The fire in Aria’s chest wasn't something that particularly phased her at the moment. It was more irritating to watch the calm radiating off of him. One would think that the mage might at least manage to show a bit of caution whilst fiddling around with the cold, restrictive mechanism that encircled her neck, what’s more, turning his back to her afterward. Yet, there he sat at his desk as he usually did nowadays, writing something down in his enormous ‘book o’ ego-driven drivel’ as she liked to call it.
“Almost. Just one more moment,” Starshot murmured more to himself than to her. The coolness of his words, the slow, rhythmic sound of his breathing made palpable Aria’s desire to disrupt him. She wanted to sing, even if it could have no effect on him. In truth, part of her just wanted him to feel off guard, to be as nervous in her presence as she had learned to become in his.
Her mouth remained shut. By now she knew better than to disobey him so candidly. Placing her right thumb and index fingers upon either side of her face, to the rear of her cheeks, she rubbed at two dots of pain that lingered upon them. That's where he would often squeeze when she would ‘get out of hand.’ It was surprising how effective that tiny shock of pain could be for getting her to remain quiet… but not too quiet, obviously, since she was the Siren that she was. “Listen, you've kept me up all day… Night? W… whatever. Can you just hurry it up so I can get back to my cage, and continue silently wishing a blight upon you?”
The mage didn't speak. He didn't move. To Aria’s dismay he seemed totally unphased, leaving her to wonder if he had heard her at all. She huffed. Ignoring others should have been considered a sin that no one but she was allowed to commit. The feeling of smallness that it created within her jogged something ancient in her memory. It was torture. She crossed her arms. “Alright, well I'm tired. So, I'm done.”
“No, you aren’t,” Starshot murmured without looking at her. He appeared to be putting the finishing touches upon his notes.
Aria started at having been heard. “Yes. I. Am.” She turned to face pitch black shadow, and began to walk, not quite sure of where she was headed. A tingling blanket of gold lassoed itself about her middle, drawing her back to whence she had come. As it spun her around, her eyes crossed the wizard’s briefly before she found sudden interest in her own bare toes.
“Alright, now. Gently,” Starshot bid her, reaching out to tweak the ring about her neck once more. “And spare me the tricks, Siren. They’re only a waste of time.”
For a moment she did nothing, toying around with the idea that perhaps she might get away with being her gloriously surly self. Some part of her—the sensible part—knew it was a foolish notion. Slowly, her lips parted. Following a loud, irritated sigh was the sweetest, lingering G note she could muster. Her eyes still could not meet his, but she watched on as one of his hands rose from his side, up and out of her field of vision; probably to ring the dregs of her melody out of his ears.
“Alright, another,” he said.
This time she sang a B-flat, just as prettily. She wanted to smile at the sound. It was perfect after all. And it had been a while since he had allowed her to sing.
Though she couldn't see Starshot’s face, she knew that his eyes were closed, that he had been whisked away to some sweet memory of which nothing but shades and dust remained thanks to her. The ring about her neck emitted a soft glow. There was no shock, no choking this time, only the slight soreness that occurred when one had definitely sung a few notes too many. Still, the collar warmed the rosy skin beneath it, and Aria couldn’t help but fend off a smile. This was the one comfort that the torturous device could offer her.
“Last one. On a crescendo,” the mage said. His voice cracked in between the words.
The melody died down, as did the warm golden glow about Aria’s neck, leaving them both in cold darkness. “No,” she said, an icy sharpness flinging itself off of her stale melody’s final refrain. “I told you. I'm tired.”
Whatever sweetness her song had left to linger in the atmosphere was sucked into a sterile, almost clinical coldness. Aria realized, then, that she had made yet another mistake.
“Sing, Siren,” Starshot commanded her, foregoing his weary sigh this time. His tone remained lethal.
Aria felt her bottom lip tremble of its own accord. It had been doing that quite a bit lately. She took in a deep breath and leaned in toward him, her index finger directed toward the center of his chest. “Whatever delusion you have about owning us isn’t my concern, Starshit. You may have the power to force me to sing while I can manage it, but even you can’t fix a Siren with shot vocal cords.” She spun about, crossing her arms. “I'm tired. I can't sing anymore or else I'll hurt myself, and if I do that, I'm of no use to you, right? Simple as that.”
