Edited by: lammy. Proof by: Trevor & Super Big Mac. Pre Read by: Aesthetic B & Capn’ Chrysallid
“Soul magic?” Celestia echoed, mulling over the question. “I haven’t used that type of magic in centuries... it’s tricky and dangerous for unicorns—or even alicorns—to do so. Our magic is too tied to ourselves; if we’re not careful, we could literally tear our souls out. It’s a much more grounded and Earth-pony magic. Most Shamans, like your friend Zecora, are masters of the art, much more so than I.”
“It’s... I think it’s the only way, your majesty,” Rarity confessed, barely able to sit still on the plush cushions of Celestia’s study. “When I saw Sweetie Belle, all I could do was watch! I could not touch her, talk to her...” She trailed off and looked down. “...protect her.”
Celestia winced. “I am sorry, Rarity.”
Rarity shook her head. “No need, Princess. I’m... I’m just glad Sweetie Belle seems to be okay.”
Celestia nodded. “And the second time you saw her... how did that happen?”
Rarity turned to look at the mirror she had brought with her. “I was in Zecora’s hut once more. We were discussing how quickly I could go see Sweetie again. That... horrible, horrible place she was in... I couldn’t just...” She took a deep breath. “A-anyway, while we were talking, this mirror suddenly lit up and just for a second I saw both Sweetie Belle and Twilight! And she was young again!”
Celestia stood up and studied the mirror. A soft glow emanated from her horn, brightening everything around them as though a piece of the true sun were drifting through the room.
The mirror shimmered and the edges cracked a bit. “I—” Celestia growled, pushing more magic. “The link is dimming... it’s almost gone. But perhaps... Rarity, come here and mix your magic with mine; ask it to find Sweetie Belle.”
"Of course!" Rarity declared with a moment's thought on the implication of mixing her magic with Princess Celestia herself.
The mirror glowed and the surface became blindingly white for a few seconds, before it seemed to shatter and they found themselves staring at Sweetie Belle, standing on stage in the middle of...
“I-is that the Grand Galloping Gala?!” Rarity gasped, immediately recognizing herself and several other ponies in the front row, looking up at Sweetie Belle, who seemed to be talking, her voice muffled, indistinct.
“A moment,” Celestia whispered. The mirror creaked ominously and then, as if she were approaching from a far distance, Sweetie’s voice became clear, just as she turned to face the Rarity in the crowd.
“Rarity...” Sweetie Belle said, resplendent in her white dress and drawing the complete attention of the unicorn staring from so far away. “...it’s odd, having met mom and dad, telling you this.” Sweetie’s eyes became a bit watery and her expression half-apologetic. She closed her eyes. “Where I come from, it’s so different... we lost them shortly after I was born.”
Standing next to Princess Celestia, and looking through the mirror, Rarity sighed, nodding at her sister’s words in silence, while never taking her eyes off of her as Sweetie continued. “In their stead, you raised me. And I always called you sis. But... I don’t know when I will see my Rarity again.”
Rarity and Celestia exchanged amazed and pained glances.
“It’s already been two years of searching and travelling... so, I don’t want to wait to tell you, one of you, so that at least in spirit she knows... that...”
“I’m here, Sweetie!” Rarity cried as the mirror shuddered.
“I love you... mom.”
With a crack that shook the room, the mirror split in two, the large shards falling out of the frame and shattering on the floor.
Celestia hurriedly took two steps back, but Rarity remained rooted to the spot, her eyes wide and her heart hammering as the fragments of mirror splintered about her hooves.
After a moment, Celestia approached Rarity. “Are you okay?”
Rarity slowly turned to look at her, eyes crying freely. “She... she called me ‘mom’. All these years, being the big sister, I always felt like... well, when I was younger I would pretend that I was Sweetie’s mom... that the only one who had lost her parents was me, but that my little filly would always have her mom.” She sniffed. “I never said anything, it was just a notion that I took a fancy to from time to time... I’d think about, when I would marry, how my filly would be exactly like Sweetie... but I never-I was just her sister and I’d always assumed... I just-I thought she just saw me as that.”
Celestia felt her own eyes grow teary and her breath caught in her throat. She pulled Rarity into a full hug with her foreleg, letting the mare cry on her shoulder. “We’ll get her back, Rarity... we’ll bring her back.” She was silent for a moment before nodding resolutely. “Mind and soul magic are not my strengths, but I believe my sister can help us with that.”
Rarity nodded, but Celestia didn’t hurry away, letting her cry for as long as the mare needed.
Sweetie Belle opened her eyes, wondering what had woken her up. After the horror of the day prior, she'd hardly been able to calm down. It wasn't until long after Esteem himself had brought her to her room to wait it out that she could feel any semblance of normalcy returning to her.
Ever since then, her instincts had been telling her to get out of there, as if there were a cloud of danger all around her... if she had learned anything, it was that her instincts were seldom wrong about danger.
She had spent the night tossing and turning restlessly on a huge bed, fit for noble ponies with the softest silk sheets she had ever had the pleasure of feeling.
Still, despite her physical comforts, she had kept waking up, expecting somepony—maybe a crazed Twilight fragment’s ghost, or a blood-covered pony with hooks for hooves—to have snuck in to harm her. Eventually, she had finally fallen asleep into a dreamless sleep. Or had it been dreamless? She seemed to almost remember something. She mulled over it before she was overcome by a yawn and took another, fresher look at the room where she had been taken.
The room itself was pretty big, easily dwarfing the size of her own room in Ponyville, and had solid, white marble columns located on each corner. It was decorated with tasteful vases with flowers on small, circular tables at regular intervals along the wall, clearly calculated to fill the empty spaces created between the placed paintings depicting ponies indulging themselves on a huge bounty of fruits, vegetables and wine.
Sweetie stared longingly at one of the pictured bottles before continuing her assessment, turning to the floor-to-ceiling windows, framed by posh, red-velvet curtains, and the marble floor beneath it so clean she could see her reflection on its surface
It had all the necessities too: a dresser, carved of dark mahogany; a large mirror; a walk-in closet which the servants had worked tirelessly the day prior to fill to bursting with dresses of all sorts; a bathroom all to herself with a classy white marble tub with gold inlays on the edges that stood proudly in the middle.
With so much marble around she wondered when she would get tired of it. She half-expected Esteem to want her to be made out of marble as well. Sweetie couldn’t help but giggle at the thought of herself like that.
The truly odd thing about the room was the desk opposite her bed. She had glossed over it on her quick look around, but now that she focused on it, there was something odd about it. It wasn’t the desk itself it was on top of it- a black... was it... leather? Sweetie’s eyes widened a bit as she got out of bed and trotted up to the desk.
She had seen the material while exploring one of Blueblood’s old mansions, where the odd Griffin paraphernalia could be found. She grimaced when she realized it was indeed a leather harness of some sort that lay upon it. It wasn’t too big, roughly her size, actually, and on top of it, was the thing that had caught her attention and demanded her eyes concentrate on this desk... a single, perfectly cut, diamond.
The room’s quiet broke when a set of three patient knocks on the door alerted her to the probable cause of her waking up. She shook her head, turning towards the entrance with a sidelong glance at the harness and diamond, and called out, “Come in, please!”
A pony with a green coat she recognized as one of Esteem’s assistants opened the door and slowly walked in, looking around and instantly spotting her. “Miss Allure,” he said, “General Esteem would like a word with you.”
Sweetie Belle blinked. “Wait, what did you call me?”
Esteem’s assistant arched an eyebrow.
“Oh!” Sweetie quickly galloped to the mirror and levitated a pearlescent brush that had been left there for her, quickly touching up her mane until it looked decent. “I think I look okay now!” she announced, glancing over her shoulder at the pony.
“Aren’t you going to wear the harness the General got for you?”
Sweetie blinked. “That’s for me? But... it’s leather.”
The cadet shrugged. “May as well bring it with you. And the diamond.”
Sweetie looked at him dubiously, but levitated both objects regardless and followed him outside. The Palace was a hub of activity; squads of soldiers would pass them by on patrols so often it did little to reassure Sweetie Belle that things were fine. She watched with interest, paying close attention to the time between patrols, and the routes they followed.
The pair finally turned into a long hallway where no patrols seemed to come to, allowing them to walk undisturbed.
For a while the only sound around them were the hoofsteps of the cadet as he guided her around the palace. This gave Sweetie plenty of time to study him.
The calm with which he walked and his body language spoke more of a fighter than a secretary. ‘A knight, perhaps?’ Sweetie wondered as they once more turned into a more populated area of the castle.
There were a few nobles in small clusters talking amongst each other, and she thought she even saw the local Blueblood around, in one of the corridors they passed. What struck her most was how scared they were. They weren’t talking about anything related to the battle she had seen just yesterday, but they were clearly aware of it and actively speaking of anything but. Their sudden silence as Cadet passed by spoke volumes to her about everypony in the palace. They were scared of everything. Including the guards, if the way they cringed every time a patrol walked past them was an indication.
The way to General Esteem’s location was a veritable maze of corridors. Even her familiarity with the other world’s palace grounds and the few similarities both places shared didn’t help her much, and soon, much to her chagrin she was completely lost. The only thing she could tell for sure was that the more turns they made, the less noble ponies and servants were to be seen.
They eventually reached the barracks and Sweetie was escorted straight to the back, where several drills were taking place. “Oh, now it makes sense...” Sweetie muttered, observing the few knights-in-training.
The cadet stopped and looked back at her, head cocked in question.
Sweetie grinned self-consciously. “I just noticed that the nobles are nowhere near here... and it made sense for them to avoid the barracks, most noble ponies tend to be... a bit sensitive about ‘common’ soldiering.”
He snorted and continued to lead her to where she had already spotted Esteem, his blood-red mane and white coat obvious even at a distance. Sweetie took a moment to examine the drills, following the knight instinctively and watching with interest the practicing ponies.
Their drill seemed to consist of some sort of telekinetic grip on small stones or shards of metal, but the hold was different somehow from what she was used to. It seemed as if each were levitated individually, rather than as a whole, then kept in the telekinesis hold as tightly as possible.
The knights would have the pieces fly around and spin under fine control, following set motions and imaginary attacks and blocks, locking them together at times, only to have them separate into several pieces.
“Like what you see?” Esteem asked, making her jump.
Sweetie jumped. “Oh! Sorry, I was distracted...” Sweetie smiled nervously up at Esteem before looking back at the soldiers. “Yeah... it’s very interesting how it works. At first I thought they were levitating all the objects at once, but the fine control they display indicates something completely different. I was working on the theory that each piece was controlled by an individual telekinetic hold, which is then used, possibly in conjunction with a tied-in general hold, to form a sword or similar weapon which can then be disassembled for a variety of uses. The use of such a weapon can only be limited by the caster’s fine control and imagination... it’s... horrible... and beautiful in its magical connection to the unicorn casting it.”
Esteem grinned at her. “It is beautiful, isn’t it? The knight, or blade-caster as we are known, has to manage several things at the same time... it’s an art and possesses a simplicity in its final objective that is an absolutely beautiful thing to see in practice.”
Sweetie nodded along pensively. “It must be incredibly difficult to master such an art.” She glanced at Esteem, assessing his physical response. Taking note of the shift in his posture, the gleam in his eyes, Sweetie mentally nodded to herself. ‘As expected... he loves this.’ “Mist-General Esteem,” she corrected herself. “You said you and I were related?”
Esteem nodded, turning his attention away from the drills to look at her. “Yes, we are, although it would make sense for your sister to have not mentioned me at all.” His eyes darkened. “After all, when your mother died, she took you away and hid from me.”
Sweetie raised an eyebrow. “Why would Rarity do that?”
Esteem snorted. “Your sister was a rebellious, undisciplined mare. It’s no wonder she ended up as a merciless killer.”
Sweetie’s eyes went wide. “Wait. What?!”
Esteem looked at her quizzically. “You did not know? The ponies that tried to kill you yesterday were under her orders. She and her friends are the leaders of a whole group of dissidents that have been bent on killing everypony in the palace ever since Celestia... abdicated.”
“N-no...” Sweetie stepped away. “Rarity would never do that!”
Esteem sighed. “I tried to convince her that she should join me and the cause of justice, but...” He shook his head. “Every time I had a chance, I was interrupted by Twilight Sparkle or another of their generals.”
“W-why would you want her to join you?” Sweetie stammered. “If she’s a merciless killer...”
Esteemed chuckled. “What? Can’t a father want his daughter... his daughters... with him, regardless of their sins?”
Sweetie sat down on the floor, staring at him. “Daughters?! But... what about Magnum?”
“Magnum?” Esteem huffed. “Was that his name? He adopted you and Rarity after she hid.”
Sweetie blinked, forming a mental image of Magnum and comparing it in her mind to Esteem. ‘How did Rarity and I look exactly the same as before with different parents?’
“He did a fine job raising the both of you, I’m sure,” Esteem continued. “But... he likely perished when Twilight Sparkle razed Ponyville.”
Sweetie felt the blood run cold in her veins. “R-razed...”
Esteem nodded. “There was little I could do.” He sighed. “I tried to dissuade her from that path but she would not listen. Twilight Sparkle destroyed Ponyville, aided by Luna and her friends, including Rarity.”
Sweetie looked down at the floor, a lost look in her face. “A-and my friends?”
Esteem didn’t flinch. “Some survived... some died. I had heard reports that you, Applejack’s younger sister and a pegasus filly had managed to flee the massacre... but now I find you here, and without memory of the events.”
Sweetie looked up at him and opened her mouth, but something told her to keep quiet about her true nature. She frowned. She had never felt immediately distrustful but… if she could give this feeling a voice, it sounded for some reason like a tired, old voice, annoyed and repeating: ”Don’t trust ponies, young one.”
“I... I’m not sure how I ended up exactly where I did,” Sweetie said. “I think it might have been some teleportation spell gone wrong... but I don’t even remember who cast it.”
Esteem considered her for a moment, before a small smile crept into his face.
‘He knows I’m lying.’ Sweetie thought, feeling more amazed at the fact that he left it at that.
“Fair enough,” Esteem nodded. “It was fortunate that we were able to save you before you became one more victim of those terrorists.” His eyes became harder. “Now... I see you brought my gift with you.”
Sweetie glanced at the harness and the diamond. “Yeah...”
“Good,” Esteem said, walking up until he was standing next to Sweetie Belle. “I think it’s time you learned the family art.”
Sweetie tilted her head.
“Bladecasting,” Esteem clarified. “I heard from my soldiers that you managed to fight back a little bit, and when I found you, I witnessed your shield breaking.” He turned to look at her. “How well do you know how to fight? And who taught you?”
‘If I lie too much he’s going to figure out everything I said was false. But if I only lie a little...’ Sweetie thought. “I learned from one of the nobles a while ago,” she started to say. ‘Please, please, please don’t be around...’ She took a deep breath. “Her name is Fleur and she was one of Rarity’s customers.”
Esteem looked intrigued. “I’m surprised Rarity allowed her to do so,” he said. “I was under the impression she did not like the idea of any sort of fighting techniques being taught to you.”
“Well...” Sweetie shrugged. “We didn’t exactly tell her, and Fleur was also a model... the style of dueling she uses makes it look like you’re posing... it’s supposed to be a beautiful way to duel. So Rarity thought I was taking modeling lessons.”
Esteem laughed. “Modeling lessons indeed!” His eyes were not mirthful, however, when he locked eyes with her. “I hope you wouldn’t mind giving me a demonstration of this... beautiful dueling.”
Applejack sighed. Walking around the storage room and going over the stock the loyalists had left for the next couple of weeks, she knew things were going to be pretty tight. Food was already running low, so she would have to find ways to make up for what Noble was unable to procure with his raids.
With a sigh, she gave a thankful nod to the mare that had brought her the report. Twilight was still insistent on taking as much as she possibly could when it came to responsibilities, obviously ignoring the experience that Applejack and, yes, even Pinkie Pie had when it came to certain things—like feeding the troops.
Still, as one of Twilight’s lieutenants, she could just go straight to doing her job, instead of letting Twilight be bothered by little things... even if it was behind Twilight’s back. Applejack hated doing it, but she knew very well what taking too much pressure on oneself could do to a mare.
Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and let it out slowly, centering herself. Things were going to be okay. Her Twilight was finally back, they were all together again, and finally they had a real chance at defeating Titan, Terra and Empyrean.
It still was crazy. After everything they'd gone through--Celestia’s defeat, Nihlus, Esteem, livelihoods destroyed, homes razed, families displaced--they still had each other. Even so... sometimes it just felt like it was too much to take in.
“If Ah keep thinking about this, Ah’m gonna end up like Twilight,” Applejack groaned. “Better go get myself busy. Maybe check on Rarity.” She nodded to herself and set out to find her friend.
“...a little unicorn filly!” a voice said. “I could swear I heard one of the guards say it was Esteem’s daughter.”
Applejack stopped walking, eyes wide and blood cold.
“He seemed very impressed with her, and started training her in bladecasting.”
“But,” another voice spoke up. “Isn’t Dame Rarity Esteem’s daughter? Did he have another?”
“Well, I suppose! I can’t see Esteem adopting or anypony trusting him with a child.”
“Well, I’m including this in my report. It might be nothing bu—”
“You!” Applejack startled the pair when she was suddenly in front of them. “What did the filly look like?”
“Ah know my name!” Applejack interrupted. “Tell me about this filly! What’d she look like?”
“W-well, she had a white coat, p-pu-urple and pink mane...” he stammered, Applejack’s eyes widening. “A-a-nd a starburst cutiemark with a musical n-note breaking the middle of it.”
Applejack blinked. “Sweetie doesn’t have a cutie mark.”
“That’s her!” The pony nodded. “That’s what the guard called her by!”
Applejack cringed. “Did... were there any other fillies with her? Did Esteem mention any?”
The spy shook his head. “No... the only filly was her. There was talk that she’d almost been killed during a fight between us and Esteem’s forces, and that the general himself had stepped in to save her.”
“But... that don’t make any sense!” Applejack snapped. “She’s supposed to be with the Buffalo! With my sister and Scootaloo!”
“I-I don’t know what to tell you, Lieutenant.” The spy took a step back. “She was the only one I saw. And as far as I know no others have been spotted in the palace.”
“This is bad, real bad,” Applejack muttered. “Have you told anypony else?”
The spy shook his head.
Applejack pursed her lips. “I’ll have to tell Rarity. She has to know...” She glanced at him again. “Let me be the one to tell the other lieutenants about the filly... don’t mention this yet to any of them. Could cause a whole heap of trouble that we don’t need. How... certain are you that what you heard and saw was true?”
The spy shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know, but... Esteem was very pleased. The filly knows how to fight... or at least how to dodge. Rumor was that Fleur taught her some sort of fancy dueling technique.”
“A noble pony,” the spy tried to elaborate. “Word is that she was one of Rarity’s clients.”
Applejack shrugged. “Might well be.” She grimaced. “Damn. Hope Rarity is ready to deal with this...” Her head shot up. “And y’all don’t say a word about this to Twilight, y’hear? She’s got plenty to worry about right now. Ah’ll make sure she finds out, y’hear?”
