Edits: The Masked Ferret, Lammy, Super Big Mac, Magical Trevor
Morning in Ponyville shimmered, morning in Ponyville shone.
And Lyra knew for absolute certain that that dirty rotten son of a whatnot was charging too much for asparagus.
“Five bits? Five bits!?” The pale green mare shook an outraged hoof in the stocky merchant’s face as he glowered back. “Daylight robbery, that’s what that is! You think any mare in her right mind is going to shell out that kinda dough for these? Hay, half of ‘em are all wilted! This is crazy! You’re crazy! Bonnie, tell him he’s crazy.” Lyra turned to a wide-brimmed sun hat at her side, which—presumably—hid a pony somewhere underneath it.
“It is a bit much, sweetie, but I think you’re being a tad harsh on him,” responded the hat. “And you know it’s late in the season for asparagus anyways. I was worried we weren’t going to be able to find any.”
“Dern right,” interposed the storekeep. His jaws went through a complicated sort of dance, and the long stem of hay sticking out from between his lips migrated over to the other side of his mouth. “If I’m cheating anyone, it’s myself. Should be selling this for twice as much.”
“Oh, like five bits wasn’t obscene enough! I’ll bet this is illegal. Probably is. Maybe we should get the royal gua—”
The unicorn stopped as her companion pushed forward. The pony raised her head, showing a kind face surrounded by pink and blue curls. “Yes, Lyra, I know, I know.” Turning to the stallion in front of her, she continued, “I’m sorry we’re making so much fuss over this. We’re getting married soon, so funds are just a little bit strained right now, and, well, she gets irritable. Do you think maybe we could have them for a little less?”
Lyra snorted. “Oh, sure, like he’s gonna listen. C’mon, Bonnie, we’re wasting our time with this price-gouger. Doesn’t know the meaning of compassion. I’ll bet he puts chalk in the flour. Or, y’know, whatever the equivalent is for asparagus.”
Bon Bon made a small apologetic face from beneath the brim of her hat. The ‘price-gouger’ considered, and then gave a somewhat grim smile. “‘Dirty rotten son of a whoosit,’ am I?”
“Whatnot,” corrected Lyra and Bon Bon simultaneously.
Bon Bon immediately flinched. “Sorry, it slipped out.”
“I’m not sorry at all,” said Lyra, turning her head away with a snort.
“Whatever.” The storekeep waved a hoof dismissively. To Bon Bon, he continued, “Look, if it was just that firebrand over there, nothing doing. But—Bah, I’m too softhearted. You can have ‘em for three bits apiece. I can’t go any lower, you hear?”
With a grateful smile, the mare bent her head into the saddlebag at her side and tossed a small pile of bits on to the stall’s countertop, holding her neck at an awkward angle to keep her hat from tumbling off. Lyra snickered. Bon Bon ignored her. “I wouldn’t dream of asking you to. Thanks very much for the discount!”
“Yeah, well.” As the two mares trotted away, the merchant called after them, “And hay, Firebrand! Quit yappin’ for a second and listen to your fiancée sometime! You might learn some manners!”
Lyra responded with several not particularly polite words, and then turned back to Bon Bon, chuckling. She raised a hoof, holding it out for a hoofbump, and after a moment’s hesitation Bon Bon raised her own forehoof and gave it a confused little tap. The unicorn grinned. “Aw, yeah. ‘Good guard, bad guard.’ Works every time.”
Bon Bon almost stumbled. “Wait, you were doing the ‘good guard, bad guard’—we were doing the ‘good guard, bad guard’ routine? Oh, for Celestia’s sake. Lyra, you should tell me these things!”
“He was overcharging, you know. I bought a few asparagus stalks last week for just two bits. There’s no way the price has gone up so high so fast.”
“That might be so, but—”
The mare stumbled to a halt, eyes wide and skin tingling. Her brow furrowed as she watched a small unicorn filly scurrying through the crowd some distance ahead, casting nervous glances around her as she ran. The pony soon vanished from sight down one of the side roads leading off of Mane Street, but Bon Bon continued to stare after her, a worried expression on her face. Lyra peered at her in concern.
“Bonnie? Are you alright? Is this place getting too—you know, eerie for you? I figured it’d be fine, what with the morning and the Sun and all, but if you’re having trouble—”
“No, no.” The mare waved her hoof. “I’m fine. But that filly who just ran across the market…” She pursed her lips. “It was faint, but I could feel it. She isn’t who she’s pretending to be. She’s like me. One of the Shee.” The mare turned to look at the unicorn beside her. “I figured that the Unseelie Court would have bigger loaves to bake than us, after Chrysalis’ defeat, but maybe not. She could be looking for us.”
Lyra’s eyes narrowed. “Is that so.” She glanced around, spotted a stall hung with ironware and cookery, and trotted over. Casting a quick, appraising look over the assembled merchandise, she raised a sturdy frying pan, gave it a few practice swings, and then turned to the wizened little proprietor of the stall.
“Three bits, dearie.”
“Right.” Another practice swing. “I’ll give you five bits—one to rent it for the next fifteen minutes, and four as a security deposit. Deal?”
“Great. Thanks!” A flurry of coins clinked down in front of the bemused ironmonger, and a moment later Lyra was back by Bon Bon’s side, the frying pan swinging in her magic’s grasp. With a grim smile, she asked, “So, what’s the plan?”
Her marefriend glanced back over at the side street down which the foal had disappeared. “We talk to her first. And if we have to, we fight.”
“Right.” The unicorn paused. “But for Celestia’s sake, get rid of that ridiculous hat. We’re confronting the critter, not having a tea party with her.”
It took the two mares a little time to shove and shoulder their way through the crowds of chattering, bargaining ponies, but not, fortunately, too much time. As they stepped into the cool air of the little shadowed sideway, their hooves tapping softly against the paving stones, they caught a glimpse of a pink and lavender tail vanishing around the corner of one of the tall buildings lining the side street, its cheery pink paint subdued to a quiet violet in the shadows. Bon Bon motioned with her hoof for Lyra to follow.
Their quarry was standing just around the turn in the little road, evidently trying to choose between two branching side routes before her, and didn’t notice their approach. Bon Bon glanced back at Lyra, who grinned and shifted the frying pan across her shoulder. She seemed to be enjoying the whole thing immensely. With a little roll of her eyes, Bon Bon turned to the foal in front of them, still oblivious to their presence, and cleared her throat.
“That shape isn’t yours to wear, Shee. It belongs to somepony else.” To her relief, her oft unreliable voice took on a strong, almost matronly tone for the little speech. She’d been afraid she would fall into the squeaky helium voice with the Nippony accent again. The foal whipped around to face them, while behind Bon Bon, Lyra nodded her approval.
“Very nice. Deep and dignified.”
“Thank you, Lyra.”
Sweetie Belle blinked at them, then frowned, looking down at her own hooves. “It isn’t? Did my glamour fail again? You can’t see the obsidian, can you? Tell me you can’t see the obsidian!” She tried to ignore the slightly hysterical tone her voice took for a moment.
She kept her eyes on the pair for a bit before glancing around. “So… are you two alone? You didn’t rouse the whole of Ponyville to hunt the monster down? And what does shee mean? Is it like… slang for freak? I’m not from around here, exactly, so you’ll have to forgive my lack of information...”
The two mares stared at her for a moment, near-identical, quizzical expressions on their faces. Lyra gave a long, low whistle. “Dang, Bonnie. I was figuring we’d get an Aldrovanda or Chrysalis. Are all Shee this weird? I mean, compared to each other?”
The cream-colored mare blinked. “Um. No, not… Hm.” She considered Sweetie Belle for a few moments, and then, a little haltingly, said, “I can see what you really are—or feel it, at least—because I’m also of the Shee. The Fae? Fairies? I figured you could tell. I mean, I’m”—she struggled for a word for a moment, and then continued—“domesticated, but even so, I know I still have the touch of Faerie on me.”
Sweetie blinked. Then blinked again, focusing on Bon Bon. There was something, a little sense that the image wasn’t quite right. “Oh. Oh! I get it!” She smiled. “Well, I’ve got nothing against you, or anything like that, I really just want to get to the Carousel Boutique, climb under my bedsheets, curl up and panic.” Her eye twitched. “Out of sight. Maybe get into Rarity’s pantry and drink wine until I pass out. Yep. Say hi to Queen Chrysalis and tell her not to brainwash ponies! I’ll just be going now.”
Bon Bon tilted her head a bit, peering at the little filly as if not quite sure what to make of her, while beside her Lyra stood her skillet on its handle and propped herself up on its pan, her forehooves crossed in front of her. Pursing her lips, the older changeling said, “Right, Sweetie Belle is Miss Rarity’s daughter—no, sister. And your bedsheets…” She paused, thinking, and then continued, “Well. Given that your original may still be in town, you wouldn’t be the only one panicking. And on the subject of panic—Lyra, could you put the frying pan down? Oh good, you already did—are you alright? If you’re on the run from the Unseelie Court, you don’t have to worry about me turning you in. As a frenemy of mine might say, I’m fae non grata with them.”
With each of Bon Bon’s comments, Sweetie’s heart seemed to lurch. “N-no,” she stammered, blinking away tears. “I-she—” She sniffled and angrily used her foreleg to clean the bit of snot. “I’m Sweetie Belle!” she finally cried, eyes glaring accusingly at Bon Bon. “Don’t you dare tell me otherwise! Don’t take me away from- from me!”
She slumped down, staring angrily at the pave work under her hooves. “I know I look like a freak! I know I don’t have the right to call myself Rarity’s sister… but…” She looked up at them, beseeching them to understand. “I don’t know how to be something else! I just want to be a pony again not… not this thing! I was supposed to turn back to normal!” She slammed her hooves down on the pavement hard enough to crack it.
All around the trio, whispers rose from the rocks and shadows... their words barely audible, with a meaning half-understood and half forgotten. Sweetie could feel the obsidian and onyx thorns grow out of her marble fur under her glamour and couldn’t take it. She closed her eyes and settled for crying silently, biting her lip so she wouldn’t wail and draw unwanted attention from other ponies.
The frying pan fell to the street with a clang, ringing against the cobblestones as Lyra jumped forward. “Hey, hey, hey. Kiddo, it’s okay.” She knelt beside the shaking foal, and laid a gentle hoof against her mane. “It’s okay.” Looking back at Bon Bon, who was rummaging through her saddlebag for something, she asked, “You have any idea what’s going on, Bonnie?”
“Not really, no. Ah!” The mare withdrew her muzzle from the cloth sack, smiling in triumph around the loaf of bread. “‘Ere—Schweetie Belle, ‘oo shaid? ‘Ought it was shomefing ‘ike that. Eat thish.” She dropped the loaf in front of Sweetie Belle, tore a piece off with her hoof, and lowered herself to the cobbles with a reassuring smile on her face. “Go on, it’s good. I guarantee it; baked it myself this morning. It’ll keep the piping and whispering away. Then if you feel up to it, you can tell us what’s wrong. Maybe we can help.”
Sweetie sniffled again and opened her eyes, looking down at the loaf of bread in front of her hooves. Despite herself, she couldn’t help but smile. The whispers slowly died away, until they were a little voice in the back of her mind, barely audible, but still there if she ever needed them.
“Thank you,” she said, levitating it and putting it back into Bon Bon’s saddlebag. “I’d definitely like to eat some but… maybe we could do so somewhere other than a back alley?” She sighed. “It’s a long story… and you might have a really hard time believing me… especially now that I look like a monster.” Her lip twisted into a displeased pout. “If this is how it’s going to be from now on, I might as well stop pretending to be a pony.”
Lyra chuckled. “Eh, I bet under all that magic you don’t look any freakier than Bonnie here does, all bug-eyed and beetle-backed and poked full of holes.”
“Thank you for that ringing endorsement,” said Bon Bon dryly, stowing away the rest of the bread.
“Oh hush, filly, you know I love every segment on that thorax of yours.”
Rolling her eyes, Bon Bon raised herself up off the street. “You know you’re going to make her sick, talking like that, right?” She held out a hoof to Sweetie Belle. “But she’s right, you know. Right now I have no idea what you are, but I’m pretty sure you’re not a monster. Believe me, I know; I’ve met monsters. In fact, we have one who comes ‘round for dinner every second Friday. Whatever you are, you aren’t like her.” She gave an encouraging smile. “Anyway—did we introduce ourselves? I’m Bon Bon, and this is my fiancée, Lyra—why don’t you come over to our house, and we’ll get you comfortable and I’ll whip up something for us to eat?”
“And drink? I could use some fae mead right now,” Sweetie said, chuckling weakly. “I-I’ll just follow you… I’m sorry if I don’t talk much right now, I’m still— I’m still trying to deal with this… situation.”
“I think we can manage that,” smiled Bon Bon. “Although you’ll have to settle for wine; I’m afraid we don’t have any mead.”
Liquid droplets of shadow and light wobbled down the walls and furnishings of a cozy, almost-cramped den, its interior cool and dark. Gray, peaceful light suffused the room, flowing quietly in through its rain spattered windows. A sudden summer shower had sprung up as the three had made their way to Bon Bon and Lyra’s cottage, but fortunately they had been close enough that a quick gallop saw them inside with only a mild drenching.
Now, dry, comfortable, and fed, they were gathered around a battered card table—the condition of which Bon Bon had apologized for at least fifteen times before Lyra pointed out that the state of their furniture was probably not the most pressing issue on their guest’s mind—with a stack of empty bowls and a shining copper soup tureen sitting on a tray to one side.
Sweetie sat perched atop a cushion, her limbs pulled tightly around her as she looked nervously at her two hosts.
Bon Bon, her head bent and brow furrowed, was chewing her lip pensively as she reclined on an old moth-eaten chaise, while Lyra was leaning back in a wooden chair and idly trying to balance a spoon on her snout. At length, the green unicorn tipped just a little too far back, lost her balance, and tumbled over backwards with a yelp and a thud, sending the spoon flying across the room.
Bon Bon didn’t even blink.
“You okay, Lyra?”
“Sure, sure.” She clambered back to her hooves, righted the chair, and draped herself over its back, rocking it back and forth as its legs creaked ominously. “Whaddya think? I buy it.”
Bon Bon was silent for a moment longer, and then nodded. “I suppose I do too.” She raised her head. “I’m so sorry, Sweetie Belle. It just sounds like you’ve been through Tartarus. We’ll help in any way we can, of course, although I can’t say I’ve ever heard of anything like the crystals you mention. Lyra?”
“Nyet.” Lyra shook her head before continuing. “Sounds like something that your folk might be expected to have heard about, though. Creepy crystals popping out of empty space and all that. Very Unseelie. Maybe Aldrovanda knows something?”
“Might be.” Turning back to Sweetie, Bon Bon said, “Aldrovanda’s the ‘monster’ I mentioned who comes over for dinner sometimes. We can ask her when this rain clears up, although it might be better to wait until tomorrow; it takes some time to get to Froggy Bottom Bog and back, and she might not even be there, given all this rain. She’s frightening, but don’t worry, she’s really more bark than bite.”
“More snark than bite, you mean,” said Lyra.
“That too.” A smile. “You’re welcome to stay the night, if you want, but given what you said, Rarity will probably be worrying about you.”
Sweetie nodded a bit, but hesitated. “I know I’ll find the fragment… I always do…” She struggled to find the words. “The only…thing… the only reason I didn’t go mad while I was a prisoner, or when my body changed… was that I was sure I would be back to normal.” She looked from one mare to the other. “I killed monsters that used to be ponies. I became a monster there, not just physically, but also in spirit… what type of pony kills? All through that… despite everything, I knew I would be a pony again. That I wouldn’t look like rock or gems… that I would be flesh and blood and have a soft coat of fur… that I wouldn’t have contracts and alliances with the earth under my hooves, or be able to talk to shadows…
“I know that what I did is something I can never take back… but…” Sweetie looked out the window at the rain still falling placidly outside. “I’m not even a real pony anymore. I have memories and… that’s it. My name is even stolen from a real pony who I usually replace whenever I step into their lives, and if not, I put in deadly danger. I’m nothing other than a creature that steals time.”
She shook her head. “I can go back to Rarity’s… and pretend to be her sister. I’ll see Apple Bloom and Scootaloo tomorrow and pretend to be seven years younger than I am. I’ll see Twilight… maybe Octavia and Vinyl, and they won’t know me as their student. I’m a thief. A monstrous thief… because what I take, I can never give back.”
Sweetie fell silent. Raindrops pattered against the windowpanes, beating out their random, arrhythmic song as the puddles nestled in the crevices of the moist black cobbles outside rippled and splattered. For a long, long moment, nopony said anything.
Then Lyra pushed herself up from her chair, falling back down to her hooves. Turning to Bon Bon, she said, “Welp, guess I’d better go make up the spare bed,” and added, in an undertone, “I’d stay, but you’re gonna be better at this than I am. Bun chance, or however you say it.” She shot an encouraging smile at Sweetie Belle, gave her marefriend a quick nuzzle, and then clomped out of the room and up the stairs.
Bon Bon watched her until she was out of sight, and turned to face the miserable foal sitting across the table. At length she sighed. “Sweetie, I’d like to show you something. It’s not a pretty sight, but from what you’ve told me you’ve seen a lot worse, and, ugly as it is, I think it might help.” Hoisting herself up from her chaise, the mare trotted over the windows and undid the curtain sashes, sinking the room into a twilit dimness as the drapery swept over the glass panes. Bon Bon inspected the result, apparently to satisfy herself that the windows were fully covered, and then turned to Sweetie Belle, a dark silhouette against the curtains. “Don’t be frightened, please. This might be startling, but there’s no danger.”
