• 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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Backwards Through the Mirror: Part 1

Edited by: Lammy. Nick Nack & Fifth Alicorn / Proof by: Magical Trevor & Super Big Mac

Light danced before her eyes, and her senses were overwhelmed by her arrival to a new world. Sweetie paused, scanning her surroundings. ‘Something’s wrong.’ The world around her felt surreal, like a mirage of some sort, as if she was more real than the rest of it.

Sweetie did not recognize the type of trees or the brambles that grew among them. There was no sign of Canterlot or Ponyville, nor familiar landmarks to use as reference. She was alone and in a strange place. The sense of wrongness, however, permeated the very air around her as Sweetie felt a terrible, invasive fear creep over her at the mere thought of remaining where she was.

There was danger close by. Even if she couldn’t see it, she could definitely feel it.

‘I can’t stay here…’

There were no noises, no whispers, no bird calls, no gusts of wind. There was simply a horrible feeling that she could only describe as a great consciousness that had suddenly focused on her. The world pressed in all around her. She was trapped in plain view.

In less than a second, she set out galloping through the maze-like forest, giving little heed to her surroundings as she tried to escape. There was a surreal fear seeping into her, a fear not unlike that of an unseen shade chasing her through her dreams. All around her, brambles with long, wicked thorns crafted menacing shadows in a bizarre half-light: like moonlight wrapped in a menacing air of watchfulness. The brambles were so thick and numerous, it was hard to gauge what time of day it was, but Sweetie definitely knew she shouldn’t linger.

Pushing her way through the brambles, she winced as small cuts opened along her sides, gouged by the twisted, grasping thorns that she couldn’t quite evade. It felt like they were reaching for her, grasping hungrily and eagerly, but she struggled on until she emerged in a clearing.

All around her, trees reached towards the sky, pushing back the thorns and revealing the twilit sky above. As if reacting to her presence, small, multicolored lights rose from the trees, gently encompassing Sweetie in a beautiful, swirling dance.

They orbited harmlessly around Sweetie, a stark contrast to the dark and gnarled brambles. She breathed a sigh of relief. The lights crowded closer and began to whirl a little faster.

Sweetie backed up a little. After several moments of continuous whirling, Sweetie decided they were probably not a threat, and sat down to catch her breath and take stock of her situation.

The lights drifted closer, and Sweetie started to feel lulled by the intricacy of the dancing lights. She watched one light lazily drift toward her face, where it gently landed on the tip of her nose.

Then the smell of burning hair hit her, and a searing pain on her face smashed the unicorn free of her daze. The light was burning her, and had latched on with tiny teeth of pure light that bit with the ferocity of an unleashed flame.

She let out a shrill scream and attempted to roll the biting lights off of herself, but more of the lights rose from the trees.

The forest around her began to grow in size, blotting out her surroundings with a deep darkness as they cast their mocking shadows over Sweetie’s struggles. She tried to concentrate, to summon water to snuff them out, but fear and pain had taken a hold of her and she could hardly even think.

“Get away!” she cried, shaking her head and closing her eyes as the vicious lights began to crawl over her painfully, biting all the way. They bit her all over from ears to tail, filling her nostrils with the scent of her own burning hair and skin, and filling her mind with a fiery pain that blotted out coherent thought.

Finally, in pain-wrought desperation, Sweetie made a break for the trees, still screaming from the pain as the little horrors bit and burned her all over. The thorns ripped at her as she crashed through the brush, but they also dissuaded some of the little lights. She was so focused on running, she failed to notice when the brambles fell short once more, and she ran head-first into a furry wall.

The motes flew off in alarm as the large creature turned around, growling. It was easily three times Sweetie’s size; a horrific cross between ape and wolf. Its yellowed teeth reeked of death, while its rolling, bloodshot eyes shone with predatory intent.

It loomed over Sweetie and she saw the muscle rippling on the thing like armor hidden beneath a shaggy coat of matted grey-brown hair. It reminded Sweetie of Romulus and Remus, almost an eternity ago… only uglier, and with eyes that reflected little more than animalistic frenzy, unlike the werewolf's intelligent gleam.

She was so busy staring at the horrible thing, Sweetie almost didn’t jump back in time as its massive, clawed hand reached for her. Her still-fresh burns protested mightily as she rolled, but she didn’t spare a second before rolling again.

The creature advanced far more quickly than she had expected, but Sweetie was no stranger to fighting.

Not anymore.

Settling into a more familiar battle stance, with an enemy she could predict and therefore defeat, Sweetie quickly altered her wild dodging into a pattern of her choosing.

She narrowed her eyes. Something had to pay for her fear and pain. She plunged the whole area into inky darkness. A sense of calm permeated her. ‘It’s almost like whatever was watching me can’t see in the darkness,’ Sweetie thought.

Blinded, the creature howled in frustration, and she took the opportunity to open a small portal to her book and summon Akela.

Sweetie brought the diamond forth and quickly arced it upwards, the magically enhanced edges of Akela slicing across both of the creature’s biceps and hindering its movements.

‘Why am I so calm?’ she wondered and cantered back to avoid a blind swipe, shooting her blade up across the wolf-thing’s thigh. It snarled violently as its blood started to wet the dirt below.

‘There’s no escape for you, Sweetie thought, watching the creature struggle to find her. ‘This is my domain now, and I won’t let you leave unscathed.’

She circled the beast, peppering it with balls of fire and ice, further punishing it with spikes of ice and plumes of flame beneath its paws and lightning bolts striking its ears.

The wolf was utterly mad with pain and rage, and it lunged blindly for Sweetie again and again, only to be punished for each and every attempt with another cut or a lick of flame until at last it over-reached itself, and Sweetie took the opportunity.

Akela plunged straight into its neck. The creature thrashed, choking and spasming in mortal agony, while its life blood flowed into the hungry earth.

Sweetie felt nothing as the light left the creature’s eyes: no guilt, only satisfaction at a job well done, and a lingering sense of superiority. She dismissed her spell and flicked Akela clean, the diamond glittering in the sudden light for just a second before she sent it back into the pocket dimension for safe-keeping.

She looked at the corpse for a moment, wondering why she was so calm. It was as if she simply couldn’t care.

With a moment of true respite, she finally chanced a look at her surroundings. She stood beside the beast’s corpse in the middle of a path of some sort. It was little more than a deer trail, but it was far friendlier than the tunnel of grasping thorns from before.

Yet that begged the question of which way to follow said path. One way, the path twisted into darkness, while the other, equally dark way was straighter. She dithered for a moment before opting for the straighter path, reasoning that if it were an easier path, then maybe somepony else would be walking it too.

As soon as she had made her decision howls rose from all around Sweetie, so close they could have been crawling up her spine. She ran down her chosen path, still nicking herself on the thorns that lined the narrow path.

She followed it to a wall with a single, wooden door, which she burst through by sheer momentum.

Sweetie rolled into a reading room. Books lined the walls, split by brambles made of paper twisted and folded over itself, their roots anchored in a floor of books set into the earth. Most of the spines were entirely incomprehensible gibberish, but a few were things like “To Serve Rocks” and “Jumping on Sharp Things: Not Living to Tell the Tale.” She passed titles like “Lining Your Home Gauntlets,” and “Riccoto Pens Work Better,” but while strange, they were still made of paper, and the roots of the bookshelves were anchored to still more books set into the floor. The smell of burning paper filled the room, but there was no flame she could see, though ashen dust shifted about her hooves and drifted through the air.

Unnerved by the oppressive atmosphere of the room, Sweetie searched for an exit, and found a small window, just large enough for her to fit through. The howling rose again, and the door she’d left open was torn from its hinges by something quite larger than the creature she’d dealt with earlier.

’Oh, jeez...’

With a panicked burst from her horn, Sweetie blew the window outward and leapt through, wincing as shattered glass ripped at her sides. She fell, adrenaline and blood flowing, through a vertical shaft made of more bookshelves, where vines of paper reached out with sharpened thorns for whatever scant parts of her hide remained unscathed.

At the beck and call of gravity, there wasn’t a whole lot Sweetie could do to protect herself from the thorns. But before she had fallen too far, she suddenly stopped with a soft whump and a cloud of dust.

Surprised, Sweetie stood shakily on an enormous page while the illustration of the vertical hallway continued to move in mind-boggling defiance of conventional physics.

A cacophonous crack from above reminded Sweetie that she shouldn’t linger, and she searched around for some means of escape.

Sweetie dashed through, looking for something that could be a door or other portal, her hooves slipping on the page that made up the floor. To her horror, the room contained nothing besides hard wooden walls and more books full of nonsense. The cracking grew louder, and the brambles above were pulled apart.

Sweetie braced herself for a fight, as the largest lupine creature she had ever seen dropped hard onto the book, ground shuddering beneath it as if in fear. It was so huge, Sweetie could have stuck her whole body into its right eye socket and still have room to move around. It was like a wolf combined with a bear and a shark, with rows of triangular, razor-sharp teeth, huge claws with opposable thumbs, and enough bulky muscle to roll through Carousel Boutique without expending so much as a droplet of sweat.

Still, Sweetie stood ready. The creature may have been large, but she knew how to handle large opponents. Her horn flared with energy as she looked straight at the monster’s eyes.

“I’m not afraid of you!”

Yet, as the cruel, intelligent eyes looked down at Sweetie, she felt such a fear awaken, one which was beyond anything she had experienced before. The red glow in those slitted pupils was like the fires of Tartarus: every fear she had ever felt, rolled into a gaze with the force of a hammer blow behind it.

“Sleep” it commanded, voice like honeyed venom.

“N-no...” Sweetie protested weakly, powerless to refuse, and those burning eyes followed her into the deep darkness of nightmares.

o.0.o

Sweetie awoke, cold and bruised on something unforgivingly hard and smooth, surrounded by a cacophony of growls and snarls. She had no idea how much time she’d been asleep, but by the way her stomach clenched, it had been for some time. She opened her eyes slowly, and the world around her began to drift into terrible focus.

She was in a cage, one just large enough for her to stand up and turn around in. It was made of a silvery metal that twisted subtly as she looked at it, While the bars were slim, they were only wide enough for her to get truly stuck should she try to escape. Beyond the bars, the world was a mixture of silvery moonlight and the flickering glow of old-fashioned torches.

To Sweetie’s horror, beyond her cage there were hundreds—if not thousands—of other cages, all shining in the light of a moon that stood unnaturally full and huge above her. In each cage, a creature stirred or slept, the former often adding to a general cacophony, while the latter lay with the stillness of one driven to exhaustion.

And yet, the most incredible, horrible thing about that place was not the look but the sound. Hoots, growls, snarls, and screams all merged together into a constant barrage of sound that pounded into Sweetie’s ears like a driven nail. It was confusing and not-quite deafening, and gave almost no clue as to the relative distances.

And then there was the smell, as the stench of the fear and general filth of hundreds of captives rolled through the cages. The miasma was unavoidable, and Sweetie felt her eyes watering. To distract herself and help establish her bearings, she looked around at her fellow captives.

On her right, a chipped and splintered timberwolf dozed fitfully, its wooden legs jerking as it dreamed. It was almost twice her size, but something about the creature was worn and tired. To Sweetie’s left, a creature much like a Diamond Dog paced back and forth, watching her with a hunger that was plain to see. Its gaze was mad, and as Sweetie made eye-contact, it flung itself at the bars, snarling and barking.

Sweetie leaned back from it, and across from her cage, beyond a path of some kind, she met the eyes of a creature that may have been a pony once. It had four legs, a mostly equine body and face, and a unicorn’s distinctive horn, but that was where the similarities ended. Its body was entirely devoid of fur, and the wrinkled, filthy skin was carved with deep scars, many of them in the shapes of strange symbols. It watched her neutrally, and when it blinked, Sweetie caught sight of two sets of eyelids.

“Pst!” Sweetie froze, until the voice called again, “Hey, you deaf down there?” It sounded pony-like, but Sweetie was still debating about responding when a small mirror on the end of a claw came down. She found herself looking into the slit-pupiled eye of a griffon.

Even in the small mirror, Sweetie could tell this griffon had been there a while. It was tired, covered in old scars, and there was something feral about it that made her more than a little uncomfortable.

“Jeez,” the griffon, which sounded definitely male now that he was speaking a little louder, “You’re a tiny one. Get separated from your mum or something?” He gave Sweetie a sneer, “Not gonna last five minutes, ten to one.”

“I’d take that bet,” A voice from across the way chimed in. It was rough and gravelly, but amused. It looked like some kind of huge ape, with long thorns protruding from its back, and eyes that burned with a keen intellect. “She’s a fighter,” it said simply, as if such things were writ large across her features. “Smaller isn’t always weaker after all.”

The griffon clicked his tongue against his beak impatiently, as if the words had been a jab. “Shut up! You wouldn’t know strength if it flapped up to you and snapped your neck!”

The blatant threat in the griffon’s words was about to be answered when a hush swept through the row of cages, with the exception of the dog-like creature, who was still madly clawing at Sweetie.

Its racket stood alone in the sudden, relative silence that left Sweetie’s ears ringing. Up the row, one of the huge beasts that had chased Sweetie proceeded slowly along, its clawed hands grasping a long staff or spear that glittered in the moonlight. The canine frothed with rage, oblivious, until the beast jabbed it with its spear. The canine screamed and convulsed as some sort of current was injected forcibly into it.