The pair cringed beneath her glare, nodding sheepishly. Applejack gave them a quick nod and, with a salute, the pair trotted off out of sight.
Left alone, Applejack turned and let out a sigh into the wall, letting her head come to rest against the cool stone of the tunnel wall. "And what do I do now?" She glanced down the passage. "Guess I could sneak there n'try an’ fix things."
Applejack sprang back as she found herself orange to pink muzzle with Pinkie Pie, landing on her back with a dusty thump. "Pinkie! Don't scare ponies like that!"
Pinkie sat up from where she'd slid beneath the once somber farm pony, giving a little pout. "Aw! But it’s so fun to surprise other ponies! And you looked like you had a lot on your mind, and I thought to myself, ‘Pinkie Pie, what would you do to get stuff out of your mind?’ and myself answered: ‘I don’t know, Pinkie Pie, but I know that surprises always put me in a good mood!’ so I listened to myself and decided that I would surprise you and help you get what you have in your mind out so that you can chillax!”
“Chillax?” Applejack cocked an eyebrow.
“Well, since when you’re stressed they say you get all ‘hot and bothered’ I figured, hey, maybe you should cool down! And when you cool down you get chilly! So if when you’re hot you’re stressed and when you’re chilling you’re relaxed, I told myself: What if there was a way we could say ‘Chillin’ and relaxing!’ in one word!” Pinkie Pie squeaked. “And it just came to me! Chillaxing!”
Applejack shook her head. “Ah know what chillax means, Pinkie.” Applejack shook her head. “And Ah just wish it were that simple.”
“Wait!” Pinkie Pie gasped. “You mean it isn’t?”
“No...” Applejack took a few steps back. “Ah’m worried about Apple Bloom! If Sweetie Belle’s here and—”
“Sweetie Belle’s here?!” Pinkie Pie’s eyes went wide. “When? How did she arrive?! Where is she?”
Before her friend had even turned to dash off on a madcap search for the unicorn filly, Applejack had snagged a hold of Pinkie Pie’s tail. “Whoa there, nelly! Calm down, Pinkie!”
“But, if she’s here we have to organize a welcoming party!”
“That’s the thing,” Applejack said, locking eyes with Pinkie Pie. “She’s not here.”
“Well, duh,” Pinkie Pie rolled her eyes. “I think I would have noticed if she was!”
“Pinkie, you’re not followin’ what Ah’m sayin’!” Applejack groaned. “She’s with Esteem!”
Pinkie Pie seemed to deflate for a second. “What?!”
Applejack sighed. “That’s what Ah’ve been tryin’ to tell you! Ah just found out myself!”
Pinkie Pie was quiet for half a second. “But where are Scootaloo and Apple Bloom!? Oh no! Do you think he caught them? But why haven’t we seen them!? I think we shou—mph! Amph pfft bmbf—”
“Pinkie, please be quiet.” Applejack held her hoof covering her friend‘s muzzle in place until she saw her calm down. “Ah’m mighty worried as is; Ah don’t need more stress.”
Pinkie nodded and the hoof was removed. “But... why is she with him?”
“Ah don’t know, but Esteem is training her...” Applejack let the sentence die. Sweetie’s future didn’t seem too promising, but what really had her twitching was Apple Bloom. “Pinkie, Ah need to find out if Esteem has somehow got th’ Crusaders. Ah can’t think of any other reason Sweetie would willingly be with him.”
Pinkie’s eyes shone. “We’ll have to find out!”
Applejack nodded, worry gnawing at her. “Ah know but... if they’re in the palace...”
“Don’t be sad, Applejack!” Pinkie grinned. “We’ll find a way! Besides, we have spy ponies in there! They’ll let us know if Apple Bloom and Scootaloo are also in the castle!”
“Ah know! That’s how we found out about Sweetie.” Applejack groaned. “But they hadn't heard nothin' about Bloom or Scoots... and Ah can't stand waiting here while Apple Bloom might be in trouble!”
“But you can’t go by yourself!”
Applejack sighed and hung her head. “Ah never thought Ah’d see the day you of all ponies would try an’ calm me down.”
“Always here to help!” Pinkie said, hugging her friend. “I’m sure they’re all okay!”
Applejack hugged her back. “Thanks, Pinkie Pie.”
“No problem!” Pinkie Pie cheered. “What do we do now?”
Applejack grimaced. “First, we tell Rarity,” she said, not looking forward to doing that. “And then... we ‘schedule’ an emergency meetin’ with Twilight. If Esteem plans to use the Crusaders against us, we need to figure out somethin’ quick.”
Rarity smirked, sending shards of Vorpal flying through Unimpressive’s defenses, making the other unicorn curse and retreat back, shards of Vindictive zooming forward to try and turn back Rarity’s onslaught.
Truth be told, she was enjoying herself. Even if being a warrior was not her career of choice, there was an elegance to this dance that she deeply enjoyed... not that she would ever admit that to her father.
“My, such language!” she teased, nimbly dodging a rock Unimpressive tossed her way as distraction.
Unimpressive snorted, and tried to circle around her, his blade splitting to attack from several angles, but that was no challenge for Rarity, who had already pinpointed the location and angle of each piece of Vindictive and intercepted them immediately with Vorpal, using the remaining diamonds to send the stallion skirting back, until his back was to the wall, a piece of Vorpal floating in front of his face. Seemingly ignoring it, his eye wandered to the side of their arena as he arched an eyebrow. “It seems we have visitors.”
Rarity blinked and turned, having sensed the arrival of Applejack and Pinkie Pie. That was what Unimpressive had been waiting for. With a barely-hid smirk, he used a nearby rope to cinch her legs together and... watched it fall into little pieces after Vorpal was done with it. “Dammit.”
Rarity smirked, nimbly stepping out of the pieces of rope and winking at him. “I’m sorry, darling, but by now I know not to trust you at all with playing fair.”
Unimpressive huffed and rolled his eyes, summoning his blade back to its harness. “Fine, I’ll let you take a break. You need it.”
Nodding with a chuckle, Rarity placed Vorpal’s shards in it’s harness and approached her friends. “Hello girls, it’s delightful to see the both of you here.”
“I know, right?” Pinkie grinned. “It’s always fun, fun, fun to hang out with our friends!” she gushed.
“Yeah, well,” Applejack spoke up, her grimace making Rarity arch an eyebrow in question. “Th’ thing is, Rarity, we found out somethin’...”
Judging from Applejack’s expression, and the fact that she had come straight to her, Rarity could easily see part of where this was going. “Esteem?” Rarity’s voice came in a whisper. “Is this related to him?”
Applejack nodded slowly. “And... Sweetie.”
The world around Rarity seemed to freeze. It couldn’t be. Sweetie Belle was completely safe, traveling with the buffalo and keeping a low, and untrackable profile along with Apple Bloom and Scootaloo. “What did you say?”
“One of our spies saw Sweetie Belle with Esteem, at the palace,” Applejack explained. “She seemed unharmed, but... well, he was startin’ to train her on bladecastin’ and there’s no sign of the other crusaders.” She looked at the floor in frustration. “Includin’ Apple Bloom.”
Rarity looked straight at Applejack for a second before turning around and beginning to march out, but she stopped when she found Unimpressive standing between her and the exit. “And where do you think you’re going?”
“Out of my way, Unimpressive,” Rarity growled. “That murderer has my sister and I’m going to get her back.”
Unimpressive snorted, locking eyes with her and not even looking intimidated by her glare. “You and what army? If you go there now all you will succeed at is getting captured, or killed. How will that help your sister?”
“Out of my way!” Rarity ordered. “You might be a knight, but I outrank you by several orders, soldier!”
“Rarity!” Applejack galloped up to stand next to Unimpressive. “Calm down! Don’t you think Ah wanna find out what happened to Apple Bloom?”
“Well, then we should muster our resources!” Rarity countered. “We can’t simply wait here!”
“But he’s right!” Applejack insisted, pointing with her hoof at Unimpressive. “Ah want to find Apple Bloom, but we can’t check with the herds, and goin’ there right now could get them killed! Or us!”
“Or both!” Pinkie interjected, drawing ire from the other three ponies.
“You can’t expect me to leave my sister with that... that monster!” Rarity struck the floor with her hoof. “Just imagine what he could do to her!”
“Ah’m not sayin’ we leave them there!” Applejack insisted. “Ah’m just sayin’ we need a plan!”
“We’ll think of something on the way!” Rarity snapped. “We can’t let him have her, Applejack!”
“Y’all think Sweetie is the only one that matters here?” Applejack growled. “If Sweetie Belle is with Esteem, he could have Apple Bloom or Scootaloo too!”
“Or both!” Pinkie added.
Rarity bit back a hurtful retort. “Of course not,” she said, looking at Applejack in exasperation. “But why is she learning from him?” she asked. “For all we know either Apple Bloom or Scootaloo—”
“...or both... could be imprisoned! We need to act now if we are to free them!” Rarity insisted. “You don’t know my father as well as I do, the things he’ll do to get what he wants. It’s not going to be good for anypony involved!”
“But would rushing out blindly be the best course of action, Knight Commander?” Luna’s voice startled them as she emerged from the shadows. “Doing so just might get you your sister back... or it might end with the demise of all concerned.” She tilted her head, eyes steady on Rarity. “Careful planning however, with precise knowledge, increases our chances of success exponentially.”
“Y-your majesty,” Rarity bowed. She could feel her body shaking as the adrenaline slowly left her. The sense of loss and fear however... “I’m just afraid for my sister... who knows how much damage Esteem could have already done. And if he’s training her in bladecasting...”
Luna nodded, her eyes hardening. “I can only imagine what he is planning, but none of the possibilities bode well. We shall have a talk with Twilight,” she said, looking at the gathered ponies. “The sooner we have a plan, the better.”
“Right-o!” Pinkie saluted, before turning around and trotting in the opposite direction.
“Pinkie!” Applejack called. “What are you doin’? You’re goin’ the wrong way!”
“Nope!” Pinkie called over her shoulder. “I’m just going to find that spy you talked to earlier! We need to hear the report from the pony’s mouth, after all!”
Watching the spy leave the room escorted by Unimpressive, Twilight turned to face her friends and Princess Luna.
“We need more information,” she stated bluntly.
“But, Twilight!” Rarity spoke up. “We can’t let him have the Crusaders!”
“And we won’t!” Twilight retorted, looking intently at Rarity. “But we have too many unknowns. You heard the report; Sweetie Belle, or a filly that looks like Sweetie Belle, has a cutie mark. She also seems to know how to fight. Did you teach your sister how to do so? And even if a client of yours did, I doubt they would have had enough time to be very efficient at it.”
Rarity bit her lip and looked down.
Twilight nodded. “That’s what I figured,” she said. “Rarity, I understand how worried you are about your sister, but we don’t know if that’s actually her. And if she is, we need to know if he has Scootaloo and Apple Bloom as well. There are too many variables for us to rush into battle!”
“Can we get a hold of Chief Thunderhooves and ask him about the girls?” Applejack asked.
Twilight shook her head. “We don’t even know where they are. And we can’t spare the ponies to go search for them. If Titan’s pegasi had found them, I think we would have heard of it by now.”
“Esteem does seem the sort to use the fillies to his fullest advantage if he had caught them all,” Luna spoke up. “Whatever he is planning must be more complex than simply causing harm to the girls.”
Twilight nodded. “At least we can thank our good fortune that Titan has left Canterlot for the time being. It should make things easier.”
“Do you think—”
Whatever Rarity was about to say was interrupted by Unimpressive slamming open the door, followed by another pony.
“Unimpressive,” Twilight growled. “Our meeting wasn’t done!”
The knight grimaced, but nodded. “My apologies, General, but you need to hear this.”
Esteem watched Sweetie Belle twist and turn in circles about the rookie soldier, side-stepping attacks, distracting him with bursts of magic, using the area around her to dominate the battle and position herself for easier and more effective attacks against her opponent.
Clearly her combat style was not intended for direct confrontations. Yes, it worked as a dueling style, but it emphasised guile and quick reactions rather than strength.
He smirked. It was an ideal mix for bladecasting. Then he frowned. That was if she managed to work her way up to using a second gem for it, and more importantly put her heart into it. It was hardly a blade with only one gem after all, although for an untrained beginner she had grasped the concept of how bladecasting worked incredibly quickly... But as long as she hesitated and shied away from harming her opponent, she wouldn’t be doing anything more than simply holding a gem in front of her.
Bladecasting wasn’t merely about the number shards one could control after all. Until she had her heart in the right place for a warrior, she would not even be able to cast the spell to create the actual blade.
He turned to look at the cadet, who had just approached him. “Any news on this mysterious Fleur-de-lis?”
The cadet shook his head. “No, General. We’ve combed the palace but it is likely she fled when the shield was dropped. Spies have been informed and there is a standing order for any information on her to be given immediately to the guard.”
Esteem frowned. “A pity,” he looked at Sweetie again. “She would have made an excellent spymaster, if her training of my daughter is any indication of her skill.”
The cadet looked at Sweetie Belle, nodding, eyes considering. “She’s certainly doing well against the other rookies.”
“She’s still no match for a trained soldier,” Esteem stated. “Unless she killed without prejudice, she would be quickly overwhelmed by any competent fighter. She doesn’t have that skill yet... and still...”
The cadet remained quiet, knowing that the general would let him know what he was thinking soon enough.
Esteem nodded towards Sweetie. “There’s a lot more going into who trained her than a simple duel-master. I believe this Fleur pony had an agenda of her own... perhaps she wanted a lot more than good standing with my daughter and her friends.” The last word was spat out almost as an insult.
The cadet raised an eyebrow, then turned to look at Sweetie with carefully concealed curiosity, doubtlessly trying to figure out what Esteem had noticed. She was fast on her hooves, but many fillies were. And her training certainly shone through, allowing her to keep her balance and weave in and out, almost like a dancer, but what the General had said rang true: the cadet could have demolished her more than five times already. The only thing that allowed her to continue was the rookie’s comparative inexperience. In a week, with the General’s current training curriculum, that same rookie would have a definite advantage and Sweetie would be faring very differently.
Esteem grinned. “You haven’t seen it?”
The cadet looked back at the General. “Her combat skills—”
“Not that,” Esteem interrupted. “I’m talking about how she acts in general. The way she looks at things. How she makes observations that are spot on, yet doesn’t seem to think much of it or even keeps them to herself? Look at how she behaves, where she positions herself when she’s not in practice. Tell me,” he tilted his head just the tiniest bit in curiosity. “When was the last time you heard her hoofsteps?”
The cadet’s eyes widened and he turned to stare at Sweetie, straining to hear her hoofsteps even now. But even as she dodged around the rookie she was practicing with, he couldn’t hear her. He could hear her voice, her spell effects... but not her hoofsteps. Nor her breathing. For a mostly inexperienced duelist, she kept her breathing pretty even.
“It’s subconscious,” Esteem spoke up, following her progress as she managed to finally make the rookie collapse and hovered her ‘blade’ close to his neck. “It’s half-skill—actual skill—and half-magic. She doesn’t even notice she’s doing it, and yet she is dulling the sound of her hoofsteps to almost nothing, and then compensating for what little sound remains by sheer muscle control.
“The spellwork is very subtle, born of constant practice... very efficient training, considering her age. The spell is basically always active and by now almost part of her natural magical aura.” Esteem pointed out, allowing the cadet to try and perceive the spell’s working magic.
“When she’s not in practice she sticks to the shadows and listens intently. She observes and understands a lot of points about battle, and yet is practically a complete novice when asked directly. She’s keeping some secrets, but she’s keeping even more than she’s aware... not secrets to us, of course, but things she could possibly tell another.”
The cadet nodded, looking at Sweetie Belle in a new light.
“And my favorite part...” Esteem started, then turned to face Sweetie. “Well done, Allure! Tell me, have you seen Sir Storm?”
Sweetie Belle blinked. “I think his patrol should be ending in about half an hour, father.”
Esteem nodded, waving his hoof. “Good, good, return to the field and keep trying to add another gem to your blade.”
When she turned and did so, Esteem smiled thinly at the cadet. “She’s memorized the guards’ names and their schedules.”
“So she’s a spy?”
“Of sorts,” Esteem said after a moment. “Not for Twilight Sparkle, of course. She’s... a sleeper agent. For an unknown party. Possibly Fleur herself. Not many ponies would be able to catch on... it’s subtle, and her innocence is true. Relatively speaking.”
“Will she still be useful to you, Sir?”
Esteem snorted. “Of course. What is a spy but a shackled assassin? With a bit of motivation and some guidance she will be a force to be reckoned with.” He looked back at the cadet and raised his eyebrow. “Which reminds me, how did your mission go?”
His second in command did not disappoint him.
“It is done, Sir,” the cadet replied. “We can depart at anytime.”
Esteem’s smile grew. “Excellent,” he turned back towards Sweetie and started walking towards her, the cadet falling in next to him. “Let’s give my daughter some incentive.”
Groaning in frustration, Sweetie relinquished her hold of the second diamond. Try as she might, she could not add it to her first and wield it half as effectively. She could levitate it, making whirl around her and move... but she couldn’t, for the life of her, figure out how to use her telekinetic grip as efficiently as Esteem or the cadet could. There had to be something else to it than sheer levitation.
It still didn’t feel natural to her, as some of the other trainees had alluded. Still, she endeavored. ‘Esteem has been training me very well,’ Sweetie thought, concentrating through the motions of practicing with her diamond. ‘But I don’t know if I can get more than one diamond to work... it feels... weird.’ She sighed in frustration. ‘Is it that the material is wrong for me? Maybe I shouldn’t be using gemstones... maybe metal? Or something else? I don’t get it.’
The concept itself was simple enough; enchant stone, a metal or crystal, bind it in an incredibly tight form of telekinesis and use it as a weapon. The more you could control, the more deadly you could become. But there was something missing from hers. She didn’t feel like she was wielding a weapon, any more than she felt like she was just waving a diamond around and risking poking somepony’s eye out. Possibly her own.
‘I think that’s the problem,’ she mentally harrumphed. ‘It’s not like I’m going to start fighting ponies to the death! But... ‘father’ expects me to do so. Why can’t he just train his soldiers to be more creative? I’m sure that with some practice they could learn to do some stuff that would help them win fights without killing anypony. Maybe they could increase the mass of a cupcake until it was as hard as a diamond and use it to hit the back of their opponent’s head and knock them unconscious? You don’t need to kill somepony to win.’
She sighed and looked from the hovering diamond to the one on the floor. She was about to envelop it in energy when she jumped to the side, barely avoiding two shards of the cadet’s blade cutting the floor where she had stood just a moment ago, instincts kicking in just in time. ‘How did I even do that?’ She dodged again, this time by jumping back and glaring at the cadet. She couldn’t see Esteem at all, and the other trainees seemed more scared of what was happening than willing to help.
“Hey, what’s the big idea?!” she shouted, lowering her stance. “You could have hurt me!”
