You've always known. All it takes is to be reminded of them...
Take a deep breath, then exhale. Now open your eyes. You seem to be in control. But does your body truly obey your every command?
Feed your pet, or your plant, or watch someone else do the same if you have neither. Did it ever feel wrong to be in that position of dominance?
Stop next to a busy intersection. Now imagine yourself walking right into it. Is there a world out there where you did just that?
Escape the confines of your role in existence for a minute or two. Notice how you feel as everything around you instantly becomes meaningless. How could someone in your position – a deity to your own people – attempt to cope with such an idea?
Submerge yourself in darkness. Let your mind paint the world around you, then wonder why it almost always results in a threat. Why should the fastest flier there ever was be afraid of that which they can't even see?
You've always known about these things. All it takes is to be reminded of them...
On one bright Sunday morning, Twilight Sparkle and her friends suddenly find themselves struggling with the very same questions. An experiment gone wrong, a stray thought during a field trip, and even a simple afternoon tea with one's dearest sister manages to set the minds of these ponies down a dangerous path, one which could easily lead to their doom – not to mention that of all others.
Some have suggested that it's just their imagination gone wild. Others suspect that they're being manipulated. A few even dread that it may be contagious, only to then laugh when they hear the victims complain about "strange noises stalking them everywhere." Nopony has answers.
Now that they are aware, those affected intend to find some...
(Adventure/horror/"pseudo-philosophical" fic based on an idea I've had during meditation...)
res·pi·ra·tion (res-pə-ˈrā-shən) n. 1. the movement of respiratory gases (as oxygen and carbon dioxide) into and out of the lungs...
— Medical Dictionary
The dull sound of hoofsteps on soil echoed throughout the streets of Ponyville as a mare galloped frantically toward its outskirts.
"Oh Celestia, help me... Please be there!" Twilight Sparkle whimpered between gasps for breath. "Please be there!"
The sun had already set, which left the town painted in a mix of grays and a bit of dull orange reflected from the clouds near the horizon. Few ponies remained outside, and even fewer gave more than a fleeting glance at the mare as she raced past them. "The princess running somewhere while muttering to herself" was not an uncommon sight ever since she arrived in Ponyville, and more often than not, her reason to do so wasn't something for them to worry about. And even if it was, they figured she would call upon them if they were needed.
This was a mistake. A huge mistake! The biggest one yet! Stupid, stupid, stupid!
Twilight Sparkle inhaled once more. Her mind raced as she struggled to think, not to mention to keep her body and her surroundings in check. Houses, trees, bushes, birds, ponies and pets rushed past her vision, their lines gradually blurring together. The mess of shapes and colors started to make her nauseous, and her legs stumbled a few times, at one point almost making her fall over.
She cursed silently, shook her head, and focused on correcting her vision. Though it worked, her blind and panicked sprint now caused her to lose track of where exactly she was. Though it was near impossible for most ponies to become lost in a town as small as Ponyville, in her current state, even her own house felt like wandering inside a maze.
Her nostrils flared as she caught wind of Fluttershy's cottage nearby, and she remembered that it was right next to the nearest entrance to the forest. She followed the scent, and soon enough, the large opening among the dark and thick foliage of the Everfree was right in front of her. Her heart leapt at the sight, and she only paused for a moment before galloping straight into it.
Please be there! she thought and gritted her teeth as she tore through the undergrowth. If you don't have a way to fix this, then... then I'll...
For the first time ever, the mysterious Everfree – with all of its wonders and horrors lurking around within – completely avoided her attention. Occasionally, she would hear an odd noise in the distance, and once even a bit too close for comfort, but her gait and gaze remained unfazed, and her legs just kept dragging her forward.
Come on! How much farther do I—yes! There it is!
She almost squealed at the sight of the familiar dwelling just up ahead. Her joy quickly dissipated, however, as the distance closed between them.
No... NO! Don't tell me she's...
There was no light bleeding out of the holes in the large tree's trunk, nor were there any strong aromas in the air to let everypony around know of the latest brew boiling inside.
"NO!" Twilight screamed. She rushed up to the home and pounded her hooves on the door, only to find it locked, just as she feared. "This can't be happening! Zecora! Are you in there? Hello? Help me!"
There was no response. Twilight groaned in frustration and proceeded to gallop around Zecora's home a few times, hoping to find at least some clues as to where she may have gone. Unfortunately for her, not all who tried to follow the zebra mare in the forest were her close friends, and she was quite proficient at leaving no trail behind.
"No!" Twilight whimpered. She leaned against the side of Zecora's hut while panting from the exertion. "Where the hay are you? I need you! I need... somepony. Anypony!"
Pressure built just under her eyes, quickly reaching a painful degree. She lowered her head, focused on the glands just under her eyelids, and began to squeeze out the tears held within. To her surprise, the agony in her chest began to subside as well. The scientist in her head immediately started taking mental notes about how this process was no mere side effect of her mood, not to mention how efficiently it was able to relieve emotional stress.
She paused in that train of thought as a new wave of pressure formed inside her chest. She focused on it, and a burst of laughter traveled up her throat, followed by several more. Her eyes continued to bleed tears while she laughed at herself uncontrollably.
It didn't really feel that good, but at least it brought some relief. As soon as the laughter stopped, however, she slapped herself, inhaled again, and tried to regain her composure.
It didn't work. Even though she throttled back her thoughts and her breathing, Twilight still felt on edge. Her limbs were twitching. She heard the constant roar of her blood rushing and boiling in her ears. Pressure built within her eyes and her skull, now threatening to burst them apart.
"What now?" she muttered while grasping her head. "What is going on with me?"
There was a stab of pain in her chest, making her gasp. She then realized that her heart was still pounding as though she were in mid-sprint. Cursing again, she took a deep breath and focused on bringing her pulse under control.
The pressure immediately began to subside, then disappeared altogether, along with the tension in her mind. Twilight breathed a sigh of relief and fell back on her haunches, resting her back against the tree. She couldn't help it. Another wave of giggling bubbled up inside her and forced its way out.
"Great..." she muttered to herself while giggling. "Just great! What the hay am I going to do now?" She buried her face in her forehooves. "Stupid, stupid, stupid! How could I not see this coming?"
"Ah, Twilight Sparkle, most magical and wise!" Zecora said as her guest stepped into her home. "To what do I owe this pleasant surprise?"
"Hi there, Zecora!" Twilight replied while setting down her saddlebags. "I just dropped in to..." She trailed off and gasped once she managed to take in the scene before her. "Oh my gosh! Sorry, am I interrupting something?"
"Not at all, my dear!" Zecora said with a smile. "My practice was all but done. And now that I have company, I need not go on."
"You were... practicing how to balance yourself on top your head?" Twilight stammered. "On top of a bamboo pole?"
"For my task, this is the most effective pose. It keeps the mind clear and does not let it close."
"Oookaaayy... and if you don't mind that I ask, what exactly were you doing?"
"Quieting my mind, then allowing my thoughts to stray. But not very far, as I need their help to find the way."
"Oh, I see..." Twilight said. A heartbeat later, her eyes widened. "Wait... you mean you were... meditating?"
The striped mare nodded.
"Wow, that's amazing!" Twilight said with a grin of excitement. "I've read so much about meditation techniques, but I've never actually seen anypony perform them." She began to circle around her host, who remained motionless in her odd pose. "They're said to be an excellent way to block out mental distractions and allow you to think more clearly about... well, everything, I guess."
"There are many things to find where your mind can tread," Zecora said. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes for a moment while muttering something that her guest couldn't hear, then slowly climbed down from the pole. "All you must do is chase away the storm in you head."
"Well, um... somehow it's never really worked for me." Twilight gave an embarassed chuckle. "Half the time, all I ended up doing was fall asleep..."
"Practice and patience are the keys to the way in," Zecora said sagely. "Employ them both to reveal the unknowns within."
"'Unknowns within'?" Twilight's eyes widened. "You mean... it can even allow you to unlock some kind of hidden knowledge?"
Zecora just nodded once more.
Twilight sat down before her host. "Zecora..." she began, now with determination in her voice. "Are you willing to share a little more about this?"
Twilight lay motionless for a while. Her limbs went slack, and her whole body felt like it was deflating. A gentle breeze touched the forest around her, its soft voice making her head feel heavy. A dull ache emerged in her eyes, which only faded when she let her eyelids slip closed.
Perhaps I should just go back home, she thought and took another deep breath. The smell of dry leaves hung in the air. It felt relaxing. Maybe try to get some shuteye, then—
Her blood ran cold, and her legs gave a small jerk. She quickly opened her eyes and shook her head violently to push back her fatigue.
No. Never again. Not another night in that thing.