For a moment nothing happened. Then Sweetie heard a faint hissing like damp paper burning, the noise almost imperceptible next to the sound of the pattering rain. A green glow shone around Bon Bon’s hooves and along the edges of her mane, and the hissing intensified. The glimmering witchlight waxed, waned—and then exploded, rushing up around the mare in a roar of brilliant, harlequin-green flames that crackled in great heatless gouts through the air and curled off across the floor in contorting eddies. The twisting column of fire clawed its way up to the ceiling, flaring with a fierce, cold light, and then abruptly collapsed in on itself, vanishing as quickly as it had appeared. A few rogue sparks danced through the air, drifting erratically like wounded fireflies, and then it was over.
At first Sweetie could see nothing, her eyes bedazzled by the flash of light, but as her vision recovered she realized that the room was not as dark as it had been before. A point of green light still shone in front of her, a bit above eye level. As her sight adapted further, she realized that it was a spell swirling around a strangely curved horn, and the creature beneath it…
Bon Bon opened her pale blue, pupilless eyes, glowing with an inner light of their own, and raised a black hoof pitted with sharp-edged cavities. Sharp points of light danced off the glossy edges of her carapace, and as she raised her head Sweetie could see the outlines of wickedly curving fangs descending from her upper jaw like a pair of daggers. The membranous wings on her back hummed to life, and the changeling lifted herself up into the air, drifted over to the chaise she had been occupying earlier, and set herself down.
She smiled at Sweetie, which was more unnerving than comforting, and said, “There are more ways to be a pony than I think you realize, Sweetie, and you’re not the only one in this room who most ponies would be terrified to see as they really are. I’ve deceived. I’ve stolen. My old name—my true name in some regards—literally means ‘liar.’ And like you, I once knew, with every fiber of my being and every beat of my hearts, that I was an irredeemable monster, and deserved nothing.” She lifted a gnarled hoof, and absent-mindedly straightened the little stack of soup bowls left from their meal. “But I was wrong. Very wrong, as it turned out, though it took me a long while to realize.” She chuckled. “Lyra is an excellent judge of character, though, and when she informed me very definitely that I was not a monster, that was that.”
In a more serious tone, Bon Bon continued, “Now, whether you’re monstrous or not, I can’t say. Maybe you are. But there’s one thing I can tell you, and one thing I know is true.” She lidded her compound eyes, and after a moment there was another crackling inferno of foxfire, sweeping up around her and scorching away the darkened exoskeleton, wings, pitted legs, and all the rest. When the last whirling burst of fire had died and the dazzlement had faded out of Sweetie’s eyes, there was just a simple Earth pony sitting across from her, lit only by the pure, pallid rainlight filtering through the closed curtains. With a smile, the mare concluded, “There are many different ways to be a pony. The easiest, of course, is to be born as one. But it’s not the only way, and if you’d like, Lyra and I would be happy to show you some of the other ways.”
Sweetie frowned. “I… understand what you’re saying,” she said, motioning with her hoof to her head. “Here. But, here…” her hoof lowered down to her heart. “I just know different… for now. I don’t know what I’ll tell Rarity so I can spend more time with you and Lyra.”
Bon Bon raised an eyebrow. “Well, that last point is the least of your worries. I’m a pretty good baker, and Lyra’s naturally very good with music and is probably the only dedicated technomage in Ponyville, although she tells me that Twilight Sparkle has good theoretical knowledge. Pick your discipline, and we can tell Rarity that you’re coming over for lessons or something along those lines.”
“Wait, a technomage?!” Sweetie’s eyes widened, the gems literally sparkling. “I want to learn to cook! Can I skip school? I already know all of that stuff anyway!”
With a chuckle, Bon Bon waved her hoof. “Settle down, settle down. It’s your parents you’d need to ask about skipping school, not me. Lyra will be thrilled to have an apprentice, though. Just be careful not to confuse the two of us; I have all the technical skill of a potato, and between you and me Lyra uses the smoke alarm as a kitchen timer.” Her smile faded. “But to answer your first question...well. I can’t give you certainty, Sweetie Belle; you have to understand that. We’ll do everything we can, Lyra and I, but in the end whether you can be happy the way you are now is going to depend on you.”
“I can promise, though, that we will do absolutely everything we can to help show you that you can be...well, that you can be Sweetie Belle. Not a monster, and not some kind of ideal of pony perfection either, but a living, breathing, thinking, loving being—with all the flaws and imperfections that go along with that. A Sweetie Belle, whatever you end up deciding a Sweetie Belle is.”
Sweetie Belle nodded, a bit more serious. “I honestly don’t know what else to do… I know that sounds horrible, but I feel lost. I think, if either of you is willing to talk to Rarity that I show some skill in your specialties and that you’d take me as an apprentice, it would help me convince her… although I’ll have to alter my glamour to cover my cutie mark…” She slowly breathed in and exhaled. “I’ll spend the night at Rarity’s… and bring her over tomorrow, if that’s okay with you. I’ll just tell her that… I cast some spell… that Lyra thinks would be useful. I’m sure she’ll be delighted that her little sister is showing some magical talent.” She grimaced. “I feel like such a bad pony, making her think her actual sister is making progress.”
“Well, that won’t do.” Bon Bon raised an eyebrow and looked sternly at Sweetie. “You want me to teach you how to be comfortable with who and what you are, yes? Well, here’s lesson number one: you won’t get anywhere if you’re dragging a lie along with you. You’ll just gather more and more, and the harder you struggle the more they’ll weigh you down. My own lies kept me pinned down and miserable for years. Lyra and I believed you, and all we know of our own Sweetie Belle is what she looks like and that it’s wise to duck when she and her friends are on the rampage. Do you think the ponies who love you most will turn you away when we haven’t? I can talk to Twilight Sparkle—she knows about me—and explain things. She’ll understand, and I know she and Rarity are very close friends, so if absolutely necessary you’ll have an ally who isn’t a changeling living as a pony, or a musician who half the town—the idiot half,” she added, without any particular rancor, “—think is out of her mind.”
Sweetie chuckled a bit nervously. “We’ll go meet Twilight tomorrow then… I just… don’t feel like I can handle Rarity on my own right now… things didn’t go so well with her a couple of worlds ago, and I’m still… wary.”
“Goodness, Sweetie, I wouldn’t have asked you to talk to her tonight—maybe wouldn’t have let you if you had wanted to, honestly. You’ve been through the wringer, and right now you need rest. We’ll head out in the morning for the library if you feel up to it, and then we can hash out everything with Rarity and whoever else needs to be brought up to speed that afternoon.” The mare gave her head a little jerk towards the stairs. “Lyra’s probably got the spare room ready now, actually, so if you want you can head up and take a nap, or maybe have her show you around the house. Meanwhile I can head out and let Rarity know you’re alright, just so she doesn’t drive herself mad with worry.” She paused a moment, staring absently off into the middle distance as she tapped her hoof against the floor. Then she nodded. “Yes, I think that’s about it. Make yourself at home, and don’t worry, Sweetie. Just rest for now.”
With an encouraging smile, Bon Bon turned and trotted out into the little anteroom. There were a few bustlings and murmurings, an exchange of shouts up and down the stairs—
“Lyra, I’m heading out to let Rarity know that her sister’s okay! Show Sweetie around if she asks, will you?”
—followed by the creak of the door's latch being undone.
“I hope you know what you’re doing, Bon Bon,” Sweetie said. “Rarity is very, very protective… when she’s not trying to kill you.”
Still, what she had learned here intrigued her. Her days with Blueblood had made her very open to the idea of learning things beyond magic. As much as she loved her dusty tomes and sparkly new spells, the prospect of learning to cook something other than pancakes without setting them on fire was appealing to say the least, and she had never considered the possibility of learning from a Technomage.
She couldn’t believe her luck! How many things could she create now? With the knowledge of a technomage… maybe she could stay here for a couple of years and—
She stopped herself.
“I think I’m losing it.” Sweetie looked towards the stairs. “Maybe not a few years but… a couple of weeks?” she mused.
She went up the stairs, following them until she found herself next to the guest room. And, presumably, where Lyra would be.
“Lyra?” She called. “I wanted to ask you something!”
A tousle-maned head poked out of a doorway down the hall. “Hey, kiddo. I’ve got your room pretty much finished. I was just scrounging around to see if I could find any chairs or stuff. It’s a little bare. What’s up?” Walking up to Sweetie, she continued, “Did you and Bon Bon have a good talk?”
“Yeah, we’re going to pretend that I’m your apprentice or hers… or both!” Sweetie beamed Lyra a smile. “And I hear you’re a technomage? That’s amazing! Can I see your experiments? How do you mix the magic and the machines? Are you using matrices or rune-sketching? Or is it a completely different school of thought and magic? Can you show me something you already made? Does it involve complex math?”
“Hey, whoa, one question at a time!” The unicorn grinned. “Didn’t know you were so into magic. Yeah, I dabble. I could give you a tour of my workshop right now, if you want; it’s down in the basement. Maybe give you a little run-through of the basics of technomancy while we’re at it. It’s cool stuff, but pretty finicky. Turns out there are a lot of failsafes built into our horns that we unicorns usually don’t even think about, but machines, they don’t have those failsafes. You’ve got to really go back to basics when you’re figuring out how to get ‘em to work right.” She tilted her head, eyeing Sweetie with a gleam in her eye. “‘Pretend,’ huh? Yeah, I think we could ‘pretend’ that you’re my apprentice. C’mon, I’ll show you around.”
Sweetie couldn’t stop grinning. “Okay, I lied. I’d rather not pretend! This sounds amazing! No failsafe? So if we input too much magic into it it might explode? Have you thought of using crystals as a focus? I’ve met many unicorns that have made amazing things with them!” The filly couldn’t stop shouting out ideas and theories as she followed the older unicorn. She might not be a pony anymore, but she could still learn like one!
The shadows of Ponyville had grown long and blue by the time Bon Bon had rounded that one last corner and found herself trudging along the street where Lyra and she had made their home.
She had expected to meet a worried, protective Rarity, a Rarity determined to see her poor, ill little sister and suspicious of any attempts to keep her from Sweetie Belle’s side. Bon Bon had planned for it, in fact. She had not expected, however, for her hesitant “Miss Rarity? I wanted to talk with you about your sister” to be met with a puzzled expression and the news that Sweetie had been in Manehattan for the last two weeks with her parents, and would be staying there another month, at least. Bon Bon managed to meet this turn of events by stammering out something to the effect that she had just wanted to let Rarity know that her sister was to be apprenticed to Lyra as a technomage. Judging from Rarity’s somewhat strained smile and her polite but nervous inquiries about runaway clockwork automata, this clearly wasn’t the most welcome bit of news, but all in all she took it in good enough grace.
Still, Sweetie’s presence in town could hardly be kept from Rarity for long, nor should it be. Accordingly, after leaving Carousel Boutique Bon Bon had made a stop by the town library to arrange a meeting to clear the air.
Twilight, unfortunately, was out at the time—according to a letter she had left, she and Spike were off preparing to observe some conjunction or eclipse or astronomical thingamabob—so Bon Bon scrawled out a brief note in Coltic, explaining the situation and mentioning that she, Lyra, and the dimension-hopping Sweetie would be dropping by the next morning. She was reasonably sure that few ponies but Twilight would even recognize the script, much less be able to read it, and hoped she was right.
Then there was the last-minute bit of shopping, and the drop by Sugarcube Corner to check on the sales of her last batch of spun sugar, and of course she had to hunt down and return the weapon of mass concussion that Lyra had ‘rented’ earlier in the day, because four bits wasn’t something to just throw away like that (she only got three bits back from the ironmonger, who—not unreasonably—pointed out that they had kept the frying pan for just a little bit longer than the fifteen minutes Lyra had originally mentioned).
All in all, it was a rather hoofsore and weary Bon Bon who lifted the latch to their tidy little home, wincing as the strap brushed against a raw patch on her hoof. She had tried to be careful when taking that frying pan back to the stall, but cloth slips and accidents happen.
Still, she was back home now. Sweetie, bless her poor heart, would probably be upstairs asleep, and she was looking forward to a quiet evening with Lyra, where they could sit together, maybe snuggle a little, and talk over the events of the day.
The door swung closed behind her. She shrugged off her saddlebag, and trotted into the den.
And then, with a boom like a thundercrack, one of the wooden floor planks on the far side of the room exploded in a hail of splinters, and a small reddish blur smacked against the ceiling, spattering a fine mist of tomato-scented droplets over the den.
A quiet evening with Lyra, thought the changeling mare. Well, given some past ‘quiet evenings,’ this could probably still qualify. After waiting a moment to make sure that there weren’t going to be any more projectiles erupting from the floor, Bon Bon crept cautiously over to the gently smoking hole and called down, “Lyra, whatever it is you’ve made, aim it somewhere else. We’re running out of carpets to cover up the holes. Also—” She sniffed again. Yes, definitely tomatoes. Glancing up, she thought she recognized long, stringy shapes in the flattened goo slowly dripping down from the ceiling. “Is that—are you—” She paused, marshalling her thoughts, and then continued in a calm, clear voice that unfortunately carried a strong nasal overtone, “Why are you launching supersonic spaghetti through the ceiling? It’s cratering the plaster.”
“It turned into spaghetti? And cratered? Awesome!” Hooves clattered across the stone floor of the basement, there was a quick succession of thumps and thuds as Lyra propelled herself up the stairs, and a door slammed open nearby. Bon Bon’s marefriend poked her head into the den, and grinned hugely when she saw the zesty devastation within. “Awesome,” she repeated. “Hey, Sweetie! You think maybe we could try redirecting that second focus? If we shift the anterior piezothaums into a 3:7:1 resonance, I bet we could lock down the momentum instead.”
“3:7:1? Are you sure that’s a good idea? That’s the diametric opposite of the previous calculation!” Sweetie’s voice responded, clearly audible through the hole in the floor. “It might implode!”
“Ooh, you might be right. Hm. I think we’re gonna have to go through the calculations again; do you know where the slide rule landed?”
“I think it’s embedded on the wall over there, above that picture of Bon Bon on your desk.”
Bon Bon slammed her hoof down on the floor, breaking off a few more splinters of wood. “No, Lyra. Sweetie, put down whatever you’re tinkering with, please. No more explosions.”
“Aw.” Lyra’s ears drooped. “C’mon, Bonnie, you just came back at a bad time. We’re on to something really cool, here. You know the Hoofenberg Uncertainty Principle? Well, if you minimize positional uncertainty enough, the resulting increase in uncertainty in momentum—”
“—leads to hoof-sized holes in my nice wooden floor,” finished Bon Bon. “I’m sorry, sweetie, but—no, not you, Sweetie, I meant Lyra.” She shook her head, and in an undertone, muttered something about needing a new pet name before continuing, “I’m sorry, Lyra, but the experimentation comes to a stop when the property damage starts. Remember?”
The unicorn sighed. “Fine, fine. But I’m holding you to that during your next flambé obsession.” Trotting over to the hole, she called down to the basement, “C’mon up, Sweetie Belle. I guess it’s time for a lesson in another important part of technomancy: fixing the mess.”
“Next time maybe you’ll just let me cast a shield spell on the room? I’ve gotten a lot better since Trixie first taught me! I even survived a mountain crashing around me and my friends!” Sweetie piped on her way up the stairs.
Once she saw the hole on the floor and all the splinters around it, as well as the mess on the roof, she cringed.
“Okay, next time I’m going to cast the shield spell even if you don’t want me to.” Her gaze went up to meet Bon Bon’s. “Did you talk to my sister? Is she okay with me staying the night here?”
“Not exactly. In fact, her Sweetie Belle is apparently in Manehattan with her—with your parents. I left a note for Twilight, and we’ll explain everything to your sister tomorrow; I didn’t think you were up to meeting with her tonight.”
A blob of jellied spaghetti, colored a delicate pink by the tomato sauce suffused throughout it, dripped down from above and splotted next to the changeling’s hoof. She smiled wryly.
“Although from the look of things, it might have been better had I not bothered. You seem to have bounced back pretty well.”
Sweetie cringed. “Sorry about that… I just got excited. You see, I’ve never met a technomage. I’ve met immortal versions of Twilight that could do amazing things… and bladecasters and even a version of myself that could see the very fabric of magic… but all through that… never a pony that merged technology and magic.” She hung her head. “I’m sorry.”
Lyra, who had ambled off somewhere else in the house and had been producing assorted rummaging noises, trotted back in with a toolbox and a few planks of wood floating in a web of golden magic. “Don’t be hard on yourself, Sweetie. I should have been the Responsible Adult, I guess, but...well, yeah. Even so, this isn’t the worst thing that’s happened on my watch—not by a long shot. There was that time I made this adorable little Von Neumane bot—based on a real critter, so it wouldn’t spook anypony if it got out. It was really a neat piece of work, had the right behaviors and everything. Anyway, I, uh, kinda underestimated it, and things got bad. S’all good now though, right, Bonnie? Forgive and forget, and all that jazz.”
“I forgave, yes,” said Bon Bon, raising an eyebrow. “I have definitely not forgotten.”
“Heh. Right, right.” The toolbox whipped open, and a sheaf of bronze nails whirled out, along with a gleaming bronze hammer and a little bronze hacksaw. “To work, then.”