But the cadet did not reply. Instead he pressed his attack, the shards of his blade flying towards her. Sweetie’s diamond flew up but was simply batted out of her grasp without effort. The cadet’s blade was much, much stronger than hers, even if he was slower in his reactions.
She quickly turned to the familiar patterns of I Quattro Elementi, focusing on dodging and provoking. She analyzed the cadet’s strikes. ‘He’s too sure of himself... he knows he’s a much better bladecaster than I am, and he has so much more experience in battle than I do... but he is just barging through. He knows he’ll win. He’s not being sneaky, he’s just showing off how strong he is... not using his full blade, being reckless with his attacks, especially now that I’ve lost my own diamond. And he’s convinced I can’t do anything to him...’ She frowned. ‘Let’s prove him wrong.’
Nodding briefly, she turned around one of the shards, twisting her head and sending her mane out of the way of the second. Her turn continued until she faced him again, to the left of his position. Just as the cadet turned his head to face her, the whole area became pitch black.
Cadet stumbled back a bit, surprised for barely a second, but he was soon in a fighting stance slowly moving from side to side, ears perked, trying to hear something, while his eyes strained, unable to make anything at all around him.
Sweetie ignored the shouts of surprise from the rookies, watching as the cadet stopped and turned his head this way and that, trying to make out any sign of her position. She sneered and sent a flame-burst to lick her opponent’s flank.
The cadet jumped, but the area where the flames had nicked him was torn to pieces by his shards. The cadet’s blade formed in front of him, all bright green gems clearly visible to her.
Sweetie managed to catch the hint of a snarl on the cadet’s face, which disappeared faster than she could drop the spell.
The cadet spun around, only to find Sweetie was but a few hoofsteps behind him. His eyes widened and he took a step back, clearly not expecting her to be so close.
Esteem, for his part, only laughed. “Well that was interesting. Why didn’t you strike, Allure?”
Sweetie sighed. “I-I didn’t want to hurt the cadet.”
Cadet looked affronted at the idea of the little filly actually managing to land a hit, but schooled his reaction, awaiting Esteem’s comments.
“You wasted an opportunity, Allure. Cadet will most likely not fall for that again.”
Sweetie looked down, scratching the floor with her hoof. “I... did manage to burn his flank... a little.”
“It does look a bit singed,” Esteem acknowledged, “But Cadet could have taken a lot more,” he added, looking at her sternly. “You can’t be afraid of striking even in practice, Allure!”
“I’m sorry,” Sweetie replied, not looking up.
“Be that as it may,” Esteem shook his head. “I’m afraid I bear ill news: Rarity and her followers attacked a small caravan this morning... it hailed from Ponyville, and several fillies and colts were there.”
Sweetie felt her stomach go ice-cold. “W-what?”
Esteem nodded while several soldiers behind him whispered in shock. “I’m taking a small group to oversee what remains... I would spare you, but you have to see what your sister does. Perhaps then, you will believe me.”
Sweetie looked at Esteem as they, a small group of bodyguards, and strange pony-like creatures that looked like puppets made their way down to the disputed area of the city of Canterlot.
She gazed at the creatures curiously. Esteem had explained that they were gifts from Titan and Terra, who had come back to retake Equestria, which they had created, from the clutches of Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, who were their daughters.
Everypony was on high alert, ears attentive, eyes scrutinizing every shadow around them, expecting an attack at any moment.
But Eseem had a look in his eye... an eagerness that Sweetie found deeply unsettling... and did her father have... fangs? She hadn’t noticed before, but now that he was smiling, she was pretty sure those teeth were more pointy than they had a right to be. She let her thoughts trail off when they stopped and looked further ahead.
There was little left of the caravan when they got there. An upturned cart, broken boxes with their contents—mostly blankets and food—strewn about. But, most importantly, there were the bodies.
Sweetie swallowed and looked away, but Esteem’s hoof lifted her chin and forced her to look back. The coat on one of them... familiarly colored... ‘It looks like Miss—”
She looked away again, and once more Esteem forced her head back. “You have to see this, Allure. This is what they are doing in their demented quest to challenge Titan.”
“B-but...” Sweetie cringed as they started walking towards the caravan. She could smell the it now... the blood... and other things she didn’t want to think about.
Her hoof bumped onto something soft and she looked down. A hoof. But no body to go with it.
She felt Esteem’s eyes watching her as she threw up. She wasn’t a stranger to death... well, not exactly. It just had never been other living ponies and Blueblood, but that had happened so many times it had become rote after a while... she couldn’t understand why she was throwing up, when she should be crying or arguing. Shouldn’t she be in denial? Or... something?
Once she felt she couldn’t heave anything else out, she pushed herself up on shaky legs, only to find a white cloth floating in front of her. She gratefully took it in her own magic and wiped her mouth, before turning to look at her father.
“Come with me,” Esteem ordered. “I will give you the overview.”
Silently she followed him, while he pointed with a hoof at sliced-up ponies.
“That’s your sister’s work there. She’s an extremely gifted bladecaster, as you can tell by how… effectively these were done...” His hoof trailed a cut on a colt’s body without touching it. “She didn’t spare any mercy this time.”
They continued walking down the site until they reached an area where bits of... everything... were lying strewn about.
“You see that charred spot there? Where the back side of that colt is? That’s Pinkie Pie’s work. She plays with explosives, jumps in, never seems to get harmed... she’s dispensed her brand of humor on my troops plenty of times.” Esteem pointed out. “She is a tough pony to even touch.”
He looked to the right of what remained after the explosion and called Sweetie’s attention by pointing with his hoof.
“See that cart, smashed in half? Applejack. Not much to her, other than brute strength... and the fact that she is very, very hard to bring down. She regenerates almost on the spot... I don’t know what foul magic courses through her body, but I place the blame on Twilight Sparkle more than anypony else.”
They reached the end of the caravan, where several bodies laid. “Those that look mostly complete are Rainbow Dash’s... pick them up and let them fall.” Esteem explained. “Not very original, but effective.”
Sweetie looked around in horror. “H-how... how could somepony do this?”
Esteem looked unaffected. “War. We ponies are not as mild and innocent as you might hope, Allure. We have a history of it... battles... legends, murderers... some of us are born ready for it, others are forced into it.” He looked down at her. “Our family has had a long history of battles. Why, before she stole you from me, your sister was one of the deadliest ponies I had ever witnessed.” He looked down at a torn-up body. “Her years as a seamstress don’t seem to have dulled her abilities... much.”
Sweetie had to sit down. “But... Rarity... she would never... and Pinkie Pie?”
Esteem shook his head sadly. “Sometimes, you never see a pony’s true soul until they are forced to fight. When a pony is desperate...” He looked at his daughter. “That’s when you know their mettle.”
Sweetie gulped, stepping back and away from everything around her. Her eyes swept over the carnage, her mind refusing to believe what she was seeing.
“Sir!” a soldier called, galloping towards them. “They‘re here!” He pointed behind him, where they could clearly see Applejack readily engaged with several soldiers and Rarity cutting away at whoever opposed them.
“Take Allure back to the castle!” Esteem ordered, moving to stand in front of her and shielding her from her sister, who turned to look their way. “Don’t let Allure come to any harm! If something happens to her, you will answer to me!”
It wasn’t a second later that Esteem’s blade shot out and blocked Rarity’s own. Sweetie took a step back, watching the shards clash against each other or dodge and try to dig into her father’s coat. Then she took another as the cadet also moved in front of her, summoning his own blade.
One of the other soldiers, a pegasus, picked her up and was about to lift off when a shard of Vorpal sheared through his wing.
Sweetie screamed as the blood splattered over her coat, but another pegasus was already there to pick her up. With an apologetic look at his fellow soldier, who gritted his teeth and nodded grimly, the pegasus was off in an instant.
Sweetie twisted slightly so she could look back, catching a glimpse of her sister fighting her father as they weaved through the ruins of the city and out of sight.
Deep in the tunnels underneath Canterlot, Applejack mulled over what she knew about Esteem and the fact that if Sweetie was there, Apple Bloom and Scootaloo couldn’t be too far either. It was a harrowing thought, those three fillies in the hooves of such a sadistic monster. For all intents and purposes it seemed that he had managed to get Sweetie to collaborate with him, but how? Was he threatening her friends?
Ever since sending her family away with the Buffalo, she had been wondering when she would see Granny Smith, Big McIntosh and Apple Bloom again. Having those very important parts of her life forced away for their own safety haunted her constantly.
She knew that they were safe—or at least safer—while away from Canterlot and all the fighting. They were definitely safer there than at her side, fighting Titan and his forces. But the possibility of Apple Bloom being in Canterlot now... what did that mean for Granny Smith and Big Mac? They wouldn’t have let Esteem’s forces simply take her. Were they safe?
The bigger question was, even if they were all safe and sound at the moment, and stayed with the Buffalo, how long before Titan’s forces got to them? There was only so far you could run.
Both Applejack and Rarity raised their heads when they heard Twilight’s voice.
“They did what?! Why?” Twilight asked, horrified, walking into the meeting chamber with a pegasus in tow.
“We don’t know,” Noble replied, keeping his cool in the face of Twilight’s incredulity. “It seemed like a random attack. We know that the royals attack whoever is leaving, but it seems like this one was planned to be particularly brutal. Maybe they’re trying to send a message?”
Twilight nodded, her mind clearly parsing through the information Noble had just brought her. “Esteem seldom does anything without a larger purpose. And this does not feel like one of Titan’s plans... if I could only figure it out... why make a point of being so vicious?”
“I don’t know,” Noble shrugged. “But they used explosive magic, had pegasi drop prisoners from the air... they did everything they could to decimate this harmless caravan.” He sighed. “Our scouts noticed the pegasi doing that, but they didn’t dare approach while the attack was ongoing.”
Twilight shook her head. “They would have been killed as well.”
“What’s goin’ on, sugarcube?” Applejack asked, approaching the pair.
“Yes, do tell,” Rarity added, following Applejack. "What atrocity has my father committed now?"
Twilight grimace, looking at the pair before shaking her head mournfully. "A caravan full of children."
Both Applejack and Rarity reared back in horror.
“Children?!” Rarity gasped. “But why?”
“We don’t know,” Twilight groaned. “It’s not logical. There was no point. His soldiers have spared colts and fillies before... unless they were his puppet soldiers... but this attack is just... barbaric.”
Applejack nodded. “Ah understand, Twilight. Tell you what, let me go and investigate. If there’s any clue, Ah’ll be sure to find it.”
“I’ll go with her,” Rarity spoke up. “Between the two of us we can make quick work of it.”
Twilight sighed. “I don’t know if it means anything, it could be that they simply met the wrong patrol. I don’t see if there’s a point for two of my lieutenants to personally look into it.”
“But Twilight!” Rarity stepped forth once more, but Applejack cut in front of her.
“Rarity, would y’kindly give me a moment to talk to Twilight?”
Rarity frowned, but walked out of the room, followed by Noble.
“Now Twilight,” Applejack turned to look at her friend. “Ah know we’re all stressed at the moment, but Rarity is havin’ a really hard time worryin’ about Sweetie Belle...” She hesitated. “Hell, Ah’m worried sick about what happened to Apple Bloom. Esteem has no use for her, and Ah know that if one Crusader is there, the rest should be ‘round as well.”
Twilight bit her lip before answering. “You want to do this to keep both of you distracted, I can see that much. But are you sure it’s a good idea? We don’t know what might be there.”
Applejack smirked. “With my powers and Rarity’s, Ah don’t think we’ll have too much trouble finding our way back safely. Come on, Twilight, we need a distraction while we wait for our spies t’ bring more information.”
Twilight mulled over Applejack’s words. “Fine, but I’ll need you both to promise me to not get into trouble. We can’t risk either of you getting hurt. Much less both.”
Applejack smiled. “Ah understand, Twilight, let me go get Rarity.”
Trotting up to the door, she pushed it open, finding Rarity engaged in a conversation with Noble which she quickly broke off.
“Rarity, Twilight is okay with letting us go check this out, as long as we promise not to get into trouble.”
Rarity smiled and shook her head, nodding once to Noble before joining Applejack and Twilight.
“Dear, I promise I will keep my head. I just want to understand what new monstrosity my father is planning.”
Twilight nodded. “I understand, but you two need to keep to the shadows. Don’t draw attention to yourselves. I know you can both take care of yourselves, but I don’t want to risk anypony.” She looked at each of them in the eye. “As horrific as this is, it might be nothing other than an attempt to demoralize us or even just some soldiers with a sadistic streak or Titan’s puppet ponies. Go in, check it out and come back as quickly as you can.”
Both mares smiled, pleased that they were getting what they wanted.
“We promise, Twilight,” Applejack said, with a doff of her stetson.
“Absolutely, darling,” Rarity said, nodding in acquisisce. “Why, we’ll be the very definition of subtle.”
Twilight raised an eyebrow, clearly not convinced, but reluctantly nodded. “Stay safe.”
Rarity took a deep breath as soon as they were out of the tunnels. “I swear, Applejack, if those tunnels were not keeping us safe, I would have already asked Luna to blow a hole or dozen through them and let some fresh air in.”
“And drop the whole thing on our heads, I reckon,” Applejack added with a chuckle.
Rarity rolled her eyes, but didn’t argue. Instead she looked around, trying to get an idea of where they were to go. The caravan was supposed to have been somewhere close to their location, given Twilight's uncanny knowledge of the whole subterranean system that was under Canterlot.
"Do you see anything, Applejack?" She asked after a moment of searching the horizon.
"I doubt Twilight gave us the wrong directions."
"It's kinda hard to see anything in between all the buildings, Rarity," Applejack responded. "But Ah reckon we're still a couple of miles east."
"Well then," Rarity nodded. "Let's get going... as much of a monster I thought my father was, I never thought him capable of killing colts and fillies for no reason. There has to be something we're missing."
The pair set out towards their objective in silence, until Applejack spoke up. "You don't think Apple Bloom and Scootaloo are his prisoners, do you?"
Rarity sighed. "I wish I could tell you they weren't," Rarity said, pausing and looking at her friend. "But... with all of this, I don't know what he is incapable of doing. It's in his nature to be cruel and petty; I wouldn't be surprised if the only reason Sweetie seems to be working for him is because he has them in his grasp. I don't see her doing it for any other reason..."
Applejack bit her lower lip, and started walking again. "Ah'm worried, Rarity, real worried. If Esteem does have Sweetie Belle, my sister could already be dead," she said. "Ah'm ready to face my own death, to fight alongside all of you, knowing that we all could die... but, Ah'm not ready to face the fact that my sister’s dead."
"Oh, Applejack..." Rarity drew close to her friend, trying to comfort her. "I'm worried sick as well... we will find out and we will save those fillies. I'm positive Sweetie wouldn't be with him if he had hurt her friends."
"Ah can only hope, Rarity," Applejack said, giving Rarity a friendly hug. She looked around, and nodded towards a partially destroyed building straight up ahead. "The caravan should be just past that building over there."
The pair slowed down, keeping their guard up and their eyes trained on their surroundings. "It is a perfect place for an ambush," Rarity said as they reached the corner of the four way intersection. Across from the building, on all three corners were other buildings in terrible condition, one of them little more than three walls containing rubble. But had Esteem's forces been waiting for them, all four structures were ideal to hide in.
They carefully looked around, sticking to the wall of the building and making sure they were as covered as they could be. Applejack risked a look around and gasped, drawing Rarity's attention, which had been on the roofs of the buildings in case of pegasi, back to her.
"Rarity," Applejack said, giving her a level look. "Ah want you to keep calm, and remember that—"
She didn't even finish before Rarity was galloping past her and stopping in the middle of the street, staring at the opposite side of the block, where a small force of ponies were investigating the destroyed caravan and Sweetie Belle was among them!
Rarity immediately recognized Esteem's blood-red mane and white coat as he stood right next to her younger sister. "Sweetie Belle!"
"Rarity! Ah, dammit!" Applejack shouted as Rarity took off in the caravan's direction. "There's too many of them!"
Immediately an advanced guard consisting of a few ponies and puppets noticed them and drove towards Rarity, ready to engage her in combat. However, Luna's Knight General was not to be deterred from her objective. With hardly a thought, Vorpal formed in front of her before dispersing into all fourteen shards, completely tearing a puppet apart. She was already dodging another soldier's blade, twisting and sliding under the shards before reforming Vorpal in time to block the following attack, seven of her shards matching the seven of her opponent, while the remaining six zoomed past, cutting through leg, tendon and muscle.
The unicorn screamed and fell to the floor, all ability to bladecast lost as he writhed in pain on the floor, only to be knocked out by Applejack's merciful hoof as she joined the fray. She bulled her way past Rarity, who slipped out of the way to allow her friend to mow down three opponents. Before another unicorn could use his blade to cut the earth pony, he had already been disabled, all shards batted out of the way for a full buck to the face from Rarity. He collapsed like a sack of rocks, armor clanging noisily.
She heard a warning shout and looked up, distracted by Sweetie's faint voice rising in the distance and taking a shot from an earth pony but not buckling thanks to her proximity to Applejack. It was at times like this that their unexpected gifts as Elements of Harmony really shone through.
"You're not taking her from me, you monster!" she shouted, not caring that they were too far to hear her. Vorpal flew towards them and cut the wing of a pegasus that was just starting to lift off, Sweetie wrapped in his forelegs. She cursed when Esteem summoned his own blade to clash with hers. Watching in desperation as Sweetie Belle was taken away right before her eyes.
"Rarity!" Applejack shouted. "Snap out of it! We need to go! There's too many of them for just the two of us!"
"He's not taking Sweetie away!"
"He already has!" Applejack shouted back, knocking another guard out as she watched the approaching party with growing concern.
"We need to find out what they did with them, Applejack!"
"Ah know! But we can't take all of them on our own!"
"Then it's a good thing that Twilight had the forethought to send us after you," a voice said from one of the buildings.
Twelve metal spheres shot out from one of the windows, peppering a puppet's hide and tearing through the other side of it, before reforming into two smaller groups and shooting towards a pair of earth pony guards, forcing them back.
Applejack immediately recognized the blade as Vindictive, but didn't turn to look while she bucked another puppet so hard that its chest caved in. "Unimpressive! Am Ah glad to see you!"
"I'm here too, silly!" Pinkie Pie grinned, rolling out between three startled guards and smashing the heads of two of them into each other before the third knew what was happening. He tried to ram into her, but Pinkie was already rolling under him and taking his hooves off the ground. He fell heavily to the side and it only took one kick between the eyes to render him unconscious just like his partners.
Rarity had finished with her latest opponent and Vorpal was already engaged in battle with Carsomyr, all fourteen pieces of both blades ricocheting off of walls and each other, shards of both blades completely decimating an unfortunate puppet that had attempted to attack her while engaged in combat with the general.
"How did you get to Sweetie?!" Rarity asked, diamonds clashing against metal just in front of her as she locked blades with Esteem.
"Allure simply found her way to me," Esteem replied with a smile. "At least she had the good sense to join the winning side, and let me tell you, she's adapting to fighting quite well!"
