Cast-Iron Cast-Offs

by Cast-Iron Caryatid

【If Wishes Were Horses】Chapter 2 - Something something pony pony pony?

There was a flash of light, and I saw infinity.

It was like being dumped into an endless ocean of possibility.  No, not an ocean.  Images of countless worlds rushed by as I tumbled through the rapids that fed innumerable rivers of time, yet—chaotic though it seemed—I wasn’t floating aimlessly.  I was a lightning bolt thrown by a fairy, seeking out the path to the one place and time where my wish would take me.

My journey had a purpose that I wasn’t in control of; I could feel it.  It wasn’t as simple as being drawn to peace and luxury.  Lifetimes of simple bliss passed me by like so much mist on the wind, leaving me with little more than an impression of lilacs and morning dew.  No, as I lanced around, about and sometimes straight through all the potential lives I could have had, I could see the strange and curious slowly replacing the comfortable and calm, and the cause was clear.

I had asked the creature to surprise me.

‘The creature,’ I say, as I doubted that this place was the mythical land of Tír na nÓg, or she, truly one of the fair folk—at least not in the way we think of them.  It’s possible, even quite likely that she was that, and also a djinn, a monkey’s paw and a shooting star, because surely if there exists such a type of creature as improbable as one who talks in rhyme and grants wishes, it wouldn’t be limited to just one or two cultures of our tiny little dimension.

The sheer enormity of it was… well, I’d say it was humbling, but I’m not really the type of person that can really get much more humble.  It was daunting, in any case, to think that there were creatures that existed outside of reality and so were able to pull the strings to suit their whims.

Is that not what you would call… a god?

Fortunately, I didn’t really have time for my faith—or lack thereof, really—to be shaken, as I could feel the end of my journey racing up to meet me with as much enthusiasm as the ground had for a clumsy skydiver.

At the last moment, I stopped with a lurch and found myself hanging over what looked like New York in the 1920’s, with horse-drawn carriages and everything.  Actually, there were a lot of horses in all sorts of colors and not a whole lot of people—or any at all, actually—but my point of view was too high up and too queasy to tell anything more.

The sudden stop had been jarring, to say the least.  The world that was to be my destination hovered just out of reach, but my journey was not yet complete.  Some bit of me had hit a snag, and it felt as if I was hanging above the world from my soul.

The sensation was… almost familiar.  It was the same feeling I’d had of racing through time, but in reverse.  It was that part of me that was the lightning bolt seeking out the shape of my wish, but instead of funneling through it, it was pulling me apart.  I felt myself stretch as it tried to fork, at first in a dozen different directions, then a mere half a dozen, and finally, only three.  The feeling didn’t fade as the possibilities faded away, though.  If anything, it got worse as each remaining fork grew stronger and stronger.

In the end, something had to give.

I felt something tear.

It was me.

There was something special about waking up next to someone that ran deeper than the usual mating instinct—or at least parallel to it in a wholly different way.  It was an unconditional bond of trust and acceptance—the primal instinct of family brought out by a mess of tangled limbs and several hearts beating in concert.

It was completely alien to me, and I loved it.

Unfortunately, as fate would have it, the feeling was not long-lived.  Curled up on my side as I was, I felt the body in front of me stir, which made me shift and disturb whoever was at my back.  The next reaction traveled in the other direction, as the body behind me pulled away, letting a cool wave of air down my spine, which I, in turn, rolled onto my back to address, prompting the same reaction in the person to my right.

After the shifting was done, we all lay there for a moment in denial of the inevitable, but there would be no getting back to sleep.  As one, we sat up.

I looked left, and saw what looked like a small horse with a mottled white and brown coat and a straight, copper-red mane wearing an adorable little suit and tie.

I looked right, and saw a nearly identical a small horse with the same mottled white and brown coat, the same straight, copper-red mane and the same adorable little suit and tie.

I looked down at myself, and… well, all I saw the suit and tie, but I had a pretty good idea—yep, there it is.  That same hair hanging over one side of my field of vision like an orange waterfall.  Oddly, it was the hair that really stood out as weird.  As a human, my hair had always been curlier than a carrot-topped medusa, so I’d always kept it short.  The feeling of having it move as I swayed in place felt distinctly alien to me.

Then, the movement tickled one of my ears and I felt it flick and… hoo boy.  Okay, now the rest was hitting me.  The feeling of a coat of fur under the suit that I’d worn to the funeral and then slept in was decidedly itchy.  I shifted in place and tried to scratch an itch only to find I had blunt hooves, because of course I did.  The hoof wasn’t enough, and I had resorted to rubbing myself down with my whole arm—leg?—when I felt something that was even more distinctly different and alien where my rump met the bed.

Oh.  I guess that explained the mane.

I was a girl—a mare?  Whatever, I was female.  I looked to my right and saw a similar look of… curiosity?  Wait, no, was that right?  I mean, sure, I’d never really been all that invested in my masculinity, but was that really the look I had on my face?  Without a mirror, I couldn’t be sure.  No, wait, I could get a second opinion, I realized, and looked to my left.

Huh.  Same look.

It was too early in the morning for this.

“Fuck me,” we all said in unison, and fell back down on the bed.

“No,” we all answered jokingly, followed by a moment of silence as we actually considered it.  I craned my neck to look at the me next to me again.  I mean… it was a girl, and kind of cute, I supposed.  My head hit the pillow again and I stared at the ceiling.

“Well, maybe,” we amended, but just saying it felt awkward; I wasn’t that concerned with getting laid.

Oh, and the tiny horse thing.

“No,” we finally decided, and that was that.

For now.

With bluntly propositioning myself over and done with, I figured I was nowhere near done taking stock of my situation, and tried to say as much.  Unfortunately, so did the others.