With a small chuckle that may or may not have been intended to be audible, Bon Bon turned and trotted off to the kitchen. “Just don’t blow anything else up, try not to corrupt our guest, and listen to her when she wants to use shield spells, is all I have to say. I’ll get started on dinner.”
“Okay!” Sweetie said, looking from the floor to Lyra, and then back to the floor. “How do we start? I’ve never repaired a floor before!”
“What, never? What kind of magic have you been doing, anyway?” Lyra looked up from her sprawled position, both her forehooves splayed out to each side to hold down a strip of measuring tape as she jotted down notes on the intact floorboards with a pencil. “I started doing carpentry about a week after I started tinkering with technomancy.”
"‘Course, I didn’t have a tutor or anything, and the only book I had was written by this Fancy-speaking feller who didn’t really have a good grasp on Equestrian, so it was mostly trial and error for me. I kinda had to learn how to fix things up, at least if I wanted to keep living in a house with walls.” She shrugged. “I guess your case is different. Still, if you’re going to be experimenting, there’s gonna be the occasional Earth-shattering kaboom, and you’re going to need to know how to get the Earth all un-shattered again. How to de-kaboom things, as it were.”
“So! First, you’re going to want to make sure that you know what to repair; no point in fixing a little hole if the wood around it is so broken up that it’ll let water drip through it or something like that…”
That night, Sweetie sat on her bed, staring at her notebook. Fragments of Twilight circled around the dweomer, orbiting it almost placidly. For anypony else, they were nothing more than magical crystals. They would have never guessed that some possessed personality as well as power.
She sighed. The magical properties of the notebook or the crystals were not why she had brought it out. Slipping out the bookmark, she sent the notebook away while it grew and gained mass, revealing its original form: her cello case.
She stood and opened it, running her hoof down carefully on the lacquered wood of her beloved instrument. With a small smile, Sweetie pulled it out and stood on her hind legs, balancing perfectly as she assumed a starting position.
Maybe, if she just let herself relax, she could find some peace. Maybe this would help... it always helped.
She closed her eyes and... she couldn't move. Her foreleg remained in place, but her grip on the bow was shaky at best. Her other hoof held down the right strings, but even then, her hold was starting to slacken.
She took a deep breath and released it slowly, but the energy... or the inspiration... or simply the will was not there.
Slowly, Sweetie fell to all fours, levitating the cello to keep it in place. She stared at the instrument. It seemed normal. But... there was something missing. Silently, she tucked it into its case and secured the bow inside.
She closed the case and instead of using the magic within it to turn it back into a bookmark, she just let it rest against the wall.
Who am I anymore?
I can't bring myself to play... so much for the simple happiness my brother's gift brought me. I'd better just go to sleep. Tomorrow is going to be a long day.
Good night, diary.
Sweetie tossed and turned in her bed, unable to sleep, yet unwilling to make a noise. After writing her diary, she had expected sleep to claim her, but as many times as she closed her eyes, there was no rest.
There was something she needed to do. Slowly, she crept out of bed, and started walking down to the kitchen. Her hooves were completely silent... There would be no death, no stalactites of obsidian falling around her, digging into her skin. She dodged expertly every object in her path, even in deep darkness, her senses were ready and alert for any possibility of noise. There would be no punishment, no songs of pain for her to join in the Maestro’s concert.
She found the cleaning equipment quickly enough. A silent, muted light shone from her horn as she gathered water from the faucet, cringing at its gurgling. She quickly closed it, fearing she had somehow been heard, but no creature came from her, no spikes dug in.
She was safe—for now. Casting a silencing spell on her bucket and the sponge, Sweetie began to scrub the floors, slowly, methodically... and most of all, silently. There was no escape from the silence, because silence was safety... and she would be able to finally sleep, knowing she had done her job and that she would be rewarded with darkness and no more noise.
It was the only way she knew to rest.
When the pain would not come.
And the Maestro would not be displeased.
Sweetie Belle’s ears twitched upright, and she cringed as the silence—the safety—was broken. Distant notes, silvery and delicate as moonlight, were drifting through the night air, accompanied by an eerie piping that rose and fell in time with the reedy melody. There was a strangely mournful quality to the lilting music: a sense of memories misplaced and old grandeurs forgotten.
A pallid light glimmered through the folds of the kitchen curtains, shining from the street outside.
Sweetie blinked and looked down at the soapy sponge pressed beneath her hoof, suddenly unsure of where she was and what she was doing. The threat of punishment and the fear of pain seemed frail, insubstantial things, dreams from an earlier life. She raised her head, grey light gleaming in her mane, and stumbled aimlessly out of the kitchen, unearthly tones echoing in her ears.
There was the sound of hoofsteps to her left, and Sweetie Belle turned to see Bon Bon standing halfway up the stairs, a shawl wrapped around her against the night chill and a candle flickering in her hoof. The mare gave a wan smile.
“They woke you up too, then?” Wooden planks creaked beneath her hooves as she trotted down to join the bemused unicorn. “Don’t worry. They’re just memories; they don’t have any real power, as long as you don’t let yourself be drawn in amongst them. Just don’t let yourself be pulled in by the music.”
Shaking her head to clear it of the dazed, clouded feeling that had overtaken her, Sweetie murmured, “But...what are they?”
“Like I said, just memories.” Bon Bon trotted over, unlatched the upper half of the front door, and swung it wide, filling the little room with pale moonlight. She raised herself up on her hind legs, resting on the lower half of the door as she looked out over the street beyond, and after a moment Sweetie Belle joined her.
Mist drifted across the cobbles of the lane, shining in the light of the moon and swirling in strange eddies and arabesques. Through the drifting haze strode a train of tall, slender beings, translucent and shimmering in and out of existence as they moved forward in solemn procession.
None were alike; some bore great branching antlers atop proud heads, while others trailed long, gossamer wings like silken cloaks, while a few walked on their hind legs, forehooves folded and clutched against their chests. Twisting, gnarled diadems shone on their brows, and their long limbs bore angular bands and markings, daubed onto their skin with some dark pigment.
Their path traveled at an angle to the lane running in front of Bon Bon and Lyra’s home, occasionally intersecting with the solid bulk of Ponyville homes—which troubled the walkers not at all, as they simply passed through the walls as though they weren’t even there. They moved with self-assured grace—the long-dead lords and ladies of the Shee.
For some moments, Bon Bon and Sweetie Belle watched the ghostly procession pass in front of them until Bon Bon finally dropped to all four hooves. She made as if to shutter the upper half of the door, but then paused, brow furrowed as she considered Sweetie Belle.
“This fragment that you need to get—we don’t know how long it will take to find it, or how long you’ll have to stay with us. And since you’re of the Shee, you’re in danger of slipping into Tír na nÓg and not finding your way out again. You should know how to guard yourself from that.” Bon Bon hesitated for a moment. “How tired are you, Sweetie Belle? We could follow the Trooping Fae here, and I could show you some of the ways to protect yourself, if you want.”
“It’s so beautiful…" Sweetie said softly, her eyes almost aglow with wonder. "They have so much grace in their movements, and they seem so detached… I think Fleur would be cantering in place just by watching them.” She looked at Bon Bon, finally considering her words. “If we follow them… do we know where they’ll lead us?”
The mare nodded. “I think so. The leyline they’re following crosses several others not far from here, and that’s probably where they’re headed. There were ruins there, long ago, and the spirits have long memories.” Bon Bon looked out into the lane at the regal phantoms striding through the night, eyeing them uncertainly. “‘Beautiful?’ Hm.” She turned, and trotted back up the stairs. “I’ll just be a moment; I need to let Lyra know where we’re going.”
“Sure,” Sweetie mumbled, still staring at the procession.
It was strange… as much as she knew there was danger involved, whenever the Hedge would produce something harmful, but beautiful-looking, it was almost always active in some way. Aware, perhaps, of those that it was trying to entrap. While she could understand Bon Bon’s warning of being swept away by this other world, it was precisely that sense of disinterest that was so appealing.
The phantoms would continue, whether Sweetie followed them or not. Their mysterious objective would await them, now, tomorrow or never, regardless of what she did. It was another world that was truly its own and it was dangerously enthralling in how uninvolved it was.
Bon Bon’s hoofsteps sounded on the stairs, and Sweetie Belle saw the mare coming down once more, carrying a bundle of fabric with her. Bon Bon smiled, shrugged the folded scarf off her back, and reached up to wrap it snugly around Sweetie’s neck.
“Lyra insisted. It can get a little chill at night, even in this season, you know. Ready?”
Sweetie nodded firmly. “Ready!”
“Then let’s go. Follow my lead, walk where I walk, and again, don’t let yourself get drawn into the music. What we’re seeing happened long, long ago, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still be drawn in if we aren’t careful.” Bon Bon unlatched the door and stepped out into the cold, clear night, and, after a moment’s hesitation, Sweetie Belle followed.
One of the walkers—a tall, gangling thing, its hooves cloven and its mane drifting like lake weed through the air—turned its aquiline head towards them as they left the house, but after gazing at them for a moment in placid disinterest, it turned forward and continued its march.
“Yes, they can see us,” said Bon Bon, in answer to the unasked question. “If they care enough to, that is. Most don’t. To them, we’re just as ghostly as they are to us, and we’re not really worth their notice. In Faerie, it generally doesn’t pay to give too much attention to things that aren’t from your own time.”
“It’s still fascinating, though,” Sweetie said. “To see them moving in another time and space at the same time we’re in ours? Don’t you ever wonder what each of their stories are? What a piece of clothing or jewelry might mean?”
The mare tilted her head, peering at Sweetie Belle with an odd expression on her face. “Not...not really, no.” She gave a short chuckle. “I’ve been too busy hiding from the world of the Shee to have much time for wondering about its mysteries, I guess.” She stepped forward, hooves tapping against the cobblestones as she gestured for Sweetie to follow her. “Stay close.”
The trooping fae drifted onward, solemn and silver in the moonlight. The thin, quavering melody that had broken Sweetie Belle out of her trance rose and fell in the air, sometimes dipping down to near-inaudibility and sometimes thrilling to a high, victorious piping but never quite vanishing altogether.
The two changeling mares followed close behind, although at times their course deviated from that of the marchers—taking them to the left of the town hall, for example, rather than to the right.
As they passed the tall, darkened building, Bon Bon nodded in its direction. “You feel that tension in the air, here? There used to be an altar in this place—probably to Danu. Never go widdershins around old holy sites, Sweetie Belle—or new ones, for that matter. It makes it that much easier to slip into Faerie.”
“Right. Got it.” Sweetie nodded firmly. “Just one question.”
“Oh! Right, sorry. Counterclockwise.”
Their path took them outside the crowded central district of Ponyville. Wide open spaces of beaten earth and clover separated the darkened cottages and shops of the town, and blades of grass, silvered with moonlight, rustled around the hooves of the Shee as though stirred by a faint breeze. The procession was slowing, now, and every so often the trooping fae would pause in their march to bow their angular, uncanny heads, stepping back then forward in a sort of half-dance. They moved like flickering candle flames, and Sweetie found herself gently swaying along with their movements, her head drifting from side to side in time with the motion of their slender legs and the waving of the long chains of beads, feathers, and pebbles dangling from their necks and horns. The music of the Shee floated in the air, mesmerizing and intoxicating…
“Careful, Sweetie.” Sweetie blinked. Bon Bon’s hoof was raised, pressing against her chest, and to her bewilderment she found that she had stepped forward, towards the striding wraiths. The changeling mare lowered her hoof. “Remember who you are.”
“T-thanks, Bon Bon…” Sweetie stammered, eyeing the beautiful dancers warily. “This is so different from what I know… much more subtle and bewitching. There’s no malice in the air. It’s too tempting to simply give in to the music.”
“No malice?” Bon Bon tilted her head, eyeing the fae. “Hm. I suppose not. Not all of Faerie is like the Unseelie Court. Most of it isn’t, really. It just...exists, fading and forgetful.” She paused. “Which doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous, of course. A fire has no malice. A storm has no malice.”
“And yet… don’t you think they can all be amazing to see? A storm is uncontrollable and beautiful!” Sweetie jumped in, eyes shining. “Have you seen a lightning bolt shining through storm clouds at night?” She backed up a little, smiling a bit more ruefully. “I’m not fond of Faerie… I saw too many horrible things, but… Octavia and Vinyl taught me in the wilds of it how to survive and there was so much wonder, hidden between the thorns and memories. I wouldn’t want to go back to certain places but I saw too many things that I would have never found in my own, normal world.” She raised a hoof and looked at it almost petulantly. “Of course it cost me more than I would have been willing to pay.”
Bon Bon considered Sweetie Belle for a moment, brow furrowed. Then, with a quick, whuffing snort, she looked up, peering at the fae striding past them. “Maybe in the long run it won’t be quite as high a price as you think. But now’s not the time to talk about that. I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have been, and I’m afraid we might be in a little bit of trouble. Are you able to fly, Sweetie, or can you just change how you look?”
“My powers are… different, I’m not a changeling in the traditional way. I can’t change my appearance, but I can talk with the spirits or essence within things. I wouldn’t be able to fly away.” She paused, considering Bon Bon for a moment. “This is one of those times that being able to fly would have been useful, isn’t it?”
Twin gouts of green flame erupted from Bon Bon’s shoulders, carving a pair of broad, feathered wings out of the cool night air. “A little, yes. I was stupid not to think of this earlier; we shouldn’t have stayed to their left.” Kneeling, the mare gestured Sweetie Belle over. “Hop on my back. I’m not the strongest flier—I’ve always preferred to keep my hooves on the ground—but this I can manage, at least.”
“Left side, right side…” Sweetie groaned, following Bon Bon’s instructions. “Really? I mean, I know the Hedge was random sometimes, but this is ridiculous!”
“Less—oof!—ridiculous than you might think.” The changeling mare rose up, Sweetie clinging to her back, and jumped up into the air, wings thrashing at her sides. The pair wobbled for a moment in midair, then lurched up and over the heads of the marchers before coming down to the earth again with a heavy thud. Shaking her head, Bon Bon said, “I am definitely out of practice. I’m going to have to get better at that if the kelpie really does start prancing around as a pegasus...Hoo. Anyway.” Rising to her hooves, she gestured at the fae procession. “That’s why we needed to get to their right.”
Sweetie looked after Bon Bon’s pointing hoof. At first she noticed nothing strange; the marchers seemed to be just as they had been before, swaying and striding to the lilting strains of the unwholesome melody drifting on the night air. Then, across an open clearing and only partly visible past a small cluster of cottages, she caught a glimpse of what seemed at first to be a second line of trooping Shee, proceeding along in the opposite direction to the travelers they had been following. Following them with her eyes, Sweetie saw that they were curving steadily to their left, their path taking them back towards the way that she and Bon Bon had just come.
With a start, the little changeling realized that the distant Fae were part of the same band that they had been following; the entire procession curved around in one grand loop, marching counterclockwise around some central point. She looked forward along the line of nearby faeries, themselves curving to their left. She couldn’t quite trace the path they were taking as they weaved around and through the shadowed buildings ahead, but it looked almost as if…
Bon Bon, following her gaze, gave a small nod and a chuckle. “You see? Widdershins, like I said. Counterclockwise. They’re all marching in a circle around something that is no longer here. It’s just one continuous loop. Or,” she added, “a noose, slowly drawing tighter. One we wouldn’t want our necks in. Look!”
The distant marchers were nearer, now, all striding in front of the far off homes that had at first hidden them from view. Glancing back, Sweetie saw that, somehow, the rear of the procession they had followed was no longer snaking away along the shadowed byways of Ponyville, but had emerged into the open, curving away to join with the fae on the other side of the clearing--while ahead, the marchers veered off to their left, joining up behind those marching opposite them and closing the loop.
She blinked, bewildered. There had been hundreds of them there before, stretching off as far as she could see--but now, somehow, the entire band had fit themselves into this little grassy hollow, marching around in a tight circle. There couldn’t be more than thirty of them now, at the very most. Or...twenty? Fifteen? Sweetie looked back and forth, trying to keep track of all of the solemn, striding fae at once. None of them were disappearing or leaving the circle, and yet, somehow, minute by minute the number of marchers grew fewer and the circle grew smaller, drawing impossibly in on itself. Now there were only ten or so--now seven--now five. Sweetie stared at the remaining Fae, determined not to lose track of any of them, and instantly failed, for now there were only four--then three--had she blinked? No. She was sure she hadn’t. Two. One. The last marcher slowly rolled to halt, perhaps three yards from the two changelings, and raised a slender head, starlight glittering in her deep, black eyes. For a moment she stood like that, poised tall and graceful as a fountain of spun glass, and the brittle, piping music of the faeries rose to a wavering crescendo.
And then she was gone. She had never been there at all.
“That...” Sweetie whispered, barely remembering to breath in, “Was awesome. Does it happen often?”
“It happened once,” murmured Bon Bon, still staring at the spot where the lithe Shee had stood, tall and proud, a moment before. There was a strange look in her eyes, and as she spoke her voice slipped a little. “Once, a hundred--a thousand--ten thousand years ago. And sometimes the world remembers that it happened, late one night when the moon was full, and it happens again--or rather, still only happened once, but happens at a different time, and in a different way. Memories everywhere…”
Sweetie yawned, suddenly feeling very heavy and tired. “It… it was nice… to see them dance again, like they…” she yawned again, leaning her head against Bon Bon’s back. The sound of the wind in the now normal night, too comforting to try and fight. “... like they… used...”
