Three pairs of eyes bore into each other.
In an instant, a powerful beam of berry red-hued magic had blasted through the window, burning so brightly that, for a moment, Sonata found herself blinded. When her vision returned, the frame lay empty, its wood sparking red. Feeling something tugging at her tail, the earth mare spun about to find Lady Adagio pulling her toward the main room with her magic.
"Come on, little imp!" she cried. "It's time to leave!"
"But... where did she go?" Sonata breathed, more interested in the current whereabouts of their pursuer. One angry glare from the Lady set her priorities straight, and at once, she turned to follow.
In the blink of an eye, something white, silent, and blindingly fast zipped straight down from above the Lady. Four ivory hooves careened into her back, and the yellow mare went crumpling to the ground with a single shriek of pain. As Sonata raced to where Echo Hum was now looming over the Duchess, the white pegasus spun about, and with one, swift wing, lashed the mare repeatedly until she fell backward onto the ground, shivering.
"Don't test me you lying, filthy dirt-dweller," Echo hissed, using her extended wing to motion toward the reeling earth mare. "I am running on very little sleep and a lack of patience at the moment."
As her vision cleared, Sonata could see Echo again approaching the Duchess where she lay before the fireplace in a heap of fine velvet. Both mares seemed haloed in the red glow emitted from the hearth's embers.
"Really, Mare Goldenstalks?" Echo snarled, her attentions now set fully upon her target. "Is this where I shall have to inform the Duke that I found you? In this hovel?"
Echo reached down into the satchel at her side, and pulled out what appeared to be a large, thick ring. It gleamed in the moonlight as she edged closer to the dazed Duchess, and with one decisive push, shoved the thing down firmly upon her horn.
"That should take care of that," the white mare sighed once the deed had been done. She reached again to her side for some rope.
As Sonata watched this entire sequence of events take place, a myriad of emotions befell her. Terror was the first, naturally. They had been found out, and now everypony, the Duke included, would know that she was a traitor. The only thing she could now imagine awaiting her in the very near future was an executioner.
Guilt soon followed. Surely, shame would come upon her family because of what she had done; the livelihoods of everypony she had ever called friend was at risk as far as she was concerned. For, who would want to do business with the friend of a traitor? Sonata's mind planted itself firmly upon the thought of Begonia and her foals. If something were to happen to her or her children simply because they were friends, she didn't suppose she could ever find a way to live with herself.
Finally, there came anger, with herself for being so silly as to have ever trusted Echo Hum and Silent Wing's motives in the first place, and with the two pegasi for turning their vicious attentions onto her closest friend in return for just a few gold bits. She was equally incensed by the fact that never before had she seen Echo Hum look as gleeful as she appeared to be right at that very moment whilst gazing upon the injured Duchess. The earth mare's raspberry gaze sharpened and went hot like fire. Her hooves shook as she rose, but not from fear or weakness.
Across the way, the Duchess seemed to be coming to. Echo had already planted a firm hoof upon the mare’s back to keep her still whilst she used her teeth to bind her hind hooves with the rope.
"Get your vile hooves off of me, you wretched, winged bitch," the Lady slurred, attempting to raise up off of the floor. Echo merely hummed through her teeth with amusement, and forced the unicorn back down. She gave the end of the rope a tug, drawing a heave of pain out the Duchess.
"Why, thank you, mare," the pegasus murmured in that cold, near monotone of hers. "That's the sweetest thing I've been called all week."
"That's 'Your Grace' to you," the Duchess spat, now stable enough to lift her head. She tried to let loose a beam of magic, only to receive a shock from her backfiring powers in return. Traces of the misfired spell sparked around her face, making her head reel.
Seeing her defiance, Echo's expression darkened. She shoved the unicorn's head back flat against the floor, and leaned in close.
"I wouldn't try that again if I were you. You're liable to make your head explode."
"I command you to—" the Lady growled, only to be cut short by the white mare’s biting laughter ringing off of the walls.
"I hold no allegiance to you," she cackled, "or your little king." Quickly, she began to wrap the rope taut around the rest of the Duchess' hind legs. "Make no mistake, had your husband—dashing personality by the way—not promised a hefty sum for your safe return, you, My Lady, would now be very much dead."
"W-what of the white stallion?" Lady Adagio gasped, now looking quite sick to her stomach. Echo only smiled in return whilst knotting the rope. This, of course, worked to unnerve both Sonata and the Lady a great deal more.
"Please, tell me! What of the white stallion?" she cried again, her wavering tone betraying her desperation.
Looking at the Duchess lying helpless and distraught, Sonata felt her emotions now overpowering her. She bore down, digging her hooves into the flooring just as if she were pulling more roots from the earth.
"Ah, yes, Sir Lighthoof," Echo finally sighed. "Fear not for your beloved. I'm sure Silent Wing is taking very good care of him as we speak. The Duke has requested that we deliver the earth stallion safely unto him as well, so that he might dispense upon him his own form of justice."
She sighed longingly.
"I'm almost disappointed that I won't be around to witness it."
Echo shot a taunting smile at the Lady. Her grin quickly faded when she noticed that the mare’s expression had collapsed into one of hopeless anguish. The pegasus cocked a brow.
