“And he just let you go?” Twilight asked several hours later. They were meeting around the large, circular table in Twilight and Luna’s shared chambers.
Princess Luna and Trixie were looking on in concern; the latter writing down everything that Sweetie said. Luminous stood nearby, polishing Twilight’s armor, but listening attentively.
“Well,” Sweetie shrugged. “After I agreed to the contest.”
She had been somewhat subdued after her return from the Hedge, carrying the unconscious Perceival and the gibbering Firebug after the Pack had left them had been emotionally draining, but the full gravity of what she had lived through hadn’t really hit her until her companions had been taken care of.
Perceival had been taken immediately into the care of the Citadel’s own medical staff of changelings, while Firebug had been flown by chariot to Canterlot General.
“It cannot be a fair contest he imagines,” Princess Luna said, her head lowering as she glared at the table as if it contained the answers. “The Beast is ever wily with his words. He’s failed to describe the hunt he pressed you into in any detail at all.”
“But,” Twilight admitted grudgingly, “He did swear on his true name. If he breaks the terms…” Twilight’s gaze slid to Sweetie. “If you succeed, you will have what you came for,” she said frankly, “but if you fail, it might never be yours, ever.” Twilight sighed, and closed her eyes the words in her mane moving erratically, “I wish there were another way.”
“What do you mean?” Trixie asked curiously, “This is an excellent opportunity, Dame Twilight.” Her slight emphasis on the title made Twilight and Luna look up. “This is a chance to destroy the Beast forever!”
Princess Luna’s eyes narrowed as she looked over to her. “What do you mean, Trixie?”
“He swore on his true name, Princess.” Trixie was clearly excited: her pupil-less eyes shone brightly, and she was practically dancing on the cobbles. “If Sweetie can get him to break his word…”
“Then he would cease to exist,” Twilight finished reluctantly. As the Princess and Luminous gasped, Twilight raised her hoof for silence. “But he knows we can’t pass that up, I’m sure of it. It’s far too powerful a bargain for him to make unknowingly, and far too one-sided.” Twilight began to pace, her mane flickering agitatedly, “The Beast controls the contest, the location, the means of its completion, everything. He could’ve strong-armed Sweetie into something far less risky for himself. So,” Twilight leaned on the table again, “why would he leave himself at such disadvantage if he didn’t have something up his sleeve?”
“I’m sure he does,” Sweetie added, looking at Twilight. “But what else can I do?”
For a moment, Twilight paused and stared at her. “I’m not sure. Preparation would probably be the best use of your time while Luna and I try to think of something. If we can find a loophole in the Beast’s phrasing, we might be able to help you in the contest. Trixie,”—Twilight turned to the blue unicorn changeling, who stood straighter in response—“I want you to take a message to Vinyl. Tell her Sweetie needs training in Hedge ranging.”
Trixie nodded sharply, bowing to Twilight before leaving the room.
With Trixie gone, Twilight walked up to Sweetie and leaned in close to whisper, “Don’t let any changeling know you’ve bargained with the Beast.” The scent of burning paper wafting from the purple knight was exceptionally noticeable at such a range, but it faded to insignificance as Twilight continued in an even lower tone. “Some changelings might convince themselves that you sold out the Citadel. Be very careful.”
Sweetie’s eyes widened slightly, before nodding, prompting Twilight to lean back and smile, speaking to her normally
“And be sure to keep an eye out when you’re ranging, the Beast might harry your training. And do try to keep Vinyl out of trouble, if you can.”
Sweetie smiled back uneasily. “I’ll try.” She hesitated. “But… if I’m not to tell anypony about that, what about Firebug? Or Percy?”
Twilight frowned for a moment then shook her head. “Percy… I’ll have words with. He’s trustworthy, and far too gentle a soul to hurt you, but he can get talkative. Don’t worry about Firebug telling anypony anything.”
Before Sweetie could ask, Princess Luna placed herself between the two. “It will be but a nightmare to him,” she stated, her voice sounded a little sad. “Soon he’ll have come up with his own story of what happened, and the truth will be lost to his own mind protecting itself.” She shifted a little, like she was shrugging some weight off. “Most ponies cannot comprehend what the Hedge is, nor the creatures that dwell there. Their minds make them into dreams, or fantasies.”
Sweetie sighed. “At least it’s a small blessing for them.”
Twilight smiled a little. “Yes, it is, but it makes getting them to understand that what we do is important, entirely too difficult.” She nodded to the door. “Get some rest. Vinyl will show you how to run in the Hedge properly tomorrow.”
Sweetie Belle smiled as she nodded to Twilight. As she moved to stand, however, her head swam, her legs seemingly unable to wholly support her weight anymore as a something soft and feathery slid beneath her abdomen to keep her upright.
"Rest will be good, child," she heard Luna whisper as she was hefted off her hooves.
She watched dimly as she was carried into the bedroom, eyelids heavy as she fell into the welcomed dark.
After sleeping for the next full day, Sweetie left the Citadel with Vinyl Scratch and, to her mild surprise, Octavia. They had apparently arrived while Sweetie was still asleep, tried and failed to wake her, before patiently waiting for her to wake up.
At Sweetie’s profuse apologies, Vinyl just laughed. “Don’t worry about it, Sweetie. Get the sleep you can, when you can, while you can. That’s what I say.” She grinned, while Octavia gave her a silent look of long-standing tolerance.
The two changelings led the way towards the same arch Sweetie had entered through, with Vinyl laughing and chattering all the way.
“It’s always nice to have a dedicated entrance,” Vinyl said idly as the trio walked to the iron arch, set into the little alcove. “Makes things easy for defence.” She nodded to the wards carved into the stones. She grinned at Sweetie. “Of course, it also means things on the other side know where to wait, so it’s kinda a double-edged sword.”
As soon as they entered the Hedge though, a discernible change came over both changelings. Vinyl kept talking of course, but her tone hushed significantly. For all her easygoing attitude, Vinyl’s ears flicked at every sound, even just outside the Citadel in the bookshelf-lined area of the Hedge.
Octavia grew more watchful as well, her gaze sliding over everything constantly, settling on anything that felt out of place. Both changelings seemed quite natural in the strange environment. They led Sweetie out from the Hedge around the Citadel into the wilds beyond regular patrols, and it was there that Sweetie learned exactly what surviving the Hedge really was.
Vinyl and Octavia showed Sweetie how to track down edible fruits and berries, how to find safe places to bunk down, and, strangest of all, how to protect her own dreams. Because in the Hedge, dreams and reality were very, very close, it turned out. The first night, Sweetie dreamed of her imprisonment again, in vivid detail, and it began to spiral out of control. Octavia woke her, calm and concerned.
“W-what?!” Sweetie gasped, sitting up fast, heart racing. “What’s going on?” She looked around the little camp they had carved out of the Hedge. The brambles were everywhere, and several of the trees twitched visibly at the sound of Sweetie’s voice. Vinyl was still on watch, looking over from the fire.
The sight of the camp was reassuring, but it was Octavia’s steady presence that helped the most. The stony changeling’s presence was like an anchor in a stormy sea. “You were having a nightmare,” Octavia said quietly, “but you’re still safe.”
“The Hedge makes dreams more crazy,” Vinyl said from the fire, her face uncharacteristically serious. “It’s halfway between reality and dreams anyway, so a little reality bleeds into your dreams whenever you sleep here.” She shivered, as if warding off a chill, before she grinned at Sweetie. “You looked like you were having a real bad time of it, so ‘Tavi woke you up.”
Octavia nodded, and sat back from Sweetie. She let Sweetie soak in the silence of the Hedge, which was reassuringly lacking in stony obsidian walls or the screams of unfortunate changelings. At least in this part of the Hedge. Sweetie shivered as she felt her gorge rising,
“How do you stop it?” she asked.
“You don’t,” Octavia said simply, her glowing eyes locked with Sweetie’s. “But, if you like, we can help you manage it.”
Sweetie blinked. “Manage it? How?”
Octavia looked to Vinyl, who nodded with a friendly smile, “You let us in. It’s pretty simple really: we make a bargain, we let each other into each other’s dreams in exchange for never betraying each other.” Vinyl grinned. “And ‘Tavi trusts you, so I do too.” She stoked the fire, sending up embers that flew away as fiery butterflies. “Whaddya say?”
