• Published 24th Jun 2018
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The Fishbowl - Shrink Laureate



Vinyl remembers the doll. It's unmistakably hers. Except it's in Octavia's closet. Why do they have the same doll – and the same memory?

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12. Pink Haze


Screaming.

Running.

The stones of one of the city’s many towers toppling into the street. Golden tiles shattering as they hit the ground.

A colt hiding behind the rubble. A family crouching in fear as a monster in black and green stalks towards them. A mother shielding her foal.

A wall of energy pushing abruptly down the street, carrying the monsters with it, sweeping them away. Gone as quickly as it arrived.

A girl was crying.

She didn’t know why.

It was mid-morning. She stood in the middle of a quiet street. She was wearing a white T-shirt and a blue skirt. In her right hand she clutched a carrier bag containing…

Pink notepaper. Crayons. Glitter. Glue.

How do I know that?

She lifted her free hand to her face, wiping tears away, blinking from the tears in her eyes and the sunshine.

What was I…

She turned to look around her, trying to get her bearings. The street was ordinary. The houses were ordinary. They had ordinary gardens, ordinary driveways, ordinary cars, ordinary windows, ordinary welcome mats. They could have been mass produced, stamped out by the million, stacked in regular rows here.

Where did I come from?

She turned and turned and turned. None of the houses were hers. They all looked the same, up and down the street.

Where do I…

Do I have a house? Do I even live somewhere?

She looked up, but the sky offered no clue. It was the same clear blue in every direction.

A car that had slowly pulled up in the road honked its horn, startling her into leaping to the side of the road. It drove off, picking up speed.

The girl glanced around her. Every direction looked the same, every house, every road. She listened, turning her head this way and that, but aside from the gentle murmur of the wind and low hum of distant traffic she couldn’t discern anything.

What’s that smell?

Something itched at her nose. It was oily, like something burned. It didn’t smell natural. She walked along the pavement in what she hoped was the right direction, past cookie-cutter white picket fences and neat lawns, approaching a corner, looking for anything that stood out as different, that might give her a clue where she belonged.

She stopped at the corner. Well, that’s different.

One of the houses on the far side of the side street had been smashed through, a hole gouged through it as if by a meteor or a cannon ball. Wood, plaster, glass and brick littered the road in a straight arrow-shaped path, looking like the wake behind a boat. A cloud of dust hung over the scene, dissipating only slowly in the still air, settling on every surface.

I didn’t hear a noise… did I? Surely I’d have heard something like this. All this mess.

She turned to follow the path of debris. It led to something shoved up against a little white fence, just hard enough to push the staves out of the ground. She stepped forward and saw that it was somebody. Curled up amid the wreckage was a person.

Who could…

They’re hurt. They’re not moving.

She lurched forward, dropping her bag, landing on her knees and pulling rubble aside. The person under it was a woman with green hair and black skin, blacker than anyone that she’d seen before.

Blacker than…

Than…

Than who?

She tried to bring to mind the faces of people she knew, but not a single one would appear. Her mind was a blank.

I don’t know… anyone? But I must. What sort of person doesn’t know anyone else at all?

Who am I?

She looked back down at the woman. Even with the debris atop her removed, she hadn’t moved. That oily smell was all over her. Her eyes were closed. She was breathing, but only barely. She was naked. Her face, hands, arms, her whole body were scored with scratches, slices, scars; blood shining red against her black skin. Dust covered her wounds and settled into her hair.

The girl made a decision.

One.

The woman opened her eyes. It took her a few seconds to focus on the girl on whose lap her head was resting. She had placed a blanket over the woman’s body.

The woman frowned. “Where am—” She stopped, confused. “I must be injured,” she said through cracked and dusty lips. “Even my voice sounds wrong.”

The girl continued to smile down at her.

“Where am I?” she asked. Her eyes focused on the girl. “Who are you?”

The girl opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out.

“What’s your name?”

I can’t… it won’t…

I guess it doesn’t matter. What would I say? I can’t tell her a name. Who am I?

She stopped gawping like a fish. Instead she shut her mouth and smiled.

“What? You can’t talk?”

The girl shook her head.

The woman lifted her head to look around. Lacking any other place to go, the girl had dragged her into a nearby garage that was open and stacked with boxes. Toys spilled out from one, cutlery from another. A barely-used exercise bike stood in one corner, now used as a shelf for folded towels.

“This looks like a storage area. Square walls like that usually mean pony construction, but you’re no pony.”

