The Sweetie Chronicles: Fragments

by Wanderer D

First published

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

Be Awed and Amazed by the tale of Sweetie Belle as she traverses the multiverse in search of her lost mentor and friend, Twilight Sparkle! Will she find her in post-apocalyptic Equestria? Or maybe in a strange world where everypony is the wrong gender? Or even where a Pony claims to be a human? Read as she journeys through very familiar worlds you might have read about... if you dare!

At this point in time all the main worlds to be visited have already been chosen. Thank you all for the suggestions, and I hope you enjoy the surprises!

Here's the official TSC:F Music Intro: The Sweetie Chronicles: Fragments

WDTP: S2/3-CE
You can also visit the TV Tropes Page which has spoilers!

Prologue

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The Sweetie Chronicles: Fragments

By Wanderer D

Editors & Proof-readers: Trevor, understatedHyperbole, Cardslafter, Fifth Alicorn

o.0.0.o

It was a gorgeous summer afternoon in Ponyville.

The sun shone in the clear sky, the birds sang and flew cheerfully, the leaves on the trees swayed in the gentle breeze, and ponies chatted, worked, baked, and played merrily in the streets.

I wish I was out there, thought the young filly as she gazed out of the library window, but no, I’m stuck here, studying. She turned to glare at the open tome in front of her.

“Sweetie Belle?” a voice called from the kitchen, snapping her out of her reverie, “Do you like sugar in your tea?”

“Uh, yeah, Twilight! Just one cube!”

“Okay, one cube it is!” came the cheerful reply.

The young unicorn grimaced, partly in guilt at her current thoughts and partly because she knew Twilight would turn drinking tea into practice.

“Here you go,” the purple unicorn said with a smile as she set a cup next to the tome. She levitated her own cup a bit longer before she sat at the table, across from Sweetie Belle. “Did you finish the chapter?”

“Uh...” The filly looked down guiltily.

The purple unicorn gave her a gentle smile. “Don’t worry. Now, do you remember the spell we’ve been working on?”

The filly nodded. She had been right. Practice time. “Yes... Pres... pres - ti - digi - tation?”

Twilight chuckled. “It’s a long name, I know. Prestidigitation.” She looked to the younger unicorn expectantly.

“Presti-digitation,” the filly repeated, earning a slight nod that was Twilight’s way of wordlessly coaxing her on. “It’s... a very simple spell... I mean, an ele-men-tary spell... that has limited effects,” Sweetie repeated from what she could remember of Twilight’s rather exhaustive lecture. “It doesn’t do much, but it allows the unicorn casting it to create ghostly sounds, move small objects, paint things temporarily...” she trailed off, struggling to remember more.

“And,” the purple unicorn said, “it also allows for a bit of temperature manipulation.”

Sweetie Belle blinked. “Temporal what now?”

Temperature manipulation,” Twilight repeated, she looked at Sweeties slightly blank expression and sighed. “In other words, you can cool things down a bit with it, or warm them up.”

“Oooh... I get it!” Sweetie Belle grinned.

“Good, because you are going to use that to cool down your tea a bit so you can drink it.”

Sweetie Belle looked a bit dubious, but nevertheless turned her attention to the cup. Wisps of steam emanated from her tea, a silent statement of how hot it still was. Closing her eyes, she concentrated on the cup, feeling her magic circulate through her body until it concentrated on her horn.

However, her mind was clearly not on the task at hand as she noticed when she opened her eyes and found that her tea was now boiling hot. She watched the bubbles despondently until her mentor slowly cooled it down.

Twilight sighed and looked out the window. “It's okay, Sweetie,” she said after a moment, trying to maintain her cheery attitude, “I know you would rather be doing something else than sitting here with me reading these dusty old books.”

The younger unicorn almost flinched at the badly disguised undertone of sadness in Twilight's voice. “It's not that, Twilight, I promise!”

The purple unicorn glanced at her.

"It's just that... I mean, you're a great teacher and I enjoy learning with you... but... well, I miss Scootaloo and Apple Bloom."

Twilight nodded. “I know,” she said, sipping a bit of her tea, “But they're also taking lessons, Sweetie. Applejack took Apple Bloom to Appleloosa to learn about their apple farming techniques, and from there she's taking her all over, from Manehattan to Hoofington, to visit family. It's...” Twilight shrugged. “A family tradition.”

The filly nodded. “I know... and Scootaloo is being coached by Rainbow Dash for the freestyle competition...” She sighed. “Last summer it was easier...”

Twilight smiled. “Well, it's a sign that you're growing up,” she said simply, “We all need to learn more to be able to be productive ponies of Equestria. I'm still studying under the Princess.”

Sweetie Belle nodded. “Yeah...”

“And I sent her a message just this morning about taking you as an apprentice,” Twilight stated proudly.

“You told the Princess I’m your apprentice?!” The filly smiled broadly. “Yay! That means I’m officially your student!” She blinked, smile fading away. “But... we've been studying together for a week now. Why did you only just tell her today?”

Twilight blushed and looked away. “Honestly? I thought you would walk away after the second day,” she confessed after a short silence, “I thought that... that you would get tired of my lessons, or find them boring, or that I would talk too much and you would get annoyed and skip meeting me and go play...”

Sweetie Belle smiled carefully and decided not to confess she would have done any of those things instead of coming over were it not for her sister making her Pinkie Swear she would attend each class while she was off in Fillydelphia- or else.

Regardless of her silence, it must have shown in her face, because Twilight's proud smile slowly faded away until it was completely gone. The purple unicorn's shoulders sagged a bit and she looked at the softly steaming cup of tea held in her magic grasp for a few seconds. She stirred the tea morosely. “Oh.”

Sweetie Belle gulped. “I'm sorry, Twilight...” she said after a moment, “I really do want to go out and play...” She cringed when she saw the unicorn's shoulders sag a bit more. “But... I- I am enjoying studying with you,” she said a bit reluctantly. She knew it wasn’t fair to make Twilight feel bad. The studious unicorn was only trying to help her.

Twilight dared a small smile. “I sometimes forget that not everypony loves studying as much as I do.” She chuckled. “And Cheerilee keeps reminding me that taking a break is a good idea.” She smiled as she looked up at the surprised filly. “I'm glad you told me the truth... and that you like my classes, Sweetie. Why don't we close the tomes, finish our tea and I'll treat you to some ice cream?”

The younger unicorn's eyes lit up. “Really?”

Twilight smiled. “Why, yes! You've been very good, Sweetie, you've been studying for 5 hours straight!”

The filly blinked. Had it really been that long?

Maybe... maybe I’m enjoying this more than I thought...

It wasn't long before the two unicorns were ready to go.

“Spike! We're going out for a bit; could you watch the library for me, my number one assistant?”

“Sure thing, Twilight!” the dragon called back from the upper level, where he was shelving books.

“Good.” The purple unicorn smiled. “Ready, Sweetie?”

“Ready!”

o.0.o

The sky was starting to darken by the time that Twilight and Sweetie Belle decided that they had taken enough of a break.

“Twilight?”

“Yes, Sweetie?”

The pair was laying down on the grass, listening to Lyra strum her lyre nearby in the dying light of the afternoon.

“I'm sorry I made you feel I didn't like your lessons.”

They had finished their ice cream, which had been a momentous occasion since Sweetie Belle had managed to hold it with her magic from beginning to end... something she had never done before.

The purple unicorn smiled and nuzzled the crusader. “It's okay, Sweetie. I could see that you were studying hard. And today you managed to levitate your Ice-cream from the moment we bought it until you finished it! I don't think yesterday you could’ve done it! That’s a huge leap!”

Sweetie Belle smiled, pleased with the praise she was receiving. The pair stood up and strolled through the park on their way to the Library.

“I think I know what to teach you tomorrow,” Twilight mused on the way.

“Really?”

“Yes. It's a bit more complicated but... I can start teaching you the basis for the spell.”

“What is it?”

Twilight smiled. “Well, given how you and the other crusaders get into so much trouble... how does a shield spell sound?”

The little filly's eyes widened. “You really think I can do it?!”

“Only one way to find out!”

o.0.o

As they approached the town proper and were just a few blocks away from the Library, they heard several shouts. Turning to look at the source of the commotion, both unicorns stepped back as two very angry-looking wolves in chains and metal muzzles pulled a wagon into the plaza.

Sweetie Belle blinked in confusion, but Twilight immediately groaned. “Oh, Celestia, why her?”

“Who?” the filly asked, confused.

“Watch in awe!” a voice demanded as the wagon stopped in the middle of the plaza. Blue smoke rolled over the ground and into the air as fireworks lit up the sky, drawing everypony to gather around the wagon as it unfolded into a stage, but still keeping a healthy distance from the wolves. An explosion in the stage made them look up as a mare in a cape and magician’s hat reared on her hind legs and addressed the crowd. “As the Grrreat and Powerful Trixie performs the most amazing feats of magic and ingenuity!”

“Oooh!” Sweetie Belle clapped her hooves together excitedly. “A showpony! Let's go watch!”

Twilight shook her head and sighed as she followed the excited Sweetie Belle into the crowd.

In an instant, Trixie's eyes had found the purple unicorn. “I see,” she said with scorn, “Twilight Sparkle is here again, to challenge Trixie!”

Twilight groaned and glared at the showmare. “Trixie, I don't care about challenging you. You said you were here to perform; go ahead, I won’t interrupt you.”

The blue unicorn laughed. “Trixie sees that you have learned your rightful place.” She looked down at the crowd. “Very well, if you are not here to interrupt, The Great and Powerful Trixie shall amaze you all!”

With a wave of her hoof, the two snarling wolves were levitated to stand on the stage on either side of her. “Since her departure from this town over a year ago, The Great and Powerful Trixie has undertaken a glorious quest. A quest of legendary proportions. She has toured the great marvels of not only Equestria, but of the world beyond its borders. And... recently, the most magnificent Trixie captured not one, but two of the most feared and infamous creatures in all Equestria!”

“Wow!” Sweetie said, “That’s amazing!”

“...” Twilight seemed to be about to say something, her eyes were fixed on the wolves, brow wrinkled in concentration. “Those wolves...”

“Behold!” Trixie shouted, pointing with one hoof at the wolf on her left, “Romulus!”

Twilight's eyes became pinpricks.

Trixie's other hoof slowly swept to point at the wolf on her right. “And Remus!”

“Amazing!” Sweetie Belle jumped up and down amongst the gasps of awe and amazement escaping the multitude of ponies around them.

“TRIXIE!”

Everypony stopped to look at Twilight.

The showmare growled. “What is it, Twilight Sparkle? The Great and Powerful Trixie has a show to perform, if you don’t recall.”

“Are you insane?! You caught Romulus and Remus and chained them in iron?!” Twilight's eye twitched.

Trixie snorted. “The Great and Powerful Trixie is not a moron! Nor is she an incompetent fool. She did not use simple iron.”

Twilight sighed and a trembling smile crept into her face. “Of- Of course, Trixie. I'm sorry, I forget you have traveled all over Equestria...”

Trixie smiled and nodded. “The Great and Powerful Trixie has!”

“... so you know a lot of the legends and myths of the world...”

“Yes, yes Trixie knows many legends,” the showmare said.

“... so you would have of course used at least silver thread along magically engraved and enhanced iron shackles with the appropriate runes etched in silver or even platinum...”

“The Great... what?” Trixie had begun to nod again, but stopped as her mind worked out what Twilight was saying.

“And...” Celestia's apprentice sat down, relieved. “You would have accounted for the fact that tonight is a full moon, so you would have included a moon-energy absorption spell.”

“Trixie... wait...” The blue unicorn was starting to get nervous as the oblivious purple unicorn continued.

Sweetie Belle was starting to get a bad feeling as her mentor kept talking, Trixie kept stammering and ponies all around them started shuffling away from the stage. “Um... Twi?”

“I'm really sorry, Trixie, I don't know why I would have doubted that a professional showmare would know to take the appropriate precautions when dealing with legendary were-creatures.”

The crowd looked expectantly at Trixie, who took two steps back. “Were... creatures?” she managed to ask weakly.

“Why yes,” the purple unicorn, still oblivious to the growing panic, carried on, “Like, were-weasels, were-chickens, and other variations of the lycanthropic effect...” Sweetie Belle gulped when she saw Twilight Sparkle's expression change to one of horror as Trixie’s cringing finally dawned on her. “You... didn't know?!” the purple unicorn gaped.

A hush fell over the crowd as Twilight looked to the horizon in horror as the sun finally set and the moon began its ascension, the celestial orb casting its silvery light over the town of Ponyville.

The growling of the wolves stopped. Sweetie Belle turned to look at them, a chill running down her spine. They were... growing. The wolves had already been large -about the size of Big Mac- and while they had looked feral and dangerous, the chains and muzzles on them had given the citizens of Ponyville a sense of safety.

But now, as the wolves grew, their chains snapped one after another with an almost musical cadence and the illusion of safety was shattered. Their forelegs bulged along with their paws, which extended into clawed hands, the fur on their shoulders and back became darker and thicker. They stood on their hind legs which also became solid masses of muscle, easily keeping their bodies upright. Their lips curled back in a snarling smile, yellow fangs almost seeming to glow in contrast with their black coats. The iron muzzles burst as their heads grew and now the werewolves were easily three times the size of Big Macintosh... and apparently hungry.

Sweetie Belle screamed, the sound snapping the paralyzed ponies into action as everypony ran for their lives. In front of them, the two werewolves turned their attention to Trixie with malevolent smiles on their faces.

The showmare took a look at them and immediately her horn blazed into life. Chains magically wrapped themselves around the two creatures as Trixie took a step back, her eyes narrowing in concentration.

For a moment, Sweetie held hope that it would be enough to stop them, but Trixie’s next actions burst that small bubble of hope.

“Catch!” the showmare shouted, her magic levitating both creatures into the air as they started breaking the chains with little effort and threw them into the crowd, straight towards Twilight and Sweetie Belle.

Twilight’s magic flared in response to the threat. For a moment, she caught both creatures in the air, but their continuous struggle made it really difficult for her to keep them in place.

Trixie immediately cast another illusion spell, creating blue mist around her and her wagon. When it dissipated, they were gone.

As the ponies around them ran about in a crazed frenzy, the younger unicorn pressed close to her mentor. “Twilight? What do we do?”

“Just stay close, Sweetie...” Twilight ordered through clenched teeth. unexpectedly, one of the panicking ponies crashed into the purple unicorn, and sent her sprawling to the ground, disrupting her concentration.

The were-creatures landed right in front of them. Sweetie screamed and jumped back as a clawed hand tore the ground where she had been seconds ago.

“Sweetie! Run!” Twilight shouted, jumping between her and the werewolves, horn glowing bright, but a backhanded swipe to the face knocked her to the ground. The young unicorn ran, her eyes wide in panic as she searched quickly for a place to hide. Behind her she heard the werewolves howl and the excited yips of a predator on the hunt drawing closer. She ran around the corner of a building, and dove behind several trash cans, hoping that the smell of rotting food would throw the wolf off her trail as she cowered in fear.

She couldn’t see it, but she could still hear the creature as it slowed down and growled. The pads on its feet silenced its steps, but the creature’s deep, rumbling breaths threatened to make her scream and reveal her location as it slowly approached her hiding place.

Sweetie Belle cringed as she searched her mind for any possible way out of this situation. There was no Twilight right next to her, or even Fluttershy to use her Stare and scare the monster away, her sister would have at least been able to use her magic to fight it off.

It was getting closer now. From between the trash cans, the filly could see other stacks of boxes and trash in the small alley. She was in between Sugar Cube Corner and Ponyville’s four-star restaurant, The Clover, so there was a lot of trash around. An idea began to form in her mind, as she remembered Twilight’s earlier lesson.

Hoping that the trashcans around her disguised her and her horn's light well enough from the werewolf, Sweetie concentrated on conjuring up the simplest spell she knew.

Something shifted in a trash pile further up the alley from where she was hiding, clattering to the ground. The sniffing stopped and the world was silent but for the distant shouts outside the alley. She could hear the creature’s breathing, it was calmer now. She could almost sense it looking intently at the pile on the other end of the alley.

Fighting to keep quiet and afraid to even breathe, she tried again. But this time, she varied the spell.

From the pile of trash a came a soft, whimpering noise. With a scratch of claws scraping the ground, the werewolf bounded forward to land, with a howl, on top of the pile. Its claws tore into the bags, ripping through wood and bags full of trash as they sought their prey.

Sweetie Belle carefully slid out from behind the trashcans, and, without taking her eyes of the werewolf, slowly backed out of the alley. Her heart was beating wildly inside her chest, and she feared that it would give her away to the wolf.

As she stepped back as slowly and silently as she possibly could, she backed into a trash can. The metal lid slid off, scraping its way to the edge of the trashcan before it clanged onto the ground beside her.

The werewolf whipped its head around, eyes ablaze with anger at having been tricked. Sweetie Belle turned and galloped away, desperately trying to find help or another place to hide. But despite her best efforts there was no-where to hide, and being in the middle of the plaza, she could only weave through discarded carts and spilled goods in trying to put off her seemingly inevitable fate.

A paw came down hard on her, knocking the filly off her hooves. The world spun crazily around her and she found herself on her back, gasping for breath as the wolf’s muzzle hovered over her face. There was a vicious gleam in his eyes and Sweetie Belle knew this was it.

“I...” she gasped and closed her eyes tightly. Goodbye sis...

There was a shout and suddenly the weight of the werewolf was gone. Sweetie Belle opened her eyes to see Big Macintosh standing protectively over her, glaring at the werewolf now sprawled out on its side. Slowly, the beast stood up, growling fiercely at the draft pony.

“Good job, Big Mac!” Twilight shouted as she slammed the growling werewolf with his packmate, sending both to the ground in a dazed heap. The purple unicorn galloped to their side and took a quick look at her apprentice. “Are you okay, Sweetie?!”

The filly was barely able to nod, her body was shaking so much.

Twilight trained a fierce look on the werewolves. “Nopony, no creature, no monster threatens my student!” she growled, as her magic enveloped her body.

A blast of magic shot into the air and storm clouds formed high above them, slowly obscuring the moon. The werewolves howled in anger as gleaming chains broke through the windows of a nearby forge, wrapping tightly around them, reinforced by magic. The ends of the chains then buried themselves into the floor of the plaza, pinning them to the ground.

Metal bars followed, slamming down one after the other around the were-creatures, until they were completely surrounded. A large piece of metal landed roughly atop the makeshift cage, sealing them inside.

“Big Mac! Did you get it?!” Twilight shouted, her magic pulsating as she struggled restrain the creatures, chains and all.

“Eeyup!” The stallion quickly moved to the side and brought a cart filled with silver: plates, cutlery and even a vase or two. “This enough, Twilight?”

The purple unicorn’s answer was to levitate the entirety of the carts contents and, in an amazing feat of magical strength, crunch them around the bars and metal top of the cage. It was crude, but soon the bars all had silver cutlery covering them. With another pulse of magic, two more long chains crossed on top of the metal slab that was keeping the wolves inside and buried themselves on the floor of the plaza.

Twilight then released her magic and collapsed, exhausted, right next to a now completely in awe Sweetie Belle.

The wolves broke the first set of chains now that there was no magic to reinforce them, but each time one of the creatures lept at the bars, they would howl in pain and growl. The cage was makeshift, but they would be contained.

"Twilight, that was incredible!" Sweetie gushed, grinning ear to ear at the collapsed unicorn.

"I'm just glad you're okay, Sweetie," Twilight whispered, chest heaving from exertion but smiling. She nuzzled the younger unicorn as other ponies began to venture back into the plaza.

o.0.o

“That Trixie should be arrested!” a pony shouted as a contingent of unicorns from Canterlot slowly transferred the wolves into a more secure cage the next day.

To say the citizens of Ponyville were not happy with the showmare would be a gross understatement. They were livid. Furious even. Although the Ursa Minor had ravaged the town, destroying many buildings, it was the fact that one so young had nearly died that enflamed the hearts of Ponyville's citizens.

Buildings they could replace. Sweetie Belle, nopony could.

“Find her and throw her into a dungeon!” Aloe added, the spa pony stomping a hoof, her eyes ablaze with righteous anger.

“Strip her of her magic!” a pegasus shouted, more than one unicorn wincing at the suggestion, although none of them looked inclined to disagree with the punishment.

Twilight and Sweetie Belle stood side by side, silently watching the proceedings as the crowds began to shout more an more for the showmare’s head... or at least her arrest. The Canterlot unicorns were hard pressed to keep a professional look as the town almost rioted right then and there.

“Twilight?” The young filly looked up at the purple unicorn.

“Yes, Sweetie?”

“I really want to learn magic,” the crusader said, looking at the snarling wolves. “I never want to be so scared again.”

Twilight smiled and nuzzled the younger unicorn. “I’ll do my best.”

o.0.o

“Morning, Sweetie,” Twilight said brightly as the filly made her way down the stairs of the library.

The white unicorn yawned and waved a hoof. “Morning, Twi. Morning, Spike.” It had been a week since the incident with the werewolves, and she was still having trouble sleeping.

“Hi, Sweetie!” Spike’s head poked out of the kitchen. “Guess what I made? Pancakes!”

The filly smiled as she made her way to the table, where she joined Twilight. “What’s the plan for today, Twi?”

“I should be receiving a few things from Canterlot,” the purple unicorn said, “I requested some books and devices to help your training along with some items for my own studies.”

The little unicorn sighed as she looked at the gorgeous day outside. I know I asked her to teach me as much as she could but... we haven’t have a break in days!

Twilight caught the filly looking outside and smiled gently. “But don’t worry too much about it, Sweetie. Why don’t you take a break? I have to unpack a lot of sensitive equipment and it’s a lovely day outside! You could visit Pinkie Pie or Fluttershy while I do that.”

“Really!?” The white unicorn bounced up and down. “Yay!” she hugged Twilight. “You’re the best, Twilight!”

The purple unicorn chuckled and wondered if this was how Celestia felt when she became excited. “You deserve it Sweetie, but breakfast first, and you have to feed Opalescence before anything else, okay?”

“Okay!”

It was late afternoon when Sweetie Belle came back. She had kept her promise and fed Opalescence, and had spent most of the morning walking around town or cleaning up the Cutie Mark Crusaders HQ.

“Twilight!” she called as she walked into the library. “I’m back!” There was no answer. “Twilight? Are you home?”

She walked towards the kitchen until she heard a noise. Walking towards it, she found the door to the basement slightly ajar. Inside, she could see a veritable kaleidoscope of shifting colors inside casting strange shadows on the wall.

“Are you down there, Twilight?” she called. There was no reply, but for a moment she thought she heard her mentor’s voice downstairs.

Opening the door and carefully making her way downstairs, she was able to hear more clearly.

“Okay, Spike, you have to do three turns only!”

“Gotcha, Twi!” There was cranking sound. "Gosh, this thing is labor intensive!" Spike added, sounding somewhat grumpy.

“I know, but I want to finish this before Sweetie comes back.”

Sweetie stopped.

“Why?” Spike asked, unknowingly echoing the filly’s thoughts, “Do you think she’d get in the way or something?”

Is that how she thinks of me? Sweetie Belle thought, tearing up a bit, Even after all that effort...

“Don’t be silly, Spike,” Twilight replied, still out of sight, “Sweetie is a really smart filly; I’m sure if she were around to help we would be fine.”

“Then why...”

“It’s because I want to concentrate on her studies Spike,” Twilight confessed, “She has a lot to learn and magic like this might confuse her. She needs to learn the basics first and she is very curious, so I know she would try and understand this...” The purple unicorn sighed. “It’s like my old professor used to say: You have to build a solid foundation.”

“What is this, anyway?”

Sweetie Belle finally reached the end of the steps and looked into the lab. In the middle of the basement was a huge crystal orb floating over some sort of machine. Spike was patiently watching and switching some levers while every few moments Twilight would cast a spell into it."

“Well, Spike, this sphere allows me to cast spells that affect time and space itself; it is an ancient artifact that I am making the subject of my thesis,” Twilight explained, as she cast another spell into it, “Princess Celestia was very generous to let me use it.”

“You already have a thesis planned?” Spike asked, impressed, “That’s amazing Twilight!”

“Well... I... okay, I really just wanted to study it, I haven’t really thought much about the paper itself...”

Spike chuckled. “Well, you at least know what you’re trying to do right now?”

Twilight shot the dragon a dirty look. “Of course I know, Spike!”

“Right.” The dragon rolled his eyes, clearly not convinced as her glanced to the stairs and spotted the filly. “Hey, Sweetie Belle!”

Twilight stopped and looked over her shoulder with a small smile. “Hi, Sweetie! Don’t be shy, come in, I’m just about finished.”

The filly stepped carefully into the room, doing her best to avoid touching the machines or getting too close to the crystal orb.

“Um, hi Twilight,” she said once she was safely in one of the corners of the room, “So, is this what Princess Celestia sent you?”

“That’s right!” Twilight smiled. “But that’s not the only thing!” She pointed at a nearby table with a lot of other devices on it. “Those are for you to practice! Go on, take a look!”

“I think I’ll stay here until you finish, if you’re almost done,” Sweetie Belle said.

Twilight smiled at her and nodded.

The filly watched the purple unicorn for a moment, but other than concentrating magic while Spike adjusted knobs and wrote down numbers, Twilight didn’t seem to be doing much.

Sweetie Belle sighed. I should have just gone to the table. She glanced at it, trying to make out the different objects on top of it. There was a strange cube and several smaller ball-like items lying there, just outside her sight.

Sweetie Belle stole a glance at Twilight and then at Spike. Both seemed completely fixated on their project, Twilight had even closed her eyes in concentration. Biting her lower lip, she looked back at the table. I wish this thing didn’t take up most of the space in the basement! her eyes followed the contours of cables and machine. I think if I levitate them, they won’t touch the machine and they should just float past the orb... she smiled to herself. Okay... here we go, just like in practice...

Her horn started glowing with a soft white aura and slowly several objects started to float. Sweetie Belle’s eyes narrowed as she commanded her magic to bring them to her. Twilight will be so proud of me!

The young unicorn’s magic carried the objects past the table and over the machines. It was when they were passing the Crystal Orb that things went wrong.

Twilight’s eyes snapped open as she tried to cut her spell short, but she couldn’t! She looked in horror as the white magic aura around the magical items was suddenly sucked into the crystal. The magic items floated there as their magic was forcefully stripped from them.

“S-Spike!” Twilight shouted, “Go to the other room and cut the energy source!”

Spike turned around at her shout and his eyes widened in horror as he saw the items starting to shake and smoke started to pour out of them.

“I’m going!” he shouted as he hopped over the machines and ran into another room. There was a short pause and then... “I can’t! I turned it off an' on, but it won't stop!”

Sweetie Belle for her part couldn’t concentrate much on what was happening. She looked around as things seemed to slow down. She saw Twilight turn to look at her with a horror. The purple unicorn was shouting something, but she couldn’t hear her.

It was then that one of the small ball-like items exploded. To Sweetie’s eyes it seemed as if it broke into pieces with fire slowly making its way out, only for it to very slowly spiral into the crystal, which started to turn orange.

The next one followed the same fate, only slower if possible. She saw, with a horrifying slowness, how the magic exploded into Twilight Sparkle. The purple unicorn was completely engulfed in magical flames, but her worried eyes never wavered from Sweetie Belle.

There was a bright flash of light and when she could see again, she only saw a crystal figure of a unicorn where her mentor used to stand. Another item exploded, got syphoned into the crystal sphere and then it was her that was covered in magic.

As the world bent and shifted around her, she saw, in a dreadful moment of clarity, Twilight shatter into pieces that were caught in the magical maelstrom. They floated in the air and flashing out of sight before Sweetie could even lift a hoof in protest.

The world shook around her. The sphere cracked. Suddenly everything was moving much faster and there was an earsplitting cry as Sweetie Belle screamed.

o.0.o

“AAAAaaah!” She jerked violently violently, finding herself struggling against something warm and stifling before she rolled to the side and fell. “Oof!”

Sweetie Belle shook her head and groaned. “Uhh... wh-what?” She detangled herself from the comforter and looked around, blinking.

She was in her room. She shook her head. What am I doing here?

Her eyes snapped wide open.

The crystal orb.

The magical items.

The explosion.

“Twilight!”

In a panic, she slammed the door open with her magic and quickly ran down the stairs.

“Sweetie Belle!” A voice called just as she was about to open the door and run out.

“Huh?!” The filly unicorn did a double take. “Sis?! When did you get back- Wait... if you’re here... how long have I been out?”

Rarity looked at her younger sister with a bit of trepidation. “I... believe you went to sleep early last night, Sweetie.”

“I... I did?” Sweetie Belle sat down. “Wow. I must have been really tired... and that dream!”

“What dream?”

“I dreamt that Twilight had a horrible accident and... and...”

“It’s okay, Sweetie,” Rarity said, comforting the smaller unicorn, "Twilight is fine, I promise. I just saw her last night before-”

“Wait!” Sweetie Belle interrupted. “What time is it?!”

“About 8:30... why?”

“Oh no! I’m late!” Sweetie panicked.

“For what? It’s your vacation.”

“But I’ve been studying really hard with Twilight, I can’t miss a class! I’m getting really good!”

“You... you have?” Rarity blinked. “Good at what?”

Sweetie Belle’s horn glowed for a second as her saddle-bags floated up to her and settled on her back.

Rarity’s mouth fell open.

“Anyway, I can’t stay! Sorry, sis, I've got a shield spell to learn!" the filly shouted in excitement as she ran out the door and closed it behind her.

Rarity stared at the door for a second before clamping her mouth shut with an audible snap.

o.0.o

“I’m late, I’m late!” Sweetie Belle groaned as she galloped towards the library. She thought she heard somepony shouting her name, but she ignored them as she reached the Library.

Surprisingly the door was locked. Sweetie Belle frowned. “Oh, she must still be working with those items Princess Celestia sent her!” she said, brightening. “But as her apprentice, I know the spell to open it!”

A few seconds later, she had closed and locked the door behind her. The library was quiet as usual, save for the sound of somepony humming to herself from the bathroom.

Sweetie Belle walked towards the bathroom door, but stopped when she heard whoever was behind it approaching.

The door swung open, and Sweetie Belle smiled.

“Sorry about being late... Twi... ligh...” She blinked.

Staring down at her, toothbrush frozen mid-stroke, wrapped in Twilight’s favorite towel, bubbles of toothpaste all around her mouth and eyes wide in surprise, Trixie stood, gaping at the filly.

o.0.o End Prologue o.0.o

Of Mares and Magic

View Online

The Sweetie Chronicles: Fragments

By Wanderer D

Editors & Proof-readers: Trevor, littlerobotbird, GanonFLCL, Cardslafter, Fifth Alicorn

o.0.0.o

Applejack looked down at Apple Bloom as the young filly walked up to her, head down and frowning in disappointment only to sit down next to the apple cart. “What happened, sugarcube? Ah thought you’d seen Sweetie Belle?”

“Ah did!” the filly said, looking up at her sister, “But she didn’t hear me callin’! She ran straight into the library.”

The orange-maned mare nodded at a unicorn as he left a few bits and levitated an apple, trotting away happily. The apple farmer then turned to look at her younger sister. “Into the library?” she asked with a small frown, “She shouldn’t be able to. Should be closed at this time in the morning.”

“Ah, know! And when Ah got to the door, it was locked!”

“Now, that’s odd.” Applejack pushed her hat back, bewildered. “As far as Ah know, only two unicorns know the spell to open it without a key.”

The Library door suddenly slammed open and a towel-wrapped, still-wet-from-the-shower Trixie rolled out of the building, followed by her toothbrush.

Applejack and Apple Bloom stared as a piece of rope enveloped in a white magic aura floated out of the library and began to wrap itself around Trixie’s hooves.

“Stay still!” Sweetie Belle whined, her horn aglow, “I can’t tie you up if you keep squirming!”

“But I don’t want you to tie me up, Sweetie!” Trixie shouted, eyes wide in shock at the sudden attack.

“Hey! What in tarnation are you doin’?!” Applejack asked as she and Apple Bloom galloped up to the pair.

“I caught Trixie in Twilight’s Library!” Sweetie informed them as she concentrated, trying to loop the rope around the azure unicorn, while Trixie fended her off, slowly getting up..

“And?” the elder of the two sisters asked.

“Call the guards! I almost have her!”

Trixie had gotten up to her hooves and, once her heart had stopped pounding from the sudden attack from the formerly gentle and unable-to-perform-magic filly unicorn, began carefully batting away the rope with short, concentrated bursts of magic.

“Hey! Quit it!” Sweetie groaned.

The showmare leveled a look at her. “No.”

Sweetie Belle gritted her teeth. Her brow furrowed and her horn flashed.

Trixie kept a wary eye on the surprising filly. “What was that?”

“None of your business.”

“Now, look here, Sweetie...” Trixie said as she began taking a step towards the little unicorn, but just as she planted her hoof down, it slid on a suddenly very slippery surface sending the showmare to the ground, accompanied by a painful-sounding “Oof!”

“Ha! Never underestimate Twilight’s prized apprentice!”

Trixie growled and stood up, careful to avoid the slippery area around her. “Okay, Sweetie, you asked for it!” Her horn flashed and the rope was torn from the filly’s grip. Before she could blink, the unicorn filly was upside down and hogtied.

“Hey, lemme go!” Sweetie Belle shouted, struggling against her bonds. She thrashed from side to side, horn glowing as she tried to use her magic to break the rope, but it held.

“Sweetie Belle?” Apple Bloom asked, walking towards her friend carefully, “Why’re you attacking Trixie? And... when’d you learn magic?”

The young unicorn blinked. “Apple Bloom? You’re back!” She smiled in relief. “Quick! Untie me! Maybe we can get a Wanted Felon-Catcher Cutie Mark!”

Applejack and Trixie shared worried looks.

“Sweetie Belle?” Applejack ventured, stepping closer to the tied unicorn, “What you mean by Wanted Felon-Catcher Cutie Marks? There any dangerous sorts around?”

“Oh, I hope not!” Rarity broke in, having overheard Applejack as she approached the group, “The last thing Ponyville needs is ponies of dubious nature!” She stopped and looked down at her sister. “Sweetie, why are you tied up?”

“Trixie tied me up!”

Rarity followed Sweetie’s glare to the showmare who shrugged and released the spell holding the rope. “Well, I wouldn’t have if you hadn’t attacked me!” She glared at Sweetie Belle.

“What did you do with Twilight?!” the young unicorn asked angrily as she shook free of the rope.

“Yes, dear, whatever happened to Twilight?” Rarity asked, “Your challenge ended last night. I thought she would be around for the aftermath so we might avoid certain... unpleasantries.”

Trixie winced. “So anypony can challenge me today?” She sighed. “Twilight left to meet with Princess Celestia last night...”

“Ha! A likely story!” Sweetie Belle bellowed as she jumped to her feet.

Trixie ignored her. “And I haven’t heard from her since. She might write later today, I think. I checked on Spike and there were no messages next to his bed.”

“Ah’ve seen a few new unicorns around town today, sugarcube,” Applejack added, “Ah don’t think you have much time before the first challenger comes up and...”

Sweetie Belle had grown more and more frustrated as she was ignored by the older group. “Wait!” she shouted, drawing their attention.

“Sweetie! What have I told you about screaming like that?” Rarity scolded.

“Sorry!” Sweetie looked down. But her eyes went back to Trixie, a frown set on her face. “So, any pony can challenge you?”

Trixie smiled, glad that Sweetie Belle seemed to have calmed down. “Any unicorn capable of performing magic who feels his or her magic is strong enough to earn them the title of ‘Great and Powerful’, yes.”

The filly smiled. “Then I challenge you! What’s it gonna be? Checkers? A race?”

The group of mares looked at her, wide-eyed. Then Trixie frowned and graced the filly with a calculating look. “That’s... possible...”

“What? No.” Rarity shook her head. “You can’t challenge Trixie, Sweetie. Not only are you too young, but you hardly know any magic!”

“I know lots of magic!” Sweetie argued, “I’m Twilight’s student!”

The group exchanged confused looks.

“Uh, Sweetie Belle,” Apple Bloom smiled, a bit unsure, “Don’t you mean Cheerilee’s student?”

“Nope! Twilight made me her apprentice!” Sweetie declared proudly, “You’d know, but you went...” She blinked. “Wait, when did you come back from Appleloosa?”

“Appleloosa?” The earth pony filly shot Sweetie a confused look. “I didn’t go nowhere! We played together yesterday and the day before! Remember? Scootaloo tried doing her double-spin ultra-deluxe upside down back-flip to impress Rainbow Dash.”

Sweetie Belle’s eyes were wide. “Did she do it?!”

“Not exactly...” Apple Bloom looked a bit worried. “She lost control on the second spin and ended up dragging the cage-full of weasels and chickens with her onto the catapult... you really don’t remember?”

Sweetie shook her head.

“... the cake?”

Another shake.

“Hogtyin’ that manticore? Blowin’ up that haystack? ... Setting fire to the edge of the Everfree?”

Sweetie stared slack-jawed at Apple Bloom. “You did all that while I was studying? Aww... stupid theory of reverse flow.”

“So...” Applejack’s voice was hard. “If Ah’m hearing this right, y’all responsible fer all that chaos yesterday?”

Apple Bloom looked panicked. “Ah... Ah, uh...”

“No,” the filly unicorn stated simply, seemingly oblivious of her friend's panic, “I was studying with Twilight.”

“No, you wasn’t!” Apple Bloom turned to look at her. “Y’all was there with me and Scootaloo!”

“I was studying!”

“Was not!”

“Was to!”

Was not!”

“Enough!” Rarity was also glaring down at the pair. They both stopped and looked at her. “Sweetie, you are in enough trouble as it is. Don’t lie to cover it up.”

The filly’s eyes were brimming with tears. “But sis! You know I’m Twilight’s student! I even Pinkie Swore to do study! If she was here she would tell you I was studying with her!”

“Sweetie...” Rarity almost growled. “I don’t know anything about Twilight taking you on as her apprentice. And you have never cared about magic enough to spend time studying rather than playing.”

Sweetie’s lip trembled. She looked at Apple Bloom, but the other filly wouldn’t even look at her for not admitting to have been playing with them.

“Now, hold on, everypony,” Trixie said, “Sweetie Belle seems to know quite a bit more magic than I would have expected, and she was rather skilled when she attacked me...”

Rarity glared at her sister.

“I thought she did something to Twilight!” Sweetie Belle replied.

“... anyway.” Trixie shot an odd look at the unicorn filly. “Her style certainly had some elements of Twilight’s influence...” She frowned, tapping a hoof thoughtfully on the ground before turning to the little unicorn. “Sweetie Belle, what are the three basic laws of elemental magic?”

“Correspondence, Control and Constitution,” the filly responded immediately.

Rarity blinked, her glare replaced by a look of awe.

“Aleister’s correction to the statute of limitations proposed that the primordial approach for understanding transmutation was flawed because...”

“... Prestidigitation itself allowed for too many changes with a single spell formula,” Sweetie Belle replied from memory, “Whew, you have no idea how many times Twilight made me repeat that!”

“I can imagine.” Trixie smiled, then turned to look at the others. “I think Sweetie is telling the truth, somehow Twilight has been teaching her behind our backs, unless she somehow managed to sneak into Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns.” She frowned. “I don’t understand why she would do that, but...”

“Wait... you sayin’ that Apple Bloom’s lyin’?” Applejack looked to her sister in confusion and hurt. Honesty was a very important part of their upbringing. Come what may, lying was something the Apple Family could never condone.

“S-Sweetie...” Apple Bloom pleaded, her great big eyes begging. “Please, Ah don’t know how you know so much about magic, but don’t make me inta a liar.”

“B-but...” The filly unicorn stepped back. “Apple Bloom... I was studying...”

“No, you wasn’t!” Apple Bloom snapped, eyes tearing up as the betrayal sank in.

“Enough, Apple Bloom,” Applejack said after a moment, her eyes hard, “Ah don’t want to hear from y’all no more.Yer gonna go right back ta the acres an’ right to yer room, Ah clear?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Apple Bloom walked slowly and with her head down until she passed next to the unicorn filly. The earth pony glared at her friend. “Ah hate you,” she spat.

Sweetie looked like she had taken a hoof to the face. “I’m... but I was studying! Honest!” she called after her friend, who didn’t bother looking back. “It was all about ki- kinetic forces! I was learning a shield spell for when we go crusading!” she insisted miserably, scratching the floor with her hoof in frustration.

“Don’t worry, Sweetie.” Rarity nuzzled the depressed filly. “Things will go back to normal once we figure out why she lied.”

“Now wait just an apple-pickin’ minute,” Applejack said, turning to look at Rarity, “Ah never said she were lyin’. She’s grounded for burnin’ down the edge of the Everfree Forest and causin’ such a ruckus that the weather patrol had to work right through the night. Ah swear, they could’ve ended up burnin’ down the town!”

“But, darling, you can’t possibly believe that Sweetie here is lying,” Rarity said, raising her eyebrow. “You heard her answer Trixie’s questions. I certainly didn’t teach her any of that!”

“Ah jus’ don’t think that Apple Bloom is lying, s’all.”

Rarity frowned. “So you’re saying that my sister is lying?”

“No... Ah’m not s--”

“Excuse me.” A male unicorn stepped up to Trixie, interrupting the work pony. “Are you The Great and Powerful Trixie?”

Trixie blinked. She had completely forgotten about the challenges. “Uh, yes, it is I, Trixie.” she said quickly, turning to face him.

“I am here to challenge you for the title!” the unicorn said, “My name is-”

“I shall accept your challenge on the hills just north of Ponyville, in...” Trixie interrupted, turning to look at Rarity, “Ffifteen minutes?”

The designer shrugged. “That is as good time as any, I suppose.”

The male unicorn grinned and trotted away.

The showmare turned to look at the others. “Well, I’d best prepare. This shall be a long month.” she sighed as she walked back towards the Library.

“We’ll talk later, Applejack,” Rarity said, ushering Sweetie Belle away towards her boutique.

“Yeah...” The apple farmer shook her head as she returned to her cart.

o.0.o

“Why do you look so down, Sweetie?” Rarity asked, as the pair walked towards the hills.

“Apple Bloom hates me,” the filly answered, “I’m not lying, sis! I haven’t seen them since I started learning under Twilight!”

Rarity turned to look at the hills a small frown on her face. “I don’t know what to tell you, Sweetie,” the older unicorn said.

“What do you mean?”

“I saw you three playing together just a few of days ago and...” she stopped talking and walking when she noticed that she was alone.

Turning around, she looked back to her sister, several steps behind, staring in horror.

“Sweetie?” Rarity asked, taking a step towards the filly, but stopping when her sister took a matching step away from her.

“I...”

She saw, with horrifying slowness, how the magic pierced through Twilight Sparkle, the purple unicorn was completely engulfed in magical flames, but her worried eyes never wavered away from Sweetie Belle.

“Are you okay?” Rarity tried again, seeing her sister’s horrified gaze.

As the world bent and shifted around her, she saw, in a dreadful moment of clarity, Twilight shatter into pieces that were caught in the magical maelstrom.

Sweetie gasped, almost collapsing into the grass, eyes wide and breathing ragged. She could feel her heart going a hundred miles an hour.

“I...” She shook her head, looking around.

Everything’s okay. I’m in Ponyville. The Library is fine. Trixie said that Twilight left last night...

She frowned. “...but that... that doesn’t make any sense.”

“Sweetie? What doesn’t make sense?” Rarity asked, giving her sister a concerned look.

“Sis, I have been studying with Twilight every day for the past two weeks!” Sweetie exclaimed. “How could I have been playing with them when they weren’t even here?”

“Sweetie, are you feeling okay?” Rarity asked, pressing her hoof to her sister’s forehead. “You don’t seem to have a fever,” she muttered, “And Scootaloo and Apple Bloom haven’t left Ponyville in months!”

This doesn’t make any sense!” Sweetie shook her head. She looked up at her sister. “And... why is everypony treating Trixie like she’s one of us?” the filly demanded. “She almost killed me just last week!”

Rarity stood straight. “What?!” Her eyes blazed in anger. “What did Trixie do?”

Sweetie cringed beneath her sister’s enraged glare. “She... threw two werewolves at me and Twilight...”

“What?” Rarity shook her head and her anger seemed to focus on her sister. “Sweetie. I’ve had enough of these lies. You are grounded, young lady.”

“But...”

“No ‘buts.’ I can believe that you were not involved in Apple Bloom’s and Scootaloo’s chaos, but accusing Trixie of willingly putting you and Twilight in such danger is simply preposterous! I am disappointed that you'd think I would believe such a hollow lie.”

“But... sis... I...”

“Go home,” Rarity said coldly. “We shall have to have a talk after I witness Trixie’s duel. Just because Twilight taught you a couple of things yesterday doesn’t mean that you can use that same excuse to convince me of something so ridiculous! Trixie would never hurt Twilight, especially after everything that’s happened the last couple years.”

“What happened the last couple years?”

“I said go!” Rarity snapped. “And I had better not catch you outside your room!”

Sweetie Belle opened her mouth to object, but snapped it shut as she found herself facing the full force of her sister's angry glare. Lowering her head and turning around, Sweetie walked slowly towards Carousel Boutique. She could feel Rarity’s eyes on her as she trotted away down the street.

What’s going on? she thought, furious. How could everypony forget about the werewolves?
She shook her head as she passed the first few houses. Just... what’s happening here? She thought as she kept her eyes on the ground. Just yesterday I was with Twilight at the lab... how come she is fine and with the Princess if that spell exploded on her? Her eyes narrowed. And how come everypony thinks Trixie is our friend? Just like that? How come nopony remembers the werewolves?

She stopped and pawed at the ground with her hoof. “Come on, Sweetie, you know how to solve a problem; Twilight drilled it into your head!” she growled to herself.

Okay, let’s examine the facts... Sweetie’s thoughts went back to her earlier memories. I got blasted by that spell, Twilight was... She shuddered, pushing the thought to the back of her mind. Then I wake up, Applejack and Apple Bloom are suddenly back from Appleloosa, Rarity’s back from Fillydelphia and everypony thinks I’m just playing around... and even remember me doing exactly that... there can only be one conclusion!

Sweetie stomped her hoof on the ground. “I didn't kill Twilight, Trixie must have come into the library and done something!” Her eyes widened. “Trixie somehow brainwashed everypony with a spell!”

She blinked. “Wait... does that mean that... I murdered Twilight!?” she gulped as a sudden shiver ran up her spine. “No... nonono... I... no...”

A buzzing sound grabbed her attention and she looked up to see one of her best friends propelling herself towards her on top of her scooter.

“Scootaloo!” she smiled, gratefully pushing the horrible thoughts to the back of her mind as the copper-colored pegasus stopped abruptly in front of the unicorn.

“There you are!” she said angrily, jumping off of her scooter and stomping up to Sweetie Belle.

“Listen, there’s something going on-” Sweetie started to say, but she was interrupted by Scootaloo pressing her forehead and snout right up against hers.

“The hay is your problem, Sweetie?!” the pegasus asked, fuming. “I just saw Apple Bloom on her way to Sweet Apple Acres and she was crying! And guess what she told me when I asked her why! Go on, guess!”

Sweetie fell back onto the floor, eyes wide and staring at her friend.

“She told me that you lied to cover your own sorry flank and let her take all the blame for our crusading!”

“But I-”

“So what is it?” Scootaloo asked venomously, walking from side to side in front of the unicorn. “Did you just not want to get into trouble? I guess being a Crusader doesn’t mean you have to be loyal!”

Sweetie cringed. “Scootaloo, I swear I didn’t lie! I was studying with Twilight and-”

“But you were not studying!” Scootaloo shouted, drawing the attention of several passers-by. “You were with us!”

Sweetie shrank back. “But Scootaloo... you have to believe me...”

“I don’t even know why I’m bothering to talk to you, traitor,” the pegasus said. “You lied, and you hurt Apple Bloom...” She looked away. “And me.”

“Bu- but I didn’t...” Sweetie’s lower lip trembled. “Why doesn’t anypony believe me?!” She turned around and ran as fast as she could into town.

“Sweetie! Wait! We’re not done here!” Behind her, Scootaloo’s voice faded as the unicorn ran away. She went into alleys and side-streets. Ponyville wasn’t a big place, but she wanted to put as much distance between Scootaloo and herself as she could.

She slowed down and sighed, looking up to see where she was.

The Library stood proudly in front of her, the warm wooden interior and the smell of books something she found she needed now.

Funny that I would end up back here... she thought. Now I’m craving a book.

She entered the library, closing the door and locking it behind her.

“Trixie?” a voice called from the kitchen. “Is that you? Where is... oh, hey, Sweetie Belle!” Spike blinked as he walked into the main room. “What are you doing here?” He looked around suspiciously. “Are Apple Bloom and Scootaloo hiding somewhere? You aren’t trying to get a Dragon Slayer cutie mark again, are you?” Spike cringed.

Sweetie Belle couldn’t help herself and started crying at the mention of her friends. She ran up to him and hugged the little dragon close as she bawled her eyes out.

“Uh...” Spike froze for a second, the little dragon flailed about with his arms at the sudden invasion of his personal space, but eventually he managed to return the hug and pat her back, even as he looked around in a panic. “Uh... there there, Sweetie,” he said once he realized he was on his own. “Please calm down?”

The filly cried for a bit longer, but she nodded against his shoulder and slowly stepped back.

“Why don’t I make you some tea? Chamomile okay?”

Sweetie sniffed. “Would it be okay to have some of your special spicy tea, Spike?” Spike tensed. “I... know it’s usually for special occasions but... I really like it.” She smiled a little, and sniffled.

That did it. The dragon couldn’t deny her. “Okay...” he acquiesced. “But just this once!”

Sweetie nodded, still sniffling and went to look at the books as the baby dragon walked into the kitchen. Her horn flared as a tome slid out and floated to a table. Her magic opened the large book on top of the table. She skimmed through the pages until she reached the page number where she had last read the book.

“That’s weird...” she muttered, “I already read this page.” she flipped a couple of pages until she found the correct spot. “Must’ve forgotten where I was...”

She read in silence until Spike came out with her tea. Absentmindedly, she levitated the cup from the astonished dragon’s grasp and set it down carefully where it would not spill on the book. She took a pause from her reading to sip the tea, eyes closed blissfully. "Thank you, Spike... that was really nice," Sweetie said, giving the flustered dragon a quick peck on the cheek.

“Y-you’re welcome, Sweetie,” the baby dragon stammered.

She smiled and turned back to her reading, falling into the routine she had cultivated over the last two weeks, and the dragon, after raising an eyebrow at her choice of literature, let her be. He knew from experience not to interrupt an obvious bibliophile.

o.0.o

It was much later that the door to the library clicked open as the lock was released. Spike perked up as the door swung open to admit a pair of unicorn mares into the room.

“I’m really worried, Trixie!” Rarity said, her eyes reflecting her assertion. “Sweetie was not at home when I arrived! I’ve looked all over Ponyville for her! I went as far as Sweet Apple Acres and their club house but...”

“I think we’ve found her,” Trixie spoke softly, motioning with a hoof for silence. The designer blinked and followed Trixie’s gaze towards the center table of the library. Sweetie Belle was sleeping, her head resting on the pages of an enormous tome and snoring softly.

“She came here a while ago,” Spike said quietly. “She was crying... I didn’t really know what to do. I made her some tea... then she just sat there drinking it and reading that book.”

The two mares stared at the little filly as they made their way to the table. Despite how long it had been since she had arrived, Sweetie still sniffled a bit in her sleep.

Kinetic Fields: From the Simple to the Prismatic,” Trixie read aloud. “She’s certainly trying her best to learn that shield spell. Too bad Twilight is so insistent on theory; it might benefit her to have a bit of hooves-on experience.”

“Are you saying you believe her about Twilight teach-”

“Just look at her,” Trixie interrupted. “She’s almost certainly Twilight’s apprentice. No other unicorn would force such an innocent filly to sit down and read that!”

Rarity looked at her sister, sorrow flooding into her eyes. “Oh, Sweetie...”

The younger unicorn shifted. “Just a bit more sleep, Twi... I promise I’ll do those equations later...” she mumbled as she cuddled up to the book.

Rarity blinked. “Sweetie... it’s time to go to bed.”

“Oooh... alright Twilight...” Sweetie Belle, yawning and bleary eyed, ignored the lot of them as she made her way upstairs towards the guest room.

“Sweetie, wait-” the white unicorn spoke up, raising a hoof to stop her sister, but an azure hoof on her own stopped her. She turned to look at the blue unicorn in surprise.

“Let her stay over,” Trixie said, looking at the filly as she walked into the room and shut the door behind her, “It seems that she’s rather familiar with the library.”

“A bit too familiar perhaps,” Rarity said, slightly perturbed, “She didn’t even have to open her eyes! She just knew where to go...”

“And which step to skip to avoid the creaking,” Trixie observed.

“Ju- Just how many times has she been here studying?” Rarity wondered.

“Just once... meaning today.” Spike muttered, “As far as I know.”

“Yet another mystery...” Trixie smirked. “But we should all rest. It’s been a long day. I’ll take care of Sweetie.”

Rarity hesitated, remembering the filly’s words from earlier. “Trixie... do you think something could be wrong with Sweetie? She’s not acting like herself.”

“I don’t know... yet.” the blue unicorn said, stealing a glance at Spike, “You say she’s only been here studying today?”

Spike gave her a look. “Trixie, you know as well as I do that today’s the first day she’s willingly stepped into the library by herself and studied.” he looked thoughtful for a minute. “But... I had no idea she could do magic already. Like, she levitated the teacup out of my hands! And she knew about my special blend of-”

“Special blend?” Trixie raised an eyebrow.

“Uh...” the dragon sighed. “I have a special tea that Zecora made for me a while ago. Most ponies don’t like how spicy it is, but even less know about it. Until now, I thought that only Zecora, Twilight and I knew!”

“Zebrican tea? That’s an acquired flavor. At least for ponies.” Trixie smiled, recalling her travels. “Did you know that when hoof-gathering the leaves, they actually separate the leaves by freshness? They have two versions, you see-”

“Can we talk about tea later?” Rarity interrupted, “I hate to be so short with you, I’m sure it would be an enlightening conversation under better circumstances, but I am worried about my little sister.”

Trixie smiled weakly. “Apologies. In any case, I will talk to her when she wakes up. It does seem rather strange how she believes herself to have lived the past few week so differently-” she stopped, eyes widening.

“Trixie?” the fashionista looked at her worried. “What’s happening to Sweetie Belle?”

“I...” the showmare shook her head, briefly considering not telling Rarity anything. However, she knew the white unicorn was very good at picking up on little details and would know if Trixie was lying. The showmare sighed. “I think... I might know what’s happening; it’s unlikely but...”

“What is it? Is it dangerous? Is she losing her mind?” Rarity asked, starting to panic eyes widening with each imagined horror.

“No, no...” Trixie patted the fashionista’s shoulders with her hoof. “I am uncertain if it indeed is what I’m thinking; it’s not a bad thing or particularly dangerous, and as far as I know, it only happens to rhinos.” she raised her hoof to forestall further questions. “So, I may simply be jumping to conclusions, Rarity. Let me speak with her when she wakes up and I’ll find out for sure; it is nothing bad and it is very unlikely that it is, okay?”

“So why can’t you tell me?”

“Because you would worry unnecessarily and begin looking for facts to fit into the theory rather than seeing if the theory fits the facts.”

Rarity still looked dubious, but finally nodded her assent, casting a worried glance towards the guest room. “I see... I... I suppose I can see why you would say that... please, take care of her.”

Trixie smiled warmly. “Of course, The Great and Powerful Trixie can handle a single filly. You needn’t worry at all.”

o.0.o

It was still nighttime when Sweetie Belle awoke. She rubbed her blurry eyes and looked around. She was in her- in the guest room at Twilight’s Library.

She took in a deep breath her thoughts running through her recent experiences. “I guess it was all a dream.” she shivered. “Or a nightmare, more like!” She looked out of the window. The moon wasn’t that high in the sky, so it was still relatively early... for her mentor at least. She would either be stargazing or reading in her room.

Sweetie shivered again and looked at the room for a second time. There’s... something weird going on... but what? She slid out of bed and sighed as she walked towards the door. Maybe talking to Twilight would help.

As expected, the light seeping from underneath Twilight’s bedroom indicated that the mare was awake. She could hear the soft, rumbling snores of a baby dragon coming from within the room.

Sweetie took a deep breath and knocked twice on the door before entering. “Twilight, I’m sorry to be up so late but I had... the strangest... dream?”

Lying on Twilight’s bed, comfortably reading a book as if she owned the place, was Trixie. The unicorn looked up at Sweetie and raised an eyebrow.

“Wha- the hay?!” Sweetie stepped back, eyes wide as the showmare slowly stepped down from the bed.

“Are you feeling better, Sweetie?” she asked, tilting her head to the side as she examined the little filly.

“What are you doing here?!” Sweetie Belle began fearfully before the questions began to spill forth rapidly. “What’s happening here? What’d you do with Twilight? You erased everypony’s memories so they wouldn’t know you killed her, didn’t you?!”

The showmare’s eyes widened a bit but then she smiled and chuckled. “Well, I am not called The Great and Powerful Trixie for nothing... but I dare say brainwashing everypony is still a bit outside my current abilities. Not to mention that killing Twilight is the last thing I would ever want to do.”

“But- but what are you doing here?” Sweetie asked.

“Hush,” Trixie said, pointing at the snoring dragon, “Let’s go downstairs so we don’t wake Spike.”

Barely able to contain her questions, the filly followed the older unicorn down the stairs. She watched silently as Trixie levitated a teapot onto the stove and began to brew a mix of herbs she pulled from a container that she didn’t recall ever seeing in the library before.

“Wha- what is that?” the filly asked.

“My own special Zebrican tea blend.” Trixie smiled. “What, you thought Spike had the only secret stash?”

Once tea was ready, the showmare sat down, placing both cups on the table.

“Now, Sweetie, this might come as a shock to you, but I live here with Twilight. We’ve been living together in the Library for almost a year now.”

“What? But...” the filly shook her head. “That’s can’t be right! I’ve been staying with Twilight for the last two weeks and... and the last time I saw you you almost killed me! And Twilight certainly wasn’t happy to see you!”

A flash of hurt crossed Trixie’s eyes. “Those are words I’d rather never have to hear.”

“Huh?”

“Exactly.” Trixie smiled as she slowly stirred her tea. “Tell me, Sweetie, how do you feel?”

“Confused... really, really confused...” the filly confessed, staring morosely at the cup. The inviting scents emanating from the tea were making her mouth water, but she had to wait, lest she burn her tongue and lips before recalling Twilight’s spell and cooling down the tea a bit.

“That’s good. If you know you are confused, then you know something is not right.” The showmare looked at the library. “Think about how things were and how things are. Tell me... what’s different? Start with the small things.”

“Well...” the filly frowned as she thought. “My stuff wasn’t in my room upstairs,” she said, feeling a bit dumb for not realizing it earlier. “And... the book I was reading had fewer pages...”

“So, even if somepony had managed to brainwash all of us, do you think they would go into enough detail to change that?”

Sweetie looked down. “No...”

“What else is different?”

“Well, Apple Bloom and Scootaloo weren’t in town, and neither was Rarity the last two weeks.”

“I can tell you for certain that all three of them have been here all that time,” Trixie said, motioning for Sweetie to drink some of her tea.

Slowly, the filly levitated the cup just like Trixie was doing and took a sip. She looked at the tea in the cup in surprise. “This is really good!”

The showmare smirked. “I figured, since you liked the spicy tea, you would like this one too. I got it during my travels with the Zebras.”

Sweetie drank more tea before putting down her cup. “So... are you going to tell me you’re not a wanted felon?”

She had to dodge to the side to avoid being sprayed with tea as Trixie spit what she was drinking.

“I... What?!”

“You released two werewolves in the middle of Ponyville!” Sweetie said, glaring at her. “I almost got killed!”

“But... I would nev-” Trixie took a deep breath. “Okay, now I’m fairly certain I know what the problem is.”

Sweetie blinked.

“While I was travelling with the Rhinos-”

“What’s a Rhino?” Sweetie interrupted.

Trixie arched an eyebrow. “Great lumbering beasts with poor eyesight, but with grand magical traditions that go back thousands of years. Almost as long as the Zebras’.”

“Oh...”

“Anyway, they have a ritual which allowed them to see beyond this world and into others,” Trixie continued. “I never experienced it firsthoof, because only they seemed to be able, but it would allow them to find themselves in other dimensions, across time and space itself, and see and experience those other worlds through the actions of their counterparts.”

Sweetie Belle stared at her, silent.

“...” Trixie blinked. “Did... you understand any of that?”

“Nope!” Sweetie said. “But some of it sounded familiar. I think...” she closed her eyes and tried to remember. “I think the experiment where-” she choked.

“Go on, Sweetie, what experiment?”

“... the one where...” She couldn’t bring herself to say the words. An overwhelming feeling of guilt settled on her as she looked at Trixie’s worried gaze. “It was... last night... and Twilight... she...”
Sweetie closed her eyes. “I think I killed Twilight!” she confessed as she collapsed on the floor. “I didn’t know!”

Trixie dropped her cup, the sound of it shattering lost in Sweetie’s sobs.

“You what?!”

“I’m sorry!” she bawled. “I’m so sorry! I was just trying to get something while she worked!”

Trixie looked at the filly, mind racing. "I-it's okay, Sweetie. Just calm down and tell me what happened."

Slowly, between sobs and suddenly finding herself in the surprisingly comforting forelegs of Trixie, Sweetie Belle explained what she had done and what she had seen. “... an- and then she... bro-broke into pieces...” The filly sniffed. “I saw a flash and... and I woke up in my room... I thought it was all a bad dream...” She started shaking.

Trixie felt cold, having imagined that happening to her Twilight. “And you said that the thing she was experimenting on affected time and space?”

Sweetie nodded morosely, not even looking up at her.

The showmare slowly stroked the filly’s mane. “It was an accident, Sweetie... and... I don’t want to give you false hope, but when things like that happen, you cannot simply trust your eyes...”

“What do you mean?” Sweetie asked, her eyes red from crying and rubbing at them.

“There is a chance that Twilight, your Twilight, is still alive,” Trixie said carefully. “Your perceptions of what happened could have been affected by the magic... I believe that’s how you were sent to this dimension. Maybe the same happened to her.”

“So... this isn’t my real home?” the filly sniffled.

“I’m afraid not. That’s why everything you remember is so different.”

“But then... Apple Bloom wasn’t lying! And she got punished worse because of me!”

Trixie nodded. “There’s not much we can do about that right now, but we’ll sort it out tomorrow. For now we should sleep. I’ll ask Spike to send a letter to Twilight; she may know how to get you home.”

Sweetie yawned and nodded. “Thanks... Trixie.” She stood up and went upstairs, leaving Trixie alone.

With a sigh, the unicorn conjured up a blank scroll and a quill. Soon, the only noise in the Library was the scratching of quill on parchment.

o.0.o

The next morning, Trixie trotted down the stairs slowly to a pair of youthful voices.

“So, then you add the bananas now...” Spike’s voice drifted from the kitchen.

“Like this?” came Sweetie’s voice a second later.

“Yep, nicely done! Now, press them down a little bit so that the batter goes all around it. Yeah, like that,” Spike instructed.

“What’s going on here?” Trixie asked, walking into the kitchen with a sleepy grin.

“Morning, Trixie!” Spike called, smiling at her.

Sweetie Belle smiled brightly and waved a hoof excitedly at the showmare. “Spike is teaching me how to make the princess’s favorite pancakes!”

“Ok! Concentrate!” Spike interrupted, shifting the little unicorn's attention back to the task before them. “You see how the batter is starting to bubble? That means that they’re almost ready to be turned over; lift up the side of the pancake a bit: once that looks a bit more solid, use your magic to flip them.”

Sweetie concentrated and three of the pancakes glowing as they flipped under her control, while Spike expertly flipped five others with a spatula. They waited a little bit before placing the pancakes onto a platter which went straight into a preheated oven.

“To keep them warm,” Spike explained, when Sweetie asked why.

Trixie watched in bemusement as the pair of youngsters produced batch after batch of pancakes. It wasn’t long before they had run out of room in the oven, and the group sat down to eat.

“I think I will take over your training for today, Sweetie,” Trixie declared after a pause in the meal, “Twilight is not due back until late afternoon, I would think. And honestly, that mare puts far too much emphasis on theory and not enough on execution, I think you need a bit more hooves-on practice to get that shield working.”

Sweetie looked at the older unicorn in surprise. “Really? You’ll help?”

Trixie nodded. “Why, of course. The Great and Powerful Trixie could not simply leave her beloved’s apprentice unattended to stagnate in her education! Twilight would have my hide for such an offense! So, get ready, we’ll stop by Carousel Boutique to tell Rarity you’ll be with me today.”

Sweetie could only nod dumbly as Trixie walked out of the kitchen. “Did she just call Twilight her ‘beloved’?” she squeaked, wide-eyed as she turned to look at Spike for confirmation.

“Yeah,” the little dragon nodded, munching happily a somewhat burnt pancake. “I thought everypony knew, what with the duel and the competition in Canterlot...”

“But... what about Big Mac?” Sweetie asked.

Spike blinked. “What about him?”

“I always thought he had a thing for Twilight! I even saw them--” Sweetie stammered out before stopping herself short.

Stupid, Sweetie! I forgot this isn’t my home...

“Even saw them what?” Spike asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Uh... nothing.” Sweetie smiled. “I should get my mane ready, you know...” she trailed off at his expression. “Because of my sister... Who dislikes... messy... manes. I go now!”

Spike watched as she ran out of the kitchen before shrugging. “Well, better get this cleaned up if I want to go with them to see... Rarity.” Spike sighed as he absentmindedly began to wash the dishes.

o.0.o

The walk towards Carousel Boutique was quiet. There were a lot of things that Sweetie wanted to ask Trixie, specifically what to tell Rarity, but Spike’s presence made her feel uncomfortable talking about something that felt so personal.

She really wasn’t looking forward to this.

What am I going to tell Sis? Is she really my sis? Should I talk to her at all? She grew more even nervous as the boutique came into view. What should I do? What should I do?! She looked, wild-eyed to Trixie, who looked back calmly.

“Don’t worry, I’m sure your sister will understand if you need a day to sort things out. And you’ll be with me, so she needn’t worry.”

Sweetie Belle exhaled and felt herself relax a bit at Trixie’s words. I guess if she’s my sister back home, she’s still my sister here... she smiled. I’m sure we’re as close here as we are there... like apple pie.

As soon as they reached the boutique, the door opened and Rarity was looking at Sweetie with a worried expression. “Good morning, Sweetie...” the fashionista trailed off, unsure of what to say next.

Sweetie looked down and scratched at the floor with a hoof. “Morning, sis.”

The two looked very uncomfortable, just standing there, avoiding one another’s gaze before Trixie finally cleared her throat. “Good morning, Rarity. I have talked to Sweetie and she wishes to practice magic with me today, and hopefully to clear her mind. We came here to see if that was okay.”

“We did?” Spike asked, cringing as he received glares from everypony present. “Uh... I guess we did.”

“I...” Rarity glanced over her shoulder at the tea set and muffins she had procured for a quiet talk with Sweetie. “I- if that is what you want, Sweetie,” she said, looking back to the pair of unicorns in front of her.

“I do, sis...” the filly said after a moment. “But I also wanted to talk to you... and Scootaloo and Apple Bloom... but I... I need some time.”

Rarity sighed. “It’s okay, Sweetie. I’m... I’m sorry I made you feel so bad and that I accused you of lying.” She was suddenly being crushed by a hug from the unicorn filly.

“I’m sorry I’m making you worry, sis!” Sweetie cried. “I just... have a lot to think about. I promise I’ll tell you everything.”

Rarity smiled, nuzzling the filly affectionately. “I can work with that,” she reassured her sister.

“Well, we should get going,” Trixie said, casting suspicious glances around. “I’d rather be out of here before I get challenged again.”

“Good luck then!” Rarity said as the trio turned around and started walking away.

“Thanks, sis! See you soon!” Sweetie called over her shoulder.

Spike waved half-heartedly as he rode on Trixie’s back, watching his beloved Rarity walk into the boutique.

Trixie led them out of town and towards the edge of the Everfree Forest, stopping just shy of entering Everfree proper.

“I think we’re far enough...” She turned around to face Sweetie Belle. “Okay, now, we’ll start with you trying the spell while I throw something at you. If your spell works, the shield should stop it.”

Sweetie blinked. “Uh... Twilight always told me that I should understand everything about the spell before-”

Trixie waved a hoof dismissively. “Twilight worries too much. Trust me. I didn’t spend several months tied in a high-magic competition with her without knowing what I was doing.”

“But...”

“It’s okay. I won’t throw anything too dangerous at you,” Trixie encouraged. “This is how the Zebras train their young warriors.”

“But I’m not a Zebra!”

“Well... you like the spicy tea so you could be,” Spike said after a moment. “I mean, you’d need stripes but...”

Trixie rolled her eyes and levitated a small dirt clod. “Ready?”

“No!”

“Well, here it goes!”

“But I-” Sweetie’s eyes widened as they followed the patch of dirt. She jumped out of the way. “Hey! I said I wasn’t ready!”

“You cheated!” Trixie called back, grinning. “You’re not supposed to dodge! You’re supposed to cast the shield spell!”

Spike didn’t look amused. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” he asked the azure unicorn.

“Yes,” Trixie admitted, keeping her eyes and her grin trained on the little filly.

Sweetie kept a wary eye on the showmare. “I knew I shouldn’t trust her,” She muttered, only to watch in horrified fascination as Trixie levitated many, many pieces of dirt and positioned them right over the pair. When the sky was veritably blotted out by small balls of dirt, Sweetie decided that it was best to be someplace else...

… and promptly found that she couldn’t move.

Too late did she notice the faint blue aura surrounding her hooves. She looked up at Trixie in despair. The showmare smirked at her. The dirt balls above her shot down in Sweetie’s direction.

Spike, watching from a safe distance away, closed both his eyes for a split second, but soon enough opened one to take a peek.

With a huge SPLAT made out of smaller splats, Sweetie Belle was buried under hundreds of dirtballs.

“Why?!” Sweetie asked after a moment. “That’s not fair!” She shook off some of the dirt, but most of her coat was completely covered in it.

Trixie chuckled, looking proudly at the filly. “But Sweetie, you cast the spell!”

Sweetie blinked and looked at her coat. She had been almost completely covered in dirt. “No I didn’t!”

The showmare shook her head, smile still in place. “Look at your mane, you silly filly.”

Sweetie looked up as much as she could.

“One moment.” Trixie transmuted a small rock into a mirror before levitating it before the young unicorn. “Here.”

Sweetie stared at her reflection. Just like the showmare had said, there was not a speck of dust or dirt on her mane.

“I did it?” she asked in wonder. “I did it! Yay!” out of habit she turned to look at her flank.

Was... was there something there? Even for just for a second?

“Are you ready for another try?” Trixie called as she watched the filly spin around trying to see if she had a cutie mark.

“Yes!”

o.0.o

They spent most of the morning practicing. Once Sweetie had figured out how to make a shield big enough to cover her completely from falling dirt, Trixie had changed tactics, hurling clods from all directions. Some were stopped by the shield, but most of the time, Sweetie was unable to cast the spell quickly enough to avoid getting hit.

Trixie had then alternated between practicing the shield spell to practicing Prestidigitation, and finally having Sweetie levitate three balls which they would toss back and forth between them. As they did, the showmare began to describe the competition she had had with Twilight Sparkle, both of them throwing hundreds of balls at each other.

To say the little filly was impressed would be an understatement.

I’m pretty sure the Trixie from my world would never be able to do that! she had thought to herself on more than one occasion, but she was nevertheless thrilled that Twilight, or this world's version had proven herself so powerful and resourceful as well.

“I think that is enough for now,” Trixie said, looking down at the now brown-coated filly covered in darker patches of dirt panting in front of her. “Rarity is going to kill me. I know it.”

“I think most of it’ll come out in a bath.” Sweetie looked down at herself, taking several deep breaths before closing her eyes and shaking herself, sending cascades of dirt falling to the ground. She opened her eyes to find that, despite the ring of dirt around her, her normally white coat was still a light brown.

“Maybe.” Trixie smirked. “We should have something to eat.” The showmare gave Spike a meaningful look. The dragon, having watched the training with a great deal of amusement, rolled his eyes.

“Fine, fine,” Spike muttered half-heartedly. “I’ll make you some daisy sandwiches.” He sighed as he stood up and walked back towards town.

Thankful for the rest, Sweetie collapsed on the grass. She didn’t think about anything at all, content to watch the clouds pass overhead. However, a passing pegasus in the distance brought more painful memories.

“Scootaloo and Apple Bloom hate me.” she said finally. “Apple Bloom thinks I lied to avoid getting punished, and Scootaloo thinks that I don’t care about them at all.”

“They think that you’re their Sweetie Belle. To them, you were here a couple of days ago playing around,” Trixie said, sitting next to her. “We’ll have to clear it up before we send you on your way to find your Twilight, otherwise our Sweetie is going to find herself in a rather unexplainable situation.”

“Oh...” Sweetie murmured. “I just wish I hadn’t hurt them,” she added miserably.

Trixie sighed. “It’ll be okay, Sweetie. You had no intention of hurting them. You were simply confused. I am sure your friends will understand.”

The little filly nodded tiredly before she looked lazily towards Ponyville, blinking in confusion as she saw Spike running back to them. “Well, that was fast.”

Trixie looked towards the approaching dragon and frowned. “Too fast. He couldn’t have even gone halfway to the library yet.”

The pair watched as Spike jogged up to them, out of breath. “I... *gasp* I got this... *cough* from the Princess...” he said, shakily holding a scroll up in his claw as he bent over, wheezing, “Whew... I gotta lay off the agate.”

Blinking, Trixie levitated the scroll up and opened it. As her eyes scanned the page, she started looking ill.

“Trixie?” Spike asked. “Is something wrong?”

“It’s Twilight,” the showmare said worriedly. “She was supposed to have arrived last night!”

“But what happened? Wasn’t she with the Princess?” Sweetie asked.

“The Princess says that Twilight decided to go home on her own after stopping at a village to investigate a some legend,” the blue unicorn said, rereading the scroll. “She’s worried since Twilight was only supposed to be there for a couple of hours before heading back here.”

Trixie smacked a hoof to her forehead before letting it slide down her face, a frustrated groan escaping her. “She’d better not be in trouble!”

“What town is it? Maybe we can go get her?”

Trixie looked down at the filly. “Marethage. But what do you mean by ‘we’?”

“I’m not staying here while my teacher is in danger!” Sweetie declared without hesitation. “Even if she wasn’t teaching me, Twilight’s still my friend!”

“Since when have you been so close to Twilight?” Spike asked Sweetie, but she ignored him, concentrating on the showmare instead.

Trixie sighed, wilting beneath the little filly’s stare. “Listen, Sweetie, you are indeed very talented in magic and you would make Twilight proud with how fast you are advancing. But, you are still very young. It would be completely irresponsible of me to take you with me.”

“But...” Sweetie looked down at the floor angrily.

Why is it always like this? Sis treats me like that all the time! The only ones that never do are Apple Bloom, Scootaloo and Twilight! She blinked back tears.

“Listen Sweetie, you have to stay with your sister. It’s too dangerous. We don’t know what happened to Twilight.” The showmare said kindly.

“No.” Sweetie looked up at the other unicorn. “I can’t! Don’t you see? I can’t go back home... I don’t even know when I will! I have to learn to be stronger and I have to help Twilight! Please! Don’t... don’t leave me behind! I can’t let anything happen to her again... not again...”

Trixie looked unsure. For a moment, she had forgotten who she was dealing with. This might be Sweetie Belle, but it wasn’t their Sweetie Belle. And it was true: there were no guarantees that Sweetie would return home once they figured out how to send her on her way. And if she got into trouble... would she be able to defend herself? A Shield spell was useful, but other than Levitation and Prestidigitation, there was little else the filly had at her disposal danger in some other universe. Was it better to leave her behind, safe in Ponyville? Or would it be better to take her along and try to instill some of the world knowledge she had?

The showmare sighed. This was not what she imagined she was going to spend this month like. Dodging challengers? Yes. Suddenly finding out that the little sister of one of her friends was in reality a dimensional-hopping filly unicorn? No. Embarking on a sudden quest to find her lover? Well... perhaps, considering her lover and friend’s habitual attraction to adventure, but a sudden quest and a dimension-hopping filly at the same time? Certainly not.

And now here was Sweetie staring at her with those big, green, puppy dog eyes of hers. Trixie knew Twilight was probably just caught up in her studies, but still she had an uneasy feeling about the entire situation.

“I’ll be good!” Sweetie promised. “It’s just that... If anything happens to Twilight and I’m not there to help...” She looked down. “I don’t know what I would do. I... I have to make it up to her, Trixie... please let me make it up to her...”

“Hold on!” Spike said, stepping between the two. “Since when does Sweetie Belle hang around Twilight enough to be her student and friend? And how come I never noticed? What is going on here?”

“I-” Sweetie started to reply, but was interrupted by Trixie.

“We will tell you and the others when we return,” the showmare promised.

“We?” the filly asked, looking up at the older unicorn in surprise, “Are you saying-”

“Yes.” Trixie nodded. “I will take you with me. You are not prepared enough for your situation. Be grateful that Twilight managed to teach you the value of study and diligence... it will probably save your life in the future.” The blue-coated mare turned to look at the baby dragon. “Spike, please trust me, I will go find Twilight; we should be back soon. We have to talk to Rarity first though...”

“That won’t be necessary,” a voice said, startling them and making them turn around. Rarity stepped nervously into view. “I... arrived here a few moments ago... I heard you talking.” Rarity walked towards them before stopping a few feet from her sister. “Sweetie...I know yesterday wasn’t exactly a perfect day, but I want you to know that I love you, and that I am ashamed of having doubted you. I don’t know how you know what you do, I don’t understand how Twilight had the time to even teach you while you played... there’s quite a lot I don’t understand about all this...” she sighed.

"How long were you listening, sis?"

"Only since Spike arrived... I had just been to the library to check on you, but you weren’t there... then I saw him running this way, so I followed him.”

“Oh...”

“Sweetie... you are my sister and I trust you. Even when everything I thought I knew told me otherwise... I saw you fall asleep studying last night, I saw you use magic and I heard you when you answered Trixie’s questions. I know that there is something going on here... something you know that I do not... But... must you go with Trixie?”

“Sis...” Sweetie hugged Rarity tightly. “I... I’ll explain everything to you and Apple Bloom and Scootaloo and Spike... but, it has to wait; it’s a long story and Twilight needs us. Please let me do this, sis. I have to do it... for Twilight,” she begged, eyes pained.

Rarity’s eyes met Trixie’s. “You will take care of her? You will make sure she’s not in danger?” she asked, staring at the showmare.

"I promise," the showmare replied before shrinking back suddenly.

Despite knowing that she was more powerful than the white unicorn, Trixie still found herself intimidated by the sudden death glare from Rarity. “Trixie, if something does happen to my Sweetie Belle, I will kill you.”

Gulping, the showmare nodded. “I will protect her with my life.”

"Good." The fashionista's glare faded as she turned to nuzzle Sweetie Belle. "Take care of yourself, Sweetie Belle."

“I will!” the filly said, sniffing as she pulled away from her older sister to go stand next to Trixie.

“Let’s go, Sweetie,” the showmare said, turning around. “The sooner we find Twilight, the sooner we’ll be back.”

Spike went to stand next to Rarity as the pair watched the blue unicorn and the filly walk away. They stood on the hill until they had lost sight of the travelers, and then Rarity looked down at Spike. “Come now, Spike. I need to take my mind off things, and I could use some company while I find some new gems.”

Spike nodded happily and walked beside the unicorn. “Are you going to be making a new dress, Rarity?”

“No,” she said with a smile. “I just have an idea.

o.0.o

The journey began quietly. Both unicorns were deep in thought as they walked along the road to Marethage.

Finally, Sweetie spoke up. “Thank you for bringing me with you, Trixie.”

The showmare shook her head when she heard the filly. “It’s okay, Sweetie.” She looked towards the younger unicorn. “You really do feel guilty about what happened to your Twilight, don’t you?”

The little unicorn nodded miserably. “It was my fault. If I hadn’t messed up her experiment, none of this would’ve happened.”

Trixie was silent for a moment, thinking on how best to express her thoughts. “I think our worlds are similar enough that the um... incident... with the Ursa Minor happened in your Ponyville too, am I right?”

Sweetie Belle nodded. “I didn’t really know about it until after you, I mean, my Trixie threw the werewolves at me. Twilight told me about it afterwards.”

Trixie nodded. “Well, although I wasn’t the one that brought the Ursa Minor to Ponyville, I was still indirectly responsible for it getting there. If I had kept an eye on Snips and Snails, I would have noticed that they were too easily impressed with my feats, that they couldn’t really distinguish showbiz from reality.” She coughed. “Sometimes we do things without thinking about consequences, Sweetie. I inflated my achievements to the point of fantasy to inspire and amaze my audience, but I never thought that it might be too much for... impressionable minds.”

“But at least nothing happened,” Sweetie argued, her voice threatening to break. “I blew up the Library!”

“Just because the Ursa was contained doesn’t mean something much worse wouldn’t have happened,” Trixie pointed out. “I was lucky that Twilight was there to save my and Ponyville’s collective hide.” She looked sadly at the filly. “But you weren’t so lucky. It’s random chance sometimes, how our lack of foresight plays out. I’ve learned a great deal since then, Sweetie, but you’re just a filly, and what you’re dealing with is more than anypony should at this time in your life. Accept that it was an accident... but as you struggle to make up for it, also accept that certain things are beyond your control.”

Sweetie Belle said nothing, her mind replaying the incident over and over... the way the out of control magic had coursed through and enveloped Twilight... the way her mentor had turned to crystal and shattered...

There’s no way I can ever forgive myself, she thought bitterly. How can I ever make up for it? I killed Twilight. There’s no bringing her back.

The pair continued in silence a little longer before Trixie spoke up once more. “I don’t know where you will go next,” Trixie said, looking straight ahead. “But perhaps... would you like to learn some illusion spells?”

Sweetie looked at the mare in surprise. “Will you teach me?”

“Well, why not? I was helping train you with the Shield spell already,” Trixie said. “Besides, I can’t let my love’s apprentice go into the unknown without sharing my amazing magical repertoire.”

Sweetie smiled, pushing thoughts of her original world to the back of her mind.

You’ll have to deal with it sooner or later... a tiny voice in her mind said, but she told it to shut up. She didn’t want to think about it.

“Okay, we can practice a bit on the way,” the showmare said. “This is a little like the Prestidigitation spell, but it is more advanced, so don’t be too worried if you cannot do it yet, okay? Just keep practicing whenever you have the chance.”

o.0.o

The town of Marethage was slightly bigger than Ponyville, but not by much. It had a small library, a couple of restaurants, and other amenities just like their town.

However, unlike Ponyville, Marethage was surrounded by a tall wall made out of thick, sharpened logs plunged into the earth. The outside fields were even protected by a lower wall, but strangely there were no barns or dwellings of any sort outside of the town itself.

“Look at this,” Trixie said, stopping a moment to admire the plants. “I have never seen cornstalks this size! And look at those pumpkins! And those tomatoes! No wonder Canterlot has been buying almost exclusively from Marethage these last couple of years.”

Sweetie Belle looked at the plants for a moment. Thinking about harvests and farms just made her think about Apple Bloom and she didn’t want to do that.

Taking her silence in stride, Trixie guided her charge along the main road towards the town.

It was starting to get a little dark by the time they arrived. A pony up in an observation tower noticed them and waved with a lantern. “Who goes there?”

“The Great and Powerful Trixie and her assistant and apprentice, Sweetie Belle!” the showmare announced with practiced flourish.

“Apprentice?” Sweetie asked, looking at the older unicorn with an arched eyebrow.

“Well, yes!” Trixie said. “It isn’t as though Twilight has exclusive rights to you! Besides, I have been tutoring you for close to a day now.”

The gates swung open to admit them, Sweetie Belle smiling as she followed the blue-coated mare into the town. Inside the walls, the town looked to be pretty much the same size as Ponyville. At its center stood a decorative fountain from which a jagged rock rock in the shape of a crescent moon glittered in the light of the street lamps. The houses were less stylized than their hometown, having a more uniform look with its structures. All in all, however, it seemed to be a hospitable, if a bit too orderly, place.

“You were lucky to make it here before sundown!” the earth pony guard said, as he trotted up to meet them. He had a brown coat and an honest smile. His cutie mark was a lit candle. “Lantern Case, at your service, ma’ams,” he said with a curt bow of his forelegs. “Welcome to Marethage; no doubt you are on your way to Viscolt, correct?”

“Actually, this is where we were headed, good sir,” Trixie said. “We’ve come seeking a unicorn by the name of Twilight Sparkle.”

“Oh...” Lantern looked suddenly nervous. “I’m afraid that Miss Sparkle is not with us anymore...”

Trixie’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean, by ‘not with us’?”

“Well, you see...”

“She didn’t listen when we told her she had to be in town by nightfall,” another guard, older looking and with a grey coat and a lock for a cutie mark, growled, as he trotted up to them. “She said she needed to be out there to find something. We warned her to be careful and to come back here. By the time we had locked the gates, she hadn’t come back.”

“What?!” Sweetie Belle squeaked out.

“And you didn’t organize a search party?!” Trixie demanded, her eyes hard.

“Miss, we can’t just organize a search for everypony foolish enough not to listen to those of us that know better. I’m afraid that, having been gone this long,” the guard said. “It’s unlikely she’s even still alive.”

A burst of energy nearly knocked both guards down as Trixie’s magic manifested in a visible blue aura around her. Her eyes almost glowed with power. “Do you foals even know who she is?!” she almost screamed, drawing the attention of other ponies in the area, who slowly walked up to the guards as they struggled to get up.

“Just some uppity unicorn from Canterlot,” the gray one snorted.

“She is Princess Celestia’s PERSONAL STUDENT!” Trixie growled, anger emanating from every particle of her being, wisps of magical energy curling off from her aura. “She’s gone missing and you didn’t even attempt to find her!” Trixie gritted her teeth in anger as another wave of energy radiated from her. The main gate beginning to protest as her magic slowly pressed on it.

The guard’s eyes widened. “Stop! Stop! What are you doing, you crazy mare!? Do you want to get us all killed?”

“I’m going to do your job and go find her, you useless slob!” Trixie retorted.

“Miss! Please calm down!” an elder unicorn asked, stepping out from the terrified crowd. “There is a reason why we didn’t go after her! Please! Calm down and let me explain.”

Trixie was about to ignore him when she felt a tap on her leg. Looking down, eyes still glowing with power, she noticed Sweetie Belle looking up at her. “Please, Trixie, calm down. We can go find her, but Twilight wouldn’t like it if you destroyed the town.” The showmare took a deep breath and visibly restrained herself, the blue aura slowly dying away.

“Fine,” she spoke through gritted teeth. “You will tell us what happened. And there better be a good reason.”

The unicorn nodded, sighing in relief at the calmed mare. He turned an annoyed look towards the gray-coated guard. “Lip Lock, when are you going to learn some tact? There’s other ways of breaking the news to a pony.”

The guard looked away angrily. “Whatever.”

The elder unicorn shook his head sadly. “Please, come with me. I am the Scroll Shelf, Mayor of Marethage.”

“Shelf?” Sweetie asked with a soft giggle before she could stop herself. “Sorry.”

The Mayor chuckled. “I had cruel parents,” he said with a fond smile. “They were very good at name guessing though, since that is about 80 percent of my work.”

“Mister Shelf, as much as I would like to chat, I want more to know what happened to my- to Twilight,” Trixie demanded.

If the elder unicorn caught her slip, he gave no indication of it. “We’re almost there,” he said, pointing to a small building with a sign that read ‘Council Hall.’

They entered the building and after finding a place to sit down, they did so. The mayor coughed before looking out the window. “Miss Sparkle was here, as you already know, conducting a bit of research,” he said. “She asked me if there were any ruins in the area and I said no.” He looked back at them. “I lied.”

“Why would you do that?” Trixie growled. “Knowing Twilight she headed straight for the nearest library and found out that there were.”

The mayor nodded. “That is indeed what happened. Miss Sparkle left the town by herself when she couldn’t get anypony to talk to her about the ruins...”

“But why wouldn’t you tell her anything?” Sweetie asked.

The Mayor sighed. “A few years ago, something happened,” he said. “Out of the ruins came two enormous wolves. The beasts would attack at night, and drag one of our own with them to the ruins. We tried fighting, but they were far too strong. And when the moon would be full, they would transform...” The mayor shuddered. “We searched the old records for mention of the ruins, and found that the two monsters had been trapped in there in ancient times. They had been turned to stone by some sort of magic. But now... it seems they have broken free.”

“But why did you not warn Twilight?” Trixie asked. “She could have-”

“Wait...” Sweetie Belle interrupted, looking up at the mayor with a frown. “These wolves... are they Romulus and Remus?”

The mayor blinked in surprise. “Well... yes but... how...”

“You know of them?” Trixie asked, surprised, then her eyes narrowed. “Were those...”

Sweetie nodded nervously. “Yeah... but...” she looked at the mayor. “How did they get out of the ruins? I studied their story and the legends. The only way they could leave is if somepony took them out of their cave, or if the spell keeping them inside is broken.”

Trixie looked at the mayor, who shuffled nervously. “We- we don’t know who did it, it just happened!”

“The legend also says that if they capture a mare near the Full Moon, they will try to turn her into one of them,” Sweetie Belle continued. “They were stopped a long ago when they were bent on creating a kingdom of wolves.”

“Who stopped them, Sweetie? And how?” Trixie asked as she tried to calculate when the next Full Moon was.

“I’m not sure, it could have been the Princesses,” the filly replied uncertainly. “But I’m sure we could find out if we researched it en-”

“We don’t have time,” Trixie said, pacing around the room. “The Full Moon is tonight! Twilight will become one of them if we don’t act now.”

Sweetie frowned and looked outside, worry evident in her eyes. “They will try to do it soon after the moon is out... it’s a bit cloudy and they’ll want it to be as clear as possible.”

“Good, that works in our favor,” Trixie muttered, turning her glare towards the Mayor. “You will give us directions to the ruins.”

“I can’t let you go kill yourselves!” The Mayor cried out. “You have no idea-”

“We know exactly what we’re doing,” Trixie interrupted, “And I will have you know that the Princess already knows that Twilight was last seen here, and that we both came looking for her on the Princesses’ behalf. If you do not help us, I will personally make sure that she finds out!”

The old stallion cringed. “Fine. But be warned that if you go, you will almost certainly die.”

“We’ll see about that,” the showmare replied.

o.0.o

“So, Sweetie,” Trixie began as the trees rose above them, hiding the stars from view, “What do you know about these werewolves? How did you stop them last time?”

Sweetie Belle looked around at the darkened woods nervously. “Well, they’re immortal... the story says that one cannot die while the other lives.”

The showmare frowned. “That doesn’t make much sense... sounds like some sort of riddle.”

“I didn’t get it either,” Sweetie confessed. “I also know that silver burns them... that’s how Twilight caught them; she made a cage and wrapped silver all over it.”

Trixie groaned. “We don’t have any silver. Is there any other way to stop them? What about that spell that kept them in the ruins?”

Sweetie shrugged. “I just know that there was some sort of spell keeping them there so only somepony willing would be able to release them.”

Trixie hummed to herself, eyes narrowing. “Somepony must have moved it...” she thought for a moment. “You said that they wanted to create a kingdom of wolves? Why are they sticking to this small area then? If they moved away they would be able to catch more ponies than those in Marethage.”

Sweetie looked down. “I don’t know, Trixie... sorry.”

The blue unicorn chuckled. “I didn’t expect you to know, Sweetie, I was just thinking aloud, that’s all.” Her smile faded. “I think the Mayor knew more than he told us.”

Sweetie didn’t answer, she was more concerned with the forest around them and the possibility of a werewolf attack.

“But why... they haven’t even reported the werewolves were free to Canterlot!” Trixie growled. “Sweetie, tell me more about this legend.”

“Well... the book Twilight gave me said that Romulus and Remus were two brother wolves that wanted to make their kingdom, but because they were the only ones left, they couldn’t have any subjects, so they each went their own way to find a way to create more wolves.” Sweetie paused, trying to remember more of the story. “They eventually found a magic item to help them with that, it had something to do with... uh... fert.. ability?”

“Fertility,” Trixie corrected.

“Yeah! Fertability,” the filly repeated. “They were somehow tied forever to the item, but the problem was that it would only give its power to one of them.”

“I can see where that would be a problem.” the showmare quipped.

“So they fought over it until Romulus almost killed his brother...”

“But didn’t you say that they were immortal?” Trixie asked.

“Hey! I didn’t write the story! Some silly pony did like a thousand years ago!”

“Sorry, Sweetie. Please. Continue.”

“Well, the book didn’t say how, but a group of heroes sealed them in the ruins with the magic item... and they were supposed to stay there forever.”

Trixie nodded, deep in thought.

The pair walked in silence until the forest started to clear around them. Soon, they were standing outside a circle of stones, with a path at one end of the circle going deep underground.

“I guess this is it...” Trixie sighed.

“Do we know what we’ll do?” Sweetie asked.

The showmare grimaced. “I should have asked you about those wolves earlier, had we been in town I think I could have done something...”

Sweetie looked at the path nervously. “Trixie... what if-”

“Don’t think about it,” the showmare whispered. “We have to get her out. Now, come, The Great and Powerful Trixie has a plan.”

The two unicorns slowly made their way into the ruins. At first, the underground passage was little but rocks around them, but the tunnel eventually emerged into a large cavern, where they stopped and stared in awe at the remnants of an ancient city. From time to time a small tremor would shake the cavern and bits of rock and dirt would rain from the ceiling.

“It looks like this place is about ready to collapse,” Trixie muttered.

“Wait!” Sweetie hissed. “I think I heard something...”

It took a moment, but eventually they heard a faint voice in the distance. Looking at each other, they slowly began to move forward.

“... you don’t have to do this, I’m sure there’s plenty of other ways for you to, uh, procreate than turning me into a werewolf!”

“That’s Twilight!” Sweetie whispered excitedly. Trixie smiled and nodded, raising a hoof to indicate to the filly that she needed to be quiet.

The pair snuck into a half-collapsed house and carefully peeked through the cracks in the wall.

