1. (of lines, planes, or surfaces) side by side and having the same distance continuously between them.
2. occurring or existing at the same time or in a similar way; corresponding.
1. a person or thing that is similar or analogous to another.
— Online Dictionary
The thick crystal doors gave naught but a gentle hum as they opened. The guards to either side of the entrance snapped to attention and saluted as the pair exited the throne room. The white unicorn from the pair returned the salute and led his companion, a pink alicorn mare, further down the halls. Sunlight streamed in through the windows they passed, which painted the flawless walls, floor, and ceiling in spectacular colors that made it seem as though they all glowed. The lighting was not strong enough to be unpleasant, but enough to brighten up the day of anypony who ever entered the castle.
All except one.
"It's such a beautiful day, Cadance," Shining Armor said. The pair stopped next to one of the windows and peered outside. "Are you sure you don't want to join me?"
Cadance glanced at him and gave weak smile. "Yes, the day is wonderful," she said with a sigh. "But it's been too long already. Ugh..." Her forehooves lifted up to rub her eyes. "You'd think helping run a place as dazzling as the Crystal Empire wouldn't demand that much work, but..." She sighed again. "I swear... One more legal paper today, and I think I'd have jumped out a window..."
Her husband chuckled. "How would that help?" He rested his hoof on her shoulder and gave a smug grin. "I thought alicorns could fly."
"Har har..." Cadance jabbed him in the side, which made Shining yelp a little. She shook her head, and they both giggled. "Never mind," Cadance said. "I'd love to go with you, dear, but I think I'd just kill the mood the way I am now."
"Don't be silly," Shining Armor replied. "There's no way you can ruin a 'Guard-Get-Together.' Mmmm..." He licked his lips. "Especially with those fizzy spiced drinks they bring every time."
He looked out the window at the large square near the castle, where the off-duty guards were busy setting everything up for the celebration: tables, chairs, boxes, barrels, stands for the catering, and signs to advertise all the attractions.
"Come on!" he said and turned back to his wife. "It'll be fun. I guarantee you won't feel tired after a few minutes."
"I know, Shiny..." Cadance muttered. "I'm really sorry. I promised you a hundred times already, and I really wanted to go this time, but... I just... Not today. I just want a bed today..." Her eyelids were half-closed now. "A nice, big, warm, comfortable bed..."
The rest of her words were cut off by a long yawn. She swayed a bit, and it seemed as though her legs could barely keep her upright at this point.
Shining quickly pulled her into a hug to keep her steady. "It's okay, dear," he said. "It's alright. Just go and get some rest. I guess I'll just... I'll make sure to have a toast with the guard in your honor." He lifted her face to his with his hoof and smiled. "What do you say?"
Cadance weakly returned the smile and giggled again. "Thank you, dear," she murmured. "Go on, then. Have fun." She nuzzled him and gave him a playful wink. "And don't be too long. I'll be waiting for you..."
"Okay... let's see what the mail brought for all the good little colts and fillies..."
Cadance struggled to keep her eyelids open as she pulled the box beside her bed and browses through its contents. The tomes inside were all freshly printed, which she could sense on both their texture and even the odd scent they gave. The latter always puzzled her. It didn't make any sense to her why something that contained so much valuable knowledge about a world as colorful as theirs had to smell so lifeless and artificial.
Her hoof paused as it passed over a particularly odd-looking, not to mention odd-smelling volume. "'Modern physics'?" she muttered when her gaze landed on the title. After a few seconds of pondering, she smiled, and her horn lit up. "Perfect!"
The light blue aura of her magic enveloped the thick book and levitated it out of the box. She shuffled back on her bed onto a large pile of pillows stacked up on one end, sighing deeply as she nestled among them. Her horn positioned the book above her face, and she opened it to the table of contents.
The role of a princess came with many perks, most of which the majority of ponies would love to exploit, were they in her position. Cadance, however, reserved these perks for emergencies only. She preferred to work for her gains instead. Doing favors in return for favors meant making many friends in many good places. Demanding them based on her authority would only create ponies who thought of her as "Princess Demandy-pants."