“I need to—” we all said at once, and stopped at once.  When no one said anything, and the silence stretched on, we tried again with the same result.  “We need—”  Again, we all ended up interrupting each other and stopping.  Okay, this was pointless.  “Whatever.”  We all knew what we were going to say anyway.

The me to my left got out on her side of the bed, as did the me on the right.  As the one in the middle, I expected to have to wait until one of the two figured out how to work their hooves and make way for me, when I realized that we were all quadrupeds and I could just… lean forward and up onto my hooves and walk off the bed.

It worked—sort of.  I felt like I was walking on stilts across a trampoline, but half of that was probably just the bed.  From my wobbly vantage point, I got a better look at the room we were in.

It was kind of boring, to be honest.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  It was… nice.  Expensive, even.  I wasn’t quite sure about the scale, but even so, it looked like the single bedroom was as large as my entire apartment back home.  The floors were hardwood with strategically-placed throw-rugs that could have come straight off the boat from india, and the furniture definitely hadn’t come from Ikea.  The bed was easily a king-size or larger, and my hooves sunk into the top layer almost like quicksand.  I could easily imagine sinking blissfully into it after a long day’s work.

All the same, it still just looked like an apartment.  My cheeky wish had sent me hurtling across time and space to a world full of ponies; you’d think that something would be different.

Eventually, I made it to the far edge of the bed.  Checking my progress against the others, I was definitely at a disadvantage thanks to the fluffy handicap beneath my hooves.  My counterparts had both made it twice as far as I had, though that still wasn’t saying much.  One had made it to a large picture window, and the other looked like she was trying to figure out the order to use her hooves in as she attempted to pace across the room.

I, meanwhile, decided to do something stupid.  The foot of the bed had a decorated wooden frame that prevented me from just rolling out of bed like the others, so, after testing my footing with a couple of bounces, I bent my legs and jumped off.

Then, instinct kicked in.

Much like when my ear had twitched without my express input, I felt another part of my anatomy react all on its own—and this time it was a part that I didn’t even know I had.  Without warning, my wings spread wide to catch me, and I glode right into the me that was at the window.

“Aah!” I managed to yelp before crashing into her and sending us both tumbling ass over teakettle into the side of a solid oak dresser.  “Ow,” we groaned in unison.

“Okay, public service announcement, here,” I said with a grunt as I tried and failed to right myself.  “We have wings, and it hurts like a motherfucker when you twist them.”

“What?” said the pony tangled up with me.  “You got wings?  I didn’t get wings.”

I blinked at that.  “Are you s—ow—what is poking me in my side?”

“I think that’s… my horn,” she said.  Sure enough, if I twisted around, I could see a creamy white horn poking out of the middle of her forehead.  Funny, I hadn’t noticed it before.

I crossed my eyes to look up, and then double checked with my hoof.  “I didn’t get a horn,” I stated.

“Well,” the one I’d crashed into said, finally managing to untangle herself and scoot out from under me.  “I guess now we know what that last minute holdup was.  There must be at least three types of ponies here; unicorn, pegasus and—what’d you get?”

The last one of us was sitting on her haunches, looking herself over, but came up empty.  “I got nothing.”

“Well, that sucks,” the one with the horn said.  Okay, maybe that was kinda rude—and racist?—but we were all thinking it anyway; I’m pretty sure that excuse holds up when everyone present is technically the same person.  “Not that I expect to have to gore anyone with this horn, if it was even sharp enough, which it’s not, really.  I guess we both got screwed compared to little miss chicken wings here.  I’d have said they were as vestigial as the horn, given their size, but I’d obviously lose that bet.”

I looked back at my wings and rolled my shoulder like I would to make my shoulder blade stick out; the limb sort of twitched, but it didn’t unfurl.  Were they really that special, I wondered?  “It can’t be that cut and dry, or there’d only be one of us,” I pointed out with a shrug that again seemed to just barely stir the new muscles.

“Point, I guess,” said the ordinary pony who was looking herself over again.  She shook her head, still finding nothing out of the ordinary.  “So, just to recap—we asked in verse for a green wish-granting fairy to surprise us, and she sent us to another world where we’re three adorable tiny horse girls.”

“Pony… mares?” the unicorn suggested, and gave a shrug.  “Pragmatically speaking—we’re alive, healthy, sane and seem to have been given a place to live.  From the view out the window, we’re in a pretty tall building, and the society looks reasonably clean and modern.”

“Shit, with mom gone…” I said, pausing sombrely as I remembered the funeral we’d come here from.  “What is there to really miss back home?  Wow, that’s kind of depressing.  We’re out a job, obviously, but we may or may not be provided for here anyway.”

The three of us were silent for a bit as that sank in.

“You know, from the outside, pragmatism is kind of creepy,” the regular pony pointed out.  “We should probably care a little more that we’ve lost everything we ever owned and everyone we’ve ever known.”

The unicorn scratched the back of her neck with one hoof, an uneasy look on her face.  “Yeah, probably.  Just… wishes from a creature beyond comprehension?  It could have been worse.”

The sound of yelling from the next room caused six ears to swivel to face the door without their owner’s input, suggesting that not everyone shared our point of view.

“I guess we haven’t lost everyone we’ve ever known,” I reminded us.

I couldn’t make out any of the words, but I instantly recognized the sound of Beth’s voice, even as a pony.  It sounded like she was arguing with someone, but she could have just been being vocal about the circumstances we’d found ourselves in.  There was only one way to find out.

The three of us crowded around the door, and I reached for the handle, which thankfully had a lever design rather than a knob.  Just as I was about to open the door, I hesitated and considered whether it was a good idea for all three of me to just walk into the room.  No sooner had the thought crossed my mind than I found myself alone at the door.  Swell.  Somehow I had become our official spokespony.  I gave it a fifty-fifty chance that it was either because I’d hit the genetic lottery in being the only one with a useful mutation, or just the sheer coincidence of being the one in the middle.