"You fiend!" Rarity bellowed, viciously swinging Vorpal and forcing her father back a step. "Sweetie would never willingly join you in your useless war!"
Esteem grinned. "It seems you don’t know her at all, Rarity," he said as he side stepped his daughter, turned around her and jabbed at her with Carsomyr. As expected, Rarity recovered fast enough to block the deadly blade with her own.
"I know that she wouldn't hurt another pony! I know well enough that she wouldn't join a cause that feed off the pain and misery of others!"
Esteem laughed, "Why, don't you like her hoofwork?" he asked, motioning with his right hoof to the caravan just past him. "We were just reviewing her performance, she had quite the workout!" His grin twisted. "Why, she even got her pegasi guards involved. Once Allure was having fun cutting her opponents down, they followed her orders to drop those that tried to escape from the air."
"That's impossible!" Rarity growled, separating Vorpal into deadly glittering pieces, which orbited her body at increasing speeds. “You lie!”
"Do I?" Esteem asked, breaking Carsomyr up as well and matching each of her strikes. "Do you want to take a closer look? Allure was really interested in trying her skills against her peers. Of course she can only use one diamond at this time, so her technique is imperfect, but I'm sure you can see past an amateur's eagerness to push herself and appreciate her rapid improvement."
Despite herself, Rarity looked. The bodies of the dead colts and fillies were strewn around without any care. The cuts were clean, but sloppy, not targeting vital organs and seeming to go for more obvious targets... a mistake a neophyte bladecaster would make, but not an experienced soldier. Her attention snapped back to Esteem as he pressed his attack, forcing her to step back until she was to a wall. Rolling under another swing of Carsomyr she faced her father again, who stepped next to the building, shards floating in front of him as he paused his attack.
Esteem's smile became less vicious. "Rarity, Allure is with me, as you should be. Our family would be unstoppable. I can ask Titan to forgive you... I am sure he will once you tell us where Twilight Sparkle is... and I am sure he will also reward you and Allure with whatever your heart desires. Immortality, treasures..."
His smile disappeared when Carsomyr's shards were batted away by Rarity's blade.
"I refuse to believe that Sweetie would join you, or that she could do something so ghastly!" she growled."How did you come to have her? Did you do something to her friends?! Tell me!"
Esteem snorted. "Friendship.... You still cling to that fantasy. It makes you weak, even Allure understands this... she hasn't asked about any of her friends, nor attempted to contact any of you. What does that tell you? She understands that friendship is a handicap she doesn't need!"
"You don't know Sweetie!" Rarity cried, her ears twitching as she prepared to jump.
Esteem, noticing her positioning, frowned and readied himself to intercept Rainbow Dash from picking her up like the pegasus had done before in previous battles.
"I had hoped to take her from you, but it seems our time here is short. I'm afraid we will have to continue our conversation later," Rarity said venomously.
"I won't let that pegasus friend of yours pick you up!" Esteem growled. "If I so much as see a single feather, I'll carve her into nothing."
"I won't let you touch her!" Rarity said, Vorpal shooting out to engage Esteem's blade.
Esteem blocked her attack and kept his eye up and about, ready to intercept the pegasus... when the wall next to him collapsed on top of him just as Vorpal's shards flew back towards Rarity.
"Well, sorry to disappoint you, with Rainbow Dash not been here at all, but let me lay your worries to rest!" Applejack shouted.
"Applejack!" Rarity grinned. "Just in time!"
"Just in time to run!" Applejack retorted, grabbing Rarity and pulling her away. "One of Noble's pegasi just dropped word, we’ve got a full-fledged battalion coming our way!"
Rarity struggled, trying to free herself, but Applejack was too strong for her. "But- but Sweetie—"
"Sweetie will have to wait," Applejack growled as the pair galloped away. "Ah know how y'all feel, Rarity, but at least y’know she's safe."
Rarity took a deep breath, looking over her shoulder once before nodding and joining the others at the entrance to the underground. There would be time to save Sweetie... especially if anything Esteem had said was true.
Sweetie Belle paced her considerably large room from side, thinking and worrying. 'How could my sister really do that? I can't believe it but... fa-Esteem was so sure of what he was saying! Sweetie grimaced, stopping in front of a huge, clearly new painting depicting who she could only imagine to be Titan, the god alicorn of this world in all his glory, looking down with a passive face at all his subjects... which were whatever creatures and ponies had struck the artist's fancy. She stared at it without seeing, though, her mind replaying the warning shout, and then seeing her sister and Applejack charge out of a street like... like Romulus or Remus had. There had been an almost animalistic quality in their eagerness.
She could not deny Rarity's skill. Just like Esteem, Rarity's blade was made of fourteen shards... And she had danced a deadly tango with every opponent she had met. Sweetie had not understood what it was to see a blademaster until she had seen her sister in action for but a few seconds... and it terrified her.
She still remembered the blood splattering on her from the pegasus. Esteem's blade rising up to intercept Rarity's... Sweetie hadn't been able to even follow their movements when those two blades had met in battle. She had been at a complete loss. She could fight... to a point, and she was very aware of it. The I Quattro Elementi was a dueling style based on beauty. The right rhythm, the right pose, the right turn... that's why it relied so much in patterns and adapting them to the opponent’s actions...
'But if I can't even see them...' Sweetie snorted, walking away from the painting, basking in the silence of the room as she moved around it. 'Most ponies here seem content to fight head on... only Esteem and Rarity showed any real attempt at moving about... but bladecasting is much more about overpowering your opponent than anything else... She frowned when she reached her desk.
The leather harness had space for three more diamonds in addition to the one she was currently using, as if Esteem expected her to have four shards flying about. I don't know if that will ever happen. I have enough trouble wielding one single diamond, she thought bitterly. And my spells are not strong enough to actually damage a pony... even if I had thrown a really powered-up flame at Cadet, I think I would have only knocked him down... and I don't have the time to power my spells further than that... being on the receiving end of a barrage of deadly shards is not the best place to do something that requires concentration.
Sweetie Belle groaned, glaring at her single diamond as if it held the answers. "Why? Why did I have to come here? Why does there have to be worlds where ponies hate each other and hurt one another? It doesn't make sense!"
Sweetie stomped her hoof on the marble floor, for once making an echoing sound in her cavernous room. She looked at the opulence of where she was. The gold-laced curtains, the bed with imported silk from some place she did not know, crafted by hoof or claw by some incredibly skilled artisan.
She sighed, sitting down in the middle of the room. "Why couldn't it be Carousel Boutiq—" And then she remembered Esteem's words; Ponyville had been destroyed by Twilight. According to Esteem, her friends, including Rarity had helped in the destruction. Sweetie couldn't help but grimace.
Things were starting to get to the point where she was about to break down and probably make a fool of herself. 'I need to calm down,' she thought. And then repeated more audibly, "I need to calm down." She took a deep breath, exhaling slowly, and letting body slowly relax with it. It was a technique Octavia had taught her, something to do when it was her turn to take the stage and she was feeling jittery.
During that last Gala night, Sweetie had done that just as Blueblood addressed the masses. Taking deep breaths to calm down as much as she could... thinking of that Gala and what she left behind, Sweetie couldn't help but feel a deep pang of regret. "Maybe... maybe I should do something..."
Her thoughts went back to Octavia, and slowly a smile spread on her face. 'I can't ignore everything but... maybe just for a little while, I can do something that's going to take my mind off of things.'
Summoning her notebook, Sweetie opened it, finding within that little treasure she had hoped against hope escaping the loops would not have taken away. A single, simple bookmark, black with a golden clef note engraved in the center floated out of her notebook, which she carefully closed and sent away. She settled the bookmark on the floor, just in front of her and then cast another, simple activation spell.
The bookmark shuddered for a moment, then it grew. It gained depth and size at an accelerated rate, simply growing into a case as big as she was. And Sweetie could do little else than sigh in relief. She opened the cello case, finding her instrument, intact, waiting for her. Slowly, she picked it up without magic. She took the bow, and with practiced ease threw herself back, balancing on her hind legs.
When she had a good feel of her balance, she slowly plucked the strings, testing each one to make sure it sounded just right, and loosening or tightening a couple pegs until it was perfect. Or as perfect as she could make it.
Sweetie then proceeded to drag her bow across the strings, evoking a deep, haunting sound. Satisfied, and already feeling much better, Sweetie started to play.
The melody Sweetie was one that she had heard Octavia play once or twice. It was far from perfect... her memory could only hold so much of it, and she found herself repeating over and over the same part of it that she remembered most. It didn't sound bad, but, rather than take her thoughts away from troubling times, did little else than making her frustrated with how little she could play of it.
She almost changed the song but... most of the other things she knew were more cheerful... and she certainly did not feel that way. It also didn't seem right to play a rising ballad when her heart sought to mourn. Those colts and fillies... she hadn't known them but... it felt close. What type of monster would simply kill children? They had stood no chance; their mother or teacher... she'd been killed probably before their eyes.
The melody repeated once more, still wanting for its continuation.
She could only hope that, in that desperate situation, they hadn't seen each other— her bow dragged down, marring the music with a horrible dragging sound as Sweetie let her foreleg just hang down, still in her upright position. The tears finally flowed, splashing on her coat and the floor and her cello like salty droplets of rain. She sniffed, not even thinking... not daring to... every time her mind conjured up an image of a fleeing colt or filly cut down, it hit her like a physical blow.
The thought of those left behind. The horrible notion of that colt, filly or mare watching as their friends or charges were massacred felt like some creature had wrapped it's claw around her heart and squeezed. Sweetie just couldn't think of why...
The door creaked, and Sweetie's eyes snapped open. She looked up, to see somepony was looking into the room. Her eyes watered even more.
"I-I," the mare's violet eyes were a bit wide, watching as the filly carefully set down her cello and stared at her. "I'm dreadfully sorry. I thought I heard... well, now I'm sure I heard somepony playing Kol Nidrei and... I'm sorry I interrupted. I'll be going n—"
Sweetie drew in a big, shuddering breath. "T-Tavi!"
When she had been forced to walk around the guest rooms in the noble’s section of the palace, Octavia had not anticipated hearing a familiar sound… a cello being played by a competent pony.
It was sad, really, how the whole concept of art had been all but declared a waste of time were it not tribute for Titan. But this... this was no ode to a horrifyingly powerful entity. This was a classic.
And so, against her better judgement, Octavia had followed the music to its origin.
The pony playing seemed to only be able to play a small section of Kol Nidrei, which was slightly disappointing. Still, it was well played.
Finally, she found the room it was coming from. It was one of the largest in the palace… Perhaps some noble was bold enough to have invited a budding musician to play for them?
She knew all the cello players in Canterlot who would be good enough to play here, and none of them would attempt to perform something like Kol Nidrei without actually knowing the whole thing.
And so, knowing that it might just get her in a lot of trouble, she discarded common sense and peeked in, just as the player had dragged the bow across the strings in a most awful way.
She immediately noticed the filly standing on her hind legs, but it took a moment to register that it was a unicorn doing it. Still, she had been obviously noticed as well, since the filly was looking at her all teary-eyed.
"I-I," Octavia stammered, trying to figure out what to say. "I'm dreadfully sorry, I thought I heard... well, now I'm sure I heard somepony playing Kol Nidrei and… I apologize for the intrusion, I'll be going n—"
That call, so desperate and with a nickname that the filly had no right knowing made her hesitate and suddenly Octavia found herself being held tight by the unknown, crying filly. Well... not completely unknown, now that she thought about it. Word had spread that General Esteem's daughter was staying in the palace. Just around this area actually. Octavia had just never thought she would be musically inclined... or an emotional wreck. Though, given her familial links, Octavia had a hard time blaming her.
Wait. She was being held by General Esteem’s daughter. And even worse, she was crying! Octavia’s first instinct was to get the hell out of there... but... She instead awkwardly patted the filly on the back. "There, there..."
"I'm sorry, Tavi, I tried to play it like you, but I only remembered that one part and... and what I saw today... I just wanted to play, but I couldn't and I just kept thinking about that c-caravan and all the-all the dead..." Sweetie cried, trying to make her teacher see what was upsetting her so much. "I just couldn't! I couldn't remember how to follow up from that a-and—"
"Hush now," Octavia said softly, pushing aside her questions in order to help this filly in need. "Tell you what, let me get my cello. We can go through the rest of the song together if you’d like."
The filly didn't loosen up her grip, but Octavia felt her nodding against her neck. Eventually, after a few more words of encouragement and promises to be as quick as possible, she found herself freed from the filly's embrace.
It took her a few minutes to return, and by then the filly had finally stopped sniffling and had cleaned herself up a bit.
"I'm back," she announced unnecessarily, having already entered the room and closed the door behind her.
"Thanks, Tavi," the filly said. "My name is Sweetie Belle, by the way."
Octavia blinked. “I thought your name was ‘Allure’?”
“Oh,” Sweetie grinned sheepishly. “That’s what Est-my father wanted to name me, and what he calls me, but I’ve always gone by Sweetie Belle.”
Octavia smiled encouragingly. "Nice to meet you, Sweetie Belle, my name is Octavia... but it seems you already knew that."
Sweetie's smile was melancholic. "You could say that... I-my sister heard you play during the Gala. She had so many good things to say, I had to look you up."
Octavia felt a slight swell of pride from that. "Well, thank you! Not many ponies would go through the trouble of finding my records, there's probably about thirty of them out there."
Sweetie shrugged. "Good music speaks for itself."
That had sounded like something she would say. "That is indeed true," Octavia said. "I must admit, Sweetie Belle, I'm surprised to see a unicorn play with the poise of an earth pony."
"My teacher was adamant that I learn the ‘proper way’," Sweetie said with a smile. "She said, 'Sweetie! Just because you have magic doesn't mean you should not make an effort!'" her inflection made it sound a little like how Octavia herself spoke, but the cellist simply nodded.
"Quite!" Octavia chuckled. "That sounds like something my instructor said once to a classmate of mine. He didn't listen and went for the magical approach."
"Yeah," Sweetie's smile grew warmer. "So your instructor told that to somepony? That's interesting, I wonder..." She shook her head. "Anyway, thank you for coming back... I imagine that being in here is a bit awkward."
Octavia gave the filly a serious look. "That's... well, quite an apt observation."
Sweetie shrugged again. "I've seen how the nobles and non-military look at my father... at me. They're afraid..." She looked down. "After what I saw today, I'm not surprised."
The musician nodded. “It’s true that most nobles are uncomfortable with the new order… but it’s not too bad; lord Titan respects personal strength and the will to fight for your beliefs more than titles passed through blood. They resent that because now they have to prove that they have a purpose other than simply looking nice and living off of the bits their predecessors accumulated.”
She strummed her cello. “General Esteem is a scary pony… but he’s driven and strong and unlike the nobles, actually belongs right where he is, because he’s fought for it. I deeply respect him, and I understand he must be so frustrated that one of his daughters is... well… misguided.”
“I wish she were here, so I could talk to her as well,” Sweetie said, looking at the door. “But with who she is now…”
“Sweetie, if I have learned something from lord Titan’s return is that this is the time to fight for what you want. Your sister might be misguided, but if you just sit passively waiting for her to return, she won’t. You need to be strong for both her and yourself.”
“I know,” Sweetie sighed. “I’m glad you came here, Tavi. I was feeling so confused.”
Octavia shook her head. "I couldn't leave such a talented cellist on her own in her time of need."
Sweetie's eyebrows shot up. "You think I'm talented?"
Octavia nodded, smiling warmly. "Well, yes, I can tell, by the way you play... there's a gentleness and fluidity there that is unusual to find in most players, even some 'advanced' students. Your teacher never told you? They should be very proud."
To her surprise Sweetie let out an honest laugh. "You know, maybe she did." The filly's smile was contagious. "But you know what, I always thought it was my honor to play with her... maybe I can do so again."
Octavia nodded, setting down her cello's case and starting to take the instrument out. ‘I wonder who taught her?’ she thought. “You know, Sweetie... if I ever take on a student, I can only hope that he or she will respect me half as much as you respect her.”
Sweetie Belle could only respond with a chuckle and a smile.
Esteem sat at his desk, poring over the latest scout report, when there was a knock at his door. He paused for a moment, gathering his thoughts for what was to surely follow before looking up. "Enter."
The door opened, allowing Sweetie Belle into the room, followed closely by Cadet. She was clearly nervous, but a lot more composed than he would have expected an inexperienced filly to be after having seen so much death. It was a point of pride, actually, to know that at least one of his daughters could take the blood and sacrifice of war with such repose.
Sweetie Belle made her way to the desk, stopping just in front of it before looking up at him. "You... wanted to see me, father?"
Esteem nodded, motioning for her to sit, which she did. He studied her for a moment longer. She had dealt with it... either by getting over it or pushing it to the back of her mind. Either worked, really, as long as the impact from what she had seen had settled and she understood what he wanted her to understand. "I trust you’ve had enough time to think."
Sweetie slumped, sinking into her seat and looking thoroughly discouraged. "Yes... I did."
"And?" he prompted.
Sweetie looked up, locking eyes with him. "I—"
"We heard about your friends, by the way," Esteem interrupted, his mind gauging her response. She cared. Good. "A Scootaloo and an Apple Bloom, I believe, yes?"
Sweetie paused. Then nodded really slowly.
Esteem sighed, looking out of the window and grimacing. "I'm sorry," he said, knowing what impact that simple statement would have.
Sweetie's eyes went wide and her frame shook. "Wait... you mean they—" she couldn't finish, obviously.
Esteem grinned internally. ‘The closer the friend, the more their demise would impair you. One more reason to keep friendship at leg's length.’
"Ponyville was destroyed... they were left behind," he said, “Your sister and her friends simply went away to fight a war when they should have stayed with them."
Sweetie choked, looking down at her hooves in horror. Unable to find there the answer she was searching for, she shook her head, looking up at him with desperate eyes. "B-but... why? Rainbow Dash would never... and Apple Bloom?! How could Applejack just—"
Esteem slammed his hoof on the table, making her jump in her seat and shy away from him. "Don’t you understand yet, Allure?" he asked fiercely. "Whatever they seemed to be, whoever they were in your happier days, they're not that anymore!" He pointed towards the window. "They're murderers. Butcherers and traitors! They have no regard for authority or decency!" he added. "Their forces attacked you, and almost killed you," He elaborated, recalling how he had found her. "Your sister and her friend murdered colts and fillies! You saw how they acted." He shook his head and stood up, pushing back from his desk and looking out the window into the yard below, where several of his soldiers practiced.
"And yet," he whispered, without looking back at her, "Here you are, unable to commit to the simple act of learning how to defend yourself!" He turned to glare at her. "Bladecasting is an essential art to learn, especially now! Especially since you are my daughter. Allure, your sister wouldn't hesitate to kill me. She barely missed you earlier, if corporal Haze hadn't turned at the last possible moment. What you are doing is not only endangering yourself, but myself, Cadet and any other soldier in your vicinity. Because we will come to your aid, but we will have to protect you and our chances of getting killed will increase tenfold!"