There were no sounds at her back at first, a fact that proved nerve-wracking. She wondered what type of pen the mage was planning to prod into the flesh on her arm, which patch of long, graying hair he’d snatch at first. Again, pure stubbornness kept her still. Eventually, she began to hear papers shuffling about a desk, glass vials clinking against one another, and at last, the distinct sound of body weight lowering itself into a leather-upholstered seat.
“You're right. Go on then,” the mage said.
Aria blinked once, fighting the powerful urge to spin about and confront the wizard about the fact that she did not enjoy feeling confused. Instead, she lowered her arms to her sides, cleared her throat, and took one cautious step toward the inky darkness ahead of her. Then, another. She was three steps in before curiosity finally got the best of her. “Why?” she asked, peering at him over her shoulder.
“Because your collar is ready,” the mage said. “It serves no purpose for me to continue prodding at it all by my lonesome. I believe it's time to move on with my work, finally.”
Aria cocked an eyebrow. “Move on to what, exactly?”
She received only a knowing smile in return. Starshot leaned forward in his seat, his palms running across his knees. Lifting one hand, he flicked his wrist in the direction of the empty space behind her. A gash of golden light was cut into the dim, and the darkness opened up like a wound upon dead flesh, revealing a large, gilded cage. In the cage’s belly, upon its scuffed floor lay two figures, one blue and one yellow. Their heads were topped with multiple streaks of silver now just as Aria’s was. Both figures remained still where they lay, draped in simple frocks made of black linen. The shifts Starshot had given them hung long enough about their bodies to touch their shins. Their knees were bent in a futile effort to recycle some sense of warmth in their crude home.
Aria stared at them both, her sisters, who she could not recall loving more than she had learned to love them these past few months. She felt her stomach turn a bit. “M...move on to what?” she repeated, much quieter this time.
“You know, creature, out of the Sirens three, you are by far my favourite to tease. Really, you shouldn't make yourself such an open and willing target for the frustrations of others. Child’s logic I’d think, but…” The mage shrugged.
Incensed, the purple Siren lifted her chin. “Is that supposed to hurt my feelings or something? Or are you expecting me to scrounge up a sense of gratitude for having entertained you?” She smirked. “You haven't got what it takes to ever endear me to you like that, so just fuck off.”
Starshot didn’t move, only continued to smirk in his way, shaking his head pityingly. “So, then what does it take, Aria?”
The Siren cringed. She hated it when he spoke her name. The irony of her preferring that he call her ‘creature’ was not lost on her. Her life had been too long and she had seen too much of it to not recognize the signs of someone being groomed to submit, even if that someone was herself. But, even if the ending to this tale was inevitable, she would at least show the mage that it wouldn't come easily. “You don't have the talent. Trust your elders,” she spat.
Running her fingers upon her collar, they hit an odd, loose groove on their trek across its smooth metal. The Siren nearly gasped as a wicked revelation dawned upon her. Turning about, with three large, swift steps she found herself standing before the mage. Her bare toes tapped atop the leather of his boots. One pink arm shot out to snatch at the hem of his jacket. It drew him in close. “You know, I just thought of something. Considering all the years you've spent in here alone, I bet it cheers you up something powerful to have other living, breathing things about your home nowadays. Especially living, breathing things that look like we do,” Aria hissed, raising one leg, and burying the sharpest part of her knee into the mage’s thigh. A familiar vibration gestated in the depths of her throat and began to seep out, barely noticeable, from the divide between her sealed lips. She felt the mage’s strength betray him under her touch. Boring her weight upon her planted knee, she leaned forward. Her lips turned toward the mage’s cheek. She chuckled when his eyes glazed over, and fought off a mischievous shriek of delight when he finally came to his senses.
The gloss over Starshot’s eyes retreated. Reaching out, he twisted close the clasp he had left open upon Aria’s collar, and shoved her away. His clenched fists glowed in gold as he shot out of his seat, stammering. “Wh-wh… Y-you!..”