Bon Bon looked at Sweetie in surprise, and then gave a short, whinnying laugh. “Oh goodness, Sweetie, I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking; you must be exhausted by now. Up you get.” The mare knelt so that Sweetie could clamber aboard, and with a little grunt, she rose to her hooves again, her wings cradling the little changeling on her back. “That’s enough ethereal wonder and lessons on fae-savvy for one night, I think; you need some rest. Let’s get you back home.” Turning, Bon Bon began to trot back the way they had come, hooves beating out a gentle rhythm on the soft, dew-dappled ground.
Early the next morning, Sweetie and Bon Bon set off for Twilight’s library. Ponies prattled happily nearby and waved hello, birds chirped merrily overhead—and underhoof, the stones murmured and creaked at one another, their strange voiceless voices rising in an excited hum as Sweetie approached and then fading, disappointed, as she passed by. Looking up at the changeling trotting along beside her, Sweetie could tell that she, too, was seeing and feeling just a little bit more than was seen or felt by the ponies around them. Every so often Bon Bon would veer slightly to the right or left, as though stepping out of the way of some invisible passer-by, and once she had come to a stop, eyebrows raised as she looked at an apparently empty patch of road in front of them. She stood there for a moment, surveying the street with a calculating look in her mild blue eyes, and then turned on to a side way that detoured around that section of road.
She offered no explanation and Sweetie asked for none. Just before they had turned, though, Sweetie had heard or smelled—she couldn’t tell which, unnervingly enough—a sinuous, unpleasant sort of softness, shivering in the air and clinging to her bones.
She found herself glad that Bon Bon had made that little detour.
None of the ponies around them, of course, noticed a thing. All they saw was bright sunlight, and all they smelled was the crisp, clean scent of rain-washed air. Rarity, and Twilight, and Scootaloo and Apple Bloom and Babs Seed…they were normal. They were right.
How could they possibly let her into their world?
Although Sweetie had gone through explaining her situation numerous times already, this time it was different. At least the last Twilight had been a changeling, same as her.
’Will she just… accept me?’ Sweetie mused on the way, lost in thought. ’What if she tries to capture me to experiment on? Or what if she and Rarity decide that I captured Sweetie?! What if they—’
“Sweetie,” Bon Bon spoke up. “You’re hyperventilating.”
’Right,’ Sweetie thought, pausing the thought spiral of doom for a moment. ’I’m just going to drive myself crazy if I do this.’ She raised her hoof to her chest and took a deep breath, extending a foreleg outwards as she let it out. 'Think good thoughts. Like muffins. And chocolate martinis.’
Another deep breath and she felt herself in control again.
“Sorry, Bon Bon, I just… I’m just nervous…”
“I’d be surprised if you weren’t. I wasn’t exactly calm when I first explained myself to Twilight, either.” The changeling’s brow furrowed. “Then she nearly blasted me through a wall, and Lyra came within an inch of braining her with the fourth volume of the Encyclopedia Equestriana.
“Everypony settled down eventually, though, and after the dinner a week or so later, we got on quite good terms.” With a smile, Bon Bon continued, “As she’s already accepted me, you shouldn’t—” A moment of thought. Then, with a hint of steel in her voice, “You won’t have trouble. I promise. Chin up, Sweetie.”
Sweetie grimaced before looking up as she noticed they were at the library already. “Well, here we are.”
She raised her hoof and knocked twice.
“Coming! I’m coming!” came a voice from within. Soon enough, the door swung open to admit a young dragon onto the stoop. “Hey! Hi Sweetie! And Bon Bon! What are you two doing here?” Spike asked, looking at them curiously.
“We’re here to see Twilight, Spike,” Sweetie spoke up. “Is she awake yet?”
“Of course I am!” a voice said. “What kind of pony do you think I am?” Twilight trotted up behind Spike, a soft smile touching her lips. “A late sleeper?”
“Remember that one time you cast that sleeping spell, but sneezed and you passed out for two days?” Sweetie asked, watching Twilight approach.
Twilight blinked. “Wait, how do you know about that? I never told that to anypony!”
Sweetie grinned. “I’m just glad it happened to you too and I wasn’t just making stuff up.”
Twilight stared at the filly for several seconds before looking up at Bon Bon. “Okay, I think I’m starting to believe you already.”
“Wait, what’s happening?” Spike asked.
“Oh, Spike!” Twilight chuckled a bit nervously. “I was planning on inviting Rarity over in an hour or so, would you mind going down to Sugarcube Corner and getting some refreshments?”
Spike’s eyes narrowed. “Why do I feel like you’re using Rarity to get rid of me?”
Twilight’s smile grew more nervous. “Well, if I can’t trust my number one assistant with getting what Rarity likes, who else can I ask? Tell you what, since you’re going there already, treat yourself to one or two of Pinkie’s ruby cupcakes.”
Spike’s eyes widened. “Wait, two?”
“Yup! Now, get going Spike, and make sure you get enough for everypony. It’ll be Bon Bon, Rarity, Sweetie Belle and I. And yourself, I guess.”
Spike was already trotting out the door. “I’ll see you in an hour then!”
Once he was out of sight, Twilight sighed. “Okay you two, better come in,” she said, allowing them in and flipping the open sign to ‘closed.’ “We have a lot to talk about.”
It was a very worried Rarity that knocked politely on the library door.
She could hear voices from inside, one of them—surprisingly—being her younger sister’s.
What was she even doing here?
When she heard them keep on talking with no indication that anypony intended to open the door, she knocked again more forcibly, and this time, everypony inside quieted down.
The door opened a bit, and Twilight peeked out, her gaze darting back and forth with all the theatrical shiftiness of a mare who, even if she would never have admitted it to anypony else, had read far more thrillers than was good for her. Her face brightened at the sight of her friend.
“Oh, it’s you, Rarity!” she said with evident relief. “Come on in!”
“Twilight, darling, I’m not entirely sure why I’m here… or why Sweetie Belle is here, for that matter.” Her brow furrowed. “She ought to be in Manehattan, with mother and father. Was there some calamity or other? And why should she have come to you?”
Twilight shook her head. “It’s a bit… more… complicated than that, but not a cause for concern… I think.”
Rarity blinked. “Wait, it is or it isn’t?”
Twilight mulled this over. Then, with great conviction, she declared, “Maybe.”
Rarity regarded her friend for a moment, an unamused expression on her face. “Twilight, you know how I respect and love you, but unless you start making sense I am going to have to—oh, hello Bon Bon!" Rarity stepped forward, looking at her sister, grabbing her face in her hooves and looking into her eyes and mouth. “You seem to be okay! Why aren't you with our parents? And…” Her eyes widened. “You have a cutie mark?!” Rarity hopped around to glance at Sweetie’s flank, ignoring her sister’s nervous shift. “It’s a musical note! And it seems to be… smashing through Twilight’s cutie mark,” she deadpanned. “What does that mean?” she asked, looking up at Twilight.
Sweetie had played through this meeting a hundred times in her mind. She could tell—she knew—what would come next.
Twilight would explain, maybe, or if her own nerves didn’t fail her, Sweetie would blurt out the truth herself. Her sister wouldn’t believe it at first, which would be bad, and then she would believe, which would be worse. Rarity would step back from her, face twisted into a grimace of revulsion as she stared at the changeling golem that had spirited away her real sister. Anger. Fear. Hatred…
“S-step back!” Sweetie stammered, shuffling away from Rarity. “I need some space, okay? Don’t crowd me!”
“Why, Sweetie Belle, what’s wrong?” Rarity asked asked with concern, nevertheless allowing Sweetie to step a bit further away from her. “Did something happen? Are mother and father okay?” she asked Bon Bon.
“Sort of,” Sweetie said from the safety of the other side of the table. “I didn’t… really go to Manehattan, you see.”
“What?” Rarity rounded on Bon Bon, her ears flattened back against her skull in anger. “You! She was here?! Is that why you went to see me last night at such a dreadful hour?”
“I’m very sorry about that, Miss Rarity,” said Bon Bon, stepping forward. “I’m afraid I didn’t tell you all that I could have. Your sister was with my marefriend and I at our home when I came to see you. I know you would have wanted to know where she was, but Sweetie was a nervous wreck, and—well, she’ll explain precisely why she was a wreck, and why she couldn’t have seen you just then herself.” The changeling hesitated, eyeing the simmering unicorn apprehensively, and then continued, “I know I didn’t have the right to decide what was best for her, but she was hurting. With what she told me, I didn’t see another way. I’ll let her explain the rest; it’s her story to tell.”
“We shall see,” Rarity replied icily. Her glare softened as it traveled to Sweetie. “Sweetie… what happened?”
Sweetie Belle looked from Rarity to Twilight, then to Bon Bon. Both Twilight and Bon Bon gave her encouraging smiles and she sighed, before looking back to Rarity. “Sis… I… I’m not your Sweetie Belle.”
Rarity stood there for a moment. “Wait, I think I misheard,” she said, her face a nervous, polite blank. “What was that again, dear?”
“I’m not your Sweetie Belle,” the filly repeated. “I’m a Sweetie from another world, another universe. I’m traveling between worlds trying to find crystal fragments that’ll help me go back home.”
Rarity looked from her to Twilight. “She’s lost her mind.”
Twilight shook her head. “She’s telling the truth.”
"Absurd? Mad? Great Aunt Looneybelle levels of completely nutballs?" Sweetie offered before her tone turned serious. "Rarity, look at me, please..." when her sister’s eyes finally locked with her own, she started speaking again. “I’m here for a short while… your sister, the local Sweetie Belle is fine, she’s still with your parents in Manehattan. I just didn’t want you to think I was her—”
“Are you some sort of changeling?!” Rarity gasped, leaning away from Sweetie Belle. “Have you taken my Sweetie away?”
“I’m…” Sweetie cringed. “I used to be like you and Sweetie Belle… And I promise she’s okay! I just… I have no control over my jumps,” she whispered. “I wish I did.”
Rarity walked around the table until she stood in front of Sweetie Belle. “Show me.”
Sweetie shook her head. “No, please… I don’t think you should—”
“You’re here with my sister’s shape and name,” Rarity growled. “And you say you’re still her and she’s coming back as if nothing happened. Why should I trust you, changeling, if you can’t even—”
And suddenly she was looking not at a little filly, but a young mare.
Slightly taller and thinner than her. She seemed to be carved of marble and stone… and yet it flowed like regular muscle or hair. She didn’t devote too much attention to that, though, as there was something more important, more immediate.
This mare, this strange Sweetie Belle was terrified.
She looked as though she expected Rarity to attack her. This was Sweetie Belle, and yet not. Just like she had been told.
“Oh, Sweetie,” she said softly, pulling the young mare into an embrace. She ignored the slight prickling of the black thorns that poked through her otherworldly sister’s fur. “You look so beautiful.”
Sweetie stiffened under her sister’s embrace, but soon relaxed into it, sniffling. “Thanks, sis.”
“But, what are you going to do?” Rarity asked after a moment. “Are you setting out to find the gem you were talking about?”
Sweetie shook her head. “I need to do some research first… see if I can find a trace of it so I can do it as effectively as possible.”
Rarity sighed. “And our Sweetie will be okay?”
Sweetie Belle nodded. “I’ve met myself in other worlds before… I usually take it pretty well, but it might take some explaining.”
Rarity grimaced at that thought. “I hope she takes it well.”
“That also reminds me…” Sweetie hesitated. “I…I’ll need a cover story for the rest of Ponyville, like I’m a distant cousin or something… I was thinking of telling everypony that I was apprenticing under Bon Bon or Lyra, since I had a calling for magic or cooking or something.” She smiled sheepishly. “Besides, technomancy sounds really interesting…”
“Well...” Rarity hesitated. “I don’t know, there are som—”
“Please?” Sweetie asked, looking up at her with pleading, shimmering, emerald eyes. “Pretty please with a ruby on top?”
Rarity took a step back.
“Please, sis?” the glittering, gem and marble mare pleaded once more.
“O-okay! Fine! I’ll do it!” Rarity said, waving her hooves at her sister, unable to take more . “Just stop begging!”
Sweetie grinned, and her glamour came up, leaving her looking like a simple filly.
“We’ll have to do something about your looks, though,” Twilight said. “When our Sweetie Belle returns, it will complicate things if you look the same. Can you change the way you look, Sweetie?”
Sweetie Belle concentrated a moment, her horn glowing steadily, but nothing happened. She groaned. “No… I think the glamour is more of a memory of who I was when I was a pony… the cutie mark will be a problem too if I can’t change the way I look before Sweetie arrives. I had already gotten my cutie mark when this happened.”
“Chalk dust, maybe,” suggested Bon Bon. “Or talcum powder or something like that.”
Sweetie shook her head. “It’s a very complicated and involved illusion, remember? The reason ponies don’t feel my true self is that it convinces all the other senses that it’s actually fur, that I’m actually that short and all those other details… when I look at myself, I’m not fooled by it… and as far as I know, neither would one of the princesses. It has to be something else. But I can’t cast a spell to change the illusion… if only Trixie were here…”
“Hmm… changing an already existing illusion,” Twilight muttered, standing up and trotting to one of the shelves. “I think I have a spell for that.” She sifted through the books until she found something. “Hm, that one’s not as easy as it looks…” She pouted as she pulled another book, and then another, until she had a veritable tower of books around her. “Aha! Found it! We’ll get you a small medallion or trinket… and I can enchant it with a secondary illusion, making it seem like you have a different mane color.”
“Oh, I have just the thing!” Rarity said proudly, turning her head to rummage through her saddlebags. “Where is it? I just bought it! Aha! Found it~!”Rarity pulled out a small pin with a emerald on it. “I think it will look lovely with your eyes, Sweetie!” Rarity grinned.
Twilight’s magic enveloped the pin and levitated it over. “This is perfect, Rarity!” she exclaimed, carefully evaluating the emerald. “All I need to do is cast that illusion spell and…” Her horn glowed with magic, which was echoed on the pin itself, and after a few seconds, she released it. “Here, Sweetie, try it on.”
Sweetie levitated the pin and slid it into her mane. “I can’t tell,” she complained after a while, looking up and going cross-eyed. “Did it work?”
“Here,” Twilight levitated a small mirror, reflecting a soft blue and green back to her.
“Wow, thanks, Twilight!” Sweetie grinned.
The door slammed open and Spike shuffled in, carrying three or four boxes of pastries. “I’m back! Sorry for the delay. Pinkie didn’t have any ruby cupcakes and I had to wait for them!”
Twilight and the others shared a look, before she smiled at her assistant. “Don’t worry, Spike! You’re just in time. Rarity is already here and I think all of us are hungry!”
“Well, I—” Rarity’s words failed for a moment when she saw the selection. “I-I shouldn’t, but… I guess a lady would be remiss to refuse such hospitality.” Rarity examined a rather delectable-looking meringue cupcake. “I’ll just one of these. And one of these. Oooh… and that one!”
Sweetie sighed and leaned back, casting a quick, grateful look towards Bon Bon before picking out her own selection of cupcakes.
"Hey!" Spike blinked. "Where did Sweetie go?"
"And what exactly are you sorry for?" Bon Bon asked. "Tell me."
“I’m really sorry that the magically-propelled auto-whipper Lyra and I made for you flew out of control and started chasing those squirrels, Bon Bon…” Sweetie apologized for the third time since they had started pulling out the ingredients to make rose water.
She eyed the simple equipment: pots and pans to boil the water and extract the essence of the rose petals’ essence. It required careful monitoring, and very specific temperatures. The pot would contain said petals, a brick, a bowl and water, while on top, the lid of the container would be turned upside down and, with the use of ice-spells, kept cold.
It usually took Bon Bon a while to do this the Earth pony way, but thankfully, she had two unicorns now to help her keep the temperature steady.
“Goodness, Sweetie, you can stop apologizing.” Bon Bon peered at the long thermometer sitting in the pot and adjusted the heat of the little stove. Several of the heart-shaped crystals atop it glimmered, and the red glow of the ceramic plate beneath the pot dimmed marginally. “The squirrels get after my begonias, anyway. Celestia knows why. I don’t think they eat them, but there it is.” She steadied herself on her hind legs, and clamping the frigid lid in her forehooves, hoisted it off the countertop and set it atop the pot, covering the bowl and the submerged rose petals.
Lyra raised an eyebrow. “You do have two unicorns here, y’know. You don’t have to do everything by hoof.” She chuckled. “I guess technically you don’t have to do it by hoof anyway, but…”
“Shush. I like this shape.” The changeling finished twisting the kitchen timer balanced on her hoof to the appropriate time, and set it on the counter beside her. “Sweetie, don’t let that lid get too cold, okay? We just want to condense the rose water, not freeze it.”
“Right!” Sweetie nodded, casting a very simple cooling spell on it. “That good?”
A satisfied nod. “It should. Now, for the moment, we just need to keep a close eye on the thermometer.” She lifted her forehooves from the solid brass bar running the length of the stove’s front, and dropped to all fours. “How did today’s visit with Rarity go?”
Sweetie shuddered. “It was… okay. She asked a lot of questions about my travels. I had to smudge over some of the more colorful moments.” Sweetie kept her spell going, feeling the steam begin to warm up the lid. “I think she’s okay with me being here but she is worried about how her Sweetie will handle it when she comes back… it’s already been a week and I’ve had no luck finding the location of the fragment.”
Bon Bon nodded. “Yes, I was a little surprised that Twilight hadn’t heard anything. Do you know, I think she might have actually stayed up all night going through her books looking for something? She looked terrible when I dropped by yesterday afternoon.”
“Pfeh.” Lyra snorted. “Gonna wear herself out that way. I mean, it’s cool of her and all, but that mare’s got to slow down. She’s a bunch of nerves as it is.”
