• Published 11th Nov 2011
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The Sweetie Chronicles: Fragments - Wanderer D


Sweetie Belle must find Twilight by travelling through different Fanfic worlds...

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The Best Night Ever Part 3: Maze

Edits: Lammy & Fifth Alicorn / Proof: Super Big Mac & Trevor

“Oh sweet stars and heavens, please tell me the maze isn’t a transmutation circle,” Blueblood grumbled, the steady sound of his hooves on the stone floor preceding him.

Sweetie Belle hesitated and looked upwards to find him examining the metal manuscripts from behind her and overhead. “No, I think... I think it’s a pocket dimension matrix. Like the one for my notebook.” Facing forward again, she brushed away the empty scrolls and closed the notebook, showing him the gem-studded cover and comparing it to the diagrams laid out on the floor. “See? The matrix lines aren’t shown on the map at all, but all of these decorations and pillars serve as nodes.”

Blueblood brought a hoof up to scratch his chin. “I must admit, I know little of dimensional spells. Few ponies do.”

“Well... the main problem would be the key to activate it,” Sweetie explained. “My notebook is tied to me, so my own magical signature is enough, but if your ancestor put up a prerequisite, we would need to know a bit more about what she was doing when she built the maze to really have a chance at getting it right.”

“You believe the maze - the garden maze right outside the palace - may somehow open a dimensional portal or something?” Blueblood asked, incredulous. “I mean, this coming from the pony caught in a time-loop...”

“Take it from the filly that’s been jumping around parallel worlds,” Sweetie said, shaking her head. She carefully ran a small hoof over one of the steel plates, feeling the lines carved in the metal, the depressions filled with streaks of gold and copper. She was sure of this.

“The thing is,” she continued, and her notebook did a little spin in midair. “The matrix seems to be a pocket dimension, not something like what I’m experiencing.” She pulled out a folded scroll from her notebook. “I was given this spell to jump dimensions, and if you look at this, the elements required to create a matrix that will make me take a jump are pretty random.”

She pointed at the metal sheets and the cover of her notebook again, patting the latter lovingly. “The exact opposite of what we have here. These spell matrixes are very structured and straightforward. My notebook’s matrix isn’t designed to open the entrance to just any other dimension, only to contain a very specific one.”

Her voice took a lecturing tone, subconsciously mimicking her own Twilight during one of her many magic lessons.

“Spell matrices rely on nodes,” she told him, pointing her hooves at the nodes on her notebook, “and while it is possible to have a spell that works with a general objective in mind, such as the spell to return to Dusk and Elusive’s world, the elements used tend to be relatively adaptable. You can pick and choose similar objects, or even use symbolic ones at times. However, a dimensional pocket matrix would require static elements to keep the spell coherent. Just like the diagram in the sheet shows, each node has a specific location and purpose, which I imagine, in this instance, serve as anchors for the dimensional pocket, which must be massive!”

“There is no way a pony of any power level below Celestia’s would be able to funnel enough magic to force the portal open, which means that the key should allow for a spell as simple as the one for my notebook to open it, since it would be fueled by the magic in the nodes. Furthermore, the energy required for this to work on such a level means that it constantly feeds off of ambient magic; maybe even Discord’s own, since he’s a decoration out there. And if any of the other statues are magical—” she cut herself short, glaring at Blueblood. “You’re not paying attention.”

“No, I am,” he replied, albeit with a rather far off look. “But... those statues are...”

Before Sweetie could ask more, he coughed into his hoof.

“Well, I was going to have a little talk with Auntie come tomorrow’s reset anyway,” he said, and with a sigh, levitated over a scroll with a red and black seal set into a crystal escutcheon. “I’m quite sure you wouldn’t recognize this old sigil, but I do. This scroll here is a copy of a magical treatise written by one ‘Prince Sombra.’ It is on ‘discerning and dominating the intangible.’”

“Sounds interesting,” Sweetie said carefully, eyeing the scroll with a medley of naked interest, cautious wariness and growing curiosity. Sombra had written documents? If so, then they had to predate his exile or maybe even his conflict with Celestia and Luna!

“But I guess we should leave it for later. Even if Sombra’s spells sound promising...” She levitated her notebook and put it away in its pocket dimension, before turning to face Blueblood. “Well then... can you send a chariot to pick me up tomorrow morning? I’d like to be there when you talk with Princess Celestia!”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course!”

o.0.∞.0.o

Despite her words from the previous loop, Sweetie found herself growing slightly anxious. She blamed it on the waiting. Celestia was an approachable Princess and an approachable ruler, but having to sit in actual court - hearing her deal with other ponies - gave her an air of authority and majesty that left little room for the image of the prankster and sweet mare Sweetie knew her to be. If they had only just barged in from the get-go, Sweetie was sure her confidence from the ride over wouldn’t have started to evaporate.

“Are you sure she’ll be okay with me being here?” Sweetie asked nervously. “At this point in my counterpart’s life, I barely know her...” She shifted from hoof to hoof. “We have proof, but, don’t you have to convince her first that we’re repeating the same day? What’s the approach? What if she doesn’t approve of me as Twilight’s apprentice? What if she sends us away? What if she goes into the pocket dimension? What if... what if she created it?

Blueblood shared a comforting chuckle, patting her on the head, but gently enough not to mess up her mane. He had insisted she look her best for the meeting with Celestia, just as he insisted they follow procedure and protocol in arranging the private talk.

“I’m not sure, but if she’s upset, we can just loop again. I’ve known her all my life and I often think I barely know her. And, as for convincing her of the loops.” Blueblood sighed when he came to that item on their worry list. “It isn’t easy, so we aren’t going to bother. You aren’t Twilight’s apprentice today. You’re an aspiring young filly hoping to apprentice under ME and trying to impress me by researching one of my great and honorable ancestors. She won’t send you away.”

Sweetie took a few deep breaths, but noticed he had left one last question unanswered.

“And if she created it?” she repeated.

“Ah, well. If that is the case, it could be trouble,” Blueblood stated with a shrug. “Or potentially very useful. Either way, if we make a mistake, we just reset.”

“I don’t want to do what you do to ‘reset.’”

He eyed her with a hint of displeasure. “You weren’t supposed to—"

“You mentioned it before, not directly saying how or anything, but...” She saw his eyes tighten as he mentally kicked himself. “You know, I’m not as dense as you seem to think...” she muttered, looking down at her lightly polished hooves.

Rarity would’ve been tittering at the sight of her sister. Blueblood’s guards had picked her up at the Boutique as they always did on these Canterlot loops, but this time she had barely set a hoof on the palace grounds before a group of maids and servants had descended upon her. The Ponyville filly was washed, groomed and quickly fitted into a small white and violet dress.

“You aren’t dense, Sweetie,” Blueblood told her, leaning down to speak softly so only she could hear. “I just...”

“I know,” she interrupted him. She didn’t want to really talk about it either, even if it was a part of ‘life’ in the time loops. She felt she owed him an apology, too, and have his leg a gentle poke. “Sorry I brought it up, I - I know you don’t reset the loops like that anymore. Do you?”

He shook his head. “Once you start its hard to stop... but no, not anymore, Sweetie.”

“Good,” she decided, and promised herself she’d be the same.

They waited in the throne room during the morning. It was easily the strangest place that Sweetie had been to in her loops. Fancy nobleponies curtsied and bowed to one another, exchanged barbed insults and coy promises, and listened to and argued about the various petitions brought to the highest mare in the land. Sweetie stuck close to Blueblood; there were ponies close to her age there, but she couldn’t imagine what she would talk to them about.

They finally met the Princess during a recess, as she reclined on an aquamarine pillow large enough to comfortably fit three alicorns. She had only just finished eating a meal Blueblood called ‘elevens,’ and a stack of papers had been left on the floor nearby. When Blueblood and Sweetie Belle entered, the Princess put on a smile that may well have been endlessly practiced, but what was genuine was a reprieve from the hassles of her day and the light in her eyes at something new coming before her.

“Nephew!” she said, and even lying down, she was taller than most ponies. Her coruscating mane caught the light from a large bay window, shimmering like no substance in Equestria. Like pure magic.

“Don’t tell me,” she added with a polite titter. “Your date for tonight’s Gala?”

“I did ask her, but she politely declined,” Blueblood joked, and bowed his head to his Aunt and ruler. “Auntie, this is Miss Sweetie Belle. The one I mentioned at breakfast.”

Sweetie curtsied as best as she could remember from Rarity’s few attempts to teach her how to do so. Her eyes strayed to take in the room, trying to remember if Sunny had shown her any secret passages for this one. “Um...” She forced her eyes back to Celestia. “H-hello, your majesty!”

“Sweetie Belle,” Celestia greeted her with a smile and a presence that positively beamed. “I’ve heard about you, and I do hope to see your sister at the Gala tonight. You are always welcome under my roof, my little pony.” That one violet eye of hers turned to Blueblood, still warm, but also a little calculating and inquisitive. “Nephew, it is unlike you to even entertain the notion of a student or apprentice and you have often spoken of how you dislike foals. I hope this is not some jest played on our young guest here?”

“Auntie, you know me too well,” Blueblood admitted, bowing his head again, just enough to also lower his eyes. “The truth of it is that Sweetie Belle here has talent in both magic and music. What she lacks, and what I feel she needs from me, is my name. The prestige of being under my proverbial wing will guarantee her finding a proper tutor in Canterlot.”

Celestia’s pause was only a few seconds long, but it seemed unusually weighty. Blueblood shifted slightly, uncomfortable with her scrutiny.

“I am, in fact, being altruistic for just this once,” he admitted. “The only mage level tutor for Sweetie in Ponyville is your student, Twilight Sparkle. I assumed you would be averse to her taking an apprentice when she is still studying the magic of friendship?”

The Princess’s cheeks raised a little as her smile grew, and became truly genuine.

“That is very kind of you, nephew,” she told him and dipped her head in respect. “Very well. Though, for the record, I would not be averse to Twilight taking on a student of her own. She still has much to learn, but she has much to pass on as well. You say Sweetie Belle is in need of a tutor?”

“Oh, yes. You may be surprised.” Blueblood remarked with a smirk. He directed said smirk down at his charge. “Sweetie Belle? Surprise my dear Auntie, would you please?”

Sweetie gawked at Blueblood for a moment. “Seriously? Well... okay...” her horn flashed. And suddenly everything was pitch-black. Ignoring the surprised gasps from both her audience members, Sweetie quickly cast a few other spells, summoned her notebook, activated one of the gems, put her notebook away and then dispelled the magical darkness, revealing that the room had been painted a purple-blue color, and Sweetie Belle’s dress had been replaced by a sparkling little dress that had wings on it. She now wore a small crystal crown on her head, and a pendant with a purple gem on it.

When both, Blueblood and Celestia could only gape at her in awe, Sweetie shrugged. “Moon Power make-up?”

o.0.∞.0.o

“The twenty third Blueblood?” Celestia asked, as the three sat on white velvet cushions trimmed in cloth-of-gold. “Are you’re sure you wouldn’t hear of the forty seventh? Or the second? The twenty third was...”

“Crazy? Insane? Bonkers? Two pegasi short of a weather team?” Sweetie offered.

“Colorful,” Blueblood offered a more diplomatic description of the long-deceased mare and ancestor. Sweetie noticed that he held himself much more primly around the Princess, despite how casually he spoke.

“Sweetie’s research led me to investigate some of the spellwork done by the twenty third,” he added, flexing a bit of magic to materialize a wax-sealed scroll. “I thought to bring it to you, Auntie.”

“I see,” Celestia replied, nodding slowly and a little sadly. “I remember her. What do you wish to know?”

“I found out that the maze design is actually a spell matrix,” Sweetie spoke up. “I think it was designed for a dimensional pocket of some sort.”

“Do you have a map of the grounds?”

Blueblood retrieved the four metal sheets. “Fortunately, the Hocksford castilian knew just where to look in the archives. I had it flown over this morning.”

“A spell matrix,” Celestia mused, looking over both the four metal panes and a copy of Blueblood’s map of the modern maze. “There shouldn’t be... the area has magic, yes, but the weir root should counteract any potential mischief.” Her flowing ethereal mane concealed one of her eyes, but the other darted back and forth as she compared the recent document with the ancient copy. “Nephew, have you doused the grounds?” she asked, clearly seeing what Sweetie had noticed the loop before.