“A-dur-duuur! Ha! Too easy! I almost had you again that time, and I was just fooling around!” the Siren lilted, slowly getting to her feet, and straightening out her frock. “Still making those same stupid mistakes, Starshit? You’ve really got to remember to keep track of these collars if you're planning on keeping us here. They’re the only thing standing between you and our wrath after all.” She grinned. Her canines seemed particularly pronounced. “But you knew that already.”
“Get out of my sight, creature,” the mage huffed, trying to catch his breath. “Now.”
Aria rolled her eyes, and began pacing a circle about him. “God, you take yourself so fucking seriously. It's so lame.” She sniffed. “Face it, wizard, you're not even half the mage that Star Swirl was. You and I both know that you're a careless, habitual blunderer, but don’t feel bad about that; all mortals are, especially ones as old as you. It's intrinsic to your nature, because your lives are all so short. You feel there isn't enough time… and you're right, of course. There isn’t.” She paused her pacing and placed her hands upon her hips. “Even with all the gifts you were given, you're still prone to rush, to be impatient. I understand. You're, what, pushing a century old now in that fake, dapper bod of yours? You've got to get shit done so you can die in peace, right? But do you understand that one day soon you will screw up in some gloriously stupid way? And do you understand that when that happens, we'll be ready?”
During the course of her rambling, Starshot had, predictably, turned to face his work desk, attempting to ignore her. She couldn't blame him. How many times were they to have some dramatic verbal showdown? It was getting old even for her. The difference was that it was her sisters’ lives that now depended on talking to the mage until she could decisively root out his weakest spot and exploit it. “You know this doesn't have to be all paranoia, and cold experimentation, and boredom,” she said.
“Who says I'm bored?” Starshot spat. His shoulders bobbed as he forced a chuckle. His tired eyes wavered.
“Well, resentful then,” Aria sighed. “Stress isn't good for your type, you know. Unicorns. It makes your magic short out as you age. I've seen it happen, man. Also, there’s this whole heart disease thing...”
“Your bribes won't work on me,” Starshot drolled, his back still turned. “So, whatever web you believe you are rambling me into, I advise you to just save it. Your golden age has long since ended. Your days are numbered. You should learn to just accept these things.” The sound of a ruffling sheet of paper cracked the silence that followed. “You may return to your cell. I'm done with you for today.”
Aria’s bottom lip jutted out for having been dismissed so plainly, and without even the dignity of a parting glance. “Bull-shit,” she hissed, her gaze going icy cold. She stepped toward him again, fists clenched. “What, you think I can’t smell you lying to me? You think I can’t sense all the places my magic has been in you, just like you can? Where my magic still is?” She pushed her index finger into the center of his spine, inspiring him to spin around and slap it away. “I hate mortals like you. You’ll lie yourself all the way into your own grave, but somehow find the stones to accuse me of not being true to myself.”
“Your cage. I’m not in the mood for a lecture from a madwoman,” Starshot growled. His glowing fist pressed against Aria’s frock in the space just below her ribcage. But instead of warding her off, the emboldened Siren drew in closer. The heat seared into her stomach. Holding fast to him, she sucked in the pain through her teeth, and swallowed it. “I'm not a woman, and neither am I pony, but I definitely do hope you continue to make that mistake. That's how you'll screw up in the end.” She smiled. “To live is to feel unspeakable joy and unspeakable pain; I should know. Everything and everyone knows that. Even if they can’t empathize, they can sympathize. You've felt unspeakable rage and unspeakable sadness because of us, and you want your revenge. I understand, but your end’s still going to come as sure as the sun’s gonna rise, pal. It’ll come.” She cocked her head to the side. “But that ending doesn't have to be so terrible, you know.”
Starshot moved to protest. She stopped him with a single, violet glance. A tiny sliver of smoke rose off of her singed linens. It curled itself in the space between their noses. Her abdomen trembled in pain. She knew in a little while it would be burned raw. “What’s done is done. We're broken. You're broken. And there's no one else left alive to judge you except we Sirens, Starshot. So, let’s just be honest with each other for once.” She placed her hands atop his shoulders, the way a mother would to her child. “You're stretched too thin, your life too long. Tell me you're tired, and I can take the pain away, forever. I can take your last moment, and turn it into the most glorious minute of your entire life if you want; a moment filled with sweetness and all the songs that I know you’re starving for. And hey, I’ll sing whatever you want. Audience’s request; doesn’t get any better than that. All you have to do is say ‘yes,’ and well… you know… take this collar off of me, obviously.”