This was the main reason why she maintained a good relationship with the science community in the Crystal Empire. Not being that much of a scholar herself, she took up the role of a sort of "supplier" for them. Several times a month, the crystal ponies would request a few books to boost their own collection, which was no surprise, seeing as how it hasn't been updated for over a thousand years.
Cadance was happy to oblige. She immediately forwarded their request to her cousin Twilight, and once the books arrived, she would "delay" a couple of them to get a good look herself. The secrecy wasn't as much necessary as it was amusing to her. She doubted anypony would have minded if they ever found out, but it was more fun to have a "guilty pleasure" than a "regular" one, and it wouldn't be very "guilty" if it were all out in the open.
A kettle and a small teacup were brought up beside the tome floating above her head. Cadance poured herself some tea, took a quick sip, pulled a blanket over herself, and reached out with her hooves to browse through the book's pages. Though she could have done this with her magic, she couldn't stand the annoying glow it made while she was trying to read.
"Ah!" Her eyes widened when they noticed a more striking title. "Here's an interesting one: 'string theory.' Hmm..." Though no audience was present, she would always read these passages half-aloud to herself. Somehow, it seemed to help the information embed itself inside her head, not to mention she liked to pretend she was giving a lecture on the subject. Thus, she quickly jumped ahead to the page number shown in the contents and cleared her throat.
"'...the conjecture made by Dr. One Stone, the renowned scientist from Flankfurt University, describes our world as a collection of vibrations at the deepest regions of the subatomic level. These vibrations resonate simultaneously throughout all spatial dimensions, thus paving the way for infinitely many parallel universes coexisting without any direct influence on each other.'"
She sipped a bit of tea and shuffled on the soft mattress before continuing. "'Dr. Stone believes that these vibrations are the direct result of an unfathomably large cosmic event. According to him, his most recent calculations indicate that it was either a cello or contrabass quartet – perhaps even quintet – the size of an entire galaxy, which played a concert during the birth of the universe, hence the term string theo—' wait... What?"
Her eyes widened, and she double and triple checked the last two lines of the passage. When she realized that it was neither a printing error, nor was her own mind playing tricks on her, she gave a long and hearty laugh, closed the book, and let it slide out of her grasp and fall to the floor.
"Wow..." Cadance muttered once she managed to catch her breath. She glanced down at the book's cover and giggled again. "Tabloids are one thing, but they'll put just about anything into science books now?"
Her horn lit up, and she lifted the book once more to look at it. I wonder if Twilight had read this one already, she thought with a smile. Who am I kidding? Probably at least twice. Still, I gotta make sure I write her about this.
Her mental picture of Twilight running up and down, fuming with anger after having to witness such ridiculous "theories" being published in a "serious book," made Cadance let out another laugh. Giggling happily, she collapsed back into the embrace of her pillows, and her eyelids slowly succumbed to the call of her dreams.
"Then again..." she muttered. Her eyes opened to chase sleep away for a while longer. Her telekinesis opened the book again, and she flipped through its pages to find the chapter she had just read. "That part about 'infinitely many universes'... That seemed kinda interesting..."
The guard officer snapped to attention as she passed him. "Good morning, Your Highness!" he boomed eagerly and raised his hoof to salute her.
Cadence sighed. She paused in her slow march and weakly raised her head. Her half-lidded eyes struggled to focus on the stallion before her. "Morning, Flash Sentry," she said and gave a long yawn. "Everything in order?"
"Yes, Ma'am." The volume of his voice made her wince. Flash just grinned at her, oblivious to her agony. "All the guards are at their stations. No trouble in or near the castle whatsoever."
"Carry on, then..." Cadence muttered. Flash Sentry nodded, still grinning, and marched on in the opposite direction. The princess just shook her head and went back to trudging down the hallway. The throbbing in her head subsided a little once the echoes of the stallion's loud hoofsteps faded in the distance.
