The Hollow Shades Opera House was every bit as opulent inside as it was on the outside. As Sweetie and the other changelings were led through the doors, it was obvious that even if they’d all arrived dressed in cloth-of-gold with diamonds studding every inch of their bodies, they might have still felt underdressed.
Everywhere Sweetie Belle looked, noble ponies had donned their finest, most extravagant clothing available, which made them look considerably at-odds with the humble practicality of the rest of the town.
Of course, that did not mean the group of changelings hadn’t pulled out their own finest outfits.
Despite Sweetie’s misgivings at being alone with Rarity, her sister had quickly gotten to work and Sweetie had been wrapped in a slightly too-small gown of silk and floating, ethereal lace that had been studded with hundreds of tiny crystals. It was a beautiful example of Rarity’s craft, and it definitely drew attention when she re-joined the changelings.
“Heh, it makes you look like somepony dumped you through a wet cloud,” Vinyl said, grinning. When Sweetie glared at her, she quickly shook her hooves. “In a good way! I promise!”
Vinyl herself was dressed in a positively scandalous—Rarity’s words—outfit of bright, clashing colors and brilliantly fine fabrics. “I actually wanted to put little lights in it, but Octavia told me that it would disturb the performers.” Vinyl shrugged. “I’ve always felt more lights generally only make parties better, but I guess I can make an exception.”
Sweetie chuckled and looked at the others.
Coaldust, the tall unicorn of embers and ashes, was dressed in a deep black suit that shone like a second skin. It glistened with more colors than it ought to, and the overall effect was rather mind-boggling.
“Hey, Coaly, where did you get that stuff?” Vinyl asked, running a hoof over the material.
“I found it in the Hedge, and thought it would be nice to make a formal suit out of it.”
Vinyl raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure you want to wear something like that to a non-changeling event?”
Coaldust snorted. “They wouldn’t know the difference. I’m sure Lady Rarity could do something similar. Besides, they’ll never see me again.”
Even Sharp Claw was dressed up, albeit grudgingly. His bulky body was stuffed into a suit of dark, fine material, and he sported a hat made of silk that managed to accent what little refinement the feral pegasus possessed.
Despite all this, or perhaps because of Sharp Claw’s glares, the nobles steered away from the group and tittered at their presence. Vinyl, unfazed, merely grabbed one of the glasses of sparkling wine off a passing tray and passed it to Sweetie with a wink. “With Rarity around, that’s probably the only one you’re going to get.”
Sweetie’s eyes narrowed as she glanced over to the wine and the elegantly designed bar just outside the doors. “Oh, hay no. Not with all the wine and spirits available right there! Vinyl, it would be a crime not to partake.”
“True, true,” Vinyl said with a smirk at the others, pointedly raising her eyebrow in their direction. Coaldust and Sharp Claw took the hint and walked off towards their seats, with Sharp Claw occasionally growling at whatever pony failed to respect his personal space.
“Well, a couple of drinks won’t hurt,” Vinyl added as she led the way to the bar. “Besides, there’s somepony I want you to meet.”
The bar itself was so absurdly overwrought, it looked like a caricature of a wealthy noble’s alcohol cabinet expanded into a large bar, with gold, mirrors, and glass throwing light around like alcohol in a bartender’s shaker. As it was an open bar, there was a flurry of activity around it as nobles tried to grab their drinks and greet each other politely all at once.
Putting on her best airs of the ‘Duchess of Maripony’, Sweetie made her way to the bar, barely acknowledging minor nobles and nodding politely to those she deemed as being of a similar station... leaving a whole lot of them confused. She immediately caught the eye of one of the bartenders.
“Single malt, nothing less than thirty-two years, and don’t you even dare suggest mixing it with something.”
The bartender, a middle-aged stallion, merely stared at Sweetie for a moment, while behind her, Vinyl simply shoved her way through.
“Good taste for somepony your age.”
Beside Sweetie, leaning forward on the bar, sat yet another changeling. She was all grey stone, except where veins of softly glowing white marble traced across her body. Her mane was similarly carved of an even darker grey stone, but it moved like normal hair. Yet her eyes were the most striking thing about her: they glowed a soft purple, much in the same manner as Vinyl’s red eyes did.
And despite all the strangeness, there could be no question as to who this changeling was.
“‘T-tavi...” Sweetie stammered, staring at her musical mentor. Somehow the changeling transformation suited her beyond what Sweetie could have ever imagined... She looked... stunning. “It’s you...”
Octavia raised a puzzled eyebrow, while behind Sweetie, Vinyl beamed.
“‘Tavi! I knew you’d make it. Sweetie, Octavia, Octavia, this is Sweetie from another dimension where none of us are really the same but we sort of are.” After a moment, she added with a grin, “It’s kind of a long title.”
Octavia smiled softly at Vinyl, and there was a tenderness to it that was hard to ignore. She nodded to the bartender—who started pouring a drink—before extending a hoof politely to Sweetie. “Well,” she said in her quiet way, “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“Th-the pleasure is mine,” Sweetie managed to choke out, taking Octavia’s hoof in her own. “I-I’m sorry... it’s just...” She gulped down her wine and grimaced. “You’ve been a huge influence a-and... I—” Sweetie couldn’t look into those eyes again. Not after they had faded along with Octavia’s life the last time she had seen her.
Octavia, still finding herself at quite the disadvantage, passed Sweetie her drink with a comforting smile. “Well, I’m glad it seems I was a good one, then,” she said simply, before giving Vinyl a quizzical look. At Vinyl’s returned look, she continued, “I believe I’m seated in the row behind you all.”
“Yeah?” Vinyl asked. “Well that works out well then, let’s get going, before Rarity thinks we’ve all collapsed into a black hole or something. You’re welcome to come by and talk to Octavia later if you’d like. Look us up in Manehattan after this shindig.”
Sweetie nodded, before mustering the courage to look up into Octavia’s eyes again. “I would... Would you mind playing the cello with me, sometime?” she asked in an almost whisper. “It would mean a lot to me, to be able to do that ag— once, before I have to go.”
Octavia’s smile remained soft, but her eyes twinkled as she nodded, then she finished her own drink and slid off her stool. “I’ll linger after this,” she said quietly, to her mate’s surprise. At Vinyl’s look, she added, “I’m curious. Shall we?”
Vinyl nodded, and started to lead the way up to the seats, casually pushing through the crowd of nobles. Once her drink was empty, she simply nicked a full one from a passing tray as the party made their way up.
The Opera House of Hollow Shades was huge, and masterfully designed. Rows upon rows of seats surrounded a distant stage that was as well-kept as Princess Celestia’s throne room. Chandeliers with magical lights cast their warm illumination throughout the entire room.
Vinyl led the group past all the nobles, an additional security guard, and into the box in the absolute middle of the row, just as the lights started dimming. It was plain that the show was close to starting.
“Here we go,” Vinyl said with a winning smile. “Best seats in the house: the Royal Box.” She snickered a little at that, and Octavia gave her a tolerant look, which seemed to sober her somewhat, despite the second finished drink, which she had given to a mildly confused noble.
The door opened and Rarity practically yanked the group inside.
“Where have you been?!” Rarity hissed as she dragged Sweetie and Vinyl to their seats. Octavia trotted behind, looking amused, while Rarity continued her rant. “The show’s about to start. Oh, Sweetie’s been so worried about her first performance, we can’t risk missing any of it!” Rarity said rather dramatically, as she sat down in her seat. “But she’ll do fine, you’ll see.”
Behind her, a noblepony shushed them loudly, and Sharp Claw turned slowly in his seat to stare him down, growling. The noblepony shrank back into his seat until Coaldust forcibly turned Sharp Claw towards the stage. As the ponies and changelings settled into their seats, the orchestra ceased tuning up, and the show began.
The opera was a tale of young love and loss. The local Sweetie Belle played the part of Bright Star, the younger sister of a soldier gone to fight in a war against the Pegasus Empire. After her brother had left, she was placed in the care of an old widow, who it turned out was secretly nursing a pegasus soldier back to health.
Sweetie’s voice rang pure and clear through the performance, her crystalline tones drawing out the sorrow in Bright Star’s lament for her brother Glory. She brought out the fear in Bright Star’s character as she approached the wounded soldier’s bed, her innocent voice shining like a bright light amidst the dark gloom of the Opera House.
On stage, she was clad in white; the stage lighting gave her a curiously ethereal quality as she sang the story of a little filly with a terrible choice: to reveal the secret pegasus soldier, whom she had come to love, or to stay silent and become an accessory to the widow’s crime of sheltering the enemy.
Rarity frequently wiped tears from her eyes, but the performance seemed lost on everypony else. Sharp Claw folded his forelegs and sat grumpily in his chair, Coaldust's confused gaze showed he wasn't following the plot, and Vinyl seemed more interested in the quality of the singing. She even kept trying to comment on it to nearby ponies, but they repeatedly shushed her.
Octavia put a hoof on her mate’s shoulder partway into the second act. Before Vinyl could ask why, Octavia’s hoof was already blocking her mouth. She simply pointed up to the rafters up above, discreetly.
There, in the shadows of the rafters and catwalks above the stage, a white form shone for a moment, one which bore a strong resemblance to the pony down on the stage. However, the creature seemed to notice their eyes and it was swiftly gone, vanishing into the darkness.
Vinyl shrugged it off. “I’m sure it’s jus—Tavi!” she whispered harshly, but Octavia was already moving. She passed nobles who grumbled at the momentary interruption of their line of sight, and strode swiftly to the door of the box.
Noticing the two leave, the interdimensional Sweetie quietly followed suit, barely drawing the attention of anypony with practiced ease. Her accumulated training made her almost invisible, unless a pony was actively looking at her. She followed Octavia and Vinyl out of the box, respecting their urgency, even if she wasn’t sure what it was all about.
Rarity failed to notice the group leaving, though Sharp Claw took note, his orange eyes watched curiously as the trio quietly exited the box.
Octavia took the lead, and where she moved, the nobles parted as if some curious magic were at work. Vinyl, who had been drinking through the first act and was still a little toasted, lagged a little behind, which put Sweetie in the middle.
Octavia navigated through the crowds like a fish through water, and soon climbed enough stairs to reach a door marked RAFTER ACCESS. It looked extremely official, and therefore, difficult to bypass. Vinyl, who was gasping after the climb, waved a hoof, “See? It was probably just a—” She blinked as Octavia nudged the door open with little effort.
Upon further examination, it seemed the door had been kicked in just the right way to break the lock.
“Alright,” Vinyl said grudgingly as her breath came back, “I’ll admit it’s a little fishy but—”
Octavia was already gone, out onto to the rafters and catwalks, where only the daring and the underpaid would tread. Vinyl and Sweetie followed; the former cursing quietly.
Far below, the opera continued. Bright Star celebrated the return of her brother, who was wreathed in laurels from combat. Sweetie Belle’s bright tones wound melodies of joy that wafted up into the rafters as the trio of ponies skulked through the darkness high above. The catwalk was only a few hoof-widths wide, criss-crossing beneath the rafters, allowing access to the chandeliers and other lighting arrangements. They were little better than narrow plank bridges nailed into the rafters, but both Vinyl and Octavia walked across them with the confidence of ponies who usually navigate the Hedge.
Octavia and Vinyl walked towards the place where they’d spotted the white form, while Sweetie Belle sang on below.
“It’s creepy up here,” Vinyl murmured, just loud enough to be heard. She smirked back at Sweetie. “Maybe it was an opera gho—” Vinyl broke off as something hard hit her on the back of the head, knocking her senseless. As it spiraled through the air on the rebound, it looked to be a hammer of some kind, which fell into the chandelier below, causing the lattice of lights and crystals to jingle.