Twilight stood inside a small cage, fearfully pleading with her captors as they stood in before of a massive ancient column that reached all the way up to the apex of the cave and seemed to be the only thing keeping it up. Next to her, a familiar looking stone structure stood amongst the remains of buildings and several rocks that had landed around it. It was a bit of jagged rock that looked almost like a crescent moon... or that’s what Sweetie had thought when she had seen it in Marethage. Now, it reminded her more of a wickedly curved fang, albeit a bit duller looking than its counterpart.

“Why isn’t she using her magic?” Sweetie whispered.

Trixie looked down and shook her head, pointing towards her horn.

What about her horn? Sweetie wondered, looking at the showmare blankly. When it was obvious the filly wasn’t getting it, Trixie rolled her eyes and pointed at her own horn, then shook her head. Not her horn? Then the showmare pointed at Twilight, then at her own horn. Twilight’s horn? Sweetie looked back at her mentor and noticed the small object around her horn, some sort of metal clasp wrapped around the purple unicorn’s horn. Oooh... that must stop her magic!

Seeing the light of comprehension dawn on the filly’s face, Trixie sighed. Finally. She turned to look back at the wolves.

“Ready, little mare?” One of the wolves, slightly bigger than the other grinned wickedly as he reached a paw past the bars, gently tracing a claw down the side of Twilight’s face. “You’re cute right now; I think you will make an even lovelier wolf.”

“Um, thank you, but I’d much rather not... no offense, but I have friends and a very special pony waiting for me back home... Maybe there’s some other way I can help you. Maybe a--”

“Don’t you ever get tired of begging?!” the other wolf barked, annoyed. “You’re going to be a wolf, not a dog!”

“I’m just offering a more mutually agreeable solution to-”

“No,” the bigger wolf growled with finality. “I don’t care who you are with right now, and neither will you in a few moments.”

The three looked up, the two unicorns in hiding also following their eyes. Where the ceiling had caved in, the group could make out the stars in the sky above. The weather had cleared and the Full Moon had risen.

“It is time,” the bigger stated as the pair of wolves approached the fang. The pair howled into the air, their lupine shapes blurring as they transformed into their larger, bipedal forms.

Both werewolves, now standing up on their hind legs placed their hands on the jagged rock, lowering their heads in what seemed like prayer.

“Moon!” the larger howled. “It is I, Romulus! He who hast proven beyond doubt to be the strongest!”

Sweetie and Trixie noticed Remus shooting his brother a spiteful glare before lowering his head again.

“Bestow unto me your blessing so that I might populate the world with our kin!” Romulus finished.

The rock pulsed with white light. Slowly intensifying until it began to illuminate the area around them.

Twilight stared, fears forgotten at the revelation of what had to be something a pony would only witness once in a life-time.

Sweetie, for her part, was staring at Trixie, the showmare’s horn shining softly with magic and eyes closed in concentration.

The moonlight slowly permeated the smaller of the werewolves, who glowed for a few seconds, smiling fiercely at the look his brother gave him.

“It seems the moon has chosen me after all, brother.” Remus laughed. “Don’t worry, I will make our kingdom strong.” He turned to grin at Twilight, who audibly meeped and backed into the opposite corner of her prison.

“No, no, no! I don’t want to be a wolf!” she shouted, smacking her encased horn against the bars, trying to forcibly remove the clasp that prevented her from using her magic.

“It is too late, pony,” Remus growled as he stepped closer, but It was then that Romulus’ clawed hand grasped his shoulder.

“This is not going to happen,” the larger werewolf said, a threatening growl emerging. “I am the Alpha here! I shall be the one turn her and we will begin the kingdom of the wolf anew.”

Remus stepped away, shrugging his brother’s paw off. “You were the Alpha,” he growled back. “The Moon Fang has spoken! I am to be the progenitor of-”

He never finished as, with a vicious snarl, the taller werewolf was on him, ripping and tearing at flesh with tooth and fang. Remus replied in kind and soon both werewolves were in an all out battle. Soon, Remus was sent rolling on the floor. Standing up in shaky feet, he lowered his head and tucked his tail as he took on a submissive posture.

“B-brother... I... I yield to you... spare me...”

Romulus paused and was about to speak when the moonlight shone again on Remus, his fur glistening once more with the white light of the Moon Fang’s blessing. “No! The only way to create my kingdom is by killing you! You still have the blessing!”

Eyes widening in terror, Remus turned and bolted, followed closely by his brother, the sounds of their chase fading away slowly.

After a few moments of silence, Twilight started struggling, trying to remove the clasp again, keeping an eye out for the brother’s return.

“Need a hoof with that?”

Twilight jumped and hit her head on the top of her cage. Rubbing her head with a hoof, she turned around and stared as Trixie walked out from a ruined house with accompanied by none other than... Sweetie Belle?

“T-Trixie!” Twilight choked out as tears of happiness flooded her eyes and flowed freely down her cheeks. Both mares pressed against each side of the cage’s gate, nuzzling each other. A lightly blushing Sweetie Belle looked away, her eyes falling on the Moon Fang as something caught her eye.

As Trixie magicked the clasp from Twilight’s horn and unlocked the door, Sweetie made her way to the statue. Something had caught the moonlight, she thought, or maybe she had seen a faint, purple glow from amongst the rocks piled around it.

“Sweetie, we need to go before the Remus or Romulus return,” Trixie said.

“Wait...” Sweetie shook her head. “I... there’s something here...” Her horn lit the rocks with a white aura, and she heard Twilight gasp in surprise as she slowly levitated a few of the stones out of the way to reveal a small crystal shard. “That’s-” her eyes teared up. She would recognize this anywhere... it was a piece of Twilight. Her Twilight. The crystal almost seemed to pulsate with the familiar feel of the purple unicorn’s magic.

Trixie and Twilight stepped up to her, admiring the purple crystal as it spun and pulsed with magic.

“What is that?” Twilight asked softly, sensing that the filly was about to break up crying.

Trixie studied the crystal, eyes widening as she looked from it to Twilight and back to the crystal. “It’s...” Her throat felt dry. “Is that... what I think it is, Sweetie?”

The filly nodded, letting it fall into her hoof before clutching it tight to her chest. “It’s my Twilight.”

Your Twilight?” the purple unicorn asked, confused. “What do you mean, Sweetie? And... what are the two of you doing here in the first place?”

“There’s no time for that,” Trixie said. “We’ll tell you once we’re safe. We need to get out of here before-”

“Too late for that, little ponies,” Romulus said, walking into their sight. He dropped the carcass of his dead brother and smiled, his muzzle dripping blood. “My brother is no more. I will capture the three of you and receive the blessing of the Moon Fang... I will turn you all and together we shall lead our new kingdom to glory.”

The werewolf pounced, but before he made it even halfway through his jump, he was frozen in place by a mix of blue and purple auras.

Horns flaring and anger shining in their eyes, Trixie and Twilight held the wolf aloft for a moment before hurling him across the cavern.

Twilight’s horn took on a brighter shade as the Moon Fang was levitated into the air and thrown on top of the wolf.

“Do you think you can teleport all of us out?” Trixie asked Twilight.

“I think so!”

“Good!” The showmare turned her attention to the distant cave entrance. With a blast of magic, she collapsed part of the cave wall there before levitating pieces of destroyed building and piling them on top of each other until the whole entrance was covered. “Quick! Before he comes back!”

Twilight nodded and, after placing her forelegs around Sweetie and Trixie, closed her eyes in concentration, horn flaring into life. Sweetie let out an audible gasp as Romulus emerged from the shadows, leaping at them with all his strength and speed, snarling and with bloodlust in his eyes. The massive werewolf smashed against the ancient center column, the force of the impact sending cracks splintering up and down its length.

The werewolf looked up in fear and confusion as the support column split in half and the whole cavern began to groan and shake.

o.0.o

Reappearing outside of the entrance to the ruins with a burst of purple magic, the three unicorns turned to watch in morbid fascination as the cavern collapsed in on itself, burying its contents under tons of rock and earth.

For a few seconds, the mares thought they could hear enraged howls coming from within, but, as the dust settled, all was silent.

Trixie and Twilight looked at each other for a moment before the purple unicorn grabbed her lover by the neck and shared a very passionate kiss with her. After almost a minute, she let go of the dazed blue unicorn, who had to sit down.

“Now,” Twilight said, “I believe you two have some explaining to do.”

“How about you tell us what you were looking for here?” Trixie said, levelling a look at Twilight. “You might want us to explain, but we are the ones that had to come over here to save you.”

Twilight blushed, looking anywhere but at Trixie. “I...” She coughed. “Well... what do you know of the Moon Fang?”

Trixie raised an eyebrow. “Sweetie here told me that it was a symbol of fert-” her eyes widened. “Are you suggesting that-”

“I came here to see if we could... maybe... use it... someday...” Twilight lowered her head as she spoke until she looked almost as small as Sweetie. “To, you know... have a foal?”

Trixie opened her mouth as if to say something, but found that she didn’t have the words to describe the sudden warmth within her.

o.0.o

“... and although they had used the Moon Fang to increase the growth of their produce, they did so fully knowing that removing the magical statue from the ruins would allow Remus and Romulus to escape and attack innocent ponies. The wall around Marethage is a clear sign of their premeditation. They knew full well what they were getting into.”

Twilight paused for a moment before continuing her dictation.

“However, since both werewolves perished, the statue has lost all its power and is nothing more than a decoration now. Thankfully nopony was hurt.

“The Mayor of Marethage needs to be made responsible for his decision to endanger so many innocent ponies.

“Your faithful student,
“Twilight Sparkle.”

Twilight took a long breath and released it. “Okay Spike, send it.”

The baby dragon rolled up the scroll, and, in a breath of green fire, it was gone. “Well, it sounds like that was some adventure you three had!”

Twilight nodded. “I agree. But I still need an explanation as to why Sweetie was there. And who taught her magic?” The purple unicorn groaned in frustration. “If Sweetie hadn’t been so adamant on getting to Ponyville first...”

Spike blinked. “But, Twilight... she’s your apprentice. You taught her magic.”

The purple unicorn’s eyes widened. “No I didn’t!” They both turned to look at the filly.

Sweetie Belle, standing next to Trixie, cringed. “I guess I need to explain a couple of things now, don’t I?”

“It’s just about time, Sweetie Belle.” The showmare nodded with an encouraging smile.

“Well...” the filly unicorn hesitated. “I- I’d like Scootaloo, Apple Bloom and Rarity to be here too, if you don’t mind, Twilight?”

The unicorn blinked and nodded. “Spike?”

“On it, Twilight!” he said, running out of the library.

It wasn’t long before Rarity walked in followed by the remaining members of the Cutie Mark Crusaders, both of whom refused to look at Sweetie Belle.

Rarity sighed, but gave her sister an encouraging smile as the group sat down around the filly.

“I- I don’t know where to start...” Sweetie said, turning to look at the blue unicorn.

perhaps I should,” Trixie offered, looking at each pony in the room in turn before she began. “Last year, while I was travelling through the lands of the Rhinos...”

As Trixie began to tell her captivated audience about the dream-like state that allowed the Rhinos to visit other dimensions, Sweetie sighed and looked down at the purple crystal she held in her hooves. It glittered with so many memories... she felt suddenly nostalgic, and very alone, despite being with friends and family, or rather, versions of them.

The little filly unicorn became aware of a sudden silence and, glancing up, she noticed that Trixie was looking expectantly to her. Apple Bloom and Scootaloo were now also looking her way, confused as to what Trixie’s story had to do with anything, while Twilight and Rarity had slightly distant looks in their eyes as they looked at her as they connected the dots.

The filly sighed. “I...” She took a deep breath and looked at each pony in the eye. “For the last few weeks I have been learning magic as Twilight’s apprentice-”

“But-” Apple Bloom started, only to be shushed by Twilight, who was looking at the small unicorn intently.

“At first I just wanted to play with Apple Bloom and Scootaloo, all summer, but then Scootaloo went with Dash to a competition and Apple Bloom went with Applejack to Appleloosa...”

The group became very quiet as Sweetie described to them what it had been like living with Twilight while Rarity was away on a business trip; about how she had slowly warmed up to the purple unicorn and started really learning magic. How she had levitated her first stone. How she had accidentally turned Twilight’s mane pink while learning Prestidigitation. She told them about Trixie dragging Romulus and Remus to Ponyville, how she’d almost been killed and of Twilight’s decision to teach her the Shield spell. In halting sentences, she talked about the day that the library had received the packages from Canterlot, how she had come to the library and...

“... I-if... she paused a moment to wipe away the tears. “If I hadn’t tried to levitate those past the experiment, none of this would have happened!” she sobbed. “I’m so sorry!”

She was suddenly held by somepony. She opened her eyes to see Rarity hugging her. She felt Scootaloo and Apple Bloom do so too, and soon enough Twilight had joined the group.

“Oh, Sweetie...” Rarity said. “You’ve gone through so much...”

“I’m sorry...” Sweetie Belle apologized, burying her face in her sister’s mane. “I didn’t want to make Apple Bloom a liar, or Scootaloo angry...”

“It’s not your fault,” Scootaloo said. “I’m sorry I acted that way.”

Twilight stepped back after a moment. “So... that piece of crystal you found, is that...”

Sweetie nodded, levitating the crystal so they could all see it. “It is a piece of Twilight... my Twilight.”

“May I?” Twilight asked, voice little more than a whisper, staring at the crystal.

Sweetie nodded, and allowed Twilight to take hold of it with her magic. The purple unicorn closed her eyes and concentrated, feeling out the magic within the fragment. It seemed to shimmer for a second, before the purple unicorn suddenly gasped.

“I- I heard my own voice coming from it!”

“What? How?” Sweetie asked, a sudden excitement coursing through her.

“I- I don’t know... I just tried sensing the magic in it and... I heard my voice... I couldn’t make out what I said, though...”

Sweetie took the crystal and concentrated, just as Twilight had taught her. Soon everything around her faded and her only focus was the crystal.

“Sweetie...” Twilight’s voice echoed around her. “It’s okay, Sweetie, we can make it back home... Both of us. Draw my magic from the crystal; it will get you on your way... I hope to see you soon, my student.”

“Twilight! I’m so sorry!” Sweetie said, gasping as she opened her eyes and found herself surrounded by the others.

“What happened?” Apple Bloom asked, look of worry etched on the farm filly’s face.

“I think... I think I know how to go home,” Sweetie said after a moment.

“Oh...” Rarity sighed. “I had made this for you, Sweetie...” She pulled out a small notebook, decorated with gems in the silhouette of a unicorn mare in a regal pose. “As a gift for you to take notes in while you studied...” she explained, letting Sweetie take it. “I guess you won’t be able to take it with you after all... and I don’t know if my Sweetie here would ever use it.”

Sweetie’s eyes watered a bit. “Thank you, sis.”

“Wait,” Twilight said after a moment, her hoof to her chin as she thought. “I think there might be a way.”

Sweetie’s eyes were wide. “You really mean that?”

Twilight chuckled. “Of course. What kind of unicorn would I be if I didn’t make sure my transdimensional counterpart’s student had at least a notebook to write down her lessons?”

“But... you... er,” Sweetie looked at her mentor in confusion, “My Twilight always said that scrolls were better and-”

“That’s... not important,” the purple unicorn interrupted, glaring at the others they snickered. “What is important is that between Rarity, Trixie, and us, we can enchant the notebook to be part of your magic... a summons of sorts.”

Trixie smiled. “I see what you mean. If we both provide the power, Rarity the finesse to enchant the gems and Sweetie ties her magic with them she could theoretically pull it out wherever she is.”

“Well, let us get to work then!” Rarity declared excitedly.

o.0.o

It was a much more tired group of unicorn mares that sat around the library watching as Sweetie Belle concentrated her magic, making her notebook disappear and reappear again on command.

“Well, hopefully that should work,” Twilight said.

“Are you ready to go?” Trixie asked Sweetie Belle, who nodded before embracing the blue unicorn.

“Thank you for trusting me, teaching me and helping.”

“It was great, Sweetie. If you ever stop by again, don’t forget to visit,” Trixie said, returning the hug happily.

“Sis... thank you. And I’m sorry I made you worry.”

“Never mind that, Sweetie,” Rarity said with a dismissive wave of her hoof. “Water under the bridge. I love you, little sister, here and in any other world,” the white unicorn declared with a fond nuzzle.

“Thank you for saving me, Sweetie,” Twilight said with a smile. “I’m sorry I wasn’t around to teach you more about the Shield Spell.”

Sweetie chuckled. “It’s okay, Twilight,” the filly said, smiling. “Trixie helped me a lot, and I won’t disappoint my Twilight... I’ll keep studying!”

The little unicorn then turned to look at Spike, Apple Bloom and Scootaloo, who had fallen asleep while the unicorns enchanted the notebook. “Tell them I’ll miss them, please...”

Turning her back on everypony so that she wouldn’t hesitate, the filly concentrated on the crystal, slowly drawing its magic into herself.

A bright, lavender light flooded her vision and then she was gone.

o.0.o

Rarity gasped and ran towards Sweetie Belle as the filly collapsed. “Sweetie? Sweetie, are you alright? I don’t think it worked...”

“Uhh...” the filly groaned, opening her eyes. “Sis?” She looked around. “Wha-what are we doing in the Library?”

The mares stepped back and stared.

Sweetie stared right back, face contorting in confusion. “Why are you all staring at me like that? Did my horn fall off or something?" She crossed her eyes as she tried to look up at her forehead. She gasped as a new possibility occurred to her. “Oh! Did my cutie mark appear?!” She snapped her head around to stare excitedly at her flank.

Still blank.

“Aww...”

o.0.o

When Sweetie Belle opened her eyes and blinked, she sighed as she looked at the bookshelves in the library. “I guess that didn’t work.”

“Uuuggh...”

The filly blinked as she slowly turned around. The library was a mess. There were upturned couches, boardgames were strewn around, and Rainbow Dash was passed out on top of the table.

Sweetie could hear Pinkie Pie snoring noisily, but the filly could only see the pink earth pony’s flank sticking out of the kitchen door.

Fluttershy was giggling in her sleep, kicking out her legs sporadically as she dreamed, hooves barely missing the unknown white female pegasus sleeping beside her.

Applejack and Rarity were lying on the couch, also completely passed out. She could barely make out Spike’s body beneath the lamp cover he had on his head.

The strangest thing, however, was the swirling magical portal placed where one of the book-shelves was supposed to be.

The sound of hoofsteps coming from upstairs made the filly look up in time to see Twilight emerge from her room. The two unicorns, filly and mare, stared at each other.

“Twilight...” Sweetie stared. “Why are you wearing that belly dancer outfit?”

“I...” The purple unicorn fell silent for a few seconds, blinking as if she were imagining things. “Uh... do I know you?”

“I’m...”

“Twiiiliiight!” a sultry voice called out, making both unicorns look towards the magical portal.

Sweetie couldn't decide whether to scream or run away, the filly’s body freezing up as Nightmare Moon stepped halfway out of it. “You’re late for work, my assistant!”

“Sorry!” Twilight replied nervously, visibly daunted by the dark alicorn.

Sweetie settled on screaming.

o.0.o End Chapter 1 o.0.o

Next: Nightmares Don’t Last Forever

Nightmares Don't Last Forever

View Online

The Sweetie Chronicles: Fragments

By Wanderer D

Editors & Proof-Readers: Understated Hyperbole, Trevor, Cardslafter, Fifth Alicorn

o.o.0.o.o

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaah!” Sweetie Belle kept screaming in panic, unable to move as Nightmare Moon herself entered the library. Never before had she been so scared. Not even being almost eaten by a werewolf invoked the deep-rooted fear that the alicorn before her inspired. She was suddenly reminded of the manic laughter of the Nightmare as she had somehow taken Celestia away during the Summer Sun Celebration.

“Well, you do seem to know how to impress ponies,” Twilight stated as she came all the way down the stairs to stand in front of the Nightmare.

“Aaaaaaaaaaah!”

“Well, I do have quite the presence,” the alicorn chuckled. “You look good, Twilight. I thought you hated wearing that.”

“I do,” Twilight growled. “Hate it, I mean,” she added when she saw Nightmare Moon begin to smile. “I’m only wearing it because it’s your birthday and you begged me to wear it.”

“Aaaaaaaaaaah!”

The alicorn chuckled and punched the unicorn on the shoulder playfully. “Oh, Twilight, you say the kindest things.”

Twilight glared at the alicorn. “It’s not your birthday, is it?”

Nightmare Moon raised her eyebrows in fake surprise. “Whatever gave you that idea?”

“Aaaaaaaaaaah!”

Both ponies looked at Sweetie as she continued screaming.

“So, what’s her problem?” Nightmare Moon finally asked.

“Apparently she’s scared of you,” Twilight replied.

“But... really? That much screaming? Isn’t it... too much?”

“Aaaaaa-oof!”

The alicorn and purple unicorn blinked as a pony-sized cushion knocked the filly over, interrupting her scream.

“Sweetie Belle!” Rarity groaned as her horn stopped glowing. “What do you think you’re doing?! Haven’t I told you not to scream like that?”

“Ugh... mah head...” Applejack groaned, blinking heavily as she slowly raised her head from Rarity’s mane.

Fluttershy twitched, and slowly opened her eyes, wincing under the light. “Oh... oh my...” She blushed. “I think I drank too much... again.”

The white pegasus next to her blinked and opened her eyes, yawning cutely. “Sis!” She happily jumped to her hooves and trotted up to Nightmare Moon.

Pinkie groaned and dragged the rest of her body into the kitchen. Spike, for his part, kept snoring as Rainbow Dash turned over and fell off the table with a dull thump.

Sweetie pushed the cushion off of her and stared as the group groggily got up and proceeded to discuss the last night as if Nightmare Moon was not there... unless...

“Is this a Nightmare Night prank, Princess Luna?” she asked the alicorn, whose eyes widened.

“Sweetie Belle!” Rarity gasped then frowned, “What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be at home?”

“Oh, so this is your sister!” Twilight said with a smile. “I was wondering who she was and why she was here,” she said, looking down at the filly. “Hi! My name is Twilight Sparkle!” she continued, then frowned. “Although you already seemed to know that.”

“Twilight...” Sweetie said without taking her eyes of the alicorn, who was watching her intently. “Why is Princess Lun-”

“Ahem,” the alicorn interrupted. “I’m afraid you have it wrong, my little pony. I am Nightmare Moon... ruler of Equestria!”

“Oh.” Sweetie considered her options. The pillow that Rarity had thrown at her slowly levitated off the floor and then smashed into Nightmare Moon’s face. “Quick, everypony! Run! I’ll protect you!” Sweetie shouted, horn glowing again as a couple more pillows were pulled into the air.

The pillow slid down from Nightmare Moon’s face as she gave an amused look at the filly. The look turned into a frown when another pillow smacked her in the face.

“What are you waiting for?” Sweetie called. “Sis, run! Twilight, if we cast the shield spell we can hold her back!”

“Shield spell?” Twilight blinked as she turned to look at the flabbergasted Rarity. “Your little sister knows how to cast the Shield spell? Why isn’t she in Canterlot studying magic?”

“Now, Sweetie, hold on just a second...” Nightmare Moon said before another pillow found its place embedded on her horn.

“I-” Rarity blinked. “I have no idea how she’s doing it!”

“Why are you still here?!” Sweetie asked, turning to look at the group as her control of the pillows faltered.

“If we’re done with that-” Nightmare Moon started to say, only to be interrupted by another pillow to the face. The alicorn turned to glare at Pinkie Pie, who gave her a wide smile from within a pillow fort she had somehow constructed while they were distracted. “Oh... It. Is. On!”

Rarity dodged the flying pillows as she made her way to her sister. “Sweetie, let’s get going.”

“Sunny!” Nightmare Moon roared as several pillows around her floated threateningly. “How dare you join Pinkie Pie’s side! Once I win this fight you will be grounded and spend the next thousand years in your room at the castle, you hear me?”

“But...” Sweetie Belle’s horn glowed as she sent another pillow flying. “Nightmare Moon! We have to stop her!”

The older unicorn just sighed and ushered her sister out. “They’ll be fine.” Once they were outside, Rarity looked up with a frown. “I just hope they finish their pillow fight soon so that Nightmare Moon can raise the sun.”

Sweetie blinked. “Huh? Buh- but, come on, sis! This is serious!” She looked at her sister doubtfully. “Isn’t it?”

“Okay, that’s enough, Sweetie, you’re starting to sound like Twilight,” Rarity chided. Then, when she saw the small frown in the filly’s face, clarified, “The purple unicorn.”

“I know who Twilight is!”

Rarity sighed. “Of course dear, I just... I’m still tired. Now, let’s take you home.”

The two walked in silence for a few minutes until...

“Sweetie, I may be... a bit under the weather, but... did you just levitate and throw pillows around?”

o.0.o

As they walked away from the library, Sweetie’s eyes were glued to the ground.

So I didn’t make it home... back there Nightmare Moon was stopped by sis and the others... even in that strange world where Trixie and Twilight were together, Nightmare Moon was gone! What am I going to do? Why isn’t everypony more worried about this?

To Sweetie Belle’s surprise, the sun eventually made its way up into the sky. “I thought Nightmare Moon wanted eternal night?”

Why?

Rarity glanced tiredly at her. “No, I think the only thing she really wants is Twilight...” She sighed. “Ever since we tried to use the Elements of Harmony on Nightmare Moon and failed, everything has been such a rush... with Twilight suddenly becoming Nightmare Moon’s slave and Celestia being...” Rarity stopped, looking around, “... indisposed... everything is very confusing. It might be easier if Nightmare Moon had been a tyrant- but no, we get a prankster...”

That made the filly stop. “What?”

What does Nightmare Moon want with Twilight? It can’t be good! Oooh, I should find the piece of Twilight in this world, but can I just do it and not help her defeat Nightmare Moon? What would my Twilight want me to do?

The older unicorn yawned as she herded her sister into the boutique, and looked longingly at the stairs that led to her room. “I know you just met Twilight, Sweetie, so you don’t know... she’s Nightmare Moon’s personal slave...”

“Slave?!”

Rarity held her hoof against her head. “Could you please not yell? Listen, Sweetie, why don’t you go play around town; maybe find that pegasus friend of yours, just don’t get into trouble, okay?”

“But-”

“Go on, Sweetie. Big sis needs some more sleep.”

As she was ushered out the door, Sweetie rolled her eyes. “Fine.”

The cool morning air welcomed her into its embrace once more as she pondered what to do.

Nightmare Moon has turned Twilight into her slave! She makes her dress like a belly dancer! Does that mean that she defeated Princess Celestia? What am I going to do? Should I tell them about... the accident? But, how will they treat me if I do? Will sis still think I am her sister? Or maybe she will be scared of me! I don’t have Trixie here to explain... I’m... alone... She sighed, but her thoughts were interrupted by a familiar filly walking past Carousel Boutique.

“Apple Bloom!” she called, running up to meet her friend. Well, maybe not completely alone.

The earth pony stopped and looked at her, confused. "Sweetie Belle, right? Rarity's sister?"

What? But... oh... right. I’m the other world thing. Sweetie face-hoofed, then looked at her would-be-friend. “Uh... right! And you’re Applejack’s sister, right?”

“That’s me!” Apple Bloom said with a proud nod. “Ah’m lookin’ for her right now; she’s s’posed ta be back on the farm buckin’ apples you see...”

A plan started to form in Sweetie’s mind. “Hey, I know where Applejack is right now... want to hang out after we get her?”

Apple Bloom blinked. “Uh, sure.”

“Great!” Sweetie grinned as she motioned for the earth pony to follow her. “I’ll introduce you to another friend, and then...”

“... and then?”

“We’ll rescue Twilight!”

“Who?”

o.0.o

“So, let me get this straight,” Scootaloo said, looking at Sweetie Belle as if the unicorn had grown another horn. “You want the three of us,” her hoof went around encompassing them, “To take on The Nightmare Moon in order to free this Twilight Sparkle, who you just met this morning.”

Sweetie nodded excitedly.

“Ah met her a couple of days ago!” Apple Bloom supplied.

“Right...” Scootaloo gave the earth pony an odd look. “So you really want to do this, even after Nightmare Moon defeated Princess Celestia,” the pegasus pressed.

“Eeyup!” Sweetie smiled, ignoring the odd look Apple Bloom gave her in turn.

“Sweetie, I hate to break it to you, but we can’t do this!” Scootaloo rolled her eyes. “This is nuts! Besides,” she glared at the unicorn, “Since when do you want to go on crazy adventures? You’re usually the one telling me to not do this sort of stuff!”

The unicorn’s smile faded. “But... but,” she stammered. “Think about our cutie-marks!”

Apple Bloom blinked and looked at her flank. “We don’t have cutie-marks.”

“Exactly!” Sweetie said, nodding sagely. “Maybe we can get them by defeating Nightmare Moon!”

“That’s completely-” Scootaloo paused, eyes narrowing as she scratched her chin with her hoof. “You think that might work?”

“That would be really cool,” Apple Bloom added, eyes wide.

“So, what do you say? Cutie Mark Crusader Nightmare Vanquishers!”

“Yay!” the other two fillies joined, jumping up in excitement for a second before Scootaloo and Apple Bloom stopped.

“Cutie Mark Crusaders?” the earth pony asked.

Sweetie coughed. “Uh... ye-yeah! We’re trying to get our cutie marks, right?”

“You know...” the pegasus said thoughtfully. “It’s weird to say this, but... it sounds natural.”

The three looked at each other for a moment before wide grins were shared. “Cutie Mark Crusader Nightmare Vanquishers! Yay!”

The three ran in circles cheering, until Scootaloo suddenly stopped, which ended in the other two piling on top of her.

“Ouch! Get off! Get off!” she shouted.

“Why’d you stop?” Sweetie asked, as she rolled off to the side, making Apple Bloom slide over.

“Well, I was thinking... we need to plan this out,” Scootaloo said. “And we need a base!”

Sweetie blinked. “Well...” Her eyes widened. “There’s this filly pegasus called Sunny who lives at the castle, I think. Maybe she can help us find a hiding place there?”

“But... how can we get to the castle?” Apple Bloom asked.

“I saw Nightmare Moon come out of a magic door,” Sweetie provided, looking from one pony to the next. “I bet we can also use it to get to the castle!”

The three exchanged glances.

“We can do it!” Sweetie Belle insisted.

Finally Apple Bloom and Scootaloo both nodded. “Let’s go!”

o.0.o

Spike groaned as he dragged himself to the library door as the persistent knocks continued. “Hold your horses, I’m coming!” When the door opened, he was greeted by three grinning fillies. “Uh... can I help you?”

“Spike!” Sweetie said with a bright smile. “We need to get to the castle! Can you help us?”

The baby dragon looked at her, confused. “Buh- what? Castle?”

“Yeah... uh...” Apple Bloom, pointed towards the distance in direction of Canterlot. “Ya know, where Nightmare Moon is?”

“But... why in the name of Celestia’s mane would you want to go there?” the dragon asked.

“W-well.... I...” Sweetie hated to lie to Spike, but if they were going to save Twilight... “Twilight told me that I should apply to Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns?”

Spike gave her an unamused look, arching an eyebrow. “She did, huh? Do you know any magic?”

“Y-yes!” Sweetie nodded. “I know Levitation and Prestidigitation and Shield, and I was learning some illusion magic and...”

“Fine! Fine!” Spike sighed. “I can tell a bookworm when I see one, especially after living with Twilight,” he muttered before peering around Sweetie at the other two fillies. “But what about you two?”

“Uh...” Scootaloo shifted nervously. “Moral... support?”

Apple Bloom nodded quickly.

Spike rolled his eyes as he stepped back, opening the door all the way. “Come on in.”

The three fillies made their way into the library. Apple Bloom and Scootaloo looked almost horrified at the sheer amount of books in there. “This reminds me of school...” she whispered.

“Spike? Could we also talk to Sunny?” Sweetie asked. “She knows the castle and where we have to go...”

Spike blinked, “Sure. I’ll go get her. You three stay here in the meantime, okay?”

The three fillies nodded as the dragon went up the stairs. Once he was out of sight they all released a deep breath.

“It... it worked!” Apple Bloom said in awe.

“I can’t believe you convinced him you knew magic!” Scootaloo added, turning to look at Sweetie with a huge grin. “That was awesome! Levitation and Presti-whatever! Ha! Classic!”

“But-” Sweetie raised a hoof.

“You mean you don’t really know magic?” Apple Bloom blinked. “Ah believed you when you said all them fancy words! You should be an actress, Sweetie.”

“But-” the unicorn filly tried again, only to be interrupted this time by Spike as he jumped down the stairs.

“Aha! I knew it!” the little dragon accused walking towards them, brows furrowed. “You almost got me, but there’s no way Twilight would tell you that without telling me about it! Besides, we arrived a few days ago and-”

“I do know magic!” Sweetie interrupted. “Look!” she levitated a couple of books off the shelf and then floated them up to the table. “See? I can do magic!”

“How the hay did you do that?!” Scootaloo asked, surprised. “I’ve never seen you do anything like that!”

Spike glanced at Sweetie with a raised eyebrow. “Moral support, huh?”

The unicorn filly cringed.

“Well?” Scootaloo pressed her face against the unicorn’s. “When did you learn to do that?”

“I...”

“Spike, are they the ones looking for me?” A voice interrupted them. They all looked towards the upstairs room as a white pegasus with a sun cutie-mark and a gem on her forehead asked walked down the stairs, stifling a yawn.

“Prin- I mean, Sunny!” Spike smiled nervously. “Yes, that’s them.”

“Oh... hi!” Sweetie smiled nervously as she walked around Scootaloo, who frowned but held her tongue.

“I recognize you,” Sunny realized after looking at the unicorn filly for a few seconds. “You’re Rarity’s sister... Sweetie Belle, right?”

“Rarity is your sister?” Spike gasped as he grew dreamy-eyed. “No wonder you know magic... with a sister so perfect-”

“Yeah, well...” Apple Bloom looked at Sunny. “We was wonderin’ if you could give us a tour of the Castle?”

“Huzzah! At last! New friends!” she exclaimed giddily. “Sis will be so proud!”

The three fillies looked at each other. “Um, sure!” Sweetie hastily reassured the pegasus. “We’d be happy to be your friends!

“Well! Let’s get going!” Sunny giggled, a spring in her step as she trotted towards the now-hidden portal. “I’m sure sis would love to meet you!”

o.0.o

“So, she lives in the Castle,” Scootaloo said in a sing-song voice that vaguely resembled Sweetie Belle’s. “She can help us get a place to hide and plan there! Why, she’s the best pony that we could ask for help! She looks really nice!” She hissed at Sweetie, who winced. “Oh, and she’s also freaking Nightmare Moon’s sister!”

The unicorn filly winced as she and Apple Bloom watched apprehensively as the white pegasus nuzzled the dark Queen of Equestria. Next to the queen, Twilight Sparkle stood, this time without her belly-dancer costume, looking at them with confusion and something akin to panic.

“Ah’m not sure comin’ here was a good idea...” Apple Bloom noted.

“Sis! I made new friends!” Sunny said excitedly. “This is Apple Bloom, Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle.”

“Welcome to Canterlot, my little-” Nightmare Moon’s eyes narrowed as she recognized Sweetie. “You.”

The unicorn filly gulped, but then took a deep breath, “Nightmare Moon!” she challenged, “I am here to save Twilight Sparkle!”

Twilight started coughing, looking at the filly in disbelief.

The Nightmare’s eyes widened as she suddenly grabbed the purple unicorn with a foreleg and cuddled up to her. “No! You cannot take her! She’s mine!”

“She is not!”

“Is too!”

“Is not!”

“Is too!”

“Is not!”

“Is not!”

“Is too!” Sweetie blinked when she saw Nightmare Moon smile. “Heeeey!”

The trio of fillies watched as the Nightmare nuzzled Twilight affectionately, a hoof tracing its way up and down the purple unicorn’s horn. “She’s mine, and she likes it...” She grinned at the flushing purple unicorn. “Don’t you, slave?”

“I... I-” Twilight trembled, her blush deepening as her embarrassment grew.

“Don’t surrender, Twilight!” Sweetie shouted. “I’ll save you!”

“Ni- Niiii- Nightmare Moon!” Twilight gasped as she pushed back the queen. “They’re just fillies! They shouldn’t be seeing this!”

The queen pouted. “But Twilight, you know you like it...”

“Sis, is it okay if they stay here for a little while?” Sunny asked, blissfully unaware of the teasing and embarrassment. “They really wanted to see the castle...”

Nightmare Moon stopped trying to catch Twilight and looked down at the three fillies. “So you would condemn your lives to the misery of living in these empty halls, alone, save for each other, my sister Sunny, and the occasional visit from your family?”

Apple Bloom opened her mouth to inform the black alicorn that she was, in fact, not interested in doing that at all... but found that she could not speak at all. She blinked, starting to panic.

The Nightmare smiled. “Excellent! You will then stay at the Castle!”

“But-” Apple Bloom blinked. “Hey, I can speak again!”

“Oh, and I heard Sweetie Belle say that she wanted to study at my school for gifted unicorns!” Sunny provided helpfully.

Both the alicorn and Twilight turned to look at Sweetie with raised eyebrows. “Reeeeeally?” Nightmare Moon grinned.

“Um... I...” Sweetie stammered, looking around worriedly.

“Why, yes!” The white pegasus beamed down at the unicorn, “She even said that Twilight suggested she try out!”

“I did?” Twilight blinked. “I must’ve been drunk...”

“Hey, I’m pretty good!” Sweetie complained.

“I remember you attacking me with a pillow this morning...” Nightmare Moon remarked. “That means that you do have some magical skills, but enough for the School for Gifted Unicorns?”

“I was trained by the best!” Sweetie stomped the floor with her hoof. Apple Bloom and Scootaloo suddenly grabbed her and shoved an apple into her mouth.

“If you'll excuse us fer jus' a moment, yer highness...” the apple farmer filly quickly said as the pair dragged Sweetie to a corner of the room.

“Are you crazy?!” Scootaloo asked, glaring at the unicorn. “What the hay are you thinking?!”

“You’re provo- pro- gettin’ into a fight with Nightmare Moon!” Apple Bloom said. “This ain’t part of the plan!”

Sweetie cringed. “But...”

“No ‘buts,’ Sweetie!” The pegasus said. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but you can’t just go to the castle and start a fight with Nightmare Moon!”

“You mean she’s not usually like this?” Nightmare Moon asked.

“No!” Scootaloo said, annoyed. “All of a sudden she wants to be the stallion in shining armor that wants to save... the captured... unicorn....” Her words slowly died as she looked to her right... and into the slitted eyes of Nightmare Moon herself.

“AAAAAAAaah!” The pegasus jumped onto Apple Bloom’s forehooves, who stumbled, screaming in fright, and jumped, still carrying Scootaloo, on top of Sweetie Belle.

As the trio collapsed, Nightmare Moon laughed. “Priceless! I almost didn’t do it; I mean, I could hear you all the way to the throne, but I thought ‘Will they notice me? Oh, of course they would,’ but then I came over here and you didn't!” She pounded her hoof on the floor, trying to quell her mirth. “The looks on your faces!”

“Why, you...” Scootaloo glared at the Nightmare. “Now it’s personal!”

“Good,” Nightmare Moon said. “Since you’ll be staying here, I expect you to provide enough entertainment-”

“Wait, wait!” Twilight interrupted. “We can’t simply keep them here!” She looked straight at Nightmare Moon. “As much... entertaining... as they might be, their families will miss them!”

“But Twilight,” Nightmare Moon whined. “I’m the Evil Queen of Equestria! Can I keep one of them? Pleeeease?”

“No!”

“Pretty please? With me on top? And sugar? And honey? And anything else sweet that you might like?”

“No!” Twilight repeated firmly. “They cannot stay and that’s final.”

Nightmare Moon sighed and looked at Sunny. “Sorry, Sunny, I guess you won’t be able to have that sleep-over you wanted. Twilight doesn’t want you to have friends over.”

“What? But-”

“Twilight stopped, feeling cold sweat run down her side when she heard the whimper. Slowly, she turned to look at the white pegasus, who was slumped on the floor next to the throne, looking at her in misery, tears welling up in her innocent eyes... Twilight knew that it was her fault, that Sunny’s unhappiness was a direct result of her lack of compassion and-”

“Stop that,” Twilight growled, putting a hoof over Nightmare Moon’s mouth and ceasing the alicorn’s alarmingly accurate narration of her thoughts.

“Can they stay one night, Twilight? Please?” Sunny pleaded. “I promise we’ll be good!”

“Yeah,” Scootaloo said, glaring at the smirking Nightmare. “I wouldn’t mind staying a night at the castle.”

Apple Bloom shook her head as she also gave an evil look at the black alicorn. “Ah don’t mind stayin’ either, as long as mah sister is okay with it.”

They all looked at Twilight, who sighed, lowering her head in defeat. “Fine. I’ll go ask your sisters.”

“Yay!” Four voices echoed in the throne room, with a less enthusiastic Apple Bloom smiling uncomfortably.

When they settled down, Nightmare Moon turned to her sister. “Sunny, show your friends around the castle in the meantime. I have to arrange Sweetie’s test.”

“You’re really doing it?” Twilight gasped.

The alicorn just smiled.

o.0.o

“Twilight, Ah know that the- that Nightmare Moon and you have a... special... kind of relationship, but Ah can’t believe you’re askin’ me to let Apple Bloom stay the night over with her!”

“I have to agree, dear,” Rarity said with a grimace. “Sweetie was acting strange enough today, and I fear that-”

“That’s not all...” Twilight closed her eyes. “She... Sweetie Belle is...”

“What? What is it?” Rarity asked, walking closer to the purple unicorn, worry evident in her eyes.

“Um... Sweetie is taking the test for Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns... today,” Twilight said.

“Oh no! That’s horrible! I-” Rarity stopped. “Are you serious?”

“Do I look like I’m joking?”

Rarity stared at Twilight, whose eyes shone with an unspeakable stress. Her mane was disheveled with little hairs sticking out in random directions. The strands around her horn seemed to be matted down, as if she had been rubbing a pillow on them or...

The fashionista coughed into her hoof. “Uh, no dear, you look like you were having... fun... and it was interrupted.”

“WHAT?!”

“Not that there’s anything wrong with that, Twilight, but I hope that my sister didn’t-”

“Nothing happened!” Twilight growled as her coat started smoldering and turning white.

“We believe you, sugarcube,” Applejack hastily interjected, giving Rarity a look. “Now, what was this about a test?”

Twilight took a deep, shuddering breath and let it out slowly. “Sweetie convinced Nightmare Moon that she was ready for to try out for Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns and-”

“But, darling... Sweetie cannot cast a single spell,” Rarity pointed out.

“Well, this morning she was levitating and flinging pillows like a pro,” Twilight said. “And she claims to know at least two other spells and some illusion magic.”

“But, I haven’t taught her anything, and the Ponyville school doesn’t teach magic to young unicorns!” Rarity insisted.

Twilight shrugged. “Well, that’s what’s happening. She’ll be taking her test in a couple of hours. We could go watch her if you want.”

“But of course!” Rarity said. “What kind of sister... wait, we would go to Canterlot!”

“Well, yes, the School is in-”

“Oh, Celestia! What am I doing here? Two hours you said? Well, I should get ready! And maybe make something for Sweetie! She needs to look good for her test, in front of all those noble ponies!” Her eyes glittered with a sudden memory. “Do you think that Prince Blueblood will be there?”

Twilight frowned thoughtfully. “Blueblood usually stays away from any form of education or source of knowledge. So, I sincerely doubt it.”

Rarity looked downcast for the barest of seconds. “Oh well, I still need to get ready. See you at the library then!” With that, she cantered away.

The purple unicorn sighed. “Well, time to find Scootaloo’s parents.”

o.0.o

“Do you understand what I am asking of you?” Nightmare Moon’s eyes glowed with inner power as she looked down upon the cowering forms of the board of trustees at Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns.

“Bu-but... your- your Highness...” a grey unicorn stammered. “What you’re asking for... it... it doesn’t exist!”

“Aaand?” Nightmare Moon leaned closer, her long mane waving like a malevolent aura all around them.

“Aaaaand... we’ll get it done!” the unicorn squeaked.

“Good!” the alicorn said, leaning back. “Have it ready in two hours.”

“T-t-t... two hours?” the unicorn coughed, unable to fully express his shock. The wide eyes of the others was enough to bring a smile to Nightmare Moon.

“If you don’t have it ready... there will be consequences.” With a megalomaniacal laugh, Nightmare Moon turned into mist and flew out of the window.

The unicorns looked at each other in shock.

“How are we going to do this?” an elder, yellow coated unicorn asked the others. “This is...”

“We have to,” a blue male unicorn said with a sigh, “We have no choice. If we fail... the school would have nopony to repair whatever damage that monster might attempt against our students.”

“I...” A cream coated mare coughed. “I might have an idea...”

o.0.o

Rarity and Applejack followed Twilight through the halls of Canterlot Castle and out into the gardens. Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns was right next to the castle, since Celestia herself would sometimes teach and monitor promising students, as well as mentor a select few unicorns besides her faithful student.

“Well, this place here sure is pretty,” Applejack commented, looking around the grounds. “Pretty empty, that is! Where is everypony?”

“Well, since Nightmare Moon came back, most of the nobles left the castle,” Twilight explained.

“How awful!” Rarity sighed.

“Well, to be fair, we have managed to do more work for the good of ponykind since they went away than ever before-” Twilight elaborated.

“There she is!” Rarity beamed as she spotted her sister walking with Sunny, Apple Bloom and Scootaloo. “Sweetie Belle!” She waved with a hoof to get her sister’s attention.

“Sis!” Apple Bloom called as she ran up to Applejack. “Sunny just showed us the kitchens! They’re huge! Granny Smith would love ‘em!”

“Yeah!” Scootaloo grinned, “The kitchen was great, and I can’t wait for dinner tonight!”

“You should have seen Scootaloo’s face, Twilight!” Sunny declared. “Her eyes went really big and she started running around and grabbing stuff and-”

The purple unicorn chuckled. “As long as nothing was broken, it’s fine. I’m glad you four are having such a good time.”

Rarity stepped forth to hug Sweetie. “I am so proud of you!” She gushed, “I can’t believe you’ve learned magic so early! You must tell me who taught you.”

Twilight caught the filly sneaking a glance at her for just a second. But Sweetie’s attention was back to her sister as a blue and white cape slowly draped around the filly’s form. “Sis... what-”

“You must look good for your test, Sweetie! Remember, It's the first impression that...”

“... will either open the door or close it.” Sweetie finished.

“Exactly!” Rarity smiled, stepping back to take a look at the filly and carefully arranging the cape until it was perfect. “So, you were saying, darlin’?”

“Um, her name was Trixie,” Sweetie said with a twinge of guilt. Well it’s not really lying... “She’s a showmare who has travelled all over Equestria.”

“Oh...” Rarity blinked. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of her.”

“Don’t worry,” Sweetie said absently, looking at the school nervously. “You will.”

“Are you ready for your test, Sweetie?” Twilight asked.

“Um... no?”

“Well...” the unicorn coughed. "I can't guarantee that you'll pass, but if you remember to smile and look confident, I guarantee you'll make a good first impression,” the purple mare advised with a wise nod of her head.

“Will they make me hatch an egg?” Sweetie asked.

Twilight blinked. “How did you...” She looked at Sunny hopefully. “Did you tell her, Sunny?”

The pegasus looked surprised. “No... I didn’t know what the test was...”

“Oh...” Twilight sighed, but her mind was working furiously. How did she know?

“Well, it’s time!” Nightmare Moon said, inserting her head between Rarity and Twilight.

“Yes indeed-WahaHAha?!” Rarity jumped, her dress fluttering in the wind until she landed on top of Applejack who gave her a half-amused, half-annoyed glance, while everypony else worriedly stepped back from the queen’s sudden appearance.

“You keep landin’ on top of me Rarity, and Ah might think yer lookin’ for something else!”

“Th-that’s nonsense!” Rarity stammered as she turned to glare at the black alicorn. “Don’t do that!”

“I’m the Queen. I do what I like,” Nightmare Moon grinned. “Now, let’s go, Sweetie!”

o.0.o

The room was a dull gray with the biggest chalkboard Sweetie had ever seen on the wall behind her. She faced the rest of the study hall, idly wondering if Miss Cheerilee ever felt so nervous in front of classroom. Of course, Sweetie was only facing a class of four unicorns, but it didn't help matters that all four were older and staring at her rather intently.

She looked nervously towards Twilight and Rarity, both of whom smiled widely and pointed at their mouths.

The filly struggled to bring a small smile out, and was rewarded by the board immediately taking notes.

A brown stallion walked into the room dragging a cart, in the middle of which a large egg of the utmost black rested.

“Well, Miss Belle,” one of the unicorns spoke, although she couldn’t know which one it was, since her eyes were glued to the egg. “It says here that you are the student of... Trixie.” There was a pause. “Are we talking about the ‘Great and Powerful’ Trixie by any chance?”

Sweetie looked at them. “Uh, yes. That’s her.”

Fast scribbling.

“The Great and Powerful Trixie?” Twilight wondered aloud. “Never heard of her, but she sounds like an interesting unicorn based on the title alone...”

“Miss Belle, to be admitted into the school you need to hatch the egg in front of you using magic you know. Please, go ahead. Whenever you are ready.”

Sweetie gulped. I have no idea how to do this! What am I going to do?! She started hyperventilating. We never covered this in Twilight’s class! I don’t have a sonic rainboom to help me! A quick look at her mentor’s counterpart helped calm her down a bit. Well... if I don’t try, I won’t know...

How should I start? Maybe try to levitate half of it? Her horn blazed and the egg’s top part started glowing. Carefully pulling, she started the process of what would hopefully hatch the egg and-

“Why is the egg stretching like that?” Rarity whispered to Twilight, who was looking at the black egg in complete befuddlement.

“... I- that- why...” the purple unicorn stammered, her eyes widening as the lower half of the egg remained in place, but the upper part slowly stretched farther as if the egg was made of bubblegum.

Nightmare Moon turned her head away and shook silently, drawing Twilight’s attention to her. The purple unicorn raised an eyebrow, but chose to remain quiet.

Sweetie opened her eyes and gasped, releasing her control of the egg, which immediately reformed into its original shape. “Wha- what!?” She squeaked out before glancing at the board of instructors as they wrote more notes.

Calm down Sweetie! You can do it! She focused on the egg once more and slowly a visible aura formed around the egg as she concentrated even more.

The silence in the room stretched for a couple of minutes until a cough from one of the unicorns broke it.

“Miss Belle, while a continuous use of Prestidigitation as a warming spell would indeed hatch an egg eventually, we don’t have months to wait nor you the stamina to sustain it that long... however, I have to commend you, since you are the first unicorn ever to think of anything remotely similar to natural hatching... But I am afraid that still doesn’t mean you pass.”

“Oh...” Sweetie pouted.

Next to Twilight, Nightmare Moon could barely contain her laughter, drawing the attention of Celestia’s student.

“You... you had something to do with this!” She said, raising her voice and calling everypony’s attention to the Nightmare. “You’re-” Twilight’s eyes flashed in anger. “You’re cheating!”

Nightmare Moon smirked. “Now, dear Twilight, I just thought that such a smart filly would need a better challenge than a boring old dragon egg.”

“What did you do?”

“Well, I asked them to give her an ink-dragon egg,” Nightmare Moon smiled.

“You... what... I can’t... no...” Twilight started to smoke as her anger increased.

“Wow!” Sweetie Belle looked at the egg in awe. “An ink-dragon! I’ve never even heard of one of those before!”

“Now, Sweetie, that’s because-”

“Miss Sparkle,” one of the unicorns coughed. “If you’re quite done, Miss Belle has one more try, and we all have work to do.”

Think, Sweetie, think! The unicorn filly looked around for inspiration. Ink... ink...

“Ink!” she shouted suddenly, her eyes filling with hope.

That’s it! It’s just like that time that I dropped the ink bottle in Miss Cheerilee’s class! I had to use some paper towels! But... where can I get some paper towels... or even just some paper?

“Um...” Sweetie looked at the unicorns sheepishly. “Could I have some paper please?”

“I don’t know what you have in mind, Miss Belle, but the test can only be completed with skills and spells you possess and can do by yourself. The only paper in this room is in our notebooks and we are using them.”

Sweetie sighed, frowning as she pawed the ground, thinking. “Well, there goes that idea...”

What else can I do? She thought. Levitation doesn’t work, Prestidigitation takes months, Shield wouldn’t help, and that spell Trixie taught me won’t work unless I can talk it into hatching... She sighed. I should really review it, maybe take some notes later on that notebook Rarity gave me in the other world... I really hope the summoning spell works here.

The unicorn filly sat down and stared despondently at the egg. “I- I give-”

Everypony held their breaths.

“I- notebook!” Sweetie screeched, making the surrounding ponies jump in surprise.

“Yes, the notebooks are the only sources of paper here, so-”

“Not yours! Mine!” Sweetie said with a big smile as her horn shone with magic again. Slowly, to the surprised eyes of the gathered ponies, the space in the air just in front of Sweetie seemed to open, and an object slowly floated out.

“An Inter-Dimensional Pocket? A filly her age?! Impossible!” one of the unicorns shouted in surprise, dropping his own notebook and pen as the pocket closed up.

Ignoring everypony’s gaping stares, Sweetie opened her notebook and approached the egg. “Okay... all I have to do is get the top off the egg..." she slowly started pressing the open notebook on top of the egg. Everypony watched in awe as the top was slowly absorbed into the paper.

“That’s-” Nightmare Moon’s eyes were wide. “That’s cheating!”

“So is having the board create an egg for a dragon that doesn’t exist!” Twilight growled.

Still concentrating, Sweetie slowly lowered the notebook until-

“ACHOOO!”

“Ah!” Sweetie jumped back in surprise, losing her concentration on the notebook. The gem-studded booklet fell straight down, splashing the ink in all directions, splattering her face and her cape.

“No!” Sweetie yelled, running up to the egg while the unicorns exchanged worried glances.

“Why did you do that?!” Twilight rounded up on Nightmare Moon.

The alicorn rubbed her nose with her hoof. “I’m sorry! I really didn’t mean to.”

“Right.”

“Uh... this exam is concluded,” one of the unicorns said shakily.

The group watched the unicorns get up and slowly walk out of the door, casting uneasy glances at the ink in the floor.

Sweetie sniffed. With a flash of magic her notebook was gone. “... I failed.”

“It’s okay, Sweetie,” Rarity said, carefully stepping around the ink. “I think I can still remove the ink from it...” She sighed, then gave her sister an encouraging smile. “You did your best, and I have to say, I am very, very proud of you!”

The filly looked at her sister with big wet eyes. “Really?”

The fashionista nodded, “Really! I never thought you knew so much magic! I’m so proud!”

“It was impressive,” Twilight added. “And don’t worry, you really impressed them. I’m sure next time you take the test you’ll get in; you’re still very young... and although I never heard of anypony breaking the egg, it was nothing more than a fake egg .”

Sweetie slowly smiled, “Thanks, sis! Thanks, Twilight...”

She was suddenly hugged by two other fillies. “That was super awesome, Sweetie!” Scootaloo said. “You have to tell me when you learned all that!”

“Ah never seen anythin’ like it!” Apple Bloom nodded.

A loud growl made them all cringe. The group turned to look at Nightmare Moon, who had the decency to blush. “What? All of this made me hungry! We should eat!” she said, starting towards the door.

Sweetie nodded and followed the group, but not before looking back at the ink spots on the floor. “I’m sorry... even if you weren’t a real egg.”

o.0.o

“Oh, my!” Rarity gasped as they entered the large hall. It was tastefully decorated with banners depicting Nightmare Moon in various poses of unquestionable power. “This is amazing! Definitely what you would expect of Canterlot Castle!”

Nightmare Moon chuckled, “This is one of the smaller dining halls.”

Applejack’s eyes widened. “This is one of the smaller ones? Ah reckon you could fit half the entire Apple clan 'round that table!"

The wooden dining table had already been set by the time the group arrived. It could easily accommodate twice the amount of ponies, yet somehow all of it was covered with different dishes.

“Ah don’t rightly know if Ah can eat that much!”

“Don’t worry sis,” Apple Bloom patted her foreleg comfortingly. “Nopony expects you to; we’re supposed to only eat what we want.”

“Ah-” Applejack blushed as Rarity and Twilight chuckled. “Ah know that, Apple Bloom. Ah’m just sayin’ it’s a lot of food.”

“Oh, okay!” The filly smiled brightly. “Let’s eat!”

“Ah don’t see that many apples, though...” Applejack muttered, looking around the table.

“Applejack, darling,” Rarity shook her head. “There’s more to food than just apples!”

“Ah’m just sayin’, just sayin’...” the apple farmer shook her head, looking around the dainty decorations. The three different types of forks and spoons and knives and pincers and... she shuddered. It was like being back with the Oranges.

The four fillies, three mares and the incarnation-of-all-that-was-evil-in-ponydom sat down for dinner, with the black alicorn at the head of the table.

“Oh! Good! They made clover soup! That’s my favourite!” Nightmare Moon grinned.

“We were asked by Miss Scootaloo to prepare everypony’s favorite dish,” a pony in a chef’s coat and a toque said, walking towards the table. “For Miss Twilight, we have prepared a daisy salad with dried tart cherries and greens, with a hint of smoked almonds. I remember well the first time she ate it,” the chef chuckled as Twilight blushed. “For Miss Rarity, under Miss Belle’s advice, we have a wide selection of deli mushroom dishes, hoofpicked by myself and my assistant. Not too much of each, but all of them carefully prepared.” The fashionista blinked, shrinking into her seat as her stomach growled.

“Sounds like somepony’s really hungry!” Applejack smirked, patting Rarity. The unicorn just glared at her.

If anything, the chef looked pleased. He coughed, “For Miss Belle we have a daisy and clover sandwich with a side of fried potatoes.”

“Oh, I love daisy and clover sandwiches too!” Twilight exclaimed, smiling at the unicorn filly. “I have them all the time at the library!”

“Really?” Sweetie chuckled nervously, causing the purple unicorn to raise an eyebrow.

“Next, we have a hay milkshake and a carefully glazed portobello mushroom, with lettuce, dandelion and tomato sandwich with a single slice of bleu cheese made with multi-grain bread, toasted just to crispiness, along with a salad of greens, red-onion, chili, bleu crumbles, and nuts, tossed in the vinaigrette prepared personally by Miss Scootaloo.”

Everypony at the table gaped at the furiously blushing pegasus.

“So that’s what you were doing when you disappeared on us!” Sunny gasped. “My! That sound delicious!”

“It is!” the chef nodded. “I wrote down the recipe, with Miss Scootaloo’s permission, of course.”

The pegasus seemed to shrink as everypony showered her in praise. “Just don’t tell Rainbow Dash! Cooking is not cool!”

“We have buttered spaghetti with fresh basil for Miss Sunny...” the chef continued, although he seemed amused by Scootaloo’s embarrassment of her cooking skills. “A plate of waffles with honey for Miss Bloom-”

“Apple Bloom!” Applejack turned to look at her sister. “What kind of lunch is that?”

The filly blushed. “But I love waffles!”

“... and finally, under Miss Bloom’s recommendation, we have an apple-pecan stuffed cabbage with a cold pasta & apple salad as a side, and an apple variation of the crepe suzette for dessert, also courtesy of Miss Scootaloo...”

The pegasus hid under the table, face flushing a darker fuschia than her mane.

Applejack stared at all the apple dishes in front of her she had somehow missed spotting when they entered the room. Her mouth started watering, but she remembered her manners.

Rarity nodded appreciatively at the food and turned to face the chef, opening her mouth to convey her delight, when somepony else spoke.

“Why, this looks simply delightful, chef! My compliments to you, your assistant and of course, our little darlin’, Miss Scootaloo,” Applejack complimented, her own eyes widening at the words pouring out of her mouth and her involuntary shift in diction.

The table became very quiet. Applejack looked around nervously. “What? Ah said it looked delicious!”

“Buh-” Rarity stammered, her jaw hanging in a very unladylike expression. “Buh- but... you said...”

“Ah said it looked DELICIOUS!” The farm pony repeated, her tone slightly hysterical.

The others slowly turned to look at their plates.

“Well? What are we waiting for?” Nightmare Moon demanded. “Let’s eat!”

The chef pony bowed as he backed out of the hall, leaving them to their meal.

“Yeah!” Scootaloo seconded, taking a bite of her food. Her grin widened as the alicorn dug into her soup with gusto. “Enjoy, everypony!”

Following the example of both the pegasus and the alicorn, the rest of the group started eating. It was a few minutes before conversation started again.

“So, Sweetie, your performance in the test was very impressive,” Twilight complimented. “Had it been a normal Dragon egg, you might have been able to hatch it!”

Sweetie looked down at her plate sheepishly. “Thanks, but I tried all my spells...”

“Well, it was a very nice try, regardless,” Rarity assured. “This Trixie pony who taught you should be very proud to have you as a student.”

Sweetie’s eyes sneaked another peek at Twilight, but when she saw the unicorn looking at her, she quickly returned her focus to the plate in front of her. “Ye- yeah...”

“To think, my little sister might be attending Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns!” Rarity gushed. “This is amazing! I really hope she passes! Imagine how impressive it will be and-” She caught herself, adding, “I mean, whatever happens Sweetie, you’ll always make me proud.”

“Ah’m very impressed too!” Applejack said after a few more bites of her salad. “Now, if I could get Apple Bloom to dedicate herself to school like you do...”

“Hey! Ah study all the time,” Apple Bloom complained.

“Sure you do, sugarcube,” Applejack smirked. “That’s why Ah had that long talk with Cheerilee ‘bout your homework.”

“That was just once! And she told you in a bar! It weren’t even official!”

The screeching of a chair being suddenly dragged on the floor drew everypony at the table’s attention to Nightmare Moon as the dark alicorn stood up, a rather uncomfortable grimace on her dark features.

“I have to go. Now,” the alicorn said, turning around and galloping out of the dining hall.

“How rude!” Rarity said, looking at the door as it slammed behind the dark queen.

“I wonder what happened?” Twilight pondered as she stood up slowly. “All of you, please go ahead, I’ll be back shortly.”

The group remained silent until the purple unicorn had left the room. Then Scootaloo burst out laughing. The others stared at the pegasus until understanding dawned on them.

o.0.o

Twilight winced when the sudden scream tore through the halls of the castle. She hurried after the sound, knowing that whatever it was that could upset Nightmare Moon herself that much could not be good... or should that be bad? She got so confused lately.

She followed the angry mutters until she arrived at the... Royal Restrooms. Twilight blinked. “Uh... Nightmare Moon?”

“I can’t believe this!” The alicorn shouted from within. “WHO put cling wrap in the toilet seat!? HEADS WILL ROLL!”

Twilight stood outside, paralyzed as she mouthed the words she had just heard. “... cling wrap...”

There was a blast of magic from within the restroom and the sound of scrambling hoofs. Twilight walked away slightly so she didn’t have to hear more. After a few minutes waiting, Nightmare Moon made her way out on shaky legs. She was sweating.

“Somepony is going to pay for this...”

Twilight noticed that the dark queen was dragging a long piece of toilet paper on her left hindhoof, but chose to remain silent. “Who could have done it?” Twilight wondered aloud. “I doubt the head chef would-” her eyes widened.

The alicorn’s eyes narrowed. “Oh, this means war...” she took a couple of angry steps towards the dining hall, but then her eyes widened and she grimaced. “Slave. Make sure those three fillies stay the night with Sunny,” she blurted out before running back into the restroom..

o.0.o

Everypony’s attention focused on Twilight as she walked into the dining room. “Now, Scootaloo, that was a very mean thing to do-”

Twilight was interrupted as the whole table burst into laughter. Even Rarity, as hard as she tried to cover her mouth and keep some semblance of composure, was giggling madly.

The purple unicorn shook her head at the shockingly juvenile humor of her friends but then, as she thought about it, she also started giggling.

It was then that the door opened again, admitting a young pegasus guard into the hall. “Um, I am here for a Miss Scootaloo?” He questioned, looking around the room.

“Uh...” the filly in question raised a hoof. “That’s me!”

The guard blinked. “Oh, okay. I was asked by somepony named Rainbow Dash to escort you to receive flight training, but I don’t know if that’s-”

“YES!” Scootaloo shouted, jumping to the floor and rushing up to him. “Yes! YES! I can do it! I want to! If Rainbow Dash thinks it will help, I’m sure it will!”

“Well...” the guard still looked uncertain. “I do have to take you there, but-”

“Let’s go!” the pegasus filly shouted in excitement. “I wanna do this!”

“Oookay...” the guard said as the filly bounced around to him. “This way, please.”

The other ponies in the room watched silently as the pair of pegasi left.

“Did Dash even know we were coming here?” Applejack asked, “Or that Scootaloo was in the Castle?”

Everypony looked down at the remains of their food.

“... what happened?” Sweetie asked.

“A lesson,” Nightmare Moon said, as her misty form slowly materialized in the room, eyes narrowed. “We’ll see how she likes it!”

o.0.o

“So, are you gonna teach me to fly?”

“Uh... no.”

“Oh.” Scootaloo blinked, “Well, then, who is?”

“We call him Sergeant Smoking Crater.”

“His name is so cool!” The filly stopped. “Wait, why do you call him that?”

“Yeah, about that... welp, here we are kid.” The guard looked around as he stopped in front of a door. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Hey, if Rainbow Dash thinks this will help, I wouldn’t miss it!”

“If you say so, kid...” The pegasus knocked on the door. “Sir! I’ve brought the trainee! I’m sending her in!”

The pegasus opened the door and pushed the filly inside.

Scootaloo looked around the room; it had old guard helmets, spears, armor, a chart with different flight formations, a large poster of Princess Celestia pointing her hoof at the viewer which read “Equestria needs YOU!” in big white letters... and in the middle of it all stood a pegasus stallion taller and more heavily muscled than anypony the filly pegasus had ever seen... even more muscled than Big Macintosh. His flanks were covered in scars, his mane was cut short and already turning white with only a few strands of red remaining. His coat was gray, and his cutie mark was a log being broken in two by some sort of giant hammer. His steel-blue eyes squinted at the filly as a look of utter contempt and disgust crossed his face.

“This is what they send me?!” He smashed his hoof into the stone floor, sending chips of granite flying. “A waste of my time!” He pointed his hoof at Scootaloo. “You. You are not FIT to be here. You are not WORTHY of being here. YOU ARE NOTHING! WHY ARE YOU HERE?!”

The pegasus guard quickly closed the door behind him, trying to ignore the shouts.

“STAND STRAIGHT, MAGGOT!”

“Good luck, kid,” the guard sighed as he walked away, the whole area resonating with the potent voice of the Royal Pegasi Unit’s Drill Sergeant.

“YOU WERE SENT HERE TO LEARN! SO MAKE SURE YOU DON’T WASTE MY TIME! WHAT THE HAY ARE THESE? YOU CALL THESE WINGS?! I CALL THEM FEATHER DUSTERS! BECAUSE THAT’S ALL THOSE WINGS ARE GOOD FOR SINCE YOU CAN’T EVEN HOVER! JUMP! I SAID JUMP!”

“... you’re going to need it.”

“THAT’S ‘YES DRILL SERGEANT’ TO YOU, MAGGOT! AND YOU CALL THAT A JUMP? I’VE SEEN DEAD LIZARDS JUMP HIGHER!”

o.0.o

Twilight, Applejack, Sunny and Apple Bloom watched as Rarity and Sweetie finished their goodbyes.

“Be sure to brush your teeth at least three times a day, okay, Sweetie?” Rarity said as she gave her sister a hug.

“Su-sure, sis. You really don’t want to stay? You and Applejack could-” The fashionista’s hoof softly pressed against her muzzle.

“Sorry, Sweetie, but we both have to work.” The unicorn sighed. “I’m sure you’ll be fine; if you need anything, just talk to Twilight.”

“You too, Apple Bloom!” Applejack said, patting her sister in the head. “Ah don’t want to come by tomorrow and find out you’ve misbehaved; you do the Apple family proud and mind your manners, y’hear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“We already talked to Scootaloo’s parents, so she’s good for the night too,” Twilight told the fillies.

“Yay! This’ll be my very first sleepover!” Sunny bounced around the group.

The group of mares watched in amusement as the fillies all got excited and jumped around, celebrating with Sunny.

Applejack noticed that Twilight’s smile was a bit sad. “What’s wrong, sugarcube?”

The purple unicorn blinked. “Oh... nothing, I just... well, I never had a sleepover before either.”

“Aw, don’t worry Twilight!” Sweetie said, stopping her bouncing to pat her mentor’s interdimensional counterpart on the foreleg. “I’m sure you, Applejack and Rarity will someday have one! And it’ll be raining, and you’ll use that book about sleepovers and try to follow it exactly, and sis and Applejack will get into a fight, but a tree branch will fall in and you’ll all be friends again!”

“That’s...” Applejack blinked.

“...rather specific.” Rarity finished.

Twilight just looked at the filly, confused. “Okay?”

The sound of a flushing toilet announced the imminent return of Nightmare Moon.

“Well, we should go. Ah’ll see you tomorrow, Apple Bloom. Don’t ya’ll go causin’ a ruckus now, y’hear?”

“Enjoy your stay at the castle, darling!”

“Bye, girls!” Twilight smiled as the group watched the pair cross the portal. “I’ll see you later.”

“Ugh,” Nightmare Moon walked up to them. “What’s going on, slave?”

Twilight sighed. “It’s time to work. I think I have the list of petitioners for today...”

Nightmare Moon grimaced. “Do we have to?”

Twilight glared at the Queen. “Yes.”

The alicorn sighed. “Fine.”

The two mares walked away, leaving the fillies behind.

“We have to save Twilight!” Sweetie said, turning to look at the other two fillies. “Nightmare Moon must be stopped!”

“Oooh! I love playing ‘rescue the princess!’” Sunny clapped her hoofs together happily. “How are we doing it?”

“I, uh... don’t know...” Sweetie said, slumping a bit.

“Ah have an idea...”

When both Sweetie and Sunny turned to look at her, Apple Bloom smiled. “We set a trap!”

“Yay!” Sunny cried, jumping up and down. “I love setting up traps! I think...” she tapped her chin with her hoof. “Something about it sounds familiar...”

Apple Bloom smiled. “Well, Ah’ll need some paper and pencil to show you girls proper...”

“Follow me!” Sunny cried, leading the other two away from the portal. “I have a bunch of paper and lots of pens!”

“What about Scootaloo?” Sweetie asked as she and Belle followed Sunny.

“She’ll be okay!” Sunny said. “I’ll tell the guards to take her to my room once she’s finished learning!”

o.0.o

Having gone three times over the list of things she would have to cover when she held court, Nightmare Moon and Twilight Sparkle made their way to the throne room.

Everything was in perfect order. Two guards stood at attention at the base of the stairs that led to the throne, and they could hear the ponies waiting outside the main doors.

“Okay,” Nightmare Moon growled. “Let’s make this quick.” She motioned for the guards to allow the first pony in as she sat down on her throne.

“Ppppppppppthhhhhhhhhhhhhrrrrrrrrrrrpppppppp-p-p!”

The sound of the rather undignified flatulation echoed in the throne room just as a monocled, top-hatted stallion took his first step into the lengthy room.

Everypony stared at Nightmare Moon in horror.

The monocle clattered to the floor, breaking in half as the stallion’s jaw almost hit the floor. The guards visibly forced themselves to look away and forward, as was their duty. Twilight Sparkle simply looked horrified and embarrassed.

Three distorted voices echoed around the the room, coming from everywhere and nowhere, making the guards snap to attention and the now monocle-less stallion to shiver.

“This was just the beginning, Nightmare Moon, unless you release Twilight Sparkle! If you don’t, you will suffer the consequences! You cannot stop us. You cannot find us. We are the Crusaders. We are legion.”

The ponies in the throne room stared around in awe. Who would be brave enough to challenge-

Suddenly they could hear giggles as something rustled behind the curtains where one of the no-longer-secret entrances to the throne room was.

“Oh, darn’ it! Ah can still hear it!”

“The spell’s still on?”

“Turn it off, turn it off!”

Silence.

With a flash of blue energy the throne room doors slammed shut behind the now thoroughly bewildered petitioner and Nightmare Moon rose, followed by a wet, slurping sound as something inside the throne struggled to suck back air.

From the throne, floating in a blue aura of magic, emerged an industrial sized whoopee cushion. Nightmare Moon glared at everypony in the room. “NOPONY will hear of this. Am I clear? If anypony disobeys this order, I will hunt them down and banish them into the Sun!”

She glared around. “Is that clear!?”

“Yes, your majesty!” everypony but Twilight shouted immediately.

“Good,” Nightmare’s eyes narrowed as she looked at the shaking stallion. “Now, your requests. And make it fast... I have business to attend to.”

o.0.o

The three fillies ran away from the court, laughing.

“Did y’all see her face? That was amazin’!”

“Yeah!” Sweetie agreed before looking over at Sunny. “How’d you know about that secret entrance?”

“Well, I’m not sure...” the pegasus said. “I just remembered it was there...”

Sweetie stared at the pegasus, her mind flashing back to much earlier that morning.

“Sis!” The white pegasus happily jumped to her feet and trotted up to Nightmare Moon.

Sweetie looked at the sun cutie mark

“She’s also freaking Nightmare Moon’s sister!”

The unicorn filly blinked. Could it be...

“Sis! I made new friends!”

No... it couldn’t be... could it?

“Sunny?”

“Yes?”

Sweetie shifted nervously. “I’m sorry to ask, but... uh...”

“It’s okay, I don’t mind you asking questions,” the pegasus said with a big smile.

“Um... did you know if you’re... adopted?” Sweetie asked with an encouraging smile.

Sunny blinked. “I- I don’t think I am...”

“But,” Apple Bloom interrupted, “You’re not an alicorn! You’re just a pegasus! Right?”

“Oh, I am... this gem just hides it.” Sunny said, but then frowned. “But don’t tell anypony; it’s supposed to be a secret!”

Then, like a hammer, the full force of Nightmare Moon’s words hit Sweetie.

“So you would condemn your lives to the misery of living in these empty halls, alone, save for each other, my sister Sunny, and the occasional visit from your family?”

If Nightmare Moon was Princess Luna...

...my sister Sunny...

...and Princess Luna only had one sister..

...my sister Sunny...

“Oh, sweet Celestia!” Sweetie’s eyes widened in panic as she pointed at Sunny with a hoof. “You’re Celestia!”

Apple Bloom stared at Sunny then at Sweetie. “But... how do you know?”

“Princess Luna is Celestia’s sister!”

“Who’s Luna?” The earth pony asked.

“Nightmare Moon!” The unicorn filly explained. “Princess Luna was jealous of Princess Celestia a thousand years ago and transformed into Nightmare Moon because of it.”

“Ohhh,” the yellow coated filly said. “I get it!”

“I’m just Sunny now,” the pegasus said. She smiled uneasily when Apple Bloom bowed before her. “And don’t do that... I don’t really mind...”

The conversation trailed off as the three fillies heard a tingling melody fluttering through the castle halls.

“Is that..?” Sweetie started.

“The candy mare?” Apple Bloom finished.

The three followed the music to just outside the halls, where a small garden was niched. In the middle stood a small cart with all sorts of treats. An earth pony mare with two crossed candy bars as a cutie mark smiled at them.

“Hello! Would you three like some candy?”

o.0.o

Darkness.

Sweetie slowly opened her eyes, taking in the room around her. She blinked. There was something... off..

For starters, the sofa was on the ceiling.

Wait. What?

More awake now, she noticed that both Apple Bloom and Sunny were standing next to her, but they were still asleep.

When did I fall asleep? And why are they standing up if they are asleep?

She started noticing other things as well. Besides the sofa, Sunny’s bed was also on the ceiling. And her chairs, plush toys and papers...

It was when Scootaloo walked in on the ceiling and looked around before turning her head down to look at her that she understood. Wait! She’s not on the ceiling! I am!

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaah!”

o.0.o

The hall was quiet. A single, ephemeral blue tendril poked around the corner, probing around uncertainly before slowly pulling back. Nightmare Moon followed, smirking. A full hour without pranks! Victory is mine!

As Nightmare Moon walked, cackling, down the hall towards the archives, she still kept her eyes open. Those Crusaders could be anywhere, but for now it seemed that they had retreated, no doubt to lick their wounds.

Sweetie’s scream when she had found herself glued to the ceiling by the hooves... priceless!

Clop.

She looked around once more as she approached her office. Everything was quiet. A little too quiet.

Clop. Her hoofsteps echoed in the unnaturally silent hall, and she could feel her pulse rise.

Clop.

By the time she stood in front of her office, she was expecting the Crusaders to jump out of the shadows. She turned her eyes to the door. They were behind it. She knew it. They were probably hiding, ready to scare her.

She smiled deviously. Well, she would surprise them!

Taking a deep breath and rearing back, she kicked the door open and jumped in, roaring a challenge- which was cut short when her whole face was met with cellophane paper and glue. She sputtered and flailed, knocking down papers and a vase before she thought to use her magic to rip it off her face, leaving her fur matted in glue.

“Crusaders!” she shouted in anger as she threw the ball of cellophane to the floor. She stomped forward in anger, not noticing the tripwire until it was too late. She blinked as she saw the wire flash upwards by her side and looked up... just in time to see a bucket of chicken feathers come cascading down on top of her.

o.0.o

Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom watched as Scootaloo and Sunny ran after each other in an impromptu game of tag. So far the copper-colored pegasus hadn’t thought to go chase after them, so Sweetie took a break of sorts to think.

She sighed and put down the book she had been half-reading. She had found some interesting spells, but her understanding was too basic to learn them without help, even if she was doing a lot better compared to a few weeks ago. That, and they didn’t seem any closer to being able to free Twilight from Nightmare Moon’s grasp.

“You okay, Sweetie?” Apple Bloom asked, hearing the sigh.

“Not really,” the unicorn filly shook her head. “I feel like I haven’t been able to do much since I arrived.”

“Well, maybe if our next trap gets Nightmare Moon...”

Sweetie was about to respond when she felt something.

What was that? Magic? But why?

“Hey!” Scootaloo and Sunny came running towards them. “Come on, you have to play too!”

“CRUSADERS!” A voice boomed, and a black alicorn covered in white chicken feathers suddenly materialized before them in a burst of blue mist. “I will have my revenge!”

“Aaaaah!” four voices echoed in horror as the fillies turned around in a panic and ran away blindly... only to fall into a pit full of tar the moment they passed the flower beds .

They all gasped and struggled to get out, but a blue aura levitated them out of the tar until the whole dripping group was floating in front of a feather-covered Nightmare Moon, who smiled viciously as another levitation spell brought up a giant batch of chicken feathers.

o.0.o

“...and furthermore, no more glue or gooey pranks, from any of you, am I clear?!” Twilight growled at the feathered group in front of her. “Now, you’re all going to take a bath.”

“But-”

“No buts, Sweetie!”

“Ha!”

“I don’t want to hear anything from you either, Nightmare Moon.” Twilight sighed, looking at the alicorn. “You are all taking a bath now. I asked the hoofmaidens to prepare it, so in you all go.”

“What? Together?” Scootaloo asked, looking at the black alicorn in horror.

“Yes, together,” Twilight growled.

“Huzzah,” Nightmare Moon growled sarcastically as she stomped to the bath. “The fun has been doubled.”

Once inside, she reluctantly joined Sweetie Belle, Apple Bloom and Sunny inside the enormous bathtub while Nightmare Moon slowly lowered herself into the water with them.

“Now, the hoofmaidens are going to-” Twilight began to say when she was suddenly enveloped in a blue aura of magic and dunked into the water, eliciting giggles from the fillies. The purple unicorn spluttered out of the water, eyes wide and turned to glare at the black alicorn. “What- why?”

Nightmare Moon grinned as she nuzzled the unicorn with a feathery snout. “Why, Twilight, you don’t think I would take a bath without you, do you? It’d take all the fun out of... personal... cleaning.”

As Twilight started blushing, one of the hoofmaidens coughed uncomfortably. “Lady Twilight, if this is a bad moment... perhaps we could take the fillies to another bath?”

“No!” Twilight shouted, slightly hysterical. “It’s fine! We’ll all take a normal, uninteresting bath together, where the only thing that is going to happen is that we’re getting clean!”

“But Twiiiligiiht...” Nightmare Moon whined.

“No!”

“Fine. Do I get to cuddle you tonight if I behave in the bath?” The queen asked.

“Only if you behave! If you want cuddles from me you’ll have to earn-” Twilight stopped mid-sentence and facehoofed as Nightmare Moon happily nodded at the hoofmares to begin their work. “Why... why me?”

“Don’t worry Twilight...” Sweetie whispered to her, “I’ll save you.”

The purple unicorn looked down and sighed. “Somehow, that doesn’t make me feel much better.”

The bath started with a simple scrubbing. Nightmare Moon watched in glee as the fillies were scrubbed harder and harder, trying to get the tar out of their fur.

“This... this is not working at all.” One of the hoofmares panted after a particularly vicious attempt at cleaning Apple Bloom, who looked at them with dread in her eyes.

“I think... we might need to shave some areas...” another hoofmaid suggested.

“But... mah hair and coat!” Apple Bloom cried out in panic.

“It’s okay dear,” the hoofmare said. “It’s not much... and you won’t have to stay in the bath for two hours like Nightmare Moon, Sunny and Miss Scootaloo...”

“What?!” Both the alicorn and the pegasus gasped simultaneously before looking at each other in horror.

“Well, we cannot cut the feathers,” the hoofmaid explained, making Sunny, Nightmare Moon and Scootaloo all wince at the thought. “So you two have to soak in water for a while so that we can get all the glue and tar out...”

“This is your fault!” Nightmare Moon growled at Scootaloo, who cowered for a second before a frown replaced her fearful expression. Scootaloo splashed the black alicorn in the face.

“Is not! You started it!” The pegasus retorted.

“I am the Queen! I do what I want without fear of repercussions!”

“Well, I have plenty of cushions here for you!” Scootaloo replied, getting in the Nightmare’s face.

“Repercussions means consequences, brat!” Nightmare Moon snapped.

“What the hay are you, a dictionary?” Scootaloo asked, glaring back.

“And with that... I think we’ll go for now...” Twilight said, stepping out of the bath. “Come on Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle. Let’s give you a trim and go do something more productive.”

“Ah... Ah think I’ll soak a bit longer, if ya don’t mind, Twilight...” Apple Bloom said. “Ah really don’t want to have to cut mah mane...”

Sweetie Belle shrugged and stepped out, following Twilight out of the bathroom.

o.0.o

The pair of unicorns walked back into Nightmare Moon’s room, closing the door behind them. Twilight turned to look at Sweetie, her horn glowing. Slowly, the tar peeled away, taking a few strands of mane and pulling a bit hard on her coat, but it was soon completely off of her.

“Why didn’t you do that earlier?” Sweetie asked, looking herself over.

“Well, first of all, Nightmare Moon deserves it,” the purple unicorn replied. “And I want to talk to you without distractions.”

“Oh...” Sweetie nervously looked around. “What about?”

Twilight sat down and looked at the filly sternly. “The truth. You’ve been lying about a lot of things, Sweetie Belle... And I want to know why. Why do you immediately look at me when a question about magic comes up?” Twilight took a deep breath. “You treat me like you expect me to know all the answers; you trust me... but you barely even know me.” She shook her head. “You told Spike that I had recommended you take the entrance exam, but I didn’t even know you until early today. We had never talked before, so I couldn’t have done that.” Twilight’s eyes seemed to bore into Sweetie’s. “Did this mysterious Trixie really teach you magic? Why are you so desperate to save me?”

Sweetie cringed with every question.

How can I answer... should I lie? Will she know? What will she think?

The filly’s eyes began watering as her frustration grew.

“I-” She gulped and closed her eyes. “I’m not the Sweetie Belle from this world!” she said quickly, trying to say as much as she could before the purple unicorn could get angry at her. “I was really your student, and I really liked it! You were an awesome teacher; I just... it was an accident, I promise! I wanted to take a look at the stuff you got for me and-” She sniffled. “When you exploded and disappeared- I’m so sorry Twilight! I’m trying to find you; I’m trying to go home! I miss my friends! I miss my sister! I miss Princess Luna and her Nightmare Night pranks!” The filly looked up at the flabbergasted Twilight Sparkle for a second before shutting her eyes again quickly, not able to handle the guilt. “I went to this other world and Trixie helped me find you... she told me that I was jumping to different worlds... I have to find a piece of you in this one... the last one was where you, I mean the other Twilight, had gone to look for a magic item so she and Trixie could have foals and I thought it might be there in this world too... but... Nightmare Moon captured you and I couldn’t-” She paused, shivering and breathing hard. “I couldn’t let her do that to you...”

Twilight stood up and walked around the room, looking at Sweetie as if she were some sort of strange creature.

“So, let me get this straight. You’re from another world,” she repeated slowly,“ and you caused an accident that basically destroyed the ‘me’ from your universe and catapulted you into another world.”

The filly nodded nervously.

Twilight continued pacing. “This doesn’t make much sense, Sweetie. How does the magic that is sending you all over operate?” Twilight paused and sighed in frustration. “If you're here, then where is this universe's Sweetie?” Books floated out of the shelf and hovered in front of the unicorn as she quickly looked at one index after another. “This is not it. Not it.” She threw a couple of books out of the way. “And this ‘Trixie’ told you she had seen something similar?”

“Yes... she said that the Rhinos used a spell like it...”

“Rhinos?” Twilight blinked. “They’ve been extinct for over a hundred years.”

“Well, not in my world.”

“This is very hard to believe, Sweetie.” Twilight sighed.

The filly felt her eyes moisten as tears threatened to come out. “But...”

Twilight, who was not looking at her shook her head. “If it wasn’t because nopony even believed you could do magic, much less cast those spells, I would say you’re lying.”

“I’m not lying!” Sweetie protested as tears ran down her cheeks.

“And how does the spell know where to send you? What’s to say that there even is a fragment of this other ‘me’ in this world?” The purple unicorn continued frowning as she looked out the window, deep in thought. “What happens if you’re sent to a world without a fragment? Will you stay there forever? What happens to the local Sweetie Belle then? And if you’re only sent to worlds that have a fragment, are there clues as to how to find them?”

Twilight sighed as her mind raced through Sweetie’s words. “If that’s the case... could it be related to me? She found the fragment where the other world’s ‘me’ was with this Trixie...” she hummed, trying not to imagine herself with another mare. “If the fragments... hmm. She found it next to Twilight in a moment that would create a big change... but, has anything like that happened here?” She tapped her hoof against her chin. “If Nightmare Moon was defeated in her world... That’s the main difference with this one... We didn’t beat her, the elements broke in the Sister’s Castle in the Everfree... could the fragment be there?” She stopped when she heard somepony sobbing.

Sweetie cried by herself as her mentor’s double pondered aloud. I shouldn’t be here. I’m not wanted. I should just go- her thoughts stopped when she felt a hoof on her shoulder. Then another hoof on the other... and she was pulled into a hug. I always cry. I’m useless. She buried her face in Twilight’s mane, unable to control her shaking body.

“It’s okay, don’t cry... I forgive you.” Twilight comforted, her hoof carefully stroking the crying filly’s hair. “You lied, and that’s not right... but I forgive you. You have to learn to tell the truth; it’ll save you a lot of trouble. I don’t know what exactly happened, but if your Twilight is anything like I am... she would forgive her student for a mistake, regardless of how bad it was.”

Even if I killed you?

“Thanks Twilight...” Sweetie said hoarsely, pushing her thoughts away into the back of her mind, along with the hurt and fear as she sniffed. “As soon as we stop Nightmare Moon, I’ll be on my way...”

Twilight smiled and shook her head. “You don’t need to save me, Sweetie.”

“What? But... she... you... slave–”

“I know what you’re thinking, but-” Twilight hesitated. “Nightmare Moon is not the monster you think she is... at least not here... at least I don’t think she is...” The unicorn sighed. “I haven’t quite figured her out yet, but I know she’s not all bad... and she needs me.”

But then... what have I been doing here all this time? Sweetie sighed. “So, I just... I’m useless here?”

“No,” Twilight said firmly, drawing the filly’s attention to her. “Everything we do is a learning experience. Maybe you could have gone away, but you would never have tested your current skills to see how well you would have done in a magic test of the level required to enter Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns.” The mare stood up. “It was impressive, Sweetie. Much better than I did at first...” She smiled fondly at the memory. “If I had been the Twilight teaching you, I would have been incredibly proud. And also, if you hadn’t stayed and tried to help me, you wouldn’t learn a new spell from me.”

Sweetie’s eyes widened. Does she mean... “Are you saying... you’ll teach me a new spell?”

Twilight smiled. “How do you feel about a spell to make everything dark? I think it would help you if you’re ever in real trouble.”

Sweetie grinned. “Let’s pull out the books!”

The purple unicorn chuckled as her horn’s magic levitated a tome from its place in the bookshelf. “You’re definitely my student.” She shook her head in amusement, but looked at Sweetie seriously. “I also want you to think about telling the truth to Scootaloo and Apple Bloom.”

Sweetie Belle winced.

“They are your best friends in your world, and would likely be the same for our Sweetie Belle.” Twilight pointed out. “It wouldn’t be right for them to think she had been lying, and more importantly, if you can’t trust your friends, who can you trust?”

Sweetie sighed, “I’ll think about it.”

o.0.o

When Nightmare Moon and the fillies marched out of the bathroom, they found Twilight and Sweetie going over several books, jotting down various passages in the younger unicorn’s notebook.

The black alicorn sashayed up to them and looked over their shoulders. “Globe of Darkness?” she asked aloud, looking at the diagrams and theories in the book. “Whatever could Sweetie Belle need that for?” Her eyes narrowed as she looked from unicorn to unicorn. “Are you helping her plan a prank, Twilight dear?”

“Not at all,” the purple unicorn replied amiably. “I’m just teaching her a new spell she wanted to learn.”

Nightmare Moon raised an eyebrow. “Why would anypony want to plunge everything into darkness?”

There was an awkward pause. Apple Bloom coughed and looked away.

Sunny looked at her sister and blinked.

“Besides you, you mean,” Scootaloo clarified helpfully after the silent moment had stretched too far for her liking.

“I... I just think it might be useful?” Sweetie smiled nervously.

Nightmare Moon’s eyes roamed from one unicorn to the other before settling on Twilight. “You do know that she won’t be able to see anything at all when she casts it, right?”

Twilight slowly returned her eyes to the books, opening her mouth a moment to speak before snapping it shut on further reflection.

The alicorn laughed, “I guess not.” Her horn shimmered with light and another book floated out of the bookcase. She let it drop in front of Sweetie. “Darkvision.”

Sweetie looked from the book to the alicorn in surprise. Finally, a question that had been nagging her from the beginning erupted. “Um, Nightmare Moon?”

The alicorn, who had been halfway to the door by then, stopped and looked over her shoulder. “Yes? I’m afraid I cannot tell you what Twilight tastes like; she wouldn’t approve.”

“Oh...” Sweetie looked at Twilight, who turned beet red. “Okay, that wasn’t my question...”

“What is it then?”

“Why did you help me?”

Nightmare Moon shrugged. “I like a challenge.”

That said, the alicorn simply walked out of the room, leaving a confused group of ponies behind.

“Well...” Twilight coughed. “Let’s copy that spell, Sweetie... as for the Globe of Darkness... I think you understand the theory; better get some practice...” She hesitated. “But see if you can get the Darkvision down first, okay?”

“Yes, Twilight!” Sweetie nodded, smiling brightly.

“Okay.” The purple unicorn got up. “It’s about time for dinner. I’ll see you fillies in the dining hall in half an hour, okay? Try to behave.”

After the unicorn was gone, Scootaloo turned to look at Sweetie Belle intently. “Alright, Sweetie, you’ve had fun, but mind telling me why you’re suddenly so good at magic?”

“I...” Should I tell them? No... she would think I betrayed them and lied to her and... I did... “I... have been studying at night, after my sister went to sleep. I uh... I met with Zecora and...”

“With who?” Apple Bloom asked. “I don’t know anypony named Zecora in Ponyville.”

Sweetie Belle looked from her to the frowning Scootaloo in a mild panic. “Uh... she- she’s a zebra, and she lives in the Everfree Forest...”

Pleasebelivemepleasebelivemepleasebelivemepleasebeliveme...

“Y’all don’t mean the witch?!” Apple Bloom asked in horror. “Ah’ve heard from mah sister that she curses ponies!”

“You met her? How?” Scootaloo asked, more impressed than dubious.

“Uh... we... I- she came to town and I talked to her... She’s really nice,” Sweetie gulped. “Um, she... she introduced me to Trixie and... well, Trixie taught me how to... study...”

“Wow! You’re very brave!” Sunny said, impressed.

“Yeah!” Apple Bloom agreed.

Sweetie sighed in relief, not noticing the slightly hurt look Scootaloo sent her way. The pegasus quickly moved to the books and started turning pages. A particular one caught her eye. “Hey, Sweetie... take a look at this spell think youcould do it?”

The filly looked over the page. “Well... maybe... it looks pretty easy...” Her eyes went wide as she turned to look at the pegasus. “You’re not thinking...”

“Yes. Yes I am.” Scootaloo’s crafty smile said it all.

o.0.o

The whole group sat together at the table in the dining hall in uncomfortable silence.

A fork enveloped in magic energy dug into the salad and carefully lifted greens and a tomato out. Twilight Sparkle took a bite and hummed appreciatively as she chewed. “This is good.”

Next to her, Sunny chugged noisily into her own salad, relishing in the flavors and crispiness of the fresh veggies.

The others, however, stared at their food nervously. Nightmare Moon’s fork poked a piece of tomato as the alicorn pondered if that morsel was the one that might’ve been ‘spiced up’ by the crusaders.

The fillies, for their part, looked at the food dreading a possible revenge from the queen.

Apple Bloom whimpered as she looked at the food, her head tentatively leaning forward to take a bite.

“No!” Scootaloo whispered harshly. “We don’t know what she might have done to it!”

“But...” an angry growled emanated from the filly’s stomach, followed shortly by one from Nightmare Moon’s. Scootaloo and Sweetie looked at each other painfully. They were so hungry!

“Come on everypony, don’t be silly.” Twilight looked at each pony in the eye. “You’re all just being paranoid. There’s nothing wrong with the food.”

There was a chorus of unsure laughter and slowly the ponies started eating, watching each other warily.

Twilight sighed and carried on eating, her thoughts and eyes straying to the only other unicorn at the table. She then noticed that Scootaloo kept shooting Sweetie Belle looks and shook her head slightly.

When Sweetie’s eyes crossed with hers, Twilight nodded slightly towards the pegasus. Sweetie sighed and looked at her plate.