A look of terror had managed to sweep its way across Starshot’s face. Good. That meant that, at last, he was listening. Who in their song-enchanted mind would want to say no to as good an offer as hers? Nobody. But perhaps she could stand to sweeten the deal a little bit more. “What if I spoke to my sisters? Would you like to see what Sonata sounds like? Her voice is the purest. Or I could talk to Adagio if you'd prefer her to do it instead.” Nudging her chin in the direction of her shoulder, she directed Starshot’s attention to the gilded cage where her sisters now lay silently in shadow. “Or… all three of us maybe? In harmony. Just for you. One last time. Whaddya say, mage? There’re so many unfortunate saps out there who die alone, afraid, hungry, betrayed, unloved. But you, my friend, you could be one of the few who get to die absurdly happy. Utterly content.”
She shrugged when Starshot clawed his way out of her arms, shaking the smoke off of his hand.
“You lot make me sick,” he hissed, looking as if he'd just been spun about ten times. “Is it always the same drivel with you? Do you always fling your wretched voices, and lies, and bodies at everything to solve all of your problems?”
Aria placed her hand upon her hip and tilted her gaze up toward the inky blank hovering where the sky should be. “Shapeshifting ourselves, our personalities, our songs to our advantage is kind of our shtick, so yea. Whatever about me catches your eyes or ears favorably is, unfortunately, usually bait, and the best kind; the kind you always fall for. The kind you will eventually fall for… like they all do.” She winked. “I could always just transform into a giant dragon, and bite your head off if you would prefer that. But I know you like me better this way, and… well, don't fix what ain’t broke, you know?”
For the first time since she had arrived in this dank place, Aria looked upon Starshot and watched him curl into himself. Maybe, at last, he had realized what he had gotten himself into by pursuing them so restlessly, by bringing them here. A mortal had never successfully managed to coexist with a Siren before, much less three of them at once; at least not without ending up as dinner a couple nights a week. And Starshot wasn’t a fresh catch by a long shot. Their song was already nailed to his brain, and would always be there. Aria had to admit that even her interest was now piqued to see what might become of one who was offered so much honey for the risk of a single, fatal sting. “You ok, pal?” she asked him. “You look kind of sick.”
Starshot didn't respond. Instead, he quietly turned his wide-eyed glare back toward his desk. His fingers brushed across its surface listlessly, feigning business.
Aria smiled. She couldn't fathom a more opportune moment. “Close your eyes,” she cooed gently. “Be at ease.” Her smile transformed into a grin when, as she had hoped, Starshot’s shoulders hiked up to the level of his ears. His entire body froze upon his hearing what were far too familiar words. “Ah, so you do remember it. The very first one; Sonata and I sang it just for you… waaay back… Do you remember where we were? The grand hall?”
“Shut up,” the mage whispered. The words came out as a half gasp.
“Give us your heart, sir,” Aria continued. “And lend us your ear. Reveal unto us those delicious things that you—”
“Shut up,” Starshot choked.
“Okay, obviously I can't sing the words with this collar on, but hell, my speaking voice doesn't sound that bad does i—”
“Shut your rotten, cursed mouth, witch!” Starshot cried, reeling upon her. His eyes were ablaze. As usual, so was his dominant fist.
In a flash, the darkness lit up in gold, enough to stun even Aria’s sisters to attention. She gasped, stumbling a few steps back, gripping her sore belly. When she looked upon him again, she did not expect the mage to be wearing a triumphant grin.
“I've changed my mind,” Starshot said as the light died down about them. “You three shan’t be getting anymore rest for a while.”
Aria gazed at him, perplexed.
“Why the confusion, Siren? You wanted to know what those collars are for. Why I'm keeping you here. What I'm planning. Lucky for you, I've decided now would be an excellent time to show you.” With a flick of his wrist, the door to the enormous cage which held Sonata and Adagio crashed open. “Move those feet. We’ve much ground to cover.”
They lined up in the dark side-by-side and barefoot, tired and huddled close for warmth, Sonata more than her elders.
