The Sweetie Chronicles: Fragments
Mente Materia Pt. 3
Based on the story: Mente Materia
Special thanks to my editors: Lammy, Magical Trevor, Masked Ferret, Nick & SuperBigMac
Sweetie made her way out of her room, all cleaned up, but still yawning. She closed the door behind her with a sigh. "Ugh, by Chrysalis' slimy cocoon, I hope there's some hot coffee ready for me!" she muttered. "Or maybe I'll have time to go to Joe's or something... provided it hasn't been destroyed."
She started walking down the hall, trying to think about how her day would go. "First on the agenda: check on Twilight. I wonder how long it had been since she last slept?" She shook her head, making her way through the palace with a casualness that alarmed some of the servant ponies and guards and raised many an eyebrow. For all intents and purposes, she acted like she owned the place, or at least had lived there for a long time... and none of them recognized her at all, except for the few guards that might have seen her playing with the CMC.
She turned right, instead of left. A habit she had developed while she and Twilight had lived under Nightmare Moon's protection and had plenty of private breakfasts in the kitchens, where they would not be interrupted. "Muffins," she said aloud. "Muffins and... is bacon legal here? Ugh. I have to check, otherwise I'll have to do with my pancakes alone. Hm. Maybe stuff them with bananas and berries?"
“Excuse me, miss?” A familiar voice asked from somewhere to her left. A quick glance revealed Shining Armor weaving his way between a small herd of ponies heading in the opposite direction. He made his way to Sweetie’s side and favored her with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I hope you don’t mind some company for breakfast. I’m assuming that’s where you’re heading?”
Sweetie smiled and nodded, motioning for him to follow. "Always a pleasure, Captain... or can I call you Shining Armor? I was wondering if we'd talk at all."
She led Shining Armor to the kitchens, where she quickly set up a small table. "I'm going have a small breakfast before taking some to Twilight... I think she really needs her sleep."
“You may call me by my name if you prefer… and I had actually been meaning to thank you for your intervention with Twilight,” Shining said. He cast a curious eye at Sweetie as she prepared an eating area without the help of the castle staff before he continued, “My sister… she has very strongly held convictions, and I don’t fault her for them. I think that if none of this had happened, she would have turned into somepony brilliant. Now, I’m afraid she’s going to break under the weight of those convictions and the reality we live in.”
"Shining, I know you worry about her, and you should; she's your sister, after all. But I promise you she's stronger than that. It's... difficult for her to understand why we need to do some things we do…" Sweetie trailed off, thinking back on her previous experiences, the changelings, the Beast's mindless minions, and, well, in this case aliens. "You have to believe in her; it's not something that will break her. It's better that she thinks there's always another way, even if she has to come to accept our decisions too. That way she'll always be herself, and she will remain that brilliant somepony we both care about."
“Thank you, for that. It seems like everypony’s better with words than me,” Shining laughed as he took his seat at the table. “Show me an enemy to fight or an area to defend and I’ll work miracles. I know that this is one battle that Twilight will have to fight for herself, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be frustrated that I can’t fight it for her.”
Sweetie chuckled, mixing the ingredients together. "In a way you are," she said. "You and the others are taking the difficult decisions that save lives, and Twilight is slowly dealing with the fact that it's necessary." She sighed and started making the pancakes. "She's just afraid of seeing those she loves hurt. I think she understands, but she doesn't want to admit that these invaders are simply so... uncaring."
The stallion gave a tired nod at the explanation. “In the guard, we’re taught that as much as we would like to redeem every threat that comes to our lands, there are some that won’t. There are some that can’t. Ideally, banishment or Tartarus is employed. But I’m starting to get the impression that you are all too aware that ‘ideal’ rarely happens as much as we want it to.” His tone dropped as he affixed Sweetie with a stare. “Even as we’ve been talking, you’re always careful to maintain proper balance for sudden movement. I was trained in the more traditional style of combat but I vaguely recognize the hoofwork. There was a mare in the guard that I trained under who had a similar style.” Shining’s expression stretched into a grin. “She hammered me with those hooves enough times for me to at least be cautious about it.”
Sweetie smiled, serving up the pancakes and levitating the honey out of its cabinet. "I am sad to say that you're correct," she said with a self-deprecating shrug. "I'm always measuring opponents. Always on guard. I wish I could go back to being an innocent filly that would never think these kind of things, but at the same time... I think I just want to make sure other fillies don't have to go through this kind of thing." She took a deep breath. "That's why I want Twilight to understand, just a little, that what we do is not something we do lightly."
“I don’t know if I can agree with you there. If I could, I would rather keep her someplace safe where she never has to worry about anything like this again,” Shining said as the grin fell from his face. “She’s a princess in a time of war, though, so that’s just not possible anymore. All I can do now is keep her as safe as I can.”
Sweetie nodded. "How much do you know about me?"
This time, Shining looked sheepish. “Firecracker turned in her report to me the moment she returned from Earth. While I haven’t had a chance to speak with the Element Bearers, I know they all hold a favorable opinion of you. I suspect there’s far more to the story than what I’ve been told, though.”
Sweetie nodded, pondering Shining Armor as she chewed slowly on a piece of pancake. Eventually, she swallowed and nodded. "Let's just say that I'm familiar with a lot of possibilities... where Twilight has grown in many different ways."
She considered her words before speaking up again. "Twilight is always a leader. Even when she doesn't feel like one, she has that ability and charisma to inspire ponies. Your sister here is made of that same stuff that creates legends. I see and accept your need to protect her, but she is strong and she doesn't need to hide away or be hidden, princess or not."
Sweetie took a deep breath. "I know it took exceptional circumstances for her to come out of that room, but with you and a few others, I'm confident that she won't ever need to do that again... if you are there to give her strength."
“Against any other challenge, I would agree, but…” Shining’s words seemed to stick in his throat. “Did… did Firecracker tell you about Cadance?”
Sweetie shook her head.
“She’s gone, Sweetie. She was going home to the Crystal Empire, and she intervened to save innocent ponies fleeing a fight.” Shining looked down at the table as he chose his words carefully. “The aliens know the significance of the alicorns, Sweetie. When they first attacked Canterlot, both Twilight and Princess Celestia were targeted, and during the second attack a half dozen assassins went after Princess Luna. When Cadance entered the fight, every one of those monsters left to pursue her. If they’re given a chance, they might try something to get at Twilight. I understand the point that you’re trying to make, that she’s got a meaningful destiny ahead of her. But before she was Celestia’s student or an Element Bearer or a princess, she was my little sister. I can’t lose her to these things the way I lost Cadance.”
Sweetie placed her hoof on top of Shining's, keeping the comforting hoof there for a few moments, trying to think of what to say, or if she should say anything at all. In the end she could only offer him a reassuring half-smile. "I'm very sorry, Shining, and I promise you, I'll never, ever, tell you to not protect your sister. She's a very important pony to a lot of us as well, and I believe I can speak for the others when I say that we will never think less of you for putting her safety above everything else."
"After losing Cadance… the thought of losing Twilight again and this time for real terrifies me," Shining confessed. "Twilight is smart and powerful, but she's not a warrior… she's seen horrible things, done horrible things, but…"
"I'll do my best to aid you while I'm here, I promise. And the first step we need to take, is to make her realize that defending herself is not something she should hesitate about. That is what I want her to see. That her life matters too much to all of us. That as noble as thoughts of peace are, as commendable wishing that we could simply stop it all is... that it is our responsibility, yours, mine and hers as well, to ensure our survival and that of those we love."
The stallion let out a helpless chuckle. “I get the point you’re making. I just wish Twily would stop ditching her guard. Every time I see her without an escort, I feel like I’m getting an ulcer.”
Sweetie giggled. "Maybe you should change the guard. Twilight doesn't appear very comfortable with him, and from what she's told me... let's just say I'd chew him out if he was under my command."
Shining arched an eyebrow and opened his mouth to speak, but his attention was diverted by an earth pony in guard armor rushing into the kitchen. The guard skidded to a halt beside the captain and whispered a string of messages too quietly and quickly for Sweetie to follow before sprinting back out of the kitchen. “I’m afraid duty calls. We’ll have to continue this discussion later. Thanks again for doing what you can for Twilight,” he said as he rose from his seat and trotted to the door.
Sweetie used her magic to levitate a covered, silver tray, a jar of juice, two large pots of coffee, one with a black cap and one with a red cap, along with two cups and a container full of cookies as she made her way through the hallway towards Twilight's room.
Her thoughts were not on food though, since Shining's revelation weighed heavily on her. 'So Cadance is gone?' she shuddered. 'I can't imagine what Shining is going through. 'I can't believe I even talked to him like I did, but what was I supposed to do? I can't simply bring back those memories, can I?' She sighed. 'And here I am talking like I know what the hay I'm about to the captain of the guard, when I'm just as lost as he is, or even more. I just hope Twilight pulls through. Shining needs her even more than I could've guessed.'
She stopped in front of a young guard, who stood in front of Twilight's room with an intense look on his face.
"I'm here to see Twilight," Sweetie said with a smile. "I've brought her a much needed breakfast."
The guard, a tan coated pegasus with a blue mane, gave Sweetie and the food containers a doubtful expression before stepping aside to let her pass. “Captain Armor stated that you would be delivering breakfast. Princess Twilight is still asleep. If she does not wish to see you, then you will leave,” he stated firmly.
