Neither of them spoke for a moment. The puzzled changeling waited for Aldrovanda to say something more, but apparently she felt that the saddlebag being dry was a sufficiently impressive fact all by itself.
“It’s dry, and…?”
Aldrovanda smiled indulgently. “Well, I could hardly drag your lovely new saddlebag through the streets, could I? It would have gotten dirty. So, without really thinking through all the consequences, I slung it on to my back—and here we are.”
“I’m afraid I still don’t quite follow.”
“I’m a kelpie!”
“And I’m a pony—well, changeling, technically, but you know what I mean—that’s a door, and this is a house. Is this another one of those ‘You’re boring, therefore I foalnapped your marefriend and took a bath’ things? Because I am not in the mood for more of—“
“No no no no no.” Aldrovanda tossed her damp mane in exasperation, scattering stale, fishy-smelling droplets. “Bless your traitorous little heart, you’ve quite forgotten what it is to be of the Court, haven’t you? I’m a kelpie—you remember what a kelpie is, yes?—and like all good kelpies, I hunt my food by tricking it, one way or another, into touching me. As long as the dear little morsel is dry it sticks fast to my hide, upon which I drag it underwater, wait for it to drown, and munch merrily away. If it’s wet, on the other hoof, it doesn’t stick; that way I don’t end up covered in random bits of detritus floating around in the water. Is that quite simple enough for you, or should I draw a diagram to make it clearer?”
Honestly, the wretched creature couldn’t be more obnoxious if she tried—or tried harder than she already was trying, at least. With an effort Bon Bon suppressed her first impulse, which while not entirely clear in her mind almost certainly would have involved a good deal of screaming, and answered “I know how kelpies hunt, yes. I didn’t know about the wet-dry thing, though; I just sort of figured you could choose what you stuck to. I suppose that explains why you were in the bathtub, at any rate.”
Aldrovanda nodded. “Precisely. It was the only thing in your funny little home I could find that was able to hold both me and a hogshead or two of water.”
“The saddlebag’s glued to your back, then.” Bon Bon paused. “Permanently?”
Aldrovanda chuckled, amused by the quaint notion. “Don’t be foolish. It’s made of cloth; it’ll rot off eventually. That’s how I get rid of the bits of my meals that end up stuck to me.”
“And all the other junk stuck to you? The pebbles? The doorknob? Those won’t rot off.”
A rare look of unease flickered across the kelpie’s toothy face. “Well, I…I don’t personally know how to remove those things, no. I don’t normally come up on land unless it’s recently rained, so until now the issue never came up. But there must be some way. I’ll ask around.” She twitched an ear as if to shoo away an irritating fly, and continued, “but that’s beside the point, my dear Mendax. As I said, I’m afraid I can’t just give you the saddlebag. Be of good cheer, though! A beam of sunlight shines through the clouds! I’ve just now discovered that you possess a remarkably winning personality, and I feel like helping you. Load me up with your assorted trinkets and adventuresome doodads, then, and I shall be your pack mule. Let’s get this fool’s errand on the road!”
Bon Bon’s eyes narrowed. “’Bon Bon.’ And you can’t possibly expect me to believe that you’re serious.”
“Why not? It’s so boring here, Bon Bon! I want life, laughter, gaiety, ha-cha-cha! And that’s hard to find in a swamp. Now, don’t get me wrong; I still think your little quest is abysmally idiotic and will almost certainly end in your messy death. But hey, as long as it isn’t too messy and there’s a reasonable-sized chunk of you left, I still come out on top. Dinner and a show, if you see my point.”
“You are an unholy abomination and an affront to reality itself.”
“Oh, shush. I bet you say that to all the fillies. How about it, though? It’d make your task much easier.”
The horrible thing was, she was right. Bon Bon sighed. This was probably a stupid idea… “Fine.” She nudged up the latch and pulled the front door open. Aldrovanda sidled in, glaring suspiciously at the door as if she suspected it of something nefarious. “Whatever. Here, stand still while I load you up.”
Aldrovanda glanced back as Bon Bon began lifting various things up and tossing them into the saddlebag. “Is all of this really necessary? Like I said, the odds of her even being alive are awfully slim, so you might as well just Yaaaa!”
“Sho shorry,” said Bon Bon, holding the wooden guard of the iron poker in her mouth. “It shlipped.”
“Indeed,” hissed Aldrovanda. “Anything else you’ll be bringing that I should know about? A sheaf of poisoned darts? Perhaps a pet nuckelavee?” She shivered as Bon Bon added a loaf of bread to the bag. “Ugh! What was—everything feels—Ugh! It’s like suddenly the whole universe is watching me—like I’ll never be able to hide again. How did you do that? Can normal ponies do that? Nevermind,” she continued hurriedly, “I really think I’d prefer not to know. Are you done yet? Got everything in?”
Bon Bon tugged a strap through the saddlebag’s buckle, fastened it, and gave a curt nod. The kelpie smirked nastily. “Excellent.” With a sudden leap she scooted back out the door, swerved right, and galloped off down the street, pebble-shod hooves clattering against the packed dirt. As she sped off she shouted back, “Sorry, changed my mind! Good luck with your quest!”
Yep, agreeing to let her help had been a stupid idea. Bon Bon stood frozen for a moment in the doorway of her home. Then, deliberately and with careful enunciation, she said several words that most ponies would have been ashamed to admit that they even knew.
Then she said them again.