Her moment of peace, however, was short-lived. A door to her left opened, and one of the servants emerged with a tray on her back. "Good morning, Your Highness!" she said. Her voice made the alicorn's headache flare. "It's such a wonderful day, isn't it?"
"Yes. It sure is..." Cadence grumbled.
"The servants are about to prepare breakfast," the mare said with the same annoying smile as Flash. "Do you have any special requests?"
"Coffee..." Cadence gave another long yawn. "Lots and lots of coffee..."
The mare nodded and hurried off down the hall. Cadence could faintly hear a door burst open, followed by the mare's voice as she urged the kitchen staff to work as fast as they could. In her exhausted stupor, the princess didn't even notice the hoofsteps of somepony approaching her from behind.
"Good morning, dear." Shining Armor stepped up beside her and nuzzled her cheek. "Sleep well?"
Cadence shuddered from the unexpected caress and gave a deep sigh. "Ugh... Everypony wants me to have a 'good morning' today..." she muttered. Her forehooves rubbed her eyes. "A good night's sleep would be more appreciated..."
Shining deflated a little and looked away meekly. "I guess that means no..."
Despite her agony and frustration, Cadence now felt a pang of regret. "Sorry, dear," she said and nuzzled him back. "Just lousy sleep speaking. I won't take it out on you. So, how was last night?"
"It was okay, but..." Shining stammered. "Well, I was really looking forward to you tagging along. That way it was just... not the same..."
"I promise I'll make it up to you," Cadence said with a smile. She nodded her head toward the dining room door further down the hall. "Breakfast?"
"Nah, I think I'll just lie down for a while longer," her husband said and let out a small laugh. "Busy night, you know..."
Cadence giggled as well. "I'm sure..." she said and nuzzled him again. The two shared a quick hug and a few kisses. "All right," Cadence said and patted Shining on the back. "You go and get yourself some sleep, big boy."
Shining laughed and quickly gave a mock-salute. "Yes Ma'am."
They shared one last laugh, and Cadence watched as Shining trudged away toward their bedroom. Once he ascended the first flight of stairs and was out of sight, she continued down the corridor and stepped into the dining room. The splendid aroma of freshly made coffee tickled her nose, and her mouth watered at the sight of the delights prepared for her on the table.
"My beloved ponies..." she said as she sat down. The servants standing at the ready nearby all bowed in response. "Your Crystal Princess is eternally grateful..."
"You don't look well, Your Highness," the guard at the main entrance said. "Have you been getting enough rest lately?"
"Don't worry, I'm quite all right," Cadence replied. Well, so much for "covering up the bags under my eyes with makeup," she thought.
The stallion noticed the bag in her hoof. "Why don't you go take a nap?" he asked. "I can get some of the troops to fetch whatever it is you need."
"No need, thank you," Cadence said with a sigh. "All I really wanted to do is get some fresh air. The shopping is just for passing the time."
"As you wish, Your Majesty," the guard said with a short bow. He tapped his hoof on a button on the wall behind him, and the large crystal doors slowly opened, allowing the princess to escape the confines of the castle.
The moment she could see open sky, Cadance stopped and took a deep breath. A pleasant breeze caressed her skin, the light of the steadily rising sun pulled her into a warm hug, and the fresh morning air passed through her head and lungs like a healing wave. She still felt a bit weak, and the lack of sleep weighed down on her head, but the day no longer seemed quite as hopeless as it began.
With that renewal of her confidence, Cadence trotted down the main street toward her favorite shopping district. The morning rush hour was in full swing, which left the city crowded with ponies on their way to take care of their everyday duties, either on hoof or using carts of various shapes and sizes.
Cadence groaned inwardly as another wave of "good mornings" bombarded her wherever she went. All the perks aside, she sometimes wished she could just walk down a street without being the most popular face around.