It’s up to you, Sweetie. Twilight thought as she watched Sweetie Belle’s reactions.

o.0.o

Dinner ended on a slightly better note than the stress it had begun with. Nightmare Moon looked at Twilight as she stood up. “Well, Slave, it’s about time to lower the Sun.”

The fillies watched the pair walk out of the room in silence. “I gotta see their expressions when they walk into that room!” Scootaloo said, jumping to her hooves excitedly.

Sweetie hesitated. “Wait, Scoots...”

The pegasus stopped. “What is it, Sweetie?”

“I- I want to... talk with you.”

The pegasus lifted an eyebrow. “But... the room... don’t you want to see how Nightmare Moon-”

“I’m not your Sweetie Belle,” the unicorn filly interrupted, quickly looking down at the floor in shame.

The silence in the room lasted nearly a full minute.

“Explain,” Scootaloo demanded, as she, Sunny and Apple Bloom walked up to the unicorn.

Sweetie took a deep breath. No going back now. “I’m really from another world... I came here to find a piece of my Twilight-”

“Stop.” Scootaloo angrily stomped on the ground. “If you want to lie about how you learned all that magic, you don’t have to treat me like an idiot!”

The pegasus turned around and walked towards the door, but bumped against an invisible wall of some sort. “What-” she poked it with her hoof, feeling something stopping her. She turned and glared at Sweetie Belle, whose horn was glowing. “Sweetie, let me out.”

“Not until you believe me!” The unicorn replied, “I’m sorry I lied earlier but... I didn’t want you to hate me because I’m not the Sweetie you knew!”

“Does that mean yer not really our friend?” Apple Bloom asked, looking hurt.

“No!” Sweetie turned to look at the earth pony. “I mean, I am your friend! I didn’t want to hurt you... I got you into trouble once in another world...”

“Why did you come to me and Apple Bloom then?” the pegasus filly demanded.

“Because...” Sweetie looked at Scootaloo pleadingly. “Back home, you two are my best friends! I- I needed your help...”

“What did you do to the real Sweetie?” the pegasus snapped at her. “Did you hurt her?”

“N-no!” The unicorn filly said. “I’m just.. kind of borrowing her body... she’ll be back once I’m gone... I don’t think she’ll know how to do anything I know... and she will not really know Apple Bloom or Sunny... at least, that’s how Trixie explained it to me...”

“So Trixie does exist?” Apple Bloom asked confused. “Ah thought you made the whole thing up, just so you could take the test?”

“So, what you’re saying is that you took over my friend Sweetie Belle and man- manip- used us.” Scootaloo growled, “Some friend you are.”

“I-I’m sor-”

“Don’t bother,” Scootaloo turned away. “Just... just let us out.”

Sweetie‘s shoulders slumped as her horn stopped glowing. Scootaloo immediately ran out of the room, while Apple Bloom and Sunny slowly followed, giving Sweetie side-long glances. They closed the door behind them, leaving the unicorn alone in the dining hall.

The unicorn filly took a deep breath and turned around, walking in the opposite direction.

o.0.o

Nightmare Moon looked at Twilight askance as both of them walked towards her chambers. “What’s on your mind, slave?”

Twilight shot her an annoyed look. “Nothing.”

“Sure,” the alicorn snorted. “Should I be feeling jealous of Sweetie?” she teased, a smirk playing in her lips. “Am I going to be replaced? I feel so sad Twilight, that you would just leave me and...”

“Oh, stop!” Twilight growled, looking straight at the alicorn. “It’s nothing like that!”

“So I don’t need to feel jealous?”

“No, you don’t need to feel jealous,” Twilight deadpanned.

“So you won’t leave me?”

“I won’t leave you.”

“You’re mine to cuddle and play with?”

“Yes, I’m yours to cuddle and- what?” Twilight glared at the alicorn. “Hey!”

“If you were paying attention it wouldn’t have happened.” Nightmare Moon chuckled. “But, since you so kindly offer, I will take full advantage of your promise tonight.”

“I- what? No,” Twilight shook her head as the door to Nightmare Moon’s chambers opened with a bit of magical help. “We have to lower the sun.”

“Oh, Twilight, you’re no fun-” the alicorn stopped in shock as she looked around her room. “Wha- buh- how...”

Her bed. It was pink.

Her books. Pink.

Her desk. Pink.

The purple unicorn looked around, impressed. “My, Nightmare Moon, I would have never guessed...”

“But...” the alicorn quickly stepped out to confirm that they hadn’t taken a wrong turn. “My- my room!” She looked at the unicorn with pleading, horrified eyes. “It’s all pink! This must be a nightmare!”

“Don’t know,” Twilight muttered, poking a pink piece of armor. “Feels pretty real to me!”

The black alicorn gritted her teeth. She started shaking. The bookcase, the curtains, the carpet... pink! “CRUSAAAAADEEEEEERS!”

o.0.o

The sun was wrenched out of the sky with far less effort than ever before, and a very tired Nightmare Moon stomped angrily around the castle in search of the crusaders.

“Of all the things those little...” the alicorn sputtered indignantly. “Pink! Pink! Can you believe it?! How did they even do that?! It’s... argh.”

Twilight was following the queen as fast as she could. “It was just a prank, Nightmare Moon; don’t do anything harsh!”

“I’ll show them a prank!” the alicorn vowed as she opened another door and saw Scootaloo, Apple Bloom and Sunny walking towards her. “There you are!” She glared at the group, “You have crossed the line!”

“Yeah, whatever.” Scootaloo growled as she passed by. “I don’t care. You win.”

“And if you think you can get away with this and challenge me again, I-” the alicorn coughed and looked down. “Beg pardon?”

“I don’t care anymore,” Scootaloo repeated, not looking back at the two adults. “I just want to go home.”

“But...” The alicorn frowned. “Is this another prank? Because I’m pretty sure it’s my turn-”

“I said, ‘I don’t care’!” the pegasus filly snapped. “Just... just let me go.”

For a moment, Twilight worried that the alicorn was about to antagonize the obviously upset pegasus further, but Nightmare Moon kept quiet and nodded. She looked at Apple Bloom. “What about you?”

The earth pony filly scratched at the floor, obviously torn. She sighed. “Ah think Ah should go home too.”

“Very well.” Nightmare Moon walked past them. “Follow me.”

o.0.o

Spike was about to run out of the library when he heard the noise coming from the portal. He turned around and looked at the group of ponies that stepped out of it.

“Hey, everypony! You just missed Sweetie Belle; she came here and-”

“I don’t care,” Scootaloo snapped.

“Okay, hold on,” Twilight stepped in front of the pegasus. “I think I know what happened. Sweetie Belle told you the truth.”

The purple eyed pegasus nodded. “You knew?”

“I... just found out earlier. Sweetie...”

“She lied to us! And she said she was our friend!”

“Girls!” Spike waved his hands at them.

“Listen, Scootaloo, I know it’s strange, and she shouldn’t have lied, but you have to understand that-”

“Girls!” Spike shouted, then stopped as he felt something rumbling in his stomach. With a loud, flaming burp a scroll appeared in the air, which he caught in his claws. “Hey, I wonder where this came from?”

The fire had interrupted the argument, and Twilight had opened the scroll with a flash of magic. Nightmare Moon and Sunny looked over her shoulder, both of them curious.

“That’s...” the alicorn blinked in surprise. “I never expected that.”

“Wow...” Sunny smiled.

“What is it?” Despite herself, Scootaloo crowded the group as Spike and Apple Bloom shared a look and joined them.

“Well ah’ll be,” the earth pony smiled, while the dragon whistled.

Scootaloo said nothing, choosing to frown. “Yeah, whatever, let’s give it to her and be done with it.”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!” Spike said, drawing their attention. “Sweetie came through the portal earlier and she said something about having to go away. When I asked her what she meant, she said she was going to the Everfree.”

“What?” Nightmare Moon looked surprised. “That’s dangerous!”

“Why would she think of going there?” Apple Bloom asked. “She should know better!”

“Oh, my...” Twilight gasped. “She must have heard me when I was thinking out loud. I thought the fragment might be in the place where we fought Nightmare Moon with the Elements of Harmony!”

“Fragments?” Nightmare Moon asked, then frowned. “I think, Twilight dear, you should tell me what’s happening.”

“I will,” Twilight nodded. “But right now we have to catch up to her; it’s too dangerous for her to go alone.”

“Who cares if something happens to her?” Scootaloo snapped. “She’s not even really-”

“Scootaloo!” Twilight interrupted her, glaring in disbelief. “I know you’re hurt and angry, but do you really want something to happen to her?”

The pegasus looked away, shuffling nervously. “Well no, but...”

“You have to remember, where she comes from, there’s another Scootaloo and another Apple Bloom that are her best friends,” Twilight said. “She doesn’t know when she’ll see them again... you two are the closest she can get to them. And right now she’s in the Everfree forest alone because she thinks you hate her.”

Scootaloo looked down at her hoofs. “She shouldn’t have lied.”

“No, she shouldn’t have.” Twilight smiled, “But she’s our friend, right? And friends forgive.”

Apple Bloom put her hoof on Scootaloo’s shoulder. “Ah know we only really just met this mornin’, but ah feel we’ll always be good friends. Let’s go help this Sweetie... and then y’all can introduce me to the one you know.”

With a glance at the earth pony, Scootaloo nodded.

o.0.o

The Everfree Forest.

It was there where Zecora lived, the place that Apple Bloom had frequently visited to spend some time with her zebra friend.

It was there that they had been attacked by the Cockatrice and witnessed the awesome power of Fluttershy’s stare.

It was there that The Elements of Harmony had fought and defeated Nightmare Moon... or at least where they had in two other worlds. And it was here that the Castle of the Alicorn Sisters was located.

Sweetie didn’t know how to get to it, as her excursions into the forest had never gone too deep. However, she remembered hearing from her sister and the others as they talked about it... the way wasn’t that difficult to follow, but it was a long trip, and the forest was a dangerous place.

But she didn’t care.

Slowly making her way down the path, Sweetie paid no heed to the noises of the forest until she heard somepony moaning in pain.

She stopped and looked around. Where did that come from? And who could be so stupid as to come here at night?

There it was again. She turned to her left, where several thick bushes limited her view to a mere few feet in front of her. Taking a deep breath, Sweetie gathered her courage as she stepped into the bushes. The branches scratched at her hide, and her mane got tangled more than once, but she persevered. The noise was coming from just up ahead.

She finally broke through the growth and onto a small clear area of the forest, where she could hear the sounds. She carefully stepped around it until, behind a log, she found a pit, and lying at the bottom was...

“Zecora!” Sweetie gasped as she recognized the zebra. “Are you okay?”

“I’ve surely hit my head or ear, for is it my name that I hear?” the zebra asked weakly, looking up at the filly in confusion. Their eyes crossed and the zebra gasped. “Child, this world is not where you belong, your presence here feels rather wrong...”

“You... you know? You can tell?” Sweetie gasped.

“Many things I have observed, but talk later we must if my life is to be preserved,” the zebra answered. “A hearty meal we would both become, if the wrong creature were to come. I must ask you with all due haste, to pull me out, for there’s no time to waste!”

Sweetie looked around. I’m not strong enough to levitate her... Her eyes settled on a loosely hanging vine. “I think that will work!”

Her horn aglow, she uncoiled, tore and lifted the vine from the tree branch it rested on and lowered it to the zebra. Then she tied the other end around a tree. “Try to come up now!”

With the aid of the vine and Sweetie Belle pulling, the zebra managed to scramble out of the pit.

“Thank you, I was afraid I would have to spend the night there! Certainly not a fate for which I’d much care.”

“It’s okay, Zecora, you would have done the same.”

The zebra looked amused. “You know my name and unless I forget, you have me at a disadvantage since we haven't met.”

“Oh...” The unicorn filly smiled. “Sorry, my name is Sweetie Belle.”

“Well met, young Sweetie Belle, now maybe you can tell,” the zebra nodded. “What are you doing here, in this forest most ponies fear?”

“I... I’m trying to get to the Castle of the Royal Pony Sisters. I was following the old road when I heard you.”

“If it’s the castle you want to reach, a better way I must beseech,” the zebra advised. “Come with me, and you shall see.”

They walked in silence for the most part. Zecora seemed to be concentrating on the ground around her, no doubt wanting to avoid any other pitfalls. It was a few minutes before the filly remembered.

“Hey, Zecora, you said earlier this wasn’t my world.”

The zebra smiled as she continued leading the little filly. “Indeed I did, for the truth may be... that the soul I see is not that of the body before me.”

Sweetie sighed. “Yeah... I have to find pieces of a crystal to carry on, and I think the one for this world is in that castle.”

“A simple explanation for something, I sense, was much more convoluted was when it did commence,” Zecora said with a sidelong glance.

The filly shook her head. “It’s my fault this is happening. My teacher was doing an experiment and I messed it up.”

“Accidents happen as I know well, think of that hole into which I fell,” the striped equine replied, her deep voice carrying a trace of humor and understanding.

Sweetie looked at her guide. “Zecora, I think I killed Twilight... my teacher... she was turned into crystal and then broken into little pieces!”

The zebra stopped and looked back at Sweetie, a serious expression in her face. “Magic works in mysterious ways, to zebra and unicorn it turns into an obscuring haze. If it’s Twilight's fragments that you seek, perhaps to the magic itself you will speak. Whatever you do, even if you feel torn, mistakes and sorrow you must not scorn. As good or bad as things can get, misery and self-pity bring only regret.”

“Why should I be happy? I killed my teacher!”

“That you don't know I can tell, so give yourself a chance for a spell.”

“Easier said than done,” Sweetie muttered.

The zebra smiled back at the filly. "Indeed it is so, but the trick I have found, is for the best to expect, even if the worst is bound." She winked at the unicorn as Sweetie groaned, but smirked.

“What kind of advice is that?”

“Advice,” the zebra noted, “is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth.”

“Wow,” the unicorn shook her head as she mulled over the words. “That was kind of depressing.” She frowned. “And it didn’t even rhyme.”

The zebra laughed. “A far wiser pony than I once told that to me. To say it wrong, a disservice it would be.”

“I’ll try and remember that,” Sweetie said, smiling despite herself. Then she sighed, “Zecora? What should I do if I lied and hurt a friend?”

The zebra didn’t even look over her shoulder. “Ponies lie to protect their feelings, often ignoring the damage they cause in their dealings.”

“But, I already hurt her... even if I don’t lie again...”

"Sweetie, I can see your regret, and your friend I'm sure will on that reflect. She might forgive you, or she might not, but lies should not be where you throw your lot."

They reached a river and Zecora slowly stepped through. The water felt cool but good to Sweetie’s hooves, and she sighed in relief as it seemed to wash away her worries.

She sighed bitterly. I wish everything could just be carried away by the current...

“We should hurry now, Sweetie Belle,” Zecora called from the far shore. “The castle’s there as you can tell.”

Sweetie blinked and nodded, following the zebra out of the river and once more into the forest.

They walked in silence most of the way. At one point Zecora made quieting motions with her hooves and moved to the side into the undergrowth.

They watched in silence as a large creature walked past them. The body of a lion with bat wings and a scorpion tail. That’s just like the manticore sis and the others faced! Sweetie thought in awe of the size and ferocious look of the creature.

Once it was gone Zecora waited a bit longer before guiding her back into the trail. “Some creatures with nasty tempers we should evade, lest their anger and hunger make our chances fade.”

Eventually they reached the old bridge. “Thank you, Zecora,” Sweetie said, giving the surprised zebra a hug. “You’re always so helpful!”

The striped horse chuckled. “I wish other ponies would see it that way; it’s hard to imagine their opinion will sway.”

Sweetie shook her head. “It will happen... when we see each other again, I might not remember you... but I would like to be your friend.”

The zebra blinked at this, but her smile was warm as she nodded. “Friendship is special and something to treasure; to have one with you, dear child, would be my pleasure.”

The filly nodded as she cantered over the bridge and onto the other side, where the castle walls had crumbled in most areas. All I need to do is find the fragment in there... She turned to wave at Zecora, but the zebra was gone.

o.0.o

The castle had been huge once upon a time, but now the battlements were nothing but a pile of rocks, the walls little more than a memory. The castle itself was mostly intact, or at least recognizable. Sweetie’s eyes roamed the area in search of a clue. She knew the elements had been broken apart in a tower, but which one?

“Why couldn’t sis’ story have been more specific?!” Sweetie Belle huffed. She trotted around the castle, trying to connect the buildings with the descriptions her sister had given her. Eventually she found her way to the courtroom, where she could see the stained glass windows her sister and the others had described.

And there before her was the broken throne and the place where, in her world at least, Twilight and her friends had defeated Nightmare Moon.

She looked carefully around, her eyes scanning cracks in the wall, torn curtains, even the broken stained glass window.

“So, you would just leave without even saying goodbye?”

Sweetie had been concentrating so much on her search she hadn’t heard the group that came into the room after her.

“Twi-” she sputtered, “Twilight!”

The purple unicorn looked at her sadly as Nightmare Moon, Sunny, Apple Bloom and Scootaloo stood next to her.

“I heard about your fight, Sweetie, but are you sure running away is the best thing to do?”

The unicorn filly looked away. “I just don’t want anypony to hate me... I don’t want to do all of this alone.”

“So you really are from another world,” Nightmare Moon said, walking up to her and looking at the unicorn in the eye. “That’s how you knew...” she trailed off, but Sweetie saw her eyes shift to her moon emblem.

“Yeah...” the filly sighed.

The alicorn smirked, but left it at that.

“Sweetie, regardless of the circumstances, you shouldn’t have come here alone,” Twilight said after a moment, “What would you have done if something happened to you? How do you think we would feel?”

“I don’t know,” Sweetie retorted, looking at the group angrily. “Who cares anyway? I’ll just find the fragment and get out of your mane. Maybe I’ll even get to return home!”

Twilight sighed and was about to reply when Scootaloo stepped forth.

“Sweetie... I’m sorry I got so angry with you... it just really hurt to find out you were lying to me.”

The unicorn filly stubbornly scratched the floor, tiny tears on the edge of her eyes betraying her emotions. She was about to reply when she was suddenly being hugged by Apple Bloom.

“Ah know you got to go, Sweetie, and I know we really just got to know each other today... or at least I did, but I’m gonna miss you anyhow,” Apple Bloom said.

Scootaloo was also suddenly hugging her. “Don’t be stubborn, Sweetie!” She begged, burying her face in the unicorn’s mane. “Let’s not... let’s not say goodbye like this... I don’t want you to go away with us being angry with each other!”

Sunny soon joined the hug. “That’s right! You’re all my friends now, and I don’t want to see you angry!”

“I’m sorry I lied,” came Sweetie’s muffled reply, and it seemed as if the whole group relaxed with just those words.

Nightmare Moon walked up to Twilight as both adults watched the group hug in mild amusement. Sweetie looked at them and smiled; it was then that she noticed it. A slight purple glow near the lower corner of the stained glass window.

Slowly she disentangled herself from the group and made her way there. Her magic levitated the crystal as everypony gathered around it.

“Is... is that a piece... of me?” Twilight asked, staring at the crystal as it spun slowly inside Sweetie’s levitation spell.

Sweetie nodded. “My Twilight.” She smiled warmly.

“So, this is really goodbye,” Scootaloo said, scratching the back of her head with her hoof. She looked down. “I’ll miss you.”

Sweetie shook her head. “You’ll still have your own Sweetie.”

“Yeah, but I will miss the one I got to know now.” The pegasus smirked, “You both are crazy, but she’s even more stubborn than you are.”

Sweetie laughed as she gave the pegasus a short hug. “She’s not, just give her time.”

Apple Bloom suddenly looked nervous. “Ah don’t want to lose a friend Ah just made.”

“We’ll always be friends,” Sweetie replied, hugging the earth pony for a few seconds. “We became best friends in my world, so I’m sure this will happen again.”

Sunny stepped up to the unicorn filly and gave her a quick hug. “It was really fun! If you visit again, we should start another prank war!”

Sweetie nodded as her eyes turned to the adults.

Twilight nodded at her, but then her eyes opened wide. “Oh, my, I completely forgot about this!”

She levitated the scroll that Spike had produced early and gave it to Sweetie. “It’s for you.”

The filly blinked and opened the scroll. She started reading, and as the words sank in, her eyes grew wider and wider. “I... I passed?!”

“That’s what it says!” Twilight nodded with a bright smile. “I’m sure they will be disappointed when you can’t make it but... be sure to show that to my other self when you see her again, okay?”

Sweetie nodded happily as she started jumping around Twilight. “I passed! I passed! Yes! Yesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyes! I did it!”

Nightmare Moon chuckled and the filly stopped, looking around her, completely embarrassed. “Um, I think I should go.”

Sweetie’s horn lit up as her notebook materialized. She opened it and smoothed out the acceptance letter until it was flat, then fitted it between the pages. When she dismissed it, the scroll disappeared too. “I hope this works!” She said worriedly as she made the notebook reappear. The scroll was safely tucked between the pages.

Sweetie let out a sigh as she sent it away again.

“Well, this is it... Goodbye everypony...” She looked at the gathered group as her horn started glowing. When she was about to absorb the energy from the fragment she paused. “Nightmare Moon?”

The alicorn blinked. “What is it Sweetie?”

“What does Twilight taste like?”

The queen ignored the sputtering purple unicorn to her right as she smiled. “Like Blueberries. Very Tangy.”

“Oh. Good to know.”

“Wait, Sweetie!’ Twilight raised a hoof, but it was too late. The fragment shone with a bright purple light that enveloped the filly as it slowly faded away. The light remained for a few seconds and then it was gone.

Sweetie Belle slumped to the floor, confused and dazed. She shook her head. “What? Where am I?”

She looked up and noticed Nightmare Moon and a unicorn she didn’t know staring at her.

“AAAAAAAAAaaaaaaahhh!”

“I have one big concern over all of this,” the purple unicorn confessed to the group of ponies as she watched the unicorn filly scream.

“What?” Scootaloo asked.

“How am I going to explain all of this to Rarity?”

“AAAAAAAAAaaaaaaahhh!”

o.0.o

Inside a stage wagon in a small town in the middle of Equestria, a certain showmare stared at the scroll that had just popped out in front of her. She had a little dragon-fire contraption she used to keep in contact with a few ponies, but she hadn’t written anypony recently, and she had no idea why Nightmare Moon’s School for Gifted Unicorns would send her a letter.

Shrugging, she levitated the scroll and opened it, reading the contents aloud out of habit. “Dear Great and Powerful Trixie, as head supervisor of admissions, it is my pleasure to inform you that your apprentice, Sweetie Belle, has been accepted to study at our prestigious institution should she choose to do so. Although we are aware you are not in Ponyville anymore, and that your training of the young unicorn is over, we felt you would like to be one of the first to know of her success. Yours truly, ~Passing Grade”

Trixie stared at the scroll, re-reading it silently a couple of times. Finally, with a confused blink she let it rest on her desk. Only one thing crossed her mind.

What. The. Hay?

o.0.o

Somewhere, far beyond the worlds and universes, in the deep darkness, an eye opened, radiating with an inner light. It looked around the vastness around it until it seemed to spot something. Its will concentrated as a voice as old as a star rumbled.

“Desertus in me aeterno ardes et in obscuritas captatus est...”

o.0.o

Wherever it was she had arrived, it was dark.

Sweetie tried to make sense of where she was, and illuminated the area around her with her horn as her magic coursed through it. She finally recognized the place as her room in the Carousel Boutique. With a twist of magic, she lit up her lamp to see better, but things seemed odd... they appeared to have shrunken.

She looked around. Her bed was smaller, her desk... what were those posters doing there? And that tea set? It was all too small. She passed in front of her dresser, again, too small, giving it little thought and carried on to the door.

Then she stopped. She ran back to the dresser and looked in the mirror. Her eyes widened and her jaw fell slack.

The door to her room was suddenly kicked in as Rarity came in, wielding a poker in her magical grasp.

“How dare you break into my-” She blinked and dropped the poker, staring at Sweetie Belle. “Buh-” she sputtered. “Sweetie... you... but you’re dead!”

o.o.0.o.o End Chapter 2 o.o.0.o.o

Next chapter: The Light Never Goes Out

The Light Never Goes Out

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The Sweetie Chronicles: Fragments

By Wanderer D

Editors & Proof-readers: understatedHyperbole, Magical Trevor & Fifth Alicorn, BrianBlessedPony & Cards Lafter

o.o.0.o.o

Sweetie’s eyes were stuck on the reflection in the mirror. Instead of her normal appearance, the mare that looked back at her was, well, taller. Her eyes were the same color, but her horn was longer and... her mane... and... she looked at her flank.

Aw. No Cutie Mark?!

“Who are you?!” Rarity’s voice was cracking with fury and pain as she glared at the mare in front of her, drawing Sweetie’s attention away from the mirror. “How dare you use her face? Do you not have any shame? No Respect? A sense of decency?!”

Sweetie Belle stepped back, looking at Rarity in confusion. “S-sis? What’s wrong?”

“Don’t you dare call me that!” the elder unicorn shook her head, tears welling in her eyes and her voice breaking. Magic enveloped her horn, and soon the fire poker she had dropped earlier was being waved dangerously close to Sweetie’s face. “Why do you torture me? Who are you? Is Discord free again? Did he create you to punish me? Is this one of his sick little games?!”

“I- I don’t know! Isn’t Discord a statue again?” Sweetie stumbled backwards as the tip of the poker hovered in front of her. “Sis... why are you acting like this?” she asked, shaking.

“Silence!” Rarity growled. “Don’t call me sister! My Sweetie is dead!” She glared at Sweetie Belle. “I never expected anypony would use her face to get to me...” Her eyes narrowed further. “Is this an attempt to kill the Elements?”

“Kill the Elements?” Sweetie blinked. “But... why would I kill my own sister?” She shook her head violently. “Or my teacher! If something happened to Twilight again...” She shuddered. “And do you know what Scootaloo and Apple Bloom would do to me if I did something to hurt Rainbow Dash or Applejack?”

Rarity shook her head slowly. Her eyes took in the figure in front of her, the coat, the mane... “Y-you have no cutie mark... my Sweetie had her cutie mark.”

Sweetie looked back at her flank, the act reminding her that she was no longer a filly. She looked older, as old as Rarity herself. “This... is so strange...” she gulped. “Sis, this... I don’t know how to explain this. I am Sweetie Belle, just not...” she took a deep breath. “Just not the Sweetie Belle from your world. I’m looking for something, and once I find it, I’ll be gone. I promise...”

Rarity looked at the cowering mare doubtfully, but slowly lowered the poker. “Why should I believe you? We have made many powerful enemies throughout the years, some of them would be able to recreate my sister-” she paused. “If you say you are Sweetie Belle, why should I believe you?”

Sweetie was scared, and her eyes showed it. “Because...” she whispered. “Because I wouldn’t know what else to do... I don’t have anypony to help me...”

“You really don’t know...” The fashion designer shook her head, walking around her ‘sister.’ “I don’t know whether to believe you or not... your voice is the same, your eyes are so much more innocent...”

“Where I come from... I haven’t even earned my cutie mark yet,” Sweetie said with a small smile and a slight nod. “Apple Bloom and Scootaloo haven’t either.” She looked at her much bigger body. “It looks like growing up doesn’t get me one automatically...”

Rarity sat down, her energy drained. “You’re young... so young... but how- why, do you look older now?”

“I don’t know!” Sweetie exclaimed. “I’ve been traveling from world to world trying to find fragments of Twilight... I think one of them will take me home. I’ve only been to two more other worlds before, but I have never been an adult before...”

Sweetie fell silent as Rarity slowly stretched a hoof to touch Sweetie’s face. The filly remained in the same position as her sister’s hoof brushed her mane and then slowly, hesitantly, drew her into a warm hug.

“Sweetie... I’ve missed you.”

“You- you’re not angry?” the younger unicorn asked, but her question went unanswered as Rarity started crying. “Sis?”

These weren’t the dramatic tears or the overdone whining... this was real. Rarity was a mess; her eyes puffy, her nose snotty, her mane in disarray. She sobbed and let the tears flow, soaking Sweetie’s neck and holding the younger unicorn tighter. She didn’t answer at all, she just couldn’t. She cried. And wept. And sobbed. Sweetie held her tight, confused and a bit scared by the muffled “I’m sorry...” she could hear her sister whisper over and over. After a few moments, tears started to run down Sweetie’s eyes as well and she held her sister tighter. She didn’t know why, but she couldn’t stop herself.

They remained like that for a long time. When Rarity was able to pull back and run a hoof over her eyes, Sweetie sniffed as she looked at her sister. “Sis... what happened?”

Rarity coughed as she slowly stood up. “I...” she sighed. “Let us go downstairs... we can discuss things over tea.”

Sweetie nodded and followed her sister out of her room and down the stairs. As they walked, Sweetie looked around, curiously. The building looked older; it was as well maintained as ever, but here and there the paint looked new. There was also no sign of Opalescence. Usually, the white cat would be purring around Rarity at the slightest excuse.

There were many little things that would draw her attention, but it wasn’t until she saw the windows that she noticed they were completely different from what she remembered. They still looked great with the design of the boutique, as Rarity wouldn’t have it otherwise, but they were different. The frames were thinner, for one.

“Sweetie,” Rarity called, startling the younger unicorn, who realized she had been standing at the bottom of the stairs and staring at the room. Sweetie Belle quickly trotted to the table and sat down.

“Sorry, sis, the place looks different...” she trailed off when she noticed that Rarity was levitating a small envelope before her with a sad look in her eyes.

“I-” Rarity closed her eyes as she floated the note towards her younger sister, depositing it on the table in front of the younger unicorn. “I want you to read this... and then I’ll explain.”

Sweetie stared at the envelope. It had been opened and it looked really old. It had only one word written on it. ‘Rarity’

For some reason, she felt a sense of dread coming from the single piece of paper. This is silly... it’s just a note... Sweetie looked up at Rarity, who was dressed in a light blue nightgown with matching cuffs around her fetlocks. She looks so fragile... and tired. Sweetie looked back to the envelope. The slightly yellowed piece of paper seemed to carry an ominous weight to it. Slowly, her horn lit up as she carefully levitated the envelope and opened it, sliding out the simple note inside.

Still fearing the words inside, she forced herself to unfold the note and read.

‘Rarity,

By the time you read this, It will have happened. Please, do not be sad, and do not do anything stupid. I love you, and I always have done, and always will do. Even through every argument we’ve had, I love you. Live your Generous life to its fullest, no matter how long it will be.

Your Loving Sister

Sweetie Belle’

Sweetie slowly lowered the note until it gently lay on top of the table. She stared at it, uncomprehendingly, trying to wrap her mind around the confusing feelings of fear and pity that the simple words had evoked in her.

“I found that a week after you-” Rarity whispered, her voice breaking through Sweetie’s scattered thoughts. The elder unicorn shook her head, unwilling to complete her earlier sentence. “I watched you grow, earn your cutie mark, discover what truly made you happy... I saw you be happy, and touch the hearts of so many...”

Sweetie’s eyes drifted downwards to Rarity’s cuffed hooves, which she self-consciously hid under the table.

“I am immortal, Sweetie,” Rarity said, locking eyes with Sweetie Belle. “We all are... the Elements, I mean.” She shook her head, turning away, not daring to look Sweetie in the eye any longer, lest she break into tears again. “It’s been two hundred years since we freed Princess Luna from Nightmare Moon,” the designer continued. “All six of us have lived our lives since then... we’ve lost so much...”

The pain in Rarity’s voice was so strong... Sweetie Belle had a dawning, horrifying feeling of where this was going, and she didn’t want to bring that much pain to her sister.

Rarity sighed. “But... when I lost you... Sweetie, I-”

“What was I like?” Sweetie Belle interrupted. “Did I have any foals? Who did I marry? What was my cutie mark?”

Rarity stopped and chuckled. “I won’t tell you your cutie mark, or who and if you married...” the elder unicorn said, laughing a bit at the pout her younger sister immediately developed. “But, you became a singer... you sang a great many beautiful songs, about love, about life...” She looked down. “About loss.”

Sweetie’s eyes were wide. “I became a singer? Was I famous?”

Rarity choked a bit, sniffling as she chuckled. “Yes, yes you were, Sweetie.”

The clock marked the time with a short cheerful melody, and both mares looked at it in surprise.

“Oh, my...” Rarity gasped. “Look at the time! We should head to bed... we can talk more in the morning.”

Sweetie Belle yawned, barely remembering to cover her mouth with her hoof. “Y-yeah, I haven’t slept since... I don’t even remember.”

The two mares slowly made their way upstairs. “Rarity?”

The elder mare stopped. “Yes, Sweetie?”

“Could you...” She blushed a bit. “Can I spend the night with you?” She looked down, embarrassed.

Rarity blinked and chuckled. “Aren’t you a bit old for that, Sweetie?”

The younger mare nodded, slowly turning towards her room. “I- I guess. I just... you...”

“It’ll be okay,” Rarity said, running her hoof through her sister’s mane. “Thank you for worrying, Sweetie, I’ll still be here tomorrow.” She looked away for a second. “Always.”

Sweetie nodded and hugged her sister. “Good night, Rarity... I’ll see you in the morning.”

The two mares went into their rooms, but unlike any other night in their lives, they could not bring themselves to close the doors.

As Rarity lay down in bed, she sighed, looking at the other room. Slowly her horn started glowing as feather, ink and parchment floated to her.

Down the hall, Sweetie laid down in bed, silent. Her thoughts were a whirlwind. She had never thought something like this would happen. Her thoughts turned to Rarity, who had seemed so... lost.

At least she has her friends, right?

It was then that she realized that, if she had died of old age... then Apple Bloom and Scootaloo were gone too. The thought hit her like a ton of bricks. She could only stare at the ceiling as tears trickled down her cheeks.

Even if they were from another world, their absence was something that she could not fathom. What had their lives been like? Had they married? Had foals?

She sniffed as she closed her eyes.

Maybe tomorrow she would have a chance to ask Rarity... or maybe even Rainbow Dash or Applejack...

o.0.o

“Applejack!”

Her sister’s voice roused the apple farmer from where she was overseeing her workers sorting and putting the harvested apples away into neatly stacked boxes. “Apple Bloom? What’s goin’ on?”

“Applejack! Help me!” the younger mare shouted.

The elder earth pony was already running towards the orchard, where Apple Bloom’s screams were coming from. She arrived in time; her sister was being pushed towards a deep ravine by a dark green magical field of some sort. Apple Bloom was struggling to stay in place.

Thinking quickly, she tried to lasso her sister, but her rope felt short. She wasn’t going to make it!

“Sis! Help me! Ah’m gonna fall!” the younger earth pony shouted in horror as her rear hooves slipped on the edge of the ravine, sending bits of debris scattering into the darkness.

“Who’s doin’ this?” the apple farmer turned around, looking for the unicorn responsible. Then she saw her. The purple and soft pink mane, the white coat. “Sweetie Belle?” she gasped. “What’re you doin’? That there is Apple Bloom! She’s yer friend!”

A pair of green, slitted eyes locked with Applejack’s own green eyes. “I don’t have friends, Applejack.” The unicorn’s horn flashed and the apple farmer turned in horror to see her sister shoved into the ravine.

“Applejack!” Apple Bloom shouted desperately.

“Apple Bloom!” Applejack shouted back as she ran up to the ravine and looked down. It was so dark, she couldn’t see anything. Her sister was completely gone.

“Why did you do this?” she shouted, tears of anger forming in her eyes as she turned around to confront Sweetie Belle. She took a startled step back when she found herself snout to snout with the white unicorn. Her hooves scrambled for support as she started sliding into the ravine.

“I needed her to die so I could live!” Sweetie Belle grinned, showing rows of fangs, leaning forward for a snake-like tongue to lick Applejack’s cheek.

Applejack stepped back and lost her balance, screaming as she fell into the darkness...

...and landed on the floor next to her bed.

“Oooh...” she moaned as she slowly stood up and blinked at her room. Shaking her head, she looked outside the window.

Celestia hadn’t risen the sun yet, but Luna’s moon wasn’t in sight either, the orchard simply stretched into the horizon in the foggy morning.

“Fifth time this week...” she sighed as she left her room to get ready for the day. She knew she would get no more sleep that night. Tired as she might be, there was work to be done.

As she left her room, her eyes strayed to the chest containing Apple Bloom’s ribbon. She caught her breath, remembering the dream, but the sturdy earth pony shook her head, put on her hat and stepped out.

o.0.o

The sunlight seeping through the window woke her up. Rarity groaned and looked around her room.

“A dream...” she sighed, closing her eyes. “Wonderful and horrible at the same time...” she sniffed. Then sniffed again. “What-”

The fire alarm started ringing.

“A fire?! But... how!?” she rolled out of bed, barely even able to put her hooves down in time, and scrambled down the stairs. “Did I leave the oven on again?” Her hoof slipped on the stair, but Rarity caught herself on the rail just in time. She looked up at the kitchen in horror just as the room-filling smoke began to waft out the now open window. She stared as the purple and pink-maned unicorn in the kitchen groaned in annoyance.

“I hate it when that happens!” Sweetie Belle sighed heavily, her attention focused on the smoldering skillet as she levitated it off the stove. “Just take your eyes off it for one second, and there it goes-”

“Sweetie!” Rarity gasped, the memory of the previous night crashing down on her like cold water. “You- you’re really here!”

Sweetie turned around, eyes wide. “I’m sorry sis! I took off my eyes off the last pancake for just a second and-”

Sweetie feel silent as Rarity’s hooves suddenly wrapped around her. “It’s okay, we can eat out...”

Returning the hug, Sweetie smiled. “It’s fine, sis, that was just the last of the batch. The others are fine.”

Rarity blinked and looked around the kitchen. “But... what others, darling?”

With a grin, Sweetie opened the oven and levitated a plateful of pancakes out. “Princess Celestia’s favorite pancakes!” she proudly announced. “Spike taught me how to make them!”

Rarity’s eyes filled with sadness even as a small smile played on her lips. “I see. Spike was always a fine chef.” She chuckled as she quickly turned around. “Come, let’s set up the table.”

The two worked in silence, enjoying each other’s company despite the feelings boiling within them.

Every time Rarity looked at Sweetie, the long buried memories would float to the surface.

“Sis! I got the part! I get to sing in Manehattan!”

Rarity carefully put a plate down on top of the light green tablecloth.

“I don’t know, does this dress make me look old?”

The forks and knives floated out of their drawer.

“He’s such a gentlecolt, and he invited me to have dinner at Le Bridle! I love fusion cuisine!”

Rarity carefully levitated a pair of glasses, aware that Sweetie was taking out the orange juice.

“Sis, this... I wrote this for Spike... do you think... would you listen to it?”

The silverware was now in place; she had done it mechanically, not even thinking about it.

“He left me... why did he leave me? He said he loved me!”

Rarity sighed. “How do you measure a lifetime?” she whispered quietly to herself.

“Did you say something, sis?” Sweetie asked.

“Oh, nothing important, dear.”

“Oh...” Sweetie smiled hesitantly as the pair sat down. “Rarity?”

“Yes dear?”

“Did you... did you ever marry? Have foals of your own?”

“No...” Rarity sighed. “There was never time with work, Sweetie, you know how I get caught with designing new clothes... and as for family and such... I watched you from afar, living that part vicariously through you...” she trailed off when she noticed her younger sister staring blankly at her. “It means I enjoyed watching you live your life...”

“Ooooh... I see.” Sweetie Belle said as she caught on.

Rarity chuckled as she tried one of the pancakes. Her eyes widened. It was indeed Spike’s recipe. “This... this is amazing, Sweetie! Oh, it brings back so many memories!”

The younger unicorn giggled. “What? Doesn’t Spike make them anymore?”

Rarity drew in a sharp breath. “Sweetie... Spike is... he’s no longer with us.”

“Oh...” Sweetie blinked. “Did he go join the other dragons? Poor Twilight! She must be so lonely without her number one assistant!”

“N-no... Sweetie...” the elder unicorn stammered then collected herself. “Sweetie... Spike... he passed away some years ago.”

All the blood drained from Sweetie’s face. “W-what? But...” As the memories of the little dragon came to her she felt tears forming in her eyes. “But... Spike he... he helped me so much when I became Twilight’s apprentice! He taught me how to look through through the book code and the bookshelves to find what I needed, how to make tea and pancakes... He-” she cut herself off, head hanging low as she sniffled softly. “How did it happen?”

As Rarity slowly began to explain, Sweetie’s mind was busy thinking about her own Spike.

I haven’t thought of him in a while... could he have died when I destroyed the lab?

Sweetie’s thoughts seemed to reflect on her face as Rarity slowly stopped talking and observed her sister’s darkening expression.

I don’t remember how strong the explosion was... but- it seemed strong... could the library have survived it? Did Spike also get trapped in the spell? Could he also be lost in other worlds?

“Sweetie?” her sister’s voice interrupted her thoughts.

“Huh?” Sweetie shook her head. “I- I’m sorry sis. I...”

“Tell me about it,” Rarity said, and her look brooked no argument.

Sweetie sighed. “I’m afraid something might have happened to my Spike...” Slowly she sank down into her seat, pancakes forgotten. “When the lab exploded... Spike was in the other room, right next to it... he could be suffering through the same thing I am. What if he’s lost? What... what if he’s dead, and it’s because of me?” Her eyes slowly raised until they met Rarity’s. “Sis... what if I killed Spike?”

Rarity felt cold. What could she tell her sister? She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Sweetie... I really don’t know what to tell you, but I doubt the explosion would have gotten to him... Twilight’s tree is very old, its roots are strong and thick... and Spike is also very resistant...” she trailed off, remembering the dragon’s mortality all too well. But it seemed to work, as the younger unicorn looked up, sniffing.

“I- I hope so... I think so too...” Sweetie Belle looked unsure. “I’m just afraid, sis... This is the longest I’ve ever been away from home by myself...”

“Oh, Sweetie...” Rarity sighed as she touched her sister’s hoof. “I know how you feel. But you are not alone, and you should know that... for every world you visit, you’ll always have me. Always.”

Sweetie Belle’s small smile played around the corners of her mouth.

Rarity nodded. “Now, let us eat these wonderful pancakes before they get too cold!”

“Oh! Right!”

Watching her sister start to eat, Rarity smiled.

After the pair finished eating and cleaning up, they stepped outside, admiring the clear skies and warm weather.

“You were right, sis. This is too good a day to waste inside!”

As they trotted down the street, Sweetie took her first look of future Ponyville. The town itself looked pretty similar to what it was before. She could see the Sugarcube Corner, the City Hall, and a little behind it, looking taller than before, Twilight’s Library.

“Wow, this place hasn’t changed much in two hundred years!” Sweetie exclaimed, as she looked back at Carousel Boutique. “I expected flying machines and teleportation devices.”

“You think?” Rarity chuckled. “Look around and tell me what else looks familiar?”

Sweetie followed her sister’s advice. “Heeey... that pony over there looks familiar... and... and that one and... wait... those eyes...”

Rarity’s smile only grew as Sweetie’s eyes found more and more ponies that looked somehow familiar. “Want to guess who’s who?”

“But...” the younger unicorn turned around. “There’s so many... that one has Pinkie Pie’s hair... and that one looks just like she does, but the colors are wrong and... just... how many...”

Rarity leaned in close and whispered in Sweetie’s ear.

“WHAT?! HOW?”

“It’s really fun!” Pinkie Pie said. “But it requires some preparation!”

Both Rarity and Sweetie immediately scrambled back from the suddenly appearing pink earth pony, holding their hooves to their chests.

“P-Pinkie!” Sweetie stammered. “Don’t do that!”

“Why? It’s fun!” the earth pony replied, bouncing up to her. “Hey... You look familiar!” she gasped, then looked towards Rarity, who was slowly approaching Sweetie. “Oh. My. Celestia! Rarity! You had a filly and you never told us?! Wow! I mean... how were you able to keep this a... I mean... WOW! I missed all her birthdays!”

“But Pinkie... she-”

“And she looks, what? Eighteen? So I have to organize a party to make up for eighteen years! Or maybe eighteen parties!” Pinkie Pie turned around to leave.

“No!” Rarity shouted, drawing the attention of several ponies passing by, but having the desired effect of getting Pinkie to freeze in place. “No...” the fashion designer repeated softly. “This is not my daughter, Pinkie Pie. It’s Sweetie Belle.”

The smile slowly faded from Pinkie’s face.

“Oh...” she looked at Sweetie, then back to Rarity. “Can I talk to Sweetie for a moment? In private?”

Before Rarity could reply, the pink pony had dragged the younger unicorn away and behind the Carousel Boutique.

“Okay, I want to know now what you are doing and why you are doing it!” Pinkie demanded with an unusually intense look in her eyes.

“Uh...” Sweetie shuffled back a bit. “I... really am Sweetie Belle, but I came from another dimension and appeared in a full adult body in the middle of the night inside the Boutique and Rarity is going to help me get back home.”

During the explanation the pink pony’s eyes had narrowed, her form towering over Sweetie’s, who had slowly shrunk down under the intensity of Pinkie’s glare.

Then, just as suddenly, Pinkie Pie’s eyes shone happily.

“Okie dokie lokie!” Pinkie said, with a big smile. “I just had to double check! Welcome to Ponyville! Again!” The pink pony started bouncing around Sweetie. “You know what this calls for? A party!” She stopped suddenly with a surprised look of realization in her face. “Oh! Oh! But it should be a surprise for everypony!”

Sweetie smiled. “I love parties!”

“I remember!” Pinkie laughed. “Okie dokie! I’ll see you tonight!”

Sweetie watched the earth pony bounce away and sighed.

“Well, that went well,” Rarity said.

“Aaaaaah!” Sweetie shouted in alarm, jumping up into the air.

Rarity followed Sweetie up with her eyes, then followed her descent until she landed next to her.

“Why would you do that?!” Sweetie moaned. “First, Nightmare Moon, then Pinkie Pie, and now you!”

“Nightmare Moon?” Rarity blinked. “Just what sort of ponies have you been hanging around with, Sweetie?”

“You’d be completely horrified,” the younger unicorn sighed.

Rarity chuckled, her eyes softening as she looked at her sister. “Come, let’s show you around.”

Sweetie slowly followed her sister, barely taking in her surroundings. “Hey, sis?”

The fashion designer stopped. “Yes, Sweetie?”

“Back home... you didn’t use to want to hang out that much... how come now-”

Sweetie cut herself off as Rarity’s shoulders sagged and she motioned with her head towards a bench overlooking the park.

Once they’d sat down, Rarity began slowly. “Sweetie... have you ever heard the expression ‘we never know what we have until it’s gone’?”

“Yes,” Sweetie Belle replied as she thought back to her home... her real home.

If Spike had survived, would he have told everypony what happened? Would her sister hate her for killing her best friend?

Unbidden her mind conjured up a scene...

The land was gray, the wind cold and the sun setting... and there stood Rarity in front of three graves...

Tears slowly accumulated in her eyes. “Yes...” she repeated in a whisper. “I know the expression.”

Rarity’s smile was a bit pained as her hoof and foreleg went over Sweetie’s shoulders. “I know it too well... but back then, I didn’t... I let so many opportunities pass... I had work, or I had to meet somepony, or...” She looked down, ashamed. “I simply didn’t feel like it.”

Sweetie remained silent, head hung low.

“It wasn’t that I disliked you...” Rarity found herself a bit defensive. “I loved you more than anything... It’s just... I was being stubborn, and I just didn’t appreciate just how much fun we could have together...”

“Like at the Sisterhooves’ Social?” the younger unicorn ventured.

Rarity looked at Sweetie in confusion, then barked out a laugh. “Oh, yes, the Sisterhooves Social!” She chuckled. “That was enlightening... I never told you just how horrified I was that you would really hate me!”

“I was pretty mad,” Sweetie admitted, remembering. “I really thought you didn’t want me around... but, you really made up for it! I never expected you to take Applejack’s place!”

The pair shared a soft laugh.

“I still can't believe, after all that, I haven't earned my cutie mark yet.” Sweetie sighed.

Rarity chuckled. “Oh, my... Sweetie, don't you remember what we used to say to you and the other Crusaders?”

“That we have to be patient and that we’ll find out eventually.” Sweetie recited in a practised monotone. “But sis, I've done so much!”

“You just haven’t found it yet... you worry too much, Sweetie” Rarity said.

“I just wish I knew what my talent was.”

The older unicorn smiled. “Do you remember that ball I gave you, so long ago?”

Sweetie blinked. “I...”

“When I was about your age...” Rarity blinked and coughed. “Well, the age you really are I mean, I got one just like it. It was a gift from father while I was trying to figure out what to do after getting my cutie mark.”

“You didn't know?” Sweetie asked, raising an eyebrow. “I always thought that from the moment you got your mark you knew...”

Her elder sister laughed. “Oh, no, Sweetie, it wasn't that simple.” She leaned her head to the side as she remembered. “I did a lot of things and learned a lot of trades that ultimately made me who I am, but I didn't know what my talent was...”

“But you knew from the moment you found the gems that you had the talent to find them right?” Sweetie insisted. “I don't even know what I'm good at-”

“Sweetie, you're missing the point,” Rarity interrupted. “There is much more to a Cutie Mark than just having it appear on your flank.”

“There is?”

“Well of course! A Cutie Mark reflects your talent, but what you do with that talent is a completely different matter.”

“Ooooh...” Sweetie blinked. “But what does that have to do with the ball you gave me? I thought you were just being nice.”

Rarity shook her head. “There's more to that ball than it being just a toy, Sweetie.” She smiled a bit sadly. “You never did understand it... shortly after I gave it to you, you took it to the Crusader's head quarters and it got lost.”

Sweetie touched her sister's shoulder with a hoof. “Mine isn't.” When Rarity looked up at her, the younger unicorn smiled. “I still have it. I never took it to the treehouse. Apple Bloom told me it might get ruined by one of Scootaloo's crazy ideas, so I kept it in my room.”

Rarity looked at her sister as if she had grown a second head. “Really?”

Sweetie nodded, looking up towards the sky. “Sometimes... I just hold that ball and lay on top of it... and I wonder... what will I be? Will I be a designer like you? Or a scholar like Twilight? Maybe one of Scootaloo's crazy stunts will backfire and I'll be a fire-fighter...”

Sweetie felt her sister's foreleg wrap around her as Rarity drew her into a hug. “Just keep that ball with you for a while, okay?” Rarity asked. “Even after you find your Cutie Mark.”

“I will, sis,” Sweetie assured her as they separated.

“I know you're really eager to get your mark, Sweetie, but I promise you that you won't be disappointed when you finally do. Just don't do anything too crazy.”

Sweetie giggled. “My friends are too crazy for me to keeping things easy.”

“Do you remember that time that you and Scootaloo and Apple Bloom stayed over for the first night at the Boutique...” Rarity chuckled, “And I couldn’t handle you three and make more gold silk, so I asked Fluttershy to take care of you?”

Sweetie smiled, “Yeah, I remember that night. Did Fluttershy ever tell you that we almost got turned to stone by a Cockatrice?”

“No!” Rarity’s eyes went wide. She shook her head. “You used to get into all sorts of trouble, dear.”

“Like Diamond Tiara’s cute-ceañera?”

“You did the right thing, I had never been more proud of you!”

“Thanks, sis!”

Rarity looked at the sky, her eyes becoming distant. “Or... do you remember that time in Canterlot, after your first singing lesson... you thought you were awful and ran right out of the hall!”

“Um...”

“You had us all worried, we didn’t know where you were and we didn’t really know where to look for you... when it turned out that you had met with Fleur and she had taken you to drink some tea and talk, I was so relieved...”

“Rarity, I...”

“And then, do you remember that time that you went out with Fancypants’ son?” Rarity laughed, caught in the moment. “That was priceless! You two looked so adorable! It’s a shame it didn’t work out in the end, but, just between the two of us, Fleur was already planning the wedding after the first date!” Rarity chuckled. “Oh, how I miss Fleur; she was always so involved...”

“Yes, but-” Sweetie Belle tried to interrupt, but her sister did not hear, Rarity’s eyes filled with both fondness and pain.

I haven’t seen her for three days... Sweetie thought. How would I feel after a hundred or more years?

“Oh, and your first night at the Canterlot Opera! Sweetie that was simply... sublime...” Rarity sighed, eyes shining with remembrance. “And your rendition of the aria in ‘Claro de Luna’...”

“I’m glad you liked it, sis...” Sweetie whispered, resting her head on Rarity’s shoulder as the older unicorn remembered a life the younger had yet to live. She watched the town hustle and bustle around them as she listened to her sister.

“...and then there was that duet with...”

Rarity’s coat was warm and soft, and soon Sweetie was looking at the world through half lidded eyes.

The shampoo Rarity had used was not something she was familiar with... and yet... it held small tinges that reminded her of Aloe’s original creations.

The world began to blur.

Some buildings slowly faded away; others changed their colors to resemble their previous paint jobs. A couple of ponies shimmered in her view and turned into Lyra and Bon-Bon; a prancing colt became Snails and the little filly next to him became Twist.

Sweetie let out a soft sigh as Rarity...talked about something involving her and a violinist.

“I miss home, sis. I miss you.”

o.0.o

Sweetie stared in amazement at the Ponyville Train Station.

It was... different. Quite different from what she remembered.

The train station from the past had been a quaint little building with nothing more than a single platform: a true small-town station.

This... this was on a whole other scale.

She could see multiple lines fading into the distance in all directions, the station itself now comprised of eight platforms.

There was the main line for Canterlot, of course, and the seldom-used line to Appleloosa. But now tracks to Fillydelphia and Manehattan had been added as well, with several stops in towns Sweetie had never heard of.

Rarity smiled at her sister’s surprise. “Want to guess how many trains pass through this station on a daily basis?”

Sweetie slowly shook her head as she took in what had once been nothing more than a simple, but functional structure. Once, a simple entrance had been enough; ponies would cross over to either side via a simple bridge. Now... she could see at least three different entrances. The bridge had been replaced by a long, single-floor building that extended over the eight platforms, overlooking them while magical screens announced the inbound and outbound trains, their destinations and trip durations.

She followed Rarity in a daze to where the ticket booth waited; the pair falling in behind an elderly couple. Sweetie couldn’t tear her eyes away from the work that had been put into the place. It had the characteristic Ponyville architecture charm- eccentric designs for the pillars that held the building above them. There was even a whole wall that seemed to have been taken directly from the Sugarcube Corner...

“Pinkie donated quite a bit to the station,” Rarity explained, following her sister’s gaze. “And so did Applejack and I.”

Sweetie looked around more, noticing that there were themes to some of the platforms. One of them had apple-based designs, with the shelter looking almost like the barn in Sweet Apple Acres.

The Sugarcube Corner platform seemed to have been pulled right out of a fairy tale. Candy canes stood proudly on either side of the staircase leading to the station above, and there was a small pastry stand selling the bakery’s famous cupcakes. Even the platform itself seemed to be made out of gingerbread.

The next was a tribute to Fluttershy’s home and her woodland friends. A small garden had been grown in a line down the middle of the platform, with old tree trunks used for seating; small planted trees gave the whole platform a sense of serenity that contrasted sharply with the constant flow of ponies.

The white platform with purple and blue arches decorating it as well as tastefully selected ribbons clearly indicated Rarity’s influence.

Platform four had a Wonderbolt uniform-like quality to it, with a large depiction of Rainbow Dash’s cutie mark. It was streamlined and slightly aggressive looking. Sweetie’s eyes turned to look at the next platform.

“It used to be very functional and had no decorations at all,” Rarity whispered. “That is until... the night before Twilight left, the statue appeared... we all put something into it... but, it was going to be in the plaza... Twilight... she thought it would fit better here, where ponies came and went.”

Twilight’s platform was simple. It was made of wood resembling a tree, and there was only one decoration. A stone statue of a young dragon, reading a book while seated on a bunch of real gems. On one of his claws he held a half eaten apple, an owl had perched on top of his head gazing down at the book. Just looking at it and the small smile on the statue’s muzzle made Sweetie’s eyes water.

The booth pony coughed politely and both mares turned to look at her, not realizing that they were holding up the line.

“Sorry!” Rarity quickly spoke up, a trembling smile following soon. She looked at the booth pony for a second. “Oh, you’re one of Fluttershy’s grandchildren... Apple Breeze, wasn’t it?”

“Yes ma’am.” The pegasus smiled. “And it is always nice to see you, but we are holding up the line...”

“Oh, I do apologize. Two to Canterlot, please.”

“Would you prefer a private-”

“No...” Rarity interrupted. “We’ll take regular seats.”

Apple Breeze nodded and after a few moments passed them their tickets. “Platform 5 in ten minutes.”

“Thank you!”

Rarity led the way, her eyes settling on several familiar sights as memories billowed to the surface.

Sweetie sighed. Sis... why are you so... alone?

Every stop Rarity made, either to greet a pony or just to contemplate, was laden with nostalgia.

“Sis?” Sweetie ventured. “What are you thinking about?”

Rarity blinked, shaking her head a little. “Oh, Sweetie... I- I was just remembering the time I sent you on your way to Canterlot... it was such a long time ago...”

“I must have been excited...” Sweetie Belle murmured, ignoring an odd look she got from a passerby.

Rarity laughed. “Oh, you were! I took you to the same platform we’re going to... you were very excited at first.” Rarity smiled as she looked down at the rails. “Then, when the train arrived, you didn’t want to get on.”

Sweetie blinked. “What?”

“Well, you just got so nervous!” the older unicorn said, laughing a bit. “It was a completely new experience for you! And so far away from home... and going to the most prestigious school for musicians!”

Sweetie chuckled. “It sounds like a difficult school to get into.”

Rarity nodded, pride shining in her eyes. “It is! The auditions are almost invitation-only, but you managed to get there by yourself. You even turned down Octavia and Fancypants when they offered their help!”

Rarity took a deep, proud breath as she guided the younger mare to their platform.

“It seems silly to get nervous after I managed to get in,” Sweetie said, raising an eyebrow.

“True.” Rarity nodded. “But you were going away from home for a significant amount of time for the very first time...” Her eyes settled on Sweetie, regarding her fondly. “You looked adorable. I’d made you a dress...” Slowly the blue eyes began to shine with tears. “It- it was simple, really. White and fluffy... it had adorable emeralds to bring out your eyes...” The fashionista shuddered, looking away.

“Sis...”

“I’m alright...” Rarity sighed, still not looking back at Sweetie. “It’s just... so many memories,” she closed her eyes. “That was just the first time I sent you to Canterlot... but not the last.” Rarity walked up and down the platform. “Every time was different, but... I was always sad to see you go... always ecstatic when you came back.”

Sweetie nodded, her eyes following her sibling.

“I’ve never forgotten... when we found out that we would live for so long I... I felt that every time you left might really be the last time...” Her eyes went back to Sweetie. “And now you’re here... after so long, after-” she sighed. “After I did what I did... I-” she stopped, looking down at her cuffs.

Slowly Sweetie walked up to her sister and nuzzled her, letting Rarity rest her head on her shoulder.

The pair remained there, silently waiting for the train to arrive.

o.0.o

Sweetie watched the landscape speed past as she lay on the comfortable seat of the train. Her thoughts, however, were not on the scenery.

What should I do? she asked herself. Rarity really misses me, but I have to find Twilight’s crystal... She sighed. I don’t want to leave her alone, but... what about my Rarity? Is she feeling lonely? Does she even know what happened to me?

The motion of the train slowly calmed her nerves. Her eyelids grew heavy as the world beyond the window slid past.

Rarity stood, impassive, watching over three graves.

“Rarity, sugarcube...” Applejack walked up to her, slowing down to a stop at her side, looking at the tombstones. “The other’s are waitin’... you’ve been here all day. It ain’t good fer ya.”

Rarity said nothing. She simply continued looking down at the three mounds. Absently, her magic righted a small white flower that had been stirred by the wind from its position at the side of the others.

Applejack looked down, her eyes tearing up before she forced herself to look straight at Rarity’s face. “I-”

“She was all I had left, Applejack,” Rarity interrupted. She didn’t look away from the grave. “All the family I had left after mom and dad...” her eyes went to the other two graves before closing her eyes.

“Ah know, but-”

“You still have Big Macintosh, Apple Bloom and Granny Smith!” Rarity snapped, turning to look at the apple farmer in rage. “What do you know about being left alone?”

“Ah know what loss feels like, Rarity!” Applejack retorted after taking a surprised step back. “And ah can tell ya-”

“But you are not alone!” the fashion designer snapped, her angry eyes slowly turning to despair. “She wasn’t supposed to go before I did! She was my younger sister...” she coughed as her knees gave way and she fell down in front of the graves. “She was supposed to discover her special talent long before anything like this happened!” She started shaking. “She was supposed to do great things... she was su-supposed to...”

Applejack said nothing; she simply nuzzled her friend. “Come on. Please. Let’s go with the others... we all are mournin’, Rarity... and we are here for y’all if you let us.”

Rarity nodded as she slowly stood with the farmer’s help. Slowly, the pair turned around and started walking away from the graves. Rarity stopped and looked back over her shoulder and finally broke into gasping sobs.

“Sweetie...” a warm voice slowly penetrated the clouds in her mind. The graveyard faded away as a sudden lurch made the young unicorn’s eyes open.

She blinked, slowly looking around until her eyes settled on the mare to her side.

Rarity’s eyes were warm as she gazed at her, a soft smile in her lips. She carefully moved a stray strand of mane from Sweetie’s face. “We’re almost there.”

Sweetie nodded as she yawned, but her thoughts went back to the dream, now nothing more than a few snippets and half-remembered images.

Why do I suddenly feel so sad? she wondered.

“Okay sis...” she stretched and smiled back at the mare next to her.

I’m so glad I’m with Rarity... I hardly got to spend any time with her before...

Her thoughts were interrupted, however, when Canterlot came into view.

It had changed quite a bit. Although there was enough to remind Sweetie of her travels to Canterlot with her sister, the city had expanded. Before, the train would arrive at the edge of the city, but now there were buildings of all sorts around the train station.

The train station itself hadn’t changed much, even if the city had. As they walked out of the train, Rarity motioned for Sweetie to follow her.

o.0.o

The walk to the castle was pretty much the same. Canterlot had existed for a long time and, if things kept going the way they were right now, then it would continue to do so for thousands more. Sweetie had once seen an old drawing of what Canterlot might have looked like several thousand years ago. She was surprised to see a town much smaller than Ponyville. There had been no castle there, but a large wooden structure that had served as a hall for leaders to meet with either Princess... through the years it had grown into the Canterlot she had known... and again, in a brief two hundred years, it had expanded. She shuddered to think how it would look in six hundred years or even a thousand... Her eyes returned to the mare walking next to her, who would, most likely, see that change.

I wonder what's bothering Rarity? Sweetie thought. She’s hardly said anything since we arrived, and it’s already been ten minutes! In all my life, she's only been this quiet when she's asleep!

She decided to probe the waters. “Sis? I've been meaning to ask you... how's Tom doing these days?”

“Hmm?” Rarity didn't look at her. “Oh, he's doing fine dear. I just had dinner with him the other day.”

“With Tom?”

Rarity blinked and stopped then looked down at her sister. “I'm sorry dear, I'm afraid I wasn't paying attention. What were we talking about?”

“Tom... and how you had dinner with him the other day.” Sweetie gave her sister a look.

“Oh...” Rarity grinned sheepishly.

“Sis, is something wrong?”

Rarity sighed. “I... I'll tell you when we get to Twilight, okay, Sweetie?”

Sweetie looked away dejectedly. “Fine.”

The pair made their way in silence once more towards their objective.

Canterlot Castle was huge. It remained the same as far as Sweetie could tell, with Princess Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns and the Royal Library being part of the Castle, making the structure even larger.

The older unicorn led Sweetie to one of the entrances. A guard looked up, ready to stop them, but hesitated as he recognized Rarity. After a second, he moved aside, letting them pass. As soon as they had crossed the threshold, Sweetie knew Twilight was in the building. There was something... a feeling all around her... the purple unicorn’s magic seeming to permeate the air itself.

“So this is the Royal Library... you know, last time I was at Canterlot Castle we didn't really get... to... see...” The filly's voice faded as she stood there gaping at all the books. She felt a shudder run down her back.

So much knowledge! She eagerly trotted to one of the bookshelves.

“Oh, wow...” she levitated a thick tome out. “A first edition of 'Secrets of Transmutation Theory' by Phantom Image! Twilight was always complaining that the Library in Ponyville didn't have a copy!”

Rarity blinked in surprise. “Why Sweetie, I didn't remember you being so... studious.”

“Oh, I learned a lot from Twilight...,” Sweetie commented as she searched through the index. “When you left me to study with her, I slowly started to like reading and now...” She smiled at Rarity. “I've been learning so many spells! Oh! And take a look at this!”

As her horn glowed with magic, a small hole in the air appeared and a notebook with a gem-studded cover floated out.

Cautiously, Rarity approached the desk where Sweetie had laid open the notebook beside the old tome. The younger unicorn slid out a parchment with an official Canterlot seal on it.

“Look sis!” Sweetie smiled with obvious pride as she presented the paper to her older sister.

Rarity looked at the parchment in surprise. “Sweetie this is... you were accepted into Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns?”

“Eeyup!” the younger unicorn giggled. “I was surprised too, after the way my test went, although I think I could have done better if Nightmare Moon hadn’t sneezed at the last minute...”

The fashion designer blinked. “I am still rather shocked that you actually knew Nightmare Moon... moreover that you talk about her as though she were just another friend.”

Sweetie chuckled. “Oh, I was scared of her at the beginning, but once I realized she was just a prankster things got a lot easier.”

Rarity shook her head in bewildered amusement, her eyes dropping to the paper in front of her. “Well, congratulations Sweetie, this is certainly a pleasant surprise.”

“Thanks!” Sweetie smiled, then turned back to the tome. “Now, let me take a quick look at this before we go find Twilight, okay? I always wanted to see what she found so interesting about this and-”

“Don't worry, you can take a good, long look at it after we talk,” Twilight said, looking down at the book.

“Aaah!”

The pair of mares looked down at the collapsed younger unicorn with barely contained mirth. “Are you alright, Sweetie?” Rarity asked.

“Why, why, whyyy do you keep doing that to me?” Sweetie whimpered as she slowly stood up.

“Well, if you paid attention to your surroundings, we wouldn't surprise you so much, would we?” Twilight chuckled. “It's nice to see you again, Sweetie, although I really want to know how it is that you've come to be here.”

Rarity looked at Twilight, startled. “You mean-”

“That she's the real deal?” Twilight asked with a small smile. “Yes, she is.”

Sweetie's eyes narrowed. “Wait... what do you mean...” she looked from her mentor to her sister, who shifted guiltily. “Did you... ask Twilight to scan me?”

Rarity sighed, not meeting her sisters gaze. “I'm sorry Sweetie... but... I had to know,” she said, looking up at the younger unicorn. “You have to understand-”

“What, that you didn’t trust me?” Sweetie stepped back, a hurt look crossing her face.

“No!” Rarity quickly hugged her. “Sweetie... my sister died... do you understand? When I saw you again... I couldn't know, as much as I hoped, if you were real or... well...”

“A creation of Discord?” Sweetie whispered dejectedly into her sister's mane.

“Or any of our other enemies,” Twilight sighed. “Don't hold it against her, Sweetie. We’ve all suffered great losses in our lives. Husbands, sisters, children... friends...”

Sweetie remained silent for a moment longer, but finally nodded. “I think I understand a bit...”

Rarity released her from the hug and smiled warmly at her. “Now dear, why don't you tell Twilight and I what happened to you... from the beginning?”

Sweetie Belle took a deep breath. “It all started when my sister had to go on a trip...”

o.0.o

“That's... quite the adventure...” Rarity managed to say after having gaped at Sweetie for the majority of the telling.

Twilight seemed slightly perturbed as well, but, after a deep breath she summoned a quill, ink and paper. “Okay, we should go over some details...”

“Like what?” Sweetie asked.

Rarity smirked. “Like how Twilight and The Great and Powerful Trixie came to share a bed, of course!”

“Right.” Twilight blinked. “Wait! I mean no! What... no! Rarity! You know I'm not into mares!”

Sweetie and Rarity blinked. “You're not?” they asked at the same time.

“No! And I don't think there was ever any doubt!” Twilight snapped. “Now. Sweetie, I'll ask some questions, try to answer them as best as you can, okay?”

“Okay, but-”

“First question,” Twilight interrupted. “Do you remember the names of the items the Princess gave your Twilight?”

Sweetie thought for a second. “No... I just know what I told you; they had something to do with time and space.”

Twilight nodded, scribbling notes down. “Okay, based on your description, I can tell that that item is not part of our Canterlot's Magical Item list. I've pretty much seen them all.” She wrote some more, then looked up. “What happens when you absorb a crystal? Do you jump immediately?”

“No...” Sweetie frowned. “The first time, I talked to my Twilight through the crystal...”

“And this was in that universe where Trixie and I were a couple?”

Sweetie nodded.

“Okay, do you remember what the Twilight in the crystal told you?

“She said... she said that I should draw the magic from the crystal, and that it would take us both home.”

Twilight blinked and quickly wrote a couple of things. “Both of you? Are you sure?”

Sweetie nodded.

Twilight hummed to herself as she finished the notes she was taking. “And tell me, how long did it take you to learn to levitate objects?”

“About... two and a half weeks, I think.”

“And Illusion? Projecting your voice, painting Nightmare Moon's room pink?”

“Uh...” Sweetie tapped her chin with her hoof. “Well, Trixie taught me in a different way, she was all about being hooves-on and practice, practice, practice,” the young mare answered. “But I would say... maybe three days? I could do it by the time we were in Nightmare Moon's Castle.”

“I see... and you learned a new spell there?”

“Yes!” Sweetie replied with a big smile. “You taught me Darkness and Nightmare Moon told me to learn Nightvision.”

Twilight arched an eyebrow. “Really, for a... filly your age, I can tell you that just about every spell you've learned is above the curve of average unicorns. Can you cast Darkness for me?”

“Um... I haven't tried it-”

“I just want you to try, Sweetie,” Twilight smiled. “Go on.”

Sweetie stared ahead for a moment, her mind going back to the lessons she had gone over with another Twilight just a day ago. She closed her eyes and concentrated, mixing the flow of magic in the way the book had illustrated, and remembering every tip that her mentor’s interdimensional twin had given her.

She heard her sister gasp and opened her eyes...

Wait... didn’t I just open my eyes? She tried again, only to realize that her eyes were open and that she was surrounded by a thick inky-black darkness.

“I did it? I did it! On my first try!”

“Well done, Sweetie!” Twilight’s voice came from somewhere beside her. “Now, if you would be so kind as to dismiss it?”

With an invisible nod, Sweetie released the spell and suddenly light again flooded into the room.

“That was impressive, Sweetie!” Rarity smiled. “How many spells do you know now?”

“Seven, I think... if you count the Pocket Dimension spell for my notebook,” Sweetie said.

Twilight wrote down several notes, but looked up to Sweetie. “Well, you know how to summon it, but I wouldn’t count that one as a spell by itself, since the properties that control the hole in space-time are actually part of the notebook.”

“I see... so the spell matrix is in continuous flow inside the gems...”

“Which are tied by the summon spell to your call...” Twilight added.

“but since it is outside of time and space it can travel across the worlds with me -in a manner of speaking- and the spell will release the flow...” Sweetie fell silent when Rarity placed a hoof to her forehead.

“You don’t seem to have a fever...” the fashion designer muttered.

“What?”

“You were rambling, dear.”

Twilight continued to scribble away while Sweetie looked down a sheepish smile in her face. “Sorry.”

“Okay, I have another question Sweetie; have you noticed an increase in the potency of your spells since you started traveling?”

The filly in a mare’s body blinked. “Well... I wasn’t able to levitate that much at first, but now I can levitate heavier things, and the area I painted in Nightmare Moon’s room was directly proportional to the amount of magic applied to it so-”

“That’s a yes,” Twilight finished for her. “Good. I think those are all my questions for now...”

“What are you thinking, Twilight?” Rarity asked, giving her friend a worried glance.

“I’m not sure... I need to study a bit and analyze some of this data... but I think I have a good idea of what’s going on...” she sighed. “Do you think I could borrow your notebook for a bit, Sweetie? I’d like to take a look at the matrix. I promise to take good care of it.”

Sweetie nodded. “Sure!”

Twilight smiled. “Thanks! I’ll need to talk to you both a bit later. I’m finishing up with my packing, and...”

“Ah’m tellin’ ya that Twilight is waiting for me!” a very distinct voice came from the door.

The three watched as Applejack shook off the guard, who after a quick glance at Twilight and a nod from the unicorn, left the earth pony in peace.

“Darn it, why couldn’t he just let me in? He knows who Ah am!” Applejack shook her head, looking towards them. “Heya, Twilight! I’ve come to help you pack! Oh and lookie here, Rarity! Fancy meeting you here, I didn’t know that you were comin’ over!” The farmer chuckled. “And who’s this fine, young-” she stopped cold. Her eyes slowly narrowed as she stared at Sweetie Belle. “What is goin' on here?”

Rarity coughed, uncomfortable with the anger showing in her friend's eyes. “I'm sure you're confused, Applejack, but-”

“Darn right I'm confused!” Applejack growled, stomping down with a hoof as she turned to glare at Rarity and Twilight. “What is she doin' here?” she asked, her head motioning towards Sweetie Belle.

Sweetie gulped. Applejack looked like she was about to jump on her and pummel her into a paste. “A-Applejack, I'm Swee-”

“Shaddup, you!” Applejack snapped, her head whipping to face Sweetie Belle. “Ah don't know what hell-hole ya'll crawled out, but Ah ain't gonna let ya get away with this!” she snorted, lowering her body and widening her stance.

Sweetie Belle took a step back, trembling.

She's going to kill me! she thought in horror. Applejack's eyes betrayed no compassion. When the orange mare took a step forward, Sweetie stepped back. Why are you so angry? What’d I do?

“Applejack, please calm down!” Twilight gasped. “We can explain-”

“This ain’t normal! And there’s no explanation that can justify her bein’ here!” Applejack countered, never taking her eyes from Sweetie as she took another menacing step towards her. “Whatever this thing is, she ain't Sweetie!”

“Applejack, step away from my sister!” Rarity growled.

“Rarity, your sister and my sister are both gone!” Applejack snapped. “Ah know you’ve had a lot of trouble dealin’ with it even now, but this pony... this thing... it ain’t her!”

“Bu-”

“Cut the horseapples!” Applejack growled, pushing Sweetie back with a forceful shove. “Ah'll take care of ya right here and send ya on yer way!”

Oh, Celestia... she's really going to kill me! Sweetie fell on her haunches, cringing as Applejack reared on her hind legs.

Rarity slammed Applejack out of the way, sending her sprawling to the floor as she stood protectively over Sweetie Belle. “You will stay away from my sister!” she hissed.

“Ah ain’t backin’ up! She’s not your sister!”

“Girls!” Twilight shouted, drawing their attention. “Calm down! Look at what you’re doing to Sweetie!”

The younger unicorn had curled up next to the table and was looking at Applejack with a completely terrified expression.

Rarity turned to look back at Applejack with such venom in her eyes that the farmer took an involuntary step back.

“If you ever again threaten her like you did...” Rarity trailed off, the threat hanging in the air. After a second, she looked down to her cowering sister. “Let’s go, Sweetie,” Rarity said softly, slowly nudging the younger mare. “I have a lot of places to show you.”

Slowly, the older mare maneuvered Sweetie around the table, all the time keeping a cold glare on Applejack, just daring her to make a move or say something. “Twilight dear, we will talk later when you are in more... civilized company.”

Twilight could only nod as the pair left, before turning to face her earth pony friend. “What happened there, Applejack?”

Applejack shifted from hoof to hoof. “We have to talk about that filly, Twi... I’ve... I’ve been having dreams about her...”

o.0.o

“Are you okay, Sweetie?”

The younger unicorn didn’t answer; she just kept shivering as they walked.

Rarity sighed. Sweetie Belle had never really had a confrontation like that her whole life--a snarling werewolf was an instinctual enemy after all... however, having someone you loved and trusted about to attack you...

“Why is Applejack so angry at me?” Sweetie finally asked shakily.

Rarity sighed. “I don't know, Sweetie. Applejack has lost a lot of family over the years, and for a pony who comes from a big family... each one has been very hard. Especially Apple Bloom.”

“Just like I was for you...” the younger mare sighed in return.

“But even then, I have never seen Applejack react like this... maybe it's her old superstitious self kicking in... or she merely woke up in a bad mood.” The older unicorn shook her head. “Applejack has always been a firecracker, Sweetie. Let her be for now; Twilight will help calm her down.”

The younger mare seemed doubtful, but nodded. She looked around; they were in an older section of Canterlot, with several buildings in what she could only call a 'classic' style architecture since she knew just next to nothing about it. “Where are we?”

Rarity smiled as she slowed down to a stop in front of a huge building. “This, Sweetie, is the Canterlot Opera House!”

Sweetie Belle’s eyes widened as she looked at the building before her. This is where her counterpart had learned to sing... where she had become famous.

“Come with me,” Rarity said as she walked to the double doors. She spoke briefly with a clerk whom stared at Sweetie as if she were a ghost. The clerk quickly nodded and soon they were being ushered through the doors.

There were few ponies working in there at the time, but one and all stopped what they were doing to gape at the pair of unicorns, or, more specifically, at Sweetie, who returned their stares with a confused look. “Sis...” she whispered, “why is everypony looking at me like that?”

“Hm?” Rarity looked at the ponies. “You’ll see.”

They turned around another red-carpeted hall and Sweetie stopped. In front of her was a wall display with several pictures of her in amazing dresses performing for thousands of ponies. A plaque with a brief biography was next to a smiling picture.

“There is another, bigger set of pictures, notes and even dresses in the Hall of Great Equestrian Artists,” Rarity noted, smiling at her sister’s expression of awe. “The Opera keeps a few and sometimes rotates them, but yours have been here for quite a long time.”

“Who’s that?” Sweetie asked, pointing at a gray mare playing a cello next to her in one of the pictures. They seemed to have the stage for themselves, Sweetie sang, as the earth pony played.

“That is Octavia,” Rarity said. “You would have been too young in your world to have met her yet. “She played at quite a few Galas. You eventually went to one with me and I became good friends with her when she played background music for a song you sang for the Princesses.”

Sweetie gulped. She slowly traced a hoof on the glass of the picture. So many friends I have yet to meet, so many ponies that changed my life or will change it... Sweetie blinked.

“Wait, you had mentioned her before, along with Fancypants?”

Rarity nodded. “She was very helpful to you; she already had a great deal of influence here and, when you made it in, she wasted no time in making you her protege.”

Sweetie looked at the picture again, now noticing the proud glance the earth pony was directing at her singing counterpart. “Sis... I’d like to hear some of Octavia’s music... and mine.”

Rarity smiled. “This way, Sweetie.”

o.0.o

The hours passed quickly as the pair listened to Sweetie’s songs and Octavia’s cello. The younger unicorn was impressed with the ample variety of genres her counterpart had explored. She had started with classical music; she’d sing arias and play roles in operas... she had done a duet once with a famous singer, gone into pop and even country, which Rarity had sworn was due to hanging around Apple Bloom far too much.

Where are you now? You're so far away
From me, and yet, I can't help but pray

The experience had been overwhelming and humbling. She had listened to herself as she’d grown and succeeded in a very competitive field, and she’d done more than that: she’d become an icon. It was already more than a hundred years since her death, but ponies still listened to her songs.

That you will stand here with me by your side
One day, 'til then I shall try my best to bide

It’s like I suddenly have to live up to this, Sweetie thought, looking at the pensive Rarity as she listened to one of her songs, a piece she had named Heart’s Lament. Like I have to be as big as I became here... I have to be in the hearts of ponies for generations after my death... She sighed. And if I don’t... if I’m not... what will Rarity think of me? She looked at her sister’s hoofs, encased in their fancy cuffs as the older mare tapped along to the rhythm of the song. A slow feeling of dread overcame her as she looked at them. She remembered having read a horror book at the library once, and how one of the characters... she shook her head.

When I see all that you've done for me
I remember how your love set me free

Sweetie looked at Rarity, the older mare had closed her eyes and was swaying to the music. “Rarity?” When the older mare didn’t answer, Sweetie put a hoof on her sister’s shoulder.

Oh but now, when I'm so far from thee
Will the wind carry you my longing plea?

Rarity started, opening her eyes and looking around before they set on Sweetie. There was a flash of pain in those blue eyes that slowly faded as she looked at her younger sister. “I- I’m sorry, Sweetie I got lost there in your song and...” She was crying. “I’ve always liked this one. I remember when you composed it and-”

I will always wait here my love!
So that we can fly away,
Through the sky above,

Sweetie held her sister close.

Rarity melted into the hug, her words forgotten as she felt the living heartbeat of her sister. She closed her eyes and shuddered as she silently let the tears flow. Sweetie didn’t let her go, even as she covered her sister’s coat with salty tears. Slowly, she raised her forelegs to wrap them around her Sweetie.

And then we will be together for all of time.
Can't you hear and see me pine? You are mine,
For you, are my one true love...

The pair listened silently as the song finished and slowly faded. It was quiet for several minutes, save for the shuddering breaths of the older mare. “I’m sorry, Sweetie.”

The younger unicorn shook her head. “It’s okay... but sis... we need to talk.”

Rarity said nothing as her sister slowly pulled off the cuffs, exposing the scars where she had cut herself.

“Please, sis...” Sweetie said, looking up at her.

Rarity stared at the scars she had intentionally left behind to remember what she had done. She remembered finding Sweetie’s letter... her sister had known. She carefully looked up at Sweetie’s eyes. “I- I don’t know if I can, Sweetie...”

“Please, sis?”

The room was quiet for a few moments, but then...

“I had forced myself not to think about it for years,” Rarity whispered. Had it not been for the absolute silence in the room, Sweetie might have missed it; she remained quiet as her sister slowly spoke. “I tried to pretend it wasn’t going to happen... that I could deal with it when it finally did. So I pushed it to the back of my mind again and again.”

Rarity wasn't looking at her anymore. Her head had turned away and her eyes were fixed on a corner of the room.

“Even after you retired and needed my help to even get to the grocery store... it wasn't going to happen. You were strong in spirit...” She clenched her teeth. “It wasn't fair. You were my younger sister... but... but you were so much older! You knew it was going to happen... you even wrote me a note because you knew how hard I was trying to make it different!”

She started shaking and hugged herself, wrapping her hooves around her trembling body.

“When it finally happened... I- I found you... you looked so calm... happy even. I couldn't- I...” The older unicorn paused, looking for words. “It was... beyond me. I couldn’t understand how you could be gone. The brightest gem I’d ever had... I couldn't do anything to bring you back... you were the one pony keeping me together, Sweetie. And you were gone. Just like that.”

Sweetie shifted in her seat. Oh, sis... why did I have to ask?

“It was like a rock had crushed me. As if I couldn't breathe, but I was still here!” The unicorn closed her eyes in painful remembrance. “I was alone! I was all that was left of our family! I didn't want you gone... all my life I've been generous; I've done everything I can to share what I could to make other ponies happy... but the one time I truly wanted something for me... it was snatched away.”

She fell quiet again, breathing in deeply with her eyes closed. “I didn't want to stay...” Her voice was again a whisper. “I just couldn't. I- I don't know if I could ever justify it, or reason it out. It's not that simple to explain a- a void. Or a heartbreak. Or suddenly feeling like the world ripped away everything from inside of you and left you there to suffer.” Rarity sighed, voice trembling. “And so... when I saw you there... and I realized what had happened... I... I went to my work room and I found the scissors...”

Sweetie was crying as she shook her head in denial.

“I went straight for the artery, I cut as deeply as I could...” Rarity continued in an almost monotone voice. “Fluttershy found me...”

“Stop...” Sweetie hugged her sister.

“... I was late for our weekly spa treatment... she knew I wouldn't miss it unless something was wrong... I think she knew...”

“Stop. Please...” the younger unicorn sobbed. “I'm sorry! I'm so sorry! Please don't say anything else... I love you sis, please...”

Rarity slowly leaned into the hug. “You were gone. She woke me up... I was lying on my side... there was so much blood... I didn’t want to get up... and then... then I saw your note.”

“I'm sorry I asked, Rarity, please... just stop...”

The older unicorn took a deep breath and opened her blue eyes, looking down at her sister hugging her. For a moment, she felt dizzy, but then she smiled as she hugged Sweetie back.

“I have you back for now, Sweetie,” she whispered. “You're here with me for a bit longer. And this time, when you go... I will be able to say goodbye and farewell.”

o.0.o

The pair left the Opera House shortly after. As the building slowly disappeared behind them, Sweetie looked up at her sister. “Where are we going now, sis?”

“Back to the Library,” Rarity replied. “If Applejack is gone, maybe we can speak with Twilight further.”

“Oh... okay...” Sweetie looked away, unsure. “It’s just... Applejack doesn’t really seem to like me very much and-”

“Don’t worry, Sweetie,” Rarity interrupted. “Applejack won’t do anything to you, I’ll make sure. And I’m sure Twilight would also step in.”

“Okay...”

The pair walked in a congenial silence until they reached the Library. Stepping ahead, Rarity faced one of the guards. “May we speak to Twilight Sparkle?”

The guard blinked. “I’m sorry, Lady Rarity, but Lady Twilight is occupied at the moment. She asked us to let you know that she would meet with you tonight at Lady Pinkamena’s party.”

Rarity nodded and stepped back. “It seems Twilight is busy; most likely experimenting with something to do with your travels...”

“So what do we do now?”

“I think home would be the best choice for now, Sweetie.” Rarity looked at the sun's position. “We have to get ourselves ready for the party, after all.”

Sweetie nodded as she followed her sister. “Rarity? Do you think Applejack will be there?”

The older mare sighed. “I would assume so. But don't worry, I'm sure Twilight put her doubts to rest. She’ll probably be back to her normal, workaholic self.”

The train ride back home was a quiet affair. Physically tired and emotionally spent, both mares made their way to the Boutique and barely had enough energy to slump onto their respective beds.

As she yawned and felt herself slipping away into dreamland, Sweetie's gaze slowly roamed her room.

There are so many things that are just the same... but, I never had that hat back home. Or those little jewelry boxes. Her eyes settled on a chest she had not noticed before. It was half-hidden under a dress that was hanging over it.

But what drew her attention to it was the symbol on the front. It seemed familiar, somehow. It was a musical note, a metal G-clef that appeared to be part of the clasp keeping the chest closed. Sweetie yawned, closing her eyes and wondering what could be inside it.

o.0.o

I hate her.”

Rarity!”

How can you say that?!”

But... she was your friend...”

Silly, you don't mean that!”

Yes I do!” Rarity snapped at Pinkie Pie as she refused to move from her position. “I hate her! She took the only really precious thing from me!”

We don't know what happened, sugarcube...” Applejack said, placing a hoof on Rarity's shoulder.

The white unicorn pushed it away and stepped back. “Whatever happened, she was in charge! She took Sweetie away from me!”

I... um... I'm sure it was just an accident...”

She was responsible for her!” Rarity growled, closing her eyes tightly and lowering her head. “She was supposed to take care of Sweetie while I was gone!”

Sugar- Rarity...” Applejack coughed as she walked up to the unicorn. “Please, don't do this to yourself. You know that Twilight would have done anything to protect Sweetie. She would never let her near anything she knew was dangerous. You know that.”

But... what do I tell my parents? How can I stand in front of their graves and hold my head up high? I failed them, Applejack... the one task that they asked of me when it happened...”

She's with them, Rarity,” Fluttershy's soft voice whispered as she hugged her friend. “And they know everything that happened... they know it was no-pony's fault.”

Come on, Rarity,” Rainbow Dash's usually confident voice was subdued. “We all miss them... Let's say goodbye together one last time.”

Rarity looked past her friends to the grave that awaited them. A purple-marble slab framed in moon rock had been laid down on the grassy hill. It had a dedication to two very dear friends, from family and friends. It was positioned so that the first rays of the morning sun would shine on it. It looked deceptively simple for all the weight it carried in the hearts of those left behind. But it was still incomplete.

Slowly the group made their way up until Rarity stood at the front of all of them, staring at the slab. She looked back to her friends, who nodded their encouragement. Rarity turned to the slab, her horn lit up as the magic was absorbed into it and her words etched magically on its surface, taking place next to her friend's own thoughts and farewells.

Rarity spoke up as she wrote. “Twilight... I loved you like a sister, and I grew to respect you and eventually to entrust you with my most precious treasure. Whatever happened that day, it took three of the dearest souls I had ever had the fortune of meeting. You and my Sweetie are still together. Take care of her for me, until I can see you both again. And tell Spike that I... I’ll see him there too.

~Rarity”

The unicorn collapsed.

o.0.o

Sweetie opened her eyes slowly, echoes of Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash calling Rarity's name floating at the edges of her consciousness.

She stared at the ceiling as she struggled to remember what she had just seen, but it would not come back to her, despite her knowing that it had been somehow important... very important.

Her eyes returned to the chest she had seen under the dress.

Slowly, Sweetie got out of bed and listened carefully. She could hear the rhythmic breathing coming from Rarity’s room down the hall. Her sister was still asleep.

Carefully moving the dress out of the way with her magic, she stared at the G-Clef in the front. She unlatched it and pushed up the top to reveal stacks of neatly ordered notebooks and papers, a few replacement strings for a musical instrument and an old bow, the same type she had seen Octavia use on her-

“Oh.” Sweetie sat down, staring at what she had in front of her. Levitating one of the notebooks, she opened it up, revealing what she had suspected. Musical notations covered each neat row on each page, lyrics were written under the musical notes with esoteric symbols of their own... she could figure out which called for a longer, sustained note, but there were so many that she couldn’t decipher.

She carefully read through the notebooks, piling them next to the chest. When she reached past them, she found a smaller box, tied shut with a blue ribbon. Undoing it, she discovered several opened envelopes inside, all of them for her, or for the Sweetie Belle of this dimension at least.

Since they didn’t seem to be in a particular order, she took out the first.

Dear Sweetie,

Country music? Really? When I told Vinyl that you had been singing country music with that voice of yours, she did not stop laughing for an hour straight. What were you thinking? I know it was Apple Bloom’s birthday but you don’t use a voice like yours for that kind of music!

I’m sorry, I’m being a bit unfair, it was your best friend’s birthday after all.

It just surprises me, that’s all. You should have seen what Rarity wrote in the letter she sent me! She was, well, shocked is one way of putting it. I myself had to imbibe quite a sum of whiskey to gather my thoughts. A single malt in one gulp... it was almost offensive!

However, I heard that Applejack couldn't stop singing your song after the party, so it seems you've made quite the impression on the genre. I simply hope that perhaps she may see the light and attend the Opera so that she might see you in your natural element. As keen as her ear is for... other genres, it is undoubtedly in our sanctuary of music that yours can raise the heavens themselves.

Well, I just wanted to share my thoughts and see how you were doing. I’ll let you know when we arrive back in Canterlot.

~Octavia

A decidedly less elegant penmareship followed.

Sweetie, this is Vinyl. Octy asked me to put this in the mail and not to read it. But I just have to say: well done, girl! I don’t listen to country myself, but you can’t get caught in that stuffy and uptight cell you and Octy call an ‘Opera House’ forever! If you ever want to try for Electronic, Bronybeat or Techno... you know who to call!

~Scratch

Sweetie blinked at the letter. Rarity had mentioned the country song... had it really been so good and so shocking that it had gotten Applejack singing and Rarity writing worried letters to Octy- Octavia? Sweetie chuckled, wondering where that song could be.

She dug deeper into the chest, finding a few pictures of herself and Octavia. Vinyl Scratch, a pony she only vaguely remembered from one of Pinkie Pie’s parties, was also present in several of them. Somehow, although she felt like she was looking and going through something sacred, to Sweetie it felt... right. As if she were supposed to see these.

She sighed as she started to carefully put away just about everything. As she took a look at the notebooks again, she left one behind along with a picture. Maybe she could copy some of the songs into her own notebook and try and learn them later... As for the picture... Octavia, Vinyl and Rarity stood behind Sweetie in a graduation gown. She looked exactly as she did now, still young and so happy. The other three mares in the picture looked extremely proud, and they smiled honestly and without a care.

Sweetie took a deep breath as she levitated both relics up to the bed with her. It was time to learn... and maybe the spirits of Octavia, Vinyl and her counterpart would inspire and help her find her own talent.

Slowly, she went through the notebook, looking for songs she could maybe learn.

o.0.o

The time for the party arrived almost too quickly.

Before Sweetie knew it, Pinkie Pie was knocking on the door to the Boutique, waking Rarity from her nap.

“Come on, girls!” the pink earth pony giggled as she bounced around them. “We’re gonna be late!”

“It’ll be fine, dear,” Rarity said. “After all, they can’t start without us, right?”

“Oh, but we still have to get there!” Pinkie pouted.

“Where are we going, exactly?” Sweetie asked. “Isn’t the party at Sugarcube Corner?”

“Don’t be silly!” the earth pony smiled. “The party is at Sweet Apple Acres! I convinced Applejack to lend me her barn earlier today!”

Rarity stopped combing her hair and looked at Pinkie with a frown. The party pony looked from her to Sweetie, who seemed to have lost all interest in partying.

“What’s wrong?”

“I- I don’t know if we should go...” Sweetie ventured.

“Why not? I’m sure everypony will be happy to see you!”

“I wouldn’t say that, darling.” Rarity sighed. “I’m afraid Applejack will not be happy to see us there.”

“What? Of course she will!” Pinkie exclaimed.

“Did you tell her for who this party was?” Sweetie asked.

“Well no, but-”

“We saw her earlier; trust us, she won’t want us there,” Rarity insisted.

It was then that Pinkie put her hooves on top of the fashion designer's shoulders. “You. Are. Coming. To. The. Party!!!” With each word, the earth pony towered more and more over the white unicorn until she was looking down on her. “Am I clear?”

“Y-yes...” Rarity meeped.

“Good,” Pinkie said. “Because I don’t want my friends to ruin a perfectly fine party over a fight!”

“But... she threatened me and-” Sweetie feebly attempted to say, but stopped the moment Pinkie glared at her. “... and I think I should make up with her becauseotherwisethepartywouldbewasted?”

The earth pony smiled. “Exactly!” she bounced around the room happily. “Now we go to the party! Now we go to the party!” Pinkie sang over and over.

Sweetie and Rarity exchanged amused glances. As soon as their manes were ready, the pair followed the bouncing earth pony towards Sweet Apple Acres.

o.0.o

The inside of the barn had been decorated in festive colors. Balloons abounded and floated freely while confetti randomly fell on and around the guests from somewhere in the rafters.