Sweetie kept very still and watched as the gasping creature’s cage was opened just wide enough for a dish to be tossed in, overflowing with bloody, stinking meat. She backed away as the beastly warden walked to her cage and paused. Sweetie thought briefly of escape, of somehow killing the guard and leaving this terrible place behind, but an unnatural, heady fear stayed her as a clawed hand opened her cage slightly, and slid in a bowl of some sort of damp, moldy grains.

After a moment, a bucket of water followed, roughly shoved in so that half its contents splashed on the cage floor. The creature was so close, Sweetie could smell its rank breath, even over the ambient stench of sewage and fear. Her mind screamed at her to attack, to kill the thing and flee, but her body refused to move until after the creature had shut the cage again.

After a moment, it shoved a dish of meat into the cage above her, and the dripping blood from the meal stained the front of Sweetie’s cage crimson.

It took several minutes for the creature to pass, and the cacophony rose again, filling Sweetie’s ears with a painful level of noise that was not quite drowned out by her own hunger. She hesitated though, looking at the grains. They were normal-looking, if moldy, but the pony-creature across the way gave her another look.

“If you don’t eat, they’ll just take it away,” he said, before returning to his own meal.

Sweetie’s stomach churned at the moldy, damp grains, and it wasn’t helped by the smell of blood and the sounds of ripping flesh from above her. Still, she bent to eat, and the ape creature chuckled.

“Eat up, tiny one, you’ll need it.” The blood-soaked grin on its face was not at all cheerful as the thorny creature raised its head from its own meal of meat and marrow. Sweetie focused on her meal, the better to keep it down.

That first meal was the start of her routine in the Kennels.

After eating, she and the other prisoners who were of sound enough mind were rounded up and pulled from their cages to work. She and the others were forced to clean the cages of the other prisoners, sweeping and mopping up the refuse of fear and poor diet. She thought about escape, but the vastness of the Kennels dissuaded her.

It was hard, hoof-cracking labor to clean the cages, and any thoughts of escape turned to thoughts of rest after just the first day. It was a very weary and battered filly that returned to a cage that held only a bucket of water.

The stagnant water tasted horrible, but she drank it all the same. It quenched her thirst even if it made her insides twist uncomfortably as she tried to fall asleep amidst the rising cacophony of the Kennels.

She dreamt of her notebook that night.

She dreamt of the shards of Twilight’s essence, and of the horrible, canine wardens getting ahold of them, giving them to a far larger, more terrible beast.

She tried to stop them, to fight them, but they had taken her magic. She could do nothing but scurry back from the largest claw she’d ever seen, only to smack her head on the bars of her cage.

After that first, terrible night, the other prisoners began to open up to her over their shared breakfast. They told her she was in the Kennels of the Beast, whose dominion over the area was absolute. The wardens of the Kennels were his Pack, and they were all there at his pleasure, to sell them as he saw fit to creatures stranger even than himself. She never saw the Beast again, but she felt the fear of the other prisoners at just at the mention of its name.

It was difficult to follow the passage of time in that terrible place, but she had only slept three times when the griffon was dragged away. Three of the large canine wardens arrived during her rest, and bodily dragged the kicking, fighting griffon from his cage above her. He swore and fought with a ferocity that was truly terrible to behold, and his curses rang in Sweetie’s ears long after they had dragged him off into the flickering half-darkness.

She tried not to think about him, tried to forget the terror in the seemingly confident griffon’s curses and shouts. She was so tired, so drained that it wasn’t too difficult, but it was one less friendly voice the next time a meal came around, though it meant his cage wasn’t on top of hers anymore. A small part of her mind felt shame for not intervening, for not trying every single day to escape, but the rest of her was just so tired, it was little more than a whisper in the dark.

Uncountable days and nights passed beneath the baleful light of the frozen moon, which always hung, unmoving, above. Sweetie lost count of her meals. Her whole world became a whirl of work, sleep, and constantly gnawing hunger and exhaustion. She fell asleep to nightmares, and woke up to a nightmare, one she wished would end, every day.

Then, breakfast failed to arrive one morning. She felt hunger ravaging the inside of her, eating away her strength as she waited in the endless noise of the Kennels. She watched with something like anxious anticipation for her meal to arrive, for the small respite it promised and the alleviation of her clenching innards.

One by one, the cages fell silent, and Sweetie moved up to the bars, waiting almost eagerly for her moldy, disgusting food. Yet the figure walking up the path was no member of the Pack, it was far too tall and thin. As it approached, Sweetie felt her heart rise into her throat. It was like an upright ape, but stretched thin and bony. It was dressed in an impossibly smooth, fitted suit with what looked like a bone-forged conductor’s baton clutched in its needle-like fingers covered in crisp, white gloves.

Its face was a mask carved of cracking ivory. A yellowing expression of distaste sneered down at Sweetie, who found herself transfixed with terror. Something about the creature was so deeply disturbing that it filled Sweetie with a visceral kind of fear that was far greater than anything the Pack had ever instilled in her. The creature stopped at Sweetie’s cage, and the cage itself lifted up until she was at eye level with it.

Up close, the creature was even worse. Its emotionless, empty sockets for eyes looked at Sweetie with a dire intelligence that made her swallow hard, and try to hide in the small space of her cage. It examined her with a gaze like a dagger, then, apparently satisfied, it brought up the baton and tapped the cage. The silver bars that had been Sweetie’s refuge and prison dissolved, dropping her through the air, until she was caught by the scruff of her neck by the creature’s free hand.

At the same time, a tremendous explosion hit the Kennels, and a great flare of violet light illuminated half of her new captor’s face. It looked over sharply, and began to carry Sweetie away roughly, while a wave of sound rose from the inhabitants of the Kennels. The hellish sounds of battle rose as she fought futilely against the creature’s grasp.

She struggled and fought, until at last she felt the baton touch her head. Then her body stopped obeying her, and she found herself unable to even form a thought of a spell as she was dragged off into the darkness beyond the Kennels, through dark brambles, beyond time and reason.

o.0.o

The passage from the strangeness of the Kennels to the home of her new nightmarish warden defied even Sweetie’s experience to describe. Yet when she arrived, it was both more and less than she had expected. The creature dragged her from the clutching brambles across a barren field of dark green grass towards what looked like a vast concert hall, larger even than the towering spires of Canterlot, and yet it was still unsettlingly proportional. The vast building was like a palace in and of itself, made of intricately etched obsidian and cold, hard gold, which only emphasized the absolute, dead quiet of the place.

Sweetie’s captor also changed as they approached their destination. It was taller, sharper, like some living sculpture that had been wrought of bones and nightmares. Its clutching talons gripped Sweetie’s skin harshly, and she could feel her body screaming, though she could make no noise.

The being said nothing as it dragged Sweetie’s limp body through the grass, stalks clutching at her like a desperate pony searching for a life-line. Not even the grass dared make a noise as the creature strode to the huge, golden doors and stopped. It drew its baton from the recesses of its garment and tapped the door, which melted away, flowing in rivers of gold to the side.

The creature dragged Sweetie into what looked like a huge, obsidian and gold foyer, and threw her onto the obsidian floor. The pain of the impact shocked her out of her catatonic state, but her mind felt curiously disconnected. She only dimly registered the golden words set into the obsidian of the floor. The Theater of Sorrow, her gaze was forcibly turned to her captor. It was like looking upon the visage of a dark and terrible god, the kind that ancient ponies had once appeased with desperate, wanton sacrifice, and Sweetie felt fear crackle through her body in an electric pulse.

It raised its bone baton and Sweetie was compelled to look in the direction that it pointed. Set into the wall directly opposite the entrance was a door, so massive the top of it was shrouded in shadow despite the soft, golden light that oozed from the gold permeating the architecture.

On the left side of the door, a massive mosaic of obsidian and gold showed her captor, holding the baton like a sword at its side. Beneath the mosaic was a single word: Maestro. To its right, there was a far more complex mosaic that showed creatures of all shapes and sizes cleaning, eating, and dying. Beneath that one, it showed another word, Labour, while above the mosaic, the word Silence glowed with a quiet intensity, and Sweetie knew on some fundamental level that it was describing how her life would now be.

o.0.o

The Maestro’s labours left little room for thoughts of escape, let alone attempts. She was always cleaning: sweeping up shards of razor-sharp obsidian, polishing the gold along every wall, floor, and railing, and mopping up blood from the Maestro’s compositions. For the Maestro was not simply the conductor of a silent theater, he was also the sole musician.

Every night, screams of torment echoed through the theater, plied into melodies that were at times sickeningly beautiful. It sent shudders through Sweetie Belle, but she could never bring herself to look at what poor creatures were being used as the Maestro’s instruments. Instead she bent herself to the Maestro’s Labours.

The Labour sounded largely straightforward, in that it consisted of cleaning, dusting, polishing, and sweeping, but the need for silence made it many, many times more difficult. Even the slightest of sounds was punished, either by the Maestro himself, or by the shards of volcanic glass that each sound cracked loose from the walls and ceiling. The only exception to the rule of silence was the Maestro’s music, which rang through the whole of the Theater of Sorrow.

Screams featured largely in the Maestro’s works, or pleading. Agony wrapped through melodies that were gruesomely cheerful, describing bright summer days and brilliant fields of flowers in the sobs of pleading ponies, or other creatures, often in languages she’d never heard, or the high-pitched whines of somepony utterly broken by pain.

Sweetie never saw how the ‘music’ was played, but every night (for a given value of night) she was sent in to clean out the auditorium, blood and shards of obsidian covered the stage. Cleaning up the obsidian was horrible work: it always got stuck in her hooves, her legs, and it would never feel like she’d pulled all the shards from her flesh, which had begun to harden under the work, cooling and stiffening like stone.

Yet Sweetie was not alone in that horrible place. Other creatures, slaves of the Maestro like herself, would work in equal silence, giving each other a wide berth to avoid any possibility of collisions. Trolls like mountains of rocky flesh, small, furry creatures with golden claws and other ponies all labored together in absolute silence.

Once, one slave was not careful enough, and he tripped over Sweetie’s hoof in his haste to leave the stage. The crash rang like a thunderclap in the silent theater. Every being there froze. The culprit, a small, lizard-like biped, froze in the act of standing up.

For a moment, nothing happened.

Then they all heard a crack from above.

The ceiling of the Theater of Sorrow was always draped in shadow, and Sweetie had never been up high enough to see what it was made of. Yet her question was answered that night, when the cracking noise repeated, and a sound like screaming stone made all the slaves look up in fear. Out of the darkness, a shard of onyx as large as a wagon scythed down into the obsidian stage, utterly crushing the poor lizard creature and peppering Sweetie with shards of obsidian that drove deep into her flesh.

The pain was incredible, like having a million biting insects crawling beneath her skin, but Sweetie knew she had to hold her silence, to keep herself from crying out as she crawled across the stage, trailing blood. She found herself cursing the little lizard, rather than mourning him, and as she healed, her body stiffened more, giving her fur the appearance of carved marble.

The shards never left Sweetie’s body. Instead, they bonded with something deep inside the filly, and they filled her with pain. It was only when a fellow slave, the little furry creature she had noticed before, showed her how to Bargain with the obsidian so that it stopped cutting her flesh, and merged with the strangeness that was filling her. A coldness filled her spirit in that dark and terrible place, and it turned her heart to stone, imbibed with the Maestro’s frigid madness.

After that first contract, she began to understand the way things worked in her bizarre new home. She bargained silently with the floor to suck in the sound of her footsteps, and sealed the strange deal with a drop of her own blood, as the other slaves showed her. She made oaths to the stone that ran through her altered body: to the very idea of rock and stone. She convinced it to help her, to warp and come at her request. And the more oaths she made, the more she changed, and deep inside her sense of self cried softly in the darkness of her increasingly tattered soul.

At times the physical changes affected her magic and her soul as well.

Unbidden memories would sometimes rise whenever a shard struck close to her heart.

She would be with Cadance... and then Cadance would be Chrysalis... the Queen would teach her to prepare poisons... to slip them into drinks and food when a pony was distracted, to walk in silence, much like she did here, to not be detected... to spy, to remember... and then the Queen would sing... and Sweetie would only remember learning the songs with Cadance.

And yet, she couldn’t bring herself to care. Each cut bled away her interest. Each shard that stuck into her skin and burrowed deep faded the past into nothing but an experience that felt more hearsay than her own personal experience. There was no sense of betrayal... no horrifying realization of what she had become... why it had been so easy to learn to duel or bladecast, or even fight to kill.

Her life was just pain and the silence within the Theatre of Sorrows.

It took months, day in and day out of cleaning, avoiding further brutalization by the Maestro while her fellows were picked off through happenstance or malice, for her to lose hope. She remembered dimly that she had to help a purple unicorn, that she had a book that she absolutely had to protect, but she couldn’t remember why.

And yet, it was at this lowest point that something strange began to happen. Flickers of violet began to flash throughout the obsidian of the Theater. It was infrequent at first, and the Maestro did not notice. Sweetie and the few remaining slaves noticed, but said nothing, not that they could anyway with silence being the most important rule.

Then things became even stranger. As she was walking through the gallery of the Theater, she smelled smoke, only for a moment, but it brought with it a rush of memories that quickly vanished before she could articulate them. It happened a few more times in different parts of the Theater, but Sweetie could never find the source.