Oddly enough, as the image of it flashed in her head, the first thing she felt was a moment of pride. Despite her current state, she had to admit to herself that not everypony could have thrown such an elaborate machine together in less than an hour, let alone actually make it work.
But her pride quickly gave way to dread and disgust. All those wires, all those tubes running in and out of her. The mechanical whirring and hissing sounds piercing her skull all night. Her air and blood being sucked out and pumped back in by some lifeless construct. The very thought of it sent an icy feeling down her spine. They may have kept her alive, but they didn't make for a good night's sleep, to say the least.
No, this is nothing to be proud of, she thought and sighed. It's just another example of what desperation can drive a pony to do.
"Fully body control? What the hay is that?"
"Well, Spike..." Twilight replied, rubbing her chin thoughtfully. "How should I explain? Hmm... Take your heart, for example. Do you remember ever having to actually force it to keep beating?"
"No... I guess..." Spike tapped his chest proudly. "Little guy's been working fine on his own since day one."
"Or how about your digestion?" Twilight went on. "Your hearing? Can you imagine how amazing it might be to have greater control over these things? To maybe have the ability to make them stronger... or even turn them off if needed?"
"Hmm..." Spike scratched his head. "Well, I'd love to be able to turn off my hearing in the morning so you can't wake me up," he said with a grin.
"Har, har..." Twilight rolled her eyes. "Anyway, this meditation technique Zecora showed me works really well. Once I'm deep enough in the session, I can get in tune with my body like never before, including my magic. So I figured: 'why not combine the two?'"
The dragon blinked. "Combine them to do what?"
"If I gain full body control, I could send myself to that place whenever I want," Twilight said in an excited voice. She flipped a page on the book in front of her, her eyes scanning the contents thoroughly. "All I need to do is use this spell I'm working on while deep in meditation. After that, the possibilities are endless. I could just tune out all distractions. I could have much better control over complicated magic, or pretty much anything I want to do."
"Sounds like another crazy idea..." Spike muttered. "Hey! Can we go see if Pinkie is throwing another party today? Mmmm..." He licked his lips. "I could really use some of her cupcakes right now."
"Ugh..." Twilight groaned in frustration. "Not now, Spike! Can't you see I'm trying to work here?"
"All right! Jeez... take it easy, will ya?"
The bushes to her left rustled, making her ears perk up. Twilight gasped as the noise came again, this time from a different direction, which jolted her out of her cocoon of depression. Her head snapped up, and she immediately began searching for whatever was lurking nearby.
"H-hello?" she called out. "Is... is anypony out there?"
The shadows of the dark undergrowth lay still. A few moments of silence passed, though they seemed to last entire minutes. Then it started again. Twilight bit her lip as her eyes jumped from one corner of the clearing to the next. Her hooves tensed up, pressing her body more tightly against the trunk of the tree at her back.
"Zecora?" Her legs started to shake. "Is... is th-that you?"
If something really was out there, then she couldn't see it. If it had a voice, then it wasn't using it. For all she knew, it didn't even breathe. The only signs of the intruder's presence were a few dancing leaves that it nudged, as well as the noise it made as it continued to circle around her. Or so she figured, at least.
Predators instinctively pursue a target running away from them. Such movement signals that the prey cannot fight, only flee...
The words from that book flashed in her mind. Twilight Sparkle felt another moment of pride for being able to memorize it so well, just like every other book she ever came across. She then felt her heart sink into her guts once the implication of said words hit her.
The noise at the edge of the small clearing halted for a moment, after which it changed direction. It began to move back toward where she first noticed it. This soon fell into a pattern; it would move back and forth in a wide arc right in front of her, occasionally pausing or picking up the pace. She never once caught sight of it, only the trail of sound and upset leaves it left behind.
"Okay... let's do this!" Twilight announced to herself with a sigh. She trotted to the center of the room, plopped down onto her haunches, and closed her eyes. "Let's see... 'step one: control your breathing.'"
Twilight slowly counted to ten, after which she took a deep breath. She held it for a while, exhaled, then inhaled and held it again. She repeated this process about a dozen times. Her whole body felt light, almost nonexistent, as if floating in an empty void. Her breathing slowly turned into a silent and smooth flow through her lungs and throat, barely noticeable once she stopped focusing on it.
"'Step two: quiet your thoughts.'"
Twilight turned her attention to her mind. Though normally she kept it packed to the brim with threads of thought related to her studies, it now seemed as though a maelstrom of nonsense had moved in to take their place. Images of her friends drifted past her internal vision like clouds of dry leaves riding a silent breeze. Scenes from her childhood played themselves out all over again. A mental alarm went off that she needed to take out the trash today; none of these things seemed typical, let alone worthy of a rational mind.
But she would not let this upset her calm state. Just like with her limbs, she focused her mind and began to let go of everything that clung to it. One by one, every stray thought swimming around in her head dissolved into the darkness. A few of them tried to crawl their way back, but she immediately pushed them away.
A great sense of calmness washed over her. Twilight felt almost disconnected from her body now. For a moment, however, she was dragged back by a smile tugging at her lips. She had done everything the way she was supposed to, yet her mind was not "empty." She now realized that "empty" wasn't the right term for it after all. Her mind was clean, transparent, like a diamond polished to perfection.
It felt wonderful.
"'Step three: initiate the spell.'"
Breathing heavily, Twilight leveled her horn with the undergrowth and began to track the noise with her head. If anything was to jump out at her, she would be ready for it.
Her hoof shot up to her mouth to block a scream from getting out. Another sound came, identical to the first one, but this time from behind her. It followed the same pattern as the previous one, and the two creatures now circled around her in unison.
Twilight bit down on her hoof to keep herself from screaming. She tasted something coppery in her mouth. Her head swiveled back and forth as she expected something to jump her at any moment. Her eyes were losing focus again as they scanned every shadow around her, her mind painting each one as another monster out for her blood.
"Who are you?" she shouted. "What do you want from me?"
No response came. Her whole body was shaking now. Her wings squirmed about on her back, making her eyes widen. She fluttered them slightly, then opened them and flapped them a couple of times.
Maybe this... she wondered. Maybe I could just...
She looked up at the dense canopy high above her. With the sun now beneath the horizon, and the moon not quite in its place yet, there was no light seeping through, making the coverage look like a veil of thick, dark clouds.
No way. The forest is too thick here. She gulped. If I mess up and crash, then...
Her wings fluttered again as her mind raced. She figured she could just hover in the air above the clearing, which might even save her from the first strike. But if those things could jump high enough – and most residents of the Everfree could – then she wouldn't last for much longer.
On top of that, some of the predators in the forest could fly as well.
Oh Celestia! No... this can't be! I... I'm going to...
Her head was starting to feel light, and the rest of her limbs went numb and felt like they were filling with lead. The edges of her vision began to blur.
The noises around her stopped, and a terrifying silence settled on the clearing. For a few moments, all Twilight could hear was her own breathing and the slow drumming of her pulse.
The spell executed flawlessly, and the magical energies surrounding her were in a stable state. All she needed now was a target.
"Let's start with something simple..." she thought and concentrated on her eyes. There was a brief tingling sensation in them as the spell did its work. She waited a few seconds and slowly opened them.
"Hmm... no immediate signs of change..." she muttered and levitated her quill to jot down a few notes. "Although I do feel them a bit more... acutely, I suppose.
"Okay, how about—whoa!" Twilight exclaimed in surprise as she attempted to shift her gaze a little. The moment she willed them to move, her eyes began to turn in separate directions, completely out of sync with each other. One half of her vision now showed the bookcase to her left, and the other was centered near the window in front of her.
"Oh my gosh..." she said to herself. Her quill almost tore through the parchment as it flooded the scroll with line after line. "This is amazing! Both eyes can be moved individually. Separate and complete control over every single muscle..."
The lavender alicorn messed around with her new ability for a few minutes, upon which it became a little too nauseating to continue. She refocused her vision, then, now more curious than ever, she contemplated the next phase of her experiment.
"Rainbow Dash is constantly mocking me that I have 'no proper wing control'" she thought and smirked. "Oh, I'll show her some 'wing control' now..."
Her wings shuddered slightly as the magic coursed through them. Once the sensation was gone, she carefully attempted to move them. Instead of her usual clumsy flailing, both her wings unfolded smoothly and exactly as far as she wanted them to. She then tried to move them on their own, just like with her eyes before. The tip of her left wing began to draw circles on the floor, while the right one picked up the parchment lying next to her and twirled it in the air.
"Fascinating..." she said. "I wonder if I could—" Twilight shook her head. "No. One set of limbs is enough for now."
Still, at this point, the last thing she wanted to do was stop. If the spell worked so well for limbs, then it only seemed logical that it would do the same for internal organs. As she pondered which one she could test first, the example she mentioned to Spike echoed in her mind.
"Hmm... I wonder if..."