“I have a team working on it now,” Blueblood answered her, “but the results so far are inconclusive.”

“It has the lines for a spell matrix, buried under the maze itself,” she finally agreed, looking up from the metal plates and paper map. “But I most certainly have never seen a pony activate it. I’m not even certain if it would still function after so long.”

“Presumably, the twenty third would have had a way to activate it,” Blueblood said, glancing down at Sweetie Belle. “Like this good filly’s notebook.”

Celestia had not missed that.

“It begs the question of where she acquired such a thing,” the Princess thought aloud. “Especially in Ponyville.”

Sweetie Belle smiled as she felt her blood run cold. “I- it was actually a gift... from T-Trixie and Rarity.” She gestured at the gems. “My sister used her gem expertise to choose them and align them, while Trixie and—” she cut herself off, then sighed. “They put it together for me.”

“You wouldn’t mind if I had a look at it, would you?” Celestia asked, smiling gently to put the filly at ease. Her eye was still a little calculating, despite that. She had been duly surprised by Sweetie’s spellwork before, and the Princess wasn’t looking at her like a playmate or as the little sister of a friend anymore. This look was more critical, though Sweetie couldn’t blame Celestia for that, given the subject matter and how she had been presented to the alicorn.

Sweetie stole a glance at Blueblood before cringing and slowly pushing forward the notebook with a sickly smile. “J-just... be careful.” She touched the notebook lovingly and carefully. “It’s very special...” Her eyes seeked Celestia’s, knowing that at least her part of her ruse was over. “I-I really...” she trailed off, not knowing what else to say. It was up to Celestia now.

The Princess never opened the book - much to Sweetie Belle’s relief - she only examined the cover and the dimensional spellwork. The little filly felt a sweatdrop roll down her forehead. Given Murphy’s First Law, she considered the possibility that something inconvenient, like, say, her acceptance letter to Nightmare Moon’s school for Gifted Unicorns, could slip out. They’d have to try and pass it off as a joke if --

A page slowly slid out of the notebook, and Sweetie’s mind instantly going numb from the rush of sheer and absolute terror. She watched, holding her breath, as a page slipped slowly but completely out of the book. Sweetie immediately recognized the crescent-moon seal that had been stamped on top of Celestia’s own. Her eyes went wide as Celestia looked down curiously at the fallen page - perhaps to put it back in place - and paused.

She could see the Princess’ eye widen at what she was reading and her control on the notebook shook but for a moment. Suddenly a picture fluttered down to the floor to join the page before, showing a group of mostly drunk mares, a young mare, and, in particular, a pregnant Rainbow Dash.

Celestia’s mouth slowly opened as the rest of the contents of her notebook fell on a pile of notes, spells and pictures.

“This...” Sweetie groaned. “Is. The. Worst. Possible. Thing!”

“What in...?” Celestia began to say, and the other eye appeared behind the flowing beauty of her mane, roused by her surprise as Sweetie Belle’s magic quickly snatched everything back and shoved it into the notebook.

“Next loop, can you please remove those?” Blueblood asked, sighing softly.

“Are you crazy?” Sweetie snapped. “If I take them out I could lose them!”

“We’ll have to test that, then.”

“Nephew! What IS this!?”

“Oh dear.”

o.0.∞.0.o

Sweetie Belle didn’t like dog-earing one of the pages of her notebook. But... this was for science. For SCIENCE! Surely Twilight would understand that. There-there was no need to—if only she hadn’t left that list she’d made a few loops ago at Sugarcube Corner, there would not be any need for this!

“Oh, dry your tears,” Blueblood told her, waving a hoof as he made to trot away. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“And where are you going?” she called to him, but he was already back up and on his chariot outside. Not far away, Rarity was behind her little sister, staring in confusion at the Prince who had come and gone just to watch Sweetie Belle mangle a book.

“I think I’ll try going south today,” he called out. “If I hurry, I may just be able to find a comely Saddle Arabian mare to take to the Gala.”

What!” Rarity blasted out of the doorway at that. Blueblood’s laughter died away as his chariot took off, circled Ponyville, and disappeared behind a cloud.

o.0.∞.0.o

Sweetie stole a glance at Blueblood before handing over the notebook to the Princess. It was still special to her, and she still wanted Celestia to be careful with it... but, apparently, it reset just like everything else. Science. Why were you so indifferent and inconvenient?

“Please be careful with it,” she asked anyway, even though it technically didn’t matter that much in light of the time looping.

“Of course,” Celestia promised sincerely.

Just like before, the Princess never opened the book, studying only the cover and the dimensional spellwork. All the juicy stuff inside had been taken out and left on a shelf in her room at the Carousel Boutique. The Princess of the Sun in this world had not reacted very gaily to certain things within.

Though she had laughed at the picture of the pregnant element of loyalty.

Everypony found pregnant Rainbow Dash funny, apparently.

“As you can see,” Sweetie said, pointing with her hoof to the map, “the nodes are working in a similar way, which leads me to believe that the maze has an anchored pocket dimension, rather than it working as a portal to a whole other reality.”

“Prince Sombra was also known for his dimensional magic, and I remember seeing copies of his works in the archives of the twenty third,” Blueblood added. “Perhaps there is a connection?”

“Sombra’s magic was activated and empowered by strong emotions,” Celestia explained, floating the book back to Sweetie Belle. “Blue Belle... the twenty third... was not a hateful pony. I know she studied his spells, as was her right as a Blueblood, and she could be very passionate at times, but I never felt strong, negative emotions within her like with Sombra.”

“But, if negative emotions can fuel magic... couldn’t positive ones do it just as well?” Sweetie Belle asked. “The key should be something that was important to her, but other than her notes and the fact that she seemed the studious type and that she went...” Sweetie coughed. “Well, you know, she wasn’t all there at the end of it... other than that, we don’t know much about her.”

Celestia nodded, closing her eyes and thinking carefully about just what to say.

“Blue Belle was indeed a studious pony,” the Princess said at length, opening her eyes and gazing at her two guests. “She was a warrior as well, assisting our griffin friends in the ouster of an imposter alicorn and her attempted coup in their kingdom. She researched many kinds of magic and worked very hard, even if her raw talent wasn’t on the level of, say, Twilight Sparkle.”

Celestia chuckled briefly, remembering the diligent little filly as she did all her subjects. “She was rightfully very proud of her accomplishments. Funny, now that I think about those times, she said more than once that she fancied herself a perfect match for the Element of Magic.” The Princess looked out of the window to the sky outside. “As time went by, Blue Belle read into more and more obscure and esoteric knowledge. With her bloodline and her fortune, she was able to procure all sorts of materials to work with. It... became an obsession which I could not understand until... until that day, when she told me she had fallen in love.”

“She fell in love?” Sweetie Belle asked. “But... we didn’t see any indication of—”

“She couldn’t be with the pony she wanted,” Celestia interrupted. “That was the reason she wanted, or rather needed, to study so much and experiment with dangerous magics and portals. Whoever this pony she loved was, she believed he was trapped and there was no known way for her to release him.”

Sweetie watched as the Princess sighed sadly. “W-what happened then?”

“While it was being built, she became obsessed with the maze,” Celestia said, her thoughts clearly on that day. “The poor mare seemed fine, otherwise: she was able to hold conversations like she could before she met this mystery pony, she had no difficulty overseeing her lands... but things became worse as time went by. Understand, it was taken for mere eccentricity at first, and our family is no stranger to a certain capriciousness.”

Blueblood snorted at that remark, but otherwise kept silent.

“When the maze was done... she just started to fade away. Her mind was always distracted and she would be lost in her own thoughts at all times. One day, she slipped out into the maze and didn’t come back.”

“D-did she disappear?” Sweetie asked.

“No,” Celestia shook her head sadly. Even centuries later, she still loved and mourned those close to her that she had lost. “They found her, lying in front of the central obelisk. The poor little pony had passed away.”

“She refused to marry,” Blueblood said, also momentarily lost in thought. “So she was in love...?” He looked down at Sweetie Belle, and she could see that he was thinking just what had come to her mind as well. “Auntie. Are you sure it was a ‘he?’”

“I... well, no,” she admitted, after a moment. “Now that I think on it, it may not have been. But nephew, Blue Belle’s lover wasn’t anypony. He or she was just a figment of her imagination.”

Sweetie looked at the map once more, thoughtfully chewing her lower lip as her mind tugged at her. There’s just something I’m not seeing! But what? She looked from the map to her notebook, then to Celestia and suddenly...

“Wait... she said she thought herself a perfect match for the Element of Magic?” Sweetie asked, eyes widening.

“Yes.” Celestia nodded. “At first I thought it odd, but she had mastery over a great range of magic so the jape was understandable. It was often believed at the time that if a pony reached a certain magical threshold that she could--”

“But, what if she wasn’t joking?” Sweetie Belle pondered.

“What are you implying?” Blueblood asked.

“Twilight’s fragment,” Sweetie said immediately. “It all makes sense! The fragments I’ve found so far contain a bit of her personality. If Blue Belle found the fragment and communicated with Twilight... she could have fallen in love with her! And she couldn’t have ‘rescued’ Twilight from the crystal, because Twilight is the crystal!”

She stood up and paced around in front of both royals.

“Blue Belle fell in love with Twilight... why not? They were both extremely smart, gifted in magic and she could probably communicate better than most ponies could with Twilight. She - she must have found the fragment and tried to study it and... she couldn’t get Twilight out, so she studied how to open dimensional doors and create pocket dimensions... when she gave up, she hid the fragment in the pocket dimension so that nopony else could get to it!”

Sweetie took a deep breath before letting it out slowly. “I-I messed up somepony else’s life again... if I hadn’t - if Twilight...” she closed her eyes. “This is my fault.”

“What... is going on?” Celestia asked, directing the question less to the filly on the verge of tears and more at her frowning nephew. “What does Twilight Sparkle have to do with any of this?”

“Your Twilight, her Twilight, different ponies, and frankly I’m not entirely sure.” He trotted over to Sweetie Belle and, to Celestia’s surprise, nuzzled the filly - though it was as much to get her to comport herself as it was to offer comfort. “Sweetie Belle. Let’s not repeat this loop, shall we? And what’s done is done.”

Sweetie Belle sniffled, but nodded, pushing the dark thoughts to the back of her mind and taking a long breath, trying to calm down. “I’ll be okay...” she whispered after a moment. “I think... we have our key.”

“Perhaps,” Blueblood agreed, whispering. “But how to turn it?”

“Nephew,” Celestia’s voice echoed in the room with barely any hint of patience left in it. “You will not dismiss me again like that and you will tell me what this is all about. Now.”

“Um... y-yes, auntie.”

o.0.∞.0.o

The pair stood in the middle of the maze, and Sweetie Belle closed her eyes, extending her senses. They had appropriated the entire loop for today’s efforts, and Blueblood had guardponies patrolling the grounds to keep away inquisitive guests. The work had not escaped the notice of Princess Celestia, however. Blueblood fully expected they would have to tone things down in the future so as to arouse less suspicion. For now, though, they were in the clear.

“I have a theory,” Sweetie Belle began. “If this is indeed what we’ve assumed it to be, then casting my spell to open the dimensional portal should work. We just need to focus it on something else... we need to have a point of connection, where my magic and the spell matrix can commune. But, now that we know that Twilight’s Fragment is in there, I believe I can simply focus on the energy of her magic, rather than the empathic link I have with my notebook... I’m very sure I felt the fragment’s presence during an earlier visit... I just need to find it again.”

She leaned forward and put a hoof on the obelix, searching for the familiar energy signature.

In her mind’s eye, Sweetie Belle followed little snippets of energy, looking like glowing smoke of different colors against the darkness. Now that her concentration was on the magical fields and the nodes of the spell matrix, she had to wonder how in Tartarus she had actually managed to miss that in the first place. Eventually, following threads of magic that suddenly shot from one end of the maze to the other, she happened upon a much lighter energy, but it had the distinct feel of Twilight’s magic to it.

“Blueberries...” Sweetie murmured as she opened her eyes and turned to look at Blueblood. “I found her...! I’m going to cast the spell, focusing on Twilight’s shard. Stay close to me, I don’t know what will happen.”

“I am in your hooves,” Blueblood said, a strangely amusing statement, since he followed it by ducking down close to her: a stallion who had to be four times her own weight or more. He sounded eager to see what she had uncovered right in his own proverbial backyard.