Sweetie bit her lower lip and looked away, unable to stand his glare.
"Despite what you saw..." he whispered. "Despite what I’ve just told you, why do you insist on passively waiting for things to fix themselves?"
"I want to stop her."
Esteem's ears twitched. The voice was barely a whisper, but he heard it nonetheless. "What was that?"
"I said," Sweetie’s voice rose, "I want to stop her! This isn’t the Rarity I grew up with! Sh-she's an insult to who Rarity is! My Rarity would never do anything like this!" She took a deep breath. "In honor of that memory of the real Rarity, I have to stop her. Maybe I can make her see reason."
Esteem nearly smiled, but schooled his features before turning to face her again, his eyes stern. "To do so, you will have to learn to fight without fear of hurting others," he warned. "You cannot hesitate. She will kill you if you do."
Sweetie winced, but quickly recuperated. "I know... but what else can I do?"
He nodded, taking a seat again. "Do you have a cause now, Allure?"
Sweetie looked at the desk, to the reports. Then to the cadet, who waited patiently behind her. Her ears twitched, clearly she could hear the soldiers outside, going through their drills and knowing that they would surely die if they met her sister. She took a deep, deep breath and let it out slowly. "I do." She raised her eyes to meet her father’s. "I have a cause."
Esteem snorted. "That's a bold claim. What is your cause?"
"To defeat Rarity," Sweetie stated, looking firmly at him. "To make sure she doesn't betray her family again. To bring her back to us and to make sure she and... her friends pay for what they have done."
For the first time since he’d seen her beneath that shield spell, Esteem felt true pride in his youngest daughter as she raised her head emphatically. This was his blood. This was what a warrior should look like.
"And I..." he allowed a small smile to grace his face. "Will help you."
Twilight looked at the two mares in front of her with no small amount of frustration. "I thought the point of you two investigating was to take your mind off of things and get information! I didn't expect you to charge Esteem's forces!"
Rarity and Applejack winced, but Rarity spoke up. "I think we did find the purpose of this attack," she said, shifting nervously. "It was a message."
Twilight's eyebrow rose. "For whom?"
Rarity sighed. "For me. He said that Sweetie had been involved in that attack." She locked eyes with Twilight. "She was there, with him. They took her away before I could reach her, but it was her..."
Twilight took a deep breath, looking down at the scroll she had in front of her. "How sure are you of that?"
Rarity grimaced. "Very sure... from the little time I could actually see her, I couldn't shake the feeling that it was my sister with him. She looked like her. Sounded like her... felt like her."
Twilight looked at the other mare. "Applejack?".
"Ah don't know, Twilight," Applejack confessed. "When Ah saw her... why, Ah was sure it was Sweetie Belle too," she said. "Esteem had her taken away too quick to follow, but Rarity's right... it felt like Sweetie Belle. Ah'm much more worried now about Apple Bloom.
"But what are we going to do if my father has them all?" Rarity asked, turning to look at the group as a whole. "We can't leave them with him."
"There is more at play here than what you see," Princess Luna interrupted, stepping next to Twilight. "Through it all, you six have to keep a clear mind and lead by example. There is no room for failure, for that would spell the doom of not only us, but ponykind as a whole."
"We understand that, your highness," Applejack sighed. "We really do, but our families are what gives us strength, just as much as our friendship."
"If Sweetie Belle… Apple Bloom and Scootaloo joined with the enemy, what would you do?" Luna asked, looking at Rarity, then Applejack and Rainbow Dash. "Would you stop fighting? Would you declare them enemies? This is a trying time, but you must choose what you are willing to do—and sacrifice—for the sake of Equestria and all its inhabitants."
"Are you asking us to fight our sisters?" Rarity whispered, eyes wide as duty and love fought a moral battle in her mind.
"I'm asking you to understand what your limits are," Luna clarified. "I don't want any of you to have to face that decision, but it is a sad fact of war that sister may fight against sister, father might fight daughter and daughter might kill father. There is nothing simple about war; blood and loyalties are tested, and this is what you are dealing with right now."
Applejack and Rarity looked at each other.
Finally Rarity sighed. "My choice is already made... I promised to fight my father's every step to the best of my ability, until I can finally bring him down. If-if Sweetie joins with him... I'll have no choice but to fight her as well, though it'll tear my heart..."
Applejack looked less convinced but eventually managed to nod.
"No way Scootaloo would join forces with that creep!" Rainbow Dash declared, looking at Rarity and Applejack. "And neither would Sweetie Belle or Apple Bloom! So no, I won't fight them, because it'll never happen!"
"That's right, you silly ponies!" Pinkie Pie added, giving both Rarity and Applejack a hug in an explosion of confetti. "Turn those frownies upside down! There's absolutely no chance the Crusaders would join a crusade against us!"
Fluttershy mumbled something in the affirmative in the wake of Pinkie's exuberant declaration, smiling softly at her friends.
Luna gave them all an equally hard look. "There is no right choice in this matter, for all involved will suffer," she said, stepping a bit back and turning to look at Twilight, who had simply watched her friends sort things out. "Show them."
Immediately her five friends went silent, turning to look expectantly at Twilight, who levitated a scroll up and opened it, before floating it over to Rarity and Applejack.
"Is-is that Braeburn's hoofwriting?" Applejack asked, immediately recognizing it. "But what..." Her eyes scanned the letter while Rarity's did the same.
Applejack's eyebrows rose while Rarity closed hers and smiled in relief. "She's safe," she whispered. "My dear Sweetie Belle is safe and sound..."
Applejack let out a whoop. "Apple Bloom and Scootaloo are safe as well, missin' the whole lot of us terribly, but safe as an apple on th' tallest branch," she declared with wide grin.
"But then... who's the filly Esteem has?" Rainbow Dash asked. "You said she looks like her, and even sounds and feels like her, but Braeburn swears Sweetie Belle is just fine!"
Twilight nodded. "This has been bothering me as well... I can only surmise that Esteem has found a filly and molded her into a clone of Sweetie, or more likely somehow transformed a puppet to look and act like her," she looked at Rarity. "We know he will do anything to get to you; it makes sense that he would try to emotionally blackmail you."
Rarity's eyes flared with barely-held anger. "That he would use Sweetie like that to get to me..." she hissed. "I will never forget him. I'll destroy his little toy and put an end to his plans... I won't let him stain Sweetie's memories with such a-an abomination!"
Applejack nodded. "That Esteem is a tricky one, he already almost got y'all once."
"But now that I know his game..." Rarity growled. "He won't get away with it any longer."
"It is odd that he was betting on you not realizing that it wasn't really Sweetie," Twilight said after a moment of thought. "His spies must have informed him that the Crusaders had been sent off to stay somewhere safe, and he assumed, correctly, that it would be hard if not impossible to contact them on short notice."
"We got lucky," Rainbow Dash said, leaning back against the wall. "If some of our own had not been in Appleoosa, they might have never noticed the herd moving nearby."
"You knew?" Rarity asked Rainbow Dash, who shook her head.
"Nah, I just received the letter earlier today, and I knew it was from there. I never read it."
Twilight nodded with a smile. "Well, now all we need to do is place what to do when Esteem tries to use this fake Sweetie to get to us."
"And then”—Rarity’s eyes became cold—”we bring them both down.”
Sweetie cantered to the center of the patio, which had several straw dummies in it, awaiting their imminent destruction. She looked at Esteem expectantly as her local 'father' approached.
"Take out your diamond," he ordered with a grimace. "Are you certain you were unable to add any others?"
"So far..." Sweetie said, wincing at the disappointment in his voice. She levitated the gem from the harness for her father's inspection.
Esteem nodded, looking at it. "Lay it down on the floor, it's time you learn how to bladecast properly."
Sweetie frowned, following his instructions. "What do you mean? I thought I was doing that?"
Esteem snorted in distaste. "Of course not, bladecasting is much more than levitating a diamond and swirling it about. A bladecaster's blade is an extension of his or her will," he stated, summoning Carsomyr from its own harness and letting Sweetie appreciate its deadly elements. "Each shard is tied directly into my will; Carsomyr is like a hoof, or a leg... it's as natural to me as breathing is to you. It's not just a blade; it's part of my body and, as such, my control over it is absolute."
Sweetie's eyes were wide. She glanced at the cadet, who nodded briefly, agreeing with the General's words. She turned to observe Esteem as he paced before her.
"This is the reason conviction and a cause are so important... you have to enforce your will over your shards. The material is important—the better the material, the better the blade in general—but... it's less important than the will of the caster. If your will is weak, or if it is broken, then your blade is nothing more than floating gems or pieces of metal."
Sweetie looked at her diamond in a new light. It was no wonder that it was such a child's play for some of the more experienced to block her every attempt at fighting them. So far she had seen it as an object to be controlled, independent of herself, and had tried to exert that control while using other skills... obviously weakening her hold or affecting its speed and efficacy.
If it was an extension of herself though—a new limb of sorts—she could do whatever she wanted with it without having to split her focus in two or three or a dozen different directions to control it at the speeds her father or sister did.
Possibilities floated in her mind, already thinking of how beautiful she could make her dueling style if combined with a chain of diamonds bent to her will and—
"I don't know what you're thinking," Esteem interrupted her fantasy. “But whatever it is I doubt you can accomplish with only one diamond to your blade."
Sweetie frowned, but nodded. "I— sorry, father, please continue."
Esteem nodded. "The spell to create a blade is complicated, and time consuming, so you will pay attention because I will not do this again with you. From now on, once you master another diamond, you will add it yourself. Furthermore, you can only have one blade, and only one. You can split it in two if you have enough shards, but you cannot have a new one, unless you destroy the previous one."
Sweetie nodded, "Yes, father."
"The first thing you need to do is name your blade," Esteem said, as he stood next to his daughter. "Have you thought of one?"
Sweetie considered her options, hearing a mental voice that sounded conspicuously like Scootaloo saying: 'Call it Destroyer! Or... or better! Call it Ravager!' She shook her head, taking a deep breath as she looked at the lone, single diamond. Alone, because Sweetie couldn't do any better. She snorted at the thought but it remained in her mind, nagging her. She blinked as it dawned on her... a book she had read during a break from studying, an old story... "A-Akela. I would like to name it: Akela.”
Esteem raised an eyebrow, and she couldn't tell if he understood the significance of the name or not, but before he could say anything, she spoke first.
"It's the name of a very strong wolf from a story... he was the alpha of the pack. Fearless and dedicated to his cause."
This seemed to please her father, who nodded thoughtfully. "A fitting name then," he said. "A blade should have a strong name to reflect its purpose. If this... wolf... inspired such characteristics, it will serve its purpose well."
They worked the blade, binding it to Sweetie's magic in ways she had never considered. It was indeed as if she had grown an extension of her body, so strong were the ties she was building... her own notebook, as securely attached as it was to her, did not have a bond so unshakable.
When it was done, she could feel the difference. Akela floated in front of Sweetie, her aura of magic surrounding it, but it was less her casting a spell than her extending her awareness to a limb she had but just hadn’t used. She thought of how it should move and it was already there, reacting to her intent rather than the form of her thoughts.
It was as if a new world of possibilities had been opened to her. Sweetie was engrossed in Akela, to the point of ignoring her father and the cadet as she moved around and experimented. Thought and intention... planning and instinct. A true master would decimate her in seconds... she wanted—no, needed—to learn how to move with it, how to use it, what its limitations were, what rules she could bend... how could she have even thought that such a basic analysis of bladecasting as she had made originally was even a rough approximation to... to this!
Sweetie started following the patterns of the basic V-shaped practice for the I Quattro Elementi cantering, trotting, sliding, turning and posing, all the while followed in some way by her diamond in a deceptively beautiful dance that could turn, in an instant, into a deadly attack if she so wished. For once, that one moment alone she understood what Esteem had been talking about when he had mentioned that War had a beauty of its own. But she disagreed... it wasn't war that was beautiful in this complicated dance of glittering diamond, dodging, control and magic... it was the deadliness of beauty itself that was beautiful.
She sincerely wished that Fleur could see her now.
Octavia watched Sweetie Belle practice in the patio from one of the many windows in the castle. It was odd, how this nimble little filly would move... like she was dancing and pausing, as if she were posing for pictures, a single spark of light flying around her along with her movements. Of course Octavia knew what that was... Sweetie had her blade.
It was a notable point in life for unicorn knights to earn their blade, and as weird as it was, Octavia felt a slight tinge of pride for this little filly she had just met. It still horrified her that Esteem would train such a young filly to kill... but there it was. That was a dangerous thing. Octavia had to keep her cool and calm mind... a lot of things depended on her being careful, after all. These days ponies did not live long if they were thought of as enemies of the crown.
She had to remember... Sweetie was for all intents and purposes a very dangerous pony; her position, her situation, who she was, who was training her... the fluidity of her motions, even as a rookie fighter... the fact that she was a filly... there was so much to consider.
Octavia was painfully aware that Rarity, Sweetie Belle’s sister, was working against Titan’s rule. It would be tough, very tough, for this filly to fight against her own blood.
Octavia silently cursed, unable to take her eyes away, or chase off the feeling of regret she felt when the possibility of this filly killing somepony she knew crossed her mind. Even if they were the enemy.
She had been unable to deny the filly the answers she sought. There was an unmistakable rapport between the two, and Octavia had opened up and warmed to the filly with extraordinary ease. It almost felt like they were two friends who simply hadn't seen each other for a while. It seemed they had even studied under the same teachers at times. Octavia would begin to say something and Sweetie would react as if just reminded, and finish the sentence. It was uncanny if not also more than a tad perturbing.
Sweetie had clearly been affected deeply by some emotional conundrum... while she had played with her, Octavia had sensed an abiding sadness that permeated every chord she played. She had gone through the motions, discussing music and playing to get her mind in order and— and for what?
What had Sweetie come to understand when they had played together? They had been midway through yet another melody when the cadet had walked in, waiting impatiently for them to finish. Octavia had been shaken by his presence, fearing for a moment that he was there for her... but Sweetie seemed to have been expecting him and as soon as they had finished, she had thanked Octavia and left, her steps sure and her head high.
And now that sweet little filly was being taught to kill. By her own father. Good reasons or not... it was tragic... more than tragic, to kill your own... Octavia shook her head. “It isn’t natural.”
She looked up when a guard looked at her curiously and followed her gaze down to the patio. Smiling sheepishly, she turned around and trotted away, hoping to avoid trouble.
When she arrived at her room, she found herself face to face with the cadet, who looked at her impassively. “Octavia Philharmonica.”
She gulped, and nodded. “Y-yes?”
The cadet simply looked at her. “The General wishes to speak to you.”
There was no question as to who the General was. “Of course,” she said, eyes wide she could feel her blood grow cold with anxiety. “I-it would be my honor.”
The cadet nodded. “Make yourself presentable and meet him at his office in exactly three minutes.”
“Y-yes sir,” she whispered, mind reeling.
“Guard!” The cadet called.
Soon, one stepped into view. “Yes, sir?”
“Watch Miss Philharmonica,” the cadet ordered, trotting past them. “She has an appointment with the General in three minutes. Make sure she arrives on time.”
Esteem considered the amulet he had obtained from one of the royal mages before the sound of hooves striking stone reached him. He put it around his neck and turned around in time to see a slightly gasping earth pony with a gray coat pause before his office door, arrange her mane and take a deep, calming breath before cautiously knocking on his door, even though she was clearly aware that he had seen her.
Esteem nodded, signaling for her to come in, and motioned for her to stand across from his desk. He took a moment to study her further. She kept herself well-groomed; her coat had been brushed, as had her mane and tail.
She had carefully treated hooves, each of them filed to perfection. Her cutie mark was a striking contrast in color with her coat, being a purple clef note. Her disposition was formal and professional, not soldierlike, but clearly she was disciplined. She seemed nervous... a trait to be expected when ponies dealt with him, so that was not a stain on his first impression of her, after all, she was a civilian, not even a noble, and yet handled herself with more pride and assurance that most of those buffoons.
He smirked. Such a pony would have gone far in the army. Especially his army.
"Miss Philharmonica," he said after a moment. "Thank you for accepting my request for your presence at so short notice."
She bowed slightly, composing herself and erasing all traces of nervousness. "It's my honor, General, to be of service. What may I do for you, sir?"
"I was informed earlier, that you have been spending time with my daughter, Allure," Esteem said.
Octavia seemed confused for a fraction of a second, then nodded. "Yes, I did indeed spend some time with her, sir."
"What are your impressions of her?" he asked.
She cleared her throat, no doubt seeking the most appropriate response. It would hardly do to unwittingly insult the younger daughter of the most influential pony alive.
"She is a gifted cello player, sir," she said, surprising him. "It was what drew me to her, when I was passing by and heard her playing. Her balance... it's amazing how much body control she has at such a young age."
"Balance?" Esteem asked. "What does that have to do with a unicorn playing the cello?"
"Oh." She was a bit more nervous now. "I'm sorry sir, I had assumed you were aware that her training included playing as an Earth Pony would. It is not unheard of, but it is certainly unusual; most unicorns concentrate only on the fine details of bow control and the chords, since it resonates more with their inclination towards magic. Swe— Allure, on the other hoof, has taken the time to understand how her body works and has developed the keen sense of balance needed for ponies to maintain a posture that is unnatural to us... which is required to play the cello for an Earth Pony."
"I see," Esteem said, giving her a blank look. "Would this sense of balance be attained by dancing perhaps?"
Octavia shook her head. "No, although it would certainly help. It's a bit more specialized and requires one’s position to be fixed, while the body adapts to weight and small movements. It is aided by a better understanding of a pony's own anatomical capabilities, and as I said, it is based on a different set of requirements than balance through momentum."
Esteem nodded, thoughtfully. "Any idea who taught her?"
Octavia blinked again, but shook her head. "No... although her style seems familiar. If he hadn't passed away years ago, I would have said it had been my own mentor, Sky Note, who had taught her."
"Very well," Esteem said after a brief pause. "What else can you tell me about Allure?"
Octavia tilted her head in thought, "She seems... sad. Her choice of music, Kol Nidrei, is a particularly deep piece, but most assuredly not an optimistic one. She seems to be trying to work through some sort of resolution and was playing to keep her mind clear."
"And what is it, exactly, that you did while in my daughter's company?"
"I..." Octavia shifted nervously, clearly thinking that she might have overstepped her bounds. "I offered to help her finish the piece... she was stuck and unable to get through it. So I offered my assistance, she accepted, and I went to get my cello. We played for a couple of hours, until your assistant..."
"The cadet," Esteem acknowledged.
"Yes, the cadet, arrived, seeking Sw-Allure."
"My... assistant... indicated that the two of you were behaving like old friends."
Octavia smiled a little, lost in the recent memory. "It certainly seemed like that... she knew exactly what I meant when I suggested a minor fix to her playstyle. She listened and sometimes seemed to read my mind and corrected her posture just by how I looked at her... if I didn't know better, I would have thought we were indeed old friends."