"Oh, come now, mare. You'd probably do well to forget him. Things didn't resolve very smoothly with your previous beloved, now did it? A bit of a messy thing love is, wouldn't you agree? I myself have never been very particular to it. Like to keep my wings free of all that unnecessary emotional baggage, you see." The white pegasus grinned, fluttering her wings against Lady Adagio's nose as she rounded about to her front.
"Out of my face, you gloomy wench! You reek of misery," the Lady whimpered, trying her best to cut into the pegasus' cold heart to no avail. "Is this what invigors you? Ruining lives? Is this what gives you meaning and purpose? How very sad that is, indeed!"
"Ohhh," Echo cooed, reaching under the Duchess' chin with the tip of her wing, and raising it to look into her eyes. "Such self righteous things for a sullied, undignified mare to say after she has already ruined three lives all on her own."
The pegasus then dropped the Lady’s head back onto the floor, pulled a second rope from her side, and prepared to wrap it around her top half.
"Oh, yes, I've heard all about you, Lady Adagio, and all of your little... preoccupations. You're quite the popular one with ambitious stallions, aren't you?" she scoffed, caring not about the fresh tears beginning to streak the Lady’s infuriated face. "But, I'm sure if I went about presenting my croup to everything with four legs and a piston, I'd be quite popular as well, wouldn’t you ag—?"
There was a sickening crunch as a pair of hooves met with Echo's side, sending her flying into a far wall. Sonata shook out her two hind legs as she watched the stunned, white mare slide down onto a pile of dust and cracked brick. Lady Adagio gazed up toward Sonata in shock. Quickly, catching her wits, she took the opportunity to reach down, and begin unraveling her bindings.
"Don't you talk about Our Lady that way! She is the finest, most honorable Lady in all of the land, she is!" Sonata screamed.
"That's enough, Sonata," the Duchess hissed. "Let's g—"
"Come again, ye overgrown turkey!" the blue mare continued, rearing up to jab at the air with her forelegs. "I'll slug you in the gut so good you'll lay a hardboiled egg!"
She watched on as Echo shakily got to her hooves. The Duchess had already begun to pull anxiously at Sonata's tail with her teeth.
"Sonata, now is not the ti—"
"Oh, come on! With those hollow birdie bones? She can't hurt me!" the earth mare bellowed until, at last, she witnessed Echo Hum's vision clear, and her expression darken into one of pure fury. Reaching to her side, the pegasus drew something sharp and shiny from its sheath. Lifting her dominant hoof, it took all of one second for her to bind and strap the curved blade tightly around the appendage with her teeth. It was at once clear that she had done this a million times before. Bearing down, the pegasus flared her wings, and presented the readied dagger to them both.
"I should have known a traitor would act as a traitor, even if it is only a silly, little farmer’s daughter,” Echo growled. “You, earth mare, there is no reward for. I think I shall deal with you first."
Now seeing the dagger clearly in the moonlight, Sonata gulped down her failed courage, and took a few steps backward toward the doorway.
"Time to leave!" she cried, yanking Lady Adagio by the tail, and urging her into the main room.
Once there, the Duchess directed Sonata toward the ring upon her horn.
"Take it off! Quickly! I can't touch it myself!" she cried as they both watched Echo racing through the doorway. Sonata lunged forward, and grabbed the thing with her teeth. As she began to draw the ring off, a shock shook her so forcefully that her eyes began to water. Time stretched as the pain spread to every muscle, yet still, the ring seemed to move at an unbearably slow pace. By the time it had budged but an inch, Echo had careened into Sonata's side, slashing at her skillfully with her blade.
Sonata missed the first three strikes by pure luck. The fourth struck her upon her flank, almost making her legs falter. Bowing over, the blue mare put her weight upon her front hooves, and swung her hind legs around in Echo's direction. The pegasus, proving far too swift to be caught in such a way whilst guarded, edged backward, and spread her wings wide. She brought the great things forward, clapping them together with such force that the sound they made was like the crack of thunder. Sonata, stunned by the blast, was blown back against the wall so hard, that a few of her paintings came loose, and went sailing across the room.
"That humbled you a bit, didn't it?" Echo cackled, her silver eyes gleaming with bloodlust. Sweeping her wings back, she then used them to propel herself toward the dazed, blue mare, her dagger aimed directly for her heart. It was all Sonata could manage to squeeze her eyes shut and hunker down.
There was the sound of rushing hoofsteps, and then a forced exhalation of air. A loud 'THUD' reverberated somewhere beyond the blackness of Sonata's clenched eyes. When they finally opened, she was met with a shocking sight. There Echo Hum hung, pinned and writhing against the far wall upon the end of Lady Adagio's horn. Sonata had to admit that the thing looked far more menacing when it was covered in blood, jutting clear through the base of a pegasus' wing. Echo screeched as the Lady wrenched her neck sideways, sending the mercenary mare crashing down to the floor in a shivering, feathery heap.
"It is also a horn, you know, you stupid harpy!" the noble mare cried, then taking her chance to dash to Sonata's side. On the way, she bent down to snatch up her cloak which lay in a heap in the middle of the room.
"Your Grace—" Sonata gasped.