The Maestro remained oblivious, and so Sweetie spent the time she was not occupied with her grim tasks hunting for the scent, for the flash of purple and the smell of burning memories. She couldn’t say why, but she felt herself drawn to the scent and its promises.

One night, Sweetie was cleaning the upper halls with one of the last survivors of the Maestro’s mad demesne. He, or she possibly, was a towering troll made of dark stone, with claws like shards of night that carefully picked up the stray pieces of onyx and obsidian, while Sweetie cleaned the bluish blood of another former fellow slave up off the floor.

The sight of the blue blood didn’t horrify Sweetie, as it once would have. She just cleaned it up with a dull disinterest, until she noticed the way it contrasted with the bright, rock-like white of her coat. The sight sent something like a jolt through the little filly, and a flash of purple flickered through the dark walls, and her nose was filled with the acrid scent of smoke.

This time, rather than the sight and smell fading immediately, it flickered further down the corridor, as if beckoning Sweetie onwards. The troll with her froze, staring in fear, but Sweetie ignored it. She followed on hooves well-practiced in the art of silence, inhaling the bizarre, mildly unpleasant scent.

It led Sweetie through the halls of the Theater of Sorrow, which echoed with another piece being performed by the Maestro. Screams of agony and sobbing cries for help and mercy fell on deaf ears as Sweetie followed a single light of something that felt like a long-forgotten hope. It led her swiftly through the halls, up to the doors of the amphitheater itself.

The tall, obsidian doors were locked fast, as they were for every performance, and through the smoky glass Sweetie could see the Maestro conducting, with strange devices before him on the stage that was always clear when she was called in to scrub the blood away. Beyond the door, the light flashed brightly, showing the obsidian mechanisms in the door briefly.

Sweetie almost wept with silent frustration as the light flickered down the aisle of the amphitheater. She backed up, and her mind was filled with sudden conviction as she realized she absolutely must, must get to the light. Sweetie lowered her horn, pawed the floor in silence, then leapt towards the door with a shrill cry that broke her silence for the first time in over a year.

Her voice hit the door like a hammer: shattering it and sending the shards into the amphitheater of the Maestro of Broken Dreams, like heralds calling her name. The Maestro turned around, its flat, monkey-like face split into a horrific snarl of sharp teeth and glowing wrath. It leapt from the stage towards Sweetie, who calculated his trajectory and dove almost unconsciously forward, while memories of her training flashed through her head.

She ran forth, flinging fire behind her to delay the Maestro as the purple light flashed more urgently before her, reminding her of casting spells with a beloved tutor. Learning magic. Sweetie ran harder, her small body propelling her forward with all the desperation of a drowning mare reaching for a glimmer of sunlight.

The Maestro’s stage was like something out of a nightmare: a pipe organ made of black gems, marble and gold was connected to some of Sweetie’s fellow slaves, who had blades of dark crystal driven deep inside them. Before them, a stand bearing an opened book of music was visible, as if the conductor had been interrupted.

Sweetie knew then that she had been forcing herself not to ask, that something had been drained out of her, and the scent of burning paper was filling it back in. The Maestro landed between Sweetie and the poor victims on the stage, its visage stretched into a nightmarish caricature of rage and madness.

“Get out of my way!” Sweetie shouted defiantly, drawing her diamond from its hiding place, and her voice rattling the halls. Fury filled the filly where apathy had resided. She was angry at the Maestro; angry at herself, at Chrysalis, at fate… and her incandescent rage flared throughout the amphitheater like the violet fire that flashed so brightly at that moment, filling the obsidian stage with a purple glow.

The Maestro, distracted by the abrupt change in its environment, let out a silent scream as Sweetie’s weapon sliced it from shoulder to hip. The blood of the creature was a dry scatter of black crystal that hit the floor with a sound like stone crashing through glass as it caused the bizarre torture machine to explode with sudden force.

Sweetie screamed in sudden pain as the shards drove deep into her flesh, as well as splattering her with the blood of the victims unable to pull themselves free before the device had detonated.

Above, the ceiling cracked ominously as the light flashed again, and Sweetie felt herself being pulled abruptly towards a swirling vortex of purple fire, laced with arcane symbols formed of orange incandescence.

Sweetie sent her diamond back to its place between places and, in desperation, grabbed at the stage to halt herself only to have her hooves slide on the slick surface.

She grabbed for something, anything, and her hooves found something that felt firmer than glass.

To her horror, it was the music book the Maestro had been conducting from, unattached from its podium, and she was pulled into the vortex.

Sweetie curled up to protect herself instinctively, but the fire did not burn, despite the overpowering stench of smoke. The fire whispered softly and urgently to the filly, in a voice she half-remembered from someplace long ago. Before she could think of it, Sweetie found herself pulled from the fire and into the cold darkness of the brambles she only dimly remembered.

Weakened from her wounds and loss of blood, Sweetie’s vision darkened. As she passed out, she caught a glimpse of glowing, violet eyes embedded in a surprised face that her mind distantly thought it recalled.

o.0.o

Sweetie groaned, shifting and shivering a little. She could hear noises, the soft breathing of some pony or creature nearby... she could feel... something soft under her... and something light atop her. Things she hadn’t felt in what felt like centuries. ‘It’s almost as nice as the ones I had in Canterlot...’ She sniffed something that made her frown. There was something... a passing whiff of burning paper... finally she relented and slowly opened her eyes.

The room was enormous, easily thrice the size of a normal bedroom, orderly, built of solid stone, and utterly filled with books. Bookshelves had been built into every possible piece of furniture that could conceivably hold them. The four-poster bed, however, was tremendously soft and comfortable, with bright purple satin sheets and a darker silk-covered blanket that held in warmth while breathing comfortably. Above Sweetie, a canopy of black velvet hung luxuriantly, emblazoned with Twilight Sparkle’s cutie mark in brilliant color.

A rug on the floor also sported the same mark, which glowed in the dim evening light flowing through the narrow windows set on the western wall. The floor itself was also stone, but with the pieces so cunningly fit together it could have been one solid slab, and it made a delicate, intricate pattern in the grain of the stone that was pleasant to the eye even as it confounded the senses.

Beneath the rug, spanning the whole floor of the large circular room, was a mosaic of Celestia’s cutie mark..

Against one wall, a little niche was set up, with a smaller bed and its own set of shelving. It too was emblazoned with Twilight’s cutie mark, but sitting upon it was a white unicorn filly, a little younger than Sweetie herself, watching with such intensity she might have been carved from stone, were it not for the occasional blinks of her heterochromic eyes, which were a slightly disconcerting blue on the left and green on the right.

Her bright yellow mane was cut precisely and simply to give her bangs similar to Sweetie’s dim recollections of Twilight’s own mane. Her tail, however, curled much like Sweetie’s own, and both were immaculately cared for. She wore a bright purple vest, which clashed with her mane and tail, and across her chest was also Twilight’s cutie mark. Dimly visible, the filly’s cutie mark was a bright starburst of yellow light, which stood out against her white coat with its sheer brilliance.

“W-what...” Sweetie croaked, wondering at the sound of her voice. Without the echoes, or the adrenaline running through her, it was almost magical. “Where am I?”

“The Citadel,” the filly answered shortly. Her voice was resonant and high, but entirely mundane, with no magic or other strangeness. She hovered somewhere between dutiful silence and concerned guardian, and after a moment she added, a shade awkwardly, “How are you feeling?”

“Like I was shot from Pinkie’s Party Cannon into a teleportation matrix, except she forgot to unstrap me from a boulder she had tied me to originally and I ended up splitting into little bits through the entire spectrum of light, only to be turned into cake and eaten by a giant orangutan,” Sweetie said after a moment. She blinked. “I... don’t think I actually intended to say that.”

The filly goggled at Sweetie for a moment, opened her mouth to reply, shut it again, then settled for bringing a small bottle up from the side of the smaller bed, “I, uh-here, have some aspirin.” She sounded a bit like she was remembering something step-by-step as she continued more firmly, “And I am authorized to arrange for provisions to be brought to you, if you are hungry.”

“I’m... not dreaming, am I?” Sweetie asked, levitating an aspirin from the bottle and taking it dry. “It... please tell me I’m not dreaming...”

“I can assure you that you are not dreaming,” the filly affirmed, closing the bottle and setting it aside. “If you were, then... well...” The filly thought for a moment, and her white face flushed a little with embarrassment as she failed to find an adequate explanation. “Well you’re not.”

Sweetie chuckled, looking at the filly with thankful eyes. “I believe you... it’s just...” she closed her eyes and shuddered. “It’s just... I had almost lost all hope. I thought I’d be there forever.”

“Well,” the filly said with a trace of pride, “When Dame Twilight Sparkle comes back from Manehattan, you can thank her yourself.” The mere mention of the name ‘Twilight Sparkle’ brought new surety to the filly. “Now, do you require anything further? Water? Food?”

Sweetie’s eyes welled up. “I... food but... do you mind... if I play some music? I haven’t been able to make a single sound for… a long time… more than a year, I think, unless I’ve been out more than a few hours.”

“Uh,” the smaller white filly said, looking a little taken aback, “I can bring a record player from downstairs if you like. Just stay put and—”

“N-no!” Sweetie stammered. “There’s no need... I just... this is your room, right?”

“This is Dame Twilight Sparkle’s room,” the filly answered, with a trace of pride once more. “I, as her squire, stay with Dame Twilight as per regulation 447-c of the Chivalric Code of Equestria.” She nodded to her own, much smaller bed that nevertheless looked quite comfortable, albeit plainer. “But we do share this room.”

Sweetie smiled at the formal tone the slightly younger filly took. “I see, well, that still makes it your room more than a guest room, and I would not want to abuse anypony’s generosity by simply doing what I want... would you mind listening to me play?” She smiled. “It would mean a lot to me.”

The filly, looking like she was trying to find the page of a script she was supposed to be on, simply nodded and said somewhat stiffly, “I can find no fault with that.” She grimaced at her own wording and added, “I mean, it’s fine.”

Sweetie nodded thankfully, slowly getting out of bed and, for the first time in so long, let magic flow into her horn, coaxing the universe to open. A small tear formed in the air and slowly her notebook floated out.

Opening the book where it hovered, Sweetie removed a bookmark, and closed the book, sending it back through the tear in space. Looking lovingly at the thin piece of paper in her telekinetic grasp, Sweetie placed it on the floor and stepped back, casting a minor activation spell.

The bookmark started growing. Slowly it took more depth and widened, seeming to simply expand until they both stood in front of a black case. Sweetie opened it with her magic, and levitated out a cello.

Placing it next to her, she reared back onto her hind legs, balancing as she took hold of it and the bow with her hooves, just like an earth pony would, and letting her magic fade altogether. She leaned against the instrument, loving the feel of the wood and strings, the smell of it... it had been too long. “I might be a bit out of practice,” she confessed to the other filly in the room.

The filly, who had watched all this in mild amazement, simply blinked and sat down on her bed again. She appeared rather taken aback by the display of magic, but otherwise remained content to listen.

Sweetie started by testing her notes. One by one she went through them, making sure that they were balanced and sounded just like she wanted... and then... and then, because she had been trapped in a place where happiness did not exist, where hope was fed into nightmares and where silence was forced on all that had a talent or love for music... she played something that could only be called: playful.

The notes were fast and short, as if they were a quirk of the musician, but the melody was there and it was decidedly optimistic. Which was what Sweetie needed the most.

As the sound of the music faded, the door gently clicked as somepony started to open the door. In an instant, the little white filly was up on her hooves, standing rigidly beside her bed, the very figure of watchfulness. The door opened gently outward, and Princess Luna looked in curiously. She smiled warmly as she made eye-contact with Sweetie. “It is good to see you are back up on your hooves, little one,” the princess said, while the filly saluted stiffly. “Wherever did Luminous find you a cello?”

Sweetie Belle blinked, but quickly curtsied exactly as Blueblood had taught her she should when she was before the Canterlot Royal Court. “Princess Luna, thank you...” she said, not looking up. “Uh, Luminous didn’t get it for me; it is one of my few possessions. I’m sorry if I disturbed you.”

“Not at all, little one, I was just surprised. Music is such a lovely distraction.” The princess stepped into the room. She was without her royal regalia, and gave Luminous an amused look,. “I thought your guardian here might have been a little overzealous and borrowed Octavia’s cello.” Luminous blushed, but it was clear this was merely polite ribbing between friends.

Sweetie looked up at that. “O-Octavia? She’s here? And Twilight... is Vinyl...” She sighed. “For a moment I forgot. They wouldn’t know me.”

“Octavia is here, as is Vinyl, for that matter. They were helping put on a dance the other night, in fact. It was a nice thing they thought of doing for the builders,” Luna said matter-of-factly, though her eyes watched Sweetie with interest. “Tell me, why would they know you?” She asked, genuinely curious, and she added, “Many changelings forget those they knew while they were... away. It’s possible they once knew you, if that’s what you meant.”

Sweetie blinked. “Changelings? As in black, chitinous pony-like creatures that take the shape of their opponents?”

Both Luna and Luminous blinked at Sweetie in utter bewilderment, before Luna said somewhat curiously, “Wherever did you get that idea? No, we don’t mean anything like that, though I suppose there probably are some changelings that have had changes like that inflicted upon them.” She shook her head, “Twilight can explain it better than I,” Luna confessed, “but it is, as I understand it, a term taken from a fairy tale to explain the state of existence of ponies who have come back from... where you were rescued from.”