The youngest Siren scratched and tugged at her collar, her eyes darting worriedly to and fro. Starshot stood before them, conspiratorial glee seeping from his grin. He waited for them to be still and somewhat attentive before he waved his arm in a large arc. A bright splash of light burst forth in front of them, and as the dizzying spots faded from their view, in their place glowed a countless number of what appeared to be translucent imaging screens. Each screen, about the size of a holiday card, was lined next to another into long rows, stacked about twenty high.
Once the shock of seeing so many moving images at once had worn off, the sisters leaned in to take a closer look. It took a few moments for them to realize that the images they were seeing were all bits and pieces of captured timeline from Equestrian and earth history. Some of the images were foreign, strange, clearly drawn from a future that they had yet to see. Other images were quite familiar, even to the point of heartache. This was noted by Sonata who, by chance alone, managed to catch a small glimpse of an old Greenwaters bakery she'd often frequented in her early years. She could not decipher how old the current visage of the place was at the time she was witnessing it, but her lips pursed inward anyway whilst she tried to hide her guilty expression.
“Some of these places you know. Some you don't. Correct?” the mage asked, drawing a broad line from the left end of the rows to the right.
The three sisters remained silent, cautious, watchful.
Starshot rolled his eyes. “Fine. Play coy, as usual. The point is that this place, Equestria, was once my home. Was once your home.” He flicked his wrist. The images flickered, and when they shone bright and steady again it was clear that something small had changed in each of them—a change for the worse. Now, instead of a peaceful Equestrian highland meadow filled with playful pegasi, a battle raged on upon those hills, winged clan against winged clan. Innocent earth ponies caught in the path of stray gusts or strikes of lightning either ran for cover or remained where they lay broken in the grass.
In another image, a row of ponies lined up in chains before a nameless, mustachioed unicorn lord who paced the grounds before them. The lord went along slowly, meticulously, deeming each one fit or unfit to serve him. Those marked as unfit were dragged away in chains toward a cellar door that led to nopony knew where. Those who had been spared could only shed tears for their companions.
Cruelty after cruelty, hardship after hardship played out before them all, none of them easier to witness than the last. Starshot turned to the three sisters, offering them a look of disgust. “I'm sure all of this wailing and gnashing of teeth makes you hungry, doesn't it?” he asked. “Wouldn't it be wonderful if I could offer you just a whiff… just a taste of the noxious suffering that you love?”
Perhaps, for their piercing hunger alone, the three sisters glanced toward him. The pitiful glow of hope that lingered about their faces was quickly snuffed.
“Too bad. You shall starve, and I shall enjoy watching every moment of it,” Starshot said.
Sonata whimpered, not used to being shown this escapeless brand of cruelty. She gripped the loosened cloth about her belly as Adagio took her free hand in her own and squeezed.
“You’re disgusting,” Adagio wavered. “All this talk of cruelty as if we are the ones who invented the stuff. We aren't cruelty’s mothers; we just conjure it! The potential for evil in both pony and mankind has always just… been.”
“And I suppose you had just been doing everypony a huge favor by exacerbating the problem,” Starshot quipped. “Of course, you are absolutely blameless.”
Adagio went silent, holding tighter to Sonata who was now sobbing.
“You've never been hungry, mister, whoever you are!” Sonata shrieked through tears. “You couldn’t have. If you had, you would never—”
“Sonata, don't, ” Adagio chided her. “Don't say anything to—”
“No! He’s a jerk, and he needs to know!” the bawling Siren shrieked, wrenching her arm out of Adagio’s grasp. She straightened her robes and took a few cautious steps toward the mage, her index finger jutted in his direction. “When you plan on doing something final to somebody, you just do it! You don't lock them up or tie them down in some dark place to starve! You just… just…”
“A lecture from the glutton of the three,” Starshot ridiculed her.
Ego bruised, tired, and humiliated, Sonata lifted her chin and mustered up whatever dignity she could. “We had a purpose for doing what we did in Equestria. Even I figured that out a long time ago. And if anypony needed to… to die, we did it quick or we made sure they never knew it. You don't just starve people… watch them just waste away for fun. It's sick.” She snapped the hem of her robe. “So, just get it over with! If you're not a monster, then prove it!”