"Get it off!" the Lady interjected, jutting the still ringed, now bloodied horn into Sonata's face. Not taking a moment more to reconsider, she reached forward, bit down upon the ring, and pulled with all of her might. Her brain screamed. Her skin burned. Her eyes felt as if they would melt right out of their sockets, and then finally, after what seemed like a thousand years, the deceptively innocent-looking bit of enchanted lead went clattering down onto the floor.
"Right!" the Duchess cried as they both watched Echo Hum getting to her hooves once more. Her once pristine white fur was now smudged with red, a factor that seemed to enrage her.
As the pegasus dashed toward them, a spray of bloodied feathers in her wake, Sonata could see the Duchess' berry red magic beginning to glow intensely. Her expression folded into one of deep concentration.
"Hold onto me!" the Lady cried. Sonata leapt forward, hooves outstretched. The image of the golden mare seemed to flicker before her as if she were becoming translucent. As her hooves grazed against her fur, there was a sudden flash. Sonata's eyes were blinded again, and her body felt as if it was floating away. This sensation only lasted briefly, however, before she felt herself beginning to fall.
She landed hard against something soft, and at once, it let out a great puff of air. In the brief moment before her eyes fluttered open, Sonata could only sense darkness around her. When she finally rose up and looked about, there was nothing but quiet and woodland surrounding her. Instantly, she fell into a panic.
“Lady Adagio?” she hissed. “My Lady, Adagio! Where are you! Please, answer me!”
Her cries became more and more desperate as she turned about on top of the soft mound until, finally, the thing beneath her hooves groaned. Sonata yelped, and froze in place. Glaring down at her hooves, she noticed the mound was made of something black and fuzzy.
“Gerroffof me, you idiot,” the lump croaked. Sonata leapt back, landing hard upon her injured side. As she scrambled away from the thing, the black fuzz atop the giant bulk shifted, and finally slid off to reveal Lady Adagio looking thoroughly tattered and worn. Her face was smudged with dirt, and her robe had been torn. Those usually perfect curls were now a mess of frazzled coils. Still, Sonata was overjoyed to see that she was safe. Lunging forward, forelegs outstretched, she gathered the elder mare into an embrace.
“Your Grace! Are you alright? Where are we? What happened?” she cried. After a moment of not hearing a response, the earth mare glanced upon the Duchess' face to find that it had gone a tinge of purple. She released her grip, giggling bashfully. “Oh, dear. My apologies.”
The Lady gasped greedily for fresh air as she held Sonata away at foreleg’s length.
“Do not... ever… do that… again,” she rasped, then collapsing onto the ground. “And keep quiet, will you? I could only manage to transport us to the edge of the Sardhoof. We’re still quite near your farm.”
She directed a hoof toward the nearby treeline in the distance, urging Sonata to take a look for herself. When she peered through the brush, the earth mare could see her cottage, a small bump upon a hill. Coming from that direction, they could both discern the enraged screams of Echo Hum, and the distinct sounds of breaking furniture. Sonata’s jaw dropped.
“My home! She’s wrecking it!”
Instinctively, she moved forward in the cottage’s direction, only to find herself hindered by Lady Adagio’s hoof shoving her back into a seated position.
“Are you completely daft? You cannot return now; you shall be caught! We must find Lighthoof!”
Sonata, knowing in her heart that the Lady was right, gulped back her own seemingly selfish worries, and nodded her head.
“Let’s hurry, then.”
In the darkness, surrounded by nothing but the evening sounds of Sardhoof Forest, it was quite difficult to decipher exactly how much time was passing them by. Still, deeper into the woods they went. At first they kept silent, the heat of their encounter with Echo still clinging to their memories. However, after a long time had passed with bloodthirsty pegasi nowhere in sight, they finally managed to relax into something of a casual conversation. This mostly consisted of Sonata riddling the Duchess with nosey questions, much to the noble unicorn's dismay.
"Does your mane really grow that way?"
"Goodness... Does your sister, Lady Moonstone, really joust in the Canterlotian annual tournaments?"
"On occasion, yes."
"Amazing... Who's the better kisser? Prance or—"
"Enough!" Lady Adagio cried, silencing the evening sounds around her. She turned upon Sonata with a dangerous look in her eye. "Listen, impy. It's maddening enough that I should have to tramp through the Sardhoof in my good robes; I don't need to feel as if I'm doing it under interrogation as well! Leave me be!"
This immediately hushed Sonata, and they both managed to travel for quite a while longer in near silence. This didn't seem too terrible if one could, for instance, take notice of the beauty of the evening woods along the way. Though not entirely familiar with the part of the forests they had been walking through, Sonata still had some semblance of their whereabouts, and at least could pride herself on being acclimated to such an environment. The Duchess, on the other hoof, seemed to have her heart set on grumbling under her breath for the entire trek.
“My poor robe,” the tuckered unicorn lamented. “This one was my most cherished.”
Not watching where she was going, the noble mare took what she thought was just another step forward, and suddenly sank shoulder deep into a sizeable puddle of mud.
“No!” she moaned, pulling her foreleg out, and dramatically flinging herself onto her back. Flaring her magic, she attempted to clean the filthy appendage now covered in all manners of muck. Sonata, who had managed to make it past the mudpit unscathed, turned around, and gazed curiously upon the unicorn.