“Oh...” Sweetie said, looking down at her own marble-like fur, riddled with little spikes and barbs of onyx and stone. “So that’s what I am now...” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “A changeling.”

“What you are is a pony,” Luna said firmly, her tone brooking no argument, “But you are also,” Luna’s tone softened, “a changeling. It is, as I understand it, a part of what you are, but you are still a pony, little one.”

A sudden, horrifying thought crossed Sweetie’s mind. “Princess Luna... you... you know Sweetie Belle, don’t you? Is she okay?”

Luna blinked, surprised. “She is, did you know her before you were taken?”

Sweetie chuckled. “I could say that, your highness... I didn’t forget anypony. If anything, I remember more.” She shook her head. “The reason I would know Octavia and Vinyl, why I know Twilight Sparkle, and Spike, or Rarity and Pinkie Pie... is because I am Sweetie Belle... just not yours.”

Luna and Luminous shared a quick look. Luminous looked puzzled, but Luna looked alarmed if anything, though only for a moment. Luna’s gaze went back to Sweetie, warm still, though watchful, “Well, once Twilight comes back, I’m sure she will have some answers. For now,” Luna nodded to the cello, “you should probably get some rest.”

“I will, your highness,” Sweetie said, watching the princess go.

Princess Luna nodded and stepped out of the room, closing the door quietly behind her and leaving Sweetie alone once more with Luminous, who closed her eyes and gently started to dim the room with her own magic. It fizzled for a moment, and the light level flickered, but the filly persevered and soon it was entirely dark, aside from the shafts of starlight filtering in through the windows.

Sweetie put away her notebook as she got to Twilight’s bed and hesitated. “I feel bad, stealing her bed.”

Luminous’ voice sounded out of the darkness with absolute surety, “She instructed me to tell you that she doesn’t mind,” after a moment she added less formally, “Besides, with the Citadel under construction, and you so badly injured when you came through, this was the most secure place to see to your care.” Luminous fell silent, until after a while she said, like somepony reciting something they had been told long ago, “If you need anything, I’ll be right here.”

Sweetie smiled and nodded, despite the fact that she was sure Luminous would not have been able to see that. She sank onto the mattress and drifted off to sleep.

o.0.o

That night, Sweetie’s dreams were far from restful. She heard the cracking of stone as she fell through hallways carved from obsidian. Shards of bone dug into her flesh like needles, and the groan of tortured stone was like daggers twisting in her ears. It was maddening torture, as the groan of stone turned into a half-remembered scream of rage that turned into her own voice as she burst awake, breathing harshly in unfamiliar surroundings.

Sweetie looked around wildly. It couldn’t have been much past midnight from the darkness of the room. Gradually her mind started to slow down, and it pieced together the events from earlier. She smelled the scent of burnt paper, and it brought back the memory of awakening before.

Luminous was dimly visible in the darkness of the room, her white coat moving slowly as she breathed. The sound alone was reassuringly normal, but while Sweetie relaxed, she couldn’t quite fall back asleep. She rose silently from the bed, and walked over to the door, which she opened silently.

Sweetie passed through the doorway into a large chamber. It was dark, much like the bedchamber had been, but this room was much larger. It was round, and from the coloration of the stone it had been made of many of the same materials. In the center, a large table loomed in the darkness, its silhouette defined by starlight.

Out of the darkness, however, a soft purple glow grew from nothing. A smell of burning paper suffused the room, and the darkness appeared to grow eager, thickening as if reaching for somepony along the side of the room. Alarmed, Sweetie stepped back towards the door, her magic instinctively gathering as she readied herself for whatever may come next.

In a flash of familiar teleportation, Sweetie abruptly found herself confronted with a creature out of a nightmare. It looked like a pony, but was taller, almost as tall as Celestia herself. Its mane was a burning inferno of purple light, speckled with sigils that were meaningless to Sweetie, but nevertheless carried some terrible importance. The light the thing’s mane cast was bright, but it somehow only obscured the creature further, deepening the darkness around it as its eyes, which glowed with violet radiance, turned around and spotted the little unicorn.

“N-no!” Sweetie cried, taking a step back, eyes wide with fear. It was one of them. “You won’t take me back!” With an incoherent roar, Sweetie sent forth an impressive wave of magic, without focus or purpose, other than keeping that thing away.

The creature was taken aback and stumbled for a moment, but endured the wave without losing its footing. Its dark horn lit with magic and... the lights turned on. There, standing before Sweetie was a pony. It still had a mane of burning words, with shadows leaping about its hooves, but it was now visible as a unicorn, and beside it stood a very familiar pony, who was staring at Sweetie in disbelief: Rarity.

Feeling cold running through her veins, Sweetie took a half step back, horn lighting instinctively as a tiny hole in space opened and Akela flew out, hovering protectively between her and Rarity.

Sweetie’s eyes flashed from the strange unicorn to Rarity and back, waiting for a first move. The shock of seeing her sister had cleared her mind enough to ready herself for battle. Her poise was ready, spells were considered for speed and distraction, the space she had to maneuver and things she could use to defend herself if needed was analyzed. She licked her lips, at the ready.

The creature watched Sweetie carefully for a few moments, before it regarded the floating diamond. Then it stepped back, and Rarity (or the pony that looked like Rarity) just said softly, “But... but how?”

“Stay back...” Sweetie demanded, diamond slicing down threateningly. “Stay back, Rarity.” She looked from one pony to the other once more. “What’s happening? Who is she? She looks like... the creatures that did this to me.”

“Sweetie,” Rarity said slowly as she eyed the diamond with some trepidation, “Just calm down. She’s not going to hurt you, this is Twilight. You know Twilight, don’t you?” Rarity looked particularly distressed and disheveled, as if she’d been roused from bed not too long before.

Sweetie’s eyes narrowed, she regarded Twilight for a second before she centered her attention back on her sister. “Tell me... does the name ‘Vorpal’ mean anything to you?”

It was clear through her body language that she was still ready for a fight and both mares knew that she was not lowering her attention on one just because her eyes were focused on the other.

Both mares looked blank for a moment, then the one Rarity had referred to as Twilight smiled a little, “Unless you’re referring to a novel type of sword, no.” Her voice was Twilight’s, if a bit more tired than she remembered.

Sweetie didn’t smile. “It is a blade. Fourteen shards that burn when they cut through your skin... they fly around you, faster than you can see...” her eyes were still on Rarity. “It dances and kills just as its master wills it.” For a moment she kept silent, gauging her sister’s reaction, before sighing heavily. She slumped down, sending her diamond away. “Just... don’t come too close.”

Twilight simply nodded, while Rarity just looked on in confusion. She looked alarmed at the threat of violence, but conflicted. Twilight, for her part, was merely interested in the spellwork, but felt content enough to wait. After a moment, she said softly, “I know it’s hard to believe,” Twilight started slowly, her eyes watching Sweetie intently, “But we’re really not going to hurt you.”

Her voice was calm, dry, and factual as she continued, “I had hoped to save this discussion for morning, but I think we must have it out right now. So, let’s start with introductions,” Twilight nodded to Sweetie with an air of formality, “I am Dame Twilight Sparkle, Knight of Equestria, and Protector of Changelings. You have already met my squire Luminous, I’d imagine, and it seems you’ve already met Rarity.” Her look was not hostile, but neither was it entirely friendly. Wary was how this creature in Twilight’s form looked: like a pony used to conflict.

Sweetie raised an eyebrow. ‘Well, if that’s how things work here...’ “I’m Sweetie Belle, apprentice to Twilight Sparkle; Interdimensional traveler, adoptive sister of Prince Blueblood, assassin-in-training for Queen Chrysalis, bladecaster novice under General Esteem. Murderer. Slave... and... changeling.” Sweetie looked away from both mares. “I’m a catastrophe waiting to happen. You should just let me go.”

“That’s a lot of things for one filly to be,” Twilight said in the silence that opened after Sweetie’s speech, her body relaxing, “But I cannot just let you go.”

Before Sweetie could take a more dire message from that statement, Twilight elaborated, “I won’t force you to stay, but you’ve been through a great deal. I would be shirking my duty as a knight if I simply let you leave like this.”

Twilight nodded to the window, outside which the stars sparkled in the night sky, “It’s late, or early if you prefer. Please, at least stay until morning, Sweetie Belle,” her gaze slid to Rarity, who was still staring, “I think we all need to have a long discussion.”

Sweetie followed her mentor’s counterpart’s motion and looked at the stars. “I-if you give me your word that I can leave... there are things I must do to continue my travels... I don’t want to stay too long in this universe.” She looked down at her hooves, covered in several obsidian thorns, which grew out as she grew more anxious.

“Upon my name, I swear I will not keep you longer than necessary,” Twilight confirmed, her voice firm and honest. “But while you’re here,” and Twilight’s voice softened again, “feel welcome to the amenities of the Citadel. If you need anything, ask Luminous, or one of the other changelings around.” Twilight nodded to her own chambers, where Luminous was still sleeping peacefully.

“Now then,” Twilight said as she turned to Rarity, who was still staring at Sweetie Belle in shock. Twilight waved a hoof in front of her friend’s face, to no effect, then she sighed and smiled at Sweetie, “Well, have a good night Sweetie Belle,” Twilight said. “I’ll be next door if you need me,” she added with a nod to the large door opposite her own bedchamber, which was emblazoned with a brilliant crescent moon.

This shocked Rarity out of her mental loop, “The Princess’ room?!” she said, looking at Twilight in immense, scandalized surprise. “But—”

Twilight merely raised an eyebrow at Rarity, “She doesn’t mind, it was much like that when we were building the Citadel early on,” Twilight said in honest puzzlement. “At least she has a couch now, so we don’t have to share a bed.”

“Share a—” Rarity sputtered a bit, then her eyes slid back to Sweetie Belle and she recovered somewhat, “Well, ah, why don’t you show me these guest quarters you were telling me about, Twilight?” Rarity moved towards the door, “We shouldn’t keep Sweetie up more than she needs to be.” Her voice caught on Sweetie’s name, but she was genuinely trying to sound calm.

Twilight, though, looked to Sweetie, “Do you require anything else?” she asked directly, her strange, glowing eyes looking intently at Sweetie.

“N-no...” Sweetie stammered, a little surprised by how easy things had gone. “I’ve... slept enough. Maybe I’ll just head to the library... I could read on some magical theory.”

“Certainly,” Twilight said briskly. “I can show you the way once I’ve shown Rarity to her room. The guest quarters are on the way, anyway.” She led the way to the door, and waited politely before opening them up with a bit of dramatic flair, revealing the Citadel in all its night-time industry.

The Citadel itself was a massive, organically-shaped compound seated atop a pillar of stone. High walls wrapped around the complex, encompassing a whole network of buildings on the surface, most of which were half-finished. Where buildings failed to provide shelter, whole cities of tents and pavilions had sprung up, and even though it was just barely past midnight, the whole place hummed with activity.

The sounds of blacksmiths, masons, and other workers all filled the night with a sort of cacophonous symphony, while countless silhouettes moved about. Most of them were pony-sized, though a few were taller, or burned, like Twilight, with living flame. Everywhere, creatures were moving with industry and purpose.

“Also, I need directions to the closest bar,” Sweetie added as she fell in behind Twilight and Rarity, keeping her eye on both for any sudden moves. “I could really use a few drinks.”

Both ponies paused for a step at that, then Twilight let out a snort, “Well, there isn’t a proper bar for miles, and definitely not one that would serve a filly.” She said, looking over her shoulder at Sweetie, while Rarity simply looked dumbfounded again. “But if you really need it, I’ll bet out there,” she nodded to the tent city that made up the bulk of the dwellings in the Citadel still, “Somepony can make something for you.” She did not even acknowledge Rarity’s scandalized look, and instead gave Sweetie a look of empathy laced with pain. Only for an instant though, then she continued leading Sweetie and Rarity (who followed after a couple of moments) away from the construction and noise of the surface, down into the lower levels of the Citadel.

o.0.o

The doors to the Citadel Library were vast, stretching up high enough that four ponies could have stood on each other’s shoulders and still passed through, and wide enough that three ponies could walk through side by side. Yet within that place, it smelled familiarly of books, paper and ink.

The Library was large, but nowhere near as vast as Canterlot Library. Still, the sturdy wooden shelves reached up towards the vaulted ceiling with their payloads of volumes and tomes up to at least twice the height of the door, which suggested that ladders would have been very much in fashion.

Unlike the disorderly mess above, the Library was a rectangular room, with every tower of shelving precisely aligned with each other. Along the walls, reading areas were carved into the stone in the form of private alcoves, with a couple of larger reading areas with tables carved cunningly out of the native stone.

Hunched over the desk, was a unicorn, albeit one who had been starved and introduced forcibly to a taffy machine. Its dark coat was an ink silhouette that drank in light, and its magic was like an aura of colorless outlines as it stamped books. The creature’s limbs were long and strangely jointed, as if each leg possessed an extra knee.

It pulled another book from the stack, opened it with magic, and stamped it.