The girl frowned. Pony?

“You didn’t happen to see an army nearby, did you?”

The girl shook her head, confused.

“What happened to the rest of my—” The woman raised one arm, pulling it free of the blanket that covered her, and froze when she caught sight of it. For a few seconds she stared at her hand, slowly turning it around as her breathing became faster.

Then she screamed.

She erupted from the blanket in a frenzied whirlwind of arms and legs, shoved the girl aside and scrambled awkwardly on all fours into the corner of the room, yelping as she put too much weight onto her wrist. She huddled there, wrapped into a ball amid the crushed boxes, her breath a panicked staccato.

Don’t be afraid! The girl reached out her hand, but the woman flinched.

“Wh- what d- did you do t- to me?”

Lowering her outstretched hand into her lap, she deliberately shook her head. No. It wasn’t me.

The woman watched her with pained eyes, then she looked down at herself, lifting her hand. She turned her wrist back and forth, tilted her hand, twisted her elbow. She didn’t move her fingers at all.

“What have they done to me?” she muttered through short breaths. “What am I?”

The fear on her face darkened to a snarl. “It was them! The two of them, with their accursed magic. They didn’t just banish me into the wilderness to starve with the rest of my army, that wasn’t enough for them, they had to…to make me into…what even is this?” she spluttered.

Dropping her hand, she uncurled her torso and looked down at herself, as if seeing her own body for the first time. She roughly pushed and poked bits of it, wincing each time she touched one of her injuries. She still didn’t move her fingers at all, pressing with knuckles or wrist instead. “Is it something like a minotaur? A gryphon? A sphinx? A…” She lifted her eyes to look at the girl sitting calmly in the middle of the garage, looking her up and down in realisation. “Something like you.”

The woman leant forwards, trying to see the girl more clearly, but pulled back when she put her hands clumsily down on the floor fingers-first.

Fingers. She doesn’t know how to use fingers.

Slowly, as if approaching a wild animal, the girl shuffled forward, keeping her body low, staying visible, non-threatening. The woman jerked her head up at the movement, and continued to watch her warily as she approached.

The girl stopped in front of the woman and held her hands out for a few seconds, making sure the woman could see them. Then she reached forward and took the woman’s hand in her own, curling her fingers softly around the woman’s.

The woman’s skin was hard, shiny and slippery. It was pocked with scars large and small, fresh scabs and open wounds that made her flinch.

The girl extended two fingers, placed them in the middle of the woman’s palm, and traced them tenderly along each of the woman’s fingers in turn, from palm to tip.

“What are you…?”

The woman’s confusion turned to surprise as each of her fingers twitched under the attention. She slowly flexed her fingers in, grasping the girl’s two extended fingers like a baby.

The woman lifted her other hand, curling her fingers in and out. She said nothing, but looked to the girl for reassurance. The girl nodded and smiled.

The woman curled her fingers tight into a fist and made to press it into the ground, as if trying to stand on it, but the girl shook her head. She took the woman’s hand and lifted it, holding onto it as she stood up and gently pulled the woman to her feet.

The woman wobbled uncertainly, learning forwards. The girl took her weight, holding her elbow until she got the idea and straightened up. Even then she moved her weight awkwardly, unsure of the motion.

As the woman finally uncurled her body and learned to stand up, it was clear she stood more than a head taller than the girl, with lithe legs and arms. Her dark skin, green eyes and turquoise hair gave her a regal standing diminished only slightly by the state she was in.

Looking at herself, the girl felt dumpy in comparison. She wasn’t fat, exactly, but built to a different shape. More of her could be described as ‘curvy’ than ‘angular’.

Holding the woman’s hands in the lightest touch, the girl moved back, allowing the woman to take tentative steps forwards. Slowly the girl dropped her hands away until the woman was walking on her own.

The garage door stood open, and their short walk had taken them nearly to it. The woman looked out on the row of identical houses.

“Where am I? What is this place?”

She turned to the girl, who simply shrugged.

On the far side of the street, a mother and child walked along the pavement. On spotting the woman, the mother covered her child’s eyes, glared at her in outrage and hurried him along.

“What’s her problem?”

The girl pulled at the collar of her own T-shirt while carefully indicating the woman’s naked body.

“Really? Well, if you insist.”

The woman took a deep breath, standing tall with her arms held out and a smug look on her face. She held the pose for a few seconds before her confidence faded. She lifted her hands to look at them.