Sweetie blinked. "Well, if she asked for five more minutes I think I'd get the message with or without your assistance, good sir." She smirked. "Now if you'll excuse me," she walked past him, rolling her eyes when she noticed him staring at her.
She closed the door gently behind her and snorted. "Amateur," she muttered. "Didn't even check what was under the tray. Or if the coffee was really coffee. Where does Shining get these guys?"
Sweetie quickly and silently pulled a table to her side, setting down the food and drinks, as she approached Twilight's bed. "Aww, she looks so innocent sleeping like that," she giggled before summoning a bucket full of icy water. "But, Bon Bon always said, nothing like an unexpected bath of frozen water to wake up!"
One of Twilight’s eyes cracked open and locked onto Sweetie. “Did you close the door behind you?” She whispered.
"Hm." Sweetie lowered the bucket. "Yes, I did. That guard is useless. Why did you hire him? Also, I did not actually intend to empty the bucket on you." She cleared her throat and looked away. "I promise."
“I didn’t hire that guard. Shining did. He’s apparently good at something because Shiny wouldn’t assign him to me otherwise,” Twilight stretched as she abandoned her sleep ruse. “If we weren’t at war, I would think that he was being assigned to me as some kind of revenge or a prank. I was pretending to sleep in so that he wouldn’t bug me.” She cast one skeptical eye towards the bucket near Sweetie before rolling her eyes.
Sweetie giggled. "Well, never mind him. I brought you breakfast! I made berries and banana pancakes, some orange juice and I brought coffee for both of us!" She stepped back, dismissing the bucket to let Twilight slide out of bed. "How are you feeling this morning?"
“A bit better. Actually sleeping in my bed for more than a few hours certainly helped,” Twilight answered, though her eyes were almost instantly locked onto the pot of coffee that Sweetie had brought in. “I’m also starving.”
"Well then," Sweetie spoke up, her magic uncovering the food, "go right ahead! I'll serve up the coffee! Do you want cream and sugar in it? Or are you more of an Octavia and you're going to drink it straight?"
“Black’s fine,” Twilight said, still unable to tear her eyes from the coffee pot. “You know, they apparently banned coffee in the office while I was on Earth. I never did find out why…”
Sweetie grinned. "Oh, I bet I know why. But, this time around I'm here to share the caffeine high with you. You'll see, when we wake up tomorrow, Equestria will be made of Lapiz Lazuli and the sky will chant odes to joy." She chuckled. "That, or you'll have to discover decaf." She proceeded to pour some coffee from the pot with a red cap on it. "Here you go."
Twilight accepted the cup eagerly but didn’t immediately drink. The cup rested in her hooves and she took a long sniff of the steam before taking a small sip. “It feels good to have a nice warm drink during the winter. I’m actually a little surprised the wild weather hasn’t been worse than it has.”
Sweetie shrugged, pouring some sugar and cream into her mug before filling it to the brim with coffee from the black-capped pot. "I guess it's not going to be ideal weather for a little while, but nature takes care of itself."
“I suppose that’s true, though I really don’t envy the weather teams going forward. They’re going to have to get everything back under control once things are safe again,” Twilight said as she took a longer sip before setting the cup down to start on her breakfast. “It was actually quite a shock when I found out that no one controls the weather on Earth. What was even more surprising is that their planet orbits the sun!” A rather large book emerged from the piles near the bed and floated over to Sweetie. “There was a human named Johannes Kepler who had some amazing theories about how such a system can work, though it boggles the mind as to how Earth managed to stay in the habitable zone around the star long enough for life to develop without somepony controlling everything like Celestia.”
"Hmm," Sweetie flipped the pages of the book, looking intently inside before taking a sip of her coffee. "So... luck, basically." She grinned at Twilight. "And eat your breakfast! I made it special for you!"
“Insane amounts of luck!” Twilight agreed before stuffing her face with some pancakes. She tried to keep speaking several times only for the food to impede her. She realised her predicament and chewed mechanically before draining her mug of coffee to wash it down. “If I didn’t know better, I would say that Earth was almost designed to host life. Most of the major religions on Earth state that a being of immense power created the world, though they all kinda start to disagree on what happens after that.”
Sweetie coughed into her coffee. "Oh... do they? Ahehehe. I-I wonder where they got this idea?" She cleared her throat and sipped more coffee, trying to not look guilty. "I imagine a lot of it is wishful thinking, of course."
Twilight wolfed down another mouthful of pancakes. “There’s times where it seems that way. Wishful thinking I mean. Ancient humans needed a way to explain how the world worked around them, and they didn’t have ability to study it scientifically for a very long time.” A small grin crossed Twilight’s face as she motioned for her coffee mug to be refilled. “When I first told them about Princess Celestia and Discord, they thought that was my religion.”
"You don't say?" Sweetie laughed nervously. "Well, I mean, from their perspective, the idea is ludicrous. They didn't even know magic was real until recently. Much less that entities such as them could even exist."
Twilight nodded in agreement. “Exactly! It also seems a little lonely for them. You or I can talk to Princess Celestia anytime we need to if we have a problem, but they don’t have anyone like that.”
Sweetie shrugged. "Well, they have us now, right? They know they're not alone and that there's more to the universe than they or us knew. That counts for something, don't you think?"
“Yes! There’s always something new to learn and new people to meet!” Twilight agreed before draining her coffee cup. She set it down on the bedside table and gave Sweetie a searching look. “Thank you for the breakfast, but I suspect you’re here for more than that. Did you need me for something today?”
"Well, I did come to check on you and see how you were doing, and also, I was wondering if you'd like to do anything today? I've spent some time with the others, but since you're my best friend interdimensionally-speaking, I thought maybe we could do something fun today and just relax."
“That sounds really nice, Sweetie. I haven’t really had much of a schedule over the past week, so I really don’t have anything but free time to spend,” Twilight said with a smile. “What did you have in mind?”
"I dunno," Sweetie shrugged. "Visit Ponyville? Hang out with the others? I don't know how busy they are..." She sighed. "Ah nevermind. Rarity told me the town got messed up by aliens, but she didn't elaborate." She paused then looked up at Twilight. "How bad was it?"
Twilight’s expression drooped somewhat at the question. “I don’t know to be honest. When the attack happened there, I was still in the castle recovering.” She perked up a moment later as she continued, “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to go see. There are some books at the library that I would love to bring back here for safekeeping.”
Sweetie pondered that. "Is it a safe zone? You think Shining would be okay with us going?"
“From what I understand, the aliens don’t attack places where there isn’t anypony, and the town was evacuated more than a month ago,” Twilight explained as she brought a hoof up to her chin in thought. “Of course, Shiny’s willing to let me go with just a lecture if I ditch my guard here in Canterlot. He’d probably chain me to that stupid stallion if I left without some sort of escort.”
"The guy outside?" Sweetie sighed. "Look, I might have an idea. Let me talk to Shining Armor, maybe we can get somepony else to escort us."
“Well, girls, I’ve got some good news and some bad news, then hopefully more good news,” Firecracker said as she trotted up to Sweetie and Twilight. “Which would you like first?”
Sweetie shared a look with Twilight. "The bad?"
“While I am pleased to report that Captain Armor has refrained from attaching a platoon of Earth Veterans to your little trip, I’m afraid he isn’t satisfied with me being your only escort,” Firecracker explained, and she casually flicked one ear towards the guard stallion that had been stationed in front of Twilight’s room. Firecracker caught the reactions of the two mares, so she leaned forward and lowered her voice. “Captain Armor has also empowered me to evaluate this escort’s performance, as an independent third party has stated that he might not be… appropriate for this position.”
Sweetie sighed, but nodded. "Well, between all four of us we should be able to contain any problem that might arise... I take it you're in command?" She stated more than asked. "It makes sense, you know my abilities from Earth right?"
“Assuming nothing out of the ordinary occurs, Flash and I will just be your shadows. If there is any sign of recent activity, then I’ll assume command and get us back here as soon as possible,” Firecracker explained before giving an apologetic look to Twilight. “I apologize in advance if I have to cut your trip short, Princess. As for you, Sweetie, I understand you’ve got some sort of hybridized quickstep elemental fighting style and a crystal telekinetic blade?”
"Among other tricks, but yes, that would be my dueling style," Sweetie replied nodding. "I'm not designed to bulldoze my way through enemies." She gave Twilight a reassuring smile. "Not that we'll need to. If there's any danger we'll get out before anyp—anyone gets hurt."
Firecracker nodded before turning towards one of the side rooms. “As confident as I am that this will all go smoothly, the Everfree incident has taught me the value of being prepared. I’ll be back in just a few moments once I get my armor and weapons.” She cast a sideways look at Flash before looking back and whispering, “I’ll try and hurry.” With that, she trotted through the doorway and out of sight.
"So Twilight," Sweetie asked, once Firecracker was gone. "I have to ask. Did... did Rarity ensorcell you into wearing her designs?"
“You mean this?” Twilight asked, indicating the black dress and cloak she was wearing. “Rarity did make this for me, but I asked her to. With it being winter and the wild weather, it’s a little chilly outside.” She then looked away with a blush. “Plus there are some cultural concerns with some of the new people here in the capital.”
Sweetie blinked, then started smiling. "Oh? Is that so? Is it because you'd feel... naked without them?" Sweetie sighed and posed dramatically, raising a hoof to her head and leaning back in abject distress. "The thought of them thinking you're a perv... because they're afraid to show some skin. The horror!"