Maybe I should reconsider asking Twilight about that illusion spell, she thought as she stopped next to a busy intersection. The crystal ponies waiting beside her all bowed and spoke their wishes for her to have a pleasant day, which only made her roll her eyes. She glanced to her right to make sure the way was clear, and her foreleg stretched out as she absentmindedly tried to cross the street. Maybe I should go for a green mane? Maybe a bulkier build and a shorter tail? I don't think anypony would recognize me that wa--
A scream to her left made her freeze and quickly turn her head, just in time to see a large carriage racing straight toward her. The pegasus that pulled it managed to swerve to her right at the last moment, and the massive vehicle sped past just inches away from Cadence's snout.
She just stood there, frozen in shock, while the onlookers around her gasped and shouted in alarm. In the distance, she could still hear the pegasus bellow curses back at her as he sped away. Oddly enough, the first thing to hit her was a strange sense of gratitude. The pony that almost ran her over was also the first pony that day who did not annoy her with any "good mornings" and the like.
That carriage... If I had taken one more step...
The thought quickly erased her moment of relief. Her still outstretched foreleg trembled as her mind replayed the scene in her head. Each time, the details shifted, and the imagined results became more and more gruesome.
I... I almost... She shook her head, but the disturbing thoughts would not depart. No. No! Come on! No way. It was just a stupid mistake...
Just another step would have been enough. Something else could have grabbed her attention, and she would never have peeked to her left. She could have forgotten to look altogether. She could have stumbled. The more she thought about it, the more miraculous it seemed that she did not get hurt.
There's no way I could have... died. Right? She gulped. I made it. I'm alive, aren't I? Doesn't that mean I don't need to think about it anymore?
"Are you all right, Your Highness?"
The voice of a young stallion broke her out of her stupor. Cadence blinked, shook her head again, and turned to see over a dozen crystal ponies staring at her with worried expressions on their faces.
"Are you hurt, Your Highness?"
"Quick, somepony call the guard!"
"That pegasus was insane. He should be locked up."
Alarm bells went of in Cadence's head a the tension grew around her. She cleared her throat, and her horn lit up as she used a quick light spell to attract the crowd's attention.
"Everypony calm down," she said. Her voice resonated in a soothing way, and the ponies around her quieted somewhat. "There's no need to panic. I'm not harmed. It was just a simple mistake."
The crowd murmured in confusion, but Cadence could sense a wave of relief spreading through them. "Thank you for your concerns," she went on with a smile. "I am honored to be among such helpful ponies. You may go on with your business now. Thank you again. Sincerely. And, uh... Have a nice day!"
The ponies returned her smile, and a few of them even cheered after her little speech. One by one, they slowly trotted away, leaving Cadence alone with her thoughts. That strange fear crawled up to the edge of her mind again, but she quickly shook her head and dispelled it.
"Okay, let's see..." She retrieved a small piece of paper from her bag. "First item on the list..."
Cadence ran past the guard at the door. She did not even bother with the usual polite greetings and whatnot. All of the servants' voices fell on deaf ears as their princess raced down the halls toward her bedroom. As soon as she made it inside, she slammed the door shut, tossed her bag onto the floor, and picked up her box of "delayed" books. She retrieved the physics book once more, threw it open, and searched through its pages until she found the appropriate chapter. A passage right after the part she had read the night before immediately caught her eye:
"'...which means that, in laypony's terms, anything that could happen, or could have happened, almost certainly does happen somewhere within this space. Any conceivable scenario is possible and, if the theory is correct, has its own parallel universe, which is only accessible through higher-dimensional movement. To offer a different analogy: it is not just a tree of possible outcomes with one root and infinitely many branches. One must think of infinitely many trees with infinitely many branches on every point of an infinite plane...'"
The heavy tome slid out of her grip and fell to the ground. Her hooves shook as she struggled to keep herself upright.
"Okay..." she whispered, breathing hard. Her heart pounded in her chest. "Calm down, Cadence. Everything is just fine."