“Huh. It isn’t working. Why isn’t it working? Is there something wrong with my…”

She patted her forehead clumsily with one hand, then both, increasingly frantic, as if searching for something.

Then she screamed.

“I remember…”

The woman gazed into the fire. Its flicker reflected in her eyes.

“It seems so far away now, so unreal, but before coming here… wherever here is… I was a Queen. Queen Chrysalis of the changelings. I had an army at my command.”

The girl tilted her head.

“Changelings. We’re creatures that can change our form to imitate any creature we want.” She looked down at her hands. “Or I was. I used to be. I… don’t know what I am now.”

The woman pulled the blanket closer around herself. She had taken what clothes they could find from the garage full of boxes, but she still didn’t quite know how to wear them. I’ll have to teach her how to use clothes – starting tomorrow.

“I wish I knew what happened to them. They’re my… I’m responsible for them. All of them. They… trusted me. It took years to get them all together, to travel round to all the tribes and convince them to work together, to train them into fighting like soldiers rather than wild animals, to…”

She paused to cough. She still had dust in her hair.

“I promised them so much. Canterlot would be ours, I said. An empire of our own. No more hunger. No more living in the dirt, hiding away from the other races, afraid of our own shadows.”

She leaned forward to put a few more twigs into the fire.

“Do you know I once spent four days disguised as a tree?” asked the woman eventually. “And it was worth it. After four days the migrating buffalo tribe passed by and stopped there to rest, as they do every year. I was able to single one of them out, the chief’s daughter, it turned out. She had such love of nature. So strong, so driven. She slept under my canopy that night, dreaming of forests. She talked in her sleep. She’d never seen a forest. Just heard stories of them.”

She looked around at the surrounding trees, ominous in the dark, lit only by their little fire and the distant street lights.

“Not like this. I mean a real forest, wild and untamed, full of life and death and magic. This forest is… tame. It’s a pet forest. I don’t know who put it here, but they keep it locked up between buildings. It’s cruel.”

I think this forest is frightening enough for me, thought the girl. She huddled close to the fire, glad of the company.

“We passed through a proper forest on our way to Canterlot. The ponies called it the Everfree Forest. I don’t think the forest itself much cared for the name.” She gently poked the fire with a stick. “There are things living in there that have never been named, that defy classification.

“There was a castle in that forest, all broken down and overgrown, the only remnant of a kingdom long dead. It was useful as a base, but more than that it helped with my soldiers’ morale. It reminded them that nothing lasts forever, that the status quo can always be changed. That what we were fighting for was achievable. That even the sun and moon may fall.”

She spread her hands wide and shouted, “Look on my works, my little ponies, and despair!”

The girl glanced at the undergrowth, patchy darkness rustling with tiny movements. Did anything hear that? Are there wild animals in this forest? Are we being watched?

“Of course, the sun and moon didn’t fall. When it came to it, we lost. Defeated by a nosy librarian and a big bubble of pony love.”

The girl raised one hand, four fingers pointed down like little legs, and made a trotting motion. Then she raised both hands above her head to indicate sticky-up ears.

“Ponies, yes. They’re small creatures, smaller than most, but with powerful magic. Their bodies are covered in fur, and in some cases feathers. They come in all sorts of colours. They’re all so damned friendly and welcoming. It’s a miracle they haven’t been conquered yet. Their lands are rich, fertile and packed so full of love it’s intoxicating.”

The girl beamed.

“Yes, I suppose you do remind me of them. You’re friendly and welcoming.” She reached over to ruffle her fingers through the girl’s hair. “And so fluffy!”

A playground, full of children running around. A girl standing to one side of it, clutching her doll.

That…

A dozen children laughing. Standing in a circle. Laughing at her. Calling her names.

That’s not…

Pushing her over. Taking her doll, throwing it in the mud.

That’s not me!

Her mother, taking a button from her own dress to sew onto the doll as a replacement eye.

That never happened!

Sitting crouched behind a fence crying, wiping her nose on her sleeve.

That’s not me!

A patient teacher taking the time to show her sign language.

None of that’s real!

The sun broke through the trees, and with it consciousness. The girl was immediately aware that she was hungry. She’d been hungry the night before, but now it felt more pressing.

The woman, Chrysalis, was still asleep. The girl couldn’t blame her. She was injured and probably needed lots of sleep. The girl sat and watched her. There were thin scabs crossing her face, neck and hands.