She gasped in surprise and almost doubled over when a sudden dose of pressure appeared in her chest. Moments later, she felt a sharp pain as her heart fell into an irregular beat, after which it began to slow down altogether. Breathing heavily, she quickly focused on the organ and did her best to force it into a calm, not to mention healthy, rhythm.
The pressure slowly dissolved, allowing her to breathe a sigh of relief. She waited a little to gather her courage and focused on her chest again. Her limbs twitched, and everything around and within her seemed to intensify as her pulse rapidly accelerated, exactly according to how she guided it. She then tried slowing it down, almost to a crawl. Everything went numb. Her head turned into a heavy sack of jelly resting on top of a pile of hay. Darkness crept into the corners of her vision.
Twilight quickly returned her heartbeat to normal. She found that, as long as she payed it minimal attention, her pulse would remain stable.
"Okay, so at least it still retains some of its autonomy..." she thought. "I just hope the same would apply to my lungs, or I'd—"
There was a brief tingling sensation in her chest, followed by sense of crushing emptiness.
Twilight took a deep breath.
She had only a split second to react. Her wings flew open. The ache in her chest flared once more. Fire rushed into her veins, burning the lead out of her limbs, and the roar returned to her ears. Everything around her turned bright as if they came under the midday sun. For a moment, she found herself mesmerized by the sight.
Twilight nearly jumped as the bushes before her flew apart in a cloud of leaves and dirt. The foliage behind her began to rustle violently as well. Her wings flapped as hard as they could, rocketing her off the ground.
Something large slammed into the tree just inches beneath her. Her teeth ground against each other at the bloodcurdling sound of wood being ripped apart. She didn't dare to look back. All she wanted to focus on was to stay in the air and gain altitude.
Breathe! the alicorn's mind screamed as she flew half-blind. The strong rush of air against her face all but washed away her ability to concentrate. Thick, dark branches rushed past her vision, and some of the smaller ones slashed and bit at her hide. She winced at the pain, but didn't slow for one moment.
Breathe, Twilight! Don't stop! Don't think! Just breathe!
1. To cause to feel comfortable at home; make domestic. 2. To adopt or make fit for domestic use or life. 3.
a. To train or adapt (an animal or plant) to live in a human environment and be of use to humans.
b. To introduce and accustom (an animal or plant) into another region; naturalize. 4. To bring down to the level of the ordinary person.
— Online Dictionary
"There you go, little ones!" Fluttershy cooed. The pager bag in her hoof rustled as the first of its contents began to spill out. "Eat up! There's plenty for everyone!"
As soon as the first piece hit the ground, a chorus of small, high-pitched cheers responded, and the critters all swarmed around the mare's hooves to receive a faceful of the green pellets raining down on them.
"Now, now!" Fluttershy whispered. She tipped the bag a little more, and after they cried out to her again, she upended it altogether. "Just stay calm. There's no need to fight. Everyone should just find a comfy spot, and you will all have your fill."
No response came as the voices of the animals were replaced by the sound of dozens of tiny mouths chewing at the same time, but that only made the yellow pegasus smile even wider.
"Thank you very much for helping me, Rainbow Dash!" she whispered to her friend, who was hovering next to her. She made sure to keep her voice low, but it hardly veiled her enthusiasm. "This really means a lot to me!"
"No problem, Fluttershy," Rainbow Dash replied. "I'm always good for helping out."
"And it's a real blessing that you did," Fluttershy went on. "We got here just in time, too. Oh, if I'd have known the critters beyond the Ghastly Gorge were in such a bad way, I'd have come even sooner. I was just, um... a bit... hesitant to do it alone..."
Rainbow Dash chuckled. "Heh, come on! There's no need to hide it." She bumped the yellow mare's shoulder, eliciting a soft gasp from her. "To tell you the truth, whenever I fly through the Gorge alone, I get kinda nervous too."
Her forelegs shuffled a bit. "N-not that I'm afraid of the beasts in there or anything," she added. "I'm just... well, ever since that last incident... I guess I realized it's better to have someone be there to help you out... You know, just in case something goes wrong..."
Fluttershy nodded and turned back to the feasting critters with a smile. For a few minutes, the pegasi just stared at the small munching frenzy in silence.
"Where would they be without us?" Rainbow muttered.
"Huh?" Fluttershy turned her head to give her companion a puzzled look. "What do you mean?"
"Well... you know..." Rainbow scratched at her mane awkwardly. "I mean, we're feeding them. You'd think they're able to, you know... feed themselves."
"Oh, obviously they can feed themselves." When she noticed that the pile of greens was all but gone, Fluttershy quickly opened a second bag and poured its contents out for the hungry mass. "It's just that I want to make sure they're all properly fed. Not everyone can gather enough food with all the predators lurking about."
"Yeah, but..." The prismatic mare dropped to the ground and sighed. "Ugh, how do I say this? Don't you think they'd be able to do that on their own?"
Her friend blinked. "Do what?" she asked, a hint of uncertainty in her voice.
"Take care of themselves." Rainbow gestured toward the group of animals before them.
"Of course they take care of themselves," Fluttershy replied defensively. "I don't babysit them their whole lives, or anything. They feed their families, build their own homes, evade their hunters, and—"
"Oh yeah, that reminds me," Rainbow Dash said before her friend could finish. "Is this basically a way of feeding their hunters, too?"
The yellow mare's eyes grew wide. She gulped and turned her head away, and her coat seemed to go a bit more pale for a moment. "Um..." she whispered, "I'd... rather not talk about that..."
"Fine, never mind." Rainbow Dash shrugged. "Anyway, why should we have to feed them if they're as capable as you said?"
"Well..." Fluttershy glanced at the group of munching critters again. As if sensing her gaze, they all paused for a moment to look back up at her. Her face twitched as her eyes traveled over each and every one of their little heads, their faces screaming both hunger and gratitude. "I... I don't know. I guess I just can't stand to see any of them starving.
"Besides..." She leaned forward to pick up one of the squirrels after it finished its meal and raised it to eye level for her friend to see. "These creatures are all very important to their environment. It's our duty to help them however we can, because it means we are helping everypony else as well."
"Whatever you say, Fluttershy," Rainbow said with a grin. "Hey, after all: isn't that what we Elements of Harmony are here to do? 'Help everypony out'?"
Minutes later, the rest of the animals finished the pile of greens. They cheered at the ponies, rubbed their now full bellies happily, and slowly began to depart. Fluttershy set down the squirrel in her hoof and let it skip away with the others. Her gaze followed them as they scattered from the clearing and disappeared among the trees nearby.
"I guess so..." she said after a long pause.
"Come on, Angel bunny!" Fluttershy pleaded and nudged the bowl a bit closer. "Just one bite. Please?"
The bunny huffed, turned his head away, and crossed his paws. He didn't even frown at this point. The meal offered by his keeper was an insult so beneath him that it did not even deserve an expression of disgust. The mare's insistence, however, was slowly getting to him.
"I know you might not like it, but it's important," she urged him. "You need at least one dose of fresh vegetables every day."
The other critters in her home formed a rough circle around them. They inched a bit closer, curious about how this particular scene between the two would unfold. Fluttershy sighed, and her forehoof nudged the bowl a bit closer, its edge now touching the bunny's side.
"Please, Angel! It's not healthy if you just eat—"
Before she could react, Angel quickly spun around and kicked the bowl out of her hoof. The rest of the animals ran for cover as its contents bombarded the walls of her cottage, followed by the bowl itself, which bounced off a nearby shelf, then shattered as it hit the floor.
Fluttershy just stood there, staring slack-jawed into the eyes of her defiant pet. He frowned at her and stomped his leg as if she just insulted his whole family. Her outstretched forehoof started to shake. Her mouth slammed shut, and her teeth began to grind on each other. She took a deep breath, held it, and leaned forward until her snout was less than an inch from Angel's nose.
Angel's frown quickly gave way to a look of terror, and he staggered back as Fluttershy's eyes grew to the size of giants before him. The hapless bunny curled up and covered its head with its forelegs, but every nerve in his body screamed at him that it was futile. He knew exactly what was coming, what she was about to use. He crossed the line, and now he was going to pay for it.
But it never came. He raised an eyebrow when he heard Fluttershy let out groan of frustration, followed by a dull thud as her body collapsed to the floor. Angel risked a glance from under his forelegs and found his owner lying on her belly, her face buried in her forelegs.
"Oh, what's the use?" she cried. "That's it... I can't do this! Not today! It's just... It hurts!" Her forhooves began to rub her eyes. "Ugh... my head hurts, my eyes hurt, and... I'm so tired of this!"
The critters glanced at each other in confusion and inched a bit closer, only to scatter again when Fluttershy suddenly jumped to her hooves.