“Noone thought that while I was on Earth!” Twilight said perhaps too hastily. “And I’m wearing these now as a personal choice to make them more comfortable around me. That’s it!”
Sweetie's smile was predatory. "Really? I didn't think they were uncomfortable around me and everypony else seems to be fine with it, are you sure that's why? Maybe you're self conscious, Twilight. You need to show off that body of yours! How else is you-know-who going to notice it?"
“You would be self conscious if you knew what I knew! And I don’t want anyone to notice anything! Why would you think that?!” the other mare blurted out in a rush.
Sweetie gave her a deadpan look. "Twilight. Are you really trying to deny that you have somepony in mind you'd like very much to feel comfortable around?" She grinned like a maddened cat. "Even... au naturel?"
As much as Sweetie would have liked to bask in Twilight’s sputtering responses, the conversation between the mares was interrupted when Flash interrupted with a glare. “It is not proper to speak to the princess in such a manner,” he snapped.
Sweetie blinked. "Oh, don't worry, I wasn't talking about you."
Any further sniping between the two was halted as Firecracker trotted right through the middle of the group. Unlike Flash’s gold guard armor, Firecracker’s suit was made up of black plates over a black undersuit, and a pair of goggles hid her eyes. The only other equipment on the disguised changeling was what appeared to be a bag of coins at her flank. While her expression was hard to read accurately with her eyes hidden, there was no way that her grin was clearly forced. “So sorry for making you all wait!” she said hastily. “How about we get started now!”
"Sounds good to me!" Sweetie grinned. "Ready, Twilight?"
“Yes!” Twilight answered quickly before muttering, “The sooner we get this over with, the sooner I can ditch the baggage.”
“Well, I suppose it was only a matter of time before the wild weather decided to cut loose,” Firecracker said as she glanced over the railing of the chariot. Ominous clouds loomed in the sky, and snow was already beginning to fall to the ground. She shivered and ducked back down behind the railing before turning her goggled gaze to Sweetie. “I should probably apologize for not getting you a cloak, Sweetie. Are you going to be alright in this weather?”
Sweetie nodded, a warm glow surrounding her body for a second before fading. "I'll be fine, I cast a warming spell Blue—my brother taught me." She glanced at the others. "Are you guys going to be okay? I could cast it on you, Firecracker."
Twilight shook her head, and Firecracker merely grinned. “I’ve gotten quite good at altering the physical characteristics without changing my appearance,” the changeling explained. “The weather isn’t doing a thing to me at the moment. Though I wish I could say the same for Flash up front…”
Sweetie nodded. "Hey! Flash Sentry! Would you like me to cast a warming spell on you? It's getting cold!"
“I’m fine, ma’am. We should be arriving shortly!” the pegasus guard pulling the chariot shouted against the wind. “The wind will make things rough going down, so I recommend you secure yourselves!”
Just as predicted, the chariot began to shake as it descended. The three mares wrapped a leg around the railing and looked out over the remains of Ponyville. About half of the buildings were untouched, but a significant portion showed signs of fire damage, and more than a few of those were burned down to the foundation. What stood out the most, though, was the wreckage of alien ships scattered throughout the town and around the perimeter.
“Corporal! I counted one extra ship more than what was reported as destroyed during the attack here. Has there been recent activity?” Firecracker said, her jovial tone no longer present as she stared out over the devastation.
“Weather teams reported a ship participating in the attack on Canterlot was winged and went down in this area,” Flash replied. His volume had lowered as the lower altitude had taken them out of the wind. “A scout wing was sent to investigate the day after the attack and saw no movement from surviving crew. Nopony has looked into the wreck yet to confirm but it’s been marked as secure for now.”
The faux unicorn continued to stare out into the countryside before turning to the two mares beside her. “I don’t like surprises like this, but if there were any survivors from the crash, they would have moved into the countryside by now looking for targets. I want you both to keep your ears up and your eyes open for anything out of the ordinary, and for the love of love, don’t wander off. Understood?”
Sweetie nodded. "We'll be careful. I'm pretty good at keeping unnoticed and noticing discrepancies. I'll signal you if I notice anything."
Firecracker nodded before looking out over the railing again. “Excellent. Five seconds to landing.” A few moments passed, and the chariot touched down with a light bump on the outskirts of Ponyville. Firecracker hopped out of the chariot first and slowly scanned the area. Apparently satisfied with her findings, she turned back towards the chariot. “We’re clear. Corporal, I want you in the air on overwatch. If you see anything out of the ordinary, send a message,” Firecracker ordered, and she tapped the earpiece built into her goggles.
“And if I spot enemies?” the stallion asked.
“Observe and report. If there are enemies here, we shouldn’t engage without reinforcements,” Firecracker explained.
“Understood,” Flash said as he freed himself from the chariot harness. He spread his wings and shot into the air without another word.
Once the stallion was high enough in the sky, Firecracker turned to the others. “Well, now that the ‘baggage’ is out of the way, where did you two want to go?”
Sweetie glanced around, wincing at the damage. "I think Twilight wanted to get some of her books back, right? We could go there, and I could check on the Boutique on the way. Maybe there's something salvageable there that I could take to Rarity."
Twilight nodded as she hopped out of the chariot. The light coat of snow crunched beneath her hooves as she turned and offered a hoof to help Sweetie down. “That sounds like the best course. Are you sure that’s the only place you want to go?”
Sweetie winced as she looked around the buildings. "Yeah, I... I was in Ponyville just a few months ago, you know? Not mine but... identical to this one. What happened here is just horrible. Let's get those things and go."
A sad smile crossed Twilight’s features before she looked over Sweetie’s shoulder. “Firecracker, where did you get THAT?”
“Cargo compartment on the side of the chariot,” the changeling explained as she flipped a spear up onto her shoulder. “Like I said earlier, I don’t want to get caught unprepared out here,” she explained before tilting her head towards the two mares. “Why are you staring at me? I don’t know this town. I’ll follow you two.”
Sweetie glanced toward Twilight, and when the alicorn shrugged, she turned and began walking into the ruins of Ponyville. The silence of the town was surreal given how still and quiet everything was. The only thing that could be heard was the hooves of the three mares as they weaved in between the buildings in the direction of the library. Odd snow-covered lumps could be seen occasionally littering the avenues, and Sweetie at first didn’t recognize them until they passed nearby one.
They were the snow-covered bodies of Mutons in varying states of destruction and decay.
“Keep your eyes up, and keep your mind on those books you want, Princess,” Firecracker said quietly as Twilight realised the truth a moment after Sweetie. “The sooner we find what we need, the sooner we can return to Canterlot and forget about what we’ve seen here.”
The dead mutons brought back memories of the Hedge to Sweetie and being a prisoner of the Beast. At least the cold was keeping the smell contained. "Yeah, let's... just go. We don't need to linger here." She looked around, noticing the Carousel Boutique up ahead. "Let's go see if we can get anything for Rarity first."
Twilight didn’t seem to hear the two as she gave a wide-eyed stare at the closest of the corpses. She snapped out of whatever was holding her in place just as quickly. “R-right. Let’s check out the boutique,” she said firmly, and her walk became a trot towards the building in question.
The Carousel Boutique appeared to have been mostly spared from the onslaught that had struck Ponyville. A small pattern of burn marks could be seen along the rooftop and one of the walls, but was otherwise unmarred from the fighting. The door opened easily to allow the trio inside, though Firecracker stayed near the door.
Sweetie scanned the room quickly, making sure they were alone. The boutique felt empty and cold. There were pieces of cloth and gems scattered on the floor and a few mannequins had toppled over, but other than that, it was in pretty good condition. Sweetie slowly made her way through the place, trying to figure out what she could take for her sister, until she reached the closet. Slowly she opened the door and gazed inside, her eyes setting down on an item she hadn't expected, but had been hoping, to see.
"I think I found what I want to take back to Rarity," Sweetie said, turning with a smile and levitating behind her a ball. "This should be fine."
“What’s that?” Twilight asked.
"Rarity's ball," Sweetie explained. "It's... oddly enough a constant through the multiverse so far. It was given to her by our father when she didn't know what her cutie mark would be, and she gave it to me." She smiled a bit sadly. "It wasn't that important to me the first time around. I learned how much it meant much later."
“Oh,” Twilight said as she studied the ball. “I suppose when you’re travelling like you are, you have to pay attention to little details that are the same. If it’s a constant… do you think it might be somehow tied the logic that sends you from one world to the next?”
Sweetie chuckled. "No... I think it was just a significant gesture that is so simple and honest it affects the lives of all Sweeties to a greater or lesser extent. There are many things that are similar in all worlds I've visited, after all. Any of those could be a force that affects my travels, if we go by that logic."
“I suppose that’s true. When you put it that way, you could probably argue just as strongly that you and Rarity are also links.” Twilight said before bringing up one hoof to her chin. “Have you ever come across a world where we weren’t there? Not… there but passed on, but never existed in the first place?” That hungry look that was so typical of Twilight appeared. “Interdimensional travel and the parallel world theory was science fiction before you came here, Sweetie. Oh, I have so many questions…”
Firecracker’s polite cough from the doorway halted the interrogation in its tracks. “I think that conversation might be best saved for later. Did you need anything else here or did you want to look around some more, Sweetie?”
Sweetie put the ball into a saddle bag, and shook her head. "I think that's it... Rarity seems to have grabbed as much as she could take with her. But this might help her and Sweetie keep close." She smiled at Twilight. "Do you want to go to your library? We can talk about the other worlds later on, if you want."