The door opened to reveal a single room that, predictably, followed the same design philosophy as the bedroom had—that is, if there was anyway to predict a room that had every feature and amenity that you could expect from a small, one bedroom apartment, stretched out over a space the size of a basketball court.  Seriously; the room had to be taking up most of the floor we were on and featured a kitchenette on one side and an entire wall of window overlooking the city on the other, with the ocean visible in the distance.

The middle of the room was populated by a variety of sunken tables surrounding a large buffet of fresh fruit and baked goods that had been flipped, scattering its vegetarian bounty in a mess across the varnished wooden floor, among other things.  Looking closer, I spotted a watermelon bobbing up and down in the jacuzzi.  Speaking of which—there was a jacuzzi over by the pool.  Also, there was a pool, because of course there was.

The source of the mess was obvious.  Right in the middle of it, next to the table that had been flipped, were two ponies glaring daggers at each other.

Beth—because it had to be Beth—looked like she had retained her short stature and just about everything else you could have used to describe her.  She was an ordinary pony like third me, lacking wings or horn, with a dun brown coat and flaxen mane that looked like she’d gone at it with a chainsaw.  I’d thought my legs were stubby little things, but she was built like four knee-high telephone poles propping up a hummer.

As for the other pony… she was a unicorn.  That was about all there was to say.  She stood a head taller than Beth, though still a half a head shorter than me, and she was as clean and white as if she’d stepped straight out of a storybook.  Unlike my mottled coloring that mimicked my freckled complexion, there wasn’t a speck of color anywhere on her.  Her coat was white, her mane was white, her horn was white, and… that’s when I realized she was completely naked.

She looked at me and her eyes were a bright, vivid green.

Beth gave a quick glance to see what the naked unicorn was looking at and did a double take as she, too, saw me.  Then, she did a triple take, and her eyes widened as she really saw me.  “No… no… no!” she repeated to herself as she leapt to approach me and fell flat on her face.  The unicorn, meanwhile, cantered over to me, hopping over a small coffee table in the process with a gait that was deerlike in grace.

At least one of us could traverse a room.

“Welcome to your new home, Caolán,” she said with a bending of her forelegs that I took for a bow.  “I hope it meets your approval.”

I was dumbfounded.  This was the apparition I’d been so afraid of?  “You’re… unexpected,” I stated.  “You can talk normally?”

“I seem to have been included in the wish, yes.” She cocked her head to the side in a way that I remembered the green apparition doing.  “I hope I am not unwelcome.  I believe your experience should have given you some idea how unpredictable the process can be.”

Thinking back to my experience as a lightning bolt… yes.  Yes I did.  “Did I… wish you free, then?”  I asked, and then my mood turned sour.  “Only to force you into a friendship you never asked for?  Shit, I didn’t think this through as well as I thought, did I?”

She frowned.  “I would have you know, Caolán, that I never wished you ill—nor was I trapped or beholden in any way.  That I granted it at all should speak well enough that your wish for friendship, even were it permanent, would have been welcome.”

“It’s not permanent?” I asked.

She nodded.  “It was not permanent.  The wish only stipulated that I be your friend while granting your wishes, though I remember what it felt like, and such feelings do not simply fade without reason.  I am well aware that you do not reciprocate them, however; if you desire it, then I shall leave you be.”

“And go back to granting wishes out of a bottle of alcohol?” I asked… and realized that I really did know nothing at all about her.  I’ll admit, I was curious.  “Far be it for me to turn down an offer of friendship, regardless of how it started.  Getting to know you sounds good.”

The unicorn let out what seemed to be a sigh of relief.  “Thank you.  Truthfully, if you had rejected me, I do not believe anything would have changed.  I appear in all ways to have become a simple unicorn possessing only the typical mortal magic which that entails.  It is troubling, to say the least.”

“Magic?” I asked, along with two echoes from just inside the door to my bedroom that caused those green eyes to widen a bit in surprise.  Unfortunately, both my spoken question and her unspoken one went unanswered as Beth finally managed to stumble her way across the massive room, finishing her journey with a leap off the back of a couch.

Beth’s hooves skidded across the hardwood floors until she finally came to a stop and—gawping at me like I’d kicked a puppy—fell to her knees in despair.  “No…” she moaned and stomped her front hooves on the floorboards, leaving me thoroughly confused.

It wasn’t long until her despair turned to anger, and she rounded on our wish-granting friend.  “You fucking bitch!” she snapped.  “Not only do you turn us into ponies, you turned him into a goddamn girl?!  This isn’t what I wished for!”

Wait, what?  What?!

“Beth…” I said, drawing her attention as a number of possibilities  bloomed in my head.

She froze and turned to look at me, and it seemed to dawn on her what she’d just admitted  to.  “Aw fuck,” she swore, deflating even more until she was all but laying on the ground, which seemed to be a more natural a position for a pony than it would have been for a human.  “Caolán, I—”

“Wait,” I interrupted.  I tried to pinch the bridge of my nose with the crook of my hoof, but only made it halfway before I had to slam it back down to regain my balance.

Beth cringed.

“Sorry,” I mumbled.  “Look, before this gets any more complicated, I need to get something out in the open.  The wish didn’t turn me into a girl.”

Beth’s eyes brightened in a way that was far too creepy for someone that had just been on the floor in despair.  A moment later, suspicion began to creep in, though.  “Please tell me you mean you’re just a really… really girly boy under that suit,” she said and bit her lip nervously.  “Because I could live with that.”