At some time in the night, the fire had gone out. The girl shifted the blanket over the woman to keep her warm.

When she wakes up, she’s going to be hungry, too. Healing takes a lot of energy, right?

The girl looked around her. On three sides were the roads and houses they’d left behind. To the other side the trees rose up a short hill. At the top of the hill was a wooden fence. They hadn’t been able to see that in the dark.

A farm? They’ll have food, right?

She clambered to her feet, spent a moment wobbling as one leg buzzed with the change in blood flow, then set off up the hill. On reaching the fence she looked around, but could see and hear no-one. She swung a leg over the fence, hopped up, slipped and landed on her side.

Ouch. At least I’m over the fence.

At the bottom of the hill the scraggly trees were replaced by a neat orchard that seemed to roll on forever. The girl walked cheerfully through it as dawn crept further over the hills.

Perfect. With so many apples here, nobody’s going to miss a few.

She lifted the front of her shirt into a makeshift basket and started picking apples. They looked delicious.

“Well looky what we have here.” The girl spun around at the sudden voice, dropping apples. “Looks like we got ourselves a thief.” The speaker was a girl wearing country-style clothes and a big hat. She stood at the crest of a small hill with her arms crossed, looking down with a serious expression.

“Ey-yup,” confirmed a young man in a red shirt, walking up to stand next to her.

“What’s yer name, thief?”

The girl stood, trapped by their accusation. Uncomfortable heat crept up her neck.

“What, cat got yer tongue? I asked yer name.”

I wish I had an answer to give you.

“What? Cain’t you even speak?”

She shook her head.

The girl in the hat stepped forward and walked slowly around her, casting a critical eye over the girl’s appearance while she could do nothing but stand there. “Looks like you’ve been–” She picked a muddy leaf from the girl’s clothes. “–sleepin’ on the ground?”

She sniffed and nodded.

“Over in Whitetail Park?” the girl in the hat said, indicating the direction of their campsite. She nodded again.

The girl in the hat looked at the cluster of apples. “Ya hungry?” She looked sheepishly down, and nodded again.

“Yer sleepin’ out in the open. Ya cain’t speak. And let me guess, y’ain’t got no food nor money either?” She nodded again. “Consarn it, ain’t this just my ruttin’ luck,” she muttered, pulling her hat down.

“Ey, Applejack!” interjected the young man.

“Sorry, Mac. But we’ve got us a real case o’ somethin’ here. Girl cain’t even talk, she’s sleepin’ in a park, and she could sure use a bath. No offence. All right, hun, come with me and Ah’ll take care o’ ya. Least we can manage is a meal and a bath.”

The girl looked nervously behind her. What if she wakes up?

“It’s okay, Ah ain’t gonna hurt ya or nuthin’.”

She shook her head, and looked back again.

“What, ya leave somethin’ behind?”

She’s angry, thought the girl. She shook her head, clutching at the skirt still holding a few apples. Maybe I should just—

“Come on, girl, do ya want that bath or not?”

She ran. Holding up her skirt, shedding apples, she ran.

She ran to the left, hoping that if she was followed, at least she couldn’t be followed back to where Chrysalis was sleeping. But when she looked behind her there was nobody. She clambered over the fence, slid down the slope on the other side, picked up the few apples she still had, and walked back to the camp.

The woman looked confused. She crouched under her blanket, though the morning wasn’t that cold. The fire had gone out long ago, but she stared at its cooling embers anyway. She looked up sharply as the girl approached.

“I thought you’d gone,” she said.

The girl shook her head. Setting her bounty on the ground, she sat next to Chrysalis and leaned against her.

She’s really cold. I need to teach her how to dress properly.

The woman shivered. Her breathing was laboured. “Why does my stomach feel like this?”

Her body’s busy healing, and she hasn’t eaten since yesterday.

The girl reached over and grabbed an apple. She tried to hand it to Chrysalis, but the woman had reverted to balling up her fingers. She looked confused. “What’s this?”

The girl pressed the apple against her stomach.

“What?” She pressed again. “I don’t know what you’re doing?”

She doesn’t recognise apples? Maybe food was different for her before.

She placed the apple in the woman’s lap, picked up another and bit into it.

Oh, that’s good. I was really hungry.

“Oh. You’re doing that… thing. Eating food. I can do that. Wherever I went in the world, they’d expect me to eat with them.”