“You’re right. We should probably hurry. It looks like that storm is getting worse by the minute,” Twilight agreed as she cast a look out the window. The small snowflakes had grown in size, and the only thing that would be needed for a blizzard would be harsh wind.
Firecracker led the way out of the boutique and after a quick scan she gave the all clear signal. From there, Twilight led the trio almost on autopilot through the avenues in the direction of the library. Several detours had to be made as the damage became far more severe in the surrounding buildings. Despite this, Twilight would not be deterred.
“The library should be just around-- no…” Twilight breathed, and she fell back onto her rump in shock.
The Golden Oak library appeared to be at the center of the devastation that had struck the town. The massive tree wasn’t much more than a burned out husk, with the second story completely gone and the walls around the first floor being little more than burned splinters and broken wood.
Sweetie winced. "Oh no, this is horrible!" She bit her lip, looking at Twilight. "Do you still want to go in?"
Twilight didn’t respond immediately other than to take in a deep breath and let it out slowly. She rose to her hooves and said, “Yes, I have to. I don’t want to leave without at least seeing if there’s something I can salvage.” The alicorn took another breath to steady her nerves before leading the trio towards the wreckage of her home.
The doorway to the library was missing, a pile of shattered wood lying in its place. The trio picked their way past the debris to find books strewn about. Most were totally destroyed either by whatever had demolished the library, the fire from the catastrophe, or the weather that had happened since. Twilight seemed on the verge of tears as she began to pull some of the destroyed books from the rubble and snow.
Wincing, Sweetie hugged Twilight, keeping her wrapped in her forelegs while the elder mare shook without fully bursting into tears. "Come on, Twily, let's get moving. We can still look around before heading back."
Sweetie and Twilight separated and made their way to the ruined bookshelves, but the froze when Firecracker gave a hissed warning. The disguised changeling cast a quick glance at the others and lowered herself below the level of the destroyed library walls. Sweetie and Twilight followed suit, and they stayed put as Firecracker crept up to a small crack in the wall.
Dragging steps could be heard crunching through the snow, followed by labored breathing as something passed near the ruined library. Firecracker readied her spear but kept it low as she crept along interior wall, but she froze when the sounds of movement stopped. Seconds stretched into minutes as everyone held their positions. Sweetie held her breath as she dared to peek through a crack in the wall.
A muton in black armor stood on the road outside the library, its back turned towards the three hidden equestrians. Even from a distance, Sweetie could easily see that the armor and its wearer had seen better days. Parts of the armor plating had been bent or torn away, and stains of dried blood could be seen leaking from some of the damaged sections. A small thrill of horror entered Sweetie as the muton began to turn in their direction, revealing a horrendous gash in its chestplate that had apparently gone deeply into its torso. It continued to turn, and it managed to make one staggering step away from the ruined library before Flash Sentry attacked.
The pegasus connected squarely with the upper back on the muton, sending it face-first into the snow. A hoof-blade extended from his right hoof and descended into the base of the muton’s neck twice in rapid succession. When the muton didn’t stir, the guard hopped off of the corpse and trotted to the library’s ruined front door.
“What are you doing, corporal? Your orders were for overwatch, not to attack enemies that haven’t seen us yet!” Firecracker hissed as she emerged from cover. “Get back up in the air and signal Canterlot! If there’s one survivor here, there could be more!”
“There aren’t any others from what I could see from the--”
“I don’t care if you can see next week’s lotto numbers and the end to the Helping Hands series from up there!” Firecracker interrupted. “Follow your orders!”
Any further discussion between the two soldiers died away due to the sharp sound that came from the muton’s corpse. The body twitched as the armor began to bend and warp. One of the rends in the armor began to break even further as an insect-like pincer forced itself out. A second pincer appeared shortly after, and the sounds of twisting metal and tearing flesh filled the deserted town’s streets.
It could only be described as a monster. It stood on two legs, but that was where the similarities to both the humans and mutons ended. Alien gore stained its black carapace shell, and bulging red muscles could be seen in the joints of its body. The two pincers at the ends of its arms raked themselves across the monsters face to wipe away the blood and flesh from its host as it turned to the ponies. Beady eyes locked on to them, and a wide lipless mouth gave its face the appearance of a child drawing an almost comical grin. And then it moved.
By the time Flash Sentry had spread his wings to try and get airborne, the monster had already crossed half the distance between them. By the time he had flapped his wings once, it had closed to less than two body lengths. Its claws opened wide to grab the pegasus before he could escape, but a flash of gold shot straight as an arrow and pierced its left eye. A second and a third followed immediately after, burying themselves completely in the creature’s skull. It stumbled and crashed into the wrecked lumber of the library. It righted itself for another charge, only for Akela to pierce its other eye and bury itself as far as possible. The momentum of the crystal weapon snapped its neck back at an impossible angle, and the monster fell to the ground thrashing before it finally settled.
“Sentry, get in the air NOW!” Firecracker roared, a nimbus of gold coins hovering around her like a halo. “Contact command for priority mission at this location. New Chrysalid strain that does not discriminate with its targets. Containment and fire teams need to get here now!”
“Yes sir!” the pegasus said as he tore his eyes away from the still twitching corpse to take to the skies.
Akela flew out of the Chrysalis' corpse, twirled in place to get clean and flew into its pocket dimension, just as Sweetie turned to Twilight. "We need to get to the chariot, Twilight."
Twilight, if she even heard the words, didn’t respond as she stared at the broken monster laying in the ruins of her library. It took Sweetie tapping her with a hoof to get her attention. “R-right. Right,” she stammered, and she fell in behind the other mares as they galloped out of the library.
"How dangerous are these chrysalids you're talking about?" Sweetie asked Firecracker as they galloped. "Are those the ones that multiply really quickly? I didn't really pay much attention when they told me about them!"
“Chrysalids were introduced to Everfree in early November. Within two days, everything inside the forest was dead or converted into a hive for more of them! Princess Luna ordered the forest burned to save the rest of the planet!” Firecracker shouted. “These Chrysalids are something new, so I--” The explanation was interrupted as a shout from Twilight pulled their attention upwards Several objects flew through the air at them from one of the side streets on the other side of the buildings.. Firecracker skidded to a halt in the snow, just barely missing a collision with a wooden door, a lamppost… and parts of the chariot they had arrived in. Firecracker made an abrupt turn into an alleyway and into the shadow of one of the larger buildings. The bombardment of debris ended with their course correction, giving the trio a moment to breathe.
“How many more of those things are out there?” Sweetie asked as she wrapped a hoof around a trembling Twilight.
“There can’t be more than a hooffull, perhaps two or three at most. Our air patrols would have spotted the buildup if there were more,” Firecracker explained in a harsh whisper as she looked at the wreckage in the street. “If the chariot is gone, then we should hide until reinforcements… wait.”
The changeling’s train of thought trailed off as she craned her neck and twitched an ear. She rose up into a combat stance as a second Chrysalid burst from the storefront to their left. Its blindingly fast charge was met with a surgically precise stream of gold coins that severed one of its legs at the knee, followed by a spear thrust into its neck. Rather than stay to dispatch the creature, Firecracker shoved it aside, spear and all before continuing her sprint. “Don’t stop running!”
"I don't think stopping crossed our minds! Twilight, we need to teleport Firecracker and Flash Sentry away!" Sweetie shouted. "Can you do it? I can lend you the energy, but I've never teleported more than myself!"
Twilight’s response was lost as the trio rounded a corner and came face to face with the creature that had been bombarding them. It was similar to the previous two that they had encountered, but was head and shoulders taller. Burn marks and healed cracks criss-crossed its carapace, and the thick town hall door in its claws came up to intercept the hail of gold coins that had shot towards it. In the blink of an eye, it had closed the distance to Firecracker, and one massive claw scooped the changeling up as though she weighed nothing.
Firecracker cried out in pain as her armor began to crack under the pressure, and the only thing that saved her from death was Flash Sentry’s diving strike. The stallion let out a battle cry that distracted the chrysalid, though his attack was thwarted when the monster swatted him out of the sky with the door it carried. He collided hard with one of the buildings lining the street. He tried to rise, but was promptly hammered as the chrysalid flung the door at the dazed pegasus.
The beady eyes swept back to Sweetie and Twilight, and it hurled the wounded Firecracker at the former before charging at the latter. The armored changeling collided with Sweetie and knocked them both off of their hooves. The monster closed within five body lengths, then three, then one…
A wall of kinetic force struck the chrysalid and sent it tumbling down the street. It was quick to recover its footing, but a second wave of kinetic force came crashing down, forcing it to the ground. It rose and took a single step before the weight doubled, then tripled, pinning it in place.
“Fluttershy was right, wasn’t she?” Twilight asked, her voice hollow as she stared at the Chrysalid. “There really isn’t anything in you, is there? No creature with wants or needs. No person with a life to live. You’re not even a monster, since they have families and a place in the world.” The alicorn’s eyes were wide and contracted, and her horn flared as a small pinprick of pure magical energy appeared beside her. “You and your kind c-can’t be reasoned with. You’re never going to feel the magic of friendship; you simply don’t have the capacity to. I’m sorry it took me so long to realise that, because a lot of my people might be alive if I had figured that out sooner. I pity you for what you can never have. I realise now that if I want my friends to be safe, I’ll have to end you.”