Fluttershy flinched slightly at a balloon suddenly popping on top of her, which became a rain of colorful paper. “Um... does anypony know why Pinkie organized this party?”

“Well, I don’t know!” Rainbow Dash said with a big grin as she munched on a pickle. “But as long as there’s all this amazing food, who cares?” She proceeded to pick out another pickle from her ice-cream while her mate, Vespa, looked at the mix with a slightly disgusted look. When offered some, he vehemently shook his head.

“I’ll uh... get some crackers...” he coughed as he turned around and made a bee-line for the food table.

Twilight smiled. It was great to see all of her friends in a more relaxed party so soon after she had decided to come back to Ponyville. They all seemed to be in a good mood... well, all except one.

Her eyes turned to Applejack, who stood separate from the group, drinking shots from some unidentified source.

“What’s got her in a bad mood anyways?” Dash asked, walking up to Twilight. Her belly was beginning to show and she was starting to waddle more than walk.

Twilight sighed. “I think it’s because of the reason behind the party...”

“So you do know why it is!” the Wonderbolt leaned closer to Twilight, a glint in her eye. “Well then, why don’t you tell-”

“Weeeeeeee’reeeee heeeeeereeee!” Pinkie sang as she slammed the door open, missing the sulking Applejack by mere inches.

The two pegasi watched in anticipation as Rarity made her way in, followed by somepony they had never expected to see again.

“Oh... my...” Fluttershy said, her eyes wide as she stared incredulously at the second unicorn to walk in.

“Buh-” Rainbow Dash’s mouth fell open. Slowly she made her way to Sweetie Belle and jabbed her with a hoof, eliciting a soft ‘ouch’. “You’re... you’re real...”

Sweetie Belle looked at the pegasus with no small amount of surprise. “Rainbow Dash? You’re... pregnant?!” She turned to face Rarity. “She’s pregnant!”

Rarity chuckled. “Why, yes, I suppose she is.”

“But, you knew!” the younger unicorn accused.

“You didn’t really expect that you would be the only surprise in the party, did you?” Pinkie Pie grinned.

“But, I-” Sweetie couldn’t think of what to say, and so she stared back at the staring pegasus.

“But... how can this be?” Fluttershy turned to ask Twilight. “Sweetie’s...” she stole a glance at Rarity. “Well... she’s...”

“She is Sweetie Belle,” Twilight said. “Just not our Sweetie, you see-”

“Darn right she ain’t!” Applejack interrupted, walking unsteadily towards the group and having only heard the last part of the conversation. “Our Sweetie is dead! Jus’ like, jus’ like Apple-” she growled. “An’ Scoot-all-loo, an’ mah brother an’-”

“Applejack...” Twilight interrupted, placing a hoof on her friend. “Calm down, I already explained to you that-”

“Shaddup!” The apple farmer snarled at her friend, who took a surprised step back. “Ah’ know what ya’ll said! An’ it still don’t make any sense! What kinda idiots do you take us for with all your blabberin’ fancy words an’ magical theo...” She frowned. “Things.” She shook her head.

“Theories.”

“Them! Those. Ya’ll know what ah mean!” Applejack glared at something next to Sweetie, who pressed against Rarity, flinching under the bleary gaze of the apple farmer.

“Ya’ll come over here, an’... an’ I’ve known that ya’ll would, ‘cause, ah dreamed how ya’ll...”

“Applejack,” Fluttershy carefully put a hoof on her friend’s shoulder. “You’re drunk.”

“No, I ain’t!” Applejack said, shaking her friend’s hoof off her shoulder and marching up to the wall, where a pony sized picture of a pony rump without a tail which was lying close by for a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-pony was. “An’ ya’ll better face me when ah’m talking to ya! Ah know yer not the real Sweetie!” she poked the poster. “Ah’m talking to ya! Turn around!”

“Twilight,” Rainbow Dash said as she, Sweetie and Rarity joined the group. “I think you better explain how Sweetie Bell can be here.” She intentionally faced away from Applejack, who continued glaring and snapping at the poster.

As Twilight led the group way from the drunk farmer to explain what Sweetie had said, the unicorn in question slowly stepped from the group and turned to look at Applejack.

“...and it ain’t fair that yo-you came ‘ere and- and you didn’t bring mah sister with ya!” the earth pony half-sobbed, half-accused the poster. “Ah’ been havin’ dreams of mah Apple Bloom an’ ya’ll, sure as hay it was you in mah dream, havin’ no cutie mark or-” She hiccuped and fell on her rump. “Why? Why is it just... you?”

Sweetie sat beside the drunk mare. “I’m sorry I’m not the one you wanted to see...”

“Yer not sorry,” Applejack slurred angrily at the poster. “Yer just sayin’ that ta make me feel better, buh-t it ain’t gonna work! Ah’m onto ya!”

“Applejack...” Sweetie began. “When I arrived, I expected to see Apple Bloom and Scootaloo... I just saw them two days ago! I really just happened to land here where my best friends have been gone for so long and my sister... she-” Sweetie bit down on her lip, not wanting to say it.

Applejack was silent.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t be her or that she wasn’t with me when I arrived.” Sweetie sniffed. “I see all of you, and I sort of know you but you don’t know me... not even Scootaloo or Apple Bloom.... they know the ‘me’ from their world... but they don’t know me.”

When Applejack didn’t say anything, Sweetie sighed, looking down at the floor. “I’m not making sense...” she said after a moment. “I wish you would believe me... when I heard that Apple Bloom was gone... I felt like I had been struck with a brick. She and Scootaloo have always been more than friends to me... they’re my sisters.”

Sweetie closed her eyes. “It’s not fair that I have to see their faces and wonder if they will believe me, or if they will be my friends still if I told them what had happened, or if they would think I was something else trying to possess their friend... I don’t know why this is happening.” She watched despondently as her tears wet the floor. “How many times will I go somewhere and find out they died? Will it always hurt? Do I want it to stop hurting?” she sobbed. “I just want to go home. I want to be with my Rarity. I want to keep studying with my Twilight. I want to see my Applejack organize another Sisterhooves Social! I wa-”

She stopped when a hoof was pressed against her mouth. Sweetie opened her eyes and followed the hoof and foreleg to their owner: Applejack.

“Ah don’t know why ah’m so angry at y’all... ah bet I was just overworked...” Applejack offered. “And ah know I can be right stubborn at times.” she stumbled as she moved a bit closer. “And that ah shouldn’t drink as much as ah did tonight. But ah do know something else... when ah met you, ah knew y’all weren’t a bad filly... Ah just didn’t want to believe that you could be here when mah sister ain’t. But that’s not your fault.” Applejack sighed. “Ah miss her like... ah have no idea how to even say. She ain’t coming back... ah thought I’d dealt with it... but ah was wrong. Deep inside me, ah still want her back... that ain’t gonna change neither.”

“I’m sorry,” Sweetie repeated. “I don’t know what to do.”

Applejack was silent for a few moments. “Come with me.”

o.0.o

“... and I think that’s the reason Sweetie is travelling all over different dimensions and yet seems to find herself close to us, or at least our interdimensional counterparts.” Twilight stated.

“Okay,” Rainbow Dash took a deep breath. “That gave me and my foal a headache. Is there an easier way to explain it?”

“I think I got it!” Pinkie Pie laughed. “It’s just like an onion! Everything has layers and they make you cry, but I heard that if you soak them after peeling the skin it helps, but it never did when I tried! But Sweetie is jumping between layers and because it’s the same onion, the universe just seems very similar!”

Twilight blinked. “That’s a very interesting theory, Pinkie, but it has absolutely nothing to do with what I was-”

“Wait...” Rarity stopped Twilight. “Did you hear that?”

Twilight quieted down and the whole group listened carefully.

I made it down the coast in seventeen hours
Pickin' me a bouquet of dogwood flowers
And I'm a hopin' for Ralneigh
I can see my baby tonight

“There it is again!” Rarity whispered urgently. “It sounds familiar!”

“Has anypony seen Sweetie and Applejack?” Fluttershy asked, looking around the barn, where only Vespa stood apart from them.

So rock me mama like a wagon wheel
Rock me mama anyway you feel
Hey mama rock me
Rock me mama like the wind and the rain
Rock me mama like a south-bound train
Hey mama rock me

“It’s coming from outside! Let’s go, everypony!” Pinkie shouted.

“I hope they’re both okay...” Rarity said worriedly over a few more words coming from outside.

The group made their way to the doors, where they stopped and looked outside. In the darkness, seating over several piles of hay, Applejack strummed a guitar as she and Sweetie sang to the sky, seemingly lost in the moment.

Oh, the North country winters keep a gettin' me now
Lost my money playin' poker so I had to up and leave
But I ain't a turnin' back
To livin' that old life no more

Twilight chuckled. “Well, it seems we were worrying over nothing, right?”

“I wish she had chosen another song...” Rarity sighed. She looked up as Rainbow Dash brushed past her. “Rainbow? Where are you going?”

The pegasus snorted and looked back briefly at her. Dash’s eyes were a bit watery, but her grin didn’t leave her face. “Where do you think? I’m gonna sing too!”

“What?” the fashion designer blinked. “Why?”

Rainbow Dash faced the singing pair. “Scootaloo joined the chorus that time... remember?”

Rarity and the others exchanged glances.

“Mac played the banjo... I had never heard him play before...” Fluttershy reminisced.

“Spike nagged me all night to cast that spell so he could play the fiddle for a few hours...” Twilight sighed.

“It was the best birthday party ever!” Pinkie nodded.

Rarity smiled as the three mares joined the others on top of the hay before walking up to them herself. “Sweetie sang beautifully... even if it was country.”

Vespa looked at the group with a small grin on his face. “Ponyville mares are all crazy. Grandma Scootaloo was right.”

He watched in silence as the seven mares sang into the night, tears flowing freely as they all hugged each other. A traveller bringing memories that the six immortals held dear within themselves...

So rock me mama like a wagon wheel
Rock me mama anyway you feel
Hey mama rock me
Rock me mama like the wind and the rain
Rock me mama like a south-bound train
Hey mama rock me

They sang to the night, remembering, crying, hugging and hoping.

o.0.o

The next morning, Sweetie decided that she was never going to drink alcohol again in her life. She groaned as she rolled over on the floor to lie on her back, her stinging eyes taking in the inside of the barn.

“How can they drink that stuff over and over again if this happens the next day?” she groaned.

A snore drew her attention to the pile of hay where Rainbow Dash and Vespa were sleeping.

“Wait, Grandma Scootaloo did what?” Vespa asked, eyes wide. “She never told me that!”

“Well, what did you expect?” Rainbow Dash laughed. “You were just a foal back then.”

The pegasus, who bore a striking resemblance to Scootaloo, blushed. “But... I was the same age as she was when she got the weasels into the barrel of cider!”

“Eh, ponies were made of sterner stuff back then,” Rainbow Dash said, punching her partner on the shoulder playfully. “But I’m more intrigued by what happened in the last world you were in, Sweetie; you said that Scootaloo put cling-wrap on the toilet to prank Nightmare Moon?”

“I’m too drunk for this...” Vespa moaned.

Sweetie chuckled as she turned to her stomach. She saw Fluttershy lying next to Twilight. Both mares had gotten completely plastered and were snoring blissfully away.

“Big Mac?!” Twilight sat down with a painful sounding thud. Her magic levitated a cup, filling it up with cider before she downed it in a single gulp.

“Well, I never saw you two do anything but... well, he visited a lot and you blushed when he walked away and you stared at him and-” Sweetie started to explain, but was interrupted.

“Oh, my.” Fluttershy, also blushing, took a sip of her third cup. “I... well, Big Mac was such a gentlecolt... you could have done worse, Twilight.”

“But-” the purple unicorn cringed. “Fluttershy, I swear that I never-”

“His heart was so big...” Fluttershy hiccuped, clearly drunk. “I think he had enough love in him for more than one mare... I used to wonder if I was enough for him...”

Twilight put down another downed cup. “Ah’m telling you that- I’m telling- you see, I never did anything with him, you know?”

Fluttershy sniffed. “...and he would always tell me that I was jus’ bein’ silly, ‘cause he only had eyes for me and...”

“... I mean, it’s not that he wasn’t attractive but...” Twilight paused to drink another cup. “He’s mah best friend’s colt, and I would never... I mean... maybe- no! I would never-”

“But, I mean, Twilight might have been a good choice and, well, I really love her too and-” Fluttershy had finished her cup and was tapping her hoofs together.

Twilight sniffed, looking down miserably at the latest cup as it spilled what remained of its contents on the floor. “I never really got to know anypony like that and...” she suddenly hugged Fluttershy, who hugged her back. “I love you Fluttershy! I would never, ever steal your stallion!”

“I love you too, Twilight,” Fluttershy sniffed. “I think I might’ve even shared with you some-” whatever the pegasus was about to say would forever remain a mystery for Sweetie because at that moment Fluttershy passed out on top of Twilight. The purple unicorn was overwhelmed by the dead weight and fell back.

Uh... Twi? Twilight! You okay?” Sweetie asked. Her only response was a snore. She slowly backed away.

Next to her Applejack kicked in her sleep, barely missing the table, and Rarity cuddled closer when she felt her shifting.

“I fear she will have quite the headache tomorrow.” Rarity said, taking a drink from her cup as she levitated a sheet to cover the snoring Applejack.

“Will she be alright?” Sweetie asked as Rarity served herself another cup.

“She’ll be fine, darling.” The older unicorn smiled at Sweetie. “Immortal, remember?”

Sweetie laughed. “I guess that’s true... now I-” she stopped when a cup full of punch was shoved her way.

“Oh, no you don’t!” Rarity glared at Pinkie Pie, who simply blew a raspberry at her in response.

“Why not?” Pinkie asked, smiling at the pair. “She’s an adult right now! And we’re all having fun!”

“She might look like an adult, but she isn’t!”

“Oh, don’t be such a stick-in-the-mud!” the earth pony giggled. “Come on! We’ve seen enough in our lives to know she’ll be okay!”

“I don’t think- Sweetie!” Rarity gasped as her younger sister chugged down the punch.

“Ugh... what’s that stuff?” Sweetie asked.

“Rum!” Pinkie Pie supplied, pushing another glass at her until she took hold of it with her magic. “Now, let’s play a drinking game!”

Sweetie winced. “I’m never drinking again. Ever!”

“Aw, it wasn’t that bad, was it?” Pinkie asked. When Sweetie had recovered from her fright, the earth pony chuckled. “A bit tense? Here, have one of my special ‘Day-after Cupcakes!’”

“Thank you.”

Sweetie quietly observed the ball of energy that was Pinkie Pie as she moved around the barn, waking up the others and offering them their morning treat.

Huh, this really is helping... she thought as she munched on the cupcake.

In short order, the group was awake and as alert as they could be with only the cupcakes in their stomachs.

“Well, that was some party,” Applejack chuckled weakly.

“It was fun!” Pinkie agreed.

“It certainly was,” Twilight said with a smile. “I really missed all of you. I’m glad I’m back in Ponyville.”

The group shared a smile.

Sweetie sighed. “I guess I should start trying to figure out where the fragment is... as much as I love being with all of you, I have to get back home.”

Rarity winced, looking sadly at her younger sister.

Sweetie immediately noticed. “I’m sorry, sis, I don’t mean that I don’t want to stay with you but-”

Rarity stopped her, placing her hoof softly on Sweetie’s lips. “Don’t apologize, Sweetie,” she said. “I am glad I got to see you here and that we spent this time together. I’ll help you look for the fragment, don’t worry.”

“We’d love to stay, but we have to go back to Wonderbolt HQ...” Rainbow Dash said, smirking at the groggy Vespa. “Some of us have some training to do!”

“Ugh...” the male pegasus groaned.

“Don’t worry, Sweetie” Twilight said, stepping forth. “We can deal with this a little later. We should all go home and clean up first, then I’ll meet you all in the library.” She looked at Rainbow Dash and Vespa. “I think you can stay for a couple of hours longer, right?”

The pair exchanged a glance and nodded. “I think we can,” Rainbow Dash said, looking at the unicorn. “What do you have in mind?”

“Oh, you’ll see!” the unicorn said with a smile.

o.0.o

Sweetie Belle sat on her bed. The only sound in Carousel Boutique was that of Rarity taking a shower.

Lying on the sheets was the picture of Sweetie, Rarity, Octavia and Vinyl during ‘her’ graduation. It was in good condition, not having seen the light of day that much... but there was more to it.

This picture represented the culmination of something that Sweetie was still trying to understand: finding your true talent and becoming even better at it. It represented years of struggle, of study, of mentoring, of friends and family.

I’m not even out of school yet. Sweetie thought with a sigh.

She looked at the mirror, admiring the image of the young adult unicorn looking back at her. Suddenly, she felt very lonely in a body that seemed truly alien to her.

But... if I am jumping from body to body and getting a new one each time, what happened to my own-

“Sweetie!” Rarity called, interrupting the horrible thoughts that were beginning to course through Sweetie’s mind. “I’m ready! Do you want to go to the Library now?”

“Oh... yeah...” Sweetie called back half-heartedly, pushing her thoughts to the back of her mind along with so many other things she didn’t want to think about.

Rarity walked into the room, smiling. “Well then, let’s go!” As she looked down at the picture on the bed, her smile faltered for a second. “I- I haven’t seen that picture in such a long time.”

Sweetie looked at it. “You all look so proud...”

“And we were!” Rarity chuckled. “It was... it was such an amazing day...”

"I hope I get to make my Rarity as proud as she made you..." Sweetie sighed. "Someday...”

Rarity hugged her for a brief moment. “Sweetie... I am sure that you will do just fine once you find your talent,” she said. She sighed and pondered for a moment. “Why don’t you take that picture with you? Can you do that?”

Sweetie nodded, surprised. “Yeah, if I put it inside my notebook...”

Rarity smiled. “Well then, take it with you when you go, dear.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course!” Rarity chuckled. “I wouldn’t offer it otherwise!”

Sweetie looked at the picture for a moment, then smiled. “Thanks, sis!”

“Anytime... sis.”

o.0.o

Twilight looked around at the group gathered in her Library. Once everypony had had time to eat breakfast, take a shower and get ready, they all felt like new ponies.

“Thank you for coming... and waiting in your case, Rainbow Dash, Vespa.”

The pair of pegasi nodded, still waiting for Twilight to explain why they were all there.

“About two hundred years ago, shortly after Fluttershy and Big Macintosh had married, Princess Celestia and Princess Luna asked us to gather together, including your husbands, to talk about very serious matters...” Twilight’s voice cracked . “That day we found out we were immortal.”

The others were silent, remembering the emotionally charged moment when they had realized that all they loved would cease to be in their lifetimes.

“I asked Spike to take care of the Library and left to take a long walk. I remember I was thinking of my parents...” Twilight smiled sadly. “Back then, I already had my suspicions about myself, after all I’d had an anvil land on my head and break my neck... only to be completely fine the next minute... but I never thought until then that I might not be the only one, or that it had been a freak magical accident.

“And so, thinking about that, my hooves took me to that same spot where Derpy had accidentally dropped her cargo on me. I sat down and thought hard about what would happen now. I was sad, but I was also ecstatic.” She chuckled. “After all, I would have all the time in the world to study and all the time in the world to learn more about magic and be with the Princess and my friends...

“But then... then I thought again of my parents. I always knew I would lose them at some point. I hoped it would take a long time but... being immortal it would almost feel like days to me. I thought about my other, non-immortal friends, about Fluttershy and Applejack watching their loved ones fade away... and it was during that moment that I noticed something reflecting the light of the sun... the glint caught my eye and I felt... a compulsion to reach for it.”

Twilight’s horn glowed with energy and a small wooden box levitated towards them. “For the longest time I thought it was simply a strange crystal...” The hatch opened, revealing a purple, jagged crystal. Sweetie gasped.

“But, as I studied it, off and on during the years, I discovered that it was almost... aligned to me... I could perform even stronger feats of magic while in proximity to it... sometimes my thoughts were clearer. Sometimes it was as if I had discussed what I was thinking with somepony else and an epiphany had come.” She studied the crystal for a moment. “After I met Sweetie, and heard her story, I immediately realized what this was... and that it had been waiting for her.” She looked to the young unicorn, who was staring at the crystal. “Sweetie... the crystals that you are absorbing are increasing your magic and your ability to learn... I don’t know how many fragments there are, but I want you to be careful.”

“What do you mean, Twilight?” Sweetie asked, tearing her eyes away from the crystal to look at the purple unicorn.

“I don’t know how it is affecting you beyond knowledge and power,” Twilight explained. “It’s imperative that you don’t absorb too many... or you might be overwhelmed by it.”

Sweetie gulped. “But... it’s the only way I know to travel between worlds...”

Twilight winced. “I know. I wish I had more to tell you, or that I had realized what this was a long time ago so that I could have studied it more closely. However, during your travels, don’t hesitate to tell any other me you might meet about them... they might have better understanding than I did, or even ask the Princesses.”

Sweetie nodded.

“So...” Rarity spoke up. “This is goodbye then?”

Sweetie cringed. She looked back to her sister, who was looking at her with a sad smile. “I- I think so, sis...”

The other mares in the room exchanged glances.

“Ah’m sorry about doubting you and threatening ya’ll,” Applejack said, stepping up to Sweetie and giving her a hug. “Ah’m glad ah got to spend some time with ya’ll last night.”

“Me too...” Sweetie said, returning the hug. “I’ll always remember that song.”

“Make sure ya do!” Applejack smiled. “Ah’m sure all other Applejacks out there will like it.”

Fluttershy was next, gently nuzzling Sweetie Belle. “Take care... and... take care of Big Mac in whatever world you see him for me...”

Sweetie chuckled. “I will.”

Pinkie Pie’s hug was so strong she pushed out all the air out of Sweetie’s lungs. “You should come back someday and have another party with us!” she laughed. “And remember, true friendship lasts forever!”

Sweetie Belle was still taking deep breaths when she felt Rainbow Dash’s hoof in her mane. The Wonderbolt smirked. “It was awesome to talk to you about Scoots and stuff that happened back in the day!” She laughed. “I had almost forgotten all about that Mare-do-Well fiasco. Take care, kiddo.”

Vespa smiled. “It was nice to finally meet you, Sweetie Belle. Granny Scoots used to tell me a lot about you.”

One by one the ponies walked out of the library after saying their goodbyes, leaving Sweetie Belle alone with Rarity and Twilight.

“Sweetie,” Twilight carefully laid the small wooden box on the table. “I also should return this.” Sweetie’s notebook floated up to them. “I added a couple of spells to it... it was very interesting to study! We have very different Spell Matrix designs in this universe, but it was easy enough to include what I wanted.”

Sweetie looked at her notebook. “So... what’s different now?”

“I included a spell that lets you ‘record’ your voice into the page, and another to allow you to have more pages included.” Twilight said with a proud smile. “That way you don’t have to worry about running out of space when taking notes!”

Sweetie smiled as she opened the book. Three pages were completely white except for a large G-clef on them. She looked at Twilight quizzically.

“That’s what happens when you record a song in there,” Twilight explained. “The page cannot be used again. All you have to do to play the music is press your horn against the note and it will play.”

Sweetie hugged Twilight. “Thank you... I don’t know how to tell you how much this means to me...”

“You already have, my student,” Twilight smiled into Sweetie’s mane. “Take care of yourself, and never stop learning.”

“I will...” Sweetie stepped back. “I promise.”

Twilight nodded and walked out of the library, leaving the sisters alone.

“I will miss you so much, Sweetie.” Rarity said, looking down. “But I won’t be the same as I was... I am stronger now, and it’s in no small measure thanks to you.”

“Me?” Sweetie blinked.

Rarity nodded. “Your stay here, although short, brought back a lot of memories... all of them good and dear to my heart. I realized a long time ago that what I did when you died was stupid... but even so, I’ve clung to my work and hidden behind my friend’s lives, living through Fluttershy, Applejack and Pinkie... thanks to you... I think I can finally close that chapter of my life and move forward.”

Sweetie smiled. “Are you going to go look for a coltfriend now?”

Rarity laughed as she warmly embraced her sister. “I just might,” she sniffed. “I just might.”

“Thank you for everything, sis,” Sweetie Belle murmured into her sister’s mane. “I love you.”

Rarity closed her eyes, letting a few tears slip out as she buried herself deeper into the embrace. “And I love you, Sweetie. Always.”

Sniffing, Sweetie stepped back, her horn alight with magic. First she slipped the picture she had found into her notebook, then let it pop out of existence. She then levitated the purple fragment up to her. She closed her eyes and let herself merge with it.

“Sweetie?” Twilight’s voice echoed in the darkness.

“I’m here, Twi... I’m trying to get you back together.”

“I’ve been here a long time, waiting for you...”

“I know,” Sweetie said. “Two hundred years... sorry I’m so late.”

“Oh no, I learned a lot from myself!” Twi’s voice chuckled. “Let’s go home.”

Rarity watched as her sister’s form slowly turned into motes of light that spiraled around each other. Her body trembled as tears formed in her eyes.

“I’m sorry I did what I did!” she suddenly said, a bit desperately at the fading unicorn. “I love you so much, Sweetie! I thought I couldn’t live without you! I’ll never make you sad again! I’ll never do something so stupid! I will always remember you and I know now that in many other places you live on, having adventures! I’ll never let myself

Startled, Sweetie opened her eyes as the motes of light almost completely dispersed. She smiled and mouthed two, simple words.

I know.

o.0.o

The first thing Sweetie noticed was the sound of a shower running. She opened her eyes and immediately recognized the shower in Carousel Boutique.

So, another world... she sighed. Well, it seems that the ‘me’ from here was about to take a shower... might as well finish doing it... I haven’t taken one since Nightmare Moon got my mane all sticky.

Sweetie walked up to the curtain and opened it. She stared at the mirror. That’s odd. We didn’t have a mirror inside the shower back home. This is... different.

She stared at her reflection. There was something odd about it. She seemed to have a slightly different build in this world. She blinked. My mirror self’s hair is wet... her eyes widened. Mirror images don’t get wet!

Sweetie took a step back, just as the colt in the shower did too, slipped and fell on his rump. They stared at each other.

“Oh Celestia...”

“Oh Solaris...”

“A COLT!”

“A FILLY!”

A soft knock on the door made them turn away from each other and look towards the entrance. A soft male voice could be heard above the din of the shower.

“Silver? I heard you shout! Is everything okay?”

o.0.o End Chapter 3 o.0.o

A/N: You can read it here.

Wagon Wheel” By Old Crow Medicine Show

Heart’s Lament” Lyrics by Trevor

Next chapter: On A Cross and Arrow

OAC&A: April Fools

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The Sweetie Chronicles: Fragments

Chapter 5: On a Cross And Arrow

By Wanderer D

Based on the Original Story by Conner Cogwork

Warning This is the APRIL FOOL'S CHAPTER!

o.o.o

“Sweepy? I heard you shout! Is everything okay?” Elusive called again.

Both Sweetie and Sweepy looked at each other, eyes wide.

“I-” Sweetie stammered.

“We’re-” Sweepy sputtered. “I-”

“Okay, I’m coming in!” the voice said and the door knob started to turn.

Sweepy panicked and grabbed Sweetie, pulling her into the shower and behind the curtain as the door opened and Elusive walked in, eyebrow arched.

“I thought I heard something, Sweepy,” he said, stopping and looking around the bathroom.

Sweepy smiled, grinning like an idiot and struggling to keep Sweetie under the shower and behind the curtain. “Uh, you did? W-well, yeah... I- I dropped the soap!”

Elusive looked at him blankly. “You... dropped the soap and screamed like a little filly?”

“Y-yeah! Uh, Scooteroll once told me what happens to pretty-faced stallions in prison when they drop the soap and-”

Elusive started sputtering and coughing as he shook his head in disbelief. “He what?! How did he hear- no, wait...” he took a deep breath and glared at his younger brother. “Sweepy...”

The colt smiled. “Yes, Elusive?”

“Why is the shower-curtain moving like you’re hiding a pony behind it?”

Sweepy looked to the side, where the curtain was being pushed outwards by Sweetie’s hoofs as she tried desperately to get out of the water and the shower. “Uh... because... because of... the... uh, vapors?” he suggested lamely.

With a sigh, Elusive conjured up his magic and the curtain was pushed aside. “Now, I’ve told you before that you three can...” he stared. “Oh, my... Sweepy, is that a filly in the shower with you?”

Sweetie glared at Sweepy, using one of her hooves to push away the wet mane from her eyes. “The hay were you thinking?!”

“I don’t know!” Sweepy countered, looking back at her. “What did you expect me to do?”

“Something other than throwing me into the water just like that!” Sweetie snapped. “Aw... my mane is really wet now!”

“Well, you just appeared in here! What was I supposed to think! Besides, I don’t even know you!” Sweepy retorted, shaking his head.

Elusive tried to hide a smile. “Well, she does look familiar. I wonder...” he took a couple of steps towards them, his magic flaring again to turn off the shower and wrap a pair of towels around both youngsters.

Sweepy and Sweetie glared at each other from under the towels.

“Yeah... I think I do recognize you from somewhere...” Sweepy finally said. “Have you been to Ponyville before?”

“I live here!” Sweetie huffed.

“Well, I’ve never seen you before!”

“Well, I haven’t seen you either!”

“Now, now, Sweetie, Sweepy, just dry yourselves and we can talk a bit before bed time, okay?” Elusive instructed calmly.

“Okay, Elusive...” Sweepy sighed as he started drying himself.

Sweetie, for her part, was staring at Elusive, towel forgotten. “Wait... how did you know my name?”

Elusive’s smile grew as his eyes twinkled in excitement. “Oh, I just knew it! This is the BEST POSSIBLE THING!”

She stared at the grinning stallion in front of her, staring as those familiar words echoed in her brain. Nopony else used those words except her sister. And this stallion... white, purple mane, blue eyes... was he actually...

“R... R-Rarity?”

and everything faded to black.

o.o.o

As her blurry eyes adjusted to the light around her, Sweetie could just make out voices, although she couldn’t understand what was being said. Her eyes tried to focus on a pony that looked familiar. Purple coat, dark blue for the mane, with dark pink and violet highlights.

“Twi- Twilight?” she groaned, closing her eyes. “What happened? I had the weirdest dream that Rarity was a stallion...” She tried to sit up. “Did I cast too many spells again? Why am I lying down?”

“It’s okay, Sweetie Belle, you just passed out,” a voice said soothingly.

Not recognizing the voice, Sweetie’s eyes snapped open as she looked around. She was in the library, everything was the same as normal except...

“Twilight! You- you’ve been turned into a colt! Did I mess up a spell!?”

Dusk chuckled, settling back. “No, Sweetie, it’s okay, my name is Dusk, and I am Twilight’s counterpart... you see, you are in a world that is just like your own, only everypony that is a filly in your world, is a colt here.”

Sweetie’s eyes widened. “You mean...” she looked around again, noticing Elusive looking at her. “That’s... Rarity? Only, a colt?”

Elusive nodded. “That’s right, Sweetie. Rarity told me about you, and that’s why I knew who you were.”

“Oh... so you’ve met Rarity?” Sweetie shook her head. “I thought I was the only pony travelling to different worlds!”

“Well, we managed to send her home, and I think I’ve almost got the spell ready to send you home too,” Dusk said.

Sweetie’s eyes were wide open now. “Really?! You can do that?! I thought I’d be stuck bouncing around dimensions for a while!”

Dusk chuckled. “It’s no problem. We have everything ready, but we wanted you to be awake so that you wouldn’t have any trouble getting home once we send you to your world.”

“So what do I do?” Sweetie asked.

“Just, stand right there...” Dusk pointed to a mostly empty area of the library, where a vase stood. “I’ll begin casting the spell now.”

“Okay!” Sweetie hurried to take her position as Dusk’s horn started glowing.

The vase next to Sweetie started glowing and energy extended from it, creating a magical field around Sweetie.

“Sweetie, say hello to Rarity for us!” Elusive cried.

“I will!” Sweetie Belle promised.

The field started shining brighter and brighter. “We’re almost done!” Dusk shouted.

At that moment, a pink flash of energy sent both colts flopping to the floor.

Dusk gasped as he struggled to stand up, he looked towards the vase to find it broken, with no sign of Sweetie.

“Sweetie?!” Elusive turned to look at Dusk worriedly. “What happened?!”

“I... I don’t know? Maybe she made it?” Dusk shook his head.

A feminine laugh, derisive and rather maniacal filled the library. “Oh, she made it alright!”

Dusk’s head whipped around in surprise, looking for the origin of the voice, which he couldn’t mistake anywhere. “Eris! Show yourself! What’d you do to Sweetie?”

“Oh, Dusk, always soooo serious! She’s fine! I just sent her to another world!” Eris said, her disembodied head floating out of the bookshelf, grinning like an idiot as it bounced through the air.

The rest of her body opened the door to the library, stepped in, closed it and walked up to them before Eris’ head floated down and reattached itself.

“Eris! This is serious! She’s just a filly; she can’t deal with your craziness! She’ll get killed!”

The draconequus laughed. “Oh, Elusive, you kill me! She’s scheduled to stop at the Wastelands next anyways; Don’t think that filly is as useless as you think she is!”

“She’s scheduled to go where?” Dusk shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but-”

He stopped when Eris’ finger gently pressed against his lips. His eyes widened as she batted her eyes at him. “It’s okay, honey, let’s see what she’s up to, okay?”

Elusive snorted. “And how are we going to do that exactly?”

Eris grinned and snapped her fingers. Suddenly, in a puff of pink smoke, the three of them were sitting in a pair of loveseats, Elusive comfortably settled on a smaller, normally shaped one, while the larger of the two, shaped like an enormous heart, had sloping sides that sent Eris sliding into Dusk’s lap.

The lights had dimmed and there was a bowl of popcorn in between Eris and Dusk. “Well, TV of course!” she laughed, pointing at a large screen that had suddenly appeared.

o.o.o

“Oof!”

Sweetie landed painfully on a metallic surface of some sort.

“Ow, where am I?” she gasped.

“I have a better question for you,” a strange creature asked. “How did you get inside the TARDIS?”

“The whatnow?” Sweetie slowly stood up. “I don’t know. I think Dusk must have messed up the interdimensional travel spell.”

“Well, it’s highly unusual, let me tell you that,” the creature said, hurriedly running from one side of the room to another. “But, if some sort of teleportation went wrong, I shouldn’t be surprised; the TARDIS seems to be a beacon for strange occurrences.”

“So... I’m in a TARDIS... and who are you again?”

“I’m The Doctor.”

“Oh, I’m Sweetie Belle!”

The creature stopped. “Aren’t you going to ask me for the rest of my name?”

“No... should I?”

The Doctor chuckled. “Guess not. Well, Sweetie Belle, we’re about to arrive in the early 800s in England.”

“England? Where’s that? Is it near Equestria?”

The Doctor blinked. “Equestria? Never heard of it.”

Sweetie gasped. “But... how?”

“We’ll have time for that later,” the Doctor assured her. “Right now, I have to stop a catastrophe from happening, you see, there is this... thing, from another dimension, like you, I would say, although, not a unicorn, and it is going to disrupt time in such a way that it will completely destroy everything around it...” He frowned as he waved some sort of device over her. “You also have an intriguing amount of tachyons and and interdimensional stuff all around you.”

“Stuff?” Sweetie shook her head. “I’ve been travelling to other worlds, so that’s probably the reason.”

The Doctor shrugged as the whole place shuddered and then stopped. “Well, we’re here. Are you coming?”

Sweetie nodded, curiously looking at the small doors as they opened. When she stepped out, her eyes went over the whole green fields around them. “Wow, this reminds me of home! And you say this place is called Ingland?”

“England, yes,” the doctor said.

“Okay! So where do we go now?” Sweetie asked, just as a group of creatures like the Doctor, only covered in metallic armor and riding horses stampeded past them.

“I say we follow the knights!”

The pair followed the knights as they rushed to a great creature that tore the ground around with rays coming out of its bulbous eyes.

“Hm, just as I was afraid of,” The Doctor said, raising an eyebrow. “A Neutronian Reaver, nasty bit of technology, that one.”

“Wh- what does it do?” Sweetie asked as the monstrosity’s rays obliterated two knights. The group seemed to take note of the Doctor and Sweetie and galloped away from the mechanical monster, which turned around and proceeded to to start excavating the earth, something that it had seemed to be doing before the knights attacked.

“I’ll tell you in a moment,” the Doctor said, keeping his eyes on the approaching knights.

“Greetings,” the lead knight, wearing a green armor said, raising his hand. “Judging from your clothes and the fact that you are conversing with a unicorn, I must assume you to be some sort of wizard.”

The Doctor looked perplexed, but after a moment of hesitation, nodded.

“As you can see, we are in dire need of help, wizard,” the knight continued. “In the name of the King, I bid you help us!”

“What king?” Sweetie asked.

“Why, King Arthur of course!” The knight answered. “Allow me to introduce myself, I, am Sir Galahad and I have been entrusted by my king to deal with that creature, but by ourselves, there’s little that we can do.”

The Doctor nodded. “Well, the Neutronian Reavers are infamous for being almost unstoppable once they get started, once they get in contact with the surface of a planet, they will dig a tunnel to the center of said planet and consume the energy residing in it, effectively destroying the world.”

Sweetie gulped. “But... is there a way to do it?”

“Well, there’s always a way... I just don’t know how we can get it off the ground long enough for it to lose its connection to earth, keep it distracted long enough for it to deplete its energy and finally attach a tachion-dislocation device on it so that it gets thrown into a place where it cannot damage the multiverse,” the Doctor listed.

Sweetie raised an eyebrow and looked at the machine. “Well... if I were as strong as Twilight I could levitate it but... my magic is not strong enough to keep it floating more than a few seconds.”

“Hm, we need a full minute at least and-” The Doctor shook his head. “Wait a moment, you said you can levitate it?”

“Yes?”

“Then we might have a chance!” The Doctor smiled. “Sir Galahad, we will need the help of you and your knights to keep it distracted, but we can do this!”

“I will rally my knights, good wizard!” the Knight said.

“Okay, but first, here’s the plan...”

The Neutronian Reaver stopped its excavation when the knights attacked again. Raising to the challenge, it began to shoot its deadly rays at him, but this time the knights kept enough distance that they could dodge them. It never seemed to realize that it was no longer touching the ground.

Inside the TARDIS, strapped to several cables and wearing a strange contraption on her head, Sweetie concentrated hard on levitating the robot, as the Doctor had called it. Had she not been plugged in, as it were, she knew that she wouldn’t have been able to even pick it up a bit, much less high enough to keep it off the ground and this long! “Hurry Doctor!” she groaned. “I’m doing as much as I can, but I’m almost completely out of energy!”

She watched in the screen how, as the knights were distracted, the Doctor creeped up to the monster. Once he was within reach, he quickly attached the device he had onto the base of the mechanical creature.

The moment he did, all of the Neutronian Reaver’s devices pointed at him as it produced an ear-splitting screech. The weapons charged... and sputtered as the last of its earth-based energy left it. The device attached to it beeped...

And the world fizzled around Sweetie.

o.o.o

“That was really intense! I thought the Doctor wouldn’t make it!”

Dusk’s eyelids were halfway down as he stared forward with a decidedly annoyed look. “It was... but... please get off of me, Eris.”

The draconequus pretended to be hurt. “What? That’s very cold of you, Dusk dear...”

Elusive snickered. “She is right, Dusk ‘dear’, you shouldn’t leave a lady hanging like that in her time of need.”

Dusk closed his eyes and grit his teeth. “Where is Sweetie now, Eris?”

“Well, why don’t we find out?”

o.o.o

Sweetie shook her head. “Doctor?”

“Well, the unicorn speaks,” a voice said. “This is clearly a symptom of my delirium.”

“What are you talking about?” Sweetie said, rolling off of the dusty sofa she had landed on. “Where am I? Who are you?”

The human she was looking at was tall, although he was slouching on a couch, his left leg extended as he strummed a guitar. His hair was cut short, and he had a stubble... Rarity would have been appalled at how little he seemed to care for his appearance.

His head leaned back as he looked down at her with slightly watery eyes. He frowned. “That’s unusual: hallucinations usually know your name given that the stimuli comes directly from the brain. You seem rather benign for a drug-induced nightmare.”

“I’m not a Nightmare!” Sweetie said, shaking her head. “My name is Sweetie Belle, and I asked your name.”

The man looked out a window, momentarily seeming to ignore her. She took advantage to look around the room she was in.

There were clothes scattered around, what looked like vinyl LPs, and a lot of empty little bottles with tags on them.

Sweetie was about to remind him that it was rude not to answer when something on his belt beeped. The man slowly looked down and pulled a black little machine up. “Well, my unicorn friend, it seems I have to go; please feel free to use my humble abode.”

“Wait!” Sweetie said as the man stood and started limping towards the door. “You can’t just do that! Don’t leave me alone!”

He looked at her steadily for a minute before shrugging. “Well, I could never say no to a little girl. Come on, I’ll drive.”

“Thank you...” Sweetie sighed. “I don’t know much about the human world. I’m usually only with other ponies...”

The man chuckled. “And here I thought you would insist on driving. That’s what all the other hallucinations do.”

Sweetie shook her head as she walked out of the door politely held open by the man.

“So what was your name?” She asked again as he looked it.

“Dr. Gregory House, but most just call me House.”

o.o.o

“Oooh! A medical drama!” Eris giggled, cuddling up to Dusk, who threw some popcorn into his mouth and refused to acknowledge her, the giggling Elusive, or the blush developing on his cheeks.

o.o.o

Doctors and nurses and patients and visitors all stopped and stared as House walked into the Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital followed by a filly unicorn.

“Now, if I were an annoying pest, where would I be?” House mused as a nurse stopped dead in her tracks, releasing the wheelchair she had been pushing, letting it roll right out of the automatic doors and into the parking lot. “Aha, my office!” he declared triumphantly as he started limping towards the elevator. “Come on, Sweetie Belle, there’s wannabe doctors waiting!”

Sweetie smiled nervously at everyone as she followed House into the elevator. Turning around, she waved goodbye as the doors closed. She looked at the numbers on the wall as they lighted one by one, until, with a ‘ding’, the elevator doors opened once more and the pair walked down a corridor and into a large office with glass walls, where a group of three doctors waited.

“House, finally!” a female doctor with brown hair turned around at the sound of the door opening. “We’ve been wai-” She stopped immediately to stare at the little unicorn that walked in after her superior.

“Dr. Cameron. Dr. Chase. Dr. Foreman.” House nodded at each of the doctors. “If you can see her, my unicorn friend’s name is Sweetie Belle. And if you can’t see her, things are worse than I thought. Now, what seems to be the problem?”

“But- that’s a unicorn!” Dr. Cameron snapping out of it. “How... why is there a unicorn with you? Aren’t they supposed to only go to pure little girls?”

“Is that true?” House looked at Sweetie, who shrugged.

“Galahad said the same thing, but I never heard of any unicorn even meeting a human before me,” Sweetie replied.

House smiled pleasantly at the three doctors, who, once more, were staring at the talking unicorn. “See? Myths and defamations.”

Dr. Cameron slowly placed her hands on her face. “Why... why am I even surprised? If there was anyone that could possibly bring a freaking live, honest-to-God talking unicorn to the hospital, it would have to be you.”

“So, you called and we are here,” House said. “What is the problem?”

“We have a patient... she... she’s delirious... she um...” Dr. Foreman hesitated.

“Yes?” House insisted.

“She... she thinks she’s a unicorn named Lyra Heartstrings...” Dr. Foreman said slowly. “We did some tests but couldn’t find anything in her blood and...”

“Lyra?!” Sweetie Belle jumped in front of them. “How? Is she okay?”

Chase looked at the filly. “You know a unicorn called Lyra?” He closed his eyes and massaged his temple. “Of course you do, why wouldn’t you?”

House smirked. “Well, let’s see what ‘Lyra’ has to say.”

The group followed House and Sweetie Belle down to the medical ward, where they could soon hear shouting.

“Let me go! Damn it! It’s not funny! Not even Mollari tried to keep me trapped like this! I demand a lawyer! Or at least a lyre! For the love of Celestia, humans! I’m one of you now!”

“Well, well, well, Miss... Lyra,” House said as he stepped into the room, drawing the attention of the young lady with gray hair and blue bangs. “To what do we owe your presence in our world?”

“You don’t believe me,” Lyra growled. “Nobody here does.”

“Well, you have to understand,” House smiled. “People lie. It’s a fact. Part of being human.”

“Well, I’ve only been human for an hour!”

“It just so happens that I believe you,” House said. “After all, unicorns haven’t lied to me yet.”

Lyra frowned. “What unicorns? There aren’t any other unico-” her eyes widened as she looked to the right of the human doctor. “Sw- Sweetie Belle?! How did you get here?”

“Lyra! It is you!” Sweetie jumped on the bed. “How did you get here?”

“I found a box that could transport me to different worlds... so I took Twilight, Octavia and Vinyl with me and at one point I was told that I could be turned into a human so I... um... I shoved Twi and the others out of the way and um... here I am...” she cringed. “Can you help me?”

“Um... I don’t know how?” Sweetie sighed. “Do you want me to turn you back into a unicorn? I could try...”

“No!” Lyra shouted. “I’m okay! I just need to get out of here!”

“But... you don’t know how to act like a human,” Sweetie argued. “Hold on, I think I might have a spell for this...”

“No... please, Sweetie...” Lyra begged. “I finally have my hands...”

Sweetie sighed again. “Fine,” she looked up at House. “She’s actually a good pony, and a very good musician... if you could teach her how to be a human I’m sure she’d be okay...”

“You can’t be suggesting what I think you are...” Chase spoke up. “She’s cute, she shouldn’t be left alone with House!”

“Pleeeeaase?” Sweetie begged, looking with big watery eyes at House, who rolled his eyes.

“Fine, she can stay with me, but she has to clean Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. And also get a job.”

Lyra nodded. “I will! Thank you!”

“I can’t believe this,” Chase groaned.

“What, you wanted her for yourself?” Dr. Cameron asked, elbowing him.

“What about you, Sweetie?” Lyra asked as Dr. Foreman reluctantly removed the restraints.

“I don’t know, I’ve been randomly-”

The world fizzled around her.

“-being transported...” she finished with a sigh.

o.o.o

“Seriously? You’re just going to change the channel?” Dusk asked, glaring down at Eris, who was resting her head on his lap.

“Well yes, Dusky, we all know how that ends... House and Lyra fall in love, they have crazy sex and then they end it over a fight because House is being House and he remains bitter, she finds a good job, gets together with another girl after discovering her true sexuality and they all live happily until House shows up again.”

Dusk sighed, shaking his head. “So, what’s next?”

o.o.o

“Ow!” Sweetie exclaimed as she landed on the hard asphalt of a dark, dimly lit street. “Ugh, great, where am I now?” she grumbled to herself, rising to her hooves as quickly as she could, wincing from the few cuts and bruises she gained from the hard fall. She had hardly gotten up before she was almost run over from behind.

“H-hey, watch where you’re going!” Sweetie exclaimed, barely leaping away in time, her jump far from graceful.

“W-what?”

As Sweetie took a closer look, she saw yet another oddity, but tried to analyze it rather than be stunned by it. It was fairly large, over three times her height, and appeared to be constructed mostly of metal, though its head appeared to be made of glass, the contents of which were glowing somewhat, showing a fish. Sweetie was shocked as its mouth moved, and she heard, “I-I’m sorry, are you alright?”

“Y-yeah,” she replied absently, still staring at the large creature. After a moment of silence, she continued, “I’m Sweetie Belle. Who are you?”

“Minion,” it replied shortly, staring right back at her. “I... what are you?”

“I’m a unicorn,” she replied, only slightly indignant. “What are you?”

“What, you’ve never seen a talking fish before?”

“Well... No, I haven’t, but then again, I’ve seen a lot of things today that I’ve never seen before,” she admitted, rubbing the back of her head with her hoof. “So where are you off in such a rush to?”

“Away from here,” it replied, huffing slightly.

“Why, what happened? Is there a monster coming?” Sweetie asked, starting to prepare some magic, just in case.

“Code: I don’t want to talk about it,” he answered, looking away.

“Huh?” Sweetie tilted her head to the side, frowning. “Code... what?”

Minion blinked, before facepalming the glass sphere that contained his body, lamenting, “I forgot that you wouldn’t know the code, sorry.” Looking back up at her, he leaned down towards her, lowering his voice as he inquired, “If I teach you the code, do you promise not to tell anyone else?”

“Yeah, I promise!” Sweetie replied eagerly, excited at the chance to learn some more new information. “Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye!”

Minion blinked as the unicorn made some odd motions with her hooves as she chanted her reply. “A-alright... Anyway, I’ll just keep saying things in ‘the code’ until you get it, alright? Now, code: I’ve never seen a unicorn before.”

Sweetie frowned in thought, trying to figure out what he could possibly be trying to say.

Code: it looks like it’s going to rain soon,” he continued, stressing the word ‘code’ a little bit. “Code: I hope you don’t hate wet hair,” he added, making quotation marks with his mechanical fingers.

Blinking in realization, she questioned haltingly, “Code: are you saying that the code is just adding the word ‘code’ in front of whatever you want to say?”

After a surprised, if a bit forced, gasp, Minion answered, “Code: I can’t believe you broke ‘the code’ so quickly!” Recovering, he added in a thoughtful voice, “Code: you’re more intelligent than I first thought...”

Taking a step backwards, Sweetie replied, slightly confused, “Code... umm, thanks?”

“Code: you’re welcome!” Minion smiled, holding out a mechanical hand. “Code: want to be my friend?”

“Code: sure!” Sweetie replied, holding out her hoof, allowing him to shake it warmly, if with a bit of a strong.

“Code: great! Want to get donuts?”

“Code: that’d be awesome!” Sweetie exclaimed, eyes brightening. “Code: I haven’t had anything to eat in hours!”

“Code: great! Hop on,” he finished, motioning to the contraption he was standing on.

“Code: thanks!” Sweetie jumped aboard, clutching tightly to Minion’s leg as it started down the street at a much higher speed than she thought possible.

o.o.o

As Sweetie downed another donut happily, she mumbled around the food, “Code: so where were you going? What happened?”

“Code: I was betrayed by this guy I knew who might have kinda, sorta been a bit of a jerk,” Minion replied darkly, the table bearing the full brunt of his sullen gaze.

Frowning as she took another bite, she pressed further, “Code: what did he do, and why did he do it?”

Looking away, Minion responded quickly, “Code: he totally refused to listen to what I had to say, and was being totally selfish, so I left to find some place where I’d be more appreciated.”

Swallowing, Sweetie levitated a napkin to wipe her mouth absently, before saying slowly, “Code: so you’re not even going to try to forgive him?”

“Code: no, why should I? He won’t listen to me!”

“Code: so? Just because-”

Sweetie was interrupted as she saw a tall, blue creature of similar size and shape, save for an overlarge cranium, to the humans she had run into earlier. She and Minion watched in silence as he stopped a woman nearby, talking to her for a little while, before the woman walked off in the rain, leaving the blue man standing there, alone.

Sweetie turned back to continue her conversation with Minion. She saw how distant he seemed as he watched the blue man slowly walk off, depressed and, after a moment of contemplative silence, she asked quietly, “That was your friend, wasn’t it? The jerk?”

“... Yeah,” Minion answered quietly. “I told him that the bad guy never gets the girl, and then he said that maybe he didn’t want to be the bad guy anymore then, and...”

“... You’re bad guys? Why?” Sweetie asked, surprised. He seemed rather nice. How could they possibly be evil?

“Well... because,” Minion answered, waving his hands helplessly. “It’s not like we were accepted for anything else, so since everybody expected it of us, we jus-”

“Wasn’t there a part of you that wanted to prove them wrong?”

“Well... Maybe a little, tiny piece,” Minion admitted.

“So why not try it? Your friend is willing to try, and it sounds like you’re willing to consider it, so why not give it a chance? He’s your friend and you should always be able to forgive your friends, even if he did do some stupid stuff.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right, but we have to find him first.”

“Well... what is he likely to do now?” Sweetie asked, gazing intently at Minion.

After thinking for a moment, he chuckled to himself, answering, “Probably turn himself in to the police to be arrested, if I had to guess, since he does stupid stuff like that when he’s depressed.”

“Well then, what say we break him out of jail then?” Sweetie asked, quirking an eyebrow as she grinned.

“Code: I would really appreciate your help,” Minion suggested back, grinning a little.

“Code: you don’t have to ask! Come on, let’s go free your friend! Code: do you have any ideas?”

Frowning in thought, Minion looked down at his hands, playing with the mechanics of them, when something on his wrist flashed, causing him to smile. “Code: I think I have a great plan, but I’ll need help getting past the guards.”

“Code: let’s go do this then!” Sweetie cheered, holding her hoof out, which Minion pounded gently.

“Code: yeah! Let’s get to it!”

o.o.o

The world fizzled and sizzled again in what felt like being in a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey....stuff and suddenly Sweetie was seating on a couch, right next to Elusive, who waved a hoof at her.

Dusk and... Discord? No... it was female... and it was kissing Dusk.

“What’s going on here?” she finally asked.

Elusive smiled. “Well, Dusk and Eris finally confessed their love for each other and I managed to bring you back with the ‘return’ button on this control thing...”

Sweetie blinked. “I swear Twilight gets in the weirdest relationships...”

Elusive chuckled. “Well, you won’t be going anywhere while those two are making out, want to watch the rest of ‘Megamind’ and see how Minion did?”

Sweetie sighed. “Pass the Popcorn.”

o.o.o The End! o.o.o

Happy April Fools! XD

It took us about 4 hours of solid work (with one looong break) to finish this, hope you enjoyed it!

WD, Magical Trevor & Undestated Hyperbole

On A Cross and Arrow

View Online

The Sweetie Chronicles: Fragments

By Wanderer D

Editors & Proof: Magical Trevor, littlerobotbird, Fifth Alicorn, Conner Cogwork (Consultant), Cardslafter, Dragryphon

o.o.0.o.o

“Silver? I heard you shout! Is everything okay?” Elusive called.

Sweetie and Silver looked at each other, eyes wide in confusion.

“I-” Sweetie stammered.

“We’re-” Silver sputtered. “I- What are you doing?”

“Me?!” Sweetie replied. “I just arrived! I’m not doing anything!”

There was another knock. Silver looked up and down Sweetie with wide eyes. “Quick! Hide!”

“Where?” Sweetie asked, starting to panic. “There’s nowhere to hide!”

“In the water! Quick!”

“No! I can’t hold my breath that long and-”

“Okay, I’m coming in!” the voice announced and the door knob started to turn.

Silver panicked and grabbed Sweetie, pushing her into the water and closing the curtain.

The door opened and Elusive walked in, eyebrow arched. “I thought I heard something, Silver,” he said, stopping and looking around the bathroom.

Silver smiled, poking his head through the curtains and grinning like an idiot while struggling to keep Sweetie behind the curtain. “Uh, you did? W-well, yeah... I- I dropped the soap!”

Elusive stared at him incredulously. “You... dropped the soap and screamed like a little filly?”

“Y-yeah! Uh, Scooteroll once told me what happens to pretty-faced stallions in prison when they drop the soap and-”

Elusive started coughing as he shook his head in disbelief. “He what?! How did he hear- no, wait...” He took a deep breath and glared at his younger brother. “Silver...”

The colt smiled innocently. “Yes, Elusive?”

“Why are you keeping the shower curtain so tight around you?”

“Um... because I’m naked and I want to keep a sense of decency?”

Elusive gave him a look. “Silver, we’re ponies. We’re naked most of the time. And that doesn’t explain why the curtain is moving so much.”

Silver looked to the side, where the curtain was being pushed outwards by Sweetie’s hooves as she tried desperately to get out of the water and the shower. “Uh... because... because of... the... uh, vapors?” he suggested lamely.

With a sigh, Elusive conjured up his magic and the curtain was pushed aside. “Are the other Crusaders in there with you? Now, I’ve told you before that you three can...” He stared. “Oh, my... Silver, is that a filly in the shower with you?”

Sweetie gasped for air and glared at Silver, using one of her hooves to push away the wet mane from her eyes. “The hay were you thinking?!”

“I don’t know!” Silver exclaimed, looking back at her. “What did you expect me to do?”

“Something other than throwing me into the water like that!” Sweetie snapped. “Aw... now my mane is completely soaked!”

“Well, you just appeared in here! What was I supposed to think?! Besides, I don’t even know you!” Silver retorted, shaking his head.

Elusive tried to hide a smile. “Well, she does look familiar. I wonder...” He took a couple of steps towards them, his magic flaring again to turn off the shower and levitate a pair of towels, which he wrapped around both youngsters.

Silver and Sweetie glared at each other from beneath the towels.

“Yeah... I think I do recognize you from somewhere...” Silver finally said. “Have you been to Ponyville before?”

“I live here!” Sweetie huffed.

“Well, I’ve never seen you before!”

“Well, I haven’t seen you either!”

“Now, now, Sweetie, Silver,” Elusive instructed calmly. “Just dry yourselves and we can talk a bit before bed time, okay?”

“Okay, Elusive...” Silver sighed as he started drying himself.

Sweetie, for her part, was staring at Elusive, towel forgotten. “Wait... how did you know my name?”

Elusive’s smile grew as his eyes twinkled in excitement. “Oh, I just knew it! This is the BEST POSSIBLE THING!”

She stared at the grinning stallion in front of her, staring as those familiar words echoed in her brain. Nopony else used those words except her sister. And this stallion... white, purple mane, blue eyes... was he actually...

“R... R-Rarity?”

Her eyes rolled back in her skull as everything faded to black.

o.0.o

Sweetie slowly became aware of two voices talking to each other right next to her. She groggily tried to shake her head, but the darkness seemed to cling to her. Eventually, as she became more aware of what was happening, she was able to slowly make out details.

“- but, she can’t be me! She’s all... soft-looking...” one voice, sounding slightly perturbed, said.

“Well, she’s not you exactly. She’s Rarity’s sister, from the dimension where everypony’s the opposite gender,” another voice said. “Rarity told me about her; you two are really similar!”

“But... she’s... a filly...”

Sweetie’s eyes fluttered open and she squinted into the light. “Oww... my head...”

“Careful, dear, take it easy,” Elusive said soothingly. “You passed out... maybe it was the dimensional jump?”

“That’s silly,” Sweetie replied. “I’ve never passed out while jumping dimensions before; furthermore, since I usually end up in another body, my theory is that there is really no exertion, magical or otherwise, on my part for each jump.” She rubbed her head as she slowly started taking in her surroundings. “I guess, statistically speaking, I haven’t jumped enough times to have a serious point of reference, but...” she trailed off when she noticed that Silver and Elusive were staring blankly at her. “What?”

“Are you sure that she’s me in another universe?” Silver asked Elusive, who was staring at Sweetie, slack-jawed. “She sounds like an egg-head.”

“Hey!” Sweetie glared at Silver. “You don’t have to say it like that!

Elusive closed his mouth with an audible snap and cleared his throat before speaking. “Um, hi, Sweetie Belle. I’m Elusive and this is Silver; you might feel a bit confused at the moment, but that is normal. You see, how can I put this?” He sighed. “This is not your home universe; over here, we are the opposite gender than in your own world.”

Sweetie Belle giggled nervously. “I-it’s okay... I overheard you two just a bit when I was waking up.”

Elusive blinked. “Ah, I guess Rarity must have told you about us then... that’s good!” He smiled, but then blinked and yawned, covering his mouth with his hoof. “I’m so sorry, I’m afraid I’m rather tired. But first, have you eaten anything, Sweetie? Are you hungry?”

“I’m okay, I ate just before leaving...” Sweetie frowned. “Although I’m not quite sure how that works if I’m in another body in a different dimension.”

“I see,” Elusive nodded, eyes drooping. “Well, you can take Silver’s bed, he can sleep on the sofa-”

“Hey!” Silver interrupted. “Why do I have to give her my bed?”

Elusive could barely keep himself awake, but he still managed to frown at his brother. “Because you’re a gentlecolt, that’s why.” He yawned again. “We’ll all go see Dusk tomorrow then maybe we can show Sweetie around before sending her home...”

Upon hearing that, Sweetie’s heart beat harder. Can they really send me home? Do I want to go home? But... what about Twilight?

With one long, final yawn, Elusive tiredly made his way up the stairs into his room. It wasn’t long before they heard him shut the door.

Silver sighed. “Well, follow me...”

The pair started up the stairs in silence. Silver glanced behind him and noticed the far-away look on Sweetie. The more I look at her the more she looks like me! It’s weird! She’s... what I would look like as a filly! he realized, eyebrow twitching.

When they reached his room and went in, he motioned towards the bed. “There it is, enjoy...” he stated simply, his words in a resigned tone. He turned around to leave, but was stopped by Sweetie’s voice.

“Hey, Silver?”

“Yeah?” he asked, blinking tiredly as he turned to face her.

“I’m sorry I took your bed...” Sweetie said, jumping onto the bed. “Do you want to just sleep here? I think it’s big enough,” she offered.

The colt continued to stare a bit more, before he tentatively smiled. “Are... are you sure that’d be okay? I have to admit, I really hate sleeping on the sofa.”

Sweetie nodded. “Yeah, I remember... and don’t worry, I know I would hate it if somepony suddenly took over my bed!”

Silver grinned and jumped up on the bed, lying down. “Yeah, there’s enough space!” he yawned and watched lazily as Sweetie’s horn flashed with magic and the lights turned off while the door closed. “Sweetie?”

“Yeah?”

“Sorry I called you an egghead,” he muttered, already drifting into sleep.

“It’s okay,” Sweetie answered, snuggling into the pillow. “I actually took it as a compliment.”

There was a moment of silence.

“Silver?”

“Yeah?”

“What are the other crusaders like? Is Scootaloo cute?”

“Cute?” Silver blinked. “Are you talking about Scooteroll? I don’t know about cute, he doesn’t seem to get along with fillies...”

“That doesn’t tell me much...”

“Well, what did you expect? I don’t think he’s cute, but you’ll probably meet him tomorrow, and then you can tell me, okay?”

Sweetie nodded, yawning. “Okay... goodnight, Silver.”

“Goodnight, Sweetie.”

Soon both of them were asleep.

o.0.o

*knock-knock*

Rarity stared at the porcelain cup containing the already cold tea. A freezing breeze entered through the open window, leaving her shivering, but she chose to stay put, her eyes lost in thought.

Opalescence, looking more grayish than white, purred and rubbed herself against Rarity's side to no avail. Eventually, the cat stopped and looked sadly at its master. With a soft meow, she walked away, leaving Rarity on her own.

The wind blew again, the curtains flapped around as Rarity shivered once more.

“Rarity?” a soft voice called as the creaking sound of the door opening echoed through the silent house. “Are you here? Today's Spa Tuesday and...” Fluttershy stopped at the entrance to the kitchen. “Rarity... you're freezing!” she quickly galloped to the window and shut it tight. She went out of the room to come back with a thick blanket, which she draped over Rarity's shoulders.

Rarity's teeth slowed in their chattering, but it continued and her shivering didn't lessen at all. Worried, Fluttershy heated some water and made more tea, which she placed in front of Rarity. “Drink this, it will help.”

Rarity, however just stared at the cup, until Fluttershy lifted her chin so that she could stare into her eyes. “Rarity! You will drink this tea now!”

Taken aback, the unicorn nodded and slowly sipped at the tea.

Fluttershy nodded as slowly a bit of rosiness returned to Rarity's cheeks. “What happened? How long have you had that window open?”

“Uh?” Rarity shook her head, looking tiredly at Fluttershy. “Oh... I... I don't know dear, since this morning? After we left Applejack's house and Applebloom was bringing the drawings out of their clubhouse...”

“Rarity...” Fluttershy whispered in horror. “That... that was yesterday morning! Have you just been sitting here since then?”

Rarity slowly dropped down, taking a shaking sip of her tea.

“Has the window been open since then?”

Rarity nodded.

“Rarity... it snowed last night.” Fluttershy went to stand next to her friend. “Come on, we need to get you in a warm bath... I'd better get Twi-” she stopped suddenly. “I- I mean... Nurse Redheart.”

Rarity however, didn't seem to notice; she was barely able to stand.

“Wait... wait here...” Fluttershy said, guiding Rarity to the couch and helping her settle in it. “I'll go get help... I'll cook you a meal and... just... I'll be right back...” she galloped out as fast as she could.

Rarity didn't say anything at first. She just shivered under the heavy blanket.

“Sweetie...” she whispered.

Silver drowsily opened his eyes, wondering what had woken him up. He looked to the side when he heard a whimper.

Sweetie turned, her face contorted in a frown as she whimpered again and curled up.

Silver slowly placed his hoof on her shoulder and sighed in relief when she relaxed and smiled, going back to peaceful sleep.

Too tired to do much else, he yawned and lay down, closing his eyes.

o.0.o

Early the next morning, Elusive cheerfully knocked on Silver’s door. “Silver! Wake up!”

He heard a groan from inside. “Five more minutes!”

Rolling his eyes and shaking his head in amusement, Elusive chuckled. “Fine, but be sure to make it only five; your friends will be here shortly!” He then turned around and took a couple of steps down the hall before stopping completely, a realization coming to mind as a frown crossed his face. Wait... that didn’t sound like Silver...

He walked back up to the room and inside. He blinked as the memory of last night returned to him and the pieces fit together. “Oh, that’s right... Sweetie is here.” It didn’t take long for him to notice a second ivory foal, passed out right next to her. Chuckling to himself, he left the room as he spoke. “Five minutes, you two! Remember that!”

The groans and mutters were answer enough for him as he went down to prepare breakfast.

It was barely a few minutes later when the stallion heard confused shouts coming from the room. They must have forgotten that they were sleeping together, he thought to himself, stifling a laugh.

Elusive levitated the last of the waffles and placed them upon a plate, levitating the whole pile towards the table while counting in his head. Right on cue, Sweetie and Silver ran down the stairs together, each of them sporting a similar expression of hunger. It was just... strange at times to think how similar and yet different things were between different worlds.

“Wow, waffles!” Silver salivated. “I love these! We should have them more often!”

“Waffles?” Sweetie asked, looking down at her plate. “I’ve never had waffles before.”

“What?” Silver’s eyes went wide. “You’ve never had waffles?! What do you have for breakfast then?”

“Pancakes?” Sweetie replied hesitantly as she levitated a fork and knife. “Spike even taught me Princess Celestia’s favorite pancake recipe!”

Elusive chuckled. “Well, Spines is rumored to know Prince Solaris’ favorite waffle recipe.”

“But... never eaten a waffle?” Silver insisted. “That’s just... wrong...”

Sweetie poured some syrup and took a bite of the waffle. She chewed on it for a few seconds, before her eyes lit in approval. “Hm, not bad...”

“I see that you are very proficient with your magic, dear,” Elusive commented after a moment of watching. “Did Rarity teach you?”

Sweetie blinked, noticing for the first time that Silver was eating without the use of magic, while both her horn and Elusive’s were shining as they used theirs to eat. “Oh... well, not exactly. Rarity asked Twilight to teach me, and that’s how I learned!”

Elusive gave Silver a considering glance. “Hm... that doesn’t sound like a bad idea; Dusk could probably spare some time to at least teach Silver some basic magic.”

Silver gave them a horrified look. “More studying? Yuck! I’d much rather find my cutie mark!”

Sweetie looked down to her own blank flank. “Yeah, I hear you there.”

Elusive smiled. “Well, I’m sure you two can try to find it later. First, I think we should talk to Dusk about when you can go home, Sweetie.”

I can go home! Sweetie thought excitedly, a wide smile crossing her face. I can finally see sis and my Scootaloo and Apple Bloom... I’ll be able to study with Twilight and... She stopped her thoughts as her smile disappeared. But... Twilight and Spike will still be gone... or at least I think so... what am I going to do? Don’t I need to rescue them before going home?

Elusive noticed her frown. “Are you okay, Sweetie?”

“Uh, yeah... I- I’m okay,” she stammered. “I was just thinking... do you think this ‘Dusk’ pony will be able to help me?”

Elusive raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t Rarity tell you? Dusk is Twilight’s counterpart.”

“Oh...” Sweetie smiled sheepishly. “My... Rarity never said anything about counterparts...”

A pained expression briefly flitted across Elusive’s face. “Oh...”

Sweetie blinked. “Was... was she supposed to? She went away recently, so...”

“N-no, it’s okay,” Elusive said, pushing away a strand of his mane. “I, I understand if- if she didn’t feel like telling you... we didn’t want to part ways so quickly and I-”

“Ooh Ooh! I just remembered something!” Silver exclaimed suddenly, jumping to his hooves. “I have to get ready, I’ll be right back!”

Sweetie looked angrily at Silver as her counterpart disappeared upstairs. “He wasn’t even paying attention!”

Elusive blinked and stood up as well, smiling a little. “He’s sometimes like that... I have to get ready as well; I’ll be back soon.”

Sweetie sighed as she was left alone. Her horn shimmered as the dirty plates levitated one-by-one into the sink. She looked around the room. The decorations between her Carousel Boutique and this one were very similar. The color scheme, the positioning of things all similar... and yet... it had a masculine touch to it, although she couldn’t put her hoof on exactly how. Were the curtains a bit darker? Was the furniture just a bit less rounded, and with slightly sharper edges? What was it?

Maybe the glasses? The plates... the table seemed a bit sturdier than the one she had back home. Could that be it?

The doorbell rang. Her musing interrupted, she leapt from the table and trotted into the main room, running on autopilot as she opened the door.

“Yes? Who is it-”

“Heya Silver!” came a pair of voices from the two colts seated in front of her.

She froze in place, eyes taking in the ponies standing right before her. A yellow earth pony, and an orange pegasus. Not usually an unfamiliar sight, if it weren’t for the fact that there was something else clashing against her mind’s eye... the fact that the yellow one was wearing a faded baseball cap and not a bow, and the obvious cue that these two were not simply Applebloom and Scootaloo... they were Applebloom and Scootaloo as colts.

“Hey, Silver!” Scooteroll said with a bright smile. “Ready to go crusading?”

"Oh, um, hey, Scoot... eroll," Sweetie said hesitantly.

Applebuck frowned as he looked at her. “Heeeey... Silver, did Elusive do something to your hair again? You look a bit different.”

Sweetie blinked, caught off-guard. “I do?”

Scooteroll looked at her closely. “Hey, yeah! You look... no offense Silver, but you look even more like a filly than usual.”

Sweetie straightened up a bit. “Is that a problem?”

“Hey,” Scooteroll backed up a bit. “I said ‘no offense’, right? Calm down, it’s not like I’m actually calling you a filly or anything!”

“But... what’s wrong with being a filly?” Sweetie asked, irritated. I can tell that they’re colts... can’t they tell I really AM a filly?

“Well... nothing,” Applebuck admitted after a second. “Ah mean, my big sis is real strong and all and Ah guess she’s cool... but, you know, fillies are... icky.”

A delicate eyebrow went up. “Icky?” Sweetie repeated.

“What’s gotten into you, Silver?” Scooteroll rolled his eyes in annoyance. “This isn’t the time to talk about fillies. We should be getting our cutie marks!”

Sweetie glared at him with such intensity that he took a step back. “Talking about fillies is not a bad thing!” She slammed the door shut and stomped into the kitchen, brushing past a confused Silver.

“Is something wrong?” he asked.

She sniffed dismissively, “Colts,” and went upstairs, presumably to get ready herself.

Silver blinked in confusion when he heard the doorbell. He trotted up to the door and opened it.

“Hey guys!”

Scooteroll and Applebuck both glared at him.

“What’d you do that for?!” Scooteroll asked, pushing Silver a bit with his hoof.

Silver brushed it away with a frown. “Do what?”

“Act like a prissy, little filly!” Scooteroll retorted, getting his face really close to Silver’s, who glared back just as intensely.

“I’m not acting like a filly!” Silver shot back.

“Are too!”

“Am not!”

“Are too!”

Slowly, Applebuck’s frown started to fade as a look of dawning comprehension seeped in, eyes widening in horror as he looked past Silver, seeing Elusive walking towards them in the company of... another Silver? No... his fears were confirmed as he glanced from one to the other and he remembered cousin ‘Jay Jay’.

“You’re whining like a filly! Stop it already!” Scooteroll snapped. He rolled his eyes and, raising his right hoof flaccidly, said, “Oh, fillies are the best, look at me! I am Silver and I look so much like a filly I act like one too!”

“Hey! I’ve never done anything like that!” Silver said angrily.

“Ah think maybe we should all calm down...” Applebuck ventured, trailing off as Scooteroll ignored him.

“Oh, I’m so delicate!” Scooteroll pranced from side to side in front of Silver, who was now fuming. “I like sweet things, the color pink, and to talk about jewelry! I am scared of spiders and am completely useless!”

When Applebuck saw Sweetie’s expression, he took a couple of steps away from the prancing pegasus, making sure he was not in the way of whatever was going to happen.

“Listen, Silver,” Scooteroll began, affecting his best Rainbow Blitz impression as he looked down at his unicorn friend. “You have to really stallion-up, y’know? Stuff like what just happened? So not cool.”

Silver looked up at Scooteroll, eyebrows raised in surprise. The blue-white aura around the young pegasus seemed familiar to him, although he couldn’t place it. “Scooteroll... you’re-”

“Fillies are not cool, okay? Just drop the whole being offended thing when we talk about them, and we can go on with our lives.”

“Scooteroll! You’re flying!” Silver finally shouted.

“I am?! I am!” Scooteroll tried flapping his wings. “Wait! Why am I not moving? Hey... I’m still flying without flapping? How does that work?”

Suddenly, he was pulled roughly into the Carousel Boutique and found himself upside down and staring into the angry eyes of Silver Belle. Wait a second... “You’re not Silver!”

“No,” Sweetie Belle growled. “I’m a filly! And I am going to show you exactly how useless I am!”

“Uh-oh...” Applebuck whispered, quickly stepping up. “Uh, miss... uh... Silver?”

“Sweetie,” the filly corrected, without taking her eyes off the terrified Scooteroll.

“Uh, Miss Sweetie, Scooteroll was only being... um...”

“Himself?” Sweetie offered, stealing a glance at Apple Buck before returning her glare to Scooteroll. “Well, let’s see how afraid he is of spiders...”

Her horn flashed and a nearby rock turned into a horribly furry, black tarantula with red eyes and really big fangs that dripped venom as it looked hungrily at the hovering pegasus. It slowly moved towards Scooteroll, who started struggling violently to get away.

“H-hey! Wait! Let’s talk about this! Come on!”

It was about then that the commotion at the door caught Elusive’s attention. He stared in surprise at Sweetie as the filly held Scooteroll upside down against his will, and at the same time managing to cast two more spells. When he saw the real fear in Scooteroll’s eyes, he knew he had to step in.

“Sweetie, that’s quite enough,” he said gently, putting his hoof between them.

Sweetie frowned. “No, he said only fillies would be scared of spiders. Let’s see how he likes it when one bites him!”

“Sweetie Belle!” Elusive’s voice was harsh. “I said that’s enough. Look at him! That’s enough!”

Sweetie blinked, glare softening as she looked at the terrified pegasus. Immediately she dispelled the illusion that had transfigured the rock into a spider. She carefully deposited the pegasus on the floor, where he scrambled away from the rock.

Elusive shook his head at Sweetie, who simply looked away, cheeks burning in shame, and turned to Scooteroll. “Are you okay, Scooteroll?”

The young pegasus took a couple of deep breaths before standing up, still a bit shaky. “Y-yeah...”

There was an awkward silence for all ponies present. Applebuck and Silver exchanged nervous glances while the elder stallion turned from Scooteroll towards his ‘sister’. “Sweetie... I realize that since you’re new here, something like this was bound to happen. Nonetheless, without your sister here to do so, I feel it’s my place to say... don’t you have something to say to the poor pony here?”

Sweetie sighed. “I’m sorry, Scooteroll. I shouldn’t have done that...”

Scooteroll looked a bit embarrassed. “It’s- It’s okay. I wasn’t really afraid...” he cringed when Elusive raised an eyebrow. “But... I guess I shouldn’t have said bad things about fillies either. I didn’t even KNOW you were... gosh, you look just like Silver.”

“That’s cause she IS Silver, ain’t she Mister ‘Lusive?” the Applebuck piped up, looking up at the suitmaker. “This is just like that thing a while ago wit’ Cousin JayJay, isn’t it?”

Elusive smiled and nodded in confirmation.

Sweetie smiled. “Well... I’ll forgive you, if you forgive me?”

Scooteroll nervously grinned back and bumped a shaking hoof with her. “Deal.”

Silver snapped his mouth shut. “How did you do all that?! I thought we were basically the same! I can’t even levitate a feather yet!”

Sweetie gave him a level look. “Study, study, study...”

The three colts recoiled as if a cow had licked their faces. “Ugh...” Silver shook his head. “Maybe I don’t want to know...”

“Maybe I should talk to Dusk,” Elusive said, a hint of a smile playing on his mouth. “I’m sure he’d be happy to take you on as an apprentice, and, if you can advance this much, well...”

Silver quickly shook his head. “Never mind!”

Elusive chuckled. “We still have to go, or at least Sweetie and I do. Would you three like to come as well?”

Applebuck looked at the others and then back to Elusive. “Do we have to study if we go?”

“No,” Elusive assured as he took the lead. “Knowing Dusk, he’ll be busy planning something for tonight. But we do have to talk about Sweetie now... if I remember correctly, the dimension-hopping spell took some work, so you three can take Sweetie with you while you go crusading.”

“But Sweetie’s a-” Scooteroll found his mouth covered by a hoof.

“A- a good choice to bring along! Yes!” Applebuck said with an exaggerated smile.

Sweetie giggled and rolled her eyes. “Colts.”

o.0.o

“Why did you need ‘Memoirs of a 12th Generation Seamstress’ again, Dusk?” Spines asked.

Dusk rolled his eyes. “I’ve told you before, this has to be exactly like the original! When other ponies recognize me, I don’t want them to say ‘Oh, it’s missing the hat!’ or ‘Hey, Dusk, they didn’t have Nylon six hundred years ago!’”

Spines blinked. “What is Nylon?”

“I don’t know!” Dusk snapped. “I just know they didn’t have it six hundred years ago, okay?!”

Spines cringed. “Touchy!” She left the book next to Dusk and was about to walk into the kitchen when she heard a knock at the door. A glance told her that Dusk was not going to even attempt to open it so, with a sigh, she walked up to it and opened it. “I’m sorry, but this is not the best time to go in there and- and-” Little hearts appeared in her eyes. “Aaaaaannnd Elusive! How nice of you to stop by! Please, come in, come in!”

“Good morning, Spines!” Elusive greeted with a wink that seemed to melt the dragoness where she stood. “Where is Dusk this fine morning?”

“He’s working on his project and-” She looked at the Crusaders and the filly. “And...” She frowned. “Does that filly look a lot like Silver? Or is it just me?” She gasped, looking at the suit maker in horror. “Elusive! You have a daughter?!”

The sound of a chair scraping on wooden floor followed by a scream of pain and a thud that echoed in the library as Dusk tried to jump out of the chair at the same time he pushed it back at the same time he levitated the newest book he was reading at the same time he inadvertently set three more down on top of his tail.

The group watched with morbid fascination as the studious unicorn collapsed in a heap of books, furniture and pony.

“Oh, my!” Elusive gasped, quickly using his magic to levitate the books and chair off his friend. “Are you okay, Dusk?”

The Crusaders had rushed to watch closely, and Sweetie couldn’t help but also stand to the side and watch as Dusk slowly stood and shook his head.

Her breath caught in her throat. His purple mane shook ever so slightly as he turned those wonderfully violet eyes in her direction.

Sweetie smiled shyly. Intellectually, she knew that this stallion was essentially her mentor, Twilight Sparkle. At the same time... she could feel her little heart pounding away like it never had before. She could see how intelligent this stallion was. He has to be! He lives in a library! She felt herself blush ever so slightly as he raised an eyebrow at her and smiled. Such a nice smile... I could look at it forever... and he’s talking to me! What should I say? What should I answer? Wait... what did he ask?

“I- I’m sorry, what was that?” Sweetie stammered.

“I asked what your name was,” Dusk repeated himself calmly. “You do resemble Silver a lot and...” His eyes widened. “Wait... are you from another dimension?”

“Wow...” Sweetie gushed. “Dusk... you’re so smart! It usually takes me an hour or two of explaining!” She batted her eyes at him. “Please... say more...”

“Uh... right,” Dusk said uncomfortably as Elusive and Spines watched in amusement. “Elusive, how is this possible?”

Elusive smiled. “Well, Dusk my friend, this is why we’re here. Surely you of all ponies should have an idea as to why Sweetie Belle here would suddenly appear in my home.”

Dusk sighed. “If I know Twilight, she probably tried studying something about interdimensional travel again and-”

“Wow...” Sweetie interrupted, almost hovering in place as her smile grew and her eyelids lowered invitingly. “Dusk... you know so much... just one glance and you knew everything about me... I’d like to study with you for a little while and learn more...”

Dusk took a nervous step back. “Um... aha... lu-look at the time! I... ah... I- I have to...” He turned to Elusive. “Um... help?”

Elusive couldn’t help but laugh at his friend’s obvious panic. “I’m sorry, Dusk. I shouldn’t laugh but...” He covered his mouth for a moment. “This... this is just precious!”

Silver stared at Sweetie, completely horrified.

Applebuck chuckled and elbowed him. “Heh... Ah didn’t know you liked the stu- stoody... the smart types!”

“Studious?” Silver asked.

“What are you? A dictionary?” Scooteroll asked, raising an eyebrow.

“What’s your problem?” Silver glared at Scooteroll.

“No, what’s your problem?” Scooteroll retorted, getting in Silver’s face.

“Boys,” Dusk started, “I don’t think this is-”

“Don’t mind them...” Sweetie said, smiling at him. “They’re just colts... why don’t we talk about something more interesting? Like... Time Diffusion theory? Or maybe Spell Matrices? I have some experience with those...”

Despite himself, Dusk looked interested. “Really? I haven’t had much time to study the more complicated Matrices, just second tier and those are-”

“Dull and simple,” Sweetie completed for him. “I know, I happen to have an item with me that has no less than forty-two nodes for the Matrix to work with... thirty of which were added later, without destroying the functional sequence...”

Dusk gasped. “That’s- that’s possible?! But everything I’ve read indicates that you can only double the amount of nodes at the most... any more would completely overwhelm the spell matrix!”

The three Crusaders had stopped fighting and, along with Spines and Elusive, had were openly gawking at Dusk and Sweetie.

“But you’re not looking at it the right way; that’s only if you try to simply add more functions rather than redirect the spell fluctuation from say N1 to N7, therefore bypassing-” Sweetie explained.

“A-anyway...” Elusive interrupted. “We were hoping that you could help Sweetie return home? I know you’re busy tonight, but I’m sure Rarity is worried and-”

Both Sweetie and Dusk glared at him in annoyance at having their discussion disrupted. But then Dusk sighed. “I am pretty busy with preparations for tonight...” He glanced at his research.

“Hey! Maybe I can help!” Sweetie grinned hopefully.

“Uh, no thank you,” Dusk said, smiling sheepishly. “This is a personal project and I want it to be a surprise for everypony.”

“Oh...” Sweetie looked a bit dejected.

“But don’t worry. I know the spell pretty well by now and we can cast it tomorrow!” Dusk assured with a smile. “And tonight, if you’re up for it, we can talk magical theory.”

Sweetie smiled. “I would like that.”

“That reminds me...” Elusive looked at Sweetie as he walked around her, eyeing her critically. “Yes, yes... that will definitely... I haven’t tried my hoof at one of those yet, but I think...”

“What is it?” Silver asked.

“I’m just thinking of what I can make for Sweetie to wear tonight, brother...” Elusive smiled. "I-dee-aaa~! I’ll get to work on it right away, since she’ll be spending the night. We wouldn’t want her to miss any of the festivities!”

Scooteroll looked at Applebuck and leaned in close to whisper, “I think we should all get out of here before Sweetie and Dusk smother us with theory.”

Applebuck nodded. “Well, we were going to go try the manticore thing... and Sweetie also needs her Cutie Mark... and she’s a Crusader... Plus she knows magic, maybe if she helps...”

A spark came to Scooteroll’s eyes. “Exactly. Let’s scram!”

“Well!” Applebuck interrupted Elusive as he was about to explain what exactly he was planning on making. “Ah think we should give Sweetie Belle a tour and maybe see if we can earn our... uh... d-daisy plantin’ Cutie Marks.”

“Daisy plan-” Silver found Scooteroll’s hoof covering his muzzle.

“Yeah! Cutie Mark Crusaders Daisy Planters! Wooo!” Scooteroll waved his free hoof in the air.

“Right!” Applebuck nodded. “And Sweetie should come with us, because she also is a Crusader and she probably would like to earn hers as well, right?”

Elusive and Dusk chuckled. “Well then, Sweetie, why don’t you go with Silver, Scooteroll and Applebuck? I’m sure you’ll have a good time!”

Sweetie looked at Dusk, then at the books. “But... but the books-”

“Will still be here tomorrow,” Elusive assured the student, herding the filly and the three colts out. “Don’t worry, you’ll have time to study with Dusk later on.”

“I’ll see you all later tonight!” Dusk called after them.

“See you later!” Sweetie yelled back as the door closed behind them.

They all stood outside the library for a moment before Elusive smiled. “Okay, I have work to do. You four enjoy yourselves and don’t get into trouble!”

“We won’t...” Silver groaned. “Not if we’re planting daisies.”

Elusive chuckled and walked away, leaving the four alone.

“That was very well done, Silver!” Scooteroll said.

“Yeah. Ah almost believed you!” Applebuck added, playfully punching Silver on the shoulder.

Silver blinked. “Wait, what?”

Scooteroll facehoofed. “You... you didn’t think we were really going to plant daisies, did you?”

Silver blinked again as he thought about it. Then his eyes lit up as a smile played on his lips. “Ooooh, I get it!”

Sweetie shook her head ashamedly. “Was I really like that?”

Applebuck gave her a straight, deadpan look that would have made Applejack proud. “Most likely? Yes.”

o.0.o

“So, what are we really doing then?” Sweetie asked as she walked behind the three crusaders, stopping from time to time to stare at familiar ponies that were, well... male instead of female.

"Well, Ah figured that, since you can use magic, we can change our plans and do something more interestin'!"

"Like what, exactly?" Sweetie pressed, raising an eyebrow.

"Cutie Mark Crusaders Manticore Catchers! Yay!" the three colts bellowed at the same time.

“Manticore Catchers?” Sweetie blinked.

The three colts stopped and looked at her.

“You don’t think it’s a good idea?” Silver asked.

“Well, she’s been acting more like Dusk so-” Scooteroll started to say.

“That’s awesome!” Sweetie gushed. “We wanted to do it last time, but Applejack caught us on the way to the forest and-”

“Wait...” Applebuck said. “Where ‘xactly did cousin Jay Jay see you?”

“Right as we crossed the bridge,” Sweetie began. “She heard us talking about-”

“Growing daisies,” Scooteroll interrupted.

“What?” Sweetie and Silver blinked.

“Y-yeah,” Applebuck added. “We can gain our... uh, farmer... or florist Cutie Marks that way...”

Silver frowned. “But why would we want-”

“Ah’m glad ta hear some common sense comin’ out of your mouths!” A male voice broke in.

Sweetie looked up to stare at the speaker. And up. And up.

He looked... well, like Applejack, as she had suspected, only... bigger and stronger... and he had a yoke around his neck. Just like Big Macintosh, she realized. Except... not quite as big? He’s really close though!

Applejack raised an eyebrow as the filly stared at him. “Now, Ah know Ah haven’t met you before, but Ah don’t think starin’ like that’s polite.”

Sweetie started and lowered her head, smiling sheepishly. “I’m sorry! You just reminded me so much of Applejack and--”

“Applejack?” Applejack asked. His eyes narrowed slightly, taking in the small unicorn filly... and the unicorn colt seated right next to her. “Hey, now that Ah think about it... you actually look a lot like Silver here.”

“That’s cause she’s Rarity’s sister!” Applebuck explained happily. “She’s somehow gone and ended up over here!”

Applejack’s eyebrows shot up. “Well, Ah’ll be. Did Twilight cast that spell again? Ah swear, she an’ Dusk have no common sense sometimes.”

“Um, well, no...” Sweetie chuckled slightly. “It wasn’t Twilight’s fault... but Dusk thinks he can send me home tomorrow. I’m staying with Elusive and Silver in the meantime.”

Applejack sighed and glared at his brother. “Applebuck, you best keep an eye on her, and you too, Scooteroll and Silver. You know how we feel about those mares and how we ought to be doin’ right by ‘em.” When the three colts nodded, he smiled. “Well, if Dusk knows and Elusive is putting you up for the night, Ah guess that’s okay. So, Ah heard you four were goin’ to be planting some daisies to earn your cutie marks?”

“Yes... that’s the plan,” Scooteroll said, smiling so honestly it was hard to believe him.

Applejack raised an eyebrow. "Well... that's a mite less... uh, drastic than your last few tries.” He coughed. “An’... well... Ah hope you find your callin’s... even if it is plantin’ daisies.”

“Where are you going, Applejack?” Scooteroll asked as the apple farmer started walking past them.

“Ah’m goin’ to meet with the Mayor. He’s havin’ some trouble with supplies for tonight, or so Ah hear.” He chuckled. “Ah’m sure there won’t be any problems, but the ol’ man needs to be told so. You four enjoy yourselves, y’hear?”

“Will do!” Silver saluted.

The group watched in silence as Applejack trotted away into the distance. As he departed, he could be heard muttering “If it ain’t one thing, it’s another. Next thing ah know, it’ll be Applebuck’s ‘cousin’ showin’ up...”

“Wow, that was close,” Applebuck sighed. “It’s a good thing ya’ll told us what happened in your world, Sweetie!”

“Oh, so that’s what it was all about!” Silver said.

“Well, duh~” Scooteroll rolled his eyes. “At least now we can get our real Cutie Marks!”

“Instead of fake ones?” Sweetie quipped.

Scooteroll glared at her. “You know what I mean. Who would want a Cutie Mark that meant your destiny was planting daisies?”

All four shuddered.

“I see your point,” Sweetie agreed.

Applebuck nodded. “That would be pathetic. Ah mean, of all the cool things you can have as a Cutie Mark, daisies is, well...”

“Sad? Deplorable? Heartbreaking? Inadequate? Lamentable? Pitiable? Worthless?” Silver offered.

“Wow, I do sound like a dictionary...” Sweetie mumbled.

“Ahem!”

The four looked up. A stallion with a magenta coat, green mane and two daisies on his Cutie Mark turned to glare at the group before sniffing dismissively and walking away, offended.

“Should we... apologize?” Sweetie asked.

“Nah, he must be used to the abuse by now,” Scooteroll said. “Let’s get going.”

o.0.o

The sun was slowly falling towards the horizon by the time Silver and Sweetie strolled back into the Carousel Boutique.

“And how was your day?” Elusive asked.

“It was great!” Silver replied.

“Oh?” Elusive looked at them with interest, making both cringe a bit and shuffle self-consciously. “Did you do anything special?”

“Um... we showed Sweetie around and took her to the club house...”

“Oh, yes, it was very interesting! It’s almost identical to the Ponyville I come from!” Sweetie added. “Although I wonder... is Sugarcube Corner the same?”

“Well, you could go check...” Silver offered after a moment. “I, uh, have some stuff to do for tonight...” He scratched at the floor with his hoof, looking down. “And, uh, you know the way, right?”

Sweetie nodded. “Sure! Okay, I’ll get going; should I bring anything back for you guys?”

“I think we’re fine, dear,” Elusive said, glancing at Silver. “Be sure to say hi to Berry Bubble for me!”

She faltered in her steps for a second, brain working to make the connection, before turning back.“Okay!” Sweetie smiled to the two, as she walked out of the door.

As soon as she was out of the door, Elusive turned to look at Silver inquisitively. “I can tell when you are trying to avoid somepony, Silver. What are you up to?”

Silver cringed. “Well... I- I have something... for Sweetie...”

Elusive’s eyebrow arched. “Really...?”

o.0.o

Sweetie hummed to herself as she trotted down Ponyville towards Sugarcube Corner. This is so weird, she thought as she passed a male version of Carrot Top. Everypony is different, and yet... the same! I never really thought how different my life would have been if I had been a colt... but I never would have guessed that I would be basically the same... She sighed. If I hadn’t been sent through different worlds... Silver is nice but he seems... She grimaced... foalish... now I feel old...

She suddenly hit something soft. Or rather, somepony. With a mutual cry of surprise, both fell back.

“Hey, watch where you’re going!” a female voice said.

“Sorry!” Sweetie shook her head as she stood up, extending a hoof to help the other filly up. “I was just distracted!”

“I guess it’s fine...” the filly said, gratefully accepting Sweetie’s hoof.

The filly she helped up had a grayish-blue coat and a burnt-orange mane. She was a bit on the heavier side and she reminded her of...

Her face took on a look of unabashed shock as she blurted out “Snips?!”

“Sugar... my name is Sugar,” the filly replied, giving Sweetie an odd look. “Do I remind you of somepony else?”

Sweetie nodded. “U-uhm, yeah. Somepony from... way back. Sorry about that.”

“Sugar, there you are!” another female voice called. They both looked up to see a taller, skinnier filly trotting happily up to them. “So, are we getting some muffins or cupcakes today?” She had a turquoise mane and a yellowish coat.

“Spice!” Sugar smiled. “Yes, I hear that Berry Bubble has a new recipe! Can’t wait to see what he baked this time!” She looked at Sweetie. “Would you like to come with?”

“Um, sure. I was going there anyway.” Sweetie nodded, still a little baffled by what she was seeing. She shook her head, clearing the shock out of her system before facing them again. “My name is Sweetie Belle, nice too meet you!”

“Nice to meet you, Sweetie Belle!” Sugar and Spice chorused as they started walking towards Sugarcube Corner.

“So, I haven’t seen you around here before,” Sugar said after a moment. “Did you just move?”

“Hm... I don’t know...” Spice muttered, looking closely at Sweetie. “She does reminds me of somepony... that mane... that coat...”

I knew this would happen sooner or later. she thought to herself, sweating slightly under their curious gazes. Everypony I’ve met so far knew about this genderswap business, but these two... What was it that Applebuck said? He said that Applejack was his... ‘cousin’, right?

“I, um... I’m Silver’s cousin!” Sweetie interjected, smiling weakly. “I came to visit for a couple of days.”

It wasn’t the most creative cover, but it was enough to sate the fillies’ curiosity, their heads nodding in understanding. “Oooh, and you came in time for Nightmare Night!” Sugar bounced excitedly. “It’s the most amazing night, like, ever!”