Octavia nodded and looked to Sweetie for her response, her marbled face calm and impassive as she added quietly, “It’s no small thing. We’d be seeing a very personal part of you, and you’d be seeing our own dreams in return.” Her calm voice was serious, but not pressing. “If you want to handle it alone, we understand, but it might help.”
Sweetie swallowed and looked at the campfire. “I don’t want to be alone.”
Octavia nudged Sweetie up with her nose gently, and nodded towards the fire, smiling. She led Sweetie over to the cheery blaze beside Vinyl. Sweetie felt the tension of the moment grow as if the brambles were growing larger. Vinyl reached out with her hoof, while her telekinesis snapped off a barb from one of the thorns.
“Ouch!” said the thorns, which rippled indignantly.
Vinyl rolled her eyes. “Drama queen,” she muttered at the thorns before she focused on the task at hoof. The barb pierced Vinyl’s extended leg first, where the blood would run down her limb towards her hoof, then she repeated the act with Octavia. When Sweetie’s turn came around, the barb was wet with the other changelings’ blood. It pierced her skin with a pinch, and the blood ran down her hoof as she extended it over the dirt.
Octavia spoke first, as her blood started to drop onto the earth. “I, Octavia Scratch, swear upon my name to protect the dreams of my fellows of this pact in return for their protection of mine.”
Vinyl took up the pledge next, her glowing ichor staining the ground in steady drops. “I, Vinyl Scratch, swear upon my name to protect the dreams of my fellow pact members in return for their protection of my own.”
They looked to Sweetie, who took a breath. She felt the blood of her body dripping into the hungry dirt beside the campfire, and the scent of smoke and blood mingled in her nose like incense as she spoke, “I, Sweetie Belle, swear upon my name to protect the dreams of my fellow pact members in return for their protection of mine.”
Sweetie felt something inside her ‘click’. Octavia bound Sweetie’s small wound while Vinyl bound Octavia’s and her own, chattering once again about her own exploits in the Hedge. Octavia moved a little ways off, and as Vinyl’s chattering petered out, she nodded to Sweetie.
“Get some rest,” Octavia said quietly. “We’ll wake you when it’s your watch.”
When Sweetie finally fell asleep, the nightmares returned.
She was running down an obsidian hallway, the screams of the dying following her like hounds. Then the sounds grew softer, and the dream began to change. Sweetie ran from the shrieking voices, down the hallway, and onto a velvet carpet.
Her hoofsteps became muffled on the plush fabric, while the screams behind faded into the warm silence of a home at night. She slowed from a run to a trot, and then down to a walk as she found herself in a disco. The steady beat thudded through the dreamscape, as Sweetie found herself on a dance floor, surrounded by friendly, dancing ponies. In the background, at the bar, a lone figure watched and smiled, sipping her drink.
With the nightmares curtailed, Sweetie was able to focus on the lessons at hoof. She learned the basics of surviving in the wilderness from Octavia, who showed her how to find good shelter and other concrete things, while Vinyl introduced Sweetie to the dangers of the Hedge.
Sweetie found herself being chased, shot at, strangled, half-drowned, and dragged through the brambles by either mentor or some random hedge-dweller. And every night, she helped one of the two other changelings with their own dreams in kind. Visiting the dreams of Vinyl and Octavia was something that took getting used to.
The process, though, was actually very simple. That first night, she was walked through the process by Octavia.
“Slow your breathing,” the marble pony said calmly. “Match it to mine when I’m asleep, and let your mind drift.” Vinyl stoked the fire as they talked, watching the darkness, “Then think of pushing through the darkness and into my dreams. You’ll pay a little power, but we can show you how to get that back.”
Sweetie nodded, but for all its simplicity, visiting Octavia’s dreams was far from restful. Sweetie, Vinyl and Octavia all suffered for their own experience, and it was often hard, frightening work to help Vinyl and Octavia through their own dreams. To make matters worse, the Hedge itself was becoming more and more strange, and the line between reality and dreams blurred more and more.
Yet even as the world became stranger, Vinyl and Octavia were there to help Sweetie survive, teaching her the most seemingly random acts. Like pawing at closed doors, or drinking milk from a shoe. It was odd, but Vinyl insisted it was essential to surviving the Hedge.
The things Sweetie ate and drank often were distasteful, but Octavia and Vinyl struggled with her. Goblin Fruits, they called them, after the strange creatures that inhabited the Hedge. They were anything from large, waxy fruits to delicate flowers covered in sharp sugary crystals.
They didn’t even seem like very much food by themselves, but Sweetie always felt stronger, more sure of herself after eating, no matter how little or how nauseating the food had been.
“That’s the power getting into ya,” Vinyl said when Sweetie asked. “This whole place is full of power.”
She gestured to the little spring they had sat beside, which glowed and corkscrewed up into the brambles above, sliding slowly through the spectrum, like a light wave given form. There was a small clearing around the little spring, little more than enough space for their camp.
“Power is what runs this place,” Vinyl continued. “Dreams, reality, thoughts and fears, all that junk makes a lotta power running around, crashing into each other.” She grinned. “If you’re happy, that power warps the Hedge a little bit. If you’re afraid, well, that warps it too.”
“And what if you’re trying to sleep?” Octavia asked grumpily from the other side of the camp.
Vinyl snickered, but quieted.
The splashing of the water lulled Sweetie into her meditations that night, while Vinyl stood vigil over her and Octavia.
Helping the two older changelings with their dreams was giving her a deeper insight into them, often to an embarrassing degree. She learned how Octavia and Vinyl had met, more or less, in the basements of their Keeper’s lair. They were both entertainment pieces for the creature, and so their only time alone had been deep underground, amidst the glowing crystals of the basements.
She also learned far more than she was comfortable about both of their love lives. Not that it was particularly deviant, but some of Octavia’s dreams edged into places that Sweetie would have gladly edged right back out of. Still, the knowledge that they trusted her with such deep secrets about themselves was almost touching, terribly embarrassing. But touching.
Yet for all their closeness, it didn’t stop Vinyl from working Sweetie to exhaustion every evening. She learned the ways to tell the brush from a hiding predator, how to tell when something was watching her in the darkness, and how to read the trail in that nightmarish place. She learned about the paths through the Hedge: some little more than game trails, while others cut through the brambles in huge highways. The largest of these were wider than the library in Ponyville, and they continued for what seemed like infinity.
Time, though, moved strangely in the Hedge. so after sleeping and waking for two weeks, Vinyl announced that it was time to go back.
“We don’t want to make you late,” Vinyl said to Sweetie with a smirk. “As much fun as this is, we’ve gotta get back, and earlier is better than later.”
Yet that was easier said than done. The pathways of the Hedge were as perilous leaving as entering, and it took several days before the group found any place they recognized. By the third day, Vinyl was preemptively telling Octavia and Sweetie that she definitely wasn’t lost. Frustrated and irritated, the group started cutting new paths into the brush. It was hard work, but between the three ponies, they soon burst out into a clearing.
Vinyl froze as she stared into the open space, while Octavia behind her did the same. Sensing danger, Sweetie braced herself for flight, but after a moment, Vinyl led the way cautiously into the little break in the Hedge. There were two large stones in the middle of the clearing, which bore the remains of restraints and were stained dark with blood.
The clearing as a whole was surrounded in blood-red bookshelves, most of which were filled with black books that whispered in scraping voices. On the far end, very much out of place, a large apple tree stood like a sentinel against the insanity of the Hedge. Yet its apples were golden, not like Golden Delicious apples, but actual metallic gold. It looked almost welcoming, despite the large, blood-stained rocks in the middle, but Vinyl and Octavia stepped forward as if they were approaching a ghost.
“What is this place?” Sweetie asked, looking around curiously.
Vinyl whirled around, like she’d forgotten Sweetie was there, and for a moment her eyes were wild. Then she shook herself, and looked away.
Octavia, however, explained softly, “This is where we were saved.”