Esteem hummed, considering the mare's words. This ability of Allure's to empathize with those that came close to her was truly a weapon she could use to her advantage, and therefore so could he.
Was it an intentional programming from the spymaster that had trained Allure so effectively? He really needed to find out where this Fleur-de-lis was, and find out if she was responsible for such a versatile, young weapon.
It almost attracted him to this unseen mare, this spymaster that knew her craft so well... if she had had just a little bit more time to cross that moral threshold that held Allure from killing... he shivered in pleasure. His daughter, despite her failings as a bladecaster, would be a deadly enemy to behold. Indeed... he had to find her... at least to extract her training methods and apply them himself.
Octavia had been waiting patiently, though, and he had things to do as well, so he turned his attention back to her. "Whatever music you taught her, or whatever aid you gave her, achieved something important today, and it was in no small measure thanks to that time you helped her deal with her feelings. For that, I thank you. She is now ready to fight for the glory of our king, Titan."
Octavia bowed. "It was my honor, General."
"As such, I have a new task for you," he said, making her start.
"I... um, of course, General, how else might I be of service?"
"I wish you to keep company to my daughter for now, we have... a mission that requires my direct intervention and I do not wish her to be wandering about on her own. You’ve had a desirable effect on her, and she seems rather fond of you... as such, she will trust you."
Esteem locked his eyes with hers. "You will encourage her to learn of our glorious king. You will teach her to follow the values we ascribe to. You will continue tutoring her as much as needed in music, but you will encourage her to learn about war. About effectiveness... I hear music can be a battlefield," he said, raising an eyebrow. "If it can be such, then it can teach her more of what she needs to learn. She needs to be sure of herself and fearless when taking the life of her enemies."
Octavia looked more than a little ill, and but Esteem just waved a hoof dismissively. "I do not expect you to teach her how to kill. She knows that already, even if she doesn't realize it. No, what you will teach her is that it is an acceptable thing to do. Encourage her to take the lives of her enemies, because believe me, Miss Philharmonica, they will kill her if you don't."
"This is not a request," Esteem said slowly, letting his words register. "It's an order. I do not believe you find dealing with my daughter a burden. That will make it easier. You both will accompany us into the tunnels. She trusts you, and she needs to hear these words from a pony she trusts."
Octavia had closed her mouth and looked at him attentively when he had spoken again. After a moment of thought, she finally nodded, not that she had been given much of a choice in the matter. "General, it will be my honor and pleasure to assist your daughter in her endeavors to defeat the enemies of Titan."
Esteem considered the mare. Perhaps his words had really reached her. Perhaps she was as capable as she looked. Once again, the thought crossed his mind that this mare, although sadly an Earth Pony and not a Unicorn, would have done well in the army.
"Very well," he said, nodding at her. "You are dismissed. You will find Allure in the patio, training with the dummies. Follow the corner to the right of my office, and you will see it straight ahead. The guards will be expecting you."
Octavia nodded and stepped back, not turning from him, until she was out of his office.
Rarity looked down at the reports she had been given with barely any interest. It wasn't that she didn't want to work on them, after all, the cause was very important, but the fact was that her thoughts were on other things... or rather, on other ponies. She had never thought her father would do something like this. The thought that he would turn a puppet or another filly into a replica of Sweetie Belle just to mess with her head... it was downright evil.
And what disturbed her more was how close she had come to giving herself over to this ruse. She couldn't deny that Applejack had suffered the same anxiety as she had, after all, Apple Bloom would have naturally been right next to Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo. The Crusaders were inseparable, and if one was in danger, chances were the other two would be in similar circumstances, or worse... and yet, Applejack had held herself back.
She had taken things calmly, allowed for word on the whereabouts of the Buffalo to arrive. Rarity shook her head, her eyes drifting to the cavernous walls of her room. It would have been so easy to fall for it... and Esteem would have taken one of Twilight's most important assets off the board. Who knows what that monster would have done then. Put a shard in her eye, like he did to Twilight and turn her into a monster? She shuddered.
When the knock at her door interrupted her thoughts, she almost gleefully jumped up, ready to think about something else. "It's open!"
The door opened an inch and a pony she didn't know peeked in. "General Rarity? Your presence is requested at an urgent meeting."
Rarity sighed, but nodded as the pony left, closing the door behind him. "More to take care of, no doubt," she muttered. After a quick check on the mirror, and making sure her mane was just right, she hurried out of the room and strode purposefully towards the meeting hall. Her eyes strayed to the hundreds of ponies trapped under Canterlot, separated from friends and family... most of them had lost someone close to their hearts, and they had escaped as far as they could without being killed... only a few were fit to fight, even if most were willing.
She silently cursed her father for his betrayal of Celestia. If it wasn't for him... none of this would be happening.
She finally made it to the room, where her friends and Princess Luna were already waiting. She took in the scene. Luna was off to the side, as usual a hovering, mysterious, almost angry presence... a ruse, of course, but one that she was very effective in keeping. However her eyes betrayed a bit more worry than usual. Pinkie Pie was as full of energy as usual, perhaps unable to really grasp the severity of this new situation.
Applejack paced nervously, too honest to even attempt to look casual and looking over Twilight's shoulder as their leader investigated a color-coded, three-dimensional magic map of the tunnels with her usual intensity. Only one block was highlighted red, while the others were in a mixture of green, yellow and gray.
Fluttershy stood to the side of Twilight, trying her best to project calmness, but it was clear she was worried as well.
Rainbow Dash was circling over the table, like an eagle, ready to land, but she looked more worried than resolute.
"Well, it seems we're all here!" Rarity said, trying her best to force a smile and sound upbeat. "Twilight, darling, you should take a break from last-minute meetings, it can't possibly be good for you."
"Rarity.” Twilight didn't even look from the map. “We have a problem."
Rarity's mouth twisted as she took a seat. "What's happening?"
"One of our spies has informed us that Esteem's soldiers have apparently found an object of great power in one of the tunnels... however, I never heard of this tunnel, it doesn't appear in my maps, and Celestia never mentioned there being a weapon or magical item of any type in here. And this is exactly the sort of thing she would have mentioned."
Rarity nodded, looking at the map while Twilight moved her focus from area to area. "Wherever it is, we’ll need to get there before Esteem does. We need to procure this item and ensure that it is used for our cause."
"The problem is that there's little information on what it is, and it was their patrol that found it, although thankfully one of our spies heard of it... he was still retained for too long before being able to excuse himself and pass the word, along with any details he could provide," Twilight said. "And now, I have to find the quickest route to that place and we have to get there before Esteem. I don't even know if we can."
"Also," Rainbow Dash added, "Our spy overheard a pony that had been talking to Sweet—" She shook her head. "The fake Sweetie, he said the pony said that the filly was 'unnatural', and called her an 'it'."
Rarity's eyes hardened. "So... a puppet then. Good. I won't have to hold back."
Twilight cleared her throat, recalling their attention. "That's fine, but this is the more pressing issue right now." She pointed at the map, where several routes had been highlighted in green, as well as one in yellow.
"We're going to have to interrupt Esteem's group here..." Her hoof followed the route in yellow. "It'll be dangerous, but the only thing we need to do is distract them long enough for any of the other teams to get here..." She made the red block glow stronger.
"Once you reach there, retrieve the object they are looking for and head back here..." another section blinked. "This is where all the tunnels in question cross. Once we have that, and have rendezvoused at the extraction point, we collapse it behind us." Twilight looked up at the gang. "Is that clear?"
The mares nodded.
"Good, then let's get going."
Sweetie looked up at Octavia in confusion. "You're coming with us? But..." Her eyes scanned around them before she leaned forward and whispered. "You're not a fighter, Tavi... what if you get hurt?"
Octavia shook her head. "General Esteem has told me I'll be protected, and as a loyal follower of Titan, I can only do what little I can to help."
Sweetie was not convinced, but chose to rather sit down next to her interdimensional music mentor. "You don't have to come."
Octavia laughed a little. "It's only to explore a little area, and we'll be surrounded by guards and Titan's puppets. I think we'll both be okay."
Sweetie Belle for her part only sighed, but then she looked up, eyes hardening. "Well, I'm sticking with you until we're back. I'll protect you."
"Then I will be well-protected," Octavia replied with a grin.
"It's just sudden, you know," Sweetie said, looking at the guards with a frown. "I understand why they are doing this, but..."
"Look, Sweetie," Octavia placed a hoof on the filly's shoulder. "I'll be okay. I-I chose to go with you because I think you need a friend among all these soldiers. I will stay out of sight, and I will hide if needed. But I can't, in good conscience, let you go by yourself."
Sweetie smiled and nuzzled her friend affectionately. "You're a great friend, Tavi. And a great teacher."
Octavia laughed awkwardly, unsure of how to respond.
Preparation suddenly ceased around them, however, when General Esteem trotted into the training grounds. "We are ready to go," he declared, facing the troops. "We will be going deep into the tunnels under Canterlot. This is the territory of betrayers of the crown, murderers and cowards. So be on your guard." His eyes scanned the group. "You all have your orders, follow them."
Immediately there was a flurry of activity that lasted less than a minute, and soon the large group was set and ready to go. They marched out of the training grounds, and were joined by several puppets, who surrounded the normal ponies and marched with unique precision.
"I've seen those around," Sweetie whispered to Octavia. "What are they?"
Octavia looked at the puppets for a moment, before turning her eyes down to Sweetie. "The puppets are a gift to us from our gods, Titan and Terra. They guard us and protect us from those that would harm ponies loyal to them."
Sweetie's eyes were glued to one of them, as it marched just a few feet away. "Magical constructs... but how are they tied together? Is there a rune sketch inside the fabric used to make them? Is it real fabric?"
Octavia laughed. "Well, Sweetie, you are asking the wrong mare those questions. You'd be better off asking—"
"Twilight Sparkle?" Sweetie immediately spoke up, making at least three soldiers tense and almost miss a step.
"Um... no." Octavia's smile became a bit forced. "She betrayed us and joined the side of Luna the usurper and her friends."
"Oh... right," Sweetie sighed. "I forgot. It's just weird fighting her again... sort of.”
Octavia blinked. "You fought Twilight?"
"Uh, a... piece of her, basically. Not a full-powered one." She looked down. "I can't imagine what that would have been like. I'd probably die. Several times."
A guard next to them chuckled. "Don't be silly, you can only die once."
Sweetie looked up at him straight in the eye. "Really? Are you sure?"
The guard stammered, missing a step, and getting a shove from behind. "I-I... I think so?"
"Yeah, well, it's not fun to die more than once."
Everypony around her fell silent at that for the next few minutes.
Finally, it was Octavia who broke the silence. "Are you saying that you've died before, Sweetie Belle? Then how are you here now?"
Sweetie shrugged, looking at the curious glances around her. "I... was once trapped in a sort of spell... that made me relive the same day over and over again. And this... thing, that fragment of Twilight that I had to fight created a maze with deadly traps. We-I... couldn't get out until I defeated all the tests and fought Twilight."
The guards looked confused and scared, but Octavia looked concerned. The cellist finally leaned in and gave her a careful and brief nuzzle. "Hey, Sweetie, it will be okay. That only happened once, right?"
"More like twenty," Sweetie muttered, although she was sure Octavia had heard it. "In any case... try not to get killed."
The soldiers nodded uneasily, and Octavia seemed to be thinking about something, so Sweetie decided to concentrate on her surroundings. Esteem had little patience and had taken the quickest route out, which had involved them marching a whole platoon through courtyards usually reserved for the nobility.
The nobles, however, rather than be annoyed, as they would have been anywhere else, alarmed, startled even as they quickly stepped out of the way, giving them a wide berth and panicky glances.
There was no doubt that they were much more scared than annoyed or offended. She thought she even saw Prince Blueblood, but the image of her big brother did not really fit with the blonde unicorn who had taken a dive into a trash container when he had seen them coming. She smiled.
Her Blueblood would have stayed in place and used his charm to... get killed by Esteem, probably, so maybe trash-diving wasn't necessarily the worst idea.
They were soon out of the castle grounds and the guards began to look more wary as they approached the tunnel entrance where their search would truly begin. Whatever had been found could only be a powerful artifact if this was how they were reacting to it. Whatever it was, Esteem did not want it in the hooves of Rarity and her friends, and with good reason...
Sweetie shivered at the memory of the decimated butchered caravan. She had seen for herself Rarity's berserker rage when she had attacked them soon after. Meeting her sister here was definitely not going to be a happy reunion.
Esteem kept his eyes straight ahead, concentrating only on his objective. He had memorized the most efficient route and there was little interest in detours. He glanced to his right hindquarter, where the cadet trotted briskly. "Be ready for an attack. I have little doubt that Twilight Sparkle will be already aware of our mission."
The cadet nodded. "Shall we redouble our efforts to expose her spies?"
"Not at this time," Esteem snorted. "For the moment they are useful. I am sure that my daughter and her friends will try to reach our objective first, perhaps with one or two attempts at distracting us. But as long as we head straight, we'll force them into a confrontation, giving me another chance to convince my older daughter of her rightful place. Between her, Allure and myself, we'll be invincible."
The cadet's face remained calm. "And if she doesn't comply? Will she kill Allure?"
Esteem shook his head. "Rarity might be many things, but she's not that yet. Killing an innocent filly is beyond her, especially when said filly is her own sister. I imagine there will be several attempts to dissuade Allure from my side."
The cadet glanced back briefly. "The reason for Octavia, I assume."
Esteem nodded, looking back ahead. "She is a true believer in Titan, and outspoken against the barbaric betrayals perpetrated by Twilight Sparkle and her cohorts. Her words, not mine." Esteem grinned. "She is the perfect means to turn Allure’s weakness to a strength. She helped her already achieve an objective... now it's just a matter of placing Miss Philharmonica in the right place at the right time..."
He smiled. This looked to be a promising day.
With little fanfare or resistance, they had made their way deep into the tunnels. The entrance to the section they would be going to was well-guarded, and the size of his troops most likely intimidated any smaller bands of guerillas from attempting anything. The fact that half the platoon consisted of puppets was still further deterrent for the loyalists to attack.
Pinkie Pie followed Rainbow Dash with her eyes.
Ever since they had arrived, just a minute after Esteem's platoon had reached the turn, the cyan pegasus fluttered over the gathered ponies impatiently, sometimes zooming from one end of the cavern to the other, and other times simply hovering and glaring at the wall they would bring down to attack Esteem's group.
"Hey, Dashie!" Pinkie called, "Why so strung out?!"
Rainbow Dash turned to look at her. "Come on, Pinkie! You know exactly why! We had to gallop all the way here and now we have to just wait?!"
"Aww! But it's what makes it exciting!" Pinkie chimed back. "The tension! The itch at the base of your spine that just won’t go away until it feel like you’re going to just snap!" A few of the ponies around edged away from her, but she paid them no mind. "It's like a surprise party! Only with mortal combat!"
Rainbow Dash shook her head and dropped down next to Pinkie Pie. "Pinks, that's usually not a good thing."
"But! We're going to stop Esteem from getting the artifact! And we're distracting him long enough for Twilight to get there!"
"Yes, but why do we have to wait until they're already halfway there?" Rainbow Dash hissed, motioning towards the wall, where a small crack allowed them to see the large group of puppets and soldiers passing by.
"Silly! We're creating a distraction! If we attack the front it would be too obvious!" Pinkie replied, sneaking her foreleg around Rainbow Dash's neck and pulling her close for a hug. "Besides! We get a chance to destroy that Sweetie Belle puppet if we time it right! That would make things much easier for Rarity!"
Rainbow Dash, who had been struggling in Pinkie's grasp, rolled her eyes when she heard that. "Okay, fine! I just wish we could get this over and done with!"
"We will!" Pinkie said, her smile widening. "And you know why?"
Rainbow Dash arched an eyebrow. "Why?"
Pinkie's smile became even bigger as she pulled out a ridiculously large remote detonator with an even more ridiculously large red button marked ‘BOOM.’ "Because it's time!"
Rainbow Dash's eyes went wide and she scrambled out of the way as Pinkie slammed her hoof down on the button and the wall behind her exploded, showering everypony with debris and dust.
Without wasting a second, Rainbow Dash flew out, tackling the first of the pegasi guards that had recovered from the explosion. She spun in place and pitched him into another guard, hard. The pair rolled on the floor before stopping in a groaning heap, but she was already onto the next two, ducking under a spear at the same time her hooves kicked out, knocking the air from her opponent.
Beneath her, Pinkie Pie had moved in, a bolt of pink-hued lightning. She slid under a puppet, dragging a blade through its underbelly and didn't even turn to look at it as it poofed out of existence. Her legs were already kicking a guard’s knees out from under him, making him drop and allowing her to roll on his back and propelled herself up with a backhoof snap-kick that knocked the guard unconscious. She vaulted over the next two, slamming down with her forehooves on their heads and using them as a springboard to her next target.
And she knew where she was going... just a few ponies ahead, she could see the Sweetie Belle imposter standing alongside another pony. She was almost there! When she landed, three guards attempted to stop her, but she was too quick, barely tapping them, she rolled past and pulled the strings to the explosives she’d attached to them.
The guards cried out in surprise when their armors exploded and sent them rolling or flying back, crashing onto their fellow soldiers and disrupting their attempts to reach her.
It was then that Sweetie Belle turned towards her, eyes wide. Her horn lit up, and Pinkie crouched, ready to jump over whatever spell Sweetie Belle would cast, but to her surprise, what happened was that a shimmering shield formed around the filly and the cello player, protecting them from whatever attack would come their way...
The filly had not attacked! The filly had not attacked! Those eyes! They were real! Too real!
Green eyes, innocent, scared and familiar locked with blue eyes, suddenly happy and hopeful, and the world seemed to halt around Pinkie Pie.
The world started up again, feeling her body warning her as much as Rainbow Dash's shout. Without looking, she ducked, barely dodging the shards of one of the unicorn guard's magical blades. With a soured puss, she rolled away, making herself a very difficult target to hit as she slipped and dodged her way through the other guards. "Retreat!" she called out.
Immediately she saw her group of ponies and Rainbow Dash fighting their way back. With a last, quick glance at the still shielded Sweetie Belle, Pinkie Pie tumbled her way through the mass of confused guards, managing to disable several on her way to the edge of the platoon, before throwing herself into a hard gallop. She caught up with her group, and soon Rainbow Dash was flying next to her, while Esteem's commanding voice rose behind them.
"What happened there?!" Rainbow Dash asked, a bit angrily. "You were almost there!"
"We have a problem!" Pinkie Pie retorted, her mind racing. "A big problem!"
"Yeah! You didn't destroy the Sweetie Puppet!"
"She's not a puppet!" Pinkie Pie said. “She’s a real filly!”
"What?!" Rainbow Dash actually stopped for a second, staring open-mouthed at Pinkie Pie. "What do you mean she's not a puppet?!"
"I can't explain it!" Pinkie replied urgently. "It's... it's like my Pinkie sense, okay? When I saw her up close... I just knew! She's not a puppet, she's a real filly!"