Sweetie rolled her eyes and instead of making a remark, decided not to waste the energy and applied it to her spell instead. The point of focus was the monolith at the center of the Maze, where she cast the same spell that she would have used for her notebook. As she had explained to Blueblood, however, instead of grasping the link that readily appeared in her mind’s eye, she latched onto the nebulous presence of Twilight’s magic.

The spell started to work, and as the air around them shimmered with a angry-red energy that seemed to permeate their skin, the monolith seemed to rip in half as a rift appeared down its middle and slowly spread open until it formed an oval window into another, similar area.

Sweetie whistled, impressed. “Wow. Um... after you, Blue.”

“Me?” The esteemed Prince asked, aghast. “What happened to ladies first? Or, better yet, mares and foals first?”

Rather than argue with the lout, Sweetie used the most devastating weapon in her arsenal: the look. Staring up at him with big, teary, pleading eyes, she was almost instantly rewarded with a semi-committal, “eeegh.” It was a sure sign of his weakening resolve as an adult. Only a few more seconds and...

“Fine!” Blueblood grumbled, throwing up his hooves. “I guess I’ll go prance into the shimmering purple rip in space and time. But mark my words!” He pointed at Sweetie Belle as he backed up towards portal in magic and space. “One day you’ll get older and that pouty face won’t work. And then you’ll become a teenage mare and it’ll work again. But then you’ll get old and it’ll stop working.”

“Says the pony who won’t even be able to stand!” Sweetie muttered just loud enough for Blueblood to hear.

“You’ve been warned...” he finished, ominously, slipping through the wall of purple magic. “You’ve been warned!”

After a moment of staring at Blueblood standing on the other side of the portal, and with nothing happening or him bursting into flames, Sweetie decided that it was safe enough to step in.

As soon as she was inside the pocket dimension, the doorway behind her sputtered and died. So much for being able to go back, at least for now. Sweetie blinked. “Okay, that was not part of the plan.”

O-oh! Hey! Guests!” A familiar voice suddenly exclaimed as a plume of purple smoke circled both Blueblood and Sweetie Belle before hovering above them. From within, Twilight Sparkle’s face emerged, a wide grin showing how happy she was about having them there. “And it’s none other than Sweetie Belle!”

She looked at Blueblood, and not in as friendly a manner. “Aannnd... Blueblood,” she deadpanned. “I was not expecting you, of all ponies. Not that I was expecting Sweetie Belle either, but the two of you together? Hm. Rarity would not approve of one such as you prancing around with her sister.”

“One such as me?” Blueblood asked, taking a long look at the smokey pony. “Oh, yes... I sometimes forget, you’re the first-loop Gala ponies. Well, I wouldn’t want my little sister hanging out with me either. I’m a terrible influence.”

Sweetie Belle nodded emphatically at that.

“You were supposed to disagree and vouch for my character!” Blueblood lamented. “Like ‘aw, you’re not so bad’ or ‘you’re a good pony, really’ or ‘you’re not a terrible influence.’ Something like that, maybe!”

“But... how about that talk we had about sleepovers? Or when you took me binge-drinking?”

Twilight’s eyes flashed. “What?!”

“Wait, Twilight!” Sweetie spoke up quickly before her mentor started flinging spells. “Blueblood’s actually been a very nice pony; he helped me learn how to sing, and got me classes with Princess Cadance! I can sing much better now! And I learned how to play the cello from Octavia Philarmonica!”

Twilight looked at Sweetie Belle with mounting confusion. “But... how? And Sweetie... you look younger than the last time I saw you... but of course! Yes! That makes sense! You are also travelling to different worlds with different time frames! But why didn’t you end up trapped in a crystal like I did?”

Sweetie winced. “Um, that’s a long story, Twilight. Once we reach your fragment, I’ll tell you all of it, so, how about you tell us where you are?”

Twilight Sparkle’s head smiled from within the folds of purple smoke. “Well, I’m in the middle of the maze, of course! And let me tell you Sweetie, Blue Belle wasted no effort in making it creative and deadly! It’s too bad she... went away and never came back...”

Sweetie Belle exchanged a confused and worried glance with Blueblood. “But... you’ll tell us how to get there safely, right?”

“Oh, no! I couldn’t do that! After all, Blue Belle put a lot of effort into it to protect me! You’ll have to survive the maze to get to me. There’s no other way!” Twilight giggled. “I’ll wait for you to pass the first challenge. Good luck!” And with that, she faded away.

“I’d say she held on to her sanity remarkably well for being in isolation for a couple hundred years,” Blueblood observed, nodding sagely with a hoof cupping his chin. “Heaven forbid we don’t end up risking life and limb. That would be too easy. But at least she wished us luck before returning to her magic lamp.”

“I’m not a genie!” Twilight’s disembodied voice felt the need to argue. “And how many hundreds of years was it?”

“One, two, three hundred, whatever.” The Prince waved a dismissive hoof at the air, and the Twilight fragment in general. “Once we find your crystal, I mean to give it a good rub and find out the truth for myself.”

“... I’d rather you didn’t.”

“Me neither!” Sweetie gave him a good poke in the leg just so he got the picture. “Do you try to annoy every mare you meet?”

“The ones I don’t try and sleep with?” He stared down at her, eyes half lidded. “Actually, yes, I do.”

“Charming,” Sweetie deadpanned. “So what is the first challenge?”

“Ooooh! Something simple!” Twilight quipped, back in a good mood. Though just shadows and light, the sound of two hooves clopping together excitedly was unmistakable. “A race!”

Two shimmering forms appeared close to Sweetie and Blueblood, becoming more and more solid until they were spectral imitations of Applejack and Rainbow Dash. It didn’t take more than a few seconds to see that they were just that: imitations. Rainbow Dash’s trademark color scheme was reversed, and she already wore a Wonderbolts uniform... a very anachronistic one, with padded shoulders and buckles around the waist and chrome buttons closing it up with a single breast at the front. A pair of ancient looking leather goggles rested on her coif of a mane and for some reason, she had a prominent eyepatch over her left eye.

Applejack didn’t escape the anachronism, either. She looked like the old pictures of Granny Smith that Apple Bloom had shown everypony for her school report. Right down to the braided tail and neatly trimmed mane beneath her too-large hat. It looked like somepony had taken the general description of the two, but reimagined it through dusty, three hundred year old glasses.

Which, Sweetie supposed, somepony actually had.

“First,” Twilight’s voice announced, “We have the Running of the Leaves: Blue Belle’s edition! The participants will race as a team against each other, and if Sweetie Belle and Blueblood win, then they can actually access the Maze of Death!”

“Question,” Blueblood said, raising a hoof. “Why is it called the Maze of Death?”

In response to Blueblood’s inquiry, a patch of grass just next to him snapped shut with a metallic clang after suddenly sprouting a set of serrated spikes.

“Because it is!” Twilight giggled.

“Blueblood... I’m not too sure about this...” Sweetie Belle said from her perch on his back, where she had jumped when the trap had been activated by Twilight.

“You heard the completely lucid Miss Sparkle, it’s just a name, and definitely not ominous in any way.” Blueblood didn’t make any attempt to move or dislodge the filly from her safe spot on his back, however. “So, where are we racing? I doubt we’re supposed to chase our tails?”

The featureless black floor trembled as a finish line emerged from the grounds behind all of them, little banners already fluttering in the lack of wind. Melting upwards, like a movie of a candle burning in reverse, hills and trees grew to form a rustic backdrop, only to vanish behind thick hedgerows. In front of them, a line indicating the route shimmered into existence. Having seen a few Running of the Leaves contests, Sweetie Belle found it all rather familiar. Blueblood, on the other hoof, seemed repulsed by the mere threat of purposeful physical exertion.

“You will run around the maze!” Twilight declared. “For this one challenge, there will be no traps! Just race to the best of your abilities and achieve victory for your right to enter the maze itself!”

“You’re kidding,” Sweetie Belle growled. “You’re kidding, right? You expect us to race against Rainbow Dash and Applejack and win?

“Nope!” Twilight replied cheerfully. “I don’t expect you to win at all!”

“Clearly,” Sweetie gritted her teeth. Then took a deep breath. “Well, Blueblood, the way I see it is that it’s probably a reflection of Twilight’s own experience in the Running of the Leaves race,” Sweetie explained. “So, I think if we take the race slow but steady, like she did, we should arrive before them.”

“I’m willing to try slow and steady,” he agreed, gauging the competition. Rainbow Dash was limbering up, stretching her legs and wings, while Applejack munched on a pre-race apple. Where she had gotten it from, Sweetie couldn’t imagine. They were all smoke and mirrors anyway.

“I wonder how much substance there is to them,” she heard the stallion mutter. “They aren’t real, of course, so then what are they made of? Perhaps some first-hoof investigation could...” Noting the little filly glaring at him, he chuckled and faced forward, stamping one hoof on the ground. “Quite right! No time for distractions. We’ll keep a good measured pace!”

“Right!” Sweetie agreed, more than a little self conscious of her less than long strides. How fair was it to have a filly race against grown mares, anyway?

“GO!”

o.0.o

“Huh. We lost pretty badly.”

Sweetie Belle felt a rather Rarity-esque scream building in the back of her throat as the fake Applejack and Rainbow Dash high-hoofed and then rump-bumped each other in mocking victory.

“Next time!” she told him. “We’ll get them next time!”

o.0.∞.0.o

Blueblood cantered to a stop, Sweetie Belle draped across his back.

“We lost again,” he observed, as the duo crossed the finish line.

“Oh yeah!” the fake Rainbow Dash cheered. “We’re the best!”

“Darn right, sugarcube!” the fake Applejack chuckled, glancing back at their competition. “Those two didn’t stand a chance.”

o.0.∞.0.o

Sweetie Bell fell to the ground, panting, her forelegs stuck out in front of her. It was impossible! Impossible!

“I need longer legs!” she yelled, cursing her little filly hooves. “Dumb legs!”

Blueblood, meanwhile, had to sit down nearby with a black eye.

“That apple farmer has no sense of humor,” he huffed. “As for the pegasus, I prefer the real one. She was much easier to tease.”

“We’re not going to win by flirting with them!” Sweetie yelled, sadly too tired to try and choke the annoying royal stallion.

“Oh?” he asked, a little too smoothly. “Probably not. But you never know.”

o.0.∞.0.o

“You know,” Sweetie Belle said to Rainbow Dash as soon as Twilight had materialized them both and announced the next race. “It’s too bad you can’t race by yourself, I bet you’re faster than Applejack is, but I guess you don’t care about proving you really are the best of the best.”

Rainbow Dash stopped stretching and gave Sweetie Belle an intense look. “Heeey! What did you just say?”

“Oh! Nothing,” Sweetie shrugged. “You know, I’ve met a few Rainbow Dashes in other worlds, and they were very competitive and proud of how hard they trained. They wouldn’t have teamed-up with the one pony who was close enough to be their equal until after they proved their worth. But, if you feel like risking it by going a bit slower for her... who am I to stop you?”

Sweetie Belle trotted away, keeping her ears trained on the two mares. Soon enough, Rainbow Dash walked up to Applejack and the two mares started discussing something in hushed tones.

It wasn’t too long after that that Applejack’s indignant “Y’all think Ah’m gonna slow you down?!” brought a smile to her lips.

She took her place next to Blueblood, and watched as the two mares glared at each other, postured and ended up by bumping hooves in a decidedly hostile manner.

“Discord, thy name is Sweetie Belle,” Blueblood whispered, altogether very pleased by what he had seen. The uncouth Prince even winked, approvingly.

“I am the Scion of Chaos,” Sweetie agreed, winking back.

“Everypony to their starting places!” Twilight Sparkle called. “And may the best team win!”

“The best mare!” Rainbow Dash whispered, loud enough for all runners to hear. “The best mare will win!”

Applejack’s grinding teeth were just as loud.

o.0.o

Sweetie watched in amusement as Rainbow Dash and Applejack dragged themselves to the finish line several minutes after she and Blueblood had arrived. Both mares looked like they had wrestled and tumbled their way through the track rather than actually attempting to run it.

“That was a good race, girls!” she teased, unable to help herself. “I’m glad I got to compete with two sport-ponies like yourselves!”

The only response was an unhappy glare from both mares as they faded away and Twilight’s voice echoed around them. “That was an interesting race! Brought back some good memories! Welp, since you both beat the race, I guess you get to go into the Maze of Death! Con-gratu-lations!”