The pinprick of light began to grow to almost blinding brilliance before it lanced out and struck the Chrysalid squarely in the forehead. It screamed and thrashed as the beam of magic cut through the carapace cleanly, bisecting the alien from head to hip. The magic holding the chrysalid in place lifted, and Twilight fell back on her flank to stare at the steaming and twitching corpse.
Sweetie carefully settled a groaning Firecracker next to her and rushed forward, holding Twilight in a hug, pressing her friend and mentor close. "Twilight. Twilight, you did good." She rested her head on Twilight's shoulder. "You saved us."
“I had to do it. It would have killed others if I hadn’t. I had no choice,” Twilight whispered to herself as much as to Sweetie. She didn’t acknowledge the embrace, choosing instead to continue staring down at the corpse she had made.
"Twilight, look at me," Sweetie said firmly, pulling back and waving a hoof in front of her friend until she forced her eyes away from the corpse and locked eyes with Sweetie. "You didn't have a choice if you wanted those you loved to live. It was not sentient; it's more like a biological machine. Don't punish yourself for saving our lives and yours."
Twilight’s muttering stopped and she returned Sweetie’s embrace. Anything else that the pair might have said was lost to the clattering of chitin as the wounded Chrysalid they had left behind crawled out of the alleyway they had just left. Not even the loss of a leg or the broken spear in its neck gave it pause as it clawed its way towards them.
A flash of purple light blinded the mares, and they were no longer alone with the monster. Beowulf was easily identified by his red armor, and a gout of flame lanced out from his left arm to immolate the Chrysalid. Several more flashes surrounded them, and the snowy streets of Ponyville were filled with white-armored humans and ponies. Pegasi quickly took to the sky alongside griffons and spread out. Unicorns summoned orbs of fire and moved out into the streets. Only a hooffull of soldiers and guards stayed behind, and among them was one that Sweetie didn’t immediately recognize as he approached.
“Twilight!” the human shouted as he nearly ran to the mares. “Twilight, are you injured? Are you alright?” The gold-tinted glass helmet turned towards Sweetie and his tone became much harsher. “Was she injured!?”
“Matt?” Twilight asked weakly, and her stunned expression was broken by a choked sob. “I’m fine, I wasn’t hurt. The others…”
The helmeted gaze turned back towards Twilight, and Matt knelt beside her. He reached out with his right hand and gave the alicorn a small pat on the shoulder. “You’re safe now. We’re going to get you back home, alright? I’ll be back soon.” He waited for Twilight to nod before standing and pointing his weapon into the wreckage of the town. “Command, this is Harris. Confirmed Twilight and her escorts…” The helmet turned towards Firecracker as she limped to join the group and a dazed Flash Sentry that the soldiers were helping out from under the door. “Twilight and her escorts are alive but we have injuries. Authorizing teleport extraction for four at my location, medics will be needed for receiving.”
Matt vanished into the streets along with another pack of soldiers as a pair of unicorns took flanking positions around Sweetie, Twilight, Firecracker and Flash Sentry. A burst of magic engulfed the quartet, replacing the war-torn Ponyville with one of the larger balconies in Canterlot.
A herd of medics converged on the quartet and helped Firecracker onto a stretcher before rushing off to medical. Sweetie and Twilight followed in the stretcher’s wake, but they had to stop as the Element Bearers (sans Pinkie Pie) all swarmed around Twilight. They all offered soothing words and warm embraces to the still shocked alicorn.
It was a moment between close friends that Sweetie couldn’t share, but that was alright. There was another pony she needed to have words with, and the stallion in question was within her reach.
"I don't know what your problem really is," she said, sitting next to Flash Sentry and giving him a glare. "But you almost got Firecracker and yourself killed." She narrowed her eyes. "Let me be clear to you, Corporal, you do not dictate how a Princess chooses to spend her time with her friends. You do not dictate who she chooses to like or love and you sure as hell are supposed to follow your orders instead of trying to show off to a group of ponies that would not be impressed by that stunt."
She shook her head. "Ever since I got Twilight out of her self-imposed reclusion, all I have heard of you is how you like to get in her way and overstep your bounds. And this time, she could have died. That muton zombie was not even aware that we were there. Had you not attacked, we could have simply snuck away. I don't know what is in store for you, but at this rate, you're going to get yourself killed, and worse, you'll get others killed."
Flash turned to glare at Sweetie but stopped when the doctor inspecting the gash on his head hissed in protest. “I’ll take your opinions under advisement, miss. But until such time as you acquire a rank in my military that is greater than mine, I will also value it for what it is. An opinion and nothing else.”
Sweetie stood up next to Flash and glared down at him. "I have seen more combat than you have by a far margin, Corporal.. You might not acknowledge my rank, but your superiors all do." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, visibly forcing herself to calm down before she leaned down and her face became a grimace. "Look, I'm sorry. All of that doesn't matter and I'm really not trying to turn this into a contest. The point is that this is not a game, Flash. You'll get in trouble if you don't change! Not just for yourself, but everypony else!" she insisted.
“Are you finished, dear?” The pegasus said condescendingly, and this time he did turn to stare straight at Sweetie. The doctor treating him had long fled, and he hadn’t bothered to stop him. “It’s an amazing thing to claim such titles and accolades when you have very little to back up your word. I don’t know what exactly you claim to be, and to be honest I don’t care. If you were half of what you claimed, then surely you’d have been on Earth with the volunteers. Where’s your black armor then?” He sneered as he continued, “You’re just a little mare playing at friends to a princess. You’ve had your fifteen minutes of fame alongside greatness, and now it’s time for you and that pesky human to become a footnote in her story. You really have no standing to question anything I do.”
“Do I have such standing, corporal?”
Flash’s head whipped around so fast that his neck cracked. He jumped up and stood at attention with respectable speed, but Sweetie couldn’t help but notice the slightest tremble in his hind legs. I can’t say that I blame him, Sweetie thought, as she couldn’t meet Shining Armor’s gaze as he towered over the corporal.
What was perhaps the most disturbing thing about Shining Armor’s anger was how little was actually shown. His stance was at attention but not taut, and his expression was completely neutral. His eyes were the telltale sign, though. They surveyed Flash Sentry with a calm detachment not unlike a dragon gazing down at some impudent snack that had the gall to interrupt his nap. “It has recently come to my attention that you may have been causing some discomfort to Princess Twilight. I had first thought it was merely displeasure at the inconvenience of having a guard, or perhaps some discomfort at having a stallion being ordered to follow her around. My little sister has always been a little awkward in situations like that.”
Flash remained at attention and staring straight forward, and the muscles around his jaw clenched and unclenched as Shining said the words ‘little sister.’
Shining walked around the side of the pegasus as he spoke. “Imagine my horror when I learned that my little sister’s excursion had come under attack. ‘Surely,’ I had thought, ‘with the guard I recommended, she will be safe.’ I was shocked when I was informed that the conflict had been sparked not by the aliens spotting Twilight, but by that very same guard I had such a high opinion of. ‘Surely this must be a mistake,’ I said, and I came down to the medical wings so that I could hear the truth from the guard, so that he could set this misunderstanding straight.”
“Sir, I can explain--”
“You already have, corporal,” Shining interrupted, his words cutting through the general din of the medical area despite never rising louder than normal. “The doctors will attend to your injuries. Right now I need to make certain my sister is alright. She will decide your punishment.” The captain said no more as he trotted towards Twilight and wrapped her in a comforting hug.
Sweetie opened her mouth, but thought better of it, closing it and simply turning away from Flash Sentry, walking out of the room. She felt no pity leaving the shaking soldier behind.
Sweetie had gotten less than a dozen steps from the now broken Solar Guard before she was nearly tackled and drug off to the medical wings by a pair of medics that refused to listen to her protests. An entirely unnecessary (in Sweetie’s mind) series of medical scans followed, and only after both medics agreed was she allowed to leave the treatment area.
Outside the medical area, she let herself take a deep breath and forced her shoulders to relax. The confrontation had not been to her liking, and maybe she had allowed herself to try and pull ranks that were not that relevant in this world but that stallion... he just annoyed her with his holier-than-thou attitude and the obvious zealousness he had somehow developed over Twilight.
Sweetie’s escape from the hospital wing was short lived as a batpony in the Night Guard purple armor barred her path and pulled her off to the side. Virtually every facet of the trip to Ponyville had been questioned, from Firecracker’s orders to their landing site, to the brief but terrifying chase through the ruined city, to the ball that Sweetie had retrieved from Rarity’s home. The thestral had inspected the ball carefully before returning it to her, but not before instructing her to stay within the castle’s confines if further questioning was needed.
It was already mid-afternoon when Sweetie managed to leave the medical area she had ended up being swept up into the traffic of the now bustling castle. By the time she had escaped the flow of ponies, griffons, and humans, she had traversed nearly half the castle’s interior. It only took herself a moment to locate just where she was, but her growling stomach demanded her attention.
Since she still had time before meeting with the others, it was best that she have something to eat, and so she made her way down to the mess hall, where the Guard, Griffon warriors and XCOM had their meals. Immediately she noticed one important factor.
There were two lines.
"Huh." She walked up to a guard and poked him on the shoulder. "Excuse me, mister guard, why are there two lines?"
"Hmm?" The unicorn looked at her and smiled. "Oh, you must be new here. The line on the left is for humans, changelings and griffons, that means an omnivore diet, you want the line on the right."