“Mm,” responded Bon Bon, raising an eyebrow. “Says the mare who I found slumped over a stack of blueprints in the basement this morning, surrounded by five empty coffee mugs and snoring like a manticore with a head cold.” She shook her head, while Lyra made a number of indignant noises under her breath. “But don’t worry, Sweetie. We’ll find it yet.”
“Maybe there aren’t any ponies who know where this crystal is, but just because ponies don’t know doesn’t mean that no one knows. Our, um, acquaintance I told you about earlier—the kelpie—will be coming to dinner on Friday, and we’ll see if she knows anything about it then. You must be very anxious to be on your way, but don’t worry; I’m sure we’ll make some progress soon. Oops, still too hot.” The changeling tapped one of the dials on the stove.
“This friend of yours…” Sweetie hesitated. “You said anything dry sticks to kelpies like her? So, if I happened to have some aluminum foil, and I happened to put it on her and make it invisible… would it stick to her forever? And would she be really angry about it?”
“Angry? Um.” The changeling hesitated. “Not angry, exactly. At this point, I don’t think she’d actually mind having it stuck to her at all, considering how much else she has stuck to her hide. She wouldn’t be angry, but she would be…petty about it, I suppose. She’d never let you forget it. But yes, it would stick to her forever, although if there were any bits poking up you could break or tear them off.”
Rolling her eyes, Lyra said, “Yeah, if you don’t mind breaking a good saw or two. I mean, sure, it’s nice and all to not have her get stuck in the doorway anymore, but she really did a number on my tools. Do we even know how she got that yoke stuck to her?”
“I thought it best not to ask.”
“Ah.” Sweetie nodded, slowly pushing the box of aluminum foil under a nearby table with her left hind hoof. “Well, it’s a good thing that I wasn’t planning on doing that then.”
Lyra chuckled, and Bon Bon looked vaguely confused. “Well...yes, I suppose it is. But why bring it up in the—”
“Forget it, Bonnie, forget it. The kid’s just got a good sense of humor, that’s all.”
Then the kitchen timer trilled out its announcement that the time had come to siphon off the first batch of rose water, and all conversation was suspended in a rush of siphoning, shifting, adjusting, and general hustle and bustle, and by the time things had settled down again, the thread of conversation had been irretrievably lost.
“I may or may not have heard of something like that, maybe. Perhaps. Are you quite certain that you’re inedible?” The kelpie had draped herself over the rim of the bathtub, her long weedy tresses dripping on the damp rags below and her skeletal, pebble-encrusted forelimbs dangling in the air. She tilted her head and grinned, exposing a set of triangular, lizard-like teeth as she gazed speculatively at Sweetie Belle. “I’ve known more than a few individuals who were very adamant on that particular point and ended up being mistaken.”
“She’s made of rock, Aldrovanda,” said Bon Bon as she entered from the kitchen, a rope-suspended tray swaying from her mouth. “I’m reasonably sure she’s not bluffing.”
“I’ll bet she’s just using that as an excuse,” retorted the creature. “And furthermore, I consider your interruption to be in very bad taste. This is our conversation, not yours. I had hoped that you would have had the common decency to—Eeee! Chicken!”
Rolling her eyes, the changeling said, “Yes, chicken.” She lowered her burden to the den table, grabbed the cat food-stuffed cloth chicken from the tray, and tossed it kelpiewards. With a splash and a sound of tearing cloth, both chicken and kelpie disappeared beneath the surface of the water, and Bon Bon smiled apologetically at Sweetie Belle. “Sorry about that. She’ll surface soon, and then hopefully she’ll have something useful to say. She won’t be any help unless she’s fed, though.”
A door slammed elsewhere in the house, and Lyra poked an oil-begrimed face into the room. “Hey Bonnie. Is the Beast fed?”
“Aw, c’mon! I know Sweetie doesn’t care, and I know you don’t care what the Great White Snark thinks. Honestly, it’s not...I mean, look, I know I normally wash up for dinner, but Aldrovanda’s already kinda thrown formality out the window...What if I do the laundry for this...Oh, alright,” she finished, withering under Bon Bon’s steady stare, and trotted off to the kitchen. “You haven’t seen the last of Grimeface the Great, though. I shall return! I shall wreak my revenge! And in the meantime, yes, I’ll get that smudge on my horn, don’t worry.”
Bon Bon turned her head back towards the den and its occupants, chuckling to herself. “Crazy mare,” she said, to no one in particular. She gave her head a little shake, and smiled wryly at Sweetie Belle. “So, you had some time to talk with Aldrovanda while I was getting dinner ready. Any questions?”
“She hinted that she had seen something similar to the fragment,” Sweetie said after a moment. “But then she asked if I was edible and it deviated from that. I’m debating whether or not to increase the iron in my blood with a spell and let her take a bite.”
Bon Bon shook her head, smiling. “She loves to pretend otherwise, but she wouldn’t bite. She may have been vicious when she was younger—she’s probably eaten a few ponies in her time, ugly as it is to think of—but as far as I can tell, now she only goes after prey that won’t put up a struggle. I’ve never seen her eat anything but carrion.” The changeling raised an eyebrow. “Mind, she’s not picky about what kind of carrion. She’s hinted in the past that one of the reasons she’s an outcast among the Shee is that she actually ate some crown prince or other of the kelpie clan before a barrow could be dug for him. Of course, she could be lying.”
There was a splash behind them. “Calumny! Most vile and base of calumnies! Refute it, Bon Bon, I demand it.”
“You’d prefer to be a cannibal than a liar, then?” asked Bon Bon. “Really?”
“Naturally,” said the kelpie, her voice full of honest surprise. “Wouldn’t you?”
Bon Bon’s eye twitched. From the anteroom outside came the sound of Lyra’s hooves, and a moment later the unicorn trotted into the room. She glanced over the scene, taking in the innocent, querying expression on Aldrovanda’s face and Bon Bon’s stammering attempts to form a coherent sentence, and groaned. “Oh, come on! Kelpie, you broke her already?” She draped a hoof over Bon Bon’s shoulder. “Don’t try to come up with a response, filly. Whatever she said, you know there’s no sane answer. Yo, Sweetie Belle. Your turn to play verbal volleyball with the water pony. Bonnie here’s gonna need some time to get herself back into gear.”
“So…” Sweetie rubbed the back of her head with her hoof awkwardly. “What do ponies taste like?” She shrugged. “I mean, Nightmare Moon told me Twilight tasted like Blueberries, but I’m not certain I believe her.”
“Well, now!” trilled the kelpie. “Bon Bon, you should take note. This little morsel shows a proper interest in my experiences. You’ve never asked me what pony tastes like—or changeling, for that matter—and it’s always pained me. Coldhearted, I call it.” Before Bon Bon had a chance to respond, the kelpie chuckled nastily to herself and turned back to Sweetie. With a curt little nod, she said, “Beaver. Ponies taste like beaver, only not as tender. I don’t know where this Nightmare Moon character got that berry comparison; berries are nasty things. Too sour, too sweet, and they make my fangs ache.”
Sweetie made a face. “I don’t like eating animals. Brings back bad memories.”
With a shrug, the kelpie said, “And I don’t like eating plants. We all have these little personality quirks.” She allowed herself to slide back into her bathtub, her long mane slithering up over the tub’s rim and into the water like a slimy green waterfall, flowing in reverse. Goatish eyes glimmered just above the water’s surface. “But your line of questioning confuses me, tidbit. First crystals, and now the taste of pony? Forgive me my obtuseness, but I confess to being baffled by the connection between the two.”
“I’m trying to build rapport before I am reduced to using alteration spells to transform the bubbles of oxygen in the water into little iron fragments,” Sweetie elaborated. “I figure the pony way is better than the way my… captors… chose to pry information out of me.”
The kelpie blinked once or twice, and then burst into shrill, cackling laughter, the detritus clinging to her sides clinking and clattering. “Rapport? Bless your juicy little heart, you really were not prepared for this at all, were you? For shame, Bon Bon! And you too, Technopony! Leaving the poor wee beastie to blunder about with altruism and nonsense like that.” Still chuckling, she said, “I like threats, morsel. Threats and I, we understand one another. There is a beautiful golden solidity to them that simplifies life wonderfully. Don’t try to use psychology on me. A renegade I may be, and a half-traitor to the Unseelie Court, perhaps—but unlike my good frenemy the race-traitor here, I am Fae down to my very bones. Give me flint and blood, and save the soppy squishy sap for the livestock.” With a snaggletoothed grin, the kelpie rolled up and over, twisting so that her head was draped upside-down over the bathtub’s rim. “So. Bubbles of iron, eh? Sounds excruciating. I shall dispense with the tricks, then. Honesty shall be my byword. You’re looking for a crystal, yes?”
“Purple, magical, possibly feeling otherworldly,” Sweetie said, narrowing her eyes a little. “Yes.”
“Mm, yes. Yes.” The kelpie considered, her eyes half-lidded. “A purple, magical crystal with a possibly otherwordly feel. A crystal.” She yawned. “A thousand apologies, but nothing comes to mind. Sorry. I’d wish you good luck, but as that might lead to less luck for me, I’ll just express a vague desire that you experience an amount of luck that isn’t very far below average.” Raising an eyebrow, the black, cluttered creature said, “Now, if you were looking for several hundred thousand such crystals—or maybe a few tens of ‘em? I was never good with numbers—I might be able to help you. But as it is, I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of such a thing.” With quiet swish of water, Aldrovanda disappeared beneath the surface of the water, grinning all the way down.
“Figures you wouldn’t know,” Sweetie sighed. “I was warned that you were pretty much useless, but I guess I told myself it couldn’t be that bad. I mean, you were supposed to be one of the few informed fae around here.”
“Hold up, Sweetie.” Bon Bon trotted over to the bathtub and gave the side a sharp rap with her hoof. Disgruntled bubbles emerged from the water’s surface, but no kelpie. “She’s not telling you everything—or rather, she is, but she’s doing it deceptively.” She gave the tub another rap with her hoof, and this time had a better result. With a slop and splash, Aldrovanda’s refuse-thickened head emerged from the water. The changeling scowled at her. “What do you mean, there are many crystals like the one’s she’s looking for? Unless you’re talking about amethysts—and I know you aren’t, don’t try to pretend otherwise—that shouldn’t be possible. Where are these crystals? What’s special about them?”
“My dear Bon Bon, you are a mass of suspicion. You do know that, yes? I know you have problems with that whole self-awareness thing, so I thought I should check.”
Bon Bon scowled. “We’re not talking about my self-awareness or lack thereof. We’re talking about the crystal or crystals you know about.”
“Fine, fine,” said Aldrovanda, rolling her eyes. “I thought that a little give and take was part of every proper conversation, but naturally I bow to your superior knowledge. Do pardon me for my attempt to encourage the feast of reason and the flow of soul.”
“Kelpie, give me a straight answer or it’s off-brand cat food Friday after next.”
Aldrovanda froze. “You wouldn’t.”
With a faint, venomous hiss, the kelpie said, “That really is low, Bon Bon. Truly. I am appalled at—Yes, okay, fine! Many crystals, as I said, rather perfectly matching your little protégé’s description. I’ve not seen them myself—I’ve never been much of one for trooping, and like to stick to my own swamp—but I understand they’re all piled up in the middle of Lake Loughleah a few leagues runward along a leyline that goes through Crúbbriste Barrow. The tale goes that there are so many of them that the pile rises up out of the water as an entire island.” She licked her fangs nervously.
“Off-brand cat food. And I’ll hide the Neightszche you’ve been reading.”
“You are a positive brute, Bon Bon. But really, there’s not much more to tell. Just, ah, one little last detail. A minor setback. I’m sure you, in your ingenuity, could find a way around it.” With a wide, innocent smile, the kelpie continued, “The lake is practically an open pit that drops right into Faerie. Even morta—” A flicker of something almost like pain crossed the kelpie’s face, and she corrected herself. “—non-Fae, rather, who drew too close to it would find themselves drawn in.” Her brow wrinkled in thought. “Curiously, some of the stories say that ponies that vanish from the mundane world don’t end up in Faerie. They just disappear, it seems, and sometimes reappear a second or minute or a year after—or before—they approached the place in the first place. Wild tales, no doubt. I wouldn’t give them much credence. You probably would, of course, but your follies are hardly my concern.”
“You’re right. They’re not.” Bon Bon frowned. After a few moments, she looked up at Sweetie. “It doesn’t sound very much like what you’re looking for, I know, but it sounds more like it than anything else we’ve come across. I’d be happy to help guide you there, if you want to see if there’s anything in it. Lyra?”
“Yeah, sure, I’d be fine with coming along too,” answered the unicorn, rising to her hooves and stretching. “Besides, there’s just—there’s something about that story. I dunno what, but it’s like there’s something really obvious that’s just out of reach…” She shook her head. “Anyhoo, I wouldn’t mind taking a gander at the thing, from a safe distance, mind.”
Sweetie considered the kelpie’s words. “A lake where a crystal might be sending ponies somewhere else? It could be related. Twilight’s fragments have arrived in some worlds several hundred years before my arrival… and this one might be distorting reality enough to send ponies to other places and times.”
“From what you’ve told us, it sounds like Faerie is either weaker or better at concealing itself in the other worlds you’ve visited,” said Bon Bon. “And Faerie is, well—it’s a hole in reality, sort of. An unreal Otherworld that’s been forced into existence, straining and tearing at the real world. It might be that, if this island is related to one of Twilight’s fragments, it’s having a stronger effect here than in the other places you’ve been because reality is simply more fragile here, and easier to ‘break.’”
Sweetie nodded. “The last fragment was in possession of one of the True Fae of that world… and the nature of Faerie there was already twisted… but I don’t think the fragment had been there too long before my arrival. If the fragment has been here for a long time, it might have also adapted to Faerie’s reality-disrupting power.”
“The crystals,” said Aldrovanda, “which are plural despite your admirable and impressive denial, have been there for at least nine hundred years. The púca who told me the tale said he had originally come from perhaps a hundred years after your moon princess had her little tantrum and was sent off to sit in a corner and think about what she’d done, but had slipped into Faerie one day and come out again to find that nearly a thousand years had passed in the mundane world.”
“Well, we’ll find out, won’t we?” Sweetie Belle retorted, giving her an annoyed look. “And if there’s more than one fragment in there, then my life will be easier anyway.”
“If the stories are true, little one, there are enough fragments there to build a pile of mentors the size of a small hill. Just how big was your world’s talky purple pony, anyway? But stay, I’m being unjust. I’m sure she was just—what’s the pony phrase? Big-boned? A curious medical condition, that, which strange to say I’ve never observed in any of the bones I’ve seen. And I have seen quite a few.”
“Maybe it’s related to magical power rather than physical size,” Sweetie mused, caught in the moment. “I never thought of that.”
“Hmph,” pouted the kelpie, sticking out her lower lip. “Bon Bon, she won’t snark back at me. She doesn’t give me exasperated looks like you and your not-a-pet do, and as if I weren’t already suffering enough, she doesn’t even smell like food. I don’t like her. Make her go away!”
“No,” said Bon Bon, scowling. Aldrovanda clacked her pebble-encrusted forehooves together in applause.
“There! That, see? That look! With the gritted teeth and the ears and the narrowed eyes! She doesn’t do that enough.”
“My heart bleeds for you, Aldrovanda. Do you have to talk right now? Couldn’t you postpone it ‘til later, or... or earlier, or never? Or any time that isn’t now?”
“Earlier?” grinned the kelpie. “But what do you think would ever make me stop? I’d just be talking twice as much by this point in—”
“Time!” shouted Lyra, upon which she promptly lost her balance on the chair she had twisted herself around and tumbled forward with a crash. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine, Bon Bon. But what Aldrovanda just said, that—I think that’s it! Talking twice as much! In time! You know, like a rope, with—in a loop, back and forth!”
There was a prolonged silence. At length Aldrovanda raised a pebbly hoof, poked Bon Bon in the shoulder, and said, “So, she’s crazy now. Are you going to keep her, or can I eat her now?”
“No, no, no.” Lyra shook her head. “Bogface—” Aldrovanda stuck her tongue out “—said that ponies that vanish near the lake sometimes come back before they arrived in the first place, right? They get looped in time. Well, what if you had something a little sturdier than a pony—a crystal, say—that got dropped in the same place? If you let it stay there long enough, eventually it might slip out of time and then show up again before it left in the first place—and if it sat there long enough, it might eventually overlap with its own past self.
“And then if that happened again, and again, and again, with the same crystal just sitting there but slipping backwards and forwards and sideways through time, it would eventually—well, not eventually, but it would—it would build up across time, you see? Like how a string looped back on itself over and over again looks like lots of little strings, but it really isn’t. The crystal arrives here, snaps a hole in our world’s already kinda battered reality, and then ends up spreading itself across—Celestia, who knows how long. Millions of years, maybe.
“Maybe the crystal hasn’t even arrived yet, and the island Aldrovanda’s talking about is made up all of past echoes of it. Maybe...Oh, wow. Hay, I don’t care whether you’re going or not, Sweetie; I’ve got to see this. I’m gonna have to bring a thaumometer too, some equipment, maybe see if I can get a stable time loop going…”
Sweetie’s mouth opened and closed before she turned to look at Bon Bon. “Bonnie… she’s a genius! She could be correct! It’s an infinite loop of fragments! Or whatever crystal is powering that! We have to go, even if it’s not Twilight’s fragment, I need to see that! Can you imagine the possibilities for research?!”