The woman looked into the dead ashes again, her eyes unfocused. “I never really got the hang of liking some things more than others. The ponies and gryphons and sphinxes and goats all have different ideas about what’s good. I went to Saddle Arabia once. They put lots of spices on everything they eat. It made my throat burn, but I had to act like I enjoyed it.” She settled into silence, rubbing her stomach with a fist.

Why doesn’t she get it? Does she not understand how eating works? How did she live before?

She picked up the apple from the woman’s lap and pushed it into the woman’s cheek.

“You want me to eat with you?” She didn’t look happy about it. The girl pressed the apple into the woman’s cheek. “Fine, if you want.” She took the apple in clenched fingers, gripping it awkwardly, but dropped it. “Oh, hang on. Um…”

After a couple more tries she managed to lift it to her mouth, biting uncertainly.

Her eyes widened and she choked, spitting out the fragments. “Blugh! What is that?”

Oh no. She doesn’t like it…

Chrysalis coughed as she stared at the bits on the ground in front of her. “Is that… is that what food is like for you? All the time?”

Oh dear. How can I say if it’s the same for me, if I don’t know what it tastes like for her?

The woman swallowed, and raised the apple again, clutched tightly in her fingers. Her eyes flicked between it and the girl, who did her best to look confident and comforting. She took a breath, then bit into it again. A confusion of expressions passed over her face as she chewed it.

She took a second bite, and a third, speeding up. The girl pulled the woman’s hand away to stop her choking herself.

“I had no idea,” she mumbled through a mouth full of fruit. “All these years I’ve been eating food and missing out on this. What do you call this? Is it always the same? Or are other foods different?”

The girl shrugged. Don’t ask me. This is the first thing I’ve ever eaten.

Another street, like so many others. Another corner. Another house. Another lawn.

Every street we walk down looks the same.

There was no life in these houses. No bustle of people going about their lives, no individuality. No people coming and going, no children running around. Just line after line of perfect, identical dwellings.

The girl I met, Applejack, she wasn’t like that. She was real.

The woman spoke up without warning. “In the hive, we get each hatchling to build her own cell when she moves out of the nursery, and she always builds it her own way. They may all look the same from a distance, but if you get a little closer you can see the personality of each cell’s creator in every part of it. A changeling could never really be comfortable sleeping in another’s cell. As their Queen I could look at any cell and know something about the changeling who built it.”

She turned around and around and around as they walked, taking in the many houses. “But these dwellings are all alike. With no individual creator, there’s no personal touch to any of them.”

As she was turning, she stopped, facing behind them. “Oh, there’s somebody.”

“Hey, catch up, squirt!” shouted a girl with light blue skin and rainbow-coloured hair as she ran past, laughing.

Following close behind her was a younger girl with orange skin and purple hair, riding a scooter at full pelt. “Some day, I’m…” she panted, “gonna be faster than you… Rainbow Dash!”

“Yeah, right! When you manage that, I’ll buy you a ticket to the moon,” called the older girl, Rainbow Dash, turning sharply on the street and heading straight to the door of one of the houses. She didn’t slow down until she’d tapped the door frame.

She dodged aside to let the younger girl tap it a few seconds later, slowed by the need to turn her scooter. They both stood there catching their breath.

Walking past it, Chrysalis and the girl could see that this house looked a little different. The garden had rose bushes and deep flower beds, and the upstairs window had rainbow curtains.

“Well, isn’t that interesting,” said the woman quietly. She stepped closer and called out, “Excuse me, Rainbow Dash, was it?”

The colourful girl looked up. “Yeah, that’s me.”

“You wouldn’t happen to have been to a wedding in the last few days, would you?”

“A wedding?” She exchanged glances with her younger companion. “No. Whose wedding?”

“Never mind,” said Chrysalis with a dismissive wave of her hand. “I must have mistaken you for somepony else, in that case.”

“Er, sure.” Rainbow Dash turned back to the younger girl. “Hey, Scoots, take off your shoes or my mom’ll get mad.”

Chrysalis turned away, and the girl had to scurry to catch up. As they left, they heard the younger girl ask, “Did she say, ‘pony’?”

The woman was lost in thought, and the girl had to nudge her to make sure she didn’t walk into things or out into the road. What’s gotten into her? She poked the woman’s arm with a couple of fingers.

“Hm?” The girl raised her eyebrows questioningly. “Oh. That creature just reminded me of somepony. One of the entertainers at my… at the wedding I mentioned. She was called Rainbow Dash too, and looked… similar. Oddly similar, even though the other one was a pony, and this one’s a… whatever we are.”