Starshot regarded the blue Siren with interest. This was the first time she had confronted him in such a manner, and his curiosity was beginning to get the better of him. “You are very passionate on this matter Sonata Dusk. Is there any particular reason why?”
Sonata said nothing else, only looked toward the ground, clasping her hands at her front.
“I watched my wife waste away because of you three,” Starshot continued. “Not from starvation, but something that ran much deeper. Something that made me realize that even if I could keep her body alive with food, nourishment, love, it would never again make a difference. You dare to lecture me on cruelties?”
He took two swift steps toward Sonata, snatching her up by the collar. Aria raced forward to stop him, only to be rendered frozen in her position with a single beam of his magic.
“She was very sweet,” isn't that what you said when you swilled down her will? Isn’t it?” Starshot hissed as Sonata tried to break free from his grasp. He threw her to the ground, and pointed an accusing finger right back. “You, Sonata Dusk. You shall starve, but fear not; one of your sisters will perish right along with you.” He feigned a pitying expression. “So, you won't have to be alone.”
Releasing Aria’s body from his magic, he made a beeline toward her and Adagio. “This all is quite simple, you see. I've been watching you lot for a while now, since you've lost your abilities. As incapable as you assume I am with figuring you three out, I must say, your mysteries’ solutions are still not lacking in terms of low-hanging fruit.”
Rubbing out the aches in her neck, Aria then struggled to her feet. “What the hell is he on about now? Can you speak like you aren’t a sphinx?”
Starshot waved his hand in the direction of the time portals. “This unfair suffering that plays out before you is abhorrent to me. Ever since my run in with you three, I've never been able to stomach too much of this sort of thing. Don't get me wrong, there are obviously some necessary cruelties that exist, but the majority of them…” He shook his head.
Aria and Adagio passed each other withering glances. “Okay, and?” Aria shrugged.
“For many years now I've been completing a bit of a sidejob, you see. Something to keep me preoccupied during my quest for you, something that gave me a brilliant idea.” Starshot tapped his chin. “I've been researching, and traveling, and breaking my body to stop injustice and needless cruelty wherever I could find it one incident at a time, which while I agree may ultimately be an endeavour in futility—”
“I'll say,” Adagio sighed. Aria snorted beside her.
“—is not an endeavour without its merit. One that is justifiably worth sustaining, but maybe not too feasible all alone.” He pointed at the girls, and took one beguiling step toward them. “Praise Celestia that I have been sent all of the answers to my problems with you three masters of wills, and minds, and hearts. How would you like to do something good for a change before you die? After all, if what you say about your having a soul is true, wouldn't you appreciate the opportunity to wash some of its filth away before it's too late?”
“Dude, it was too late a thousand years ago,” Aria mocked him, pressing her knuckles into her hips. “Why the hell would we ever want to help you now? After everything that's happened? We’ve been sitting on that forsaken, magicless rock—that your uncle so assholishly banished us to by the way—just wasting away for a millenia.”
Starshot appeared unamused. “Right, well, I believe it was my mistake that I have weaved together for you the illusion of a choice.” The next step he took was one of impending doom. “You see, you three are mine now, and in exchange for so graciously not striking you and your supposed loved ones down where you all stand, what you will be doing for me is work… until you can no longer.”
Adagio crossed her arms, “Doing what, exactly?”
“Fixing a broken world, of course,” Starshot scoffed. “Fixing your past messes, and then some.” He approached Adagio to hook one finger into the space behind her collar. “You can control will, and that is what you will do until the day you die—use your powers for something good.”
The Sirens seemed confused by the latter notion.
Starshot sighed, directing their attention to the wall of unfortunate time threads before them. “My uncle was a fool. You can change what is terrible with little consequence. You can try to make sure that no innocent has to suffer. You three will use your remaining power to manipulate these ponies of every race and every era into ceasing the suffering they inflict upon one another. Simple!” He tapped the eldest Siren lightly upon her chin.
“You are aware, Starshot, that we are unable to bring out the good in ponies, only the bad.” Adagio belabored, her weary eyes following his pacing across the floor.