She glanced out the window and noticed the sirens atop the red sky carriage parked a few blocks away, surrounded by a group of ponies in yellow and red uniforms.
"That was three 'near misses' in less than a week. And if this theory is right..." Cadence shook her head. "No, that can't be! It's all just coincidence..."
Another glance revealed the pile of wreckage right next to the fireponies. With everypony else removed from the scene, they could safely dig through the debris to make sure nopony was stuck under it.
"Yeah, right..." She frowned. "'Coincidence'? So why didn't I get hit? Better yet: why now? Why right after I read about this stuff?"
Her skin crawled as the memories returned: a metallic groan. A large shadow creeping onto her. A horrible sensation in her chest as she looked up. The scaffolding's supports giving out. The large steel skeleton falling straight toward her.
Cadence shook her head to banish the horrible mental images. Hesitantly, she picked up the book and read through the passage once more.
"I... I just don't get it..." she said. "I can be lucky, but this lucky? " She read the same paragraph over and over again. "Or am I changing my own path?"
Her eyes widened, and she quickly discarded the book as though it were something foul. Remembering how she laughed at first, she now wished she had never picked up the thing and read the horrors it contained.
"No... That's impossible. My own reality is bound to have a point where I don't make it." She gulped. "But how would I know which one it is?"
Sleep would not grant her mercy. It came fitfully at best for several days now, but tonight it left her altogether.
Cadence groaned and slammed her hooves against the sides of her head. Nothing helped. Eating, reading, exercise, counting sheep, pills, and crying; all of these she tested with no success.
When Shining Armor asked, she just used the same excuse: insomnia, no doubt from the hard work of running the Crystal Empire. The shame of bending the truth a, she preferred not to have him think she had gone insane. After they dissected all the remedies Cadence had already tried, Shining jokingly offered one last "exercise routine" they could try together. He then pleaded forgiveness, which fell on deaf ears as Cadence stormed out the door and moved to another room to face her "insomnia" alone.
Hours later, Cadence was no longer sure she had made the right move. Her husband's attempt at humor may have been poorly timed and deserved punishment, but now the lack of anypony beside her, even if they snored a lot, made the storm in her mind all the more furious.
Countless worlds... Infinite possibilities... Paths in every direction...
She buried her face in one of the pillows and groaned, but like tumors or fast-growing weeds, the ideas just kept expanding in her head.
"Good and evil trading places. Good and evil exactly the same. All but a speck of dust as the difference.
A clock beside her bed was ticking. The muffled sound of the palace's bell seeped in through the walls of the room. It rang four times.
"Worlds painted blue. Red. Black."
The ticking became louder, as though somepony moved it closer to her head.
"Worlds empty. Filled to the brim."
Every other sound was gone. She could hear it tapping away within her skull.
Cadance grabbed the clock and threw it as hard as she could against the far wall. The glass on its face shattered with a loud noise and scattered all over her floor. She tossed the pillow after it, jumped out of her bed, and rushed to her window.
"Shiny and I never exist. We trade places. We save the world. We conquer it. Harmony for eternity. Evil triumphs in infinitely many places."
She gazed upon the slumbering city. Everything was dark and still, save for a few streetlights and the moon and stars reflecting off its crystal surface. But not for Cadence. The image shifted, and she found herself staring down at a raging inferno, consuming the homes and the ponies inside one by one, while an insane tyrant cackled above.
"There is still time! We have to help them!" Her breathing became labored as the visions kept storming her mind. "So many... So many of them lost to tyranny and death!"
Her forehooves grasped her head, and she gave a strained laugh.
"Help? How? Why? Is it even possible? Is it needed?"
She heard hoofsteps behind her, followed by a knock on her door.
"I heard something break," Shining Armor said. "What's going on, dear?"
He stepped in and walked up to her with a long yawn. "Did you get any sleep?" he asked. When she did not respond, he hugged her from behind and stared into her eyes. "Oh... You don't look too good."