Twilight’s hoof-claps accompanied the statement.

“Or,” she asked with a mischievous titter. “Should I be offering my condolences?” Her titter quickly devolved into a full blown ‘Bwa-hah-hah-ha!’

“Is this maze really that bad?” Sweetie Belle asked, trembling a bit.

“See, now I’m not sure who was more loony,” Blueblood commented, glancing at where the fake Rainbow Dash and Applejack had just been. Already the scenery for the race was slouching away. “Blue Belle or Miss Sparkle here. Why are there traps here to begin with?”

“Blue Belle wanted this place to be really secure!” Twilight explained. “So she tied all the spells onto my fragment, and I fueled them with my knowledge and creativity!”

“That isn’t a good thing, is it?” Blueblood asked, looking down at Twilight’s loyal apprentice.

“I don’t think so, especially since Twilight’s ‘creativity’ would usually break the minds of lesser beings.”

o.0.o

“...a challenge requiring your knowledge of spells and how to use them creatively! The clues are rather easy, so when you figure out what to do, just cast the spells in the right way to pass!”

“That sounds... fair...” Sweetie ventured. “What’s the catch?”

“You only get one try. If you make one mistake... crunch,” Twilight informed them.

“Crunch?” Sweetie asked, not liking the sound of that.

“Or splat, I guess,” Twilight acknowledged. “It depends on your exact position. I’d say sixty percent crunch, thirty five percent splat, five percent other. ”

Sweetie stared silently at the fragment, before looking at Blueblood. “I really, really don’t like how that sounds.”

“Neither do I,” Blueblood replied. He held out a hoof to help Sweetie jump up and onto his back.

The pair followed a long sinuous road through the maze until they reached a small bridge, going into what seemed to be a giant bowl, with a tower in the middle. Sweetie Belle jumped down from Blueblood’s back, and her hooves clanged when they touched the surface of the bridge.

“It’s some sort of metal,” she observed, tapping it a couple of times. “Very sturdy.”

“That’s not all,” Blueblood said, drawing her attention to their destination, just up ahead. Coiled around what they could now tell was not a tower, but a column, was a metal rail of some sort. Overhead, they could make out another bowl, balanced on top of the column.

“What sort of test is this?” Sweetie Belle asked, taking a closer look at the column. It was made out of blocks; some were made of ice; some with something that looked like ashes; others were blocks made of clouds, much like what pegasi would use, and finally the last type, were made of rock.

“It’s an elemental magic and control test!” Twilight said cheerfully. “You have to use the right spell to go through the tower and get both bowls close enough for you to exit. There’s no cheating!”

Sweetie looked at Blueblood. “What should we do? I’m not sure how to do this. I don’t think my heating cantrip will melt all this ice anytime this century.”

“So, are you doing this as a team or individually?” Twilight’s fragment asked.

“I’ll go first,” Blueblood volunteered, though a bit grudgingly. “Not to be chivalrous, but just because I can teleport away if there’s trouble.”

“You can?” Twilight’s fragment asked, sounding both surprised and upset. “No teleporting! The whole point is that if you goof, you go splat!”

“Ehhh.” Blueblood’s well-versed language of disgusted noises once again proved how useful it could be in practice. “I’m not really fond of splat.”

“Too bad,” the fragment informed him. “All inappropriate magic will be suppressed within a radius around the test area.”

The Prince glared at the smoky mare. “I think I prefer the real Miss Sparkle.”

“Hey! I’m real!” The fragment paused, contemplatively. “I’m pretty sure I’m real.”

“Are you sure that you want to do this alone, Blueblood?” Sweetie asked, “Don’t you think I could help? What if something happens to you because I’m not there?”

“We’ll catch it on the next try then,” he replied.

“There is no next try if you fail,” Twilight corrected him.

“Sweetie,” he said, seriously, looking back at her as he entered the bowl. “You’re a clever filly, and if we have to do... that trick again, you’re the best one to observe and pick out the details a certain somepony will need. Besides,” and this he added with a smirk. “This isn’t a flying pastry. I’m not going to let you go into this yourself, first time. I don’t mind dying that much anymore; this kind of job is rather perfect for me.”

“But...” Sweetie tried to protest, voice dropping to a whisper. “I don’t want to see you die...”

He should have realized that, too, but the stallion was oblivious. He didn’t seem to care if he died, but he hadn’t given much thought to her own views on the matter. Blueblood was already looking around the trap, surveying it with his magic and feeling out the four pillars. Sweetie tried to think of a way to get him to be more careful, but quickly realized that he was right... in a twisted sort of rational way.

“Fine!” she said, while he mentally charged up a spell, holding the energy coalesced around his horn. “But try and get it right the first time, okay?”

She stepped back and climbed onto the metal bridge, which detached from the bowl and slowly rotated back towards the labyrinth. It stopped close enough for Sweetie to be able to recognize the materials of each block, once she’d actually seen what they were.

Unable to do much, Sweetie settled herself to watching in silence as Blueblood turned around the column a couple of times, finally releasing the spell he had begun to cast earlier. His target was the block of ice, and the spell was some sort of heating magic, amped up. It hit the pillar, but before it could begin to melt, the whole thing shuddered - absorbing the magic. A resounding crack made her wince, and turn her head up, just in time to see the metal bowl at the top tip sideways, some unknown dark cloud within it swirling around and threatening to spill over as it inevitably slid down on its side.

She screamed in horror as Blueblood managed to avoid getting splashed, only to get crushed under weight of the upper bowl. There was a brief flicker of light, the impression of a last ditch attempt at telekinesis, but only in the span of time it took to blink. Literally, it was over in a second. Her eyes hadn’t been fast enough to follow it all, but her ears had, and she wished they hadn’t. A pony shouldn’t have to hear what another pony sounds like when it gets crushed.

Sweetie Belle simply felt her hind legs give and suddenly she was sitting on her haunches. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from it. “T-that could’ve been me.”

“Well, I told him he’d go splat!” Twilight’s fragment chimed in, apparently amused by the spectacle. “I told him! He didn’t believe me and now he’s pulp!” she giggled.

She actually giggled.

“How can you be like that?!” Sweetie snapped, glaring viciously at the fragment’s ghostly form. “Since when have you not cared about when ponies suffer?”

Twilight’s fragment seemed to ponder Sweetie’s question.

“Since ponies stopped caring about me,” she said. “The last one was Blue Belle. And she loved me. But after she built her maze, nopony ever came to visit. Nopony cared. So I had to learn to enjoy what I had and, if I worry about anypony that comes here, how can I do that?”

Sweetie Belle felt tears travel down her cheeks. “I’m going to beat your stupid labyrinth, and I’m going to find the real you!” She stood up and started walking out of the labyrinth. “I hope you enjoy the rest of your day like you’ve enjoyed the last three hundred years, fragment.”

“What do y—”

Not waiting for Twilight’s fragment to finish its sentence, Sweetie cast the dimensional pocket spell again, opening a path to Equestria right in front of them. The fragment seemed to lose the ability to speak when the blue sky was revealed past the ethereal gates. Sweetie snorted and stepped through, turning to face Twilight’s fragment with a cruel sneer.

“This is the world you’ll never see again,” she muttered venomously, releasing the spell the moment the fragment seemed to be about to speak again. The portal collapsed and Sweetie Belle was suddenly alone in the maze. She sat in front of the central obelisk for a few moments, silent and still until her body shook with powerful sobs. She barely heard the sound of Celestia and Blueblood’s guards converging in on her. She didn’t have an answer when the Princess asked what had happened to her nephew.

All she could do was wait for the day to mercifully end.

o.0.∞.0.o

“Com-ing!”

Sweetie Belle snorted, pushing herself out of the bed when Rarity’s call woke her from her musings. Shaking her head, she started brushing her mane, when her sister shouted again, this time directed at her. “Sweetie! Get up! Scootaloo and Apple Bloom are here!”

For a moment her mind blanked, but then she remembered. It wouldn’t be her friends this early. She immediately scrambled out of the room and down the stairs, not even heeding the chairs she pushed out of the way when Rarity opened the door and stared in abject shock at the smiling prince just outside their door.

“Miss Rarity, isn’t it?” he said, reaching out to gently but boldly take the mare’s hoof. “I am Prince Blueblood. I hope this is no imposition? I’m here to see one Sweetie Belle about a Canterlot scholarship? She does live here, doesn’t she?”

“Oh. Oh, yes! She does, but—" Rarity swooned as Blueblood raised her hoof to his lips for a chaste kiss. He had determined it was the easiest way to take the Element of Generosity out of her element and assuage suspicion in general on his visits.

Sweetie launched herself at Blueblood and hugged his neck. “Don’t ever do that to me again!” she cried, burying her face on his chest and sobbing.

“She means, uhm... don’t ever surprise her without writing first?” Blueblood tried to explain as Rarity’s expression darkened. He patted the little filly on the head affectionately. “Did I mention the letter she wrote to me that won the scholarship? It involved a charming tale about her sister and her meeting a Prince at the Gala?”

“Why is she crying?” Rarity asked, still suspicious.

Blueblood gave a weak laugh in response. “Tears of joy. Right? Miss Sweetie Belle!” That last part preceded him turning her head around to take in the full glory of a Rarity one remark away from calling the gendarmes. Of which Ponyville had none anyway. But it was the thought that counted when it came to that anyway.

“I thought... you were dead...” Sweetie sniffled, turning to look back at him.

“Dead?” Rarity asked, catching onto that one word.

“Just some trouble in Canterlot,” Blueblood tried to explain, blue eyes darting left and right anxiously. His snout scrunched up as he tried to come up with a good lie, and Sweetie almost went from crying to laughing in the span of a heartbeat. “Merely an altercation!” he boasted, a large hoof to his chest as he preened. “The danger was minimal!”

“How...” Rarity began to say, when suddenly her eyes sparkled with delight. “How chivalrous! Please! Come in for some tea and we’ll talk all about Sweetie Belle and her scholarship, and whatever this... daring... rough... scandalous business was in Canterlot!”

“It would be my pleasure!” Blueblood said, and the moment Rarity turned around he raised an eyebrow that seemed to say, ‘Auntie’s flanks, here we go again.’

“Blueblood,” Sweetie whispered, still attached to his chest. “Promise me you’ll never make me watch something like that again.”

“I suppose I wasn’t thinking of what you’d see,” he admitted, looking genuinely contrite for what he had put her through. “I’m sorry for that, Sweetie Belle.” He patted her on the head again, smiling as if to assure her he was okay. “It won’t happen again, I promise.”

Sweetie nodded and released her hold, allowing him to pass her by before following him into the kitchen to hear about his “daring deeds,” and agree and nod whenever appropriate.

o.0.o

“Blueblood, what happened when you cast your spell? I couldn’t see exactly what happened from my angle, yesterday.”

“Hard to say. I think my spell was absorbed by the frozen column, and that triggered something... not a controlled melting as I had planned. It was like it blew up.”

Sweetie nodded pensively, looking over the edge of the carriage that was taking both of them to Canterlot. “I need to learn spells to help. I can’t just... sit there and see you try and be— I just can’t leave you to that fate alone, okay? This is elemental magic we’re talking about. How about we cover the basics with some attack spells and see if that works? Maybe the order in which we cast them is important?”

“It may be so,” Blueblood mused, glancing out the window of the carriage. It was a slower trip to Canterlot, compared to the Friendship Express, but it also allowed him to conduct business via pegasus flyers who came and went. “Sweetie Belle, you know I’m not normally the sort of pony to throw himself into danger... or even inconvenience, really. I do so hate being inconvenienced. But I’d rather not put you into that trap either.”

Sweetie’s eyebrow twitched. “Are you saying I’m an inconvenience?” She looked up at him and glared. “I’ve been shot at. Chased by werewolves, almost bludgeoned to death by ghouls... and that’s when I don’t have the chance to try again! When we figure this out, I’ll go into another world, and I might die. I don’t know what will happen, but if I can learn to better defend myself through these resets, then I want to learn! Last time I missed my chance to learn that lightning bolt spell... and I might really need it. Or a fire spell, or ice or water or whatever. If you’re just going to do things because you think I can’t take it...” she looked away. “I’ll just open the gate by myself. I’ll die a few times before you even begin to learn the spell.”