"You know what?" she exclaimed and pointed her hoof at Angel. "Rainbow Dash is right! You're a rabbit. You have four working legs, one working mouth, and one very picky belly. You want to eat something else? Fine!" She tossed a hoofful of the spilled salad in his direction. "Go find it on your own. But if you expect me to feed you whatever you want like some... some baby..." She spat out that word as if it were venom. "... then just go ahead and starve!"
Angel shuddered and took a couple of steps back. He could only stare wide-eyed at the furious mare as she kept up her tirade.
"All of you!" She turned to the other critters, who quickly retreated to their respective nests to hide from her gaze. "Every single one of you had something to complain about today. Is this really what I've reduced you to? You're stronger than this! Better than this!"
A low moan came from behind her. The floorboards crackled, and the few animals left in the open made way as a bear trudged into the room, dragging an empty bowl behind him. Seemingly unaware, he presented it to Fluttershy with a pleading look on his face.
"You too, Harry!" Fluttershy spat. "You're a bear! For Celestia's sake, are you really expecting me to nurse you all day like this?"
She floated up to him and pulled the bowl out of his grasp. "Get rid of that!" she said. "Seriously... just go find some food like all the other bears do!"
Harry was left just as dumbstruck as the rest of the inhabitants. Her suggestion didn't make his hunger go away, however. He shrugged, dropped onto all fours, and began to move up and down the room while sniffing at all the critters and their homes that he could find. One particular pair of field mice seemed delicious enough as a start. The shivering rodents squealed and huddled together as the bear opened its giant maw right before them.
"No! Wait!" Fluttershy exclaimed. "That's not what I meant!"
She quickly dove in and swept up the mice in her hooves just moments before Harry could bite down on them. As soon as she set them down, the pair bolted for a nearby crack in the floor and ducked out of sight.
Fluttershy sighed. "Never mind what I said..." she muttered while rubbing her temples. "I just... I can't deal with this today..."
She guided Harry to a pair of bags at the far end of the room. "Here, take some of this," she said. The bear sniffed at them hesitantly, and his eyes lit up. He turned to back to the pegasus, and, upon seeing her expression of approval, he picked up one of the bags and trudged out the door with a toothy grin.
Fluttershy hovered at the center of the room in silence. Frozen in a mix of fear and confusion, the other animals just stared at her. She didn't return their gaze. After about a minute or so, she gently descended to the floor and made her way toward the stairs. None of the critters dared to follow, leaving her to ascend all alone.
As soon as she was done with her evening routine of grooming, Fluttershy headed straight for her bedroom. At this point, a nice, warm, and comfortable bed was all she wanted from the world today.
She gave a long yawn as her hoof nudged the door to her bedroom open. A smile crept onto her face at the sight of her humble little bed, which now turned into an object of divine beauty in her eyes. She only managed to take a few steps toward it, however, when a low thumping noise came from behind her.
Fluttershy groaned in frustration. "What now, Angel?" she said through gritted teeth.
The thumping went on relentlessly. The pegasus sighed again and turned around, only to find the corridor empty. The noise shifted, and it now seemed to come from the living room downstairs. Frowning, she trotted back down the steps, her mind already working on the words she would use to scold her pet.
But Angel was nowhere to be found. The lights were off, and all the other critters have returned to their nests and remained silent as the dead. All she could hear was the thumping, but not whoever – or whatever – was making the noise.
Could it be...?
Fluttershy shook her head. Now was not the time to think about silly things. Careful not to wake up any of the animals, she gently turned around to return to her bedroom, only to jump back with a small yelp when she saw Angel standing at the top of the stairs.
"Angel?" she whispered. Her legs began to tremble. "Are you...? But... but I... I thought you... Then who is...?"
She quickly turned around again. Her eyes searched every inch of the darkness in the room for the source of the odd noise. The thumping seemed to shift again, becoming more and more faint, then faded out altogether.
Fluttershy turned back to Angel. "D-did you... hear that?"
The bunny held up his forelegs and shook his head innocently. When he saw how unnerved that made her feel, he quickly hopped up to her and hugged her forelegs tightly.
Fluttershy gasped. "Oh my! Um..." The sudden gesture felt a bit awkward, but upon seeing genuine concern in Angel's expression, she just smiled and stroked his head lovingly. "It's alright, Angel," she whispered. "I'll be okay. Thank you, and... um... I'm sorry for yelling at you. It's been a long day."
Angel returned her smile. He squeezed her leg one last time and hopped away toward the bedroom. Fluttershy watched him go silently. She took one final glance at the living room. It was as empty as before, and no trace remained of the strange noise, save for what was left in her head.
I really need to get some sleep... she thought.
"How come our pets have to eat this... stuff?"
The mare behind the counter shot her an annoyed look. "Excuse me?" she said.
"You just said it yourself." Fluttershy held out the packet of bird food, while her other hoof rubbed the bags under her eyes. "'Some of them might be allergic to it....' What kind of pony would give something like that to an animal they love?"
The mare huffed. "Look, hon... I just sell the stuff," she said. "The regulations say I have to tell you all the warnings that come with it. I don't make the food, nor do I make the rules."
"Oh, so it's fine for them to maybe be allergic to it?" Fluttershy tried to counter with an angry glare of her own, but only ended up having to stifle another yawn. "We can give them whatever we want as long as they eat it and don't complain?"
"My cat seems pretty happy with the food I give her," the mare said. "I can assure you, nothing you buy here is gonna hurt your pets."
"Ugh..." Fluttershy grunted and stomped her hoof a few times. "Will you please stop making that... that noise!" When all she got in response was a confused look, she rolled her eyes. "Anyway, look at this." She picked up a different bag and began to read the warning label out loud. "'These pellets may contain trace amounts of insects, fertilizer, and...'"
Her eyes grew wide, revealing more of the reddish taint on their surface. "'Poisonous weeds'? What in Celestia's name is this stuff?" She tossed the bag in front of the annoyed mare. "Could you imagine giving something like that to your family to eat?"
"There a problem, sweetie?" the salespony snapped. "Send a letter to the management then." She picked up the bag and pointed out a line on the bottom with her hoof. "The address is right there. Now are you going to buy anything, or will you just complain all day?"
"You've got some nerve calling this place a 'pet food store'," Fluttershy growled. Her ears twitched, and she lifted her forehooves to cover them. "That's right... just keep stomping like some filly who doesn't want to listen to me! I'm not buying another thing here ever again!"
The pegasus turned around and stormed out the door. "You will be missed!" the mare called after her sarcastically and went back to reading her magazine. "Crazy foal..." she added under her breath.
"Fluttershy?" Applejack cried as she stepped into the barn. "Is that you, sugarcube?"
Fluttershy didn't respond. She remained curled up on a small pile of hay on the ground, completely motionless except when a stronger gust of wind made her shiver.
"What in tarnation are you doin' out in this storm?" Applejack said and held out her hoof. "Come inside with me, quick!"
Fluttershy sneezed. Her hooves rustled the hay on the floor as she shook from the cold. "Oh, so I'll be all warm and comfy like you while poor Winona freezes out here?" she finally replied. "Not a chance..."
"What the hay are you blatherin' about? She's right— oh..."
Applejack's eyes widened when she noticed a tuft of brown fur among the bundle of yellow that was her friend. It was followed by a resounding woof as Winona poked her head out from Fluttershy's embrace to look up at her master. The farmpony groaned in frustration and retreated into the house for a moment, her hind legs keeping the door open.
"Apple Bloom!" she called out. "Did you leave Winona outside again?"
"No, Ah didn't!" came a muffled reply from inside. "I was just outside and... and... oh wait..."
"Darn it, Apple Bloom!" Applejack stomped her hoof. "You know we're supposed to let her in when there's a storm!"
"See? That's what everypony does," Fluttershy said in a bitter tone. "As soon as there's a little rain and their conscience gets poked just a tiny bit, they all try to play hero..."
"Say what?" Applejack gave her friend a puzzled look, which then became even more perplexed when she noticed that the pegasus wasn't even talking to her.
"It's okay, Winona," Fluttershy whispered. Her forehooves stroked the dog's wet coat and held her head tightly against the her chest. "At least I'm here for you now!"
"Come on, Fluttershy, knock it off!" Applejack pleaded. "Don't you remember what Rainbow Dash said? They needed to make a big one to meet their rain quota, so this storm ain't gonna let up."
"No!" Fluttershy snapped and hugged Winona even more tightly. "I don't care!" Though the latter enjoyed the warm embrace, she seemed a little agitated now as well. "She's staying here with me!"
"Fluttershy!" It was Applejack's turn to raise her voice. "Ah get that you're worried about Winona, but she's still our dog, you know! Now can ya please just let me get her inside?"
"No! You don't deserve her!" The mare's hug tightened further, forcing a yelp out of Winona. "Nopony deserves them!"