“You’ve never really traveled the woods by hoof before, have you?” she inquired, taking a step closer. Lady Adagio turned her head to stare coldly at the earth mare. In this position, her tattered robe, frizzed hair, muddied fur, and bloodied horn seemed more glaring than they had at any point prior.
“What on earth could possibly inspire a question like that?” she deadpanned before a large lump of mud slogged off of her hoof, and landed squarely in her face.
Sonata giggled. Shaking her head, she trotted to the Duchess' side, and pulled her up to her hooves. Removing the old handkerchief from about her own neck, she then got to work scraping the mud from the unicorn's fine, yellow fur.
“Ah! Not so hard, you wretch!” the Lady whined, reaching forward to thump Sonata on the top of her head when the earth mare scrubbed at her cheek too roughly.
Rubbing the now sore spot atop her scalp, Sonata noticed the Duchess’ eyes suddenly go wide. The older mare's gaze directed itself toward her chest, and when Sonata looked down, she realized that the Lady had been staring at her ghastly birthmark. Letting loose a gasp, she bent forward to hide it.
“I know it’s hideous. That’s why I wear this—”
“That is the spitting image of my birthmark!” Lady Adagio gasped, quickly pulling down the collar of her distressed robe so that Sonata might see.
The earth mare's eyes went wide. She dashed toward Lady Adagio, squealing, and reaching forward to bite hold of her collar to get a closer look.
“No, no! Wait!” the Duchess protested, but far too late. Sonata, in her excitement, pulled down upon the delicate fabric, accidentally ripping the entire thing right down the center of the Lady’s back. The poor, abused robe slipped clean off of the yellow mare’s body, and finally fell in two expired lumps to either side of her. Lady Adagio sighed heavily.
“Well, I suppose that would be the end of that."
“Srry,” Sonata apologized, spitting out the clump of velvet between her teeth. "Got a bit excited."
“Oh, no, no, it’s perfectly fine!” the older mare chirped, cocking a brow. “If fate is kind, perhaps my head shall be next.”
“You mustn't say such things, Your Grace!” Sonata cried. “What would everypony do if something were to happen to you?”
Lady Adagio blinked, looking quite stunned, almost thoughtful.
"I'm sure I wouldn't know. Live happily ever after, perhaps?" she muttered, shrugging to herself.
"That isn't true, and you know it," Sonata retorted with a stomp of her hoof.
Sonata saw something indecipherable flash in the other mare's eyes before she turned her head away, hiding her face behind a tangle of orange curls.
“Yes, well. I suppose we had better continue on then,” the Duchess mumbled. “The sooner we find Lighthoof is the sooner I can get this filth cleaned off of me.”
Sonata watched as the unicorn picked up her black cloak, flung it over her back, and headed further off into the woods. Thinking to herself for a moment, a brilliant idea then struck her.
“I know where you can wash up!” Sonata cried, drawing another hushing hiss from her companion.
“Where?” Lady Adagio inquired.
“There’s a spring in these woods. I suspect I’m the only one who has ever managed to find it, so you’d have your privacy as well! Would you like to go?”
The yellow mare seemed to think for just a moment before she nodded her head.
“The Sardhoof is endless. Searching for Lighthoof wherever this spring is would be just as good as searching anywhere else. Might as well afford myself the opportunity to wash off whilst we look.”
Sonata smiled, and rushed forward to take the lead.
Of course it took all of one hour not only for both of them to get lost on this trek—Sonata having realized she'd never before made it in the dark—but for the two of them to also become separated. The earth mare spent all of her time alone, worriedly calling out the Duchess’ name, and watching the canopy for any signs of angry pegasi. The Lady's wanderings proved far more productive, however. Not only did she eventually come rushing back through the trees toward Sonata looking quite clean, but miraculously, she had also managed to find Prance. The white stallion trotted close behind her, and as he neared, Sonata could make out haphazardly wrapped bandages bound around his barrel and right shoulder. There was a slight tinge of purple that encircled his left eye.
Upon seeing that neither of them had been too severely harmed, Sonata rushed forward to embrace Prance. Wincing away his pains, the stallion began to laugh. The sound of it worked to calm her nerves, be it ever so slightly.
"Prance! You're alright! I'm so happy to see you! Did Silent Wing find you?"
"Clearly," the stallion coughed, rolling his eyes. He then returned the mare's embrace. "It's a relief to see that you are well. We were worried that Echo Hum might have found you."
"Oh, you don't have to worry about me, Prance! Didn't the Lady tell you how I struck that giant yard fowl a good one?"
"No, she didn't!" Prance guffawed, his eyes going wide. "Tell me quickly, what sort of face did she make?"
"It looked like this!" Sonata laughed, then twisting her features into a comical grimace. Prance bent over chortling, again pulling the mare close.
"I know that right hind hoof of yours all too well! I could have warned that flying hag all about it!"
Sonata didn't seem to care for anything else but the happiness she was feeling at the moment, gathered up gleefully in Prance's embrace. In fact, she didn't think she might ever let him go if she hadn't felt Lady Adagio's hoof suddenly come between them, prying them apart.