An odd feeling in her gut made her hesitate, but she did not care anymore.
Whatever... Let them throw me in a nuthouse if they want. They have ponies there who can give me the meds, right? At least then I'll finally get some sleep...
"Something's wrong here, Shiny!" she bawled. "I don't... I can't explain it, but... This world... Our whole life..."
"What do you mean?" Shining said.
"It's all wrong! I'm not supposed to be here. I..." Cadence's hooves shook uncontrollably. "There were all these weird things, and I... I don't know how, but..."
"Just calm down, dear." Shining gently stroked her mane. "I know you had a crazy week, but--"
"NO!" Cadence tore herself out of his embrace and turned to face him. "I'm not crazy!"
Shining held up his hooves defensively. "I never said that. Look, maybe all you need is just a good night's sleep. What say we--"
"In this universe, Chrysalis wins." Cadence spoke as though he weren't there. Her horn lit up, and she lifted a small glass orb from a nearby bowl with her magic. "I never get to marry Shining Armor. We all become food for the changelings."
Another orb floated next to it, this one of made of marble and painted blue. "In this one, my husband murders me," she went on. More and more orbs joined the first two. "In this one, I never even meet him. In this one, the moon crashes into the sun, and we live in eternal darkness!"
Shining Armor stared, mouth agape, as his wife as she kept muttering about all sorts of horrifying "what if?" scenarios. Her telekinesis formed a whole galaxy of orbs around her, each one a different "world" according to her rant. He tried to step close and comfort her, but every time she just jerked away and kept talking to herself.
The stallion gave a deep sigh and turned to leave. Pressuring her to open up did not seem to help, so he decided to give her some privacy instead. At worst, she would eventually tire and just sleep it off.
"Good night, dear," he said. "Try to get some sleep."
Cadence did not respond. The door closed between them.
It came again. The same muffled clicking and clacking through the walls. Cadence groaned, put down the scrolls, and marched up to the door to poke her head out into the corridor again, only to find it empty for the dozenth time. Gritting her teeth, she pulled back inside, slammed the door, and made a mental note to fire every single subordinate who felt the irresistible need to march up and down in front of her room constantly.
Sighing, she stepped back to her desk and opened the scrolls with her hoof again. Her red-stained eyes scanned the worn pages, most of which were decades old and made the librarian give very awkward looks when the princess requested them.
"Let's see here... 'Star Swirl's Channeling Theory'... 'Honeycomb Flux'... 'Experiments in Crystal-Enhanced Teleportation'..." She yawned and rubbed her eyes, already exhausted by the pages, but no less determined. "'Discontinued due to inconclusive results and potential risk'... ugh... I really should get Twilight to look at this. She's the one who studies this kind of magic." Her forehoof tapped her chin. "Hmm... Maybe I should send her a letter?"
The hoofsteps came again, far more clearly this time, steadily approaching her from the doorway.
"Oh, for heaven's sake!" Cadence stomped her hoof. "Please, Shiny, not now! I'm kinda busy here..."
She glanced behind her back, only to find the door closed, exactly how she left it. There was nopony else in the room. She was alone.
Cadence blinked and turned back to the scrolls before her. Next to them was an empty piece of parchment, a quill, and a fresh container of ink.
"Yeah, I should probably write that letter..."
Her gaze kept alternating between the scrolls and the parchment. Finally, Cadence took a deep breath, and her horn lit up.
The blinding white light faded away, and Cadence slumped to the floor. Static electricity zapped her limbs a few times, and an odd stench hit her nose that reminded her of burnt hair.
Almost like that time I--
"Ah! So glad you're finally here!"
Her blood ran cold as somepony approached her from behind. They had a familiar voice, but the resemblance she noticed seemed impossible.
"What? Who--" She turned around and inhaled sharply. "Oh my gosh!"
"Hush now, my dear!" A pink forehoof reached out to pet her head, making her shudder. "Don't worry your pretty little head, because this is your lucky day! You, Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, have been chosen by me, also Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, to take my place in this universe."