What’s that smell?

“But this Rainbow Dash didn’t know anything about a wedding. Which just confirms that she can’t be the same creature.”

It’s the same thing I smelled on the first day. Like… burning plastic?

“Did you catch the name of the smaller one?” The girl shook her head. “She looked a lot like one of the flower fillies, actually. The replacement flower fillies, that is.”

It’s really strong now. Where is it coming from? She cast her head about, trying to locate the source of the smell.

“After the first group of them had to… ahem, they had something else to do.”

The girl bumped into something hard. She clasped her hands over her bruised nose.

What the…

A girl stood on the path right in front of her who hadn’t been there just a moment earlier. She had light turquoise skin and hair, and wore a formal-looking dress. She looked around with a confused expression.

“Hey, Minuette? Twinkleshine? Did one of you girls catch the bouquet…?” She turned and saw the girl behind her. “Oh! I didn’t see you there. Er, have you seen my friends?”

The girl shook her head, hands still pressed to her nose.

Ugh, that smell. Also, ow. I think I’ve got a nosebleed.

“That’s weird, they were just here. I wonder where Bon Bon’s got to?”

They watched her wander away. The girl looked up at Chrysalis, and saw that she looked troubled. She took one hand from her nose and gently nudged the woman’s arm.

“Lyra,” said Chrysalis quietly. “Lyra Heartstrings. One of the bridesmaids. What is this place?”

The day was bright, the sun merciless. Up one street, down another, they walked without a clear direction. This section of town seemed older, the houses more closely packed, more vertical, and built of rough red brick or plaster rather than the modern straight lines.

They crested a hill and stopped to take in the sight. Before them, the streets dropped away in a panorama of roofs and details, continuing until they met water. The river was wide and flat, broad enough to have large islands in it, but its far shore was visible in the mist.

“You look lost, little girl.”

The girl turned to see an old man sitting on a bench by the side of the road. He was short, shorter even than her, thin and frail. His hands and chin rested on a long walking stick. His little grey beard offset his dark red skin.

I don’t like that grin. He’s looking at me like I’m a thing.

Chrysalis walked up behind the girl and put an arm around her shoulder. “She’s not lost. She’s with me.”

The old man smiled and pushed on his walking stick to start the slow process of standing up. “How reassuring,” he said, “but I wasn’t talking to her. It’s you that is lost.”

Chrysalis looked amused. “Oh, really?” she crooned. “I’ll have you know that I’m a little older than I look.”

“Aren’t we all, here?” he replied with a bow. He stroked his beard as he straightened, then gestured at the girl. “Except for her, of course. She’s younger than she looks. A lot younger.”

“And how would you know that?”

“All the homunculi like her are ageless, just as the seasons are timeless and the food is tasteless.”

What’s a ‘homunculi’?

“But this one, in particular…” He leaned forward to draw in a long sniff, causing the girl to stumble back.

Oh, eww! Stop that!

“She smells like freshly pressed parchment, all solvent and wood pulp.” He frowned and tilted his head. “With just a hint of some spice in there too. Something unusual in the mixture, hmm? Tell me, did something interesting happen when you were born?”

The girl pouted at him.

He turned back to Chrysalis and said, appreciatively, “But enough about her. You simply reek of fresh magic. You’re drowning in it, so much so that I could smell you coming from clean across town. I’d say you can’t have been here more than two or three days, am I right?” He sniffed again. “And from the gritty texture of it, something rather powerful was involved in sending you here. Give it a week or so and that fresh scent will all be gone, sucked away into the dry air of this place.” He gestured a vapour drifting away.

Chrysalis watched him pace around the street. “Who are you?”

“The name’s Tirek,” he said with a short, stiff bow. “And you would be Queen Chrysalis of the Changelings. Does your companion have a name?”

“Not yet,” she said, with a glance at the girl. “You clearly have me at a disadvantage, Mister Tirek. What can you possibly have heard about me?”

“Oh, this and that. You’d be surprised. Stories still find their way in here, walls notwithstanding. Among them, stories of a cruel and beautiful queen who can be your wife, your husband, your servant, your lord, your friend or your lover for a night, no matter your species or preference, and then disappear come dawn, taking with her a portion of your soul. Some have died, pining for her touch once more.”

Chrysalis snorted. “Where exactly is here, old goat? And since you seem to know everything, perhaps you know why I’ve been transformed?”