"That will be quite enough of that, thank you very much!" the yellow mare clucked, pursing her lips.
"Oh, My Lady, would you like one as well?" Sonata asked, deeming herself quite rude for ignoring the unicorn. She was a lady used to having quite a bit of attention, after all. However, upon approaching her, Sonata instantly found herself again being held at foreleg's length, a yellow hoof planted firmly against her forehead.
"What have I told you about doing that?" the Lady grumbled, pushing her away.
"Oh, yes," Sonata giggled. "Pardon me. I forgot."
"Leave her be, Adagio. She's only being affectionate," Prance chided her.
Both mares' eyes went wide. Sonata, never having heard anypony speak to a high ranking noble in such a manner, decided it would be best to keep quiet, and stare listlessly toward the ground like the obedient commoner she was. Her ears twitched and turned downward as she figured that a good slap lay somewhere in Prance's very near future. Instead, she heard the Lady huff loudly.
"Let's get going," the Duchess grumbled, beginning to walk away. "This night is crawling with far too many pegasi. We must keep moving."
Following close behind, Sonata gazed toward Prance with a perplexed expression.
"What does she mean? Are there more mercenaries about?"
"Eh, a few," Prance chuckled with a wink. Sonata found it amazing the things the stallion could smile through. "But we didn't meet anymore of them. That isn't what she means."
"We happened upon two more near the spring you had mentioned," the Duchess added.
"Two more pegasi searching for you?" Sonata gasped.
"I don't suspect so," Prance murmured, his brow creasing. "One of them was asleep beside the water. She wasn't wearing any armor."
"Oh, what does that matter?" Lady Adagio cut in.
Prance winked in Sonata's direction, again.
"I must admit, I did find the other one a bit... unsettling."
"Why?" Sonata inquired. "Did he try to hurt you?"
"No, he simply sat there upon a stump in complete silence, watching us from the shadows. You could barely even see him," Prance replied, shaking off the chill that had now managed to collect about his fur. "At first we supposed that they had both been cut and banished, but I didn't see any wounds."
"Barbaric," the Duchess piped in. "Of course they continue to leave all of their unsavory characters down here upon the earth where we should be made to live with—"
"Their wings had not been cut," Prance insisted. "Perhaps they were just traveling through."
"I still tend to think there was something off about the stallion."
"Well, be that as it may, he helped to guide us in the proper direction," Prance quipped.
"Just barely," Lady Adagio grumbled. "What grim creatures... Straight out of Tartarus, they are..."
"That is a bit harsh, don't you think?" Prance interjected. "They are pony folk just like you and I. Many of history's finest warriors were pegasi mercenaries."
"Oh, that's all dandy until they aim their wings and daggers in your direction, isn't it, Sir Lighthoof?" the agitated unicorn spat. "Why can't I ever meet a pegasus that is a simple cook? Or a nice musician?"
"Down here, most of the demand is for their warriors, not their cooks. It does pay well."
At these words, Sonata witnessed Lady Adagio halt her steps, huff with exhaustion, and spin about to face Prance. Half gladdened that the two of them had stopped making such a ruckus, the earth mare breathed a sigh of relief.
There was a deep-set grimace now plastered upon the unicorn's face, but looking toward Prance, Sonata noticed that he did not seem to be the slightest bit worried. The sly grin he was wearing was proof of this.
"Are you really defending pegasus-kind whilst two of those flying curses are currently after our heads?" Adagio hissed, poking a hoof at Prance's chest. "I'll have you know, Lighthoof, that I did not plan to leave my estate behind, and go rolling about in the stinking Sardhoof mud just for you to defend the very villains I've been warning you about since—"
She was silenced with a kiss. Prance confidently leaned in further, pushing the yellow mare backward onto her haunches. Her forelegs rose to rest against his chest, and the frown upon her face quickly curled up into the most content of smiles.
Once again, Sonata's jaw had practically hit the ground. Her entire face went red, and after a long, long while of watching the two doing whatever it was they were currently doing with their faces, she figured that perhaps it might be best to hide herself beneath the Duchess' cloak. Clearing her throat, she clenched her eyes shut, and made an attempt to garner their attention with a wave of her tail. When that method failed, she settled for addressing them directly.
"Erm, so sorry to interrupt, but I feel I must remind you two about the flying mercenaries searching for us. Angry Duke? Pain of death? Remember?"
This seemed to do the trick. Sonata soon heard the both of them cough and sigh out their pardons. When she finally peeked at them again from beneath the cloak, they had both straightened themselves out, and already headed a few more steps forward.
Things were much calmer then. The two of them walked side by side, smiling and murmuring to one another. Sonata was content to just follow close behind as long as everything remained quiet. After a long time—she knew not how long—it came to her attention that their pace was beginning to slow significantly. It was no wonder. Their night had been filled with nothing but worry, pain, and running, after all. Even she was beginning to feel quite dizzy with fatigue.
"Perhaps we should stop," Lady Adagio posed. "I am in desperate need of some water."
"I think I spied a creek a little ways back," Sonata mentioned. "Perhaps we could—"
"You expect me to drink from the ground?" the Duchess cried, rolling her "r"s dramatically. The look upon her face was incredulous.