“By Twilight,” Vinyl added tightly. It almost sounded like a prayer or oath to Sweetie. She kept staring at the rocks, her breathing coming a shade faster. “It… it was my fault, and we almost didn’t—” She broke off as Octavia’s hoof touched her lips.
“It was a neat trap,” Octavia said simply, before nuzzling the distressed Vinyl. “We’re all outmatched sometimes. At least we weren’t re-taken.”
Vinyl shivered and nodded, then tenderly nuzzled Octavia’s cheek before turning to Sweetie, her cheeks a little red. “This is where Twilight sprung us. We were”—Vinyl broke off to swallow hard—“we were being tortured, and she just burst in like a wrecking ball. Saved us both, and killed the bastard that trapped us.” She looked at the rocks again, which were still askew from where Twilight had trapped their tormentor. “Dunno what happened to that shit that was cutting us though.”
Sweetie looked at her friends with pity. “I’m sorry. I can only imagine how that was.”
Vinyl shivered. “At least you can only imagine.” Octavia continued past her mate and began examining the apples on the tree. “Oh yeah,” Vinyl said, perking up and following Octavia, “I almost forgot, these apples are actually good stuff.” She began gently tugging on the apples with her magic, plucking only those that came off readily. “They can bring you back from almost nothing, come on.”
After plucking a scant half-dozen apples and storing them in their battered saddlebags, Vinyl announced that they would be back at the Citadel in the next couple of days. Sweetie felt a wave of relief flow through her at that. It had been a hard two weeks of training, and getting lost had taken so much time she had begun to get nervous.
Vinyl, once more in known territory, led the way out of that little grove with confidence. It had been almost disturbingly uneventful, but Sweetie could feel something watching as the little group walked stealthily as possible towards reality.
After what felt like mere minutes, they found themselves back in the pathways of the Citadel.
Sweetie glanced back at the iron gates and sighed before turning back towards the Citadel itself.
There was much to plan.
As it turned out, Vinyl’s timing had been spot-on. Even with the extra time lost to the Hedge and its time-warping nature, Sweetie still had three days and as many hours before the hunt would begin. Their first day back, Sweetie rested and took time to visit the denizens of the Citadel she'd come to know.
Perceival was conscious, but still bed-ridden, up as soon as he spotted her in the Medical Ward.
It had been one of the first buildings to be built, just after Twilight and Luna’s own quarters, and, to Sweetie’s eyes, had likely been repurposed. Arched hallways and elegantly carved stonework gave the whole place an archaic feel that had quite unnerved Sweetie on her way there.
Any feelings of anxiety had evaporated, however, as she walked in on the heavily bandaged but smiling Perceival. He had been all but dead when Sweetie had brought him in, but some time in the care of the ward’s exceptional—bizarre—staff had done wonders for him. As they were all changelings, this was hardly unexpected, but the sight of a brass and steel pony with hands for hooves administering medicine to a grumpy changeling would give anypony pause.
Still, Perceival seemed in relatively good health, as he put down the book he was reading to smile his half-moon grin at Sweetie.
“And here’s my savior,” he said with a slightly pained laugh. “Come to keep the invalid company?”
Sweetie snorted. “Just making sure you’re still with us,” she said truthfully. “How’s the food, Percy?”
Perceival rolled his eyes. “Oh the usual bland stuff.” He put on an impression of one of the nurses: all nasal and stuffy, like he had a cotton ball up the nose. “You had a piece of rock shoved through your stomach, you can hardly expect to be eating oats as soon as you’re awake!” Sweetie laughed, to Perceival’s delight, “Slick even stopped by to try and slip me some decent food, but he got distracted trying to impress one of the doctors.”
“How did that go?” Sweetie asked, relaxing.
She hadn’t realized how much she had missed casual conversations like this. Even with Vinyl and Octavia, she had felt more like a student than an equal. Both ponies were like their counterparts of course, and Vinyl could out-babble a brook, but something about them was reserved.
Perceival snorted. “I’ve heard he’s still limping, but he’ll be fine. He didn’t have a huge hole in his side.” He nodded to the bandages. “Apparently I’ll have a huge scar, but hey, I’ll be alive.”
Sweetie nodded, though she felt something catch in her throat. “Yeah, you’ll be sorting books again in no time.” She pushed the thought away that she wouldn’t ever see him well again, that he could very well pass on before she returned. She swallowed the thought and forced herself to smile. “I heard Spike is doing well in your absence.”
Perceival nodded, and they continued to chat the afternoon away. Finally, once the sun started to set, the nursing staff chased Sweetie away, and she walked back to the tents of the general population.
The day finally came when Sweetie would have to leave to meet the Beast.
A small honor guard had been arranged to see her off in the small corridor before the iron arch. It was mainly the ponies and changelings she had met. Sharp Claw was there, irritable as always, but brushed for once, as was Coal Dust, who stood much like a lump of his namesake. Vinyl and Octavia of course were there, the former grinning and waving, the latter merely standing and sparkling in the waning daylight.
Dame Twilight Sparkle herself stood before Sweetie, her mane a burning, flickering halo of fiery knowledge. In her formal regalia, polished to a deep shine, she looked like a Coltic warrior princess, while beside her Princess Luna looked on with approval. Luminous stood at their side so rigidly she might well have been made of wood, but she looked proud to be there.
Even Perceival had made his way to see her off, smiling and waving from a hospital bed that had been wheeled out there, a disapproving changeling standing next to him, monitoring his vital signs. Beside him stood Rarity, looking like she was on the brink of tears. She had smuggled in the local Sweetie Belle as well, and she stood watching her double with something approaching awe.
“Sweetie Belle,” Twilight announced formally, “Apprentice to Twilight Sparkle, Interdimensional Traveler, Sister to Prince Blueblood, Assassin, Bladecaster Novice, and Vassal of the Citadel of Twilight.”
‘Oh… Celestia. She remembered them all. What was I thinking?’ Sweetie tried not to blush and made a strained effort not to facehoof.
“This may well be the last time we see you in this world,” Twilight said without preamble. “You are about to embark on a dangerous quest with uncertain terms, a small chance of success, and danger around every corner.” She relaxed a little and smiled at Sweetie, her eyes shining with a trace of admiration. “But that’s nothing new, is it?” She looked around at the other changelings. “No matter where you go, we will all be hoping for your success, and the success of your greater mission. Because you are one of our own, bound by our experience... our tragedy.
“I wanted to give you something to help you on your quest, but I suspect more armor or a crossbow wouldn’t fit in the book you carry.” She smiled a little, as she stepped forward, the surrounding ponies and changelings stepping back. Violet fire began to weave glowing sigils around Sweetie, arcing from Twilight’s mane like sparks of raw willpower.
Twilight closed her eyes and Sweetie felt herself start to lift up off the stone floor as the unicorn changeling altered further. Shadows started to gather, as if the little corridor was growing darker. The darkness seeped into the pattern of glyphs and glowing lines, beginning to wrap its arcane pattern around Sweetie.
As the whole design began to shift and merge together, Twilight started to speak in a carefully cadenced voice, “Wherever you go, and whatever you are, let your journey always have at least one door open,”
Sweetie felt the words pass into her and through her, as if they were altering something around her.
“Knock thrice to open a door into a sanctuary hidden, The Hedge will travel with you to do as I have bidden.” Twilight’s eyes opened in pure white radiance as she pulled the spell together. “Let this spell to your fate be bound, and when you hide, you shall not be found.”
Violet fire and icy dark rippled around Sweetie as the whole pattern locked for a few seconds. Then Sweetie sank back to the floor, while Twilight staggered and Luminous was instantly at her side for support. The surrounding changelings looked a little uncomfortable at the display of such raw power, while the ponies looked downright afraid.
“W-What,” Luminous stammered, “whatever did you do to her, Twilight?”
“I—” Twilight began, only to be cut off by the arrival of a runner.
“Ten minutes, Dame Twilight,” the changeling breathed, having apparently run from another entrance to the Hedge. “The Pack assembles beyond the gate.”
Twilight nodded, distracted, and hauled herself upright, while the runner trotted off, breathing hard. “Sweetie Belle,” Twilight interjected quickly, “I don’t have time to explain exactly how the spell works, but whenever you find yourself in danger, knock three times on a doorway, any doorway, and it will give you a sanctuary.” She looked to the iron archway, which suddenly seemed a lot deeper. “It won’t work in the Hedge,” Twilight said apologetically. “But we’ll be giving you other support during the Beast’s hunt.”