I shook my head and took a step back through the doorway.  It didn’t exactly work, in that I fell on my rump, yet it wasn’t much of a failure, either.  As close as the ground actually was, I might as well have fallen into a chair for all the discomfort it brought me.  Nonetheless, I fought myself to not get distracted, and struggled back to my hooves.

“I didn’t get turned into a girl,” I repeated, stressing the singular article.  Quickly I reared up to free my front hooves, which each went to one side of the doorway and wrapped around the pony standing there and pulled the other two of me into sight.  “I got turned into three girls.”

“So whatever you want to say… you can say to all of me.”

I think I broke Beth; it was rather frustrating, as it caused her to clam up, abandoning her pending explanation in favor of clumsily banging around the kitchenette looking for alcohol.  It wasn’t an unreasonable reaction, all things considered, but if this was my wish—and I was still pretty sure that it was, in spite of my Twilight Zone senses niggling at the back of my mind—her quest for liquid relief was most likely futile.

“So,” I said to our resident ex-faerie as the three of me helped each other over and into the selfsame couch which Beth had previously leapt from.  The couch was upholstered in a fine black velvet material that felt magical against the fur on my face as a I flopped over the back of the sofa and onto the seat cushions.

There was an awkward silence as my conjunction was left dangling.

“Are you… rubbing your face on the couch?” normal-pony-me asked, sounding kind of embarrassed.

I didn’t much care.  “Oh god yes; it’s like having a fresh buzzcut over your whole body!  The rubbing!”

She blinked, lifting a hoof to consider her foreleg curiously.  “Carry on, then?”

Distracted as I was by the upholstery, the unicorn took over for me.  “Well, I was sure… surprised, I guess?” she said with a cheeky smile.  “We were surprised, I mean.  I guess I know better than to ask you if this kind of thing is normal?”

The unicorn stared blankly for a moment before seeming to realize that she should say something.  “Ah… no.  This and normal are… different things,” she said, struggling with the words.  “Like… water flowing uphill.  It violates entropy.”

“What?” Pony pony me remarked.  “Wishes don’t normally?”

She shook her head quite seriously.  “They don’t.  Just the opposite; my kind—we feed on the myriad possibilities that are cut loose when such a change occurs.  We prune the tree of time, and entire futures cease to be.”

“That’s not all you pruned!” Beth shouted from the kitchenette, slamming her hoof on the counter and making the glassware rattle.

The other two of me blushed at her crudeness.  I, however, was already flushed from my encounter with the seat cushion, and had no shame.  “Yeah, uh, about that?” I prompted, giving the naked white unicorn a questioning look without correcting my upside-down posture.

Don’t judge me.

“As you might have gathered, there were some extenuating circumstances involved in your wish,” she said, glancing away uncomfortably.  “It should not have given you a form you would be uncomfortable with, however.  I trust you are, individually… not inconvenienced?  I have granted such wishes before, but you didn’t seem the type.”

The three of me all shared a glance, and I shrugged.  “I’m not, but it doesn’t bother me, either,” I said, twisting around to right myself, managing to rub my wings on the back of the couch as I did so, almost losing myself to the distraction again.  “I don’t know.  For some people, it’s a huge part of who they are and how they interact with people, I guess?”

“That has been my experience,” she said with a modest nod.

Beth had her own opinion.  That opinion was, “No fucking shit!”

“Your concern for me is touching, Beth,” snarked the ordinary pony, who had as yet been silent.

“My concern is some combination of those words, anyway,” she grumbled cryptically before going back to her as-yet fruitless search.

“Look,” unicorn me said, steering the conversation back on track.  “It’s not like I feel nothing about being turned into a whole different creature, but the gender thing doesn’t really stand out?”  She looked at the other two of us for confirmation, and we nodded.

“Kind of the opposite, really,” I added, taking over somewhat timidly.  “Being female is… straightforward?  The idea of it is, I mean.  I guess it helps that I haven’t actually seen it yet, but so far it’s just… novel?  The rest, though, where do I even start?  I miss my hands more than my… dick.  I was good with my hands.”

“Hah!”  Beth shouted.  “That’s what she sa—wait, does that work or not?”

All three of me groaned, but it was the ordinary pony me who snapped back.  “Damn it, Beth!  If you’re going to be a part of this conversation then quit half-assing it and get in here!  You’re not going to find alcohol in my apartment anyway.”  The ire in her voice surprised me… which, itself, also surprised me, considering the fact that we were supposed to be the same person.  Pony?  I guess that made it our apartment, too.

“Shows what you know—there’s a chest freezer in here that’s full of vodka!  Shit, what’s a breakfast-y drink you can make with vodka and orange juice?  I don’t mix drinks!  This is why I have you!”

Unicorn-me’s eye twitched.  “It’s I-don’t-know-what-time-it-is in the morning, Beth!”

Beth just ignored her.  “Hey, Caolán-with-the-wings, Do you think the neighbors will give me a cup of grenadine if I ask nicely?”

“Yes, Beth,” I said with every ounce of dry sarcasm I could muster.  “I’m sure that it’s a completely normal thing for ponies to go door to door asking for cocktail ingredients first thing in the morning—just like in the human world.”

“Great!” she said, and was out the door before any of me could stop her.

All of me shared a moment of stunned silence.

“You don’t think she actually used to—”

“Only as much as you do, which is—”

“Giving her too much credit.”

The presence of alcohol in the kitchen was disconcerting, but between the three of me, we managed to convince ourselves that if Beth was brought with us, it wasn’t unreasonable for her predilections to be taken into account.  The layout of the apartment did suggest that we were all roommates in this cozy little one acre apartment—and yes, that was a literal acre, according to the brochure on the table.

Even on the other side of time and space, I couldn’t get away from the imperial system.  I mean, don’t get me wrong;  bartending is all about ratios anyway, so it doesn’t really complicate my job at all, but still.