"What the hay do you mean 'deserve'?" Applejack trotted forward and knelt beside her prone friend. Winona sniffed happily at her forehooves as she lifted them up to caress her head. "We took care of her all her life! We give her love, and she loves us back!"
"She's mine!" Fluttershy kicked out with her legs, making the farmpony cry out in as one of them collided with her shin. "Stay away! You can't have her!"
Applejack stumbled back from the flailing limbs and cursed under her breath. "That's it. Ah've had enough of this..." she grumbled. "Winona! Get inside right now!"
Winona barked a couple of times and began to squirm among Fluttershy's hooves. The mare gasped as her grip loosened, allowing the dog to slip through. She bolted straight through the entrance and into Apple Bloom's waiting embrace.
The two ponies remained still for a while, surrounded by the hollow sound of the rain pelting the walls of the barn. Fluttershy's ears twitched each time Apple Bloom's giggles and Winona's happy little barks faintly reached them.
"There..." Applejack muttered and extended her hoof again. "Now come on in, Fluttershy. Let's get you out of this cold."
Fluttershy didn't move. Her eyes stared blankly ahead, pools of tears forming in their corners. "See?" she whispered. Her voice was shaking. "See? You're controlling her!"
"Enough, Fluttershy." Applejack tried tugging on her friend's limbs, but she resisted every time. "You're gonna end up sick like this."
"There is no love! Nothing! She's just afraid to disobey you! How could you—"
"Fluttershy!" Applejack shouted. Her own legs were trembling from her frustration now. When her friend still refused to budge, she huffed, turned around, and was about to go get her rope when she heard something move behind her, followed by a loud sob. She glanced down and saw the yellow pegasus lying at her hooves, her face buried in her forelegs.
"I watched a mare walk her dog today," Fluttershy said between muffled sobs. "He... he was just... just trying to sniff something in the bushes... and she pulled him away! He wanted to go back, but... but... she was choking him!"
Applejack's jaw dropped. "And, uh... what did ya do?" she blurted out in her confusion.
"I tried to ask her nicely... but she wouldn't listen..." Fluttershy's voice rose with every word. "I tried to take off the leash... and then her dog barked at me!"
"It's okay, sugarcube," Applejack whispered. She lay down beside her friend and wrapped a foreleg around her shoulders. "It's okay. Just calm down."
"Why do they let us do this to them?" Fluttershy whimpered. "Could you... could you ever imagine a pony... on a leash like that?"
She sniffled and pressed herself a bit more tightly into the earth pony's embrace. The latter sighed and did her best to comfort the shivering pegasus.
"I'm... I'm so sorry, Applejack," Fluttershy finally said. "I don't know what's gotten into me..."
"You're just tired. That's all," Applejack replied with a smile. "Overworked, I suppose. It happens to all of us."
"I guess so..." Fluttershy muttered. "I haven't been sleeping well lately... ugh!" She winced, and her ears twitched as if somepony made a loud noise nearby.
"You okay?" Applejack asked with a worried expression.
"Nnnngh..." Before the farmpony could react, Fluttershy wrestled out of the her embrace, stood up, and trotted to the barn's entrance. "Will you please stop making that noise?" she cried into the storm. "I can't stand it!"
"What noise?" Applejack stood up as well. "You don't mean the rain, do ya? I can't see or hear nothin' else out there..."
"That stupid thumping!" Fluttershy shouted. Her eyes kept searching the rain-filled haze outside the barn. "Angel? Is that you again? You're supposed to be at home!"
"Angel?" the orange mare echoed. "There's nopony there! Let's just—"
"Who are you?" Fluttershy screamed, ignoring her friend. Her face showed only anger, but the trembling of her limbs betrayed what she truly felt. "What do you want from me?"
No response came. Despite the loud and thick downpour, Applejack was certain that no living thing was out there, let alone making any noise. Fluttershy, on the other hand, seemed to be driven over the edge. She gave one last cry of desperation, unfurled her wings, and before her friend had a chance to stop her, she took off straight into the void of rain and fog.
"Consarn it!" Applejack muttered as the pegasus disappeared from sight. "Where the hay are you, Twilight? We could really use your help right now."
1. (of lines, planes, or surfaces) side by side and having the same distance continuously between them.
2. occurring or existing at the same time or in a similar way; corresponding.
1. a person or thing that is similar or analogous to another.
— Online Dictionary
The thick crystal doors gave naught but a gentle hum as they opened. The guards to either side of the entrance snapped to attention and saluted as the pair exited the throne room. The white unicorn from the pair returned the salute and led his companion, a pink alicorn mare, further down the halls. Sunlight streamed in through the windows they passed, which painted the flawless walls, floor, and ceiling in spectacular colors that made it seem as though they all glowed. The lighting was not strong enough to be unpleasant, but enough to brighten up the day of anypony who ever entered the castle.
All except one.
"It's such a beautiful day, Cadance," Shining Armor said. The pair stopped next to one of the windows and peered outside. "Are you sure you don't want to join me?"
Cadance glanced at him and gave weak smile. "Yes, the day is wonderful," she said with a sigh. "But it's been too long already. Ugh..." Her forehooves lifted up to rub her eyes. "You'd think helping run a place as dazzling as the Crystal Empire wouldn't demand that much work, but..." She sighed again. "I swear... One more legal paper today, and I think I'd have jumped out a window..."
Her husband chuckled. "How would that help?" He rested his hoof on her shoulder and gave a smug grin. "I thought alicorns could fly."
"Har har..." Cadance jabbed him in the side, which made Shining yelp a little. She shook her head, and they both giggled. "Never mind," Cadance said. "I'd love to go with you, dear, but I think I'd just kill the mood the way I am now."
"Don't be silly," Shining Armor replied. "There's no way you can ruin a 'Guard-Get-Together.' Mmmm..." He licked his lips. "Especially with those fizzy spiced drinks they bring every time."
He looked out the window at the large square near the castle, where the off-duty guards were busy setting everything up for the celebration: tables, chairs, boxes, barrels, stands for the catering, and signs to advertise all the attractions.
"Come on!" he said and turned back to his wife. "It'll be fun. I guarantee you won't feel tired after a few minutes."
"I know, Shiny..." Cadance muttered. "I'm really sorry. I promised you a hundred times already, and I really wanted to go this time, but... I just... Not today. I just want a bed today..." Her eyelids were half-closed now. "A nice, big, warm, comfortable bed..."
The rest of her words were cut off by a long yawn. She swayed a bit, and it seemed as though her legs could barely keep her upright at this point.
Shining quickly pulled her into a hug to keep her steady. "It's okay, dear," he said. "It's alright. Just go and get some rest. I guess I'll just... I'll make sure to have a toast with the guard in your honor." He lifted her face to his with his hoof and smiled. "What do you say?"
Cadance weakly returned the smile and giggled again. "Thank you, dear," she murmured. "Go on, then. Have fun." She nuzzled him and gave him a playful wink. "And don't be too long. I'll be waiting for you..."
"Okay... let's see what the mail brought for all the good little colts and fillies..."
Cadance struggled to keep her eyelids open as she pulled the box beside her bed and browses through its contents. The tomes inside were all freshly printed, which she could sense on both their texture and even the odd scent they gave. The latter always puzzled her. It didn't make any sense to her why something that contained so much valuable knowledge about a world as colorful as theirs had to smell so lifeless and artificial.
Her hoof paused as it passed over a particularly odd-looking, not to mention odd-smelling volume. "'Modern physics'?" she muttered when her gaze landed on the title. After a few seconds of pondering, she smiled, and her horn lit up. "Perfect!"
The light blue aura of her magic enveloped the thick book and levitated it out of the box. She shuffled back on her bed onto a large pile of pillows stacked up on one end, sighing deeply as she nestled among them. Her horn positioned the book above her face, and she opened it to the table of contents.
The role of a princess came with many perks, most of which the majority of ponies would love to exploit, were they in her position. Cadance, however, reserved these perks for emergencies only. She preferred to work for her gains instead. Doing favors in return for favors meant making many friends in many good places. Demanding them based on her authority would only create ponies who thought of her as "Princess Demandy-pants."
This was the main reason why she maintained a good relationship with the science community in the Crystal Empire. Not being that much of a scholar herself, she took up the role of a sort of "supplier" for them. Several times a month, the crystal ponies would request a few books to boost their own collection, which was no surprise, seeing as how it hasn't been updated for over a thousand years.
Cadance was happy to oblige. She immediately forwarded their request to her cousin Twilight, and once the books arrived, she would "delay" a couple of them to get a good look herself. The secrecy wasn't as much necessary as it was amusing to her. She doubted anypony would have minded if they ever found out, but it was more fun to have a "guilty pleasure" than a "regular" one, and it wouldn't be very "guilty" if it were all out in the open.