Rarity however was not so easily appeased. “Twilight,” she said sharply, “whyever would you give her something she couldn’t use against that horrible creature?”
A growl rumbled through the arch as if the Beast himself were protesting mildly.
Rarity edged a little further from the ancient portal while Twilight shook her head.
“I don’t have time to explain right now, but suffice to say this will not be her worst challenge.” Twilight looked to Sweetie with sympathy. “You have a long, thorny road ahead of you, but remember what Vinyl and Octavia have taught you.” Sweetie saw Vinyl push out her chest in pride. “Trust your instincts, remember who you are and that we are all hoping and wishing for your success no matter where you go.”
Sweetie swallowed hard while Vinyl called out to her.
“Get em Sweets! Show that nutty fleabag what happens when he challenges a changeling!”
Coal Dust gave a hearty agreement, while Octavia pounded her hooves in a slow applause that was taken up by those nearby. Even the irascible Sharp Claw howled his approval, cheerfully deafening pony and changeling alike in that small corridor.
More howls echoed back from the arch, mocking and challenging, so loud and close it felt as though the Pack were crawling up Sweetie’s spine.
Sweetie nodded at the group. “Thank you… thank you all for what you’ve done for me and for how much you’ve taught me.” She risked a small smile. “I’ll make sure flea-bag regrets ever risking a bet against me.”
Vinyl let out another whoop at that, and then the changelings stepped back, making a narrow path to the archway.
As Sweetie strode past Rarity, the elder unicorn stopped her. “You’re still my sister,” she said softly, “and Sweetie Belle’s, I mean this world’s—” She shook her head. “You know what I mean, darling. We’re still a family. Take care of yourself, no matter what happens.”
Sweetie nodded, her throat tight as Rarity nuzzled her.
The local Sweetie grinned beside her sister, “You can do it, Allure!” She was so young, so sure of Sweetie’s imminent success, it was like a palpable warmth was radiated off of the younger pony. For a few brief seconds, Sweetie felt a pang of envy for her local self, but she shook it off and strode through the gate.
“Three minutes early,” the Beast’s voice rumbled with amusement as Sweetie stepped out into the middle of the crystal forest where Perceival had nearly met his end. “I do appreciate a prompt guest.”
For once, Sweetie saw the Beast in his full glory, surrounded by his Pack of twisted wolf-creatures. He towered over the rest of them, crammed into that little hollow like a cat in a box.
His four staring eyes looked down at Sweetie with predatory intent, while his sniffing nose seemed to drag her scent in. His sharp, confident grin was contained in a mouth that was so wide it almost looked like his head should split in half. Every yellowed, shark-like tooth glistened, while his huge, bear-like body steamed in the darkness, creating a misty cloud about him that glowed in the soft radiance of the crystal forest.
His huge, taloned paws were wrapped around some of the sturdier crystals, and his matted pelt was crusted in places with what could only be fresh blood as he peered down at Sweetie.
“Such a scant mouthful to cause so much trouble,” he mused. “But a bet is a bet. And a hunt”—he grinned at Sweetie cruelly—“is a hunt.”
The Beast leaned down further and began to explain, the stench of blood and musk almost overpowering. “The shard of your mentor is hidden in the Hedge, and guarded. You must find it before my Pack finds you.”
The Pack growled their approval, saliva pooling under them as they stared madly at Sweetie.
The Beast continued, his grin glinting in the light, “But to keep things fair, you will have a clue: follow yourself, and you will find your quarry.”
It was a terribly unfair hint, but before Sweetie could protest, the Beast gestured as if looking at a watch.
“You have two minutes before my Pack starts hunting you. Do give them a run-around, they’ve been so bored today.”
Sweetie swore and dashed off through the Pack, which parted for her even as it collectively drew in her scent. She passed through the crystal forest , picking paths at random.
She moved swiftly, with all the speed she could muster, but Sweetie knew this was their territory and that she was at best an occasional intruder. However insane the Pack was, they were certainly better hunters than she was in that place, so Sweetie knew she’d have to play smart.
Sweetie dashed down the path until she heard the howl go up behind her, distantly. She diverted her path at a trickling stream that bounced over rocks that watched her with quartz eyes. They didn’t seem hostile, so Sweetie followed the stream until it joined a larger river, which spoke in nonsensical, burbling tones.
It was unexpectedly wide and deep, and from the way the water rippled, it looked as though it would carry her away if she tried to ford it. Sweetie tried to tune out the river's nonsense—something with regards trickle diagonal histrionics some lower part of her brain noted—as she ran quickly along the bank, looking for someplace to cross.
To Sweetie’s surprise, a tree had fallen across the river at the next bend, just before the river changed course to flow straight upwards into the sky. It was suspiciously convenient, and Sweetie instinctively felt she couldn’t trust it. The water’s discourse was so loud as she passed around the back of the ‘water-fly’ that Sweetie’s ears were ringing after only a little while. Fortunately, the back side of the unusual water formation had a narrow lip against a cliff face that continued to obey conventional gravity.
It was barely enough for Sweetie to sidle along on her hind legs, but she made slow progress in spite of the stinging spray that rattled against her face, shouting vapid idioms and absurdisms at her. She didn’t dare let even a small part of her pass into the gravity-defying water, after she saw a rock get kicked off and fall up into the endless brambles of the Hedge. It accelerated so quickly she’d had no time to do more than register the barest details of its occurrence.
When she was about halfway across, something caught her eye. The huge form of a Pack member was sniffing about where she had gone behind the water. Sweetie froze, knowing there would be more, and she watched as the creature tried to find some way to get its huge body onto the narrow ledge. Sweetie was still deafened by the water, but she saw the creature through the curtain of liquid try to get onto the fallen tree Sweetie had avoided earlier.
Sweetie froze again, trying not to panic. If the creature managed to get across, Sweetie would have to turn around, but with the narrowness of the ledge, it could cross repeatedly until she became exhausted and fell. Sweetie couldn’t see the creature once it had stepped onto the log, and so she cautiously proceeded forward.
To her surprise and alarm, half a tree came whipping through the water, up towards the sky, followed by something that was struggling and thrashing, and then another half of a tree. For a second, it looked like the beast had been cut by something extremely sharp, then it was gone. Sweetie moved as quickly as she could to the other side of the falls.
Her back was sore from where she’d been sliding against the rock, but Sweetie continued on. No hunters were in sight as Sweetie’s battered hearing slowly returned. She moved along the riverbank stealthily until she reached the stump of the tree that had fallen, where she paused.
The tree had been cut cleanly, as if by a blade, and the wood bore little chunks of crystal in it. It was definitely deliberate, and Sweetie felt a chill as she considered how close she’d come to trusting in that log. A howl from somewhere nearby reminded her that she had to keep moving, so she pushed painfully into the brush.
Sweetie had been trained well by Vinyl and Octavia, and she soon found her way onto another path. The only clue she’d been given was to follow herself, so Sweetie thought about where she would have taken the shard if she was going to hide it. It wasn’t much to go on, but it made as much sense as anything else in the Hedge, she thought as she passed by a clock made of birds.
She’d passed into an entirely different part of the Hedge, one that she didn’t recognize. Dirt gave way to brass and steel panels, while the thorns turned into broken bits of glass, twisted copper and dull lead. Ticking began to replace birdsong, and Sweetie noticed more and more moving components in the Hedge itself. Sweetie rounded a corner, and stopped.
She had come to a town of sorts, filled with an enormous labyrinth made of stone buildings and ticking, moving contrivances. In the middle of it, like a looming monolith, a huge grandfather clock tower squatted like a stubborn toad. It was so massive, every tick of its pendulum rattled the floor and set the cadence for everything around her.
Sweetie remembered abruptly that she was out in the open and burst into the first house she found, looking for a place to get back into the Hedge proper. She found herself face-to-face with a Pack member creeping through the house. Without thinking, Sweetie slammed the door in its face, drawing a yelp from inside the house.