Before Vinyl could fall, Octavia caught her mate with both forehooves, but the act cost her her own balance and she found herself looking down directly at the stage. They were exactly over Sweetie Belle below, and so was the chandelier, its primary support cable showing signs of tampering. Another tool flew through the air, a chisel this time, but Octavia ducked her head and took the hit to the side. Incredibly, the chisel imbedded itself in her side, but the earth pony didn’t so much as flinch.
“If she falls,” Octavia said grimly, “The chandelier will follow.” She continued to haul on Vinyl, to drag her back up, but the injury slowly bled her of strength as her vitality dripped down onto the chandelier below.
Sweetie Belle looked at Octavia in horror, her mind replaying the last moments she’d had with the previous one in a horrifying flash. Her eyes hardened and her horn lit up with magic, pulling Vinyl up to lie her down next to Octavia on the rafters. She growled, facing the shadows and casting the spell that allowed her to see through the darkest of spells. Another tool soared through the air, but was intercepted by a quick gust of air and then gently deposited at Sweetie’s hooves.
Her eyes scanned the area around her until she found her opponent.
“I-it can’t be!” Sweetie gasped in shock, her magic fading at what she was seeing and yet was unable to truly comprehend. Another Sweetie Belle... Another, another Sweetie Belle!
Her opponent took advantage of Sweetie’s hesitation, and her horn flashed. The magic surged out, a flame that Sweetie didn’t have to dodge... because she was not the objective. The flaming arrow-like spell splashed against the remains of the chandelier’s primary support cable, quickly burning through it.
Sweetie was unable to take her eyes from her copycat for the briefest of moments, until she forced herself to look down at the heavy chandelier, which groaned as the cable started snapping. As the cable gave way, Sweetie felt something heavy hit her side. Hooves kicked off of her, as the copycat sprang off her up into the darkness, where it vanished like it had fallen into a deep hole. The kick sent Sweetie down onto the framework of light and crystal, and the added weight snapped the failing cable.
As the whole thing, changeling and all, started to fall, time slowed down. Sweetie watched Octavia’s glowing eyes widen, and she heard the music below start to approach a climax that lengthened and deepened as the adrenaline coursing through her body tore time apart, looking for an avenue of escape. She realized that down below, her other self was about to meet her end, while singing her heart out to a crowd of mostly strangers, some of whom were starting to gasp and stand, pointing at the glittering doom approaching the stage.
She pumped all the magic she could muster in that moment into a burst of wind, but the chandelier was a massive construct of wrought iron and brass, and would not be nudged easily from its path. She heard her other self continue to sing the crescendo, even as the orchestra faltered, even as her audience screamed. Sweetie braced herself for the impact, still attempting to push the chandelier off-course.
Even with her shield wrapped around her, hitting the stage in a flurry of metal, crystal and splintering wood was disorienting for Sweetie. It felt like an eternity as the impact settled, but as her hearing returned after the crash, she became aware that there was a white hoof attempting to pull her out of the wreckage. Sweetie was pulled free of the chandelier after a little effort, and found herself facing... herself.
The younger Sweetie Belle looked at Sweetie with a concerned expression, which slowly dissolved into wonder as she realized who she was facing. Across the stage, the other singers were watching, while all around the Opera House was chaos. The younger Sweetie Belle put her hoof up to Sweetie’s face almost tentatively, as if testing the reality of the situation.
Sweetie felt the younger version of herself touch her, then pull back slowly. The younger Sweetie Belle seemed utterly unfazed by the chaos around her, until at last the stage director showed up, looking positively furious.
“A whole performance—Non! A debut performance, ruined!” The director, Fuss Budget, railed against the two mares. “Along with a whole chandelier! Bordel de merde! Have you any idea how expensive those are?! I should have you arrested, have you dragged through the street until you are in chunks too small to go to jail!” He switched constantly between Prench and Equestrian, but Fuss Budget was too angry to notice.
Elder Sweetie Belle and Sweetie Belle had both been taken to the stage director’s office directly. The younger Sweetie Belle was still clad in her costume, but her eyes were starting to shimmer with unshed tears. She didn’t particularly mind that her performance had been interrupted, her time with her friends had accustomed her to that, but now she was being shouted at, and she found herself clinging to her extradimensional alternate as she would to Rarity, while the stage director continued on his rant.
“I cannot believe you would pull such a stunt on your first performance!” he went on, voice thundering in the cramped office. “You have ruined the stage, ruined this performance, and you will never be allowed back here again!”
The local Sweetie Belle bit her lip to keep back the tears, but her grip on her counterpart continued to tighten.
“Bah, you’re being an idiot,” the interdimensional Sweetie snapped. “You’ll find that most of the damage is easily repaired and that most likely the crown can offer some compensation. In fact, I’ll tell you the names of a few of the Blueblood family retainers you can ask directly for it.”
“But that should be the least of your concerns!” she added, pointing a hoof at him accusingly. “If I hadn’t managed to push the chandelier away, it would have killed Sweetie Belle! All because you didn’t have any sort of security preventing entrance to the rafters! Wait until I get the media in on this! You will not hear the end of it! ‘Young talent almost crushed to death due to negligence,’” she air-quoted. “‘Stage Director found lacking; fired on the spot!’” she air quoted again. “‘Hundreds of ponies at opera house witness Stage Director not even checking his star for injuries!’
“Not to mention…” She lowered her voice. “Sweetie Belle here has some very influential friends. Had something happened to her, you would be directly responsible for any damages to her person and would answer accordingly. If anything, you should be thankful that all you have to whine about is your Celestia-damned chandelier!”
As Fuss Budget sputtered, the younger Sweetie stared at Sweetie Belle, awed.
“In fact, I think you should sue him. Press charges, the whole thing... you have talent, Sweetie Belle. Even if you don’t sing opera you can sing anything... let’s see him try and get another job.”
Fuss Budget gaped at Sweetie, jaw working soundlessly for a few moments before his face started to turn red. “You…” he spluttered, half-rising from his chair. He looked to be stuck between absolute apoplectic fury and career-damning terror. “You couldn’t possibly—”
His pained stab at rationalizing the situation were cut off by the office door slamming open to reveal a rather irate Rarity.
“What is the meaning of—” Fuss Budget started to roar, only to quite suddenly find himself nose to infuriated nose with an impeccably dressed and coiffured white unicorn.
“What is the meaning of this?” Rarity asked. She didn’t thunder, roar, or bluster, but both Sweetie Belles could tell when their sister was inwardly shaking with rage. “Why, the meaning of this is you hauled my sister, the prima donna of the show, into a small office after she was almost killed,” Rarity’s voice rose theatrically, climbing octaves as she descended upon the hapless director, “by a chandelier that you,” Rarity’s voice dove for the kill, “Mister Fuss Budget, somehow allowed ponies access to during a performance.”
Before the hapless director could muster a defense, another pony strode into the room, her presence prefaced by a scent of smoke, the tiny office now filled to capacity around Fuss Budget.
“Yes, how did ponies access that chandelier?” Twilight asked in a calm, yet dangerous tone, “That rope was cut, from what I saw, which means that not only did you fail to secure the area”— Twilight’s inner fury was etched on the runes floating through her mane, and the way her shadow seemed to reach for the director—“but you also allowed somepony with murderous intent into the theatre.”
“D-Dame Tw-Twilight,” Director Fuss Budget stuttered as the color slowly left his face, “I-I wasn’t… When did you get here?” Fuss Budget asked shakily, “I… you, I was told you wouldn’t attend.”
“My business concluded early,” Twilight said rather unconvincingly, albeit in a tone that dared him to call her out on it, “and I decided to catch the last half of the show. From what I’ve seen though, your security needs to see great improvement in the future.”
“Well, w-well of course, but… m-murderous intent?” Fuss Budget asked weakly. “I… that’s a big assumption… it was probably just some lone madpony, obsessed with the theatre, or something...”
Twilight gave the director a long look. “If Sw—my guest here,” Twilight swiftly corrected, indicating the interdimensional Sweetie Belle, “had not intervened, that chandelier would have landed directly on Sweetie Belle.” She simply spoke over the director as he tried to interject. “It was no accident, there will be no further discussion of the facts. Your insurance can cover the damage to the theatre, and if not, you can always appeal to the crown once an investigation is concluded.”
“I—Well,” Fuss Budget stammered a little, until his courage mustered for a final defense, “I shall have t-to petition Princess Celestia about th-this but I… I may have jumped to some rash conclusions.” He looked more worried than sorry as he continued, to both the Sweetie Belles and the still simmering Rarity, “Think nothing more of it, madames, I”—he shivered a little—“I was wrong to judge you so. Just… heat of the moment, you know.” The stench of the stallion’s nervous sweat filled the hall as he waited for the mares’ responses.
Sweetie Belle looked from her local counterpart to Fuss Budget before leaning forth and whispering harshly, “Maybe next time your ‘heat of the moment’ will focus on making sure your singers and orchestra are unhurt.”
After a due period of letting him squirm, Rarity tilted up her nose. “Well, that’s that then. Come now, Sweetie, let’s not take any more of the director’s precious time.” Rarity’s tone dipped into withering scorn and painted it across her words as she left Fuss Budget with a curt “Good evening to you.” She then led the way out of the small office, and paused as she noticed Twilight wasn’t following.
Twilight smiled at Rarity. “I just have a few words for Director Fuss Budget here. Go on ahead.”
Fuss Budget swallowed hard, but Rarity led the girls out of the office. She led the girls out with such poise and grace that none of the stage hooves so much as attempted to impede the trio as they walked through the halls.
As soon as they were out of earshot, the non-changeling Sweetie Belle looked up at the changeling Sweetie with wide-eyed excitement and asked very simply, “So you’re like… my long-lost twin or something? Is that it?”
Rarity paused at that, with a slightly concerned look back at the two younger mares.
“And,” Sweetie Belle continued, “you wanted to be reunited with me so you came to my performance?!” She bounced excitedly alongside Sweetie as she chattered in her squeaky, adolescent voice, which still held some of the depth that came with long sessions of training. “And now you saved my life so we can be sisters again and all live in the same house?!”
“I—” Sweetie Belle looked from her local self to Rarity. “I’m… A-” She grimaced. “A-Allure… your… cousin? From...” A cringe. “M-manehattan?”
Sweetie looked like she was about to explode with more questions again, when a familiar voice called out to them.
“Hello again.” Octavia emerged from the shadows, her eyes focused and her expression composed. She sported a bandage around her side, but as she stepped into the light, she seemed unbothered by the injury. Her glowing eyes took in the trio of ponies. She nodded to Rarity and the freshly christened ‘Allure,’ then looked to Sweetie with a half-smile. “You look unhurt. I was worried.” Her voice was steady.
Sweetie Belle, true to form, piped up excitedly. “Yeah she made this cool bubble around herself with magic! It was like something Twilight would have done, but she did it! Oh!” Sweetie Belle appeared to remember her manners and gestured to Sweetie. “This is Allure, my cousin from Manehattan.”
“Is she?” Octavia said with a slight quirk of her expression before Rarity’s look answered the unspoken query. Octavia smiled at ‘Allure’. “I believe we have time for our concert, if you like.”
“Concert?” Sweetie Belle asked. “Are you a musician, Allure? That’s so cool! I’m a singer, you know. Oh!” Sweetie Belle blushed while Rarity tried hard not to roll her eyes. “That’s probably why you were at the opera, but… well… can I join you?!” The earnest, if a bit shrill request was accompanied by a look that was capable of melting hearts made of even the sternest steel.
Octavia’s smile didn’t waver, but she turned to ’Allure’ with a ‘your call’ sort of look, the changeling unable to look at her other self’s excitement and do anything but let out a sigh of acquiescence.
“How about you let us play a bit, and jump in whenever it feels natural?” She allowed herself to smile. “I might sing a bit with you, but I’ll follow your lead on that one.”
Sweetie Belle nodded eagerly, and followed Octavia behind Sweetie and Rarity, the elder unicorn looking rather excited herself.