Sweetie grinned. “Yes, I love Nightmare Night!”

Spice nodded knowingly. “And we have the best pranksters! Between Rainbow Blitz and Berry Bubble, there’s going to be a lot of fun scares!”

“I can imagine,” Sweetie giggled. “Silver and the others are all really excited about tonight!”

The two fillies exchanged glances, then looked at Sweetie. “You mean the Crusaders?”

Sweetie nodded. “Yeah, Silver, Scooteroll and Applebuck.”

“So... are you interested in any of them?” Sugar asked, eyes glinting.

Sweetie blinked and then blushed furiously. “What? No! I can’t date other crusaders!”

That stopped the other two. “Wait, you’re a crusader? I thought it was an only-colts club,” Spice said.

“We-well...” Sweetie stammered. “It’s really up to them, but I think it really has to do with finding your Cutie Mark... why would you crusade for it if you already have it?”

Both fillies nodded. “That makes sense,” Sugar ceded. “Most of the other colts and fillies already have theirs.”

“Well, Estella doesn’t,” Spice pointed out. “Maybe she could join the Crusaders.”

“But... why would you want to hang around a group of colts? No offense, Sweetie, but well, colts are... colts, you know? Rough and tumble, don’t play nice? Like, nasty stuff like snails?”

Sweetie chuckled. “Well, crusading is fun, but it might not be for everypony.”

The three shared a laugh as they finally reached Sugarcube Corner. Before any of them could enter however, the upper part of the door opened in a confetti-coated blast, revealing a pink stallion with puffy hair, blue eyes and a really bright smile looked out at the laughing fillies. “Heya everypony! Guess what?! My newest recipe, the Banana-PB-Blueberry muffin is complete! Would you fillies like a sample!?”

Sweetie’s eyes flashed, the memorable taste of those muffins almost tangible upon her tongue. “Oh, I love those!” she gushed, bouncing in place. “Can I have two?”

Berry Bubble looked at her, uncomprehending at first. “But, how would you know how they taste like...”

The pink stallion trailed off, her eyes slowly becoming wider, his pupils shrinking as he proceeded to speak in a very quiet voice. “You’re a new pony in Ponyville.”

“She’s Silver Belle’s cousin!” Sugar piped up, face in a smile. “She’s visiting for Nightmare Night tonight!”

The white filly froze in place, realizing that if Berry DID know who she was... was he going to blurt it out in front of these two fillies who had no idea? “W-well...” she began. “Y’see, I- I...”

“And since you’re a new pony in ponyville...” he continued, eyes still riveted on her, the two unicorns on either side of her giving each other confused glances. “Do you know what this calls for?”

She trembled a little, briefly forgetting what it was that Pinkie usually did on such an occasion. “A... a-a... a p-pa-”

"Aaaaa PARTY~!!" he finished exuberantly, leaping into the air, his earlier quiet and suspicious mood now nowhere to be seen. “Oh, this is just PERFECT, and right in time for Nightmare Night too! Nice to meet you, Silver Bell’s cousin Sweetie Belle! Oh, I can’t wait to get everything together now; I had already been planning this super-spectacular punch bowl, but since you’re visiting it’s going to have to be at least SIX times as super-spectacular! Oh, oh, and I can’t forget the pumpkin pies and pumpkin muffins and the pumpkin pops, and pin-the-tail-on-the-pumpkin! Wait, do pumpkins have tails?”

The rambling took her off-guard for a second, before she let out a sigh of relief. I guess he really doesn’t know after all. That’s good. I wouldn’t want to scare off these two new... friends, that I’ve made. She chanced a glance back towards the two, who were simply regarding the pink pony with looks of confusion.

Shaking her head, she turned back to the colt, and spoke again. “W-well, I think I’d be crazy to turn down a... Berry Bubble party, right?”

The named colt let out a giggle, a odd sound coming from a stallion like him. “You bet your lucky horseshoes! It’s going to be the biggest and best Nightmare Night party yet!”

“U-uhm,” Attention was turned towards Spice, who had her nose in the air, desperately catching the wafting scents coming from the bakery door. “If we’re done saying hi, uhm, can we try those Banana-Fojamma-whatchamacallit muffins now?”

“Well, sure thing, girls! Come on in!” Berry Bubble stepped back and opened the door, letting the three fillies into the store.

While Berry Bubble went to get the aforementioned pastries, they sat down on a table. “So, Sweetie Belle, what are your plans for tonight?” Sugar asked. “Spice, me and Estella are going as a group to get candy. You’re welcome to join us!”

“Well, I promised the other Crusaders to meet with them later on, but...” Sweetie looked at them. The two fillies were giving her imploring looks, and even though she could still see Snips and Snails sitting there...

I wonder what it’s like, hanging out with other ponies? I haven’t had much of a chance since we started the Crusaders. Before I finally became friends with Twilight, it seemed like my only friends were Scootaloo and Applebloom... it couldn’t hurt to befriend some new fillies.

Sweetie smiled. “You know... I think we can hang out for a while...”

The two fillies grinned happily. “Okay, so, uhm... how about we ask questions to get to know each other better?” Spice suggested.

“Sure!” Sweetie said, looking at the pair. “Who wants to start?”

“Oh, me! Me!” Berry Bubble exclaimed, jumping up and down right next to Sweetie.

Sweetie Belle shot out of her seat with a yelp and landed on the floor with an ‘oof’. She glared at Berry Bubble. “Why won’t you all stop doing that?!”

The pink pony smiled slowly. “Because it’s fun! My turn! Is it true that you have a crush on Dusk?!”

Sweetie’s eyes went wide as Sugar and Spice started giggling.

“Well?” Sugar asked.

“Why did I agree to this?” Sweetie sighed as she slumped back into her seat.

The minutes whiled away, as the fillies and the stallion played, laughter was heard resounding through Sugarcube corner. A peaceful, normal afternoon like any other in Ponyville. At least, up until the point when Berry asked:

“Did you bring Pinkie Pie with you?”

o.0.o

“I’m back!” Sweetie called, walking into the Carousel Boutique with a slightly disgruntled look. “And I’m never going to go back to the Sugarcube Corner without a back-up plan on how to get out!”

Elusive peeked out of the work room. “Sweetie! Good, come over here, I have something for you!”

Blinking confusedly, Sweetie walked into Elusive’s work room and stopped in surprise. Next to a grinning Elusive, displayed on a small ponyquin, was something she had not been expecting, in this or any of the other worlds she had visited previously. A small dress.

It was mostly white with some soft pink inlays. It wasn’t too frilly, but the gown was decorated with little gems and pearls. The saddle was designed to hug her figure, and had been integrated into the dress itself. It had two small fake pegasi wings attached to it, each feather treated with a hint of glitter so that they would shimmer if looked at from the right angle.

Sweetie walked around the dress, taking note of the golden thread that highlighted the careful folds and frills. The front of the dress had a clasp with a deep-purple gem encased in a gold frame. It stood alone, drawing attention to itself, but also, somehow, complementing a tiara studded with gems of purple, pink and white which rested on the top of the filly-sized ponyquin’s head.

“This... it’s...” Sweetie was at a loss for words. She slowly tore her eyes away from the gem and looked at the whole dress. “It’s beautiful!”

“Thank you!” Elusive grinned, eagerly levitating the finished product. “Let’s try it on and make sure it fits you just right!”

Sweetie closed her eyes and let Elusive slide the dress on her. As she would have expected from her sister, Elusive’s calculations were spot-on. It felt very comfortable, and was completely lightweight. Looking at herself in the mirror, Sweetie almost couldn’t tell if the wings were real or not.

“Elusive, this is amazing... I’ve never had anything like this!” She shook her head slowly. “This is more a dress for a Gala than a costume!”

Elusive blinked. “Really? I would have thought Rarity would have made something similar for you... oh well, you can at least use it for the next Gala if you go.”

Sweetie sighed. “Rarity fell ill last time. She had started something, but she wasn’t able to finish it. She promised to make it up to me for the next Nightmare Night.”

“Well, since she’s not around, take this as a gift from me,” Elusive said with a smile. “I’m sure she’ll love it when she gets to see it!”

“I think she will,” Sweetie replied, smiling back. She gave him a long, thankful look, before something formed in her expression. A sense of trepidation.

Slowly, she took a step towards the stallion, as she asked in a very small voice. “Elusive... I-I... would it be weird, if I wanted to call you... big brother?”

The dressmaker started, his own eyes a little widened in surprise. He bit his lip as he thought, taking in the gaze of the filly in front of him, before he had an answer.

“I... I- I don’t see why not, Sweetie. When you sister visited us, she told Silver that as far as she was concerned... he was also her own little brother as well. And if she can make that choice in her heart of hearts...” His expression softened, as he lowered his head level with his alternate sibling. “Then I don’t see why I cannot do the same.”

She gave him grateful smile, before quickly coming over and enveloping his hoof in a hug, her eyes shut tight. “Thank you... thank you, big brother. For everything.”

He simply returned her smile, only a slight sense of uneasiness upon him as he raised a hoof and lightly stroked the filly’s mane. “You’re very welcome, little sister... though I shouldn’t be the only one to-”

“Wow...”

Sweetie and Elusive disentangled from each other, before turning to see Silver step into the room. His mane was combed back and he was dressed in a fine cut uniform. Like Sweetie’s costume, it was white with purple, and had golden buttons and cuffs. It gave him a very distinguished look, especially with the purple sash crossing his chest and the fake golden medal adorning the left side of his chest.

“Swe- Sweetie, you look... amazing,” Silver said, eyes wide.

Sweetie blushed. “Um, thanks, Silver, you look really nice too!”

Elusive smiled. “And to think that this dress wouldn’t have been complete without Silver’s help!”

Silver’s eyes widened as he turned to look at his brother. “Elusive! You said you wouldn’t tell!”

“What? How?” Sweetie asked, looking between the two with confusion.

“Well, Silver is the one that gave me that purple gem. He said he wanted you to have it.” Elusive explained.

Silver scratched the floor with his hoof self-consciously. “I... I found it at the HEDGE... after Rarity and the others went back home. I thought it could help me get my Cutie Mark somehow, so I saved it for later... when I heard what Elusive wanted to make for you...” He trailed off, not looking at her.

“Thank you, Silver...” Sweetie said, trotting up to him. For the briefest of moments, she considered what it was she was about to do, before diving in and giving him a light peck on the cheek.

Silver’s eyes went wide, then he smiled a bit before shaking his head and stepping back. “H-hey, no kisses! I- I just thought you should have it!”

Elusive chuckled. “Okay, you two, you’d better go if you want to get an early start. You don’t want to miss all the candy!”

Sweetie blinked. “Oh, that’s right! I promised to Sugar and Spice to collect candy for a while.”

Silver cringed. “Really? But what about-”

“Don’t worry!” Sweetie smiled. “I’ll make sure to meet you guys at the library in an hour, okay?”

“Aw but...” Silver sighed. “Okay, we’ll meet you there... I don’t know if Scooteroll and Applebuck are even ready yet...”

“A prince should always take care of the princess, Silver,” Elusive admonished after a moment. “Why don’t you escort Sweetie to where she is meeting Sugar and Spice?”

Silver and Sweetie exchanged glances. “Um, sure,” Silver said, fidgeting a little.

Sweetie smiled. “Thank you, Silver! Come on, let’s go!”

The pair slowly walked out, chatting away as Elusive shook his head in amusement. “Ah, to be young again...” He sighed longingly.

o.0.o

Silver glanced at Sweetie as they walked down the street in search of Sugar and Spice. She was looking around at the town decorations with a slightly nostalgic smile.

“Um... Sweetie? Are you enjoying yourself in this universe?” he asked. “I mean, what if Dusk can’t send you home? Would you like to stay with us?”

Sweetie sighed. “I don’t know... every world I visit I ask myself the same thing.”

“Wait,” Silver stopped. “Every world?”

Sweetie slowed down and looked back at him with a small smile. “Well, yes, Silver... I’ve been to a couple of other worlds after...” She looked away. “... after the incident.” Sweetie finished.

She does sound a bit too different from me, Silver thought. I always figured that if I met Sweetie, she’d be a lot like me... and she is, but she also seems almost... grown up.

“It’s not a nice story to begin with, but I have made new friends in each world..." Sweetie trailed off for a moment before glancing back at Silver, eyes shining with excitement. "I even made friends with Nightmare Moon once!”

“Nightmare-?” Silver blinked, before catching himself. “O-oh, you mean Anarchy Apollo, don’t you?”

“That’s right,” she replied. “I went to this universe where she was powerful enough to defeat Princess Celestia (that’s your Prince Solaris) but she was actually not that bad. Scootaloo actually declared a prank war on her.”

Silver stared. “Wow, that Scootaloo must be braver than Scooteroll. I don’t think he’d have it in him to start a prank war with Anarchy Apollo.”

Sweetie chuckled. “And there was this world where Twilight had fallen in love with The Great and Powerful Trixie... did you know the Trixie from my world almost got me killed? So when I saw this other Trixie, I attacked her!”

The Great and Powerful- she can’t mean... The Great and Powerful Presto?! Silver’s expression went blank.

“Silver?” Sweetie waved her hoof in front of his eyes. “Are you okay?”

“No...” he gulped. “No... I’m not... I just imagined Dusk with The Great and Powerful Presto... I- I need to sit down.” He unceremoniously dropped to his haunches.

Sweetie patted his shoulder. “I know, it’s weird to imagine, but you should have seen Twilight and Trixie together... they were so cute!”

Silver sighed and chuckled. “I guess I can imagine that... somehow... it’s just-”

“Crazy?” Sweetie finished for him. “Yeah... but it’s another world and everypony is either slightly or very different than in the other universe.”

Silver looked at her as if seeing her for the first time. “Sweetie... you and I are not very similar.”

“I... I’ve seen some things...” Sweetie whispered. “I wish I hadn’t...” Her eyes watered a bit. “Did Elusive ever give you a large white ball?”

“I think so... I think I still have it somewhere,” Silver replied, thinking back to where he kept his toys. “Why?”

“Take good care of it, okay?” Sweetie said. “It’s more important than you might think.”

Silver could only nod as he stood up. “Sweetie... I’m sorry.”

Sweetie smiled and hugged Silver. “It’s okay... thanks for caring.”

“Hey, it’s Sweetie!” a voice eagerly shouted.

Sweetie and Silver both looked in the direction of the call and saw Sugar, Spice and Estella approaching.

The fact that Estella had still chosen to dress up as a pirate almost made Sweetie laugh with amusement.

Silver, however, choked and started coughing when he saw that Sugar had dressed up as Dusk, dyeing her coat purple and drawing a fake cutie mark, while Spice had chosen to disguise herself as The Great and Powerful Presto, cape, hat and blue coat paint. “Why?” he coughed. “Why would you dress up as... as them?!”

“Aw, don’t you like it?” Sugar asked, hugging Spice close. “I think we look cute!”

“But... wha- ah...” He shook his head. “I must learn a magic spell to remove this memory...” He looked at Sweetie, who was giggling behind her hoof. “I blame you for this!”

Sweetie batted her eyes at him. “Surely Prince Charming isn’t going to stay angry with his princess, is he?”

Thoroughly unprepared for this sudden, flirtatious maneuver, Silver did the only thing any young colt in his position could do... he melted.

o.0.o

“Wow, this is amazing!” Sugar exclaimed, looking around at all the decorations. There were banners that proclaimed establishments had changed their name to something more sinister. Pumpkins had been carved into evil-looking faces and depictions of Anarchy Apollo’s profile.

“We know,” Silver said. “We’ve been walking around for almost an hour now, we’ve seen it and been impressed.”

Sugar and Spice giggled. “Colts!” they chorused.

Silver rolled his eyes.

“.... and I’ve always wanted to see how Nightmare Night was celebrated! My home town is so far away from Canterlot that it was only observed as a curiosity. Some ponies would carve a couple of pumpkins, but nothing to this scale!” Estella said, trotting next to Sweetie.

“Well, I’m sure you’ll see what the spirit of Nightmare Night is really about!” Sweetie said. “Many ponies here have some sort of story to share about Nigh- Anarchy Apollo.”

“Geez, you sound like Dusk sometimes, Sweetie,” Scooteroll teased, walking up to them in a wolf costume.

Sweetie raised an eyebrow.

“He’s right, y’know,” Applebuck chuckled. “No offense, Sweetie but y’all really do.”

Sweetie huffed. “Well, I’ll take it as a compliment.”

“Did you guys already get candy?” Spice asked.

“Yeah!” Scooteroll grinned, showing off a bagful of treats. “Gotta love how much candy everypony is willing to fork out for free!”

“Hm, I think we should head to the library now,” Sweetie suggested. “It’s about time...”

Sugar, Spice and Estella blinked and looked at each other. “Time for what?” Estella asked.

“Um, for Dusk to come out!” Sweetie said. “He’s been working on his costume all day!”

“Oh...” Sugar said. “Well, if you really want to go see your coltfriend...”

“Dusk is not my coltfriend!” Sweetie blushed. “He’s just a really handsome and smart pony whom I respect a lot.”

“Read: whom I really like.” Spice giggled.

“Are we all going to the library then?” asked a rather large white chicken that had somehow seamlessly integrated himself into the group.

“Yes, I think- aaaah!” Sweetie jumped on top of Silver, who stumbled, trying to keep upright while holding her. A quick glance at the avian’s pink face told her all she needed to know. “Berry Bubble! Don’t do that!”

“Do what?” the pink pony asked, before chuckling and trotting on ahead. “C’mon, everypony! Let’s get Dusk out of that dusty library!”

“The Library’s not dusty...” Sweetie muttered as she slid back down to the floor.

The group followed Berry Bubble through Ponyville until they were at the library door. “Dusk! Come on out! You’re gonna miss the whole party, you silly pony!”

The door to the library opened and out stepped Dusk in an intricately-designed cape and wizard’s hat. Somehow his mane had extended all the way to his tail and was tied into a long ponytail with intermingled golden rings.

“Hey, everypony!” he grinned. “Can you guess who I’m dressed as?”

The group exchanged glances.

“Um... Star Swirl?” Sweetie asked. Is that what the pony is called here? Oh please Celestia let me be righ-

“That’s right, Sweetie!” Dusk nodded at her, twisting so that his new pony tail draped over his shoulders. “Star Swirl the Long Maned. I even got the rings exactly where she had them!”

“He really went all-out,” Applebuck whispered to Scooteroll, who nodded.

“Too bad nopony else really knows what he’s talking about...” Scooteroll laughed.

“Wow,” Sweetie said, taking a close look at the rings and noticing the runes etched into them. “So, Star Swirl enchanted the golden rings in her mane to cast different protective spells and the silver ones would rotate a magic-feeding sequence that would keep them all ongoing at the same time? That’s brilliant!” Sweetie gushed to an equally excited Dusk.

“Then again, when eggheads get together...” Scooteroll deadpanned and elbowed Silver. “Right, Silver?”

But Silver did not reply as he glared at Dusk.

“Uh, Silver?” Applebuck shook his hoof in front of his friend’s eyes, snapping him out of his trance. “Y’alright?”

“Um... yeah, sure...” Silver muttered, his eyes going back to Sweetie and Dusk.

“Aww come on, don’t be so glum, brony,” said a purple dragoness, coming up next to the group. It took the young colt a couple of glances to realize that said dragoness was Spines, dressed up as... a dragon. “I think I know what’s goin’ on in that head of yours...”

He sighed. “Is it that obvious?” he asked, before looking back towards his other self, still chatting away with the elder stallion.

Dusk chuckled at something Sweetie had said and then turned to face the others. “Oh, I’m sorry, here...” his horn lit up and candy floated into the open bags of several colts and fillies.

“Enough chitchat!” Berry Bubble squawked like a chicken, getting into his role. “Let’s find candy!”

Dusk arched an eyebrow. “Berry Bubble, aren’t you a little old for that?”

“Too old for free candy?!” Berry Bubble clucked. “Never!” he declared.

It was then that a lightning bolt hit Berry Bubble in the flank. He gave a very convincing squawk and ran away screaming, followed by Sugar, Spice, Estella and several other fillies and colts.

Dusk and Spines glared at up at a nearby black cloud, whose sole occupant was laughing at the prank he’d just pulled, his costume obviously a rip-off of some dark aerobatic team’s uniform, though his multihued mane and tail did nothing to conceal his identity.

“Blitz,” the unicorn admonished. “That wasn't very nice.”

“It's just a prank, Dusk, chill out,” Rainbow Blitz replied with a mischievous smile.

Dusk shook his head and rolled his eyes.

“Ooh! There's another group!” Blitz said, grinning wickedly as he sped away.

Dusk sighed, but brightened up when he saw a tall and straw-bound scarecrow walking towards them, signature hat upon his head. He ignored the distant sound of a lightning bolt scaring other ponies. “Happy Nightmare Night, Applejack!”

Applejack nodded, noticing the group. “Howdy, ya'll! Nice costumes!” He stopped to appreciate Dusk's hoofwork. “With that mane, I reckon you're some sorta country music singer.”

Dusk growled as the others started laughing.

“It's okay, Dusk, country music isn't that bad,” Sweetie consoled.

“Your costume an’ Silver's are amazing, Sweetie,” Applejack complimented. “The work of Lucy, Ah assume?”

“Eeeyup,” Silver smiled.

It was then that they heard cheering and applause break out around the square. The group looked over as the Mayor, dressed in a clown outfit, ascended a platform constructed in the middle of town. Sensing the speech to come, the lot of them quickly turned their full attention to the stage.

“Thank you, everypony, and welcome to the Nightmare Night festival!” he proclaimed in a deep profoundo basso. The cheering was instantaneous, giving him cause to hold a hoof out and wait with a smile for them to die down again.

“Now all the little ponies who have been out collecting sweets should follow our friend Zircon to hear...” his voice took on an even deeper and creepier pitch. “... the legend of Anarchy Apollooooo~!

Spines snorted. “Spooky voice might work better if he wasn't dressed like that.”

Dusk chuckled as the group followed all the colts and fillies out of town to gather around a tall zebra stallion, done up in a swamp doctor’s outfit complete with stovepipe hat, standing next to a statue of Anarchy Apollo.

“Follow me and very soon you'll hear the tale of Anarchy Apollo...” Zircon said, raising his voice as his haunting intonation captivated his young audience. “Listen close, my little dears, and I'll tell you where you got your fears: of Nightmare Night, so dark and scary. Of Anarchy Apollo, who makes you wary.” He blew into his hoof and a cloud of green powder transformed into an image of an evil-looking pony with serrated teeth.

“Every year, we put on a disguise, to save ourselves, from his searching eyes.” Zircon rhymed, another green cloud creating a full-bodied green alicorn who flew around the gathered ponies.

Sugar and Spice screamed in horror.

“But Anarchy Apollo wants just one thing: to gobble up ponies in one quick swing!” The green alicorn opened his mouth and crashed down on top of Berry Bubble and Estella, both of which screamed and held each other, trembling.

“Hungrily, he soars the sky.” The green alicorn flew over them again, seemingly in search of somepony. “If he sees nopony, he passes by. So if he comes and all is clear, Equestria is safe another year!” Zircon finished.

“Um, mister Zircon?” Estella asked. “If we wear costumes to hide from Anarchy Apollo so he won't gobble us up, how come we still need to give him some of our candy?”

Zircon smiled. “A perfect question, my little friend. For Anarchy Apollo you must not offend. Fill up his belly with a treat or two, so he won't return to come eat you!”

Berry Bubble screamed and ran over to the statue of Anarchy Apollo. “Everypony! Just dump some candy and get out of here!” he cried out, emptying his bag.

It was then that lightning crisscrossed the sky thrice. Everypony paused and turned their heads skyward, watching the clouds broil and churn, before disgorging a chariot pulled by bat-winged ponies, carrying a cloaked figure within.

“It’s Anarchy Apollo!” Berry Bubble shouted in horror. “Everypony, run!”

Dusk, Spines and the Crusaders jumped out of the way of the literal stampede that ran away from the statue.

“Wait! It’s just Prince Artemis!” Dusk shouted, but was ignored in the chaos. He turned to look at the others. “Come on! Let’s find out what’s happening!”

They arrived to find that the chariot had landed in the middle of Ponyville, the locals fearfully watching the cloaked figure that stepped off. With a nod, the figure sent the chariot away and turned to look at the gathered ponies.

The cloak disintegrated into bats as a tall, dark-blue form stepped forth. With his silver raiment and helmeted crown atop his head, Dusk easily recognized him as none other than the prince of the night, Prince Artemis.

“GREETINGS, PONIES OF PONYVILLE!” he boomed, the air shaking with his voice. “We have come to celebrate with you this joyous night of festivities and frolicking!”

“He- he really needs help with his dialogue,” Scooteroll deadpanned.

“Hush now,” Dusk scolded as he left them behind to approach the Prince. “Prince Artemis, I am-”

“Star Swirl the Long Maned,” Artemis recognized. “‘Tis a very detailed costume.”

Dusk smiled. “Why, thank you! I’m glad that you recognized it! I thought only Sweetie would have-” He stopped when the Prince raised a hoof.

“Not to worry, my good Dusk. We have come to have a good time despite the dark warnings.”

“Dark... warnings?” Dusk blinked. “I’m... afraid I don’t know which warnings you’re talking about.”

Artemis looked at Dusk in surprise. “We thought a unicorn as well versed in legends as yourself would be informed of this important legend. It was said that on Nightmare Night, the evil spirit which brought forth Anarchy Apollo would return and possess me during the full moon.”

Dusk chuckled nervously.

“‘Tis a good thing that we remembered to raise a gibbous moon tonight to avoid such... confrontations.”

Dusk frowned. “But... I saw the moon earlier and...”

It was then that the clouds parted and the light of the full moon shone directly on Prince Artemis. Dusk jumped back as the Prince groaned and cried in pain, covering his head with his hooves as dark mist surrounded him.

“What’s happening?!” the Mayor asked, panicking.

“I don’t know!” Dusk replied as the wind picked up. “But Prince Artemis was saying-” He stopped, eyes widening. “Oh, no! Everypony, it’s-”

A blast of magic whipped Dusk’s mane around as a cruel laughter rose from where the Prince had knelt and a misty mane grew to encompass Artemis.

Only, it wasn’t the prince. With a coat as black as the night, mane waving like nebulae and wearing a dark blue set of spiked armor was a figure that Dusk had hoped never to see again.

“Hello, foals,” Anarchy Apollo laughed. “Did you miss me?”

“It’s Anarchy Apollo!” Berry Bubble shouted. “Everypony, run!”

“Not so fast!” the nightmarish alicorn shouted, his horn flaring. “You shall not run when I, your ruler, have just returned! You will worship me!”

“You won’t rule over us, Anarchy Apollo!” Applejack shouted. “We’ll get the Elements of Harmony and send you away again!”

Anarchy Apollo’s eyes flashed malevolently. “It won’t be that easy this time, little pony! For now, I will have new Lieutenants to fight for me!”

Dusk’s eyes widened as a bolt of dark purple energy shot out from Anarchy Apollo’s horn, flashing towards him.

“Dusk!” Rainbow Blitz was suddenly there, pushing Dusk out of the way. The pegasus cried out as the energy meant for the unicorn surrounded him. His mane turned a dull gray as his patched up Shadowbolt costume became a real uniform.

“I welcome you, Dark Blitz, to my army!” Anarchy Apollo chuckled darkly, waving a hoof at the newly-turned pony. Slowly, Blitz got to his hooves, before turning towards the rest of the group, his expression cold and unreadable.

“Spines!” Dusk shouted. “Quick, I’ll distract him, but you have to tell Prince Solaris what’s happening here!”

“Okay!” the little dragoness shouted as she sprinted away towards the library.

“But one is not enough... I need more!” Anarchy Apollo grinned as his magic shot out again.

Dusk was ready to dodge, but this time the magic went right by him. He followed it with his eyes and gasped in horror as the magic struck Sweetie Belle and the Crusaders.

A bright flash blinded all ponies present and when it faded they could only stare in fright and dismay at what had happened.

Scooteroll had been turned into an orange-tinged winged timber wolf, with a pegasus shaped medallion strapped on his chest. Its bramble-made wings made crackling noises as they twitched and stretched, making some pegasi cringe.

Applebuck truly looked like he had died and been stitched back together, his pupils and irises had disappeared altogether and his body was encased in a tough dark-grey hide.

Silver’s costume had been replaced by black, intricately adorned armor, similar to that of the Royal Guards; it shone in the moonlight, silver inlays reflecting the soft light as his now-red eyes scanned the multitude of ponies around them. The medallion he was wearing had turned silver and was embedded into the breastplate opposite an effigy of Anarchy Apollo on the other side.

Sweetie’s tiara had grown to encompass the sides of her face. It was a deep, dark purple with silver inlays that looked almost like bat wings. Her white dress had been changed into a metallic armor the same shade as her helm, with silver wings etched into the breastplate and leg guards. The fantasy wings on her back had turned black and flapped a couple of times... they seemed to be real now, and they were armored as well, from scapulars to alula with a thinner version of her armor. Her irises had turned into an amber-yellow and her pupils seemed draconic, much like Anarchy Apollo’s.

With another flash, Blitz and the Crusaders were standing side by side with Anarchy Apollo.

“Applebuck!” Applejack shouted, looking at his brother in fright.

“This is horrible!” the Mayor shouted.

“Go, my Lieutenants!” Anarchy Apollo hollered. “Cause mayhem! Cause chaos and mischief!”

“Not so fast, Anarchy Apollo!” Dusk yelled, standing tall as Berry Bubble, Applejack, Elusive, and a trembling Butterscotch valiantly stood in front of the Nightmarish alicorn. “We won’t let you do that!”

“And how do you plan on stopping me when I have him on my side?” Anarchy Apollo asked mockingly, pointing with a hoof at Dark Blitz.

“Um...” Dusk gulped.

“Give me back mah brother!” Applejack shouted, galloping towards them, with the intent to buck Anarchy Apollo right in the face. He stopped when he realized he was floating in the air, courtesy of Sweetie’s magic.

“Tut-tut...” Sweetie said, her voice deeper and a nasty sneer decorating her face.

“Sweetie!” Dusk called. “You can’t be working for him!”

“Give it up, foal. Without the Elements you don’t stand a chance!” Anarchy Apollo laughed.

“We have the power of Friendship!” Dusk stated valiantly.

Evil Silver glared at Dusk when Evil Sweetie involuntarily swooned, but Anarchy Apollo just cackled. “And is your friendship enough to fight these five?” he asked, moving his hoof and encompassing the Crusaders and Blitz.

When Dusk bit his lip and didn’t answer, Anarchy Apollo laughed. “I thought as much.”

“Very well, then I shall-”

“Do nothing!” came a deep, authoritative voice as a flash of light materialized in the midst of the showdown. It faded away to reveal a tall white alicorn stallion, mane and tail possessing warm hues, the crown upon his head marking him easily as-

“Prince Solaris!” Dusk sighed in relief. “I’m so glad you’re here!”

Sweetie frowned and glared at Celestia’s counterpart.

“Ah, so you’ve finally arrived, brother!” Anarchy Apollo sneered.

“I am not your brother, Anarchy Apollo. Release Artemis or I will stop you and your thralls right now.” Solaris stated coldly.

“No!” Dusk said suddenly. “You can’t!”

Prince Solaris blinked. “Why not?”

“Because his ‘thralls’ are Rainbow Blitz, the Crusaders and Sweetie Belle!” informed Applejack worriedly.

“What?!” Prince Solaris turned to look in horror at Anarchy Apollo. “How could you do such a thing?! It isn’t possible!”

“I will do anything so that my demands are met!” Anarchy Apollo declared.

Prince Solaris gritted his teeth. “Well then, what are these demands?!”

Several ponies looked at each other worriedly. The stallion of the night glowered at his brother, before tossing his head back in a mighty shout.

“I demand... that the amount of chocolates given to me as sacrifice during Nightmare Night be increased by twenty percent!”

Never!!” Prince Solaris reared back. “You will never have eternal ni-” he choked as his brain registered what he had been told. “Wait... what?”

“I said that I want the amount of chocolates given as a sacrifice during Nightmare Night be increased by twenty percent! No returns.”

“But...” Solaris shook his head. “That’s-”

“Are you not going to abide by our terms?!” Anarchy Apollo asked furiously, eyes flashing. “Truly, you do not know who you are dealing with, Solaris!”

Solaris stepped back. “This is nonsense, Anarchy Apollo! There’s no reason for that! Is this a trick?”

Anarchy Apollo rolled his eyes and his horn lit with magic. With a ‘poof’ a scroll appeared floating between them. “If you’ll look at these statistics, you’ll see that the sacrifice has been declining steadily over the last 400 years,” he huffed. “As it is, I’m letting you off easy.”

Solaris frowned as he looked at the paper. Snatching it with his own magic, he examined it closely.

Dusk blinked, staring at the surreal showdown going on not twelve hoofsteps away. At length, he finally found the words he was looking for. “Wait... are we really doing this?”

After reading twice, Solaris slowly lowered the parchment. “You‘ve kept tabs?”

“What did you expect me to do for a thousand years in the moon? Carve moon rocks to look like you and blow them up afterwards?” Anarchy Apollo asked with a derisive snort.

Solaris sighed. “Honestly, what do you have to say for yourself?”

Anarchy Apollo grinned. “Happy Nightmare Night, brother,” he laughed, hoofing Solaris in the shoulder.

Applejack frowned. “Now, wait just one apple-pickin’ minute... are y’all sayin’ what ah think you’re saying?” He looked down as his undead brother grinned at him.

“Happy Nightmare Night, bro!” Applebuck said, his smile widening.

“Had you guys going for a while, didn’t we?” Rainbow Blitz gloated, flying in small circles over Berry Bubble and Butterscotch before landing and bro-hoofing Scooteroll.

“Sorry I scared you girls,” Sweetie said, smiling sheepishly at Sugar and Spice. “But I had to keep up the act!”

“It’s... It’s okay, Sweetie...” Spice replied after a moment. “You looked pretty scary in that armor though...”

“It’s awesome, isn’t it?!” Sweetie squeaked.

“And that voice...” Sugar shivered. “Where did you get that from?”

Sweetie cringed. “Well... from Anarchy Apollo... sort of...”

“My, don’t you look like a handsome devil!” Elusive chuckled as he trotted up to his brother. “I can see that the Prince took my design into account! How delightful!”

Solaris shook his head. “I understand the appeal of the prank, brother, and I approve... but really? Transforming cloth into armor? And giving a filly the armor of Hades?”

“It’s just an imitation, brother,” Artemis laughed. “One I couldn’t resist.”

“So...” the Mayor walked carefully up to them. “Does this mean that we can carry on? Everypony’s safe?”

Solaris chuckled. “That’s right.”

“Citizens of Ponyville!” Artemis, still disguised as Anarchy Apollo, spoke up. “Happy Nightmare Night! Don’t forget to enjoy the festivities!”

The cheers were deafening.

o.0.o

The celebrations continued well into the night, until most ponies were completely exhausted. The tired group decided to rest a bit before everypony went home.

“But, what ah want to know is... how’d y’all plan this?” Applejack asked as the two Princes, the Cutie Mark Crusaders, Sweetie Belle and the others walked into the library.

“Well... that’s a bit of a story...” Applebuck said after a moment.

Solaris smiled. “I think we all want to hear this one, Applebuck. Last I heard from Artemis this morning, he wanted to cancel Nightmare Night altogether!”

The crusaders looked at each other. “Well...” Silver sighed. “It went like this...”

o.0.o

The Everfree Forest seemed the same no matter what dimension Sweetie was in. Dark, foreboding... Leaves seemed to move where there was no breeze; just like any previous visit, she found out that if she stood in certain areas she could see her own breath while the cold would disappear altogether just a step away.

It was an unnatural place, as if it had been ripped out of some dark imagination and stuck in the middle of Equestria as a blight to all those who would unwittingly wander into it.

“Well, here we are...” Applebuck announced , looking towards the dark forest with trepidation. “Are we sure we want to do this?”

Scooteroll nodded. “Yeah! We’ll get our Cutie Marks for sure!”

“Besides, we have it all planned, remember?” Silver said. “We spent the whole last week drawing maps and planning how to capture it!”

“Well... I remember seeing one close to the Castle...” Sweetie recounted after a moment. “It looked pretty big... and mean.”

The three colts looked at her in awe.

“Y-you’ve been to the castle?” Scooteroll asked. “That’s amazing!”

“Why did you go there?” Silver asked.

“Well... I- I got Scootaloo really mad at me and... and I ran away into the forest.”

Scooteroll looked slightly perturbed. “Uh... Scootaloo? Is that... I mean... is she...?”

“You?” Sweetie smiled. “Yep! She was my first friend in Ponyville!”

“Hey, just like us, buddy!” Scooteroll grinned and hoofed Silver on the shoulder.

“Ouch.”

Applebuck rolled his eyes. “So, do you think you can find your way back?”

“Uh...” Sweetie looked at the three colts. “I- I guess... although, Twilight wasn’t very happy that I had gone into the Everfree by myself...”

Scooteroll rolled his eyes. “They never are, but they already have their cutie marks! Come on, you know the way, you know magic, and, if we’re anything like your friends in your world, you know we can take it!”

Sweetie nodded. “Well, I am a Crusader! And that means we all get our Cutie Marks! Or die trying!”

Applebuck blinked. “Well, Ah’m not sure Ah want to die for it but... Ah’ll risk a limb or two.”

“Good enough!” Scooteroll grinned. “Are we all ready then?”

The others looked at each other and nodded resolutely. “Let’s go!”

Sweetie nodded and started walking. Applebuck fell behind her while Scooteroll and Silver flanked them.

Remembering the path that Zecora had shown her, Sweetie carefully led them deeper and deeper into the Everfree Forest. Slowly the sunlight diminished until it was barely enough to allow them to see where they were going.

Applebuck jumped when the wind shook some dead leaves, making a rustling sound. “Ah... Ah’m okay...”

“I hope we don’t see any timber wolves.” Silver said after a moment. “They’re supposed to be dangerous...”

Scooteroll rolled his eyes. “Everything in here is supposed to be dangerous.”

“Which is why we’re sticking to the road... right?” Silver said after a moment.

“Hey... do you guys hear something?” Sweetie asked suddenly.

“Hey, don’t try to scare us!” Scooteroll said after a moment of silence. “That’s not cool.”

Sweetie raised an eyebrow, but then turned her head. “There it is again!”

The four Crusaders quieted down, and after a moment they could all hear something indeed. It sounded like somepony. Somepony muttering.

“Citizens of Ponyville! We have graced your tiny village with our presence, so that you- no, no, no... maybe something less formal?” The voice paused. “‘Hi, Ponyvillians!’ No! That doesn’t work. They are my subjects! I can’t talk to them like that... no, it has to be something more... imposing... perhaps I should use the Royal Canterlot Voice?”

The group exchanged puzzled glances before slowly walking up to where the voice was coming from.

They hid behind some bushes and carefully looked out. In front of them, an alicorn with midnight blue coat and wavy, star-speckled mane stood facing away from them as he paced around, speaking aloud to himself.

Silver stared at the others in awe. “It’s Prince Artemis!” he whispered excitedly. “I haven’t seen him since the Summer Sun Celebration!”

“I have to project strength,” the alicorn was saying, “but also understanding. I have to let them know that they can stop celebrating that awful holiday!”

Sweetie’s eyes widened in surprise. “Wait. Tonight’s Nightmare Night?!”

Her shout alerted Prince Artemis to their presence. He turned around and faced the group. “THOU SHALT REVEAL THINESELVES!”

“Geez, does he really have to shout like that?” Scooteroll winced as he led the others out of the bushes.

“The Royal Canterlot Voice was the appropriate method of addressing subjects about one thousand years ago,” Sweetie Belle explained. “When Lun- I mean, Prince Artemis, was sent to the Moon, he never lived through the changes that made the Royal Canterlot Voice obsolete. He wouldn’t speak with that voice to his... brother.”

“THAT IS CORRECT!” Prince Artemis announced. “THOU KNOWEST THINE HISTORY QUITE WELL, YOUNG FILLY! WHAT IS THY NAME?”

“Sweetie Belle, your highness, and I regret to inform you, but the use of the Canterlot Royal Voice was discontinued 800 years ago when your sis- I mean, brother, changed his approach to the court.”

“THOU MEANS THAT WE NEED NOT PROJECT OUR VOICE ANYMORE?”

“Um, yeah.” Sweetie grimaced, shaking her head to clear away the ringing in her ears. “It is considered impolite to shout, even at your lessers, and it usually gives the impression that you are angry.”

“WE SEE!” Prince Artemis heralded. “IT DOES MAKE SENSE. WHENEVER WE WATCH SOLARIS HOLD COURT, HE SIMPLY SPEAKS IN A NORMAL TONE OF VOICE.”

“Yes, and what I’m trying to say is that-”

“THAT WE SHOULD TALK IN A MORE NORMAL VOLUME?” Prince Artemis proclaimed in askance. “WE APPRECIATE THE INFORMATION, YOUNG FILLY, AND-”

“IN THE NAME OF SOLARIS, STOP SHOUTING!” Applebuck hollered, interrupting the Prince.

“... we will try to keep our voice to a lower volume,” Artemis finished meekly.

“Why are you talking like that?” Scooteroll asked. “There’s only one of you.”

Artemis raised an eyebrow. “Are we to assume that the royal ‘we’ is no longer in practice as well?”

The crusaders exchanged glances. “Uh... no, not really. We’ve never heard Prince Solaris speak like that.”

Artemis frowned. “Dammit, Solaris, you told me that’s how we should talk!”

Sweetie giggled. “So, what are you doing here, your highness?”

Artemis sighed. “WE- ahem... I... came here to deal with this much maligned night once and for all, and put our subjects to rest from their fears of Anarchy Apollo and finally be done with the barbaric... tradition... that is ‘Nightmare Night’.”

Sweetie’s eyes went wide. She facehoofed at her own forgetfulness. “I can’t believe I didn’t remember that Applejack stopped us from hunting Manticores on Nightmare Night!”

Applebuck gave her an odd look. “Are you tellin’ me you didn’t notice? They were settin’ up a banner and everythin’!”

“Hey, give her a break, she’s just arrived in this world!” Silver retorted, stepping up next to Sweetie.

“Calm down, Silver,” Scooteroll said. “We’re not trying to give her a hard time!” He looked at Sweetie nervously. “We wouldn’t want that...”

Prince Artemis frowned. “What do you mean she just arrived in this world?”

“I uh... I’m actually from another world, your highness,” Sweetie explained. “I arrived here last night and just today Dusk promised to help get me home.”

Scooteroll watched from the corner of his eye as Silver silently repeated the word ‘Dusk’, a look of slight disgust playing across his feature. He raised an eyebrow, but before he could ask, Prince Artemis spoke.

“Ah, then you have come from the other world where we are all gender inverted... I believe my counterpart is Princess Luna.”

“That’s right!” Sweetie exclaimed, awed. “It’s amazing how everypony here seems to know so much about inter-dimensional travel! Even Nightmare Moon was surprised when she found out! But all of you seem to be able to just guess things right!”

“Wait... Nightmare Moon?” Prince Artemis asked.

Sweetie gasped. “So you’re really trying to stop Nightmare Night from happening ever again?!”

All conversation ceased as the Crusaders turned to look at the Prince, who cleared his throat, uncomfortable under the scrutiny of the young ponies. “Um... yes, that would be correct.”

“But you can’t!” Silver exclaimed.

“That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard!” Scooteroll added.

“Yeah! It’s almost as bad as Scooteroll’s usual ideas!” Applebuck nodded, earning himself a prompt hoof to the shoulder.

“My plans are not bad!” Scooteroll snapped. “They are awesome!”

“They usually fail,” Silver shot back.

“I don’t see you coming up with any ideas!” Scooteroll growled, glaring at Silver.

"Hey! No idea is still better than a bad idea!" Silver retorted.

“Says you!” Scooteroll got just in front of Silver and pushed.

“Hey! Don’t push him!” Applebuck defended, pushing Scooteroll.

“Why, you!” Scooteroll snarled as he jumped on top of the other two. They soon became a whirlwind of limbs and dust as they fought with each other.

“I can’t believe I was ever like that...” Sweetie groaned, putting a hoof against the side of her head and massaging away a headache.

“You seem a lot calmer than they are,” Artemis commented, after a moment of watching the trio roll around.

Sweetie shook her head. “About this thing with Nightmare Night...”

"Yeah! You can’t cancel it! We won’t be able to prank the others!” Scooteroll exclaimed, jumping out of the struggle.

Sweetie blinked. “Prank who?”

“Anypony, duh!” Scooteroll rolled his eyes.

“But Nightmare Night is a barbaric and archaic practice!” Prince Artemis exclaimed, drawing the Crusader’s attention. “Ponies living in fear of Anarchy Apollo consuming their souls, sacrificing candy to mitigate the vengeful spirit... it’s baffling and pointless now that I am free!” Prince Artemis stomped his hoof on the soft ground of the forest. “Thus, I have devised a plan which will make the ponies of Ponyville realize that they should not fear me! I will-”

“Arrive in the middle of the celebration in a chariot pulled by the Night Guard, and announce your presence to all ponies using the Canterlot Royal Voice to assure them that you will not harm them after your cape turns into a cloud of bats?” Sweetie finished for him.

“I-” He blinked. “Well, yes, that is exactly what I was planning!”

Sweetie shook her head. “Prince, you have to trust us, that is not a good idea! Everypony loves Nightmare Night! And yes, it’s scary, but that’s because it’s supposed to be scary!”

“Yeah! We all love pulling spooky pranks!” Scooteroll agreed, “And everypony has a good laugh!”

“Ah once pretended to be a crate of bad apples that’d been possessed by Anarchy Apollo and chased Red Gala around the farm for a full ten minutes!” Applebuck offered.

“And I made a haunted house for Elusive with some of his fabrics! I’ve never heard him scream like that!”

Sweetie winced. “Yeah... I remember that...”

Prince Artemis was frowning. “Are you saying that ponies enjoy being scared?”

“Tonight,” Sweetie clarified, “yes.”

The Prince slumped. “Well, there goes the plan...”

“There, there,” Sweetie consoled, patting the Prince’s leg. “It’s okay, Luna had a lot of fun once she discovered that Nightmare Night was not about ponies being miserable.”

Artemis blinked. “She did? How?”

“Well, she started pranking everypony!” Sweetie replied.

“Pranking?” Scooteroll asked, smiling devilishly.

“Waaaiiit...” Applebuck said. “If Sweetie already knows what pranks Luna played... why don’t we plan a really big one?”

Silver raised an eyebrow. “That’s a good idea... but what?”

Artemis touched his hoof to his chin as he looked up thoughtfully. “You say that the scarier the better? Tell me... how would Ponyville react to the return of Anarchy Apollo?”

Scooteroll’s eyes went wide. “That... that would be so cool!”

“And we could be your evil minions!” Silver said excitedly. “Can we do that?!”

Artemis raised an eyebrow. “I believe so... but why would you want to pretend to be my evil minions?”

“Maybe we can get an evil minion Cutie Mark!” Silver exclaimed.

“Cutie Mark Crusaders, Minions of Evil! Yay!” four voices raised.

“Aha!” a voice shouted in response. “There you are! I thought I had seen you four march into Everfree!”

“Uh-oh...” Scooteroll flinched. “It’s Rainbow Blitz!”

“That’s right!” the cyan pegasus declared, landing in the middle of the group. “The one and only!”

“Greetings, Rainbow Blitz,” Prince Artemis smiled.

“Who? Oh!” Rainbow bowed. “Prince! Fancy meeting you here!”

Artemis chuckled. “Don’t worry, I was orchestrating a plan for tonight with the help of the ‘Crusaders,’ as they call themselves.”

Rainbow Blitz blinked. “What sort of plan?”

“A really awesome prank!” Scooteroll grinned.

Rainbow Blitz smiled. “Count me in!”

o.0.o

“And the rest is history,” Rainbow Blitz finished, waving his hoof lazily about as he reclined on a chair.

Dusk sighed and chuckled. “Well, you really had me going there, I admit that, but now that Nightmare Night’s over... we should think about sending you home, Sweetie.”

Silver cringed. “Does she have to go?”

Elusive nodded sadly. “Rarity must be missing her, you know that, Silver.”

“And I know exactly the frequency to send you back, Sweetie, don’t worry,” Dusk assured her.

Sweetie blinked. “You do? But how?”

“When Twilight and the others came here, we worked together to send them back,” Dusk explained.

“Oh...” Sweetie looked down. “Um... I don’t think that’ll work...”

“What do you mean, Sweetie?” Prince Solaris asked.

“I didn’t arrive here by a spell cast by Twilight... I don’t think you’ve ever met my Twilight,” she said after a moment. “I come from a completely different world... one where Twilight was lost.”

The others exchanged worried glances. “What happened?” Butterscotch asked.

“An accident...” Sweetie sighed. “We were both there... a device exploded and... it... it broke Twilight into pieces and sent me into another world.”

“Is that how you arrived here?” Elusive asked. “But, if it was your first interdimensional trip-”

“It wasn’t,” Sweetie interrupted. “This is the fourth world I’ve visited...”

“That’s... hard to believe,” Artemis said. “Even when you knew so much about Nightmare Night, we all know that the other world is displaced in time from ours and things happen there first.”

Sweetie shook her head and concentrated. Soon, a familiar tear in space opened up and her notebook floated out. She placed it down next to some notes that Dusk was working on on the table. “This is my notebook... it was made for me by Twilight and Trixie from the first world I visited. I started collecting little things I could carry with me.” She levitated out a picture and passed it to Elusive, then she took out the acceptance letter and gave it to Dusk, who showed it to Solaris and Artemis.

“Oh, my... is Rainbow Dash pregnant!?” Elusive asked in shock.

“What?!” Rainbow Blitz took the picture from his friend’s grasp. “But how!? Why?! And who’s the stallion? Did he do that to her?”

Sweetie giggled. “That’s Vespa. He’s Scootaloo’s great, great, great grandson, I think.”

The others stared at her in complete shock, unable to formulate a word. A few of those present turned their attention to a certain orange pegasus.

“He is?” Scooteroll asked trying to ignore all the gazes.

“You have a great-great-great grandson!” Applebuck said. “Or, your filly you does!” he held a hoof to his head. “Wait... that’s making my head hurt.”

“But... how can this be?” Elusive asked.

“Are you tellin’ me that Applejack is hundreds of years old in that picture?”

“Two hundred actually,” Sweetie corrected, looking fondly at the mares in the picture. “In that world, the Elements of Harmony made them immortal.”

“Amazing...” Elusive whispered. “To remain young and handsome forever... what a gift!”

Sweetie looked away sadly. Her hoof slowly traced Rarity’s face and Elusive felt a shiver run down his spine, his trained eyes quickly noticing an odd adornment on his female counterpart’s hooves, around the wrist.

“This is impressive, Sweetie,” Dusk complimented, levitating the letter back to her. “You got accepted! That’s quite the achievement!”

Sweetie smiled. “It was hard. I thought I had failed when Nightmare Moon sneezed while I was taking my test.”

“Nightmare Moon?” Solaris frowned. “That name sounds familiar. I do believe it was-”

“My world’s Anarchy Apollo.” Sweetie nodded. “Believe me... it was a crazy experience.”

“We’re losing track of what we need right now,” Artemis reminded them. “If you are not casting a spell to travel to different worlds, how are you doing it?” He shook his head. “While it is theoretically possible to locate your original world, every jump would have jumbled your chances. Even if all worlds are connected, you won’t have a strand connecting you back.”

“Twilight,” Sweetie replied. “I’ve been finding her pieces in each world I visit and each piece has sent me somewhere else. Twilight Sparkle, the two hundred year old one that is, thought that it would be the only way for me to go home.”

Solaris nodded gravely. “However, you have to consider that when you find the last piece... it might just keep you in that last world, unless it is tied to one left at your point of origin.”

Sweetie’s eyes widened with worry. “You mean... I could get stuck in a world even after finding all of Twilight?”

The Prince nodded. “We cannot be sure of course. But it is a possibility you should be ready for.”

Sweetie slumped. “But...”

“Don’t worry,” Elusive comforted, placing his hoof on Sweetie’s shoulder. “I’m sure that you will find your way back.”

Sweetie nodded, barely fighting back tears.

“This poses an interesting problem,” Solaris said. “Sweetie, you should rest. We will think about how to help you tonight, and hope to have a solution by tomorrow.”

“But can’t I stay with you guys and Dusk?” Sweetie asked. “Please? Twilight taught me how to do research!” She yawned, her creeping exhaustion belying her case. “I can be helpful!”

“Come now, Sweetie,” Elusive said, nudging her towards the door along with the other Crusaders. “You can all spend the night at the boutique. Dusk will still be here tomorrow.”

“But...” she was cut off by another yawn.

“Sweetie, please go sleep,” Butterscotch said softly. “You don’t want to be too tired tomorrow, do you?”

“N- no... I guess not...” Sweetie murmured.

o.0.o

“And we expect her to make a full recovery,” the doctor said to Fluttershy and Applejack, as they stood next to Rarity’s bed. “Although pneumonia can be dangerous, we caught it in time before it really affected her...” He looked back at Rarity, who was silently ignoring them as she stared out the window. “But that’s not what worries me... how long has she been like that?”

Fluttershy and Applejack looked at each other. “Ah don’t know...” Applejack said after a moment. “She seemed alright when she visited the farm two days ago... a bit distant but... ever since it happened...”

“I see,” the doctor sighed. “Well, she needs to stay here for observation, but it would really do her a world of good to see familiar faces.”

“Oh, she will,” Fluttershy assured. “We’ll visit her every day.”

Applejack nodded. “An’ Ah’ll let everypony else know to come visit too.”

The doctor nodded back. “That will be good; I’ll ask the nurses to keep an eye on her.”

When he had walked out, Applejack approached Rarity and took Rarity’s hoof in her own. “Rarity,” she started, staring at the silent unicorn. “Ah’m here for you, you hear me? You’re family to me, just like Fluttershy and Big Mac an’ Pinkie an’ Dashie... we’re all a big family. Don’t leave us, don’t shut us out.”

She let the hoof drop softly back down on the bed, and unable to contain tears, she turned around sharply. “Ah- Ah better get goin’. There’s lots to do at th’farm,” she mumbled. “Ah’ll see y’all tomorrow.”

Rarity didn’t respond. She took a deep breath and stared at the clouds.

Fluttershy quietly sat down on the empty chair next to the bed and started reading a book, stealing glances at Rarity from time to time. Just to make sure she was okay.

o.0.o

Sweetie opened her eyes and looked at the familiar ceiling. Around her, she could hear the snores from the other Crusaders.

Why do I feel like I’m forgetting something important? Did I dream something? she wondered with a sigh.

Slowly she stood up, keeping the warm blanket she had wrapped around herself in place with magic. Sweetie carefully made her way around the sleeping colts.

I wonder what it was... She sighed again. But I have this feeling... I have to go.

Sweetie walked into the kitchen and sat down, looking at the distant clouds as the morning started. “I should go to the Library...” she whispered to herself. With that resolve in place, she looked back at the sleeping group before slowly tip-hoofing to the front door.

She carefully opened it and walked out, taking a deep breath as the cool, morning breeze made her shiver slightly. “Better get going! I’m sure Dusk will have some tea to share!”

Sweetie trotted across Ponyville until she reached the library. As she approached the door, she heard voices from inside. Carefully, she opened the door and walked in, peeking around the corner of the kitchen to see both Elusive and Dusk sitting at the table and drinking tea.

“So there was nothing you could find?” Elusive asked Dusk, who shook his head tiredly.

“I’m afraid not...” Dusk sighed. “I learned a lot just from analyzing the notebook, and Prince Solaris and Prince Artemis also looked at it, but... the origin strands are not attached to anything we can detect. Then there’s that recurring burst in the matrix that keeps nagging at me... but that only complicates the matter a tiny bit and doesn’t change anything in the end at all.”

“What do you mean?” Elusive asked, frowning.

“We can’t trace Sweetie’s travels back to her home...” Dusk said after a moment. “I think the Twilight that enhanced the matrix knew that and tried to compensate by adding the memory charm to the notebook, as some sort of guideline... but her framework is so complex I have no idea what else she might have done.” Dusk shook his head, his expression betraying his amazement. “It boggles the mind... me... or another me, two hundred years older created a spell so complex that even the Princes had their doubts about its full capabilities.”

Elusive sighed. “Still, that doesn’t help Sweetie... Dusk, I know how I would feel if Silver was taken away from me in a freak accident... most likely not knowing what had happened to him, if he was even alive?” He shook his head. “It would kill me... I would be worried sick, night and day... and that’s only if I believed he was alive, but I wouldn’t be able to know, would I?”

Dusk nodded in silence. “There’s something about Sweetie Belle...” he said after a moment. “She’s smart... very smart. She reminds me of you, of course,” he nodded towards Elusive. “But she reminds me of myself too... it’s... kind of scary to see so much of me in her, especially when Silver is around. I just can’t help but notice how different she is from him, whereas you and I and Butterscotch and Applejack and Blitz and Berry Bubble... we all were pretty much identical to our counterparts.”

“There’s more to it, Dusk,” Elusive said. “She’s sad.” His horn lit up as a picture that was resting next to the notebook floated up. “What has she lived through? What is she living through right now?” He put the picture down. “It’s not surprising she acts different; she’s slightly older and more experienced. But what worries me is... Is she ready?”

Dusk looked down. “I- I don’t know... she’s strong, and smart... but she’s just a filly.” He paused. “Artemis’ gift will certainly help, but Elusive... I feel like I’m failing not only her with this lack of success, but also myself. Like I’m about to give up on Twilight.”

Elusive shook his head. “It’s okay, Dusk, Sweetie is not trapped here, all we need to do is help her find that gem she needed.”

Dusk sighed. “I just wish there was something else I could do. I wrote down my findings in her notebook, hopefully somepony else can use them...” He looked up at his friend. “Sweetie Belle is Twilight’s apprentice... in some ways that makes her my apprentice too... it’s just, one night is not enough...”

Elusive chuckled. “It’s nice to see you feel responsible, Dusk, but you’re not. We can only hope that Sweetie will be returning home soon. With our blessings, and prayers, isn’t that right, Sweetie?”

Sweetie jumped, startled. “How... how did you know I was here?”

Elusive rolled his eyes. “Your coat, dear, it clashes with the walls.”

“Oh,” Sweetie said, looking down at her coat. She smiled sheepishly. “I guess it does.”

Both stallions chuckled as Dusk’s magic levitated another cup of tea to the table. “Would you care to join us?”

Nodding happily, Sweetie sat down and levitated the tea to her lips. “Hey, this is Spike’s- I mean, Spine’s special blend! Does everypony know about it?”

Elusive laughed. “Well, I knew, of course, and after seeing how distraught dear Dusk was, I decided to share the location just this once.”

Dusk shook his head, but smiled. “Now we only need to find that fragment so you can continue your journey,” he said. “I’m sorry I couldn’t send you home, Sweetie.”

Sweetie smiled a bit sadly. “I... I don’t think I would want to go without finding Twilight first...” she confessed.

“Do you have any idea how to find the crystal you need?” Elusive asked. “I have a gem-locating spell, but I don’t know if that will be of much help...”

“It’s okay,” Sweetie said before taking a moment to take a sip of that familiar tea. “I already know where it is.”

o.0.o

“Are you really leaving?” Silver asked, looking at Sweetie with sad, puppy eyes.

Sweetie Belle cringed. Did I ever do that to Rarity?

“I have to, Silver... this morning... I don’t know why but... I- I know that I have to go.”

“It’s too bad, kid, I was starting to like you after last night’s prank!” Rainbow Blitz grinned.

“Aw... I thought you could help us with getting our Cutie Marks...” Scooteroll said, walking up to her. “With your magic, I’m sure we could have made some awesome plans!”

“Ah’ll miss you, Sweetie Belle,” Applebuck said, giving her a short hug. “It was mighty fun havin’ you around.”

“We see that we didn’t miss Sweetie’s departure,” Prince’s Artemis’ voice reached them as he walked into the library.

“You’re doing that thing with the ‘we’ again,” Scooteroll commented, frowning.

Artemis blinked and cleared his throat. “Ah, right. I have to watch it, you see... I have a tendency to slip back into the royal ‘we’.”

“That’s better,” Scooteroll chuckled.

“W- I have brought you this, for your travels,” he said to Sweetie, levitating a small black gem and a white gem, which attached themselves to the spine of her book.

Sweetie’s eyes went wide when, with a small flash from the gems, a small trail of energy appeared over all the small gems in the book. “That’s the spell matrix!”

Dusk leaned close. “It is; usually you need a spell designed to let you see it for you to work on it directly. Gems and lenses are usually enchanted with it, along with a permanency spell to allow magical artisans and certain experts to work on them.”

“Ooh!” Sweetie smiled at Dusk. “I remember Rarity had one of those! She said she used it to make the diamonds and gems in the dresses! I never knew she was enchanting the gems!”

Elusive chuckled. “It is indeed a very useful tool!”

“So that’s how she made the notebook in the first place!” Sweetie said. “She created a simple matrix and used it to decorate the notebook as she would a dress...” she started pacing. “... but by using really good quality gems, she allowed Twilight to also enchant the notebook with the pocket dimension spell tied to me.”

Dusk frowned, as if he had thought of something for a second, but he shook his head and nodded. “Yes, the quality of the gems has allowed every other Twilight to add to and modify your notebook a bit; however, the last Twilight added some very heavy spells to it, and the space left is very limited.”

Sweetie studied the matrix. “I see... there are nine gems on the cover. The ruby on the upper left corner seems to be the start of the spell matrix, and it’s glowing pretty strongly in contrast to the opal on the opposite corner. These three, starting from the upper right all the way down to the lower left seem to be for one spell alone, feeding off the ruby via the central sapphire, but creating a loop with the jade to its left, linking to the opal, and the opal’s spell is dedicated, so it has no facets... my guess is that the Pocket Dimension spell is housed there and it uses the same energy such a reaction creates to ‘feed’ back the loop.”

“It’s truly ingenious,” Prince Artemis said, nodding alongside Dusk. “But it has basically reached the end of its upgrade capability, as it is. There’s a couple of spells in there that take a huge amount of energy and space; what they are for... I can only wonder.”

“Ah... could y’all translate all that magic mumbo-jumbo for the rest of us please?” Applebuck asked.

“It has a lot of spells already and can’t take anymore,” Prince Artemis simply stated.

“Oooooh...” came a chorus of voices.

Sweetie sighed. “I guess there had to be a limit. The only thing it can take anymore is just plain written word...”

“Which,” Dusk interjected, his horn alight as he floated a scrap of paper over. “I happen to have something of the sort. You got something from the Prince. Now have something from me.”

Her eyes wide and curious, Sweetie took the paper into her own hold, and scanned its contents, an eyebrow raised. “A... A vessel of white, to hold the down...?” she asked, looking back at the stallion quizzically.

“Sweetie, I want you to understand this.” the librarian stated, stepping close. “If you ever feel in need of... shelter, from your travels... when you use that spell, it’ll take you straight back to this dimension. But don’t use it capriciously. This WILL drain you of all your magic when you activate it. Only use it when things are too dire for you. Understand?”

The filly nodded slowly to him as she slipped it in between the pages of her notebook. “I understand, Dusk,” she answered. With a brief flash of magic, she dismissed her notebook before turning towards Artemis with another question. “So, what do the two gems you added do?”

The prince chuckled. “I’ll let you find out. Use the white one if you ever need to go to a formal occasion and the black one if you really need extra protection.”

Sweetie nodded as she levitated the purple crystal Elusive had taken and replaced from her dress. She looked at it as it spun in front of her, then turned to look at the others. “It feels like I always say goodbye in this place,” she said, looking around at the bookshelves and the ponies around her. “It’s funny how I come here to find so much and yet... lose so much in the end.”

Elusive nuzzled her. “Sweetie, you are much too young to be talking like that.”

Sweetie smiled a bit. “I don’t feel that young.” She looked up at Elusive. “Elusive... brother, I... I wish I could stay a bit longer, but...”

Elusive nodded, his soft smile remaining as he took a step back. “You are always welcome back, sister. I always wondered how Rarity felt when she met Silver... and now I know. There’s love that goes far beyond the limits of our dimensions.”

Silver stepped forth and hugged Sweetie tightly. “I’ll miss you...”

“I’ll miss you too, Silver.” Sweetie Belle said.

The colt nodded to her, pausing for a moment before speaking up again. “Sweetie...” he started, voice tinged with shyness as he searched for the words. “I- I think you should know... I... I like you... really like you.”

Sweetie held him closer for a moment, before pushing him back so that she could see into his eyes as she held his shoulders. “Silver... you should know that... I love you. But like a brother, Silver. Just like I love Elusive. Can... can you live with that?”

Silver sighed, before nodding, accepting the situation. “Y-yeah,” he replied, looking up at her with a bit more confidence than before. “You should come back to visit sometime... sis.”

Sweetie nodded. “I’ll try, bro... I’ll definitely try.”

“Sweetie,” Dusk said, stepping up. “I can’t speak for all Twilights and Dusks in the multiverse... but I think that most of us, if not all, would be proud and happy to call you our apprentice.”

Sweetie nodded, trying her best to keep the blush off of her face as she replied. “T-Thank you Dusk... I hope to see you again.”

Sweetie Belle stepped away from them and then turned, so she was facing them for a second. She then closed her eyes as her magic made contact with the crystal.

Sweetie... she heard Twilight’s voice. You’re still here...

I’ll bring you back home, Twilight... I promise. Sweetie replied in her mind.

Dusk frowned again when he noticed the crystal start to pulsate. “Wait... wait! That’s it! Sweetie!”

Sweetie Belle opened her eyes, startled. Already most of her body had disintegrated into motes of light.

“Sweetie! The Spell Matrix! The elder Twilight left a message for all other Twilights! It’s in the matrix! The pulse...” He fell silent as the last of the lights faded.

Within seconds, the library was a scene of sadness, the departure of the filly having placed a damper on the mood. Especially the mood of one stallion, who had just now, realized what was at stake.

“I hope you heard enough...” he sighed. “Because you need to know... and soon.”

o.0.o

“What did you mean, Dusk?!” Sweetie asked as the world flashed around her. Her eyes widened when she saw a metallic pony-like thing turning to ‘look’ at her.

“INTRUDER DETECTED!” it hollered. “STOP RIGHT THERE, CRIMINAL SCUM!” it added, turning fully to face her. “SURRENDER NOW AND BE ANNIHILATED!”

“Wait!” she shouted as two tubes mounted on its sides shot something at her. Sweetie Belle dove to the side, watching in horror as the ground was scorched where she had just been standing before. She quickly raised a shield, which buckled under another attack.

Sweetie Belle was pushed back, unable to do anything but concentrate as hard as she could on the shield as several miniature objects slammed into it constantly as the metallic pony slowly advanced on her. “I’m... sorry! I didn’t know I was trespassing! I’ll go away!” she shouted over the rattling sounds of the things being shot at her.

The metal creature did not stop, however, until a rock hit it on its head.

Sweetie almost let the shield fall in surprise when a filly even younger than her and dressed up in some sort of yellow suit with a glass helmet ran straight onto the metallic pony and started smashing its face in with the rock.

“I hate bully-bots!” she shouted.

“IN- bzzt- SURReeeenDuuuur” SLAM! “ANNI-” SLAM! BAM! “LATED..” SLAM! SLAM! CRASH! A female voice clicked in from the remains of the metallic pony. “Your Solaris Inc. product seems to have malfunctioned. Please contact-” BAM! With a final smash, the thing, whatever it was, quieted down.

The little filly turned and looked up at Sweetie, who just then realized she was now in an adult body again, when she had to look down at her saviour.

“Hello, pretty pony!” The pink-eyed filly said with a smile. “I’m Puppysmiles! I'm looking for my mom! Have you seen her?”

o.0.o End Chapter 4 o.0.o

Next Chapter: Pink Eyes

Pink Eyes

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Editors & Proof: littlerobotbird, Trevor, Mimezinga, Fifth Alicorn, Cardslafter, Super Big Mac

o.o.0.o.o

Rarity lay on her stomach in her bed, staring morosely at the velvet pillows she had once loved so much. On the bottom floor, right below her room, she could hear Opalescence meowing and the rattle of food being poured into her bowl. Rarity sighed and put the feline out of her mind, her gaze travelling around her room, looking down when the breeze ruffled the discarded papers next to her bed: Fluttershy’s latest attempts at getting her back into designing dresses.

She simply didn’t have the energy to indulge in such a thing anymore. Her eyes strayed to the window, her horn flashing reluctantly to part the curtains and close it altogether. Then, she saw the bottle of pills on her nightstand.

She was supposed to take one every eight hours or so. Always with a meal.

Drink plenty of water.

Go out, get some fresh air and sunlight.

She could take two when going to sleep so that she wouldn’t dream at all... three... three was a no-no. Her horn glowed softly as the bottle cap twisted off and a couple of pills floated out.

Rarity stared at the bottle and pulled out three more. She put it down, then levitated it once again, pulling out more until a dozen pills were hovering before her.

Better to make sure.

No.

Rarity put them in her mouth and swallowed, dropping the bottle next to the bed as she took a gulp of water to help them down.

No!

Then she lay back down, slowly closing her eyes, her breathing starting to get slower. She barely had the energy to keep her eyes open. But it was okay... she would soon be with her sister. She would soon be able to hold Sweetie Belle close and to hug Twilight and tell her she forgave her.

Rarity smiled, closed her eyes and stopped breathing.

“RARITY!”

“Sweetie!?” Rarity’s eyes snapped open as she sat up in her bed. Breathing hard, she quickly dove to the side of her bed, throwing up violently onto the floor. She took deep breaths and started calming down, eyeing the bile-covered pills on the floor through teary eyes and replaying the awful decision she had just made.

The sound of frantic hooves outside her door made her turn to face it just when Fluttershy stampeded in.

“Rarity! Are you okay? I heard you scream. Did you have a nightmare?”

“Fluttershy-” Rarity shook her head, spitting a little bile. “I need to speak with Zecora.”

The pegasus blinked, her eyes straying to the mess on the floor. “I... see, maybe we can go see her tomorrow and-”

“No,” Rarity interrupted, slowly standing up and swaying a bit as her faltering strength caught up with her. “It has to be now.”

Fluttershy stared at her friend for a few moments before nodding.

o.0.o

“Miss Silly Belle? Are you awake now? And now? And now?" Puppysmiles poked the unicorn a little more, because real science by real ponies in lab coats had totally proven that poking somepony was going to gain her attention for sure: 10 out of 10 foals strongly advised the method. "And now? And now?”

Sweetie Belle groaned and stared at the earth pony filly in the yellow space-suit that was poking her in the ribs.

I thought those things only existed in Scoots’ comics!

“It wasn’t a nightmare,” she groaned, slowly standing up. “You really did destroy that thing with a rock.”

“Yay!” the filly cheered jumping around Sweetie. “You woke up! You woke up! Will you sing for me now? ‘Cause I really really really love your songs!”

Sweetie shook her head, still mildly disoriented from the dimension hop. “What? Sing?”

“Yush!” Puppysmiles smiled, batting her eyes at Sweetie. “Pleeeeeeaaaase? I love-love-love your singing. It’s super duper awesome and when I am a big pony, I will marry you!”

“Marry me?” Sweetie blinked. “Uh... listen, little... filly...”

“I’m Puppysmiles!”

“Right, look, I’m a bit tired. How about we find a place to rest and...”

“Nuh-uh! I gotta find mom!” Puppysmiles gasped. “Have you seen my mom? She is really pretty and super cool and all purple with orange mane and pretty and super very important! Like you!”

“I’m... important?” Sweetie shook her head and took a look around. They were still next to the remains of the metal thing that had attacked her. All she could see for miles around was desert flat that, for some reason, gave her a very strong sense of loss... even if she had never been there before. “I- Puppysmiles? Why don’t we stop someplace to rest and I’ll- I’ll sing you a song once we get there! And maybe I can help you find your mom.”

Puppysmile’s eyes widened. “Can you sing now?”

Sweetie lowered her eyelids. “That wasn’t the deal.”

Puppysmile’s eyes watered up up while she put on her best pout and begged Sweetie Belle to bend to Puppy’s will and sing. “Just a little song? Pweeeeze? Puppy pleease?”

Sweetie brought her hoof to her face. To think I was using that same technique a week ago.

“No, but I can sing on the way.”

“Yush!” Puppysmiles giggled, jumping around Sweetie.

“Do you know where we’re going?”

Puppysmiles stopped in mid jump. She landed and frowned. “Mr. Voice!”

Sweetie watched curiously as lights appeared around the rim of Puppysmiles’ helmet. She took a moment to take in the appearance of the filly. Pink coat, pink eyes, blonde mane and a cute little face were all the details she could make out, since her body was encased in a yellow suit that resembled a character’s ‘space-suit’ from that one book Twilight had about ponies flying to the moon. The helmet was round and made out of some kind of glass, allowing for Puppysmiles to be able to look around in all directions without her vision being impaired. The suit itself had some pockets and saddlebags attached to it. The faint vibration of magic emanated from it, both familiar and foreign to Sweetie’s senses.

Ignoring Sweetie’s stare, Puppysmiles concentrated on the arrows and pretty lights as Mr. Voice spoke up inside the helmet. “Scanning maps from available databases,” the artificial voice said. “Suitable S.T.A.B.L.E. facility found on map. Opening communication. No Signal detected. Checking for emergency channel. Emergency beacon detected in corresponding coordinates. Adding quest marker on the compass.” A small blinking pink arrow appeared on Puppy’s helmet. “Follow the pink arrow on the compass until destination is reached.”

“Thanks, Mr. Voice!” Puppysmiles cheered as she ran in circles around Sweetie, earning a curious glance from Sweetie. “Yay! Song time! Sing! Sing!”

Sweetie rolled her eyes, but started walking behind the filly in the space suit, resolving to ask her about this ‘Mr. Voice’ once they reached their destination. “Um... let’s see... What song should I sing?”

“I know! Sing um... ‘Do You Remember Love’!” Puppy exclaimed after a moment’s thought. “I love-love-love that song!”

I have no idea what song she’s talking about. Sweetie thought with a frown, searching her memory for another option. And what did she mean by me being important? What’s going on? Ugh... I need to figure this out!

“I have a better idea,” Sweetie ventured. “How about I sing a song that Pinkie Pie taught me?”

o.0.o

“Eh-que-stri-a Girls, we’re kinda magical~” Sweetie and Puppysmiles sang in chorus. However, while Puppysmiles seemed completely oblivious to everything and interested only in singing and reaching her next destination, Sweetie kept her eyes on the area around them.

What happened? Sweetie wondered as she surveyed the landscape. This... is this even Equestria? What year is this? How could it have ended up like this? No, she decided, this isn’t Equestria. I must have been sent somewhere else. And... where they know who I am, who Pinkie Pie is, and where little fillies want to grow up and marry me. She groaned and looked at the cloudy sky in desperation. I haven’t even seen a ray of sunlight!

“Miss Sweaty Belle, are you tired of singing?” Puppysmiles asked Sweetie, having dropped out of the song after the chorus.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Puppy. I just got distracted... this doesn’t look like the place I came from at all,” Sweetie replied. “It’s... well... horrible.”

“I was in Ponyville once, and it was awesome!” Puppysmiles said ignoring Sweetie’s remarks about the landscape. “There were a lot of fillies and colts playing and a carousel, but wasn’t a real carousel! It didn’t turn around and... they had a library in a tree...” She frowned. “You’re not going to cry now, are you?”

Sweetie blinked in confusion. “No, why would I cry?”

“Because when I tell other ponies about Ponyville, they always start crying,” Puppysmiles said sadly. “And they won’t tell me why!”

“Oh...” Sweetie sighed. “Well, that’s not very helpful.”

“Nope!” Puppysmiles agreed, stopping after a moment. “We’re here! Yay!”

Sweetie looked at the half-collapsed metal door that had sunk into the ground, creating a makeshift ramp. The right side of the rusty metal read: “S.T.A.B.L.E.” The left, collapsed side was so deteriorated that whatever had been written on it was utterly illegible.

“Are you sure this is the place, Puppy?” Sweetie asked dubiously.

“Yush!” Puppysmiles giggled. “Miss Sweeney Belt, are you scared?”

Sweetie raised an eyebrow. “Of course not, I’m a Cutie Mark Crusader!”

“Wow! A Cootie Match Cruspader! That’s like the awesomest thing ever!” Puppysmiles gasped. “Can Puppy be a Cootie Match Cruspader? Pleeease?”

“It’s ‘Cutie Mark Crusader’,” Sweetie corrected.

“Yeah, that thing too! Can I be one?”

“Sure,” Sweetie said, sighing. “Why not?”

“Yay! I’m a Cruspader!” Puppy shouted, jumping around Sweetie Belle, who couldn’t help but smile.

“Right, and the first thing we should do is get inside and find somewhere to rest!”

“Aw…” Puppysmiles pouted. “But the only things in ugly places like that are ugly ponies and bullybots!”

“Well, it can’t be worse than staying out here…” Sweetie said, glancing at the overcast sky. “Don’t the pegasi here ever cleanup? Look at that!”

“Nuh, uh…” Puppy said. “Peggysuseseses don’t hang around anymore…”

“Peg... okay,” Sweetie breathed in, trying to bolster her courage. “This is just one stop. I just need to find the crystal and see if I can help Puppysmiles find her mom. Easy.”

The pair carefully crept through the gap left by the collapsed side of the door and into the S.T.A.B.L.E.

o.0.o

“She comes! She comes to destroy us all! I have seen it!” A voice rose hoarsely, echoing through the metal halls of the S.T.A.B.L.E.. “We must protect the Goddess! We are the chosen!”

Whispers became a buzz as dozens of voices whispered worriedly to each other.

“SILENCE!”

Immediately all the voices quieted down. “THIS DESTROYER YOU SPEAK OF, PROPHET... WHEN SHE ARRIVES, BRING HER HERE.”

“But, your majesty!”

“THE GODDESS HAS SPOKEN, PROPHET!”

“As you wish…”

o.0.o

“Zecora, I need your help,” Rarity said, sitting across from her friend. “Ever since… the accident, I-… I haven’t been myself, but there have been times that… I’ve felt, that somehow, Sweetie was there, watching me.” She looked at Zecora in the eye. “I don’t know why, but… I think she’s alive.”

“The knowledge you seek to gain,” Zecora began after a moment of thought, “is not easy to obtain.” She stood up and walked to pick up several vials and containers.

“Um… h-how difficult is it?” Fluttershy asked. “Is she going to be in danger?”

“Her body shall be fine,” Zecora assured the pair, setting everything up in front of them. “What is feared is laying her soul on the line.”

“What do you mean?” Rarity asked. “Why would I have to fear for it?”

“I do not know what you’re likely to find; it could mend your heart or destroy your mind.” Zecora said, giving Rarity a look of grave seriousness.

“What do you mean, Zecora?” Fluttershy asked.

Rarity sighed. “You’re saying I could find out that Sweetie is dead…”

That is most minor of what I dread,” Zecora whispered.

“I- I’m not sure this is a good idea, Rarity,” Fluttershy said, looking decidedly uncomfortable with the way things were going. “M-maybe we could write a letter to the Princesses or-”

“No,” Rarity interrupted, her eyes begging. “Please, Fluttershy, Zecora… I need to do this. If Sweetie is truly gone, then I think it will help me find closure.”

“But if she’s not, you might not be able to do anything for her,” Zecora’s voice took a melancholy turn.

Rarity closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “For the last three months, I have felt that there was no reason to continue living. Life feels worthless without my dear Sweetie Belle…” Rarity opened her eyes and looked at her friends, imploring them to understand. “When our parents died, I took it upon myself to take care of her. I fought hoof and tooth to make a decent income so that Sweetie would have an education and a certain quality of life.” Rarity sighed. “She and my career became everything to me. Until Twilight Sparkle came and I gained true friends, I could barely relax. I’m glad to have all of you.” She smiled hesitantly. “Even with you all still here, though, I feel… dead. But when I feel at my worst... when I am about to give up hope forever... I feel her. I feel Sweetie… and just earlier, I heard her call to me.”

Fluttershy looked down at the tabletop quietly, eyes slightly misty. Without further ado, Zecora started heating up some water while she measured powders and chanted incantations over strange-looking ingredients. The two ponies watched her work in silence, neither wanting to either distract her or bring back the taxing conversation.

The cauldron boiled. Powders were dumped and sprinkled and blown into it; bigger ingredients like a feather and a curiously large bone were used to mix the brew, while others were submerged carefully with a slotted spoon, which would come up empty each time.

Finally, Zecora produced a strange cup made of some bone-like material that curved into a tip at the bottom. Its top was rimmed with gold and a few gems. Rarity gasped, both at the simple, yet exquisite look of it, and at the magic she could sense emanating from it.

“The horn of a rhino is a rare gift indeed,” Zecora whispered, carefully filling it with the potion she had prepared. “It must be used only in the direst of need.”

She presented the hollowed horn to Rarity, who took it in her telekinetic grasp. “What will this do?”

“If the link you feel is indeed Sweetie Belle, you’ll find out just where she fell,” Zecora rhymed.

“And… um… if it’s not?” Fluttershy asked.

Zecora remained quiet.

“M-maybe you should wait, Rari-“ Fluttershy stopped as she realized that it was too late, seeing Rarity lower the emptied container. “What now?”

Zecora shook her head, walking up beside Rarity. “Now we can only hope for the best. Lay down your head, it’s time to rest.”

Rarity nodded, taking a couple of steps towards the bed, then stopping. Her eyes went wide for a second before she screamed, twitching violently and would have fallen back had Zecora not caught her.

“What’s happening?!” Fluttershy asked, panicked, hurrying to restrain the thrashing unicorn.

Rarity groaned and suddenly went limp.

Fluttershy looked at her face and whimpered, only able to take a breath after seeing her friend was still alive. “Will she be okay?”

“For that, dear Fluttershy, we can only pray.”

o.0.o

“Well, at least we’ll have some protection from the elements here...” Sweetie Belle mused, looking around. She could see very little, and the deeper they went, the less the meager light from the outside could reach. With a sigh, Sweetie silently cast a light spell, allowing the pair to see better.

They were in a pony-made cavern of some sort. Further down, Sweetie could see a couple more doors that were in better condition than the ones outside. As they approached, she couldn’t help but notice just how thick they were.

“Puppy, what happened?” Sweetie looked from the doors to the small filly beside her. “Why did we have to build things like... this?”

Puppy looked at the doors and tilted her head. “Mom said we built them against the sea... uh... sea... brass?”

“Sea brass?” Sweetie blinked. “What is that?”

“Stripey ponies!” Puppy exclaimed with a big smile.

“Zebras...” Sweetie rolled her eyes in exasperation. “But, why? I may only know Zecora, but she’s a good friend!”

Puppy shrugged, blinking at her. “I dunno... because of- of... the Princecessessess?”

Sweetie shook her head. “Never mind. How deep do you think we should go?”

“All the cool stuff is always inside!” Puppysmiles said, pleased that somepony was finally asking her advice. “And Mr. Voice says to go towards the doors! Let’s go in! Mom is in there!”

Sweetie observed the doors warily. “Are you sure?”

“Mr. Voice says so!”

Sweetie Belle slowly approached them. The machines attached to the door were much more advanced than anything she had seen so far besides Puppy’s suit. The burnt edges at both ends of the doors and and the permeating feeling of death didn’t help at all to put her at ease. She shook her head, trying to shove her dark thoughts into the back of her mind.

“I’m a Cutie Mark Crusader,” she whispered, steeling herself. “I’ve gone into the Everfree by myself, at night, knowing less magic than I do now! What am I afraid of?” Nodding once, Sweetie stepped in behind Puppysmiles. “Okay, let’s go!”

“Yay!” the filly cheered, jumping into the old S.T.A.B.L.E.

o.0.o

Rarity stared in horror at the place where she suddenly found herself standing. It was some sort of cave; the floor was covered with the bones of dead ponies. She could tell by the way they lay on the floor that they had been close together before they perished, perhaps even holding each other, desperately trying to find comfort against their impending doom.

She started hyperventilating, taking in her ghastly surroundings, noticing the deplorable state of the walls, which now she recognized as excavated, and the half-demolished doors at the end of the entrance hall.

“Wh-where am I?” she whispered. “How did I- Zecora...” She grimaced. “Perhaps I should have thought about it a bit before downing the whole thing.”

Her musings were interrupted by the sound of voices. Looking around quickly, she jumped behind the remains of old containers that had been piled to the side. Rarity carefully peeked around them as two figures made their way into the cave.

Her heart lurched as the taller one lit her horn.

“Sweetie Belle...” Rarity whispered in astonishment, stepping out from behind the crates. The filly... no, the young mare could be nopony other than her sister. She would know her Sweetie Belle anywhere... her little sister had grown into such a beautiful unicorn. But... how long has she been away? Is this the future then? Regardless of her thoughts, she couldn’t contain herself. “Sweetie Belle!” Rarity cried, unable to stop the tears from trailing freely down her cheeks.

She galloped up to her sister, ready to throw her hooves around the now-grown filly, but suddenly, she was stumbling through her objective and barely managed to stay on her hooves. Rarity turned sharply, staring wide-eyed at Sweetie and the little filly by her side. She slowly approached her sister. “What... but...” a pained look crossed her face as she stammered. “It’s... it’s not fair...” she whimpered, extending a hoof only to see it pass through Sweetie. “It’s- it’s not fair... I finally found you and–”

Rarity closed her eyes, slumping down onto her haunches, listening quietly as her younger sister gathered up the courage to go past the destroyed gates.

“I’m a Cutie Mark Crusader,” Sweetie said, and Rarity opened her eyes just as her sister took the first step towards the doors. “I’ve gone into the Everfree by myself, at night, knowing less magic than I do now! What am I afraid of?” Sweetie spoke louder, drawing courage from her words. “Okay, let’s go!”

“Can you really not see me?” Rarity whispered, suddenly feeling very, very lonely and small. “Am I even here, Sweetie?”

But Sweetie did not turn and answer. She resolutely stepped into the darkness, followed by the filly in the drab suit with the helmet, leaving Rarity on her own.

Rarity sniffed. Then she put her hoof down hard, feeling a sudden rush of determination she had not felt since the accident. A burning, white-hot sensation that she thought had been all but lost in her pitiful self-loathing. She pushed herself up, and rolled her shoulders back as she looked up, unknowingly imitating Sweetie’s earlier pose.

“Well, I’m not staying here, moping while you face danger!” She trotted up to the gates and pushed a hoof through the metal, leaving no mark and feeling nothing. A grim smile formed in her lips. “I’ll go with you, Sweetie... and I’ll watch over you... even if you cannot see me... at least I know you’re alive.”

With a single nod, she set out after Sweetie Belle.

o.0.o

Once they had gotten past the entrance, the place itself wasn't so bad. The walls, though still damaged and requiring some serious maintenance, were not in such a bad condition after all, all things considered. The floors might’ve been missing a few panels, but, again, they were walkable.

“So... what is the purpose of this place, Puppy?” Sweetie asked.

Puppysmiles scrunched up her face in determination, trying to recall the answer she had once known. “Um... I think mommy called it Staples! She said they have everything at Staples! And I was going to be in one with mommy!”

“A... staple?” Sweetie blinked and shrugged. “Well, this is certainly different than all the other places I've been to...” She stopped and looked at one of the walls which had a big sign that read “S.T.A.B.L.E.,” whatever had been written after it having been lost due to a panel having been removed, revealing the cables behind it. “Staples... S.T.A.B.L.E.S... I get it...” She sighed. “I just wish I knew what happened to Equestria!”

“How can you not know?” a new voice, young and male, asked.

Sweetie Belle stopped short and lowered her head down a bit, her horn glowing brighter as the room lit up with the increased energy of her spell. Wherever there were shadows, she could barely see somepony. “Who are you?”

The ponies that walked into the light were all in various stages of decomposition. Half-melted flesh hung loosely, their faces scarred and cauterized into painful rictus of unholy suffering. And yet, their expressions moved and changed as a normal pony would, showing emotions even with those cloudy, dead eyes.

Sweetie's eyes went wide and she took a step back in horror, her spell flickering.

“Hello, ugly ponies!” Puppysmiles greeted them cheerfully, running up to them and waving a little hoof. “Is it okay if we stay a little while? Miss Sweaty Belts needs to sleep and she promised to sing me another song if we found a nice place! And Mr. Voice says mommy is here, and I really, really want to see and please please please don't be a bully!”

The ugly ponies looked at each other, then back at Puppysmiles before looking up at Sweetie Belle.

Sweetie forced a smile. These ponies reminded her of yet another of Scootaloo’s comics about Zombies.

“We... were sent to guide you into the Sanctuary...” the foremost undead pony said. Her coat remained largely in the form of cream-colored rags that stuck to areas of her body. “The Goddess and her prophet await.”

Puppysmiles beamed at Sweetie. “See! I told you I could find an nice place! Can I get songs now? Can I?”

Sweetie grimaced, then sighed in defeat. “Sure, why not? Tell me, do you all like country music? I know this song that Applejack taught me not too long ago...”

For her part, struggling with the fact that she was unable to communicate or interact in any way with Sweetie Belle, Rarity didn't know what to feel more mortified about... the fact that they were following a bunch of walking, dead and decomposing ponies, the fact that Sweetie was taking this in far too quickly, or the fact that her little sister was about to sing country.

Finally, she settled her mind as she fell into place next to Sweetie and Puppysmiles, doing her best to avoid touching the ghouls. “Applejack, I am going to kill you...”

o.0.o

The Goddess arched an eyebrow as all the ghouls around her turned toward the dark hall that was the entrance to the Sanctuary.

She could hear something she had never expected to hear again. Not like this. Not so... innocent... The Goddess felt a small tear form in the corner of her eye and quickly wiped it away, thankful that everypony's attention was focused on the hall.

So rock me mamma like a wagon wheel, rock me mamma anyway you feel... hey, mamma rock me...”

The fact that several voices were chorusing the song wasn't lost on her. She even recognized some of them. Who could get a bunch of fanatical, depressed ghouls to suddenly start singing country music? And why did that voice sound so familiar?

When the group came into view, the Goddess felt a pang deep in her chest that resonated through the shared minds of Unity, drawing Her attention. For a moment, there was not one of the myriad minds that were part of her who didn't stop and space out, even for just one second.

“Sweetie Belle...” The Goddess whispered into the sudden silence in the room.

Sweetie, for her part, stared at what was in front of her. “You're an... an alicorn?!”

“WHAT- HOW?! THE GODDESS DEMANDS YOU TELL HER HOW YOU CAME TO BE HERE!”

Sweetie's eyes widened, and the ghostly Rarity next to her tilted her head. That voice sounded familiar.

“TRIXIE!” Sweetie shouted in excitement, galloping up and throwing her forelegs around the alicorn's neck. “Trixie! You're here!” She frowned. “And why are you using the Royal Canterlot Voice?”

“What? Since when are Trixie and Sweetie friends?” Rarity whispered, staring incredulously at the scene in front of her.

“Remove her from the Goddess!” the prophet shouted frantically, his hoarse voice driving the paralyzed ghouls from their stupor. They quickly pulled her away from the blue alicorn in front of her, pushing her back to stand a few feet away, surrounded by suddenly angry ghouls.

The Goddess trembled, her façade broken by the sudden outburst from Sweetie Belle. She was confused and even a little scared. Never had anypony been so... happy... to see her.

“Hello, flying-unicorn lady!” Puppysmiles exclaimed, making the Goddess’ eyes slowly move down to stare at the little filly in the radsuit. She blinked. She had heard stories but...

“YOU ARE... THE GHOST OF THE 52...” the Goddess said, frowning a bit. “THE GODDESS HAS HEARD OF YOU.” Her eyes strayed up to the young mare further down. “AND... SWEETIE BELLE?”

The Goddess suddenly remembered the ghouls and she quickly gathered herself and projected confidence once more. She needed the ghouls, for now. “THE GODDESS KNEW YOU WERE COMING!” she declared with utmost confidence.

“Wow!” Puppysmiles' eyes went wide. “Are you really a prinsuss? Because mommy always said that all flying unicorns were princesses! And if you're a flying unicorn, then you must be a princess! Can I has your auto- your... sig- your name on a piece of paper?” Puppysmiles gushed. “When I grow up, I want to be a princess! Paper!”

Sweetie stared as a piece of paper flew out of nowhere and hovered in front of Puppysmiles, who smiled sweetly at the Trixie-alicorn.

“TH–” Trixie stammered. “THE GODDESS WILL BLESS YOU WITH HER AUTOGRAPH!” she said at length. Her horn flashed and a stylized 'The Goddess Blesses your tiny, undead heart' message was burnt into the piece of paper.

“Yay!” Puppysmiles cheered, trotting up to Sweetie Belle to show her her latest treasure. “Look! I have the name of a princess! Now we can marry!”

“Sure- wait, what?” Sweetie looked down at Puppysmiles and groaned before patting the helmet softly. “We'll have to wait for that, Puppy,” she said, eliciting some chuckles from the gathered ghouls.

“THE GODDESS DEMANDS TO KNOW HOW YOU CAME TO BE HERE!” the alicorn demanded, drawing everypony’s attention back to her.

“We... we'd like a safe place to stay the night,” Sweetie requested after a moment's hesitation. “And... I'd like to talk to you in private,Trixie, if possible.”

The Goddess seemed to hesitate for a few seconds. “I SHALL ALLOW YOU TO STAY THE NIGHT... AND LONGER, PERHAPS. BUT YES, WE MUST TALK, AFTER I DEAL WITH A CERTAIN MARE...”

The Goddess vacated the alicorn’s body, leaving a personality behind. “Follow me,” the alicorn ordered, eliciting a shocked look from Sweetie Belle and a big grin from Puppysmiles.

o.0.o

Puppysmiles frowned, looking around the S.T.A.B.L.E. They had passed several super-interesting-looking doors that could be hiding her mom!

She stole a glance at the pretty princess and Sweaty Belt. They were talking about adult stuff that was boring. Why couldn’t they sing?

Puppysmiles grinned. She remembered that one time mommy had taken her to the STAPLE to take a look inside and they had music all over the place! She had heard the same song in every room!

“Mr. Voice? How do I make it so we can hear music all over?”

“Processing. Speaker system is located inside Overmare’s office. Acquiring S.T.A.B.L.E. blueprint. Overmare office is located in sub-level 5.” A little flashing arrow appeared before her eyes and Puppysmiles nodded happily, turning left and letting the others go on ahead.

o.0.o

“You’re not Trixie, are you?”