He turned his eyes from the rolling mountainside road outside to her. She didn’t even have to pout or use the puppy eyes to get him to relent. She didn’t want to, anyway. This was serious, and he realized it, too. It just took him a little longer to see it from her perspective.

“I’d almost forgotten about that,” he admitted, nodding slowly. “When you leave, the only pony who can protect you is... you. So! You need to learn some combat magic of the elemental variety? I may know a pony or three.”

Sweetie grinned. “Yesss. And I get to learn that lightning bolt spell that I missed last time, right? Hey! Maybe I’ll get a really cool cutie mark, like the elements or something! Elemental-Master Cutie Mark!”

“I’m not terribly fond of that sort of magic myself,” he said, but couldn’t quite put a damper on the happy filly’s spirits. “It isn’t that common in dueling, and my own talent for it is... subpar. First things first, I’ll find a tutor for you in the city.”

Blueblood’s eyes crinkled slightly as he examined Sweetie Belle.

“Yes,” he concluded. “That one may do.”

o.0.o

‘That one’ turned out to be none other than Fleur-de-Lis. The beautiful model was a minor noble and owed allegiance to the Bluebloods of Canterlot. Unlike many other ponies, like Octavia, there was apparently no need to have Sweetie approach Fleur herself. By the time they had arrived at Canterlot, the carriage rolling up to a plaza of Equestrian statues and streaming banners, Fleur and a few other ponies were already in attendance. She bowed, gracefully, as Blueblood approached and kissed her hoof quickly.

“Your Grace,” she greeted him, rising from her bow and striking a pose, one slim hoof tucked in.

“Kind of you to come on such short notice,” he said, and gestured to the filly accompanying him. “This is Sweetie Belle. Sweetie Belle, Fleur-de-Lis, heiress of the Iris family.”

“Um, hello!” Sweetie Belle smiled sheepishly and waved a hoof. “Nice to meet you!”

“Wonderful to meet you as well,” Fleur said, lowering her head to eye level with the filly. “Aren’t you just the most adorable little thing?” A hint of mischief entered her eyes as she looked up at Blueblood. “I was unaware you had a daughter, your Grace.”

“Oh, he didn’t tell anypony and made me promise never to mention it,” Sweetie bubbled out. “But he’s a great daddy!”

Blueblood coughed, hoof to his chest. “I fear I’ve actually come to spoil her, of late,” he said, quickly shifting from momentary shock to comfortable fabrication. “Sadly, one area in which her education is lacking is self defense.”

Fleur seemed to accept this as fact rather readily. “A young Lady must know how to defend herself,” she agreed. “Especially the daughter of a Prince.”

“I had thought about seeing her to one of the royal guard ponies-at-arms, but...”

“She’s too young,” Fleur interrupted, her earlier deference towards Canterlot’s Prince and Duke disappearing. With long strides and swan-like grace, she circled Sweetie and Blueblood both. “On first look... I don’t think she has the body for guard type fencing. Her legs will be long when she grows up.”

“They will,” Blueblood assured her. “I’ve seen her aged up using magic.”

“How recently?”

“Very. Very recently.”

“So she’ll have my body type, or something close to it?” Fleur asked, nodding to herself. “You want to teach her I Quattro Elementi?”

“Can you?” he asked, simply.

“She’s still very young... when I was her age, I could barely lift a cup to my lips.”

“Sweetie Belle has the power of my own bloodline,” he assured her, and the praise felt a little strange to the filly. “The Element of Magic has tutored her before; you’ll find her far more capable than most any other pony her age.”

Fleur frowned, still dithering a bit on whether to commit or not. “Your Grace...”

“I would prefer to entrust this to a pony I have faith in,” Blueblood said. “I would think well of your help in this, and your discretion. Fancypants would find it convenient as well.”

“May I speak with her in private?” Fleur finally asked, and Blueblood nodded. He walked a distance away back to the carriage, where he waited. Once he was gone, Fleur’s smile returned as she looked down at Sweetie again.

“Lady Belle,” the beautiful model greeted her. “Have you been taught any elemental spells before?”

“Um, only the most basic aspects... I can heat up things, cool them down and a basic wind-based spell that allows me to clear up grime,” Sweetie Belle responded. It was actually quite a lot for a filly her age to know, but in sharing it with Fleur-de-Lis, Sweetie felt a little embarrassed by how underwhelming it had to sound.

“That isn’t bad, but, more importantly, have you been taught any... graceful spells?” Fleur saw the confusion on Sweetie’s face and explained, “I take it most of your spells are those that require ‘charging.’ Setting one’s hooves in place and building up power in the horn? A graceful spell is one that can be cast without the need to brace oneself. It is perfect for striking a pose and using magic at the same time, or for moving and doing the same.”

“Hm,” Sweetie considered. “I didn’t learn any of those. Except perhaps my shield spell.”

“‘I quattro’ refers to both the four magical elements ponykind can manipulate, and to the four hooves all ponies have,” Fleur told her, taking careful steps around Sweetie Belle, her hooves moving one in front of the other like a cat walking along a line of rope. “The description is somewhat deceptive: it means, ‘without the four hooves; with the four elements.’ Grace, poise, movement and magic are used to defend oneself against the more brutish forms of dueling.”

“To see if this suits you as your... father thinks it may, why don’t you try some hoofwork?” Fleur’s steps became shorter as she trotted off to the left and then to the right. In her wake, she left little glowing hoof-prints. They were spaced too close together for the leggy mare, but they were just filly-sized. It was magic, of course, but Sweetie hadn’t even noticed Fleur casting the spell.

“Go ahead,” the older mare prompted. “Follow the steps quickly, but gracefully, and without losing your balance. First a trot and then a canter.”

“Okay,” Sweetie nodded after studying the hoofprints. “I’ll try it...” She stepped on top of the glowing marks and slowly tried to imitate Fleur’s movements.

However, it was clear that she needed to do it faster, so she hurried up the pace on the return but didn’t account for how quickly she needed to cross her legs under her.

“Aaah!” Sweetie Belle managed to shout in the brief second it took her to end up rolling on the ground. “Ouch,” she muttered, standing up and trying once more. This time, it was her hindlegs that betrayed her, her left hoof colliding with her right when both were in the air.

Sweetie huffed in annoyance and tried once more, this time starting again slowly and putting her whole attention into each step, and steadily speeding up until she was moving as quickly as she could without falling.

“How’s this?” she asked.

“Too stiff. You’re trotting as though you have weights attached to your legs,” Fleur said, and walked a more adult-sized V just as easily as she would a runway. Her movements were fluid and easy, and Sweetie sighed at having to mimic them. She felt small and stubby, even moreso than when she tried to emulate Rarity’s poise.

“You must be comfortable in your movements,” Fleur instructed. “Do it again, if you please.”

“I’m getting a book on this as soon as I can get my hooves on Twilight,” Sweetie muttered, attempting to move more fluidly like Fleur had instructed. Rather than flow, however, she simply ended up jumping from one position to another. “How do you do it?”

“Practice, of course.” Fleur, as she always did, struck a pose, this time showing off her delicate neck and Princess-like nose. “If you like, I can recommend a few manuscripts to read on I quattro... Lady Prima Donna published several books on the subject for courtly ladies to study.”

o.0.∞.0.o

To Sweetie’s annoyance, Ponyville’s Golden Oaks library did not have even one of Lady Prima Donna’s books on “courtly magic.” To her delight, Blueblood instead had a copy of all four of her books delivered from Canterlot before noon.

Each book was lavishly illustrated with pictures of fair unicorn mares, most of them with Fleur’s lithe form, engaging in poses as part of a movement or duel with other mares. The first book focused purely on movement and balance and the effect of matters of timing and riposte, in laypony’s terms: avoiding being hit and releasing one’s spell to counter an opponent. The third and fourth manuals were treatises on fighting other styles of opponents, with the last having a final section on using the environment and conjuring up cover while fleeing or otherwise ‘maneuvering.’

When Rarity had found out what Sweetie had in the mail - by snooping of course - she had rather eagerly offered to help her little sister learn ‘poise and refinement’ even if she objected to any sort of dangerous activity.

“That’s right, Sweetie!” Rarity cheered, studiously ignoring Scootaloo’s gagging sounds as Sweetie Belle tilted her head just right, a rather thick book on needlework balanced behind her horn. “Now, the posture has to look elegant, but allow you to keep your balance... just as if you were modeling...” Her eyes brightened and she giggled with delight. “I-de-a! We need Fluttershy!”

“But Rarity!” Sweetie groaned. “I don’t want everypony to find out I’m learning to duel!”

“Nonsense, dear,” Rarity chided as she herded the fillies towards the door. “You’re just growing up a little and recognizing your future as a proper Canterlot lady. Now, let’s go get Fluttershy! Oh, this will be so much fun!”

o.0.∞.0.o

“You say you’ve learned the basics already?” Fleur asked, incredulous as Sweetie trotted the V without missing a beat. “Remarkable!” She extended a leg, and Sweetie hopped up onto it, taking balanced steps forward and backward, swaying her head side to side.

“Very nice!” Fleur complimented , smiling in delight. She lowered her foreleg and Sweetie jumped down onto the plaza floor, keeping step with the older mare as she cantered, turned, posed, and cantered back. “Your balance is good... but...!”

Sweetie Belle ‘oofed’ as she suddenly fell onto her side, thanks to a gentle telekinetic push.

“Try it again,” Fleur said, her horn glowing with a soft pink light. “If you can keep from falling in the steps when I give you the occasional push, then you’ll be ready.”

o.0.∞.0.o

It was back to the V but this time there were several of them to follow in the plaza tile. Sweetie Belle cantered forward, retreated, jumped to another set, repeated, reversed, all while Fleur trotted in a slow circle around her, giving the occasional unbalancing telekinetic shove. The slim white mare wasn’t a very strict teacher, not like Twilight could be, but she was a little pushy. If she felt Sweetie could do something, she immediately pushed her into doing it. If there was some problem, it was sorted out in the doing rather than before or after.

“Ice,” she instructed, even as Sweetie felt a magical force try to trip up her left hind leg.

A cold wind circled the filly’s horn as she pranced, still keeping from falling.

“Good!” Fleur complimented, and a tiny fire spark shot from her horn like a flare. Sweetie moved while trying to hit the falling flare, a few gusts of cold wind barely visible in the air, except one finally hit, and the flare was instantly extinguished.

So far, she had only been taught a basic version of ranged heating and cooling, along with a wind spell designed to help power pegasus cloudmagic. By Fleur’s own description, they were also useful in a general sense: cooling a pony in hot weather without a hat, warming a pony while in a cold climate, especially when that pony prefered not to wear clothing or could not do so because of her station and job. Earth magic was the most difficult by far for a unicorn to replicate, so Fleur had saved it for last. Before then, and for several loops now, Sweetie had dropped hints about another spell she hoped to learn...

“Lightning magic comes from wind,” Fleur lectured as they continued their exercises in the magnificent Canterlot plaza. “Pegasus ponies press the wind together, like two sheets of fabric. Electricity builds between the sheets of wind. One way for a unicorn to do the same is to circle the winds around your horn, from the base to the tip. Then you will be able to use Sublime’s Scintillating Sparks spell.”

“Hm, I never thought to learn the lightning spell for formal dueling,” Sweetie said, tapping her chin thoughtfully. “I thought I could just summon it from the friction particles in the air, possibly increasing the magical output to increase the quantity of bolts exponentially, using it as an area effect rather than a simple single bolt of deadly force, effectively reducing a large force to charred remains!” She brightened. “But! Now I can look really cool while frying ghouls!”

Fleur chuckled, an airy laugh full of infectious cheer. “You wish to smite an enemy with a bolt from the heavens?”

Sweetie shrugged. “Or I could levitate a large stone and drop it on them, but that’s not quite as fast as I would like.” She blinked. “Wait, I did just say that...”

“My family has served the Bluebloods for a century,” Fleur reminded her, and a little push prompted Sweetie to pick up her pace. “If you desire a spell that can destroy any number of enemies, it should be at your hooftips. Just ask your father.”

‘It is a great honor to be invested and raised as a Princess of Equestria. One does not refuse such an honor. In the past, my family made sure no pony refused it.’

“N-no,” Sweetie stammered, falling back into the patterns she was learning. “I’d rather not. I don’t even know why I said that.” She shook her head, trying not to unbalance herself in the process. “I think learning this style is what I need... not to turn into... into somepony scary like that.”

