I lurch forward under a creaking sound.
For the moment, I lose track of Spike's voice... his tiny red claw scrapes and frail breaths.
Why's it blacker than black? Have I been asleep all this time?
Oh wait. The Palace, of course. Sonuva...
I find myself trudging down the main foyer of the Princess of Friendship's Castle. Everything here is supremely dark, a reverse canvas upon which my magenta sighs melt, turning to dim ashes. Spike's ahead of me. He's a living pin drop in the middle of empty mindlessness.
Yeesh, no wonder Princess Twilight didn't like moving into this place, according to Rarity at least...
In truth, though, the silence is quite unnerving. I look left and right, gazing into desolate rooms with nary a soul to be seen or heard shuffling.
Where are all the guards? Everypony is gone. Even...
I crane my head to the side, tilting an ear towards the ceiling.
Nope. No brown here. He must be retiring to his bunk this evening.
What could have Twilight Sparkle all up in a tizzy? And in such a manner to demand an empty castle devoid of her Royal Protectors?
Not even the Elements of Harmony are here. Unless Spike counts. Wait... is Spike an Element? If so, then Harmony's super big on Gem-Eating and nopony has known it until now. Not even Princess Celestia...
"Miss Scratch! Snap out of it!" Spike hisses.
I wince. My eyes blink open just milliseconds before I risk trotting straight into a crystal column. Teetering to the right, I reorient myself, trailing after Spike's wiggling tail. I watch as he scampers on ahead, opens one of two double doors, and exposes a crystalline set of stairs leading down... down... down into further darkness.
Whoah... this place has a dungeon?
... ... ...and why are we headed there?
"Look, Miss Scratch, I know all of this must seem terribly... terribly rude," Spike says. "Freaky, even. But trust me..." He points down the stairs. "Princess Twilight needs your help. She's waiting down there right now. Just one flight down. I told her I'd fetch you super-quick, and here we are."
I cock my head aside. Gazing at him, I point curiously down the stairs.
"No, she... uh... she didn't ask for my help. Not this time." He leans back, wringing his claws. "She... uh... wants me staying here to look out for the Castle... to distract anypony who shows up until the two of you are done."
My lips purse slightly.
"Yeah. It's that serious. Just..." He waves a hand at the stairs. "Just go and talk to her. I'd do what she says if I were you. Not that... uhm... she'd do anything mean or cruel if you refused. I mean... I guess Equestrian law is pretty lenient on treason these days..."
I arch an eyebrow.
"Look, will you stop standing there?!" He huffs, puffs, and gives me a tiny shove. "I've done my part! Now you do yours!"
I wince, stumbling slightly as I find myself standing at the top of the stairs. The door closes behind me with a crimson clap of thunder. Rivulets of color echo outward, outlining the curved steps leading down in a spiraling arc. In return, a gray voice wafts up, once more outlining the steps for me.
"Spike?" Snowy, foggy breaths, sprinkled with panic urgency. "Spiiiiiiiiike?! Is that you?! Did you go get Miss Scratch yet? Is she home?"
Now I'm truly... seriously concerned.
With sudden wakefulness, I trot briskly down the stairs. I pause once or twice to adjust my shades. At last, with a flounce of my spiky mane, I clear the first flight. I level out on the first basement level. There, I see the Princess' soft outline in a cloud of black energy, like eerily backlit smoke.
"Vinyl Scratch!" She gasps, her gray voice issuing outward from the murky black haze above and behind her. "Oh, praise Celestia!" She rests a hoof over her chest, heaving. "For a second there, I thought you might refuse my request. Not that I would blame you, I suppose, at this hour and... c-considering how little a time you've been my minstrel..."
I blink. I point up the stairs.
But your little fire lizard summon made it sound like I'd lose my head...
"Spike isn't very graceful at what he does, but I'm proud of him for getting your attention right away by any means." Twilight proceeds to gallop back and forth between mana-powered instrument panels. "This is a matter of utmost important! A spontaneous friendship mission!" I can see now that he's a sweaty, frazzled mess. "And I'd be failing in my duties as a Princess if I let it fall apart! What's more... I'd be a really... really rotten pony!"
I glance to the side. I see two sets of saddlebags and... trenchcoats? I don't get it. Those outfits are so friggin' huge, they'd fit towering diamond dogs, not ponies. What in the hay is going on here?
"I know it's asking a lot of you, Vinyl, but I need to know whether or not you're one hundred percent committed to this..."
I glance awkwardly at her.
Committed to what?
"I've chosen you because... b-because of your unique senses, Miss Scratch," Twilight says. "But, it's m-more than that. You see, I went to the other side to check on my friends... erm... my other friends... and I discovered something very startling. I don't have the conventional magic to find all the clues I need. But you? You might stand a chance to help me snoop out the latest problem and get to the bottom of things! And... and..."
She scuffles to a stop. She turns to face me, and I see a confused pale unicorn's vexed expression reflected in her eyes.
"...the long and short of it is this." She marches firmly in my direction, powered by a panting, gray voice. "This isn't just any friendship mission. It's a mission to save someone whom I owe a lot to. A pony who helped me and my friends out when we desperately needed. And in the end, I think you'll find that you'll have saved yourself. Erm... eheheh..." She tries to smile, but her gnashing teeth makes it look like she's foaling a child. "It... it will make sense. Just trust me. Please." Gulping, she leans forward with sparkling eyes. "Can I have your helping hoof in this?"
I gaze at her. My eyes sweep across the basement interior, the blackness stretching beyond and above me. I suddenly want to be anywhere but here.
I don't realize I'm nodding until I hear her exhalation of relief.
"Oh, thank you... thank you, Vinyl. For the trouble... I-I promise to reward you handsomely. If... if that makes you feel any better."
I don't know what to feel.
"Alright. There's very little time, so I can't go over every single detail just yet." She trots across the room, approaching a tall black thing covered in an even blacker tarp. Only when she gets close to it do my eyes start to detect the contours of the obscuring fabric. "First and foremost, I need you to promise me one thing."
"I need you to promise not to panic." That said, she yanks the tarp off, and I find myself... looking at myself.
My muzzle twists.
What does my reflection have to do with anything...?
And that's when she cranks a lever. I watch as a magical tome lights up with electrical energy, igniting a glowing frame around the tall, tall mirror.
... ... ...huh...