"Ah." Sweetie sniffed the air and grinned. "It smells like bacon!" Her eyes widened. "And steak! Thank you mister guard!" She ignored the strange look he gave her, and trotted off to the left line. The general din of the conversation in the mess hall was nearly deafening as Sweetie took her place in line. She was gradually able to tune out the white noise enough to catch the achingly familiar sound of strings being played by a master musician. A quick glance in the direction of the music did not immediately reveal its source, but the mystery was solved as the piece ended and a familiar voice followed.
“Aaaaaaand, that was… ‘Pachelbel’s Canon in D’, a song from Earth performed by our own Octavia Melody,” Vinyl announced, and Sweetie’s gaze drifted slightly upward to catch the speakers mounted along the perimeter of the mess hall. “We’ll be taking a short break for now, but we’ll be back with some more music to relax to in just a bit.”
Sweetie released a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. 'They're alive! she grinned and chuckled. Shaking her head at the griffon ahead of her, who gave her a strange look. "Sorry! Just got caught in my thoughts!" The griffon shrugged and moved ahead. Soon enough it would be her turn.
'I wonder if they'll come here? I don't know if I should approach them though. I might freak them out.'
She finally made it to the front of the line and smiled at the griffon behind the counter. "Steak and potatoes and a side order of bacon!"
"How do you want the steak?" The griffon cook blinked. "You're not wearing a band. Are you a regular pony?"
"No," Sweetie grinned. "I'm a hungry pony! Medium rare! Come on! Please! I haven't had steak in ages!"
The chef chuckled and served her up, adding some broccoli to the plate. "You need a healthy diet, young one."
Sweetie grinned, grabbing a bottle of water and levitating her tray before stepping onto the table area. She glanced around, trying to find a good place to sit. There were plenty of spaces where the Guard sat, but with her plate containing meat... she sighed. Some free seats in the human and griffon area. Maybe she should just head there. And, as her luck would have it, there were seats available along with familiar faces.
“Lyra, don’t you think we should eat somewhere else?” Bon Bon asked, a distinctly uncomfortable tone in her voice. A small plate of mostly ignored hay fries sat before her, which complimented the completely ignored plate that sat beside her dining companion. “If you make a pest of yourself then they’re going to ban you from this place, too.”
Lyra scoffed in response and didn’t bother to look towards Bon Bon as she replied, “This is where the humans go when they aren’t all hiding in their compound! If I want to see them then this is the only place to be! Besides, don’t tell me you aren’t even a little curious about them. I know you’ve got a copy of Helping Hands stashed somewh--” The mint-colored unicorn turned to give her eating companion a sly look before locking onto Sweetie. “Hey you! You’re that mare they found on Earth, right? Come, sit! I’ve got questions!”
Sweetie Belle blinked, but acquiesced, approaching the table to look at both mares. Considering how well informed Lyra seemed to be, she shrugged and sat down across from them. She grinned internally. "Hi Lyra, Bonnie."
Any conversation between the two unicorns was interrupted by Bon Bon’s hoof coming down on the table. “Wait just a minute! Lyra, where did you hear about her being on Earth? There’s been no announcements or anything like that!” The moment Lyra’s enthusiasm melted into a guilty flinch, Bon Bon whirled towards Sweetie. “And you! How do you know our names? I know the human guards know to keep an eye out for Lyra but I haven’t done anything to attract anypony’s attention.”
Sweetie slowly cut a piece of her steak and chewed it, closing her eyes as the flavors flooded her mouth. "Hmm..." she grinned. "I visited Ponyville a couple of times, and we have mutual acquaintances in the castle."
Bon Bon couldn’t maintain her suspicious glare when she realised just what Sweetie was eating, opting instead to stare down at her own food instead. Through either single-minded determination or apparent indifference to it, Lyra seized the opportunity to start her interrogation in spite of the steak. “So, is it true? Were you on Earth? What’s it like? Did you meet many humans?”
Sweetie Belle gave Lyra a look. "You do know most of the information is classified, right? I can't really tell you much about it, even if I wanted."
“So you HAVE been there!” Lyra declared with a cheer, and an overstuffed binder was levitated onto the table from somewhere beside the mint-colored unicorn. “I’ve been keeping track of everything that’s been officially and unofficially shared since the first announcements. The ‘it’s classified’ response might as well be ‘yes’ at this point.”
Bon Bon managed to glance away from her food long enough to spot the binder and shoot Lyra an annoyed look. “I threw all of that nonsense out after Princess Twilight ordered you not to trespass in the human compound. Did you fish that out of the garbage, Lyra? Don’t lie to me.”
“Me, going dumpster diving? Perish the thought, Bonnie. This is one of the copies I’ve made of all my research before you tossed the originals,” Lyra explained, as though she had been asked about something far less creepy. She turned back to Sweetie and grinned anxiously. “So, tell me everything you know! Even the smallest details would be appreciated! I’ve tried asking Twilight but she gets all weird when I start asking about hands.”
"Everything?" Sweetie asked. She ate some potatoes and broccoli before cutting some bacon and eating it together with the steak. She stabbed another piece of broccoli and used the fork to point at Lyra. "Like, you mean all of it? That's a tall order, I mean, I know a lot of stuff." She winked at Bon Bon. "But it wouldn't be fair to just tell you every detail about secret places and important people without you both sharing some stuff yourselves. I'm glad you made it out of Ponyville, by the way. It's not a pretty sight, what happened there. I hope you didn't suffer any injuries?"
Lyra’s flurry of impending questions was cut off by Bon Bon’s hoof slamming on the table again. “Don’t encourage her!” she snapped, before taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. “I’m assuming you weren’t at Ponyville during the first attacks, then? It was Nightmare Night, and Pinkie insisted on throwing a party on the outskirts of Ponyville, near the forest. Both of us were able to escape, as did most of the ponies. Now that I think of it, I wonder if that was Pinkie’s reason for the party in the first place.”
"Pinke works in mysterious ways," Sweetie nodded with a smile. "I'm glad both of you made it along with the others. The world would definitely be a duller place without your shenanigans." She gave them both a smile and waited until Bon Bon started to drink some water. "So when's the wedding?"
“The what?” Lyra asked, her original line of questioning apparently derailed by the seemingly random subject from Sweetie. Her attention was further diverted by the now coughing Bon Bon. “You okay there, Bonnie? You shouldn’t drink so fast or you might choke.”
"Wedding." Sweetie repeated, doing a circling motion with her hoof. "You know, getting hitched. Taking the plunge. Tying the knot. Saying 'I do'. Dropping the anchor. Walking the aisle." Sweetie grinned. "I mean, you two look so cute together! I bet Rarity would love to make your dresses!"
The reaction from the pair was not what Sweetie was expecting.
Lyra immediately burst into a fit of laughter so violent that she caught the attention of half the mess hall while nearly falling out of her seat. Bon Bon’s response was a bit more subtle, as Lyra’s laughter abruptly stopped and she yelped from the kick she received under the table. “We’re just friends! FRIENDS! I don’t know why everypony thinks we’re more than that,” Bon Bon insisted.
Sweetie chuckled. "Maybe because you already act like a married couple?" she suggested. "But I admit, that doesn't mean you're into each other, even if in other possibilities your were madly in love." She proceeded to take another big bite of her steak. "Oh, Celestia, how I missed this. I shouldn't. But I did."
After a few more bites, she glanced at Lyra who was twitching in her seat. "Okay, so what's the deal with you and humans? You know that since they're allies, sooner or later everypony will have all the information about them right? Most likely spots for commerce and political relations will open up once this is all over. What's the rush?"
“Mythical creatures!” Lyra shouted, and she started to open the overstuffed binder only for it to slam shut again under Bon Bon’s hoof. “I’ve been looking back into our history and I’m seeing things that we cannot explain without the interference of humans! Granted, I didn’t have a name to put on the ancient aliens, but now it all fits!”
“Lyra, nopony cares about--” Bon Bon started, and was promptly ignored.
“There are so many things that cannot be accounted for in the accepted history of Equestria. Take, for instance, the humble hammer. A tool used by carpenters everywhere, but it isn’t something that earth ponies can use easily. All evidence in the past indicates that the majority of carpentry and manual labor was done by earth ponies, so why would they develop a tool for their work that was extremely hard to use?” Lyra explained over the course of a single breath, and she paused just long enough to take in another lungful of air.
"Uh... maybe griffons invented it?" Sweetie ventured. "You know..." she motioned at a nearby table. "Claws? Or maybe it was Minotaurs? I mean, if you localize things to a very small area of influence, it can give you mixed results. Of course earth ponies would do most of the work in that sense, since they are naturally gifted at building, but why would it require humans specifically for this?"
“Hammers aren’t the only evidence!” Lyra continued, apparently ignoring Sweetie’s argument. “Door knobs! Why do so many doors in Equestria use an opening mechanism that’s difficult to use when two thirds of our population would have to use their mouths to operate? It could have been a latch, or--” The rest of Lyra’s explanation was lost as Bon Bon stuffed a hooffull of hay fries in her mouth.
“Don’t encourage the crazy,” Bon Bon said to Sweetie as she held her hoof over Lyra’s mouth so that she’d have to take the time to chew the food.
Sweetie chuckled and raised her hooves. "Alright, alright. No more encouraging." She shook her head in amusement, finishing off the rest of her steak and bacon and started to clean up the potatoes, trying to concentrate on her food rather than teasing Lyra into a frothing spectacle of a conspiracy theorist.