Fleur smiled. “There is something to be said for speed and grace rather than power. The more powerful a spell, the more vulnerable the one casting it. Or, as the saying goes, ‘a lion still fears a snake.’ Do you still wish to try Sublime’s Scintillating Sparks?”

Sweetie nodded enthusiastically. “Please teach me!”

“To start you off, why don’t you come here and I will ‘pass’ the spell onto you.” Fleur lowered her head, and Sweetie could see faint movement in the air around her long, thin horn. She broke from her steps briefly, and approached the older mare. Their horns touched for an instant, and Sweetie felt a swirl of wind begin to circle her horn... slight at first, but then with growing pressure.

“Push the wind together, little by little,” Fleur said, raising her head. “Just how much depends on the pony and the size of their... equipment. Start with a few small sparks so you don’t get hurt.”

Sweetie frowned.

“Only sparks?” she asked, taking some time to purely concentrate on the invisible forces circling her horn. Closing her eyes, she could imagine two of Rarity’s ribbons, wound tight and rubbing together, or even that time Scootaloo had rubbed her hooves on a carpet to zap Apple Bloom. Capturing those images, that feeling, she could feel through her own magic... it was there! She could feel the wind and the particles begin to bend to her desires!

A tingling preceded the first of what became a steady stream of sparks. Suddenly, a miniature bolt of electricity flashed from her horn to burn her nose. “Ow. Hey! OW! Why you... ow! Grrr. Ow! Ow!” Finally, once every hair of her mane was standing on end, she lowered the amount until just a few flashed here and there. “Ok, there. Just like you told me.”

“That was remarkably quick!” Fleur exclaimed, having seen the little bolt of lightning for herself. She clapped her front hooves together excitedly. “One or two more times - without zapping yourself now - and then repeat it while on the V. I will conjure up a target.”

“Right!” Sweetie nodded, this time trying to stay as simple as possible and keep her movements on the patterns. “But, I was reading on some books that this style works in different ways depending on your opponents, how will I learn that? And what about two mares using the I quattro elementi? I read the theory but it’s kinda hard to imagine!”

“You must always think on your hooves,” Fleur said, resuming her circuit around Sweetie as she practiced. “Be nimble of mind and body, and graceful as well. Lady Prima Donna invented the style so that she could look good while winning, and not simply standing in place and straining away at one huge spell or another. As such, the wise filly must be ready to adapt to her circumstances and watch for an opening. Then, when that opening presents itself, you strike without warning.”

She nodded, approvingly, as Sweetie continued her rounds despite a forceful little push to the side. Sublime’s Scintillating Sparks produced a glittering trail of white and yellow lights in Sweetie’s wake, a trail of light in the air made by her swishing head and mane and her faintly glowing horn.

“Most important is to be graceful, even in defeat,” Fleur reminded her, striking a pose with one foreleg and one rear leg extended. “You seem to be have taken to Sparks very readily, so why don’t we try something more... challenging?”

Fleur suddenly jumped in front of Sweetie, smiling even as she cast a trail of ice in front of the filly. Sweetie had to scramble for a moment to keep from falling on her rump, but once she did, a long prance carried her away from the ice and back onto solid ground. She was just in time to see a small orange and pink fireball flying towards her.

Eyes widening, she moved out of the way even as she instinctively started raising a shield. She stopped herself, allowing the fireball to pass by her instead of taking it head on and breaking one of Fleur’s very first lessons: keep moving. Her response instead was to follow her duelist instincts and await Fleur’s next attack: a small burst of air that almost pushed her back... but allowed her to retort with a quick tap to the ground.

“Dammit,” she whispered when Fleur’s prance put her well out of the range of the small explosion of rocks she had sent her way. And suddenly she was prancing herself to avoid a quick succession of small elemental effects cast her way. Seeing an apparent way out, she quickly cantered out of the latest mini-fireball trajectory... only to slip and fall when she stepped on the initial ice trail Fleur had cast.

“It seems... I have a lot to learn...” Sweetie sighed. Then she got a particularly interesting idea. “But I know how to get some much needed practice for these and all my other spells, too...!”

o.0.∞.0.o

“Hey, Blank Flanks!” Diamond Tiara called, sneering. “Why don't you go dig in the trash for your cutie marks? I'm sure you can find something that'll fit you just fine in there!”

“Just ignore them, Scootaloo...” Apple Bloom whispered when the orange-coated filly growled.

“Yeah, don't worry, Scoots. I got it.” Sweetie Belle grinned as her horn lit up with magic.

o.0.o

“I don't care what she said!” Miss Cheerilee shouted, pacing angrily in front of Sweetie Belle. “You don't light a pony's tail on fire for being obnoxious!”

o.0.∞.0.o

“I don't care what she said!” Miss Cheerilee shouted, pacing angrily in front of Sweetie Belle. “You don't light a pony's tail on fire for being obnoxious!”

“But it was an accident!” Sweetie Belle lied. “And I put it out!”

“Sweetie Belle,” Cheerilee growled. “Freezing Diamond Tiara’s tail solid might put out the fire, but it still is not right!”

o.0.∞.0.o

“I don't care what she said!” Miss Cheerilee shouted, pacing angrily in front of Sweetie Belle. “You don't put a pony in a sinkhole for being obnoxious!”

o.0.∞.0.o

“I don't care what she said!” Miss Cheerilee shouted, pacing angrily in front of Sweetie Belle. “You don't light a pony's tail on fire for being obnoxious!”

“But, I fixed it!”

“You froze her!”

“And I fixed that too!”

“By setting her on fire again!” Cheerilee shrieked. “Her coat was completely burned off! It'll take months for it to grow back!”

“She'll get over it.”

“That's it, I'm calling your parents!”

“Go ahead, I’ll keep practicing my spells until I get them right. Besides, they’re on vacation.”

“Corner. Dunce hat. Now.”

o.0.∞.0.o

“Have any of you seen Diamond Tiara?” Silver Spoon asked.

“Uh...” Apple Bloom tore her eyes from the gray coated squirrel being chased by Opalescence.

Scootaloo quickly blocked their view. “No.”

o.0.∞.0.o

“Horseapples!” Diamond Tiara shouted, drawing shocked gasps from all the other colts and fillies in the classroom.

“Diamond Tiara!” Cheerilee scolded her. “We don't use that vocabulary in class! And for your information, it's common knowledge that Princess Celestia was alive a thousand years ago! She’s—”

“Bucking moronic!” Diamond Tiara snapped, eyes wide as she covered her mouth with her hooves.

“What. did. you. say?” Cheerilee growled.

“See no evil, hear no evil...” Snips whined, covering his ears and closing his eyes while he rocked back and forth in his seat.

“Diamond Tiara, you will stop swearing in class this instant, understood? You are already in deep trouble as it is!”

“Poxy-spectacled Horseco—”

o.0.∞.0.o

“Hey, Blank Flanks, why don't y—” Diamond Tiara stopped when she noticed Sweetie Belle was not listening. “Heey! I'm talking to you!”

“Ugh...” Sweetie groaned. “I'm sooo over that idiot.”

Apple Bloom and Scootaloo snickered.

“What did you call me? Blank flank?” Diamond Tiara growled loud enough to draw the attention of other colts and fillies in the playground.

“I called you an idiot,” Sweetie replied. “A moron. A dunce. A cretin. An imbecile. A blockhead. A dimwit. A ninny,” Sweetie elaborated, punctuating every insult and slowly walking around Diamond Tiara, her poise and steps unconsciously adopting the forms of the i quattro elementi. She snorted in disdain, something she had learned from the best —the smug nobles of Canterlot— and glared at Diamond Tiara, who suddenly didn’t look so sure about herself anymore.

“You are a classless poseur, Diamond Tiara. You assume that having a cutie-mark that symbolizes little else than a pampered upbringing gives you a right to lord it over everypony else. But your tiny sliver of pride comes from bullying and bits of gold, not tradition... or bloodline... or magic... or even talent.”

When Diamond Tiara made an attempt to retort, a quick canter to the side and a whiplike tap to the ground sent a small flame between her legs, making her squeal in fright and jump back. Looking up she immediately found herself facing Sweetie Belle again, green eyes boring into her and finding her lacking.

“What are you going to do?” Sweetie asked, tossing her mane and looking down at Diamond Tiara. “Call for daddy? Guess what?” Her horn lit up and a shimmering dome materialized around them. “If he was around, he could hear you... but nopony can help you. It’s just you and me.”

“I-I’m... s-sorry...” Diamond Tiara whinnied.

Sweetie chuckled, a cold, sad, unhappy laugh. “No, you’re not.”

A trail of ice followed her statement, making her opponent scramble back, but not too far. A small explosion of earth threw Diamond Tiara to the floor.

“You’re not sorry!” Sweetie yelled, suddenly. “You’re never sorry! You’ll never BE sorry! And you have no idea how tired I am of you. But now look,” she said, quietly, gesturing towards the dome. “Listen to how quiet you are. What’s happening, Diamond Tiara? What’s the difference? Why aren’t you taunting me and my friends anymore? Tell me. Prove to me how much better you are because of your cutie mark! You are still better than us, aren’t you?”

“N-no...”

“Are you going to keep bullying us blank flanks?

“No...” the spoiled, rotten little filly cowered under her hooves. “No-please...”

Sweetie frowned when she felt somepony putting pressure on her shield. Not taking her eyes off of Diamond Tiara, she conjured a small lightning bolt that did little but sting and frizzle Tiara’s mane. “I guess we’re done for now. And even if you will have forgotten by tomorrow, remember this for the rest of the day: You’re nothing.”

She stepped back. Just as her shield was dissolved, Diamond Tiara was picked up in a lavender-red aura of magic and carried out of her vision, which was suddenly filled by Rarity’s glare. “How dare you!”

Sweetie blinked and looked around. Most of the colts and fillies were staring at her in horror, others were looking towards a crying Diamond Tiara with pity. Twilight Sparkle was performing some sort of magic test on her, while Cheerilee hysterically motioned towards Sweetie Belle with her hooves.

“I—” Sweetie swallowed. “I just defended myself! She’s been bullying us!”

Rarity shook her head, the anger in her blue eyes increasing, sharpening. “What I saw there was not Diamond Tiara bullying anypony. I saw my little sister torture and taunt a defenseless filly!”

“But, it was a duel!” Sweetie Belle protested. “She challenged me!”

“A duel!?” Rarity screeched. “That was not a duel! She doesn’t even know what a duel is! She’s a filly! Just like you! Dueling is not something you do with actual spells at your age! I should—”

“I believe that was the I Quattro Elementi,” Twilight Sparkle interrupted, having finished her check on Diamond Tiara. “Perfectly executed for a filly your age.” She gazed at Sweetie steadily. “You’ve been practicing for awhile.” She started walking around Sweetie Belle, not unlike the way she had done to Diamond Tiara earlier. “Nopony in Ponyville would know how to teach you that. Were you sponsored by a noble? But why would anypony train you at such an age? It doesn’t make sense.”

“I don’t even care right now where she learned such spells or... or the form which you were using! What I want to know,” Rarity growled, pointing with her hoof at Diamond Tiara, “is what made you think terrorizing a filly with magic attacks was the right way to deal with bullying!”

Sweetie’s eyes widened. “I-I should... I’m sorry...” she looked down. “I know I’m grounded but... I’m going to apologize.”

Rarity and Twilight looked at each other before nodding. They followed Sweetie Belle a few steps behind as she made her way, head down, to the sniffling Diamond Tiara.

She didn’t get very far before a gray-coated filly stood firmly in her way. “You’re not getting close to her again.”

“S-Silver Spoon,” Sweetie stammered. “I-I just wanted to—”

“I don’t care what you want,” Silver Spoon stated. “You cannot see her.”

“But—”

“Ah think you should go, Sweetie,” Apple Bloom interrupted, walking up to stand to Silver Spoon’s left. “Maybe later you can apologize, but Ah won’t let you get any closer to Diamond Tiara than this today.”

Sweetie’s eyes started to sting a little, her vision wavering with forming tears.

“Go home, Sweetie,” Scootaloo added, stopping to Silver Spoon’s right. “I dunno what happened to make you act like that, but I really don’t want to hang out with you today either.”

“But... all I want to do is apologize!” Sweetie complained.

“Well, unless you’re going to blast us all out of the way, you can’t!” Scootaloo snapped.