Rarity’s thoughts were cut short as she and the others were led by Octavia out to the main stage, which still glittered with shattered crystal. The chandelier sat sadly on the stage, like a particularly leaden cloud, and it was surrounded with tape and guarded by a Royal Guard to keep ponies from tampering with the evidence.
This guard, however, was being chatted up by a very talkative Vinyl Scratch, who was seated on a pile of equipment as she spoke, a bandage about her head.
“All I’m saying, see, is that those uniforms have got to chafe after a while, right?” The guard was already blushing. “So I was just helping him—Oh!” Vinyl broke off as she caught sight of the group. “Hey, there you are! I thought I’d gotten all this junk out for nothing!”
Octavia simply gave her mate a disapproving look as she approached and began to rummage through the remains of the orchestra pit.
“Hey, I’m feeling a lot better now, thank you very much. Besides”—she patted the equipment next to her—“I’m not missing an event like this. Heya Sweetie Belle,” Vinyl said with a grin at the smaller filly. “S’good to see you again. You were singing good out there.”
Sweetie Belle blushed, but her embarrassment was cut short by Octavia’s emergence from the orchestra pit, an intact cello in hoof, complete with bow.
“Vinyl,” Rarity said somewhat delicately, “I don’t know if Sweetie and Allure”—Rarity’s emphasis was noted by the unicorn DJ as she continued—“want an audience. Not to offend you,” Rarity added considerately to the Royal Guard, who was attempting once more to appear to be part of the stage dressing.
“Pfft,” Vinyl said with a dismissive gesture. “I just want to record this.” She patted the equipment next to her, while her telekinesis plugged the mysterious black boxes into extension cords run from off-stage. “Did you know they had top-of-the-line recording equipment just boxed up in the attic up there? Like, it’s never even been used!”
“Director Fuss Budget was talking about recording the performances,” Sweetie Belle offered helpfully. “Provided I…” Sweetie concentrated for a moment before she recited, “Provided I proved to be a valuable asset.” She smiled at Vinyl. “It was supposed to help more ponies get into opera!”
Octavia smiled privately at Sweetie Belle’s excitability, and began to calmly tune the cello. Given its proximity to the chandelier’s impact zone, the cello was in surprisingly good condition, its tone mellow and sweet as the stony changeling plied the strings. She checked the pegs, which continued to hold, then the bow, which was well-rosined.
Watching Octavia go through the motions almost made ‘Allure’s’ eyes water. It had been over a year since... then. And yet, the cold body of her mentor and friend flashed for a moment in her mind and she quickly turned away, closing her eyes and pretending to concentrate on her spell.
She felt the familiar pull and resonance, and as soon as she opened her eyes, her notebook had emerged. Trying not to draw too much attention to the book itself, she used her telekinesis to slip out the bookmark.
Several pages slid out of the book and she groaned in frustration, but they were enveloped in the familiar white aura of Rarity’s magic, as she gently levitated the pages.
“I’ll put them back in,” Rarity whispered, stepping back.
Conscious of the silence that her actions had created, she set down the bookmark on the floor and touched it with a bit of magic, watching as it grew in dimensions until a cello case rested in front of her.
The local Sweetie watched in awe at the magic,eyes wide and mouth slightly gaping, although she held herself from making any comments. She had sat down beside Sweetie Belle, while her sister sat a little ways away.
Rarity was conflicted about the untruth her sister was living under and the gravity of the situation. After all, somepony, or something, had just tried to kill her sister, and here they were, acting as if the murder weapon wasn’t lying in a heap of metal and crystal just behind them. Still, she wiped the worry from her expression with the poise of a skilled dissembler and listened to the musicians warm-up.
She levitated the instrument and bow out of it, and rose to her hindlegs, taking the bow in her hoof and sliding her other hoof up and down the strings as she followed Octavia’s example and tuned it. It was as perfect as the day that she had stored it away the first time. Whatever could be said about the Arch-Magi Blueblood had paid off, they really knew what they were doing.
Octavia waited until Sweetie was ready before she began to play. Her borrowed cello wove a low melody with its sweet, mellow tones. Her glowing eyes closed t a little peek.to a thin rim of light as she focused on the notes as they were soon joined by Sweetie's countermelody.
The song became sad and happy all at once, deep, somber tones blending with warm notes. As Octavia controlled the melodic line, Sweetie wound her countermelody about it and, soon, a high soprano began to thread yet another line through the composition.
There were no words to what she sang, no phrases or statements to muse upon. Sweetie Belle’s high, clear voice rose and fell like a bird flitting between the entwining branches of the cellists’ melodic lines.
With a deep breath, the changeling Sweetie began to sing as well, blending her own soprano with her other self. It wasn’t as clear, and a trained ear would surely catch where she fell short of her counterpart, but still Sweetie maintained her pace with Octavia on the cello, and started to wrap her own countermelody around Sweetie Belle’s more operatic voice.
Slowly, the fillies steered the melody from the dark, into a brighter, warmer melody. High, clear notes in near perfect harmony flew through the theatre.
The four-piece composition wove its way through the air seamlessly, and for a moment, it sounded as if yet another voice had joined at the finale of the piece.
Octavia’s ear perked a little at it, and the accompaniment faded as if wary of her attention before their piece drew to a close.
As silence filled the hall once more, the distinctive clap of applause sounded from nearby. Unseen, but not unheard, a shadow slunk away.
“Brava,” Twilight said with a smile, standing next to the door. The burning letters in her flowing mane no longer quite as agitated, but there remained a stress about the unicorn’s eyes that belied her outward calm. “Brava, Sweetie Belle,” Twilight said with a smile at the local Sweetie, though it was clear her words were meant for everypony involved.
Vinyl clicked the recording machine off and popped the tape out with her magic. “Yeah, that was cool, Sweetie, you really hit those high notes, but you kinda strained a little around your lower register. Same to you, Allure,” Vinyl said with a huge wink, which prompted her mate to facehoof.
Before Sweetie Belle could ask for clarification on her notes, Twilight cleared her throat, only to be rapidly interrupted by Vinyl.
“Hey, that’s right, if you couldn’t go to this thing because of a Royal Whatsit—”
“A Royal Summons,” Twilight put in, and before Vinyl could ask she quickly continued, “My part of the hearing took only a few hours. I figured I could catch the last part of your show if I got here quickly enough.” Twilight brightened up immensely as an idea struck her. “ I know! How about we all celebrate Sweetie’s debut with a nice dinner?”
Rarity looked scandalized. “But Twilight, I didn’t bring an ensemble for that!” At Vinyl’s look, she added defensively, “I packed only the barest of essential outfit pieces, but I suppose... I’ll have to go back, find something I can throw together… Oh,” Rarity levitated the journal she had picked up for ‘Allure’ out of her very fashionable saddle-bag. Fragments of crystals still orbited it peacefully as ‘Allure’s’ own magic wrapped around it and sent the precious book, and cello-containing bookmark, back into its pocket dimension.
“Thanks,” ‘Allure’ said with a slight flush of embarrassment, while Sweetie Belle let out an excited gasp as she made the book vanish.
“That’s so cool! How did you do that? Where did you send it?” Sweetie Belle began to ask of ‘Allure’, who started to respond only to be cut off by more questions, “What was that book? Was that where your cello went?”
And so the questions followed the wearied interdimensional traveler all the way out of the theatre and on the long road back to the hotel.
Rarity muttered to herself as she stripped off her saddlebags, which had been cunningly made to match her gown, when a crinkling sound made her stop and blink. Curious, she slipped out of the outfit she had put together for the opera, and put aside her thoughts about what she could possibly do for a dinner ensemble.
Intrigued, she opened her saddlebags and found some sheets of paper, torn haphazardly from a journal. With a start, she realized they must have fallen out of Sweetie’s notebook. She started to tuck it back away, when curiosity stopped her.
Surely, she thought, it couldn’t hurt to have just a little peak.
It was Sweetie Belle's diary, her most likely extremely private diary, but, given that she'd already been privy to her own sister's diary, this glaring fact gave her perhaps less pause than it ought to have.
Rarity hesitated for but another moment, thinking to herself, I can simply stop reading if things become too private, and with that rather flimsy rule in place, she set her dress and saddlebags aside to begin reading.
I don’t want anything here to see you, so I’m sorry but I had to rip a page from you.
Rarity inwardly smiled at Sweetie apologizing to her own diary and settled down to read the quickly scribbled thoughts of her interdimensional younger sister.
I’m scared. The Beast was constantly on guard, and his wolves roamed around without pause, I couldn’t risk taking you out. I’m exhausted, but I need to write this in case I don’t make it. to take it off my mind.
At least the food isn’t rotten here.
This place is cold and horrible. I can’t speak. I don’t even know how I know that, but there’s simply this sense that I shouldn’t. I saw one of the other slaves, some sort of little furred biped. It squeaked while mopping and suddenly a stalactite made of onyx fell from the roof and impaled him.
Rarity gasped involuntarily at the casual mention of such a violent death. She shuddered to think of her sister in such a place, and even that first mention was enough to almost make her tuck the pages away. Still, curiosity pushed her on, deeper into the dark of Sweetie’s recorded memories.
The others didn’t even react, but I’ve been walking much more silently than than what I was trained for?
I’m starting to remember things. Dark things I did while I was in Blueblood’s world. I think, somepony was training me to do something, I can’t remember right now.
I’m running out of space and each scratch of the pen sounds even louder. I’ll write you again. I hope.
Good night, diary.
Rarity flipped to the next page, any plans for her dinner ensemble forgotten as the stained page demanded her attention. She had sat on the floor to read, and the dress beside her gently slid to the ground. The clock by the bed marked the seconds, but the vanishing time went unheeded by the pale unicorn.
It’s been, a week, I think. I couldn’t risk ripping another page until now. I put the last one in so it’s safe.
I’m sorry I’m getting you dirty, but I’ve been bleeding ever since this morning, when I slipped… it was a small thing, but my hoof struck the floor harder than I intended and my muffling magic wasn’t enough to stop it from making a sound. If I hadn’t jumped out of the way, I would be dead.
The stalactite crashed next to me and splintered. It sent hundreds of black shards flying all over and half my withers are covered in pieces of crystal. I’ve tried pulling them out, but it really hurts and I think they dig in deeper if I try. I’ll leave them for now.
I remembered something else: I was a spy for Chrysalis. I thought I was learning to sing from Cadance but I was just a puppet. I betrayed Blueblood
At least the hag’s spy masters taught me to be silent, or I wouldn’t be writing to you right now.
Good night, diary.
Rarity’s hoof went to her mouth involuntarily as she changed pages with her magic. She had heard something from Twilight about the harsh trials changelings went through, but the thought of her sister, alternate version of her or not, going through such an ordeal sent a shot of liquid horror through her veins.
I’ve been here too long. It’s been months. I remember everything: I was trained to be a spy and Chrysalis wanted me to be an assassin. Never worked out because she couldn’t be sure of my training level and kept sending me to different trainers.
Rarity paused for a moment. That was the second time ‘Chrysalis’ had been mentioned, as well as somepony named ‘Cadance’, and even that oaf, Blueblood. Sweetie had said she was from another world, but the description of this other life, of being trained as an assassin and these strange, other ponies defied belief. Still, Rarity read on, compelled by her own morbid curiosity.
Not that it hasn’t helped. Another two died tonight and I spent the whole day scraping them off. It would have helped if the first one hadn’t screamed. Made a whole mess, killed another and rained sharp pieces of crystal all over all of us.
I learned to talk to the crystal too. One of the others taught me, he died last week. I’ve convinced the crystal floor to not make any noise when I stepped on it, but now each hair of my coat is marble in exchange.
I don’t know if I’ll still be a pony when I come out.
Rarity felt tears falling from her cheeks, and she had to move the pages to avoid staining them further. She knew the pages were personal, knew that she should have stopped reading the entries, but the next one was a very short message in an otherwise empty page, scrawled in a shaky writing and blotted with long-dried tears.