The alicorn shook her head. “No, I am not. I am merely a part of the Goddess. You may call me Midnight Shimmer, for as long as I exist.”

“What is the Goddess?” Sweetie Belle asked after a moment. “One moment I’m talking to Trixie and the next I’m talking with you.”

Midnight Shimmer sighed and looked around before casting a small sphere of magic around them. “I am only telling you this because the Goddess was planning on addressing this question if it emerged. We are a gestalt being; there are thousands of us that are part of what the Goddess is. I am allowed a bit of independence because the Goddess is currently preoccupied with one, or should I say two, mares.”

Sweetie’s eyes were wide. “Wow, the magical energies required to do that... it’s... it’s almost unthinkable! How did you do it? Was it Trixie’s idea? I imagine you would need to somehow strip the essence of a pony while adding the innate magic of a unicorn, earth pony and pegasus to it...” She grimaced. “Come to think about... wouldn’t that erase the pony’s personality? Is that why you said you were only here temporarily? Why would you want to absorb everypony into one collective mind? Is it more efficient? But again, what happens to personality and choice? Can Trixie simply override you all?”

“From the Goddess’ memories of you, it is certainly strange to listen to you talk about magical theory like this,” Midnight Shimmer replied, “but yes. The Goddess can simply speak through us whenever she wants to.”

Sweetie nodded. “Midnight Shimmer... what happened to Equestria?”

The alicorn stopped and turned to stare at Sweetie Belle. “You- you don’t remember?”

Sweetie Belle looked away. “Is Trixie listening?”

Midnight Shimmer nodded. “She’s still busy with the Stabl- with another pony, but yes, she’s listening.”

“This is not my world,” Sweetie explained. “I just arrived, so I have no idea of what happened.The last few worlds have not been... this bad.”

Midnight Shimmer had stopped mid-stride. “Other... worlds? You mean there’s another Equestria out there that wasn’t destroyed by Megaspells?”

“Megaspells?” Sweetie asked. Just hearing the word brought chills of discomfort and trepidation through her body.

Midnight Shimmer nodded. “The Megaspells were constructs of powerful magic, capable of affecting huge areas for ill or good. The Zebras developed megaspells that could destroy an entire city with one blast.”

Sweetie’s eyes widened. “That- why would they do that?!”

“War,” Midnight Shimmer shrugged. “It is how ponies, zebras, griffons and dragons destroyed our world.”

Sweetie looked down. “I’ve... never even seen war. And I’ve been to several different worlds. I never thought... it could ever come to this.”

“You have been to more than one world then?” Shimmer asked.

Sweetie nodded. “Several... there’s the one where Trixie and Twilight are a couple, then the one where everypony’s gender is inverted, then there’s the one where Nightmare Moon won... one where all the Elements are immortal...”

“Wait... Trixie and Twilight Sparkle are a couple?” Midnight Shimmer interrupted. She could feel the reaction to that jumping from alicorn to alicorn. Some of them stopping mid-battle to laugh and one of them dying as a result when she snorted and her shield failed while trying to fend off a hellhound.

Trixie took control of Midnight Shimmer’s body again and glared at Sweetie. “THE GODDESS IS NOT PLEASED THAT YOU SHARED THAT.”

Sweetie Belle cringed. “Sorry, Trixie... say... you wouldn’t know what happened to Twilight Sparkle, would you?”

There was a moment of awkward silence.

“THE GODDESS... MIGHT ALSO BE TWILIGHT,” Trixie grudgingly confessed.

Sweetie Belle’s eyes grew large. “But... how? Why? Trixie... what happened to you?”

Midnight Shimmer felt the Goddess struggle. There was something about this Sweetie Belle that was creating too many conflicting feelings. Perhaps it was that she wasn’t even from this world. Or perhaps it was the collective memories of all the ponies that had memories of Sweetie Belle that still inhabited the collective conscience of the Goddess.

Maybe... maybe it was just the fact that this young mare cared, and she knew it was Trixie and apparently knew her pretty well in other worlds.

“THE GODDESS... NEEDS TO SIT DOWN,” the Goddess sighed, motioning with her head to the entrance to her private chambers.

o.0.o

In the silence of his sanctuary, the prophet mumbled as his hooves scraped against the wall, tracing words and fragments of sentences and nonsensical drawings.

Eruth... Eruth, you didn’t do anything... you should have stopped her then and there.

“She came in peace! She came in peace, I heard her. The purity of her song. It was music. It was beautiful. She came to us with beauty. She is what we don’t have. What we haven’t had in centuries!”

She’s here to destroy you. You cannot allow melancholy to stop you.

“Beauty should not destroy. Not destroy. No. She wouldn’t. She sings of happy times. Of love and happiness, and the innocence she carries with her.”

She wants to destroy all that you have worked for.

“She can’t! No, no, she can’t! She is wrong if she thinks she can! But she’s not here for long. No, not for long.”

She wants to take your Goddess away from you. She’s doing it right now, talking to her in secret.

“Speaking to the Goddess is a privilege. Yes, yes, but the Goddess granted it. She didn’t force her, no, no she did not do that. She cannot take the Goddess away! She can’t! No, it won’t happen because the Goddess is happy with us. Sweetie makes her happy.”

She’s evil. She needs to be stopped.

“She sings songs and happiness! She looks with the eyes of a child!”

You know it to be true. I have told you all along this would happen. That she would come.

Eruth shuffled in place, giving a jerky look over his shoulder. “You did, yes, yes you did.”

I foresaw what happened in this world, didn’t I? I saw the stars cry and the melody disrupted. I talked to you. I told you and you didn’t listen.

“Yes, the melody... you told me it was gone. That it would not come back. That it was twisted by ponies and evil and zebras... yes, you said so.”

You started believing after that... when I helped you calm and organize all those others who had lost their way.

“My brothers and sisters,” Eruth hesitated.

You never doubted me when I told you your brothers and sisters would be rewarded.

“No! There was truth in your words! The rewards came! They came! We survived while others fell! We will live forever! The rewards, yes... you promised and they were there.”

You have to stop her, Eruth. You have to take your Goddess away from her, before she brings doom to this world again.

“Doom. No doom. Not more doom. There is p-plenty of doom. No more...” Eruth shook his head. He shivered as he forced himself to stand on his two hind legs and let both his front hooves trace the cracks in the wall. “That isn’t my name. No, no it isn’t.”

Of course it is, Eruth. You are no longer who you used to be. You died in flames and were reborn in toxic sludge. You wandered this place like a prisoner in a maze, without knowledge, without memories, without hope... until I talked to you again. And you listened.

“I listened...” Eruth paused, his body shaking. “I listened and things changed. But I am me. And Eruth is Eruth.”

You are not the same as before, Eruth. How many times will you lie to yourself?

“If Sweetie Belle can sing, then I can be... I can be who I was. Who was I?”

Look at her, Eruth. She is alive. How can she be alive? She is not like you. She is not like the others. She is not like the Goddess. How can she be here?

“I don’t know, no, I don’t, she cannot be here. She shouldn’t!”

Weren’t she and her friends responsible for what happened to this world?

“Yes! The Ministry! They built these mazes! They stuck us in here and left us to die!” Eruth lowered himself to all fours. “But they were not to blame! The zebras started this, yes, they did! They kept attacking! They would not stop because they- because they–”

You know it’s not true, Eruth. They could have stopped it. Should have stopped it. But they didn’t. They let the world be torn to pieces, scarred beyond help. This wasteland rests on her shoulders and those of the Ministry Mares. But they are gone. And they took with them all that was precious to you.

“So much... so much... I can’t remember! But I can feel... so much lost...” His frame shuddered. “How do you know? How can you be right? How do I know I am your prophet and what you say is true?”

Because you believe me, Eruth. You know it’s true.

“Yes... I know... you speak to me and you say truth. Only truth.”

You have to get rid of them.

The ghoul raised his head slowly, still staring at the cracks in the wall, where the shade seemed so dark and so empty. Where he could imagine green eyes shining as their owner spoke. “Sweetie Belle and the ghost yes.... but... The Goddess?”

Yes... her too. She has been corrupted by this Sweetie Belle. She is no longer your Goddess. She hungers to be away from all of you. She hungers for the skies and other worlds.

“N-no! She’s our Goddess! Here to rule over us!”

But she’s not, Eruth. If she were your Goddess, she would not want to leave. She would stay.

“The Goddess wants to be with us! I know it! I will tell her, I will show her the true face of the enemy!”

So be it, Eruth. But mark my words. If the Goddess doesn’t allow you to bring justice to Sweetie Belle, what will you do?

“She won’t! She’s the Goddess! My Goddess!”

She will have betrayed you, Eruth. What will you do?

“The Goddess won’t leave. The Goddess will see–”

What will you do?

“I- I don’t know... I don’t know. No. No, I don’t know...”

When you see that I am right, call upon me.

o.0.o

Puppysmiles trotted down the dark hallway. Mr. Voice had been quiet for the last few minutes, but the blinking arrow indicated exactly where she had to go to reach the place where she could put the pretty music on and make everypony happy!

She gave the metal door at the end of the hallway a hard look. It remained impassive. Attached to the wall on the right was a panel, flickering with green light. Puppysmiles approached it.

“WELCOME TO OVERMARE CLUELESS' OFFICE. IDENTIFICATION REQUIRED TO ACCESS,” a voice emanated from the panel. “PLEASE PROVIDE PASSWORD OR VOICE ID.”

“Pu~ppy~smiles!” Puppysmiles sing-sang, looking at the panel expectantly.

“PASSWORD INCORRECT. VOICE NOT RECOGNIZED,” the voice replied, drawing a frown from Puppysmiles. “ADMINISTRATOR LEVEL PASSWORD OR VOICE ID REQUIRED.”

“Puppysmiles!” Puppysmiles repeated.

“PASSWORD INCORRECT. VOICE NOT RECOGNIZED,” the voice repeated. “ADMINISTRATOR LEVEL PASSWORD OR VOICE ID REQUIRED.”

“Puppysmiles?”

“PASSWORD INCORRECT. VOICE NOT RECOGNIZED. ADMINISTRATOR LEVEL PASSWORD OR VOICE ID REQUIRED.”

“Puppy...smiles?”

“PASSWORD INCORRECT. VOICE NOT RECOGNIZED. ADMINISTRATOR LEVEL PASSWORD OR VOICE ID REQUIRED.”

“PUPPYSMILES!”

“PASSWORD INCORRECT. VOICE NOT RECOGNIZED. ADMINISTRATOR LEVEL PASSWORD OR VOICE ID REQUIRED.”

Puppysmiles frowned. “Stupid!” She bucked the door. “Open up!”

“PASSWORD ACCEPTED. ACCESS GRANTED,” the voice replied.

There was a puff of dust as the ancient door struggled to open, a little bit of smoke flowing from between the spaces as the right side slid open, slowly squeaking and grinding against the floor until it was halfway open, at which point something inside seemed to snap and the whole thing simply collapsed, leaving part of it jutting out of the wall.

Puppysmiles paid no attention to it, however, having already jumped into the room beyond. The office of Overmare Clueless was in pretty good shape, having escaped the ravages of time for the most part. One of the walls was covered in small notes on colored paper, ranging from red to green and blue, all with bold writing reminding the Overmare to do, or not do, something. One of the red ones read: “‘Open up’ is not a Celestia-damned password! Change it! ~O.W.”

A large metallic desk rested in the middle of the room, the stacks of yellowed paper resting on top of it held in place by a statuette of some sort. It looked a little bit like Sweaty Belle now that Puppysmiles thought about it, and so without further ado, she jumped onto the table and threw it into her bag.

“Bootleg Rarity Statuette” appeared briefly in her display before she looked around and noticed the desiccated body of an earth pony holding something against its chest.

“Hullo miss ugly sleepy pony! I can see what's that? 'kaythanks!” Puppysmiles picked up the small frame. She turned it around and stared at the scene. A mare with a light brown coat and bright green mane with alice-blue highlights was smiling a bit absentmindedly at the camera. She was holding a black and yellow book in her hooves, 'Writing for Cretins,” and standing next to an unamused stallion with a darker brown coat and violet and black mane. The book had their picture in roughly the same position under the title, but the author's name was too blurry to read.

Puppysmiles blinked, but threw the picture into her saddlebag as well. The rest of the office didn't contain anything interesting except for a big console with a holographic display of the S.T.A.B.L.E. Puppysmiles grinned and cantered up to the console, looking down at all the pretty buttons.

Now, which would start the music?

o.0.o

Golden Fig had been in charge of catering when the S.T.A.B.L.E. had originally been sealed. When radiation had seeped through and killed everypony he knew and loved, except for a few unlucky fellow ponies who had been transformed into ghouls, he had known despair like none other... but he had found solace by going back to gardening and growing foods that nopony would ever need to eat. Not that they would, or should, anyway, since every single apple or fig tree had been twisted and mutated by the same radiation that had granted him his unwanted immortality.

But the work had helped him endure through the years; the repetition of the task ensuring his mind focused on something other than despair. Eventually, he had grown a garden so beautiful and radioactive that the rest of the community of ghouls would go and spend hours, or even days enjoying it. It had brought considerable happiness to their otherwise drab and morbid unlives, because the only other thing they had were the ramblings of their prophet, and the living goddess amongst them.

Thus, today, now that they had visitors, Golden Fig had taken careful stock of the state of the garden and planned to give a tour of it to Miss Sweetie Belle, who was the best preserved ghoul he had ever seen. She was lucky... and apparently single!

Golden Fig grinned. His garden would win her heart, and she would choose to stay with them and sing them songs while they all worshiped the goddess!

A clanking sound made him frown. “What the–”

“DECONTAMINATION SEQUENCE INITIATED.” The disembodied voice of a computer announced.

Golden Fig's eyes went wide. “Wait... what?”

“SCANNING FOOD SUPPLY.”

Several panels at the top of the considerably large agricultural section opened and blue-green rays swept over the whole of it. “WARNING: HIGH LEVELS OF RADIATION DETECTED. WARNING: PURGING WILL COMMENCE IN 10... 9... 8...”

“What?!” Golden Fig ran out of the area and into the agricultural office. He feverishly clicked at the console but nothing seemed to work: the order had come from a user of higher level.

The countdown reached zero.

From the farthest side of the agricultural chamber, a line of green descended from wall to wall, creating a light curtain that slowly started advancing towards his office. As the green light touched each of his trees, they would burst into flames, then into dust.

“No...” he whispered. “Noooooooooooo!” he then shouted in despair as two hundred years of effort and his dreams for a nice date went up in flames.

Golden Fig shook his head. Who could have done this?! Why?! His eyes, too dry and rotten to produce tears glanced at the screen. “Overmare Clueless?” he whispered. “But... you died.” He closed his eyes. And started laughing.

o.0.o

Puppysmiles shook her head in annoyance, lifting her hoof from the button she had pushed. “Which button plays the music?” she asked again, starting to slam the other buttons down, trying to figure it out.

o.0.o

Outside the S.T.A.B.L.E., a dark figure slowly approached. The manticore had caught the smell of the pony recently... and although there was another, unsettling smell with it, its hunger had demanded it should stalk its prey, follow the scent and hunt the pony down for food.

The manticore looked around, its eyes finally settling on the cave. A low growl rumbled out of its chest, half-pleased, half-annoyed. Annoyed because it would have to search a bit more. Pleased because its prey had nowhere else to go.

A small rumble shook the ground beneath it and the manticore paused, sniffing around, wary of any danger. It tensed as two holes opened to its left and right; strange metallic limbs sliding out and towering over it.

Perhaps it had not been a good idea to follow the pony.

o.0.o

“SURFACE SAMPLE COLLECTOR ACTIVATED,” the voice from the console announced, and a display fizzled into existence over it. A pair of holographic pincers appeared. A screen lit up, showing the exterior of the S.T.A.B.L.E., where a very confused Manticore shifted its eyes nervously from left to right, keeping an eye on the metallic claws that had appeared.

“Kitty!” Puppysmiles grinned. “I always wanted a kitty! I’ll cuddle it and feed it and cuddle it and help it sleep!”

The computer scanned the manticore and spoke up. “ORGANIC LIFE FORM DETECTED. DO YOU WISH TO ACQUIRE?” Two buttons started blinking. One, blinking green said: YES, the other, blinking red, said: NO.

“Mr. Voice? What does ackwire mean?”

“Acquire: to come into possession or ownership; to own.”

“I want to own the kitty!” Puppysmiles shouted in delight, slamming down her hoof on the 'YES' button repeatedly.

“ACQUIRING TARGET. ACQUIRING TARGET,” the computer said while Puppysmiles watched in fascination as the two holographic pincers moved, trying to corral the manticore.

o.0.o

“ACQUIRING TARGET.”

The manticore jumped the moment it heard the strange sound. It had heard Ponies produce sounds like that before; it usually meant a meal. But, somehow, this time it made it feel dread.

The two metal claws that had emerged from the ground suddenly shot towards it. With its innate agility, the manticore jumped to the side, tail lashing out and scratching the side of one of the claws, but they did not stop.

Recognizing that it was in danger of being killed by an obviously much larger predator, the manticore quickly made to escape. It opened its wings and leaned down to make a jump.

“ALERT! SUBJECT CAPABLE OF FLIGHT. ACTIVATING SECONDARY CAPTURE UNITS.”

Just as it was about to make its flight for freedom, the side of the mountain shook as several panels opened, revealing miniature cannons, which immediately shot at the manticore.

The manticore was sent spinning as one of the sticky balls the cannons had fired hit it in the side. It struggled to get up, but more and more of the sticky balls smacked against it, not hurting it, but impeding its movements.

The last thing it heard before everything went dark was a disturbingly cheerful pony voice.

“Yay! I has the kitteh!”

o.0.o

Puppysmiles was all smiles as she watched the kitty being picked up by the metal claws and dropped down a shaft. She was about to see where it went when a screen suddenly came to life, displaying a frowning unicorn filly with a yellow coat, who blinked at Puppysmiles in obvious confusion. “Who the hell are you?!”

Puppy was about to introduce herself when the unicorn filly was shoved aside. There was a scuffle and the screen tilted. She couldn't see what was happening but there were bad words being shouted and suddenly the filly flew past the screen, enveloped in magic. Her place in front of the screen was replaced by a mare in armor.

“Puppysmiles!”

o.0.o

Sweetie and Shimmer had walked for a few minutes more before they arrived at their destination.

Shimmer's room was very clean compared to the rest of the S.T.A.B.L.E. A large bed had been assembled together from old mattresses and was covered in several relatively intact sheets. Scented candles had been arranged about the room, most of them still unused. There were almost no actual decorations, save for a half-burnt canvas with a painting of a small, indistinct town bathed in sunlight.

Sweetie looked around the austere room before sitting down on a cushion that Shimmer had levitated off the bed and placed next to her guest.

“These are my chambers,” Shimmer said after a moment of staring at Sweetie Belle. “The Goddess is currently engaged in a discussion with... a certain pony. You will have to wait a little bit before talking to her.”

Sweetie nodded, gazing curiously at the alicorn sitting across from her. “So, how is it that sometimes Trixie speaks through you and sometimes it's you that speaks to me?”

Shimmer cocked her head. “The Goddess is all we are. I am but a vessel, granted a bit of autonomy for convenience. I have a personality for the same reason; if the Goddess gets tired of our followers, she needs some sort of... individual to deal with them while she is otherwise occupied. So she assigns a random personality to deal with them. Today it’s me.”

Sweetie Belle nodded, blinking a couple of times. “Um, I wanted to ask you... have you seen a purple crystal around here?”

Shimmer straightened up and frowned. “Why do you seek this crystal?”

“It’s a piece of my Twilight,” Sweetie Belle explained, looking straight at the floor, still ashamed about what had happened so many worlds ago. “I- I accidentally interfered with an important experiment and she was fragmented into several crystals and- I have to bring her back. She'll never be complete unless I do that.”

Shimmer was silent for a moment. “You say you're bringing her together? Has this gone on in different worlds?”

Sweetie nodded.

Shimmer blinked and spoke with Trixie's voice. “THE GODDESS WILL KNOW ABOUT OTHER WORLDS!”

Sweetie Belle started violently, clearly not expecting Trixie to suddenly take control. “Um, sure I just... wait...” She looked around, eyes wide. “Where's Puppysmiles?”

“SHE WILL BE FINE!” Trixie said. “TELL US ABOUT OTHER WORLDS.”

“Well,” Sweetie hesitated. “Which one do you want to know?” Her eyes lit up. “Hey, how about the one where you hooked up with Twilight?” Sweetie giggled. “It was weird at first but you made such a cute couple!”

“N-NO!” Trixie stammered. “WE WANT TO KNOW ABOUT THE OTHER WORLDS. THE WORLDS WHERE TRIXIE IS NOT DATING TWILIGHT SPARKLE.”

“Aw...” Sweetie pouted. “Wait... if you and Twilight are together right now in there, does that mean that–”

“IT DOES NOT MEAN ANYTHING!” Trixie growled. “NOW TELL THE GODDESS ABOUT THE OTHER WORLDS BEFORE THE GODDESS TA–”

There was a hard knock on the metal door of Shimmer's chambers and it opened before anypony could say anything. Outside, standing angrily, were a host of ghouls. The front one, a unicorn, was holding a grinning Puppysmiles upside down in his telekinetic grasp. “I think we found your friend,” he grumbled.

“Hullo, Miss Pretty Pony with no armor!” Puppysmiles said cheerfully. “I remember! Don't say anything about the notebook!” she announced.

“What?” Sweetie blinked. With an exasperated sigh, she grasped Puppysmiles in her own magic and turned around so that the little filly was in between her and Trixie.

“Fangmoon!” Puppy replied happily.

“Wait... Fangmoon? What–“ Sweetie's eyes widened. “Do you mean 'Moon Fang'?”

“THE GODDESS DEMANDS TO KNOW WHAT 'MOON FANG' IS!” Trixie ordered.

“Um...” Sweetie looked at Puppysmiles. “Uh, who told you about that?”

“The pretty pony with armor!” Puppysmiles replied.

“Uh, who's the pretty pony with armor?”

Puppy opened her mouth then tried to cover it with her hooves, which bumped on her helmet. She shook her head. “Nuh-uh! Not telling! Pretty Pony with Armor said that you wouldn't make the walls talk if I said anything!”

Sweetie Belle frowned. “Wait, make the walls talk?”

Puppysmiles nodded happily and Sweetie face-hoofed. “Puppy... I don't know how to tell you this but- I can't make the walls talk.”

Puppy showed Sweetie her tongue. “Not telling! The Pretty Pony with Armor told Puppy you would say that and said that if Puppy said anything you wouldn't turn off the lights!”

“Wait, what?” Sweetie shook her head. She needed to get a grasp on things before this fiasco of a conversation escalated any further. “Now, Puppy, you really need to tell me! It's important!”

“Nuh-huh!” Puppysmiles shook her head repeatedly. “Nuh-huh! If I say it then you won't make the bad pony dance!”

“I don't–”

“ENOUGH!” Trixie interrupted. “THE GODDESS IS NOT INTERESTED IN WHAT 'THE PRETTY PONY IN ARMOR' SAID! THE GODDESS DEMANDS TO KNOW EVERYTHING SO SHE CAN GO BACK TO NOT LISTENING CONSTANTLY TO THE ADORATION OF THE SMELLY GHOULS IN THI–” Trixie stopped her rant when Shimmer started sending warnings to her. Slowly, Trixie's eyes left Sweetie and Puppysmiles to center on the group of ghouls staring in shock at her, just outside her door. “OH, HORSEAPPLES.”

“So, what he said was true,” a pained voice said from within the group.

The ghouls parted to reveal the form of the prophet, who stood there, looking in sorrow at Shimmer. “You did plan on leaving us.”

His horn flashed and Shimmer was suddenly back in control of the body.

“I- um... I–”

“Silence!” the prophet ordered, his body shaking with anger. “I was warned about her!” he growled, pointing a hoof at Sweetie Belle, then his hoof swept to point at Shimmer. “I was warned about you! But I didn't listen! I chose to believe in you!” he roared. His horn lit up with a black aura. It grew and grew around him as the startled ghouls surrounding him gasped. “Dominus tenebris! Vagus silentium! Agnosco vestri quod smaragdus oculos, ego ero vobis anima ad offendum destruat nestros!” he shouted, raising his eyes upwards.

Shimmer's horn lit up, slamming the doors closed, while Sweetie Belle jumped back, taking hold of Puppysmiles as she cast a shield spell in front of all of them. The door disintegrated, along with part of the wall, revealing the prophet floating in a cloud of black energy. The ragged robes he had been wearing dissolved, his eyes shining with a disturbing green energy.

Around him, the whole area had been destroyed and all that remained of the ghouls that had been standing outside the room were ashes.

“I have been reborn,” the prophet whispered, glaring at Shimmer. “I am now... Eruth, in servitude of a far greater god than you!” His eyes went to a corner of the room. “This is not your world.”

Ghostly energy rushed from his horn, striking the seemingly empty corner. For a second a familiar silhouette was engulfed by it before fading, but Sweetie didn’t have time to react, having to jump out of the way of a small blast of energy from Eruth.

“Careful, Sweetie,” Shimmer advised. “This... Eruth... is far beyond your ability to handle.”

Several more ghouls approached the room, and Eruth turned to face them. “The goddess has betrayed us! She wishes to leave us to rot after promising us freedom and lives!” he announced. “Brothers! Sisters! We shall not bow to her anymore! I have seen the truth!” His hoof swept the room, indicating all within. “These three are our enemies! They will not let us ascend! We must destroy them!”

His words were emphasized by small flashes of dark power from his horn, which seemed to reflect in the eyes of the other ghouls.

“I don't like him,” Puppysmiles frowned suddenly, reminding Sweetie Belle that she had a filly to protect. Well, another filly besides herself. “He's a bad ugly pony! He hurt the other ugly ponies!”

“We have to escape,” Shimmer said. “We can't face them all at the same time.”

“What about Trixie?” Sweetie asked. “Doesn't she have any ideas?”

“I–” Shimmer whimpered. “I- I can't hear her!” She confessed, eyes wild. “I'm alone! It's like everything went dark! I don't know what to do!”

Sweetie grit her teeth. She pushed her anger into that deep corner of her soul where her doubts and hurt and guilt were trapped. “We need to get out!”

“If I knew how to turn invisible!” Shimmer whimpered. “Trixie knows the spell, but she didn't give it to me!”

“Invisible would be good,” Sweetie muttered, then her eyes widened. “Not invisible...” she stepped back as the ghouls roared in anger, their eyes glistening with green light, all semblance of consciousness and sanity having disappeared.

Not having time to explain, she grabbed Shimmer with one hoof, and Puppysmiles with another as her horn flashed with magic and the world became black.

“What?!” Eruth shouted. “Find them! Destroy them!”

Shimmer felt herself being led away in the darkness, the sounds of the ghouls destroying the S.T.A.B.L.E. and each other, as well as Eruth's growling orders, disorienting her. Eventually she was led from the dark, turning to stare at the inky-black they had left behind.

Puppysmiles giggled. “Yay! You turned off the lights!”

o.0.o

NO!” Rarity shouted, eyes wild as she struggled to get up, just barely noticing she had been tied down to the bed.

Something smashed against the wall opposite to her and several masks and vials crashed around it.

LET ME GO!” Rarity screamed, trying break her bindings by force alone.

Zecora was suddenly at her side, shushing her as she pushed Rarity back into the bed, gently but still with enough strength to keep the unicorn from pushing back.

The sight of her zebra friend seemed to snap Rarity back into reality. She slumped back into the soft bed; her body was shaking as she struggled to take a deep breath and let the adrenaline rush fade. “I- I'm back...” she whispered. “I'm sorry, Zecora, I just–”

No need to apologize,” Zecora soothed, raising a hoof. “I feared you would never rise.”

A clatter made the pair look at the pile of vials and masks, which started rolling aside as Fluttershy slowly stood up. “Oh, my,” she looked around. “I'm so sorry, Zecora, I just got startled and–”

She's alive...” Rarity interrupted, head resting on a pillow. “All grown up, adventuring and facing things we have never even imagined.”

The zebra and pegasus exchanged glances.

“You mean... Sweetie Belle?”

Rarity nodded, her face full of worry. “I found her in a desolate land. She went into some strange structure which was populated by ponies that–” She looked at her friends with a hint of fear. “They were dead. And yet they walked and talked and acted as if they were alive.”

Fluttershy covered her mouth with a hoof, eyes wide as she whimpered.

Zecora for her part frowned and shook her head slowly. “Most unpleasant must be this land, where the living dead still stand.”

It gets stranger still,” Rarity assured the pair. “Trixie was somehow turned into an alicorn and... there was talk of a great war...” she trailed off. “Sweetie and a little filly were talking to her when–” She turned fearfully to her friends. “One of them... one of the ghouls. It saw me! Nopony else could see me, but he did! He cast a spell and sent me back here.” She looked pleadingly at Zecora. “Please... let me go back.”

Zecora shook her head. “The brew is too potent I'm afraid; to drink again you must let the first one fade.”

Rarity's eyes watered. “But- but Sweetie, she's in danger!”

Fluttershy placed a comforting hoof on Rarity's shoulder. “She's alive. Please rest. She'll need you.”

Rarity sighed, staring at the roof. “How long?”

A fortnight at least,” Fluttershy replied for Zecora. “We- we talked about this... when you downed the whole potion... it was too much, Rarity. Y-you could have died.”

But I can't wait two whole weeks!” Rarity protested, feeling her eyelids become heavy. She yawned. “Please,” she begged weakly. “Please let me see her.”

Zecora shook her head. “What you must do now is rest. Let the potion go; it's for the best.”

Rarity yawned again. “N-no, I must... help...” she let out a long sigh and fell asleep.

o.0.o

Sweetie awoke with a start, confused for a moment, before she remembered that they had found their way deeper into the S.T.A.B.L.E..

I'm sorry,” Sweetie had gasped out, taking in deep gulps of air in an effort to regain her breath. “I can't- I- I need to rest, I haven't slept at all...”

It is dangerous...” Shimmer had muttered. “But I also must try to commune with the Goddess. We seem to have lost them for the time being. Let us hide away from them for a short reprieve.”

Shimmer was still meditating in a corner of the room they had hidden. Sweetie Belle watched in silence as Puppysmiles drew on a stack of papers with the crayons they had found amongst other toys; already the wall sported a small yellow sun, where a 'pretty prinsuss Celestia' and a 'pretty prinsuss Luna' and a 'pretty prinsuss Shimmer' flew over a small house, apparently constructed of red brick and blue tiles, where Sweetie and Puppy lived.

For a moment she was bitterly jealous of the little filly.

Here I am, she thought, universes away from home, with no way back and for all appearances never going back. I'm not even in my own body! She slammed her hoof down in frustration. I'm really just a little bit older than Puppysmiles! Well, a couple of years, but I'm still a filly, not an adult! I should be drawing pretty pictures and crusading! Not risking my life!

She could feel tears of frustration building up in her eyes.

What did I do to deserve this? She silently asked of the crayon-drawn Celestia, which was in the process of being made more pretty by the addition of brown crayon. She snorted and closed her eyes. I made a mistake! I didn't want to kill Twilight! I didn't want to be flung into other worlds! I didn't want to see my sister being immortal! Or Nightmare Moon on the throne! Or whatever the hay happened here! She felt her anger rising and gritted her teeth. Why do I have to put up with this? Why can't I just go home? Why– she felt a hoof gently touch her foreleg and she opened her eyes.

Puppysmiles looked up at her. “Are you okay, Sweaty Belt? Look! I made this for you!” the filly said proudly, presenting a paper to her where a bunch of brown smudges mixed with other colors made the vague shapes of ghoulish ponies. They all stood, presumably watching the white, blue and pink smudge that looked a bit like Sweetie Belle on a stage, where she seemed to be... exploding.

“Why am I exploding?” Sweetie sniffled.

“You're not exploding!” Puppysmiles pouted. “You're singing!”

“Ooooh! So that's what that is!” Sweetie chuckled.

“Do you likes it?” Puppy asked, her eyes big and hopeful. “I made it special for you! Because you are a pretty singer and I likes you! And look!” She pointed with a hoof at two other pony-like shapes. “That’s me! And mommy! We’re singing too!”

Sweetie smiled and hugged Puppysmiles. “Yes, I like it very much!”

“Yay!” Puppysmiles cheered. “Do I gets to see the bad pony dance?”

Sweetie laughed a bit, wiping away the remaining tears with the back of her hoof. “Maybe... I still have to figure out how to make the walls talk!”

“You don't have your cutie mark,” Shimmer interrupted, raising from her meditation and frowning. “We- I didn't notice. I wasn't paying attention to that.”

“Rub it in, why don't you?” Sweetie growled.

Shimmer frowned. “Why don't you have your cutie mark?” she asked. “At your age? Unless the world where you come from doesn't have cutie marks?”

“We do!” Sweetie huffed, then looked down. “It's... this is not my real body. I'm really just a filly.”

Shimmer's visage relaxed a bit. “I'm sorry... if- if it's any consolation, all alicorns know what it feels like to be in a body not their own.”

Sweetie was silent for a moment. “Were you able to talk to Trixie?”

Shimmer shook her head. “The moment Eruth became what he is now, my connection was interrupted.” She looked scared. “I don't know what to do!”

Sweetie took a deep breath. “We need to get out of the S.T.A.B.L.E.,” she said. “And we need to somehow stop Eruth. Do you have any spells we could use?”

Shimmer was silent. “I- I have one,” she looked away. “The Goddess... she was planning on using it if you refused to tell her about your world-jumping magic.”

Sweetie's eyes widened, and she felt something inside of her break, just a little. “Oh.” She looked away, her eyes showing the hurt. “I- I keep forgetting. Different worlds have different ponies... even if they look the same.”

“I'm sorry,” Shimmer whispered.

Sweetie nodded. “Why are you telling me?”

“Because,” Shimmer frowned. “It feels wrong. Even if I get punished, I don't want you to get hurt.”

Sweetie Belle smiled and placed a hoof on the alicorn's shoulder. “Thank you. It means alot that you want to help.” Her eyes glinted. “So, which spell is it?”

“Lightning bolt,” Shimmer said after a moment's hesitation. “If you had refused, she would have cast a low-powered one, hoped you survived and made you join us in Unity.”

Sweetie Belle shivered at the thought. “But- what makes you different? It doesn't make sense for you to feel guilty, you’ve only just met me!”

Shimmer nodded, not looking directly at Sweetie. “I don't know... but, you seem untouched by all that has happened. Innocent. You really are just a filly version of our Sweetie Belle. And...” She blushed a bit. “A lot of memories in the Goddess include you and your songs. You made a lot of ponies happy in this world before–” She caught herself. “I-in any case, let me teach you the spell.”

Sweetie Belle nodded, turning to look at Puppysmiles. “Sounds good, think you can hold... on... for... where's Puppysmiles?”

o.0.o

“Are we really going to, you know, attack the goddess, Sweetie Belle and that filly?” Pan asked his companion, pausing for a moment to push his ear back into place.

“Yes, the prophet said that they were evil, and he's been around since, like, ever. I trust him,” Cake replied, cracking his neck loudly. “Dammit! It never goes back in place.”

“Here,” Pan offered, putting down his revolver and forcing his friend's neck back into its proper position. “We told you to stop cracking your neck! One day you'll lose a disk or something. What’ll you do then?”

“Could be worse,” Cake replied. “Did you see what happened to Golden Fig's crops? He spent the last 200 years working on them and now they’re just gone!”

“I heard he's taken up a shotgun and has been shooting everypony he sees,” Pan said. “They say he hasn't stopped laughing since.”

Cake shook his head. “It's not that bad.” He sighed. "I woulda gone nuts if somepony had torched all my hard work too. I'd like to meet the pony or ghoul responsible and give them a piece of my mind.”

Puppysmiles cantered past the arguing ghouls, stopping to wave at them merrily. “Hullo ugly ponies!”

The ghouls stopped for a moment, then waved back at the surprisingly cheerful filly.

“How do I gets to the room with the big chair?”

One of them helpfully pointed to the doorway on the right, earning a big smile from Puppysmiles.

“Okaythanksbye!” she called cheerfully over her shoulder as she went in.

“What a nice little filly,” Cake noted.

“Yeah, but she didn't need to say we were ugly,” Pan muttered.

“Aw, don't take it personally, Pan,” Cake patted his friend's shoulder, producing a series of squelchy noises. “She's just a filly. She doesn't know any better.”

“I know.” Pan sighed. “Anyway, we should keep searching.”

“Right,” Cake nodded, picking up his gun with his mouth. The pair took a few steps onward, but both ghouls slowed down at the same time before stopping altogether, looking at each other with completely perplexed expressions.

The pair turned around and galloped towards where they had last seen the filly, but she was gone.

“Uh... how are we explaining this to the others?” Cake asked after a moment.

Pan cleared his throat. “Um, explain what? I didn't see anypony pass by.”

Cake blinked slowly. “Yeeeah. I didn't see a fil–”

“Anypony,” Pan corrected.

“...anypony,” Cake acknowledged. “I didn't see anypony pass us by. Nope. Not at all.”

“Exactly,” Pan nodded. “Now, let's go find those evil ponies.”

“Yes, let's.”

o.0.o

Sweetie Belle carefully peeked her head around the corner. “Looks empty.”

Shimmer shook her head. “I have no idea how that little filly just keeps walking away without us noticing.”

Sweetie winced at the notion. “Maybe... are we just boring?”

When Shimmer raised an eyebrow, Sweetie elaborated. “It's just that I’ve done the same thing back in my own world, when my sis and the others started talking about boring stuff.”

Shimmer shrugged as she cantered past Sweetie. “I think she just doesn't have a sense of self-preservation.”

Sweetie thought back to when she had first met Puppysmiles. “Yeah, that too.”

The pair slowly made their way down the halls. So far they had been able to avoid the roaming ghouls that were looking for them, but it was only a matter of time before they had to confront them.

“What did Eruth do to you?” Sweetie asked. “How could he have cut you off from Trixie?”

Shimmer shrugged. “I'm not completely cut off...” she said. “I can still feel the goddess in the back of my mind, but... she's just like a presence. I cannot hear Unity.” Shimmer shuddered. “I can't imagine what I would do if I wasn’t able to feel her at all... to be completely alone... what a horrible fate.”

“Are you the first one to have this happen?”

Shimmer grimaced. “No. But... Lacunae is a special case.” She stopped walking, looking worried. “What if... what if I cannot return to Unity?” she asked, her voice trembling. “What if I am cut off like this forever? Knowing Unity is there but unable to reach it?”

Really? She’s having a panic attack just now?!

“Listen, we don't know what will happen yet, right?” Sweetie ventured. “I'm sure that if it's Eruth doing this, then, once we stop him, you'll be back in Unity.”

Shimmer took a deep breath. “There’ll be plenty of time for this later!” she declared excitedly, voice tinged with more than a touch of hysteria.

It was then that two ghouls, one carrying a revolver, the other a vulcan minigun strapped to its back, walked out of a room and into the hall. The four ponies stared at each other for a second.

“Can we panic now?” Sweetie asked.

As if snapped out of their reverie by the statement, Shimmer quickly slammed both ghouls against the wall with telekinesis before they could even think of opening fire. “Sweetie! Take the guns!”

Sweetie blinked. Then used her magic to rip the contraptions away from the ghouls. She looked at them curiously as Shimmer threw both ghouls into a room and forced the door closed. “There, they're not bad ponies, I don't want to have to k- SWEETIE! POINT THAT THING THE OTHER WAY!” she shouted in a panic when she saw what Sweetie was doing, forcefully yanking away the gun from Sweetie’s grasp. “Don't ever, EVER, look down the barrel of a gun! Are you crazy!?”

“But–”

“No 'buts', young lady!” Shimmer growled. “If you had accidentally pressed the trigger, you would have blown your brains out!”

Sweetie looked at the 'guns' in horror. “What the hay are these things doing here then!? Why would ponies be carrying things around hat can kill so easily?”

Shimmer sighed. “There was a war, Sweetie, remember?”

Sweetie frowned and looked down. “It's still stupid.”

“Yes,” Shimmer agreed, “it is, but it happened and there's no point in thinking about that right now. We need to find Puppysmiles.” She raised her hoof when she saw Sweetie was about to put the guns down. “No... keep them.”

“No! These things hurt ponies!”

“They do,” Shimmer nodded. “But ghouls are really difficult to hurt and they will be less likely to attack us if we have them,” she said. “Besides, I didn't get a chance to teach you the spell, so at least take them for effect.”

“So...” Sweetie took a deep breath. “It's just for scaring them, then?”

“Yes,” Shimmer nodded.

Sweetie sighed. “Fine. Let's go.”

“Okay, let me tell you how they work and how to hold them so that you don't kill us, or them, by accident...” Shimmer said as they started walking again.

“I don't like this world,” Sweetie muttered bitterly, feeling ill as she realized that these were not unique.

How many ponies have died in this stupid world ? She felt her eyes watering up, just the very thought of a dead pony chilling her to the bone. When I saw the outside... I never imagined it had really been done by us. What did we turn into here? How come the Princesses didn't stop this? Was... was I also a killer? She looked up at Shimmer, half listening to what the alicorn was saying. I hope not. I hope I tried to help without killing. I hope I was with my friends and family.

Sweetie sighed. I wonder how I died... Rarity, Sweetie thought. I miss you.

o.0.o

Puppysmiles skipped around the S.T.A.B.L.E., looking around as she tried to remember where the exit was. It had been fun, but Mom was waiting and she really needed to go find her. All the stuff that Sweetie and the pretty princess had talked about had made Puppy a bit sad.

She didn't like being sad.

And the best way to not be sad was to be with Mom! So even if it was fun, she needed to go.

“Puppy!” she heard somepony call her.

“Sweetie Belt! Pretty prinsuss!” Puppy called back, waving her hoof merrily. “I'm off to find mommy!”

“Your mommy?” Shimmer asked, slowing down. “But- wasn't your mom around before the war?”

“Yup!” Puppysmiles nodded, hopping around the pair merrily. “And she had to go! But I wanted to see the fireworks so I didn't got to the supersafe place and now my house is all broken and I'm looking for mom so I can tell her it wasn't my fault and everything will be alright!”

“Before... the war?” Sweetie repeated, blinking slowly. “But that was–”

“Yus! It's over so mommy should be waiting for me now!”

Midnight Shimmer shook her head. “But, Puppy, you have to know that that's–”

Puppy blinked when the pretty princess closed her mouth and looked around worriedly.

“What is it?” Sweetie asked.

“Don't you hear them?” Shimmer whispered, pushing both Sweetie and Puppysmiles against the wall. “There's a group of ghouls coming this way.”

Sweetie could hear them now. “What do we do?”

Shimmer grimaced. “If we could send them down one of the other corridors, I could seal the door behind them. We could then make our way to the throne room.”

Sweetie looked at Shimmer in confusion. “Why the throne room?”

Shimmer took a deep breath. “Remember the crystals you had mentioned? The ones that had Twilight's essence in them?”

Sweetie nodded.

“Well, we found one there,” Shimmer explained. “Trixie was trying to figure a way to transport it because it won't let any alicorn touch it.”

“Well... that's new,” Sweetie mumbled. “Why not? It's never stopped anypony from doing so before, and since you have the essence of Twilight in you...” her eyes widened. “Twilight... did she become part of the Goddess... willingly?”

Shimmer was silent for a moment, then shook her head.

“Oh...” Sweetie gulped. “I- I really don't like this world's Trixie that much. No offense.”

Shimmer looked down. “I don't think Trixie does either,” she said, then levitated Puppy as the filly tried to walk away.

“Hey!”

“Hush, Puppysmiles,” Shimmer said. “There are bad ponies coming this way. We have to think of a way to distract them.”

Sweetie shook her head and peeked around the corner. She could see the ghouls walking past one of the side halls, getting so very close to them. They were carrying several things as weapons, including those horrible guns. She blinked, and a small smile developed into a grin as her eyes widened.

“Wait! I know!”

o.0.o

The lead ghoul halted, raising his hoof and signaling the others to stop. He turned around, looking at the hallway they had just passed.

“I think we lost them!” Sweetie Belle whispered.

“Don't talk too loud!” Shimmer muttered back. “They might backtrack. Let's just go all the way down this hall and see where it takes us. We might be able to escape.”

“Okay, come on, hurry!” Sweetie replied.

“We have them!” the lead ghoul roared. “Follow me!”

Turning around, he galloped into the hallway, followed closely by the dozen or so ghouls he was leading. Once the last ghoul had ran in, the door glowed with arcane magic and slid shut. Shimmer smashed her hoof through the terminal next to it, preventing it from being opened again.

“Voice projection, very smart!” she nodded at Sweetie, who smiled a bit.

“It once helped me distract a werewolf... I figured the ghouls would fall for it too.”

“Yay!” Puppysmiles pranced around Sweetie Belle. “You made the wall talk! You made the wall talk!”

Sweetie blinked. “Um... y-yeah. How did your friend... uh, 'armor lady' know about that?”

But Puppy ignored her, choosing instead to chant: “Dancing Bad Guy! Dancing Bad Guy! Dancing Bad Guy!”

Shimmer exchanged an amused glance with Sweetie. “Seems like some mysteries are going to remain so.”

Sweetie mumbled something.

“What was that?”

“I hate not knowing!” Sweetie groaned, rolling her eyes and raising a hoof. “If we were in a library, I could get the necessary books to sort it out, but in here we don't have any books! Why, I–” She cut herself off, noticing Shimmer's confused expression. “Shimmer, are you okay?”

“Y-yeah,” Shimmer nodded. “I just... you- you sound just like Twilight Sparkle.”

“Oh,” Sweetie waved her hoof. “Of course I do, she was my mentor!”

“I see.” Shimmer took a deep breath. “I guess that's why. The resemblance was just... uncanny.”

“Can we go now?” Puppysmiles asked. “I wanna go find mommy and she's not here. Stoopid Mr. Voice lied again.”

Sweetie and Shimmer nodded, the alicorn taking the lead as they walked towards the throne room.

“Once we get your crystal, we should go,” Shimmer said. “I want to get as far away from Eruth as possible so I can rejoin Unity.”

Sweetie frowned a bit, but nodded. “Are you sure? Don't you want to be your own mare?”

Shimmer simply shook her head no.

o.0.o

Eruth closed his eyes.

They come. Be prepared. Don't let them escape.

“I won't,” Eruth mumbled in reply. “They will die here.”

Good. It's time Sweetie Belle’s travels were cut short.

Eruth shuddered as he felt the presence of his master leave his body. He opened his eyes just as the door to the throne room opened. He smiled, his taunt skin making his smile look more like a grimace. “Just as predicted.”

The three visitors stopped short, but were pushed forward by several ghouls which had been standing guard next to the entrance until they stood in the middle of the room, surrounded by even more armed ghouls.

“Welcome,” Eruth greeted them sinisterly, eyes flashing. “It is my master's wish that your travels end today,” he said, glaring at Sweetie. “And I will fulfill his orders... as for you,” his eyes turned to Shimmer. “You would abandon us at the first opportunity! You promised to take us with you! You promised to be our goddess!”

Shimmer flinched with each accusation. “The Goddess would leave me here but you–”

“Silence!” Eruth roared. “I've had enough of you! I–” He looked down when Puppysmiles poked his leg.

“'Scuse me, mister ugly pony, can you tell me where's the exit?”

In response, Eruth's horn lit up with the strange, black aura. Puppysmiles was picked up and flung violently against the wall on the other side of the room, slamming against it and dropping like a rag doll on the floor.

Sweetie Belle gasped in horror, tears flooding her eyes. She gritted her teeth and whipped around, glaring in anger at the prophet. “How dare you do that to an innocent filly?!”

Something inside her snapped. That same feeling that had made her terrorize Scooteroll, the one she had felt compelled to push into the back of her mind along with her doubts and fears, resurfaced. She wanted Eruth to suffer.

With an angry roar, her horn flashed with mystical energy, flinging several ghouls into the air as she pulled the trigger on the vulcan minigun. The first torrent of bullets shot out so violently that her control faltered and her aim suffered from it; instead of pulverizing or splattering the self-proclaimed prophet, the bullets ricocheted on the floor just before his hooves, making him jump in place from one hoof to the other in fright.

“Yay!” Puppysmiles cheered. “You made the bad guy dance!”

Sweetie's anger dissipated in an instant, and the vulcan minigun clattered to the floor, shooting another volley of bullets that tore the leg off a ghoul.

Sweetie's attention, however, was focused on Puppysmiles. The filly had a crack in her helmet but it slowly disappeared until it was completely gone.

“You're okay!” she gushed, rushing over to hug the little filly, who happily hugged her back.

“Kill them!” Eruth shouted.

Shimmer, however, was already casting a spell. A lightning bolt smashed into the mad ghoul, slamming him hard against the throne and making him spasm uncontrollably, just as the rest of the ghouls started shooting.

The bullets ricocheted off of Sweetie's shield spell, which she had thrown up in a panic.

“Miss Sweetie?” Puppysmiles looked down at the cowering unicorn. “Are you okay?”

“Puppy, get down!” Sweetie ordered. “I don't want you to get hurt!” She cringed when one of the ricocheting bullets hit one of the ghouls right in the eye. “I hate this world!”

A cry made them both look to the side, where Shimmer had collapsed, blood seeping from her flank. “Sweetie, you have to get out of here!” she shouted.

Sweetie began casting as many spells as she could in her panic. A whole group of ghouls collapsed as they tried to step forward, only to find that the floor was suddenly made slippery. Sweetie's attention was torn away from her friends as she levitated another group of the undead ponies and dropped them on top of the ones on the slippery floor.

A couple of ghouls stared at each other in mildly amused confusion as they were suddenly completely pink.

Following Sweetie’s lead, Shimmer started firing random spells, and at one point she completely disappeared from sight, only to reappear in another part of the room, casting another lightning bolt.

Black blasts of magic slammed into Sweetie's shield, the first one making her cry out as her magic was taxed beyond her expectations, the second bursting clean through it, barely missing her by inches. But not Puppysmiles.

The little filly was thrown back, this time taking a pair of ghouls with her; their bodies softening the impact when they crashed on the wall. From the pony pile arrived a muffled voice yelling “Rock!”

In desperation, Sweetie tore the throne from the floor and sent it hurtling towards Eruth. The ghoul laughed as his black aura catching the throne and making it hover over him. His wild eyes turned to glare at Sweetie. “My master will be pleased to see you dead!”

He threw the throne at Sweetie, who tried to counter his push with her own magic. The heavy, stone seat hovered over the slippery ghouls for a second before it started pushing over them and towards Sweetie, who collapsed to the floor, turning her full concentration and strength on the magical contest of strength... which she was slowly losing. She grit her teeth and refused to close her eyes. If this was the end, she would see it through.

Then, she saw Puppysmiles, snarling angrily, a plain rock held in her hooves as she jumped behind Eruth and smashed him in the head with it. The throne started falling on top of the ghouls, but was suddenly stopped mid-air by Sweetie’s magic.

Sweetie threw the throne over Eruth and Puppysmiles, smashing it on the floor behind them, but neither paid attention to it. Puppysmiles brought her rock down again and again on Eruth's head, smashing it in until she was tackled by Sweetie Belle.

Puppysmiles tried to struggle free so she could continue destroying Eruth, “He’s one of Count Tile’s agents! I knew it!” and was about to break free when she heard Sweetie hushing her.

“It's okay, Puppy, the bad guy is g-gone. Calm down... it's over. It's over, Puppy,” Sweetie Belle begged. “Please calm down.”

Puppysmiles dropped the rock and hugged the disgruntled unicorn back. “It's okay, Miss Belt, the bad guy will not bother you no more.”

o.0.o

Sweetie Belle awoke to complete silence. For a moment, she didn't know where she was, but a quick glance revealed that she was in Shimmer's room.

“I see you're awake,” the alicorn commented, emerging from the back of the room.

“I- I am,” Sweetie acknowledged absently. “What happened?”

“You passed out. You hadn't had any rest and were suddenly thrown into a life-or-death battle,” Shimmer smiled. “You did quite well, all things considered.”

Sweetie nodded absently. “Is Puppy still around?”

Shimmer nodded. “For now... the ghouls calmed down after Eruth died,” she elaborated. “He wasn't controlling them per se, but between his actions and the lack of his leadership, it was easy for me to gain control and convince them that they had been fooled.”

Sweetie nodded and slowly slid out of the bed. She paused. “You're still... well, you.”

Shimmer looked down at the floor and nodded almost imperceptibly. “I can feel Unity... but it's as though it has been blocked. I know it's on the other side but... as hard as I try, I cannot move this barrier, and even if I try to punch through, the holes are filled in quite fast.” Shimmer shuddered. “I don't know what to do. But I can't stay here.”

Sweetie was about to reply when a ghoul banged on the door. “Goddess! The ghost of the 52 is leaving!”

“What?!” Sweetie cried out, jumping down and almost falling flat on her face. She was surrounded by a blueish aura of magic as Shimmer levitated her. Sweetie sighed in annoyance. “I hate being like this.”

“Here, allow me to help,” the alicorn said with a smile. She turned to look at the ghoul. “Bring that object I asked you to put in a box for me. We can give it to Sweetie outside.”

o.0.o

Puppysmiles stepped out of the S.T.A.B.L.E. and looked at the desolate land around her, sighing. “That was fun, but I still want my mom... Maybe we should go to that Broccoli town, after all...” The filly in yellow shivered, thinking of all the horrible things that a mom could do with enough broccoli, but she had to be strong and keep trotting, because she was sure that next time she would find her mother.

“Affirmative. Broccoli set on the compass as main quest objective.”

A flashing arrow inside her helmet indicated which way Puppy had to go, but as the little filly turned that way, she heard Sweetie calling for her.

“Puppysmiles!” Sweetie shouted. “Don't leave yet!”

Puppy grinned and waved her hoof at the nice unicorn. “I have to go find my mommy now! But don't worry, I'll tell her how nice you were!”

Sweetie's eyes watered a bit as she was put on the floor right next to Puppy and hugged her for a moment. “You tell her that,” she whispered, “and when I see my sister, and my friends I'll tell them how good and brave you were!”

“Yay!” Puppysmiles shouted, prancing in place. “I gets to meet your sister?”

“One day, Puppy,” Sweetie said, nodding.

“And here is where we all must part ways,” Shimmer added, walking over to them.

“Buh-bye, pretty prinsuss!” Puppysmiles said. “It was nice to meet you too! I'll tell mommy how you gave me your name in a paper and how nice you were even when you were talking really loud!”

Shimmer winced a bit at that, shook it off and motioned for a ghoul to bring a box over. Once it had done so, the ghouls slowly shuffled back into the S.T.A.B.L.E..

At Sweetie's questioning look, Shimmer smiled sheepishly. “I asked them to let the three of us be alone for this.”

Shimmer's magic opened the small box and Sweetie gasped. There, lying on top of a small rag, was one of Twilight’s fragments.

Sweetie carefully levitated it with her magic. “I- thank you, Shimmer!” She hugged the alicorn, Shimmer tensing immediately at the little unicorn's touch before relaxing, apparently surprised when nothing happened.

“Y-you’re welcome,” Shimmer stammered. “But please don't hug me while holding that fragment... last time I touched it, it gave Trixie a migraine. A million heads’ worth of it.”

Sweetie grinned.

Some sort of polka-like music reached them as Sweetie levitated the shard. She looked from Puppy to Shimmer and nodded once. She immediately made the magical connection with the shard, feeling it restoring her magic and pulling her away.

The marching band music was suddenly interrupted by static.

“Oh, hey, Puppysmiles!” a familiar voice said.

“Hi, Questioner!” Puppy replied.

“It's Watcher, and–” the voice stopped as the round robot hovered in front of Shimmer. “Oh, crap.”

“Spike?!” Sweetie asked, recognizing the voice.

The little robot whirled in place and its camera concentrated on her. “Sweetie?! But- but how?! You were just with–”

Whatever he was going to say to her was lost in the sudden rush and light. Sweetie had left another world.

o.0.o

Watcher hovered uncertainly in front of the place where Sweetie had just been standing.

“... Black...” he trailed off. The spritebot then slowly turned to face Shimmer. “Um. Hi. There's no chance that this little conversation can be kept between the two of us, is there?”

Shimmer raised an eyebrow. “Currently, I'm unable to communicate with the Goddess.”

“Thank Celestia!” Watcher sighed. “Hey, where’d Puppy go?”

A loud clank followed by a roar seemed to be the answer.

“What is a manticore doing in here?!” A ghoul shouted over the roars and the sounds of tearing metal. “Oh, Luna! It's got my leg!”

Shimmer looked around, then pointed at the distance with her hoof.

“I don't know!” another answered.

“Shoot it! Oh, Goddess it has my other leg!”

“Just kill it! We'll re-attach your stupid legs later! Where's the Goddess?!”

Watcher turned to see Puppysmiles merrily riding her scooter into the sunset. “Oh,” he chuckled sadly. “There she goes again.”

“What are you doing!?” the ghoul's voice reached them once again, followed by a roar and a sickening, squishy sound. “That catnip is two hundred years old! It won't work! See what you've done?! It tore another of my legs off!”

“Well, stop standing right next to it!”

“I can't help it! I can’t exactly move with only one leg left!”

“I...” Shimmer coughed to clear her throat. “I should go. Away. From here. Maybe to Hoofington... or something. Find out how to rejoin Unity.”

“Yes,” Watcher said after a pause. The two looked at each other uncomfortably, then the alicorn shimmered into invisibility and the March of the Parasprites resumed.

“Oh, Goddess! It has my last leg!

o.0.o

Something stirred her away from sleep.

Sweetie took a deep breath and opened her eyes. She was a filly again, and in her room in Carousel Boutique.

“Another day, another quest...” she muttered. “I could use a daisy sandwich.” She snuggled into the bed again. “But then again, after that world, I think I can stay in bed longer. Much longer.”

Suddenly, the sound that had awoken her came again and she groaned, rolling off the bed and calling down the stairs. “I'll be right there! Hold on!”

Grumbling, she made her way to the front door and yanked it open with magic.

A white stallion unicorn, tall and well groomed smiled at her. “Hello, little filly, I was wondering if–”

“No solicitors,” Sweetie growled and closed the door.

She turned around and was about to leave when the unicorn knocked on the door again. Sweetie took a deep breath and opened the door. “Yes?”

The unicorn frowned. “You are not acting like you did last time!”

Sweetie blinked. “You’re not a sales-pony?”

The unicorn sighed. “No, my name is Prince Blueblood, and–” Sweetie slammed the door.

Blueblood knocked on the door again.

“What?” Sweetie growled.

Blueblood looked at her, nonplussed. “Sweetie Belle, why did you close the door on me?”

“Rarity told me you were a brute when she met you at the Gala,” Sweetie replied, then she narrowed her eyes. “And how do you know my name?”

Blueblood looked gobsmacked. He opened his mouth and closed it several times. “W-wait... you... remember the Gala?”

Sweetie frowned. “What my sis told me.”

Suddenly she was being held in Blueblood’s forelegs. “I’m not alone!”

“Hey! Let go!” Sweetie shouted.

“No! I must keep you at my side! Nothing will separate us, Sweetie Belle! We’ll see this adventure through together! You and I!”

“I need an adult!” Sweetie shouted desperately.

“I am an adult!” Blueblood shouted back.

“AAAAAAaaaaah!”

“W-what’s going on here?!” Rarity asked, galloping into the room after hearing her sister shout and scream. “Sweetie?! Get away from that strange unicorn, right now!”

“It’s Blueblood! Help!” Sweetie pleaded. “He’s hugging me!”

“Let go of my sister!”

“Never! I have found another pony that remembers! This will be the best night ever!”

o.0.o End Chapter 5 o.0.o

Next Chapter: The Best Night Ever

The Best Night Ever Part 1: Arrival

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Edited by: Fifth Alicorn & Lammy Proof by: Trevor & Super Big Mac

Rarity sighed, levitating a cup of hot chocolate and setting it on the table in front of her sister. “Here you are, Sweetie. I’m sorry about earlier, but I certainly never expected Prince Blueblood of all ponies to turn up outside my door, much less have him hugging you! I cannot imagine what got into his head.”

Sweetie Belle stared at the hot chocolate in silence, making Rarity purse her lips. Her little sister seemed to be having some difficulty processing all that had happened. It was really all just a big misunderstanding, surely.

“I’ll make you a sandwich, and then maybe we can go out for a walk to take your mind off of things...” Rarity continued, trying to catch the filly’s attention to little avail. She must still have been traumatized from the tearful hysterics of the Equestrian royal. “To think that Prince Blueblood, whom I fantasized of meeting for the longest time, would come to my door and act like-like...”

‘A little like a madpony,’ was nearly the first words out of her mouth.

“Well! I don’t even want to say it!”

Rarity had just turned around when Sweetie slid from her seat to the floor. She slowly walked up to her older sister and hugged her.

“Sweetie?” Rarity asked, concerned as Sweetie Belle slowly started to sob into her coat. Sweetie just pulled her tighter into the embrace and cried louder. Rarity hugged her back and closed her eyes, rocking her little sister silently.

After a few minutes, the filly finally pulled back, still sniffling a little. “I’m sorry for being so quiet sis, I just—”

“Hush,” Rarity whispered, “don’t apologize, Sweetie. Come now, let us sit down, drink our chocolate and then we shall talk.”

The pair made their way back to the table and took seats on opposite sides. Rarity was about to offer to warm up the hot chocolate again, but stopped, surprised, as Sweetie warmed it up herself. With magic. It was a simple warming spell, but… how? When did—

Sweetie looked at her sister straight in the eyes. “I watched somepony die.”

Rarity’s eyes widened in shock, her concerns about heating spells vanishing instantly.

“How- Who—”

“He was trying to kill me and my friends... Puppysmiles, sh-she smashed his head in with a rock.”

Rarity was speechless. Puppysmiles?

“Why, Rarity?” Sweetie asked, looking down into her cup as if it contained the answers. “Why would ponies do that? Why start a war? Why murder? Why would somepony want to kill me?” Sweetie leaned back on the chair, looking up at the ceiling. “In all the worlds I visited, nothing like that had happened. I would have never imagined a filly being shot at or smashed against a wall being capable of standing up again, much less crushing a pony’s head with a rock!”

Rarity stared in bewilderment at her sister. “Sweetie Belle, did you have a nightmare?”

Sweetie snorted. “I wish,” she grumbled, upset by the dismissal. “I didn’t even get to learn that lightning-bolt spell, and that one sounded really neat. That world was… it was just…”

“Lightning? Sweetie Belle!” Rarity cut in, raising her voice. “I demand an explanation!”

The little filly sighed. “Listen, sis... I’m going to be really succinct and just tell you everything now to avoid further confusion, okay?”

Rarity pressed her hoof against Sweetie’s forehead. “You don’t seem to have a fever.”

Sweetie brushed the hoof away and levitated her sister into the air before depositing her back in her chair. Then she turned their cups light-green.

“Can I have some sugar?” the cup asked Rarity.

By now, Rarity was looking at her sister as if she were half-hydra. “B-but how?”

“I’m not your Sweetie Belle,” Sweetie explained. “I’m a Sweetie Belle from another dimension that was trapped in a continuous loop of world-hopping, and I only need to find a specific type of crystal so I can continue my travels. Then I’m out of here.”

Rarity nodded slowly. Then her eyes rolled into the back of her head and she passed out, face smacking on the table. Her fainting couch didn’t even have the time to get all the way across the room.

Sweetie sighed again. “Well, that went well.”

The house was completely quiet as Sweetie Belle slowly started drinking her hot chocolate, sipping it while staring at her unconscious sister. Her eyes strayed to the familiar curtains and her sister’s varied works in progress, Opalescence purring and rubbing her head against Rarity’s leg affectionately. Unconscious ponies seemed to be her favorite ponies.

Suddenly Sweetie felt something wet fall on her foreleg. She looked down, confused, and saw many more drops of water fall onto the table. She blinked, taking a deep breath as she realized they were her tears.

Sweetie bit her lower lip as she sought out Rarity. She extended her hoof across the table, brushing her sister’s mane lightly. “I’m sorry,” she whispered as a sob shook her body. “I’m so sorry, Rarity! I’m sorry, Twilight... Spike... I’m sorry!”

Crossing her forelegs, she rested her head on them as she wept, the experiences of the last couple hours taking a toll on her emotions. At least it was over. At least… at least this world seemed normal enough.

o.0.o

At some point, Sweetie had fallen asleep, finally awakening, to the sound of hooves knocking on her front door. Looking up, she saw that Rarity was still passed out, sprawled rather inelegantly on the floor.

Hearing the knocks again, she groaned and stood up on all fours. Carefully, Sweetie Belle levitated Rarity up to lay her down on the couch, pulling a warm blanket on top of her sister. It was the least she could do after knocking her out with a faint-worthy bit of cold, hard reality. Also, the tears on her coat looked kind of gross. Sweetie tried to rub at them with the blanket, with little success, before just tucking it in. She’d apologize for all that later.

A third series of knocks, even more impatient this time, made her roll her eyes. “I’m coming, I’m coming!” Sweetie trotted up to the door and opened it, revealing two very annoyed-looking fillies.

“Sweetie Belle!” Scootaloo growled, grabbing Sweetie’s hoof. “What are you doing?! We’re gonna be late for school!”

“School?” Sweetie asked weakly. “Really?”

“Are you feelin’ okay, Sweetie Belle?” Apple Bloom asked.

“No time!” Scootaloo shouted, yanking Sweetie out of the Carousel Boutique and slamming the door behind them. “We need to go now, or we won’t make it in time!”

Plunking a helmet on Sweetie’s head and forcing her into the little red wagon she had attached to her scooter, Scootaloo revved up, barely giving Apple Bloom time to jump in as they shot across Ponyville.

“What’s the deal? Miss Cheerilee won’t mind. We can be a little bit late!” Sweetie complained, drawing a surprised look from Apple Bloom.

“We have a test today!” she explained to Sweetie Belle. “Did you forget?”

“Oh...” Sweetie smiled sheepishly. She grimaced and looked at her friends. “So, what’s the test about? I don’t really remember what it was. It’s been a while.”

Apple Bloom gave her an odd look. “Sweetie, we got reminders yesterday! It’s about unicorn history!”

“Yeah!” Scootaloo shouted over her shoulder. “Why couldn’t it be Pegasus history? That’s much more interesting!”

Suuure it is.” Apple Bloom rolled her eyes.

The trio saw the school in the distance, but, as they approached the building, a mamma duck and her little ducklings stepped into the road. Suddenly, Sweetie Belle remembered this day. “Oh, no...”

“Watch out!” Scootaloo shouted, twisting the handlebars instinctively, sending the trio arcing around the ducklings and crashing headlong into a large marker stone at the side of the road. They pitched forwards, sent flying uncontrollably before they smacked down inside the large waste container beside the school.

“Oooh...” all three groaned as they struggled to dig themselves out. Apple Bloom gagged, throwing herself at the rim of the bin before reaching back to pull her fellow crusaders towards her. Retching and gagging, the three flopped out of the bin and onto the grass before looking down at their trash-ridden coats in dismay.

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

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

“Yeah, they’re not worth it,” Sweetie sighed, watching the pair of bullies laugh their way into the schoolyard. Her horn lit up and with a small flash all three fillies were completely clean, the garbage settling around their hooves. “There, let’s go in.”

She took a couple of steps, but then stopped when she realized Apple Bloom and Scootaloo were not following. “What’s wrong?”

“Since when can you cast spells like that?” Apple Bloom asked.

“T-that was awesome!” Scootaloo nodded.

“Oh, right!” Sweetie face-hoofed, taking a second to stare at her hooves. “I’m younger!”

“Uh... you’re whatnow?” Apple Bloom asked.

“N-never mind!” Sweetie stammered, smiling nervously. “Let’s go into class!”

“But, when did you learn to use magic?” Scootaloo insisted, falling in behind her.

“And why didn’t you tell us?” Apple Bloom added, sounding a bit hurt.

“I-uh,” Sweetie smiled. “Um... I promise to tell you after school, okay? I just can’t now... you know... with everypony else around.”

Her two friends shared a confused look, but nodded and started following her until Scootaloo gasped and stopped.

“What?” Apple Bloom asked.

“I—” Scootaloo shook her head, looking at Sweetie for a second. “I’m sorry, I thought I saw something.”

Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom shrugged.

The trio made it inside the classroom, where they were treated to a warm, welcoming smile from Miss Cheerilee, and two confused looks from Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon, who clearly expected them to be covered in gunk.

The three hurried to their seats as Cheerilee closed the door and turned to look at the class. “Good morning, class!”

“Good morning, Miss Cheerilee!” came the droning response.

“As you all know, today we have a test on unicorn history!” Cheerilee chimed with a smile despite the collective groan. “Now, I know you all did your homework on it last night, so it shouldn’t be too hard,” she said. “So, get out your pencils, a piece of paper, and write me as much as you can remember about unicorn history.” She moved to the side, revealing a chair stacked with blank papers. “If you need more paper to write, feel free to get some from here. Now, start!”

Sighing, Sweetie barely paid attention to what she was doing, getting five pages to have enough paper to write. Unicorn history, huh? Well, there’s so much to tell! Where do I even begin? I suppose the easiest thing is to start with Princess Platinum... the unicorns of the past were very xenophobic, weren’t they? I guess moving the sun and moon meant they figured they were more than just regular ponies. She giggled as her quill flashed along the page, writing her thoughts on the relationship between unicorns, pegasi and earth ponies of the past.

But, I can’t just write something that I could have learned from Hearth’s Warming Eve, she reasoned. I should backtrack a bit and cover Starswirl the Bearded and his exploits as a unicorn polymath, as well as his rumored affair with Princess Celestia!

She added another page, and another, and another. I was very surprised when it turned out that Clover the Clever had apprenticed under Starswirl, but it sort of makes sense that the most educated and powerful unicorns would be taken under the wing of the previous generation. The strongest unicorns teach the strongest unicorns, and Twilight is learning from Celestia, so maybe that’s still the case? Sweetie got another blank paper and dipped her quill in the inkwell.

She frowned for a moment when she noticed that she had run out of ink. With a shrug, she procured another inkwell from Miss Cheerilee’s desk and carried on writing. And then, of course, there is the philosophical tradition of— she suddenly became aware that the room was quiet. Too quiet.

Slowly, Sweetie Belle raised her head and peeked over the stack of written papers at the rest of the class.

Every colt and filly was staring at her in awe. Even Miss Cheerilee was doing nothing but gawking. She looked from them to the swaying stack of papers on her desk, her quill levitating in her magical aura just over the latest addition to her essay; A Treatise upon the History of the Unicorn Race: A Comprehensive Retrospective of Magic, Bigotry, Redemption and Reconciliation in Twelve Parts. Then it hit her.

“Oh!” she gasped. “Oh, I’m sorry, Miss Cheerilee! We were only supposed to write about what we covered in class, weren’t we?”

THUD!

The class slowly forced itself to turn and look at Diamond Tiara, who had passed out, a single-page, one-paragraph-long-plus-unicorn-drawing essay fluttering to the floor next to her.

o.0.o

Twilight put down the last of Sweetie’s essay, pursing her lips as she appraised it.

“Well... Sweetie definitely needs to brush up on her bloodlines if she’s going to write about Platinum,” Twilight said after an awkward pause. “And there’s no evidence whatsoever that Celestia and Starswirl ever had an affair, unless you count Mareser’s work, which wasn’t contemporary and drew on the romanticized version of historic events. Biticus is a much more accurate account, though his military figures and accounts of magic are believed to be exaggerated.”

“On the other hoof,” Twilight continued, weighing one of her hooves in the air against the other. “Her analysis of the relationship between the pony clans of old seems spot-on, and her work on Starswirl and Clover's apprenticeship? Fantastic! Her bibliography was a bit light, but she was going by memory.” The lavender queen of all bookworms smiled at Sweetie Belle, who puffed out her chest with pride.

“Thanks, Twilight!” Sweetie Belle replied, smiling back.

“But... that’s not what I taught her!” Cheerilee explained, flailing her hooves and accidentally knocking some of Twilight’s quills askew, making her eyebrow twitch. “I never mentioned any of those unicorns! I don’t even know who they are, other than Queen Platinum!”

Twilight shook her head. “Really? Well, okay, but... maybe Sweetie just read some history books on her own? These essays are impeccable for a filly her age. I hardly see the problem here.”

“Twilight,” Cheerilee said slowly, trying to get through to the other mare. “Sweetie was levitating the pen and paper and hardly paying attention while she wrote. She’s always been a filly with passable grades, but... never like this!”

Twilight looked at Sweetie Belle, who blinked innocently with dewy green eyes.

“Look, Cheerilee, it could simply be that Sweetie accessed her innate magical potential while distracted. It’s been known to happen an—”

“Hey Twilight!” Spike called, walking in with a stack of books. “I brought you all the books I could find on transformation spells!”

“Spike!” Twilight shouted too late, trying to warn him as his foot descended on top of one of her fallen quills and he slipped.

“Whoa!” Spike shouted, flinging the books into the air, trying to regain his balance before he fell flat on his back. Seeing the books about to crash on top of him, he quickly covered his head with his arms... but nothing happened.

Spike opened his eyes and stared at the floating books. “Thanks, Twi—” he stopped, noticing that Twilight’s horn was not glowing at all and that both Cheerilee and Twilight were staring at Sweetie Belle, whose horn was glowing.

“Eh... hehe...” The filly giggled, nervously. “Where did you want these again, Twilight?”

o.0.o

“...and then I just got distracted and wrote away while thinking of what I would write for you, Twilight, if you had asked me for an essay about unicorn history,” Sweetie Belle said. “And, that’s the whole story so far.”

The two mares across from her simply stared.

“I have to say, you two are taking it much better than Rarity; she—”

“Aaaaaah!” Cheerilee screamed at the top of her lungs. “She stole my student!”

“Cheerilee, calm down,” Twilight said, standing up.

“No! She’s a creature from another dimension! They’re taking over Ponyville! They’re in our minds! I can feel another Cheerilee trying to take me over!”

“That’s not how it is!” Twilight raised her voice.

“We’re all gonna die!” The teacher screamed.

Twilight groaned and cast a spell. Sweetie watched in fascination as Cheerilee's screams faded to a yawn, the earth pony slowly nodding off before curling up on the library floor. She slept pretty soundly for a mare who had been in a panic five seconds earlier.

“This is becoming a recurring theme...” Sweetie muttered.

Twilight sighed. “I guess this is what Rarity was ranting about this morning,” she said, giving Sweetie an indecipherable look. “I convinced her that it was just her imagination, since she had woken up on her sofa... I figured she had just overworked herself again.”

“Oh... that...” Sweetie grimaced. “It didn’t go as well as planned either.”

Twilight was silent for a moment. “Sweetie... what you’ve been going through is changing you. You’re almost nothing like our Sweetie Belle is—was,” she corrected herself, pausing to drink a little of her tea. “It’s understandable. You’ve suffered through a lot, if all you said is true. But... it’s making you callous.”

“What?” Sweetie’s eyes widened. “But—”

“Think about it,” Twilight interrupted, raising her hoof. “Was it really necessary to just drop all of this on Rarity the way you did? Even I would have hardly believed you right now if you didn't seem so calm about this! Sweetie Belle...” Twilight reached a hoof to gently stroke the filly’s own. “You’re losing yourself.”

Sweetie Belle remained quiet for a little bit, before looking up at Twilight. “But... how can I stop that from happening? For all I know, my next jump will land me in the middle of a war. Or worse!”

Twilight seemed to be at a loss. “W-well, I’ll look at my books, okay? And see if I can find something. In the meantime, why don’t you spend some time with Scootaloo and Apple Bloom?” She brightened. “Just think of it as a break! We all need breaks, right?”

Sweetie nodded. “Yeah,” she smiled. “A break! That sounds like a great idea.”

o.0.o

“Sweetie Belle!” Apple Bloom called, galloping up to her, followed by Scootaloo, who gave Sweetie a dubious look the moment they reached her.

“What’s going on, Sweetie?” Scootaloo asked suspiciously. “Since when can you do all that magic? And how come you knew so much unicorn history? I know you pay attention in class, but that’s ridiculous!”

Sweetie hesitated. “W-well, I ah... the thing is... I’m from the future.”

Apple Bloom frowned and was about to talk when—

Scootaloo gasped in realization. “Wait! Is that why I saw your cutie mark earlier?!”

“What?!” Sweetie’s head whipped to the side to look at her flank, but it was as blank as ever. “Hey!”

“No... no, no,” Scootaloo shook her head and made calming motions with her hooves. “I swear to you, I saw something for a second earlier today, after you cast your spell.”

Apple Bloom stared from Sweetie to Scootaloo. “Wait, you believe her?”

Scootaloo shrugged. “Why not? Do you remember Sweetie ever being able to clean us all up with a single spell? Or even being able to cast a spell at all?”

Apple Bloom looked at Sweetie Belle with an intense glare, clearly trying to see any hint of deceit. “No,” she said slowly. “Never.”

The pair of fillies stared excitedly at Sweetie Belle, who smiled uncertainly.

“Oh my Celestia! Does Rainbow Dash adopt me?!”

“What’s mah cutie mark like?”

“When do I learn to fly?”

“Will Ah be as strong as Big Mac?”

“Does Rainbow Dash become a Wonderbolt?”

“Okay!” Sweetie screeched. “Hold on! Calm down! I’m just from a couple of years ahead!”

“Oh,” Apple Bloom sighed as she and Scootaloo slowly calmed down. “So... do we get our cutie marks in a year or two?”

“N—” Sweetie cut herself off. “Nah-ah-ah, that would be spoilers, right? It’s better for you to wait and see.”

Scootaloo rolled her eyes. “That means no, doesn’t it?”

“Well, no, it just means that you have to wait and see,” Sweetie reasoned, her brain looking for a way to get out of it. “Uh... yeah, it’s because I’m in the past and the future can be changed! So i-if I told you, either way, I could really mess up your chances and you might never get your cutie mark!”

“How does that work?” Apple Bloom asked. “Ah don’t get it.”

“W-well, imagine... that... uh... Fluttershy!”

“What about her?” Scootaloo tilted her head in confusion.

“Y-yeah, imagine that Fluttershy never fell from the cloud... and she never found her cutie mark back then... what if... I dunno, when Nightmare Moon came, she had thought it was soo cool that she swore allegiance to her and ended up getting a Shadowbolt cutie mark and became the Shadowbolt Captain?” Sweetie elaborated. “So... it’s the same, if I told you you were going to get your cutie mark in one way, and you messed it up, what if you ended up with the wrong cutie mark?”

Apple Bloom’s eyes went wide. “Can that even happen? Can you get the wrong cutie mark?”

Scootaloo's eyes were half-lidded as she gave Sweetie a blank look. “Fluttershy. Captain of the Shadowbolts. Really, Sweetie Belle? Couldn’t you have thought of something more logical?”

“Stranger things have happened,” Sweetie said, shrugging.

“Right,” Scootaloo said. “Well, what’re we doing today, then? If you’re from the future then you’ve already done our plans!”

Sweetie grinned. “What, and miss out on ‘Cutie Mark Crusaders Pastry Chefs’? No way!”

o.0.o

Sweetie paced nervously in front of the Carousel Boutique.

Night had begun to cast all of Ponyville into its starry embrace, and Scootaloo and Apple Bloom had left after their unsuccessful (but very entertaining) attempt at being pastry chefs.

“Well done, Sweetie,” she muttered. “Antagonize your sister. You’ll be lucky if she even allows you back in.”

Taking a deep breath, Sweetie marched up to the door and knocked. The door slammed open and there stood Rarity, all dressed up for the gala.

She blinked and looked down at Sweetie, her smile fading a bit. “Oh, it’s you... Sweetie...” she shifted uncomfortably.

Sweetie grinned a little bit. “I’m... sorry sis. I—”

Rarity pulled her into an embrace and held her close. “I spoke with Twilight,” she whispered to Sweetie. “She told me a little of what’s happened. I know my Sweetie will come back eventually but... you’re also my sister. We’ll talk tomorrow morning, okay?”

Sweetie nodded, sighing in relief as she leaned into the embrace.

“Oh, there’s Twilight and the others!” Rarity squeaked. She stepped back from Sweetie Belle and posed with one hoof raised. “How do I look?”

“You look amazing, sis,” Sweetie said, smiling sadly at the thought of how much effort her sister had gone through in her original world to prepare for the Grand Galloping Gala, only to end up loathing her Prince and gorging herself on donuts. It’d taken her a full week, filled with ice cream nights and workout mornings, to recover. And they had been some very, very angry workout mornings.

“Good! Now, it’s a little bit late, but there is some food in the fridge you can eat, and try to go to bed early, will you?” Rarity instructed. “Since mother and father have gone out tonight as well, I’ve asked Big Mac to pick you up for a sleepover at Sweet Apple Acres. ...Make sure you...”

Sweetie hardly heard the rest of her sister's parting words as she fully digested what Rarity had just said. Mom and dad... they're... alive...

She didn’t pay any heed to Rarity wishing her good night, nor Twilight and the others arriving and departing to the Grand Galloping Gala. She slowly made her way to the kitchen and absentmindedly ate the sandwich Rarity had left there.

“They’re alive...” she repeated to herself. “Maybe...” she yawned. “Maybe I can meet them tomorrow.”

o.0.o

When Big Mac and Apple Bloom arrived at the Carousel Boutique, they found Sweetie asleep at the table. Big Mac carefully picked Sweetie up and set her on his back, shushing Apple Bloom, so that Sweetie might rest in peace. The three left quietly, with Sweetie dreaming about meeting the parents she always thought lost to her forever.

Tomorrow.

o.0.∞.0.o

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!”

At the scream, Sweetie shot up in her bed, a cold sweat running down her back, eyes wide and looking around for danger. After a moment, she realized she was in her room at the Carousel Boutique, although for some reason she had a lot less possessions this time around than she usually did.

Rubbing her eyes, Sweetie staggered out of bed and stretched. Slowly, she took stock of her situation. She was back at the Boutique... But, didn’t Rarity say something about me spending the night at Sweet Apple Acres?

I must have misheard. But wait... Does that mean I also misheard about our parents? Her heart jumped. To be so close... She took a deep breath then remembered that Rarity had been screaming bloody murder just a moment ago.

“Rarity!” she shouted, running out of her room and into her sister’s bedroom. Rarity wasn’t there, but now she could hear her in the bathroom, talking very loudly with somepony.

Sweetie pushed the door open. Rarity was there, dripping wet, with an angrily hissing and equally drenched Opalescence. “R-Rarity? What happened?”

Rarity grimaced. “I’m terribly sorry if I woke you up, Sweetie. It seems we are out of hot water this morning.”

“Uh, what happened to Opalescence?”

Rarity chewed her lower lip. “Never mind, dear, you should get ready for school.”

“But, there’s no school today!” Sweetie said.

“Nonsense, Sweetie,” Rarity huffed, using her magic wrap a towel around herself and another around Opalescence. “You must be confused. That is why I keep telling you to go to bed early. Now, get ready, remember to brush your mane, make sure your coat is clean, go eat some breakfast and grab your saddlebags. I think you were supposed to have a test today, right?”

“No, that was yesterday!”

“Sweetie Belle, get ready and meet me downstairs for breakfast,” Rarity all-but-snapped, still clearly in a bad mood over her shower.

Sweetie Belle huffed but followed her sister’s orders, and soon enough was munching on her toast when Rarity finally came downstairs. There was something odd though.

“So, sis...” Sweetie looked her sister over. “How was the Gala? Did you end up eating donuts at Donut Joe’s?”

“Donut who?” Rarity asked, absentmindedly heating up some water for her morning tea. “The Gala is tonight, Sweetie, so I can’t have any interruptions while I take care of the last minute details.” She smiled, letting out a giddy laugh. “To think that I could finally meet the stallion of my dreams!”

“Are you sure you didn’t drink too much last night, Rarity?” Sweetie asked.

Rarity blinked and glared at Sweetie Belle. “I’ll have you know that I don’t parta—”

A knocking on the door interrupted whatever Rarity was about to say, and she blinked in confusion at the door. “I wonder who that could be... it’s far too early for Scootaloo and Apple Bloom... Sweetie, be a dear and see who it is, would you?”

Sweetie sighed. “Sure, sis...” She paused. “Weren’t you going to talk to me about yesterday?”

Another knock called their attention and Rarity sighed, levitating several rolls of fabric and sipping her tea. “I’m sure we’ve discussed whatever you did at length, already, Sweetie Belle. The door, please.”

“Fine.”

Sweetie opened the door and standing right outside the boutique, with a silly grin on his face was Prince Blueblood.

“You!” Sweetie growled and narrowed her eyes at the vain stallion. Curiously, despite the clearly unfriendly tone of her voice, his smile only grew in response. Like he was happy to see her glare at him. “What is it that you want?”

“You haven’t noticed it yet,” he stated, speaking softly and slipping off to the side a bit. Rarity was already craning her neck to see who was at the door. “Think about it. Has anything seemed strange this morning?”

“Just you,” the filly growled before asking him a second time, “What do you want?”

“What a rude little filly,” Blueblood said with a bereaved and probably exaggerated sigh. “I suppose you’ll find out sooner... or later.” He raised his voice, “Is a Miss Rarity home?”

“Yes, I’m Rarity, who—” Two needles nipped betwixt her teeth and a length of lace hovering overhead, Rarity froze mid canter as she noticed who was at her door. For a long moment, the urge to run off and make herself more presentable warred with her need to find out why this pony, of all ponies, was at her door.

Sweetie frowned at Rarity’s reaction. Blueblood had been a complete jerk to her the last time, and Rarity had only had bad things to say about him, but... even if this was another world and the Gala had gone differently, why was she acting like she had never met him? He’d just dropped by yesterday, for Celestia’s sake!

“Be my date for the Gala, Miss Rarity?” Blueblood asked, gesturing with a hoof. One of his pegasus Royal Guards entered, bowed, and presented a package with a white-gold rose. The Canterlot stallion floated it out of the case and Rarity practically swooned with delight.

Seriously?” Sweetie asked, raising her voice. “What the—” Her mouth clamped shut when she noticed Rarity giving her a glare that would have frozen even a cockatrice in its tracks. Actually, it probably would’ve made a cockatrice lay an egg.

It didn’t take long for Rarity to reply an affirmative, giddy at both the gift and the request.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said, winking not at his date, but at her little sister. “You’ll see what I mean then.”

Sweetie rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Whatever.”

‘What a weird pony.’

o.0.o

Talking with Rarity had become completely impossible after Blueblood’s invitation to the Gala that night, which was itself completely impossible, since the Grand Galloping Gala had happened the night before. Except now everypony had forgotten about that Gala, and Rarity and her friends were all getting ready for another one! Was this some sort of Gala-obsessed super-amnesiac universe?

“This world... it... it just doesn’t make sense!” Sweetie Belle muttered as she chewed on another piece of toast, on which she had dumped a considerable amount of peanut butter and strawberry jam. “Maybe in this universe it’s a three-night event?” she proposed to the fruit basket on top of the table. “That - that makes sense, right? But, if he behaved like he did in my universe, Rarity wouldn’t want anything to do with him!”

Sweetie groaned and rested her head on her hooves. “I need to sort this out. Maybe Twilight will know where to find the fragment. She might have heard a legend or something.”

Her musings were interrupted by a steady stream of knocks on the door. When she opened the door, she found herself face to face with Apple Bloom, who was quickly pushed out of the way by Scootaloo.

“Sweetie Belle!” the pegasus growled, grabbing Sweetie’s hoof. “What are you doing?! We’re going to be late for school!”

“School?” Sweetie asked. “We have class today? I thought Rarity was just delusional. Who has classes on a weekend?”

“You feelin’ okay, Sweetie?” Apple Bloom asked, pressing her hoof to her friend’s forehead.

“No time!” Scootaloo shouted, yanking Sweetie out of the Carousel Boutique and slamming the door behind them. “We need to go now, or we won’t make it in time!”

Throwing Sweetie into the pull wagon she had attached to her scooter, Scootaloo revved it up, barely giving Apple Bloom enough time to jump in as they shot across Ponyville.

“W-what’s going on? Do we have another test today? I don’t remember Miss Cheerilee saying anything about it, although she was a bit out-of-sorts yesterday.”

“What happened yesterday?” Apple Bloom asked. “Ah thought y’all went straight home.”

“Don’t you remember my essay on unicorn history?” Sweetie Belle asked. “After the test, Miss Cheerilee took me straight to Twilight to find out why I could do magic.”

Apple Bloom gave her an odd look. “You can do magic?!”

“She can do magic!?” Scootaloo shouted in surprise, turning to stare at them instead of the road.

“Shouldn’t you be paying attention to the road, Scootaloo?” Sweetie asked when they bumped onto a small rock. “You don’t want to end up in a dumpster like yesterday, do you?”

“What are you talking about!?” Scootaloo asked, just as Apple Bloom looked up at the road and noticed a small duck stepping into the road.

“Watch out!” Apple Bloom shouted, making Scootaloo turn around in a panic.

The pegasus barely had time to steer forcefully, but the speed and force made the scooter-pulled wagon catch on the road and turn violently on its side, sending Sweetie and Apple Bloom flying, while Scootaloo was caught in the tumbling wreckage.

“Scootaloo!” Sweetie and Apple Bloom shouted in horror, galloping up to their friend.

“Hey, Blank Flanks!” Diamond Tiara called, sneering. “Didn’t anypony tell you? You need to be alive to get a Cutie Mark!”

“Tiara!” Silver Spoon gasped, but neither Apple Bloom nor Sweetie heard them.

With a mighty blast of energy, Sweetie picked up the scooter and wagon and threw them to the side, uncovering Scootaloo, who had pulled herself into a small, bruised ball. The pair of friends kneeled next to the pegasus, checking over her wounds.

The sound of galloping hooves alerted them to Cheerilee, who had arrived with Silver Spoon to the scene.

“This is not good!” Cheerilee gasped, kneeling next to Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom. “Go get Nurse Redheart, quickly!” she ordered Silver Spoon and Apple Bloom over her shoulder. Not waiting to see if her order had been followed, she methodically checked Scootaloo, sighing in relief when she noticed the filly was still breathing.

“What happened?” she asked Sweetie Belle, who was closest to her.

“S-she was riding as fast as she could so we would make it in time and—” Sweetie gulped. “I-I mentioned that I could do magic and she must’ve forgotten she was going so fast because she got distracted and there was this duck and—”

“It’s okay, Sweetie,” Cheerilee said soothingly. “Calm down. It was an accident. I’ve told you three that you have to be more careful when riding on the wagon.” She sighed. “We’ll wait for Nurse Redheart to take her to the hospital, it shouldn’t be long.

o.0.o

After Scootaloo had been flown to the hospital following a quick check-up by Nurse Redheart, Sweetie and Apple Bloom had been ushered into the class to take their test.

Even knowing that Scootaloo was going to be okay - although she might not be able to move her left wing for a while - Sweetie could barely concentrate on taking her exam. Again.

Why...? Why did this happen? What’s going on? Sweetie thought, mind only half occupied by writing her essay. This... is a repeat of yesterday, for the most part, at least. I don’t get it. She sighed, putting down her quill and floating her essay to Miss Cheerilee’s desk. Sweetie then rested her chin on her hooves. This whole day doesn’t make sense! Rarity didn’t act like she went to the Gala last night, and Scootaloo and Apple Bloom were both surprised to hear about my magic.

Both bored and worried, Sweetie proceeded to practice one of the first exercises Twilight had shown her. Focusing on her quill, she levitated it and slowly floated it around her head. But why were they so surprised? We talked about it yesterday! And I showed them and Pinkie Pie some of my tricks when we tried to get our pastry chef cutie marks!

The inkwell followed the quill on its orbit around her head.

Is this some kind of joke? Or is everypony under a spell of some sort? Could they have just simply forgotten? A book, encompassed in her magic, slid out of her saddlebag and joined the other two objects. I should talk to Twilight, Sweetie decided, adding her ruler and an eraser to her practice. She can probably tell me if somepony cast a spell on... all of Ponyville.

Sweetie groaned at the stupidity of the thought.

No, wait! That got me in trouble once already! Think, Sweetie! There must be a rational explanation! Her pencil joined the satellites around her head, followed soon after by an apple from Miss Cheerilee’s desk. Sweetie shook her head angrily and the floating objects started twirling in place and making smaller circles as they continued their course. Maybe Blueblood is behind this. He seems to know more than he’s letting on. And he could be enchanting my friends! But... why would he do that? Is he trying to get revenge on Rarity for the cake?

Sweetie sighed, deciding that the answer was not something she would find until after school.

It was then that she looked up and found Miss Cheerilee staring at her, mouth agape. The other students followed the trajectory of the floating objects in mute fascination. That’s odd... it’s like they’ve never seen me—

“Hey! Is that a cutie mark?!” Snips asked, pointing at something. Sweetie followed his hoof down to her flank where she saw...

Nothing. Again.

The whole ensemble of school supplies that had gathered around Sweetie’s head clattered to the floor.

Sweetie Belle turned her gaze to Cheerilee. “I need to talk to Twilight.”

o.0.o

“Twilight,” Sweetie growled. “It’s been six hours since we started these experiments. Surely you’ve reached some conclusion by now.”

Twilight’s horn stopped glowing and she sighed, massaging her forehead, both mentally and magically exhausted. “Sweetie... I’ve tried everything I can think of. Nothing comes back with anything out of the ordinary! Fortune Finding and Fortune Fathoming, Considerate Chronological Conclusions, Eternal's Exhaustive Examinations and Estimations! They all agree that you’re moving normally forward through time!”

Falling back on her haunches, Twilight rolled her shoulders and took a long breath. “I guess... we could try Turner's Talented Time Tables again. It came back as inconclusive last time. Or you could go to Canterlot and we could try Turner's Terribly Tricky Time Tables instead. But we’d need to magically ground and then neutralize your magic first. That’s a big spell and I don’t have enough mercury here in the library to neutralize anything more than your horn. I’m-I’m honestly at a loss, Sweetie.”

Twilight laughed lightly for a moment, her weariness forgotten.

“I never imagined I’d actually be using these tests, and certainly not at the request of a filly your age.”

“You prepared for this possible scenario?” Sweetie asked, eyes widening.

“Well, yes,” Twilight admitted, blushing slightly. “I once thought about time-travelling to meet myself or the princesses and getting caught in the past and not being able to convince anypony that I was from the future... so I figured, if I knew all possible tests to prove that I was telling the truth, I could perform them or have them performed on me by competent peers or in the presence of the princesses to prove the validity of my story.”