Starshot shrugged, unbothered by this news. “You are creative temptresses; I say this from experience. You could use antagonism to prevent disaster in a myriad of ways. I'm certain you've done it before at some point.” He clapped his hands together decisively, giving them a sickening smile. “I will be accompanying you on our forays, of course. To make sure you stick to the job, so to speak. Remain under control while your collars are opened.”
Three pairs of eyebrows bobbed with interested. “I… I see,” Adagio breathed, passing a knowing glance toward Aria.
Aria, catching the hint, stepped forward. “W… whatever, man, just… Just do what you gotta do, but I'm tired of standing here listening to you lecture us. I'd much rather we all were standing in Equestria right now, anyway.”
“Is that right?” Starshot chirped, passing her a smug grin. “Well, sorry to disappoint you but we shan’t all be going anywhere together. I like to travel light, meaning I will only be taking one of you at a time. Less hassle, less threat, more control.”
The sisters seemed deflated by this news, and the lost notion that they might have been able to strategize a group escape had they all been set loose together in Equestria.
“Why the frowns?” Starshot blinked. “Cheer up, little creatures, you all will surely find redemption in your good deeds, and for one well-behaved Siren, a life a bit longer and a little less abhorrent than that of your sisters.” He waited a moment for the girls to inquire into exactly what he meant, but his impatience got the better of him. “I've observed, that in a realm of limited magics, you three must ration what's left of your energy and abilities. It confused me at first, trying to figure why your abilities returned whenever I was near, and why your siblings looked worse for wear whenever any one of you used them, but eventually, I learned to stop searching for too many reasons so much as quick solutions, hence your collars.”
Aria jingled hers against her collarbone. “Are we gonna get leashes for these, too?”
“Try me, and we’ll see what I come up with,” Starshot quipped. “A muzzle for you, maybe.”
Aria took a step forward, never one to be bested with insults. “I swear you get your rocks off to this, you sick fuck. But just you wait. The second you let me off of this collar in Equestria, I'm gonna—”
“Aria!” Adagio stopped her.
“No, no!” Starshot said. “I want to hear it. Go on, Aria Blaze. Give me the exact reason why you shall starve and suffer along with your blue kin.”
Sonata reached out to grab Aria’s hand, giving it a gentle tug to get her attention. She shook her head. “Ari…”
Aria, contemplating the sad predicament of her younger sister, bit her lip and inhaled a ragged breath. “Stars, just take Sonata, then,” she exhaled turning about to face the wizard again. “You could never trust me. We both know that. So, never take me on any of these… trips. Let me stay behind, and let Sonata use my energy while she's with you.”
Sonata’s brow furrowed. She tugged harder at Aria’s sleeve. “A-Ari, what are you doi—”
“Shut up, toothpaste! This is for your own good!” Aria shouted. “Sonny’s a good girl. She won't give you any trouble. Right, Adagio?” She spun about to stare at her eldest sister.
Adagio stood in place, motionless, her ruby eyes dim, glossed, very clearly contemplating dark things.
“I said, isn't that right, Adagio?” Aria pressed, desperate to save the sister who, in her mind, was the least deserving of harsh retribution.
Adagio didn't budge. The silence lingered on for many more seconds before she inhaled deeply, and set her gaze upon Starshot. “No. Take me,” she said.
Aria’s jaw fell open. Starshot cocked an eyebrow, intrigued.
“What the hell are you saying, Adagio?” Aria breathed. “Are you serious, right now? Are you really going to sell us out like this? Are you really willing to do that to her?” She tugged at Sonata’s robes, pushing her toward their elder.
Adagio paid them no mind, only continued to look at Starshot. “I'm the savviest. I can be useful to you in tricky situations. I am not purely driven by emotion like my kin. I know when to ration my power, and I am wise enough to understand that betraying you while I am alone would not be in any of our best interests. I am your clear choice.”
Her sisters stood there, stunned. Sonata had begun to cry crocodile tears again. With all the old feelings of betrayal welling up inside her chest, she bid herself not to wither to dust where she stood.
Aria gawked, furious, her fists clenched. “Bitch,” she hissed. “You bitch! You're seriously going to do this to us? Now? After all we've been through? After all the trouble you've gotten us into? After all these centuries? This is how you end it? For a couple more chances to look into a mirror and eat that useless mortal garbage?”