I want my sister. I want my brother. I want Twilight or Scootaloo or Apple Bloom. You all promised to be there for me when I needed you. Where are you now? I’m just going to stay here and die, aren’t I? And you will never know. And you never cared.
Being asked questions about one’s ‘amazing’ magic is embarrassing the first time, flattering the second, but after almost an hour of persistent questions from her local counterpart, ‘Allure’ felt herself very slowly going mad. They were all waiting in the lobby for Rarity to finish ‘throwing something together’ so they could all go to dinner, Vinyl had struck up a betting pool on whether or not Rarity had simply run off to dinner without them on a rope of her own extensive wardrobe.
Currently only Vinyl was in on the betting, but ‘Allure’ was finding herself more and more tempted. Twilight, however, looked quite used to this and was idly reading magazines, while Octavia simply observed in her serene way. Ponies would walk through the lobby on occasion, many of them finding excuses to linger and gawk a bit, at least until one of the changelings caught their eye.
Finally, after answering the third question on a very specific type of spell (whether she could change a frog’s color or not), ‘Allure’ stood up.
“I’m going to go check on Rarity,” ‘Allure’ said firmly, to the surprise of her local self.
But before Sweetie could ask another question or comment at all, ‘Allure’ had strode off, past Vinyl and Octavia, towards the stairs. As she passed, Octavia surreptitiously slid a few bits to Vinyl.
The stair climb had never been so blessedly silent, for the doors and carpets remained blissfully unquestioning and entirely quiet the whole way up. Yet as she approached the door, she heard a soft sobbing.
“Rarity?” Sweetie asked with a concerned tap at the door. “Rarity are you alright?”
At once the door flung open and Sweetie found herself pulled into the tightest hug she could imagine.
Sweetie panicked, nightmare-like thoughts of her sister chocking her to death invading her mind. She pushed Rarity, trying to dislodge her forehooves from around her. “Let go! Let me go! What’s going on?!”
Rarity didn’t reply, only pulled her closer into the embrace. Soon Sweetie felt a wet warmth staining her shoulder and slowly she ceased her struggles, letting her sister hold her, however uncomfortable it might've been. She didn’t return the embrace, and simply forced herself to breathe slower and calm down.
Rarity didn’t respond, she just sobbed for a long while, her hooves holding Sweetie’s stony body so hard she felt like she might crack. The momentary panic this caused prompted the dark spikes beneath Sweetie’s marble-like exterior to protrude, and Rarity let out a soft cry as the pain forced her to reflexively relax her grip on her wayward sister, who pulled away from the embrace.
Rarity sat back and wiped her eyes, while Sweetie looked her over for wounds. Sure enough, three pinpricks of blood stained Rarity’s foreleg. “Rarity, don’t do that,” Sweetie said in a mixture of concern and anger, “I don’t… just don’t, okay?” She stopped short of as she looked for something to blot the blood. Immediately her eyes fell on a stack of papers lying on the bed, and without thinking, she levitated them, ready to use them to clean the blood, but she stopped short when she took a second look at them. “This is— Rarity…” she spoke softly. “You read my diary?”
Rarity sniffed, and wiped her eyes with her uninjured hoof. “I—I know,” she said softly. “The pages fell out in my bag.” Rarity took a couple of breaths to compose herself, but the breath caught in a sob. “I… I didn’t know… I didn’t want to know, I think…” She tried again. “I’m so sorry, Sweetie. I… I shouldn’t have looked, but I had to know j-just what you’d…” Rarity’s eyes filled as she locked her gaze with Sweetie’s. “How could you go through all that?”
Sweetie was silent for a long time. When she spoke, it was slow and deliberate. “I had no choice. It was either that or die. I was very alone, missing all of those that I cared for… even in the worst places I’ve been to before, I had somepony there. Even when you—the other you— tried to kill me… I had Octavia. But this time… I had nopony I could talk to, or laugh with… but through all of that, I knew that I just had to carry on. If I could find Twilight’s fragment and it would be okay. That all of this”—she motioned with her hoof at her body—“would go away, even if the scars remain... and… then Twilight found me.”
Rarity was silent for several moments, her expression unreadable, then she smiled at Sweetie. “She’s good at that.” Rarity pulled a rather plain blue scarf out from her mountain of bags and with a moment’s hesitation, wrapped her leg with it with a perfect knot in the fabric as an impromptu bandage. “You know,” Rarity said softly after a moment, “all the changelings swear that Twilight was the one who set them free.” She set about getting dressed, pulling on a fetching blue dress that matched her bandage perfectly, and settled the fabric with an absent-minded tug of her own magic.
“And even if she didn’t… well, I don’t think there’s a pony alive who would do more or has done more for the changelings than her,” she continued. After a moment to adjust a diamond necklace, which contrasted with the blue dress nicely, she turned and gave Sweetie a sad smile. “She’d do anything, for anypony, changeling or not. And, while I can’t possibly know what it is you went through, Sweetie, I’m still your sister, and you can be sure none of those horrid creatures that took you will do so again. Now,” Rarity pulled back and gave Sweetie an all-too-familiar once-over. “Let’s see about finding you something nicer to wear.”
Vinyl led the party of ravenous adventurers through the exceptionally dark nighttime streets of Hollow Shades. It was well into the night by then, and Twilight was starting to despair of ever finding the restaurant Vinyl had suggested when they had arrived at Twilight’s choice only to find that it was closing.
“Are you sure it’s this way?” Twilight asked again as Vinyl led the group down a steeply sloping, narrow road. “This seems kind of off the beaten path, Vinyl.”
“Psh.” Vinyl dismissed with a grin and a roll of her glowing red eyes. “Of course it’s this way. I told you, Sharp Claw’s friend’s cousin twice-removed heard about this place from a pen-pal, it’s gotta be real.”
Twilight sighed and relented, as she greatly suspected Vinyl was enjoying winding her up. That had been the third different story about where she had heard about this fabled Cider Barrel.
Rarity, however, was more determined as she stepped with elegant poise down the leaf-strewn, dark street. “Vinyl, honestly, this isn’t another bar is it? Or a club? It does actually sell food, does it not?” A slight blush colored her cheeks as her gaze slid to Twilight, but she covered it with a tilt of her hair.
Octavia, who was dressed in a modest but elegant ensemble, spoke up. “It’s a restaurant.” Her tone was so firm and matter-of-fact that it appeared to be enough to quiet Rarity’s protests, while Vinyl just grumbled about ponies’ lack of faith in her.
However, such grumbles were short-lived, for before much longer the whole group came across a welcome sight: an open restaurant with ‘The Cider Barrel’ written in narrow, elegant letters across its sign. It was a small, richly ornamented building, wide windows showing a more intimate, homey interior. Antique wooden tables accented the space, while velvet linings to all the chairs gave the whole dining area an old-world feel.
It was surprisingly packed for such a late hour, while outside, a unicorn stallion who could only be the maître d’ waited by the door. As soon as he spotted the group’s approach, he nodded to them, and Vinyl nodded back.
The stallion opened the door for the group, while a waiter replaced him by the desk seamlessly.
Inside, warmth and the scent of food gave rise to a chorus of grumblings from the collective stomachs of the mares. Vinyl’s smugness, however, towered over the other sensations in the room.
“See? I told you it was a real place, Twilight.”
Twilight didn’t miss the way several ponies looked up at the sound of her name, and she was dreading having to eat in such a small place with so many furtive looks when the elegantly dressed maître d’ led them away from the dining area entirely.
“Excuse me, where exactly are we going?”
The maître d’ turned slightly, though he continued to lead the party down the stairs into a cellar. “To your table, Dame Twilight.” He sounded a little puzzled at the question, but before Twilight could ask more, he had approached the very back of the cellar and knocked on three specific bricks with his horn.
The bricks melted away like hot iron before a forge’s fire, running in molten rivulets to form an intricately-traced archway that led into, as the maître d’ had promised, a new dining area. Where simple elegance had marked the first dining area, this one was something entirely different: like something out of a dream.
A crystal fountain sat in the center of a large, circular, domed room, which was decorated with fake roots, carved into the shapes of the tables and booths. The ‘roots’ were studded with glowing crystals interwoven through the very grain of the wood. High above, hanging from the baffling wooden ceiling and sculpted to resemble an upside-down tree, a massive chandelier sparkled with a hundred thousand glowing crystals, all carved to resemble leaves, the very lowest of which were just barely above the the equally impressive crystal fountain. These supplied the whole room with an eerie lighting that illuminated its very unique clientele.
Everywhere in the room, changelings sat, talked, chatted, ate, and drank in the soft light. Some were tall and terrifying, others petite and beautiful, some with wings of gossamer threads and others with eyes like silver moonlight. Non-changelings were there as well, here and there, and all of them were so richly dressed it seemed like only Rarity had prepared appropriately.
The local Sweetie goggled at all the richly dressed ponies, but she was not able to appreciate the true strangeness of the scene. To her, the clients of this strange facet of the otherwise normal restaurant simply seemed to be the oddest group of individuals she had ever seen. Rarity likewise seemed to be missing a great deal, but the changelings in the group saw it all.
Dozens of conversations fell silent as they were led through the room. And, as Twilight passed, the changelings in the room all rose. Embarrassed and alarmed, Twilight nevertheless smiled at them and continued swiftly with the party, with Rarity and Vinyl basking in the attention beside her.
“I told you this place was cool,” Vinyl said smugly as the whole group was led to a round booth at the far back of the room, where they were screened off from public view by a row of glowing crystals. They were seated smoothly into the velvet-lined root-seats, which were exceptionally comfortable, while Vinyl nudged her mate smugly. “Isn’t this just the coolest place, ‘Tavi?”
Octavia rolled her eyes tolerantly as she settled herself and began to examine the menu. Sweetie Belle appeared to be having trouble understanding what some of the items were, and frequently turned to‘Allure’ for her discreet help. The dishes were often named in Prench, and Sweetie was clearly a neophyte when it came to the language, butchering it early and often.
“In her defense,” Rarity whispered to Vinyl after a particularly dreadful attempt prompted Allure to softly try to coach her counterpart, “the dishes are hardly the classic dinner specialties.” Things like Fruit de Rêves or Nectar du Colibri avec la Créme de la Douleur appeared constantly in the menu.
Even Rarity was having some distinct trouble with the overly flowery names of some of the dishes. After ‘Allure’ had corrected Rarity a few times, the local Sweetie Belle turned to her with a grin.
“Wow Allure, you sure know your Prench, could you teach me some, sometime?”
‘Allure’ looked at her local counterpart straight in the eye. “Voulez vous couchez avec moi ce soir?”
Rarity performed a perfectly un-ladylike spit-take, while Sweetie merely looked confused. Vinyl let out a muffled laugh, but it seemed to be lost in the silence that fell unexpectedly around ‘Allure’.
She could see that the others were talking, but for some reason their words could not reach her ears. Then, for just a moment, she saw a face much like her own reflected in one of the gems set into the wood around the booth.
‘Allure’ looked around sharply, while a sense of loss twanged across her heart like a chord played across her soul, and like a spell breaking, sound returned. The whole table looked over, and Twilight was about to ask something, when the first round of appetizers arrived.
The meal was one of delicious fantasy, with flavors of an intensity generally reserved for the dreams of the culinarily inclined. The rest of the table seemed to be readily immersing themselves in the culinary delights, but ‘Allure’ just couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched. It was like a lingering itch at the back of her mind, though she never saw any sign of the observer again, partly because most of her attention was being occupied by her local self.
“So, how did you become a changeling, Allure?” Sweetie Belle asked innocently, but the question caused most of the conversation at the table to stop.
In the ensuing silence, it became clear that every table in the immediate vicinity had also fallen quiet. Twilight looked uncomfortable, as did Octavia and Vinyl, but they looked to ‘Allure’ to answer the question—or not.