Sweetie Belle shook her head. “I am not exactly sure what disturbs me the most about this conversation: the fact that you couldn’t find anything at all, judging from the look on your face; the fact that you’ve considered, seriously considered, going back to the past in wanton disregard of most magical laws against it; or the fact that you had considered a scenario where you would be casting six hours’ worth of spells just to validate your existence. Wait, I think the fact that it’s you thinking about all of that is what disturbs me the most. Just how many lists did you write for yourself about this?”

Twilight muttered something.

“I’m sorry, did you say twenty six?”

“Anyway,” Twilight snapped. “The point is, the only reason I agreed to this was because you knew a lot of things you shouldn’t, but I can’t find any excess buildup of chronometric magic on you. At all. Your etesian and even acronical counts are perfectly normal!”

“So I wasn’t sent to the past to inhabit my own body in an attempt to distort reality then...” Sweetie sighed. “Figures that things wouldn’t be that easy.”

Twilight blinked. “Wait, how is that easy?”

“It’s the story of my life lately,” Sweetie muttered, just loud enough for Twilight to hear.

“Now, I’m sure—”

Whatever Twilight was going to say was interrupted by a loud knock on the door. Sighing, the librarian walked up to the door and opened it, revealing a pair of royal guards in golden armor.

“Oh, you must be the ponies pulling our carriage to Canterlot!” Twilight said, smiling at the apparently expected company. “Thank you again for the help.”

Sweetie watched, curiously, as Twilight chatted briefly with the two guardsponies. This particular Gala, she’d forgone transmogrifying two of Fluttershy’s mice. By what Sweetie overheard, Twilight had been told to expect them this morning. Had Princess Celestia sent guards down from the city or... no, it couldn’t be—

“Once you’re ready, Miss Sparkle, please meet us outside the Carousel Boutique,” the more talkative of the pair said and took his leave. The other followed in lockstep after one last word, “Everything is arranged and ready for you and your guests.”

“I’ll see you then!” Twilight replied, waving to the stallions as they departed.

Once the guards were gone, Twilight turned to look at Sweetie Belle, a little contrite. “I’m afraid we’ll have to pick this up again tomorrow...”

“But—” Sweetie tried to object.

“I’m sorry Sweetie, but I really need to get ready,” Twilight said gently, nudging the filly apologetically back out the door. “And I’m sure Rarity needs to talk to you about tonight. We’ll talk about this again soon, I promise.”

Sweetie sighed. “Fine. See you tomorrow, Twilight.”

“See you tomorrow, Sweetie.”

o.0.o

Sweetie grumbled her way up to the hospital and quickly found Scootaloo’s room, with Apple Bloom already sitting beside the bed. Big Mac stood to the side, letting the fillies talk for a bit before taking Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom down to Sweet Apple Acres for the night.

“Hey, Sweetie,” Scootaloo waved from the bed, a little grumpy. “Thanks for joining us.”

Sweetie cringed. “I’m sorry, girls... I really needed to talk to Twilight about what’s happening...” She sighed, summoning a chair right next to the bed, earning a raised eyebrow from Big Mac, a frown from Apple Bloom, and a stare from Scootaloo. Sweetie Belle jumped on top of the chair and looked down at the sheets, avoiding Scootaloo’s eyes. “I’m really sorry, Scootaloo. This is all my fault.”

Scootaloo shrugged. "Doc said it's just a broken wing. Shouldn't be more than a week or two."

Sweetie flinched. “I-I’m sorry, I just... this is my fault. I shouldn’t have distracted you. I... I’ll get going... I know my way to Sweet Apple A—”

“Oh, shut up, you!” Scootaloo chided, leaning over with a wince to gently smack Sweetie on the head. “It was an accident, and I shouldn’t have been distracted! Plus...” she grinned excitedly, turning to her side so that Sweetie could see the cast, a familiar signature on it.

“Rainbow Dash signed it?” Sweetie Belle smiled. “That’s so nice!”

“I know!” Scootaloo grinned. “Isn’t it awesome?!”

Sweetie nodded. “I’m glad that it worked out!”

Apple Bloom nodded. “But that’s not the only cool thing!” she exclaimed. “Ain’tcha gonna tell us how you learned magic?”

Sweetie Belle frowned. “You don’t remember?” When all she got were blank looks, she sighed. “What’s happening in this screwy dimension?” she grumbled.

o.0.∞.0.o

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!”

Sweetie shot right up in her bed at the scream, a cold sweat running down her back, eyes wide and looking around for danger. She galloped out of her room and made her way to her sister’s bathroom, where Rarity was struggling with a wet Opalescence.

Again?” Sweetie all but cried out.

“I’m terribly sorry if I woke you up, Sweetie. It seems we are out of hot water this morning.”

Sweetie tuned her sister’s explanation out as her eyes widened and the cogs slowly started to work in her head. This isn’t different... this is exactly the same as before! In fact... if I remember correctly, I fell asleep on the way to Sweet Apple Acres, not in my own bed! So how did I get back here?

“...Sweetie?” Rarity asked, concerned, waving her hoof in front of her blankly staring sister. “Are you okay?”

“I-I’m fine... Think I’ll go... downstairs and... uh... get ready for school?” Sweetie Belle ventured.

Rarity nodded. “Oh, you do have a test today, don’t you? Did you study for it?”

“I did,” Sweetie replied weakly as she turned around. “I’ll... see you... downstairs...”

For the remainder of the morning, Sweetie played the quiet observer, noting with detachment the uncanny similarities, the disconcerting regularity of events. As certain events drew near, she found herself anticipating them with nigh perfect accuracy and thus, waiting and waiting, much longer than usual by her estimation, she flung open the door to the boutique before a second knock could sound in a fit of frustration.

"Now listen here Bluebl- You're not Blueblood!" She raised a hoof accusingly, barely eliciting the raise of an eyebrow from the royal guard before her.

"Miss Sweetie Belle?" the pegasus asked, terse and laconic as most guards were.

“That’s me,” Sweetie replied.

She was immediately given an envelope, and the guard nodded. “From His Grace.” That said, he turned around and left.

“Who was it, Sweetie?” Rarity asked, poking her head from her studio.

“N-nopony,” Sweetie stammered. She looked down at the envelope and opened it, extracting a card. On one side it read: “Tired of the same old routine? Drop by Sugarcube Corner!” She turned the card around, where she found it was signed “Sincerely, somepony who may or may not be a Prince.”

She trotted over to the kitchen table and sat down, gazing at the card. “This... can he really be the only other pony going through this?” she wondered before rolling her eyes at the thought. “Stupid. Stupid! Stupid! This is impossible. I’ll just get ready to go and visit Scootaloo at the hospital...”

“Oh, did something happen to Scootaloo?” Rarity asked, walking into the kitchen.

Sweetie hastily hid the note in her saddlebags. “Y-yeah, she was injured when we fell off the wagon yesterday, remember?”

Rarity frowned. “I... don’t remember you mentioning that, Sweetie,” she said after a moment of thought. “However, you should certainly make sure to visit her in the hospital if she’s hurt. Maybe I could make her a little something?”

“I’m not sure tha—” The knock on the door made both unicorns look up. “I think I’ll go check who it is,” Sweetie said, trotting up to the door and opening it. As she’d expected, and as a part of her had dreaded, Apple Bloom and Scootaloo were outside, waiting for her.

Tilting her head, Sweetie Belle looked at Scootaloo’s wing. It was fine. Not a scratch on it, much less a cast.

It’s like yesterday... just never happened...

“Oh, hello girls!” Rarity greeted them , smiling. “Ready for school?”

“Yes, Miss Rarity!” Apple Bloom nodded.

“And Scootaloo! I’m glad to see you’re up and about!” Rarity added, nodding at the young pegasus.

“Huh?” Scootaloo blinked. “Why do you say th—”

“Oh, look at the time!” Sweetie Belle all but shouted, stepping in between Scootaloo and her sister. “We’d better get going, girls, we don’t want to miss that test, do we? See you later, Rarity!" She grinned nervously as she yanked the door with her magic, slamming it shut before hopping into the wagon with Apple Bloom.

Apple Bloom gave Sweetie an odd look, but soon enough they were on their way, bumping and bouncing as Scootaloo propelled them towards the schoolhouse. Sweetie Belle barely paid any attention to her surroundings until she heard Scootaloo shout.

"Watch out!"

The wagon took a hard turn to avoid the duck that had stepped out into the road. The forceful twist made the wagon slam into a large rock, sending all three crusaders flying up into the air in an uncontrollable spin to land smack-dab inside the large trash bin next to the school building.

“Oooh...” all three groaned as they struggled out from beneath the layer of garbage they had been forcibly buried in. The three fillies looked down at their dirty coats in dismay.

“Hey, Blank Flanks!” Diamond Tiara called, sneering. “Digging around in the trash for cutie marks? Bet you’ll find something that’ll fit you in there!”

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

“Yeah, it’s not worth it, although it does get annoying.” Sweetie sighed, watching the pair of bullies laugh their way into the class. Her horn lit up and, with a small flash, all three fillies were completely clean. “There, let’s go in.”

She took a couple of steps, but then stopped when she realized Apple Bloom and Scootaloo were not following her. “What’s wrong?”

“Since when can you cast spells like that?” Apple Bloom asked. “Or at all for that matter?”

“T-that was awesome!” Scootaloo nodded.

Sweetie sighed. “It’s just a cantrip.”

A blank look.

“Beginner’s stuff. Level zero out of thirty. One point in the ‘matter’ sphere,” she elaborated. Then when they didn’t seem to get it, she groaned. “You know, a very basic spell any moron could cast?”

“Sooo...” Scootaloo ventured. “You can do magic?”

“Yes, Scoots.” Sweetie sighed, growing a little tired of the question. “I can do magic.”

“Www-ooow,” Scootaloo and Apple Bloom echoed as they entered the classroom.

Looking at the colts and fillies sitting down for a class she had already taken three times, Sweetie Belle made up her mind right there. She went up to Miss Cheerilee as Scootaloo and Apple Bloom took their seats.

“Miss Cheerilee?” she asked, planting her forehooves on her teacher’s desk. “I have something really important to do today, and I was wondering if I could take the test and go, um... help Twilight with some studies?”

Cheerilee raised an eyebrow. “You’re helping Twilight?”

Sweetie smiled as convincingly as she could. “Sort of! She’s been tutoring me in magic and I had a breakthrough today!” she said with as much excitement as she could. “I would really like to learn more about magic and since we’re really only doing the test today...”

Cheerilee chuckled. “We’ll see, Sweetie Belle, take your seat, write your essay and I’ll think about it in the meantime, okay?”

Sweetie Belle pouted. “Okay, Miss Cheerilee.”

Cheerilee waited until Sweetie had taken her seat before beaming a smile at all of her students. “Good morning, class!”

“Good morning, Miss Cheerilee!” came the droning reply.

“As you all know, today we have a test on unicorn history!” Cheerilee chimed with a steadfast smile despite the collective groan. “Now, I know you all did your homework, so it shouldn’t be too hard,” she said. “So, pull out your pencils and quills, a piece of paper and write me as much as you can remember of unicorn history.” She moved to the side, revealing a chair stacked high with blank paper. “If you need more paper to write, feel free to get some from here. Now, start!”

Sweetie didn’t waste a second. No longer caring about her magic being revealed too early or at all, she levitated several blank pages, her quill, and her inkwell. She wrote as fast as she could about general unicorn history, rushing the job, but still trying to put as much detail as she could into her self-imposed 5-page limit.

She was aware of the stares and the fact that nopony else was even attempting to write their own essays. She heard the murmurs as the first page floated to the side to dry, followed soon after by a second and third. When she was done, Sweetie used a bit of scribe’s sand and cast a minor breeze around the papers to quick-dry the ink completely before piling the pages neatly, making certain that the edges were crisply aligned, and setting them down on Cheerilee’s desk.

“Miss Cheerilee?” Sweetie called, snapping her teacher’s attention back to reality. “Can I go now?”

Cheerilee struggled to find words; her mouth opened and shut several times before she finally just nodded.

“Thanks!” Sweetie Belle chimed, jumping down from her seat and levitating her saddlebags onto her back. She turned to look at Scootaloo and Apple Bloom, who were staring at her, equally speechless. “See you girls later!”

And with that, she was gone, leaving her bewildered classmates behind.

“Miss Cheerilee?”

“Y-yes, Scootaloo?”

“Are pod ponies real?”

“I don’t... think so.”

"What about robo-ponies?"

o.0.o

Unlike most mornings, Sugarcube Corner did not appear to be open for business. In fact, it had a ‘closed’ sign on the front door, but for whatever reason, Sweetie noticed that many of Ponyville’s residents were surrounding the bakery, looking into it through the windows. A few of the more gossipy gossip-inclined ponies were trying to peek inside and one even had a camera, primed and ready. Two stoic Royal Guards had their wings crossed in front of the front door, as clear a sign as any that those inside were not to be disturbed.

Sweetie approached and looked inside, hopping up to grab the edge of a windowsill, having to shoulder past the cherry-faced Miss Punch in the process. Through a split in the drawn shades, she could see inside, and it didn’t take long for the filly to identify the source of everypony’s curiosity. Prince Blueblood was dancing with Pinkie Pie. Or stumbling. They were doing something that looked like dancing, in any case.

Taking a deep breath, Sweetie boldly marched up to the entrance and the two stolid pegasus guards who stood vigil there. One motioned for her to stop, but the other, who she recognized as the guard that had given her the letter that morning, wordlessly commanded the first to stand down. After a moment, their wings retracted to allow Sweetie to step inside.

Trotting past the guards, Sweetie found Sugarcube Corner its regular, festive self, save for the lack of ponies. As the door closed behind her, she found herself staring at Blueblood and Pinkie as the former instructed the latter by example. They continued on, working through their steps again and again before Sweetie loudly cleared her throat.

When the pair simply continued dancing, Sweetie frowned. “Hey!” She shook her head with a growl and without thinking, grabbed the gramophone with her magic, the needle coming free with an audible screech.

“Oh ho?” Blueblood remarked, just noticing their guest. “You’re finally here.”

“Hi!” Pinkie Pie greeted, waving one of her hooves excitedly. “I’m super sorry, but we’re closed for today! Somepony bought our entire stock of cakes and sweets and candies!”

“That somepony would be me,” Blueblood boasted, while managing to bring Pinkie’s wildly gesticulating hoof back down to torso-level. “Even without the music, you should be able to practice the steps, yes? One and two and three, side to side, then back, then side to side and forward. Mister Carrot Cake? Could you... oh, where is he?”

“They’re peeking at us from the kitchen!” Pinkie exclaimed, pointing over where two manes could just be seen the countertop. A little grudgingly, after a few muffled exchanges of words, the lanky Mister Cake emerged, grinning nervously.

“You’ve seen me do it, and you wouldn’t want your waitress here to look foalish at the Gala, now would you?” Blueblood said, gesturing the older stallion forward. “Please, dance with her while I attend to my little friend here. Remember, one, two, three, branle to retreat, one, two, three, branle to pass.”

“Uh... right...” Carrot Cake muttered.

“Do your best, honey bun!” Cup Cake egged him on, now leaning over the counter. “He’s our number one customer, after all!”

“No pressure or anything then!” Carrot yelled back, and holding Pinkie by one hoof, tried to imitate what he had seen. Blueblood, for his part, used a spark of magic to get the gramophone up and playing again. Ballroom dance music soon filled the air.

“What do you think?” he asked, directing the question at Sweetie Belle. “Is the branle too gauche a dance for the Gala? It really is the simplest thing I could teach to Miss Pie on such short notice. Being raised in Ponyville, you haven’t learned much courtly dance, have you?”

Sweetie Belle raised an eyebrow. “Uh, no, I don’t really know that dance...” She turned to look at Pinkie Pie and the stumbling Mr. Cake. “I guess it’s better than head-banging?”

“A shame,” Blueblood concluded, turning slightly to appraise the pair of Ponyville pastry practitioners. “All good unicorn fillies and mares should know how to acquit themselves in the ballroom. Your sister is quite the dancer, actually. Unpracticed, of course, but she has a natural grace and enthusiasm.”

Sweetie’s eyebrow twitched. “Yes... my sister. First you ask her to go with you to the Gala, then you teach Pinkie Pie how to dance... are you playing with—”

“Wait,” Blueblood cut her off, suddenly. “Did I take your sister to the Gala? You were there when I asked her, yes, but you know by now that she doesn’t remember it. Nopony does. Who is to say it happened at all?”

Sweetie frowned. “You would know. And I would... why are you doing this? Did you plan all of this? And why am I the only pony who remembers?”

“Planned? This? Moi?” He held a hoof over his mouth to stifle a laugh. “Since you’ve accepted that what we experience has some measure of reality to it, then let me tell you that before I ran into you, I had the pleasure of repeating this same day... hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times. Not by choice, I assure you. Why am I doing this?” he asked, pondering the question and rocking his head to the left and right. “Why? I guess because I haven’t yet. Is that an answer?”

Sweetie grimaced as what he said truly sank in. “H-hundreds of times?” she asked weakly. “I can barely stand this after three days!”

“I thought something was odd... well, of course it was odd... that you suddenly remembered me,” he said, carefully lowering his manicured hoof back to the cleared wooden floor of Sugarcube Corner. “I’d bumped into you before in previous iterations of this blasted day, and you never had before. So you’ve been doing this for three days, then.”

“Well...” Sweetie hesitated. “I- yes. I...”

She sighed, mentally debating just how much information to share with the uncouth Prince Charmless of the Gala. Come on, he’s the only one so far that even remembers yesterday! Or whatever ‘yesterday’ was!

Sweetie nodded slowly, her mind made up. “I’m not the Sweetie Belle from around here... I was, literally, not on this world until three days ago.”

She watched Pinkie and Mr. Cake dancing with a small, twisted smile.

“I arrived from a very violent place... at first, I just thought I was imagining things, or that it was a memory spell, but yesterday one of my friends broke her wing and today it was as if nothing even happened. That’s not something average unicorns, or even extremely talented ones, can do at the same time they’re affecting everypony else.” Sweetie paused a moment to think.

“So... how was I, who was I, before I met you?” Sweetie asked and blinked. “Wow, that sounded weird.”

“You were just the little filly who answered the door, really.” Blueblood shrugged, dismissive. “My focus was on Miss Rarity when I visited.”

“Your... ‘focus’... was on her?” Sweetie asked, pointedly. “And just what does that mean?”

He smiled, all too amiably. “Well, when a stallion and a mare want to...” He noticed her frown and the smile broadened. “Oh, come on. I was merely teasing you. Look here. What do you think I’m doing with Miss Pie? She’s my ‘focus’ for today.”

“I don’t know,” Sweetie said tilting her head. “Are you trying to seduce her and then kidnap her to join your royal harem? So you can roll around in the sand kissing all day?”

“… ah. No.” Blueblood stole a strange look at the filly. “Where did you even…?”

“Not all of Twilight’s books are educational,” Sweetie replied, tapping her chin. “Though I did learn a lot from that book. Adults must really like to wrestle, but Miss Cheerilee always told us when we wrestle in PE class we’re not supposed to bite—”

“Miss Sparkle’s library is clearly more extensive than I thought,” Blueblood said, coughing into his hoof. “To answer your question, Sweetie Belle, no. I am not attempting to seduce Miss Pie.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“What about my sister?”

“… that one is more complicated.” The admission was clearly a little uncomfortable.

Sweetie frowned. “So what… are you and her…?” she asked, and then violently shook her head. “You know what, never mind. I don’t think I want to think about that anyway! Just tell me: what in the name of Celestia is happening, and why are we both trapped like this? Isn’t there a way out?”

“If I knew of a way out, I assure you, I would not be here,” he replied, snorting in frustration. He kept his eyes on Pinkie’s ballroom dancing, clearly not entirely pleased by what he saw. Pinkie was enthusiastic, but bouncing probably wasn’t part of this particular ballroom dance. “Just as sadly, I can’t say why I... why we... are caught repeating this same day.”

Sweetie’s eyes went wide, imagination running wild.

“So first it was just you, and now me, too. Do you think that... eventually everypony else is going to start doing the same thing and repeating the same day until everypony in Equestria is doing it and then we all think things have gone back to normal but we never grow up and if we get our cutie marks they will disappear the next day and we have to find the talent again and maybe it doesn’t happen, but nopony cares and how would the seasons work if that happened? I don’t think you can bring snow all the way from Cloudsdale in one day! And it would be gone the next!” Sweetie took a deep breath, ready to continue.

“Go on,” Blueblood prompted, hoof propped lazily against his cheek.

“But then, would there be a point in doing that? We would all be stuck in a point in time that cannot be altered regardless of what we do! The whole world would explode into chaos! It would be worse than Discord! There would be no consequences and—” Sweetie Belle’s eyes went wider still. “No... consequences...?”

She gave Blueblood a considering look. He was still just sitting there on his haunches, now, with both front hooves propped up against his cheeks. “Umm. Just... how crazy have you gotten?”

“How crazy is crazy?” he asked, momentarily looming over her with an odd, twisted grin on his face prompting a quick squeak from the little filly. A moment later and he returned to normal, or what passed for normal.

“I suspect I am a tad touched in the head,” Blueblood admitted, back to keeping an eye on the dancing Cake and Pie and what passed for normal. “I know I went... rather mad some time ago, but I think I got a little better. Or maybe I am still quite crazy, but less mad-mad. Either way, to make a dreadfully long story short, being completely insane was proving counterproductive so I tried to get it all out of my system.”

“I can see this being a psychologically deteriorating experience in which one needs to hit rock bottom before adapting...” Sweetie grumbled, channeling a little inner-Twilight. “Wait...! Does that mean I’m going to go insane, too?! Will I start burning down Ponyville and laughing while I levitate in the results of a bloodspell I’ve invoked to become goddess of this universe?”

“Maybe,” Blueblood admitted. “I’d plan around it.”

Sweetie Belle facehoofed. “But I don’t wanna be a crazy, blood-magic wielding goddess of supreme evil!” she whined, drawing the attention of the dancing ponies.

“Nevermind this silly filly, everypony,” Blueblood assured the proprietor and his assistant, both frozen in mid-dance. “Really. Don’t mind her. Dance. Dance, my puppets!”

“Ahh,” Mister Cake drawled. “Blood-magic?”

“Supreme evil?” Pinkie Pie asked.

“There is a supremely dark and evil blood magic spell to test for diabetes,” Blueblood explained, actually sounding like he knew what he was talking about. “That’s all.”

“Diabetes,” Pinkie Pie hissed, blue eyes narrowing. “My old nemesisisisis...sis...” The pink pony stuck out her tongue before shaking her head furiously. “Bluh, tongue twister.”

“Okay... okay,” Sweetie took a deep breath, muttering mostly to herself. “I’m okay now. I think. I just need to figure a way out of this universe. I’ve done it before.” She looked at Blueblood with panicked eyes. “Okay, tell me what to do. How do I not go crazy?”

Satisfied that Pinkie and Mister Cake were back to practicing the former’s dancing for the Gala, Blueblood gradually turned his attention back to the filly at his side. He had plainly heard her question, even the urgency in her voice, but he didn’t answer. Not right away.

“I’m hardly an expert myself, but, I’d say: occupy yourself,” he said, finally, a bit of tension under the muscles of his jaw. “Yes. Occupy yourself. And try, really hard, to remember who you are.”

Sweetie moaned and sank to her knees.

“Then I’m doomed!” she exclaimed. “I’m already not who I am! Twilight said so! And... I’ve seen so many other worlds! And I’m actually older than my counterpart here!” Her eyes lit up. “Maybe I should make a memory orb! That way I can remember who I was when I’ve lost... wait... it wouldn’t last till the next day!”

“No,” Blueblood told her, his response forced and bitter. “Nothing follows you through the loops. Even your own body. Believe me, I’ve tried.” Abruptly, he held out his hoof to help her up. “But enough about our dour circumstance. Let’s dance for a little bit. I’ll teach you a bit of branle,” he offered. “It’s easy, and at least this time I’ll have a student with more than a day to learn.”

Sweetie sighed miserably, but after a moment, she gathered herself enough to look Blueblood straight in the eye and accept his helping hoof. “I guess it’s better than going back to writing essays about unicorn history.”

“I’ll have to see about making it easier for you to play hooky,” he promised, leading her out to where Pinkie and Mister Cake were moving back and forth, forward and back. He was much too tall for her to really dance with, so Sweetie had to hold onto just his one outstretched hoof as he led her in an imitation of the dance he was teaching Pinkie Pie.

“Oh! And after this, I’ll teach you how to pony polka!” Pinkie interrupted, with an almost predatory smile. “Everypony should know how to pony polka!”

“Didn’t that start a riot last time?” Sweetie asked.

“No worse than one loop when she decided on heavy metal instead,” Blueblood remembered with a shiver.

“Heavy metal?” Pinkie Pie mused, her thoughts lost on Galas and mosh pits. “Oooo...”

“Sweetie Belle,” Blueblood whispered, leaning down so only she could hear him. “I know this is all quite a bit to digest. All you need to know for now is that you aren’t the only one stuck in this, and there are some upsides as well. There is no tomorrow here, and there are no consequences, as you’ve discovered already. Spend a few more days realizing what that means - really means. I’ll be here in Ponyville. When you want to talk, it won’t be hard to find me.”

Sweetie didn’t answer, limiting herself to following his lead, but her mind was already running through all the possibilities she could contemplate. That bomb-blasted Equestria was behind her. In fact, all of the heartache and fear and panic of those other worlds… it was all behind her, now, wasn’t it?

In this universe, she’d never age. Time never passed. Blueblood had only alluded to it, but it was possible she couldn’t even die here. And best of all, there were no consequences! No consequences and no mad scramble to collect the fragment before something smashed her head in or tried to hurt her.

I can do whatever I want, right? So... what should I do?

o.0.∞.0.o

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!”

The scream made Sweetie Belle sit right up in her bed, a cold sweat running down her back, eyes wide and looking around for danger. She then groaned and lay down in bed, listening to her sister complain and whine about the lack of hot water.

“So, this is my life,” she mused. “An endless repeat of waking up to a scream, the same stupid test every day...” She sighed before remembering Blueblood’s words from the previous day.

The previous loop.

“So, I can do whatever I want, right? Well, I don’t want to be here and-- and I don’t want to go to school today!” she declared.

Sweetie Belle slid out of bed and took a deep breath.

“Okay, if I can do anything I want... what is it that I can do here that I can’t do anywhere else?”

Slowly her eyes drifted to the window.

o.0.o

Sweetie Belle stood around the corner of a small windmill, looking towards the three-story house Rarity had told her on more than one occasion had belonged to her parents in her home universe. Two elderly ponies, a white coated stallion and a mare with a violet mane, were sitting in front at the side of a small lake, talking to each other, just outside her hearing range. The conversation seemed to be centered around a box of tackle and what may have been the lake’s lack of fish. Sweetie couldn’t hear them to be sure.

But she knew who they were.

She had seen their pictures. In fact, she had one in her room at the Carousel Boutique in her original world, hanging over her dresser. Those two ponies were her parents, and they were here. Alive. Just a few steps away from her.

Sweetie swallowed nervously and tried to approach them.

She tried, but she couldn’t move her legs. Her eyes stung and small tears formed as she tried to bring herself to move forward and talk to them. Embrace them and never let them go... she wanted to know so much about them.

But her legs wouldn’t budge.

Stubbornly, she shook her head and opened her mouth to call out to them... the words mom and dad ready to sprout out in a sob. But she couldn’t.

Her small frame shook as she looked down, biting her lower lip before looking at the pair again as they made their way into their home, presumably to pack for their trip.

Sweetie’s legs finally moved as she lowered her head in defeat, walking away from the house where the parents she had never met lived.

o.0.∞.0.o

Sweetie Belle fell onto the floor next to Scootaloo and Apple Bloom. “Well, that went well...”

Apple Bloom turned to stare at her. “How’d ya ever know there was a yeti on the mountain pass?”

Sweetie grinned. “I heard about it from somepony. But it was fun! Did we get our cutie marks?!”

All three eagerly looked at their rumps, only to frown in disappointment when nothing appeared.

“Oh drat,” Sweetie muttered.

“Hey, did you see what happened when the yeti ran through the park?” Scootaloo asked after a moment. “I think Lyra was kissing Bon Bon...”

“No...” Apple Bloom’s eyes were wide. “Aww, that’s so sweet! I wonder what it feels like!”

Sweetie Belle’s raised a hoof to her chin as she pondered Apple Bloom’s question. Lyra and Bon Bon? “Yeah... but who would you kiss? You can’t just kiss anypony.”

Lyra and Bon Bon were best friends. That was what everypony always said.

“Of course not!” Apple Bloom said, raising her hoof in a slightly condescending manner. “It’s like Granny Smith said, ‘y’all gonna find somepony to kiss ‘n be happy with, then it should be somepony special.’ Somepony that you like a lot, but also can trust.”

“That makes sense, but it also reduces the options we’d have,” Sweetie Belle said after a moment of thought. She gave her fellow crusaders a look that did not go unnoticed.

“Wait... what’re you thinking, Sweetie?” Apple Bloom asked.

“I—”

“Found you three troublemakers!” a voice interrupted Sweetie Belle. The three fillies looked up to see Applejack grumbling and making her way towards them. “Ah’ve got some things to say to y’all, so let’s get goin’!” she snarled. “Git!”

o.0.o

“...an' Ah really don't care what professional Yeti hunters do, and why!” Applejack snapped, prowling menacingly in front of the three fillies. “OR!” she interrupted before Sweetie could object again. “How many bits they make!”

“Drat.”

“Or how neat a cutie mark for catchin’ one would be.”

“Aww.”

“An’ Ah don't care why you thought it would be a good idea to bring that crazy critter down into Ponyville. Ah mean, how in tarnation didya manage ta FIND one in the first place?!” Applejack paced in front of the three scolded fillies, trying to wrap her head around the chaos they had caused. “As soon as Fluttershy sends it home, you three are cleaning up the downtown, rebuilding the barn, helping to reorganize the library, thatching a new roof on city hall, helping fix the bridge and the school! And be glad that y'all are not going to be fixing the rest of yer mess! It’d take y’all til next summer to fix the damage you done an’ you would be doin’ it too if’n I had my way!”

Beside Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo and Apple Bloom cringed and tried to seem as small as they could under Applejack's smoldering glare.

“What could you three possibly been thinkin’, bringin’ such a dangerous creature to Ponyville?! Y’all just lucky nopony was hurt!” Applejack shouted, her eyes almost burning with anger.

“Ah—” Apple Bloom stammered, but her thoughts and words were cut short as Sweetie Belle suddenly grabbed Scootaloo and kissed her full on the lips.

Apple Bloom's eyes widened while Applejack's jaw dropped open. The pair watched as, for several seconds, Scootaloo flailed around with her forelegs, her wings flapping violently and her eyes reflected her surprise and panic. Finally, Sweetie dropped her like a sack and used the back of a foreleg to clean her lips.

“Well, that was kinda weird.” Sweetie smiled at the gawking sisters but then just as quickly frowned at her rump. “I guess I won't get a Scootaloo-kissing cutie mark...”

o.0.∞.0.o

“An’ Ah don't care why you thought it would be a good idea to bring that crazy critter down inta Ponyville. Ah mean, how in tarnation didya manage ta FIND one in the first place?!” Applejack paced in front of the three scolded fillies, trying to wrap her head around the chaos they had caused. “As soon as Fluttershy sends it home, you three are cleaning up the downtown, rebuilding the barn, helping to reorganize the library, thatching a new roof on city hall, helping fix the bridge and the school! And be glad that y'all are not going to be fixing the rest of yer mess! It’d take y’all til next summer to fix the damage you done an’ you would be doin’ it too if’n I had my way!”

Besides Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo and Apple Bloom cringed and tried to seem as small as they could beneath Applejack's smoldering glare.

“What could you possibly be thinkin’, bringing such a dangerous creature to Ponyville?! We're lucky nopony was hurt!” Applejack shouted, her eyes almost burning with anger.

“I—” Apple Bloom stammered, but her thoughts and words were cut short as Sweetie Belle suddenly spun her around, and kissed her.

“Abba-ba...” Applejack stammered, trying to formulate words as her sister was snogged into first base by her best friend right in front of her.

Apple Bloom could barely struggle, being held by Sweetie Belle's forearms and magic and also being almost parallel to the ground. “Mhhhm! Mhmhm!”

“I KNEW IT!” Scootaloo shouted, prompting Sweetie to drop Apple Bloom on to the ground, much as Scootaloo had been dropped the day before.

“YOU DID NOT!” Sweetie accused, pointing her hoof at the pegasus. She was about to say something else when she felt a hoof press on her mane.

“Now then,” Applejack grinned. “If you're gonna be datin' my lil' sis, y'all need to have th' talk!”

“Wait... the what?” Sweetie blinked.

o.0.o

Blueblood couldn't stop laughing.

"Stop it." It was less than effective, but Sweetie persisted nonetheless as Blueblood pounded a hoof on the table. Relenting for a moment, Sweetie Belle simply glowered, furiously drinking her milkshake until a piercing pain cut through her prefrontal cortex. "Agh! Brain-freeze!"

It took a few frustratingly long seconds for Blueblood to compose himself and straighten up in his seat, but eventually he did so, ignoring the variety of amused and confused looks of the other patrons of Sugarcube Corner. This time around, he hadn’t reserved the store. ‘Keeping it interesting,’ he’d called it.

“My apologies, Sweetie Belle, but that was most amusing,” he said, another chuckle escaping his lips. “I mean, my own colthood friends would have killed me were I to try something like that now - though the sure-to-be-dumbstruck look on Shining’s face makes it a tad tempting - but what else did you expect to happen?”

“She didn't react like that when I kissed Scootaloo!” Sweetie retorted, making Pinkie Pie, who was passing by their table gasp and almost drop a tray of cookies. “She just grabbed Apple Bloom and told her 'Come along, Apple Bloom,'” she imitated Applejack's accent nigh flawlessly. “'Let yer friends have some privacy.'”

Blueblood shook his head, his smile still present. “Well, you weren't kissing her sister then, were you? Familial relations change things.”

Sweetie Belle snorted and took another tentative sip of her milkshake.

“So, are you a filly’s filly now?” Blueblood asked, raising an eyebrow.

Sweetie Belle shrugged. “I don't know. I didn't mind it, but I didn't particularly like it. I just think that... I don’t know... I just don’t like them in a kissy sort of way.”

“Well then! With your chaste innocence once again affirmed, what else have you planned for the next few days?”

Sweetie's horn lit up and her notebook appeared. She opened it and looked at the day’s checklist she had written down that morning, crossing out 'make out with Apple Bloom' and adding the note: never again.

She looked at the following item and grinned, turning the notebook around and showing it to Blueblood. Keeping his expression blank, Blueblood looked down at the list and blinked twice.

“A town-wide opera?” he asked.

Sweetie Belle shrugged. “I want to test how far ponies will follow a lead to sing.”

Blueblood nodded, inclining his head to the side as he looked at her. “It would hardly be the first time, though. I’ve seen Miss Pie get the whole town wrapped into a chorus. Quite a few times in fact.”

“Yes, but that's a little song. I want to see if we can get our hooves on an actual opera or play and have them sing the written lyrics without ever having read them. And do dance numbers! With perfect choreography and musical synchronicity!”

The Prince grinned, sensing the potential for mischief. “Fair enough. I’ve been meaning to take you on a few road trips, anyway. Broadwain, Manehattan has a few productions playing tonight that you may enjoy. Anything Goes, maybe. Ah, and Fillydephia is playing Donkey Oate around the time of the Gala. Then there’s this Indie production called Anthropology that’s had mixed reviews. I’ve seen every one already... multiple times... every play in the country actually. But we can start you with Manehattan.”

He tapped his chin, thoughtful. “If you want to get everypony singing... you may require the services of a music teacher...”

“A music teacher?” Sweetie jumped out of her seat to grab onto his leg. "Really?! Let's go get one! Go, go, go!"

o.0.∞.0.o

Sweetie Belle followed Sapphire Shores into the recording studio, where several ponies turned to greet the famous singer— only to end up staring in surprise at the young filly trotting next to her. Clearly, Sapphire Shores was not known for being around youngsters. Not at all.

“Very well, honey, here’s what we’re gonna do,” Sapphire Shores began as she stepped to the side of an open door and gently pushed Sweetie in. “We’re going to make sure to get a good DJ to help us out, and you are going to sing one of my songs, baby.”

“I uh, don’t really have any of your songs memorized and—”

“Oh, that’s nonsense darling, you know them, baby, you just don’t know you do.”

“That,” Sweetie said slowly, raising an eyebrow, “...sounds deep and yet makes absolutely no sense at all.”

Sapphire Shores smiled kindly at the filly. “Well, I am the Pony of Pop.”

“Touche.”

o.0.o

“I did say I didn’t know your songs,” Sweetie said slowly, patting the back of the sobbing Sapphire Shores.

“But... how? How could you not know even one of them? I’m the greatest singer to have ever graced Equestria, baby!” Sapphire Shores sniffled. “That song was on the Manehattan Top Ten for five months straight!”

“Well... I do spend a lot of time outside and at school, and I’m just a filly. I really have little exposure to contemporary music.”

Sapphire Shores shook her head, tears forgotten. “Darling, I know your sister; I will have words with her. A young mare like yourself should not live such a deprived fillyhood, baby! It’s unnatural.”

“But...” Sweetie protested, “I have books and I’m constantly having adventures!”

“Adventures? That’s not how it’s supposed to be, darling,” Sapphire Shores insisted. “A filly like yourself should be learning to paint her hooves! She should be finding out how to get the colts riled up! Singing songs from the radio! Going to concerts! Buying records! You're in my demo, Sweetie! Don't you understand? My demo!"

“O-kay...” Sweetie said slowly. “But, what about the singing lesson?”

The older mare took a long, deep breath, dispelling the horror that was some poor little filly not being exposed to the avant garde and cutting edge of the hip hop scene that was the one and only Sapphire Shores. She gave Sweetie a long, measuring look, as if trying to decide just how she could teach anypony to sing anything that wasn’t one of her own creations. It baffled Sweetie, really. She had heard Sapphire Shores sing the national anthem before. She clearly knew other songs.

“I-I’m sorry, baby,” the famous singer finally said, holding her head high. “But I can’t teach somepony who hasn’t even heard my songs! You go learn a couple of them and then we can talk lessons, I promise.”

o.0.o

“Stupid, self-centered...” Sweetie muttered darkly as she made her way through downtown Canterlot. “What did she expect? It’s not like I don’t have better things to do than listen to dumb pop songs!”

Sweetie stopped, closing her eyes and taking a deep, calming breath. “Okay, what should I do now?” she asked, opening her eyes. They settled on a record store with a giant cardboard cutout of Sapphire Shores looking at her. “Well, that’s convenient.”

o.0.∞.0.o

“Very well, darling, here’s what we’re gonna do,” Sapphire Shores began as she stepped to the side of an open door and gently pushed Sweetie in. “We’re going to make sure to get a good DJ to help us out, and you are going to sing one of my songs, baby.”

“Any of your songs? Is ‘I'm Not A Filly, Not Yet A Mare’ okay?”

“That one’s a bit... dated, but it should be fine. Let’s hear it.”

Sweetie took a deep breath.

o.0.o

“Well you asked me to sing!” Sweetie pointed out, frowning at the pop-singer, who was currently huddled in the far corner of the room.

“Sing, baby,” Sapphire Shores groaned after a moment, her hooves having replaced the headphones over her ears. “Not screech like a banshee.”

“I don’t know how!” Sweetie Belle pouted. “Sometimes I sing just fine, and sometimes I sound like a... like a crow suffering from spasmodic dysphonia!”

Sapphire Shores raised an eyebrow. “Is that right? Come here, darling, write down the lyrics for a song you have... actually sung correctly.” She waited patiently for Sweetie to finish before snatching up the piece of paper. “Okay now, hum me the tune...”

After a few seconds of Sweetie humming, she nodded, rhythmically tapping the heel of one of her hooves. “Got it, okay, I’ll start... First, we thought that Babs was so really, really sweet... A new friend to have then it seemed like such a treat...”

“But then, we found the truth; she's just a bully from the east...” Sweetie jumped in immediately, singing Scootaloo’s original part of the song. “She went from Babs, yeah, to a bully and a beast...” She paused, eyes wide. “Wait! How did it happen!?”

“Darling,” Sapphire Shores smirked. “The problem is... you’re trying too hard, baby!”

“I’m what?” Sweetie Belle blinked. “Aren’t I supposed to try my best?”

“There’s trying your best, and then there’s trying too hard, darling. Different things,” Sapphire Shore explained, waving a dismissive hoof. “What you’re doing is trying too hard.”

“But then, how do I stop myself from doing that?”

“You relax, baby!” Sapphire Shores all but cheered, smiling happily down at the little filly. “There’s nopony to impress, nopony to judge you and certainly nopony to think any less of you at all! Not in MY studio! You should practice singing because it feels good, because you love it! Not to get everypony’s attention. That comes later, you see.”

“Is that all there is to it?” Sweetie asked. Because it feels good, huh?

“Oh, heck no, baby! There’s a lot more to it than just that! But, we start with what we have. I’ll sing lead and you sing chorus, okay?” Sapphire Shore asked, waiting for Sweetie to nod before pulling down some sheets to read. “And once you get the beat down, don’t be afraid to move your body, too! Got to feel the music, baby!”

The pop star shook her world famous flank and winked.

o.0.∞.0.o

“I wanna know what looove iiiiiis!” Sweetie sang, very loudly, making Blueblood cringe with every vocal peak. “I want you to shooow me...!”

“Blegh!”

I want...! Hey! Are you okay? Blueblood? You don’t look so well.” Sweetie Belle frowned at the stallion’s lack of attention on the fruits of her labor over the last dozen loops. “Can you hear me?” she asked, seeing him start to cringe, eyes closed.

Luckily, she’d learned an easy way to remedy that.

“Hey!” she rudely jabbed him in the side with a hoof. “I’m talking to you!”

“You do know there are spells to mute ponies?” Blueblood asked, wincing. He brushed away her hoof and gave a pained, disgusted sound, like he was valiantly fighting the urge to retch. “I’ve heard there are spells to deafen oneself, too. It would be preferable. Do ponies really pay to hear these songs? Actual bits?”

Sweetie Belle rolled her eyes. “Yes, they do. Haven’t you heard the radio?” she grinned maliciously. “They play her songs every morning. Do you want me to sing ‘Equestria Girls’ instead?”

“NO.”

She sat down next to him and sighed. “Am I really that bad?”

“The problem is my ears, not your voice. I was not exactly raised on carnival music,” Blueblood explained, channeling his inner noblepony. Sweetie mentally counted down from three and, by the time she had hit ‘one,’ his nose was up in the air. It was the exact same posture Rarity liked to assume when cleaning Opalescence’s litter box... or when anypony alluded to anything she felt sufficient revilement for to strike a pose about it.

“Look, my options are kinda limited to what we have at hoof,” Sweetie pointed out. “And, other than askin' Applejack to teach me more country songs, Ah can’t think of nopony else.”

I can’t think of anypony else,” Blueblood corrected, and Sweetie poked him in the side again. “‘Ah’ is a country affection that has no place in Canterlot. Like somepony saying ‘milord’ instead of ‘my lord.’”

“But we’re not in Canterlot,” she reminded him.

Usually, it had been most convenient for the duo to meet in Ponyville at Sugarcube Corner, though today they’d met in a cafe across the street. It never took more than a Prince’s command and a generous bag of bits to win them some relative privacy to discuss the loops and what they’d done with them.

“Yes, well!” Blueblood shook his head, and the noble façade melted away as he reached up to scratch behind his mane. “It doesn’t so much matter what I think, does it? Sapphire is the most popular singer in Equestria. I’ve been told fillies all over Equestria aspire to be like her. To dress like her. To have high profile scandals like her. All that business. Name another, though, and of course I’ll see what I can arrange.”

“I had honestly never heard of her until Rarity started gushing about making her dresses,” Sweetie confessed. “But I really don’t think her style fits me.” She tapped her hooves together ponderously. “Are you really telling me there’s nopony you know in Canterlot that sings well enough to coach me a little? Princess Luna? One of the guards?”

“Auntie Luna can sing... yes,” he replied, chuckling a little at some memory. “But it would take quite a lot to convince her to do so where anypony can hear her. She’s a very private pony. Auntie Celestia on the other hoof?” He clucked his tongue in thought. “She’s more enthusiastic than skilled when it comes to song, but that’s just my opinion. A treasonous opinion, too, since heaven forbid Auntie is sub-par at anything she does ever.” Blueblood smirked at the thought.

“Who else at the Palace?” he wondered aloud, “Wait, you were kidding when you suggested my Aunties, weren’t you?”

Sweetie nodded, slowly. Given what she’d experienced in this universe, picking up either one as a tutor seemed unlikely. This day least of all, with the Gala only half a day away.

“All our guards are stallions,” he continued. “As for the castle staff... I don’t think any are what you are looking for. What are you looking for in a tutor?” he asked, glancing down at the filly next to him. “How would you feel about a classical mentor? I fund many such groups: orchestras, opera companies, the royal choir...”

“I don’t know,” Sweetie shrugged, suddenly barraged by new options. “Somepony who would be patient, maybe somepony with some experience mentoring or taking care of fillies...” She looked at the ceiling. “I mean, look at Miss Cheerilee... she really keeps calm and sometimes you don’t even know you’re learning, but you are.”

“Miss Cheerilee,” Blueblood said, testing out the name. “You know, of all the times I’ve been here, I don’t think I’ve met her. And the way you’ve described her, she sounds... far too lenient to be a proper governess.”

“Governess? Umm. I... think your experience might have been very different from mine,” Sweetie said slowly. “If you were my age, I bet you’d be having a great time in her class.” She sighed, thinking back to her time in school, back before… everything. “But Miss Cheerilee doesn’t teach classical singing. Don’t you have cousins or even old teachers that could help us? Ponyville really doesn’t have anypony I can think of.”

Blueblood paused, and it was long enough that she could guess that he had thought of something; he just didn’t like it. For a few seconds, he worked his jaw, trying to come up with some sort of alternative.

“Yes. There may be one mare,” he finally admitted. “My step-sister, Cadance. Her voice is quite heavenly.”

“Princess... Cadance?” Sweetie blinked. “Really? I don’t remember her singing after the... uh...” She coughed. “I mean, I don’t remember her singing at all. But, from what Twilight said about her, she was a great foalsitter. She probably has lots of patience.” Sweetie giggled. “And imagine all of the stories about Twilight as a foal she can tell me!”

Blueblood looked surprised. “She wasn’t much of a singer in your universe?”

“Maybe?” Sweetie Belle shrugged. “I never really heard her do so... but I guess you would know her better, with her being your family and all. Even if she isn’t able to teach me, I’d love to talk to her.”

“You’d be wrong,” he said, grumbling now. “I don’t know her very well at all. We’re estranged, to be polite. I’m not even sure how to approach her to ask for her help. I suspect she’d reject any offer that came from my mouth.”

“Oh,” Sweetie hesitated. “Well, can you just introduce me to her as Twilight’s apprentice? I might be able to take it from there.”

“She and Shining Armor should be outside Canterlot at one of the lesser estates,” Blueblood said with a put-on sigh. “Give me a day to work things out and I’ll take you to her tomorrow. Don’t cry if she sends you home with a prompt ‘no.’ In fact, maybe I should find a way to send you there by yourself...”

o.0.∞.0.o

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!”

Sweetie yawned and stretched. As always, Rarity’s ear-piercing scream was the first thing she heard in the morning, which meant that she roughly had over an hour before Scootaloo and Apple Bloom would come over to pick her up. This in turn meant that she knew she had to hurry and get ready herself; if anything, Blueblood would always pick her up earlier than that.

She brushed her hair on the way to Rarity’s room. “Sis! I’m going to go out to Canterlot today!”

A thump, Rarity’s screech and Opalescence’s desperate meows were her replies.

“I guess I should leave her a note...” Sweetie muttered.

Soon enough, she was already outside her door when she noticed the carriage pulled by pegasi guards approaching. With a grace that she could only envy, the pair alighted just outside the Carousel Boutique, with Blueblood sitting proudly inside the carriage.

Just as she took the first step towards it, the door slammed open and Rarity rushed out, her mane still a mess and wearing her robe. She held the floating note accusingly up to Sweetie Belle. “What do you mean you’re going to Canterlot?!”

Slowly, Rarity’s eyes left Sweetie Belle and centered on the pegasi-pulled chariot and the smiling and waving Blueblood.

o.0.o

“Okay, she’s on the sofa now,” Sweetie said. “I’m good to go.”

“I do wonder what sort of impression these early morning excursions are... or would be engendering,” Blueblood wondered, helping the filly onto the chariot and motioning for the guards to take to the air. “How badly does Miss Rarity take it when you head off like this?”

“Usually she faints, or there was one time when she thought that I was going to become royalty...” She gave Blueblood a side-long glance. “It was not pretty.”

“Next time, tell her I’m taking you to meet your new fiancé,” he said, laughing. “I’m sure that’ll leave her wondering who for hours.”

Despite herself, Sweetie couldn’t help but giggle at the thought.

“Now, as for Cadance...” He grew serious again. “You’re in luck. The Princess is spending the day at Ptarmigan... a conservatory lodge outside Canterlot. Shining Armor’s father and mother are playing host to her along with a few other members of their esteemed clan. Having a Gala away from the Gala, I suppose. They’re Twilight Sparkle’s extended family. As her apprentice, you should be made welcome, though as I said before, a letter of introduction won’t endear you to Cadance herself. Not from me. Ah yes!” he remarked, remembering to ask, “Do you want to try and get Twilight to write you a letter instead, before we get to cruising speeds?”

Sweetie Belle blinked. “Wait, you think Twilight would agree to tell them that I’m her apprentice even if in this universe I’m not? Or should I just ask her to apprentice me? And then ask for the letter?”

“How long does it usually take to convince her that you’re jumping dimensions and all that?” He groaned, resting his forelegs against the rise of the chariot in front of them. “Perhaps it is more trouble than it is worth. I can make your introductions this loop, and we’ll see if it explodes in your face as a result.”

“I think I could convince her within an hour...” Sweetie mumbled. “But with your help, and my Letter of Acceptance from Nightmare Moon’s School for Gifted Unicorns, she might believe me quickly enough... Let’s see how it goes today without her letter. I know enough of Twilight’s life to convince them that I am her student. If that doesn’t work, then we can just wait things out and get one tomorrow.”

They flew in silence for a little while, but something kept bothering Sweetie. “Blueblood? How come you’re not on speaking terms with Cadance? If she’s your sister... shouldn’t you two be, I dunno, close?”

He shook his head.

“We aren’t like you and Miss Rarity, Sweetie Belle. Cadance was adopted when word got out about those wings on her back,” he sounded a little bitter about it. “She isn’t the first mortal alicorn the Blueblood line has... invested, but I don’t begrudge her that. It wasn’t as if she had a choice in the matter.”

“Wait... she was adopted just because she’s an alicorn?” Sweetie asked. “But... isn’t that kind of a pretty superficial reason…?”

“This is a bit of an oversimplification, but practically speaking, being an alicorn automatically makes one a Princess of the realm, whether that alicorn is born or transformed. It is for the security and well-being of Equestria,” Blueblood explained, snorting dismissively. “The truth is, winged unicorns are capable of certain things. Those ‘things’ are forms of magic that my family and Equestrian law keep from the rest of ponykind.”

“Imagine another alicorn... from some other part of Equestria or from another country, who finds out she can control some heavenly body or another. Or one that tries to move the sun or moon. Or, in my sister’s case, one who can manipulate the emotional state of ponies without them even noticing it, or enter the dreams of ponies as my Auntie Luna can. Princesses like Mi Amore Cadenza are taken to Equestria and fostered here, under the guidance of the royal family, so that they don’t become a threat or abuse their power. It is not very pretty, but that is the truth of it.”

“What about...” Sweetie almost hesitated to ask, “their families? Their real families? Do they just agree with this?”

Blueblood didn’t answer at first.

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

Sweetie frowned at the implications.

It sounded like something out of one of Twilight’s more ancient unicorn history books, and she wondered just how many ponies even knew about what Blueblood had just alluded to. Did Twilight? Did Rarity? Sweetie Belle wondered, but kept her thoughts to herself, turning towards Blueblood.

“Even... even if that’s the case, if you grew up with her, why did you get into a fight big enough for her not to like you?”

“It wasn’t... a fight, so much.” Blueblood set his mouth into a flat line for a time, as he wrestled with how to explain himself. “We didn’t grow up together, understand. She’s younger than me, and she wasn’t invested into the family until after my father died, after I became Prince, and after I spent my obliged years as a ward in Crown Roc in exchange for the Griffin Prince.”

He saw that only raised further questions, and tried to quickly clear them up.

“A foal of the royal family isn’t just a child; it is a symbol of the nation. Auntie Celestia obliges all of Equestria’s neighbors to send us their next generation of leaders: so they can know ponykind, understand harmony, learn friendship... you get the idea? Just the same, some of us must return the favor. My responsibility was to spend some years in Crown Roc, to build on the good relations between Equestria and the Griffins.”

“Ooh,” Sweetie said, nodding slowly. “I can see how that would be useful... so, she didn’t know you very well?”

“No.” Blueblood’s response was chilly, so much so that the alpine air that led up to Canterlot and the cragged mountain range on which it was situated were lukewarm by comparison. “My time in Crown Roc was actually cut short, unexpectedly. My mother died, you see. With permission, I returned to Canterlot and... found the only family I had left was a step-sister I had never met before. Cadance and my mother had...”

He licked his lips, teeth clenched tight.

“My mother had grown quite fond of her,” he muttered. “But that’s neither here nor there. The point is: Cadance and I never had a falling out or an argument we never got over. From the start, we...” He shook his head, forcefully. “I... was unkind to her. I never saw nor accepted her as my sister or my family. She wanted me to be, what was it? Her big brother best friend forever, I think? And I resented her terribly. It would eventually ruin my friendship with Shining Armor as well.”

“Oh.” Sweetie was silent for a moment, looking at Blueblood with more than a little pity. “I think... I’m sorry, Blueblood,” she finally said, wrapping her forelegs around one of his own. He stared down at the hug, momentarily confused.

“But—” he almost seemed to protest, but then he wrapped a foreleg around the little filly and hugged her back, if only for a few seconds. For all that he could be expressive about, Sweetie still found him to be very guarded when it came to his personal space.

“Thank you, Sweetie,” he whispered, patting her affectionately on the head to ruffle her mane. “I just wish I’d been nicer as a colt. Somepony you’d have counted as a friend, and not a bully. But that’s all in the past, and if I can, someday, I’ll see if Cadance can forgive me. She was like you, though, back then: very spirited and intelligent and inquisitive.”

“Was?” Sweetie muttered, but soon her questions were forgotten when she noticed what had to be their destination approaching. “Is that it?” she asked Blueblood, rushing to the side of their ride to take a better look.

“That’s it,” he said, stepping aside to give the filly ample room to see over the edge. “The Royal Estate of Ptarmigan and the House of Sparkle.”

Ptarmigan was a large manor house straddling a glittering waterfall, surrounded on all sides by soldier pine. It was a mountain retreat in the unicorn fashion - built on land that nopony would ever bother to farm on. It was a picturesque retreat, but Sweetie could see a number of other chariots and charioteers stabled next to the manor’s landing pad, extending like a balcony off an outcropping of stone and over a sheer cliff. The stables alone were twice the size of Rarity’s boutique; the manor house was a bit larger than Ponyville’s city hall. Banners hung liberally from over vertical drops displaying an asymmetrical eight pointed star - the heraldry of Twilight Sparkle’s family - and a pink and sable flag billowed beneath the standard of Equestria from a pole, indicating the Princess in residence.

Mi Amore Cadenza.

“Her title is ‘Her Serene Highness,’ not ‘Royal Highness,’” Blueblood warned as they came in for a landing. “Use a curtsy or quarter bow when you are introduced. She’s been moody of late, but try not to let it discourage you.”

“Princess Cadance...” Sweetie muttered under her breath. “Don’t tell me she’s…”

o.0.o

Sweetie Belle took a deep breath as they landed, glancing a bit nervously at the ponies around them, who were clearly a bit surprised at their sudden arrival. “So... how do I introduce myself to Twilight’s family? I mean, I’ve met them in my own universe but... that was a lot less formal.”

“I don’t know much about Lady Sparkle, but I have met Crescent Moon before.” As Blueblood replied, their chariot came in for the last leg of their approach, attendants at the platform already cantering over to see to the guards who pulled it, leading it to an idling station in the stable proper. “They’re a good noble family in the strict sense of the word. Be polite, not playful. Just like with Cadance, curtsy or bow first to the mare of the house, then to the stallion. You said you met them in your universe... what was the impression you got from them then? Were you meeting them at their home or in Ponyville?”

“I met them at Shining Armor’s wedding...” Sweetie said. “They were acting funny. But not serious at all. At least with me and the other crusaders, they seemed gentle and friendly.”

“Hmm. It might be a little pony thing, then. I’ve only interacted with them as, well...” He shrugged. “Ptarmigan is part of my domain, as both Prince and Grand Veneur. They owe me fealty. Feel free to experiment a bit once I’m out of the way. They may warm up to you.”

Sweetie nodded. “I will. I’m hoping they act the same...” She took another deep breath. “So... shall we? You’ll be a gentlecolt and lead me to the door, won’t you?”

“I will,” he agreed, and with a bit of magic, he opened one of the compartments near their hooves. “Just don’t go letting ponies know I’m going soft in my insanity. It’ll positively ruin my irresistible bad-boy image.”

A few moments later, and the Prince was dressed in a much more stately fashion. He’d whisked on an overcoat and buttoned up a doublet. A black, silken scarf wound around his shoulders like a snake, just barely concealing a chain of office as Grand Veneur. Sweetie hadn’t left home with much more than a well combed mane, but his magic fastened a pink-and-snow white cloak to cover her. It was filly-sized, but it felt much more constricting than the light Cutie Mark Crusaders cloaks she had copied from Rarity’s design catalogue.

The pair stepped off the chariot and exchanged a few pleasantries with the pair of guards who saw to the pegasus stallions who had flown them over. Blueblood smoothed over the transition, assuring the Royal Guards that he would be fine for a few moments at least. Sweetie took a minute or two to look around. She could see some of the uppermost spires of Canterlot around the corner of one of the mountain’s mottled green slopes, and a peek over the side - there was no railing to speak of - provided a glimpse of the waterfall that cascaded beneath the manor house itself.

“Quite a fatal fall, though not as far as taking a dip off the edge of The Serenity that runs under Canterlot,” she heard Blueblood say. Compared to that river and that massive waterfall, this was just a country stream. Still, it was impressive, and rather beautiful. Sweetie inhaled the mountain air. It was fresh and crisp.

“Shall we?” Blueblood asked, and she nodded, following close behind him as he headed towards the main building.

They were not made to wait.

A servant ushered them inside to a seating room next to a solar, and a minute or two later, both Lord Crescent Moon and Lady Star Sparkle joined them. Blueblood laid down the cover story: Sweetie was the younger sister of the Element of Generosity, one Miss Rarity, who Twilight’s parents must have heard of - they had - and he was here to introduce her to Cadance and to impose on the hospitality of the Sparkles before the Gala. The way he phrased ‘imposition’ left a very clear impression that there would be some recompense down the road for his ‘request’ and their cooperation.

Twilight’s parents were deferential and made some light talk about the Gala and, of course, about Cadance and Shining Armor’s approaching wedding, still half a year away.

For her part, Sweetie smiled and followed Blueblood’s earlier instructions on how to be respectful of Twilight’s parents. They were pleasant enough, but unlike the informal meeting she’d had with them through Twilight in her home dimension, here they were a bit... guarded.

Where before their smiles had been honest, here they seemed hesitant, as if they were expecting some sort of bad thing to happen if they accepted her as openly as in her home world. Sweetie found it intriguing, just how much could things could change depending on the pony making the introductions and the setting of their encounter. But at least, at heart, they seemed to be the same caring ponies she had met before. The difference was her: she wasn’t just a little flower-filly, here.

“Sweetie Belle,” Mrs. Sparkle said kindly as she led the filly into the house. “My little Twilight’s mentioned you and your sister Rarity in her letters, but she never mentioned she had taken you as an apprentice.”

Sweetie chuckled a bit nervously. “Well, you know Twilight, she’s a bit nervous about new things, and having a student is still new for us, even if it’s been a couple of weeks. I don’t think she even mentioned it to Princess Celestia until this morning.”

Mrs. Sparkle laughed at that. “That’s my Twilight. She always did get wrapped up in her projects. How is she as a teacher?”

Sweetie smiled, her eyes clearly not concentrating on anything as she thought back to her Twilight and her world. “I love learning with Twilight. She relies on books a lot, but she’s so patient and clear when she talks about spells.” She paused. “Well, I used to get confused, a lot, but then, when I started understanding what she was talking about, it was fascinating rather than confusing. She really knows magic... and listening to her talk about how a simple spell like levitation was the inspiration for so many other spells and magical effects... it just makes magic so much more... alive and interesting!”

Mrs. Sparkle nodded, happy to hear about her daughter.

“I’m surprised she would take you in so young,” she admitted after a moment, a euphemism for picking up an apprentice without a cutie mark.

“Well, to be honest, my sister insisted at first,” Sweetie confessed. “I would go once or twice a week after I started showing a little aptitude, but when Twilight noticed my magic growing, she got very excited at the idea... in Ponyville, we don’t have other unicorns that know as much magic as she does, and she thought I should learn as much as she could so... I’m her apprentice.” Her smile grew, broad and earnest as she remembered that day. “I was really happy when she told me that she’d sent a letter to the Princess, informing her.”

Mrs. Sparkle smiled kindly at her. “Well, I’m sure that Princess Cadenza will be happy to meet Twilight’s apprentice.”

Sweetie giggled. “You think Cadance will tell me about Twilight when she was a filly? I could use some stories!”

Mrs. Sparkle chuckled. “I’m sure she will; she foalsat our little Twily for years. She must have quite a few stories about those days!”

Sweetie followed Mrs. Sparkle up to a door in the back of the manor. Although Sweetie had been trying to pay attention, the twists and turns were so many, and the sheer amount of rooms so staggering, that by the time they had reached their destination, she had given up trying to figure out how they had gotten there in the first place.

“That... was more confusing than navigating the STABLE.” Sweetie grimaced.

“It is a little confusing at first,” Mrs. Sparkle laughed, “But you get used to it quicker than you might think. Here, allow me...” She knocked on the door. “Cadenza, dear? I have somepony I would like you to meet.”

“Mrs. Sparkle,” Cadance’s voice came from inside the room. “A moment, please.”

They heard hoofsteps approaching the door, and soon a magical aura turned the doorknob around, opening the door fully. Princess Cadance stood tall and regal inside the room, young but still taller than her soon-to-be mother-in-law.

The sitting room was part magical library and part parlor, a place where noble mares could relax, read, or chat with one another away from prying eyes and ears. The various emblems and crests of the Sparkle family, their ancestors and close relations, all hung from impressions near the ceiling. Cadance smiled pleasantly at Mrs. Sparkle, bowing her head politely in thanks and greeting. Only then did she glance briefly at Sweetie Belle. A delicate eyebrow arched in curiosity, but her expression did not change much as she looked back to Twilight’s mother.

“And this is?” she inquired. A little more frostily.

Sweetie raised an eyebrow herself. That attitude... It couldn’t be... not this early...!

“This is Sweetie Belle,” Mrs. Sparkle introduced her with a proud smile, and Sweetie lowered her head and eyes in a quarter bow. “Twilight’s Apprentice! Our little Twilight finally took a student! Isn’t that wonderful?”

“Twilight.” It sounded more question than statement. “Yes, yes, of course it is,” Cadance said, quickly, her eyes steady. “About time, too. Twilight has always been...”

“Hesitant?” Sweetie suggested, drawing both the mare’s eyes to herself. “You know, about taking a student?”

“Yes, of course, hesitant,” Cadance acknowledged quickly. “Not that I ever had any doubt she’d manage.”

“Well,” said Mrs. Sparkle, her motherly smile never dwindling, “I’ll leave you two alone. Do make sure you both make it in time for dinner, would you, Princess? Yours will be the place of honor at the table.”

Cadance nodded, and watched in silence as Mrs. Sparkle trotted away. She sighed and looked down at Sweetie Belle. “Well then, Sweetie Bells. What do you need?”

“That settles it,” Sweetie said quietly, shaking her head. She started pacing in front of Cadance, who watched her with an annoyed frown as she mumbled to herself. “Okay, on the one hoof, I think she might be able to help me.” Sweetie Belle shot Cadance a calculating look. “Um... do you know how to sing classical opera?” she asked after a moment.

“What.”

“Well, you see, the real Cadance does, and since you’ve convinced everypony you’re her, I thought—”

She was suddenly inside Cadance’s room, the door shut and a very angry-looking Princess was glaring at her. “What did you just say?

Suddenly - in spite of Blueblood's urgings that she would always reset safe and sound with the time loops - Sweetie didn't feel safe. Certainly not if this alicorn was who she knew she really was.

“Um... your disguise is very good?”

“You try my patience, little pony,” Cadance growled, eyes narrowing. She towered over the filly, wings flapping angrily and excitedly. “What do you think you know? What disguise?”

Sweetie gulped and quickly bowed deeply. “I-I’m sorry, Queen Chrysalis! I didn’t know you’d taken Cadance’s place already!”

Cadance’s eyes flashed green, as a small, predatory grin slowly grew on her face. “Queen Chrysalis?” she asked and licked her lips. A moment later she laughed, devoid of mirth or good cheer. “Who taught you that name? Who told you to call me that?”

Sweetie cringed. “Well, that’s who you are, aren’t you?” she asked, trying to step back. “Queen Chrysalis?”

Chrysalis, however, didn’t allow her to escape. She began to close the distance between them. “My, but you are a strange one, Sweetie Bells—”

“Belle. Sweetie Belle.”

“Whatever!” Chrysalis growled. “That name you so casually uttered...? You know what you shouldn’t know, and I want you to tell me how that is possible.” The supposed Princess smiled in perfect imitation of amiability, but her voice dripped with venom. It made the whole thing more frightening than reassuring. “Tell me,” she asked, still smiling. “And I promise I will allow you to live.”

Sweetie Belle clenched her teeth, and her horn flashed as she jumped to the side. The room was enveloped in thick darkness and Sweetie’s magic didn’t even affect it when she cast a second spell, allowing her to see in the shadows. She stepped away from Chrysalis, who stayed in place, looking almost amused.

“Come now. I know you’re here, little pony,” Chrysalis whispered loud enough for Sweetie to hear. “Even if I can’t see you... I will still find you. I can smell you, you know. I can taste your fear on the tip of my tongue, sweet and sharp.”

‘What should I do!?’ Sweetie thought in a panic. If she catches me, she might kill me! Even if I’ll be okay, I don’t want to die! Plus, I’m not entirely sure I… I won’t die, will I?

She tried to calm down, to control her breathing, hiding behind a desk and using a cantrip to drop a book on the other side of the room, drawing Chrysalis’ attention in that direction, just like she had done with that werewolf in what felt like ages ago.

Think Sweetie, think!

She watched in silence as Chrysalis leisurely made her way to the bookcase where Sweetie had cast the spell. Despite her being unable to see, the changeling Queen moved without much hindrance around the room. She seemed to know that, no matter what, the filly was still in the parlor, trapped with her. An old rhyme came to mind at that - ‘come into my parlor’ - and it wasn’t very encouraging. Those had been the words of the spider to the fly.

“I’ve hunted ponies before, you know. Clever little ponies, just like you,” ‘Cadance’ said aloud, and a baleful glowing green eye glanced over her shoulder. Sweetie shuddered at the sight. “Yes. I chased one for two days in the skin of her lover. That was when I was younger, and often found the desire to gorge on ponies’ terror... first I tasted their love, then the bitterness of imagined betrayal, and then I would enjoy a dessert of purest crystalline fear.”

Sweetie ducked back out of cover, eyes closed.

She can’t hurt me, she told herself. Blueblood said so. I’ll just wake up again, tomorrow.

Chrysalis sniffed the air, and Sweetie could hear the sound of her hoofsteps approaching.

‘What if... what if I tell her I’m on her side?’ Sweetie thought in a moment of clarity and calm, like the eye of an emotional storm. ‘If I tell her that... she could help me. Maybe even teach me something useful besides singing.’

Sweetie Belle gave Chrysalis a calculating look from behind her hiding place. She defeated Princess Celestia in my world... and she’s probably been feasting on Shining Armor’s love here as well. Could changeling magic be similar enough to use? But what would Blueblood say? I’m sure he would want to do something and maybe get the real Cadance back... but... what if I don’t tell him? That wouldn’t be right but... everything turned out okay in my world, in the end. What if my getting involved screws that up? What if I mess things up by interfering?

Sweetie cast the cantrip again, close to where Queen Chrysalis was, trying to keep her off her tracks. She turned around and slid behind the desk when the changeling paused, ears twitching like those of a stalking cat’s.

I mean... if I tell him, wouldn’t that affect the future? What if something really bad happens to Cadance because I did? She might be okay right now. And I know Twilight and the others defeated Chrysalis in Canterlot. Don’t those books on time travel always say not to try and change the future? I think it was even one of Starswirl’s Rules. So... maybe I’ll just join her side for now? Use her. She won’t remember anyway.’

Sweetie nodded to herself and looked over the desk to see where Queen Chrysalis was, only to find herself nose to nose with the changeling.

“Boo.”

Sweetie Belle yelped and scrambled back as Chrysalis carefully made her way around the desk. “You breathe too hard, little pony, and you smell...” Chrysalis whispered, her wicked grin firm in place and her eyes flashing once more. “Too delicious to lose in such a small room.”

Sweetie stopped and took a deep breath, looking at the queen approaching her. With a gulp and a resolute nod of her head, she dismissed the darkness spell. Chrysalis recoiled from the sudden blast of light and shook her head, blinking away until she could clearly see the filly standing in front of her. If she was surprised, she didn’t show it.

“Ready to talk?” she asked, and the predatory smile returned.

Sweetie Belle sighed, but nodded. “I studied changelings at one point; I live right next to the Everfree forest, so we have an extensive collection of books that talk about all sorts of creatures. And I saw a little flash of green when you were talking to Mrs. Sparkle.” Chrysalis frowned, clearly doubting Sweetie’s words, so the filly pressed. “But that’s not important. I-I want to work for you.”

“How funny,” Chrysalis stated, though she didn’t laugh, and her smile did not seem amused in the slightest. Only hungry. “I know ponies play with their food, but do you work with your oats and negotiate with your apples and hay? Do you bargain with a plate of sweets or a slice of cake? Work for me, you say?”

She reached for Sweetie Belle, and the filly sucked in a breath - a long one, the sort that always preceded a scream. The would-be Princess paused, hearing that and knowing what it meant.

“Only exceptional ponies are worth my time, and my good graces,” Chrysalis explained, but didn’t come any closer. “Make your offer. I will listen.”

“I’m a good magic student,” Sweetie began. “But more than that; I’m apprenticed under Princess Celestia’s own student, Twilight Sparkle, who I should tell you now, you foalsat when she was a filly.” Sweetie Belle smirked. “I’m already really in with royalty, my sister is one of the Elements of Harmony, you saw that I am capable of magic beyond my years... with some training and a bit of coaching from you to keep the ruse that you are teaching me to sing, we could both profit a lot from each other’s knowledge.”

Chrysalis almost snorted, but held her eyes steady on Sweetie Belle. “And what reason would a filly that has it all so good have to join forces with her natural predator?”

“I’m tired of being a shadow,” Sweetie said softly. “It’s always ‘Rarity’s sister’, or ‘Twilight’s apprentice’, or ‘Blueblood’s charge’.” She looked up at Chrysalis, locking eyes with her. “I don’t want to be a shadow anymore. I want to be myself! I don’t care what the cost is; I don’t want to be ‘goody’ Sweetie Belle who doesn’t even have a cutie mark! I want more! Even if the world changes around me, even if I have to see more death... I won’t be stuck here, as I am.”

Chrysalis leaned in, closer, allowing Sweetie a closer look at her disguise. Despite her language before, and her behavior, she looked very much like the real Princess Cadance, all the more twisted by the sharp teeth she displayed in her smile. Sniffing, she inhaled languidly from behind Sweetie’s ear, prompting it to twitch.

"You reek of love for them,” Chrysalis said, but still considered the filly’s words. “But then, the greatest hurt can come from the double-edged blade that is love. You may not necessarily be lying.”

“I’m not lying,” Sweetie growled. “You have no idea how long I’ve been somepony else’s shadow and not myself. This is my chance to do something and break that circle.” With a calm that surprised even her, Sweetie Belle looked straight into Chrysalis’ disguised eyes. “If you let me, you’ll find that you can trust me.”

“Trust takes time... and effort,” Chrysalis explained, and ran her tongue over her lips. “I will consider your offer if you can prove yourself useful.” She regarded Sweetie Belle for a moment, looking her over. “There are places a filly can go that an adult cannot, and even grown changelings cannot lose enough mass to take on your size. As I think on it, I may have something for you to do.”

“You’re giving me a test?” Sweetie asked.

“Yes. Just one, to start with,” Chrysalis replied, and her eyes narrowed even as her toothy grin widened. “Depending on how you do, I may reward you with a token of my affection. Or punish you for your incompetence. I consider both equally likely.”

Sweetie’s eyes narrowed in challenge. What was the worst that could happen? She’d just reset by the end of the night, anyway.

“Fine!” she replied, smirking confidently. “Just don’t forget your end of the bargain.”

o.0.∞.0.o

“Hello Sweetie Belle,” Blueblood nodded in greeting at the filly as she took a seat across from him at Sugarcube Corner. Though their meeting places varied, Sugarcube had grown to be far and away their mutual favorite. This, despite a certain pony’s tendency to randomly appear mid-conversation.

“So,” he continued, “I’ve been meaning to ask: how are your lessons going? Cadance was always said to be a fine foal sitter, but I don’t believe she’s taught anypony before.”

Sweetie smiled happily, Sugarcube’s cafe menu in her hooves. “They’re going great! It’s been an amazing month, Blueblood! Practicing every day, learning the magic that comes from your voice: Cadance is a really good teacher! Surprisingly good, actually.”

Blueblood smiled back, glad. “I’m happy to hear that, Sweetie Belle. I was actually a little worried... what did she start you with?”

“The national anthem.”

“Ah! An excellent choice,” Blueblood agreed with his step-sister’s selection. “Cadance sang it last month at the Canterlot Tourny, which is to say, a month before the original Gala. It was divine.” He floated his own menu face down, still smiling at Sweetie. “I’m looking forward to hearing you sing it.”

“I’m not there yet,” Sweetie warned, tempering any expectations, in spite of the note of confidence in her voice. “I think I’ll be ready in another dozen loops, maybe. But Cadance said that unless I learn Germane I won’t really be able to understand Opera.”

Blueblood stroked his chin. “Germane? I know Cadance is fluent in Prench and Bitalian, but when did she learn...” He shook his head, dispelling the forming question. It wasn’t pressing. “A Germane tutor shouldn’t be hard to find. I could likely teach you, even.”

“You speak Germane?” Sweetie asked, surprised.

“Oh, of course I do,” Blueblood replied, chuckling at the look on her face. “Sweetie Belle, recall that I am both Grand Veneur and a Prince of Equestria. I speak Prench, Germane, Old Equestrian, Bitalian and a pinch of Classical Romane. My griffin isn’t that bad, either.”

“Okay then!” Sweetie cheered. “Then you can teach me! And we can really impress other ponies! And imagine Cadance’s face the next time she asks me if I speak Germane! I guess you can teach me after her singing classes? Or every other day?” Sweetie started to bounce in her seat at the prospects. “Ooh! I can’t wait to see Rarity’s face the next time I ask for breakfast! You can teach me to read it, too, right?”

“Stars above, with an attitude like that, my teachers would be wishing you were their student in my stead,” He laughed at the knowledge-hungry filly. “I’ll bring some proper texts tomorrow, but I can teach you a few words today. Why don’t we start by translating some of the items on the menu here?”

He started with the first of Sugarcube’s lengthy assortment of deluxe and custom cupcakes. Trötchen...

“Blueblood?” Sweetie asked as he began, still leaning over the table.

“Hm?” he asked, perplexed by her long pause. “Yes, Sweetie?”

She blinked and glanced down at the table. When she spoke again, it was just a little whisper. “Thanks.”

Blueblood’s smile faded a bit, but he nodded. “I’m just glad to be able to help, Sweetie Belle. It’s been—” His eyes darted down to his hooves for a moment and he chuckled, self-consciously. “It’s been a long time since I felt useful.”

o.0.∞.0.o End Part 1 o.0.∞.0.o

The Best Night Ever Part 2: Loops

View Online

Editing by: Lammy & Fifth Alicorn / Proof by: Trevor & Super Big Mac
Special thanks to: Spaerk, Raine Moon, Din182, Devas and Oberon.

That morning at Sugarcube Corner, Pinkie Pie had taken to whistling as she bounced around, serving up sweets and surprise with equal gusto. The last loop, Pinkie had broken into an impromptu song about marzipan and something called ‘madiera’ which was either a type of chocolate or somepony Pinkie was in love with. She was only consistent in her inconsistency. Sweetie noticed the randomness always seemed to bring a smile to the face of her would-be host.

“Okay, Sweetie Belle...” Blueblood smiled. “Here she comes. Remember, just like I taught you.”

“Right,” Sweetie nodded and took a deep breath, before smiling at Pinkie Pie as she trotted up to their table. “Hallo, ich hätte gerne einen Milchshake, zwei Kürbisecken und eine Birne.”

Pinkie gasped in delight, leaning in closer over the table. “Aber gerne! Was für eine Füllung hättest du gerne für deine Kürbisecken? Wir haben die traditionelle Kürbisfüllung oder die örtliche Spezialität, eine Apfelfüllung.”

“Go on, go on!” Blueblood whispered. “Don’t act surprised, either!”

“Ich, ähm... d-die Traditionelle klingt gut,” Sweetie stammered. “Oh... ich wusste nicht, dass du Germane sprichst Pinkie.”

“Tue ich auch nicht!” Pinkie Pie said, grinning. “Aber ich liebe deinen Akzent! Ich bin gleich zurück mit deiner Bestellung.” She stopped and looked at Blueblood. “Oh, ich Dummerchen! Ich hab ganz vergessen deine Bestellung aufzunehmen! Was hättest du gerne?”

“Pourriez-vous s'il vous plait m'apporter votre dessert le plus décadent ainsi que du thé ou du café? Tout ira bien, ma chère,” Blueblood replied.

“Bien sûr! Nous avons des éclairs! Ils sont délicieux!” Pinkie Pie promptly replied.

“Forse no, potrebbe essere che un bruttiboni vada meglio con del caffè.”

“Sì, sì! è giusto capitato che io ne abbia fatti un po' stamattina! Li porterò subito!” Pinkie Pie said excitedly. “Ed hanno il mio ingrediente speciale! Sono sicura che ti piaceranno tantissimo!”

“Un secondo...li ha fatti stamattina?” Blueblood blinked.

“Mi si è mosso lo zoccolo sinistro seguito dalla mia criniera diventar ancora più riccioluta e poi un momento di vertigine paralizzante! Quello poteva solo significare che oggi dovevo fare dei bruttiboni! Ed eccoti qui! non è grandioso?!”

“Yes... quite,” Blueblood said weakly.

“Okey Dokey Lokey! Iway’llay ebay ightray ackbay!” Pinkie Promised and skipped off to the kitchen, leaving behind a flabbergasted Sweetie Belle and a rather perturbed Blueblood. He watched her go, leaning back and almost falling off his chair in the process.

“Huh,” was all he could say. “Well, then, Sweetie,” Blueblood began a moment later, delicately raising a cup of dark tea to his lips. Ordering it with his breakfast had caused Pinkie to bemoan the Prince’s choice of ‘leaf mash’ instead of something nice and sweet. “I hope my so-called sister’s reaction was similarly entertaining when you showed her what you could do. Please tell me she at least gawked a little bit?”

Sweetie Belle frowned, blinking a couple of times and looking at her surroundings again.

“Princess Cadance?” she murmured and shook her head. “She... She took it in stride, actually,” Sweetie explained, images of Her Serene Highness walking around her as she encouraged Sweetie to hit a specific note flashing in her mind.

The Princess was strict and had little patience for those who wasted her time or failed to perform. It was not wise to disappoint her, and she was not impressed easily. Not even by finding out her new student could speak enough Germane to sing in it convincingly.

“I just feel a little tired, Blueblood...” she admitted.

Which was strange, since normally she woke up after every loop just the same as the one before. Maybe she was just starting to feel emotionally exhausted?

“It’s a lot of work.” Sweetie punctuated the statement with an unwelcome yawn. “Maybe I need to take another break? Maybe vary things a little? I love practicing, but the only place to do it here is at home. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen sis staring at me with her mouth hanging open like that... unless I destroyed one of her sweaters... or used her gems... or turned Opalescence purple... and there was that one time when I accidentally made her ponyquinns come to life—"

“Of course, of course,” Blueblood agreed, understanding all too well how one could become overloaded by repetition. “Take your time. I’m simply looking forward to hearing you sing something proper and elegant. Why, it would make for a memorable Gala!” He sipped his tea, once, twice, and slowly lowered the glass demitasse - one of the Cake family’s personal fine china. “For us, if nopony else. It always seems to be ruined before Auntie’s Entry into Sunlight plays.“

Sweetie chuckled, remembering all the different versions of chaos that Blueblood had told her about, some seemingly predestined and some caused by himself. “Well, maybe. I would need to know what they were playing. Not only that, but see if I could get some practice with one of the musicians first, so that I know how they play and what to expect... Princess Cadance said that it takes a lot of practice to really get things right.”

“That shouldn’t be difficult. This year, I hired the Canterlot Symphony Orchestra Company to play,” Blueblood said, thoughts drifting back to the inevitable night’s festivities. “They have a very impressive string section this year, with Miss Octavia on cello. I could certainly make introductions if you like.”

“Miss Octavia?” Sweetie’s eyes reflected her smile. “Oh! Her! Yes, please! That would be amazing! Did I tell you Octavia actually sponsored my schooling... or rather one of my counterpart’s schooling? I’ve always wanted to meet her!”

“She did?” He sounded surprised. “From what I’ve heard of her, she’s a Canterlot-born earth pony, through and through. As a rule, they try and keep to high society. ‘Unicorns without a horn’ and all. I’m surprised she’d know anypony from Ponyville...”

“Well, I’m not entirely sure, although she was friends with a unicorn called Vinyl Scratch... and I’ve seen her in Ponyville before,” Sweetie recalled. “But I haven’t seen either of them around Ponyville at all in any of my resets here. Maybe they both live in Canterlot?”

“Octavia most certainly lives in Canterlot. The Orchestra are all Duchy residents, part of the reason I paid for them.” He leaned back slightly, a goofy grin parting his lips. “I can see why she’s a crowd favorite, too. She has that smoldering look. Very sexy.”

Sweetie’s eyes widened. “Did you sleep with her?”

Blueblood suddenly and violently coughed at the abrupt question, bringing a nearby napkin - a frilly pink thing - to his mouth. “Sleep with her? Aren’t you a little young to ask about that sort of thing?”

Sweetie frowned a bit. “Why not? I sleep with Apple Bloom and Scootaloo all the time! We have a lot of fun!”

“...”

“What?” Sweetie asked in response to the stallion’s suspiciously long silence. “You’re looking at me in a weird way.”

Blueblood shook his head and shuddered at the same time. “Either you’re a very perverted little filly, you’re doing this on purpose, or we’re having a miscommunication. Please, Auntie, please let it be the latter.”

“What? You never had a sleepover?” Sweetie asked, sounding almost horrified. Her little hooves clasped her cheeks in shock. “B-but! Those are so much fun! You have pillow fights, play truth-or-dare, and plan how to get your cutie mark until you pass out, or comb each other’s manes, or talk about colts, or—”

“Ah. No. No. I never had that sort of sleep over,” Blueblood replied, and she could see his smile return behind his napkin. “Mine tend to be a bit more... physically stimulating. Less sleeping and more wrestling, so to speak.” He giggled in a very un-Princely way. “I say, why don’t you ask Miss Rarity about it sometime? I’m sure she’ll tell you all about adult sleepover parties.”

“You think so?” Sweetie tapped her chin thoughtfully. “I do know she had a sleepover with Twilight and Applejack once, and it involved magic, ropes and lots of shouting... was that the same kind of thing?”

“Yes. Yes it is.”

“Okay, then!” Sweetie smiled. “I’ll ask her later!”

Blueblood was just on the verge of imparting more gems of insight and wisdom to the curious filly, when a pair of pink forearms found a perch on the top of his head. Sweetie was just thankful that, for once, she wasn't the victim of Pinkie's latest appearance out of nowhere. Blueblood's eyes glanced up to where a pair of inscrutable blues leaned down to stare back at him.

"Is there a problem?" he inquired, rather calmly. Mrs Cake, standing behind the counter, looked about to have a panic attack at the sight of her employee accosting one of Equestria's royals.

"I felt compelled to investigate," Pinkie Pie explained.

"Do not listen to this naughty, naughty pony!" Pinkie said to Sweetie Belle, pointing down at the stallion underhoof. "Just because some ponies have a sleepover with magic and ropes and shouting and riding crops and safety words and a tub full of jelly, doesn't mean anything naughty has to happen."

“But probably will,” Blueblood argued.

“Probably,” Pinkie admitted, and the two ‘mature adults’ nodded in unison.

Sweetie Belle slowly shook her head. “I don’t get it.”

Maybe asking Rarity would shed some light on it...

o.0.o

“No. No. No. No. No! I-I really do not wish to talk about that! Don’t you have school? Yes, school! Wonderful school!” Rarity levitated her little sister out the door. “Ask mom! No, wait... she’s still out. Ask Cheerilee! That’s her job, isn’t it?!”

“But sis!” Sweetie complained from outside. “School’s been over for three hours!”

o.0.∞.0.o

“Oh. Oh. Oh, um.” Cheerilee gave a distinctly uncomfortable cough, tactically retreating behind her desk. “I don’t - that is, I don’t really cover that topic in this class. Or this grade, for that matter. It’s an, um, advanced subject?”

“But what if a pony is ahead of the curve?” Sweetie insisted, putting her hooves down on the desk and refusing to budge. “I’m really curious!”

Drops of sweat began to bead around Cheerilee’s forehead. “I don’t think...”

“Actually,” Diamond Tiara chimed in. “I was sort of wondering about that, too.”

“Us too!” Snips said, raising Snails’ hoof for him.

“Oh! Hey! Ah get it! Ya’ll mean gettin’ laid, right?” Apple Bloom piped in from the back of the class. “Is that what we’re talkin’ about?”

Immediately a hoof shot up into the air. “Miss Cheerilee?” Silver Spoon called. “What does ‘getting laid’ mean?”

“If adults are doing it, that means Rainbow Dash is doing it!” Scootaloo declared, jumping out of her chair. “Quick! What’s getting laid, and how can I do it too?!”

o.0.∞.0.o

Sweetie Belle glared at Blueblood. The big, stupid, smug jerk. “I’m not talking to you about sleepovers ever - ever - again.”

“A shame. I have so much knowledge to share with impressionable young minds.” Blueblood sipped his tea with all due self-satisfaction. Sweetie was sorely tempted to kick him.

“You do know that in this world I’m just a filly, right? And that Miss Cheerilee had to impart a lesson she wasn’t going to teach for at least two more years. And, in fact, clearly postponed in my own timeline.”

“Oh?” he asked with a titter. “Did she show you the old government movie reel? Husbandry for Dummies? Foaling and You? That sort of thing?”

“She tried, but Apple Bloom was laughing so hard she had to quit... and besides...” Sweetie shook her head. What had been seen could not be unseen, and what Apple Bloom knew about certain things could not be un-known. “I said I wasn’t talking to you about it again. Ever again. Now, just give me Octavia’s address.”

“Spoilsport,” Blueblood groused. His magic flared, and a slip of paper floated down to the table next to Sweetie’s plate, landing with a flourish. On it was an itinerary of comings and goings. “I tracked down Miss Octavia while you were... distracted by your research. She isn’t alone, though. A pony is visiting her and remains at the apartment until both leave for the evening: Octavia to rendezvous with the orchestra prior to the Gala, and this other one a few hours later. After the Gala fiasco, both usually end up drinking rather heavily together at a bar and nightclub called ‘After Hours.’”

“That might be Vinyl Scratch...” Sweetie said after a moment. Then a thoughtful look crossed her face. “Hey, Blueblood? Does drinking at a bar really help you relax? Maybe we should do it sometime!”

“A little drink now and then can put the mind at ease,” he answered, rather more carefully than usual this early in a morning loop. “And a lot of it can help a pony forget... for a time. You’re a little young to drink anything more than watered wine, though.”

“Oh,” Sweetie said, sighing a bit as she considered the paper next to her plate. “Well, maybe I should just go ahead and meet Octavia... could you give me a ride to Canterlot?”

“It would be my pleasure,” Blueblood assured her with an amiable smile. “And...” he just had to add, “no, I didn’t have a sleepover with Miss Octavia. I most certainly did think about it, though.”

Sweetie made a sour face. “Still gross.”

o.0.o

Sweetie Belle stared at the building in front of her. The address was correct, and she had triple-checked with various sources and contacts of Blueblood to make sure she had it right.

It wasn't in the best condition. The whole thing was uninspiring, built out of reddish brown limestone bricks with little to no decoration or ornamentation, other than the odd pot outside a window with some flowers growing in it and some old ironwork. Nor was it in the best area of town, which was unexpected, given Octavia's apparent fame in the universe where she had first heard of the musician. Strangely, Blueblood had told her that this was an ‘upscale’ house in this part of Canterlot. It sure didn’t look all that great.

Steeling herself, Sweetie Belle trotted up to the bell and rang the apartment number. She waited for a bit before hearing a cultured voice from above.

“Who is it?”

“Hello?” Sweetie stepped back, looking up at the window that had been opened on the third floor. “Is this where Octavia Philharmonica lives? I'd like to talk to her!”

“Oh, one moment! I'll buzz you in!” the voice replied.

Sweetie nodded to herself. This was her chance.

o.0.o

“Miss Belle, I'm afraid that I have to practice for the Grand Galloping Gala tonight. As much as I would love to tutor you in music, today would not be the best day to start. Never mind the fact that I've never taught anypony before!”

“Pleeeease?” Sweetie pleaded. “I came all the way from Ponyville to ask you!”

Octavia shook her head. “I can't, I'm sorry. Maybe some other time?”

“There won’t be another time,” Sweetie muttered quietly.

Octavia clearly overheard. “What was that?”

“Aww, come on, 'Tavi!” another mare shouted, poking her head from between a pair of red curtains that separated the studio apartment’s sitting room and pantry. “Let her practice with you a bit, what's the worst that could happen?”

“Vinyl Scratch, you keep your nose out of this one,” Octavia grumbled. “I would love to tutor her, really, but with my schedule—”

“'Tavi, you've practiced day and night for the last month and a half. You're as ready as you’ll ever be. Teach her a little. Think of it as a break!”

Octavia still hesitated. She turned to look at Sweetie Belle. “But... why me? How did you even hear about me?”

Sweetie Belle cringed. “I-I just...” she trailed off. “M-my sister mentioned you were scheduled to play... she’ll be at the Gala.”

Octavia raised an eyebrow. “Is she working in the kitchens?”

Sweetie shook her head.

“Decorations?”

Another shake.

“She's... a guest?” Octavia whispered.

Sweetie nodded slowly.

“And she has heard of me?”

Sweetie paused then, very slowly, nodded, keeping her eyes on the mare.

Octavia burst out in a smile. “Yes! YES! YES!” She whirled and hugged Vinyl and Sweetie together in an overjoyed, viselike grip. “Do you know what this means?!”

“That you'll teach me?!” Sweetie asked excitedly.

“That you love me?!” Vinyl teased.

“No!” Octavia cried in ecstasy. “Well, yes, to both, although the second is purely platonic. It means that I'm becoming famous! I thought I got lucky with the Gala tonight, but I have to admit they barely even questioned my ability! I'm being recognized!

Vinyl chuckled, then got a good look at Sweetie Belle. “Hey, hey, wait a second! I know you! I've seen you and your friends pull out really crazy stunts! What did you call yourselves again? Cutie-saders?”

“Cutie Mark Crusaders,” Sweetie growled. “And yeah, I’ve seen you too, you did that thing for my sister and Hoity Toity. Do you... live here?”

“Hey,” Vinyl chuckled. “That was just the other week! Don't tell me my show was that forgettable! As for the other thing, not really: ‘Tavi and me, we were roommates at the Canterlot Academy of Music. We've been friends ever since the end of our first year.”

“The end of...?” Sweetie frowned. “You didn't get along from the beginning?”

Vinyl scratched the back of her head. “Weeell, we had different tastes in music, friends, and drinks, and our lifestyles didn’t really mesh at first either,” Vinyl admitted. “For example, she likes boring music, I like awesome music; she likes to hang around with uptight bastards, I like to hang out with awesome ponies; she never grasped what a sock tied to a door handle means—”

“One time that happened.”

“Two times,” Vinyl corrected before resuming her little speech. “She likes single malt whiskey and I—”

“You like orange juice with vodka or rum and cola,” Octavia interrupted. “A completely classless and tasteless drink.”

“Is it really that bad?” Sweetie asked.

“It's good stuff, kid, she just makes pouty faces at it because it’s not a straight drink.” Vinyl grinned. “I still need to get ‘Tavi to try some of those.”

“Don’t call me ‘Tavi’,” Octavia glared at Vinyl. “You’ll have her saying it now.”

Vinyl bowed. “Always aiming t'please, milady.”

My lady,” Octavia said, and Sweetie’s eyes became half lidded. No wonder Blueblood liked this mare. “At least pretend you know how to speak properly, Vinyl.”

The neon-maned mare pouted, crossing her forelegs in a huff. “I got my minor in modern Equestrian, I think that entitles me to say milady if I please.”

Octavia sighed. “Okay...” Rolling her violet eyes, she turned to Sweetie again. “I think I have the practice cello from when I was a filly somewhere around here... somewhere. I suppose we can practice a little, but please do be careful with it!”

“Oh, don't worry,” Sweetie Belle said, “I can levitate heavy objects for hours so weight will not be a problem! I'll be extra careful!”