My drifting train of thought was interrupted by the curiosity of the ex-faerie.  “You are quiet,” she stated, draped over the side of the couch and cocking her head to the side.

“You’re naked,” unicorn-me blurted out.

“Ah.”  She made a show of looking over herself.  “This is quite normal in this world, I assure you.”

She stopped and blinked, appearing to be thinking about something.  “Come to think of  it… I guess that’s true, from what I saw on the street.  Huh.”

“But you were naked back home, too,” I pointed out, rolling my eyes.

She just nodded.  “Yes, I was.”

When no further answer seemed forthcoming, I prompted her.  “And that was…”

“A different matter,” she said.

I let out a small chuckle and shook my head.  “Alright, sure.”

“So, wait,” the ordinary pony-me interjected.  “You mentioned magic before, and now this—you know about this world?”

“I have been to this side of infinity before,” she said, as if it were the grocery store across town that doesn’t have your brand of chips.  “Not this world in particular, but—infinity being what it is—there are many like it.”

“Can you tell us about it, then?” she asked.  “At least the basics of what we should know?”

The ex-faerie placed her hoof on her chin and thought for a moment.  “We are in Manehattan, one of the more industrialized cities in the country of Equestria, which is ruled by a pair of immortal alicorns.  Alicorns are those who embody the traits of all ponykind—that is, unicorn, pegasus and earth pony.  Magic is commonplace and relatively benign here, but outliers exist, and so magical crime is punished harshly.  Crimes involving memory magic in particular typically attract the attention of the full weight of the Equestrian legal system.”

“Um.  Okay,” the ordinary pony-me said.  “That got awfully specific at the end, there.”

Unicorn me agreed, looking uneasy.  “Why… did we need to know that?”

Just then, the door opened back up, admitting Beth, and three other ponies.  “Hey, Ó Cochláin!” she shouted.  “You’re not gonna believe this—the neighbors swear up and down we’ve lived here longer than them!  Some wish, huh?”

Slowly, all of me turned slowly to look at the green-eyed unicorn in dawning horror.  “You didn’t,” one of us whispered.

“They’re cool, though,” Beth continued, oblivious.  “They even had the grenadine!  One of you come mix us some drinks; we’ve got friends to make!”

The first hint of a rebuke died on my lips as the great, wide wall of glass overlooking the city shattered inwards beneath the shod hooves of twenty golden-armored stallions and what could only be one of the immortal alicorns that the ex-faerie had mentioned.  What she hadn’t mentioned is that the ruler stood literally twice as tall as everyone in the room and shone like the sun with a fury normally reserved for murderers, child molesters and running into your ex at the grocery store.

“Halt!” the alicorn shouted, the words shaking the building and making the ears of all present ring.  The command was apparently rhetorical as, in the same moment, her horn lit up like a bonfire and  froze everyone in place in a hazy golden glow that filled the room.

The magic—or whatever it was—didn’t seem to have any effect on the alicorn herself, of course, and she stepped slowly further into the room, taking note of everything.  Her eyes lingered on me… and me and me for a long while before moving on to the others.

“At six o’clock this morning,” she stated as if by rote, “daily scans of the Equestrian Bureau of Records detected evidence of tampering in six different wings.  Further investigation revealed what can only be classified as felony grand magical abuse on a scale unseen since the Crystal Empire suffered the rule of Sombra himself.  Documents, minds, bits, buildings and infrastructure, all changed without consent or discrimination, down to the smallest detail.  Fillies, foals, infants who could not have communicated whatever it was that they witnessed had their minds and what memories they possessed violated—and for what?  One apartment.  This apartment and the ponies living in it.

“By my authority as a ruling princess of Equestria, you are all under arrest pending an investigation into these matters.  Given the grave nature of these accusations, anypony who resists will be immediately banished to tartarus for the duration of the investigation… or longer.”

There were some that claimed that a brisk, early morning chariot ride was as good at waking a pony up as a nice cup of coffee.  Twilight Sparkle was not among them, but she was cordial about it.  Even the most chipper of morning ponies would agree, though, that by the time the flight reached the five hour mark and morning was a distant memory, any energizing effect that it might have had would be drowned out by the constant sound of the wind burning your ears.

This was the state that Twilight was in as her chariot pulled into the Manehattan, but she tried not to show it in front of the stallions who had actually done all the work.  Instead, she simply thanked them with as much cheer as she could force and sent them on their way before dragging herself into the station.

It was bigger than the guard station in Ponyville, but nowhere near the size of the massive compound in Canterlot.  This made sense, since the one in Canterlot had a fundamentally different purpose than these small peacekeeping outposts, but all the same, it meant that the place felt small and cheap to Twilight in spite of the design and materials they all shared; enough so that she was able to find the princess just by ducking her head in a few doors, rather than bother asking for directions.

The room was simple by design.  The golden trim that was meant to make the place feel like a piece of Canterlot stopped at the door, leaving only the plain white marble box with a worn oak table and chairs inside.  It was an interrogation room—or what passed for one in Equestria—though it was not in use as such at the moment.  The princess was alone.

She did not look as tired as Twilight felt, exactly, but all the same, a look of relief spread across Princess Celestia’s face as she lifted her head and saw her student entering the room.  Lifting herself gracefully up, she crossed the room to greet Twilight with a quick nuzzle.

“I’m sorry for dragging you away from Ponyville for this, Twilight,” she said, directing Twilight to sit across from the seat at the table that she had claimed.

Twilight shook her head and pulled out the chair, which groaned agonizingly against the marble floor before she could fold herself into it.  “Don’t be; everyone understands,” she said, leaning forward onto the table.  “Do you know that even Applejack had her memories of Manehattan changed?  She hasn’t been back here since she was a filly; she was not happy after the scan.”