Cadenece breathed hard, eyes fixed on a mirror image of herself as it stared down at her with a menacing grin.
"Th-this universe?" she stammered. "What do you... How did... What's that supposed to mean?"
"Exactly what you think it means," the doppelganger replied. "You have jumped between two different threads in multi-dimensional space to make sure mine will stay intact."
"Wait... 'Jumped'? 'Different threads'?" Cadence blinked and shook her head. "No, wait.... That's impossible! How did you--"
"The same way you did. Or, at least, tried to."
"H-how... How do you know all this? I never--"
"Oh, stop acting so dumb. You and I are, in a sense, the same pony. The only difference is that you backed out at the last moment."
"But..." Cadence shakily got to her hooves and grabbed her double's hoof. "But what about my universe? I'll be needed there!"
"Oh, don't worry about that." The other smiled and casually snatched her hoof away. "I checked. You universe is due to meet its rather grotesque end in a..." She paused and brought up a notepad with her horn. "A 'supermassive black hole quantum deterioration event' in less than two weeks from now. I have no idea what the hay any of those words mean, but I did take a quick peek and it looked kinda... ugly." She tossed the notepad onto a nearby table. "Trust me, whatever you were doing back there, your presence or the lack of it makes no difference at all."
Cadence shrank back as the other alicorn approached her. "Oh," she went on. "And I'm afraid the spell makes sure that the only thing keeping you stable in this universe is my magic. Try to worm your way out of this, and I'll just cut the tether."
"Good morning, Alabaster!"
"Morning, Daffodil! Got my pastries ready?"
"Here ya go! I even put some leftover cake in there for you. Just make sure you bring the box back."
"Gotcha. Thanks a lot! I'll be seeing y-- Hey... Is that...?"
"Yeah... That's definitely her."
"Odd... She hardly ever comes around these pa-- Oh my gosh! Princess, look out!"
"Oh no! No! Nonononono! Oh goddesses help us... Help! Somepony help!"
"Call an ambulance! Hurry! The princess! She's trapped under there! Help!"
The blue glow on her horn faded, and the princess gave a hum of surprise. "Wow, only a couple of broken vertebrae this time? I must be having a lucky day."
All she got in response were a couple of pained gasps for breath. A pile of dirty rags and pink skin with crimson stains shivered at her hooves.
"Well, at least some of us are..." She gave a small chuckle and glanced down. "Good thing I was quick to show myself all 'safe and sound'. Last thing we want is for all those ponies out there to panic, right?"
Her duplicate groaned, limbs shaking as she tried to move.
Cadence chuckled again. "Anyway, I guess that's it. I have no further use for you. You are free to go back to your world and see whatever cataclysm is about to destroy it. Have fun!"
Her horn lit up, and a bright flash filled the room. Moments later, Cadence was alone once more. With a satisfied smirk, she grabbed a mop, cleaned up any leftover stains on the floor, and made her way out of the room.
Better go see what's for dinner. I've built up quite an appetite these last few days...
There was a series of dull noises behind her. Cadence groaned in frustration, but she did not bother turning around.
"Still here? Did I mess up the spell again?" She shrugged. "Too bad, I guess. By the way, I locked all the doors and windows, just in case. Have fun!"
Her grin faded when the noises came again, still trailing her. She gritted her teeth and turned around, only to find the hallway empty. Cadence felt her jaw drop, and she gasped when the noise came from the other direction this time.
"Very funny," she said. Her voice shook a little now. "Play all you want. Good luck explaining yourself to the guards. I'm sure they'll be happy to interrogate you as another changeling spy that tried to slip in."
The noise changed. She could hear echoes of her own words among the odd hoofsteps. At first, she thought it was just the effect of the empty hallways, but the voice gradually gained a life of its own. It only whispered at first, followed by giggling and things she said days ago being repeated in a mocking tone.