"Nevermind," Sonata sighed, turning about to face Prance who had gone off to rest by the foot of a large oak. "Where is it that we are headed? How much further?"
The stallion smiled, and cleared his throat.
"We're bound for Canterlot. There are enough ponies there that we should be able to hide amongst them quite easily."
"Canterlot?" Sonata gasped. Not only was the earth mare unable to fathom being in a city as large as that of the seat of the unicorn king's throne, but she also felt quite hesitant to even travel in its direction at all. "Won't we have to head north to get there? What if we are caught in the battle at Edinbridle?"
"The conflict is no longer only confined to Edinbridle, if that is what you are concerned about." He looked at Sonata's frightened expression, and immediately felt remorse for having said such a thing to her. "We should be able to move around Vision's realm without trouble. Don't worry, Sonata. I've done it many times before."
Sonata was not quite convinced. Still, she knew that she trusted Prance, and again chose to believe that he would always have her best interest at heart.
"Well... w-when shall we return?" she inquired, her voice small and shaking. The air went quiet save for a few creaks and cracks coming from the branches above. Both Prance and the Duchess glared at one another.
"What? What is it?" Sonata asked becoming more anxious by the second.
"Sonata," Prance began gently as he took a step forward. "You see, with the way things are, the Duke will most certainly be searching for us for the rest of his days. We are wanted now. There is a bounty upon us."
"Yes, upon you two," Sonata pressed, already disliking where this conversation was headed.
"By morning, the Duke shall surely know that you were the one who aided us. Perhaps even sooner than that," Lady Adagio added.
"What we're attempting to tell you, Sonata, is that there shall be no going home. We have to leave this place... for good," the white stallion finished.
"F-f-for..." Sonata couldn't bring herself to even say it. At once reality came crashing down upon her in all of its weighted dreadfulness.
She was an outcast now, a criminal; yet, still, she had never even considered the notion that she might actually survive being caught up in the middle of an ordeal such as this. Now that she was forced to think on it, the earth mare had to cede that being labeled as an enemy to a Duke would surely mean spending the rest of her life in hiding. This meant no more farm, no more cottage on the hill, no more singing in public anywhere, and worse yet, no more seeing any of her companions. Her mind immediately landed upon Begonia, Petunia, and Peat Moss. As soon as she envisioned their faces, large, hefty tears began to fall from her eyes. Had Sonata known whilst having pie with her dear friend that it would be the last she saw of her, she would have tried harder to remember the event a little better, play with the children for a little while longer, spend a little more time...
"Oh, no," she croaked, her eyes shutting. She felt her hind legs give way. What of her parents, her beloved little family who she would give the world for? How would it be possible to now live knowing that she could never again see them? How could they continue on comfortably if she could not help to provide for them? They would suffer because of her. It all seemed unthinkable. This wasn't something that she could simply leap and flow around like she always urged herself to do. After this, there could be nothing greater or brighter that she might hope to flow toward. A loss like this would surely kill her; and surely, all things considered, she would have preferred that it did.
"I cannot. I cannot do this," she whimpered, the tears now coming faster as her panic grew. Something hot ignited in the center of her chest, and she began to shake. How could she possibly have been so foolish? Why, in Bullion's name, was it that she had always deemed it so unnecessary to think her own decisions through to the end? This was why she was always getting into trouble. If she had only just told Prance that she couldn't possibly...
Wait a moment.
Was this all her doing? Surely, she had not the power or mettle to create such dangerous noble scandal, herself, had she?
For once in her life, Sonata pondered on what would have become of her had she the heart—or lack of it, rather—to have gone about getting what she wanted the way ponies like the Duchess did. How much easier might her life have been had she the smarts and will to make advances upon a stallion like the Duke just as the Duchess had feared? And how much colder might she have become if she did it whilst knowing that others would probably suffer because of her decision? Does a pony like that hold the capability to consider such things at all? Did this mean that the Duchess, maybe even Prance had been cold? After all, if it weren't for them, she would have probably been lying in bed right now, belly full of biscuits. Morning and the fields would await her on the other side of night whilst she remained wrapped in the peace she had only recently begun to taste for the first time in her life.
"No..." she breathed, as her mind opened up to new, less than savory possibilities that she had never before considered. Her eyes clenched tight. Prance moved forward to hold her, seeing her distress.
"Come now, Sonata. It will be alright! We will still be able to get by with—"
"Get by?" Sonata scoffed, bounding to her hooves. Her eyes were aflame in a way they'd never been before. "I've only just 'gotten by' my entire life, Prance! And now that I've finally found some small piece of stability, now that I can finally afford to breathe easily, it's all wrenched away from me forever?"
Her body began to quake.
"At least you two have known it! You two grew up with comfort, and games, and families who never—" she still didn't want to admit it, "—never tended to you harshly. You were never put to bed hungry! Smiling and skipping along in your fineries whilst your wretched parents trotted about, hitching up their noses, and spitting in my direction because I wore old rags! Calling me rubbish!”
"Sonata... what are you..." Prance murmured, quite stunned.