“Hah! That’s my apprentice! C’mon, Bonnie, we gon’ do ourselves some science!” crowed Lyra. Then, as an afterthought, she added, “Oh, by the way, kiddo. ‘Bonnie’’s my nickname for this gal. No sweat, just for future reference.”
“I’ll leave a note for the local Sweetie so she’s aware,” Sweetie deadpanned, before smiling. “But really, we have to see this place! It sounds like that world I spent trapped in repeating the same day over and over.”
Bon Bon raised a hoof and massaged her forehead. “And I thought I’d sworn off adventures...Ow! Okay, Lyra, okay, I admit it is an amazing idea. I am curious about it.”
“Good. Thought I was gonna have to disown you for a second there.”
“We’ll need to think about how to go about it, though; it does sound like it’s dangerous, and if we want to get a crystal—the crystal—the crystal, from somewhere in its timeline—Oh my head.” The mare gave a repeat performance of her forehead-massaging routine. “Anyway, we’ll need to think about our approach before we go. Let’s see, provisions, shelter—I think I can beg an extra tent off Sparkler, she’s always going off camping—and what about Rarity, Sweetie? Would she want to come?”
Sweetie hesitated. “I… I’ve been getting along with her but, I dunno.” She bit her lip. “I’d rather not have her with us… we don’t know what type of dangers we might face and Rarity is not ready for the Fae.”
“Probably also not ready to know that I’m a changeling when it comes to that,” said Bon Bon. “And given what we’d be doing and where we’d be going, and that I’d have to guide us… You’re right. I hadn’t thought of that. We’ll have to tell her something.”
“I didn’t understand most of that, but I gathered that lying is involved,” declared Aldrovanda. “You could always take the moral high road now, Bon Bon, and resort to cannibalism. You would be astounded how many problems it can solve. Or, I suppose, you could always revert to type, and live down to your name.” A fanged smile. “Your true name.”
Bon Bon scowled, but made no response, her brow furrowed. At length, and in a faint, whispery singsong voice, she murmured
“Tell all the truth, but tell it slant
Success in circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;
“As lightning to the yearlings eased
With explanation kind,
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every mare be blind.”
“Well,” she continued in a normal tone, “I think you’re right, Sweetie, that we’ll have to be careful. We can’t keep it a secret either, though; just vanishing off into the night isn’t going to work. Perhaps ‘camping’ for Rarity, and ‘trip to retrieve fragment’ for Twilight, without mention of any interesting details? This will be risky, after all, and I don’t want to lure more ponies into danger if we can help it. Mind, we’ll have to tell Twilight about it when we get back, no matter what; if it’s anything like what Aldrovanda says, she’d never forgive us for keeping something like that from her.” The changeling chuckled, a wistful smile on her face. “She’s become quite a friend, really. We didn’t used to have friends, Lyra and I; because I was...well, me, we couldn’t really manage it.” She shook her head. “I’m sorry, I’m blathering. What do you think, Sweetie? Would that work?”
Sweetie frowned. “Was it… hard? Finding friends?” She glanced at Aldrovanda then at Bon Bon. “How many ponies would actually accept you, if you came out?”
The changeling shrugged. “At first? Few to none. Even Lyra didn’t immediately accept me.”
With a nod, Lyra added, “I needed to understand first. I needed to know it was her.”
“Yes,” agreed Bon Bon, “That was what did it, I think. Knowing I was me, and not something else. Knowing that no matter what the ‘what’ was, the ‘who’ was still the same. And it was the same way with Twilight, although naturally it took much longer for her to understand—and even then, I think she would have been suspicious for far longer if she hadn’t been able to see Lyra’s trust in me.”
She started to kneel to bring herself level with Sweetie’s glamour-shrouded form, then remembered that it was an illusion and not a true shift and rose again with a small laugh at her mistake. “They’ll accept you when they understand that it is you, Sweetie, even if you have to realize that some may never quite do that. The ponies that matter, though, will. Rarity will. Your friends will. You’ve already seen that they will, because Rarity—or a pony quite like her—already has, here in this world. And as they accept you, you’ll find yourself able to be your true self to more and more ponies.
“It’s not a life quite like that of a normal pony, maybe, but it’s still very much a full, happy life, and one worth living. You’ll still have friends, and you’ll still make new ones.” Glancing over to the bathtub-ensconced kelpie, Bon Bon added, “And then there’s Aldrovanda…”
“I’m an abomination!” said the kelpie, cheerfully.
“Pretty much.” The changeling shook her head. “And yet, in a weird way, even she’s made… I don’t know if ‘friends’ is the right term, but there are ponies she’s not on bad terms with. Twilight tolerates her.”
“I kinda like her,” said Lyra, with a shrug. “She’s fun to argue with. And I think she’s good for you, Bon Bon. She gives you someone you can be really rude to without worrying about hurting their feelings, and you, miss Polite-to-Any-and-All-Ponies, really need that sometimes.”
Sweetie grimaced, but finally shook her head and slumped down a little. “I guess I’ll have to deal with it,” she muttered. “But what’ll you say if ponies ask where we’re going? Since you’re still trying to lie a little low, shouldn’t you have some story ready? Maybe we can say that we’re visiting an old friend of Lyra’s from out of town? Say it’s something boring, like studying… uh… what’s a boring subject?”
Bon Bon nodded. “I was thinking that if Twilight was just given the truth to tell—or to tell slant, as it were—”
“Changeling, I commend you. That is an excellent euphemism.”
“Can it, kelpie. I thought she’d be able to answer any questions well enough, but better this way, perhaps. Visiting a family friend it is, then.”
“But not one of mine,” piped up Lyra. “Oh, sure, they’re all boring as a pile of deadwood, but if we’re going to be playing games with words I say we go all the way. We’ll be visiting Bon Bon’s home town, full of stuff that means a lot to her and means nothing to us. We’ll just neglect to mention that that hometown happens to be Tír na nÓg, roiling chasm of unreality and source of all that is eldritch and fae, including my main mare here.”
Raising an eyebrow, Bon Bon said, “I really don’t think I’m all that eldritch.”
“Sure you are!” Lyra gave her fiancée a hearty slap on the back. “Why, many’s the night I’ve woken up next to you, screaming in mortal terror.”
“After having the dream about the parade and the worms?”
“Well, yes. But that’s a minor detail.”
“Bon Bon’s family it is.” Sweetie raised an eyebrow. “And… a parade with worms that makes you wake up screaming? This I have to hear, from my otherwise fearless mentor. Although, I guess it would explain why the neighbors never come rushing to aid us whenever something explodes.”
“That,” said Bon Bon, “and there were also one or two accidents. After Silver Note next door was whisked to within an inch of his life by a prototype egg beater—I know, Lyra, I know, one of these years you’ll get that design right—we sort of stopped getting housewarming visits.”
Sweetie couldn’t help but smirk. “Okay then, but one day you’ll have to tell me that story. And the one about the worms.”
“How about two days? That’s about how long it’ll take us to get to the crystals. Er, crystal. Crystals. Something,” said Bon Bon. “Plenty of time for storytelling while we walk. Sound good?”
Sweetie smiled. “Sounds good! I’d better tell Rarity.” She turned and started walking out of the room, but paused and looked over her shoulder. “Oh, and it was nice to meet you, Aldrovanda,” she said. “It’s nice to see I’m not the only fae creature that looks like rocks.” She closed the door behind her before she could hear the kelpie’s reply.
Droplets of dew shimmered along overburdened blades of grass and sank wetly into the fetlocks of the three mares as they hiked up the summit of a long, low hill outside Ponyville. The tentpoles slung awkwardly across their backs gleamed in the morning Sun as their saddlebags, bulging at the seams with supplies and provender, swayed to and fro at their sides. Had she been traveling alone, Sweetie might not have seen much more than a typical Ponyville pastoral scene, quiet and peaceful, surrounding her. A very different and strange world, though, unfolded around her as she walked along, its bizarre realities unfolding along the words of the mare trotting to her left.
That different and strange world had absolutely nothing to do with Faerie. Bon Bon was walking to Sweetie’s right, and was currently embroiled in a disagreement with her eyelids as to whether they should be up or down, having stayed up until three AM the night before trying to figure out the most economical packing method. It was Lyra who was spinning strange worlds and realities out of the mundanity surrounding her, flinging enthusiastic gestures left and right as they ambled along.
“—So, that outcropping over there, right? Those rocks? You’re gonna want to look out for those. They’re rubbish themselves, but you often find some really nice piezothaumic geodes in those kinda deposits, and those things are nice. All the crystals pointing in towards one another give you some really great focusing effects, and because they all grew from the same seed the crystal lattice is interlinked enough that you don’t have to worry about de Hockland discontinuities bustin’ up the resonance. Notice how the grass nearby is a little greener and thicker than everywhere else? I’ll bet you biscuits to bits that that’s ‘cause they’re feeding off the magical flux there.”
“Or maybe,” said Bon Bon, blinking bleary eyes, “because the grass is nearly underneath a rock, nopony’s been able to graze there.”
“Shush, you. I like my explanation better.”
“Suit yourself,” chuckled the changeling mare. She raised her head, sniffed the air, and frowned. “We should stay away from that long, low hill up ahead. It’s not...right. We’d better skirt southward of it, the going’s easier there.”
Sweetie, who had been looking at the place Lyra had been rambling about and wondering whether she should tell her mentor she could just ask the crystals to grow exactly like that or not, and leaning towards a definite ‘no’ the more Lyra rambled on, followed Bon Bon’s line of sight and frowned.
She glanced from the hill to Bon Bon and back to the hill, trying to see what her changeling mentor had obviously detected. “I still can only feel the barest of hints of anything Fae here and you pick it up like nothing.” She shook her head, giving up on her scrutiny. If anything, it just made her feel even stranger. “If I ever get as good as you, I’ll consider writing it down in my resume. I’m sure it’ll be a great incentive for a scholarship at most arcane universities. So, is it always best to take the easier way around here? In the Hedge, it would most likely be a trap.”
“A trap?” Bon Bon shook her head. “There are no traps out here—not intentional ones, anyway. The Unseelie Court has been breaking apart for too long, eating away at itself in the dark, to bother with traps. Chrysalis’ attack on Canterlot may be the very last big thing they ever do.” She raised her head and looked back across the waving stalks of dittany and fennel in the lowlands ahead at the low sloping shape of the distant barrow, and her face clouded. “But just because there are no Shee bothering with big, elaborate traps anymore doesn’t mean that the wildlands are safe, or that Faerie is something you’d want to tangle with. It’s like...imagine a castle left over from the Griffon Wars, all stone and battlements and towers, that’s been crumbling away for centuries. It used to be a dangerous place, because the ponies who lived there made sure it was; they built traps, dug pits, made machines and tunnels and sharp, fast…” The changeling waved a forehoof vaguely. “You know, things. Fast sharp pointy things.”
Bon Bon gave her a look, and continued, “But now that’s all gone, all rusted or collapsed or rotted away.” She sighed. “But the castle is still dangerous. Maybe even more than it was before. It’s just so big, and everything that’s been holding it together has been breaking away, bit by bit, century by century, millenium by millenium…
”When it was new, a rock might have been thrown at you. Now, if you lean on the wrong piece of masonry or step in the wrong place, half the castle could come down around your ears.”
Lyra cleared her throat apologetically. “Sorry,” said the unicorn. “She gets wordy when she’s sleep-deprived.”
“Mmph,” retorted Bon Bon.
Sweetie nodded. “I understand… but in a way I like it better than the other fae world I discovered. At least the world here is not actively trying to ensnare you and make you suffer.” She shuddered. “Or turn you into something horrible.”
She followed the other two mares in silence for a bit before finally asking. “If there’s so much of the fae around here… why do so many ponies ignore it? I’m very sure that things were different in many other worlds, the changelings there were just, you know, creatures, but not other-worldly like here or in the last world.”
“It’s not that they ignore it, exactly. Most members of the Four Clans keep themselves aloof from ‘mortals;’ they’d consider it a loss of honor, almost, to be noticed by anything that isn’t as exalted as themselves.” A bitter note had crept into the changeling’s voice, but it faded as she continued, “And for the rest, well...like I said, it’s decaying. Most of the remnants of Faerie are little more than wraiths, now, and ponies generally don’t have the senses to see them in the first place. The occasional pony may be taken by a kelpie, or waylaid by a redmane, or...well, or mimicked by a changeling, but that happens so rarely, now, that for the most part ponies simply don’t know that the Court still exists, or that it ever existed at all. It’s dangerous to ponies that go to places where the old memories linger strongest—the castles, so to speak—but for the most part, it’s just...gone. It’s an empire of ghosts and memories.”
Sweetie grimaced. “It feels like there’s always so much potential for wonder, and here we are, ponies and changelings and fae, just… wasting it. It’s sad.”
“My mare here,” declared Lyra, “is going on three hours of sleep, and she is a big ‘ol wad of gloom right now. Don’t you let her get you down. Old things are dying, old worlds passing away, and old fabulosities are going kerblooey—but what else is new? Look, Sweetie. Get your noggin out of the shadows and look. Look at that green grass. Look at that Sun—well, don’t look right at it, can’t have you blinding yourself, but you know what I mean. Look at them purty clouds. We’ve got a whole world here, and it’s always breaking itself apart and remaking it. Here, lemme ‘splain you something. Lemme show you what I mean. The Unseelie Court’s vanishing now, and the Seelie Court vanished—Bonnie?”
“About fourteen hundred years ago, I think.”
“Right. Bingo. And before that the old Equestrian Empire died out when Celestia and Luna showed up and started Sunning and Mooning all by their own selves, and before that Unicornia way up in frozen Hippoborea got froze, and before that, and before that, and before that…” She shrugged. “Point is, if you get all bogged down in what’s dying and forget to look at what’s being born, you are going to be one hay of a sad sack. We’re alive, the Sun’s shining, and the air’s clean. Breathe it in!”
Sweetie chuckled. “I get it, no gloom and doom.” She smiled at the pair. “You know, if I ever find somepony to love, I hope I can have a relationship like you two have.” She frowned. “I guess I could always try to date one of those rock golems that attacked me a few worlds ago...”
“From your description they didn’t sound very appealing,” said Bon Bon. “Though maybe if you forced one of them into a tuxedo, with some nice cufflinks and spats…”
Lyra raised an eyebrow. “Hey, I’m the jokey one.”
“I can’t let you have all the banter, dearheart.” The changeling turned to Sweetie Belle with a smile. “But I wouldn’t give up on flesh and blood just yet, Sweetie. After all, I am what I am, and yet Lyra is perfectly normal.”
Silence fell. Lyra glanced at Bon Bon. Bon Bon glanced at Lyra. They considered one another for some moments, and then they both simultaneously exploded into laughter. At length, Bon Bon corrected herself, “Well, heh, not normal, maybe, but abnormal in all the right ways—and very much a pony.”
Sweetie pouted. “But… imagine the possibilities!” Sighing dramatically, she looked towards a distant mountain. “I think that mountain over there has a very nice voice, and I wouldn’t have to worry about where it’s going.”
“True, true,” mused Lyra. “I’ll granite your point.”
Bon Bon clapped a hoof over her face. “Lyra…”
“It’s schist, I’d worry about them being coal-hearted, y’know?”
“I mean, I look on you almost as a gneiss, and agate to tell you, I’d hate to see you—”
The unicorn grinned. “Fine, fine. You win. I’ll lonsdaleite.”
“Lyra, I...I…” Bon Bon trailed off, frowning, and then concluded. “...I don’t get it.”
“Nothing to get, I just like lonsdaleite. Real spiffy allotrope.”
“So…” Sweetie ventured. “This… Lachhhh-something, anything else you can tell me about it, Bon Bon? It’s been bugging me for a while now, why would the fragment send ponies all over time for no reason?”
Bon Bon directed one last parting eye-roll at Lyra, who beamed in response, and turned to Sweetie. “Loughleah, you mean? Honestly, I don’t know. If they were just being trapped in Faerie, I wouldn’t be surprised, but as it is? This way, I think, the flutes are quieter. Watch out for that thornbush.” Her brow furrowed. “But back to your question. I suppose we don’t know what exactly is happening to the ponies who come too close to the lake. Aldrovanda said they disappear and then reappear, but what they see from their point of view—whether it all happens in an instant, or whether there’s time in between—that’s not clear. My guess would be that they do go somewhere, simply because they do end up traveling through time. I don’t know of any way to do that that doesn’t involve an otherworld with a different kind of time, but then,” she laughed, “I don’t really know much about time travel.”
“I want to know about time travel,” interposed Lyra, “but I can’t say I know any more right now. I dunno. Maybe if they aren’t going to Faerie, they’re going to other worlds like the ones you’ve visited, Sweetie? That’d be kinda cool. Don’t know if it’s true, but it’d be cool.”
Sweetie gave Lyra a look. “Sometimes. Other times… not so cool.”
Bon Bon frowned and gave her marefriend a light smack upside the head, and the unicorn’s face fell. “Oh, yeesh. I’m so sorry, kiddo, I didn’t—I mean, I know it’s been Tartarus for you. I wasn’t thinking. You’re right, if that’s what’s actually happening—yeah, that would be very extremely not cool at all.” She thought for a moment. “But hey, if that is what’s happening, and it sends ponies to different worlds...what sends them back?”