Cadence breathed hard, her eyes darting back and forth. Hoofsteps rang out sharply on the crystal floors, their sound echoing off the walls, along with the laughter. She turned around again and caught a glimpse of a purple and yellow tail just around the corner. Without thinking, she galloped after it, her heart pounding in her chest at the sight.
"Get back here!" she shouted. "Do you have any idea what will happen if they find out? Stop!"
The double just laughed at her and kept running down the hallway, eventually throwing one of the double doors open and leaping out onto a balcony. Cadence caught up just in time to see the other alicorn jump off the edge and fly away, still cackling.
"Oh, no you don't!" She ran outside, spread her wings, and took off in pursuit.
Shining Armor thrust out his forehoof, and the latest flight of guards took off. He held his pose without moving until they were all just small dots on the evening sky. As soon as the pegasi were gone, he retreated to his office in the castle. The door slid shut behind him, and dropped to his haunches and hung his head with a sigh of frustration.
Moments later, the door opened again, and a unicorn officer stepped inside, but Shining pretended not to notice.
"You Majesty," he said and saluted. "Lieutenant Echelon, Intelligence Unit. May I have a word with you?"
The captain sighed again. "What is it, lieutenant?" he replied. "This better be important. I need every available pony out there to find Cadence. None of the squadrons returned with anything useful so far."
"Sir, I'm not sure how to put this..." The guard was firm in his stance, but it was clear that he wished to tread lightly. "Have you noticed anything... strange about your wife during the last two weeks?"
Shining turned around and gave him an odd look. "Strange? How is that important right now?"
"With respect, sir, if we can get a few clues about why she's missing, we may have a better chance of finding her... Or whatever it was that may have taken her."
"You think she had something to do with it?"
Echelon cleared his throat. "Just trying to uncover all the facts, sir."
Shining nodded. "Well, uh... I know she had some trouble sleeping, and she looked a bit off, but nothing too dramatic. Well, that and there were those close calls..." He raised an eyebrow. "Is there something I should know, lieutenant?"
"Yes, sir." Echelon reached into his saddlebag and presented his superior with a hoofful of papers. "Over the last week, we've had odd reports coming in from all over town. At first, we just dismissed them, but the consistency of the witnesses' accounts made us suspicious after the first dozen."
Shining glanced at the papers in his hoof and looked at Echelon again. "What did they say?"
"They all talked about your wife showing up and wandering about, seemingly without any real purpose. The next moment, some sort of accident would happen. Collision with a vehicle, falling cargo, collapsing structures..."
Shining blinked. "You're kidding me."
Echelon shook his head. "The strangest part isn't that. Every time they tried to help her, they found nopony at the scene. All of them were victimless accidents. No trace of Princess Cadence whatsoever."
"What?" The captain jumped up, nearly dropping the files. "That... That makes no sense at all!"
"All we found were faint traces of magic," Echelon said. "Some sort of illusion spell."
Shining Armor just stared at him in confusion. The lieutenant sighed.
"Listen, anything you could tell us would be a great help," he went on. "Even the slightest detail, if it's just a little off, can make a difference."
"I don't know. I think..." Shining groaned and rubbed his temples, fatigue creeping up on his mind now. "She said something about 'other universes' or whatever. I thought she was just rambling from lack of sleep, but... I don't know. I think I even saw her casting spells one night... She said she was just redecorating."
Echelon raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps she was performing some kind of magical experiment?"
"Maybe..." Shining sighed again. "If magic like that is involved, then we better report this to my sister. If anypony, she'll be able to help. Let's go!"
He gave the files back and made his way to the door. But Echelon did not move. Shining paused and turned around, his hoof already on the door handle, only to find the guard staring at him oddly.
"What?" he said.
"Haven't you been informed?" Echelon replied.
"Of what?" Shining gulped, the lieutenant's expression and tone making him feel uneasy.
"Your highness..." The stallion stepped up to the captain and closed the door. "I think you better sit down."