Rarity, whose mouth had been full at that moment, was rapidly attempting to choke down her food in the most ladylike fashion possible so she could shush her sister.
‘Allure’ held her breath. The question was an unexpectedly painful one. While talking about it with Twilight, she had felt like she was talking with somepony that understood and had been where she herself had been… somepony that had suffered, just as she had, and lost so much… but the local Sweetie was no such pony. She was innocent, true, but she could never understand. She should never understand.
“I was—” Sweetie closed her eyes, choosing her words carefully, each delivered with the weight of memory and regret. “I was taken… away from everypony I knew, and any security I had ever felt. I survived monsters trying to turn me into one of them by breaking my spirit… and then I was… bought.” She had to swallow and take a small sip of water. “I was a servant. In silence. Absolute silence. An entity existing in fear of any sound ending me. I lost who I was for a long time… and when I was found”—she licked her suddenly dry lips before her eyes left her counterpart’s and focused on the empty plate in front of her—“I wasn’t me anymore.”
Twilight took over at that point, to divert from the distraught ‘Allure’, and to cut off any other awkward questions the local Sweetie might have. “When we heard somepony had been captured, I arranged a rescue party immediately.” She grimaced a little at the memory. “We arrived an instant too late; Sw-she had already been taken.” Twilight covered her slight mistake with a somber sip of her drink.
“But how did you get her back?” Sweetie Belle asked, wide-eyed. She was clearly enjoying the story, and completely failed to notice the air of discomfort hovering over the table. For her part, Twilight covered her own well as she continued to explain.
“I bargained for her,” Twilight said, as if she had merely bought a sack of potatoes. “Not with the thing that had taken her,” Twilight clarified, “but with the powers that kept her away. We worked out an arrangement, and we were given the opportunity to try to call her back.”
“Bargained?” Sweetie Belle started to ask, only to be shushed by her sister. This sparked a quiet bickering session between the two that ended only when dessert had arrived.
It was quite literally dream-stuff, flavored to such an impossibly intense and delicious degree that it was like experiencing a vivid lucid dream in one’s mouth. Still, ‘Allure’ found herself dwelling on the earlier conversation, and the wound it had re-opened, as well as how she would ever be able to explain something so personal, so deeply embedded in her soul to anypony.
The meal, however delicious, eventually came to a close, and it was a very weary ‘Allure’ that found her way back to the hotel, still being questioned by the local Sweetie Belle as to the nature of being a changeling until Rarity practically shoved the filly into the room they were sharing.
She breathed a sigh of relief, and Twilight chuckled.
“Well, that has got to be the strangest story of self-discovery I’ve ever heard.”
The changelings all groaned at the joke, but it left a smile on Sweetie’s face.
Sweetie ran through the Hedge, where grasping thorns ripped at her, and the horrible sound of a bone -wrought baton tapping followed her through the nightmarish dimension.
She had to get away. She had to find an escape, but even that idea was nebulous as the path ran between a thorny passage, through worlds she had seen and felt, tasted, and smelled. She watched Octavia die, and that Octavia froze into a statue of marble bleeding granite, while a statue of Vinyl Scratch wept crimson tears.
She ducked past the horrific tableau as the tapping grew nearer, and the sound started to change the thorns into gold and obsidian serpents. They snapped at Sweetie, filled her with their venom, changed her, robbed her of her equinity. Her bones burned cold as the venom ate away at them, leaving stone as it slithered through her veins towards her heart, which sang with her local double’s heartbreaking innocence.
Sweetie tore her way free as she felt some vast evil behind her. She ran towards the only escape she could find: a cliff of solid granite, overlooking a sea of staring faces, full of compassion but devoid of comfort. She hesitated at the brink, while the tapping of the baton drew closer and closer. She waited there, until she saw a shape loom large from out of the brambles behind her, terrifying and unknowable as it tapped its baton on the ground as if signaling the start of a show.
For a moment, Sweetie felt compelled to join him, and sing in his chorus of screams and torment, until those empty eyes reached into her and the shape leapt for her like some feral creature. Sweetie leapt off the cliff, felt its talons closing about her hoof…
And hit the floor of her room, blanket tangled around her hoof. Sweetie curled up, breathing harshly as she recovered from the hideous nightmare. She took a few moments to remember where she was and what had happened. She was in a tent that had been prepared for her in the Citadel. It had been two days since her local self had performed so beautifully in Hollow Shades.
The sounds of construction droned distantly, but judging by the light, it was just past dawn. The tent was still cramped, but it was most definitely hers. There was a small, but well-made bed that had been crafted to her measurements in less than a day by a clipped, impatient changeling.
Twilight had helped her pick the place, and by that token, her neighbors. She didn’t know how long she was going to be there, but Twilight had insisted on planning for an extended stay. Now she lived beside three other changelings, right up against the inner wall, in close proximity to Twilight and Luna’s quarters.
Nearby, she could hear an argument brewing between two of her neighbors. Bright Light was usually a very easygoing and courteous neighbor, but now he was shouting.
“Look, it’s not my fault you don’t understand but just don’t do that!”
“Look,” another voice said angrily, “I can’t sleep with that light on, so I put it out, what’s the big deal?”
“The big deal?!” Bright Light thundered, and his tent started to glow, “The big deal?! The big deal is that you just don’t DO that! Things come in the night, in the dark!”
As Sweetie watched from inside her tent, other ponies, changelings and non-changelings, began to gather nearby. And right as the second voice started to respond, the argument ended with a thud and a scramble from the gathered ponies. Sweetie quickly went to the door of her tent to find Bright Light, the narrow-framed changeling earth pony, struggling to get at a clearly non-changeling pony, fury etched on his usually calm features.
“You don’t know!” Bright Light wailed, as froth collected at the corners of his mouth, “It could have brought them, you don’t know!”
“You’re nuts!” the other pony shouted back furiously, as his nose bled freely onto the ground, “You’ve cracked, brother! Siblings or not, I can’t take this anymore! I’m out!” He shook the changelings who had been restraining him off, and left his brother, who was still thrashing like a mad thing.
Sweetie had enjoyed having Bright Light as a neighbor, as he had been quiet and a bit shy, but now he thrashed and spouted gibberish until the changelings holding him calmed him down with soft words. Bright Light broke down as the madness left him, and sobbed into the stoney ground.
A voice from nearby said quietly, “What a shame.”
Sweetie looked over swiftly, she hadn’t heard anypony approach, but beside her was the silhouette of the librarian she had met earlier: Perceival. He smiled at her, possibly, but the look was tinged with sadness.
At Sweetie’s continued silence, Perceival went on, “Bright Light was doing so well. He’s really a sweet stallion, but… I don’t think his brother really understands what’s happened to him.”
Sweetie glanced around at the other changelings and the few ‘normal’ ponies. “None of them really do, do they? They can’t.”
“They can empathize,” Perceival said with an agreeable tone as Bright Light was helped back into his tent, still sobbing brokenly. “But none of them could ever truly understand.” Perceival fell silent after that. There was really not much else to add. For all his airs of a carefree nature and friendliness, she had never heard any details about Perceival’s past, or even the suggestion that he had indeed even had one before joining the Citadel.
Another changeling stepped from his tent nearby, yawning and breaking Sweetie’s concentration on the librarian. He was of average height and build with features that blurred together. His body was like molten silver given form, but his mouth was often split in a too-wide grin, usually while telling some impossible story. Slick, Sweetie recalled the other ponies and changelings calling him. He was the quietest neighbor one could ask for, by dint of sleeping in other ponies’ beds most nights.
“Don’t let me break up the date here,” he said with that disconcertingly wide grin.
Perceival snorted. Slick was forever intimating that everypony was dating everypony else, often adding lascivious details, for added believability. He was a friendly enough sort, but it was almost impossible to pick out the truth from the lies that flowed freely from his mouth. Sweetie didn’t much care for him because of that, but they rarely crossed paths.
Today though, Slick looked Sweetie up and down, and asked brazenly, “Care to get some lunch today, maybe find someplace to talk about other things somewhere?”
“I’ll pass.” Sweetie snorted. “I think I have a few errands to do, Slick.”
Slick gave Sweetie a knowing look, as if he were in on some secret of hers, and nudged one of the unimpressed changelings nearby. “A few errands, she says,” he added, to underline his licentious implication. When it became clear that nopony was believing him, he winked at Sweetie and sauntered off, as if the exchange had gone just as he’d planned.
“I imagine Diamond Tiara would end up like that if she didn’t have Silver Spoon around to second her,” Sweetie mused.
Perceival sniffed disapprovingly. “That pony… I swear, by tomorrow he’ll be telling tales about how we poured out our secrets all to him, which were simply so outrageous he couldn’t hold his silence.” He sighed with a shake of his head. “Fortunately nopony with an ounce of sense listens to him, but, to be fair”—he grinned at Sweetie, which made his white teeth shine in his silhouette of a face—“it would probably be some very outrageous secrets.”
“I still don’t like being lied about by ponies like him,” Sweetie said, frowning. “I’ve been called a lot of things, but every word Slick says feels like I’ve been rolling around in burnt oil.”
Perceival shrugged. “None of us like him talking like that, but he can’t really help it. It’s how he is. Oh,” Perceival said suddenly, “but that reminds me: the Citadel’s shipment of lamp oil is late. I was wondering if you’d like to come with me to Manehattan, to find out why. All our shipments go through the post office in Ponyville, you see, and they told us it hasn’t come in yet, so I’ll have to visit the distributor and see what’s going on. It’s not the most exciting trip in Equestria, but it’d be nice to have some company on the journey, if you haven’t found a job around here yet.”
“That sounds great!” She grinned. “Much better than staying here and doing nothing…” Her smile faded into a frown. “I’ve asked around, but most of my skills would only land me work at a library, doing magical research or as an assassin for hire… I don’t really want to do the last one, and the other two are a bit limited in capacity.”
Perceival chuckled as he led the way back towards the Citadel proper. “Well if you ever want to be my assistant, I can always use a helping hoof in the library, though who knows what Slick will say about us if that happens.”
Sweetie huffed. “If he says anything, it’ll be thoughtful and considerate after I have a few choice words with him.”
“From Slick?” Perceival let out a bark of laughter, “Not likely.”
Sweetie simply grinned, as she followed Perceival into the depths of the Citadel.
It took the better part of an hour to prepare for the trip because, rather than taking the route through the Hedge, Perceival had bought a ticket for the train to Manehattan. While slower, he mentioned that he enjoyed the view, and indeed spent most of the trip staring out the window. Most of the ponies seemed not to realize what they were, but Sweetie heard one small voice asking about the ‘scary shadow pony’ by the window.
Perceival appeared not to notice, aside from that one foal, their differences from normal ponies seemed to go unnoticed. Yet the seats around Perceival and Sweetie were mysteriously empty, even when several ponies were standing at the far ends of the car.
To make matters more awkward, the foal who kept asking about the ‘shadow pony’ simply would not stop talking, and stared at Perceival and Sweetie for the whole three hour trip. It was aggravating, and Sweetie felt barbs of obsidian rising through her marble façade as her disquiet deepened, until a soft touch gave her pause. Perceival had gently nudged Sweetie’s hoof with his own, and as she looked over, he shook his head subtly.
Sweetie forced herself to calm down, with slow breathing and determination. Still, the foal kept talking and pointing at them, and when they reached the station, everypony stood to exit the train, a small touch on her leg made Sweetie look down.
The little filly, barely old enough to talk intelligibly, was looking up at her with wide green eyes. “Does it hurt?” the filly asked innocently, pointing at the barbs, while the sound of her parent rose in the background, annoyed and worried.
Sweetie blinked, and smiled, the barbs slowly receding as she let her guard down for the first time in what felt like years. “No, it’s okay.” She winked. “But it looks rather strange, doesn’t it?”
The foal nodded, and was about to respond when she was yanked back by a very concerned mother, who began to apologize profusely to Sweetie and Perceival, while pushing her daughter towards the exit.