“The Shee fall in and out of Faerie more or less on a whim, and sometimes less than that,” said Bon Bon. “But I don’t know of any other Otherworlds, and I can’t imagine that a place that wasn’t like that, right on the edge of not existing at all, would be something that would be so easy to slide right out of again.” She crouched and jumped over an old, gnarled log lying in their path, its crumbling bark thick with soft, bristling moss and slender fungal stalks, and gestured back to it after she had cleared it. “That wasn’t easy for me to go over, but I never came close to doing anything but hop over a log; hopping out of a universe, no matter how one got in, doesn’t seem like it’d be an easy thing to do. You certainly haven’t found it easy, Sweetie, given the trouble you’ve had to go through to get those fragments.”
Sweetie cringed. “It’s worse. I think I had it easy until the last couple of worlds. I don’t even want to think how things will go from now on.” She looked at the sky for a few seconds. “If I don’t find Twilight’s fragment soon, I have no idea what to do.”
“Then we’ll just have to make sure we find it,” said Bon Bon, decisively. “We’ll do our best, Lyra and I, to make sure that you get the fragment here, whether it’s off in Loughleah or somewhere else entirely. What’s more, we’ll see to it that when you do move on, you’re ready to handle whatever else this...this curse throws at you.”
“What she said,” nodded Lyra. “And honestly, the more I think about it, the surer I get that this lake we’re headed to really has the fragment. I mean, it all fits too well; a crystal just like you describe, stuck in a place that twists and squishes time, that sends ponies off to different worlds…” She paused. “Well, I guess technically it doesn’t, necessarily, it’d be the lake that—that…” The unicorn trailed off, her eyes widening. After a moment she continued, “But say, what if it does? I mean, I know in the other universes nopony but you could use the fragments to world-hop, but maybe here’s different? What if the ponies who vanished managed to absorb a fragment for a bit, got carted off, and then got dragged back? What if...what if…Bah. Too many what-ifs.” Lyra shook her head irritably. “Thought I was on to something there.”
Sweetie smiled. “Well, at least I know you two will help me when the time comes. And that is a really good thing to know.”
“Bet on it, kiddo,” grinned Lyra. “Right, Bonn—Bon Bon?” She cantered to a halt and looked back. The changeling had come to a halt some steps behind them, her lips pursed and her ears half-flattened in thought. At the sound of Lyra’s voice she looked up, and stepped slowly forward.
“I’m sorry, Lyra, I was just thinking about what you just said. No,” she replied, in answer to Lyra’s half-asked question, “I don’t think other ponies are absorbing the crystal—if it is just one crystal looping back and forth, one pony taking it should cut off the timeline right there, and nopony would be able to absorb it afterwards. But, well… it’s strange. It’s strange that ponies shouldn’t be sent to Tír na nÓg, which would be much easier to reach even for a pony than an entirely different world. It’s strange that they should vanish and come back at different times, as though they were shifting between realities. It’s strange that the lake should behave differently towards ponies and Shee.”
Bon Bon raised her head and looked at Sweetie Belle. “And it’s strange that none of us have thought about what the fragments really are. They can be pieces of Twilight’s mind, can’t they, Sweetie? Parts of what make her her? What would happen if she found herself stranded in a hole in reality, a mountain of magic, with thousands of years to learn how to work with it? No matter what her shape, if she was even a little bit there… what would she do?”
“I-I don’t know,” Sweetie confessed. “Some of them are completely silent, or give no indication of awareness, but then there’s a few, like the one in Blueblood’s maze that was able to form an illusion of Twilight’s body and was able to speak and interact like any other pony. All the fragments have been different so far.” She frowned and thought for a moment. “I don’t see why one fragment would send ponies to other worlds. Twilight herself didn’t have that power…”
“Well, that wasn’t quite what I was suggesting,” replied Bon Bon. “I don’t think Twilight’s doing this to other ponies; if this is the fragment, then its arrival in our world, with its fragile difference between real and not-real, could have torn a hole from here to halfway across the, um…”
“Metaverse,” supplied Lyra, helpfully.
“Thank you, Lyra. The metaverse. If that’s what happened, then anypony—or any Shee—who went near the place would risk falling into the ‘hole,’ and coming out Celestia knows where. Most likely Faerie, simply because it’s closest. But Faerie isn’t, well...it’s not a good place for ponies. The things there aren’t friendly.”
Speaking somewhat deliberately, as if she wasn’t sure she trusted her own words, Bon Bon continued, “Now, maybe if that’s true, and maybe if it’s also true that the Twilight made up of that one fragment, or of the fragment folded back on itself, has gotten some control of the magic around her, and could sense other ponies falling into these horrible, horrible places, well…”
“I think I get it,” said Lyra. “Twilight’s a good pony.”
“Exactly. She’s good. She doesn’t like to see ponies get hurt, and if she could help them, she would. Maybe, if all those other maybes are correct—”
“And that’s a whole lot of maybes,” added Lyra.
“—then maybe if she can’t stop them from falling out of this world, she can at least help guide them into other worlds that are safe and good for them—and eventually, when the time is right, bring them back again. Maybe.”
Sweetie nodded. “We can only hope.”
Sweetie followed Bon Bon and Lyra through the wild, tangled woods beyond Ponyville, struggling past the tough, looping greenery springing up from the ground beneath and trailing down out of the sunlit canopy overhead. She could feel the tiny crystal domains within the rocks twisting to follow her, and even the quartz spicules in the thick, strongly scented grass along their path were bending and swaying at her passage, twittering to themselves in shrill, mindless excitement. Faerie was not a memory here; it was alive, riotous, and laughing in alien exultation.
It reminded her of standing in the middle of swift-flowing floodwaters, the water pressing against her flanks and trying to pull her down into its thick, dark depths.
It was likely that there existed a path to their destination that did not pass by a barrow and run along a leyline. It was also likely that Aldrovanda was a jerk.
The young unicorn looked ahead. A flood… That wasn’t a bad way to think of it. And Bon Bon was having trouble staying above the water. Every so often she would stumble, shying away from invisible thorns—or claws?—and foam flecked her flanks. Lyra walked alongside her, her body pressed against her marefriend’s side as she made murmuring, comforting sounds.
“Oh, Sweetie, no,” answered the changeling, in response to Sweetie Belle’s guilty suggestion that they turn aside and take another path. “It’s really not all that bad, it’s just—excuse me—it’s just a little...intense.”
“Horsefeathers,” declared Lyra, succinctly.
Bon Bon smiled. “Really, though. I know how I look, but I can do this. It’s just that most leylines aren’t like this, and I wasn’t expecting—but then it runs from a barrow to a magical lake. All that power? I should have expected it.” She gave a little half-grin and shrugged. “We’re nearly there, anyway. There’s a glint to the magic, can you feel it? It’s different than the barrow-dwimmer; it’s fresher. Cleaner. It’s not…” She paused, her ears half-cocked and a puzzled look on her face. “...It’s not really very much like Faerie at all.”
Sweetie shook her head. “I’m still amazed at how good you are at feeling the difference. I could tell when we went into fae territory, but it’s so overwhelming. There’s no way I would be able to tell other magic in this place…” She closed her eyes, trying to sense anything. “I can feel the world… the earth and air… everything is so much more alive in this place than other areas we’ve visited… but the magic... it’s just rampant. Are you both going to be safe here?”
The changeling glanced at Lyra, and after a moment’s consideration gave an emphatic nod. “Yes. This might have taken me a few months ago—I haven’t often felt Faerie so strong, except maybe this spring for a little while, in the caves under Canterlot—but now I think I can manage it. Lyra’s mostly safe unless she pokes something she shouldn’t poke, and I’ll be able to easily spot things like that.”
“Hey now, give me some credit,” responded her marefriend. “You’ve taught me a hay of a lot about Faerie. I know what to touch and what not touch. But Bonnie, you’re sure you can handle this? You don’t look like you’re handling it.”
“I’m fine, Lyra. Really.”
“Okay, okay, whatever you say. You start fainting or going all wobbly, though, and I’m getting you out of here no matter what you say.”
Bon Bon smiled. “I’ll just have to be careful not to faint, then, won’t I?”
“Or go wobbly. Don’t go wobbly.”
“All right,” conceded the changeling, “I won’t go wobbly, either.” After a moment’s pause she continued, in a puzzled tone, “What exactly would ‘going wobbly’ involve, any—Oh my.”
They had been climbing uphill for some time, scrambling up plant-choked slopes and clambering around great fallen boulders draped with moss and the slick black remnants of last year’s leaves, and while Bon Bon was speaking they had crested the ridge of the hillock.
“Sun and Moon,” breathed Bon Bon. Lyra said something unprintable. Sweetie just stared.
The ground immediately before them dropped off in a small cliff, maybe four or five yards deep, and beyond it the tangled, overgrowing forest sloped away into a great basin, almost perfectly circular and filled with a vivid green so rich that it was almost painful to look at. It wasn’t the green of tree leaves; the forest itself died away before it had extended more than a few dozen yards into the basin, and although there were a few lonely, blackened snags scattered around the hollow there were no living trees to be seen.
Instead, as the three mares soon found when they had made their cautious, careful way around the cliff and down the gentle slope, it was nothing more nor less than simple moss and lichen—but moss and lichen living with a richness and profusion that none of them had ever seen before. Mat after mat of tiny, intertwined fronds and leaflets had grown atop one another, forming bulging moss-pillows and mounds, weird trailing lichen-ropes spread out across the fierce green carpet, and what could almost be called trees, built up from thousands of layers that had sunk their tiny rootlets down through one another and raised themselves up into bizarre club or antler-shaped growths. Stubby “branches” spread above the heads of the three bewildered mares, swaying in eerie silence.
At the very center of this unearthly forest lay a broad lake, its circular rim blurred by the long scraggly mats of waterlogged moss that had spread themselves out across its dark waters. Its surface was smooth and dark as polished stone, and in its center shone an amethyst island of multifaceted crystals. As they approached it, the tens of hundreds of thousands of gems of which it was made scattered sunbeams back at them in a blinding, brilliant display. Caution almost forgotten, Sweetie Belle, Lyra, and Bon Bon came to a halt at the edge of the lake—of Loughleah, as Aldrovanda had called it—and stared across at the coruscating marvel in front of them, rising up out of the waters at the very center of the basin.
At length, Bon Bon tore her eyes away from the great glittering mound of crystals, and looked down at Sweetie Belle, gazing agape at the scintillating island. “Sweetie? Do those look like the fragments you’ve seen elsewhere?”
Sweetie peered at the island, trying to fight back the overwhelming feedback of empathic energy she felt coming from it. "I-it feels like they are! But... that's impossible, I've never seen more than one fragment at a time in any world before." She licked her suddenly dry lips, before gazing at her companions warily. "They are all fragments, but... they all feel somehow the same, I can't describe it, or even imagine how so many came to be, but... yes, they are all Twilight's fragments."
“Or Twilight’s fragment,” interposed Lyra, still staring across the water, eyes wide. “We mighta been right about that whole time-reflecting thing, after all. This is gonna be incredible…” The pale green unicorn shook her head. “But first thing’s first. Guess we better take one, right? Don’t want to miss our chance while we’ve got it.”
“But… which one?” Sweetie asked, looking up and around them. The whole place was covered in exact copies of Twilight’s fragments. “I mean, if all of them are Twilight, what will happen to the rest?”
“That’s...a very good question. Which one should we take? They’re all the same one, right, only—mirrored, sort of, back and forth through time? Should we see if we can find the one that’s the oldest, or the newest, or does it matter?” Bon Bon frowned, thinking. At length she looked over at her marefriend. “Lyra? Any ideas?”
After considering for a moment, Lyra gave a bemused shrug. “Hay if I know. Why don’t you just grab one, Sweetie, and see what happens?”
“Lyra, you are an incorrigible empiricist.”
“I try, Bonnie, I try. Sweetie Belle?”
“But won’t time and space collapse if I do that?”
Bon Bon cast a worried look over to the crystalline island. “I agree with Sweetie Belle, Lyra. We really don’t know what will happen. I mean, yes, the Unseelie Court has been flirting with paradoxes for millennia, now, but even so—Oh, Lyra, no!”
One of the distant fragments clinked awkwardly against its neighbors, and then sprang upward, enveloped in a glittering shroud of golden magic. It hung there for a moment, turning slowly, and then lunged off across the water, sweeping through the air in a long, low arc towards the three mares standing on the mossy shoreline. With a muted click, it landed on Lyra’s upturned hoof. The unicorn grinned hugely, and turned to her two aghast companions. “See? No apocalypse. Here, Sweetie, catch.” She tossed the fragment across to Sweetie Belle.
Sweetie’s eyes widened in panic before she deftly caught it in her magic. “Be careful! If it touches me and I absorb it I’d be literally killing Twilight!”
Lyra’s face fell. “Oh. Oh. Yeesh, I wasn’t thinking about—I mean—I am so sorry.”
Sweetie took a deep breath. “Well… we’ve got the fragment. It’s okay, just remember to not let me get in contact with it, okay?” She cleared her throat and looked at her two friends. “Maybe we should get going?”
“Yes, I think that might be best,” nodded Bon Bon, stepping away from the water’s edge. “It’s not an Unseelie place, this lake, but still I don’t think we should stay here any longer than we have to. There’s too much magic here.”
Lyra trotted forward, hooves squelching in the waterlogged moss. “What, you mean up and leave, just like that?”
“Yes, Lyra, just like that.”
“But, Bonnie, we were going to stay a little while so Sweetie and I could try to figure out this place, remember? I brought thaumometers, and notebooks, and sample vials, and everything! I had like fifteen different experiments all planned out!”
“Mm.” Bon Bon raised an eyebrow. “Were ‘Nearly kill part of Twilight’ and ‘Gamble with the fate of the universe’ two of those experiments? And were your other experiments anything like as risky as those two?”
“I—” Lyra’s train of thought ground to a halt. She stood for a moment, one hoof raised, and then her ears drooped. “Right. Yeah, that was—I’m really sorry, Bonnie. I was just so excited, is all, I wasn’t really thinking. But I promise, I really was careful when I was working out the tests to do on this place. I mean, I know I’m kinda careless sometimes, and things I’m working on do tend to explode a little bit, but mostly they’re just small explosions. I’ve never really hurt anypony—not even myself.”
Sweetie looked between the two, Twilight’s fragment floating a safe distance from her body. “You know, Bon Bon… Lyra’s right. This is a unique chance to study this kind of effect. If we just do a couple of tests we should be fine. I just need a place to put the fragment and to stay away from the others.”
“Hrm.” The changeling mare mulled this over, her head bent in thought. At length, she said, “Spaghetti.”
Sweetie Belle blinked, and Lyra cocked her head. “Spaghetti?”
A quick nod. “Yes. When you first arrived here, Sweetie Belle, the two of you built a—a thing that exploded a blob of spaghetti out of the basement so hard that it smashed right through the floorboards of the den and cratered the ceiling. Couldn’t that have hit one of you? Couldn’t that have hurt one of you—and hurt you badly?” Bon Bon looked up, her ears held back against head and her eyes pinched with worry. “Lyra, can you honestly tell me that there was something—anything—that stood in the way of that going very, very wrong? Of this going wrong?”
There was a moment of silence. Then Lyra stepped forward. “Bon Bon...Look at me. I’ve got both my eyes, both my ears, my tail, all my legs—everything. I’ve never broken any bones, mine or anypony else’s. I knew that it wouldn’t hit either of us, because I knew that it could only go straight up or straight down, since its positional uncertainty was only constrained in the vertical—that is, I did the math and I checked it, just like I checked things with the experiments I want to do here.” In a softer tone of voice, she added, “I know what you’re afraid of. You’re not going to lose me, Bonnie—me or anypony else you care about, including Sweetie here. I promise.”
At first Bon Bon said nothing. Eventually she gave a smiling sigh. “Well, alright, then. We’ll stay for a while.” Looking back at the still waters of the mere, she added, “But let’s make camp somewhere outside this glen. I don’t think it’s safe, really, inside it.”
Sweetie nodded. “Maybe studying this we can figure out why others have been sent to other places.” She frowned, looking at the fragments around the lake. “It makes no sense.”
“All the better. Means we get to make sense out of it, and that’s where the fun comes in,” declared Lyra.
“That’s right!” Sweetie grinned at Lyra. “There’s probably countless factors that we need to consider!”
They heard a quiet chuckle, and turning, they saw Bon Bon shaking her head with a smile on her face. “Twilight would be so envious.”
“And that is precisely why we need to do this right!” Sweetie added. “The more information she gets, the less jealous, and the more productive she’ll be!”
“True enough.” Bon Bon nudged her saddlebag into a more comfortable position, and began to trot away from the moss-rimmed pool. “But for now, we need to set up camp—and that somewhere where we won’t be spirited away to Tír na nÓg or Celestia knows where else while we’re sleeping. Come on, you two. There’ll be time enough for research after we’ve set up a proper camp. Does that sound good?”
“Well… I could, you know, create a camping place for us. I think it might be a bit tight, but it would be safe.” Sweetie offered.
After some consideration, Bon Bon nodded assent. “Well, okay. That leaves us more time to get settled in, anyway.”
“That, and it sounds awesome,” interposed Lyra. “Geomancy’s pretty cool stuff, Bonnie; trust me, you don’t want to miss this.”
Looking around, Sweetie headed away from the lake to a large boulder that was nearby, surrounded by pebbles. She levitated several of them, piling them against the boulder and slowly making an archway of sorts. Once it was done, she knocked on the hard stone three times with her hoof. “It’s ready!” She said, turning and smiling at her two friends.