Howls came from outside the labyrinth, triumphant and huge, like a hammer intent on smashing Sweetie’s hopes of escape. She steeled herself and ran towards the clock tower, intent on making a stand or losing the Pack in the narrow alleys and dense, ticking gears. All around her, the city of brass and steel ticked like a living being.
She ran into the street and booked it down the road towards the next corner. The brass and steel floors were extremely slippery and hard beneath her hooves, and she couldn’t run in a straight line due to the gears protruding irregularly through the metal surface. A Pack member leapt down from above where it had been climbing over the rooftops, and Sweetie immediately dove into a store.
Inside was the most bizarre scene Sweetie had seen in a while.
Automatons sculpted like ponies endlessly repeated the act of buying and selling, with tiny springs and gears visibly moving their limbs. They looked so lifelike Sweetie balked for a moment, then threw herself forward as the wolf-creature plunged through the glass store-front and over her head. It hit the automatons painfully, and thrashed for a moment before rising to its feet, bleeding from uncountable wounds, bits of glass and steel lodged in its fur and flesh.
Sweetie took the moment of the creature’s agony to dash for the back of the shop, where a doorway promised access to the next street. As she passed the places where the automatons had been attached to the floor, she noted the way they sparked and shuddered, grasping tendrils of wires writhing like angry snakes.
She shoved open the metal door to the back of the shop as the wolf-creature rose and attempted to follow her, while outside the howling grew again in a great tempest of sound and fury. Sure enough, there was a second door leading to an alley just wide enough for Sweetie to slip into. She squeezed in as the first wolf-creature slammed into the back room.
Sweetie scraped out of the alley into the wider street while her pursuer snarled its frustration. Here, wires and cables blocked out the sky and an attack from above would be far more difficult. She saw one distant wolf-creature try to bite through one, and its thrashing screams as hot liquid poured all over it were shrill and pained. The liquid ignited the creature, and it ran off into the distance, while the rest of the Pack started to funnel into the streets.
She knew she had to buy herself time, and spotted a street scene. An automaton was endlessly selling a steel barrel of brass apples to another pony.
“Excuse me,” Sweetie said automatically as she took the barrel, which was far heavier than it looked. Sweetie looked around again and spotted the next component to her gambit: one of the large gears ticking in the middle of the street.
Sweetie placed the barrel in one of the gear’s teeth, where it would be pressed against the street in a few seconds. The Pack pounded down the street, howling and snarling in a mad hunger.
She bolted for another door, only to find it welded shut. Through the thick window, Sweetie saw two automatons locked in rigid combat. One metal pony was endlessly stabbing the other with its horn, while hot, oily liquid sprayed across the floor.
Sweetie tried another, and another, but the doors were all sealed. Behind her she heard the barrel hit the metal flooring. Sweetie struggled with the doors, keeping the panic away with solid willpower. Just as she felt a door give under her touch, she heard and felt the massive tremor of her trap exploding into action.
She had only intended the wheel to spray the barrel of apples at the oncoming Pack to delay them. She hadn’t counted on the huge cogwheel’s mountings giving way and lifting itself out of the street to fling through the wires above and roll down the road, coated in burning oil and thrashing cables.
Sweetie pushed into the door she had opened as screams ripped through the ticking of the city. She didn’t know what was in those cables, but from the cries of the Pack, she knew she didn’t want to look at the aftermath.
Sweetie pushed into the building as hard as she could, and found herself in a crowded bank scene. Automatons were going around on tracks, moving through a line to the counter where they made strange, tinny sounds at an automaton behind the desk, collected a beautifully cast bag of money then moved to the next window and deposited it, and got right back in line.
To complicate matters, there were even automata foals, mothers chasing them, and general passersby crowding through the scene like errant comets. The floor was consumed by the gears and ticking springs to power such intricate mechanisms, and they continued on beyond Sweetie’s sight. At first glance, it looked like a grinder of moving metal parts lay between her and freedom at the far end of the room.
A roar behind Sweetie, pained and furious, reminded her that she had little choice. Sweetie swallowed hard and stepped into the chaos. She had intended to step onto the gear nearest to her and ride it to the next, bypassing the twitching, moving automata. Unfortunately, no sooner had she stepped past the threshold than she was grabbed by a brass and steel mother as she chased after her laughing foal.
It was like being grabbed by a metal windstorm, Sweetie thought as she was hurtled along by the automaton. Its metal coat and body pinched and cut at Sweetie as it jerkily galloped through the simulated bank. The ticking and whirring of the whole room blended with the indistinguishable garble of voices. Sweetie kicked off of her and jumped to the next automaton, which happened to be a businesspony complaining loudly.
Sweetie ignored the metallic tang of the automaton’s voice as she leapt from one brass and steel contrivance to the next. It was like playing hopscotch across the feeding chute of a woodchipper, where any missed step would quickly convert her from pony to pulpy lubricant. She perched on the rapidly moving body of a running pony as he hastened from the collection desk to the deposit counter.
She used the abrupt halt of the metal pony to fling herself forward across the room towards the doorway marked ‘Exit’. For a moment, Sweetie dared hope that she was going to make it, then the door flung open, and a member of the Pack poured in like an injection of lupine fury into the complex bank scene.
Time felt like it slowed down as she hurdled towards the creature, which seemed to be laughing as it waited for her to fly into its roaring maw. Unfortunately for it, Sweetie had other plans. She adjusted her flight angle deftly, then caught one of the automata that was flinging about the place. It snatched her away from the wolf-creature, which could only snarl in fury.
The Pack wasn’t stupid. The wolf-creature could clearly see the damage that the long, dark fall through the wall of gears could do. It hesitated at the threshold, until something kicked it hard from behind and it pitched forward. It tumbled down into the gears, and the whole bank scene barely shuddered as it was horrifyingly pulped by the movement of the intricate mechanisms. Sweetie swallowed hard as gore filled the area by the doorway, but just then a voice she recognized called out harshly.
“To me! We’ve got them distracted!”
Sweetie looked over, incredulous. An irascible, wolfish pegasus stood in the doorway, splattered with blood like some ancient god of the hunt. Sharp Claw noted the way Sweetie was moving on a set track through the bank, and with a whisper that sent a chill of fate down Sweetie’s spine, he leapt at the right moment to intercept her.
Sharp Claw stank of blood, sweat and raw animal musk, but he carried Sweetie back to the edge of the exit so efficiently she was almost prepared to kiss him for it.
“Get moving,” he said shortly, his voice snarling with battle-excitement as he looked out the bloody doorway into the street beyond. “Get to the tower, it’s the highest ground.”
Sweetie started to move, then paused. “T-thanks,” she said to the wolfish changeling. “That was unexpected!”
He snorted and rolled his eyes, but nodded, then took off towards the cables above like he had a grudge against the ground. He might, at that, Sweetie thought, dwelling on the pegasus’s dislike for practically everything.
Sweetie shook her head at the unexpected aid. She pounded down the street, which looked like a caricature of the nobles’ section of Canterlot. It was all marble and gold, with more glass and silver than brass or steel. Sweetie flew down the street on her hooves, thinking quickly. The presence of Sharp Claw meant she wasn’t as alone here as she had thought. She looked up towards the clock tower looming distantly, but she fancied it a little closer.
The ticking was getting to Sweetie as she ran down the wide avenues of the marble and gold simulacrum of a city. It thrummed loudly through every surface, a mechanical pulse, that set the rhythm for the whole plethora of scenes. In every window, Sweetie saw richly-sculpted automata bowing and scraping to one another, or wooing each other in hallways.
She was so occupied with the intricate, foppish scenes that Sweetie almost failed to stop as the street opened into a wide gap. It had once been concealed by the same marble flagstones that made up the rest of the street, but some large impact had ripped open the road to reveal the whirring gears and springs beneath. Sweetie arrested her movement just in time, skidding to a stop before the edge of the pit.
Sweetie stared down into the metallic abyss before her for a second before she evaluated the obstacle with practiced eyes. It was far enough across that even her best long-jump couldn’t carry her across, while down below a disturbingly fluid field of moving mechanisms promised a gory demise for failure. She ran for the first door she could find, and found it was made of stone rather than wood.