“...I will not argue that it’s a beautiful piece. If you look at the violin and viola parts, it’s hypnotic,” a familiar voice said over the din of the mess hall, and Sweetie’s ears immediately perked up. “But the cello part? It’s the same eight notes, over and over again! I am loathe to add my own interpretation to a classical piece, but when all I am given is eight notes to work with then there’s so much room for personalization.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me adding anything to it? I’m sure I could spice things up with some synth and reverb,” came the reply. “Don’t give me that dirty look. Everypony loves my stuff!”
Sweetie smiled as she saw the pair approaching the table. Seeing Octavia unharmed was always a welcome sight. Despite how long it had been, that single sacrifice in a far away world still plagued her dreams and fed her fears.
"For what it's worth, and with how little I could make out with all the noise here, I did love your rendition of those eight notes, Octavia." Sweetie said, unable to keep quiet at the pout of her mentor.
The earth pony in question raised an eyebrow at the comment as she and Vinyl Scratch moved to sit in the empty seats at the table. “Having only the cello for the Canon feels like having just one shade of one color and being asked to paint a masterpiece,” Octavia said as she continued to give Sweetie a surveying look. “It’s not that it can’t be done, but the conditions make it more difficult. To be perfectly honest I have to wonder if this ‘Pachebel’ fellow didn’t keel over mid-composition and someone else published an incomplete piece.”
Sweetie shrugged. "So add another cello. Vinyl here can probably synthesize it for you. Adding a couple more cellos can only improve the experience." She grinned. "Or you could play something else. That seemed to lean onto the more solemn side of the musical spectrum." Pushing away her emptied tray, she sighed a bit dramatically. "It is true, however, that cellos are often left wanting in classical compositions."
“Exactly! If the music isn’t right, then you need to change the music!” Vinyl threw her hoof into the conversation. “I don’t know why the stuffy classical types treat the ancient stuff like it’s written in stone and must never be changed under any circumstances. Some of the best stuff I’ve heard recently has been remixes of some of my own work, and I love it!”
“Hi, Vinyl! Hi Octavia!” Lyra greeted with a wave as she swallowed the rest of her food before turning back to Sweetie. The deep breath was the first warning of what was to come. “I also have it on good authority that the human world knew about a significant portion of the wildlife here, and they even have similar species there! The only way this could be is if they’ve been visiting us to abduct our wildlife for ages! That, combined with so many of our day-to-day tools that require hands for easy use, is absolute proof!”
Octavia elected not to comment in favor of giving Sweetie a tired look. “I do hope you haven’t had to listen to her conspiracy theories for long. They are rather--”
“You’re refusing to see the truth, Octavia! Haven’t you ever thought that it was hard to play your cello without hands or fingers to grasp the bow?” Lyra interrupted.
"You know," Sweetie said after a moment of poking what crumbs remained in her tray, "the aliens also have hands. I saw them earlier today."
A moment of silence fell on the conversation before Vinyl spoke just as Bon Bon stuffed more hay fries into Lyra's mouth the moment it opened. “So, you were saying about synthesizing more cellos into the music?"
After Vinyl and Octavia had also finished eating and they had talked at length about aliens, hands, Ponyville and music, Sweetie excused herself from the table. It was time to catch up with the others, hopefully Twilight would already be done with her own checkup.
She headed up towards the Medical Wing again, hoping to not run afoul of Flash Sentry. Her lunch had put her in a good mood and dealing with the deluded ex-guard-to-be was not something she wanted to deal with right now.
Shaking her head, she resolved to stop thinking about Flash Sentry and to concentrate on her friends. And when she felt the bump on her saddlebag, she knew exactly who visit first.
After asking around and wandering a bit, she eventually found the room where she had been told the Princess and her friends were. She knocked on the door and stepped in, drawing the attention of the mares inside.
If Rarity had moved any faster it might have been closer to a teleport spell. The others smiled and stayed where they were, giving the pair some time to speak alone.
“Sweetie! Are you alright!?” she asked as she pulled her sister into a crushing hug. “Nopony is telling us anything but if so many went out then it must be more of those things! Twilight says she’s not hurt but I know miss Firecracker was taken to the medical wings! Please tell me you’re okay, Sweetie!”
Sweetie leaned into the hug, closed her eyes and nodded. "We're fine, Firecracker will be okay too. It was a bit scary, but we were prepared and we got out of there fast." She grinned. "And, we didn't come empty-hoofed." She stepped back and levitated the ball out of her saddlebags. "I don't know if you remember this, but I figured you and Sweetie could use it."
Rarity sat back on her flank and accepted the ball with her front hooves. “I do remember this… my Sweetie thought it was quite a silly thing since it wouldn’t give her a cutie mark immediately. Thank you for this,” she said, though her focus was more on the ball.
"I know she might think it was silly, I did too, a long time ago... but I came to realize just how important a gift it was." Sweetie smiled and hugged Rarity again. "So thank you for it. And I hope it helps bring you both a bit closer again."
The moment between the two sisters was interrupted by a knock from the doorway. Captain Harris loomed there, his white armor blemished by scorch marks and splashes of what could only be alien blood. His helmet was off and held at his side, and he wore a concerned expression as he looked straight at Sweetie. “Sorry for interrupting, but may I have a word with you?”
Sweetie blinked. "Um, sure." She gave Rarity another quick hug and walked with Matt to the other side of the room. The others looked at them curiously, but they were too far away to eavesdrop on their conversation, especially while Rarity was showing them the old ball she had recovered. "How can I help you, Captain?"
The human seemed to struggle with his words before taking a deep breath and letting out slowly. “I came to apologize for my behavior, both here and on Earth. Things have been hard for everyone the last few days, and I’m afraid I have no patience when the people I care about are in danger. From what I’ve been told, you acquitted yourself well when the Chrysalids attacked. You have my thanks.”
"Hey, we both care for Twilight, I wasn't going to let anything happen to her," Sweetie said with a smile. "I understand that there's a lot of things happening in your life right now... don't feel bad if you were less than friendly under those circumstances."
Matt nodded and looked to the other mares in the room, then back to Sweetie. “I’m glad you understand. I just wanted to clear the air. How’s Twilight doing now?”
Sweetie looked back at her mentor and friend. "She's doing much better; she's strong, but I think she just had too much space to run away..." She glanced up at him. "You know she needs someone to be closer to her, right?" Sweetie smiled.
The human’s expression went neutral as he looked to the side. “I’m inclined to agree,” he said, and after some internal debate, he continued, “I heard you were the one who was able to get her out of that chamber, so you know what she was like. I don’t know if I want to be responsible for that happening again if… if I don’t come back.”
Sweetie sighed. "I might have been in plenty of fights and a couple of battles, but that's really the extent of my knowledge besides training."
When she saw that he had turned to look at her, she shrugged. "So take this with a pinch or two of salt... but I think that Twilight needs a real reason to protect everyone, to step up to her potential and let her resolution stop the fear she lives in."
Sweetie struggled with what words to use. "I guess that if it comes to it, being that special somepo—ahem—someone for her will give both of you hope that you can and will turn this around. Isn't there a saying about giving in to fear by letting it stop you from doing what you want to do?"
She shook her head. "I don't know if I make sense, Captain Harris, I'm really just a teenager and even if I could meet and date somepony, should I? Especially knowing that I'll go away?" She sighed. "Anyway... Why won't you, when you do have the chance of it lasting as long as you both want?" She looked up at him a bit helplessly, not knowing what else to say.
Matt’s initial response was to reach up to cover his face with his palm, but quickly thought better of it when he saw the amount of alien ichor was there. He let out a helpless chuckle as he didn’t quite look at Sweetie. “How often it is that the angry man rages denial of what his inner self is telling him,” he said quietly, and he waved a hand at Sweetie’s questioning look. “To answer your question, I would point out the obvious.” When Sweetie said nothing, he sighed again. “The whole… species thing is a bit hard to get over. Plus I know at least one of her people who feels that a princess shouldn’t be socializing with the cannon fodder.”
"If you mean Flash Sentry, I wouldn't worry too much about him," Sweetie made a face. "He dug his own grave. As for the interspecies thing, take it from me, it's really less of an issue when you realize you're not looking at a different species, but simply a different person who feels and loves just like you do. And tastes like Blueberries, if that remains constant between worlds."
The longer the two spoke, the more Matt’s expression began to morph from a professional soldier to that of a youngster getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar. That morphed into curiosity as he asked, “Blueberries? What does th--” Then horror. “I swear to God, Jenkins is laughing at me right now.”
Sweetie grinned. "You two will be fine, I can tell." She glanced back to the others. "Also, please take care of them, too, if you can. They'll be your best friends in this place and steadily there to keep you sane. Come on, let's go say hi to the others." She turned and trotted back to the herd with Matt at her flank.
The rest of the element bearers parted to allow the two new arrivals to join in the circle, and a curious expression crossed Twilight’s stressed features. “What were you two talking about?” she asked as she looked from Sweetie to Matt, then back again.
"Nothing much, Twilight, just talking a bit about the mission and the future," Sweetie said, a smile spreading on her face. "And blueberries."
The reactions from the mares varied from a barely stifled laughter from Rainbow Dash, to an embarrassed Fluttershy, to a thoroughly scandalized Rarity. “Sweetie Belle! Proper mares shouldn’t talk about such things in public! And especially when there are males present!” She hissed to the younger mare.
“Talk about what?” Twilight asked, and none of the other Element Bearers or Matt could meet her gaze for long. “Seriously, what’s going on?”