“She is a fine example of her element, as are all of you,” the princess said, taking her seat once more.  “I just hope it doesn’t come to that.  I’m not sure if even the elements of harmony could reverse this all across Equestria, as they resist being used in a mechanical fashion.  Given the seemingly petty nature of the change, punishing the offenders may be all we can do.”

Twilight’s head drooped—and not from the weariness she felt.  “That’s what worries me.  I want to believe that this was a monumental effort, but nopony with any sense would have done something this… irresponsible unless it was trivial to do so.  Have they isolated the changes that were made to the building yet?”

“Yes,” Princess Celestia said.  “The floor in question was simply added in full, including one one-acre apartment and two half-acre apartments.”

“And the tenants?” Twilight prompted.

“It’s not yet entirely clear,” the princess answered, extracting a set of photographs from a nearby folder, “but this is the one we suspect currently.  She goes by the name of Elizabeth Browning.”

“A griffon name?” Twilight asked, trying to sound surprised.  She wasn’t racist, just… acutely aware of the cultural differences.  “That would explain the rumors of blood magic the charioteers mentioned when they came to pick me up.”

Princess Celestia’s head drooped.  “No, I’m afraid those were premature.”

Twilight looked doubtful.  “How premature?”

Foolishly,” the princess clarified with some bitterness.  “The suspect was caught holding a decanter of grenadine in her hoof that was mistaken for blood during the arrest.”

“Grenadine?” Twilight said, pulling back and blinking.  “As in—”

“A sugary syrup made primarily from pomegranate juice, and used commonly in alchemy and alcohol,” Princess Celestia confirmed with a dejected sigh.  “We suspect the former, of course, for a variety of reasons.”

“Right,” Twilight agreed with a frown.  “Because what are the chances she was fixing a drink at nine in the morning?  Wait, you said hoof?  She’s not a griffon, then?”

“No,” the princess answered, finally setting the photo down on the table, along with a very brief set of notes on her.  “I’m afraid not.”

“A pony, huh?”  Twilight took the items in her magic with a bit of reluctance.  Princess Celestia always had hated when her little ponies let her down.  The one in question was dun brown and… stocky was the best way to describe it.  She wasn’t exactly unattractive, but all the same, she looked very much like somepony had taken Big Mac, turned him into a mare and crammed him into a figure that could almost look Spike in the eyes.  Her stature aside, though, she was definitely farm stock.   “Wait, the primary suspect is an earth pony?”

Princess Celestia gave a nod.  “Magic is magic, Twilight.  Given the right cutie mark and technique, earth pony magic is technically capable of all the same things unicorn magic is, it’s just… less flexible.”

“Sure, in theory,” Twilight said, raising an eyebrow at that.  “But you still don’t see earth ponies raising the sun.”

“Quite,” Princess Celestia agreed.  “Though all the same, I would consider it a personal favor if you didn’t mention the possibility to your friend, Pinkie Pie.  I could do without actually putting it to the test.”

Twilight gave a small “Oh,” of realization and looked back at the photo.  “So you think that this ‘Elizabeth’ is like Pinkie Pie?”

The princess took a deep breath and let it out in a heavy sigh.  “It’s all but certain, yes.”

“What’s her cutie mark?” Twilight asked, doing her best not to betray her curiosity.  This was a serious situation, after all.

Princess Celestia brushed the top photograph aside with her magic, revealing another one of a black dress being pulled up to reveal the brown flank of a very angry mare.  “A golden chest with magic flowing out of it.”

“Pandora’s box?”  Twilight’s eyes widened at the implications.

“That is my interpretation, yes,” the princess said.

Twilight hmmed.  “Anything to support that?”

The princess actually looked away from Twilight in what looked like embarrassment.  “She bribed no less than twelve of the guards that were set to watch her.”

“With what?” Twilight asked, incredulous.  “Tell me they didn’t let her keep her things.”

Princess Celestia leaned back and counted off a number of things, “Gold, jewels, bearer bonds, illicit substances… forged notes from me, personally acquitting her.  There seems to be no bottom to her ability to produce exactly the right price to sway somepony.  I very nearly decided to make good on my threat to send her to tartarus, but given her ability… I fear what she could do there if I did.”

That seemed almost impossible until Twilight remembered the comparison to Pinkie Pie.  In that light, it actually made entirely too much sense.  “Wait, did you mean that she attempted to bribe twelve of the guard, or—”

“No, those are only the ones that she was successful with,” the princess clarified, which explained her uncharacteristic embarrassment.  The royal guard—more so than the regular town and city guard—were an extension of her will.  If they could be bribed, it reflected badly on her.

“I suppose it’s too much to hope that she’s only a master of illusions?” Twilight asked, though it was a weak hope.  “It would mesh with the memory alteration.”

“No,” Princess Celestia  said, though she clearly wished it were otherwise.  “I’m afraid not, and besides—memories are only half of what was changed.  The worse half by far, yes, but we can’t ignore the physical events that they were meant to cover up, which are almost as insidious; pipes and plumbing all as if they’ve been there since the building was built, which is to say nothing of the physical records.”

“What about the others, then?” she suggested, moving down her mental list before she realized what that left her with.  “If she’s some sort of master of the physical, then the one responsible for the mental alterations could be somepony else!  Have they—”

“Calm down, Twilight.”  The princess laid her hoof on Twilight’s much smaller one.  “Yes, the others have all been separated and isolated; nopony has been allowed access to them.”

“They haven’t been interrogated?”  That was surprising; it was already the middle of the afternoon, since she hadn’t been called until after the arrests had been made.