A kettle and a small teacup were brought up beside the tome floating above her head. Cadance poured herself some tea, took a quick sip, pulled a blanket over herself, and reached out with her hooves to browse through the book's pages. Though she could have done this with her magic, she couldn't stand the annoying glow it made while she was trying to read.
"Ah!" Her eyes widened when they noticed a more striking title. "Here's an interesting one: 'string theory.' Hmm..." Though no audience was present, she would always read these passages half-aloud to herself. Somehow, it seemed to help the information embed itself inside her head, not to mention she liked to pretend she was giving a lecture on the subject. Thus, she quickly jumped ahead to the page number shown in the contents and cleared her throat.
"'...the conjecture made by Dr. One Stone, the renowned scientist from Flankfurt University, describes our world as a collection of vibrations at the deepest regions of the subatomic level. These vibrations resonate simultaneously throughout all spatial dimensions, thus paving the way for infinitely many parallel universes coexisting without any direct influence on each other.'"
She sipped a bit of tea and shuffled on the soft mattress before continuing. "'Dr. Stone believes that these vibrations are the direct result of an unfathomably large cosmic event. According to him, his most recent calculations indicate that it was either a cello or contrabass quartet – perhaps even quintet – the size of an entire galaxy, which played a concert during the birth of the universe, hence the term string theo—' wait... What?"
Her eyes widened, and she double and triple checked the last two lines of the passage. When she realized that it was neither a printing error, nor was her own mind playing tricks on her, she gave a long and hearty laugh, closed the book, and let it slide out of her grasp and fall to the floor.
"Wow..." Cadance muttered once she managed to catch her breath. She glanced down at the book's cover and giggled again. "Tabloids are one thing, but they'll put just about anything into science books now?"
Her horn lit up, and she lifted the book once more to look at it. I wonder if Twilight had read this one already, she thought with a smile. Who am I kidding? Probably at least twice. Still, I gotta make sure I write her about this.
Her mental picture of Twilight running up and down, fuming with anger after having to witness such ridiculous "theories" being published in a "serious book," made Cadance let out another laugh. Giggling happily, she collapsed back into the embrace of her pillows, and her eyelids slowly succumbed to the call of her dreams.
"Then again..." she muttered. Her eyes opened to chase sleep away for a while longer. Her telekinesis opened the book again, and she flipped through its pages to find the chapter she had just read. "That part about 'infinitely many universes'... That seemed kinda interesting..."
The guard officer snapped to attention as she passed him. "Good morning, Your Highness!" he boomed eagerly and raised his hoof to salute her.
Cadence sighed. She paused in her slow march and weakly raised her head. Her half-lidded eyes struggled to focus on the stallion before her. "Morning, Flash Sentry," she said and gave a long yawn. "Everything in order?"
"Yes, Ma'am." The volume of his voice made her wince. Flash just grinned at her, oblivious to her agony. "All the guards are at their stations. No trouble in or near the castle whatsoever."
"Carry on, then..." Cadence muttered. Flash Sentry nodded, still grinning, and marched on in the opposite direction. The princess just shook her head and went back to trudging down the hallway. The throbbing in her head subsided a little once the echoes of the stallion's loud hoofsteps faded in the distance.
Her moment of peace, however, was short-lived. A door to her left opened, and one of the servants emerged with a tray on her back. "Good morning, Your Highness!" she said. Her voice made the alicorn's headache flare. "It's such a wonderful day, isn't it?"
"Yes. It sure is..." Cadence grumbled.
"The servants are about to prepare breakfast," the mare said with the same annoying smile as Flash. "Do you have any special requests?"
"Coffee..." Cadence gave another long yawn. "Lots and lots of coffee..."
The mare nodded and hurried off down the hall. Cadence could faintly hear a door burst open, followed by the mare's voice as she urged the kitchen staff to work as fast as they could. In her exhausted stupor, the princess didn't even notice the hoofsteps of somepony approaching her from behind.
"Good morning, dear." Shining Armor stepped up beside her and nuzzled her cheek. "Sleep well?"
Cadence shuddered from the unexpected caress and gave a deep sigh. "Ugh... Everypony wants me to have a 'good morning' today..." she muttered. Her forehooves rubbed her eyes. "A good night's sleep would be more appreciated..."
Shining deflated a little and looked away meekly. "I guess that means no..."
Despite her agony and frustration, Cadence now felt a pang of regret. "Sorry, dear," she said and nuzzled him back. "Just lousy sleep speaking. I won't take it out on you. So, how was last night?"
"It was okay, but..." Shining stammered. "Well, I was really looking forward to you tagging along. That way it was just... not the same..."
"I promise I'll make it up to you," Cadence said with a smile. She nodded her head toward the dining room door further down the hall. "Breakfast?"
"Nah, I think I'll just lie down for a while longer," her husband said and let out a small laugh. "Busy night, you know..."
Cadence giggled as well. "I'm sure..." she said and nuzzled him again. The two shared a quick hug and a few kisses. "All right," Cadence said and patted Shining on the back. "You go and get yourself some sleep, big boy."
Shining laughed and quickly gave a mock-salute. "Yes Ma'am."
They shared one last laugh, and Cadence watched as Shining trudged away toward their bedroom. Once he ascended the first flight of stairs and was out of sight, she continued down the corridor and stepped into the dining room. The splendid aroma of freshly made coffee tickled her nose, and her mouth watered at the sight of the delights prepared for her on the table.
"My beloved ponies..." she said as she sat down. The servants standing at the ready nearby all bowed in response. "Your Crystal Princess is eternally grateful..."
"You don't look well, Your Highness," the guard at the main entrance said. "Have you been getting enough rest lately?"
"Don't worry, I'm quite all right," Cadence replied. Well, so much for "covering up the bags under my eyes with makeup," she thought.
The stallion noticed the bag in her hoof. "Why don't you go take a nap?" he asked. "I can get some of the troops to fetch whatever it is you need."
"No need, thank you," Cadence said with a sigh. "All I really wanted to do is get some fresh air. The shopping is just for passing the time."
"As you wish, Your Majesty," the guard said with a short bow. He tapped his hoof on a button on the wall behind him, and the large crystal doors slowly opened, allowing the princess to escape the confines of the castle.
The moment she could see open sky, Cadance stopped and took a deep breath. A pleasant breeze caressed her skin, the light of the steadily rising sun pulled her into a warm hug, and the fresh morning air passed through her head and lungs like a healing wave. She still felt a bit weak, and the lack of sleep weighed down on her head, but the day no longer seemed quite as hopeless as it began.
With that renewal of her confidence, Cadence trotted down the main street toward her favorite shopping district. The morning rush hour was in full swing, which left the city crowded with ponies on their way to take care of their everyday duties, either on hoof or using carts of various shapes and sizes.
Cadence groaned inwardly as another wave of "good mornings" bombarded her wherever she went. All the perks aside, she sometimes wished she could just walk down a street without being the most popular face around.
Maybe I should reconsider asking Twilight about that illusion spell, she thought as she stopped next to a busy intersection. The crystal ponies waiting beside her all bowed and spoke their wishes for her to have a pleasant day, which only made her roll her eyes. She glanced to her right to make sure the way was clear, and her foreleg stretched out as she absentmindedly tried to cross the street. Maybe I should go for a green mane? Maybe a bulkier build and a shorter tail? I don't think anypony would recognize me that wa--
A scream to her left made her freeze and quickly turn her head, just in time to see a large carriage racing straight toward her. The pegasus that pulled it managed to swerve to her right at the last moment, and the massive vehicle sped past just inches away from Cadence's snout.
She just stood there, frozen in shock, while the onlookers around her gasped and shouted in alarm. In the distance, she could still hear the pegasus bellow curses back at her as he sped away. Oddly enough, the first thing to hit her was a strange sense of gratitude. The pony that almost ran her over was also the first pony that day who did not annoy her with any "good mornings" and the like.
That carriage... If I had taken one more step...
The thought quickly erased her moment of relief. Her still outstretched foreleg trembled as her mind replayed the scene in her head. Each time, the details shifted, and the imagined results became more and more gruesome.
I... I almost... She shook her head, but the disturbing thoughts would not depart. No. No! Come on! No way. It was just a stupid mistake...
Just another step would have been enough. Something else could have grabbed her attention, and she would never have peeked to her left. She could have forgotten to look altogether. She could have stumbled. The more she thought about it, the more miraculous it seemed that she did not get hurt.
There's no way I could have... died. Right? She gulped. I made it. I'm alive, aren't I? Doesn't that mean I don't need to think about it anymore?
"Are you all right, Your Highness?"
The voice of a young stallion broke her out of her stupor. Cadence blinked, shook her head again, and turned to see over a dozen crystal ponies staring at her with worried expressions on their faces.