Coming back a couple seconds later from one of the closets, Octavia raised an eyebrow as she hoofed over a cello that was roughly as tall as she was while standing on all fours. “Who said anything about levitating? I don't use a horn. If you're learning under me, you're learning how to do it with your hooves.”

“My hooves?” Sweetie's smile faded a bit. “Oh.”

o.0.∞.0.o

“Keep your back straight!” Octavia warned sternly. “This is not a natural position for us, so it's imperative you are careful!”

o.0.∞.0.o

“...and that’s my report.” Sweetie finished, head bowed low.

‘Cadance,’ Sweetie had learned, preferred that those who served her and knew her true face demonstrated their obsequiousness though more than a mere quarter bow or curtsey. Somewhere along the line, Chrysalis had learned that ponies bowed most deeply for a real Royal Princess and had concluded that they should then put noses to the floor in the presence of a Queen.

“Fascinating. I was already aware of much of it, but you impress me with your speed and ability, Sweetie Belle!” Chrysalis, still wearing her alicorn disguise, stroked her chin with a gold-gilded hoof. “Now, as to your request...”

“Yes?” Sweetie asked, looking up at the so called Princess. She always did that: trailing off when it came to her end of the bargain, wanting to draw things out.

“Let it not be said I am not a... mare of her word,” the changeling Queen continued. “You were wise to come to me. If we are to prepare you for future missions we do need to train your voice. We shall start with your vibrato. Take a deep breath and show some promise or I will find the changeling that is sponsoring you and she will rue the day she brought you before me.”

o.0.∞.0.o

“That's not how you hold the bow; you are supposed to hold it straight, like so... no, keep it up like I said,” Octavia said, walking around Sweetie and eyeing her critically.

o.0.∞.0.o

“The pony Princess wrote a letter to the Griffon King.”

D-der Pony Prinz hat eine Geschichte an König Griffon...” Sweetie stammered.

“Close! But you made a little mistake. Take a moment to think about it and try again,” Blueblood encouraged.

Sweetie paused and stared down at the scroll under her hooves. She wrote out the sentence again, checked the grammar and spelling, and saw the error. Smiling, she licked her lips and tried again.

Die Pony Prinzessin hat einen Brief an König Griffin gesendet!

“Good!” Blueblood said, clopping a hoof in cheerful acclaim. “Now, try this one...”

o.0.∞.0.o

“Watch your back, Sweetie Belle. I can see you're really trying but you're forcing it too much,” Octavia intoned, watching as her student shuffled in place, trying to work her body into a better position, but only managing to fall back to all fours. “Look,” she demonstrated, easily standing on her hind legs next to Sweetie, and pretending to hold an invisible Cello. “Like this. See how my legs are spread a bit more than yours? This allows me to balance properly without putting the strain on my back.”

Sweetie observed Octavia’s position for a moment, then pushed herself back onto her hind legs in a much better imitation of Octavia’s posture. “Like this?”

“Yes!” Octavia clapped with her hooves. “Much better!”

o.0.∞.0.o

‘Cadance’ sat at a place of honor among the many noble ponies at the table, her personal standard trailing behind her to the left of Twilight’s mother at the head of the table. The Sparkle family dining hall was larger than their daughter’s library, rising up more than two stories to a vaulted mural covering the entire length of the ceiling, depicting shootings stars and superimposed constellations in posture. Shields and banners hung down from it, depicting the relatives, friends, and other families in attendance.

Next to ‘Cadance’ was her blushing husband-to-be, dressed in a fine doublet and guard’s uniform: Shining Armor. Next to him sat another knight from his guard, then the knight’s marefriend, then two elderly ponies, then a rich lady with a small reef’s worth of pearls around her neck, and then a middle-aged stallion with enormous muttonchops that just had to get in the way of his eating... then two more ponies... and then finally Sweetie Belle herself. The sad thing was that she was still halfway to the head of the table, seated where she was.

It was a good thing that Blueblood had packed a dress or two for her. After that first loop when she wore one of Twilight’s dresses from when she was a filly... Sweetie shuddered. She wasn’t Rarity, but she knew when she looked silly. Some mare in the family had a very weird sense of taste. There was Twilight, yes, but she had to have gotten it from somewhere.

Carefully cupping her rather hot demitasse of black tea over one hoof, while holding the tiny ring with the other, Sweetie took her best hoity toity sip - it helped having seen Blueblood do this day after day after day - and quietly listened to the conversation around the table. Glancing down towards the head of the table, she caught one pony in particular returning her measured appraisal.

‘Cadance’ smiled, nodded once, and went back to playfully feeding her embarrassed husband a fork-full of leafy greens.

“But, Cadance, you’ve hardly eaten anything!” Shining Armor protested, biting down on the mouthful. More than a few onlookers cooed at the sight of the loving couple.

“I’m eating my fill as we speak,” ‘Cadance’ replied, patting his cheek with a hoof.

That night, the ‘Princess’ proved to be in an unusually good mood. She threw the waiting Sweetie Belle a black cloak with the six-pointed Sparkle star emblazoned on a dark gold shield.

“I would have expected you to leave by now,” she said, heading for the door. “But since you are still here, and as you did not prove yourself entirely incompetent earlier, I thought we could practice some more outside. Where we won’t be disturbed.”

That night, Sweetie finished the national anthem and Cadance only chastised her twice. A new record!

o.0.∞.0.o

“That's not bad for the first time Miss Belle, but you shouldn't put so much weight on the instrument; maintaining your balance is imperative for both keeping the cello stable and your own comfort.”

o.0.∞.0.o

“S-Sweetie Belle?!” Rarity gasped, making her way into the small circle of ponies gathered together around her sister, of all ponies, and a grinning Prince Blueblood.

“Oh, hi, Rarity!” Sweetie Belle waved cheerfully. “Come join us!” She turned to look at a particularly severe-looking pony of advanced age. His cutie mark was a crowned shield outside the letter ‘B’. “Erlaube mir meine Schwester Rarity vorzustellen. Sie ist eins der Elemente der Harmonie und eine großartige Modeschöpferin!”

“Es ist mir eine Freude sie kennen zu lernen, Fräulin Rarity,” the older gentlecolt said cordially, smiling at her. “Wir haben eine wirklich interessante Unterhaltung, falls du dazustoßen möchtest.”

Rarity, however, was staring at Sweetie Belle as if she had sprouted another head.

“Ich muss mich für meine Schwester entschuldigen,” Sweetie Belle said, putting her hoof on Rarity’s foreleg and making her start in surprise as she was dragged back to reality. “Ich denke nicht, dass sie Germane bereits gemeistert hat.”

“Sweetie Belle...” Rarity’s eyes were wide. “H-how are you speaking Germane?”

“Rarity du Dummerchen,” Sweetie giggled and winked at the older pony. “Ich vermute meine Schwester ist zu abgelenkt durch die Gala und ihre Begleitung um an unserer Unterhaltung teilzunehmen, Herr Warmblüter, aber um auf das ursprüngliche Thema zurück zu kommen: Ich kann ihre Position im Bezug auf die Moral des 'Handelns um glücklich zu sein' verstehen, aber lassen sie uns nicht die Worte des berühmten Kant vergessen; "Moral ist keine Doktrin die uns vorschreibt wie wir uns selber glücklich machen, sondern wie wir uns der Glückseeligkeit würdig erweisen." Ich denke, dass er hier einen guten Punkt hat, denn es gehört in der Tat mehr zur Glückseeligkeit als nur der einfache Zustand des 'glücklich seins'."

Warmblüter chuckled. “Sie schneiden da einen wichtigen Punkt an, Fräulein Belle, ich—”

“I-I’m sorry...” Rarity swooned. “I think... I’m... going to—”

Three ponies were barreled out of the way by her sofa, which made it just in time to catch her.

Sweetie Belle chuckled nervously. “Oh... ja, meine Schwester tut dies. Oft.”

“Ich finde es ehrlich gesagt ganz bezaubernd! Entschuldigen sie mich bitte.” Blueblood raised a drink to his northern relation and cantered towards Rarity’s fainting couch. Quite a few ponies were staring at it in dismay, one of them even gesturing from the couch to the door at the end of the Menagerie, no doubt wondering just where the heck it had come from.

“Uhm, yeah, es war wirklich nett mit ihnen zu reden, Herr Warmblüter,” Sweetie hastily said, following Blueblood and waving back at the bemused old stallion. “Und Ihr Schönheitsfleck gefällt mir wirklich außerordentlich!”

“My word,” he muttered, drinking a sip from his glass. “What an unusual little filly.”

o.0.∞.0.o

“My hooves hurt. My legs hurt...” Sweetie Belle groaned, leaning her head on the table. “My back hurts...” she mumbled. “And my brain feels like it’s oozing out of my ears.”

“Such is life,” Blueblood stated, taking a sip of his tea. “You'll get better. You always get better. You'll see.”

“But... it's hard! And this time I can't learn much from a book! I mean, learning how to read the notes was easy, but when I tried to play a single note I broke one of the strings! And it snapped at my foreleg! Look!” She showed him her foreleg, which was a bit red under the coat where one of the strings had nearly drawn blood. “It hurt!”

Blueblood chuckled. “Didn't you say before that you wanted to meet Octavia and sing with her playing? What better way to get to know her than taking classes? And if I'm going to be spending my oh-so valuable time drilling Equestrian languages into your adorable little head, then you should spend the rest of the time productively as well.”

Sweetie groaned. “But I have all the time in the world!”

Blueblood hesitated. “Time and patience do not always trot together at the same pace. Though, perhaps you should take another break. After all...”

Sweetie looked away. “I know,” she said after a moment. “I've thought about it... Blueblood, finding Twilight’s fragment here, getting home, it could take years to solve.”

The Prince nodded, a little more solemn than his usual. “Any time you wish, feel free to take a few days for yourself. You don’t have to keep at just one thing until you master it. Just concentrate on something useful right now that you really want to learn. I’d be happy to spend a few loops with you working on spells or even traveling around the country. I’ve personally found learning basic teleport quite invaluable, even aside from my initial Gala plans. Whatever you like!”

Sweetie sighed, and nodded. “I think I’ll just take a little break today. Maybe spend more time with Rarity or Apple Bloom and Scootaloo. I'll go back again tomorrow.”

Blueblood smiled, brightly. “Good! And while you're at it, I have a suggestion for my little sister and her lessons. You have a lovely voice, Sweetie, but... frankly, poor volume control.”

“HEY!”

“My point exactly.”

o.0.∞.0.o

“Vinyl! Tell your damned student to tone down the volume! Need I remind you that you're a guest in my home?”

“Buuuut Tavi! How else can Sweetie learn to 'pump it up'? You don’t want her jam to be dangerously under-pumped, do you?”

“... Heaven forbid.”

o.0.∞.0.o

Octavia watched, impressed, as Sweetie balanced herself on her back legs, keeping straight with very little coaching and holding the bow almost perfectly. If this really was the first time this little unicorn had done all of that... she might have just found a genius. A once in a lifetime-

Sweetie then proceeded to draw the bow across the strings and Octavia quickly changed her thoughts.

“O-Okay! Stop! I said, stop!” she all but shouted. “Go slow, very slow, and when you return to your original position, turn it slightly, like this.”

o.0.∞.0.o

Sweetie took a long, deep breath and relaxed.

“You’ve become quite adequate, Sweetie Belles,” Chrysalis said, nodding at the performance she had just heard.

“It’s Sweetie Belle!” Sweetie huffed.

“Yes, yes, I know,” Chrysalis waved her hoof dismissively. “You should be quite prepared for infiltrating the world of theater, though I’m not yet sure why it is necessary.” She frowned, looking at Sweetie Belle consideringly. “Wouldn’t you prefer to work within a noble family? You are already well-placed to infiltrate one. How are your forgery skills?”

“Uh... not that good,” Sweetie confessed. Don’t tell me I have to learn that now!

But Chrysalis merely shrugged. “Pity.”

Sweetie Belle sighed in relief, but then looked curiously at her current ‘mentor’. “Um, Queen Chrysalis... I meant to ask you... how do you know how to sing? It isn’t magic, so you couldn’t have copied it, could you?”

Chrysalis was silent for a bit, apparently musing whether she should reply or not. After all, Sweetie might be a trained and reliable spy but she was still just a pony. Finally, she relented, pleased by a night of feasting on her fiance’s affection. “I learned it myself...” she said, taking a couple of steps away from Sweetie and exposing her back to the pony; a truly grand gesture, as it showed that she trusted Sweetie Belle to that degree. “...once I became bound to Princess Cadance and took her voice as my own.”

She looked back over her shoulder at the canny filly. “It was necessary... yes, and I have even enjoyed it, at times.” She smiled, in what could be the only time ever that Sweetie had seen the Queen-to-be genuinely do so. “I sing to my brood, now, and I do believe I will teach it to the changeling who succeeds me as well.”

Sweetie smiled back and bowed. “I’m sure they will enjoy it too, my Queen.”

o.0.∞.0.o

“What do you think?” Sweetie Belle asked.

“So, let me get this straight, you're a journalist for your school newspaper and you want to do a report on me?” Octavia asked Sweetie Belle, who nodded. The cellist took a deep breath and smiled. “Well, I suppose I have time for a short interview,” she said. “But, why me? And why come all the way over here from Ponyville?”

“Well, my sister is attending the Gala tonight,” Sweetie Belle said, her horn lighting up as she pulled out her notebook and a pen. “So I begged her to let me come over and let me interview you! You're one of my favorite musicians!”

“Oh, well, thank you!” Octavia's smile grew. “I'm honestly surprised you would have heard of me. Most colts and fillies don't really listen to classical music.”

Sweetie grinned proudly. “I have good taste.”

Vinyl Scratch poked her head out and looked at Sweetie Belle silently for a few seconds. “No, you don't!”

“HEY!”

o.0.o

“I just never expected her to have put so much into it,” Sweetie said, swirling her milkshake and eyeing Blueblood's after-dinner wine. “I mean, I expected it to be hard, given how difficult it's been for me these last few months but... she put so much of her life into it. She sacrificed friendships, playing with other fillies and even spending time with her family for it.”

“Well, it is her passion,” Blueblood said after a moment. “What did you expect? Octavia's life and career are one and the same: her music. I rather admire ponies like that... ponies with a purpose in life.”

Sweetie sighed, falling forward to rest her chin on the table. “Yeah. And I still don't have any idea what I'm going to do with myself, and she knew even before she got her cutie mark.” She tore her eyes from his wine glass and took a slow slurp of her milkshake. “Maybe, one of these loops, I’ll finally find out.” She contemplated Ponyville through the windows of the Sugarcube Corner and nodded. “I need a break from learning... music... I think I’ll change subjects for a little while.”

Blueblood raised an eyebrow. “And what do you have in mind?”

o.0.∞.0.o

“Twilight?” Spike called from the entrance. “You have a visitor!”

“Didn't I tell you I was busy, Spike?”

“Yeah, but she insisted and...” Spike just shrugged.

Twilight Sparkle sighed and lowered the three books she had been consulting and looked towards the entrance to the library, where Sweetie Belle awaited.

“Sweetie Belle!” Twilight smiled, motioning with her hoof to approach. “Shouldn't you be in class?”

Sweetie Belle shrugged and rolled her eyes. “Eh, we had a test on Unicorn History today. I wrote Miss Cheerilee five pages on Starswirl dealing with the dragons and she let me go early.”

Twilight nodded. “That's great, Sweetie! I didn't know that Starswirl the Bearded was part of your school curriculum!”

“Yeah...” Sweetie's smile was a bit forced. “But, now I'm done and everypony else was busy, so I came here to see what you were doing!”

“Oh,” Twilight scooted over to the side, allowing Sweetie to sit next to her. “Well, since tonight we're taking a carriage to the Castle, I figured I would transform some mice into horses to pull it!”

Sweetie Belle nodded. “Oh! Is it a Polymorph spell?”

Twilight shook her head. “Good guess, but it's not a Polymorph spell.”

“Oh!” Sweetie Belle tapped her forehead with her hoof. “Of course! The Polymorph spell wouldn't last that long! So I guess you're using a spell that is more specialized in its purpose, and at the same time has a longer duration.”

“Well done!” Twilight said, clapping her hooves together. “This is a basic transformation spell, which I am combining with holding and timer spells.”

“So when you transform the mice into horses, the holding spell activates, making them keep the shape, and the timer spell will affect the holding spell, dispelling it after a set amount of time!” Sweetie frowned. “But, isn't it more efficient to use the polymorph spell? I think you can increase the amount of time it lasts.”

“Well, yes,” Twilight conceded. “However, to make them retain their form for so many hours, I would have to use a lot of magic, and since I'm going to the Gala myself, I want to be well rested! The Princess and I are going to have the whole night to ourselves, and I have so much to talk to her about!”

“I see...” Sweetie sighed, knowing full well how Twilight’s evening would go. “Well, you thought it over thoroughly.”

“Of course!” Twilight piped. “You know what they say! Whenever things seem like they’ll take forever...

Sweetie Belle smiled and sang out with Twilight: “Trust your pal the checklist and keep it together!”

The pair broke into giggles and tapped hooves.

“Ooookay,” Spike said after a moment. “I think I'll go mop the kitchen. Yes, I think I'll do that.”

“So,” Sweetie began after a moment of enjoying the companionable silence, “could you teach it to me?”

Twilight bit her lower lip. “Well, it's a bit complicated, and I'm just learning it myself, not to mention that you might be a bit young to even try it...”

Sweetie's eyes seemed to grow, her pleading look bursting through Twilight's defenses almost unhindered. She was even less resistant to it than Blueblood! Poor, poor adults. Sweetie vowed never to be such a sucker when she grew up.

“...but I guess we can study together? You seemed to be well informed...” Twilight let the last word fade. “Wait, just how do you know all that?”

“I–” Sweetie cringed. “Well...”

“Yes?”

“I, uh... came from another dimension where I learned from you and now I just need to learn more?”

o.0.o

Sweetie sighed. Waving her hoof at Twilight. “If I have to re-tell my story one more time in this world...

o.0.∞.0.o

“...but I guess we can study together? You seemed to be well informed...” Twilight let the last word fade. “Wait, just how do you know all that?”

“Well...”

“Yes?”

“Rarity is, in reality, an exceptionally talented sorceress, who hides behind a facade of sewing and whining so that her true knowledge and powers are not sought after by the general public... but she’s too busy making dresses today to give me my lesson, and I decided to seek the second-best option?”

o.0.∞.0.o

“...but I guess we can study together? You seemed to be well informed...” Twilight let the last word fade. “Wait, just how do you know all that?”

“I–” Sweetie cringed. “Well...”

“Yes?”

“When she arrived from the moon, I got bathed in the necromantic powers of Nightmare Moon, inadvertently absorbing her knowledge of certain magicks.”

Twilight sighed. “Sweetie, if you’re not going to tell me the truth...”

“But she did teach me some magic!” Sweetie protested. “Look!”

o.0.∞.0.o

“...but I guess we can study together? You seemed to be well informed...” Twilight let the last word fade. “Wait, just how do you know all that?”

“Well...”

“Yes?”

“I-I well... um... Trixietaughtme.”

Twilight blinked. “Wait, what?”

“Trixietaughtmeawhileago and... um, I'vesortabeenstudyingbymyself...” Sweetie mumbled quickly.

“Okay,” Twilight sighed, raising a hoof. “Did you just say that Trixie taught you? As in the ‘Great and Powerful’ Trixie?”

Sweetie nodded meekly.

“...and that you've been studying by yourself?” Twilight pressed.

“Yes,” Sweetie nodded. “With some help here and there from Lyra, Rarity and others.”

“Sweetie... this is amazing!” Twilight gushed. “And you've been studying by yourself since then?! That's great! What have you learned so far?”

“Well... why don’t we go over this spell and discuss it? That way you can find out how much I know!”

Twilight chuckled. “Sure, Sweetie. Let’s try that.”

Sweetie sighed, sitting down next to Twilight. One day I’ll get the hang of this... but as Twilight started to describe the spell process Sweetie felt herself grow cold.

“One day I’ll get the hang of this?” Sweetie Belle repeated aloud. Oh, Celestia, what am I thinking?!

“Sweetie Belle?” Twilight asked, having turned to face her at some point. “Are you feeling okay? You don’t look so good.”

“I-I...” Sweetie stammered. “I’m sorry, Twilight,” she stood up. “I’ve... just remembered something... I need to talk to Blueblood.”

Twilight’s eyes went wide. “Blueblood? Prince Blueblood? Why would you—”

“It’s complicated,” Sweetie muttered, “and really something that’s not going to be relevant by tomorrow... at least to you.” She looked at her would-be-mentor apologetically, slowly backing out of the room. “It’s been fun, Twilight.”

o.0.∞.0.o

Sweetie Belle glanced around Sugarcube Corner, raising her eyebrow at the large tray of sweets and bread Prince Blueblood had ordered. With far more skill than - in Rarity’s own words - a ‘filthy uncaring brute of a stallion’ should have, he balanced the whole tray on his back with as much ease as Pinkie Pie, while levitating their drinks. Setting down the pair of milkshakes, he proceeded to float over the plate of pastries to the center of the table, which, once down, almost obscured him from her line of sight.

“Well then, Sweetie Belle,” Blueblood said jovially. “You seemed very serious this morning about discussing something today, so I figured we could use all the sweets in the shop to help pass the time more amiably.”

“Okay?” Sweetie tried to keep herself calm at the sight of so much sugar. Free sugar! “I’ve been thinking about returning to my quest and figuring out where Twilight’s fragment is. I’m pretty sure it’s not here in Ponyville.”

The royal stallion sighed, softly. “I see. And you would like my help.”

“Well, yeah,” Sweetie said, and tilted her head when he closed his eyes. “That’s not a problem is it? You said—”

“It isn’t a problem, Sweetie,” he assured her, eyes opening only to drift off to the storefront windows. “It simply isn’t what I expected. What are you thinking?”

“I don’t really know if they’re related, but I thought I’d ask... just how much do we know about these time loops? You must know more than I do!”

He grunted in what could have been agreement. “I have had longer to experiment.”

“You talked to the Princesses about it, didn’t you?”

“They were not helpful in that respect,” he answered, levitating a thimble of honey to add to his tea. “Auntie Celestia doesn’t believe anypony alive to be capable of magic on this scale, herself included. Temporal magic isn’t her forte regardless, and there’s no evidence that it is actual time magic and not some other form of spellcraft with similar results. One loop, she told me...” His eyes narrowed, and he touched his chest with a scoff.

“Nothing helpful,” he concluded. “Auntie Luna was also of no help on the spell front. I even interrogated a few ponies from the Quartz Clan, who swore this was no magic of theirs.” Blueblood examined a slice of banana chocolate bread, weighing well after purchasing it whether to eat it or not. “So! To summarize: despite being a Prince of Equestria with nearly limitless resources at my disposal and two effectively immortal and godlike relatives, I have no idea what’s causing the loops. Not a bloody clue really.”

Sweetie’s eyebrow twitched. “Oh, come on! You have to have an idea! Or -or something!

“Would you believe ‘a wizard did it’?” He chuckled, and nibbled at a corner of the bread. “Well, it would have to be an extraordinary wizard. Don’t tell me you have some ideas?”

“Starswirl the Bearded?” Sweetie offered weakly. “No! Starswirl the Bearded’s zombie ghost!”

“One can not be both zombie and ghost,” Blueblood objected. “It would be like... a skeleton that turns into a werewolf. Utter nonsense.”

“I don’t know! As far as I know this is beyond anypony I’ve ever heard of!”

“Then I am afraid we are as we were,” he replied. “Clueless.”

“I refuse to just give up! I am the apprentice of Twilight Sparkle!” Sweetie told him, trying to keep the determination in her voice. “She made me read lots of books, and I’ve talked to... um... five, no, six, versions of her! There has to be something we’re missing!” Sweetie sighed and poked at a donut, the energy ebbing out of her. “And did I mention she made me read a lot of books? And quote them? She’d know what to do... I miss her.”

Sweetie sighed, melancholy settling in. I’ve had a long time to look for her here, but what did I do? Learned to sing. Learned to play the cello. Learned Germane. What am I doing? Am I just going to stay here and repeat things? Learn until there’s nothing left to learn? She sighed. I need my Twilight. Not the one from here who is friendly, but can never really be my mentor and friend... as much as I can talk to her, or learn from her... she’ll always remain the same.

“We have a Twilight in town. Not her-her, but a her.”

“Well... yeah, but... she forgets me all the time.” Sweetie grumbled. “I almost feel like I don’t exist here. I return every day and if she didn’t know me already I’d be all like: Hi! I’m Sweetie Belle, and you won’t believe me, but I used to be your apprentice in another world!”

Sweetie took a long sip of her milkshake: it was the same flavor she always liked and always drank, but today, it didn’t taste as sweet as it usually did. “I don’t want to spend an eternity trying to get my own friend to remember me and to know that I’m not just some filly!” She growled, then sighed. “It gets old,” she said in a much lower voice.

“Very old,” Blueblood agreed, and despite all the sweets he had ordered for them, he’d hardly eaten any at all. Most that he had placed on his plate languished there. “The time loop,” he explained, growing momentarily serious in answering her question from before. “Auntie suggested Discord, but he’s still petrified for the time being. I’ve sometimes thought that, maybe... what would happen if I freed him? Maybe that’s what I’m supposed to do?”

Sweetie raised a hoof, but he shook his head: no.

“Don’t even ask me. That’s the one thing I won’t do.”

Blueblood saw Sweetie scowling into her milkshake, and for a few seconds they sat in silence. As if to put hoof to the eye of the dour mood, Pinkie Pie hopped by, humming happily, a tray of cranberry muffins balanced precariously on her head. Sweetie ignored her, but she noticed Blueblood following her with his eyes.

“You asked what I was doing, back then,” he said, referring to the first loop where she had met him in Sugarcube Corner. “A thought that came to me, before you showed up, was... to make a perfect Gala for those six mares. To do that and hope for some kind of miracle. That’s all I have anymore, Sweetie Belle. That’s all I have. Hope... for a miracle,” he admitted. “Even a drowning pony can just let go of what he’s holding onto. I guess I’m holding on to her-” He pointed to Pinkie Pie, serving a pair of other mares at another table. “To your sister, to her friends, and...” He pointed to the filly. “To you. I will help you look for this fragment, if that is what you want,” Blueblood promised, “but I honestly don’t know where to start looking.”

Sweetie slammed her hoof on the table in frustration. “What am I supposed to do then? Huh? Just keep happily repeating the day until... until...” She searched for a word, for an end to the sentence that could encapsulate her frustration, but like the end to the loops, there was none. “Well, there is no until is there?! I’ll just keep doing this for eternity! I’ll be - I’ll be an old mare in a filly’s body with nothing to look forward to but the same old thing.”

She snorted, viciously biting into a pastry. “I wonder how far I can get before the day sends me back to the beginning. Over and over and over again. I guess I can always help crash the Gala in increasingly destructive ways. Maybe that’s what this world needs: the utter destruction of the most anticipated event of the year, not by Twilight and friends, but by little Sweetie Belle and her mountain of bread and sweets! Maybe I can ruin things better than they ever could! What then, huh? Maybe that’s what I should do!”

She huffed and finished the rest of her milkshake in one last, long slurp... only to grimace as icy veins shot through her head. Blueblood watched her and gave a rumbling sigh under his breath, the type of angry expression one of his breeding at least makes an attempt to conceal.

“Destroy the Gala? I thought the same thing,” he said, finally, and reached over with a hoof to take away her empty milkshake glass. “And I acted on it, and it wasn’t as cathartic as I hoped and dreamed it would be.”

“I - I guess,” Sweetie admitted, hanging her head and glaring down at the table. “I just... I just feel like I’m fraying at the edges... and the more I think about it? The more scared I am.”

There was a pause in the conversation, then, as both ponies turned to see a pair of blue eyes staring at them.

“Gah!” Sweetie shouted sliding her seat back in horror. “Don’t DO that to me!” she shouted at the pink mare that had - apparently - materialized right next to them.

Pinkie Pie sunk lower and lower until she vanished behind the lip of the table. Sweetie Belle observed her departure with a slight sense of dread.

“That one has a particularly bad time at the Gala,” Blueblood elaborated, grinning as Pinkie popped back up.

“She does!?” the party pony exclaimed, hooves in her mane. “Not Pinkie Pie!”

“Sad but true,” Blueblood continued. “Ah, while you’re here, Miss Pie, could I get another iced coffee with cinnamon, is it?”

Pinkie morphed from panic, at the misfortune of her hypothetical future self, to what passed for normalcy. “Milk?”

“Sugar, no milk.”

“Good. Good. Sugar is very good.” Pinkie muttered, and hopped back over to the counter and a rather confused looking Mrs. Cup Cake.

“Anyway,” Blueblood resumed, paying the mare no more mind in favor of his filly friend. “Sooner or later, I am confident we will find this fragment of yours. So long as it is in Equestria and not, say, the moon or the north pole.”

“Hmph. That’s encouraging!” Sweetie grumbled, but seeing Blueblood smiling prompted a weak grin of her own. If the fragment was on the moon then she was pretty much hosed, no matter what. So why worry about it?

“I guess...” she said and looked at Blueblood for a moment, organizing her thoughts before speaking. “My travels through different worlds are tied to fragments of Twilight Sparkle... and, in some worlds they’ve been there for hundreds of years... what if Twilight’s Fragment is what caused this whole thing? Not just my being here,” she explained, “but all of this! It could have appeared here at the exact moment this whole thing started and caused a loop of some sort... although I’ve never seen any of the fragments do that... it might be a possibility!” She hesitated, even less sure of her next bit of speculation: something she had kept to herself until now. “And I think that the fragments are conscious...”

“Conscious?” Blueblood asked, frowning. “Do these... fragments of Miss Sparkle... do they often cause magical disruptions?”

“Not so far... but all of them have reacted in different ways,” Sweetie said, tilting her head as she tried to recall the previous worlds. “In a couple worlds they were nothing more than trinkets, but in another, one had been sharing knowledge with the local Twilight Sparkle, and the last one, it was capable of electrocuting alicorns.” She shrugged. “I have no idea of their capabilities... or their limits.”

“Regardless, Miss Sparkle is the Element of Magic, and to hear my Auntie sing her praises, quite the skilled and powerful unicorn. A fragment of her?” Blueblood considered the possibility that the loops, all of them, had been due to some unknown and unexpected artifact from outside anypony’s realm of experience. “I never would have even imagined the possibility before I met you... say you’re right, Sweetie Belle, how did you find the other fragments?”

“I... have no idea,” Sweetie confessed, cringing. “I usually find them close by and... I-I can sort of feel them, but since I arrived I haven’t ‘felt’ anything. Most of the time they have turned up in really important places related to each world, but here? I don’t know wh—”

“Iced coffee!” Pinkie Pie announced, placing it down in front of Prince Blueblood. “Hey, where did Sweetie Belle go?”

Slowly, Sweetie Belle drifted down to her seat, under the power of her levitation spell. “Please,” she begged, taking hold of Pinkie’s hoof. “Please don’t do that. Please!”

“Do what?” Pinkie Pie asked in confusion, before her head shot up to look at the door. “Ooh! New customer!”

Sweetie watched her go, then banged her forehead against the table. “I hate it when she does that.” She took a deep shuddering breath, before looking up at Blueblood. “Where were we?”

“I find the randomness somewhat endearing, actually. Things get very predictable after four or five hundred repetitions.” Blueblood swirled the ice coffee around in the cup with a minor application of magic. “If you can feel the fragments when in proximity to them, how about I strap you to a flying machine and shoot you all over the country at high speed?”

Sweetie’s eyes went wide. “M-maybe I could get my cutie mark!” she exclaimed, shooting to her hooves and leaning forward excitedly. “Can I bring my friends?”

“Absolutely! Rocketeer cutie marks!” Blueblood leaned over the table slightly. “I was kidding, you know. Though having it done is tempting.”

“Awww,” Sweetie pouted. “And I bet Scootaloo would have been all for it!”

“The appearance of these fragments can’t be entirely random,” the Prince reasoned, not entirely moved by the filly’s pouty expression. “Or else why not in some fathomless cave dug by Diamond Dogs? Why not in a dragon’s lair or a northern waste or even the iced over Old Kingdom? Trawling Equestria for it is possible - granted - but not very efficient, even if we technically have an eternity here to spend on it.”

Sweetie shrugged helplessly. “I really don’t know. Although they’re usually close by.” Her eyes widened. “Wait! What if- what if the crystal appeared somewhere in the castle? That might be why it affected you! You were in Canterlot when it happened, right? Maybe you did something to attract it there?”

“Aside from putting up with Auntie’s usual silliness and... certain things I don’t think you’re old enough to hear... my days prior to the loops were uneventful. Nothing that would attract the interest or ire of Miss Sparkle or a fragment of her.” Blueblood inhaled the sweet and strong aroma of Sugarcube Corner’s iced coffee, and took a long drink while he thought. “But,” he said, when he finished. “If you want to poke around the Royal Palace, I don’t see the harm. We have all sorts of places to hide things there. Secret passages. Hidden dungeons from a thousand years ago. Boarded up reliquaries. Forgotten portals into the cursed catacombs...”

“Ohh! Can we see the forgotten crystal caverns under the castle?!” Sweetie asked, eyes wide. “I’ve wanted to go there since...” she trailed off. “Uh... something happens...” she mumbled, looking down. “A-anyway, we should really try that! When do we start?”

“Whenever you like is fine. When at the palace, feel free to wander around and explore.” Blueblood chuckled, using a fork to cut a small section off of a pastry lathered in frosting. He took care to wipe some of it off. “The exception would be, once the Gala’s in full swing, you may not want to get caught. I do have control over many of the guards, but Celestia and Luna may not be as understanding of your unexpected palace adventures.”

“I can go anywhere?” Sweetie asked slowly, eyes losing focus as he nodded. “You mean I could go to the Royal Library?”

“As many times as you might need,” Blueblood nodded. “Two hundred, three hundred times... it’s all up to how much you want it.”

Sweetie’s eyes widened as she contemplated doing the exact same thing for eternity.

“Blueblood,” Sweetie Belle all but growled, her considerable telekinesis pulling his head, gently but firmly, down until she was eye-level with him. “I need a drink. And this time...” She paused, gritting her teeth. “A milkshake won’t cut it.”

“Sweetie, even I can’t parade a filly around town to get her drunk,” Blueblood stated, looking slightly amused.

“Then just give me your drinks!” Sweetie demanded. “You drink all the time! Nopony will notice! Or we could go to another place where nopony’s around and get drunk there.”

“I’d rather you not just sulk around one of my villas,” he replied, shaking his head.

Sweetie Belle huffed, crossing her forelegs and looking away. “So basically, even if I’m here for a hundred years, you still won’t—”

“Now, now,” Blueblood interrupted, a devious grin crossing his face. “I may have a solution to both our problems. We will need some money and some avaricious archmages. Both easily acquired.”

o.0.∞.0.o

Sweetie Belle admired her body in the mirror as the magical mists that had surrounded her dissipated. She noticed that she looked pretty much the same as every other time she had aged-up. She was a bit more slender than her sister, her horn a little bit longer... but her mane fell around her face the exact same way as when she was a filly, with the same curls, although the magic that had aged her made them longer to remain proportional. While not as refined-looking as, say, international model du jour, Fleur-de-lis, she was still taller and more slender than her sister if not much older. Sweetie frowned.

“Is there a problem, Miss Belle?” One of the magicians asked.

“N-no...” Sweetie stammered. “I just - well, last time I was this age, I’m pretty sure my horn was a bit shorter.”

“Aging magic can be capricious.”

The response came from another magister, an older unicorn with a parted black robe about his shoulders and a ring around his right foreleg. He was one of three, their colors black and magenta and Canterlot alabaster white - her own coat color. The latter was a mare and the youngest of the trio, and also the most richly clothed in sapphires and crusted silver. It was crystal clear how Prince Blueblood had arranged for the less than orthodox up-aging of a young filly without her parents’ consent.

“From practitioner to practitioner, and from moment to moment,” the mage continued, chuckling. “It is fortunate for all involved that only the highest level arcanists are capable of this enchantment.”

“And it is fortunate for your pockets and purses as well,” Blueblood remarked, from outside the circle of mists.

Sweetie could see the door behind him; despite the atmospherics, they were indoors, under the domed roof of one of Canterlot’s many mage towers.

“If there is nothing else, you may go,” the Prince said, and the three wise old mages bowed and took their leave without complaint. Blueblood’s expression turned notably less frosty once they were gone. “So: look at you! A big girl now.”

“Yeah,” Sweetie Belle exclaimed, spinning around playfully and giggling. “It feels good actually! At least this time it was planned for. Now... I think I have a date with a Prince and a bottle of something.” She took a step towards the door and stopped, one foreleg held in the air. “Uh... what do ponies drink in bars, anyway?”

Blueblood took her hoof and escorted her through the door. “Magical and wonderful things, my little Lady, but as important as the drink, is the company one drinks with. I have two ponies in mind...”

o.0.o

“They call this ‘bar hopping,’ by the way; a most tawdry and plebeian exercise.”

“You can sit outside and drink alone if you want, Prince Blueblood.” Spitfire lead the group of four past a suited earth pony bouncer, a spring in her step from having been freed of her more tedious Gala obligations. Soarin clasped the apparently friendly and sympathetic noblepony on the back, all but forcing him to follow the Wonderbolts’ lead. In the time it took a pegasus to deliver a pizza, it seemed, the pair of fliers had gone from respectful and even a little deferential to friendly and overly familiar.

“Come on,” Soarin coaxed, and glanced back at Blueblood’s supposed ‘date.’ “And you too, um... what was the name again?”

“Sweetie,” Sweetie Belle answered, still a little bit buzzed from the wine she’d had back at the Gala. “Call me Sweetie.” She looked around the bar as she followed the two pegasi and Blueblood. It was nicer than she expected.

In fact,’ Sweetie mused, ‘the way Rarity’s books described them, I was expecting splotches of unidentifiable liquids on the floor and more than one pony out-cold on the bar. But...’

She looked at the crystal tables and the velvet-cushioned seats; she watched the servers, dressed in black and white suits glide around the tables, balancing trays with cocktails of all designs and sizes and colors. Behind the bar, rows and rows of bottles decorated the wall, highlighted by neon-blue light. Not one of the bottles was short a golden or silver decoration on it, plainly marking the fineness of their quality.

This is... pretty nice!’

“Shall we start with a riesling or a fine white...?” Blueblood offered, as the four cut a swath through the ponies in their path. Sweetie mostly followed, but Blueblood, Spitfire and Soarin were clearly in their element, and exuded an easy confidence.

“We should break open a port!” Soarin grinned, laughing and wide eyed at the selection behind the blue-lit bar. “A little fortified wine to get things going!”

“Isn’t it a bit early? Lady Belle here isn’t...”

“I’m fine,” Sweetie interrupted, quickly, to Blueblood’s sigh. “Maybe I should drink one of those...” She pointed with her hoof at a chocolate martini garnished with a tiny white chocolate rose. “They look good!”

Spitfire merely smiled and shook her head in amusement.

“Ha ha! Alright!” Soarin trotted over, and as they sat down on pillows before a smooth table, a mare presented them with four tulip-shaped crystal glasses. The four thin-stemmed glasses twinkled invitingly, the glass so thin it seemed bound to shatter at slightest provocation. The Wonderbolt returned a moment later with a prim-looking unicorn from the bar, carrying a curved decanter in the shape of a swan.

“Your Grace,” the server whispered respectfully, and poured for the four patrons. Spitfire ribbed Blueblood mercilessly at the muttered obsequities.

“First drink to ‘His Grace’ here, and his beautiful marefriend!” Soarin chimed in, laughing with Spitfire.

Blueblood inhaled from the glass, gingerly picking it up with hooves rather than magic. He then took a slow drink, nodding in contentment at the flavor. After so much presentation, Sweetie was eager to see what it was like herself. To be that good, it had to be like liquid candy or something!

Following Blueblood’s example, she carefully picked it up with her hooves and took a deep breath after a small swirl. ‘Hmm. It doesn’t smell too bad. But I don’t really recognize anything in it,’ she thought, taking another sniff before shrugging and downing the contents of the wineglass in one big gulp.

She put down the glass - almost a bit too hard - on the table and scrunched up her face, taking in the sweetness of the wine along with a strong aftertaste that made her lick her lips and force her tongue to the top of her mouth to scrub some of it off. She opened her eyes and forced a smile.

“It’s- good.” She coughed and blushed, embarrassed. “I’d like another one.”

“Another one! To the Wonderbolts!” Soarin toasted, and Spitfire added, “To our Captain and to good company.”

The two drank, though not an entire glass as she had.

“Good stuff!” Soarin said, taking a smaller sip. “Back in the air guard, we drank fortified wine after every patrol. Not good stuff like this, though. Real backcloud swill. Who knows what they put in it?”

“Soarin,” Spitfire hissed, coughing into her hoof. “You’ll have to excuse him, Lady Belle.”

“A pony of gentle birth, this one,” Blueblood noted, somehow holding back a laugh.

“You’ll excuse my asking, but,” Spitfire asked anyway, “what exactly are you Lady of, my Lady?”

“I’m uh... the L-Lady of M-maripony.” Sweetie stammered, vaguely remembering the word from one or two worlds before.

“Maripony?” Spitfire repeated. “Never heard of it. Have you, Soarin’?”

When the other Wonderbolt shook his head, Sweetie smiled nervously. “It’s... far.”

“She is my fair Maripony Maid,” Blueblood remarked, finally giving a little chuckle. “Well, then, we have drink and I’m sure there will be snacks-”

“There will be snacks,” Soarin vowed.

“Your Grace, my Lady, what did you think of our show?” Spitfire asked the two nobleponies. Well... one noblepony and one secretly up-aged filly from Ponyville. “I was hoping we’d fit in a Cloud Carver, but the brass went for a Rolling Thunder instead.”

“Oh, I thought it was amazing!” Sweetie Belle spoke up quickly. “I bet Rainbow Dash loved it! And I know Scootaloo will be trying to do any of those to impress her!” Sweetie bit her lower lip, then looked at Blueblood. “Uh, Blueblood, can I try one of those chocolate thingies?”

“The rum and chocolate or... oh, those?” He caught on to where she was pointing. “That’s vodka, you know?”

“Sounds fun! And it looks delicious!” Sweetie grinned. “Come on, pleeeease?”

“How could I resist, my Lady?” Blueblood asked, feigning much more chivalry than she had seen from him before. “This is your night; all that you wish, I shall see done. All that you want, I shall grant.”

The drink came in a ribbed conical glass tied with a blue ribbon. The mixture inside was dark chocolate and darker liqueur, broken by swirls of crème and submerged shoals of shaved ice. Miniature white marshmallows cut in the shape of stars - five and six and seven and eight pointed - stood out against bits of crumbled brown chocolate. The serving mare from before came, presented it to Sweetie, and politely asked her to ‘enjoy.’

And she did indeed.

But she wanted more.

The next drink came in a tall decorative glass with decaled images of prancing ponies and palm trees. It was layered, from bottom to rim, with ice and sugar at the depths to a darker shade of color and a deeper, more sour flavor near the top. Slices of lime swam, green against the sand-colored portrait on the glass, and Sweetie finished it with a color-changing straw that would alternate colors as she drank.

After that, Soarin suggested a drink served in large, hollow egg shells. How anypony managed to mix a drink inside an emptied-out egg, Sweetie couldn’t imagine. They had to be careful cracking it open and holding it overhead, a sweet and sharp liquid pouring out into their waiting mouths. It was green and bright like a dragon’s fire and her head swam and turned light.

She hardly noticed the next drink. It was served in another carved crystal glass, made in the shape of a seapony. The Wonderbolts went first, lifting the glasses up with their hooves and kissing the crystal seapony on the lips to down crimson and orange sunrise within. Sweetie almost slipped lifting hers, but Blueblood caught it before any could spill. It wasn’t sweet like the other drinks, but warm and smooth like a lukewarm milkshake mixed with something sour.

Soarin’s promised snacks came then, a reprieve from the drink, and their serving mare brought a platter of rich fruit slices, speckled breads and candied jellies in every color imaginable. They also brought artisan breads, still warm, some with poppy seeds, others with nuts, and still others with cranberries and other sweet things Sweetie Belle couldn’t even begin to place. Blueblood, Soarin, and Spitfire dipped the breads in dishes of olive oil, one mixture so spicy Sweetie coughed in surprise.

“Marabian hot pepper oil,” Blueblood warned her. “Careful.”

Then, more drinks assaulted the table’s bottomless appetite and equally bottomless purse. The first was another tall glass, slightly curved inwards at the middle with a rounded bottom, thick with ice cubes and freezing cold. It was a shifting yellow-gold in color, and Sweetie swore it was colder on her tongue than the ice cube she bit into, crunching between her teeth once it was finished.

Finally, a drink came in a lacquer deep-bottomed bowl, cut and colored to resemble a coconut. It was as much a meal as a drink, overflowing with slices of pear, lemon, and cut apples, drenched, dripping, and lathered in a white, alcohol-rich foam. Beneath the bonanza of fruit delights, pink liqueur and submerged apple pulp and rose-red flower petals shifted and waited for their turn to taste. The four ponies drank with spoons and straws.

Sweetie Belle giggled. And then giggled again.

“The Everfree is not so... scaaaary...” She made a ghostly motion with her hooves. “Suure, it has, y’know, ma-manticores and those things that turn you to stone if you look at them in the eye and plants that can turn you into other stuff, but, y’now, it’s an awesome place for adventures! And...” She leaned conspiratorially towards the Wonderbolts. “Did you know... the old Princesses’ castle is in the middle of it?” Her eyes were wide. “It’s... amazing, like, there’s this huge, huge tainted - um, painted - window with the sun and the moon and stars and the symbols of Harmony all over it... and the cracked throne room of Nightmare Moon, where she battled with Twilight Sparkle until the Elements of Harmony defeated her and returned Princess Luna to normal!”

Soarin’ took a drink of his... whatever it was - he had lost interest and had begun to simply point randomly at tables that had drinks on them for the waitress to figure out - and nodded. “Sort of like Canterlot Castle, right?”

“Riiiight!” Sweetie nodded happily. “But all dark and stuff!” She waved at the waitress. “Can I have one of those thingies you’re taking to that table? It looks fruity!”

“Maaaybe it’s time to jump to another bar, don’t you think, Blueblood?” Spitfire asked, slowly shaking her head. “The night is still young and we should stretch our legs!”

“She’s right!” Sweetie gasped. “It’s not bar-hopping if we don’t hop! Come on, Blue... let’s hop! Hop! Hop! Hop!”

“It is truly a sad state of affairs when I can be considered the least impaired pony at a table,” Blueblood lamented. Somehow, he was villainously sober. “Very well.” He raised a hoof to gesture their serving mare back. “Check!”

o.0.o

Sweetie giggled as she swayed and bumped against Blueblood’s side. He was so big, like a big, white, mobile wall. It was harder not to bump into him sometimes. A part of her wondered if this was anything like how Apple Bloom felt, having a big brother around.

‘Too short, too tall, too clean, too smelly; strangely obsessed with tubs of jelly...!’ She giggled again as the silly rhyme from her Hearts and Hooves day song came and went through her mind. ‘If Blueblood had been there, would he have been too stuffy? Or too silly? Or too mean? What rhymes with mean? Lean? Clean? Jelly bean?’

She bumped into him again, her head swimming a bit. Those drinks had been so tasty!

“Oh, sorry Blue!” she not-apologized. “We should have done this sooner!”

“Sooner?” he asked, a bit cross, but caught her before she swayed into him again. He glanced up at the moon, Luna’s full moon, and sighed. “No matter. We’re almost there, now, we-”

Sweetie suddenly stopped and blinked, tilting her head as her hoof started tapping the cobblestones rhythmically. “Heey... guys, do you hear that? Is that music?”

“Music?”

“That’s not just music,” Soarin bumped in between the two, pumping his hoof. “That’s a buckin’ beat!”

“A beat,” Sweetie repeated, starting to follow it with her head. “I like it! It sounds familiar!”

“Where is...?” Soarin pointed down the street, to a line of ponies waiting beneath a neon sign. “There it is!”

Sweetie Belle turned to look at where Soarin’ was pointing. The building itself integrated seamlessly with the others around it; it looked clean on the outside, with white-tinted glass windows that flashed with the colored lights from within. A unicorn outside managed a shimmering barrier in lieu of a proper door, masking the activities inside from those waiting outside. He seemed to arbitrarily pick and choose from the crowd gathered and milling under a pillared awning, eschewing the order and formality of a line entirely.

"'After Hours,' the sign read, the 'beat' definitely coming from inside. Sweetie could feel it, tugging at her and calling her forth into its sonorous depths. If she remembered right, it was even where... where...

"Let's go there!" She declared.

“A little dancing could be just the thing,” Spitfire agreed and nudged Soarin, drawing the pegasus away from a pair of unicorn twins waving his way.

“If one fine lady wishes to visit a venue, then a wise stallion does not argue. If two, then only a fool would disagree.” As they approached, though, Blueblood shrank back a bit as some of the ponies amidst the crowd clearly noticed him. Quite a few took to muttering amongst themselves, but he pressed the group on. A quick look was all it took for the bouncer to recognize Equestria’s Prince and they were quickly ushered inside, though Blueblood had to keep anypony from lingering. At least one camera flashed before they slipped inside.

“I should’ve brought a few more guards to clear the roads,” Sweetie heard him mutter, but then he smiled. “This is not really my element. Soarin? Maybe...”

“This way,” the Wonderbolt stallion declared, leading them along the outer edge of a hardwood dance floor to a table set under a mural of a coiled green dragon. The table next to it bore a four headed hydra, and the one next to that, a glaring cockatrice.

Sweetie shuddered. “I hate those things.” She looked around, noticing that the drinks were completely different from the previous bar. “Hey... they don’t have chocolate martinis here? What do they drink then?”

“Beer!” a passing waitress answered, as she stopped next to their table. “Or any hard liquor. But if we’ve got the stuff for it, we can give your favorite cocktail a go. So, what can I get for you?”

“Gin and tonic!” Soarin ordered, and pointed over at Spitfire. “And a Sex on the Beach for my wingmate here!”

“A pomace brandy, if you have it,” Blueblood ordered for Sweetie Belle, and then for himself, “And a sweet vermouth.”

“What’s beer taste like?” Sweetie asked the waitress, who blinked.

“W-well, uh, there are many types of beer... stout, lager, red ale, IPA, white ale... the list goes on, sweetheart - I mean, sorry, my Lady - what type of flavor do you like? Bitter?”

Sweetie shook her head.

“Hm... you were saying chocolate-something earlier, weren’t you?” the waitress asked. “Well, I have a porter that has a nice chocolaty flavor to it. Would you like to try that?”

Sweetie Belle smiled. “Sure! Bring me one of those! And some brandy, like Bluey ordered!”

“Bluey,” the waitress mouthed to herself, amused, and ducked way.

Blueblood seemed to notice, and for the first time that night, he asked his supposed ‘date,’ “So I’m Bluey now, am I?”

“Nope!” Sweetie said, giggling as she poked his foreleg. “You’ve always been Bluey! I just decided to call you that. Because.”

“Because.” It was hard to tell whether it was a question or statement or a little of both.

The music died down to the clapping of several ponies on the dance floor. Another pony, a unicorn with a soft blue coat and slick spiked black mane, stepped onto stage, one hoof raised to adjust his tinted sunglasses. His hoof slipped down to the white tie around his neck and the stylish black shirt that contrasted with it. “Alright, colts and fillies! Let’s put those hooves up for DJ Vapid Alarm! Yeah!”

The DJ waved at the cheering ponies as he made his way off-stage.

“AAAAAAAAAAnd now! The one! The only! The DJ that laid down Diamond Dog DJ Grabbed and bested DJ Phantom in musical combat! Hailing from the town of Ponyville, right on the edge of the deadly Everfree Forest and fearing no beast, DJ or institution known to ponydooooom! Here's the DJ of DJ's! DJ PON3 HERSELF! Vinyyyyyyl SCRATCH!"

The already thunderous cheers from the crowd managed to somehow increase as a white-coated unicorn with a spiky, two-tone, neon-blue mane, large reflective violet sunglasses and a simple black note for a cutie mark jumped on stage, her horn shimmering with magic as several LPs circled around her. “Let’s get it on!” she shouted. Immediately two of the hovering LPs slammed down onto her console in a shower of blue sparks, and with the flick of a switch and her hooves on the levels and mixers, she started her gig.

“Bluey! Bluey!” Sweetie gasped. “It’s Vinyl Scratch!”

“Yeah,” Soarin agreed, nodding. “That’s what the MC said!”

“No, you don’t get it!” Sweetie replied, her horn lighting up with magical energy. A small hole in space and time opened and a gem-studded notebook floated out. Sweetie quickly flipped through the pages and found what she was looking for.

Spitfire stared at the empty space the book had materialized from. “Did she just-”

“Eh, unicorns.” Soarin shrugged.

“You said you knew this mare?” Blueblood asked, gesturing over at the stage.

“Yes,” Sweetie said, showing Blueblood a picture she had taken from within the pages of her notebook. It showed a slightly different Sweetie Belle in a graduation gown from the Canterlot School of Music, standing next to Rarity, who didn’t seem to have aged a day. A little behind them, and smiling at the camera, were two other mares, both familiar to him. One was undoubtedly an older version of the same Vinyl Scratch on the stage, down to the sunglasses, and the other was the mare that played the cello at the Gala, also looking older. “See? Octavia was my mentor, and I think she was either dating Vinyl or her best friend, I never really found out. Anyway, I got a free lesson from her. It was pretty fun! She’s staying with ‘Tavi in Canterlot tonight.”

“Huh,” Soarin raised an eyebrow. "She looks..."- even inebriated, he tried to be diplomatic - "...old...er..." for the most part anyways.

“Well, that picture was taken in the future!” Sweetie replied.

“Huh?”

“Here’re your drinks!” The waitress said, bobbing her head to the beat as she proceeded to serve the drinks around. “Hope you enjoy! I’ll be around, so call me whenever you’re ready for the next round!”

Spitfire took a really long sip from the straw in her drink, downing about half the glass before she stopped, shook her head with a grimace and looked at Sweetie. “Wanna run that by me again?”

o.0.o

Sweetie slammed the empty pint on the table, next to another two and an empty glass of brandy. “Y-eeees! An’ then I told her, I-I told Nigh-mare Mooon, and I says” - she raised a hoof and pointed at Spitfire - “‘Youuu cheated! Now-now we, all we... we all look like chickn’s!’”

Soarin and Spitfire started laughing, taking swigs from their own beers.

“Where’s she coming up with this stuff?” Soarin chortled, slamming a hoof down on the table. “A prank war with the Princess - with her Highness and - and...”

“Quite the fanciful imagination,” Blueblood agreed.

“You should so write a book about all this stuff,” Spitfire chimed in, leaning forward with her hooves pressed into her cheeks. “Some kind of crazy ‘autobiography’ thing.”

“HA!” Sweetie laughed. “I-I have, look!” She started rummaging in her notebook again. “Aha! Look, here, look... Soarin... Soarin, look, here... Soarin...”

Soarin finally put down his bottle and blinked stupidly at the scroll that was floating in front of his eyes. “Wu-wha—?”

“It’s my letter... it’s yeah, I passed! Woo! Stupid ink-egg! I beat you! Well, not really, Nightmare Moon sneezed and you broke, but I still passed!” Sweetie hooped as she grinned like an idiot. “See? It says right there, admitted into Nightmare Moon’s School for... for... something unicorns.”

Spitfire stared at the letter in silence before locking eyes with Blueblood for just a second. Then she waved the waitress over. “Another round.”

o.0.o

“Hey, Bluey,” Sweetie poked Blueblood’s shoulder. “A-are you listenin’ t’me?” She frowned and glared at him. “Y-you said I could do aaaaanything I wanted tonight, right? I think you said that. Aaaaanything. I think... you did. Say that, I mean.”

Blueblood nodded slowly, waiting to see where this was going.

“Well, I wanna talk to Vinyl Scratch,” Sweetie said. “I wanna see if she recognizes me now that I’m older.”

“I don’t know this mare, and yet I am to bring her here?” Blueblood leaned back a bit, smiling. “Well, don’t blame me if I seduce her by accident.”

“Oh?” Spitfire seemed particularly amused by this. “Pretty bold, saying something like that in front of your marefriend.”

“A Prince must always be bold, especially when it comes to the fairer sex,” Blueblood lectured, and Soarin nodded, sagely.

“Very true,” he murmured. “Mares like decisive guys... and aloof ones?”

“We’re called ‘jerks,’” Blueblood summarized. “Anyway. One DJ Pony-three, or whathaveyou, coming up.”

Invigorated by the chance to do something, maybe not productive, but... something, Blueblood tossed his blonde mane and cantered across the room. Soarin and Spitfire watched, curious, and Sweetie wondered what all the fuss was about. Wasn’t he just asking - or in the worst case - ordering her to come over and join them? Spitfire whispered something to her fellow Wonderbolt, and Soarin chuckled.

“What’s so funny?” Sweetie asked, having strained her ears to try and overhear.

“Prince Blueblood is a well-known casanova,” Spitfire explained with a somewhat sleepy grin. “Are you really okay with him going over there?”

“Casa-nova?” Sweetie asked, blinking. What’s a casanova? “Uh, sure, I knew that!” She chugged down more of her beer. “And it’s all good, he’ll bring her back; it’ll be fun!”

Soarin’s mouth opened as he stared at Sweetie for a moment, then he turned to look at Spitfire. “Y’know, Spits, you could learn something from—” He stopped when Spitfire pressed her hoof to his lips.

“Finish that sentence, Soarin, and you won’t fly for a month.”

Sweetie frowned. “Wait... what’s wrong with Bluey bringing her over?”

“N-nothing,” Soarin said, gulping down and keeping nervous eyes on Spitfire. “W-we don’t even know if he’ll manage. We have to wait.”

“Oh, okay,” Sweetie fought the feeling that she wasn’t getting half the conversation. “I-I guess we’ll see.”

No more than a minute later, Blueblood had returned, sat down, and the smug grin on his face spoke volumes. Nonetheless, one pony there had to hear it. Also, why was he looking so smug?

“Well?” Sweetie pressed.

“I believe she’ll stop by our table for a drink or two, though...” And here, the Prince heaved a sigh. “She seemed much more interested in my music-crazy marefriend than my own personal charms.”

Soarin’s eyes widened and a smile spread across his face. “Lucky you, Sweetie.”

“The luck isn’t all her’s,” Blueblood joked, leaning in to give a conspiratorial wink. “I may yet be able to watch.”

“You guys are both... such guys,” Spitfire groaned.

“Wait... so you want to watch me talk to Vinyl?” Sweetie asked, blinking. “Where else would you be?”

For a long moment, all three real adults just stared at her, not quite sure what to say.

“Ah, the innocence of youth,” Blueblood remarked.

“Wow, she really is a maid.”

“Soarin!”

Soon enough, the music slowed down to an impressive end of flashing lights and sounds that threatened to overwhelm Sweetie’s alcohol-impaired mind and seemed to put most ponies on the dance floor into a sort of trance until it all faded away.

“Vinyl Scratch!” the MC shouted and immediately the place exploded in applause.

The MC started announcing the next DJ for the night, but Sweetie’s eyes were glued to the mare who had just jumped off the stage and was making her way to their table, stopping only to nod and smile at several ponies who would briefly talk to her excitedly.

Vinyl made it all the way to their table and grinned at Sweetie Belle. “Hey there, I could feel those emerald eyes on me all the way on the stage! Do you mind if I feel them from a little closer?”

Soarin leaned all the way across the table, and Sweetie could just overhear him say to Blueblood, “I like where this is going.”

“Sure!” Sweetie Belle exclaimed, smiling and scooting over. “You can sit here! I really have been wanting to talk to you tonight!”

“Oh, really?” Vinyl grinned in a somewhat... unusual way. Maybe she was hungry? “How bad have you wanted it?”

“Really bad! You have no idea! Since the first time I saw you and read what you wrote, I’ve really been looking forward to it!”

Vinyl’s smile grew even more until it flashed a hint of her pearly-white teeth. “Hmmm... well, you can ask Prince Blueblood, and he’ll tell you, when I saw you across the room, I really wanted to meet you too.”

“Wow!” Sweetie’s eyes went wide. “That’s amazing! Who would’ve thought?! You just looked at me and knew, didn’t you? And, I just remembered I had some questions about ‘pumping it up.’”

Vinyl chuckled and leaned forward. “Well, why don’t you... whisper it to me? I’m all ears...”

“But I want Bluey to hear it too...” Sweetie said, frowning. “After all, I think he’s the only one that can help me. No offense.”

Vinyl Scratch paused, then turned to look at Blueblood. “I- I guess he can watch.”

Soarin stared at the three ponies and only had one thing to say: “Un-be-lievable.”

“I think I need another drink,” Spitfire muttered. “Who needs a drink? I need one!”

Vinyl looked at Sweetie. “Can she watch too?”

“Uh... sure!”

Spitfire was silent for a moment. “Two drinks! I need two! Waitress!”

“So...” Sitting close - a little closer than Sweetie would have expected - Vinyl gently laid a hoof on top of her own. “What do you want to talk about, hm?”

o.0.o

Vinyl lowered her head onto her crossed forelegs after pushing away her fifth empty whiskey glass. “Yes, the beat is important even when the lead is the singer, how do you think they keep the rhythm?” She groaned.

“Hey, Vinyl, are you okay?” Spitfire asked, trying not to laugh. Or smile too much.

“Okay? Okay?! All she wants to do is talk about music!” The famous DJ buried her face in her hooves. “This... this is horrible! It’s Octavia all over again!”

o.0.o

The group stumbled out of the bar, with the addition of one more mare. Vinyl Scratch looked up towards the castle and snorted, drawing the attention of all the others. “Seems like the snobs are still going at it.”

“Hey! My sister’s there,” Sweetie complained, nudging the DJ.

“Is she hot?” Vinyl asked.

“Well... I- I don’t... think so,” Sweetie said after a moment. “She’s pretty good at designing dresses, so she’s probably not too hot or cold.”

Vinyl looked like she wanted to say much more, but she settled for a bemused look of frustration. “You’re truly oblivious, aren’t you? Why do I have to find that so attractive? Why? Am I cursed? I’m cursed, aren’t I?”

“We should probably head back,” Soarin said, hiccuping a little. “The others are there and you know how they get, right, Spits?”

“Don’t call me ‘Spits’, but yeah, they do get a bit grumpy,” Spitfire acknowledged. “Especially...”

“The Vice-Captain,” Soarin finished, shuddering. “She’s gonna be on me for this.”

“And Captain Thunderhead will give me that look,” Spitfire groaned, dreading it. “Disappointed I didn’t play kissy-hoof with all the nobleponies.”

“I happen to be one of those nobleponies,” Blueblood reminded her, and gave the proud Wonderbolt a tentative touch on her shoulder. “I wouldn’t worry about it, but I’ll make sure your time is considered well spent in my company. I believe the good Captain may be grooming a replacement, you know.”

“Thank you, sir,” Spitfire muttered, recalling the Prince’s place in the oft-unspoken hierarchy of Equestria. “We both appreciate it.”

Blueblood nodded, and seeing everypony looking to him for what to do next, he groaned much as Spitfire had. He gave a little extra attention to their newest member. “Miss Scratch, would you like to see what sound systems we have at the Royal Palace? Or... our other amenities? I think most of us may be turning in.”

“Sure!” Vinyl Scratch grinned and threw a foreleg around Sweetie’s shoulders. “‘Tavi’s there, playing. I think she would love seeing me there, ‘mingling’ with the guests.”

“Good!” Blueblood remarked, but his outward cheer evaporated a little when he noticed Sweetie’s silence. “Just,” he warned the DJ, “mind the critters when we enter.”

“Critters?”

It was the Grand Galloping Gala after midnight, and panicked animals from across the palatial gardens were helping themselves to expensive hors d'oeuvres at the buffet and playing house, or nest, with draperies and the hastily discarded clothes of fleeing guests. Half the Royal Guard had mysteriously vanished along with the Princess, and the other half was divided between guarding their posts, even as chaos raged in the courtyards, and trying to corral the animals without harming them.

Above the din and confusion, a select few found refuge in the high galleries and balconies that formed a half circle around the upper gardens and the menageries. Spitfire and Soarin had briefly returned to their Wonderbolts only to return and promptly crash into a pile, asleep. Vinyl had stepped into the ballroom to make sure Octavia was okay after the stampede, leaving only Blueblood and a still inebriated Sweetie Belle to oversee the total collapse of the most awaited event of the year.

Sweetie Belle snorted in a most unladylike manner.

“Rarity told me about this,” she said with a titter, “but she never said it was so chaotic.”

She watched as columns fell and carefully groomed guests stared in abject, muted horror at their ruined dresses and suits. Her mirth slowly died as she stared at everypony in something approaching disgust.

“Look at them. Thinking and acting as if life begins and ends with a social event. Never aware of how bad things can really get. Of how close they were to being trapped in an eternal night, or that some poor ponies could be cursed to live forever and watch everyone they love die. Or that there could be a war of such scale that it would turn the world into nothing m-more than a wasteland where you can’t even find water that doesn’t kill you, and sometimes when you die it’s not enough.

She rested her forehooves on the edge of the balcony and shouted as hard as she could to the panicked masses below her.

“You’re hypocrites! All of you!” Tears started forming in her eyes. “Y-you losers! Ignorant foals!” Slowly she slid down, turning around until her back was pressed against the wall. “All you have to worry about is... y-your stupid dresses! Or if you have cake in your mane! You didn’t kill anypony! You’re not—” She sobbed, before shaking her head and glaring at the floor. “...you’re not trapped,” she muttered angrily.

Sweetie pulled her notebook out of its pocket-dimension and slowly traced the cover with her hoof, pausing on each gem.

“I’m never getting out of this, am I?” she asked, looking up at Blueblood. He had been silent all this time, looking down at the panicked crowds without a word. “Even if we find that fragment... I’m just going to end up in another world trying to find another. And then another. I’ll never be free. I’ll just keep collecting memories in my notebook, but I’ll never grow up and I’ll never see my sister again.” Her voice fell to a whisper. “I was actually starting to enjoy my classes with Twilight, you know? She was always about reading one book or another, but... it started dull and then... I guess I grew into liking the practice and talking to her and wondering about what I could do in the future.”

Sweetie looked away, ashamed.

“B-but then I had to nose around where it was dangerous and I-I killed my friends! I- I don’t think Spike made it, to be honest. I- I never told this to anypony but—” She stopped, and buried her face in her hooves. Tears stung her cheeks. “I saw the room where he went into being torn apart!” she confessed. “It was just for a second, while Twilight exploded into pieces, I saw the library being torn to shreds around us. And... even if Twilight is alive in the fragments, I’ve never seen one sign of Spike.” She sighed, rubbing her eyes to try and dry them. “I should just give up.” Sweetie looked up at the sky. “What if the next world is worse than the last? What if I get killed?”

Blueblood hesitated a second, but put a leg around her comfortingly, adding a friendly little shake. “Some ponies call it fate or destiny, but it really isn’t fair, is it? You’re too young to have gone through - to be going through - all this. I wouldn’t blame you if you stopped right here, though I also sort of envy your ability to just get away. Even dying. I kind of envy that. But in your place, I think I’d be afraid, too, for myself and for those I’d left behind.” He let out a long breath, his eyes settling on the moon. “Auntie Luna... you...” he began, but shook his head. “Never mind that.”

He turned to her, a wan smile on his face.

“You know you can stay here as long as you like, Sweetie Belle. Personally, I really am glad you came to this world. Somepony is here with me; I have a friend who remembers me, and as long as you’re here, I swear I will do what I can to make the best of things for you. And I know you’ll want to move on eventually, and I’ll help with that, too. Even though we’re repeating the same day, we aren’t the ponies we used to be. It’s okay to cry, to worry, to be afraid, but we can’t go back, so all that left is to go forward. And never just give up.”

“But go forward how?” Sweetie asked. “I’ve been all over Ponyville crusading... there’s no sign of the fragment. Usually I get a feeling, but here there’s nothing. Like it isn’t even here!” She groaned, emotionally spent. “Even with so many repeating days... without a clue, what can I do?” Sweetie slowly and unsteadily stood up. “Blueblood... what if I stay here like this and I grow up in my head, but my body is always a filly?”

“If that’s the case,” he decided, his smile turning into a smirk. “I’ll just learn to do the age spell myself, and zap you every morning. How’s that? I can even turn you into an old granny after a couple thousand loops.”

Sweetie couldn’t help herself and snorted. “I’m sure that would become boring after awhile.” However, her smile remained.

“You can learn the spell yourself, too, eventually,” Blueblood added.

But Sweetie barely paid attention to him, her gaze drawn towards the castle gardens, and in particular to a large open patch of pavillion near the center. “Blueblood... what’s over there?” She pointed with her hoof in the direction she was looking.

“The garden maze?”

From above, Sweetie could see where Discord and other statues decorated the entrance to the secluded section of the gardens. Whether it was the haze of drink clouding her eyes as much as her thoughts, she could’ve sworn there were patterns in it. It also looked much larger than she had imagined, stretching wide enough to swallow most of Ponyville.

Sweetie frowned and shook her head. “It’s... interesting. Maybe we can look at it one day?” She yawned. “But... I think I need to sleep.” She yawned again and blinked wearily. “Y’promise to help... right?” she asked sleepily, “‘cause I dunno if I can do it alone.”

“Your grammar is slipping, but yes, I assure you that I am at your disposal,” Blueblood promised, before adding, “Tonight and tomorrow and as long as you are here. Though... I think I should warn you... now that it occurs to me.” He lifted a hoof to hide his smile, his eyes rolling. “When your age spell does begin to wear off, with all the alcohol in your system...”

BLEGHHH!

“...something like that may happen.”

Fortunately for both of them she had managed to throw up over the edge of the balcony. Unfortunately for the ponies below them, she had managed to throw up over the edge of the balcony. Fate truly was a cruel mistress.

“Ugh...” Sweetie groaned after heaving out another load. “I need... I...” the world swirled around her and suddenly she was smiling at Blueblood’s hooves. “I’m alright... I-I’m okay... I’ll just... sleep here... it’s comfy.”

“Passing out on the floor is undignified for a noble Lady,” Blueblood stated, and his horn shimmered, lifting the once again diminutive Sweetie bodily into the air. “Let’s get you to bed. Auntie Celestia’s bed, preferably. Hahaha!”

“You wouldn't.”

“I’m sorely tempted. But I have ten empty bedrooms in this wing of the Palace. I’ll just randomly toss you in one of them.” He trotted, quite happily, past a sleeping Soarin and Spitfire, sprawled out indecently on the ground in a tangle of snoring wings and hooves. “I do hope you enjoyed your first night as an adult filly?”

Sweetie threw up again, then, slowly cleaned her mouth with the back of her hoof. “Best. Night. Ever,” she groaned.

o.0.∞.0.o

“Wait... I’m here again!?” Sweetie Belle stared, open-mouthed, at the statue in front of her of the rearing, laureled pegasus holding aloft a flag. “But—” she opened and closed her mouth silently a few times. “Victory?! How in Tartarus am I here again? What is this, like... the thirteenth time!? What happened to ‘always take a left at every intersection?!’”

She started pacing in front of the statue of the upraised mare, shooting it a dirty look.

“Dumb rock!” she bellowed, stopping and stomping her hooves on the ground as hard as she could. “How am I getting out of here? Am I just going to have to wait it out? How can this maze be so stupidly large?! There must be a trick to it!”

She took a deep breath and pointed an accusing hoof at the statue. “Just you wait! I’ll figure it out! Even if it takes me a month! And then I’ll come back here and laugh at you! You’ll be sorry!” she swore bitterly at the inspiring statue. “I’ll come back and I’ll— I’ll leave beer cans all around you! How’s that, huh? I’ll cast a spell to bring all the pigeons to nest just on you! I’ll-I’ll tell Scootaloo that you’re the best place for her to earn a graffiti-painter cutie mark!” She paused. “No, even better! I’ll make sure that Discord curls up around you before he’s turned to stone! That’ll fix you for a thousand years of horror!” After a few minutes of fuming, she sighed and walked around the statue. “You wouldn’t have a map attached to you, would you? Probably not. That would be too conv—”

Sweetie Belle paused, mid-statement, having caught sight of something stuck to the back of the statue. It was an arrow... pointing up. She’d have been tempted to ignore it as random graffiti, except somepony had written, directly under it:

“Sweetie Belle, the map is right up there,” she read, and craned her neck to look upwards. She still didn’t see it, not at first. Only after a second or two of searching did she finally see the edge of something stuck in the top of the statue’s upraised and oversized scroll. It looked like a bundle of paper, and it was well out of reach of any flightless pony. A pegasus could probably have just flown up and grabbed it, but for a unicorn...? Who would put something in such an annoying place?

Oh, him. Right.

How did he know I was going to get lost and end up here? Sweetie mused as her magic enveloped the scroll and tugged at it, eventually bring it down to eye-level. With an annoyed twitch of her eye, it opened up, revealing a map of the whole maze.

“Oh, come on!” Sweetie shouted at the map. “And you were here the whole time!?” She almost threw the map into the maze in anger, but managed to hold on to it. “Fine. Where am I?”

She quickly found her current location and, after a few minutes of plotting her new route, she set off. The twists and turns of the maze were insidious indeed. It’s no wonder I couldn’t find my way, some of these entrances look like a wall of shrubbery is blocking them! she thought to herself as she turned around a corner she had never noticed before.

The new walkway led to the second level of a pavilion concourse, dotted by lowered flagposts that draped over the bushes and flowers below. Looking down, she recalled walking along the manicured grass there, never expecting there to be a way up or around. There was no crossing, though, furthering the illusion that she was on top of one of the hedgerow dividers rather than on a raised section. Picking up her pace, she also took notice of a small raised pillar as she passed it. It tapered to a pointed tip at the top, and unicorn pictographs similar to the ones she had learned from Twilight circled it from top to bottom. She knew the meaning of some of them, but they seemed to just be randomly thrown together: the dog, the horse, the star, the blade, the book, the half-book - it made no sense.

Checking the map again, she tried to get her bearings. She was sandwiched between two concentric hexagons within the maze, both of them surrounding small pavilions, on the map, “C” and “D.” A left came up, and she took it uphill. That vantage point didn’t provide much in the way of help, either. From above and at the angle she found herself at, the walls just seemed to blur together into a shifting sea of green, broken only occasionally by upshooting pageantry and fluttering pennants. A seemingly randomly placed entablature was decorated with marble carvings of ponies with lances and flags. Thick green vines had long since climbed up and claimed the marble pillars.

Around a bend and down a straightaway and she came to a quick turn, like a V, where another of the strange pillars decorated with icons stood, mute and alone and seemingly out of place. The tip of this one was reflective, though, and Sweetie saw a glint of bronze or maybe gold at the very top. Two more lefts and a right and another right and she could see the center of the maze up ahead, past two long reflecting pools. Mermares emerged from the water at both ends of both pools, as if frozen in mid-jump.

Sweetie slowly trotted around the center pillar, admiring it and the sense of calm it created. She slowly approached it to take a closer look, only then noticing that it had names written on it. She frowned. The names were all the same! She lifted her hoof to touch the obelisk but hesitated halfway when she felt... something.

“What...” Sweetie Belle reached again to touch it and again she felt the sensation. It was a pull of some sort, tugging at her soul, as if... just as if something was trying to get in touch with her. Gently laying her hoof on the obelisk, Sweetie closed her eyes and opened her senses to the magic around her.

The energies of the maze hummed around her, but any place with magic would do that... no, what she felt had been different or she wouldn’t have noticed it. Sweetie focused her senses on the obelisk and...

A flash of purple. A fragment, floating... captured in a circle of runes. Twilight’s face, her eyes looking straight into Sweetie’s. Dark-red sky. An entrance. An obelisk, just like the one in the maze, but inverted, upside down.

“Ah!” Sweetie cried, jumping back and staring at the obelisk in horrified fascination. “I-I found it!” she shouted, feeling relief flow through her body. “I found it! But—” She looked around. “Where is it?”

Sweetie walked slowly all around the area. She tried touching the other columns, or even dipping her hoof into the pool’s waters, but to no avail. However, when she returned to the central obelisk and touched it, she felt the same pull. It was familiar, but she didn’t know what to make of it.

“Dumb rock,” Sweetie muttered, giving it a dirty look.

o.0.o

“...and then, when I touched it again, I had this really weird feeling!” Sweetie said, gesturing with her hooves. “It felt like I should know what to do! But I don’t know! Do you have any ideas?”

Blueblood then muttered something both obscure and poignant.

“Nope,” he said, shrugging.

Sweetie pouted for a moment, but then, as she thought about it her eyes widened. Of course it felt familiar! “It’s the fragment!” she exclaimed, drawing a curious look from Blueblood.

“What I felt was the fragment!” Sweetie elaborated. “But... how did it end up in the center of your maze?”

“It isn’t my maze,” he corrected her, tapping his hoof against the wooden table. Tea was his drink this morning, and scones his meal. Sweetie preferred pancakes. “You felt some sort of sympathetic reaction at the center? There’s nothing there except the Blueblood monument, and while Twilight may be distantly related to me, she isn’t a Blueblood. Her name isn’t on that rock.”

“But...” Sweetie trailed off, frowning. “I really don’t know what else could’ve bee- waaaiiit. Did you say you’re related to Twilight?” She looked at Blueblood as if he had grown another head. “But... she’s nice!”

“I know! It really is strange!” Blueblood chuckled. “It isn’t a close relation. We share... great, great, I think another great is in there... grandparents. You’ll find I’m actually related to hundreds of ponies.” He winked, conspiratorially. “Maybe even you!”

Sweetie pondered his words for a moment. “I guess... I can see that. Does she know? Because in my world she never said anything to Rarity.”

“Hmm.” Blueblood thought, loudly, for a moment, in the kind of exaggerated way that implied he was about to follow up with a question to demonstrate a point. “Sweetie, do you know who your great, great, great grandmother was?”

Sweetie nodded. “Yeah! She was a zebra! And she rhymed aaaalll the time. And I heard she married a manticore, but I can’t be sure.”

“Sarcastic little filly,” the Prince observed, but didn’t seem put off. “Twilight’s line diverged from mine about two hundred years ago, before this quaint little town was even founded. They also didn’t part from my ancestors on good terms. If Twilight does know of the connection - and she should, being a good, noble mare - it would only be more reason to dislike me.”

Sweetie patted Blueblood’s hoof with her own. “Aw, you’re not that bad...”

“Good? Bad? Does it even matter when you look like this?” he asked, striking a brief pose, long blonde mane sparkling and flowing with a little glamour. He grinned and his teeth actually sparkled.

Sweetie observed the display with half-lidded eyes. “But that still doesn’t explain why I can feel the fragment in the center of the maze. Could it be that the fragment was drawn to one of your mutual ancestors?”

“There is that possibility, but then I would expect her to have gone to the Blueblood family crypts,” he mused, quickly dispelling the minor beauty-enhancing cantrip. “Every one of the line rests there, all the way back to Platinum herself. The maze and that monument... her being there is strange. Too strange.”

“Well... is there any way to check? Do you have a list of things your ancestors did in all your noble-house-archives?” Sweetie asked.

“I do,” he replied, “but I’ve long since had to commit most of that to memory anyway. What with how ours is Equestria’s most noble, most esteemed, oldest and grandest of all families, and such and such. What could draw her to that blasted maze? There was...”

“What?”

“Well, the maze itself was designed by a Blueblood... a Princess Blue Belle actually, the twenty third of our shared name, though not one of my grandmothers,” the Prince admitted, growing a little awkward. “As I recall, her title was actually taken from her posthumously due to... insanity.”

“Insanity.” Sweetie blinked. “What type of insanity are we talking about here? Because I recently met an insane ghoul and it was not nice.”

“A ghoul?” he asked, but before she could explain, he waved a hoof. “Later. Tell me later. Blueblood the Twenty Third... she was a mathematician, one of the family prodigies, but after a while, her eccentricities alienated her supporters in court. She wasn’t a violent loon, I don’t think, but from what I recall, she refused to bathe except in freezing cold water, she was obsessed with prime numbers - hated them with a passion - and worst of all, she refused to conceive an heir. She may also have lit a few fires. Frostfires, I believe. In fact, I think she developed that spell! Very difficult to put out, those.”

He paused as if weighing something.

“She,” he continued, hesitating a moment. “Now that I think of it more, I’m not sure where she’s buried. It should still be the branch crypts, but I’m not sure. She was hardly my favorite study. I guess I would need to check the records to be sure.”

“Do you think... she was buried with Twilight’s fragment in the maze?” Sweetie’s eyes were wide, excited by the prospect of a lead.

“It is the only link we have to...” Blueblood paused, his expression grave. “Sweetie Belle. Don’t turn around.

“Why?” Sweetie asked, beginning to turn around despite herself. “What’s...?”

“HI!” Pinkie Pie said, and the filly blasted straight up into the air in surprise.

“Why, hello there, Miss Pie!”

“I have your delivery!”

“BLUEBLOOD!!”

o.0.∞.0.o

The records in question were located in a great castle complex outside Canterlot known as Hocksford. Blueblood had explained on the chariot ride over that it was just one of many keeps owned by his family throughout Equestria. Hocksford was notable in that the great enceinte had been made over into a repository of knowledge. The castle and the battlements, of a design distinct from those in Canterlot proper, had been turned into the foundation for a seminary and university.

It was still all contained within the well-maintained walls, bearded with ivy and besieged by acres of immaculate gardens. Canterlot castles and palaces were known for their onion domes, but the towers at the bastions at the corner of the walls here were conical at the top and decorated with iron and statuary. The roofs were slanted, their simple construction disguised behind jagged parapets and pony-shaped gargoyles, watching from on high. Their proud horns were now roosts and perches for pigeons.

Taking a carriage from the outside lot, where the had left behind their chariot, the pegasi having unhitched themselves and now cantering alongside them, Sweetie Belle watched in fascination as they passed under the old-style gatehouse and into the main courtyard. There were students reading and even attending class beneath the afternoon sun. She could see what Blueblood had meant when he'd said that most of the castle had been turned over to study and recordkeeping. She also noticed a few guards donning red and gold armor, similar but distinct from that worn by the royal guard of Canterlot.

“What are they studying?” Sweetie asked, as the carriage passed by a lecturer and a trio of serious-looking students. The unicorn professor had brought out a chalkboard, and filled it with what looked like a complex web of joined points in familiar shapes.

“Hmm? Who?” Blueblood asked, and glanced up from his own book to see. “Oh, that bunch? Those ponies look like part of the seminary. I believe they’re studying the confluence of celestial bodies,” he explained, “Natural philosophy, etiology, cosmology and theology make up most of the curriculum here. In Canterlot, the main focus is the schools of magic. Hocksford places more value on the contemplative study of the natural world as it used to be, before ponies arrived and altered it.”

Sweetie looked at the group. “I don’t think we even have something like this in my original world,” she said. “Princess Celestia pretty much has all the schools teach a little bit about everything.”

“You don’t have specialized institutes of higher learning?” Blueblood asked, a little curious now at how much their worlds diverged. “Where did you plan to go after your schooling in Ponyville?”

She sighed. “If it weren’t for Twilight, I probably would have ended up just simply living in Ponyville without any real education in magic. I might have been able to apply to better schools in Canterlot or Manehattan, but my chances would have been... slim.”

Blueblood considered this a moment. “So much depends on who you are fortunate enough to know, rather than simply what you can do,” he replied, ruefully shaking his head. “In this world, most unicorns are apprenticed right after getting their cutie marks. Noble colts like myself serve as squires for a time, usually in the royal guard serving under a knight, and noblemares pursue arcane degrees, also under a mentor. One of the areas I have been remiss in, when it comes to Canterlot and my Duchy, is seeing to scholarships. If I do get out of these loops, I’ll begin to remedy that.”

“Well, whoever you give a scholarship to, they’ll be lucky,” Sweetie said, thinking back. “In one world, I was able to get one and grew up to be a famous singer.” She smiled briefly, before her face was marred by a frown. “Until I grew old and died of old age and had to be buried by my sister who would spend the next couple of hundred years feeling guilty.”

“The world with the immortal elements,” he said, recalling a mention of it before, loops ago. Sweetie nodded her head in confirmation and followed Blueblood, wondering where exactly he was leading her.

Their goal was the main keep of the castle, opposite a building Blueblood identified as the chapel. The keep was a tall, rectangular building sandwiched between four towers, a pair of turrets fitted into the spaces between each cylindrical monolith. There was creeping ivy here, too, climbing up the sides of the walls and up to a height of what had to be hundreds of her little hooves. Like the walls surrounding Hocksford, they were partly plastered over in white, but much of the rest was bare, dark gray stone. Compared to the ostentatious displays of Canterlot, it was a little depressing looking.

“How old is this place?” she asked, as a guard opened the door to the keep.

“Platinum herself had the foundation stones laid,” Blueblood replied, a hint of pride in his voice and his smile. “Hocksford is as old as Equestria; older, actually! It was originally built to control the valley around it. This was before the tribes made peace, mind you. For ancient unicorns, mountain castles were for pleasure and good company, and lowland castles were for ruling over earth ponies.”

Sweetie’s eyes went wide at that revelation. “So... it’s like the story said? Was this castle around when the Windigos were freezing everything?”

At Blueblood’s nod, Sweetie had to suppress a squeal of scholarly-glee. She gazed upon the stonework, which reminded her more than a bit of the castle in the Everfree. Blueblood was right; the whole structure almost hummed with ancient history. It was such a shame to be there for a a few, select documents only. She could spend days here! Then again, she had forever as it was, so perhaps she’d be able to squeeze in a few weeks of study here and there.

The Blueblood family records were kept in a large vault below ground. Sweetie didn’t get much in the way of details from the Prince when she asked what the rest of the tower Keep held. She had the sneaking suspicion that there were other vaults here, both above and further below. Hallways didn’t have that many huge, locked portcullises to protect stores of sugar and salt.

Blueblood soon lead them both to a bright room with glass walls, lit by blue light. Rather than act as mirrors, the crystals lining the walls were only tile-sized and carefully angled, using and distorting the light to form a hundred slightly different shades of blue. The domed roof overhead was supported by four pillars that ended in statues, all unicorns, their visages stern and their hooves raised as if to hold up heavens painted on the inside of the dome. The stars set in the textured and blue-black sky glittered like the rarest of diamonds.

Looking up in awe, Sweetie could feel her heartbeat skip. All this had been built when unicorns laid claim to Equestria, and all within. This was the work of her own grandmothers and grandfathers who had come over in the migration. There were no hearts or lively curls here. The megalithic unicorn statues atop the pillars were sharp and imposing, their faces stern and humourless.

“The family records of the Bluebloods are kept here,” her host explained, gesturing towards rows of books kept behind thick, sliding panes of glass. “Our accomplishments and failures... our secrets and the names and deeds of our enemies. All recorded for posterity. Some Bluebloods have a dozen volumes written about them. And... I think there may be a few stray pages about me here, too, somewhere.

“We want the twenty third,” he reminded her, though she didn’t need reminding. He seemed to need to say it more than she needed to hear it. “How convenient that we are all neatly sorted by number, like blocks of wood at a construction site. It makes organization so easy! I suspect we just need to find the ‘B’ section, and then ‘23.’ Now, B, where are the Bs?”

Sweetie gazed at all the history contained in the vaults and gulped. So. Much. Knowledge.

“How much do you have here?” she had to ask.

“Knowledge is power, and secrets are as potent as any spell,” Blueblood told her, reciting something he had no doubt been told at her age and younger. “No family in Equestria guards more of either than the Bluebloods.”

“I can see how you can use anything here to bring down a whole noble house...” Sweetie muttered, trying to wrench her mind off the possibilities, and back to the matter at hoof. Yet, for some reason, her mind conjured up a stray scrap of memory from when Blueblood had first flown her to meet Cadance. One that had stuck with her through the loops.

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

Were there records here of that, too?

It only took a moment to find the section devoted to Blueblood the Twenty Third.

“A Blue Belle, as I said,” he said while opening the glass case that was creatively labeled with a black “23” on the front. “We are all technically Bluebloods, but the ladies also get the feminine title Blue Belle for use in casual company.”

Inside were not just books, but an assortment of writings, sketches, diagrams and personal effects... Sweetie unrolled a tapestry with her magic, more than three hundred years old and sneezed as her actions unsettled a thin layer of dust. What she uncovered was a map of Equestria, smaller than the one she recognized from Cheerilee’s classroom and Twilight’s globe. Dragons flew over parts of the map, and eels churned the seas of the east, toothy maws open to devour ships. The griffin territories were marked by scrawled and flecking streaks of paint: lines and x’s and arrows.

“I do believe the griffins had another civil war around the time of the twenty third,” Blueblood recalled, magically sorting through a leather pouch of scrolls. He glanced down at Sweetie Belle and the tapestry. “They may have used that to plan out Equestria’s intervention.

“Auntie is quite proud of our thousand years of peace,” he continued, chuckling. “But our neighbors have a more sordid history. I don’t think the griffins would even want a thousand years of peace, were it offered to them.”

“They like fighting that much?” Sweetie asked, curiously. “The only griffon I remember seeing was a friend of Rainbow Dash, who visited Ponyville, but I didn’t meet her personally.”

“Griffins are... unusual,” Blueblood tried to explain, but it clearly baffled him to a degree just as it did her. “Their politics tribal, but instead of there being three or four actual ethnic tribes, they are divided by passions and ideologies. Posturing is central to how they think and act, and compromises are seen as signs of weakness. They’re a... frustrating... group if I do say so myself. Who knows what set them off back then?

“Ah ha!” he exclaimed, and floated down a black wooden case with thick locks built into metal hinges. It would have been a trial to unlock, except a thick brass key was also kept in storage. Four locks were undone and the case opened, revealing sheets of...

“Metal?” Sweetie Belle asked, surprised.

“Apparently, the twenty third had a mind to copy her most valuable documents in a less perishable form,” Blueblood said, his horn glowing more brightly as four sheets of thinly pressed metal filled the air over Sweetie’s head. “So she had them cut into steel and the original papers burned. Bear in mind that steel was as both rare and expensive as silver back then.”

“That... is a little extreme,” Sweetie muttered.

“Lo and behold, her little palace maze got the same treatment as her war documents,” he said, sifting through some papers as he set the four metal sheets down on the ground so Sweetie could examine them herself. “That is something I most certainly did not know.”

Sweetie Belle sighed and summoned her notebook, which she placed next to some scrolls somepony had left behind on an opposite shelf - detailing and offering analysis of the exploits of one Blueblood the 13th - and opened it, preparing to take notes. It took her a moment to realize that there was something off.

She frowned at the map.

“That doesn’t look right,” she mumbled, looking carefully at the designs on the metal sheets. Instead of paint, they were etched, and filled with seams of tin or bronze or other metals to make lines and letters. She poured over them. The design was similar, but... looking at it here, in contrast to the paper map Blueblood had provided her, or even worse, being there in the flesh reminded her more of a set of instructions, rather than a diagram of the grounds alone.

Slowly, things began to click in her mind. She rolled out her own map of the maze and compared it. With wide eyes, she followed the position of certain static decorations that had remained in the same place, years and centuries after first being built. Slowly, she traced with her hoof invisible lines connecting one to another, each reminding her of something that had been staring at her in the face, but never realized.

In her mind, the pillars were replaced by gems, the metal sheet by a soft velvety cover, the invisible lines suddenly etched onto its surface. Each line, forming part of a web - a route for magic to converge, all of it focused on one single point, where the energies reached their objective and completed the cycle, subtly but inexhaustibly feeding energy in. She knew this magic, but had never imagined it on such a scale.

“Blueblood,” Sweetie Belle said, her voice hushed as all the pieces came together. “This... this entire maze... it’s a spell matrix.”

o.0.∞.0.o End Part 2 o.0.∞.0.o

The Best Night Ever Part 3: Maze

View Online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

“Of course!”

o.0.∞.0.o

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

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

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

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

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

“And if she created it?” she repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

o.0.∞.0.o

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have a map of the grounds?”

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

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

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

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

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

Celestia had not missed that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll have to test that, then.”

“Nephew! What IS this!?”

“Oh dear.”

o.0.∞.0.o

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

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

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

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

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

o.0.∞.0.o

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

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

“Of course,” Celestia promised sincerely.

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

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

Everypony found pregnant Rainbow Dash funny, apparently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blueblood snorted at that remark, but otherwise kept silent.

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

“D-did she disappear?” Sweetie asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you implying?” Blueblood asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um... y-yes, auntie.”

o.0.∞.0.o

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweetie Belle nodded emphatically at that.

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

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

Twilight’s eyes flashed. “What?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“... I’d rather you didn’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which, Sweetie supposed, somepony actually had.

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

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

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

“Because it is!” Twilight giggled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“GO!”

o.0.o

“Huh. We lost pretty badly.”

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

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

o.0.∞.0.o

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

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

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

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

o.0.∞.0.o

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

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

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

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

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

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

o.0.∞.0.o

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Applejack’s grinding teeth were just as loud.

o.0.o

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

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

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

Twilight’s hoof-claps accompanied the statement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

o.0.o

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She actually giggled.

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

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

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

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

“What do y—”

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

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

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

o.0.∞.0.o

“Com-ing!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

o.0.o

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

o.0.o

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How recently?”

“Very. Very recently.”

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

“Can you?” he asked, simply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’s this?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

o.0.∞.0.o

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

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

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

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

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

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

o.0.∞.0.o

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

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

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

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

o.0.∞.0.o

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweetie nodded enthusiastically. “Please teach me!”

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

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

Sweetie frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

o.0.∞.0.o

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

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

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

o.0.o

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

o.0.∞.0.o

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

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

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

o.0.∞.0.o

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

o.0.∞.0.o

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

“But, I fixed it!”

“You froze her!”

“And I fixed that too!”

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

“She'll get over it.”

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

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

“Corner. Dunce hat. Now.”

o.0.∞.0.o

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

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

Scootaloo quickly blocked their view. “No.”

o.0.∞.0.o

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Poxy-spectacled Horseco—”

o.0.∞.0.o

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

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

Apple Bloom and Scootaloo snickered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“N-no...”

“Are you going to keep bullying us blank flanks?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rarity and Twilight exchanged a look.

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

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

o.0.∞.0.o

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

o.0.o

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

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

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

Sweetie grinned sheepishly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

o.0.∞.0.o

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

o.0.o

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sharp intake of breath prompted her to look up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweetie’s snickering elicited a look from the stallion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweetie yawned. “Sleep sounds good...”

o.0.∞.0.o

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweetie jumped