The marble door mocked Sweetie’s attempts to break it down. It was elegantly inlaid with gold and mother-of-pearl, and so solid that Sweetie’s initial attempt had merely bruised her shoulder. She glared at the door and closed her eyes. Sweetie bargained with the stubborn rock of the door, which had been worked by some inequine force. It was a matter of moments therefore before she managed to work out a deal and she was able to convince it to shape itself so that she could push open the portal.
Inside, the building was every bit as lavish as the gilded door. Mahogany floors creaked beneath Sweetie’s hooves as she hurried through the building. Servants dashed hither and thither on unknowable, endlessly repeating errands. They were made of steel and brass, clad in cloth of silver and gold, but were still clearly servants compared to the noble automata. Each noble seemed to glow with the gold and silver that made up their delicate mechanisms.
Sweetie dodged fops of silver and dandies of gold until she made her way up to the second floor of the building. One of the windows was wide-open, catching a breeze that stank of blood and oil.
She absent-mindedly apologized to one of the maids that she bumped into as she made her way towards the window, which she climbed up and prepared to jump out of, right as a member of the Pack leaped up.
She had only a moment to react, stepping back instinctively, but not far enough to keep the wolf-creature from snagging her right forehoof. Sweetie instinctively angled herself so her bodyweight would drive her hooves into the face of the lupine attacker as it pulled her out. Things crunched under Sweetie’s rocky hooves and it let her go, but her weight drove both her and the Pack member towards the hellish pit of metal gears and springs. She looked around for salvation, anything to keep her from falling into the abyss. She kicked off of the wolf-creature as it scrambled to grab her mid-air. Her hooves drove it away from her, down towards the gears below.
The wolf-creature let out a howl of distress as Sweetie’s limbs flailed in mid-air as she searched for some purchase in the gaseous medium she was traveling through. The air between the buildings was sadly free of anything besides the smell of oil and blood that suffused the entire area and those precious seconds she had gained were for naught. Sweetie felt each thump of her heart in her ears as gravity took hold of her again and she began to fall towards the gears below, but just at that moment, something in the mechanisms twanged.
Sweetie saw a metal arm streaking towards her from below, driven by some internal mechanism of the large, complicated clockwork that powered the whole city. It caught the wolf-creature just as it was about to smash onto a large clog and drove it into her like a stinking, yowling cushion, knocking her senseless for a few precious seconds..
As her thoughts returned to her, Sweetie felt herself accelerated through the air. She couldn’t remember why she was moving, or what had moved her, until adrenaline and fear hammered the message past her concussed synapses.
Sweetie was flying straight towards the clock-tower. She saw the large, gilded glass clock-face with its finely wrought,-silver hands. It was a beautiful example of glasswork and ingenuity. Sweetie saw the taloned hand of the minute hand approaching, and braced herself.
The impact with the sculpted bar of silver knocked the breath from Sweetie as she scrambled to grab ahold of it. Instincts as old as time forced Sweetie to grab onto the sharp edges of the minute hand of the giant clock, heedless of the pain from it chipping and cutting into her while her adrenaline-addled mind took the time to admire the glasswork on the clock face.
The Pack member crashed only a second after her, but there was nothing for it to hold on to. It barely whimpered as it disappeared into the empty air below her.
It had clearly been cast and gilded as a solid piece, with each imperfection of the gilding celebrated with minute, elaborate embellishments. It gave the whole clock-face a look of wood grain, while the numerals on the face seemed to nail the whole device to reality. Each ancient numeral was wrought of solid steel, rusted and hard against the ephemeral beauty of the gold, glass and marble on the rest of the clock tower.
Sweetie could see the ticking, moving mechanisms through the glass clock-face. Each one moved with a kind of blurry order that added to the general sense of purpose of the clockwork within. This close to the main pendulum, each beat of the mechanism drove a vibration through Sweetie’s bones and vibrated her along the silver hand of the giant clock.
She shifted her grip, and looked for a way out. Down was a stomach-wrenching drop that ground against every one of the white unicorn’s survival instincts. She had no idea how hard she’d been flung to send her this high up, but she couldn’t imagine the Pack member had fared well. To her right, the far end of the minute hand trembled as the internal springs shuddered with the pendulum’s rhythm, while above her the hour hand sat solidly at the eleven mark.
By her reckoning, the clock showed that it was a quarter past eleven, but by the way the shadowy mechanisms at the clock’s center were ticking, she knew she didn’t have much time. Across the city, sounds of battle mixed with the ticking of mechanisms and the tormenting grind of gears.
Sweetie chanced a glance back towards the city, and almost slipped off the clock. The whole city was laid out like some sort of ticking, fungal mat clinging to the Hedge itself. The whole pulsing, ticking city seemed to writhe with a distinctly non-biological life as it sang its regular, metered song, but as of that moment, it was full of the symphony of war.
She watched as changeling pegasi swooping down through the air from the twisting brambles above, to meet leaping, winged Pack members in brief, bloody rendezvous. She heard screams and howls of wolf-creatures mingling in the vast city as dozens of changelings ran through the streets, nipping and picking at the Pack. They were buying her time. Sweetie felt shock running through her veins as she realized that dozens of changelings, many of whom she’d never even met, were fighting to buy her time.
Sweetie was jolted out of her thoughts as the minute hand shuddered past, bringing her closer to half- past when she would find almost no purchase on the mirror-smooth metal. Her hooves scrabbled on the cast silver as she continued to search for some sort of exit. It was a choice between slick metal and smooth glass, but a subtle change in the texture of the glass suggested that there were exits, and below her, a rim of metal promised potential salvation.
Balancing on the minute hand of the giant clock, for a few moments, she despaired. She thought again of her mentor Twilight, of the shards scattered across the multiverse, and it was in that moment that everything seemed to shatter. Gilt glass scattered past Sweetie as two hard hooves wrapped around her. Sweetie was hauled into the clock face, while glass tumbled past her descending towards the buildings below like a thousand thrown knives.
Sweetie thrashed against the pony that had her, who had pulled her hard up onto something hard and metal. For a moment, Sweetie felt the agonizing pain of obsidian, and saw the hollow sockets of The Maestro. Pain and panic seized Sweetie as she kicked and fought, until the empty sockets resolved themselves into violet eyes set into a marbled face.
“O-Octavia?” Sweetie stammered as she stared.
The changeling looked much the worse for wear: Sweetie’s thrashings had split her lip, but it seemed she had already been bleeding from a dozen wounds or so. Yet she wore the same impassive look as always. Her stony body was cracked and worn, and her mane had shattered in places, but she nodded calmly to Sweetie.
At this reassurance, Sweetie could bear it no longer and broke down. In that place, chased by such terrible things through this clockwork nightmare, against such odds, it was too much. Sweetie clung to Octavia, who held her patiently as the younger changeling bawled her eyes out. Octavia held Sweetie with the cool comfort of stone, a bastion of strength in the emotional storm, while around them automata bustled about on their own ineffable business.
After several long moments, Sweetie pulled back from Octavia, her mind filled with images of another Octavia. The changeling Octavia seemed to drink those worries in and quench them in her own deep well of calm.
“Sweetie,” Octavia said softly, her voice just barely audible above the ticking cacophony of the automata and their business, “your shard, it’s above. None of us can approach.” Octavia gestured with a hoof and her expression stiffened as some injury shoved its way into her consciousness. “Remember your mission,” Octavia said gently, visibly forcing herself to relax as more changelings started to run up the stairs.
Vinyl Scratch was among them, bloodied but cheerful. Coal Dust lurked up the stairs behind her, wary and alert, though he smiled at Sweetie as he saw her.
“We shall hold them here,” Octavia said firmly as she rose and smiled down at Sweetie.
“Yeah,” Vinyl added confidently, her voice raspier than usual. “We got this, Sweets”—she jerked her head towards the stairs up—“but I think that’s one thing you’re gonna have to do yourself. We’ll hold these guys off, you go get the shard, and bam!” Vinyl grinned. “Big party afterward.”
Octavia rolled her eyes as Coal Dust chuckled softly, sending up embers from his ashy mane.