"Are you hurt, Your Highness?"
"Quick, somepony call the guard!"
"That pegasus was insane. He should be locked up."
Alarm bells went of in Cadence's head a the tension grew around her. She cleared her throat, and her horn lit up as she used a quick light spell to attract the crowd's attention.
"Everypony calm down," she said. Her voice resonated in a soothing way, and the ponies around her quieted somewhat. "There's no need to panic. I'm not harmed. It was just a simple mistake."
The crowd murmured in confusion, but Cadence could sense a wave of relief spreading through them. "Thank you for your concerns," she went on with a smile. "I am honored to be among such helpful ponies. You may go on with your business now. Thank you again. Sincerely. And, uh... Have a nice day!"
The ponies returned her smile, and a few of them even cheered after her little speech. One by one, they slowly trotted away, leaving Cadence alone with her thoughts. That strange fear crawled up to the edge of her mind again, but she quickly shook her head and dispelled it.
"Okay, let's see..." She retrieved a small piece of paper from her bag. "First item on the list..."
Cadence ran past the guard at the door. She did not even bother with the usual polite greetings and whatnot. All of the servants' voices fell on deaf ears as their princess raced down the halls toward her bedroom. As soon as she made it inside, she slammed the door shut, tossed her bag onto the floor, and picked up her box of "delayed" books. She retrieved the physics book once more, threw it open, and searched through its pages until she found the appropriate chapter. A passage right after the part she had read the night before immediately caught her eye:
"'...which means that, in laypony's terms, anything that could happen, or could have happened, almost certainly does happen somewhere within this space. Any conceivable scenario is possible and, if the theory is correct, has its own parallel universe, which is only accessible through higher-dimensional movement. To offer a different analogy: it is not just a tree of possible outcomes with one root and infinitely many branches. One must think of infinitely many trees with infinitely many branches on every point of an infinite plane...'"
The heavy tome slid out of her grip and fell to the ground. Her hooves shook as she struggled to keep herself upright.
"Okay..." she whispered, breathing hard. Her heart pounded in her chest. "Calm down, Cadence. Everything is just fine."
She glanced out the window and noticed the sirens atop the red sky carriage parked a few blocks away, surrounded by a group of ponies in yellow and red uniforms.
"That was three 'near misses' in less than a week. And if this theory is right..." Cadence shook her head. "No, that can't be! It's all just coincidence..."
Another glance revealed the pile of wreckage right next to the fireponies. With everypony else removed from the scene, they could safely dig through the debris to make sure nopony was stuck under it.
"Yeah, right..." She frowned. "'Coincidence'? So why didn't I get hit? Better yet: why now? Why right after I read about this stuff?"
Her skin crawled as the memories returned: a metallic groan. A large shadow creeping onto her. A horrible sensation in her chest as she looked up. The scaffolding's supports giving out. The large steel skeleton falling straight toward her.
Cadence shook her head to banish the horrible mental images. Hesitantly, she picked up the book and read through the passage once more.
"I... I just don't get it..." she said. "I can be lucky, but this lucky? " She read the same paragraph over and over again. "Or am I changing my own path?"
Her eyes widened, and she quickly discarded the book as though it were something foul. Remembering how she laughed at first, she now wished she had never picked up the thing and read the horrors it contained.
"No... That's impossible. My own reality is bound to have a point where I don't make it." She gulped. "But how would I know which one it is?"
Sleep would not grant her mercy. It came fitfully at best for several days now, but tonight it left her altogether.
Cadence groaned and slammed her hooves against the sides of her head. Nothing helped. Eating, reading, exercise, counting sheep, pills, and crying; all of these she tested with no success.
When Shining Armor asked, she just used the same excuse: insomnia, no doubt from the hard work of running the Crystal Empire. The shame of bending the truth a, she preferred not to have him think she had gone insane. After they dissected all the remedies Cadence had already tried, Shining jokingly offered one last "exercise routine" they could try together. He then pleaded forgiveness, which fell on deaf ears as Cadence stormed out the door and moved to another room to face her "insomnia" alone.
Hours later, Cadence was no longer sure she had made the right move. Her husband's attempt at humor may have been poorly timed and deserved punishment, but now the lack of anypony beside her, even if they snored a lot, made the storm in her mind all the more furious.
Countless worlds... Infinite possibilities... Paths in every direction...
She buried her face in one of the pillows and groaned, but like tumors or fast-growing weeds, the ideas just kept expanding in her head.
"Good and evil trading places. Good and evil exactly the same. All but a speck of dust as the difference.
A clock beside her bed was ticking. The muffled sound of the palace's bell seeped in through the walls of the room. It rang four times.
"Worlds painted blue. Red. Black."
The ticking became louder, as though somepony moved it closer to her head.
"Worlds empty. Filled to the brim."
Every other sound was gone. She could hear it tapping away within her skull.
Cadance grabbed the clock and threw it as hard as she could against the far wall. The glass on its face shattered with a loud noise and scattered all over her floor. She tossed the pillow after it, jumped out of her bed, and rushed to her window.
"Shiny and I never exist. We trade places. We save the world. We conquer it. Harmony for eternity. Evil triumphs in infinitely many places."
She gazed upon the slumbering city. Everything was dark and still, save for a few streetlights and the moon and stars reflecting off its crystal surface. But not for Cadence. The image shifted, and she found herself staring down at a raging inferno, consuming the homes and the ponies inside one by one, while an insane tyrant cackled above.
"There is still time! We have to help them!" Her breathing became labored as the visions kept storming her mind. "So many... So many of them lost to tyranny and death!"
Her forehooves grasped her head, and she gave a strained laugh.
"Help? How? Why? Is it even possible? Is it needed?"
She heard hoofsteps behind her, followed by a knock on her door.
"I heard something break," Shining Armor said. "What's going on, dear?"
He stepped in and walked up to her with a long yawn. "Did you get any sleep?" he asked. When she did not respond, he hugged her from behind and stared into her eyes. "Oh... You don't look too good."
An odd feeling in her gut made her hesitate, but she did not care anymore.
Whatever... Let them throw me in a nuthouse if they want. They have ponies there who can give me the meds, right? At least then I'll finally get some sleep...
"Something's wrong here, Shiny!" she bawled. "I don't... I can't explain it, but... This world... Our whole life..."
"What do you mean?" Shining said.
"It's all wrong! I'm not supposed to be here. I..." Cadence's hooves shook uncontrollably. "There were all these weird things, and I... I don't know how, but..."
"Just calm down, dear." Shining gently stroked her mane. "I know you had a crazy week, but--"
"NO!" Cadence tore herself out of his embrace and turned to face him. "I'm not crazy!"
Shining held up his hooves defensively. "I never said that. Look, maybe all you need is just a good night's sleep. What say we--"
"In this universe, Chrysalis wins." Cadence spoke as though he weren't there. Her horn lit up, and she lifted a small glass orb from a nearby bowl with her magic. "I never get to marry Shining Armor. We all become food for the changelings."
Another orb floated next to it, this one of made of marble and painted blue. "In this one, my husband murders me," she went on. More and more orbs joined the first two. "In this one, I never even meet him. In this one, the moon crashes into the sun, and we live in eternal darkness!"
Shining Armor stared, mouth agape, as his wife as she kept muttering about all sorts of horrifying "what if?" scenarios. Her telekinesis formed a whole galaxy of orbs around her, each one a different "world" according to her rant. He tried to step close and comfort her, but every time she just jerked away and kept talking to herself.
The stallion gave a deep sigh and turned to leave. Pressuring her to open up did not seem to help, so he decided to give her some privacy instead. At worst, she would eventually tire and just sleep it off.
"Good night, dear," he said. "Try to get some sleep."
Cadence did not respond. The door closed between them.
It came again. The same muffled clicking and clacking through the walls. Cadence groaned, put down the scrolls, and marched up to the door to poke her head out into the corridor again, only to find it empty for the dozenth time. Gritting her teeth, she pulled back inside, slammed the door, and made a mental note to fire every single subordinate who felt the irresistible need to march up and down in front of her room constantly.
Sighing, she stepped back to her desk and opened the scrolls with her hoof again. Her red-stained eyes scanned the worn pages, most of which were decades old and made the librarian give very awkward looks when the princess requested them.
"Let's see here... 'Star Swirl's Channeling Theory'... 'Honeycomb Flux'... 'Experiments in Crystal-Enhanced Teleportation'..." She yawned and rubbed her eyes, already exhausted by the pages, but no less determined. "'Discontinued due to inconclusive results and potential risk'... ugh... I really should get Twilight to look at this. She's the one who studies this kind of magic." Her forehoof tapped her chin. "Hmm... Maybe I should send her a letter?"