Adagio said nothing, pretending as if Aria wasn't there.
“Oh, so now we don't exist again, ey, Adagio Dazzle?” Aria chuckled bitterly, tears beginning to streak her face, too. “Fine. That's fine. I just want you to know something. Know that I hate you. If I was ever unsure about it before, I'm not anymore. And you deserve it. Everything that this asshole wizard has accused us of being is true for you. You really are cold. You really are an empty witch! Well, I hope while you watch us starve to death you'll be able to stand yourself for those five extra minutes you’ll get as a reward, you hag! I hope you'll be satisfied then!”
“Do we have a deal or not, Starshot?” Adagio asked the mage, ignoring her sister's words.
Aria, frustrated and filled with indignation lunged forward to slap her elder sister across the face, throttling her by the collar. Her actions were halted by a bright beam of gold.
Starshot stepped forward amongst them, his movements slow and thoughtful. Turning his head to look at Aria, he nodded. “You will not strike her again, or I shall activate your collar. Understand?”
Aria, shaking with tears, shook her head. “Fry me then, you son of a bitch. I hate you both so much,” she muttered to herself.
Starshot said nothing more, only waited until the distraught Siren inevitably gave him a nod of surrender. She fell to the ground, limp.
The mage looked upon Adagio. He studied her dispassionately as she gazed straight ahead into emptiness, perhaps all that was left for her. She didn't shake. She didn't even seem to breathe. Maybe, at last, she really had gone all cold like stone.
“I'm afraid I cannot make things that simple for any of you,” Starshot sighed, inspiring a gawk of surprise from all three. “I’ve weighed my options, you see, and while pitting one of you against your kin to prove to you the depths of your own betrayal might have seemed a tempting notion to begin with, I can't say that it would be as satisfying as a slower alternative.”
“W… what exactly are you saying then?” Adagio choked.
Starshot leaned in, a triumphant grin on his maw. “I am say-ing… that I'll take my chances working with each of you, for a slower burn toward your fates, if that makes any sense, Adagio.”
A quiet chortling could be heard behind them both. When Adagio looked toward Starshot’s back, she caught Aria laughing heartily where she sat upon the floor.
“Wow. This is rich!” the purple Siren bellowed, clapping her hands. “How does it feel, you backstabbing succubus? How does it feel to be bamboozled?” She swiped at a stale tear. “Oh, I've got to hand it to you, Starshit. That was good.”
Starshot didn't address her, only continued to stare calmly into Adagio's eyes, lapping up her frustration, her understanding about what she had just done. “It hurts to be alone, doesn't it, Adagio?” he asked.
“Bu… Y… you just said that…” Adagio stammered.
“He lied!” Aria exclaimed, spreading her arms out wide with a show of sarcastic fanfare. “And it was awesome, Adagio. I for one thank our crazy, gray,shitlord for showing us the type of creature you really are.” She got to her feet and dusted off her hands.
Adagio’s brow furrowed. She moved to say something but chose to bite her tongue instead. “Aria… I…” she stuttered, eyeing her sister with a look of desperation, a look that Aria no longer had the mindset to notice.
“Don’t even, Adagio,” Aria hissed. “Don't ever.” She turned toward Starshot, hands upon her hips. “Well, I'm in my right ol’ suicidal state of mind again, and for once, I don't even care! Perfect. Well done, Starshit. See me back to my dank cage, will ya?”
Still languishing in the tortured look hovering about Adagio’s entire being, the mage finally raised one arm to direct the fuchsia Siren forward. Sonata lingered behind for a moment to look into the eyes of her eldest sister who had chosen to cut her too deeply for words. Her eyes were dim, red with tears. She clutched at the cloth over heart.
Adagio, her mouth still fumbling for words, could only shake her head. “Sonata. Wait a second, please, just—”
“Blue!” Aria bellowed above their whispering.
Without another moment’s hesitation, Sonata swiped at the stray moisture about her cheeks and ran off toward her middle sister.
“Coming, Adagio?” Starshot snorted, attempting to hold back his amusement. “After all, you're the one with the long, long day tomorrow.”