Sweetie looked from Scootaloo to Apple Bloom and back, not even attempting to keep her tears in check. “But we’re Crusaders! Why—”

“Crusaders ain’t bullies,” Apple Bloom said firmly, making both Sweetie Belle and Silver Spoon flinch.

“Come on, Sweetie Belle,” Rarity said from behind her. “You will get your chance to apologize for this abhorrent behaviour. But not right now.”

Sweetie nodded and slowly walked away, following Twilight and her sister out of the school grounds. She could hear both unicorns arguing back and forth about her skills, the magic, the i quattro elementi, her age, the bullying again... none of it made sense to them. Why would it? She wasn’t the Sweetie Belle they knew. She sighed and stopped for a moment, watching the two mares walk ahead.

These two were her most beloved family besides the Crusaders. One a mentor and friend, the other her sister and, in her original world, the mother she never had. She glanced back at the school, and saw the two fillies she considered to be her sisters, Scootaloo and Apple Bloom, looking at her.

They held her eyes for a moment before turning their backs to her and trotting into the school house. ‘Sure, just turn your backs on me, what good is a friendship with fillies who won’t even take my side?’ Sweetie thought, her eyes darkening before they widened at the realization of what she had just been thinking. She slumped on the floor, thick tears splashing on the ground between her forehooves.

“I didn’t mean that!” she cried, burying her face in her hooves. “Wh-what am I turning into?”

“Nothing that you don’t want to be,” Rarity said sternly, startling Sweetie Belle.

She looked up to her sister’s kind eyes and, forgetting all about the world, she threw her hooves around Rarity’s neck and cried as hard as she could, while her sister held her close with one hoof around her back.

“I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry, sis! Twilight! I didn’t think... I just - I just reacted and she’s made me so angry! All this time! You don’t know! Every day she does it! Every day! And... and I was just so angry!

“Hush now,” Rarity whispered, her own eyes brimming with tears. “I know you’re sorry, and we can talk more later, but you’re still grounded.”

Sweetie simply nodded into Rarity’s coat. “I’ll make it up to her somehow,” she replied, not willing to let go.

“Good, that’s a start,” Twilight spoke up with a small nod. “Sweetie... whoever is teaching you... are they good ponies?”

Sweetie took a deep breath, before stepping away from her sister and nodding at them both.

“Good,” Twilight said. “Today’s not the best day to get all the details, but let me tell you something Princess Celestia told me once. She told me that ‘there is much more to a mentor or teacher than knowledge imparted. It is imperative that they are good ponies because they are your moral compass. Learn from them not only spells or information, but the proper and right way to use what you know.’”

She thought back to Fleur, and imagined the slim unicorn shaking her head. ‘Putting another mare in her place is fine, but that wasn’t very beautiful, or necessary, was it?’

Twilight looked at Sweetie with a small smile. “I think, Sweetie, that if your teachers are good ponies, like Miss Cheerilee for example, you should focus as well on their philosophy of life and their moral outlook. Let them guide you so that what happened today doesn’t happen ever again.”

Sweetie trotted up to Twilight and surprised her by giving her a tight hug as well. “I will, Twilight. Thank you... for another lesson.”

Twilight Sparkle gave her a good hug in return before releasing Sweetie. “Now, you should go with Rarity, you are grounded.”

Sweetie couldn’t help but smile. “Yeah... and I have to plan something as well.”

Rarity and Twilight exchanged a look.

“And what is that, Sweetie?” Rarity asked.

“A way to make it up to all my friends... and not-so-friendly schoolmates.”

o.0.∞.0.o

“And what are you doing here, Blank Flank?”

Sweetie sighed and looked up to where Diamond Tiara was sneering at her, Silver Spoon standing next to her with a confused expression, for once unsure on how to act. Every day, they did this. Every day, they repeated the same old insults and tired lines. Even when Sweetie left town, she knew what was repeating itself in her absence, what her friends endured. She’d stopped counting the loops after a hundred, but every day it was this, and every day it made her mad.

It still did, truth be told. It probably always would.

“I...” Sweetie Belle swallowed and took a deep breath, her horn lit up, startling both fillies until the box Sweetie had been carrying on her back levitated up to them and opened. “I brought you two some cupcakes and... I was hoping we could walk to school together and I could get to know you better.”

Diamond Tiara frowned, looking at the cupcakes. She raised a suspicious eyebrow at Sweetie Belle. “Why? Is this some sort of trap?”

Sweetie shook her head. “No... I just... want to be friends.”

Diamond Tiara snorted, but took a cupcake and gave it a tentative bite. Her eyes widened. “These are...!”

“... your favorite?” Sweetie Belle giggled. “I asked Pinkie Pie about it and you know she knows everypony and what they like.”

“Are those... banana cupcakes?” Silver Spoon asked, peering into the box.

“Yep, for you,” Sweetie replied, levitating one out for Silver Spoon.

“I guess we can hang out until we reach the school,” Diamond Tiara grudgingly conceded.

“Great!” Sweetie grinned. “Why don’t you tell me about how you got your cutie marks?”

o.0.o

“You walked to school with them? Them!” Scootaloo asked the moment she had skidded to a halt in front of the three fillies, who were seated at one of the small tables in the playground.

Behind her, Apple Bloom staggered off the wagon and had to take deep breaths before she could regain her composure. “Scootaloo, never again, Ah mean it! Never again are you to do a spinning jump over ducklings with me in the back seat, do Ah make myself clear?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Scootaloo waved a hoof. “What I want to know is why Sweetie Belle is with Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon!”

Sweetie grinned sheepishly.

“What, can’t she, like, hang out with us?” Diamond Tiara asked dismissively. “Maybe she wants to do better in life. If you don’t want to be a blank flank, maybe you shouldn’t hang around with other blank flanks, right?”

“Tiara,” Sweetie Belle chided, motioning for Scootaloo and Apple Bloom to sit with them. “Scootaloo and Apple Bloom are my best friends, don’t treat them like that!”

Diamond Tiara grumbled, glaring, but to the surprise of Scootaloo and Apple Bloom, she left it at that, choosing to stuff another cupcake into her mouth instead of retorting or insulting them.

“Here girls,” Sweetie Belle levitated another box of cupcakes. “There’s more, I have apple cupcakes for you, Apple Bloom and blueberry cupcakes for you, Scootaloo.”

The two crusaders looked at each other and shrugged, digging in. Sugarcube Corner cupcakes were always a good way to let bygones be bygones. For a day, at least.

Then, after a moment of silent munching, Scootaloo spoke up. “Heeey... since when can you do magic?!”

o.0.∞.0.o

“T-that wasn’t so bad,” Sweetie gasped, falling flat on her back. “At least you didn’t completely demolish me this time.”

“Of course,” Fleur smiled, lying down next to the exhausted filly. “Your performance was excellent for a filly that learned most of this from books and observation. You make your bloodline proud, Lady Belle.”

Sweetie shot her a look. “You don’t really believe I’m Blueblood’s daughter, do you?”

Fleur somehow found a way to pose and look pretty even while lying on her stomach. She flicked her soft pink mane, using a hoof to idly fluff one of the delicate curls. Her violet eyes narrowed slightly and she laughed.

“I had a mane like yours when I was little, you know?” she asked, but shook her head. “So pretty! And I love the little natural curls you have. With your coloration, your poise, and your magic, it is possible you could be a filly of the Blueblood line, but I never really believed you were Prince Blueblood’s. His Grace seems very fond of you, even now I’m sure he’s waiting and straining to hear what I’m saying to you, but I know for a fact that he does not want foals and would take certain measures that protect his bachelor’s lifestyle.”

“You must be an apprentice of his,” she speculated and pursed her lips. “Or the younger sister of a lover, perhaps?”

“I think of him as an older brother,” Sweetie said after a moment of thought. “It took some getting used to his quirks but...” She smiled and looked towards the prince in question. “He’s a really great pony, a good friend and a caring brother. Even if we can only claim being siblings in jest.”

“He is?” Fleur asked in surprise, and just then realized the doubt that had crept into her voice. “Not to be disrespectful, the Bluebloods have always been... good to my family... they took us in after we had to leave Prance, but His Grace has—” Fleur struggled with how to phrase a sentiment Sweetie had heard before, from the mouths of many other mares. “His Grace seems very, shall we say, sybaritic? Callous, at times, too. Fancy often says—"

The refined mare grew very quiet at that. “Well, no matter. Maybe this is a good sign of change.” She covered her mouth as she laughed, very softly. “A caring brother, His Grace? Oh, I am going to hate keeping this a secret.”

Sweetie raised an eyebrow. “Keep it a secret? Why? Just tell everypony. In fact, tell Mr. Fancy Pants. Weren’t you dating him? I think my sis said so?”

“Your sister knows my Fancy?” Fleur asked, surprised again. She rolled her eyes, clearly trying to place who Sweetie Belle’s mysterious sister in high society was, and if Fleur had met her before.

“Oh, my sister knows a lot of ponies!” Sweetie said excitedly. “She’s even good friends with Princess Celestia and Princess Luna!” She sighed. “I hope she’ll be proud of me... a-anyway, speaking of which, I’m really thankful for all your help... it’s been great.”

“And I am happy to help,” the Equestrian supermodel replied, striking one last pose. “Just remember to keep practicing! True beauty comes from within, and from pride in who you are and what you do. Always be beautiful, no matter what happens!”

Sweetie nodded. “If you and Rarity don’t end up as the best of friends someday, I’m going to quit dimension-jumping.”

o.0.o

“If my eyes do not deceive, I do think you two ladies got along quite well,” Blueblood said, pouring himself a glass of wine as the carriage rolled them along back to Canterlot’s Grand Palace.

Rather than take the road back to Ponyville, it was late enough to catch the very end of the Gala and find Sweetie a room there. This late, the roads often became choked with carriages coming and going from the night’s signature event. It was less hassle just to wait things out in the comfort of the castle, knowing that any questions put off until morning would never actually need answering.

“Yeah,” Sweetie Belle nodded. “She’s a really nice lady! And she likes a lot of things Rarity likes too! So... it felt like I was hanging out with one of my sister’s friends, like Twilight, or Fluttershy.”

“Fleur is a good mare; she has always been loyal,” Blueblood replied, and though he seemed to be saying it as an agreement and compliment, there was a different tone to his voice. “She’s spying on Fancypants for me, you know. I know she wants myself and Fancypants to bury the hatchet... If I ever get out of these loops... I’ll work towards that. And so much else.”

Sweetie patted Blueblood’s hoof with her own. “You will, and you’ll fix it and everything else that needs fixing,” she said, encouragingly. “You can do it!”

“If I can, I will start with myself. I’ve been rather negligent.” His frown deepened as he considered Canterlot, rolling by outside the carriage. “‘Good ponies do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly...’ Brayto said that. No law forced me to act responsibly. It has... it was always my choice to act as I did.”

He turned away from the city, and smiled at Sweetie, reassuringly. “Relax, we’ll be at the castle soon. I’ll have Light Touch see to your usual room.”

Growing a little sleepy, Sweetie put her head down and dozed off lightly on the soft feather cushions of the carriage, the gentle swaying back and forth, the soft clatter of hooves and wooden wheels on tile and cobblestone providing a relaxing backdrop. It was a light sleep, though, marred by thoughts of what waited for her - for both of them - in the maze tomorrow. And always, there was Twilight’s fragment, watching over the traps and the puzzles.

Sweetie wasn’t sure how much power the fragment had over the pocket dimension, or if it would stop things from hurting ponies, but it was clear now that the fragment didn’t want to help. It didn’t want ponies to be safe in the maze, even if it seemed excited by the prospect of being reunited with Twilight’s other fragments. The paradox of it kept her awake and restless, despite however comfortable she became.

A sharp intake of breath prompted her to look up.

Blueblood was ducking low and behind one of the carriage’s curtains, as if to hide from somepony outside, while also leaving enough room to look out. Curious now, Sweetie clambered up to see for herself what was the fuss. Sleeping was out for now.

Green eyes widened as she recognized what had caught Blueblood’s eye.

“Rarity?” she asked, and Blueblood grumbled something under his breath.

It was Rarity, in her royal burgundy Gala dress. She was leaning against one of the balconies, her hooves over the edge and her chin on her hooves. The Gala itself was still in progress - not yet ruined as it always was, with or without Blueblood’s presence - but for one mare, it had already become a bust. She closed her eyes, clearly not noticing the stallion or the filly in the slow-moving carriage driving up to the Palace grounds.