Octavia fixed Sweetie with her purple gaze. “Go,” she commanded quietly. “Nothing can stop you, Sweetie Belle, so long as you remember your goal.” Then the marble changeling smiled, and it melted the tension from her face, before the sounds of snarling echoed up from below.
Sweetie nodded, hesitating once before nodding again more firmly. “I will. Thank you so much… all of you.”
The three other changelings smiled at her, Vinyl winked again, and then they took up positions on the stairwell, whispering their bargains to the shadows and the stone, preparing for the onslaught.
Sweetie forced herself to turn towards the ascending stairwell, and started up the elegantly cast, brass staircase. The stairs vibrated as every tick of the massive pendulum sent kinetic energy pulsing through the city and its infinitely complex mechanisms. Sweetie proceeded upwards through the ticking, spinning gears and springs of the clock tower’s inner workings, while the near-mirror-finish on the stairs gave it an eerie beauty in the half-light of the interior of the building.
The the first signs of battle were visible about halfway up the stairs: blood spattered on the wall, sprayed as if something had been slashed with a sharp blade. By the way the railing there had been ripped off, it had probably been a Pack-member, or a particularly heavy changeling. It had likely tumbled off after just the one hit, and fallen down towards the ticking Tartarus below.
It disturbed Sweetie that there was only one, efficient slice. It struck a familiar chord inside of her, and the force behind the cut had spattered the blood all the way up the wall in a thin spray. Whatever had been bled there had been attacked with cold precision,expert training, and with so much force it had propelled the defender backwards.
There wasn’t much else to go on, but Sweetie employed the fullest extent of her stealth as she proceeded onwards and upwards. For a few moments, the ticking died down, and Sweetie felt the cold chill of obsidian beneath her hooves. She knew she couldn’t make a noise, she didn’t dare to, otherwise the Maestro would—
She closed her eyes and shook her head.
She wasn’t in the Theater anymore, Sweetie reminded herself, she wasn’t surrounded by obsidian, and she could definitely speak. She just shouldn’t at that moment, she needed to keep silent, and find the shard. It would be up the stairs, which were definitely brass and not gold and obsidian.
The memories were pushed back with difficulty, the steady beat of the ticking mechanisms propelling her back into the moment. The mechanical heartbeat of that strange place was oddly reassuring to Sweetie as she continued cautiously up the stairs. Sweetie’s ascent, however, was shortly blocked by a corpse.
It was a large, furry body that had at one point been a member of the Pack. The neat hole in the back of its head sent chills through Sweetie. She remembered the attack on the Citadel, the rage and fear that had ripped through her and punched a shard of enchanted diamond through a similar path in an attacking member of the Pack.
Sweetie climbed over the body, still warm beneath her hooves. It didn’t stir, as she half-expected, and beyond the furry mass she could see what looked like a door, torn from its hinges and laying across the stairs.
The door itself was cast silver, and the force of its removal had twisted it out of shape. It was too slick to be safely climbed over, and Sweetie couldn’t quite slip past it along the wall. There was no railing here, so Sweetie carefully shifted the heavy mass of the door with her telekinesis. As the door slipped over the edge, down towards the ground below, Sweetie knew she had only moments before it hit something and rang like a bell.
She hurried up the brass stairs, and spotted the door’s former resting place. The doorway was simple steel, and the bright silver streaks from the violent removal of the door itself stood starkly against it in the yellowish light from outside. Sweetie froze as, at that moment, the door hit something metal down below.
The sound of silver striking steel rang up through the tower, with a chillingly clear tone. Sweetie froze, listening. The sounds of battle still filled the tower as Octavia, Vinyl and Coal Dust held the stairs, and the sound mixed with that of the continued conflict with the Pack outside. The metal, glass and stone took every sound and threw it across Sweetie’s perception, but the doorway remained clear.
Sweetie stepped slowly through the doorway, out onto the narrow ledge around the roof of the tower. It gave her a dizzying view across the mechanical city, which bustled with the pulsing activity of an uncountable number of intricate devices and gears, paired with the violent war of changeling against and the Beast’s Pack.
There was Sharp Claw swooping down, carrying one of the conduits of red-hot oil, to spray it viciously across a mass of struggling wolf-creatures. She saw another changeling with a sword of crystal dueling with a pair of wolf-creatures across a rooftop. All across the strange city, the screams of combat warred with the pulsing life of the city for dominance.
Sweetie was so taken by the sight, she almost didn’t roll aside as something fast and reflective shot past her. There was a railing around the ledge, unlike the interior of the clock-tower. It was made of solid steel, but whatever it was that had shot past Sweetie had cut through it like a hot knife through butter.
Sweetie rolled to her hooves, summoning Akela with nary a thought as another shining projectile shot towards her. Sweetie rolled her head out of the way, only to be met with a kick to the back of the head. Some instinct triggered, and she rolled with the blow, skidding down the narrow ledge, towards the corner.
Sweetie swept her legs around and rolled to her feet, only to have to dodge another shining blade. She reflexively parried with her diamond, and faced her attacker. Sweetie felt her eyes widen and her pulse quicken in her veins.
It was herself, but certainly not the charming, inquisitive version she had saved at the Opera House.
This was a Sweetie made of obsidian and gold, her face a mask of hatred carved into a marble slab. Its obsidian mane was cut short, sharp edges bristled like barbed wire, and its tail a mess of tangled obsidian shot with metallic gold stripes. Yet the worst part was how emaciated its body was. Obsidian bones were covered with a thin sheet of marble, and it seemed to be held up by nothing more than the vengeful hate seeping from its gaze.
Seemingly, Sweetie had looked for too long, as this demonic version of her… this Demon Belle, brought up its weapon again. Sweetie rolled backwards to avoid the cut that sliced into the gold and silver roof without resistance. As Demon Belle pulled back its weapon, Sweetie had to keep herself from staring. It was wielding a diamond, cut similarly to her own Akela, but much larger and with a core that glowed violet.
As it sank into a stance that she recognized, Sweetie remembered what the Beast had called this creature the last time she had seen it: a fetch. It was a cruel copy of herself. Sweetie swallowed hard. This creature clearly knew what it was doing, and if it was a copy of herself, it was at the very least her magical equal.
Sweetie and the fetch stared each other down for several moments, before the fetch said coldly, “So, fake, it’s come to this.” At Sweetie’s look, it sneered. “I knew you’d come for this.” It brought the diamond up into a defensive stance to show off the glowing shard imbedded in the core of the hard mineral. As the fetch pulled the diamond back, its head jerked a little towards the city in combat. “I just didn’t think you’d sacrifice so many to get it.”
“Just give it back,” Sweetie said firmly. “You have no idea what—”
“I know exactly what it is,” the fetch snarled. “It’s a piece of my mentor, Twilight Sparkle, and you have the others.” It set itself subtly, just as Sweetie did. “And now you’re going to give them back, and I’m going to continue on my journey, fake.”
For a moment, neither pony moved.
Then as one, both Sweetie and Demon Belle leapt for each other. Sweetie lunged right as the fetch lunged up towards her, the diamond arcing down.
Sweetie rolled forward, bringing Akela up to hit her fetch as it tumbled past, but to her surprise, Akela hit only air. The fetch had dodged in mid-air, and as it landed, sent its own diamond hurtling towards Sweetie, who stepped aside at the absolute last second.
The passage of the diamond sent a shiver of disturbed air across Sweetie’s side, but she was ready as the fetch followed in its wake. Sweetie spun and kicked at the fetch, sending it skipping up the angled roof of the clock tower, its diamond following closely, the glow of the shard taunting Sweetie as she leapt up onto the slick roof to keep up the pressure on her fetch.
The roof was entirely cast in gold and silver, making every step slick and uncertain, and the main light came from a burning, fiery beacon at the apex of the building. The fetch had made a significant dent when it had impacted, but it was already up and casting. Sweetie felt a little twinge of strangeness as the fetch whispered to the shard of diamond, re-shaping it into a more deadly point, with less of a broad shape.
Sweetie flung Akela at top-speed to distract it, but the fetch had already jumped away. As Akela flew back to Sweetie, the fetch’s own shard followed it, while the fetch herself slid down the slick metal roof towards Sweetie, with the beacon behind it. Sweetie rolled aside as the diamond punched through the roof and kept rolling as the fetch’s hoof landed right where her head would have been had she not continued.