As Sweetie and Perceival walked through the streets of Manehattan, she felt like she was alone in the woods, while still surrounded by the pulsing crowds of Manehattan itself. In the throng of ponies, Sweetie Belle and Perceival were uniquely alone. They walked through crowds of ponies who had never heard of the Hedge, and would have scoffed at the mere idea of such a place.
Perceival himself appeared unconcerned for much of the trip, and often chatted to Sweetie about the Changelings of Manehattan, of which there were a great many, apparently. Sweetie had yet to see any, but according to Perceival, the city of Manehattan was supposedly where the Changelings of Equestria had gathered en masse, in clubs and in the quiet places of the bustling city.
“But,” Sweetie interrupted, as the pair waited for a light to change, “where are they then?”
Perceival grinned his widest at that, and nodded across the street. There, at the corner of the street was a simple bookshop, the sort that was so old it didn’t need a big flashy sign. Its dark interior was lit by the light from outside, which showed an almost empty store.
“They gather in the quiet places,” Perceival explained. “Dom’s Books, for example,” Perceival said as the light changed and they crossed the street. “No one really goes in, but he likes it that way.”
As they approached, Sweetie could see the counter through the window, while behind it a pony-like shape sat. It was made of paper, with hooves made like stitched-together book covers. Its eyes were burnt holes, through which brass fasteners boredly perused a newspaper.
Sweetie looked at him, and felt a chill as he looked up, his eyes like empty metal buttons. Then he waved to Perceival, who grinned at him in an affable fashion. Sweetie knew that the bookshop owner was probably friendly, but she felt no happier for having seen the strange pony, though she tried to smile.
“It’s like that everywhere here,” Perceival said cheerily, while the crowd flowed around them and they continued past the bookshop. “In the quiet places, the dark corners. Changelings have always hidden, until now.”
It was like a fog had lifted; Sweetie felt the dark corners of the city everywhere. She felt the crowd flowing around her and Perceival, and the unconscious distance the ponies gave them.
It was like being invisible, and the thought brought with it a sense of isolation and sorrow that was as unexpected as it was powerful. Here, amongst the seething crowds of ponies, Sweetie felt alone in the dark. It was not just that the ponies here didn’t know her, and didn’t understand what she’d gone through, but that they couldn’t know, and could never understand.
“Now that Dame Twilight has brought us to the light though,” Perceival continued as he led the way, focused on the streets, “we don’t need all this darkness, and we can all pull together.”
Sweetie thought of the bookshop and shivered. She knew she shouldn’t be unnerved, the changeling in that shop was likely as kind as he was odd, but she felt a yearning for her life before this whole ordeal.
Her dark musings were interrupted when Perceival suddenly stopped. She bounced off of him and looked up. They had come to a large building, which was unassuming and grey, aside from its sign. And what a sign it was. It took up most of the front of the building, featuring a comically excited red pegasus admiring a lamp, surrounded by a very stylized fire.
It read, “Firebug and Bros. Lamp Oil!!! Get Fired Up!!!!” The superfluous exclamation points suggested to Sweetie that the ponies inside either really, really liked lamp oil or were rather quite insane.
“Do we need oil for lamps?” she asked after a moment’s hesitation.
“Of course!” Perceival said with a grin. “Not everypony can do light spells, and it’s not like we’ve got light switches in tents.” He led the way to the door, which was a bright fiery red, and clashed strongly with the dull grey of the walls. “These ponies might be a little… odd,” Perceival said to Sweetie as he pulled open the door, “but they—”
He broke off as something blew out from the doorway. He looked down, and stepped back from the mail that had been just inside the door.
“Odd,” Perceival said, before he scooped the letters up. They were that day’s mail, a glance told Sweetie as she caught one before it could blow away in the breeze. Perceival led the way into the reception area which was strangely deserted. The smell of lamp smoke was heavy in the air, courtesy of the multiple lamps that illuminated the room in a warm, golden glow.
On the desk at the back wall, another lantern burned low. It was a small one, and appeared to be a display piece that had been left burning all night. The oil in its reservoir was quite low, and as Perceival walked over and turned the lamp down, he gave Sweetie the first unsure look she’d seen on the normally unfazeable stallion.
“There’s usually somepony here… maybe they’re showing somepony around. It happens sometimes.” He nodded to the chairs nearby.
And for a while, he and Sweetie just sat, waiting.
Minutes slipped past, when Perceival stood out of his chair and looked with concern towards the door leading to the rest of the building.
“Something’s off, there should be somepony out here,” Perceival said worriedly, “Or a fire crew going in,” he added. He walked towards the door at the back, with Sweetie following, the tension in her body mounting.
Perceival slowly pushed open the door, and the stench that washed out was incredible: it was like the worst filth from the sewers of Canterlot boiled in the uncomfortable odor of a mortuary lab, laced with the ever-present tang of lamp oil. The inside of the hallway was lit fitfully by a lone lamp, which cast scattered light over the shattered remains of what had most likely been its fellow lamps, and illuminated a red splatter covering most of the wall.
Perceival swallowed hard, and started to back up. “Sweetie,” Perceival said slowly, tension filling his voice, “I think we should go find—”
A voice called quietly but distinctly. It sounded like a pony, but either very hurt or very distant. Perceival hesitated, swallowed again, and stepped into the hall.
Sweetie tried holding her breath while forcing herself to follow in Perceival’s wake.
The crunch of broken glass on the floor punctuated the tense, breathless silence in that malodorous hallway. The stench only got worse as they reached the door, which had been marked ‘Packing,’ and when it budged slowly open under Perceival’s steady hoof, the source of the smell became horribly evident. As he looked around the door, Perceival had to stifle a gasp. He froze for several seconds, until Sweetie pushed her head past him and saw the body.
It was a young stallion, probably just into adulthood. He was bright white where he hadn’t been splashed crimson, with a straight mane that was a soft pink. It looked as if he’d been attacked by a wild animal: a large predator, given the ferocity of the attack and the tooth marks. His eyes had been locked in a horrified look, directed straight up at Perceival, who remained frozen, murmuring.
“Spark… no… how are they here?”
After a moment, the cry sounded again, and Perceival shook himself. He led Sweetie past the body as quickly as he could, possibly so she would not dwell on the stallion, who had been much her own age, as well as to distance himself from the staring eyes.
The lamp oil made by Firebug and Bros. was only packaged safely by the grace of several dozen layers of anti-fire spells on the building, and in this part it became immediately evident that some of them had been sorely tested. There was still smoke lingering on the ceiling above, high up amongst the poorly lit rafters, and by the way everything had been smashed, it looked as though a fight had occurred.
Boxes had been destroyed, bottles of oil tossed about and shattered to spill their contents upon the concrete floor of the warehouse. A whole section of pallets had been set ablaze, and were still burning sullenly in the corner. The smell of smoke was cloying and warred with the stench of death for the most horrible scent in the room.
Sweetie was uncomfortably aware that they were effectively in a big room full of flammable liquids, possibly with the creature that had ended the stallion’s life. She could still feel his staring eyes, through the shadows and distance as she and Perceival navigated the toppled piles and stray bottles, following the steadily stronger cry for help.
They rounded a corner, and almost bumped into a second body, so thick was the smell of smoke and blood in the room, and the dimness of the lighting. It was another stallion, this one older, and smashed into the pallets of oil like he had been thrown there. His neck was at an impossible angle, and Sweetie didn’t look too hard at the other damage being thrown into a heavy wooden box full of glass bottles had done.
Perceival took a deep breath, as unwise as that was at that moment, and looked back at Sweetie. “We need to call the guard,” he whispered softly, “Let them know what’s—”
He was cut off as a voice from nearby let out a horrible scream, followed by a crash and a triumphant snarl. For all his evident fear, Perceival wasted no time leading the way around the corner, where a large, hulking form was bashing itself against the door to the packaging office.
Its huge bulk was overshadowed only by the wrath and hunger the creature was unleashing against the stout door to the office. Bringing a lamp oil distribution company into the middle of Manehattan had meant a lot of fire codes, so the door was quite thick, designed to section off a fire from the important-paper-filled office.
Its thick, hardy construction was foiling the beast’s assault, judging by the well-dented door and scarred walls, having been going on for some time. It was so intent on the door though, and the screams of terror echoing from inside the office, that it hadn’t noticed Perceival or Sweetie Belle yet. Perceival started to slowly back up, his eyes locked on the creature, when his hoof happened upon a stray bottle, sending it clattering out across the concrete floor.
At the sound, the creature turned. Perceival froze as the massive predator faced towards them. Sweetie had fought the creatures before, but without the dulling thrum of combat in her veins, they were a lot more terrifying. The matted, brown fur of the creature danced with the fitful light of the surviving oil lamps and the nearby fire as muscles moved beneath the fur sliding unsettlingly across each other in its flesh.
For a heavy few seconds, nothing happened, then Sweetie felt Perceival slam into her, driving her across the oil-slick floor away as he pushed off towards the wall, shouting. The creature, assuming Perceival was about to be cornered, ignored Sweetie for that moment, and pounded towards the silhouette of a stallion.
For a moment, things looked grim for Perceival as the beastly thing began to leap, only to bite down on the wall as the changeling stallion proceeded straight up the shadowy wall, his hooves merging with the darkness itself. Unfortunately, he had timed his ruse too late, for the creature snarled with rage at being fooled into taking a bite of concrete, and leapt for Perceival, who could not quite get away fast enough. One huge paw smacked him hard off the wall, and sent him sprawling across, until he rolled to a stop, unmoving.
As the beast approached the still form of the changeling, the whole room was covered in absolute darkness.
“Step away from him!” Sweetie shouted as the beast balked. She galloped forth, her flames surging towards the creature, invisible to all but her. When the beast reacted, jumping back from their heat, she followed up by summoning Akela through a miniature portal and promptly slicing through its knee’s ligaments.
The creature howled in pain and fury, but there are few injuries that could convince a member of the Pack to back down. It lunged on its three good legs straight through the flames towards Sweetie, its eyes mad with a rage that burned like the heart of Tartarus itself.
Still, it could not see, so as it lunged, it misjudged the distance and crashed hard into the fire, covering its pain in a fresh layer of agony. It rose, fur alight, and tried to throw itself blindly in where it thought Sweetie was.
Sweetie side-stepped, keeping her distance but also drawing it away from the door and from Perceival by peppering him with a spray of brambles. Akela sliced across the creature’s arm, then its face, and Sweetie kept a close eye on the berserking monster, waiting for an opening.
The thing’s face twisted in fury and pain as life dripped from its body, but every snap for Sweetie was quick and precise, as the creature instinctively kept itself facing where it thought Sweetie was. Even slashing across its face had done little to dull its predatory senses, but the creature was starting to slow. In its hungered, feral brain it knew it was running out of strength, so in a mad effort, it smashed into a large pallet of oil bottles, spreading burning oil across the floor even further, while coating itself in the process, intensifying the pain and rage burning across its features.
The slickness of the floor warred with the danger of fire, but worse still, Sweetie saw the burning oil beginning to trickle towards Perceival, who was just starting to stir. She had to end this quickly, otherwise the mad beast would light the whole building aflame, fire suppression spells be damned.
“Damn you!” Sweetie swore. Gritting her teeth, Sweetie snarled, spinning Akela as fast as she could, just like she had that time she had fought the golems under the mountain. With a cracking boom, Akela shot through the creature’s forehead, exploding out of the back of it’s head with tremendous force.
The creature spasmed for a second before collapsing in a heap just as she dismissed the darkness. She conjured her elemental spells, ordering the earth up to create a small pool for the burning oil to gather in while she galloped up to her friend.
Perceival was dazed, but rapidly coming to as the smell of smoke kickstarted the more survival-oriented portions of his brain. “What-” the shadowy pony coughed. “Where is…” Perceival trailed off as he spotted the large, hairy corpse. His bright eyes were wide as he turned to Sweetie and asked slowly, “Was there only one?”