Princess Celestia shook her head.  “Luna is keeping an eye on them remotely, but I wanted to wait until you arrived as well, just in case.  Given your expertise with magic—especially the more modern developments—you may well notice something that we would miss.  What information we do have doesn’t look good, however.”

Princess Celestia dropped another set of files on the table, comprised of photographs and some short notes attached to each.  Twilight picked the top one up in her magic; it was a picture of a well-groomed adult unicorn mare with a flawless white coat and mane.  She wasn’t really any taller or slimmer than the average mare, but she had an elegant look to her that Twilight wouldn’t have been surprised to see on the cover of a mare’s magazine.   “Name… not applicable?  Cutie mark… none?”  Twilight frowned.  “That can’t be right.”

“It’s exactly as it says,” the princess said.  “The true name spells all return a garbled mess or complete silence.  Written versions send the quill dancing through the air before shooting off into a wall.  She is either an eldritch horror from whence such things have no meaning, or—”

“A badly made equuculus with a damaged or absent soul,” Twilight finished for her as she begun to understand.  “In other words, an artificial pony created from whole cloth by our resident master alchemist and miracle maker.”

Princess Celestia nodded, not at all bothered by the interruption.  “The practice is banned, of course, but somehow I can’t see Miss Elizabeth caring overmuch about such things.  I haven’t mentioned it, but her attitude is… exceptionally poor.”

“Considering she’s already going to be brought up on bribery charges no matter what the rest of the investigation turns up, that doesn’t surprise me,” Twilight agreed.  “The equuculus, too; how solid is that?”

“Take a look for yourself,” Princess Celestia said, motioning to the pile of files.  “In fact, take the next three.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow at that, but did as she was instructed.  The photos were less than helpful, however.  They all showed the same exceptionally tall, gangly mare who had a strange, mottled coat and bright orange hair.  In ironic contrast to the previous mare, she was as leggy as a model, but didn’t really carry herself in such a way; instead, she was dressed in a full suit—including pants—and looked mostly like a butler or chauffeur.  Twilight supposed that, like the plain white coat and mane of the previous mare, the strangeness of this one’s coat might also suggest unnatural origins, but it was a flimsy lead.  “I don’t get it.  What am I missing?”

Princess Celestia’s mouth twisted into a brief, weak smile of mischief that barely escaped the heavy mood of the morning.  “What tribe did you say she is?” she asked, covering the photos with her hoof.

Twilight’s face contorted in thought.  “She’s a unicorn, isn’t she?”

Princess Celestia removed her hoof.  “Look again,” she said with a nod.

“Caolán Ó Cochláin,” Twilight read, struggling with the galeic name.  “Earth pony?  That can’t be right,” she said, paging through the other files.   “I’m sure I saw—Caolán Ó Cochláin, pegasus?  Caolán Ó Cochláin, unicorn?  Is she a shapeshifter?”

“That would be easier to explain, but no.  They are three separate mares, each bearing the same true name, and while the suits covers it in the photos, it’s confirmed that they also lack a single cutie mark between them.”

Twilight’s eyes widened, and then narrowed in doubt.  She looked back at the photos, but aside from the presence of a horn on one and wings on another, she couldn’t tell them apart.  “That’s uncanny.  More equuculi servants, then?  You’re sure it’s not an enchantment like the one on royal guard armor?”

“Yes, the clothing is entirely mundane,” she said, eying the photographs uneasily.  “Though the one we disrobed reacted to its removal as if…”

“As if what?” Twilight asked, cocking her head to the side.  She didn’t know her mentor to be hesitant.

Princess Celestia closed her eyes and took a slow, steadying breath.  “My apologies, my student, but I am very old, and not all of the things I’ve seen are pleasant.  I was reminded of the days when I was forced to oversee gryphon executions of pony criminals.  She reacted as if… they were skinning her alive.”

Twilight winced at the disturbing image.  “That’s… horrible.”

“Yes,” the princess agreed, downcast.  “The guards were unprepared for it, to say the least, which is why there are no photographs and the others were allowed to remain as they were after being searched, in spite of protocol.”

Twilight nodded, understanding.  The royal guard was not a hardened military organization as the griffons had; they served as the face and voice of the government as much as they did spear and shield.  “Still, that’s some rather extreme conditioning—but why?  Is it so important to her that they never be seen out of uniform?”

“As you said; much of this seems to have been done according to whimsy,” the princess reminded her.  “In this case, it seems as though the simpler the command, the stronger and less open to interpretation it likely is.”

“Do I want to know what the rest are?” Twilight asked, worried that the files were getting worse.  Even listening to Princess Celestia talk about such repulsive crimes was distressing.  She would persevere, of course, as she always did, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t hope for something better.

Princess Celestia dashed that hope with an uneasy look—at least at first.  “To be honest, I’m not sure about the others.  Elizabeth and the four equuculi lived in the larger apartment, while the last three were divided amongst the remaining two apartments on the floor.   In addition, these last three ponies possess cutie marks, show evidence of memory tampering that the others do not and seem to possess records that are genuine, so it’s quite possible that they may just be victims.”

“Or Elizabeth has improved her art to the point where it’s indistinguishable from the real thing,” Twilight countered direly, then looked back down at the files she had on hoof.  “Though regardless… complicit in her crimes or not, all the equuculi are victims of this ‘Elizabeth.’”

“Just so,” the princess said with a sad nod.  “Hopefully, any programmed loyalty they may have can be circumvented.  I would like to pardon them, should they be agreeable and it is safe to do so.”

“So let’s see these other ponies,” Twilight said, picking up the remaining files.  “Vinyl Scratch, Octavia Melody and… Blossomforth?  Princess, I know these ponies—all of them!  Not well, but we’ve met.”