"But that doesn't make any sense! How would Esteem even—"
They were interrupted by a lance hurling between them. The pair looked back towards the troops galloping their way and shared a quick glance before galloping and flying away.
"I know!" Pinkie called up, glancing at the pegasus. "But she is! And Rarity doesn't know!"
"We have to tell her!" Rainbow Dash shouted back. "Somehow! Twilight and Rarity need to know!"
"I-I don't know!"
The attack lasted just a few seconds, and then they were retreating back into the tunnel, drawing the attention of several puppets and soldiers.
"Team 5 and seven puppets!" Esteem snapped, making everyone stop. "You know your mission!"
The group split off, chasing after the attackers, leaving the main force to carry on. "Forward!" Esteem commanded. "That was just a diversion; our objective still lies ahead!"
Once again the main force moved forward, and only a few minutes had passed before another small group, this one led by Applejack and Fluttershy, attacked.
The earth pony tried to make her way down the line towards Sweetie, but there were too many puppets to deal with, even with Fluttershy's strange ability to stare at them and destroy them.
Soon enough the group was engaged in battle and once more was called to retreat, only to be followed by another team and puppets.
"They seem rather eager to go after my daughter," Esteem mused.
"It makes sense," the cadet replied. "They know that Rarity will be trouble if you use Allure against her."
Esteem snorted. "Rarity will be trouble regardless... I will have both of my daughters on my side, Cadet."
"Indeed you will, sir."
As the large group continued, the tunnels started changing. No longer was it the structured form that spoke of careful—if a bit excessive—planning. The workmanship became sloppy... the path under their hooves was uneven, and at a certain point ceased to be a pony-made road at all and just became a naturally worn path of dirt and rocks. There was a sense of otherworldliness in the air, as if the whole area had been bathed in something akin to Titan's aura.
"It seems like this section was never finished," the cadet spoke up, unusual for the normally stoic soldier.
Esteem glanced at him, amused at his discomfort before he looked around, examining the walls. "There is no attempt at working these, Cadet. This is a natural cavern that they likely stumbled upon while creating the rest of the maze. This artifact may even be older than Canterlot itself."
The cadet grimaced. "It's a wonder it hadn’t been taken prior... why wouldn't either of the princesses have in the first place?"
Esteem frowned, the same thought having crossed his mind. "Maybe they were unable to do so... it could be one of Titan's relics, or perhaps even Discord's."
The conversation died as soon as they arrived at their destination. A shrine of sorts had been built around the artifact, with heavy metallic doors engraved with vague warnings about the princesses' ire were one to attempt to steal what lay within. Esteem turned around and faced his troops. "Spread out along the perimeter! Keep yourselves in your teams. The puppets already have their orders. The cadet will be in command until I return!"
His eyes swept the troops until they settled on the two ponies that would accompany him in there. "Allure, Miss Philharmonica, follow me," he ordered.
"Dammit, we didn't make it before them!" Twilight groaned. "But we can't let them get ahold of that artifact!"
"I just saw Esteem, the fake, and another enter the temple," Rarity whispered. "If you can teleport me to the entrance, perhaps I can slip in... I can take care of the two of them."
Twilight's mind raced, considering possibilities. "It's not that simple. If we did that, we'd leave our backs unprotected. We'd be risking too much..."
"Well, then why did you bring us?" Unimpressive asked, approaching the pair with Noble in tow. "The way I look at it, you’ve already considered this possibility."
Twilight nodded. "I have, but I won’t have needless casualties on my watch."
Noble tilted his head, while Unimpressive scowled and spoke up. "You have to get over it, Sparkles. Some of us will die, it's the way of things."
"Not if I do my job right," Twilight snorted, her focus on the composition of Esteem's troops. With a nod of her head, she turned to face her own troop. "With what forces we have, and with Cadet in command instead of Esteem, we should be able to minimize, if not completely neutralize casualties on our side... perhaps on both sides if we're lucky."
Unimpressive rolled his eyes, but the rest of her troops gathered round while she explained her plan. It was simple enough, but required a few specific taunts that the enemy had to fall for.
She would be playing off their well-known weaknesses. By the end of her exposition, even Unimpressive was smiling.
Rarity watched and waited.
Twilight’s plan was simple, but one that would undoubtedly find success with the Cadet being the only tactical mind left outside the temple. The Cadet was an effective lieutenant, but he lacked Esteem’s broader scope when it came to tactics. The moment Twilight had begun the attack, he reacted just as his training dictated.
It was more smoke and mirrors than anything, tricking the enemy into thinking that they were being flanked by a considerable force when the other side of the camp was attacked, just as they all rushed to protect the first point of contact.
It was a simple ruse, one Esteem would have never fallen for, but one Cadet was not prepared for. His forces were immediately split almost evenly, leaving the center with just a token number of soldiers and puppets to protect the temple's door. When the third, and actual attack came, the enemy was immediately pushed back.
Cadet barked orders from his position, galloping to and fro, trying to galvanize his troops. He didn't even send pegasi into the air until he saw Twilight's own looming above. He didn't act. He reacted. In so many words, he was simply nothing more than Twilight's plaything. She was hardly even pressing the attack, given the limited space they had, but kept pushing and pulling, attacking everything and holding back on certain areas.
The air was filled with magic, bolts and shards of it charged with ill-intention, but Twilight's talent was magic, and she made full use of it, her knowledge of war and magic allowing her to break their opponent's ranks with nary a weapon clashing.
And all through this, Rarity watched and waited. Soon, her time would come to act... if Twilight's predictions were right...
"Now," Twilight said, appearing right next to Rarity. "Are you ready? The moment Cadet rushes I'll teleport you there. Will you be okay?"
Rarity nodded. "I'm not worried about his little golem, now that it’s revealed for what it is. The mare was an earth pony; I doubt she'll have Applejack's regenerative ability. And my father..." Her eyes darkened. "He won't get his hooves on the artifact."
Twilight nodded. "Here we go then!"
Just as predicted, Esteem's army was once more open down the middle. How Cadet had managed to fall so quickly for their gambit was anypony's guess, but Esteem sorely needed somepony less predictable to act as his assistant. When Unimpressive burst through the middle, tossing ponies around like ragdolls, and challenged him, Cadet forgot all about his mission and charged down.
"Truly a leader." Rarity shook her head.
"Works for us!" Twilight grinned nervously. "Be careful!"
"I will!" Rarity said, quickly touching her hoof to her friend's shoulder and nodding. "Now, send me over."
Twilight nodded and soon the world around Rarity exploded into light. She felt a rush of energy and heard something akin to wind rushing by incredibly fast, almost like one of the pegasi-generated tornadoes, and suddenly, she was standing just outside the temple's doors, the army’s back to her.
Rarity grinned and opened the door just enough to slip inside.
The sounds of battle faded into a dull thrum behind her the moment the heavy door closed. It was almost impossible to hear anything from the outside, while the temple itself was quiet as a tomb. She slowly started to make her way in.
It seemed to be largely a crater within the mountain the ancient ponies had somehow crafted their 'temple' around. Possibly caused by the same object that had created the tunnel they had followed there. There wasn't much to say about the decor. Stone columns, crafted out of the walls, were merely decorative, rather than necessary. The only element not created from the cave itself was the floor, which was made out of stone tiles.
At the end of the decidedly unimpressive hall, was a statue of a pony on it's hind legs, on one hoof it held a flag, on the other a... star? It was a crystal of some sort, purple and glowing. As she approached, she noticed that the statue had been carved out of the stone as well. There were inscriptions under it, in a language that Rarity did not understand, but from the look of the statue, it was a warning.
Rarity slowed and looked at the floor, her trained eyes quickly noticing the scorch marks on the floor a few tiles ahead. The marks were fresh. Frowning, she looked around and found a small, loose stone on the side of the corridor. She levitated it and tossed it past the scorch marks.
Immediately the crystal flared and the stone was disintegrated just like that. There wasn't even any powder to speak of. Had Esteem and his little entourage stepped too close and been destroyed? Could things really be so easy?
A small scraping sound behind her made her turn around.
Sweetie Bel—no. It wasn't her sister. It's his puppet. Rarity glanced beside the fabricated filly, certain her father's eyes were upon her, eager to enjoy the pain it would cause her to fight her own sister. But Sweetie is safe with the buffalo and your farce is revealed, father.
When the golem opened it's mouth, to talk perhaps, to lull her into her father's concocted fantasy, Rarity simply reacted. Vorpal flew out, ready for battle. The little golem's eyes widened, a single, floating diamond floated out to meet the challenge. A single, lonely shard pitted against her own fourteen. Were she not so angry, Rarity might have laughed at the inequity. How dare he!? How dare he make something to look like my sister?!
She didn't even hesitate to send her shards flying. "I will destroy you, you abomination!"
The little golem proved more nimble than Rarity had anticipated though, rolling out of the way, even taking its diamond out of the way. Had she not done that, she would have been part of the tile that had been pulverized into dust.
Rarity growled, knowing that she had been too angry to act like a bladecaster should. Vorpal reformed around her. This time she was going to fight like Luna's General, not an angry mare.
The golem’s horn flickered, Vorpal shooting forward in expectation of an attack before the temple went black.
As Sweetie had followed Esteem into the so-called temple, she had noted quite readily that it wasn’t all that impressive. Certainly nothing comparable to many other places she had visited, but still, it had an eerie quality to it that made her nervous.
There was something there. Something that was definitely not happy. She couldn't tell how she knew... but she could feel it in the stagnant air, permeating the walls and floors. If there was no guardian in here, whatever the artifact was, it was powerful and worse than that... it was aware.
Sweetie kept her eyes focused on her surroundings until Esteem stopped them. In front of them was a statue of a pony standing on her hind-legs, much as Sweetie and Octavia did when playing the cello. But that wasn't what drew her attention, it was the purple gem resting in its hoof.
A fragment! Sweetie's eyes widened. "But... how long has it been here?"
Esteem glanced at the inscription at the base of the statue. "Judging by the look of that at least seven hundred years."
Sweetie cringed when Esteem took a step forth. "Wait... if it's been here for that long you shouldn't—"
Whatever she had been about to say was interrupted when the fragment flared and a blast of magic scorched the ground where Esteem had been but a moment ago. Twice more he jumped, avoiding a second and third blast from the statue before he was safely out of range.
Sweetie could feel her heart thudding away in her chest as Esteem nonchalantly dusted himself off. As she calmed down, her attention turned from her father to the statue. If it truly was a fragment, then perhaps...
Carefully, she took a step towards the statue.
“Allure…” Esteem warned. “Don’t get too close.”
Sweetie looked over her shoulder at her father and smiled. “I think I’ll be—”
She stopped when she heard the door begin to open. The three ponies shared a look, and Esteem quickly herded them to the side, where a secluded crevice, perhaps a natural fissure, provided them some cover.
She held her breath as she watched Rarity stride in alone. Her sister had a look she had never seen on her. It was… angry, predatory… it made her heart twist in pain. How could her sister, of all ponies, have such a murderous look?
“Look at her,” Esteem whispered, startling both Sweetie and Octavia. “She’s lost her direction: she just blindly the orders of Twilight Sparkle and her ilk.” He shook his head.
Octavia nodded. “Sweetie, you must confront her, maybe you can bring her to the right side of this war…” she said softly, putting an encouraging hoof on Sweetie’s shoulder and trying not to cringe under Esteem’s gaze. “If anypony can help her it’s you, but…” She grimaced. “Like the General said… you’ll have to stop her if she won’t listen to reason.”
Sweetie gulped and nodded, looking fearfully at the approaching mare.
They watched in silence as Rarity made her way to where they had been standing before. She stopped just outside the fragment’s spell radius, having noticed the scorch marks. Rarity levitated a stone and tossed it at the statue, watching with interest as it was disintegrated in a second.
Sweetie took her chance. Her sister distracted, she slid silently behind her before she hesitated, hoof scraping against the floor unconsciously. How could she talk to her sister when—
Before she could plan her approach, Rarity had spun around to face her.
The older mare's expression went from surprise to shock to anger to subsumed by hate so quickly that Sweetie's eyes had barely widened before her instinct took over. She rolled to the side, Akela already at the ready as her sister's shout rang in her ears.
Akela flew out, ready for battle.
Standing up and summoning her magic she noticed that the spot where she had been standing had been destroyed. Her eyes hardened, and inside her, she felt something break. She had been so sure Rarity would be happy to see her… that she would talk to her and they could figure this out. But this… this was not her Rarity. This was a killer, a monster wearing her sister’s skin.
Just as Rarity composed herself and summoned her sword, Sweetie readied her magic. ‘Maybe I can’t beat you head on, but let’s see how you handle this!’
The whole room went dark under the influence of the filly’s spell, and Sweetie could immediately see the effect on her sister. Rarity glanced around wildly, unsure on how to react. ‘Maybe I can still get through to her… I can still talk to her but I need to get her to listen!
Sweetie quickly cantered to the side and Rarity was tossed onto the floor by a clod of earth suddenly knocking her down. However, Rarity’s focus didn’t waver. She was on her hooves not a second later, and Vorpal extended out in a ring around her.
Sweetie could see her sister was concentrating, and when she tapped the floor to send flames in Rarity’s way, she found out why.
A shard of Vorpal flew out immediately towards Sweetie’s location. It clashed with Akela, but Sweetie was already jumping to the side, dodging three more shards that had followed, slicing through the stone tiles around where she had been standing.
She came to realize that Rarity was nowhere near as predictable as the cadet. Every time Sweetie sent a spell her way, it was at best a partial hit and at worst dodged entirely by her sister. The trade off was the loss of her cover in the darkness, shards of Vorpal striking at the filly’s former position each time as she barely avoided being skewered by the blade.
Akela flew in a few times, sliding past Vorpal’s defensive ring and slicing at Rarity’s coat, but Sweetie still did not have the will to be anything more than a nuisance and she was beginning to realize it: she didn’t have it in her.
She couldn’t do any real damage! It went against everything she had ever been taught! And it was this hesitation that cost her.
She barely registered the shard of Rarity’s blade that went through her foreleg until it had. Crying out, Sweetie collapsed on the floor, allowing her spell to falter, light flooding back into the room.
Rarity whirled to face her, fourteen glittering shards of pure death and hate pointed her way.
But, as the shards shot towards their destination they were obscured by a blur of gray, then black as something wrapped around her
She heard a series dull thuds and a pained gasp before it became warm and wet.
While leaving Canterlot, Octavia had kept an eye on both Sweetie Belle and Esteem. It galled her that the father of such a loving, innocent filly would want to train her to fight and kill ponies. It was simply... unnatural.
Yet, Esteem had the ear of Lord Titan himself, god-creator of the world. Even Celestia and Luna had been unable to outwit him, once returned from his imprisonment. He had created ponies. And he had created all other life in this world, surely it was clear for all that he was the one that was in the right.
And Octavia had been convinced of these facts wholly. At least, she had until earlier that day, when she had heard Sweetie play. Having gotten to know the filly, her conviction had faltered. Was it truly the nature of ponies to make war? To attack and kill? She had felt a certain affinity for that idea of provable superiority. After all, her own ascension in Canterlot to become the cellist of choice by the royal court had not come without a certain mercenary-like effort.
The strong bested the weak. The fast outran the slow. The best shone from the masses, and would rise to their proper place. Wasn't that the lesson Lord Titan had brought with him? That sometimes those weaker than you would get ahead through underhoofed means, and yet, your own worth was undisputed? That when you emerged again you would be victorious?
It was this conviction she had grown up with. The desire to not just be mediocre, but to claw and kick her way to the top by all means afforded her.
But looking at Esteem... was there any love there, for anything other than battle and control? His eyes never begat any such affection when he regarded Sweetie Belle. Whenever he spoke of Rarity, his voice held naught but a lust for dominance. He admired her skill, her dedication, only insofar as it was a potential tool, a weapon for him to control.
While leading the troops through the Canterlot grounds, she had not seen any hint of respect for anypony that crossed his path. He relished the fear he inspired, and even his second in command, Cadet, was worth nothing more than a second glance in Esteem's perception of the world. He owned Cadet. He owned Sweetie, the army and Octavia herself. They were his to play with and sacrifice as he saw fit. Through choice or coercion, he was at the apex of all... beneath only Lord Titan.
The journey through the tunnels had been terrifying for Octavia. Sweetie had protected her with her shield, but she had seen, for the first time, just how deadly their opponents were. And yet... despite the ease with which Pinkie could have dispatched several soldiers, none were dead. Were these the actions of merciless killers?
Esteem's accounts to the court, or what little remained of it, of the battles were bloodbaths that only got worse when Twilight Sparkle and her cohorts stepped in. That's when everypony in the room would recoil in horror while Esteem described how a pony or puppet were torn to shreds by his daughter, or blown into bits by one of Pinkie's explosives.
There had been none of that here, though. The fighting had been brutal; there was truth in that. But neither Pinkie Pie not Rainbow Dash killed any of their ‘normal’ opponents, although several were unconscious. During both attacks, the only real, permanent losses they had incurred were the puppets. It just didn't make sense. Why would killers and thieves spare every pony they fought if their purpose was to rout the caravan?
When they finally arrived at the temple, their group was a bit smaller, mostly due to Esteem sending off small units to keep their attackers occupied. She stuck close to Sweetie, not daring to part with her and risk being alone in the middle of a battle.
"Spread out along the perimeter! Keep to your teams. The puppets already have their orders. The cadet will be in command until I return!" Esteem called to his army before motioning for her and Sweetie Belle to follow him into the temple. "Allure, Miss Philharmonica, follow me," he ordered.
Octavia nodded and followed... she had expected more, but remained quiet until Rarity's appearance. When everything had gone dark, she had almost bolted, trying to escape. She could hear explosions and the sound of rocks being ground to dust, probably by Rarity's blade.
"Go on," she heard Esteem whisper from somewhere in the darkness. "Try to stop her." He ordered. "The only way to defeat your sister is to be like her and not afraid to kill, Allure. Do it! If you don't, Rarity will kill you! Once she’s at your mercy, then you can reason with her."
As if his whispered words had been a signal, Octavia heard Sweetie scream.
Already, she was galloping to where the scream came from before the darkness disappeared. She saw Rarity turn, her blade poised to attack the filly... this filly. She was an innocent. She was just caught in the middle of a family fight that shouldn't be. Octavia couldn't let this little musician’s life end here.
She dove and enveloped Sweetie in a tight hug. Burning-hot things thudded into her, forcing a gasp from her lungs. Something wet and warm, tasting of... metal... like copper... flooded her mouth and she bent down, cradling a shivering Sweetie under her.
Fighting the pain, she turned her head towards Rarity with a glare. What were you thinking?! she wanted to shout as her chest heaved, blood dribbling from her half-functioning mouth. She took a shuddering, rasping breath. Breathe, she needed to breathe.
"Your sister..." she gurgled accusingly, glare frozen on Rarity as the strength left her.
Rarity stepped back. "W-what are you talking about!? This is not Sweetie Belle!"
Her eyes never left the gray mare. Swee-the gol- the filly under her, pushed out from under the mare, and stared at the limp body in horror. "T-tavi?"