At Sweetie’s nod, Perceival started to lever himself up, his eyes unfocusing as vertigo took its toll on him.
“Th-there’s never just one,” Perceival said grimly, his voice steadying a little. As if on cue, a low growl sounded, just audible over the crackling of the fire. Movements in the smoke across the room were dimly visible, and at least three large, hulking figures were moving about the room.
As Sweetie started to think about a plan of attack, Perceival leaned heavily on her, and when she looked up, she saw that he was shakily pointing to the dented door of the office with one hoof.
“There,” he said, for emphasis, “help me Sweetie. It’s our only shot, and we’re not leaving him.” Perceival sounded half-delirious, but Sweetie knew she couldn’t defend him and fight off three of the things.
Sweetie helped the injured changeling to the door, warped from the beast’s blows and locked, but at a push of his hoof and a whisper of power heard on some deep, fundamental level, it gave. The door scraped open, but quickly hit a barricade. “Stay back!” a frightened male voice called out. “I-I’ve got a”—there was a pause—“a decorative ornament, but it would really hurt!”
“We can get you out of here,” Perceival said firmly, to Sweetie’s surprise as she shoved a path through the debris of the hasty barricade, with Perceival’s weak help.
At the promise of leaving the burning building, the earth pony stallion emerged and began to dig at the junk in front of the door. He was about Perceival’s height, with a fiery red mane and orange coat. His cutie mark of a burning lamp, the same as the one on the enthusiastic sign outside, suggested to Sweetie that he might be one of the owners.
His orange eyes were bloodshot from smoke, but the stallion hauled the big desk that was blocking the way out long enough for Perceival and Sweetie to slip in. At that exact moment, something huge and angry hit the metal door with tremendous force.
“Seal it!” Perceival shouted as he staggered towards the back of the office, while Sweetie and the stallion worked to shove the desk back up against the door. “I need time, as much as you can give me!”
Sweetie didn’t question the dark unicorn, and heaved with all her might. It was slow, but the creature couldn’t do more than shove with its arm against the door. As the creature backed off for another hard shove, Sweetie and the stallion managed to set the desk at an angle so it wedged the door, at least temporarily. Sweetie jumped up on the desk as the creature roared and hit the door hard enough to make the impromptu barricade give a little as the stallion began to scream again.
Sweetie ignored his cries and concentrated on her magic. White fire started to spray from her horn to the metal edge of the door, which began to fuse with the frame. It was hard work, especially as the door came under increasing attack by the creature and its fellows, which began to hammer on the walls as well. Welding with magic wasn’t easy to begin with, and it was an exhausted Sweetie Belle that fell back from the door, still molten metal coating its middle third, sealing them inside.
“That should hold them,” Sweetie said absently, only to be grabbed unexpectedly by the stallion.
“But now we’re trapped,” he wailed, “trapped like rats!” The stallion’s eyes were wide and rolling, and his ears were flat-back with terror. His coat was grubby with soot and sweat, and now that she had some breathing room, Sweetie noticed he was splattered with blood. He had probably seen more than anypony should have to, and, Sweetie realized with a sick feeling in her gut, he had probably seen it happen to his family, if the cutie mark was any connection to the owner.
Sweetie pushed him off as gently as she could, given the circumstances, and called to Perceival. “How’s that escape going?” She moved towards the dim back of the office, where she stopped. Perceival had made an arch out of boxes and desks like a colt with too much time and office supplies on his hooves, and was retching in the corner as his concussion continued to vex his equilibrium. “What,” Sweetie asked in alarm, “is that?”
Perceival looked up shakily and wiped his mouth, “An exit,” he said weakly. At Sweetie’s look, he walked over to the arch, and rested his head against it. Sweetie seriously started to consider the possibility that Perceival had hit his head a good deal harder than she had thought. The stallion they were rescuing, however, took it a great deal less well.
“An exit?!” The stallion’s voice rose sharply in pitch. “It’s a bunch of junk! You’re praying to junk to save us?! This is insane! You’re insane!” The stallion backed away, as if he could hide from the whole situation in the corner of the office. “We’re all going to die! We’re going to get eaten and die!” The stallion babbled on in broken fragments of fear and despair.
Sweetie looked to Perceival for support, and gaped. Beside the dark librarian, the arch way now had a lot more depth. It was as if she was looking into the small space beyond the arch, but compressed inside that space was a whole lot more room. Perceival grinned at her weakly.
“Never seen a door before?” he asked jokingly. “Come on, grab our friend there and let’s go, before it closes.”
It took a bit of effort to drag the babbling stallion from the room and into the mysterious portal, especially with Perceival as unsteady on his hooves as he was. In the end, it was a particularly hard slam against the concrete wall that convinced the traumatized pony to trust the magical portal. They all proceeded through together, into a place so dark and terrible, Sweetie briefly turned to go back, but where there had been a hole, there was now just a drifting, vague suggestion of a room, and the echo of a roar of fury.
Perceival chuckled. “That’ll teach em,” he said quietly. He looked around, and Sweetie realized they were in a circular chamber surrounded by pillars of stone. The smell of decay was thick in the air, and rose in clouds from noxious liquids pouring from small holes in the crumbling, cobblestone walls and dribbling around their hooves, but it wasn’t full of smoke at least. In eight directions, narrow tunnels promised a possible escape, each one glistening with the stains of centuries, lit by the passing lights of some sort of floating, glowing motes.
“Don’t touch them,” Perceival warned their companion as he started to reach for the light, dazed and confused.
He pulled back, and Perceival levitated up a rock with shaky telekinesis, then tossed it. Immediately, the rock was swarmed by the little lights, and it dropped, red hot, into a pool of the liquid, where it sizzled and burned blue, consuming the stone. The motes fed on the blue flame, while Sweetie and the stallion looked on in alarm.
“We’re going to die,” the stallion said weakly, and Sweetie was hard-pressed to disagree. “Where are we?”
“I didn’t think we’d end up in the Sewers,” he said mostly to himself, but with a trace of apology. “But there’s no help for it. We’ll just have to try to find the path out.” He realized he’d been asked a question and turned back to the others. “The Sewers, they’re a…” Perceival trailed off as he tried to think of a way to explain the Hedge to somepony who had never had the dubious ‘gift’ of being a changeling. “Well,” he said, giving up, “there’s a path out to Manehattan, somewhere nearby.”
“Somewhere?” Sweetie asked, eyeing the narrow passages, while the stallion behind her simply started to sob quietly. “How far?”
“Close,” Perceival said maddeningly. “The Thorns have been pushed back here,” he indicated the smooth if filthy walls where, if Sweetie looked closely enough, she thought she could see where the vines had been ripped from the stonework. “I think we’re on a fresh path.” The way Perceival said it gave Sweetie pause. The battered librarian was eyeing the paths warily, as if watching for something, or listening for something besides the sound of dripping water.
Sweetie swallowed as the bit dropped and she realized, if something had cleared this path, it could come that way again.
“Come on,” Perceival said with a touch of his old smile. “Let’s get moving. The sooner we do, the sooner we can tell somepony about all this.”
The pair of them had to nudge the stallion to walk with them, and then practically shove him into the small tunnel, which was cramped, and only wide enough for the ponies to proceed with their bellies practically dragging through the sludge oozing down the center.
It was hard on their legs, the smell was like a fermented sock wrapped in ancient seaweed, and they had to freeze frequently to let the little, drifting lights shoot past. More than once they had to squeeze by the sharp edges of thorns that had been left standing. By the time they reached another open chamber, everypony was panting and covered in cuts.
They had entered a chamber barely large enough to deserve the distinction. It had nine uneven sides, each of which sported a new passage, excepting the one they’d arrived in. Something about the way none of the walls matched up was marginally more disconcerting than the cramped, claustrophobic passages.
At least there aren’t any thorns here, Sweetie thought, as she looked around the dripping, filthy walls of their relative sanctuary.
Sweetie looked over at Perceival in that moment of relative calm. He was heaving in the corner, his concussion having blended with the stench into one nauseating experience. As he looked up, he tried to smile at Sweetie, who returned the gesture. It felt hollow, in that grim place, bleeding from over a dozen minor wounds.
It was their companion that spoke up first during the brief respite. “Do you think my brothers are alright?” The question hung in the silence like a lead weight. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, he continued softly, “It was little Spark’s first day.” There was a glazed quality about the stallion’s eyes as he went on, “He’d begged me to let him work in the factory with everypony else.”
Perceival looked away, while the stallion continued, his voice several soft shades of dull horror.
“I hope it’s not just Firebug’s Lamp Oil now. I-I wouldn’t know what to do by myself.” Firebug had the look of a pony caught in a nightmare.
“Well,” Perceival started to say, when a low growl rumbled to Sweetie’s right, shaking the walls and cracking off pieces of masonry. Firebug shrunk closer to one of the passages, while Sweetie and Perceival rode out the predatory tremor. A chunk of the ceiling broke loose, and with it, what remained of Firebug’s courage. He scrambled into the nearest passage, disregarding the thorns bloodying his coat further.
Sweetie tried to grab for him with her magic, but the stallion was lost in primal terror, and he simply dragged her down further into the darkness. Perceival grabbed ahold of Sweetie with his telekinesis, like an ink-black grip around her hind legs. For a moment, the three were perfectly balanced, with Firebug grasping vainly for anything at all, Sweetie hanging on grimly to his legs and tail, Perceival with his legs braced on the entrance, pulling with all of his mental might. Then, quite suddenly, a rushing noise began to build behind them.
Sweetie looked back and saw a darkness swallowing up the lights, filled with spots of blue flame, where they feasted in what could only be called a wave. It was rushing towards them, like a reeking hoof pushing them through the dark passages.
“Percy!” Sweetie shouted urgently, “Get in!” Perceival looked back, and his white eyes widened as they took in the overwhelming threat.
Perceival wasted no time, and shifted his magical pull into a push as he jumped in, introducing Sweetie very personally to Firebug in the process. But then the rush of liquid was flowing around them, pushing the three ponies towards an uncertain fate, with the flaring, popping sounds of the lights feasting growing ever closer. The claws of the passage tore at them as they half-slid, half-rolled down what was possibly the worst waterslide Sweetie had ever envisioned.
Firebug screamed the whole way, and Sweetie echoed his sentiment, as did Perceival when the horrible fluid caught up to them and began to push them with a wave of palpable stench through the tunnel. Then Sweetie felt abruptly weightless, but it passed quickly.
The corridor had at some point ended so abruptly that none of the ponies immediately registered the change. She looked down, and saw below her a forest of sharp, glowing crystal spears. She and the others had burst into a wide open space, filled with a half dome of some ancient ruin and sharp, glowing crystals that grew like trees from the stony floor. Firebug had somehow managed to cling to her in mid-air, while Perceival flailed helplessly behind as they all began to fall.
Sweetie screamed with Firebug, who screamed ever louder for the encouragement. Perceival was shouting something, but terror was louder than words. She couldn’t fly, couldn’t defend herself, she was falling and was going to die, she knew. She thought of Twilight, of everything that she still had left to do. She saw her mentor’s face shattering, and that’s about when Perceival hit her.
He had bounced off of one of the nearby taller spires of crystal, and hit her, seemingly by chance, in mid-air. This was just enough to divert Sweetie from the crystals to the wall of the dome, which was just curved enough that she and Firebug didn’t quite break all of their ribs when they hit it. Sweetie and Firebug rolled down, towards the floor, cushioning each other’s fall until they landed in a tangled heap at the bottom.
Sweetie’s ears were ringing, a coppery taste filled her mouth and every part of her body felt like she’d spent a day in a rock tumbler. She groaned and tried to rise, while her mind automatically went through a mental checklist, cataloguing her various injuries for later aches.
“F-Firebug?” Sweetie asked of the stallion, but he appeared unconscious. She tried to rouse him, but to no avail.