“Miss Rarity,” Sweetie heard Blueblood say with a sigh. “I still don’t understand her. She never pursues anypony else at the Gala, even if I don’t attend. She even sings about what this night means to her. She came here to meet me. It isn’t my crown or my fortune. So why?”

“Rarity has an eye for detail,” Sweetie shrugged. “Maybe she saw in you what it took us all so long to realize.”

“She is quite fetching... I really like her mane.”

Sweetie’s snickering elicited a look from the stallion.

“What? Did I say something odd?” Blueblood went back to looking out the window. “I think I have a vague idea about how to help them... all six of them: to give them the perfect Gala. Miss Rarity is both the easiest and the hardest. All I have to do is be the stallion she thinks I am. With her, though...” He shook his head, cutting himself short. “She needs a Prince Charming for the Gala. Since Shining Armor is engaged, that leaves me.”

Sweetie giggled. “Oh, Blueblood, she doesn’t need a Prince Charming for the Gala,” she smirked. “If I know my sister at all, she wants a Prince Charming for life.”

“If so, then that is very much part of the problem,” Blueblood admitted, and he reached up to brush a stray lock of blond mane from the side of his face. “I don’t think I can be both of those things. I’ve never - all the mares I’ve wooed before, it was just for... for the conquest of it, or for fun, or once even for a damnable competition. Terrible, isn’t it? What Miss Rarity wants is for us to fall in love at the Gala. I can’t fake that, and I don’t know if... how can we fall in love if I spend the whole time being somepony else?”

Sweetie shook her head. “I dunno, Blueblood. I mean, don’t you like her already? Why would it be so difficult?”

“Like her?” he asked. “I... I don’t like seeing her unhappy anymore, if that is what you mean, but that sort of behavior has lost its appeal in general. I honestly don’t know.”

Sweetie sighed, looking sadly out the window. “I hope you figure it out, Blue.”

“I shouldn’t be burdening you with these things anyway, not with all we have to do tomorrow,” he said, but still didn’t tear his eyes away from the balcony, even as it began to vanish behind a corner of the window. Only when it was gone did he face forward. “I’ll see a room prepared for you. Then, maybe... maybe I’ll try and catch my Auntie and her friends at that donut shop tonight. I haven’t done that yet.”

Sweetie yawned. “Sleep sounds good...”

o.0.∞.0.o

“So, do you remember anything about this thing?” Sweetie Belle asked, looking at the column in front of her. “There must be a clue here... why the coil around it? A sequence of blocks?” she glanced at Blueblood.

Blueblood shook his head. “I’m afraid I have no idea. There seems to be no order to the blocks here.”

Twilight’s fragment circled around them before smiling at the pair. “Well, are you both staying inside? I’ll take the bridge away and you’ll both be stuck in there.” She giggled. “You might regret it!”

Sweetie glared at her, but kept her mouth shut. She turned to look at the column, and gulped when she heard the bridge being pulled away. “There must be some clue.”

She slowly moved around the column, taking note of each block.

“Clouds could represent wind,” she whispered. “Ice... water. Ashes... fire. And rocks would be earth.” She looked around. “The fragment also said that there were no spells, other than elemental ones, allowed. Is it that they won’t work?” She tried casting her darkness spell, only for it to fizzle into nothing. “So no levitating to hold the bowl at the top in place...”

She gave Blueblood a look and a sheepish smile. “W-well, here goes nothing!”

“Sweetie Belle,” he warned her, frowning as he looked around the trap. “I don’t think I’ll be able to push you out if something happens. Let us both be careful.”

She approached one of the ice blocks. “Maybe... it’s about speed? Blue, I’ll try melting the ice block slowly!”

Seeing him nod in reply, and convinced herself, she subconsciously struck a pose as the magic flowed through her. She controlled the flame that she produced, making it melt just the bottom of the ice block. The bowl at their hooves trembled as the ice melted away, allowing Sweetie to see a thick, metal rod going through the center of the ice block, the ash block above it and the cloud block below it. The bowl kept shaking, and the parts that were melted away were quickly pushed together, but after a moment, the ice began cracking.

“Oh, oh no... Blueblood! Look out!” she shouted, terminating her spell and quickly jumping back as the block splintered and broke completely, slamming the next block down.

Sweetie’s eyes immediately went up to the bowl over them, and saw it tilt dangerously. Some of the strange starry liquid it contained trickled over the side and fell around them. Sweetie and Blueblood scrambled to get out of the way of the magical matter as dark globules of it fizzled and burned like ingots of steel.

“W-what is that stuff?!” she asked, hooves inching away from where a droplet of the dark matter turned to smoke, vaporizing the metal beneath it.

“I do believe it’s aether! Pure magic, drawn from the night’s sky, and neither solid, liquid nor gas!” Blueblood supplied once the danger had passed. He glanced upwards and gulped, growing a little anxious. “To think that Miss Sparkle or the Twenty Third could fill a bowl that size with pure magic... in this of all forms! Madness!”

“That thing is not Twilight,” Sweetie Belle growled, walking up to the column again and taking a closer look. “It seems that us doing the ice melting slowly worked... but... there’s only two... four... five I can reach with my spell. It wouldn’t be enough to bring that thing down all the way to where we could get out.”

“Do you think we should chip away at the rock, cloud and ashes?”

Sweetie shook her head. “No... this is a puzzle, and if we keep doing the obvious thing we won’t solve it. The bowl will eventually lose its balance and either crush us or fill this one up with aether. Either way we’re dead.” She stared at the bowl all the way above them. “If there was only a way to get it to stick in place while we deal with the blocks...” She sighed and brought her hooves down on the metal bowl hard in frustration.

The low clang sent reverberations through her body, but her eyes stayed on the bowl. She remembered the previous time they had been here, how the other bowl had also been made of metal, and suddenly her eyes widened. She galloped around the column a couple of times, staring at the metal coil. “Of course!” she shouted. “We have to keep it stuck up there!” she turned to look at the bowl so far away. “But how?”

“Hmm.” Blueblood narrowed his eyes. “I did not notice this before, but, it appears that the top of the coil is a different material than the rest of it.”

Sweetie jumped onto his back and peered closer. “I-I think that’s copper!” she looked down. “Blueblood! Do you know what that means?”

“That my ancestor wasted a considerable amount of precious metal on an inane trap?”

“Besides that!” Sweetie huffed, her horn lighting up with magic as small sparks gathered around it. “We might be able to magically magnetize it!”

As the energy started to concentrate even more around her horn, Blueblood shifted under her nervously. “Are you sure you should be putting so much energy into it? You might get hurt.”

“I don’t know how much electricity we need,” Sweetie replied, gritting her teeth as the pressure increased. “Better use more than less, right?!” Having said that, she released the biggest lightning bolt she had ever attempted, and for a brief second it looked just like the real thing, striking the coil at the top and making it glow blue for a moment.

She sighed and slumped on top of Blueblood’s back. “I hope that worked. I don’t know what else I can do.”

“Well then,” Blueblood shrugged. “Nothing else but to try it and see what happens?” He chuckled at the prospect of imminent death from on high again. “Reminds me of when I snuck that hot pepper into Auntie’s salad. I felt a nice little tingle that may or may not meant a lifetime on the moon.”

Sweetie nodded nervously, sliding down from the prince’s back. Taking a deep breath, she studied the next block and, with a decisive nod, she summoned a stream of water to flush the ashes away. The block immediately dispersed and the bowl under them spun in a circle, pushing them upwards until the remaining blocks smashed together, bringing them to a sudden halt.

Sweetie cringed and looked up, but the bowl was still in the same place. She gave Blueblood a tentative smile. “W-we figured it out!”

Block by block they were pushed upward towards the upper bowl, and from time to time Sweetie would blast the coil again with lightning, to make sure it remained magnetized, until finally, with one last spin upwards, their bowl connected with a bridge.

“Fine, you win this round,” Twilight’s fragment huffed as she materialized nearby out of a wisp of smoke. “But only because I gave you an easy one! I suppose I can’t be annoyed if you figured it out so quickly!”

Sweetie gave her a wary look. “You call that easy? What if we had accidentally blown up one of the blocks before the upper bowl was magnetized?”

“In that situation, I think you would be dead.” Twilight’s fragment shrugged. “But you’re not, so what does it matter now? Come on. I’ll be waiting for you at your next test.”

Sweetie sighed and collapsed on the bridge. “I really hate this fragment.”

o.0.o

The ground underhoof rumbled and sunk for a moment as the magic of the pocket dimension began to shift, though whether it was to the whim of the unhinged Twilight fragment or to the design of a long deceased Blue Belle, neither Sweetie nor Blueblood could say for sure. Based on simple perception, there wasn’t even any real logic to the dimension: no walls or even a line to designate a top from bottom or a ground from ceiling. There was some substance underhoof that they could stand on, but nothing else until it changed.

A piece of the ground detached, and in a cascade of sparkles, formed into a serpentine shape. For a moment, the thought of them having to face a huge serpent or lithe dragoness crossed Sweetie’s mind, but then the strand of magical matter became blocky. Twists and turns revealed themselves to be interlocking joints, to which the rectangular blocks were attached. Individual segments within the blocks shimmered and took on colors: purples and pinks and gold and blue.

It was like... a pipe puzzle...

“Oh Auntie’s flanks, I think I know what this is,” Blueblood groaned, sighing.

“You do?” Sweetie Belle asked, gasping at the construct. “That looks... very strange. Do you know what we need to do?”

“All this...” Blueblood gestured towards the colored links of blocks looming overhead. “We’re supposed to put it together into a square... or a tetrahedron or pyramid. These are puzzle toys for noble Ladies. I saw Auntie playing with one once when she should have been listening to endless reams of complaints from her ministers. See, I just got drunk. It was much easier.”

Sweetie continued staring at the puzzle for an uncomfortable amount of time. Eventually, Twilight materialized in front of her and waved a hoof in front of the filly’s face. “Oh my, I think I broke her.” She sighed and looked at Blueblood. “Well, at least a hint. This is supposed to be a square. Good luck, Blueblood! Oh... and you have six hours to finish it, or it will blow up,” she added helpfully. “My personal record is four!”

Sweetie shook her head. “Wait... what. Explode?

“I didn’t think today would end in an explosion.” Blueblood stared at the translucent Twilight, and gently tapped Sweetie with a hoof. “Being blown up is rather unpleasant. Shall we get to work?”

“I...” Sweetie gulped.

“And don’t worry... you’re far too small to use as an effective shield.”

Sweetie Belle leveled an entirely hostile look at Blueblood before snorting and looking back at the puzzle. “So... how do we do this? Push it together? Separate it?”

“You’ll have to experiment to find out!” Twilight told them, quite cheerily. “Won’t that be fun?”

“At least we’re unicorns,” Blueblood said, and his horn lit up. He gave an experimental twist of one of the far ends of the unraveled puzzle. It twisted easily, lining up with an attached segment. “Doing this with teeth and hooves would be rather annoying.”

Sweetie tried to imagine twisting that with just her hooves and teeth. And shuddered. There were definite benefits to being a unicorn.

o.0.o

Two hours later

“Agh, this didn’t work!” Sweetie Belle groaned, looking at the huge twisted mess over her head. “What am I supposed to do, go back?!”

o.0.o

Four hours later

“Wait, wait, did we undo this right?” Sweetie asked Blueblood, her magic highlighting a piece of the puzzle. She ignored the fiendishly giggling Twilight Sparkle behind her.

Blueblood considered the piece for a moment before shrugging helplessly.

Sweetie Belle face-hoofed. “We really should be writing down how we do this, shouldn’t we?”

“Well, it’s too late now,” Twilight quipped.

o.0.o

Five hours and fifty-nine minutes later

“Hey, uh, how much time do we have left?” Sweetie asked, twisting yet another piece.

“There should really be a timer or a clock or something,” Blueblood grumbled.

"Oh, gotcha!" Twilight popped up just beside them, eyes shifting left-to-right and right-to-left with a steady cadence. "Ten. Nine. Eight...”

“Wait... why are you counting down?” Blueblood asked the ghostly Twilight.

“You’ll see!” Twilight giggled.

Sweetie’s eyes went wide when energy started pouring out of the puzzle, white and hot and brilliant like a miniature sun. “Oh, no! It’s going to—”

o.0.∞.0.o End Part 3 o.0.∞.0.o