"Tavi! Tavi!" The filly cried, and shaking the body with her hooves as tears started running down her cheeks. "Tavi! Wake up!"
That coat... that mane… Rarity stared at the filly that couldn't, shouldn't, couldn't be Sweetie Belle. Her mane was marred by the gray mare-by Tavi's blood. But her foreleg wore a deep wound, clearly inflicted by one of Vorpal's shards. It was bleeding. This was not a golem! She had almost killed a filly!
"Tavi!" Sweetie screamed once more, lifting the limp head and cradling it while sobs shook her body. "Why, Tavi?" she looked up at Rarity, and the bladecaster was taken aback by the pure anger in that look. "What did she do to you?! Esteem was right! You're a monster!"
The world crumbled around Rarity. Her focus fell completely, and Vorpal clattered to the floor around them, completely forgotten. Something stung and Rarity looked down at her left hoof. Just above it, a thin cut slowly bled out. Only then did she realize that Sweetie Belle—for who else could it be, with those green eyes, that voice, mane and coat—had flared her magic.
She felt another sting, and her shoulder followed the same fate as her hoof, with blood pouring out of a razor-thin cut. Rarity staggered back as more cuts formed on her body, courtesy of Akela, which was flying too quickly for her to catch on to. With her focus gone, she was unable to muster the will to raise Vorpal again.
"Why did it have to be true!?" Sweetie shouted. "Why couldn't you just talk to me? Why did you attack me? I'm your sister! And you killed my teacher-my friend!" she spat, and for once, Akela bit into Rarity's body, cutting a nasty gash on her left hind leg.
Rarity kept stumbling back, until her back hit the wall. Akela much like Vorpal had done to Sweetie, shot through her foreleg and Rarity fell to the side with a cry of pain, leaving a smear of blood on the wall behind her.
Sweetie Belle was suddenly in her face, her own covered in tears and her eyes full of the pain of betrayal. "You're not my sister!" she growled venomously. "You're nothing more than a murderer."
Akela floated up slowly between them, spinning almost lazily in place until it made it's way in by inch to press against Rarity's forehead.
"I don't know what you did or what happened to turn you into this," Sweetie whispered. "But I should-I-I should," she gritted her teeth and glared in pained hatred at Rarity. "I can't." She slumped and Akela clattered to the floor next to her.
"I can't kill you. I can't. I can't. I can't!" she suddenly shouted at Rarity. "I'm not your stupid Sweetie Belle! I'm your sister, trapped in this stupid, moronic world that doesn't make sense! I didn't want to learn how to kill anypony! I just wanted... I wanted to be with my sister. That's all I want... to go back home and be with Twilight and Rarity and get to meet my Tavi and Scratch!"
Sweetie couldn't stop sobbing, and a part of Rarity wanted to hug this little filly, but she knew that was not a good idea. Her own tears marred her vision, but not enough to see the light in the green eyes die a little, and for some reason that hurt more, much more than anything that she had gone through in this fight.
"You killed my Rarity," Sweetie said, pushing herself off of her stunned sister. "You've taken her away... all the Rarity’s. You've made me hate you. How can I ever meet any of you again?" Sweetie simply looked down and closed her eyes, she then slumped forward, and it was all Rarity could do to stop Sweetie from smashing her face onto the floor. She lowered the exhausted filly as carefully as she could.
"Well, that didn't go as expected," a voice Rarity did not want to hear at that moment said. Esteem walked out of where he had been apparently hiding. He stepped up next to Octavia, but didn't move from there. He glanced down at the body and scoffed in disgust. "Useless. At least she played her part."
"Esteem," Rarity growled, trying to get up, but finding that she couldn't. The injuries that Sweetie had inflicted on her, while not mortal, were still debilitating enough to keep her grounded. "You've gone too far, doing this to Sweetie—"
"Allure," Esteem corrected. "And I didn't do anything dear, other than bring her with me. It was you who attacked without provocation. It was you who injured her, and you who killed her only friend in the castle." He smirked. "You should've heard them play together, both extremely talented musicians." He tilted his head. "But now, only Allure remains of their duet."
"I should kill you right now!" Rarity roared, horn flashing for a second and summoning Vorpal around her.
But the spell faltered when she glanced at Sweetie, who was staring at her in silence. Slowly, Vorpal went to rest in its harness, and Rarity looked away.
"Fine. You win. I am your prisoner."
Esteem smiled. "Good! Come then, we should go."
Rarity frowned. "I'm afraid I can't father," she spat, putting as much venom into her voice as she could. "I'm unable to stand up at the moment, perhaps you can show a tiny bit of consideration and come help us both up."
Esteem glanced at them, then his eyes went up.
Rarity blinked and followed his gaze, only then realizing that both her and Sweetie were slumped against the wall that ran behind the statue. Esteem took a small step forth and had to jump back quickly as a magical, purple-red missile smashed where his hoof had been.
Rarity couldn't help it. She started to laugh. It was slightly hysterical, she knew, but she couldn't stop herself. "Oh, Esteem, so close, and yet so far!"
Esteem growled and summoned his own blade. "I swear I will destroy that statue and—"
The doors to the temple flew inward in a blast of pure, unadulterated power, interrupting his tirade. The three ponies stared as Twilight Sparkle herself walked in, glaring at Esteem. "Your forces are routed, general," she threatened. “It’s time to discuss the terms of your surrender.”
Looking back at her, then turning to glare at Rarity and Sweetie Belle, Esteem hesitated for just a second. Then, before any of them could react, he smashed the amulet he had brought with him on the floor, and in a flash of energy, he was gone.
"Rarity," Twilight called, galloping up to her friend. "Did you stop the golem? We have to get out of here before Esteem's troops get their act together!"
"She wasn’t a golem," Rarity said after a moment, looking away from Twilight's horrified eyes. "Grab the gem… believe that's the artifact.” Rarity said.
Applejack galloped into the room, pausing briefly to take the scene before approaching more slowly. “Ah’ll take Sweetie...” she offered, seeing Rarity struggling to stand up. “Let's get out of here."
Rarity nodded, putting away her blade before carefully levitating Sweetie’s single diamond.
Sweetie groaned and opened her eyes. She was in a small cot, and unlike the palatial room she had been staying at before, this room was little more than a hole in the ground. Big enough for a pony to live in relative comfort, but it also felt slightly empty. The only other objects were a table, covered in scrolls, and a few books.
Her eyes, however, were drawn to the two ponies sitting across from where she lay. "Twilight? Princess Luna?" Sweetie mumbled. Her memory was a bit fuzzy. Had she jumped into another world? That didn't make sense, she hadn't touched the fragment and—
Sweetie sat up immediately, and her head swayed.
"Easy there," Twilight's voice said and she felt the familiar essence of her mentor's magic enveloping and holding her steady. "You've had a rough night... Sweetie."
"What happened to Tavi?" Sweetie asked, already knowing the answer, but not wanting to believe it.
Twilight and Luna shared a look.
"Dead." Luna interrupted Twilight, giving her a disappointed frown. "Your friend died of her injuries prior to Twilight’s arrival."
Sweetie looked down at the bedsheets. "Oh," she said. "She did kill her."
Twilight frowned. "Rarity was fighting for her life, Sweetie, you can’t—"
"She was trying to kill me."
The statement made Twilight close her mouth and after a moment, she nodded. "She didn't know you were real, Sweetie. She thought Esteem had created a golem or puppet with Titan's aid to torture her or kill her. Our... our Sweetie Belle is safe, along with Apple Bloom and Scootaloo. They're not here with us, and the thought of Esteem getting his hooves on her sister... it terrified her. I think she took to the theory of you being a golem so readily because it meant her sister would be okay."
Sweetie snorted. "Sure. And in the meantime, I get to die because she couldn't make an effort to even check," she said, looking up the pair. "Esteem kept telling me that you were all monsters and murderers. He took me to a caravan... it had foals no older than me, their parents—" She choked and looked away, but carried on talking after a moment. "I didn't want to believe him. Even after Applejack and her appeared in the same area and started attacking, I didn't want to believe it."
"Sweetie, it was Esteem who killed those ponies and made it look like we had. Rarity and Applejack were investigating..." Twilight trailed off when Sweetie gave her a level look.
"Yeah, well, I did tell myself it was a mistake, but then I also told myself that R- your friend would never attack me. That she cared. And the first thing she did was shout at me that I was an abomination and should die. If I fought like you ponies do here, I would've been dead in a second. And it took the life of my friend for her to stop."
"Death is a part of war, young one," Luna spoke, her voice sad, but still strong. "It's a fact of life. That ponies as young as you have to witness it is a shame, but it is inevitable in these times of strife."
"What I saw there wasn't just death!" Sweetie snapped. "It was murder! I’m not stupid! I know the difference! Stop justifying that murderer's actions. She killed a pony in cold blood! She would have killed me if I hadn’t been trained!"
Twilight opened her mouth to complain, but couldn't find the words.
"There's nothing you can say," Sweetie said, unknowingly echoing Twilight's thoughts, "that could make me forgive your friend."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Luna sighed. "But it's unavoidable now. You'll have to deal with it in your own time, young Sweetie Belle."
"You have no idea," Sweetie spat. "What your friend did to me. She took away one of the few reasons I could feel safe in other worlds. She took my sister away from me. How can I ever trust anypony again? First Esteem tells me one thing, and now you say another."
Twilight shook her head. "Sweetie, Esteem was trying to manipulate you into killing or really hurting Rarity. He was doing it out of malicious intent to destroy not only her, but all of our efforts. Your sister is a very important pony for our battles and—"
"Twilight," Luna put a calming hoof on her friend's shoulder. "Stop. There's nothing to be gained this way. Young Sweetie understands, but words cannot heal betrayal with a simple shift of blame, however accurate it is."
Sweetie watched Twilight bite her lip in an effort to stop the torrent of thoughts she obviously had from spilling out. She didn't feel angry. She just... didn't want to be here. There was no point.
"Where's the fragment?" Sweetie finally asked.
Twilight blinked, her previous thoughts forgotten. "The fragment?"
"The purple crystal from the temple," Sweetie elaborated. "It's mine. That fragment is the reason I ended up in this Celestia-forsaken world. All I need to do is touch it and I'll be gone from here. I know it's in this room," she said, raising a hoof the moment Twilight opened her mouth. "And I know that look you get when you're about to lie. So don't. I can feel the fragment.” Twilight’s mouth snapped shut. “You've done enough damage. Just... let me take it and carry on. It doesn't belong in this world, and thankfully neither do I."
Luna raised an eyebrow. "What claim do you have to it, little one? Why should we give it to you, when it can possibly be a weapon against Titan and Terra?"
Sweetie's eyes snapped towards Luna. "A weapon? You would do that to-" She glanced at Twilight. "Right, stupid question. That fragment is a part of Twilight Sparkle, my Twilight Sparkle from my world. It's my mission to find them all and get her back."
Luna snorted. "I find it hard to believe that you're a dimensional traveler, much less than your claims of ownership."
"Luna..." Twilight warned.
"What proof do you want?!" Sweetie retorted, allowing her notebook to float out from its dimensional pocket much to the surprise of both alicorn and unicorn. "Here's a letter from your, or should I say, Nightmare Moon's school of magic. Or a spell to jump back to another world! This bookmark turns into a full-sized cello, enchanted to grow or reduce in size according to my current body. See these spell matrices?! Do they look like something I could do? Can you feel their link to me? Do you even have any magic like this here?"
Luna stared for a moment at the notebook and several objects it carried within. Pictures of times that had never been. Songs and melodies scribbled into it, the sense that there was something else...
Twilight, for her part had taken to studying the matrices, clearly following the spell pattern. "Wait," she said, taking the notebook and laying it down on the table. "There's a message here... in the matrix iterations." She blinked, following the familiar tinge of magic. "It's... my magic! But I never did this! It's a message to me, from me!"
"What?" Luna approached, and her eyes glowed, following the magical pattern. "This is impressive work, Twilight Sparkle. And your signature is all over it. There's not another pony I know who would be able to do such a thing."
"What message?" Sweetie asked, rolling gingerly out of bed. "What do you mean there's a message there?"
Twilight's horn lit up, and the matrix seemed to click to the side, and yet it didn't move an inch. However, a ghostly apparition materialized on top of it. It was an exact copy of Twilight Sparkle, but there was a difference in the eyes. Years. Experience. Patience. She looked a bit more like Celestia than the Twilight they all knew.
"That's—" Sweetie gasped. "That's Twilight from the third world I visited. The immortal one."
"Twilight Sparkle," the apparition spoke. "Greetings. If you're seeing this, you are probably helping Sweetie Belle in her unfortunate travels through the Multiverse. I have no idea how long she has been doing this by now... I can only hope it hasn't been too long. I saved this here, as a hidden message so that only I, or another Twilight with equal magical experience might be able to find it." The ghostly Twilight closed her eyes and sighed. "Sweetie Belle is on a quest to find and put an alternate version of ourselves back together. What she doesn't know—couldn't have known—is that she's actually killing her Twilight Sparkle with each fragment she absorbs."
Sweetie stepped back, shaking her head in denial.
"Sweetie is unaware of this fact, thankfully," the apparition continued. "But it presents a conundrum that has to be addressed soon. Were I left to my own devices for the next few hundred years, I’m certain I could find a solution, but Sweetie would not live to see it. This is why I have hidden this message. Because you, Twilight, have the knowledge to figure this message out, and hopefully, your experience and the different circumstances of our worlds will provide you with an answer I couldn't see at the time."
Twilight Sparkle grimaced, looking at herself as the apparition did a half turn and hesitated.
"Sweetie Belle still has her innocence intact. Or did by the time she left this world. She needs you and Rarity and her friends... she needs Celestia and Luna, all of you to support her, because she has what I've seen so many lose throughout the centuries and never find again: hope. Please help her where I couldn't."
The apparition faded, leaving the room silent. Both princess and general turned to face Sweetie Belle, who had curled up and was shaking with powerful sobs.
Twilight looked at Luna. "I'm fixing this. I'm letting her take the fragment and I'm going to find a way to allow Sweetie to take it and as many others as she can find with her without absorbing them."
Luna shook her head, but didn't argue. "And how do you intend to do that, when the other you couldn't?"
Twilight frowned, looking around the room until her eyes settled on Sweetie's lone diamond. She stared at it for a moment, then down to the notebook, then over to Sweetie Belle. Twilight's eyes widened. "Luna... this notebook is linked to Sweetie's life-force, isn't it?"
The goddess quirked an eyebrow, but nodded.
"And by itself, it's a complex matrix with nodes of energy created and originally fueled by my magic, so to speak..."
"What are you thinking, Twilight Sparkle?"
"I think... I figured it out," Twilight said, walking over to Sweetie Belle. "Sweetie... what's done is done, and I can tell you, your Twilight, any Twilight would understand that you didn't know. That you were trying to do the right thing. But you haven't killed her. She still lives. It seems clear that you’ve absorbed some of her magic and personality... I think, at worst, right now she'll need to recuperate when she's finally back together. But it's important that you stop absorbing her, and for that, I need your help."
Sweetie sniffled. "How?"
Twilight grinned. "You know that spell Esteem taught you to create your blade?"
Sweetie grimaced, but nodded, looking up at Twilight with puffy, red eyes.
"I think we can adapt it... we can tie the fragments to your notebook. They'll remain there as if they were it's own blade, still linked to you through it, but without you being able to use them as weapons like that. That way you should be able to keep traveling and rescuing her without doing any more damage to either of you.”
Sweetie's eyes caught Luna's. "Will you let me take the fragment?"
Luna took a deep breath and closed her eyes. "Twilight Sparkle has decreed that you should have it back. So you shall." Her eyes opened and she braved a smile. "And it seems like such a long time since we have done anything just to help, without trying to find the angle where it would benefit us... I think we are overdue."
Twilight nodded, levitating the fragment out of a hidden nook in the wall and placing it on the table, next to the notebook and Akela. "I think we can also give you a harness to take with you for your... diamond."
Sweetie shook her head. "I can't take things with me unless they fit inside my notebook or are part of it. The matrix is too complicated and strained to add another node or a containment spell. And unless you have the time and resources to create something like my cello, I don't think I can take her with me."
Twilight grinned. "Well then, let's try and put this together... I think you'll be surprised about what you can do without a matrix."
Sweetie nodded, but couldn’t return the smile. "Please teach me that spell."
"Figured Ah'd find you here," Applejack said, approaching her. "Rarity, that filly inside... is she really Sweetie Belle?"
Rarity looked away, not really wanting to talk about it. "She's a real filly, and that's what matters. I almost killed a filly in cold blood. If it hadn't been for her friend..."
Applejack frowned. "Ah investigated some, and it turns out this friend of hers was a loyal follower of Titan."
"What does that tell you, then?" Rarity snapped, glaring at her friend. "That a follower of that monster would jump in front of my blade to protect an innocent filly?"
Applejack glared right back. "What it tells me," she said, slowly, "Is that there are good ponies on both sides of this fight. Ah can't rightly understand Octavia's thinkin' when she sided with Titan, but that don’t make her a bad pony by itself. She did the right thing, saved you as well as Sweetie."
Rarity snorted. "Saved me?"
"Could you have forgiven yourself if you had killed a filly?"
Rarity couldn't answer. Would have she have been able to carry on? Knowing what she had done, under Esteem's influence or not?
"Why don't y'all go in there and talk to her?" Applejack asked. "Ah'm sure—"
"I've been listening," Rarity confessed. "She's Sweetie Belle. Just not mine. And I-I destroyed her trust in me and all other versions of me she might meet in the future. How can say anything to her?"
Applejack raised an eyebrow. "You'd rather not have the chance? How long will she be here?"
Rarity's brain froze. Could she just let her go without even—
Her thoughts were interrupted by a sudden flash of light from under the door to Twilight's room. Without thinking, Rarity kicked the door open, barging in. "Sweetie, I—"
Twilight and Luna both stared at her in surprise tinged with sadness. They were the only two in the room; of Sweetie there was no sign. Rarity gasped and fell forward, only to be caught by Applejack, who held her close as she finally gave up and started crying.
The world shifted around Sweetie the moment she sent her notebook back into its pocket dimension. The familiar feeling of being transported into another world enveloped her and she closed her eyes, not even wanting to say goodbye to Luna or Twilight.
She didn’t know what to think. How to react. She had been killing her friend and mentor. What kind of pony did that? How could she ever forgive herself?
She vaguely heard the door crash open, but the world had already turned white and she was gone. Maybe she’d be lucky and stay in this void where she could simply not harm anypony else. Maybe she could stop existing altogether.
The deaths in the labyrinth had been mostly painless. Surely she could get one last one?
There was a sudden, unexpected tugging feeling when she arrived. Sweetie grimaced, wondering if there was a way she could end this whole damned journey and opened her eyes into the light. As soon as the light faded, Sweetie’s eyes focused on the enormous gaping jaws about to chomp down on her.
Next chapter: A Heart of Change
End Chapter 7