The creature looked up with eyes that were only pupils of utter blackness set into whites as pure as fresh-driven snow. Still, its voice was quite friendly and masculine as it said, “Oh, good morning Dame Twilight, you’re out late,” a snore from beside the pony made him grin, his teeth glowing against his black coat, “I fear your assistant has rather fallen asleep, but I shall tell him you stopped by. But who’s this?”

Twilight nodded to Sweetie, “This is Sweetie, she’s... new. She wanted to look in the magical theory section. Sweetie, this is Perceival, the librarian.” The librarian looked overjoyed, and started to step out from behind the desk until Twilight’s look made him sit back down, “We can find our way around, Percy.” Twilight said with easy familiarity as she nodded down the shelves, “She’ll just be staying for a while.” Perceival nodded, and probably smiled at Sweetie, though with his coloration it was impossible to tell, and he went back to his book stamping.

“Percy’s a hugger,” Twilight explained once they’d proceeded in amongst the shelving, “I assume you didn’t need that.”

She led the way confidently through a maze of shelves, while the sound of her hooves slowly faded, as if she were falling into an old habit. She eventually stopped beside a large set of shelving that reached high up towards the ceiling, and slid a ladder around. “Magical theory is shelves one through twenty. If you need anything else, just ask Percy, or Spike when he wakes up.”

Twilight turned to Sweetie and gave her a serious look. “There’s going to be a meeting about this whole thing with the Princesses a little past dawn, I’ll come find you then, and we can discuss your situation further.” Twilight yawned, and her demeanor softened. “However, I’m going to get some rest. If you need me, just ask Percy or go back the way you came.”

Sweetie nodded, barely able to take her eyes of the shelves upon shelves of magical knowledge. “It’s... it’s beautiful...” she whispered in awe. “I’ll still be here in the morning,” she said, not taking her eyes of a particular shelf.

Twilight snorted, amused, but she set off silently, and left the room with just the whisper of the door’s movement. Then the only sounds in the library were Spike’s snores and Percy’s stamping.

Sweetie proceeded to levitate about five thick tomes from the shelves, and then headed straight for one of the reading areas. The privacy of the alcoves would be welcome, and her hunger for knowledge satiated... at least for now.

She paused. “Wait... a meeting with the Princesses?” she hummed. “Maybe I should ask Percy what to wear... I wonder what Twilight will be wearing?”

o.0.o

An hour past dawn, Twilight and Luminous led Sweetie into the Conference Chamber between Twilight and Luna’s bedchambers.

Dame Twilight was clad in her black, meteoric iron armor with everything from the circlet down to the hoof-guards having been polished—everyday as Luminous had mentioned proudly and repeatedly to Sweetie—until they shone like dark mirrors.

Luminous stood beside her in her role as squire.

Sweetie, however was clad in her own, rather brighter armor, which she had pulled out for the occasion upon seeing Twilight’s choice of attire. Sweetie’s armor gleamed in the early morning light, shining with the glory of Celestia’s sunlight like a shard of quicksilver.

Where Twilight’s armor was relatively plain and functional, if elegantly simple, Sweetie’s was elaborate and shining. Wings of steel arched out from an embossed breastplate with feather-like designs wrapping around it, while the leg and hoof guards were slim, but encased the leg entirely in shining metal. A high collar restricted Sweetie’s head movement somewhat, but the helmet and the collar together ensured that no strike would fall directly on the unicorn’s neck.

Sweetie had actually had the grace to be embarrassed when she explained to a dumbfounded Luminous that this was a gift from a Prince Artemis, who was Luna’s male version, and that she had never had a real use for it, since her usual mode of combat relied on speed—although it was surprisingly weightless now that she thought about it—and she wouldn’t have even thought of putting it on if Percy hadn’t mentioned that Twilight wore armor to formal meetings.

All in all, it looked less like they were meeting the Princesses, and more like they were going to war, but as they passed into the Conference Chamber, with its glowing symbol of Celestia set in the middle of the table, neither Princess looked askance.

“Ah, Twilight,” Princess Celestia said warmly, while her sister simply smiled. She looked tired, but alert.

There had been a disturbance during the night, with howls like something that had burst from Tartarus, but the Library walls had been thick, and the books had been quietly reassuring. Besides, the librarian Percy had simply looked up for a moment, then shook his head and gone back to work.

Beside her, a strange light blue unicorn with pupilless eyes of bright lavender and a mane like an ill-used paintbrush bowed her head to Twilight in immediate respect. Her coat was covered in shifting designs of black ink that swirled as Sweetie looked at them. She, like Luminous, wore a vest with Twilight’s cutie mark on it, though she also wore saddlebags, similarly marked. As she was seated, her cutie mark wasn’t immediately visible, but she appeared oddly familiar to Sweetie in some indefinable manner.

“Princesses,” Twilight said respectfully, bowing, while behind the three of them the doors shut solidly, “Allow me to introduce Sweetie Belle.” Her simple statement caused all eyes to fix on Sweetie. Princess Celestia was mildly amused, though interested, while Princess Luna looked on with concern. The third pony at the table merely looked confused, but was content to hold her silence.

“Sweetie Belle,” Twilight said to Sweetie calmly, “This is Princess Celestia, Princess Luna, and my assistant, Trixie.” The light blue unicorn nodded shortly to Sweetie in greeting while she drew out a quill and scroll, before Twilight continued, in a more formal tone, “We are met here today to discuss the origins of and mystery surrounding this changeling known as Sweetie Belle.” As she spoke, Trixie wrote furiously, her light blue magic transcribing Twilight’s words at the speed of hearing, “I have already conferred with Rarity, the Element of Generosity, who has confirmed that while this is indeed Sweetie Belle, it is not, quote, ‘her’ Sweetie Belle.”

Twilight turned her head to Sweetie, as if gauging her reaction as she continued, “Which leads me to this question: you mentioned earlier that you were an interdimensional traveler. Who are you, precisely, and where do you come from, or when?”

“I’m from another universe,” Sweetie explained. “My original world... is a place I cannot return to yet, even if I’ve had the chance... I was expelled from my world after an accident that broke my mentor, Twilight Sparkle, into crystal fragments.”

She summoned her notebook, levitating it and allowing all of them to see the purple fragments orbiting it. “Once I’ve found them all, I’ll be able to bring her back...” She looked down. “And get back home.”

She took a deep breath and looked at the mares in front and next to her. “Since then I’ve seen all sorts of worlds... A place where Trixie and Twilight were a couple; a world where Nightmare Moon was victorious and even a place where all of you were the opposite gender.”

She looked at the vaulting roof of the room as her memories flashed through her mind. “I’ve been to Equestria after it’s been torn by war and even some where the undead roam the land along with the living.”

She placed her book on the table, caressing the cover. “I’ve been to a universe where Prince Blueblood was trapped in an unending loop of time... the same day, over and over... it took me two years of living the same day to escape.” She glanced at Luna. “And in another, my father was a General who served under Celestia’s conqueror in a bloody war with Twilight Sparkle and the other elements of Harmony...”

Sweetie levitated Akela from the center of her book, making it rotate in place. “I’ve been trained to kill and murder by the Queen of the Changelings; met a version of myself set out to rescue Discord, cast spells beyond my years and even saved lives...” her voice had lost strength by the end of that statement.

“When I arrived here...” Her voice was little more than a whisper. “I was taken by the Beast, and then eventually purchased by the Maestro of Broken Dreams. I was forced into hard labor where the slightest sound would be my death, and I slowly turned into... this.”

For a moment, there was silence, aside from Trixie attempting to clean ink off of herself. She had lost focus at the mention of her and Twilight as a couple and had tipped the inkwell over herself when she’d missed with the pen. Fortunately, she had had enough awareness to keep copying even with the distraction, though a few of the words were little more than scribbles.

Princess Celestia no longer looked amused, but thoughtful, while Luna was watching Sweetie intently, as if trying to read something more out of her body language. Twilight however, dropped a book on the table, shattering the silence. It was the book of music Sweetie had grabbed on to in her desperate attempt to save herself when she was sucked out of the Maestro’s realm.

“That,” Twilight said, while Trixie hurriedly tried to clean more ink off herself, “Explains a great deal.” Twilight looked over at Sweetie. “When we recovered you in the Hedge, we found this book of music with you. It was clutched to your chest like a lifeline, so we kept it for you, but upon further examination we realized that something larger must have been going on when you were taken.” Twilight flipped open the book to one of many pages she had bookmarked, and, with an apologetic look at Sweetie, began to read the lyrics.

“Even the strongest diamond

May shatter like a stone.

A walker of dimensions

With a sin for which she must atone.

“We assume,” Twilight began in an aside to Sweetie, “ that part refers to you.” She flipped through more of the book, to another bookmark. “The ‘walker of dimensions’ is referred to several times in here, but I felt this was the pertinent verse,

“She will be found amongst the brambles,

Between her travels vast,

Give her scent unto the Beast,

With his hounds on paws so fast.

“The Eye commands her to be captured,

But it never said what comes next.

She became the Maestro’s toy

And forever there she’ll rest.”

Twilight closed the book, her face creased by a frown, while the symbols in her mane twitched as if themselves uneasy. “We don’t know what this Eye is, but since you’ve been recovered, the number of attacks by the Beast and his Pack have risen. It sounds like the Beast made a deal with someone else for your capture, but the word ‘commands’ is worrisome.”

“Indeed,” Princess Luna agreed darkly. “Whatever could command a force such as that is not something to be trifled with.” She turned to Sweetie Belle. “Have you ever heard of this Eye before? Is it some enemy that has followed you?”

Sweetie pondered the question. “No...” She paused, choosing her words carefully. “There have been times... where I’ve felt that things were too... set against me, but this is the first time I remember hearing of anything like that... unless I count the insane ramblings of an undead pony.”

Twilight Sparkle leaned forward. “An undead pony? Are you certain it wasn’t a changeling like us?”

Sweetie shook her head. “No, in that world a great war had torn all of Equestria apart; it was nothing more than a toxic wasteland. Trixie had somehow become an alicorn of sorts, by melding with Twilight and hundreds of other unicorns… Ponies that had died in close proximity to the necromantic energies used as weapons of mass destruction found themselves alive in dead bodies. It was one of them, who called himself The Prophet, that mentioned that something had been waiting for me and... he went mad, and tried to kill me.” Sweetie frowned at the memory. “I just thought he was crazy... but, what if he was aware of this... eye? And why?” She was silent for a moment, clearly debating in her mind this newfound enemy. “How long has it been acting against me?”

“From what we’ve learned about such beings,” Twilight began grimly, “it could have been since a hundred years ago, or since tomorrow. Time does not always apply to those who delve in the worlds beyond our own.” Twilight shook her head. “But if it is a larger conspiracy, that narrows our options.” The other ponies at the tables nodded seriously, all looking to Sweetie Belle.

“There are no changelings like us outside of this universe, as far as I have seen,” Sweetie offered. “If this ‘eye’ has really been following me around, it started at least three years ago, in another world.”

Princess Celestia nodded. “Well, at least the Beast and his ilk have not infected other worlds then.” She shook her head. “But if this ‘eye’ is indeed following you, it could have begun far before your quest had even started.” Her gaze was serious and grim, a far cry from the princess’ usual serenity. “However, I think we’re simply grasping at straws here. We have too little information at this time.” Princess Celestia smiled, the change in expression welcome like the sun coming out from behind the clouds on a stormy eve. “First, I think, we need to decide what to do about your part in all this.” She looked to her sister, as she rose from her chair.

“It is the decision of this council,” Princess Luna began, “that the changeling known as Sweetie Belle be given the full protection of the crown.” She looked to her sister, and Celestia nodded, with another warm smile for Sweetie. “My sister and I are in agreement then,” Luna continued, as if the agreement had been spoken. “And you may reside here for as long as necessary for you to complete your task. Dame Twilight Sparkle”—Twilight straightened at the mention of her name, as did Luminous, in the same breath—“I trust the Citadel may accommodate her?”

Twilight smiled. “I think we can find room. But the bigger question is what to do about this enemy of hers. It’s plain that the Beast wants her,” Twilight continued, her face contorting with thought, “but if she is seeking a shard of a soul, and the Beast is aware of this, then it too is in terrible danger, and she must be allowed to search for it.” Twilight unrolled a map across the table. “If we widen our sweeps of—”

Twilight broke off as the Citadel was rocked by an explosion, and a predatory howl rose from beyond the battlements. Bells clanged urgently, and everypony in the room immediately sprang up from their chairs.

“Now?!” Twilight asked in frustration, before turning to Sweetie, her expression suddenly like iron. “Stay here, keep out of sight. We’ll—”

A shadow flickered over the skylight above, and a widening of the eyes was all the warning Sweetie got before Luminous tackled her to the side, and a massive wolf-creature, like those who had hunted her amongst the brambles, smashed through the glass from above.

Sweetie saw red. Not even here, protected by those that cared, was she safe from these abominations. Akela reacted to her will, immediately shooting off the cover of her notebook at the same time as she instinctively dismissed the book into its pocket dimension.

Just as the beast reared back to howl its challenge, Akela shot out, a bang resonating in the room as it sped, faster than the naked eye could see, going through it’s open maw and emerging with a crack and a splash of blood from the back of its head.

The creature looked down dumbly at Sweetie Belle, who regarded it with a cold hatred as it stumbled, trying to remain upright before its body collapsed in a stinking, bloody heap in front of her.