“I am aware,” she said, looking over the files.  “And yet…”

“One unicorn pony, one earth pony, and one pegasus pony; two with white coats, one with red eyes and one with mane colors that make even me cringe,” Twilight said, cataloguing their oddities.  “It’s circumstantial, but still suspect.  Even if we assume the worst, though, it still leaves us with one problem.”

“The identity of our mind mage,” Princess Celestia agreed.  She took the files in her magic and laid them out across the table so that they were all visible.

“Four ponies without cutie marks, two musicians and a weather pegasus that specializes in producing the ideal conditions for growing flowers.  It’s not much to go on.”

“The DJ is the most suspect,” the princess said, pushing the file towards Twilight with her golden-shod hoof.  “Given the large amount of magical equipment she has at her disposal and her regular access to large crowds.  Bear in mind, however, that equuculi are not natural and any kind of magic could be hidden inside even those without marks.”

Twilight didn’t much like the suggestion.  That DJ was the one that had played at her brother’s wedding—or so her memories told her.  The changes were easy enough to detect, but not so easy to reverse.  “I guess we’ll just have to see for ourselves,” she said with a grim reluctance.

Princess Celestia gave a nod and waved over one of the guard that was passing by the interrogation room.  “Let my sister know that we’re ready for the first prisoner.”

We were all shocked enough by the soldiers crashing into the apartment that the trip to the local lockup went quickly and quietly, with nobody getting themselves sent to tartarus—which was, if I recalled right, the greek version of hell and apparently ‘a real place where we will be sent at the first sign of defiance.’  On the other hand, I’d give Beth about fifteen minutes alone with them before she pissed someone off enough to earn herself the trip.

It was a lot longer than fifteen minutes before I saw anyone again.  The police station was strangely incongruous with the rest of the city, looking like it had been ripped straight out of an arabian palace.  Everything was creamy marble, red carpets and gold trim, and the cell they put me in was no different.  It was still a cell, though; featureless, plain, and, though they were gold, it had bars like any other—quite a lot of them, actually, with only one wall in four being made of the white marble that was so prevalent throughout the rest of the building.

As the day stretched on, hunger began to gnaw at my stomach; not an unreasonable reaction, considering I’d missed dinner, breakfast and lunch, by now.  I spent quite a while considering the strange design of the prison in an attempt to distract myself and occupy my mind.  Eventually, though, it came to me.

I was in a birdcage.

It didn’t look like a birdcage, and it wasn’t open to the sky, but it was on one of the higher floors of the police station, with large cells, high ceilings and what I eventually identified as a nice cross breeze coming down the curved hall that must have been open to the air somewhere.

It was a clever design and one that I quickly became grateful for once I worked out how to unfurl my wings a little and let the air flow over them.  I didn’t realize at first, but they must have split us up by race.  I didn’t remember the details of the cells the others were left in, just that we had started at ground level and I was the last of the group to be locked up.  The other pegasus—Blossomforth, I think they called her—was on the floor below in a cell of similar design.  There was probably room for a whole flock of pegasi on each floor, but the point was to separate us.

I didn’t know how I felt about being separated from the other two of me.  It was going to happen eventually; it was probably even a good thing.  Thinking back to those first moments waking up, I kind of liked the idea of having sisters, but it was just awkward when they were literally thinking the same thing you were and you were interrupting each other every time you opened your mouth.  If the authorities expected to get different stories from the three of me by splitting us up, they’d be sorely disappointed.

And then, there was the elephant in the room.  Not literally, because you probably couldn’t get one up the stairs, but the subject of stories was hanging over me.  I had no doubt that the other two of me would tell the truth when it came down to it; we didn’t  know enough about the situation to lie.  Beth and the ex-faerie, however… they definitely had something going on.  I had known that, but hadn’t wanted to push it.  I’m not a confrontational person.  I’m a bartender; I let people come to me.

I should have known it was going to come back to bite me the second the faerie described this wish as ‘my harlot-friend’s hell.’  That’s not something you just casually do.  Of course, Beth wasn’t exactly coming out of this smelling like tulips and daisies when she’d had wishes of her own going on.  I’d wished for this, but she got angry when it didn’t turn out like she’d hoped.

Honestly, that was pretty scary when I thought about it.

And I had a lot of time to think about it.

Pacing around the cell did wonders for my four-legged coordination and I even figured out how to move and flap my wings in a somewhat reliable manner.  That wasn’t to say that I could fly, however.  Whatever magic had allowed my proportionately small wings to hold me up earlier—and I do mean magic, because that’s what it had to be—was absent from the air that was keeping me comfortable.  I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that the species-specific design of the cell wasn’t just for my benefit, but the fact only made me more and more antsy as the afternoon stretched on.

Unfortunately, trying not to think about the things that had led to my current circumstances only left me the circumstances themselves to think about.  I wasn’t that worried about being arrested, so that just left… everything else.

It’s funny how much less confident you can feel when there aren’t two more of you nodding their heads in agreement.

I was getting used to being a pony; that much was true.  Getting used to being a female pony, well…  I was no longer distracted by the feeling of cloth adjusting itself over my new anatomy when I walked—until I noticed it, anyway, and like breathing had to spend several minutes doing my level best to stop thinking about it.

Anyway, I was adjusting.  Physically, at least.  Adjusting to the idea of being a pony—let alone a female pony—was a different matter.

A frustrating matter.

There just wasn’t much that I could do about it in a vacuum.  What did it mean to be a pony?  What do ponies do?  I wanted to pull that pegasus mare aside and ask question after question.  I wanted to bury my face in the couch again, just to see how much dignity I could live without.  I wanted to get naked and… figure out how how I felt about that.

Comparatively speaking, I mean.  For science.

Instead, I was stuck in prison.  Alone and bored out of my cute little skull.