The hoofsteps came again, far more clearly this time, steadily approaching her from the doorway.
"Oh, for heaven's sake!" Cadence stomped her hoof. "Please, Shiny, not now! I'm kinda busy here..."
She glanced behind her back, only to find the door closed, exactly how she left it. There was nopony else in the room. She was alone.
Cadence blinked and turned back to the scrolls before her. Next to them was an empty piece of parchment, a quill, and a fresh container of ink.
"Yeah, I should probably write that letter..."
Her gaze kept alternating between the scrolls and the parchment. Finally, Cadence took a deep breath, and her horn lit up.
The blinding white light faded away, and Cadence slumped to the floor. Static electricity zapped her limbs a few times, and an odd stench hit her nose that reminded her of burnt hair.
Almost like that time I--
"Ah! So glad you're finally here!"
Her blood ran cold as somepony approached her from behind. They had a familiar voice, but the resemblance she noticed seemed impossible.
"What? Who--" She turned around and inhaled sharply. "Oh my gosh!"
"Hush now, my dear!" A pink forehoof reached out to pet her head, making her shudder. "Don't worry your pretty little head, because this is your lucky day! You, Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, have been chosen by me, also Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, to take my place in this universe."
Cadenece breathed hard, eyes fixed on a mirror image of herself as it stared down at her with a menacing grin.
"Th-this universe?" she stammered. "What do you... How did... What's that supposed to mean?"
"Exactly what you think it means," the doppelganger replied. "You have jumped between two different threads in multi-dimensional space to make sure mine will stay intact."
"Wait... 'Jumped'? 'Different threads'?" Cadence blinked and shook her head. "No, wait.... That's impossible! How did you--"
"The same way you did. Or, at least, tried to."
"H-how... How do you know all this? I never--"
"Oh, stop acting so dumb. You and I are, in a sense, the same pony. The only difference is that you backed out at the last moment."
"But..." Cadence shakily got to her hooves and grabbed her double's hoof. "But what about my universe? I'll be needed there!"
"Oh, don't worry about that." The other smiled and casually snatched her hoof away. "I checked. You universe is due to meet its rather grotesque end in a..." She paused and brought up a notepad with her horn. "A 'supermassive black hole quantum deterioration event' in less than two weeks from now. I have no idea what the hay any of those words mean, but I did take a quick peek and it looked kinda... ugly." She tossed the notepad onto a nearby table. "Trust me, whatever you were doing back there, your presence or the lack of it makes no difference at all."
Cadence shrank back as the other alicorn approached her. "Oh," she went on. "And I'm afraid the spell makes sure that the only thing keeping you stable in this universe is my magic. Try to worm your way out of this, and I'll just cut the tether."
"Good morning, Alabaster!"
"Morning, Daffodil! Got my pastries ready?"
"Here ya go! I even put some leftover cake in there for you. Just make sure you bring the box back."
"Gotcha. Thanks a lot! I'll be seeing y-- Hey... Is that...?"
"Yeah... That's definitely her."
"Odd... She hardly ever comes around these pa-- Oh my gosh! Princess, look out!"
"Call an ambulance! Hurry! The princess! She's trapped under there! Help!"
The blue glow on her horn faded, and the princess gave a hum of surprise. "Wow, only a couple of broken vertebrae this time? I must be having a lucky day."
All she got in response were a couple of pained gasps for breath. A pile of dirty rags and pink skin with crimson stains shivered at her hooves.
"Well, at least some of us are..." She gave a small chuckle and glanced down. "Good thing I was quick to show myself all 'safe and sound'. Last thing we want is for all those ponies out there to panic, right?"
Her duplicate groaned, limbs shaking as she tried to move.
Cadence chuckled again. "Anyway, I guess that's it. I have no further use for you. You are free to go back to your world and see whatever cataclysm is about to destroy it. Have fun!"
Her horn lit up, and a bright flash filled the room. Moments later, Cadence was alone once more. With a satisfied smirk, she grabbed a mop, cleaned up any leftover stains on the floor, and made her way out of the room.
Better go see what's for dinner. I've built up quite an appetite these last few days...
There was a series of dull noises behind her. Cadence groaned in frustration, but she did not bother turning around.
"Still here? Did I mess up the spell again?" She shrugged. "Too bad, I guess. By the way, I locked all the doors and windows, just in case. Have fun!"
Her grin faded when the noises came again, still trailing her. She gritted her teeth and turned around, only to find the hallway empty. Cadence felt her jaw drop, and she gasped when the noise came from the other direction this time.
"Very funny," she said. Her voice shook a little now. "Play all you want. Good luck explaining yourself to the guards. I'm sure they'll be happy to interrogate you as another changeling spy that tried to slip in."
The noise changed. She could hear echoes of her own words among the odd hoofsteps. At first, she thought it was just the effect of the empty hallways, but the voice gradually gained a life of its own. It only whispered at first, followed by giggling and things she said days ago being repeated in a mocking tone.
Cadence breathed hard, her eyes darting back and forth. Hoofsteps rang out sharply on the crystal floors, their sound echoing off the walls, along with the laughter. She turned around again and caught a glimpse of a purple and yellow tail just around the corner. Without thinking, she galloped after it, her heart pounding in her chest at the sight.
"Get back here!" she shouted. "Do you have any idea what will happen if they find out? Stop!"
The double just laughed at her and kept running down the hallway, eventually throwing one of the double doors open and leaping out onto a balcony. Cadence caught up just in time to see the other alicorn jump off the edge and fly away, still cackling.
"Oh, no you don't!" She ran outside, spread her wings, and took off in pursuit.
Shining Armor thrust out his forehoof, and the latest flight of guards took off. He held his pose without moving until they were all just small dots on the evening sky. As soon as the pegasi were gone, he retreated to his office in the castle. The door slid shut behind him, and dropped to his haunches and hung his head with a sigh of frustration.
Moments later, the door opened again, and a unicorn officer stepped inside, but Shining pretended not to notice.
"You Majesty," he said and saluted. "Lieutenant Echelon, Intelligence Unit. May I have a word with you?"
The captain sighed again. "What is it, lieutenant?" he replied. "This better be important. I need every available pony out there to find Cadence. None of the squadrons returned with anything useful so far."
"Sir, I'm not sure how to put this..." The guard was firm in his stance, but it was clear that he wished to tread lightly. "Have you noticed anything... strange about your wife during the last two weeks?"
Shining turned around and gave him an odd look. "Strange? How is that important right now?"
"With respect, sir, if we can get a few clues about why she's missing, we may have a better chance of finding her... Or whatever it was that may have taken her."
"You think she had something to do with it?"
Echelon cleared his throat. "Just trying to uncover all the facts, sir."
Shining nodded. "Well, uh... I know she had some trouble sleeping, and she looked a bit off, but nothing too dramatic. Well, that and there were those close calls..." He raised an eyebrow. "Is there something I should know, lieutenant?"
"Yes, sir." Echelon reached into his saddlebag and presented his superior with a hoofful of papers. "Over the last week, we've had odd reports coming in from all over town. At first, we just dismissed them, but the consistency of the witnesses' accounts made us suspicious after the first dozen."
Shining glanced at the papers in his hoof and looked at Echelon again. "What did they say?"
"They all talked about your wife showing up and wandering about, seemingly without any real purpose. The next moment, some sort of accident would happen. Collision with a vehicle, falling cargo, collapsing structures..."
Shining blinked. "You're kidding me."
Echelon shook his head. "The strangest part isn't that. Every time they tried to help her, they found nopony at the scene. All of them were victimless accidents. No trace of Princess Cadence whatsoever."
"What?" The captain jumped up, nearly dropping the files. "That... That makes no sense at all!"
"All we found were faint traces of magic," Echelon said. "Some sort of illusion spell."
Shining Armor just stared at him in confusion. The lieutenant sighed.
"Listen, anything you could tell us would be a great help," he went on. "Even the slightest detail, if it's just a little off, can make a difference."
"I don't know. I think..." Shining groaned and rubbed his temples, fatigue creeping up on his mind now. "She said something about 'other universes' or whatever. I thought she was just rambling from lack of sleep, but... I don't know. I think I even saw her casting spells one night... She said she was just redecorating."
Echelon raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps she was performing some kind of magical experiment?"
"Maybe..." Shining sighed again. "If magic like that is involved, then we better report this to my sister. If anypony, she'll be able to help. Let's go!"
He gave the files back and made his way to the door. But Echelon did not move. Shining paused and turned around, his hoof already on the door handle, only to find the guard staring at him oddly.
"What?" he said.
"Haven't you been informed?" Echelon replied.
"Of what?" Shining gulped, the lieutenant's expression and tone making him feel uneasy.
"Your highness..." The stallion stepped up to the captain and closed the door. "I think you better sit down."