Luminous and Twilight, who had been ready to incinerate the creature, stared for a moment. Twilight then looked to Sweetie with a nod. “Good work. But there are more.”

“Then we should be out there right now.” Sweetie’s eyes narrowed as she turned her back on the dead body.

“We should,” Twilight said with a nod to Luminous, who was already back on her hooves and ready. “Princesses, we shall return shortly. Any aid you can give would be—” She broke off as Luna and Celestia simply vanished, and shaking her head, wrenched open the doors to the Citadel.

When they made it down to the Citadel proper, it was bedlam.

Wolf-creatures were being launched over the walls. So far only a handful or so had managed to survive the trip, as many simply hit the stone defenses with a fatal crack, or merely fell short, flailing helplessly as they fell into the ravine below.

Twilight’s magic activated for a second as she ran towards the melee, and in a booming voice, she called out, “DEFENSIVE POSITIONS! NORTH AND SOUTH SIDES, DIVERT TO THE WESTERN WALL! SOMEPONY GET UP THERE AND STOP THEM BEFORE WE’RE OVERRUN!” As she shouted, the madness began to resolve itself into something more orderly, but the melee she was charging for was already a bloody mess.

Five of the massive wolf-creatures had made it over in close proximity to each other, and were fighting as a pack, tearing through tent and changeling alike as they howled their bloody lusts.

Twilight led the charge straight at the group, silent and grim like a spectre of flame. Beside her, Luminous let out a spell that lit the closest of the creatures on fire, attracting the group’s attention to Twilight, Sweetie and Luminous.

Sweetie growled, eyes blazing with anger and magic. The whole area became as dark as the deepest abyss, just as those present registered the young mare in armor charging straight into battle.

Twilight felt Sweetie run past her, as her eye was caught by a descending wolf-creature. Twilight simply accelerated its descent with a spell, and it hit the ground hard enough to bounce bonelessly away, unconscious and crippled if not dead.

Next to Sweetie the portal opened again and the notebook shot out, hovering over her with its spiraling fragments. Before the creatures could react and try to escape, Akela was already slashing at their coats and faces, claws and legs.

Luminous, who had steered clear of the darkened area, slashed at another wolf-creature in mid-air with a beam of white radiance. Rather than simply burning a hole in the falling creature, the beam penetrated one beast entirely and ripped a second asunder in the air. The first hit the ground hard, while the other fell in pieces.

Sweetie’s mind conjured up the sigil her counterpart had taught her, now so long ago, creating white lines of energy crisscrossing around her horn and feeding off of the magic in the four fragments.

And then, Sweetie wove through the fray. Sliding between two of the wolf creatures, relying on her exhaustive training with Fleur to set a rhythm, Sweetie turned as fire danced out of her mane, but unlike the regular small, distracting flames of before, Twilight Sparkle’s magic fed it... instantly creating a vortex of fire that completely enveloped a howling wolf-creature.

Following her momentum, Sweetie’s sweeping hoof invoked a spike of earth to pierce another opponent... but something strange happened. Unlike her usual spells, even fed with extra magic, this time, the earth reacted wilfully as much to her calling as it did to the magic. The earth asked, and Sweetie said yes.

By the time she had turned to face a third blinded wolf-creature, the second one had been pierced through, and the spike had trembled but for a second before smaller spears of hard rock had exploded out, further skewering the monster.

Twilight’s telekinesis reached out and grabbed at a creature that was reaching for Luminous, who was using her barriers to protect other changelings, and had overstepped herself in the process. She flung the abomination hard out of the Citadel, hitting one of its airborne comrades with enough force to make an audible crack, while she was forced to simply rip another apart as it dug into a screaming changeling nearby.

As she fell to a complete stop in front of her lashing opponent, Sweetie’s pose was accompanied by a blast of lightning, electrocuting the wolf, but not enough to kill it. It shook and spasmed, coat smoking for a second before Akela pierced its heart.

The next one had been trying to snuff out the fire Luminous had engulfed its coat in, and had finally managed to extinguish it. Its claws swiped out, she reacted instinctively, and one of the metallic wings adorning her armor intercepted the swiping claw.

Not one to take a gift for granted, Sweetie shot Akela through the creature’s right leg... then the left, and it collapsed onto the floor after the diamond had slit its tendons and muscles all over its arms and legs, leaving it alive, but immobile.

Sweetie looked down at the fallen creature. Her horn lit up and the air around them dried as water formed around its head until it was completely encased in it. The wolf-creature tried to escape, to scramble back and break loose, but it couldn’t move enough.

With an annoyed growl, Sweetie froze the water around the creature’s head and left it twitching and turning in utter futility to prevent its fate behind her as she lifted away her darkness spell, in order to attract more opponents.

The creature’s agony was cut short by a blade driven through the ice and into its skull, slim and deadly, wielded by the strange Trixie changeling. She looked back at Sweetie oddly, shivered for a moment, then stabbed the creature again for good measure, though its struggles had ceased, before heading off to look for another Pack member.

With that last blow, however, the Pack’s assault was broken, and the howls that rose were desperate and fading. The Princesses had routed the forces in the trees, and now pegasi were flocking to Twilight with reports of injuries and worse. She held them off for a few moments though to check on Luminous, who was uninjured, and the pair moved to Sweetie together.

“Are you hurt?” Twilight asked, with an almost motherly concern as she looked Sweetie over.

Sweetie, for her part, was immaculate. Not a drop of blood stained her armor. Twilight was frankly rather impressed, given that she had been saturated with blood and Sweetie Belle had managed to avoid even a single drop. Even Luminous was crusted with dirt and sweat, and spattered with drops of it.

Reassured, Twilight smiled at Sweetie, her face still covered in the blood of the wolf she had torn in twain with her raw telekinetic strength. “That was a new one by us, but you fought well.”

Sweetie’s eyes strayed to the bodies of the four creatures she had dispatched with such ruthless efficacy. Slowly, she reattached Akela to her notebook’s cover and sent it away. She felt numb. She looked from the one she had been suffocating, to the one that she had impaled... to the one that Akela had pierced, to the first one she had burnt to little more than a crisp. She swallowed and then took a step back, eyes going wide and breath shuddering.

Only one thought crossed her mind at that moment. Esteem would be proud.

And she screamed. The wail even made a few changelings pause and after a moment shake their heads, familiar with the feeling she was most likely experiencing now. Her voice was ragged, full of pain and misery, but most of all fear of what she was becoming—what she had become.

There was no turning back from this. No way to bring them back and worse, she couldn’t even force herself to think that she should... she could not fathom that these creatures, who had caused her so much pain, could be deserving of existing.

She felt somepony hold her tight, almost forcing her head down and muffling her pained cries, the smell of burning paper and the whisper of words incomprehensibly flowing around her.

But she couldn’t stop... Her thoughts went back to her cage, their mockery, the food... being sold... and yet she continued wailing and crying, not for what she had done... but for what she had lost.

o.0.o

Sweetie Belle sat on Twilight’s bed. She had put her armor away, once more stored in the gem Artemis had given her.

‘I’m never wearing it again,’ she had promised herself, for all an empty promise could do to alleviate her sense of loss. ‘I don’t even feel guilty for killing them… maybe I should, but I can’t...’ She lay on her stomach, just staring at the wall as she went over the battle in her mind, which had registered all of it in terrifying clarity.

There was one thing she had felt guilty about, but not exactly because of her conscience. It was because of the conscience of another, who had no choice but assisting in her utter massacre of the wolf-creatures.

Sweetie had felt the fragments cry in horror at the use of their magic... she had used Twilight’s magic to kill... she had used Twilight. The thought alone made her ill. It was an abuse of trust... of friendship... it was just about the worst thing a pony could do to another.

Whatever collective conscience the Twilight fragments were capable of was undoubtedly incredibly disappointed in Sweetie Belle.

Twilight had never taught her to kill. When a comparable monster... Romulus, had attacked Sweetie, Twilight had found a way to stop him without killing him.

So... why hadn’t she? Had her travels made her incapable of feeling sympathy for her enemies? Had Chrysalis’ training and Esteem’s manipulations finally borne fruit?

Her memories fled back to those days training under the watchful eye of the Queen and her spy masters. Each day Sweetie would return, tell her the appropriate password for her level and the Queen would assume Sweetie was a spy in training... and she would continue her training because Sweetie had already obtained Blueblood’s love.

How could she even... Sweetie sighed and buried her face on her hooves. ‘How can I even call him brother if I betrayed his trust so completely? If I saw him again… could I tell him the truth?’

Sweetie tried her best, but was unable to hold back a sob. “I hate what I am.”

There was a knock at the door, followed by a glow of telekinesis as it was opened slowly. Dame Twilight poked her head in, her burning mane and glowing gaze unmistakable in the darkness. She spotted Sweetie on the bed, and pushed the door open the rest of the way. Two bottles floated in beside the unicorn changeling as she paused in the doorway, abruptly aware she hadn’t waited for permission to enter.

Twilight hesitated in the doorway for a moment, then walked the rest of the way in, closing the door behind her.

“Hey,” she said, with shades of a familiar awkwardness. “Feeling any better?” She looked concerned, and she was no longer wearing her armor.

Sweetie didn’t look up. “I killed a whole bunch of monsters... and I don’t regret it half as much as I know I should. I should be terrified of what I did, but I’m more scared of the fact that I’m not.” She looked up to Twilight. “I froze one’s head and left it to suffocate, Twilight… what kind of pony does that?”

Twilight nodded. “I heard from Trixie.” She sighed and walked over to the bed, the bottles floating around her as she sat down. Up close, they were approximately the size of beer bottles, perhaps a little larger, and Twilight passed Sweetie one before taking one for herself. “I figured you could use that drink.” The change of subject was rather weak, but Twilight popped the corks out of both bottles with a deft flick of her telekinesis, revealing a warm, sweet aroma, and took a sip.

As Sweetie took a sip herself, the flavor of the mead filled her mouth with a smooth sweetness. It didn’t taste alcoholic, but it had a sweet complexity to it that was plain even in the slightest sip, and a warm, clean aftertaste.

Twilight looked a little embarrassed as she peered at the bottle. “I asked Sweet Brew for his strongest stuff,” she said apologetically. “Guess he’s a bit of a lightweight.”

Privately, she felt that was probably for the best, given her history, and besides, there was a discussion to be had.

After a couple more sips, Twilight set down the bottle and looked Sweetie in the eyes. “I don’t know what you’ve gone through, Sweetie. I don’t,” she repeated, before taking another sip. “But everypony here has fought those creatures before, and everypony was taken by them.” Twilight took a longer sip of her drink, “The Kennels... well, I can only imagine what happened to you there. But Sweetie,” Twilight turned to Sweetie Belle, looking concerned. “If you hadn’t fought, other changelings would be dead, and that’s the long and short of it.

“My point is that, yes, you killed, and yes, it’s a horrible fact. But... you just have to try to come to terms with it, and remember that killing... well, sometimes it’s unavoidable, but so long as you take no pleasure in it, don’t seek death for no reason...” Twilight trailed off and peered suspiciously at her bottle before taking a smaller sip.

“I don’t know. There isn’t an easy answer, Sweetie. I fight to protect the ponies and changelings here. That’s what I do, and while I try not to kill in the process... When it happens, I just remind myself to do better next time...” Twilight trailed off, dimly aware that she was far, far out of her depth, though the fuzziness about her senses was making it hard to gauge whether she had said enough or not. She looked to Sweetie with honest concern, and empathy for her plight, however terrible she was at expressing it.

Sweetie sighed, taking a deep gulp of the mead and shaking her head as things grew a bit fuzzy. “You don’t get it, Twi,” she said after a moment, when the warmth had spread all over her body. “I grew up being taught that violence was never the answer... and the moment I stepped away, the universe seemed hell-bent on proving me wrong. I’m... just a monster, like Esteem wanted me to be.

“Ponies sacrificed themselves for me, and I couldn’t kill their murderer... just because she was Rarity. And sure, that idiot Esteem was a good for nothing bastard, but he got away too. And then I found out I was killing you as well. Go figure. The multiverse hates me.” She pointed out, with her bottle sloshing a little. “I should just be learning magic, not... killing things. But nooo...”

“None of us should have to kill,” Twilight said softly, looking away. “But just because you must doesn’t make you a monster.” She took another sip, and her gaze slid back to Sweetie, more serious. “And you still feel remorse for what you’ve done, it seems. Not everypony does.”

“No. I feel remorse at not feeling remorse,” Sweetie said, locking eyes with Twilight. “That’s what scares me. It scares me that if I fought them again and had a chance to spare their lives, I wouldn’t.”

Twilight sat silent for a moment, unsure what to say to that. She broke the eye contact and took another, long sip of the mead. “You saved lives today, lives of ponies that have been held by creatures like that which you escaped, or those who have never known such horrors, and who never should.”

She grimaced and continued, her tone darkening while the words in her burning mane took on a more angry, bitter cast. “The Pack doesn’t always kill. When they’re not raiding, well...” Twilight took a longer sip again, to wash the bitter thought away. “That’s how most of us were taken.”

Sweetie was silent for a moment. “How were you taken?”