Sweetie disentangled herself painfully, wincing all the way. When she looked, she noticed a small shard of crystal was embedded in her side, glowing spitefully like an ember. Sweetie pulled it out with her magic, and cast it aside. It skipped into the darkness, bounced up when it hit something, and a very familiar, weak “Ow,” reminded the dazed Sweetie that there was one pony missing from their group.
Sweetie limped in the direction of the sound, and stopped. Perceival was stuck on one of the crystal pillars, about ten feet off the ground. His blood dripped down the immaculate facets of the large crystals’ glowing geometry that had been driven through his right side. His eyes were half-shut, but he spotted her.
“It worked,” Perceival said softly as he relaxed. He grimaced as relaxing made the crystal-wrought wound widen. More blood spilled down the crystal, pooling now a little around the base.
“Percy,” Sweetie whispered in horror. “What did you do?”
Perceival gave Sweetie a little smile, strained but still warm. “Bargained,” he said simply, “My luck, for your fate. I bought the contract a—” He fell quiet for a second as the wound sent a ripple of pain through his body. “I bought the rights to the contract a while ago, to protect Dame Twilight, if necessary.” He gave Sweetie a once-over, despite his own wound. “How hurt are you?”
Sweetie shook her head. “I’m okay, I had a splinter on my side, but it was nothing… are you going to—” she bit back her words. “Are you going to be alright?”
“My luck,” Perceival repeated gently, “for your fate.” He grimaced, “You have to get back to- to Twilight. With Firebug, if you can.” He swallowed, and his limbs twitched with another wave of repressed agony. “You have my luck now,” he said with as much encouragement as he could muster. “You have to use—”
Perceival went quiet as the whole forest shook. It rumbled with a laughter that was deep and terrible. Perceival’s eyes widened with sudden terror, and he looked down at Sweetie desperately.
“Run, Sweetie! Find the iron arch, as quickly as you ca—”
He screamed as something snapped the crystal spire from its base. The crystal impaling him cracked at its point of entry when he hit the stone floor, but it stayed miraculously whole otherwise, while shards of crystal rained everywhere.
From all around, thunderous growls filled the crystal cavern, which added an eerie resonance to the already antagonistic rumble. Some were mocking, others eager, but all of them sounded hungry. Then one voice, sweet and honeyed, rose above the tumult, which fell quiet in respect.
“Well, isn’t this a charming surprise.”
Sweetie twirled around, placing herself between Percy, Firebug and the voice. “I know you! Don’t think this time around you can defeat me so easily, Beast! I should tear you to shreds for what you’ve done to me and other ponies!”
In the glow of the crystals, a face rose above the lurking shadows, eyes like glowing orange fires set within a predatory muzzle, which was split into a wide, hungry grin. “I would dearly love to see you try, but you’re injured, bloodied, and far too weak to even put up much more of a fight than your friend there.” His mocking eyes turned to Firebug, who had curled up entirely, conscious but quivering in terror. “Always nice to see a mortal that knows their place.”
“Leave him alone. Leave them both alone!” Sweetie demanded, standing her ground. A portal opened and Akela flew out, hovering almost innocently next to Sweetie. “I’ve already claimed the lives of a whole bunch of your pathetic werewolves. I think that I can at least ensure seeing a ‘mortal cower’ is going to be the last thing you use those big targets you call eyes see.”
A second pair of eyes opened above the first pair, and all four looked, for a moment, enraged. Then a calm filled the form of the Beast, towering as he did above the ponies. “Such spirit, yes,” he mused, his sweet tones cloying like the scent of a powerful perfume, “I can see why the Maestro had such trouble with you.”
He shook his monstrous head, and in an instant, his whole manner had changed. “In that case, I propose an exchange.” At Sweetie’s frozen expression he added, “Well, if you’re going to fight me the whole way, I probably will have entirely too much trouble capturing you with anything like acceptable casualties.” His sneer took in the Pack around him, and showed off his shark-like teeth. “And my Pack is annoying to replace. So, if I can’t have you… how about your friends there?” At those words, the Pack shuffled closer, like chained dogs eagerly awaiting a treat.
Sweetie snorted. “As if I would let that happen!”
“Well,” The Beast said with a smile, “you can defend yourself, but can you also defend a coward”—Firebug curled up tighter, as if trying to will himself from existence—“and a cripple?” He indicated the bleeding Perceival. “And even if you do, will they survive?” He grinned in the little silence that followed, broken only by the slavering of his Pack. “So, how about we make a game of it?”
“A game?” Sweetie asked, stepping back protectively to make sure she was closer to Percy and Firebug. “What sort of game?”
“A hunt,” The Beast said simply. “Have you ever hunted, little pony? Ever sought a breathing creature, to taste its flesh and feel its blood in your mouth?” Some of the nearer Pack members were drooling as he continued, smirking. “For the ultimate stakes: your freedom, and that of Perceival, the Shadow Librarian, and Firebug, the proprietor of Firebug and… well, just Firebug, I suppose.” His grin was as cold as it was cruel, and Firebug began to shake with more than fear. “I’ll even throw in a special prize, if you win.”
Sweetie’s eyes widened. “You guarantee that Perceival and Firebug will reach Twilight’s Citadel alive, without further harm from you or your pack?”
“We shall never hunt them, or harm them, if you agree,” the Beast said, with two clawed talons raised in a parody of the Colt Scouts. “They shall have safe conduct from here to the Citadel of the Changelings, but you, Sweetie Belle, must return through this gate three weeks, three days, and three hours from the sealing of this bargain.” His smile turned cold, “If you fail to do so, or are late, if by even a minute, you and they will be found, and… well I’m sure someone will want”—he looked Sweetie up and down—“damaged goods.
“If you are punctual, and succeed however,” he said, voice oozing contempt for that idea, “me and mine shall never hunt them, or you, and...” A massive hand reached over and snapped off a section of one of the crystal spires like a toothpick. It held its palm upright, and the crystal shard began to hover over it, then slowly turn purple, and more jagged. “A certain shard shall be yours.”
Sweetie gasped. “But… how?” She frowned. “How do I even know you have it? For all I know that’s fake.”
The Beast snarled, like a predatory whip-crack that sent primal fear shuddering through every backbone, before his voice fell back into its usual sweet tones, “Your ignorance betrays you, Sweetie Belle, I cannot lie. The shard of your mentor is mine, but it can be yours, should you win.” He clenched his taloned hand around the crystal, powdering it, “If you don’t, well, I’m sure someone wants it.” He sneered as he said the last few words, shaking off a shrapnel of crystal fragments.
“You might say you can’t lie, but ‘not lying’ doesn’t always mean you are telling the truth. Swear to me it’s the real thing and you’ve got a deal,” Sweetie said, looking the Beast in the eyes.
“Very well.” He towered over everything in the room, like a looming shadow made of every prey animal’s nightmare rolled into a massive, hulking form. “Upon my true name, I swear that I deceive thee not. The shard I offer is a piece of the soul of Twilight Sparkle, mentor to Sweetie Belle.” The Beast’s tones had shifted to iron certainty, as though they were reshaping reality. “If thou swearest to enter into the compact I told thee earlier, then it shall be thy prize, along with the freedom from the hunt and harm of myself and my kin forevermore.”
Sweetie closed her eyes and let out a very slow breath. “I swear.”
“Then as of this moment, the pact is bound. You must return in three weeks, three days and three hours, as of your departure from the Hedge,” the Beast said smugly, leaning in to extend a claw to Sweetie. It was almost as big as her whole body, but it was clearly extended peacefully. It leaned in and touched Sweetie’s horn for just an instant, and a ripple ran through Sweetie, as if something in her fate had altered.
At that moment, a movement caught Sweetie’s eye and she pulled back reflexively, just in time for a spear of crystal to land where she had been not a moment before. Sweetie started to accuse the Beast of complicity, but he was already snarling and peering up as a figure dropped gracefully from above, riding the broken shard of a crystal pillar down.
Sweetie pulled Akela in front of her, but as the creature leapt for her, Sweetie felt a cold shock run through her. It was made of sticks and debris, but its face was a horrible, artificial mockery of her own, made of bits of obsidian and bone. Its magic shone the same color as her own as it steered the crystal towards Sweetie’s face, and the desperate fury in its eyes was like a window into insanity.
Her guard had dropped slightly in that instant, but at that precise moment, the Beast’s own paw-like hand closed around the creature, crystal and all.
“It seems I shall save your life twice this night,” the Beast said, almost conversationally while from between its fingers screams of fury filtered out. He squeezed, and the creature screamed as the crystal shattered, undoubtedly filling it with shards. The sound was identical to Sweetie’s own scream, and it sent chills up the unicorn’s spine to hear herself screaming in pain.
The Beast’s hand unclenched, and it caught in its talons a tiny struggling form, pierced with a dozen or so thin lances of crystal. It screamed in fury at the Beast, and at Sweetie Belle down below, thrashing despite the crystal piercing its limbs. Bits of obsidian and tiny bits of bone rained down, like drops of solid blood.
“How terribly ironic,” the Beast sneered, as the creature tried to free itself, lunging for Sweetie even while suspended above her. “It seems you know each other then. Tell me, Sweetie Belle, do you know what this creature is?”
As Sweetie was about to say ‘no,’ the creature piped up.
“Yes!” The Beast grinned as the other Sweetie thrashed and shouted, her voice identical to Sweetie Belle’s, but full of hate. “She’s a fake, a fraud! She doesn’t belong here, her life is—it should be mine!”
The Beast smiled, and dangled the artificial Sweetie above Sweetie Belle, “Look, Sweetie Belle,” he said tauntingly. “Your legacy here: everything you left behind when you were dragged away, contained in a tiny, angry package. A package known as a fetch.” The creature swore and threatened, but the Beast’s voice effortlessly overrode the small storm of profanity. “Created from what your soul left behind, plus the contents of one of the Maestro’s pockets, driven mad because you don’t really belong here. Are you proud of your legacy, Sweetie Belle?” He held the fetch still closer. “Doesn’t she have her mother’s eyes?”
Sweetie shook her head. “Why do you torture her so? Did I really create her?”
“The Maestro created her,” the Beast corrected. “But you contributed.” He grinned. “And I torment her because she is weak, and screams amusingly.” He shook the fetch, who bit her lip against screaming. “I think she wants to kill you, Sweetie Belle. What a terrible mother you’ve been.” He laughed. “But don’t worry, she won’t trouble you more tonight. This fetch will be my payment for saving your life from it.”
He tossed the hapless creature into his mouth, and stepped back into the darkness. And like that, the Pack melted away, while across the room, an iron arch waited, leading to familiar stonework. The Beast’s Pack formed a kind of honor guard, and two of the more pony-sized ones lumbered forward, claws outstretched. And yet they picked up Perceival and Firebug almost tenderly, even when the terrified Firebug began to thrash and flail.
The one holding Firebug simply held him tighter, and they looked to Sweetie. To her shock, she realized that these Pack members weren’t just pony-sized, they had horns, and their eyes were wider than the other members of the Pack she’d seen. Yet they snapped and snarled like all the rest, and it was clear that the will of the Beast was all that was preventing them from feasting. Perceival in particular was being rapidly drooled upon.
As Sweetie proceeded forward, they flanked her, and the barking, baying and screaming of the Pack heralded her as she passed through the iron arch, and into the darkest alcove of the Citadel. Immediately, alarm spells went off as the Pack members stepped through, and they let out howls of fear and confusion. They dumped Perceival and Firebug on the floor before they ran back through the arch, tails tucked between their legs.
Sweetie was immediately aware that she’d only bargained for safe conduct TO the Citadel and now she had a bleeding Perceival and a pony that alternated between deep, panicked terror and comatose trauma.
“Bastard,” she muttered, levitating the pair and rushing down the corridor toward the approaching changelings that had noticed their arrival.
o.0.o End Part 2 o.0.o