The smile on Lyra’s face slowly congealed into a forced grin. “Ah. Oh. Right. I was kinda hoping there’d be a bit more, um, pizzazz to—but this is fine! This is awesome too! Yeah, that works, I, um, think.” She paused. “So, is it like an invisible shelter, or something? We just walk through the arch, and then the rock isn’t solid anymore, or something like that?”
“Something like that,” murmured Bon Bon, walking over and peering at Sweetie’s work with slightly unfocused eyes. “That’s fascinating, Sweetie. It’s almost like what the Bugul Noz—what someone I met a while back could do. Only...only not.” She paused. “It reminds me of Faerie, but without the—it’s different, somehow. Like but unlike. It feels less unstable. Safer.”
Sweetie nodded. “It was actually a gift from Twilight Sparkle,” she explained, looking at the unassuming rock surface. “When you mentioned that she might get a bit envious, it reminded me of it. It was her gift before I left the world before this one. We should hurry though, it’ll close soon, but we can open it up from the inside when we want.”
She proceeded to walk through the arch and into the boulder without missing a beat. Bon Bon followed, pausing on the threshold to sniff at the air as though she had caught some peculiar odor. “Fascinating,” she repeated, and trotted inside, ducking under the low archway. For a moment Lyra lingered outside, staring with wide eyes at the gap through which the two mares had just disappeared, and then she gave a helpless chuckle and stepped forward, wincing despite herself as she passed through the stony gate.
“Well, here you go,” Sweetie said motioning with her hoof at the small clearing surrounded by brambles and plants. “It’s a bit tight, but there’s… I can’t think of anything that can get here right now. Our own little piece of the Hedge.”
It amused Sweetie to see the differing reactions of her two companions to Twilight’s gift. Simple, prosaic Bon Bon took the strange magic in stride, asking a few practical questions and then quietly accepting it, while Lyra seemed almost frightened by the little pocket realm of thorns and vines, and insisted on hopping in and out several times through the portal just to make sure that she could. Her jumpiness eased off into a sort of nervous curiosity before long, though, and was forgotten entirely when she remembered all the tests and experiments that she had had planned for their arrival at Loughleah.
Indeed, it was all that Sweetie Belle and Bon Bon could do to get her to bring her attention around to the dull necessities of getting a fire going, unpacking their bedrolls and other supplies, and setting their camp in order, and even then it was only under protest. All that needed doing was eventually done, though, and after a plain but filling meal they settled in for the night, safe and warm beneath a cloudless sky shining with innumerable stars.
The next day the experimentation began in earnest. With not a little officious ceremony, Lyra produced a list of safety rules she had drawn up, and insisted on going through them, bullet point by bullet point, until she was satisfied that her companions had committed them all to memory. Based on the occasional glances that Lyra shot at her fiancée, and the slow softening and relaxation of Bon Bon’s features, Sweetie Belle suspected that this little lecture on safety was at least partly motivated by a wish on the little unicorn’s part to see her sweetheart comforted. She had no doubt that Lyra would have gone over the rules anyway, but perhaps not quite so… showily.
Regardless of Lyra’s motivations, they set out on their experimentation with a few ground rules clearly in place.
When they set up a little boat holding a weighed-out quantity of sand and pulled it near the island to see if any of the sand would be removed or added, they moved it without magic and without drawing near to the lake itself, dragging it out across the water by means of a long stretch of string looped around the lake and pulled from the opposite side, a good dozen yards from the water’s edge.
When they added a piece of bread to the boat in order to suppress the local influence of Faerie, to see if that made a difference, they were careful to dispose of the bread itself in the wood beyond rather than try to eat it—just in case it might have somehow been contaminated.
When Lyra set up a complicated arrangement of tubes, mirrors, sheets, and brightly-burning powders on opposite sides of the lake, and waited for dusk so that they would be able to easily see the light from one side of the lake cast up on the sheets on the other side—Bon Bon inquired as to the purpose of this, but gave up after about ten minutes of Lyra excitedly “explaining” about diffraction patterns and destructive interference and the Hoofgens-Draynel principle and time travel—she was careful to admonish Sweetie Belle, when the young changeling was marking down the locations on the sheet at which the light fell, to not look directly across the lake at the source of the light as it might have been altered in some unwholesome way by its passage near the crystals.
But the mass of sand remained the same, both with and without bread. The diffraction pattern produced by Lyra’s apparatus was unaltered regardless of whether the light was shone near or far away from the island. And with each of their other tests, nothing seemed to happen. The weird glade vouchsafed them only one hint as to its true nature; during their seventh trial of the sand-boat experiment the little vessel nearly tipped over in the middle of the lake, and Sweetie instinctively steadied it from across the lake with her magic.
When they retrieved it on the other shore, they found that it had grown slightly heavier, although the sand was, to all appearances, still as dry as a bone. They retired to their shelter that night tired, but not entirely discouraged.
A hint, even a slight one, was still a hint.
Brambles twisted and creaked, thorns scraped and scratched against one another, and far above, among a few drifting cloud wracks, the wild wind howled. Bon Bon lay on her back, forehooves crossed across her chest as she stared up into the limitless black gulf of the night sky, the light of ten thousand thousand stars reflected in her eyes. She was thinking.
Lyra lay curled up at her side, warm and snug under the thick woolen blanket draped over the two of them, and a little ways away Sweetie Belle slept under her own coverlet, making occasional small squeaking noises in her sleep. They had both been out for several hours, but Bon Bon had found herself unable to join them in slumber. Her mind was too full; full of the events of the past week, full of worries and plans for her and Lyra’s upcoming wedding...
Should they invite Sweetie Belle?
The little filly would be welcome, of course, but she did have her own quest and her own worries, and perhaps it would be cruel to extend an offer to her that she might not be able to accept—and full of her own thoughts, disrupted and jostled by Sweetie Belle’s coming, about herself and her place in Faerie.
Her mind drifted back to Sweetie’s first day in their world, and her first night—when she and Bon Bon had heard and seen the ghostly vision of a band of long-dead trooping Shee.
Bon Bon had warned her companion of the danger, expecting the young mare to share her fear of the denizens of that strange, unearthly world. She had compared them, she remembered, to a storm or perhaps a fire, without malice but still terribly dangerous.
To her surprise, though, Sweetie had responded that some dangerous things were beautiful still.
She hadn’t really known what to make of that, at least not at first. Sweetie clearly did understand that the danger was there, but she was able, somehow, to also see beauty in it. It was strange.
It had been a long time since Bon Bon had been able to see any beauty in the dwimmer of Tír na nÓg, but that night, through Sweetie’s eyes, she had captured a glimpse of it; an echo, from long ago when she was young. And now here she was, taking shelter—shelter!—in another creation of Faerie: Sweetie Belle’s Hedge. A different version of Faerie, perhaps, but still, there was a familiar taste to the colors of the slender, brittle thorn branches, and a remembered quality to the singing of the stars in the sky overhead. She knew this realm.
Ultimately, Bon Bon knew, she was a creature of two worlds—balanced between reality and unreality, between Equestria and Tír na nÓg, between ponies and the Shee. For a long time, she had shunned the older, darker part of who she was, fearing and casting it away from her, afraid of what might happen if she dared to embrace even a small part of it.
Well. Perhaps, she mused, as she turned and draped a hoof gently over her fiancée’s side, feeling the unicorn mare’s heart beat against her skin, perhaps she didn’t need to be quite so afraid anymore. She had hoped to teach Sweetie Belle how to suppress her heritage, how to be a pony without being of the Shee—but maybe one didn’t have to choose one or the other. Maybe one could be both Shee and pony, living in the sunlight and marveling at the moonlight. Maybe.
The changeling’s eyelids drooped, fluttered once or twice, and slid shut. All around her, the wind whispered gently through the branches and briars of the Hedge.
“Bonnie! Bon Bon! Bon bon bon bon bon bon bon!”
Bon Bon hoisted herself up on her forelimbs with a groan, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes with a crooked fetlock. “Mrfn. Lyra? Whatsa matter?”
The unicorn mare beside her hopped up and down in excitement, a slightly manic grin plastered on her elated face. “Nothing! The lark’s on the wing, the snail’s on the thorn, Celestia’s in Canterlot, I’ve got two pots of coffee sloshing around inside me, and all is right with this crazy old world! Come on, sleepyhead. Up and at ‘em. Sweetie and I were gonna let you sleep a little longer—it’s noon, by the way. You really shoulda been up by now, but I figured I’d let you sleep anyway ‘cause I’m awesome like that—but this, this you just have to see. Go on! Up! Up up!”
With not a little grumbling, the changeling struggled to her hooves and, stifling a yawn, followed Lyra out of the shelter and down to the edge of Loughleah—“Should we be going this close?”—“As long as we don’t use magic, we should be fine. I’ll explain. Hurry!”—where Sweetie Belle sat waiting for them, alongside the little boat in which the unicorn and changeling filly had been porting sand back and forth across the lake. Resting in its bottom were two pebbles, small, grayish, and unremarkable. Bon Bon squinted down at them. “You woke me up to come look at this?”
“Yes, slug-a-bed,” said Lyra, amicably. “To look at it. Not to glance at it, to look.”
With an indistinct mutter about caffeine overdoses, the mare peered down again, started to raise her head to utter some complaint or other—and then stopped and looked down again. This time she stared at the pebbles for several seconds before looking at Lyra and Sweetie Belle, standing at her side with near-identical grins on their faces, and murmured, “They’re exactly the same.”
“Wrong!”, exclaimed Sweetie, her voice squeaking with excitement. “One’s older! We’re not sure how much, since the other one hasn’t disappeared yet, but it definitely is!”
Bon Bon’s brow wrinkled. “But...but how? Did this just happen, or…?”
“Nuh uh!” Lyra stepped forward. “Filly, we made it happen! We figured that the spell last night mighta had something to do with the sand disappearing, so we put a weak magical field on the boat, here, and plunked a pebble in it to test it. We were gonna drag it across the lake again, but turns out we didn’t even have to do that—as soon as we brought it over here to the shore, there was this ‘plunk’ sound and then there were two pebbles—or one pebble, but folded back in time on itself, we reckon.”
The unicorn trotted over to a flat stone nearby, and retrieved several sheets of paper covered with scrawled equations, diagrams and notes. “That was nearly at daybreak; we did a lot more tests while you were still asleep, and we’re pretty sure we’ve got it pinned down now. It’s magic, Bonnie, magic! Whenever there’s a source of magic near this place—doesn’t have to be strong, and most of the time it’s probably just random fluctuations in the background thaumic field—there’s a chance for something to fall out of time, or fall in from somewhen else.”
Producing a sheet of graph paper with a bell-shaped curve, Lyra flourished it excitedly in Bon Bon’s face. “Gives you a normal distribution, overall—we tested it with an enchanted patch of ground near the lake, where we planned to put in a grain of sand at a predetermined time no matter what, and then about half an hour before then, sand just started appearing. We waited and put the grain down at the right time, and then the pile just started disappearing again, slowly at first, then quickly, then slowly again—made a beautiful bell curve, we massed it out as it was happening. That first grain was hopping back and forward in time. Next we’re gonna decide to put a grain down, then use a simple quantum collapse spell after the sand starts appearing to decide whether we really do put it down, so we can see what happens when we violate causality. We have to have a chance of us putting the grain down, I think, otherwise it might not start appearing in the first place—but that’s another test. And I want you to be here to see it, because we are making history here today, Bonnie, and—”
“Wait, wait, wait.” Bon Bon raised a hoof. “This really is fascinating, Lyra, and I’m just as interested in seeing what happens as you are—but did you say that any source of background magic makes this time travel thing happen? Any at all?”
“Near as we can make out, yeah,” nodded Lyra. “Isn’t this awesome? And then we’re gonna—”
Bon Bon, her voice a bit unsteady, continued, “A source of magic like, say, a unicorn and two changelings?”
“Yeah, exactly, that’d—” Lyra trailed off, the excited smile frozen on her face. Her eyes widened. Beside her, Sweetie Belle made a small noise like a toad that had been stepped on.
“Aw, horsefeathers,” said Lyra.
The relative calm of the lake was suddenly destroyed by a splash as Sweetie Belle broke through it’s surface, gasping for air and wild eyed. Soaked and trembling she swam to the edge of the lake where they were standing in shock and, after dragging herself out of the water, she simply just collapsed in front of them, making a small puddle of water while she took deep, shuddering breaths.
Sweetie Belle looked down at herself, who stared her in the eye and opened her mouth to say something.
“Wait!” Lyra scrambled towards the two Sweeties, her hooves sinking silently into the moss. Bon Bon stepped forward.
“Lyra, no! We don’t know what that is! I don’t know what that is! Stay back!”
The green unicorn gave an almost maniacal laugh. “It’s Sweetie Belle, don’t you get—NO don’t you dare say a word,” she snapped, whipping around towards Sweetie Belle’s soaked, exhausted doppelganger. “I mean, sorry, just don’t talk yet. Please. Let me finish.” Turning back to Bon Bon, she continued, “Sweetie Belle—this Sweetie Belle, the one who doesn’t look like a drowned rat—is going to be disappeared, or taken into the lake, or something, in just a little bit. Maybe. Oh, I hope not, it would be so cool if she didn’t, it would—”
“Lyra.” Bon Bon raised a hoof. “Breathe. And then explain.”
“Right. Hoo. Sorry.” Lyra took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “They’re both Sweetie Belle. Dry Sweetie gets lake-ified, goes somewhere and somewhen, and then comes back—but because time is all twisty here, she comes back sooner than she left. It’s a time loop.” The technomage’s face spread out into a huge, almost diabolical grin as she sat back on her haunches and rubbed her forehooves together. “And we are going to break it. Nope, nuh-uh, don’t talk yet, Sweetie. Not you, Dry Sweetie, you’re fine.”
Bon Bon blinked. “Break it?”
“Sure! All Wet Sweetie has to do is say something different from what she remembers herself saying when she was Dry Sweetie and saw Wet Sweetie—her own Wet Sweetie—came out of this lake in her own timeline. Then, whap!” She smacked her hooves together. “The timeline’s severed! Or not, if she can’t do it. Right here, right now, we’re gonna figure out how time itself works!”
“And maybe break the universe in the process,” said Bon Bon, raising an eyebrow.
“Oh come on, it’s a tough old universe! It’s been around for ages! What with the Unseelie Court and all, I bet loads of critters have tried to violate causality before.”
“And look where that’s gotten the Unseelie Court.” Bon Bon frowned. “I’m really not sure we should be messing with this. I know, I know, it’s very interesting, but I’m not sure it’s safe.”
“But it’s so cool! Besides, I’m sure that wasn’t the only thing that made ‘em unlucky.”
“It couldn’t have helped.”
“I’m fine with taking a little bad luck, if I get to know something like this.” Her eyes wide and pleading, Lyra begged, “Bonnie, I need this! I might never get another chance like this again, and I could know how time itself works! Time!” She turned back to the two Sweetie Belles. “Please, Wet Sweetie. Say something different. Do something different! Think something different! Anything! You do that, or try to do that and fail, and either way we’ll learn how time itself works.”
The future Sweetie hesitated. Lyra’s shoulders sagged, and in a quieter voice she said, “Please? I need this, Sweetie Belle. I need to know.”
Bon Bon sighed and stepped forward. “If it means that much to you, dear heart, I suppose I’m willing to risk it. Sweetie?”
The Sweetie from the future looked from Bon Bon to Lyra before looking up at herself. “Tell them it was a mirror.”
Lyra’s broad grin lasted for about half a second before vanishing into puzzlement. “Wait, so was that different or the same from the last time that you—hooompf!”
“The water!” yelped Bon Bon, as she jumped back and dragged Lyra with her. “It’s moving!”
All around them, the intense vividity of the moss darkened into a deeper, somber shade as wetness wicked up the tiny leaflets, rising from below. Sweetie scrambled back from her sodden time-twin, but the water followed her, swelling up into a smooth, glassy dome around her hooves—or maybe the moss beneath her was sinking, and the water that had now risen so swiftly to her flanks was simply seeping in from the nearby lake. She couldn’t tell.
Sweetie tried to lunge up out from what was either a nearly pony-sized dome of water or a rapidly deepening pool but the water leapt yet higher, and even as her hooves left the ground her head sank below the surface. For a scant second, she was able to make out the blurred forms of Bon Bon and Lyra rushing towards her, and then all was darkness.
o.0.o End Part 1 o.0.o
The Gala was in full swing. The three wings of the Palace Menagerie were full of ponies: ponies chatting, ponies dancing, ponies nibbling on treats and drinking cocktails. The discerning ear could pick up conversations in Prench and Germane as ponies from across Equestria mingled freely at the grandest social event of the year. Beautiful mares in serving outfits tended to a colorful array of noble mares and stallions in their finest formal wear, dignitaries from foreign lands laughed at jokes only they could hear, and esteemed guests walked the halls from entertainment to entertainment. In the Wonderbolt section, the flashes of cameras were almost like fireworks timed to the energetic background ambience.
“I’m back in the Gala,” Sweetie Belle realized as she took in her surroundings. “I can’t believe it.”
She smiled, despite herself, only to realize what that meant. Unless this was a new Gala, next year’s Gala, then it meant the Gala Loops had never ended, even after she left. Looking around, she tried to find any sign of this not being the Gala she knew. It could just be a coincidence, after all. So much of it looked the same… the ponies present, the three menageries, the decorations and styles of dress. It was spot on. Which also meant the worst. The loops had never broken.
Blueblood had never gotten free.
Next Chapter: This Platinum Crown