Twilight took in the question for a moment, took a deep breath, then drank some more of her mead, which was half-gone by this point. “I was... I had just helped imprison Discord once more,” Twilight began in a low voice, which was slightly slurred, “I was riding the chariot back home to Ponyville when a huge rock hit one of the stallions.” Her hoof went up unconsciously to her face, feeling the blood had once been splattered across it. “The other went down, same as the first, and we hit the ground.”

Twilight took a long drink again, and by now the words in her mane were beginning to wobble a little. “I came to not long after the impact, both stallions were dead. I... I knew them...” Twilight took another deep breath and continued after a moment. “I was dazed, confused at first, then the first wolf of the Pack I had ever seen stepped forward.” Twilight’s body shivered a little, despite herself, but she continued on like she was pulling a splinter from a wound. “It was big, huge even, but I had faced larger... I was going to run, to teleport away and find help, then... There was a voice. It told me to sleep, and when I awoke, I was in a cage.” Twilight took another long sip at that, her gaze far away as the moonlight slanting in through the windows showed silent dampness on her cheeks.

Sweetie nodded, shifting uncomfortably at the memory of her own frantic chase through the Hedge. She cleared her throat. “So... when you brought Rarity here... she seemed very comfortable with changelings... are we that accepted by regular ponies?”

Glad of the topic change, Twilight nodded, with a smile, “Princess Luna has been introducing more changelings to court, and we’ve been working closely with other non-changeling establishments in the construction of the Citadel... Of course with Rarity, well...” A flicker of pink rippled through Twilight’s mane and tail, “She and I... well we became very close, for a while. Very, very close.” Twilight actually giggled a little, and sipped her mead to cover it.

Sweetie stared at Twilight, mouth opening and closing soundlessly for a second. “You mean... you and my sister actually... you slept with her?”

“Well, not technically...” Twilight said, looking a little embarrassed, “I don’t think sleeping was actually involved. It was... more in the middle of a dance.” Twilight belatedly realized she probably shouldn’t be saying all this, and tried to explain. “I mean, it was a dance with good friends, well, except for the guests we didn’t know... but it’s not like it was public. Mostly.” Twilight gave up, and just took a long drink, lowering the level of her mead considerably instead of sticking her hoof any further down her throat. “It was a while ago,” she finished weakly, as if that explained everything.

“We’re not together now,” she added, as if that made it better. “I mean, I would’ve been more than happy to... Rarity’s a wonderful pony but she... uh...” Twilight fumbled for words again wondering at the sluggishness of her own brain. “I mean, she’s very beautiful, and understanding and, she can do this thing where... uh...” Twilight broke that off quickly, as her sense of self-preservation kicked in somewhat belatedly. “Well, she decided we weren’t right for each other.”

“So,” Sweetie took another drink, blinking owlishly at how... quickly... she was getting tipsy. “Let me get this straight. You had sex with my sister in the middle of a dance floor, surrounded by ponies and changelings, who presumably watched the whole thing.” She gave Twilight a look. “And after you had your way with her, in front of witnesses, you dumped her.”

“She dumped me,” Twilight corrected, and her mane, which had been decidedly pink up until that moment, dimmed. “The day after.” Her tone was glum, as the remembered hurt bled forth once more.

Sweetie placed a comforting hoof on her mentor’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Twi. Rarity... can be special. I think in this other world I went to, it’s taken Blueblood about… a thousand years or so just to start getting what she’s about.”

At the mention of Blueblood, Twilight started to snort, then chortle, then giggle, then full out laugh. “B-Blueblood?!” she asked, her tone slurring rather spectacularly, “Prince Blueblood? As in... used Rarity as a pony shield against cake, Prince Blueblood?” She started to fall over and caught herself, still laughing, without spilling her drink, “Prince ‘Mares are to Remain in the Domicile’ Blueblood?”

Sweetie growled and pushed Twilight onto her back, taking both drinks in her magical hold as she straddled and glared snout-to-snout at her mentor. “Don’t. This one Blueblood suffered as much as we did. For all I know he might still be there... repeating the same day over and over. I don’t even know how long he’d been trapped there already... my big brother doesn’t deserve derision.”

Before Twilight could respond, the door opened rather abruptly, attracting the attention of both mares with the sudden light. “Sweetie, darling,” a familiar voice said as an equally familiar white unicorn stepped into the room. “I realize you and Twilight have a lot... to... talk...” Rarity trailed off as she saw Sweetie on top of Twilight, who was in a very compromising position indeed, with bottles of what looked to be alcohol around. “Wh-what is...” Rarity started, before she fell in a faint, where she was caught by the combined telekinesis of Twilight and Sweetie before she could hit the stone floor.

Twilight and Sweetie Belle lifted Rarity through the air, over towards the bed. This was complicated somewhat by the way both unicorns’ telekinesis continued to vie for control of the levitation field. Twilight would ordinarily have simply overpowered the other magic, but she was also balancing her drink, and her focus was somewhat... impeded. Twilight made a mental note with some of her few remaining functional synapses to never again ask for the strongest alcohol a changeling could make.

“Let her go! I have her!” Sweetie ordered, pushing Twilight aside and taking a drink from one of the bottles. She wasn’t sure which one was which.

“You’re drunk,” Twilight said flatly as she shouldered the smaller filly aside and physically injected herself into Sweetie’s line of sight. The irony of the statement failed to hit the swaying unicorn’s consciousness as she continued. “Just lay down, I’ll handle—” Twilight tripped, watching Sweetie rather than her footing, and she started to tumble onto the bed, with Rarity floating ahead of her.

“Hey!” Sweetie called out. “Careful!” She pulled hard with her magic, attempting to break Twilight’s hold, her fall and trying to keep Rarity from hitting the bed, only managing to swing her around and have one of her hooves hit Twilight in the face.

Twilight jerked back reflexively at the hit to her face, and it threw her off-balance. This caused Twilight to roll onto the bed and it swung Rarity into the drapes around the impressive four-poster. “Ow!” Twilight exclaimed, more out of surprise than pain. She tried to focus on Sweetie to scold her, and her telekinetic grip failed in the process, but the sound of tearing cloth above her made the violet unicorn look up. Sure enough, Rarity’s weight, while deliberately kept a mystery, proved sufficient to overpower Twilight’s silk and velvet drapes, which were tearing along the rings that held them to the four-poster.

Sweetie and Twilight both stared up at Rarity and the slowly ripping drapes. Sweetie gasped and took a quick drink. “Don’t worry, Rari! I’ll save you!” She jumped straight up, grabbing her sister by the waist. The sound of velvet ripping cut off Twilight’s feeble attempt at stopping the younger mare from her attempt and the three collapsed on top of each other.

As the mares attempted to extract themselves from the tangle of bedding, drapes and an unconscious pony, the door abruptly unlatched. Twilight and Sweetie froze as the door opened, showing a concerned Trixie standing in the doorway. Twilight became acutely aware that Rarity’s left hind leg was tangled across her neck, and that Sweetie had become caught in the blankets around her own rear legs.

Twilight watched as Trixie’s expression had faded from concern to disbelief, and a blush had lit the blue mare’s face as her pupil-less eyes took in Twilight and Sweetie, who were sweaty and breathing hard, tangled up in the sheets with an unconscious Rarity. “It’s not—” Twilight and Sweetie started, but Trixie had already quietly and quickly shut the door.

The crackling of the fire was the only sound in the room for several moments, while Sweetie and Twilight looked at each other. Both opened their mouths to say something to break the silence, while attempting to surreptitiously extract themselves from the mess of the bed. Twilight, once she had freed herself, started to snort, then laugh, which started Sweetie laughing, until they were both sliding off the bed in mirth. The situation had just been so ridiculous, a fact made even more hilarious by the mystical mead.

Twilight and Sweetie finished off their drinks, against Twilight’s better judgment, and then proceeded, still chuckling, to the conference area, supporting each other once more.

o.0.o

“Coffee is now my second—no, third favorite drink after chocolate martinis and milkshakes,” Sweetie said, sipping her coffee. “I once heard of a thing called a ‘Mocha’ coffee but I was a bit young to appreciate it.” She glanced at Twilight. “You know, whatever that stuff was that you got last night, it had a kick! I’ve drank more than six times the amount of that and I was way less wasted... until I threw up. On the nobles. At the gala.”

Twilight snorted as she sipped her coffee, “At least you didn’t wake up hungover on the Palace roof.” She blessed her lack of hangover, coffee in general and her coffee in particular as she felt sobriety making its slow return to her senses.

“Well, no, but still. It was oddly satisfactory to do that... most of them were a bunch of stuffy... ponies.” She wrinkled her nose. “And then I watched those same ponies be scared for their lives in the next world. It’s just crazy.” Sweetie took a deep breath. “Now... with all of this, I’m more confused than anything... how does my body even work? I’m made of crystal, rocks and gems!”

Twilight quirked an eyebrow, “My mane’s on fire, filled with floating gibberish, there’s a pony out there made out of a mesh of gears and springs, and another I know who drips water constantly even when bone dry.” She smiled and sipped her coffee. “I don’t think anypony knows, but from what I can tell...” Twilight looked at her own hoof, which supported her cup instead of telekinesis. It was black with shadows even in the bright room, and the darkness slid up and down her leg like the caress of a friend. “I think it’s what They put in us: the powers, the limitations, everything.” Twilight looked up to Sweetie again. “It’s like a scar, I think: a scar on the soul.”

Sweetie’s eyes drifted to her own hoof. The marble-like hair looked almost too hard to try and bend without it breaking into pieces, and yet, as she flexed her foreleg, it moved just like normal hair would. The little obsidian and onyx thorns that would poke out from time to time worried her and yet... they were part of her, they didn’t hurt... she looked up at Twilight. “I’m... scared, Twilight... I’m just too strange. What will happen when I find my way back? Will my friends even want to spend time with me?”

Twilight smiled a little, “I think they will, Sweetie. Scarred or not, strange or not, your friends won’t abandon you. Mine didn’t, and believe me, they’ve had more cause than most.” Twilight sipped her coffee to hide the pain of that particular memory, but she brought the warm smile back after a moment. “Believe me Sweetie, your friends will always—”

Twilight broke off as the door to her bedroom slammed open, revealing a very disheveled Rarity, “How dare you!” Rarity leveled at Twilight, who had reflexively readied herself to throw her coffee. She found it pushed aside as the white unicorn strode straight up to Twilight, her indignation pulsing through her in an almost palpable fashion, “How dare you take advantage of a filly that way!”

“I—” Twilight started, only to be cut off again.

“And with alcohol no less!” Rarity’s voice became a whirlwind of disdain contained within that relatively small chamber. “Plying her with drink, just so you can drag my poor sister into your bed. Have you no shame?!” Twilight, for her part, was attempting to back away despite the table at her back. She looked to Sweetie and started to say something again, until Rarity continued furiously, “And to think... we once—”

“But,” Twilight interrupted, “Rarity, we didn’t do anything!” She looked to Sweetie for support here, and Rarity was derailed by the abrupt refuting of her internal assumptions so she continued. “And even if we had, it isn’t like she’s technically your sister.”

Sweetie groaned and smacked her face on the table. “Oh, now you’ve done it...” she muttered, barely daring to look up.

That set Rarity off, and she pulled Sweetie to herself as if to protect the younger unicorn. “That doesn’t matter!” Rarity’s ringing voice declared. “She’s still my sister, no matter what you say, and you were plying her with wine to... to...” Rarity sputtered as her mind shrank from the idea, “Well you know what you were planning!”

“I... do?” Twilight asked, bewildered, “But... I... Rarity, listen, we were just talking. That’s all!”

Sweetie opened her mouth to speak, but then thought better of it and with a smirk at Twilight, remained quiet. Bereft of Sweetie’s support, Rarity plowed over Twilight’s story. “Just talking,” Rarity scoffed. “Until what? Until she was softened by wine and warmth and your hoof would just so happen to—”

“Rarity!” Twilight thundered, cutting off her friend with a burst of volume that rattled the water glasses on a nearby table. For a few moments, the room darkened, and Twilight’s burning mane rippled with light. “Rarity,” Twilight said more softly, her violet eyes full of hurt, “Do you really think—you who know me better than most—that I could ever do something like that?”

Rarity, who had jumped back at the shout, still holding Sweetie, slowly relaxed and, with a touch of shame, shook her head.

“Yeah, you worry too much, Rarity,” Sweetie said, shuffling to get free of her grasp. It had been… nice. But it was still Rarity. “It’s not like it’s the first time I’ve gotten drunk,” Sweetie added. “Besides, you just walked in at the wrong time, Twilight and I were just arguing over Blueblood.”

“Him?” Rarity said with some surprise and a generous dollop of disdain. “You got that worked up arguing about that… colt?” Rarity, who was rather quicker on the draw than Twilight with some things, managed to avoid giving her full opinion on Blueblood and instead gave Sweetie a stern look, “Well you shouldn’t be drinking at all, you’re far too young for that sort of thing. And besides.” Rarity gave a rather exaggerated sniff. “Twilight simply does not know her own limits.”

Twilight snorted at the notion, and there was a sense of a silent apology passing between the two.

“Not your Blueblood,” Sweetie muttered grumpily. “My Blueblood. And he happens to be a gentlecolt, a great big brother and a bit of an ass.”

“Well, darling,” Rarity said, her usual warm manner reasserting itself after a moment, “this one’s a bit more of an ass, to put it lightly.” She started to pour more coffee into both mugs, and took Sweetie’s for her own. “You shouldn’t be drinking this either,” she said by explanation, before Sweetie could protest. “It will stunt your growth.”