The blue mare forced a sharp laugh of disbelief. Her head shook as she realized that all these years had gone by without her ever having reminded Prance what his mother had said about her when she was but a starving, mute filly. She had never let on just how much his mother's cruel words had impacted her entire life, and all to spare the stallion's feelings. It struck her as quite telling that he would have forgotten that such a thing had ever even happened. Now, a seed of suspicion had begun to bud within her, and she couldn't help but wonder if a hint of that same penchant for his mother's carelessness ran through his veins as well.
She watched as both Prance and Lady Adagio’s expressions folded into ones of confusion, and for once, she didn’t care. Even she stunned herself with the spew of words that had managed to escape her mouth. Perhaps it was because it no longer mattered to her if they were baffled or offended. None of this mattered anymore.
“If you were bored, and wanted to throw every good thing you've ever known away, why should that matter to somepony like me? Why draw me into it? I didn't want to be a part of something like this!"
Sonata saw Lady Adagio's mouth turn down into a sneer. The noble mare took a step forward.
"How dare you? And after I revealed all of my heart to you? You know that every one of us is giving up our known comforts to—"
"My family and farm are my entire life, not a comfort!" Sonata barked, shocking the Duchess into a tight-lipped silence."What do you expect for me to do with you in Canterlot? Swim behind you both whilst ye ride boats across the pond? Clean up after your meals? Sit silently and obediently in the corner until beckoned? Oh, I'm sure you'd love that!"
She turned her furious glare upon Prance, once more.
"You said you were my best friend! You said that you wouldn't let harm come to me! You told me you wanted me to be happy and safe! You always say that you know what’s best, and never even consider my feelings, my past, my fears, ever since we were foals, and you told the former Lord Goldenstalks about my singing. You never even considered that the only reason I go along with everything that everypony else wishes of me is because I didn't want it coming to this. I didn't want to be thrown away again, and hated! I didn’t do any of these things because I enjoyed them!"
When Prance finally pushed forward, Sonata shoved him back.
“Don’t touch me!” she cried, retreating away from them both. “You two can do whatever it is that you wish. End up starving on the streets like I used to, for all I care. Dig through a rubbish pit for your supper, and see how good you like it! I’m not going back to that. I’d rather die! I’m going back to my farm!”
“Sonata, wait!” Prance bellowed, stunning her into stillness before she could run away.
“What is it?” the incensed earth mare pressed, completely void on patience. At once, she noticed the glint of something in those violet eyes of his. “What? Tell me, Prance?”
The white stallion sighed, and glanced backward toward Adagio who passed him yet another knowing look.
“Oh, stop it with your stupid secrets!” Sonata bellowed, pounding her hooves into the dirt. She looked impatiently from one to the other.
At once, the white stallion took a deep breath, and took a step forward.
“Sonata,” he began slowly. “Y...you have judged me as often having been careless with your heart. Indeed, I had always thought never to put it before what I saw as opportunities for your progress, for your success. I thought, in the end, that those things brought you the happiness you wanted and very much deserved. Perhaps my vision has been skewed by the ambitious life that I have led. For, it seems that I wanted and pushed you to do things that you did not always desire for yourself. I made a promise many times to protect you and your heart. It would seem that I've failed a bit in that regard, yes?"
That old, familiar smile cracked his lips. Sonata, drawn into the comfort of that grin, felt her eyes beginning to leak.
"For doing so, for hurting you in these ways... in this way, I am truly sorry, my friend. Looking upon it all, I don’t suppose that it should be possible to forgive me for what I've done wrong. But for all that you deem that I have done right, could you find it in yourself to hear me this one, last time?"
There was a pause. His voice began to tremble as he took in a ragged breath.
"Right now, Sonata, you must trust me. There is no going back to your farm. To do so spells certain doom. Canterlot is our only option now.”
Sonata sniffed, her gaze falling toward the ground. Prance always did have a way with words. He always knew how to sway her, even when it was unintentional. This was the part where she was supposed to nod her head, turn around, and follow him obediently. This was the moment when she was supposed to convince herself that her own ideas weren't good enough, that she wasn't good enough all on her own.
Her mouth slowly opened as she fought with herself over what to say. Words, most hated and cruel, formed upon her tongue. Everything in her wanted very much to force them back, but for once she decided to put those feelings of guilt and shame to the side.
“Have you finished?” she exhaled, sounding very much as if she had not wanted to say it. Her eyes were tearing freely now as she turned about, much in the same way she had done when Prance and she were sitting under their favorite oak. Shakily, she took a step, then another until she began to make headway on her trek back home.
“Sonata, what are you doing?” Prance gasped, running up to tail behind her.
“For once, I’m doing what I choose," she quavered, her voice coming a bit more confidently. "I’d rather return to take my chances begging for the Duke's mercy than to leave my life behind. My cottage awaits. Even one small moment's peace before I head to Goldenstalks manor should be enough for me.”
“I told you, you cannot,” Prance urged, his voice now low, nearly threatening.
“And I’m telling you, it no longer matters what you say!” She reeled about, her raspberry eyes boring into him until it was clear that she was understood. "You two had better leave."
Sonata turned again, and quickened her pace, intent on losing the stallion. In his desperation, Prance shook his head, and planted his hooves firmly in the soil.