“Nothing!” Matt said immediately, and he crouched down so that he was eye level with Twilight. “How are you doing, Twily? I… heard you had a bit of a scare.”
“Yes, I did, but it’s taught me something,” Twilight declared, and she bracketed Matt with a determined stare. “I know I’m not like you or Shiny, or even like Princess Luna. I don’t know how much I can contribute, but I can do more than just stay here in Canterlot and let other ponies and people protect everything. I’m a Princess, which is as much a responsibility as it is a position.” The declaration was as much a challenge as anything, and all eyes went to Matt.
The human returned the stare before glancing away. “I’ll back your play, Twily, and I think Princess Luna probably will too. It’s your brother you’ll have to convince.”
Twilight harrumphed dramatically. “Captain Shining Armor can submit his objections in writing for review. BBBFF Shiny will nag me for weeks. He’ll probably try to get my parents to convince me, too.”
"Aww, you know it's because he cares, Twilight," Sweetie said, nuzzling her friend. "He knows already you need to do this. But I don't believe for a minute he's not going to complain every inch of the way."
“It’s the purview of older brothers to worry about their little sisters,” Matt stated with a nod. “Regardless of how much they protest.”
"Isn't that the truth?" Sweetie giggled.
The assembled group had a small laugh at that, but it abruptly stopped as Twilight gasped. “Sweetie! Something’s happening to you!” she exclaimed, and her alarm quickly spread to the others.
Sweetie blinked and looked down at herself. Her coat, illusion and all, was slowly becoming transparent. It would come and go in little pulses, some stronger than others where she could see the floor below her through her body. "Oh."
Applejack, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy remained silent, but both Rarity and Twilight became increasingly irate. “Twilight, what’s happening to her!?” her sister demanded, before turning a panicked eye to Sweetie. “Sweetie, don’t worry. We’ll find some way to fix this!”
“Something’s pulling on her existence, something big! I can’t stop it!” Twilight replied, her expression wavering between determination and fear as Sweetie continued to fade away.
Sweetie moved forward and hugged both mares, drawing them close and resting her forehead on their shoulders. "It's okay. It's time for me to go," she whispered, tightening her hug a little bit. "I'm glad I came here and spent some time with both of you and the girls." She sniffed. "I also learned my own Rarity is still looking for me and my Twilight!" She stepped back and rubbed the tears away, smiling up at them. "I won't forget you. If I ever come back, let's hang out again, alright? Just without the alien monsters."
Rarity clung to Sweetie as fiercely as she could. “Try and stay strong, Sweetie, I know you have it in you to beat whatever tries to stop you. But if you run into… well, me, do me a favor and let your big sister take care of you, alright?”
Twilight also returned Sweetie’s hug, but her voice grew distant as the younger mare faded away.
Sweetie closed her eyes, taking a deep breath and promising to remember the love and friendship her sister and Twilight had shared with her just before she left. She prepared herself for whatever would come next.
“...then she prepared herself for whatever would come next.”
Sweetie's eyebrow twitched and she slowly opened her eyes.
“Really, a rather touching end for your little vacation here, if I do say so myself,” Discord summarized as he rose up from behind the frozen mares. His attention wasn’t on Sweetie, but on a book in his paws. A stylized image of the avatar of chaos rested on the book’s cover, and while it was being held at an angle so that the contents couldn’t be seen, a feather quill could be seen scratching at the pages. The usual madness of his voice was gone, and his tone was uncharacteristically pensive as he spoke, “As you’ve probably realised, it’s your time to move on. I wanted to have a word with you beforehand.”
"How... are you even doing this?" Sweetie asked, looking around the room. "Nothing ever stopped the transfers before... although, you did say you met the Fragment of Twilight that's responsible for this trip, so I guess it makes sense..." she shook her head and walked around Twilight, Matt and Rarity to stand next to Discord. "Well, I'm here and we can talk right?"
“I’m afraid this little trick of mine isn’t halting your transition… I’m just choosing to lengthen a moment in time for this little chat,” the avatar or chaos explained, and he snapped the book shut before fixing Sweetie with a calm look that wouldn’t be nearly as disturbing if it was on anypony else’s face. “As I promised Twilight, I’ve done what I could for you here, within the bounds of my own oaths. But you’re far more special than even your teacher realises. For billions of years I’ve meddled in the affairs of other races to prepare them, and I’ve always been met with scorn, fear, anger, or a thousand other reactions that are terribly predictable. I half expected you to react the same after I explained everything, but you didn’t.” He looked down at the book before continuing. “You said it was nice to finally meet me. Nobody has ever said that before, so I want to do a little more for--ACK!”
Sweetie held close to Discord's long neck, hugging him tightly. "It was nice to meet you, Discord. And you should know I'm not the only Sweetie out there that thinks you're great."
For the longest time, he stood frozen in place and as still as a statue. “I… I wonder if she knew you’d be like this, and she didn’t tell me. I’ve gotten so good at predicting what everyone will do that there aren’t too many surprises anymore… ” Discord muttered to himself, before coming to his senses and lifting the book in his paws for Sweetie to see. “You are a truly unique individual, Sweetie Belle, and you’ve given me something that I will cherish until my end comes. For that, I offer this.”
Sweetie studied the book in Discord's paws. "A book? Is it like mine?"
“It’s a very special book, Sweetie. It’s a record of your journeys,” Discord said, and he held up a paw to hold any interruptions. “I said I could not help you any more than what has already been done, and I hold my promises as sacred. However, there are others who might benefit from knowing that your journey still continues. You learned that your sister is still searching for you in your home universe… and this is the only thing I could think of to help her without interfering with what lies ahead.”
Sweetie's heart seemed to stop for a second, and then she felt something running down her cheeks. She realized she was crying, but she couldn't really remember the exact moment it happened. "Y-you mean..." she took a shuddering breath. "My real sister, she'll know?"
This time, she didn't jump. She walked slowly up to him and wrapped her forelegs around him. "Thank you," she whispered, unable to speak louder. "Thank you so much, Discord. I'll always remember you."
“I should be thanking you, Sweetie Belle. You’re more than I could have ever hoped for in an individual, and I’m sure your Twilight is proud of everything you’re doing,” Discord replied sincerely. “Now, it’s time to go. Good luck.”
Sweetie nodded, stepping back as the world started fading away again. "Goodbye, Discord. Take care of them..." she waved a hoof at the ponies and human in the room. "They'll need all the help they can get."
For the longest time, Discord stared at the spot that Sweetie had been standing. His gaze drifted down to the book, to all the adventures he had written about and the ones that were awaiting that young mare. Never before in his long, long, long life had he so wanted to break his promise… but the moment of weakness passed as more important things came to mind. He snapped his fingers and the book vanished in a flash. Another twitch of his power sent his mind back to where it was most needed.
“I’m sorry, yes? I wasn’t paying attention,” the avatar of chaos said as he looked down at a very aggravated mare in a royal guard uniform. Her berating comments continued even as a moustache began to sprout from her snout. “I’m sorry, but you’ve got something there…” Discord said as he pointed at his own upper lip, and he gave a reassuring smile at the outrage his antics caused.
Back to the boring and predictable… Sweetie, I hope you’re able to be as fun wherever you go as you were with me, Discord thought as he went through the usual motions of teasing the staff around Celestia’s chamber.
She went from being in a comfy room in the palace, to dropping into the mud under heavy, unrelenting rain. Which would have been annoying at most if not for one little detail.
She had been dropped right in front of an enormous tank.
With a rather loud meep of surprise, she jumped and rolled out of the way, rain water and mud splashing around as she scrambled back and away from the gigantic tank, green eyes wide and mouth agape as she took in the colossal machine that had almost rolled her over.
It rolled past, spraying her with a fresh cloak of mud and debris. “Stop! Stop!” a mare shouted, as it rolled on. Then the mare jumped from the rear of the tank into the mucky ruin. “She’s not dead and she’s not red,” she called out as she walked through the obscuring rain. Step by step she came into view.
The rain sleeted along white hide and black metal. The unicorn’s hide was interrupted here and there by obvious mechanical limbs. Red and black mane and tail lay limp in the wet as she approached. “Hey! You okay?” she called out.
"Guh." Sweetie spit out some mud and shakily stood up, blinking. "I'll be okay, I think... just let me get rid of this." Purple and white energy emanated from her horn and slowly the mud dripped down until she was completely clean, if still soaked through to her crystal core. "I have to say, I've tasted a lot of mud but this is the worst so far," she confessed grumpily. "You really need to watch where you're driving that mech of yours, though. I almost became one with the road."
“Hey, look before you teleport,” the mare said as she nodded back towards the idling tank. “Come on,” she added with a nod over her shoulder. “Let’s get out of the rain.” She struggled to reach the back of the tank, her heavy metal limbs bogging her down more than once before she reached the rear of the vehicle. Hands popped out of the ends of her forehooves, and she clambered up, then looked back at Sweetie and offered a hand up... something most ponies didn’t do.
“Blackjack, what are you doing?” the stallion asked as he peered down at the strange mare.
“Offering someone we almost ran over a ride, okay, P-21?” Blackjack replied without averting her eyes or her easy, slightly tired, very wet smile.
"It's the kind thing to do!" Sweetie added, calling up to whoever was up there as she gratefully took Blackjack's offered hand. "I'm kinda lost here, you know? Just let me hang out until I get my bearings and then I'll be out of your mane. Pinkie Promise!"
Blackjack considered her a moment at that, then shrugged. “No problem.”