“You know, I’m technically as tall as Fleur under my glamour, right? And even then, I don’t have a real body to stunt.”

Twilight wisely decided not to intervene between the two interdimensional siblings and instead changed the subject. “Speaking of other worlds, we still need to figure out where this fragment of yours is, Sweetie,” Twilight said, her voice shifting back to a firmer tone. “Before the attack, I was getting ready to say that the changelings on patrol through the Hedge have noticed strange activity in seven different locations.” Lacking her carefully prepared maps, Twilight sighed and sipped her coffee. “I’ll show you tomorrow. But given the nature of the Hedge, it would be inadvisable to search all of them at once. “Still”—Twilight smiled at Sweetie—“we should be able to arrange careful sweeps of each location over the next week. Don’t worry, Sweetie, we’ll get this sorted out sooner than you think.”

o.0.o

“A summons,” Twilight said flatly as she read through her mail at the breakfast table.

Luminous had prepared a simple but hearty breakfast for everypony with her usual quiet efficiency as Sweetie and the others were roused to wakefulness. Then Trixie had delivered the post.

“A summons,” Twilight repeated in the same flat tone, “presented by the House of Nobles to appear in court as soon as possible for a hearing.”

“Indeed,” Luna said, her voice tight with anger. She too had received a letter, albeit with much more polite wording, though the commanding tone was still insulting, “It would seem the Prince has yet to learn that your title is irrefutable.” Luna missed Twilight’s alarmed look and rather unsubtle motions for her to stop as the infuriated princess continued, “His persistence smacks of insolence, and his lack of general courtesy is an insult to the court.” Luna disintegrated the letter with a flurry of magic, and appeared to compose herself once more. “Still, we must go, lest the other nobles have genuine cause to distrust you, Twilight.”

“Oh, that reminds me,” Twilight said suddenly, not so subtly shifting the topic away from Blueblood. She pulled two simple but elegant envelopes out from the pile. “I was invited to attend Sweetie Belle’s opera debut tonight.” At Rarity’s smug look, Twilight continued. “Since I can’t go, would you like to in my place, Sweetie? Luminous will be going as well,” Twilight said over her squire’s protest. “Plus Rarity, of course.”

Sweetie’s eyes went wide. “I sing at the opera? Wow! It’s like that world where I died of old age! Sure!”

As Rarity’s jaw had failed to close of its own accord, Twilight politely closed it for her with a nudge of her telekinesis. “Yes, well, it’s her first performance on the operatic stage,” Twilight explained. “She usually does more...”—Twilight searched for an adequate descriptor for a while before giving up—“modern music.”

“I enjoyed it,” Trixie said warmly. “It was like having a beautiful painting hammered through your eyes: pretty, but painful.”

“Hey, modern music is not that bad!” Sweetie complained. “Why, I took lessons from Sapphire Shores and...” She trailed off. “Okay, it’s not that great either.”

“I doubt Miss Shores even works with music as... ah... modern as what my sister and her band produced,” Rarity put in, once her composure had returned. “She was ever so upset when they all broke up.”

“You know what? This reminds me that I haven’t met Octavia here,” Sweetie spoke up, unwilling to put down her alternate-self’s music. Especially since she’d yet to hear it herself. “I’m sure we can chat music and maybe she can give me some insight into Sweetie’s... band. If she knows them.”

“Oh yeah,” a lazy voice said from the door, which made Luminous, Sweetie, Trixie, and Luna look up, though Twilight just smiled. “‘Tavi knows them; she’s probably their biggest fan this side of Canterlot.” Standing in the doorway was what looked to be a pony made of shimmering, pearly whiteness, with a mane of blue glass that chimed as she walked forward. Her glowing red eyes looked tired, but her confident smirk showed a strong spirit.

“Vinyl,” Twilight said, finally turning around with a smile. She rose and gave Vinyl an only slightly awkward hug. “It’s good to see you again.”

“Again?” Vinyl said with a grin, and the act sent small, subtle chimes through the air, “I was only here last week. And here I thought I was married to a cellist, not you.” Vinyl struck a dramatic pose. “Oh she’ll be so heartbroken! Hey,” Vinyl said after, peering at Sweetie. “Is that the kid?”

Twilight nodded and stepped aside. “Vinyl Scratch, meet Sweetie Belle. Sweetie Belle, this is Vinyl Scratch.” Vinyl gave Sweetie a grin and a nod while Twilight continued. “The opera house is in Hollow Shades, a small town far to the northeast of here. To cut down on travel time, I had arranged a trip through the Hedge to Hollow Shades. Since I’m not going now, and the performance is tonight...”

“What she means is,” Vinyl interrupted, “I’m taking you to Hollow Shades with Rarity, and we’re all going through the Hedge.” Vinyl grinned at Twilight, “There, wasn’t that easier?”

Sweetie giggled. “You’re the same in every world, Vinyl, that’s why I love you.”

Vinyl winked, “Maybe I am the same in every world. The universe would be entirely too groovy if there were more than one of me after all.” Luminous and Luna snorted, while Twilight and Trixie grinned. Trixie and Luminous were clearing the big table after breakfast, and soon disappeared through Twilight’s bedroom doorway.

Sweetie snorted as well. “I dunno, Vinyl, I think the universe could use a few more of you.”

“Well,” Twilight put in, chuckling, “since there’s only one of her, you’re also going to be accompanied by a couple of other changelings, for safety.”

Vinyl made a disgusted noise, “I’ve told you before, Twilight, a smaller party travels easier.” She rolled her eyes. “This is going to be like that business in the caverns all over again.”

“It’s not up for discussion,” Twilight said firmly as Vinyl simply rolled her eyes. “Now they’re going to be waiting for you by the Citadel Gate once everypony’s ready. Prepare to spend the night at the hotel I arranged for, but don’t wait around. I’ve got to leave immediately.”

o.0.o

Several hours later, noon was just falling when the whole group, consisting of Rarity, Sweetie, Vinyl Scratch and two changelings departed. The two changelings with Sweetie were very strange indeed; one looked like the strange offspring of wolf and pegasus, with sharp teeth, a ragged mane, fluffy wings and a set of predatory claws in place of his forelegs. The other, a tall, slender unicorn looked like he was carved of smouldering coal, with eyes like hot clinkers and a mane like falling ash.

The wolfish one, Sharp Claw, was rather ill-tempered, constantly growling at every order Scratch gave him, but he was almost silent in the Hedge as he moved with a disturbingly predatory grace, and his senses were completely beyond acute. The other, Coaldust, was merely quiet, though he occasionally paused to whisper to the stones nearby or listen to them.

Vinyl, however, chattered constantly. She never raised her voice above a whisper, but the flow of speech simply never stopped. She talked about how Twilight had personally saved her and Octavia; she rambled on about how the Citadel was easily the largest changeling hold in Equestria, besides the Briar Patch.

“If you’re still around after this shard thing is over,” Vinyl prattled on as she led the party through an almost entirely hidden passage between the thorns, “you should visit the club sometime. It’s a pretty cool place, if I do say so myself.” Vinyl grinned at Sweetie as the other changelings helped Rarity pass between the sharp thorns. Once Rarity was through, they continued, and Vinyl picked up the conversation again. “All sorts show up there, even—” Vinyl immediately cut herself off as Sharp Claw raised a hoof in warning.

The whole party froze, as something moved through the briars nearby. The thorns in that part of the Hedge were like shards of glass growing out of polished, wooden rails. Whatever it was that had alerted Sharp Claw was moving between the vines with ominous ease, with only the quiet chime of the thorns as a sign of its passage. The changelings readied themselves discreetly for conflict, but after a few moments the thing moved away.

Vinyl held the group there for a good five minutes, just to make sure, then they continued on through the Hedge. True to form though, Vinyl started chattering as soon as she was sure they were safe. After they had all left, a small shape crept from the glassy briars, and slowly followed after.

o.0.o

“There,” Vinyl said with a grin back at the party as they stepped out of the Hedge, a few blocks from a large building that could only be the Opera House, “right on time, and nopony hurt.”

Sharp Claw muttered something inaudible and probably insulting, ruffling his wings in irritation.

Hollow Shades, it turned out, was a town made in the shadow of a large, dense forest. Most of the buildings were constructed around the trees in winding, nonsensical paths, and every road was either uphill or downhill. The only flat spaces in the whole town could be found only in the houses, or the big Opera House, which resided on the tallest hill like a lord surveying its territory. It was a massive building, built in an old ornate style that positively glittered with gilded decoration, stained glass windows and marble walls. It stood out from the rest of the town like a particularly sore hoof.

To the side of the horrendously gaudy building stood a slightly less glittering hotel, which nevertheless still shone in the dark, shady town like a diamond in a coal scuttle.

“Welcome,” Vinyl said with a smirk and a grand gesture, “to Hollow Shades.”

Rarity, who had somehow managed to get herself dressed in the time since the party had left the Hedge, sniffed delicately. “Well, it certainly looks the part. It’s like they’re trying to cram all of Canterlot into a single building.” Vinyl snorted, but allowed Rarity to take the lead. The white unicorn had donned a radiant sky blue dress, dotted with pearls for the occasion, and a necklace of particularly brilliant crystals.

She led the procession through the winding streets up to the hotel, past the ponies of Hollow Shades, who looked reasonably well-to-do, but also curiously furtive. They moved quickly past each other, often nodding politely to those ponies they knew, but there was relatively little conversation in the street.

The ponies parted for Rarity, Sweetie and the other changelings, but if the town was silent, Vinyl very smoothly took up the slack. “It’s always quiet here,” Vinyl said conversationally to Sweetie. “Hollow Shades is one of those towns where not much has changed over the years. It’s older than Ponyville.” Vinyl gestured to the town at large. “Hollow Shades was formed over a hundred years ago, but it’s a pretty cool town. They’ve got the usual shops, spas, clubs, things like that. Just kinda dull.” Vinyl ignored a look of mild disapproval from a nearby pony and winked at Sweetie. “I guess you could say they’re... pretty wooden around here.”

The other changelings all groaned, and even the trees high above seemed to protest as a shower of needles and leaves drifted down. Vinyl just laughed and almost bumped into Rarity as she paused in the doorway to the hotel.

Up close, the Cosmopolitan Hotel looked almost absurdly rich, even if it paled in comparison to the Opera House. The doors were gilded, the windows were arched, and the floors were all elegantly veined marble. As Rarity led the way into the lobby, the rustling of trees and quiet murmur of the sleepy town faded smoothly into soft violin music.

The lobby alone was massive, giving the whole place a feeling of temple-like solemnity, especially with the huge, elegant chandeliers of gold, crystal and magical lights that lit the room in coruscating color.

A long counter of polished redwood ran the length of one side of the room, behind which a lone receptionist sat, scribbling away in a ledger. The marble floors amplified even the slightest hoof-steps, while on a platform in the corner of the room, a string quartet played soft, if mildly repetitive music.

After conferring with the receptionist for a few moments, Rarity returned to the group with a smile. “Well it looks like everything’s in order. Sweetie,” Rarity turned to Sweetie Belle, “would you be a dear and help the others with the bags?” While the party had been light on luggage through the Hedge, a grunt from the door illuminated a delivery pony who had dropped off an almost ridiculously large pile of bags. “I have to go see Sweetie... That is,” Rarity amended, “our world’s Sweetie, before the show. I actually happen to have an outfit in my bag that might fit you, if you like. The show’s not for another few hours though.”

Sweetie smiled. “Sure! I’d love to try it on!”

“Wonderful, darling!” Rarity said with a radiant smile. She levitated a key over to Sweetie, which was engraved with the numbers 1013. “This is the room key, your dress is in the periwinkle bag.” She nodded to the pile of bags, which was easily twice her height. “Oh,” Rarity interjected quickly before Vinyl or one of the other changelings could protest, “here are your tickets,” Rarity levitated out a ticket for every pony. Even the tickets were gaudy. They sparkled with gold around the edges, and used silver ink. Vinyl tried to protest again, but Rarity overrode her, “Now, the show’s at seven, so that’s in three hours. I’ll see you at the opera, darlings!”

“But—” Vinyl started, but Rarity was already away, leaving the changelings, including Sweetie, with a mountain of baggage, and ten flights of stairs to climb. Vinyl looked at the bellhop, who had quite stealthily stepped out. She sighed, and started levitating bags onto her back. “Load up,” Vinyl said glumly. She carried her burden to the elegantly engraved door marked ‘Stairs’, and proceeded up the narrow, but richly carpeted and well-lit staircase.

Sweetie frowned, a bit annoyed. “Can’t we just... you know, have somepony go up there and open the window and let us levitate each bag through it?”

“Over a hundred feet up?” Coaldust asked in his crackling tone. “That’d be a tall order for anypony. Besides,” Coaldust said as he watched Sharp Claw swear and fumble with the bags, which were exceptionally heavy. “A little heavy lifting is good for you,” he said loud enough for Sharp Claw to hear, the irascible pegasus changeling shooting the tall unicorn an irritated look complete with snarl.

Tall order,” Sweetie snorted, levitating her own pile of bags. “I see what you did there.” She followed after the others, wondering just what her local self was like... and how she would react to meeting her.

o.0.o End Part 1 o.0.o