The fetch let out a scream and lunged for Sweetie, her movements fast and powerful... but uncontrolled, Sweetie realized as she landed on the walkway again. She stepped aside as the fetch’s hoof hit the floor hard enough to dent it, and ducked under the next furious kick. It was delivered with the precision of training, but with a lack of control for a follow-up.
Sweetie danced aside as the diamond ripped through the roof towards her, and backed off as the fetch followed through again with another brutal kick. She leapt back from the kick and posed on the railing, elegant and still, like a particularly mocking gargoyle. As she predicted, the fetch leapt for her, almost tumbling over the edge, shard and all, swearing all the while.
It caught itself on the railing with instinctual grace and spun back onto the ledge, straight into Sweetie’s own kick to its knee. She knew she had to immobilize, or outright kill, the fetch, but if it fell, it could take the shard with it. Sweetie watched the fetch move, and noted the lack of stiffness in the knee she had kicked. Either the fetch had abnormal pain tolerance, or it was ignoring its injuries.
Sweetie saw the fetch tense and let herself relax. The expected diamond shot towards her, and the fetch followed through, lunging for where it expected Sweetie to dodge to, but Sweetie wasn’t there. She’d jumped up, twisting her body in mid-air around the shard, intent on landing on her fetch.
The fetch rolled past Sweetie’s landing area and slid around the corner, into the shadows of the tower entrance. Sweetie flipped forward, intent on landing where she predicted the fetch to be, Akela ready to deliver the killing strike, but as she cleared the corner, she had to catch herself on the railing. The fetch was gone, along with the shard.
Sweetie stared for a moment, then realized that it had probably run into the tower itself, seeking a better position to fight. She started to follow when something hit her hard from behind and slammed Sweetie down horn-first into the metal stairs. It was a moment of bleary-eyed agony as she felt her magic shocked into nothingness, and her entire body cringed in simultaneous protective instincts.
Akela hit the floor with a clink, and Sweetie rolled aside just in time to avoid getting her head speared by the fetch’s shard. She knew a kick was coming, so Sweetie rolled again, drawing on all of her training to push aside the pain and disorientation as she rolled backwards down the stairs. The kick hit the stairs instead as Sweetie felt every metal stair punch her in the back and neck.
Sweetie rolled to her hooves right as her fetch was leaping through the air for her, hooves outstretched like some sort of stony feline predator, madness in its eyes and fury etched on every feature. At its side, the shard of Twilight encased in diamond shone with deadly intent, wrapped in the fetch’s telekinesis.
The seconds slowed as adrenaline and training took over. She reared up into a pose, carefully balanced on one of the metal stairs, looking down at her opponent, her whole body tense as a coiled spring and yet appearing relaxed as a flowing river.
In one smooth movement, Sweetie spun and kicked her fetch into the wall horn-first. It let out a yelp as the shard dropped from its telekinetic grip in that moment of painful disorientation, and that yelp turned into a scream as it realized it was falling.
Sweetie watched as it fell past the ticking heart of the city below, its smoothly moving gears promising death for anything so foolish as to try to interrupt its progress, but the fetch fell past, down towards the distant bottom of the tower, screaming.
Its scream was one of horror and fury, but something powerful echoed through its voice. Sweetie felt a chill go up her spine right as she heard a howl rise from the entire city. Then a massive, paw-like hand punched through the side of the building, and grabbed the fetch out of the air. Sweetie ran outside, scooping up the shard and Akela as she ran to the ledge, where she gaped at the sight that met her eyes.
The Pack swarmed over the city in the hundreds: they crawled over buildings, leapt over cables and wires without regard for those that fell to the changelings or the hostile machinations of the city. Down below, clinging to the clock tower itself, Sweetie saw the Beast, pulling his fist out of the wall. She saw the fist flex, and the screaming stopped, then the Beast grinned up at her, mouth pouring drool as the shark-toothed maw opened in another howl.
Sweetie scrambled to start whispering to the the diamond, immediately whispering offers to the stone for the release of its treasure.
She had to bind it to the book with the others, before the changelings killed themselves trying to buy her time. With the Beast there, she knew they didn’t have a chance, but with her still there, she also knew they wouldn’t abandon her.
The tower shook as the Beast started his climb, accompanied by the screams of the metal he was so casually tearing to pull himself up. Howls echoed up through the tower as Sweetie continued her negotiation with the diamond, which was unfortunately stubborn. She heard the sounds of conflict as the wolf-creatures met the changeling blockade in the staircase, punctuated by the screams of the wolves and the noise of bloody combat.
Sweetie finally reached an agreement with the diamond, right as the first wolf-creature leapt howling for her, its wings explaining how it had ascended past the changelings. Sweetie easily danced away from its feral assault, and sent the diamond sheath from the shard into it at high-speed, sending both tumbling down into the city below. But more were leaping and gliding up towards the doorway, while the Beast continued his steady ascent.
Sweetie leapt up onto the slick roof as she summoned her notebook and started binding the shard. But the shuddering tower kept disrupting her concentration, as Sweetie tried her hardest to keep her mind on the task at hoof and not on the horror fast approaching. Another winged wolf-creature emerged from the doorway and charged her, wings beating furiously, and Sweetie had to backpedal up the metal roof desperately, her horn still glowing as she tried to cast.
Fortunately, with the light of the fiery beacon at her back, the wolf-creature fell short and hit the metal roof. Sweetie started binding the shard again as it scrambled at the metal for purchase, snarling and barking in fury, its bright yellow eyes glowing with malice. Sweetie pushed it out of her mind and started to bind the shard again.
She felt the magic click the shard into its metaphysical place right as the Beast’s head cleared the edge of the roof. For a moment extended by adrenalin and the warping of space, Sweetie and the Beast stared at each other. Then, to her shock, the Beast grinned his impossibly wide grin, and winked.
The Beast’s smirk was still on Sweetie’s mind as the usual flash of light faded from her eyes and she found herself gazing upon the town of Ponyville.
It looked so… normal.
There was no sense of malice; no creeping menace as in the towns of the last world. Sweetie took a deep breath and smiled. Whatever the Beast had had planned, it couldn’t reach her here.
That’s when she heard the earth below her. The whisper of rocks and gems… she touched her coat and felt her soft fur, but when she looked at it, it was still marble, with thorns of onyx and obsidian poking out here and there.
She didn’t need to look at the bottom of her hoof to know it would look like solid black marble. She only had to glance up to realize her mane was made out of quartz.
She hadn’t changed back.
Sweetie bit back the urge to scream. Her eyes wide, she finally dared to poke at her foreleg, hard, just to make sure she wasn’t dreaming.
The whispers… her body… she was still a changeling! She was trapped being a monster!
She felt her breath draw short.
She had to hide.
She had to go somewhere… not the library, Twilight might recognize that something was wrong with her.
She should—she should just go home. To the Carousel Boutique. Yes.
She took a hesitant step towards Ponyville, and prayed to Celestia and Luna, to any spirits around, to anything, really, that her spell, her glamour still was active, because she was in the opposite side of town… and if somepony saw her… the real her… they might well attack her.
Slowly, she made her way to the edge of town, trying to calm her beating heart through will alone. Silent as a ghost, she walked around houses, avoiding the main road and waiting patiently for anypony that was nearby to walk away… until she neared the market. All the streets were full of ponies.
It was the usual, boisterous market day, and while it wouldn’t be as crowded as Canterlot, it would be crowded from main street to side-streets.
“I guess I don’t have much of a choice,” she muttered.
Making her way into the open, she took a final deep breath, and stepped out of the shadows.
No pony reacted. A few smiled at her. A filly… Twist… waved at Sweetie before hurrying along.
Releasing the breath she had been holding, Sweetie slowly made her way through the market until she reached the other side before immediately stepping into one of the more empty side-streets.
They might be able to see what she was now, but she did not want to risk—
“That shape isn’t yours to wear, Shee. It belongs to somepony else.”
Sweetie turned in surprise to find Bon Bon and Lyra standing before her while Lyra softly and threateningly stroked an iron frying pan with her hoof.
Next Chapter: Mendacity