“You… don’t know?” An unnerving grin spread across Tirek’s old face, and he chuckled in a way that was not kind. “Well, far be it from me to spoil the ending for you. You’ll find out soon enough.”

Chrysalis rolled her eyes. “So if you’re not going to answer a simple question, what are you after then?”

“You’re so very suspicious of a poor old man. That’s good, it’ll be useful here. But really, I just came to give you one or two little hints that I thought you might appreciate. If that’s all right with you?”

“Go on,” said Chrysalis cautiously.

“The first is the fact that, if I can smell you coming, so can a lot of the others. And they might not all welcome you as politely as I have. You won’t be able to defend yourself with magic here, so I’d get ready to move your hooves.”

“Point taken, old man.”

“The second is that once a year there’s a gathering of all of us honoured guests. And the newest arrival is always the subject of great interest. You just missed this year’s, but next time it rolls around you’ll be the guest of honour. You should receive an invitation, when the time comes.”

“That’s worth knowing, I suppose, though I can’t promise to attend. Who are these other guests?”

“And the last one…” He raised both his hands, palm forward, then turned them round. He used a finger to show that his shirt sleeves didn’t have anything hidden in them, then held one hand out in a cupping motion.

And then, suddenly, there was an apple in his hand. He hadn’t placed it there, there was no motion, no sleight of hand. It was just there.

The girl gaped. Did that…

“There’s no trick, little thing. Well, maybe one trick.” With a small smile he tossed the apple to the girl. “But it’s one your queen will pick up soon enough if she’s smart.”

“Is that thing real?” asked Chrysalis.

“It’s as real as she is. Which is to say, not very, but close enough.”

He turned, set his walking stick ahead of him and started to hobble slowly away down the hill. He turned back and asked, “Oh, one last thing while I’m here. Have you seen the wall yet?”

That oily smell again. The girl grasped the woman’s sleeve, pulling her in its rough direction.

“Hmm? What is it?”

She dragged her along the road. They passed shops and a few other people, who gave them surprised looks before going on their way. Following the scent led them to a small park nestled between taller apartment buildings. Regular pathways cut between shrubs, flowerbeds and little lawns, leading to a pool in the middle. Though the water was clear and the shallow pool was empty, the surface rippled from some unseen cause. They both stepped cautiously closer.

A pink glow erupted from the pool, a sliver of light that twisted through the air in spirals before slamming into the ground.

“Owie!”

A girl sat there, rubbing her behind. “That wasn’t fun at all. I don’t think I like watching paint dry.” She looked up. “Hey, where’s that birdy?”

“Who are you?” asked the woman.

The girl turned around, and around, and around until she found the woman. “Oh, there you are. Hi! I’m Pinkie Pie!”

The woman’s eyes narrowed. “Pinkie Pie? Are you really? Because the last time I looked, Pinkie Pie was a pony.”

The girl looked down at herself and gasped. “You’re right! I’ve become a… a… um. What am I?”

Another spiralling light burst from the pool, whipped around the air and came down. Another girl appeared, looking very similar to the first, this time landing face down in the lawn with her arms spread wide. “Ow,” she said through a mouthful of grass and soil. Another appeared in mid-air and landed on top of her. “Ow!” repeated the first.

“Did I do it? Did I touch the ceiling?” asked the girl sitting on her back.

“I don’t know. I was too busy touching the floor,” said the one underneath her, spitting out grass.

“And there was only one of her, thankfully,” said Chrysalis.

Three more girls appeared, one of them appearing in the pool with a splash, one on top of a bush, and one of them in the lawn looking up at the sky. This one whipped her head from side to side. “Aw, I don’t see it!” she said.

The girls kept coming, filling up the little park. They all looked approximately the same - pink skin, big poofy pink hair, goofy expressions. Their clothes were variations on a similar theme. As they accumulated, the excited chattering grew louder.

“What do you call these things?” asked one, waggling her fingers.

“What happened to my tail?” asked another, bending over to look through her legs.

“You look funny!” said a third, pointing at a fourth.

“Wow, I guess you could make your face crazier than that,” said another, pulling on the cheeks of the girl next to her.

“Fun!” called another one, leaping into the air, prompting an enthused chorus of “Fun!” “Fun!” “Fun!” from others around her.

The one they had been talking to seemed to have forgotten them and gotten lost in the crowd, so Chrysalis and the girl retreated into the street. They kept their eyes on the crowd of excitable Pinkies, and doing so nearly bumped into three men standing on the street watching them. They were all equally tall, muscular and stern, and wore similar suits.