“It’s gone!” he cried. The words echoed throughout the night, silencing the sounds of the evening into stillness. Sonata froze in her steps, and slowly turned about. An expression bordering on hysterical had already begun to spread across her face.
“W… what do you mean ‘it’s gone’?” she breathed, her chest now heaving. By this time, Lady Adagio had managed to catch up to them both. She stood by Prance’s side, looking anxiously from one to the other.
"Sonata... please," Prance pleaded as he watched his beloved friend's eyes go wide. Her head began to shake as she stumbled away from them on unsteady hooves.
"You're lying," she whimpered as tears again began to fall. The Duchess took this moment to step forward.
"He speaks the truth," she stated decisively. "We saw it using my magi—"
"You're lying!" Sonata screamed one more time before turning to run. Blinded by her tears, she allowed her hooves to do the work as the sound of Prance calling her name faded into the distance. As she ran faster and faster through the woods, she felt the flesh beneath her fur beginning to burn and singe. Time slowed, and the sounds of the evening echoed around her.
A creek, a log, a low hanging branch—The world now appeared to her in flashes as she watched her hooves moving of their own accord in a slow rhythm: up, down, up, down. Upward, higher and higher she went. It took a moment before it dawned on her that she was climbing something.
The heat that seemed to encompass her body wormed its way into the very center of her chest, and began to grow. The burning inside of her felt good, and so real that she swore she could smell smoke. There was a glint of red before her as the woods opened up onto a grassy ledge. She recognized those hills in the beyond, but why had the sky gone so crimson?
Rushing forward, really not caring if she were to go tumbling from the cliff's edge, Sonata bounded up to the top of the ledge, and froze to the spot when she looked out into the night.
Her eyes trained themselves upon a distant hill. They honed in upon a place where a tiny cottage once sat, lonely but happy, and surrounded by endless green. Sonata heard a scoff of disbelief escape her own throat as she noted that the hill was no longer lonely. Instead, it now crawled with shiny, glinting figures, soldiers in full armor, pushing themselves through crowds of country folk. Some of the common ponies had gathered in the spot to witness the ruckus whilst a few were being toted away in chains. Sonata couldn't bear trying to figure who they were. It was already obvious that they would be ponies she knew well.
The cottage was not the same as she had left it. Smoldering at the center of a raging inferno the tiny skeleton of a house could only barely be seen. The fire rose up toward the skies where encircling it was a host of winged figures—more pegasi. One flock was using their very particular talents to feed more air to the flames. Another group was flying about them in an even wider circle, moving thick clouds about so quickly that they seemed only an extension of the fire’s roiling smoke. The puffs poured water down around the inferno, drenching the fields, and protecting them from further damage.
Sonata felt her chest heave. In this setting and from this distance, those pegasi did look quite like the monsters out of Tartarus that Lady Adagio had mentioned.
"Tartarus," she murmured to herself, her head reeling.
As the plumes of smoke wafted into the reddened sky along with the ashen remnants of her life, the blue mare couldn't help but feel that her broken heart should have floated upward right along with them. Her raspberry eyes went dim, and the corners of her lips curled upward into an expression that had no name.
The sensation of such rage was a new one. Never before had she allowed herself to feel it with such hopeless abandon. Then again, never before had she ever felt, without a shadow of a doubt, that all hope for her future had been lost. She imagined there was a first time for everything.
The scent of smoke filled her nostrils. There was a humming in her ears, and her vision began to blur and dim until she feared she might pass out. That was when she heard a voice call to her through the haze. She turned to spy a white stallion and yellow mare running in her direction. Their hooves moved at an impossibly sluggish pace.
Her ears twitched. The winds picked up, and the branches up above were cracking like thunder, much louder than before. The shadows of the wood leapt out to surround them all.
Perhaps they would consume her, take her somewhere she didn't have to worry anymore, or work... or think. After all, there was no starting over from this place where she now unwillingly found herself. Nothingness was what she had come from, and now it seemed as if nothingness was all that was left for her to have.
The shadows were sprouting wings, one set gray, almost as dark as the night, the other set shining like the moon. They closed in toward the stallion and unicorn mare in front of her eyes. It seemed that neither of the two saw the figures darting out from the darkness towards them.
It was only then that those two shadows grew faces, familiar faces, utterly despised visages that made Sonata's stomach lurch. The sound of hooves crashing into the flanks of the two earthbound ponies was sickening.
As they both rolled away onto the ground, sputtering spittle and blood, Sonata allowed the feeling of utter disgust to fill her as she gazed upon Echo Hum and Silent Wing. The two pegasi had descended upon Prance and Lady Adagio with ropes, chains, and enchanted rings. In her daze, Sonata could just make out their wings flapping to and fro, blocking the two lovers from her view. Still, the only thing that she could fathom at the moment was how much she hated them—all four of them—for ending her everything, for making her like a ghost for the second time in her life.
Turning her entire body toward the tangle of ponies, the light began to dim before Sonata's eyes once and for all. The sky haloed her in red as she planted herself down atop the cliff, and sat stiff as stone. Something green and hazy began to grow on the edges of her fading vision just as she saw Silent Wing turn to approach her. The world flashed once in a shade of furious red, and faded to black.