“Pardon me,” said one of them in a deep voice.

“I didn’t mean to get in your way,” said another.

“Have a good day,” said the third.

Chrysalis stared at the apple on the ground in front of her with an intent expression. Occasionally she’d grunt or sigh.

“How did he do it?”

What is she trying to do?

The girl sat calmly on the other side of the fire. Chrysalis had reverted to leaning forwards on her balled up fists like a quadruped.

“It’s like reality is… layered here. Like there’s more than one thing true at once, and some of them are more true than others.”

The girl picked up the bag she’d been carrying since her first day, took out the crayons and the pad, and started drawing. First she drew herself and Chrysalis surrounded by trees.

Green, blue, yellow… I need something the same colour as her hair… ah, there.

It was not, objectively, a good drawing. But for the first thing she’d ever produced, the girl was proud of it.

“When did you get turquoise?” The girl looked up to see Chrysalis looking at the crayon she was using to colour in the woman’s hair. “I saw your little box of crayons before, and there was no turquoise in it.”

She’s right, it’s only a little box. And now there are more crayons than will fit in it. She had seven crayons – pink, yellow, green, blue, red, black, and turquoise – and a box only big enough for six.

“I suppose you must have had more in the bag.” She turned back to the apple, muttering, “It’s like he got the heavier layers of reality to… look away for a moment while he changed the lightest layer.”

She drew the pink girls they’d seen earlier. She held it up for Chrysalis to see.

“Pinkie Pie. At least, something like Pinkie Pie. The pony I met was ditzy, but she had more attention span than that. It’s like they were imitation Pinkie Pies.”

She filled in a few more of them round the corner of the page, gradually covering every inch of it with pink. Her pink crayon was worn down nearly to the nub when she was finished.

“You actually remind me of her a little,” said Chrysalis with a smile. “All pink and soft and happy. Like a fluffy puffball of cheer.”

The girl considered her response to that. She drew in a deep breath, pursed her lips together and blew a long raspberry at Chrysalis. “I suppose I deserve that!”

Next, the girl drew a picture of the old man they’d met, with his old raincoat and walking stick. She held it up to show Chrysalis.

“Yes, the old man. He said his name was Tirek.” The girl cocked her head. “Only old myths and stories talk about a creature called Tirek. But that Tirek was a centaur, even if you believed them. He’s clearly not the same one.”

The woman went back to focusing on her apple. After a few seconds she looked up again.

“Where did you get brown and grey from?” she asked.

They stood in front of the wall. On this side, the landscape was dotted with trees and bushes, every branch and leaf visible and detailed.

Chrysalis pressed her hands against it, and it was solid.

The girl pushed both her hands through the wall, and watched as they turned soft. She waved them around quickly, and the image of her hands dragged behind her arms, like it took them a moment to catch up.

Weird…

“Are you certain that’s a good idea? It doesn’t look very healthy.”

She turned and grinned, pulling her hands out and showing them intact.

“Well, if you’re sure.”

The girl lifted one leg and pushed it through, giggling as it turned into a boxy, wavy version of itself.

“Careful, don’t—”

The girl wobbled, hopped, teetered, waved her arms around, and began to fall forwards. She was caught by Chrysalis, who grabbed one arm. Her other arm and shoulder were through the boundary, and reduced to caricatures of themselves.

My head nearly went through. I wonder what that would do to me?

Chrysalis pulled her out, and held and arm around her. “Be careful. If you went out there, I might never get you back.”

The girl wrapped her arms around the woman and hugged her tight.

“You’re all I have,” she said, holding her close. “Be more careful.”

She looked up. “So that’s the wall he wanted us to see. I guess we’ve seen it now. It confirms that I’m stuck here, and that the rules of this place work differently for you, which is odd. But it doesn’t explain where here is, or how I got here.”

The girl looked up, left and right. She spotted a signpost, and lifted an arm to point.

“Hmm? What’s that?”

The girl pulled her towards it.

“Some sort of board with writing on it?”

They stopped in front of the signpost.

‘Tartarus’?

Chrysalis slumped to her knees. “No… no.” Her eyes were wide, her mouth hung open, her body limp. She stared at the board.

What’s wrong?

The girl hunkered down next to her, concern on her face. She shook Chrysalis’ shoulders, but the woman’s gaze never left the name on the signpost. “It can’t be…”

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